Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Greatest Gift

Seeing how this is the week of Christmas I decided to try to come up with something a little Christmas themed. I could have gone in several directions. I could have talked about memorable Christmases of the past or things I did with the presents I got over the years, but I decided to go a different route. I finally decided to tell a couple of stories about the greatest gift ever given to anyone.

Now, it may seem that what constitutes the greatest gift would vary from person to person, but it doesn't really. The gift I am talking about is the gift of life. It is the gift without which no other gift matters. Our Lord gave us life and then went even further by making it possible to attain eternal life through the spilled blood of his Son. Being that we celebrate the birth of Jesus and his life here on earth at Christmas I am going to focus on life in the here and now. Plus, of course, I've never been dead, so my stories about the afterlife are limited.

I suppose I could start these stories at my birth, but I don't really remember it and it's not very funny. I've decided instead to focus on the Lord preserving my life. The first tale opens many years ago when I was around four years old. I believe at the time we were living down in the old trailer in Moncks Corner. On the particular night in question I had decided that I wanted some lime Jello, but Mom had said that she didn't feel like making it at the moment.

I did what many children have done throughout history when presented with “Not right now.” from his or her parents. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I got a chair (or something to climb with, it was almost thirty years ago and it wasn't very memorable.) and climbed up on the kitchen counter. As I was trying to open the cabinet door above me I slipped and fell.

Normally this wouldn't have been a big deal. A less than three foot drop wasn't the kind of thing to give me much trouble most of the time. However, this time Dad had put a big mason jar up on the counter top. It was a jar I had broken earlier that day while doing something else. When I slipped and fell I landed on it. I slid down the broken edge, which sliced deeply into my jaw bone, and landed with a thump on the floor. (In fact I still have a dimple in the bottom of my chin and have to explain to each of my children what happened to Daddy once they get old enough to notice.)

I hadn't turned on the lights when I went into the kitchen for some reason. It may have been that I was trying to be sneaky or I might have simply felt that there was enough light coming from the living room, but I can't remember. The important thing is that I couldn't see. This is important because I also didn't feel any pain at all. Most of the time when someone cuts a gash in one of their bones they feel at least some small amount of pain. I felt nothing. I didn't feel numb or anything like that, I just felt normal.

After a moment I noticed that my chin was wet. I put one hand up and rubbed my chin and then looked at my hand. I couldn't see anything. I thought that it might be something wet or that it might be my imagination. Being a child I did the same thing with the other hand. Again, I could see nothing. My hands and chin might have been wet or they might not as far as I could tell. I knew that it was possible that I was bleeding so I decided to go ask Mom and Dad.

Having rubbed both my hands all over my bleeding chin and throat I must have looked like someone out of a horror movie when I walked into the living room threw my head back and asked “Am I bleeding?” My mother screamed like a crazy person and Dad began flying around the room like a madman. In a flash Dad had checked me and found that it was just my chin that was bleeding and that I had fallen on the jar on the counter. I started crying during all the havoc. I was asked if I was in pain and I answered truthfully. “No, but Daddy is going to spank me and that is going to hurt.” That statement was met with laughter and I was assured that I had been punished enough.

A quick trip to the hospital got me sown up with no more permanent damage than a scar. However, the way that the jar had broken it could have been much worse. It was only the grace of God that saved my life. The jar was like a two edged knife blade sticking strait up. If I had been over the jar a fraction of an inch more I would have slipped down the other side of that glass blade. The result would have been that one of the arteries in my throat would have been cut. I would have been dead before anyone could have done anything.

I suppose all of us have a number of near-death experiences throughout our lives. That was the first one of mine that I remember. The second was years later. I was somewhere between thirteen and fourteen years old and we were coming home from having gone to visit grandma down in Moncks Corner. We stopped at some store along the way and I saw my first Flip-It knife. I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen, so I begged Dad to get it for me. All things considered it was a rather inexpensive knife so he bought it for me.

For those of you who have never seen a Flip-It knife I'll do me best to describe one. They work very much like a lock blade, except when they are closed the entire blade is hidden in the handle. Part of the handle is the “lock” and you have to pop it up with your finger nail in order to open it. You then pull that part of the handle up, slide it around and push the blade out. Once that is done you push the handle down to lock the blade out. Once the knife is opened it most resembles a long razor blade on a plastic stick. This was the knife that I couldn't wait to get home to try out.

Sadly by the time we had gotten home it was dark. Mom didn't want me wandering around in the woods looking for a stick to whittle on, so I was going to have to wait until the next day to try out my new knife. Now, as many of you may already know, patience has never been my greatest virtue. After a few hours of looking at my new knife I had gotten bored. I began considering all the possible ways I could use it that night. Finally I came up with an idea.

I got an old piece of news paper and spread it out on the coffee table with most of it hanging off the edge. Then I put a book on top of the edge that was on the table in order to hold it in place. The result was a long bit of news paper hanging in the air. I took out my new knife and began shredding the news paper one stroke at a time. As I sat there slicing through the paper Josh and I got into a conversation. I don't remember what it was about, but he asked me a question about something. In answer I raised my left hand in an “I don't know” gesture and went back to cutting my paper.

I was looking at Josh, waiting for him to continue what he was saying, but he didn't. He turned as white as a sheet and slowly pointed a very shaky hand in my general direction. “What?” I asked him. He began to mumble and sputter a bit, but didn't say anything anywhere near English words. This got on my nerves and I raised my voice a bit as I again asked him “What?” His shaking hand and quiet burbling told me something was wrong and I was beginning to get concerned. I raised my left hand in another gesture and blood sprayed all over me.

I looked down and was met with another horror movie scene. There was blood all over the table, the paper, the knife, and me. I looked at my left wrist and blood was shooting out of it like a fountain. I had sliced into it when I had raised my hand. Again, I was seriously injured and again I felt no pain at all. I might have sat there and bled to death if Josh hadn't been there simply because I wouldn't have known I had cut myself.

Now, I had been a boy scout long enough to know a slashed artery when I saw one and I reacted immediately. I dropped the knife in my right hand and gripped my left hand as hard as I could. There was blood pouring out between my fingers, but I had at lease stopped the spraying. I jumped up and stepped over to Mom and Dad's bedroom door. I knocked as firmly as I could with my left hand while cutting off the blood flow with my right. I then said “Mom, Dad, I think I've cut an artery.”

A sound came from the room as if a tornado was going through it and before a complete second had passed Dad had thrown the door opened. He grabbed my wrist and told me to let go of it. When I did we were sprayed with a shower of blood and Dad clamped down on my wrist with his hand instantly. “Yep, that's an artery!” He said.

He led me into the bathroom and began washing out the wound. Mom brought him some paper towels and some scotch tape in order to make a tourniquet. While he was working on that I was watching my blood pour down the drain in the sink and slowly my vision started to fade.

“I'm going blind.” I said calmly.

“That's shock. It's from the loss of blood. You'll be all right.” Dad replied confidently.

“Are you going to be sick?” Mom ask as I stared into nothing.

“No, I'm fine. I just can't see.”

“Well, if you feel like you have to throw up don't try to stop yourself.”

“OK, but I'm fine.”

Right after I got through saying that some of my vision started to return. I could see the dirty clothes hamper. Without warning I turned and threw up into it.

“I guess I am sick.”

“It's just the shock. It will pass.” Dad reassured me.

In less than an hour we were at the hospital. A rather young medical intern removed the tourniquet and tried to get my wrist to bleed. He couldn't. Dad had collapsed the artery so far back in my forearm that it couldn't get the blood through. Because of this the intern was sure that I had cut a vain. We argued with him, but he insisted on sewing it up as it if were just a vain.

The result of that decision was that two days later the artery broke loose and years later I had to have reconstructive surgery on that artery. I ended up with two scars and a bit of exposed nerve because some intern didn't take the eye witness accounts of the people who saw what happened. The moral of that is not to be pushed around by your doctor. If he won't even look into what you are talking about go somewhere else. Keep in mind, you are the customer. In the end, however, there was no great damage done. It could have been much worse. In fact if I had been unable to get help I very possibly could have bled to death.

It may seem that all the blood in these stories would have been more appropriate for Halloween rather than Christmas, but they remind me of how great a gift God has given me. Life is a wonderful thing and eternal life will be even better. That is what Christmas is all about. That is what the birth of our Lord brought to this world. As the Lord said himself, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.“ God saw fit to give me life and has preserved it for me even when I haven't done such a good job of preserving it myself. Life is a gift he has given to each of us. Eternal life is something he wants us all to have. That is something worth thinking about. Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some Men You Just Can't Reach

It's a famous movie quote. “Some men you just can't reach.” In my own experiences it has certainly been true. There are people in the world that you can tell not to touch something because it's hot who won't touch it because they don't want to get burned. Then there are people who will only touch it once, just to make sure that you were telling the truth. Then there are the kind of people that will pick it up again and again each time hoping it's cooled off already. I mention this observation of mine because Ron Smith had a hard time learning lessons when he was younger. He was a boy who was just plain hard to reach.

One of the hardest things Ron ever had to learn was that it usually wasn't worth getting into it with Sam. Whenever there was any kind of minor confrontation Sam would have to escalate it just a bit. He had to have the last word or strike the last blow. In fact, Sam is still like that. At a recent birthday party Sam and Ms. Pat (His mother if you'll recall) got into an argument about whether Sam would pull the table cloth off the table with things still sitting on it. She said if he did it she would hit him with a chair. So... he did it and she threw a chair at him and actually managed to hit him. (Of course he would never have done it if his mother hadn't told him not to, but she was determined to tell him. I wonder where he gets his hard head from....)

Ron had known Sam for years and they had gotten into many arguments and more than a few fights. He could never do what I did with Sam. If Sam and I got into it I finally reached the “Whatever” stage where I would ignore whatever Sam did or said. The choice was that or shoot him because he's too hard headed to realize that when you start stabbing each other with needles over what channel the TV is on you've gone too far. Ron never understood that the options were to kill Sam or leave him alone. Sam would just keep escalating things until you stopped or died. So, the best thing to do was let Sam have the last word and go on with it. Ron could never do that.

Ron also didn't have another of the advantages I had in dealing with Sam. When Sam and I got into an argument I was right at least as often as I was wrong. If I was right Sam's having the last word didn't matter (and it was often something like “takes one to know one!” which I could ignore) and if Sam was right he deserved the last word so, again, it didn't bother me. Ron had the gift of almost always being wrong when he got into a fight with Sam. As unreasonable as Sam could be at times he usually looked like a saint when dealing with an incensed Ron Smith.

One sunny summer afternoon Ron and Sam started getting into it. I don't remember what it was about, but Sam was basically minding his own business when Ron started getting louder and louder and up in Sam's face, as the saying goes. Sam must have been in a good mood, because he ignored Ron for a good while. Finally he decided he was going to have to shut Ron up.

Now, I have to take a moment and explain why it was that Sam had a machete on him that day. It was actually very common. We spent so much time in the woods and going here and there that each of us kept our woodsman's tools about us. I would often have my long wooden staff in hand, Josh usually had a knife on him and Sam would walk around with his machete stuck down in one leg of his pants. At any given moment on any given day you would be likely to find us armed with our tools.

It was because of that fact that Ron wasn't at all surprised when Sam pulled a machete out of his pants. What was surprising was the conversation that took place between them:

“Ron, you don't want to talk like that to man with a machete in his hands.” Sam said after he had drawn his blade.

“Why not? You ain't going to do anything with it!” Ron yelled defiantly.

“I might, if you don't get out of my face.”

“You ain't gonna hit me with a machete!”

“You keep thinking that.”

“Well then do it, if you think you're man enough!”

Chop! Right in the leg. Ron howled and jumped around cussing at Sam, but he didn't do anything else. Sam had barely broken the skin, but he had in fact, chopped Ron with the machete, just like he said he would. Ron had seen countless examples over the years and should have know better than to start something with Sam over nothing. In stead Ron kept raising the ante until he was the one who got hurt. Once he was in pain he calmed down and stopped fighting. However, even pain couldn't reach him in the long run.

We have to fast forward to another beautiful summer day to find Ron's next lesson in not messing with Sam. Once again Ron had started an argument with Sam and gotten louder and louder while Sam maintained his quiet countenance. To drive one of his points home Ron had jammed his forefinger right in Sam's face. That was just a bit too much.

“Ron, you better get your finger out my face.” Sam said calmly.

“Or what!?!” Ron replied waving his finger right under Sam's nose.

“Or you're not going to like what happens.”

“You ain't gonna do nothing Sam! I'll put my finger where ever I want.”

As he said that he shoved his outstretched digit once more into Sam's face. As quick as lightning Sam grabbed Ron's finger and snapped it strait up. Now, there has been some debate about whether on not the finger was actually broken. It might have merely been that the tendons were damaged and that the bone itself didn't break. However, if the scream that Ron let out was any indication it might very well have been that the bone did, in fact, break. Once again, screaming was Ron's only reaction. Well, that and keeping his fingers out of Sam's face. One would think that he would have learned his lesson from all this, but no it took more than that.

Years later both Ron and Sam were living with Jesse. I should actually say they were living with Jesse's parents because Jesse was still at home. They stayed there together for several months. Here I must take a moment to mention why Ron finally got thrown out. Jesse had a job and Ron was living there and looking for work. One night Jesse had to work overtime and so he got home after dinner. He opened the fridge to get out the plate his Mom had put in there for him, but it was gone. “What happened to my dinner?” Jesse asked aloud. “Oh, I ate it because you weren't home from work yet.” Ron replied. That night Ron had to find another place to sleep.

In any event, the point is that Sam and Ron were living there together. One night Sam was sitting out on the porch talking to his future wife Becky. Once again, Ron had gotten mad at Sam and was walking back and forth in the front of the porch cussing at him. For a good while Sam ignored him and continued to talk on the phone with Becky. Finally Ron got loud enough that Sam was having trouble hearing the phone, so he decided something had to be done.

“Hold on Becky, I have to go slap a B****....” Sam said and then laid down the phone.

“Oh! You have to slap a B**** eh Sam? Why don't you come slap me then boy? Why don't you do that and find out what's going to happen?! I want you to!!”

As Ron said all this Sam walked to the screen door, opened it and walked slowly down the steps. As soon as Ron was within arm's reach Sam pulled back and slapped him down onto the ground. Then he turned silently went back up onto the porch, sat down and picked up the phone.

“Where were we?” Sam asked.

Ron jumped up rubbing his face and again began to cuss at Sam full volume.

“Hold on, some people just can't learn the first time. I'll be right back.” Sam said and laid down the phone.

“I didn't expect that! You hit me like a coward! I'm ready for you now boy! Try that again and see what you get!” Ron bellowed as loudly as he could.

Sam walked down the steps without speaking. Then he reached back and slapped Ron down onto the ground again. Once more he turned went up on the porch and picked up the phone.

“Back.” He simply said.

As far as I know that was finally enough for Ron. He never bothered starting anything with Sam again. So, I guess in the long run, Sam did reach him. This story certainly does have a moral and I believe it's a good one. Don't get slapped down again and again before you learn your lesson. If someone tells you that something is hot don't touch it. The faster you learn the less pain you are likely to go through. That is certainly something worth learning.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Dad Works Construction

As some of you may already know, I decided to build a house a few years ago. It seemed like an excellent idea at the time. There were a large number of pros that couldn't be ignored. First, you can save a lot of money by building your own house. Second, you can make sure the quality is as high as you like. Third, you will get a lot of exercise. When we added these things together the decision was made, we planned to build rather than buy.

What we didn't take into consideration was the fact that there was one serious drawback. That drawback was, of course, that we had to build a house. It's funny how you can over look little details like that when you're overwhelmed with the idea of moving out of the single wide and into a real house. (Not that there was anything wrong with the single wide, but by the time the house was done we had five children living in it.) Having looked at the pros and never even considered the cons we pressed on and began to build.

The Lord blessed me and I managed to get a number of co-workers lined up for the job. There was myself, obviously, Josh, Jonathan Cooper, Adrian Fealty and Jake Anderson. Before long we had two more on the construction team and that was Joshua Fealty and my Dad. These stories are actually about Dad as a construction worker on the house, if you hadn't already figured that out from the title.

Now, I do need to set the scene a bit before we proceed. All of us construction workers had different levels of experience. Josh Ethridge and Josh Fealty had done a number of odd jobs and knew a good deal about house construction. Adrian and I could do a little carpentry. Jonathan and Jake could pull the hammer out of a pile of miscellaneous tools in less than three guesses. Now, Dad could handle electrical, plumbing, duct, and wood work. He knew a lot about all the essentials, but had never done much drywall, tile or flooring work. (Not that he couldn't, it just hadn't come up a lot.)

Out of all us Dad was probably the most flexible and he was willing to do whatever needed to be done no matter how bad the job was. Considering his experience he was given the electrical and plumbing work, as well as planning out the duct work. The electrical work was a piece of cake. Dad decided where things went and I pulled the wire for it and hooked up the outlets. We were done in no time. The plumbing turned into a nightmare that I can finally laugh about. More than anything else it was frustrating. In fact, there were a lot of things that we thought would be easy that turned out to be very, very frustrating.

I don't remember how many days we had been working since our last real break. We only worked on the house five days a week, but the weekends were never enough to rest us up for the long days of house building. As we got more and more worn out we all got more sensitive to aggravation and more easily angered. I have mentioned in earlier stories that my Dad has gotten more and more calm over the years. Well, these months of long, hot, frustrating days had worn that calm away just a bit. There were times when he would fly off the handle as if he were in his twenties again. Except for the screaming it was good to see the vigor of youth in him again.

Joshua Fealty had kind of grown up with us, but he had rarely seen Dad loose his temper. I know in these stories it seems like Dad is doing it all the time, but that's not an accurate depiction of the man. (It's simply a matter of him being funny when he was angry.) For the most part Josh was used to a calm, caring, gentle Dad. So he wasn't ready when Dad had finally had enough.

The rest of us were taking a break in the garage. We were all lying around on piles of flooring resting up for the next big push. We could hear Dad in the kitchen fighting with the cabinetry. That was also a frustrating job because things had to be just right. Because of the delicacy of the job Dad had ended up with it. As we sat there talking Dad began to get louder and louder. There was closed metal door between us, but we could have repeated every word that he said if we had wanted to. Joshua Fealty sat there with a concerned look on his face. Finally he decided to speak:

“Is he going to be all right?” He asked looking at the closed door.

“Who Dad?” I asked, surprised by the sudden introduction of the subject.

“Yea, your Dad! Don't you hear that?”

“Oh, yea. He gets like that, he's just frustrated.”

“You're sure?”

“Yea, bro. He's been my Dad for thirty years. I know the man.”

“Well, OK.... Seems to me that he could have a heart attack or something.”

Here Jake Anderson decided to chime in. He had been working with us on the house since the beginning and had seen Dad get angry a few times all ready. He wanted to assure Josh that Dad would be fine.

“Man, you ain't seen nothing yet. I mean, he hasn't even started throwing things.”

As Jake finished his sentence we heard something rattle across the floor and slam into the kitchen wall. We all burst out laughing. Jake and Dad couldn't have timed it better if they had been working on it for weeks. However, since Dad had reached the “throw things” stage we all piled into the house to help. It turned out to be a piece of trim he was working on that wouldn't fit into place no matter how he cut it. Of course, five minutes later he had it cut and in place.

It may seem unkind to laugh at Dad's frustration, but it's not the frustration that's really funny. It's his reaction to it that makes people laugh. I mean, after they realize he's not going to have a heart attack or a stroke. Once they know he's alright, they can't help but laugh. The man is simply funny.

After the cabinetry was complete Dad had started working on the corners of the soffit. They were hard to get at, so we borrowed Phil Huggins' bucket truck. (Phil Huggins is a side character in some of my stories. I have known him since I was six and our families go back generations. Just a few years ago my Papa married his mother making us uncle and nephew by marriage. Papa was over eighty and she was over seventy. Isn't love grand.)

We had been using the bucket truck for a few days and everything had been going well. (For those of you who don't know a bucket truck is one of those trucks that men from the electric company use to get up to the power lines.) Dad had moved the operation around to the front of the house and had parked the truck on the driveway right in front of the garage. Now, the garage was raised up off the ground about four feet, so there is a steep hill at the very end of the driveway. It was on this hill that Dad had parked.

Normally this wouldn't be a problem at all. Once you've parked on a hill you take out the wheel chucks and put one in front of both the tires on the high side. Well, whoever chucked them (we never got a clear confession) did it as if the truck had been on level ground. When the truck is level you chuck the front and back of one tire so the truck can't roll either way. This doesn't work on a hill, instead you get a situation where one side of the truck can't move, but the other can.

Dad had actually backed the truck up to the garage so he could get the bucket up over it's roof. He wanted to be able to reach as far as he could before he had to move the truck again. This meant that the front of the truck was pointing strait down the driveway. The only thing between it and the road was the car Jonathan had just bought. Most of us parked on one side of the yard or the other. However, Jonathan liked to keep his car on the driveway. So the massive, improperly chucked, bucket truck was parked on a very steep hill looking down the driveway directly at Jonathan's beautiful car. What could have possibly gone wrong?

I'm not sure how long Dad had been working in the bucket before he decided to take a breather, but he had very good timing. He lowered the bucket down and got out on the roof of the garage. He was considering what he had to do next with the soffit when he decided to make sure he had a tool he needed in the bucket. He turned around to where he had just stepped out of it and it was gone.

It took his brain a moment to process the information. He was looking right where it had been. How far could it have gone? He did what anyone would do in that situation and looked around. The bucket hadn't vanished, it had just moved a few feet away from the house. At this realization I think a minor case of shock set it. As Dad was trying to figure out how a bucket could just start moving around on it's own it dawned on him that it was still moving. That revelation gave birth to the understanding that the truck itself was rolling down the hill strait for Jonathan's car and then the road.

My Dad has always been a man of action. His mind accesses the situation and almost instantly he comes up with a plan. As soon as he realized what was going on his brain began firing at full speed. What could he do? What resources did he have? Well, he was trapped on a roof roughly ten feet from a concrete stop at the bottom, so jumping was out of the question. He had a number of hand tools, none of which would keep a stationary truck from rolling down a hill, much less stop a vehicle in motion. The only thing he had that could be of any use at all was his voice. He knew in a flash his message had to be short and convey the idea of absolute urgency. Everyone working on the house heard his clear call ring out:

“AHHHHHHHH!!!!” Dad screamed at the top of his lungs.

Most of us were out working in the yard. I stopped what I was doing and looked to where I had heard the call.

“AHHH! AHHHHH!! AHHHHHHH!!!” Dad repeated as he stood jumping up and down on the garage roof while waiving his hands generally in the direction of the driveway.

Both me and my brother flew into action. We had no idea what we were going to find, but we were both running full speed. Dad saw that we were moving and decided the encourage us.

“AHHHHHHHHHHH!” He bellowed as we ran with everything we had.

I came around the corner of the garage and saw the truck rolling toward Jonathan's car. It was too far ahead and had gotten up too much speed. Even if I had been able to catch it I would never have been able to stop it in time. All I could do was stand there and watch as Dad made a number of inarticulate noises at full volume just above my head. I felt certain that Jonathan's car was a goner. There was nothing we could do.

However, at the last moment the truck made a hard right turn. It flew off the edge of the driveway and hit a pine tree. The tree was about six or seven inches in diameter and the truck pushed it to the ground with ease. The little pine did put up enough of a fight to stop the truck though. So there it was, sitting without a scratch on it, parked on top of a little tree. Nothing was damaged in the least, except maybe Dad's heart (and the poor tree, of course). We all stood there panting for breath as we considered the scene. After all the excitement everything was all right. There was nothing anybody could have done to stop that truck, but the Lord had a handle on it. We should keep in mind that he always does.

The house has been complete for a good while now. It was worth all the effort, all the blood, sweat and tears that went into building it. It has truly been a very great blessing. Among those blessings I count being able to work construction with my Dad pretty high. He is a very talented man and, what's even more important, he's a riot when he gets mad at inanimate objects.