Stand by Me

Our elementary gang spent many days exploring the woods with streams, sticks, trails, talks, and a few firecrackers.  Three boys moved away from our “web” of friends when their parents moved to Ashland, KY as dad became a VP of Ashland Oil.  (I knew about coal in Kentucky, but oil?)  Soon enough, four sixth graders traveled to visit the friends we missed.

Our gang’s first and last train ride went from Louisville to Ashland and we had fun roaming the cars.  The reunited rabble rousers spent our last weekend together playing pool, listening to music, laughing at jokes, and roaming Ashland.  Sleep was not prevalent. 

I first heard the 45-rpm single “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf, on the brothers’ new stereo.  I experienced the album “Tea for the Tillerman” by Cat Stevens the same night.  I didn’t buy the single, but I got the vinyl album that I’m streaming now.  Whenever I hear those songs, I’m transported on a magic carpet to that basement with my friends.  Music evokes such powerful memories.

The night before our departure, the man of the house informed us that the Ashland Oil Company Learjet was going to fly empty to Louisville in order bring businessmen back.  He’d arranged for us to take the Learjet rather than the train back home.  The day we buckled in, the pilot said to us, “Boys, you’re in charge of this flight.  I’ll take off when you let me know you’re ready.  Just say the word; it’s your flight.”  I’d never felt so much power….. or privilege.   

Following that final weekend, we started going to different schools that led to different lives.  The three in Ashland weren’t the only ones who moved away from each other.  Maybe that’s why the closing lines of the 1986 movie “Stand by Me” still haunt me: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?” 

Who were your friends when you were 12?  What songs transport you to those times?  What memories does the music evoke?  What are you thankful for?

PS – I am grateful that Facebook has brought those friends virtually back to my life; who would have guessed that? 

Experimenting

For 5 years the Chenoweth Elementary auditorium was where we gathered many Saturday mornings to watch a Disney movie projected on a huge screen with a Slo-Pok to get us through. I now wonder if parents organized that. One Saturday I gathered there with dad and other sons and dads to watch a movie teaching us something about sex; I don’t know if the girls and moms got their Saturday.

During 6th grade science that auditorium became the lab for an experiment in education.  KET (Kentucky Educational TV) had begun broadcasting classes for Eastern Kentucky students in the Appalachian mountains.   We were the first of the state-wide classes KET would broadcast during the day.  Our entire grade of what now seems a hundred would gather in that large auditorium.  At the appointed time, our teacher would turn on 7 TV sets around the room and we’d watch science experiments from one state teacher.

After the broadcast our teacher would teach us for a short while.  She’d prepare, monitor, and grade our tests.  During TV delays or “technical difficulties” she’d keep us entertained.  She played “Feelin’ Groovy” (the 59th Street Bridge Song) so much we voted to adopt it as our class song.  She helped turn us from individuals into a community when she supervised our May Day festival.  It was our teacher, not the guy on TV that I remember because she cared about us.

I don’t know how the television broadcast classroom experiment turned out, but I don’t think it became the norm.  This past year Nancy and I’ve worshiped online with several churches each week.  The pandemic has allowed us to listen to friends from all over the country.  I’m glad for the variety of voices we get to hear and the communities each pastor personally cares for.  I don’t want to try an experiment with one state-wide or national preacher. 

What “experiments in education” have you participated in? What do you remember about your teachers…. the information they presented or the way they related to you? How do you find a variety of voices rather than one broadcast in your journey of faith?

Patrol Boy

At the end of 5th grade I was chosen to be a patrol boy.  I was told I would get to wear a belt across my waist and chest with a shiny silver badge that had AAA on it.  I thought it was super cool like A plus, plus; I would later learn about the American Automobile Association.  

The first week of June I was trained by the 6th grade patrol boys.  They told me about the power I would have.  Another patrol boy and I were in charge of making the other elementary kids line up at the stoplight at Brownsboro Road (KY State Hwy 42) which was a four-lane 45 suggested-speed major artery of Louisville’s east end.

When I felt like it, I could push the cross button to change the light and stop all the traffic.  I would tell the kids when to cross, escort them halfway and come back.  I loved the sense of control over others I would have and I loved the look of my patrol boy outfit.  I was honored to be chosen.  It was during my Thursday morning training that first week of June that I heard Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot; the news wouldn’t sink in for several years.

During sixth grade I learned that being chosen is not easy.  The few sunny June days became the many fall and winter days with some rain, sleet, or snow.  I had to get there early, stay late, and be responsible.  Some kids made fun of my AAA badge. The routine of pushing the button, walking halfway, coming back would lose its thrill but not its importance.  I think I maybe got some certificate at the end of the year after I fulfilled my responsibility of being chosen.  I trained the next two guys.

People of faith talk about being chosen or called to their journey of faith.  I learned from being a patrol boy that being chosen isn’t easy; it isn’t about the control, the power, the AAA badge, or the certificate at the end.  We are chosen to serve –  to do our part each day to make the crossings of others safer and better with our presence.  We are chosen not because we are better, but to be better.  We are not alone; others serve with us.

When have you experienced the honor of being chosen before learning how much responsibility you would have?  How have you helped others cross dangerous paths on their journeys?  What rewards do you receive in loving and serving others?

Getting It

Almost all of my childhood and almost every Tuesday, we had a black maid named Pauline clean our home.  Mom would trade days with Pauline’s Friday employer whenever mom prepared for a big cocktail party.  I remember Pauline’s laughter, her chess pie, her discipline, her love, but I don’t remember her crying…. except once.  The second Tuesday of April 1968, I was home from fifth grade watching a long funeral procession on our color TV.    It reminded me of watching a long funeral procession in first grade on our black and white.  Pauline sat with us, shedding so many quiet tears her apron was soaked.  I remember hugging her, but I really didn’t get it.

Twenty years later, the thickest book on my shelf was “A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Unlike too many books around it, I actually read this one — moved by poetic prophetic preaching.  During their annual meeting, the fourth week of April 1988, I was given the Mexico Missouri “NAACP Drum Major for Justice Award”.  Why me?  I didn’t deserve it and I wasn’t even a “C” (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).  When I pointed that out to the leader she said, “Honey, we’re ALL colored by God — there’s just a variety in the complexion.”  I still didn’t get it.

Four years later, the last week of April, my best friend leading youth events was my roomie at a training event at Montreat.  The fact that Keith was African American only mattered when we awoke to the news of riots after the Rodney King verdict and I experienced his reaction.  That night the Montreat community gathered to pray and watch a 16 mm projector film of a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. had given at Montreat.  Maybe I was beginning to get it.

The following December Keith and I were at a national training event in Kansas City for the new “God’s Gift of Human Sexuality” parent and youth curriculum.  After eating with a group at The Plaza, and on the way back to our hotel, I drove Keith to the Alameda Plaza, a ritzy hotel on a hill with an outstanding view of the Plaza Christmas Lights.  As we walked in I said, “We’ll just ride the elevators up to a top floor and look out at all the lights below and come back down.”  Keith said, “I don’t think we should, Wally.”  I said, “O come on, Keith.  It’s great.  Just look like you’re going to your room and catch the view.  I DO IT ALL THE TIME!”  With fear and frustration on his face and in his voice, Keith said, “Obviously you don’t do it in my skin!”  I think I got it.

What is your experience of my story?  Whatever “getting it” means to you, what has helped you or blocked you from “getting it.”

Checkmate

I’m not sure about the year, but I still feel the humiliation; the over/under would be 5th grade.  I was in the finals of our class chess tournament; the championship game was in front of our entire class.  My time in the spotlight ended in four moves.  Before it barely began, it was over — checkmate.  

While my classmates were spared boredom, I was publicly and utterly defeated. A friend whispered to me: “Don’t feel so bad, Wallis. He beat everyone else like that, too. He learned it from the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s called ‘Fool’s Mate’.” After years of enjoying playing chess, I suffered the agony of defeat at the hands of a kid who merely looked up “chess” in an encyclopedia — making a fool out of me.

It wouldn’t have helped for Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” to let me know it’s not called fool’s mate, but “Scholar’s Mate”; I still would have felt foolish.  Furthermore, I felt frustration that no one had warned me.  Why didn’t my friends inform me about how he’d won?  Was anyone really my friend?  Why hadn’t I studied chess instead of just playing it?  Why couldn’t I have privately lost earlier instead of so publicly now?

Maybe that’s one reason I would feel called to a profession where I am in the 5%.  In my version of “Scholar’s Mate”, I study the Bible, commentaries, and the teachings of spiritual leaders more than many.  I spend a lot of my time warning my friends.  I am sensitive to listening for pride and humiliation from others as I share God’s forgiveness, grace, and love.  I guess I learned some life lessons from the consequences of losing at childhood chess; thankfully the cost of those lessons was relatively low.

God offers us choices and consequences in our lives.  We are given the choice to learn lessons from our experience, or to ignore them.  I sense God allowing us to learn from the consequences of our actions, because “we not punished for our sin as much as we are punished by our sin.”  Some lessons are learned when the cost of our choice is low; some lessons are delayed until the cost is greater.  Sometimes we suffer the consequences of the choices of others.

How have your past life lessons impacted your present?  What are the consequences of your choices and actions teaching you today?  How do you open your heart, mind, and body to how God is trying to warn you before the consequence of your personal checkmate?

Payback

As a young child, we had a few female college business students live with us.  Each lived rent free in our walk-out basement — owing only babysitting during many cocktail parties in the early ’60s.  Years later, as I questioned why my parents were so helpful to those students, my father told me about one of the turning points of his life.

My father’s father was a stock broker through the Great Depression in Lexington, Kentucky.  They had enough, but not nearly as much as his clients and circle of friends.  In 1935 my father graduated high school at the age of 16 and worked for a year at the brokerage firm.  Dad’s job involved “marking the board” — taking a translucent tape, coated with purple ink, off the Trans-Lux machine, and using chalk to write the latest stock prices on the large, 6 x 18 ft. slate board.  (It took him 6 months to remove all the purple ink stain from his fingers.)

One day, a distant relative named W. Arnold Hanger, who would become president of Mason & Hanger Co., (America’s oldest architectural and engineering firm) asked, “Who’s that industrious young man writing prices on the chalkboard?”  My grandfather said, “That’s my son.”  Hanger said, “He ought to be going to college.”  My grandfather said, “No, he ought to be on that ladder, writing stock prices on that board.”  

With permission, Mr. Hanger met with my father and offered to lend interest free the money he’d need if he attended his alma mater — the Wharton School of Business at Penn.  After tests, discussions, and correspondence, Hanger wrote out six $500 notes, to pay for college expenses and the train rides to Philadelphia.

At Wharton, dad had campus jobs much of the time, and was awarded a 50% academic scholarship the last 2 years.  Within 3 years of graduation, dad paid off the $3000 he owed Arnold Hanger.  Dad would say, “His generosity gave me both a superior education and an example of a generous, yet practical, spirit which I have valued always.” 

Spiderman/Peter Parker said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Jesus said “To whom much is given, much will be required.”   Dad used his power and the gifts given to him to further the education of so many other people as he invested most of his wealth in charitable causes.

What gifts of faith, time, talent, treasure, have you been given?  What is a major turning point in your life?  Who played a part in that turning point?  How do you share and invest your gifts to improve this world?

The Belle of Louisville

The Belle of Louisville

Have you ever heard: “I don’t know how those children come from the same family”?   Bill Oglesby taught me in seminary, “A second child doesn’t come from ‘the same family’, because there was only one child at first.”  

One of the many differences with my older brother (besides eight years) was that while I would grow to love dancing, my brother would revel in it.  In 2001, Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer” was chosen by him as the final words and music of his funeral service.  In 1964, when a fifteen year old Baylor Landrum, III was invited to a senior dance on the Belle of Louisville, he couldn’t resist it even though Baylor Landrum, Jr. forbid him to go.

When my baby sitter called dad at a cocktail party to say, “Baylor just snuck into a car with several kids,” mom joined him to fetch Baylor at the Belle.   She stayed in the car at the downtown dock, while dad told the riverboat’s gatekeeper, “I’m going on board to get my son; I’ll be right back; you can’t leave until we return.”  Turns out dad had as little control over the Belle as my brother.  The boat left with both Baylors aboard.

During the paddle wheel steamboat’s two hour cruise, my father endured loud music from an obnoxious wannabe rock band, my brother received lightning bolt stares daring him to have a good time dancing, and my mother was abandoned in a sweltering summer car “down by the river.”  I would not hear that story until 20 years later, because none of the parties involved could even talk about it until the emotional statute of limitations ran out.

While that’s not really my story, I just can’t resist telling it, and it sets the stage for things to come.  I do think it has something to say about families that is part of all our stories.  The first lesson in “Parenting the Love and Logic Way” is: “There are no guarantees in parenting.”

This story also has a lot to say about control when many of us feel so out of control these days.  As Suzanne Stabile teaches in the wisdom of the Enneagram, “control is an illusion fueled by emotion.”  I can’t control circumstances, I can’t control someone else, I can’t control how I see the world, but I can learn to be more responsive than reactive to what I can begin to control — myself.

What stories rise up for you today?  How have you been frustrated by a lack of control?  How have you sought to share control?  What are you learning about yourself and your relationship with God and other people?

Meet the Beatles

Music has touched my life profoundly.  My infant baptism in 2nd Presbyterian church initiated my hearing the choir leading our community in singing each Sunday.  Mom rocked me to sleep singing Methodist hymns her mother had sung to her. At 7, I memorized the 100th Psalm about making “a joyful noise”, and I tried to do just that in our church’s children’s choir.

7 days after turning 7, the Beatles were to debut on Ed Sullivan (2/9/64).  My parents ruled that I couldn’t see them because 8-9 o’clock was past my bedtime.  I tearfully rocked myself to sleep in my upstairs bedroom.  

My 8-year-older brother tip-toed up and silently carried me down to our den TV so I wouldn’t miss the experience.  (It was right where I witnessed the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald ten weeks before).  Even though our TV had no color, Baylor never saw morality in merely black and white terms.  (Dying of cancer at 52 his tombstone would read “He Said YES to Life” partly because the experience often outweighed the rules for him.)

In 1965 Baylor would be shipped off to Darlington boarding school in Georgia, because there were other rules he broke.  During most of 1968 he would become lost in Haight Asbury in San Francisco, come to himself at Virginia Beach, and return home.  That November he triumphantly hoisted a copy of the Beatles’ “White Album” above my head.  He had camped outside the record store all night so he’d be the first person in Louisville to experience it.  I would hear him singing “Rocky Raccoon” with his guitar for years to come; I do still.

Who helped teach you to experience life?  How are you living an abundant life now?  When has the experience outweighed the rules for you?  How did that work out for you?  Which songs of the past kindle an indelible memory for you today?

Reach to Recovery

During my first grade in 1963, my mother had a “breast cancer radical mastectomy” surgery.  I had only heard the word “breast” spoken at dinner, “cancer” spoken in a whisper, “radical” later in the 60’s, and “mastectomy” was a mystery.  All I knew was my mom went into the hospital for many days, and her mother moved in to care for dad and 3 children.

Fortunately, the library volunteer at Chenoweth Elementary was a friend of mom’s so she could tell her this story I wouldn’t have remembered: “Wallis came into the library crying, ‘I don’t have my library book.  I don’t have the fine for my library book.  I don’t have my lunch money.  My mom’s in the hospital, my grandmother is taking care of us, and she just can’t cope!’”  Mom adored telling the “she just can’t cope” story the rest of her life.

I now know I was wrong; we did cope.  Everyone learned to cope with a radical removal in life.  Mom would initiate and lead the American Cancer Society’s “Reach to Recovery” chapter in Louisville.  Many days of my childhood mom would answer a phone call from a new breast cancer patient and I would hear her give information about diagnosis and treatment, shared grief from one who had also had surgery, donations of breast inserts for dresses and swimsuits, hope for the future, and telling the other woman she was not alone.  Mom would fully live another thirty-five years before dying of an unrelated cancer.

“Reach to Recovery” is just one example of survivors offering understanding, support and hope to others out of their own painful experiences.  In 1979 when I first read Henri Nouwen’s book “The Wounded Healer: In Our Own Woundedness We Can Become a Source of Life for Others”, I thought of mom turning her loss into a ministry.  I have been inspired by others who from their own life and faith experiences help others facing a similar addiction, crisis, illness, loss, or faith struggle.

How are you coping with the radical changes around us now?  Are you complaining, rebelling, surviving, isolated, smothered, or something else?  How does learning to cope in the past give you strength today?  How can you use your experience to help another person reach to their recovery?

Hide and Seek

I was taught the goal of hide and seek was to hide and not be found.  However, winning the game wasn’t fun for me.  When I was 5, I was invited to Peter’s birthday party.  We were excited to see a big truck and trailer in the driveway with a pony we could ride.

While we played hide and seek outside, I crouched behind a huge tire under the trailer.  As kids were found, I heard them enjoying the fun of seeking together.  I became the only one left — all alone in my dark hiding place.  Before my friends went in to get cake, Peter called out “Wallis, where are you?  Come out – the game’s over.”  

I jumped up to yell, “Here I am.  I won!  I won!”  But before I yelled, and as I leapt up, I hit my head on the metal guard over the wheel.  I never yelled “I won” because I was ashamed I hit my head.

As I emerged from behind the truck, everyone’s eyes focused on me as their mouths dropped open.  The truck’s metal had gashed the top of my head and blood was running down my side.  While it wasn’t anything like the movie “Carrie” I was bleeding like a head gash does.  I was covered in towels and taken for several stitches.  I was sorry I won; I never got any cake.

I wish I had learned at 5 that I only hurt myself when I’m so competitive, but that painful lesson continues.  I did learn that I have a lot more fun being found than staying hidden.  Years later (maybe due to my early lesson), I’d play over a hundred games of “seek and hide” with my church youth groups.  One kid would go hide and the rest would seek; when you found the kid you hid with him or her.  The game ended when the last one followed the sound of stifled laughter to open a door on 20 youth in a closet.  Being found was a lot more fun than hiding, and we all won together.

In the beginning of my formation story of Genesis, the first question God asks is “Where are you?” The man says, “I was hiding.” When competition led to murder, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” One might summarize the rest of the Bible as asking, “Where are you in relation to God?” and “Where are you in relation to your brother/sister/neighbor?”

What are your examples of hiding from the Divine?  When have you hidden from other people?  How do you respond to being found?  In what ways have you joined others in the search for a path to follow?