Pastors' Conference 1972, ch. 21-22

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Chapter 21

With the help of Joanne and Ellen, Marve finally had everything unpacked and in place by Friday, though not without the shedding of more tears as several boxes revealed broken dishes, picture frames, and family heirlooms handed down from her mother and grandmother. This fueled a level of anger and resentment that was felt across town as not only did Marve blame Glynn, but Joanne kept the heat on Horace and Alan and Ellen blamed her husband, bank president Virgil Stone, for not having had the house ready sooner. Not having had any advanced notice, the phone company did not arrive to connect the phone at the parsonage until Thursday, which meant Marve had to go to Ellen’s every time she needed to contact Glynn or anyone else. Conversations around town became even more heated when the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of DDT for any reason. Some farmers had long worried that the pesticide was dangerous while others were certain that bugs would devour their corn without it. By Friday, moods across town were so sour that Glynn opted to take a cold sandwich with him and eat his lunch alone in the church office. 

Sunday’s services seemed to Glynn to be a waste of time and energy. With almost all the men out in fields, the small congregation of 70-something was mostly either women struggling to keep their children contained or more elderly members who either couldn’t hear or kept nodding off during the service. Even Richard was on vacation, which left Eddie Aubrey, a young insurance field agent assigned to the county, to lead music for the services. Eddie had been enthusiastic right up to the point that he stepped behind the pulpit and had to announce the first hymn. His voice was so soft he had to repeat the hymn number three times before anyone picked up a hymnal and the pianist began the introduction. Glynn felt that his sermon on worry fell on deaf ears, an opinion Marve confirmed with the casual comment that he could probably preach the same sermon next week and no one would notice.

Against that harsh backdrop, Glynn was happy to be returning to Camp Universal the following Monday. He was hopeful that spending the week with teenagers would require a little less oversight and might possibly be as if not more relaxing than Junior Camp had been. They weren’t taking quite as many people this time. Only six girls, including Claire, were on the women’s side and only one other thin, bookish boy, Roland Hughes, joined Russel on the men’s side. Still, the group was bubbly and excited as transistor radios blared everything from Sammie Davis’ “The Candyman” to Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Joanne was careful to do a wardrobe check before parents left to make sure none of the girls’ skirts or shorts violated the dress code, which a couple of the girls found discriminatory but went along with nonetheless. Glynn made a point of being equally public in checking the boys’ suitcases to make sure their shirts all had sleeves, which, given the two boys involved, was a humorous satire on the biased nature of dress codes. 

One difference this time was that Hayden had decided he wanted to sleep on the same side of the cabin as his daddy. The child had slept on a canvas cot right next to his mother during Junior Camp, partly to calm his own insecurities and largely out of Mave’s concern that Glynn might sleep too soundly to notice if the boy rolled out of bed during the night. Both Glynn and Marve agreed, though, that the atmosphere wasn’t nearly as threatening as they had initially anticipated and that Hayden was likely safe on his own bunk so long as it was right next to Glynn’s. The exception would come if Glynn was assigned a night safety patrol shift.

When they arrived at the camp, Glynn made a big deal of helping Hayden make up his bunk, getting his pillow and blankets just right, and helping him get settled down for a nap after lunch. Hayden would be turning five years old in a couple of weeks and had amazed Glynn at how much he seemed to have grown and matured over the past couple of months. His hair wasn’t quite as blonde, his feet weren’t nearly as clumsy, and it was almost impossible to “short cut” his bedtime story by skipping words or pages. He enjoyed being with his Daddy, was full of questions, and at times could be belligerent about accepting any assistance with tasks not quite yet within his grasp.

Convinced that Hayden was asleep, Glynn slipped out of the cabin and grabbed an umbrella from the car before heading up the hill for the required meeting. The clouds that had formed overhead were not unexpected and the forecast for rain across the region was not unwelcome. Wind from the northwest blew swirls of dust around the pastor’s feet and the fragrance of approaching rain was refreshing.

Bill and Clement joined Glynn just before they reached the top of the hill. They couldn’t help but notice a group of the pastors standing under the tabernacle, circled around a pudgy man with curly, auburn-red hair, splotchy red complexion, and expensive-looking clothes who was gesturing as he talked. 

“The Resolution wasn’t meant to undermine the King James Version of the Bible at all,” the man was saying. “The problem is that people aren’t reading the Bible and a large part of that is because it is not readily available in their own language. That’s what the Resolution is addressing. Our relationship with the American Bible Society goes back a long way and we feel that they are more faithful in their translations than those created and endorsed by other entities such as the National Council of Churches. There’s good reason we’re not part of that organization. We want to partner with a Bible publisher that does not give in to the liberal misinterpretation of scripture.”

Clement shook his head. “You know, there’s a chance I may have pressing matters back in Washataug that I need to attend to.”

“Yeah, there may be a crisis or two in Arvel as well,” Bill said. “If he’s going to hold court like that very often I’ll have to find somewhere else to be. And after last week there are probably plenty of places I should be. I never did get caught up.”

“So, that’s our camp pastor for the week?” Glynn asked, embarrassed that he didn’t know the person speaking.

“Unfortunately,” Clement said. “Leslie Patterson, one of the dozen-or-so associates at First, Dallas. All around big-mouth. He’s started some group within the convention to, in his words, ‘root out the evil that has infiltrated our sacred trust.’ It’s nothing more than an effort by conservatives to take control of the convention. He practically begged the committee to let him come this week. Even halved his fee, making it well below our budget, so that no one else would make fiscal sense.”

As they neared the old church building, a tall, broad-shouldered young man dressed in well-pressed grey slacks and a starched short-sleeve powder blue dress shirt, came toward them. His dark, wavy black hair was the kind that had teenage girls wondering if he was married (he was). He seemed friendly but unsettled and out of place. “Hey guys, you catch that malarky over there?” he asked with a deep southern drawl. 

Clement and Bill nodded then Clement said, “Max, have you met Glynn Waterbury? He’s the new pastor at Adelbert. Glynn, Max Franklin, First Levi.”

Max was quick to reach out his hand and smiled, “It is a gen-u-ine pleasure to meet you, Glynn! Although, your choice of company here is a bit questionable.” He laughed and patted Bill on the shoulder. “I went to seminary with this ya-hoo. I know what he’s capable of so I try to not let him too far out of my sight. I suggest you don’t either.”

The four men laughed and chatted lightly a bit before Bill said, “I’m surprised to see you down here. Didn’t you just get back from Philadelphia?”

“Not to mention the fact that you seemed to have said something once about camp being a good way to keep your youth and music director our of your hair for a week,” Clement added with a grin.

“Yeah, the boy did not weather the storm well while I was gone last week. We’ve got a power-hungry deacon who rode him pretty hard,” Max answered. “I thought I’d come down for at least a couple of days, let him get the week started without any interference. I’ll have to be back by Wednesday afternoon, though.” He looked over at the group assembled under the tabernacle. “Looks like Leslie has a fan club already,” the pastor added. “He’s like a little religious leprechaun doin’ his dance while he steals the gold from everyone else’s pockets. He’s going to have these kids so confused by the end of the week that I’ll have to explain to half of them why they don’t need to be baptized again.”

“I’m hoping that’s the worse thing we have to explain,” Clement said. 

A gust of wind blew a sheet of dust across the top of the hill, causing the men to turn and guard their eyes. “That’s probably a signal that we need to get inside,” Bill said, looking up at the grey sky. “I’m not feeling convinced that this is going to be a light rain.”

The four preachers walked into the old church building and waited for Bing to start his routine. Carl Roberts soon joined them and Emmit popped in just before the meeting started, waving at the group but with a sense that was distant and preoccupied. The meeting itself was just as dry and boring as it had been for Junior Camp and the sound of rain falling on the roof didn’t help Glynn in his struggle to keep his eyes open. None of them were selected for Safety Patrol duty, which made it easier to plan a midweek escape. They quietly watched the spectacle around Leslie Patterson wax and wane then darted toward their church’s cabins the moment the “amen” sounded on the final prayer.

Rain was still falling when the evening service started. Gusts of wind blew rain in from the open sides, driving everyone to sit tightly in the center of the tabernacle. Much of what was being said or sung was lost as heavy downpours of rain on the tabernacle’s tin roof drowned out everything else. Finally, just before the sermon, the service was canceled and campers were instructed to go directly to their cabins. 

Just as Bing made the final announcement, though, a torrent of water fell from the sky like a wall of water placed between the tabernacle and the roads back to the cabins. Most stayed huddled together under the edge of the tabernacle, waiting for the rain to let up enough to run for safety. Some, however, were huddled under a large oak tree. Teens from rural churches knew better but about 30 kids, mostly from Levi churches, and a handful of adult counselors, were standing there when it seemed as though the top of the hill exploded. A bright flash of light momentarily blinded everyone. The percussion alone was enough to knock everyone under the tree and several under the tabernacle to their knees. The entire hill shook. Debris flew from the top of the tree onto the roof of the tabernacle just before pellets of hail began to fall from the sky. 

Everyone under the tree was knocked to the ground but no one appeared to be seriously hurt. Chairs were knocked over and pushed aside as 2,000 teens and their counselors and pastors pushed toward the center of the tabernacle. Glynn was happy that Marve had kept the kids at the cabin because of the rain but was now concerned for their safety. Another lightning strike somewhere among the cabins caused everyone to scream again and made it clear that it wasn’t safe to leave. Heavy wind left no place dry under the tabernacle. From the center of the group, someone started praying but everything after “Dear God” was drowned out by the storm.

Ten minutes felt like hours as the storm kept the entire camp huddled together, cowering from the unrelenting force of nature. 

At the first sign of a break, several older teen boys, particularly those who were more athletic, took off running for the cabins. Slowly the rain subsided and more groups would leave the embattled worship structure, many slipping and falling in the mud. 

Glynn found it interesting that Russel and Roland were among the calmest of the campers and the last to leave the tabernacle. “You boys about ready to head back to the cabin?” he asked, feeling a little anxious to confirm that everyone was safe. 

Russel looked at Roland and said, “Wait another minute and you won’t get any wetter.”

Sure enough, within a matter of seconds, the rain completely stopped. “That’s some good forecasting, Russel,” Glynn commented. “How did you know it would stop?”

“The barometric pressure went back to normal,” the teen answered. “We don’t have a basement at our house so I’ve learned to pay close attention, give us time to run to the neighbor’s shelter.”

Glynn nodded and the three walked calmly back to the cabin. Just before they reached the open grass in front of the cabin, Roland spoke up, catching Glynn slightly by surprise. “You know that’s just the beginning,” he said softly. “We should probably make sure everything around the cabin is tied down. We’re in for a rough night.”

Glynn looked at him not sure whether to believe what the young man was saying. “How do you know?” he asked.

Roland shrugged and Russel answered, “That tends to be the way big storms work. We get a line of low-pressure cells. The first one scares everyone and when it’s gone they think everything’s over. Then, a few hours later, the second one hits without warning. That’s when people get hurt.”

Glynn looked at them with concern. He knew what they said made sense and wondered if anyone else at the campground had the same information. “Okay, can ya’ll help me get the windows covered and everything?”

The boys nodded and the three of them began lowering the covers on the windows and securing them as if they were leaving for the season. They hadn’t been there long enough for there to be much trash lying around but they went ahead and removed some of the clutter the first storm had left around the cabin.

Inside, Glynn discovered that the beds near the windows on the girls’ side of the cabin were all soaked. Joanne suggested that perhaps the girls could switch sides with the boys for the night. The boys both shrugged. 

“Would it be okay if we just pulled our mattresses under the dining tables?” Russel asked. “That’s probably the safer move.”

Glynn looked at Joanne and she nodded her approval. “Go for it, boys. I’ll get my things and join you,” the pastor said

Marve quickly made the decision that Hayden could stay where he was. The storm already had him scared and as much as he enjoyed hanging out with Daddy it was Mommy he wanted when he was frightened. That made it easier for Glynn to move his mattress with Russel and Roland. They moved the mattresses from the dorm to the kitchen, the boys rather excited about the whole thing, and were almost settled in when Glynn heard a commotion outside. Looking out the cabin’s front door, he saw Bing and several pastors gathered in the road a few yards from the cabin. Glynn wasted no time joining them.

“The sheriff isn’t giving us any choice, guys,” Bing was telling them. “Everyone’s saying there’s a line of tornadoes headed right at us. We can’t take any chances. We have to evacuate the camp.”

“How are we going to do that before the storm gets here?” someone asked.

“Four churches have full-sized busses and plenty of room. They’ll keep making trips until we have everyone.”

“Where are we going?” asked another voice in the growing group of pastors. 

Bing seemed impatient that no one was moving to get their campers ready to leave. “Again, we have two separate facilities. Half will go to the city’s civil defense shelter and the other half will go to the Corp of Engineers facility under the dam. Please, though, get your campers ready. They all need to be dressed appropriately when a bus pulls up to your cabin. They can take a pillow or a blanket with them but nothing else. We don’t have room for everyone’s luggage.”

“What order are we evacuating in?” Bing was asked. Glynn recognized Larry Winston’s voice.

“The order that buses get to you,” Bing answered, his voice showing obvious signs of exasperation. “Gentlemen, we need to stop standing around here talking and get busy getting our campers ready! The buses have already left with their first load and will be back for others soon!”

Glynn wasted no time getting back to the cabin. He explained the situation to Marve and Joanne and they began helping the girls get their things together. Russel and Roland had seen the group outside and were already dressed and prepared to go. Glynn was glad that Lita was happy to stay close to Claire so that Marve only had to keep up with Hayden, who didn’t appreciate being awakened. Joanne suggested that the girls quickly pack their things and put their suitcases under the dining room tables. This added to the girls’ anxiety but for Roland especially it became a game to figure out how to get all the suitcases into such a limited space.

The group had finished getting ready and was waiting near the door when it began to rain. Thunder rumbled in the distance, causing a couple of the younger girls to whimper. Sounds from other cabins rushing to get everything together echoed across the campground. Glynn felt relief when the bus from First, Levi pulled up and Max stepped out, motioning for the group to join him.

“We need to hurry,” Max told Glynn as the kids quickly boarded the bus. “They’ve spotted two funnels on the other side of the lake. It’s going to be close getting everyone to safety.”

Glynn instructed the teens to sit as close to each other as possible, three people per seat so that they could fit as many people on the bus as it could possibly hold. The bus slowly moved from cabin to cabin until it was full of people stacked on top of each other, standing in the aisles, and even lying in the luggage racks above the seats. 

The Levi bus had been assigned to take people to the Corp of Engineers facility below the dam, which required first crossing the dam. Strong wind rocked the bus as rain beat down so hard that it sounded like small stones against the metal frame. Fear was palpable but no one was making a sound. The trip took little more than five minutes to make but felt considerably longer. Glynn wondered if everyone else was praying as hard as he was. 

The bus crossed the dam and made a somewhat precarious left turn to maneuver through the gate to a small parking area never intended for vehicles as long as the bus. The Levi church’s youth and music minister, a young man only two years out of college, struggled to turn the bus around in such limited space, his passengers anxiously waiting to disembark. Engineers at the dam were waiting to guide the group down into the cavernous space opposite the massive hydro-electric generators. Teens and counselors were instructed to take a seat along the wall while Glynn and the other pastors waited near the entrance.

The youth minister started to take the bus back for another trip to the camp but was stopped. “It’s too dangerous crossing the dam,” he was told. Everyone else at the camp would have to go to the city’s facility. No one at the dam knew that the city’s facility was already full. Late-arriving campers were instructed to take huddled positions with their heads covered between the town’s fire trucks and throughout the small office adjacent to the building. 

Glynn looked around and realized that Max was the only pastor he knew at all. Most everyone under the damn was from Colquitt Association. As the men stood just outside the doorway, they had a clear view of the large lake that provided power for most of Northeastern Oklahoma. With each lightning flash, the dam’s engineers were watching for signs of funnels and tracking their movement.

“We’ve got two confirmed on the ground,” one of the engineers said. “One at 19 degrees and the second just ahead of it at 24 degrees. Neither looks especially large but they’re kicking up a lot of debris.”

Max walked over to the railing where Glynn was standing. “Times like this make you wonder if God’s trying to send us a message, don’t they?” he asked. “Like, maybe we need to re-examine our motives here.”

“Like maybe I should have stayed in Michigan,” Glynn answered. “The storm earlier was enough. This is all a bit unnerving.” 

Lightning hit nearby, shaking the ground and lighting the sky.

“And there’s number three at 12 degrees moving North by Northeast,” the engineer called out.

“Three tornados?” Glynn questioned. “I didn’t know that was even possible!”

Max chuckled. “This is Oklahoma. Anything’s possible. The number of funnels may actually be a good thing. They’re small, not really capable of doing much damage. They might knock down a tree or two, upend a chicken hutch, but they don’t do a lot of damage.”

“Any chance of them combining into something worse?” Glynn asked. 

“I suppose,” Max answered. “Like I said, this is Oklahoma. You never know what’s going to happen. Each storm is an exercise in trusting God and, unfortunately, there are times when that trust seems misplaced.”

Glynn’s stomach turned as he took in Max’s statement. Trusting God? Sure, he understood that concept well. God’s divine will trumped all of man’s plans and creations. That one’s trust in God’s plan would be misplaced felt wrong but Glynn couldn’t find the words to challenge the concept or ask more questions.

Another lightning strike across the lake brought another declaration from the engineer, “There’s number four at 32 degrees. Man, four funnels in a row! And a fifth one hanging! This is amazing!”

Amazing was not the word that Glynn would have chosen. While the sight was certainly incredible to watch, his concern for everyone’s safety muted his fascination. 

The rain picked back up, sending everyone except the engineer down into the shelter of the dam. Glynn found Marve and the kids and tried to assure them that everything was going to be okay. Marve could tell by the expression on his face, though, that Glynn wasn’t convinced. She smiled at him, knowing that there was nothing any of them could do to make the moment more comfortable. They had already tried praying. Attempts at starting a sing-a-long had failed. The continual hum of the generators blocked most of the outside noise but the concerned response of the engineers and other workers as they ran back and forth was enough to keep everyone on edge.

After another hour, the rain finally let up, the wind gradually died down, and radio conversations between the dam’s supervisor and the county sheriff confirmed that there was no serious damage to the campground or the roads and that everyone could return. By that point, many of the younger teens had fallen asleep on top of each other and everyone was feeling groggy and a little grumpy. It would take the busses three trips each to get everyone back to their cabins and several more minutes to get everyone and everything settled. 

With everyone back at the campground, Bing quickly huddled with both Directors of Missions and the camp’s executive committee (made up of pastors who were present anyway). They decided with little discussion that it was in everyone’s best interest to push the morning schedule back by an hour, dropping one of the two class periods so that everyone could get more rest. Word was quickly distributed to the cabins and pastors and counselors made sure everyone still awake was aware of the change. No one complained.

Morning dawned with heavy fog rolling softly across the campground, slowly burning away as the summer sun came out in full force to dry everything that had been soaked the night before. By noon, only a handful of mudholes remained and afternoon athletic activities were able to go on as normal. Pastors gathered in groups of three and four to discuss how the night’s evacuation might have gone more smoothly but given the limited transportation options no one came up with a better plan. 

No one expected they would have a repeat of the night before. Thirty minutes before the evening tabernacle service the clouds began to roll over the campground. Glynn talked with Marve, Joanne, and Irene and agreed that anyone who wished could stay in the cabin rather than endure the anxiety of being caught in another storm. Only a couple of the youngest teen girls took them up on the offer but they helped keep Lita and Hayden calm and distracted when the wind eventually did start to pick up again. 

Several other cabins had a similar idea and no one cared to sit in the chairs closest to the edge of the tabernacle. The moment it began raining, several ran back to their cabins. When small-sized hail began pelting the tin roof once more, the service was effectively over. The instant the hail stopped, the worship space emptied. Few people other than Glynn and Emmit, who were standing together waiting for a break in the rain, noticed the anger with which Leslie Patterson stormed from the platform and back to his VIP cabin. Even if others had noticed, few would have cared. 

“Two days and a person might make the leap that God has blocked his opportunity to spread his propaganda,” Emmitt remarked. “That has to be rough for someone whose ego is as fragile as Leslie’s.”

“Do you think that’s actually what this is?” Glynn asked, feeling naive and uncertain. Associating God with acts of nature, or blaming him for them, seemed wrong. Only in the most drastic of circumstances had the Old Testament God employed weather as a means of achieving his goal. Jesus had calmed storms, not caused them. 

Emmitt shook his head. “No, I know better, but I’m not sure Leslie does. He’s one of those ‘take the Bible literally’ guys. Probably doesn’t help that they almost forgot to evacuate him last night.”

The surprised expression on Glynn’s face caused Emmitt to laugh. “You have got to be kidding,” Glynn said.

“Nope. They had to send a police car back after him when they realized he wasn’t at either evacuation point,” Emmit explained. 

At the first break, both men ran as quickly as they dared across the wet grass back to their cabins. The dirt roads were little more than muddy creeks at the moment. Darkness seemed to fall across the camp quickly and the rains seemed to be letting up when the tornado sirens sounded once again. This time, there was no question or debate as to what to do. Busses started running quickly. 

Once again the camp was evacuated but without the fear level of the night before. Almost everyone had experienced soft warnings like this and while there was plenty of wind and rain no funnels were ever spotted on the ground. After a couple of humid hours below the damn, everyone was returned to their cabins without any excitement and most of the teens expressing a mixture of boredom and fatigue. Still, the next morning’s schedule was delayed again and by this point, the whole experience felt off-kilter, as though all the fun and excitement had been sucked out of the week.

No one paid any attention when a car arrived to take Dr. back to the airport in Tulsa the next morning. He claimed that an urgent matter had come up in Dallas, but Bing later confirmed that the preacher had been the one to place the call, not the other way around. A pastor from a mid-sized church in Oklahoma City was called in to finish the week. No one seemed to care. Few seemed to pay attention. The week finished with the kind of whimper that caused even the teenagers to question why they had bothered coming. Joanne remarked that she couldn’t remember when a week of camp had been so flat and lifeless. 

By Saturday morning, everyone was anxious to go home. Cars were loaded quickly and Glynn noticed that there wasn’t the usual chatter. Even Claire was quiet. 

They returned back to the church without incident. Parents were hugged, equipment was put away, and empty promises of, “see you tomorrow” were made. Normally, Sunday’s evening service would have been given over to campers to share about their experience. Glynn overheard a group of girls expressing their reluctance, a couple saying they probably wouldn’t show up. After asking everyone individually, he decided that they would skip the tradition for this year. The kids were visibly relieved. 

This allowed Sunday to pass quietly. Two days of rain early in the week meant farmers were all taking advantage of the dry weather. Several other members were on vacation. Glynn was moderately concerned about the church’s finances but Iris assured him they had sufficient surplus to make sure everything was paid. Glynn was happy to go home and take a nap. This had not been the week he had anticipated and was not one he cared to repeat.


Chapter 22

Carol Stanley died. Edith Wilson called Glynn from the hospital Tuesday morning to let him know that her daughter’s condition had worsened. He rushed to Tulsa and spent the night praying with and attempting to comfort Edith and her family. He stayed with them when the young mother took her last breath. He held her children in his arms as they cried. He placed the difficult call to Hub and was still there to help him load the body into the hearse a couple of hours later after the family had returned to Adelbert.

For Edith and the rest of Carol’s family, this outcome wasn’t a surprise. For the past two weeks, doctors had expressed little hope of her ever recovering. There was no meaningful brain activity. As a result, funeral arrangements were already decided upon. The service would be Friday afternoon at 2:00 in the funeral home chapel. Glynn had politely offered the church sanctuary but Edith had turned him down. 

“She wasn’t a member there,” the grieving mother said. “There were too many who didn’t want her there. They still have to answer to God for their part in this. The chapel will be fine.” She asked Glynn to officiate and Richard to sing a couple of songs, but she chose men from the extended family for pallbearers and specifically asked that Glynn not mention the service at Wednesday’s prayer meeting.

The service was hardly attended by anyone outside the extended family, though there were enough of them to fill a quarter of the small chapel. A handful of Carol’s former co-workers from Washataug came over as did a smattering of former members of Grace church. Her former husband was nowhere to be seen, though. If he had even stopped by the funeral home to pay last respects he had managed to do so without Hub or Rose noticing and he hadn’t signed the guest book. Enough tears were shed to be appropriately respectful but by now the family had grown weary of crying. While they would have rather she recovered, Carol’s death was, in its own way, a relief. They could pick up the pieces and continue with their lives. By the time the graveside portion of the service was complete, the children were fidgety, ready to change clothes and play. Edith slipped Glynn a twenty-dollar bill and said that she and the kids would probably see him in a couple of weeks. 

Glynn drove home quietly after the service, gave Marve a hug, and settled back in his recliner to read the day’s newspaper. The Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the death sentence was causing an uproar among state politicians. County roads were set to receive a new covering of gravel. Planning was underway for a new, higher capacity grain silo in Washataug. The pastor could feel his eyes begin to close. 

The newspaper had fallen onto his chest and he was seconds away from sound sleep when Glynn felt a soft tug on his shirt sleeve. “Daddy, are you awake?”

Glynn opened his eyes to see Lita standing there, her light brown hair still partially pressed to her face from having just woken from her nap. Her soft blue eyes looking up at him were something he had not been able to resist from the moment she was born. He smiled. “Sure, baby girl. What do you need?”

She climbed up into her father’s lap and laid her head on his chest before asking, “What happens when we die?”

He had wondered when these questions would begin. Lita was a sharp-minded person who caught onto things quickly. Despite a misdiagnosed reading issue, she had finished fourth grade with straight A’s in all her subjects. Not much escaped her gaze but she preferred to find most answers for herself, spending a lot of time in front of the encyclopedias that were purchased before she could read. Glynn knew that how he answered her question would affect her frame of reference on matters both spiritual and biological possibly for the rest of her life. He suddenly felt very nervous and unprepared.

“Well, if we love Jesus…” he started.

“No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Lita said, cutting him off. “I know the stuff about Jesus and Heaven and all that. But what is it like to die? What happens to our brains?”

Now Glynn was truly stumped. A spiritual answer was something he might have managed to get through relatively well. A biological answer was beyond his grasp of knowledge. Fortunately for him, the pause gave Lita time to fill in her own perspective.

“We learned in school that people are made of carbon. Carbon is matter. Matter is energy. So, people are made of energy,” she said, surprising Glynn with her matter-of-fact attitude. “But energy doesn’t die, it transitions from one form to another. So, if energy doesn’t die and people are made of energy then how can people die? It doesn’t make sense.”

Glynn opened his mouth to answer but no words were coming out. He felt his brain go blank. Science had never been his best subject even when he was in school. Trying to remember any of it now was proving to be painful. He needed to answer without sounding stupid or giving her false information. 

“You know, Dad, you should probably brush your teeth more often,” Lita said as she gazed up into her father’s open mouth. “I can still see part of your salad stuck in your teeth.”

“Yes, you are correct,” he answered, happy for the change of subject. “I definitely should brush my teeth more often. Maybe you could help remind me?”

The child sat up in his lap and gazed out the front window. “If I were you, I think I would just take them out and brush them while I’m in the shower,” she said. “That’s what makes the most sense. Why can you take out your teeth and I can’t?”

“Because Daddy didn’t take good care of his teeth when he was your age,” Glynn said, feeling self-conscious and embarrassed by the dentures he’d had since he was 25. When Lita was younger, she would laugh when he would push his tongue against the roof of his mouth and cause his top teeth to push forward. That didn’t seem terribly appropriate for this moment, though.

Lita sighed. “Yeah, I guess life was really rough back in the olden days, wasn’t it?” she asked. She squirmed around so that her body was directly on top of his, looking up at the ceiling. “I’m glad you survived all those plagues.”

This piqued Glynn’s curiosity. Just how old did his daughter think he was? “What plague are you talking about?”

“You know, the Black Plague and the dust bowl and smallpox. We read about them in Social Studies,” she answered. She was fully awake now and couldn’t help but fidget, her arms stretched out toward the ceiling, her fingers intertwined and curving around to make various shapes.

“That was all before I was born,” Glynn said. “I’m not that old.”

“I know,” Lita shot back as she sat up again. “You’re not as old as Mrs. Wallace. She’s really old and could probably die any day now. You may have to do her funeral next.”

Glynn had to think quickly as to who Mrs. Wallace was and whether she was a church member. She wasn’t, as far as he could remember. “Is Mrs. Wallace sick?” he asked.

“I dunno,” Lita said. “She has these big brown spots on her hands, though, and that can’t be good. I think her skin has been out in the sun too long and she’s probably starting to mold.”

Glynn laughed at the image he got from Lita’s description of the elementary school’s receptionist/secretary. “People don’t mold, silly,” he said, “Though I do know some who are spoiled.” He playfully poked at his daughter’s ribs and she giggled as she squirmed.

“Daddy!” she exclaimed. “I’m not spoiled! Hayden’s the one that’s spoiled. Mommy shouldn’t give him so much food. He’s going to get fat, like you.” She paused for just a beat then added, “Daddy, you’re not going to die, are you?”

The moment suddenly turned sober as the conversation was once again serious. “I will one day,” Glynn said quietly. “We all will one day. That’s not something we control. I hope I live for a very long time but that’s up to God, not me.”

“Maybe God has one of those calendars with all the lines on it like Mr. Hiddleman has on his desk,” Lita expounded as she hopped down from Glynn’s lap. “One side tells him when people are supposed to be born and the other tells him when people are supposed to die. Only, you’re not going to die because I’m going to erase your name from the calendar.”

“I don’t think that’s the way it works,” Glynn said, amused at her perspective. He wondered how long it would be before her philosophy of life was too deep for him to keep up with her.

“I know,” she said as she wandered toward the window. “People can’t really die because we’re energy. We transition. I’m going to transition into a star because they live millions of years and then become black holes. Hayden’s probably going to transition into a dragon, but not today. Dragon’s have to be able to tie their own shoes. Can I see if Karrie can come out and play?”

Glynn smiled, simultaneously thankful and sad that their conversation was apparently over. Lita didn’t give him many moments like this and he cherished each one, even if answering her questions was becoming dramatically more difficult. “Sure, just be careful. It’s pretty hot outside.”

“Yeah, that’s okay,” the child said as she bounced toward the door. “We’ll just play school in the shade and make up the answers we don’t know. I’m pretty sure that’s the way it works.”

Glynn watched out the window as Lita bounded down the porch steps and took off toward the neighbor’s house. Lita would be turning ten next month. His little girl was growing up and he didn’t particularly like that part. Soon enough there would be boys and puberty to deal with. He wasn’t ready.

Marve walked in from the bedroom and saw Glynn standing at the window. “What’s so interesting?” she asked.

“Oh, just watching our little girl grow up and become smarter than me,” he said. 

Marve walked over and put her arm around her husband. “I’ve got bad news for you. She was smarter than us five minutes after she learned to read. We’re both doomed to complete ignorance by the time she’s 13.”

Glynn looked at his wife and kissed her. “At least I have you to keep me company.”

Marve hugged him a little tighter. “Yeah, about that. I’ve been thinking about maybe going back to school, working on my Masters. Hayden starts school this fall. I’ll have the time.”

Glynn returned the hug but continued gazing out the window. “Sure, make me the dumb one in the family. No one likes a smart preacher anyway.”

They laughed together, thankful for the moment yet both dreading the days to come.

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