It’s a Wonderful Life

…thinking you are bullet-proof.
You’re so hyped up and pumped so much,
you can’t wait to rush in and attack.
—Urban Dictionary

I did a bad thing. I wasn’t on drugs, but I was on Biblical Greek. Let me teach it anywhere at anytime for any amount, and I am there! This has proven over the years to be a realistic appraisal of my stupidity. Teaching Greek isn’t bad, but running here and there to do it isn’t smart. The worse part was that in 1971, I didn’t think to invite my spouse into my dreams. When I thought she had no interest in joining me, I pretended she had only to be told about my vision. I was prepared to go alone.

And I did; I left for Western Pennsylvania Bible Institute (WPBI) in Butler, PA, informing her that I would be back to get her and little Timmy. Of course, I would return. Of course, I had no intention of leaving them in New Jersey, but this would be an exercise in dragging rather than in persuading, and the thought of making it a joint adventure, regrettably, never crossed my mind.

As far as your mother goes, she didn’t seem as gung-ho as I. To be gung-ho, according to one contributor to Urban Dictionary, means “to be so psyched out for war… thinking you are bullet-proof. You’re so hyped up and pumped so much, you can’t wait to rush in and attack…”

That about sums it up. I was off to Western PA without so much as a goodbye kiss. It was early in the morning when I drove away, leaving your mother sleeping. She probably wasn’t.

Pennsylvania is basically a tale of two towns, Lyndora and Butler, even though we spent the first two weeks in Zelienople. There are some fond memories for me here and also some things hard to talk about. But all in all, I am totally reconciled with everything that happened, even though it might have been wiser on reflection not to have gone to Western PA when and how we did. Yet I don’t know this for sure.

Now, maybe I need to say something here that you should recall every time I call myself stupid. This is a confession, not one more occasion to beat myself up. We all have regrets over stupid things we’ve done, and some of those decisions have lasting effects, but this should never mean that life has descended into some lower level of reality from which we cannot crawl or climb out. I crawled out.

Perhaps an example of how stupid I was capable of being might help to evaluate this reflective moment. We were riding in our new car, a 1972 Ford Maverick, which was great on gas. I decided to see how far I could go on one tank. This was a little test meant to quench my curiosity only. No one needed to know. No one wanted to know, except me. We were driving on Interstate 79, heading south toward Butler, when I remembered to look at the gas gauge and noticed we had less than an eighth of a tank of gasoline left and probably about fifty miles till home. I don’t know. I didn’t treat this as a scientific study. What idiot does? I only know that I became anxious when the meter read no gas left and we still were not home. It was late at night. Gas stations were closed.

We lived on West Street in Butler, on a slight incline which was valleyed in front of the house we lived in. I was more relaxed when we reached the town, and I actually forgot all about the test as we neared home. The car began to stall, and I wondered why. I thought I had engine trouble. It was a Ford after all. (It did, in fact, turn out to be a lemon. A mechanic told me that he had discovered a 1969 Mercury part in our brand new Maverick. If so, this is unconscionable.)

The engine conked out on the hill above our home, and I put it in neutral and coasted to a stop in front of the house. It was then I remembered. We were out of gas.

I was out of gas in more ways then one. My career was in trouble because the school didn’t want me full time. My health was in trouble. My blood pressure was up, and I needed eventually to go on part-time disability and a diet. My marriage was strained and probably would have been in trouble as well had there been recourse for Mom or I, because even though we loved each other, we felt alone. We were each other’s only friend, it seemed, and that friendship wasn’t working. We weren’t talking. Yelling a little, but not talking.

And did I mention: There was little to no money. We went to Butler with $1,700 less moving expenses. This was my last pay from working on the Chalfonte in Cape May. I spent it before paying tax on it. I owed about 200 federal tax dollars.

Our first place of residence in Butler was on Freeport Road. When the money ran out, our rent of about 200 some dollars a month ran out. If one does the math, it isn’t immediately obvious where the money had gone. We had been in the area about seven months, August through February, and most of it probably went into moving and first- and last-month’s rent plus security deposit and regular living expenses. Our old Chevy from West Cape May days had no heater. It turned out, the rheostat in the system was not functioning, but we couldn’t afford to fix it.

We lived there through February, 1972, when we had to move, with no place to go. I had taken a job working for a professional painter out of Sarver, but it wasn’t steady work. In fact, during the winter months, we had only a couple small inside paint jobs. That was when we packed up our things and went to see Grandma King in Buffalo for a few weeks.

About three weeks later I brought mom and Tim back into Butler. I left Buffalo simply because I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t think that was where we were supposed to be living. I came to Butler to teach Greek, so I was determined to try again. We rolled into town in a car packed with blankets, towels, clothes, and some kitchen stuff, everything we owned. When we came down route 422, I had a terrible headache, no clue where to live, and no money. I drove through Butler and headed south on Route 8, when we saw a little rather run-down looking motel, a dozen or so apartments in a row, plain-looking on the outside, and on the inside one-room with a double bed, a TV set with rabbit ears that didn’t work well, a shower, and a little kitchen area with a small stove and refrigerator.

The manager of the motel would let us go week to week for the rent. We paid 25 dollars at the end of each week. I made a phone call to Sarver, my old boss and he, taking sympathy, lined up a couple inside paint jobs that paid the rent week after week until an apartment in Lyndora opened up for us. In natural terms, the only good thing was that spring was just around the corner.

I was too wrapped up in my own challenges to realize that I had left my young wife of 3 years and my two-year-old with nothing to do day after day, except maybe worry about what brilliant idea I would dream up next. No wonder at all that she didn’t have that much to say to me. About all I had were mini-messages on faith and trust, and they might not have been working for me, but trust was what I was learning. I wasn’t sure why we were in this situation. Did God have any real thing to do with it? Was this totally my own doing or undoing?

Regardless, our ship didn’t sink. We took in some water, but I was too busy bailing to think of much else. Every phone call from McElheny, my boss, was one more phone call that gave us one more week’s rent and groceries. Meanwhile, I was in communication with the school, and they promised us soon that a rent-free two rooms would open up at the school itself in Lyndora.

So we moved to Lyndora. We took two back rooms at the school, connected directly to two classrooms. Mom had to keep Tim quiet to avoid disturbing the students. Fun life! Going from kitchen to bedroom reading books, playing with toys, whatever, while waiting for classes to end so they could get out of this human cage.

When classes ended for the day, we could use the shower in the basement. The water source came from a pipe protruding five-plus feet off the ground from the wall. There was plenty of shivering while I, dripping wet, ran upstairs to get dressed.

One might say that the three weeks at the motel was in preparation for this step up. One might say so, if one wants to get slapped. There was no way to clean up the mess, unless it were to become clear to both of us that God was directing us, not just bailing us out of our self-made prison.

Honesty is good. Fake humility or fake praise, even toward God, benefits no one. I didn’t want to tidy up what was turning into a real mess, but I also fault no one. The benefit of reflecting on the hard times is two-fold. Learn from it to avoid the stupid parts in the future, and learn to empathize with those who made the journey with you and may not have found it to be so wonderful. As I relate this, I am beginning not to like me. But my only mistake was jumping out of the frying pan. Who knew?

There had to be some good times, right? Yes, of course. We made some life-long friendships with the Thompsons and the Davises. Denny and Amy Thompson and Gary and Jan Davis were students, and they had their own problems – or “faith walk” as we called it. We learned to join them for a time to reflect on reality, to pray together, and just to laugh over a game of Trouble. Who chose that one, I wonder.

The best thing was learning to trust God. When someone now enters my life who is fearful that things are not going to work out favorably, they get no sympathy from me. Empathy, yes, because Mom and I were there. Sympathy, no, because it is impossible for me to think that God might ignore the plight of someone who is trusting in Him to do something. I kept thinking of Isaiah 43. Sorry for the mini-sermon, but when you’ve run the rapids, still water is a splash.

We lived in Lyndora only while we were waiting on a double-wide mobile home, which was going to be set up on Purvis Road in Butler. The mortgage would be a couple hundred dollars a month, and I just needed a thousand dollars up-front to pour the foundation pillars and dig a well and a leach bed for the septic system.

I didn’t have a thousand dollars, so I asked Grandma King for it. She borrowed it for me. I never paid her back. This is why I believe in paying some things forward when the opportunity to repay no longer is there.

Things were looking up. We would be living in a brand new home. It smelled new. When the carpet guys were installing the living room wall-to-wall carpet, you, Tim, our three year old, walked up to me holding a razor blade which the carpet guy had used to cut the carpet in place. It seems a tiny thing now, perhaps, but you were not injured by something that in your then-little hand could have sliced you deeply. God watches?

To help with the mortgage, we took in a male boarder, a student from the school. So now, I was working as a painter, and I had about $70 a month coming in as a teacher at the School, which now moved to its new location on the other end of Purvis Road. We also had a boarder. Things were looking up.

Did I mention that I could be stupid?

I discovered on my body what was later diagnosed as a small, harmless mole. It still lives with me. But I made a doctor’s appointment and failed to inform Mr. McElheny. The following day, I went into work, feeling better about the mole, only to be told that I had forfeited my job when I failed to call in sick. There would be no second chance. Now I was out of work, and that would make a huge difference in our income. We no longer could afford the mortgage. It was that straightforward. We could not live there.

To say that money was tight understated the fact. We were getting $91 worth of food stamps from a sweet, elderly caseworker who seemed to instinctively realize our situation, but when she was replaced with a younger woman, we were charged $41 for the $91 worth of stamps. We did not have $41, so that well went dry.

And the male boarder left.

The septic system wasn’t working either, since the rain run-off was finding its way through a broken field tile into our leach system.

Tim, you got your hand caught in the brand new screen door, because one of the men from the church didn’t see you there when he closed the door on your hand. The emergency room visit was $29, which we could not pay for months, and the hospital let us know with regularity that we still owed it.

I knew we may have to move. What else is new?

But first, I tried to get another job. So I filled out an application for employment as a custodian with the Butler Area School District, submitted it, and forgot about it. It sounds like true faith, submit and forget, but that is not how it worked. The school district had no positions available but would get back to me if one opened up.

Meanwhile, I applied with some outfit to sell Rainbow vacuum cleaners. Ever hear of the Rainbow vacuum cleaner? Me neither, and it didn’t even symbolize any divine promise, it was simply a desperate attempt to stay afloat. A Methodist minister in Cold Spring, NJ (near Cape May) once said that every minister should first be a salesman, since he is selling the gospel message.

Whatever. I guess I am not good at evangelism, because night after night, I would have to come home and report to your mom what kind of money I hadn’t earned. The big problem was that along with the vacuum cleaner, we had incentive gifts that we could give away to entice the customer to purchase the cleaner. The first gift was pure incentive. The second gift replaced our commission, and commission was all we worked for.

Yes, I did give away my commission, and yes, stupid, stupid, stupid, but I wanted to get the hang of selling the thing.

We surely were going to have to move.

From time to time, money would show up in the mailbox. Sometimes, it was from Grandma and Grandpa Miller. Sometimes, it was from an unknown source. But it put food on the table.

We bought a bag of cornmeal which was our canary in the mine. When it was gone, we would be, too. But we never were down to the cornmeal.

This entangled mesh I was finding impossible to untie. It reminded me of my first day in kindergarten. The teacher called for all of us to join her on the main carpet in the center of the main room, after we had put on our sneakers. New sneakers still have a memorable aroma to me. But I got a knot in my one sneaker I could not get out. For a four-year-old who now thinks he has done something unpardonable and will never get to see his mother again, this was a most traumatic moment. And here I was again with a knotted sneaker I could not untie.

I thought the school board at the Bible school was on my case over the unpaid utility bills, which they were aware of by opening our mail. I thought they considered me irresponsible, because that is basically what their messenger, Brother Bailey, for whom I continue to hold the greatest respect, related.

Brother Bailey had invited us to come to Western Pennsylvania and teach, and now he was dying of a recurrence of multiple-myeloma. He was a dear friend and neighbor. He was the perfect ambassador, since he could relate the board’s interests, and they knew neither I nor Mom would jump at him. Brother Bailey sat with us at our little but new, round, dining room table that sat four, while he went down the list of bills unpaid and more than one month in arrears. The board saw me as behaving irresponsibly. Their biggest concern might have been the mortgage, which now I could not afford.

It was also during this time that we got a visit from the IRS. I looked out the window as a bright, red VW Bug pulled up at the end of our driveway. A middle-aged gentleman in a smart business suit started up the walk, when I called to Mom to ask her if she knew anyone who owned a Doodlebug. She didn’t.

Answering the door, I was introduced to an IRS agent. They wanted their $200 from the Chalfonte, and they finally caught up with me after one year. Their agent sat at our little dining room table and worked the figures, what little there was of them, and then he closed his briefcase and headed for the door admitting to us that we clearly did not have the money now. I asked him how I could get in contact with him when I did have the money, and he turned about and looking over his glasses said, “We’ll know. We’ll know!”

It’s a wonderful life! I would not know that a movie by that title was out there—let alone a classic—until years later when I would weep through my first viewing of it in Burgettstown.

Oh to be at Shell Beach!

I was also upset about the septic system. As I mentioned, the leach beds were filling with drain-off. Inquiring, I was told I had to dig around the tank and re-route the field tile, replacing the broken one in the process. That tank was buried six feet down and was three feet high in hard clay. The earth around it could not be shoveled, and I was told that if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t use my toilet, nor could I run water in the sinks or tub.

Me? I thought. Me?! No way! Get the backhoe in here to do it, since that was how they dug the hole in the first place. Besides, that clay is literally as hard as cement. It cannot be dug any other way.

The backhoe idea was a bad one, since there was no money, and they cost money. If I refused to dig around the septic tank, I would in a metaphorical sense be digging a grave for my career at the Bible school. So in any case, I would be digging something. I got a pick-ax from whom I don’t remember, and I began to chop away at the clay. At the rate I was going, we would be looking at weeks of chipping away at this rock-like stuff, and with each passing day, I kept thinking how utterly impossible and how totally unfair this whole thing was.

No one came to help me. Do you ever have a problem that is all yours, and for whatever reason other people who know about it find it the better part of wisdom for them to keep their distance? “Clayitis” must have been highly contagious, or else the very idea of digging around a septic tank was repulsive, or maybe there was something about me and some lesson I needed to learn on my own.

I hadn’t mentioned that on the other end of this septic tank fiasco was a well, which was dug into what was called red water. Red water is perfectly safe to drink, but it gives some people diarrhea. Mom did not get diarrhea. Timmy did not get diarrhea. Guess who got diarrhea but had no clue for days as to the why.

Clink, clink. My pickax hit something harder than the clay. A field-tile. I had arrived at the level where the tiles were. I had done it. I felt as if I had just won the Super Bowl, and I was the only player playing for my team against unspeakable odds. What an achievement! I came to believe that if I could fix this, I could probably do anything, if my resolve was there. It was that big of a deal for me.

And then, guess what. The diarrhea went away. I was getting used to the water.

And then, guess what. The Butler Area School District called with a job, part-time custodial work, but I took it! It eventually led to full-time and a regular pay check.

By now the weather was turning colder as autumn approached. I can remember making the trip to work… “To work”—Did you hear that? To work. I drove down 422 to my first custodial assignment, listening to the news on the radio, and things were looking up.

One early evening on my way to work going about 50 miles an hour, I noticed as I neared the exit I would take that my brakes weren’t braking. This problem was a light rain on an otherwise sunny afternoon. Another time and another place, and I would be bemoaning my misfortune, but not that day. I was on my way to work! I used the emergency break to get the car to a local gas station, where the attendant found a stone that had lodged in the brake line, severing it and causing the break fluid to escape. He fixed it while I cleaned a school… and studied a little Hebrew.

This was a very good time as I viewed time of late.

The holidays were coming, and we were beginning to catch up with the bills.

It was October, 1972. What’s so special about October, 1972? Do the math. October plus nine months equals July, 1973, my son Jim’s birthday. I can remember Mom and I thinking a playmate for little Timmy would be a good idea. It was not as if we had a budget meeting over it or discussed it at length with secret ballot. We didn’t need to. Our discussions were sometime so brief as to be almost incidental, so spontaneous as to betray a peaceful excitement about the possibility of another little one under foot.

I don’t mean to make you cringe but all Mom and I had to do was toss the protection. What the heck? We want another kid.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted, girl or boy. A girl might be nice since we had a boy, but a boy would make a more natural playmate, at least in my mind, for Timmy. Besides, having sons makes a man feel virile, or something. “My two sons.” Sounds good. It has a certain ring to it.

Mom was carrying James, the bills were getting paid, I was working, and yes, we were going to move anyway, since the mortgage was still a little steep and the school would take the mobile home off our hands. We were moving to West Street. Things were not perfect by any means. West Street was for us half a house. The landlord’s mother lived upstairs in what had been built as a single-family dwelling. The landlord built her a kitchenette and must have turned one of the bedrooms into a living room.

Meanwhile, downstairs, we turned the living room into our bedroom, the back foyer into Tim’s bedroom, and the front foyer into a nursery for James, whom we nicknamed Jamie. By now a full-time custodial position had opened up, and I was gone all night from 11 PM to 7 AM I came home to sleep, while Timmy walked to and from kindergarten, and Mommy had little Jamie to care for.

Because the bills were being paid and my financial worries were disappearing, we even had medical insurance to pay for James’s birth. I was feeling pretty great, but your Mom was not. One day, it seemed out of nowhere, she said, “I want to move.” That’s not a quote, because I can’t remember her exact words and could not at the time appreciate her exact feelings. But she wanted to move. I didn’t take it that she wanted to leave Butler, let alone Pennsylvania, but just West Street.

I won’t analyze Mom except to say that the agony of the past year still lingered and yes, living in half a house has its drawbacks, to be sure. In effect, we had no bedrooms. That’s how it felt, and that’s how it looked. Whenever anyone visited, we had to invite them into a room with a bed, not a view. Guys might not mind this kind of thing, but women do mind it.

Our relationship was not perfect yet, either. I once brought a small battery-powered, AM radio to the bathtub with me to hear a complete Pirates baseball game. We had Roberto Clemente, you recall. That has to count for something. The truth is, an entire game. Things were not well between us.

Maybe somehow Mom sensed that a move into a real house, which was now affordable, with a backyard and cows for our two sons to look at, would be a healing balm on our relationship, or perhaps Mom just wanted to see cows. The cows grazed beyond the fence, behind our little house on McCandless Drive.

We moved to McCandless Drive, into a little farmhouse, in September, as I recall, 1975. We were only there three months before moving to Canonsburg, which is another chapter in my hunt for a career.

I do have memories of the place, the country road where the school bus stopped to pick up Tim for first grade and drop him off afterward; our first ringer-washer, which we had to use, because we were on a well and not city water; the cows; having a lawn to mow, even if I complained all the while I did it; and the night mom took an unannounced walk alone down that dark country road and disappeared into the night, while I had a diaper to change.

Doctor Garcia, my primary care physician, recommended part-time work when I became lightheaded one night and was unable to finish my shift. I loved my job. I had gone on a diet and was down to 165 pounds, but something wasn’t right with my blood pressure, which was through the roof. I asked the Bible school one more time to hire me full-time so I would not have to do custodial work, but they could not, maybe because of what the board must have thought of me, maybe because of finances, maybe for another reason. I said that I would have to leave Butler.

“Do whatever you have to do,” came the reply.

It was then that Pastor VanRiper, whom we affectionately called PVR, approached me with the offer of full-time ministry in Washington, PA, as his assistant pastor.

I accepted, of course. Later, I heard rumor that PVR stole me from the school. Go figure. We were nonetheless on our way to work in Washington—which was affectionately called “Little Washington”—and to live in the friendly town (and it was very friendly) of Canonsburg, where Perry Como was born. Canonsburg might have been the most polite and friendliest town on the planet, and we were going to call it home.

The Butler Eagle, on Wednesday November 19, 1975, related, “The part-time custodian has resigned to accept a full-time teaching position beginning Nov. 24 at Lighthouse Faith Bible School in Washington.”