Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Factory hands at Sterling Furniture on NW Nicolai at 29th Street,
Portland, Oregon, circa 1980 (I am fourth from left, sitting on lumber)
Thinking about my first spiritual father today. He wasn’t an Orthodox Christian, nor was I at the time. I was a recently ‘born again’ visitor at the Episcopal Church. I hadn’t even joined that church yet when I first met him, the man whom I modeled my young life on. But I knew he was a Christian man, tried and true, and as I got to know him, I wanted to be like him too. I’ve written a little bit about him here and there, and sad to say, I’ve forgotten most of the incidents in our life together, working side by side in an old-fashioned traditional furniture factory, but I can see him clearly in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if he were standing before me. It’s good I have a photographic memory, because he never allowed himself to be photographed, but he looked a lot like Sam Massabini in the film Chariots of Fire.

Sam Massabini, in the film
Chariots of Fire
Short (about 5’6” tall or so) and of stocky build, and strong, he wore slate-colored, long sleeved work shirts every day, and never unbuttoned his collar, even in the hottest weather. When it was cold, he wore a hand-knitted, lime-green vest over the shirt. Wood chips and curls got caught in it. His head was always covered by a workman’s cap with a front brim. He never took it off, except when he snatched it off his head in a burst of emotion, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it, while telling me about something foolish that he saw or heard. Never a malicious word passed his lips, nor judgmental, but he could see through people like he had x-ray eyes, and he’d sometimes warn me to keep clear of this or that one. Always a dad, and a mentor, without knowing it, that's what he was.

That’s me, age 29, at the band saw. (I still have that cap!)
I’d never met a grown man who could be as candid and matter-of-fact as he was. You could, I could, ask him practically anything, and I often did. Whenever he told you his answer, you were always certain that it was the gospel truth. The man simply didn’t lie, but to protect someone, he often covered their offenses, to keep them out of trouble. He didn’t just ‘not talk.’ He also made reparation for them, fixed up whatever it was they ruined, and they never even knew. Of course, as the plant foreman he never put them on that job again, but tried to match their work to their skills and attention span.

1930's rural camp revival
Growing up during the Great Depression on a farmstead in the borderlands of North Dakota and Minnesota, he told me a lot of stories of miracles that happened at the Pentecostal tent revivals. He told me stories of ‘great escapes,’ like the time one of his eleven brothers evaded a seductress at a barn dance. The girl had a crush on him, and maybe more than a crush. She let him know her folks were away and that she’d like to have him stay over at her place for the night. He obliged her, but had something else up his sleeve.

When the young couple arrived at the cabin, he sat down on the edge of the bed in the corner of the room and motioned her to come hither. Gladly she ran, thinking to have her way with him, and threw herself across his lap. What a surprise! He spanked her seriously once or twice and then threw her off and stood up, ‘Let that be a lesson to you and don’t try it with me again, or I’ll tell your pa!’ A true story that sounds like it came right from the pen of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Tug boat on Lake Superior, 1940's
The second world war came, and my mentor, who was working on a tug boat on Lake Superior by then, was inducted into the army. It was being stationed in the Pacific Northwest that brought him back here after the war. He had fallen in love with a Portland lass, and they were married. She couldn’t have found a better man. Reared in a Holiness environment, he had never acquired the common habits of Great Plains farmers, smoking and chew, or strong drink. ‘I never drank alcohol, except when I had to, during the war, when we received communion from the Episcopalian chaplain.’ He also made it no secret that he had entered into marriage as a virgin, though he didn’t put it that way. A virgin, to him, was a woman, the woman, that is, Mother Mary. As for him, ‘I never knew any woman but my wife.’ That impressed me.

Another photo of me and some of my buddies at the furniture factory.
Singing as he worked—he worked as a sawyer even though he was the plant foreman, and we worked at saws opposite each other, back to back—he sang Christian hymns in Norwegian with great gusto, sometimes stopping to turn around and translate them for me. He also sang hymns in English while ripping wood. One of his favorites—and mine—was ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’ He had a winning sense of humor too. I still remember how often he’d sing ‘Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?’ and then, turning around with a twinkle in his eye, he’d look at me and respond, ‘Are you kidding?’ and then resume the hymn, melodiously.

Swearing was also something that never mounted farther than his throat, even if anger (or indignation) sometimes did. From him I also learned how not to swear. The closest he came to swearing was his use of the phrase ‘what in the Sam Hill…’ which is an old country Christian way to avoid saying, ‘What the he**…’ Perhaps because the spirit of my mentor is so dear to me, I have used the expression ever since, even though more than thirty-some years have gone by.

Philippa and Martina, in the film Babettes gæstebud
Why am I remembering my mentor? Do I miss him? Well, I never miss anyone very much anymore, especially those who have gone to be with Lord. Why not? Don't I care about them? Of course I do. But as I draw closer to the end of my own life I sense them, my departed grandparents and parents, godparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and yes, beloved friends, all drawing nearer to me. Sometimes I can almost see them. In the Danish film Babettes gæstebud, Philippa says, ‘The stars have moved closer,’ and her sister Martina replies, ‘Perhaps they move closer every night.’

Yes, perhaps they do.

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