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Chapter 2: Interstate 80 East
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novel about life behind the scenes for an evangelical pastor's family: in the
church, the parsonage, the community.
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Jeep Grand Cherokee plodded through fifteen inches of powdery snow, all four wheels
pulling steadily like a team of matched draft horses. An I-80 sign was so obscured
by the blizzard's flaked fog, Jim couldn't see if it said east or west.
that it mattered. He'd been following I-80 East since the junction with I-79,
north of Pittsburgh. When Jim left Ashtabula just after noon, the January sun
had been warming the Ohio farm country with enough intensity to whisper slyly
of Spring. Now, with the dash clock glowing 5:20, Spring seemed months away. While
Jim had been on I-79, about half way between Erie and the junction with I-80,
the wind began to howl from the northwest off the lake. That howling wind soon
began to drive billows of sandy snow pellets at blizzard intensity. At first he
had considered the storm to be of the lake-snow variety and had looked forward
to driving out of it. But the farther he traveled south along I-79 and then east
along I-80, the more fierce the storm became.
had stopped at Clarion for gas and a fast-food meal. Before he pulled out on I-80
again, he had shifted into four-wheel drive. Now The Chief was breaking trail
through ever-deepening and unblemished snow. Jim chuckled to himself at the nickname
the twins had given the Grand Cherokee. They had trouble pronouncing Grand Cherokee.
First it had been GC. Now it was The Chief.
times, Jim had a hard time telling where the snow in the air ended and the snow
on the highway began. Thinking a little music might ease the sharp tension-pain
at the base of his skull, he began rummaging in the tape bin for Phil Driscoll.
Jim played a little trumpet himself and was partial to a brassy horn. He usually
joined the Sunday night volunteer orchestra during the congregational singing
and offertory, especially if he felt well prepared for the sermon.
as the strains of "Sing Hallelujah" were beginning to swell through
the Chief's eight speakers, Jim braked swiftly but carefully to a stop. He was
off the main highway and about twenty yards up an exit ramp. Apparently he had
started to follow a row of reflector-marked stakes up the ramp instead of staying
on I-80. Jim knew twenty yards is quite a distance in fifteen inches of snow,
especially after dark. His first instinct was to turn around and drive down to
the highway, but the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation plow hadn't passed
that way since the last storm. Drifts were beginning to form on both sides of
the ramp and Jim was afraid that even The Chief might get bogged down during the
turn-around maneuver. While he was considering his predicament, the wind shifted
suddenly and began coming from the northeast instead of the northwest. This change
in wind direction provided a little better rearward visibility and Jim decided
to back down the ramp. He put on his driving gloves, flipped up the hood of his
parka, and pressed the remote lift-gate button.
Jim crawled back through the length of the vehicle to the lift gate, avoiding
some toys left behind by the twins and his own luggage. He pushed the gate up
to its full-open position and reached around to brush snow off each backup light
lens. Satisfied that he had achieved maximum visibility and illumination in the
circumstances, he began crawling back to the wheel. On his way, he released the
catch on the back of the middle seat and folded it down. After reaching the wheel,
he chuckled a little when he realized he'd left The Chief in gear with the brake
off. The Grand Cherokee hadn't moved an inch, even on the fairly steep grade of
the ramp. Jim hoped that wasn't a permanent state of affairs. He deliberately
omitted buckling his seat belt to have more freedom of movement but did turn the
heater fan on full blast and turned on the hazard flashers. He also released the
right bucket seat's recliner latch and pushed the back down as far as it would
go. With his right arm braced on the bucket's lowered back, he could turn his
body to the right and have a fairly good view of the ramp behind him, up which
he had carelessly driven.
had intended to back down in his own tracks but almost fifteen minutes of blowing
snow had begun to blur their edges and he really had to concentrate. Every five
yards or so, he crawled back to the open hatch and checked his position and direction
carefully. He didn't want to wander into a drift or slide into a ditch. As he
approached the edge of I-80, he instinctively checked to be sure nothing was coming
before backing out onto the highway. The last moving vehicle he had seen was a
balloon-tired 4X4 in the west-bound lane. That had been thirty minutes ago and
he didn't see anything now. Quickly Jim restored The Chief to forward-motion mode
and he was under way again. Although the wind continued to blow out of the northeast,
the snow had stopped entirely during the backing maneuver. He rewound the Phil
Driscoll tape, which had been playing unheeded, and got The Chief under way again.
Still a lot of miles to travel before he reached Mechanicsburg.
was just finishing her makeup when her mother appeared in the open doorway. She
glanced at the clock before making eye contact with her in the dresser mirror.
studied the reflected mother-daughter image and thought how much she looks like
me. And yet, how different. Both were about five five in their stocking feet.
Jessi had long straight strawberry blonde hair with bangs falling close to her
eyebrows. Debra's hair was closer to auburn and was cut short with lots of waves.
Both were pretty, in the girl-next-door sense, not the thin-and-flat fashion model
sense. Jessi's nose was slightly sloped and ended in what Jim jokingly called
a ski jump. Debra's nose was a little straighter and thinner.
accepted Jessi's brief glance in the mirror as permission to speak, knowing as
any experienced mother does there are times when an audience with a teenage daughter
is something to be sought cautiously and nurtured carefully. "Do you have
a minute to talk?"
really. Kevin's picking me up--" again a glance at the clock, "Kevin's
picking me up in ten minutes. Can't it wait?"
prayed for calm. "Yes. It can, but not too long. You know your Dad is driving
down there right now."
put down the eyeliner and turned to her mother, sighing. "Yes, I know. Mechanicsburg.
It sounds so-- grimy. Nobody at school has even heard of it. Some dump, probably.
And the school's probably a dump, too."
the tension, Debra had to fight a smile. "The kids down there have never
heard of Ashtabula either," she said lightly. "But you know that a parsonage
family has to be ready to go where God calls. Ashtabula, Mechanicsburg, wherever."
may be calling Dad to Mechanicsburg, and maybe you and the twins, but He sure
isn't calling me. Mom, you know how much the youth group at the church here means
to me, and we all go to high school together. I want to graduate with these kids
next June, not some bunch of greasy mechanics in Pennsylvania. Why would God want
to mess up my life now, when everything is going so--"
Jessi," Debra said softly, continuing to pray in her spirit. "God made
you and He knows all about you. He doesn't want to mess up your life and never
eyes fell and Debra could see that her daughter was fighting tears and the resultant
destruction of her carefully applied makeup. Her heart ached with love for this
beautiful child God had placed in their home seventeen years ago this July twenty-fifth.
Sensitive but feisty. As faithful in her personal devotions as she was in her
nightly regimen of situps. Equally at home in conversation with peers and adults.
(What had her Aunt Jacki called her when she was two: the "thirty-year-old
he going down there for anyway," Jessi asked irritably. "I thought you
guys did all that before Christmas."
right about our going to Mechanicsburg the weekend of December twelfth. That was
to meet with the search committee. And, your Dad and I wanted to look at the church
and the parsonage, kind of get a feel for the situation there. Then we drove around
the community a little. Even went by the high school."
ignored the reference to the school. "Well, wasn't that it? Didn't you decide
then that we're going to move to Mechanicsburg?"
didn't make a final decision, and neither did the church. At that time the search
committee was still interviewing candidates. I thought you understood all that."
I did. I guess I've been blocking it out because I don't want to think about it.
But I still don't understand what this weekend's trip is all about."
your Dad got a call from the chairman of the search committee, a man by the name
of Miles Abbott. He told your Dad he was their number one candidate and he asked
permission to present your Dad to the church board for a vote. Wednesday night,
the board voted unanimously to give your Dad a call to go to Mechanicsburg. Now
they want to have a question and answer session tomorrow afternoon for all the
church members. Then he's going to preach in both services Sunday morning and
Sunday evening. Then after the evening service there will be a congregational
vote. If two-thirds of the voting members say yes, he'll be officially called
to pastor the Wesley Evangelical Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania."
if he does get that two-thirds vote, it's off to Mechanicsburg we go," Jessi
said not at all gaily.
necessarily. Your Dad has to answer that call with a yes or a no of his own. If
he answer is yes, then it's off to Mechanicsburg. If the answer is no, we stay
right here in Ashtabula."
did he even want to consider moving in the first place, and how in the world did
they even hear about him down there in Mechanicsburg?"
wants to be in the center of God's will. He wants to spend his life and his talents
doing exactly what God wants him to do, when and where God wants him to do it.
As far as how they heard about him, a couple people from the search committee
down there visited our church here back in September and heard your Dad preach.
I guess they liked what they heard so Miles Abbott called your Dad and asked us
to go down and visit. And we did."
door bell chimed two notes.
Kevin, Mom. We're going to meet everybody at the church and then go bowling. See
you about ten." Jessi grabbed her jeans jacket, blew Debra a kiss, and hurried
down to answer the door.
storm had passed, for the moment at least.
turned out the light and walked slowly down the steps. She, too, had a storm in
her heart, but she didn't have the teenage luxury of instant venting which Jessi
enjoyed. After all, who can a pastor's wife confide in, other than her husband,
of course, when it comes to changing churches? And she had to be cautious with
Jim because he had his own set of doubts about moving to a church with a combined
Sunday morning attendance of 3,000 adults. Debra knew he was ready at the personal
and professional level. Twenty-five years in the ministry, with that rare combination
of skilled Bible student, informative teacher, and powerful preacher. Even with
his doubts about whether a move to Mechanicsburg would be in the center of God's
will, Debra knew Jim was ready. But was she?
front door banged open and the twins came charging in, flinging their knapsacks
on the hall floor as they raced out to the kitchen like Mosby's rangers on a foraging
expedition. Debra followed in their wake, picking up mittens and caps as she went.
"You kids have fun over at the Meyers'? she asked, intercepting the milk
carton on its way to Ben's mouth.
said Ben, "but Donnie Meyers gets to drink out of his milk carton. How come
it's really gross!" said Shelly with a major emphasis on the "gross".
"Use a glass like sillivized people."
loved that. "'Sillivized people'? Mom, did you hear that? Shelly says we're
all supposed to act like sillivized people." With that, he fell to the floor
in a paroxysm of exaggerated laughter, rolling from side to side and kicking his
heels on the floor.
took down the wooden yard stick from its hook beside the cupboard and whipped
it hard and flat on the bare table top. The result was a crack like a pistol shot.
Instantly Ben was on his feet, all laughter gone. Debra had to fight laughter
you're going to do four things and you're going to do them now. First, you will
apologize to your sister for making fun of her." Debra waited while he mumbled
a perfunctory "I'm sorry, Shelly". "Second, you will explain to
Shelly what the correct word should have been." Ben did that, too. "Third,
you'll gather up all your stuff, yours and Shelly's, and put it where it belongs.
Here are the caps and mittens. You do the rest." Ben's lower lip was swelling
into a full pout of self-pity but Debra was unrelenting. "And fourth, you
will get a soap pad and basin and scrub off those black marks you just made on
the linoleum with your heels."
Mom! That's not fair. I didn't make ALL these black marks," and he pointed
with his toe to show the marks which were not his responsibility." Debra
paused in the act of hanging up the yard stick, freezing it in mid-air on the
way to its hook.
started to say something but changed his mind and went about the business of putting
his and Shelly's outer clothes away.
had trouble remembering what caused the ruckus in the first place. Oh, yes. Ben
drinking out of the milk carton. She shook her head. Kids!
had written the teacher a note with permission for the twins to go home on the
bus with the Meyers kids so they could play a couple hours, with Mrs. Meyers bringing
them home in time for dinner. The Meyers kids were twins, too, a boy and a girl.
Both sets of twins were in the first grade together at Ashtabula Elementary School
and they were close friends. Although the Meyers family attended Synagogue, that
hadn't kept the kids apart. In fact, Ben was always begging to go with Donnie
and Bonnie Meyers to, as he called it, "Jewish church".
Debra put a small turkey breast in the oven, she watched lovingly as Ben worked
on the black marks and Shelly worked at the table with her crayons. The twins
were dark where she and Jessi were fair, taking after Jim. Their heads were covered
with black curls just like Jim's. All three had dark brown eyes and long lashes.
And all three had dimples. Debra and Jessi often said they wished they could swipe
the dimples from Jim and Ben. Only girls needed dimples.
saw that Ben had finished his chores. "How would you kids like to ride over
to the church with me for a few minutes?"
Mom! I just got done putting all that stuff away. Do we hafta?"
had a different problem. "Will the car be warm?" She hated to ride in
a car in the winter time which hadn't been warmed up first.
answer to Ben's question, she said, "Yes, you hafta." In answer to Shelly's
question, she said, "I'm going out to warm up the Eagle right now. When I
toot, you come out. "Oh, and kids, you can both sit in the front with me."
The twins liked being belted together into the 89 Eagle's right front bucket seat,
even though Shelly squealed when the automatic shoulder harness wrapped around
her when the door closed.
pulled on her own jacket and walked out through the breezeway to the garage. She
started the Eagle and while it warmed up, she walked down the driveway and then
turned and looked back at the parsonage.
loved this old house. Twenty-five years ago, when they had moved to Ashtabula
fresh out of Calvary Theological Seminary in Columbus, this had been the only
house the real estate agent had shown them. At the time, the Ashtabula Community
Church was less than a year old and meeting in a grange hall. Debra smiled nostalgically
as she remembered the bare wooden floors, the out-of-tune rinky-tink piano with
the broken ivories, the folding wooden chairs, the permanent smell of kerosene,
and of course the drafty yet smelly outhouses. That old building had yielded to
the law of eminent domain when Interstate 90 came through. But no power on earth
could cancel the spiritual victories which had been claimed there.
the real estate agent first showed them this old farm house which was thought
to be about a hundred years old back then, it was love at first sight for Debra.
A large church in Cincinnati was helping to plant the new church in Ashtabula
and had agreed to subsidize the new pastor's salary. However, this subsidy did
not include rental costs for a parsonage. So Debra decided to use an inheritance
from her grandmother which was in the form of a $10,000 CD. It covered the down
payment and then some. So the brand new pastor and his wife began life as the
proud owners of a 100-year-old parsonage. When the church was on its feet financially
and able to pay a living salary, they began to fix it up with carpeting throughout,
modern kitchen and baths, and a study for Jim. Now the house, freshly painted
and comfortably renovated, was all theirs, free and clear. Although they had an
instant buyer with the Church Board willing to buy it for a new pastor, it would
be heart-rending to leave it.
Eagle was warmed up and Debra tooted for the twins, who came running out with
parkas unzipped. They drove the two miles to the church. She parked at the front
walk and then paused to look at the bulletin board. It was headed:
James Alan Hogan, Pastor
twins were anxious to get inside and run down to their Sunday school classroom
so they could write on the chalk board. Debra wanted to linger a while outside
so she gave Ben the key.
"Leave it in the lock, Ben," she instructed. The bulletin board was the only thing left from the original grange hall-turned-church. The two metal pipes had been replaced by a brick escarpment but the bulletin board was the same, including the black-on-white metal letters which hung in slots behind the glass door. She remembered the Mechanicsburg church had a modern sign made of translucent plastic with internal illumination. Wouldn't be the same.
entered the church and stuck her head in the first-grade Sunday school room. Both
children were filling the board with games of tic-tac-toe and hangman. Then she
walked back to the vestibule and stood in the doorway of the sanctuary. She loved
to absorb that special feeling known only in empty churches, that unique silence
which spoke soundlessly of God's mighty power on earth through His Holy Spirit.
She stepped to the head usher's station and flipped two switches. Now the vestibule
lights were off and the only illumination was the backlit stained glass window
above and behind the choir loft: Warner Sallman's "Christ in the Garden".
Slowly she walked down the center aisle, just as she had envisioned Jessi might
do some time in the future. The sanctuary, which had been dedicated twenty years
ago, could seat 500 comfortably. Each pew she passed triggered memories of some
segment of the congregation. Many victories, a few defeats, all the people precious.
wife sank to her knees at the altar and buried her face in her arms, shoulders
shaking in silent sobs. After a long while she raised her tear-wet face and looked
at the famous artist's depiction of her Savior praying in the Garden of Gethsemane
the night before He was executed, His face raised to His Heavenly Father. Doctor
Luke said He had sweat blood that night, not because He was afraid of the physical
pain He was facing, not because He was afraid to die, but because He had an innate
dread of bearing the guilt of the believers' sins on the cross at nine o'clock
the next morning.
Debra buried her head in her arms and prayed specifically for Jim. Heavenly Father,
please help Jim this weekend. Help him say the right things in the right way tomorrow
afternoon at the meeting. Fill him with the power of the Holy Spirit Sunday in
the services. And when the people vote, may your will be done. And if Jim is still
on the road right now, cause your Holy Angels to surround The Chief and keep them
both safe. I claim your promise that Holy Angels will watch over us as we travel,
so we don't stub our toes. Protect him from his own mistakes and from the mistakes
of others on the highway with him. And keep The Chief mechanically sound.
you, Father, for your great Plan of Salvation which took your Son, Jesus Christ,
to the cross so He could pay the ultimate, once-and-for-all sin sacrifice for
our sins. And thank you for the Holy Spirit who is in the world today to guide
us, and direct us, and protect us from unseen evil. May the Holy Spirit begin
to work in the hearts and minds of each of those three thousand people who will
hear Jim preach this Sunday. Prepare them for what Jim will say to them in his
sermons. In the name of Jesus Christ I pray. Amen."
Driscoll cycled and again Jim enjoyed "Sing Hallelujah", singing along
in his imitation of Phil's Joe Cocker-style voice which always made the twins
laugh and Jessi wince. The wind was gone, the snow had stopped, and the cruise
control was set at forty as The Chief hummed along on packed snow. Several miles
back as Jim had crossed the Centre County line, he was surprised by two plowed
lanes. Later he had passed a brace of Walter Snowfighters dressing the berm. "Thank
you, Jesus" he said not at all casually. Then just as he leaned down to shift
The Chief back into two-wheel drive, a heavy sound stepped all over Phil and harsh
illumination filled every cubic inch of the wagon's interior. The sound was a
little like E. Power Biggs pressing a ten-note chord on his concert pipe organ
with all the stops open. Jim resisted a strong impulse to hit the brakes, even
though he was totally confused and more than slightly frightened. He did throttle
back, though, and the horn blasted again, this time accompanied by the staccato
roar of the twin straight pipes of a powerful V-8 engine. A third horn blast caused
Jim to glance left and there sat a Dodge Ram 4X4 pickup with tires taller than
The Chief's hood. The truck's body was sitting on a twenty-inch lift kit. Looking
up, he understood the horn blasts and the intense light. The Ram's roof was adorned
with air horns and a row of KC floodlights.
Jim looked left again, the Ram's passenger window was down and a red-and-black
plaid arm was scribing a circular invitation to drag. Jim slowed more and still
the arm circled "let's drag". Again Jim slowed until he could read the
white letters on the balloon tires beside him. And then the Ram began crowding
right, inch by inch. Jim kept yielding right until The Chief's right tires were
clipping the base of the five-foot wall of snow left behind by the Walter Snowfighters.
to come to a complete stop in this desolate area, already knowing the type of
people with whom he was dealing. Suddenly he heard the sound no driver ever wants
to hear behind him. Again he heard it, and then a third time. All around him,
the snow was turning pink as a red light flashed in his mirror. This time the
siren whoops were music in Jim's ears.
amplified voice drawled "Yield, Ram, and pull over." The Ram's driver
responded by flooring the accelerator and flipping on the roof-mounted KCs. With
a thunderous roar of exhaust the Ram tore out, its huge tires churning up billows
of fine snow. The police car fishtailed wildly but stayed right on the Ram's tail.
The last Jim saw of either of them was a winking red light on the distant horizon.
you, Father, for your Holy Angels--and thank you for the Pennsylvania State Police,
Jim prayed aloud. Then he pressed RWD to hear "Sing Hallelujah" all
collected the twins, turned out the church lights, got back in the Eagle, and
drove slowly home to the parsonage.
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