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Chapter 2: Interstate 80 East

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Parsonage

A novel about life behind the scenes for an evangelical pastor's family: in the church, the parsonage, the community.

© 1996 G. Edwin Lint
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The 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.

Not 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.

Jim 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.

At 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.

But 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.

Carefully 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.

Jim 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.

Jessi 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.

Debra 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.

Debra 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?"

"Not really. Kevin's picking me up--" again a glance at the clock, "Kevin's picking me up in ten minutes. Can't it wait?"

Debra prayed for calm. "Yes. It can, but not too long. You know your Dad is driving down there right now."

Jessi 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."

Despite 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."

"God 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--"

"Careful, 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 has."

Jessi's 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 midget"?)

"What's he going down there for anyway," Jessi asked irritably. "I thought you guys did all that before Christmas."

"You're 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."

Jessi ignored the reference to the school. "Well, wasn't that it? Didn't you decide then that we're going to move to Mechanicsburg?"

"We 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."

"Maybe 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."

"Monday 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."

"And if he does get that two-thirds vote, it's off to Mechanicsburg we go," Jessi said not at all gaily.

"Not 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."

"Why 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?"

"He 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."

The door bell chimed two notes.

"That's 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.

The storm had passed, for the moment at least.

Debra 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?

The 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.

"Yeah,' said Ben, "but Donnie Meyers gets to drink out of his milk carton. How come I can't?"

"Because it's really gross!" said Shelly with a major emphasis on the "gross". "Use a glass like sillivized people."

Ben 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.

Debra 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 herself.

"Ben, 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."

"Aw, 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.

Ben started to say something but changed his mind and went about the business of putting his and Shelly's outer clothes away.

Debra 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!

Debra 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".

As 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.

Debra saw that Ben had finished his chores. "How would you kids like to ride over to the church with me for a few minutes?"

"Aw, Mom! I just got done putting all that stuff away. Do we hafta?"

Shelly 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.

In 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.

Debra 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.

She 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.

When 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.

The 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:

Ashtabula Community Church
James Alan Hogan, Pastor

The 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.

Debra 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.

The pastor's 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.

Again 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.

"Thank 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."

 

Phil 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.

When 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.

Jim hated 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.

An 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.

Thank 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 over again.

Debra collected the twins, turned out the church lights, got back in the Eagle, and drove slowly home to the parsonage.

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