A Short Story: End of the Line (Part 2 of 2)

(Part 1)

.  .  .

Time stopped.

Tom pressed on the gate that divided them, but it would not budge.  “Mary!  Mary!  Why didn’t you tell me?  I can’t ride this.  You have to let me go!” Tom pleaded with the guards.

“Sir, you know our policy.  We can’t let you through.  You have no choice but to go down the slide,” said the park manager.  Mary raised her hand and motioned for Tom to go.  Then she held her stomach and walked away with her eyes toward the sky.  Tom watched her disappear into the crowd, from behind bars.  “Please, sir, I need you to move forward.”

Twenty minutes of steady upward flow left Tom alone with his thoughts, and that much closer to the top of the slide.  At first, he tried looking for Mary through the barricades.  All of his cares were on her, and more specifically, her news.  His misconceptions about her refusal to join him had washed away in a moment of truth, leaving behind only anxiety and endless questions.  But with each step up, each step nearer the mouth of Free Fall, Tom’s concerns drifted toward himself.  So by the time he had spent twenty minutes on the other side of the Point of No Return, Tom had all but forgotten about the unborn.

A bald man with a muscular build stood ahead of Tom.  The back of his head was red, and beads of sweat took turns trying to cool his scorched skin.  Tom stared, and probably knew this man’s head better than anyone else in the world.  It was something for his eyes while he waded in his emotions.

Behind Tom, a young woman whistled the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine.

“Maybe you shouldn’t whistle that song,” Tom said.

“Excuse me?’ She replied.

“Don’t you know what happens to Clementine?” He asked.

“Who cares?  Geez, if it’s bothering you, I’ll stop,” she said, with the slightest hint of sarcasm.   “It’s just a tune to a song no one knows, anyway.”

“I’m sorry if I upset you.  Please, keep whistling,” Tom said.  The young woman shook her head.

“You kind of spoiled the mood.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  We’re almost there.”  She pointed past the bald man’s head and to the final stretch of the climb.

The summit of Free Fall can only be accessed by a gondola lift.  Three passengers at a time are transported the remaining distance.  Hovering hundreds of feet in the air, they are provided with a spectacular view of the entire park.  When Tom stepped into the gondola, the heavy stench of rotten eggs assaulted him.   The odor was so terrible that it nearly prevented him from imagining the cables snapping and the box dropping forever.  He wondered if the water slide would smell the same.

The young woman clung to the metal bar lining the inside while the bald man knocked on the windows.

“This is it!” yelled the bald man.

“It’s almost over,” said the woman.

Tom said nothing, but thought of Mary somewhere distant.

Finally, and with a screech, the door opened.  Tom’s nostrils burned.

The bald man burst out of the gondola and jumped head first into the black abyss that was Free Fall.  For only a moment, the others heard his deep voice until it faded into nothing.

“That’s ill advised.”  Tom hadn’t noticed the old man, or his southern twang, until he spoke.  He wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows.  A half-smoked cigar rested on his gums, and he twirled it with slender, gray fingers.  His silver hair fell to his shoulders and waved in the breeze.  He looked out through sunglasses that were darker than death at night, and motioned for the young woman.

“The time for chosin’ is over..."  Illustration by Nathan King

“The time for chosin’ is over…”
Illustration by Nathan King

“I’m having second thoughts!” She yelled.  The old man blew smoke out of his nostrils and smiled from ear to ear.

“The time for chosin’ is over, little lady.   Now you lay down there and that’ll be that,” said the old man.

“What if I don’t want to?” She asked.

“Well, then we have us a problem.” The old man stepped toward the young woman.  “Most people want out.  It’s plain old-fashioned human nature.  I know it.  You know it.  But we’re beyond that nonsense now.”

When the young woman tried to jump back into the gondola, the doors shut and the cables took it away.  Tom saw her eyes widen as she shivered and shuffled toward the entrance of Free Fall.

“That’s right.  Remember, you’re supposed to enjoy this,” said the old man.  He helped her get into the proper position, with arms folded across the chest.  Ash fell on her forehead.  She didn’t make a sound when he pushed her down.

“Alright, last of all, it’s you.  Step up here, and that’ll be the end of it,” said the old man.

Tom didn’t move.  He simply gazed into the old man’s crackled complexion.  Deep lines crisscrossed his face, disappearing down into his sunken chest.  If he wasn’t dressed like a man, Tom thought, he would be only a wrinkled thing.  A great terror rippled out of his heart, filling his veins with despair and washing his mind in dread.  All wrong. It’s all wrong, Tom repeated to himself.   He was a child, huddled in a dark corner.

“I’m sorry.  Please let me go back,” Tom said.

“Son, I don’t have the patience for this.  It’s time for you to go down the slide, so let’s go,” said the old man.

“No,” Tom said breathlessly.  The old man threw his cigar to the ground.

“I have all authority to throw you down this slide!  Now come here!”

The old man reached out his long arms to grab Tom.  Tom wrapped his hands around the old man’s wrists and tried to toss him back, but he could not resist the forward momentum.  The old man wrapped his hands around Tom’s neck and opened his mouth, as if to swallow him whole.  Tom desperately swiped at the old man’s sunglasses.  Two empty sockets glared back at him, and the old man smiled as his grip tightened.  Locked together, they both fell  into the dark pit of the slide.  Tom let go of the old man, and everything else, as he plummeted without ever touching the sides.

A twisted figure splashed down at the bottom.  He stood up in shallow water and turned around.  There he waited, a long time, for the other one to come out.  Reaching blindly, he found something.  It was a watch — ticking away.

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A Short Story: End of the Line (Part 1 of 2)

End of the Line

by David Lavallee

Illustrations by Nathan King

He had been standing in line for what seemed like ages. Looking at his watch, he was reminded that it had died. Checking the time was a nervous tick, and no matter how often he looked, it would always be three thirty-three. The park was flooded with people, and their raised voices mixed inharmoniously in the scorching August air. From time to time he would attempt to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, but it demanded too much concentration. His focus was elsewhere. The slide captured his attention.

Adamson’s Water Park attracted hoards of customers during the summer season. It housed a wave pool with an artificial white sand beach. People from all walks of life fought for a spot along the fake shore. Most days, young men and women dominated the landscape, driven by a primal need to showcase their bodies. Families and older couples retreated to the picnic tables. Circling the park, a slow-moving river carried laid-back patrons who rested on tubes. It served as an escape for anyone wishing to dodge the crowds. A number of small water slides attracted children, and anyone looking for a safe thrill. A step up from those, Adamson’s provided larger slides for the more adventurous. They each scored a seven on the ride intensity scale established by the Society of Amusement Park Standards (SAPS). But none of these rides compared to Free Fall. Free Fall scored a ten plus, which is the highest intensity rating in the world. Riders disappeared into a dark tunnel, dropping so fast that the name of the slide became terribly appropriate. It was impossible to tell where they came out on the other side. Free Fall towered over the park, casting a long shadow from entrance to exit.

“Let’s just forget it, Tom. The line’s too long. We’ve been waiting forever, and my stomach’s upset.” Mary rubbed her exposed mid-section. Tom checked his watch again. “Stop that! Why’d you even wear that thing?” Mary asked.

“I…I guess I didn’t think. Force of habit,” Tom replied. For a moment, he considered Mary’s plea to give up waiting. Just for a moment. “We’ve waited this long. The choice was made back there.” He pointed past hundreds of people. Mary scowled.

They were at least a couple of hours away, and they had already waited for one. Free Fall only allows for one rider every thirty seconds, and that is when everything operates smoothly. Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. Once the Point of No Return is crossed, all riders enter into a contract with the park that says they have to go down the slide. If they panic and cause a disturbance, the slide operators have the authority to force them down. The park depends on a steady flow of bodies. This is the reason minors are forbidden from Free Fall. Only adults with the power to choose for themselves are allowed to cross the final threshold.

“I don’t think I can go through with it. My stomach is really starting to turn over,” Mary said.

“I think it’s in your head. You don’t want to go down the slide. I get it. Wait until we reach the Point of No Return, and then leave if you have to.” Tom wiped the sweat from his forehead and felt the radiating burn of a distant sun. Then he looked at his watch again.

Mary often faced the accusation from Tom that she never seemed to follow anything through to completion. She always had an excuse to give up. When Tom first proposed, she claimed that she needed more time to decide. A year later, when he proposed again, she told him that she no longer believed in the institution of marriage. “Can’t we love each other without wearing shackles?” She protested. Tom heartily disagreed with her newfound philosophy. “There’s freedom in binding,” he assured her. But all she could say was, “That makes no sense!”

During the next half hour, Tom and Mary observed their surroundings. A pigeon pecked at a dropped pretzel, and Tom wondered if it was true that birds were unable to pass gas. He recalled a conversation from his youth in which another boy claimed to have fed a seagull some Alka-Seltzer. The boy stuffed it in some bait and watched the bird eat without a care. He laughed with delight to see the bird crash into the ocean, dying from the inside. Mary watched a little girl eat a strawberry ice cream cone. The ice cream dribbled down the cone and covered the girl’s hands. Why doesn’t she wipe it up? Mary thought. The girl ate, showing little concern for the sticky pink fluid that flowed down her sleeve. An old clown caught their attention when he accidentally popped a balloon animal. Neither Tom nor Mary had ever seen a clown fail at such a simple trick, and though they despised clowns, it made them feel sorry for the elderly man behind the red nose. They felt worse when his audience of captivated children began to sob. One girl screamed, “It’s dead! He killed it!” The clown fled the scene, forgetting his bag.

"Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. "  By Nathan King

“Some people decide in the final moment that they want to turn back, but that is not an option. ” Illustration by Nathan King

The couple moved closer to the Point of No Return. No one could mistake it. The park went to great lengths to ensure that their customers knew the arrangement. In bold blue letters it read, NO TURNING BACK. MUST GO FORWARD. ABSOLUTELY NO EXCEPTIONS. Along the way, they posted many smaller signs describing their ride policy. Tom read one of them aloud to Mary. “Free Fall is the most thrilling water slide in the world. Because of this, it attracts hundreds of thousands of committed riders. Adamson’s Water Park is focused on providing the most people with the most fun. We created the Point of No Return as a means to maximize fun. We understand that many would reconsider riding Free Fall once they reached the top. This would create massive delays and much disturbance, which would severely tarnish the experience of the other riders. The Point of No Return is exactly that. If you cannot commit, please consider any of our other fun water slides. If you are serious about having a good time, pass the Point of No Return and prepare to have a blast.”

“What did you eat that made your stomach upset?” Tom asked.

“Nothing but an egg and some toast. I eat it all the time,” Mary said.

“Maybe it was a bad egg. We’re only a few minutes away. Are you in or out?” Mary held her stomach. Tom moved close to her face, as if to kiss her, and whispered, “I want you to go up with me.”

Adamson’s used to station low-level employees at the threshold, but found that they were often too lenient with riders. They lacked the authority to prevent people from breaking their contract to ride. Once people had discovered that the Point of No Return was less than it claimed to be, the occurrence of disruptions skyrocketed. Free Fall experienced massive ride delays, which forced the park to get more serious. The entrance is now guarded by a park manager and a member of the security unit. Since the change, only one person has come back through the threshold: a sixty-three year old woman who dropped dead of a heart attack.

“I don’t know, I don’t think I should do this,” Mary said. Tom rolled his eyes and looked away. They were only a few paces away from the final threshold. “I really can’t.”

“And why can’t you? Is it because your stomach hurts, or because you’re afraid?” Tom asked sternly. He stood at the entrance of the Point of No Return. The two park officials looked at him, arms folded. “Just come with me!” Tom yelled.

“I can’t! Go, but I’m not. I shouldn’t,” Mary said as tears formed in her eyes.

“Sir, are you riding Free Fall, or are you turning around? You have to decide immediately,” said the park manager. Tom peered back at Mary, who now had tears streaming down her face, and then took the final step through the threshold.

“Ma’am, are you going to join him?” asked the security guard. The couple gazed at each other, separated by an impassable gulf.

“No,” Mary said. “I’m pregnant.”

(To be continued…)

Stork Raving Mad: Wednesday’s Free Write

While taking a Creative Writing class in college, I was asked by the professor to spend an hour each day writing fiction.  It could be about anything I wanted.  The point of the exercise was to get used to writing on a daily basis.  After many years of being lost on one of my thumb drives, I have recovered them.  

 

Stork Raving Mad

The wedding far exceeded my expectations, and I can say with confidence that Sarah felt the same.  Her white dress received nothing but compliments from both sides of the family. I have already wasted too much time writing about the dress, and this is nowhere near where I want to go.  A far better way to start this tale would be to say that when a man and a woman fall in love, they want to express their feelings physically.  Unfortunately, certain things can get in the way.

We arrived at our suite on the island of St. Lucia after a long flight featuring two feature-length films starring Carrot Top.  As a believer in Karma, I saw this as a sure sign that the honeymoon would not disappoint.  The week the Reese’s Big Cup appeared in stores, for example, I lost my job and the ability to perform simple math equations.  Interestingly enough, I was re-hired the day after switching over from Skippy to Jif when I calculated that the change would save me well over forty thousand dollars in the course of my lifetime.

After an entirely satisfying meal, Sarah and I rushed back to our room to engage in some marital relations.  Unfortunately, very unfortunately, we were stopped.

The giant stork was at least considerate enough to knock on the window.  I slowly rose out of bed in order to investigate the situation.  Incredibly, he spoke to us, and in our native tongue.

“It is vital that I speak to the both of you this evening,” he said.  I, like anyone else in such a position, froze in disbelief.   “You must not keep on what you’re planning.”

“Who are you?” I bravely asked.

“I am The Stork.  I’m in charge of delivering human babies to the world,” he said.  Sarah sat up in the bed, since the subject of children sparked her interest.

“You can’t possibly exist,” she said.

web_flying_white_stork

“I’ve heard it so many times over the years.  You see, when you’re children you discover the truth early on.  You find out where babies come from, and they come from me.  For some reason, when you get a little older you start believing that babies come as the result of sexual reproduction.  And, let me just say, that is the silliest fallacy you people have ever created.”  Now I knew it was a dream, or at very least a hallucination.

“Alright then, what about pregnant women?  What about the fact that children often resemble their parents?  What about all of those births in hospitals?”  I knew he could not reply to these with anything reasonable.

“Your minds couldn’t possibly comprehend the complexities of this illusion.  If I even hinted at the truth of it, you would surely fall dead where you’re standing.  All I’ll say is that the very idea that humans have complete control over the creation of life is laughable.”   I found it quite convenient that he dodged any true explanations, but I went along with him.

“Fine, then why are you here?  If sex has nothing to do with it, why are you here?”  The Stork then shattered the window with his beak and crawled through the opening.  Sarah and I shrunk back into the covers.  He stood, over six feet, at the foot of our bed, with wings fully spread.

“I can’t take it anymore!  Your son waits in the wings.  I’m breaking the rules.  I’m changing the system that has stood for thousands of years.  Take him.  Take him now, and don’t ask me any questions.”  At that moment, he tossed the baby boy at Sarah, who caught it in the sheets.  In a flurry of feathers he escaped through the window.  I watched him fly into the night sky before vanishing in a flash of light.

There’s a lot I don’t know, but I do know that before our honeymoon there were two of us, but after our honeymoon there were three of us.  Two plus three equals five.  That means we need to buy more peanut butter.  I am not concerned about financially supporting my ever-growing family.  If one jar brings in forty grand, then three jars will support all five of my kids for the rest of their lives.

Saturday

“Oh no, I’m all out of money,” said one of Peter’s customers.

“Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” Peter responded.   Upon hearing those words, the customer jumped over the counter. He pummeled Peter’s face until there was only blood and clumps of flesh. Dozens of witnesses looked on in horror.

At another location, moments later, another fatal exchange occurred.

“There are still large chunks of cookie in here,” said a customer.

“That’s how the cookie crumbles, sir,” replied an employee.  The man pulled out a knife in front of his children, and stabbed the employee thirty times in the chest and head.

At the end of this day, an employee at every cookie crumbling shop in the world met a bloody end.   Peter Crumb’s wife turned to food for comfort after her husband’s death.  She died when her stomach exploded after eating twelve pounds of cookie dough.

More than a hundred years later, experts are still searching for a reason why that catchphrase had such a negative effect on everyone who heard it.  Some believe it to be a curse on the Crumb family.  Peter’s great grandfather had saved a small community from an evil warlock by sealing him in an ancient tomb.  The warlock apparently put a spell on all of his descendants before rats gnawed his face off.  Others insist that it was purely coincidence.

Wizard

What do I think?  I think there was something in those cookies.  It also explains how Mrs. Crumb ate herself to death.  She needed them so badly that she could not wait for them to cook.  All of the killer customers faced some setback in their cookie eating experience.  The catchphrase merely pushed them over the edge.  Or maybe it was a curse.  Maybe that warlock had a sense of humor.

Free Writing: Monday and Tuesday

While taking a Creative Writing class in college, I was asked by the professor to spend an hour each day writing fiction.  It could be about anything I wanted.  The point of the exercise was to get used to writing on a daily basis.  After many years of being lost on one of my thumb drives, I have recovered them.  

Monday and Tuesday

            We live in a time of professionals.  As children, we want to grow up to be policemen, firemen, astronauts, actors, ballerinas, and of course, any kind of athlete.  We want to be heroes, and sometimes superheroes.  The following is a tale of a profession that has not existed for nearly a century.   During its short existence, it provided the masses with a service that brought happiness to all corners of the globe.  It should have been one the greatest success stories in human history, but it fell victim to the very saying that it created.

Most humans with taste buds know the satisfaction that comes from biting into a good cookie.  Peter Crumb, a British schoolteacher during the late 19th century, appreciated the taste of cookies more than any normal person should.  He spent his weekends perfecting the old family recipe, which called for four sticks of butter and a half pound of chocolate.  On one occasion he was found passed out on the floor after consuming nearly a full pound of batter.  The next day he ate six cookies.

cookie

Peter would have been just another man with a sweet tooth if not for a student named Bill Lewis.  Peter brought in a batch of cookies to class every Monday, which brought a little sunshine to the children.   On one particular day he placed them on the floor in order to clear some room on his desk.  After no more than thirty seconds he heard the sound of a box being flattened.  Bill Lewis slowly lifted his foot from the now crushed container, and turned to face the wrath of his peers.

“Now wait a minute students,” Peter said.  “A cookie in pieces tastes just as good as a cookie whole.”  Brushing off the mud from Bill’s shoe, Peter opened the box to find all them smashed.  “I suppose what we’ll do is reach in for a handful.”  After sharing with the students, Peter took some for himself.

The taste of crumbled cookies elevated Peter to dessert heaven.  From that moment on, he vowed to spread his newly discovered joy to all the people of the world.

When he told his wife that he wanted to open up a cookie crumbling shop, she responded, “That’s an awful idea.  Who would pay for broken cookies?”

“Don’t think of them as broken.  Think of them as reborn, like the phoenix.”

It took nearly two months of convincing, but Peter’s wife inevitably came to support her husband.  They built a modest cookie stand on one of the busier street corners.  The sign read, Crumb’s Cookies, which Peter decided was divine providence since a man cannot choose his own name.  On the menu were four varieties, including chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, and sugar.  No one requested anything other than whole cookies that first week.

Walking to the cookie stand, one day after school Peter came up with a solution to his crumbling problem.  He removed the sign and replaced it with a new one, which read Crumb The Cookie Crumbler.  Immediately, people asked about crumbling, and Peter sold out his entire batch.  This was the beginning of the phenomenon.

Peter was able to upgrade his stand to an actual store within the first six months of sales.  People from all over Great Britain came to taste his special brand of crumbled delights.  By the next year Peter and his wife were living the high life with more and more shops spreading throughout Europe.  Everyone raved about “the greatest invention since the cookie.”  But, like with most fast rises to fame, the Crumb’s, along with their shops, soon fell hard.

Bible Study

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“And you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.” 

There are many good westerns that are worth your time, but if I had to pick one above all others it would have to be 3:10 to Yuma.  I like it for the acting; Russel Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are phenomenal.  It has a high production value and a beautiful score.  But what sets it apart, at least in my book, is the theme at its core.  More than a story about a man who escorts a criminal to his jail-bound train, 3:10 to Yuma is about the struggle of faith.  It’s about a son believing in his father, and a criminal wrestling with his own beliefs about the nature of God and mankind.

If you haven’t seen the film, please go ahead and do that.  I strongly suggest that you read no further until you’ve seen it.  That being said, if you have no intention of watching a western, or if you’ve seen it and forgotten much of the plot, here is a summary.  Dan Evans (Bale) is a poor rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War.  He struggles to maintain his ranch for his wife and two sons.  To make matters worse, the local authorities are giving him a hard time about paying his bills.  His barn is even burned down as a threat.  Enter Ben Wade (Crowe) and his violent gang, whose second in command, Charlie Prince (Foster), views Wade as a father.  They hijack a wagon full of money and then retreat to the nearby town.  Wade is captured, but his gang rides away.  A wealthy and powerful man named Butterfield rounds up a posse, which includes Dan,and later his oldest son.   As they trek across the western wilderness they face many dangers, and some of the men die.  The remaining group ends up in the town where the train stops.  Wade’s gang rides in and bribes many townspeople to join them in killing anyone who attempts to bring Wade to the train.  Seeing the odds stacked against them, everyone but Dan tries to back out.  Dan makes a final deal with Butterfield that will ensure his family and ranch will be taken care of, if only he can deliver Wade to the train at 3:10.  Wade willingly runs with Dan to the station as they dodge bullets.  Right when Wade gets on the train, Dan is shot down by Charlie Prince.  Filled with rage, Wade kills every one of his gang members.  Then, Dan’s son points his gun at Wade, contemplating murder.  In the end, Wade is allowed to live, and boards the train to Yuma prison.

There is a clear parallel between Dan’s son and Charlie Prince.  Both of them are looking to their father figure as a way to form their own identities.  In the case of Charlie Prince, he loves and respects Wade.  There is no doubt that he is entirely devoted to his “boss” and father.  He is willing to kill innocent people for him and also to protect him.  In one scene he burns a man alive to torture him into giving up Wade’s location.  Charlie Prince believes in his father figure, but he believes only in the worst side of him.  That is why his identity is defined by violence and cruelty, because that’s what he believes his father expects of him.  Dan’s son is a little more complicated.  At the start of the film he views his father as a weak shameful fool.  He does not respect Dan.  Then, as he interacts with Wade on the way to the station, he seems to find his power and confidence attractive.  Throughout the film, there is an unspoken tug of war for this boy’s soul.  Here is some dialogue between Wade, and Dan’s son, who is named William by the way.  I believe it captures the essence of this struggle to form an identity.

Screencaps-3-10-to-yuma-17409476-1920-1080

Ben Wade: They’re gonna kill you and your father, William. They’re gonna laugh while they do it. I think you know that.
William Evans: Call ’em off.
Ben Wade: Why should I?
William Evans: Because you’re not all bad.
Ben Wade: Yes, I am.
William Evans: You saved us from those Indians.
Ben Wade: I saved myself.
William Evans: You got us through the tunnels. You helped us get away.
Ben Wade: If I had a gun in them tunnels, I would have used it on you.
William Evans: I don’t believe you.
Ben Wade: Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as hell.

So you see that Wade is “as rotten as hell” when he leads his gang.  It is this hellish persona that Charlie Prince loves and respects, and it is the same tough persona that Dan’s son finds so appealing.  But Dan’s son isn’t entirely convinced that Wade is all bad.  He views certain actions as heroic and selfless, like helping him and his father escape deadly situations.  His desire to see the good in Wade reveals that he has something that Charlie Prince doesn’t: a good man to look up to.  And when Dan chooses to deliver Wade to the train station against impossible odds, his son finally views him with respect.  Consider Dan’s words to his son.

Dan Evans: I’m gonna be a day behind you, William. Unless something happens, and if it does, I need a man at the ranch to run things, protect our family, and I know that you can do that because you’ve become a fine man, William. You’ve become a fine man. You got all the best parts of me. What few there are.
[Dan shakes William’s hand]
Dan Evans: And you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.

800 large 310 to yuma blu-ray3

Dan tells his son that he is a fine man who can protect his family.  The father gives the son his identity.  Dan believes that his son is good, and then he leaves him with an incredible image of courage, loyalty, and perseverance.  Dan proves that he is a man of his word when he delivers on his promise to get Ben Wade to the station.  Dan’s son can believe in him, and believe the good words that will certainly shape his identity as a man.

We have seen two young men who look up to their fathers embrace the identity that the father has given them.  In an interesting twist, Ben Wade develops his own identity in the image of the one he views as a father.  For most of the film, that father is evil.  Wade shares a personal story with Dan in the minutes before their fateful journey to the train.

Ben Wade: You ever read the bible, Dan? I read it one time. I was eight years old. My daddy just got himself killed over a shot of whiskey and my mama said “we’re going back East to start over”. So she gave me a bible, sat me down in the train station, told me to read it. She was gonna get our tickets. Well, I did what she said. I read that bible from cover to cover. It took me three days. She never came back.

Wade read the bible from cover to cover.  In the bible, Jesus dies and then comes back three days later.  In Wade’s life, his father died and his mother abandoned him.  She didn’t come back after three days, which must have caused him to either hate God or not believe in him at all.  Believing the worst of both his earthly and heavenly parent, Wade turned to a life of death and pleasure-seeking.  He took on the identity of the father he believed in.  Then he crossed paths with Dan, and Dan showed him a better father to believe in.  Not the kind of father who abandons, but the kind of father who will give his life for his family.   He’s the kind of father who will even run alongside an unworthy criminal to see that justice is done.  Please take a moment to watch this powerful scene.  The song is called, “Bible Study.”

Ben Wade sketched Dan into the front of the bible.  Dan showed him a good father, which I think made Wade start to believe in a good God.  Why else would he help Dan as they run together?  Wade now believes in Dan, and Dan believes in something greater than himself.  Even if getting on the train to Yuma results in  judgement for a life of evil, Wade is willing to go if it means running alongside a good man he can believe in.

Politics and the English Major

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Where can I rest my head?

Today we watched Barack Obama deliver his second inaugural address.  On the day that we honor Martin Luther King Jr. we watched our first black president begin his second term as commander-in-chief.  Many are elated and it truly is an important moment in American history.  If you’re an American you should feel some sense of pride in your president on a day like this.  This is the next step in the hard struggle for freedom for all Americans.  And certainly, I appreciate the historical significance of it all.   So why do I feel the way I do?  Why am I not thrilled?

Let me bring you up to speed.  For a significant portion of 2012 I was heavily invested in the presidential election.  I followed every story as it broke and I looked into the candidates that interested me.  Through research and discussion I chiseled away at my political positions until they hardened into bronze beliefs.  Fox News and talk radio washed over my being as I prepared for the great battle of our age between big government tax and spend  liberals and small government fiscally responsible conservatives.  Obama was an enemy to “freedom” and somehow hated the very core of what America was, and no matter who replaced him that person would be an improvement.  When it came to Romney, I found a way to like and support him as the better alternative.  After the first debate I really got excited about the prospect of a conservative victory and increased my political presence on Facebook.  Post after post I passionately made a plea for conservative principles.  Right before the election I started to get feedback from friends that I had become too zealous and my words were losing their power.  Even those who agreed with my politics were becoming annoyed.  Admittedly, I was swept up in it. And then, after months of passionate reasoning and arguing, came the election.  Oh, the election.  I can sum it up in nicely in five words: Everyone…I…Voted…For…Lost.

After months of investing myself in politics I felt the awesome pain of total defeat.  Seriously, even the little people I voted for lost.  And to top it all off, I came down with a bad cold amidst the slaughter.  Right before falling asleep, I spoke on the phone with my friend Steve who bet me a dozen Cadbury eggs that Obama would win.  Though he assured me that everything would be ok, I went to bed physically ill, emotionally exhausted, mentally strained, and spiritually shaken.  It was the sleep of a lost soul floating aimlessly in a hostile political sea.

So these past months have been a time of humble self-reflection.  But they have also been a time of unease.  You see, I’m truly struggling with my political identity.  I’m in the midst of an identity crisis, you could say.  If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ve probably gathered that I have long wrestled with my conservative principles in an increasingly liberal culture.  For instance, today my president said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”  Alright, so all that talk about gay marriage must be over.  Now I’m the bad guy if I don’t compromise my beliefs about marriage and morality.  And at the same time I recognize that gays have been treated with a special disdain within my Christian conservative community, and it’s hard not to view my side as the aggressors who are in the wrong.  Why is homosexuality uniquely wretched while divorce is basically accepted?  Where does evolving culture end and timeless truth begin?

So I’ve described to you my current political state.  My party has become a national joke and lost its ability to speak with authority to the greater culture.  There’s no Republican version of Obama.   My core political beliefs don’t have a champion in the arena and so I’m left to wander for a while in the wilderness.  Meanwhile, I’m wrestling with what it means to be a Christian in America today.  It’s all quite humbling, and I believe in my heart that I will come out of it a better man.  I just wish, in the meantime, I had somewhere to rest my head.

What This Flower Can Teach Us

amaryl

Take a look at that amaryllis plant.  Do you notice something strange about its appearance?  Its skinny green stem shoots up over a foot while a fully formed flower sprouts straight from the bulb.  This is not how an amaryllis is supposed to grow.

It should look like this:

amaryllis-red-potted

The stems grow long out of the bulb before blossoming out of the top.  This plant is well-developed and quite beautiful.  There is even new growth sprouting up with the promise of more flowers.  When the conditions are right, an amaryllis will bloom in a spectacular fashion.

Growing up in the “country” with a dad who kept a serious garden, I learned much about plant life.  I learned the values of cultivating and appropriate watering.  I learned that different varieties have unique needs when it comes to fertilization and sunlight.  But I didn’t just receive an education on how to keep plants alive; that’s not the true purpose of a garden.  The purpose of a garden is to produce fruit.

When I say fruit, I don’t just mean apples and oranges.  I am referring to any desired product.  So in the case of something like parsley or oregano,  the fruit is in the leaves.  With potato plants, the fruit is in the roots.  The fruit of flowering plants, like that amaryllis, is the flowers themselves.  Fruit is the reason you grow in the first place.

Plants do a curious thing when they are perfectly content.  As my father says, “If a plant is too happy it will make a lot of nice looking leaves, but not much fruit.”  He likes to recall the early years of his garden when his older neighbors would stop by to poke fun at him for his pepper plants.  “Nice big plants you got there!”, they would say.  My dad didn’t know at the time that it was possible for pepper plants to be too happy.  He figured that if they liked a little fertilizer they must like a lot of fertilizer.  But when the plants are living it up in comfort, they aren’t too concerned about making fruit.  They’re like the grasshopper in that story with the ants.  He lives in comfort all summer while the ants are storing for the winter, and when the winter comes he’s in a lot of trouble because he has no food.  When you think about it, the whole reason a plant makes fruit is to pass its life to the next generation (or germination if you like).  Fruit is evidence of a type of wisdom within the plant; a wisdom that prepares it for hard times ahead.  Plants that are too content to make fruit are foolish, so to speak.

So what about that funny looking amaryllis plant?  It was on track to grow normally until a small child (my cousin’s son, Sam) decided to test its durability.  If you look at the picture you can see where the stem was bent, about a third of the way up.  That unexpected calamity left the plant hunched over, looking sad and defeated.  But over the next week the stem slowly straightened again, and a fresh blossom appeared out of the bulb.  In no time at all a new flower bloomed at the base.  This was how the amaryllis plant responded to adversity: to make fruit.  With no care for its looks, or concern for being different from the other plants, it straightened up and turned tragedy into new life.  Yes, it had to mature faster than it would have liked, but it had the wisdom to mature.  And now that it has time to grow in a safe environment, I expected new growth to shoot up the way it was intended.

We all experience adversity, and it is how we respond to it that determines our outcomes.  Will we learn from our pain and mistakes and grow in character, or will we let fear and bitterness keep us bent over and without fruit?  Likewise, when the times are good and we are content, will we grow foolish and forget the fruit that our lives are meant to produce?    Fruit like patience, kindness, courage, perseverance, discipline, and love.  Wisdom cries out to us from many places: even a broken amaryllis plant.

Our Evil Santa

Ornaments are one of the many bits of wonderful that make this Christmas season special.  Many of us share in the tradition of hanging these little gems on our trees every year.  Perhaps, like me, you made a few ornaments as a child, and even though they may not be the most attractive pieces of art, they’re full of heart and memory.  Every year they have to go up, or it simply wouldn’t be your Christmas tree.  I want to share with you another kind of Christmas decoration that must hang on my tree.  It wasn’t made by any hands I know, and it wasn’t a gift from someone special.  Store bought and unattractive,  Evil Santa is a Christmas tradition in the Lavallee household.

He hangs in the back of the tree, watching...waiting...

He hangs in the back of the tree, watching…waiting…

 

He comes from New York City in the year 1973.  My parents bought him while on their honeymoon.  Though we can’t know for sure, witness accounts seem to point to an origin of Macy’s Department Store.  I believe he was actually purchased from a mysterious street merchant, but that’s conjecture.  Wherever the true origin, my parents took him home and hung him on their first Christmas tree.  It’s this meaningful origin that solidified Evil Santa’s position on the Lavallee tree, and it’s what granted him his decades long tenure.  That being said, we all hate him.

Evil Santa goes up every year, but he goes in the same spot: at the back of the tree.  He needs to be there, but no one wants to look at him.  He creeps us out.  Beyond the troubling gaze and an undeniable devil-may-care approach to grooming, Evil Santa is completely naked under that red suit.  His makers decided to include an anatomically correct butt and exclude appropriate undergarments.  It’s bizarre and highly suspect.

Despite all of these undesirable qualities, I have to admit that I do have a tiny bit of affection for the dirty old man.  It has become family tradition to hang him on the back of the tree as we remark how much we dislike him.  But really, I don’t think we hate Evil Santa.  He’s ours after all.  Just another one of the many bits of wonderful that make this Christmas season special.

The Meaning of Compost

I have always enjoyed a good compost pile.

I will venture to guess that most people in the world don’t get as excited about decomposing plant matter as I do.  Recent interest in “going green” and buying local has likely turned more onto the pleasures of backyard farming life, or at least the idea of it, but how many can say, “I love compost!”?  The idea of worms and small organisms feasting on rotting vegetables makes me happy.  Throwing away used coffee grounds and egg shells, and then turning the soil over them causes a thrill.  And how wonderful it is to grab a handful of black gold, the rich end product of all good compost, in the spring.  I’ve always loved it, but why?

I’ll start with the most obvious reason for my compost obsession: it’s practical.  Every year we throw away tons of food waste.  Some of it doesn’t belong in the compost, like meat, fat, salt, and anything heavily processed.  Many other items can go in the pile without a second thought: fruits, vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds, and pretty much anything that rots.  Think of how much waste you can reduce by starting a compost pile.  And the best part is that it is being put to good use!  That once useless garbage can now turn into fertile soil for your future plants and flowers.  Isn’t that cool!? And I don’t even drive a Prius.

The role of my father in shaping my interest in gardening and composting cannot be overestimated.

If you can see past the shorts and snow boots you’ll see a substantial compost pile in the background.  Growing right next to it is a pumpkin plant.  This is a serious garden.  My father, in his younger days, went all out.  I remember huge piles of corn at the end of the season, and 30+ tomato plants.  I grew up with this kind of garden, and from that very young age I wanted to be there.  Compost is part of who I am.

Now, and finally, I want to take you down a more philosophical path.  What is compost but a collection of dead things?  These dead things have seemingly lost all use.  They are to be thrown out, cast aside and forgotten.  But compost reveals something deeper about life and death, that death isn’t the end.  In the same way that a seed must be buried in the ground  before it can sprout, organic matter must be broken down to unleash its life-giving energy.  Compost gives second life, and speaks to a great truth about this world.  It’s not just dirt.

I love compost, and I will continue to love it for the reasons I’ve spelled out, and also for reasons yet known to me.     So I encourage you to start a pile of your own, and play a role in this great symphony of life.