Grace is mediated, sometimes, perhaps often, through our encounter with others.
– RJ Snell
“I’ve been blessed,” the old man said, “and I’ve made my money. Now I want to give something back.”
The old man explained to me how he had plans to donate the tractor museum to the city. He wanted to develop the property to the point that it was ready to operate as a museum. Then, he would place the title of the property into the hands of the city.
I listened to this with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. What can we do after we’ve gained the world, anyway? Giving it back is probably one of the better options, and the impulse to leave some public asset to the world is laudable.
“But that,” he said, motioning to the abortion memorial. “That little spot I gave to a church.”
“I was wondering,” I said. “It wouldn’t take long for a new mayor or city council to change your memorial.”
He smiled. “I know. That’s why I gave it to a church. I know it’s going to stay what it is right now.”
“So, what made you do that?” I asked. “You probably get all kinds of reactions to it.”
He paused a moment, thinking about his next statement.
“Let me tell you a story- something that that little cemetery has helped to do.”
I waited. He looked off toward the road.
“Did you see the cross with the ribbon on it?” he asked, without looking at me. “Probably didn’t. If you look, there in the back corner, there is one cross with a ribbon on it. Let me tell you about that cross.
“One evening, I was closing up the gates- those old Juniper gates. I lock them every night around nightfall. I had just done that and had gone inside the office. ‘Course, its a good 100 yard walk from the road to the office. I was getting a drink, and I saw headlights pull into the driveway, up to the closed gate. I stood inside the office just watching. After a minute, the phone began to ring. I answered it, and I heard the voice of a young woman.
“I knew it had to be the person inside the car. There’s a sign on the gate with the office phone number. She asked me if I was the one who owned the little cemetery. I said, “Yes, I am.” She then asked if she might put another cross into the cemetery. I didn’t know what to say, but she continued explaining. She said, “When I was eighteen, I made a mistake. I know what I did was wrong, and I would like to put a cross in your memorial for my baby. I want to do this.”
“Well, I didn’t know what to say. I said she could, so long as she made her cross similar to the existing ones; and I explained to her the dimensions of the cross and what I used to make it. She said she would make it just that way, she thanked me, and we hung up. And then the car backed out of the driveway and drove off.
“The next evening, about the same time of day, I saw a car pull off onto the shoulder of the road. I watched from a distance, and a young woman got out. She was dressed in one of those nurse’s outfits like they wear down in Tyler. There are so many hospitals and doctors and specialists, and she probably worked in one of those offices. Anyway, she got out and brought out a white cross just like I had described, climbed the rail fence, and put it just where I told her to. Then, she took out a ribbon- yellow- and tied it onto the cross. After that, she climbed the fence again, got into her car, and drove away.”
I listened to this in silence, and for a moment, neither of us spoke. “That’s really good,” I finally said.
“The ribbon eventually wore out. I put a new one on every so often. I think the one out there now is green.”
He focused on me. “She probably drives past this place every day, once going to work, once going home. She sees that ribbon regularly. ‘Course, she can’t change what happened; she knows that herself better than we do. But I’d like to think that every time she drives past, something happens. I can’t help but think it helps her to know she did something, just a little thing, to make it right- make it right in her soul.” He looked at me with his quiet mirth. “And every time she drives past, God is right there. God is right there doing what He does best.”
I thanked him for his time and quietly drove off in my pickup truck. On my way out of the gates, I looked and the old man was right. The ribbon was green.
Rickety entrance gates cobbled together from Juniper cedars are not normally what stands at the opening of property on a busy highway in a boomlet town. But the gates were open and two men were at work, so I drove in. I was prompted to do so out of curiosity. The property on the whole was curious, slotted tightly between the town’s old business district on one side and new big box stores, like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, on the other. Jumbled throughout the slice of pine woods, there was an old 100-foot-high look-out tower, unfinished metal warehouses, dirt roads and, conspicuously, an old-time water wheel. The entire property was apparently one of those last small town hold-outs against lucrative commercial development.
But the most unusual part of the property was as small parcel of land partitioned off with a white rail fence from the rest of the work-in-progress. A sign was planted inside the plot: “In Memory of Babies Killed by Abortion”. Inside the parcel of ground stood rows of white crosses.
I stopped the pickup close to the workers and walked up to them. They were digging a post hole beside the old water wheel. One of them was an elderly man sitting on a bar stool and the other was a thirty-something Latino with a post hole digger. And it turned out that the old man was supervising while the other piddled at the hole, speechless for as long as I was with them.
“What can I do for you, young man?” the old man asked.
“I was driving by, and saw you working,” I replied. “I was just curious what you are doing with this place.”
The old man looked around and then back at me. “I’m building a tractor museum,” he said, decisively.
“A tractor museum?” I asked.
“Yep. You probably saw those two old tractors back by the office,” he said.
I had not seen them, but I looked through the trees and saw that there were in fact a couple of old tractors back by a metal building with a boardwalk porch.
“That one’s an old John Deere. The other one is an Oliver. My dad used that one for years,” he said.
He took his time telling me this and stayed seated on his stool. His merry eyes and his measured speech told me that I was caught by an incorrigible story-teller. He knew it. I knew it. There was nothing left to do. I settled in for a good story.
To be continued.
“Of all the passions, sadness causes the most injury to the soul.” – Thomas Aquinas
The news of the missing steer brought me to reflect on the universal curse of sin and the unlikely prospects for happiness while still in this mortal coil. But as Emile Cioran said in ‘A Short History of Decay’, “We change ideas like neckties.”
My thoughts moved from the existential to the practical. Where were my 3yr old and my 5yr old daughters who, 15 minutes earlier, were directed to remain on the porch? And how quickly were the temps dropping and the daylight fading? And how far could a 500 lb steer have gotten in a quarter hour? And how much time was I morally obligated to spend in the predictably fruitless task of searching for an escaped steer possessed of the spirit of Houdini? What would Aquinas say about that one?
I found the girls and we piled into the cab of the truck. My son climbed onto the flatbed and we rumbled out into the field. Slowly, we traced the perimeter of the six acres of thick, brushy woods. Occasionally, we thought we heard the animal calling to us, like a siren through the splash and foam of the breakers. But we were only fooling ourselves.
We completed our circuit and began to slowly cruise the country road, peering into the neighbors’ fields, examining the barbed wire fencing for breaches. We came up with nothing.
The children loved it. We made U-turns in the road, circled the block, criss-crossed our earlier paths. Eventually, we parked the truck and went inside. Bathroom breaks were in demand and the girls needed long sleeves. We then began a search on foot; perhaps the diesel engine spooked “Brownie”.
We began strolling down the road- again. We saw the same cows from earlier, but no steer with the necessary markings.
Then our neighbor came by. He hopped out of the truck and began a search on bicycle. While he did that, we decided to go back to the truck and interrogate another neighbor. So even if we never would find the steer, we were still building community!
After making no headway with the other neighbor, darkness had covered the sky and we retired to the house. No steer. That night we slept.
Sunday morning came. Still no steer. We went to church. “Call the sheriff.” “Maybe someone has him penned and reported him missing.” “Put feed cubes in a bucket and shake them while walking around the field. He might come out of the brush when he hears food.” “Cows can smell sweet feed anywhere.” “He might be stolen.” “Cows can break your heart.”
We left church. On the way home, we saw him. We were two miles from the house and, on the shoulder of a long, sweeping bend in the road, our steer was tossed in a pile, dead. I stopped to examine him.
It was curious, and I’ll never know how it happened. It looked like a gunshot wound to the head. There were no tire marks on the road, no tracks in the grassy shoulder. Had the steer been wounded but not killed by a truck, and then mercifully put down with a gun? Had a hunter mistaken him for a deer and then disposed of him on the road? Was I simply misreading the signs? I still wonder, even today.
We finished the drive home in silence. We had found the steer. Our search was over.
Ranching is pain, and yet we return to it. We are turned to destruction. Even so, for all that we ranchers lost, Brownie lost more.