Crazy People Are People Too

     Hastings Mental Institution is located 20 miles southeast from St. Paul, Minnesota. When I was in my junior year at Macalester College, St. Paul, I thought up a little project in one of my psychology classes which should be fun, and it was. The Red Cross was only too happy to provide a car, and once a week for a semester I visited Ward 6 at Hastings. I went at night on Wednesdays, and stayed till fairly late. I learned a lot, which is putting it mildly.

     Some of the inmates of Ward 6 were really insane, but most of them were just very troubled. The schizophrenics and cataleptics gave the ward a sort of hospital flavor. They were fed, dressed, and put into chairs in the main area and they just sat there about like you would imagine. The people that were more interesting were reading books, watching television, or playing cards. They seemed as sane as anyone. I quickly realized I didn’t need to fear anyone there. Most had just been emotionally wounded and needed company.

    Kathy Sylvester was one of the ones playing cards. She was about 18, and she had purple scars all up the side of her left arm. Over several weeks her story came out.  Her mother was extremely cruel to her, to the point that Kathy was afraid to move. Once, her mother had put a clean dress on Kathy and told her not to get it wrinkled. Kathy sat on the front steps of their house, not moving, until her mother came to get her to take her somewhere. Her mother screamed that Kathy had wrinkled her dress, went and got the iron, and ironed her dress onto Kathy’s body, burning her badly.  Kathy wound up at Hastings. She had developed a habit of cutting herself. At night she took a broken perfume bottle and cut her arm, she said, because it was the only way she could stop the emotional pain that her childhood had given her.  She had had a few surgeries to remove the ugly purple scars, but many scars remained. She wore long sleeves to cover them up.

     I talked to many people at Hastings. One of them was a troubled man in his thirties. He had been a cook in a restaurant, but had become paranoid and wound up in Ward 6. I introduced him to Kathy, and it did both of them a lot of good, apparently. They fell in love in short order. It was very pleasant to see. The nurses, psychiatrists, other patients, and staff encouraged them. They were, of course, chaperoned within an inch of their lives, so it was strictly platonic.

     Summer came, and I finished my course in psychology. When I came back in the fall, I checked at Hastings and found that a lot had happened. Both of them had been discharged. This was because they each had made giant progress. They earned their release. However, they didn’t live happily ever after.

     Once discharged, Kathy married her cook. It was wonderful at first. They took a train to go on their honeymoon. On one of the train stops, policemen came aboard and arrested the cook. It turned out that he had stolen their wedding rings from a jewelry store! She called me asking for me to go with her to see him in jail, but they wouldn’t allow me in.  That was the last I heard of them.

     I wonder now. Where is Kathy, and where is her cook? I wish I knew.

Ed Frank, Cattle Order Buyer

My stepfather, Ed Frank, was a cattle order buyer. He got phone calls every night from owners of feed lots, places where cattle are fed grain before being taken to slaughter. These owners would order, say, 80 head of Angus cattle between the ages of this and that, weighing between umpty and umpty. Pop, as I called him, would go to cattle sales all over Mississippi, Arkansas, and sometimes Louisiana. He would buy what they ordered. Mom always went with him to share the driving. Later, either that night or the next day, big 18-wheeler cattle trucks would arrive at our own cattle barn, where Pop would enlist Mom, my younger brother David, the truck driver, and me to unload the cattle. Pop would post us at different gates and separate the cattle he had gotten for, say, the Minneapolis feed lot into one pen, and the cattle for a Wyoming feed lot into another pen. This sometimes happened in the middle of the night, and we would all get up and go unload cattle, then come back yawning after an hour and a half, and go back to sleep.

Unknown to any of us, Pop had dyslexia. He was brilliant in many ways, but had trouble telling his left from his right. He used a cattle sorting whip – about five feet of stiff plastic woven around a plastic rod, with about a foot of it left at the end to “pop the whip.” Pop would often point to the left, but yell at us, “Put them in the pen on the right!” Not knowing what to do, we would ask, “What?” By that time the cow was upon us, and Pop would yell “Shut the gate! Shut the gate!” It’s hilarious now that I know what the problem was, but at the time it was just frustrating that I couldn’t understand what Pop was wanting.

At the cattle sales, local farmers would bring their cattle in for sale. Mom was so good at understanding the auctioneers that she often worked in the cattle barn’s office, writing out the tickets for which cattle were bought by which order buyer for what amount of money. Meanwhile, Pop would sit down near the front of in the big room where the cattle were brought in one at a time for sale. There was a small half-circle cattle pen with a dirt floor in the front. Surrounding this half-round pen were risers, bleachers, or benches on which sat the farmers who watched their calves and cows, steers and bulls being sold. Pop and the other order buyers sat right on the edge of the selling pit. He could guess the animal’s weight most times within 5 or 10 lbs. He guessed my weight within 2 lbs. just about every time when I asked him. Also, he had to do math in his head so he would know if the price per lb. would be low enough so his customer back in Wyoming or Kansas would make a profit. Knowing the price of feed, the weight of the animal, the age of the animal, and several other factors, Pop could do the multiplication and division in his head and know how much per lb. he could offer when he bid.

Often the farmers in the back rows looking down would try to up the bid. They would sneak their hands up and bid on their own cattle, trying to up the price and their profit. Pop was wise to this. Once he came home from West Point and Mom told on him. When the farmers bid him up he would go along for a while, and then stop bidding, forcing the farmers to buy back their own beef at too-high prices. Pop would just turn and smile at them! It didn’t take long for the farmers to leave the bidding alone.

Our freezer was filled with choice cuts of steak. We had steak most nights for supper. It got so that I was thrilled when we got hamburgers, I got so tired of eating steak. Pop kept about 500 head of cattle himself, which he used to fill out the orders for his callers. If a steer got horned by a bull and had to be put down, Pop sent the animal to the butcher in Lake Village. The meat would be aged about 10 days in ultraviolet light to tenderize the meat. Every so often, we would go to the butcher and cart home several boxes of t-bone, ribeye, and so on. We always had the meat cut from 3/4” to a full inch thick.  Now that I can’t afford steak every night, I miss it. I try and order steak every time I take my wife out to eat. Usually, at most restaurants, the meat is cut too thin and is not of the extremely high quality I got used to as a young man. Pop would get the skillet hot, shake some salt in it, and sear the steak first one side and then the other. All we could eat.

Pop was born and raised in Oklahoma. As a young man, he sold mules and horses in Arkansas, then devoted himself to buying beef for the big feed lots. As an Oklahoman, Pop had his own special pronunciation of many words, and he had many original sayings. My mother used to write Ed’s sayings down for her own amusement. I wish I had that list! I only remember two. Pop used to say of a creek that it was “deep enough to swim a horse.” This tickled my mother. Once Pop got frustrated with Mom writing down his slaughter of various words, and said to her, “Martha, there is nothing wrong with my pronounce-y-ation.” The only one who could keep up with Pop in the incorrect pronunciation department was our foreman, Dennis Jackson. When Dennis was going to Prysock’s Landing to get fishing equipment, he would say that “I’se goin’ to Mr. Peroxide’s.”

Pop had a very dry wit. They say trouble comes in threes. When Mom reached for the refrigerator door one time, it came off in her hand. Pop said nothing. Later that same week, out in the cattle barn, Mom opened a cupboard door to get something. It screws were loose, and the door came off in her hand. Again Pop said not a word. Finally, that Saturday, they were in Senatobia or Greenville or someplace in Mississippi. The cattle sale was over, and Pop was talking to another order buyer out in the gravel parking lot. He asked Mom to put his cattle whip in the trunk of the car. Mom opened the trunk door and something made a breaking sound, source unknown, as if a piece of wood got crunched or something. Pop turned to his friend and said, “It’s hell having a strong woman.”

How Mom wound up doing all the driving. Everyone who owns land knows about opening and shutting gates. When out on the ranch (or cattle farm) Pop liked to do the driving. He had back trouble and hip trouble, and he wanted either Mom, David, or me to open and close the gates we went through. However, this all changed one rainy day. It happened like this. But first a little background.

Mrs. Thudium was a wealthy lady who owned several square miles of rich farm land. She also owned around 2,500 head of cattle, which she paid Pop to manage. In the summers, she paid me five dollars a day. Every Friday she got her staff to hand me an envelope with five crisp brand new five dollar bills. Okay, that’s enough background. This is why they were driving down this particular road.

So Pop was driving down the side of one of Mrs. Thudium’s big one-square-mile cotton fields. It was the dead of winter, and the muddy dirt road stretched for a good two miles ahead of him and Mom. It was less road and more mud bog, with water standing everywhere. Pop went slipping and sliding along down this muddy mess. He needed to see how the cattle were doing in a pasture further down the road. He got stuck several times, always maneuvering out, except for one truly horrible spot. He was stuck, and stuck good.

Mom said, “Ed, let me drive.” Pop didn’t know it, but Mom had won the state driving championship in her youth. She came back from Jackson with a trophy. Pop looked at Mom and said, “Fine, you try.” Here they are in the middle of nowhere, rain pouring down, woods on one side and a ploughed field on the other side, and mud underneath. Mom gets behind the wheel, backs up somehow out of the furrows of mud, and proceeds to drive without getting stuck the whole rest of the two miles to the pasture. Mom got out and opened the gate in the rain, and went to get back in the car on the passenger side. Ed just sat there, rolled down the window, and said, “You go ahead and drive.” Not another word about it did he speak, but from that day on, Mom did ALL the driving EVERYWHERE!

Pop loved my Mom. He also loved my brother and me. He taught me how to work long and hard. I loved him and I miss him now thEd with fishat he’s gone.

The Kid Who Tried to Cheat the Mafia

     This is another true story from my years in Santa Marta. My wife and I were missionaries on a church planting team in the Colombian coastal city of Santa Marta, near the top of the continent of South America, a couple hundred miles away from next door Venezuela.

     There was this twenty-something kid whose name I don’t recall, who I was trying to win to the Lord. He came off and on to my street meetings and also my home Bible studies in his neighborhood, Almendros. (Almendros means “almonds,” but instead of almonds, the trees in the neighborhood were actually cashew trees – a bit of irony in the midst of a serious story.) He asked me serious questions and we talked about his salvation. I could tell he was stressed out about something, but had no idea what it was.

     One day I heard that he had been shot. The wake was being held down the street. I was welcomed into the home with its dirty conccrete floor. These were poor people. It was a Catholic home and a novena was in progress. A novena is a nine-day wake, sitting up with the body. The room was empty except for the cheap wooden casket in the center, and the chairs around all four walls, filled by women mourners. The casket was atop a couple of sawhorses. Under it was a huge block of ice resting on a metal tray, to keep the body cool. It was all they could afford.

     I recognized him. I was hit by my own grief at losing him. He had been my friend. “What happened?” I asked. Several people whom I knew told me the sad story. It turned out that the kid had been smart enough in math skills to be hired by the local Colombian mafia as their accountant. He was given their ill gotten drug profits and told to take it to Banco Cafetero (literally, “Coffee Bank”). Banco Cafetero, the bank of the (legitimate) Colombian coffee trade, was my bank too. It was a reputable bank in that society, and had a large imposing main bank in downtown Santa Marta, guarded by national police with machine guns. My friend’s job was to launder the money by placing the cash into a certain account, from which it would be moved later to other banks.

     The mafia had caught him embezzling. My friends at the novena didn’t know the amount, but it could not have been much – probably enough to keep his mother and little sister in food and clothing. He and his family did not live in the home where the wake was being held. They lived near Julián González’s home, in a two-room shack about half the size of Elvis Presley’s birthplace, that is to say, barely big enough for a bed in each room. They used the toilet in the small dirty yard out behind their house.

     What happened next was quick. A taxi drove over the bumpy dirt ruts down the alley to their front door. A well-dressed man got out of the back of the taxi and knocked on the door. The kid’s mother answered, and was immediately shot. His little sister saw it and hid back under her bed out of sight. The man calmly walked into the second room’s doorway, spotted my friend, and shot him in the chest, dead. Then the man turned around, walked out of the house, got in the taxi, and was driven off. That simple, and that fast. The End. The little sister began to scream and cry.

     Nine days later, I went to the funeral. There was no priest. The funeral was held in front of a hole in the ground in a cemetery. The casket was lowered on ropes while the family and neighbors wept and wailed. There were emotional scenes with some bit of noise. Then it was over. There would be no marker except for a wooden cross.

     This was one guy I lost. If only he had told me what was really going on. Perhaps I could have talked to my mafia landlady, Carmen de Barros, and interceded for his life. But I had never had the chance, because he kept it secret.

Strange Encounters of the Missionary Kind

                Daniél Pérez and the waylayer in Taganga. — Walking the streets of Santa Marta, Colombia, passing out Bible studies as part of our missionary team project of starting a church, I made a lot of friends. One of them was Daniel Perez. He had a boy who was taking my Source of Light correspondence courses in order to get a diploma. I can’t remember the boy’s name, but he was very polite, and serious about the Bible, as was his father. His father took us to nearby Taganga, a fishing village with a beautiful and interesting shoreline on the Caribbean Sea at the foot of mountains.

One day Daniel, his son, and I were at the water’s edge, walking at Taganga, a few feet away from the very craggy shoreline. We were looking for sand dollars, tropical fish, crabs, flotsam, and the like.  As we passed a crack in the rocky hillside, I looked to my right and there was a man with a knife. He was perched as if to pounce. He saw me and Daniel’s son, and froze. I realized I was looking at a robber who had been waiting for a victim. However, Daniel’s son saw the man too, and simply looked back over his shoulder and said, “Papá?” That made up the man’s mind not to leap. He crouched there in his crack in the rocks and we walked on by. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if it had just been me, or just Daniel’s son, or just Daniel. It was a strange sort of encounter to say the least.

Was he F-2 or just someone messing with me? — Another strange encounter took place on the edge of the Caribbean also. Santa Marta is a harbor city, located on the northern coast of Colombia. Big trawlers load up there with bananas for shipment to the U.S. About once a month, I took our children to the beach to hunt for sea shells, build sand castles, and play with their friends. That day I was sprawled out on a beach towel watching them, when a kid who looked to be somewhere between 18 and 28 came over and began a conversation. It started out pleasantly enough, but soon he began to ask prying questions: what was I, a gringo, doing in Santa Marta? Where did I live? Did I know any official who could vouch for me? And so on. Beginning to be suspicious, I soon tired of this. I asked him who was he and why was he asking me all the questions. At first he didn’t answer, and continued to pump me for information. He wanted me to show my identity card from the Colombian government. I said not until you tell me by what authority you ask; otherwise go away and leave me alone. He said to never mind who he was or what his authority was. Show him my identity card. “Will you go away and leave me alone if I show you?” Yes. I showed him my residence card and sure enough, he smiled and went away. It was only days later that I realized I had probably had an encounter with the Colombian secret police, who go by the nickname “F-2” based on the name of their branch of the military. They never carry any identification and never admit they are F-2, but people figure it out; only, I had been a little slow on the uptake. Only rarely are they without their guns. It dawned on me that the kid had muscles, and could have been military. It was his being dressed for the beach that threw me. Of course, it could have been just some kid playing F-2 in order to lord it over a foreigner. I’ll never know for sure.

                A drunk offers me Ron Caña. — Strange encounter number three happened at night.  I was munching on a fried meat pie wrapped in a tortilla, walking home from Beatriz’ house where I had held a Bible study. I was happy because the Bible study had been so successful. Beatriz’ living room had been packed with people, all ages, and they had been quite enthusiastic. We had even had a few drunks peering in the window. As I passed a corner storefront, one of the men standing there drinking called to me and motioned me over. Seeing his chrome plated .45 tucked in his belt in front, and his smile, I walked over. He and his friends wanted me to join them in a drink.

“Sure,” I said, surprising them – they knew I was a missionary and wanted to have some fun with me. “Ron Caña or Aguardiente?” he asked, naming the two types of whiskey made right there in Santa Marta. “Ron Caña, please,” I said, causing them to break out in manly giggles. They couldn’t wait to see if they could get the man of God to drink some of their whiskey. My new compadre poured the Ron into a little plastic jigger and handed it to me, grinning, waiting to see what I would do. I touched it to my lips, and “Mmmm, gracias,” I said. Then I proceeded to ask him about himself and his buddies. They were from the Guajira, and worked in Alma Café around the corner, a huge coffee warehouse. I kept up a line of chatter with him, all the time lowering my drink until it was way down my side, where I slowly poured it out on the ground – which really tickled all the guys who saw it. My new buddy didn’t notice, apparently, and I said I had to go and thanks very much for the drink. “Off you go, then,” he swaggered, lifting his left leg and lightly kicking me in the butt – something men with guns tend to do to men who aren’t packing. I waved and off I went, leaving his friends to explain to him why they were laughing. I never looked back.

I get kicked in the butt again. — It was around 2:00 a.m. and our bedroom jalousies – glass slats to let the air inside – were rattling from the loud, booming music coming from across the street directly in front of our stucco townhouse. We couldn’t sleep for the noise. They were using those huge six foot high boom boxes. Up to now I had been patient, because it was nothing unusual for the neighbors to make noise when having parties. This, however, had reached the point of being unbearable. Strange encounter number four was about to happen. I pulled on my britches and a shirt and walked across the narrow street.

The owners of the townhouse across from us were way up in the marijuana trade. They were big buddies of the mafioso landlady, Carmen de Barros, who was, incidentally, my friend too. Carmen had told everyone to lay off her missionary. This didn’t assure my safety but it was there in the background.

They wore expensive clothes and had expensive cars. Their house was packed with their cocaine and marijuana dealing friends, all drunk, and most of them dancing on the tile floors. I was afraid, but I was mad, too. My kids had to go to school the next day. No one noticed as I entered the wide open front door and walked over to the stereo. I said to the guy sitting next to it, who owned the place, “This music is too loud, my kids can’t sleep!” He answered me, “Sorry, the music is too loud, I can’t hear you!” It struck me as funny; it was like being in a comedy routine. I reached over and lowered the music to a bearable level and repeated my complaint.

“Oh, sorry!” he said. He left the music on low, if I remember correctly. He walked me outside, while the party continued full blast inside. All the beautiful slinky women turned and batted their eyes at me as I walked through the dance crowd. (Maybe I only imagined it. I suppose I was a strange sight at that, though.)

On his tiled front porch, he sent someone to get me a drink; more Ron Caña. On his steps, by his concrete planter, was a single stalk of corn. He was proud of his corn plant and was hoping to get a couple ears off it, as a novelty. Here came the drink and he offered it to me. I politely turned him down, but he insisted, being the very friendly drunk that he was. It was déjà vu all over again as I looked and saw myself surrounded with men bearing pistols in their belts. So I took the drink and asked, “This is the good stuff, right?” “Right!” he said, beaming appreciatively at my talent as a connoisseur of liquor.

I said, “Then would it be good for your beautiful corn plant here?” “Oh yes indeed; drink up!” he smiled. I said, “Okay, but let’s give your corn plant a little drink first,” and poured some at the base of the plant. At this the men behind him howled with laughter. Under cover of their laughter, I lowered my hand and poured out the rest of the drink, which they also thought was funny. Everybody was bubbling over with camaraderie now. “Well, you’re all right, neighbor; you go back to bed now and tell your children to get to sleep,” he said, raising his left leg up and giving me the mafia salute – the kick in the butt. I waved, said “Gracias,” and went back into the house. I had made a new friend by being silly.

Two mafiosos chat in front of the post office. — This is the last strange encounter I will relate. I didn’t see it, and it’s not about missionary encounters.  I heard about it from our missionary team leader, though, and can’t resist. It’s a true story just like the rest. It seems that two mafiosos met on main street directly in front of the city post office. They were each driving one of those big black SUVs with dark tinted windows. They completely blocked the avenue as they leaned out of their cab windows shooting the breeze and catching up on their latest adventures. Long lines of cars immediately built up behind each SUV. Impatient, some guy honked his horn and the mafiosos heard it. One of them reached over and picked up his ametrelladora (machine gun) from off the seat, and moseyed on back to the car that had done the honking. He tapped on the window and motioned for the guy inside to roll it down. Frozen in fear, the guy complied. Tapping on the window sill with his gun, the mafioso said, “Repeat after me: I will not bother the mafioso when he is talking to his friend.” He made the guy in the car repeat it until he was satisfied. Then he turned and ambled back to his truck, shut the door, laid down his gun, and continued his conversation. There was no more honking!

Jorge the Brave

               This is how Jorge got murdered. Jorge was a policeman, criminal investigator, and clerk in the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, the Administrative Department of Security, for the Colombian government in Santa Marta. Everyone in the whole city, especially visitors, had to have their fingerprints taken and a carnet issued. A carnet was your identification if the national military police wanted to talk to you. Every missionary went through DAS, as we called it. A teniente, lieutenant, sat behind Jorge and oversaw his work, which consisted of taking fingerprints, asking questions, and getting DAS forms filled out. Missionaries had to get Jorge’s okay before they could leave Colombia. For example, Jorge stamped your passport to verify if you had paid your taxes.

                Over time, the 12 missionaries on our church planting team befriended Jorge. He liked us and we liked him. When we finally got the members of all our little house Bible studies together at the little elementary school where our new-formed church met, we invited Jorge. The school, named Gimnasio Americano, was a house converted into a bunch of classrooms. Our group met there for worship on Sundays when the school was out of session. Jorge became a regular member.

                I was in DAS chatting with Jorge the day an Australian drug dealer came through. This guy with the funny accent had ridden in from Venezuela. He had no marijuana on him, but he smelled of it. He did not want to give his name or be fingerprinted, and worse, he didn’t have a passport. Further, he spoke no Spanish. Jorge asked me to translate. He explained the facts of life to this skinny, tanned, bearded Australian dude with the little backpack. When Jorge had finished, the guy said absolutely no – he refused to submit to anything.  He wanted to be let loose immediately.

                Jorge just smiled and slowly clamped his thumbs and one of his fingers around each of his own wrists – the sign for esposas. Esposas is Spanish for “wives” – it’s what they call handcuffs. The guy was still protesting when Jorge smiled at me and said gracias. Jorge said he figured a couple days in jail would cause the guy to loosen up. I took off and forgot to ask later on whatever became of the stubborn little idiot.

                One day after church services, Jorge stood in the door. He said he wanted to say something. He spent a good fifteen minutes. He told each member of the congregation one by one, including each missionary, how much we all meant to him. He was very sincere and quiet, which was unusual for such a fun-loving guy. We were nonplussed, but all were moved.  We could tell he meant every word. He was very solemn for some reason.

                Later that week, we heard Jorge had been killed. The story then came out: Jorge had been responsible for putting a member of the mafia in jail years earlier. The mafioso was finally let out of prison. Jorge saw the mafioso walking toward him down the street. The mafioso made the sign for “I’m going to kill you” –he pointed his index finger at his own neck and, cocking his thumb up, made like he was firing a gun, i.e., put his thumb down rapidly against his own hand. Jorge, no coward, took one swing and decked the mafioso flat onto the pavement. Then he walked off.

                However, now Jorge knew a hit had been put out on him. He said his good-byes to us at church. He went home and he warned his wife and children not to go out into the streets. He knew if he stayed with his family, the mafia would kill his whole family. So then Jorge went downstairs from their little apartment and sat at a metal table in front of the cantina on the corner of the block. He sat there, drinking beer, in front of a concrete wall, all day. That evening, two guys on a motorcycle came by from behind Jorge. The one riding behind the driver pulled out a .45 and shot Jorge square in the neck. Jorge struggled and died. The motorcycle drove off leaving Jorge in a pool of his blood.

                The missionaries and the church made sure that Jorge got a fine funeral. The whole congregation was there. We did several things financially for his grieving family. I can’t recall whether they kept coming to church or not. But this I do know – Jorge was very possibly the bravest man I ever met.

Never Take a Hooker for Granted

Julian          Girl in a Red Dress – Julián González and I were in the streets of Santa Marta, showing a really good Billy Graham film, in its Spanish-speaking version. The street was jam packed with people and they were enjoying the movie. I was sure the pick pockets were there. Taxi drivers were mad because they couldn’t get through and had to go around.

                Julián came up to me with a skinny 20-something girl in tow. She had on a beat up red dress and her head had been shaved, probably for lice. She appeared very depressed. Also, she was very shy, so Julián spoke for her. He said she was in la vida, the life – i.e., she was a prostitute, a cheap hooker. She wanted out and she wanted to be saved and belong to Jesus. “I told her,” Julián continued, “first she has to quit la vida and give up her hooker friends, come to church, get a big Bible, buy a nice dress, and….” “Wait, Julián. Did you have to clean up your life before you got saved?” “Well…no.” “Then she doesn’t either.” I spoke to the girl, “Julián and I will come visit you tomorrow around 10:00 a.m.” She thanked me and disappeared. Julián wasn’t happy because he still wanted her to clean up her life first.

Next day, I picked up Julián.  We walked to the little cantina a few blocks from where Julián lived. I bought three soda pops and we walked through the cantina to the little courtyard in back. There were about six little one-room shacks back there, and the girls were just waking up. There was a big boulder perfect for sitting in the middle of the courtyard, so I sat there while Julián knocked on the door the girls pointed to. Our skinny friend came out, still in her bedraggled red dress. I wish I could recall her name. Julián was now more cordial toward her, thank goodness. He had finally taken my point.

I explained about salvation and she prayed the sinner’s prayer. I asked her what she wanted the most, now that she had given her heart to Jesus. She said, “I want to go home to my village and help my grandmother raise my baby.” I gave her enough for a bus ride to her village, and told her that I would be back in the morning with my wife. My wife and I did come back the next day, but the girls told us that she had taken a bus to her grandmother’s house. We talked a while to the girls, handed out some good literature, invited them to one of my house Bible studies, and left. It was a happy moment, and I hope she has had a good life since that day.

“Are You Hot?” – I was in Manaure Salinas, a coastal town on the Caribbean Sea, at the edge of the Guajira Desert of northern Colombia. I had been invited to preach a three day revival at one of our larger mission churches there.  Manaure Salinas was a salt-mining town.  Big mile-long pits were dug alongside the ocean. Seawater was let in to fill the pits. After so many weeks, all the water evaporated, leaving salt a foot thick. Bulldozers scraped it up and Guajiro women  – their faces covered in a light layer of tar, chewing tobacco and wearing burnooses or loose dresses  – shoveled the salt into trucks. There was a mountain of salt in the center of town. It took up a square block and had a road up it where the dump trucks dumped the salt at the top. The air tingled with ozone in the hot sun, but you couldn’t actually smell anything. It was more like a zing or liveliness in the air, like the freshness just above a soda pop bottle when it’s opened.

The church put me up in back of a cantina. There was a courtyard with little one-room shacks, and there was a small water fountain in the center of the yard. I hung up my hammock on the metal hooks protruding from the adobe walls, and went to meet the church members.

I came back to the courtyard hot and sweaty, around ten p.m. I took off my clothes in my room, all except for my bathing suit. Missionaries wear bathing suits when they go visiting in the villages, because they never know when they will be offered a chance to bathe. With a towel around my neck, and sandals on my feet, I headed for the water barrels in back of the courtyard. To bathe, you take a bucket and drench yourself; then soap up; then drench yourself again to wash the soap away. It was about 95° so I was looking forward to the water.

As I passed one room,  a young girl leaning at the door called out to me, “¿Tienes calor?” Literally, “Do you have heat?” meaning “Are you hot?” – double entendre intended. I looked at her, and in her room I saw a card table and four rough looking men playing cards. I answered her, “Yes, very hot; but I’m going to fix that right now,” pointing at the water barrels. She laughed good naturedly. I went and took my bath, toweled off, and as I passed by her door again, I said, with a grin, “I’m fine, now.” She thought this was very funny.

                The revival over two days later, around 4:00 in the morning I had my bag packed and was trying to shave using the water in the fountain in the courtyard. It was quiet and dark except for one light bulb over the back door of the cantina. This same girl came out, walked over to me, and gave me her mirror, a piece of glass in some pieces of wood worth about 50¢. “Keep it,” she said shyly. I said, “Let me pray for you,” and I did, with half my face covered in shaving cream. She smiled, said “Gracias,” and went back across the courtyard to her room. I will never forget her, and I hope my prayer worked. I know it was fervent enough. I kept that mirror a long time.

                The Angel of West Point – I was preaching one Sunday morning at Okolona First Methodist Church. In the sermon, I told what had happened to me the day before. I was late coming back from a district meeting in Columbus, Mississippi, and was nearing West Point when I saw a police car on the side of the road, its lights out. So, I thought, going the speed limit at all times pays off again. About a mile down the road, I saw a woman walking. She had on pale green stockings and a short skirt. I stopped and asked if she wanted a ride. She said she did and hopped in. She wanted to go to a motel in West Point. Before too long, she propositioned me. I said no thanks.

She said she was worried about paying her motel bill. I had about ten dollars in quarters in my car’s console, and I told her to help herself. She did. On the way, she told me her life story. At the motel, I asked her how could I pray for her. She brought my mind back to the girl in the red dress when she said all she wanted was to go back to West Virginia and help her grandmother raise her little girl. I prayed with her, and gave her my card. I told her it had my phone number on it, and to call me any time she wanted to talk. She said, “You’re a nice man,” and off she went. Her sadness hit me hard. That was the point of my telling the story.

I could tell that the congregation was paying extra close attention to this sermon illustration. On the way out of the church, one rich old codger, a big farmer, leaned over to me and asked, “What did you say her telephone number was, again?!”  Everybody laughed but me. To this day, I still haven’t thought of an adequate comeback. Maybe I should have said, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Or maybe, “555-1234.”

In case you were curious, she said her name was Angel.

Robbed But Not Killed

                ¡Lo siento, mi amor!(I’m sorry, my love!) said the thief as he rode by on his bicycle. He had come up behind a pretty girl walking along. He reached over and snatched her expensive necklace from around her neck as he passed her. I could not believe my eyes. If I had not been paying attention, I would have missed the action because it was so quick. The girl was definitely not happy about it! The thief disappeared in seconds, moving fast.

                Pickpockets usually had rings with sharp hooks attached, to cut the straps on women’s purses. Also, they used them to slice and cut their victims if they tried to hold on to their property. The necklace robber may have had one of those razor rings, but it was so fast I couldn’t tell. I think he just yanked.

               Colombians in Santa Marta were being burglarized constantly, back in the 80’s. The more superstitious among the very poor would leave their Bibles open to Psalm 91 on the kitchen table when they left the house. It was supposed to be a charm against being robbed.  It didn’t work very well. When the unemployment rate is 20%, young men get desperate.

                We were robbed five times over the four years we were missionaries. My wife’s purse was stolen by someone who got in the taxi with her. My little 6-year old daughter had her pockets picked while she walked down the sidewalk, and so did my wife once. My wife put velcro in my back pants pockets where I kept my wallet, so it would make a noise if someone tried to pick my back pocket. I also buttoned the pocket. I never got pickpocketed, anyway.

                      The fourth robbery was at the beach. I was near the water’s edge with the children, and they wanted to go in the water. I got up with them, but when I got about 20 feet away from our towel on the sand with our things, two young men raced by, grabbing up my pants with my wallet and wristwatch inside. By the time I got back to the towel, these two were already a good 40 yards down the beach, running like the devil. I was not about to leave my children alone, so they got away – not that I could have caught them, nor did I want to. I rode home on the bus, embarrassed in my swim suit. The kids lost nothing and weren’t very upset about it. I doubt either of them recall it now. At least I still had my sandals!

                     We learned what local people did to protect themselves on the beach. They always went in groups. One person was designated to keep everyone’s valuables. A hole was dug in the sand, valuables placed in a bag in the hole, the hole was covered back with sand, and a towel was placed on top. The designated person sat on the towel while the rest played.

                     House robbers are known as rateros in Santa Marta, Colombia. When the police catch a ratero, however, they have a system. For a first offense, they take what he stole and let him go with a warning. That is assuming he didn’t first murder those he robbed, which was customary among rateros. If he was caught again, however, immediately he was laid down right on the street. The teniente (lieutenant) lays him down on his back, face up. The other police hold him down. The teniente takes out his .22 pistol and shoots the ratero once between the eyes, once in each ear, and once in each cheek. The bullets scramble the brain. Then they leave him there as a warning.

                   The fifth robbery: One night I invited one of my 20-something converts, Julián González, over for supper. He brought a friend, a teenager, who Julián said wanted to meet us. We enjoyed a very pleasant meal together. Julián’s friend seemed to be a nice kid, genuinely interested in us. However, the next morning I awoke to the calls of our next door neighbor. She was at the front door, which was wide open. “Are you alive?” she asked.  I got up, said yes. I was struck immediately by all the doors of the house being wide open. We had iron grids on the front door, iron bars to prevent break-ins, and horizontal iron bars on the windows, but all were open. We were missing a lot of valuables such as an electric typewriter, lantern, blender, etc. – about $500 worth. We found the bars bent in our daughter’s bedroom, where someone had shinnied through without waking her. This explained all the open doors. I did a lot of hugging of my daughter and son for days.

                   Julián found out later that his new friend was a famous teenage ratero. Julián figured the reason he didn’t kill us in our sleep was the kind way we had treated him. Rateros typically take a bamboo cane, hollow it out, and stick it through the bedroom’s glass window slats. They blow the fine crystals of a sleeping powder over the sleeping victims, which puts them in a very deep sleep. Then the rateros come in the house, murder all the inhabitants, and then take their time to clean out the house of jewels, etc.

                    Our son, age 7, rigged up his own special burglar alarm. The night after the robbery, he tied his little blanket from his bedpost to his dresser drawer. That was to trip the burglar. Then he had his toy plastic bat in his hand, two feet long, to bop the burglar over the head. “Good plan,” I told him at bedtime that night. I welded more iron bars in all the windows to reinforce what we already had, but the piece of smoked glass I used wasn’t enough and I spent three days in the bed before my eyes healed. No one broke into our house after that.

                     It’s not easy to get over being robbed, especially in a culture where the victims are usually murdered first. We had ignored the almost daily gruesome pictures in the local newspaper showing people murdered in their beds. No ignoring it now. Many nights I climbed up on the roof and just watched. Taking a tip from my son, I had an iron pipe in my hand. It took a full six months before the feeling of being raped began to fade. Yet I forgave the kid who robbed us. He could have taken our lives, but he didn’t. For that I was grateful.

Horses: the Good, the Bad, and Devil

Western Saddle

Western Saddle

Many of us who have worked often with horses have been bitten on the knee. You get in the saddle and the horse doesn’t appreciate what that means – a day of work – so he twists his head around and tries to take a bite out of your kneecap. Another common experience is to have your horse suck in as much air as he can when you go to tighten the girth strap (cinch strap, some call it). Then, about 100 yards down the trail, the air whooshes out and the horse gets relief the rest of the day from a tight girth strap. The only danger is that the saddle will turn upside down while you are trying to rope a calf, which tends to be hard on the survivor’s noggin. The only way to break a horse of this was to stop and tighten the girth again as soon as the horse breathes the air out.

We had a big fat cowhand named Bud. All our cowhands were black except for me and my brother David. Bud wasn’t really fat because it was all muscle, like a football player. Bud was putting the saddle on a new horse, and Lee Everett Sterrett warned him, “Bud, that horse is going to kick you in the gut.” Bud, not believing it, said “No, this little thing better not even try” – Bam! The horse kicked him squarely in his bay window. Bud said “whoooofffff!!” Everybody laughed but Bud and the horse.

Sometimes a colt you are training to ride isn’t strong enough to buck you off, but they will try to spin you off – going round and round as fast as they can. This happened to me once. It made me laugh so hard that I wasn’t paying attention, and the little critter threw me off into a thorn bush. That sobered me up!

Skittishness is another trait you don’t want in a working horse, or any horse. A piece of paper blows across the trail, and Mr. Horse goes like it’s a rattlesnake. Or, you need to shoot a snake and the minute the gun goes off, so does Mr. Horse. It takes a lot of work to train the skittishness out of a horse so he is usable. My own horse, Tiger, a quarterhorse, had none of these bad traits. Mr. Dennis Jackson, my stepfather’s ranch foreman, had decided that I should ride Tiger because he wanted to train me in roping. Tiger was fast, and very well trained. If you came to attention in the saddle and pointed Tiger at a cow, Tiger came to attention. If you then leaned forward just enough, he would charge from zero to a dead run, and put you right behind the cow so you could rope it easily. Then he would put on the brakes, you would hop off, and go tend to the cow. This required some skill, of course – being ready for the change from zero to 60; being aware that Tiger was going to plant his feet after you caught the cow, so you wouldn’t be thrown head over teakettle; and being sure to have on a good pair of leather work gloves so the rope didn’t burn your hand. Once I was on the ground beside the cow, usually to give an injection of penicillin, I could tell Tiger to come closer or to back up just by speaking to him.

One day I asked Mr. Dennis why Tiger had so many scars between his ears. “Why, Mr. Bonksie, that’s his diploma,” Mr. Dennis said. (Bumpsie was my nickname, though I preferred just plain Bump, which is how it had started out.) “His diploma? Who trained him?” “I did,” Mr. Dennis replied. If Tiger misbehaved, Dennis would take a big stick and whack Tiger between the ears. I don’t know how Tiger felt about his diploma, but I sure got the benefit of it.

Mr. Dennis and I would talk for hours. For example, what do you do if a horse rears up and tries to throw you off by making you fall off his hind end? Simple –you just stand up on the horse’s hind quarters and pull on the reins until Mr. Horse topples over backward. All you have to do is step off and let him fall. We used to talk for hours while riding herd, and this sort of thing made up a lot of the conversation. I never did discover the cure for the effects of riding eight or ten hours, though. The hairs on the insides of your legs ball up into little tight knots from your legs rubbing on the saddle fenders, and they hurt. You have to shave them off, and even then sometimes they still get ingrown or infected, or both.

So far, I’ve told you about the good and the bad. Now it’s time to tell you about Devil. Devil was a red roan, and huuuuge –  his withers were six feet off the ground, or 18 hands high – and well named for his personality. Only Mr. Dennis could ride him; Devil wouldn’t let anyone else near him. Devil was so big he could drag other horses around when Mr. Dennis roped them to bring them in to be broken. Part of breaking a new horse was to put a bridle on and a saddle, then put a loop around their head and have Devil calmly drag them around until they got used to following along.

Devil and Mr. Dennis had an almost mystical ability to communicate. My mother tells the following story. One day, my mom was out helping Mr. Dennis and my stepfather, Ed Frank, whom I called Pop. Mom, Pop, and Mr. Dennis were putting up a new fence. First the barbed wire (bob wire) was tightened in place by the old green John Deere tractor, the kind with the petcocks and a flywheel for starting it. Then the barbed wire would be nailed in place with U-shaped staples. They ran out of staples, and Pop needed Mr. Dennis’ strength for stretching the wire, so Mom was asked to take Devil the half mile back to the barn and get more staples. Mom had been waiting for this chance to ride Devil. She didn’t take Dennis seriously that Devil wouldn’t let her ride him. All her horse training skills had her bubbling over to try Devil out.  This was her big moment.

She approached Devil, but Devil backed up. Devil was so well trained that Dennis only had to drop the reins for him to be “tied,” so Devil was loose and was going to back up indefinitely.  Mom couldn’t get near him. Mr. Dennis, seeing this, simply spoke to Devil. He said, “Debbil, take Miz Martha to the barn.” Devil obediently stood still. As soon as Mom climbed up, Devil turned and began walking to the barn. Nothing Mom could do could get him to change his plodding slow gait. Mom said later she felt like a sack of flour. And he brought her back the same way, after Mom got on with the staples. Mom said she sat and fumed the whole way there and back. Precious memories!

Games Horses Play

                My mother  loved horses, and was a first rate horse woman. She broke and trained many horses during her life. Her first horse was named Lucky. I was about 4 years old at the time, and we lived in Texas. Lucky was a registered Tennessee Walker, an orange roan color.  He was full of tricks. He would turn on the outside water faucet and pick up the hose with his teeth. He would drink his fill and walk away, leaving the hose running. Lucky was very skillful in unlocking the gate latch and leaving his pasture. Lucky loved to be given a cigarette, which he would eat like candy. Mom would put me up on Lucky’s bare back and lead him around. Lucky didn’t like it. As soon as Mom went in the house for a second, Lucky would head straight for the empty clothes line. He would lower his head and walk slowly forward. I saw this wire coming toward me, and grabbed hold of it. The wire continued back until the last thing I would see was Lucky’s rear end and tail as he walked away, leaving me dangling about two feet off the ground. I hated Lucky and Lucky hated me. We tried to stay away from each other.

From 1960 to 1964, especially in the summers, I was a cowhand, living in Lake Village, Arkansas. Cowboying  involved a lot of time on horses. Lucky was now quite a bit older, but plenty able. When I turned 16 in 1962, the only horse available one morning was Lucky. I was strong and he was old, and we still didn’t like each other. I worked him pretty well that day – or, using the vernacular, I worked him pretty good. Late that afternoon, when we were about 100 yards from the barn, Lucky suddenly perked up and began to do that smooth Tennessee walking pace that feels like being in a rocking chair. When he moved from that into a slow lope (gallop to you city folk), I didn’t mind a bit. However, when we were about 30 yards from the barn, Lucky went off his beeline for the barn and aimed himself directly at a telephone pole. He began to charge at full gallop, and it was apparent to me that he intended to throw me into that pole. It tickled me, but not enough for me to lose concentration. Sure enough, just in front of the pole Lucky planted his front feet and broke off hard to the left. Any football coach would have been proud to have a player who could cut so well. Lucky then stopped, and I could almost feel him congratulating himself when he realized that I was still with him. I had simply leaned way over to the left with him. If he could have spoken, I think he would have said something like, “Curses! Foiled again!” I chuckled all the way home.

My Mafia Landlady

                Carmen de Barros was the widow of mafioso Lucho Barranquilla and the owner of land, farms, and a high rise with about three acres’ worth of townhouses. She was our landlady and she was high in the Colombian mafia. Lucho Barranquilla, before he was murdered, controlled all the marijuana and cocaine leaving Santa Marta for the United States. One day Lucho had come in for lunch. While he ate, he asked Carmen to fill his machine gun with bullets – it seemed some upstart was gunning for him. Carmen put the gun in Lucho’s truck. Lucho left in his truck, and on the gravel road to his farm he saw the guy who was gunning for him standing in the middle of the road. Lucho stopped, picked up his machine gun off the front seat, and went to have a shootout with the guy. However, when Lucho pulled the trigger, his gun was empty. Lucho died. It turned out that the guy who shot him was Carmen’s lover and they had planned it. Carmen had only pretended to put bullets in Lucho’s gun. Now she was the big mafiosa.

                There was a huge funeral for Lucho because he was a benefactor to all of Santa Marta, in addition to having been a druglord. A month or so later, Carmen and the guy married. The wedding was huge. The guy – whose name I can’t remember – gave Carmen a yacht. She gave him very expensive male jewelry laden with big chunks of cut emeralds.

                Señora Carmen came to our townhouse once a month to collect the rent and have tea with us. She liked us because we were so friendly to her. We enjoyed her company because she chatted so freely about local goings on, and it was wonderful having a landlady who was so cordial. We were totally ignorant of who she really was, and by the time we found out, it no longer mattered.

                Her lover husband was a slick one. A handsome devil, he would have looked just right to be on the cover of a romance novel. He wore expensive, loose flowing shirts and was a very sharp dresser. I met him one day on the sidewalk in front of Carmen’s high rise. He had a man’s necklace with a huge emerald in it, his hairy chest visible; and his wristwatch was laden with emeralds and diamonds. He smelled of a very fine cologne, and he was accompanied by his two grown sons, also finely dressed, and each with a silver plated .45 in their belts right under their belly buttons. I knew they were his bodyguards as well as his sons. He introduced himself and extended his hand. I put my hand in his very muscular hand. We shook, and he pretended that I was squeezing too hard, then grinned at me! I fell in love with him right then, the smooth rascal. But I felt very nervous around those two deadly sons of his. One day they saw me walking in the street on the way home and told me to hop in their jeep, they’d take me home. I did hop in reluctantly, and the whole way I felt like I was taking a ride with someone from the Godfather.

                One evening he and Carmen walked over to our townhouse just around the corner. We were delighted and invited them in. Carmen, barefoot but dressed to the teeth, explained that they would like to borrow my 250 cc Suzuki motorcycle to go look over her farm. Sure, I said, but why not take your truck? Well…it seems there was a suspicion that their cattle were being rustled, and since they would recognize the truck, they wanted to sneak over on my motorcycle to see if they could catch the cattle thieves. They were our friends. I suspected nothing bad. I was trying to win Carmen to the Lord. I had even made her a plaque with my woodburning set. It read, in Spanish, “Jesus loves me!” She had it glued to her front door, she was so proud of it. “Absolutely,” I said. “Good hunting!”

                My wife and I looked at each other as they drove off. She was more suspicious than I. Next morning, some guy brought my motorcycle back. I never did find out what happened, but as I think about it now, I fear there might be some shallow graves out in a field somewhere on that farm.

                I finally found out the truth about Lucho, Carmen, and Carmen’s lover. It happened this way. I was in downtown Santa Marta and I asked a policeman if it would be legal for me to park on the sidewalk outside a store. He said, “Son, you can park anywhere you want to, and no one will give you any trouble. The whole town knows you are Carmen de Barros’ friend.” (In a city of 250,000? I asked myself.) “Don’t you realize why you haven’t been mugged ever since you got here?” This was true, even when I was wandering around in the Almendros neighborhood at night where there is an average of a killing a week in the streets. “It’s because Señora de Barros has put the word out that you aren’t to be touched!” You could have knocked me over with a feather.

                That was many years back, in the early 80’s. About a year ago, I heard some news that filled me with sorrow. Carmen and her lover husband were in their big U.S. truck with the tinted windows, and they were spotted, chased down, and shot in a running gun battle with another faction of the Colombian mafia. Right through the middle of the city.

                I really was sad. I cared about them both. But not those sons!