The pastor gave two readings that Sunday morning at the Lutheran church. First he read from one of the psalms:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
He explained how the meaning of the psalm was clear. “If the Lord can find a nest for a mere sparrow, which is, after all, a nuisance bird,” he said from the pulpit waving his arms above his head, “ then how much more he must love his special creation, man.” He continued:
For I will restore health unto thee,
and I will heal thee of thy wounds,
saith the LORD.
And again he explained what it meant. “If the Lord God looks after the birds of the fields, then don’t you think He will take care of those made in His image? The Lord thy God is a merciful God, He is always waiting with open arms for you sinners to embrace him through the Holy Ghost.” He is the healing God. As the Bible says, “I have heard thy prayer, I will heal thee.”
As they left the church and started the drive home to the farm, Bob could hear his Mom in the front seat.
“That was a nice sermon.”
”Yeah, I guess so,” said his step-dad. “But it’s hard to believe all that stuff about healing when you think about it.”
“It was nice.”
“Everything is nice for you.”
“You know what I mean, for heaven’s sake.”
“Umm. Are we goin’ home now?”
“No, we are going to stop at the Renkes’ house. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Do the kids know?”
The kids. Bob and Beth were in the back seat of the Ford, sitting quietly for the time. They didn’t often sit quietly. At five Beth was just beginning to awaken to the world of language. New words and new constructions of words were fun for her. And she practiced all the time.
“Can’t you be quiet?” he said more often than any other sentence.
But she really could not be quiet. She was excited about the words themselves, excited by the sounds that tumbled from her mouth, excited by the way people listened and reacted. She was learning to talk, and she needed to practice.
“Do the kids know what?” said Bob, the nine year old, from the back. He was always listening to the talk from the front seat. What his sister said didn’t matter much, but he listened carefully to his Mom and step Dad. They said interesting things some times.
“Oh,” said his Mom, turning slightly in the front to look back at the kids, “we are stopping at the neighbors, the Renkes, for coffee and a treat before we go home.”
“But, Mom; Daddy said, `do the kids know;’ he didn’t say `do the kids know?’”
“Yes, Bobby, that’s right; that’s what he said. What you need to know is that the Renkes have a boy about your age.”
“Well, yes, it should be.”
“Listen, honey, and you, too, sweetheart,” she said turning further in the seat. “Little Billy, that’s his name, Billy, is not like you kids. He is not a healthy boy like you, Bobby. He was born with a bad problem. He has been sick since he was born.”
“Billy have chicken-pox,” said Beth.
“No, sweetheart, he doesn’t have chicken-pox.”
“At least she didn’t say chicky-pox, like she used to,” said Bob.
“It is much worse than that. Now you must both be good when we are there. Don’t stare at Billy and don’t ask questions. We can talk about it later at home.”
“What do you mean, don’t stare at Billy? Why would we stare?”
“Let’s start right now. Don’t ask questions. We’ll talk about it all later.”
“But, Mom, what does it mean?”
“Billy is a very sick little boy. He cannot walk or talk. He is always in his crib.”
“But what is wrong with him, Mom? What does he do?”
“Not now, Bobby, not now. Just wait. I’ll explain everything later.”
“I want to hear that,” said his stepfather under his breath as he turned the car into the Renkes’ driveway.
The Renkes had a farm just one mile north of the home place. It was, like theirs, a half-section of land with a house and all the out buildings: barn, chicken house, granaries, and a shop with a shed for storing machinery. Bill and Verleen were about the same age as Ott and Margaret, but they had been married since after high school and had lived on the farm for all those years. Bill and Verleen had three children. The oldest, a boy, was born nineteen years ago, and he was away at college. Their daughter, a teenager, was still at home. And then, some ten years after the birth of their second child, they had Billy.
“Come in, come in,” said Verleen. “Did you just come from church?”
“Yes, we did. Isn’t it a gorgeous day? It’s so nice of you to invite us. We are just getting to know our neighbors. Have you been to church today already?”
Bill and Ott stayed outside smoking cigarettes and talking.
“I went to early mass,” said Verleen, “and Bill stayed home. Bill doesn’t go to mass anymore, and someone must stay with Billy. We cannot leave him alone. Here, come and meet Billy. Come along all of you; he’s in his crib in the living room.”
Bob was curious. What could a boy of six be doing in a crib? Beth was looking around for toys. His Mom reached down and took them each by a hand, and they walked into the living room. They had come in through the back door of the farmhouse, walked through the porch, where the boots and coats were, and then in through the kitchen. There were smells of bacon and coffee still in the kitchen, and as they walked into the living room, Bob could smell baby powder and the smell of church. It was not a bad smell, but different. The smell of cut flowers, sweat, perfume, barnyards, and wood all mixed together. On the wall as they entered the room was a picture of Jesus with a wood cross underneath it. He was always keeping an eye on visitors. He had long hair and a beard. Both were light brown, and his blue eyes followed you wherever you went. They were sad eyes, though, and Bob wondered why they would be sad.
“This is Billy.”
They were standing by the side of the crib now. Jesus was looking at them all.
Billy was lying on his back. He was squirming and waving his arms around. His head was as big as Bob’s head, but the rest of him was like a baby. Billy’s eyes didn’t see anything; they were like marbles pushed into his forehead. His eyes had no life to them; they did not follow you around at all. Billy’s mouth was open and his tongue was hanging out. It waved like a little red flag when he shook his head back and forth, back and forth. Bob could see his little legs squirming under the blanket. Billy’s head rolled back and forth in a constant and perpetual swing like a pendulum.
“Oh, praise God,” said Margaret. ”You poor child.” She squeezed Bob’s hand hard.
“Billy funny,” said Beth, “Billy waving to Jesus.”
“No, sweetheart, Billy is sick.”
“Billy have chicken-pox?”
They looked at Billy for a minute or two. Verleen leaned over the crib and straightened the blanket, tucking in the bottom.
“He always kicks the blanket loose,” she said as she wiped his face with a tissue.
“How old is Billy, Mrs. Renke?” Bob asked.
“Why Billy is going to be six next week. Yes, April 7 is his birthday, and he will be six years old,” she said looking at him with sad Jesus eyes.
“Let’s have some coffee and cake. Does that sound good?”
As they made their way to the dining room table, a big round oak table with six chairs around it, Bob overheard Verleen telling his Mom about Billy.
“He has a congenital defect,” she was saying. “He was born with a condition they call Hydrocephaly. It affects the brain. He will never be any better. The doctor is surprised that Billy has lived so long.”
“Oh, you poor woman.”
“Well, God works in strange ways, and we must suffer. Suffering builds a strong soul,” said Verleen, “so I thank God for sending Billy.”
Bob looked back and saw that Jesus was still looking at them, and at Billy lying in his crib. He wondered what Billy’s soul was being strengthened for.
The men came in from outside and the talk of Billy stopped. They had some chocolate cake, with milk for the kids, and coffee for the adults. Ott and Bill talked about the early spring and how the wheat was starting to grow quickly now after having spent the winter in hibernation. They talked about the progress of the war.
“I see that Roosevelt has ordered the rationing of canned foods, meat, fat, and cheese,” said Bill.
“Yes, that’s in effect now, isn’t it? Good thing we are on a farm. We will still have all the meat and eggs we need,” Ott replied. “I saw in the paper that the US bombers had done some serious damage to the Japanese in the Battle of Bismark Sea. When do you suppose this war will be over?”
“God willing, it will be over very soon,” Verleen said.
“Oh, yes, God must be willing. We have sons there in danger,” said Margaret.
Bob remembered how his Mom had broken down at the supper table last night after Daddy had said grace. She said right out loud: “Oh God, save Bud, you must save Bud.” And then after a silence, she added, “And Virgil, too.”
Bud was his older brother, who was in the South Pacific with the US Coast Guard. And Virgil was his stepbrother, Ott’s son, who was in Europe fighting the Germans. “Our family is fighting Japs and Nazis,” he thought, “but I guess Mom really loves Bud best, because he is her real son.”
After a short while they said their goodbyes and climbed back in the Ford for the one-mile trip home.
“I have to get home to see my pig,” said Bob. “He’s always hungry.”
“Bill gave me some squab,” said Ott. “We could have them for supper. Do you know how to cook squab, Mom?”
Bob and Beth had both noticed that grown men on the farm often called their wives “Mom.”
“She’s not your Mom!” said Beth, scolding her stepfather.
“You are a bad girl; don’t talk to daddy that way.”
“Billy is funny,” said Beth.
“What is Hydrocephaly?” asked Bob.
“No, he is not funny, you shouldn’t say that. He is sad,” said Mom. “That’s the name of the problem he has, Bobby.”
“Billy’s lucky,” said Beth.
“Why do you say that?”
“Billy can’t be bad.”
Bob looked out over the field of wheat that was dark green with the plants spreading over the brown rows of earth and making a carpet of green. He noticed that the Renke’s cows were grazing on the wheat and asked, “Won’t it hurt the wheat to have cows eating it?”
“Not so long as the wheat hasn’t started to joint,” answered Ott. “As soon as the plants start to send up the central stalk then you have to get them cows out of there. But as long as it’s just young lookin’ grass, it’s good for grazing.”
“What would happen if you left them in too long?”
“Well, then the wheat would not grow any bigger, and there would be no crop to harvest.”
“How do you know when to take them out?”
“Keep an eye on the plants. They tell you when to get the critters out of the fields. As soon as the center part of the plant starts to grow, it’s time to let it alone.”
“I wish the cows didn’t ever eat wheat.”
“It makes the milk taste awful. I wish we could have real milk.”
“We do have real milk, silly. What could be more real than milk right from the cow?”
“I mean milk in a bottle with the little paper cap on the top and the cream at the top.”
“Well, we can’t, and that’s that,” said his Mom. “We’re on the farm now, and we don’t have to buy our milk at the Safeway anymore.
Hey, kids, look there. Look!” Ott pointed out toward the field of wheat to the west of the road. “See the coyote?”
He pulled over onto the shoulder of the gravel road, stopped, and pointed out the window. There was a lone coyote loping across the field.
“What’s he got in his mouth?” asked Bob.
“Probably a rabbit. Or somebody’s chicken; hard to tell from here.”
“And look; there are two hawks circling above the coyote.”
The two hawks had noticed the kill and they wanted it.
“Watch this,” said Ott.
The four of them were staring out the windows of the car watching the sky above the coyote as the hawks circled. One of the hawks made a dive at the coyote’s head, pulling up short of contact. The coyote’s head came up for a moment, and then he loped on, heading for his den. The other hawk made a swoop at the coyote’s head even closer. The coyote stopped. The first hawk swooped down very close. The coyote dropped its prey and jumped at the hawk. Just then the other hawk swooped down, picked up the kill, and the two climbed quickly and silently into the sky, leaving behind a puzzled and outsmarted coyote.
“They sure took care of him!”
They drove on home. Out of a dust cloud in front of them emerged a blue Olds. It was Uncle Dick on his way to town. The two men exchanged the two-finger salute as the cars met. Farmers always drove with their right hand at twelve o’clock on the steering wheel and simply lifted their first two fingers to offer a greeting to the cars and trucks they met on the road.
As they drove into the yard on this warm and sunny spring morning, the one thing that was different was this: the dog Trixie did not come out to greet them barking as she usually did. As they piled out of the car, Bob ran to the doghouse, which was between the washhouse and the back porch, to see if she was there. She was, and she had whelped while they were away at church and at the Renke’s place.
Mom, Mom, look, Trixie has a bunch of pups here. I don’t know how many, but lots of wiggling going on here next to her,” shouted the boy.
All four of them kneeled down at the front of the doghouse to look at the new life. Wriggling around on the straw were five pups all trying to find a teat to suck for the first breakfast.
“Oh, look, one of the pups is really tiny, and he doesn’t have all of his legs,” Bob said as he reached into the doghouse and lifted the little monster out into the sunlight. “Poor little pup.”
Ott took the creature in one big hand and walked toward the barn.
“You stay here, kids,” said Mom.
When he came back he did not have the pup with him.
“What did you do to him?” asked Bob.
“I put him down. He could never had made it. He’s better off now. Don’t look so sad. Sometimes it is the only thing to do. The only right thing to do. He never would have growed up, would have been in pain, couldn’t do none of the things dogs do. Better this way. Let’s look at these other four. Why lookee here. Trixie’s got them all cleaned up, and they are ready to find a teat to suck on! Good dog, Trixie.”
“How did you do it?”
Ott looked at the boy. “What difference does it make?”
“I just wondered.”
“Well, it was quick, and it was painless. I just hit him in the head with a piece of pipe. He didn’t feel a thing, and now he’s gone. Now, now, don’t get upset. Sometimes killing a critter is the best thing you can do for it.”
They put the pups squirming back into the doghouse with Trixie. It was her second litter, and she seemed to know what to do to make them warm. She lay on her side on the straw as the pups snuggled up to suck some milk.
“After awhile, Bob, you can get some clean straw, take the bloody straw out of the doghouse, and give her some new. Throw the old straw down on the manure pile outside the barn.”
“Why bloody straw?” asked Beth.
“Comes with the pups,” answered Mom. “It’s just a part of giving birth. Trixie had to clean them all up after she delivered them. It’s as natural as the sunshine, honey.”
Bob ran down to the barn for some straw and to see how his new pig was doing. The pig was to be his 4-H project. It was a fine purebred pig that they had bought at the livestock sale in town. He got the straw, looked in at the pig, which was curled up in the shade sleeping, and ran back to the doghouse to replenish the straw.
That night Ott took Bob to the 4-H meeting. It was the first one he had attended, and he was excited to learn more about farming. The boys met once a month at someone’s home and after a short program about livestock or food crops, they had a club meeting, some refreshments, and a discussion of plans for the county fair. Bob was the youngest of the 4-H’ers and was just learning the ways of the farm boys.
“What are you takin’ to the fair, Bob?” asked the club president.
“I have a pig.”
“What kind of pig?”
“It’s a New Hampshire.”
The laughter was immediate and cruel.
Bob didn’t know what was funny or what he had done. He squirmed in the sofa, looked at the faces around him for someone to help him understand.
“And, Evan, what are you taking?” the same boy asked through his laughter.
“A New Yorker porker!”
A new round of laughter.
The boy next to Bob whispered, “The name of the breed is “Hampshire.“
“Oh, no,” he thought, “I made a fool of myself, a city fool.”
The adult leader of the club, Mr. Fix, told the boys that it was most important for their club to make a good showing at the Fair this year, and he wanted everyone who was showing an animal to be sure that he was ready.
“You must be sure to read the requirements for showing your animals and be sure to train them for the show ring. Pigs, for example, whether they are “new” or not, must be trained to walk around the show ring and to stop by the judges. You will have a staff and the pig should be under your control at all times. When you stop by the judges, you want your animal to stand still and let the judge approach. We don’t want no judge bein’ bit by a mean New Hampshire pig!”
On the way out to the car, Bob took one of the booklets on how to train your pig. When they got in the car, Ott said, “You look sad; what’s wrong?”
Bob told him about the mistake.
“Oh, don’t worry about that none. Hell, most of those boys don’t even know where New Hampshire is.”
That night Bob dreamed of his brother, Bud, who was somewhere in the South Pacific fighting Japs. In the dream Bud was on a jungle island carrying a flamethrower up a hill to a bunker filled with Japs and machine guns. As he approached the top of the hill, crawling through the underbrush, it suddenly started to rain. The soldiers in the bunker stood up to let the rain fall on their faces, and as they did, their yellow skin washed away, and they all looked like his brother. Bud saw this, too, and it must have been like looking in a mirror, for he put the flamethrower down in the bush, turned around, and started back the way he had come. Bob woke.
“Come boss, come boss,” Bob called to the milk cows.
The cows hurried from the field into the barn. After hooking them up to the manger and putting kickers on them, the milker sat on the one-legged stool and milked into the galvanized buckets. Milking cows was always a challenge. The cows, even after being sprayed, were bothered by flies, and the tail of a cow when swung with gusto could leave a real welt on the head of the milker. And sometimes the tail was covered with manure as well. And on occasion when your luck wasn’t too good, the cow would swing that tail and try to kick out of the metal leg chain that went just above the knee bone. Or the cow would step on your foot. Kept you awake, all right.
After milking they put grease on the teats, unhooked the cows, and sent them back into the field until evening when they would do it all over again. They poured some of the fresh milk into a pan for the barn cats. Then they took the milk to the milk house, poured it into the separator, and turned the crank to separate the cream from the milk. The cream went into a metal cream can while the skim milk was used for pigs and chickens. Bob took some of the skim milk, mixed it into some ground barley and corn, and stirred it to make a mash for his pig that was awake and waiting for breakfast.
“Here you go, New Hampshire,“ he said slopping the mash into the feeder. “I’m going to start training you today.” And he worked for maybe an hour with the pig that afternoon before evening chores. He tried to get the pig used to being in a pen with a human. He even tried to direct the pig around the pen on command. The pig, now known as “New,” was completely uninterested in being trained to do anything.
“New,” said Bob, “stand still.”
The pig would run toward the feeder.
“Here, let’s go around the pen.”
The pig would stand perfectly still.
For the next month it went like that. Bob would try to teach the pig to do what it was required to do to be shown at the county fair. He would go to a training session and quickly end up just watching the pig. It was a big hog by now, growing every day. It had deep set intelligent eyes that looked out from a forehead trench at the boy, waiting to see what the boy would try and then ignoring him totally. The pig ate. It wallowed. It slept. It grew. But it never did cooperate.
“How’s the pig training comin’ along?” asked Ott.
“Oh, it’s coming.”
“Ready for the fair in July?”
“Yeah. He’ll be ready.”
But Bob knew he would never get the pig to do anything other than eat, sleep, and wallow. Never get him ready for showing. He took an old shovel handle and used it to try to whack some sense into New. But New didn’t respond well to whacking. He either ignored it or got angry and charged the boy, chasing him out of the pen.
“What am I going to do? The other boys will really get on me when they see my “New” Hampshire pig in the fair chasing the judge around the judging pen. And I’ll be laughed at forever. Why did we ever move to this farm? Why couldn’t I have stayed in Denver where there were no pigs, no 4-H, and no county fairs for me to have to show my pig at? Oh, God, please help me make this pig behave.”
He prayed a lot that summer. The prayers were never very complicated. “Oh, God, please make it that I closed the gate to the pasture,” he would say to himself, or sometimes out loud if he were alone. But the gate was still open and the cows all got out into the farmyard and had to be rounded up.
“Who left the goddamned gate open?”
“Oh, God, please make my step-dad love me.”
“Please, oh, God, make Billy well.”
“Please, God, make the war end.”
He found that his prayers were not being answered. He thought that maybe something was wrong in his approach. He tried kneeling down. He tried stretching his arms out toward the heavens. He tried thinking his prayers. Whispering his prayers. Shouting his prayers. But always the same silence. Billy never improved. If he left the gate open, it stayed open. The war went on in the Pacific. He wondered what was wrong in the heavens.
At Sunday school he learned about Jesus, who, the teacher said, was the Son of God. He was told about how Jesus died for our sins and how he was a mediator between God and humans.
“I have been praying to God and I should have been praying to Jesus,” Bob thought.
He changed his prayers.
“Jesus, please make Billy well.”
And sometime later Billy died.
“Billy is now in heaven,” his mother said. “Billy is with Jesus now.”
“It works,” he thought, “it actually works!”
“Thank you, Jesus, for taking Billy.”
He prayed, “Jesus make the war stop, please make it that we win.”
And, on May 8, 1945, they all gathered around the battery-powered Atwater Kent in the living room to listen to President Truman.
This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.
For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.
The radio crackled and the president’s voice faded for a moment. Bob looked at his parents. They were both straining to hear his words. The war was over for Virgil but not yet over for Bud. “I’ll pray tonight for an end to the war in the East,” he thought.
And now, I want to read to you my formal proclamation of this occasion:
A proclamation–The Allied armies, through sacrifice and devotion and with God’s help have wrung from Germany a final and unconditional surrender. The western world has been freed of the evil forces which for five years and longer have imprisoned the bodies and broken the lives of millions upon millions of free-born men. … give thanks to Almighty God, who has strengthened us and given us the victory.
Now, therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby appoint Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.
“I knew it! I knew it would work,” he thought.
“I can’t wait until the war is really over everywhere.” said his Mom, “Keep my boy safe, oh, Lord.”
After a bit they all went to bed. Bob climbed into his bed on the front porch and prayed. “Jesus, bring my brother home safe” and “Jesus, please do something to help me with my pig. As you know I am supposed to show him at the Yuma County Fair at the end of July, but he is not ready, and I’ll be the joke of the whole county. Please help me.”
That summer the polio epidemic became so bad that state officials closed all public swimming pools. Pictures of people in iron lungs were showing up in the Rocky Mountain News. Bob studied the pictures. Only the head of the polio victim could be seen. Parents were warned not to let their children drink from public water fountains.
It was a bad summer. And finally the word came.
The state ordered all county fairs to be cancelled because of the polio epidemic. Bob heard about the cancellation on the radio on KOA Denver at breakfast one morning. He ran outside and went to the pig shed. He looked at New.
“Thank you, Jesus, for sending polio,” he prayed.