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Cover Story


Dad



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Every night the boy prayed that his father would quit smoking.

Every day he hung over the back of his father’s easy chair as a nimbus cloud of blue-gray pipe smoke formed above his dad and the Los Angeles Times. He asked his dad to do the magic of smoke rings. He looked with wonder on the infinite shapes that lifted into the cloud. He enjoyed the smell of pipe smoke.

It had been as easy for his father to stop smoking as it had been for Mark Twain. He had stopped dozens of times. Once he went two years without a smoke. Away from home he would resume smoking, then would scent his breath before returning and would chew gum while around the family, but the boy knew immediately that his prayers had gone unanswered.

Although he prayed unceasingly that his father would beat the tobacco habit, the boy never thought of smoking as an unhealthful practice that could shorten his dad’s life. Rather, he considered it a sin that would deny his dad eternal life. He never tired of being with his father. He loved him. He wanted to be with him forever.

His father was a deacon in the Congregational church and attended Sunday service alone, just as his wife and five children went to the Adventist church each Sabbath without him. Only occasionally did the boy accompany his dad to the Congregational church. Going to a church on Sunday seemed strange to him, like playing baseball in December. Smelling coffee during the social time between services struck the boy as incongruous.

He remembered fondly, however, one visit to his dad’s church on a Sunday afternoon. The boy had fought bitterly with his mother over a failure to do his chores, and, filled with fury and great sobbing tears, he thrust a few clothes and a baseball mitt into a sack and slammed the front door violently, promising that this time she had seen the last of him.

As he stalked toward town under a baking California sun, he felt his rage and his tears steadily evaporate. Before too long it occurred to him that the only safeguard between himself and the oblivion that awaited him beyond the edge of a flat earth was his dad.

His father sold real estate on Sunday afternoons from an office on the main street of town. If his dad spotted him striding by the office window, he was saved. But if his dad failed to notice him, how could the boy renege on his promise to run away and return home with any dignity?

The boy walked around the block twice before his father finally saw him. They crossed the street together to the Congregational church, an ivy-covered brick building with elegant arches. His father took him into the basement, washing his face and hands, offered a few soothing words, and sent him toward home with spare change for an ice-cream cone.

After that the boy always thought warmly of the Congregational church. After all, it was his dad’s church, and his dad had been there, in that very church, when he needed him. The boy was proud that he had been christened there at two months of age, though he never understood christening.

Hope for heaven

When the boy contemplated non-Adventists, he conjured up none of the wild beasts and gnarled horns of Revelation. He thought, instead, of his dad. His whiskery kisses at the end of a long day. His humor. His large, sparkling laughter. His stories of a prehistoric boyhood. His inexhaustible patience.

He played catch with the boy until the baseball was invisible in the dark. He floated like an inner tube in the public swimming pool with the boy and half the neighborhood hanging on for the ride. He drove easily the equivalent of three times around the world in chauffeuring the boy to and from various functions, not only without a murmur but with delight.

His father was a mail carrier five and a half days a week, with a route of fifteen miles on foot. He seemed to know everyone in town by both name and address. He knew even the children’s names and, warily, the dogs’ names. The celebrity family of his mail route was that of the Chandlers, publishers of the Los Angeles Times. Dorothy Chandler often walked with him up and down the block, editorializing on the day’s events.

His dad enveloped everyone he met with kindness and charm. In a grocery store, with only a short shopping list, he was lost forever among acquaintances. To the boy, he served like the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He interpreted for him the town and its people, magically, wistfully, affectionately, and insightfully.

He never played the narrator in Our Town, but he was enough the frustrated actor to take on vaudevillian roles in the local community theater. At home he repeatedly performed the encore, before an ever-appreciative audience, of a man silhouetted behind a curtain, strangling to death. He mimed another man disappearing down an imaginary staircase. When he read—and he read long hours every evening—he became so absorbed in the stories that he unconsciously choreographed the action from the chair he sat in, grimacing, shifting his weight, smiling, and at times weeping.

He loved costumes. On Halloween he took his children through familiar neighborhoods and stood behind them at each door, dressed in top hat and tails, a nylon stocking pulled grotesquely over his face. Only his laughter gave away his identity. He wore a baseball hat at Dodgers games, a sailor’s cap at the beach, and a sombrero on a Mexican vacation. When he visited the boy’s church, his Bible in hand, his pipe left in the glove compartment of the car, he looked like an Adventist.

He was always tolerant and supportive of his family’s distinctive beliefs. He shut off the television at sundown Friday night, even with a major prizefight on the air. He allowed his wife to work even though the idea of a working wife disturbed him, and agreed that the entire second income should go for the parochial education of his children.

He got himself elected president of the Little League Association when the boy reached 10 years of age, and scheduled all official games for weekdays instead of Saturdays so the boy could play. Three years later he did the same as president of the Babe Ruth League.

The boy did not thank his father in words for this favor, but he played hard for him on the ball field. He batted nearly .300 during his early years, trapped ground balls at second base as if his life depended on it, earned a place on the all-star team five years in a row, and regretted that his dad, watching every game from the bleachers, under the shade of a baseball cap, never saw him hit a home run.

The boy lived his life as a spectacle for his father.

Bone lonely

“Your children will bring him into the church,” one pastor had told the boy’s mother.

The boy came to believe the pastor, and yet his belief proved poignant. His father was such a good, Christian man. Why, then, had he not converted to Seventh-day Adventism? What had the boy done wrong?

Sabbath mornings provided the worst witness of his Adventist faith. With five children and two adults traffic-jammed outside a single bathroom, problems arose. The “speed of light” was the time it took one person to rush headlong into the bathroom after another had turned off the light on his way out. Tensions, impatience, and squabbles marred nearly every Sabbath morning.

“Why can’t we have a little peace and quiet around here?” his father complained. And the boy found it painfully ironic that his dad should have to say this to the Adventists on Sabbath.

His dad once arranged a summer job for the boy with a painter. It turned out that the painter was a rather rough, sardonic man with tattooed arms, cigarettes rolled into his T-shirt sleeve, and a mouth as foul as a birdcage bottom. The boy was afraid of him and was especially intimidated at lunchtime when the man sought to put some meat on his vegetarian bones. Uncharacteristically, the boy’s father had forgotten to run interference for his son by explaining Adventist dietary restrictions.

“Your old man called today, squirt,” the painter said after the boy had been on the job two weeks. “He told me you don’t eat meat.”

“What did you tell him?” the boy asked with a sigh.

“I told ’im you’re a real carnivore now. I told ’im you’re eatin’ meat like a vulture.”

The boy felt dead inside, like the meat he had eaten.

The boy felt bad another time. During the Christmas holidays the gregarious mailman received, from the people on his route, the spoils of a winning personality. Cash gifts, candy, cans of pipe tobacco, and inevitably, liquor. Though the boy had grown accustomed to the sights and smells of pipe tobacco, he and his mother had never reconciled to the presence of liquor in the home. It alarmed him; it was like finding rattlesnakes in the cupboard.

One late December afternoon he took the matter into his own trembling hands. Confiscating several bottles of imported wine, he poured them into a low hedge along the driveway. That evening his father did not enter the house grinning. He had discovered the empty bottles in the yard, and angrily confronted his boy about them. The effort to do good had left the boy with an utterly defenseless sense of his own guilt. How could he feel so right and so wrong at the same time?

The boy remembered such times with a crack in his heart. He remembered Sabbath afternoons, among the pine trees, mountain streams, and salamanders, in the reverie of God’s creation. He recalled Sabbaths, too, as a day without his father. His mother, his aunt, and their friend from the church filled Sabbath afternoons with the tranquil chamber music of women’s conversation.

More than once his mother talked to the boy of Sabbaths without her husband. “It leaves me bone lonely,” she said. “Bone lonely.”

The boy entered college and spent his junior year abroad. Not too long into the school year his mother wrote him, guardedly hopeful, that his dad was attending church with her. In the evenings and on Sabbath afternoons he was exploring the Scriptures and asking thoughtful questions. He was reading volume after volume of Ellen White’s writings.

After some months he gave up caffeinated coffee, pork, and the pipe. He kept a strict Sabbath. On Sabbath he was no longer the stranger within the gate. And by spring he had decided on baptism.

His spiritual awakening had led to a reawakening in the boy’s mother. And one vivid, blue Sabbath morning, clouded by a distant choir of angels, the boy’s dad and mom stood together in the baptismal fountain, hand in hand, tears glazing their faces.

High day

From ten thousand miles away, on a hill overlooking Beirut, Lebanon, the boy had never been closer to his father than he was on that day. What once had seemed like a crack in his heart had mended into the strongest place.

It has been said that the deepest search in life is the search for a father. But the boy always had a father, a wonderful father.

His father had always been a greater spiritual resource than the boy had ever imagined. His simple, good-hearted Christianity had taught the boy an openness and tolerance of non-Adventists. Christianity was undeniably larger than Seventh-day Adventism.

And now, incredibly, his dad had more to teach him, about growth and miracles and rebirth in a man past 60 years old—and unanswered prayers. Clearly, prayers ascend higher than pipe smoke.

 

This story originally appeared in the November 4, 1980, issue of Insight. At that time Jonathan Butler was a professor of church history at Loma Linda University in California. Dr. Butler received his M.Div. from the SDA Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has written many influential articles about Seventh-day Adventist Church history and was coeditor of the magazine Adventist Heritage. He and his wife, Marianne, are now retired, enjoying their kids and grandkids.

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