Christian Short Stories
Listen for the Whistle. It Might be God
By Web Ruble
Web Ruble writes: I am a retired newspaper reporter of some 40 years, and a couple of those years I was religion writer at The Oregonian, Oregon's largest daily. Now I am a novelist and short story writer. My wife Norma and I live in Fairview, OR but split our time between there and Tucson, AZ where we are now until about April 15. We are lay leaders and deacons at Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church in Fairview, OR (near Portland). We also are volunteers on Thursdays about nine months out of the year in a soup kitchen in Gresham, OR.
Well, ‘twas comforting. Like rare vintage wine from a fine old keg.
A distant train whistle. Then closer and louder. Now quieter and retreating up the chasm of legend. Let’s see, perhaps it now would be chugging past Broughton’s Bluff. Soon it would scream past Corbett Station, Cascade Locks, Hood River, and on up through the mysterious Gorge . . .maybe even emerging from it onto the barren east bench above the endless Columbia, headed for exotic arid points beyond Gilead.
I dreamily mused, from my bed by the open window, that perhaps some trains just disappear into the night or into up-the-Gorge mist. They vanish, never emerging. Shangri-la. Offering trans-Tibetan fables.
A dreamy comfort it always is to hear the whistle and imagine a childlike fairy land, despite the tragedy of a certain family some 40 years earlier who had driven east up the Gorge on rails-paralleling Highway 30, for a teasel-pluck outing and never was heard from again. The family vanished. No trace. Yet, people in Troutdale at the Gorge’s western gate insist they saw the family’s car – on the Oregon side – disappear eastbound into the swirling fog.
Scary. Himalayan. To those of us who have lived lives at the foot of such fabulous oddities we nevertheless find it all intriguing legend. It yields measures of familiarity and perhaps comfort.
It was all so fitting and proper that I was so dreaming and musing that October evening after taking some meds for pain because the next day I was to see and spend an hour or two with my old compadre and confidant – the Rev. Spencer Goodnoe.
I’ve known him since Hector was a pup. Not only had he shaken from his sandals the dust of a dissipate lifestyle in his early years to become a leading theologian of our time, but I was happy I knew him many years earlier and still could consider him a close friend.
Our meeting at Westgate Presbyterian Church near Troutdale would be one of mild tension. But ‘twould also be one of fond memory. Moreover, perhaps the God-fearing man would turn counselor for a few minutes and offer me some advice on some personal “stuff.”
He is to arrive from Minneapolis and stay in guest quarters at Westgate and preach, before spending the week honoring other inspirational commitments at Valley Academy, plus Early Beginnings, Dobro Slavic, Hilltop Methodist, and St. Cyril Orthodox churches. Ecumenism is alive and well, you see, in East Multnomah County.
What a treat! And I mused at the time that I would visit with him that tomorrow. Perhaps we would share lunch. Things were looking up, indeed.
Ah yes, the train whistle – although now distant – I still continue to wonder whether it was bringing God closer to me. Certainly God was not trying to confuse me, although I was a little unstable for a while.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
That morrow came. As if still in a dream world, I pulled my ancient beater out of the carport and headed up Main to the sweeping parking lot that wraps itself around the church. As I stepped from the old DeSoto clouds parted and beams of sun lit my path. Ah yes, ‘twas to be a memorable day. I could hardly wait to see the Rev. Goodnoe after all of these years. I hadn’t seen him since he gave up his wayward ways and began traveling Christ’s highway with gusto.
It wasn’t long. I had gone inside and was searching for the best place to visit when his iconic image walked through the big oaken door.
We settled on Friendship Lounge almost automatically, as he headed straight for it. The two women there were just leaving – they seemed to be walking on air -- and didn’t even notice us.
“I say, Walter Old Sock, let’s just sit ourselves down here and get reacquainted,” he said. “It’s been a long time. I understand you have become a biggie, or at least active, in this church. I heard about you through our ecclesiastical grapevine several years ago, and was hoping the day would come soon when you and I could commiserate.”
“Oh, Spence,” I offered, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for some time. You want some lunch? We could have it served here.”
He hawed a bit, finally saying, “Er . . .uh, no. I am meeting the Rev. John Smith in Gresham at about 1 o’clock for lunch. And I had a late breakfast. But I tell you what . . . maybe we could have a nip of wine for old time’s sake to get in the groove so to speak.”
At that point he reached into his satchel and extracted a surprisingly large bottle of Mogen David.
We spent the next hour and a half, delightfully chatting about old times plus today’s this and that. One visible force I noticed was he seemed to have a golden aura – almost a halo – around his head. I also noticed that despite repeated nips, our wine levels in the glasses I had retrieved from the kitchen never seemed to go down. Once he had tipped the bottle to fill our wine glasses, he never went back to it. We nipped off and on, yet the glasses remained full.
Most strange. Comforting, yet strange. Yet I was the happiest I had been for a long time. It was as if I was delirious in the cosmos.
The time finally came. He glanced at his watch and said, “Omigosh! It’s past time. Gotta go. See you soon, Walter.” Saying nothing more, he rose from the easy chair, strode toward the door and vanished before I could rise and follow him to what I assumed was his rental car.
Moments later I sashayed to the door to say goodbye to my old friend as he drove off. But he wasn’t there. He had vanished. No car motor. No trace. Nothing. Hmmm.
No matter. I was happy; almost sublime. My only regret then was that we had never set another date for lunch or another visit. Oh well, perhaps I would see him later in the week.
The next morning, while diligently doing some household chores wife Alice had suggested. The telephone rang, giving me a start. The ring was so profound that I had that weird sense that it might be something special.
It was the secretary in my church. Debra sounded harassed and urgent. I’ll never forget her words: “I just got a call from Rev. Goodnoe in Minneapolis, saying his flight had been delayed. And some other emergencies had arisen and that he might not be able to come at all. He was concerned because he had scheduled a late morning visit with you here at the church.”
“Are you kidding me? He was here yesterday. We met there at the church. Don’t you remember? We had some wine and a long chat.”
“No. I really don’t remember that. I don’t remember seeing him, or you for that matter. I didn’t attend church. Neither one of you came to the office. Though it was Sunday, I was stuck in here most of the day. Well, anyway, I was instructed to call you and tell you about his delay and circumstance. He sends his apologies. Hey, the phones are ringing. I gotta go. G’bye.”
Click . . . hummmm.
I stood there by our hallway telephone stand, more than dumbfounded. I just stared into Oregon’s assembling overcast I saw out the door. I finally hung up. Colossally perplexed, I nearly ran outside, screaming.
I told Alice. She just shrugged and said she had to run errands and dashed off. I called the church again, but Debra was frantic, running short on time trying to iron some interoffice problems. She didn’t have time to talk to me at the moment. Moreover, Pastor Connie was out, no doubt visiting people in the hospital or rest homes. Hmmm.
This just can’t be. Either that or I am truly cracking up, I mused to myself. Well, okay, it wasn’t a muse. More likely, it was a head-hammering shriek. I ran around the house. I even looked in the mirror to make sure I was body and soul. Nothing made sense. I questioned my own sanity. I also thought perhaps the world as I thought I knew it, really wasn’t.
I had to do something. I couldn’t just shrug and admit that I was getting balmy.
Then, thundered by a moment of brilliance. I went for immediate help. Lord knows I certainly needed it. This was like not believing in ghosts and yet seeing one.
Christianity, in my mind at least, was under serious fire. This was not a Holy occurrence. I went straight to the phone. Again. Another old friend – the Rev. Bert Jeffries of Gresham’s evangelical Beyond The Jordan congregation -- answered and understood that I needed to see him immediately. He didn’t know the particulars. He could just tell it was urgent. I was panicking.
The Rev. Jeffries agreed, saying, “By all means come on over. I’ll be here waiting.”
- - - - - - - - - - -
He listened intently, looking me straight in the eyeballs. Rev. Jeffries always did that. He was a terrific listener and therefore a good counselor.
I tried to calm myself as I told him the story about how I had eagerly awaited the Rev. Goodnoe’s visit, and that it was wonderful when it came. We had so much to share. But time ran out on us. Nevertheless, ‘twas a good visit. But today -- the next day -- the church got this call from him saying he would not be able to make our scheduled late morning visit, and that he might not be able to come to Portland at all.
Like a wise old owl – spotted or otherwise – the Rev. Jeffries listened while scrutinizing me carefully.
Finally, he asked me, “What day is today?”
“What DAY is today?”
“Well, it’s Tuesday, of course.”
“Hah. No it isn’t. It’s Monday.”
“Yep. That’s it. Hey Mabel,” he hollered at his secretary. “What’s the date today?”
“October 13th, Monday, of course . . .what’d you think it was?” she said.
Rev. Jeffries then pointed to his wall calendar. There it was. His October calendar showed clearly that the 13th was definitely Monday.
I was shocked out of my bvd’s. Flabbergasted doesn’t quite cover it.
Then in his infinite wisdom, like a reclusive intermountain oracle, he asked me what day I was to meet the Rev. Goodnoe.
I said, “Monday, the 13th.
“That’s today. You see, you’re not cracking up at all.”
“Well, that can’t be. Everything is screwy. What about that long visit I had with him yesterday? That was Monday wasn’t it?”
“You had no visit. Yesterday, for the record, was Sunday. It was all in your mind.”
“Huh? And you say I’m not cracking up?”
“That’s right,” Rev. Jeffries said. “Been getting enough sleep? How’s your back pain? Did you take meds for it?”
“Well, I . . .er uh, arghhh. I guess I was working like a steer all last week to clear my calendar so I would have lots of time to visit with Spence (Goodnoe). Because of it, though, my back went into a Singapore sling. It was killing me. So I took a heavy dose of meds. Pain I didn’t need.”
“How much is a heavy dose?”
“Well, I more than doubled up.”
“Don’t you see? You took way too much. It made you gooofier than a hoot owl and fruitier than a peach orchard bore. You dreamed all of it. “
‘Uhhh . . but it all seemed too real. He was right there in our Friendship Hall . . .I think.”
“No, he wasn’t. Not in body. Perhaps in spirit.”
“Huh? I’m finding this hard to comprehend,” I said.
“Well,” he said in his most I-don’t-have-all-of-the-answers mood. “I don’t know what to make of it, really, except as Christians, there are many things about the Holy spirit -- God -- that we don’t understand. What we DO realize, however, is that God sometimes moves in mysterious, unfathomable ways. Looks like he did so this time.”
“Well . . .”
“Perhaps you and Spence -- er uh, the Rev. Mr. Goodnoe -- are such kindred spirits that you two communicated all right. But he wasn’t here. You just dreamt he was.”
“It DID all seem sort of dreamlike . . .”
“Well enough of this. Walter, I’m glad you came in. This’ll give us both something to ponder. Know one thing, though -- there is only one God. He loves you. He doesn’t want to confuse or hurt you. Perhaps this is his way of opening a whole new trail in your walk with Him.”
(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)
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