The Struggle to Live Second


By Jessica Canon, Riverbend wRiters

14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.

15And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. – Colossians 3:14-15A

I started this life in second place it seems. Second child, and eventually the middle child. As I grew into adolescent years, I learned the term middle-child syndrome and what it means to be second or sometimes invisible. My older sister had seniority with both privileges and responsibilities to look out for us younger siblings. Meanwhile, my younger sister seemed to get away with everything including not having any chores or obligations in the house since she was usually rushed off to dance practice or performances. This dynamic would breed far more jealousy than harmony. Each little individual fighting for attention and recognition, but rarely living as a team or family unit.

Trying to be first in as many achievements possible was a driving force among my sisters and I. Aside from wanting to make Mom and Dad proud, having such a fierce competitive nature on the court or out in the field created somewhat of a struggle to learn to accept anything less than first place, straight A’s or high achievement awards.

Accepting anything less did not have the euphoric feeling of victory. It certainly was not the same hearing “better luck next time” or “well, you gave it your best.” There was no victory dance to rub in the others faces. Being the middle child, which was supposedly the ‘problem solver’, presented me with a struggle to accept defeat. When you play to win instead of playing to have fun you eventually lose sight of why you’re even playing at all.

This competitive nature would push me to excel in college and build a career. I continued trying to ‘play to win’, only this time the rules were different. Learning to play in the corporate world sometimes meant accepting your role was much smaller in the big picture – still on a team with different levels of importance. If you were not on the revenue generating team then you were considered support, second regardless of your skills. The desire to win each day slowly goes away. The excitement of the game slowly became acceptance of a mundane daily routine.

Once again, the game changes when life presents a different game to play: Marriage. I was first again, so it would seem. I brought challenges and excitement to another that rewarded me with smiles, appreciation, and love. After bringing children into the marriage we both quickly fell to second place. The marriage would often be set aside in order to meet their needs or struggle – to keep up with their demanding schedules. The excitement of what should be beautiful and meaningful slowly goes away. Somehow this, too, became a mundane relationship and daily routine.

I finally stopped to ask God what my purpose in life is. Why am I here? His answer would remind me that it was time to quiet my ego. Living first or solely for myself would not help me accomplish the purpose in which He created me for. As He continued to guide me through these struggles, life slowly became something totally unexpected. By accepting His will, not my own, I found myself in a new role of caregiver. Again, I was having to learn to live second to someone else’s needs. This time there was more of an understanding because my purpose in life was second long before He ever breathed life into me. My purpose is interwoven into the purpose of others. None of us are living to be in first place. We are living as members of one body continually learning how to move and exist in unity.






The Struggle is Real, But So Are You

accident-band-aid-bandages-42230.jpgBy Maddie Schulte, Riverbend wRiters

We’re in a series called “The Struggle is Real.” When I hear that title my mind immediately zeroes in on the word “real,” which makes me think of The Velveteen Rabbit.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, this probably seems like a random association. If you are familiar with the book, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. Regardless of where you may fall on the head-nodding spectrum, let’s unpack this word association.

First of all, I love children’s books. So, I am among the head-nodders. My momma read to me a lot when I was little and I still own many of the books that once opened my imagination to the wonder of words. I always admired the craft of writing – how authors could weave words together to create mystical places and intriguing plot lines that took us somewhere and taught us something.

Young children’s books, in particular, are incredible because they have three main parameters within which you must work:

  1. They must have simple language.
  2. They must be short.
  3. They must have an overarching moral – a takeaway that will point children to integrity, truth, love, kindness, or any of the other virtues that we want little humans to grow to embody.

That sounds super easy-peasey….until you actually try to write an inspiring story packed with virtuous undertones while operating off a low word count budget and limited language.

This is why I love children’s books – it’s an art form often overlooked.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a classic, profoundly metaphorical story with a depth that is often lost on adults, let alone sleepy children being read to before bedtime. The story is about what it means to become “Real” – to live outside the validation of others’ opinions and truly become who you were meant to be. Its most famous lines are when the “Skin Horse” tells the velveteen bunny rabbit what it means to be “Real”:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

There are so many beautiful parallels to life in this dialogue it makes my writer’s heart giddy. In an attempt to save you from my rambling love of this scene, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you one of the biggest morals: when you’re loved unconditionally, you live beyond the need for approval, and therefore everything you do – how you live and how you love – is authentic.It is real.

It doesn’t matter if you’re worn around the edges. If your skin is tattered. If you’re missing a button or two. When you “become” the realest, truest version of yourself – the self that God intended you to be – your genuine character and the unconditional love and self-love attached with that supersedes any need for human validation. And, when you live outside of a need for validation, you don’t drain your cup trying to be something you’re not in order to seek the approval of others, for you are already loved just as you are.

It’s truly one of the most moving scenes highlighting the power of authenticity and vulnerability in children’s literature.

It’s also a stunning portrait of how Christ’slove for us changes the way we live and love.

Yes, life is hard. The struggle is real. There are the diagnoses that we didn’t ask for, the breakups that we fought against, and the losses we wanted to win. There are the nights where the only audible word heard between sobbing prayers is a muffled, “why?”.

But, like the wise Skin Horse said, these bumps and bruises that come with life aren’t for those with sharp edges who are afraid to break; they’re for the warriors who aren’t afraid of vulnerability and getting a little worn around the edges from the pain that can come from truly loving, for they know who they are and whose they are. Since God loves us, just as we are and just as He created us to be, we need not be afraid of the tattered edges that come with living our most authentic lives, for that “realness” is exactly what God needs for His kingdom.

Yes, the struggle is real, but so are we. So are you.


The Struggle is Real: The Price

By R. Burton, Riverbend wRiters

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The perspiration continues to cover my skin. Drops of cold moisture roll down my chest and back. The dampness in my shirt is becoming difficult to hide. Shivering like this is something new. If only I had a change of clothes handy.

Pretending to read, while my heart rate exponentially increases, I wonder what is wrong with me. Cataloging what I ate for the past two days is not helping. It is only making me nauseous.

Turning the pages without understanding anything I am reading, my mind continues to churn through the possibilities. Flu? A virus? Food poisoning? A cold? An infection?

Then pain rips through my chest. This is not good. Is this a fractured rib? A recent bout of pneumonia might have left unseen damage. Or, could it be a muscle pull? Running fifty miles a week should keep me in reasonably good physical condition. But then, the weight lifting could cause a muscle pull.

I gag as the food cart trundles past. My stomach is cramping, intestines twisting in protest. I will not get sick. I will not get sick. I dare not get sick.

Pains shoot intermittently down my left arm. It doesn’t take a genius to know I am in serious trouble. Just thinking about a heart attack is enough to increase the momentum of my heart rate.  It may just pound its way out of my chest.

My wife is sitting next to me. She stares at my pale and sweat soaked face. “Are you okay? ”, she asks. I murmur, “it must have been something I ate. I’ll be okay in a little while.”

She returns to her reading, while I begin to pray. Lord, let me live long enough to get to our destination. But then, we will not arrive in Jamaica for another ninety minutes.

Our teen-age children sit in the seats in front of ours. Fortunately, they cannot see their father struggling to stay calm. By now, my shirt is spotting with dampness. So, I turn on the air stream to assist in drying out.

I wonder what the protocol is for someone who dies on an airplane. I can’t die on this damn plane. I must stay calm and wait until we deplane.

 We planned this family vacation for the past year. My wife and I want to spend time with our teen-aged kids before they mature enough to think that vacations with us will be a terrible idea.

My work schedule is unfair to our family. Travelling globally over three hundred thousand miles a year takes its toll on family life. Leaving on Monday morning and returning Saturday morning creates a huge burden on my wife. She is raising the kids without me. In addition, climbing the corporate ladder appears to be literally killing me.

Chairman of a Japanese semi-conductor equipment business, Chief Operating Officer of an American global medical systems start-up, The President of a factory computing corporation, Chairman of a Canadian software systems business and many more jobs too numerous to mention, are destroying my life.

I flit globally from company to company, attending as well as running executive and employee meetings, reviewing financials, approving product releases, assessing staffing needs, meeting with the press while focusing like a laser upon growth, value and profits.

On weekends, I sit on the deck of our home overlooking the lake, analyzing reports, funding plans, business plans, company offerings, acquisitions and divestitures.

Most people believe that travel to exotic places in the world is exciting. Basically, it is exhausting. However knowing pilots and stewardesses on a first name basis allows for special food choices, selection of better wines and preferred seating.

Many times, I find that the flight attendants will offer me a plain paper bag when I arrive at our destination.  Hidden within will be a bottle of their best wine for that trip.

While trying to please their favorite customers, they are also offering me an opportunity to possess a gift for an executive assigned to meet with me at the airport.

Frequently, there is someone who speaks the local language and knows the area. He or she will assure that I am driven and quickly ensconced in the chosen hotel for an opportunity to shower, shave and rest before a conference, meeting or dinner is underway.

For the next few days the schedules are grueling. Time must be taken for meetings with executives of the companies for which I have responsibility.  In addition, meals are scheduled with employees and managers who have the greatest potential to move up in that organization.

Customers must also be visited in order to understand how we best serve their needs. Also, prospective customers want to meet with me-the Chairman, CEO, COO or major investor in the company they rely upon for their products and services.
This is the life of an Executive operating as a Corporate Venture Capitalist.

The pilot indicates that we are about to land in Jamaica. Thank God, I am still alive.

Perhaps, I will make it to the hotel and a sound medical assessment.

 We deplane, grab our luggage and spot the sign held up by a bus driver. He is employed to drive our family and others to our reserved accommodations at a luxury hotel.

Once onboard, we discover that the bus will be making a stop on the way to our hotel. Apparently, the bus service owns a rest stop.

Once we arrive there, we are badgered to purchase an array of souvenirs, food, Jamaican flags, sunscreen and other over priced stuff.

While wending our way to a lavatory, we are stopped by a young man who whispers to us, “Ganja? Do you want Ganja?” At first, I think he is asking something about Gandhi. But then, why would he want us to know something about Mahatma Gandhi?

Finally, I realize he is attempting to offer marijuana to my kids. I patiently decline the offer as I push my two teens toward the bathrooms.

In any case, after we all again board the bus, we are able to finally reach our destination, have the staff remove our luggage, check in and have the luggage moved to our connected rooms.

As everyone unpacks, I quietly leave the room and sneak down to the lobby. Asking where and when I might see a medical doctor, I am told that all of the doctors and nurses on the island are on strike. There are no medical practitioners who will see me until the strike is settled. That is not expected to occur for at least another week.

Realizing that there will be no examination, no assessment nor diagnosis, I solemnly return to our rooms, unpack, shift into a bathing suit and walk with my family to the beach.

Lathering myself with sunscreen, I order a rum drink and lay in the sun… deciding with drink in hand that dying on the beach in Jamaica is probably not the worst way to go.

But, what is my quest for status, income, good schools and a rich stock portfolio of investments doing to our family?

What’s in a Name?

By Toni Haas-Williams, Riverbend wRiters

I never thought about the name Riverbend. Not the first year, or the fourth—not at all… until now.

I came to Austin in 2014, and I didn’t realize it then, but if we’re going to be real about this—the truth is that I came to be alone and to hide. Not because I had done wrong things—although of course I had fumbled a few. No, I wanted to hide because of things I’d done right. They amounted to a few after thirty years, and because of them, my name was known in the town I departed. Being known can be exhausting. The skin that’s ever recognized is heavy skin to wear.

A nameless life in a city that celebrates weird was the most freeing venue I could imagine. It conjured vibrancy in what had become a threadbare heart. Maybe it even sparked rebellion, and I began to search for a vivacious church with the same qualities, a church where I could remain unspecified and unexceptional because I thought anonymous might be synonymous with no responsibility.

Riverbend was not the first church I tried on for size. Maybe there were three short-lived predecessors—short being the operative word because if you’re hiding, it’s best to always go out of sight—you know:  around the bend… Casey Carlton.jpgThere, from the first note, the music sucked me in and held me. It was Trevor then—he was fairly incredible. Then Casey came, and it just got better. I tried each of the three services, magical melodies sounding from every one, but the “third service” band [Resonate – Ed.], the praise, the vibe… well, I hit my own musical stride in the 70’s. What can you expect?

I told myself that my pioneer journey to these oak-covered hills was because of my art—to practice and perfect it. Here was a church that acclaimed art. In fact, it honored everything I cared about: creativity, missions, a natural setting and a rainbow-shaped window that showcased the view. On top of that, the church leadership touted the value of rare individuals while it unilaterally embraced one-and-all. The people that made up its pews wore as many dissimilar edges as the stones that formed its walls.

If there was a single turning point in my decision to affiliate, it hinged on the pastor who, at first take, did not seem to fit my expectation. His rather quiet voice relayed the message that he scrawled on a whiteboard while he delivered breathless revelations, then veered his final point inevitably into the most exceptional places… and I listened… because… how could I not? Dave at chalkboard.png
The acumen, the incisive and risky honesty. Heart-baring. Soul-baring, he revealed original language in original truth, and just two sermons into my experiment, that unique voice became what I anticipated most. This pulpit reverberated our Father and still resonates God as He is, as He models for us, as He works in our lives.

Riverbend operates from a platform upheld by Spirit that seeds faith, flames sacrifice, and inspires love. It inspired my love for the man—now my partner—who exceeds each one of my dreams. Meanwhile our devotion to God Himself and His word reaches greater dimensions than I’ve ever known.

Ah, yes. The name…

Now, an actual river finishes at its mouth. Clearly, this river-related church does, too,  and that image—the mouth of a river–begs the question–how Riverbend found its name.

The parallels are surprising:

A river is sourced from elevated ground, headwaters flowing down from a high place, just as the church’s momentum flows down from God.

A river distributes working tributaries from its primary channel, out-growths, outpourings of the same water, as does the church from living water.

During overflow of floods and snowmelt, the river leaves deposits on the plain it covers, making that land the richest in nutrients for growth, the same way that the surplus of truth, faith, and love overflow into communities where the church spreads, making them the richest ground for growth as well.

Wetlands are saturated with run-off for so long that they begin to sprout vegetation from seeds washed there—I’m sure you can draw your own comparison by now.

The likenesses aren’t all positive, of course. At times a river meanders, making a loop in its channel, failing the straightest course, the same way any church does because it’s made of people, and those people are not perfect–whoever they are.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this exposé is not about a place called RiverChurch but one called RiverBEND. So where does that crook-and-turn come in?

Everything in the world is in motion whether that motion is invisible atoms vibrating with energy or a bird in flight or a river’s water. Three hundred years ago Sir Isaac Newton taught us that motion is caused by force, and when something changes its motion—say, into a new direction—it’s because a different force shifts it.

That image makes the name of our church remarkable, fitting. Don’t we all rush along with our agendas, our technology, our goals and our debts—hurrying always into the next forty-five minutes where we’ve crammed into the schedule four more things than we can possibly do? But, if we’re both wise and fortunate, we take an hour [maybe two], one day a week to step into this vast, stone haven with its bow-shaped window, and here the forces collide!

From a celestial place… down… over a platform… through lyrics and harmony… through intuitive words…

–into this hollow inside each of us where we carry the gift He granted at Pentecost…

–into the quiet pauses between prayer and inspiration.

The force of His sacrifice nudges or EXPLODES against the flow of our lives to change our direction, to point us to a better place.

So often twists and turns block the view of a new direction. But still our river runs, and we flow the way God guides us to go. I suspect it’s all the better that we can’t see the destination. This way we must trust. This way we’re each called to vest responsibility, and, yes, that goes for me, too. In the current of the curve, we’re challenged to believe that the water will turn to just the perfect place as it has these forty years, as it will for the next forty years…





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The Shoebox Chronicles: Special Edition

By Mark Lehman, Riverbend wRiters


“Don’t let evil conquer you. but conquer evil by doing good.”

                                                                                           Romans 12:21

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“Heaven in Hell”

Most of my Shoebox Chronicles come from a collection of old letters discovered when I dismantled my parents homestead.  However, this week I started my own shoebox collection when receiving a totally unexpected letter with a profound message.

The origins of this letter began when a respected friend asked me to make a 100-mile trek to a state penitentiary to visit her incarcerated son who had been struggling with his faith.

So early Saturday morning I found myself with a very bad attitude as I sat in a sweltering prison visitation room, waiting to offer some words of encouragement to my friend’s misbegotten son. Everything about my situation was annoying.  The room was noisy, smelly, and very crowded as visitors and prisoners spoke to each other via telephone through partitioned glass.  Many of the conversations were vulgar, violent and very loud.

Then a feeble, modestly dressed elderly couple took seats at the station next to me.   They were visibly uncomfortable in their surroundings.  The prisoner they came to visit was escorted in and his handcuffs removed. He stood out as being a little older and a little more polished than the other inmates.  (Maybe it was just the lack of tattoos.) But he definitely wore the unmistakable beaten down signs of long-time incarceration. The woman sitting next to me immediately started crying and shaking as she spoke to him. Twice she dropped the receiver, put her head down on the desk, and sobbed uncontrollably.  The scene made me very angry.  I kept thinking how could anybody be so selfish to commit a crime that would torture his parents in this manner?

Our respective visits concluded at the same time and I helped steady the emotionally drained woman as we made the long walk out of the prison.  As her husband went ahead of us to retrieve the car, I tried to console her by offering my contact information if an opportunity ever arose to assist her or her son.

Three days later I received a 7-page letter from this lady postmarked Enid, Oklahoma.

She began by thanking me for my assistance on Saturday and for my willingness to pray for their ‘son’ and to even write to him.  She wrote she had allowed me to make some untrue assumptions about the Saturday visit. The man with her was not her husband but her minister, and the man they were visiting was not her son but her former son-in-law, Jim.  Jim murdered her only child over 30 years ago.  Three lives were destroyed during that brief outburst of uncontrolled anger.  Her daughter was dead, her son-in-law was in prison for the rest of his life, and she became so consumed with anger she could not function.

She was angry at everyone in her life including God.  She just could not understand this painful twist her life had taken. She wrote, “My beloved minister and his wife finally helped me realize my uncontrolled anger was blocking any plan God had for my life.”

The biggest misconception about the Saturday reunion were the tears.  She had traveled over 10 hours to face Jim for the first time since his sentencing. The outcome of this meeting was uncertain. Her hope was she could forgive him; however, there was the real possibility the hate would continue.  She wrote, “the second I saw Jim I started crying uncontrollably, and I said over and over again, ‘I forgive you.’  I had stopped crying years ago and Saturday’s flood of tears were not tears of sorrow, but of joy.”

She concluded by saying through this long overdue act of forgiveness, she is finally able to let God back into her life, and she looked forward to seeing the plan He has for her.   Her letter ended with, “let HIS will be done through me.”


Father’s Day

By R. Burton, Riverbend wRiters

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The factory is located in an industrial area outside of the city. There is a chain link fence surrounding the old building.

A few trucks are backed up to the receiving dock delivering paper and paperboard stock.

A small van with an iconic printing ink brand on its side is parked near the driveway.

There are a number of small open windows located high up on the sides of the building. Through them comes the deafening noise of giant printing presses and box making machines.

At the fence opening for visitors the name of the company can be seen emblazoned on the front of the building, J.B. Printing and Box Company.

I know that J.B. is the tough minded, singularly focused founder of the company. He has built the business over many years. His reputation is not always seen as something that one would wish to emulate. His success however is obvious.

I sit in the car with my father across the street from the plant. A box of expensive cigars sits on my lap as I consider the chore my Dad has given me. Each year, I am told that Mother is not to know that we do this.

As a child, then pre teen and again now as a teenager, I find myself thinking about why we do this each year. But, Dad is insistent that it must occur each Father’s Day.

You see, Dad used to work at or near this location as a boy, a young man and as an adult. His past was not an easy one having been raised by a Father whose love of whiskey made him a less than reliable parent.

Dad’s Mom left him, his little brother and his Father when Dad was a boy. His Father, his Grandmother and his Aunts then intermittently raised them. While still a young man in his teens, he and his younger brother were dropped off at an orphanage. The various relatives were unable to care for them.

After being abandoned, Dad learned to fight in order to keep him and his brother safe. At the age of thirteen or so, his Aunt and her husband removed Dad and his brother from the orphanage so they could work in new start up. This was the beginning of the J.B. Printing and Box Company.

As a teen, Dad learned how to operate a printing press, how to set type, how to handle various industrial inks and how to keep his little brother safe from the gears, belts and pulleys associated with spending hours on end in a factory,

He and his brother became the uneducated, unpaid workers who would complete the jobs that would enable J.B. to build a successful business juggernaut. When the challenges came for printing on the six-pack cartons used to hold soda and beer, Dad experimented and was able to create and establish how it could be done.

This invention allowed J.B. to garner much of the soda and beer packaging business. It was the start of a thriving paper box and printing company.

Over time, Dad became General Manager of the plant, both hiring and training employees, ordering inks, setting schedules and making sure that the plant operated efficiently and profitably.

During this time, J.B. Senior’s son and daughter were given a private school and Ivy League university education. They learned to ski, play tennis and enjoy the fruits of the company’s success.

Once J.B. Senior’s son graduated from college, with a Master’s Degree, he joined the firm to be groomed as the successor President.

As the company grew and prospered, the workers were becoming more aware of the salaries in the marketplace for their skill sets.

J.B Junior replaced Dad with a new General Manager. The replacement was a hard charging, somewhat ruthless man who had left his prior job due to worker unrest.

A union representative reached out to the workers in terms of the benefits and salaries commensurate with other workers in their industry. The workers voted and decided to strike. Since Dad knew that the new General Manager was abusive to the employees, he also joined the walk out.

Once work at the plant had stopped, J.B. approached the union representative and, as the story goes, paid him thousands of dollars to go away. He then fired all of the workers on strike and brought in a completely new crew at even lower salaries.

I recall the difficulties in our home with Dad out of work and Mother keeping the house and family together. Food was a precious commodity and money was scarce.

Mom never forgave J.B. and J.B. Junior for what they had done.

I thought of these past issues and their effect on my family as I opened the door of the car and walked across the street to the entrance of the factory.

It is Father’s Day yet again. Another year has past since my last visit to J.B. Senior. Once inside the building, the receptionist questions why I am here. I say,” I am here to visit with my great uncle J.B. Senior.

She does not know me nor has she been at the receptionist desk before. She looks quizzically at me but decides to not question me further as she picks up the phone and dials J.B. Senior’s secretary Janice.

When she arrives at the reception area, she welcomes me while directing me to follow her to the executive wing of the plant. I can’t help noticing the oil painting of J.B prominently displayed on the entrance wall of the executive suite.

A small brass plate indicates he is Founder and Chairman. J.B. Junior also has a fine oil portrait with a small brass plate indicating he is now President and CEO.

As I enter the walnut laden inner sanctum of the Chairman, he sits behind a large burled walnut desk. In addition, there are a number of leather chairs circling a small conference table.

J.B. Senior greets me and we shake hands. After I wish him a happy Father’s Day he takes the box of Cuban cigars. We then sit at the conference table to discuss my future interests and progress in school.  Although formal, he is pleasant and I enjoy our conversations.

He never asks about my Father, my Mother or family. Following our brief discussion, we again shake hands and I leave.

Although I know much of the story about J.B. and my Dad, I decide that I want to be a businessperson and preside over various businesses. My conviction is that I will be a more compassionate executive and will treat employees as I would wish to be treated myself.

It is years later that I understand that Dad is simply honoring the man who removed him and his brother from an orphanage, giving them some stability at a time of personal chaos. For that, my Dad was obviously grateful.

A Brother Comes Home

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By R. Burton, Riverbend wRiters

“Any old rags any old rags-newspapers-magazines-metal-glass”? The ‘Junk Man’ yells in a strained voice.

The horse, a gray mare of indiscriminate age with sagging belly and swayed back, plods along while pulling the wagon wheels over the cracked driveway behind a row of brick houses. I can hear the traces creak as the horse’s body shifts from side to side.

The reins are held by an ancient man with gray hair and ripped clothes. He sits on the plank seat of a large wooden wagon filled with newspapers, magazines, metal pieces and other debris.

I stand behind my home watching the ‘Junk Man’ slowly pass-by. At seven years of age, I marvel that the old man is still able to climb up and down from his perch to load the junk into the wagon.

Although some of the neighbors come out of the back door of their homes to give the old man newspapers and other items they have saved for him, my Dad resists the effort. He is a ‘scout master’ and the scouts collect newspapers and take them to the junkyard to help fund their efforts.

The old man smiles and waves. Although he scares me, I wave back. Dad says that I need to respect all men and women. My Dad is standing behind me. He says, “the old man is doing his best to feed his family in bad times”.

At seven years of age, my understanding of a nation at war is alarmingly brief. I know from my Mom that vegetables are expensive and meat is rationed. So, I work with my older brother and father to weed the Victory Garden behind our home. It resides in an open field, a portion of which we have claimed for our own use.

Other neighbors have staked out a claim and fenced in an area for themselves. When you look out from the windows in the back of the row houses, you can see the many small agricultural plots given to feeding the families in this working class neighborhood.

Dad has planted corn, radishes, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and clove. My older brother, Bud, my sister and I are tasked with weeding the rows, staking and tying the tomato plants as well as maintaining the fences.

We also have a chicken coop that my Dad built on the empty lot behind us. Bud is tasked with feeding the chickens. Each of us takes turns gathering the eggs.

Whenever it is my turn to gather the eggs, I live in fear of the large rooster Pete who is the master of his domain. He is pitch black with black feathers around his legs and feet. His head has a red crown. The wattles below his sharp beak are bright red as well. When he shakes his head, ruffles his feathers and lifts his head I know I am in for a fight.

Just yesterday he leaped on top of my brother’s head and released his foul smelling poop on him. If Dad had not been close by, I think my older brother would have killed him. But, we need him and the flock of chickens for eggs and meat.

Occasionally when a chicken is no longer laying eggs, we take her to the old building that houses a man who will slit the throat and remove the feathers. At those times I watch the chicken being killed, blood being drained and the process of alternately dunking her remains in hot and then cold water.

A machine is used to remove the feathers. The chicken is held against the machine and the feathers, now loose from the dunking, are stripped from the body. The innards are removed and bagged as well.

Mom cooks the chicken for dinner. After saying grace, my sister, brother and I will sometimes talk about the life of the chicken. We kids name them all. So, it is not unusual for us to talk about the bird we are eating as poor Emily or Janet, et cetera.

This upsets our Mother no end.

I am constantly told that life is hard for many families. My Dad has an A sticker on the back window of our old car. The sticker letter designates how much gasoline our family is allowed to purchase each week.

In addition, Mom has a booklet of stamps. Each page of the stamps indicates what she is able to purchase at the grocery store or the butcher shop. She guards those stamps as though they are the most important item in the house.

When we go to the butcher shop, she makes sure that the loose stamps do not fall on to the sawdust flooring in front of the counter. We know from experience that loose stamps can be found there.

As the smallest in the family, my job is to casually walk amongst the people in the crowded area that fronts the butcher counter. I look for loose stamps in the sawdust, and unobtrusively retrieve them for the benefit of our family.

When our Dad takes us to a matinee at the local movie theatre, we see the war news via Movie-Tone News clips. There is a lot of martial music, flags and soldiers charging up hills.

I am told that today is a special day. Our neighbor, in the row house adjacent to ours, is having a ceremony for the brother of a boy I know who lives there.

His big brother is coming home from the war.

I am dressed in my best Sunday clothes. My Dad explains that Joseph is being buried today. He explains to me, “Joe is a hero. He was helping another soldier in the tank he was commanding. The other soldier was shot while operating the gun turret. Joe had to retrieve his friend and was killed when he opened the hatch.”

We drive solemnly to the cemetery where I see my friend and his family. His Mom and Dad are pale and visibly shaken. Tears are flowing freely as a soldier plays a plaintive tune on a trumpet. I have never before heard taps. I will never forget them.

A group of soldiers with rifles raise them and fire them a number of times. Dad says, “This is a salute to a hero”.

The flag on the casket is folded and refolded by two soldiers. For the first time I see my Dad cry.

When we return to our home in the city, the man who sharpens scissors is walking up and down the street crying out, “Scissors, scissors and knives”. But, something has changed in me.

From that time on, whether it is the milk man, the junk man, the scissor man or the ice man, I will know that my friend lost his brother and will never be the same.

I recall something else my Dad said to me, “the way you can honor your friends’ brother and all men who have given their lives for their country is to commit yourself to an exemplary life of service to your family, your community and your country-to be the very best that you can be”. He went on, “liberty is not free, never take it for granted”.

Life for me changed.