Friday, January 31, 2014

My Father the Janitor

“God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”
Proverbs 3:34

When I was a kid, my Dad had the coolest summer job ever.  Being a teacher in a small, private college, his pay wasn’t as high as most college professors get, so he got a job as a janitor and all-around handyman at a local youth camp.

I thought Dad was the luckiest man in the world.  He got raise all kinds of animals—horses, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs—and he got to clean both the boys and the girls restrooms.  I would often wonder why he would teach during the year if he had the opportunity that this camp presented.  Plus, it was a summer camp!  The highlight of the summer is summer camp, and he got to work there.  Incredible. 

While he was there, he built barns, mended fences, fed the animals, and cleaned the restrooms.  If you’re wondering which is worse, cleaning an animal stall or cleaning the bathroom at a youth camp, wonder no longer.  Most civilized people can’t tell the difference.  If I were to choose, give me the animal stall any day.    As kids, we rode ponies, fed chickens and were attacked by ducks at the camp.  It was glorious. 

The camp itself was run by the church we attended, which also ran the college where he taught.  If you’ve ever been involved in such a situation, you know how intertwined each “branch” of this ministry could be.  We saw the same people at church that we saw at the camp that Dad saw at the college.  In fact, most of the camp counselors were the students that Dad taught in the school throughout the year.   Everyone we knew saw Dad working there.  We boys were proud. 

When I got older and the camp closed—flood of 1985—I began to wonder why Dad would take such a job during the summer.   While my younger self thought that this job was the pinnacle of Dad’s life, I began to realize that it wasn’t the most prestigious work he could have found.  Think about it:  he, a well-educated fellow, had to clean up after horses, children and other nasty creatures for pay.  Not only that, he was seen doing this in front of most of the people we associated with at church as well as the students that he had to lead and teach during the school year. 

After I recovered from the glamour of his job, I asked him why he took it.  He could have probably gotten something else during that time, something that wouldn’t have been so close to the people we knew.   He could have gotten a job at a place that wasn’t connected to our entire lives there in that ministry.  He could have been a summer school teacher or a worker in a grocery store.  His pay wasn’t all that great at the summer camp, so I know he could have made more money. 

But money wasn’t why he was a janitor and a farmhand at a summer camp.  He saw the writing on the wall, and he knew that three boys living in the house throughout the entire summer was a recipe for disaster.  We were little animals, ready to destroy civilization whenever we could get the chance.  Broken windows, broken furniture and broken bones were the common themes that streamed through our lives and Dad got a job that wouldn’t wreck our house.  When he could, he’d take us down to the camp for a little break, making sure that we were busy every second of the day.  During that time at that camp, I rode my first horse, fed my first pig and was attacked viciously by a duck.    Dad made us help him mend fences, build barns and, yes, even clean up the restrooms.  By the end of those days, the only thing broken was our will to disobey, fight or destroy. 

Those summers where Dad was the farm hand showed us that he wasn’t above the dirty work.  He was educated, but that did not mean he was elitist. 

When he took that job as a janitor the people who knew him and respected him were contained in his world.  They were the co-workers, the ministers and the students who saw him as a respected teacher and friend.  When he took that job, however, his image could have been changed.  When a teacher’s respect or dignity is placed in question, his effectiveness could also be changed and questioned.  He risked his image by taking that job, yet he took it anyway.  I finally asked him why he took that job as a janitor and farmhand.

He said, “I had three boys depending on me.” 

Three little boys—mostly dirty and destructive.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sometimes, Jonah Can Bark Like a Seal

Although Jonah has had a cold or two, he entered the realm of the real-deal sickness during his seventh month. 

I remember it clearly:

We were visiting my in-laws, the Beckmans, in Cincinnati and, as usual, Jonah had his room and we had ours.  He was sleeping about thirty feet from us, right down the hall.  I was asleep at about 5am—which is my custom—and I heard a sound that scared me to my very soul. 

It was like I was forced to listen to hours of speeches given by my high school football coach:  mostly loud noises punctuated even louder noises.  I opened my eyes and concentrated on the sound. 

It was a seal barking. 

The Beckmans had bought a seal, and I was standing in my underwear watching a circus inhabited only by orangutans and third graders.  (I had fallen asleep and I quickly moved to “weird dream land”).  I awoke again to the sound of the seal in the other room, and I realized that sound came from Jonah.  I jumped out of bed, ran to his room where he coughed again, and I thought that he had caught something in his throat.  I picked him up, forced his mouth open and searched for whatever was in there.  Aside from my finger, I couldn’t find anything.  There wasn’t really anything in his throat:  he was making that noise all by his little self. 

By the time I had finished searching for the thing in his throat, Sunday staggered into the room looking for the seal. 

She asked, “Was that Jonah?”

I said, “Yep.  I think he’s got a cold.”

She said, “Sounds like he’s a little seal.”

I said, “Don’t you mean a little horse?”

She said, “No.  Don’t you think he sounds like a seal?”

Still mostly asleep, I said, “Watch out for the third graders.  They don’t get along with the orangutans.”

She said, “What?”

I said, “Never mind.” 

We stood there, waiting for him to cough again as we wondered how bad this thing really was.  We knew that his cough wasn’t normal, but we had enough false alarms to know that not-every-terrible noise coming from Jonah translated into a negative situation. 

After a little while listening to him breathe and cough and breathe again, we realized we had no idea what was wrong with him.  We were clueless.  We thought about everything from the common cold, to bronchitis, to lung cancer.  We didn’t know.  Since we were away from home, we didn’t have a doctor and we were helpless.  And in between all of our conversations, we heard the barking of our little boy.

By the time I had gotten Jonah to fall back asleep, Sunday had made about 57 phone calls and lined up a doctor’s appointment for Jonah that afternoon. 

By the time we got to the doctor’s office, we were worn out with the worrying and the listening to his coughing and just wondering what was wrong with our son.  Both Sunday and I looked much worse than Jonah, and he was about to show us how good a little boy he can be.

The doctor walked into the room, introduced himself, and took Jonah into his arms.  He listened.  We were silent.  Jonah barked.  He listened. 

“Sounds like he has the croup.”

We didn’t want him to be sick, and to our ears the croup sounded much worse than the cold or lung cancer.  The croup sounded like some medieval torture device that uses a system of weights and pullies to slowly pull out nose hairs one by one.

“Beware of the awful power of the croup!  Ye shall never have furry nostrils again!”

Anyway, the doctor explained that the croup wasn’t that big a deal, as long as the medication is used.  He said that Jonah should be ok in a few days.  Then Jonah barked.  We all felt terrible.  We didn’t want him to go through all that garbage and we thought he was feeling terrible like we were feeling. 

We were wrong.  As we began our most intense feelings of angst over our sick child, Jonah happened to look up at me and smile. 

I couldn’t believe how great he was acting. 

Then he barked.