Survey Crew Ahead: Anyone Seen Noah?

We were on I-64 heading east.

 For miles we kept seeing these orange signs—Survey Crew Ahead. 

And for miles, we saw no surveying crew, and with good reason—it was pouring rain. Coming down in buckets, make that barrels, no make that water towers. 

To put it simply, Thursday, November 12 would have been a good day for Noah. His ark could have floated all the way to Duck on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

Courtesy of our children that was our destination. 

They had planned a celebration to honor their mother, my Commander Supreme. My young bride was turning 65, and at the end of this month would be wedding anniversary 45.

Yes, time flies. It flies even when you are sitting still. Time is motion, a restless tick-tock, like the unsettled ocean always moving.

Having learned lessons in logistics from their mother, as we were paddling toward Duck, so were our children and grandchildren. 

They had planned this gathering, this getaway. Covidography be damned. We would make it to Duck come hell or high water, and right now rain water was winning the trek.

We twisted our way through construction zones, with retaining ponds full to the brim. Before and after the tunnel, the deep gray of the day kept us from seeing any of the Navy’s gray hulled ships anchored in solitude across the water.

As we surfed our way into the flatlands of North Carolina’s coastal plain the intensity of the rain picked up. The clouds became darker. Drainage ditches, parking lots, and driveways to homes were covered in water. The ground was saturated. This rich dark coastal loam could hold no more.

Near Jarvisburg, we stopped at the Weeping Radish, North Carolina’s first craft brewer. The building looked dark and deserted. 

But, the daughter of the founder must have felt sorry for a rain soaked traveler. She unlocked the front door. We had a good conversation about the challenges breweries are facing from covidography. 

I made a couple of purchases, thanked her for her hospitality, and took a shower getting back into the car.

We found our way back on to 168 and continued the drive toward the Wright Memorial Bridge. 

My grip on the steering wheel tightened  when we reached the bridge that crosses the Currituck Sound. Even in the dull light of cloud cover, the weather gods conspired to make for poor visibility. We slowed down.

Once we reached land again, we headed to the Aycock Brown Welcome Center. We parked, and waited for good news from our son’s wife, Kathryn. She had been negotiating an earlier entry time with the rental agency at the beach house.

I took another shower getting to the visitors’ center restroom. We sat in the car and watched as wind gusts rippled blasts of rain across the parking lot’s surface.  I reclined my seat and dozed off for a few minutes.

Rain drenched parking lot Aycock Brown Welcome Center by Bill Pike

At some point, a text was received. A new entry code had been issued. We departed the lot, crossed back over 158, and drove toward highway 12 that narrow ribbon of shoreline road. 

Along the way, we hit some large rainwater puddles that flew into air off the passenger side of the car. Soon, our turn on to Tide came up, and we pulled into the driveway of the ocean front house.

We figured out the code entry, unloaded the car, and explored the house. It wasn’t too long before the quietness was gone. 

The cars loaded with road weary grandchildren and their parents arrived. We unloaded what seemed like truck loads of kids junk needed to survive a three night stay.

Thank the good Lord, they all made it. And it didn’t take long for the playful energy of the children to take over.

Pizza had been ordered from Pizzazz Pizza.

Our children had surprised their mother with a video presentation of friends who had secretly sent video selfies to our youngest daughter, Elizabeth. She in turn compiled them into seamless heartfelt birthday wishes that were priceless.

The weather gods gave us a break on Friday. Clouds of gray still hovered around, but the rain had moved out. That meant we could move out too.

Gray Friday morning with an opening of light on the horizon Bill Pike

I prepped fishing rods, and then headed to Bob’s Bait and Tackle in Duck. 

In the shop, I found what I was looking for and bought some frozen cut bait. In my chatting with a couple of employees, I surprisingly learned that the store, despite COVID-19, had enjoyed their best year of sales since opening in 1982.

Back at the house, treks down to the beach had occurred. The grands submitted their observations about the sand, the waves, shorebirds, and shells.

I made my final preps for hitting the beach to fish. With my waders, wading boots, and all the other junk I gave the appearance of a fisherman. 

A fisherman who hoped to catch more fish than had ever been caught in Duck. But, the fish could see right through that facade. 

During my two day attempt, I saw one fish jump in the roiling surf. No matter what I tried, not even a nibble. Final score— Fish 1 Frustrated Fisherman 0.

Saturday was a charmer. Blue sky, lots of sun, but with a steady stiff breeze by the ocean. 

Sun rising on Saturday morning Bill Pike

That morning at 10, we were to experience the pursuit of perfection—the family picture. 

Our son-in-law, Doug, could probably be a professional photographer. Somehow, he survives the staging, the changing of lineups, and the coaxing of smiles.

After lunch, a group of us walked into Duck to explore a bit. 

Duck was at one time an annual trip for us every Thanksgiving. When my father-in-law passed, for whatever reason those trips stopped.

With our masks, we moseyed in and out of shops, and some purchases were made. I marveled at the new Wee Winks a longstanding convenience store in Duck.

As we started the walk back to the house, we made a detour. 

We stopped in an open green space called the Tap Shack. Someone had figured out how to use this open area behind shops and restaurants as a watering hole. 

The walk back to the house was quicker. As the sun started its slow descent into the Currituck Sound, the temperature dropped a bit.

We made it to the house. And once again, our children had some surprises. Photo prints of a once young couple outlined the fireplace, and a slide show of fun photos from the past were being shown.

And before we knew it, Sunday morning was upon us. We had to be out by the unheard of time— 9:00.

Of course, there was a flurry of activity in and out of the house. Somehow, we were packed and pulling out of the driveway a few minutes after 9.

Andrew and his family headed back to Richmond. 

Lauren’s family, Elizabeth, the Commander Supreme, and a scorned fisherman were going to make a stop at Jockey’s Ridge—mother nature’s sand pile.

Somehow, those mountains of sand survived our intrusion. I marveled at the ripples carved out in the sand’s surface by the wind. I would not want to be on these dunes when the wind is howling.

Sand ripples Jockey’s Ridge Bill Pike

Back in the parking lot, we said our goodbyes. 

As we worked our way out on to 158, the Commander Supreme made a request—let’s get off the highway and take the shore road up to highway 12. So, we did. 

We saw hotels and motels, shops and restaurants, new and old cottages, some pristine, some battered by all kinds of weather. 

In some spots, we noted the encroachment of sand dunes right to the edge of the road. And, we caught glimpses of sun diamonds sparkling on the ocean’s surface.

The ride back to Richmond was dry. This day would not have worked for Noah and his ark. 

But, it was a windy day. A day when untethered gusts of wind shook the car and blew swirls of leaves into the windshield. I imagine that Wilbur and Orville would have been intrigued by the wind.

The same Survey Crew Ahead signs appeared as we barreled west on I-64. Maybe they’ll be surveying on Monday, or maybe someone forget to take the signs down.

But, in truth those signs made me think—deep inside of our souls, we all want to know what lies ahead.

I wonder if Noah thought about that—what lies ahead.

At this very moment, probably more than in any other time in the history of America, we want to know what lies ahead.

Can we sacrifice and push back COVID-19? 

Will the coming vaccines work? Will people take the vaccine? 

Can America rediscover the consistency of unity instead of more spiteful division? 

I don’t know.

But, I am intrigued about what drove Noah to act. His faith must have been unwavering.

Maybe that’s what we need is a dose of faith. 

Faith that we can right our hearts—our souls.

Isaiah 58:11 states:  “The Lord will guide you always.” 

I think my heart, my soul, my faith needs some guidance. 

How about you?

Early morning sun over the Atlantic Ocean with shorebirds Duck, North Carolina Bill Pike

disruption

At the corner of Allen and Broad in the city of Richmond, I see what I think are disrupted lives. When I make the left turn on to Allen, the sidewalk along the old Sears building and across the street along the sidewalk behind the BP gas station are men.  

These men appear to be homeless or at the very least unemployed, or maybe both. Rarely on my trips to Lowes have I seen those sidewalks deserted. If they are abandoned, I still see the presence of the men. Empty bottles, food containers, scraps of clothing, plastic bags, and maybe a lost shopping cart.

When I see these men, I wonder what went wrong? How did they end up in this situation? What are their stories? Have they attempted to pull themselves out of this environment?

But, never in any of my trips to Lowes have I ever stopped to offer one or the whole group any assistance. 

Why is that?

Well, I have lots of excuses. 

For starters—fear, safety, and I’m not streetwise. 

In reality, all it would take is one wrong decision on my part, and I could be in the same set of circumstances as these men. That’s how quick life can change.

Word had trickled back to me about a battered pickup truck that was parking overnight in our church parking lot. I too had noted the truck. I was trying to figure out when the truck departed each day.

Finally, on a foggy October morning, I saw a person emerge from the truck.  Quickly, the person entered the driver’s side and started the engine.

I parked my car near the truck. I unsnapped my seatbelt, opened the door,  and walked toward the pickup.

I got the driver’s attention, and with some nervousness and hesitation the driver’s side window came down. To my surprise, the driver was a woman. 

Initially, I don’t think she wanted to talk with me. But, as calmly as I could I explained who I was and my reason for approaching her.

My explanation was grounded in safety.

I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I needed to let her know that the consistency of her parking here had caught our eyes. In this day and time, we have a responsibility to understand the need for showing up in this lot.

With a dose of courage, this lady explained to me that she was homeless, and basically unemployed. The parking lot had on some nights become her temporary home. She noted without explanation that her sleeping had improved in this corner of the lot.

We talked for a few more minutes. She explained a bit about her dilemma. I listened. I gave her my card with all of my church contact information. I told her it was fine for her to park here until a different arrangement could be made.

I probed a bit about trying to find her some shelter, I referenced a couple of Richmond nonprofits who work with the homeless, and she expressed some interest. 

And, I inquired about her job searching and her skills. I asked if she had access to a computer, and she acknowledged she did. I learned that she has a resume, and she promised to send it to me.

Finally, she told me her name, and thanked me for taking the time to talk with her. Then, she drove off.

Several days passed. 

I wondered if my conversation with the driver had scared her off. No resume appeared in my e-mail, and the truck had not been seen in the parking lot. But over the weekend, an e-mail was received with the promised resume attached. 

This lady had two college degrees and lots of employment experiences in her field of expertise. I wondered what went wrong.

I responded to the e-mail. I noted a couple of employment opportunities that had surfaced from staff members. And I had plans to speak with a friend who serves on the board of a local agency who works with the homeless.

More days passed, and then out of the blue I took a phone call. It was the owner of the tired pickup truck. She wondered if I might be willing to meet with her. She wanted to provide clarity about her resume and her employment experiences.

I responded with a yes. We set up a time to meet at the church.

One thing, I have noted in my brief interactions with Martha ( that’s the name I’ve given her) is how quickly challenges related to being homeless and unemployed can escalate. If one fracture in the foundation of your life occurs, then all of your life can come tumbling down on you.

In truth, on the morning when I first questioned Martha,  she disrupted my life. I had come by Trinity early to check on some items for the day. My plan was to return home and go for a run. 

For some reason that didn’t happen, and like always, I’ll blame God.

Maybe what he was trying to get me to see is that not all of the challenges of the homeless and unemployed gather at Broad and Allen.

No sometimes, needs appear in a church parking lot.

Intersection of Broad and Allen early one morning in Richmond, Virginia by Bill Pike

Veterans Day 2020: “feet wet”

Union Civil War General Willam Tecumseh Sherman is credited with this simple three word assessment:  “War is hell.”

I believe General Sherman was correct. 

Somewhere in America today one of our Veterans will commit suicide.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is unemployed.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is homeless.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is fighting an addiction.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is fighting to rehabilitate a body debilitated in war.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is in post-psychological anguish from the trauma of losing a fellow soldier in battle.

Somewhere in America today parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends search for healing in their hearts because their loved one did not come home.

Somewhere in America today, a quiet, humble Veteran will die alone.

Yes, General Sherman, war and the remnants of war are hell.

During World War II, my father’s family experienced that hell. His oldest brother Boyd was killed while serving his country on the USS Simms a Navy destroyer. That ship was attacked by Japanese fighter planes in the Coral Sea.

I remember looking into the faces of the Pate family at Davis Street Methodist Church after they lost their oldest son, Robbie, in the Vietnam War. I don’t think the sadness ever left their faces, and I know that loss never left their hearts.

And, I recall one Christmas gathering of the Pike family during our terrorists wars in the Middle East. My cousin Stuart’s oldest son, Adam, a Marine described how in clearing a house in Iraq, he had a close call. He came within one click, one pull of a trigger to losing his life.

As required, I registered for the draft during the Vietnam War. I was a college student, my draft number was never called. I have no idea what I would have done if I had been drafted. 

But over the years, I have developed a deep respect for Veterans. And in that respect, just like in me, I know there are imperfections in their service and careers. Yet, still I believe their service and sacrifice is why America is still hanging around.

And as an American, I will tell you that I was disgustedly ashamed when then presidential candidate, Donald Trump, bashed Senator John McCain for being shot down in the Vietnam War. 

Senator McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years. I don’t understand how anyone could say or embrace such warped comments about a prisoner of war.

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy is one of my favorite books. In the book, Mr. Conroy writes about his senior year of playing college basketball at The Citadel. To develop the book, Mr. Conroy finds his former teammates and interviews each one.

But one of the most moving interviews was with Al Kroboth. Mr. Kroboth served in the Vietnam war as a navigator in the A-6 jet fighter. During a mission, the plane was attacked by the North Vietnamese. Somehow, Mr. Kroboth was able to bailout before the plane crashed.

I do not know how Mr. Kroboth survived his barefooted march through the jungles of Vietnam with broken bones, infections, and hostile treatment, but he did.

In the interview, Mr. Kroboth, his wife, and Mr. Conroy wept many times as they learned about Captain Kroboth’s experiences.

But, when he was released, Captain Kroboth described what it was like as the POWs waited at the airport in Hanoi to prepare for departure. 

As the C-141 taxied to the gate,  what caught his attention was the tail of the plane. It featured the largest American flag he had ever seen. When Captain Kroboth saw that flag he wept.

As the POWs boarded the plane, Captain Kroboth described an eerie quietness as they prepared for take off. The pilot told them to get seated. He was concerned about low cloud cover. But, he was determined to get them up, and out of there.

That quietness remained among the POWs as the plane rose and climbed for altitude.

Minutes ticked. 

When the voice of the pilot returned over the speakers, he stated: “feet wet, feet wet.” That meant the plane was out over the ocean, they had cleared North Vietnam airspace. With those words, the hushed cabin of the plane filled with cheers.

I hope on this Veterans Day, you will find a Veteran and thank that  man or woman with all your heart.

And I pray that I will always remember that I’m still hanging around today because in the hell of war Veterans got their “feet wet” for America.

American flag West Hartford, Connecticut October 2020 Bill Pike

Heart work in grocery bags

Around nine on the morning of Tuesday, October 27, the fog had started to lift. I guess a hidden sun was working behind the scenes slowly burning it off. 

Earlier this morning out at the Richmond airport the visibility had been recorded at 0.06 miles. Normally, the visibility is listed as 10 miles. But, then my internal voice reminded me— this isn’t a normal world anymore.

I was headed over to Sherbourne United Methodist Church in north Chesterfield County with a pickup truck load of groceries for their community food pantry. Our congregation has been supporting this food pantry for many years. 

But, as you might have guessed COVID-19 has increased the activity at food pantries across America. The need for food in our communities has seen a significant rise, and this need isn’t going away.

I had two able loadmasters from our staff, Ronnie Johnson and Kim Tingler, help with the loading of grocery bags and boxes into the bed of the truck. Our congregation has been remarkably consistent in dropping off food every Friday since late March.

By now, I think the old pickup truck could make the drive to Sherbourne blindfolded. But, I will not try that especially as traffic merges on to the Chippenham Parkway.

For some reason, my eyes were distracted by a banner hanging from the roofline of the large hospital complex that sits off the parkway. The banner was red with white lettering. I’m sure some marketing person would be excited to learn that my old eyes were drawn toward the sign. Luckily, my old eyes could still see and read the following words:  We heal the most hearts.

Ancient grumpy grouch that I am, I wondered how the hospital determined that they are the leader in healing hearts?

Maybe, I should give them a call and ask for a statistical review of their data compared to the other hospitals in the Richmond area that work on hearts. But, knowing my luck, I could have the Fred Sanford big one, and end up at this hospital. 

I can see the doctor peering down at me ready to work on my ticker when a marketing person bursts into the operating room and exclaims: “Stop! Don’t touch that patient! This is the old grumpy grouch who questioned our healing the most hearts banner.”

You know lots of beautiful heartfelt music came out of Detroit, Michigan via the Motown recording company. I’m sure you have a list of your favorite Motown artists and their songs. But, there is one song—“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” that has always resonated with me. 

The song was written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, and James Dean. Recorded in 1966 by Jimmy Ruffin the ballad reached into the top ten charts in America and England.

In truth, sometimes I hear this song, and I tear up. My eyes water, the lyrics pierce my heart. 

And then I think, this song should be in church hymnals. Or at the very least performed in churches. After all, Psalm 34:18 states: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

I am thankful for doctors who have the skills to medically save a human heart.

But as we all know, matters of the heart can’t always be solved with the competent hands of a surgeon. And sometimes, I wonder if hearts can ever, ever, ever be healed.

Maybe during the roar of news stories during the past couple of weeks you heard the name Samuel Paty. 

Mr. Paty was the teacher in France who was beheaded. 

Apparently, in a class about freedom of speech, Mr. Paty showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of this, Mr. Paty received threats, and one 18 year old young man made the threats a reality. Now, two families have broken hearts as French police shot and killed Mr. Paty’s murderer.

This horrific situation has also created more “division” in France.

What becomes of the brokenhearted in these senseless acts of rage?

Where does this rage come from?

What kind of heart could behead a teacher or any human being?

What has become of our world?

Why are we so divided?

What is wrong with our hearts?

Maybe in that same roar of the news you have recently heard the name of Mitch Couch.

Mr. Couch and his family are from Lemoore, California. Mr. Couch has gained some national media coverage because he with the assistance of his family have been making desks for students.

Thanks to our pestilence COVID-19, schools across America are teaching students via a virtual format. For his family, Mr. Couch realized his children needed desks for their school sessions. 

So, he made a desk for his daughter. Next, Mr. Couch put together a step by step video for constructing the desk. That video has inspired other wood workers across America to build desks. At this point, Mr. Couch and his family have built and donated over 60 desks, and they are still building.

I love that story. 

It is a good story—a good heart work story.

And yet, Mr. Couch’s good heart makes me wonder—why and how can our hearts be so different?

What pushes a heart to violence? 

What pushes a heart away from love?

That person in “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is real.

Every description in those lyrics is an experience of real life.

That person is searching for healing.

In our current circumstances, I don’t sense that our hearts are searching for healing.

Why is that?

Well, maybe,  we are not listening to that puny little voice in our hearts. 

That voice is crying out to us. 

It is trying to get our attention. 

That voice is saying:  “Hey, Bill you knucklehead, there are many brokenhearted people in your community who are hurting. Put your heart to work. Start the healing. Don’t wait. Time isn’t on your side. The big guys in the blue yonder can’t do it all. Get busy.”

So, I’ll ask—What is that puny voice in your heart saying to you?

Is it like mine?

 My heart is annoyingly plucking at me daily. I sense it will continue to pluck at me.

And in that plucking, my heart is saying to me—Contrary to the hospital banner, it’s not about who heals the most hearts.

It’s whether I can use my heart to help the heart of one person heal.

I’ll take one heart at a time.  How about you?

In every bag of groceries in that old pickup truck is a heart—a heart at work.

And in every recipient, there is a heart that depends every week on that heart in a grocery bag. 

That’s one grocery bag, one heart at a time. 

That’s what the guys in the blue yonder need from my heart.

They are the puny voices plucking in my heart.

Do you hear them?

Groceries headed to the Sherbourne UMC food pantry, photo by Bill Pike

Part II: Yard work is good for your soul

All week the weather had been October perfect. 

No temperature complaints, humidity not noticeable, and a blue sky not matched by anything created by a paint chemist in a lab mixing colors. Toss in some tree leaves starting to change their attire, and you have what I believe is God’s best month—October.

But by Friday, the weather gurus at the National Weather Service started tossing raindrops into the forecast for Saturday, October 10.

That was to be our second yard work is good for your souls at Trinity.

When I checked the radar early on Saturday morning, I could see the rain creeping toward us. Retrieving the paper from the front lawn, the sky was gray with those low, thick clouds just waiting for water to be squeezed from them like a wet dish rag. It looked like rain, felt like rain. Unless there was an unexpected delay by the weather angels, it was going to rain.

We were scheduled to start working at 8:30. By 8:00, raindrops had started to fall.

I told the Commander Supreme, I was going to Trinity to put signs on doors—stating that the work day was canceled.

But, she said, “Why?”  And she followed up with, “Some people might like working in the rain, if it isn’t coming down in buckets.”

I liked the logic. I grabbed a hat, an old raincoat, and headed to church. 

Quickly, I staged bottled water, access to restrooms, and a few tools.

By 8:30, four brave souls had found their way to Trinity. Pat Satterfield, Callie Stuart, the Commander, and David Priest were present and dressed for the weather. The three ladies worked in three different sections weeding and trimming, and David with his power washer tackled a section of curbing and sidewalk on the Stuart Hall Road side of the building.

A mountain of mulch awaited me in the front parking lot along Forest Avenue. Previous weeding and edging under dogwood trees and butterfly bushes were now ready for mulch.

I had an old piece of laminated particle board to use as a ramp for curb jumping. If I was lucky enough to dump and spread mulch in that first round of targets, then the next area would be the Veterans Memorial Garden.

The rain came down gently. This was what a farmer might call a soaking rain needed to quell a long dry spell for a thirsty earth. The raindrops didn’t pound the ground and run off. No, those drops hit softly, and slowly slid down toward the roots below the weedy turf.

Once again, church member, Mike Hildebrand, provided the dark rich mulch. Load by load, the pile started to shrink a bit.

At some point, I took a break to check on our waterlogged team. They were all in good spirits. And their handiwork was quite visible. By 10:30, the ladies were ready to call it a day, but each promised to return on one of those postcard October days.

David and I kept at it a bit longer. I’m always amazed at how different sidewalks and curbs look after an encounter with a power washer. Like the ladies with the weed eating and trimming, David had the magic touch.

Mulch was now spread under the dogwoods and butterfly bushes. Multiple loads of mulch had been dumped in the Veterans garden. I would work on the spreading next week.

I looked up at the American flag in the Veterans garden. At the top of the flagpole, it too was rain soaked. The flag was draped around the pole, listless and resting. But even on this no sunshine day, it was an undimmed splotch of color against a gray backdrop.

What I thought was going to be a washout, a day of work to be rescheduled, turned out to be a nice surprise. 

Four good hearted people said to heck with the rain, I’m going out there anyway. And in their own unique way, their commitment was a bit of unselfish sunshine.

We all are going to face gray, rain dampened days in life. 

But unbeknown to us, sometimes our capacity to weather those days are found in the hearts of quiet souls. They show up when least expected. But, they are like a ray of sunshine when life has just about washed us out.

Rain dampened flag Veterans Memorial Garden Trinity UMC photo Bill Pike