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Book Jacket

0736907300
Trade Paperback
250 pages
Jan 2004
Harvest House Publishers

Growing Up on the Edge of the World

by Phil Callaway

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Excerpt:

 

One

Home

If ever you reach the lowest point along Highway 13, just south of Spruce Lake, where the road takes the only bend you’ll see for miles and patchwork wheatfields surround you, rich with black soil that once lured settlers from the east, you will find my hometown.

You can’t miss it, they always say.

But most people do.

To the west, windswept hills that are mere wrinkles to some folk begin to climb toward the mountains like children eager to assert their independence. To the east, red-tailed hawks circle high above places with odd names like Hector’s Hollow and Three Tree Gap into a broad-brimmed sky that refuses to quit. If you should feel the need to stop for the night or order a plate of fries (lightly sprinkled with vinegar) at the Garlic Grill, you may see a handsome couple walking haltingly, their faces toward the setting sun, their hands gently entwined, their countenances brightened by unintentional smiles. Stop and they’ll point you in the right direction. Breathe deeply and you’ll catch a hint of canola mixed with fresh-mown hay, and if the wind is stirring from the south, a little manure—something the locals don’t notice so much anymore.

The gravel on Third Avenue will take you right past our white-stained house, half-buried in dust, the one with the wide backyard that slopes gently toward a lazy stream. The single-story home is built of timber harvested from a sawmill a hundred miles westward, smeared with drab plaster—in some places gray, in others white—and topped with a dual-pitched mansard roof with patterns in the shingles. The roof was a mistake, according to my father. Apparently the one filling the order had just been fired, and his last act of defiance was to ship a freight-car load of the wrong shingles 2000 miles west, shingles that were worth a bundle. “Now, if we just had a house to put under them,” I once heard Dad sigh. As it is, our house is primarily constructed of half-inch plywood. The windows are trimmed in it, the sparse furniture made of it, and I often extract lengthy slivers on account of it.

Most of our yard stops growing grass by early June, its blades innocent victims to the bare feet of a dozen neighbor children and a thousand imaginary football games where Johny Unitas and Deacon Jones convert outstanding plays disguised as mere mortals like us. “Better to raise children than grass,” my mother says from time to time from her perch on the sofa, and Dad peeks out from behind the newspaper as if to question her logic, as if he’s not so sure. Perhaps he’d like to sit in the grass one night and locate certain planets without having to dust off his pants before bedtime.

Sometimes at night, when the sun glides behind the mountains, Dad tells me stories, and if I had to pick a favorite I would have him tell me of my birth.

From the moment I drew my first breath in room 117 of Grace Municipal Hospital, all I really wanted was adventure. And a midnight snack, of course. Others yearned for comfort, for the blankets to be wrapped tight, for soft music playing, and for ample reassurances for the journey ahead. Not me. I arrived one minute before the clock smacked twelve, on February 29 of a leap year, 1964, the year China tried out its first atomic bomb and the U.S. Surgeon General first warned of the dangers of tobacco. My father was far from home that night—picking up engine parts for someone—but insisted he had wakened with a start in a strange hotel room precisely at midnight, certain there was one more Anderson in the world and pretty sure it was a boy.

Baptists are not usually privy to such visions, so you can imagine his surprise when the truth was confirmed by a long-distance phone call.

“I think we’ll call him Barry,” he told the nurse, and then, throwing back the covers, he rose on his bare feet to celebrate the miracle with a long swig of ginger ale, a quick gargle, and an enthusiastic holler.

Somehow the handle was lost in the translation, and my mother named me Terry. (“Isn’t that sweet,” she told the nurse. “He wants him named after my younger sister.”) And naming me was almost the last thing she ever did. Nearly forgotten, I whimpered nearby as a doctor and four nurses hovered over her like ministering angels, feverish to prolong her life, desperate for a heartbeat. Our destinies hinge on moments like these, on things we cannot know and certainly cannot control. I later learned that the doctor was furious with both my parents for what I could not know, and he muttered his displeasure even as he tried to save her life. When at last the nurses were patting one another’s angel wings, one of them noticed me smiling at the ceiling and cooing softly and said, “Oh shoot, we forgot to weigh him.” So she did: cleaned me off and laid me on some cold Imperial measuring scale, though I had to be reminded of these things later.

The very next Wednesday in the Grace Chronicle I was the lone star of Birth Announcements on the inside back page:

Born to John and Ruth Anderson, a boy! Terry Paul. Weighing seven pounds, one inch.

The last word was an error, of course, a typo typical of the newspaper. I have kept the clipping to this day.

Tonight, Dad is rubbing the growing pains out of my skinny legs as he tells me the story.

“Why was the doctor angry?” I ask.

“What do you mean? Who told you that?”

“Tony.”

“Well son, it doesn’t much matter. What matters is—” Then he grows silent and changes the subject. “I’d have been home,” he says regretfully, “but for the snowstorm. It was clean tuckered out by the time it got here, so it only left a foot or two. But it had blown in from Alaska, where it dumped 346 inches on the Thompson Pass. Can you believe it? The record still stands. Look it up if you’d like.”

I wouldn’t know where to look it up or how or why. Dad never tells lies. Not even little ones. He is rubbing my legs harder now, staring out the window into the darkness. “Still, the blizzard hit like a freight train without a whistle. I was only sixty miles north of here when it landed, and I wanted nothing more than to get home. But when I started for the car in my boots, I went snow-blind. Couldn’t see a thing. Had to turn back.”

“You only had boots on?” I’m not trying to be funny.

He laughs pretty hard at that one, rocking back and forth a little, easing up on my legs. Then he is gazing out the window again. “I knelt in that hotel room in my pajamas, Terry, my bare feet still on, and I just knew I needed to pray for your mother.” His eyes are moist, probably red. “Yes sir, I fell asleep right there on my knees. Never did sleep in that bed at all.” Here a smile steals across his face. “And I dreamed of throwing the football one summer afternoon with my youngest son.”

“That’s me,” I say.

“That’s you.”

“But it’s winter now.”

“It is.”

“We can ice skate.”

“We can and we will.”

He is stroking my black hair now, tugging at a stubborn knot. “Well, it’s time for your prayers, Son. Goodnight.”

I wonder if other twelve-year-olds get their foreheads kissed, or if they wipe the kisses off like I do.

How I love my father. He is the closest thing to a hero a Christian boy is allowed, for we are not encouraged to admire the folks of earth. “God is the only perfect one,” says our pastor. But Dad comes a close second. The only thing he cannot do is sing. What comes out sounds like a cat being squeezed too hard. Upon trying out for the Father’s Day Men’s Chorale, he was informed they were looking for someone to help take the offering. It seems to be his only fault, for Dad is the most honest man I have ever met, a mechanic who never cheated a soul, who can often be found guilty of nursing a soft spot for those with old cars that misfire or with bank accounts that do the same. The vehicles we drive never run quite right, but the irony was lost on me until years later.“That Anderson fixes everyone’s problems but his own,” someone said. And someone was right. Our front yard is littered with crankshafts and bumpers and alternators and at least one old wreck at any given time.

We drive older cars partly because we have no money and partly because Dad tried to buy a newer one once (with the help of a check my grandpa sent) and the experience spooked him. For weeks he’d had his eye on a two-tone 1965 Pontiac Bonneville with a neglected odometer. We prayed about it every night, and finally the arrangements were made and the price agreed upon. According to my brother, the salesman (a greasy-haired little fellow from another state) motioned my father into his office and set a contract before him as if it were hot soup that would cool off if he didn’t hurry up and grab a spoon.

Dad looked it over carefully, pen hovering, poised to strike, when the anxious salesman lowered his voice and whispered,“My boss will be sending you an evaluation form in about a week. Questions about my service and stuff. You bring it by my place, and I’ll getcha a free tank of gas.”

My father was still squinting at the fine print, not paying much attention.

“You don’t need to fill out the evaluation when it comes,” the salesman explained with a wink. Dad looked up. “I’ll do the work for you—I’ll just mark ‘outstanding’ in every category. No one needs to know.”

Normally my father believes that anger is an expensive luxury, “just one letter short of danger,” I’ve heard him say, but this day it was a luxury he could afford. First he gave the salesman a good working over about truth and integrity and how more money just makes you more of what you already are and in his case he must have been a thief and a sneak from day one and maybe that was okay in Kansas or wherever he was from but out here it wouldn’t cut it, not in a thousand years. “A man who stoops to make a buck isn’t worth his weight in coat hangers,” said Dad, standing to his feet and dropping the pen on the desk with a thud. “You know the price of everything and the value of nothing! There’s a bus leaving in ten minutes. Be under it.” Then he ripped up the contract, tossed it in the air, and slammed the poor befuddled man’s door so hard you could almost hear his ribs rattle.

And so it is that we drive old cars.

Dad says it doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things. God can supply us with a new one any day, or do something even more miraculous—He can keep the old one running. Right now we drive a DeSoto Diplomat with a 318 engine, a long lame boat that rides low and limps around corners like a wrestler after a badly mismatched fight.

We were riding somewhere in the Diplomat, Dad and I—to pick up some groceries at Solynka’s, I think—and I sat on the passenger side unable to see much, save the tops of the trees whipping by my window. I was only eight or nine at the time, but I can draw on the image to this day: my father at the wheel, his oily mechanic’s hands dwarfing it, his optimistic smile brightening my world whenever he glances my way.

“Dad, what’s wrong with Mom?”

“We’re not really sure, Son.”

He is quiet long enough for me to decide I’d better come up with a replacement question: “Why don’t we have much money?” which went over equally well. There was silence as more trees sped by. The question was a valid one, I thought.

Finally I asked, “Why’d they call it Grace?” I am speaking of where we live, of course. I’d always found it a funny name for a town. Perhaps you do too. Some stop here expecting a miracle, like Lourdes, but all they get is a town of 1200 where nothing is more ordinary than the commonplace.

“Well, Son,” he begins, which means we’ll be a while,“Pennsylvania has towns like Panic and Fearnot. Ohio has Dull and Knockemstiff. There’s a place called Grace in North Dakota, but its roots aren’t nearly as tangled as our own. This is an unusual town, Son. You watch carefully, and you’ll discover that wonders never cease.”

“Tell me about it, Dad. About Grace. The name, I mean.”

I stretch my hands behind my neck and suck air through my freshly-brushed teeth. A kid my age has nothing but time, an immense stretch of it ending nowhere fast, so I sit still, knowing the story will be worth hearing if my hero does the telling.

The facts, I later learned, were gleaned from A Brief History of Grace by Ryan Franklin III (Franklin Press, 1921, 98 pages), which you can still pick up in the library here; you won’t have to stand in line. Franklin’s great-grandfather, the pioneer and sharpshooter, set out with twenty-eight relatives for the long trek from upstate NewYork back in the spring of 1829. But within one month, family feuds had whittled their number down to two. Worst of all, Franklin and his wife had lost their daughter to smallpox. “Only one thing kept their little caravan moving west,” claims Dad as he eases the big DeSoto into a slow left turn, his arm out the window on account of a faulty blinker.“It was the promise of land and the dream he had for his dear wife Maggie that one day she would have a place to pick flowers within sight of the Rocky Mountains and a never-ending kaleidoscope of pristine sunsets to view from her back porch.”

Dad doesn’t need a thousand words to paint a picture.

“Toward the end of their journey, as Ryan and Maggie nudged the horse-drawn wagon over a steep rise, the landscape changed abruptly, and they sat in silent awe, gazing widemouthed at the tallest mountains they’d ever seen, mountains that poked holes through clouds hovering 11,000 feet above moose the size of elephants. They sat like this for a full two minutes before noticing that they had parked on the edge of an ancient Indian burial site without a permit and that a dozen Cherokees were a hundred yards to the south, some of them bearing flowers to lay on the graves, the others bearing down fast upon the poor settlers. With nowhere to go and no time to grab a rifle, Ryan held his poor wife with one arm and turned the other toward the sky. He prayed for mercy and fended off thoughts of being scalped or of spending their first winter in captivity—he learning to hunt with the tribe and Maggie whacking buffalo hides into blankets and discovering the fine art of cooking bear and wolf.

“‘Dear God,’ Ryan entreated,‘get us out of here, and I will build a monument to Your name.’ The two of them clung to each other, Maggie sobbing softly, not daring to glance up, and Ryan calling out in prayer. When at last they lifted their heads, the Indians had vanished without a trace. They were clean gone, as if they’d never arrived—except for some little wreaths of daisies left on the graves.”

“Wow,” is all I can think of saying, so I do. But though we’ve been parked in front of the grocery store a minute or two already, Dad is not finished.

“They made camp that night, September 9, 1829, along the banks of Hi-Ho Creek, and Ryan wrote:

Dear Jernal,

Have come far enouf. Have needed enouf miracles. Two days hence mite call it kwits. Am tyred out but thanked up. Beans tonight. Sure would like stoo. Good nite for now.

R.

“And that’s where our little town began, a lazy five days west of the Cherokee ancient burial ground, Son. I’ve lived here thirteen years now. And it’s a fine place. Flat as a pancake, I know. But we can see the mountains, so there’s always hope.”

The DeSoto is still running, though Dad has pulled the keys from the ignition. Finally she dies with a shudder. He laughs and shakes his head.“Too bad we weren’t born rich instead of so good-looking.”

“But what about Grace? Where’d she come in?”

“Oh, I almost forgot. Franklin, our intrepid adventurer, was going to call the town Lo-Lo, a mispronounced French word honoring Captain Meriwether Lewis, the explorer. Or it may have been a Chinook Indian word meaning to pack or carry. I’m not sure. But as he began carving an L into the sign, he remembered that promise to God and thought, Why would I name this here town after a miserable and depressed man with a drinking problem when I can name it after my dear little girl Grace, who lived life with a twinkle and made me a happy man? So he used the sign with its lone ‘L’ for firewood and addressed his journal once again. ‘I shall call it Grace,’ he wrote with much more deliberate and determined strokes. ‘Grace stands for “God Rescued And Chased Endians”.’”

Dad turns to me with a grin. “He wasn’t much of a speller, our Ryan.”

I grin too, though I have missed something.

Come to think of it, I missed out on a lot of things in those days. But in time I did get this: Those who long for adventure should be careful what they wish for.

I suppose it’s helped to remember the advice my father gave me as we came out of Solynka’s that warm summer day, a loaf of bread and two cans of beans between us.

“Terry Paul,” he said, “Sit down, buckle up, and hang on.”


Excerpted from Growing Up on the Edge of the World by Phil Callaway. Copyright © 2004 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.