September 2008

There was weeping at my house last night. The old Morton Salt slogan came to mind. “When it rains, it pours.” Why does it seem that the things that trouble us “come in threes”? The obvious tip of the emotional iceberg for us today is the sudden removal from this life of a husband, father, relative and friend. We struggle, along with all who are involved, with the senselessness, the brutality, and the sheer enormity of the emotional gulf that is fixed. We find ourselves unable to cross over it. Our spirits make demands from God; demands that we know to be futile before we start. Into this chasm; a poem by Whittier. I hope it speaks to you as it did to me.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Is it just me or what is all this effort to start celebrating Halloween earlier, and with ever more elaborate displays, each year? And then there’s the situation two blocks down the street from us…

Our neighbors two blocks down from us set up a Halloween display that is macabre, far beyond the normal bonds of propriety. They used life sized mannequins, scattered all over their yard, illustrating all sorts of murderous ghoulishness. Among the displays, there are three people hanging by their necks and a trailer where someone appears to be surgically removing people’s heads and hanging them upside down in his cabin. At it’s best, their display is an assault against a sense of decency for the citizens of our town. At it’s worst, it is demonically inspired and downright dangerous to the pliable spirits of the children that are expected to view their craft for the next six weeks.

What is the proper way for concerned Christians to respond to something like this? If I was as ‘wise as a serpent’ and as ‘harmless as a dove,’ how would I act in this matter? Marlene and I are praying that God will give us grace and wisdom in our dealing with this.

A recent reader of my blog asked if I was going to tell about some inventing which I once did for my employer while working in the big city. His request took me back quite a few years and caused me to do some thinking about a slice of my life previously left mostly undocumented.

Actually, the summer and fall of 1965 was a time that was very ‘seminal’ for me. Looking back, it is remarkable how certain periods of a person’s life more powerfully impacted the future and formed the basis for a whole lifetime’s worth of ideas, sentiments and activities. From the indistinct milky ooze of scattered experiences sometimes a substance is formed, bones grow in the womb, an entire new person emerges. Nineteen-sixty-five was such a time for me.

In the fall of 1965, a Buchanan County, Iowa, public school official and truant officer felt compelled to do his job. He had an entire county’s worth of citizens who ignored the fact that the state of Iowa required children to be formally educated in a school staffed with state certified teachers. As an appointed official, he apparently felt compelled to use the force of law and bring those Amish parents to heel. They could no longer snub their collective noses at his demands; enough was enough.

As the school season advanced there was all that messiness; there were arguments with lawyers, sheriff deputies and school officials; there were fines and imprisonments; and there were dramatic scenes in the newspapers and on the airwaves that awakened the conscience of an entire nation. Among those scenes we get a glimpse of Sarah Swartz, my dad’s first cousin, on her knees with her arms around a man’s legs and begging him not to put her three children on that school bus. In another, a newspaperman snaps a photo of Amish boys looking back over their shoulders as they fled across the field. Stepping up to lead the opposition forces was Dan Borntreger; a brother to my paternal grandfather.

While great-uncle Dan was defending the Amish-ness of his community, I was in Des Moines and, step-by-step, loosing the last vestiges of mine. With a conscientious-objectors military classification in my billfold, I had been assigned to two years of public service as an orderly in the X-Ray department at Iowa Methodist Hospital. I lived away from home, I rented a sleeping room on the 1100 block of 7th street; I drove a little blue Mercury Comet, and attended an Assembly of God church. I still dressed quite plainly, wore my old haircut and started wearing a necktie only after a buddy honored me by asking that I usher at his wedding. (I actually had no idea how liberating it could be to tie something around your neck.) While I was learning how to interact with my new social environment I also maintained contact with my, sometimes-on sometimes-off, Amish girl friend.

Like Johnie-Five in Short Circuit, my vacuous mind demanded ‘input.’ I read voraciously. I signed up for a night class in Freshman English at Drake University; I wrote term papers; and, (most significantly,) learned how to use a public library. “You mean there are entire buildings filled with literally thousands of books where people can go and freely select from its precious trove?”

About six months into my two-year stint at IMH, my boss offered me the job of darkroom technician. It seems that the old geezer who had previously done the job had a habit of somehow becoming progressively inebriated as each day advanced. After discovering where he had stashed his bottle, my boss had to let him go. Was this ever a boon to my mind! What is the magic that takes place inside a dark box that allows some Silver Halide crystals to become ‘fixed’ while allowing others to be washed from the gelatinous surface of film? I had to know. Not unlike my predecessor, I also had an addiction. My habit was satisfied during the afternoon work lull by grabbing the technical X-Ray training manuals the students in the department left lying around, and reading.

In short order I understood the concept of E over IR; I learned about, conductance and resistance; I started becoming familiar with amplifiers, rectifiers, Farads, Ohms, Photo-Fluorescence, radiation half-life and Roentgens. When that year’s students took their finals in X-Ray technology, I asked the instructor for a copy of the test. Without ever attending one of their classes, I scored a C+. A ‘life work’ die was cast, a train was on the tracks and all the stops were out.

The hospital sent me to a four-day training course to understand and maintain the big processing machine that I had been feeding film to. One of the first things I realized upon my return from school was that rinse water flowed continuously through the machine all the time, even when it was idle. Could a timer be inserted in the wiring to turn off the rinse water valve as soon as no film was in the machine? With encouragement from my supervisor, I bought a timer and had it installed per my schematic. The results were beautiful and saved the hospital many hundreds of gallons of water during the life of the machine. My second invention is a little harder to explain.

Methodist Hospital was on the cutting edge of imaging carotid artery blockages by taking a series of exposures as opaque media flowed through the critical area. The challenge in doing this successfully was to rotate the patient so that the equally opaque bone structure in the neck did not block out the desired view of the arteries. I was given an article in a medical journal which showed how some doctors in Europe had developed a work-around for overcoming this problem. They compensated with a procedure done in the darkroom and called their method ‘subtraction technique.’ Would I take the article, my boss wanted to know, and see if I could imitate their procedure. The result was a fun ride involving a shadow box, a light dimmer, a timer, a variety of film types and weeks of experimentation. Subtraction Technique is now done on a routine basis with a computer in a modern X-Ray department. When I left Methodist Hospital the following spring, we were the only hospital in America known to be using the method and the doctors loved it.

Amid all this heady stuff a ‘young man’s fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love.’

I took a couple days vacation and drove to Arkansas. The girl in question was approaching the end of a similar two-year voluntary service assignment at a nursing home. Would she be willing, I wanted to know, to get past the sticking point, move to Des Moines and start putting the final plans in place for a life together. On the way back, euphoric over the trip and weary over the drive, I flipped on the radio.

“This is WHO Radio and this is Farm Forum with your hosts Lee Cline and Duane Ellet.”

Caller #1: “I want to know why they don’t leave those Amish alone. It is terrible how they are being treated.”

Caller #2: “I’ll tell you why they don’t leave them alone. They’ve left them alone too long and its time to straighten them up.”

On and on, Minute by minute, mile by mile, the litany went on. Suddenly it seemed as though I might also have some small part to contribute to the conversation. Look here is phoneage, can any forbid dialing an 800 number?

The operator heard my name, made earnest inquiry about my family lineage, alerted the hosts and moved my connection to the top of the call queue. For the rest of the show, sitting at a payphone near a busy intersection in northern Missouri, I was the honored guest of WHO Radio. All subsequent callers were patched through to me. Heady stuff!

When I got back to work the next morning, my boss had a couple of surprises waiting for me. For the first one, I was instructed to call Lee Cline in his office. Mr. Cline said that their switchboard was swamped after the previous day’s show with callers who wished to talk to me. Would I be willing to be a guest in their studio? A short time later I was given a tour of the WHO facilities and then brought in as the featured guest. Partway through the show my boss sprang his second surprise. He called into the show and explained about the things I had invented. Back at the hospital, I was met by the Administrator and a reporter from the Des Moines Register and Tribune. I was presented with a check and I told my story to the press.

The invitations came fast. For the next several months I was kept quite busy. I spoke in churches, schools and various organizations. The activity, perhaps, offset some of the pain. The girl never came to Des Moines. The next time I heard from her, it was from northern Indiana; from the far side of the ‘sticking point.’

When I consider the last forty-three years, that short slice of my life has undoubtedly influenced me more than any other similar period. Forever free from a shackling social relationship I now sought the life partner that God had ordained for me; my command of language was pointed toward continual improvement; and my ability to develop my electrical skills and use them in my employment has served me and my family well for quite a few years. I thank God for the things I was permitted to learn during my one brief moment in the sun.