Back in the early 80s, I was appointed to serve the burgeoning metropolis of Fairmount, North Dakota – population 374. Actually, I was given was a three-point charge, with three worship services each Sunday morning before noon, and about a 40 mile round-trip. One of the other churches was actually in LaMars township, out in the country, and the third church was across the border in South Dakota.
We lived 15 miles away from the next largest town, and a good hour away from any city. I think you could call it a rural town at best. They did have a school – K-12 in the same building – and there was a golf course, with sand greens. We spent nearly 3 years there, being woefully under employed, and under paid. They did have a café there, though, that periodically served roast pheasant, or when they ran out, roast duck. Not bad, if you find that on a Thursday noon menu…
One of the best things that happened, however, is that Cheri, who is always far better than I am in meeting normal people, made friends with two different women, who happened as well to have husbands. One couple was Judy and Gary, and the other was Toni and Jerry. Like I said, I’ll tell you about Toni and Jerry tomorrow, but this is Gary’s story.
Gary was a lapsed catholic who worked as the maintenance person for the town. He plowed the streets, mowed the green areas, took care of the city well and water distribution, and did lots of other things that a town that had fourteen streets total in all directions needed. Gary and Judy were older than we were, with a teenage son. Gary knew everyone in town of course, and in the entire region actually, but for some reason, he decided I was going to be his friend. I wonder now if perhaps he was so well known by everyone that he needed a new start.
We started out by fishing together. I’d get a call many afternoons that went, “Hey, Preacher – the fish are biting!” I’d gather up my little tackle box and rod and reel, and he’d stop by and we’d head to the dam to fish from shore, or sometimes he would bring his very small boat and motor, and we would fish the mighty Mustinka River. One spring, we brought our wives along, since the bullheads were running, and we’d throw in a line with two or three hooks, and catch three fish on the same throw.
When winter came, Gary made arrangements to use an ice fishing house over in Minnesota, and so on certain evenings, we would drive over on to the lake, plug in the lights to the truck that ran all night, turn the heat on, drill out the six holes inside the house, drop the lines and start cooking the deer sausage. We caught some good sized walleyes over the seasons, but we had more fun just talking. Sometimes, again, our wives would come and we would play pinochle for hours in the night on the lake.
Gary was always coming up with some kind of new thing to do. The city bought a four-wheeler for Gary to use, and so of course, we all took it out driving up and down deserted country roads, going way too fast. One afternoon, as we zipped by a field, we saw a pig sticking his head out of the corn. Gary shot back into town, picked up a trailer, and we loaded up the pig and took it over to a farm. We called him, of course, “Four Wheeler.” Gary checked all over the area, but no one was missing a pig, that they would see. He had been out there for a long time, it seemed, as he was pretty dehydrated and worn out. Gary fattened him up, took him to market and we split the proceeds.
About a year or so into our friendship, Gary started asking theological questions from a Roman Catholic perspective. He started off by saying he was going to hell, since he was a terrible catholic. We went from there, and I gave him the best I could of a crash course in John Wesley, and faith and grace and living life. Then we would go visit his team of Percheron horses, or go to an auction and buy packs of white socks. And laugh. Gary was a pretty serious guy, I think, and protected his insecurity with a rough and tough exterior. But I like to laugh and be silly sometimes, and he caught on – I’d call him “Gary Bob,” and he called me “Randy Joe.”
After three years, Cheri and I were appointed to a new church, and we moved 120 miles north to Grand Forks. When we left, I was still the “new pastor” in town, and I had never realized how completely stable and almost stagnant that world was. People got along or didn’t get along for an entire lifetime. People rarely moved in and rarely left – except for Methodist preachers. When we told Gary and Judy we were moving, they couldn’t really believe it. Both of them had the same response of, “See – this is why we shouldn’t have been friends with you – we knew you were going to do this…” It was heartbreaking, and we never really reconnected with them. After we left, Gary had an affair with a woman from town, and he and Judy divorced. Fifteen years later, we learned that Gary had died from a brain tumor, perhaps caused by the chemicals he handled when he worked for the city. Or maybe it was his lifetime of smoking. It doesn’t matter, I guess.
My thoughts of Gary are frozen in time – His dark moustache, his big smile, his booming voice, and his mind always coming up with a new thing to do or try. He wanted nothing more than to be my friend. And I hope, at least for that season of time, that he had a friend in me as well, with nothing more to earn or pay for.
Why tell the story of Gary? Well, it’s been odd, but during the pandemic, when lots of other things have been suspended or simply set aside, my mind has been open to remembering things from those years ago. Gary is part of that remembrance. There was nothing heroic about him, and I doubt that more than a very few places would even remember him at all. But I do – whenever I fish, which is way too seldom, or see an ice fishing house, or huge workhorses, or just think about the smallest town I’ve ever lived in, the memories have to include Gary.
We don’t decide what we will remember, and what we will delete from our minds. That’s probably a blessing – how hard that would be, to have something in one instance gone completely from our lives and memories, never to think about them again. Some of the memories are indeed buried deep in our life experience, but now and then, they surface, and we can stop, and for a little while recall what truly are precious and powerful bits of our lives. So long as they bring joy, or help us make sense of today, I believe they are gifts from God, to be cherished and talked about. So today, I talked about Gary, and I expect with all of this coming to the surface, that in the days and weeks to come, I’ll recall other parts of our short time together, like the time Gary and Judy and we went to a nearby town for their ribeye dinner, and they served us drawn butter to dip the steak in, or the parade over in Moreton, where our wives chased after candy thrown from the floats, and Gary and I walked around gnawing on smoked turkey drumsticks. Indeed, let the memories come, along with the blessings of living that time of life.
Word for the day: yoctosecond (get ready to go down the rabbit hole…) Pronounced YOK-toe-second, it is the measurement of one septillionth of a second. That is 10 to the 24th power, or a 10th with 24 zeros behind it. It is abbreviated as “ysec,” and it is a teeny-weeny bit of time.
Why know what a yoctosecond is? Well, the CERN collider is able to smash gold atom together at nearly the speed of light, which frees something known as quark-gluon plasma – one of the first building blocks of creation. The CERN can measure that the existence of the quark-gluon is only several yoctoseconds, and yet in that time, it creates enough energy to produce trillion degree temperatures, which scientists believe occurred in the yoctoseconds after the Big Bang. Or, in the language of faith, it happened the moment God said, “Let there be light” and a trillion-degrees later, there was light, in a yoctosecond…
It’s almost fascinating just to understand they can measure something that short – it’s almost equal to the attention-span of a teenager cleaning their room…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.