Fathers and Sons

245Father, sometimes you and I
are like a three-legged horse
who can’t get across the finish line
no matter how hard he tries and tries and tries

– Jim Boyd

I am my father, and my father was me.

A little over two years ago, I sat down with my parents in the living room of their Lacy Lakeview rental house, and told them about my journey away from the Christian faith so dear to them. Former Southern Baptist missionaries to Argentina, their first response, understandably, was self-recrimination: where did we go wrong? Why was I abandoning a worldview to which they had dedicated so much of their own lives, and which they had tried so hard to instill in mine?

Was this their doing?

Well, in a way, yes–but not in the way they feared. Theirs was no failure, at least not as I see it; theirs was a resounding success.

The photo above was taken in 1989. My dad and I had just finished climbing Cerro Uritorco, Córdoba Province, for the first time. It was my birthday; I was 12 years old. My dad was the same age then that I am now. This was a big moment for us, the start of an annual tradition: every year, on or around my birthday, we would climb that mountain together.

As with all fathers and sons, my relationship with my father has had its ups and downs. We have been climbing mountains, of one sort or another, my whole life. Both of us possess a quick and violent temper, and as a teenager I learned to push his buttons, and he mine. Both of us are by nature stubborn, and fairly convinced of the superiority of our own processes, which have rarely ever been the same, which fact also caused a decent amount of conflict back in the day. And then there’s the old “man-child” dilemma: in his eyes (and to a certain extent, in my own), I will forever be the young’un, in need of guidance and correction, with ideas in formation but not yet fully formed. This makes adult communication difficult. We have bridged this divide a bit in the last few years, but I suspect it is one that is never quite overcome between fathers and their sons.

I inherited many negative characteristics from my father. We all do. In the past I have, to my discredit, tended to focus on those. Ironically, it wasn’t until I turned from his dearly held beliefs that I truly began to appreciate the gifts this Christian man had given me. This is, by the way, why I take so personally the generalizing negative comments about Christian folk when I come across them on the blogs: I no longer embrace my father’s worldview, but this does not blind me to the fact that he is a good man, not in spite of his faith but because of it. And, although I no longer share that faith, I am who I am in large measure because of it, as well.

Whatever love I have for my fellow human beings, I have because my parents taught me that the needs and pain of others are always more important than my own. They lived that out, giving up their own plans to go to a foreign place and work for others. I may not agree with how they did it, but I have to honor why they did it.

My father gave me my sense of humor, and that sense of humor has gotten me through any number of tough situations. He taught me that no monster can kill you when you can tickle its belly and make it laugh.

My love of reading comes from him. He gave me Dickens, and Twain, and Dumas: I loved them well before the age when high school students learn to hate them. And with a love of reading comes a love of words, and of ideas. My father taught me the importance of using words correctly and well, and of respecting the ideas of others without letting them get in the way of forming my own.

As a child, he took me out of my comfort zone and, by doing so, literally gave me the world. If my perspective is broad, it is because of the places he took me, and if I have been many places, it is because he encouraged me to go.

Above all else, like ol’ Polonius, he taught me to be true to myself, and he taught me to love truth. And here I am. I may not have chosen his truth, but I would not have arrived (and be arriving) at my own truth if not for his. If not for the Christian man who taught me to stand for what I believe, whatever that may be. Without him, the Toad would never have been born. If I am a good man, it is because it takes one to make one.

One might argue that, in all this, I went out the back door to get to the front yard. This is most definitely not what either one of us expected when we stood together on that mountaintop 26 years ago. We could see a long way from up there, but we couldn’t see forever. But this is what counts: no matter how many mountains I summit in my life, no matter how many different paths I take, I’ll never be alone. We’ll be standing there, together, and I’ll be the stronger for it.

So, yes, Dad. You did this. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Enter the Romanians

Recently, I mentioned to a friend an experience from long, long ago that I hadn’t really thought about in years. Imagine my surprise, then, when while sifting through old family photos I stumbled across this:

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If you’re wondering, I’m the little guy at the bottom right wearing the giant Smurf…

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toybox. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

I don’t say all this to toot my own horn. I was eight years old in 1985, just a kid, and I did what came naturally. The older I get, the harder it seems to be to make such sacrifices, even ones as small as giving up a favorite toy. (If there is, by the way, a moral to this story, perhaps that is it: as we grow out of our childish openness and generosity, it becomes more and more important to rediscover those qualities on a regular basis. We spend so much time teaching children to share, a lesson quickly forgotten by the jaded adults we’re all on our way to becoming.)

As I said, this story is not about boasting, but about making connections between myself and my past. None of what I’m about to say was at all clear to me at the time. Little of great significance to our lives and identities ever really is. There’s a reason they say what they say about hindsight. As I think back over all those unobtrusive, apparently inconsequential moments in my history; as I’m reminded of fleeting memories through sharing them with others; as I begin to exegete my own experiences–only then does an image come into focus and begin to solidify before me. Things begin to make a sense I didn’t ever realize they had.

“The world is full of so many lonely souls.” That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Those are feelings I’m trying desperately to cling to as I travel farther and farther away from that eight-year-old’s perspective, a perspective both limited and startlingly limitless. I struggle to remind myself that the line between myself and “the other guy” is so tenuous as to be nonexistent. I seek to feel and understand the pain that might so easily be mine, as one hopeful that others care about the pain that so often is. Mine. And yours. Ours.

Because in that understanding resides my humanity. Without it, I exist, but alone, not as part of anything. And I feel a burning need to be part of something, something that matters, something that changes…something.

The world is full of problems to which I want to help find solutions. That Christmas I began to figure that out. Here was a family who couldn’t have a holiday because they’d had to run away from home. That’s probably about as far as my comprehension took me, back then. But it was enough. I knew what running away from home meant; I knew that I didn’t want to do it; and I knew that I didn’t want anyone else to have do it, either. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, my little plastic toy represented my best effort to help normalize their world, to allow them to feel at home again. To give them a home again.

And while they didn’t know it, as I reached out to them, they reached out to me and taught me one of the most important lessons I think we can ever learn: not that giving is better than receiving, but that in a very real sense, giving is receiving. And what did I receive from them? The greatest gift of all:

The first glimmers of an awareness of love–what it is and how to do it. True, love can be expressed through grand gestures, but more often it inhabits the little things. Love is in the approach. Love is forged in the fires of similarity and given form by the iciness of difference: I love you because you are like me, and because I could so easily be in your shoes.

They taught me to begin to love you. And I do. All of you. Even you crazy spammers filling up my inbox everyday with odd phrases that are rarely in good English and therefore always amusing. I love each and every one of you. If I could, I’d give you all a giant hug and invite you in for a cup of coffee or a beer or iced tea or whatever–pick your poison.

The Borzas taught me to begin caring. And I still do…

Who Am I?

Dude! I’ve got plans up in this joint!

(I say this on the off-chance anyone’s taken the time to ask themselves: “I wonder what his plans are?” I’m sure there are quite a few of you who have been on pins and needles, anxiously gripping the edges of your seats, fretting away the sleepless nights about it.)

Anywho…

It occurs to me that most of what I’ve written, while it may address obliquely the question of who I am, never really gets to the heart of the matter. You see, to me, identity is less about the grand “WHAT I BELIEVE” (add impressive echo here) than it is about the little things, the experiences I’ve had that have brought me to whatever place I am now. Because, quite frankly, the “WHAT I BELIEVE” is largely dependent on those experiences. They are the reason why I believe what I believe.

This whole blogging thing doesn’t really do much for me unless I can really share with others the person that I am, without code names, without censorship, without obfuscation (which is, by the way, one of my favorite words to say). I take the time to write because, as I was reminded recently by a friend’s post, I crave connection: I want to know people. This is, incidentally, why I suck at networking–my interest in others lies in discovering who they are, not in discovering what they can do for me. I find that often the people who could do the most for me, be it professionally or personally, turn out to be the least interesting people to know. And vice-versa. It’s also why people who are good networkers want nothing to do with me: I seriously doubt that I will ever be in a position to do anything for anyone, either professionally or personally, but I like to think I’m a pretty fun guy to hang out with. (Of course, that may just be a latent narcissistic streak of which I am blissfully unaware…)

What’s more (and this is intended as a commentary on no one but myself), I’ve learned the hard way that if I have something to say that I’m not willing to own, I’m probably not ready to say it yet. Nor is it generally really worth saying. I try to live life according to the following philosophy, couched in Shakespearian parlance: “‘Tis better to hold up thine head and be cudgelled in thy face, than to remain unbruised through keeping it hid.” In other words, as Martin Luther would have put it, sin boldly; if you are to stick your foot in your mouth, do it with pride. Leave a Sam-shaped hole in the wall, for cryin’ out loud!

All this to say, I want you to know me: not just what I think or feel, but where all that thinky-feely stuff comes from. I want to give you a face to go with all the cockamamie ideas. (Feel free to use it as a dart-board; at least this way you’ll get some sporting fun out of the experience!)

So, first things first: Lo! here I am:

148499_10100741148544263_1419274769_nThat’s “Jack Kerouac” me, to the left there. Generally, I find myself somewhat un-photogenic, but then, generally, that’s probably mainly my fault. Because I’m also an irredeemable goofball. If you really want to know ME, you need to see this (below):

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Or this…

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Or perhaps even this…

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If you’re sufficiently scared, we’ll move on…

You see, I’m not afraid to look like an idiot. I’ve spent far too much of my life standing on ceremony, minding that “image” thing everyone keeps talking about. I’m not afraid to admit that, as standards of beauty go, I’m no Mona Lisa. But then, if you stop to think about it, by our standards of beauty, the Mona Lisa is no Mona Lisa, either. Which is, really, what makes the Mona Lisa beautiful in the first place, isn’t it…?

I’ve got flaws and blemishes coming out my ears (in some cases, literally). But in those flaws and blemishes, I am ME, the individual no one else can be. Which brings me to the most important fact anyone can ever learn about me: I AM A TOAD! And I’m damn proud of it.

My goal in life is to fit no one’s bill but my own. I was born to break the mold (as were we all), and I am bound and determined to live that way, too. I want to be nobody else but who I am, because who I am is like nobody else.

(And here’s a secret: I only buy all that stuff I just said about individuality most of the time. The rest of the time, I’m one more insecure face in a giant, frightened crowd. Which is to say, I may talk a big line, but when you come down to it, I keep my head down as much as anyone else. But don’t tell–it’s a secret…)

Which brings me back from my constant urge to digress to the reason I started writing this post in the first place: Who I am. I am a scared, lonely, overgrown little boy who for a few minutes each day (if I’m lucky) manages to break free from the anchor-weight of living long enough to glimpse the breadth and depth of life. I am a boat tossed on a sea of uncertainty, hopeful of someday reaching the shore. I am a mystery shrouded in a riddle wrapped in an enigma coated in cliché. I am, in short, one of you. And you are more of me. And as such, I want to touch and be touched; I want to know and be known; I want to love and be loved. Don’t we all?

But I have to do this as myself. I cannot do it as Everyman, because I am not every man. To quote one of my favorite Sting songs, “the mask I wear is one.” I am, at the end of the day, the only person I can be, which is myself. And this mystifies me, too. As much as I want to understand and know others, I want to understand and know myself even more, and after nearly 36 years of trying, I’m convinced that our selves are the hardest people to fathom that any of us will ever meet. So, back to my plans: I want to share me with you in order to decipher my self. Where I came from, those moments in life that define us in silence, without us even being aware that they’ve passed: all those events, encounters, characters that have cast shadows across my path and brought me to the place I am today.

Because the greatest, most important truth of all is this: I am one, but I am many. I am the sum not just of my parts, but of everyone else’s as well. In order, then, to truly undertand myself, I have to understand you. And him. And her. And them. In the end, “me” and “we” are mutually inexclusive. We are all pieces of a whole. without any of which pieces the whole cannot be…well…whole. Nosce te ipsum? First nosce illos ipsi.

So, listen, O bloggers, and you shall hear of all the little things that brought me here. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we will effect a parting of the waters and a meeting of the minds…

Memories of Fortunes Past

The automatic doors glided open with a faint hiss: mere mechanics, but to the small boy standing before them, magic, pure and simple, as surely as if he’d waved a wizard’s wand and uttered some secret spell. Beyond, the speckled-marble tiles, shiny clean, of Wal-Mart stretched limitless. He cared not for the clothing section, or automotive (he didn’t yet even know the meaning of that word), or home and garden; he had only eyes for that mythical fantasy land called the “toy aisle.” And he knew the path, like Dorothy knew the Yellow Brick Road. He could have found it with his eyes closed, before he could even make his own bed or pick his own wardrobe.

At his side, in fist clenched against the predations of imaginary bandits, he held treasure. A crumpled twenty-dollar bill–his ticket to the wonderful show hinted at in the pages of the latest catalog, the three-ring circus of playtime. He had already begun, in his young mind, to make the connections between holidays and the accumulation of wealth: on this day, the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the world stood meekly in his shadow. A fortune was at his fingertips.

Like a small flash he was off, careering wildly around corners, as close to flying as a child may come–what is the force of gravity to one so mightily endowed? And there it was, waiting, glistening almost. From one end of each corridor to the next he bounded, eager but indecisive, cautious, as one should be who is about to undertake such an important investment. Race cars, action figures, soccer balls and baseball gloves–his head fairly spun at the sheer possibility of it all.

The softer side kicked in: should he take the robot castle, bigger than anything he had ever seen, or should he rescue the sad-eyed puppy staring at him out of a pile of plush? Weighty decisions, these. Could he live with himself, would he be able to sleep at night, knowing those sad eyes had no home? Would the robots make up for the pangs of a guilty conscience? A quandary, indeed…

He glanced over his shoulder at Grandma, smiling quietly from several yards away. She, of course, was the source of all this, the leprechaun to his rainbow, the Midas to his touch. On impulse, he turned and sped past the mountains of toys and threw his arms around her legs, burying his face in her billowy skirts, and mumbling something barely audible but perfectly understood. Then he was off again, dancing from one option to the next, his life a glorious question mark. This, he thought, this is what it means to be rich!

Past Prologue

The old barn.

The blue gate. In the foreground, there used to be a red hay barn in which we grandkids used to play. Climbing on piles of hay bales may not be wise, but it sure was fun. Sadly, the barn was torn down several years back to keep it from collapsing under its own weight…

Cows and trees.

V and Francie’s old place (or what’s left of it).

The road less traveled…

The LaCygne power plant. One of my favorite sights from the farm. On a still, cold day the plumes go on forever…

Hay bales. Sometimes they take up so much space that they look like herds of buffalo…

The government tried to assign street numbers to the rural roads several years back. Didn’t go so well. The farm’s still sitting right where it used to, on Rural Route 3…

We all have places that awaken in us stirrings of memory, where every detail holds for us immense significance (even if the source of that significance be insignificant on a global scale). The Durst family farm does this for me. No matter where I am in the world (and I have been many places), this plot of earth calls me back and reminds me of who I am and where I (and those before me) came from. It speaks to me–I heard its voice as a child, and I hear it still, the insistent tones of something both fundamentally human and fundamentally natural, the fulcrum in the connection between humankind and the earth we call home. I am not a farmer, but I come from farmer’s stock–I do not feed the world, but I belong to the line of those who have. Whether or not I ever lay hand to plow, the hands that did are an integral part of who I am, and I cannot understand myself without first understanding them…

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Southeast of the old house lies a field I have traversed dozens of times, from childhood through the present. At the moment it is planted, but since I can remember it has been used as pasture, and venturing across was for neither the faint of heart nor the fancy of footwear. One eye to the horizon, one eye to the ground–those of you who have spent any amount of time on a cattle farm will know what I mean by that. To the left runs Miami Creek, winding its way toward the southeast and the Marais des Cygne, and beyond that, the Osage. To the right, an old, crumbling barbed-wire fence (three strands against straying stock) divides the Durst land from their neighbors to the south. When I was very, very young, it belonged to a couple named V and Francie, at whose house I spent many an hour, staring through the grating in the living room floor into the basement (which hole for some reason I found extremely fascinating). The old house burned in 1998 or ‘9; now all that remains are a few lonesome outbuildings and a water tower or two.

If I had a dime–as the saying goes–for every time I’ve wandered off down one of the gravel roads surrounding the farm, the good old “mile roads,” I’d be a rich man. Financially, at least. In some ways, the mere fact that I have had access to these out of the way avenues fills me with feelings of a different kind of wealth. Everything around me moves so fast: weekday becomes weekend becomes weekday again, clouds fly overhead like some sort of time-lapse film, and it’s hard even to keep up with myself. Which is why walking these lanes bears such an attraction to an overburdened soul supercharged with an overactive mind. Here time almost ceases to lapse, at least for me. I’m transmogrified, alchemized, into my childhood self, waiting impatiently beside the cattle chute for Grandpa and a chance to “steer” the tractor across a pasture or two. I’m young again, ready for a mad dash through pig-puddles in search of the “peepers” called forth by a night of gentle rain, or for a channel-cat hunt at one of the myriad watering holes/stock-ponds scattered around the property. I’m ME again, washed clean of the intervening years of experience, heartache, and “knowing better.” And for an instant–just a brief fleeting instant before I remember who I am–I feel the grip of immortality, given force by my own tarrying ghost which will, I hope, haunt these backroads long, long after I am no more…

Trembling in My…Well, Pretty Much Everything

It’s a quiet night in El Bosque. The family gathers around the dinner table as the sun disappears behind the mountains ringing the city of San Jose. How was your day? What kind of fascinating, new language-related things did you learn today? And you, Vance? What kind of new chaos did you create at school today? Together, they tuck in to whatever delicious concoction Luisa the maid cooked up for them before heading home for the evening. And then things just get spooky…

In the distance, dogs begin to bark. At first, you can barely hear them, maybe several blocks away, but quickly it becomes clear that a wave is in motion. The noise grows louder: the end of the block joins the chorus, and steadily the din moves closer, closer, closer, until it sweeps past, and the animals on the other side of the house take up the song. It moves away into the darkness as quickly as it arrived, fading, receding, dying away completely at last, as if it had all been a figment of your imagination. And the tremor hits. Gently at first, then more adamantly, the house begins to vibrate, then shake. Glass rattles, the salt and pepper shakers perform a strange dance across the tabletop, and the family gathered around the table, unused to these events, casts fearful glances at one another, ready for the end to come, for the ceiling to come down and bury them all under a pile of crazed rubble. But before any of this even really registers, like the canine chorus before it the trembling has stopped, the earth is at rest again, and the seismic wave has moved on in the wake of its predecessor.

The first time this happened, it scared us all to death. By the last time, it had become old hat. I would say that during the year we spent in Costa Rica, we probably experienced a couple dozen minor temblores, probably no more than a 2.5 or so on the Richter. Frightened glances turned over time into raised eyebrows–here we go again. And every time, the animal choir offered up an eerie prelude. They could feel it coming, always.

One such experience stands out, though. The one time we broke 4.5 and things really got all shook up.

It happened in the middle of the morning, and all of us kids were at school. Sonlight Christian School, to be exact. The MK farm. While moms and dads spent their days studying Spanish at the Language Institute, we cooled our heels on math worksheets with little Bible verses in the top right hand corner, and pretended we, too, were language students. Not that it was a bad place. The teachers were quite nice, and they had a fairly decent library. But it was a strange place, unlike any other school I’d ever attended. It even ate summers. Instead of days of freedom, playing outside, watching cartoons, or reading books by the dozen, we continued the daily round, with slight curricular changes that made it feel not unlike a three-month long trip to Bible school. We did pottery, we made candles. There was even an ill-fated attempt to dissect a pre-cleaned fish (misunderstanding at the fish market) which amounted to an impromptu cooking lesson. Thus my Costa Rican “summer.” It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that Sonlight was really a daycare, and I a free radical in need of a supervisory electron.

On the day in question, sometime between ten and noon (I say this because I really don’t remember the time, and this suits me as well as any), we were gathered for kiddie worship in the main hall of the school. Before long, the older students would be transferred to a new building back across the highway toward the language school, but for now we were still all crammed together in the original location, so the assemblies usually required a tight squeeze. About halfway through the session, the howling kicked in. Not too long after this, the neighborhood dogs started up, as well. There were a few newbies among us, but most of us recognized the signs and knew what was coming. Except this one was stronger than usual, to the point that even some of us old hands were shaken (no pun intended).

So were the teachers. One in particular: Miss Caroline. Fairly large, blonde woman. Quite friendly; also, apparently, a bit high-strung. The past is a mosaic of singular moments, images frozen in time that stay with us throughout our lives. On that day, Miss Caroline became one of mine. It very quickly became obvious that the adults in the room were far higher up the freak-out scale than were the children. As the building turned into a bouncy castle, Miss Caroline bounded into the center of the juvenile sardines, lifted both hands over her head, and began to belt out a quavering rendition of “God Is So Good.” Absolutely surreal. Rumbling, vibrating walls, clattering glass, whimpering kids, and a portly, middle-aged woman in the middle of it all, singing to beat the band.

I can hear her voice; I can see her face. Like it was all happening right now. I still can’t sing or hear that song without suddenly becoming a faintly oscillating third-grader, sitting on the floor of that hall, surrounded by missonary kids, acutely aware even then of the weirdness of the situation. The impressions left by the quake-cito have long since fallen away, lost in the shadows of past experience, but Miss Caroline is with me still. It’s like my own version of David Copperfield’s vision: “one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all.” One face, belting its song, standing like a crazed beacon in the midst of minor chaos, “pointing upward!”

Of Beaches and Bloated Things (or, Gringos on Parade)

Costa Rica, 1987-88. Not my finest hour. In all honesty, I spent a good deal of my teenage years trying to forget we’d ever been there. Still, it had its moments, and the further removed that year becomes, the more I’m beginning to see adventure in what at the time seemed to be only disaster.

Take, for example, a little trip the Woodses and the Hoods took together to a place called Puntarenas, a beach system on the Pacific coast of the country. Its nickname, among others, is La Perla del Pacifico (the pearl of the Pacific)–God knows why. Apparently, it was discovered by none other than Sr. Ponce de Leon in 1519. After several days there, I kind of wish he’d left well enough alone…

This was my first experience with long-distance commercial bus travel. It’s actually only a two-hour ride from San Jose (the capital city) to the coast, but it felt more like several days. It was also my first experience (although, as with bus travel, far from my last) of sitting on a suitcase on the side of the highway, watching the bus’s tail-lights dwindling into the distance, wondering what my parents had gotten me into this time. Was it not bad enough that they made me leave friends and family behind and fly off to a place where we had no television, no family car, and no language skills at all (witness the ten-year-old me fleeing down a Central American sidewalk, chased by a mean-spirited dog, screaming “Help!!” over and over again to a street full of Spanish-speakers, who in all likelihood were more attuned to the entertainment value of the scene than to any danger I might have been in)? Now, here the children sat, Aaron and Dawn Hood, my sister Sara, and myself, thinking evil thoughts of present adult company. And then, it started to rain.

Anyone familiar with “rainy season” in Central America knows this name is an absolute joke. It should be called “Noah season.” It did not just rain–it poured. It was one of those storms that make you feel like there are fish out there drier than you. Through the clothes, through the skin, right down to the bone soaked. We couldn’t see anything, and I was beginning to wonder whether anyone actually knew where we were, or how to get where we were going.

To this day, I cannot really recall how it happened, but suddenly we were in the bed of a pick-up, barreling into the storm. We thumbed a ride. From a complete stranger. I still can’t quite believe it, and I was there. Dad, Uncle Charlie, Aaron and me, clinging for dear life to the back of the truck’s cab, staring into gale-force winds and a barrage of liquid birdshot. BirdSHOT, I said. Mom, Sara, Dawn, and Aunt Becky inside the vehicle, sitting with Ted Bundy for all we knew. Voices of teachers, policemen, and Officer McGruff echoed in my head: Never get into a car with strangers. Caveat: Unless you happen to be standing in the dark on the side of a Costa Rican highway in a hurricane…

Somehow, we arrived at our destination: the Chalet Bautista. Don’t get too excited. This place was a chalet like McDonalds is a gourmet patisserie. Perhaps, you say, it was the inclement weather or the darkness of night, or exhaustion from such an eventful trip that caused the C.B. to seem so bedraggled and uninviting. I think all of us would assure you, it was not. The place was just as bedraggled and uninviting by day as it was by night. I would include a picture of the place, but I couldn’t find one. It probably collapsed the day after we left.

Picture with me the following: very sparse bedroom furnishings; two stacks of bunks, one on each side; thin mattresses, no bedding; bare cinderblock walls. I took a top bunk, and the ceiling was about two inches from the tip of my nose. (I’d describe the bathroom facilities, but my brain seems to have blocked them out.) Now, in the years since then, I have left the spoiled little Yank behind. I’ve stayed in some extremely shady places, used more electric “widow-maker” showerheads than I can count (you don’t know fear–not to mention irony–until one of those explodes on you while you’re bathing), and trained roaches to guard against bedbugs. But the ten-year-old boy at Puntarenas had been out of the U.S. for four whole months (and was used to a mother who ironed couch cushions). To him, this was the back end of hell.

To illustrate, allow me to describe my experience upon waking the first morning. As you may recall, the ceiling was not far from my face. Imagine my surprise (and the infringement of my personal bubble) when I opened my eyes and looked into those of a very large, very neighborly iguana, hanging just above my head. It was close enough it could have offered me mouth to mouth following the consequent heart attack. Keep in mind that to this point the only animals I’d encountered upon waking had been stuffed and had names like Balloon and Patches. This beast responded to neither, and I’m pretty sure he wanted to stuff me.

The condition of the lodgings was so inescapably sad that I don’t really even remember that much about the beach, which was supposedly the whole reason for our trip. There is one thing, though, that we all remember. An image that is seared into my brain for all of time. I can close my eyes and see it now. An image that put, so to speak, the icing on a very unappealing cake.

I had never been to the beach before, at least not since I could remember. I was terribly excited. And I really wanted to know what that thing was, out there bobbing in the surf. A water bird, perhaps? A happy little fish leaping from the water to greet us? Or maybe, a dead, bloated dog, washed ashore just in time to scar four small children for life. Its name may not have been Balloon, but it sure looked like one. And smelled like one, too–that is, if you happened to stumble across one in a nice, ripe landfill. That one image is really the only thing that stands out clearly in my mind when I think of that trip, and it captures well the impression of it I have carried with me through the years: That dog don’t hunt.

Later on, there was an impromptu Sunday service (we were a couple of missionary families, after all) at a stone picnic table outside the Chalet. But it was for naught, at least as far as I was concerned. I only had eyes for the dog–and the large iguana now perched on the wall next to the table. Jesus loves me, this I know. Please convince my folks to go. Little ones to him belong. What’s the next thing to go wrong?

The crazy thing about this trip, though, is that after all these years it is to me a symbol of friendship. You come out of experiences like that either hating your comrades, or loving them, and with us it was the latter. The four of us kids are still friends today, almost thirty years later, and I honestly believe that this was where it all began. This adventure created a bond that cannot be broken, that still calls forth a shared sigh of disbelief when it comes into the conversation. And I wouldn’t change that for the world. So, don’t rush to judgment the next time your best laid plans gang agley. In twenty years, you may discover it was one of the best things that ever happened to you…