“Yea, it was my $500. The best I could do. Had to sell my motorcycle and pawn off everything else I had just to get that much. I was only a kid just out of High School, and that was a lot of money.”
Van was ready to launch out on a new adventure, but wasn’t sure where he was going or what he might do, but was sure it would be far away from home. The night he told his girlfriend that he was leaving, she stopped him in mid-dream.
“We have a problem,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
“That’s what got me selling stuff,” Van remembers. “I had to raise enough money for her to go across the border and get an abortion. Wasn’t legal where we lived, but over there it was about $500. So, I sold the stuff, gave her the money, and left.”
Van went North, to find a job that would make him rich. Instead, he found lots of jobs that hardly paid enough to keep him from going totally broke!
“Nothing worked! Before long, I was living in a bad motel room and even owing back rent on that. Every night I expected the owner to pound on the door and throw me out onto the street!”
The pounding came about 3:00 one morning.
“So loud I knew it would be the owner. I grabbed my pants and tripped over a chair on my way to the door. Instead of the owner, it was my girlfriend.”
“How did you find me? Why are you here? No one knows where I am, how did you know? What did you do with the money?”
Van finally quit shouting and let his girlfriend into the room.
“I decided not to get an abortion,” she told him. “I took the money, bought a new dress, and a bus ticket to where I thought maybe I might find you. Here I am!”
Forty years later, after Van had found and lost a couple fortunes, he was living in a three-story adobe-colored house in Laguna Beach, California. Near his son.
“The house needed painting, so I told my son that if he’d help me paint it, I’d give him whatever he wanted. Anything! Like, I thought he would ask for a new Harley Davidson Motorcycle, or something else with a fast motor, a loud exhaust, and a big price tag. “
Van was enjoying telling me the story, holding out on the “punch line” as long as possible.
“When the house was painted, do you know what the crazy kid asked for? Incredible!”
Van and I were standing in the midst of the MACS school gymnasium, a large room that becomes “church” every Sabbath morning. Beside us a group was trying to begin a Sabbath School class, and I was listening to Van while slowly trying to move our conversation out of the room. I was failing. Van is 92 years old, his skin tanned the color of rich chocolate, with unruly black strands mixed in his curly silver hair. His strong baritone voice commands attention, as does its intensity.
I finally gave up and just listened. The story was too good to miss.
“This kid, my kid, instead of asking me for a new shiny object, asks me to come to church with him on the next weekend! Craziest thing I’d ever heard. Me? In church? HA!”
Van had promised “anything”, so he went to church with his son. First time ever doing anything like that.
“The preacher man said some things that really made me think, and I liked some of the stuff he was saying. I liked how he talked about God.”
“At the end of his talking, the preacher did what he said was a ‘call.’ He said that if anyone wanted to give their heart to Jesus they should stand up and then walk right on up front with him. I looked over at my son, and we decided to get up and walk to the front. The two of us. Together.”
The Sabbath School class had pulled their chairs into a tight circle and were discussing last day events, trying hard to ignore us. Me? I was listening to Van. Loudly.
“Funny thing that my son would ask for something meaningful rather than something shiny.”
“You want to hear something even crazier?”
I must have nodded, for Van went right on, his words drilling into my heart.
“Few years ago I was helping build an orphanage down South of the Border. You know, like on a mission trip or something. A bunch of old men getting together to do something meaningful for somebody who needed it. Well, one afternoon this other worker, a volunteer from somewhere, stopped his work, looked at me, and said, ‘Don’t I know you?’”
Van and I laughed at the absurdity of the worker’s words.
“I’ve never seen you before,” Van said. “I sure don’t know you, so you probably don’t know me either.”
“The next day he was back at me again,” Van plowed on with the memory. “Asked me again if he knew me. How am I supposed to know what he knows in his head?”
“He caught me again later, saying that he thinks he finally figured it out.”
“Did you get baptized in the bay at Laguna? You, your boy, and a pastor?”
“That stopped me ice cold,” Van said. “I had gotten baptized in the ocean at Laguna. Just me, my son, another friend, and the preacher man. Long time ago.”
“How’d you know that?” Van asked the other worker.
“I was visiting Laguna that day and was up on the cliff there above the bay when I looked down and saw you being baptized down there. I thought it was beautiful, and I even took a picture of you with my telephoto lens. Would you like a copy of it?”
Van and I moved slowly through the rows of portable metal chairs, out toward the hallway and away from the Sabbath School class.