Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Swan Songs I: highway signs

The myth is that swans are silent and sing only just before they die. It's not true, but Chaucer thought so, and so did Shakespeare, meaning the myth grew more true than the truth itself, so we'll go with it. I'm thinking a series of "swan songs" is fitting for someone finishing close to half century in a particular place and during a particular time. Here's the first.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

I don’t remember much about coming into Sioux Center, Iowa, in August of 1966. I was 18 years old, and I’d never been to northwest Iowa so I was a little nervous, just about to start college. I certainly wasn’t sleeping, because, oddly enough, one of the only memories I have is a pair of glaring hand-painted signs planted firmly on both sides of the highway several miles north of town, someone’s personal roadside evangelism project crudely blasting out some prophetic exhortation, like “What road are you on?–-heaven or hell?” Huge signs, looming over the single-lane highway like doom itself.

That’s what I remember, coming into Sioux Center, 45 years ago.

I wondered if maybe this place was going to be too much for me, the elders of the village like the dark men on the cover of a Dutch Masters cigar box–black robed, unbending, zealots, duty-bound to scare the bejeebees out of any kid a foot off the highway of Sioux Center righteousness.

Those signs stayed there for years, some are still there in fact, and, not more than a week ago, I passed a new one, which is strange because I know that the man who once put them up there--and elsewhere around Rock Valley--is gone, moved to Michigan, where he died. I know because he doesn't call me anymore.

It took me several decades, but I came to know the man behind the signs, a man named Richard Gerritson--and his story. I visited with him and wrote up his story, something he always wanted published. Maybe it will be. Part of it is here. Read on.

On October 11, 1958, a Saturday, Richard Gerritson was ripping a house down twenty miles south of his home in Rock Valley, saving the scrap to sell, trying to make a few extra bucks, when a man drove up from the gas station down the block, asked him if he was Richard Gerritson, then told him he’d been called to get him because there’d been a terrible accident that involved his son, Larry Wayne Gerritson, just 12 years old. That’s all he said—a terrible accident that involved his son.

By the time Richard got home, cars were parked on the road in front of the little house on 15th Street. An elder from the church met him on the sidewalk, didn’t tell him the whole truth. But soon enough the preacher did. Once Richard stepped in the house, the preacher took him by the hand, Richard told me—it’s something he said he'd never forget, that preacher holding his hand. Just then he overheard his wife sobbing in the living room behind him. The news was bad—-the worst. Larry Wayne was dead.

The Gerritson family hadn't been much for church and only recently had started going. Not more than a few years before, they’d come along to worship with friends. He started attending for his wife and kids' sake, he told me, not for himself or because he really wanted to. But the family—-Mom, Dad, two girls and a boy—-were already members when Larry Wayne was killed just a hundred feet or so from Grandpa’s house, spilled on his bike on Highway 18 and broke his neck when he was hit by a car.

For three weeks after Larry died, Richard Gerritson couldn’t make it through a church service. For three weeks straight, he’d leave the pew in tears and walk home to that place on 15th Street. His wife took the car.

On that third Sunday night, sometime after two in the morning, he came up out of bed, wide awake, and picked up a Bible, something he’d rarely, if ever, done in his life, he told me. He read from the book of Matthew, 10th chapter, words that struck him right between those sky blue eyes of his. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Jesus said, “Take up my cross and follow me.”

So he did. And part of that cross was twenty years with M-2 prison ministry, inmates with whom he shared the gospel that changed his life, one-on-one—-black, red, and white inmates, “who just made some mistakes is all,” he told me. Part of that ministry was three-times-a-week Bible studies, one of which—the one at the Town House restaurant—is itself more than twenty years old. And part of that ministry was annually changing those graphic, hand-painted signs on the highways in northern Sioux County, the ones I saw from the back seat of my parents' car the very first time I came to Sioux Center. For fifty years and more those signs have been there.

Richard Gerritson is gone, but I just noticed that now, on highway 75, someone else has put up a new sign where his old ones once stood, sentry-like, just outside of Hull.

There's always more to the story. After almost 45 years in Sioux Center, Iowa, some of what I've learned, at least, is that there's always more to the story.

There's more and it's better, always more mystery, so keep looking and don't trust anyone who believes they know it all.

1 comment:

Sharla said...

Fascinating. Maybe you could find out who is continuing this man's work and could write about his/her story??