Remembering Jack

Photo of Jack Stewart and his dock out into Lime Lake

We met at an afternoon gathering of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, held in the old meeting house styled sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Richland. I don’t remember the date. It must have been around 2009. I sat in the balcony, having come prepared with a book. Not seeing anything too important on the agenda, I planned to pass the hours reading. I knew the usual suspects would speak on every issue. Feeling my voice wasn’t really needed to add to the debate, I began reading. I don’t even remember the book, but it had something to do with 19th Century church history. 

Jack sat in the same pew, but there was a gap between us. Catching the book title, he slid over and quietly asked about it. Soon, we were whispering back and forth, discussing Charles Hodge, the great 19th theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary. Jack had written his dissertation on Hodge. That was a beginning of our friendship. 

Jack had just retired from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he’d spent the previous fifteen years teaching. Before that, he taught few years at Yale Divinity School and before that at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He’d also served as pastor of several churches in the Pittsburgh area and Westminster Presbyterian in Grand Rapids. We met several times for breakfast. In 2010, I hired Jack to lead a session retreat for the church I served in Hastings, Michigan. In 2011, I hired him again to help run our stewardship program. 

This smallmouth bass grew into an 8 pounder by happy hour!

At some point, it may have been at that Presbytery meeting, Jack and I began to discuss his favorite topic, fishing. Over the next few years, Jack and I made several trips to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan where he had a cabin which he and his sons had built back in the 60s. When I asked what I needed to bring on the trip, he told me to bring my rod. “In my family,” Jack informed me, “we would no more ask to borrow someone’s rod as we would their toothbrush.” I packed both. 

Jack’s cabin was a simple A frame, set a hundred or so feet from the shore of Lime Lake, which is not far from Sleeping Bear National Seashore. I also went on a fishing trip with him to the Pere Marquette River, but by then his health declined. He could no longer get into the water to fish with a flying rod. While I waded out a bit to fish, I ended up spending most of my time fishing from the bank, where Jack sat in a chair and made an occasional cast. We didn’t catch anything. On the trips to Lime Lake, we caught a lot of smallmouths using rubber worms and a spinning rod. 

Jack swore he caught the largest fish on this day

Jack had his traditions. On these trips up north, we’d stop and grab coffee in Cadillac. The next stop was a country store in Maple City that had a little bit of everything, including a meat market which made sausage. We’d pick up a few pounds for our breakfasts. Each trip always included a stop at the Carlson Fish Market off the docks in Leland for some smoked white fish and pate. 

Days at the cabin were relaxed. Breakfast was generally eggs, sausage, and toast. Before we ate, he’d pull out his old leather-bound copy of John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer. Baillie, a Scottish pastor from early in the 20th Century, had two prayers, a morning and evening prayer, for each day of the month. At breakfast, one of us would read the morning prayer. After eating, we’d fish in his aluminum boat. It was always catch-and-release.  We’d come in off the water for lunch and maybe take a short nap before heading back out on the water. 

We generally stopped fishing around 4:30. When we got back to the cabin, we’d have some crackers and pate or smoked whitefish, with a wee dram of scotch. One of us would read Baillie’s evening prayer for the day. Baillie and Scotch were appropriate for Jack,. He proclaimed his last name was how Stewart was supposed to be spelled. The other Stuarts were highfalutin Francophile Scots. After this Scottish ritual, we’d head out to one of the many restaurants and pubs in the area for dinner.  

As we fished, as well we drove around the region, or sat around after dark, nursing one more drink, we’d talk. Topics were numerous:  theology, travel, world affairs, politics, what we’ve been reading, and some more theology. One particular concern for Jack was ecclesiology, which Jack felt was the weak link in the Reformed Tradition. But our talks weren’t always serious. We always told jokes. Jack could find a way to intersperse a joke into any conversation. 

Jack was raised south of Pittsburgh, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. I think his father was a coal miner and his family was of modest means. Jack earned a scholarship to Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA.  While in college, he became friends with Bruce Thielemann, who later became a very popular preacher at 1stPresbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (click here for some of Thielemann’s sermons). Sharing my remembrance of hearing Thielemann preach in the seminary chapel when I was a student tickled Jack. Thielemann died in 1994 and Jack spoke at his funeral. 

After college, Jack and Bruce attended seminary in Pittsburgh. His class was one of the first for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which was formed with the merger of Xenia and Western Theological Seminary (Xenia was the seminary for the United Presbyterian Church of North America and Western was a Seminary for the Presbyterian Church, USA The two denominations united in 1959).

While at seminary, he became a friend of Robert Kelly and Jack Rogers. Twenty-seven years later, Kelly was one of my New Testament professors when I was in seminary. Rogers spoke at my seminary graduation and was the moderator of the 2001 General Assembly of which I was a commissioner. The four were mentored by John Gerstner. Jack appreciated Gerstner’s guidance, but could not abide by his rigid conservatism. Jack told me about him meeting Gerstner years after seminary in which his old professor told him how he and his friends were a disappointment because none of them had joined in his battles. 

After I left Michigan, Jack and I would occasionally exchange emails or talk by phone. Often, when I was in the area, I would stay with him and his wife, Maureen. On at least two occasions, I was there on a Sunday and would worship with them at the Church of the Servant, which is located near the campus of Calvin University. At home, before meals, he’d offer grace using the opening words of Psalm 103.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.

I last saw Jack in October 2022. I was at at Calvin for a Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar. On a free evening, I drove over to his home for dinner. I knewJack wasn’t doing well. Still, it was a shocked a few weeks ago when Marueen emailed me that Jack had been in the hospital and was coming home under hospice care. Thankfully, I was able to talk to Jack two weeks ago. On Sunday, I received an email informing me of his death.  

I will miss his jokes and stories. Both the true stories, along with the tales about a fish which must have grown by pounds between catching it and telling about it.

Mar sin leat, my friend. 
Jeff 

For Jack’s Obituary, click here.

On Lime Lake

My First Job, Part 2

Title page with "Wilsons Name Tag"

My first months at the grocery store

Wilsons grocery bag

During my first few months as the grocery store, I worked only three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On school nights, I’d arrive at 4 PM and work till 8 or 9 PM. As things begin to slow down in the evening, Bert would begin to send some of us home for the night. It was always nice to get out a little early on Thursday, especially if I had homework. On Saturday, I’d work from late morning till early evening. 

I don’t recall a lot about these early months working at Wilsons. Everyone I worked with, except for Tom, was older. During this time, I mostly worked up front, bagging groceries and carrying them out to the customer’s car. Such work doesn’t create a lot of memories. This was fine with me for you were often tipped for helping someone with their groceries.

Learning new tasks: bottle returns and bring trash

Occasionally, when it was slow, I’d be assigned another task like taking care of bottle returns. In the front of the store stood several large bins on wheels where we placed soft-drink bottles after customers redeemed for deposit. Whenever a bin would begin to fill, or when there was a lull in the action, Bert would assign one of us bag boys take the bins to the back of the store and separate the bottles into several large wooden bins, divided by brands. The distributors picked up the empties a couple times a week. Although this gave you a break from bagging, it was really a dirty job and the novelty of working in the back of the store soon wore off.

Another back-room job was running the incinerator. All paper trash, especially boxes, and some plastic wrappings that came from the meat market were burned. Late in the evening, as things slowed down, someone was sent back to handle the daily trash. I was neat to see the incinerator. A huge steel door opened with a switch. I would pack the cavity with debris. Once filled, you closed it and hit a button that shot out a gas flame. The metal, when you ran it for a long period, became red hot. It took only a few minutes of burning to consume everything. Then, machine was ready for another load. It seems odd today that we burned cardboard instead of recycling.   As for the burning of plastic, that also seems less than environmentally friendly. 

Learning new tasks: Marketing

Another job which I slowly began to dip my toe into was marketing. At the time, the custom was for grocery stores to run weekly sales from Thursday to Wednesday. When my hours expanded and I began to work on Wednesdays, Bert would often ask me to help him hang large signs (3 feet wide and 8 feet long). These were taped onto the front widows and generally hung late Wednesday, an hour or so before closing. The signs advertised our weekly specials such as a five-pound bag of sugar for 59 cents, some cut of steak for 1.99 a pound, bananas for 10 cents a pound, baby food a dime a jar, five pounds of potatoes for 39 cents.

Also, late Wednesday, as we approached closing time, the job of changing the marquee out front would fall to one of the bagboys This was always a fun job, except for when it was raining or windy. We’d used a 12-foot-long mechanical hand to take off the old letters and put on the new ones. 

No longer the new kid

As the weather warmed and school was done for the summer of 1973, there was a turn-over of personnel. Many of my colleagues graduated from high school and left for permanent jobs, college, or the military. As these guys and gals were replaced, I was no longer the new kid. Of these new employees, Tina was the most exciting. Tina was the first of the girls my age working at the store. Like Tom, she was a student from New Hangover High. I remember her with hard dark hair, olive colored skin and big dark eyes. For the next couple of years, we’d flirt back and forth. She was the only cashier younger than my mother who called me “honey.” But for some reason, I never got the nerve to ask her out and after a year or so I’d missed my opportunity as she was dating others.

Running a cash register

Late that summer, Bert trained me to run a cash register. It seemed a nice skill to have and it meant a small increase in my paycheck. I think I received a 20 cent and hour increase, but it was anactual decrease since cashiers never received tips. All the regular cashiers were women, just as all the bag boys were “boys.” But a few bag boys trained to take over a register if things got busy, or to allow those on the register to take a break and to fill in if there was an absence. Running a register on a rainy day was a blessing. On rainy days, being assigned to a cash register was a treat.

It’s hard to remember, but the store used mechanical cash registers back then. There were no scanners. These were heavy machines that had rows of numbers. A carton of cigarettes at the time cost $1.89 (this was North Carolina, after all!). Holding the item in one hand, I’d mash the 1 button on the third-to-the-left column. Then I hit the 8 button on the second and the 9 on the left-hand column. Soon, I could do this in one motion. I then rolled my hand to the right and with the side of my hand hit enter. The price would appear on the tape and show on the top of the machine. It became second nature. After a few weeks, I discovered that I was as fast as anyone except the older women who been there for years.

The mop crew

Another new job I found myself being assigned to was mopping. On weeknights, about 15 minutes before the doors locked, Bert would assign two of us the task. We’d go back and begin preparations. We had a large machine that put out a cleaning solution, scrubbed the floor and then vacuumed up the dirty solution. Behind the machine, the second person came behind with a mop to scrub the sides of the aisles and any missed areas. It’d take 30 or so minutes to cover the floor. .

Late in the summer of ’73, Bert asked if I’d be interested in working the Saturday night mop crew. For this, I had to get my parents’ permission since we worked well into Sunday morning. The store was closed on Sundays. My parents agreed and, for the rest of the time I was in high school, I didn’t have to worry about a Saturday night curfew and often came home at 4 or 5 on Sunday mornings. This was okay with my parents if I was up in time for church and provided me with more freedom that I should have had as a high school kid.

Saturday: mopping and waxing

On Saturday night, we’d not only mop the floor, but strip it of wax. As soon as the last of the customers were out, we’d take all the shopping carts out of the store and place them in the parking lot. Then the three of us (there were always three on Saturdays), would remove anything from the aisles and place them in the back room or up off the floor around the registers. With the floors cleared, except for the aisles themselves, we’d use chemicals in the machine and in the buckets to cut the wax off. Where the wax had built up, we’d scrap off the excess with metal scrapers attached to hoe handles. The floor had to be spotless and dry before waxing.

We’d had special mops and buckets for the wax, which came in 55-gallon oil drums. Using a mop, one of us would put a line of wax along the edge of each aisle, about two inches from the edge. Then the other two would come in and fill in the aisle with wax. The job required a steady swing of the mop to place the wax evenly on the floor. Then, after the wax had dried, we moved everything back out onto the floor and brought in the shopping carts and the store was ready to open on Monday morning. (If raining, we’d mop again the area where we brought the carts in, as it would be sloppy wet.)

There was lots of freedom with working on the mop crew. Bert and John, the assistant manager, rotated Saturday night duty. Whoever closed would lock us in the store after we’d taken the carts out. We were on our own till they came back, generally at 1 or 2 AM, after the clubs closed. They’d often have beer on their breath and on many occasions, Bert would often have a hot looking woman with him. Bert or John would then help us finish up and we’d leave for home an hour or so later.

Running the mop crew

A few weeks after starting to work on the mop crew, the other guys on the crew left and I found myself in charge. I even was able to pick my crew and asked Tom, and later Billy, to join me. I also quickly learned that it didn’t take six or seven hours to do the work. We’d normally complete our work by midnight. For a month or so, we spent an hour or two sleeping on the cash register belts as we wait for Bert or John to come back and open the doors so we could bring in the buggies before going home. Since we were still on the clock, those were some of the best hours I’d work.

I ran mop crew throughout my high school year, only missing the weeks I was away with the school’s debate team. . Bert, knowing that we were faster than others had been, would come back earlier and we started being out of the store between midnight and 1 AM. As I turned 18 during my senior year in high school, finishing out “early” allowed me to join Bert and others as we closed down night clubs.

Looking back 50 years

It doesn’t seem like it’s been fifty years since I started to work in the grocery for minimum wage ($1.60 an hour at the time). It’s been over 45 years since Tom’s death (I will write more about him at a later date). Bert died seven or eight years ago. I wasn’t able to make it to his funeral, but my younger brother who worked for him ten years after I did, was able to make it. I wonder what happened to John, Billy, and Tina.

Click here to read my previous post about being hired at Wilsons

A Sunday afternoon drive to Gerlach

Title Slide for "A Sunday Drive to Gerlach, Nevada, showing the Southern Pacific tracks cutting through the Black Rock Desert

Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert have lost a lot of their appeal. Over the past couple of decades, tens of thousands of people head there every Labor Day. It’s the sight of the Burning Man Festival. This year, because of some rain, 70,000 people became struck in the mud outside of Gerlach. Here’s my adventure in the Black Rock Desert long before it became so famous.  The photos are copies from slides.

The Appeal of the Black Rock Desert

I’m not sure what drew me to this dot on a map. Gerlach is a hundred and some miles north of Reno. I knew few people, even in Western Nevada, who’d be there. The only person I knew who had been to the town was Norm and Missy. They’d lived and worked there before moving to Virginia City. Another attraction that drew me to this dot on the map were hot springs. I’ve taken road trips all over the Intermountain West in search of a good soak.

There was another reason I was interested in Gerlach. I’d watched their high school basketball team play that winter. The Virginia City Muckers creamed them. Our high school boys, used to playing in the thin air of 6200 feet, ran these lowlanders to death. Making it worse, the Gerlach team had only seven players. A couple of these guys were so uncoordinated that I felt sorry for them. I could have been a star on this team. By the end of the game, they only had five players left, and they were all on the court. Their best two players having fouled out. The Muckers second string, guys who normally sat on the bench, played, and had no problem running up the score. For some reason I wanted to see this team’s town.

A Sunday drive

In the late spring of 1989, after preaching on Sunday (the service was at 9 AM), I was on the road by 10:30 AM. I drove to Reno and picked up Carolyn, a woman I was dating at the time. The two ate a quick lunch and headed off. Taking I-80 east, out of Reno, we followed the Truckee River to Wadsworth, and then staying by the river, took Nevada 447 due north.

the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake
Pyramid Lake, Fall 1988

The road took us toward Nixon and the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. We stopped along the south end of the lake. It’s a barren looking body of water, essentially a retention pond. The pristine waters start out as snow in the Sierras. The snow melts into Lake Tahoe, and flows out of the north end of the lake. From there, the waters cascade down the Sierras. The river flows through downtown Truckee and Reno, and then through the River District of Storey County. In the 80s was home of the infamous Mustang Ranch, where there were no cattle, but prostitution was legal. At Wadsworth, the river turns north, and flows toward Pyramid Lake.

Over time, the hot desert sun evaporates the water in the lake. The high mineral content of the water when it reaches the lake leaves behind tufa formations as the lake level falls depending on the water level. Because the water is now so saline, there is little life around the lake. 

Meeting Carolyn

I had met Carolyn the previous fall on another trip to this lake. A mutual friend invited us both out on an expedition in search of fall colors, which in the American West is mostly yellow. There would be pockets of cottonwoods in canyons, with bright yellow leaves flickering in the breeze, along with yellow rabbit brush mixed into the sage. The later, through beautiful, is the bane of allergy suffers. At one point, late in the day, when the light was soft and warm, Carolyn caught me taking her picture of her admiring the crescent moon hanging in the western sky. She smiled approvingly. We started seeing each other soon afterwards. Although nostalgic, our stop on the south shore of Pyramid Lake was brief, for we had another 80 miles to go to get to our destination, Gerlach.

Truly the Loneliness Road in America

In the 1950s, Life Magazine dubbed Highway 50 through Central Nevada as the “Loneliness Road in America.” It’s not. It’s not even the loneliness road in Nevada. Nevada 447, north of Nixon, is one of a dozen or so blacktopped roads in the state with a much lower traffic count. We saw only one car heading south as we drove north, and when we returned that evening, we saw no cars. There’s not a lot out here.

The west side of the road is the Piute Reservation; on the east side is Winnemucca Lake, which is dry. Along the way, we pass a couple of ranches and a few scattered cows. This harsh land takes 40 or more acres to support a cow. As the afternoon progresses, the wind begins blowing and at places it sounds like the car is being sandblasted. Five miles south of Gerlach is the only other town around, Empire. It’s a company owned town at the site of one of the nation’s largest gypsum mines and, besides the railroad, is a main source of employment in the region. A spur rail line hauls out cars of the powdery dust. Five or so miles north, along the Southern Pacific lines (the Feather River Route) is Gerlach. 

the Town of Gerlach

The town is small and sits on the edge of the Black Rock Desert which stretches northeast as far as one can see. We ask about the hot springs and learn they’re not currently open due to construction. A little disappointed, we walk around town and the rail yard and spent some time hiking beside the tracks out into the desert playa.  The ground is barren, white, and chalky. Having seen it, I can understand why it became a quagmire after only a half inch of rain during this year’s Burning Man festival. 

There’s one main establishment in Gerlach, Bruno’s Country Club. It’s a gas station, casino, restaurant, bar, and hotel. I laugh at it being called a Country Club, for there isn’t a blade of grass in sight and certainly no golf courses. If they decided to add a golf course, I assume it’d be like the one in Gabbs, Nevada, a nine-hole course played on clay. Although not a golfer, I image your ball would get nice long bounce on such a surface. 

Photo from the internet

After our walk, we head to Bruno’s and enter the dining room that’s across from the casino. The casino isn’t much, just a handful of slot machines, along with a bar and maybe a table for cards. The establishment isn’t fancy, but we enjoy a home-style meal. The staff and the locals having Sunday dinner at Bruno’s are friendly. As tourist, we stick out, and they seem glad to see us and are curious as to what brought us to town. After dinner, the light of the day begins to fade as the sun sets. We take another walk around town. The air cools and the fierce wind of the afternoon has died down. 

Heading home

After walking around, we get back in the car. There’s nothing more to do than to drive home through the night. The car’s headlights pierce the darkness of the black ribbon of highway. At a couple of places, I slow down as we drive through six-inch-high mounds of sand across the highway. These were deposited by the afternoon wind. The stars are bright. Overhead and to the Southwest, Orion sinks toward the western horizon, as does waxing new moon. I point it out to Carolyn. She reminds me of the crescent moon on the horizon on that first trip to Pyramid Lake. An hour later, the moon has set, and we’re left with the stars and a lonely strip of asphalt. It’s late when I drop Carolyn off at her home. It’s even later when I make it back up on the Comstock.

Other Nevada Adventures

Arriving in Virginia City

Doug and Elvira

Matt and Virginia City

Riding in the cab of a locomotive on the V&T

Christmas Eve

My first job…

title slide for blog post showing two pictures. One of a Wilsons Grocery bag and another of an aisle in a grocery store.
Wilsons Supermarket bag
Bag posted on the Facebook Page, Hometown memories of Wilmington, NC

I became a Country Boy a few months after I turned sixteen. I’d gone with Mom to the Wilson’s Supermarket on Oleander Drive, the “home of the Country Boys.” Mom pointed out the manager. He stood in the front of the store, watching everything. Garnering courage, I walked over and asked him for a job. 

“You have to be sixteen,” he said, obviously not thinking I was quite there. Admittedly, I was small for my age. 

“But I am,” I responded, “I can show you my driver’s license?” 

He looked at it and nodded his head in approval. 

“You’ll need a social security card,” he said. “Can you work four or five hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons and eight hours on Saturday?”

“Yes Sir,” I said.

I had my first job. Of course, I had worked before but it was just mowing yards for neighbors or babysitting. But this was my first regular job, with a paycheck and deduction for taxes…

That next Thursday afternoon, with a tie around my neck, I reported to work. Two of us were to start our grocery careers that day. Tom, the other kid, was from New Hanover High School, popularly known by those of us who attended Hoggard High as “New Hang-over.” His bright red hair and his twitch in his neck when he talked caused lots of people to consider him weird, but he worked hard. Wilson’s Supermarket would his only job. 

They trained us that first day to bag groceries. Bert, the manager who hired us, assigned each of us to a more experienced bagger. For an hour or two, we learned the fundamentals of bagging groceries. Don’t put can goods on top of bread or on cartons of eggs. If you have a lot of cans, double-up your bag for strength. This was the era of only paper bags, no plastic ones. You separate the cleansing supplies from the meat and produce. 

We also learned if the cart was loaded down, we could jump up onto it and ride it out the door and through the lot, saving energy. Soon, we were on our own, taking out groceries and always saying, “Thank You, Ma’am,” as we slammed the trunk lid. Another lesson we’d later learned was to recognize the big tippers and hustle especially hard for them. This became a game for some, although Tom and I tried to give our best to everyone.

It now seems like a distant dream. In a way, I suppose, it was the beginning of the end. So far, I have never been without a job except for three months I took off to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. I would have another four-month break for work, but it was a sabbatical, so I still had a job. But back in 1973, I had school along with 15 to 18 hours a week of work. As I found high school boring and wasn’t very motivated, having a job provided dignity. 

Sign for Wilsons Grocery store
I don’t know how many times I posted the week’s special on a similar sign. Photo from the Facebook page, Hometown Memories of Wilmington, NC

Each day, when I showed up for work, I’d put on a tie. It was expected of all of us “country boys.” While the ads might have had us looking like hillbillies, we were expected to be dressed properly. Beforehand, I’d only worn a ties on Sundays for church, an ideal I still maintain. But unlike most of the newcomers at the store, I didn’t wear a clip-on tie, which they sold on a rack at the end of one of the aisle. I think they were there mostly in case we forgot to bring a tie.

As a 16-year-old, I knew how to tie a Double Windsor. Back in the 70s, with ties wide enough to serve as bibs, tying a big knot like a Double Windsor was quite a feat. Before the week was out, I was teaching Tom and others how to tie one. When you’re a runt, it helps to have a skill. Tom and I began to hang out and became good friends. Six months after I left the store for good, during my second year of college, Tom died from a brain tumor. 

Bert, our boss, served as a second father to both of us. Whenever I had problems, especially with girls, questions I’d never think about asking my own dad, I’d ask him. Looking back, I don’t know why? He was easy to talk to, but his martial record certainly left room for improvement. While I didn’t know it when I started, Bert was the father of a elementary school friend of mine, Nicky Pipkin. While Bert had his own troubles with relationships, he always gave me good advice.

I stayed at Wilsons through my first year of college doing a variety of jobs: bagging groceries, stocking the shelves at night, running a cashier, counting money, mopping and waxing the floors late on Saturday night and into the wee-morning hours of Sundays and, thanks to being a non-smoker, managing the cigarette aisle. The pay was never very good, but I enjoyed my time there. It’s rewarding and noble to serve people. 


A version of this story appeared in a older blog of mine.

Photo of a Jerry Garcia designed tie
These days, when I need to wear a tie, I try to wear nice ones like this tie, designed by Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead)

Returning to Pittsburgh

In front of the seminary, looking toward East Liberty Presbyterian Church

Have you noticed that I’ve been absent the past two weeks?

I’ve walked North Highland Avenue many times, but it’s been over 3 decades since I last made this trek. I pass the old homes lining the avenue, which have changed little since the 80s. At the corner of Bryant, I stop at Tazza D’Oro, a coffee shop, for breakfast. This wasn’t here before. The cafeteria at the seminary, where I am staying, is closed during the summer. Coffee and a breakfast sandwich cost me $16. Spending a few minutes reading Karl Barth while eating. I notice the crowd seems different. The people are much younger than those I remember being around these parts. No do I remember having such a meager breakfast at such a price.

The coffee shop is just around the corner from Dinos, a dive bar I frequented. In 1986, I could get a 12-ounce glass of IC Light (pronounced Icy Light in Pittsburghese). Their top shelf liquors were only $2, but sadly the establishment closed after the death of the bartender in 1989. Today, the storefront host the Kyoto Restaurant, an upscale looking Japanese establishment which won’t open until much later in the day.

I continue walking north on Euclid Avenue, passing the ironic Azimuth Way, as I head toward Highland Park. The entrance is neat and clean with flowers blooming in the beds surrounding foundations. In the grass to the side, a yoga class is being held. I climb the steps leading to the walkway around the reservoir, a walk I took hundreds of time before. With a fast clip, I walk around the reservoir as I am meeting friends for lunch and need to shower as I have worked up a sweat thanks to the humidity. I head back to the seminary, having walked a little over 3 miles. 

Entrance to Highland Park

After cleaning up, I drive the same route I just walked, and then work my way around the park and zoo to the Highland Park Bridge, where I cross the Allegheny River. The bridge is being worked on, which isn’t anything new. When my parents first visited me in Pittsburgh, the bridge had holes in which you could look down into the river. I took my parents over the bridge to Aspinwall for dinner and my mother insisted we not drive back across that bridge again. She also ordered me not to drive across it, which became a mute request for soon they’d closed the bridge in order to rebuild it.  

I’m meeting for lunch two of my professors (Charles Partee and Don Gowan) and the former seminary’s Director of Placement, Jean Henderson. The three of them, who have all lost their spouses and are in their 80s and 90s, live in a large continuing care facility in Cranberry Township. 

After lunch, I return to the seminary and in the late afternoon take a walk south of the Seminary, around East Liberty (pronounced s’berty in Pittsburghese). Back in the 80s, I used to occasionally help feed the homeless men at the shelter housed by the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. It was eye opening, as many of the men would come in and pour hydroperoxide on the needle marks on their arms to keep them from becoming infected. I seldom walked this direction by myself at night, and when I did, I left my wallet in my apartment and only took a few dollars as it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be mugged.

Today, East Liberty is undergoing renovation. The high-rise low-income apartments have been torn down and replaced by more appealing apartment-like buildings. The old Sears and the buildings around it have been razed and a new Home Depot now sits in the area. The old Giant Eagle, a grocery store, is now a Senior Center. I wonder where the young men who used to hang out around the pay phone, waiting to receive a call for a lift. While this was frowned on, especially by the taxi companies, in the age before cell phones and Uber, it was efficient and met a need within the community. I’m not sure what other services beyond transportation they supplied, but they hustled.   

There’s a lot of work being done on the roads around East Liberty. I walk pass Eastminster and East Liberty Presbyterian. Both are grand churches. Eastminster has wonderful Tiffany windows, while East Liberty is the closest thing we Presbyterians have to a cathedral. There was an older church at the site that was torn down so this one could be rebuilt. It was funded by Richard Mellon, from the prominent Mellon family of Pittsburgh, who in addition to working at the family bank with his brother Andrew, headed Alcoa and was involved in other business in the region. His hope was to create jobs during the Depression, and he has left an amazing structure. Inside, he and his wife’s remains are parked in a small prayer chapel off the main nave. As the sanctuary is massive, the seminary uses it for graduation. I continue to walk South, across the sunken railroad tracks and the bus way which allows buses to take you downtown without traffic in minutes. Then I cross over into the Shadyside neighborhood. Only a few things seem familiar. 

For dinner, I drive back across the Allegheny River, looking for another favorite dive bar where, in the 80s, one could get a plate of eight whole chicken wings (not the cut up kind) for three bucks. They were so hot that you also ate the celery with ranch dressing along with several beers to down it all. It’s not there and I end up eating at a new Thai Restaurant at Waterworks. I’m back in my room at the seminary before dark and spend the rest of the evening preparing for the week’s seminar. 

The next morning, I head out to an old Eat’n Park in Etna, where I often ate breakfast on Sunday mornings as I north headed to Butler and the church where I worked at from 1986 to 1988. I’m sure most of the waitresses weren’t even born when I lived here. I found myself wondering what ever happened to Lydia, one of the regular waitresses in the 80s.

Then I head downtown. I’m meeting two former classmates at the Willie Stargel statue by the ballpark on the north side. Back in the day, I would walk across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the first of the “Three Sisters” (identical yellow bridges that cross the Allegheny). As the Clemente Bridge is closed for reconstruction, I take an option that wasn’t available in the 80s. The subway has now been extended to the Northside. It travels under the Allegheny River and drops you off right beside the stadium. Of course, the stadium is also new and is much nicer than the old Three River Colosseum, where I saw many Pirate and a few Steeler games.

Me, Lee, and Lea

We meet at 11:30, buy tickets for seats up above the third base line. It’s a beautiful day, a little warm, but not terrible. The game is competitive and at the end of nine is tied. We go into an extra inning, but the Giants blow out the Pirates in the 10th. Afterwards, we plan to go to dinner with another classmate (who had to preach this morning and was unable to make the game). We meet at Bakery Square, which is near the seminary. In the 1980s, it was a large Nabisco Bakery, but today consists of restaurants, offices, apartment flats, and a fitness center. I would eat here three more times over the next four days, as I meet with a theology group from Monday through Thursday.

Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. This is a magnificent ballpark!

By the end of my second full day in Pittsburgh, I realize that most everything I knew about the city has changed, except for the work on the Highland Park Bridge and the Pirates losing.  Our group would also go to a night game at PNC Park. The Pirates lost again, this time to the Cleveland Guardians. 

Night. Game

Arriving in Virginia City, 1988

Title Slide for "Arriving in Virginia City" Photo of author in front of First Presbyterian Church and a second photo of the city taken from Flowery Mountain
Mt. Davidson from the tailing piles of the North End mines.

I pulled into Virginia City early in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, 1988, twenty-four hours after leaving Camp Sawtooth in Idaho. The summer had been idyllic, running a camp with plenty of time to hike in the mountains. Now I was heading again into uncharted territory.

The Drive from the Sawtooth Mountains to Virginia City

The previous afternoon, I’d driven from the camp to Elko on Highway 93. As I crossed the border, I was needing a place to relieve myself. However, I wasn’t sure about going into the casinos at Jackpot. I continued on, finally stopped in Elko, checking into a Motel 6. After diner, in the waning evening hours, I walked around the town watching trains run through and the sun set across the desert. 

Up early the next day, I grabbed breakfast at McDonalds and hit the road. I drove west on Interstate 80, which parallels the Humboldt River across northern Nevada. Stopping for gas in Winnemucca, I noticed a tire was low. I added air and continued, but with an uneasy feeling. Earlier in the summer, I had read a book about pioneers traveling across the 40-mile desert, from the Humboldt Sink to the Washoe River. This was not a place I wanted to have a flat tire. I pulled over in Lovelock and checked the tire again. It was low and leaking. I’d picked up a nail. Thankfully in the center of the tire, so it wasn’t ruined.  I found a garage who patched it in about fifteen minutes while I had lunch. Without losing much time, I was on my way. 

At Fernley, having crossed with 40-mile desert without realizing it, I left the interstate and took Alterative 95 south to Silver Springs.  There, I turned left on Highway 50, heading toward the Sierras. The country was barren and I felt isolated. Shortly before reaching Dayton, I looked up a canyon to the northwest and glimpsed the white “V” high on Mount Davidson, my destination. At Moundhouse, where at night one could see several long red neon lights advertising legal brothels, I turned north on Nevada 341. From there, it’s a steep grade up the mountain to Virginia City.

I drove through the waning town of Silver City and squeezed through Devil’s Gate. This was a crack in a ridge barely large enough for a highway. On both sides of the strip of asphalt were relics of the past. Old headframes for mines, abandon trucks, wooden shacks, and rusty hardware. In an open pit mine, I noticed the old tunnels honeycombing the exposed side of the mountain.

The next town was Gold Hill. From there, the road became extremely steep. I pushed the gas to the floor. My car creeped up the 13% grade that wound around a large open pit mind. Cresting at the Divide, the road dropped slightly. From here, it was known as “C Street, the main drag of Virginia City. After passing the old 4th Ward School, I pulled into a parking place in front of the old wooden church on the south end of town. 

Arriving in town
First Presbyterian Church in 2018

The doors were locked. I was hoping someone would be there, as volunteers tried to keep it open for tourists during the summer season. I looked carefully over the 120-year-old whitewashed building, wondering what I was getting myself into. Slowly I walked around the building. The vacant lots on each side were barren, except for a few hardy weeds attempting to defy the Nevada desert. Broken bottles, bits of rusty iron, and weathered, sun-bleached, chunks of wood, all remnants of an age past where hidden under the weeds.

Afterwards, I stood for a few minutes on the front porch, leaning on the rail, looking east, down Six Mile Canyon. It would become a familiar sight with Sugarloaf, the core of an ancient volcano rising the middle of the canyon. In the distance, a couple thousand feet lower, was an alkali desert simmering under the afternoon sun which I’d just traveled through on Highway 50.

“Well, I better get on with it,” I thought, attempting to encourage myself to walk the boardwalk to the Bucket of Blood, a saloon where I had been told to pick up the keys. The sun was warm and although the peak of the tourist season was over, there were still quite a few sightseers on C Street, vying for the slot machines that stood just inside the doors of all the establishments adjacent to the boardwalk. The noise of the electronic bandits and the smell of the sausage dogs and spilt beer overwhelmed me. I lengthened my stride, sidestepping tourists, quickly covered the three blocks.  

The “Bucket” in 2008

The Bucket, as it’s locally known, is a grand saloon. Except for slot machines, a 20th Century invention, it appeared little had changed since the last century when the mines produced broken men and millionaires. Chandeliers hung from the punched tin ceiling. The wooden bar was adorned with polished brass behind which hung a large mirror. Pictures of another era on the Comstock hung from the walls. I leaned against the bar and asked for Don McBride, the owner of the Bucket and husband of a member of the church. 

“He’s not here,” the bartender said looking at me sideways as he washed glasses.  “Are you Jeff?”  

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“He told me to give you this,” as he handed me an envelope.  I opened it. Onto the bar dropped a set of keys, one for the church, another for a house where I’d be staying, and a third for the post office box. There was a map, a church directory, and a sheet with names and phone numbers for people who might be of help. I returned to my car and drove to the house on B Street.   

Settling in
Where I lived on B Street

The little house the church rented for student pastors, my home for a year, was nothing to write home about. I’d been here in April, staying with Laura and David Stellman, the previous year’s student pastors. I’d flown out for the weekend to check out the position. The house had two small bedrooms, each barely large enough for a full-size bed, along with a living room, kitchen, and bathroom which sported an antique iron tub. None of the floors were level, but this is true for most of the buildings in Virginia City,. Mines held up with rotting timbers honeycomb the ground underneath the city. The earth constantly settles and occasionally sinkholes develop.  

I later learned the house had an interesting history, but for now it was comfortably furnished. There was a chair, couch, coffee table, and bookcase in the living room. There was also a television, but since I never signed up for cable, it remained unused. Both bedrooms had beds. I decided to live in the front bedroom, which had a single bed and enough room for a small desk and a dresser.  The bathroom was off this bedroom, and it also had a small closet. It was warm and stuffy inside. Opening the windows, the regular afternoon breezes began to blow and it was soon comfortable. 

On the Formica kitchen table was a note from the women of the church, welcoming me. They also had left a few groceries. In a box was a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, cooking oil, and a few cans of soup. I looked inside the refrigerator and sure enough, there was a dozen eggs, a carton of milk, some orange juice, along with a six pack of beer and a bottle of wine. 

I walked out to my car and started shuttling the suitcases and boxes that I’d lived out of at camp that summer. When the car was empty, I drove back down to the church. There in a corner of the small narthex were four fruit boxes of books I’d shipped via mail on book rate, along with two larger boxes that I’d shipped via train. Howard, one of the church’s elders and a school principal in Reno had picked them up for me at the Reno station. I’d shipped these boxes in late May, which now seemed a lifetime ago. Curious as to what I’d packed, I hauled them into the house where I began to unpack.

The books quickly filled the shelves. The big boxes contained stuff for the kitchen: utensils, a wok, a coffee maker, all wrapped in dish and bath towels. There was also a light for my desk, a small fan, winter clothes, a couple of blankets, a two sets of sheets, and a few framed photos to make the house look like home.  

By six o’clock, everything was unpacked. I’d even hung the pictures. As I fixed a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, I noticed the house had cooled. The sheer curtains blew in the late afternoon breeze. The sun had long set behind Mount Davison which shadowed the town to the west. The evening appeared pleasant. I ate out on the front steps. I’d been in town nearly four hours and had yet talked to anyone except the bartender. Eating my sandwich and swishing it down with a bottle of beer, I read The Peace Pilgrim.

About halfway through my meal, a man who was obviously drunk and carrying a tutu, stopped by to introduce himself. Virgil Bucchianeri said he was the district attorney. I wasn’t sure whether to believe this man holding a lacy tutu, but he was friendly and wanted to welcome me to the town. He knew I was to be the pastor at the Presbyterian Church. “I’m Catholic,” he said, “but we all get along here.” He had to run, saying he had a rehearsal of a mountain man ballet at the Piper Opera House, which was just down the street beyond the courthouse. Well, I thought to myself, if I was to wear a tutu, I’d probably be drunk, too. I finished my sandwich and picked up my book and continued to read.

Meeting Victor
Victor

A little later, another guy walked over. Victor introduced himself and said he had been attending church since moving to Virginia City from Reno a few months earlier. He invited me to go with him down to the Union Brewery. I put my book up and dropped my plate into the sink. We then walked to the bar on the north end of C Street. I learned that Victor was a relatively new attorney in Reno. Although older than me, he had left behind an academic career for law school. He had been in practice for a little over a year, choosing Nevada because it was a state without a law school. He hoped meant there would be less competition. 

A few minutes later we arrived at the Union Brewery. The bar was housed in an old storefront building along C Street. It was long and narrow, rather dark, with wooden floors and plastered walls filled with photographs, bumper stickers. An artificial tree dangled from the punched tin ceiling, decorated with bras patrons had tossed up onto the branches. The bar was decidedly local, with even a sign behind the cash register that read, “Have you been rude to a tourist today?” 

The Union Brewery

We entered and took our places on stools in front of the bar. The bartender brought Victor a non-alcoholic imported beer that they kept on stock for him. Victor introduced me to Julie, telling her that I was the new Presbyterian preacher. She gave me a quizzical look and asked him if I was one of his jokes. Then she asked me what I’d have. When I asked what was on tap, I learned that they made their own beer. This was long before the brewpub concept that taken off. The only homebrew beer I’d had up to this point had been bad, but I decided to try it. She nodded, twisted around, filled up a glass and plopped it in front of me. It was dark with a foamy head.

One sip, and I fell in love with the beer as I’d already fallen for the ballerina-like bartender, with her golden curves and beautiful smile. Julie wore tight fitting jeans and a half-opened shirt. In the low light she seemed angelic, dancing around, keeping everyone glass full, laughing at the jokes, and smiling at the compliments. But up close, the wrinkles around her eyes betrayed her carefree ways. 

I later learned she was married to Rick, the bar owner, who made the beer in the basement. I’d have to keep my admiration to myself. As for the beer, I would later learn it was like being in a relationship with someone suffering with bipolar tendencies. Some days are great, others less so as the quality of the beer varied, depending on Rick’s temperament and sobriety. Word would get around town to avoid the latest batch and I would switch to Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam for a week or two. 

We didn’t stay very long in the bar that night. We both nursed down one drink as we got to know each other, then headed back to our places on B Street. Victor had to be in the officer early the next morning and I was exhausted from traveling and unpacking. We said our goodbyes as Victor climbed the steps up to his apartment across from the courthouse. I walked south the half block to my new home where I fell into bed.

The Next Morning

I don’t remember anything else until early the next morning when light flooded the room. Sitting on the eastern flank of Mount Davidson, Virginia City catches the first rays of the sun and they all seemed to gather in my room that morning. Having spent the summer in a narrow north-south running canyon surrounded by tall mountains, I wasn’t used to seeing the sun until late morning. Getting up, I went for a walk. It was time to check out my new home.  

Other memoir pieces from this time in my life

Driving West in ’88

Matt, Virginia City 1988

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

Christmas Eve 1988

Easter Sunrise Services (a part of this article recalls Easter Sunrise Service in Virginia City in 1989)

The Revivals of A. B. Earle (an academic paper published in American Baptist Historical Society Quarterly, part of his revivals were in Virginia City in 1867)

Looking at Virginia City from Flowery Graveyard (Southeast of the town)

Great Grandma McKenzie’s Death and the purpose of a funeral

Cover slide for Great Grandma and the purpose of a funeral

A decade ago, I read Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch’s The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. I’d taken a of study leave to read and was staying at my grandma’s house outside of Pinehurst. While there, I did what I have always done when here in Moore County, attend church at Culdee.  Afterwards, my daughter and I spent some time walking around the cemetery. Some of the tombstones brought back memories. At this time, I could count at being on being there for at least seven funerals. 

Since then, I can add two more, a grandmother and an aunt (of which I officiated as the church was without a pastor at the time). There are also those whom I never knew who are buried there, such as my great-great grandparents and an aunt that died from leukemia when she was three. The cemetery held other memories. As a young teenager, I recalled helping my grandmother clean up the cemetery. 

My first memory of the cemetery was from when I was eight years old. We left Moore County when I was six and was living in Petersburg, Virginia at the time. When the call of death came, we headed home… When I die, having lived all over this nation, I have often imagined my cremains coming home to rest on this sandy ridge between the Little River and Nick’s Creek, while awaiting the resurrection.

Memories of my first funeral home visit
The Frye/Puckett Funeral Home, 2016

My brother, sister and I stood in front of the casket holding the body of my great-grandma, Callie McKenzie. Behind us stood our mom, hovering over like an angel as she wrapped the three of us in her arms. We gazed at the body which everyone said looked so much like her. It didn’t. Bodies never look life-like, and great-grandma’s body was no different. Mom pointed to her hands. Wrinkled, they were covered with brown liver spots. Mom reminded us of all the strawberries she’d picked, the tomatoes she’d raised, the apples she’d peeled, and the corn she’d shucked. 

When I was younger, we lived next door and sometimes on Sunday afternoon, after church, we’d gather with our extended family in her backyard, under the pecan trees. The boundaries of her lawn were marked by the back porch, a dirt road over beyond the well, a corncrib in the back, and a smokehouse and woodpile on the far side, just in front of the canebrake. Tables were set out and we’d have lunch, followed by a slice of pie that she’d baked Saturday evening in her wood burning range. She had a gas range but preferred the wood burning one. “We’ll never taste another of those pies,” Mom sadly reminded us.  

Inside the funeral home, 2016

After a few minutes, Mom shuffled us out on the porch of the funeral home in Carthage, into the warm humid air of a July evening, telling us to behave as she went back in with the adults. Much later, we drove to my Dad’s parent’s home, where we stayed the night. 

My grandmother was gone at the time of her mother’s death

It was unnervingly quiet at my grandparent’s home on Juniper Lake Road. No one was home. There were no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed, as was my granddaddy’s habit. My grandparents and my uncle, Larry, who was just a teenager, were in Florida on vacation and unaware of our presence at their house. Nor did my grandmother know her mother had died.

In this day before cell phones and computers, it was nearly impossible to find someone on short notice.  My dad called the highway patrols in Florida and the states in between with a description of their car, in the hopes they could get a message to my grandma. In the heat of July and the tobacco harvest beginning, my great granddaddy decided it was best to go ahead with the funeral on the third day. 

My grandparents arrived home a day later. No one was sure when they would be back, and we were visiting with my other grandparents. They pulled back around the house and neighbors, who had been on the lookout, didn’t see them arrive. My grandmother came into her house and saw the newspaper with the obituary open on the dining room table. Well into her well into her nineties, my grandmother spoke of how upsetting it was not to be present, not to be able to see her mother before her body was lowered into the dirt at Culdee’s cemetery.   

Great Grandma McKenzie’s death

My great grandma was in her 70s, which now doesn’t seem so old. She was out in the fields, by her son’s pond, picking strawberries, or so I’d remembered. But that must not be right. The harvest of strawberries in this part of the country occurs long before the heat of July. Maybe it was blackberries or some vegetable that she and my great granddaddy were gathering when she had a stroke. Granddaddy, who was five years older, ran back home to call for help. But it was too late.  

Her funeral

We lived in Virginia then. My Dad loaded up the car and we drove south, in time to make the visitation at the Frye Funeral Home in Carthage. The next day, I attended the first of many funerals at Culdee. We sat up front with the family, a couple rows behind from my great granddaddy. He sat on the first row, in a bit of shock. The casket, now closed, was up front, just below the pulpit. After the service, three men on each side carried the box containing the lifeless body of one who had dedicated a lifetime to her family and church out to the adjacent cemetery. There, Mr. Fitch, the preacher, quoted a few final verses of scripture, reminding us of our hope in the resurrection. Then they lowered the casket into sandy soil watered with tears. I’m sure we had a big dinner afterwards, but I don’t remember it. My main memories nearly sixty years later are of my great-grandma’s hands, the dinner in the back lawn, and how happy she was to see us whenever we walked through the woods from our house to hers when we lived next door.  

The purpose of the funeral

Long and Lynch, in The Good Funeral, reminds us that taking care of the dead is instilled in our humanity.  We have to deal with the body whether it is to be buried, burned or disposed at sea. We also must deal with our own grief, for the loss affects not just the deceased and those close (their spouse or children), but the whole community.  So the community comes together to remember, to take care of the body in an honorable way, and to offer up the life that is no more to God. We honor the dead for to do anything else would strike a blow at our own humanity.

Similar memoir pieces from this side of my family

A poem written by a distant relative titled “Out at Aunt Callie’s Place“. His aunt was my great grandmother McKenzie.

A memoir piece about her son, my great uncle Dunk.

From left: My great grandma McKenzie, my father, my uncle Larry, me in the hands of my great grandpa Mckenzie, and my grandmother. Photo probably taken in late 1957 or early 1958

Eddie Larson: another good shepherd

title slide of Eddie Larson in front of his cabin on Cedar Mountain

Last Sunday, I preached on the 23rd Psalm. Today, I thought I would share the story of another shepherd, a man I knew when I lived in Utah.


Eddie Larson at a cabin on Cedar Mountain
Eddie O. Larson (late 1990s)

“How are we today,” Eddie asked with a big grin. 

I always found him cheerful even though he’d known his share of heartache. His wife, Ned, the love of his life, had died of cancer in 1990, a few years before I met him. In his living room was a photograph of a large aspen tree. When the tree was small, Eddie had carved a heart and added his name along with the names of his wife and daughter. Carving on aspens was common among sheepherders. Eddie had forgotten about this tree, but as it grew so did the carving and one day a hunter came upon it. He photographed the tree, framed it, and presented it to Eddie as thanks for allowing him to hunt on his land. Eddie was pleased.

Eddie also loved his daughter. He doted on her and made sure she was well cared for. She was a few years older than me and mentally challenged. Although I never asked, I couldn’t help but wonder if his wife’s cancer and his daughter’s limited mental capacity had anything to do with those blinding predawn sunrises from the west Eddie and his wife experienced back in the early 50s when the herd was on the winter range in Nevada. Above ground nuclear testing was common in that decade as Eddie started out in the sheep business. Although the government said it was safe and there was nothing to worry about from the white ash that sometimes fell afterwards, we now know otherwise. 

Eddie’s early life
The old Community Presbyterian Church
1927-1997

Eddie Oscar Larson was born in Southern Utah to Swedish sheepherders. His father, Oskan Ludig Larsson changed his name to Oscar Larson. He and his wife, Alma, had only one son rather late in life. Oscar was in his mid-50s and his wife in her forties when Eddie was born.

They were gentiles in a land in which most people followed the Mormon religion. There were three Swedish sheepherder families, along with a few government and railroad workers who made up the Presbyterian Church in Cedar City in the 1920s. The other two families were the Lindells, who sold out and moved in the 1950s, and the Lundgens, who are still in the area. I recently wrote about Roy Lundgen and his wife in this blog.

Eddie was first local resident to be baptized in the new church which was built in 1927, just a few years before his birth. The first baptism was for a child of the pastors, but they soon moved on.  While often shunned in this religiously dominated world, his father was successful. They never lived extravagantly, but Eddie was able to go away to school. He first attended a Presbyterian boarding high school, Wasatch Academy, in Mount Pleasant, Utah. From there, he headed to Utah State in Logan, but had a hard time finding a place to stay as he was a gentile. If my memory is right, Eddie graduated from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. While he was in college, his father died. 

Eddie had set out to be a coach but decided to follow his father’s footsteps and began to build a herd of sheep. While he never had the size of a herd as his father, he was very successful and limited the size to better manage his land. Eddie would run his herd, with the help of a hired hand, for most of adult life. Right before I left Cedar City and maybe five years before he died, Eddie finally sold his sheep. By this point, he was having trouble with his eyes. About a year before he died, he was moved into a nursing home. Age and illness had robbed this man of the things he enjoyed, running up and down the mountain in all kinds of weather and basking in the beauty of God’s creation. 

A Proud Sheepherder

Eddie always proudly proclaimed to everyone that he was a sheepherder, even though for him it was business. For most of his time as a sheepherder, he hired another herder to stay with the sheep. This man lived in a sheep wagon and generally liked being alone. Occasionally his herder would come to town for supplies and drink, and after a few days of the latter, go back up on the mountain or out in the Nevada desert, where he’d dry out while tending and protecting the sheep.

Eddie made almost daily trips to check on his herder and the herd, bringing in groceries and feed for the horses. He’d help haul water for the sheep. Eddie kept around 1600 ewes in his herd. When that many animals are away from a watering hole, a lot of water had to be hauled. He had an old oil truck that allowed him to carry several thousand gallons of water. Such a herd also required many rams, along with horses and dogs to help with the work. 

At night, Eddie did the books and dealt with government leases. Although Eddie was one of the largest landowners around, he still leased land for grazing, especially for winter pasture in eastern Nevada. The annual livestock banquet in Cedar City often honored Eddie. There, this humble man seemed larger-than-life. People knew he worked hard, and it paid off. Not only did he have a successful operation, he own a huge parcel of land up on the mountain, some in Nevada including a four acre spring that was the envy of Las Vegas, and a lot of commercial real estate in Cedar City. 

The Seasons according to a sheepherder

Eddie lived by the rotation of the earth. In the summer, the ewes and lambs would feast on the grass in the high mountain plateaus. In late summer or early fall, he culled the lambs from the ewes and trucked them to market. It was always a guess as to how long to wait. The longer the lambs ate the mountain grass, the heavier they were and the more profit they’d bring. However, there was always the risk of early snows trapping the herd and then Eddie would have to haul in feed. This would eat up any profit he might have made. 

Some years were harder than others. There was the year of the fire. With much of the grass on his range burned, the lambs had to be sold off early, when they were a good 20 pounds light. On another occasion, he told me about an early snow. The lambs had already been sold, but the ewes remained on the mountain. His truck was stuck in the deep snow. It took him a day to walk out. Hhis herder stayed with the herd which was nearly immobilized by deep snow. Getting back to town, he hired a bulldozer to come and clear a path so the sheep could make it down the mountain. 

In the fall, as the aspen turn bright yellow, he’d ride a horse, trailing the sheep down the mountain and around the south end of town, using a 100-year-old livestock trail. As the days shortened, he and his hired herder would move the sheep from one alfalfa field to another, where the sheep would eat the remains left from the harvest as they moved toward their winter pasture in Nevada.

By December, the sheep roamed around the deserts of eastern Nevada, between Caliente and Pioche, where they ate sage and what grass remained from the summer. If there was snow on the ground, it was easy work. The sheep could also eat snow for moisture. But if there was no snow, Eddie and his herder had have to drive the old tank trunk to the warm springs at Panaca or another spring on the west side of his property, where they would fill it up and haul the water back to the sheep.

At the end of winter, Eddie’s sheep got to ride in trucks back livestock trailers as they headed east to the lambing barns near Kanarraville. They first sheared the sheep. Usually by men from Australia and New Zealand sheared the herds in the American West from late February through April. These crews would then returned home, shearing sheep Down Under in their spring which is our fall. Lambing always came after shearing. A sheared ewe had less problems giving birth. For a few weeks, Eddie would hire a host of people to help him by serving as mid-wives to the ewes. He was always in church on Sundays, except for this time of the year in which Easter often fell. During lambing, he lived by the lambing sheds. 

Finally, as the weather warmed and the snows retreated on the mountain, they’d move the herd up to higher elevations, where the cycle would repeat itself.

My experience with Eddie 

Part of the reason I felt called to Community Presbyterian Church in 1993 was the congregation’s vision of expanding and building a new church building. Eddie, the first local child baptized in the old church, volunteered to help raise the money for the new complex! He shared the vision for the church to grow and to serve the community he loved and helped us achieve it. We moved into a church complex in 1997. Just before I left Cedar City, in January 2024, Eddie donated mountain land to the congregation for use as a camp and perhaps a future conference center. 

I am thankful for the few times I took Eddie up on his invitations to take a day off and ride with him. We’d head out early. Sometimes we stop for breakfast or coffee. In his truck, he’d have some groceries and a few tools to repair fences or gates, maybe a salt block or two. Depending on where the herd was located, we’d drive an hour or two, all the while Eddie told stories about his dad and about the sheep business and about how lazy the cattlemen could be.

There is little love between sheepherders and cattlemen, a feud that goes back into the 19th Century. Part of the anger between the two groups is that sheep can eat grass down to the dirt and if the cattle come in after the sheep, they are unable to graze. Another source of conflict came, according to Eddie, from the sheepherders who work harder, but also tend to make a lot more money than those who tend cattle. However, after World War II, many sheepherders sold their lambs for cattle. 

When we were on the range, lunch was always at the sheepherder’s wagon. In the summer, we’d sit around under cottonwood trees. In winter, we’d all crowd inside the wagon, to get out of the cold and wind. The smells were enchanting. Pinion burned in the stove as coffee perked. Mutton was always served. Some days we’d eat it with potatoes and carrots, other days we’d have it in a sandwich, the bread slathered with mayonnaise and cheese. We’d wash it all down with coffee.

Some afternoons we’d scout out the next spot for the camp. Others, we’d take the tank truck out to the spring for water. As we drove around, Eddie would talk about the land. He showed me where he worked to stop erosion and to restore the grass that use to be more abundant. Over-herding animals in the first half of the 20th Century had taken its toll. When Eddie got into the business, he decided to run half as many sheep on the land as his dad and the previous tenants. His decision was slowly paying dividends and he was proud of his work and of his land. After he’d finished with the chores for the day, as the sun dropped in the sky, we’d head back toward town.

Eddie’s death

“When I was in my 20s and just starting out, I was told by another herder that sheepherding was a young man’s business,” Eddie confided in me one day. “Now I believe him.” Eddie died in 2008 at the age of 79. He was finally able to relax and let the Good Shepherd take over.

Sheep forging in an aspen grove on Cedar Mountain, 2008

Saving Damsels: a memoir

12 years earlier, at the beach (and obviously going to church) with my grandparents and my uncle. I must have been about one and have no memory of this trip..

From the time I was twelve till I started working at the age of sixteen, I spent at least two weeks every summer with my grandparents. These lazy summer days were spent doing odd chores around their house and yard, racing bicycles with the kids next door, and occasional going with my grandmother to visit relatives, dead and alive. Some were living and others were dead. She felt I should know where all my ancestors were buried. 

Every afternoon, my granddad would come home a little after five. Getting out of his truck, he’d yell, “Ready to go fishing?” Grandma had dinner ready. As soon as we finished, the two of us could take off to a lake, a beaver dam, or some farm pond where we’d fish till either a cloud blew up or the light had drained from the sky. Then we’d head home. Out back, under the floodlights by the porch, we’d clean our catch. Often, the next day, my grandma would fry up a mess of them for our dinner. 

It was wonderful to fish with my granddad, but he wasn’t much of a talker when fishing. Instead, he allowed me to have a bit of independence and freedom, as he’d go one direction and send me off the other. I valued the freedom, but now wonder if the real reason was my granddad’s belief that fish could hear you talking. To fish, one needed to be quiet.  

On this one evening, we fished in a rather large pond downhill from a house that belonged to people my granddaddy knew. They were not home. We drove around the house and my granddad parked his truck by the dam. With his fly rod, which is now one of my prize possessions, he fished one side of the lake. I crossed the dam and fished the other. I used a spinning rod and a Rebel, a top floating lure that when pulled fast would dive to about a foot under the surface and wiggle in a way that sometimes drove bass crazy. 

After a few minutes of casting and coming up without a strike, I heard the muffled cry of a woman calling for help. I looked, but didn’t see anyone. The voice seemed to come from behind my grandfather, yet he didn’t seem fazed. When the cry came again, I shouted at my grandfather.  He waved, said it was okay and that I was disturbing the fish. Well, it certainly didn’t sound okay and if someone was in peril, that should take precedence over fishing. When the cry came a third time, I knew someone was in trouble.

I dropped my rod. Checking to make sure my Kabar knife was safely stowed in its sheath on my belt, as I ran as fast as I could around the dam and up the hill. I kept yelling for my grandfather to join me., I couldn’t believe his hearing had gotten so bad, yet granddad didn’t budge. Instead, he yelled, “Come back here.” But I kept running. In my mind I had an image of saving some beautiful damsel in distress. I topped the hill, near the house, and started looking around frantically. 

There was no woman in peril. Instead, there was peacock. Its feathers were displayed like the NBC logo. I didn’t think much about it, except that it was strange. Peacocks are not native to the Sandhills of North Carolina. After a few minutes of looking around and seeing nothing, I walked back down the hill toward my granddad. About halfway down, the cry came again. I turned and saw the peacock up on top of the hill emitting that high pitched cry and heard my granddad laugh behind me. Feeling a bit foolish, I went back to my fishing. 

It’d have to wait for another day before I could make my debut as the new Lone Ranger.

Click here for another memoir piece of fishing with my grandfather.

Driving West in ’88

I wrote this back in 2015 and pulled it out as a piece for a memoir. It’s a true event that occurred when I drove West for the first time. On the way out, I stopped first in Nashville, where I met a friend that’d hike with along the Appalachian Trail. Then I headed to St. Louis, where I stayed at my great uncle and wife’s home on the western side of the city. Leaving their home, I was entering land that was new to me (I’d been to St. Louis a few times and once flew into Kansas City for an assignment in St. Joseph. But I had never step foot on the land between Kansas City and California. I’ve attached two photos (somewhat scratched) from that trip across Kansas. Sadly, I never got a photo of the red and black ’55 Buick.

My destination for this trip was to visit a seminary classmate at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, then to Camp Sawtooth in Idaho where I’d spend the summer. From there, I would go on Virginia City, Nevada where I would spend a year as a student pastor. I have posted a number of stories from that time: Becoming a preacher, Matt, Doug, Christmas Eve 1988


A Katy train in Eastern Kansas, photo taken in June 1988.
A Katy Train in Eastern Kansas, June 1988
(copied from a print)

My stomach growls, but I want to get through the congestion of Kansas City and Topeka before stopping to eat. It has been five hours since breakfast outside of St. Louis at Homer and Bebe’s home. Since leaving their home in Pacific, I’ve only stopped for gas and to pick up a new map at the Kansas welcome center. As I put the miles behind me, I’m in unfamiliar territory. I’d spent time in Missouri but had only flown over the vast territory between Missouri and California. 

 As I drive west, I notice a strangely familiar car, a ‘55 Buick with a red body and black top. It’s travelling just a little slower than me. I turned on my blinker and moved into the left lane to pass. When I pull beside the car, I looked over at the driver. His left elbow sticks out of the window, and he holds the steering wheel with his right hand. He’s wearing a white tee-shirt and a beige hard-shelled jungle hat.  

“It can’t be,” I think. 

 I take a second look. Is this an aberration? The car is identical to the first car I remember riding in and the man driving looks just like my dad did when he was younger. I remember as boy fishing in Dunk’s Pond with my dad. He wore that same style of hat and a white t-shirt. And, in the days before air conditioned vehicles, he often hung his left elbow out the window. 

“What had happened to the car and dad’s hat” I wonder as I pulled around the Buick. As I sped down the highway, I kept glancing back in my rear-view mirror, thinking about my dad and wondering about that man who could have been his twin.    

I decide to stop at the next intersection with a place to eat, but after passing a few exits with nothing, I gambled on the next town. I pull off at Paxico. There’s nothing at the interchange, but I followed the signs across the Southern Pacific railroad and then, paralleling the tracks, into a small town with a decisively western feel. The air is stifling hot as the humidity builds, but I need to stretch my legs. I walk the length of the commercial district, the few buildings that still exist each having an awning over a wooden sidewalk to shade those passing by. Then I head out by the railroad tracks and watched a west bound train rush through without slowing down. 

After a few minutes of walking and watching the train, I head back to the bar and grill. It’s cool and dark inside. It takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust as I grab a seat at a table and ordered a hamburger. A radio plays in the background. Between country music songs, there are advertisements for farm implements and reports on crop prices.  At the bar, three men in overalls drink drink beer and discuss the weather, hoping they’ll get some rain out of the storms forecasted for later in the day. I eat, taking it all in. I feel free as I’m on my own and have been racking up the miles.

Thirty minutes later, after paying my bill, I’m back in the car heading west. I watch in fascination as the clouds builds on the horizon. I dreaded this drive across Kansas, but I find myself intrigued by these gentle hills and rich dirt. As the clouds become darker, I notice a bolt of lightning and then another and then it hits. A tremendous wind is blows against my car. I hold on to the steering wheel with both hands. Then comes the rain, racing in sheets across the prairie. Soon, drops of rain and hail pound the roof with such force that it drowns out Steely Dan cassette playing in the car’s stereo. I slow down. Under an overpass, I notice a group of motorcyclists seeking shelter. 

Soon, the storm passes. Steam rises from the highway, making distant views hazy. I pick up speed. Ahead, out of that haze, I see the car again, that 55 Buick. It’s way ahead, but I’m gaining on it.

I will pass him several more times today and even tomorrow morning, the last being just before I leave I-70 and take 1-25 north toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Sunset and utility poles in western Kansas, June 1988
Sunset over western Kansas (copied from a print photo)