Monthly Archives: November 2020

A Strange Day at the Office

In February of that long winter of his second TBI year, Sean told the student employment office he was sick of his factory job, so they found him work downtown in an insurance company on the twenty-fifth floor of the Tribune Tower. This job would be very different—lots of contact with people. People, Sean feared, that would be very different from himself.

On his first day of work, Sean ate early lunch at TBI, then walked out through the arch toward downtown. A group of about ten guys who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank streamed in front of him, talking and yelling as they jogged across the intersections, ignoring the traffic lights, zig-zagging between the stopped cars, hopping over hoods. When they would leave the bank later that afternoon, the bank guards would turn their pockets inside out looking for pennies.

Sean turned left on Illinois Street, then walked down Michigan Avenue toward the Chicago River. He stared up at the Tribune Tower, the giant building shrinking him into insignificance. A steel and concrete monolith built in 1925, its thirty-six stories, soared 462 feet high, above its glass façade. A revolving door opened from the street into the lobby. He passed the coffee counter, found the bank of elevators and told the operator, “Twenty-fifth floor.”

Exiting the elevator, he found the huge First Chicago Insurance office suite where the hiring manager waited. “The bulk of our staff works in this main office” he said, “but you’ll work in the smaller office down the hall.” They walked in to see a manager sitting at a large desk inside the glassed-in corner cubicle. He wore a dark business suit, white shirt and tie, and his umbrella hung on a wooden coat stand. “Sean, this is Mr. Merton,” the manager said. “He’ll introduce you to the others.”

Sean shook Mr. Merton’s hand, who pointed and said, “That’s Duane; he’s our junior underwriter. Marion and Myra over there are our office assistants.” They all nodded and smiled. Mr. Merton never smiled. “Myra here will give you a stack of policies to file. The red-tagged folders are active; the others are expired.” Then he walked back into his cage.

Myra helped Sean learn how to organize the slightly-askew, dog-eared folders that hung in the file drawers. He liked Myra immediately—pretty, bombastic, friendly. She lit up the office. He began organizing the bills, receipts, and records of sprinkler damage that Myra had strewn helter-skelter across his desk. He thought, These wrinkled folders wouldn’t inspire much customer confidence.

Mr. Merton kept a clean and organized space. The few times he emerged from his office he would lean against a desk and deliver pep talks to his minions—“If we get these insurance claims organized and wrapped up it’ll put a real feather in all our caps.”

Privately, Duane told Sean, “He means a feather in his cap.”

Duane, tall and darker-skinned and smelling of cologne and tobacco, slicked his black hair back with a careless hand. When he smoked he sucked in his cheeks, languid eyelids drooping over a clenched smile that revealed confident teeth.

Duane loved to flirt with Marion, a slightly-built Catholic girl who would toss her blond hair and blink her big, hazel eyes. She always looked cute in her see-through blouse and tight skirt. Duan confided to Sean, “I like Marion but she’s Catholic and I’m Lutheran, so I don’t know how we could get together.”

One day Mr. Merton called in sick and put Duane in charge. That would be the day the inmates took over the asylum.

Duane opened his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle. “Myra, get some plastic cups in that drawer over there. Could you pour?” Sean had never tasted alcohol and TBI prohibited students from drinking, but the pressure of the social occasion pushed him to take a sip. He coughed as the strong liquid slid down his throat. Duane laughed, sitting relaxed with his feet up on the desk, cigarette hanging from his lower lip. Marion came over and sat on his lap. Duane pretended to ignore her but Sean could see he loved it. Sean tried concentrating on his filing, but in vain. The atmosphere turned relaxed, a day of freedom from Mr. Merton.

Then Myra went crazy. Dear, bubbly Myra, not quite obese but pleasantly plump, long dark hair, black eyes, plenty of lipstick and red fingernail polish, gregarious, owner of a loud, sultry voice, she radiated Eau de Toilette and always brought her fun with her.

Marion told Duane, “Put some music on your radio.” When the music started, Myra stepped up on her chair, then onto the desk, revealing her high heels, plump legs and sheer hose. She flung her arms above her head, swayed her hips, twirled her short dress, and sang a lusty song, her gold bracelets and Star of David earrings swinging in time. Marion and Duane sang and clapped. For Sean, this was a day to remember.

Then the big boss from the main office walked in.

Silence, hung heads, as all returned to work with tails between legs. No one lost their job but the next day Mr. Merton walked into his tiny cubicle, hung up his black overcoat, scarf, and umbrella and then rallied his troops. “People, I’m surprised at this behavior. It casts a shadow on my leadership. You embarrassed me in front of my own boss.” He droned on—lack of maturity and professionalism, black marks, etc. Plainly, the big boss had reamed him out and charged him with castigating his staff. For his part, Sean thought, It was worth it!

Sean’s two jobs couldn’t have been more different. The pie filling job had numbed him. The insurance job felt equally automaton-like but he found himself liking his officemates and felt like he was learning to navigate the human diversity in the huge city.

With her behavior, could Myra be an observant Jew? Sean didn’t think so. And Duane—suave, worldly-wise, sophisticated—did “Lutheran” mean he was born again? And were Catholic girls allowed to sit on Lutheran men’s laps? Sean’s childhood formation made him critical of people, even church-goers, outside of Fundamentalism. He didn’t think Marion or Duane were real Christians. And how could he share his Christian faith with them if he no longer believed it himself? His atheism was getting more and more complicated, presenting more of a risk for him at TBI. His dread intensified.

Wingspread Ezine November, 2020

“Spreading your wings
in a perplexing world”
November, 2020     

Please forward and share this E-zine with anyone. Thank you.

Contents

  • New story
  • Puzzler of the month
  • Writer’s Corner
  • How to purchase Wingspread: A Memoir of Faith and Flying
  • Wingspread E-zine subscription information

*********************

New story: Thanksgiving at Joseph Dvorak’s

 Down Norbert dorm’s hallway lived Joseph Dvorak—a below-average student, unlucky in love, confident and loud—who sucked Sean out of his introspective shell like a vacuum cleaner. Sean rejoiced that people at TBI treated him as a regular person, one of the boys—a new experience for him. One day in November Joseph met Sean in the hall. “Sean, you wanna come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“I dunno, Joseph. Are you sure your mom wants me?” He felt apprehensive about dinner with a strange “Eastern European” family. . . .

To read more, click here:  https://jimhurd.com/2020/11/02/thanksgiving-feast-at-joseph-dvoraks/

(*Please leave a comment on the website. Thanks.)

Puzzler of the month:

You walk up to a closed door with three light switches on the wall beside it. The switches control three light bulbs in the room on the other side of the door. Once you open the door, you may never touch the switches again. How can you definitively tell which switch is connected to each of the light bulbs? Answer in next month’s Ezine.

Writers’ Corner

Writer’s tip of the month: Spice up your dialogue with conflict. Examples: “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” (Boring . . .) More interesting—“Where have you been?” “None of your business; I don’t want to talk about it.”

Word of the Month:  Gaslighting—making a person question their own memory and intelligence. Example: “Where were you! We agreed to meet on Thursday!” [when actually they had agreed to meet on Tuesday].

 Book of the month: King Lear. William Shakespeare. An aging king sinks into forgetfulness, bitterness and anger, and destroys several people in the process. A great study on parent-child conflict. Be sure to get a version with footnotes to help you with the unfamiliar 16th century English.

Wise Words:

  • I’m always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I want to save any changes to my ten-page technical report that I swear I did not make any changes to.
  • I keep some people’s phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to answer when they call.
  • I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.
  • How many times is it appropriate to say “What?” before you just nod and smile because you still didn’t hear or understand a word they said?
  • I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars team up to prevent a jerk from cutting in at the front. Stay strong, brothers and sisters!
  • Shirts get dirty. Underwear gets dirty. Pants? Pants never get dirty, and you can wear them forever.
  • Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car keys, finding their cell phone, and pinning the tail on the donkey. But I’d bet everyone can find and push the snooze button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time, every time.
  • The first testicular guard, the “Cup,” was used in Hockey in 1874 and the first helmet was used in 1974. That means it only took 100 years for men to realize that their brain is also important.

Watch for my upcoming novel: East Into Unbelief (provisional title)

Sean lost his father, his best girlfriend, his life dream, and now his faith. Why is he at Torrey Bible Institute? How can he restructure his life as an atheist? He can’t see it, but grace is coming. . . .

An important new Bible commentary:

Lost stories of the Bible

Buy James P. Hurd’s Wingspread: A Memoir of Faith and Flying.  How childhood (Fundamentalist) faith led to mission bush-piloting in South America—and Barbara. Buy it here:  https://jimhurd.com/home/  (or order it at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc.) 

See pics here related to Wingspread: Of Faith and Flying: http://www.pinterest.com/hurd1149/wingspread-of-faith-and-flying/

Follow “james hurd” on Facebook, or “@hurdjp” on Twitter

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Thanksgiving Feast at Joseph Dvorak’s

Down Norbert hallway lived Joseph Dvorak. Joseph—a below-average student, unlucky in love, confident and loud—sucked Sean out of his introspective shell like a vacuum cleaner. Sean rejoiced that people at TBI treated him as a regular person, one of the boys—a new experience. One day in November Joseph met Sean in the hall. “Sean, you wanna come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“I dunno, Joseph. Are you sure your mom wants me?” He felt apprehensive about dinner with a strange “Eastern European” family.

“Sure! She loves having people in. Besides, I want to show you my old car.”

So, on Thanksgiving morning they caught the train at Madison Street Station and headed for New Lennox. The day turned colder. Sean cracked open one of the dirty, wood-framed windows on the train and stared at the city as he heard the train wheels clacking and felt the cool air rushing in. But he had little time to absorb the industrial sounds and smells because soon they were passing fields of snow-glazed corn stubble.

Joseph Dvorak worried about everything, and today he worried out loud, raising his voice over the clatter. “I don’t know if I can make it to the end of the semester. . . . don’t know if I can pass Meacham’s class. . . . I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get out of TBI. . . .  I don’t know if my girlfriend wants to break up . . . .”

Sean didn’t know what to say but he thought, What’s friendship when all’s done but the giving and taking of wounds? So he spoke more out of hope than certainty—“Joseph; you’ll be fine! God has a plan for your life.” Joseph’s scowl turned into a smile.

When the train stopped in New Lennox, they grabbed their overnight bags and jumped off. “Sean, we have to walk a mile down Center Road here to my house.”

Joseph’s home appeared a modest bungalow, with an old flat-tired car slumbering alongside the house. “That’s my baby,” Joseph said, peeling back the tarp to reveal his green, 1945 MG TA. “I just need the time and money to work on it.” Sean stared enviously.

Joseph’s Czech mother dominated the Thanksgiving meal, with its wonderful, homey smells flowing out of her tiny kitchen. They sat down, and Mrs. Dvorak asked Joseph to offer a prayer of thanks. After a couple months of institutional food, the bounty overwhelmed Sean—a perfectly-browned turkey, heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy (Sean’s mother rarely made gravy), cloven slices of cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes. Mrs. Dvorak kept saying to him, “Sean, eat!” Music to Sean’s ears—he served himself two extra helpings. After dinner he devoured a big piece of pumpkin chiffon pie topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream; then she said, “Do you want another piece?” Sean thought, Have I died and gone to heaven?

They spent two wonderful days in the Dvorak home, where Sean slept up in the dormer bedroom. Joseph became a true friend, a friendship that would last more than fifty years.

On the train trip back, the guys talked about future plans. Joseph said, “I’m studying for the ministry, or maybe missions. But I’m worried about Emelia; I don’t know if our engagement’s gonna last.” Sean tried to reassure him.

Back at TBI, Joseph asked Sean, “Wanna walk over to Michigan Avenue and pass out gospel pamphlets?” Fundamentalists felt a holy obligation to tell others the Good News of the gospel. Sean reluctantly agreed and they set out, walking east.

Michigan Avenue! Broad sidewalks and steel-posted street lights with their four-clustered hanging globes. Sean leaned against the frost-silvered stone wall of one of the upscale department stores and stared into a cold display window filled with plastic mannequins clothed with the latest fashions. Up and down Michigan Avenue strolled the Beautiful People—women hatted and high-heeled, displaying sequined sheath dresses, fur wraps and sheer hose; men wearing black wingtip shoes and double-breasted dark suits with handkerchiefs in the breast pockets. Some wore stiff-brimmed, creased-crown Hombergs.

“You know, Joseph, I’ve never bought anything, never even walked into one of these stores.” Like most students, Sean came from a modest economic background. The Depression still lingered in his parents’ minds and commanded frugality. Besides, TBI’s ethos encouraged marshalling energy and resources for Christian evangelism and mission. Sean felt like an alien among the Beautiful People of Michigan Avenue.

And what could an atheist say to people anyway? He gave a passing man a pamphlet and said, “God loves you.”

The man replied, “I doubt it.”

Sean said to himself, I know how you feel!

Joseph told the man, “Don’t doubt God. Our god is a consuming fire.” The man jumped back and stalked off into the distance. Joseph attributed this to the power of God.

Walking back along Chestnut Street, the sharp winter winds blowing off of Lake Michigan pierced their clothing. They passed a brown-skinned man¾sandals, baggy pants, un-pressed shirt, ripped sweater—and handed him a pamphlet. “No leo Inglés,” he said.

Sean told Joseph, “I don’t think he speaks English.” He tried to talk to him in his broken Spanish. “Jose” didn’t trust them at first, but then ended up inviting the guys up to his apartment. Joseph opted to walk back to TBI, but Sean climbed upstairs with Jose to a tiny third-floor room where Jose showed him his Spanish Bible, which they read together. When Joseph prayed for him, Jose mumbled a prayer along with him, then crossed himself.

One night a few weeks later the Norbert Hall guys heard fire sirens, so they poured down the stairs and ran out into the street.

“This one’s close!” Joseph and Fulton were running next to Sean, breathing in the snowy air as they ran toward the blaze.

“Sean—it looks like Jose’s apartment building!”

 Fireman standing on the hook and ladder truck sprayed the upper floors. Firehose water stood freezing on the sidewalks. Sean strained to see Jose’s apartment window—there it was, with smoke pouring out of it. Surely he’d gotten out by now. The flames quickly consumed the wood-frame building, lifting smoke high into the sky. When the heat drove Sean back, he talked to a couple of firemen. “We don’t know much , , , whole building’s destroyed, though.”

The firemen controlled the blaze and the spectators straggled away. The guys walked back to TBI leaving behind the collapsed, charcoaled rafters still glowing with dying embers. Sean was worried. “I hope Jose’s safe. Surely he got out in time.”

The next morning Sean sat in Norbert lounge scanning a small article in the Chicago Tribune. One person died in the Chestnut fire, it said, name of Jose Torres. Sean’s shivered—Jose! He turned to Joseph—“That dear man, far from family and his native home, trying to survive alone in the city, perished in the fire. I wonder what his Catholic faith did for him.”

But then, he thought, what did my faith do for me? I cannot be certain of Jose, or even of myself!