I'm moving a bunch of my old Facebook content gradually onto my new site. This is a remembrance of an old friend who had died. I wrote this in 2012
My old friend died yesterday. I had neither seen nor talked to Andy, my friend, since the day of my own father's funeral 10 years ago. When I saw him there, I almost didn't recognize him. So changed had he been, so harsh had the years been to him.
I first met him when I was 14 yrs old. He was probably 30. I was new in town. He had lived there nearly all of his life. All of his life, actually, except for those months in Vietnam. Months that weighed on him - preyed on him, to be more precise. But when I was 14, he fought the battle of his memories in such a way that I didn't see the great internal struggle that he waged.
By the time I arrived in Corpus Christi during the summer of 1974, I had been working continuously at various jobs since I was 9 yrs old. The south Texas economy was informally structured in such a way that it was impossible to find a job before you were 16. Liability insurers made sure of that. I had already been working for 5 years by this time, and I felt smothered by the lack of a job.
I walked into a Sunday school class for 9th grade students in the fall of '74 and sitting at a round table was Andy. He offered a welcoming smile and a calloused handshake. His work-swollen fingers were nicotine-stained, he had a smoker's cough and a twinkle in his eye. And he intuitively understood 14 yr old boys who wanted to work.
Andy and his wife had no children of their own, and as I was a little too old to be their child yet too young to be their peer, they incorporated me into their family as a kind of stand-in little brother. Andy took it upon himself to make sure that, until I was able to get a legitimate job, I didn't lack for productive occupation. We remodeled his house, laid ceramic tile, mixed concrete by hand, nailed 2X4's in place (this was before nail guns), and killed the unfortunate rats which snuck into his back yard from the alley. Eventually, I could do these things in my sleep, and we did them at all hours of the day and night.
On Sundays Andy would teach us, knuckleheads one and all, what the bible had to say about living out our faith. During the week he showed me, mano-a-mano, what it meant to spend oneself out of concern for others.
While Andy and his wife had adopted me, my parents were busy adopting them. As my high school years went by and regular employment was finally reestablished for me, it was commonplace to arrive home after a night of dipping ice cream at the local Baskin Robbins to find the kitchen table occupied by my parents and other couples, bibles open with smoke from Andy's cigarettes filling the air, as together they grappled with the call of the gospel on their lives.
This was a time of vibrant spiritual growth for everyone in our circle of friends. It was as if our collective eyes had been opened to the truth of the gospel and God's grace in an entirely new way and the implications for our lives were being discovered for the first time by many of us. Andy was in the thick of that spiritual renewal and growth, eagerly learning and thinking about what it all meant.
Andy filled his days during those years with hard work, hard study, and hard play. Deer season in Texas was a particular highlight of Andy's year. He never failed to have a deer lease available and he didn't just hunt deer for the trophies. Many were the evenings we stayed up late stuffing sausage casings with a combination of venison and pork, having spent the afternoon de-boning the latest kill brought home from the lease.
The most memorable hunt that we had occurred over two outings, culminating in an amazing breakfast on Thanksgiving day. Andy's deer lease was near George West, Texas that year and on Wednesday he picked me up from school and we headed up to the lease. By 5:00 we were driving around the ranch and had parked at the "T" intersection of two senderes with the truck backed up to a fence line that bordered an open field. As we sat in the truck with the field at our back, we could watch left, right, and forward down the different sendera for any deer movement crossing the 7 ft wide trails.
It was getting close to dusk as we sat in the truck, whispering about various things while watching for deer. For some reason I happened to glance in the rear-view mirror and discovered that as we sat there looking down the sendera, an enormous buck had been busily grazing in the field right behind the truck. "There's one right behind us", I hissed to Andy. He immediately reached behind us to grab the rifle hanging in the gun rack and gently opened the door on the driver's side. Unfortunately, he forgot to remove the key from the ignition and when he opened the door, the entire atmosphere was pierced with a screeching sound coming from the buzzer in the truck. To make matters worse, the cab light came on when he opened the door and the butt of the gun collided with the door frame as he tried to exit the vehicle. The only thing missing was a marching band and fireworks. The last image we had of the deer was of his backside as he galloped down toward the other end of the field and into the darkening gloom.
"We're coming back here tomorrow", Andy declared. So we started up the truck and drove the hour and twenty minutes back to Corpus. I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m. and crawled into bed.
Several hours later, early Thanksgiving morning, we were back on the road headed toward the ranch in George West. Andy believed that the buck would have been grazing in that same field all night and would still be there when we got back there that morning. I, for one, was highly skeptical but Andy was determined to go have a look. We stopped the truck about 300 yards from where we had been watching for deer the night before and walked through the dark toward the fence line. When we were within 50 yards, we got down on our hands and knees and quietly crawled the rest of the way to the fence.
There was a light fog and it was still dark when we reached the fence line. We took up a position near a fencepost that sat on a slightly elevated swell in the contour of the ground. We sat there, peering into the darkness trying to see into what seemed to be a great, dark empty space. But as the eastern sky began to lighten, the darkness slightly receded and we began to see shapes moving slowly in the fog covered field. Andy had a scope designed for low-light conditions and as he put it to his eye, he quietly whispered "that's him". I heard him click the safety off of his rifle and then KABOOM! There were multiple deer in the field and when Andy let off that shot, the deer took off in all directions. The large one nearest us, however, took a couple of steps and suddenly dropped down onto the ground.
We sat quietly by the fencepost for about 30 seconds, waiting to see if anything else stirred. When everything seemed to have quieted down, we squeezed between the barbed wire and walked out into the field to inspect the deer. Sure enough, the enormous buck from the night before lay there, cleanly shot through the heart. His antlers were perfectly symmetrical, widely curved and a handsome 10 points. Andy didn't always save or mount the antlers but he saved this pair.
We field dressed the deer and, while I went to get the truck, Andy drug the carcass back to the fence line. We put the deer in the back of the truck and by 6:30 a.m. we were already on the road headed home.
When we arrived at my house, Andy pulled the truck around to the back and we hung the deer from the crossbeam that supported the patio cover. Andy skinned the carcass and took a knife and removed the cuts of meat called "back straps", tender pieces of meat and particular favorites of mine, that run along either side of the backbone. We took the meat inside and my mom sliced the meat into small steaks then breaded and fried them, scrambled eggs, and made biscuits and gravy. It was one of the most memorable meals of my life.
Only a few short months later, Andy stood in my front yard as I prepared to drive away to college. There were hugs and tears all around with my parents, Andy and his wife, and suddenly I was in the car with my brother and we were gone.
Leaving for college inevitably alters relationships but, climbing into the car that evening, I had no idea that Andy and I would never again have the kind of friendship we had at that moment. There were things going on in his life and mind that would alter, forever, the easy enjoyment we had always shared together.
The extent of Andy's inner struggle became clear when I called his home one night in October during my first semester at college. I was calling to arrange a time to hunt over the Thanksgiving holiday so he and his wife could meet my new girlfriend, someone who would soon become my wife.
Andy's wife answered the phone. After chatting a moment I asked her if I could speak with Andy. There was an awkward silence at the other end of the phone. "Hasn't Andy called you?", she asked. "No", I replied. With a deep sigh of frustration, she said "Keith, Andy and I are getting a divorce."
And so began the unraveling of Andy's marriage and of our close friendship as well. It wasn't that I didn't want to remain close friends, it was that Andy was sinking in emotional quicksand of his own making, and he was rapidly becoming someone I no longer recognized. For his part, I had become a painful reminder of another, better time in his life and he gradually became uncomfortable being around me.
His divorce was the beginning of a long painful odyssey that included drugs, mental illness, financial disaster, homelessness, and more.
Andy finally found his way back to faith, even if not to mainstream society, but the physical damage he had done to himself was a price he continued to pay for the rest of his life.
I learned, somewhere along the way, that Andy was one of very few members of his Army unit that made it back from Vietnam alive. He carried horrific emotional scars from his experience there. Everyone, each of us, comes to our faith with baggage. Maybe that's why the Bible so consistently warns us to stay faithful. Stay the course. See our faith through to the end. We repeatedly warn children against behaviors they're inclined to engage in. I can only conclude that the bible's repetitive admonition to "stay the course" is because God sees that we're inclined to do just the opposite. Sometimes young people think that older folks are immune from straying, that age offers some magical inoculation against unfaithfulness. On the contrary, the bible strongly suggests that we are ever at risk of giving up before the end.
The life of faith is, it seems, a marathon - not a sprint.
It is precisely in the midst of our individual baggage, then, that God both equips and calls us to remain faithful. Were it not for God's equipping all would be lost.
Some people say the cancer that ultimately killed Andy was related to his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. That may be true. I don't really have any way of knowing for sure. But I do know that I loved Andy, and I'm grateful for all that he taught me. Most of all, I'm grateful for the mercy Jesus extended to my friend. I still miss him very much.