Rural Northwest Ohio, 1979
It was late. The lights of town faded into a pinkish glow behind us until there was only the sweep of our headlights surrounded by blackness. We did not usually drive out into the country at night. There had been a phone call, a brief consultation between my mom and stepdad. They were solemn and concerned. I didn’t ask questions. My parents had been through a tornado of a divorce the year before, and I had learned it was better to wait and see.
The drive took a long time. If my mom and stepdad talked at all, their voices were low and their words few.
We arrived at a house surrounded by farmland shrouded in darkness. The house belonged to a farming family from our church—a small, non-traditional congregation that met in a city park’s recreation building. The oldest son was one of eight children. He was my age, and he was my friend, but I’d never been inside his house because it was not a place where kids came to play. Kids at this house did their chores, and when finished, they did homework or Bible study. They played once a week, on Sunday mornings after church as the grown-ups lingered for fellowship.
That night, my mom got out of the car alone and went up to the house. My stepdad kept the car running. He had a tape playing: It was Randy Adams, an obscure singer-songwriter of the 1970s Jesus Music era. If my mom and stepdad thought I was asleep in the back seat, it was because I liked Randy Adams’ songs and was listening intently. And there was the somber mystery of our visit, too, which kept me quiet and alert.
My mom went inside the house, and my friend’s dad, the farmer, came out to the car. He sat in the passenger seat. I understood that he had come out so that my mom could talk to the wife alone inside. Only the living room light was on, and I knew that all their kids were in bed. I wondered if they were awake, too, listening. In the car, the farmer seemed apologetic. He talked about his wife, and he quoted Scripture, but he was at the same time perplexed and exasperated.
He and my stepdad talked while the Randy Adams tape played. A haunting song called Just One Thing came on. In the song, Adams ponders possibilities of what he would have, know, or do if he could have, know, or do just one thing that Jesus did. He dismisses the idea of asking for knowledge of mighty healing power or asking to know the mind of God, and instead he says, I would ask to learn the secret of His love for other people, and I’d learn to have compassion on them all.
At the climax of the song, he admits that he wouldn’t be able to submit to the crucifixion in silence and passivity. This part of the song demanded attention, the music taking a dramatic turn, drums punctuating a flurry of violins, and so it was at this point that the two men stopped talking and listened as Adams’ voice turned desperate, but then softer, full of amazement: I couldn’t stand the pain as they crucified my body, he sang, but, oh, to love the man that hammered in the nails. And this stopped my stepdad and the farmer in their conversation. They looked at the tape deck, shook their heads, looked at each other. They repeated the line, with the same awe that Adams himself had expressed: “To love the man that hammered in the nails,” they said to each other. The idea of such an act, the strength it would have taken for that kind of love. Whatever they were talking about dovetailed into that line, and it silenced them for awhile.
When my mom came back out of the house, the farmer left the car, spoke briefly to my mom as they met halfway, and continued to the house while she came back to us. I’m sure my mom and stepdad spoke as the car pulled out of the driveway and into the night, and I’m sure I fell asleep before long. But what I remember is that line and the way it affected both men. Whatever had happened in that house that night, whatever ways in which their marriage had come unraveled, the farmer was taking that line back inside to his wife. I was eight years old, and I thought maybe that line would be enough to repair the damage.
© Eric Roe.