Highway Blues

Trooper Erick Sweetwater saw the young woman sitting at the side of the road, right where the callers had said she was seen. She was staring away from the road, at the expanse of juniper bushes and mesquite and red clay and sand that stretched several miles to the horizon. He pulled his car onto the gravel shoulder and stopped. Leaving the motor running (so the air conditioner would keep the car cool), he opened the door, stepped out, and closed it again. The young woman did not look at him—she continued to stare ahead of her.

Esme felt the hot sun baking her short black hair and her bare arms. Never before had she been left by a truck driver on the road between stops. Never before had she needed to be rescued by a police officer. This was her third summer traveling around the county, and up to now things had gone well. A mixture of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety enveloped her, preventing her from looking up at the trooper as he approached.

Trooper Sweetwater walked carefully toward the young woman, his boots crunching the gravel. He sensed her discomfort. He could see that she was physically unharmed, but he knew that no one chose to sit at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot July afternoon. The situation required him to be calm, cool, and professional. “May I help you, Ma’am?” were his first words, as his eyes took in her gray backpack, her thin red blanket rolled into a bundle, her white t-shirt, her jeans, and her sandals.

“I suppose so,” she mumbled dimly. “I guess I’ll need a ride back to the Mart.” The Mart was on the north side of town, twenty miles down the road. It consisted of a gas station, two fast food restaurants, and a convenience store; a small motel stood next door. The Mart was a convenient stop for drivers of every kind of vehicle, the last stop of its kind for more than fifty miles along the highway.

“I’ll be happy to take you there,” Trooper Sweetwater assured her, “but first I’ll have to see some identification,” he added apologetically. Sighing, Esme stood and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. “Esmerelda A. Nye,” Erick read silently from the license. He noted her address and hometown and her birthdate, and he glanced between the license and its owner to verify that the photograph matched her face. Still holding the license, he pulled out his notebook and a pen. “What brings you out here to the middle of nowhere?” he inquired curiously.

Esme sighed. Hitchhiking was not illegal, but it was strongly discouraged. Her form of hitchhiking did not involve thumbing for a ride next to the road. Instead, she met drivers—mostly truck drivers, pilots of the big eighteen-wheel trucks carrying food and clothing and furniture and people’s possessions from place to place—and asked them for rides. They were already on the road, traveling from place to place, and they were being paid for their work. Some were forbidden from taking on passengers, but most were not. A few were quick to assure her that they would be happy for her company and expected no additional pay or favors for their trouble. Those that suggested otherwise, she carefully avoided. A lot of drivers were happy for company on their journeys. Some offered her lengthy monologues while they drove, sharing with her their opinions, their perceptions, their views of life and the universe and everything. Others drew her into conversation, as willing to learn about her as to instruct her. A small number drove in silence, not caring to speak or to hear from her. Almost all of them took her from one point to another, and then she was able to find another willing driver at the next point. Never before had she been thrown out of a truck in the middle of nowhere.

But how could Esme explain this way of life to a Trooper and expect him to understand? Esme assumed that she did not fit into the neat categories of travelers of which the Trooper would approve. Deciding to limit her account to the briefest version possible, Esme stated simply, “I accepted a ride from a truck driver. Then we had a disagreement, and he made me get out of his truck. That’s how I got here.”

Erick raised his eyebrows and wrote a brief note on his notepad. “You had a disagreement?” he clarified, and Esme nodded. Although his mind was filled with questions, Erick did not want to stand in the hot sun, and he did not want to force Esmerelda to do so either. Quickly, he made up his mind how to proceed.

Handing the license back to Esme, he gestured toward his car. “Grab your stuff and get in,” he invited. He opened the front passenger door—not the rear doors, that would label her a criminal or a prisoner, but the front door, indicating that she was his equal, possibly even a partner. Esme could not, of course, be his partner, not being a uniformed officer of the law, but Erick was not going to treat her as if she had done something wrong.

Esme picked up her backpack and blanket and climbed into the car. Erick closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and circled back onto the road. For a moment, they drove in silence. Then, quietly and gently, Erick asked her, “What was the disagreement about?”

Esme shrugged. “Politics,” she said. Did anyone ever talk about anything that couldn’t be wrapped up in the word “politics”? Most of the drivers she had met thought along the conservative side of the political spectrum. They admired President Trump and had disdain for President Biden. Some thought that Biden, or his associates, had stolen the election from Trump; others weren’t sure. Some described Biden as a willing partner of evil; others considered him feeble—under the control of the bad guys without himself being genuinely bad. Talk about anything, though—the weather, the condition of the roads, the price of gasoline, law enforcement, people looking for jobs, people not looking for jobs, health and wellness—soon the conversation turned to politics. In politics, at least the way most people described politics to Esme, there were only two sides: one was right and the other was wrong. One side was going to save America from all its problems, and the other was out to destroy America.

Although she did not feel strongly about any of these topics, Esme found that she agreed with the right-leaning truckers she had met. At least she was able to smile and nod and keep things friendly; when a driver asked her opinion, she was able to say the same things other drivers had been saying to her. How was she to know that a driver who looked like all the other drivers, and who sounded at first like all the other drivers, was going to have opinions on the far side of the road? How was she to know that this left-learning liberal truck driver was going to kick her out of her cab merely because they disagreed about something as minor as politics.

“Politics,” repeated the trooper. He obviously wanted more information than that one word from her. In fact, as a trooper, Erick also had an opinion about politics. He had met college girls who outwardly resembled Esme—girls who talked about defunding the police and abolishing the death penalty and legalizing all kinds of drugs and generally being a lot nicer to criminals than to their victims. He hoped that this Esmerelda was not going to be that kind of radical. But, he reminded himself, she was a person in need like other persons in need. His job was to protect and to serve.

“Yeah, politics,” Esme reiterated. Then, to keep the trooper from digging, she gave him more information. “We started off talking about the price of food at the Mart and how it’s going up, and why there aren’t enough truckers working these days to get food and other things where they need to be. Then we jumped to masks and vaccinations and the whole virus conspiracy….”

“You think the virus is a conspiracy?” Erick interrupted her. “You think somebody invented the story?”

Esme shook her head. “No,” she clarified, “I know the virus is real. And I know some people have died from it. But most of the people who get sick from it get better. The way to stop it wasn’t shutting down the economy, or making everyone wear masks, or making everyone get shots that not everyone trusts. They’re using fear to control people, and when they get away with it because of the virus, they’ll keep on using other things to keep people afraid.”

Trooper Sweetwater wanted to ask Esmerelda who she had in mind when she talked about “they” and “them.” He wondered if she had anyone particular in mind, or if she was just casting blame onto some shadowy entity hiding somewhere in the country. But a more important line of inquiry pushed that question out of importance. “So I gather you haven’t gotten the vaccine?” he asked.

Esme shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

“And you’re not wearing a mask,” the trooper continued.

“Nope,” she said again. Then she added, “Look, I got sick from the virus last year. I had a fever and was in bed for three days. Then I got better. I’ve got natural immunity—I don’t need any shot to protect me from the virus. And I’m not going to be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Trooper Sweetwater frowned. “That hasn’t been proven, you know,” he commented.

“That’s only because they don’t to prove it. They don’t even want to study it. They don’t want to know. When people test positive for the virus, they don’t even ask, ‘Have you had this before?’ If they asked, they would know that being sick once protects people better than getting the shots. It works that way with other sicknesses—stands to reason it works the same with this one. But they don’t want to know; it would shoot down their entire play for power.”

By now they had almost returned to the Mart. Erick would not have thrown Esmerelda out of his vehicle twenty miles out of town, but he was uncomfortable knowing that she hadn’t received the vaccine and wasn’t wearing a mask.” Making a quick guess, he said to her, “That’s really why the trucker made you get on, isn’t it?—because you admitted that you haven’t had the shots, and you refused to wear a mask.”

Esme nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’s it.” But, in her mind, she added, “but it’s all politics, any way you cut it. If he’d been like the other drivers, if he thought the way they think, he wouldn’t have cared about the mask, or the shot.”

The trooper pulled his car into the parking lot of the Mart. “You can grab your stuff and get out here,” he told her. “And, the next time you ask someone for a ride, maybe you’d better find out how they feel about vaccinations and masks before the two of you hit the road.” Esme took her backpack and blanket and left the car. As she walked away, Trooper Sweetwater reached for his glove compartment. Pulling out a spray bottle of sanitizer, he began to clean the passenger seat and the dashboard of his car.

Esme crossed the hot parking lot, heading for the front doors of the Mart. She felt as if other people were staring at her as she walked. She thought she even heard one person whisper, “That’s her!” But how could any of these people know anything about her? The trooper hadn’t sent out any message about her, at not least while she was in the car with him.

Convinced that she was imagining things, maybe even getting a little paranoid, Esme decided to buy herself a burger and a Coke before looking for another ride. Or maybe she would get a milkshake. And Esme also thought that she might take the trooper’s advice and sound out her driver’s feelings about masks before the two of them pulled out onto the highway.

Thanksgiving patrol

Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. Since I’m a writer, that can be a good thing. Stories come from the question, “What if?” and some of those stories are worth sharing. Others belong in the trash bin. This is one of those stories.

I imagine the local police patrolling the neighborhood this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. When they spot a house with several cars parked outside, they look more closely. Especially if they see out-of-state plates, they call for back up… and then they invade. For the good of the people, they arrest those violators of quarantine and put them in a special holding cell for the next fourteen days. Those who remain healthy are released, free to go about their business. Those who fall ill remain in quarantine until they are cured.

Can’t happen, you say? Impossible in this country? Do you remember Elian Gonzalez?

Twenty years ago, Elian, with his mother and some other relatives, escaped from Communist Cuba and fled by boat to the United States. Elain’s mother drowned during the attempt, but Elian, with other members of the family survived, and they found homes with family already living in Florida. The United States government decided that it was in the best interest of Elian to be taken away from his relatives in the United States and returned to his father in Cuba. On Easter morning they entered the house where he was staying, seized him, removed him, and started him back toward Cuba.

No, I don’t see the police and the National Guard patrolling our neighborhoods this Thanksgiving, breaking into houses and seizing families gathered to celebrate the holiday. It won’t happen—not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But, considering all that has happened this year and all that could happen, I can imagine. I can imagine Americans calling the police to report Thanksgiving gatherings next door, then watching from behind the curtains as the house across the street is entered and the scofflaws gathered and taken away. I can imagine church services raided and ministers and congregants rounded off to prison for breaking quarantine regulations. I can imagine all this justified by the need to overcome the virus crisis and return the country to normal… whatever normal will be like after such things have happened.

It will not happen. This is just my imagination running wild. But American citizens have a responsibility to continue to treasure and protect freedom so that stories like mine remain unthinkable in our land. J.

Day of Prayer

Our governor has declared today, March 29, to be a special day of prayer for our state and for our nation, particularly in regard to the current virus pandemic. In response, I offer three timely prayers as written in The Lutheran Hymnal (published in 1941). I considered modernizing the pronouns and verbs, but chose to leave them as written.

Prayer for the sick: “Almighty, everlasting God, the eternal Salvation of them that believe, hear our prayers in behalf of Thy servants who are sick, for whom we implore the aid of Thy mercy, that, being restored to health, they may render thanks to Thee in Thy Church; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

A second prayer for the sick: “O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve Thy servants for whom we offer our supplications; look upon them with the eyes of Thy mercy; give them comfort and sure confidence in Thee, defend them from the danger of the enemy, and keep them in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

This third prayer might spark some thought and conversation: In time of great sickness: “Almighty and most merciful God, our heavenly Father, we, Thine erring children, humbly confess unto Thee that we have justly deserved the chastening which for our sins Thou hast sent upon us; but we entreat Thee, of Thy boundless goodness to grant us true repentance, graciously to forgive our sins, to remove from us, or to lighten, our merited punishment, and so to strengthen us by Thy grace that as obedient children we may be subject to Thy will and bear our afflictions in patience; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

I posted these on Facebook an hour ago. It will be interesting to gauge the reactions. J.

Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

Coronamageddon?

Is the worldwide pandemic called Coronavirus a sign of the impending end of the world? A complete answer would include both “yes” and “no”… or to be more accurate, “Yes, but not in the way most people understand it.”

Addressing a question about the sign of his coming and the close of the age, Jesus responded, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:4-8).

To the list of wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes, we could add many other events: terrorist attacks, powerful storms, raging fires, and the spread of diseases. All these tragedies indicate that the world faces judgment, and they remind us that a final reckoning is coming. But these events are not a countdown to the Last Day. Nowhere does Jesus say—or do the apostles and prophets say—that such events will be more common as the Last Day approaches. They remind us that the Day of the Lord will come—it is seven days closer than it was a week ago. But we cannot make any assumptions about how soon that Day will be. “No one knows the day or the hour” (Matthew 24:36), or even the year, decade, or century. False teachers have predicted the End on a certain date, and so far they have all been wrong.

Instead, we see creation “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). It seems presumptuous for two men—unmarried men at that—to speak of birth pains and childbirth as if they knew what they were describing. But God created all that exists; he has been present during every pregnancy and every birth. God knows how the female body prepares to give birth to a baby, making internal adjustments that are sometimes called “false labor.” The time for the baby to be born has not yet arrived, but the mother’s body is preparing for that great event. In the same way, wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and widespread diseases remind us that a Great Event is coming. Jesus will be seen in the clouds, all the dead will be raised, God’s faithful people will be welcomed into a new creation, and those who refused his grace will be sent away. Every violent and tragic event in history speaks to us of that final Day when the entire earth will be shaken and everything will be changed. Today sinners battle sinners, and all creation works against the sinners who occupy its dwellings. In a sense, we sinners are the infection and viruses are the antibodies trying to protect the world from our harmful presence. But Jesus is the great Physician who will heal creation and also who heals sinners, making us fit to live in the new world without pain and sorrow and death.

Every crisis is an opportunity. As we strive to protect our health and the health of our neighbors, we can be servants of love rather than isolated selfish sinners. We can bring groceries and other supplies to those who are quarantined for their own safety or to keep the rest of us safe. We can support those who are losing income to the shut-downs of society. (Every canceled concert, sports event, and gathering means loss of income, not merely to the performers and athletes, but to the many other people whose careers depend upon these happenings—most of whom do not have savings to carry them through this time of hardship.) We can pray to the Lord to strengthen the healers, support the suffering, comfort the sorrowing, and relieve the fears of ourselves and our neighbors. We can be shining examples of faith and love in a world that easily loses hope and gives way to fear and worry. God remains in control, and his promises never fail. Between today and the Day of the Lord, we have countless opportunities to do the work of his kingdom. Through all that happens, God’s plan will be accomplished. J.