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0 Comments | Jun 23, 2011

The Visit

“I shouldn’t have thought you’d be all that keen to visit a place like this, Buster, I mean what with your lofty new status and all. That was quite a piece on the news the other night.”

Alvin Cressey stood adjacent the passenger door of his Mercury Marquis, right hand resting on the upper window frame, waiting patiently as Buster Cranston slowly, methodically thrust his legs to the ground and lifted his ancient frame from the seat and into a more or less vertical position. The Marquis, a nondescript burgundy 2004 model four-door, was Cressey’s “everyday” car, the one he used when meeting or chauffeuring members of his congregation who were less than comfortable with the notion of a Protestant minister owning any of the Mercedes, Porsches, or BMWs sitting back at home in his five-car garage.
Buster, having finally levered his hundred-and-seven-year-old frame out of the seat, stepped gingerly away from the car as Cressey closed the door behind him.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Buster, but it seems to me a man well into his second century would make rather a point of steering clear of cemeteries.”

Buster talked slowly and steadily, not looking in the minister’s direction, but focusing instead on a large live oak tree fifty yards ahead. It was a slight uphill grade and he breathed heavily as he made his way.

“Well, Reverend, here’s the thing. Forty-three years ago I made myself a promise to visit my daddy’s grave at least once a year, long as I was able. And seeing as how he gave a good portion of his life looking after me, I figure it’s the least I can do. And I’m much obliged you bringing me out here, long as we’re at it.”

“As I recall, he was no spring chicken when he passed. Y’all must have some seriously good genes in the Cranston family tree.”

“I expect you’re right about that, Reverend. Father made it to ninety-three, and there ain’t been a Cranston I can think of didn’t make at least eighty. So, yes, I expect you’re right.”

“Course, you put them all to shame though, haven’t you, Buster? I mean a hundred and seven’s a hell of a thing, pardon my language.”

“Cuss all you like, Reverend. Does a man good in my estimation. Gets things out of your system. Cleans out the pipes, if you take my meaning.”

The two men slowly made their way up the gradual incline, taking care to stick to the rutted paths and not walk on any of the graves. Haven Hill Cemetery was a local affair and a small one at that. Covering perhaps a half acre, there were but seven families represented by the eighty or so tombstones. There were stones ranging from as new as a few months to those predating the Civil War, the latter in some cases encrusted with lichens and engravings so worn as to be nearly impossible to read. A few leaned a bit precariously, but all of the stones were intact. The grass wasn’t nearly as trim as Buster would have liked and dead flowers lay on many of the sites, ostensibly if not actually picked up each week by Ernest Hollings, an octogenarian who was only occasionally mobile, but who did his level best at the job for nothing on the premise that he’d be a resident here soon enough and so there was no harm in getting on good terms with the existing occupants sooner rather than later.

“Not exactly my preferred manner of speaking, as you can well imagine, but, still, it’s not often I get the honor of associating with a man of your longevity. Oldest man in the entire blessed Lone Star State. Just imagine it!”

“To be fair, Reverend, I’m not so sure sticking around long enough to be oldest man in Texas compares all that favorably to being minister of the biggest church in the state. All I had to do was not drop dead. I expect your distinction required a mite of work.”

“Well it did at that, Buster, and I thank you for acknowledging it. Course it’s all work in the Lord’s name, so that don’t hardly make it work at all, now does it?”

The two had drawn close to a small white limestone slab two feet in height and about three wide, on which was written “Nathan Cranston, 1874 – 1967, He Was Here. Now He’s Someplace Else.” Cressey smiled wryly. Buster clasped his hands before his belt buckle, flexed his shoulders, and gazed for a moment up at a tree branch soughing rhythmically overhead.

“Daddy had a way with words, didn’t he?”

“He certainly did, Buster. He certainly did. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for asking such a presumptuous question, but any thoughts yet on what you might want yours to say?”

“Nothing presumptuous about it, Reverend. I expect I’ll be lounging right there next to him sooner than I care to admit. I was thinking of going with ‘Thank God I’m Here and Not in Oklahoma.’ Or maybe ‘Final Score – Good Lord 1, Buster 0.’ I don’t know; what do you think?”

“Tough to say, but you could do worse than to leave them with a smile. Heck, Buster, at the rate you’re going, I’ll be laying here while you’re still sitting back at the house watching your TV.”

Buster knelt and used his fingernail to scrape a piece of moss from between the “A” and the “T” in his father’s first name. A pair of swallows darted about overhead, diving and turning in impossibly tight maneuvers, emitting sharp peeps as they flew. Cressey remained standing, but offered a helping hand when Buster endeavored to rise from his kneeling.

“I never had the pleasure of course,” the minister intoned, “but from what I hear, Nathan Cranston was one heck of a fellow, one of the last of the true rugged individualists.”

“You heard right on that account, Reverend. Daddy was an Eisenhower Republican to his dying day. Said many a time that the toughest twelve years of his life was the Roosevelt administration. Lord, how he loathed that man. Used up almost his last words saying how much he regretted having to pass while Johnson was still in office.”

A sudden gust blew over the hill, tossing both men’s hair about and causing a deep sigh from the tree above.

“Tell you something else, Reverend. Daddy was a God-fearing man as well. As devout a Methodist as they come, which is saying something in the Cranston family. I expect I’d be a bit of disappointment to the old man on that score.”

“Didn’t none of it ever quite take with you, did it, Buster?”

“You ever read any Hemingway, Reverend? One of his early books—The Sun Also Rises—somebody asks the main character how he went bankrupt. ‘Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly’ he says. I think that about sums up me and religion.”

“I guess I can understand the ‘gradually’ part,” Cressey said. “Tell me how the ‘suddenly’ part happened. You didn’t just wake up one day and decide you didn’t need God in your life.”

“Well there’s two parts to what you’re getting at there, Reverend. As far as who I do and don’t need in my life. I learned a long time ago that, push come to shove, I don’t need anybody in my life. See, once you get past eighty, most everybody you know or give a hoot about has gone and died, so while it’s nice having folks around from time to time, truth is I can go weeks at a stretch without laying eyes on a soul. As for the God part, you ain’t far off in your assessment, except for two details. It wasn’t waking up that I had my little realization. It was actually standing here on this very spot that it came to me. And what it was that came to me wasn’t that I didn’t want God in my life. I decided that day that he flat out wasn’t real, just a figment of folks’ imagination. Course, I don’t expect that saying something like that out loud sets real well with you.”

The two men stood now, not looking at one another, but rather back down the hill toward the pastor’s car. Neither, though, was inclined to yet begin the descent.

“Well, Buster, I’m interested to hear the rationale for the God part, but I’m even more intrigued by what it was here at your daddy’s grave that led to such an epiphany. I should have thought that here, of all places, surrounded by the spirits of those who have gone before and the beauty of God’s creation, you’d have come to pretty much the opposite view.”

“I remember it like it was yesterday, Reverend. It was October and there were oak leaves on the ground. I picked one up and got to looking at it real close. My eyesight was a tad better in them days. I got to staring at the veins in the leaf, and then the smaller veins that came off the main ones, and so on until they got so tiny I couldn’t see them any more. And it occurred to me that this was a living thing that God had allowed to die. And it occurred to me that I was in a place surrounded by living beings that God had seen fit to let die. And my first thought was who creates something beautiful only to let it die? I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it, Reverend.

“And that got me to pondering on that old argument about whether God is really all-powerful or not. You know the one—I’m sure you’ve had to answer it a thousand times. If God is all-powerful, then why does he allow all the suffering that goes on in the world every day? Either he’s capable of doing something to stop it and he chooses not to, which makes him one cruel son-of-a-gun, or he can’t do anything about the world’s suffering, which means he’s not all-powerful to begin with. Them’s pretty much the two choices, way I see it. I think it was at that moment that the whole thing kind of fell down like a house of cards for me.”

“Well, Buster, it’s difficult theological ground you’re plowing. I’ll give you that much. And you’re right about my having heard the arguments many times before. As for God being content to watch his creations die, I reckon I’d have to chalk that up to the whole circle of life. I mean if nothing ever passed from this earth, then where would be the appreciation for life itself. Besides which, if nothing ever died, figures we’d run out of room here in pretty short order. How many people and animals you figure have ever been alive in the entire history of the earth, Buster?”

The two men had begun their slow descent toward the Marquis at the foot of the hill. The wind had begun to pick up, blowing its way up the hill and against their progress. Buster drew his sweater closer around his neck and considered the Reverend’s rejoinder.

“Well, I take your point about eventually running out of real estate, seeing as how it wouldn’t be just about all the people that have lived before us, but every living thing along the way. Still don’t feel right though—just don’t feel right…”

Buster paused for another moment. He looked at the ground and then spoke again without looking up.

“But what’s your take on this suffering business? I mean—cancer, tornadoes, malaria, plane crashes—is that really the best God can do? People go to church every Sunday and hear about how much God loves them. Then, damned if one or two don’t get into a car crash on the way home afterward. Best I ever got out of anyone else is a bunch of hew-haw about God working in mysterious ways. Don’t get me wrong, Reverend, but I expect even you can see that that’s a pretty cop-out answer.”

“And one that insults the intelligence of the questioner, in my view,” Cressey responded without hesitation. “It’s an easy way out of any number of thorny theological questions. Fact of the matter is no one knows why we suffer. Heck, there’ve been entire books written on that subject alone. It’s a horrible thing when children die before their parents, or storms and other disasters sweep away entire towns and villages. And it always seems like it’s the most vulnerable who do the suffering in this world. I don’t know as I can satisfy your concern on that one, Buster, except to say that for me it’s kind of a rain versus sunshine argument. What I mean to say is that if it was sunny and beautiful every day of the year you’d take it for granted. But since there’s all kinds of weather, lots of it bad, when the sun does come out you appreciate it all the more, especially if you happen to live in a place where it doesn’t happen all that often.”

“Sounds like you’re suggesting that suffering is just part of God’s grand design, meaning that he makes it happen on purpose so as to help us to appreciate the good times…Well that’s dandy unless you happen to be the one in the car wreck or the tornado or whatever it is, in which case there’s no future sunlight for you to appreciate and bask in. Can’t say as I buy that one, Reverend. Makes it sound like he’s just up there toying with us. I never much enjoyed feeling like a pawn.”

The two men approached the car and Buster reached out to grasp the passenger side door handle. Before he could open the door, Cressey placed a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder.

“Buster, you strike me as a man who enjoys a good story from time to time. If you don’t mind me spending a few more seconds of your time, it might be worth me sharing one of mine.”

“Might sound a strange thing from someone like me, Reverend, but I feel as though I have all the time in the world. Besides which, you’re the one with the car keys. Give me your best shot.”

“Concerns a good friend of mine from way back in childhood days. He had grown up in the church, just like you and me. Knew all the old hymns. Couldn’t hardly get through a verse of Old Rugged Cross without a moist eye. Anyway, this kid grew up and off he went to college where they taught him to think objectively and skeptically, to question everything around him, whether he could see it or not. Well, you can imagine the effect a few years of this sort of educating had on the young fellow. He came home four years later with a shiny new diploma and more than a little disregard for the beliefs that he’d left home with as a freshman. The day he sat down with his father, looked him straight in the eye and told the old man he now found belief in a higher power to be the realm of fools. His father, as you might expect, wasn’t real keen on his son’s freshly educated point of view, the more so seeing as how the old man had recently retired from forty years serving as a Lutheran minister.”

“So now this boy is all of twenty-two, fresh out of college, head filled with all sorts of ideas about rational thought, and wondering what he ought to do next. Only there was one other small problem. You see, the kid had chosen to major in philosophy, and, as I’m sure you’re aware, folks in them days weren’t exactly falling all over themselves to hire philosophers any more than they are now. So after half a year or so of reading want ads, the boy breaks down and gets him a position as an apprentice on an ambulance crew, on account of his dad knows someone in the fire department. The boy, as you might expect, feels like this is a bit beneath him, what with him being educated and all. Still, he figures it will pay some bills and tide him over while he decides what he really wants to do with his life.”

“Come to find out, working on ambulance, or any sort of emergency services job, is mostly a lot of sitting around, punctuated by the occasional flurry of activity whenever something bad happens. Now this boy, he hadn’t spent any more time outside his house growing up than any of us do, and he certainly hadn’t witnessed any car wrecks or other tragedies aside from one bad house fire he happened to see round about the time he turned fourteen. Anyway, he goes through all his ambulance crew training, and proceeds to sit around waiting with the rest of his crew for a few days, until one day the siren goes off, and here goes the boy, headed out on his first genuine call. Turns out the scene of the accident is a railroad crossing where a mother with a car full of kids tried to make it across in front of the nine p.m. freight headed north towards Gloucester. Well, I probably don’t need to tell you she didn’t make it, and the scene that awaited that ambulance crew was one that made them all, to a man, have a strong think about their chosen career field.”

“But this boy, this boy out on his very first real call…well, let’s just say he wasn’t much use to the crew or the family in the car that night. Spent most of it in the back of the ambulance himself, engaged in some combination of crying, throwing up, cursing, or all three at once. Back at the station, couple of hours later, the boy walked into his chief’s office, handed in his name tag, and walked right out of there without so much as a look back. One week later, without a word to his old man or anyone else, he enrolled in seminary school.”

“There’s folks’d call that running away. Others I expect that’d simply say the boy was looking for answers to some of the same sorts of questions at that accident site that you’re wrestling with yourself. I don’t know as any of that really answers what it is you’re asking about, but hearing about it is the closest I’ve personally come to the suffering issue in my life. Can’t hardly imagine what became of that boy, but it’s a damned difficult thing, I’ll venture to say that much.”

Cressey hadn’t moved from the side of his car throughout the telling of his story. Nor had Buster moved a muscle, despite a terrific pang in his left leg. When the old man finally spoke, it was with the voice of one long schooled in the fine art of listening.

“Bit of a wild guess, Reverend, but I expect that young fellow in the story is standing right here before me doing the telling.” An assertion to which Cressey did not respond, other than to pull open the passenger side door of the Mercury and offer Buster a supportive arm getting inside. He walked around to the driver’s side, gazed one final moment back up the hill toward Buster’s father’s grave site, then opened his door, climbed in and started the engine. Rather than immediately pull away, he let the engine idle and looked straight through the windshield at the wind-tossed trees. Finally he spoke again without looking in the old man’s direction.

“Buster, I have a pretty good sense for how you feel about this stuff, so I hesitate to even ask you the favor I’m gonna ask. Goodness knows you’ve never been shy about speaking your mind or asking the tough questions. Still, I’d be doing myself and my congregation a disservice if I didn’t at least give it a try.”
Though he knew perfectly well what was coming, Buster sat silent, hand resting placidly in his lap. He figured if he was going to surprise the minister this one time, he was entitled to make him work for it, at least a little.

“It’d mean an awful lot…to me…to my congregation, if you were to show up for a service one of these Sundays. Don’t think of it as me or anyone trying to win you over, or save your soul, or anything like that. Just think of it as a small bit of community service. You’re a celebrity in the community. Hell, in the whole state. It’d mean a lot.”

Alvin Cressey had been picking up Buster and bringing him to the cemetery a couple of times a year for as long as Buster could remember. And at some point on every trip, Cressey had asked the old man if he wouldn’t deign to appear at Silverlake Baptist. Aside from the normal things that drive a minister, it wasn’t altogether clear what motivated Cressey to repeat the request each trip, particularly with Buster having graciously declined on more occasions than he could count or recall. Still, Buster couldn’t fault the reverend for his tenacity, or his candor in addressing Buster’s theological concerns. He had given it a lot of thought in the previous few days, and decided he’d give the reverend one last big surprise.

“Tell you what, Reverend,” Buster said. “You’ve been right decent to me all these years. I appreciate you bringing me all the way out here, and I know that dad would too. Just so long as you’re not afraid of the roof falling in on the church, seems the least I can do is come by one time. Just don’t be thinking about parading me around on your stage or anything like that. There’s nothing particularly special about being the oldest man in Texas, aside from not having the common sense to drop dead when most folks would’ve.”

Cressey reached for Buster’s hand and gave it a squeeze with both of his own. “I appreciate the favor, Buster. Surely I do. And I promise I won’t do anything to embarrass you. I’ve been working up a sermon about age and how none of us know when the good Lord will come and…I expect I’ll come up with some way of working your visit into my remarks. Hopefully that will be okay. Oh, and don’t you fret none about the roof—we’ve had our share of cynics and disbelievers visit over the years.”

The smile on Cressey’s face was enormous as he clicked his seat belt and grasped the steering wheel.
“I expect,” he added, pulling slowly putting the car in motion , “I can impose upon your generosity to identify you as being in the congregation and perhaps get a stand and a wave?”

“Reverend, if I’m still able to stand four days from now, I will be happy to oblige. Just don’t expect me to get into the habit of coming regular or nothing like that. Oh and, Reverend, there’s one more small favor I’ve a mind to request of you, seeing as how you’re in a jovial mood.”

Which is how Buster Cranston, at one hundred and seven years officially the oldest man in the sovereign state of Texas (to be officially recognized as such by the state legislature as HB 347 in the forthcoming session), came to be seated on the center aisle in the front row of Silverlake Baptist Church that Sunday morning (waving to the congregation with a bit more delight than he would admit to in the days thereafter). And that’s also how the church body of deacons, two weeks later, unanimously agreed to support the modicum of funding required to ensure the care and timely rotation of flowers for one small grave on a hill near the northeast corner of Haven Hill Cemetery.

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