Funny how those little decisions you make with hardly a thought have a way of redirecting the rest of your life.
Best friend J. L. Rice and I were coming up on our junior year at Winston County High School in Double Springs, Alabama, and thought of something that might be fun. We had come through the science fair together and loved to kid around, imitating Don Knotts on the old Steve Allen program (with a wide-eyed, “Nooo!”–okay, you had to have been there), when one of us had a bright idea. We would take short-hand the following year.
Gregg Shorthand was taught in almost every high school in the land back then, always by the “business” teacher, the lady who instructed in typing and office skills. Shorthand class was intended to prepare future secretaries to earn a living, and thus no one but girls enrolled. J. L. and I became the only boys in the school’s history–before or since–to sign up. We took the class for two solid years, made excellent grades, and loved every day of it.
Had you asked, we would have told you we were preparing for college. Neither of us knew anything about college, but we had always imagined there would be lots of lectures which necessitated note-taking. J. L. went to work up north after high school and never used his shorthand, whereas I found out pretty quickly that you don’t need shorthand for college classes.
My sophomore year at Birmingham-Southern College, I had a little Saturday job selling men’s clothing for the National Shirt Shops downtown, earning perhaps $10 a week. Just enough for spending money. Remember, this was 1960 when a coke cost a dime. I didn’t have a car, but lived next to the campus and rode the city bus everywhere for a quarter.
When my father was forced to retire prematurely from the coal mines and go on disability, I had to get serious about finding a part-time job. On the “jobs” bulletin board in the college administration building, I found the index card, thumb-tacked in the center where I couldn’t miss it.
“Clerk-typist wanted for weekend work. Shorthand required. Must be male as you will be working alone near the railroad terminal. Contact the Pullman Company. C. F. DeNinno, Agent”
I was the only person to apply for the job. It paid union scale, which felt like I had won the lottery. For the next year and a half, I worked from 8 to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays, in a little block building a hundred yards from the cavernous and majestic railroad terminal. Sometimes the agent came in and dictated letters, but mostly I was there alone except for the porters and conductors and an occasional mechanic coming and going. It was the perfect job for a college student. I did a little work, studied my lessons, typed papers, and walked around the railroad yard. On Sunday mornings, I listened to worship services on the radio, and after closing the office, rode the bus to my church where I sang with the youth choir, and attended training union and the evening service. After church, a group of us would head down the street to Constantine’s restaurant for supper. It was a great life.
My college major was history and political science with a minor in English and speech. With plans to teach in high school immediately after graduation, I took a teaching certificate. Just as I finished the final class in March of 1962, I received a phone call from a superintendent of education in a nearby county inviting me to start teaching the following Monday. For the rest of that semester, I taught English literature and biology to 11th and 12th graders at Dora High School. I bought a car, signed a contract to teach history at Ensley High School that fall, and Margaret and I got married.
The problem with teaching school is you need a summer job. My bride let me know in no uncertain terms that she would not be married to a man who sat around the house drawing unemployment checks. So, I went looking.
The employment agency said an iron plant in Tarrant City was looking for a secretary to the production manager. He must be male–he would be working inside the plant with 300 ironworkers–and must be able to take shorthand. I was the only one to apply for the job. It supported us for the next two years while we organized our lives, had a baby, and prepared to head to seminary in New Orleans.
Funny how a choice made by a 15-year-old influences his life for years to come.
I look back and wonder how my life would have been different had J. L. and I not taken shorthand. I would not have had the jobs at the Pullman Company and James B. Clow & Sons cast iron pipe company. But I would have worked somewhere, presumably. Where, I wonder, and how would that have affected the future course of my life. I don’t remember praying over these decisions. Was God guiding me anyway? Was it my mother’s prayers God was answering in guiding me?
In his wonderful little poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost wrote:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And now you know where Scott Peck got the title for his best-seller.
I pray for our three children–all approaching middle-age at the speed of light–and for our eight grandchildren who still have the bulk of their life-decisions looming before them. I know something of how small decisions made with scarcely a thought can lead to other crossroads and detours and dead-ends, and to adventures great and awful. I know how impossible it is to return to point A and choose the road you left behind the first time.
So I pray for these little ones. I ask the Lord to guide and protect them in the choice of where they shall go to school, the subjects they take, the friends they select, the best friends they hang out with, and the boyfriends/girlfriends they match up with. I pray for God to guide them as they decide on college and careers and life mates, on churches and temptations and commitments.
I think about the time–college days again; I was living in a boarding house near the campus–when I casually invited a new resident, Joel Davis, to Wednesday night prayer meeting at our church. That led to a life-long friendship. Joel and I ended up moving out and sharing a furnished apartment, and he played a major role in matching up Margaret and me, then became best man in our wedding. We keep in touch to this day. He’s retired from the business world now, but works almost full-time as the senior adult minister at the wonderful Annistown Road Baptist Church outside Atlanta and plays golf more than Tiger Woods. We don’t see each other much–we e-mail back and forth a lot–but I shall never forget something he and his lovely wife Wilma said to me once when we were together after a ten-year separation.
Joel and Wilma Davis said to me, “We pray for you every day.”
What an incredible gift God gave me in these friends. And it all began with the most casual thing in the world, inviting a new friend to church.
“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3)
“Lead me, Lord. Lead me in thy righteousness. Make thy way plain before my face. Amen.”