From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, as cited at thefreedictionary.com:
n. pl. od·ys·seys
1. An extended adventurous voyage or trip.
2. An intellectual or spiritual quest: an odyssey of discovery.
Note: this series of blog entries will be part travelogue, part journal, part memoir, part character sketch, part writing exercise (my writing gears are rusty after several months of idleness), and maybe part something else I don't yet anticipate. However, more than anything else, it is a love letter to Texas and the people I love there. The parts are simply because it was too long to publish as one entry, and another part will be published each Saturday until it's done. I hope you enjoy these stories.
Introduction: In The Beginning . . . Texas
My first thought of Texas as a definite place occurred long before I fell in love with Texas or dreamed I'd ever live there. I was about six years old, around 1971, and my Mama and Daddy had met this couple through their work with Amway. This couple, Tom and Brenda V., had three kids, and Tom would eventually lead both my Mama and me to our first experience of faith. We lived in Trenton, Georgia, and they lived out of town in the country up in the mountains. They were originally from Texas, somewhere around Temple, I think.
I remember we were up there in the autumn (I remember that because it was cool and it seems like the leaves on the trees were turning and beginning to fall) at their house. My sister, Cindy, and I were playing with the other kids. The two boys had this toy football game; it was a miniature football field with two teams of little plastic football players; it plugged into an electric outlet, and after setting up the teams in position, you turned it on and it vibrated. (It was made by Tudor and you can still buy older ones on Ebay.) There was no rhyme or reason to it at all, and the little men just gyrated around the board randomly (sort of the way the Cowboys seem to be playing some games at the time I write this), but anyway at some point the little figure with the ball would topple over (which meant being tackled), vibrate out of bounds, or (rarely) actually cross one of the goal lines to “score” (and it would just as likely be the other team's goal – at least the Cowboys haven't done that this year).
I remember when we played, the boys would inevitably be the Dallas Cowboys, and they regaled me with tales of how great the Cowboys were, how great coach Tom Landry was, and, most especially, how great quarterback Roger Staubach was.
I have never had a natural affinity for sports, much preferring to read a book or to write than spend my time watching or playing sports (except that I loved playing sports at school during recess or just playing with friends growing up). Even today that is true (the part about me preferring reading a book or writing, not playing at recess or with friends). I have always enjoyed watching sports when I do; it's just not something I schedule around. But if I'm with others who enjoy it, I enjoy it as much as they do. (I am so totally inept in my knowledge of sports, when my nephew called me the other day to talk on the phone, the first thing I asked him, he being a true sports fan and me trying to impress him that I was current and knowledgeable for a change, was, “Do you think Georgia's ready for Alabama this weekend?” Somehow, I thought I'd seen someone talking about this on Facebook, and of course, since it was on Facebook, I thought it must be true. After a moment of confused silence, he broke it to me gently: “Georgia doesn't play Alabama this year.” Oh. Um. Ok. “Check please!”)
The one exception to my sports-less wasteland was this: since that day in 1971, I considered myself a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, and am to this day. Based on nothing but these boys not much older than my own six years, and whose parents were from Texas, telling me how great the Cowboys were (even if they didn't do so well on the vibrating football field we were using). Of course, when I actually moved to Dallas, my connection to the Cowboys was even more real to me, and remains so.
In February, 1980, a few weeks before my 15th birthday, I walked to the front of our church during what is known as the “invitation” in many evangelical churches, and said that I felt like God was calling me into the ministry. I was in ninth grade.
I felt like I should get a theological education, going to Bible college first and then seminary. I considered several schools, but because my church and pastor had strong connections to First Baptist Church of Dallas, and because I had a cousin who was a pastor and had gone there, almost right away, I decided that I wanted to go to Criswell College, in Dallas, Texas.
So it was, in August, 1983, we packed everything I owned into a rooftop carrier on my Mama's little Honda Civic, and Mama, my sister Cindy, one of her good friends, and I headed west on I-20 out of Georgia for Dallas. The only times I had been out of Georgia was to go to Florida or the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina on vacation, several trips to Chattanooga, Tennessee, trips to Alabama to see relatives, and a trip my senior year in high school to Washington, D.C.
I still remember the moment we came over a small hill about 10 or 15 miles east of Dallas, and suddenly rising up out of the flat land that spread before us, there it was: big, beautiful, glamorous and glorious. In that moment, I fell in love with that city. And knew, somehow, even before I realized what it meant, that I was coming home.
Chapter 1: Journey to Blossom
I have been in Kansas since January, 2010, and before my most recent trip last week, which prompted this bit of writing, had not been back to Dallas except for a couple of trips in the truck when I passed through and was able to stop for several hours.
I left Topeka the morning of Tuesday, September 25, going south on US 75, through Tulsa, and the Indian Nation Turnpike in Oklahoma, and then south on US 271 into Texas. Just north of Paris, I was welcomed to the state I had longed to return to since the last time I left.
A few miles east of Paris, I came to Blossom, Texas, my first stop on this trip. Blossom isn't a place I historically have connections to in Texas. But this is where my friend Billy lives now. And it started in Dallas almost 30 years ago . . .
Within three days of arriving in Dallas in August, 1983, I had a place to live (an apartment I shared with two other Criswell students) and I had a job.
Criswell College had no student housing and I had to work to support myself through school. I went to school full-time Tuesday through Friday and worked after school. My first job was in east Dallas at the Sears on Ross Avenue. The store was already on life support when I got there, and it has long since disappeared, currently replaced by a small shopping center anchored by a grocery store, as in the photo below.
On that first day I went in to work in the customer service department, one of the people I met, and with whom I worked most days until closing, was a man in his early 50's named Billy. He was a nice man, and helped me learn the procedures in my new job. I told him I was a student at Criswell, and he told me that when he was about my age, in the early 1950's, he had gone to Bible college as well, at the time thinking he might become a missionary to Africa. So began a friendship that has lasted almost 30 years.
During the years I was in Dallas, Billy was a friend, mentor, teacher, example, and most of all, an encourager. I have never met anyone in my life who models all that it means to be an “encourager” more than Billy. He is a quiet, gentle man, with an easy infectious laugh, and the most remarkable memory for details of his personal history I have ever encountered. I think Billy has stayed in regular contact with every friend he's ever had, going back to connections in his 1940's high school class and church youth group.
After I left Sears to go work at the Dallas Public Library's downtown branch, we kept in touch, and we rarely missed our weekly lunch at McDonald's, Arby's, or Church's Chicken, usually in east Dallas. I didn't have a car during part of that time, and he'd always come pick me up at school or home or wherever I happened to be.
I never shared my struggles, fears, doubts, frustrations with Billy but that I ended up being strengthened and encouraged. It remains so to this day. Over the years, I introduced my circle of good friends to Billy, and he became their friend as well. Over the years he was in Dallas, Billy served as a friend and mentor to no less than 5 Criswell students, some of whom I didn't even know.
After spending many years working his regular day job at the Dallas Independent School District and then working a second job at night (many years at Sears, and then, later at the library), he and his wife (Sarah, whom I considered a good friend as well) retired, and bought a house in Blossom, near the area where Billy grew up. We never miss a week exchanging e-mails, and I know I never miss a day being prayed for, because I and my family have been on his daily prayer list for years.
Billy is that rarest of friends in the earth who is a treasure to be cherished, one of those people who is loved and admired by all who know him. Including me. Thank you for almost 30 years of friendship, encouragement, and faithfulness. I am a better man because of your influence.
I was able to spend a few hours visiting with Billy on this trip, and I can't think of a better way to start a trip to Texas than by seeing my first and oldest friend from Dallas.
Next time, Part 2 will cover the following:
Chapter 2: Heartlight -- "Jesus' Love Rules!"
Chapter 3: The Early Days
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