Surprise Christmas gift recollects life’s path

Mom gave me one of the best gifts this Christmas that she’s ever given me. And she’s given plenty of doozies, too. I’ll provide more about the gift shortly, but first, some personal history.

Even though he only had an eighth-grade education, Dad was known as a crackerjack auto mechanic. His determination and popularity enabled him to start his own business: A full-service gasoline station. Tracy’s Texaco was located in the rural town where he was born and raised, Greenbrier. Located about 25 miles north of Nashville, Tracy’s Texaco was located in the center of town just a few miles from Hinkle Hollow (pronounced “Holler”), where “Daddy Hink,”my granddaddy, ran a sawmill. Dad proved to be as adept at business management as he was turning a wrench.

Pumping gas, airing tires, checking oil and cleaning windshields was my first job. I think every father hopes that his children will have it better, possibly even continuing on with the family business. Although Dad never expressed that view, that was my perception as a stupid teenager. This perception exerted pressure on our relationship and, like with many teens and their parents, resentment surfaced.

One of my life’s great regrets was that in my early 20s our relationship soured to the point where Dad and I could not even talk, much less be civil. In retrospect, I must bear the bulk of the blame. I was rebellious, not just against Dad, but against God. It was one of the darkest periods of my life. I did not have the money to go to college (something I wanted to do), and I could not find a decent job. Ironically, I was an immature wanderer, yet I felt trapped.

While in high school, many people believed I was destined to be a pastor. To be honest, I felt that way at one time, but I do not know what happened. I knew Jesus saved me at age 10. Entering adulthood, I suppose I was not spiritually mature enough to handle the sex-crazed, drug-infested, narcissistic society I would encounter. Perhaps this is why today I have a passion for teaching and living a Christian worldview, one that seeks to bring the gospel to bear on every facet of God’s creation.

I think God led me into the Air Force as an escape route from sure destruction. While I still was not where I needed to be spiritually, I became a man in the Air Force. I established myself as a journalist and began working toward my bachelor’s degree in English. When I would go home for Christmas, mom and Dad could see me changing. My relationship with Dad actually became cordial.

During the final year of my initial four-year enlistment, I won the Thomas Jefferson Award as the top news writer in the Department of Defense. I won for my story on President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers and how the Air Force was helping meet the nation’s air traffic control needs. I was presented awards, promoted, recognized by generals at banquets in which I received standing ovations from my superiors and given the prestigious Meritorious Service Medal. The Air Force, fearful of losing me, offered me a reenlistment bonus of several thousand dollars and any assignment I wanted if I would sign up for six more years. I did. My years in the Air Force were a great time of learning and maturing for what God had for my future.

Unknown to me at the time, my commanding officer, Lt. Col. Allan Cummings, wrote an incredibly flattering letter about me to my parents. He wrote about how I had grown as a man and valued member of the Air Force. He went to say, among many things, that I had a bright future.

Now back to the Christmas gift. Mom never told me about the letter written 33 years ago this month, but kept it safely stored. It is hard to express all the emotions I felt Christmas Eve night when she handed me a gift-wrapped package – Cummings’ letter beautifully framed. I cried. I knew that letter was proof to Dad that I had matured and was making something of myself. I know he approved because our relationship was warm and close for the rest of his life (Dad passed away in 1989). It reminded me how proud mom was of me and how much she loves me to have been so thoughtful. It reminded me how faithful God has been to me all these years, how He never gave up on me and, as I obediently responded to Him, how He has brought me to this place of service today, for which I am so blessed.