Life's Greatest Window
flashback short story is the result of a combination of historical
family research and extensive journaling by my deceased father, Max
E. Dodd. For personal reasons I have changed his name in the story to
Mack Dawson. The collage photo included with this story includes a
photo of my father (holding a golf club and wearing glasses), myself
(pitching a horseshoe), and one of the two of us together. The
second photo (at the bottom of the page) is of an outdoor mural in the author’s
seen through a window.
DES MOINES, IOWA - 1935
At mid-morning one early spring day in 1935, 19-year old Mack Dawson walked into a hotel’s banquet room only to see about 60 other young men his age either sitting or standing around. He walked up to a reception table where a young man perhaps a few years older than himself said matter-of-factly, “Print your name here and take a seat. The ‘salesmen wanted’ interviewer will speak to everyone in about ten minutes.”
Mack sat down next to another applicant and said, “Excuse me. What’s the deal here?”
The fellow looked up, shrugged, and replied, “The newspaper ad didn’t say, but the scuttlebutt is magazine subscription sales. What do you think of that?”
“That depends. Two years ago I sold enough newspaper subscriptions to win myself a year’s worth of college. Ever since then I’ve been bouncing around from one job to another.”
“Wow, that’s a good start! As for me, I was selling the bejesus out of shoes until I got fired.”
The young man laughed, saying, “I couldn’t satisfy the old fart of a store owner about the correct way to put shoes back into their boxes. All he ever did was to sit in the doorway of the back room playing solitaire and watch me sell shoes.” With that, he put out his hand. “Name is Walt. What’s the rest of your story?”
“Mack! Good to meet you. I’m a farm boy. My dad and his two brothers raised sheep for years on a little farm they called a ranch. That is, until the depression of ’29. I’m one of eight children out of one father and two mothers. My biological mother died when I was three years old. The plague took her. My dad couldn’t handle it and farmed me and my two-year younger brother out with relatives while he took his grief west for a year or so.”
Walt shook his head and grimaced. “That had to be tough for the family.”
”Well, on the upside dad told us years later that the LORD had shown him that his manifest—dad’s word—responsibility and motivation was to move forward. He married again and our families were joined. Sorry, I hadn’t meant to go on like that.”
“No problem. I don’t have many friends who would be as open to sharing as you.”
“Okay, you guys,” shouted a fellow in his late twenties as he strode purposefully to the front of the room, “we don’t have a microphone today, so lend me your ears. This company I’ve been working with for the last five years has the finest commission deal in the publishing business. Every one of our successful salesmen earn a lot more than farmers, teachers and clerks. We represent all the top magazines in the country, everything from Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post to Readers Digest and The Farmer’s Almanac. People not only need to read, they want to read. Magazines are a lot more interesting and entertaining than either radio or newspapers. But this is what you came to hear: Once a week you will be putting half of your subscription sales into your pocket.”
He took a few moments to intently look around, directly engaging many of the eyes of those in the room. “Now we only have two slots open for our traveling crew headed east the day after tomorrow. Each one of you who think you can sell will pick up a sales kit when you leave in a few minutes. You have until five o’ clock this afternoon to see how many cash subscriptions you can sell. Even today you will put half of that into your pocket. The two men with the most sales will win the two jobs.”
The two newly-met young men turned to each other and shook hands while saying, “Good luck!”
Walt shrugged and said, “You know something? Eighty percent of these guys won’t sell a single subscription.”
Mack took that as a challenge. “I won’t be one of those. This job is mine.”
At the appointed time that afternoon, both men were again sitting side by side in the sparsely occupied and smaller meeting room, Walt said, “How many guys do you reckon will be here with something to show for their trouble?”
Mack looked around, counted, and said, “You’re probably looking at ‘em right now, maybe a dozen. How many subscriptions did you sell?”
“Three, and I came pretty close to pushing another one into the shoebox; how about you?”
Mack laughed and said, “I don’t have a problem putting shoes into a box. I got four.”
The two of them got the jobs. With good-byes to family that evening and a mother’s help in packing a suitcase full of clothes suitable to the job at hand, along with promises to separate sink-washed whites from colored ones, they were ready to launch themselves into adventure and opportunity.
The next morning they both piled themselves and their gear into the crew manager’s car. Mack left his tearful girl-friend with the promise of returning in five months with enough money in his pocket for them to get married.
Before they were an hour out of town Mack posed two questions for Al, the crew manager, who was driving and sitting next to Ed, the fellow who had manned the reception desk: “Where are we headed and what’s the sales pitch?”
Al replied with enthusiasm not much dampened relative to his hotel presentation. “Tonight, men, we will be staying in Monmouth, Illinois. Once we get to our hotel, Ed and I will explain the sales story and the team procedure. Tomorrow morning you can practice with one another for a while and then we will hit the neighborhoods at about 11 AM. Eat a hearty breakfast. Your work will be mostly traveling by shank’s mare. Lunch will be the extra apple or orange you take with you from breakfast.”
“Shank’s mare?” questioned Walt.
The crew manager smiled into the car’s rear view mirror. “We’ll be using that part of the leg between the knee and the ankle. It’s called walking.”
After a modest meal that evening paid for by Al at a small nearby restaurant he role-played with Ed. Narrating his own presentation, he began by saying, “With enthusiasm and using your own last name, say, ‘Hello, ma’am, I’m one of Bill Brown’s sons working my way through college by selling magazine subscriptions.’ And by the way, guys, it helps to know the name of a local university just in case your prospect asks. In this case it would be Monmouth College. “
“Here’s the routine you need to memorize: ‘These magazines have the kinds of stories and color photographs everyone loves to see and read about. Here’s one of my favorites.” The lecturer held up a Saturday Evening Post issue with one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings on the cover, but didn’t actually bother to mention the famous painter’s name. “So then you go to the first close, something like this: ‘The cost is minimal, much better than the cover prices. Won’t you help me out by taking a year’s subscription?’”
Next, he reinforced what he considered absolutely critical: “Now hear me, men. It’s important to not vary the pitch. Why? Because it’s proven to work! Unfortunately, I can’t actually make sales calls with you because two strangers standing at someone’s front door means what to most people?”
“High pressure,” Walt correctly ventured.
“No,” Mack wisecracked with a smile, “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Everyone laughed. Lots of questions followed, with the manager answering every one with a positive spin, often followed by a statement such as, “Many others no better qualified than either of you have had great success.” By way of comparison in making that comment he pointed to both himself and Ed. In fact, Ed had been with the company for barely more than a month.
The first day working in the field was challenging for both Mack and Walt, resulting in zero sales. That evening, however, the manager critiqued and encouraged both their delivery and memory of the prescribed routine. The next three days saw each of the two rookies make their first two sales, thus gaining for them much enthusiasm. As they headed to the next town or village, Mack and Walt, both sitting in the back seat of Al’s year-old Packard sedan, shared with the other more of their personal history, thus serving to add to their initial bond.
The crew had been on the road for more than a month in working small towns through Illinois, Indiana and half of Ohio, driving half of a day before the crew manager would drop everyone off in random neighborhoods for early evening pick-up.
The crew’s dogmatic pitch continued to prove successful, although Mack more than once suggested to Al that the appeal of the magazines themselves might have stronger appeal than the sympathy hustle. That did not sit well with the crew chief and he was not bashful in saying so. They always kept half of each two-day weekend for travel and the other half for something like seeing a movie, shooting pool, or sometimes playing duckpins.
In a small town a few miles north of Columbus, Ohio, Mack knocked on a door answered by a bearded man in his fifties. When given the standard line about working to continue his college education, the prospect asked if Mack was attending college there in town. Mack, who, upon arrival in town had made a quick phone call to the local library to learn the name of the town’s local college, adroitly dodged the question by replying, “Actually, I am thinking of transferring from Ohio Wesleyan to Ohio State.”
“Well, that’s where I teach!” the professor said in surprise. “When you visit the campus, come by my office and I’ll tell you about the Geology department.”
Mack’s reply was to move the subject away from college by making a made-up statement about an upcoming Life magazine article and photographs of the Grand Canyon.
Later that day, Mack shared with Walt that particular conversation and the resultant subscription order. “You know,” he added in a moment of remorse for his earlier statement’s fabrication to the professor, “I would bet that Life magazine must pay for photographs and articles every year about the single biggest tourism draw in America.”
Before long they had plowed their way through Pennsylvania and on into New York, working hard and successfully. After a good start to the day in the general area of Utica, Mack had already booked two subscription sales when he knocked on a door answered by an outgoing, late-teens daughter and her mother. He nodded deference to both and proceeded to run through the standard pitch about raising money selling magazine subscriptions in order to continue his college education. The mother invited him in, saying, “Well, I admire your ambition, young man.” With that, she turned to her daughter and said, “See that, Jillian? Saying and doing aren’t the same. You’ll be through school in a few months and you, too, need a plan.”
At that, Mack saw the need to change the conversation and said, “May I say that this community has a very interesting history? Just this morning I read that your town was named for a textile mill in the early 1800s. Tomorrow, the three friends I’m traveling with and I are talking about taking a break and either going for a little hike or maybe playing duckpins.”
The daughter found the young man’s appearance, mid-western accent and poise interesting. She was a tennis athlete, a swimmer, and of an independent mind. With a wink she said, “Well, we don’t have an alley here in New York Mills, but there is one in nearby Utica. I’ve only played once, but I will say that’s a fun game.”
Encouraged by her comment Mack said, “So, Miss Jillian, would you mind being a one-day tour guide for this visitor? I’ll spring for lunch tomorrow for the two of us while the guys take a hike.” He laughed at his joke about dumping his pals, and then added, “And if your mother decides to favor me with a magazine subscription, I’ll get the order written up tonight and we can put it into the mail when I pick you up the morning.”
This time it was the girl’s turn to laugh as she said, “I can see that you know how to close.” Then, with a defiant look at her mother, she added, “I’m going to take Mack up on his offer, Mom. You do your part.”
Before noon the next day a rousing game of duckpins had been played by the two, along with much talk and laughter. Afterward, they had lunch at an adjacent hamburger joint. When they returned to her home, Mack again thanked both the mother and father for their order and hospitality, saying, “You know, in this farm boy-turned-magazine salesman’s experience it is pretty rare for what we call a ‘subscription family’ to take an interest in an outsider. I was just about to tell Jillian here that our crew ought to be back this way in a month or so before we head south and west. I’ll stop by and tell you about our visit to the sales tour’s most northern point in Maine.”
“Do that,” the mother said, patting him on the shoulder. Mack shook the father’s hand, and they all said their goodbyes. At the door, the daughter gave him a little peck on the cheek. He blushed, smiled, and went on his way.
Sales had been off for Mack the past two days on the border area between east central New Hampshire and Maine. The following morning, he and Al got into it again. This time it had nothing to do with the sales pitch, but rather the almost daily move from one town to the next in which to ply their trade. “Why do we pass through far more small towns than those we work?”
“Well, I’ll tell you the way it is,” Al said in his best manager-to-rookie tone. “Given that I’m not only the crew manager but the guy who owns the car and pays for the gas, guess who makes the rules? As it turns out, I also have an appointment in Dover-Foxcroft. After that maybe we can slow down a bit.”
Mack had been thinking about things and wasn’t about to let that be the end of the subject. He decided to step out onto a thin limb.
Walt and Ed were both present and Mack glanced at each of them before rebutting Al’s remark. “Doesn’t the manager also have responsibility for crew morale?” he said. “I mean, why don’t we stay twice as many days in one town, thus doubling our earnings over a two day period while cutting our driving time in half?”
That comment stuck in Al’s craw. “Look, I told you I have an appointment to keep. Now, if you want to talk about responsibility, you were the only one of the four of us who didn’t book anything either yesterday or the day before. What have you been doing with your time, checking out pool halls?”
At that, Mack held himself in check just long enough to figure out his response. “Tell you what, Al, let’s you and I have a little contest. Whichever one of us books the most business the next three stops, including your appointment day in Dover-Foxcroft, wins the other guy’s earnings for the week.”
Both Walt’s and Ed’s eyebrows arched dramatically before jumping into the fray. Walt pleaded, “Hey, that’s no way to resolve differences! We’re all on the same team.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Ed, who almost never had anything to offer in discussions.
“Button it up, Ed,” Al said in dismissing him. “And as for you, Walt, I’ll take you on as well as your sidekick.”
“Sorry, I’m not a gambler. Come on now, be civil about this, guys. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
Al ignored Walt and glared at Mack, saying, “You’re on, Mr. Dawson.”
Mack feverishly worked each of his assigned neighborhoods over the next three days, employing his theory of stressing the value of the magazines rather than their programmed fast-talking hustle. For example, when he held up a copy of The Saturday Evening Post with a cover featuring one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings, he used words like, “This most popular artist of our time actually refers to this magazine as ‘the greatest window in America,’ the point being, Mrs. Customer, that his artistic work reflects small town American life, just like it is in your town.”
He set a record for himself of ten subscriptions in a three-day period, but did not share that result with the others until it was time to settle up at the showdown in Dover-Foxcroft. Neither did any of the others do any sharing of sales successes.
That evening, when the four of them gathered for dinner, it was pouring down rain. With a beer sitting in front of each of them, Mack said, “What do you have, Al?”
The crew manager displayed his usual self-assured persona. “Well, now, let’s just calm down, boys. There’s no rush. First of all, dinner’s on me. You see,” he bragged, “I outdid even myself in this little contest.” With that, he spread out his subscription orders as if they were a poker hand and his four ‘cowboys’ had just been called. “The final toll comes to thirteen subscriptions. Read ‘em and weep, Mack-my-boy!”
Mack was less surprised than suspicious and said, in an even tone, “Al, does your entire reunion family live in Dover-Foxcroft?”
At that, Al abruptly stood and called for the showdown: “Lay down your cards! If you can’t beat thirteen, you’re not only done . . . you’re fired!” At that final word there was the slightest frown on Al’s forehead, likely realizing he had just cut himself out of a steady sales override on a solid producer.
Mack also stood. As he did so he pulled ten orders from one pocket and the cash payments out of another. His words were terse, “I only have one question.” With that, he turned to look squarely into the face of the fourth member of the crew while saying, “Let’s see your orders, Ed.”
Ed’s face suddenly turned red. “Look, I had a bad spell. I haven’t felt well all week.” As he finished his excuse he fished out the single order and its bit of cash.
The next morning, as Mack and Walt were finishing up a light load of laundry in their roadside cabin’s tiny laundry room, Mack emotionally thanked his pal for his friendship. Walt nodded his head in sadness as he said, “What are you going to do?”
“With Al having claimed all my commissions for the week I have only two dollars in my pocket. The rain hasn’t quit, but neither have I. I’m going to Boston. God help you, my friend.”
Mack said to himself as he stuck out his thumb in pointing down the road to the south, my future may begin in Boston, but first I have to get there. The plan was to reach Boston and the headquarters of his former magazine sales company employer. He could be in no great hurry, however, because he needed to work enough small towns on the 250 mile trip in order to cover his meals and the cost for as many as three overnight stays.
Employing the same subscription sales technique which had gained him the solid performance of the contest with Al, he arrived in Beantown with a modest stack of orders and the cash validating them.
“How may I help you, young man?” said the magazine company’s sales manager’s secretary.
“I’m here to see the General Sales Manager.”
Noting that the apparent sales applicant was not particularly well dressed, she said with the same warmth she reserved for itinerant solicitors, “You need an appointment.”
Ignoring her response he said, “Tell him his former salesman, Mack Dawson from Iowa wants to see him.”
She considered that to be an impertinent request and gave him a look as if to say he wasn’t about to get past this gatekeeper without a much greater degree of humility. But then she thought better of her job in the still-precarious recovery from depression times. “If you’ll have a seat l will see if he is available.”
She was surprised when her boss told her to send the fellow right in. Mack, however, was surprised with the manager’s opening words: “Well, so you are the young man Al fired. I was disappointed to hear that because I know you’ve been generating consistently good business. What can I do for you?”
“Thank you for asking, sir. I’ll get straight to the point. People in general are still stunned by what they have had to endure through the stock market crash and its after effects. They crave something besides what the radio and newspapers have to offer. Your magazines are that very thing, but I believe we should let those stories and photographs speak for themselves, rather than running a hustle.”
The sales manager was taken aback, having been prepared to lecture, if not turn this obviously motivated rebel. “Sit down and tell me more, young Mr. Dawson, but first I have a question for you. How did you manage to get from Dover-Foxcroft, Maine to Boston, Massachusetts?”
“Thank you, sir. Let me tackle that last question first. I hitchhiked. As for covering the cost of meals and three nights in cheap hotels, I worked my way here selling subscriptions to your magazines.” At that point he pulled out of his baggy trousers several packs of orders and laid them on the manager’s desk. “I also have here the Company’s $130 for its share of the subscription payments. The other half stays in my pocket.”
(Editor’s note: Adjusted for inflation, $130 in 1935, is equivalent to nearly $2,500 in 2020.)
The sales manager had gotten to the position he held due to his favorite cliché, that ‘actions speak more loudly than words’. He blinked twice before rising from his chair and walking around to where Mack was seated. He held out his hand while saying, “I can see now that Al came up a little short in the sales manager department. How would you like to be rehired with a promotion to crew manager and a sales override?”
Mack’s eyebrows rose and his body followed as he accepted the offer. As he left the office he was told he would also be given immediate advertising support to hire a crew. “And oh, by the way,” the GSM added, “I saw the salesperson’s signatures on Al’s orders for those three contest days. Eight were his but the other four of his claim were Ed’s. Your ten sales won the personal bet. Your commissions will be repaid to you . . . along with his!”
Mack interviewed dozens of young men for a three-man sales crew. He made a tough decision to take on an eighteen-year old with successful newspaper subscription sales experience. He was more confident in the hiring of a dynamic pair of twenty-year old twins who had successfully sold encyclopedias the summer before in taking a year off before their senior year at university in order to avoid taking on new loans. Their names were Jim and John. In a more quirky decision, Mack said to them, “I find it difficult to tell one of you from the other, so I am going to call both of you “Jay.” They laughed, but didn’t complain.
Mack boldly made one more request of the sales manager. “I need a car,” he said. “I can buy a relatively low mileage1930 Model A Ford standard Tudor sedan today for $250. I’ll put $100 into it if you’ll give me a three-month loan of $150 and take $50 a month out of my commissions. Do that for me and fill it up with gas and I and my crew will be on the road day after tomorrow.”
That all happened. He alerted his new crew to be ready to leave town for a three-month sales tour. Within two weeks they found themselves in the Scranton, PA area. It was there that the youngest and least productive member of the crew bailed, declaring that he missed both his mother and his girl-friend. Mack said to him, “We have been on the road for only two weeks. How did you figure to stay out for three months?” He wasn’t looking for an answer. He drove the young man to the bus station and paid for his passage back to Boston.
Later that same day he phoned the company GSM to tell him that things had started well, but that one of his boys had fizzled out on him the day before. “Will you do me a favor, sir? Contact Walt Larimer, my co-worker on dear old Al’s crew and tell him to meet me in Scranton in two days? I want him in my crew.”
Walt showed up and it was a joyous reunion. That’s when Mack said, “We will be headed south within another week, but first we’re going to back track to Utica.”
Walt’s eyebrows went up as he said, “Did you forget something there?”
“Yes, a promise. But first, let’s all take a half day off to refresh ourselves.”
“Perfect!” Walt exclaimed. “Let’s see if we can find a place to swim. I want to make a hole in the water.”
They worked the area around Scranton for two more days before driving on up to Utica. Mack let Walt run the rest of the crew’s work day while he phoned Jillian. She answered, and without at first identifying himself, he said, “Ma’am, would your father be interested in a magazine subscription to either Popular Science or Mechanics Illustrated?”
“No, I . . . wait . . . Mack?”
“What are you doing in town?”
“I knew I wouldn’t be back this way again because I have my own crew now and we’re going to work the southeastern states. It’s a long story, but I’m doing well and probably won’t get home to Iowa for another few months or so. I told you I would stop again and bring you up to date. A lot has happened. Can I buy you a soda?”
They met downtown and played duck pins for an hour or so before grabbing something to eat, again at the alley’s adjacent hamburger stand. She picked up the conversation with, “I won a fall tennis tournament in town last week and got a little trophy. Of course it wasn’t anything like winning the Better Times regional women’s doubles contest with my partner, which I did the year before. I don’t think I told you I got to go to Chicago as the result of that.”
“Congratulations,” he said enthusiastically. “I don’t know anything about tennis. What I do know a lot about is being fired from a job.” He then shared the saga of the sales contest in Dover-Foxcroft before being fired and then hitchhiking and selling his way to Boston. He modestly described the meeting with management and his promotion.
She was confused. “So, if you are headed south, why did you backtrack?”
“Well,” he began, a little flustered, “you and your family treated me so well that I wanted to say thank you in person. I certainly miss my family back home, but for a short time yours was the closest thing to that.” Then, after a little hesitation he added, “Frankly, I’m still trying to find my way forward in life.”
She nodded, saying, “Me, too. I don’t like much about school other than playing tennis.” As an afterthought she said, “The athletes in my senior class all seem to have the grace of goats. You’re fun. Why don’t you have dinner with us tonight?”
After dinner and a little table conversation Mack said something about going out for a milk shake. The mother exclaimed, “An hour after eating two slices of my home baked apple pie and you’re hungry again?”
“Hey, I’m a growing boy. It’s June and the night is young. I’ll have Jillian back in a couple of hours.”
It was past ten when he did, but he wouldn’t accept her invitation to come into the house, only as far as onto the front porch. He seemed reticent to talk, but finally said, “Look, Jillian, I don’t know how to say this any other way, but I’m promised to another. We are to be married when I return from this trip. Please forgive me if I have misled you.”
“Forgive you? Why?” she said with an emotional mix of both hurt and surprise. “What each person does in his or her own life is a matter of choice. Like I said when you first came to our house to sell my mother a magazine subscription, I am my own person and I am responsible for my own actions. The same goes for you, Mack. Have a good life.” With that, she went into the house alone.
The crew was off on the first leg of what Mack was calling their “southern retreat.” It would take them to the northern tip of West Virginia before an eastward crossing of the Appalachian Mountains and then way south in Virginia.
One day, after an intense two weeks of half-day stays in smaller villages, they pulled into a road house just outside of Roanoke, VA at a sign reading, “Stay in a Wilderness Cabin Tonight.” During the previous fortnight they had had only two days off for relaxation. Walt brought up that fact by saying, “What’s with the focus on work, work, and more work ever since we left Utica? The guys are complaining that they didn’t sign up for a no-break charge to the rainbow’s end pot-of-gold.”
Mack was staring dully at his buddy.
“Mack,” Walt said, “are you in there?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Sorry. I’ve lately been distracted.”
“No kidding! At the end of each day your mind seems to be unpacking a load.”
“Really?” he answered while thinking, Is my mood that transparent? He recovered with a laugh. “Tell you what, tell the boys to sleep in tomorrow. Better yet, I’ll tell them at dinner. Maybe the three of you can take a walk in the advertised ‘wilderness’ in the morning while I write up the week’s orders for mailing to Boston.”
On the way back to the cabin after a meal of fried catfish, Walt said, “It’s just as well that we’re taking a half day off. One of the men in the bar said a big blow is coming tonight.”
Mack tossed and turned all night. Whether it was due to the wind or his state of mind, he wasn’t certain. When he got up the next morning, Walt had already left the room. Mack could see through the window that some small branches had been blown down and figured the guys were probably getting a little exercise before a late breakfast.
Once he had finished shaving and seen to his paperwork he absentmindedly opened the small nightstand drawer. Glancing inside, he wasn’t surprised to see that it contained a Bible. He had never before retrieved one during their many nights’ stays in small hotels and cabins.
He casually opened the Gideons-placed Bible to its very first page. There in bold print was the word “Forgiveness.” It was not lost on him that he had recently used a form of that very word in a conversation. Fortunately for him the verses being referred for the reader to look up in 1st John also had a page number with it.
He began reading read the first chapter with focus. He let the words sink in before falling onto the bed, his eyes wet for what had been bothering him for the past two weeks.
He was about to close the book, but something caused him to linger through a few more verses and then actually finish the chapter. A full hour later he had thoughtfully read all five chapters of the Apostle Paul’s letter known as 1st John. He flopped over onto his back and asked God’s forgiveness for his too-often waywardness. A seed of faith had been planted. Watering, growth, and an actual decision for Christ and baptism would not happen for another ten years, until his wartime service in a Marines uniform in the South Pacific.
SOUTH OR BUST
When Walt returned along with the twins, he said to Mack, “Your eyes seem a little brighter. You find relief with sleep?”
“You could say that. I’ve been thinking about my fiancé, Mickey. I did some reading and found help.”
Walt noticed the Bible sitting on the nightstand, but didn’t mention it. Instead, he nodded and said, “Where are we headed, Boss?”
“South, to North Carolina, and then to parts of Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida’s panhandle.”
Several weeks later, as they were approaching some small town, they had just topped a steep hill when the engine sputtered and stopped, drained of fuel. One of the twins calmly said, “Throw her into neutral, but don’t let her stop. We just crested a good-sized hill and I can see civilization below. If you mind the brakes I think we might be able to coast into town.” Things happened in exactly that fashion.
Once they creeped into a gas station they were quickly attended to by a young man anxious to wash their windshield while filling the tank with 19 cents-a-gallon gas. Back on the road, they worked what seemed like countless hamlets and long days, but business was good everywhere.
The foursome continued working their way south to Florida and into Tallahassee. It was there that a first-time event for the crew happened. A police car pulled up to Mack as he was exiting a home where he had booked several subscription orders with an enthusiastic couple who said they had two teenagers who looked like those in one of Norman Rockwell’s magazine cover paintings.
“Young man,” one of the two policemen in the vehicle said to Mack through the car’s rolled down window, “What are you guys selling?”
“Magazine subscriptions,” he replied. Then, in what would be ill-advised sarcasm given the circumstances, he added, “That isn’t against the law is it?”
“As a matter of fact, it is, wise guy. Let’s round up the rest of your crew and visit the sheriff.” Within thirty minutes the crew was standing inside the jailhouse while being told they were violating Green River ordinances.
“What’s that?” Mack’s brow furrowed as he asked.
The sheriff was more than happy to answer the question. “It prohibits individuals from engaging in door-to-door sales or solicitations unless the community residents have given their consent.”
“Since when has that become a law,” Walt asked.
That gave the eager-beaver authority even more license to share his knowledge. “Since1931, so named after Green River, Wyoming first banned such solicitations.”
The sheriff weighed in, saying, “You boys are subject to a fine. I’ve called in the judge.”
“Sheriff,” Mack said, “May I make a reverse charge phone call to our General Sales Manager in Boston?”
“You can, if you have a dime.”
He did. The GSM took Mack’s call and after Mack had apprised him of the situation the sales manager asked to speak to the sheriff. The sales executive—having been through all sorts of sales field flaps over many years—calmly said, “Look, sheriff, I’ll bet you also know it is illegal for businesses in your town to attach anything to a resident’s mail box or its post, including flyers. Now, if even one person should complain to the post office about a single instance of that happening, the Federal government says a business risks being fined.”
The GSM let that sink in for no more than a few seconds before adding. “I know our boys have seen evidence of that sort of activity in town and they surely don’t want to register a complaint with the post office. What do you say we call this whole thing off and they will leave town first thing in the morning?” That took care of that.
Mack plotted the home stretch through Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri before they would arrive back in Des Moines. That night, he called home for the first time since having left Iowa. His father answered. After the obligatory ‘How is it going?” Mack asked his father if he would check in with Mickey for him and give her the update.
“Call her yourself, son,” he said. “She and her mother just got a telephone.”
He did. She was excited to hear from him and to hear something of his adventures. It was sweet conversation, but he kept it short, saying, “This is long distance, you know.”
She didn’t care. “You get home, Hon! I want to hear church bells ringing.”
The crew worked their way as planned for the next few weeks, taking a little time off each weekend, but still giving the sales effort their full attention. Late one afternoon an idea popped into Mack’s head.
Early the next morning, just as they were about to depart their last stop in Arkansas, Mack said, “Listen up guys. We’re going to take some time off. Today will be a big drive to start, but if this tin lizzie holds up, we’ll make it to our destination by nightfall.”
The three were instantly excited. “Where are we going,” asked Walt.
“For now, you guys drive. I’ll navigate.”
Nearly 350 miles later, traveling on nothing much more than narrow, two-lane roads rolling through hills and valleys behind tractors and hay wagons, Mack directed one of the twins to turn onto a long gravel driveway leading up to a flagstone farm house. They were in a Lake of the Ozarks village named Camdenton. As they came to a stop, Mack said, “Welcome to my Uncle Bill’s farm. He’s the younger of dad’s two brothers. I made a call last night and gained us a gracious invitation to spend a few days with them. Aunt Dorothy is the best cook in the state of Missouri.”
All the residents of the farmhouse piled out to greet them. “We hope you haven’t eaten yet,” the cook said in a strong Marjorie Main-like ‘Ma Kettle’ voice.
Everyone contributed to the dinner talk. Next morning at breakfast, all four of the crew began peppering the uncle about the day’s possible agenda. Within an hour, the twins were joyfully riding on a tractor with Uncle Bill showing off everything from pastured sheep and cattle to the livestock pond, while Mack and Walt checked out the barn as the three children took turns milking a pair of dairy cows.
A big lunch began with Aunt Dorothy efficiently whacking the head off of a chicken, then gutting it and plucking its feathers. Before long she would be deep-frying the hen and serving it with fresh farm vegetables. The foursome recovered by spreading out in the living room. Within five minutes, Uncle Bill walked into the room sporting a wry smile. He said, “Well, boys, are you taking your daily nap, or are you up for pitching some horseshoes?”
They all jumped up and ran outside while their recreational guide secured four horseshoes and proceeded to urge the boys to spade up the two pits. None of the four fared well against Uncle Bill, but all were delighted with the activity.
That night, the patriarch fired up the big outdoor stone fireplace and cooked home-butchered beef steaks. Aunt Dorothy filled everyone’s stomach with side dishes and homemade peach cobbler. The talk ran to a combination of some of the boys’ magazine subscription sales experiences and Missouri farm life.
The visitors had been at the farm for six days, with every day exposing them to yet another interesting aspect of farm life. Toward the end of the evening, Aunt Dorothy turned a routine ‘good night’ announcement to everyone into something altogether different. With an impish smile she said, “Well, it’s time for the kids and me to turn in. You men stay up as long as you like. After all, we have to be up reasonably early in the morning. Church service starts at 10:30.”
That stopped the conversation. Aunt Dorothy broke the silence. “What’s the matter with you boys? You look like four cows staring at a new gate.”
The twins were first to respond with disclaimers. Jim said, “Uh, Aunt Dorothy, excuse me, but John and I aren’t church folk.”
The matriarch, being at times more prickly cactus than sunflower, said with a smile, “Lordy, Lordy, boys. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. Besides, it’s time you were properly introduced to Him. Good night, all.” With that, she collected the children and vanished.
The moment she left the room Walter weighed in, turning to the only one to whom he could complain. “Uncle Bill, we have had a great time here and we are indebted to you for your hospitality, but I have had my debut with church and found it lacking. No disrespect intended.” The other three thought that would surely end the discussion.
Uncle Bill glanced at Mack, who hadn’t said anything. Uncomfortable with both the silence and the circumstance, the nephew twice shifted himself in his chair before speaking. “Well, I know from this very trip that I could personally use some churching, but I agree with the others that we might be a little out of our element. I think I, too, will pass on the invitation.” No one, however, stood as if to leave the room.
Uncle Bill slowly looked around the conversation circle, in turn engaging the eyes of each of the other four. “It seems to me, boys, that each of you somehow feels the need to do life your way rather than the Almighty’s way. When I was a young man your ages, I, too, felt immortal and answerable to no one. But then life began to happen all around me, including my two brothers. Oldest brother George lost his young wife when Mack, here, was only three years old. Middle brother Bob’s marriage soured and split, and then all three of us lost our ranch.”
He let those things sink in for a moment before continuing. “Along the way, I came to realize that there is only one thing in life that has no potential for hurt, disappointment or failure. I am referring to the One who not only created everything and everyone, but also offers us spiritual immortality.”
The four-man crew squirmed, almost in unison. Uncle Bill, however, still had the floor and kept it. “I understand what you’re saying, men. You’re convinced that there is no guarantee you will come out of a visit to church tomorrow that will have made it worthwhile. But hear me; when you attend church with us tomorrow you will come back here for lunch believing that you will one day look back on the experience as much more than merely having attended a church service in a little town in Missouri.”
Mack turned to the other three and said, “Man, oh man, could we have used you more than a few times on the road when we needed a professional closer!” That brought forth nodding, grim-faced “Yes sirs!” from Walt and the twins.
“Good morning, church,” the local pastor began. “We welcome Bill and Dorothy Dawson’s four young men visiting with them on their farm for a few days.” With a glance in their direction, followed by one at yet another visitor, he continued. “As I mentioned last week, today we have a very special speaker. The Honorable Henry Allen Ironside—better known simply as ‘Harry’—will be preaching today, and you will be blessed. We also thank his cousin, Abner, for inviting Harry to speak to us during his free vacation stay at Abner’s cabin on the lake.” That remark brought muted laughter.
“First, let me share a few things with you about our speaker. Harry is a Canadian-American teacher, preacher, theologian, and author. At birth, Harry was thought to be dead, and so the attending nurses focused their attention on his mother, who was dangerously ill. Forty minutes later, however, a pulse was detected and he was resuscitated.”
The pastor waited a full measure before continuing. “No, he was not resurrected. That will not happen until Christ’s second coming, assuming that doesn’t happen while Harry is still with us.” This time there was no muting of the laughter. “With that said, the pastor finished his introduction, “Please make welcome Dr. Harry Ironside.”
“Thank you folks,” the guest speaker began, “for inviting me to visit. First of all, allow me to say something about the title of ‘Doctor’, with which your pastor has addressed me. I did graduate the eighth grade, but I certainly do not recommend my literary route. At age thirteen, I rested on the Word of God and confessed Christ as my Savior. At age sixteen, I began preaching full-time with the Salvation Army, some calling me the ‘boy preacher.’ Now fast forward to a time five years ago when Wheaton College presented me with an honorary Doctorate of Letters degree. For the last six years I have been blessed to preach at Moody Church in Chicago.
“Okay, folks, now allow me get to preaching here . . . else there will be no honorarium for Ironside.” With that, everyone laughed. “Seriously, folks,” he continued, “there was a poem written in 1893 by English poet Francis Thompson, and it haunts me to this day. The poem is titled ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ If you aren’t familiar with this famous poem, the short of it is this: ‘As the Hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and unperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace.’”
The preacher went on to share more of his life’s challenges during that period and the decades to follow. After about 30 minutes at the pulpit, he glanced at his watch and said, “So, in conclusion, as the Hound of Heaven pursues you in never ending pursuit, allow yourself the grace to be caught, and turn to Him.”
Back at the farm, as Aunt Dorothy was preparing lunch for nearly half of the congregation, Mack took Uncle Bill aside to say, “I apologize for my and the other guys’ rude response to your invitation last evening. As for this sinner, I hope the Hound of Heaven does not grow weary in its pursuit of me.”
After the bountiful lunch at the Dawson’s home had concluded and all the men were momentarily seated in the living room, Aunt Dorothy entered carrying a glass of milk. She went up to Mack and said in her irrepressible fashion, “I noticed you didn’t sing this morning. Was your throat dry or were you praying?” Caught off guard, but not offended, he gently returned fire, saying, “Oh, no, it’s just that people get really emotional when I sing.” The room erupted into laughter.
Late that evening, after everyone but family and the four visitors had left, Mack spoke to their two hosts. “On behalf of the twins, my pal Walt, and me, let me say that at first light we will be headed to Jeff City, and then a week’s working push on to Iowa to conclude our sales tour. But please know that this time with the Camdenton Dawson’s has been the visit of a lifetime.”
The next morning, before hardly anyone else had arisen, Mack cornered the family matriarch in the kitchen as she was preparing breakfast for everyone. “Aunt Dorothy,” he began, his eyes glistening from what he was about to say, “I think I have finally begun to grow up. I have been reasonably successful of late in pointing prospects to a magazine which is a wonderful window on American life, but I am coming to realize that the greatest window in anyone’s life is the one framed by Acts 4:12. Thank you and Uncle Bill for loving on all of us.”
Also tearing up, the aunt said, “Mack, I know you are anxious to get home to a new life and a family future with Mickey. You are a natural leader and a hard worker. You will do well in life, and I will have you in my prayers always. Place your trust in God Almighty and rest your soul with Christ Jesus, for you are His servant.” With that, they tearfully hugged.
Terry Dodd is a senior citizen living in Georgia with Helga, his wife of fifteen years. For forty years he earned his living in promotional product sales. For the past twenty-seven years he has found writing to be both hobby and therapy. Having been formally educated in the geologic and biologic sciences, he—with time and the leading of the LORD —managed to overcome the false evolutionary aspect of his teaching in favor of creationism. As a result, the fourteen Christian-centric books he has written over the past quarter-century+ have all (every one) been self-published, including six novels and eight inspirational narratives. His website is terrygdoddbooks.com. Dodd’s other eclectic hobbies include horseshoe pitching and juggling.
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