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James R. Stout

Friends

             It was December 28, 1972 when I first had an interaction with my friend Jess Sumrall. The youth group at our church had a “working” retreat for three days. We had some Bible studies, got to watch a movie, and went out to Bear Creek Park for some fun and games. But the working part was the big deal for that retreat. Our youth minister, Ed Humphrey, had gotten permission from the church to convert the upstairs storage area of the gymnasium into a coffeehouse that would be used by the youth group. That upstairs storage loft was a mess. It had become a catch-all for just about any and everything the church didn’t want to deal with. Old tables and chairs in disrepair, discarded costumes from church programs, and just about everything else you can think of. The guys were put to work hauling off the junk to a landfill while the girls cleaned and scrubbed. They sewed curtains for the windows in the loft, did some painting, and made table clothes etc. A small stage was made and there was a sound system installed. Someone had donated a bunch of empty spools, the kind that holds utility wiring, and these got painted to be used as tables. Old bottles had candles stuffed in the top to drip down the bottle and provide ambiance. I can’t say for sure if all of this was done in those three days, but it was the big push with perhaps some of the facets being added over the next month.

            Remember that old pool table? Ed Humphrey asked me and Jess, someone who I had seen around at church, but didn’t actually know him yet, to haul the pool table down the stairs, load it in a deacon’s truck, and carry it to the landfill along with some other items. There were two stairways to the loft. One was a zig-zag stairway that the pool table would never have fit going down. The other was a rarely used, but straight shot stairway. It was quite steep. As I recall, we had to clear it of debris before we could get anything down it. So, Jess and I turned the table on its side, folded the legs, and started towards the stairway. Did I say that table was old and decidedly heavy? No? Well, believe me it was! We got it to the stairway and lucky Jess got the front end with me on the back end. We had just tipped it down to make our way down the stairs and I realized that I didn’t have a good grip on the table. In a panicked voice I alerted Jess of the situation. However, gravity took over and before I could get a better grip the darned table took off on its own. It was in hot pursuit of Jess. It was a race for his life! I still recall that table sliding down the stairway, picking up speed as it went, with Jess taking the steps by twos and threes. The end result was Jess won the race. The pool table landed in a heap on the floor at the bottom of the stairway. Well, we got it in the truck and hauled it off to the landfill.

            Over the next year or so Jess and I were frequently at youth gatherings and even after only a few months would reminisce over “The Great Pool Table Caper”. Fast forward to the spring of 1975. Jess and I had become friends over that time, and I expressed to him that I wanted to form a Christian music group. He said that he could sing, and we decided to form the group. It turned into a trio with another guy from the church. I was the only one of us that played an instrument. What I didn’t know at first was that Jess could sing the melody just fine. But the concept of harmony was beyond his comprehension! Although, he did get better as time went by. The truly funny part was the “melody” was whatever part that Jess sang. Sometimes he would get a harmony part stuck in his head and there was just no way of getting him to do another part. So, me and the other guy would sing parts around whatever part Jess knew. However, despite that minor limitation, Jess was the soul of that group. I guess I was kind of the heart given we performed songs that I wrote, and I played either guitar or piano for the given song. Jess brought his incredible love for God, his faithfulness, and his wisdom to our group. God put Jess into my life as a sort of big brother and spiritual advisor.

            The group took a hiatus during 1976 while we were all busy doing other things. But back in June of 1975 we won “Best Duo, Trio, Quartet” at a huge competition during a day-long event at Astroworld. It was an incredible honor and given we had only been together for three months it was nothing short of amazing. In early 1977 we performed as His Story at several churches and then we did a farewell concert in August of that year. Jess was headed off to the seminary in Ft. Worth, the other guy was headed off to medical school, and I was not headed much of any place at all. I was married by then and working for a living.

            Jess and I kept up with each other while he was in seminary and then when he was a youth minister at a couple of churches. He would come out to dinner at our house and we would always get to singing. Sometime in the mid-80’s Jess got married. We still talked on the phone, but our lives were rather busy. I had two children by then and Jess would be blessed with his son in the early 90’s. The last time that I saw Jess was when we were both at a youth camp in the summer of 1991. He was the youth minister from one church, and I was the youth minister from another. During the next 28 years we talked on the phone many times, exchanged emails and comments on Facebook, and such, but we were both working and raising families as well as living in different states.

            That is until today. Jess and I had lunch together in The Woodlands today. The first time that we’ve seen each other face to face in over 28 years. As usual, I got to the restaurant first (I’m habitually early) and as I sat there waiting, I saw this gray-haired old man walking towards the restaurant. Well, I knew that face even if it had some wrinkles and the hair was a little thin. We gave each other a great big bear hug and spent the next hour visiting and eating lunch. At one point as Jess was talking, I closed my eyes and hearing his voice I could see that long-haired 19-year-old that got chased down the stairs by a pool table. The voice is still the same. We reminisced and enjoyed the opportunity to see each other again. Some friendships don’t ever fade away. My friendship with Jess is one of those. He’s 66 now and I’m 64. But for a few minutes today we were 19 and 17 again. I will always treasure his friendship and to say that I am proud of him doesn’t cover it. Jess has a wonderful sense of humor, can discuss the Bible with scholars and barely skip a beat and be talking to me about Neil Young or Steeley Dan. He is the kind of guy that the word friend was evented for. We parted today and Jess headed back to be with his father who is in hospice now. I know that he is a great comfort to his dad as his life winds down. As for me, I came home and took a nap. Hey, it’s a sign of the times! Seriously though, I consider it a great blessing to have a friend like Jess in my life. The best part of all of this is the sure knowledge that when this life is over, we’ll be enjoying Heaven together. I just hope there’s no pool tables to haul off!

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