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James R. Stout

A Walk Through Fire

             I saw a picture recently of an old bridge that was made out of concrete and steel. There’s no telling how many cars have been driven over that bridge over the years. Even the best engineered bridges will weaken over time. The stress applied to the bridge by movement, wind, rain, cold, heat, and other forces can’t help but deteriorate the bridge. There will likely be certain parts of the bridge more prone to damage over time. In the picture of this particular bridge one of the large concrete piles (leg or support) was severely cracked and pieces of concrete were missing. My first thought was that I wouldn’t want to drive across that bridge. My second thought was that there are likely bridges that I drive across often that have similar problems that I am unaware of and therefore I do drive across.

            This picture got me to thinking about a lot of other things that become weaker given the stresses brought about by time. Things like buildings, machines, motors, and so forth. It is true that some things get better with age. Musical instruments come to mind. But even a musical instrument will require repairs after enough time has come to pass. I recently changed the strings on my father’s 1929 Martin guitar. The aged wood has a much richer sound than a new guitar sounds, but while tightening the new strings on the guitar I cracked the bridge. Not good. It still plays, but the bridge needs to be replaced. I took it to a friend who owns a music store and asked him what it would cost to change the bridge as well as some other minor (so I thought) repairs. He explained that while he could do the repairs, he strongly advised me to instead send the guitar to Martin and have them do the repairs. The guitar is worth about $10,000 as it is, but if Martin did the repairs using original Martin parts and done by quite possibly the best luthiers in the world, then the guitar’s value would increase to about $40,000. Whoa Nellie! I don’t even play that guitar on a regular basis. It is a keepsake that I inherited after my father passed away three years ago. My friend also explained that it would cost about $2,000 for Martin to do the repairs. I have to be honest here and say that I just can’t justify spending that kind of money on repairing the guitar. But my point is that it takes money to make such repairs and perhaps the bridge repairs for the bridge in that picture would cost quite a bit of money too. And let’s not forget that the public who use the bridge daily would likely be very upset at a lengthy repair forcing them to use an alternate commute. Even if it is for their own safety, they would get mad.

            All of this said, there’s something else that gets deeply affected by time and stress. You and me. Our bodies for sure show the effects of time. I had to get my new driver’s license last September and it was the first time in 13 years that a new photo was required. They wouldn’t let me where my glasses in the photo which allowed some wrinkles to be more visible. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) The difference in those two photos was downright depressing. My hair is completely gray now. There’s more wrinkles (worse than the shirt I left in the drier over the weekend) and I went from a fairly fresh faced 50 to an aged 63-year-old man. Hey, and that’s just my face. Ain’t nobody gonna see what time has done to the parts that clothes hide!

            But it’s not just our bodies that are affected by stress and time. Now we’re getting to what I really wanted to talk about. We’ve all heard the old saying “the straw that broke the camels back”. Sometimes our minds get broke too. Our spirits, however strong that they may be, suffer over a lifetime of . . . well, life. I had a root canal or two back in my mid-30’s. It wasn’t pleasant, but I sat there and took my medicine. All that chewing gum had definitely lost its flavor on the bedpost overnight. A lot has happened to me in the 30 or so years since then. A lot of stress and obviously a lot of time have taken their toll. I had a root canal last spring. I didn’t do too well. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit to this. I mean, I’m a “full-growed” man. But I had one heck of a panic attack in the dentist’s chair last spring. The main problem was the fear of not being able to swallow. There’s actually a word of it, but I’d rather you look it up than to try to explain it. There I was in the chair with my mouth propped open and I just lost it. I had to have them stop for awhile and I needed to calm down some. Sitting there, nearly in tears and feeling like a big weenie, I tried to figure out what on Earth was going on with me. Well, let’s see. My mother had just passed away two weeks before. She used to go to the same dentist and I had actually taken her the last time she went. My sister had just passed away two months before and due to the illness that took her life she had to have her teeth removed within a year before she died. Add all that to the normal parts of having dental work done (physical pain, discomfort, and the fear that we all get when going to the dentist) and is it really any wonder that I had a panic attack? (To be honest, another issue is that being on my own means there’s nobody there to hold my hand and give support. I suspect that even Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, as strong as they appeared, benefited from the love and support of someone special.)  Well, I made it through the rest of the procedure, but it was difficult. I don’t look forward to having to go back to the dentist again, but I likely will have to at some point.

            Twenty years ago, I was told I needed a liver transplant due to a hereditary liver problem. The good news is they were wrong. I didn’t have to have one after all and I’m still around 20 years later despite the doctors telling me in 1998 that I had about 3-5 years to live. But guess what? During those five years I had to go through a heck of a lot of stress. The worry over my health was just part of it. The first time I had an MRI was not pleasant, but I made it through by putting a towel over my eyes and listening to 60’s music via headphones. Thank God for The Monkees! But each time I had to get another MRI it got more and more difficult. So much so that by the last one, the one that I said would be my last one no matter what, they had to sedate me. Why? Because during the previous MRI I had come undone. I was ready to tear that machine apart with my hands. Then there were other things that went on during that five years that contributed to my ability to withstand things that perhaps were withstood easier previously. Things like my wife deciding she had enough bad times and we divorced. Amazingly though, I got better after the divorce. Go figure. It would have been nice to have more support from the person you took vows with that included “in sickness and in health”. She’s not a horrible person. She is the mother of my two kids. I don’t hate her or even dislike her. But she did disappoint me in that time of need. I guess she had her own breaking point too.

            Well, to bring this entry to a close I want to point out that we all will have to walk through a fire of one sort or another in our lives. Most likely it will be more than one fire. We’re likely to emerge from those walks through fire a little worse for wear. Yes, there may be some visible physical changes. Gray hair, wrinkles, worry lines, added weight, and parts that stop working like they should. But then there’s the stuff you don’t see and unless you were there with someone when they walked through a fire, you likely won’t know the effects on the inside of the person. It may also be that the thing that causes a meltdown in me may not have any affect on you, but then you may meltdown at something that I don’t understand. And that’s really my point here. The next time you see someone who from all appearances looks to be certifiable, think. Maybe they’re melting down over a dent in their car and you think “Hey, it’s just a car and can be repaired.” But it’s what you don’t know that is probably causing them to meltdown. Maybe they have just walked through a fire or ARE walking through a fire in life and that dented fender is their last straw.

            One final thing. I am a Christian. I believe in the power of prayer and I believe that God gives me the strength to get through things. But sometimes I forget. I am human. Remember good old George Bailey? Even George got so down that he contemplated taking his life. But don’t forget that Clarence was sent because George prayed to God for help. Even then, it took awhile for George to realize that his prayer had been answered. I’m going to try really hard to remember that the next time I go to the dentist. Maybe I can take my iPod with 1500 songs (mostly from 1955-1975) and The Monkees or Ricky Nelson can soothe my worried mind via the headphones while the dentist drills and picks and prods and pokes and I try not to think about swallowing.

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