During the festive season that is now behind us, for some reason my thoughts went to the various special Christmases and New Year’s Eves that I have experienced in the past. A Christmas breakfast, together with some friends, on the beach near Abidjan (Ivory Coast) was something rather unique. But there are remembrances of this period of the year that will stay with me. The Christmas season of 1965 was one of these.
My wife and I spent the academic year 1965-1966 at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI. It was the year in which I got my Masters. I look back at that period with great satisfaction. However, there was also a down side. We were as poor as church mice. We were not sponsored by the Dutch Adventist Church. The leaders had told me that those who would go to the US for further study would be lost for ‘the work’ in the Netherlands! My wife worked long days in the bookbindery of the university. Along with my intensive study program I work Fridays and Sundays in the maintenance department of the university as a painter. During these painting activities I befriended Joe Slater. He must have somewhere been between 35 and 40. He was a veteran and during his time of service he had met an English girl whom he had married.
Joe not only taught me the ins and outs of the painting trade, but proved to be very keen on working on old cars. That suited me fine. We had bought an old Pontiac Tempest for about 250 US dollars. It gave us numerous headaches. But Joe was always ready to help us to get our car going again.
Some years earlier one of my sisters had emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada. She lived with her Dutch husband in a small town in Ontario, some 400 miles from Andrews. This was a chance to see her and her husband again after a number of years that we had not seen each other. And so we agreed that we would spend the Christmas of 1965 with them. However, at the critical moment our Pontiac gave up the ghost and even Joe was not able to revive it. It seemed that our vacation in Canada would have to be cancelled.
Joe and his wife Grace were far from wealthy. They did not have an expensive Cadillac or some other luxury car, but only a few years old, simple Rambler. It was their only means of transport. For us, however, even a Rambler represented great luxury. Joe and Grace did not hesitate and told us that we could use their car for our trip to Canada.
It would be an adventurous trip, for as soon as we had left we ran into heavy snow. Once we had passed the border with Canada, the weather had turned even more nasty and we had to deal with a dense snowstorm that made it almost impossible to see the road. It was icy, dark and bitterly cold and we were forced to move at very low speed. Then, as if things were not difficult enough, the car suddenly blew one of its tires. There we were, stuck along the 401, in danger to be snowed in, and not really knowing how to solve our predicament. I located the jack, but when I had the car free from the ground, it slid from the jack. To say that it did not look very good would be quite an understatement.
But after just a few minutes one of the few cars that passed us stopped and two young men got out of that car. They asked whether they could help. No, these were not angels; they were Mormon missionaries. In no time they lifted our car with their jack, and exchanged the wheel with the flat tire for our spare wheel. Soon we could resume our adventurous journey towards our destination.
Joe has passed away. Before I started writing this blog, I tried to find his current address. I discovered that he did no longer live at the pace where he eventually managed to repair our Pontiac after we returned from our eventful Christmas trip. In the archives of the South Bend Tribune—the paper of choice for the region around Andrews and probably the dullest newspaper on earth—I found a death notice informing the readers that Joe Slater had, on August 6, 2008, ‘gone to meet Jesus’. So, it would no longer be possible to get in touch with him even if I would be near Andrews again. But I have not forgotten how he helped in an extraordinary way. And this also applies to the two Mormon missionaries. They certainly have helped me to see the Mormon Church in a more positive light than might otherwise have been the case.
Maybe in 2014 I will succeed in being more like Joe Slater and the two Mormon young men than I often managed to be in 2013. I will try.