Uncle Walt

Babies Loved Him

When we saw him on Saturday one week after his 85th birthday, he looked and was so frail sitting in his easy chair covered by a chest-high old horse blanket in his old house in Globe, Arizona, where his own father and mother, Martin and Mary Hetrick, had raised their five children, four boys and a girl. The girl was Evelyn, my wife Karen’s mother. Evelyn was the best mother-in-law ever, the complete opposite from how popular culture describes a mother-in-law. Of the four boys who were my wife’s maternal uncles, Larry, Walt, Wil, and Vince, all were good, GOOD men, and Walt was the last one of the five children of Martin and Mary to leave us, which he did yesterday.

I’m so very grateful that Karen got to see her beloved uncle one more time this weekend before he died, to give him a very gentle big hug on his oh so very frail thin body, which had always been so strong until just the last year or so, and also her kiss and all of her love, all of which he gratefully received like the gifts from Heaven that they were.

Two of Walt’s sons, Nolan and Marty, were also there, and the five of us had a wonderful visit, a little like all the family times we’ve shared over the course of our lives in the past which is now long gone.

I told this favorite story of mine about Uncle Walt and Karen and me and some new friends that we had made one day who Walt met only one time but treated like family like he did all people. I told everyone that I had once written this story down and would try to find it on my computer at home and send it to everyone, which I guess is what I’m doing here now.

You never know what a day may bring . . . 

Yesterday started out with thick fog in the snow-covered White Mountains of Arizona.  Karen and I had to drive to our desert home in Yuma on the opposite end of our state after helping her brother, Pete, move back to Show Low.  Since Karen drove Pete’s car, and I drove his truck while he drove the U-Haul, Pete rented us a car to get back home.  It was supposed to be an economy car like a Dodge Caliber or something, but the rental agency was all out of those so they gave us a silver Chrysler 300 with black leather seats and a great sound system all for the same price.  I thought, “Thanks, God!”  

Later, I only wished that we could share our cool ride with some friends.

We had two routes we could drive to get home, one over the Mogollon Rim climbing in elevation through more fog about ninety miles to Payson or down the nearer Salt River Canyon getting us quickly out of the fog to Globe, the town where Karen was born.  Pete said that boulders had fallen on the road in the canyon when he’d come up the day before we did, but that the road was passable and relatively safe.  I thought if that’s the case, I’d rather go back the longer way we’d come up through Payson, but I didn’t like the fact the fog was so slow in lifting.  After some indecision, we went the way Pete suggested, and I told Karen in the car, “Well, if a rock falls and squashes us, then that’s just what our Muslim friends call, ‘the Will of Allah,’ so we might as well not fret about it.”  “I’m not fretting,” Karen said.  “I am . . . or was . . . I’m just saying . . . oh never mind,” I said in my usual manner of trailing off into nothingness like I often do when talking with my wife.

Driving down the perilous Salt River Canyon with its numerous switch back turns we saw lots of frozen boulders that had smashed down from the cliffs onto the side of the roadway during and after the recent winter snow storms.  Many of the rocks had shattered on impact like so many dropped ice cubes, leaving jagged shards on the sides of the road.  Nevertheless, we made it down to the bottom without incident and then, starting our climb back up the other side, we saw a little Dodge Neon with the right rear tire shredded around the bare steel rim inching its way with emergency flashers blinking.  It looked like the compact car was making for a turnout on the right side of the road.  

As we drove past, Karen and I thought we saw two women inside, and we both said a prayer for them that they’d be alright.  Half a mile further up the road, my conscience asked me if I’d ever heard the story of The Good Samaritan.  I knew where this was going, so I tried to explain that we needed to get the rental car we were driving turned in by 5:00 p.m. that evening in Yuma some six hours away and that it was already 9:00 a.m.  The Holy Spirit chimed in, “Yeah, I thought you knew the story Jesus told about The Good Samaritan.  That guy didn’t just pray!”  Feeling outnumbered, I turned to Karen for help.  “Do you think we should go back?”  My wife said, “Do what you think is right, but be careful.”  I wasn’t sure if Karen meant for me to be careful in turning around on the two-lane canyon road or to be careful with the people we’d soon be approaching with our help.  So I quickly formulated a somewhat ridiculous plan to have my wife frisk the two women before we let them in our vehicle!  

When we got back to where the little car was now parked in the cutout well off the side of the road, we looked more closely at the two stranded strangers as we drove past to find another place to turn around again and drive up to park behind them.  Now we could see that the pair appeared to be some women our age or older.  After parking our car behind theirs in the cut out, I got out and asked the Native-American woman with long gray hair who was seated behind the wheel where she was going.  

The woman said that she and her sister seated next to her were going to Tucson and that they’d flattened their rear tire on a rock shard at the top of the canyon and that they didn’t have a spare and couldn’t get cell phone reception.  Their plan was to drive their car at about walking speed on the remaining three tires and nearly-bare rim up out of the canyon where they could, hopefully, call their brother in Tucson.  I told them, “I don’t think you’re gonna make it.  Why don’t you lock up and let my wife and me give you a ride into Globe?”  The two looked at me and then at each other and then agreed.  

When the younger, black-haired sister got out of the passengers’ side of the car, I eyed them both and decided I could probably handle them, if need be, and so scratched the idea of having Karen frisk the two.  But just to be on the safe side, I kind of verbally tested them by mentioning that my wife and I had prayed for them and then I asked the question, “Did you two ever hear the story of The Good Samaritan?”  The older lady answered, “Oh yes, my pastor says that The Good Samaritan didn’t just pray for the man he helped!”  With that, I laughed in agreement and introduced myself and Karen to our new guests, Lori and Betty from Farmington, New Mexico, up near the Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.  We hit it off immediately and were soon riding up out of the cold, harsh canyon in stylish, black leather seats and warm stereophonic comfort!

We told Lori and Betty our story of helping move Karen’s brother back to Show Low and of getting an upgrade on our car rental.  I told them that we probably would have all fit into the compact car we were supposed to have gotten but not nearly so comfortably as we all were enjoying things now,  I also mentioned how we almost hadn’t come down the canyon but only did so because of the heavy fog that blanketed the other way we could have gone.  Simultaneously, we all said, “Praise the Lord!”  

I asked Lori what church they attended where her pastor preached about The Good Samaritan, and she said an Evangelical Free Church.  Karen and I said that we used to belong to that same denomination but that now we went to a Baptist Church.  Lori laughed and said she used to be Baptist.  Betty also used to be Baptist and now was Roman Catholic.  We said that both Karen and I were born Roman Catholic.  

I next asked the two if they were Navajo, knowing that the Navajo reservation is up where they lived, and they said that they were.  Karen then whispered to me to ask if they knew Rich Mullins, which was the next question I was just about to ask.  When I did so, Lori said, “Oh, yes!  I met him a number of years ago.  He lived in a hogan and taught music.  He died in a car crash.”  I said that was over ten years ago and that Rich Mullins was my favorite singer-songwriter.  Then for some reason, I just prayed out loud, “Hey, Lord, tell Rich we got a couple of his friends riding in the car with us!”  Everyone laughed.  I told our guests how Rich Mullins loved to pick up hitch hikers in his life and sometimes wrote about it as a metaphor for Jesus saving our souls.

I remembered that I had Rich Mullins on my I-Pod.  So Karen popped out the CD we’d been listening to and plugged the thing in and the song “Sing Your Praise To The Lord” came on.  When she heard Rich Mullins’ voice, Lori said, “Oh yes., That’s him!”  She said that she had a DVD with some of Mullins’ songs that had interviews with some of the children he had helped in South America through the charity Compassion International.  We said that we also had that DVD and another one and a lot of Mullins’ CDs and a beautiful biography a pastor friend of his had written after his death called, An Arrow Pointing To Heaven.  

Then we talked about Mullins’ admiration for Francis of Assisi and how we each one also loved that simple saint.  I said that I thought that Rich Mullins was like a modern-day St. Francis, and everyone agreed.  I then mentioned the movie the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli had made about Francis and Clare entitled, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.  The two said they’d never seen that movie, so I suggested that we exchange home addresses so that we could send them a copy of it along with some Rich Mullins stuff they also didn’t have.

Then Lori, who is the talker, told us about a movie she’d seen recently about a Belgian woman who felt called to be a missionary in China before the Second World War, and how the mission agency to which she’d applied turned her down as unqualified.  But the woman worked as a maid in the Far East until God arranged the circumstances that enabled her to first work in and later run an orphanage and then a men’s prison where the inmates had so ruthlessly rioted that everyone was afraid to deal with them.  When the missionary woman volunteered to speak with the prisoners, she won over the hardened leader of them who then helped her lead his fellow prisoners to Christ.  Later, when the Japanese invaded their part of China, this convict-turned-Christian man gave his life helping the missionary and her orphans escape to a safe area where she met the head of the mission agency who had once graded her “unqualified for mission work!”  

As we listened to Lori, who was a wonderful storyteller, I thought, “This is the wise woman among her people.  She is the keeper of the faith.  This is what it must have been like before DVDs and television and radio.” 

When we got out of the canyon and made it near Globe, Lori called her brother in Tucson who was trying without success to find a tire to buy and bring to her.  Karen called her Uncle Walt who told us to meet him at his favorite coffee shop near his house.  We stopped at a used tire business on the way to see Walt, and the guy there told us he’d be open until three that afternoon and that he could put a tire on the rim that, unfortunately, we’d left still on Lori’s car at the bottom of the canyon!  

We then drove to the coffee shop where Walt bought us all breakfast, for which Lori and Betty were especially grateful because they hadn’t eaten anything since the night before!  After breakfast, Walt took us to his house where we left Karen, Lori, and Betty while Walt drove me the 40 miles back to and down the canyon to the still-stranded car.  

On the long drive there and back, Uncle Walt and I got to talk about our families, and, especially, about my recently deceased mother-in-law, his sister Evelyn, and my father-in-law, Ernie, who died a few years before.  Walt told me stories of when Ernie and Evelyn had eloped almost sixty years ago, and how their marriage blending Mexican and Anglo families made everyone on both sides have to face their own prejudices which everyone eventually did until only love and good memories remained.

When we got to Lori’s car, we removed the shredded tire and rim, drove back to Globe, dropped off the rim at the tire shop, and returned to Walt’s house where we found Lori’s and Betty’s brother, Leonard, and his wife, Gloria, waiting for us!  We all exchanged hugs and warm greetings just like we were extended family, which, of course, we are.  I asked if we could hold hands and pray, and I just simply thanked God for His Son, Jesus, and for bringing us into each other’s lives and also asked Him to keep us close to Him and to one another!  

Then Karen and I had to leave to try to make it back to Yuma at least by six before the rental place closed.  Leonard, Gloria, Lori, and Betty hugged Uncle Walt several more times and thanked him for his hospitality and his generous help in their time of need.  We promised each other we would keep in touch, and then we left for home.  Karen and I dropped off the rental car at 5:59 p.m. that evening.  

We called Lori’s cell phone and left a message asking her to call us back to tell us if they were alright.  As I started writing about this adventure this morning before church, Lori called and told me that they had gotten the new, used tire put on her car and that everyone had made it safely to Leonard’s house in Tucson!

In his personally favorite song simply entitled, “Elijah,” Rich Mullins wrote about our passing through from this life into the next using the Biblical picture of the prophet Elijah crossing the Jordan river and getting a ride into Heaven from God in a chariot of fire.  This one line from the song has haunted my heart today as I remembered the beauty of what happened yesterday and the beauty of what awaits believers tomorrow.

But the Jordan is waiting 
Though I ain’t never seen the other side 
They say you can’t take in the things you have here

So on the road to salvation 
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride 
And His music is already falling on my ears  

4 responses to “Uncle Walt”

  1. Sorry about Karen’s uncle but great story.

  2. Thank you, Lori. You’ll get to meet Walt one Day. We’ll all have breakfast together!

  3. Thoughts and prayers

    1. Thank you, Conrad. ❤️

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