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With Thanksgiving upon us, there's always plenty for which to be thankful. But, this year, I have a little more; some extraordinary things – things money cannot buy.
While helping my brother with a remodeling project in Missouri, I promised him an apple pie. We were busy working, but I finally baked the pie the night before I left for home. I returned to Missouri a few weeks late to help again. Dan dropped a subtle hint by placing ten Granny Smith apples on the counter for me to find when I arrived.
When I saw them, I said, "Good Lord, Danny! There are enough apples here to bake two pies."
Danny laughed and said, "I know." Unfortunately, Dan had to leave a day before me, and I didn't get around to making the pies; but I wouldn't let the apples go to waste either.
I made two apple pies thinking I would drive five hours farther south to Oklahoma City. I could visit several family members, give them each a slice of pie, then head home to Minnesota. I called my wife and told her my plans, "Will you save a slice of pie for me," she asked? I promised her I would.
Before leaving Missouri, I learned of a friend in Iowa who was having health issues. I started thinking about how many people in Iowa I'd promised to visit. The list was getting longer, and many of these people are getting up there in years. I changed plans again. I would take the pies to Ottumwa and visit several friends, leaving each with a slice of pie. I called my wife and told her of the new plan. "Okay," she said, "Will you still be able to save a slice of pie for me?" I assured her I would, then started driving north.
My first stop would be to visit my friend Dale; he's a resident in a memory care facility. I called his daughter Becky first to make sure it would be okay to stop and see him. Becky gave me some tips, "Tell him who you are, and don't get hurt if he doesn't remember you."
A staff member showed me to his room. I started to remove my face covering, "Hi Dale; it's Tom…" Dale interrupted me.
"Tom Palen, what the heck are you doing here?" It made me feel good that he knew me.
"I'm bringing you a slice of apple pie; what else would I be doing here?" We shared a good laugh about that. I honestly had planned to stay for only fifteen or twenty minutes, but an hour and a half later, we wrapped up our visit.
During that time, we shared a lot of old stories and some new ones. Dale told me about the day he met his wife, Joann. I couldn't understand what he was saying as far as where they were, but the gist of the story was more important. "I had seen her a couple of times before but didn't pay any attention to her. Then one day at a social, I noticed her standing across the lawn and thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen." I could see in Dale's eyes that he was reliving that day. "I was standing with some buddies and pointed her out. I told them, 'Boys, I'm going to marry that gal over there.' Anyway, I bought her lunch." I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but he kept talking, and I kept listening.
"When fall came, some things changed in the bus routes, anyway, I was riding the bus to school. The driver stopped to let some more kids on. When the door opened, the most beautiful girl in the world climbed the steps into the bus. I moved over and asked her if she'd like to share the seat with me. She sat down to my right side, and she's been in the right seat next to me ever since then.
"She's still the prettiest woman I've ever seen, and she's the only woman I ever loved; she the only woman I could ever love." Dale looked around the room and got a little teary-eyed. "The hardest part of living here is going to bed at night without Joann by my side." Feeling the love and emotion in Dale's voice caused my eyes to well up also.
When I talked to Dale's daughter before the visit, I told her I would leave a slice of pie for her mom too. "You're leaving a piece of apple pie for mom, with my dad?" I asked her if that would be okay. "Mom will never get it," she said laughing, then suggested, "Why don't you take the piece to mom yourself." I hadn't seen Joann for at least a few years. So, I told Becky I would visit her mom, too.
Dale and I talked about many things during our visit; then, I told him I would visit Joann next; to take a slice of pie to her. "You could leave her pie here, and I'll give it to her when I see her." We shared a good laugh about that. "I'll bet she'll be happy to see you," Dale said to me, Then while giving me a very heartfelt hug. "You be sure to tell Joann that I love her."
"I will, Dale. I promise."
Joann greeted me at the door, welcoming me. "It's so good to see you; come in, sit down." She offered a glass of ice-cold water with mint. It was very refreshing. I honestly had planned to stay for only fifteen or twenty minutes but stayed for about two hours.
During that time, we shared some old stories and some new ones. I asked Joann where she had met Dale. "At a box social," she told me, "The girls would decorate boxes, then make a lunch to inside. The boys would buy a box, then get to eat lunch with the girl who made it. Dale bought my box lunch." It was fun listening to Joann, as she recalled that day. Then with strong suspicion, she said, "The boxes were supposed to be anonymous, but I think those boys had a way of finding out who made which box."
I told Joann what Dale had told me, "He was saying it was some sort of social, but I didn't understand what type, and I didn't want to interrupt his story." I told her that Dale said she was the only woman he ever loved or could ever love. "Dale said you were, and still are, the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. Joann started to blush a little.
"Did he really say that," she asked?
"Absolutely, word for word," I assured.
After a moment, I asked Joann, "What was it like when you had to make the decision to have Dale stay at the facility?"
At first, it seemed my question caught Joann off guard, then she began telling me the story and the reasons it was necessary, "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and he was so angry about it; angry with me." As she spoke, I could see a distance in her eyes and hear the pain in her voice. "He's probably going to be mad at me for the rest of my life."
I thought about the way Dale hugged me before I left him that day and when he said, "You be sure to tell Joann that I love her." I needed to share more about my visit with Dale that day.
I placed my hand on top of Joann's and said, "Dale is not mad at you." The way she looked at me, I could tell she wanted to believe me but had doubts. "I want to share a story Dale told me today:"
"Palen, does God ever talk to you? I mean, talk to you in a way that makes things really plain to understand," Dale asked?
"Yes, He does – quite often," I answered.
Dale went on: "When God is talking to me, He sends one of those…I can't remember what you call them; they write things in the sky."
"Do you mean an airplane, like a sky-writer?" I offered.
"Yes, that's it, a sky-writer," Dale said, then continued, "When I first got here, I was mad. Mad at everybody, everything, and everyone. I asked Joann, 'Why the hell did you bring me out here?' I spent a lot of time being mad. Even though they treated me pretty well here, I was still mad. Then one day, I was lying in bed because I didn't feel like getting up. I knew I should get up, but I was mad, and I didn't want to." Dale went deeper into his story.
"As I laid in bed sulking, staring at the ceiling, that little airplane appeared and started writing: 'You belong here.' It might sound crazy, but I knew it was God talking to me; that's how He's always talked to me my whole life – with that sky-writer." Dale took a long pause.
"I was mad when I got here, at everyone – even Joann, but now I understand that it was selfish of me to think she could keep taking care of me alone at home. I should never have got mad at her; she was just doing what had to be done." Then Dale looked at me and said, "The hardest part of living here is going to bed at night without Joann by my side."
I asked Dale, "Have you told Joann that you're not mad anymore; have you told her about the message?"
"I don't know how," Dale replied.
"Well, that sounds like you're just being a stubborn German! You should tell her."
Dale broke the deep conversation, changing the mood in his usual style - with humor. "Well, I'm not staying here forever," he said, "I'm eighty-nine years old, and when I turn ninety, I'm breaking out of here and going home."
I laughed, "I'm with you, brother. Should I start looking for a get-away car?"
"Yes, and make it a fast one," Dale said. We shared a good laugh about that; then it was time for me to go.
Joann's eyes had well up. "He's not mad at you, Joann. He's more in love with you today than the day he saw you at the box social; he told me so. He's just not sure how to tell you. I feel like God wanted me to come to share that with you." We shared a few tears; then I had to go.
I left Joann with a slice of apple pie, "I was going to leave this with Dale, but Becky said you would never get it, so I wanted to deliver it personally." Joann agreed with Becky. We shared a good laugh about that, then said our farewells before I left to visit more friends.
I got in my van, smiling as I backed out of the driveway. I thought about our visit and thought I finally figured out why God redirected me from Oklahoma to Ottumwa.
I went to visit my friends Donna and Skip. Each visit was only supposed to be fifteen or twenty minutes, but I guess I talked more than I thought. It was getting late. I would have to wait until the next day to visit my friend Jerry.
I showed up at Jerry's house around three in the afternoon. I had planned to stay for only twenty minutes, but you know how that goes. I hadn't seen Jerry for about four or five years. He greeted me at the door, "Palen, you, old son-of-a-gun, how are you?"
In his kitchen, I opened the plastic grocery sack I was carrying. I handed Jerry a plate with a slice of apple pie. He sniffed the pie and smiled, "Oh boy," he said, "that is going to be a big part of my supper tonight. Do you have some time? Come in and sit down." I set the grocery sack on the counter and followed Jerry to the living room.
Jerry Strunk had operated Midwest Aviation at the Ottumwa Airport; MWA, pronounced mah-wah, by Jerry and all who were close. I got my instruction, training, and my pilot's license at MWA. Now eighty-two years old, Jerry was one of the best and highest time pilots I'd ever known. After logging tens of thousands of hours flying airplanes, Jerry told me, "I hung up my goggles and headphones when I turned eighty. I figured if flying airplanes hadn't killed me yet, I wasn't going to let it happen now." We shared a good laugh about that.
We shared stories and laughter; talked about the past and the future. For example, in the 1970s, Jerry brought the Navy, Blue Angels, and Airforce Thunderbirds to perform at airshows in a small town in Iowa – nobody thought that could happen. Jerry accomplished many great things and touched many lives in the world of aviation; still, it wasn't the most important thing in his life.
Jerry was most passionate when speaking about his wife, Jo Ellen. I remember calling him right after she had passed away; he was devastated and heartbroken. Time had passed, but time did not heal all wounds. Jerry was doing okay, but his loneliness without Jo Ellen was still very real. Jerry smiled, "She waiting for me, you know. The first thing I'm going to do is give her a big kiss, then take her for an airplane ride – just like the old days," he said with a sparkle in his eye.
I looked at the clock, "Good Lord, I've been here almost three hours," I said, "I've got to get going."
"What's the rush?" Jerry questioned.
"I'm going back to Silver Bay, Minnesota tonight. I've got almost nine hours of driving ahead of me."
Jerry shook his head, "That would be only a few hours in an airplane." We shared a good laugh about that. "It was really good to see you and spend some time catching up, Palen," Jerry said, then hugged me. "Feel free to come back again – as long as you bring a pie with you." We had another good laugh; then, I headed for my van.
I was on the road for forty-five minutes when I looked at the empty passenger seat next to me. I called Jerry, "Strunk, did I leave a white plastic grocery sack on your kitchen counter?"
Jerry walked to the kitchen, "Yeah, you did. What's in it? Anything dangerous?"
"It's the last slice of apple pie. I was supposed to take it home for my wife," I replied.
"Are you coming back for it," Jerry asked?
"No, I'm already past Pella. It looks like you get the last slice of apple pie."
"Well, it won't go to waste here," Jerry said, and we shared a good laugh about that.
I often think about that trip and how good it was to get back to visit some dear people, friends I'd been putting off going to see. I am grateful for these people who are a part of my life and that brief moment when God told me to go to Ottumwa, not Oklahoma.
You see, just ten weeks after that visit, my good friend Jerry Strunk passed away. Although I will obviously miss him, this is not a story of sadness; rather, it is a story of happiness and joy. I laugh as I envision Jerry carrying Jo Ellen in his arms, across the clouds to an airplane waiting on heavens ramp.
I am happy for those few hours, I had to visit Jerry one more time, and I am thrilled that Jerry got the last slice of apple pie.
I count this trip among my many blessings. I wish for you to know many blessings as well. Peace, my friends, and Happy Thanksgiving to all.