47 Million More

The Story of Ned

Written by Marty Minchin

My daddy was hardly around when I was a kid, but one image of him stuck in my mind.

He was walking along that dirt road leading downhill from our house, and I knew it was him, even though his back was to me. Years earlier, a limb had fallen out of a tree and had broken his arm, and he never could bend it up and down right after that. You could see it in his walk. That bad arm made him a little bent.

Daddy took that walk for the last time when I was about 12. After school one day, I found Mama sitting in the house, shelling a bowl of peas in her lap. Her head hung down, and she was sobbing like a baby.

“Mama, what’s wrong?” Mama was a strong woman, and she worked hard on the farm. I wasn’t used to seeing her all torn up like that. “Why’re you crying?”

“Your daddy’s gone,” she said, her voice flat.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s gone, Ned. He’s left us. For good.”

It was no secret that Mama and Daddy had a hard time getting along. Life was hard. We couldn’t draw a check from the government back then, and we were poor. We lived off whatever we could raise on our little farm in Alabama, be it chickens or hogs or corn.

Mama and Daddy had eight kids, and Daddy was always gone, trying to find work in Birmingham.

That left Mama to care for the gaggle of kids and the farm by herself. When Daddy was home, he could be mean as a yard dog. If he got mad and drunk, which was a lot, he beat us.

He may have been no more than a ghost to me, but I suddenly didn’t want him to disappear forever.

“Where is he?” I screamed, bolting toward the front of the house. I pushed open the door and stared at the road, which was as empty and still as an August afternoon. “Daddy? Where’d you go?”

Silence.

I slunk back to Mama, and she patted me on the leg.

“We’ll make it,” she said. “Some way.”

eee

Daddy’s absence was like subtracting zero from zero. We didn’t have much in the first place, and that meant the kids had to work if we wanted to eat. The house we lived in was more like a five-room barn with nothing but an old fireplace to keep us warm. The wind whistled through the cracks in the floor at night, and we’d sleep three or four to a bed to keep warm. The house didn’t have electricity or running water, so we lit kerosene lamps to see at night.

In the daytime, I liked to plow the mules. I’d been doing that since before I was big enough to turn the plow around by myself, but as I got older, I kind of enjoyed being outside. Besides, our house didn’t have screen doors and certainly not air conditioning, so being inside felt a lot like being outside, anyway.

One day, when I was hauling hay on the wagon, one of those old mules got spooked and jumped, tossing me out. That wagon ran right over my stomach when the mules bolted, but it didn’t hurt me. It was just like Mama often said. Somehow, no matter what, we were gonna be okay.

The problem was, we had nothing. When I thought about the future, it looked like a big gray cloud. I didn’t see any chance of ever having anything, and the more I thought about it, the deeper I plunged into a well of despair. I slipped into the house one afternoon and came out with our hunting knife in its scabbard. I was going to get it over with.

Sitting outside with the knife, I rolled the handle over and over in my palm. All I had to do was stab myself in the heart and end it. I sat for a long time, but I never could bring myself to pull that blade out of the sheath.

Something kept my hand from pulling the knife out, and that day, I couldn’t have explained what it was. I just put it back in the house and went on with my work.

eee

My anger at Daddy grew over the years, and I carried my grudge against him around like a big, heavy rock.

How could he leave us? Why did Mama have to work so hard while he drank and stayed gone all the time?

My heart turned black with my hatred for him.

When I was about 13, my friends and I started buying whiskey on Friday nights and getting drunk. My anger simmered just below my skin, and the slightest thing could set me off. I’d fight anyone in a second, and I usually won.

My situation didn’t go unnoticed in the community. In middle school, my principal called me to the office.

“Someone told me you have to go home and work the plow after school every day,” he said.

I shrugged. “So what? I like to work.”

“Anyway, if I can ever help you, let me know.”

I never took him up on that offer.

By 10th grade, I’d dropped out of school.

It’s not that I didn’t like school. We had one teacher, a real nice woman who ran the whole school herself and taught all six classes. She sang little songs to us all through the day. I estimate she made next to nothing at that school, but she deserved many more times that for all the love and work she put into her teaching.

Without school, though, I needed to work. One of my brothers had moved up north, and he said it was a good place to find a job. I joined him and discovered the town to be a good place to drink, pick fights and look for girls.

I spent a lot of time with my buddies at Coney Island, a hole-in-the-wall joint downtown known for good hot dogs.

I stumbled out of Coney Island’s door and onto the sidewalk one day, half drunk and hardly able to walk a straight line. A big man stuck his big chest out as I wove down the street, forcing me to slam into him.

We exchanged some words, and in a quick minute, I was beating the pulp out of him. All in a day’s work.

His friends came for revenge the next night.

A convertible rolled to a stop in front of Coney Island, and 12 men must have piled out of that car.

Oh crap.

“That’s him!” one guy yelled out. “He’s the one who beat up Johnny!”

They swarmed on me like a mess of angry bees, wrestling me to the ground. I caught a glimpse of a hotel across the street through the tangle of legs and squirmed out of their grasp and took off for the safe haven of the lobby. The police station was just around the corner.

The officers stuck me in jail, in part for my own safety.

“Don’t you know those boys were going to kill you?”

I knew. The question was whether I cared.

eee

Fortune finally smiled on me one afternoon at Coney Island. My friend Jim and I were hanging out on the steps when he pointed down the street.

“There comes my girlfriend,” he said.

“Who’s that girl with her?” I asked.

“That’s her friend Katherine.”

“You gonna introduce me?”

“Sure.”

Somehow, Katherine agreed to date me.

“How old are you?” she asked early on.

“Twenty. How about you?”

“Seventeen,” she said. “Okay. When’s your birthday?”

I told her.

“You’re lying!” Katherine laughed, punching me lightly on the arm. “Were you really born on that day?”

“Why would I lie about that?” Why is she making such a big deal about it?

“Show me your driver’s license.”

“All right.” I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket and flipped out my license. Katherine examined the date.

“We’ll, I’ll be. We were born on the same day, just three years apart.”

Maybe those matching birthdays were some kind of sign. Either way, we dated for about six months and got married. Katherine was a good girl, a better girl than I was a man.

She never drank or smoked, even though her parents did. People said we wouldn’t last half a year, probably because I couldn’t stop drinking or landing myself in jail.

We lived with her parents for about six months after our wedding because I couldn’t find a decent job, but I knew that wasn’t a long-term plan. The last time that she bailed me out of jail, I told her as soon as we got a little money together, we were going back to Alabama.

eee

We settled back near Mama in Hartselle and built ourselves a house. Not too long after, people from the church down the road started visiting us on Sunday afternoons. Soon they had Katherine going to church with them, and I always tried to stop her. She’d go, anyway.

It didn’t take long for Katherine to become a Christian. Now, I was no stranger to church myself, but I wasn’t particularly interested in her newfound spiritual life. Back when I was a little kid living on the farm, the Jones family down the road would drive by our house on Sunday on the way to church. Mr. Jones drove a big truck that he used to carry vegetables they grew to the market, and it had a little squeak. I’d hop in when he stopped out front on Sunday mornings, that little squeak keeping time with the sound of the tires on the bumpy dirt road.

One day, Mr. Jones took me to an evening revival, a special church service with a guest preacher.

That preacher gave the invitation at the end, inviting people to walk up to the front and pray if they wanted to admit to God that they’d messed up and to ask God to forgive them. If you did this, the preacher said, you could have a relationship with God and live forever with him in heaven.

“You wanna go up there?” Mr. Jones nudged my arm.

I shrugged. “Sure.”

Mr. Jones laid his arm on my shoulder and guided me and some of my friends up to the front. The organ played in the background while people sang, and that preacher prayed with me.

I didn’t know a thing about getting saved — I was only about 6 years old — but I went ahead and got baptized and everything a few weeks later. Judging by the amount of drinking and smoking and jail time I did later on, I’d say it didn’t have much noticeable impact on my life.

Katherine had her church praying for me for seven years, and one day, I finally agreed to go with her on a Sunday.

“There’s a new preacher, and he’s really good,” Katherine said. “Come on. I want you to go hear him.”

I don’t know why I said yes, but I got ready and climbed in the car with her.

We sat in the back while the preacher talked, and when it was over, I took off out of that church like the pew was on fire. I didn’t want to be around those Christian people any longer than I had to.

After all those years, my daddy had ended up on the fringe of my life, and I heard he was in Birmingham living with my sister. He was scheduled for surgery on Monday for kidney stones, and the new preacher said he’d drive me down there. Honestly, I didn’t care if Daddy lived or died because of the way he’d treated us and Mama, but I said I’d go to the hospital.

I put together a plan in my head for the hours I’d spend in the car with the preacher. He had a lot to learn about his new congregation. All those men who put on their ironed white shirts on Sunday morning — did he know how much they cussed and told dirty jokes during the week?

Somehow, the opportunity never came up, and we headed back to Hartselle after Daddy’s surgery.

“You hungry?” the preacher asked. “You like hamburgers?”

“That’s okay by me.”

He pulled his brand-new car, which the church had recently bought for him, into a little fast-food joint. We settled into a booth, and I reached for my hamburger.

“Let’s have a word of prayer,” the preacher said.

I pulled my hand back into my lap and looked down.

The people in this restaurant are going to think I’m crazy. I threw a side-eye around, but thankfully, the other diners weren’t staring.

After lunch, the preacher floored it on I-65. I watched the speedometer needle move up to 80.

“You late for something?” I asked him.

“Yeah, there’s a revival meeting tonight I need to get back for.”

We sat in silence, just the hum of that new car engine for background noise. The low, green hills flew by outside the window.

Something started to pull on me like a magnet. I looked out the window again so that pastor wouldn’t see the tears that had started pouring down my face. I was 33 years old and shaking like a leaf.

What is wrong with me?

Outside the window, the scenery changed. I saw a lake that appeared filled with fire instead of water, and there I was, about to be thrown into it. I glanced at my pants to see if my tears had soaked them. To steady my hand, I grasped the door handle.

Jump out, and it will be all over with.

I considered this. There may not be a real lake of fire out there, but I could throw myself out of the car, and my body would be scattered all over the road.

It was time to make a decision.

“Preacher, I’m lost, and I want to be saved.”

He didn’t say a thing, so I didn’t, either.

I twisted around in the front seat so I could get on my knees. With my face on the headrest, I prayed to Jesus.

I’m sorry for all the wrong things I’ve done. Please forgive me. I want to live differently. I know that I can only do that if I’m living the way you want me to. Save me.

In that moment, I became a new man. I believe I was carrying so much sin that I was an inch away from hell.

In that crucial moment, Jesus reached out and saved me. It was like I walked on a cloud.

eee

It wasn’t three days later that I got quizzed by my little brother. “I heard you got saved,” he said.

“Yeah, I did.”

“You didn’t get baptized. How can you be saved?”

“Look, I know that I was saved. I was there when it happened.”

The truth was, I didn’t know much about being a Christian, but I had to believe what happened to me was real. I didn’t have much education, and I didn’t know how to read the Bible. My niece showed me how to look up Bible verses, and my Christian education began.

I read and read and read. I learned what the Bible says about faith and baptism.

The next time I talked to my brother, I had a lot more to say about my new faith.

I walked over to his house, and we stood under some shade trees in his yard like we’d done many times before.

I told him about I Corinthians 12:13: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body — whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (NIV).

“Look,” I told him, trying to explain again about Jesus. “There’s one way to go, and it’s through Jesus. When I was saved, the Holy Spirit came into my life. I was baptized into faith in God, just like this verse says.”

“Ned,” he said, “you believe your way, and I’ll believe mine.”

“Okay.” I shrugged. “But you can’t go wrong with Jesus Christ.”

I learned a year later that telling people about Jesus was like sowing seeds. Sometimes they land in the dirt that’s been tilled and fertilized, and sometimes they land in a pile of rocks.

My brother called me up.

“Ned, you know what? I got saved.”

I smiled. I was certain Jesus himself had reached down and touched me in the car that day, yanking me from a life that had been heading down the wrong path for a long time. Now, it’s happened to my brother, too.

eee

I started going to church with Katherine, and we took our three boys, too. Katherine had always wanted a girl, and when we finally had one, that little girl with her long, curly hair would climb up in my lap, and I couldn’t imagine any place I’d rather be.

But I felt like God wanted me to go to Birmingham, where there was an opportunity to learn more about him. It was a six-month program, and I was going to have to find some part-time work while I was there. When I pulled out of the driveway, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Katherine standing there with Joy in her arms. Before I got down the hill, I was crying so hard that I could hardly drive.

Go and do what you need to do for me, I sensed God telling me. You’re going to spend eternity with them.

I’m not sure how much I learned in Birmingham, but I stayed until I ran out of money. It was hard to be gone from home like that, but I reminded myself that Jesus had died on a cross as a sacrifice for my sins, and I tried my best to do what he wanted me to do in Birmingham.

eee

There was still the issue of Daddy. When Jesus saved me, he emptied me of that hate that had festered there for years, and I found myself willingly helping my sister drive him around. I’d learned quickly that if you love Jesus, you can’t help loving other people. Even the awful ones.

“Daddy, if you don’t make things right with God, you’re going to go to hell,” I yelled. Daddy was hard of hearing now, and I had to repeat myself three times. “You’re going to go to hell, Daddy. You need to get back to church.”

I ran into a visiting preacher and laid out my worries about Daddy.

“I talked to him about Jesus, but it’s not doing any good.”

The preacher agreed to talk to Daddy himself.

“Preacher, you’re too late,” Daddy said. “I done got things right with God.”

That night, Daddy came to church. He walked down that aisle just like I’d remembered him walking down that road away from our house, one arm out of whack.

Daddy never saw another sunup.

He died in the hospital that night.

eee

It wasn’t long before I sensed that God started talking to me about my in-laws, who still lived up north. I was driving the milk truck around the barn to pick up the full bottles and deliver them to the cheese factory.

I’ll go see them, God, if I can find somebody to drive this milk truck.

The first person I asked was my brother, and he agreed. It was time to drive north.

I had no money, and it was a 1,300-mile drive, but I believed God had told me to make the trip. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do once I got there. Katherine and I loaded into the car and headed north. We drove straight to her parents’ trailer.

Katherine took her mama off to talk, and I sat down with her dad at the kitchen table and wrapped my hands around my cup of coffee.

“Mr. Hickson, I’d like you to get right with God and go to church.”

He sat quietly for a moment, and then he laughed.

“Ned, I’ll tell you like I tell the preacher. I’ll go to church when I get ready.”

God had told me to make this trip, and I had made it, so I didn’t say too much else. Katherine and I went back home.

Four months later, Mr. Hickson died unexpectedly at age 56.

He had worked for a paper mill, and a co-worker had found him dead in his chair.

“He was just sitting in his chair,” the man told us. “I went to get him a drink of water, and when I came back, he was dead.”

We learned later that Mr. Hickson had gotten a blood clot in his brain.

We never know when we’re going to go, but God does. Mr. Hickson didn’t know that conversation we had was going to be his last chance to get saved.

When we went back for the funeral and I saw Mr. Hickson lying dead in that casket, I cried like a baby.

I’ll go to church when I’m ready ran through my mind a thousand times.

Every night when I pray, I ask God to forgive my sins. I trust and believe in God every day.

We never know which day will be our last.

eee

As events unfolded in my life, I learned more and more about God. Of my seven siblings, I had only one sister. Janie was diagnosed with cancer when she was in her early 50s. She broke the news over the phone.

“I have bad news, Ned. We went to Florida on vacation, and I found a knot on my breast. The doctor’s going to do surgery on me to see what it is.”

When the doctors got in there, they found cancer all over her body. She had her breast taken and then had a hysterectomy. The doctor told her husband she wouldn’t live long.

Janie hung on for two years.

When her days were waning, I went to see her in the hospital. Her arms were swelled up twice their size.

“Ned, can you put a pillow under my head?” I carefully lifted her upper body and slipped another pillow under her. “You know, I love you boys, and I love Mama so much. I’m okay dying, because I don’t think I can stand to watch the rest of you die. I want to go first.”

I nodded silently.

I stayed in the hospital with Janie a lot those last few weeks, and one night she was especially restless.

“She’s crying out like she’s hurting pretty bad,” I told the nurse. “She needs more medicine.”

“Look at these charts,” the nurse said gently, pointing to a file on the table. “This is all we’re allowed to give her. She might be suffering, but she doesn’t know about it.”

The end came soon after, and we gathered around Janie’s bed as she tried hard to breathe. She quit breathing completely once, and her eyes flew wide open. She looked at every one of us, took her last breath and died.

I’ll admit I dreaded going to the funeral home to see Janie. She had looked real bad in the hospital. But she looked like a new person in that casket. Her hair was fixed, and she was cleaned up. She held a red rose in one of her hands.

She also was smiling.

“How’d ya’ll get her to look like that?” I asked the undertaker.

“We didn’t put that smile on her face,” he said. “It’s impossible to change someone’s expression after death. She died like that.”

I thought about the 28th chapter of Matthew in the Bible, which tells the story about people on earth seeing Jesus after he rose from the dead.

The Bible said some were filled with joy, and others grasped his feet and worshipped him.

That’s how I see Janie. I believe she died with her arms wide open, running to Jesus.

I really missed her, even after she’d been gone 40 years. I still thought about her all the time. But I believed I’d see her again one day.

eee

I got cancer myself many years later, and just like Janie, the doctor delivered a death sentence.

Since I had the time, I planned my funeral, picked out my pallbearers and wrote letters for my son to read at the service. Another son would preach, and Joy and my third son would take care of the singing.

Even though I knew I was going to die, I wasn’t scared.

Take me on home, Jesus, if it’s my time. But if it’s not, I’m willing to stay here and tell more people about you.

I signed up for a mission trip with my church where we’d help people start new churches. To go, however, I needed to be well.

God, when I go through that scan today, I need a good report. Otherwise, I’m off the trip.

The doctor shot the medicine in my arm, put me in that little room and scanned me for cancer. When the whir of the machine filled the room, something triggered in my heart like little bubbles.

The doctor came in the room smiling from ear to ear.

“Ned, you don’t have any cancer in your neck. You had cancer in your backbone, but now you don’t. You don’t have any cancer anymore. I told you when you were diagnosed that this cancer couldn’t be healed. But you are healed.”

I smiled back at him.

“You might have had something to do with this, Doc, but God healed my cancer.”

“I believe you’re right about that,” he said. “I believe in God, too. Now, get up, and you go on your mission trip.”

I went on that trip to the Dominican Republic, and nearly 200 people came forward to follow Jesus while we were there. I’ve also been to Georgia and Mississippi with my church. God’s been using me pretty good, I’d say.

I’m going to keep living my life for God as long as I’m able to talk. I fell in love with God all those years ago, and I’ve told a lot of people about him since.

My brother told me people would think I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I’m crazy about Jesus.

eee

When I was a boy, we had to get our water from a 30-foot well we’d dug on the property. I went out there one day with a two-gallon bucket to draw water, and when that bucket came up, a toad-frog was sitting in the water.

I reached toward him, and he just sat there. I poured the water out on the ground, and he went hopping away like he was tickled to death to get out of that well. I bet if he could have talked, he would have told all of the other frogs about how that bucket had come out of nowhere and given him a ride to freedom.

That toad-frog had to have been sitting on the rocks in the bottom of that dark well for a while, looking up at the spot of light at the rim and wondering if he was going to die in there. It took faith for him to jump in that bucket, but when he did, it saved his life.

I think about that toad-frog from time to time. He mustered up the faith to ride that bucket, and his life was saved. I’d been sitting in a dark well for a long time just like the toad-frog, and I didn’t know how to get out. When Jesus reached his hand out to me in that preacher’s car, I finally took it, and he healed me. I became a new man in a few seconds. I stopped drinking and smoking and cussing, and I’ve spent decades telling people about Jesus.

In the book of John in the Bible, Jesus tells his closest friends that he was going to heaven to get ready for them.

“I will come back,” he said, “and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3).

At 81 years old, I’ve been with Jesus for 47 years. And the best part is, no matter what happens to me, I suppose I’ll get to be with Jesus for at least 47 million more.

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