Packy, my little brother, was always the free spirit in our family. We called him Packy because as children we mispronounced his given name, Patrick, and never bothered getting it right. Much in Packyís life was that way--lots of misunderstandings, miscalculations, and mishaps that nobody bothered getting right. And Packy never saw the need to explain it all. He was way too busy living life to formulate a philosophy to explain it. He acted on impulse, many times committing the most outrageous acts of foolishness, then later sorted through the consequences. Packy and the rest of my family were all gathered together one bitterly cold December morning on the occasion of the presentation of my name as pastor of a small rural church, nestled in the piney woods of Central Louisiana. I was feeling a little nervous even though I had little doubt about the outcome of the election. I had served as associate pastor to my dad who had pioneered the church twenty-two years ago. My family was the heart of that church, and it had been nurtured with love and devotion by dad and mom since the very birth of the new fold one spring morning. I had already been assured that the church was about to elect me pastor of my fatherís legacy. Still, I was noticeably nervous.
My family had not always been a breeding ground for ministry. Before my dadís conversion there had been much physical and verbal abuse. Simply put, my dad had been a drunk who loved his family but could not prevent the alcohol from demonstrating something else. His conversion was one of the most amazing moments in the history of the Thompson family. Many of the extended family uprooted their households and moved to our little town when dad started preaching. If God could save Pat Thompson, anything was possible! I saw my father change from an abusive alcoholic into a loving minister in the blink of an eye. It was truly a miracle.
The events of our childhood affected Packy and me in different ways. I reacted with timidity and insecurity to the tense childhood before my dadís conversion. Packy used it as fuel for his burning desire to prove wrong every negative thing spoken over him. I rarely ever thought about those pre-conversion years. I vividly remembered the prayer meetings and miracles which led to the path of destiny our family would traverse. Memories of the bad times had long been overshadowed by the blessings and joys which came when our household found spiritual rebirth. In fact, the only time I delved into the cauldron of remembrance was in discussions with Packy, who seemed to remember every detail of our past like some determined historian on a mission to set the record straight, if only for himself.
Being such a free spirit, Packy had taken the worse whippings from dad when we were children. Dad had pretty much perfected the art of using a belt--practice making perfect and all. He would take off his belt as if he was drawing a sword, removing it from its sheath and catching the opposite end of it all in one motion. It was really an impressive feat to witness. The neighborhood kids use to beg him to do it; they loved to hear the sound of it sliding so quickly through his pant loops into a perfect, doubled-over tool of correction, though his own kids were somewhat less thrilled--especially in those days before dad was moved to repent of his wicked ways. Of course we took comfort in the fact that Packy was always going to get the worst of it. Not just because he picked the best moments to pull his stuns: Packy was the middle child, you see.
Even though he technically shared that honor with Stacey, Packy would never relinquish his claim to the title of middle child to our mediocre sophistries. He was the true middle child and was comforted in it--even proud of it. None of these titles mattered much except in those reflective moments when we tried to figure out why our dad, when he would come home in a drunken rage in those years before Christ, chose Packy and me upon which to vent the frustrations his private demons stirred in him. Of course, he could not beat Stacey, the only girl. And not Neil, the baby; mom would have had none of that. So, the burden fell upon me, who, as the oldest, should have borne my responsibility for dad's peace of mind with nobility, and Packy, who, well, was the middle child.
One particular beating stands out. We had been awakened from sleep late one night by the return of my dad from a weeklong shift drilling oil in the Gulf. On his way home he had decided to unwind with a bottle of Old Grandad. We loved it when he drank Old Grandad because the bottles were oddly shaped and were therefore a valuable commodity with the other kids on the neighborhood black market that thrived on the streets where we grew up. Pocketknives, squirrel tails, and whisky bottles could garner untold riches in our makeshift trading posts. That night, I opened my eyes to see my dad drawing back his fist and bringing it down upon me as he pulled me up by the collar with his other hand. It was not an especially painful beating; and later, after my dad repented of his drinking and beating, he did not even remember this particular incident. I imagine they were all just one big blur to him--one big incident. Despite repenting, answering the call to preach, and pioneering several churches, dad could never forgive himself for this time in his life, though I forgave him, in tears, a hundred times.
As I lay there wiping my nose with my sleeve, dad stumbling away in a cursing fit, I thought I heard someone crying. At first I thought it was me. I mean, who could have blamed me for a tear or two under such circumstances; but it was not me. I listened closely, and sure enough, there was Packy, crying his eyes out in the next bed. As unusual as this was, I could no more go to him and ask him why he was crying any more than he could have come to me to see if I was all right. We simply would not have violated the otherís privacy that way, nor robbed the other of his dignity. The magnitude of the tears he was shedding was not lost on me. I had seen him take many beatings that beggared the one I had just received, and I could not recall a single one where he cried like this. Sure, weíd let out a yelp now and again to let dad know we were suffering, tugging on the heartstrings that not even alcohol could completely annihilate. But Packy was crying the way people do when they are giving up--tired of holding back the tide of darkness that tries to overcome the inner light. That was so unlike Packy. I recall one whipping--they were more civilized than beatings because a device, usually a belt or switch, was used, removing the stigma of skin on skin--where Packy glared at dad, taking many more stripes than he otherwise would have taken. Dad put all he had into breaking Packy that day, but it just would not happen. Mom eventually shamed him into stopping, the stripes turning purple already, but Packy just looked him in the eyes, the corner of his mouth half-curled in a smile. He seemed to be a million miles away, like some eagle flying on pathways in the sky.
So I sat there still as a board, listening to him cry, thinking this was a very important thing to happen, though I could not exactly figure out why. "Hey," I whispered, not wanting to remind dad I was there. He turned over and looked at me, tears streaming down his face. I wanted to comfort him. Tell him that everything was all right. That dad didnít mean it. That he loved us and cared for us. That it was just the whiskey. I wanted to say something that would put it all in perspective for us both. I raised my eyebrow and muttered, "Shut up before I come over there and bloody your nose." Then I flashed him a smile, filled with unspoken sentiments of comfort and assurance--words we never said aloud but often passed between us in a smile. He smiled back and flopped over on his pillow. I donít know what it was he was thinking. I hardly ever knew what Packy was thinking, and being the oldest, I felt a certain responsibility to understand these things. I had learned earlier to be careful what I let Packy think. He did not have the same restraints as you and me. He did not look at a snarling rottweiler and consider that perhaps the neighborís plums were no sweeter than ours. He could not imagine that a double-dog-dare was issued precisely because it was so impossible to accomplish.
I never will forget the time he came sauntering up, pestering me, while my friends and I were busy pouring gasoline on ant beds and lighting them up like army rangers raiding an enemy village. He mumbled something about flying and scooted off like a scalded dog. We had just napalmed a particularly large fireant bed when one of my friends grabbed me and said that Packy was on the top of the barn. I looked up just in time to see him straddling the apex of the barn, looking down on us, shouting that he could fly. My mind raced to try to figure out a way to stop this from happening. He was already looking over the edge, bending his knees. There would be no time to scurry up the oak tree we always used to gain access to the top of the barn. He would have migrated halfway to Canada by the time I ran and got dad to come help. Just the thought of dadís reaction when he realized it was my fault this was happening--and believe me, that thought would not escape any of them--was enough to evaporate that thought. I imagined calling out for mom, but she was no slouch with a switch herself. She could be especially cruel in that she often made us go cut the switch that would sting our behinds. And she would have none of those flimsy reeds that would wilt on a kidís backside; it had better be nice and firm, or she would go out and cut down a tree to bang us with. Mom never used a belt. Probably because she did not want to remind us that dad did.
All of this was going through my mind when Packy jumped. He fell like a sack of potting soil, spread eagle, arms extended, belly flopping onto the ground. You could hear the air escape from his lungs as he splattered into the Louisiana mud. He writhed on the ground, gasping for air, looking up at me with eyes of innocence, not understanding how he could not have flown. I donít know exactly what it is that gets locked up inside the heart of a child that makes him think he can fly. I never remembered thinking that I ever could. Sure, while waiting for dad to come give a me whipping now and again, I used to look out my bedroom window and watch the bluebirds and cardinals play, wishing I was one of them so I could just flutter off to places where there was nothing to do but eat worms and sing. I looked at him and felt his disappointment on discovering that he could not. When it became obvious that he was not going to die, I told him that I was going to kill him; that it was the dumbest thing I had ever even heard of; and that if God had intended men to fly, Heíd have given us wings. It was just then, while I was still scolding him, that he jumped up, eyes ablaze, as though nothing had ever happened, and yelled, "I forgot to flap my wings."
Well, I was just glad that the boy could stand, and I would be able to sit later on. So I slugged him a good one and put it all behind me. My friends and I left laughing at good old Packy and were about to commence with the business of removing the scourge of the fireant from our midst when I heard Packyís voice from up on the barn again. He was begging me to come watch--that he would flap his wings this time and I would see. No amount of pleading could convince him to come down. No cajoling to get him to at least jump from the bottom edge of the barn instead of the very top could sway him. He would need the extra lift from the stronger winds up there. He had it all figured out. He said it with such finality that we all just froze there, stupefied, looking at one another to make sense of it all. And by George, as we all just stood there silently, staring up at him, nothing else to say or do, I almost began to believe that he did have this thing figured out.
As he stepped out into the sky, silhouetted against the setting sun, I saw his tongue stick out the side of his mouth and his eyes narrow in determination; I held my breath for him. He flailed his arms like a headless chicken all the way down to the ground and made an ugly thud when he hit. This time he landed on his feet and rolled--proving that at least he had learned something the first time. He mumbled some obscenity he had picked up somewhere and limped right off before any of us could even think to run to him. Later, we made up some lie to explain the condition of his ankle to our parents. Neither of us felt that telling the truth would really prove anything in this situation. Why subject myself to the punishment mom would have meted out to me for not being a responsible older brother, and why subject himself to the gut-laugh dad would have given if Packy would have told him that he thought he could fly. He just sat there, with his ankle throbbing, a smile curling up at the corners of his mouth.
We retell this story at every family reunion. Before he died, Dad and I spent hours laughing about this and lots of other things that happened during those years before Christ changed his heart and the direction of our lives forever. In fact, I have used the story of Packyís failed attempt to defy the laws of gravity to make kids laugh from public school rooms where I taught for many years to churches where I finally followed in my dadís footsteps, putting behind my past, and answered the call to the ministry. Packy? Well, he was right. He really could fly. Years before I had the guts to step out and try my wings in the service of the Lord, Packy left our little town, took his brand new wife, and accepted the challenge of pastoring the second oldest church of our denomination in the Louisiana District: a church that nobody else really wanted because of its glorious past and its present haggard condition. They called it a burned-over field. I warned him not to jump out like that on his very first pastorate. I told him that there was plenty of fruit to be gathered right here in our neck of the woods. There was no need to do it just because everybody else said it couldnít be done. Dad was very proud of him. We all were. Packy took that church of just a couple of families and in less than two years had built it into a thriving, vibrant church, soaring through its community like an eagle through the sky.
The day they elected me pastor at our home church, the one dad had started in his own living room twenty-two years before, Packy took me aside and told me that he knew I could do it. I was so nervous and lacked the confidence he had. A church full of people were there to vote whether or not they believed Iíd be able to watch over them, like a big brother, against the enemies of their souls. I felt like I was just going to explode with fear.
"I just donít know if I can do this. Maybe I am not ready," I muttered nervously. "This may all just be to soon, with dad dying just a couple weeks ago. I don't know Packy..."
"Hey," he interrupted me, looking into my eyes. I could see his mind spinning, no doubt searching for just the right quote from some old sage that would be perfect for just such a moment. "Shut up before I come over there and bloody your nose."
I laughed aloud. He smiled at me and, as tears rolled down his cheeks, told me that I had always been his hero; that he had always looked up to me; and that these people knew as well as he did that I would do whatever it took to get them through the trials, battles, and victories that would come. It was only the second time in my life that I had seen Packy cry. And both times it was for me.