From Story Corps to the Blog

February 27, 2013

I had an incredible privilege last week; I was the feature on WABE’s (the Atlanta NPR station) StoryCorps. This is an oral history project, and all of the recorded stories are housed att he Library of Congress. Gee, that mean’s I’m in the Library of Congress (and some of you thought I did not know what a library was!) To listen, and see the worst picture of me ever taken, go to

Our daughter Anne gave me the recording session at the local station as a part of my birthday last year. She made the appointment, and the day of, we met for breakfast to talk about what we were going to talk about. Then we headed to the station, filled out some paperwork, went into a small recording studio, and emerged about an hour later with a CD of a 45-minute conversation. We’d talked about many things, from my experiences as a Pastor, to our family’s value of education, to the story that WABE aired.

The story revolves around my experience one summer when I was in college, working for the Arkansas Highway Department. I worked there for three summers, until I graduated from Arkansas State University and headed off to Seminary. The first summer i worked, I was the goofball you see flagging traffic or shoveling asphalt on a patch job. The second summer I started driving a dump truck, and by the third summer, I did that almost exclusively.

One day that third summer, we all showed up for work, and Billy John (I promise, that was his name and what we all called him–proof that double first names have existed in the South!) was doling out the job assignments for the day. It seems that a couple of horses had gotten out of their corral the night before, and been hit and killed by a car on a state highway (the car did not fare too well, either!) It is the responsibility of the maintenance crew of the Highway Department to deal with dead animals; I knew where in the County Dump large animals went (that’s another story for another day), so Billy John told me to get the horses, take them to the dump, then join the overlay job out on highway 54.

I went to where the horses were, another worker joined me with a wrecker and we loaded the horses in my truck, and I headed to the Dump and dropped them off. Then I headed for the asphalt plant.

The previous summer, when I started driving, I observed that most of the drivers were making two runs a day from the asphalt yard to the job site. Noncompetitive person that I am, I tried to get in three runs, and I did it. After making three runs a day, every day, for a couple of weeks, Billy John said that “if Roberts can do it, everyone can do it!” (I became REAL popular [that is meant sarcastically, by the way.]) It meant that we were getting more work done in less time, but it also meant more work for the guys who were used to their routine. As soon as everyone was making three runs a day, I started trying to get in a fourth run, which I managed to do a time or two, depending on where the job was that particular day.

On the day in question, as I left the Dump and headed to the asphalt yard, I was thinking that there was no way I could make as many runs as everyone else. “But maybe I can move as much asphalt as they do,” I thought. So when I got to the yard, instead of the two scoops of asphalt we usually got from the front end loader (about 3-3.5 tons), I got four scoops, to the incredulous look on the front-end loader operator’s face, almost 7 tons.

I was driving down highway 15 toward the job site on highway 54, and was thinking about my future (yes, at 20 years of age, I was actually doing this.) I was thinking that for reasons I could not understand, I was convinced God wanted me to go into some form of ministry. I decided that if I was going to do that, I had to do it with integrity–so I decided that I needed to make sure I believed in God. I was rolling down the road at about 50 miles an hour, with 7 tons of asphalt behind me, and I was going over St Anselm’s arguments for the existence of God in my mind.

Then I heard a loud BOOM, and it felt as if the truck moved sideways; with this top-heavy load, the truck started fishtailing, until it was truning sideways in the road, fishtailing and going sideways, first right, then left, then right, and so on. I had enough presence of mind to know that if I hit thr brakes, the truck would flip; I literally said out loud, “Take it, Lord,” as I prayed for the truck to slow down enough for me to use the brakes.

I heard gravel, and looked up to see that the truck was headed off the road, straight at a large tree. I recall thinking, “Well, I guess this is it.” I believed I was going to die when I hit the tree–and then I remember thinking that my life was supposed to flashe before me. Then there was all kinds of movement, and when it stopped, I found myself hanging upside down in the truck–my thighs resting ont he bottom of the steering wheel. The truck was upside down, the hood of the truck folded up like a taco shell, the windshield blown out, the passenger side of the cab crushed–and the driver’s side left up.

I was alive.

I moved my arms, to see if I could move them; I could. I reached down to see if my legs had feeling; they did. Then came the test as I turned my head to see if my neck was injured; it was fine. I crawled out through the driver’s window, through all the asphalt, and stepped back to a fence, and sat down, looking at the truck. I realized that I should have died, and all I had was a cut on one arm and a slightly wrenched back. As I looked on, I became convinced that there was some reason why I was still alive.

Three years to the day later–almost to the minute–the Presbytery of the Pines voted unanimously to receive me as a candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

Coincidence, it is said, is God’s way of staying anonymous.

Wedding ceremonies happen at all times of the day and night. That said, I think the earliest ceremony at which I have ever officiated was a 10:00 AM ceremony, and I don’t think I have done one any later than 8:00 PM. My preference, frankly, is noon.

That’s probably because my own wedding ceremony was at noon. But I have learned through the years that there are some advantages to that time.

For one, Emily Post says that a noon ceremony is as “high” a wedding as an eight PM ceremony. We wore Dinner Jackets at my wedding. Two, the couple will wake up on the day of their wedding earliuer than they want to, and the first thought that crosses their mind before their feet hit the floor is, “Today’s the day!” The longer they have to wait for the actual ceremony, the greater the buildup of anticipatory stress, and the higher the likelihood that they will murder someone in a snap of rage. Having the ceremony at noon has them getting on with things.

A noon ceremony also allows them to enjoy the reception, to hang around for a good while and enjoy the party and the people before making their getaway. It’s actually possible to travel some on the wedding day with a noon wedding, or at least not to feel rushed about things post-ceremony before leaving the next day for the honeymoon.

I recall one noon wedding in particular. It was not a large ceremony, in fact it was in the Wilson Chapel at Peachtree Presbyterian Church (which seats a little over 100 people). It must have been summer, because as we were starting the ceremony, a frog-choker of a rainstorm, with accompanying thunder and lightning, broke over us. (Thank goodness it was not an outdoor ceremony, which are often dicey with weather. I always tell people when they plan an outdoor ceremony that “I’m in sales, not management,” pointing out that I can’t control the weather.)

At any rate, the ceremony had begun. I’d welcomed the congregation, and made the appropriate statements about marriage. I’d delivered the “Charge to the Couple,” in which we essentially acknowledge that if the couple will do certain things, then God will do certain things.

In the ceremony that I use, next comes the “Questions of Intent.” This is that historical question that lays it all out, asking the couple–each in turn, first the groom, then the bride–if they REALLY want to do this.

So this particular Saturday, as a storm moved in around us, I looked at the groom and asked, “John, will you have this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in healt, and forsaking all others, will you keep yourself only unto Jane, as long as you both shall live?”

No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than a terrific clap of thunder BOOMED on top of us, shaking the Chapel and startling everyone in it. The groom himself darn near jumped out of his shoes, and as the thunder echoed off into the distance, and everyone settled back into the ceremony, I simply looked at the groom, cocked my head to the side gently, and raised both my eyebrows as if to suggest that God was listening in, ever-so-expectantly, for his answer. The bride and groom both, as well as everyone in the Chapel, caught the humor in the moment, and lauged, as the groom said, with more enthusiasm than he would have used had the thunder not hit at the moment, “I WILL!!!”

It’s never a bad thing to laugh in a wedding.