On this day of national mourning for President H. W. Bush, my mind goes back to some life changing day in August 1988.
The unobstructed sun baked our oiled skin as we rowed a borrowed boat across a friend of a friend's borrowed pond. These were luxuries we couldn’t have afforded save for the kindness of people who let us live like the other half of society that day. Melanie and I were still newlyweds. To be precise it was the first anniversary of our wedding. I was just finishing a two year stint as a teacher in an underfunded Christian school on a pauper's salary. We were happy and didn’t know we were poor. Our apartment in Columbia had been furnished by Honest Charlie’s used furniture. Charlie took a liking to me and marked down already bargain basement prices to accommodate our budget. We furnished our entire place for around $250.00 We had access to the Food Bank and I must say, we ate the best government cheese and had the best choice of sugary cereals. It’s no wonder the poor often battle with their weight. We were leaving this life behind, however, to become seminary students. For the next three years we would become even poorer. This time period reminds me of my Grandfather Bird’s comment about his family when he said, “We were dirt poor, and then the depression hit.”
Today, however, I was splurging. I wanted to impress my bride with a worthy Anniversary. The private pond outing was just the beginning of our day. The farm pond was halfway between Columbia Missouri where we lived and our final anniversary destination of St. Louis. After thoroughly luxuriating in the sun and water, we excitedly drove the one remaining hour to Westport Plaza where St. Louis’s wealthier crowd played. We were not staying in the Red Roof Inn this time. Melanie had found a thirty-five dollar deal to the Ramada Inn. We had not stayed in places fancy enough to go above the second floor. Riding the elevator to our lofty hotel room was a sumptuous deviation from our basement apartment lifestyle.
I couldn’t wait for the dinner surprise. I had heard advertisements for a famous steakhouse owned by two former St. Louis Cardinal football players-Dan Dierdorf and Jim Hart. For you younger folks, consult the history books. The Cardinals were also a St. Louis football team. Dierdorf and Hart’s were known for their big steaks. I had been saving for this night.
We dressed up, for the special occasion as people did in the 1980's. I donned my best suit and tie and Melanie looked stunning in her dress, curly brown hair and heels. The restaurant was so close we walked to it.
The lights were dim and the atmosphere smelled of old money. The waiter asked what we wanted to drink. When we said, “water”, he looked a little perturbed. It was more than the expense of the wine, neither of us drank.
Instead of bringing a menu, the waiter brought out a tray of raw and oversized steaks. He explained the various cuts of meat before showing us the menu. When I looked at the menu, my heart sank. I didn’t carry a credit card at the time and I didn’t have enough cash for two steaks. I had underestimated their prices. I tried to hide my growing discomfort from Melanie, but she sensed it. “Why don’t we split a steak,” she suggested. “Good idea”, I said. “Did you see the size of those steaks?”
The waiter came back to our table and I said that we would like to split a prime rib. He looked at me with an expression that barely hid his disgust. “There will be a seven-dollar splitting charge,” he said.
“Give us a moment,” I pleaded. I suddenly felt poor, unworthy, and embarrassed. I glanced at Melanie and asked, “Do you mind if we leave?” She took my hand, nodded her head toward the door and we escaped quickly without making eye contact with anyone. I was humiliated. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. We retreated to the hotel to regroup. By then, I was exhausted. I had a great education and low income. It's the perfect combination for wounded pride.
It had been a long day and I asked Melanie if she minded me taking a nap and then we would order up room service. Room service had steaks I could afford. Melanie was her ever positive self. I fell asleep and Melanie went to work. She found an extra bed sheet and made a tablecloth out of it. Melanie knew how to make flowers out of tissue and the Kleenex box became her source material to the most beautiful bouquet of paper flowers. Somewhere she found a candle and when I woke up, steak was being served in our hotel room on a bed sheet tablecloth on the hotel room table. In our more than three decades of marriage, this meal is still the most memorable.
The hotel had another luxury we didn’t own-a television. As we finished dinner, we turned on the television to watch what the whole nation would be watching that night-Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech at the Republican National Convention. To research this writing, I watched his speech again. I was shocked when I heard him say these words recounting his first Republican Convention in the year he was elected. “On the night of July 7, 1980 we left with a mutual pledge to conduct a national crusade to make America great again.” In this case, he wasn’t recounting promises made, he was reminiscing about promises delivered. He humbly admitted we still had a ways to go.
Reagan’s speech and the convention that followed bolstered this young man, just getting started in life. I didn’t feel poor by the end of that evening. Melanie’s magic and Reagan’s rhetoric completely changed my mood. George H. W. Bush followed up that speech with an unforgettable speech of his own on August 18. It was his famous “thousand points of light” speech.
For me, Bush’s speech recalled Abraham’s vision as he looked at the stars and was challenged to “count them if you can.” It recalled Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that envisioned a brighter and better day.
I didn’t feel excluded from this vision. I was included. The thousand points of light suggested that there was room for my “little light” to shine. It was not a partisan speech, it was expansive and inclusive and appealed for there to be “one America.”
Two years later, I would be commissioned as an officer in the US. Army and George H. W. Bush was my first commander-in-chief. I am proud to have served under him. I was stationed at Ft. Campbell Kentucky as a Chaplain Candidate when Marlin Fitzwater delivered President Bush’s message that “the liberation of Kuwait has begun.” It wasn’t lost on me that the messaging was not about defeating an enemy, it was about freeing a people. I cried that night as I watched the bombing of Baghdad as CNN’s Bernard Shaw reported from atop the Al-Rashid hotel.
I was grateful that President Bush met his objectives and then ended the war. I am proud to have served under a president who didn’t do a victory dance on the Berlin Wall. His gracious response made him one of the fathers of the reunification of Germany. I am grateful for his modesty, humility, humanity and quiet spirituality.
Melanie and I left that August anniversary and entered seminary. Inspired by Bush’s speech, we volunteered at a homeless mission upon arrival at seminary. Melanie worked in another mission until she graduated from seminary with a Master of Social Work. She shines her light as a counselor and pastor. I served as a Chaplain in the Army and since then I’ve been a parish pastor. I dream of a church as diverse as President Bush's vision. I still believe in President Bush’s vision of a thousand points of light that are as diverse and beautiful as the night sky.
Thank you, President Bush for your service to our country. Thank you for making me feel included. America is better because you served. I mourn your loss and this second lieutenant salutes you one last time.