Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Unknown Gift

Jim Heathman tracked me down. “How many John Robert McFarlands can there be?” he asked. Too many, apparently, to make it easy to find me. I’m glad he persisted.

He is the grandson of Homer and Hazel Heathman, who lived up the gravel road from us in the Forsythe neighborhood, near Oakland City, IN, from when we moved there in 1947, until I went to college in 1955 and my parents and younger brother and sister moved to Ringwood, IL in 1962. I remember Jim well. Although he was closer to my sister’s age, 5 years younger than I, he and I rode horses together when he visited his grandparents, who were exceptionally proud of him.

The Heathmans and McFarlands were the only people who lived on our road. The road went all the way through from the Oak Hill Road to the Seed Tick Road, but the gravel stopped at our driveway. From there to the Seed Tick, it was just a pair of dirt tracks flanking a ridge of weeds. That was where Jim Heathman and I rode horses.[1]

The Heathmans were very important to us, in part because they were our only neighbors, in part because they were just good people. We didn’t have a car, but they did, always a Desoto, usually blue, and they were willing to take me and my older sister with them when they went places, especially to church. My mother never rode with them, because she never went anyplace; she was too ashamed of our poverty, which showed so clearly in her clothes. My father didn’t ride with them because he was too proud to accept any sort of help. I was ashamed of our poverty, and I was proud, but I wanted to go places. The Heathmans understood that. They made sure I got to go places.

Which is where Jim Heathman comes back into the story. He told me, in a way that perhaps only I could understand, that Mr. Heathman knew I wanted to go places.

Jim lives in NM now, and was reminded of me, even though we haven’t seen each other for around 60 years, because he had come across my book for cancer patients. [2] He was the executor for the estate of his maiden aunt, Hazel Fern. He’s still sorting through her things, and came across the copy of the book that I had given to her. He’s a survivor, so he read it.

That reminded him of something his grandfather once told him. At a time that Oakland City College, the General Baptist College, had been in dire financial straits, his grandfather, Homer, had given them money to help them through. In return, he was to receive free educations for his children. Only one of the three took advantage. He saved one for his grandson, since Jim threatened his parents with “I’ll go live with my grandparents and go to that Baptist college,” which apparently was a dire thought to them, and Mr. Heathman told Jim, “I want John Robert go have that last one.” He wanted the poor neighbor boy to be able to go to college.

I never knew this. I suspect that one day that I can’t remember, Mr. Heathman said to me, “John Robert, you ought to go to college,” and I said, “I’m going to, Mr. Heathman. I’m going to go to IU to the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism and be a great war correspondent, like Ernie was.”

Mr. Heathman never said a thing about that free education he was saving for me at OCC, because he wanted me to go to the places I wanted to go. That gift he didn’t give me, that I never even knew about, is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Thank you, Jim Heathman, for giving it to me again, now.

And also with you,

[1] The Seed Tick was one of the few roads in the county that actually had a name then. They all have numbers now, like 1100 S or 1900 W, so that my cousin, David Pond, the EMT, can find you when you get drunk and fall off of your ladder. In the 1940s and ‘50s, though, the roads got named any way anyone wanted to name them. Mostly they were called, “You know, the road where Benny Goodman lives,” or “The road the Linigers live on.” I may be the only one who says “Oak Hill Road” for the gravel road that ran from Oak Hill, a community of a store and a barber shop and a few houses strung out along “the hard road,” Indiana Highway 57, west to the gravel Forsythe Road, named for the open-country Methodist Church I attended. Baptists called the same road The Oak Grove Road, after the name of their church. The gravel Seed Tick ran between Highway 57 and the Forsythe/Oak Grove Road. It is now County Road 250 S, but the kart races on County Road 250 S are at “The Seed Tick RaceWay.”

2] “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them.” AndrewsMcMeel. ISBN-13: 978-0-7407-6372-4. Jim’s copy is the first version, in hardback, because it was his aunt Hazel Fern’s, a gift from me to her.

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