CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…
When we moved from Indianapolis to our little five-acre hardscrabble farm near Oakland City, IN, when I was ten, our closest neighbors were Hazel and Homer Heathman, and Ray and Esther Powers. They were about the same age then that I am now.
We had lived first at 230 N. Oakland Avenue in Indianapolis and then at 234. My classmates thought it was somewhere between strange and momentous that we had moved from Oakland Avenue to Oakland City.
The Heathmans lived up a little hill from us, the only other house on our gravel road. At our house the gravel gave out and narrowed into a dirt road that was more a wagon path than a road. This was long before roads had names like 43SW, or some such, Our road didn’t have a name, but people referred to it as the Heathman road. They had lived on it a long time.
They were wonderfully good neighbors. I would walk up the hill and ride to church with then in their light blue Desoto. When our well would run dry in the summer, as it almost always did, I would walk up the hill with a bucket, often two, and pump water at their deeper well. And Mr. Heathman saved a scholarship for me.
I did not know about that until 50 years after, when their grandson told me about it. Some years before, Oakland City College had gotten into more dire financial straits than usual. It’s always hard for a small liberal arts college sponsored by a small religious denomination [General Baptist] to make a go of it, but that time it was worse. Mr. Heathman gave them money to keep them open. In return, they set aside two scholarships for him to give to future students, especially his own family. He never mentioned it to me, but Jimmy told me all those years later that his grandfather had held onto one for a long time. “John Robert ought to go to college,” he said, “and he might need it.” I wonder if he were disappointed or relieved when I went to IU without ever knowing I had an OCC scholarship if I wanted it. 
The Heathmans were good neighbors, but I never felt close to them, never stopped to chat with them when I was there for water, to tell them stories of how school was going or what I was hoping for. Mrs. Heathman in particular was judgmental. I did not want to expose my stories and hopes to reality.
Ray and Esther Powers lived a mile away, over on “the hard road,” Indiana Highway 57. I had to walk a city block’s worth of dirt road to another dirt road, nameless, at the corner of the Heathman Road and Punch Knowles’ woods, and walk it over a mile to the highway.
There I turned north to go to play basketball with Darrel Guimond or Donald Gene Taylor, or I turned south to go to the little mom and pop grocery alongside the highway, which was about half a mile farther on, past the Powers’ farm.
We didn’t have any money for grocery stores. We raised what we ate on the farm. But there are things, like sugar, you have to buy, so sometimes, when we had a little cash, I was sent to the store on the highway. On the way, I passed by the Powers’ house. There I would stop and chat and get a cold drink from the ladle at their well on a hot summer day.
Mrs. Powers occasionally sent simple cookies home with me for my little brother and sister. Mostly they sat on straight chairs in their primitive wood-stove kitchen and listened to me tell stories. Sometimes I would give them play by play descriptions of some pickup basketball game I had played with Darrel. I told them about how I was going to be a newspaper reporter. They listened like it was important.
A year after Helen and I married, I went down home for a visit. While there I stopped to see the Heathmans and Powers, driving my new 1959 mint green Plymouth Savoy this time instead of walking. I had gained 30 pounds that first year of marriage. Helen had lost ten. She says that tells who was doing the work.
Mrs. Heathman took one look at me and said, “You’re fat!”
Mrs. Powers took one look at me and said, “You look so mature.”
1] Oakland City College survived very well. It is now Oakland City University.
Spoiler Alert: If you have read this column in the last 3 months, all that follows is old news:
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I stopped writing this column for a while, for several reasons. It wasn’t until I had quit, though, that I knew this reason: I did not want to be responsible for wasting your time. If I write for others, I have to think about whether it’s worthwhile for you to read. If I write only for myself, it’s caveat emptor. If you choose to read something I have written, but I have not advertised it, not asked you to read it, and it’s poorly constructed navel-gazing drivel, well, it’s your own fault. Still, I apologize if you have to ask yourself, “Why did I waste time reading this?”