Saint Peter’s Room

He had served in the U.S. Navy in World War Two. His ship had been in battle, with many killed and injured. He was among the injured. He wasn’t killed, but they thought he would be dead soon. They must care for the ones who had a chance. Unconscious, they rolled him into a room that was out of the way. The men of the ship had a name for this room.  It was “Saint Peter’s Room.” My friend told afterward that he kidded the medics for putting him in Saint Peter’s Room when he didn’t need to be there. He recovered from his wounds and lived a long life afterward.

The family farm he came back to was a few miles from the Tennessee River in the eastern part of the state. He was a liked and likeable man with a lot of friends. He mostly wore overalls except on Sundays when he did dress up some. He worked the farm his father had worked, raising cattle, hogs, corn, hay, tobacco, and various fruits and vegetables. He had built the house himself from timber that grew on his own land. This included mature trees of walnut and cherry. He had build every piece of furniture for his home in the wood working shop in the basement. The walnut gun cabinet in my downstairs now was built there also.

Farm work slowed down in the winter months after the tobacco was brought in, cured, and sold. That’s when he took to the road. He had converted a used hearse to carry the tools that filling stations need. He would start out loaded and be gone for a week or two at a time. He was such a likeable, friendly man that the station owners looked forward to his return and put off buying things they needed so they could buy from him. If the station had changed hands, he promptly made friends of the new owners. He was the kind of guy that even if you had only known him briefly, it seemed like you had known him all your life.

He had an inventive, inquisitive, always-learning mind. I came to his home once and found he was raising a family of squirrels in the back yard. He had found a nest of orphan baby squirrels and built a home for them. The home had numerous rooms, devoted to sleeping, meals, and recreation. He was fond of watching them run inside the spinning exercise wheel he constructed. When the babies were grown, he opened the doors and watched them run away.

Man building house boat trailorOne day he decided he wanted a boat. He wanted a large boat to take his friends out on, several families at a time. They sell boats like that, of course, but he decided to build one himself. He had never built a boat, but he was a good welder (having done that for the Navy) and he believed he could figure it out. He read a lot about boat building, drew up his plans, built a large shed to build the boat in, bought a lot of scrap metal and other things, and began to lay the hull. He also build a wagon to haul the boat to the river with.

It took him two years to build his boat. As the boat took shape, word spread around the community and people came around to see it. He was somewhat like Noah in the Bible because there was no water in sight of his house and people wondered if the thing would ever be finished and make it to the water. When people joked about his boat he smiled and joked with them.

But his boat was no joke. After he finished and launched it the boat looked factory made. Be bought himself a white shirt and pants, and a boat captain’s hat, and took all his friends out just like he planned.

I was a struggling young college student at the time. This man took a liking to me and did a lot to help me along. He did things I had no way to repay, and I moved away indebted. Some years later though, I did do something for him.

I had taken up flying and owned a small, fabric covered, two seat airplane. I took off one day and flew up the Tennessee Valley to his farm, diving down low over his house until he heard the noise, came outside, and waved. Then I circled around and landed in a field nearby. He came running up, delighted to see me and amazed at someone landing a plane in his cow pasture.

The man had been born and raised on this land, in this community with his friends. But he had never seen it from the air. And there’s nothing like the view of the land you get from a small plane flying low. He folded into the back seat and up we climbed into the sky. Then we were looking down on the tops of trees and the never-seen views of the landscape fitting together. There was his house, and the barn, and the shed where the boat was built. We circled low around and found the church, the country store, the homes of neighbors and friends, the river nearby. People looked up at us, close enough to wave.

And then I began to climb, circling above his land. The farm diminished and took its place among the neighbor farms, and those diminished and took their place as a patch county. Higher we climbed until his county became a small, unbounded part of the greater Tennessee Valley. We studied the river winding, and how the towns lay, and which town was which, like astronauts or angels. And it was wondrous to my old friend.

All life was wondrous to him, the man from Saint Peter’s Room.

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