Harry’s Last Ride

By Jim Dale

In a small town named Rudd

At the south edge of a large flat plain of rich glacial deposit in north central Iowa lays a small town named Rudd. Half way between Mason City and Charles City you know you are approaching as you travel highway 18 when you see ascending on the horizon several story tall white grain bens of the local Farmer’s Elevator, capacity 2,462,000 bushels of corn. Town population -364. (Give or take a dog and a cat

With a limited business district the town has only two churches, a small Wesleyan and ours First United Methodist. As pastor I am virtually the town Chaplin.

Now in the winter time when the blustery north winds rage across the prairie, as they always do, there is nothing to stop or slow the wind and snow. So we have developed a technique of response. We bundle up, hunker down, stay inside and wait out the storm.

On a winter day

It’s January 1971.

I go to my office one morning to do some indoors relaxed catch up reading. A winter storm is coming. Unless you have livestock to feed no one in their right senses is going out.

Then my phone rings.

(Goodbye right senses.)

“Jim Dale.”

“Rev. Dale, This is Benny Brown. I just carried Harry Schrader into his house. I saw him fall while shoveling snow from his back steps. I don’t know if he is alive or dead. Can you come help?”

“I’ll be right there.”

Harry is an 80 year old member of my parish. Benny lives next door. I jump in my boots, pull on my parka and run the three blocks to Harry’s house.

He’s lying on the kitchen floor. He isn’t breathing. I search for a pulse — can’t find one. I call the nearest Doctor in another town twelve miles south.

The doctor sighs, “There is no way I can get there. Shine a flashlight in his eyes. If they don’t dilate you don’t want him back.”

I do that. There is no response.

Harry’s wife, Laura, is a small, frail woman, but still quite sharp. I put my arm around her shoulder and pray, “Thank you God for Harry’s long and good life. Grant him your mercy and blessing. And grant us your guiding strength.” (That part is more for me than for them). “Amen.”

Laura looks up at me and asks, “Rev. Jim, Will you get Harry to a funeral home today?”

“Laura, I’ll do all that is possible. I promise.”

But that’s the problem. What is possible?

Keep him cool and don’t let him freeze

I call the only funeral home in the area. It’s in another small town seven miles west. Tuffy Sheckler is the funeral director. I know him well. But against this blizzard even Tuffy isn’t so tough.

“There is no way I can come get him, Jim.” he says, “Bring him in if you can, but in the meantime, keep him cool, but don’t let him freeze.”

“Right! Thanks Tuffy!!” I say with a cynical snarl.

OK, how can I get Harry to Nora Springs? I can’t leave him lying on the kitchen floor.

I call the DOT in Charles City (another small town 15 miles to the east), “Can you come open our road?” They decline.

So, I call Jim Krause, Rudd’s volunteer fire chief and Mayor. Rudd has one grader and one truck with a blade. They will open the road. The firemen come and secure Harry to a stretcher. I ran home to get my small station wagon. Harry is my passenger.

At noon we plow forward to the west. One mile out of town highway 18 makes a small dip across little creek. The blizzard is dropping tons of snow there. The truck driver instructs me to wait while they open the road. So I wait…and wait… At 3:00 p.m. they return in a white out. I roll down my window.

“It’s hopeless,” they shout, “it’s blowing back in faster than we can push it out. We’ve got to go back.”

“Rats!” I spin my car around headed back to Rudd. But my mind is still spinning.

“Now what? How long will it take for this storm to blow out? How long after that will it take them to open this road? How am I going to, ‘Keep him cool but not let him freeze’? What am I going to tell Laura?”

A change of luck

Desperately, I look up my friend, Bob Hoover. Bob owns and operates a local chicken hatchery.

“Bob, I have a problem. Do you have a place where I can park my car and control the temperature?” I tell him my dilemma, “Keep him cool, but don’t let him freeze.”

Yes,” Bob says, “We have an insulated garage with a thermostat. You can park there.”

A rush of adrenaline hits me. “Wow!” My first break of the day. Rudd has no police department to investigate the Hatchery so Harry will be safe. I can walk the six blocks home.

As I leave the hatchery I cross the street to “Stile’s Deep Rock”, the town’s only gas station. Surprisingly it’s full of young men. They’re refueling their snowmobiles.

A voice speaks in my head, “If you can’t go through the snow, go over it.”

I ask one of them, “Do snowmobiles have passenger trailers?”

“Sure,” he answers.

I follow up my question with another, “What would be the possibility of giving Harry a ride to Nora Springs?”

Now rural young men are neither trained nor inclined to show feelings. Being tough is their genre. But here is a challenging, daring adventure – an opportunity they can’t pass up. So, with a certain nonchalant bravado they say, “Yeah, we can do that.”

 A thrilling ride

At 6:00 p.m. We meet at Hoover’s hatchery – eight young men, five snowmobiles, one trailer, and Harry and me. We bundle Harry really good. (“Don’t let him freeze”) In fact, Harry might be the warmest of us all.

I am the rider on the last snowmobile. I’ll tell you a secret, “I have never ridden a snowmobile before in my life.” Fortunately, as a rider I can hide behind my pilot who must watch the road and face the wind. Full bearded he soon looks like old man winter himself, with whiskers extending in all directions like a porcupine sculptured in ice.

Off we go, single file, leaning into the dark howling wind and blowing snow, over snow drifts, around abandoned cars and hidden objects, on the highway, into ditches. It is more thrilling than a ride at Adventureland. But our operating staff is absolutely superb.

In less than an hour we skid into Nora, (zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom zoom). We bank right to Sheckler’s Funeral Home and slide to a stop at Tuffy’s back door.

I jump from my saddle and run to ring the doorbell. I look back. I see eight living snowmen, gently lifting Harry from his royal carriage, hoisting him to their shoulders, carrying him up the ramp into Tuffy’s workroom. Ever been to a funeral with eight snowmen as pall bears? It’s a glorious sight.

No storm lasts forever

Tuffy is thrilled. Now, he can make Harry look really good. The Snowmen stand dripping and proudly grinning. They have beaten the blizzard with a good deed.Laura, will be relieved and appreciative. Now Harry will look good at his final “viewing”. But she won’t see this body lying before her when it happens. This is only Harry’s left-behind empty shell.

She will see the dashing young man who 60 years ago stole her heart, swept her off her feet and carried her over a threshold. She will see the man who laughed with her and cried with her as they grew together over those years. She will see the man who only a few days earlier put on his hat and coat to go out and shovel snow off their back steps, …. as he always did.

Now, I know something else, “No storm lasts forever.” In a few days the wind dies, the clouds vanish, the sun comes out against a bright blue sky and casts its rays on spectacularly, breathtakingly, beautiful winter wonderland robed in sparkling pure white. And on that day all Harry’s friends come to give him honor.

But as for Harry, I think I can discern a slight smile on his face, (but perhaps that’s just my own projection.) The word that best describes him is “serene”.

He has laid down his burdens, cast off his troubles and bidden this old world farewell.

Now I see him sitting up in another breathlessly beautiful place. He looks around and asks, “Am I still in Iowa?” I hear a voice say, “Well, yes, sort of. This is Heaven.”

Ah, but what about you and me, as we still travel through a sometimes cold, cruel world? Well, try this small town suggestion: “Keep cool and….don’t freeze up!”