A True Christmas Miracle

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December 2021 Christmas Holidays Story Contest Entry

A True Christmas Miracle

by Jennifer Sue

The backstory is the author’s autobiography. Most names and places have been changed.

During the years after WWII the Raven family, while in many ways typical for the era, was anything but normal. The backstory began in the early spring of 1944. Then 20 year old Chuck Raven’s unit had just completed paratrooper training, allowing him to come home on leave before shipping out to Britain. Lorraine Rees, a stubborn and feisty 17 year old high school junior, had been forbidden to go out with a grown man. After arguing and sent to her bedroom, she locked her door and climbed from her bedroom window to the front porch roof, then eased over the edge to shimmy down a porch column to go out with him. Lorraine dropped out of school at the start of her senior year, giving birth to a son, Leroy, in January 1945. Since Chuck had been sent to Europe, a shotgun wedding had been impossible. Chuck’s parents lived on a farm a mile outside the town of Grantsport, 8 2/3 miles north of Reading, where Lorraine lived. When the weather turned warmer in the spring, she’d bundle her baby and walk the mile long dirt road out to the farm so the infant could meet his grandparents, 2 uncles, and a great grandmother.

Chuck was part of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 17 Airborne Division. His baptism in combat occurred during the Battle of the Bulge when the unit was rushed into the fray from Britain. When the battle ended the unit was pulled to prepare for the last airborne drop of the war, Operation Varsity, to support the ground units the British 21st army crossing the Rhine. Involving more than 16,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft, it was the largest airborne operation in history to be conducted in a single massive wave on a single day in one location. The 507th PIR returned to the US in September 1945 and disbanded. By the time Chuck was discharged and came home he was a war toughened vet who had seen the inhumanity of concentration camps. Like many WWII vets (the scourge of PTSD was only recognized as such in 1980) he buried his denied trauma with heavy beer drinking. The rough life of a combat vet was also evidenced in that he could curse for a half hour not only in English but also French, German and Polish. Having grown up on a farm he’d become quite handy repairing things and after being discharged and returning home was quickly employed as a master mechanic for a car dealer.

The 160 acre Raven farm was the upper 1/2 mile of a 7/8 mile long southwest to northeast valley opening to the Schuylkill River. A spring 1/4 mile above the main farmstead buildings was the source of the small creek coursing down the center of the valley. The valley ranged from altitudes of 320 feet at the creek to 525 feet on the surrounding hilltops. Cattle gazed in pastures on the valley floors while fields of crops climbed the hillsides. A smaller north flowing brook emerged from a small side valley to join the main stream opposite the main farmstead buildings. A 1/4 mile long dirt lane followed the brook to it’s spring where a log cabin stood.

Chuck and Lorraine dated before marrying in 1946. They set up housekeeping in the old log cabin. A daughter, Bree, was born in January 1947. Unfortunately, in June 1948, the toddler slipped out of the log cabin while supposedly napping and drowned in the adjacent spring that supplied the cabin water. Lorraine was devastated by grief and guilt but pushed on with life, becoming pregnant for the third time in 1950. On April 1, 1951, Lorraine went into labor. Stepping from the log cabin, she frantically waved at Chuck who was plowing the fields above the log cabin. Seeing her wave he waved back and continued plowing. Lorraine sent 6 year old Leroy running down the lane to the main farm to get help for his mom. While they made it to the hospital, they didn’t make it to the delivery room, Rusty was born in the elevator.

The birth turned out to be a fit beginning for Rusty. The birth in an elevator set him up for live’s ups and downs. In addition, the fact he was born on April Fool’s Day gave him an excuse for being a bit wacky or eccentric depending on one’s point of view. No one ever said Rusty was normal, a fact in which he reveled.

The small family had bought a 60 feet by 180 lot on rural land 4.75 miles north east of the farm to build a home along a newly constructed 4 lane divided highway, US Route 122, just 1/2 mile north of Perrysville. It was just before the start of the 1951-52 school year when they moved in. While Chuck was working and Leroy at school, Lorraine was home with Rusty. Having lost Bree, she obsessively doted on Rusty. Baby and toddler photos reveal him to be dressed in and coifed in a manner that danced around the boundary of masculine/feminine. No one dared say anything to the feisty woman who could easily stand up to Chuck when needed. In September 1954, 4th child Stormy, was born. With a live daughter, at 3 1/2 years old, Rusty was suddenly shunted off to nineteen fifties rough and tumble boyhood.

Rusty quickly learned the cruel lesson to never behave in a girlish manner, which is what his soul wanted. While Rusty had seen Leroy being disciplined, he’d never experienced it until he’d turned 4. It was a quick and harsh lesson leaving the youngster no doubt that he’d better do whatever his stern father told them to do. As a son of the tough vet, if you were dumb enough to balk, back talk, make snarky comments or heaven forbid failed to do what was ordered, you were lucky to only be smacked across the room. If you were not lucky, the belt was jerked from their father’s waist and folded in half before he’d grab an arm to hoist his target up until they were dancing on their toes as he laid on a painful whipping that only became worse if you tried to resist or flee.

Living 1 mile east of the Schuylkill River and 300 feet west of a tributary creek at an altitude of 370 feet they had their own well and septic system. On August 13, 1955, Hurricane Connie swept through their area dumping between 9 to 12 inches of rain. The river and stream overflowed with the water stopping just 20 feet from their home. Just five days later on August 18, Hurricane Diane swept through further pummeling the area with another 10 to 13 inches of rain. Since the ground was still saturated, the flooding was worse with 2 feet of water in the basement. As the flooding receded, there was a noticeable slump in the lawn above the cesspool which worsened over the next few days until the lid on the cess pool fully collapsed. The smell was worse than the cow manure on the farm. Chuck ordered 9 1/2 year old Leroy climb down a ladder into the 10 feet wide by 10 feet long by 10 feet deep pit half filled busted concrete and raw sewage. With a rope to tie around the concrete fragments, Leroy had to secure the rope around the concrete chunks. Using his pickup truck, one by one, Chuck pulled the jagged chunks of concrete out of the gross miasma. Once most of the chunks Leroy could reach while keeping his head above the surface were pulled out, he climbed out and it was 4 1/3 year old Rusty’s turn to descend into the putrid soup.

Rusty was submerged to his arm pits in the festering slippery noxious soup as shredded soggy toilet paper and turds floated aimlessly about him as thousands of flys furiously buzzed about. Leroy stood on the top edge to lower a 5 gallon bucket tied to the end of the rope. Rusty had to tip the bucket to submerge it into the fetid consomme. Rusty stood beneath the bucket to help push it up as far as he could reach as Leroy pulled the filled bucket to the surface. Rusty quickly learned to only fill the bucket to 4 inches from the top as the weight was too much for Leroy to haul up without slopping the excess effluent onto Rusty’s head and face. Leroy placed the bucket into their Radio Flyer wagon to haul it 80 feet back to the family vegetable garden where he poured the noxious mixture between the rows of veggies. (For the next 3 years the family vegetable garden flourished.)

When Chuck came home from work, he checked the progress. When the effluent level dropped low enough to reveal the remaining concrete chunks, Leroy climbed in the pit to tie them with ropes so Chuck could pull them out. It took the two lads 4 days to bail out the fly attracting malodorous pit... during a muggy August Pennsylvania during which the temperature stayed well above 90 degrees F. During that time, the family could not use the wastewater plumbing because it would flow into the cess pool. The family did their business in buckets and washed off outside with cold well water from a hose. Needless to say, Leroy and Rusty stank. However, from that day onward obnoxious odors never fazed Rusty.

Just 7 months later on an early Sunday morning, a skunk fell into the basement window hole just below the bedroom the brothers shared. While the stench was horrendous. Thanks to the cesspool disaster the brothers were only a bit discomforted. Chuck ordered 10 year old Leroy to get the skunk out while he headed to the family farm to help with the spring plowing and planting. When Leroy balked, Chuck pulled off his belt, folded it in half, and laid into Leroy. Unfortunately but rather expected, the well whipped lad received the skunk’s plentiful terrified wrath as he managed to evict the errant skunk. Washing with lemon juice and tomato soup did little to erase the stench. The clothes he’d worn were burned. As the boys shared a bed, Rusty was not able to escape the smell, although he did tolerate it. The next day Leroy was sent home from school until the lingering stench dissipated.

In 1957 Chuck took the family on their one and only vacation. This was back before interstate highways so even the best roads were 2 line blacktop that went through every town along the route. Just after the sun came up they loaded up in the 1953 ford, 11 year old Leroy, 3 year old Stormy and 6 year old Rusty in the rear seat. Stopping only for fuel and restrooms they ate sandwiches Loraine had packed. When night began to fall, they pulled into a motel piling into a single 2 bed room for the night. The next day they were on the rode at first light, crossing into Canada at mid-morning. They pulled into a scenic overlook between the 2 falls exiting the car to stand at the fencing looking at the American and Horseshoe falls. After 15 minutes, Chuck said, “Well, we’ve seen it, let’s go.” With that they bundled back into the car and drove straight home, arrivng well after midnight.

February 1958 was a winter Rusty could never forget. A blizzard struck on the 15th-16th dropping 19 inches of snow topped by a 1/2 inch of ice on top. The family dug out and went on with their lives. A second blizzard blew on the 20th-21st dropping around 24 inches accompanied by high winds. The second storm paralyzed the region with the power failing for a week. The winds blew the latest snow over the frozen remnants of the first storm with little hindrance. At the single story Raven family home the snow virtually buried the place. The snow had piled up to the roof line burying the doors and windows trapping the family inside with no power.

Chuck went into the attic, opened the side attic window, 10 feet above the ground and peered at the snow just 2 feet below. The rest of the family had followed and all peered outside at the frigid landscape. Then he called Leroy over and told him to lean out to see how deep it was at the corner of the house. As soon as he had his torso out, Chuck grabbed him by the belt and heaved him out the window. “You can get back in when you dig out the back door. Loraine rushed downstairs to grab Leroy’s boots, coats and gloves which she then threw out to her shivering eldest. It took Leroy 3 hours to dig the back door open.

For as long as Rusty could remember he was jealous of his sister’s girlishness. As long as he played the male role, he was occasionally allowed to play house her. This served to simultaneously ease the angst of his hidden feminine longing while also aggravating the inability to openly express his denied longing. At the same time, since he had few natural masculine inclinations, his only manly role models were his brother and father. Leroy ignored him since he started 7th grade in junior high when Rusty started 1st grade. That left his tough as nails father who kept a tight reign on his emotions while being a hard working, often profane vet. In an effort to emulate that manly image, Rusty threw himself into military mimicry. Hours were spent playing ‘army’ where he could be the tough guy. When asked what he wanted for Christmas or birthday gifts, his answer was always toy soldiers, 1/32, 54mm scale 2 1/8 inch high figures in various poses with good guys and the enemy. Such play became his go to activity using the play violence as a vent for his frustration as well as proving he was all boy!

During elementary school, the conflicted lad did not have an easy time making friends although he was on friendly terms with his classmates. With one exception he would lead a life of not having any close friends. In school he was an enigma and a loner. Unlike most students, he was never afraid to ask questions or offer answers to questions the teacher’s asked. His grades were amongst the best in his class, sports held no attraction or interest, which, when coupled with his gender issues, left little in common with his male classmates. While never part of a clique, he drifted closer to the nerdy outcasts.

Chuck was a functional alcoholic. He would not drink before or during work but afterwards was a different story. Every Friday afternoon Lorraine loaded the kids into the Flamingo pink 1953 Ford Victoria. She’d drive down route 122 towards Chuck’s car dealership employer, slowing at every bar to see if his pickup was in the lot. When she found it, she stopped, went inside, dragged Chuck out and followed him home to make sure no other bars called him into their parking lot. It was the only way she could save him from spending his paycheck on booze since once he had a buzz on, others knew they could easily talk him into buying rounds for everyone. Lorraine finally insisted he buy cases of beer and consume it at home. Over the coming years, his PTSD fueled alcoholism eventually led him to stagger to bed every night as he consumed 3 cases of 24 bottles of beer a week. Later, a home tap was purchased going through a quarter barrel of beer a week.

The family ranch home was 24 feet wide and 32 feet long. A few years later an additional lot of land next door was purchased and a detached 2 bay personal garage was built with a 4 inch thick concrete patio slab with steel mesh reinforcement 16 feet by 24 feet between the 2 buildings. A few years later the next adjacent lot was purchased next door to the personal garage where a 40 feet long by 28 feet deep 2 bay gas/service station was constructed which increased the lawn size to an acre.

Leroy was 14 and Rusty was 9 when the service station was built in 1960. The price of gasoline was $.26 per gallon when they opened. As such both were expected to help out. Back then while school uniforms were not required, polishable tie shoes, socks, pressed pants and a front button shirt were expected. After school they’d put on work clothes and go to the shop where Leroy worked on vehicles while Rusty swept the floors, wiped up oil spills, washed gunky parts and most importantly, tended to the gas pumps. This was back in the days an attendant pumped the gas for customers, washed their windshields and checked their oil. A 3-step folding ladder was stored between the pumps to allow him to reach the windshield. Unfortunately Chuck Raven thought his sons should be able to perform top notch mechanical service with little to no training. At 14, Leroy and their dad did not work well together. Chuck never gave the boys praise, but every time a mistake was made, he’d hit them with a harsh profanity laced tirade. Leroy often yelled back, which sometimes devolved into physical fisticuffs, which occurred with increasing frequency as the years passed.

For the first 3 years, 1960-1963 the successful business was open 7 days a week from 7am to 10pm with Leroy and later Rusty tending to the gas pumps alone from 6pm to 10pm. In 1964 they dropped to 6 days with hours between 7am and 8pm. From 1965 onward they went to 5 days a week with hours of 8am to 6pm.

An intersesting sidelight is the difference in the siblings. The English Raven genes resulted in heights of 60 to 68 inches while the Welsh Rees genes resulted in heights of 68 to 76. Leroy's size was dictated by the shorter Raven genes while Rusty's came from the taller Rees genes. As is often the case, the younger brother wears the hand-me-downs of the elder brother. When Rusty was in 6th grade, he was wearing the clothes Leroy had worn the year before when he'd been a senior. By the time Leroy returned from military service, he jokingly and a bit bitterly referred to him as his big little brother. (By the end of their growth, Leroy was 5 feet 7 inches while Rusty was 5 feet 10 inches.)

Leroy graduated in 1962 and left the business in January 1963 after enlisting in the national guard. Chuck simply used 12 year old Rusty to replace his older brother. Like his older brother, Rusty’s working relationship with his father was like fire and ice. The profanity laced beratings now were his. However, Rusty was intelligent and had learned from watching the oft bloody turmoil with Leroy. When his dad began yelling and lambasting him, he simply ignored it and blithely continuing to work which only frustrated and infuriated Chuck who could not understand why the lad never protested or showed anger. The family had no idea this placid ability to control and shrug off anger was an ability Rusty had developed to hide his innate feminine desires.

During the first few years to give the family business a boost, Chuck signed on with a trucking company to service flat tires on their tractor-trailers between Reading and Pottsville along Route 61. For the first 2 1/2 years Leroy assisted Chuck, then it became Rusty’s task. It wasn’t unusual to have service calls during the middle of the night all year round. When roused from bed, the boys had to dress, open the 1956 F100 ford pickup’s tailgate, drag a 2x10 plank to the tailgate to create a ramp, then retrieve a spare tractor-trailer from the service station, roll it up the ramp to lie it flat in the truck bed. Next a rugged wire milk crate filled with 4x4 lumber in lengths between 10 to 16 inches had to go into the bed along with the 25 pound 20 ton bottle jack hydraulic pump. The 2x10 plank was removed, the tailgate closed, then slid into the truck bed sticking up above the tailgate. All that had to be completed before Chuck gathered his tools. Once at the tractor trailer, Chuck dealt with the driver while the boys lowered the tailgate, drug the plant to form a ramp, then roll the replacement tire down the ramp and to the wheel needing replacement. (God help you if the tire got away going down the ramp.) Then the crate with 4x4s and the jack taken to the flat. After the repair, the procedure had to be reversed. Rusty was 12 on his first road call so the tires nearly weighed as much as he did.

In the spring of 1963, upon going to the service station after school, Chuck gave Rusty a twenty pound sledge hammer and a seventeen pound six feet long steel digging bar telling him: “They’re coming tomorrow to dig out for an addition to the house. Break up the patio... and don’t forget to watch the pumps!”

Knowing he had no choice, Rusty set to the task, taking out his long suppressed angst by swinging the sledge hammer. Fortunately he didn’t miss any gas customers, taking advantage of them to get a legitimate break. Starting at 3:30, it took five hours to complete the task. Only then was he allowed to eat.

Despite the yelling and harsh discipline the family was always well fed and housed. In the early spring of 1964, one night at supper Chuck asked Rusty and Stormy if they’d like a swimming pool. Naturally they both said yes. It turned out Sears had an in ground pool kit, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, 3 feet deep at one end tapering down to 8 feet at the other. Chuck staked out the dimensions for excavation, then gave the kids the wheelbarrow, pick and shovels. Since Stormy was 10, she could barely dig into the shale clay Earth. The duo worked for 2 weeks digging down 2 feet. By that time the kit arrived and a contractor arrived to complete the dig with Chuck saying he just wanted to see if they really wanted the pool. A contractor and backhoe completed the excavation and construction.

Once the pool was completed and filled, since Rusty had not yet learned how to swim, Chuck picked him up and threw him into the middle of the deep end of the pool before walking away to get another beer. Needless to say Rusty learned how to swim or this tale would never have been written.

All through his unique education, Rusty pushed his denied but unyielding feelings of femininity down, but the desire tenaciously held on. All through his schooling he jealously watched the girls giggling and playing hop scotch, jacks and jumping rope. At that time most girl wore dresses or skirts every day which tore at his inner angst. During the “duck and cover” practices during the cold war ere of the late 50s and early 60s where the students crawled beneath their desks, while the other boys used the opportunity to peak beneath their female classmates skirts, a confused Rusty embarrassingly found himself wishing he was one of the girls.

Other than cub scouts, Rusty never played organized sports and certainly didn’t follow any sports. He buried himself in work and voracious eclectic reading which provided a much wider range of knowledge and considerably more common sense and self confidence than his classmates. A fast learner he found most classes to be repetitive and boring, quite often he would read ahead or draw while keeping a corner of his consciousness on the class. Many teachers took delight in catching inattentive students, but Rusty was never caught out.

Rusty developed a stoic attitude of suppressed emotions that found release in his military fantasy play. Because of the daily work out in the garage, he was lean, tough, flexible with superb stamina and strength. In junior high phys-ed classes they often played the seasonal sport. It was not unusual for him to out perform the guys who played on the school teams. The gym teachers who doubled as the team coaches repeatedly urged him to join the teams.

As incoming 7th graders, they were introduced to the sadistic phys-ed teacher. His favorite fall game was a game called speedball, a combination of soccer and football, which was played for six weeks of the twice a week class. His version started out like soccer with the round ball, but if the ball was kicked into the air, it could be caught and carried and passed until it touched the ground. While tackling technically was not allowed, but as long as the players were after the ball, collisions were accepted as long as the ball was involved. Once the class understood the game dynamics, the soccer ball was exchanged for a football. Needless to say dribbling a football is quite unpredictable. The testosterone fueled guys thrived on the inherent violence while the boys who avoided ferocity clearly shied away from the action. This left the jocks and the tough guy school bullies to have at each other. As usual Rusty was the odd man out, his normal quiet stoicism and avoidance of conflict disappeared. The potential violence drew him as a light draws moths. Fueled by his denied gender angst, Rusty didn’t care if he got hurt or injured, he dove into the game with seldom expressed glee. By the end of the 2nd week the intensity of his bloodthirsty smile and the maniacal gleam in his eyes intimidated the rest of the class. By the end of the third week anyone who saw Rusty charging the ball got rid of it before he steamrolled them. The team he was on did their best to get the ball to Rusty because he simply ran over anyone who attempted to block him, usually scoring, his team won every game. When he was bloodied during the game, he ignored it and continued on, often lapping the blood as it poured from his nose. By the end of the fourth week, he’d earned the nickname Animal.

Since he was still outside the cliques, the jocks and bullies most certainly did not appreciate his seeming prowess. When they tried to put him in his place they discovered Rusty was not cowed. As he did with his dad, he usually blithely ignored their macho posturing and taunts. It only took two times, during 8th grade, of getting him in a corner where he couldn’t walk away before they learned to just let him be. The maniacal smile and fierce glare of anticipation returned. Rusty ignored his injuries as he took on 4 guys. Again he lapped up the blood pouring from his nose which seemed to fuel his released violence. If they knocked him down he’d roll back to his feet. While he didn’t win either multiple opponent fight, he most certainly did not lose. While bloodied and bruised, his opponents were more so and fled they fight. The good thing was his reputation for being an ‘animal’ convinced anyone who wanted to fight him to not do so.

While stern and unemotional, Chuck set all the kids up with a $100 car when they reached age 16. The vehicles were put in the names of the kids and they had to get insurance and pay all the expenses. If they didn’t like the vehicle, tough shit, they were free to trade it in and get what they wanted. Rusty received a 1958 Mercury Montery Turnpike Cruiser, a virtual tank. At 211 inches long by 79 inches wide standing 57 inches tall, it was powered by a 383ci engine putting out 330 hp. Weighing in at 4320 pounds, the car could fly, acceleration ogf 0- 60 mph in 8.1 seconds with a top speed of 125 mph achieving an average fuel economy of 10.7 miles/gallon.

While his grades were good enough to get into college, they were not good enough to get any scholarships. Rusty wanted to go to college, but his parents, since neither completed high school, were not supportive making it clear they would not pay for his continued education. Rusty knew he would have to pay his own way through college.

To get away from his father and earn money for college, in September of his senior year Rusty landed a part time job at a local bleach and dye works 3/4 mile from his home earning $1.60 per hour working 6 hours every night after school enabling him to stop working in the service station. When he turned 18 in April he went full time, 8 hours every night after school plus 5 hours on Saturdays while finishing high school.

His employer had an annual banquet for the workers and a significant other. Since he’d been working since age 9, he’d never had time much less the desire to date anyone. Then there is the fact he simply didn’t feel comfortable dating a girl and was terrified of being turned down if he did ask anyone for a date. Rusty’s co-workers pressured him to find a date.

The next day at school, a girl he’d known since second grade, Jan, now a junior and a member of the art club, was asking everyone she knew to come to the art club dance. The two knew each other from the cub scouts, he'd joined as a second grader and she tagged along because her mother was the den mother for her older brother's den. Rusty was drawn to her girlishness. In what looked like the way many young boys innocently flirted with girls, before the Cub meetings began, Rusty pushed her on a swing making her squeal as he pushed her too high. There were may times he'd gently tug her braided pigtails. The reality was that he was drawn to her girlishness.

The banquet was on a Saturday and the dance the following Friday. Rusty thought he might make a deal with Jan. “I’ll take you to the dance if you come to the banquet my work is putting on.”

She accepted and those events were their first 2 dates. They simply continued dating. When he asked her for a date on a Sunday, she said no because she taught Sunday School at her church. From that Sunday onward she had an assistant teacher. (52 years later he’s still there.) Sunday School was held from 9-10am while the church service began at 10:15am.

It was at that point Lorraine announced she was pregnant. Because of the unexpected pregnancy. Rusty’s parents now had an even better excuse for not helping with his college expenses. Katy was born in October 1969 during his freshman year of college, the older living siblings were 15, 18, and 25. She even had a 5 year old nephew and a 4 year old niece.

After graduating HS, Rusty enrolled in nearby Kutztown State College (now Kutztown University), just 12 miles from his home. The tuition was $358 for his 1st and 2nd semesters and $260 for summer classes, $393 for the 3rd and 4th semester sand $275 for summer classes, $432 for the 5th and 6th semesters and $302 for summer classes, and $475 dollars for his 7th and final semester, which came from saved earnings of his employment. He’d wake at 6am, take classes between 8am and 2:30pm, then headed to work in the bleach & die works from 3pm to 11pm. Upon graduating HS, Jan enrolled in the same college. The pair commuted together. During her last year of HS and first year of college she worked a cash register in a local shop after school.

After his second knee surgery in 1971, Rusty and Jan both switched employment to a department store in Reading working full time after schooling. This created a triangular commute of 12 miles home to school, 13 miles from school to work and 11 miles from work to home. Jan and Rusty saved on room and board by living with their respective parents, just 1 mile apart. While working full time, both attended college year round and took up to 7 classes each semester (with one at 8 classes as well as attending summer classes taking 4 classes. (Back then there was no extra charge for taking more than the normal classes per semester.) With that heavy class load, both were able to graduate at the end of the fall semester of their senior year with teaching degrees. Unfortunately, there was a glut of prospective teachers and a scarcity of openings. Country wide with his degree in Comprehensive Social Studies, Rusty was 1 of 19,000 graduates with similar degrees while there were only 2000 open teaching jobs. After graduating in the Fall of 1972 Rusty landed a supervisor position with a local manufacturer.

When Jan graduated after her fall semester in 1973 the Friday before Christmas. The couple married the next day and set up their married lives. They had dated for 4 1/2 years. After years of substitute teaching, Jan finally landed a full time teaching position in 1982 just as Amy started school. During that time they became quite active in their church, emerging as devoted members willing to take on nearly any task. They became the Somebodies of the Church, as in “Why doesn’t somebody do this (or that).

With working, education, and dating Rusty had virtually no time to think about his gender dichotomy. It was while in college that he was finally able to self-admit to a powerful feminine need but once again he mostly shoved it dowm. Rusty's gender dysphoria occasionally reared it's head but the only thing he could do was surreptitiously buy small 5 by 7 inch paperback booklets with Transvestite/crossdressing and transgender themes. These gave a tiny bit of relief.

Due to his family being functional alcoholics, which he recognized, Rusty never touched alcohol. With his school, work and church schedules he never had time to party. However he realized he had many of the same compulsive issues that went along with alcoholism. Rusty loved Coca-Cola but found he couldn’t nurse a drink, once opened, the drink was downed within 3 maybe 4 minutes. At the same time he couldn’t sit without a drink when those around him drank so he’d crack open another can of Coke. The compulsiveness extended to food. Once he ate, he’d be snacking he rest of the day. As a result he stopped eating breakfast and lunch. Until he was in his mid-40s, his normal daily breakfast was 2 cans of Coke with another 2 cans for lunch. Additionally a can of Coke was consumed at morning break with another for afternoon break. Arriving home from work meant another Coke. Supper, his only meal of the day. involved a further 2 cans of Coke. A last can was consumed before bed. On many days a few more Cokes hit the spot. Rusty consumed between 10 to 12 cans of Coke a day. Instead of an alcoholic, Rusty was a Coke-aholic. When his metabolism slowed, in order to avoid putting on weight, he began cutting back on the Cokes so that by the time he was 65, he’d reduced to a single can a Coke a day.

In 1977, the couple bought a fixer upper home originally built in 1900. Rusty replaced the entire plumbing, and electrical systems. Jan’s father died in 1984 so it fell to the young couple to maintain her parents home for her mother and 9 years younger heavily asthmatic brother, Martin. This meant mowing and snow shoveling and a 38 mile round trip. The couple had a daughter, Amy, born in June 1977, never had a babysitter as the couple worked opposite shifts. They only took 1 vacation, when the Amy was 4. Except for their employment, the couple went everywhere together.

In 1979 Rusty discovered Biblical Archaeology Review put out by the Biblical Archaeolgy Society and became a subscriber. This led to subscribing to the magazine Archaeology published by the Archaeological Institute of America. Both spoke to his interest in history.

In 1983 the family bought it’s first computer, a Commodore 64 with cassette tape recorder for program and data storage. In 1990 they upgraded to an Apple II. For Rusty it proved a relief valve. For the first time he was able to vent his gender issues and frustrations by writing his own TG/TS stories.

Also by 1990 the burden of maintaining the home of Jan’s mother and brother was past burdensome. They decided to build a 2 story 16 by 36 feet wide addition with basement to their home to move them into it with a galley kitchen, washer and dryer, and a full bathroom. The basement, shell and roof were done by a contractor, the interior was done by Rusty with Jan and Amy helping. This included gutting and removing the furnace, pipes and radiators of the 90 year old coal converted to oil fired hot water heating system. While a HVAC contractor installed a heat pump HVAC system with a 400 gallon hot water back up (practical since it heated only during the off peak time of day electric service), Rusty ran all the duct work and registers, retrofitting the original building while adding a central vacuum system in the same chasesnthroughout. Rusty installed all the plumbing and electrical work, insulated the exterior walls, installed the drywall, ceilings and floors. The projected started in May of 1990, the in-laws moved in that December.

Amy graduated in 1995 and went off to college in Connecticut and later settled there. Jan’s mom passed away in the spring of 1997. Unfortunately Jan had been diagnosed with MS July of 1997. Rusty and Jan finally took their long neglected honeymoon to NYC on their 25th anniversary. Their hotel room overlooked Times Square. To make it easier on Jan, they used a manual wheelchair for her so she’d save energy during their daytime activities which allowed her to walk to the nearby Broadway shows. They saw 5 shows in 4 days watching the 1998/1999 Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop from the comfort of their room.

Between 1970 and 1988, Rusty had 8 surgeries on his right knee. By 1990 he needed the final surgery, a full knee replacement as there was no cartilage in the joint. However he was deemed too young at age 39. For the next 10 years he continued on, the bone to bone grinding with each step created bone stress fractures, collapse, healing and repeat so that by 2000 his tibia had shrunk an inch with a equally sized lump pushing out on the inside of the tibia. The knee was successfully replaced and since he had persevered in his mobility, he was able to return to work in 6 weeks.

At church Jan became the head of the Sunday School in 1980 with Rusty as her assistant. In January 1991 Rusty became a member of the church board. Two months later, the 79 year old respected elder statesman of the church who had been serving as church treasurer for years, asked Rusty to become his assistant explaining that at his age the position was becoming to much for him. Rusty was honored and agreed. Just 3 months later the elder gentleman announced he had terminal cancer and had no choice but to resign and had trained Rusty to succeed him. Rusty became treasurer and 4 months later the older man passed. The relatively pastor was proving inept creating issues. Things came to a head when the pastor messed up the 1992 Christmas Eve Service. By the January board meeting they knew the pastor had to go. When the meeting began, the president and VP promptly resigned declaring they couldn’t handle the situation and left. The remaining board members were leaderless and stunned. After exchanging glances they all began looking at Rusty since as treasurer he was the only remaining officer. They promptly elected him to be the new President with his first job being to fire the pastor. For 3 years Rusty served as president and treasurer. Starting in 1996, Rusty and another man rotated the presidency and vice presidency of the church board every year for the next 8 years. During that same time, he became the treasurer of the Sunday School as well as the memorial fund, position he still holds.

Jan’s MS was slowly progressing. Thanksgiving 2000 there was heavy rain and freeze. Jan slipped on the ice, landing hard on her left hip. She refused to get it checked and stubbornly pushed on. By January she could no longer walk so Rusty helped her wash and dress, loaded her into the car, took her to school, put her in the manual wheelchair and took her to her classroom. Then he drove 28 miles to work. Ten hours later the procedure was reversed. Finally on the last day of the school year, the pain became so intense she couldn’t continue and allowed herself to finally be taken into the hospital.

During that time Jan also stubbornly continued her efforts at church where she ran the Sunday School and a children’s church program. Every week Rusty helped her dress, wheeled her to their minivan, drove to church, then hauled her to the church basement, 13 steps up from the sidewalk to the church then down 14 steps into the basement. Everyone was well aware that Rusty had had a knee replacement just 4 months before but he simply pushed through with Jan gritting her teeth as she was gently bounced up or down each step. The couple felt compelled to continue their efforts for the kids.

After 6 weeks of this up and down trek, and older member of the church stepped forward and thanked them for their effort. Then he informed them he’d wanted to do something significant for the church in memory of his late wife. Then he said he would put up the money to add an elevator to the church. Within 6 months the church had a ramp sloping into the basement and an elevator up to the sanctuary as well as accessible restrooms.

Jan’s diagnosis was 2 fractured vertebrae which resulted in nerve damage paralyzing her from the waist down. The doctors eventually used bone cement to fuse the fractured vertebrae. In addition, the muscle on her left thigh and buttocks that she’d severely bruised in the fall had not healed, in fact, the blood in black & blue area had calcified turning to bone and effectively fusing her hip, a condition called Myositis Ossificans. After beig hospitalized 40 days they managed to stabilize her and mitigate some of the the pain. During that time, Rusty continued working at his job, visited Jan every night, went to church every week, built a 30 feet long roofed ramp over the 5 steps into the house and tore apart the downstairs laundry/powder room, converting it to a tiled roll in shower. The dining room became Jan’s bedroom with hospital bed and manual patient lift.

For the next 9 years, Rusty worked full time, stayed active in their Church, and took full care of Jan with the exception of nurses who came in once a month to change her catheter. Since she was unable to release her bowels, it was Rusty’s daily job to manually evacuate her bowels with his fingers. He laughed about doing it, saying he was the luckiest husband in the world since his wife’s doctors had literally given him permission to be a pain in his wife’s butt!

The company that supplied their medical equipment were impressed by all that Rusty did to make their home as accessible. They needed a new person to head their customer service department who had supervisory experience and knew the trials and tribulations of patients. It was a match since Rusty was still traveling 56 miles every day to work leaving Jan alone but set up and intercom and a remote to unlock the door, and adequate snacks and drinks. The new job was 1 mile away allowing him to come home for lunch.

Jan knew the MS was taking her but insisted she wanted to stay in their home. Her faith was so strong she insisted she was not dying, that she was preparing to graduate from this life to the next. She also told him she’d be waiting for him in heaven but that he should take his time. She gently passed at home in June 2010.

All during that time Rusty continued to surreptitiously write TG/TS themed stories. Several he submitted to Echo Publications which published 19 of his stories under the pseudonym of Jennifer Sue. After they went out of business Empathy Press, Reluctant Press, Mags Inc, and DPF published Jennifer Sue’s writings. With the advent of the internet, Jennifer Sue posted new stories to Fictionmania beginning in January 1999. In December of 2008 her new stories began to be posted to Big Closet Top Shelf. These stories proved to be a tremendous release for Rusty’s gender issues.

While he never regretted his married life, after Jan passed Rusty found himself alone. The previous 40 years had been as a part of a devoted pair where every major decision in his life had been in consultation and agreement with Jan. For the first time in his life he had to make decisions on his own. It took him 6 months to figue out what he wanted to do. The long suppressed dysphoria now could be freely expressed... only it wasn’t. By this time Rusty was a realist. In the mirror, he saw a physically battered slightly overweight 59 year old bearded man. Over the years he’d created an image of his female self. He knew there was no way he could satisfactorily transition to his true female self in a way he could accept. With the stubborness he’d developed, he decided it would be too frustrating to even try to transition since he’d never be satisfied with the results. The reading of other’s TG/TS writing coupled with his own writing of TG/TS stories had served to see him through his married life. He decided it would see him through the rest of his life.

Rusty had stayed active in church although he gave up the rotating president/vice president office in 2004 while still staying on the church board and continued working at the medical supply store. The pastor at the church retired in 2010. The rotating supply pastors couldn’t teach the confirmation class. Confirmation was a 2 year program and he retired after the first year of the current class. Rusty volunteered to teach the program if no one else could be found. For the next 5 years he taught the confirmands until the new pastor took over. Several of the students were the grandchildren of the kids he’d taught in Sunday School with Jan. In 2012 he had the torn cartilage in his left knee replaced. His first real vacation happened in during the summer of 2013, a 2 week archeological vacation to Israel and Jordan. While he enjoyed the trip, the fact much of the walking during the tours was on sand, he began to suffer from increasing severe foot drop. The foot drop was eliminated in 2014 by laminectomy surgery in his lower back to release the pressure on pinched nerves causing severe sciatica and foot drop.

A most pleasant 2 week self tour solo vacation was taken in the early summer of 2015. The timing was to indulge Rusty’s historical and TG/TS literary interests Day 1 was flying across the Atlantic landing at Heathrow, renting a car, then driving 101 miles to Dover to tour the cliffs. After overnighting in a B&B, Day 2 was a 130 mile drive to Cambridge with a visit to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, then to the Imperial War Museum ending with 117 miles to an Inn at Sheffield. Day 3 was a self guided tour tracing many of the early bicycling routes and stumping grounds of one of his favorite fiction characters, Drew/Gaby. Starting at Cuckney (of Gaby’s time trial fame), then on to Warsop and Church Warsop with a stop at the Carrs, then through Meden Vale to Cumber Park and environs. The 27 mile excursion concluded with a tour of Creswell Crags before a 58 a mile drive to a B&B outside York. Day 4 was a trip to the National Railway Museum followed by a walking trip to the Micklegate and a amble of the City Walls, then up Micklegate Road to Bridge Street crossing the Ouse River then onto the Yorvik Viking Center before retracing his steps back to the parking at the Railway Museum. The day ended with a drive 129 mile to a hotel in Hayden Bridge just south of the Scottish border.

Day 5 began with a drive to Vindolanda, a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, now an active archeological site with museum and some historical reconstructions. The morning was spent touring the site and exhibits. The afternoon saw a visit to nearby Cawfield Quarry on Harian’s Wall with a walk along the wall remnants to Milecastle 42. The fantastic views from the wall revealed miles of the area north of the wall into Scotland. The last part of the day’s tour consisted of a visit to the nearby Roman Army Museum, overall a 13 mile drive. The day ended with a 119 mile drive to a hotel in Livingston, Scotland. Day 6 began with a trip to the Kelpies and Falkirk Wheel with a boat ride on the wheel. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltFvVBwLPoI) The last site of the day was the Battle of Bannockburn Heritage Center, an overall drive of 30 miles. The day ended with a 113 mile trip across Scotland to a hotel on the Coastal Road in Stanraer, Scotland.

Day 7 began at the Stena Line terminal to take the Cairnryan-Belfast ferry to Northern Ireland. Once off the ferry a 113 mile drive through Northern Ireland into Ireland and Dublin ended at the National Museum of Ireland. Another Stena line Ferry was boarded at the Port of Dublin bound for Holyhead in Wales and a 1am check-in at a hotel. Day 8 was a late start then a 228 mile drive to a B&B in Salisbury, England. The long trip was broken up by a stop and tour at Conwy Castle. Day 9 was a bus tour, first to Stonehenge then the remains of the Iron Age hill fort at Old Sarum. Then came a 39 mile trip to a B&B in Dorchester. After checking in, he headed to the 2015 Gabycon welcome meal at Judge Jeffreys Chambers where he met Maddy Bell, author of his favorite Gaby stories. In addition he met 2 other favorite authors, Angharad and Beverly Taff as well as people from diverse areas of the UK and Germany. Rusty, the 9th member of the group was the sole USA representative.

Day 10, the 1st full day of the Gabycon, those with bikes rode from Dorchester to Wyemouth with the rest going by car with a rendezvous point at Radipole Nature Reserve.
café at Sandsfoot Castle, a 16th century fort built by Henry VIII, for tea and bacon sarnies then explored the site. Then they headed toward Isle of Portland seeing and crossing Chesil Bank, the 24 mile long pebble beach protecting the mainland. They stopped at the Cove House Inn atop the windblown end of Chesil for a pub lunch. A short walk brought them to the cozy Chiswell Walled Garden for readings by 2 authors. A short trip to Portland Castle, another of Henry VIII’s forts, this one almost intact. Was enjoyed. They returned to Dorchester for a friendly evening meal with more readings.

Day 11 saw the continuation of the Gabycon at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton where Maddy read the first chapter of the new Gaby Book 14. After a great couple of days the Gabycon sadly ended with the new friends saying goodbye. The 2015 Gabycon had been the highlight of Rusty’s vacation. Day 12 began with a 110 mile drive back to Heathrow and the flight home. Rusty has driven over 1300 miles.

The vacation confirmed Rusty’s decision to mollify his gender dysphoria with reading and writng TG/TS literature. He’d met understanding kindred souls. But between work and church his life was still hectic. In December of 2015 his left Knee was replaced. Being 64 years old, 15 years older than the right knee replacement, the recovery took 3 months instead of the previous 6 weeks. Returning to work in mid March, as he approached his 65th birthday, Rusty began to think about the possibility of retiring, or at least cutting back hours. In mid May 2016 he couldn’t catch his breath at work. After 6 hours, he headed to the Hospital Emergency Ward where he was admitted. The doctors were mystified that the only symptom of heart disease he’d had was the shortness of breath. Test after test over 3 days showed anomalies but no smoking gun. As a last resort before discharge, they performed a heart catheterization which showed 3 blocked heart arteries. Upon waking up from the open heart surgery he discovered he’d been worse than the test suggested having had a sextuple bypass. Fortunately, because he went in at the first sign of trouble, he had not had a heart attack, thus he breezed through the therapy.

During those weeks he debated retiring, but felt guilty. Rusty had been working since age 9 and really didn’t know how to stop. The week before he was to be discharged from the therapy and be able to return to work, his employer called him. They’d sold the business and all employees were laid off. Rusty chuckled and looked heavenward, saying, “I hear you God.” Since he was laid off he was entitled to 6 months of unemployment compensation which ended 1 month before his 66th birthday when he was eligible for full retirement. On April 1, 2017, Rusty officially retired.

That summer Rusty took a road trip vacation with his daughter who came down from Connecticut from Pennsylvania south to Florida stopping at Luray Caverns in Virginia, Carolina Tiger Rescue, a big cat sanctuary in North Carolina, then on to South Carolina where they watched the total eclipse of the sun, then to Florida to Big Cat Rescue, another big cat sanctuary in Tampa, ending with a visit to Cape Kennedy Space Center before heading back home.

While still active in Church and on it’s board, serving as president of the church board. By this time he had emerged as the respected elder of the church, the elder statesman. While the church had been conservative back in the 50's, younger people like Jan and Rusty had slowly but steadily turned it to a more open outlook while not abandoning their past. Several local gay people began attending and soon joined. When the national denomination came out in support of LGBTQ peoples as open and affirming churches, many local churches indignantly opted out joining more conservative denominations. While Rusty’s church did not go full in for open and affirming LGBTQ, they decided not to turn LGBTQ folk away. After Jan passed, Rusty continued encouraging openness and inclusion. While he had no problems speaking up and leading, Rusty was satisfied with his life as a loner, only joining in church social activities when gently coerced to do so.

Retirement did not sit well with Rusty who still felt guilty for no longer working, so after 6 months he signed up to become a school bus driver. The school was eager for new drivers and provided the training and CDL licencing. The Covid quarantine put a hole 4 month hole in the 3 years he drove, but he enjoyed the 2 hour morning and afternoon double runs of an elementary and high school load. Aged 70 at the end of the 2020/2021 school year, with his right artificial knee 21 years old and his sciatic flaring up, he decided to take what he felt would be his last sizeable vacation, a 2 week Amtrak Tour that included side trips to Yellowstone Park, Yosemite Park, and the Grand Canyon with stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The vacation was wonderful but extremely fatiguing. Upon returning home he resumed driving school quickly discover the drivers seat was not ergonomic and the constant bouncing made his sciatic flare up to the point he had trouble walking, forcing him to stop driving school bus at the end of October, 2021.

(This is the end of the author's autobiography. As this portion has shown, Rusty is anything but normal. With a powerful sense of responsibility and knowing right from wrong, he never let himself drop into depression nor did he let his manifold physical issues slow him down although they forced him to adapt they never stopped him. His mantra was Semper Gumby. At the same time he met societal gender expectations, he vocally supported LGBTQ issues whenever they arose at work or church while vicariously living his gender issues through reading and writing.)

Denise Novak and Arron Peters had been children in the Sunday School class Jan taught when Rusty joined her at church. Arron joined the army right of high school in 1978, then returned to marry his childhood sweetheart, Denise, in 1980. As Arron returned to the army pursuing a career in the military, Denise remained in her childhood home to help her father Steve who was overwhelmed caring for her cancer stricken mother, Doris, who passed in 1981. Steve didn’t handle her death well and like many of the ‘English’ growing up in the Pennsylvania Dutch region, was already a regular beer drinker and so began to consume greater quantities. Denise felt compelled to remain in her childhood home to look after her functional alcoholic father. Arron always returned home on leaves and the couple had 4 children with Arron serving in the First Gulf War in 1991. The family dynamics shifted when he retired after 20 years service returning home in 1998. Like many vets of the 1991 conflict, Arron suffered from Gulf War syndrome, a wide range of acute and chronic symptoms including fatigue, muscle pain, cognitive problems, insomnia, rashes and diarrhea. He easily joined his father-in-law drinking heavily becoming another functional alcoholic. In addition to their shared drinking, both went deer hunting every year, Deer hunting always began on the Monday after Thanksgiving. In 1995, Gary, Arron’s 13 year old son joined the hunt, doing so until he graduated in 2000 and joined the army.

Like many men, Steve and Arron only regularly attended church at Christmas and Easter as well as the occasional family baptisms, marriages, and funerals, being ‘Hatched, matched and dispatched Christians.’
10Arron and Denise’s 3 children attended the church Sunday School and were confirmed when they finished middle school. The oldest daughter, Gary’s older sister, moved out when she married and his younger sister married in 2001 right out of high school since she was pregnant. In 2002 Gary married Lynn whom he met at one of his US based assignments. He brought her home to live in the multi-generational family home just as his youngest brother headed off to college planning to make his own way in the world. Daughter Leah was born in 2003 after Gary shipped off to the Middle East to take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A son, Craig was born in 2005 just before he did a second tour in Iraq. By 2006 at age 65, Steve’s excessive drinking caught up to him via diabetes and heart issues. His death was quick but not unexpected.

Lynn was pregnant when Gary shipped off to Afghanistan in late 2007. A 2nd son, Christopher. was born in 2008 during Gary's deployment. That tour came to an abrupt end 2 months later when the Humvee he was in was hit by an IED. Gary lost a leg below the knee as well as suffering a TBI due to severe concussion. By the time he recovered enough to be discharged with full disability it was 2009. As could be expected, he suffered severe PTSD and depression and was unable to work. With 3 youngsters, Lynn had difficulty handling the kids and Gary. Thankfully they still lived in the family home so Denise stepped up to assist. Denise made sure she and Lynn attended most weekly church services and the 3 youngsters attended the Sunday School

Refusing counseling and church, Gary grew moody and morose, drinking heavily, loosing himself in ESPN. In 2010 Arron bullied Gary into joining him in his annual dear hunt. Gary clearly enjoyed being out in the open stalking deer.

In 2012 Arron was killed in a car crash when due to icy roads a tractor trailer failed to stop at a red light. Denise was hit hard but with the help of her children and grandchildren as well as church, she made it through. After Arron passed, the family learned to tip-toe around Gary when he was in one of his moods but despite this the children did okay. Denise had always volunteered at church functions and involved Linda with the kids attending Sunday School. Everyone at church kept an eye on the family and let them know their church family had their backs. Gary continued hunting deer each year, going with friends from high school. Starting in 2018, he began taking his oldest son, 13 year old Craig, on the deer hunting expeditions.

Academically Leah and Craig earned Bs and Cs with an occasional A, both were outgoing and active in local and school sports as well as youth activities at the church. The older siblings flourished with their peers. Christopher was always bashful and reserved. In kindergarten he became acquainted with his classmates but seemed afraid to make friends, content to be a loner. He also shied away from sports, instead burying himself in academics easily earning A’s in every class but Phys-ed. Gary regularly chided the boy for not being outgoing and his lack of sports acumen or interest which only caused Chris to burrow deeper in his self isolation. While his siblings had Chris’ back they could not understand his voluntary reclusiveness. Never really fitting in, the lad was a dedicated loner.

In 2019 Chris reached 6th grade. As Rusty made the rounds of the SS classes to collect the offerings he noted that the quiet lad, while part of the class was not really with them. He recognized a fellow loner. Quiet discussions with Denise and Lynn revealed their increasing concern for their quiet despondent grandson/son. They revealed that Gary was actively disparaging and humiliating the quiet boy. With Gary’s PTSD they were afraid to confront him and felt hopeless so they opened up to Rusty whom they trusted.

Denise had explained she had been a SS student of Jan and Rusty and that the couple had taught the students, no the curriculum. Their students knew the couple unconditionally loved their students. Lynn had found it difficult to believe a man could be so dedicated and caring. To her amazement she discovered Denise was correct, even as they exposed the sordid details of Gary’s depression not once did Rusty in anyway denigrate much less condemn the family dynamics. His compassion was clearly evident as was his offer to help.

During their discussion Rusty learned Chris had an interest in history. With women’s permission, Rusty began going out of his way to converse with the boy in a nonjudgmental or threatening manner, talking with him rather than at him. As Christmas approached, Rusty asked Chris if he would be willing to be his assistant for the evening Candle Light Service. At first Chris was reticent but with the urging of his grandmother and mother, cautiously agree to do so.

Rusty had a 17 mile commute to and from church. He picked a very nervous Chris up an hour before the start of the service to make the 5 minute trip to the church. As they drove Rusty briefly explained what they had to do that night. Inside the church, Rusty explained in greater detail eah activitity as they performed them. First was to have the boy plug in the lights for the Christmas Tree and garlands across the chancel rail, a big deal for a quiet 10 year old. Rusty gave him the douter, showing the eager lad that one side had a sliding wax coated wick and the other side had a bell shapped cone to snuff lit candles. Lighting the wick Rusty guided him to light the candles on the candelabra mounted to the outside and inside of every other pew to insure all the wicks would light quickly and easily for the service. Then they repeated the trek extinguishing the candles. They then placed the baby Jesus in the Nativity scene. They took 2 offering plates to the rear and sat them on small tables by the entrances so people could quietly place the offerings in the plate as they arrived. By then people were starting to arrive. Rusty had Chris hand out small 6 inch candles in plastic holders to all who arrived as Rusty handed out the bulletins.

When Denise, Lynn, Leah and Craig arrived, they were relieved to see Chris was smiling, clearly happy to be doing something worthwhile as well as delighted Rusty trusted him to do a good job. When the prelude began, Rusty handed the candles and bulletins to others, then took Chris into the balcony in the rear of the church overlooking the congregation.

Chris found the view delightful watching eagerly as the 2 acolytes began lighting the pew side candles. The bright colorful lights sparkled in the garland and tree. The prelude finished as the last of the pew candles were lit. At that point Rusty led Chris into a tiny side room of the balcony where the rope to the bell in the church tower hung where Rusty explained it was church tradition to ring the bell 13 times before every service, 1 time for each disciple and once for Jesus. Rusty had Chris grasp the thick rope and pull down fast and hard on the rope. This swung the huge bell to one side so the dangling center clapper struck the outer side of the bell. As soon as the BONG was heard, Rusty had Chris release the rope which allowed the bell to swing back past the center so the clapper could strike the opposite side of the bell. As soon as that BONG rang out, Chris grasped the thick rope and repeated the action. On the 13th BONG, Rusty grabbed the rope stopping the bell from swinging and gently allowed it to silently return to it’s neutral position. Chris was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

As the announcements began the next task was to unobtrusively step onto the balcony to count those in attendance. As the service began, Rusty and Chris returned to the main floor to write the attendance in the log book. The duo then took folding chair seats by the controls of the PA system in case any adjustments needed to be made. When it came time to present the offering, Rusty had Chris take one plate while he took the other. Side by side they walked up the center aisle to the chancel rail to hand the plates to the acolytes who gave them to the pastor who presented them to the altar. As soon as the hand offs were made, Rusty and Chris recessed down the aisle. The forward and back trek was done with modest dignity.

As the service drew to an end, Rusty handed Chris a 12 inch candle, then with his own candle they headed up the center aisle to the chancel rail. The acolytes lit their douters from the twin alter candles and brought the flames to the pair. Rusty and Chris lit their candles as, with the exceptions of the Christmas tree and garlands, all the lights in the church were extinguished. A single acoustic guitar began playing Silent Night as Rusty and Chris slowly recessed down the center aisle, being sure to keep pace with the other, as they paused at each pew with their large candle to allow the person on the aisle to light their candle. One by one the people then shared the flame from the inside to the outside of each pew. As the duo walked down the aisle, the darkened church slowly grew brighter as each candle added it’s light. After finishing the main floor the pair headed to the balcony to allow those people to light their candle. Once all candles were lit, the congregation began singing the old standard.

Rusty smiled as Chris sang with all his heart, clearly mesmerized by the sight of well over 100 burning candles illuminating the festively decorated church in the flickering light. When the song ended everyone blew out their candle darkening the church except for the lights on the garland and tree. “Tonight Christ was born for us,” the pastor spoke a short benediction. “As our candle lights illuminated the church this evening, take your light out to share our savior’s birth with the world!”

As the postlude played the acolytes began extinguishing the pew side candles as the congregation began leaving placing their extinguished candles in baskets. Rusty waited until the balcony cleared then led Chris down to meet his family. The lad’s delight and excitement were quite palpable. While his older siblings had trouble understanding why the normally quiet boy was so excited, they had been warned not to burst his bubble.

“Chris, I’m proud of you! I couldn’t have had a better assistant tonight,” Rusty praised him in front of his family. “If you’d like, you could assist me every week. My back is getting too creaky to ring that heavy bell every week and my knees a bit to battered to present the offering alone. I would greatly appreciate your assistance.”

Chris’ eyes lit up as he asked. “Can I help him, mommy?

Denise and Lynn had wet eyes as the saw the effervescence of their normally recalcitrant youngster. “That’s very nice of Mr. Raven to offer you the chance to help. Of course you can help,” a smiling Denise replied. “As long as you don’t pest Mr. Raven too much.”

“He may not make it every week, but we’ll see he gets here when we can,” the grinning Lynn added.

As they headed for the exit, Chris paused and dashed back to Rusty, throwing his arms about the startled man in a huge hug. “Thank you for letting me help,” he grinned. “This has been the best Christmas Eve ever!”

“Believe me Chris, it was my pleasure,” Rusty enthused as he gently returned the heartfelt hug. The women smiled noting the moisture in Rusty’s eyes. They didn’t realize it was the first genuine hug Rusty had since his wife, Jan, passed 9 1/2 years ago.

As Rusty drove home, he couldn’t stop smiling. He thoroughly agreed with Chris that this had been one of the best Christmas Eves in the 50 years he’d been attending the church. He was determined to help the boy.

That night had proven that Chris was intelligent and thoughtful with an interest in history. While at first reticent, the lad was desperate for someone to talk to and their mutual interest in history provided safe topics to discuss. The fact Rusty treated him as an equal rather than a dumb kid went far in gaining Chris’ trust.

Nearly every Sunday, Chris rushed out of his class to assist Rusty with preparing for church and ringing the bell. Rusty patiently answered any questions Chris had about services and even Christianity being sure to make the explanations understandable without being curt nor condenscending. As the weeks passed he began to share his Biblical Archaeology Review and Archaeology magazines with the lad. Many Sundays after church were spent with Rusty guiding Chris in developing a love for history and answering any questions the boy had. During this time Rusty encouraged the boy to be true to himself and trust God because God and he had his back.

When the warm spring weather arrived, Rusty began talking about local history and events. Chris eagerly listened. One Sunday after church the fellowship committee held a potluck lunch. Denise and Lynn were helping with the serving while Rusty sat with Leah, Craig and Chris as they ate. Denise and Lynn checked on their kids several times during the meal but instead of them begging to go home they were clustered around Rusty. Rusty mentioned the Schuylkill Canal that had passed right through Perryville causing the 3 youths to frown.

Craig asked, “There was a canal that went through town?”

“Sure, why do you think that short 1 block long street off the end of Yoder Stree is called Canal Street.” Rusty smiled. “In fact they built the railroad tracks along side of it. The small dip on Main Street just south of the tracks is what’s left of the Canal, there used to be a big wooden arched bridge over the canal to connect Main street. There was even a stone canal lock in town.”

“Really,” Chris enthused.

“I’ve been all over town and I haven’t seen any ruins,” Craig declared “They must have torn it down.”

“It’s right where it always was,” Rusty chuckled. “I’m sure you’ve seen it but didn’t recognize it.”

The 3 kids were obviously in deep thought.

“Although it’s been added on to over the years, the house on the north corner of Yoder and Canal Streets was originally the lock keepers home. The alley running north from the end of Yoder Street was the canal’s towpath. There are 2 parallel thick old stone walls on the other side of the alley that used to be the lock. In the late 1940s when the Canal was finally closed, someone bought the old lock and used it as the basement for their house.”

Chris asked, “Why’d they close it?”

“The railroad put it out of business,” Rusty explained. “The canal was the main route to bring Schuylkill County anthracite coal to Philadelphia. They opened in 1825 before railroads even began in Pennsylvania. Just before the Civil War the canal was carrying nearly 2 million tons of coal a year but as the railroads were being built they cut into that amount. The Railroads needed less manpower and were faster so they began cutting into the canal’s share of business. A few years after the war, the canal was damaged by a flood, hindering operations for some time until repairs could be made. While the canal returned to business, the railroads had taken over most of the business. By the 1890s the Schuylkill County portions of the canal and river silted with coal silt and closed down. By the time of World War I, the coal frieght stopped with only an occasional frieght barge. Only excursion vessels and pleasure boating remained until after World War II when the state filled in the canals as they began dredging the coal silt from the river. For years several local businesses built low dams on the river to catch the coal sediment that washed down the river so they could remove it and sell it to locals.”

Chris asked “How do you know so much?”

“I’ve always been curious,” Rusty explained. “I also read a lot, even majored in history in college.”

Rusty then explained that their county, Berks, was a good steward of their local history. “In the Tulpehochen Creek Valley Park on the north shore of the Tulpehocken Creek down near the Reading Airport the county established the Berks County Heritage Center in the 1970s. They purchased a 55 acre farm that had been established in 1774 by Abraham Reeser who built a sturdy stone farm house. The Reeser Farm House now serves as the main office for the Heritage Center which is a historical interpretive complex commemorating important eras of cultural history.”

Noting he still had the kid’s attention he continued. “There is an interesting historical building there. The Gruber Wagon Works is a National Historic Landmark. It was discovered as the US Army Corp of engineers began construction of Blue Marsh Lake as a part of a national flood control initiative. Initial authorization for the reservoir was granted by the Flood Control Act of 1962 that started eight projects in the Delaware River basin. The Pennsylvania Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act provided funding and permitted the eminent domain acquisition of the land that would later become the lake. As the surveyors/appraisers began the task of securing the area, they discovered a hidden gem. It is one of the most complete examples of an integrated rural factory of its kind in the nation. Started in 1882 by Franklin H. Gruber, the wagon works evolved from a single craftsman shop, having a variety of specialized hand tools, into a family-operated business which employed up to 20 men who utilized mass-production methods. Unlike a modern assembly process, wagon parts were transported back and forth between various rooms in order to complete a segment of the work. It is a 2-1/2 story wood frame structure in a cruciform plan, with gabled roofs. The interior is divided into a wood shop, a blacksmithy, a bench shop, and a paint shop. Surviving devices and equipment include specialized equipment for the manufacture of axle hubs and spoked wheels, a variety of saws, sanders, and other woodworking equipment. Most of these are belt-driven by overhead shafts originally powered by a water wheel and later a gasoline-powered motor. Movement of materials between the floors was accommodated by a hand-operated elevator installed by the Grubers in 1905-06. Wagon wheels were constructed in the bench shop, and wooden parts of the wagon were made from patterns in the wood shop. Wheels were "tired" and wagons were "ironed" and assembled in the blacksmith shop. They hand applied distinctive striping and scrollwork were applied in the paint shop. The business continued operating under the family's ownership, making standard and customized wagons until the 1950s, after which the business was limited to repairs until it closed in 1971 when the grandson, John Gruber, retired. All of its equipment and machinery remained in place.”

“During the winter of 1976-77,” Rusty explained. “The wagon works was cut into 4 huge chunks, the largest 26 feet wide by 71 feet long and 40 feet high under the overall direction of the Army Corps of Engineers at its original location and transported 5 miles to the Heritage Center where it was reconstructed. My wife and I actually saw it being moved down Route 183 where it crosses US 222 by the airport. They were so big they had to drop all the electric and telephone lines so they wouldn’t be snagged and stop all traffic because they hung over the sides of the road.”

“They reassembled it at the Heritage Center,” Rusty added. “John Gruber was instrumental in the reconstruction. Later they documented with photos and film as he identified all the equipment and demonstrated the manufacturing processes. Anyone who takes the tour of the wagon works watches those films.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ_KHOJ7aJo

“There are several other historic things at the Heritage Center,” Rusty continued. “I already told you a bit about the Schuylkill Canal from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia as it pertains to Perryville. Well, the Union Canal ran from the Susquehannah River to Reading where it joined the Schuylkill Canal. That canal followed the Tulpehocken Creek ran right by the Heritage Center. The Hiester family ran a boatyard along the Schuylkill Canal in Reading where they built and repaired barges and boats. Born in 1896, C. Howard Hiester was the 4th and last generation to own it. As the canals faded he used his family’s boatyard as a place to collect all sorts of canal related artifacts, memorabilia and photos. Before he died in 1980, he donated his entire collection to Berks County. The county moved everything to the Heritage Center creating the C. Howard Hiester Canal Center. In addition the old towpath has been restored creating a bicycle, hiking, horse path from Blue Marsh Lake to the Schuylkill River at Reading, a distance of 6 miles. Just 2 miles west of the Center is the still intact Lock number 47 which was fully restored.”

“Also at the Heritage Center is the Wertz's Covered Bridge which has been restored, Rusty added. “It crosses the Tulpehocken connecting the north and south shores of the stream at the center. Vehicles are no longer allowed on it buy cycling and pedestrians can cross it. In addition Melcher's Grist Mill and the Deppen Cemetery were both relocated to the site. The Bicentennial Eagle Memorial and a Police and Veteran's Memorial are also there. The center hosts weekend re-enactors events, heritage events, and harvest events.

“You really saw them moving the wagon works? That was a long time ago,” Chris declared. “You must be really old!”

“I feel old at times,” Rusty sighed. “My wife and I taught your grandma Denise and grandpa Arron in Sunday School and later your dad Gary as well as all your aunts and uncles.”

“Where is your wife,” Chris asked innocently.

“Well, she graduated 9 1/2 years ago and I still miss her,” Rusty smiled wanly.

Leah asked “Where’d she go?”

“Well, she had Multiple Sclerosis and was bedridden for 9 years,” Rusty explained. “I took care of her, worked, and still came to church. She slowly grew weaker and we both knew she nearing the end of her life. But she trusted God and never lost faith. She insisted she wasn’t dying, but was getting ready to graduate to the next life in heaven.”

By then the luncheon was wrapped up. Denise and Lynn came to retrieve the kids and heard what Rusty said. “His wife Jan was a wonderful person and loved kids. Everyone here that knew her misses her.”

“But she trained me right which is why I’m still here to help everyone,” Rusty chuckled. “If you’re interested, I’d like to take all of you to the Heritage Center and show you around.”

It was 2 weeks later after church, with Rusty’s help Denise, Lynn and the kids had connived Gary into accompanying them as they followed Rusty to the Berks County Heritage Center. While the family had heard about the heritage center they had never been there, but with Rusty as a guide they were eager to explore. As could be expected Gary groused about the trip but Rusty had played dirty, invoking his late wife’s influence to rouse the snarly bear. Like many others in the church, Jan had been so loving and intense it was nearly impossible to refuse her requests, so Gary caved. Gary drove with Denise beside him. Lynn and Leah sat behind them while Craig was in the 3rd row seating. Chris rode with Rusty as his family followed in their minvan. The parking area was crowded with vehicles but Rusty knew a back way in. He led them to the southern side of the Tulpehocken Creek to the much smaller Wertz Bridge Recreational Area parking lot which was on the south shore of the Tulpehocken. It was a short walk to and across the Covered Bridge into the Heritage Center.

The family was amazed at all that was to be seen at the Heritage Center. As they walked across the coverd bridge, Rusty led them to the sides to peak up between the heavy wooden beams to where he pointed out the dozens of bats roosting in small dark places. They took the official tours of the wagon works and canal museum with Rusty adding details and clarifying others. The family was amazed such an astounding repository of local history and culture was so near yet they had never bothered to check it out. Gary found himself drawn from his PTSD fugue as he listened to Rusty patiently point out details and explain how one thing related to another.

Rusty pointed out the tow path trail and said it was a comfortable trek even in the hottest weather because most of the trail was under the canopied woodlands lining the burbling Tulpehocken with plenty of benches to sit and simply breath in nature as one rested.

The entire family had an enjoyable time. Rusty managed to talk them into visiting another historical treasure in Berks County. Hopewell Furnace is a National Historic Site with an active water wheel driven furnace for smelting the low grade local iron ore. It had been an important site during the American Revolution. They toured the furnace as well as the forge master’s restored mansion and the cottages of the workers where people in period costumes demonstrated the colonial life styles.

While Gary had a few good weeks, he was unable to overcome his malaise and self pity. Slowly he fell back into his moody and grouchy regimen. At the same time Chris seemed to open up more and become excited about learning. Several Sundays after church Rusty loaded Chris’ bike into the back of his pickup beside his bike, then drove down to the tow path to ride the 6 mile length from one end to the other then return to the head of the path.

That fall Chris started confirmation class at church and the 7th grade in the junior high school, a far different environment from the local elementary school with a lot more people. The junior high school and high school were in the same massive building. While the classrooms were in separate wings they shared the cafeteria, gym and auditorium. The crowded and noisy halls overwhelmed the still reticent lad who needed a bit of personal space. Being jostled about, having to struggle to exchange books in his locker while being bumped and often sneered at by others. It was all too easy for him to become the target of bullies and jocks. As a result he became even more withdrawn, reticent and despondent. Up to then he had always been eager to go to school, now he began to come up with reasons to stay home. Denise and Lynn tried their best but couldn’t get to the bottom of the situation.

Leah was in 11th grade, had been confirmed, and found high school life to be to her liking. The secular world pulled her away from church although she occassionally made a communion Sunday. Craig, in 9th grade, had been confirmed and was heavily involved in school sports, much to Gary’s pride. The crowded halls and bustle of the junior high school seemed to crush Chris whom Gary harshly chided for being a wimp.

Rusty could see the toll of being in junior high school was exacting upon Chris. The boy was steadily sinking into the depths of depression. The only sunshine that reached the boy was on Sunday afternoons when Rusty spent an hour or so with the morose lad.

Denise and Lynn were well aware that despite their best efforts Chris was detaching from the family and even life itself. The only thing the sad lad had that seemed to temporarily brighten his dark life was the short time spent with Rusty after church. Despite his best efforts, Rusty couldn’t discover what was eating away at Chris. Trusting in God to guide his efforts, Rusty continued to do what he could for Chris.

Chris leapt at the chance to help Rusty with the 2020 Christmas Eve Service. This year the lad knew what was expected and had a smidgen of self confidence. Once again the festive event was a success. Denise and Lynn saw how enthused and energized their youngest was by helping.

As usual since Jan had graduated, Christmas day found Rusty home alone enjoying his Christmas treat, drinking several cans of Coca Cola. The ringing phone interrupted his guilty pleasure. It was Denise frantically calling because Chris had disappeared.

During the morning present opening, while Leah and Craig tore into their gifts, Chris quietly gathered his gifts and moved to a corner of the room to avoid the excessive holiday cheer. He sat quietly, unenthusiastically slowly opening his gifts as if it was more of a duty than a pleasure. Most of the gifts were not even removed from the box once he opened them. The only things that sparked a tiny bit of excitement were the books.

Gary had enough of his morose son. While he would never admit it much less realize it, he was jealous of how Rusty could reach the boy while no one else could. The boy’s delight at helping during the Christmas Eve Service really dug into his craw. It further undermined his PTSD battered self-esteem. With several drinks already under his belt, he lashed out. “Chris, what the hell is wrong with you?” He harshly scolded. “Everyone else is around the tree opening their presents while you’ve crawled off in a corner away from everyone else! What the hell! It sure as hell looks like you don’t want to be part of this family! Are you such a wuss you can’t be part of the family!”

Denise was appalled by her son’s explosion. “Gary Peters! You were not raised to be such a nasty human being! We all know you were severely hurt during the war and that you suffer from PTSD, but damn it, it’s time you man up! We’ve put up with your BS for 10 years. You refuse to get counseling or try to get better. You’ve been taking your frustration of not dealing with your problems on all of us but especially Chris and it’s time you got your act together. You’ve got a family who loves you but your alcohol self-medication is wearing us thin. I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t let you continue to rip this family apart. Either get your shit together or get out!”

Everyone was stunned by Denise’s outburst. They all knew she’d spoken the truth. They’d been walking on eggshells around Gary for years but instead of getting better he was growing worse.

Gary was furious. “You have no idea what it was like over there,” he screamed at his mother. “There were 4 of us in that Humvee, they were my comrades in arms and best buddies! They were fuckin’ ripped to shreds! Hell, my leg had been blown the fuck off! I was covered in their blood, guts and brains! I was trapped in that crumbled wreck for an hour with parts of their bodies on and around me! How the hell do you expect me to deal with that!” With that he stormed into the attached double garage to grab a cold 6-pack of Bud from the old fridge to drown his agony.

The Christmas cheer had evaporated as the stunned family exchanged looks of confusion and sorrow. This had been the first time Gary had even mentioned his ordeal in Afghanistan. They knew it had been bad but never had suspected just how terrible.

“Where’s Chris?” Lynn asked when she noted he’d abandoned his gifts and slipped away.

“We’d better find him before he does something we’ll all regret,” Denise declared as she rose from her seat.

The others followed suit. Their efforts were fruitless. Chris was no where to be found in the house. Lynn with Leah jumped into the car to begin searching the town. Craig hopped on his bike to do the same. Denise styed home hoping her morose grandson would come safely home. It was just after noon, nearly 3 hours after Chris disappeared that Denise called Rusty.

Rusty understood the urgency of her nearly frantic call. Without hesitation he hopped in his truck to head to Perryville. As he drove, he thought of where Chris might have fled. As he parked beside the church, he looked up to the bell tower. That was it! Chris had to be in the bell tower.

As he rushed inside he recalled that during the summer he’d taken Chris into the bell tower. The lad had been amazed and fascinated at what was hidden from sight. In the small side room where the rope to ring the bell hung, there were 15 steel rungs cemented to the inside of the stone north wall of the bell tower. At the top there was a 3 feet by 3 feet trap door that hinged up to the next level. The unheated or cooled room was 12 feet square with dual windows in all 4 walls. However instead of glass there were thick wooden louvers that kept out the wet but allowed air and sounds of the bell to flow through. The 28 inch wide 400 pound bronze bell hunk from a sturdy wooden yoke suspended between twin steel beams from the 8 feet high ceiling. A pulley wheel was attached to one side of the yoke. From the rope room below the thick rope emerged through a 2 inch hole in the floor of the bell room to flow over the groove in the wheel. There was a stop in the mechanism to prevent the bell from being pulled so hard that it would flip over.

For a brief moment Rusty felt failure as he reached the rope room to see the room empty and the trap door closed. Then he remembered that he’d made sure to close the trap door when he’d taken Chris up to insure no one accidently fell through the open hole. Despite his arthritis kicking up from the cold weather, Rusty made the climb up the cold rungs. Both artificial knees complained as he did so. At the top he heaved up the heavy trap door peaking about the bell chamber. Huddled in the southwest corner was a clearly shivering boy with his head tucked between his raised knees. Rusty rushed to the lad, calling his name. Chris barely twitched in response. Kneeling by the boy, he removed his coat and sat by the coatless uncontrollably shivering boy pulling him tight before dropping his coat over the clearly hypothermic lad. Since the temperature outside was in the mid 30's, the bell room was a chilly 40 at best.

Rusty realized there was no way he could get the frigid boy down the rung ladder. First he called 911 to ask the rescue squad from the Perryville Fire Company to send a team to the church bell tower as well as an ambulance to transport Chris to the hospital. Then he asked the 911 operator to call Denise to tell her he’d found Chris in the bell tower but that he was hypothermic and he’d requested the fire company rescue squad and an ambulance.

Denise phoned Leah and Craig telling them Rusty had found Chris. Lynn and Leah arrived at the church first, with Craig riding up on his bike as Denise parked. The sirens of the Rescue Squad echoed in the clear cold afternoon as they approached the church. Rusty had stayed on the call with the 911 operator until he heard the sirens approach. The rescue squad had a difficult time climbing the steel rungs in their heavy gear, finally shedding the bulky firecoats to make the climb. By the time the rescuers emerged into the bell room, Rusty was verging on hypothermic. The team responded with alacrity, providing blankets and heat packs for the shivering duo.

As the rescue squad fitted a harness about Chris, Rusty debated whether or not he could make it down the rungs. Wisely, he realized that while he might make it, he’d accomplished his task of finding Chris, so there was no reason to tempt fate. He was old enough to understand his physical limits. After they’d lowered Chris, Rusty put on a harness and allowed himself to be belayed down.

Denise tearfully hugged Rusty when he emerged into the church basement, so choked up she was unable to talk. Clearly dazed, Leah and Craig hung back a bit, both had seen a very pale Chris hastily bundled onto the gurney as he had been wheeled out to the ambulance. They could see he was in bad shape. Lynn had climbed into the ambulance with her son to accompany him to the hospital.

Upon learning the rescue squad had been summoned to the church, numerous members came to the church to find out was going on. Rusty had quite a job reassuring everyone the church had suffered no damage and that everyone was going to be okay. Pointedly he refused to explain what had happened insisting those involved needed privacy but that all would be resolved in a few days. Most people put together that whatever had happened involved the Peters family so most backed off. Those that didn’t went home frustrated.

It was determined that Chris’ core body temperature had dropped to 91° which was at the low end of moderate hypothermia. Naturally he was admitted to the hospital for observation, spending 2 days there. Staff psychologists were unable to get the lad to reveal what had driven him to almost freeze to death.

Even Gary realized that they’d almost lost Chris, and that his outburst had been the direct cause of his fleeing the home. His sense of guilt and hopelessness was overwhelming what little self-esteem he had left. Instead of facing his long time PTSD demons, he sank into deeper self medication.

Once Chris was released to return home, Denise ‘confided’ in the church gossip what had happened. She was well aware that the woman would sensationalize the tale. At the same time those who listened to her gossip would know that while there was truth in her version of the story they’d know it had been stretched so they took her gossip with a grain of salt.

Rusty was very concerned for the Peters family. Chris was clearly having issues and his father was slipping deeper into self medication. While he had a working knowledge of psychology, he knew he was not qualified to counsel anyone. All he could do was listen compasionately and urge the family to seek professional help.

Gary’s moods grew blacker and deeper, to the point he drank himself into oblivion every night. Chris avoided his father as much as possible. Leah and Craig immersed themselves with their friends and school activities in an effort to avoid the family dysfunction. Neither Denise or Lynn had any idea how to end the family malady.

Chris barely communicated with his family. His school grades dropped to ‘C’s. They took him to a psychologist but since his father refused to be counseled, Chris did likewise. No one could get through to him. The only person he opened up to was Rusty, and even that was considerably less than had been before.

The situation didn’t improve as the year progressed. Once school was out for the year, Rusty repeatedly tried to get Rusty to join him on bike rides on the towpath but the boy stubbornly refused. The best Rusty managed was to let Chris know he could confidentially talk to him.

When the 2021-22 school year started, Chris pleaded to not to go, begging to be home schooled. Naturally the adults refused to listen to him, especially his father. Since his parents refused to allow him to miss school, Chris begrudgingly allowed himself to be forced to attend.

As the weeks passed, Chris withdrew into himself. The family didn’t know what to do. Chris didn’t even want to go to church but he was bluntly told he couldn’t drop out of confirmation class. The entire family was frustrated and often quite short tempered in dealing with Chris’ obstinance.

Rusty has little luck getting through to Chris. Repeatedly he told Chris that he could tell him anything reassuring him he would not be in anyway judgmental. “Chris, have you ever heard me condemn anyone?”

The morose boy shook his head.

“I do my best not to judge others,” Rusty continued. “Jesus told us not to judge others least we be similarly judged. During my long life I’ve encountered many different people and seen many things. Nothing you can say could make me feel anything but love for you.”

Chris maintained his silence

Over the next weeks the house of cards life of the Peters family was clearly very fragile. Leah and Craig reported Chis was ostracized and even bullied at school because he isolated himself. Just after breakfast on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Chris crawled deeper into his hole when Gary called him into the living room.

Knowing he had no choice he forlornly shuffled into the living room.

“Deer season opens on Friday.” Gary told him. “Now that you’re 13, you’re old enough to join us.”

Chris was clearly horrified at the prospect of killing deer. “I won’t go,” Chris boldly declared. I could never shoot a deer.”

Gary once more blew up, shouting as he stood up. “Hunting deer will help make a man out of you! What the hell is wrong with you? We all know you’re a Goddamn sissy wimp! You’re a total fuckin’ waste!”

Chris dropped his head to his chest as his entire body seemed to withdraw into itself as tears began to trickle down his cheeks.

When he noticed the tears Gary flipped out. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ! No son of mine is going to be a damn crybaby! Stand up straight and fuckin’ face me like a man!”

With his chin still on his chest Chis didn’t move.

With that nit of insolence Gary hauled back and slapped Chris in the face. The SLAP sounded almost like a gunshot.

The blow was so intense the boy was flung right over the back of the sofa to crumble in a heap between it and the wall. Gary just stood there staring at the sofa in absolute shock about what he’d done.

Leah and Craig had stayed in the kitchen not wanting to get involved in whatever their dad was doing. They almost instinctively knew there going to be major trouble. When they heard the resounding SLAP they ran into the living room just in time to see Chris’ limp body slide to the floor behind the sofa.

Lynn screamed and dashed to the sofa. Leaning over the back she saw Chris’ blooody unmoving form. “Oh my God! He’s bleeding and not moving,” she screamed as she climbed off the couch and struggled to pull it from the wall to get at his still form. Leah and Craig rushed to assist her.

Gary instantly knew he’ screwed th pooch. In a sort of daze he staggered into the garage and opened another 6-pack as Denise called 911 asking for an ambulance and the police. Within 15 minutes Chris was once more inside an ambulance heading to the hospital. It was quite obvious the injuries were clearly child abuse, Lynn was not allowed to ride along. Since Perryville did not have a police force they were covered by the State Police. The officer pulled up as they were loading Chris into the ambulance. After a quick discussion with the paramedics they were on their way. Lynn was clearly distraught about not being allowed to ride with Chris so the officer held off speaking to her so the officer first asked Denise what had happened. Leah and Craig were then interrogated. By that time Lynn had calmed down enough to be interviewed. After hearing the details, which were consistent between the 4 and matched the evidence, he asked where he could find Gary. Denise shook her head telling the officer he was in the garage getting drunk. Lynn led him to the garage where Gary sat surrounded by 6 empty beer cans, clearly well on his way to being plastered. Barely coherent, he admitted to striking his son. Gary was handcuffed and placed in the back of the state trooper’s vehicle for transport to the county jail.

Only after they left were Denise and Lynn able to head off to the hospital leaving Leah and Craig home.

Leah was quite upset, barely controlling her tears. Craig was baffled as to why his dad had flipped out. The siblings commiserated their grief as they waited for more info. After nearly half an hour Leah sighed. “Get the shop vac. I’ll get a bucket of cold water and a scrub brush to try to clean up the bloodstains.”

Craig sucked up the pink water as Leah scrubbed the stained rug. While they didn’t get the entire stain out, it wasn’t as vibrant as it had been. Both felt sick to their stomachs. Just then Leah’s phone rang, Denise was calling home. Leah put the call on speaker phone so Craig could hear

“Grandma, how is Chris?” Leah asked with concern.

“He’s in the ICU still unconscious and in critical condition with a severe brain concussion, but he seems to be resting peacefully,” Denise answered in a weary voice. “Your mom is in the room with him.”

“Is he going to be all right?” Leah questioned in a quivering voice.

“It’s still too early to tell,” Denise explained. “They think he’s stabilized.”

“What happened to dad?” Craig asked. “Is he in jail?”

“Yes.” Denise answered. “CPS interviewed your mom and I in the hospital. We were honest and told them about your dad’s problems and that he refused to get help. They told us he had been arrested and booked on child abuse charges. They also said their was no way Chris would be allowed to come home if he was here. Thet’re in the process of getting a temporary Protection from Abuse order against your dad. He won’t be allowed to come within 1000 feet of Chris.”

“So what’s going to happen?” Leah asked.

At this point it’s up to your dad,” Denise stated firmly. “Unless he admits himself into the VA to deal with his PTSd and self-medication, he WILL NOT be coming home. I should have insisted on that after what happened last Christmas but I was too weak.”

Nothing more could be said. Denise finally said she was heading home and the kids should call for pizza . Upon reaching entering the home, Denise just stood looking forlornly at Leah and Craig. The 3 stood quietly for a few moments letting the severity of what went down sink in. Tears began to flow down Denise’s cheeks as her guilt for not forcing her son to get help or get out. Leah quickly hugged her granmother while joining in her tears. Craig managed to stifle his tears but put his arms around his grandmother and sister.

The doctors had put Chris into a medically induced coma to keep the swelling in his brain under control. He wouldn’t wake up until noon 2 days after the incident. Lynn refused to abandon him so Denise brought changes of clothes. The incident made the local news.

Gary sobered in jail. He understood what he’d done was reprehensible and was totally ashamed of himself. The day after the incident Rusty went to the jail to talk to Gary. Gary shambled into the visitor’s room, hanging his head when he saw Rusty. “So are you going to chew me out for screwing up?” Gary asked as he sank into a chair before fatalistically adding. “I deserve it.”

“Only God can condemn you,” Rusty replied softly. “I have no right to judge you. But perhaps I can help you.”

“How?” Gary sniffed. “I can’t believe I hurt Chris.”

“Well you did hurt him,” Rusty replied in a non-judgmental tone. “What happened can’t be undone. Right now CPS is getting a PFA order against you so you’ll be unable to return home.”

“So I guess I’ll stay in jail,” Gary sighed. “It’s what I deserve.”

“Not necessarily,” Rusty told him. “Gary, I’m going to hit you with truth. You’ve never dealt with your PTSD, instead you self medicated. Again, I’m not condemning you. I grew up with my father never dealing with his PTSD from the second world war. He was a functional alcoholic until his death. That’s the main reason I never started drinking. You can not undo what’s already done. Your best bet is to admit you screwed up and plead guilty. Since you have an otherwise clear record, if you promise to have no contact with your family and ask the court to send you to the VA for treatment of your PTSD, they may sentence you a term in jail but suspend it pending successful completion of VA treatment. I’m willing to attend your hearing as a supportive witness.”

“You’ll do that after what I’ve done?” Gary asked. “I don’t understand.”

“Jan taught me to accept that which we can’t control,” Rusty explained. “I trust in God to point me in the right direction. The biggest problem with that is that what we want is not necessarily what God wants. We have to learn to shut up and listen to God. It’s not always easy but I’ve discovered it works. Right now God is telling me to help you out of this mess.”

Chris was kept in the medically enduced coma.

When he was arraigned, Gary tearfully confessed his failings throwing himself on the mercy of the court. Denise was present as was Rusty as a character witness. The judge was firm but understanding, agreeing to suspend any sentence until Gary successfully completed the VA rehab program. Rusty volunteered to immediately drive him to the Lebanon VA hospital. The judge had paperwork e-mailed to the VA requesting an immediate placement. Little was said as they drove. Rusty entered the hospital with Gary to make sure he was admitted to the psych unit for alcoholism and PSTD.

The next day Leah and Denise gave Chris’ bedroom a good cleaning. They noted the thick dust on his toy chest wondering when he had last opened it. However it was what they found in the back of his closet that gave them pause. In a carton hidden under several pairs of shoes they discovered his stash. Upon opening the box they gasped as they saw lingerie and a few dresses.

Pulling the box out to place it on his bed the emptied the contents. “These are my outgrown things,“ Leah gasped. “He must have taken them from the outgrown clothes in the attic!”

“It certainly looks like it,” Denise sighed mystified by what they had discovered.

“When he was little he used to love playing with dolls and stuff with me,” Leah recalled.

“Until your dad screamed at him for being a sissy,” Denise recalled.

“Now that I think about it, I remember Chris was always happy and giggly until dad let him have it,” Leah nodded. “After that he seemed to crawl into a shell.”

“You’re right,” Denise guiltily agreed. “We all missed it.”

“Is he just a pervert or is he trans?” Leah asked. “Either way, I don’t think the school will handle things very well.”

“I have no idea what he is,” Denise shakily replied. “But I don’t think the school will handle the bullying he’ll face.”

“So what do we do?” Leah asked. “I wonder if this is why he always refuses to talk to the shrinks?”

“It could very well be so,” Denise agreed. “We’ll need to talk to your mother. I think we’d better keep Craig out of this until we know what’s going on.”

“Agreed,” Leah nodded. “Do you think we should ask Mr. Raven for advice?”

‘I know Mr. Raven has consistently urged the church to be accepting of people who are LGBTQ,” Denise stated. “If we ask him keep things in confidence, he may be the one person who can reach Chris.”

A phone call to Rusty telling him they made a discovery that could explain Chris’ solitude had him immediately drive to the Peters home.

Once there Denise spoke up. “Can we count on your discretion?”

“Of course,” Rusty promised.

With that Denise and Leah led him to Chris’s bedroom. Upon seeing what was spread on the bed, Rusty gasped in surprise but quickly regained control. For several minutes he simply stood there staring at the girls’ clothes. Then he closed his eyes as he took several deep breaths to center himself. “Let’s go to the living room so we can talk.”

Denise and Leah exchanged looks of concern as they followed him.

“First off, the condition of those things indicate Chris is not a pervert,” Rusty said. “That collection could be curiosity about females or that he is somewhere on the transsexual spectrum. If he’s on the transsexual spectrum, it must be positively confronted. It would certainly explain why he doesn’t want anything to do with sports. If youu ignore the situation, it could very well lead to a suicide attempt.”

Denise and Leah were gobsmacked. “Do you really think he’d kill himself?” Leah softly asked.

“Yes,” Rusty answered with confidence. “I know I tried when I was age.”

Denise and Leah were clearly confused by that twist.

“I won’t ask you to keep what I’m going to say confidential but I hope you do,” Rusty declared. “I’m on the transsexual spectrum. Have been as long as I can remember.”
Needless to say Denice and Leah were left speechless by that revelation.

“Back when I was Chris’ age transsexuals were way outside of societal norms. The first publicized transgender person in the USA was Christine Jorgensen in 1952. She did speaking tours and gave lectures trying to bring acceptance to those like her. My dad was WWII vet with undiagnosed PTSD who self-medicated with alcohol. He also built a service station when I was 9 and I was expected to work in it. Much Like Gary, my dad expected boys to be boys, and woe betide you if you deviated from sexual norms. His belt would come off and he’d whip us if we were, as he said, fucked up in the head. I learned to bury those desires to be feminine. But it was difficult to keep it buried. Jan hated that aspect of me and refused to even consider I explore it. In many ways that repressed secret made my life hell. It’s the main reason I’ve pushed that our church accept the LGBTQ. I’ve come to terms with my suppressed desire, I know I’d make a butt ugly female and that I’d never be satisfied with my appearance. I’ve vowed to help anyone I met transition to their true self. I can tell you right now it explains so much about Chris’ solitude and massive depression. The fact Gary has been trying to get him to ‘man up’ is what has driven Chris to bury his feelings.”

“So what do we do?” Denise asked.

“First, you make it clear to him that you love him unconditionally,” Rusty declared. “Then you have him professionally evaluated by LGBTQ practitioners. If they determine he is transgender, you help him transition. Now that he's started puberty, it's absolutely critical that you take immediate action or he could very well take his own life. You’ll have my full support.”

“How do we get started?” Denise asked.

“We need to get Lynn in the loop,” Rusty said. “Then we talk to the shrinks that have been trying to reach him, have them recommend a doctor who has experience treating transgender patients. Then we have an intervention. When I say ‘we’, I mean myself included. I think I can bring a lot to the table. However, I will respect your efforts if you don’t want me involved.”

An hour later they met Lynn, taking her to the hospitals chapel. They laid out everything they’d discovered. Lynn was stunned but she loved her super depressed youngest child. Now that her eyes were opened Chris’ depression and self isolation made sense. She had been determined to help her child but had no idea how to do so. Now she had a target to reach Chris.

Within 2 hours Denise, Lynn, Leah and Rusty met with the staff Transgender specialist. Dr. Loren Reed. She was surprised to learn that Rusty was not a relative until he told her he was on the transgender spectrum and had been a mentor for Chris. After reviewing the case, she agreed a gentle, Loving intervention in the hospital after he awoke would be best.

The doctors allowed Chris to emerge from the induced coma. Once he awokehe was still groggy. They were comfortable there didn't seem to be any major physical complications. However, his mental state was severely depressed. That evening they moved him to a private room on the pediatric floor.

Shortly after breakfast, Chris was surprised to see his grandmother, mother, sister and Mr. Raven solemnly enter his room with a female doctor. The family and Rusty hugged Chris with each telling him they unconditionally loved him. Then Rusty revealed the suitcase he’d been carrying.

Chris’s eyes went wide when he saw the contents. His shame swept over him as tears began to fall. Dr. Reed tried to tell him he was not in any trouble but thought that his hidden stash of girl clothes might very well be the cause if his depression. Chris was too distraught to even think of anything to say. After 15 minutes of fruitless efforts to get Chris to open up, the doctor nodded to Rusty.

“Chris, I had a stash just like this when I was your age. I still have a stash that I regularly delve into,” Rusty softly stated. “I’m on the transgender spectrum which means I feel and have always felt I was a female trapped in a male body. In many ways by hiding and denying that aspect of my personality my life has been hell. I’m too old to even attempt to transition plus I’d never be satisfied with the result. You’re young enough to transition. I’m pretty sure you hate what male puberty is doing to your body. I’m also sure that thoughts of ending your life was the only answer. Those of us in the room love you with all our heart. Dr. Reed needs to do a mental evaluation of you to determine if you are transgender. If the testing shows you’re transgender, medication can be given to shut down your male puberty. At your age it might even reverse some of the unwanted male changes you’ve experienced. Please, don’t be like me, to be happy you need to be true to yourself.”

Rusty raised his tear streaked face to stare at Rusty. Deep in his heart he felt the unquenchable need to be a girl. He’d done his best to deny and hide that inner truth but it was getting harder. Could it be true? Did the man he admired more than any other really have a long hidden female self? What about his family? While his grandma, mom and sister may be able to accept the part of him he so desperately tried to deny and bury, but what about Craig? What about his father?

“Chris, we all love and support you,” Lynn told Chris. Mr. Raven was revealed his long denied and hidden feelings to help you know you’re not in this alone. If we work together we can solve this. I’d love having another daughter.”

“I’d love having another granddaughter,” Denise added.

“And I’d love having a little sister,” Leah chimed in.

“Wh... what about dad and Craig?” Chris softly asked.

“They’ll either love you unconditionally like we do,” Denise declared. “Or they’ll be on the outside looking in. We will not tolerate any macho shennigans.”

“But before we go that far,” Dr Reed said. “I need to do a workup on you to determine if you are transgender. For that I’ll need your honesty and cooperation.”

“What will it be, Chrissy,” Rusty asked. “Your family and I accept you and promise to help you every step of the way. Are you in?”

For the first time in ages, Chris saw hope. All he could do was nod his head.

The next days were hectic as Chris was thoroughly evaluated. Dr. Reed felt the results revealed that Chris was indeed a girl trapped in a boys’ body. With the aid of an endocrenologist, Chris left the hospital with a prescription for testosterone blockers.

When Craig was told that he had a younger sister instead of a brother, he was stunned. As the situation was explained he began to understand the horrible life Chris had endured. While he didn’t fully understand, he knew family stuck together so would be there for his new sister.

Denise and Lynn spoke with the doctors treating Gary at the VA to appraise them of the changes. They agreed a supervised meeting would be the best way to break the news to him.

A few days later Rusty drove Denise and Chris to the VA for the meeting. The women insisted Rusty be present. After talking to the VA shrink, they called Gary in. Naturally, he was surprised to see Rusty.

“Chris had been home for a few days and is doing well,” Denise told him. “He said he forgives you and hopes you can forgive him.”

Then she went on to tell him they made a breakthrough in Chris’s depression and isolation and that Chris had finally opened up. Gary was gobsmacked when they told him Chris was transgender and was in reality their daughter. Fortunately the VA had Gary dried out and past the shakes so bits of the pre-war Gary were present. Over the next hour the new family dynamics were discussed. They made sure Gary understood he either accepted his youngest daughter or he could never return home.

“Gary, I know you can do this,” Rusty stated. “Chris is a good kid, everyone was mistakenly trying to push him into a hole he didn’t fit. No matter what you decide, I will continue to support you in your recovery. But I do ask that you allow Chrissy to blossom.”

This was new territory for Gary. He’d never have guessed Chris could be transgender. The VA doctor agreed to add this new development to Gary’s treatment.

On Christmas Eve Rusty was without his helper for the Candlelight Service. Still he went about his duties with smiles and gratitude. About 10 minutes before the start of the service, Rusty saw Denise enter with Leah and Craig at her sides. Behind them came Lynn holding the hand of her youngest daughter. Chrissy looked like a lovely young miss wearing the hand-me-down green velvet dress with red trim and white tights deorated with Christams trees. The low heeled black patent leather shoes were also hand-me-downs but Chrissy didn’t mind. The smile on her face was beautific. Surrounded by her family, she felt safe and loved even though this was her first time out in public. Fortunately there were so many people in attendance it was easy to remain anonymous.

Rusty led the famiy to the baclony where he’d roped off the rearmost pew. Denise, Leah, and Craig all stopped short sucking in their breaths when they saw Gary seated in the pew. Rusty guided the 3 to stand by the wall as he led Lynn and Chrissy past them to the pew. They too froze when they saw Gary who stood upon seeing his wife and newest daughter.

“I made arrangements with CPS and the VA to get Gary out on a 24 pass,” Rusty explained to the apprehensive family as he ushered Lynn and Chrissy into the pew followed by Denise, Leah and Craig.

Tears trickled down Gary’s cheeks as he beheld Chrissy. “Damn I’ve been stupid.” he managed to choke out as he reached out to hug his finally revealed daughter.

“Indeed this is the most joyous time of the year,” Rusty told the family welcomed Gary back into their fold.

Rusty returned Gary to the VA on Christmas day but it was clearly evident he was a changed man and would successfully complete his treatment program. With the support of his family he never drank alcohol again, finding gainful employment at a near by Cabela’s.

There would be issues and complications in the future but the Peters family persevered through all. Rusty was always nearby to add a wise word.

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Assorted thoughts.

Beoca's picture

There are a couple of unchanged items here that would be giveaways, but they mostly allude to areas and items mentioned in other of your stories. The Schuylkill is not a particularly lengthy river, but I will admit to having already concluded that you were from Berks County (it is specifically mentioned several times, especially in Odyssey, and the only other PA county specifically mentioned by you AFAIK is one that is adjacent to it - that being Lebanon County). I speculated about you being from Talbot until you revealed that you'd been kayaking around the area of Wells Point to do some more research. Neither Arizona nor Massachusetts ever really crossed my mind as a possibility. Certainly not Florida, despite the bit of spotlight it gets in ALEX=LEXI.

I was in college near the Anthracite Coal region, though I was a bit west of Northumberland County and so not truly in the heartland of it. Close enough to travel out and see the coal up close on Geology lab field trips, though.

The story with Chris and the Peters family (as well as your own upbringing) explains where this setting that you've turned to so many times comes from. I would love to say that it surprised me that you've seen the experience of a kid going through this as well as just doing so yourself, but it unfortunately doesn't (I would imagine that many of the coping methods that Earl in particular uses were originally Chris', as a particular example, though characters like Heath and Ryan felt more based on older experiences - even before I knew that your dad ran an auto mechanic shop). The post-hurricane cesspool was obviously the inspiration for Brose.

I will note that the effort to not judging others is valiant and what one would hope would be a noncontroversial stance. While accepting any given claim uncritically is a problematic evolution of such a stance that is now being seen, that is a medical issue rather than a spiritual one.