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Thirty-two Degrees Below Zero

April 17, 2014

The snow was already starting to fall as we boarded the bus in the Detroit parking lot. And, man, it was getting cold fast.

“You sit on this bus, Brad,” called Dirk, his voice rising above the wind that was starting to whip up. “I’ll be on the front seat of the other one.” He checked his clipboard. “We have seventy–one teens in all. At each rest stop we’ll double-check the numbers so we don’t leave anyone behind.”

He made a motion and I was amazed at how fast the teens responded to his leadership.  It was like a fine-tuned machine.

Dirk was a tall, wiry college buddy of mine, now serving in his second year as the youth pastor of his church in Michigan. He had carefully planned and spearheaded his very first winter retreat, and the teen response was enthusiastic. Dirk had also invited five other churches in the county and had asked me to be the main speaker at what they were calling their Polar Bear Breakout. All six churches would load their buses and meet up at a camp in the upper reaches of Michigan that evening for the opening service. It was now mid-afternoon as Dirk had finished packing his teens, adults and camping gear into two buses.

Dirk handed me an Army-green walkie-talkie. “If you need to contact me, use this,” 1bbbhe said. These were the days before cell phones.

“Okay, Dirk,” I answered, pocketing the walkie-talkie and pulling the parka tightly about me, trying my best not to shiver noticeably in the midst of these winter-seasoned folks. The truth was even though I was equipped with boots, scarves, gloves and thick layers, I was already freezing … and we hadn’t even started yet.   I looked across the street at the electronic bank sign. It showed a temperature of ten degrees Fahrenheit.

He gave me a thumbs-up and trotted towards his vehicle. Within a minute, both heavily-laden church buses were lumbering out onto the main drag that let to the Interstate. The driver turned on his wipers. I looked out the window and saw Dirk standing inside the front of his bus, balancing himself while the bus bumped and swayed, giving announcements and rules to his passengers as we swung up on the Interstate ramp. I noticed the teens were not talking; they were listening intently to him.

Buses are part of some of my most vivid memories during my two-year journey around the country. More than once I was invited to speak at a camp location which dictated that I ride a bus along with the rest of the church group. These are prime times for me for two reasons.

First, some of the most in-depth conversations I’ve encountered came during an extensive bus ride. It might be the utter boredom of the trip that causes people to want to talk in rather deep conversations even though we’re talking in a pitch just above the noise of the engines; remember, these aren’t greyhounds – these are school buses that have gone into retirement and were purchased by churches. No matter the noise – the group talks were fascinating. There have been times when teens or adults have piled into a tight circle so that we could have a “round table session” while on the way to a retreat location. There have also been many a happy incidents where I counseled in a one-on-one session to someone in need. In many cases the bus rides have been even more fruitful than the camp experience itself.

Second, the bus will undoubtedly experience an unpredictable event. Most of the times this meant a breakdown. You church workers know what I mean; on any given trip the odds that a bus will experience a mechanical problem are high enough to make any Las Vegas bookie drool.   If not a mechanical failure on the outside the bus, it is assured that something weird will happen within the vehicle.

Such was the case here. In fact, we enjoyed both delights on this Michigan trip.

The prospect of taking this winter camp expedition toward the upper part of Michigan was intriguing to me not only for the frostbite potential of the event itself, but also for a chance for me to watch Dirk. We had been side-by-side in a number of classes at college and I had seen his hair-trigger temper explode over very small things. He’d fume if his pencil broke. He’d grind his teeth if his quiz result was below average. He’d fly into a rage if his girlfriend was late in meeting him at the snack shop. Large things, small things would set Dirk off so easily that he’d developed a campus-wide reputation, earning the nickname Tea Kettle.

Here he was, in charge of a six-church event in numerous aspects: the travel, the lodging, the daily schedule and even the menu.   I was going to make this a study in human behavior. Would Dirk handle the pressure?

I guess a bigger question, at the moment, was if I could get enough heat into my body.   We’d been on the road for about twenty minutes and it seemed like they had the air conditioner on full blast.   I was trying not to shiver, but the bus felt like an ice box.

“Excuse me,” I leaned forward and spoke to the driver, “can you crank up the heater a bit more? I think my toes are crystallizing.”

“Ha ha,” the jovial driver looked at me and laughed aloud. “Dirk said you were a funny guy. Cold feet, that’s a good one.” He shook his head. “No, friend, the heater’s been broken on this bus for over a year. It’s not that bad, really.”

I grimaced. “Well, isn’t there a way you can, like, open some sort of a vent and let the heat from the engine come in here and raise the temperature a bit?”

“Hee hee, “ he showed his teeth and snickered. “Open a vent to the engine. You are funny.”

1bbbI was trying to figure a gentle way to tell him that my intentions were not to entertain him, when we were interrupted by a passing pickup truck that was honking his horn and motioning for us to pull over. Since we were the lead bus, both vehicles found a safe place to stop on the shoulder and I piled out along with the other adults.

The fellow in the pickup walked back to us as held his hands up. “Say, sorry to do this, but I thought you need to know, what with all those kids in the bus. You’re pouring smoke out of your engine, and I can see your manifold is red-hot.”

We peered into the engine to see the cherry-red glow of the manifold. The whole engine smelled of burning rubber.

“There’s also something wrong with the belts,” said our driver. “Look at how shredded they are.”

“Here’s some more smoke, right here, see?” Someone pointed to yet another problem as Dirk walked toward the bus engine.

The man shook his head and turned to us. “Look, I’m not much of a mechanic, but I know enough about cars and engines to see trouble. All I gotta say is that you don’t want to be driving anywhere with all these kids and have problems like that.”

I watched Dirk’s face. This was Tea Kettle boy, remember. We all waited to hear his response.

He turned graciously to the mechanic guy. “Thank you, sir, for spotting this. You’ve really help us avert a disaster,” he said, chuckling. The man nodded and walked back to his pickup truck. Dirk turned to our driver – the happy guy who thought I was telling jokes.   “Pull into that truck stop right there,“ said Dirk, pointing to the place only a half a mile down the road. “I’ll need to figure this out.”

The truck stop was too small to handle an immediate influx of over seventy teens. Though the kids were well-behaved under the circumstances, they were everywhere chatting, laughing and buying up every Gummy Worm and package of beef jerky they could find. I saw Dirk over in the corner, working the pay phone.

“What can I do to help?” I asked. A few teens and adults were at my shoulder.

“I can’t get a proper mechanic at this time of the evening,” said Dirk, “and nobody’s answering at the church. I can’t get any of the staff on the phone, and we’re cutting the deadline close to making it for this evening’s meeting.” He looked over my shoulder to a burly man in a Detroit Tigers baseball cap.

“Jim, take the senior high school boys and start moving all of the luggage onto the second bus. Anne, take the girls and use this clipboard to get a head count and load the first bus kids onto the second one. Make room the best you can.”  The teen boys sprang into action.

All the teens on one bus?” asked Anne, taking the clipboard. She waved to four girls who immediately came to her side.  Again, I was amazed at how mature the teens were.  What had Dirk taught them?  Did he give a leadership course?

Dirk nodded. “Pack ‘em the best you can and get on the road.” He patted the second driver on the shoulder. “I’ll stay here with the first bus until it’s towed to a mechanic and I’ll keep working the phones until we get another bus. Then we’ll catch up with you and sort the kids out again.”

The driver nodded and the adults went to work. Teens gathered and helped move the luggage and were soon wedged on the second bus, fitted as tightly as blocks in a Jenga game. I’m not sure if we were street-legal this way, but we were ready to move out.

Dirk winked to me. “When you get there, gather the teens in the main chapel and start if I’m not there by eight o-clock. You can handle it, can’t you?”

“I’ll get it rolling,” I promised, and reached out to shake his hand. “You amaze me, man.  An emergency like this, with a deadline to boot and you’re as cool as a cucumber. No more Tea Kettle, huh? Dirk, what happened?”

He shrugged. “My anger was my ego acting up. That’s the best way to tell you, Brad.   I realized early in my ministry that if I kept getting in the way, I was shoving Jesus out of the picture.   It was pure selfishness, and once I accepted the fact that it was not about me, I had a better grip on my anger issues.” He waved me away. “Go, now. I’ll catch up with you.”

As I trotted out the door to the parking lot my breath was ripped away from the icy blast. “Oooof,” I gasped to the driver. “The temperature’s dropping, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” he said, pulling the door closed. “The waitress said they read the thermometer a few minutes ago and it was one below.”

I realized we were on a different bus and a small hope rose within me. “Do we have a working heater on this bus?”

The driver chuckled. “No, it broke about two years ago.”

“Look,” I said desperately, “do you think anybody on the bus has a portable heating device? Like a battery-powered electric blanket?”

“Oh, you’re that funny guy,” said the grinning driver. “Dirk said you’d make with the jokes.”

And so we headed out, packed like sardines. Cold sardines.

I was sitting in the front of the bus, now elbow-to-elbow and shoulder-to-shoulder with kids from floor to ceiling. Teens were jammed in the aisles and packed in fours on each seat. As the darkness settled in and we entered our third hour on the road, I noticed that the teens had settled into a routine of quiet talk and acceptance of the way things were.

I had never seen such a large group of young people react so calmly to a strained situation like this. This was quite admirable to me – I began realizing that…

…the teens were imitating Dirk.

His newfound peace as a leader had made an impact on the kids, and they were giving the same reaction.  He was leading by example.

I had often heard that after a time a youth group will take on the characteristics of its leader, and in some cases I had seen it played out: if the leader was edgy, the kids were edgy. If he or she was sarcastic, so were the group members. If the leader was an avid Bible reader, the kids took on that affection as well. But never had I seen such a dramatic emulation of a Christian character such as this. Dirk’s change of heart was indeed changing lives of younger Believers.

The snow coming down harder, and the wind was rocking the overly-packed bus. The front windshield was slowly covering with an icy frost at the edges and the wipers didn’t seem to keep up with the flakes sticking to the glass. I had great admiration for the driver of the bus as I saw him peering with squinted yes into the darkness beyond the headlights; he seemed like a Michigan veteran was used to tackling this sort of visual nightmare. My nervousness was made worse when we left the relative lamp-lit safety of the Interstate and entered a state road, then a county road that had absolutely no lighting whatsoever.

The icy frost crept up and tightened his vision down to a central foot-wide spot in front of him. He hunched over and peered through the storm. I glanced at the other adults in front, who seemed to be taking this in stride. Was I being too edgy? I wasn’t sure if I should say anything and appear to be a tenderfoot who jumped at every shadow, but I couldn’t see how he was able to steer this bus with such limited vision.

I nudged the man next to me and tried to act casual. “That snow takes some, er, getting used to in driving, huh? Does it take you all some years to learn how to see through all of that winter mess?”

The man looked straight ahead and nodded. “Oh, you never really get used to it. In fact, I’m amazed at how he can see at all. I wouldn’t be able to drive in weather like this.”

I fairly leaped to the bus driver’s side.

He was – I am not making this up – peering through a portal of around eight inches in diameter. 

I cast aside any politeness now. I grabbed my scarf and started scraping away the frost on the inside of the windshield in front of him.

“Oh, thank you very much,” he said without taking his eyes off of the road. “I was really having problems and I wasn’t sure what to do. I could hardly see anything outside of the bus in front of us.”   He giggled. “It was a lot of guess work.”

Despite there being no heat on the bus, I broke out into a heavy sweat. Collaring the nearest youth worker, I made them sit next to the driver and continually scrape the windshield clean to the far corners. I threatened them bodily harm should they cease from their labor.

We turned onto an even smaller road with ditches on both sides and farmhouses in the distance.

I calmed myself, sat down and reflected on what I had seen.  Not heard, mind you, but seen.  I had not heard Dirk give a single Bible lesson or Scriptural devotional, yet here I was, observing the result of a youth leader who knew that it was more than “on stage presence” that would minister to his teens.  These teens were calm, diligent and ready to help.Dirk was James 1:22 in action:  being a doer of the Word, not just a hearer only.  Or merely a speaker for that matter.

“Here we are,” said the driver, “all in one piece.”

“Not funny,” I said. He threw the door open and my lungs froze solid.

“Welcome!” shouted the camp director. “You’re part of our camp’s history as of right now!” He swung his arms wide. “It’s thirty-two below zero!”

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