What do we learn from friends? Let me tell you about Joe, who with his wife Teri, taught me about the power of an indestructible life.
I met him about 24 years ago. We were stationed at the same unit in the Navy and I was his sponsor. Like me, he was an older guy to be so new in the Navy. We were both professional musicians who had come to realize that the Navy was a great place to be musicians. Like me, Joe had taken a devious, non-direct route to a college degree, had worked many jobs along the way, but unlike me, he had learned to do lots of useful things in an effort to make money and keep from spending money. He was a musician, so that also meant he lived at the bottom end of the pay scale. Saving money was essential to survival.
Joe’s intrepidity and resourcefulness were exemplified by his car. I first saw him in the summer of 1988 sitting in his un-airconditioned, 1971 Mercury Comet. It was red. And I do mean “was.” It had one of the those finishes that would come off on your finger if you wiped it across the hood. Oxidized doesn’t even start to describe it. At idle, it had an interesting sound. Upon inquiry, I learned that the sound was a hydraulic valve lifter that would periodically run dry of oil and tap like crazy for 10 to 15 seconds, then quiet down again as it refilled. Is it serious, Joe? Nah. Just annoying. And that wasn’t the only trick his 17-year-old car had – but the tricks were off-set by the price. The car cost nearly nothing to acquire, but needed some serious engine work, which Joe had done himself. He had dropped the oil pan and replaced about half the rod bearings on the crank shaft while the motor still in the car. Then he drove it 700-plus miles from Nebraska to Memphis, where we met. Talk about intrepid – that trip in that car? He related all of this with the most serene, calm smile. He was an extremely happy guy by nature, and now that he was getting paid twice a month and had job security, he was very content. Nothing could be better for him than having a job with a future, and driving an old car that cost him nothing.
I found a photo on line (this is a Matchbox or Hot Wheels model). I’m not sure Joe’s car ever looked this good. Not even new.
I was his sponsor – the guy who showed him around, got him checked into the unit and oriented. We hit it off right away. We both drove old cars, had similar backgrounds and interests. My old car was a 1970 VW transporter (Type II for you aficionados). I was on my second engine, and this one wasn’t doing so well either. Joe listened to my description of the problems and said “valves.” I said “oh.” “Sounds expensive.” Joe said “not if you do it yourself. I’ll help.”
The valve job was the first of many projects we did together on that car. Joe had never worked on a VW but seemed to know how most of the systems worked anyway. He kept my car running, and taught me a lot about it at the same time.
This image really takes me back. I owned this car for 13 years. My kids cried when we got rid of it.
Joe was absolutely fearless regarding complexity of mechanics, electronics, computers, writing music, designing administrative processes – you name it, Joe had a fundamental skill in that area that enabled him to succeed. And a natural leader on top of it all. Not surprisingly, he met with lots of success in the Navy.
We followed each other around the fleet for years, always seizing any chance to get together for a meal and just hang out together. Joe married a wonderful girl named Teri and they had three boys. Though we both started out enlisted, we both received a commission within a few years of each other, and had even more in common. Then Joe was posted to the Pentagon and was in the building on 11 Sep 2001. He worked in the section just adjacent to the plane crash – and survived without injury. Teri was terrified for him, of course, and he couldn’t get out of the building for hours, and then couldn’t get home for hours more. After that, everyone was on an emergency/crisis schedule, and life was very, very difficult. As you can imagine, their lives were changed forever by that experience. Joe lost colleagues, acquaintances, and shipmates, but himself escaped alive. This is not something a person survives without having it affect them in a serious way. However, Joe’s testimony of 9/11 was gratitude. Grateful to God be alive. Grateful to know, now more than ever, what was important in life. And death.
A couple more years passed and their daughter was born with a genetic problem – prognosis was poor. Most of these babies didn’t make it. Joe and Teri determined that, if there was any chance at all, they would give her the best of their lives and resources. Sarah outlived the odds, and made it six months or so. Joe and Teri had poured all their being into her survival, but Sarah ultimately departed to be with God.
They were the most grateful bereaved parents I’ve ever met. They could only thank God for the honor of being Sarah’s parents. They could only praise Sarah for how their lives had been enriched, though the schedule of special care for her, frequent hospitalizations, and of course the worry, had been grueling. During this time, Joe had been stuck in Washington DC, unable to transfer through the problem pregnancy, unable to transfer while Sarah needed the resources of the best hospitals in the country. What started as a two-year tour ended up being five. Five years are a long time for a service man to spend in DC.
Finally, gratefully, Joe transferred to a fleet unit, then several years later got a dream assignment in Naples Italy at the NATO command. They were going to enjoy some great duty in a wonderful foreign culture. What’s not to like about living and working in Europe? Not long after after arriving in Italy, Joe had a seizure, then gradually experienced worsening neurological problems. Tests in Naples, then medevac to Landstuhl Army hospital for more tests. 8 months later the problems had become acute. Joe and Teri were flown to the US for more diagnosis and treatment. Finally a definitive diagnosis: a glioma – a very serious, cancerous brain tumor. Prognosis: Poor.
The kids, cared for by friends back in Naples, followed a few days later accompanied by a chaplain. Shipmates in Naples oversaw the packing of his household goods, and sent them on. Fortunately, the house they owned in town was between tenants, and Joe and Teri could move right in. Joe had surgery within days of returning to the U.S., then follow-on radiation and chemo. We saw them several days before surgery and they were… grateful. Hopeful. Surrendered to whatever God had planned for their lives. Joe said his only wish was to see his kids grow up, but… he was ready for anything God had planned.
Here we are at a colleague’s commissioning ceremony. He’s about 3 months post-op and looking great. We are three old friends: Our close friend Steve on the left, Joe in the middle, and me on the right.
I saw Joe several times through the next 8 months. He always looked good, was enthusiastic, smiled often, and loved to see friends. Chemo and radiation were difficult and took a heavy toll on his health. Then I was out-of-town for a month. Not knowing if Joe would survive until I could return, I visited him just before my departure – we sat and I talked to Joe about our early days together. Fixing cars, rooming together on business trips, hanging out together, family times together. Joe couldn’t really put words together by then, but understood everything I said, and responded appropriately. We laughed a lot. We prayed together. When I was leaving Teri hugged me, and I thought I was going to pass out from the pressure of her squeeze. They were holding on. Late in my trip, I was suddenly alarmed for some reason. I called Teri while I was still out-of-town. She was having a tough time. Joe was slipping far, far down. He slept a lot. Communicated through looks and expressions, was often lucid. Usually understood what was said to him. The last days were upon them. They were trusting God to see them through this too. I returned from travel at the end of March, but Joe departed to be with the Lord before I saw him again. Joe and Sarah were reunited. The rest of the family would see them some time in the future.
Two years ago in April – this month – Joe was accorded a full honors military funeral at Quantico National Cemetery. I presented the flag to Teri on behalf of a grateful nation. The band that Joe had conducted played for his service. Three rifle volleys fired. Taps sounded. Joe was buried beside his daughter Sarah.
Joe and Teri – with indestructible hope – lived boldly. They walked together to the threshold of eternity, and Joe fearlessly stepped through the door. Joe was ushered into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and even now lives an indestructible life in the presence of God. Joe’s faith was purified through difficulties, refined by trial. His life was burnished to brilliance by his loving Father through hardship, love, loss, and hope in the death and resurrection of Christ. Joe lived gratefully and died full of faith, never doubting that, like Abraham of old, God Himself was his shield and his exceeding great reward.