Monday, January 10, 2011

Ole Jess

Jess sat on the steps of the school, eyes squinting in his wrinkled face as he shaded them from the sun.  He looked at the truck parked on the road with the words Texas Electric printed boldly on the side, and then eyed the burly workers. Using a post-hole digger, they made a deep hole, then manhandled the long wooden pole and dropped it into the ground, before pacing off fifty feet and doing it again. Across the gravel road, the poles were already in place and workers had strung wires on them at the top.  It was the mid-1930’s and the marvel of electricity was coming. Despite his objections, it was coming to him.
Jess thought kerosene lamps were just fine.  For years people had managed without this new-fangled electricity. Why do we need it now?  Why do folks always want to change things?  He liked things as they were and had always been.
Jess took care of the grounds at the Bluff Springs elementary school, a country community several miles from Fort Worth. He also cleaned the three classrooms, where 45 to 50 kids attended, with three teachers for the primary, middle, and upper grades.  A round pot-belly wood stove heated each classroom.  Each room had desks lined up in rows, bolted to the floor, chalkboards on two walls, and a pull-down map on the wall behind the teacher’s desk. 
 The kids called him “Ole Jess” because of his weathered face and white hair.  He limped a little when he walked, too.  But he was fiercely protective of the school.  He was the only man around, and he felt strongly responsible.  These women and kids needed a man around to keep a watch out for trouble.
All the kids played together at recess, from the first graders to the seventh graders. The swings and see-saw drew the kids first.  When the play equipment was filled, the kids jumped rope, played kickball or marbles, or ran races while the teachers supervised them. Of course, Ole Jess was always there during recess, one eye on the kids and one eye on those electric poles.
Jess worried about the electric wires being so near the school grounds.  He didn’t trust this new invention.  Why, they might even blow up and kill everybody on the playground.  Anything could happen. It couldn’t be safe. Therefore, he kept a wary eye on the kids unless they were inside the school building, out of harm’s way.
It was a hot Texas spring day. The electric workers peeled off their shirts and worked in their undershirts, continuing to plant the poles and ready them for the wires. After they strung the wires, they primed the poles with creosote to preserve the wood. Creosote was flammable, which made Ole Jess worry more. Why would they put that creosote so close to those wires, anyway?  A man could never get a minute’s rest, with the worry these electrical workers were giving him.
The teacher rang the bell, the children shuffled inside, and Jess flopped down on the steps as he wiped his brow with an old, red bandana. The kids were safe for a while.
Jess continued his mission—protecting the kids—day after day. One afternoon as he kept his vigil at recess, he noticed a small grass fire near one of the electric poles. Kids must be playing with matches. He panicked. That fire is too close to the pole.  The creosote will catch fire, the wires will explode and it will kill all the kids.
He rushed to the grass fire and tried to stomp it out, but the fire circled the creosote-covered pole and began moving up. He frantically put his big hands around the electric pole as high as he could. Holding tightly to the pole, he brought his hands down to the ground. He stripped off the flammable creosote and put out the fire with his bare hands.
Finally aware of the pain, Ole Jess held out his burned hands. Blisters were forming quickly, his hands were black, and splinters of creosote-covered wood stuck out from the tips of his fingers to his wrists, even in the big blisters. The teachers picked out the splinters and put salve and bandages on Jess’s hands. He was unable to use them for a few weeks as they healed.
But in his mind, the pain and inactivity was worth it all. He had been there when the kids needed him. He had averted an electrical explosion and saved the lives of the teachers and all those kids. 
And he would do it again.
This story won third place in fiction writing at the Heart of America Christian Writers' Network Conference, held in Overland Park, Kansas, November, 2010.
(This is an actual incident from my husband's childhood. He saw this happen. He used this illustration many times in sermons through the years, and he would say, "What are you doing to save those around you?")

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