The Way We Were – 1967-70

Part Thirty-seven by Warren Thomas

While it was true that the Forestburg School Board supported my upholding their dress code policy, (discussed earlier) and while officially the issue was closed, for me it really wasn’t. The real conclusion came about quite a bit later and over time.
I seldom saw “Ralph,” father of the two high school girls highlighting my two previous stories. I seldom, if ever, saw him to visit with him, that is. However, in a day or two after the board meeting, I was suddenly aware that I actually did see him every week, if only as we met regularly on 408 Avenue. On a weekly basis, he drove the Sanborn County road maintainer past our house; he, out early in the morning, and I, just heading down the road to school. No big deal, one might say, with Ralph in his road grader and I in my car. After all, vehicles meet a thousand times a day on a thousand roads, the drivers paying no attention to each other as they meet or pass.
There was one small detail, however, around which my mind revolved. In typical friendly, rural South Dakota fashion, Ralph and I for years had shared a customary bit of commaradarie – a mutual wave of the hand, signaling friendly recognition by two men working in the public sector for the common good. What should, would or could happen to that easy hand waving, now that I had a significant part in bringing an angry Ralph to a school board meeting?
Pondering what for many would be a non-issue, I realized two or three things. First, in any situation a human being has a choice of acting or reacting. Second, actions have consequences. Third, my life-long choices had been predicated by the philosophy that a Christian often marches to the beat of a different drummer. Jesus Christ did (and it got Him killed), and His followers do, too, (all the while hoping not to get killed!) I really had no axe to grind with Ralph. I had had no previous negative interactions during our several years living within 10 or 12 miles. In the school board meeting he had not personally attacked me, only the board dress code which I was enforcing. But we had been hand-waving acquaintances whose relatively distant friendship might now be in danger.
From my way of looking at life, it was not a big decision – I would continue to wave to Ralph the next Monday morning as he came from the south on his weekly run. Turning from my driveway one morning onto 408 Ave., I saw the yellow top of his road grader approaching. As we met, and with my resolve still in place, I lifted my hand in customary greeting in the few seconds of our passing. What happened was what I expected might happen – nothing. I glimpsed both hands resolutely fixed on the steering wheel. In his mind, we were no longer friends. He was hearing the beat of a different drummer.
During the second post-board-meeting week, we met again. The roar of the grader engine did not obscure his two hands fixed on the steering wheel as I offered my morning greeting. I was not surprised. Anger does not die quickly. But it was during our third-week meeting (we seemed to have the same schedule!) I saw a brief crack in the armor of his rejection. In the smallest of ways, Ralph removed one hand from the steering wheel and weakly raised it in a small gesture. The next week his response was more noticeable, and after that our momentary social courtesies were back to normal. By refusing to act like an adversary, I had regained a friend, if only through my car windshield. An old proverb says, “A soft answer turns away wrath,” a timeless truth which benefited both Ralph and me.
Time passed, several months of it. I called “Ray,” Ralph’s son-in-law, for some help with a water well problem. Ray did a lot of capable, experienced work in the water, electrical and digging business in the area. When he emerged from his truck, another person exited from the passenger side. In my surprise, I recognized that never before in my memory had Ralph set foot on my property. But there he was, the former angry dad of the almost-forgotten Forestburg dress code scenario. But it was not difficult to greet him in person, and we had our first-man-to-man conversation since the night of the board meeting as Ray took care of my well problem. I didn’t know what Ralph was thinking but judging by his voluntary presence and his casual attitude, by-gones were in fact gone by.
Naturally, neither of us brought up the board meeting situation and before the men left, Ray commented that he had seen an old Chevy parked back in the trees. “How much do you want for it?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied, “It’s just junk to me. In fact, when it’s handy for you to pick it up, just take it away. I may be in school but go back there and haul it off.” I soon forgot about their visit, the old Chevy, and the school dress code. Weeks passed, maybe months. One day I was back in those trees and saw the bare spot where the car had stood for many years. My friend had done what I said he could do.
That incident set me to thinking. Difficult situations often arise with no warning. We choose our responses, it’s quite easy to be poised and pious on Sunday morning. It seemed to me that for what I believe to appear believable, then on Monday what I do and say ought to reflect the spirit of the One I say I follow. I hope that came through to Ralph, the man they laid to rest before I could see him again.
“Ruby,” “Rachel,” “Roseann,” “Ralph” and “Ray –  a Forestburg family forever etched in my memory bank of educational experiences. I could mention that Rachel is still around. She sends me a bill every time Ray does work for me!


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