Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

October 4, 2009


Remembering the two most exciting rides of a lifetime


          Shirley died first. We wanted so much to see her during her final days but another trip to Alaska was out of the question. When word came that she was gone, we grieved with her family the loss of this lovely woman. She had been our good friend for 40 years.

          Al died a few years later. He was 80. Realizing he had terminal cancer, Al had called us a few months before his death. He was not cheerful but neither was he morbid. Though his tone was a bit melancholy his faith came through loud and clear. He assured us he would see us again on the other side.

          Al was a school superintendent in Minnesota when I got to know him. We were friends from the moment we met. He and Shirley were struggling with the same problems that baffled Dean and me in trying to raise kids in the sixties and seventies. We found we had a lot in common that we could laugh and cry about.

          Both of us had wonderful sons named Mark and both gave us fits during their teen years. Al shared with me that his son Mark had become quite belligerent. His behavior was plain rotten. But even worse he had begun to speak disrespectfully to his mother. That changed a few months ago, Al told me.

          I was surprised by his explanation. This mild-mannered school man, whose patience had been tempered by years of teaching teenagers, said that one night Mark pushed him over the edge. Al said, “I walked into the room just in time to hear Mark speak in an ugly way to his mother. Without saying a word I walked over and cold-cocked him. Mark hit the floor, out like a light. When he woke up, he was as quiet as a mouse. Since that night his attitude has vastly improved.”

          James Dobson does not include that procedure in his classic book of advice for fathers, Bringing Up Boys. But our sons were grown by the time his book was published. I will admit there were times when I was tempted to use Al’s cold-cock strategy but I never did. I guess I was afraid I might be the one who got cold-cocked.

          I loved the calm assurance that characterized Al’s approach to everything. He and Shirley took us on the greatest family vacation we ever had. One summer we drove up to the picturesque backwater area of northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

Al knew the place like the back of his hand. He worked there many summers as a guide for tourists. Lugging backpacks, camping supplies and canoes, we followed Al as he led our families on seven portages to a lovely secluded campsite.

We were alone. This beautiful world was ours to enjoy. There we camped for five days of fishing, relaxing, and sharing stories. We brought back some tall tales. My wife, whose fishing skills are zero, caught a huge Northern Pike, the biggest catch of the week. That day her fish must have weighed eight or ten pounds. Since then its weight has almost doubled whenever the story is retold.

Al’s love of the backwoods led him eventually to Alaska. I could hardly believe it when he called me from Nome, a small town that hired him as principal of its school. I had to get out a map to find Nome. Al and Shirley fell in love with their new Alaskan way of life. They never went back to Minnesota except to visit family.

When Al insisted that I come up and preach for a few days, I could not resist. I caught a plane and made my way to Anchorage. There I discovered that flying is different in Alaska. A voice over the intercom in the terminal said, “The flight to Nome will be delayed because of the weather.” Three hours later we were called to board the plane. This time the voice said, “There has been a break in the weather and we may be able to make it. If the plane cannot land, the pilot will return the plane to Anchorage.”

The uncertainty of the message was unlike anything I had ever heard in Atlanta or Chicago. But it got worse. As we approached Nome we were told to fasten our seatbelts. The pilot said he was going to try to land. Nothing but snow was visible out the windows. I was praying earnestly.

I could feel the plane descending but instead of touching down, the plane suddenly began climbing as the pilot gunned the engines. Then the pilot said, “Folks, visibility was too poor for a landing so we are going to circle the field awhile and hope for an opening.” After a spell he spoke again, “Hold on folks; we are going to try again.” Once again he aborted the landing and continued circling.

Each time he tried to land the pilot used the word “try.” I am enough of a realist to understand that failure is possible when one attempts to do something. Was I nervous and afraid? Oh yes, you bet I was. As the pilot descended into the snow for his third attempt to land, I was praying, “Lord, you made a way through the wilderness for Moses, so please make a way through this snow for Walter!”

He did and I had a marvelous time in Nome. The highlight of my visit was a sleigh ride in the snow about ten o’clock one night. It was still daylight since some nights are very short up there. My hosts told me that it was Rudolph who pulled my sleigh; he works there during his off season.

I miss Al and Shirley. In quiet moments, when nostalgia grips me, I remember special times with them, especially the two most exciting rides of my life. + + +