Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

May 22, 2011


Thankfully the passing years do not extinguish all our memories


      If real life is about making friends I am a blessed man. I have many friends who mean the world to me. And I have lost many dear friends. Though it grieves me when friends die, precious memories of their love may linger long after the funeral. Today I am nurturing my soul with memories of Al and Shirley, two of the dearest friends we ever had.

          Al and Shirley Krinke lived in Minnesota when we met them. He was a high school principal and she a devoted homemaker. We were friends from the moment we met at a meeting in Nashville. Al and Shirley were struggling with the same problems that baffled Dean and me in trying to raise kids in the sixties and seventies. We had a lot in common that we could laugh and cry about.

          We stayed in touch for years by phone and letters. They were positive, loving, happy people. Our long phone conversations always included much laughter as we shared the happenings of our lives. Then one day Al called with sad news. Shirley was very sick and the end was near. Weeks later the dreaded phone call came. Shirley had died.  

We wanted so much to see her during her final days but a trip to Alaska was financially impossible. They had lived in Alaska for 25 years. We grieved with Al his great loss and ours. She had been our good friend for 40 years.

          A few years later another sad call came from Al, now 80 years old. Bravely he shared with us that he had terminal cancer. We wondered if we were hearing his voice for the last time. He was not cheerful but neither was he morbid. Though his tone was a bit melancholy his faith came through loud and clear. Weeks later he called again, this time to say goodbye. He knew the end was near. He assured us he would see us again on the other side. Tears wet my cheeks as I told Al I loved him and agreed that we would see each other again one day. 

          Like us Al and Shirley had a wonderful son named Mark. Both Marks gave us fits during their teen years. Al shared that at one point his son Mark had become quite belligerent. His behavior was rotten. Even worse he had begun  speaking disrespectfully to his mother. That changed a few months back, Al told me.

          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 book of advice for fathers, Bringing Up Boys. But our sons were grown by the time Dobson’s book was published.  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.

There we were alone. This beautiful world was ours to enjoy. 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 weighed eight or ten pounds. Since then its weight has almost doubled whenever the story is retold. She loves to tell that story.

It was Al’s love of the backwoods that led him 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 and never moved back to Minnesota.  

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 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 and wondering if my time was up.  

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 attempted 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 effort 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 and give thanks that the passing of time does not extinguish precious memories of dear friends. + + +