When you’re someone who writes for a living, you take your influences seriously. I graduated from a small high school in the woods of Washington State. There were thirty-six students in my graduating class, and I wanted nothing more than to graduate and play professional football for the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, I was convinced that was my destiny. And then I read Beowulf in English, had a teacher tell me Napavine wasn’t the world, and encountered writing for the first time in my sophomore journalism class. Our teacher and principal, Mr. Skinner, had worked as a journalist in Idaho before transitioning into education. With great precision and a loyalty to words, he taught us—he taught me—how to write. Through him, I encountered new ideas and abilities, but also new worlds and expansive horizons. I didn’t have to use either my body or athleticism to succeed. He taught me that my mind worked and, with a focused effort, anyone could write. Influence is a strange thing though and sometimes we don’t see it until it’s too late. Mr. Skinner passed away last weekend. He won’t see this, and I don’t know how aware he was of the many lives that he influenced throughout his years at Napavine. But to my recollection, he was a good principal, an even better teacher, and an invaluable influence.
I recently received these kind and thoughtful words from an old high school friend in response to my book, Through All The Plain. Thank you for taking the time to earnestly read and engage, and for allowing me to share your thoughts with the Internet.
So it’s been about 15 years since we spoke. Probably some form of congratulatory remarks as we graduated. It’s also probably been just as long since I’ve sat down and read through an entire book in less than 24 hours. Yours arrived on Monday evening and I finished it last night. It was amazing to hear your story. As a youth minister and a Capt. in the Civil Air Patrol. I’m often asked many of the questions you addressed in your book by young men and women who are contemplating joining the military. I tried to join after I dropped out of college the first time (also from a Bethany College) but couldn’t pass the physical. I now count it a blessing that I was spared the experiences that you endured, but also find myself at a loss when counseling with students due to not having those experiences. I found your story both revealing and refreshing. I have long felt that too often our society is far too quick to jump to violence as an answer. While we may not totally agree in our stance on war, I can definitely appreciate your desire to seek peace as more than a passing thought or unattainable ideal. Thank you for your willingness to be open and honest about your life and experiences. I truly believe that you have helped to open up a conversation that the American Church is far to quick to dismiss under the guise of patriotism.
I received word that my book, Through All The Plain, would be coming out sometime in late April or early May. My excitement, however, increased when my publisher sent me the layout and design last night. I opened the document and thought, Wow, that looks like a real book. My stomach looped and my head lightened. This is really gonna happen! And then, as my wife and I watched the season two finale of House of Cards, I couldn’t stop grinning stupidly. So what if Underwood kills people for political power, I’ve got a book coming out!
“Yeah,” they said, squirming beneath the comforter.
“Alright.” The room was gray, illuminated by a solitary lamp. “This might be scary.”
“We’re never scared,” the elder said.
I twined my fingers behind my head and started: “Once upon a time—”
“Once upon a time,” the younger parroted.
“If I tell a story, you have to listen. Understand? No more interrupting.”
“Good.” I shifted into storytelling mode. “Once upon a time, there lived two girls.”
“Regan and Ellis,” the elder shouted.
“That’s right,” I said. “One day, while playing in the backyard—”
“Dragon,” the younger said.
“No, not a dragon. Don’t interrupt. One day, while playing in the backyard, they found something, something special. Do you know what it was?”
They shook their heads.
“A box,” I said.
The younger scrunched her eyebrows. Confused by the path on which this story was hurtling.
“But not any box,” I said, before she could voice her objections. “It was a magical box.”
“What was in it?” the elder asked.
“Why don’t you stop talking and let me tell you.”
“Alright then.” I composed myself. “It was dark and glowing—”
“Scary,” the younger said.
“Seriously, let me get through this.”
“It was dark and glowing. Both were scared. Regan, however, knew that if a magical box appeared in their backyard, then they simply couldn’t ignore it. For, obviously, it was a receptacle of great significance, carved with all kinds looping and pagan symbols.”
“Uh…I mean, pretty.”
“Regan, then, reached out with great care and slowly pried back the lid.”
“What was in it?” the elder asked with wide, glowing eyes.
“A key, ornate and wooden.”
“What’s ‘ornate?’” the elder asked.
“Never mind that. It was special…special and wooden. But it wasn’t alone. Tucked beneath the key was a note, handwritten.”
“What did it say?”
“It read: Dear Girls, If you are reading this, then I’m already dead.”
“Benjamin!” my wife roared from the living room.
“Alright, alright,” I yelled back before starting again. “If you are reading this, then the Rainbow of All Encompassing Blackness has already spread throughout our land. We tried to stop it, but we failed. We, the Butterflies of Butterland, need you. We have given you the key. Find the Tree Beneath the Sun for it will lead you to the Stairwell of the Red-Red Phoenix. Fit the key and enter.”
“Did they?” the elder asked.
“Yes, yes they did. And the key was true. Actually, it was Ellis who slid the key into the tree’s lock, turned it, and watched as the bark door creaked open. Inside, silver and overgrown, were shimmering spider webs—”
“Scary,” the younger interjected.
“Inside,” I corrected, “a golden light was streaming upon a stairway leading towards the sky. It was the Stairwell of the Red-Red Phoenix as once recounted in, The Grim and the Bold, written by the Grand Marquess of Nim.”
“The Grand Marquess of Nim,” I said.
“Oh,” the elder said. “What happened next?”
“Well…for that, you’ll have to wait. For all adventurers, and eyes, must rest. It’s time for bed.”
“But I don’t want to sleep. I want to know about the Stairwell of the Red-Red Phoenix.”
“Fine,” the elder yawned.
I stood up, kissed both girls on the forehead, and flipped off the light. As I shut the door, I heard the hum of a whisper: “Scary.”