Through the years, the Lord has blessed me with special friends. Among them, Joe Burkhardt, a fishing buddy. Joe, now 90, lives in California. Two years ago, his Julie died and he emailed, asking my thoughts about heaven. While I work on that, I’ll tell you my favorite Joe story. It runs long, so if you’re busy, pick it up another time:
Revisiting the past is a preoccupation common to us old guys. Sometimes we look back and wonder how we could have been so stupid. I seem to have more than my share of such memories. Among them was that evening at Center Lake Camp, the year Joe Burkhart served as director.
The summer of 1953 our family moved to Muskegon, Michigan to serve Wayside Baptist Church. Two years later, Joe came to teach science at Lincoln School across from our church. He and his family joined the church.
Joe and I both had Scouting in our backgrounds, and since the community had no organized youth activity, we explored starting a troop at Lincoln School. We contacted the Scout office, put out feelers for committee members, and the idea caught on. Joe became Scoutmaster; I volunteered to be chaplain. Within a year, Troop 58 had 60 kids.
Each summer, Joe planned a troop camping trip. The 1956 plan was to circle Lake Michigan. The Troop committee bought and refurbished a used school bus and in early June we headed for Imp Lake in the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Following five days at Imp Lake, we drove south through Wisconsin for an overnight at Wisconsin Dells. There we found a Gypsy fortune teller among the attractions. I sensed a story in that mysterious lady with her cards and red kerchief.
The following summer, Joe hired on as summer director for Center Lake Bible Camp near Cadillac, Michigan. I signed up for young teen week, with evening campfires among my duties. As I pondered the first campfire, The Gypsy fortune teller came to mind. I plotted with Joe.
A waning moon lit the sky as campers and staff gathered on the grassy hill overlooking the lake. Campers and younger staff circled the fire. Folding chairs accommodated older staff and visitors; among them, a white-haired grandmother. Joe stood just outside of the camper circle, the fire between him and me. After campfire songs, I launched the story.
I told about our Imp Lake trip and overnight at the Dells. Then truth drifted off. I pictured me and Joe mingling with tourists at the fortune teller’s booth, not hiding our skepticism. The Gypsy grew growing increasingly irritated. Suddenly, she ripped a page from her notepad, scrawled hasty words, strode into the crowd and confronted me. “You shall see! You shall see!” She thrust the crumpled note into my hand. I paused and fished out my wallet, extracting a wrinkled paper and said, “Come to think about it, that was just a year ago today.”
I smoothed the paper. “Don’t know why I kept it this. I don’t believe in fortune tellers.” I paused and pretended to study it by firelight. From the circle: “What did she write?” “Ridiculous!” I said, “Joe and I are best of friends.” I read slowly: “On this day another summer, one of you will slay the other.” That was Joe’s cue. With a bloodcurdling yell he leaped campers and fire, heading for me. I hurled myself down the hill into the darkness, Joe close behind. We lay in the tall grass stifling laughter. That was one campfire the kids would remember! Little did we know.
At the fire circle, panic. Campers cried. The grandmother came close to a heart attack. Adult staffers grew angry. When Joe and I appeared, expecting applause for a masterful performance, our laughter turned to chagrin. Said one stern soul, “How could you!” Good question.