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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Five Years: Remembering Gene Franklin

It’s been four years to the day since Weathertop, Sam. It’s never really healed.

Frodo was reflecting on an excruciating journey, fraught with turmoil, confusion, pain, and the drive to finish the job well. To press on, even against all odds, against waning strength, against all personal desires. The wound he received at Weathertop, near the beginning of the ordeal, remains with him.

Perhaps some wounds never heal.

On Monday, November 11, it will be five years to the day since a tragic, avoidable, and completely unexpected accident took the life far too soon of someone I love. We travel on. But still. . .

It’s never really healed.

When I was a girl, my family settled at a very small Baptist church in the midlands of South Carolina. They did so for one primary reason: respect for the man who was the pastor of that church.

William Eugene Franklin, Jr., was a young, handsome, well-known family man with deep dimples, sparkling eyes, wavy blonde hair, and the greatest servant’s heart I have yet known personally. He and his wife Tina had two daughters close to my age and a son not too far behind, and a policy of an open door to their home and their hearts. It took no effort at all on my part to find a place there. I think I just showed up, and that was that. I was one of his, and I never doubted it.

In addition to being a pastor—who served two different congregations simultaneously—the man with the servant’s heart also served for decades as a fire fighter. I’ve often thought that perhaps his quiet way, always ready, always willing, always able, never boasting, underlies my to-this-day longing for comic superheroes to exist in reality. Mild-mannered heroes, dwelling among us, ready to come to the rescue when need arises. Good overcoming evil’s worst attempts. Yes, maybe there really are a few.

“Uncle Gene,” as my older brother suggested we call him, had a large part in good overcoming evil in my own life. Though I was never really a “bad kid,” I suppose I would have been classified as a “beautiful corpse.” The walking dead, perhaps. I had been taught morals and respectfulness, and I behaved fairly well most of the time. It was an acceptably convincing presentation of what a good, little Southern girl ought to look to anyone looking (and in the South, that's usually a significant number of people)—if all you could see was the outside appearance. But soul-wise, it would be several years beyond my childhood years before Gene’s teaching made any real sense to me—before it became more than cultural tradition but actual personal faith. Before it gave life.

I think he knew. When I graduated from high school, he gave me a graduation present: my first actual study Bible. I’d previously had only a non-annotated King James Bible. It came out pretty much only on Sundays and went back on the shelf afterward. But because someone I so loved and respected, and who so loved and respected me, gave me that Bible, I made sure to pack it in with my other essentials when I left for college. It was after being challenged by another pastor whom I respected, because he respected me, that I opened it to read it thoroughly. And it changed my life. It changed everything.

I know that Gene Franklin prayed for me. I know because it was who he was, and I know because he told me so once, and everything else I know about him tells me he kept his word. I think of that sometimes, when I am praying fervently for one of my young friends in a hard spot in life, far away—I remember that I perhaps benefited from his persistence on my behalf. So I persist. God answered Gene, who set the stage for that prayer in the first place. God may answer me as well, for that one.

Christianity is a relationship doctrine. God made people to be in his presence, to be in his company, to enjoy him. God put people into relationships. God uses people in relationship to show himself to each other, to encourage each other, to bring more into the relationship. I think Gene loved me into the Kingdom. And I wasn’t the only one, either, but maybe I had more, closer opportunity than most others.

I got to go camping with the Franklins, in the crowded, pop-up camper. We slept three girls across one mattress, which was fine except for the late night giggling. Shopping and errand running in the giant Econoline van. Hours on the side-deck gave opportunity for him to listen to the music of the day, and give some input. I wish I could remember the song I was playing there once that he gave his approval to, something trendy, pop-music, radio friendly. But he listened, gave me that side wink to match the dimple on that cheek, and snapped his fingers while swaying a bit. I was proud to say I’d made a Baptist preacher dance—even just a little. But it was his presence, his involvement, his acceptance and approval that was planting seeds.  

I remember once I was included on his family’s beach trip. We were walking on the broad, white sand, watching waves and just chatting when, to my astonishment he suddenly inverted next to me. He just tumbled over into a perfect handstand! The man was then walking the beach on his hands next to me! I had no idea he had such a talent, and a moment later, he walked directly into the surf, still on those hands. When he emerged, he gave me a gift from the sea—a live sand dollar he had immersed his inverted self to find.

As fun and personal as those memories are, though, there’s one that nearly haunts me to this day.

I had a high-school friend named Joey. Joey had (and, I’m sure still has) a huge heart of gold and a big bellowing laugh to match it. After high school, Joey determined that he would enter the fire department. So of course, I told Uncle Gene, My friend Joey is going to be a fire fighter too. We were sitting on Gene’s couch, under the big window in the family room of his home, where we usually sat to talk. Again, he gave me that dimpled smile with the near-wink and made me a promise: I intend to get to know that young man then.

And he did. He sought out Joey and they too became great friends.

Five years ago, Joey was working out his duties for the fire fighter team. One of his jobs was to gather prayer requests and forward them to Gene, who served as chaplain. On November 11, 2008, a fellow fire fighter was in the hospital. Joey called Gene. Would you be able to get in to visit him? he asked. Of course, that servant’s heart would do just that.

Gene got on his motorcycle to head to the hospital, about 10 miles away. Within about a mile of his own home, however, a car coming from the other direction, and turning left, failed to yield to him. The collision took Gene from all of us. And pierced us all as well.

Joey told me at the funeral that apart from his own father, no one in the world had ever had as much impact on him as Gene Franklin had. I believe it. Because I know, too.

It still hasn’t healed.

I have to pause in writing here to remember again, so many ways he was in my life.

When I brought home from college a young man I thought I was going to marry, of course I had to take him to the Franklins, and to Gene in particular. We had dinner there together, and again, to the couch to talk. But that evening, as we were getting ready to leave, Gene made the joke he always made, something about it being cold, and throwing his arm around my shoulders (the Armstrong heater, he called it) he pulled me close. He took my left hand, and lifted it to almost eye level. It was at that point still ring-less. And he looked me directly in the eye with genuine affection and said very firmly, Don’t do this too soon.

He was right. That young man was not the one for me. He knew. I was saddened at first by his comment. Not angry. Not defensive. I trusted him too much for that. Just puzzled and sad. But he was right. I saw that truth before long.

A few years later, Gene gave me that playful wink again as he stood with Bill and me on the platform at Gaither Chapel and declared us man and wife. He first held what was soon to be my wedding band in his own hand, held it up before the congregation, turned it in his fingers, and then gave it to Bill to place on my hand. In his own nervousness, he forgot the order of events, accidentally omitting the congregational Lord’s prayer I had wanted in the service. I whispered to him, and he leaned in so humbly to me, his head almost against my own, and replied, Oh my. I am about to mess up, aren’t I?

Gene, me, and Bill
December 1994

When our first daughter was born, Gene and Tina were just about as quick to arrive as my own blood uncle and aunt to greet the new one—even though they had grandchildren of their own by then. It just didn’t stop, that connection, that relation, that inclusion. That love.

At the funeral, one of the speakers made note of how Gene would willingly open his heart to expand his family inclusively. I grinned and nodded obviously, in agreement. I thought somehow the one speaking was talking about me, specifically. But as I looked around that filled-to-capacity auditorium, I saw other heads nodding, other faces smiling. I wasn’t the only one? Of course I wasn’t. But he always made me feel that way.

It was appropriately grey and wet that day. But that didn’t stop the public. As we rode for miles in the procession from the church in town to the burial site out in the county, at the little church he pastored and my own family had attended, people lined the streets, both sides. A nearly continuous wall of people, mourning with us all, for miles. Fire fighters came from other counties to stand by in case of emergency so that all the other servicemen could attend. Ladder trucks gave tribute over the roadway. It almost seemed as if the whole state had come to a standstill. It was awesome and appropriate and it still wasn’t enough.

It’s been five years to the day on Monday. It really hasn’t healed. But it will. Those who make it to old age say that life is short. It’s too short in some cases. This is one. But he’s on the other side, and because he didn’t keep his love and knowledge of truth to himself, I know I’ll be there one day too. He was a hero and a life-saver, and though he never saved me from an earthly blaze, I can’t say he didn’t have a very important role in saving me from that which such earthly tragedies can symbolize.

It’s hard to end this particular story, but that’s OK, I think. Because we don’t know the end yet. In fact, there isn’t one. Gene lived by the promises of an eternal, loving, forgiving God. He lives by them still. And in this intricate tapestry of overlapping lives that God ordains to weave, I can say that even though the wound of losing him still hasn’t healed, I would change not one thing to ease it if it meant not knowing him. He was a willing participant through whom God’s grace reached me. Thank you, Father, for the life and love of William Eugene Franklin, Jr.


Carolynn Markey said...

oh man. that was sad. but God is so good and I know Gene is in the arms of God today.

cpurser7 said...

What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. It's so nice to see what an amazing impact he had in so many different people's lives. Being so useful in the hands of his Father while with us.

--Rebecca said...

Thank you both for reading and commenting. He was unique in love. Such a people person! A good balance. He loved the outdoors and some quiet times like that, but still, he was all about people.
Oh, I miss him.

Harry Little said...

I loved that man. They come no better than he. Your words are a true reflection of the man I knew. Thank you...

Christine Courson said...

I read Miriam's sorry. Then I looked at your Home screen and saw your Top Ten list. I don't remember reading this before, but thank you. I'm glad to see again, through your eyes, my Daddy. -Chris