The 1970’s. For some, this decade generates a few less than glamorous memories – a country mired in conflict in Vietnam, skyrocketing inflation and gas prices, Watergate and of course platform shoes and bellbottoms. But for me, there are plenty of sweet memories of childhood – Tinkertoys, my Schwinn bicycle, Little House on the Prairie, and my neighbors and friends the Messeralls!
For a young girl who would eventually live out her childhood traversing across four states and attending six different schools before the ninth grade, those precious years outside of Chicago hold the deepest and strongest ties to anything I might remotely grasp as the “best years” of my preadolescent life. The meat-and-potatoes years, I call them. The years when you are old enough to remember, and form bonds that outlast sleepovers and birthday parties. It was during these fleeting, but impressionable years that I met my True North Story® co-host, John Hudson Messerall.
John and his family were already a stalwart part of the community when we moved in. John, his sister, Jenni, and their parents had been living in Stonegate for half a decade by the time our wood paneled Ford LTD station wagon pulled into our driveway. John’s father, Hudson, took daily walks around the neighborhood. A junior high principal, he walked as he lived – with purpose, authority, and nearly always with a hat – seasonal of course, but very Mad Men and dashing nonetheless. Somehow, Hudson and my father began a dialogue, and as men who were both learned in education (my father had a PhD in phys ed) and lovers of sport and the Bible, they began a friendship that took them out of the neighborhood on weekends to enjoy a morning coffee and conversation at a local restaurant.
Jane, John’s mother, was a bubbly blonde with big dimples and a contagious laugh. Her daughter Jenni, who was my age, was blonde like her mother, and fun yet stubborn. I adored Jenni – she had gumption that I shied away from. Whenever I could, I’d ride my bike the couple of blocks over to Jenni’s house. Invariably, her father Hudson was cutting the grass, or caring for the yard. To him, a well kept yard was just like everything else in his life, a sign of hard work and good discipline. Hudson commanded a healthy respect, in my childish opinion, and I was bound and determined to listen and mind him. Once in a while, an approving smile would spread across that middle school principal’s face. And let me tell you, if you saw it, you know you’d earned it. It was a sincere and heartfelt smile. And oh, it made you feel warm inside to know you’d made him happy.
John, on the other hand, was a busy little person. Nearly always moving, he was either pushing toy cars, trucks, and trains on the ground, or he was on his Big Wheel or tricycle, motoring up and down his driveway, within earshot of his dad. Husky is the word I’d use to describe John in those days. All boy, with a full face, husky sized body, and a voice that sounded like his tonsils would probably be coming out one day (and indeed, they did). Johnny, as we called him, was the age of my younger twin sisters.
They found him a bit too annoying to give him much attention. He didn’t say much when he was around us, but I thought he was interesting. Not long after we moved into the neighborhood, something terrible happened. John’s father, Hudson, suffered a massive heart attack. I remember my mother letting us know. I felt horrible. How could that happen to a daddy? Someone I knew? The man who walked laps around the block, who was always working outside. How could this happen? Then mother told us: Johnny would be coming over for a little while.
I remember him sitting in the back of our red VW bug. He was in the middle of the back seat, the most awkwardly uncomfortable looking kid, squeezed between my twin sisters. I was up front, looking back at the neighbor boy. His blue eyes were staring straight ahead. Kind, yet somewhat sad. His chubby little cheeks were flushed hot pink. Whether he was afraid, concerned, or deep in thought, I wasn’t sure at the time. To me, he was such a sweet boy. In that moment, I related with him. I too felt awkward amongst the chatty enthusiasm of the twins in the back seat. He was the only boy – I was the third wheel in the sisterhood. I decided I liked Johnny. He and I were misfits.
He came over many times during his father’s recovery. Johnny’s dad went on to live decades more. 87 miraculous years. In the meantime, our family moved away a time or two more, yet the Messeralls, and other families from my early years, stayed firmly in my memory bank. I went back to Illinois many times, to visit childhood friends, and nearly always knocked on the door at the Messerall’s house. One day, in 1990, Jane answered the door. She was the only one at home, but was gracious and chatted as though she’d been expecting me all day. Jenni and Johnny were grown, and were off living their lives in other places. A few years later, unbeknownst to me, Hudson found his way to Heaven. And the next time I knocked on the door, no one answered.
Then in 2009, on a particularly nostalgic evening, I began looking on a new social medium called Facebook for old friends and familiar faces. Who should come into view, but Johnny Messerall! He was taller now, and less a pair of tonsils, but with the same blue eyes I saw staring out my mother’s VW window. Did he remember me? How about that, he did! And so began, in fits and starts, the rebuilding of a friendship that took us both back to that little neighborhood in Illinois. Who was his first grade teacher? No way! The same one I had three years before. And she had called each of us Daydreamers, like it was a bad thing. That creative thinking had lead us both into journalism, film, radio, stage acting and writing. And that only begins to name the parallels. Clearly, God was laughing and smiling as we uncovered these surprises, which were not surprises to Him at all.
The incredible journeys that John and I have been on have lead us both to realize two things. First, that life is a story – sometimes messy, always unpredictable, filled with plot twists and humor and hubris and love – and those stories need to be shared with others. Second, that there is a desire within each of us, a treasure hunt, to find that THING that is bigger than ourselves, that cannot be held or counted, that draws us in. That beckons. That makes us want to be better people, and look outside of ourselves. And THAT is a True North Story®. Listen to our podcast to learn more about us, your co-hosts, as well as our incredible guests. You can discover the True North Story® Original Podcast Series on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Google Play, and on our website www.TRUENORTHSTORY.COM. Like our True North Story® t-shirt? We do, too! You’ll be able to purchase one soon at our True North Story® Store!
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