Twin Beeches -- an Illinois Love Story
Author: paul schoaff

Chapter 31
Part II of Jerry Vencil Story


“Jerry Vencil”, I said, straight out.  “Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about Jerry Vencil?”


“Well, MJ,” Mr. Poole sighed and shook his head sadly. “Jerry was about the best young man to come out of this whole area in anyone’s memory.   It took just about every bit of capital ‘F’ Faith, I guess, we all had to live with what happened to him.”


“What happened?  Did he get killed?” of course I asked.  He didn’t answer me directly, just began to tell the whole story.


“When I first came across the river and started living near Goodluck, my wife was sick and dying of cancer and all my money was going for pain medicine for her.   My daughter would work at night and sit with her mother during the day so I could put in time at my brother’s tractor repair shop.   Jerry Vencil lived right in Goodluck – he was maybe 11 or 12 then.  You know, his Mother was the postmistress there in that big house across from the school. "


"Anyway, it was Christmas.  I heard people crunching the snow coming up the driveway and before I could stop them, they were outside my wife’s window singing Christmas songs.   The leader, even then, was Jerry.  He got the whole youth group organized, dressed warm, and got some parents to haul them around to all the shut-ins in the whole township.   My wife woke up and heard the singing and smiled the whole time until they quit.”  Mr. Poole’s voice broke often as he spoke.


“Jerry offered to come in and pray for Jane’s recovery.  I couldn’t believe a boy his age being so self-possessed. So, we prayed together, and Jane reached out and put her hand on Jerry’s hair and said ‘you will become a great man…I hope to see you ‘up there’ someday.'  Jerry nodded and got up and leaned over and kissed her on her forehead.  She closed her eyes and went right to sleep.  He was a 30 year old good Samaritan in a 12 year old body!”


“Jane died a few days later...quietly, peacefully...and I started going to Goodluck Church – I sort of left the Baptists behind, I guess.   Everyone took great pleasure there, watching that boy grow up.  He could preach a sermon as well as any of the student ministers when he was 13.  He took notes every time he listened to a preacher or evangelist – then he would corner them afterwards and try to get them to more fully explain what they were saying.  I know he straightened out one or two points for them, not the other way round.  One day in Sunday School, I went down to the youth group and asked Jerry to come help us sort out a couple of verses we were struggling with.  And as I was doing it, I remember saying to myself, what is happening here?”


“And, that boy could just plain sing!  After his voice changed, he had a beautiful baritone, and he played the piano as if he were born with one in his cradle.  We all got misty more than once when he sang “Holy City”.  

Last night I lay asleeping
There came a dream so fair,
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the temple there
I heard the children singing
And ever as they sang,
Methought the voice of Angels
From Heaven in answer rang
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Lift up you gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna to your King!"

And then methought my dream was chang'd
The streets no longer rang
Hush'd were the glad Hosannas
The little children sang
The sun grew dark with mystery,
The morn was cold and chill
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Hark! How the Angels sing,
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna to your King!"

And once again the scene was chang'd
New earth there seem'd to be,
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea
The light of god was on its streets
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night,
Or sun to shine by day,
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away
"Jerusalem! Jerusalem
Sing for the night is o'er
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna for evermore!"


“Naturally, he was the undisputed leader of the youth group.  They were in awe of Jerry.  I remember when he wished we had a Boy Scout troop – and the rest of the kids got busy and found them a leader – Larry Royer – and wrote for the books and got registered and presented the whole thing to him as a birthday present!   I saw tears in his eyes that day!  Of course, he made Eagle Scout before he was done, right along with the Gripe boys.”


“He sailed through grade school and high school with straight A’s, valedictorian, class president, the whole bit.  No sports, though.  Said he didn’t enjoy competing in that way, he'd rather read and practice piano and sing.    I began to worry – I don’t imagine I was alone – he was just too good to be true – someday, sometime, something would snap and he’d just ‘implode’ on himself.”


“College?  Could have gone anywhere.  Notre Dame, like my boy,” -- I did a double take -- “or Columbia Divinity School, like my wife’s oldest." I did a triple.  "But, no, he said, he had a vision of what he was supposed to do.   I thought to myself maybe he meant an honest to goodness Divine Inspiration Vision, and he never said anything leading me to believe otherwise.  He wanted to go to Lincoln Bible Institute, preach for awhile to hone his skills, and become an Evangelist like Max Brandon.” 


“So, off he went, but Lincoln isn’t so far and he came home almost every weekend.  He still went and listened to the best ministers at the biggest churches, but he spent time in services at Goodluck, with our 50 people, too.   It was the same story with grades at LBI – perfect – and a challenge to the teachers – all of them experienced ministers – to keep up with him.  After two years, he brought home a young woman for his folks to meet – Laura – and she was and is a special young woman.  By the end of junior year, they had a baby, Jerry jr., and they would go as a family to all the student minister churches on his schedule.  Laura and Jerry would sing duets; Jerry would preach like he had been at it for 50 years.  It was just as if he could look at the bible page and see nuances and connections there other folks hadn’t expected or found."


“Half of the boys at Goodluck were thinking hard about following Jerry to LBI.  Then, he graduated and he and Laura and the baby moved in with his folks for a little while to give him time to see what sort of appointment he could get.   Right there, I began to wonder if he wasn’t getting a little high on himself, but then I remembered his ‘vision’ and thought he would be led to exactly the right situation.”


“So it happened he had an interview and was to speak to a church in Louisville, Kentucky.  That church had a Sunday attendance of over 400 people!  He left Goodluck and his family on a Friday afternoon in late June and drove as far as Lawrenceville, near the Indiana border.   He found a little motel there that turned out to be run by a good, Christian couple.  I don’t know if he came to be there by accident or recommendation.  They said Jerry took supper with them, in their house, and they sat all evening until almost midnight talking scripture and wrestling with some verses in Revelations.  Then Jerry went to his room, telling them he was leaving very early so as to reach Louisville in time to look around the city before checking in with the church elders.”


“The next morning, they saw his car was still in front of his cabin.  By eight or eight-thirty, they went and knocked on his door.  They didn’t get an answer, so they used their pass key.  They found him, collapsed onto the bed, like he had been on his knees in prayer and then just leaned onto the bed with his head and arms.  He had been dead all night.  The coroner said it had to be a brain aneurysm or hemorrhage.  The motel people called Jerry’s folks.  They had to come all the way over there with the Woodland hearse and get his body to bring him home.”


“His body was laid out in the front room at his folk’s house, across the street from the church.  His mother and father hardly came out of their bedroom to say anything to anyone.  People came from all over – and just kept coming and coming.  Folks from LBI by the dozen.  Folks from churches he had preached at.  All of his wife’s family, all of his relatives, everyone who could walk from anywhere in the township.  Oh, and Woodland, too, where he went to school.   Some of his friends from younger days came home from college or where they were working.”


“No one knew how to understand what had happened.   We just stood around for days asking each other, ‘why?’  And praying night and day, asking ‘WHY?”  Somebody looked at his notes for the sermon he would have preached in Louisville.  It was all about Humility.  It was all about how no man has the right to think he is especially blessed.  It was about how no man is anywhere close to being worth being called ‘good’. 


"Then it was time for the funeral.   All the boys and men from his LBI class and from his youth group at Goodluck were the pallbearers, and they took turns and carried his coffin from his house, down the road past the old school and back up into the churchyard and up to the front of the church.  They had moved the communion table away and left a space just big enough for the bier and coffin.  The whole stage, the whole choir bench area, the area on either side, all over and around the piano, were all covered with big displays of flowers.   By the time the boys got the coffin to the bier, it being a hot day, they were all soaked with sweat and, besides, they were all crying without any shame.”


Charley had to pause in the telling for awhile.  His big gnarly right hand had been beating on the thigh of his leg the whole time, and now he looked at it as though he didn’t know how it came to be there, and why was his leg so sore?  He looked out his window for awhile until I thought, maybe, he had told as much of the story as he could bear.  Me, too…I wanted the story to be over and I wished I had brought more than one package of tissues… but, then, as if he knew I needed to hear all the story and , perhaps, he needed to tell it, he continued.


“We sang songs supposed to remind you all is God’s will.  We sang about how beautiful Heaven is and how much we want to get there to spend eternity with God.  We listened to the President of LBI eulogize Jerry, and we all knew things we wished he would mention, but either he didn’t know them, or he didn’t think he had time.  But, I thought, if you go to a funeral, you shouldn’t mind it taking a while.”“One thing they did I don’t think was right – it turned out Jerry had a reel to reel tape recorder he sometimes used to record his sermons and even his singing, so he could listen to himself and try to see how to get better – well, Mother Vencil insisted they play Jerry singing ‘Jerusalem’.  We weren’t any of us far from just passing out at that point.”


“Just as we were about to finish by singing 'Beyond the Sunset', the craziest thing happened.  Jerry’s old, old dog – a sheep dog of some sort – snuck into the church – he must have heard the song on the tape recorder, I guess – remember it was so hot that day so the door was open – and walked right up the aisle and lay down in front of the coffin and began to whine.  The Vencil’s and his wife had been holding up pretty well until his old blind dog showed up.  They lost it so bad, were sobbing and keening so bad, we couldn’t go on.  The boys finally went up the aisle and elders Royer and Stauffer closed the coffin so they could carry it out to the hearse.   The cemetery wasn’t but a mile away, but there was no way the boys could carry Jerry’s coffin that far in that heat, so someone had called Woodland for the use of the hearse.”


“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘A God who does that to a man’s dog just hasn’t explained Himself very well yet.’”


“Charley,” I said, “I know now why people don’t want to talk about it.  How can any of you keep your Faith after that?”


 “I don’t know, Honey,  I don’t know if any of us truly did.  I even thought, once, that since Jerry was such a perfect young man, he might know...'died for us so we could live'?.....but that would be such sacrilege, you couldn't go with that.  I still just don't know what to think....”


I do know that more than one of Jerry's younger friends were inspired to enter the ministry.  One of them preached my grandmother's funeral.  I know I'll wrestle with the age old question of 'why do bad things happen to good people' right up to my end, probably.




 “Okay” Mama said, quietly.  “I never heard the story.  When I talk to Mr. Poole, I never had any idea he was so ambivalent.”


“I think, Mama, he doesn’t think you dare take a chance, even if you have doubts.  I just think Baby Rebecca needs to be at least ‘Miss’ Rebecca before we ask her to think about it.”


We were home now, back in Woodland in our comfortable house, one newly roofed, newly reinsulated and possessed of a new heat pump system with an electronic air filter.  Mama tried to impress me that if allowed to live in her abode, my Baby Girl would never be cold nor would she be hot.  Water would never deign to drip upon her beautiful soft tuschie and no particle of airborne dust would cause her to sneeze.  She could do, however, a wonderful job of wetting her own soft tuschie and baby powder did sometimes make her sneeze, then look at me with questioning amazement.  After debating with Mama the merits of three different diaper creams, I decided to broach a delicate subject with transparent jest.


“Mama, I have decided to name this child Eudora, and to leave her here while I complete my education, take the grand tour of Europe, and find the man of my dreams.  I think she will interfere with all my plans unless you agree to become her full time bottle washer and bottom wiper.  If you could just call me in Paris when she is ready to start work on her undergraduate degree, I would be ever so grateful.”


Mama sat, beautifully, because at the advanced age of 38, she had entered into her Miss Jean Brodie Primetime.  She wore nicer clothes than I remembered her ever having.  She sported some bling that must have interfered with broadcast TV signals for blocks around.  A little fuller in the chest and hips, but, somehow, more symmetrically formed than I remembered.  And, for her final trick, her hair styled in a way that made me want to put my hands around her throat and squeeze until she made me an appointment.  She smiled sweetly and began to speak.


“My Dear, I had been wondering how I was ever going to get you to agree to leave Baby Girl Gonsalves with me while you went back for your degree and now, you have put the issue so clearly that I think I am inclined to let you go on without me.”


We knew we had many months to spend together before we would seriously try to decide BGG's home life.  There were so many things to consider, but at bottom, what would be best for BGG was what I knew both of us were going to try to determine. 


“Let's put BGG into her beautiful little car seat and take a ride in the country, Dear.   I want to show you the spot I have picked out to plant a garden.”


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