“Boss, we got a situation at the plant.”
That wasn’t something I wanted to hear from my secretary. She’d been with me for years, and her talent was for understatement, not dramatics.
So Bea’s next words, “You better beat feet,” were unnecessary. I was already up and hurrying around my desk. I grabbed the doorjamb of my office and swung myself in the direction of the main door as I picked up speed. It had been a while since I double-timed for miles in the army, but I like to think that chasing my teenagers keeps me in shape.
“Where?” I asked as I sped by my secretary.
“In milling,” Bea said. “Jim Turner’s got a knife at Danny
Greg’s throat,” she added in answer to my next, unasked, question.
“Tell them I’m on my way,” I said. But she was already on the
phone with the news. Bea was good. Her talent at mind reading
was just one of the many reasons I’d hired her to be the first face
folks saw when they came into Human Resources. She knew when
to smile, and when to answer the next question, even if it was
unspoken, and when to press the panic button.
It looked like she’d decided it was panic time.
Of course, so had I.
I sprinted out of the office like the best middle-aged Olympian
and headed down the hall for the back door. But I was praying
even faster than I was running. Dear God, help Jim. He was having
enough problems already. Keep him together until I get there. And
show me a way to help him.
I figured Danny must have shot his
mouth off with poor Jim in hearing distance. But knowing why we
were in a crisis didn’t make the situation any better.
As usual, the good Lord didn’t voice an answer to my prayer. I
don’t know what I’d do if He ever did. Today, my Savior was content
to toss the balls my way…and I had a feeling He enjoyed
watching me juggle.
I’d known Jim Turner for all of the fifteen years I’d worked at
Carter Cutlery. This wasn’t like him. He was nice to a fault, but
quick to turn his back when those of us at the plant’s picnic lunch
tables said grace. “You want to find Jesus, I’ll tell you where I
dumped Him off my slick in the central highlands of Vietnam. If
He ain’t walked out, He’s likely still there.”
Yeah, Jim had always been very definite about standing on his
own two feet, bending to no one. Until a marine officer, with a
chaplain in tow, had made a visit to his house a month ago. The
marine told Jim that his youngest boy would be coming home
early from the war. In a casket.
The boy’s young wife, seven months pregnant, had insisted on
a church funeral. We at the plant had chipped in for more than
flowers and meals. I’d been a Casualty Assistance Officer back during
my four years in the service; I helped the widow find a church
with a pastor who didn’t mind ministering to people he’d never
I’d heard that Jim and his wife were talking to a counselor
about their loss. If my secretary was right, I guess they hadn’t talked
Like so much of America, our employees at the plant were of
several minds about the war overseas. We make the knives that a lot
of the men over there count on, and every blade leaves here with a
lot of prayers for the soldiers’ safety attached to it. Of that, I’m
absolutely sure. But above and beyond that, we all had our opinions
about how we could best support the troops that carry our knives.
I wondered just what Danny had said to tip Jim off the deep end.
“God, don’t let me waste time on the wrong questions. What I
need just now are the words to haul my people out of that deep pit.
Help me haul them both back with no blood spilled,” I whispered
as I ran.
Usually, I love the wide expanse of lawn that separates my
office from the main plant. Today, it was an obstacle that took too
long to cross. I just picked my legs up and put them down, breathing
deep of the spring afternoon air so I wouldn’t show up in the
plant too winded to do anything.
I raced into the plant, a local landmark faced with intricate
brickwork that dated from the 1920s, past the cutting and grinding
machines where workers were standing around. The men and
women were no longer converting steel into knives, but watching,
their wide eyes fixed on the drama in the milling section.
Everyone had backed away from the two men involved in a life
or death scuffle. They left a clear space around Jim. He was a tall,
dark-haired man now going gray, with a fair complexion. But at
this moment, his face was red with rage. He held a roughed-out
example of one of our fine bowie knives at Danny’s throat.
Danny was pale as if he’d seen a ghost. His own.
Near those two stood Jeb Shepherd, the day shift general foreman.
Several section foremen had gathered around him. They were
silent. Not one was making a move against Jim. I guessed they were
all talked out.
I joined the group at Jeb’s elbow. “Bea said you called.”
“Yeah,” Jeb said. “As you can see, we got a situation here.”
“Maybe I can help,” I said quietly.
“It’s all yours,” Jeb said, and stepped back even farther. The
foremen followed suit.
I was left standing in the open, looking at Jim and Danny.
“I’m gonna kill him,” Jim shouted to me, following his
promise with a stream of the kind of language I hadn’t heard since
my army days.
“You think Danny needs killing?” I asked. “I kind of like him
“I’m gonna kill him. He said my boy’s dying was a waste.”
“I didn’t, I didn’t,” Danny pleaded.
“Shush,” I said to Danny in a soft command. “You’ve said enough.”
Danny shut up.
“Police?” I whispered aside to Jeb.
He shook his head. Carter Cutlery took care of its own. It
wasn’t in any of the personnel policies I’d written. No, this mandate
had over a hundred and seventy-five years of unspoken practice
behind it and didn’t need to be in print to put it in full force.
But in this case, everyone else at Carter had taken their best
shot and come up empty. I was the last hope. Dear God, please show
me the path for my feet.
“If I’m not getting somewhere with this pretty fast, call the
cops,” I whispered to Jeb. Then I motioned Jeb and the others to
step back even further. As they did, I sat down cross-legged on the
It still had winter cold to it, but I ignored the discomfort even
as it sent a chill up my spine. Finally,
I thought. A reason to shiver
that has nothing to do with the situation I’m in.
I looked up at Jim, locked eyes with him. “See, I’m not coming
any closer. We’re just gonna talk. This making you feel better?”
The Bowie knife blank, its edge dull, was pushing at the flesh of
Danny’s throat. It wasn’t cutting anything…yet. Put enough pressure
on it and even a dull knife will cut human flesh. And there was
always the point, already wickedly deadly, even on a knife blank.
The blank’s point was less than an inch from Danny’s carotid artery.
I prayed that Jim would listen, just listen to me long enough to
let me break through his fury.
It took a while for my question to make its way past Jim’s pain
and rage. When it did, he shook his head. “Nothing feels good. I’m
never gonna take my boy fishing. Never play football with him
again. It’s all gone.”
“I know,” I said quietly.
“But it ain’t wasted,” he growled, working the knife a bit
deeper against Danny’s throat. “It ain’t a waste.”
Danny whimpered, but for once he had the good sense to say
“No, Jim, it’s not a waste. A good person like your boy is never
wasted. I remember him when he was just a kid, coming to the
Christmas parties. What was he–eight, maybe?–when he tried to
walk off with Santa’s whole bag?”
“Seven,” Jim said. “And I whopped him for that.” But the
edges of his mouth turned up at the memory. The boy had gotten
the huge sack halfway across the room before anyone noticed. We’d
all been laughing so hard that the “whopping” hadn’t been more
than a gentle admonition.
“And he was always in the front at the games come the annual
picnic,” I said, remembering him paired with my son in the twolegged
race. The two of them were only three years apart in age and
they’d been such friends. The thought of my son as a soldier sent
colder chills down my spine than the floor.
But Jim was nodding at my words, and I dropped that thought
and gave him my full attention.
“He was always fast,” he said. “And he always wanted to be a
soldier. Nothing I said about Nam could change that. Nothing,”
Jim said slowly. “And nothing I do is going to change my boy being
gone.” His voice was now a shattered whisper.
“No,” I said as softly as I could.
“Why? Why did it have to happen?”
I let Jim’s question rise to the rafters. How could I answer when
I didn’t understand it myself?
“You’re a Christian,” Jim said. “You tell me. Why did my boy
have to die?”
Not only did I not understand why, but I’d never even heard
an answer to that question that a grieving man like Jim could
“I don’t know, Jim. It’s a tragedy. But I do know that your boy
wouldn’t want you doing this. Didn’t you say that he joined the
army to help people? To save the weak from tyrants? You said he
wanted to stand up to the bullies for those who couldn’t.”
Jim was nodding along as I repeated his words of eulogy at his
“Your boy wouldn’t do something like this. You taught him
“But I’m never going to be with him again.” Sobs broke through
as the words broke Jim down. The knife was loose at Danny’s throat.
Danny looked like he was ready to bolt. I froze him with a glare.
I stood slowly as Jim sobbed. I believed that Jim would one day
be with his boy again before God. Maybe a better man would have
found a way to witness to Jim at that moment. Me, I just edged
slowly up to the man, put one arm around him while using the
other one to lower the knife from Danny’s throat.
Jim let me. He let me enfold him in a hug like I prayed God
would someday do. Holy Spirit of God, You alone give the grace
of salvation to all. I know You got Your work cut out for You with
Jim, but I sure wish You could hurry things up here. This big guy is
I held Jim while he sobbed. I kept holding him, feeling the
cold steel painfully close to my own vulnerable belly until Jim
finally dropped the rough knife. I held him as Jeb sent the crew
back to work, though I noticed Danny bolt for the break room. I
wondered if he had a spare set of underwear stashed there. I imagined
he would need them.
I was still holding Jim as his sobs wore down to tears. I loaned
him my clean handkerchief when he started sniffling. “I guess I’d
better get back to work,” Jim finally said, looking around at the
others already back at their tools.
“No,” I said, shaking my head slowly.
“You’re gonna fire me,” Jim said with absolute confidence, and
more self-loathing than I’d seen in one man since I’d accompanied
a drunk-but-soon-sobered-up soldier to visit his torn-up buddy at
the hospital after their car wreck. I’d almost lost that boy to suicide.
“No,” I told Jim, noting how Jeb and the other foremen were
looking on. “I’m not going to fire you. But we have a counseling
program, Jim. You really need to spend some time talking this out.
We’ll save your job for you, but you’re going to be on sick leave for
“Who’s gonna want to work with me?” Jim said, dejection
heavy in his voice.
“There’s a place for you in my section,” said Momma Boyd, a
big, round African American who ran the finishing section. She’d
lost her first husband in Nam, and somehow she had survived that
agony and gone on to make a life for herself with a new husband
and several kids from both marriages. If there was anyone I knew
who could show Jim that there was life after grief, Mamma Boyd
was that person.
Of course, several of her crew were wives with husbands over
there. Working with a man grieving over the loss of his son would
be an ever-present reminder of what could be their future.
Momma Boyd must have read my mind. She just smiled at me
the way only a person of faith can. “The courage that it takes to
love the man facing the gunman is no less than the courage it takes
to face the gun. Right, gals?”
Several of the women behind her nodded. There would be a
job waiting for Jim when he got back. Carter Cutlery takes care of
I walked Jim out of the plant and across the field to where my
office was in the old building. This walk was a lot slower than
my run over. There was time for the sun to heal some of the raw
nerves the day had exposed. Time for my own shaking legs, quaking
stomach, pounding heart, to calm down.Lord, I know You promised that all things work for the good to those who love You. I just wish You could make my weak flesh believe it a bit more.
I think my Savior enjoyed a laugh at my expense.
But the soft breeze across the field brought the loving scent of
the earth coming alive. There’s hope in every spring. Even in the
depths of Jim’s dark winter, I think the sunshine and grassy smells
touched him somewhere deep inside. There seemed to be less
despair and self-loathing in the man who finished the walk with
me than the man who began it.
Back in my office, Al, the gal who handles employee benefits,
had already called to make an emergency appointment for Jim
with our mental health services provider. “If you can get him there
in fifteen minutes, there’s an opening.”
“We can make it,” I said.
Jim’s eyes looked like a whipped pup’s. “I don’t know where I’m
going. I don’t… I, uh, I don’t think I’m fit to drive,” he said, thoroughly
beaten by the day.
“I’ll get you there. I can drive your car,” I said, then I cut off his
instinctive protest by reaching into my pocket and tossing my keys
at my assistant, Max.
She caught them and my unspoken request. “And I’ll follow
you and bring you back,” she said, taking her cue from me. I run a
I do, and we are quite a team when the fur is flying.
As I headed out the door, I waved at Al. “Call Jeb,” I whispered.
“Tell him to send Danny over here. He’s not going to be
good for much work today, and I suspect he’s got a few things to
say to me. Or had best say to me,” I said with a rueful smile. “I’ll
see him as soon as I get back.”
Al nodded and reached for the phone.
We got Jim to the counseling service. After making sure that
things were going well there, I checked with Bea. She’d called Jim’s
wife and arranged for her to get off work and meet us at the plant.
I drove Max back to the office and got there in time to run into
Danny coming in.
Danny was understandably furious.
“He had no call to do that to me,” he said. “No call. That was
assault. I know the law. Assault with a deadly weapon. He could
have killed me.”
There was no use arguing that one with the man. Danny was
right. I nodded, motioned Danny into my office and sat down,
ready to listen to him as long as was needed. I hadn’t been in Personnel
very long before I learned there are some arguments just not
After five minutes of running in that circle, Danny was about
out of steam. That was when I leaned over and said, “But you did
say that whole thing over there is a waste, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t know he was behind me. And it is. It is.”
“I’m not going to argue that war with you. We’d be here until
Christmas if we tried and that’s not what Carter pays us to do. But
did you really mean to tell Jim his boy had died for nothing? For a
“As God is my witness, Ben, I’d never have done that. Never.”
“But you did, didn’t you?”
The man in the chair across from me deflated as he let a long
breath out. “I sure did. Didn’t mean to, but I did it, didn’t I?”
“You sure did. Not exactly what God had in mind when he
said to comfort those who mourn.”
Danny rubbed his throat; I could barely make out a trace of
red where the knife blank had been held to it. It had been a tense
few minutes, but it looked like we’d gotten through the situation
without even a drop of blood shed.
“I don’t know how I can apologize to the man,” Danny said. “I
never would have done it if I’d knowed I was doing it.”
“And I suspect by tomorrow, or next week, Jim will know that.
Then you can apologize to him. And he can apologize to you.”
Danny sat there for a while, I suspect doing a careful bit of
soul-searching. Finally he shook his head.
“I can’t believe I’m sayin’ this, but that sounds about right. For
now, though, I better get back on the line.”
“I think you’ve had enough for today. I’ll clear sick leave with
your boss. You go on home and we’ll start a new slate, a clean one,
He slunk out of my office, past Jim’s wife who was talking to
Max. Danny said not a word to her in passing. Just as well, I suspect.
Sometimes the only way out of a hole you dig yourself in is to
take some time to let things go. It takes time, and not digging the
hole any deeper.
I sat in on Max’s session with Jim’s wife. I couldn’t think of anything
to add to her briefing on what had happened and what the
company was doing about it. I drove the woman over to the counselors.
She was holding back tears as they admitted her to a couple’s
session with Jim.
All in all, it had been quite a day. Once I got back to my office,
I put my head in my hands and let the shakes take me. We’d
skinned through this disaster, but it had been a close one. I’d be
reliving it in nightmares for weeks, I figured.
By the time my hands stopped shaking, I noticed that it was
well past quitting time. And I’d gotten practically nothing done on
today’s to-do list.
Tomorrow, like I’d told Danny, was another day. The things on
my list would still be waiting for me. For right now, I was going
It was time I turned my attention to my family.
I was supposed to pick the kids up at school. I called my wife,
Annie, to see if she could fill in for me while I spun out the last few
loose ends from today, and struck out. She didn’t even wait for me
to explain why I’d called before she told me that she’d had a long
day too. So I was still on kid patrol. I took a deep breath and
looked at my hands again. They were steady, even if I felt like I’d
run a marathon. I could handle the school run, but I wasn’t good
for much more.
After another call to Annie, we agreed that neither of us was in
any shape to cook, so we arranged to meet at our favorite Mexican
I got the kids without incident and collapsed once I hit the
restaurant. They had our usual table free for us, a secluded corner
where we could debrief each other on the day. Everybody else
chimed in as we put paid to another day in the life of our family. I
just kept quiet and watched the kids and my wife go at it. I hoped
that they wouldn’t notice my withdrawal from them, and tried to
enjoy the slow return of normalcy.
I wondered if I should tell them what my day had been like. In
the meantime I let the daily trivia of their lives roll over me. It
looked like Andy would make the track team, but he needed new
Joy was having a ball in the band, but believed that the girl
next to her had to be dyslexic. “The bandmaster orders a right turn
and she goes left every time. If she played a clarinet like me it
wouldn’t be so bad, but she’s got a trombone and that can really get
in your face,” my daughter said, rubbing her nose.
“Well,” my wife said, “the dock handlers dropped a whole container
of furniture from Romania. I don’t know how much of it we
can still sell…and how much of it won’t be good for anything but
kindling. Very expensive kindling.”
Somehow that seemed funny to the kids. Annie’s scowl at their
humor only made it funnier for them.
“How’d your day go, Dad?” my son asked. Some time back
he’d decided that his best revenge for being asked how school went
every day was to ask me how things went at the office.
I wondered if they really wanted to know. Sometimes I felt a
bit like I was supposed to be the rock in their storms, the person
who held steady while they had tempests all around me. They were
so involved in their teenage drama that I occasionally felt a bit
invisible. It might be a mistake, I thought, to shake that image.
I told them anyway.
Their eyes went so wide I swear you could see brains at the
edges. Then they checked me out like a bargain shopper in Filene’s
Basement, looking for flaws. I was pronounced, thankfully for us
all, unharmed and still functional. But I think the image of me
talking down a guy with a knife shook them.
It certainly put kind of a crimp in the lighthearted gossip at
that table. And it put a bit of distance between me and my family
that I didn’t expect. They seemed to pull away a bit, maybe to give
me space. I pulled away a bit, too, seeing how my words upset
them. Much later, I wondered if that didn’t have something to do
with what was about to happen to us all. But at that moment, it
was enough to have made it through the day unharmed.
We ended up with Andy leading us in prayer. First, my son
said a prayer of thanksgiving to God that the day and my situation
at the plant had turned out so well and then a prayer of petition for
God’s help for Jim and his wife in their grief, and Danny in his
anger. My silent prayer was from one father to Another that my
son would continue in his education through college before putting
on a uniform. It was followed by a prayer that this war might be
over before that time came. And that no new wars would have
And so, after all the excitement, the day ended, like so many
others, with us going home together to do homework. The children’s
homework…and the parents’ homework.
I didn’t know then that it was the calm before the storm.