The Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11-32

His name was Charles, we called him Chuck. He was 13 years old in August of 1934; he would be 14 in December. The previous summer, with our parents’ permission, he had spent two weeks on the Big Thompson River, fishing and exploring. He had always been independent, able to take care of himself.

On Sunday morning, he and our dad got into an argument. It became pretty heated, and we younger children became frightened. We didn’t like arguments. I don’t remember what the argument was about, but suddenly Chuck kicked a hole in the door with his copper toed shoes and he was off, gone.

He didn’t come home for supper. He didn’t come home on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday, or Sabbath. Every day we prayed for him; I should say, Daddy did. I couldn’t imagine that he would come home, after having kicked a hole in the door. Daddy repaired the door, but still you could tell that it had been patched.

He didn’t come home in a week. Two weeks went by, he still didn’t return. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, six weeks, no Chuck, and no word from him.

Mamma had red eyes, and a sad look. She hardly ever smiled. We couldn’t get Daddy to sing Dutch songs for us like we usually could. I turned 12 while Chuck was away, but we didn’t even think about having a birthday party. The whole family was affected by Chuck’s absence. You wouldn’t have thought that the absence of one person could upset a whole family so much.

It was now late October, and the weather was sharp. It was freezing every night. Dad got a telegram. In those days, e-mail didn’t exist. Phone calls were very expensive. Telegrams were the cheapest way to send an urgent message. The telegram said, “Is Charles van der Ende your son? He is here in an orphanage in Fargo, North Dakota. Do you want us to send him home?”

Daddy wrote back; he didn’t have the money for a telegram. “Yes, Charles van der Ende is my son. Yes, I want him back home. I just don’t have the money for his railroad ticket.” I don’t know what else he wrote, but I know that the family sighed a big sigh, knowing where Chuck was, knowing that he was safe, indoors and out of the cold.

On a Saturday night, two weeks later, Mamma, Daddy, and our neighbor Mrs. Dewey were seated around our big kitchen table, talking about Chuck and how to get him home. We children were listening. What could be done?

Suddenly, a face appeared in the kitchen window—a black face, with only the eyes and teeth shining white in the darkness. Mamma and Daddy pushed back their chairs faster than you would think they could and ran outside. How they could tell it was Chuck, all black faced, I don’t know, but they knew. We were not a hugging family, but they hugged Chuck tightly, first Mamma, then Daddy, and then even Mrs. Dewey.

I wondered why they were so glad to see him. I thought he should be given a licking. He had it coming. After all, he had kicked a hole in the door.

Chuck told us that he had ridden the rails to get home. That meant he had sneaked into empty boxcars, ridden in the cold for over a thousand miles, then hitchhiked 35 miles from Paradise, which was where the closest train track ran. The black on his face and his clothes was coal-dust from the steam engines.

Later, he told us the rest of the story. When he left home, he went 50 miles over the mountains to Ronan, Montana, where he found a farmer who needed help, and he had worked in this man’s harvest field. He told us that he had sent a postcard home, which never arrived.

After harvest was over, he and the 15-year-old stepson of the farmer decided to go east and get a job. The stepson felt that he was wanted on the farm only for the work he could do. The two of them rode the rails, got as far as Fargo, with no food and not enough clothes to keep them warm. There, in the hobo jungle, a policeman found the two cold, hungry boys, picked them up, and brought them to the orphanage—and to warmth and food.

That Sunday morning after breakfast, Daddy called us all together, six girls and three boys. He had us sit on the living room floor while he read from his well-worn Bible in his strong Dutch reading voice. He read about the father who threw a party when his second son came home. Appended to it was the story of the resentment of the older son, who wouldn’t even go to the party.

I was suddenly aware that my attitude was just like that of the older brother. I certainly didn’t want to be like him.

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