The sanctuary was quiet. Dust floated in the beams of sun flowing through the stained glass at the sides of the long, narrow chamber. The smell of freshly waxed hardwood floor and pews hung in the air, the only sound was the click, click of the feet of the young pastor that guided his charge to the front of the sanctuary. The older pastor shuffled his way up the centre aisle his shoes brushing softly against the old, oak. His eyes were fixed on the casket at the front of the church, black oak polished to an almost reflective gleam. Stepping slowly up the steps, the younger pastor holding his arm, the old man took one tottering step forward and laid a gnarled and age spotted hand on the top. He stood stark still in front of it for a moment before turning toward the pulpit. He looked out over the assembled congregation, sitting quietly as the sun shone through the stained glass windows. The silence was complete, except for the occasional cough, or the creak of the old church building. He placed his hands on the edges of the oak lectern, gripping tightly as he closed his eyes, forcing tears back again, as he had so many times these past few days.
"I first met Jerry Martin in 1947." The pastor's voice was raspy and soft from age. The microphone that he had avoided for most of his career picked it up and added a tinny sound to it as it was broadcast through the large hall. He smiled and had to force his eyes to stay dry again. "My name, for those of you do not know it, is Greg Simmonds. I was the pastor here for 30 years, before the Lord moved me somewhere else. I was young, and full of the Holy Spirit. A combination both envious and dangerous." He stared out at the congregation. A mixture of black and white, rich and poor, he laid his hand on the notes that were sitting on the lectern. "How many times?" His voice was soft, almost a whisper. The people in the pews were straining to hear his words.
"How many times did this man pray as he walked these halls and polished these pews? How many lives were touched by his words to The Almighty? Jerry Martin was a soldier, a veteran of the Second World War, but more than that, he was my friend. He was a friend to all who stepped through those doors at the back of the sanctuary, whether they knew it or not. He was their friend because he prayed, every time he touched the wood of the pews or repaired the squeaky front door. He was once a soldier for man, but his more important job was as a soldier for Christ.
"He once told me, 'I'm just The Janitor, the guy that polishes the pews.' But he was more than that. During the war Jerry Martin earned many medals, enough to be called a hero by any man's ranking. However, now he has earned the greatest reward." Greg paused, his voice thick with emotion. "Our Lord Jesus Himself is saying to him right now, 'Rest now, my good and faithful servant.'"
Greg smiled and looked down to the pages. He hadn't said one word from them. He turned and shuffled to the casket, reached his hand out and gently touched one of the brass handles. He blinked hard, but he couldn't stop the tears this time as he stood, staring at the last bed his friend, his brother in Christ would lie in. A gentle hand rested on his shoulder it was the hand of the young preacher that had helped him up the steps.
The young preacher helped Greg back down the steps to his spot in the pews where Greg took the hand of his wife, Doreen.
"Well said, Greg," Doreen said squeezing his hand gently.
"It was a Sunday in Spring," Greg replied softly. "I remember that like it was yesterday."
The service was over at Leamington Baptist Church and Greg was standing at the exit of the sanctuary shaking hands and passing pleasantries with his congregation. Approaching now was Jeff Tylor the Chair of the Board of Trustees. He was a farmer by trade, and a good one. He owned five or six hundred acres in a number of fields, only one of which he worked himself. The rest he rented out to other farmers who hadn't had his good fortune. The main trade in the small town of Leamington was farming, but there was also a large industry for fishing as well, out of Lake Erie. Half the congregation was farmers, and the other half fishermen.
"Well, pastor." He shook Greg's hand with a thick, calloused hand. "Another excellent message."
"Thank you, Jeff. Are we having a meeting this week?"
"Naturally. Wednesday night, 6:30. Will Doreen be making apple pie?"
"Of course," Greg smiled and turned back towards the sanctuary as Jeff walked out into the foyer.
Sitting in the last pew was a man wearing a brown suit. He was staring at the large cross behind the pulpit, his head tilted slightly to the left. Greg approached softly and stood at the right end of the pew. The man was big, perhaps 6'2", or 6'3", with broad, powerful shoulders, looking in his mid-twenties. A brown fedora hat sat in his lap. His hands were clean, but worn from hard use. His left hand, Greg noticed had been badly burned, at one time but was healed now.
"Good morning, I don't believe I've seen you here before," Greg said.
The big man shrugged his shoulders. "I've never been here before, sir."
"I'm Greg Simmonds, the pastor."
"Jerry Martin, sir." Jerry didn't move to look at Greg or hold his hand out, which struck Greg as odd.
"What do you do, Mr. Martin?"
"Just Jerry, sir," The man lifted his fedora and perched it on his head before standing. "I don't do much of anything right now. I'm kinda between jobs." Jerry stood and Greg saw that he was indeed a large man, dwarfing Greg by almost a full head. "I just got back from Ste. Anne's, just outside of Montreal."
Greg nodded. "The war?"
Jerry nodded silently and started to look at Greg but turned back toward the cross and lifted a hand to his face, needlessly resetting his fedora. Greg saw a glimpse of scars along the left side of his face, just outside of his left eye and tracing down to his neck. "I served until I was caught by a couple of German mortars."
Jerry traced his hand along one pew. "You're pews are pretty dried out here."
Greg smiled and caught the sudden change of subject. "Well we don't really have a lot of people with the time to properly care for them."
"Floors could use a lot of work too." Jerry scuffed the dull oak flooring. "I'm looking for something to do right now."
"We can't really afford to pay anybody. . ."
Jerry turned to look Greg in the face. Greg could see the extent of the scars and forced himself not to stare. His left ear was a mangled mess and there were four long scars down the side of his face, one of which extended down his neck and under his collared shirt. "I wouldn't want to be paid, sir. My Mom and Pop are both gone, and I've just recently sold our fishing fleet. I got no need for money."
"Used to be, I had them change the name on condition of sale." Jerry looked back up to the cross. "Couldn't abide by anyone else running a company with my Pop's name on it."
"Can I get you to cut the grass too? I can't figure out how our new gas mower works," Greg laughed.
"Sure, just want to keep busy." Greg noted that Jerry's voice had an almost defeated sound to it.
"I'd like to ask you a question," Greg said, working on a hunch. "Why are you here? I mean why did you come to the service today?"
There was a long few seconds of silence as Jerry stared at the cross. "I went to church with Mom and Pop and my two brothers every Sunday until my brothers and I left for Europe." His voice was distant again, like he was reading off a piece of paper. "I had one brother, John, killed in Dieppe, and Jeff was killed at Juno Beach." Jerry leaned forward and held tight to the pew. "Pop died of a heart attack just before I was hit. Mom couldn't take it, I guess." His head dropped and the fedora fell into the pew seat in front of him. Jerry stared at it while his eyes only saw some lingering horror in his mind. "She drove the car into the lake off one of the Fleet's piers. I didn't find out about either of them until I was in Quebec.
"I killed lots of German's during the war, sir. I think each and every one of them would have killed me too if given the chance. I drifted 'bout as far away from God as you can be and still be human over there. I just want to get to know what it feels like to be human again, and maybe find out why."
"Why what?" Greg picked up the fedora and handed it to Jerry.
"Why they all had to die." Jerry placed the fedora back on his head and pulled it slightly cockeyed to cover some of the scars. "Not just my family, but the boys over there. Canadian, American, even the German boys. Why?"
"I don't have the answer to that question," Greg sighed and laid a slender hand on Jerry's shoulder. "But Jesus does, and when you stand before Him, you can ask Him yourself."
Jerry nodded. "I guess that's about the best I'll get for now isn't it?"
"From me anyways." Greg removed his hand and looked up at the cross. It was a small thing, made of two pieces of old 2X4 that had the corners shaved down to round the edges. Notches had been cut out of the middle of each of the pieces so they would fit together to form what appeared to be one piece. Greg had thought the thing looked cheap when he had first taken over as pastor six months ago.
Jerry cocked his head at the cross again. "I was looking at that cross when you came up to me." He turned to face Greg again. "Are those 2X4s?"
Greg nodded. "Yes they are," He sighed. "I've tried to ask for money to buy a good one, one made from real trees or something like that, but it just can't be spared."
Jerry nodded slowly, his mind working on something that Greg couldn't read. "Can I come Wednesday?"
"I have a meeting in the evening, so I won't be here until noon or so." Greg replied.
"I'll come at one, then." Jerry turned and walked around the pew and headed towards the door to the sanctuary. He stopped and turned to look at Greg again. "Thank you, sir."
"Thank you, Jerry." Greg emphasized the 'you'.
"Thank you, Jerry." Greg's used and older voice whispered.
The man at the front of the sanctuary was the son of one of the men that worked for Jerry's parents. A fisherman, he had the rugged windblown complexion of a man that spent his time on an open boat on the lake. He held a cane in his left hand.
"My dad was a close friend of the Martin family, so I grew up with Jerry." Jason Gibson Jr. was near tears but was holding them back. "I'm ten years younger than him, so he was my idol as I grew up. I wanted to be Jerry, and do what Jerry did and go where Jerry went. He was my hero then, and he still is now."
Jerry pulled the 1938 Ford pickup he drove into the long driveway of his family home, he still couldn’t quite think of it as “his” yet. He sighed as he pulled up to the door. Sitting on the front step was Jason "Gibby" Gibson, a friend of the family for as long as Jerry could remember and one of the strongest boat Captains that his pop had in Martin Fisheries. But. . . he paused, it wasn't Martin Fisheries now.
He didn’t think it would bother him as much as it did, selling the fishing business, but it did. Almost like it was a part of him the he had to give up, an arm, or a leg. Martin Fisheries had always been there, since he was a baby, some of his earliest memories were on a boat with his Dad. Watching the powerful fishermen pulling in the nets , teeming with heavy fish.
Jerry stepped out of the truck and pulled his fedora down a little more to the left.
"Take that stupid hat off, boy!" Gibby yelled striding over to Jerry. Gibby was built like a barrel, short, stout and stronger, and tougher, than any two men Jerry knew. Gibby's stubby legs stopped a few feet from Jerry and looked up into his eyes defiantly.
"It hides the scars, Gibby." Jerry stared down at Gibby's bearded face.
"I watched your Mama change your dirty bum, boy." Gibby laughed, a loud raucous sound. "Ain't no way some scars on your face is gonna make you prettier, or uglier than that!"
Jerry stared Gibby in the face and pulled the hat off.
"That's my boy." He reached up and placed a gnarled, calloused hand on Jerry's scarred left side. For such a short man his hand was big enough to cover most of Jerry's cheek and over the damaged ear. "These tell of the kind of man you are, boy." He said softly. "They tell of a man that was willing to die for his country and his mates. A man to be proud to call a friend. I know I am."
Jerry nodded and tossed the hat into the bed of his truck. "Thanks for coming. I need some help."
"I had nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon. What do you need?" Gibby asked removing his hand.
"About twelve feet of straight maple trunk."
Gibby thought for a moment, rubbing his chin. "Not the oddest request I've ever had." He smiled. "But it sure sounds like fun. Let me get my chainsaw."
Jerry shook his head. "I want to do this all by hand."
Gibby turned and stared at him for a moment, seeming to weigh his soul. Then he nodded and pointed to a shed. "Should be some axes in there, not sure how sharp they'll be. Your Pop never did take care of his tools. I saw some maple down by the creek we can take a look-see at."
Forty-five minutes later the two men were choping at a tree with a trunk about a foot and a half thick, taking turns making the wedge cut deeper. A moment later there was a crack, and the tree started to sag. Gibby waved Jerry back and the men stepped away as the back of the trunk exploded out and broke. The tree hit the ground with a crash and rolled slightly.
"That'll wake the neighbors." Gibby smiled. "What're you planning on doing with this?"
"Gonna make a cross." Jerry replied.
"What in God's name for?"
"Leamington Baptist has 2x4s at the front of their Sanctuary."
"So you just thought you'd chop down a tree and make them a new one?"
"Something like that," Jerry nodded. "With your help."
Gibby stared at Jerry, then down at the tree. "I take it back, this is the oddest request I've ever had."
Jerry chuckled and shook his head and started cutting branches away from the trunk with his axe.
The two men worked away at the tree, making two planks of wood roughly eight inches by four inches. One was six feet long, the other ten feet.
"I've got to get home. Dinner will be ready soon. I'll come back tomorrow about three to help you finish it." Gibby said.
"I can do it. Just needed help felling the tree and shaping it."
"Boy," Gibby smiled. "I started this thing with you, and I'll finish it with you."
Jerry nodded and started back up the hill towards the shed to return the axes. "I'll sharpen these in the morning."
"That'd be nice!" Gibby called as he got into his truck and headed home.
Jerry and Gibby met the next day at three to work on the cross. The two men, after a brief discussion of what they would do, got to work with hand planes and draw knives.
Gibby kept a close eye on Jerry as they worked. He knew what he had been through, both in the war and the loss of his entire family. He was worried for his friend and wasn't sure how to talk with him about it. He did know that if Jerry wanted to talk he would be there for him.
Jerry worked meticulously on the wood, ensuring that it was shaped and cut properly, but he wanted to leave a rough feel to the structure, so he declined the use of sandpaper, or files. As Jerry worked he could feel memories rising to the surface, battles fought, people lost, people he had killed.
The work was cathartic, it relaxed him and allowed him to go to a place in his mind where he could remember safely. The faces, so many faces, of people he had known for one or two weeks and then gone. It got so that he would only be civil to the few of them that were left of the original outfit that he had shipped out with. It was easier than getting to know someone and then losing them to a shell or a German bullet.
A part of his mind started remembering the names of his lost friends. He listed them until he couldn't remember any more, but there were faces left. Faces with no names, faces that he had laughed with, ate with, played cards with.
Tears started falling down his cheeks onto the wood.
Finally he stood up and threw the draw knife across the yard. He picked up an axe and swung it at a maple tree that was standing a few feet away, Leaving it there he strode down to the creek, panting loudly.
A moment later Gibby laid a strong hand on his shoulder. He didn't say anything, just stood there with him, staring out into the water, and trees beyond.
"I can still see their faces," Jerry said. "All the guys we left back there. Laying in dirt and mud, tore up by bombs, maybe just hit with one bullet. Those guys just looked like they were sleeping."
Gibby looked down, staring now at the dirt and sand as it ran down to the creek's edge. "I can't imagine what it was like."
"Sometimes, late at night we'd be dug down into our holes," Jerry said. "And it'd be real quiet and then a barrage of German artillery would come in. We'd get real small and wait it out.
"There'd always be some guy got caught out of his hole for one reason or another, and for the rest of the night we'd have to listen to him scream."
"Why didn't anyone go help him?" Gibby asked.
"The German's would set up snipers to pick off any of us that would go out to get the injured. Once in a while the snipers would just wound a man, just to get another one."
Gibby shook his head. "That's just wrong. I worried that you may have left something over there, son. Now I worry that you brought too much back."
"It is what it is," Jerry replied.
Jerry turned to Gibby and looked him in the eyes with a determined hint to them. "I need to do this, Gibby. I need to do this for the faces with no names."
Gibby nodded silently.
Jerry turned back to the partially carved trunk. "And maybe in the process I can throw some of that stuff I brought back away."
"My Dad said he'd helped Jerry cut down the tree they used to make that." Jason Gibson Jr. pointed up at the cross behind him, hanging six feet above the floor.
"Dad came home the night they cut down the tree for it. He said Jerry had changed, like he'd left something back in Europe." Jason continued. "The next day he said that Jerry had seen too much and brought it all back with him. That the only thing he'd left back there was his innocence.
"He worked with Jerry for three days to finish it. But. . ." he paused and glanced back at the coffin. "The real work started on Wednesday when they put it up."
Gibby stared up at the 2x4 cross at the front of the sanctuary. He was examining it as he shook his head back and forth.
"The symbol for the entire religion and they used 2x4s?" he muttered.
Jerry shrugged. "It's a small congregation. Only about 60 or so people, mostly farmers and fishermen. Not a lot of money to go around."
Gibby walked to the front and tapped the 2x4 cross with a finger, it swung precariously. "Well you'd think one of the farmers would have a tree to cut down somewhere."
"The farmers use the trees as windbreaks in the fields, and the fishermen have a difficult time finding trees on the lake." Greg said from the back of the church.
Gibby spun around and smiled sheepishly. "Not saying they aren't faithful, sir. Just saying someone should have."
"Someone is." Greg said. "God's good like that."
Greg turned to Jerry and smiled broadly. "When you said you had a gift for the church I wasn't expecting this!" He motioned to the two roughly hewn pieces of maple on the floor. one of them had a square hole cut in the middle of it. It was three times as large as the 2x4 cross and looked far more authentic.
"Like Gibby said, just seemed like someone should make a decent cross for the church." Jerry replied. Might as well be Gibby and I."
Greg turned and held his hand out to Gibby. "I'm Pastor Simmonds."
Gibby took the hand and shook it briefly. "Jason Gibson, sir. Everyone just calls me Gibby."
"Pleased to meet you." Greg smiled. "Will you be joining us on Sunday so I can introduce the artisans to the congregation?"
"Well... uh." Gibby stuttered. "I hadn't really planned on it ... but yeah, I guess."
Jerry chuckled and stepped forward to remove the old cross from the wall. It had been held in place by a single nail and a length of wire looped around a second nail in the back of the upright 2x4.
"We're going to need something more sturdy." Jerry muttered.
Gibby picked up a hammer. "I'll find us some studs." He started to tap lightly on the wall, listening to the slight changes when he reached a stud and marked it with a small pencil.
Greg stepped back and watched the two men work in silence. Jerry lifted the cross piece and slipped the hole in the middle onto the top of the upright. When it started to get snug he took a rubber mallet and pounded it a few times.
Gibby had taken a ladder and was marking a stud roughly in the middle of the front wall of the sanctuary. He climbed the ladder, nearly standing on the top and pulled out a long 8 inch spike and a hammer. Jerry handed the top of the cross to him and held it in place as Gibby started to drive the spike through the wood. The sound echoed through the large hall with every swing of the hammer. A grunt escaped Gibby's lips a few times as he tried to drive the nail deeper and deeper through the wood.
He repeated the process on all four of the ends of the cross. When the two men stepped back and turned to Greg he was crying.
"Something wrong, Pastor?" Gibby asked.
"I was just suddenly overcome." Greg said. "I guess that sound of hammer hitting nail was what it was like for Jesus. And the cross, made with hand tools, cut from the very trunk of a tree. That's what it must have looked like."
Jerry looked at the cross and tilted his head, he nodded slightly. Gibby watched Jerry for a moment, then turned to face the cross as well.
"What a horrible way to die." Gibby whispered.
Greg had approached and was standing between the two men now. "He died for you, Gibby. He died for us all."