Steve Sappington CommunicationsFebruary 2012

One of my friends emailed me his real-life story. I thought it was so good that I wanted to share it with you. We'll be back to our regular format next month.

The Blessing Tree                                                                  2009 TJ Ermoian, Jr.


Her long, graceful arms extend across our front yard; a sturdy Texas live oak. Our children could grasp the low limbs and soon climb to her upper branches. I have wrapped her in as many as 1800 white Christmas lights, stopping only when the electrical breaker blew. I have trimmed her misguided limbs over the years, using some to build a table and some to warm our home in the fireplace when the power went out. The smaller trimmings have smoked many a fine brisket enjoyed at family gatherings.


Some nearby Mennonites crafted a porch swing which hangs from a low branch. Many life-changing conversations have flowed between people while gently swinging in her shade. There's just something about relaxing in her arms that nudges me to think of eternal things like the seasons of life.


One Friday, as the sun blazed a dazzling exit in the west, I was overcome by a sense of gratitude for this giant oak that had been such a part of our home, and I wished that I could thank the person responsible for planting it there.


"I just love this tree" I told my wife. "I have no idea how old it is, or who may have put it in the ground, but that stranger gave us a wonderful blessing. Wherever that person is, thank you. May God bless him for this small thing which he has done that has become so great. You might be old, but I hope you are blessed with a long, happy life and good health like this tree."


My wife looked at me, as she often did with that puzzled look. My grandiose notions that we are somehow part of someone else's bigger plan often elicited that response from her.


"The guy's probably dead by now" she said


"Maybe" I said. "But his tree will live on for another hundred years or more. I'm going to plant one of the acorns out in the backyard."


"Live oaks are slow growing trees. We certainly won't be around to enjoy it." She said.


I challenged her reasoning, "Yeah, but if everyone thought that way, we wouldn't be enjoying this tree right now. I want to pay that blessing forward for someone else."


Maybe it was a silly thought, but I wanted to be that kind of person that does such things, and I did plant that tree. It is now far taller than I am and home to a family of mockingbirds.


That very same evening, we discussed our plans for the weekend, deciding to leave early the next morning for a day canoe trip down the mighty Brazos River. We had done many short runs up and back to the same spot, but this trip would be nearly twenty miles with separate put-in and take-out locations.


Lake Whitney dam upstream had been generating power during much of the summer and providing a strong current, and we anticipated a free ride through some rugged country with lovely scenery.


We got a late start the next morning after packing lunch and loading the canoe, the dogs, paddles, and fishing equipment, then making the drive to our launch point. The river looked a little low, but as the day got hotter, they would release more water to generate power and the river level should quickly rise.


After the first couple of miles, we stopped to swim and fish, and a hungry school of white bass kept me occupied in the same place for quite a while. As we continued on, there were many places where the wide river was only inches deep, and we would have to get out of the canoe and drag it. Some sections of the river are wide and the limestone bottom is deeply rutted, making walking a slippery, ankle-twisting challenge. In other areas, the water is deep and lined by limestone cliffs.


By late afternoon, it became clear that there would be no river rise, and our pace became more strenuous, often fighting a strong prevailing headwind from the south. It was paddle, drag, paddle, drag, in and out of the canoe, mile after mile. My daughter Laurel was then about fourteen years old, and my son James, five. My wife and son did not have the shoes or the legs for walking on slippery rocks, so my daughter helped me drag the canoe through the shallow with my wife and son in it.


I felt sure that we would soon recognize the last few miles of our journey from many previous outings, but as the sun began to hang low in the sky, we spotted no familiar landmarks. I paddled until my arms burned, contemplating the challenges of darkness. A half moon could supply a little light for us, but a thick cover of clouds began to move in.


Soon it was so dark that I could not see my hand in front of me. Singing birds changed to hooting owls accompanied by a chorus of chirping and croaking frogs. The river came alive with huge things splashing in the dark water around our legs Fish? Alligator gar? Raccoons? Snakes? Laurel had been a trooper so far, but the thought of giant snakes was enough for her and she got back in the canoe to let me take it from there.


As a boy scout and scout leader trained to be prepared, I was angry at myself for putting my family in this situation without even a flashlight or extra food. We struggled on paddling and mostly dragging the canoe through complete darkness.


I was slipping, tripping over rocks and sometimes getting mired in mud. Chest deep in water, I pulled the canoe under some low-hanging trees and through spider webs along the bank several times. Without being able to see the main channel of the river, it was difficult to make much time going forward and becoming more dangerous.


We had not seen a light along the river in since nightfall. It occurred to me that we could even pass our destination without knowing it.


We discussed our options: lie down in the bottom of the wet canoe and swat mosquitoes until daybreak, or press on and hope to see a light and maybe find help. I could break an ankle in a slippery rut or wander into a nest of poisonous water moccasins, get bitten and die there. We were wet, cold, tired, hungry, and frustrated, but my stubbornness kept me going.


Sometime after midnight, my strength was gone, the kids were terrified, and we decided that waiting out the night on the bank would be the safest option.


As I paddled toward the bank, I spotted a small light shining from a cabin just ahead downstream. My pride often prevents me from asking for help, but the light renewed everyone's hope with something to focus our eyes upon, and together we began paddling with whatever strength we had left. We came to rest on the muddy bank, deciding that the girls should wait in the canoe, and I would take my son on my back and try to climb up towards the light. In the Texas backcountry, if you wander onto somebody's property from the river after midnight, you're likely to get shot, so carrying a child would make me look less like a burglar.


I crawled over fallen trees and though tall weeds. Briar thorns were tearing at my flesh and hanging in my clothes. Encountering a steep, slippery clay bank, I fell several times until I found a sturdy vine to cling onto, and with the last of my strength, was able to pull us up the embankment nearer to the light. Finally, crying child clinging to my back, I crawled up onto a wooden deck under a bug swarmed porch light and rapped firmly on the door. Nothing. After a minute, I knocked again, and noticed someone peering between the window blinds to behold this pitiful pair. A grey-haired fellow poked his head out of the door and squinted at us.


"Where'd y'all come from?" he asked, looking confused after being awakened.


"From down there on the river. My wife and daughter are still down there in a canoe. I'm sorry to bother you, but we really need some help."


"You couldn't have come from there. You can't hardly get up there during the daytime. That's crawlin' with copperheads down there at night too."


We must've made quite a picture standing there; cold, wet, muddy, bleeding and exhausted. He looked upon us for several moments and I watched his face turn from suspicion to either compassion or pity.


"Let me get my boots on and my flashlight", he sighed.


We walked together about a hundred yards downstream through the woods to where we could climb more easily down the river bank, then walked back up the river to get the girls, who were elated to see our flashlight coming toward them. We tied the canoe to a tree and hiked back up to his house. We were all just happy and thankful to be alive and off of the river.


The kind old fellow introduced himself as Billy Joe, and offered to take us to our truck parked upriver, or to our car which we had left downstream at our takeout point, but I had no idea of where we were. After a mile of winding gravel roads, we came out on the highway, and I recognized that we were likely closer to our house than either vehicle. I told him where we lived and asked if he would just drive us home, about 12 miles away.


As we turned onto our street, the Billy Joe said, "Hmm, I used to live on this street". As we turned into our driveway, he said, "Wow, I used to live right next door. Y'know, I planted that oak tree in your yard there."


I could feel the hair on my head stand straight up, and my jaw must have been hanging open as I just stared speechless at him in the light from his dashboard.


"You're not going to believe this" I stammered, "but just yesterday I said a blessing and prayer for you - for the person who planted this tree that we love so well. Now here it is the next day, and of all the people on this planet, we end up on your porch begging for help. Thanks for saving us". I hugged him.


"I want to do something for you for helping us", I said.


"I don't need nothin'. Just help somebody else sometime when they need it.", he humbly said.


I have shared this story many times about the amazing "coincidence". This occurrence had a profound impact upon the course of my life. I believe this was a sign from my Creator wants me to be about His business of blessing others, even if it doesn't seem logical. In our self-absorbed lives, we so often try to calculate what we will get in return before doing things for other people. Our mortal minds cannot conceive of the incredible things that God can do, or how many lives a small blessing might affect.


But the story doesn't end there...


My children are now grown, and the wife who often thought my ideas so silly has moved on to another life in another state. This "pruning" of my life was actually a blessing, although I certainly didn't recognize it as such at the time.


I have new life now with a lovely wife who lives to bless others. Her faith in my crazy ideas has allowed us to prosper and to bless others. Together, we swing in the Blessing tree and dream of limitless blessings that God has to offer.


Sandy and I have dreamed that one day we might have our own place on the Brazos to retire and with which to bless future generations. We began that search for just such a place. I called a realtor that I know to ask him to keep his eyes open for us.


"If any acreage comes open on the Brazos, it doesn't last long" the realtor said, "but we just listed something that sounds like what you're looking for".

We immediately went to see it; several acres with a little house that had been flooded years ago and abandoned. It needed repairs, but could likely be salvaged.


I tend to thoroughly research such important decisions. Although it was my first call and the only place we looked at, we quickly made an offer. It was accepted and the closing date set.


I showed the place to my son James, now a young man. Neither of us yet recognized the wooden deck that we crawled up on those many years ago in the darkness; not until the realtor told us that it belonged to an old fellow named Billy Joe. Although I have less hair on my head, it was the same hair raising sensation I felt the night I met Billy Joe.


We are fixing it up now to use as a retreat for at-risk youth to camp, fish, and canoe. We will share stories of the Spanish explorers who named the river, "Los Brazos de Dios" - "the arms of God", the longest river in Texas. It might be the first time they have sat around a campfire, seen the Milky Way or heard owls hoot and coyotes howl. We will cook the day's catch, sing old songs, and I will tell them the story of the Blessing tree and about paying it forward.


I like to think that the arms of God should be used for hugging his children. So we named the ranch, Abrazos de Dios, Spanish for "Hugs of God".




Until next month,