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Acker, Where Are You?

A steel mill was the hub of my hometown. Kaiser Steel flourished during WWII before eventually going bankrupt in the late-eighties. The mill attracted a breed of hard-working, hard-drinking, earthy folks. This grit was embodied perfectly by the Fontana high school football team. Always competitive (and nasty) the Steelers won several state titles before finally becoming national champs in 1987. By the time I graduated high school, Kaiser Steel was in decline. Not enough that they weren’t hiring fresh meat for the blast furnace and the coke ovens. I was one of the lucky ones (if you would call great test scores lucky) who went to one of the best mills on site. The Tin Mill.

I was part of a group of a dozen new hires to work as laborers. It was filthy work, grueling, and at times not without risks. I worked around cranes, hydraulic lifts, and massive machinery. We worked rotating shifts – one week daylight shift, the next week swing, the next graveyard. And then the cycle was repeated. The money was great, but the tax on the body was extremely costly.

I worked at Kaiser from 1976 to 1981, punctuated by a period of layoff toward the end as the mill began its closure. Those five years were perhaps the most significant block of years in my life. Not only did I get married in 1980 and become a father in ’81, I became a Christian.

If only Acker had stuck around for it.

Acker – that was all I knew him by – was a gangly redhead who was part of the newly hired labor pool. He was a rather spastic guy who wore thick, black-framed glasses and loved country music. In fact, he played bass guitar in a Country band… a Country Christian band. Acker and I would sit in the lunch area and often talk. His Christianity was my main interest. It was ’76, the Bicentennial year, the year I’d graduated high school. And I was very much not a believer. I knew enough about religion at the time to put up a decent debate with Christians. Especially the half-hearted or uneducated kind. And, thus, my relationship with Acker was born.

His goat-roper brand of backwater Christianity had more holes in it than a sieve. Nevertheless, he clung to his guns and religion. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss, and carried it like a badge of honor. But I pounded the guy. Don’t get me wrong, we were friends. I just made it clear that his religion was buffoonery. And poor Acker had no substantive retort. But it didn’t matter to him. He’d push his glasses up his nose, smile his goofy smile, and go loping off. Eventually, he went to work in another department and I stopped seeing him.

I never really regretted the way I’d treated him. Until later.

Despite Acker’s impotent witness, four years later I became a Christian. It was a fairly dramatic conversion that put me on a steady growth arc. Guys at the mill saw a change. I started carrying around a Bible and sharing my faith whenever I had a chance. My then-girlfriend, Lisa, got saved, we were married, and started working on beginning a family in earnest. We became regular church-goers, drug-free, and completely flipped our lives around.

And then one day, Acker showed up.

Smoking a cigarette.

We were sitting at a picnic table in the break room with a couple other guys. But Acker had changed. He looked haggard. He used profanity. We didn’t talk much that day, but enough to know he was no longer a Christian.

And that I had helped him get there.

I never saw Acker again, but I’ve thought of him many times in the last 30-plus years. Perhaps it was necessary that we’d had such hard conversations, that I’d grilled him about his faith. Perhaps he was never really a Christian to begin with. His defection wasn’t my fault… it was his. Besides, I wasn’t even a Christian then.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feel bad about Acker.

And wish we could have one more chat.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jessica Thomas August 9, 2012, 11:35 AM

    This is a very poignant story, Mike. I’m sure any prayers you offer up for Acker are still honored.

    Also, it’s a bit awkward to say, I suppose, because we are talking ultimately about person’s soul–a real person–but it sounds like there’s a lot of meat to this experience. Much fodder for a guy like you who likes to craft stories. I’m hesitant to view all my past experiences in terms of how I can incorporate them into my fiction, nevertheless, my brain tends to wander in that direction quite often.

  • Melissa Ortega August 9, 2012, 1:41 PM

    I know how you feel. My similar grief goes the opposite direction – that I was the Christian buffoon who was a terrible witness to people I genuinely loved. At my age, I still think of them and hope for God’s grace. I was young and stupid and I know that, but the grief will be a part of me forever.

  • sally apokedak August 9, 2012, 4:58 PM

    I’ve been both–the heckler and the ignorant zealot.

    Thank God he’s able to work with broken people.

  • Nicole August 9, 2012, 5:29 PM

    This one hurts.

  • J.S. Clark August 9, 2012, 7:20 PM

    If there’s only one thing I regret from my time in Corps, it was that I got into too many debates about religion. Part of me said that I wanted to show them how they were wrong so they’d want the truth, but looking back, I know it was just my flesh wanting to show off. It’s no surprise to me now, that the work of flesh only produced fleshly fruit. There’s a part of me that would be willing to do all those years since over again for another shot.

    But, there’s something in the phrase “born again” that reminds me that we don’t choose our birth. God is in the business of salvaging souls, not erasing their histories. In a manner of speaking. I may have been a ass about it, but I believe God’s changed me since then, and with all the “bad” christians I’ve met, if God can bring me he can bring those poeple I screwed up with too.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) August 10, 2012, 7:57 AM

    Oh I hope you can find Acker through FB or Twitter or grapevine or whatever. How sad. How sad.

  • Matthew Sample II August 10, 2012, 8:00 AM

    Don’t give up on Acker. Perhaps seeing you changed may stir up something in his heart, like Paul hoped for his fellow Jews (Rom 11:11). It is the grace of God that we who should not be saved have had our eyes opened to salvation, but we mourn for those who seemingly have been accursed in the wake of our awakening. Perhaps though, he will become jealous of you and the God he once claimed to know, and come full circle.

  • Jill August 10, 2012, 9:34 AM

    This is absolutely devastating. But God knows more than we know and sees more than we see. God wanted you as his follower. And maybe he wanted Acker to examine his beliefs. Maybe God isn’t done with Acker.

  • Katherine Coble August 13, 2012, 1:14 PM

    I am an eternal securist. Acker may have stepped away for awhile. But if he was saved, God is never through with him.

    I don’t think it’s in your power to say he was no longer a Christian. The body floating by you that day may have been in a place of apartness, but God waits around the bend of the river.

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