Jesus gave me a rich heritage even before I was born.
It all began in North Dakota. Mom and Dad were married in that cold, windy place on earth in 1946. Dad’s brother Ed had thrown a lasso over a high point in the state and tied it to his saddle horn. That’s another way of saying he secured it to his seemingly endless ranch. But you would never know it was one of the highest points in the state. It was just another hill that bragged about its pompadour to all the hills around.
Like Uncle Ed, Dad was a true horseman: a cowboy who loved to ride the sagebrush and work cattle. As soon as he could, he traded his army boots for cowboy boots. In 1948 he became a ranch hand in central Montana. After several months jingling spurs and riding saddle under the big sky, he and Mom bought the family farm in North Dakota. This was the original homestead that belonged to Dad’s family.
Let me introduce you to the family homestead that would, for a short time, become my home as well.
In 1911 Dad’s Dad and Mom, my German Grandpa and Grandma, and their three small children, sailed to America from southern Russia. Many relatives who stayed behind were never heard from again when the Bolsheviks took over. Three more children were born in America. Dad was one of them. He was the youngest.
In 1912 Grandpa and Grandma built a sod house in North Dakota, half a mile south of the family farm that would eventually emerge from the rocks and sage. This is the homestead, with its wide, ranging land, that Dad and Mom acquired from Grandpa and Grandma. By then two of my uncles, Ed and Fred, had their own ranches close by. “Close by” could be miles, even sections of prairie, in North Dakota.
Grandpa and his family lived till about 1915 in that sod house while thistles were growing over their heads. One half was their home. The other half was a barn where a cow named “Bossy,” two horses, “the Frank” and “the Bob,” and some chickens and pigs lived. Only a wall separated them. Grandpa would lay a wick in a dish of lard and light it for the evening. Grandma caught rain in pots when it came through the roof. Buffalo were still running wild then. The family traded buffalo bones and horse-tail hair for items Jewish peddlers carried deep into the back country. As a boy, my Uncle John, who was the firstborn, watched Native Americans pass by the sod house in wagon caravans.
While they were living in the sod house, Bossy gave milk for three years without drying up! They had no bull then. It was a miracle. Grandma was one to pray. Before long she and Grandpa built a farm house within walking distance of the sod house. Around 1926, after a severe hail storm badly damaged the north side of the farm house, Grandma knelt in the flattened garden and prayed. Jesus heard her prayer. That year they had a good grain crop!
For several years after she married Dad, my mother was unable to have children. Like Grandma, she too, was one to pray. She asked God for a child, and said, “I will give that child to you.” One night Mom saw Jesus standing at the foot of her bed in Grandma and Grandpa’s farm house. She knew her prayer would be answered. Soon after that I came along. It was 1954 by then. My brother came along in 1956.
So my little brother and I looked out a window that had been destroyed by hail in 1926. We were unaware that there was once a sod house on a hill nearby. But we did know about lone “coyotees” who howled at the moon, and choirs of frogs in the marsh. We had a barn and a windmill that must have looked like Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower to us, a chicken coop where a cranky rooster lay in ambush, and a pig pen swelling with mud and pigs. Sometimes you couldn’t tell which was which, unless you saw a pair of ears sticking out of the mud. I remember Dad bending a saddle horn, coming down a hill on a bucking bronco between the barn and the chicken coop. As far as I could tell, hills and stars were never-ending.
In 1962 my brother and I were looking out another window. As far as we could tell, the Rocky Mountains were never-ending. Dad and Mom gathered everything they could haul on three semis and moved us to a 900-acre cattle ranch in western Montana. After two or three days our horses, cows, dog, cats, chickens and personal belongings peered in a vegetative state from the semi trailers. We left the pigs behind, and hopefully, that bad rooster. When we pulled in under the Rocky Mountains, the realtor who sold us the ranch helped Mom milk cows that were still able to walk off the trailers. Actually, all the animals were happy to put one foot in front of the other! They may have even kissed the ground.
Growing up on a cattle ranch in western Montana meant many things. It was a blessing my brother and I figured God and Dad had somehow worked out. It meant fishing for mouth-watering trout in our own mountain creek; bouncing up the canyon on the seat of your pants in the back of a jeep with friends and relatives; herding cattle on horseback and spinning off horse heels after long-eared Brahman-cross cows through brush and trees: sometimes leaving your hat hanging on a branch. At one point we had 250 head of cattle. There were seasons of spring unequaled for beauty, the branding times, lines and lines of sprinklers, and untold tons of hay bales to haul. There was the smell of pine and the song of the meadowlark. We grew up with animals. We even had peacocks that could fly like an airplane and wail at blue sky from the top of the barn. I loved to record animals with a hand-held tape recorder I received when I graduated from junior high. At dusk I would wait in the grass for a robin to sing. We were truly blessed by God. But ranch work was hard.
At a very early age I began writing my own books. Sometimes I illustrated them with pencil sketches. If my brother, or Mom or Dad would ever wonder where I was, they would usually find me in my room, creating stories. My writing was often large and course. I disliked grammar and didn’t even know how to spell properly, but I loved to write! I still do.
While we were still very young, Mom made sure my brother and I took
piano lessons and practiced every day. It seemed like every day. I wasn’t fond of practicing the piano. But our teacher was a jolly soul, the wife of the realtor who arranged for us to buy the ranch. I hated recitals. While ten or twenty eyeballs were glued to your back, you bumbled across the wrong key with your clammy fingers. Before you sat down at the piano in that stuffy room, you could play the song flawlessly!
As a teenager I taught myself to play the guitar and began writing my own songs. Before long I was the leader of my own group. My friend played bass guitar. Another friend played guitar. My brother played the trombone and sang with us for a while. I played second trumpet in the school band and, later, an electric bass guitar. Who needs a tuba? I think I must have been the first to play bass guitar in a school band. It was definitely a novelty at the time. No other school we knew of had a bass guitar in the band. In other schools there was always someone leaning to get a tuba through a door. At our high school we even had someone playing electric lead guitar and another guy playing a trap set in the school band. We played “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly in its entirety! It’s seventeen minutes long with an extended drum solo our drummer knocked out without missing a beat! Other schools were surprised at basketball games when we played songs like this and other rock songs they just heard on the radio.
My brother and I left ranch life “behind,” you might say, before we were twenty. But I often came back to it and worked with Dad, even after he and Mom relocated to a different place a few miles east of the ranch where we grew up. Dad would always be a rancher while he was here. He would always love to swing his boot over a saddle.
He and Mom had a positive Christian influence on my brother and me. But I met Jesus for myself in 1973. And that would forever change the course of my life. My brother had become a Christian much earlier. From the day I met Jesus, for me, to live was to know, love and honor Him. This is the sum of what it means to truly be a Christian.
Besides helping Dad on the ranch, I also worked at an archery shop for many years and was a checker at Kmart for twenty years. But after I met Jesus there was one dramatic change in my life. I had a great desire to know what the Bible says. And I consumed it in personal study. I thought this was normal for a Christian. Other Christians thought it was unusual. I still can’t figure that out. Do horses dislike hay? Would a fish rather walk in the park than swim in a creek? Do meadows prefer not to have rain? If so, then Christians can decline to read and study their Bible. Or maybe they should ask themselves if they are really a Christian. When I open my old Bible from back then, it falls apart if I don’t open it carefully. I have gone over it so much with pens and notes, and taped edges of pages, that some parts fall out in pieces.
Aside from my personal study, I also attended Bible college for two years, took correspondence courses, and studied for short periods in Israel, Greece, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, England and Scotland for a B.A. in Biblical Studies. I taught myself to read the Greek New Testament. I have read a chapter daily since 1980 to help keep my understanding fresh and increase my knowledge of the Greek text.
After I became a Christian, I was once again the leader of a band. We hauled around amps, a P.A. system and guitars. For a time we traveled quite widely in Montana, spreading the word about Jesus. My brother and his wife, before they were married, were part of the group for a while. The woman, who would one day become my wife, was also in the band for a season. We called ourselves “Wings of the Morning.” We were often told that we sounded like Simon and Garfunkel. In the beginning my song writing was influenced, to a great measure, by Justin Hayward.
I also traveled with a family in evangelistic work, playing guitar, bass guitar, hand bells, thumping a vi-bra-harp on a rare occasion, and often sticking my hand in a puppet’s head, along with my comrades behind a curtain. Children loved it. Even those children who were well-advanced in years! Occasionally I laid a sermon on the pulpit. Our small team was like a traveling circus. We cruised highways to churches in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Arizona and New Mexico. We even tossed a heel and toe down the dusty path into Havasu Canyon, in the Grand Canyon, to a Havasupai Indian church. I sketched a church in up-state New York. The picture was used for years on the cover of their Sunday bulletin.
By the direction of the Lord Jesus I also completed Youth With A Mission’s Discipleship Training School, doing evangelistic work for six weeks in Rio de Janeiro. Five times I traveled 1000 miles into Mexico with YWAM, doing short-term missionary work and building a church near the ocean.
In addition to this, I traveled with YWAM a couple weeks to totem-pole “Bear Island,” now known as Admiralty, in southeast Alaska, helping build a Tlingit church. When we weren’t driving nails in sheet rock, we dropped a line over the side of a boat and pulled halibut and salmon from Alaska’s southeast passage in the Pacific. From the village dock you could watch humpbacks spout. But you may have to persuade an old raven to move over and give you a spot on the pier where you could hang your feet. One evening I sang a couple of my songs with a guitar I borrowed. I was accompanied by the best Native American band ever, in the little church where we hung our hammers at the end of each afternoon.
After so many years, my Father drew a curtain on the solitary life I’d been living. I’d been asking Him to do this for a long time. In 2001 I married my beautiful wife Kathy. At times we play our guitars and sing together, as we did in the past. Both of us write music. We cross-country ski, ride our two horses on mountain trails, spin down the road on bikes and enjoy taking our shoes for a hike in the mountains. We have also been known to paddle down the Missouri. Occasionally the two of us stick poles through a tent and lift it over our heads for the night.
On a night as black as coal in 2007, when we were in Canada, I lay in utter silence, to say nothing of terror, while something huge brushed past our tent. I heard the grass bend beside my head, outside the tent. Kathy was sound asleep. I didn’t say a word. Didn’t move a muscle. I don’t think I was breathing. I was keenly aware of the danger we were in. There were Grizzly-warning signs at the entrance when we rolled into the campground! We were quite happy to pull out the next morning after I told her about our close “scrape”!
Kathy and I have traveled together to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and stepped inside Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s boyhood homes in Liverpool. We have traveled to a number of states in the western US. I’m glad she’s a California girl! We have also gone half way around the world with small groups from our church to Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong and China. She and I smuggled Bibles then. We also visited refugee camps on the border facing Myanmar. We even rode an elephant twice. Seems we have never lacked for adventure. The pastor who married us asked me at the beginning, “Are you ready for adventure?” Perhaps the adventure is nothing more than simply following the man with the nail scars. He is our Friend Jesus. If Kathy and I can lay a garland on His dear head, with our lives… it is enough.
©James Unruh 2014 and beyond