The Bearded Robber

I was fifteen. My friend’s dad, uncle John, had just invited me to join them on an overnight hike to a mountain waterfall. We would be a party of four, one near-deaf missionary uncle and three scrawny high school kids. This particular hike was to prove fun, scary, and shaping. It was shaping in that being invited into the accessible adventure of the mountains around our missionary school compound in Melanesia launched me into dozens of hikes over the next few years. Hiking would become a place where I could try my hand at manly things like risk, endurance, sleeping in the rain, and eating cold hot dogs because the matches were too wet to get the fire lit. But this hike was the first one, so I was green and a bit nervous, though excited as well.

Uncle John’s hearing had slowly diminished due to tinnitus, the same condition my dad had had before he had passed away. By the time of our trek into the mountains, he had completely lost hearing in one ear and could only partially hear with his other ear with the aid of a hearing aid. He relied heavily on lip reading and was overall very quiet, though always very kind to me. He has since gotten cochlear implants. I’m told after having his hearing implants he became a man transformed.

This particular hike was nothing too challenging. Initially there was about forty five minutes of trekking, first down a paved road, then on some muddy ones flanked by high grass, then over a river on a swinging wire bridge, then on muddy footpaths into the foothills. There were a few villages we would pass through in the foothills before we started climbing the grassy and wooded slopes in earnest. In all it was about two and a half hours to our destination, a waterfall and swimming hole that lay between two steep spurs of the mountain.

The afternoon was sunny and we made good headway, somewhat bemused and embarrassed by the village grandmothers’ excited offering their granddaughters to us in marriage. At last we made it up and down several small ridges and to the waterfall. We swam and cooked dinner, and by the heat of our campfire somehow managed to provoke the emergence of thousands of small black beetles from the earth, which promptly overwhelmed our campsite. Still, the beans from a can were good (food always tastes better on a hike) and after the beetles dispersed we had a pleasant evening sitting around the fire and listening to the sound of the waterfall. Sleepiness came on fast and we all passed out in the tent without too much trouble. Cicadas and waterfalls make for good background noise.

I woke up in the middle of the night, startled. By the shadows on the wall of the tent and the rustling sounds, I knew that someone was shuffling around our campsite. We knew that we were running a slight risk of being robbed by going on this hike. Opportunistic local men were known to sometime accost foreign hikers and to rob them while threatening them with machetes, and sometimes homemade shotguns. But knowing the local language and carrying very little cash and flashy gear on us, we weren’t sending the kind of signals that might normally entice a robbery. We were almost locals ourselves, living down in the valley. And many women from the villages we had passed through were employed as household helpers on the missionary compound. Still, someone was definitely moving around the campsite. It did seem we were about to be robbed.

Perhaps they would just take the gear around the fire and leave us alone? I prayed. Then the zipper on the tent started moving. And my heart leapt into my throat. The tent door slowly unzipped, zzzzziiiiizzzz, opened, and in the deep darkness I saw the silhouette of a bearded man (most locals wore beards). He was looking right at me. He silently pointed at me with his hand and made the motion for me to roll over. He seemed to be telling me to lie down and not make any unnecessary noise. I didn’t know what to do. The others in the tent seemed to be fast asleep, so I started to roll over, but also started to try to reason in the local language with this criminal about the shamefulness of his actions.

“What you are doing is bad and shameful.”

“We don’t have any money on us.”

“We’re just here to respectfully spend the night in this good place.”

“We’re not rich tourists, we’re just missionaries that live down in the valley.”

“Do you not see that this is shameful? It’s very shameful. It will bring shame on your village and your people and no one will come to see your beautiful land!”

He wasn’t even acknowledging that I was speaking. What to do? I shot a glance over to uncle John’s sleeping bag. Suddenly I realized that it was empty. I gasped. They took uncle John! And he’s completely deaf at night without his hearing aid. Things were seeming much worse than I thought. Violent crime was indeed increasing in the culture. Was this going to turn into a hostage taking?

Heart pounding, I ventured a peek outside the tent door flap. The figure was crouched by the fire, messing with it. Suddenly a flame jumped up. And in the light of the fire I saw that the criminal I was desperately reasoning with was… bearded uncle John. Stirring a can of beans. Relief and embarrassment swept over me. Oh no, he had heard all my desperate negotiating! But wait, had he? No, impossible, his hearing aids were out. He hadn’t heard a thing! And that’s why he hadn’t responded. I began to laugh at myself and settled back into my sleeping bag for the rest of the night.

At breakfast I shared the story of “the robbery” with the rest of our little hiking crew and we all had a good laugh together. Apparently uncle John had woken up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. But what was he doing staring me down and ordering me to roll over like that? Turns out he was trying to indicate that I could move over and use his inflatable sleeping mat. But in the midnight blackness I thought he was a robber, and he must have thought I was at least a little daft myself. Why is this kid staring unresponsive at me like that? My wife still tells me that I’m the worst at lip-reading, so there’s that.

The hike wrapped up without any further incidents and for the three of us skinny MK’s, we had been initiated into the sore and muddy joys of hiking. It was a small thing for uncle John to do that with us high school guys. Just a quick overnight hike. But for me, it turned out to be much more meaningful than either of us could have known at that time. As the youngest sibling of a single-mom household, there just weren’t very many men who invited me to do things with them when I was growing up. Ministry men are busy with ministry. And I was shy. In spite of good intentions, invitations like this hike were seldom extended. I had lots of great role models from a distance to watch, but precious few opportunities to have an adult man show me how to do something adventurous or practical so that I could then do it on my own.

But this hike to the waterfall was easy enough to be repeated – and built on. My buddies and I were soon hiking to the top of the ridge and beyond – eventually summitting the three highest peaks in the country. Uncle John had set some time aside from his ministry responsibilities and shown us some fatherly kindness, and this one gesture had unlocked a world of adventure that was just plain good for us hormonal teenage boys. We needed to test our limits, to risk, to have some adventure. We needed to get arrested by tribal war parties (as would later take place) and learn the hard way the value of having a rain plan – a soaking wet sleeping bag in a patch of jungle on top of a mountain is a very effective tutor! We needed to learn that continuing on in the fog and the dark at 14,000 feet when your guide has left due to altitude sickness is a very bad idea. And learn we did, through many misadventures and near-misses. It was wonderful. We muddled along on our disastrous hikes and somehow learned some good lessons about what it meant to be Christian men.

The year my son was born, 2012, was notable for a tragic reason. It was the year that children born outside of wedlock in the US surpassed those born within it. The doctors in our Louisville, KY, hospital already at that point didn’t quite know what to do with a husband who was there for all the appointments and for the birth itself. They awkwardly tried to address only my wife, not sure if they were supposed to acknowledge me as well. From that year on, the majority of children in my homeland have been raised in single-parent or broken households.

This creates a great need. So many boys are growing up without dads (and daughters, too). Now that I’m a dad I remember the kindness uncle John showed me by inviting me along on that hike. Even one gesture like that was potentially life-changing for me. Men of the Church, let’s lift up our eyes and look around us. Are there any boys growing up without dads that we can sometimes invite into our lives? I’m sure they would love to learn a practical life skill, to go on an adventure, or to just spend time with a kind man who is already an adult. Even if we only have time for this every once in a while, we might be surprised at what might come of it.

Whether they show it or not, I can tell you this, they’ll be grateful for an invite.

Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

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