Surprise Reconciliation Through a Ketchup Packet

Surprise Reconciliation Through a Ketchup Packet

Through the Windshield of My Life


The 1970 Galaxie was built bigger and stronger than previous models.

These cars were becoming more luxury oriented as the years passed. Ford engineers worked hard to achieve a quiet ride and luxury car comfort for 1970. The lineup was made up of 21 new models . There were several body style choices for 1970, to include: three LTD Broughams, five LTD models, two XL models and six different Galaxie 500 models. The different models were offered in several body styles to include the two door and four door hardtop, two door and four door sedan, sports-roof, and convertible.

This one is a 1970 Galaxie sports-roof.

Blue just like the picture, it drove up in our driveway one day. Surprised, my eyes bugged out like it was Christmas! A brand new car! It was beautiful with the sports-roof being extremely unique in design I was very excited to run out of the door to take a closer look. This car replaced the 1963 Galaxie that was my step dads. I wanted to go for a ride in it but was told it wasn’t going to happen at this time. I was so disappointed to hear those words. But it didn’t surprise me because the last five years were disappointing every day.

John 10th grade - 1970In my mind, at 15 years old, this car was just a reminder of the life I felt inside my heart that was separate from the life I had at home. We had a brand new car but it had nothing to do with me since I wouldn’t ride in it very often. I think I did a few times when my mom rarely took it to the store and I got to go along. I used to look at its sleek lines and noticed the cloth interior that was ribbed but soft. It had a vinyl roof which emphasized the double design of the slanted profile with the straight line of the back window. I thought it was really cool to look at.

Five years prior to this time, my step dad moved into our house. From previous writings, you may remember,  this is the man who sexually violated me when I was just 10 years old! He began negatively impact virtually every facet of our home life. To say the least, it was very unpleasant to live there. On the first day he moved in I saw a huge, strangely red-stained, desk move into the corner bedroom that used to be mine. It had no handles on the drawers and was hand built by Gerb, as we learned he was called. It was short for Gerber. We heard he didn’t like his real name. He was named after his two sisters who were electrocuted by a loose wire on the wringer washing machine. No wonder he didn’t like it! So, everyone called him Gerb.

As the desk slid into place the rules began. “Don’t touch this desk or anything on it!” It had a door on the front  that opened up to reveal a heavy black safe. I wondered what was so valuable that needed a safe hidden in a desk? This was another strange secret about Gerb’s life that brought so many questions to my mind. Oh, you can rest assured, I wouldn’t be touching his desk because the door on the bedroom also had a lock installed on it to make sure we never went in unsupervised.

The next exciting thing that came along was the installation of a “touch tone” telephone! It sat on the ledge in between the kitchen and living room. Oh, my gosh, these just came out! We had a touch tone phone. But soon the rules continued, don’t touch this phone because it’s Gerb’s phone and he needs it for work calls.  Just another separation from the things that were so exciting to see, but just too far away to enjoy. I wouldn’t be touching his precious phone either.

Then, the arguments began. Night after night, week after week -  yelling, screaming and broken things became the norm. I’d go to bed in my room in the basement with anxiety every night wondering if and when the fights would begin tonight. Gerb worked the afternoon shift. This meant he got off work around 10:30 PM. Many nights he would stop at a bar to drink before coming home but sometimes he came home earlier. But no matter when it was, my mom was ready for his arrival with cheese, salami and plenty of beer to settle the dragon that would arrive soon. Sometimes he would drink up to 16 beers in one sitting so the weekly shopping would involve cases of beer to be drank in the days he didn’t stop at the bar first. He would get extremely upset if my mom would fall asleep on the couch and this might be the trigger to begin the nightly battles.

I never really knew what most of the fights were about other than they seemed to always involve “those kids” which referred to me and my sisters. We were “lazy, good for nothing, irresponsible and  worthless” and we belonged to “Old Man Smid” (our dad) which seemed to be the worst thing of all.  Mom would often remind us that Gerb never had any kids of his own and he just didn’t understand how to relate to them. I began to see how much she minimized the real story.

After the nightly battle zone would seem to wane, I’d finally fall asleep.  Often my sisters and I would go upstairs for breakfast and while we were getting out our cereal we would assess the damage. One morning we looked in the trash and found the dress my mom had been wearing the night before with dark red stains on it. We assumed they were blood from last night’s fight. We never knew what happened because the nightly battles were often referred to as “Gerb was on his “high-horse” again”. HIGH HORSE? Is that what you call it? There were times where the fighting would become viral and link morning, noon, and night together.

Coming home from visiting dad was often the scariest of all.  Gerb had very strict rules on abiding by our court approved visitation hours of 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM on Sundays.  If we came hope 30 seconds late by his watch that would inevitably begin a fight. One night when we came home we walked into the front door. Walking in I saw my mom’s friend sitting at the kitchen table and then looked over and saw Gerb holding gun pointed at my mom.  He quickly put the gun down and the fight continued as we quietly went to our rooms.

There were so many restrictions on our life that we never knew which one we might cross over that would start the fighting all over again. If we winked just the wrong way, it might start a fight. One day I went to get my hair cut at the local barber. I had to walk about two miles or more to get there. This day at 13 years old I decided to get my hair cut a little different. Instead of getting it shaved up the back, I asked the barber to block it. This meant cutting it straight across the back. When I got home, Gerb lost it! I was told under no uncertain circumstances I would return to the barber and get it cut correctly or I wouldn’t come back into the house. So, back I went, two miles each way and got the expected shave up the back. I certainly didn’t expect that one coming!

Not all was bad.

Gerb was extremely talented with his hands and his mind. He completely rebuilt, from scratch, an entire car engine. When my little sister was ready to be born he built her a rocking crib from some sort of diagram with little spindles and a finish that was so smooth and shiny you would have thought it was sprayed on lacquer, but it had been done with a lot of sanding and a brush. He installed an entire sprinkling system in our yard. He was a brick layer, an electrician, a plumber and had a part time job repairing heating and air conditioning units. I don’t think there was anything he couldn’t do.

I remember him telling me, “John, a job isn’t worth doing if you don’t do it right.” I saw him use virtually every hand tool, power tool, and special tool you can think of. I watched his skills and learned, by osmosis, some very valuable lessons. He was a perfectionist beyond most I have known.

He was a Shriner and very involved in the organization. He started by being involved in a small motor cycle group. then he progressed into the place where he wanted to customize a little car to put into the parades. He got a 60’s Renault four door for the job. He completely custom designed the car. He cut the roof off, shaved down the doors and welded them shut. Of course, he rebuilt the engine, upholstered and painted the car himself. I would often stand amazed at his talent.

When it came to his daily life each day it would take him two hours to get ready for work. It began with a hot shave and a shower. His hair was longer than it looked, curly and light when it was wet. But when he put his special red oil on it to straighten it to perfection it remained in perfect form. His work mates teased him because he would go to the rail yards wearing starched and ironed shirts and kacki pants. My mom would dip his shirts in liquid starch and iron them and put the pants on pants stretchers to dry. She would also sew a crease down the front of the pants to add to the perfect image that had to be present. His shoes were “spit shined” each day to high gloss like he had learned in the Air Force. His regimen included a specialized packed lunch and all of the other things he would take with him every day to work. The man who left for work was a totally different man than the one that came home each night. I don’t know what happened in between those eight hours but coming home appeared to be quite painful for this man.

My First Car!

When I was getting ready to turn 16, my dad said he would go with me to buy my first car. As I pondered the reality of having a car the only solution I could think of is that it would be kept at my dad’s house or parking it down the street keeping the secret that my dad had been involved in the process. Surely Gerb would not have allowed me to have a car or the freedom that might come along with it.

1964 Volks - PersonalSo, dad and I went shopping. For some reason the Volkswagen “bug” seemed to stand out and my first car was a 1964 Volkswagen beetle. I paid $450 dollars for it. I took it to my dad’s and left it there. Since I didn’t have my driver’s license anyway it seemed to be the best solution.

My older sister had already “escaped” to live with my dad and my middle sister was getting married. All I could think of is what I would do without her being there with me. There were many nights where we would get into bed with each other shaking uncontrollably as the fights went on upstairs. Who would save me when she left?

My dad came to my rescue. One day with I was with him he asked me if I would consider moving in with him. What? I never even considered this as an option! I immediately said yes and began to plan my escape. That year my dad had gotten me a portable 13 inch television. But that had to be hidden in my closet so that Gerb never knew I had it. Living with my dad would mean I would be free to enjoy the things in life that had come my way. No more barriers around the potential of joy. Maybe I can laugh again like I had remembered before Gerb became a part of our lives.

So, the anxiety of the move began. But I used the energy to secretly pack my few boxes in preparation for the move. I didn’t tell anyone, certainly not my mom. She didn’t keep anything from Gerb, so this was a secret that had to be kept. I couldn’t risk the potential of my plan being sabotaged. As I looked at the TV in my closet I realized it would come out! And so would I.

All I could think of is getting to spend time with my cousins who lived in town, playing cards with my dad’s friends, enjoying pizza at the local pizzeria and doing all of the “normal” things that others seemed to get to do. Freedom was at my door! My dad was rescuing me and I couldn’t wait.

So, Saturday morning came. My dad was to arrive at 10:00 AM and I had to be ready. Boxes packed: Check. Clothes gathered: check. I am ready but how will I carry this out? I had to tell my mom something. So, at 9:50 AM I went upstairs and found my mom in the living room. Gerb was still asleep so I felt safer and had to get this done. “Mom, I am going to live with dad.” She just sat there and a couple of tears came down her face, “When?” “Ten minutes, mom.”

The Escape Vehicle

1963 Chevrolet Chevy II wagonSo I mustered up the strength I had to gather the last things into boxes. Than I saw dad drive up. It was a blue 1963 Chevy II station wagon. He pulled in and I started carrying boxes upstairs and out into the drive way. After about 15 minutes we were done.

I breathed a sigh of relief and we drove away. I am finally free! I can live! I can go see my car. After all, I was just 15 years old and that was important.

I didn’t see or talk to my mom for about a month. But, I began to find liberty to enjoy a little bit of life. I had to heal. I had spent five years of my life in the worst prison I could have imagined considering it was a house in the suburbs on a normal street of life. It just seemed that no one had noticed our pain. I had felt so alone and trapped. But not any more!

The power of my dad’s question was that it seemed he had heard me. He seemed to know what was going on and how much I needed help. I don’t know why he hadn’t done that earlier but it didn’t matter at that point. I was on my way to a new life.

I visited mom a few times each year after that. Gerb seemed to just stay in the garage when I came over. Sometimes he would come into the house and grunt something to my mom or to me but there was never any kind of conversation that occurred. I was glad to not see him anyway. I mean after all, he molested me, took my home away from me, imprisoned me from life.  Why would I want to see him?

The Ketchup Packet that Heals

Later in his life, Gerb got very ill with colon disease. He had several bouts with cancer of the tongue and colon. He had a colostomy which unnerved him to no end because it was “messy.” At the end of his life he was in the hospital and my wife and I were in Omaha visiting. As we drove past the hospital where he was, I took a deep breath and said, “I think we are supposed to go see him.” It took everything in me to turn the car around and follow what I believed to be the right thing to do.


So, in we went. My mom wasn’t there to distract us with her typical non-stop talking, and we sat down in his room. We talked about a few meaningless things. The nurse brought in Gerb’s lunch and sat it on his tray. As I looked at him I saw a frail broken man. He was trying to get his ketchup packet open and he was failing miserably. Gerb had always been able to do anything he wanted. But at this time in his life, he wasn’t able to do even the simplest of things. “Gerb, do you want me to open your ketchup for you?” I timidly asked him. Even at this time, I feared his responses. But with some surprise, he said “Yes.”

He died a few months later. When the pastor who was to lead the funeral came to my mom’s house he asked about who this man was. They had no relationship with any pastors who knew them.  I remember my mom saying “he has two children and three step children.” Then she went on to say, “Well, he wasn’t the best step dad in the world.” I couldn’t believe my ears! That was the first acknowledgment from her that there was anything wrong with this picture. Well, at least she did see that something wasn’t right.

So, the last memory I have of Gerb is me opening up his ketchup. Funny, isn’t it? God led me to a place in life where my final interaction with this abusive mean spirited man was to serve him. I still get tears when I think of that tender moment of life.  I have no idea what he may have been thinking but God had revealed His grace to me through this unforeseen event.

There was really only a handful of people at his funeral other than friends of my little brother, who has down’s syndrome. As I look back at Gerb’s life I feel grieved that such a talented, competent man ended up to be so invisible.  God had given him such incredible intelligence, coordination, drive, and potential kingdom purpose.  At the end he was virtually invisible to the masses. It was a sad and lonely ending to his life. I felt relieved that my fears were finally gone forever and that there would be no more present pain from his life into mine. I was also glad that God led me to the hospital visit. It seemed that in the ketchup packet incident, all of the pain was washed away. There was a humility between us that seemed to heal the wounds for me. Strange ending of his life but I am eternally thankful to God for His leading me into His abundant grace once again.

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4 Responses to “Surprise Reconciliation Through a Ketchup Packet”

  1. Dan Hoeksema says:

    John, You truly are a Miracle From God!!! You have lived quite the life, and I’m sorry for all the early suffering and abuse you lived thru, and had to endure during your early years!! I would have offed Gerb while he slept, and that would not have been the right thing to do, but I surely would have done it as sure as my name is Dan!!!! Thank God you have been saved from that life, and I am very thankful you are my friend, and that you are so open to share your life experiences which are obviously helping other people!! May God continue to bless you richly in your ministry!!!!!

  2. Jesse says:

    John, Thank you for sharing your story, your life, your hours, so that others might walk with you, to meet God in His grace for healing in our own lives. Thank you for your faith and tenacity in pursuing the calling on your life. You continue to grow more like, Jesus, our Wounded Healer. Your sensitivity to people’s hearts, and significance in things most overlook, is beautiful and powerful–as a maestro attuned to the combination of notes making music out of ‘noise.’

  3. Todd Ferrell says:

    God shows up in some pretty wild places….Thank you for sharing! How special it is when we see the small things rather than miss them due to the speed of life.

  4. Roger says:

    Thank you, John. Your transparency breeds trust. Your gift of telling your story will allow others to tell theirs as well.

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