Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Piece of Paper
It’s confession time. From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, I was a hippie. A yellow glasses, fringed boots, beads and bell-bottoms hippie. This did not exactly endear me to my future father-in-law, a West Texas truck driver.
When you’re a hippie in West Texas, you stand out – and you stand pretty much alone. I was the resident hippie in Abilene, Texas in 1967. Since there was only one of me, the Abilene police assigned me my very own undercover officer to follow me around in case I did anything illegal, but I think I mostly bored him to death with my lack of radical activities.
A one-man protest just doesn’t stir up much excitement. . I was true to the hippie ethic, however, wearing my peace sign, driving a Volkswagen Beetle and adhering to the unwritten hippie manifesto. It had to be unwritten, of course, or it would look institutional, and I was opposed to establishment stuff like that.
So I staunchly advocated doing away with all forms of bureaucratic identification like drivers licenses, social security cards, draft cards and marriage licenses. Whenever I was challenged on one of these issues, I merely replied that whatever it was, it was only a piece of paper.
Somehow paper had become synonymous with worthless. Now this is an easy thing to do if you are unemployed, carless, unmarried and trying to avoid going to Vietnam.
Gradually, I began to become more and more of a “piece of paper” man. My wife-to-be took great stock in that piece of paper called a marriage license. She also had a car I could drive, so the drivers license became a grudging necessity. And, truth be told, I really hadn’t burned my draft card, burning in its place the business card of an insurance salesman who had plenty left over. Turns out some of those “pieces of paper” were pretty valuable after all.
In fact, as I became gainfully employed and started a family, I became not only an owner of several previously “worthless” pieces of paper, but I actually kept them in a safe deposit box. My diploma was a piece of paper that I needed to get a job teaching in California. My state teachers certificate was necessary to remain employed.
Birth certificates became important. I couldn’t get my son into school without a piece of paper verifying his inoculations. More children led to more important pieces of paper: deeds, last will and testaments, passports, birth certificates. Being stopped by military police in a foreign country makes one very careful about carrying the right piece of paper or not getting caught with the wrong one.
In June of 1994, crossing the Greek border into Turkey by bus, I saw a man pull a small, folded piece of paper out of his pocket and stuff it into the tire tread of the bus before we all went to get our visas stamped. When we came back, he retrieved it.
Once the bus was rolling again, I moved to sit beside him and asked him about it. He said Turkey was about 99 percent Muslim, and it wasn’t really smart to be very obvious about being Christian.
“So what’s with the piece of paper,” I asked again, impatiently.
“It’s for my wife,” he said quietly. “She cannot read English, but she loves Jesus, and she asked me to bring her back a Bible in Arabic. I was afraid to risk it in my small village so I asked a holy man in Greece to write down the best thing the Bible says for her, and this is it.
“Want to hear it?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, much louder than I should have. So he read it to me.
“For God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
That was a pretty important little piece of paper. It did indeed sum up all of what was best that the Bible says.
I knew that the piece of paper he was taking to his wife was one of the most important of all his possessions, and I knew his wife would treasure it as well. It was just a piece of paper but it contained, in a language I couldn’t read, a truth in which I had absolute faith. Precious cargo indeed.
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