BILLY

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By Sean Dietrich

My father’s truck. I was riding shotgun. He was skinny, shirtless, sunburned. Billy Graham was on the radio, preaching like a man with his hair on fire. Daddy didn’t do radio preachers—unless it was Billy. Daddy turned the volume up. His face went still. I’ll never forget it. Billy said the words, “Jesus wept.” And my daddy started crying. Daddy clicked the radio off. He wiped his eyes and said, “You know, I’d like to shake old Billy’s hand someday.” Funny. The preacher who spoke at Daddy’s funeral delivered a good sermon. He told the congregation that “Jesus wept.” And I remember thinking about what a coincidence that was. But at this age, I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.

I have a memory from my Granny’s dank, single-wide trailer. It was a place that smelled like smoke and mildew. The once-white ceiling was yellow from tobacco. My granny had been keeping the same Winston ember burning since the early fifties. Billy Graham’s face was on a black-and-white console television. His voice was loud enough to blow the speaker. “WHO IS YOUR NEIGHBOR?” he shouted. My Granny forced a lungful of smoke out and asked me, “Who’s your neighbor?” I shrugged. Billy hollered to the beat of the band. He held his Bible in one hand. By the time he got to the invitation, I was singing along with “Just as I Am.” As a young man, I pulled electrical wires with a man who was bad to drink. He was late-sixties; I wasn’t even twenty. The man’s family had washed their hands of him. He wasn’t exactly father of the year. One night, my phone rang. He was half tight, calling from a downtown payphone. He said his engine wouldn’t start. Which was nothing short of a miracle. If he would’ve gotten behind the wheel in his condition, this story would have a different ending. A friend and I drove him home. He slumped in the passenger seat, talking to himself. Then he said, “You boys think God hears drunks?” We helped him inside his apartment. We placed him on his sofa. We brewed coffee, and turned on his television.

Billy Graham was in the throes of a TV sermon. Coincidence? I don’t know. But I’ll never forget Billy’s words. “God hears you…”

Years later, my friend died a sober man. Billy has been a friendly face to me for a long time. I don’t know why. There’s something about him. Maybe you grow up loving the same people your granny loved. Only weeks ago, I visited the church in Palatka, Florida, where Billy was baptized and ordained a lifetime ago. I was the only visitor. The faded clapboard building sits beneath mossy oaks beside a cemetery. The doors were locked, but I peeked in the windows. The chapel was antique. I saw the same floorboards he walked on when shouting things like, “WHO IS YOUR NEIGHBOR?”

I closed my eyes and pretended to hear his voice coming through the walls. But in my mind, all I saw was an old woman smoking a Winston, smiling at me. I saw lots of old friends who left me behind. I saw the same people Billy once spoke to over the airwaves. Like drunks who just needed to know God wasn’t deaf. People like sunburned men, riding in trucks on Saturday afternoons, listening to radios. I never got to meet you, Billy. But the skinny man shaking your hand right now is my daddy. He’s been waiting a long time for the privilege.