To Fly Like a Bird

I suppose I was about seven years old when Mom told me that Heavenly Father hears and answers prayers. Maybe she had told me earlier, but I don’t remember that.

“So, if I really want something, and if I’m a really good boy, and I ask for it—Heavenly Father will give it to me?”

“That’s right, son. If your faith is very strong, and if it’s for your own good, he’ll give it to you.”

That hot summer night in 1944 I lay in bed thinking about what I wanted most from Heavenly Father. Another brother? Maybe. A new baseball? I’d probably get one for my birthday anyway. How about an end to the war and my dad coming home? Yes. But Mom was working hard on that one with her prayers.

And then it came to me—the one single, most critical, most desirable, most longed for, most important thing in all the world to my seven-year-old heart: I wanted to fly … like a bird.

And why not? Birds flew. Bats flew. Kites and paper airplanes and bugs and butterflies flew. Why not me?

How the other kids would envy me! How my teacher would gasp with astonishment and admiration! And wouldn’t my friends Joey Hirschberger and Jimmy Johnson be envious?

Taking care not to wake my little brother, Lynn, I slid out of bed and dropped to my knees. I folded my arms (like Mom did), and squeezed my eyes shut. Then I clenched my teeth (a sure sign of great faith, I felt), reflected the intensity of the moment in my screwed tight face, and uttered my first all-alone-by-myself, out-loud prayer:

“Heavenly Father, I want to fly. I really, really, really want to fly. Won’t you please bless me so that I can fly? I’ll be a really good boy if you’ll help me to fly. Honest. Amen.”

Then I got off my knees, pulled my chair to the center of the darkened room, and climbed up on the chair. Extending my arms out wide, I whispered it again: “Please, Heavenly Father, help me to fly. Mom said you could do it. I know you can do it.”

With this, I began to flap my arms furiously. Up and down, up and down, faster, faster.

You can probably guess what happened: My arms got tired.

I sat down and thought about it. Maybe I was missing something important. Maybe what I needed was to jump off the chair while I flapped my arms.

I climbed back up on the chair. This time I flapped my arms really hard and then jumped off the chair, upward, outward.

And downward. Thump! Soon Mother appeared at the door, wondering what had caused all the noise.

The next day I pondered the problem until I thought I had it worked out: Heavenly Father must be testing my faith. Maybe the secret was to pray for several nights in a row and to grit my teeth harder and to screw up my face tighter while I prayed.

I tried it. Each night for a week I prayed and prayed, my faith and enthusiasm growing. By Sunday night I was sure that I was ready.

Back up on the chair, arms extended, I once more whispered my plea to the Lord, absolutely sure that he would hear and answer my prayer and allow me to fly.

My arms began to flap up and down, faster, faster. I jumped upward and outward.

And downward. Thump! Again I was questioned about the loud thump from the upstairs bedroom.

What was missing? I had gritted my teeth and twisted my face into a grimace. Why hadn’t it worked? Why hadn’t I soared from the chair and flapped around the room? I lay in bed for a long time thinking, wondering.

The next day I was in the back yard of the house when I heard Mom calling me.

Blackberries. I had promised to pick the berries from the huge wild blackberry bush behind the garage. But it was hot, and I didn’t feel like fighting the vicious brambles and thorns in August to make sure we would have jam next January.

Just for a moment, I pretended I hadn’t heard her. That’s when the inspiration came: How could I expect the Lord to give me flight if I couldn’t give Mom a few minutes for an errand?

From that moment, I became a fanatic errand boy. I not only picked blackberries, I chopped firewood. I filled the wood box. I swept the porch. I set the table and went to the store. And then I picked more blackberries until my arms and hands were scratched and bleeding from the thorns.

I wore Mom out with demands for more and more errands. How could the Lord deny me now? I had prayed with all my might for two weeks, had exercised enormous faith, had filled my days with good works and liter buckets of blackberries. Surely, I would fly now!

That night I mentioned all of this to the Lord in my prayer, then climbed back onto the chair in my darkened bedroom. This time. … This time. … This time it will work!

It didn’t work. The upward, outward curve again continued into the downward curve, ending in the by-now-familiar thump.

I couldn’t understand it. For all my prayers and all my faith and all my good works, I remained as earthbound as Joey and Jimmy. What could be missing?

Without ever mentioning my desire to fly, I put the problem of unanswered prayers to my Sunday School teacher. What followed was a lesson on how to pray and how Heavenly Father answers prayers. And there was the answer. I marveled that I had missed it: I had failed to trust utterly and completely in the Lord.

Up until now, I had jumped off a low chair—a chair low enough that if the flapping didn’t work, I at least wouldn’t break my neck. The Lord must be waiting for me to show real faith by jumping off of something high enough that failure would hurt. That would prove my faith!

And beyond that, I had always made my attempts in the privacy of a darkened bedroom. Next time I would prove real faith by jumping off of something really high—and with an audience and in open daylight.

All the next week I prepared. The faith, the prayers, the endless helpfulness to Mom continued. By Saturday afternoon I was ready.

I explained my project to Lynn and Joey Hirschberger and Jimmy Johnson. I explained about faith and good works. I explained about the kind of prayers where you grit your teeth and twist your face into a grimace. I explained about having to risk yourself to show that you trust the Lord absolutely.

And then I started up the ladder to the roof of the garage. Lynn and Jimmy and Joey remained on the ground watching and wondering.

Joey said he thought I was crazy. But what did Joey know about faith and works and prayers?

And now I was on the roof of the garage, looking down. It seemed farther from the roof to the ground than it had appeared the other way around.

Directly below me was the terrible blackberry bush. It looked higher and wider than it ever had from the ground. Great long brambles covered with vicious thorns reached up almost to where I stood.

I had to turn away the doubting thought: “What if it doesn’t work? What if I don’t fly? What if I land in the blackberry bush?” But I mustn’t doubt! The entire effort might fail if I doubted!

For doubt is the opposite of faith. Then, with simple logic, I decided that if I removed my only protection from the awful blackberry thorns it would prove my absolute, unshakable faith.

I took off my shirt. Joey said he thought that was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen, and he was going to tell my mom.

I told Joey to sit down and be quiet, but he left to tell Mom anyway. Now I had to hurry!

I closed my eyes and reminded the Lord about how he answers prayers of faith and how if someone wants something badly enough and is a good boy and helps his mom and goes to Sunday School, his prayers will be answered.

That done, I began to flap my arms, faster and faster. Then, eyes still closed tight, I jumped upward and outward from the roof of the garage—upward and outward over a huge wild blackberry bush—with no shirt on.

Before I opened my eyes, I knew I was lying on my back on the kitchen table. Doctor Nichols was just leaving, saying something about how you couldn’t possibly break a bone jumping into an overgrown “pillow”—even if it were covered with thorns. I could feel the cool cloth as Mother continued washing the blood from my dozens of scratches and cuts.

After Doctor Nichols left, Mom chased out my wide-eyed friends, and I opened my eyes. I saw that my mother’s arms and hands and face were covered with dozens of scratches—and realized what she had done to rescue me.

She smiled her special tender smile and held me close in her arms. “For injuries sustained in battle, I award you the purple heart,” she said quietly, “and maybe a bronze star for bravery.”

“Do you have a medal for silliness?” I asked. “I feel so stupid!”

“I suppose we all feel that way sometimes,” Mother replied. “We make mistakes, we learn from them, and then we go on with our lives.”

There was a long pause before I asked the question: “You said Heavenly Father answers prayers. …

Mom finished the sentence: “And now you’re not really sure if he does answer prayers.” Somehow Mom always knew what I was thinking.

“Of course he hears and answers prayers,” she said—and I could tell she really meant it. “Only sometimes we pray for things that aren’t good for us. Sometimes we forget to say, ‘Thy will be done.’ And sometimes his answer is a quiet, firm no. But no is an answer, too, isn’t it, son? He can’t always say yes, can he? Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I suppose so. But, Mom, I wanted so much to fly! And I tried so hard!”

“Someday, son, when your dad comes home from the Navy, you’ll have the answer to your prayers. You and Dad can go to the airport and pay for a half-hour airplane flight. There are many ways Heavenly Father could give you a yes answer to your prayers for flight. But it won’t come through flapping your arms and jumping off garages into blackberry bushes.”

By now all the bleeding had stopped, a small bandage over each cut and scratch. As she turned to tending her own wounds, Mother smiled at me and pretended to be stern, “And speaking of jumping off of garages into blackberry bushes: Young man, if you ever do that again, I’ll take away your purple heart!”

A voice interrupted my daydreaming. “We are on our final approach to Hamburg International Airport. Please fasten your seat belts.”

Strange about that childish prayer for flight all those years ago. For a while it had seemed that Heavenly Father didn’t really answer prayers. My answer hadn’t come just then when I had wanted it so badly. It had come later—flying over our hometown in a small airplane with Dad. And then aboard a huge jet en route to the Germany Hamburg Mission. Strange how the answers always seem to come—though not always at the time or in the way we expect.

I fastened my seat belt and let a little prayer run through my mind: “I thank thee, Father, for hearing and answering the prayer of a seven-year-old boy. I thank thee for allowing me to fly.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn