Another friend from years far back headed for heaven ahead of me. Joe Burkhardt died October 3 in Springfield, California. He moved to Muskegon, Michigan in 1953, a year after I began serving Wayside Baptist.
Joe came to teach at Lincoln Elementary across the street from the church, bringing wife Julie, sprightly daughter Cindy, and his wise, gentle mother. They became part of Wayside. Joe and I hit it off. We shared a love for camping, fishing, and kids. We both had Scouting experience.
Sensing a community need, we worked with the school principal launch a Scout Troop. Joe became Scoutmaster; I volunteered as chaplain. A gangbuster committee formed. Within a year, 60 boys joined the troop.
Each summer, Joe put together a camping trip. The 1956 trip would circle Lake Michigan. The committee refurbished a used school bus and right after school was out, 16 boys and four men headed north.
We explored around Imp Lake in Michigan’s U.P. for six days then worked our way southward through Wisconsin, reaching the Dells, a popular tourist attraction. We set up camp and turned the boys loose—we had good kids. Joe and I joined a group clustered around a Gypsy fortune teller, not hiding our skepticism and a story began to form.
The next year Center Lake Bible Camp near Cadillac in North Central Michigan hired Joe to direct its summer program. I filled a staff role for junior high week with duties that included evening campfires. Eager to open with a bang, Joe and I plotted.
A waning moon lit the sky as campers circled the fire on the hill overlooking the lake. Folding chairs accommodated adult staff and visitors, a white-haired grandmother among them. Joe stood just outside of the circle, the fire between him and me. I launched the story of our visit to Dells and the Gypsy.
History faded. I pictured the fortuneteller’s table, Joe and me too obviously skeptical. Growing increasingly irritated, the Gypsy suddenly ripped a page from her notepad, scrawled hasty words, and strode toward me, pressing her face close to mine. “You shall see! You shall see!” She thrust the crumpled note into my hand.
I paused to fish out my wallet, extracting wrinkled paper. “Come to think of it, that happened exactly a year ago today!” I smoothed the paper, pretending to study it by firelight. “I don’t know why I kept it this. I don’t believe in fortunetellers. Then I said, “Ridiculous! Joe and I are the best of friends.” A camper called out, “What did she write?” I read slowly: “On this very day another summer, one of you will slay the other.”
With a frightening yell, Joe leaped the camper circle and fire and headed for me. I hurled down the hill into the darkness, Joe close behind.
We lay in tall grass, stifling laughter. But back at the campfire, panic. The grandmother came close to a heart attack. Staffers grew angry. Joe and I strolled in laughing, expecting applause for a masterful performance. But our laughter turned to chagrin: “How could you!” said one stern soul. Good question.