High Lead to Heaven

Written By Richard Drebert

© Good Catch Publishing

If sweat and blood could grant a man title to timberlands, I hold deed on many a mountain in Southwestern Washington. For decades, my towers roosted atop saw-tooth ridges and cabled mammoth Douglas fir, conifer, and hemlock logs to landings my fallers clear cut. My 50-ton loaders grappled logs in iron fists and stacked the naked trees on the backs of idling trucks. In the clean breezes at dawn, black diesel smoke wafted above my rigs as they mucked down muddy inclines — roads that I gouged out of hillsides in the painful glare of bulldozer headlights.

I never quit a timber section until my crews had felled and delivered the last marketable log to the saw mill. Not many men could match my expertise in grinding out logistics for the most dangerous, yet lucrative timber harvest operations: high lead logging In the mountain communities. I carried the proud brand of self-made lumber man among the businessmen I drank beer with and my name came to be known as the Timber Beast.

After several years swinging a chainsaw at high timber, I sunk my grapples into the family sawmill business. Loaders and massive forklifts roared at the Hoffman mill; steel buildings crowned my granddad’s 450-acre farm, and dank pitch perfume wafted across five acres of stockpiled logs. My sawyers sliced the logs into rough-cut boards and delivered them to Chehalis mills; then, after they planed them smooth, semi trucks hauled the lumber south. My sawmill operation became my treasure, my fulfillment in life.

An unwritten heritage handed down from my granddad drove me: wring out an eighth day from every week. But it was futile. I couldn’t set a choker on that “eighth day,” and my effort to pound work into every waking moment tipped me close to eternal ruin.

I began to drink to deaden my raw nerves, and I found synthetic solace in stacks of chips gathered at nearby casinos. Suddenly drowning in a torrent of failures, I faced a choice, nearly too late in life: start cutting a straight line, or lose everything that gave my life “meaning” — and suddenly the sawmill wasn’t so important. My dear wife Sandy steadied my hands until I surrendered control to my faithful Savior who rescued my sorry soul.

In 2005 I went under — the water, that is. On the stage at New Harvest Assembly, Pastor Dave Brown baptized me in a cattle trough, and I told the whole world that I had given my life to Jesus. It wasn’t like just shutting down a yarder (logging tower) or two; I dismantled and scrapped my whole operation and gave every nut and bolt to God! The self-made man was dead; I was new inside my heart, and clean. In the deepest part of me, a light busted through a half-century of thickening darkness — not a lightning strike, but this light was pure and continuous.

I knew that God wanted me to plane off the “coarseness” of my logger’s life, and I tackled the challenge, like dozing a logging road to a stand of prime timber.

 God, did I do something wrong?

I was confused when I hit a bog and buried my tracks. I shut down, and that’s where my story gets interesting. I had forgotten to keep my eyes on the Great Engineer who held the map of my future.

***

“Can you go? See if he’ll let you!”

I pressed the telephone hard against my ear, trying to listen to the muffled conversation at Sandy’s house. I could hear her father’s stern voice.

After a few seconds Sandy’s quiet, shy voice lit up my heart. “I can, but we have to be back in 15 minutes.”

“Great! I’m on my way!” Spending even “seconds” with my dark-haired Sandy was worth it.

Milk cans clanged between us on the bench seat as we talked. I was still bragging about how much money I made selling cedar roof shakes as we slammed the doors on my 1953 Chevy pickup — the same old truck we would drive across the U.S. when she was 17. Inside the dairy milk house, I dipped out cool white moo juice from a steel multi-gallon container  into my gallon can then replaced the big steel lid. I tossed a quarter into a wooden box labeled: “Milk: 25 Cents A Gallon.” We hightailed back to Sandy’s house, arriving in a nick of time.

I was 16 and ready to take on the world. At 1p.m. each day I left high school to scour the woods for cedar logs — teachers (and my mom) approved the arrangement, since it was part of my FFA (Future Farmers of America) project. My loaded half-ton pickup trundled home to granddad’s farm where I had staked claim to part of my father’s sawmill. It was here that I split and bundled cedar shakes to sell in Chehalis. Sometimes Dad and I were at odds over how much time I spent on “my” shake business. Dad’s sawmill operated most all winter and he needed my brother and me to work after school and on weekends.

My granddad, who emigrated from Germany with my grandmother, had discovered my aptitude for math when I was 13, and began schooling me in sawing dimensional lumber. He stood behind me as I manhandled the levers controlling the massive circular saw blade.

“But, Jimmy, don’t forget to add in the saw kerf — width —now.”

Granddad had purchased the family farm in the ’20s and cleared several acres for wheat and oats. Thick stands of 100-year-old timber stood like bearded sentries staring down at Dad and Mom’s little green single-story house, and my grandparents’ old farmhouse.

And then there were the chickens — 3000 noisy cluckers that Granddad fed greens, oats and buttermilk. Mom cleaned and graded the eggs along with gardening, and folks in town never bought a tastier dozen of rich, bright-yoked eggs anywhere. The restaurant and hotel owners loved them.

No one in my family attended church regularly, but Mom often saw to it that my younger brother and sister, Don and Cathy, and I went to Sunday school at the little white Baptist church down the road. Every Sunday the church bell in the high steeple tolled, reminding me that somewhere there was a God, but I was too absorbed with motors, making money, and Sandy to acknowledge my need for him then.

Sandy attended a little Pentecostal church, and sometimes I braved the “spiritual caterwauling” that prickled my neck hairs. Their style of loud praying and antics went against my grain, but I got to sit by Sandy. She was getting prettier by the day.

In the 1960s everyone in the Hoffman household, from the oldest to the youngest, worked from morning-to-night just to help make ends meet. Often I watched my dad from my bedroom window plowing fields at midnight and Dad and Mom depended on me and my brother to help cut up firewood slabs (bark sides trimmed from a log) and deliver them to neighbors. Our family would sell 150 to 200 truck loads during the winter, and that’s how we paid the bills.

At 18 years old, the Vietnam War tripped up my youthful plans and three months after I graduated from high school, I enlisted in the Army, before a draft letter caught up with me.

I excelled in the service, and the Army trained me in heavy equipment repair at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I ended up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, doing what I loved most — turning wrenches, operating heavy equipment and welding. Still, my life wasn’t quite complete. Sandy lived too far away.

Sandy and I were heartsick for each other, and it galled me that I couldn’t be there for her. I knew only one way I could fix the knotty problem: I wrote her dad a letter asking for her hand in marriage, with a promise: I would see to it that she finished her last year of high school by correspondence.

Impulsive? Maybe, but coming home to marry my beloved was the best decision I ever made. I was 20 and she 17 when we loaded up my ’53 Chevy pickup and headed cross-country back to Fort Bragg. Our families had attended our wedding at a little Assembly of God church in Doty, and we motored east until we got sleepy, then snuggled inside the canopy bolted atop the bed of my old truck. In North Carolina we landed an apartment away from the fort and Sandy found a job at a pizza parlor.

When I got orders to pack up my footlocker for a long boat ride to Vietnam, Sandy and I loaded up my new truck, a 1962 Chevy, and headed home to Washington again. Nearly two years at Fort Bragg had given me hands-on training for the new business I planned to start when I returned from Vietnam: welding and repair of logging equipment. We pulled into the Hoffman farm to a warm welcome, and a letter from the Army said I had two weeks to get my affairs in order before heading to Oakland for shipping out. We were loving our “vacation” until I read over the letter one more time. ­­

“I can’t believe it!”

Sandy frowned. “What is it?”

“According to this, I can’t go to Vietnam — I don’t have enough time left in my enlistment! I’m short one day!”

When I called my company commander, he wasn’t sympathetic. “You’re dead right, Hoffman. You get back here to Fort Bragg. You can finish out your hitch here. You got 72 hours …”

“Sir, I have no money for a plane ticket and I have a wife and …” I tried to get him to understand.

“Not my problem, Hoffman. Just get back here in 72 hours, or you’re AWOL. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

Our second trip east wasn’t so pleasant to us as the first. Eighty miles an hour on the straight-aways and no snuggling. We drove like maniacs and pulled into the Fort Bragg motor pool just shy of my 72-hour deadline. A sergeant met us, shaking his head. “You’re Hoffman, aren’t you? We had bets down that you’d go AWOL.”

I hope those guys lost big, I thought, and got ready to finish out my last 90 days in the service. The Army offered me higher rank and $10,000 to reenlist, but I was done. After my discharge we loaded up the truck and bombed westward, free as birds and ready to start a new venture when we got back home. I bought a brand new Sears and Roebuck welder and secured it in a portable shop, built upon the 62’s one-ton flatbed deck. It was time to get to work. Between the cedar shakes we sold and delivered by the truckload, and the logging equipment that I repaired, we were on the way to a pretty prosperous life together, Sandy and me.

I shifted into a higher gear as we sped past the 60s. In 1970, while scrounging tin to build my first sawmill, my son Bradley was born. I bought a portable Belsaw (a model with a stationary blade and movable carriage) for ten sawbucks ($100). It seemed a fair price, even if the motor was seized up.

The shake mill side of our operation carried us while we added onto the shed and by the time the sawdust settled, we had a 30-by-60 foot tin-sided structure with a working shake mill and sawmill roaring inside. Demand for lumber was high, and I hired workers when we started to mill alder wood. In 1972 Richie was born, and two years later I talked Weyerhaeuser into letting me log in some of their sections with my own yarder, a 60-foot tower mounted on a truck with winches and cables that then spooled back logs from 1200 feet. My yarder could haul six logs at a time, up the side of a canyon to our landings. By 1974, my sawmill at home needed major costly upgrades and I decided to shut it down (except the shake mill) and throw my money and sweat into logging.

In 1979, while chasing my dream of building a logging empire, God reminded me that I was only flesh and blood. I’ve had my share of bloody accidents in the woods, and I don’t believe that God “caused” them — but this close call and wracking pain commanded my soul to pause and think, at least for a little while.

On a steep slope I was cutting trees like a madman. In my early 30s and in my prime, every hour that I worked was an hour I didn’t have to pay the help. When my chain saw sliced into a little scrub fir, the tree exploded. Hidden in a canopy of green above me, several larger trees leaned against it and the butt of the fir twanged like a broken bow, smashing my face dead center. I came back to myself at the bottom of the slope, about 150 feet from my saw that still growled over being tossed in the weeds.

The chainsaw was using up valuable gasoline and in my painful stupor I crawled, hands and knees, up the slope to shut it off. The saw burbled merrily in my hands as blood drained from my face onto the casing. I nearly gave up trying to find the switch, and it finally died as I blinked away stinging red sweat and crawled toward the log landing where I heard equipment running. My 10-year-old son Brad saw a bloody timberbeast — me— stumbling towards him. Petrified, he ran as fast as he could to get help. A water truck was parked nearby and gaining my footing, I stumbled to the spigot and doused my head and face with rusty water, to put out the hot coals inside my head.

Tiny, my shovel operator, looked aghast as he watched. My cheek was mangled and my nose hung off to the side swinging by cartilage. “You better get some help …”

I waved him off. “Get back to work. Just because the boss has a scratch doesn’t mean we’re shutting things down …”

Finally, my crew convinced me to go to the hospital, where the doc anchored my nose somewhere close to where it had been growing.

By 1980, I had 26 men on my payroll, four 100-foot-tall yarders, new log loaders and all the heavy equipment that I needed to pursue my dream. The only thing I lacked was that “eighth” day in the week: to keep up equipment repairs — or to spend some time with Sandy and my newest baby boy, Rick. The eighth day always eluded my grasp and some very important things never got done. I downed a stream of beer to settle my nerves more often — not enough to impair me, but just “enough.” Sandy was getting worried. She had seen how alcohol had affected her family growing up.

In May, 1980, my yarders were set to comb out the rich, timbered ridges in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. My fallers had cut millions of board feet of timber and my treasure lay prone in mud and slow-thawing snow. I had spent nights beating my kidneys on a bulldozer, completing roads and trails — and the pay-off would be big, if I could get my logging trucks to the landings. Bedeviled by cold weather, I hunkered down in Winlock, a small town a couple hours from our Mount St. Helens logging site. Sandy said that bills were piling up on my desk back home.

For 123 years Mount St. Helens had waited — until she had my fortune cradled next to her — and then she blew up. The government shut us out of our timber sale for months — 57 people had died; 200 houses, 27 bridges and 185 miles of highway had been wiped out by the eruption. From Winlock I watched the volcanic plume drift on the winds with my failure all summer long. I put a few pieces of my equipment to work around Winlock, just to make a paycheck.

They say the volcano blast destroyed four billion board feet of timber, but none of my logs had been washed away in boiling rivers or burnt to a crisp; it was the ash and pumice that finished me. Mount St. Helen’s fallout layered every yarder, loader, and log, including where I worked at Winlock.

Every day I cursed my bad luck, and never thought of thanking God for keeping my crew safe. Ash blew about me like jagged dust
mites, and my loaders and dozers were seizing up faster than I could repair them. When I did return to our big timber sale close to Mount St. Helens, my guts were tied in knots. Six inches of ash layered all my machinery and it had penetrated every seal, every fuel tank, every shaft. Cranking over an engine meant its immediate ruin.

I called the companies that sold me the equipment on lease/purchase plans. “They’re all yours,” I said. “Come and get ’em.”

Back home I wandered into a new venture salvaging steel from failed logging operations in the California redwoods for a while. I gradually started up the sawmill again when the lumber prices were on the rise, and my dad and brother jumped into high lead logging with me. The sawmill flourished, and it seemed that my future might not have “seized up” after all. Sandy and I built a new house, debt free, and our family worked together much like we did when I was a kid, with little time for much else than running the sawmill, and chores.

Sandy’s spiritual life was important to her, and she took time for church, and sometimes I would attend with her and the boys — I remembered the days when I went to Sunday school, and it was a good memory. I always got out of chores when I went to church. But as a man, I still refused to cultivate a relationship with God, except in brief moments of physical agony or near death.

It was somewhere in the late 80s that Sandy and I stumbled into the worst rocky patch in our marriage; she threatened to take the boys and leave me if I kept up my beer drinking regimen. She had seen alcohol contribute to her father’s death , and she refused to watch it happen to me. So I quit to please her — not because I believed it was destroying me. I was in my early 40s.

It’s obvious to me now that a vile spiritual hand helped me throw my first winning streak at Reno. The utter thrill of cashing in my chips set me on the path of addiction and heartache — and I won often. I packed home thousands of dollars and bought new sawmill equipment. I began to study the game of craps and I “learned” when to and when not to bet. And it suddenly got real easy to find craps tables when Indian casinos invaded Washington State.

Rolling the dice fit my lifestyle to a tee — I had been gambling big for years and losing more than I ever won, but now I could “feel” my luck beginning to change. Here at the craps tables I sensed a pleasing shift in my destiny and I swallowed the lie —  hook, line and sinker.

I forgot that in the world of gambling, “lady luck” always favors the house. On good streaks I swaggered out of local casinos with thousands, but when I began to lose, revenue at the sawmill began to hemorrhage. I took out a mortgage on our three-story dream home, and suddenly Sandy gave me a fresh ultimatum: Quit gambling completely or she was moving out.

So I quit.

How could I live without Sandy? We were growing older together and I cherished the depth of character in her that completed me. Something, or “someone” seemed to anchor her soul like a main cable, and this Anchor always kept me from freewheeling out of control.

After a few years on the wagon, I felt pretty good about sticking to my guns, not visiting casinos — until I drove to the little town of Shelton for a machinery auction. Right next door, in glaring seductive neon, slouched Little Creek Casino. And just for giggles I figured I’d hit the craps table for a few tosses of the dice. Sandy would never know…

I think God must have a sense of humor, but when I walked out of Little Creek, I wasn’t laughing. My “lapse” in judgment had shoved me close to a showdown, more dangerous than a lightning strike, or an avalanche. I was $17,000 richer and I didn’t dare buy one piece of new mill equipment or even pay down debt. God’s auditor would know for sure that I was shooting craps again. I couldn’t even brag about my winning to anyone! Guilty sweat beaded my bald head as I drove home. In time, Sandy always found out if I was hiding something …

What could I do with my ill-gotten gain? I decided to gamble it away — at Little Creek. After making an excuse for driving back to Shelton,  I ambled through the casino doors with several thousand dollars worth of chips that I hadn’t cashed in yet, planning to gamble it all away. A well dressed casino manager with a cocky smirk stood in my well-worn path to the craps table.

“Mr. Hoffman? You have a lot of chips in your pocket, don’t you? How much exactly?”

How did this guy know my name, anyway?

“Around eight grand, I’d say.”

“Mr. Hoffman, we don’t care for the way you take our money, and we don’t need your kind of play here at Little Creek Casino. Cash in your chips and never set foot on our property again.”

I was livid as I walked to the cashier. How dare them! I had a good mind to drag them before the gaming commission — but then, I wasn’t supposed to be at Little Creek Casino in the first place!

I’m not exactly sure how the casino manager acquired my mailing address, but not long after being 86ed at Little Creek, Sandy stood like a little wet hen in our living room waving a certified letter. The casino manager had written details about my last visit; her wayward husband wasn’t welcome at Little Creek anymore.

My best friend moved out of the dream home we had built together, and got a job at Wal-Mart decorating cakes. I promised never to drink or gamble ever again, but it took six miserable months before I really convinced Sandy. When she came home, I knew that God himself was giving me a last chance to salvage our relationship — one that I never valued enough.

I began to include my wife in my life — in ways that I never expected to be so fulfilling. I took Sundays off. And later , we rode motorcycles together. The only hitch in our high lead was the fray in our financial situation. As it unwound we realized that our three-story house was too much to handle, and after Sandy fell down the stairs we determined to sell out and pay down the debts I had incurred when I tried to be a high roller. Like Mount St. Helens’ ash fall, it would take years for God to help me clean up the grime my old habits had left behind.

***

The men on my right and left wanted to hold my hands …

I could handle the praying, singing, and even clapping at my first men’s retreat — but I’d never held hands with a “guy” before. I slowly reached out. Their palms were sweating just like mine.

Around Pe Ell, Chehalis and Doty, I had been following Sandy to churches on and off and I decided to take a big gamble and attend an Assemblies of God Northwest Ministry Network conference. I had been making new friends with some solid Christian men and they had invited me. In their company I felt a gut-level craving for… something.

I began looking forward to the men’s retreats each year where I listened intently to God’s Word, and suddenly I couldn’t just “watch” the work of the ministry around me. It seemed like perching on a stump sipping coffee while everyone else’s chainsaws ran full bore. So I decided to just whack a path right into the middle of this whole new lifestyle!

No, I wasn’t a Christian. I hadn’t committed my life to Christ Jesus, but I yearned to help bring other men into this fulfilling, radical Christian experience (that I realized I needed too). God’s Spirit was winching me forward toward an unbreakable kinship with him, and my heart was yielding inch by inch. I began incorporating Bible principles (a little here, a little there) in running my sawmill and in my marriage, and when he knew I was ready, God began to pry my fingers off the control levers of my life. He sent me a mentor who talked loud enough for my old ears to hear, and I mean my spiritual ears.

New arrivals to Pe Ell, Pastor Dave Brown and his wife, Janet, came to look over our dream home, when it was for sale. In the following months, Dave and Janet reached out to us in friendship and I felt like I had discovered the richest, most beautiful stand of timber I had ever known. My relationship with God began growing more important than my sawmill. I decided to commit my life to Jesus, and I wanted the world to know it.

“Jim, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…” I went under the water a humbled, scarred timberbeast, and came up a new creation, a follower of Jesus Christ. Impulsive? Yup. But the moment that I climbed out of that big stock trough on the stage at New Harvest Assembly, I sensed God confirming my reservation in heaven. Sandy saw the change in me too, and the Holy Spirit began helping me understand the Bible for the first time. I use it as a road map on my journey to becoming the best husband, father, grandfather, and businessman I can be. Timber and money would never again steal the loyalty from the ones I loved.

In time, God would loosen my hands from the controls of my life once and for all. He allowed a mind-jarring calamity that led me to question my commitment to him and ultimately strengthen my faith.

***

If a man tries and fails, and takes a fall,

It’s better than to have never tried at all.

Failure is not falling short of your dream or not winning,

Failure is not even having a dream in the beginning.

For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again,

He needs to overcome fear and do the best he can…

–          Jim Hoffman

 

“Whatcha’ think about us starting an Honorbound Motor Ministry here at New Harvest, Pastor?”

The same year that I was saved and baptized I sensed an urgency to break a new trail where no one had explored. My interest in motorcycles still thundered along as I entered my late 50s, and a spiritual drive roared from my soul, unlike former self-centered urges (like buying up every prime timber sale in Washington). I wanted to reach unchurched men with the message of hope that had saved me: We could draw them to Christ with a common interest, motorcycles!     

Pastor Dave didn’t hesitate. “Sounds great to me!”

I rode a touring machine, a 100-year anniversary edition 1550 cc Harley Davidson soft tail deuce. Our pastor’s wife surprised him with a motorcycle, and my good friend, Dick, was riding a Honda; we were half-way there. Pastor Dave and I studied the Honorbound Ministry bylaws and finally sent in the paperwork. Members had a few requirements: join a church and go regularly, and attend a Bible study once a week. There were small successful groups all over Oregon and Washington who loved their motorsports, spent time together growing in the Lord, and who invited new friends to ride along.

Honorbound Motor Ministry: Light Riders. Chapter # 12. New Harvest Assembly, Pe Ell Washington. James Hoffman, President.

The Assemblies of God leadership had made it official. The Light Riders were on the road behind me and we were gaining speed.

***

As I threw my effort into organizing the Light Riders motorcycle ministry, membership began to grow. And the sawmill was making money too, though a strange cloud seemed to hang over our business and family. Ambulances arrived to haul off employees way too often, and my own family suffered serious injuries too: my wife, my granddaughter, my son; it broke my heart to see it.

I had run my life with godless vigor, and dark forces were refusing to give ground as I tried to release my grip on the “controls” of my business to Jesus. We had sold the house, and Sandy and I now lived in a travel trailer next to the sawmill. It felt good to consolidate to a manageable size. Most of our debts were getting paid down but we had a little savings left.

“Dad, the log yard’s on fire.”

The call shook me as we drove home on Highway 6. I could hear the hopelessness in my son Brad’s voice as I grilled him about how bad it was.

“Yeah, fire trucks are on the way.”

As Sandy and I jumped out of the truck at the sawmill, I felt the hot wind driving embers toward Dad’s 100-year-old Douglas fir stands up the hill above the burning log deck. Beyond our timberland lay thousands of acres of Weyerhaeuser trees and I fought back nightmarish forest fire scenes that bore down on my mind.

God. Oh God.

Three fire trucks spewed foam and water at the flames that engulfed my logs, my treasury. I had been piling up these small-knot logs savoring the time when we could slice them into prime lumber. The money would pull us out of our financial slump, and I had a buyer for every board. I had even constructed a new sawmill especially designed for these finer logs, and I banished the thought of losing the money they represented: over $130,000. I climbed aboard a 50-ton Case log loader and I know Sandy gasped as I drove hard into the choking gray smoke and flames.

The three solid rows of logs, 150 feet in depth and stacked 25 feet high, had to be broken apart so that water could douse the burrowing embers. Tons of sawdust, layered since my granddad’s era, bedded the logs and needed soaking. Flames slapped the cab of my loader, and I worried over the rubber hoses filled with hydraulic fluid dangling near my scorching steel grapples. If the lines burst, my loader could end up too hot to drive in seconds. The fire kept trying to flank me as I worked, and firemen kept up a steady water flow aimed at my grapples, as well as dousing flames behind me.

Tankers from Weyerhaeuser rolled in, and a massive fire engine mounted with a water cannon arrived. It purged, refilled and purged again and again. Tankers from the Department of Natural Resources lined up as Weyerhaeuser’s tankers rolled off to refill at their plant six miles away.

On the loader I fought to breathe, refusing to pull back. Perhaps I could gain the upper hand if the wind stopped. Or maybe I might salvage a few logs, if I separated more of them. But my treasury wasn’t smoldering; the logs were on fire as I lifted high and tossed them from their stacks.

Men were climbing the hill behind the log deck — neighbors, firemen, Weyerhaeuser employees — with shovels and hoes, water pump cans on their backs. A smoky night shroud, tattered by orange embers, blanketed us now. It was 10 p.m. and no hope of saving the log piles remained. By the wee hours of morning, I shut down the loader and just let it all burn.

Thankfully, the wind never shifted to carry flames toward the sawmill structures and as I trudged to the trailer, I glanced at Sandy feverishly cooking hot dogs and hamburgers for the exhausted firefighters. My daughter-in-law met me at the trailer steps with a sedative to help me sleep. It was over for me. I was spent.

Water from the shower ran over my slumping shoulders and carried grime down the drain. I watched the black water swirl and it seemed like my faith was hemorrhaging from my soul, mingling with the soot.

I let loose a scream: “LORD! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME? I CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE!”

I didn’t wait for an answer. In bed, I passed out from exhaustion.

The next morning I took stock: A cigarette butt had ignited flammable material near a forklift. All the prime logs were destroyed; two loaders had been burned up and flames had consumed a John Deere log skidder and the forklift too. The fire crews took two more days to make sure the embers were doused on Dad’s timberland. Fire trucks remained on scene.

Sandy and I sat in the trailer staring at each other, zombie-like, our savings dribbling away. We had no house, and no logs to saw or sell or salvage. How had it come to this? We weren’t 20 years old anymore, full of vinegar and sand. Was this a sign from God to hang it up and move away?

“We’ll put the sawmill up for auction,” I said wearily, and it sounded like someone else’s words. “It’s too much. Too many injuries, and now … this.”

We cast about for answers. We argued. We worried together.

Finally Sandy stood up from the couch and crossed her arms. “Jim, you can’t auction off the sawmill. In a year you’ll be wishing you had it back.” And that’s where we left it, our choices flapping in the breeze like ungathered wash.

***

I barely knew Sandi Prosser from California. She and her husband were Christian friends visiting our pastor and his wife during the week of our burning misfortune. We had been rummaging through the ashes and counting up losses, when, out of the blue, Sandi showed up at our trailer. She handed me some notes penned on three-by-five cards and explained that she had been impressed by the Holy Spirit to write these words down and give them to me as prophecy:

 

I am the Lord who keeps you, who leads you in the way you should go, and my name is Faithful. My purpose is to work all things concerning you ‘together for good.” Your life is a neon sign to all those around you because you are highly thought of and admired. Now I will draw the eyes of the community and family upon you as you continue to honor and trust in me. Many will speak of you among themselves.

They will say: “Sure he trusted in God when he had much, but where is his faith now? Where is his God, now that his treasury is burned up?”

            This will go on for a while and while it does, you are to hold the line of integrity and do not sway about like a boat in the storm, but hold fast to the Rock that is higher than you.

I am your Rock and I will cause lives to be changed because of this circumstance. I also will not leave you at a loss. For who can testify that the Lord of hosts is indebted to a man? Shall I take anything from a man and not replace it a hundred-fold according to my Word? For a time the night seems long — but joy comes in the morning. I am the Joy of your coming morning and I will not forsake you.

It seemed as though an angel had dropped out of the sky and delivered God’s encouragement at just the right time. Sandy and I determined to stay the course and immediately I gave every bolt and every sawtooth in the mill to Jesus. No more impulsive decisions, no more cutting corners. From that day onward I made it a point to begin every day with thanking God for his grace and asking for his guidance.

Everyone in Lewis County seemed to know about my sawmill fire. And, like the prophecy said, they were watching to see my next move.

“Hey, this is Jim Hoffman. I need LOGS …”

In normal circumstances, the lumbermen I phoned might have haggled over price, but I never mentioned money, and neither did they. Not one asked when or if they were going to get paid for the logs they delivered. Truckloads of logs rolled into my sawmill and I knew it was a miracle for the whole community to watch unfold. No one had to wait for their money after I processed the logs and trucked the boards to Chehalis. I had to operate night and day to make it happen, but God gave us renewed strength to “hold the line of integrity” that he had staked out before us. In a short time prices for processing lumber began to rise, and our profits grew too.

***

These days, I sense God’s stamp of approval on my endeavors; his very personal care of my family humbles me. I still work hard every day, and God allowed us to build a new home; I’m able to find time to minister to my neighbors and friends as president of the Light Riders. We have 18 people in our chapter now and we’ve motored the Washington and Oregon coasts together and as far as Yosemite. Jesus rides with us, and we are witnesses to his grace wherever we go.

My three sons all have Harleys too, and each May we ride to the men’s retreat together. My boys can’t know how much it means to me, to have them by my side. At 63 years old, the self-made man is gone and a new creation rides full throttle in his place.

Often I recall  scrounging for that  eighth day in every week,  but “Time” and I are on friendlier terms now. At the mill, I won’t pass by a worker stacking lumber or running a forklift, and shrug off their struggles with addictions, like the old Hoffman did. It’s hit me like a sledge hammer that I’m accountable to God for each person in my employ. Although it brings tears to my eyes sometimes, when they’ve failed their drug or alcohol test, I order them to shut off their saw and I direct them to get help.

Sometimes the door slams; sometimes they look like they lost their only friend, and I remember: It grieved God to see me fail; it broke his heart to see me nearly gamble away my life. But he sent my Sandy to shut off my saw so I that could finally hear his voice.

If I could have just one last wish before I go,

It would be that one day my sons could feel the joy I’ve come to know,

It’s not important, all the things you build or do on earth,

Nor in all the things you’ll find,

But the true measure of a man is in the legacy he leaves behind. 

– Jim Hoffman

One thought on “High Lead to Heaven

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s