From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

When the Frog Got His Wings

With all the innocence of a six-year-old, I asked, “Bob, are you prejudiced?”

Never looking up, he replied, “Everybody’s prejudiced— black, white, men, women—everybody.”

Not to be disregarded that easily, I continued, “Well, what are you prejudiced against?”

“Sin,” he said as he shined his customer’s shoes to a mirror finish.

Somehow, I sensed that our conversation was finished. Bob must be weary, I thought. And when Bob was weary, he didn’t want to talk—not to me, not to anyone.

Nomatter. My attention had already been diverted to the popping sounds of the razor strop as the barber sharpened his blade to a fine edge. The broad smile on the barber’s face clearly said, Bob got the best of you again, didn’t he ?

I ignored the stupid barber and returned my attention to Bob. Looking up at his customer, who had just handed him a half-dollar and turned to walk away, Bob said, “Too much, sir. The tip’s got to relate to the price.” Back then, the price for a shoe shine was fifteen cents. Bob handed the bewildered customer a quarter and thanked him for his business.

My conversations with Bob Watkins continued with some regularity over the next several years. During that time, Bob became my friend, my confidant and my teacher—quite a different relationship from the one evident from our first meeting.

My first trip to the barbershop—sometime near my fourth birthday—was a total disaster. The fear associated with my first haircut was more than enough to unnerve me. Then I saw Bob. I burst into tears and was about to run from the barbershop, when a soft, deep voice summoned me to the shoe shine chair. I looked slightly upward into the most radiant face I had ever seen. The sparkling eyes and toothy grin, beaming from the coal black face erased all my fears.

Instinctively, I was drawn to Bob despite his appearance. His ebony face, with the large indentation in his forehead, always glistened. His short legs didn’t match his upper body, giving the appearance of a man on the legs of a child. But his feet—those huge feet encased in giant black shoes—turned backward, and this was more than I could comprehend. And, when he sat back in a resting position on the tops of the shoes, Bob looked forever like a giant frog, ready to leap at any moment.

I later learned that both of Bob’s feet had been amputated, just above the ankle, in a railroad accident—the same accident that left the ugly indentation in his forehead. It then became clear. Bob’s feet were not backward; he had no feet. He stood, and even walked, on his knees and lower legs which were covered with the large, cushioned black leather shoes, giving the appearance of abnormally large feet turned backward.

From time to time, I tried walking on my knees and lower legs, but after a few minutes, the pain was unbearable. I then realized that Bob must have been in severe pain, each day of his life. Some time later, it occurred to me to wonder why Bob spent his days quoting Scripture and praising God, the same God who allowed the accident, the pain and the suffering. I was even more perplexed.

Evidently Bob sensed my confusion, for one day when the barbershop was empty, Bob motioned me to sit in the shoeshine chair. There, he described in detail the railroad accident and his hospital recovery. Bob said he had been a bitter young man, unhappy with life and seemingly unable to change his destiny. He claimed that he had been a drunkard, a gambler, a womanizer and a whoremonger. I didn’t know what a womanizer or a whoremonger was, but I guessed that they must have been pretty bad, being listed with drunkard and gambler, terms familiar to me even at my early age.

Bob explained that he had spent the night with another man’s wife, leaving during the early morning hours before her husband returned. Drunk, without money and totally disgusted with himself, he attempted to board a freight train for the short ride to the railroad station. He lost his footing on the side ladder of the railroad car and fell to the tracks. A few minutes of excruciating pain were followed by total darkness.

A week or so later, Bob regained consciousness in a hospital bed—without feet. Bandages covered the ugly indentation in his forehead as well as the cuts and severe abrasions on the trunk of his body. He was at the point of death, with no will to live, cursing God and everyone around him.

After a while, as he regained his strength, he noticed a Bible on the bedside table. For some inexplicable reason, Bob started spending his time looking at the Good Book. Then, one day he noticed that the Bible was open. His curiosity aroused, Bob picked up the Bible and began reading about a man called Job. He was intrigued by Job— and later by other men of the Bible who had endured great hardships, yet remained faithful to God. Bob could relate to these men—at least to their hardships.

His reading was slow, lingering a moment on each word. Later, he bought a dictionary, and much later, biblical reference books. But for his long hospital stay, Bob was content with reading slowly. Sometimes he read all day and well into the night. In his condition, at this point in his life, time meant nothing. He had nowhere to run.

Ultimately, Bob Watkins’s life was transformed from drunkard, gambler, womanizer and whoremonger to servant of God. And with this transformation came a radiance— a glow—that masked the ugliness of his injuries. Together with an uncanny understanding of both the Bible and life itself, he blamed his accident and injuries not on God, but on his sinful ways. He claimed, without reservation, that the accident was his blessing. From that accident, Bob had found God, and with God at his side, he had a life with fullness and meaning.

At the close of each business day, Bob struggled to slide his heavy shoes, one in front of the other, down the main street of town on his long journey home—a furnished room in an old, deteriorating building a half mile from the barbershop. He stopped every so often to look toward the surrounding mountains, particularly Keeny’s Knob, the highest and most majestic of all the mountains surrounding this quiet, rural valley town. According to Bob, “God is everywhere, but he likes the mountains best—that’s where he gave Moses the Ten Commandments and allowed him to see the Promised Land; that’s where Noah’s ark landed. Most of the great events of the Bible happened on a mountain or at the foot of a mountain.”

Bob rarely walked or shuffled more than a block from the barbershop, though. Passing motorists, often by design, almost always stopped to give Bob a ride home or to work and, on Sundays, to church. It didn’t make much difference to Bob which church he attended, as long as God was inside and God’s people filled the pews. To no one’s surprise, Bob was welcome in every church in town—black and white.

Nevertheless, Bob was somewhat partial to one of the white churches. The pastor of that church often huddled with Bob on a regular basis in a corner of the barbershop deep in private conversation. The barber invariably laughed and whispered to his customers, “The preacher’s getting his sermon for next Sunday.”

Of all the people I have known in this life, Bob Watkins was the only person totally without prejudice. He was also loved and respected by everyone he met, regardless of race, color or religion. Even the worst of sinners were welcomed by Bob with love and kindness. Bob reasoned that he was commissioned to do that which Jesus would have done, including offering love and kindness toward the most despicable of humankind.

To me, Bob Watkins was without fault, except maybe for the times he claimed he was “weary” and didn’t want to talk. On those occasions, he seemed almost to be in a trance, transfixed on someone, or something, or someplace far away. My father said that Bob knew so much about heaven he was forever homesick.

Sometime before midnight on a clear summer night, our Heavenly Father called Bob Watkins home. Bob was found the next morning by his landlady—slumped in his dilapidated easy chair—with a smile on his face. His tattered old Bible was opened to the book of Acts. A part of Acts 7:55 was underlined, which read, “. . . looked up to Heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” On the floor, beside the easy chair, lay a small white feather.

The frog finally got his wings.

H. R. Ayers

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