Chapter 09–Where Was God in August 1987?

In Spiritual Stories by Gary



Washer CrossTragedy struck twice in August 1987.  Where was God?  It ain’t supposed to be like this.  I’m mad at God.  Recovery begins in the Book of Romans.

Where Was God in August 1987? 

August 9,1987 was a beautiful Sunday morning.  The sky was clear and the sun was bright.  The temperature was comfortable and the breeze was gentle.  Gary and Maxine were just finishing up the adult Sunday school class at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The doors were open and the fresh air was flowing through the kitchen classroom.  Joy and fellowship abounded on that fine Sunday morning.  Suddenly the peaceful conversation was jolted by the sound of their fire pagers.  Soon their faith in God would be shaken.  The lives of Gary and Maxine were about to be changed forever.

The emergency page was for the ambulance because an accident had occurred in the country.  Gary and Maxine hurried to the fire station five blocks away.  The ambulance left with Gary and Maxine, Sandi Rogers, and Dave Petersen.  Dave was a new firefighter and was driving the ambulance.  Gary, Maxine, and Sandi were classmates during the EMT training class in the winter of ’80-’81.  None of them were on the fire department when they were in training.

When Gary, Maxine, and Sandi started the EMT class, none of them had really thought about being on the fire department.  They wanted the knowledge to help them with family situations.  Gary was also on the Hudson city council at the time.  The council provided him with an indirect connection to the fire department.  The fire department was very short handed in 1981 and Gary helped run the radio at the fire station before he was a member of the department.  The EMT training proved to be more valuable than he imagined.  Gary decided he should make use of that training. In April of 1981, there was an opening on the Hudson Fire Department and Gary joined.

During the summer of 1981, the fire department was very short handed during the day. Sometimes Maxine helped out on ambulance runs even though she was not on the fire department.  Allowing women on the fire department was not unknown in Iowa but it was not common.  In October of 1981, a senior member of the department decided it was time for a change in policy.  He made a convincing speech that it was a waste of good talent to have two EMT’s in town that were not being utilized.  He stated it was time the Hudson Fire Department allowed women to join the department.  So in October of 1981, Maxine Stratton and Sandi Rogers became the first two women to join the Hudson fire department.  Both women served with distinction and opened the door for other women.  Sandi served for 11 years and Maxine for 17 years.

Gary and Maxine lived across the street from the fire station in Hudson (the old station in downtown Hudson).  Sandi lived near by and the three of them were often the first ones to arrive for fire and ambulance calls.  In the last six years, the three of them had been on many calls together.  So the three of them rode the ambulance with high expectations.  They were well trained, they had experience, and they had all the latest equipment on the ambulance. They were confident they could help the patient.

The location of the call was out in the country southeast of Hudson and it took several minutes to get to the scene.  While in route they were told that a child had fallen out of a truck and had been run over by a farm wagon.  A call that involves a child always increased the adrenaline flow and the tension that goes with an emergency call.  Tensions rose and their hearts were in their throats.  Being well trained, they submerged their emotions.  They put their training and skills on auto pilot.  They discussed what each person would do when they arrived at the scene.  They were prepared to expend every ounce of their abilities and resources to help this child.

As the ambulance turned south on a gravel road the scene became visible.  The pickup truck and the hay rack were parked by the west side of the road.  They were facing away from them on a small hill.  A short distance behind the hay rack the father was huddled over the lifeless body of a small child.  As the ambulance stopped, they stepped out and went to the child.  The father was very distraught.  The 19 month old child had been in the cab of the pickup with the father.  Somehow the passenger door of the pickup came open and the child tumbled out.  She was run over by the wheels on the wagon.

Sandi and Gary lifted the father from the child and tried to comfort him.  Maxine began examining the little girl and shouted that she thought there was a pulse.  Quick decisions had to be made and they made them.  Gary grabbed the short board out of the ambulance.  The short board was used to stabilize the head and neck of people injured in car accidents.  It was just the right size to stabilize a small child.  Maxine and Gary package Katie on the short board and loaded her on the patient cot in the ambulance.  Maxine got on her knees on the left side of the cot.   Gary was on his knees on the right side of the cot. The pulse was no longer detectable.  They started CPR.   Sandi stayed with the distraught father because he could not be left alone in his condition.  They summoned Hudson’s second ambulance to deal with the father.

Gary and Maxine instructed Dave to proceed to the hospital code 3, which is lights and sirens.  Maxine and Gary were doing CPR and not getting a response.  Dave, being new, was not sure of which of the multiple routes to take to the hospital.  Gary told him to go to highway 63.  Gary took over the radio so Dave, who was alone in the front, could focus on driving.  Gary took the patient compartment radio and called the hospital.  It was a struggle to talk on the radio and do compressions on the child.   Gary notified them Hudson was in route with a 19 month old girl injured in a 10-50 (vehicle accident) and that CPR was in progress.  The hospital asked for a time of arrival and Gary struggled for an answer.  As the ambulance turned corners he had become disoriented.  He glanced out the side window and got his bearings.  He told the hospital they were 12 minutes out.   Adrenaline and tension were very high in that ambulance.   A 12 minute run to the hospital seems like an eternity when life and death hang in the balance.

The hospital was ready when the ambulance arrive and Katie was immediately placed in the trauma room.  Gary and Maxine were familiar with this room.  They had done CPR in this room on several patients they brought to that hospital in cardiac arrest.  The emergency room (ER) staff took over treatment of Katie from Gary and Maxine.  The ER staff went through all the steps for cardiac arrest that were familiar to Gary and Maxine. The combination of trauma and cardiac arrest is a critical situation.  Like all situations everyone makes every possible effort to save the patient but emotions when kids are involved are exceptionally high.  Skills are at the maximum and emotions are deeply buried.  For Gary and Maxine, it was the first child they had treated that was in a life threatening situation.  Gary and Maxine stood at the foot of the trauma cot while the ER staff worked on Katie.  They answered questions about what happened and the treatment they performed.  They were experienced enough to know that the ER treatment was not going well and that Katie had not responded to any of the steps. Their poise was starting to fade.

The ER doctor asked how long Katie had been down. No one responded but treatment continued.  In a few minutes, the ER doctor again asked how long Katie had been down.  No one responded.  Everyone knew time was running out to get a response from Katie and no one wanted to reach that point.  The ER doctor forcefully stated, “Someone tell me how long this child has been down.”  Gary responded that he didn’t know but he would call dispatch to get the time of the call.  Gary reached for the phone on the wall.  He called and got the time.  He then added up the response time, the scene time, and the trip to the hospital.  He told the doctor it had been at least 45 minutes. The statement of 45 minutes sent chills through everyone in the ER.

They all new that 45 minutes without a response from the patient would result in only one outcome.  At that point the ER doctor stated “I am calling it”; “stop treatment”, and he looked at the clock.  He uttered those chilling words “time of death”.  There was complete silence in the trauma room.  Everyone stood motionless for a few seconds. The death of a child is something you never get used to and is always traumatic.  The doctor bowed his head, he thanked everyone for their effort.  Then in a suppressed voice, he said, “This is the third child this week.”  Everyone felt the exhaustion and the emptiness.

Like most well trained EMT’s and firefighters, Gary and Maxine had kept their emotions on hold and their actions on autopilot.  With the words “time of death” they became numb.  As they left the trauma room they could no longer suppress their emotions and they flooded to the surface.  Gary and Maxine broke down.  This was the first child they had lost on an ambulance call.  All the training, all the equipment, all the resources of the fire department and the hospital were not able to save this child.  Gary and Maxine went into a small room where EMT’s did the paper work and sobbed uncontrollably.  A nurse that Gary and Maxine knew from church, came into the room.  She and her husband had lost a new born baby and it was a traumatic time for all of them.  Judy tried to console Maxine and Gary but they could not suppress their emotions in the loss of this child.

Hudson is a small town where everybody knows and helps everybody.  Other firemen went to the Community Church to get Katie’s mom and bring her to the hospital. The Community Church is next door to Gary and Maxine’s house.  The second ambulance

brought the father to the hospital.  The family room was just two doors down the hallway from the EMT room.  Gary and Maxine were struggling to get their emotions under control.  They were barely aware the mother and father and other family members had arrived at the hospital.  As loud crying and wailing came from the family room, Gary and Maxine knew the family had been told that Katie was dead.  It was impossible for them to get their emotions under control.  To leave the hospital, Gary and Maxine had to walk past the family room.  That walk just triggered their emotions all over again.

With both ambulances at the hospital, Hudson needed to get one back in service as soon as possible.  The other members of the department said they would go back in the second ambulance.  Gary and Maxine could bring the other ambulance when the paperwork was done.  Gary and Maxine asked for someone to stay with them to drive the ambulance back to Hudson.  They did not think they could drive in their emotional condition.  This shocked several firemen and EMT’s from Hudson.  Gary and Maxine had always been stoic and the rock of Gibraltar on ambulance calls and accidents.  This call had caused both of them to wilt with emotion.  The paper work was completed and they were driven back to Hudson.  When Gary and Maxine arrived back in Hudson, several firemen and EMT’s had waited for their arrival to help console them.

Gary and Maxine pulled themselves together and walked across the street to their home.  They clung to each other for support.   But it was very difficult to console each other.  Their emotions had bottom out.  On this day, they had nothing left to give.

Both were working full time.  Gary at John Deere and Maxine at the Cedar Falls Lutheran Home.  When Galen started college, she had started working as a certified nursing assistant to help pay for college.  They had the rest of Sunday to pull themselves together.  Maxine had to go to work at 11 PM on Sunday night.  They were struggling to control their emotions.  They looked at their kids in a new light.  Kim’s birthday would be in two days.  Garrett and Karmin got lots of hugs in the next few days. As the kids slept, Gary and Maxine would just stand in the glow of the night light and look in awe at them.  Both of them didn’t want to get back on the ambulance and decided to be “slow” in getting to the fire station.  Slowness took considerable effort as the fire station was just across the street from their house.

Gary and Maxine were asking “How can God let these things happen”?  Their faith had been shaken.  Gary felt he needed to go to the visitation and funeral for Katie.  Maxine, who internalized her emotions, did not want to go to either.  Gary went to the visitation and went early when there would be fewer people.  The funeral home did a great job with Katie and she looked much better than she did in the ER.  Gary managed to sit through the funeral with control of his emotions.  But as he walked out of the church he had to step to the side and he started sobbing.  Jeff and Sharon Cory, a Hudson firefighter and his wife stopped to talk with Gary.  Jeff asked if Gary was going to the cemetery and he said no, he didn’t think he could drive.  Sharon asked him to go with them and he agreed.  Jeff and Sharon took Gary with them to the cemetery and it was an act of kindness Gary will always remember.

After the funeral, information from the autopsy was provided to Gary and Maxine.  The autopsy had shown there was absolutely nothing Gary and Maxine could have done to bring back Katie.  The injuries were too extreme.  It was a small consolation to them but they still could not understand how God could let these things happen.  Both were struggling with the function of daily life.  They were being very selective about the ambulance calls they responded to.  There were other EMTs that could respond while Gary and Maxine tried to heal.  Little did they know that more trauma would enter their lives in a short time.

Saturday August 22, 1987, an ominous 13 days after Katie’s death, Gary went to LaPorte City for some firefighter training.  Maxine was home from her 3rd shift work when Gary left.  Gary seldom passed up an opportunity for training at live fire burns.  He and some other firefighters had left Hudson early in the morning and returned to Hudson around noon.  They were tired and wet from a good training exercise.  Gary pulled his Ford station wagon up in front of the fire station.  He looked across the street and Maxine was walking toward him.  She had a terrible look on her face; she was crying and tears were running down her cheeks.  Gary had seen this look before and knew something terrible had happened.  He jumped out of the car and ran to her, taking her in his arms.

Holding her tightly, he asked her what had happened.  She said it was Tony.  Tony had been killed in an accidental shooting.  Tony was the only son of Maxine’s oldest sister Helen.  Maxine didn’t know any details.  She only knew that there had been an accidental shooting and Tony was dead.  Gary and Maxine’s emotions collapsed again. Gary told the other firefighters what had happened.  They would take care of Gary’s gear and put his car in the driveway.  Gary took Maxine across the street to their home.

Maxine and Gary were to find out that Tony had been out hunting and had tripped over some concrete.  Somehow he and the gun fell.  The gun discharged and shot Tony in the head.  He was alone and died from the wound.  People needed to be told so Gary mustered what strength he could and started about that task.  The task was complicated because Galen and Kim were now at college.

Galen was at Northeast Missouri State in Kirksville.  Classes had not started but he had been there a couple of weeks for football practice.  Gary managed to get Galen on the phone that day and was able to tell him.  Galen had a car so he could drive home for the funeral.  Kim was just starting as a freshman at UNI in Cedar Falls.  Just a few days before, she had moved in to the dormitory.  Her roommate Brenda was a long time high school friend and they were going to room together.  Maxine helped Kim move into UNI but Gary had never been to Kim’s dorm room.  Gary called Kim and arranged to meet her at her room and he asked that Brenda be there too.  Kim and Brenda new something had happened.  Maxine gave Gary instructions on how to get to Kim’s room and he set out to deliver the bad news.  Gary found the room without getting lost in the dorm and told Kim.  The entire family was shocked.  Tony was due to start his sophomore year at Iowa State in a few days.

The entire family attended the funeral and the burial.  Gary and Maxine were really struggling with their faith.  How could a loving God let this kind of stuff happen to children.  Although Katie was not a relative of Gary and Maxine’s the trauma of loosing someone else’s child was just as traumatic as the loss of a nephew.  Gary and Maxine were struggling emotionally, spiritually, and physically.  It was very difficult to just go to work, get through the day, and take care of the kids.  They were past taking care of each other.  For each, there was nothing left to give.

Both Gary and Maxine were fiercely independent people and in a moment that had to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, they decided they needed some help.  They decided to ask their pastor to come and visit with them.  Their pastor was a young pastor and lived just around the corner and down the block .  His name was Pastor Steve Ullestad.  Pastor Steve was early in his career as a pastor.  Gary was on the Pastor/Parish relations committee and had developed a comfort level with Pastor Steve. That comfort level would allow Gary and Maxine to discuss their anger with God.  At this low point in their lives they needed God but they were mad at Him.

Gary and Maxine shared with Pastor Steve their experiences during August.  They had not shared much previously.  They were both strong headed and strong willed Scandinavians.  They wanted to remain stoic and “just handle it”.  However, they were at the point they could not handle it and needed help.  Pastor Steve shared with them that it is ok to be mad at God.  When we are finished being mad a God, God will still be there and that God will always be there even when we don’t want to acknowledge God. Now for most Lutherans, being told it is ok to be mad at God is not a common experience.  However, it was comforting to Gary and Maxine.  So with the help of Pastor Steve, God’s ever present love, and the healing that comes with time, Gary and Maxine were able to begin dealing with the loss of two children in a 13 day period.  They grew stronger in their faith and to each other.  They stayed active at St. Timothy and continued their spiritual journey and their journey of life together.

Gary and Maxine did make some changes.  Emergency calls are high risk situations and the lesson that life is fragile was fresh in their minds.  They decided, that whenever possible, they would separate on emergency calls.  Maxine was a much better EMT than Gary.  Gary was a much better firefighter than Maxine.  Maxine would go with the ambulance and Gary would go with a fire truck.  In case of an accident involving the ambulance or the fire truck, there would be a low risk of both being killed at the same time.  One of them would be left to care for the children.  Also, there would be a reduced risk of both of them being fully traumatized at the same time on future calls.

So in August of 1987, God was always at the side of Gary and Maxine even though the situations of this world made it seem that God had abandoned them.  Gary and Maxine learned from this experience that God was always with them.  God would be with them during the traumatic ambulance and fire calls they would experience in the future.  God would be with them in the deaths they would experience in the future.  Romans 8: 38-39 became Gary’s favorite Bible verse and it sustained him many times in his journey of life.

The book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” came into their lives.  An act of the Holy Spirit.  They read and studied the book.  The teachings of this book helped them deal with situations when bad things did happen to good people.  The book would be re-read several times as Gary and Maxine continued on their journey of life.  They continued to develop their spiritual life as individuals and as a couple.

The death of Katie and Tony was a learning experience.  The lessons Gary and Maxine learned in 1987 would return to serve them well in the future.  In the future the question “How could God let this happen?” would arise again and again but Gary and Maxine would never again doubt that God was with them, even in the darkest of times.

Roman 8: 38-39 (NIV)
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angel nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”