The quirky rock group Talking Heads had a big hit back in the 1980s called Once in a Lifetime, where the narrator in the song takes inventory of his life and eventually asks himself, “Well, how did I get here?”
That line came to mind recently when I found myself on an overnight return trip from the East Coast deep in the witching hours of the night, aboard a hushed chartered bus with 35 weary slumbering teenagers and their chaperones, 1,000 miles from home and eager to get back to the Boot State after a week of touring in the summer heat.
In a desperate attempt to catch a few winks, I wedged myself sardine-style into the only available space that would allow me to stretch out the full length of my body – the narrow, stone-hard aisle floor. Lying supine, mummy-like, staring at the ceiling with dim images of nested hair, socked feet and the edges of flannel blankets lining my peripheral vision, the probing question from that Talking Heads tune kept thumping in my brain, “Well, how did I get here?”
It took a few restless moments for the answer to emerge, to understand I was in fact there at that time and in that place for a reason. A very good reason.
Our group happened to be returning home from a journey to Washington, D.C., an annual event called the National Rural Electric Cooperative Youth Tour. Electric co-ops in Louisiana and 34 other states send students to participate in the program where roughly 1,600 delegates gather together to meet one another, visit historic monuments, learn about America’s rural electric movement and meet their members of congress.
This particular trip was special on several fronts – and very much worth sleeping overnight on the sticky floor of a rented motor coach. This was the 50th anniversary of the Youth Tour program, as well as the 25th – and final – trip for Louisiana’s beloved program director and recent retiree, Sandy Stockwell.
Sandy, or “Mama Sandy” as the students are fond of calling her, has shepherded hundreds of students on this trip through the years, many of them making their maiden voyage to the nation’s capital. Working diligently all year to plan out every single detail, Sandy has always taken great care to make sure the students have a quality experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and – even more importantly – arrive back home safely to their waiting families and friends.
Forever doting on her students as if they were her own, Sandy is fond of pointing out that many of her Youth Tour alumni have gone on to become distinguished and productive members of society and have enjoyed successful careers. Many still correspond both with each other and with their revered Youth Tour director through social media.
This was yet another great adventure for the teens, funded by the state’s electric cooperatives and carried out by one of the co-op system’s true treasures.
A highlight of this year’s trip for me came on the road to D.C. when we stopped in Virginia to see the Natural Bridge. It was Sunday, Father’s Day, and Sandy asked me to deliver a brief devotional at a quaint outdoor amphitheater located along a piney forest trail.
I was happy to oblige but had no idea what I would say. I thought of speaking about being a father, especially since my own daughter was part of this group. Then I thought that in this picturesque setting it might be appropriate to convey a message of gratitude for all our Heavenly Father provides and how it’s our responsibility to be good stewards of not only our natural resources but our bodies, minds and spirits as well.
But then I concluded that since we were bound for Washington, the place where our fellow citizens are sent for the sole purpose of serving their constituents and serving their country – okay, at least in theory – the best message would be about our charge to love and serve one another. And, even better, I had a prime living, breathing model to trot out before the students: Mama Sandy!
At the risk of embarrassing her, I asked Sandy to come stand by my side and assured the youngsters that as they reached adulthood if they emulated this kind and capable woman’s commitment, passion and dedication to serving others, they’d be doing well and certainly following the example set forth by Christ’s own ministry.
I also pointed out that anyone can thrive when the sun is shining, but the true measure of a person’s character is seen when Jobian-worthy adversity strikes. I’ve had the honor of working with Sandy for nearly 20 years and can honestly say I’ve never seen the woman succumb to bitterness or despair.
Through periods of high electric rates, consumer complaints, nasty political squabbles, economic downturns, regulatory trouble, personal loss and physical pain, injustices, bad breaks, surgical procedures and even hurricanes – ugh, those hurricanes – Sandy always kept a 100-megawatt smile on her face.
Like all the others, this Youth Tour trip was another challenge to test her limits. When the summer temperatures in D.C. soared to record levels, when a student fell ill, when a tardy congressman forced a change in plans, when electronics were lost, Sandy met every predicament with an upbeat demeanor and a ready solution.
If you ever meet Sandy in person, I can’t guarantee you’ll get a hug. If you’re over 6 feet tall, she might not be able to reach you. But I’ll bet dollars-to-donuts you’ll be greeted with a smile, whether the sun is shining or not.
Summing up my sentiments about Mama Sandy, I’ll paraphrase a line from Clint Eastwood in one of my favorite movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales: I knew Sandy Stockwell. She’s seen her share of struggles in her lifetime and never faltered. I was proud to say I rode with her. I got no complaints.