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THE STORY OF BILL PICKLE (By Frank Buchman)
May 21, 2008, 12:58 am
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A story told by Dr. Frank Buchman at the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament, Riverside, California, June 1948

This afternoon I want to take you back forty years to the time when the then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee asked me to come to State College, Pennsylvania, and see whether I could do anything to settle the differences between the faculty and the students who did not seem to understand each other. He was on the Board of Trustees and he was worried. And he ought to have been worried. There was a strike on, a students’ strike. The atmosphere was antagonistic and he had an idea that I could find the solution. I had no such idea at all. I frankly told him I didn’t think it was my job. But he kept after me and finally I consented to go.

It was there that I found the laboratory that made what is hap­pening here possible. The life of the students reflected the Godless-ness of the place. The first night I got there, there were nineteen liquor parties. Someone said it was so wet you could float a battle­ship…

Now where do you begin? My job was to turn this university Godwards. That was the problem. The solution would have to be a miracle.

There were three men who were the focal points of the life of that university. The first of these was a fellow with the name of Bill Pickle…Bill Pickle was an important factor in the life of that university. He was the illegiti­mate son of a colonel. He had a wife and twelve children and everybody called them the Pickles. His job in the daytime was to be hostler for the local physician. At night he worked for the students to whom he peddled liquor. I used to see his stealthy figure sneak­ing about the spiral staircases leading to the students’ rooms at all hours of dark nights. He was a friend not only of all the under­graduates, but of all the recent graduates and the old Alumni. At football games and college festivals Bill was a busy man. There was a State law against saloons and he had to supply liquor for the whole place.

Bill soon knew of my arrival and he used to say he would like to stick a knife into me. He was strong, stockily built with a furi­ous walrus moustache and the looks of a roaring pirate. But he had all the charm of a wonderful sinner who could become a compelling saint. I’ll let you into the end of the story. He came to England with me and was at the Oxford Houseparty. He went to the League of Nations with me. And I’ll never forget when we went out to Croydon airport and before we flew to Geneva together, he prayed that the plane would get there safely.

Let’s see how this story develops because this is the sort of thing you are going to do. It will mean a lot to you and it will develop you just the way it developed me. I learned many lessons in Penn State that are the foundation of what we are doing now.

Now the second character of the story was a graduate student who possessed every physical grace and charm. He was one of the most attractive personalities I ever met. He was the son of a Su­preme Court judge and the grandson of the Governor of a State. His name was B.…

Now B. loved to ride and we rode together a great deal. I knew he was a type of person with whom you used intelligent restraint and nonchalant reserve. I didn’t ever talk to him about the things that meant most to me. Never. We talked about everything else under the sun; and that is an art you need to learn. But B. was getting more interested and intrigued with the atmosphere around me.

One day he said, “Let’s ride to the Club.” I’ll never forget it. It was a sleety day, the sort of day that rain freezes on the telegraph wires. I thought to myself, “Let’s ride to the Club! Has he lost his senses?” I thought of the horses’ legs. It was snowy. It was winter.

We walked those horses fifteen miles to the Club. We settled in for a good dinner. I was chilled to the bone and had several cups of coffee. Then we went to bed.

It was one of those nights when coffee does its work. I heard the clock strike ten, eleven, twelve, one. Finally as the clock struck two my friend said to me, “Are you asleep?”

“No. Are you asleep?”

“No. Would you like to talk?”

“Yes. What about?”

“I wish you would tell me what Jesus Christ means to you.”

So I told him. We talked on and on for several hours. Finally he said, “I’m not going to be a Christian.”

“Who asked you?” I said.

“Not you. I know you are cautious and prudent. I know you respect my reserve.”

So I asked him what he believed in. “Confucius,” was the sur­prising reply…

Then I said to him, “Try your Confucianism on a chicken thief who is a friend of mine, on his wife and five children and see how it works.”

B. agreed. And for the next few months he gave money to the chicken thief’s wife to keep the home together, paid for treats for the children. He spoke to the chicken thief himself. Somehow he didn’t have much success. The chicken thief was soon in jail for catching chickens by pressing a sponge soaked in chloroform under their beaks, and carrying them off unconscious. One of his sons who was in the same business, accompanied him to jail. The student worked with the family, did everything for them, and tried to behave as a true Confucianist.

Finally he came to me in utter despair, “I give up. The more I give them, the more they want.”

B. was learning an important lesson. He was trying to solve the whole problem of social service without Christ, treating the immediate surface conditions without touching the root cause.

Now B. was willing to try anything.

“What would you do, Frank?” he said. “Would you pray about it?”

So I suggested that since he hadn’t got far with the chicken thief now in prison, we might pray for Bill Pickle. B. agreed readily.

“You pray,” said I. It is always better to get other people to do the praying when possible.

So B. prayed, “O God, if there be a God, help us to change Bill Pickle, Mrs. Pickle and all the Pickles. Amen.”

Some of you would say it wasn’t an orthodox prayer, but it soon brought an answer.

Next day Bill was playing baseball with a team of which he was the manager. In the evening B. and I were on our way to visit some friends who had a lovely country place. They were a charm­ing French family from Haute Savoie, just across from Caux, and the Chinese Minister from Washington was coming to stay with them in the country. They had invited us to see some cows and lassoing of steers—which they thought would interest the Chinese Minister. As we went through town, suddenly B. said to me, “There’s Bill.” He’d been celebrating the victory of his team and was now challenging everybody to a fight.

Frankly I wasn’t too keen to meet Bill, but B. said, “We’ve been praying for him, now’s the time to do something.”

Bill came in sight. Now, I have a good sized nose. You’ve noticed that! I thought to myself, “What if Bill hauls off . . .”! I once asked a Chinese friend what he would do under these cir­cumstances. “Approach him from his blind side,” he told me.

So I walked up to Bill and put my hand on his biceps so that if he did haul off he wouldn’t haul so hard! But what to do next. The thought flashed into my mind, “Give him the deepest mes­sage you have.”

“Bill,” I said, “We’ve been praying for you.” To my surprise all the fight went out of Bill. Tears came into his eyes. He pointed to the church tower. “See that church over there? I was there when the corner stone was laid. There is a pen­ny of mine under it.”

I said, “Bill, your mother must have been a good woman.” He said, “She was a great woman.”

Then I introduced B. “My friend’s been praying for you too.” “That’s decent of him,” said Bill. “He’s a gentleman.” Bill went on, “Why don’t you come and see me sometime?” I said, “Fine, but any time is no time. Make it sometime.” Bill said, “Come next Thursday night at seven.” No real duties in life ever conflict. You’ve got time for Bill when you are on the way to the Chinese Minister. You’ve time for B. And you make a date to see Bill next Thursday night at seven.

So next Thursday we went to see Bill in his unpainted house on Pickle Hill which some wag had christened “Heinz Heights.” It was very interesting. You felt that every knothole had an ear or an eye, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Bill had told the neighbors that we were coming, and Bill imagined we were coming to change him. That’s just what we were out to do, but we didn’t do it the way he thought we would. And Bill had shaved for the im­portant occasion though generally he shaved only once a week.

We talked about baseball. We talked about football. Of course he went to every game. Bill knew all about horses. We talked all the jargon of college life. Then the time came to go. Bill said, “I’ve enjoyed your visit.” You see he could tell all his friends that we hadn’t changed him. But it’s amazing what that sort of an inter­view will do if it’s backed by prayer. Bill began to hang about us. He enjoyed our company. He wanted fellowship.

A few days later there was a horse show and he went with B. to see the horses. They spent the whole afternoon talking horses. Bill voted it the best afternoon ever.

Of course the effect on B. was that he began to drop the words “If there be a God. . .”. He said, “There is no question that there is a God because He is answering our prayer.” So B. felt himself more and more one of us.

Now this was a State institution and it was a place where you would be very careful about talking publicly about Christianity and the things that meant most to you, but the following Sunday a bishop arrived to speak to the students. I was on the platform and just before his address the Bishop said to me, “Do you mind if I put up decision for Christ to these men today?” I thought to myself, “What does this man dream he is doing? Doesn’t he real­ize he is in a State college?” You see, my idea of the Holy Spirit was a sort of five-by-eight picture, and I didn’t think much would happen. But the Bishop went ahead and the first man to stand up was my friend B. He committed himself, and some eighty fellows followed his example, for B. was one of the most popular men in the university. It was new to me. I had never seen it be­fore. I had never been reared in that tradition. It is amazing how we are reared in our different traditions and mine was very con­servative and very cautious.

Now many people would feel that it had been a successful meet­ing and leave it at that. But B. wanted to go further.

He said, “There are a lot of things I don’t understand, and I don’t know anything about my Bible or prayer, and I don’t know much about winning people.”

So I said, “Let’s spend the summer together.”

We set off for the West. That was the first time I ever went to Mackinac, just forty years ago. What a wonderful place Mackinac Island is! Then we went on to Montana where B’s grand­father used to be Governor. We learned the truths of the Bible everyday, prayer and the fullest openness between us, sharing every­thing most naturally. That is how we spent the summer. Then it was just with one man; now it happens with five thousand, ten thousand people…

I learned another thing at State College. When Bill peddled liquor to these students I often saw them carried down at night. I have seen real catastrophe in the lives of students, and I say, very sincerely and very bluntly, it’s a hell of a life if you don’t have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is only one thing which is adequate and it is someone who can change you, someone who loves you. If you have this power men and women will come to you night and day for an answer. All sorts of people…

This is an art that everyone wants to learn, and heaven help us if we don’t learn it. We need to learn it for the sake of our own children. Your own children must come and tell you about themselves and you will share with them because you know what a rascal you were yourself. That is the way to win your children, and that is the reason why this crowd of youth flocks around. They will go to a man who understands them, who doesn’t talk too good or appear too wise, a man who shares…

I came home from my trip with B. via New York. One of the things I did there was to buy a new beaver hat as part of my winter’s outfit. I paid more for it than I should have. I wore it the first night we got back to State College. We were walking down the street and who should we meet but Bill. Bill is an actor. He looked at my hat and then walked silently and admiringly around me. He didn’t shake hands or even say he was glad to see me.

He said. “You know I would do almost anything for you if you would give me that hat.”

I said, “Bill, that hat is yours on one condition, if you will go with me to the Student Convention in Toronto.”

He said, “I don’t care if I do: I’ll be up to see you in the morning.” And off he went with the beaver hat on his head.

Morning came and there was Bill in the doorway.

“I can’t go,” he snorted through his mustache. “I’ve nothing to put my clothes in.”

Bill was like a lot of people who say “No” and mean “Yes”.

“Don’t worry about that,” I said, “I’ll get you something.”

“No,” said Bill, “I’ll get it. They’ll give me something up on the hill.”

Now I must mention the third of the men in the university besides Bill and B. who was a focal figure for its change. He was the agnostic Dean. Everybody loved him, popular, easy of access, charming, hospitable. A man’s man; but an agnostic. But he had a praying wife. He’s the sort of husband that some of you women here have. You find them darned difficult, don’t you? You are patient but they are difficult. They have their own ideas, about money, about the use of capital, about taxes. It’s amazing how they’ve worked things out for their own satisfaction and comfort, but from the woman’s standpoint they are not entirely satisfactory. The Dean heard about my invitation to Bill. You see Bill’s daughter was a maid in the Dean’s house. She told Mrs. Dean and Mrs. Dean told the Dean, and so the Dean came to see me.

“I hear you are going to take Bill Pickle to Toronto.”

I said, “Yes,” not knowing what his reaction would be. I thought I would be regarded not as a fool for Christ’s sake, but merely foolish.

But the Dean went on, “I think this thing is going to be a miracle. I wondered all along who would do something for Bill and I be­lieve you’re the fellow.”

I said, “No. That’s not my job. I think that’s the job of the Living God.”

“But I would like to have a part in it,” said the Dean, “and pay for Bill’s journey.”

So we started out for Toronto with seventeen students. Bill Pickle and myself. I can still see that morning on that little station. Bill wore the beaver hat, leggings and a stock which made me think of a poodle’s legs crossed. In his hand was a scuffed little imitation alligator-skin bag.

Now what were the reasons why Bill went on that trip? There were five: a) he wanted the trip; b) he heard the liquor was good in Toronto; c) he wanted the fellowship; d) he wanted to see what Toronto was like; and the fifth, which I didn’t find out until we reached Toronto—he thought I would buy him a fur overcoat to match the hat.

On the train I suggested we might have something to eat. For some reason Bill was against food. He was planning how to get a drink when we got to the first junction. Among the party of seventeen he recognized one of the students to whom he used to sell liquor. His nickname was Bonehead. He was one of those fellows who used to be a big drinker and now was president of the Christian Association and really stood for something in the uni­versity. At the junction Bonehead, closely followed by Bill made for the swinging doors. Then he saw there was no dining-room but only a bar.

“Say Bill,” said Bonehead, “this is no place for us.”

Bill argued with him, but Bonehead resisted and by being firm, as Bill later said, he laid the foundation stone of Bill’s Christian life. Together they went to the dining-room. When I arrived there I found Bill sitting quietly having a full meal.

At the next junction point Bill knew the places where there was liquor, but by now he felt everybody had their eye on him. Have you ever had that feeling? Everybody looking at you, but nobody is. Well, that’s your conscience. The next meal was on the train. Bill and I had one of those seats just for two. One of the men who used to be an agnostic gave thanks for the food. When agnostics change, they do wonderful things. I would never have done it. Then Bill said suddenly, “That fellow spoiled my meal.” At first I thought he meant the colored waiter who had served him, but Bill said, “That fellow thanked the Lord for his food. My mother used to do it, but I didn’t know people did it any more. We never thank the Lord for ours.”

We reached Niagara Falls and there the blow fell. He found we were going to spend the night in a Temperance hotel. I hadn’t arranged it. Bill dug his heels in and said he would not stay at any Temperance hotel. He didn’t see how any man could make it pay without a bar. And what would Bill’s friends say if they heard he had slept in a Temperance hotel.

“Don’t worry about a little thing like that,” I said, “Let’s go upstairs and turn in.”…

[When we arrived in Canada,] we got settled in our hotel in Toronto. I proposed we go to the meeting in the afternoon. The Governor General was pre­siding and six thousand people were going.

“No,” said Bill.

“What are you going to do?” I said.

“I hear that fur is cheaper in Canada than in America,” said Bill, “and I think I want to go out and look at fur overcoats.”

“That’s a good idea, Bill, but I think we ought to go to this meeting first.”

“I’ll go on one condition,” he said. “I’ll sit in the back seat if you’ll sit with me.”

How many people are there who sit in church or go to anything in which they are not overly interested and sit in the back row. But of course, this doesn’t apply to anybody here!

Bill wasn’t a bit interested in the first speaker. He spent his time counting up the number of people present to see if I’d told the truth about six thousand people being there. Quite a lot of people sit in church figuring up the week’s profits while waiting for the service to end. So Bill wasn’t so different. But he didn’t count long. He soon found there was a goodly number there.

The second speaker was a colored man. That interested him.

Bill said, “Why that man was so black that charcoal would have made a white mark on him.”

He told a story of foster parents and a foster child and a foster grandchild and how the grandchild disowned the parents. Bill was nodding or vigorously shaking his head all the time. Every word was hitting him between the eyes because that, too, was the story of his family. Bill left the meeting with me.

“Frank,” he said, “did you tell that speaker about me?”

I said, “No, Bill.”

We went back to our little sittingroom and the nineteen of us had a little gathering and Bill said to me, “I want to say something.”

“Go ahead, Bill,” I said.

He got up as if he had been shot out of a cannon, “I’m an old man of sixty-two, and I’ve decided to change my life. I have grand­children, and I can’t bear to think of them turning on their grandfather like that fosterchild, because all my life I’ve been disobedient to my Heavenly Father. Old Bill will be a different man.”

Then he went out beckoning me to follow him.

“Frank, I want you to sit down and I want you to write to the old woman,” he said.

The old woman was Mrs. Pickle and she was a wonderful soul, a heart of gold, and what a cook!

Soon after we set out for home. We got back to the station where Bonehead went to the right door. It’s amazing how fast news travels. We were just getting off the train, Bill was still on the steps and I was just back of him, and there was a liquor missionary. Bill’s old friends had heard what had happened and had brought along two bottles of the best. Whatever else happened, they wanted to take Bill home drunk. They handed Bill the first bottle. Bill took it and let it slip through his fingers on to the brick floor. The next attempt was more subtle. They pulled the cork of the second bottle and held it under Bill’s nose so that he could smell it. Bill gave a quick tap to the tempter’s wrist and again the bottle crashed.

Now I’ve been reared in circumstances where I could have liquor all my life and whenever I wanted it. But there’s one reason why I don’t touch a drop. It is because of fellows like Bill Pickle. You don’t win them if you touch a drop, just that cocktail. I don’t tell anybody else not to drink. Anybody can do anything he wants. Everybody has the liberty of the Spirit, but for my part, I think of fellows like Bill.

It’s exactly the same with smoking. I don’t smoke, but I don’t say it’s wrong for you. But I couldn’t do it, because Bill in the old days was a regular chain smoker. When he changed everything just dropped off. No smoking, no drinking. Although I never said anything to him about it. It is amazing how these—I won’t call them sins, I just call them nice little vices—can sometimes be the key to a man’s whole life…

From that time Bill’s influence in the university was a modern miracle. When the graduates came back at Commencement, they didn’t get tight. Bill was their favorite guest and he refused to grace their parties if there was liquor. They preferred an interesting char­acter, so they had their parties without liquor, and Bill was the life of the party telling his old-time tales with new zest and on a new plane. In the university we had twelve hundred men in Bible class out of sixteen hundred in the university. That was a big institution in those days, and of course, it is tremendous in size now. After three years’ work it was no longer good form to hold drinking parties. The College began to win their games, and scholarship improved. Dr. John R. Mott came and people from all corners of the earth to see the wonders God had wrought.

As for the Dean, he became such a great soul. Bill gave him the thing he said he always wanted but was never quite sure existed, the certainty that these things worked out as a living reality in the lives of people. He saw it work out in Bill’s life and in the maid in his home. He saw that whole family change and become a veritable dynamo in the life of the university.

B. was led as a result of this experience along with one of his friends to give some years to teaching in one of the leading col­leges for Negroes in America. The whole college became interested in the problems of the Negroes of the South. It was the foundation of much of the rural colored work in America.

I hadn’t any part in all this other than that I let God use me…

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