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Redwoods Revelation

A troubled teen’s journey into the redwood forest is one of discovering himself and finding faith.

Finding faith in the Redwood Forest

There were two rules at the summer camp I attended in 1945: Don’t leave the Marwedel camp boundaries and don’t go off alone.

I was breaking both rules as I wandered through the redwood trees of Mendocino County, California, but getting in trouble was nothing new for me. With my bad grades, bad attitude and bad language, a lot of people considered me a lost cause.

“Watch out for Henry Petereit,” the principal of my grammar school had written to the junior high principal who would inherit me in the fall. “He’ll be in San Quentin by the time he’s eighteen.”

Nobody expected anything from me. Why expect anything of myself? I thought.

I heard running water in the distance and followed it. I wouldn’t get to walk in the woods back in San Francisco. I was only at camp because a welfare lady hoped it would get me off the streets. Anything but the rat trap of a flat I shared with my parents.

A flock of birds flew overhead, their cries echoing over the sound of rushing water. I shaded my eyes to watch them cut through the sky above the redwoods. I’d never heard a wild bird before. Nor had I ever ridden a horse, paddled a canoe, or seen a fish, turtle or salamander before this summer. Camp made me feel almost like a regular kid. Almost.

Come fall I’d be back in the life I hated. What was the point in being good? It wouldn’t change anything.

The ground dipped, forming a deep, circular drop. A creek poured over. I followed a trail down into the crevasse. The creek picked up at the bottom of the waterfall and disappeared into a wall on the other side.

I sat down on a mattress of pine needles and leaf mold. Thick as the foliage was, sun streamed through wherever it could, creating bright, glowing columns. The light reminded me of something I’d seen only in pictures: sunlight coming in through a stained glass window.

My family didn’t go to church. “There can’t be a God,” Mom always said. “God wouldn’t let us get evicted from every place we lived because we can’t pay the rent.”

I’d tried to make money doing work around the neighborhood, but whatever I made my father stole to buy booze. The only reason we hadn’t lost our current flat was that the landlord couldn’t find another tenant. Who wanted a place with a broken toilet, no hot water and pipes so rusty you couldn’t drink the water?

That flat seemed a thousand miles away from where I sat. Even my anger seemed far away. In its place I felt something new: peace.

Something about that light coming through the trees made my mind as untroubled as the water in the stream or the ancient redwoods. I didn’t want to let go of the feeling. Eventually I made my way back up the trail to camp.

With the clearing behind me, the good feeling faded. But I kept seeing that streaming light in my mind. What was it about that light that made me feel so different?

I shouldn’t swear so much, I thought suddenly. That was strange. I had never questioned my bad language before. But by the time I returned to camp I’d resolved to clean up my vocabulary for good. There were a lot of things I couldn’t change about my life back home, but I could change myself.

In the last days of camp I returned to the redwoods to say good-bye, but I took some of that streaming light home with me. I asked my mom if I could transfer to a new school, one where they didn’t know the old me. Then I approached the gymnastics coach at our local boys club. “I want to join the program,” I said.

“You do?” He waited for the punch line. I didn’t give him one. “Okay,” he said. “Tomorrow at three.”

I was there on time and returned the next day. The coach offered extra help when I needed it. I got so good I set a citywide junior high school record in high jump. I also made the honor roll, became a student leader and spoke on a national radio show. By the time I left junior high, my name was engraved on a trophy in the hallway to recognize outstanding male graduates.

I did not celebrate my eighteenth birthday in San Quentin. After two years of college I joined the Air Force and studied to be a navigator. One afternoon I took a late training flight. An electronic failure forced a return to base. We flew above a tight blanket of clouds pierced from below by the brilliant Texas sunset. The columns of light were breathtaking—and familiar.

“It’s just like that day in the redwood forest,” I whispered. I gazed into the bright columns, filled once more with that same peace.

“What’s taking you so long to get the message?” came a voice. I looked at the other men, but none of them had spoken. God? Impossible. God couldn’t be talking to me, could he? I’d never been to church! After some soul-searching I made a visit to the Air Force chaplain. On my twenty-second birthday, I was baptized.

A lot of people considered me a lost cause by the time I took that walk in the redwood forest. But no one is ever so lost God can’t find him.

Like the sunlight streaming through gaps in a forest canopy, God found an opening in my life and sent his grace streaming down on me. High above the clouds or deep in the forest, I was never out of God’s sight.

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