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So we’ll roll the old chariot along

by Bob Docter –

Can bare fact make the cloth of a shining poem?
In Sangamon County, Illinois, they remembered how
The aged widow walked a mile from home
to Bethel Chapel
Where she heard the services and was called on
“To give her testimony,” rising to speak freely, ending:
“The past three weeks have been the happiest
of all my life; I am waiting for the chariot.”
The pastor spoke the benediction; the members
rose and moved
Into the aisles toward the door, and looking back
They saw the widow of the famous circuit rider
Sitting quiet and pale in an inviolable dignity
And they heard the pastor: “The chariot has arrived.”
Carl Sandburg – Harvest Poems

A friend of mine died the other day-—alone, but not lonely—in good company, himself—certain of his commitments—rich in faith and friendship. His name was Russell Smalley. We all called him Russ, and for him, his chariot had arrived.

There was nothing “small” about Smalley. He never missed a beat, rarely misplayed a note, sat in the cornet section for over fifty years, and practiced every day. His lip was in shape at the very end. He was easy to talk to. No lengthy conversations, but always meaningful, interesting and, sometimes brutally honest.

Every once in awhile I would be asked to speak at the corps and lead the meetings in the officer’s absence. I got Russ, a former officer, to outline and lead the meeting while I prepared a sermon. I told him we will be the Captain and the Lieutenant—using the title of an old cornet duet. On one occasion I prepared what I considered would be a fine sermon using several passages from a secular book and drawing spiritual conclusions. After the service I thanked him. He nodded and said: “A fine presentation—I enjoyed the book report.” I haven’t used that sermon a second time.

He brought his family to the Hollywood Tabernacle in 1959 and made the move with most of the congregation to Pasadena in the early eighties. He marched regularly in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, went to open airs, could be called upon for a testimony that was always meaningful. He was a genuine soldier—full participation, did everything asked of him—was a great song leader—an active songster—attended Sunday school regularly, went to soldiers’ meetings, never missed a service. Russ was a real Sallie.

He was my friend.

Russ was highly autonomous—his own person. He was also a private person. He did not impose himself or his ideas on others. This did not mean he was uninformed on issues from politics to heretics, from the Army to the Vatican. If you wanted his thinking on matters, he would willingly share. In his later years, as his children moved elsewhere, he made strong relationships with Eric and Vivian Skarnas, who had moved to southern California at the same time he did. They did much together.

Russ was at the corps the Sunday prior to his death. He and my wife, Diane, joked together about their visual difficulties relative to macular degeneration. He never complained about not seeing well except as an explanation as to why he needed to leave the band. He could no longer read the music.

Everyone in the band had sincere affection for Russ. Age was no barrier. He became a significant part of the mystical world musicians generate—no matter where they’re from. They generate strong bonds of very positive fellowship together—feel a consuming sense of loyalty—achieve remarkable intimacy with each other. They are true comrades and have formed “camaraderie.”

I wonder if those not involved in performance groups achieve the level of camaraderie that such groups develop.

The intimacy grows with sensitive listening to one’s self in terms of tonality, volume, mood while also sensing the same qualities in others as gleaned non-verbally from the director’s style, facial expression, body movement and tempo. How often is there that much inter-personal attentiveness? How often do we limit the words, the inflection, the tone and mood in our own communication? How much do we struggle to fit into the desired patterns of the group? That’s intimacy. That’s Russ—never the show-boat, always making just the right sound necessary to achieve the desired results.

I never got a chance to ask him what he loved about life. His death was so sudden and unexpected. I saw him often and inferred that he loved his family, the corps, his uniform, certain songs, big cars, usually Buicks, good conversation, North Hollywood, God and the Bible, the Army, the Tab and his many good friends.

So long, Russ. I have no knowledge of my own chariot’s schedule—but, for sure, I’ll see you later.

The bare fact of Russ’s death is a reality, but his life was a shining poem.

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