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A mystery ensued when Loren scheduled five days off work in mid-February. He preferred vacations in late spring and summer, never the middle of winter. As weeks passed with no mention of vacation I was sure he intended to surprise me with a romantic getaway. One morning I tried to crack his secret. "What are the plans for February?"
Loren grabbed another muffin. "Nothing yet."
"Come on." I laughed giving him a playful smile. "I know something's up. You took off Valentine's."
Loren shook his head. "No. After fifteen years the company provides an extra week's vacation. It only makes sense to take time off between the other two."
His confession flung sand into my starry-eyed dream of stormy nights cuddled by the fire at our favorite beachside cottage.
Several nights later both of us sprawled on the couch after work, he said, "I've got an idea for vacation."
With a sudden burst of energy, I perked up.
Loren leaned toward me. "Now hear me out before you say anything. What would you think if we visited Tony?"
Four years earlier Loren and I had taught the high school Awana program at church. Tony had been part of our group. However, after he graduated he moved out of state. We didn't hear from him until his friend told us he'd gotten into trouble and was serving time in a California prison. We scribbled down his address. Tony was thrilled when he received Loren's first letter and they had been writing each other for two years.
I shook my head in disbelief. "But that's in the middle of nowhere. In the desert."
"Tony's doing six years. He has eighteen months left and doesn't know what life holds for him when he gets out," Loren said. "Our visit would encourage him."
"But if we spend our money on plane tickets, rent a car, and hotel, we won't have enough for a real vacation. We work long hours, Daddy has cancer. I'm tired. Don't you think we need a break?" My stout protest ended. Guilt seeped in.
The Lord's gentle whisper hushed my excuses. "I was in prison and you visited me." His was the third vote in our decision, and the only one that counted.
Flames cast an amber glow from the fireplace that warmed the room. Loren wrapped his arms around me. "Just pray about it. We'll have other vacations, and maybe we can save enough for a trip to the beach next fall. "
Valentine's week arrived and we packed our bags for our romantic getaway. First stop, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.
Into the Desert
We flew into Phoenix, Arizona, and spent the night in a hotel. The next morning we drove west toward California through a sparse landscape dotted with cactus. One hundred and fifty miles into our journey we arrived at the front gate of the prison. A guard checked our photo ID, and questioned our reason for being there.
When the uniformed man discovered the camera I'd brought with us to take pictures on the drive, he ordered Loren to hand over the car keys. Sweat poured down the man's red face as he marched to the rear of the car, opened the trunk, and tossed the camera inside with a thud. He returned the keys, and like the sting of scorpions that scurried the dry ground warned that we would be banned from the prison if we ever violated the rules again. He waved us through the entrance to the parking lot where we saw signs posted of the dos and don'ts, topping the list, "No Cameras or photography of any kind."
A woman called us to the counter to say they had not received the inmate visitation request we'd mailed prior to our trip. We told her of our relationship to Tony and how far we'd travel to see him. "Wait here." She disappeared through a doorway.
She returned with an officer who escorted us to an office down a short hallway. A man sat on the other side of a huge desk covered in papers and stacks of file folders. While he ran our ID's through their data base we answered more questions. He glared at us over the top of his glasses as he reviewed our information, then rubber stamped our paperwork with his approval.
A guard led us back to the crowded room. Finally, we heard our name announced along with others. We scrambled into a single file line in front of a door. Officers searched each person before they allowed them to exit the building into a chain-link fenced corridor. With a rattle of keys the door bolted shut behind us. Corralled like a herd of cattle, a man appeared at the opposite end of the cage we stood in and directed us to a bus.
We drove through two security gates, deeper into the prison compound. When we rolled to a stop, people hurried off the bus through a guarded door of a huge building into a common room. Prisoners entered from the building's opposite side. A hesitant smile crossed Tony's face as he walked toward us. Loren reached out his arms. Tony hugged him like he would never let go and wiped away a stray tear with his chambray shirt sleeve. Seated around a small table we talked for hours. So much to say. Some too difficult to write in a letter. The prison chaplain had asked Tony to help him with their church services. He attended a Bible study. Tony questioned how he'd find a job upon his release. He feared no one would give him a second chance. Before we said goodbye, we prayed.
Headed back to Phoenix, Loren said, "Did you see the look on his face when he saw us."
"Yeah, that alone was worth the trip."
Loren squeezed my hand in his. "I'm glad we came. He's sure grown in his relationship with the Lord."
God's commands are rarely convenient. They often require a sacrifice of time, money, our own plans, and even our own will. But I learned in prison that day the cost doesn't compare to the rewards.
**Note: "Valentine Getaway" first printed February 2016 in LIVE, a publication by Gospel Publishing House.
© 2014 Kathleen Kohler