There’s no question of God’s love for us. He created us. He died and rose from the dead in the person of Jesus Christ so that we can have eternal life with Him. The question is: do we genuinely love God? God sees deep into our hearts. He knows the answer to that question. We can’t fool, outwit, or manipulate Him. Many have tried. The one person that I knew who tried the most was a man we will simply call Mr. T.
A great guy
Mr. T. was an outgoing, friendly, and generous man. He frequently piled a bunch of us kids into the back of his pickup truck to take us to Geller’s for ice cream—his treat. With teeth clenched upon a big cigar, he’d drive down the street yelling, “C’mon kids we’re going to Geller’s!” The pickup would slow down so we could jump into the back. Geller’s was one of those small, drive-up snack bars on Cape Cod, Massachusetts that served everything through a window. It was great. My favorite was black raspberry. My wife worked there one summer. She still scoops a mean ice cream cone. She’ll always be a “Geller Girl.”
Many times Mr. T. took us out mackerel and striped bass fishing on his boat in Cape Cod Bay. And each summer he had a giant New England clam bake for everyone. He did it right! He prepared the cooking “pit” for three days with hot coals and sea weed. I was just a kid, but my older brothers helped him. Lobsters and steamer clams galore came from the pit, and hot dogs, sausages, and hamburgers from the grill. There was plenty to satisfy the taste buds of any New Englander.
One or two nor’easters—big storms—showed up each summer. One year, there was a particularly severe one. The storm had already been at its peak for several hours. Waves pounded the shore as the wind howled at hurricane strength. Mr. T.’s boat, like a dozen or more others, had a mooring just off the beach. He thought he had secured it well enough to weather the storm alright. It was a judgement call each boat owner had to make prior to storms such as these. The other owners had taken their boats out of the water, out of harm’s way. He hadn’t.
From our waterfront home, we watched the storm’s unrelenting power rearrange the beach as Mr. T.’s black colored boat pulled at its mooring straining against the crashing waves and driving rain. The beach would survive, but it didn’t look good for the black boat. Then the worst happened, it started inching toward shore; the mooring was no longer secured to the sea floor. And that meant the waves would pound the boat toward shore where it would be smashed into fiberglass pieces against the anvil of the sand by the hammer of the waves. Night was falling when my brothers told Mr. T. the bad news.
A bad call
He made another judgement call. He decided to swim out to move the boat to safety. This wasn’t bravery. This was insanity. Against all advice, and his wife’s pleading, he ran into the night in a panic to save his black boat. We followed him to the water’s edge. Shouting above the roar of the waves my brothers devised a strategy to save him if the surf knocked him unconscious. He swam out into the tempest and out of sight. We waited in the drenching, driving rain; the waves struggled up the beach to reach us.
About twenty minutes later, mixed in amongst the various noises of the storm, we could make out the faint sound of a boat motor. Then we saw the dim glow of running lights. He made it! But now what? There was an outcropping of submerged rocks boats avoided in daylight. He had to do it at night, in a storm, while dodging the ropes attached to the numerous lobster buoys to prevent them from wrapping around the propeller. This was a foolish endeavor. Who in their right mind would do it?
The running lights faded into the storm’s deadly brew of waves, wind, and rain. He was gone. We waited on the soaked beach out of the reach of the three-quarter incoming tide. Eventually, the moment came when the effects of the storm upon our bodies forced us indoors. The Coast Guard was informed of the situation. It was a long, news-less night. The storm raged till dawn. On most nights, the Gurnet Point Lighthouse fog horn lulled me to sleep, but this night it was a pulsing reminder that a life hung in the balance.
The clouds muted the sun’s early light, but the sight of large pieces of black fiberglass against the white sand were unmistakable. There was no sign of Mr. T.
Exceeding the limits of hypothermia
He didn’t last long, we later learned. He failed to navigate past the waves breaking over the submerged rocks. One slammed the boat against another. When it started taking on water he, for some reason, attempted to run it out to sea. The boat sank somewhere amongst the lobster buoys. The storm dumped him without a life jacket, whistle, or beacon into the frigid, fifty-six-degree water of Cape Cod Bay. His body quickly numbed. Shivering uncontrollably, he hoped for a rescue. According to the hypothermia survival charts, a human will lose consciousness within two hours in these waters, and die within six. It was just before 10 pm. The clock was ticking.
Bobbing in the wind, rain, and waves along with the rest of the buoys, Mr. T. turned his heart to God. God was the only One who could help him out of this hopeless mess of his own making — disasters humble us all. He prayed, “God, if you save me from this storm, I will serve you for the rest of my life.”
God kept His side of the bargain
Several hours after daybreak, long past the maximum hypothermia survival rate, the ocean was calming down from the passing storm. The breaking waves had transitioned to heaving swells. A lobsterman, anxious to check the status of his pots, motored from one to another. Thirty minutes later, he happened upon a motionless body; arms spasmed around two lobster buoys. Delirious, but miraculously alive, Mr. T. was pulled from the water more than two miles from his expected location.
He was dropped off at the house at around 9:00 am. That’s when we heard his miraculous story and his promise to God. He seemed quite genuine.
A Secret Life
Mr. T. had a secret life. It was a secret that had been kept from me, the youngest in the family. As the years passed, it became increasingly difficult for those-in-the-know to explain his secret away. God, of course, knew it. God knew the motivations of his heart on that tempest night, for God can’t be fooled, outwitted, or manipulated; but He is overly gracious. What God gave Mr. T. that night was not so much an extension of life, as it was a second chance to turn his life around. He was given a chance to make good his side of the bargain. He was given a chance to accept the bargain that God had hammered upon the anvil of Christ’s cross: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NAS)
Mr. T., you see, was a genuine Mafioso — a member of the Mafia. Oh, a small player on the outskirts to be sure, but a member of the club nonetheless. He never got my brothers involved, his wife made sure of it; besides, they were too smart for that. Having fun with him fishing and boating is one thing, joining him in racketeering and drug running is another level altogether.
All the fragments of evidence came together for me about five years after the storm when I was told that “Mr. T. would be away on a ‘business trip’ to the Bahamas for eight years.” That’s a long ‘business trip’. The words said one thing, the smirks and shooting glances said another. Mr. T., fortunately, was more skilled at lying than were my family members. It finally explained why a handful of guys, dressed in custom tailored suits and shoes, always showed up at the clam bakes. They stood out easily amongst the barefooted, bathing suit crowd of August.
The truth was that Mr. T. had been convicted and imprisoned for dumping radioactive waste in a neighboring town’s landfill. It’s expensive to properly dispose of radioactive waste from a nuclear power plant. On the other hand, you can make a lot of money if you just throw it away at a dump. The nuclear waste leached into the ground and contaminated the surrounding residential properties. The jury didn’t like that. And it’s not the kind of thing, by a long shot, that a true believer in Jesus Christ would think of doing.
Mr. T. could have kept his promise that night, but he didn’t. It’s notoriously difficult, maybe impossible, to leave the Mafia. But, surviving all night in such a storm, in frigid water, was impossible. God is the God of the impossible. It’s why we call what He does — miracles.
No one can know what ultimately happened in his heart with his relationship with God. I hope that the years in prison and community service achieved what a night at sea could not: genuine repentance at the foot of the cross of Christ. A lot of people paid to help bring him to that point, first and foremost was Jesus, the One who kept him alive and clinging to those buoys. He is also the only One who knew what motivated him to swim out into that severe nighttime storm. Was it to save a lousy sixteen-foot black boat, or was there something in the boat that Mr. T. didn’t want washing up on the beach? — drugs, a body?
If only a true servant of God had been pulled out of that water instead of the same man who dove in. Then I’d have a much better story to tell. I wonder what you and I, faced with the exact same situation, would have done. Are we too trapped by life’s circumstances that we do not respond to the One Person who can deliver us from them? It’s a question with eternal consequences.