Missing On Mount
I WILL LIFT UP MY EYES TO THE HILLS FROM WHENCE COMES
MY HELP? MY HELP COMES FROM THE LORD.
In Decision magazine's second year of publication, I received a note from my close friend Grady Wilson, who had already rescued me from more than one exigency. Sometimes I think God gave us friends to turn the wheels of creation. I'm sure friends are a great part of what life is all about. Grady was obviously feeling good on May 18, 1962, as he wrote me the following letter from Charlotte, North Carolina:
You are doing a bang-up job with Decision Magazine. Everywhere I go, people are commenting on your masterful presentation. Coming back from Florida, Billy remarked about how you were God's man for this job. Keep it up and more power to you! We love you much and thank God that He sent you our way.
Your devoted friend,
Can you imagine working for people like that?
Two months later Grady was driving down the Bayshore Freeway south of San Francisco early one morning in July. Seated
next to him again was Billy Graham. The two evangelists had spent the night in the Villa Motor Hotel, San Mateo, and were now heading for Fresno. There on the following day Billy would be holding a press conference in advance of his eight-day crusade in Ratcliffe Stadium.
Exciting plans had been made by Crusade Director Bill Brown and his staff to reach out to the entire San Joaquin Valley with the message of Jesus Christ. They expected that thousands of people would fill the stadium where Australian John Landy had run the first under-four-minute mile ever recorded in the United States.
Counselors were being recruited who could speak German, Swedish, Russian, and Chinese. A young Argentine named Luis Palau, a student at Multnomah School of the Bible, was appointed translator for the special Spanish-speaking section.
At nine o'clock that morning Grady Wilson turned on the car radio to pick up the CBS newscast. The first news item stated that the sheriff of Siskiyou County had listed an aide of Evangelist Billy Graham named Sherwood Wirt as missing on Mount Shasta a 14,161-foot snow-covered peak in northern California.
According to Grady's account, Billy commanded in alarm, "Stop the car! We've got to find him! We'll get a dog team."
"I can't stop the car; we're on the freeway," protested Grady.
They drove into San Jose where they pulled off and found a telephone. Billy called his headquarters in Minneapolis.
According to Billy's story, which he told at the Fresno press conference next day and which I have on tape, he said, "I asked myself two questions: first, why he was up there, and second, what happened? I told the people in Minneapolis, 'Get the finest search parties, and we're going to try to get a plane right now and go up and see if we can find him.' "
Billy had recently come from an exhaustive tour of the western countries of South America and would shortly be preaching his way down the eastern side. He had spent several days in May proclaiming Christ to 700,000 citizens of Chicago. A climatic rally in Soldier Field drew a crowd of 116,000, according to the Chicago Tribune. He quickly followed that crusade with another huge rally at the
World's Fair in Seattle. The eight days in July he spent in Fresno were sandwiched in between a schedule that would exhaust any but the stoutest physical specimen.
Now Billy was proposing to vacate Fresno, despite all the preparations made by hundreds of volunteers and prayer warriors, and fly off to the slopes of Mount Shasta looking for one of his employees who had gotten into trouble while off duty. If you think Mr. Graham was just pretending or striking a pose, you don't know the gentleman.
My own story of "what happened" is fairly easy to relate. "Why I was up there" is a bit more involved. I tell it only to illustrate Graham's response to my predicament.
Not being able to take normal vacations due to the task of producing twelve issues a year of Decision, I had fudged slightly on my reporting assignment in Fresno. Leaving Minneapolis two days early, I rented a Volkswagen "Beetle" in San Francisco and drove to Mount Shasta City. There I spent a whole day trying to enlist a hiker willing to scale the mountain with me. Being unsuccessful, I drove to the ski lodge, parked my car, and rode the lift (since destroyed by an avalanche) to the ski shack at the 9,300-foot elevation.
Why did I want to climb this mountain? Because I was brought up in the Berkeley hills and had spent the last two years in prairie country. I yearned to climb. I felt drawn to this mountain because it is magnificent and because God had often talked to people on mountains. William Blake stated it well:
Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.1
Our father Abraham met God on a mountain. So did Moses and the author of Psalm 42 and 121. So did Peter, James, and John. Our Lord talked to His Father on a mountain. He taught on a mountain, departed this earth from a mountain, and when He returns, it will be on a mountain.
Starting from the Mount Shasta ski shack at 3 AM, I passed th Red Rocks six hours later by using crampons on my feet. By 11 AM
I was at the foot of Misery Hill, and at 2:15 I arrived at the crater summit, 14,161 feet. Descending, I slid down the snow patches for several miles and overshot the point where I had entered Avalanche Gulch for the ski lift. For a short time I really was lost. An hour of difficult climbing brought me to the head of the ski lift at 8 PM just as the sun as setting.
I knew the lift ceased operating at 5 PM. I did not know that the attendant had turned in my calling card to the sheriff's office. While I spent the night in the ski shack, a local AP correspondent took my name off the sheriff's blotter, and next day virtually every newspaper in the United States knew that Billy Graham's "aide" was "lost" except in Minneapolis where the papers were on strike.
But I wasn't lost. Another saw to that. I came down in the lift next morning and found that the sheriff had driven up to the lodge earlier looking for me. Fortunately I missed him, and next day I came to Billy Graham's press conference in Fresno. My boss greeted me: "Sherwood Wirt walked in a moment ago. Sherwood, would you stand? We've been worried about him. He's the fellow that's been lost on Mount Shasta..." (laughter) Billy went on to describe his plans for a dramatic rescue and then added, "While we were on the phone to Minneapolis, the other phone rang, and they said, 'Well, he's been found.' So we're delighted to have you here. I hope you enjoyed your experience. You gave a lot of us heart failure."
It was God who brought me off Mount Shasta safely but exhausted. I barely made it. No one should climb that peak alone, particularly if he is fifty-one years old. But I do not tell the incident to make a witness. My fellow team member Norman Pell likes to say, "I never know whether God is guiding my decisions or overruling my mistakes." The story is included principally for what it reveals about the man I love to call Boss.
What manner of man is Billy Graham? Dr. Iremonger, biographer of Archbishop William Temple, tried to explain his subject's spiritual acumen by saying that he had a "low threshold between his conscious and unconscious self," so that his soul expressed itself more spontaneously than is usual in people, and thoughts of unusual wisdom
and perceptivity came easily.2 The same might be applied to Graham.
Islanders of the South Pacific claim that Billy has "mana," a kind of mysterious but powerful stuff that they say clings to unique individuals and makes them poets or geniuses or witch doctors or dictators or evangelists. I prefer to speak of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which is God's special preparation of a man or woman who has been uniquely set apart for His work.
I prefer simply to sum it all up and call it greatness.
Of all the Billy Graham crusades I have attended around the globe, Fresno 1962 remains my favorite. It was like a delightful lawn party with balmy evenings, Spirit-filled music, strong preaching, and lovely people of every description attending. I will always remember the hundreds of Old Mennonite sisters with their bonnets, the German Baptist preachers with their beards, and the God-fearing farmers and orchard men with their families.
Fresno is the queen city of the richest agricultural area on earth (raisin grapes, peaches, apricots, figs, and melons in abundance as well as grains), but the nightly crowds came to Ratcliffe from far beyond the San Joaquin Valley. Buses rolled nightly from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks in the Sierra Nevadas, and waypoints including Ceres, where Cliff Barrows was born. Six hundred singing passengers arrived each night by special train from Bakersfield, 100 miles away. There were "incurables" from Fresno General Hospital who stayed in their bus and a paralytic woman who wrote sermons with a pencil in her teeth. And everywhere there were teenagers.
But it was no picnic. Billy's sermons were a sharp warning of judgment to come, a trumpet call to repentance, and a gracious invitation to eternal life though Jesus Christ. And when the invitation was extended, they came, hundreds of them every night, seeking salvation, restitution, and new life from the Savior of the world. Among them were a senior theological student from Berkeley and an Iraqi student from Baghdad who was counseled in Arabic.
A minister in Porterville in the Sierra foothills wrote afterward to Decision ordering forty subscriptions. He added this note:
The good that our church received from the Fresno meetings was immeasurable, and the help that I received personally was the greatest thing that has happened in my life.
We sponsored a thirty-nine-passenger bus to Fresno each night, a distance of seventy-five miles. Transportation was free to anyone who wanted to go. We had to use one to six cars to take care of the overflow. Monday night we had eighteen teenagers on the bus, and sixteen made commitments. Wednesday night we had an overload of sixty-nine passengers.
It was something to hear the young people's conversation on the way home from the meetings their concern for others and their making lists of their friends whom they were going to call so they would attend the meetings.
Whether the congregation was large or small, Episcopal or Pentecostal, church support for the crusade was fabulous in the Fresno area. More than one pastor was astonished when scores of referral cards of inquirers arrived in his mailbox. Two local television channels carried the crusade for six nights following.
Like Samaria after the apostle Philip had preached Christ to the people, there was great joy in Fresno in the days after the meetings closed.
He was at home with Ruth and his family in North Carolina, getting ready for a preaching tour of Sao Paulo, Asuncion, Cordoba, Rosario, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires, and a November crusade in El Paso, Texas.
1. William Blake, Gnomic Verse. See Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Garden City, N.Y.: 1994), 281.
2. F.A. Iremonger, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (London: Oxford Press, 1950).
Chapter 14 || Table of Contents