My next younger brother, Skip Stephens, was born November 1, 1949 in Brownwood TX. We lived there for four years in the late 1940’s while my Dad attended Howard Payne College. When Skip was about 2 years old and I was 8, we moved to Tillamook, Oregon where Dad pastored a small Baptist Church.
Skip was born Sterling Clark Stephens, named after our maternal and paternal grandfathers, but from the very beginning, I don’t think anyone ever called him Sterling. Mom called him “Skippy”, and that was really a great name for him! He was active, outgoing, and had a tendency toward unpredictability. And I know that at some point, Skippy wanted to be called Skip. Just as his big brother, who was always called Jimmy, wanted to be called Jim. Actually, I’m pretty sure that at some point, Skip officially changed his name to Skip and probably was never called Sterling in his life!
We were six years apart in age, so we didn’t try to occupy the same place in the family and we weren’t going through the same growing up processes at the same time. I left home right after high school at age 18 and Skip was not quite a teenager yet at age 12. Another thing is that we were so different in personality that we didn’t conflict in ways we might have if we’d been trying to be like each other or to outdo each other.
Skip was an adventurer, a trier of new things, a breaker of molds. He was very physical and active. In high school, he did tumbling and trampolining. Instead of playing sports, he joined the cheerleading squad, not exactly the norm for a boy in a small high school in a farming community. But Skip definitely marched to his own drumbeat! He continued cheerleading through high school and college and I think he helped change some attitudes in the process.
He graduated from high school in Connell Washington, and that fall he bought a new Honda CL350 motorcycle when he left home for college in California. He rode it to school and when it eventually needed major repair, he and his friends took it apart to fix it. It remained “apart” in boxes until at some point I traded him an old car for it. I rebuilt the engine, did a lacquer paint job on the tank and trim, and learned to ride motorcycles myself. I can’t remember if motorcycles remained part of Skip’s life after that. I think that’s about when he switched to airplanes! But from that time on, I always had an old motorcycle or two around except when we lived overseas.
Skip joined Air Force ROTC in college, and got serious about learning to fly. (Sometimes he even used airplanes!) After college he enlisted in the Air Force and served as an officer and a jet fighter pilot instructor in the T38 Talon supersonic trainer jet, affectionately called the “White Rocket”. His main responsibility was training foreign US allies pilots in the use of US Air Craft provided to their nations by the US military, and for several years Skip trained mostly Kuwaiti pilots. It was a mark of honor for pilots to survive being trained by Lt Skip Stephens. And of course, Skip had a Corvette, as Air Force fighter pilots often do!
When he got out of the Air Force, he flew for general aviation companies, mostly out of Tri-Cities Washington. He had jobs at various times as a corporate pilot for businesses and movers and shakers. But Skip loved teaching as well as flying, so he did a lot of both. In addition to his flying, he was a sought after flight instructor in SE Washington. He died in a fiery crash of a King Air twin engine aircraft on July 27, 1996 while training the owner of the plane. I don’t know the details.
Skip was a devoted Christian. He led worship at his church and served faithfully. Skip and I both loved thinking, questioning and experimenting with theology. We had some great conversations through the years, often by phone and occasionally in person when I was visiting the US. Who knows? If we had lived on the same continent all those years we might have started a whole new faith movement!
This afternoon, I remembered an incident that took place during a time when we were both living in the Tri-Cities, WA before Jean and I moved overseas to serve as missionaries. One hot summer day, Skip and I flew from the general aviation airport in Richland, WA to Ontario, in southeastern Oregon. My daughter Stephanie, probably about nine years old at the time flew with us. We were in a single engine high wing plane, maybe a Piper or Cessna or something like that. Skip was in the pilot seat, I was in the other front seat and Stephanie was in the back. On the way back from Ontario, we encountered some weather, a summer pop-up thunderstorm, and the flying got pretty bumpy. Stephanie got messily airsick! Skip told me to take the controls and keep the wings level in the indicator on the dash and to keep the nose level while he climbed over the seat to help Stephanie clean up the “mess.”
It got pretty bumpy and more than once I asked Skip if we were doing okay. He would glance at the gauges and say, “Yep, we’re fine! Just keep the nose level and the wings level and we’ll do great!” Hail was rattling off the wings and the windscreen and for a while there was nothing to see but grey clouds rushing past.
In a little while we bounced our way out of the storm into sunshine and calm air again and Skip climbed back over the seat and took us home. It wasn’t until some years later a friend told me that Skip had told him the story of that afternoon and said, “That was a pretty wild ride! I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it!” But it was pretty much a walk in the park (or a flight in the sky) for me, because Skip kept saying, “Yep, we’re fine! Just keep the nose level and the wings level and we’ll do great!”
That incident, and other things that I’ve experienced since, taught me that I tend to have confidence in people who know more about something than I do. And I like that. I like to be able to have confidence in the wisdom and knowledge of others and not have to know everything myself! Lazy? No, I just don’t need to be an expert on everything.
Anyhow, I’m glad for this opportunity to think about my brother Skip today on what would have been his 72nd birthday. And I’ve thought about how I regret not having spent more time with Skip after we grew up and took our lives in very different directions. It’s an interesting thing how I’ve been thinking about this today. I do regret not having more time with Skip. And I regret that we don’t get to sit around together in our 70’s and have long conversations about whatever we’d talk about if we could.
But I’m not regretting in an “Oh that’s so terrible and I feel so bad and if I had it to do over again, I’d sure do it differently!” kind of way. Because we probably wouldn’t have done things much differently at all! We did what we did and what mattered to us and were both true to who God made us to be. So it’s more of a mild sort of “It would have been nice” kind of regret. You know what I mean?
Anyhow, this blog post has been refreshing for me to think through and write and it makes me appreciate my brother Skip more than ever. And I’m thinking about some things that I want to share with you in next week’s post about how we can maximize our opportunities with Family and Friends.
As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.