Tom Headland Stories

The Influence of the Friesen Family on My Life

Mel and Helen Friesen and their five children have had a huge role in shaping my journey as a Christian! They took me in as a rather wild teenage boy. Later l worked for Mel on their farm in Pixley when I first got out of the Paratroopers in 1956, and lived right there in their home with them while I recovered from the life I went through in the Army. They loved me, fed me, were oh so patient with me, and never pressured me at all. Their children, small then, were all so concerned for me because I was not quite a Christian. Their oldest daughter, Sandy, asked me once with tears in her eyes, when she was about age 10, while I was sitting in the children’s play area at CBS in 1954, “Uncle Tom, don’t you believe in Jesus?” That really got to me. Later four of the five Friesen children supported us financially through Wycliffe, as did Mel and Helen.

The Camp Hunter and Fisherman

Part of my job on the Crew was supplying enough fish or abalone to feed the whole camp once a week, by spear fishing along the rock reefs off of Gallagher’s cliffs. Also, once every week or so the cooks would ask me to bring in a wild pig for an evening supper on the beach. I did all my hunting with my bow and arrow, and would butcher and cook whole roast pigs on the coals on the beach. And I often took off into the hills and lived for days at a time on the far side of the island off what I killed with my bow—pigs, but sometimes a small wild goat. I don’t know how Mel Friesen and Bob Mannes let me get away with all that, but Catalina was pretty much a free-roaming wilderness back in those days.

My Most Embarrassing Moment

The most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me in my whole life occurred at CBS in the summer of 1954. One day I killed a rattlesnake in camp. Not the first time for me, but this time I didn’t just skin it, but decided to clean the meat, one long white ribcage, and take it in and ask the cooks to grill it for me and my buddy on the grounds crew. They said sure. When the lunch bell rang, my buddy and I sat down at a table with two cute young girl campers, one of whom I had a crush on. After the prayer, Gwen Moore the assistant cook brought out the freshly-fried chunks of snake meat and set the plate in front of me saying, “Here’s your rattlesnake, Tom.” This cute girl on my left looked rather startled and said to me, “Say, what is that?” As for me, in my teenage fantasy, I was sure this girl was crazy about me, alias “Dan’l Boone” (so I thought) and wishing like mad that I could invite her out for a moonlight rowboat ride on the bay. So I lifted up the platter and said to her, “It’s rattlesnake! Would you like some?” To my surprise, she said, “Uhh, no thanks.” So I asked the other girl sitting there the same thing, and she said “No” also. So my buddy and I commenced to dig in. As I began smacking my lips and saying, “Wow, this is delicious,” I was also pretty sure that now this girl would probably fall into my arms any second. Instead, she got up and—this actually happened—walked over to the window and vomited!

 Sign, I was only 17 then. But I matured about ten years in the next few minutes. Oh yes, I suppose I should say, too, ahh,… well,… there was no moonlight boat ride that evening, or any evening. I was so embarrassed I never told anyone about this until about 5 years ago when I decided to relate this story to Janet and our kids and grandkids. They laughed so hard and so long that I thought… well, gee, I guess I may as well fess up and laugh too.

 I wonder where that woman is today, and what version of the story she tells to her kids and grandkids today. One thing I’m sure of, she’s never forgotten it.

The Case of the Missing Student

When I read Marilyn Byer’s story, The Case of the Missing Student, it brought back a flood of memories. He was a camper at the month-long camp that year. He did not show up for breakfast on the very morning that all the campers were scheduled to depart on a water taxi for the mainland. The campers had to leave without him. Some did stay behind to help look for him. We formed a long chain where we hiked straight up the canyons, each of us about 8 feet from the other. I was in the chain that first morning going up the canyon of Little Gallagher’s Cove. That night I and my grounds crew buddy sat silently high up on the ridge on the north side of camp, as did teams of two men on other ridges, hoping perhaps the student might come out of hiding and we could coax him back to camp. Nothing that night. All of the men, staff and crew, plus a very few campers who stayed behind, began hiking further inland over the next days. Not only was the sheriff and his men there, but a large police helicopter came and landed in camp and was making airborne searches. One day I and other swimmers swam over to Toyon Bay and back, with fins and masks, looking for his body deep in the kelp beds. Again, nothing. The main search leaders were, Paul Byer and Ron Thompson. On the fifth day, the sheriff and police called off the search, saying by this time the student is surely dead. They closed the case and went home.

Not Ready to Quit

But not us! We knew this young student, after a month with us, we all loved him. We were not about to quit yet. On the sixth day, Paul was leading a group of about six of us. Around 4 o’clock we sat down, pretty tired by now, at the top of the ridge over Toyon Canyon to rest and pray. I remember Paul saying, first to us, “Men, we have another camp group coming in two days, and we need to do a lot of work in Camp to prepare for them. Help me think and pray.” Paul then led in prayer. I remember watching him, not yet quite believing God could help us or care, or if he was aware of us at all. I remember exactly what Paul said, if not the exact words: “Dear God, please help us. Should we follow the sheriff and stop searching?” Then Paul said something that made me—still not quite a believer—roll my eyes. He said, “God, if you want us to continue this search tomorrow, give us a sign. If you don’t give us a sign, we’ll call off the search this evening and hike back to camp.”

Paul Byer’s Prayer

There I was, 21 years old, wondering what in the heck was Paul thinking? What in the dickens kind of sign was he asking for? I took a bit of a risk then. I prayed. Silently to myself only, with my eyes open while everyone else’s were closed, “God if you give us a sign, and we find this man alive, I’ll believe in you.” That’s bad theology, but I didn’t know much theology in those days. We got up and walked a bit further along the ridge, dragging our tired feet, even me, an ex-paratrooper. Maybe half-hour later a jeep came driving south along the ridge on that one then-dirt road that ran from Avalon to the north part of the island at Emerald Bay. A man was in the jeep and stopped and asked us what we were doing. When we told him we were looking for a student lost somewhere on the island, he said this: “Gee, that’s kinda funny. When I came out of Emerald Bay a while back, I saw a man on a hill out in the middle of nowhere. I stopped and called him, but he ran and disappeared down the other side of the hill.”

A Sign

Paul took that as a sign. It kinda made sense to me, too, but I wasn’t very optimistic. The man took Ron and Paul in his car back to the place, while the rest of us trudged down the mountain into CBS, tired and thirsty. I learned early the next morning that Ron or Paul and the man in the jeep found nothing. But we climbed back up to the ridge at dawn, where a truck was to meet us all at the ridge and drive us the 15+ miles north to the spot. Ron and Paul had already left Camp before dawn where a jeep drove them to the spot. As the rest of us 6 men bumped along in the back of that open truck, we came to a curve in the road where Paul stopped us and said they had found him, and he seemed okay, though tired, thirsty and hungry. Paul asked us to return in the truck, because the student was reluctant to come out of his canyon hiding place with us there. So we returned back to CBS on the truck.

 As Ron and Paul told it to us later, they were hiking along opposite sides of a canyon quietly looking for the student. Suddenly Paul stopped and hand-signaled to Ron, “He’s down there by you, I see him.” Ron couldn’t see him, but started walking towards where Paul had pointed. Suddenly Ron heard a voice say, simply, “Hi Ron.” Ron then saw the student, who was glad to see Ron. Ron went and sat down with the student, who was quite weak. Then Paul came over. The student was relaxed, not afraid or hostile, and willing to go up to the road with them. I forget how they got the student back to Avalon, but I guess in that jeep.

I went with Mel Friesen the next day to visit the student in the hospital in Avalon. He had an intravenous tube in him, because of dehydration. The student knew me, and Mel, and we three chatted and laughed a bit together. He seemed okay. That’s the last time I saw him. He recovered and went back to the Mainland a few days later with his parents.

How My Life Was Changed that Week

And what about me? Did I remember my prayer to God that day on the mountain ridge? Yes. And here I am still here today telling you this very significant event in my life. I was stunned when we found him. I found faith in Christ that day. I don’t know if that is when I became a Christian. It was all so gradual that summer and, in fact, my journey to God had started long before that, when my parents accepted Christ when I was about 15, and sometime later my brother and sister. But it was the discipleship I got over several summers at CBS that taught me what it meant to turn my life over to Christ during that summer of 1957.