Grady Rowell and I became friends when his family moved to Wetumpka shortly after World War II. We were classmates at Wetumpka High School and both our families were members of First Methodist Church in Wetumpka. Grady was 91 when his body died. Three days later, on Feb. 24, I had the honor of helping to celebrate his life in the church which shaped our faith in Christ. It was in this church that we both came under the godly influence of Brother Si Mathison and were nourished in the faith by godly Sunday School teachers and other servants of Christ. They inspired us to trust Jesus to save us from our sins. 

Grady and I spent a lot of time in each other’s home, often spending the night on weekends with each other. Like my own mother, Mrs. Adrin Rowell had a precious way of making you feel comfortable eating at her table. 

Without the knowledge of our parents, during our last two years in high school, Grady and I spent many hours on the Coosa River. Down the river toward nearby Fort Toulouse, we built a tree house on the river bank. We didn’t know or care whose property it was on; we just claimed it and enjoyed it as our private getaway. 

On a cool winter Sunday in 1949, Grady and I, and our friend Joe Holley, went down below the Bibb Graves Bridge spanning the Coosa in Wetumpka to observe the flooding river. The water was well out of the banks and rising. We decided it would be fun to go for a ride in the barge we had hidden in some bushes. The Army Corps of Engineers had discarded the barge because it had a big hole in the bottom; we patched it with tar and plywood. It was about 15 feet long with sides two feet high, a pretty good-sized boat. We used it to paddle down to our tree house. 

That day we noticed what looked like part of a grease rack floating down the river, two large treated timbers tied together in the middle. We decided we could use it at our tree house, so all three of us jumped in the barge, grabbed this contraption and started down the river. Quickly the swirling current pulled the rack away from the barge. Not willing to lose it, Grady and I jumped in the river and held on to it, thinking we could guide it to our tree house. Joe stayed in the barge and paddling furiously, made it back to shore.

The swirling current was pulling us toward the middle of the river but somehow Grady and I managed to gradually move our contraption toward the river bank. Meanwhile Joe had tied up the barge and after running back to town, let it be known that Grady and I were stranded in the flooding river, headed toward Fort Toulouse. 

Somehow we got out big timbers near the west side of the river and managed to hook a steel cable with a hook on it to a tree limb. There we were, soaking wet, shivering, dressed in winter coats with boots on our feet; but we were laughing and feeling no fear. At age 17 it never occurred to us we might die in the river that day. It would be years before we realized how close to death we had come. 

Minutes later we breathed a sigh of relief. A man in a small boat was paddling across the river not far away. We yelled and persuaded him to help us. Reluctantly, because his boat was filled with corn he had “rescued” from a field across the river, he came to our rescue and let us help him paddle safely to the bank. We left our treasured timbers hooked to that tree limb and started back to town. 

As Grady and I ran across the bridge toward his house, we hear a siren blasting away. After changing clothes at Grady’s home, we walked the short distance to our church for the Youth Fellowship meeting. Once there we discovered there would be no meeting. The siren we heard was about our adventure. Everybody was talking about how the fire department and volunteers were on their way to Fort Toulouse to rescue Grady and me. 

Yes, we were foolish teenagers who by the grace of God did not drown in the Coosa River that afternoon. We did finally come to our senses and grow up, and no two men have ever been more thankful for the kindness of God than and Grady and me. God in his mercy allowed both of us to live into our nineties. And why? In our sunset years we became convinced that God spared us so that we could spend our lives pointing people to Jesus. 

A year later Grady was sitting beside me in our church the night I went forward and answered the call of God to become a preacher. It was during a youth revival Grady and I had helped plan to get other young people saved; but as it turned out it was the two of us who were inspired to surrender our lives to Jesus. 

After high school we went to Auburn together, roomed together, all the while seeking to understand God’s plans for our lives. During our freshman year I was licensed to preach, and even though I didn’t know how, I began preaching in youth revivals in churches around Auburn and Opelika. Grady sang solos and led the singing. We likened ourselves to Billy Graham and George Beverly Shea. 

Two years later Grady left Auburn and joined the United States Navy. During Grady’s years as a seaman, I finished at Auburn and went on to seminary to prepare for the ministry. We were separated for a number of years. After his Navy years Grady worked for Bendix Engineering in California, Texas and Arizona, then returned home to Alabama in retirement. As we resumed our friendship, Grady became a gifted leader in the Emmaus Movement and a devout member of the church in Wetumpka that had nurtured our faith as teenagers. 

In our retirement years our friendship deepened; we spent time together, sharing memories, praying together and laughing. What Grady offered me, and I like to think I offered it to him, was the encouragement and acceptance of a faithful friend — for 77 years. What kept us laughing was more than his delightful sense of humor; somewhere along his journey with Jesus, Grady got full of the joy of the Lord. He had so much, it kept bubbling out of his soul and blessing the people around him. The secret of that joy is found in this chorus our church taught us when we were young:

It’s bubbling, it’s bubbling

It’s bubbling in my soul

There’s singing, and laughing

Since Jesus made me whole

Folks don’t understand it

Nor can I keep it quiet

It’s bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, bubbling

Bubbling, day and night

After the celebration of his life, Grady’s wife Celestra and the family scattered Grady’s ashes in Lake Jordan near their home. Seventy-five years after God spared his life from the flooding Coosa River, Grady’s ashes were strewn in the water of Lake Jordan. But, mind you, it was not Grady they threw in the lake; it was only the ashes of the body his soul had used to serve Jesus. The Grady whose faith and laughter blessed so many is now with Jesus.

If Grady could call me from heaven, I’m sure he would be laughing and telling me, “I bet some of the fish that swallowed my ashes were jumping up out of the water singing ‘Victory in Jesus!’”

It was no small task to tell my faithful friend so long, but I am confident I will see him again in the Father’s House. I have shared this story of two men who spent 75 years thanking God for his mercy as a tribute to Grady, but also so I can ask you this question: Is the joy Grady had bubbling inside you? If not, it’s yours for the asking. All you have to do is get on your knees and ask Jesus for it, and He will give it to you. And believe me, there is nothing quite like it!