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Hardly Your Average Joe

My lifelong pal, Joe Saddler, saved me from going to hell—and so much more.
an illustration of a red-head joe saddler and phil gulley as kids.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

I FIRST MET Joe Saddler at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Danville in the late 1960s. Father McLaughlin was our childhood priest. Joe was several years older than me, and it was Father McLaughlin’s custom to pair younger altar boys with older altar boys, so I was paired with Joe. Despite Joe’s seasoned hand at the wheel, I was terrified at the prospect of serving at the altar, because my brother Glenn had warned me that if I made any mistakes during the Mass I would go to hell. Just before the service, Father McLaughlin told me it would be my job to ring the altar bells at the appropriate moments, the details of which I had already forgotten, but was too afraid to admit. The Mass began, it came time to ring the bells, and I froze, and would have gone to hell if not for Joe leaning over and whispering in my ear, “The bells, ring the bells.” And so I did, and was spared eternal damnation, thanks to Joe.

We served Mass together several times in the following years, then graduated from high school and went off to college. Joe ended up a middle school teacher in Plainfield, and I became a Quaker pastor. We likely wouldn’t have reconnected except that in 1987, my wife and I rented a farmhouse east of Plainfield. A young woman, Robin Smith, was our neighbor, single, and living by herself out in the country. We were feeling especially protective of her, so when she told us she had a boyfriend we were immediately suspicious.

“He better be nice to Robin, or else,” my pacifist Quaker wife would say.

Then one evening Robin phoned and said she was bringing her boyfriend over to meet us. A moment later there was a knock on the back door, and we opened it to see Robin standing with Joe, and so our friendship was reborn. A few years later they married, had a son, and moved to Danville, as is the dream of everyone fortunate enough to be raised here. Several years later, my wife and I followed, buying a house down the street from the Saddler’s.

Our first month in Danville, Joe and I had the bright idea to end each day with pie and ice cream at the Mayberry Cafe. Within a few months, Joe’s pants no longer fit and I got diabetes, so we decided to forgo pie and ice cream and go for evening walks. I’d walk up my hill, Joe would walk up his hill, and we would meet at the top of the neighborhood and circle the block two times, two miles. We did that nearly every night for 20 years, and in all those years shared the same joke. He’d point to a bright light in the sky and say, “What’s that?” I would say, “It looks like a planet to me.” He would say, “Which one?” And I, as if we were still in junior high, would say, “It looks like Uranus.” We would laugh uproariously, almost every night for 20 years.

Until one night we noticed Joe’s right foot dragged on the pavement and sometimes he couldn’t find the right word. Doctors were consulted, tests were run, and a tumor was discovered deep inside his head, the nasty kind of tumor with cruel tentacles that weave themselves into the brain, strangling hope.

Our walks dwindled to an end, COVID hit, and our visits were confined to conversations on his back deck, sitting 10 feet apart wearing masks, but even that became too draining for Joe. Then this past summer, Robin became unable to transfer Joe from his recliner to his bed, so I would end my day helping put Joe to bed. One evening, Robin and I were lifting him from his recliner and his pants slid down and without thinking I said, “I see Uranus.” Joe started laughing, and so did Robin and so did I, laughing so hard we fell backward into Joe’s chair, our tears and laughter mingling. It was our last laugh, but our best laugh.

Three weeks later Joe died, and a week after that we held his funeral at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Catholic Church, our childhood church. Sitting there, amid the comforting aromas and sounds of my youth, it occurred to me Joe had saved me twice: the first time from damnation, the second time from despair. 

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. "Back Home Again" chronicles his views on life in Indiana.

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