(First of Four Articles)
Some stories seem too bizarre to believe but this did happen to me. It was 1999. We were working as missionaries in the Philippines. Before I begin, I need to give you some basic background information.
We developed a livelihood program which helped impoverished churches support their pastors in extremely depressed communities. One of the products we trained the people to make was handmade paper from banana plant fibers. Over the years the program became quite large and we had some beautiful products and the program achieved its goals.
To process these tough abaca fibers (a type of banana plant) into pulp, it requires several operations and one of them is cooking. We began small and cooked them over a wood fire in a small pot for three days. As the project began to grow, we needed a larger pot and that eventually led to a point where we needed to get serious about cooking large amounts of fibers. The best solution was a steam system and that meant a boiler.
A boiler. I knew nothing about boilers except that they are big, hot, expensive and they are found in Canada where they have 11 months of snow and one month of bad sledding. But this California boy was “boiler-challenged.” Where would one find a boiler in the Philippines? This is not exactly a country where central heat is a priority. We only had two seasons there, hot-humid and hot-wet. A boiler right?!? Good luck finding that one! Did you ever have one of those things in your life that you felt silly asking God about? I was sure he was going to laugh. So, I prayed, “Uh, God, this is Ed in the Philippines again. I know I am always asking for dumb stuff but I think I may have outdone myself this time. We need a boiler.” Then I ducked.
This story gets crazy. The associate missionary who was working with us at the time attended a small barrio church near us. A Filipino banker was pastoring that church. I have no idea how the subject came up but our associate mentioned to the pastor/banker that we were looking for a boiler. I imagine he just said something like, “Brother Vern, I noticed that you need Bibles and windows in the building and your new Sunday school rooms are taking shape. By the way, do you know where I can find a boiler?” OK, I don’t know how the subject came up but it seems that the least likely person in the world to ask about a boiler is a pastor in a depressed area. So, what did Vern say? Are you ready for this? He calmly looked at my associate and remarked, “I have a boiler and I could give it to you.” I told you this story is going to get bizarre.
It gets better. It turns out that pastor Vern was not just a banker and a pastor, but he was also an entrepreneur. About ten years earlier he was approached by a Korean businessman who had a plan for an exciting new product that was going to sweep Korea and he needed a Filipino business partner to run the production side. It was much cheaper to set up a factory in the Philippines. The product was “liquid goat.” No, that is not a typo. Liquid goat! The Korean wanted to use high-pressure steam to vaporize goats and turn them into this cool carbonated soft drink. I still have trouble visualizing not just the process but the product. Can you imagine having some friends over on a hot summer afternoon for a barbeque and yanking some cool ones out of the ref, “Who wants a goat?” Visualizing was not coming easy for me on this one but cultures are different.
From what I was able to understand the liquid goat industry didn’t exactly take off. I could say, “Duh” at this point but that would not be kind so let me just say, “That is really too baaaaaaaad.” Here is what happened. The two partners in goat proceeded to build a large building and then the Korean partner imported a huge stainless steel steam system with a boiler, large steam vessels, spinners and the other usual goat-vaporizing components. It arrived from South Korea and they installed it and began the operation.
They bought a herd of goats and tossed them in into the big shiny stainless tanks and turned up the heat. I know what you want to ask but don’t. All I know is that the goats went into the tanks. After the cooking, spinning, removing goat slop and filtering they then carbonated the stuff. (Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?) Then the anticipated moment arrived. They completed the first liquid goat soft drink. Yep, they wiped the Manila sweat off their faces, sat down, looked at each other with hearts racing in anticipation, and then had the ultimate satisfaction of being the first to pop the lid and down the goat. Then they just stared at each other. And they stared. Was it satisfaction and the joy of accomplishment? No, it was the realization that liquid goat was not very good. Actually, it was horrible. OK, now I can say it. Duuuuuh! Vern asked his new partner if he had ever had liquid goat before and the partner said, “No, it just seemed like it would work!” They stared some more.
Since we can’t begin to imagine what goes through a person’s mind when they have their first frosty goat and when you experience the death of a vision in such a burst of blunt realization and heartburn, we will just the leave the rest of the story to your imagination and get on to the final part.
The Korean went home the next day. Let me say that one more time. The Korean boarded a plane in the morning, went home, and was never heard from again. He vanished, disappeared, no phone calls, nada. Vern, from what I can tell, was sad and happy at the same time. He was sad the business failed and he was happy the business failed. I guess he didn’t want to be known as the man who cooked and carbonated goats. So, he locked up the giant, glistening goat-liquefying facility, and got on with his life.
Ten years passed, and then one day he put his property up for sale. He found a buyer but they did not want the goat factory. (I can’t imagine why.) I would have said, “Nice property Vern, but what really sold me was that great goat liquefaction factory. Wow, how can I pass that up?” But that is just me, the buyer wanted it gone. What could Vern do with all that equipment? Should he run an ad that said, “For sale, liquid goat factory?” It had been ten years since he had heard from his partner and now the place is sold and he has to move everything out in a few weeks. So, at that very moment, with no idea how to find a way to get rid of all that equipment, this American missionary says to him, “Do you know where we can get a boiler?”
Two days later we toured the deserted food factory and saw not just a large boiler but large stainless cooking vessels and piping and motors and pumps and spinners and and and and . . . We just stood there amazed with our mouths open and with perspiration dripping from our faces. I am sure glad he didn’t offer us a goat. The bottom line is that Vern visited our paper-making facility and loved the ministry. He then donated the entire steam system to us. And then, just as quickly as Vern had come into our lives, he died in a car accident two weeks later. I can’t help but smile when I think of the hug God gave Vern for his last generous act before he died. God has a way of rewarding his kids and I am so glad for Vern’s sake that he laid up treasure for himself in heaven and he didn’t delay in doing it.
Once again, my imagination takes me to a conversation, this time between Vern and God. “Vern, well done. You have been a good and faithful servant. But I have one question for you. What were you thinking? — Liquid Goat?”
Almost overnight we had this incredible steam system and absolutely no idea how to install it or operate it. So, I prayed, “Hi God, it’s Ed again from the Philippines. Remember a few weeks ago when I asked for a boiler and then I ducked? Well, as you know, we now have a complete steam system worth a gazillion dollars at our facility and I just wanted to thank you. But if I can add a small addendum to the request we could sure use someone to help us set it up and show us how to use it.” I ducked again.
Before we went to the mission field I did what many thought was a foolish thing. I quit my secure job with the San Diego Fire Department and packed up my wife and five children and headed off to a Bible school in Canada. While there for three years I studied the Bible and waited on God for directions. I also worked as a summer staff to help feed my family and in doing so I got to know many of the behind-the-scenes workers who kept the Bible school running. One of those people I met was a steam engineer who ran their two-story boiler that kept our classrooms warm when the temps dropped to 40 below zero. Yes, 40 below. That was fun. Art was one of several steam engineers who worked there. Now move ahead 20 years. I am standing in Manila looking at the large steam system we had just acquired and praying for help on what to do next. Art came back to mind after all those years and I sent off an e-mail to the school and had no idea if he would remember one of the thousands of students and we had only briefly met. I had no idea if he still worked there. I got an e-mail back from Art. “Yes” and “yes” were the answers.
After a few more e-mails Art decided to use his vacation to come over and help us. His church even helped with expenses and so Art, who had never left Canada, came to the Philippines. It was his first out-of-country experience and what a treat it was to have him join us. He set up safety equipment, rebuilt parts and modified others, tested it all and hooked it up and then he trained us. And he only mentioned the odd odor it had a few times. When Art left we had a fully functioning steam system and we were not afraid to use it. It worked flawlessly over the years and helped us cook tons of banana fibers and has helped keep impoverished churches alive.
One day in glory, I envision Vern, Art and myself sitting down together in heaven and having a nice cold goat together and laughing. I think we will all agree that the entire experience was unforgoatable!
PS: since that time, many years later, I came across an actual product of South Korea called Black Goat Tonic. From what I have read the tonic is derived from a four-month-old goat that is boiled for 22 hours. The liquid is then filtered to remove the fats and sold in small bottles.
If you think drinking a carbonated liquid goat is weird, stay tuned. The next three articles deal with food, but not just any food. These will be the strangest, oddest and most fascinating things people eat around the world.
Dedication: I would like to dedicate this article to a special lady, Lucinda Tamayo, the wife of Vern. When he died suddenly in 1999, she continued working with the poor in her church and today she is part of the leadership team of a vibrant Filipino church, the church Vern started.