Curtis L. Hayes (Amy Vogelsang Photo)
It’s 6:10 in the evening. Their trunk is filled with chicken and potatoes, the first imports of such foods in more than seven months. As the couple drives home, they pass a mansion, and suddenly, 200 Liberian soldiers swarm the car. The soldiers’ M1s and carbines threaten the husband and wife as a young man, maybe 16 years of age, yells, “GET OUT!” The husband, a missionary with Sudan Interior Mission, steps out of the car, not knowing what he has done wrong.
The young soldier, along with his comrades, all have red eyes.
“He was high as a kite!” the man recalls. All the soldiers were.
“Pump,” the young soldier demands. But the man does not understand what this means. The soldier demonstrates: arms held out from the sides and bending knees down and up, doing squats.
“Now I want you to do that until you fall out,” the soldier says. “Then I’m going to take you down to the beach and shoot you and hang you.”
The man and his wife were only able to get away because of their missionary group and identification to prove their purpose.
But it was “the scariest time in my life,” the man, Curtis L. Hayes, admits. And even though much of his life has been filled with fear and mishaps, he has never failed to follow God, he says.
Hayes spent nearly five years in Liberia, South Africa during the 1980 military coup that overthrew the Americo-Liberian government. He went, he says, because God asked him to.
“The Lord kept saying, ‘Are you going to follow me or aren’t you?’” Hayes explains. “I said, ‘Yes, I’ll follow You. I’ll go wherever You want me to go. And if I die in Liberia, then that’s OK, too.’”
He put his life — in some cases literally — in God’s hands. Even during various events in Liberia. Soldiers, some only 11 years old, would stand along the streets at 30-yard intervals, all carrying guns. More than once Hayes found himself being threatened by a firearm.
“Shoot,” he’d think. “Shoot me. God’s going to take care of me living or dead.”
And that has been his philosophy throughout life. He served in the Army during the Korean War, studied theology in the seminary and taught speech and English for more than 20 years. For every life occurrence he says, “And that was another good experience.”
And indeed, not all of his life was filled with terrifying moments and death threats.
Hayes was born in Forest Green, Mo., near Glasgow, Mo., in 1931, to Odis and Janie Hayes, but only lived there for a few years before moving to Sioux City, Iowa where he grew up. Although young during the Great Depression, Hayes remembers going next door to borrow a single potato.
He had a brother, two years his senior, and a sister, who was so close in age (18 months younger) that they were often mistaken as twins in school. They even took a lot of the same classes, particularly typing class.
“I’ll never forget, we were the fastest typists in the class,” Hayes recalls. “One day I’d be the fastest and the next day she’d be the fastest.” And they were called the “Hayes Dancing Twins” for their ability to jitterbug, a skill that won them four consecutive years of first place in the school talent show.
After his time in the Army, Hayes graduated college in 1956, and started a teaching career that would last until his retirement in 1976. He would later go back to teaching, being a substitute in every school in Roswell. He has taught every grade, but high school seniors are his favorite.
“They’re getting ready to go out there in the world, and they don’t know what they’re getting into,” he says. But his students still remember the advice Hayes gave:
“You told us to stay in school, study hard and don’t you stop until you get a master’s degree,” they recite back to him. It was great, he repeats with laughter as he recalls the years of teaching.
But God’s plan didn’t just have him jotted down as a soldier, teacher and missionary. So the next step, at age 45, was seminary. Although reluctant, Hayes once again listened and ended up pastoring at multiple churches, including United Methodist Church in Roswell.
Then, a couple years ago, Hayes felt compelled once more to do what God seemed to be pushing him to do: write an autobiography.
“I never thought I would write, never, in my life,” Hayes states. “But I just sat down one day, and God just seemed to say, ‘Write about your life; it’s so interesting, so thrilling, so exciting, so unbelievable, but everything’s true.’”
So he sat down and in three months had written a book: a story about his life. It took another two years to find a publisher, but now his book, “Life Still Goes On,” outlines his up and down amusement park ride of a life. And even on the back of his book he writes, “Like an eagle that soars high and swoops down low to catch an animal, my life seems to be like that.”
He uses his life to help others, saying if it helps just one other person remove themselves a little in order to help others, then writing his story is all worth it.
So after the hardships and blessings, the ups and the downs, Hayes is “still enjoying the rides at 81.” And when you stop enjoying the rides, Hayes says, “you might as well die.” It’s the rides that makes life worth living.