As the roads that lead into Polk County rumble with the thunder of thousands of motorcycles from around the world for the CMA Changing of the Colors Rally this week, we at The Pulse thought we would bring you a story, printed in our May 15, 2013 edition, to highlight the efforts of Gene Harlan Powell to carry on the life of a single man whose dream brought the thunder here.
BY LEANN DILBECK –
The name Herb Shreve is a very recognizable name in this community and now, thanks to the friendship, love and gifted writing talents of Gene Harlan Powell, more people beyond Polk County and the biking community can learn how one man with one motorcycle set out to preach the Word of God and ultimately birthed a global ministry known as CMA (Christian Motorcyclists Association).
Powell will tell you that he has always had a talent for writing, and after reading From Here to Eternity as a solider in 1956, knew he would write his own book someday. He had achieved regional fame in his hometown of Yazoo, Miss. and has been a popular writer with The Pulse with his column “Country Roads” but it wasn’t until he became familiar with one man’s story that he knew he had “the story” for a book. Not knowing, at the time, the friendship that would be born as a result of it.
Looking back over the past ten years, Powell will tell you that he now sees God’s hands in it from the very beginning.
Powell and his wife, Bess, joined CMA in 1997, at that time, still living in Mississippi. Having met Shreve only one time but seeing the value and need for his story to be told, the Powells first approached him about writing his life’s story in 2001 while attending a Changing of the Colors Rally. “We decided to walk over to speak to him. Bess knew I had begun thinking about whether anyone was working on Herb’s story. He hardly knew us and as soon as we started walking with him and saying hello, my wife laid her hand on his shoulder and said, ‘My husband is a gifted writer and he wants to help you write your life’s story.’” Powell said Herb didn’t know what to say and “he couldn’t be rude to a lady,” he chuckled. Then he said Herb told them, “Nobody would be interested in reading about me. You can forget about that.” Powell said after walking with him for a while he eventually said, “Well, if you want to waste your time doing it, we can talk about it.”
Powell said over the next few years, he would continue to get mixed signals from Herb on the book. Sometimes cooperative, other times hesitant. Powell admitted that when he felt encouraged about the project, he would proudly tell people that he was going to write Herb’s story. Until, that one fateful day, when Herb had invited him over and Powell eagerly brought his recorder and notebook. Then Herb gave him the news that he wouldn’t be needing those. “I’ve been praying about this and all I’ve got back from God is total silence. We can’t do this right now.” Powell said he was terribly disappointed and a bit embarrassed after telling people he would be writing Herb’s life’s story.
Herb insisted they still go to lunch and as they went to their cars, Herb told him, “If anything happens to me before anything gets done about a book, I’m going to tell Mary I’ve got a trunk full of old CMA newsletters, papers, and history of CMA, I’m going to tell Mary to give that over to you.” Powell said, “that’s where we left it,” and said the two wouldn’t discuss the book for many years.
By this time, the Powells had moved to Mena, the seeds of friendship had been planted, and he would have many more opportunities to spend time with Herb. He said that after each of those encounters, he would return home, unbeknownst to Herb, and make notes of what he had learned, “…about his childhood or other little interesting pieces about his life. That went on for several years.”
Powell will admit when he first approached Herb about telling his life’s story, he didn’t know Herb and was more impressed by his position and what he had accomplished. By the time his life’s story found its way between two book-covers, the two men formed a strong friendship and Powell’s ambitious book-writing project evolved into a labor of love.
Herb had officially retired from CMA and ministry in 1994. Powell said Herb had asked him to join him when he was still invited to preach, to play the guitar and sing, and eventually, wanted to return to the open road. The two began traveling to other state rallies and events. He said it was through those experiences he gained even more insight in watching Herb’s interactions.
Powell explained the kindred spirit that exists between bikers. He said when Herb saw hardcore bikers, drinking and partying, he didn’t judge and he didn’t see them as others see them, as a bunch of partying bikers, but saw them crying on the inside. “Herb saw hurt and pain masquerading behind black leather and roaring engines. He saw the wounded child. He saw thousands who would never enter church doors and he wanted to minister to their needs.” Returning to the open-road gave Herb his life back.
Powell said the last trip made to a Georgia state rally was extremely hard on Herb. He had been battling heart issues and said that while Herb’s heart was still in the ministry, his body didn’t always support. He knew as they stopped for fuel, the toll the trip was taking, and offered to call and have someone come get them. “I’ve never failed to finish a ride,” Herb said…and he did.
After Herb’s passing in 2011, Powell said he retrieved the trunk and said it was a treasure in helping him fill in the slots from childhood forward through the motorcycle ministry.
Impressed at the faith in which Herb accepted his calling, Powell said, his wife, Shirley, gave him 30 days and $17 and he hit the open-road. “It’s an extraordinary story of what one ordinary small town preacher did. How someone with limited abilities and limited resources relied on his faith.”
Powell said he was a writer in search of a story but the search led to far greater gifts than a book deal. It led to a solid friendship. Powell said that he was finally connected to a story and said he no longer wrote for pleasure or for fun but wrote to tell Herb’s story so it would permanently be recorded, “A story that had to be told.” Powell realizes that the story could have gone to a well-known author but knows that no other author knew Herb’s heart the way he did.
Powell’s book, FISHER OF MEN: The Motorcycle Ministry of Herb Shreve will be available for purchase at the RFS table at the CMA Pavilion during the Changing of the Colors Rally, October 16 – 20. It is also available at Loaves and Fishes Bookstore, Mena; Mena Flea Market; and on-line at http://knowers-ark.blogspot.com or through Amazon.