It was hard for me to take my eyes off the raven-haired beauty who sat engrossed in her accounting books at the other side of the glass partition that divided our offices. She had short black hair, a thin elegant nose, and large brown eyes. Her delicate olive-skin face had a hint of Latin about it. We had met in the far-from romantic surroundings of a company that manufactured cycle dynamos in Aston, Birmingham.
It was housed in a crumbling building in Aston Brook Street. I had just returned to Birmingham after a year in Toronto, Canada, and had returned because my father, the Rev. Alfred Wooding, pastor of the Sparkbrook Mission, Alfred Street, Sparkbrook, had become very sick with cancer.
Jobs, in the early sixties, were hard to come by in this city. I had been to a labor exchange to discover what jobs there were, but I didn't exactly get off to a good start. I had held out my hand to the officer there and he had studied it as if it were some dubious foreign object. "What would you really like to do?" he finally asked, trying to sound chatty. "I'd like to be a journalist," I said brightly, hoping he would immediately phone the Birmingham Evening Mail and arrange an interview for me. He offered a dry smile and peered through his rimless glasses at my qualifications which showed I could type and I had learned shorthand, and that was just about it. "Well, son," he said tonelessly, trying to stifle a yawn and shuffling the papers in front of him, "I would think the best I could do for you with these qualifications is get you a job as a clerk in a factory. It pays ten pounds a week. How does that sound to you?" I looked at him sharply. He looked back levelly. The "job" he had in mind meant that I would be earning less than when I left for Canada some twelve months earlier.
It was as if God was telling me that I must now start out on a pilgrimage and, although some of it would not be pleasant, I had to be obedient, patient, and learn to walk with Him. Wherever he led me, I must go. I got the position and the bus journey from Kings Heath, with a change in the city-center, took an hour. I would use the time to read my Bible. Being brought up in a Christian family meant I knew the Scriptures quite well, but they had never come alive for me before.
During a particularly tiresome journey I fluttered the pages of my black leather-bound Bible and my eyes rested on the story, in Genesis, about the creation of Eve. I read in Genesis 2:20 - "The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for man there was not found a helper fit for him." I read on: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (verse 24). As I closed my Bible, completely oblivious of the people sitting around me talking or reading a morning paper, I began to pray silently. "Lord, you know how lonely I've been over the past years; it's been terrible.
Now I realize that I need a 'helper' to be with me so that we can serve you together." My mother had constantly been trying to interest me in girls who came to the Mission, but none of them had really taken my attention. Now Norma, the raven-haired slightly built girl who sat behind the glass, was different.
For nearly two months I tried to speak to her. But somehow the words would just dry up in my throat. Plucking up courage one day, I went to the antiquated adding-machine in another office to total-up the day's orders, and found Norma sitting at another accounting machine inputting data. I tried to make desultory conversation, but again I froze. My knuckles went white with tension. But eventually I was able to speak. "Norma." She turned and looked at me. Her skin was radiant, her eyes bright. "You have the sort of face only a mother could love." My nerves had caused me to repeat something that a friend had once said to me at school. I don't know why. There was a moment of shocked silence and then she responded, "I beg your pardon." I put my hand over my mouth to cover my embarrassment. Then I did it again. "Norma, that's what I like about you - NOTHING!" Her eyes met mine, and both of us got the giggles. The tension had gone and I was still chuckling as I returned to my desk. I reached into my briefcase and pulled out some writing paper and began forming a letter to her.
She has kept it to this day. It read: Dear Norma, Hi! As I am a bit of a coward in asking nice girls for dates, I wondered if I could ask you, through this letter, if you would do me the honour of coming out with me tomorrow night or, if you can't make it, then one night next week. I have been wanting to ask you out for a long time but didn't quite know how to do it, so at last I have decided to ask you and I do hope you will say yes! If you do say yes, can you let me know where you would like to go (any place you like) and it shall be arranged. I slipped into her office and, while she was talking to another girl, left it on her desk. The envelope said, "To Our Norma." I felt a flush spread across my cheeks as she looked at me shyly through the partition. "Yes," she mouthed, her eyes glistening. "I'll go out with you. I thought you'd never ask."
We went to see a film the next night and stood in the pouring rain outside the Odeon Cinema in the city centre. When we got inside, we had to sit apart because the cinema was packed to capacity. The film was about homosexuals, and afterwards we both laughed about such a bizarre start to our relationship. Outside her terraced home 90 Sutton Street, Aston, we were about to kiss goodnight when a loud voice which turned out to be from her father, Howard Knight, shouted, "Norma. Come inside right now." She did and I ran to get my bus back home.
As the late-night drunks staggered on and off the bus at each stop, I knew that this was the girl I was to marry. I spent most of my spare time with Norma, and even went back to her home at lunchtime to eat my corned-beef sandwiches and to talk with her parents, Howard and Maud. However, I found it almost impossible to share with her my faith. One day, we were walking along hand-in-hand when we passed a Gospel Hall in Park Lane with the sign prominently displayed, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son." "I used to go there to Sunday School," Norma remarked as her voice wavered a little. "I loved it." Then she looked quizzically at me. "Aren't you religious, Dan? I've seen you reading your Bible at your desk during the break." Her eyes held mine steadily. "Yes, well not exactly religious. I'm a Christian. There is a difference!" She squeezed my hand affectionately and said, 'Tell me about it. How did you become a Christian?' There was a rapt attention on her face as she turned her eyes on mine.
Out poured the whole story of my rebellion, my trip to Canada, my intense loneliness, and my father's illness, from which he had made a remarkable recovery. "My dad's doing fine, really fine," I assured her. "He's now back doing a little preaching at the Alfred Street Mission, where he's the pastor." "But why won't you introduce me to your parents?" "I will -- one day. But I didn't want to put you off." I had to admit that although I had asked God to find me this wife I still feared she would ditch me if she thought either me or my family were "religious nuts".
After taking Norma out for two months, I bought myself a Lambretta scooter. We would go out together on it, and I would ride on Sunday night from the evening service to her home. I also used it for work each day. But, as I was to discover to my cost, scooters in frosty weather can be lethal. One night, returning home from Aston, I found myself driving through tendrils of freezing mist, as white and fine as floating lace. Too late I saw a red traffic light and Jammed on the brakes. As if in slow motion, the whole machine slid away at the back and I crashed headlong onto the road. Fortunately, there was no other traffic around and I was wearing a helmet, so my head was protected. But as I hit the ground I felt a dart of pain in my :left leg. It was lacerated and bleeding. I managed to .get back on the machine, start it, and gingerly drive it home.
After my mother cleansed my wounds, I asked Dad to do me a favour. "I expect you've guessed that I have a girlfriend at work. She's lovely. Her name is Norma. I wonder if you would phone her tomorrow and tell her what's happened. Explain that I'll be away for a few days." "Of course I will," he said gently. "Why don't you invite her over?" The next night Norma sat at my bedside clasping my shaking hand. My parents fussed around her, and my sister and Norma hit it off straightaway. When we were alone, Norma turned to me and said, "Your family aren't the slightest bit strange as you led me to believe. I'd like to start going to the Mission with you." "Done!' We shook hands on the deal and the good news was that she also made a commitment to follow Christ.
Our wedding took place on July 13, 1963, at Aston Parish Church. We could have been married in the Mission, but with so many friends and members of the family wanting to attend, we felt the little hail would not accommodate so many people. It was a beautiful occasion, without any hitches and we then headed for New Street Station and sped away on the train to Babbacombe, Devon, for our honeymoon.
It was the beginning of an extraordinary life together for us. Soon our first son, Andrew, was born at Selly Oak Hospital and then we became the wardens of Hill Farm, a drug rehabilitation centre in Alvechurch, Worcestershire. After period there, we left and our second son was born in our flat at 5 Featherstone Road, Kings Heath. While Peter was still a baby, our family packed up and moved to London in the late sixties where I became a reporter with Billy Graham's newspaper, The Christian.
After that I worked for several years as chief reporter for The Middlesex County Times in Ealing, West London, and then moved onto the Sunday People and the Sunday Mirror in Fleet Street.
Then in 1982, we moved again - this time over the Pond to Southern California where we now run a Christian organization called ASSIST.
Both of our boys have since moved back to the UK and Andrew is married to Alison and they have three children, two girls and a boy, and Peter has married Sharon, and they also have three children, all girls.
Despite having no real qualifications, I continued to write - I've just completed my 41st book - and I run a news service and also broadcast weekly throughout the world on international affairs on hundreds of radio stations. I also have a weekly radio show called "Window on the World," which is carried on 300 US stations and a further 50 around the world, including on UCB Europe which is based in Stoke-on-Trent.
We now live in Huntington Beach (Surf City), California, which is a far cry from good old Brum. But we have such fond memories for our days together in Aston, even if it was at a cycle dynamo factory. For it really "sparked" our love for each other.