By BRIAN RUSSELL (Telegraph Reprter - Alton, IL)
Prettyman more than champion weight lifter -- he's a walking miracle
The father’s sermon is reaching a crescendo now. “Have you ever been to the place where it hits you so fast and so hard, it’s like all of the sudden you can’t even remember how to pray?” he says from the front of the church, the Living Word Worship Center in Alton. His voice is rising and falling like the tides, seemingly several octaves higher than normal. One moment it’s so quiet it’s difficult to hear, the next it’s almost frighteningly loud. “(The devil) kept coming at me and saying, ‘What are you going to do now? Where’s all your fancy preaching now?’ And I started to agree with him. ….. He was destroying me.”
It may sound all fire-and-brimstone, the type of repent now or take a first-class ticket straight to the bottom of hell kind of sermon popular during John Milton’s time.
But viewing it that way would be missing the point entirely. It’s a sermon about life, about giving thanks. The crux of the story begins with the moment of the son’s birth. And then his death. And then his miraculous re-birth.
But unlike every other sermon that begins in that exact way, that features those exact topics, this one has a personal twist to it.
It begins with a baby boy who was never supposed to be, born to a mother who was never supposed to walk and to a minister father who nearly had to bury them both.
It is, as so many sermons are, a story of giving thanks for the son – more than just the one you’re thinking of.
At the bottom of the stairs, down a musty hall reeking of sweat, the son lays on a weight-lifting bench. He grips the coarse steel bar just above his eyes and with a grunt, heaves it from its stand into the air.
Down to his chest and back up he lifts the bar, then quickly, in one fluid motion, returns it to its rack.
He stands, his face red with a mist of sweat beginning to blanket his brow.
“I remember when I couldn’t do that,” he says of lifting 275 pounds. He could lift much more – 400 pounds or more – if he so desired.
Brighton resident Caleb Prettyman, 17 years old and 180 pounds, does not look like a champion weightlifter. He has a round, friendly face with eyes so blue his corneas could be made of coral. He has the wide shoulders and broad chest of a weightlifter, but on this day he wears a gray T-shirt and gym shorts – hardly the muscle-flaunting attire of a typical gym rat.
But Caleb Prettyman is far from typical. A little less than two years ago, Prettyman more resembled the Pillsbury Dough Boy than the finely sculpted block of granite with 13 percent body fat he has become. He weighed 230 pounds and could bench press only 185. He was, like so many American children these days, overweight and out of shape.
Caleb’s father, Bob Prettyman, stands nearby and smiles.
“I tell Caleb all the time: I lift 220 pounds every time I get off the couch.”
Bob Prettyman looks like a typical suburban dad. He’s short and stocky, with receding gray hair and the same friendly face, albeit worn by the years, shared by his son.
He is a traveling minister, having given sermons the world over. In private conversation, his voice is calm and caring. When he’s in front of a mass, preaching the virtues of Jesus Christ and his religion, he develops a certain gusto not befitting a man who seems quiet, almost shy.
Bob’s favorite sermon, one he proudly affirms that he’s given on three continents, is about Caleb. He calls it “Thank You Is More Than A Word.” It is a sermon about giving thanks for what you have on Earth, for what God has done and will do for you.
Few people are more qualified to give such a sermon than Bob Prettyman. Seventeen years ago, his only son was born dead. Now he’s alive and well, physically strong and intellectually gifted, with no lasting effects of a birth, and death, that almost killed him.
Bob Prettyman is eternally thankful.
The sermon begins with a lecture on revelation – about how you have to experience a revelation before you can really begin to give thanks to God.
Bob Prettyman’s revelation, actually the entire Prettyman family’s revelation, began many years ago.
Marilyn Prettyman was 23 when a car accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. Years of physical therapy and deep prayer with her husband of five years eventually brought back much of her lost movement. But one thing the therapy and, seemingly the prayer, could not do was return Marilyn’s lost ability to bear children.
Doctors told her it was an impossibility. Years of married life sans children seemed to confirm it. Bob and Marilyn Prettyman thus moved on with life, eventually convincing themselves that all was for the best anyway – that a child would only get in the way.
But late in the spring of 1989, a trip to the doctor’s office confirmed what doctors had said would never, could never happen – Marilyn was three months pregnant.
It came as a shock. All those years without having children, the fact that the couple had given up on ever conceiving – and now it was all happening.
The next six months went as smoothly as any pregnancy could. Marilyn never experienced any morning sickness, the checkups all confirmed a healthy child and Marilyn, who following her accident was prone to suddenly falling, went the entire pregnancy without so much as a slip. Life for the Prettymans had become a dream-come-true.
“It was an absolutely perfect pregnancy and we were having the time of our lives with it,” Bob Prettyman said.
On Nov. 16, Bob took Marilyn to the hospital to deliver the impossible child, the one they had prayed for but given up on ever having. It was going to be the most joyous day in their lives.
And it was. It just wasn’t easy.
For all the ease of the pregnancy up to the point of birth, the number of events that swerved against the Prettymans during the birthing process was staggering.
For starters, in the days leading up to giving birth, Marilyn Prettyman’s kidney stopped working, and she began having convulsions. A doctor referred the Prettymans to the local hospital, where Marilyn was to give birth via emergency Caesarian Section.
While in the hospital, though, she developed toxemia and pre-eclampsia, or elevated blood pressure during delivery, which is potentially fatal for both mother and baby. Also, her legs had swelled to the point that the skin was breaking open and bleeding.
Despite it all, though, Caleb Joshua Prettyman was born on Nov. 17, 1989, at 3:47 a.m.
And for all intents and purposes, he died on Nov. 17, 1989, at 3:47 a.m.
Caleb was born with a zero on the Apgar score, a method used to assess a newborn’s health that ranks a baby from zero, or essentially lifeless, to 10, healthy. Babies who score below three are considered critical cases.
“If your definition of death is pulseless and not breathing, then that would be an appropriate definition (for Caleb) at that time,” said Dr. David Harmon, a family physician who was on-call at the hospital that night and assisted in Caleb’s birth.
The critical newborn, who was limp with dark blue-tinted skin, was whisked away to another room immediately after birth, where he was intubated and doctors went to work bringing him to life.
In the meantime, Bob and Marilyn were unsure of exactly what was going on. Marilyn, in her surgical haze, was not sure if, or when, the baby had been extracted from her or why she heard no crying. Bob, in the waiting room, was told the Caesarian Section surgery would take an hour. After three hours, he still had no idea what was going on.
“All the sudden, the nurses come busting out of the delivery room and go running down the hall and they’re getting these big machines and they’re running back up the hall again,” Bob Prettyman says during his sermon about Caleb’s birth.
“I’m running beside the nurses saying, ‘What’s the matter?’ And they’re just saying, ‘You’ll have to wait for the doctor.’”
Eventually, Caleb began breathing and a heartbeat was detected. A helicopter was called. He was airlifted to St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Bob, who feared both for the life of his wife and newborn son – “I was picturing a double funeral,” he says in the sermon – was told he should get to Children’s Hospital to care for the baby.
It is an hour-and-a-half drive into St. Louis and to Children’s Hospital, just to the west of downtown and just to the east of the city’s famed Forest Park.
Bob Prettyman, driving his red Plymouth Reliant Wagon, didn’t know what to do, what to expect as he made the drive. His mind wandered to his family. His wife might not survive childbirth. The newborn baby boy they had always wanted but had been told they could never have had finally arrived, and he might not survive either.
“Have you ever been to the place where it hits you so fast and so hard, it’s like all of the sudden you can’t even remember how to pray?” Bob Prettyman says in his sermon. “I found that the devil was in my car, and he was beating my brains in. … He kept coming at me and saying, ‘What are you going to do now? Where’s all your fancy preaching now?’ And I started to agree with him. Yeah, where is it now? What am I going to do now? He was destroying me.”
It was then, Bob says, that a miracle occurred.
“The presence of God just filled the car,” he says in his sermon. “And he told me, ‘Begin to thank me now, because I’ve already done what needs to be done. It is finished.’”
Bob never doubted for a moment what he had heard.
“I just made a decision that I was going to believe,” he said. “I was going to dare to believe God.”
By the time he arrived at Children’s Hospital, Caleb was surrounded by machines with monitors and needles in his head, intubated, and there were still questions about how well he would recover – he had, after all, gone some time without oxygen right after birth.
Back in the other hospital, Marilyn continued her recovery. She says that during the birthing process, she had a sense of calm about her that was unexpected given the circumstances.
“I had prayed for Caleb, well, for the baby, in the months leading up to the birth,” she said. “Then when I went in for (the C-Section), I was just at total peace. ….. And the scriptures that I had prayed over Caleb would go across in my mind like a ticker tape, just like at a bank. I could feel my body doing something, but then those scriptures would go across my mind and I could feel a total relaxation.”
The sermon ends with a flourish. Bob puts on a shirt with a large ‘C’ on the chest, plus a cape, and, no phone booth necessary, changes personas.
“I AM COVENANT MAN,” he screams. “When sickness and disease comes calling, Covenant Man jumps into action.
“When it’s dark and scary and doom and gloom is all around, my covenant lifts my eyes to heaven and my heart cries out, ‘I want to thank you, Jesus. I want to thank you for who you are, and I want to thank you for what you’ve done.’”
Six days after arriving at Children’s Hospital, Bob picked up Marilyn and the two of them drove to St. Louis. The first time Marilyn saw her baby boy was the day the family took Caleb home.
Even then, Caleb still wasn’t out of the woods entirely. Bob forgot to strap the newborn’s baby seat into the seat belt buckle in the car, and at the first stop, the baby and his seat tumbled over into the floor.
Seventeen years later, Caleb is fine, and the Prettymans give all the credit to God for keeping their son alive. So does his doctor.
“I believe calling it a miracle is appropriate,” said Dr. David Harmon. “Certainly (Caleb’s) success, and his performance since his birth, is miraculous. Some of these kids have lifelong learning disabilities, but Caleb has been a star student and a star citizen for quite some time.”
Dr. Harmon certainly would know that about Caleb, a home-schooled A-student whose dream is to become a cardiologist and who has shadowed Dr. Harmon twice to watch the doctor work.
And then there’s Caleb’s weight lifting. The formerly overweight boy, who now sports 16-inch biceps and a 40.5-inch chest after two years of strenuous training with partners Tom Reese and Tim Pruite, has entered two weightlifting competitions. He placed first in his class in both, lifting 330 pounds in his most recent competition and defeating 10 competitors in the two meets combined.
“It’s not normal to gain the kind of strength he has,” Reese said. “But he listens. He works hard. He eats right. He sleeps right. He wants to learn.
“A lot of guys get into this, and they want results right now. They’re impatient and they take shortcuts, but not Caleb. He does it all the right way.”
Caleb Prettyman, whose only dietary supplement is protein powder – no steroids or anything else harmful or questionable – is now training at Nautilus Fitness Center in Alton, where he also works as a trainer and maintenance man. His next competition is in October, where he plans to bench press more than 400 pounds.
But for all his success as a weight lifter, Caleb Prettyman says the sport is just a hobby. His real goals are to attend and graduate from college and become a cardiologist.
The son of a minister, re-born to help those in need.
Could make for a good sermon.