The Incidental Prophet, Part 5

April 24, 2016

I woke up the next morning to the smell of bacon and eggs and looked around.

The bedroom was small and the bed a little lumpy, but it had been a long trip, and I had slept well. The whole place had a different feeling to it, though I couldn’t describe it if I tried. Instead of the clean, whitewashed walls of our home, the “big house,” or so all the ranch hands called it, was plaster over chinked and squared logs, some of which you could see through places the plaster had worn thin. Mom had lithographs of botanical prints from England or somewhere hanging on the walls in our home, though in my room, a stern-visaged portrait of Brigham Young glowered down on me, as if echoing disappointment in me from the grave. Grandma’s house, though obviously well-kept and orderly, still had a more relaxed, casual sense to it.

On the wall above the  bed was a cross-stitch reading “Love at Home” under a depiction of a cozy-looking cabin. On the opposite wall was a sepia photograph of a weathered-looking couple standing in front of an adobe farmhouse. The man had a slight smile showing through his white beard, and he wore threadbare boots, dirty trousers held up with suspenders, and a frayed linen shirt. The woman wore an apron of indeterminate pattern over a plain dark dress; her face looked stern and a little sad. Written in ink across the bottom was “Daniel and Mary McCurdie -Summer 1912.” To one side of the wood-framed bed stood a single dresser, made of pine and totally without ornamentation. On the top of the dresser was a small bowl filled with butter mints, which Grandma knew I loved. Popping a few mints into my mouth, I retrieved my folded clothes from my canvas bag and placed them in the empty drawers of the dresser. I think that’s when it started to feel like I was going to be here a while.

When I heard Grandma’s call to breakfast, I hurried to put on my trousers and shirt. My work boots had stayed on the front porch–Grandma’s iron-clad rule–and I shuffled into the kitchen in my old wool socks, where Grandma stood at the cast-iron stove in a faded dress and apron.

Noticing my toe sticking out of a hole in one of the socks, Grandma shook her head. “Someone needs to learn how to darn a sock, I’d wager.”

In the bright morning light, she looked even older and worn out than she had the night before, but her eyes still twinkled when she smiled at me.

“Get some milk out of the icebox, and sit down at the table,” she said firmly.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked, noticing the couch where he usually slept was empty.

“I expect he’s having a look around the place, like he always does when he comes. I’m surprised he let you sleep in so late. It’s already past seven.”

“It was a long trip,” I said, taking my seat and pouring a glass of milk.

“Yup, but don’t think you’ll get to lay around here every day,” Grandma smiled. “There’s work to be done, and I’m counting on you to do it.”

Most kitchens are toward the back of the house, but Grandma’s kitchen was at one end of the front of the house, looking out through the long covered porch and out over the trees and meadow down the slope from the house. Out the side window was a smaller window over the large sink with a view of the mountains of the Bridger Range, and a small door led to a long, screened-in laundry room with a large galvanized-zinc washtub and lines for hanging clothes when the weather was bad. When you came in the front door, the living room and rock fireplace were to the left, and the kitchen was on the right. Mom had always said she would be mortified to have guests come in and see the kitchen first thing, but Grandma said, if she had to work in the kitchen most of the time, she wanted a view. Seeing the meadow, the trees, and the mountain lifted her spirits and reminded her every day how blessed she was. Mom couldn’t argue with that.

She set a plate full of bacon and three eggs on the table in front of me. “I would have had some orange juice for you, but we don’t go into town that often. Maybe next time.”

The tea kettle whistled on the stove, so she poured the hot water into a porcelain teapot and then put the lid on it to steep. I’d always wanted to try the tea, but Mom and Dad said it was against the Word of Wisdom and was a sin. I never understood why Grandma was allowed to sin–even in our home–with impunity, but I accepted it. Dad said that when he was growing up, Grandma would give him a sip of the tea and then, when the cup was empty, she would read the tea leaves for him. It was always the same, he had said: he would be a leader among men, beloved by all. I wondered what the leaves would say about me.

Soon she sat at the table and prepared her tea (milk first, then the tea, and finally one cube of sugar).

“I hope you haven’t left a young lady back in Utah,” she said. “Of course, there’ll be no time for that here. The only women on the ranch are me and Mrs. Pettit, who cooks and does the laundry for the hands. Oh, now I’ve gone and embarrassed you,” she said, smiling and patting my hand. “Maybe you’re not quite old enough for that.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said, turning to look out the window at the sheets on the line in the yard so she wouldn’t see my face, which felt flushed and hot. “I know how to work, and I’m not going to get distracted.”

“See that you don’t. Oh, I know you won’t. I’m just teasing.” She chuckled as she bit into a piece of toast.

“What am I going to be doing here?” I asked. No one had told much of anything other than I was going to be put to work.

“Well, the lambs need caring for, so maybe they’ll start you with that. I don’t believe you’re ready to be roping calves at this point.” No, I wasn’t.

“Go and talk to Seth, the foreman. He’ll straighten you out.”

After breakfast and a kiss from Grandma, I pulled on my boots and headed out the back door to the barn, where I knew Seth would be checking on the new lambs. Barns always smelled the same: that dry mixture of dust and straw that you could feel invading your nostrils. Our barn was always neat and well-ordered, and though a little less so, this was too–most likely because Grandma was known to rule with a bit of an iron fist. I found Seth seated on a small stool, mixing up a foamy white liquid in a large tin milk can. It smelled terrible. Arranged on the straw were several Pepsi bottles, a funnel, and a large paper bag.

“Just mixing up the milk for the lambs,” he said. “Here, help me fill the bottles.” I held each bottle and the funnel as he poured the milk in. It was warm, which somehow made the smell even worse.

“You’ll get used to the smell,” Seth chuckled, obviously noting my crinkled nose. When each bottle was filled, I reached into the bag, which was filled with rubber nipples, probably from baby bottles. “Stretch those over the top of the bottle,” Seth said, showing me how it was done. It took a little effort, but I managed to get all the nipples on without dropping any or spilling any milk.

“Your first job is to feed the lambs,” Seth said. Between the two of us, we carried the bottles to a small, fenced-off part of the sheep pasture, where several lambs were playing in the sun. When they saw us approach with the bottles, they came running toward us in that awkward way new lambs do, pushing their heads between the wires of the fence, bleating as if to say, “Me first!”

Seth left me with the bottles, and, one by one, I fed the lambs, who made quick work of the milk. When the milk was gone, they still bleated loudly for more, though I knew it was important not to over-feed them. I gathered up the empty bottles and took them to the laundry room. Grandma had heated some water on the stove, so I poured it into the washtub and washed each bottle and nipple with a worn bottle brush, dried them, and placed them and the bag in a wooden milk carton on a low shelf.

“Fence needs mending,” Seth said when I got back to the barn, where he was discussing ranch business with one of the hands. “Go on up to the north corner by the ridge. The other fellas are already there. You’ll have to walk it ’cause they already took the truck.”

It was about a twenty-minute hike along a rutted trail winding up to the top of the ridge, the left side of the trail what you might call pristine forest, and to the right fenced pasture where cattle grazed lazily in the early summer sunshine. It really was beautiful here, with the tall trees and the pine needles and cones covering the rugged ground. Much of the ranch had been cleared of trees, but they had left these as a windbreak against the cold Arctic wind and snow. The air felt crisp and somehow purer than any I had breathed, and I began to understand what Grandma meant when she said we were blessed.

“What do we have here?” I heard a voice say sarcastically as I approached the group of ranch hands, who were lifting into place a section of the rail fence that had been knocked or blown over. “Looks like we got us a little prince here,” the voice said, laughing.

I hoped they didn’t see how embarrassed I was, so I looked down at the ground and stammered, “I–I’m here … to work.”

“Oh, I’ll bet you are,” said the voice again. I could see the voice came from a lanky blond man with red, sun-burned skin and chipped front tooth, who wore patched overalls over longjohns. “Well, you’re working for us, now, so don’t expect your granny to protect you. You may be a rich kid, but here you ain’t nothing but one of us–and you’re the new kid, so you take orders from us, not the other way ’round. See?”

Rich kid? What was he talking about?

“Aw, leave’m alone, Parley,” said a decidedly kinder looking man. “He’s just a kid.”

“Yeah, he is, and he’s just going to get in our way. But we can’t say anything because he’s the chosen one. A pest is more like it. I’ll bet he ain’t worked a day in his life,” Parley said, spitting out some tobacco juice on the ground in front of me. “Well, you can coddle the prince, Lyme, but not me.”

“You know how to make a rail fence?” Lyme asked.

“I’ve watched men do it,” I said, “but I’ve never done it myself.”

“It’s not too hard,” Lyme said, smiling. “You’ll learn quick.”

“Well, if someone has to pick up the slack for this kid, better you than me,” Parley said, once again spitting on the ground.

“You’re Will, right?” said Lyme, stretching out his hand to mine. It felt sort of like sandpaper, but he seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. He was built a little more solidly than Parley, with broad shoulders and muscled arms. A thick neck held up a tanned face and dark, curly hair.

“And I guess you’re Lyme,” I replied. “I never heard a name like that before.”

“It’s short for Lyman,” he said. “Ma named all us boys after church leaders, hoping we’d become righteous men like them. Between you and me,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “I don’t think it worked with my brother here.”

“Now, don’t you be telling that boy anything bad about me,” Parley said. “I can still whup you.” It didn’t look like he could, given the difference in size between him and Lyme.

Split-rail fences are very simple: they run in a zig-zag pattern with roughly squared posts or rails (the split-rails spoken of), the ends of each rail stacked alternately on the ends of the next section. Here in Montana, support rails are leaned up on either side of each section’s end to brace the fence against the wind or cattle who don’t understand the concept of a fence.

The day before, heavy winds had blown through the area, forcing Grandma to hang the laundry in the washroom. The fence had fallen in several places stretching about half a mile, so Lyme and I worked all day standing up the upright sections and lifting the long rails into place. It seemed to me that a good-sized steer could easily knock the fence over, but Lyme told me that the steers didn’t know that, so they didn’t even try. He told me that once a cow had escaped from the pasture when a careless had left the gate unhitched. They found her hours later, her head pushed between the rails and bellowing loudly as she frantically tried to get back to the safety of the pasture.

“I guess when you put up a fence around them,” Lyme said, “it’s in their nature to stay inside, where everything is safe and there aren’t any surprises. People are kind of like that, too.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

At lunchtime Mrs. Pettit rode up in a small two-wheeled cart pulled by an old horse. It was just cheese sandwiches and lemonade, but it sure tasted good after all that work. “These troublemakers treating you all right?” Mrs. Pettit asked me as she handed me a second sandwich.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said.

After she left, Parley put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Wasn’t I right? The old lady is keeping tabs on us, making sure we’re being extra nice to her baby. All I can say is you better work hard and keep your mouth shut or you’re gonna have trouble from me. Understand?”

I nodded.

“Dammit, Parley, I said knock it off!” said Lyme, pushing Parley away from me. “He’s just a kid, and he’s not doing any harm.”

“Now don’t you be trying to get in good with the old lady,” Parley said with a trace of bitterness in his voice. “We’re paid to work, not to babysit.”

“Will’s been working hard all morning,” Lyme said. “You give him any trouble, and you’ll be answering to me.”

“Well, hell’s bells, can’t even count on my own brother,” Parley said. “Come on, boys, there’s work to be done.” With that he turned and went back to the fence.

“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but he sure doesn’t like me.”

“Oh, don’t you mind my brother. He can be a real pain in the neck, but he’s harmless … most of the time.”

I thought I knew how to work hard, but it seemed like nothing I’d ever done was as strenuous as that first day’s work. By the time we heard Mrs. Pettit ring the dinner bell in the distance, my shoulders were aching from driving in fence posts, and my back and arms throbbed from lifting the heavy rails into place.

I rode in the back of the truck with Lyme and some of the other hands.

“You did all right today, kid,” Lyme said. “Looks like your dad taught you to work hard.”

“Yeah, and my mom, too,” I said.

“Oh, his momma taught to work,” Parley snickered. “Just what we needed, a ranch hand who works like a girl.”

“Hush up,” Lyme said, giving Parley a dirty look. “His mother probably works harder than you do. Will did a lot more work today than you did, anyway.”

“He just better stay out of my way,” Parley said, glaring directly at me.

I really didn’t know what to think. I’d never met anyone who had taken an instant dislike to me before. I’d always assumed most people were kind and decent by nature, but this didn’t add up.

“No, you better stay out of my way,” Lyme said. “You bother Will, and you’ll regret it.”

“Oh, should I be afraid?” Parley let out a guffaw.

“Maybe so,” Lyme said, looking deadly serious. I was beginning to wonder what the rest of the summer would be like, but at least I had Lyme on my side.

When we reached the scattered buildings adjacent to the big house, we all got out of the truck and headed toward the small dining hall attached to the bunkhouse.

“Where you goin’?” Parley said. “You don’t eat with us. You’re in with her highness.”

“You better hope Mrs. Murdock don’t hear you calling her that,” Lyme said. “You got nothing against her. She’s been good to both of us. You know that.”

“I was just funnin’,” Parley said.

“Can I eat here?” I asked Mrs. Pettit.

“You can eat wherever you like, but I think your grandmother is expecting you up to the big house with her tonight.”

I trudged up the path to the big house, where Grandma was pulling a tray of biscuits out of the oven. “Hmmm. These might be a little overdone, but they’ll be all right.”

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“Oh, he had to get home,” Grandma said, stirring something in a skillet. “He said he was sorry he didn’t have time to come up where you were to say goodbye.”

Dad had never been good at goodbyes.

For dinner we had sausage gravy over biscuits and some pickled beets and onions from the cellar. I always loved the fresh milk we got on the ranch, and I dived into the meal enthusiastically.

“Whoa, slow down there, partner,” Grandma said. “Food is to be savored, not inhaled.”

“Sorry, Grandma,” I said, slowing down. “Do you think it’d be all right if I ate my meals with the other hands? I want to learn to do what they do, and I don’t think I should be treated special.”

“If that’s how you want it,” Grandma said, looking a little crestfallen. “I’ll make you a deal. You eat with the hands every day except Sunday. Then, after church, you come up and eat with me. Deal?”

“Deal,” I said, happily.

“One more thing,” Grandma said. “My eyes are not what they used to be, and it’s hard for me to read my scriptures at night. I’d appreciate it very much if you came in after supper and read to me.”

“Sure,” I said. We had always read a chapter of the scriptures every evening before family prayer and bedtime, so it was pretty much a habit anyway.

“Well, then, that’s settled,” Grandma said. “You’re a fine young man, and you do my heart good. I’ll tell you what: when I am rich, I shall boil me an egg, and you shall have the broth.”

I didn’t know what to make of that, but she burst out laughing, so I did, too. She said that was what her mother always said to her, and she was happy to have someone to say it to.

That evening we sat by the fire and began reading the Book of Mormon–Grandma’s favorite, she said. Curiously, we started with the title page, which we had always skipped when our family read.

“We have to read it,” she said. “Those words come directly from the gold plates–all except ‘translated by Joseph Smith, Jr.’ You can’t say you’ve read the whole thing if you haven’t read the title page.”

It turned out to be a synopsis of the book’s contents, though I’d read the book before with my family. The Book of Mormon told the story of Lehi, a Jew who had lived in Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Christ. Warned in a dream that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians, Lehi gathered his family and went off into the wilderness in search of a promised land that God would show him. Lehi’s four sons went with him. Two, Nephi and Sam, were righteous and obedient. The other two, Laman and Lemuel, were rebellious and complained a lot (whenever I read about them, I imagined them sounding like Lou Costello from the Abbott and Costello radio program). They returned to Jerusalem twice, once to convince someone named Ishmael and his daughters to come with them, and the second time to retrieve the holy scriptures, which had been written on brass plates. Nephi had gotten himself into quite a scrape trying to get the plates, but an angel commanded him to chop off the head of the man who kept the plates–I had to admit it was pretty exciting.

They traveled through unfamiliar lands, guided by a sort of compass made of brass, which God had given them to show them the way. After traveling for quite some time–maybe even years–in the wilderness, they arrived at the seashore, where Nephi build a ship in which they sailed to America, which was the promised land spoken of. Once here in America, they had split into two groups: the righteous Nephites and the wicked, dark-skinned Lamanites. The two groups fought off and on for hundreds of years, and then one day there were earthquakes and floods and volcanos, and then three days of absolute darkness. Finally, the darkness dissipated, and Jesus appeared to teach them the gospel before he ascended to heaven. The people were righteous for a few generations, but eventually the Lamanites had wiped out the Nephites. Only the Lamanites survived, and their descendants had become the Indians who were scattered all through North and South America. It was our sacred duty to bring the gospel to the remnant of the Lamanites and restore them to their proper place in the House of Israel. Of course, the only Lamanite I had ever met had been the man at the trading post.

Grandma rocked slowly in her chair, her eyes closed, as I read:

Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.

TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH

When I finished, Grandma looked up and said, “That’s probably enough for tonight, dear.”

I closed the book over a ribbon bookmark and placed it back on the shelf near Grandma’s rocker.

“I always like to sing a hymn,” she said. “Do you know ‘O My Father’? It’s my favorite.”

We sang together, me quietly, probably out of embarrassment, but her voice was clear and melodic. She seemed to really appreciate the words of the song:

When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you,
In your royal courts on high?

Then at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do.
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.

“It’s time to pray,” she said. “Be a dear and help me get out of this chair.” I grasped her hands and helped her to her feet and then gently lowered her to her knees on the rag carpet in front of the fireplace.

Her prayer was in many ways quite formal, as she used the archaic “thou” and “thee” forms that I had heard in church so many times but still hadn’t mastered. Nevertheless, her prayer was heartfelt and familiar, and she prayed as if she were talking to a dear friend she deeply missed. I’d never heard anything like it, but I understood why she loved that hymn so much. To her, God wasn’t an abstract concept but a father, a loved one who was waiting for her to come home.

“I know my time in this earthly sphere is short,” she said, “but Father, help me to make the best of it to bless the lives of all those around me. Show me how to do thy will in my every act. I know thou hast guided me through my life, and I will follow wherever I am led.”

I realized that she was someone who had heard the voice of God, that her prayers had been answered. I was filled with the desire to be like her, to know what God wanted me to do.

“Please bless my young grandson, Will, that he will know thy voice and give heed to it. Watch over him in all things, and make him an instrument in thy hands, like unto Nephi of old.”

For the first time since my baptism, I had that strong desire to know God, to listen and follow, and I was determined to do what was necessary to get where Grandma was.

When she finished in Jesus’ name, “Amen,” I helped her to her feet, and she hugged me tightly, told me she loved me, and said she was glad I had come.

That night in my room, I knelt by the bedside and prayed fervently for guidance, for the voice of God to lead me. The room was quiet, and all I could hear was barely audible laughter coming from the bunkhouse. Maybe developing a relationship with God was like my dream of climbing the mountain: It would take time and effort, but I would get there.

 

 


Brief Pause

April 14, 2016

My daughter is getting married on Saturday, so needless to say my focus is on family this week. I will get back to the story early next week. Thanks for your patience.


The Incidental Prophet, Part 4

April 12, 2016

At the end of the school year, I was excited that the youth of our stake–all the congregations in the towns of Spring Lake, Payson, and Santaquin–would be holding a three-day campout in Nephi Canyon, some 20 miles to the south.

I had a great time at the camp, and although I knew everyone from school, it was nice to spend time doing something completely unrelated to academics. We went for long hikes, learned how to make lanyards out of leather strips, and had huge bonfires every night, where everyone sang and put on skits and jokes. It was wonderful. A few older kids got in trouble for pairing up and going off to kiss and who knows what else, but in all, it was wonderful.

The last night, we were told to dress in our Sunday best, as this would be a special “fireside.” It would be a testimony meeting, and we would all have the chance to share how the Spirit had witnessed to us of the truth.

Jim was terrified. “I can’t go up there and bear testimony. It would be like lying.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

That evening, one after another a long line of teens stood to express how much they had been touched by the Spirit. Even the kids who had been caught kissing the day before were brought to tears as they shared their most sacred encounters with the Holy Ghost.

Why didn’t I feel anything? Was I just not open to the Spirit? Was I not trying hard enough? Or was I just the only honest one there?

No, they must have felt something, or they wouldn’t say it, would they? Maybe it was just that people like me and Grandma didn’t work that way; we didn’t expect that kind of thing, didn’t need it. We just did our duty, and it was fine.

I wasn’t going to get up and bear testimony, but soon there were just Jim and me left, the only ones who hadn’t. I sat there quietly, trying to ignore the pressure to get up and say something. Finally, Brother Kelsch, our Aaronic Priesthood leader stood and said, “I would be very disappointed if some of my boys didn’t stand and bear testimony.” He stared at me, motioning me with his thumb to get up.

I guess he was looking at Jim, too, who slowly rose to his feet.

“I don’t really know what to say,” Jim said in a shaky voice. “I …”

Suddenly Jim was sobbing, his shoulders shaking. “I know the church is true!” he managed to get out. “I have a testimony!”

He collapsed into sobs, and Brother Kelsch put his arm around him to comfort him.

Now it was just me, and it seemed like everyone was staring at me, waiting for me to make a move.

I stood up.

What was I going to say?

“Uh, I’m grateful for the opportunity to stand here,” I said, knowing that wasn’t true.

I wanted to tell everyone I had a testimony from the Spirit, but the words wouldn’t come. I was starting to panic.

Then I saw Grandma’s face in my mind, and I was calm.

“I know that when I keep the commandments and do what’s right, I am blessed.” There, that wasn’t so hard. “I learned a long time ago that Heavenly Father just wants us to do our best, and I feel good when I do my best.”

Brother Kelsch looked a little disappointed.

“That’s how I know the church is true,” I said. “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

I wasn’t sure, but I thought saying I knew it was true meant I had borne my testimony. I didn’t feel bad, and I didn’t feel like it was a lie. So maybe I did have a kind of a testimony. Could you have one without feeling some kind of spiritual sign? Maybe so.

The following summer, Dad took me aside one day and told me that I was now old enough to do real work. I’d been working on the farm all my life, so I didn’t understand what he meant.

“I’ve worked hard every day of my life,” I said. “What more do you want me to do?”

“Son,” he said, his eyes filled with a clarity I’d never seen before, “Working on this little farm is all well and good, but it’s time for you to work on the ranch with your Uncle Bob.”

“But I don’t want to leave!” I protested.

“It’s just for the summer,” he said. “Grandma could use the company, and you are old enough for that kind of work.”

The day after school ended, Mom helped me pack an old suitcase, and I loaded it into the back of the truck. She kissed me and hugged me goodbye, saying, “Remember who you are. Do your duty, and all will be well.”

It took two full days to drive to the ranch, as the old truck couldn’t keep up with the traffic on the highway that stretched north through the cities and small towns of northern Utah. Dad pointed out that, for pretty much every Mormon settlement along the Wasatch Mountains, the mountains were on the east, and water (Utah Lake, the Jordan River, and the Great Salt Lake) was to the west. We both laughed when he said, “Heavenly Father just wanted to make it hard for people to get lost.”

The old truck rattled and wheezed its way along. It seemed like all morning we had been passed by angry motorists, some who yelled angry swear words at us, especially when the truck struggled over the Point of the Mountain, the narrow pass between Utah Valley and the Salt Lake Valley. “Never mind,” Dad said. “We may not be fast, but we’ll get there.” I wasn’t so sure.

We stopped for lunch in Salt Lake, where we got hot bread with jam at a bakery downtown and ate it in the shade of a poplar tree on Temple Square, just south of the gray granite temple. It felt a little disrespectful to be eating on the grounds of the holy temple, but Dad said Heavenly Father wouldn’t mind.

A few hours later we had left the familiar mountain valleys. After the sun set, Dad pulled the truck off the side of the road under a Russian olive tree somewhere north of Pocatello, where the land spread out wide and flat in the Snake River Valley.

“We’re on an Indian reservation,” he said. “Maybe we’ll see some Indians.”

That sounded pretty exciting to me, but also a little scary. “They won’t come after us, will they?” I asked.

“You’ve seen too many movies,” he said. “The people here are wonderful. Kind and generous, even though the white men haven’t been very good to them.”

We built a good-sized fire and ate the sandwiches Mom had packed for us.

I think Dad and I talked more that evening than we ever had before. He told me about growing up on the ranch, how his father had taught him to work hard, and how he hoped he had done right by me.

I looked up to my father, but I had never told him until that night.

“I’m proud of you, son,” he said, his voice quavering in a way I hadn’t heard before. I’m not sure I ever heard him say that again, either.

It was beginning to get cold, so we spread out our bedrolls and lay down. As we stared up at the bright stars, I asked him, “Do you think God really does notice us? I mean, there’s so much out there, and we’re so small.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I expect he does, but I wouldn’t know.”

“Has he ever answered your prayers?” I asked, looking over at him.

His face relaxed, and he said, “I think so. Not like a burning bush kind of thing or anything like that, but just … well … things have a way of working out. I often can look back and see how something I prayed for came about in ways I didn’t expect.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, like being sent to Utah to work on the farm,” he said. “That was the last I wanted to do, and it took me a while to forgive your grandma. But I never would have met your mother if I hadn’t gone, and if anyone has been an answer to my prayers, she has. … And then there’s you and Ellen. See what I mean?”

I guess I did.

In the morning, we stopped by the Fort Hall trading post, where Dad bought me some penny candy and some tea to take to Grandma (an old Scottish habit). The man behind the store counter was a real, honest-to-goodness Indian with long braids hanging out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. I stared at him with what must have been very wide eyes.

“What’s the matter, son?” the man said, putting our purchases in a paper bag.

“It’s just–I’ve never met a Lamanite before!” I said, using the Mormon term for Indian.

“A what?” he said, looking genuinely puzzled.

My dad laughed. “Never mind, Henry, he’s just excited to see an Indian for the first time.” Dad had stopped at the post many times before and knew the man by name.

“Whatever you say, John,” the man laughed too.

We drove for what seemed like many hours through mostly flat, dusty potato fields until the land rose toward the forested mountains, and the old truck struggled up the grade. The trees were beautiful, and I wondered why people didn’t live up here instead of in the rather ugly valley below.

“You can’t grow potatoes up here,” Dad said. “Too many trees.”

After a brief stop to eat lunch and let the radiator cool off, we wound our way across the mountains and down into a green valley north of the mountains. Dad kept the truck in low gear all the way down because he said he didn’t trust the brakes. That didn’t sound very reassuring, but we made it to the bottom of the grade safely.

“Have you thought of your plans for the future?” Dad asked out of nowhere.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t thought about it much. I’m only 14, after all.”

“Yeah, there’s time,” he said. “Still, you’d do well on the ranch, I’d say.”

If there was one thing I didn’t want to do, it was that, but I wasn’t going to tell him so. “Well, Mom thinks I should go into banking. She says I have a head for figures.”

“Of course you do,” he replied. “Why do you think Mom has given you homework every summer since before you started school? You’re way ahead of other boys your age, especially in math.”

“I guess I’m good at it,” I said, “But I don’t know if that’s what I want to do. It can be pretty boring.”

“Hard work isn’t meant to entertain you,” Dad said, looking  very serious. “You do what’s best for yourself and your family, and being boring’s got nothing to do with it.”

“What did you want to be when you were my age, Dad?”

“I wanted to run the ranch,” he said.

“Why didn’t you?”

“It just wasn’t meant to be,” he said, giving me a look that let me know he didn’t want to talk about it.

“But you like working on the farm, don’t you?”

“Sure, son, but it’s not exactly a challenge for me. Like you said, it can be pretty boring. But it’s what was meant to be, and I have to do my duty. I don’t complain.”

We rode in silence for another 15 minutes before we saw the big gate marked “Park Silver Ranch.” At some point, the name had changed from the original “Peaceful Springs Ranch” as sort of a family joke referring to Great-grandpa McCurdie losing his shares in a silver mine. Dad said it was a good reminder why the Lord taught us not to drink alcohol or gamble. Either way, the brand was the same: a P looping over a smaller S.

Grandma was waiting up for us when we pulled up to the front of the house. She seemed older and more tired than she had the last time I had seen her, but maybe it was just the dim light. She hugged me tightly and told me how happy she was to see me as she showed me to the small room at the end of the hall that would be mine for the summer.

 

 

 

 


The Incidental Prophet, Part 3

April 11, 2016

I’m not sure what I was expecting,  but the baptism went as well as could have been expected, I guess. The water was cold, though not as cold as the lake, and I wasn’t in the font very long. Mom had sewn white pants for me and Dad out of old flour sacks, and after we changed, we went down into the water. I doubted the pants would ever be used again, except maybe when Ellen turned 8.

Before the actual baptism, the bishop said a few words, though I don’t remember much of what he said, and then we sang “I Stand All Amazed,” which no longer filled me with dread. When I came up out of the water, I didn’t feel any different, but then I thought maybe the difference would come when I received the gift of the Holy Ghost.

After we changed back into dry clothes, I sat in a chair at the front of the room, and my Dad, Uncle Bob, and the bishop laid their hands on my wet hair, and I could feel my dad trembling slightly as he pronounced the words that made me a member of the church and authorized me to receive the companionship of the Holy Ghost. When we walked home past the crab-apple tree, I realized I had been wrong: I didn’t feel any different than I had before, but I was determined to keep myself pure and free of sin.

When we got home, Dad changed back into his work clothes and headed out to the pasture north of the lake, where the springs arose that gave the pond its impressive name. The bishop had noticed a fence post was nearly down, so Dad would need to repair it before any of the cattle got out into the neighboring fields or, worse, onto the highway. Dad said it was my special day, so I could stay home and help Mom and Grandma with dinner. Uncle Bob went along with Dad to help, though I don’t know how he was supposed to help since he was still wearing his suit.

It didn’t take us long to get the roast in the oven and the table set, so Grandma suggested we take Uncle Bob’s car and go for a drive. Gloria looked a little irritated, but Mom agreed it might be nice, especially with the top down. We all piled in the car, Ellen and me sitting in the back seat with Mom, the breeze blowing through our hair as we headed up the hill toward the canal road east of town. As we rounded the corner at the north end of the pond, I could see Dad’s old truck out in the pasture, near the fence he was mending. Uncle Bob sat on the rusty tailgate, looking out over the valley through binoculars.

“Well, at least one of my sons knows how to work,” Grandma said a little bitterly.

“He does just fine,” Gloria said, giving her a little glare.

“Never said he didn’t,” Grandma said, looking straight ahead.

On the way back, we passed Brother Ashton’s apple orchard, where the trees were heavy with fruit, which at that point were blushed with red over a dusty green–almost ripe to eat, but not quite.

“Pull over, dear,” Grandma said. Gloria stopped the car. “Wouldn’t those apples make a nice pie?” Grandma said, turning to look at Mom.

“They just might,” Mom said, “but they aren’t ours.”

“Oh, it won’t hurt to pick a few,” Grandma smiled. She turned to me and Ellen and said, “Do you think you two could bring back about a dozen apples? I think a baptism is an occasion for a pie.”

“I don’t know,” Mom said, looking very uncomfortable.

“You wouldn’t deny the newest member of the church a proper celebration, would you?” Grandma chuckled. “Go on, you two. It will be all right.”

We climbed over the seat and out the car door and ran off to pick a few apples. Soon we had our arms full, and we brought them back to the car.

“Perfect!” Grandma said. “Now, let’s go.”

At the house, I helped Grandma peel the apples, and Mom made a crust. With some butter, cinnamon, and sugar, and some strips of crust criss-crossed over the top, the pie went into the oven. Grandma called us over, and Ellen and I sat on her lap, taking turns reading Stuart Little to her.

About the time we started smelling the heavenly scent of the pie, Dad and Uncle Bob came in the door.

“Smells like apple pie, Mother,” Bob said. “Delicious!”

“Where did you get those apples, Moira?” Dad said, looking suspicious. “We didn’t have any apples this morning.”

“They were a gift from me,” Grandma said, “and I hope you’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.” I had no idea what that meant.

“Where did they come from?” Dad looked me in the eye.

“We picked them from Ashton’s orchard,” I said. “Grandma said it would be all right.”

“Mother, that’s stealing!” Dad said, quickly picking up the telephone and dialing.

Stealing? Did that mean I had already sinned, mere hours after being washed clean?

“Hello, this is John Murdock,” I heard Dad say into the phone. “How much would you charge for a dozen apples from your orchard? … Oh, well, you see, my mother thought it was a good idea for my children to pick some apples out of your orchard, and they got a dozen.”

I was horrified. Was he going to make me confess? Beg forgiveness?

“Well, you may be right, it’s just a few apples, but our family doesn’t take things without paying for them. … Yes, that’s right. I’ll send them over. I’m very sorry this has happened.”

I could feel my heart pounding up into my throat as Dad called me and Ellen over.

“You knew it was wrong to take those apples, didn’t you?” he said, as we stared at the floor.

“Grandma told us to–” Ellen said, but he cut her off.

“But you knew better, didn’t you?”

We both nodded.

He reached into the pocket of his work pants and pulled out a dime. “Brother Ashton reckons you took about 10 cents’ worth of apples, so you are going to go on over there and pay him for what you took.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, feeling my face redden with shame.

“I ought to give you a whipping for this, but you go apologize for what you’ve done, and that will be sufficient.”

We walked slowly down the street, the dime in my hand and a terrible sense of doom gathering around us. By the time I knocked on Brother Ashton’s door, my heart was pounding again.

“Ah, the little hoodlums,” he said, laughing as he opened the screen door. “What do you have to say for yourselves?”

“We’re sorry for taking your apples, sir.” We muttered, as I held out the dime. Ellen was close to tears. I was too, truth be told.

“Well, now let that be a lesson to you,” he said. “And never forget that your father is an honest man.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re not going to do anything like that again, are you?” he said, looking me squarely in the face.

“No, sir,” we both answered quietly.

“See that you don’t,” he said, closing the door. “And I hope you enjoy the pie.”

We ran home, both of us terribly ashamed, but relieved that the worst of it was over.

That night I poured out my sinful heart in prayer, begging to be forgiven for such a terrible sin. But I felt nothing. I cried myself to sleep, sure that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t been forgiven.

The next day at church, I was called up in front of the congregation so they could raise their hands in fellowship to welcome me into the household of God. Everyone looked so pleased, yet I heard over and over in my head, Thief! Thief! Thief!

After church, Grandma made some lemonade, and we sat out on the front porch.

“How do you know when you’re forgiven?” I asked her.

“What do you have to be forgiven for?” She looked surprised.

“I stole those apples yesterday,” I said, once again feeling the shame rise into my face.

“Oh, that,” she said. “If anyone has to repent for that, it’s me. I’m the one who told you to do it.”

“But I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway.”

“Did you ask Heavenly Father to forgive you?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, there you are. There’s nothing more to it.”

“But I don’t feel forgiven,” I pressed on. “Doesn’t God tell us when He forgives us? Doesn’t He give us some kind of sign?”

“If He does, I’ve never noticed it,” she smiled, taking a sip of her lemonade. “Our job is to do our duty, and when we do wrong, we’re to repent. Do you feel like you’ve sincerely repented?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have. Don’t waste your time waiting for signs and miracles. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and things will work out.”

That was pretty much what the bishop had said, so I knew she must be right. Maybe someday a sign would come, but I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore.


The Incidental Prophet – Chapter 2

April 7, 2016

The mountain was all I had expected it to be: the wind was blowing in intermittent but powerful gusts as I stood on the bare rock–at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, Nebo rises up far above the timberline. Buttoning my coat against the cold, I looked out on Utah Valley to the north, the smoking stacks of the massive new steel mill reflected in the green-tinged lake to the west.

Every time we had driven past Geneva Steel, my dad had grinned proudly and said, “That’s what progress looks like, son.” I thought it just smelled bad and covered the valley with a rust-colored blanket of smoke. Built during the war to be close to Utah’s coal mines but out of range of Japanese or German bombers, Geneva had brought industry to what had previously been a sleepy Utah valley that had been home to a small college and not much else.

To the south lay Juab Valley, at its center Nephi, a small town named after a Book of Mormon prophet known for cutting off a drunken man’s head and stealing the brass plates on which the books of the Old Testament were written. Quiet and only sparsely populated, Nephi was probably what Provo had been before the steel mill arrived, though I wasn’t sure because I was too young to notice then. But it did seem like the perfect place to hide for someone who had just chopped off a fellow’s head and stolen his scriptures.

I kept looking back and forth at the two valleys, and I thought, Here at the summit I am master of both worlds: the rural, slow-paced past, and the exciting, albeit murky and smoke-filled, future.

“Wake up!” Mom opened the door.

“Aw, Mom, it’s not time for church yet,” I muttered, wiping the crumbs from the corners of my eyes (Dad always called it “eyebread,” for some reason, and it made him laugh).

“The bishop just called.” I hadn’t heard the phone ring. “He wants you to come in early and talk about your baptism.”

I would be turning 8 in 2 weeks, and as every Mormon knows, turning 8 is a big deal. According to the scriptures revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, at 8 you become “accountable” for your sins, and thus you need baptism to wash away your transgressions. From that point onward, you had to watch yourself, and repent whenever you fell short. Otherwise, you’d have to answer for those sins at the judgment day.

I never told anyone, but the thought of having even one unrepented sin scared me to death. We would sing in sacrament meetings on Sunday about Jesus, “for me, a sinner, He suffered, He bled and died.” Even though we didn’t have crosses in our churches and homes, I could picture in my mind Jesus in agony on the cross, gazing down on me as if disappointed that I hadn’t taken advantage of his sacrifice for my sins.

Mom seemed to take extra care that morning scrubbing my face, and even behind my ears, straightening my clip-on bowtie, and combing my hair into a brylcreemed slick.

The church was a new red-brick building just around the corner from our house, but I always took the shortcut past the chicken coop in our backyard and around the crab-apple tree by the fence.

I walked into the quiet church–priesthood meeting had ended, and the men had gone home to fetch their families for Sunday School–and sat down on a padded bench in the hallway outside the bishop’s office. A little lightbulb labeled “Bishop in counsel” glowed orange, so I knew not to knock on the door.

After a few minutes, the door opened, and Sister Henry came out, wiping tears from her eyes, as the bishop patted her shoulder and said, “We’ll talk again.”

Was I going to come out in tears? I hadn’t given it much thought, but suddenly I was terrified at the prospect of having to confess all my sins to this man who I knew had been called as a Judge in Israel. Could I even remember them all? If I missed even one, the bishop would know. That was his job.

I could see Jesus in my mind, shaking his head sadly at me.

“Come in, young man!” the bishop said, beaming. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

“You’ve got an important date coming up, haven’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir,” I said trying not to look as frightened as I was.

“I’m sure you know all about baptism and what happens, right?”

“Yes, sir, you get dressed in white, and you go into a big bathtub, and a priesthood holder says a prayer and then dunks you in the water. After that, you don’t have any more sins.”

“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” he said, stifling a laugh. “It’s a big step, and we are here to make sure you’re ready for it.”

“Oh, I know I’m ready, sir. I want to be washed of my sins.” I didn’t mention how scared I was of having to repent perpetually ever after.

“That’s good!” he said. “And do you know what happens after you get baptized?”

“Uh, you get confirmed, right?” I didn’t quite understand that word, but I knew it meant you would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“Well, yes, they do call it a confirmation, but the important part is that the Holy Spirit will begin working in you, and that’s very important.”

“Um, yes, I know,” I spluttered.

“The reason why it’s so important is that it’s the Holy Ghost who tries to keep you out of trouble and helps you repent when you sin. You see, once you have the Holy Ghost with you, you’re never alone, unless you drive him away. Strive to keep him in your heart and your mind, and he’ll help you come safely home to your Heavenly Father.”

It actually made me feel better knowing this. If I just did what I was supposed to do, the Holy Ghost would guide me through life, and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of messing up. I felt forgiven already, and I hadn’t even been baptized yet.

After that, the bishop filled out a form with my name, birth date, parents’ names, and other important stuff, which he said would be sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake and kept forever to show that I had joined the kingdom of God on earth.

That would have scared me to death before, but suddenly I was excited and happy to be taking on this responsibility, and I walked home without even noticing my surroundings.

A few days before the baptism, a bright green convertible, with its top closed, unexpectedly pulled up to our house. It was my uncle Bob all the way from Montana, where he managed the family’s large cattle ranch since my grandfather had died. Bob was wearing an odd, cream-colored suit and matching fedora. His wife, Gloria, climbed out of the passenger’s seat dressed in a red-and-white sundress with matching hat and sunglasses. Her skin looked almost orange and slightly leathery, her hair much blonder than I had remembered. I figured it must have been the weather up there.

“Howdy, young man!” Bob shook my hand vigorously. “Where’s your dad?”

“He’s out plowing the 51 acres,” I said.

“Well, we’ll catch up with him later,” Bob said, already striding towards the front door.

“Will? Is that you?” called a voice from the back seat of the car.

“Grandma!” I yelled, clambering over the seat and throwing my arms around her neck.

“Oh, my wee one, I’m so glad to see ye!” she said amidst hugs and kisses. She’d never completely lost that lilting rural Scottish accent.

Grandma was the best. She made it clear that when she was around, we were her sole focus in life. “Why do you think Heavenly Father gave me such a big lap if not for grandchildren to sit on?” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Looking back, she was the one person in my life who never needed me to live up to her expectations. Dad wanted me to be a hard worker, and Mom wanted me to strive for greatness, but Grandma loved me no matter what, and I knew it.

By the time Dad got home, Uncle Bob was reading the Deseret News, his feet on the ottoman, while Aunt Gloria did a crossword puzzle in the corner of the sitting room. Ellen was helping Mom peel potatoes, and I was at the other end of our sitting room, at the table with Grandma, shelling the latest batch of peas from the garden. Grandma pretended not to notice that almost as many peas went into my mouth as into the bowl.

“Whew, you smell almost as bad as you look,” Bob laughed, pointing at my dad.

“That’s what hard work smells like,” my dad said, not really looking up as he walked toward the kitchen.

“I know,” Bob said, pretending to be offended, “but at least you shouldn’t bring it in the house with you.”

Dad wiped his face with his handkerchief and leaned to kiss and hug Grandma.

“I’ve missed you so much, son,” she said, a little teary-eyed. “I wish you weren’t so far away.”

“I know, Mother,” he said, holding her tightly. “Maybe someday we’ll all be close together again. I just don’t think circumstances are right.”

After dinner, Dad and Uncle Bob sat at the table, talking about the ranch.

“Well, I don’t get out there all that often,” Bob said, “but my foreman keeps me abreast of what’s going on.”

“You’ve got to be more involved, or we might lose it,” Dad said, looking a little, well, fierce might be the right word.

The ranch in Montana was always a sort of mystery to me. Dad’s maternal grandfather, Daniel McCurdie, had been a miner in Scotland, when he and his wife had met Mormon missionaries sometime around 1870. At that time, those who joined the Mormon church–officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–were expected to gather to Utah to prepare for the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Great-grandfather McCurdie, being a poor man with seven daughters, could not afford to relocate his entire family, so he and his wife, Mary, decided that he would leave for Utah and then send for the rest of the family when he had saved some money. In the meantime, Mary and her daughters moved to Glasgow, where they worked in a lace factory.

Daniel McCurdie was a hard worker, but he was an even harder drinker. Arriving in Utah, he secured work in the Park City Silver mine, and ended up with quite a few shares of what would become a very lucrative enterprise–only to lose them in a drunken poker game. Scraping up whatever money he didn’t drink, Daniel finally began sending money back to Scotland. By this time, the oldest daughter had married outside the Mormon faith and had chosen to stay in Scotland.

It took about 10 years before Mary was finally able to leave with her two youngest daughters–Grandma Grace McCurdie and her younger sister Annie–to cross the ocean to America. Grandma always said she was glad they had to wait, as her sisters had to walk across the plains, whereas she traveled in style in a railroad train.

Once Mary had arrived in Utah, she laid down the law with Daniel: no more drinking (well, not as much, anyway), and they were going to be proper farmers. They spent a couple of years saving up to buy the properties in Spring Lake, a tiny settlement built around a pond that somehow was called a lake, and then they loaded all their possessions in a single wagon and walked the 60 or so miles to their new home.

Despite their properties not all adjoining each other, Daniel and Mary managed to provide for their large family, and eventually they built the small, two-bedroom clapboard home where we now lived.

Grandma was the last of the daughters to marry, her sister Annie having died of something referred to as “summer complaint.” She met Grandpa Murdock when she was working at the small community store just west of the lake, and he was passing through on his way from St. George heading north to homestead in Montana.

He was quite taken with her, and he immediately made up a story about needing to rest his horses for a couple of days. They were inseparable while he was in town, and when he left, he kissed her on her cheek and said, “I’ll be back for you in the spring.” She blushed deep red, but she hoped he had meant it. True to his word, he had returned in April and asked for her hand. They married in the Salt Lake temple and honeymooned during the trip to Montana.

Grandma said that growing up on a small farm had not quite prepared her for living on a large cattle ranch, and she did not enjoy the harsh Montana winters at all. But Grandpa Murdock was not only a skilled rancher but an astute businessman, and soon he was the owner of the largest ranch in western Montana.

Dad was the firstborn, and Bob came a couple of years later. A younger sister, Ellen, lived only a few months, which broke Grandma’s heart. Dad said his father pushed him hard, telling him that he needed to be strong and driven to someday take over the ranch. Bob, on the other hand, never showed much interest in the ranch, but always had some pipe dream about exploring the world or becoming a Pulitzer-winning journalist.

Dad worked hard on the ranch, but then Great-grandpa McCurdie died unexpectedly back in Utah. For some reason, when Grandma Murdock returned from the funeral, she encouraged Dad to leave Montana and take over the small farm and pastures in Spring Lake. I think he might have been disappointed, as if he was being put out to pasture literally, but he loved his mother, and once he got the old truck out of the barn and had it running, he packed a few bags and drove down to Utah to take care of his grandmother’s farm.

He may have thought it was just a temporary move, but the first time he walked into the tiny adobe church the settlers had built, he saw Moira, the daughter of Irish immigrants who lived a half-mile or so north of the lake. Theirs was a brief courtship, and soon they were married, and she moved into his grandmother’s house to set up household.

Even then, he always told Moira he was going to take her to Montana someday to live on the ranch, where they would have a better, more prosperous life. Somehow, even after Great-grandmother McCurdie died, they stayed put. Then I was born, and two years later, Ellen came along, named, of course, after Dad’s sister.

Then one day Dad received a phone call from Grandma Murdock, saying that there had been an accident, and Grandpa had been killed while driving in fence posts. After that, I don’t know much about what happened, as no one ever talked about it. All I knew is that, despite everything, Dad stayed on the farm in Utah, and Bob began running the ranch. It didn’t much matter to me, as I didn’t think I’d like living up there in the cold. We had spent a Christmas up there once, and we couldn’t even go outside the whole time because the winds just howled, and the snow blew horizontally like someone shooting cornflakes at your face. I hated it there, but being with Grandma made it bearable.

And now we were all together for my baptism. I tried to explain to Grandma how excited I was, and I told her all about the Holy Ghost and how it would keep me from doing bad things.

“Oh, hold on there,” she said, laughing. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ll make mistakes like everyone else does. Just remember to learn from your mistakes, and you’ll be just fine.”

Somehow that sounded less comforting than the bishop’s explanation.

“Who’s going to baptize the boy?” Uncle Bob asked casually. Why did they always refer to me as “the boy”?

“What do you mean?” Dad said suspiciously.

“Well, it’s not like you’re all that strong in the gospel,” Bob said, clearing his throat. I wondered what he was talking about.

“He’s my boy, and I’m going to baptize him,” Dad said, his jaw tight. “I hold the priesthood, and it’s my right.”

“Of course it is!” Bob said, a strange smile on his face. “No one is saying otherwise. I’m just wondering if he might do better with a more prominent priesthood line.”

“Just because you got ordained a high priest by an apostle, it doesn’t mean you’re better than me, not by a damn site!” Dad said hotly. “I was ordained to the priesthood by our father, and he was as good as any one of those old men in Salt Lake.”

“Quentin, I’ll not have you disparaging the Brethren,” Mom said in a voice I’d never heard before. “The boy will be baptized by his father, and that’s the end of it.”

“Why don’t we ask the boy?” Gloria said, looking up from her crossword.

“My father is baptizing me,” I said firmly, glaring at her and then at Uncle Bob.

“Well, that’s settled then,” Bob said, turning back to the paper. “Hmmm. They say the church might hit a million members this year. That’s something, huh?”

That Saturday afternoon, Dad and I left off our chores early. Dad took a second bath that day, and he came out of his bedroom shaved and neatly groomed and dressed.

“It’s your turn, Will,” Mom said, pulling me by the arm into the bathroom. I don’t think I was ever scrubbed that hard before or since, but eventually, I emerged pink and a little raw, dressed in a starched white shirt, creased dark slacks, and a real tie that Dad taught me how to tie.

As we walked past the crab-apple tree toward the church, I thought this was the last time I’d see that tree the same way. When I came back, I would be accountable, and I would do my best to stay away from sin.


The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

April 6, 2016

I’ve had some ideas in my head about writing a novel, and I thought I’d put it out here, first. So, I hope you enjoy what is essentially a running rough draft.

The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

I speak with God. As His servant and mouthpiece, I reveal His will to the world. Millions of people around the globe look to me as a prophet, seer, and revelator. But mostly I’m just full of crap. Twenty years ago I was called as an apostle, a “special witness of Jesus Christ,” and I still don’t know what that means, exactly. I haven’t had any special witness of anything, unless you count my glaring awareness of my weaknesses. It really tears me apart sometimes.

Every time I speak, millions hang on my every word, and they expect me to tell them what God has in store for them. I do my best, but I rarely feel inspired, and the words are always mine, not those of an unseen deity. But it doesn’t seem to matter much. No matter what I say, within hours someone has posted it on Twitter or Facebook, often superimposed on a beautiful picture with a flowing script. I cringe every time I see that, especially at my name so carefully placed at the end of the quote. It doesn’t help that every April and October, I’m on television around the world for what we Mormons call “general conference.” I have to be extremely careful, as everything I say ends up recorded and printed. Once I ad-libbed at the beginning of a general conference talk, and soon I was quoted everywhere: “Life is good.” – President William C. Murdock. How profound! How embarrassing!

When I enter a room, everyone stands and remains standing until I take my seat, and sometimes they keep standing until I tell them to sit. More often than not, they’re liable to break into a chorus of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but it still makes me more than a little uncomfortable, though I’ve trained myself to stop blushing when it happens.

It wasn’t always like this. My dad, who valued hard work and perseverance more than anything, never thought much of me, or so it seemed. Growing up on a farm in Spring Lake, Utah, where Dad grew hard red winter wheat and raised cattle on several acres of pasture, I thought I would end up farming all my life, but my mother had other ideas. Maybe it was sort of a good-cop-bad-cop thing, but as critical as my dad was of everything I did, my mom regularly reminded me that, at least according to her, I was destined for something important.

“Right now, he’s destined to bring the eggs in from the henhouse,” my dad chuckled. “I don’t know why the hell you have to fill his head with nonsense, Moira. He don’t have much of a head for anything, far as I can tell, so why set him up for a big fall?”

“Oh, hush, Quentin, and mind your language,” Mom said, folding me into her arms. “Will, you go on out and get the eggs, and then you get back to your homework.”

Even at age 7, I thought getting the eggs was a little beneath me. My sister Ellen, who was 5, was certainly capable of gathering a few eggs, but Mom was teaching her things girls needed to know, like sewing on a button or making Dad’s breakfast (it was always the same: Cream of Wheat, in a glass, with milk and pepper). And at that point, I didn’t understand why I still had homework in July, long after school had adjourned for the summer.

It was 1947, and for most people, things were finally starting to return to normal after the rationing and deprivations of wartime. We really hadn’t noticed the war much because, like a lot of our neighbors, we lived mostly off what the farm produced–eggs, milk, bread, beef, pork, and lamb. Mom had a huge vegetable garden out in front of the house. When it was our water turn, Dad would put the dam in the ditch that went along the side of the gravel road and open the gate to flood our front yard. We usually made boats out of newspaper and floated them around the yard.

“Won’t the garden drown?” asked Ellen, her freckled face looking genuinely concerned.

“No, dummy,” I said disgustedly. “The plants like the water. They need it.” Don’t girls know anything?

I liked watering days because they usually meant we didn’t have to weed for a couple of days until the mud dried enough. This day, however, it was time to harvest the peas, so Mom helped us put on our galoshes, and Ellen and I waded into the mud, each carrying a large wicker basket.

It was harder work than it seemed, as you had to pick the pods that were ready but take care not to disturb the smaller ones that we would come back for in a week or so. And of course, you had to avoid the geese, who were clearly not afraid of a little mud. Ellen was terrified of them, as we never knew when they would suddenly charge at us, wings flapping, neck stretching out straight, and squawking loudly with their beaks wide open. Mom always said it was worth putting up with their unpleasant temperament to have something nice to eat for the holidays. Whenever the geese came close to Ellen, I brushed them away with my basket.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” I said, though truthfully I was almost as afraid of them as she was.

We picked for a good hour until our baskets were full and our fingers were stained with green. “Let’s go, it’s almost dinnertime,” I said, and headed for the front door. On our farm, dinner was the big meal we ate at noon, while supper was the evening meal. At school they called it “lunch,” though I never understood why.

Then I heard Ellen sobbing behind me. I turned and saw that her rain boots were stuck fast in the mud. Her face was red–her blonde hair made it stand out all the more–and she was trying her hardest to hold back the tears, though they streamed out anyway.

I set my basket down on the lawn and went back to get her. “Now, you wait here while I get your basket over to the lawn.”

“Don’t leave me here!” she blubbered.

“It’s only for a second,” I said, laughing. “It’s not like I can set it down in the mud, silly.”

After depositing her basket on the lawn, I trudged back through the mud, turned around in front of her, and said, “Come on, I’ll carry you.”

I squatted down, and she climbed on my back, putting her arms around my neck.

“Not so tight! You’re choking me!” I sputtered, but she had me in a death-grip.

I pulled hard, and her feet popped out of the boots, one after the other.

“There! You’re out!” I said, as she gripped my neck even harder and then let out a sigh of relief as I carried her across the lawn.

We retrieved our baskets, and as we came to the porch, I could see Mom’s round face and pinned-back brown hair through the screen door. She opened the door and looked down at Ellen’s grass-stained socks. “Ellen! What have you done with your boots?”

Ellen started crying again, so I said, “It’s OK, Mom. They got stuck in the mud. I’ll go get them.”

Mom muttered something about teaching Ellen to wash socks, and I went back to the garden for the boots. The sun was shining warm on my face, and there was just enough breeze to deliver the delicate fragrance of alfalfa, which grew in the pasture across the street. I looked up at Mount Nebo, which rose up directly behind the neighbor’s horses, who were lazily nibbling on the purple and green alfalfa.

As long as I could remember, the mountain had seemed to call to me. I often pestered my dad to take me on a hike to the top, but he always begged off, “Not ’til you’re older, son.”

Someday I would be old enough, and the mountain would be mine.

 


More on the Suspension of Relief Society

February 25, 2016

A reader suggested yesterday that in my previous post, Remarkable Transparency, I was overly reliant on a single source for my assertion that the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, some 3 months before Joseph Smith was killed. I responded in the comments, but I figured I had enough to post it on its own. So, here goes. I’ll put the reader’s comments in italics.

I think you are overstating the issue of the closing of the RS slightly with your dependence on Mormon Enigma above other sources. Newell and Avery’s biography and history is still unequalled, to be sure, but on this issue they provide as many sources as they can but have to fill in the rest of the story through context.

I used Newell and Avery because it’s well-known and easily accessible, but I could have cited other historians who have reached the same conclusions they did.

For example, here’s Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s take on it:

The third season began auspiciously in the spring of 1844 with Emma Smith again taking the lead. Knowing the limits of space, she conducted the same meeting four times, at ten o’clock and one o’clock on March 9 and 16. There she delivered a double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. After those four sessions, as John Taylor later explained, “the meetings were discontinued” because “Emma Smith the Pres[ident] taught the sisters that the principle of plural marriage … was not of God.” Eliza R. Snow left the situation ambiguous by acknowledging to a Relief Society in 1868 that “Emma Smith … the Presidentess … gave it [Relief Society] up so as not to lead the society in Erro[r].” (The “Leading Sisters”: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-century Mormon Society, in New Mormon History, ed. Michael Quinn, p. 160.)

And this is from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which I worked on at the Church Office Building, so I know it was vetted and approved by the church: “Beset with differences between its president and Church leaders-differences related to the introduction of plural marriage-the society ceased to function formally after the meetings of March 1844.”

The reader is correct that there’s not a lot to go on, but suffice it to say that I’m not alone in my reading of the events. No one disputes that the meetings in March 1844 involved Emma’s scathing denunciation of polygamy or that the meetings abruptly ceased after that.

There are no original sources contemporary to March-June detailing anything of why another meeting never occurred. We have statements made long after the fact by leaders in Salt Lake City, but as far as I know nothing contemporary. To me, it seems that who you think made the final decision to not have another meeting shows more about how you view the politics of 1844 Nauvoo than it does about how the actual decision went down.

Indeed, there are no contemporary sources explaining why the meetings stopped.

At that time, the Relief Society usually met during warmer weather months, so the first “season” was from March to September 1842. The 1843 season didn’t begin until June 1843, and most sources suggest the delay was caused by Emma’s health problems through the winter and spring of that year. That the 1844 season began with 4 meetings on the 9th and 16th of March suggests that Emma was planning a full season of Relief Society. But the meetings stopped abruptly after that first week, after Emma had denounced polygamy and announced plans to investigate and root out all such immoral practices in Nauvoo. Coincidence? It’s certainly possible, but Eliza Snow’s statement suggests that Emma “gave it up” over a disagreement in church teachings, and John Taylor’s statement tells us the disagreement was over polygamy. In the absence of contemporary statements, we are free to believe that there was no connection between Emma’s attacks on polygamy and the cessation of the society, but I think that stretches credulity.

There’s three options:

1) Joseph shut it down as a result of Emma’s use of the organization to fight against the growing practice of polygamy. Occurring before the assassination in June, this narrative plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo. Also, it doesn’t require, as the other two routes do, for no further meetings to occur merely because of lack of access to space for such meetings.

For the other two, these options usually assume that, following Emma’s statement that the RS would meet again when a large enough venue was found, the reason for no meetings between March and June is because of the logistics of finding a meeting place for the growing organization. Perhaps this difficulty was made worse through non-overt influence of male Church authorities.

Here is Emma’s statement about finding a larger venue, as my reader mentions:

Prest. E. S. closed her  remarks by say[i]ng she should like to have all  the Society present to geather— she said it was her  intention to present the Officers of the Society for  fellowship— when a place can be obtaind that all  can be present— [blank] Meeting ajou [adjourned] until a suitable place can be obtaind—

My reading of this is that Emma wanted to have all members present so the officers of the Relief Society could be presented (I assume for some kind of sustaining vote). It’s entirely possible that lack of meeting space contributed to the cessation of meetings, but this statement clearly indicates that Emma intended to continue holding Relief Society meetings.

Previously,  the problem of lack of space had been more or less resolved. From the minutes of the Relief Society for 7 July 1843:

“In consequence of having no room sufficiently commodious for the whole Society, it was recommended by the President that the Society be divided for the purpose of meeting, according to the 4 City Wards, and meet by rotation, one Ward at a time, that all might have equal privileges: Accordingly notice was given at the Grove on sunday the 2d of July that the members residing in the first City Ward, would convene at the room occupied as a Masonic Hall, on the friday following, at 2. o,clock.”

My guess is that Emma felt that holding multiple meetings was unworkable going forward, but there is no record of her attempting to find a new venue or hold more meetings after March 16, 1844. This suggests to me that she wasn’t looking to resume the meetings after that.

But I would like to address the idea that, somehow, I’m advocating a narrative that “plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo.” I really don’t know what I am meant to understand from this, as I haven’t said anything about use and abuse of power; rather, I think the reason the church has adopted the “part of the move West” narrative is that the disagreement (to put it mildly) between Joseph and Emma over polygamy doesn’t fit in well with current church representations of their marriage as one of love and single purpose. To quote the church’s own web site, “Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.”

2) Brigham shut it down during his power plays after the assassination. Just as Brigham took over access to and assumed spiritual authority for the unfinished Temple and its rituals, so too did Brigham attempt to put down anything threatening to his authority. Knowing of Joseph’s frustrations with the Relief Society he forbade those who followed him from meeting again. We know that he _did_ forbid the Society from arising again for decades through explicit orders to not let the women assemble together until he reformed it in a fashion firmly under his control.

I have no doubt that Brigham opposed the resumption of the Relief Society, but again, my issue is that it had already ceased operating before Brigham was in a position to “shut it down.”

3) Emma shut it down. To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.

Again, the organization had already stopped functioning before her husband’s death.

All three options are unfounded and made without any direct evidence. If you ask me, I’d actually choose the third option, if only because we don’t see Relief Societies in the Reorganized traditions. Brigham’s animosity towards Emma and her use of the RS explains how the RS disappeared among the Brighamites until it was radically reinvented by him decades later. The lack of the RS among the Reorganized tradition seems to me to be very much the decision of an Emma Smith Bidamon who wanted to put all of Nauvoo behind her. It seems like she made a choice herself not to re-institute it or call for it to be reinstated, and to me that decision could easily be pushed back to 1844 after she lost her husband.

Or it could be pushed back to March 1844 when her husband shut it down. I don’t see any reason to reject the consensus of most historians, but I can respect your interpretation.

I don’t see anything wrong with how the new book approaches the timeline, apart from their attempts to paint the loss of the Relief Society under Young’s direction as somehow relating to preparations for “crossing the plains”. That is bullshit, pure and simple. Young was afraid of the power Emma had held, hated Emma herself and anything associated with her, and would never be placed in the same position as Joseph of allowing dissent.

Well, yes, that was my point.

In the end, however, my disagreement with the timeline given in the Deseret News is that it doesn’t line up with the cessation of the meetings. Even Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the authors of the new book, accepts elsewhere that the Relief Society ceased as an organization in March 1844: “The Nauvoo society held its last recorded meeting on March 16, 1844, apparently unable to maintain unity of purpose during the factious events preceding the June 1844 martyrdom of Joseph Smith” (Derr, Jill Mulvay and Janath R. Cannon, “Relief Society,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992).

My reader states, “To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.” Again, that just doesn’t line up with the actual dates. Derr has it “preceding” Joseph’s death, but my reader has it “after.” I guess it’s my choice to accept the scholarly consensus here; apparently most historians agree with my view of Nauvoo politics in 1844.

In short, I used Mormon Enigma, but I could have chosen any number of sources that agree with with Newell and Avery, which I have noted here.


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