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.