Update: Todd Coontz Is “Shocked” to Find He Spent a Lot of Money on Himself

January 17, 2018

While I was away, I missed some important developments in the saga of “Dr.” Todd Coontz, the South Carolina-based televangelist I have written about previously. I put the “Dr.” in quotations because, although Mr. Coontz uses the honorific, there is no evidence he has a doctorate in any subject–he has an MS in Agriculture from Texas A&M University (Gig ’em, Aggies!).

The preacher lived a life of luxury. But the feds just indicted him on tax fraud.

In case you don’t remember “Dr.” Todd:

Coontz was the minister of Rock Wealth International Ministries from 2010 to 2014, according to the indictment. He authored numerous books on faith and finances, also including “Breaking the Spirit of Debt” and “7 Most Common Money Mistakes   and How To Avoid Them.”

He also operated the for-profit companies Legacy Media and Coontz Investments and Insurance, according to the indictment.

Specifically, “the indictment charges the 50-year-old Coontz with three counts of failure to pay taxes [perhaps that’s the triple favor] and four counts of aiding and assisting in the filing of false tax returns.”

I hadn’t realized he stopped being the “minister” at Rock Wealth in 2014. It seems he has relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he runs the Dominion Family Worship Center. As far as I can tell, he’s still running Rock Wealth, but apparently his title there has changed. But I digress.

Some interesting details in the indictment:

William Todd Coontz enjoyed a life of luxury, federal prosecutors contend, by claiming as business expenses the $1.5 million condo he and his family lived in as their parsonage and the luxury vehicles they drove, including three BMWs, two Ferraris, a Maserati and a Land Rover.

He also claimed a Regal 2500 boat, 400 charges at movie theaters, $228,000 in clothing purchases and $140,000 in meals and other entertainment as business expenses with no proof the expenses were for business, according to a federal criminal bill of indictment returned by a grand jury in Charlotte on Thursday.

He spent $21,000 at designer jewelry store David Yurman and $14,000 at Diamonds Direct jewelry store, the indictment said. …

“This is a classic example of ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ ” U.S. Attorney Jill Rose said in announcing the charges. “As a minister, Coontz preached about receiving and managing wealth, yet he failed to keep his own finances in order. Coontz will now receive a first-hand lesson in ‘rendering unto Caesar’ that which is due.”

I recognize that prosecutors often employ some rhetorical flourishes when announcing indictments, but I have to disagree with Ms. Rose: As I have noted in previous posts, “Dr.” Todd has been pretty open about why he wants your money and what he’s going to do with it. Despite a few throwaway lines about giving to missionary funds, he basically promises to take your money and pray for you in return. Here’s what you get for a $1,000 donation:

As a treasured Partner, you also share in the anointing and financial mantle on Dr. Todd’s life as he agrees to faithfully pray for you, your family, and your finances on a daily basis.

Again, he gets $1,000 to further his “anointing and financial mantle, which apparently involves cars, boats, jewelry, clothing, and a lot of dinners and movies. You get prayers. One would hope he has enough integrity to say a half-hearted “bless my donors” prayer once in a while, but that might be too much to ask for.

Of course, the good preacher denies any wrongdoing:

Coontz “unequivocally asserts his innocence … and will vigorously defend himself against these charges,” his lawyer, Mark Foster of Charlotte, said in a statement. “Todd Coontz has always endeavored to follow the law and to be a good citizen, father, and minister. He trusted others to manage his finances and taxes for him and was shocked to find out he was under criminal investigation by the IRS.

Blaming the accountants is a time-honored tactic when facing tax-evasion charges, but it doesn’t square with the facts of the case:

The indictment accuses Coontz of a check-cashing scheme involving travel reimbursements for speaking appearances and for book sales.

Coontz regularly traveled to speak at various ministries that generally paid him a speaking fee and his travel expenses. The indictment said Coontz hid income from the IRS by claiming the travel as a business expense while using reimbursements as personal income.

To conceal the payments, Coontz told his travel assistant to have the ministries make the reimbursement checks payable to “Todd Coontz” and to send the checks to his personal address. Coontz then cashed the checks, the indictment said.

Coontz also told his travel assistant to bill the churches for a full fare first-class ticket, although the tickets cost “substantially less,” the indictment said.

He is accused of concealing and cashing 102 checks from 2010 through 2013 for travel reimbursements, speeches and books and other products totaling about $252,000. In 2014, he cashed 32 checks totaling about $105,500 that also were not reflected in his accounting records, the indictment said.

Basically, Coontz was double-dipping: claiming business expenses as a deduction at the same time he was being reimbursed–at an inflated rate–for those same expenses; he then deposited the reimbursement checks in his personal accounts without declaring them as income. Sorry, but he can’t claim to be an expert in finance and investing and then say he’s shocked at illegal activities because “trusted others to manage his finances and taxes for him.”

I’m not shocked, nor should anyone familiar with this smarmy leech. He’ll have his day in court, and he must be presumed innocent by the judge and jury, but if the government has a paper trail for the charges, he may have to live with “the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others” from a prison cell.






October 28, 2016

Apparently I come across to some people as being unhappy. As near as I can tell, the consensus in some circles is that I spend my days obsessed with blaming my misery on the religion I no longer practice, when I should just realize that I’m unhappy because I have problems.

Of course, all of this relies on the assumption that I’m unhappy.

I am not.

I’ve probably written about this before, but as I’ve grown older, my conception of happiness has changed, and I realize that being happy means being comfortable and at peace with who you are. For a variety of reasons (some related to Mormonism, but that was just a part of it), I was never satisfied with where I was in life, and I never felt like I was good enough; if anything, my obsession was with self-improvement, with proving to myself, God, and whomever else, that I was good enough, smart enough, and–doggone it–people liked me. On the inside, however, I was filled with self-loathing; I remember feeling that if people knew the “real me” inside, they would be horrified. So, I looked outside myself for validation, and as I noted recently, when I went through my crisis of faith, I was overly concerned with getting that validation from other people.

I don’t think life got any better until I finally realized that I didn’t need approval, understanding, or validation from other people. I just needed to be OK with myself. In the immortal words of the poet Edgar A. Guest:

But here in this struggle for fame and pelf,
I want to be able to like myself.

And I do like myself. The person I am–the natural man, if you will–is not a bad person or unworthy, let alone an enemy to God. It’s just me, and I’m happy with me.

It’s a good place to be. I’m a new grandparent, and life could not be better.

ETA: Now this song is stuck in my head.

Why This Election is Rigged

October 17, 2016

It’s been interesting watching the Trump campaign in the last couple of weeks. The Access Hollywood tape has caused the candidates and his surrogates to flail wildly to find something to distract attention from what probably was a mortal wound.

But really, this campaign has been over for weeks, and I’m certain the Trump campaign folks know it, but I really can’t tell if the reality of the situation has permeated Donald Trump thicket of carbon-fiber hair and into his brain. One hint that he does understand what’s going on is the resurrection of one word: rigged.

Trump began talking about a “rigged” system in April, calling it a “a rigged, disgusting, dirty system,” after Ted Cruz won some GOP delegates with superior organizing and planning.

We didn’t hear much about a rigged system until August, when Trump was again languishing in the polls after a poorly staged convention (and a much better-presented Democratic convention): “And I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said.  Another spike in his use of “rigged” came, unsurprisingly, after the first presidential debate, which pretty much everyone agrees did not go well for Mr. Trump. Publicly, Trump tried to put the best face on it, retweeting online polls showing an overwhelming victory, but that one word, “rigged,” once again showed he knew he had lost.

The pattern is pretty obvious: when Trump is doing well, it’s his own doing. No one should be surprised that in a disastrous couple of weeks of casting about for someone to blame–SNL? seriously?–Trump’s speeches have been peppered with that word again and with dark suggestions that there will be massive and widespread voter fraud, particularly in precincts with high African-American demographics.

Could there be some attempts at voter fraud? Sure, but it would require a massive conspiracy in both parties and across multiple states, making it highly unlikely. And even if there were such a massive conspiracy, it would matter only in a close election–and require millions of fake votes.

But this election isn’t close. Trump had one task only in this election: win the states that Romney won and pick up a number of swing states that had voted for Obama. The way to do this, of course, was to attempt to appeal to moderate and undecided voters. That shouldn’t have been a difficult task, as Hillary Clinton is perhaps the second-most disliked major-party candidate in memory–second only to Mr. Trump.

What he needed to do was try to attract college-educated whites, women, and persuadable minorities.And indeed, his campaign kept telling us that was what he was going to do. But what we got instead was classic Trump: an appeal to African-Americans that traded in racist stereotypes (they all live in poor, violent, inner cities, and they need help from the government (him, actually) because they can’t take care of themselves). His appeal to women consisted of trotting out women who accused Bill Clinton sexual assault and then denying he’d ever done what he had bragged about to Billy Bush. Of course, the denials just opened the floodgates, and women are rushing forward to tell the same story about Trump. At this point, no one gives a damn about Bill Clinton’s past because Trump’s behavior just makes him look hypocritical.

Is it any wonder that the operative word this week–in almost all of Trump’s tweets and speeches–is “rigged.” Others have written about how irresponsible and, frankly, unpatriotric and un-American it is for Trump to call into question the sanctity of our electoral process, and I won’t go into that other than to say that, if violence does result from unhappy Trumpistas after the election, we know whom to blame.

As for me, I’m content to know that, finally, inevitably, Trump knows he’s lost. Roland Barthes once wrote that expressing love to another is an “affirmation of extreme solitude.” We tell other people we love them because we understand we are alone, and we hope that they will love us in return and rid us of our loneliness. In the same way, Trump’s assertions that he would be winning, save for a “rigged” system, is a pathetic acknowledgement that he’s lost, and he knows it.

Expect to hear “rigged” even more often over the new few weeks, as the scope of Trump’s loss sinks in. I’ll smile every time I hear it.



Come on in, the water’s fine

October 4, 2016

A number of years ago, a Mormon guy told me I was “the worst kind of anti-Mormon there is.” Why? Because I pretended to be reasonable, fair, and well-intentioned (apparently, I’m none of those things) in an effort to tear the LDS church down, one member at a time. He continued, “You’re basically someone standing in a pool full of sharks saying, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine!'”

At the time that really bothered me because I have never intended to draw anyone out of the LDS church. Looking back on the heartache I went through when I went through my “crisis of faith,” I think my main concern was that I wanted someone–anyone, really–to understand what I was going through and why, and to tell me I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t just “looking for excuses to leave.” Really, I wanted validation, and of course, that kind of validation is impossible to obtain from believing church members. Predictably, I received quite a lot of negative responses, and the only validation I got was from people who had been through the experience before me.

I didn’t watch LDS general conference this last weekend, but I see that a lot of people are talking about a talk from M. Russell Ballard wherein he discussed the safety and spiritual benefit of staying in the church compared to the lack of these things “the world” offers. I don’t have the transcript of the talk, so I’ll just quote from the Deseret News summary:

To these members, Elder Ballard asked, like Peter, “To whom shall [you] go?” The decision to leave the Church can have a long-term impact that can’t be seen at the moment.

He said, “If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.”

Elder Ballard urged members, “Never abandon the great truths revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Never stop reading, pondering and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon.”

Before making the spiritually perilous choice to leave, Elder Ballard encouraged members “to stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the first place. Stop and think about what you have felt here and why you felt it. Think about the times when the Holy Ghost has born witness to you of eternal truth.”

The organization, doctrine and teachings found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found in no other place, Elder Ballard said.

Accepting and living the gospel of Christ can be challenging, as it has always been. Elder Ballard said, “Life can be like hikers ascending a steep and arduous trail. It is a natural and normal thing to occasionally pause on the path to catch our breath, to recalculate our bearings, and to reconsider our pace.” Not every hiker needs to stop, and there is nothing wrong with doing so if circumstances require a break. The danger comes when someone decides to leave the trail entirely.

If I had read that back when I was going through the turmoil of collapsing faith, I probably would have been hurt and angry. Indeed, back at that time I wrote a parable about those who were telling me I had to “get with the program” and go back to church, despite what I knew:

There once was a boy who lived all his life with a cardboard box over his head. His parents taught him that he should never take the box off, for doing so was dangerous and foolish. The box protected him from the scary world outside of it.

On the inside of the box, he could make out some letters, and he could see the outlines of the box around him. His world was brown cardboard. His parents taught him to study the inside of the box carefully, for in it it was all the wisdom he needed to navigate life. Inside the box was security and safety. Inside the box was reality.

Some of his friends told him that they had taken off the box and life was much better, but he didn’t believe them. His parents made sure he stayed away from these people, who clearly wanted only to hurt their boy.

But as he grew older, he found that he kept bumping into sharp and painful objects that he couldn’t see because of the box. His parents told him that those things weren’t real, that he was safest and happiest inside the box. But each day brought more injury as he seemed to constantly run into painful things.

“Just take the box off so you can see where you’re going,” said his friends.

“No! You can’t! You’ll hurt yourself, and you might even die!” warned his parents.

After too many painful days, he made up his mind to see what was out there on the other side of the box. The light hurt his eyes briefly, but after a moment, he could see colors and trees and sky. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined.

He looked around and saw his friends, who smiled at him and welcomed him to a better world. And then he saw them. His parents and friends came groping toward him, boxes on their heads.

He called out to them, “Take the boxes off! You’ll see that there’s so much more out here! Trust me!”

But his parents told him sadly, “We have failed as parents. All we ever wanted was for you to be happy, and now you’ve rejected us and everything we hold dear. Please, son. Put the box back on, for us. You’ll see that we know what’s best.”

“But Mom, Dad. It’s so beautiful out here, and the world is full of possibilities. Can’t you just lift the box, if only for a moment? You’ll see that I’m telling you the truth.”

His parents turned sadly and told their friends, “We have lost our son. Let this be a lesson to you. This is what happens when you take off the box.”

And they groped their way slowly away from the shining sun.

But these days, the pain has long passed, and I don’t worry about what people say about me. I don’t often think about the differences in my life after leaving the church, but it strikes me that, as I wrote in the parable, I have a much broader perspective about life and my place in it.

As a church member, I always viewed life as “us” (members of the church) and “them” (the world outside the safe environs of God’s kingdom). I was taught all my life that life outside the church was rudderless, morality-free, and scary. If I didn’t have the church, what would become of me? I still shake my head at those who have told me that, without the gospel in their lives, they are sure they would be drug addicts or sex addicts or in prison, or something. Maybe we were taught that who we are deep inside–the natural man–is evil, an enemy to God. I certainly internalized that.

I will say that leaving the church left me feeling pretty vulnerable, without what I call the superstructure of the church, its practices and worldview, through which to frame and experience life. But this ended up being a good thing. I was forced to dig deep inside and figure out who I am and what I believe (hint: what I found isn’t evil or an enemy to God). I was forced to deal with people as people, not as members and non-members. It never occurred to me until I left the church that I had put up walls between myself and non-members; it wasn’t that I was shutting them out, but I always saw my relationships with them in terms of their possible interest in the church. (How crazy is it that for about 2 years, I found myself thinking “that guy would really benefit from joining the church”?)

And I’ve discussed elsewhere my battle with depression (and a suicide attempt) in the wake of my faith crisis, but even that turned out to be a real “blessing,” if I’m allowed to use that word. As a church member, I had spent my whole life telling myself how happy I was because of the church. Happiness was keeping the commandments, and I was keeping the commandments. Therefore, I was happy, end of story. But I learned subsequently that I’d been clinically depressed for many years, but it was impossible to admit that because I was so focused on telling myself how happy I was.

So, yes, it’s been an interesting journey, one filled equally with pain and joy, but I wouldn’t trade it for what Elder Ballard is offering. Not a chance. Mormonism works for some people, I get that. But, unfortunately, it’s a one-size-fits-all lifestyle, and nothing fits everyone properly. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the foundational claims of the church do not hold up to minimal scrutiny.)

You see, the life I had before was the life Elder Ballard and his fellows had prescribed for me. I was following their script, not mine. And it didn’t work. But rather than rebel against it, I had just denied who I was and tried to become the character in the play they had written for me. But who I was slowly faded into the background, and I sometimes wonder if there would have been anything left that was “me” had I stayed on that path.

While I was going through the turmoil of those days, I found an excellent therapist in Utah who understood what I was going through. She told me something that changed my life: “You have to get to the point where living a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.” This was completely opposite of what I had been taught all my life: put everyone else first, not least the church and God; subordinate your will to God and His prophets. Authenticity means being true to yourself, but the gospel is about denying yourself.

So, to whom shall we go when we leave the church? Does it matter? We go where our heart, our brain, our conscience takes us, and we find a happy and authentic life. Elder Ballard seems to be suggesting, as my mother would about people breaking the Sabbath, that people who leave only “look happy” but aren’t really happy.

But we are. I am, anyway.

So, yes, come on in, the water’s fine!

The Incidental Prophet, Part 6

May 10, 2016

My second full day on the ranch was a Sunday. My family honored the Sabbath by doing only necessary work on Sundays, such as milking the cows, gathering eggs, and irrigating the fields if our water turn happened to come on Sunday. Grandma woke me early and informed me over breakfast that church started at 10:00, so I must be finished with my chores, washed, and dressed for church by 9:15.

“I’m going to have you feed the lambs, since you already know how to do it,” she said.

“How am I supposed to know how much water and milk powder to mix?” I said, a little concerned.

“It tells you right on the bag. I’ve already got some water heating on the stove for you.”

I slowly carried the hot pan of water into the washroom and mixed it with some cold water in a can someone had set out for me. Grandma had said you could tell it was the right temperature if you could stick your finger into it and feel it was pretty close to your body temperature.

It took a little trial and error, but eventually I got the temperature right. I spilled too much of the mix on the floor, but eventually I got it to where it looked (and smelled) about right.

It was another beautiful morning, and even though it was June, I see my breath as I carried the wooden crate of bottles out to the lamb enclosure, traces of frost still clinging to some of the grass that was growing outside the fence line.

Once again, the lambs came running as soon as I approached. For a moment I thought how good it felt to be wanted and needed, but then I realized it was more about the milk. They had it easy, I thought: just show up and be fed. Of course, they had no idea their destiny was to end up supplying wool for sweaters or, worse, a nice Easter dinner with Grandma’s mint jelly on the side. But then it was their duty to fill the role they were born for, and I knew it was mine, too.

I got back to the house just as Grandma came in with a basket of fresh eggs. “Go wash up and put on your Sunday clothes,” she said. “I’ll fix some breakfast.”

I was hungry, so I washed quickly, combed my hair and put on a white shirt, a tie my dad had given me when I was ordained a deacon a couple of years earlier, and my Sunday slacks. I gave my shoes a light rub with my dirty shirt, and headed into the kitchen, where Grandma was putting two “eggs in a basket” on my plate. She knew this was one of my favorites: a slice of white bread with a hole cut in the center, an egg dropped in, and the whole thing fried in butter.

“Let me get a look at you,” Grandma said, suspiciously. “No, that won’t do.”

She went to the sink and retrieved a dishcloth and some soap. By the time she finished scrubbing my face, neck, ears, arms, and hands, my skin felt raw and tingled.

“Didn’t your mother teach you how to wash up?” she said, knowing full well the answer.

“Sorry, Grandma,” I said as I dug into the eggs.

“Things will be different for you here,” she said. “This is my place, and you do what I say.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said sheepishly, taking a sip of milk.

After breakfast, I put the dishes in the sink to soak, and Grandma and I walked out to the truck.

“Any of you fellas coming?” she shouted towards the bunkhouse, where some of the hands were sitting on the stoop, looking like they were just barely awake.

I was surprised when Lyme walked out, dressed in a clean white shirt, tie, and slacks.

“Since it’s just the three of us, we can all sit in the cab,” Grandma said. “You drive, Lyme.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, taking the keys.

We drove for what seemed a long time until we reached a collection of houses bordered by a gas pump and store, and a small clapboard church. “Burr Ridge Ward” read the words over a stylized beehive carved in a sandstone frame over the church door. Dad had showed me when I was a boy the remnants of a square and compass that had once adorned either side of the beehive but had for some mysterious reason been sanded off. I never knew why, but Dad had just said, “I guess it’s considered too sacred now, but they used to be on every church building you’d see.” I wasn’t sure why those carvings were supposed to be sacred, but he said I’d understand someday.

We arrived too late for priesthood meeting, but Grandma said she’d let me drive the truck in once she was sure she could trust me. So, we started out with sacrament meeting, where we would partake of the emblems of the body and blood of Christ–bread and water, because wine was forbidden to Mormons.

Church was pretty much like it was at home. Because I was a visitor, I was asked to stand and introduce myself. I’ve always been uncomfortable in front of people, so I stammered a little and could feel my face going red.

Grandma stood. “This is my grandson, William, who is spending the summer here from Utah.” she said smiling and patting me on the shoulder. “Oh, but he likes to be called Will.” My face went even redder.

“Well, welcome!” said Bishop Carver, a large, red-faced man with unruly brown hair that he had unsuccessfully tried to comb into something presentable. “We’re glad you’re here.”

In those days, particularly in small congregations, meetings would have only one speaker. Today’s speaker was Lazarus Menlove, a spindly looking man with a long, sloping nose and ears that poked out perpendicular to his head.

“Brothers and sisters,” he began, louder than I had imagined someone so physically unimposing could be. “I want you to know that we live in a day of miracles! I reckon most of us think those days are gone by, that miracles happened in Jesus’ time or with the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I’m here to tell you we have the same privilege of receiving miraculous answers to our prayers in the present, even today.”

This sounded promising, as I’d never heard of anyone speaking of miracles in our midst, especially not in a tiny hamlet like Burr Ridge. Looking around the congregation, I got the distinct impression that no one else in the chapel was buying any of it. A couple of attractive girls who looked to be roughly my age were whispering and giggling, until they saw I was looking. The one turned away, embarrassed, her face as red as her hair. The other girl, who had hair as black as obsidian, stared right back at me with blue eyes that looked like she could see right through me. For a moment I thought she had smiled at me, but I couldn’t be sure. Then she looked down and pretended to find something interesting about the hymnbook.

“I thought I was going to lose both the ewe and the lamb!” Lazarus was nearly shouting. “But it weren’t no use. The lamb was coming feet first, and it was all I could do not to tear the mama apart getting it out.”

Well, that was something you didn’t hear often in church.

“I reached my arm inside the ewe, and there was blood ever’where,” Lazarus continued, as I stared, spellbound.

“The pore little lamb was all blue and still, and the mama was just wailin’ in that way you’ve all heard, as if she was going through the fires of hell.”

I for one hadn’t heard anything like that before.

“Then all on a sudden, I knew what I had to do,” he said, his face looking rapturous. “I laid my blood-soaked hands on that mama ewe and called down the blessings of heaven by the authority of the priesthood I hold.”

Grandma was shaking her head in disapproval, but I couldn’t look away. He had me, as if a light were shining in his countenance.

“I’d no sooner said ‘Amen’ when the spirit told me to reach my hands inside the mama ewe one more time. She’d lost a lot of blood, but like Nephi of old, I knew better than to question the workings of the spirit.”

I would have given anything to feel the workings of the spirit, but I would have to rely on people like Lazarus for the time being.

“I shoved both my arms into the mama, up to my elbows, and tugged hard as I could. Suddenly, the lamb shifted and, verily, it came sliding on out.”

That was a heck of a story, I thought. But he wasn’t done yet.

“I knew I’d saved that ewe, but the lamb was dead. Beyond hope,” he said almost in a whisper, looking directly at me. “But the Lord wasn’t going to let me lose that lamb, too. I laid my hands on that lamb and commanded it to live.”

He paused for what seemed like an hour. I had to know. What had happened?

“Why, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’a been there, but that lamb started jerking, coughed out a bit of blood, and stood on its feet jus’ like it was a prize-winner at the fair. I think it might be the best-looking lamb of the spring.”

Grandma sighed, and as I turned, I saw her roll her eyes a bit.

After the meeting, she went directly to the bishop and said, “Well, I am quite sure the Lord isn’t pleased to hear such–well, indelicate–talk in his house on his day.”

“Now, Sister Murdock,” he said, patting her hand and chuckling. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Well, that man needs a good talking to,” she said.

Grandma looked annoyed, but she took my arm and said, “It’s time for lunch.”

Back in Utah, we would walk home after sacrament meeting and have lunch before returning in the afternoon for Sunday School. But there wasn’t time to drive all the way back to the ranch, so she had packed some sandwiches and lemonade in a basket, which she had me retrieve from the back of the truck.

She spread out a blanket, and she handed me a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper–liverwurst, Grandma’s favorite. Not mine, but it wasn’t bad. Grandma noticed Lyme sitting alone under a poplar tree, so she called out, “Get on over here! We can’t have you starving, now, can we?”

Lyme looked a little embarrassed but took a sandwich.

“Come on!” Grandma said, patting the blanket. “Sit down and eat with us! My goodness, you needn’t fear us, young man.”

Lyme looked quite flustered now, but he sat down obediently, and Grandma poured lemonade into two paper cups for us.

“What did you think of the meeting?” she asked me.

“Well,” I said hesitantly, trying to chew my sandwich. “Is it always like that? I mean, with all the gory details and blood and that?”

Lyme laughed, a little bit of sandwich escaping his lips.

“Oh, no,” Grandma said. “I’m afraid you got we here call the baptism by Menlove. I do not know what goes through that man’s head. Just wait until Fast Sunday! Hardly anyone gets a word in edgewise once old Brother Menlove gets a-going.”

Fast Sunday, of course, was the first Sunday of the month, when we would fast for two meals–usually supper the night before and then breakfast. There were no speakers scheduled on Fast Sunday, but the bishop would get the meeting started by “bearing testimony,” which is a Mormon tradition of sharing one’s faith, but no one ever said, “I believe.” It was always, “I know.”

“I know God lives.”

“I know Jesus is the Christ, who died for my sins.”

“I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”

“I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”

“I know David O. McKay is a prophet of God on earth today.”

I always wanted to know, but so far, I couldn’t say I knew any of that for certain. Fortunately, bearing testimony also involved giving thanks for the blessings in our lives.

“I’m thankful for my parents.”

“I’m thankful for my sister.”

“I’m thankful for the bishop.”

These things I could do. It was the knowing part that threw me off.

But every congregation had at least one person who would deviate from the script, and you never knew what was going to happen. Clearly, Lazarus Menlove was this ward’s wild card.

Sunday School was uneventful. Once again, I had to introduce myself, but no one seemed particularly interested in me. A couple of boys my age sat in the back while the teacher, a stout, middle-aged woman, struggled to maintain control while teaching us about Helaman leading his 2,000 “stripling warriors” into battle. I had always thought this was one of the most exciting parts of the Book of Mormon, but no one else appeared to be listening. The teacher seemed surprised and grateful that I was paying attention.

The dark-haired girl I had seen earlier sat in front of me, and I really wanted to see her eyes again. There was something about them. But she never even glanced in my direction.

After church, Grandma served us a supper of pot roast, which had been cooking in a dutch oven over the fire all day. After supper, we sat on wooden chairs on the porch, both of us holding either side of Grandma’s Book of Mormon. I started reading, while she sat quietly, eyes closed and smiling.

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

I’d never read the Book of Mormon all the way through, cover to cover, but I knew a lot of the stories. I knew with Grandma’s help, we’d get through it together.

At the end of the first chapter, Grandma closed the book, and we knelt again to pray.

“Your turn,” she said, smiling.

I don’t know what it was, but the words just poured out of me, and I pleaded with Heavenly Father to help me know like Grandma knew, like the people in church knew, like Joseph Smith had known.

As I helped Grandma to her feet, she hugged me and said, “Oh, my boy, you too are highly favored of the Lord. Like everyone else in this world, you’ll pass through afflictions, but you will know. You will.”

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.


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.


“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?”


“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.