The Changing of the Guard


The Changing of the Guard

The bishop asked me later if I knew what time I had visited the old man that Sunday afternoon. I guess I did.

“Jamie, come in,” said the old man. “And you’ve got Mark with you, too. Come on in, boys.”

We stood in front of him as he lay in the hospital bed. “Mark, crank me up so I can get a good look at you.” Mark looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Down at the foot of the bed, you see a big handle there? Looks like they took it from a Model T, don’t it?”

Mark finally found it.

“You turn that a few times and I’ll be able to see something besides the ceiling.” Mark turned the handle and the upper end of the bed began to rise. “Not too much. I don’t want to be bent double. There, that’s fine.

“Jamie, it’s good to see you.” He put out his hand for me to shake. I knew he was pretty sick, because his grip was weak.

“I got permission from the bishop for Mark and me to come and give you the sacrament.”

“I’d be pleased to take it, boys.”

We closed the door to the hall, and I took a small slice of my mom’s homemade bread from a bag and put it on a paper plate. Mark filled a plastic cup with water. I took the bread and carefully broke it and then knelt down and read the prayer. Then I held the plate while he reached down and guided a piece to his mouth. Then Mark knelt and blessed the water and handed him the cup. When he finished, he had tears in his eyes. “Thank you, boys.”

Mark stayed for a few more minutes and then said he had to go home. He didn’t know the old man like I did.

The old man and I sat and talked a little and watched the afternoon shadows move across the floor. He was very old. His face was tough, as if the wind and sun had carved out the soft flesh and left only the leathery surface. For sixty years he had farmed in the valley until his children had grown up and left, his wife had died, and he was alone with his garden, a plug horse named Blaze, and the Church.

I guess he’d always been in our ward, but kind of in the background. I remember he used to bear his testimony nearly every month, and whenever Dad took me to the welfare farm for a work project, he was always there. Today I thought of how we met …

When I turned fourteen and had to go home teaching, I was assigned to be his companion. He didn’t have a car and I didn’t drive then except during harvest time, so I rode my bike over to his place, now just a little out of town since things had grown so much since he first moved there.

In his living room was a round kitchen table with four chairs, a shag throw rug on the floor, and a reading lamp hung from the high ceiling. Lying on the table was a large copy of the Book of Mormon and a Bible.

That day he shuffled over to the reading lamp and switched it on. (Later he told me a horse had kicked him and left him with a limp.) He stood there looking at me, then reached in his back pocket and pulled out a large handkerchief and wiped his nose.

“Jamie, let’s have a word of prayer.” He grabbed the edge of the table for support and lowered himself to a kneeling position and folded his hands on the seat of the chair.

Then he looked up at me and said, “You kneel, don’t you?”

I knelt down.

“Father in heaven,” he began, “Jamie and me come to ask thee to help us as we go home teaching into the homes of the Saints.”

It was a long prayer, and my knees were soon aching. I tried to shift my weight around to get a better position, but by the time I found it, he had finished.

“Jamie, help me up.”

I reached down and put my arm under his elbow and pulled. He was a big man, and it was a struggle to get him on his feet.

He walked over to the window and looked out. “Come over here. Do you see the place over there by the big tree, and the place next to it down the road? On your way here, do you remember the place with the ‘Rhubarb for Sale’ sign nailed to the fence?” I nodded. “The Lord’s given us stewardship over those families. Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well, we’ve got to visit them once a month.”

He rubbed one hand over his stubble beard. “Is that what you think it means?”

“I think so.”

“You’ve got a long way to go, son. …”

The nurse came in and gave him some pills. He didn’t look very good. But when he talked, and you forgot about the chalky grayness of his face and his short, quick breaths, he was the same.

“Did you go fishing yesterday?”

“No, I’m waiting for you to get out so we can go together.”

He looked out the window for a long time, and I thought he hadn’t heard me. But after a few minutes he turned to me. “Jamie, you better learn to tie your own flies. I can’t furnish you with free equipment your whole life.”

“I will.”

“I would have taught you before, but you were such a slow learner at fishing I thought I’d better wait.”

The first time he offered to take me fishing behind his place, I brought the stuff my friends and I used when we fished from the old county bridge.

“What kind of a rig d’you call that?” He looked at my large lead sinker and a treble hook with a wad of dried-up cheese stuck to it. “Here, let me see that. You’re not supposed to club the fish to death,” he said, as he took the sinker from the line. “And what’s this?”

“Cheese.”

“You bring your lunch?”

“I usually use worms or cheese for bait.”

He shook his head. “I’ll teach you how to fly fish. Then you’ll know something about fishing.”

He stepped into the river so he could get a free swing with his fly rod. “Look over there, just in front of the boulder.” He whipped the fly line back and forth a couple of times to let out line, and then cast. The fly landed gently on the water above the boulder and then glided into the swirling water downstream from it.

Suddenly the water boiled as a German Brown rose up and took the fly. He carefully fought it to his side and then reached down and swished it up in his net. “You think you can learn to do that?” he asked, as he reached down into the net and pulled out the fish and gently dropped it back into the water.

Nearly every weekday afternoon that summer I’d go over to his place with my gear and we’d walk across his field to the river. He taught me how to cast a fly rod, where to cast, and what kind of flies to use for each part of the summer. “You got to find out what they’re feeding on, Jamie. That’s the secret. …”

He slept a while because of the pills. The bishop stopped by to see him, but saw he was asleep and said he’d come back later.

The third month we went home teaching, Brother Johnson had just got a new horse. And so we walked out to the corral and took a look.

“Mort, how much you pay for that mare?”

“About a thousand dollars. Why?”

“She’s a fine one. How come you spent so much money for her?”

“She’s registered stock; she’s got a good line.” Then Brother Johnson stopped and looked at the old man. “Why are you asking me a question like that? You been around horses your whole life.”

“I never had a horse worth a thousand bucks. What will you do with her, sell her to the glue factory?”

“You know I’m not going to do that.”

“Yep, I know that.” He looked at the mare for awhile and then turned to Brother Johnson and said, “Mort, how long did your dad serve as a bishop?”

“About ten years, I guess. Why?”

“You come from a good line, Mort. As far as the Lord is concerned, you’re registered stock. But you’re no good to the Lord the way you are now. It’d be less of a waste to sell that horse to the rendering plant than for you to keep away from the Church any longer. The Lord wants you back in harness, Mort.”

Brother Johnson took the toothpick out of his mouth and flipped it on the ground. “You may be right,” he said soberly. …

When the old man woke up, he was embarrassed that he’d fallen asleep. But I said it was okay, I didn’t mind, and it was good for him to rest.

“Jamie, you been here too long. Your folks’ll be worrying about you.”

“They know I’m here.”

He turned his head so he could get a look outside. “What day is it?”

“August sixth.”

“August sixth. Now starting in a few days, try an Adam with a number 14 hook. You got enough flies? If you need any, you know where they are.”

He seemed to get some strength and he leaned forward.

“Now, Jamie, you keep visiting them families, you hear? The Johnsons are coming along fine, but you ask the bishop to get the Scoutmaster over there to get their boy in Scouting.” He grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard, and there was an urgency in his voice. “You keep yourself pure so’s you can marry a beautiful LDS girl in the temple when the time comes. And get ready for your mission. You need to read the scriptures more than you do.”

“I will.”

He was still holding onto my hand. “Once on my mission I went and saw the changing of the guard. They marched into the courtyard wearing red uniforms and their buttons shone in the sun. The guards who’d been at their posts marched forward and—”

Before he could finish, the nurse stuck her head into the room. “I’m sorry but visiting hours are over.”

He released his grip. “You’d better go, Jamie. Come back tomorrow if you can.”

The next day when I got home from my softball game, my mom told me that the old man had died that afternoon.

I walked over to his place and down the path to the fishing spot on the river where we used to go and sat down on a rock. The river takes a bend just upstream from that point, and there’s a hole where the eddy currents curl around in slow, lazy loops; and there he had told me the fish stay when they are feeding on a hatch of flies coming down the river. The spot is hard to find because of the growth of trees, and most people who fish it probably get their line tangled in the fallen branches that lay hidden in the water; but he had told me where to stand and how to cast to avoid the hidden traps.

My thoughts were interrupted by a trout jumping clear out of the water for a fly. And then, for a moment, I could hear in my mind the words of the old man: “Don’t whip the water, just let it glide down nice and easy. You’re supposed to make the fish think that a fly is landing on the water and not that a tree has fallen into the river. How come you’ve never read the Book of Mormon? I want you to read it and tell the Johnsons about it. That’ll be good practice for your mission.”

And I remembered the last thing he had ever said about the changing of the guard.

I sat there for a couple of hours thinking about him, until it was dark, and I got up and walked back down the path and on to my home.

On my way, I stopped by the home of the Johnsons to see how they were.

Brother Weyland, first counselor in the Black Hills district presidency, Montana-Wyoming Mission, is assistant professor of physics in the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.