In a Vietnam Helicopter
Slowly the delta landscape passed beneath us, its palm trees, rice paddies, canals, and rivers emerging from crimson dawn. Smoke from morning cook fires rose silkily over sleepy hamlets. The sight of those homes reminded me of my own—my wife and our toddling son. For a moment Vietnam seemed far away.
“You guys still awake?” the radio crackled.
“Yeah, we’re here. Watcha got?” came my helicopter commander’s reply.
“Ground troops got Charlie pinned down at the old French plantation near Tan An; they want you to help.”
As copilot I had the helicopter’s side-mounted guns. I pulled the gun sight down and checked. The bull’s-eye beamed brightly in its center.
Then the commander gave me the controls as we flew up the long canal and across the highway. Ten more minutes and we were at the plantation, an insignificant village cluttered with small white structures.
As we flew nearer, I saw dark, heavy smoke billowing from the tiny village. Charred remains and flames leaping from doors and windows revealed the night’s grim events.
“The enemy has only one escape route,” the radio barked, “and we’re supposed to cover it. Anything that moves—shoot!”
I heard the order. I knew what I was supposed to do. And I’d been out on these missions before. But I also knew the divine nature of life, and the eternal character of human relationships. What did priesthood service mean behind these guns?
We started a slow descent with a shallow turn to the right, behind and above the lead helicopter.
“Hey! I think I’ve got something,” came over the radio.
The lead aircraft flew lower and we followed.
“Yep, somebody moving on that path. They’re running! We’ll make a pass; you follow close behind.”
“Roger that,” I responded.
The pilot took the controls. We descended lower, the earth passing more swiftly beneath us.
The lead helicopter shouted, “There he is again! We’re too close. You’ve got ‘em.”
I was breathing rapidly. We scanned the partially hidden trail. There it was—some fleeting white through the undergrowth, escaping the flaming village.
We were too close to aim my side-mounted guns, but right in range for the door gunner’s hand-held machine gun.
We could see the form now, running frantically, weaving, careening headlong through the thick growth into a small clearing. The machine gun began to chatter.
Clutching a bundle tightly in its arms, our target went to the ground, not falling but purposefully and controlled.
Then I saw—and went numb. There on the ground, a young mother curled around her baby, trying to protect it against our aircraft.
The scene passed in slow motion. I seemed to have time to see every detail.
Deadly rounds hit the ground in front of her, then in back. Bits of mud spattered onto her white silken pajamas, even as I cried into the air, “Cease fire! Cease fire!”
The gun went silent. Up and out we climbed. My vision was blurred; I couldn’t see her move as we rose away. Was I the only one who knew? I pressed the intercom button; quietly I asked, “Did you see?”
“Yes,” was the gunner’s reply. “It was a young girl and her baby.”
“Did you hear me say to cease fire?”
The answer came clearly, a little puzzled: “No. I was going to stop but before I could take my finger from the trigger, the gun stopped. It just stopped!”
We came back around, hoping, and there it was—a flash of white scurrying through the underbrush. Yes! Oh glorious yes, she was alive!
Later, after time to ponder, I understood. An elder’s urgent plea had been answered, instantly, and without formality. In that one desperate moment the forces of heaven were manifest, and a life was spared. The gun had stopped. It just stopped.
Fuel Oil, Rebellion, and Warm Bricks
What passed for a basement in our old house was really a narrow half-basement with a low ceiling. Anyone over five-feet-eight-inches tall could develop real sympathy for the giants of professional basketball just by setting foot downstairs. The two small rooms—one a laundry room, the other designed for storage—each had one tiny window and absolutely no heat. Winter always brought the new challenge of ice-cold floors and night air that made your skin tingle. At sixteen, however, I was determined to have my own room and none of this deterred me from using one of the downstairs rooms as my bedroom.
Going to bed in the winter required a special routine to minimize discomfort from the cold. Once the decision was made to undress, speed was essential. Retaining my socks, I would switch to heavy pajamas and then quickly dive under a big pile of covers. Once under the covers, I customarily remained in a tight ball until the surrounding area became warmer from my body heat and breathing. If fresh air was necessary, a small opening in the covers could be made for my nose and mouth. Gradually, warmth, comfort, and sleep would come.
My prayers suffered a great deal during the winter because I generally put them off until I was safely under the covers. All too often, sleep would steal in before or during my prayers and carry me away. Unfortunately, this failure to talk regularly with my Father in Heaven came at a time in my life when I really needed extra guidance. None of my close friends were members of the Church, and I had acquired some bad habits in their company—especially swearing.
When I was with my friends, I found myself speaking the language they used. When I was at home, I used language appropriate in a Latter-day Saint home. My father was the bishop, so I was expected to be a good example. I attended all my meetings and went through the right motions, but inside a real struggle was taking place. The glamour and fun the world seemed to offer often came in conflict with teachings lived in my home.
These internal conflicts surfaced late one Saturday night when I was awakened from a sound sleep by my mother.
“Brent, wake up. The ward down at Letha just called and they’re out of fuel oil. Your father has gone down to the station to start filling the truck, but he needs your help.”
The thought of putting my feet out on that cold floor made me hesitate and pretend it was all a dream.
“If they don’t get the fuel oil tonight, the chapel won’t be warm for meetings tomorrow. Please hurry and get dressed.” With that she turned and hurried back upstairs.
“Midnight! How can they call at such an hour and on Saturday night? They have a big tank; doesn’t anyone ever check it? I’ll bet if we weren’t a Latter-day Saint supplier they would have been more careful. They know a neighboring bishop wouldn’t say no!” These and other thoughts raced through my mind as I hurriedly dressed in the bitter night air. Emotion quickly replaced reason. By the time I reached the top of the stairs, that temper often attributed to redheads was in full view. I was furious about having to respond to what I felt was a needless call in the middle of the night. My pent-up anger exploded upon the first person I met—my mother. There was a look of shock and dismay on her face as she was bombarded with a string of oaths designed to express in a “worldly way” the anger I felt at being so inconvenienced. Shouting and hollering, I slammed every door on the way out without looking back.
Driving to the station cooled me off a little. Once there, I quickly became absorbed in the task of loading the truck and then driving the fifteen miles to the church. By the time dad and I had finished, my negative feelings had all but vanished and I had even begun to feel a glimmer of satisfaction for having gone the second mile to help. At the same time, however, my conscience was bothering me because of my earlier behavior. The prospect of facing my mother made me very uncomfortable. I was relieved to see all the lights out when we arrived home, and I quickly disappeared down the back stairs.
Safely in my room, I began the ordeal of entering my cold bed. Finally, teeth gritted, I leaped into bed. Once under the covers, however, I discovered my bed to be warm! Reaching down to the source of the warmth, I discovered two hot bricks, each wrapped in a fluffy towel. Tears flooded my eyes as I envisioned my mother, fresh from a deep hurt, searching our dark backyard for those two bricks, bringing them into the house to be heated in the oven, and then carefully wrapping them in towels.
This act of love, unsolicited and performed in the face of abuse, had a profound impact upon me as an example of Christlike living. Now, years later, I have a testimony of the real power of “love unfeigned” in binding children to righteous parents, a testimony born of two bricks and a truly loving mother.
Those Wasted Postage Stamps
Doris was one of the names on our list of inactive members. It had been so long since she’d been to church that no one could remember who she was. As ward Primary president, I’d repeatedly sent invitations to her four children to come to Primary, but it all seemed like just so much wasted postage.
Her location was part of the problem. She lived forty-five miles away from our small ward in upstate New York—the only member of the Church in her community. In fact, she was so isolated geographically that it had been years since she’d had a visit from the home teachers or Relief Society visiting teachers.
But we continued to invite her children to Primary, to send a card on their birthdays, and to carry a prayer in our hearts that they somehow might be reached.
Then Doris was assigned a new visiting teacher. This sister was unable to travel the ninety-mile round trip that was required to visit Doris, but she thought she could at least write Doris a note each month and send her the ward newspaper.
And finally the postage stamps began to work: Doris wrote back to her new visiting teacher! “I’m so grateful to know that you still consider me a member of the Church,” she wrote. “I haven’t been able to attend for over five years, but I’m still very proud to be a Mormon.” Thus the correspondence began. Every month the visiting teacher would send Doris a note and the ward newspaper; nearly every month Doris would respond.
Then, one cold and wintry day, there were two new faces in Relief Society: Doris and her neighbor. Doris couldn’t drive, so she’d talked her nonmember neighbor into taking her to Relief Society, a ninety-mile round trip.
It seemed like we’d always known her. She shared her testimony with us; she expressed great faith in the love of our Savior and in the truthfulness of the Church. After the meeting I made an appointment to finally visit with her in her home. With the permission of the bishop, I hoped to be able to organize a home Primary, with Doris as the teacher.
It was a snowy New England day when my counselor and I climbed into my chilly Volkswagen and headed through unfamiliar countryside. The roads were difficult in spots, and we both inwardly wished we had chosen a nicer day for the trip. But Doris had waited long enough. We were going to keep our appointment.
We were well repaid. As we sat in Doris’s cozy home, she unfolded her story to us. The missionaries had knocked on her door five years before. She had rejoiced in the gospel message from the start, and even though her husband had not been interested, he had allowed her to be baptized.
Then came the hard part: she lived forty-five miles from the church. There were no other members nearby, and she could not drive. Her husband had no desire to take her. She lived too far away for home teachers or visiting teachers to come visit her. She had a testimony of her new church; she felt it was an unmatched blessing in her life. But she felt she had no way to develop that testimony.
It wasn’t long, though, before an understanding bishop recognized her need. Her twins had just turned three—Junior Sunday School age—so the bishop brought her a Course Three Sunday School manual. If circumstances were such that she couldn’t make the long trip to church, she could have church in her own home. She could teach her children the gospel that she herself had learned.
And teach them she did. Every Sunday morning for five years she gathered her four children together and taught them out of that same Course Three manual—five times they went completely through that same course of study.
Imagine how thrilled she was when a visiting teacher showed her that the ward still cared about her! Imagine her joy when she received the new lesson material I had taken with me, along with Targeteer banners and CTR rings!
Doris’s situation has changed now. A branch of the church has been established nearer her home, and other members of the church now live in her village.
Now, when I read through a list of inactive members, I wonder how many Dorises are waiting behind that list. I wonder how many brothers and sisters and children will be touched and moved to action by our efforts. Like Doris, many won’t require much to strengthen them in the fold. After all, how much does a postage stamp cost?