My Father, the Winslow-to-Seligman Santa Fe Railroad “Bishop”
The freight train lurched forward, laboring to set in motion its mile-long, ten-thousand-ton body. Its huge engines made a deafening roar as fifteen thousand horsepower strained against the tremendous load and we slowly began to pick up speed. I sat in the fireman’s seat. It was my first trip as an eighteen-year-old fireman for the Santa Fe Railroad, and I was tense and apprehensive.
I grew up in the small railroad town of Winslow, Arizona. My father, like almost every other head of household in our town, worked for the Santa Fe. As an engineer, his responsibility was to run the trains from Winslow to Seligman, Arizona, any time he was called, night or day. Railroading was not only his job, it was a way of life for all of us.
When I graduated from high school in the spring of 1960, I hired on with the railroad to earn money for college in the fall. I will always remember the day of my first trip to Seligman. I reported for work at the train yard, and as I walked into the locker room I entered an environment that was very different from my home. The tobacco smoke was thick and heavy, as was the bad language. Loud music blared from an old radio, and lewd pinups stared out from every wall. I signed in for Express Freight Train 911, found out which track it was on, and then walked with the other two members of the crew to our waiting engines.
Within a matter of minutes we were hurtling down the rails in this great mechanical beast. The engineer was the father of a boy I had gone through all twelve years of school with. Like most of the railroad men, he was not a member of the Church. He turned to me as he lit up a cigarette and said, “Are you Vaughn Brimhall’s kid?”
“Yes, he’s my dad,” I answered.
“The Bishop!” he stated.
I said, “I don’t understand. My dad isn’t a bishop, he’s the Young Men president.”
The engineer smiled. “Well, son,” he said, “here on the railroad your dad is called The Bishop.”
I didn’t pursue the conversation any further, but later I came to realize that this nickname was a term of respect given my father by his fellow railroaders.
The long hours of the night passed by slowly as the train wound its way through the mountains. Just as the sun was rising, we rolled into the freight yard in Seligman, a small community of perhaps two hundred people. We climbed down from the engine and walked to the yard office. The engineer showed me how to sign out and then told the call boy behind the counter that he would be at his shack.
The call boy then looked at me and asked where I would be. I said, “At Vaughn Brimhall’s shack.”
“You mean the Mormon Temple,” he said.
I must have looked confused, because the engineer smiled and said, “Everybody else’s place here is called a ‘shack’ except your dad’s. When you get there you’ll understand why.” He pointed the way, and I was off.
My dad and four other rail-roaders who were members of our ward had called their home-away-from-home in Seligman “the shack” for as long as I could remember. They had hauled most of the building materials with them on the trains, and during the innumerable hours of waiting to be called for their return trains home, they had built the shack. I was very curious to see what it was like.
I walked down several alleys, across a muddy vacant lot, and I was there. It didn’t look like a temple to me! It was a small, ugly building with a drab, cement stucco finish and a corrugated tin roof. I took out the key my dad had given me, inserted it into the lock, and quietly turned it. I didn’t want to wake up any of the other men who might be sleeping.
As the door opened, I heard the Tabernacle Choir singing and smelled the delicious aroma of breakfast cooking. Clyde Rhoton, a member of our ward I had known all my life, shook my hand and put his arm around my shoulders. “Welcome,” he said. “How was it?”
I will never forget the moments that followed as I was led through my father’s home-away-from-home and came to know his other life. The walls of this building were lined, not with pinups, but with the pictures of families, Church leaders, and the Savior. Stake activity calendars hung by several of the beds. Instead of men’s magazines, there were scriptures, the Improvement Era, the Church News, Field and Stream, and the Reader’s Digest. The raciest literature I found was a Zane Grey novel.
After breakfast was over, Brother Rhoton said that I had better get to bed because they would be calling me soon. The trains were running on a heavy schedule, and he had only been there three hours himself. He said goodbye, picked up his bag, put on his railroad hat, and was off on his way back to Winslow.
A profound feeling of joy and respect surged through my soul as I knelt in prayer that morning before getting into my dad’s bed. I thanked my Heavenly Father for my dad, Vaughn Lorenzo Brimhall, the Winslow-to-Seligman Santa Fe Railroad “Bishop,” and for his example as an elder in the Church. And I thanked Him for a sacred place to rest and renew myself—my dad’s “temple” in Seligman, Arizona.
Twenty-five years have come and gone since that experience. My father has retired, and the shack has passed into the hands of another generation of Latter-day Saint railroaders. Many other rail-roaders who knew nothing of the Church are now members as a result of the example set by my father, his companions, and the many Latter-day Saint railroaders who have come after them.
A Command to Live
The engine of our small station wagon whined as we labored up the hill past the rolling, desolate Utah countryside. Excited chatter and the crackling of candy wrappers filled the air. The annual fathers and sons’ outing had arrived. My two boys, then five and six years old, had waited enthusiastically all summer for this special event.
Soon we arrived at the stake ranch. Dust from the pasture choked us as we bumped across the field to meet the other members of our ward. Our old tent, with its musty canvas scent, went up more easily than it had in the past. My two helpers beamed with pride.
As the aroma of fried chicken reached us, the boys’ attention quickly turned from their tent to food. The sound of scraping forks and the clang of metal dishes were pleasant in the early evening calm. The sun would set late, allowing plenty of time for after-dinner activities—most notably the hayride.
Riding the hay wagon was always one of the big events at the ranch. The aging wagon groaned under load after load of hay bales and a boisterous swarm of boys of all ages, shapes, and sizes. The tractor would strain momentarily, then lurch forward with a rhythmic putt-putt through the fields. My two sons excitedly awaited their turn for a ride.
Suddenly someone called out, “Doc! They need you in a hurry! There’s been an accident.”
Dropping my plate and quickly wiping my greasy hands on my pants, I ran full speed toward a group of men and boys crowded silently around the back of the hay wagon. Lying behind the left rear wheel lay a small boy crying and writhing in pain, his tousled blond hair stirring the dust. No one knew for sure how it happened; the wagon might have suddenly pitched sideways as it struck a rut. But somehow the youngster had fallen from the wagon and had been run over. Diagonally across his body from his right hip to his left shoulder was the ugly imprint of the tire.
“Just four years old,” the boy’s father said in response to my question. As I bent over the small form, I could barely feel his pulse, rapid and thready. To examine his abdomen and chest more thoroughly, I loosened his belt. He winced with pain as I touched the upper left part of his abdomen. “Probably a ruptured spleen,” I thought with considerable alarm.
My training in obstetrics and gynecology had not prepared me very well for this type of trauma, but within moments a general surgeon and an ophthalmologist from another ward came to assist. Fortunately, the surgeon had a well-equipped first-aid kit in his car and immediately started intravenous fluid running into the boy’s left forearm. It was comforting to have a general surgeon present with his greater knowledge and experience with trauma.
Although the youngster remained conscious, his body was going into shock. “This boy needs to be in a hospital as soon as possible,” the surgeon said.
“Let me take him!” came a voice from a nearby camper-van.
As gently as possible we lifted the limp little form into the waiting vehicle. The boy’s father, my ophthalmologist colleague, and I jumped into the van to accompany him to the hospital. Having done all he could to prepare the boy for the ride to Salt Lake City, the surgeon stayed behind to attend to another child who was having an asthmatic attack.
I shouted last-minute instructions to my sons to stay with the bishop, and the stake president admonished us to drive carefully as he tossed a small object to me. “You might need this,” he said. The door slammed shut, and we were on our way.
I looked at the object in my hand—a bottle of consecrated oil. I offered it to the injured youngster’s father. Through tears he explained that he couldn’t control his emotions enough to talk and asked that we administer to his son.
My medical colleague held the I.V. in the air while I anointed the boy’s head. Then he hung the intravenous bottle on an improvised hook while he sealed the anointing. As our hands rested on our small patient’s head, we could feel the awful bumping of the van as it hurried over the rough road. But above the roar of the engine and the rattles produced by the rugged road, I distinctly heard the words, “… by the power of the priesthood, we command you to live until we can obtain the necessary medical help.”
We tried to comfort our tiny patient, yet continued to arouse him so he would not lapse into unconsciousness. The drive from the city to the stake ranch had required an hour and forty-five minutes. As I remembered how rapidly patients can bleed to death from a ruptured spleen, the words “we command you to live” echoed in my mind.
After an unbelievable forty-seven-minute trip, we carried our seriously injured little patient through the emergency entrance of the Primary Children’s Medical Center. Just as we arrived, an enormous cloudburst descended. In a matter of minutes the van was up to its hubcaps in water.
“You handle your van very well,” I said to the driver. “Where did you learn to drive like that?”
“I’m an ambulance driver by profession,” he said.
Some might call it coincidence, but when we arrived at the hospital, we were able to get the boy into surgery almost immediately. The pediatric surgeon was off duty but had come to the hospital to catch up on some paperwork, and the pediatric anesthesiologist had just arrived to examine the next day’s surgical patients.
Weary from our experience, the ophthalmologist and I nonetheless accepted the invitation to observe the surgery, and what we saw was remarkable. The laceration in the boy’s spleen was the size and shape of a quarter. Ordinarily a spleen with a rupture this severe would cause death within a very few minutes from hemorrhage. But, amazingly, the hemorrhage had stopped; it was sealed by a beautiful, blue-black clot. As I looked at what normally would have cost the life of this precious boy, I could only repeat those words of the priesthood bearer: “We command you to live.”
Later, as we emerged from the operating room, the surgeon offered encouraging words. “That fracture in his hip may slow him down a little,” he said, “but he’ll soon be as good as new.” The boy’s father relaxed with a very relieved smile.
The sudden thunderstorm had flooded the highway in several places, making the trip back to the ranch difficult—a trip that might well have been impossible a few hours earlier. That night our heavy eyelids closed on grateful eyes, grateful for the miracle they had beheld.
The Traveling Smile
I sat on a San Francisco bus going home, tired and depressed after one of those days when nothing seemed to go quite right. It was rush hour, and the bus was packed with people—dull-eyed, tired, aching, and short-tempered.
A large, package-laden lady got on the bus. Every seat was taken, so she had to stand in the aisle near me. War Horse, I thought as I looked at her drawn and bitter face. That was a pretty good description.
Seated across the aisle next to her was a small, plain-looking lady, someone you wouldn’t ordinarily notice. She looked up at “War Horse” and her face was lit with a smile. “Could I hold your packages?” she asked. “It’s so hard to stand when your arms are full.”
The woman glowered in confusion and looked away. But when she looked back, the smile was still there. Her wrinkled brow eased some as she handed over the packages. “They are very heavy,” she said. “There are two pairs of specially made shoes for my crippled son, and they weigh twenty pounds a pair.” She paused, and the next words seemed very hard for her to say: “Thank you.” They chatted on, and as they did, she smiled. Her whole face softened and her body relaxed.
Soon the seated lady got off and the other woman sat down in her place. But her expression had changed, and she smiled up at the young coed standing above her. “Could I hold your books for you? It’s difficult to hold on with books sliding every which way.”
The girl smiled back, and as she gave up her books I heard her ask, “Did I hear you say you have a son who goes to Jefferson? That’s where I go to school.”
I had to get off at the next stop, but I imagined that smile traveling all over San Francisco. I too smiled, and wasn’t so tired anymore.