A Message from Dad
I was just finishing the morning chores when Mom called. The cows had been turned out to pasture, and the rabbits, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and horses were all fed. The three cans of milk holding our usual twenty-six gallons were on the trailer ready to be taken to the creamery.
I was fifteen years old then, and it was 1936, one of the hard years for our big family of thirteen and one on the way. We lived west of Boise, Idaho, on a forty-acre farm. One of my brothers was on a mission, and eight of us were in school. The rest were home keeping Mom busy.
Mom said, “Jay, I’ll have to keep you out of school today so you can hitchhike to the PFE shops and give this letter to your father. It’s very important or I wouldn’t ask you to do it.” The Pacific Fruit Express shops made up a repair station for railroad engines and cars two miles south of Caldwell, Idaho. My father worked there to supplement the family income.
Mom handed me the envelope. It must have been a matter of extreme seriousness to justify keeping me out of school even for one day. “I’m sorry to do this, Jay,” she said, “but there isn’t any other way to get this letter to him.” She couldn’t call Dad because there were no telephone lines to the farm; we didn’t even have electricity.
The place where Dad worked was eighteen miles away. I walked the mile and a half to the highway in the beautiful, early summer air and soon had a ride to Nampa. Walking through town to the outskirts, I got another ride that brought me to the dirt road leading to the gate of the PFE shops. I stepped out of the car, thanked the driver, and began the quarter-mile walk to the gate, surveying as I walked the place Dad had so often talked about—the place that made him so dirty and so tired, the place of work that Mom had said was so important to our large family.
With a wave of new understanding I thought, This is why Dad is only with us evenings and Saturdays and Sundays. This is why it’s Mom who teaches us how to milk cows, to shock hay and grain, to irrigate, to harness the team and make fences, to build a brooder coop, and, in short, to run a farm. This is why Mom is so good at teaching us the gospel and telling us Bible and Book of Mormon stories while we work with her. Dad was here. And it was important and hard.
As I approached the gate, I could see huge buildings skirting both sides of the many railroad tracks and stretching far to the north and south. The sound was deafening: railroad cars banging into each other as they were hooked together, steam blasting out in peculiar patterns, signal bells clanging, horns honking, air hammers and rivet guns sending piercing shock waves through the air.
Suddenly a loud siren went off, startling me, and all the other sounds died away. It was noon—lunch time. Men appeared from all over and I could hear hundreds of voices. How will I ever find Dad in all of this? I wondered.
I entered the gate and walked toward the closest work area I saw, thinking I might find someone there to ask for directions. There were huge stacks of bulkheads (walls for refrigerator and box cars) and thick decks that were used for boxcar floors, all forming an open circle.
When I rounded the end of the high stacks and looked across the clearing, I froze quietly where I stood. I recognized Dad immediately. There was not another soul in sight. In a world of our own, it was just Dad and me, and for all time I am thankful for what I saw. He was sitting on the ground with his back to the bulkheads, legs stretched out, hat lying at his side. With open lunch pail between his knees, hands folded in his lap, and head bowed, he was speaking thanks to God for what He was giving him—and for many other things, I’m sure, because of the time it took and the feeling I had.
I stood silent and watched intently while the message sank deep within me: There’s nobody here for him to prove anything to. Dad really does believe. When he finished and looked up, he saw me at once. A humble smile spread over his face, and as I approached him tears welled up in his eyes. “Well, Jay, it’s so nice to see you,” he said. “Come and sit down, son.”
To this day I don’t know what the message was that I delivered to Dad, but I’ve never forgotten the one he gave me.
“Yes, I Am a Mormon”
In the summer of 1973 the bombing of Cambodia was still taking place and I received orders from the air force to go to Thailand. Leaving my wife and two small children that day was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It was only the assurances I received in a blessing from my father that gave me the courage to turn and walk to the awaiting airplane. He promised in that blessing that I would “not be forced to participate in any unlawful activities,” and that I would be “kept clean to return to my family.”
After a few days at jungle survival school in the Philippines, I went on to my final assignment in Thailand as a navigator and weapons systems officer in a fighter squadron. I was determined to do my job well and make the year pass as quickly as possible.
On the evening of my arrival, the other squadron members returned from their bombing missions, and soon I was invited to the squadron “party hooch” to join in a celebration. It was with trepidation that I entered the room to meet what would be my “family” for the next twelve months. The party was in full swing. I turned down a drink for a soda pop and tried to obscure myself in quiet conversation amid the pounding of the music and the layered haze of smoke.
As I was introduced around, I eventually ended up standing at the bar with the squadron commander, a colonel. With his arm around my neck I was a captive, listening to tales of airplanes, daring, and past comrades.
Soon a signal was given and the men gathered around the bar. The music was turned off and it became very quiet. A daily tradition was about to be enacted. Everyone was served a small drink of very strong alcohol, a lime, and some salt. When the drinks came around to me, I said quietly, trying to be casual, “No, thank you, I prefer this soft drink.”
“But this is a squadron tradition,” the man said.
Thoughts raced through my mind: “Why me? Why in front of the whole squadron? Why the very first night?” Trying to sound confident, I explained that I did not drink alcohol but would participate with soda pop.
With that, the silence deepened, then the commander’s arm tightened around my neck and he said, “Lieutenant, I’m ordering you to have this drink. You’ll drink it if I have to pour it down you myself.”
I thought of how far I could get if I tried to fight. I envisioned the results, and an unpleasant visit to the wing commander to change squadrons. Again I asked myself the question, “Why me?” Oh, how I wished to be home across those eight thousand miles of ocean. But as my thoughts darted about for some sort of relief, my mind caught hold of the promise my father had pronounced a week earlier. I gathered all my courage in that waiting silence and said, “I’m sorry, sir, I will not drink alcohol.”
An electricity filled the air, followed by a bristled silence. I prayed with all my heart, “Heavenly Father, help me get through this night.”
The colonel leaned back and measured me with his eyes, then replied, “You are going to drink this …”
Then he added, “… unless you are a Mormon.”
What relief filled my soul! Of course I was a Mormon. I’d always been a Mormon. Why hadn’t I mentioned it earlier? Was I ashamed of my reason for not drinking? Didn’t I believe that God in his wisdom gave such a commandment? I answered, “Yes, I’m a Mormon.”
He quizzed me again to make sure I wasn’t simply taking an easy out. Then he said, “A soft drink for this man.”
As I prayed later that night, I thanked my Heavenly Father for the lesson I had learned so far from home. I thanked him for an earthly father inspired to bless his son. I was thankful that my position was now known to everyone, and that for the next twelve months the whole squadron would make sure I remained true to my commitments. I was thankful that somewhere some other Latter-day Saint had not been afraid to let the colonel know why he lived a clean life. It was then also that I promised not to hesitate in saying, “I am a Mormon.”
I emerged from the bishop’s office wondering how I could ever be the Primary president I had just told the bishop I would be. I had been taught that with the Lord’s help we can do anything that is asked of us, but this time I truly felt the weight of my new responsibility.
The first thing I was supposed to do was to let the bishop know who I wanted for counselors. Being new in the ward, I didn’t know many people, even though we lived in the area where my husband had been raised. But the bishop told me to make it a matter of prayer and fasting, and it was amazing to me to see this principle work. During the week I seemed to be drawn to two ladies’ names. These special women did become my counselors, and as time went on I could see the influence of the Lord in the matter.
Together, and with the help of the Spirit, we chose our secretary. She was a dependable, friendly mother of five who had always been dedicated to the Church. We knew we could depend on her to be there every week.
Our first challenge was to get to know each child and teacher personally. In particular we noticed one ten-year-old boy who was the only one in his class. His name was Troy. His attendance had begun to drop off as he was assigned one teacher after another, and he continued to miss Primary often. Several times we heard his teachers say, “Why prepare a lesson just for one child, when he usually doesn’t even show up? I’m wasting my time.”
There were suggestions that we move Troy forward or move him back a class so that he could be with a larger group. We tried both. Before long, Troy wasn’t coming to Primary at all. We sensed a real loss, and as a Primary presidency we decided to fast and pray about how to help Troy.
Once again I was amazed to see this principle at work. When we met, we all seemed to have our thoughts turned to our secretary, though we wondered how we could ever replace her.
When I talked to her, I found that she had just completed the Teacher Development Basic Course. We gave her name to the bishop and told him we felt certain Jackie was the one the Lord wanted to help Troy. She accepted the position, knowing it was a class with only one boy who often didn’t come; she, too, had heard other teachers talk about how hard he was to handle and how discouraging it was to teach just one child. Nevertheless, Jackie tackled this teaching job with a very positive attitude and a feeling of love towards a boy who would very likely give her every reason not to love him.
I made it a point to tell Troy that he had a great new teacher. Unconvinced, he missed Primary that week, and the next.
But as the weeks slipped by, Troy occasionally came to Primary as if checking to see if his teacher really was there to teach just him. Jackie always was. And many times she went to Troy’s home to get him to come.
Jackie prayed often to know how she might be able to reach him. One night as she was thinking about Troy just before going to sleep, the thought came strongly to her: “Be his friend.”
We gradually watched this ten-year-old boy being loved right back into Primary. There seemed to be a special magnetism between Troy and Jackie, his friend. She taught him in the good, usual ways and used the Scouting program for the many fun and interesting activities she created for Troy. Those invaluable teaching moments were used well by a dedicated teacher who truly knew the value of one child. It wasn’t long before we had perfect attendance from Troy.
Jackie remained Troy’s teacher, advancing with him until he graduated from Primary. Everyone was very proud of him. There were few who knew that if it hadn’t been for the efforts of one special teacher, it just wouldn’t have happened.
Not long after his graduation, Troy developed a serious infection around his heart and, critically ill, was taken to the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City. It was many weeks before he began to slowly improve. Troy’s mother remembers how amazed everyone was as he taught both nurses and the other patients around him about the gospel. He was not afraid to inquire about their religious faith, and his parents noticed that he was teaching the same basic principles he had learned from his Primary teacher and in his home.
Troy did not recover, and we were greatly sorrowed when we heard he had died. He was only thirteen years old. The ward and community were stricken with this news. Most devastated were his family, who had to let go of many hopes and dreams for Troy.
As the plans for his funeral were made, Troy’s parents chose someone to give his life sketch who had been especially close to him—his former Primary teacher. As she spoke that day, everyone could feel her love for Troy, and we understood why he had responded to her.
The years have come and gone, but I have never forgotten this experience. I know that the worth of one soul is great in the sight of our Heavenly Father. That is a testimony I will always have because of Troy and Jackie.