Coming Home


(Based on a true incident as recalled by the author)
When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee (Isa. 43:2).

On the large Idaho farm where I grew up in the 1940s, the work horses had been displaced by the tractor, so my father left them to graze, except when we children wanted to ride them. I always chose Banner, despite his thick, aging, work-worn body.

On summer evenings, my father helped me saddle Banner, then sent us off to bring the cows home for milking. The cows pastured in a field fenced on three sides but open on the fourth to the Teton River. Beyond the river’s main channel, a large flood plain was crisscrossed by lesser channels. In springtime, the swollen river formed many islands and swamps crowded with brush.

Occasionally the cows would notice untouched grass across the river and swim across the swift current to eat it. They then wandered into the thick brush and could be hard to find. Father had given me strict orders that if the cows ventured across the river, I was never to go after them but must return home for help.

One Saturday evening in early spring just after my seventh birthday, I was in a great hurry to bring the cows home for milking because my parents had promised that we could go to a movie if we got our chores done in time. I trotted Banner as much as he could endure at his advanced age, but when I arrived at the pasture, I saw that the cows had swum across the river, even though it ran at high flood stage.

I felt great distress. I knew that if I went for help, the movie would probably be half over before we could find the cows, milk them, and get the other chores done. I decided to go after the cows myself, even though I had been warned so many times not to.

I knew that horses could swim well, as I had seen them cross the river before, but Banner hesitated as I urged him down into the cold, swift stream. As he swam with quick, jerking motions, his head barely cleared the water. An adult sitting on him would also have had his head above water, but at my age, the water quickly covered me. I had to grip the saddle horn to keep from washing downstream in the treacherous current. That kept me underwater, though, except when Banner lunged forward several times, bringing my head above water enough to gasp for air.

When Banner finally climbed the other bank, I realized that my life had been in grave danger and that I had done a terrible thing—I had knowingly disobeyed my father. I felt that I could redeem myself only by bringing the cows home safely. Maybe then my father would forgive me.

Banner and I wandered for some time across the flooded plain, crossing swamps and streams and searching in the thick brush for the cows. In the dusk I began to realize that I might not find them at all. Further, I didn’t know for sure where I was, and I began to fear that I couldn’t find my way back.

Finally I heard the mooing of cows in the distance and found them on a small island. We crossed to that island and began rounding up the cattle just as full darkness fell. Normally at milking time, the cows would be eager to return to the barn, but on this night, because of the darkness and the cold water they would have to swim across, they had no desire to leave. I tried every way I knew to get them to move, but just as we approached the water, they always turned and ran back to the center of the small island.

Despair overwhelmed me. I was wet and cold, lost and afraid, and, worst of all, well aware that my disobedience had landed me in this fix.

I began to cry as I climbed down from Banner and fell to the ground by his feet. Between thick sobs, I tried to offer a prayer, simple but deeply sincere, as I repeated over and over to my Father in Heaven, “I’m sorry. Forgive me! I’m sorry. Forgive me!”

I prayed for some time with my head bowed, and when I finally looked up, I saw a figure dressed in white come up out of the river and walk toward me. In the dark, I felt certain it must be an angel sent in answer to my prayers. I did not move as the figure approached, but felt overwhelmed by what I saw. Would the Lord really send an angel to me, who had been so disobedient?

Then a familiar voice said, “I’ve been looking for you, Son.” I recognized my father and ran to his outstretched arms. He held me for several moments until I finally stopped the emotional sobs. He then said gently, “I was worried. I’m glad I found you.”

I tried to tell him how I felt, but only disjointed words—“Thank you … dark … afraid … river … alone”—came out of my trembling lips.

I will never understand how my father coordinated the next few minutes. We both climbed on Banner and started herding the cows. Father gave a piercing whistle, and the cows seemed to line up in single file and march through the numerous channels of the river toward home. I learned later that when my father noticed that I had not returned from the pasture, he drove the pickup truck out to investigate. When he couldn’t find me or the cows, he knew that I had crossed the river and was in danger. Because it was turning dark, he did not take time to go for additional help but removed his clothes down to his long white thermal underwear, tied his shoes around his neck, and swam the treacherous river in search of me.

He was larger than life to me. He had saved me from the most terrible experience of my young life and replaced fear and danger with love and security. I will always remember what it was like to ride on Banner encircled by my father’s warm arms and hearing him say, “Everything is fine now. You are safe.”

I had been disobedient and had learned the fear and regret that came with it. My father had searched for me, his lost son, and brought me safely home. I had never felt greater gratitude and joy.

I feel similar joy and gratitude to my Heavenly Father, recognizing that when I exercise poor judgment and disregard his commandments, he still is willing to rescue me as I repent and turn to him again.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Gregg Thorkelson