My dream of attending the Air Force Academy was deep-rooted. My father was a career man in the air force, and those summers I spent with him, learning to fly, and becoming familiar with everything about air force life, were some of the greatest experiences I’ve had. My parents divorced when I was quite young, so I didn’t get to see my father very often, and those times when we were together were very important to me.
During my junior year in high school, I made my official application for the Academy appointment. School was going well for me; I was getting good grades; I was active in my priests quorum; and in the spring of that year, I was elected student-body president. The possibility of receiving an Academy appointment looked better and better. As much as I wanted it, though, one thought kept repeating itself in my mind: “You should go on a mission.” I knew President Kimball had counseled that every young man in the Church should fulfill a mission, but I felt my case was an exception. If I accepted a mission call, my chances of ever entering the Academy would be very poor, since most cadets went in immediately after high school graduation. I also felt that living a good LDS life while at the Academy would, in a sense, be a mission in itself. Despite my reasoning, however, the prompting continued, and so did my efforts to squelch it.
After school was out, I flew to Virginia to spend the summer with my dad, who is not a member of the Church. Discussing with him the likelihood of winning an appointment made the prospect even more exciting. Dad’s encouragement was motivating, and I returned to Lewiston even more determined to make him proud of me, his son, the future Air Force Academy cadet! The summer had done a fairly good job of deadening my thoughts of serving a mission, but almost the first Sunday I was home, those old, unwelcome feelings began to stir. I realize now that the Holy Ghost was working overtime on me, and since then I have gained a strong testimony of the power of his influence. Every single day my thoughts were occupied with thoughts of the Academy versus a mission. I began reading my patriarchal blessing frequently; it said that when the time came, I would serve a mission. Still, my desires were with the Academy, and I was becoming more and more confused.
During these months I spent a lot of time talking to my former bishop, Bishop Tolman, trying to sort out my feelings and decide what I should do. He didn’t try to influence my decision, but told me he would support me in whatever I decided. His confidence in me was a great support. As I prayed for guidance in making the right decision, I felt assurance that I would.
Then on October 10, 1976, as I was sitting in testimony meeting, I suddenly knew that I had to go on a mission and that the Academy would have to wait. I had in my jacket pocket a missionary handbook that had been distributed in priests quorum meetings months and months before. I took it out and wrote in Spanish (so no one else would know what I was writing), “When I’m 19, I’ll go on a mission.” I recorded the date, and then I put it away. I didn’t think about it again for a couple of weeks. I’d made my decision, and my conscience wasn’t working quite as hard.
It was just about this time that the nominations to the Academy were being announced. I was named. It was a little hard to explain to some of my friends and teachers that what I had worked for for years, now a reality, was going to be turned down. I talked to Bishop Tolman for about an hour and a half. He said, “Chris, I really think you’ll be happy with this decision. I believe you’ve made the right one.” As we talked I began to have a desire to serve a mission rather than just a feeling of obligation.
Then the time came to tell my dad. I didn’t know what to do. I felt sure that he would never be able to understand or accept my decision. To him the air force was everything, and I knew that when I told him, it would be the last time I’d ever talk to him. I prayed constantly for the courage to tell him, that somehow he would be able to accept it.
When I heard his voice on the other end of the line, I nearly hung up the telephone. Somehow, though, the words came out. After I told him, there was at least a full 30 seconds of total silence. I had expected anger and disappointment, but the silence was even more unnerving. Finally he spoke: “Well, Chris, just what is a mission?” He asked me what I would be required to do, how long it would be, where I was going. After listening to my explanation he said firmly, “If that’s what you really want, then I’ll support your decision.” It completely surprised me; I couldn’t talk. I gave the phone to my mother and went downstairs to my room.
Since that time my dad and I have kept a regular correspondence going, and he has even offered to help support me financially. My gratitude to him has increased tremendously as I have come to realize more than ever before his great love for me.
I’ve had times since our conversation when I’ve thought, “I had the Academy in my grasp, and I let it go, and now I’ll never get it again.” Those times, though, aren’t very long-lasting and are few and far between. I realize that I won’t die if I don’t get to go to the Academy and that serving a mission is what the Lord wants me to do. I’m excited about it, and nothing will keep me from serving the best that I can!
Editor’s Note: This story was written prior to Elder Henderson’s departure for the mission field. He is now serving in the Korea Seoul Mission.