In the opening exercises of our priesthood meeting, the bishop announced that many of the teachers would be assigned new senior home teaching companions. Filled with the gentle excitement that accompanies such changes in assignment, I left the chapel wondering who my new companion would be. I strolled down the hallway hoping that I had been chosen as the companion of one of the young, dynamic elders in the ward. I looked in the open classrooms that lined the hallway and imagined working with a powerful, spiritual man intent on fulfilling his calling. At the end of the hallway was the Relief Society room where the high priests met.
Turning to go up the stairs, I looked into the room and my eyes caught a glance at an old man sitting in an almost tattered gray suit. He was sitting alone, thoughtfully, with his fingers intertwined. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses and had a slightly blotchy, leathery complexion. I had seen this brother before, but I did not know him by name. And it seemed to me at the moment that he represented the companion I would like not to have. Please not him, I said to myself. He’s too old.
Upstairs the teachers quorum adviser informed me that I would be the companion to a brother Oliver Johnson. The name did not mean anything to me, but he was soon described as an elderly high priest who had round glasses, often wore a gray suit, and kept bees. That was him. That was the man I had seen downstairs a minute before. I was deeply disappointed. I reasoned that I deserved it after what I had thought about him, but that did not diminish my dissatisfaction. If anything, it made my yearning for a powerful young man—someone I knew—even greater.
Though I wanted to be a good home teaching companion, I still begrudged my assignment as the companion of this old, slow-walking, slow-talking brother. I remember in particular how critical I was of his driving. I was in the process of getting my long-awaited driver’s license, and I thought there was no better driver than myself. The first time we went out as companions, Brother Johnson drove up in a 20-year-old worn out car. In that outdated vehicle it seemed to me that he drove well below the speed limit.
But to accompany the slow, steady pace of his driving, he talked slowly and steadily, perhaps sensing my impatience and reluctance—my youth. As we visited our families monthly, I came to realize that dressed in that gray suit and tattered old hat was a man whose power was experience. He talked about the mission he and his wife had been called on. (During the course of the mission his wife had died, but after she was buried he returned to finish his calling.) He talked about Indian trails, about his bees, and about people who seemed to me to be out of another time period.
The more we talked the less critical I became. The slow driving no longer irritated me. It gave us more of a chance to talk. His old car, his funny glasses, his withered hat, and his pocket watch with the broken crystal no longer bothered me. It was as if he got younger, and as his years shed in my mind, some of them must have fallen to me.
Of all the topics we discussed, I was most drawn to Brother Johnson’s activities as a beekeeper. One early summer day, he called me and told me that he was going up the canyon to see how some of his bees were doing. He asked if I would like to come. We drove casually up the canyon, and he told me how he had started in beekeeping and what he did to help the bees produce their honey. We drove off the paved road, up a bumpy dirt road, through some streams. Periodically I had to get out, open sheep fence gates, let Brother Johnson drive through, and join him after I closed the gate.
We finally got to the hives. He gave me an old veil—a hat with material mesh that came down in front to protect my face from the bees. He told me to be sure my long-sleeved shirt (which he had warned me to wear) was buttoned at the wrists. Then he gave me some rubber bands to put around the wrists. He told me to push my pant legs inside my socks. As Brother Johnson did these things himself, he explained to me that if the bees flew or crawled up a sleeve or pant leg, they would not be able to get out, so they would become afraid and sting. I marveled that he did not wear any gloves. As he got the smoker ready with which he subdued the bees, I asked him if he got stung very often.
“Oh, you get stung every once in a while—usually if the bee gets scared or doesn’t know you. Or they may sting if you don’t know what you’re doing. And they sting if they get trapped.” As he said that he looked at me, and from beneath that distorting veil I saw the bright, shining eyes and the quick smile of one who knew what he was talking about. Brother Johnson was slow, methodical, careful as he lifted the tops off the hives and puffed in the smoke to relax the bees. Some landed on him, crawled on his gloveless hands. Some even buzzed agitatedly around his head, but he never cringed or moved away. I kept a safe distance where I could watch. I was not going to let bees crawl on me and have a chance to sting me.
Some of the hives were doing better than others, and I marveled that Brother Johnson could tell what was wrong, why some hives were not producing, and then correct the problem. He did not take any of the honey that day, but he promised me that when he did he would bring me some. He told me that you chewed the honey out of the honeycomb and spit the wax out. He said it was better than eating the honey itself because you had to work for what you got. I didn’t understand then how that could be. But once I had tried it, I knew.
A few years later in the mission field, I received a letter from my mother with a newspaper clipping. At the top of the clipping was the picture of the man who had so kindly taught me something of bees, something of aged men, and something more. The face in the picture of that obituary notice was strangely lifeless—so unlike the face I had seen in the Relief Society room the first time I remember seeing him, but much more unlike the face behind the beekeeper’s veil that day in the canyon. And though I could ask with Paul, “O death, where is thy sting?” I felt a quick pain of regret and sadness at the passing of this gentleman, this brother. And yet my mind is ever soothed by the memory of that rich, sweet honey he encouraged his bees to produce and which he gave to me—with the wax to chew out for myself.