After sacrament meeting the bishop called me into his office for a talk. Here it comes, I thought. I’m going to be the new teachers quorum president, I’ll bet. I was filled with pride and excitement. Wow, is the ward ever going to heap handshakes on me. Mom will be so proud!

I sat in the big chair across from the bishop. He was a pleasant man, smiling as always, but I felt that even so, this conversation was going to be an important one.

“Steve, we have an assignment for you,” he said. My heart raced.

“This is a special ‘good neighbor’ assignment. We’re concerned about Hasty McFarlan. He’s a pretty sad old man, you know. He needs someone to befriend him. He’s not a member of the Church, but God’s love reaches to all people, and we as members of his church have the responsibility to show it. Maybe I should say we have the privilege of showing that love.”

I guess I must have looked stunned.

“You know Hasty, don’t you, Steve?” asked the bishop.

My memory jumped back a couple of weeks to when some friends and I had made fun of the old man by singing jingles and shouting the jokes we had made up about him.

“Yes, I know him,” I said, choking down my disappointment and guilt. “He’s the old hermit who lives outside of town.”

“Right,” said the bishop. “I would like for you to go out and visit him two or three times a week.”

“Okay,” was the only answer I could manage.

The bishop must have detected my crestfallenness, because he leaned forward in his chair and looked at me carefully.

“Now, if this assignment will be too much, don’t be afraid to say so.”

I sighed. “Oh, I’ll do it, sir,” I said.

“Good,” said the bishop with a smile, and before I could catch my breath, he went on. “You can chop wood for the fire, and get him food, blankets—whatever he needs to help him feel wanted. Be a friend. Your father is aware of the assignment, and he told me he would help you. Your Heavenly Father will be prompting you, too.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

I was 15 years old then, and there were other things I would rather do—play football, hunt, fish, or just do the things my friends were doing. But I had told the bishop I would carry out the assignment, and I knew it wasn’t good to go back on my word.

Hasty lived in a little log cabin at the foot of a mountain, just outside the Idaho farming community I grew up in. On the long hike to his cabin after school that first afternoon, it seemed to me that every pine along the trail whispered Hasty’s loneliness.

Once a year at Christmas the old man got a free bath at the hotel, compliments of the sheriff. Probably, we all thought, it was the only bath he got all year. We used to say he looked like a pirate with that growth on the side of his head and his black eyepatch. Most of the kids and even some of the townspeople had the habit of making unkind remarks or doing something “clever” whenever Hasty was around. Would he remember me as one of the tricksters? By the time I reached the cabin, I was genuinely frightened.

I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. I knew he had to be in there. Where else could he go?

“Hasty?” My voice broke halfway through the word. I don’t know how long I must have stood there before I decided to go inside. The thick oaken door creaked as I pushed it open.

“Hasty?” I called again. “Hasty, are you there?”

Hearing a rustling, I poked my head in as far as I dared and peeked around the door. It was cold in Hasty’s cabin and very dark. I could just make out the figure of a man on the bed. Hasty was all slouched down, but not like he’d been asleep, or even like he’d been thinking. He looked like he was slouching because there was no reason to do anything else. I noticed that the soiled, mildewed blanket he was sitting on was more hole than blanket.

My heart was beating in my throat. I swallowed hard.

“Hasty, is there anything I can do for you?” I managed to blurt out.

I told him my name and that the bishop from the LDS Church had sent me to see how he was doing and to help out. He said nothing. The silent, staring troll was freezing my nerves.

“Hasty, your fire is out.”

No reply.

“Can I chop some wood?”

No reply.

I went outside, found an axe and some stacked stumps, and began chopping kindling. With every strike of the axe my brain pounded. What am I doing out here? Why me? Why?

“Quit grumbling,” a voice inside me said. “The old man is cold and lonely, and you can help him.”

I got a fire going and tried to talk to him, but after a few minutes I decided he wasn’t really listening. He needed a new blanket, so I told him I would get a thick, clean, comfortable one, and the next day I did. After that I came every other day. Slowly, over the next several weeks, he began talking.

One day after we had talked some he said, “Boy, why do you come? I’m sure a kid your age can find better things to do than visit a sick old varmint like me. But I’m glad you come.” And then he smiled.

At Thanksgiving I invited Hasty to our house for dinner. He didn’t come, but our family took part of the dinner to him. There were tears in his eyes as he tried to thank us.

I discovered as our visits continued that Hasty had been a sheepherder. Once he had had a wife and children, but they had gotten a terrible fever and died of it.

Feeling in his grief that his life had been shattered, Hasty wandered the whole country as a vagabond. A diseased growth on the side of his face made one eye blind. And the teasing and practical joking had begun.

But to me the old man didn’t seem as ugly and frightening anymore. In fact, after school I hurried to his cabin to help him and to listen to his stories.

When Christmas arrived, we invited him to dinner once again. This time he came, and what’s more, he came in a suit, all cleaned and handsome. He looked great. A smile curved his lips. Hasty was happy because we showed him he was needed.

As we finished dinner, the old man bowed his head for a second, and then raised it and said, “You people sure are wonderful. My life has been a shambles for a long time, but the love you’ve shown is making me a different person. I’m very grateful.”

As he said that, I could feel a little fire in my chest getting big. It felt good.

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard Hull