The Changing of the Guard03310_000_004
The bishop asked me later if I knew when I visited the old man that Sunday afternoon. I guess I did.
“Jamie, come in. And you got Mark with you too. Come on in.”
We stood in front of him as he lay in the hospital bed. “Mark, crank me up so I can get a good look at you both.” Mark looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Down at the foot of the bed, you see a big handle there? Looks like they took it from a Model T, don’t it?” Mark finally found it. “You turn that a few times and I’ll be able to see something besides the ceiling.” Mark turned the handle and the upper end of the bed began to rise. “Not too much. I don’t want to be bent double. There, that’s fine.”
“Jamie, it’s good to see you.” He put out his hand for me to shake. I knew he was pretty sick because his grip was so weak.
“I got permission from the bishop for Mark and me to come and give you the sacrament.”
“I’d be pleased to take it, boys.” We closed the door to the hall, and I took a small slice of my mom’s homemade bread and put it on a paper plate. Mark filled a paper cup with water. I took the bread and carefully broke it and then knelt down and read the prayer. Afterwards I held the plate while he reached down and guided a piece to his mouth. Then Mark knelt down and blessed the water and handed him the cup. He spilled a little of it, but mostly he did fine. When he finished, he had tears in his eyes. “Thank you, boys.”
Mark sat around for a few minutes and then said he had to go home. He didn’t know the old man like I did.
The old man and I sat around and talked a little and watched the afternoon shadow move across the floor.
He was very old. His face was tough as if the wind and sun had carved out the soft flesh and left only the leathery surface. For 60 years he had farmed in the valley until his children had grown up and left, his wife had died, and he was alone with his garden, a plug horse named Blaze, and the Church.
I guess he’d always been in our ward, but kind of in the background. But I remember he used to bear his testimony nearly every month, and whenever Dad took me to the welfare farm for a work party, he would always be there.
When I turned 14 and was called to go home teaching, I was assigned to be his companion. He didn’t have a car and I didn’t drive then, so I rode my bike over to his place, now just a little way out of town since things had grown so much since he first moved there.
His living room had a round kitchen table with four chairs around it, with a shaggy throw rug on the floor and a reading lamp that hung from the high ceiling. Lying on the table were a large copy of the Book of Mormon and a Bible.
He shuffled over to the reading lamp and switched it on. Once he told me a horse had kicked him and left him with a limp. He stood there looking at me and then reached in his back pocket and pulled out a large handkerchief and wiped his nose.
“Jamie, we got to have a word of prayer.” He grabbed the edge of the table for support and lowered himself to a kneeling position with his hands folded on the seat of the chair. Then he looked up at me and said, “You kneel, don’t you?”
I knelt down.
“Father in heaven,” he began, “Jamie and me come to ask thee to help us as we go as home teachers into the homes of thy Saints.” It was a long prayer, and my knees were soon aching, so I tried to shift my weight around to get a better position, but by the time I found it, he had finished.
“Jamie, help me up.”
I reached down and put my arm under his elbow and pulled. He was a big man, and it was a struggle to get him on his feet.
He walked over to the window and looked out.
“Come over here. Do you see the place over there by the big tree, and the place next to it down the road? On the way here, do you remember seeing the place with the ‘Rhubarb for Sale’ sign nailed to the fence?” I nodded my head. “The Lord’s given us stewardship over those families. Do you know what that means?”
“What does it mean?”
“Well, we have to visit them once a month.”
He rubbed one hand over his stubble beard. “Is that what you think it means?”
“I think so.”
“You got a long way to go, son.”
The nurse came in and gave him some pills. He didn’t look very good. But when he talked, and you forgot about the chalky grayness of his face and his short, quick breaths, he was the same.
“Did you go fishing yesterday?”
“No, I’m waiting for you to get out so we can go together.”
He looked out the window for a long time, and I thought he hadn’t heard me. But after a few minutes he turned to me.
“Jamie, you better learn to tie your own flies. I can’t furnish you with free equipment your whole life.”
“I would have taught you before, but you were such a slow learner at fishing. I thought I’d better wait.”
The first time he offered to take me fishing behind his place, I brought the stuff my friends and I used when we fished from the old country bridge.
“What kind of a rig you call that?” He looked at my large lead sinker and a treble hook with a wad of dried-up cheese stuck to it. “Here, let me see that. You’re not supposed to club the fish to death.” He took the sinker from the line. “And what’s this?” he said, pointing to the cheese. “You bring your lunch?”
“I usually use worms or cheese for bait.”
He shook his head. “I’ll teach you to fly fish. Then you’ll know something about fishing.”
He stepped a little ways into the river so he could get a free swing with his fly rod. “Look over there, just in front of the boulder.” He whipped the fly line back and forth a couple of times to let out line, and then cast. The fly landed gently on the water and glided into the swirling water downstream from the boulder. Suddenly the water boiled as a German Brown rose up and took the fly. He carefully fought it to his side and then reached down and swished it up in his net. “You think you can learn to do that?” he said as he reached down into the net and pulled out the trout and dropped him gently back into the water.
Nearly every weekday afternoon that summer I’d go over to his place with my rod, and we’d walk across his field to the river. He taught me how to cast a fly rod, and where to stand, and what kind of flies to use for each part of the summer. “You got to find out what they’re feeding on, Jamie. That’s the secret.”
He slept a while because of the pills. The bishop stopped by to see him, but saw him asleep, and said he’d come back later.
The second month that we went home teaching, Brother Johnson had just bought a new horse. And so we walked out to the corral and took a look.
“Mort, how much you pay for that mare?”
“About a thousand dollars. Why?”
“She’s a fine horse. How come you spent so much money for her?”
“She’s got a good line.” Then he stopped and looked at the old man. “Why are you asking me a question like that? You been around horses most of your life.”
“I never had a horse worth a thousand bucks. What will you do with her, sell her to the glue factory?”
“You know I’m not going to do that.”
“Yep, I know that.” He looked at the mare for a while and then turned to Brother Johnson and said, “Mort, how long did your dad serve as a bishop?”
“About ten years, I guess. Why?”
“You come from a good line, Mort. As far as the Lord is concerned, you’re registered stock. But you’re no good to the Lord the way you are now. It’d be less of a waste to sell that horse to the rendering plant as for you to keep away from church any longer. The Lord wants you back in harness, Mort.”
Brother Johnson took the toothpick out of his mouth and dropped it on the ground. “You may be right,” he said simply.
When the old man woke up, he was embarrassed that he’d fallen asleep. But I said it was okay; I didn’t mind, and it would make him get better fast.
“Jamie, you been here too long. Your folks’ll be worrying about you.”
“It’s okay. They know I’m here.”
He turned his head so he could see outside. “What day is it?”
“June 13. Now starting in a few days, I’d try an Adams with a number 14 hook. You got enough flies? If you need any, you know where they are.”
All of a sudden he seemed to get some strength, and he leaned forward. “Now, you keep visiting them families, you hear? The Johnsons are coming along fine, but you ask the bishop to get the Scoutmaster over there to get their boy Brad in Scouting.” He grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard, and there was an urgency to his voice. “Jamie, you keep yourself clean so you can marry a pure and beautiful LDS girl in the temple when the time comes. And get ready to go on your mission. You need to read the scriptures more than you do.”
He still was holding onto my hand. “Jamie, once on my mission I went and saw the changing of the guards … Jamie …”
Before he could finish, a nurse stuck her head into the room. “I’m sorry but visiting hours are over.”
He released his grip. “You’d better go, Jamie. Come back tomorrow if you can.”
The next day when I got home from my softball game, my mom told me he had died that afternoon.
I walked over to his place and down the path to the fishing spot on the river where we used to go, and sat down on a rock. The river takes a bend just upstream from that point, and there was a hole where the eddy currents curled around in slow lazy loops, and there, he told me, the fish stayed when they were feeding on a hatch of flies coming down the river. The spot was hard to find because of the growth of trees on both sides, and most people who fished it probably got their line tangled in the fallen branches that lay in the water. But he told me where to stand and how to cast so you avoided the hidden traps.
My thoughts were interrupted by a trout jumping clear of the water for a fly. And then, for a moment, I could hear in my mind the old man say, “Don’t whip the water, just let it slide down nice and easy. You’re supposed to make the fish think a fly is landing on the water and not that a tree has fallen into the river. Use the Royal Coachman now, Jamie. How come you’ve never read the Book of Mormon? I want you to read it, and in three months I want you to tell Brother Johnson about it and bear your testimony.”
I sat there for a couple of hours thinking about him, until finally it was too dark and I got up and walked back down the path to my home.