Missionary Focus:
“Sign Me Up, Coach”

by Ralph E. Pierce, Jr., as told to Irene Fuja

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    I spent my childhood in Dalton, Georgia. It was during my high school years that my family, with the exception of myself, was introduced to two fine Mormon missionaries and subsequently baptized members of the Church. During that time I spent most of my leisure hours shooting pool.

    In my senior year of high school I signed up for the marines, and while my classmates were attending graduation exercises, I was in an airplane headed for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Three months later, I was back home on leave and my parents invited me to attend church.

    I had always been a scrappy person, but after graduating from marine corps boot camp, I felt as though I could lick the world and probably would have tried with little hesitation. I accepted my parents’ invitation to attend church services and immediately began preparing my uniform so that I might present an impeccable appearance.

    I rose at 0600 that morning to check my uniform to make sure it was in immaculate condition. Sure enough, my brass was so shiny you couldn’t look at it directly, and when you growled at my leather, it was so brilliantly shined, your reflection growled back at you. My swagger would have made John Wayne turn green as we neared the church entrance. I was prepared to lick anyone who met my gaze with anything less than the fear of death. I opened the door and stood aside, letting my mom pass through, and then the rest of the family. I sidestepped through the door so that my shoulders wouldn’t rip the wood from the sides of the door frame. As I corrected my body position to its original stance and faced the occupants of the room, I felt as though I had been slapped in the face.

    I was flabbergasted as I stared into a sea of genuinely smiling faces. Everyone present had a light in his eye that I had previously seen in only a few individuals. There was a spirit of happiness and contentment present that was hard for me to comprehend. I think it would have been impossible to provoke one of these fine people into a fist fight.

    I never regained my composure after making my way through the tidal wave of handshakes and back pats that met me. I sat meekly through the entire service—like a lamb among wolves, or perhaps the reverse.

    Back on duty I took up my usual way of life. Once in a while I thought of the LDS Church back home, especially when letters came from my family as there were always a few lines about their Church activities.

    Two years dragged by and my tour in Vietnam drew close. I stopped drinking and smoking and found myself wishing I could wash off my tattoo.

    By some stroke of luck, I was selected to be attached to the Department of State for what was to be a year in Nicosia, Cyprus, and a year and a half in Jerusalem, Israel.

    I’m sure that gnawing feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you leave home is a feeling you never get used to. It’s worse when you are single, in the service, or on a mission and aren’t sure what to expect. For some reason I was unusually homesick as I waited for my orders. My imagination made my plight seem worse. As I lay on my bunk I envisioned myself as the last of the good guys, alone without a friend in the world, sworn to uphold justice and virtue, a knight in shining armor, the champion of damsels in distress, and a slayer of dragons. Yet there was nothing foreseeable in my future but the “devil and the deep blue sea.”

    At the height of my misery a glimmer of hope and truth shone through. Stored in my “gourd” for two and a half years were memories of smiles, love, virtue, warmth, and a strong moral environment. I remembered that the Mormon members possessed all those personal qualities that characterized the knights of old: personal dignity, self-reliance, initiative, and loyalty to their own. I kicked myself mentally as I thought, “You should have joined that outfit before you even thought of going into the marines.”

    The next Sunday I looked up the address of the nearest LDS chapel and told the cabbie to take the fastest route. Out of the cab, I raced down the sidewalk and jumped into the foyer. Standing there was a small group of distinguished looking gentlemen. I made a beeline for them and zeroed in on the gentleman with silver-gray hair and piercing eyes. Trying to stop within three feet of him, but having slid to within six inches, I counted three silver fillings as his mouth flew open. I suppose he thought the ward was about to be invaded by the entire marine corps.

    I tried to be tactful but had built my momentum to a fever pitch. Standing within six inches of his nose, I caught him by the arm and shrieked, “Sign me up, coach; I don’t smoke!”

    I know that God lives and that Jesus is the Christ. How thankful I am for the fine example of the members of the Church for it was that example which brought me into the only true church on the earth.