“Oh no, it’s Asa’s turn to drive to the bishopric meeting,” I heard my dad grumbling to my mother.
“He’s just trying to do his share,” Mom said.
“I know. But it’s always so uncomfortable to ride in that old truck of his. There are springs in the seat that stick out and rip my slacks, and cat hair all over. He’s just too proud to skip his turn and let one of us drive.” He was still grumbling when he went into the bathroom to tie his tie.
Asa Newcomb was my father’s counselor in the bishopric. He was a middle-aged farmer, and the years had not been kind to him. His old truck was a ’49, rusty-blue cab, with a wooden bed and rails that went halfway down along the sides. My father and Asa had been counselors together before Dad was made bishop, and so Dad had been riding in the truck to meetings for quite a few years.
As a kid I had enjoyed riding with Asa’s boys when we went on Cub Scout outings, and later when we were Scouts his was the easiest truck to load with our equipment. But now I understood more of what Dad felt. It was not too pleasant to show up at the movies or a dance in that big, old truck that rattled your teeth during the entire ride and tore small holes in the back of your pants.
Maybe it was because of the truck that Dad had such a thing about pride. He was always lecturing us on being too proud or not having enough humility. In fact, we were a family of six children, and Dad was a history teacher at the local junior college, so we all felt we had plenty of humility. It was perhaps a humility imposed upon us by circumstances, but it was humility all the same. Dad always felt that Asa was “too proud” in insisting on taking his turn to drive. “A more humble man would recognize the problem and not insist on making us all uncomfortable,” he would say.
That night while Dad was at his meeting, our furnace blew up.
My two younger brothers, Ned and Phil, and my three-year-old sister, Amy, and I were in the living room watching a special on TV. My two older sisters, Beth and Ann, were in the kitchen doing dishes. My mother had just gone out to deliver a loaf of newly baked bread to a neighbor. Almost as soon as we heard the explosion, fire ripped through the corner of the kitchen above the furnace. My sisters screamed, and Ann was hit on the head by a piece of flying debris. The shock of the explosion threw all of us to the floor, and the youngest ones started crying.
“Get them outside,” I yelled at Ned. He lifted Amy, grabbed Phil by the arm, and then ran out the front door. I ran to the kitchen doorway. Beth, with tears streaming down her face, was trying to pull Ann away from the flames that were already starting up the walls. I ran in and helped her lift, and together we dragged Ann through the front door and onto the lawn. Mother and our neighbors all along the street were running toward us. In a few moments I could hear the wail of the fire siren in the distance and remember thinking that either the explosion had been heard all over town or someone had called the fire department in a hurry.
Even with the speed with which the fire department arrived, most of the house was in flames. The paramedics checked Ann and then took her to the hospital for observation even though she was now conscious. She had a big gash in the side of her head, and she kept saying, “My new haircut! It cost me $7.50.” My mother was holding Amy, Phil was huddled close to her side, and we were all crying.
The firemen poured water onto the house, and by the time Dad rushed out of his meeting and home, the fire was out.
That night we slept at Aunt Verna’s. We heard that the living room structure was all right, and part of the upstairs, but all the furniture was ruined by water and smoke damage, and Dad’s study containing his books and papers was completely destroyed. I think that was what hit him the hardest.
We had the clothes we were wearing, and maybe, after some rummaging, we would be able to find a few other things. It rained hard all night, and Mother said it was a blessing because that would mean the fire was really out.
The next morning we held a family council around Aunt Verna’s kitchen table. The first thing Beth said was, “I’m not going to wear someone else’s hand-me-downs!”
“We don’t know yet that you’ll have to,” Dad said.
And Phil said, “And I don’t want any old broken toys like they fix up at Christmastime.”
“I think we’re all rushing things,” Dad said. “We need to get out to the house and see what’s there first.”
“Helen, telephone,” Aunt Verna called from the living room. My mother had been answering the telephone all morning; usually it was someone calling to offer help or food.
This time it was Ann. Mother had called the hospital twice during the morning to see how she was. Ann could come home anytime we could go get her. Aunt Verna and Mother went in Aunt Verna’s car, and the rest of us got into our car and went back to our house to begin salvaging what we could.
The first thing we saw when we rounded the corner on our block was Asa’s truck. It was parked in front of our yard, and there was Asa and his oldest boy pulling the charred furniture into the driveway.
We got out of the car, and Dad walked up to Asa. “Asa,” he said, “you can’t take time away from your spring planting to do this today; we can manage.”
“No, Robert,” Asa said, slowly. “I knew where I was needed today. You’ve got a good, strong family, but I want to do whatever I can.”
That became the phrase of the day. Whenever anyone else showed up to help, it was always with the phrase, “I want to do whatever I can.”
The Relief Society president was there when my mother burst into tears over the exploded fruit and vegetable bottles and the melted wheat containers. The president must have said something to someone, because soon people started coming to the house with cases of canned goods. They would stack them in the garage, which was pretty much intact, and then shake Mom and Dad’s hands and leave. Dad was obviously running out of things to say to people and seemed to be repeating over and over, “You shouldn’t have. How can we ever repay you?” And all day that truck of Asa’s was in front of the house—except for the times that Asa and Dad would decide that a load should go to the dump.
My junior league baseball team showed up about the time that school let out and helped clean up the mess in the front yard. We were invited to dinner at three different homes and finally ended up at our next-door neighbor’s. After dinner Dad went back to the house to work while the rest of us watched TV and tried to relax. I followed him to the house a few minutes later.
He was sitting on the empty back steps with his face burrowed in his hands. I sat down beside him, and he looked up.
“John,” he said. “I don’t know how we can accept all this charity. Something inside me says that we should do these things ourselves.”
“But, Dad,” I said, “everybody seems to want to do something for us.”
“I know,” he answered, “but we’ve got to do for ourselves, too.”
Just then a little gray-haired lady came around the corner of the house. She was Sister Adams, a widow I had home taught. She had a cloth shopping bag in her arms.
“Bishop Andrews,” she said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner. I had to finish these things first.” She opened her bag and got out three pairs of homemade pillowcases, the kind with embroidered girls wearing big skirts on the front and flowers and crocheting around the edges. “I think you’ll need these when you get back into your house. I’ve heard that insurance never goes far enough to cover things like linens.”
Dad stood up. “Sister Adams, you shouldn’t do this. Aren’t these the kind of things you sell to that store downtown? You can’t afford this.”
“Why, Bishop Andrews,” she said, almost indignant, “after all these years of doing for others, haven’t you learned that one needs to do these things? I need the blessings, and this is something I can do.” She turned quickly to me. “And you, John, you’ve been over to my place dozens of times to rake leaves or shovel snow. I need to do something for this family.” Then she turned to go. “You of all people should know, Bishop, that sometimes it’s better to receive than to give.” She walked away and left us there, and Dad sat down again on the steps, the pillowcases in hand.
That night in our prayers Dad thanked the Lord for all the blessings that the day had brought and especially asked that we could accept with love all the things that others wanted to do for us.
The next morning when we drove over from Aunt Verna’s, Asa’s truck was in front of the house again. He was standing and surveying the damage, and there was a big bag of potatoes on the back of his truck.
“With the help of a couple of men in the ward, we ought to be able to get things roughed in and part of your roof on, Robert, before too long. That way the insurance money will go further.” I could see Dad was thinking this over.
“Asa, why are you doing all of this?” he asked. “You don’t have the time to spend away from your work and your family.”
“I’m a proud man, Robert,” Asa said slowly, “and things have been hard for us for a long time now.” He turned away for a moment. “And, Robert, you’ve allowed me my pride. And you’ve taught me what a humble man is. You’ve always been open with me and accepted me on my terms. Now I have to try and be a little like you. A humble man helps his neighbor, like you’ve helped me. You remember that year you helped me get the potatoes in after I hurt my back? Well, understand that I’m not repaying that kindness. I’m trying to duplicate it; and because you’re a humble man, I know you’ll accept my attempt at being a servant for once.” His speech finished, he turned back to studying the house.
Dad sniffed twice, and I had to wipe the moisture from my own cheek. On his way down to the truck to get the potatoes, he called back, “Asa, I wonder if you could give me a ride in your truck over to the college. I need to check my mail and things, and my wife needs the car.”