“Pass the ketchup, will you, Mom?”
“How do you ask, Jacob?” replied his mother, holding the ketchup for ransom.
“Come on, Mom! I’m in a hurry. Just pass me the ketchup!”
“Not until you ask for it properly, young man!”
For an instant, Jake thought of eating his hamburger and fries without ketchup, but the thought vanished as he looked at the near masterpiece he had created on the plate before him. All that was missing was the ketchup. With just a hint of exaggeration, he gave in and said, “Please, mother dearest, if it’s not too much to ask, would you mind passing the sweetened tomato sauce my direction?”
“That’s better.” His mom smiled and handed him the ketchup before continuing. “Oh, I almost forgot. Brian called to remind you to bring the name of one of your ancestors to activity night tonight. He said something about going to the Family History Center. Anyway, I got out some books so you can pick a name.”
Jake took a big bite out of his burger and began to respond. In unison, his mom, dad, two little sisters, and little brother reminded him not to talk with his mouth full. As soon as he was able, he continued, “Don’t worry about the name, Mom. I’ve been to the Family History Center before, so I’m going to the gym with Brett tonight.”
Jake’s dad cleared his throat, and the chatter around the table stopped like a switch had been flipped. “Son, I’m not going to tell you what you have to do, but the right place to be tonight is at activity night with the rest of your quorum. You can make your own decision, but you know where you should be.”
“Aw, Dad!” Jake dragged out the words with his best whining tone. “We go every year, and it’s always the same. A little old lady tells us how exciting genealogy is and if we listen real close we will have the ‘opportunity’ to use one of the fish machines.”
“Fiche, Jake, microfiche machines,” his mother corrected.
“Fish … fiche … whatever. Last year the most exciting thing that happened was when Doug Brown started rewinding his microfilm and then walked off. When it got to the end of the tape, it was flipping around making all kinds of noise. People came running from everywhere to see what had happened.”
Jake’s little brother and sisters laughed, and his parents smiled, but his dad didn’t give in. “Lots of information is on computers now, Jake. They don’t use those ‘fish’ machines as much anymore. You need to go.”
Jake started to respond, but his dad held up his hand. “You make your own decision, son. You know what I think you should do.”
As the quorum arrived at the Family History Center, Jake dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper his mom had given him. Unfolding it, he read the name: Annie Hicks. A girl! His mom had given him a girl’s name! Brian had bragged all the way to the center about his ancestor the Civil War hero. Most of the rest of the guys claimed to be related to one king or another. Doug even claimed he was related to Elvis. And here was Jake with the name of some unknown girl.
“This is going to be even worse than I thought,” he grumbled as he walked in the door.
Jake’s dad was right about one thing. Where the microfiche machines used to be, there were now several computers with bright screens. Racks of shiny compact discs sat next to them on the tables. The microfiche machines remaining were all huddled in a small back room. The door to the room was roped off with a sign that read “Please Ask for Assistance.”
As the family history consultant welcomed the quorum and began to talk about the new software, Jake drifted toward the back of the group. He didn’t want to be the one who had to use his ancestor’s name as a demonstration. Finding a comfortable spot against the doorway to the back room with the microfiche machines, he settled down for the wait. He tried to listen for a few minutes, but from the back he could barely hear, and his attention soon turned to the ‘fish’ machines in the room behind him.
Poor machines, he thought, all those years they did just what they were supposed to and now their only reward is to be quarantined like they have some rare disease. Without thinking, he stepped over the rope and began to wander among the machines.
In the darkest corner, Jake discovered a monster of a fiche reader. It wasn’t a table-top model like the others but stood by itself on the floor—like a picture-taking booth. It even had a little black curtain across its door to keep out the light. Curious, Jake began to walk around the machine. His inspection, however, was cut short as he tripped over its power cord. Bending to plug it back in, he realized that he hadn’t just unplugged it; he had ripped the wires right out of the machine.
Jake groused under his breath. “I should have just gone to the gym.” He quickly shoved the bare wires back into the hole in the machine and headed for the safety of the crowd. As he passed the little doorway of the huge fiche reader, he came to a dead stop. Something was flickering inside. Hoping he hadn’t started an electrical fire with the bare wires, Jake slipped inside the machine to investigate. As he sat down, the little black curtain quietly closed behind him.
Jake would have jumped up and run, but the screen of the microfiche reader flickered on. “Well, at least it still works!” he said out loud. Almost as if in response to his voice, a computerized voice said, “Please state the name of the person you wish to find.”
Wow! Pretty high-tech, Jake thought.
“Please state the name of the person you wish to find.” The machine repeated.
“Okay, okay! I’ll state it!”
“Please state the name of the person you wish to find.”
Jake rolled his eyes and said nothing as he dug the folded piece of paper from his pocket and read the name out loud: “Annie Hicks.”
The next thing Jake knew, he was cold, so very, very cold. Snow was blowing in his face, and an ice cold wind cut through the thin, coarse jacket he was now wearing. His legs were covered by very thin, gray wool pants with patches on both knees. He couldn’t feel his feet and had to lift them out of the snow to see if they were still there. His high-top, cross trainers had been replaced by old-fashioned boots. But the toes of the boots were completely worn through, revealing the red wool socks that now covered his frozen toes.
Taking in his surroundings, Jake became aware that he was standing on the bank of a wide river. There were people on both sides of the river pulling and pushing handcarts and shivering in the cold. Those on the opposite side of the river appeared to be waiting for their turn to walk down into the water and cross to Jake’s side. Jake shivered involuntarily as he looked at the sheets of ice floating on the cold, gray water.
“What is this?” was all he could say before he heard a cry for help.
“My boy, my boy! Somebody save my boy!” The cry came from the far side of the river, and Jake focused on a woman with several children gathered around her. She was screaming and pointing at a boy, no more than 10 or 12, being carried downstream with their handcart by the force of the current. For an instant, Jake was frozen in terror as he watched the tragedy unfold before him. It seemed hopeless. Then he noticed someone from his side of the river racing down the bank toward the boy. The rescuer jumped into the water, splashed out to the boy, and pulled him and his handcart toward the safety of the shore.
Something finally clicked within Jake, and he ran down to the bank of the river. He reached the water just in time to help pull the boy and his rescuer up onto the bank. With chattering teeth, the boy thanked the rescuer over and over again, “Thank you, Annie! Thank you, Annie!”
For the first time, Jake realized that the rescuer was a young girl not much older than himself. As he reached out his hand and pulled her out of the water, he asked, “Annie? Annie Hicks?”
She looked at him for a moment with a quizzical look on her face and then replied in an English accent, “Why of course it is. Have you had a bump on your head today? Now quit looking at me that way, and let’s get this poor chap back to his family and into camp.” Jake smiled sheepishly, took hold of the handcart, and pulled it up the hill toward the rest of the company.
As he walked into the camp, Jake realized it was like none other he had ever seen. There were four to five hundred men, women, and children, all in wet and frozen clothes. From what Jake could see, few, if any, had dry clothes to change into. Some were trying to clear away snow and set up tents, but the ground was too frozen to drive the tent pegs. One or two small fires burned, but there wasn’t any additional firewood in sight. There were a few people eating, but what they ate looked like nothing more than a flour paste. Jake thought about the masterpiece burger and fries he had eaten for dinner. It probably would have fed half the camp.
“How are these people going to survive the night?” he wondered aloud as he helped Annie pull her cart into camp. Annie looked at him but didn’t respond. As they passed cart after cart, he began to wonder if they would ever find Annie’s family. “Where’s your family’s camp?” he finally asked.
Annie stopped pulling and studied him closely before responding. “My family is in England. They disowned me the day I was baptized. I don’t expect that I will ever hear from them again.” As she spoke she laid down the handcart handle and turned to unpack her few belongings.
“You, you’re here by yourself?” Jake’s disbelief and shivering caused him to stammer. After all, here was a girl, no older than himself, pulling a handcart across the country in the middle of winter without her family.
“No, I’m not by myself,” Annie responded matter-of-factly. “I’m surrounded by my brothers and sisters, and God is with us.”
“But how, Annie? How can you keep going without your family and with so much suffering?”
Now Annie stopped working and looked directly across the handcart at Jake. “From the moment I heard the gospel, I knew it was true. The day after I was baptized, my family heard of my baptism and told me some of the vilest stories about the Mormons. They said if I joined the Mormons I would be ruined for life. That night I prayed with all my heart to know the truth. I prayed, ‘Dear Lord, do not let me do wrong. Let me know tonight, dear Father; let me know tonight.’ I immediately was comforted by a wonderful dream. A book was opened to me, and the leaves were turned in rapid succession until the page with my record was found. On the page was my name without a mar or blemish against it. A loud clear voice spoke to me saying, ‘This is the way. Walk ye in it.’ When I woke the next morning, I laughed for joy to think that I had been heard and answered. I told my folks that it had been made known to me that Mormonism was right, and I would follow it.”
She hesitated for a moment and Jake looked down. A warmth burned within him that even the most severe cold couldn’t stop. Annie stepped around the corner of the cart and touched him on the sleeve. “This is the right way, Jake. Walk in it.”
In an instant, Jake was back in the Family History Center. He was sitting on the floor where the huge machine had been. There was no sign of the machine. He had his own clothes on, but his toes tingled like they did whenever they were thawing out. Jake shook his head a few times to clear his thoughts. He could hear the family history consultant continuing his presentation. “Now, does anyone have the name of an ancestor we can use as an example?”
Jake jumped up and ran toward the group, “Right here! I have one right here!”
The river crossing described in the story is based on the Martin handcart company’s crossing of the North Platte River.
The rescue of the “fine young chap” (Annie’s words) and her testimony were taken from her unpublished autobiography, which is in the possession of family members. The conclusion of the rescue story is heart wrenching. The young boy Annie pulled from the river insisted on searching for firewood that night for his widowed mother. “When he had been gone a long time, a search was made for him, and he was found frozen to death with his sticks in his arms.”