The Field Is White


Steve was stuck in Wolf Jaw with a high school band, a girl he couldn’t stand, and a trucker who wanted to punch him in the nose. Merry Christmas

The Field Is White

The cold, harsh wind spun white strings of snow and threaded them across the drifting road, obscuring the bus driver’s view. The bus was loaded with a high school pep band heading home after playing the night before at an out-of-town basketball game.

On the morning after the game the bus with the basketball team left on schedule, but the band’s bus was delayed an hour while the leaders were trying to round up two band members who had wandered around the town looking for a McDonald’s.

It was the day before Christmas.

Steve stood up and weaved his way up the aisle to where Cathy was sitting. She was also a member of the Church and his rival for first chair clarinet position in the concert band.

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Not at all,” she answered politely but without much warmth. “Did you see Jay back there?” she asked, glancing up from her copy of Smithsonian Magazine.

“Yeah, he’s playing cards.”

“Not for money, I hope.”

“What do you think, they’re playing for buttons?”

“Did you tell him we’re not supposed to gamble?”

“No, Cathy,” he moaned, unable to hide his annoyance with her.

“You should have. He’s just getting active in the Church, and he might not know that.”

“Okay, I’ll just run back and knock the cards from his hands,” he said, watching as she slowly turned the page. She just reads that magazine for its snob value, he thought. She thinks she’s better than everybody else.

“The reason I came up here is to arrange a time to challenge you for first chair.”

“Again? This is the second time this month. I’m surprised you haven’t realized it by now.”

“Realized what?”

“That I’m better at the clarinet than you are.”

“The best musicians in the world are male.”

“That’s certainly not true in our clarinet section, is it?”

“I’m better than you, a lot better.”

“Then why can’t you ever win a challenge?”

“I will this next time.”

“Want to bet?”

“Oh no,” he countered, “I’m not supposed to gamble.”

“You’re sure in a sour mood for Christmas. You’re supposed to love everybody at Christmas.”

“Why can’t you read Time or Newsweek like other people?”

“Because I’m not like other people.”

He fought the urge to tell her how much he agreed with her. “How about the first Wednesday after Christmas break for the challenge?”

“Fine with me,” she said, unconcernedly browsing through an article. “If you want, we can do it today when we get in. When will that be?”

“Two o’clock. That’s what they told our folks, but as slow as we’re going now, it’ll be a lot later than that.”

“On second thought, the Wednesday after break will be fine. Failure is very hard on you, isn’t it, and I don’t want to ruin your Christmas.”

He was still trying to come up with a biting cut for her when Jay appeared in the aisle and waited as Steve vacated the seat next to Cathy.

“Hey, look at this!” Jay laughed, showing them a bag full of quarters.

“Jay, we’re not supposed to gamble.”

“Who’s gambling?” he said with a grin. “I’m the only one on the bus who knows how to play poker.”

Steve returned to his seat and tried to figure out why Cathy irritated him. It didn’t make sense. She was the only LDS girl in the band, and he knew they should be friends, but he couldn’t stand to be around her.

She thinks she’s so perfect, he thought, remembering a few weeks back to when the Laurel class presidency and the priests quorum leadership got together to plan a combined activity. If there was anything she didn’t want to do, she’d quote some Church manual: “We can’t go cross-country skiing because it costs money and maybe some people can’t afford it.” “We can’t have a snowball fight because of the danger to people’s eyes.” Then her suggestion: “Why don’t we go to the museum?”

The museum, he bitterly thought, recalling how bored they’d all been:

If she’s so perfect, why is she going with Jay?

Jay had been inactive for years until one night when he showed up at a dance. For some reason, Cathy had adopted him as her service project and, with her encouragement, he started to go to church again. Before long, they were going together. She even talked him into signing up as a drummer for the pep band.

He glanced up at Jay sitting confidently next to Cathy. She has to call him every Sunday to wake him up and remind him to go to church, he thought. And people say he’s still drinking.

Why does she make me so mad?

In the midst of his anger, he must have fallen asleep. The next thing he remembered was feeling a cold blast of air and looking up to see a highway patrolman climb in the bus to talk to the driver and Mr. Baker, the band director. Outside, the dim outlines of a small town were visible through the swirling wind and snow.

“Can I have your attention please?” Mr. Baker announced a few minutes later. “The road up ahead is closed. This is the town of Wolf Jaw. They’re letting us stay in their high school gym until the storm lets up. We’ll phone your parents so they won’t worry.”

“What about the other bus?” someone asked.

“They made it through okay.”

“But it’s Christmas Eve,” a girl complained. “My parents are expecting me.”

“Complain to the storm about that,” Mr. Baker said with a shrug.

When they reached the school, there were already a dozen semis parked with their engines running, and four smaller delivery trucks, and twenty passenger cars.

The school was a brick box, one of those crumbling buildings found in small dying towns. It had been built in the 1940s and had high gray ceilings, concrete floors, and brown desks etched with love hearts from Johns and Marys of past generations.

The sheriff was in charge of the gym where people were being housed. Lines of desks had been set up to fill the gym. As people came in and laid down their jackets and blankets, territorial claims were made, and before long, even before the band arrived, it had become a little community with tightly closed neighborhoods drawn up. There were the truckers—the modern cowboys who could outdrive and outswear and outfight anybody. There were the families, with parents tensely herding their children, trying to keep them quiet and out of people’s way. There were the loners, ones who quietly took the desks between the boundaries of the larger neighborhoods. The band members in turn went to a far corner and laid down their belongings to establish their territory.

A few minutes after they arrived, the sheriff made an announcement. “This is Mr. Baxter. He teaches social studies in school and lives just across the street. He’s offered to show some movies in one of the classrooms to help pass the time for you.”

“What kind of movies?”

“Mostly about history,” Mr. Baxter explained. “We obtained an entire collection of government movies about the Second World War. Also there is a small black and white TV in the faculty lounge, if anyone wants to watch.”

“It beats sitting here looking at the walls,” one of the band members said.

Steve followed as most of the band filed in to see the war movies. He watched for about an hour, viewing the advance of army and navy and air force, the swooping down of planes, the tracers marking the trajectory downward, strafing targets, and the sudden glimpse of sky as the plane climbed quickly upward, all the while accompanied by the irresistibly confident commentary about victories upon land, sea, and sky.

Then the bulb burned out, and Mr. Baxter switched on the lights and assured them he had a spare and that they’d be back in business in a minute.

Steve left, his head throbbing from watching too long.

In the hall he saw Cathy and Jay talking in serious tones. Steve, pretending to examine the school’s trophy case several feet away, listened to them.

“Jay, I want you to stay here with me.”

“You don’t trust me.”

“I trust you, but I don’t trust those others you run around with.”

“We’re just going for a walk to the end of this one-horse town and back, that’s all.”

“If you really love me, like you say you do, you’ll stay here with me.”

“And if you trust me, like you say you do, you won’t worry when I’m out of sight for five minutes.”

“Jay,” she pleaded, “if you mean it about us getting married in the temple after we graduate, you’re going to have to change your life.”

“I will; I promise I will. You know I love you.”

Jay kissed her and that ended the argument.

Steve, his face flushed with embarrassment for her, turned quickly away and left them. How can she let him do that, he thought bitterly, not really understanding why it bothered him so much.

He found the room with the TV. From his position in the hall, he couldn’t see the TV but only the changing patterns of light reflected from the dimly lit figures in the room, and he could hear the sound as cartoon heroes fought to save Christmas from the monster who had robbed the world of it.

His head throbbed with pain. He walked back to the gym and sat in a desk and looked at the others around him. He was close enough to the family neighborhood to overhear a couple arguing.

“You realize,” the tired-looking woman snapped, “that if we’d left when I wanted to, we’d be at my parents’ home by now. But no, not you.”

“Believe me, being stuck here is ten times better than being with your parents.”

“Oh sure, just think of yourself. That’s all you ever do.”

A few minutes later the sheriff made an announcement saying that it looked like they might have to stay the night and those with extra blankets should share them with those who didn’t have any.

“We’ve got an extra blanket, don’t we?” the husband asked.

“We don’t know how cold it’s going to get tonight. I’m not giving away anything to anybody.”

The man a few desks from Steve had laid out his work on two of the desks and worked steadily, ignoring the noise around him, writing on an order form, stopping occasionally to add up figures on his pocket calculator.

“Excuse me,” Steve asked, “do you have any aspirin?”

“Sure do, my friend. Carry them all the time.” He gave Steve two.

“You sure work hard.”

“Got to stay ahead of the competition.”

“What do you do?”

“Sales representative for Mity Fine Foods. I travel half this state visiting grocery stores.”

“Why can’t you just take the orders over the phone?”

“I have to see how our products are being displayed, make sure Mity Fine has good shelf locations. People don’t buy from the bottom shelf, you know.”

“Oh,” Steve said.

“There’s a war going on and I bet you don’t even know it.”

“What?”

“Yes sir, it’s a war all right. Last Memorial Day weekend, the man from Eat More Foods covered up my catsup with his signs. If I hadn’t been on the road that weekend, he’d have gotten away with it too, but I found out and ripped his signs up. Yes sir, it’s a war. But I’m staying one step ahead.”

“Are you married?”

“Not any more. My wife couldn’t take my being gone all the time.”

“Why didn’t you just quit your job?”

“A man my age can’t just quit any time he feels like it. Besides, I’ve got a lot built up with the company. Mity Fine has been good to me.”

The man returned to his order form.

“What do you usually do on Christmas?”

“I’m staying at a motel—I get winter rates. On Christmas everything’s closed so I have this little hot plate in the room and I heat up a few cans of soup, Mity Fine, of course, and have some crackers. Then I might watch a little TV and work on New Year’s specials. We’ve got a good buy on chip dip and eggnog this year.”

Steve excused himself and left. In order to get to the drinking fountain so he could take the aspirin, he had to enter the trucker’s territory. He got his drink and then turned around to face a trucker only a little older than himself carrying a can of beer in one hand.

“Don’t drink the water, kid. Let me buy you a beer.”

“No thanks,” Steve said with a nervous smile.

“Too good to drink with me? You came with that bus, didn’t you? A high school band. What do you play?”

“The clarinet,” he said, ducking around and walking away, listening to the man swear at him as he left.

He returned to the hall to see if he could stand any more movies. On the way he saw Cathy standing alone, looking strangely vulnerable.

“Anything wrong?”

“Jay went out for a walk, and he’s not back yet. I’m worried about him.”

“He can take care of himself.”

“Steve, will you come with me and help find him?”

He looked at her carefully. It was the first time he’d ever seen her dependent on anyone.

“Please?” she asked again.

“Okay, Cathy.”

Outside, the wind cut through them and stung their faces. Most of the stores had closed early in the afternoon; the only one that hadn’t was in the next block, and its large red neon sign blinked erratically the word Bar.

It was a corner bar and they could look into a window away from the wind’s direction for some protection. Inside Jay and his two friends sat at a table playing cards. There was a big pitcher of beer on the table.

“I never should’ve let him come with those guys,” Cathy said.

“Let’s go back. I’m cold.”

“Don’t you care about him? He’s a member of the priests quorum.”

“Sure I care.”

“Then go in there and bring him out.”

“It looks to me like he’s where he wants to be.”

“He promised me he wouldn’t drink again.”

“Look, Cathy, everybody knows the only reason he goes to church is because of you.”

“But if I can get him away from his friends, he’ll change. I love him. He’s asked me to marry him after we graduate.”

They watched as Jay poured himself another glass.

“If he goes to the bar after you’re married, then what?”

“He wouldn’t do that. Besides, I’d be with him.”

“All the time?”

“He wouldn’t do it!”

“Okay.”

“You don’t believe me, do you? I can help him be strong.”

“Can you?”

“Yes, and I’m going in there to bring him out.”

“Do you know what he’s going to say if you go in there?”

He wasn’t sure if she heard him, because she just looked down at nothing in particular for the longest time.

“Yes,” she finally said, “I know what he’ll say. He’ll tell me that it’s just the music and the air hockey and the laughter and the cards that he likes, and he’ll ask me to just sit with him, and if I do, then all the way back he’ll tell me that he’s no good and that I deserve somebody better, and I’ll tell him it isn’t true but that he needs to change, and he’ll say he knows it, and he’ll ask me to help him to be good, and we’ll map out goals for him, and then things will be good for a while, but in a few weeks it’ll happen all over again.”

She melted into his arms and cried, and he told her it was all right. A few minutes later they returned to the school.

“Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder,” she said just after they were inside.

“It’s okay,” he smiled, “the jacket’s waterproof.”

They sat down to watch TV in the faculty lounge, where a futuristic Santa Claus raced the cartoon Federalist space rockets who threatened to outlaw Christmas in outer space.

After five minutes neither of them could stand it any longer, and they walked to the end of the hall and sat on a heater vent and watched the raging storm. He told her about the couple he’d heard arguing, and about the man from Mity Fine, and about the trucker who’d offered him the drink.

“Merry Christmas,” he said sullenly.

“It’s the Savior’s birthday, but nobody’s thinking about him, not even us. Do you ever think about him?”

“Sometimes,” he said, “not as much as I should.”

“During Christmas I picture him as a baby, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“And at Easter, I picture him on the cross.”

Steve nodded his head.

“What about the rest of the time?”

“I don’t know. He seems so good, and I make so many mistakes. Sometimes I wonder if he’s written me off for good.”

“Steve, I don’t think he has. Doesn’t the bishop talk to you about the Savior in your birthday interview? He always tells me that Jesus loves me. Does he ever tell you that?”

“All the time,” he agreed, “but maybe he says that to everyone, sort of a form letter, except it’s an interview.”

They watched the dull gray of the day slide into the beginning of a long winter night.

“But, Steve,” Cathy finally said, breaking the silence, “maybe it’s true. Maybe Jesus does love us and the bishop wants each of us to know.”

“I don’t want to talk about love anymore. I go through most of my time not loving anybody—not even thinking about the ones I should love. You can talk about love, but you’re such a saint, aren’t you?”

He felt the anger suddenly tumbling out of him and he couldn’t stop himself.

“You make me so mad sometimes. Don’t you ever suggest going to the museum again! And why did you let him kiss you like that?”

They looked at each other, both puzzled at what he’d said.

“Are you going to break up with him?”

She nodded her head slowly. “I still want him to get active, but I guess that’s a poor reason to almost marry somebody, isn’t it?”

“I’ll make sure the priests keep working with him.”

They took another stroll past the TV room to see if anything had changed, but it hadn’t. A rabbit with sonar ears was helping Santa through the smog.

On the second floor they found a candy machine. Between the two of them they came up with enough money to buy one candy bar, which they shared.

Then they returned to their heat vent on the first floor.

“Steve, it’s Christmas. Can we talk some more about Jesus—without you getting mad at me?”

“It’s hard to talk about him. I used to feel closer to him than I do now. Above my bed on the wall there’s always been a picture of him blessing little children. I can tell he loves them, but they’re little children, and everybody loves them. Have you ever seen a picture of him around a group of people our age? Teenagers?”

“No, I never have.”

“Me neither. Maybe with all the mistakes I’ve made since I was baptized, he wouldn’t even want me around. I know he loves little children, but I’m not a little child anymore, and I’m not all that sure he loves me. Are you?”

“Sometimes I am, Steve.”

“When?”

“Last week the Laurel class presidency visited a girl who’s been inactive. I think she might start coming out again.”

“And that made you feel the Savior loves you?”

“No, it made me feel that he loves her.”

He shook his head and confessed, “I don’t understand that at all.”

“I don’t either, but maybe it’s like a mirror and we can’t see our own image unless we reflect it off someone else. Haven’t you ever felt that way about other people, that the Savior loved them?”

“Sometimes.”

“If it’s true, then the only way we can make this Christmas mean something for us is to try to help the people here.”

It seemed an easy-enough project at first, and after mapping out a few ideas, they hurried to find Mr. Baker, who was still watching the Second World War movies. Finally persuading him out into the hall, they asked him for help. “We think it’d be nice if the band gave a Christmas Eve concert for the people stuck here by the storm.”

He seemed to be in some sort of a trance. “What was that again?”

“We’d give a concert—just do the pieces we did last night. It’d be a real treat for the kids.”

“Are you kidding? Dragging all the instruments and music from the bus? No, absolutely not. Now excuse me, I’ve got to get back.”

He staggered back into the room where he entered the battle of Midway.

Their next stop was the sheriff.

“We’d like to organize a little Christmas party for the people stranded here.”

The sheriff wiped his brow. “Look, don’t I have enough to worry about without that? How am I going to feed these people? Don’t bother me about Christmas parties. Now why don’t you go watch TV. I’m sure there’s plenty of good specials on.”

Back at the vent at the end of the hall, they sat and glumly watched the storm.

“Well, we tried,” Steve said.

“That’s all anyone can do.”

“Sure.”

“Do you want to watch TV now?”

“We didn’t pray about it, Steve.”

“It’s too late now; we’ve already bombed out.”

“You don’t want to pray about it?”

“No, Cathy, I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because if we pray about it, and it still doesn’t work out, then it will cause your faith to waver. I never pray about things in front of somebody else unless there’s a pretty good chance for it to happen anyway.”

She sat in silence and pouted.

“You can pray about it if you want,” he finally suggested.

“I’d feel better with the priesthood saying the prayer.”

He sighed, realizing he was going to have to open himself up a little more to her. “Cathy, let me tell you something. The priesthood’s no magic carpet. A lot of things I pray for never work out. Girls always think that guys who honor the priesthood are their tickets to happiness, but we’re stumbling around as much as anybody.”

But she wouldn’t let it be. “I think Father in Heaven will honor somebody who holds the priesthood and tries to do the right thing.”

They sat for several minutes in silence.

“Okay, I’ll pray with you, but don’t blame me if it doesn’t work out.”

It was a simple prayer, offered by Steve. He tried to be as general as possible, not wanting to pin the Lord down to anything specific, but just before closing, she nudged him and whispered, “Ask him about the Christmas party, and the band playing, and the gifts.”

And so he did, point blank, with no cop-out clauses that would let them or Father in Heaven off the hook.

A few minutes later they stood at the entrance of the gym and looked at the restless crowd.

“What’ll we do, Steve?” she asked him. He noticed the way she was looking at him. She thinks I know what I’m doing, he thought.

“We’ll just walk around and see if anything happens.”

They walked slowly around the gym.

As they approached the trucker’s area, the one who had given Steve a bad time looked up, saw Cathy with him, and made some off-color joke about her.

“Why don’t you be quiet?” Steve snapped.

The guy stood up and started walking toward them. Massive shoulder muscles, a tattoo on both arms. I knew we never should’ve prayed about this, he thought.

Just before the guy was about to punch Steve, a booming voice behind him rang out, “Lay off the kid, Bert, or I’ll get mean!”

Steve looked around to see the biggest man he’d ever seen before in his life standing up. Middle-aged, bald, a little paunchy in the middle, but he must have weighed two hundred fifty pounds, and he spoke with authority.

Bert swore and said he was going to the bar.

The man who helped them said his name was Al and that he had a daughter about Cathy’s age who played in a band in Ohio.

“Al,” Cathy said with a big smile, “we’ve got a little problem I think you could help us with.”

Steve couldn’t believe the change in the sheriff when Al asked for permission to hold a Christmas party. And Mr. Baker, after he came out of the movie room and looked around to see Al’s figure entirely filling up the doorway, agreed it would be nice to have the band play a concert.

Then Al made a general announcement to everyone in the gym. “I want everybody here to get in the Christmas spirit. There’s no reason for us to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We’re going to have a party, and this is what we need. We need gifts for the children, we need some food for a supper, we need Christmas cookies for the children, we need a Santa Claus and somebody to lead us in Christmas carols, and we need enough blankets for everybody. Now get going!”

Within the hour, the preparations were done, including a Christmas tree provided by one over-eager trucker who merely chopped down the tree in front of the school. Some of the truckers went out to their rigs and brought in case lots of canned foods. The salesman from Mity Fine went to his station wagon and brought in his sample assortment of potato chips. Many of the parents went to their cars and brought in Christmas presents originally intended for family and friends at the end of their trip, and they put them under the tree. And the wives went into the school kitchen and began opening cans of ham and vegetables for the meal.

They ate their meal, and then the pep band played. Then Santa Claus arrived, wearing a red jump suit covered with grease from engines and a cotton beard. He passed out the presents from the tree, and they shared the cookies. There was more than enough for everyone.

A traveler who led a Protestant church choir in Abilene, Kansas, then led them in Christmas carols. By that time it was 10:00, and a minister from Polson, Montana, led them in scripture reading and a prayer.

There were blankets left over, even after everyone had taken what they needed.

About midnight, after the bar closed, Jay returned with his friends and some of the truckers. He stumbled around until he found Cathy, who was sleeping on the floor near the other girls in the band.

“Cathy, I’m back. I hope you’re not mad. We found a little cafe in town and we played cards there.”

“Oh,” Cathy said sitting up. Steve watched them as they talked.

“Anything exciting happen here while I was gone?”

“Jay, if you only knew.”

“Knew? Knew what?”

Cathy looked at him carefully in the dim light. “Jay, Steve said he’d pick you up for priesthood meeting next Sunday. I hope you go. Good night.”

In the morning they had more ham, and a driver from a bakery provided them with enough bread to make toast. The kids played with their toys, which as the morning passed, gradually self-destructed.

By noon the storm was over and the snow plows had cleared the roads. The truckers were the first to go. The band was delayed because of having to repack all the instruments into the bus.

Steve and Cathy were the last ones to leave.

“It was a miracle, wasn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes, a miracle. For a few hours, we all loved one another.”

“Steve, it must be just a small part of the way Jesus feels about all of us all the time.”

“How can he do it?”

“I don’t know, but he does.”

“Cathy, for a while there, I even liked you.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, for a while I did. Could I sit with you on the way back?”

“I’d like that, Steve.”

“But look, I’m still going to try and beat you out of first-chair clarinet.”

“And I’m still going to show you that I’m twice the musician you are.”

“So that hasn’t changed,” he said.

“No, I guess not.”

They left together, the last ones to leave the now-deserted, paper-strewn gym. The Christmas tree, decorated with Mity Fine aluminum foil, leaned at a precarious angle, and then toppled to the floor with a crash.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jon Burton