I can trace my paternal family line back to a pair of brothers who left Ireland for America in the 1730’s. Our surname goes back past the Battle of Hastings to a Roman who settled in Normandy. I can follow my mother’s line back to the Mayflower.
A year ago my wife could only trace her line back to her great grandmother who was alive in the 1980’s.
Family history is hard for many black people in more ways than some might expect. First it is hard because there is a dearth of records, which is a lesson in and of itself, but it is also hard because so often there is stuff in there that can be hard to deal with. Sometimes digging up graves only exposes more questions than answers.
My wife and I are okay with questions. Asking questions is a good thing. Unfortunately we don’t have Skip Gates at our disposal so digging up those questions is largely up to us. We started with DNA.
It is pretty easy. You order a kit online, then they ship you a tube that you spit in and send back. About a month later they send you an email.
There were no Earth shattering revelations, but there were some small surprises. For instance my wife has often been stopped on the street by expatriated Ethiopians who were excited to see one of their countrymen. Not knowing of any roots past New Orleans in the 80’s, Ethiopia sounded pretty cool. DNA killed that idea. Nope. No Ethiopia. The test results came back showing her lineage to be 61% West Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Mali. The other 38% was white people. 10% Ireland and dribs and drabs of everywhere else, Italy, Spain, etc. This wasn’t really surprising. Most African Americans know there are white people back in the chain somewhere but it isn’t usually celebrated. In fact, quite often, as Skip Gates has illustrated time and again, these white folks get paved over in family legend by the myth of American Indians. Such was the case with her family. Both sides swore there were Cherokee or somebody like that in there somewhere. Her Dad was adamant that his grandfather was full blooded Indian. Her DNA said zero.
To understand why anyone’s whiteness would be something to cover, we should understand that most African American’s European lineage didn’t get there in some interracial romantic way. Not at all. I remember learning about the horrors of slavery in high school but said horrors were mostly whips, chains, and bondage. I don’t recall rape being mentioned. I suppose the idea of rape is something salacious enough that many teachers prefer to gloss it over, but I have since learned that cases of rape weren’t really outlier events. In slavery rape was normal. It makes sense that many would rather claim to be Seminole.
DNA gives data but only hints at stories. Knowing that there are more pieces to the puzzle we have begun looking for more. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Mormon volunteers, the entire Freedman’s Bank records have been digitized and made available online- the same with census records. There is now more promise of finding out who was who then we would have thought possible 50 years ago. Now begins the work of connecting broken links of a chain. It is a work of in-home black history.
I am Mormon. I think most people I know, know this. It’s not so much that I wear it on my sleeve, but moreso it is just sort of who I am.
We could discuss the ins and outs of what exactly being a Mormon means, lets do that one day, but not today. Today I will indulge myself in just one little aspect of what being Mormon means.
Being Mormon is not so much what you believe, or where you sit on Sunday, but it is very much who sits next to you on Sunday. It is even more about who you hang out with on Wednesdays.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there are no pastors or priests, at least not in the professional sense. There are plenty of people doing a lot of preaching, just not a whole lot of getting paid to do it. By not a whole lot I mean none.
But things still need to get done. Lessons to be taught, sick to be visited, Sunday sermons to be given. This is why Mormonism is about who sits next to you. Because that is who does these things. Better yet, you do too.
Sometimes it works out well, sometimes not, but that is how it works, and because this is how it works I have been forced to learn a few things.
I have not learned so much about what is in our books, which is important, but I have learned a little more about how the stuff in those books doesn’t matter a bit if I ignore the person in the chair sitting next to me. No matter who it is.
Some of the people who have sat next to me have been right, even more have been wrong, and better yet, I’ve been both of those things too. Some have been beautiful, some not so much. Some well educated, others not so much. Some have been nice, many more quite the opposite. On and on and on, and still things have to get done. And when it comes time to get those things done, you look around, and that is all you have.
The people sitting next to you.
And you learn to love.
A family kind of love. The kind of love where you want to strangle your cousin Larry, because he deserves to be strangled, but he is your cousin and always will be. So you have to love him. You don’t have a choice whether or not to be cousins, you only have the choice to learn to love him or be miserable.
It isn’t easy.
But thats the point.
This is simply how it is.
By “it” I mean reality.
This is reality.
Take a look at the people around you and this is how it is. It is like this now, and it will be like this in eternity.
It is not clouds and space,
it is faces.
This is not to say that all these faces are just or justified, including that one in the mirror.
But here we all are. In this together. And our charge is to get better.
A lot better.
Christianity, of which we are part, is based on the idea that this human persuit of perfection is impossible. We can’t do it and are doomed to be failures, hence the need for a Christ to redeem us from ourselves.
And that is Mormonism.
This role of Christ, is where one sacrificed and helped another get better, even though that “other” was deficient.
And we are charged with the task of becoming more Christ-like.
So we have to help the person in the chair next to us, even if they are no longer sitting in that chair, even if they don’t deserve it, even if they are horrible…
Or even if they are wonderful.
And we have to be helped too.
Because on any given day or in any one way, I am both horrible, or even wonderful.
And this role of Christ, this role of helping others strive for perfection, the role we are charged to take part in, has to be done with love.
Love must be the motivator.
Sometimes this is hard.
It takes practice.
So you go about trying to get stuff done; great lessons or boring ones, false doctrines or clear and simple ones, friendships or trials.
No matter what you get right or wrong, no matter how much you improve yourself or the others around you,
At the southern end of the Shenandoah valley, up on hill, sits a school. It was once called the Bowling Green Female Seminary, a girls school with a focus on equestrian training. That was 1867.
Fast forward to the 1990’s and the school has begun admitting boys. Interesting that when the doors were opened wider, people stopped going in the door. The school was dwindling, going, going, then gone. But not in the way you might think.
In the year 2000 Glade Knight and his associates were handed the reigns as a completely new board of trustees. They were new, had energy, had money (at least compared to the old board), and what set them apart above all else, was that they were Mormons. Maybe I should say they are Mormons.
Now note I did not say the Mormon church assumed control of the school, just that those who took control were Latter-Day Saints. This is an important distinction.
Today the school remains small, less than 1,000 students, but it is vibrant. It has the look, feel, and in reality is, a small liberal arts college with all that that entails or infers. Small class, lots of personal attention, broad educational focus with emphasis on arts and sciences. And it also has church.
Some locals where I live, and even sometimes those at SVU itself, might say Southern Virginia is a sort of BYU East Coast. It isn’t. They should be proud of this.
Now what they mean when they say this is that the two schools share a religo-cultural tie. The two schools both require students to sign the same honor code. A code that strictly forbids any use of alcohol, tobacco, premarital sex, and of course it requires strict academic integrity. Religion classes, taught from the same texts as BYU are part of the general curriculum. All the markers of a Mormon educational experience are well entrenched in the Virginia hills. If that is what you want, school and personal development devoid of debauchery and keg stands, both schools have that.
But BYU also has 34,000 students. It is a well entrenched research institution in the “heart of the beast” if you will. There are a lot of cracks in which an 18 year old can slip through. Sports are a glorified professional institution, not a general participatory student experience.
SVU has something different. It has romance.
Personal attention that leads to academic exploration and opportunity. It has that. A community of young scholars who can participate in a DIII athletic team, that too. A first class choir? A student advisor who knows not just your name but your aspirations and dreams? Yes, they have that.
They call it the beauty of small. I have been there and they are right.
We woke Sunday morning having slept in the car at a highway rest stop. The night before we attempted to get a spot at Camp Joseph. I knocked on the door of a cabin and a confused gentleman explained it was after hours and reservations must be made in advance. He wished us luck and we drove off looking for an inconspicuous place to sleep. We were tired.
This same man saw us parked in the church parking lot early the next morning. He strolled past, paused, then came back and inquired how we were. We said we were great. He asked where we spent the night. As Kaleo answered him, the man’s face fell. Kaleo ensured him we were fine, but the man entered the church building with newly slumped shoulders.
Having guessed at the start time of services, we arrived more than an hour early. This was fine with us, church wasn’t the only reason we were here.
Sharon Vermont is the birthplace of the prophet Joseph Smith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has constructed a visitors center and a sort of memorial on the site of the Smith’s ancestral home. It wasn’t yet open that morning but a grey haired man wearing a missionary name tag, neck tie in hand, emerged from a side door as we crossed the lot.
With an honest smile he waved us over, fishing in his pocket for a set of keys. “Come on, come on. Let me open things up for you. I was headed to choir practice but I think they can wait a minute or two.” The man, without asking us our religious affiliation, pulled us in and commenced to giving us the tour complete with explanations of the roots of Mormonism. Half way through he paused and asked us how much we already knew about the church. Learning our answer he paused, chuckled a little, then launched right back into his explanations. The man was sincere, informative, and in an incredibly good mood for having opened up shop more than four hours early. After giving us the lay of the land, he headed off for choir practice, and we headed off into the woods.
The woods where Joseph was born 208 years ago are green and rocky. The family had 100 acres that sat alongside a ‘highway’, complete with babbling brook. The moss growing over the stone foundations of a home long gone was reminiscent of a Tolkien novel and we half expected to meet a hobbit, or maybe a talking lion. We met none of those things, but once we made it to church we did meet possibly the coolest guy ever.
Wearing the same clothes from yesterday we sat near the back of a crowded chapel. A voice from the row behind us loudly asked, “Where did you get that tan?” directing his question toward Kaleo.
The voice came from a grey haired man with a chiseled jaw. He wore a tweed jacket, sported bushy eyebrows rivaling the infomercial juicer guy, and spoke a little too loudly. Hard of hearing perhaps.
“I used to own a hundred acres on the big island; worked as a ranch hand. I was a pilot flying the one plane that used to go between the big island and Oahu.”
“You should have held on to that. Its probably worth a lot of money now.”
“People used to try to get me to sell that property all the time. There was this one guy from Japan, he bought up all the acres on the coast and I sold to him. He built a resort there and every day he flies in a plane full of people from Tokyo. I had put into the contract that I would have a free room in the resort for the rest of my life. I’ve never used it.”
With these two paragraphs our aged friend cemented his place as forever cooler than any of the three of us will ever be.
Preston’s curiosity was piqued and he asked when he started flying.
“Flew in the navy in World War 2, but I don’t talk about the navy.”
Preston offered that his grandfather-in-law flew in the navy. “I do not talk about the navy.” was his direct reply.
With that the services began. As the prelude music started up, our new friend began belting out an unintended solo, unaware that the chorister up front had not yet waved in the congregation. The old man did not care and we added a couple more cool points to his ledger.
Kaleo fell asleep during sacrament meeting.
As we left our tour guide from earlier ran to catch us. “I have to tell you how happy it made me when I saw you three waltz in to the services in your street clothes. You looked completely comfortable.” He has obviously never been to my home church in Philly.
We loaded back up.
“So where exactly is Cape Cod?”
“I’m not sure,” Preston answered, “…but that’s where we are headed.”
There is a clothing store in Salt Lake City that specializes in outfitting newly minted missionaries. I was nearly 19, had received my “call”, and with more than a little hesitation my mother and I paid Mr. Mac a visit.
Up till this point I had never owned a suit my mother did not make herself, owned one tie since I was 12, and had worn the same Payless “Sunday” shoes since I was 15. The paperwork in my call included a required clothing list that would take a considerable investment, as I owned nearly nothing on said list. Mr. Mac offered a “new missionary discount.”
Two dark suits, two pairs black/brown dress shoes with matching laces and no contrasting stitching (the Dr. Marten clause), 5-7 white dress shirts long and short sleeve, dark socks, conservative ties, belt. It seemed an understandable and easy list but looking from the paper to the racks of jackets and back, I was lost.
An old gentleman approached and asked where I was called. “Atlanta” was my reply. He nodded and got to work stacking items on a table, not even glimpsing the list I brought for reference. “You will want light weight because it’s hot. One suit navy, that is a must, and the other you can play with a little. I suggest a charcoal with some sort of color stripe; you can pick a color you like so you don’t get bored. This one looks nice, what color do you like? Do you know your size? Step up here and we’ll measure. Now what color do you want?”
Not really understanding anything I was looking at, why this man had just ran a string up the inside of my leg, or having previously considered what color of pinstripe I liked in a charcoal suit, I said, “Can I get double breasted?” This was the only suit lingo I knew. I believe I had heard the term in a mob movie once and while not knowing what it meant, I knew I liked how the characters looked. That was when I was 13. I had been holding that term since then for just this instance. The man looked at me sideways, told me he would grant the request for the navy and might he suggest a green for my pinstripes in the charcoal? I shrugged a yes.
We placed two, two pant suits on the table and an assistant began stacking plastic wrapped white shirts next to the suits; four oxford button downs, four broadcloth point collars. Five short sleeve, four long. I paid no attention; to me they were just a bunch of white shirts. I do not know what brand wingtips were grabbed. They had thick foamy soles and I learned a new word “cordovan.” I had been told by returning missionaries to get “Docs” (Dr. Marten’s), but ever the one to keep a rule, I was afraid of contrast stitching.
I drew the line at ties. I knew a girl who worked at the outlet mall who was sure she could beat the discount. I figured suits were all the same; because to me they all looked the same, so what really mattered was the tie. I did not trust this guy. He was old and because of this deficiency he could never know what was cool. I didn’t either but I was sure this teenage girl at the outlet was the expert.
We moved my new wardrobe past the checkout and into the car. There was no excitement over the new clothes, they were a technicality. There was neither anticipation nor appreciation for the wardrobe or the man who had assembled it, I simply did not care.
As my mother and I drove home I think she was talking about luggage. I’m not sure, I wasn’t listening. With stacks of new shirts and suits, I was looking at the example photo my call included of what an appropriate haircut looked like. Since the day I was old and brave enough to voice an opinion, I had never sported such a look. I knew the trip to the barber was coming, I had been anticipating that haircut for years.
I looked down the list again.
It was as if an eraser had been dragged across everything I had ever known of style.
It was a long list. It was a list of clothing more expensive than anything I had previously owned. Yet at the end of it all, all I could see, was nothing.
Missionaries are always in pairs, sometimes in threes. They do not choose to whom they are paired, nor do they stay with that person for the entire two years. The rule book says these “companions” are to be within sight and sound of each other at all times, the restroom being the sole exemption.
There is scriptural basis for this practice “in the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word be established”, (2 Cor. 13:1) but there are also reasons practical. When sending 19 year old males out into the world it is safer for all concerned that they have another with them. It is also wise to have another set of eyes to witness what goes on; to later defend or quite often mock, the players in events that transpire.
Doorsteps were usually safe. If large dogs were present and angry, we went elsewhere. If inhabitants were present and angry, they would usually just curse us and our cause, and then we would go elsewhere. The thing that was probably least safe was the commute to elsewhere.
While riding my bike along city streets I dodged three beer bottles (that I can recall) but was unable to avoid a bagel, two donuts, and one motorcyclist.
I was riding a good 50 yards in front of my companion, he was slow. I was well over on the shoulder, a good five feet from the lanes of traffic. It was a busy highway so I did not think to be alarmed at the motorcycle swerving over toward me. I never saw it. No, I take that back, I did see it as it sped away. There was a passenger riding on the back, twisting around to watch me. I could not see, but I’m sure the passenger was smiling. There was no way not to see my companion’s smile when he finally came skidding to a halt beside me.
“Dude, that was the funniest thing I have ever seen!” He exclaimed as I stared up at him from the ditch. “I totally saw it coming too. That guy was riding the yellow line and the passenger leaned way over to get a good shove on your backpack.” I asked him why he didn’t warn me. He said there may not have been time but more importantly, he wanted to watch it happen.
I was luckier than another missionary we knew. He was in a more rural part of Georgia with a different demographic. Rather than a motorcycle his assailants were in a pickup, with a bat, and he received two broken arms. He healed just fine. I have no idea if his companion warned him.
I’m smiling as I type this. I’m remembering Elder Reese and me walking down Campbellton Road. We were on the sidewalk, he between me and the road. A large town car, built before either of us were born, honked as it went by, the passenger leaning out the window screaming. This was normal, I just kept walking. Elder Reese didn’t. He stood frozen and silent. As I turned to look at him I saw he was completely wet from head to foot. “It’s warm. Is it…?” He couldn’t finish his question. I sniffed him. “It’s just beer, maybe Schlitz’s, I’m not sure.” Relieved, he simply swiveled about and began walking back home to change. I just chuckled as I caught up to him, taking my turn to walk on the side facing the street.
The first thing you need to know about Mormon missionaries is that they do not choose where they go. The first thing I should say about me is that from birth till age 19, all I wanted to be, was a Mormon missionary.
My father spent two and a half years in Switzerland. My older brother went to Brazil. I went to Atlanta Georgia. Looking back I suppose I got the least exotic sounding locale, but at the time I was just so excited to go, that I easily brushed off all those dreams of foreign languages and strange foods. What I didn’t realize then, but appreciate now, is that by staying domestic I traded in a bunch of stories that could be shared by countless tourists and expatriates, for a whole new set of tales that are above else, uniquely Mormon. My native culture has a fine tradition of returned missionaries, “RM” in the vernacular, telling stories of their two years spent in God’s service. I was happy to join this expansive club upon my return and added mine to the stories of my progenitors and contemporaries. My experience was not all that unique in comparison with childhood friends. Kirk brought Yerba Mate back from Chile, Jonny returned with an accent from Mexico, and Matt left his hair in Singapore. We all spent countless hours recounting adventures and missteps to all who would listen, till the one day we realized girls weren’t impressed; then we shut up and got married.
It has recently been brought to my attention that what I thought was a mundane and common part of my past, is actually not. If I had been paying proper attention I would have realized this earlier. There were clues all around. Maybe things like others fascination with my alcohol abstinence, common confusion between my faith and the Amish, or the fact that usually the second question I am asked when making a new acquaintance is, “how many wives do you have?” should have helped me figure this out. Despite the lack of common knowledge on the tenets and doctrines of my faith, most Americans are familiar with the sight of two young guys in white shirts and ties, sporting black name tags. I stop at “familiar with the sight” because few are familiar with the young men themselves. I know this because I was once one of them and watched as my presence struck fear in the hearts of the public, sending them scurrying for a place to hide.
They were not hiding from Americans, Gringos, or the CIA, they were running from Mormons. They, you, were running from me. Two years of wearing that uniform, living that life, have quite stocked my quiver. Shall I share?
Perhaps a small sampling before you answer? I will start with a story that makes my wife cringe. Not because it is horrid, but because it is so common; at least to those of us who grew up with these sorts of things. Maybe you did not.
I arrived in Atlanta full of excitement and energy. I was assigned a “companion”, a more experienced missionary to show me the ropes, and he began doing so even before I unpacked my bags. We tossed my two suitcases on the bed and set out knocking on doors.
He went first to show me how it was done.
Knock, knock, knock…
“Hi, I’m Elder (withheld), and this is Elder Brohammas. We are out sharing a message about Jesus Christ, do you have a moment?”
-“No thanks, I’m already saved.” SLAM!
That looked easy. I inquired what would happen if we actually got past “hello” and he told me a few other little things to say before asking to come in and talk. I asked him to go again, I was still a little nervous.
Knock, knock, knock…
A man answered, waved at us through the screen, shook his head, and closed the door.
OK, still pretty easy. My companion looked me in the eye and said, “Elder. It’s your turn.”
It may be cliché’ to say I had waited my whole life for this moment but it was true. My favorite song as a preschooler was titled “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission”. They did, and here I was, my first door.
The man that answered must have been six feet five inches tall and not a pound under 350. He wore a tight white tank top, a blonde goatee, and had a toothpick pointing out from the corner of his mouth.
I smiled naturally and said, “Hi! I’m Elder Brohammas and this is Elder (withheld), we are out sharing a message about Jesus Christ. Do you have a moment?”
The man scowled, said, “I thought I told ya’ll Mormons to git,” and raised up his hand to show he was holding a Colt .45. Not a Colt as in a malt beverage, but as in a blue steel revolver.
The words I spoke were expected, “Uh…. Sorry. I didn’t know. We’ll leave you alone.” But the words I thought surprised me not just in their content but in quickness. I remember the words I thought exactly.
“Freaking Awesome! My first day! The guys are gonna love this!”
I turned to walk away only to be stopped by my companion. He pushed me back and spoke over my shoulder. “Are you sure sir? It will only take a moment.”
The man at the door cocked the gun. I don’t recall having any thoughts at this point.
The idiot standing behind me kept on. “Please, it’s very important. It will only take a minute.”
Seriously? I could not believe what was happening. All we had to do was walk away and we would soon be rejoicing in our shared tale of adventure and persecution for the word’s sake. In stead this overzealous fool may just get us shot.
The man, looking even angrier, began moving forward out onto the porch and my companion began moving forward to meet him. This was it.
Then they both doubled over laughing. The giant reached out his right hand and said, “Hi. I’m Billy Wilson. I’m a Mormon.”
Earlier this spring my wife and I were asked to meet with one of our regional religious leaders in his office. Once we were all seated he took a deep breath, looked us in our eyes, and asked us to be a “Ma and Pa” on the upcoming youth trek.
In our faith an ominous invite into a leaders office can mean many things and one is generally expected to accept whatever invitation is extended. This particular invitation was not one we anticipated and my wife’s face displayed the disdain she truly felt at the prospect.
He must have seen this as his hands came up in the universal, “now wait just a minute, take it easy”, pose. “Now this is not a calling. You are not under any religious obligation to accept. This is more like a favor.”
At this my wife visibly relaxed, and without a second thought sighed, “well that’s easy then. No.”
Now I am not completely opposed to saying no to my leaders. I have never done it, but in theory I know it can be possible, but in this instance, and any other for that matter, I thought we should at least give it some thought.
I put my hand on her leg, looked at the man across from us and explained that we, meaning my wife and me, should probably take a little time to consider the request and get back to him.
She looked at me as if I had just committed treason, cursed her mother, and passed gas.
Four months later the two of us were driving out to the Gettysburg area dressed in 19th century pioneer clothing, prepared to spend three days out under the stars getting in touch with our religious heritage. By prepared I simply mean we had arranged a sitter for our two small children, a feat that required importing my sister from the Carolinas. Proud of this accomplishment, as well as our conquering of our previous attitude, we had rested upon those laurels, assuming the two greatest hurdles had been crossed and the rest would be down hill.
I should probably back up and explain what this is all about.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded in upstate New York in 1830 . The church and its members were then forcibly moved to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally, with no where left to go, the desert that would become Utah. The first Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. Mormons from the east, and converts from Europe, continued to move there, throughout the 1850’s and 60’s.
My mother’s family was part of this exodus.
A woman named Louisa Kent Booth, the daughter of a Bengali woman and an English officer, learned of the church while in India, joined, and left her home, and life of luxury, to live with her new people in the American West. She was my great^5 grandmother.
Many of the pioneer immigrants were to poor to afford a wagon and team of oxen, so they purchased two wheeled hand-carts to carry their belongings, and walked across the plains.
Every summer thousands of Mormons reenact this journey with groups of their youth. This is what we had committed to do.
We began assembling in a large field. We, at this point, are the youth not only from the inner city of Philadelphia where my wife and I live, but the youth from the entire surrounding area. We don’t know them, they don’t know us, but my wife and I have a list and there is a “Trek Captain” who is informing the kids as to what family they will be a part of as they show up. Over a short period of time our family materializes, eight of them, the two of us, and we all stand there looking at each other. Now what? The looks on their faces, the “their” now includes my wife; appear to infer that I should have the answer. I did not.
This scenario will be repeated often throughout the next three days, but I am used to pretending to know things that I don’t, so I settled into this role quite quickly.
It was obvious that some of the youth possessed an attitude not unlike the one my wife initially displayed but with a healthy dose of youthful angst. Turns out a good cure for angst, a cure for a lot of things, is walking; a lot of walking. I knew we would be walking. I was ready for walking. I’m pretty good at walking. Walking is what I intended to do, especially since our original instruction package made clear that our job was to do as little as possible, allowing the children a more full experience. As little as possible; I am pretty good at doing as little as possible.
This was only to be a 20 mile trek over three days. My wife can burn through 20 miles at an outlet mall in 20 minutes and I pack enough calories above my belt to power me through twice that. We, again my wife and I, began in good spirits. Most of the kids just began.
Any time anything, that will be done over a duration, begins easily, one should be wary. I tried to convince our small team of teenagers of this as they began to show off their cart racing skills. They pranced and pulled along a relatively flat and shady trail, while I did my best to purport a “mosey”.
We learned a small lesson on the first hill that would haunt us for the rest of our journey. Hand carts, beautiful things that they are, will not move unless you exert some force upon them. Not only that, but on an incline, this devil contraption will actually go backwards unless you exert constant forward force upon it. Now bad enough as this is, once a summit is reached, a decline follows, and a handcart will attempt to drag you down to fiery depths unless you exert a constant force in reverse.
This may not be particularly revelatory. Anyone with bit of common sense would naturally know these things, but knowing and experiencing are two different things.
I guess that is kind of the point.
Most of the first day was simply tiring. That’s all. No enlightenment, no nirvana, nothing monumental in effort or affect. Note I said most.
As an adult leader I was somewhat informed of how events would unfold, the kids were not. At one point we were all gathered together, a long line of carts, a large group of youth and leaders, all taking a brief break. Someone was giving a short talk, the kind I listen to out of politeness, wishing I were less callous and more apt to be moved, but it was hot and such hopes were lost. I had been told that one part of the trail was too steep to pass with loaded carts. We would have to unload, carry the cargo by hand, pull the cart empty up the hill, and then reload at the summit to continue on our way. I could tell by the talk that this was that time.
We were all gathered at a curve in the road that had a 45 degree wall on one side, and a panoramic view of the valley on the other. I expected the uphill to be around the corner. I was wrong. I expected the youth would be able to do this without my physical help. I was wrong.
The young ladies began walking the gear up one side of this rock face, and the young men got to work on the wheeled contraption. We began with as much speed as we could, hoping a little momentum would carry us over the rock ledge that lined the hill about 15 feet up. After ramming and rolling our way up and over the rocks, I made the mistake of looking up and forward; the hill kept climbing. This ledge was the cruelest of false summits and thanks to gravity’s pull on the cart; we had no choice but to keep climbing.
And we did. Then we did some more. We went up, the boys and our empty cart, in the middle of a stream of haggard girls dragging sleeping bags and duffels through the tall grass and over rocks. Once we reached the top, my lungs and legs both burning, we regrouped. All together again, atop what had seamed like an endless hill, we re-packed and did our best to feel accomplished. I was well on my way to satisfaction, but no where near recovery, when I realized our 10 gallon water jug was still at the bottom, full of the water I desperately needed. My little assigned family was before me, tired, no, exhausted, and thirsty. The largest among them may have the lungs for it, but surely not the girth, so I started back down the hill to fetch one heavy pail of water.
Carrying that water up that hill was not only the hardest thing I did all week, but the hardest thing I have done in years. Somewhere near the top, I was unsure I was going to make it. No, I’m sure I would have made it that last 100 yards but it may have been the last thing I did, not only due to the sapping of all my energy, but I’m sure it would have taken the remaining two day to finish. Another man, one of the other “Paws”, with a look on his face as if he had just experienced death himself, came over to lend me a hand. He looked so tired in fact, that any sort of justice or irony that may have been drawn by this adult being the very same leader who extended the invitation to join this venture in the first place, was completely gone.
In 1846 Joseph Smith had already been murdered and the Mormons had been expelled forcibly from their homes. While they were walking in search of a location that would provide the protection the government had failed to give, that same government sent out a request for a battalion to be raised from the Mormons to help fight the Mexican war. Five hundred men answered the call, leaving their wives and children to push on without them.
In a strange homage to these hardy women, a section of our journey, a hill of course, was set aside as the women’s pull. The males were asked to step aside, not allowed to touch the cart or the girls. We were also asked to labor this leg in silence; no talking.
To a person, every one of the young men said the most memorable and meaningful moment of the trek was this women’s pull. The carts moved, or crept, upward. The boys found large rocks to wedge behind the wheels allowing the girls to take breaks without losing ground. The boys fanned the girls with their hats. The girls just pulled.
Before this whole venture started, back when we were gathering our crew for the first time, my wife and I were pulled aside and introduced to a young lady with a charming and ever present smile. This girl was to be placed in our charge but required special attention as she had some health issues that had her parents quite concerned. We were given extra hydration instructions for her and asked to mind that she not over do it. I expected the heat and environment to be this girl’s biggest challenge; in retrospect I can see that the real issue was this girl’s determination.
I began to get nervous when the progress of the cart became inversely proportionate to the effort the girls gave. It became obvious that this young lady would expire before she gave up. I thought she may well be on her way to doing just that and silently tugged on my wife’s dress. I motioned for her to trade places with this young lady, positioning her in the back to push as opposed to the key pulling position she presently possessed. This having been done, I watched my wife give a physical effort like none I have ever seen her give outside of childbirth. I watched this woman, a city girl, a city girl of the sort who refused to do anything that would inspire perspiration in gym class when young.
This city girl, sorry; woman, who would rather be anywhere else in the world than on this trail, was digging in and pulling with all the power her small frame could generate. Watching this, I believe I actually felt an emotion. I am usually in complete control of myself, and I did not lose control here, but watching these girls try to move this cart, especially as it became obvious that the cart would go no further, I was stirred within. It felt like watching the movie Rudy.
Our little crew struggled without result for quite some time before one of the organizing leaders gave me a silent nod. I grabbed the hand rail and heaved with all I had and the other boys quickly did the same. The cart virtually leapt up the rest of the hill.
That first night we ate vegetable broth and potatoes for dinner. Sitting around a Dutch oven eating, we talked about the days events, talked about each other, and about the purpose of all this. They had blisters on their hands and feet, one even had a nice gash from sandwiching himself between the cart and a rock, but what was more notable than the decoration on the extremities, was what was on their faces; they all wore smiles.
We slept under the stars, which I’m sure were beautiful, but I can’t say as I was unconscious from the moment I lay down on the hard ground.
Breakfast was cornmeal mash. We all looked at the horrible concoction in horror, then quickly ate every last bit of it.
On this second day we had to tie our carts to a rope and lower them down a steep hill. Once down, we were directed along a path lined with white stakes. Each stake represented a person who died doing what we were doing back in the late 1800’s. We were tired and the stakes looked to go on forever as they continued up over a ridge and around a corner. We did not die. We just pulled.
That evening we set up camp, enjoyed the best turkey I have ever prepared, and we danced. A live band complete with square dance caller set up shop and the entertainment began.
By entertainment I mean the observation of a large group of 14-18 year olds trying to navigate the gulf between the sexes. Country music may not be my scene, nor the Mrs., but she cannot pass up the chance to dance, and we did. In our group I watched a young lady, 15 I believe, swing arm in arm with a boy the same age.
She looked as if she had just stepped in something unpleasant and then told to go to detention. She was deflated and sluggish. I attributed it to a combination of the day’s efforts and general angst. Imagine my surprise when later that evening I looked over to see this same girl bounding, leaping, and… wait for it… SMILING! Had she not been wearing the same clothes I would not have recognized her. The music was the same, the setting was the same, the only difference was the boy. He looked just like the other one to me, but obviously not to her. Amazing.
My wife watched as two boys came upon a young lady who is by anyone’s standards, beautiful. The encounter came as she approached the outhouses. While waiting awkwardly outside for her turn to go in, one of the boys said something like, “you look like some kind of superhero.” She of course had no idea how to respond to this and just said “O.K.” and looked around nervously. This was not what he had hoped for. “He tried to make up for it with a clarification, “I mean you are sooooo, good looking.” He said it with a melodious “soooo”, at which his friend started laughing. Now she was being laughed at and understandably she began to ignore them. He saw that he had made a poor move and went into panic mode trying to fix it. “No I’m sorry. I was serious. I mean, you really are good looking.”
It was too late. He thought he would improve his chances by paying the girl a compliment and only succeeded in erasing any chance he may have ever had at having a chance. The beauty of the whole thing was that he made his move at the outhouse. Well done ole’ chap.
After the sun had set and our faux family was getting ready to pack it in, we found one of our “sons” loitering around a girl he had briefly attempted to date, but who now had a boyfriend. One who wasn’t him. I made a passing remark about it, which was of course defended with a, “We are just friends.” I could not help myself and launched into a long diatribe about the natures of male and female friendships and the general inability of males to make the proper investment in female company without the hopes, even if buried, of some sort of romantic payoff. I continued that if actually had romantic interest in this girl that he would serve his purpose better if he were to move on and just stay cordial with said girl, therefore avoiding the inescapable trap of the friend zone. This lecture is admittedly conjecture, or projection, not doctrine, but I have never had an audience more mesmerized. They hung on every word, asked follow up questions, and did pretty much the opposite of how 14-18 year olds respond to discussions of scripture. I had just endured 2 days of more physical strain than I had endured in years and these kids refused to sleep preferring to talk about dating. As we wrapped things up some small, freckled red-head who had materialized out of no where said, “Man, I wish you were my paw.” I patted him on the head and said, “You will think that till you are actually old enough to date.” and sent him back to his own camp.
The last day we had Sunday school. Pay no mind that it was actually Saturday. We dressed in what could be considered Sunday best for one who sleeps on the ground, and listened to leaders talk about history, appreciation, faith, and personal conviction. At the end a “Pony Express” rider came into camp with a satchel full of letters for the kids. These letters had been written by the parents of all the youth in advance. I took the stack marked for my group and began to hand them out. The kids took what looked like hand written novels where I’m sure Mom and Dad poured out their hearts to sons and daughters in hopes that some bit of encouragement, advice, or maybe wisdom, would reach the kid in a vulnerable moment and have some lasting affect. The kids were all sent out to find a place by themselves to read, think, and maybe write something of their own. I spent my alone time thinking about the boys from my home congregation who had to make due with letters from me as we were unable to obtain anything resembling a letter from the adults in their homes. I meant what I wrote to them, but who am I? I could be that cool Dad from the night before, I could be the perfect guy or even mentor. It doesn’t really matter because no one can really replace a Mom or Dad. Last night I was cool, that morning I felt lame.
We were told that we were basically done. We just had the technicality of a short, gentle, downhill to the finish line and we would be on our way home. That was one last cruel understatement, as we spent the next few hours giving everything we had to prevent a cart full of camping gear and clothing from running over a crowd of kids.
We were all excited to be done. We cheered, I’m sure someone cried, and we began to take apart our carts and say goodbye. It felt reminiscent of yearbook day in high school. We had a real fondness for each other, were unsure how to express it, and promised to keep in touch. I miss those kids. I enjoyed watching them as they took turns pushing and pulling without any direction from me. I enjoyed watching them struggle both physically and especially socially, all the while never drifting from what you would expect of a “good kid”. Mostly, my wife and I both enjoyed listening to them in the evenings as they gave answers to my questions about what this is all about.