Under the Cottonwoods
by Douglas H. Thayer
[p.77]All through the sacrament service, David still watched to see if Todd Campbell came in. David’s mother and father sat on one side of him, Bishop Fielding and the stake president on the other. David took out his handkerchief again and dried his palms. He held his triple combination and Bible on his knee. He felt stiff in his new clothes.
Twenty people had been at dinner; his mother had invited the whole family, and Jane. Just before it was time to leave to come to church, he’d gone outside to be alone for a minute. He was standing at the end of the driveway when Todd Campbell, who had worked for his father two years at the station, drove by, stopped, backed up, and swung into the curb. He stuck his head out the window.
“It’s your welcome home today isn’t it, Dave?”
“Yes, at four.”
“Welt try not to tell them any more lies than you have to.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll know when you stand up at that pulpit. [p.78]You returned missionaries are all the same.”
“Maybe I’ll come just to hear what you say.”
Just then David’s family had started coming out of the house, and Todd drove off. “Was that Todd Campbell driving that car?” his mother asked.
“Nobody knows what’s happened to that boy. He’s broken his family’s heart since his mission though, I know that. He should have gotten married.”
David looked down the street. Todd had dropped out of the Church within six months after he got home from his mission. He lived in their ward.
As they drove to sacrament meeting, theirs the first of the five cars with the family, David had watched the familiar houses. He remembered something that Elder Cummings, his last junior companion, had said: “Just for kicks you ought to try tracting Provo when you get home, Elder Thatcher. But just for kicks.”
David looked at the pulpit. Two years ago at his farewell he had stood there and said, “I know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, that the Book of Mormon is true, that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God.” Gripping the sides of the pulpit, his hands sweaty, he had felt the whole ward needed him to say that. He saw what they wanted him to say to confirm their idea of what a newly ordained nineteen-year-old elder should be. When he sat down again between his parents, his mother gripped his hand, wiped the tears from her eyes with her handkerchief. His father reached over to grip his knee. Until that afternoon he had never heard his father or mother bear their testimonies.
After the meeting, relatives, friends, and ward [p.79]members said, “David, you’ll be a wonderful missionary for the Lord. You have a wonderful testimony now, but think what it will be when you get back. We’re all proud of you.” They shook his hand, hugged him, slipped five- and ten-dollar bills into his jacket pocket. He hadn’t read the Book of Mormon; he’d skipped priesthood about a third of the time; he didn’t say his personal prayers; and he and Jane had made out until the day Bishop Fielding called him in his office to ask him if he wanted to go on a mission.
David looked past the pulpit down at the ward, the rows of faces, everybody smiling, the whole ward happy for him, ready to hear his talk. The folded two-page typed outline was in his inside pocket. He’d started going back through his missionary journal to mark things a month ago and had finished the talk last night. He had wanted to give a great talk, make it his gift to the whole ward for all of the things they had done for him, and let it be the official end of his mission.
He had been home ten days. He worked at his father’s station again, was registered for fall semester at B. Y. U., dated Jane, had bought another VW, and he had been so happy that he’d felt dizzy, almost stunned, full of love and gratitude, his life as good as it could ever be, all the required changes made. He still sometimes thought in German, forgot and used German words, which made people smile. At first he had been lost without a companion and the daily routine of missionary work, but in the last two or three days there had been moments when he had to think about his mission to remember it, as if it were possible to forget the whole two years.
At night his first days home, after his date with [p.80]Jane, he rode his bicycle up and down the familiar Provo streets under the trees. At first he had thought that everything and everyone in Provo had changed, but then he realized that it was himself, and that change was proof of what had happened to him on his mission, how he was new, which he couldn’t have understood in Germany.
President Maxwell had said, “Don’t be surprised when you get home, Elder Thatcher.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s something nobody can explain to you. It’s a discovery a good missionary makes. Just be careful.”
The talk he had prepared was full of experiences, how he had come to love the Book of Mormon, how his converts, Brother and Sister Schindler, Brother Schwartz, and Brother Binderwald, had changed their lives when they became members, how happy they became. He had blessed the sick, prayed, fasted, preached, borne testimony of Jesus Christ, experienced the Holy Ghost, so he knew that spiritual experience was something you felt in your whole body, which you couldn’t deny because you had felt it and you knew that you had. It had made him feel lifted up, purified, aware of so much possibility that it scared him. He’d only heard returned missionaries tell the good things about their missions. He wanted to make everybody happy.
The deacons, standing in front of the sacrament table, took the water; the three priests unfolded the white linen tablecloth to spread it over the trays. The ward stirred a little, members coughing, stretching. The family all sat together on three middle rows. His mother had written or phoned everybody. His Uncle Ralph hadn’t come; he’d gone on a mission to France [p.81]but had quit the Church years ago, before David was even born.
He looked down at Elders Spencer, Grey, and Norton, who all sat on the same row with their girls. They had all been released from the mission before he was. They grinned. They had already given their talks; now they wanted to hear what he would say about the Central German Mission. Elder Norton had brought a blonde named Ramona. “Preach repentance unto these sinners, Elder Thatcher,” he had said out in the foyer, laughed, put his arm around Ramona’s shoulders, hugged her so that her right foot raised off the floor. All the elders looked different than he had remembered them. They looked relieved, satisfied, happy in a different way, wore new clothes. None had brought their scriptures with them. The only way to tell that some elders had been on missions was that you could see the garments under their shirts.
He looked down at his hands. He’d been able, finally, on his mission to forget about his body, not even be aware of it, as if it had become air or light, or some special kind of rare metal. He looked down at Jane, who sat next to his Grandmother Arnold. They’d dated every night the last week. Already they were talking about getting married; there wasn’t anything else to do. They went to shows, watched TV, played tennis, went for long drives, and he ate at her house at least once a day. Praying seemed strange without a companion; he didn’t need to bear testimony a dozen times a day now.
At least fifteen people had said just yesterday and today, “David, we expect a wonderful testimony from you in sacrament meeting. We heard you had a marvelous mission. You must have had a lot of faith-[p.82]promoting experiences.”
“Scott gave a wonderful talk at his welcome home, son,” his mother had said.
Scott sat on the left side of the chapel with his parents and a girl named Cindy that David didn’t know. Ron sat at the back with Marsha, who had waited for him. Dan would get home from Mexico in two weeks.
For him, Ron, Dan, and Scott, all best friends, to be made elders at nineteen and go on missions was to be clean and do what their parents and everybody else had wanted them to do all of their lives. In the weeks before their missions, when they saw each other, they said, “Hey, elder,” laughed, shook hands. They felt splendid, had confessed all of their sins to their bishops, thought that everybody else was splendid too, at nineteen their lives already practical, already changed. They didn’t need to ski anymore, own cars, buy new clothes every week, watch TV, have or be with girls.
They became fierce in their desire to repay all their parents’ love by being perfect, which meant to do and believe all those things they had been taught in Primary, Junior Sunday School, Boy Scouts, priesthood, and seminary. They had to be examples for their little brothers. Their mothers took them out to the University Mall and Z.C.M.l. to buy all new clothes because they didn’t want them to wear anything old on their missions. Scott’s mother had gone with him to buy his garments.
Resting his Bible and triple combination on his knee, David slipped his hand inside his jacket and took out his talk. He unfolded the two pages and read through the outline twice. He raised his head slowly, [p.83]looked out at the ward. He hadn’t put in anything about the first part of his mission, just the last year. He read through the outline again; he looked at all the back rows for Todd Campbell. He wasn’t there. The back doors were still closed because of the sacrament. He slowly folded the talk and slipped it back into his pocket.
He’d even been homesick in the LTM, was still in Provo but already homesick, didn’t want to leave his friends, Jane, all the other girls he knew, his family, their house, the Provo mountains, everything he knew and loved. Three times he saw his VW; the guy he’d sold it to didn’t keep it waxed. Memorizing the scriptures and discussions in German, getting up at six, studying twelve hours a day, all the discipline—it was all too hard, harder than anything he’d ever done.
But going to Germany was even worse. The flight from Salt Lake to Frankfurt put him in another world. Everything was different—the food, houses, trees, clothes, buildings, even the smells, colors, and noises.
He was so scared he was almost sick. He didn’t want to leave the mission home in Frankfurt, get on the train, go to Giessen to work with Elder Harris, his senior companion. He wanted to ask President Maxwell if he could be a file clerk, the gardner, the janitor, anything just so he didn’t have to go out and tract.
The homesickness in Germany was worse even than at the LTM, became an ache in his whole body, as if his body could only be happy in Provo, his eyes suddenly filling with tears. He felt like a kid, but his love for home was the strongest emotion he had ever known, and he longed all day for it to be night so he could go to bed.
He was embarrassed all the time because he made [p.84]mistakes speaking German, because of the public baths, because he couldn’t keep his clothes always clean, because there was only one hall toilet for three apartments on the floor where he and Elder Harris had a room. He didn’t want the priesthood or to be an elder; he wanted to wear T-shirts and shorts again, not garments. He hated the self-discipline, studying German, studying scriptures.
The train had arrived in Giessen just before noon, and by two Elder Harris had him out tracting.
“We’re missionaries, Elder Thatcher,” he said. “What did you think we would do this afternoon?”
Elder Harris made him take the second door, and he froze, was struck dumb. He stood waiting for Elder Harris to save him, but he didn’t. The German woman laughed.
“You are American?” she asked in good English.
“Ja.” He had been able to say that.
“Thank you, no, I do not need your American God.” She handed him the tract again, closed the door, but he still heard her laughter through the glass.
In spite of all the new buildings in the cities, Germany was old, the villages old, with medieval castles and battle towers silhouetted on the hills. And he sensed that the Germans feared something they would not, or could not, name. Germans tried hard to enjoy themselves, particularly the young Germans.
Brother Klempau of the Giessen Branch always covered his face with both hands during the sacrament, bowed his head almost to his knees. He worked in a German military hospital as a male nurse. Every day he gave drugs to kill the pain from wounds thirty years old. He nursed the blind, deaf, dumb, and insane; he knew all the sounds, smells, and visions of [p.85]human misery. And before they had all died, he nursed armless, legless men who hung in baskets, lowered and raised them on pulleys, put diapers on men fifty years old. Brother Klempau had been one of the first converts after the war. When he bore his testimony he said, “Only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can make life possible and give it meaning. Only a power outside of us can make us change. The gospel of Jesus Christ is very practical.”
David dried his palms on his handkerchief again. The deacons had all taken their seats. His mother leaned over to whisper something to his father. David looked over at the priests sitting at the sacrament table.
Before he went to Germany he had never heard people tell personal stories of suffering, atrocities, starvation, death, stories of whole families, neighborhoods, and cities destroyed. He had not known that guilt, terror, and despair could last thirty years, stop life. All the countries in Europe were small and close together; people in the whole world had to change. He had never needed a Savior to pay for all the man-caused suffering, the evil, had never been scared that way. Without payment there could be no justice, and without justice, no meaning. It all became finally reasonable to him. There had to be someone capable of forgiving man.
But he hadn’t wanted to have to live by testimony, do all the things that a testimony and having the priesthood would require him to do. He didn’t want to study the scriptures, pray all the time, love, become humble, live by faith, seek the Holy Ghost in all he did, follow the Lord, have a new mind and a new heart, have that kind of understanding and power. He had [p.86]never really thought what it meant to prepare the world for the coming of the Lord. But if he wanted to stay honest, he had no choice, because he knew that promises were being kept.
He had new feelings, but not chills, a lump in his throat, not crying. It began to feel good to study the scriptures; it made him happy. He began to love Elder Harris, felt that tense melting feeling in his chest. He could kneel down and pray, say things he’d never said before in prayers or needed to say. He felt like he was expanding inside his mind, in his whole body, his body feeling better than it ever had before, stronger and different. But it wasn’t so much at first that he could affirm all of these feelings as that he couldn’t deny them, which he couldn’t, and he knew it.
It surprised him now that in ten days home he didn’t feel things like he had in the mission field. His life was different, but he had thought he would always have those feelings and never have to change again. But now it was as if the feelings couldn’t last, be kept in his memory; now he had to go further and turn the experience into ideas, define what had happened, know the meaning, and accept it, so that it would be his forever and let him do other things. He’d been so happy to be home that he hardly stopped to think how he felt. He didn’t have a companion, didn’t do missionary work every day all day, think only about that, have only those experiences and feelings. He watched TV, went to movies, played tennis, worked at the station, and dated Jane, his life comfortable. He didn’t have to worry so much about being honest.
Bishop Fielding stood up and walked to the pulpit. Priests sat in the congregation with their girls; the priests liked to hear missionary welcome-home talks. [p.87]David knew that their parents would not want him to describe in detail how a priest got pressured into going on a mission. He had heard that a lot of returned missionaries became inactive.
When he’d asked his father about going on a mission, his father had said, “It’s something I wouldn’t want you to miss, son.” His mother and everybody else had simply always assumed that he would go. He and his father never talked about priesthood.
It was as if all the love, kindness, all the good things everybody had done for him, the way they had respected and praised him, were meant only to force him into going on his mission, obligate him to do that. After he turned eighteen all he heard was, “When are you going on your mission, Dave? Had your interview yet? It will be a great experience for you, but a big change too to serve the Lord twenty-four hours a day.” It was as if for them nothing else could have any meaning in his life and he could have no other desire. Elders like Smith, Watson, Nelson, and Williams never got over feeling they had been tricked.
The biology department at B.Y.U. did tests for blood and intestinal parasites on students who had served missions in Central and South America, the Philippines, and Asia, and found that one in three was infected. Dave had heard of one elder who had ten to twelve bowel movements a day because of amoebic dysentary, which no doctor had been able to cure.
Holding his Bible and triple combination on his knee with his left hand, David took out his talk again and unfolded it on his other knee. It was all about the last part of his mission, the great part. He had left out the first eight months, but he hadn’t told any lies. He had just tried to write the best talk he could. He [p.88]slowly folded the talk and slipped it back into his jacket pocket.
Bishop Fielding was making an announcement he had forgotten earlier.
David looked down at his scriptures, which he held with both hands now. The leather covers were all worn, pages loose. The gold edging was all gone; nearly every page was marked.
Elder Harris had made him study. At six every morning when Elder Harris had said in German, “Time to hit it, Elder Thatcher,” he had crawled down under the blankets, wanted only to stay deep in the warmth and darkness, smother if necessary, just not have to get up to go tracting, be embarrassed all day. He wanted people to call him by his first name, say David or Dave, not call him elder all the time and use only his last name. He said his first name to himself just to hear it, liked to read it on his letters. The Germans couldn’t pronounce the “th” sound in his last name.
He had hated Elder Harris for working so hard, enjoying missionary work, for only speaking German to him, for expecting so much from him, telling him about the power the Lord was willing to give him if he earned it. But he hated him most for his strong testimony and for having only eleven months left until he was released. Elder Harris had been one of those missionaries who come into the mission field already with a strong testimony. Some days he’d wanted to punch Elder Harris, just give him one good punch right in the mouth just to see what he would do.
“Time for prayer, Elder Thatcher.” They kneeled to pray after they got up in the morning, kneeled again before they left for tracting, again after lunch, before [p.89] and after every discussion with a contact, kneeled to pray a dozen times a day, ask for direction, humility, faith, the companionship of the Holy Ghost, the ability to love.
They had to seek the Holy Ghost in everything they did, depend on his guidance, deny their own bodies and minds, not depend only on themselves, as if suddenly they were no longer persons, didn’t have bodies of their own. They had to have special power and strength to help spread the gospel of Christ over the whole earth, exercise their priesthood, act in the name of Jesus Christ, everything possible then. The gift of the Holy Ghost was heat, light, understanding, power, so that you were changed, felt and knew things you didn’t before, which you couldn’t deny. And you wanted to shout sometimes because it was so great, but you didn’t.
Bishop Fielding cleared his throat. “Brothers and sisters, let me say again what a pleasure it is to have you all here at David’s welcome home. I know that he has a fine message for us all, that we are all anxious to hear. But first his cousin Linda will sing a solo, and then we will hear just a word or two from his mother and father. Linda will announce her own number and the name of her accompanist.”
Linda and her Aunt Grace walked down the left aisle. David counted his former Sunday School and priesthood teachers in the congregation. Everybody smiled, was happy, loved him. It was as if they already knew what he would say, already enjoying the series of faith-promoting stories that every missionary was supposed to bring back with him. As if the conversions, healings, testimonies were meant only to affirm what they believed, feed them, his love for them mak-[p.90]ing him do that so they wouldn’t be disappointed. No one had asked, in the ten days he’d been home, “Dave, what was your mission really like, can you tell me?” His mother planned to invite the whole ward over to the house for punch and cookies after the meeting. A dozen people in Sunday School had told him how nice he looked in his new clothes. His mother had bought him ten new pair of garments Wednesday, had put them in his drawer and taken his old garments.
The rear doors to the chapel opened; two young couples he didn’t know came in. David felt his heart race a little. The doors closed; Todd Campbell hadn’t come in.
Listening to Linda sing, David went up and down the rows to find the ward members who really had strong testimonies of the gospel—Sister Oark, Sister Nielsen, Brother and Sister Miller, the Heals and their family. He’d never thought about tracting the ward until Elder Cummings mentioned it three weeks ago in Frankfurt. Elder Cummings had said that every missionary should spend the last two months of his mission tracting his own ward. The gospel changed the whole lives of people who were about to get a divorce, were alcoholics, were on drugs, who wanted to commit suicide, had nothing to live for. The gospel made Brother and Sister Schindler, Brother Schwartz, and Brother Binderwald different people, changed their whole lives and how they acted.
David looked over at his father and mother. He’d thought that his mission would start his parents having kneeling family prayer. “Son, it’s something your mother and I just don’t do,” his father had said Wednesday at the station when he asked him about it. “We [p.91]pretty well take care of that when we bless the food. You’ll have your own family soon, so you’ll have your chance there .”
David listened to Linda’s solo. He’d heard about elders who, after a week or two home, wanted to go back on another mission because they couldn’t stand being home. He looked down at Scott sitting between his mother and his girl. Of all of his friends in the mission field, Scott had written the most enthusiastic letters. He needed to have heard Scott’s welcome home talk. Before the meeting, when he was standing in the foyer greeting people with his parents, the stake president had put his hand on his shoulder and said, “We need a good talk tonight, Elder Thatcher.”
David looked at his hands. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his palms. His Bible and triple combination were sweaty where he held them.
At first he had been afraid of getting old. Over two years on a mission, six in college at least, and maybe eight if he went beyond his master’s degree, meant that he would be thirty before he finally got through. So he would never really be young and free again. He had hated the Church for forcing him to go on his mission. His mission would rob him of two of the happiest years of his life, the last of his real youth.
Out trading with Elder Harris in Giessen, he kept thinking about his VW and all the good times he was missing in Provo. Mostly he thought about all the girls he would never go with during those two years in Germany; he could only write to girls and look at their pictures, say their names aloud to himself—Melissa, Sue, Stephanie, Melinda, Becky, Marnie, Jane.
He felt cheated, his body getting older every day, as if he were already dying at nineteen (he needed a [p.92]shower night and morning and all the clean clothes he wanted). And all the time he was supposed to be full of faith, be guided by the Holy Ghost, love the Lord, love the German people, love Elder Harris, magnify his priesthood. Spirituality and working twelve and fifteen hours a day weren’t natural for a person just a year out of high school. Elder Stahlie, his first junior companion, had cried every day his first six weeks in Mannheim, before he finally started to get hold of himself.
David had not written home about his constant urge those first months to get away from Elder Harris somehow, rush back to the room, pack his stuff and leave without even phoning President Maxwell or telegraphing his parents. “Hello, Mom,” he had planned to say when his mother answered the door, “I came home.” He saw himself standing there on the porch after he rang the door bell (he would have to ring the door bell), a suitcase in each hand.
“Why, son?” she would say, her eyes suddenly filling with tears.
“I couldn’t take it any longer, Mom. It wasn’t what I expected. Nobody told me what it would really be like. It was too hard; I was embarrassed all the time. You couldn’t even take a shower when you wanted.”
Dan, Ron, and Scott would finish their missions, but he wouldn’t if he went home. For the rest of his life, when he saw them or somebody asked him if he had been on a mission, he would feel guilty. People would never trust him again, and he would never be able to trust himself.
He had wanted to go home because of all the good things, all the people who loved him, his family, Jane, but that all trapped him on his mission, and his life [p.93]wouldn’t be the same if he went home. He couldn’t imagine his life without the Church. But he had to be honest or everything lost meaning. It had surprised him how honest he wanted to be. It seemed terribly important to be honest or he lost a place to start his life. But he resented it that nobody had ever told him how hard a mission was, not even his father, or his uncles, who had all been on missions.
So he had decided that he could ask for a release and go home honest only if he did absolutely everything he was supposed to. Then he could stand up in testimony meeting and say, “I made an honest mistake. I found out that I didn’t know the gospel was true, but I still want to go to church and live here in the ward with you. I don’t need to be an elder or hold the priesthood. I love everybody, I love my family, I love the Church.”
He listened to Linda sing the last verse. The slanting rays of the sun coming through the high narrow windows had turned the pulpit silver. A large chapel full of members was strange to him. The German Saints often met in small rented rooms where the older saints who had endured everything, always bore strong testimonies of the truthfulness of the practical gospel of Jesus Christ. Brother and Sister Schindler, Brother Schwartz, and Brother Binderwald, his converts, had all borne testimony. He liked small congregations better.
But it was incredible how members in some branches spread rumors, criticized, complained, were never satisfied with anything, as if the German Saints had a special talent for that; two or three members could destroy a whole branch.
Many Germans he tracted, especially the younger [p.94]ones, believed in nothing. He had never thought that a person’s life could be so bad that it would teach him there was no resurrection, no eternal right and wrong, that change wasn’t possible and you couldn’t be perfect some day. He had suddenly found that he wanted the gospel to be true, and was scared at first that it might not be, the scriptures meaningless, fables, no special power or knowledge possible through the priesthood.
The young Germans they tracted tried to get them into arguments about America’s waste of natural resources, Vietnam, Watergate, the American army’s failure to join with the German Army and destroy the Russians at the end of World War II and the stupidities of capitalism.
David watched his mother stand up and walk to the pulpit. She had her handkerchief in her hand. ”It is a great thrill for us to welcome David home, brothers and sisters, and know that he has filled an honorable mission. We have thrilled to receive his letters as we have seen how he has grown in the gospel. We know that what he learned on his mission will be a great help to him all of his life.”
His mother had saved twenty dollars a month for two years so that he could have new clothes when he got home. She had given his worn missionary shoes, socks, suits, shirts, and ties to the Deseret Industries. “Son,” she had said, “you simply can’t wear those things any longer. They may have been fine for the mission field, but you’re home in Provo now.”
He had his old room back; the furniture, wallpaper, even the bedding, were the same as when he left. His mother’s wedding rings glistened; she held the sides of the pulpit. She believed that his whole [p.95]mission had been wonderful. Tonight was a big part of her reward for sending him. He hadn’t written lies in his letters, but he had never told how hard it was.
At first the hardest part was the public baths, dirty clothes, fear of losing his hair, growing fat on the German food, not feeling free or athletic any more, his body hidden from knee to neck by his garments. It was impossible to have to follow Elder Harris’ example every day, get up at six, pray, study, tract for six hours, hold street meetings, cottage meetings, never be finished, and so be embarrassed all day.
It had been hard, knowing how much he was sacrificing every day he was away from Provo, and each day he longed for it to be night so that he could go to bed, cover his head with his pillow to shut out all sight and sound, imagine he was home, hope for dreams, find comfort that way. But the hardest part, finally, was knowing that he was supposed to love everybody, have faith, be like the Savior; he had to change the way he felt about things, and so create a discipline for his life, be happy and clean.
Elder Morton, his second junior companion, had four large framed pictures of his girl. He wrote her every night, talked only of her, and so paralyzed himself with memory and desire. Elder Brimley had a nervous breakdown, thought that he was a prophet, had to be sent home. Living only in the past or the future, some elders carried marked pocket calendars, and their first question was always, “How many months till you get released, Elder Thatcher?” Daily they tortured themselves with the memory of their happy lives at home. David had heard of elders who fought each other, came to conference with black eyes and cut lips.
[p.96]But always there were those elders like Elders Farnsworth, Terry, Jorgenson, Heywood, Harris, who had a spirituality like a magnetic field around them that pulled you to them finally. It was in their faces, the alert, happy way they moved their bodies, and in their voices and words. They worked the hardest of all the elders, knew the scriptures, had a power and cleanness that he couldn’t deny, loved. So he knew that the promises could be true; it was the only explanation. It was what he could have and be if he wanted; he could change, be different than he was, have all those promises kept, become as strong as they were, and know he held the priesthood.
Riding his bicycle out to the tracting area each morning, Elder Harris ahead of him as usual or riding along side to drill him on his vocabulary, David had needed either to vomit or to find a restroom.
At seventy-five doors a day average, leaving out diversion days, Sundays, and district, zone, and mission conferences, he had stood before at least fifty thousand German doors. But he had never gotten used to being laughed at, having a door slammed in his face, which was like being spit on. Twice he and his companion had been shouted at all the way down the stairs and cursed for being Americans. One German woman had run down the stairs after them holding a picture of her son burned alive in an American bombing raid on Nuremberg thirty years before and shouting, “Sein Name war Hans! Sein Name war Hans! Sein Name war Hans!”
When he and his companion came out of the German apartment houses, above them the German women leaned out their street windows on their arm pillows talking to each other about the crazy Ameri-[p.97]cans, die Mormonen, laughing. He wondered now what would happen if the Church put all of the missionaries in Utah to tract only members and ask them if they accepted the promises of Jesus Christ.
“David, I am sure, has a wonderful report to give.” He looked up at his mother. “I don’t know how parents could have a finer son. We would like you all to come over to the house after the meeting to visit with David and have punch and cookies. I say all of these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
His mother turned and walked back to her seat. She said something to his father, who stood up. His mother had kept all of his missionary letters, and every month she had put a paragraph about him in the ward newsletter. When he became a senior companion, zone leader, and then district leader, she had put in his picture. She wrote him long encouraging letters. His mother had been active in the Church all of her life, but he had heard her bear her testimony only at his farewell, and although they had talked often about his being good, they had never talked about the Savior, assumed everything. A testimony was easier in the mission field.
David looked up at his father. He was fifteen pounds heavier than he had been two years ago, and a little slower. He had gone on a mission to the New England States just before the Second World War. In his missionary pictures he looked young, happy, stood with his companions and converts smiling. David had read his father’s missionary letters, which were full of testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel and the power of the priesthood. His father had never talked to him about knowledge and power.
His father bowed his head a little, both hands grip-[p.98]ping the sides of the pulpit. “It is good to have Dave home again. As his father I have always been proud of him, and I am glad that he has been on this mission to Germany. It has been a good experience for him. I am particularly glad that he had an opportunity to go to Germany and learn German. I wanted to go to Europe on my mission.”
Listening, David watched the ward. He looked again for Todd Campbell on the back rows. He would come in the next few minutes if he was coming at all. Dave sat straighter in his chair, gripped his German Bible and triple combination, rested them on his knee.
He had studied German two years at Provo High, spent two months in the LTM in Provo, and he had vowed that he would speak German perfectly, but he never had. He never had felt absolutely sure, didn’t know when some German would laugh, say in English after he had spoken one sentence, “You are an American, yes?” He hated that feeling of always being capable of a stupid mistake, being embarrassed, never really ever being able to get rid of his accent.
There were elders who played chess for hours, went daily to American movies, practiced their guitars, wrote poetry, stayed in bed until late afternoon, heads covered, and then they lied when they filled out their weekly reports. They hid their scriptures from themselves. They seemed afraid of the promised power if they worked hard, afraid of what they might learn, the new possibility, afraid finally of their own real conversion. They couldn’t live by faith, accept the obligations of humility; they lived only by their bodies, habit, and the love of their families, friends, and girls. They were willing to waste their lives for an honorable release because they loved [p.99]home more than their priesthood or any honesty. The most intelligent of these became totally ironic, so that everything was a joke, and nothing was practical.
And some elders played mission politics, so calculated even the public prayers they spoke, wanted to be an assistant to President Maxwell. Elder Garner had said one morning, “I really need to be a senior companion, district leader, zone leader, assistant to the president, Elder Thatcher. You don’t, but I do. I need to be progressing all the time in the gospel. My father is a bishop.”
Elder Garner was from Los Angeles. He sent home for new American shirts, ties, and socks. He had brought five suits with him on his mission.
David sat up straighter in his chair. He pulled his shirt cuffs down half an inch. He looked at his new suit and shoes. Slowly clothes, cars, athletics, and home had become no longer so important to him and not his constant preoccupation, which was evidence of how he was changing. He wasn’t as embarrassed any more. Even girls became less important. At first he was afraid of the change because of all the excitement that girls and sex meant, had meant, would mean, but then he began to see that sex didn’t have to be the ultimate experience of his life.
His new feeling didn’t limit him, but suggested some infinite emotion, demanded that he accept final obligation, accept all of the promises made in the scriptures. He tried to be careful about what was happening to him, love and spiritual experience as real as eating or drinking. Elder Marven, whom President Maxwell and an elders court had excommunicated for fornication, had shot himself in his father’s car the first night he was home.
[p.100]David looked up at his father. He had started to tell his missionary stories.
David slipped his hand inside his jacket and took out his talk; he opened it and read through the outline again. He had gone through his journal to find the best spiritual experiences. He rubbed his fingers over his Bible. He’d tried to write in his journal only those things that had really happened. Even in the mission field some elders used other elders’ spiritual experiences as their own, bore testimony to them, made no distinction between what they had heard and what they experienced themselves, so became totally sentimental. An elder really needed the companionship of the Holy Ghost to help keep him honest. He needed to know the people in the Book of Mormon and the Bible too. They had to be real people.
His mother reached over to squeeze his arm. He smiled at her and slipped the talk back into his jacket pocket. His mother watched his father, smiled. Three months before he had been released his mother had written to ask him what his plans were when he got home. Now everbody asked him if he would start at B.Y.U. again, what his major was, and already they wanted to know if he thought he and Jane would get married soon. He’d begun to feel that last two or three days as if his presence demanded a purity of life from his family and ward members that they did not want to give; they seemed afraid that he might ask them to believe more than they could tolerate. Ward members said, “Well, David, it will take you a month or two to come back down to earth after your mission, but you’ll be okay. You need to get married.”
“What do you mean?” he wanted to say, but he didn’t. He had tried to be kind to everybody, be happy [p.101]all of the time. Everybody seemed so comfortable, as if that was what the Church was for, and you didn’t have to spend your life defining words like faith, love, humility, priesthood, and God. You had to be very careful with words.
When, after he had been in Germany three months, he had decided to find out if the gospel was true, so that he could go home if it wasn’t, he began to get up even earlier than Elder Harris to study. Every new German word he learned, scripture he memorized, tract he passed out, discussion he led proved to himself how much he wanted to know if the gospel was true. But he didn’t want it to be true then, already afraid perhaps of the obligation of knowing that, the intensity of life, the understanding. He had studied, prayed, fasted, tried by force of his own will to experience a manifestation of the Holy Ghost, use his priesthood.
All his life he had heard of missionaries fasting, praying, and then being prompted by the Holy Ghost to get off a streetcar where they had not intended to, walk up a strange street, knock on a strange door. They found a sick child near death who needed to be blessed, healed through the power of the priesthood, which always brought the whole family into the Church. At first he had hated fasting, being hungry, not being strong enough to pedal his bicycle up a hill. He didn’t like the feeling of absolute weakness, didn’t like depending on the spirit, praying every other hour, denying his body.
“You begin to feel it don’t you, Elder Thatcher?” Elder Harris had said to him one evening four months after he had arrived in Giessen, at the end of a day of tracting.
[p.102]He looked up from working the combination lock on his bicycle. “Yes,” he said, and it was the first time that he had felt any love for Elder Harris, but he said nothing about that. They got on their bikes and rode down Kaiserstrasse across the cobblestones.
He told no one about what was happening to him, not his mother or father, not even Dan, Ron, and Scott, whom he wrote to every month in their circulating letter. It was too personal, the beginning of a new mind and a new heart, the feeling of beginning power, new happiness, as if he might be imagining it all. But then change had become the index of what was happening to him, proof that it was all real, which he couldn’t deny.
David looked at the backs of his father’s shoes; every day his father polished his shoes. On Sunday he polished everybody’s shoes in the family. Sending a son on a mission could be an act of faith, repentance, love, or simply something a father did. What you had left at the end of your life was what you believed.
He listened to his father’s voice. He was almost finished. He looked again for Todd Campbell. He still hadn’t come in, and now he wouldn’t. Starting on the back row, David began to name the faces. He knew practically every person in the congregation by name, and he knew that they didn’t want him to tell them about the everyday boredom, doubt and failure, and even despair a missionary faced. Frantic, some elders boasted a testimony of Jesus Christ they didn’t have, described feelings and spiritual experiences they had never earned, declared the power of the priesthood. Finally they began to lose their capacity to really know or feel anything, couldn’t change, became totally sentimental, cried every time they gave a talk or bore their [p.103]testimony. Other elders studied only the language, the German culture, went to plays, operas, visited all the museums, read German poetry, for they came to trust only their minds and beautiful difficult things.
Elder Marks had said to him one night after they had gone to bed, “Look, Thatcher, everybody gets by the best he can out here. Don’t sweat it so much. You’ll live longer.”
David looked over at the priests sitting at the sacrament table. They shouldn’t have to go on missions as dumb as he had been. They needed to know the good and the bad.
Elder Greenwood, his third junior companion, didn’t make it back to the room on Friday of his first week out tracting (he’d had stomach trouble from the German food the whole week). When David braked his bicycle and circled back to him there in Baumenstrasse in Offenbach, he stood straddling his bicycle, tears in his eyes, already cursing. “What’s wrong, Elder?”
Greenwood didn’t look up, said through his teeth, “What the hell do you think?” For three days Greenwood wouldn’t leave the room. Twice he packed his suitcases. He had lettered in tennis at East High School in Salt Lake and had been president of his senior class. The Gestapo had herded the distinguished men of a town into a hot room, had them tie their pant legs with their shoelaces, and then forced each man to drink a pint of castor oil, afterward kept them standing there hours in the heat.
Elders got hepatitis, ulcers, pneumonia, had nervous breakdowns, were injured and even killed riding their bicycles in the German traffic. Elders on missions in Central and South American and Korea got diseases [p.104]from which some of them would suffer all of their lives. And he had seen finally that there had to be something stronger than his body, but it scared him to think about it. Slowly he had begun to feel that his garments were a protection to him, a shield against those things which could harm or destroy him.
But perhaps the worst things that could happen to a pair of elders was when they were out tracting and the old German man or woman just looked at them, listened to them say that they were representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ, yet didn’t smile or speak, but slowly closed the door.
Traveling on the German trains, David had seen through the windows the walls of dark forests, and he had remembered the pictures in his freshman western civilization textbook. It would not have surprised him to see at the edge of the forest, where the fields began, a band of Goths, Vandals, or Huns standing in the shadows, their helmets, shields, and drawn swords and raised axes glinting. Wars he had never heard of, even back to the Romans, had their inscribed iron monuments in Germany. And in the German homes, for every picture of a soldier and for every relic and souvenir of war there was a story, if he asked.
And at times he hadn’t wanted to obligate people, change their lives, make them different, teach them faith, repentance, the gift of the Holy Ghost, baptism, perfection, exaltation. But he came to see that only the love of Christ, belief in him, in the gospel could make the world good. The gospel wasn’t sentimental; it was real, fact. He had seen it change individual converts, whole families, dozens of missionaries, and he had begun to see now what it had done to him and how it had made him new. Who promised more than Christ?
[p.105]Faith made everything possible, made life infinite, and faith could become knowledge finally. The Church had twenty thousand missionaries out, and there would be in the next years thirty, forty, fifty thousand, whatever it took to spread the gospel. He knew that.
Sitting there on the stand, about to give his welcome-home talk, his father finishing now, David wondered what Elder Harris had said when he got home. He would have liked to have heard that. Elder Harris was majoring in German literature at Stanford.
“We would like you all to come and visit with Dave and have some punch and cookies.” David looked up at his father. “In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” His father turned and walked back to his chair.
Bishop Fielding stood up. “Brothers and sisters, now we come to the part of the program we have all been waiting for. But before I let Dave have the pulpit, I want to read to you part of a letter I received from his mission president. President Maxwell says here that Dave had more success tracting than almost any other elder in the Central German Mission.”
All the rows of faces turned to look at him again. He had always studied each German door as he and his companion approached it. Most Germans lived in row houses. He could go to the Deseret Industlies and buy back his missionary clothes. A companion wouldn’t be hard to find.
“Sister Nielsen, we are missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a message of salvation for you.”
She would laugh. “But, David, we are members of the Church. You know that.”
“Yes, we know. We are bringing you a message of hope, love, humility, and compassion. We are preach-[p.106]ing faith in Jesus Christ, repentence, and the power of the Holy Ghost. Could we set up an appointment with you? We want the whole ward to renew its faith, become truly converted to Christ. We bring you the faith we learned in the mission field where you sent us to preach the gospel. What time does Brother Nielsen come home from work? When would be the best time for an appointment? We want you to hear our testimonies.”
The bishop finished reading President Maxwell’s letter. It would not have surprised David to see Brother and Sister Schindler, Brother Schwartz, and Brother Binderwald, his converts, in the audience, flown over from Germany just to sit and listen to what he would say. He had found them all tracting.
“Well, Elder Thatcher, it’s your turn now, the moment you waited for for two years. After Dave is finished, we’ll hear a few words from the stake president.”
He looked up at Bishop Fielding, who turned, walked back to his seat, and sat down. Slowly, David stood up and walked to the pulpit. He put his scriptures down on the edge of the pulpit, reached into his jacket for his outlined talk, unfolded it and laid it on the pulpit. He raised his head to look out at the congregation.
Everybody smiled at him. He stood there, hands gripping the sides of the pulpit. People began to cough, move in their seats.
He glanced down at his talk. “Brothers and sisters, I want to thank you all for being here tonight. Particularly I want to thank my mother and father and my family for all of their support during my mission. I love them very much. It’s good to be home again. And I pray this afternoon that I might talk under the influ-[p.107]ence of the Spirit. I want to tell you about my mission and what I learned. I know that I can’t do that without the companionship of the Holy Ghost. That was one of the things I learned.”
Still gripping the sides of the pulpit tight with both hands, he looked for Todd Campbell at the back. He wasn’t there. David looked down at the outlined categories. People started coughing again, shifting. Reaching over with his right hand, he folded the two typed pages and slipped them back into his inside jacket pocket. He looked up at all the faces; a few people still smiled up at him. He cleared his throat, and then he began.