The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What matters

I've found something else fascinating about Idaho Falls, where we have lived since April 30 of this year: the paper has great obituaries. What I  mean is that the people who write obituaries for their loved ones are really on to something.

I don't always read obits, but I'm never disappointed when I do. What good obituaries do is melt down into a single nugget those things in life that were most important to the person who has passed on.

For example, here is one about an 81-year-old gentleman from St. Anthony, Idaho. The obit states: "He spent his entire life managing and working on the family farm in Wilford, Idaho. They started farming with horses, raised cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep. He grew potatoes for 60 years, as well as wheat, barley, hay and peas." I love this. I know precisely what this man did, and how he and his descendants felt about it, because they list the crops, right down to peas. I'll bet he was good at it, too.

Farming and ranching being what they are, he also was a foreman at a potato warehouse and worked for 27 years for the state of Idaho as a potato inspector. His hobbies included woodworking, fishing, gardening and fixing anything that was broken. All any woman wants in a husband is someone who is capable. This man was.

He could fix anything that was broken. I'll bet he was good with his kids. Sometimes people get broken; sometimes children get overwhelmed by life and bullies and events. This man was a nurturer, raising crops and animals, and probably tending to people, as well. As it happens, he was a busy member of the LDS Church. The obit lists some of his church callings, and also states, "[He was] a well loved home teacher."

Home teaching has been a staple of Mormon life for 100 years at least. It used to be called ward teaching, or block teaching. Basically, a man and his companion are given the responsibility of visiting and looking after a set group of families. At the least, it means monthly visits to the home to provide a spiritual message, and ask if they can be of help in any way. More often, it means helping out when people are broken, or life is tough, or the house burns, or flooding destroys dreams, or a woman finds herself alone with kids to raise. Home teaching means pitching in there and remembering that we are indeed our brother's keeper. And he was a "well loved home teacher." That little phrase speaks volumes about his character.

Lest you think this good man was an Idaho hick, the obituary reminds us that he was no such thing. He and his wife traveled through the United States, Europe, China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. He saw the world, and then he came home to little St. Anthony, Idaho.

St. Anthony is not a big town. It's the sort of place where people know each other and help out where needed. In the greater scheme of things, it's Nowheresville, USA. St. Anthony was the center of this man's life with his wife and their two children, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, "which are the light of their lives," as the obit states.

Greatness isn't the exclusive property of kings and rulers and inventors and thinkers. It can be found all over this country, and all over the world, in the quiet, courageous lives that most of us lead. I've often joked that you can tell how good a person really was by how many folks attend his/her funeral. I'm betting the St. Anthony Second Ward will be packed on September 27  when folks say goodbye to a friend.

What else matters?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering September 11 - The power of books

We all have our memories. On September 11, 2001, I was working at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on the Montana/North Dakota border. I was on the later shift that day, so I was in my car about 8:45 a.m., listening to NPR's Morning Edition. Some guest was speaking, when Bob Edwards interrupted almost apologetically, saying something like, "It seems that another airplane has hit the Twin Towers." When I got to the fort, all the other rangers were upstairs, gathered around the one television set. And there it was, buildings on fire and if I recall correctly, one of them about them about to collapse.

Through the day, we were quickly informed that the National Park Service had put every monument, park and historic site on high alert, because no one knew what would happen yet. By then, we were joking a bit about how they should send the president and other important folks to Fort Union because a) we had a 14 foot wall around the whole thing  b) we were so isolated no one - not even visitors - could find us.

We carried on as everyone did all week. My position at Fort Union was such that I worked a week on and a week off. I happened to share a house with the chief ranger, an old friend. He had no television, so our news came from the radio and that TV at the fort. On Saturday, I drove home to Valley City for my off week. The very first thing I did after getting home was go straight to my fiction bookcase and pull out one of my favorite books, "The Lawrenceville Stories," by Owen Johnson. I just stood there and held the book, because books comfort me.

That was it. I felt better and reshelved the book. I looked through the mail then. At the time, we were Newsweek subscribers. I picked up the issue that had come when I was over at Fort Union, ruffled through a few pages, then set it aside. Nothing in that issue had any relevance to what had just happened that week. We were in new, uncharted territory and last week's news was less than useless.

For the next month, Fort Union did as all government facilities did and flew the flag at half staff. Some of us chose to put a piece of black tape on our badges. I did.

Here was the worst part: as one of our daily duties, the first ranger on site had to raise the flag. No biggie, except that month, we had to raise it to half staff, which is done properly by raising the flag to the top of the pole and then lowering it to half staff. On the mornings I was on first, I had to do that. It's a hard and sad duty, and remains my strongest memory of September 11.

Books to comfort me, and flags at half staff.