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For The Strength of Youth

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    Ch. 44 The Wisdom of the Wise
Submitted by Dave Free on 11 December 2006 - 3:54pm.

Steve adjusted to the physical demands of the blacksmith shop long before he felt comfortable being the president of his tent. Physical effort was something he was used to. Sure, running the bellows and swinging the sledge were things he’d never done before, but when he started thinking about them in terms of sets and repetitions it wasn’t that much different than being in the weight room all day. One thing was very different, it was a lot hotter than the air-conditioned room at the rec center. Steve figured he drank a couple of gallons of water a day, just to replace the sweat that constantly poured off his body.

Being the president, on the other hand, was something he might not ever get used to. Being responsible for a quorum of deacons or teachers was easy compared to this. Now he was responsible not only for boys his age, but for adults and little children as well. And he wasn’t just responsible to make sacrament assignments and plan an activity for Wednesday night--he was responsible for their very lives. Some of the folks in his tent had such thick accents Steve had to ask them to repeat what they were saying two and three times. He was also surprised to find that most of them didn’t know anything about camping. He’d always assumed pioneers knew how to camp, but these folks were lost. Most of them had never been out of the cities they’d grown up in. Steve had to hand it to them though, they were determined and they were faithful. And that is exactly what made it most difficult for Steve.

Steve lacked the conviction that they all possessed and he knew it. Sure he wanted to help--he had no choice, deep inside he knew it was the right thing to do--but this wasn’t his journey. In fact, he felt the journey was a mistake. Zion would be there next year. Heck, it would be there in a hundred and fifty years! No, Steve was not anxious to get on the trail like those for whom he had responsibility. First and foremost, he was anxious to find a way home and, if he failed at that, then he would try to convince the leaders of this company to postpone the trip until the following spring. In the mean time, common decency and an inner drive, which Steve more often than not tried to repress, required that he do all he could to help “his” people.

The first evening of his presidency, after the work was done for the day and the evening meal was finished, he called his first tent meeting around the cooking fire and met all those for whom he had responsibility. There were only two other brethren in the tent. John, age twenty-two, was traveling with his wife, Margaret, and their two children Elizabeth, age four, and John who was only eighteen months. Margaret was also very pregnant. Steve later found out that John was the company bugler.

Aaron was the other father in the tent. He was in his early thirties and had three children, Martha age seven, Mary age four, and Aaron age two. His wife’s name was Elizabeth. There was one other family in the tent, though they had no father. The mother, Elizabeth, appeared to Steve to be about the same age as his own mother. She had four children. Samuel was her oldest at seventeen (he was the one that helped Steve get the supplies earlier that morning). Robert was the second eldest son at eleven, Isabella was ten and little Richard was six years old.

In addition to the families, there were four single sisters assigned to Steve’s tent. These of course included Annie who introduced herself as being nineteen years old. Sara was the youngest of the bunch at eighteen. There was another Elizabeth who was twenty-seven and finally Lydia who was forty-five.

Steve’s first executive decision as the tent president came the morning after he first slept in the tent. When he awoke, he found himself on top of Samuel who was in turn on top of his younger brother Robert who was half out of the tent having rolled under the tent wall. The tent was set up on a slight, but persistent, incline.

That morning, before he’d had any breakfast, Steve scouted out a new spot for the tent which was somewhat separate from the rest of the tents but was on level ground and was surrounded by good shade trees. He announced his decision at breakfast and asked Samuel and Robert to help him make the move that morning. There were a few grumbles but no outright complaints and so the move was made before lunch.

Steve was also worried about the rain. He’d camped enough to know that preparing for the rain was what setting up a tent was all about. The canvas tents the pioneers made and were now using had no bottoms, just a roof and sides. There was also no such thing as plastic that could be laid on the ground to protect the sleepers from the ground moisture. Most just laid down a few blankets and then covered themselves with a few more.

To keep any rain water from coming in under the tent walls, Steve and Samuel borrowed a shovel and dug a trench about six inches deep and a foot wide around the entire tent. With the dirt from the trench they buried the bottom edge of the tent walls to give them a little more resistance against any wind that might blow. Steve also taught the saints in his tent how to make a bed out of young tree branches and dried leaves to get their blankets up off the ground.

In the sweltering heat of the Iowa summer, with the cloudless sky overhead, Steve’s tent preparations were seen by most of the camp as a waste of energy. Steve didn’t much care what they thought. From his work in the wagon yard and his discussions with Brother Webb, it was clear they were going to be here for several weeks and as long as he was responsible for all these people he’d set up the tent the best way he knew how.

The Martin Company had arrived in the Iowa City camp on July 8th, a Tuesday. The 13th was their first Sunday and it brought welcome relief from the wagon building tasks. Steve had no idea what day of the week it was. For the first time since he arrived, he woke by himself--not the sound of the bugle. Raising up on one arm, he looked over and saw that John and his family were still asleep. Not sure what time it was, he pulled back the tent door and was surprised to see that it was nearly light.

“John! John! Wakeup! The sun’s nearly up! You forgot to blow your bugle!” He hissed across the tent. John rolled over and smiled at him.

“Go back to sleep Elder. It’s Sunday, the meeting’s not till half of ten.”

“Oh.” Steve replied and laid back down. Though he had dreamed of sleeping in many times over the past few days, now that he had his chance he couldn’t get back to sleep. “I guess that’s what going to bed when the sun goes down will do to you.” He thought to himself as he pulled on his pants and stepped out of the tent. There were a couple of people up and about, but for the most part the camp was still quiet. Steve sat on a stump for a few minutes and watched the camp slowly come to life. It was times like these that always brought back that awful pit in his stomach. Times when he could just sit and think, those were the worst because he had no answers. Not wanting the pit to grow any bigger he went back into the tent for his bag of clothes and a brick of soap, then he headed down to the river.

After walking up the river several hundred yards, he found a nice inlet and proceeded to bath. The water felt wonderful--not as nice as the spring, but wonderful. After washing himself, he turned to his work clothes. He’d never learned to wash his clothes at home, but that wouldn’t have helped him here anyway. There was no “delicate” cycle on this machine and no fabric softener or static guard to remember. He held his shirt in one hand and the brick of soap (it felt more like sandstone than soap) in the other and rubbed the two together until he was convinced the shirt was clean. Then he rinsed it in the river, hung it on a nearby branch and repeated the process with his pants, socks, and underclothes. After finishing his laundry, Steve gave in to the temptation and went for a swim out in the deeper water. He was very careful to watch for other saints and to not get swept down the river toward the camp. The swim was wonderfully refreshing and by the time he was finished dressing in the suit he had been wearing on the train, Steve felt like a new man.

His work clothes were not yet completely dry so he decided to leave them hanging right where they were and come back for them later. He also decided to leave his canvas bag so that he would have something to bring them back in. As he picked it up to toss under the bushes, two books and a small pocket knife fell out. Steve thought he had searched the bag thoroughly that first day at the spring, but somehow he had missed these things. Now with all the clothes out of the bag, he turned it inside out and discovered a separate inner pocket he had failed to notice before. Besides the books and the pocket knife, Steve also found an old fashioned razor blade and two U.S. dollar coins minted in 1850.

Steve felt his face. It was getting a little scruffy. With the soap and a little water he made a very thin, coarse lather and spread it over his face. Then carefully, very carefully he started scraping it off with the razor blade. Three nicks later, he was satisfied with his job and rinsed off the remainder of the soap scum. Now doubly satisfied that he was a new man, he tossed the dollars and the books back in the bag, tossed the bag under the bushes where no else could find it, put the knife in his pocket, and headed back for camp.

After breakfast and while waiting for the meetings to begin, Steve visited the O’Malley’s tent. He’d not seen mother O’Malley and little Maeve since he moved, and because he worked with the blacksmith, he rarely saw O’Malley or the boys during the day in the wagon yard. He went back down by the river and picked some wild flowers that he had seen while bathing and then headed for the O’Malley’s.

“Top o’ the mornin’ to ya lads!” He called as he approached the tent. O’Malley and the boys were sitting on the logs in the shade. They wore their traveling clothes and their cheeks had been scrubbed to a bright pink. They smiled as they looked up and recognized Steve.

“Elder! I’d not recognized ya all gussied up as ye are! A bloomin’ gentleman is what ye’ve gone an made of yerself.”

Steve smiled. “It’s going to take more than a suit to make a gentleman out of me. I can’t wait to get out of this thing. It’s so danged hot and humid. How long does church last anyway?”

“That would be up to the spirit, now wouldn’t Elder?”

“You mean, there’s no set ending time?”

“Not in me experience. Say, have ye been to talk to the captain today?”

“No.” Steve replied.

“He was around earlier, asking to speak with ye.”

“Me? Why would he want to speak with me?”

“Maybe he heard ye was diggin’ a moat around yer tent!” Mother O’Malley had come out the tent and stood with her hands on her hips and a smile on her face. “Ah Elder! Ye’ve missed me cookin’ and come back fer more!”

Steve smiled back. “I picked some flowers for you, but I think I’ll give them to Maeve instead. Where is the little queen?”

“A wee bit sick with a touch of the fever. She’s sleeping.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Steve replied.

Mother O’Malley sat down by her husband. “So Elder,” she began, “how’s Annie?”

“Now mum! Don’t pester the poor lad with yer match making. He’s off to talk with Captain Martin.”

“She’s avoiding me.” Steve cut in before mother O’Malley’s towel came out.

“Avoids you does she?” Mother O’Malley said pretending to be deep in thought.

“Like the plague.” Steve replied. “I haven’t been able to talk to her alone since the day I told her that I didn’t remember her name.”

“Tis a pity indeed.” Mother O’Malley shook her head.

“Bah! Tis a sorry sight for a grown woman to fiddle with the lives of others.” O’Malley interrupted the conversation. “Elder, there’s talk you backed down one of the old mob in town. Is there any truth to the talk?”

“A wee bit.” Steve replied with a smile.

“Could be that’s what the captain would like to talk about.”

Steve smiled again. “Could be. I’ve got a few things of my own I want to talk about.” He turned to leave and then turned back around and handed the flowers to mother O’Malley. “To a beautiful lady.” He said with a flourish.

“Why thank ye Elder!”

“Please make sure Maeve gets them--” Even though he knew it was coming, the towel caught him on the backside as he bolted away.

Steve found the captain’s tent easily and the captain very approachable. Though he’d seen him up close on the train, so many things were going on at the time Steve had misjudged his age. The beard also made him look older from a distance. Now, up close, Steve guessed his age to be not much more than thirty. The conversation began casually.

“Ah, Elder! I’ve been meaning to talk with you since we arrived here in camp. How are you feeling? How is your head?”

“My head?” Steve put his hand on his head. “Oh you mean from the train. It’s fine thanks, my head is just fine.”

“Good! You had us worried there. You thought I was Brigham Young! Do you remember?”

“Yes--I mean, No. Did I say that?” Steve kicked himself for not telling the truth but didn’t say anything.

“Well, it’s good to have you back.” The captain was saying. “I’ve heard good reports of your work since we’ve been here. Brother Webb mentioned something about an incident in town and I understand you’ve been called to be a tent president.”

“Hard to believe isn’t it?” Steve replied.

The captain didn’t seem to hear what Steve had said. “Elder,” he said, “I’d like you to talk in the worship services today. Your work has been exemplary, and I’d like you to encourage the saints in their efforts.”

“I can’t do that sir.” Steve replied after a moment’s hesitation.

“Why not Elder? Is it your head?” The captain inquired.

“Yes--I mean No. No, it’s not my head. It’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about ever since we got here.” Steve hesitated again, but the captain encouraged him to go on so he blurted it out.

“I can’t encourage these people on to their deaths!”

The captain maintained his calm composure, though it was clear he was surprised. He slowly sat down on a nearby log and motioned for Steve to do the same. “Tell me what you mean, Elder.” He asked once Steve had taken a seat.

Steve took a deep breath and tried to think about what he was saying. “It’s not right to be building the carts out of green wood. These people don’t know the first thing about surviving in the wilderness. If you take them out on the plains now, with carts made of green wood, hundreds of them are going to die!”

“How do you know Elder?” The calmness of the captain was beginning to frustrate Steve.

“How do I know? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out!”

“A what?” The captain asked.

“A rocket--oh never mind. The point is that anyone who’s ever lived in the mountains knows that when the snow falls you can die--especially outfitted like this group. And, if the handcarts are falling apart all along the way, it’s just going to take that much longer to get to Salt Lake.”

“But how do you know?” The captain asked again.

“I just told you.” Steve replied a little frustrated that the captain didn’t seem to be listening to what he was saying.

“No, you told me what could happen, which I’m well aware of. You didn’t tell me how you know.”

“What difference does it make?” Steve asked with exasperation. “What matters is that people are going to die if you don’t call this thing off.”

“It matters because I know that I’m not supposed to ‘call this thing off’ as you say. I know because I’ve prayed about it. Believe me, your very concerns have weighed heavily on my mind. But, the answer I keep getting is to continue. I had hoped that the answer meant that the Lord would calm the elements and we would pass through to Zion without incident. But if you’ve received revelation of death to come then perhaps my hope was vain. So I ask again, how do you know?”

Steve was taken back by the Captain’s reply. He wasn’t sure whether to be angry at the captain’s willingness to lead the people into known danger or relieved that the captain was a man of inspiration and was willing to believe that Steve had received some revelation. Without directly answering the question, Steve responded.

“I’ve seen the future. A lot of these handcart pioneers are going to die before they get to Zion. I don’t know who and I don’t know where, but I know it will happen.”

“I see.” The captain sighed and sat silently for a few moments. Steve began to feel like he might be getting through.

“Elder,” The captain spoke again. “Your vision does not change the answer to my prayers. We must continue.”

“But you’ll be leading these people to their graves!” Steve jumped up. “You can’t do it!”

“Elder!” The captain now spoke sternly. “I have covenanted to do whatever it is the Lord commands me and I will not be dissuaded. I don’t know if, or why, the Lord will require many of these good saints to die. But I do know that he know’s things that I don’t know and there must be a purpose and if he wants me to lead them to Zion now, that is exactly what I will do!”

“But--” Steve tried to cut in, but the captain cut him off.

“I believe you’re right Elder. You shouldn’t be talking to the saints in our services today.” The captain turned and looked directly into Steve’s eyes. “Will you continue with us?”

Steve sat and thought for several moments. He wasn’t sure if he was being invited to leave or encouraged to stay. An ant carried a leaf ten times its size up onto the log and then down the opposite side. Steve replied slowly, “I don’t have any choice. I have no where else to go and, well, I have to help these people.”

The captain reached over and put his arm around Steve’s shoulder. “We are glad you are with us and we appreciate your help Elder. Your heart is right. As I said, I share your concerns about the safety of this company, but I have to ask that if you stay with us you keep your concerns to yourself.” Steve looked up and the captain continued quickly. “By all means prepare the people for what may come, but do not undermine their faith by speaking poorly of the Lord’s anointed and the decisions that they are making. If you cannot live within these bounds, I must ask that you leave our company.”

Steve took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Like I said, I have no where else to go. If you are determined to continue, then I’ll go and do everything I can to help these people survive.”

“Thanks Elder. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go find someone to speak in our services.” The captain stood and walked off towards the other tents.

Both Captain Martin and Captain Willie ended up speaking at the meetings that day. They spent a good portion of the time reminding the saints to be faithful and to remember their covenants. Steve probably would have dozed off or daydreamed through the whole meeting if it hadn’t been for the direct and demanding tones that were used by the captains. There were no “mights” or “maybes” and there were plenty of “damns” and “hells.” No one could leave the meetings with any doubt of what was expected of them. Steve rather enjoyed it and actually learned a few things about some of the covenants he had made in his life.

A special session for the tent presidents and captains of the Martin company was held directly after the general session. Steve and O’Malley sat together. Captain Martin spoke again. He commended the brethren for the way in which the camp had been organized and encouraged them to carry on. He warned of the temptations of slothfulness and of the gentiles that were anxious to thwart the Lord’s work. He concluded by asking each of the tent presidents to hold morning and evening singing and prayer sessions with their people.

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