[Handwritten note from Fairlyn Thomas to Iron Door (the person) on story manuscript:
I hope this story from the memoir I'm working on will make an interesting entry in your story contest.
"Letting Go of The Rope"
I never could seriously challenge Dad's authority, not until my twenties. Sure, I'd get aggravated, and the thought would flash through my head, but as a futile daydream, not a plausible plan. To actually stand manfully before him and insist "No, Dad--THIS is how it will be": might as well say, "We should be millionaires," or "I want a bionic leg," or "Let's move to Germany." The very heavens would chuckle.
To my twelve-year-old self--beanpole-thin, gawky, stooped in perpetual deference--he was a Colossus, huge-biceped, barrel-chested, high-decibeled. He was angered easily and often. Though he never channeled his might into actual violence, we felt in the bone that a Dad Armageddon was possible any day. We kept wary eyes on him, as the USSR must have monitored US nukes in those days. The red face, the shouting, the furious gesture: one of these days, definitely.
Besides, he was always right. He knew where to shoot the basketball to make a backboard shot go in. He could handily buck a hay bale on his knee--two, even, under duress--and build a haystack that would never fall nor catch fire. He could solve story problems and fractions, and explain it to me. Might as well rebel against the law of gravity.
Dad was so legendarily strong--a John Henry, a Paul Bunyan--that he kept "The Church" at arm's length all our years in Nozzy. In Dad's mind, the Mormons blew it the week we moved to town. Even the local farmers pitied his salary as a first-year teacher at Nozzy Elementary; then, as August's session began, the teachers had to go on strike. He went two months with no paycheck at all. Not only were we a new family in a small town, but we sank instantly from Really Poor to Charity Case. The president of our ward's Elders' Quorum dropped by our house one afternoon, while Dad walked the picket line, with a box of food and a note of encouragement. That was as close to Armageddon as Dad ever got. "I AM NOT A CHARITY CASE! HE CAN SHOVE HIS HAMBURGER AND HIS FLOUR AND HIS SUGAR STRAIGHT UP HIS BEHIND! WHO THE HELL DOES HE THINK HE IS? WHO THE HELL DOES HE THINK WE ARE?" Variations on this theme continued for three hours. (I kept track; it was a historic occasion.) That was 1974; to this day he still hasn't talked to that man. Nor would he associate with anyone who made the Church a primary part of their identity--who held any significant post in our ward or stake, or just had "that air" about them. One act of charity turned him permanently away from Mormonism. Until then, he was as Mormon as anyone: he had just graduated from Brigham Young University, been his BYU ward Elders' Quorum president, and married Mom in a temple. Now, he did not attend Nozzy's many "special" Church occasions: baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, blessings, and so on. He did not go to marathon Sunday services. He declined to attend ward potluck parties at Christmas and midsummer. In Nozzy, founded by Mormon pioneers and populated ever since with their (white, mostly Welsh) descendants, to choose to live that way and then actually do it was to achieve the unimaginable. It was to walk only on his hands, or balance on a unicycle, every day for decades. The formidable will! The heroic immovability!
The summer I was eleven, I'd raised a lamb for 4-H and the Nozzy County Fair. Dad's farmer friend Duke had donated the runt of a litter for us to raise in our backyard. We named him Sam. I bottle-fed him four times a day, and petted his face, and pleaded with him to stay alive. On warm nights I slept next to him in his pen, Sam on the straw and me in my sleeping bag. Right away he became "Sammy the Lamby," and Dad even added, "from Miami." He was less 4-H project than adored pet. We tried not to think about why we were fattening him up. We watched him boing-boing down our hill on all four legs, like Pepe Le Pew, and imitated his "Mehhhh," and were tickled by the little guy. In August, we chose to limit our thoughts of his sale at the fair, and just where his buyer was taking him, to just a few seconds. Surely he had a good life, we decided. Surely.
So the next summer, when Dad suggested we try raising a steer, I was willing. Mostly I hated cows: I thought they were stupid, and clumsy, and smelly. But Sammy the Lamby from Miami had been so much fun--how bad could it be?
I knew right away what trouble I'd signed up for when I saw how ugly the calf was. Sammy the Lamby from Miami's runtiness had worked for him, helping him win the fair's Weight Gain contest. But this calf was not tiny and cute, he was unwieldy and homely. He was that mottled pepper-and-salt color farmers call "blue." He had a wide snotty eraser-colored nose, and his dark eyes looked malevolent and shifty. That face was up to no good.
"Blue"--so we optimistically named him "Ol' Blue," hoping that like Sammy the Lamby from Miami he'd become a kind of big outdoor pet, a faithful companion in the mold of Paul Bunyan's legendary blue ox. Instead, he bit, and kicked, and squashed me against the walls of his stall. He sprayed snot all over me. Before long he thoroughly terrified me, and he just kept getting meaner. Dad and Duke had to perform Ol' Blue's castration, and apparently that experience was traumatic even for them. I wasn't there--I think they knew they were in for a fight, so they had me stay home--but I suspect a two-by-four to Ol' Blue's head was involved. He grew and grew, and so did his temper.
Before I knew it, late July had arrived and I could no longer delay working with him. The Fair was imminent. I had to get Ol' Blue accustomed to being led around, combed and trimmed, inspected minutely, and I had to do it fast. As a Peanuts cartoon I read that summer put it: "Sure, and then I'll just flap my arms and fly to the moon." I couldn't even get a rope harness on the monster, let alone control his movements. By now Ol' Blue outweighed me by 500 pounds, and his meanness had grown proportionally For two weeks I tried morning and night to harness Ol' Blue; each time, he bashed me into the barn wall, or kicked me, or bulldozed me out of his pen.
Finally, on the weekend before the Fair, Dad insisted that I do it, the whole process, while he stood by to help (and to make sure I went through with it): put the harness on, lead Ol' Blue out of the barn, walk him down to the crick, walk him back, tie him back up in the barn. Dad held the steer's head while I harnessed him. The only creature I knew who could intimidate Ol' Blue, did: within a few seconds, the harness magically went on. Ol' Blue, now irritated, casually tossed me with his massive neck into the barn wall.
"Dad, I can't lead him. He's too strong. He's too mean."
"You just have to show him who's boss. Then he'll do what you tell him. Don't act scared of him and it'll be fine. Look, I'll take him outside, then you lead him to the crick and back."
To attempt the impossible, or to disobey Dad--the choice was no choice at all. I took up the halter. Dad folded his arms and waited. I took a step with Ol' Blue, then another.
"Whatever you do, don't let go of the rope."
Right. Whatever I do, I won't let go of the rope. Won't let go of the rope.
Two steps toward the crick. Three; then Ol' Blue broke into a trot. I sped up, he sped up more. Show him who's boss, and don't let go of the rope. I hauled hard at the harness; nothing happened. I dug in my heels and leaned backwards to pull harder. Ol' Blue yanked me off my feet as if I were made of straw. I did not let go of the rope--it never occurred to me. Ol' Blue dragged me down the field, my chest and face in the dirt, my hands remaining clamped to the rope. After dragging me fifty yards, Ol' Blue reached the crick, probably the first moving water he'd seen in his short, miserable life. He bucked and turned around, and I of course turned with him. He started dragging me back to the barn.
In time I realized that Dad had hustled halfway down the field and was yelling something. What was it?... "LET GO. LET GO OF THE ROPE. LET GO! OF THE ROPE!"
He had probably been saying so the whole time. It just took a while for me to hear.
Every young Mormon man is expected to serve on a two-year mission if at all possible; he and his family must make it possible. You couldn't plead poverty, either, for if generations of Nozzy farmers could scrape together enough money, then anyone could. You just hoped your missionary wasn't assigned somewhere too expensive--a hope that was often vain, as the pattern seemed to be: smart missionaries go to non-English-speaking countries, average ones somewhere in Britain, dumb ones within the U.S. (Officially they were assigned by "inspiration," but no one really bought that. We could see what we could see.) Some young women serve missions too, but their first hope is to marry early, to "earn their M. R. S. degree." Nozzy boys went on missions, and that was that. You expected that like you expected the sun to rise in the east.
One boy I'd graduated Nozzy High with had had his whole left leg and ankle crushed playing football senior year--but at 19, even he limped his way through the nightmarish heat of Alabama or Mississippi, knocking on doors and "challenging" strangers to read the Book of Mormon. Another boy in our class, granted his diploma out of pure altruism, had never read the Book of Mormon because he could not read above second-grade level. He never could interpret all the "verily"s and "thees" and "thous" of Mormon writings, and was utterly confounded by softball questions like "Why don't Mormons drink?" Yet he too went on his mission, amusingly to upstate New York--Joseph Smith's home when he founded his church--where he made one exasperated mission companion after another really feel his sacrifice for God. With an early-September birthday, I expected to finish a year of college, work through the next summer to save money, then depart for my mission as school began--though not for me!--in early fall.
Life helpfully arranged de facto "mission practice" for me right away. During my freshman year of college, at tiny Western Montana College in Dillon, I spent my first time around non-Mormons. For my whole life, living within 100 miles of Salt Lake City, "The Church" had always quite obviously meant the Mormon Church, the only "real" church; now, here, it was the least popular option among a dozen. Being Mormon had always been the default expectation, like being not visibly deformed; here, it was a novelty, a sideshow. Mormons were viewed with mild suspicion and hostility.
Western Montana College felt more like thirteenth to sixteenth grade; as in high school, we all lived right on top of each other, and everyone knew everything about everyone. I was the only Mormon anyone knew, and my religion was the one thing everyone knew about me. So I became the all-purpose LDS Church representative and apologist. I had never even imagined the confusing, difficult, and impertinent questions I was now asked every day.
"What do Mormons do in the temple that's so secret? Orgies? Black magic?"
"The Mormon church is just a cult, it's not even a real religion."
"Where are those magic Golden Plates that the Book of Mormon was written on now? Have you seen them? Why not?"
"Look at this. The oath Mormons take not to reveal the secrets of the temple--this oath is like word for word the same as the Freemason oath. If you reveal the secrets, your guts will be torn out and burned with red-hot pokers! Do you people really do that? Joseph Smith was a Freemason. Are you people Freemasons?"
"Why do you guys have multiple wives? I heard there are still a bunch of polygamists--is that true?"
"What's with the funny underwear? Is it supposed to be magic? What would happen if I put it on?"
"You guys do baptisms for the dead? Seriously? Do you have to dig up the bodies?"
"How come you guys all have a million kids? Haven't you ever heard of overpopulation?"
"Do you believe God changed his mind about black people a few years ago?"
"Wait, wait, wait--American Indians are descendants of the Jews? Are you kidding me?"
These must be the same kinds of questions missionaries hear every day, I figured. So in dutiful, earnest Mormon fashion, I did my best to answer them with patience and sincerity. I approached them as invaluable training for what was to come.
I instinctively adopted the typical Mormon approach to hostile questions: ignore their actual content insofar as possible; take them to have been asked with a "spirit of contention," a Satan-inspired desire to confound all that is Good and True. The very asking of such questions was sufficient reason to disregard them. Answer, in essence, "Well, I believe, in fact I know, that the Mormon Church is the one true church on earth, so say what you will." But I was eighteen, and had not yet achieved the infallible spiritual fluency I expected as a nineteen-year-old Elder. Doubts seeped in, or out, I couldn't tell which. They accumulated. They filled me.
I remembered singing in Sunday School, when I was seven:
"I hope they send me on a mission,
when I have grown a foot or two.
I hope by then I will be ready
to teach and preach and serve as missionaries do."
I thought I might need to grow another foot or two before I was ready.
The school year nearly finished, my nineteenth birthday looming, I consulted my bishop about my numerous misgivings. "You have doubts?" he said kindly. "Let's just ordain you Elder. You can do that right now, then go to the temple for your Endowments right before your mission. Being an Elder will remove your doubts. You'll feel better!"
I couldn't see why not. I longed to know.
Dad politely declined to say the prayer ordaining me an Elder, though it was his right as father. He suggested I have the bishop do it. Dad politely declined to attend the tiny ceremony. The bishop and two or three other farmers solemnly anointed my head with oil, and laid on their big hard hands, and prayed. The whole thing took about five minutes. Afterwards, they shook my hand and congratulated me.
Elder Thomas. Huh. I felt just the same as before.
Still, wearing my newly conferred priesthood authority like a halo, I went to Dad to discuss my mission. I'm an Elder now, and I have to make plans for my mission.
The discussion was a short one. "You're not going," he said. My jaw dropped.
He laid out the facts. The cheapest mission would be two or three hundred dollars a month for 24 months. I'd have to buy several hundred dollars' worth of clothes before I even left. And what if I were sent to Japan? Did I have ten thousand dollars? Of course not, and no, I couldn't earn even a quarter of that over the summer. Well, he didn't have it either. He was already working every extra hour he could for Duke just to put food on the table. And in the end--"I WON'T TAKE CHARITY FROM ANYONE!" Not from the ward--for if a box of donated food was offensive, how crushing would this much money be!--and definitely not from Duke. Going further into debt was out of the question, and these were the days before everyone had credit cards. No money, no mission. That was that.
The decision was made for me, and clearly it was not negotiable. To the surprise of no one but me, I was flooded with...relief. I didn't have to go! Within an hour, I was laughing out loud about it.
I had held onto the rope as long as required. Dad had been telling me to let it go for some time--it just took me a while to hear him.