“From Battlefield to Mission Field,” Ensign, July 2003, 24–27
Like many young returning soldiers in the wake of World War II, I decided to serve a mission. I was called to serve in the Northern States Mission, which consisted of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. For the most part, the elders in our mission were wiser and more independent because of their experiences in the war. Most of us had spent two to five years fighting on various battlefronts as part of the United States armed forces. We were young in age, yet old in experience. Some still carried battle scars that were physically evident, while others carried emotional scars embedded deep within.
We would mingle together during district conference and exchange a mixture of missionary and war experiences. Talking to each other helped us heal from the terrible memories of war still imprinted within our minds. Many a tear was shed when telling of these wartime experiences.
Our mission president, Creed Haymond, understood the hearts of his small army of elders. He felt it would be best for us to go out during the summer months with a minimum of possessions and learn how to depend upon the Lord to guide us to homes where we could teach the gospel and find food and a bed for the night. This type of tracting was sometimes done back then, though it is not done today. Of course, we weren’t concerned about sleeping out under the stars or in barns. We had had similar experiences during the war. The hardest part for us was to trust in the Lord for His guidance and protection, instead of trusting in a piece of war machinery. But President Haymond knew if we could learn to rely on the Lord, it would bring about a change within us and help us heal.
The summer of 1948 was my second summer of tracting in the country with few possessions. My companion, Elder Lynn Hales, from Magna, Utah, was a navy veteran. We learned to love each other as true brothers in the gospel. We gave up our apartment, stashed our extra personal gear in suitcases, and left the suitcases in the care of members of our branch. Then we departed into the country and let the Holy Ghost guide us in the direction to travel. My satchel contained a change of clothes, a lightweight raincoat, two pairs of socks, a toothbrush, razor, washcloth, lightweight towel, three copies of the Book of Mormon, and a few missionary tracts. I tucked a very small camera into the corner of my bag. Each of us had to keep $10 in our wallets so we could not be charged with vagrancy.
As a farm boy from Layton, Utah, I appreciated the beautiful farms, well-kept barns, and hardworking, friendly people as we tracted from farmhouse to farmhouse. The summer before, Indiana had produced the most beautiful cornfields I had ever seen, but this summer was unusually dry and much of the corn looked stunted. The leaves on the stalks were twisted and dry from lack of water, and the earth was parched.
When Elder Hales and I came to a crossroad, we would stop and have prayer, asking which direction we should go. Then we would wait until both of us felt the same impression. I will always remember one such occasion.
We had been rejected at almost every door. Then a very odd thing took place. We found ourselves in an area where all the houses were vacant. Each house had a well in back, but none had a bucket to drop down into the water to quench our thirst. Dropping a rock and hearing the splash made us even thirstier. Evening was approaching as we walked along this very unfriendly setting. We were hungry, thirsty, and tired. We needed a bath, and our shirts and socks needed to be washed.
It got dark, yet there was a full moon. Finally, I turned to Elder Hales and said: “We are in trouble. I think we should stop and pray.” Leaving the road, we knelt and pleaded with the Lord, asking Him to guide us to a home where we could find something to eat and drink, get a good night’s rest, and be able to take care of our other needs. Then back on the road we went.
The next home we saw was set back off the road to our left. It was dark and vacant. I turned to Elder Hales and said, “This is where we will stay tonight.” The door was ajar. We walked into a bare room. The light of the full moon showed us a pile of old gunnysacks in the corner. Dividing the gunnysacks and taking them out on the porch, we shook out the dust and dirt. Then we laid them on the floor to make two beds and put our raincoats on top.
Sleep did not come to me for a couple of hours, even though my body was very tired and my throat was dry as cotton. I silently prayed that Heavenly Father would help us meet our needs. As I lay there, my mind drifted back to the vivid images of the war that came alive in my mind every so often. I finally relaxed and settled into a deep sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, Elder Hales was already up. As I said a silent prayer, asking Father in Heaven to assist us in our needs, I heard Elder Hales yell: “Elder Higgs! Come outside and down the cellar steps. See what I have found!”
Pushing away old spider webs, I walked down the steps onto the dirt floor of the cellar. There on one top shelf was a big bottle of canned raspberries. There was no dust on the bottle! We tested it to make sure it was still sealed and then opened it. After saying a blessing, we passed it back and forth, drinking it all down. It surely tasted good.
We climbed out of the cellar and found the well. Sitting upon a platform of wood next to the well was a shiny new bucket with a new rope wound around it. The rope wasn’t even tied to the bucket handle. After we tied the rope to the handle, we lowered the bucket into the well, sloshing it back and forth until it filled. We then let it down deeper into the cold water. Bringing it up, we took turns drinking the sweet cold water from this brand-new bucket.
Seeing a dishpan by the well, I mentioned to Elder Hales that we should go back into the house to see if we could find a match to build a fire, heat some water, have a bath, wash clothes, and shave.
Back at the house, I immediately went to the kitchen and searched all the drawers and shelves. Nothing! Then Elder Hales yelled from the bedroom for me to come, saying in the same breath, “You won’t believe this unless you see it.”
I went in. He was pointing to a big spider web in the corner. In the very center of the web hung one matchstick. We were able to build a fire by the well and heat the water. Then we cleaned up, shaved, washed our dirty clothes, and hung them out to dry.
After everything was dried, folded, and stashed into our satchels, we were ready to leave our little “hotel” with all its services. But just before leaving, I glanced toward the old barn located farther up the field. I could see the top of a tree above the barn. “Elder Hales,” I said, “I’m going to see if that is what I think it is—an apple tree.”
Dashing around the corner of the barn, I was greeted by a tree loaded with apples. I picked one and took a bite. It was very sweet and juicy. Elder Hales and I sat under this beautiful apple tree and ate apples until we were full. We filled our satchels, our pockets, and even the inside of our shirts with apples. Then we went back to the little house, where we knelt down and gave thanks to the Lord. We knew He was watching over us and was aware of our needs. We knew He had prepared that vacant home for us. And we knew He was helping us heal from our wounds as we learned to rely on Him in faith.
“When you live close to the gospel, the Lord is always there. I have proven it to be true that if I would do my homework, if I would study and be prepared, the Lord always ratified the direction I should take. The Lord has always been there to rely on.”
Elder L. Tom Perry, “News of the Church,” Ensign, May 1974, 121.