“Pulling Together—Ben Hur Lives on in San Jose,” New Era, May 1978, 28
Julius Caesar himself would have been proud of the costume.
A brass breastplate, red cape, centurion’s helmet, and pleated warrior’s toga made President A. Brent Brockbank, second counselor in the San Jose California Stake presidency, look like one of Rome’s conquering legionnaires. President Brockbank was participating in a weekend of games and service projects planned by the youth of the stake. The activities included a multi-stake dance and a fireside.
His outfit was in complete harmony with the final Saturday afternoon event—a chariot race pitting homemade vehicles from each ward in the stake against each other.
The stake’s teenagers, divided into six groups by wards, had labored on service projects since early Saturday morning. No wonder they were happy now to relish a well-earned lunch (organized by the Laurels), served from food-laden tables in the Del Mar High School stadium. Let the second counselor steal the spotlight—momentarily.
President Brockbank’s biceps bulged under the weight of a gold-painted plaster-of-paris statue of a charioteer cracking his whip over the heads of six galloping stallions. He explained to the crowd that the Ben Hur Memorial Traveling Award was destined for the ward whose team was fastest in a 440-yard dash around the track. One person was to ride in the chariot, six would pull. Turning first to those still heaping their plates with food, then to those in the stands basking in the west coast sunshine, President Brockbank raised the trophy in the air.
“Those who are about to die, we salute you!” he shouted to rivals in another ward, making fun of ancient Coliseum rites. Stake members, young and old alike, cheered the “emperor” on. The tone for the afternoon—a mood of happy excitement—was set.
A full afternoon of games, capped by the chariot race, had been scheduled, based on ideas from youth groups in each ward. That night, there would be a dance and the California San Jose South and California Saratoga stakes would join with them.
But the key to the weekend, and its highlight, according to many of those involved, was that it started out with service projects.
Seven or eight A.M. seemed an early hour for yard work; it would have been much more pleasant just to lounge in bed until 11:00. But by 8:00 A.M. Saturday morning, 25 Scouts, priests, Mia Maids, and Laurels from the San Jose Third Ward were on their way to help two elderly people in the ward.
A caravan of automobiles, with rakes and hoes sprawling out the windows, churned up a cloud of highway dust as the group rushed to the home of J. Winter Smith. Brother Smith is a great-grandson of Samuel Smith, brother of the Prophet Joseph. He was for a time in a rest home but was unhappy there. The ward brought him home and promised to take care of him.
Today, his yard would be spruced up. On other occasions, the young people of the area have prepared meals, cleaned and painted his house, and kept Uncle J, as they call him, company.
Stepping momentarily to the door with the help of Bishop John Minick, white-haired Uncle J gave directions to Keith Peddicord, 19, the project supervisor.
“You may as well make my yard pretty. You can’t do anything to make me pretty,” the grateful 96-year-old said.
When the work was done at Brother Smith’s, kids, hoes, and rakes piled into the cars again, racing to the home of the bishop’s elderly nonmember neighbor, a lady with a broken hip. Soon her yard was clean and her lawn well-manicured.
At the San Jose 23rd Ward, youth representatives had decided to clean up the meetinghouse as their service project. This posed a problem for Burke Perry, 12, the bishop’s son. He is the only boy his age in his ward. So he recruited some help.
Urged on by Burke’s promises that they could compete in the chariot race, several of his nonmember friends also grabbed buckets and sponges to help scrub down chapel benches and the kitchen, joining forces with the girls in the ward. Such fellowshipping is typical for Burke, who kept 10 nonmembers coming to church all year so he could play on a ward basketball team.
“I just call them up and ask them to come,” he said. “They’re used to it, I guess. Their parents really like it.”
Starting in the middle of the week by cleaning all the salt and pepper shakers in the kitchen, the girls of the San Jose First Ward also washed walls and cleaned the cupboards. Then they joined the boys in digging weeds from a patch of ground near the chapel that is used for an herb garden.
“I didn’t even know we had an herb garden,” Paula Rudy, 18, said as she carried a pile of weeds to a trash can.
The San Jose Second Ward Scouts and Venturers rejuvenated the outside of their chapel by painting the eaves above outside entrances. Laurels and Mia Maids cleaned all the filters and grills for the heating and air-conditioning system. Then they painted the bathrooms and locker rooms, filling in and repairing joints and cracks. Everyone planned to return later in the week to finish the interior painting when the patches had dried.
“Work first, play later is pretty much what it was,” said Mike Black, 16. “That was neat because we worked on the service project first and that was altogether togetherness.”
The San Jose 18th Ward was in charge of the decorations for the dance. Jeanne Meeks, the Laurel adviser, said a month of planning was involved in the decorations. “The kids did it all. That’s one thing that made it so much fun for them,” she said, noting that several nonmembers helped in designing bow ties, eyes, and a hat that were attached to the Volkswagen.
A late-model Beetle had originally been chosen as the car to be brought into the gym. But when the dance committee tried to get it in the door, it was two inches too wide! Someone commented that older cars were smaller. The committee contacted Brother Bert Smith, a science teacher at one of the local schools, and they were able to squeeze his older car through the opening.
The dance committee also asked Brother Smith to use test tubes to set up a “mad scientist” booth at which he brewed root beer. With a wig on his head, surrounded by a cloud of dry ice “steam,” and dressed in a white lab coat, he served thirsty dancers throughout the evening.
Sister Carolyn Wright, the stake Young Women president, said she felt all the stake members involved in the service projects and in the planning of the other activities had learned some important lessons:
—That the young people of the stake were capable of generating ideas and following through on assignments, checking up on themselves to make sure everything was prepared.
—That cooperation between adults and youth is not only necessary, but fun as well.
—That guidelines provided to youth leaders, including suggestions on how to get ideas from bishopric youth committees and from Laurel, Mia Maid, Scout, and priest classes, are indeed helpful.
Sister Wright said, “We just followed the outlines given to us.” She added that youth leaders decided for themselves what activities they would like to have, drew up a list, and then narrowed down the possibilities until they felt they had a reasonable proposal. For example, Frank Taylor, a college student who is stake secretary of the Young Men, originated the chariot race idea.
Many of the service project participants agreed that their time had been well-spent.
“It was fun. I learned a lot from doing it, and I felt good afterwards. I’ve been happy all day,” said Steve Payton, a 16-year-old from the 18th Ward. David Booher, from the 13th Ward, said he felt the service projects were better organized than any he had participated in before.
Judy Nunn, 16, a First Ward member, said holding the service project and the games on the same day was beneficial. “Having it all in one day got a lot more people to come to the service project,” she said.
“I feel good about it,” said Hank Loy, 16, of the 13th Ward. “You feel just as good about a service project as the people you do it for.”
Even as the service projects were continuing, chariot construction was in the polishing stages. In the First Ward, the bishop filled in at the service project in place of Dave Holcomb, who had been working on the chariot since 6:00 A.M. At 1:00 P.M., when the vehicle was finally done, the team rolled it down the street to the high school.
“We put a stereo in it, and Brother Charles McClellan, the priests quorum adviser, helped with the wiring and balanced the weight,” Ron Fowler, a priest in the ward, explained. With the stereo playing the racing theme from the movie Ben Hur, the black chariot with gold trim attracted a lot of attention on its way to the stadium. Some people, when they heard there would be a chariot race, followed along out of curiosity.
One of the chariot builders in another ward gave up his bike for a week so he could use its wheels on the chariot. The 23rd Ward modeled a horse’s head out of aluminum foil to mount on the front of its entry.
Younger brothers and sisters were recruited as riders because of their light weight. In the 13th Ward the chariot construction was a family effort, as Phil Dold and his father designed and built their version of a Roman race car. Throughout the stake, Relief Society sisters sewed capes and fabricated helmets for the riders, including remodeled football helmets.
One ward installed carpeting and a CB radio in its chariot. And the Scouts in another ward spent several activity nights learning to weld as they built their entry.
As the racers, fans, and chariots arrived at the high school, the conversation sounded like one between automotive designers. Amateur engineers extolled the virtues of a low center of gravity, discussed pulling handle alignment, and debated the sturdiness of wheel and axle attachment to the frame.
“I thought nobody would be that interested in building the chariots because it would take a lot of time and effort,” said Dave Davis, 17, of the Second Ward. “But everybody really came through.”
Before the actual chariot race, several hours of games, designed for individual and group participation, offered a chance for recreation following a morning of hard work. To allow all of the young people to participate, adults were asked to be in charge of the different events. Colored tickets were used to limit the number of participants in a given activity at a given time.
The first contest was a balloon toss, with partners facing each other in two long lines down the center of the football field. Water-filled balloons were gently thrown between partners until only one couple remained with an unbroken balloon.
Following the balloon toss, ten other games were offered for individual competition. They included: (1) Duffle bag stuffing. With boxing gloves on, the contestant stuffed foam-rubber strips into a duffle bag, racing against the clock. (2) Spray bottle target practice. With a laundry spray bottle, each participant had to knock off a Ping-Pong ball perched atop a soda bottle. (3) Punch-drinking race. Slurping through a rubber tubing “straw” several feet long, the first person to empty a 32-ounce cup was the winner. (4) A gelatin-eating contest, with hands tied behind the back. (5) Marshmallow munching. Without the use of his hands, each contestant tried to be the one who could get the most marshmallows inside his mouth—and then close his lips. (6) Flying marshmallows. While riding a bicycle, the contestant attempted to catch a marshmallow—hung from the goal post on a piece of string—in his mouth. (7) Tricycle races (limited to those too big to ride a tricycle). (8) Blindfolded cotton-picker. A scarf was tied over the participants’ eyes. The object of the game was to spoon the greatest number of cotton balls into a bowl in 30 seconds. A stiff breeze made this a difficult project. (9) An obstacle course, including old tires, hurdles, and barrels to roll in. (10) Chocolate pudding pals. Teams were composed of three people. Two were blindfolded. One of them fed the other the pudding by following the directions of the third, who was not wearing a blindfold.
Each person was free to compete in as many individual events as he desired. These were followed by group games, which included a tug-of-war; a car-stuffing contest (28 crammed themselves into a Volkswagen); a battle over a huge, canvas ball, which could only be tossed over the goal-post by several people working together; and a contest to see how many people would fit in a four-foot circle.
A final contest before the chariot race also served to clean up the field. Each ward was given a large plastic sack, and the team with the most pieces of garbage in the bag at the end of the day was honored at the dance.
At last, the chariots were wheeled into position at the starting line. Two elimination heats of 220 yards apiece narrowed the field of six down to the three fastest teams.
“On your mark, get set, go!” the starter screamed. The speed was as fast as a 50-yard dash. Noise from the audience was so loud that Little League baseball players and their parents rushed from the other side of the school to see what was going on.
About halfway around the track, the all-girl 23rd Ward team fell behind. The other two teams were in a dead heat coming around the final turn.
On both chariots, the sprinters were nearly exhausted. Some, too tired to continue pulling, released the handles and dropped to the side of the track. The 13th Ward had only two men left, plus the rider, as the low-slung chariot pulled ahead of the First Ward’s team by four feet at the finish line.
A large banner with the number 13 on it was thrown into the air. The winners’ friends and families surrounded them, smiling, shaking hands, hugging each other, and saying, “I knew we could do it!”
Then, through the middle of the throng, President “Caesar” Brockbank pressed forward, bearing the trophy with him. He called for Kendall Hansen and Corian Taylor, who had pulled the winning chariot across the finish line. The crowd parted to let them pass, and the trophy was in their hands.
After the race, the youth of the stake were enthusiastic about the success of the day.
Karen Maury, 16, the 18th Ward Laurel president, said, “I feel the youth of the stake are beginning to gain a testimony of who we are. This whole weekend I’ve spent so much time with the Church that I know it’s going to really build me, to help me to do other things.”
Kathy Ricks, a 16-year-old 13th Warder, said, “I think the best part about it was the closeness everyone felt. I’ve never been to an event like that before, where I’ve made so many friends. You realized how much the youth are able to plan things, that they are capable.”
Mike Standard, 15, of the 13th Ward, added that “a lot of us brought friends who weren’t Mormons, and they really enjoyed it, because they saw what youth, working together, can do. They didn’t know people could just get together and do something and it could work like this did. It was a great missionary tool.”
The Second Ward’s Christan Linebarger, 16, summarized: “I’ve never seen the wards so close before. The spirit that was put across in the enthusiasm was really spectacular. I think that was the most special part of the day. It wasn’t important who won the chariot race or the tug-of-war, but it was important that the whole ward was together in whatever we were doing. That was the most special thing.”
Slowly the stadium emptied. The competitors and the fans went home to clean up and get ready for the dance. On Sunday the lessons learned in the race were emphasized during priesthood and Sunday School. At the fireside, members of the stake presidency drew analogies between pulling together as teams both in church work and in life, as well as stressing the ability of youth to engage in good, clean fun.
The lessons had meaning, because the day had been complete. Service to others was the lesson of the morning, and the need to work with others was evident in the games and in the stampede of chariots Saturday afternoon.
And as for fun, it was a good thing President Brockbank announced the Ben Hur Memorial Traveling Award as a traveling trophy, because it was obvious this would not be the last chariot race in the San Jose California Stake.