“A Chance to Make Good,” New Era, Jan.–Feb. 1985, 20
Ben woke up at five that morning, anxious about his first day of work. After shaving and taking a shower in the bathroom adjoining the guest bedroom, he got dressed in the gray work slacks and shirt he had bought, purposely made dirty, and washed the day before. No use looking like a new worker, he had reasoned. Besides, his future father-in-law had suggested that he try to dress as much like the others as possible. They’re all good boys, he had explained to Ben, but sometimes they can make it rough on people who are different from themselves. Try to fit in, to be as much like them as possible, and you won’t have any trouble.
He sat in the bedroom and watched the clock move slowly to six. Then, deciding he probably wouldn’t wake up the others if he were quiet, he padded silently down the hall through the large dining room with the massive oak dining table into the large kitchen and then out on the patio. Sitting down at a table overlooking the swimming pool, he watched the Southern morning spread across the lush green mountains—a contrast to the elephant-hide browns of his Wyoming hills.
Kim’s father was the next one up. He came out on the patio to sit with Ben. “How’d you sleep?”
“Good,” he said, brushing a large hand over his bald scalp. “No one else is up. I guess breakfast is up to me.”
“No, don’t bother. I can wait. It’s still early.”
“I’d better warn you,” he said with a smile, “Kim likes to sleep in, so if you’re marrying her with the idea of having her fix you breakfast, you’d better think it over.”
Ben grinned, “I hadn’t even thought about it.”
“I suppose not. You’re both too much in love to be very practical. If you’d been practical, you both wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone who lives 1,500 miles from your homes. I can’t understand it,” he teased. “I sent Kim to Ricks College, after she joined your church, to get an education. Instead she got you.”
“I reckon she got a good deal,” Ben grinned, purposely adding his cowboy drawl. “They say a good man is hard to find.”
“Yes, that’s what they say,” he said, suddenly serious, “and I think Kim has found a good one. Let me get you some orange juice and me some coffee … that is, unless you can convert me in the next five minutes.”
In a few minutes he was back with a tray. He set it down and returned with two slices of toast and a file of paper work he constantly carried around with him.
“Are you worried about today?” he asked Ben.
“I guess a little.”
“I’m in an awkward position too, you know,” he said with a grin. “It’s true you’re going to marry my only child, and that I got you a job at the plant, and that I hope someday you’ll take it over and run it so I can retire—but I wouldn’t want anyone accusing me of being partial to you.”
“I’m not afraid of hard work,” Ben said seriously.
“I’m sure you’ll do well,” he said, pushing the file folder away from him. “In a way I was serious about not playing favorites. I’ve told one of my supervisors to put you wherever he needs you. I don’t plan to interfere. You’ll be on your own. Is that acceptable with you?”
“It’s the way I’d prefer it,” Ben said firmly.
A few minutes later, Kim came out, still wearing a robe over her night gown.
“Kimberly,” her father gently scolded, “you shouldn’t be out here with just a robe on.”
“Why not? It’s very modest.”
“Seeing a woman before she’s done herself up can be a rude shock. Maybe Ben will change his mind about marrying you.”
“Daddy,” she drawled with a purposely thick Southern accent, “you’re such a tease.”
“I think she looks good—even in the morning,” Ben defended.
“See there, smarty?” Kim lightly countered. “He thinks I’m a natural beauty, a regular Southern rose.”
“Okay, Rose,” her father concluded, lovingly touching her arm, “how about cooking us some breakfast?”
“Slave driver,” she protested with a smile and a hug.
While Kim cooked bacon and eggs, her father huddled over his stack of reports.
“Paper work!” he growled, shaking his head in disgust. “It’s all I ever do. You know, when I was your age and just starting out, it was fun. I had my own small welding shop, and I did all my own work. If it hadn’t been for the development of nuclear power, I suppose I’d still be in that little shop. When we first got into fabricating fuel rods for nuclear reactors, I never dreamed there’d be so much red tape. It’s been 15 years since I’ve welded. All I do now is push papers.”
After breakfast, Ben left for work. Kim’s father said he would work at his office at home. “Besides,” he said half seriously, “they seem to get more done when I’m not around.”
Ben went to the main office and filled out the forms for his employment. He was issued a film badge which would monitor the dose of radioactivity he would be exposed to.
A supervisor gave him a tour of the plant. It seemed like something from science fiction. Operators stood behind lead-lined partitions and manipulated remote-controlled mechanical arms and fingers, loading small pellets of plutonium into the eight-foot-long rods and then welding the ends shut. The rods were then ready to be shipped.
After the tour, they went to a cafeteria for a break.
“What do you want me to do?” Ben asked, sipping his root beer.
“We’ll put you on checking the X rays of the welds,” the supervisor said, taking a long sip from his cup. “You know, this company’s been good to us. This was a poor area before, but now there’s jobs. Our kids get good medical care. We can send ’em away to college if they want. Most of us own shares in it. We sort of think of it as our company.”
They walked back to the plant, to where the X rays of the welds were inspected. The supervisor showed Ben an X ray and pointed out a white patch which indicated a welding flaw. “The contract says that all welding flaws will be repaired but, to tell you the truth, when we signed the contract, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. We’ve found out that even when a flaw shows up on the X ray, it doesn’t make the weld any less watertight. So when it’s a small flaw, we just let ’em go through.”
“Oh,” Ben said.
“Fact is we can’t make a profit unless we reject fewer than 5 percent of the welds.”
“But what about the X rays?” Ben asked. “There’s still the record of the flaw on the X ray.”
“You’re pretty smart, aren’t you,” the supervisor said, walking to a desk. “I’m going to show you one of the most important tools in this place. It’s made us a profit.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a black felt-tip pen.
Ben looked at the pen for several seconds and then it dawned on him what the supervisor was showing him. “You mark the X ray so the flaw isn’t visible?”
“You catch on fast. That’s what we do. C’mon here. I’ll show you how it’s done.” With one small mark, the flaw on the X ray disappeared. “Now all you have to do is sign it.” Ben signed his name.
Before he left, the supervisor introduced him to Jesse Colson, a hard-boned, tough-talking man who also checked X rays. Then the supervisor left.
“Just do what I do, and you won’t have no trouble,” Jesse glumly suggested.
One day during his second week of work, he had just put one of the X rays on the reject pile when Jesse stopped him.
“What are you doing?”
“Rejecting it. Look at it for yourself.”
“I don’t need to look at it. Let it go through.”
Ben looked up at Jesse’s hard face. “We can reject up to 5 percent.”
“Why bother to put the welders to all that extra work, when we can fix it right here.” Jesse took out his pen and made a small mark, covering up the flaw. He dropped it in the pass box. “If you’re about to reject more than two a week, you talk to me about it first,” he demanded.
On Sunday, Ben attended the Gospel Doctrine class with Kim. Several questions were asked, and since nobody else seemed to volunteer, Ben answered. Finally, near the end of the class, the teacher broke into a broad grin and quipped, “I see we have somebody here who has all the answers. What am I doing here teaching the class? This Yankee friend of Kim’s ought to be.”
On the way home Kim leaned her head against his shoulder and sighed happily.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“You. You’re handsome and smart and good. Do you know what one of the elderly ladies told me today after Sunday School? She said that you looked to her like the next bishop.”
“She shouldn’t have said that,” Ben said firmly. Still, he was flattered. She could be right, he thought to himself.
Monday after work, he stopped by the library and checked out a book dealing with nuclear reactors. After retiring to his room for the night, he stayed up past midnight studying the design of a nuclear power reactor. He wanted to know what happened to the fuel rods after they left the plant, and, even if he wouldn’t admit it, he wanted to know what would happen in a reactor if a fuel rod leaked through one of the welding flaws that he had passed.
Wednesday he was asked to give a talk in sacrament meeting. He spent several hours during the week in preparation. Once he caught himself thinking, how would a future bishop give this talk?
After he had given the talk on Sunday, several people came up and complimented him. One of them was the elder’s quorum president, who also asked him if he would accept an assignment to be a home teacher. Ben accepted the assignment.
What had started as a little annoyance grew as the days passed. Every time he signed his name to pass a weld which should have been rejected, his guilt grew.
He talked with Kim’s father one night about it. “Did you know that some of the welds that have flaws are being passed?”
“Are they?” Kim’s father said with little interest.
“Don’t you think that’s important?”
“Not really. The work we turn out is the best in the industry.”
“But I have to sign my name even when I know there’s a flaw.”
“Don’t worry,” his future father-in-law advised, “it’s only red tape. In business, you have to take shortcuts.”
Ben had assigned to him a teacher as a companion for home teaching, but by the time Ben thought about it, his companion was on vacation, and it was the last of the month. That Saturday afternoon, he took Kim with him. They visited three of the four families assigned to him and idly chatted about weather and gardens.
“You’ll have to show me where this other family lives,” Ben said, showing Kim the name and address of the last family.
“Oh, why did they have to give you him?” she asked. “He never comes out to church.”
“Do you know where he lives?” Ben asked, looking at the name, Zeke Stone.
“Oh, Ben, do we have to go there? It’s up some country road. Who knows how to get there, and he won’t even care if we go or not.” She leaned close to him. “C’mon, let’s go swimming.”
“Okay,” he said.
Two days later, he got a phone call from the elder’s quorum president about his home teaching. “How’d you do?”
“Got ’em all,” Ben said, resolving that next month he really would visit Zeke Stone, the man who lived in the hills.
That week they sent out their wedding announcement. It showed a picture of the Washington Temple.
The next Sunday, after sacrament meeting, the elder’s quorum president asked if he could talk with Ben for a while. Kim agreed to wait for him, whispering into his ear, “I just know it’s about the vacancy in the elder’s quorum presidency.”
The quorum president and Ben found an empty room and sat down opposite each other on folding chairs. The president was a big man, a farmer, one who had a hard time conducting quorum business, always a little self-conscious about his lack of schooling. He began with prayer.
“You know, I was out shopping for groceries yesterday and I saw Brother Stone.” Speaking softly, almost apologetically, he continued, “Well, I asked him how he liked his new home teachers and he said he’d never seen you.” The president cleared his throat and fumbled with his clipboard. “Now I’m not very good at records, but I’ve written down here that you visited him. I must have made a mistake, don’t you think?”
Suddenly he looked into Ben’s eyes, and Ben knew that he knew that there had been no mistake. Ben felt the sweat pouring down his arms. He covered his mouth with one hand and looked down at the floor. He felt tears streaking down his face, and it seemed that there was a fist inside his throat. He swallowed hard and whispered, “Could I get a drink of water?”
“Sure, son,” the president answered gently.
Ben rushed to the fountain and let the cool water rush over his face and mouth. Pulling out a handkerchief, he wet it and wiped his brow.
He turned around. The quorum president stood to his left a few feet away, and Kim stood on his right. They both seemed to want to come closer to help him, but neither knew what to say.
“I’ve lied to the Lord,” he agonized. “We never visited Zeke Stone. We went swimming instead.”
The president cleared his throat and said quietly, “We all make mistakes. It takes a big man to admit he’s done wrong.”
Ben turned to Kim. “Appearances … I’m tired of putting up appearances. Covering flaws, pretending they’re not real. Pretending to be something I’m not. I need to worry about my own repenting.”
Suddenly Kim ran into his arms and held him close to her.
The quorum president touched his shoulder. “It was partly my fault. I should’ve showed you how to get there. It’s not easy to find.”
“Can we go up there now?” Ben asked.
“Sure we can. Let’s go now.”
They drove Kim home and then headed out of town. They followed the highway for a few miles, then turned onto a county road, and then followed a rutted dirt road. At one point the road veered sharply upward, crossed railroad tracks, and then sunk rapidly downward.
“I’d hate to hit that going fast,” Ben observed.
Then they turned off the dirt road onto a path. The thick growth of bushes and trees closed in around them as they continued, and the branches slapped at the sides of the car as they passed.
Suddenly they were out of the green tunnel and into a clearing near the top of the hill.
Zeke Stone was working his garden. He was an old man, wearing faded bib coveralls and a tattered hat to shade his face. A battered pickup truck stood beside a small weather-beaten house. There was no screen door on the house, and chickens roamed in and out the door. A large dog came running and barking toward them. The quorum president honked his horn and got out to greet Brother Stone. The dog’s paws landed on his chest as he gave his greetings.
“Look at that!” Brother Stone shouted with delight. “I got visitors from the Church.” He called his dog away from them.
They all stood by the garden and talked. Ben listened with admiration to their talk, loose, full of laughter and good feelings.
Brother Stone loaded them down with freshly picked corn and tomatoes. Then he invited them over to the shady part of his house, where he had set up two car seats outside. Going inside, he brought out a banjo, a jar of homemade grape juice, and three cups. While they sat and drank, he tuned up his banjo and played.
The quorum president tapped his feet, chuckling at the endless variations of “Cripple Creek,” while Ben merely sat and smiled.
“You unhappy?” Brother Stone asked Ben.
“Then loosen up. You look like a Yankee.”
Monday morning at work, Ben rejected welds which were outside the tolerances set in the contract. By ten o’clock, there were ten rejected X rays on his desk.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jesse snarled when he discovered the rejected welds. “You can’t reject all these.”
“Look at the X rays.”
Suddenly Ben was being pulled to his feet by his shoulders, and then found himself staring into Jesse’s clenched fist.
“Jesse, let go of me,” Ben said quietly.
He dropped his hold. “Change the X rays.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Then get out of here! I’m warning you! All I got to do is make one phone call for my friends and you won’t make it out of here in one piece.”
“I won’t be part of a lie,” Ben said firmly.
“Then quit, walk out while you still can.”
Ben stood, squared away to fight if he had to, his mind racing at what choice to make. Finally he said, “Okay, Jesse. I don’t belong here anyway.”
As he turned to walk away, Jesse called after him, “If you ever tell anyone about the way we work here, you’ll regret it.”
That evening Kim and Ben went to the meetinghouse to be interviewed for temple recommends. The wedding was less than a week away. Ben was elated to answer one of the bishop’s questions, “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?”
Over the next few days, he tried looking for other work, but there wasn’t anything else—or else people in the town, hearing about what they considered his betrayal of the company, wouldn’t talk to him about a job.
And at night, Ben and Kim’s father seemed to be constantly dueling, either about the company or else about Kim’s affection. Ben was careful to limit these discussions to times when Kim was not in the room, for he hadn’t told her yet about the circumstances which led to his quitting.
“Doesn’t it bother you that you’re sending defective fuel rods out of your plant?” Ben asked one evening in the office at home.
“What makes you a sudden expert on nuclear power?” his future father-in-law countered.
“Okay,” Ben admitted, “I’m not an engineer. But why bother to do the X rays at all then?”
“Because it’s in the contract.”
“And why is it in the contract?” Ben pressed.
“Red tape. It’s just another form to fill out.”
Finally, having looked for work and failed, Ben asked Kim the inevitable question one morning three days before the wedding. “What would you think about us going back West after we’re married?”
“You’ll find work. I know you will. You haven’t asked Daddy to help you.”
“I don’t want his help,” Ben answered sharply.
“Why didn’t you stay at the job you had?” Kim asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“We’ve got to talk about it. If I’m going to be your wife, I’ve got to know what’s wrong. You and Daddy hardly talk to each other anymore. What’s wrong?”
“Okay, Kim, I’ll tell you. They’re covering up their mistakes. Some of the fuel rods are being passed with defects in them. It violates their contract.”
“That can’t be true. Daddy would never let that happen.”
“He knows, Kim. I told him. He says it isn’t important.”
“Then it isn’t important,” Kim defended.
“Ben, I won’t have you talking like that about my father.”
“Kim, what do you want for a husband? A cardboard cutout that you can prop up smiling for all social occasions? I can’t be like that. You’ve either got to decide between your father or me, but you can’t have both of us.”
She stormed away from him. He went to his room and started packing slowly, hoping that there was a way to get around the problem, hoping she would come in and apologize, hoping that her father would apologize, trying to remember what the bishop had said about marriage in the interview.
A few minutes later, Kim did knock on his door. He opened it quickly.
“There’s a phone call for you,” she said.
He went to the hall phone to answer it. Kim followed him.
“My name is Porter. I’m from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I wonder if I could talk to you for a few minutes … unofficially. I’m staying at the motel just outside town …”
He put the phone down. Kim stood across the hall from him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Somebody from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Kim, they must know about the welds. Tell your father.”
He ran into his room and got his suitcase and ran out to his car.
“Where are you going?” Kim cried.
“Do you think I’ll have much chance of staying alive in this town? Everybody’s going to think I told the authorities. I’m leaving town as soon as I can.”
He drove around to the back of the motel and walked inside, finally finding the room number given by the man on the phone.
“Thank you for coming,” the man said. “It’s about your job as an inspector of the X rays. Was there anything strange about the inspection procedures?”
“Are you going to close the plant?” Ben asked.
“Oh no, nothing like that. There have been a few complaints, and we just wanted to check around.”
“There were some irregularities,” Ben said as he began to explain his experience.
When he was finished, the man thanked him and stood up to show him to the door.
“What will you do now?” Ben asked.
“There’s a plane being sent from Washington with several men like myself. We’ll conduct a thorough review of the plant’s operation. You’ve been most helpful. I’ll keep our little talk unofficial, but it will be useful in our review.”
Ben ran into the motel office to use a pay phone. He called Kim. “Did you tell your father?”
“Yes, but he’s not doing anything. He’s just sitting there, like he’s in shock.” With urgency in her voice, Kim said, “He wants to see you.”
“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute.”
As Ben drove through the sleepy town, he had the feeling that it was a time bomb, set to blow up in his face.
Kim met him at the door and told him that her father was in his office. Ben found him, idly gazing out the window.
“There’s a group of government inspectors coming here. Isn’t there anything you want to do … to prepare for them?”
He turned to face Ben. “Do you still love my daughter?”
“Then why don’t you marry her?”
“I can’t stay in this town.”
“Then take her out West. I guess there’s worse things than Wyoming, aren’t there?” he said with a smile.
“She won’t go with me,” Ben said glumly. “She loves you too much to leave.”
“Let me look into that,” Kim’s father said confidently. “Tell me, what do you think I ought to do about my company?”
“I think you ought to cooperate with the inspection, find out what’s wrong, and then run it the way it should be run.”
He studied Ben intently, then banged his fist on his desk, smiled and said, “I’m going to do that.”
They were interrupted by a phone call from a secretary at the plant. It was a short call and when it was over, Kim’s father said simply, “They’ve arrived.”
“I’m worried about some of the guys at the plant. I bet I’m not very popular with them now.”
“Tell me their names and I’ll call and explain things to them.”
Ben gave him Jesse’s name, and he called the plant and asked to speak with Jesse Colson. After several minutes delay, Kim’s father asked, “What do you mean he left? Where did he go? Well, did anybody leave with him? Listen, I want the name of every man that left. You get hold of those men and tell them I want to speak with them!”
He hung up, turned to Ben and said, “They left work.”
“I’m leaving town now.”
“No, let me speak to them.”
“Tell Kim I’ll call her when I get to Wyoming,” Ben said as he ran out of the office to his car.
He turned onto the highway. A few miles out of town, as he rounded a curve, he saw a car parked ahead of him at the side of the road. Suspecting trouble, he turned into a country road. He saw the car start up, pull a U-turn, and head after him.
They both raced down the road, dust billowing up after them, so that it became difficult for Ben to see how far the car was from him, but, on a curve, he turned back and saw that the car was gaining on him.
Then he realized that he’d been on the road before and that if he made the proper sequence of turns from county road to county road that it would lead to Brother Zeke Stone.
A few minutes later with a plan in mind, Ben raced up the steep slope of the railroad crossing and bumped across the tracks. Once over the tracks, he slammed on his brakes. As the car came to a stop, he jumped out, ran for the thick foliage, and waited for the other car.
As he had expected, the car had raced up the steep slope. It wasn’t until the driver was starting down the other side that he saw Ben’s car parked in the middle of the road. Ben could see that the driver was Jesse. He slammed on his brakes and veered to the left, just managing to miss Ben’s car.
Jesse bounded out of his car, swearing about nearly getting killed. He ran to the car to see if Ben was inside and then yelled to two others, “Burn it!” Then Jesse went to his car and pulled out a rifle, looked around, and picked up a CB mike.
Ben turned around and fought his way through the foliage, heading parallel to the road so that he would cross the lane which led to Brother Stone’s place. After about half an hour, he had made it there.
Brother Stone was outside in his garden. Ben ran up to him out of breath and scratched from his trek through the woods.
“What’s wrong?” Brother Stone asked.
Ben explained, and then asked, “Can you take me to another town so I can catch a bus back home?”
“Sure I can,” Brother Stone said slowly. First he went to his well and filled his radiator with water. “Water leaks a mite,” filled his left rear tire with air, “Tires leak a bit too,” and started the pickup running. Then he walked slowly to his house. Ben followed after him, trying to get him to move faster, expecting any minute to see Jesse burst through the clearing with his rifle blazing.
Brother Stone stood in the doorway and scratched his head. “Now let me see. If we drive down there, we’re going to pass by ’em, and they’re going to look inside, and they’re going to see you, and then they’re going to stop us. How are they going to tell it’s you? Because you look like a Yankee. But we’re going to fool ‘em, aren’t we?”
Ben ended up with a faded pair of coveralls, a pair of crusty old boots, and a checkered long sleeve shirt.
Brother Stone examined the effect critically. “One more thing,” he said with a wry smile. He went to a shelf and pulled down a large brown jug.
They started down the lane. From the lane they turned onto the road, heading opposite the direction of the railroad tracks. Even so, as they turned one corner, there were three cars and a pickup parked off the side. Four men stood idly by, waiting to walk into the woods. One of the men had a dog.
Brother Stone continued going at the same slow pace. Calmly he directed Ben, “Now, pick up the jug, and tip it up like you’re going to take a drink, and so it covers your face. It’s only water, you know. I threw the other stuff away when I got baptized.”
When they were past, Brother Stone chuckled softly, “They didn’t pay us any attention at all. Son, you’re officially a hillbilly.”
When they arrived at the town 40 miles away and Brother Stone stopped in front of the bus depot, Ben was at a loss to express his thanks adequately. Finally he thrust out his hand and said, “I’ll never forget this.”
“Just a sweet ride in the country. There’s nothing to thank me for.”
Ben asked him if he’d phone Kim and tell her he was safe. Then he was gone. Several seconds later, Ben realized he was still holding the jug.
He walked inside and went to the ticket counter. Setting the jug on the counter, he asked the attendant, “When’s the next bus north?”
The man looked at him critically and demanded, “You got any money?”
Ben looked down at his clothes, then to the jug, then to the man, and burst out laughing.
Regaining his composure finally, he fished into the front pocket, pulled out his wallet, and showed the man some money.
Ben bought a ticket, sat down, and waited. He gazed blankly at the floor, going over in his mind the events of the past few weeks, wondering if he’d ever see Kim again.
A man sat down beside him and whispered, “Mind if I have a drink from your jug?”
Ben nodded absently.
The man took a drink and spat it out. “What’s that?”
“Water,” Ben answered.
The bus was on time. Ben found the first empty row and sat down. He wanted to be alone.
A minute later, as the bus headed down the narrow two-lane road, someone was standing next to him. “Excuse me, I believe you’re sitting in my place.”
He looked up and saw Kim standing there. In shock, he stood up so she could sit beside him.
“What’s in the jug?” she asked suspiciously.
“Water. Kim, why are you on this bus?”
“Because Brother Stone phoned and told us where you were, and because this bus goes through our town one hour before it gets here, and because Daddy is happier now than I’ve seen him for a long time because he’s got a job of rebuilding to do, and because he told me that if I let you go I was a fool—‘That boy is honest and I’d trust him with anything’—and because my mother is riding in the bus four rows back …”
“Your mother is riding on a bus?” Ben asked incredulously.
Kim nodded her head. “And because I love you, and I’ll stick with you even if you want to raise rutabagas in Iceland. Basically I’d say that’s why I’m on this bus.”
He carefully set his jug on the floor, leaned over and kissed her.
A few seats back he could vaguely hear the sound of a woman clearing her throat nervously several times.