“The Service Project,” New Era, July 1987, 34
The Service Project
“Okay, guys. Then I’ll find something you’ll enjoy doing.”
“A hot fudge sundae says you miss,” Clay Carson taunted from the edge of the cement basketball court behind the elementary school.
“Make that a double,” Tad Patterson yelled from under the basket.
At half court I bounced the ball three times and then held it at chest level. Eyeing the basket, I crouched slightly in the knees and was about to send the ball arching toward the basket when a voice called behind me, “I’ll make that a triple.” My concentration crumbled, and although I still pushed the shot off—I was too far into it to stop—I missed the rim entirely. Barely hit the backboard.
Amid hoots, hollers, and hassling, I turned to see Samuel Feagin, our priests adviser, standing at the other end of the court with his hands on his hips and a goading grin on his face.
Brother Feagin was probably the best athlete ever to come out of Rolling Hills High School. He had been a two-time All-Stater in both football and basketball and second in the 100 meters his senior year. Although he was a little over 30 and had a desk job at a bank, he continued to stay trim and fit, maintaining his weight at a healthy 185 pounds, just 10 pounds heavier than the day he graduated from high school.
“Thanks a lot, Brother Feagin,” I muttered, wiping the sweat from my brow with my shirttail. Tad and Clay were coming up behind me, Clay bouncing the ball and Tad pulling on the shirt he had discarded on the grass 30 minutes earlier.
“Ross needs a little more practice,” Clay teased me, slapping me on the back. “He just doesn’t have the touch today.” He wagged his head. “In fact, I’m not sure he’s ever had the touch.”
“I’ve hit seven of those today,” I said, turning to Brother Feagin, who was ambling toward us, kicking a couple of pebbles from the court as he came.
“I’d have drilled that one too if you hadn’t yelled when you did.”
Brother Feagin chuckled, “Ross, you’re always telling me how good you are, but whenever I come around you lose your concentration. I don’t know how you ever managed to be voted All-State guard as a junior. Must have been a bad year for basketball players. Do you think you can even make the team this year?”
I didn’t answer. I knew Brother Feagin was only joking. Tad, Clay, and I had been on the Rolling Hills varsity football and basketball teams since we were sophomores. Though none of us had played much that first year, Brother Feagin had rarely missed one of our games; and though to our faces he didn’t hesitate to kid us about our athletic prowess, we knew he bragged about us otherwise every chance he got. A lot of our success had to be attributed to him. He’d spent more than one afternoon scrimmaging with the three of us, giving us pointers, pushing us to our limits, and humbling us a little when it was timely and appropriate. He wasn’t just an adviser; he was a friend, a coach, and just an all-around good guy.
“How’d you find us, Brother Feagin?” Tad asked, looking a little sheepish.
Brother Feagin didn’t answer right away. He snatched the ball from Clay and bounced it a few times. “I figured I’d find you here playing basketball. Or out front on the lawn playing football. You’re pretty consistent, you know.”
“Are they finished over at Sister Howard’s place?” Tad asked.
“Yep. I came to tell you the grub’s ready.” He dribbled toward the basket, jumped, and pushed the ball off. It jangled through the chain net. “If you’ve earned it,” he added, as he ran after the ball.
“We helped,” I responded. “Didn’t we?” I asked, turning to Tad and Clay.
“Yeah,” Clay corroborated. “We raked up two of those big piles in back. Honest.”
Brother Feagin was walking back, bouncing the ball as he came. “I know. I saw you. For a while I thought you’d stick around. Then the next thing I knew you were gone.”
“Ah, Brother Feagin,” I groaned, “those service projects are so—so blah. They’re so sappy.”
“You’re the guys that organized the thing for the Mutual. It was your idea.”
“But it was your suggestion,” I pointed out.
“You didn’t come up with anything better.”
“Service projects are dumb,” Clay grumbled.
“Clay, service is what the Church is all about,” Brother Feagin came back.
“Yeah, but it’s not raking leaves and hoeing weeds,” I countered. “Why don’t we do something meaningful? Something that will make a difference. We’re always running around trying to scare up some service project, just something to keep us busy. We put in our hour and a half and we’re supposed to be better people for it. I’d rather play basketball.”
“There’s more to life than basketball, Ross.”
“Football?” Tad joked.
Brother Feagin studied us for a moment. We couldn’t look him in the eye, though. We stared down at the court and felt his eyes on us. “Go ahead, chew us out and get it over with,” Clay mumbled. “Then let’s go eat.”
“I didn’t come to chew you out,” he came back. He tossed the ball hard into Clay’s stomach. Though it caught Clay off guard, he caught it, but not before it knocked his wind out. Brother Feagin grinned. “You’re getting better, Clay.” Then he became serious. “There are a lot of people looking up to you three. A lot of the kids back there are wondering why the three of you get off. You might not want to be examples to those other kids, but you are. But it’s up to you as to the kind of examples you’ll be.” He pushed his hands into his pockets. “I’m not going to chase you down anymore when we have a service project,” he announced simply. “If you want to be there, you be there. If you’re good enough to start for Rolling Hills, you’re good enough to stay with a service project until it’s finished.”
“Are you threatening to resign?” Tad asked knowingly, trying not to smile, but the smile escaped through his eyes.
Brother Feagin took a deep breath. “No, I’m not going to resign. I guess I like you guys too much. Don’t ask me why,” he muttered, then smiled wanly. “Maybe you remind me too much of myself.”
“Yeah,” Tad grinned, “you probably skipped out of all your service projects when you were growing up. Now you feel guilty so you want us to do all the work to relieve you of your guilty conscience.”
Brother Feagin rubbed his chin with the backs of his fingers. “Maybe. Maybe I don’t want you to feel guilty when you’re 30 and looking back.”
“Hey, Brother Feagin,” I burst out, “if we were doing something that was unique, we could handle it, but who wants to rake leaves?”
“Yeah, if there were about ten banana splits that needed to be cleaned up, we could handle that,” Tad offered.
“Or if you know of three lonely, beautiful girls, we could make them happy,” Clay suggested. “That would be a praiseworthy service project.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “we would have two or three service projects like that a week. One a night if you wanted.”
“Just give us something—something tailored to us,” Tad said seriously. Then he grinned.
“It’s not what you do. It’s why you do it. That’s what makes service unique. The task isn’t nearly as important as the attitude.” Brother Feagin thought for a moment and then said, “But if I think up something unique, something that’s never been tried before, you’ll do it?” We eyed him suspiciously and glanced at each other. “I might even be able to make it so there was food involved. And maybe a girl or two. What do you say?” The three of us shifted our weight uneasily and then nodded, entrusting ourselves into Brother Feagin’s care.
We soon forgot about the deal we had made with Brother Feagin. Football season was almost upon us and the three of us were trying to work summer jobs, push weights in the evenings, do a little jogging, and work on our plays before we started two practices a day in a week and a half.
One evening after one of our workouts, Brother Feagin called up and asked us to drop over by his place for a few minutes. Still wearing our shorts, T-shirts, and running shoes, we strolled over to his place. He and his wife Connie were sitting on the front porch in a bench swing while their three little girls were out playing on the lawn. Tad, Clay, and I dropped down on the front steps.
“What’s up?” I asked, feeling the sweat trickle down the small of my back.
“I’ve got your service project lined up,” Brother Feagin announced, “and it’s tailored to you.”
I glanced at Connie who looked at her husband and then smiled down at the three of us.
“What’s he got planned for us, Sister Feagin?” I asked.
Her eyes sparkled and her quiet smile blossomed into a full grin. Just then her youngest daughter, Tara, padded barefoot up the steps and scampered over to her. Sister Feagin pulled her up into her lap and then answered, “You’ll have to ask Sam about his plans.”
“We’re waiting,” Tad said suspiciously.
“I lined you all up,” Brother Feagin announced, coming right to the point.
For a moment the three of us were silent. Maybe dumbfounded is a more accurate description.
“You did what?” Clay asked.
“You said you wanted a unique service project. You accused me of always making the suggestions to you, so I decided that I’d take one of your own suggestions. You said you’d be perfectly content to take a girl out for a service project. So I lined you up.”
“With who?” Tad demanded, fidgeting uneasily on the front steps.
“Does it matter with whom as long as you make her happy?”
“It sure does,” I answered, getting nervous. I glanced over at Sister Feagin, who had taken her husband’s arm and snuggled up next to him. She winked at the three of us.
“I think you’re setting us up,” Tad complained.
Brother Feagin rolled his tongue around his mouth like he does when he’s thinking. “Have I ever led you astray?” he asked.
We shook our heads. “But there’s always a first time,” Clay murmured.
“Have I ever done anything that would cause you not to trust me?” We shook our heads again. “Then trust me now,” he said solemnly.
“I trust you to give our priesthood lessons and stuff, but I’m not sure I want you choosing my dates.”
“Are you questioning his taste?” Sister Feagin asked, holding her chin up and looking down at us. Brother Feagin laughed, put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and pulled her close. “Personally,” she continued with a smile, “I think he has remarkable taste.” She started to giggle.
“When you do a service project, you help those in need,” I pointed out, obviously skeptical and disgruntled. “Any girl that’s in need of a date can’t be too—”
“Don’t judge,” Brother Feagin cut me short, raising a warning finger. “I just followed your suggestion. But I’ll throw in a guarantee if it will make you feel better.”
“Keep talking,” Tad said.
“If this service project isn’t the best you’ve ever had, if you don’t come off this date with absolutely no regrets, I’ll give you each a steak dinner.”
“He’ll probably fry them himself,” Clay grumbled. “And burn them to a crisp.”
“I’ll take you out for steaks then. Any place you want to go. But remember,” Brother Feagin cautioned, “you’ve got to be on your best behavior. You’ve got to do all you can to make it a good date. Fair enough?”
We nodded and Clay asked, “Where and when?”
“Tomorrow night, here. Bring a corsage and wear a suit. And I’ll tell you tomorrow who your dates are. We’ll take my van.”
“Are you and Sister Feagin going with us?” I asked hopefully.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Sister Feagin laughed.
None of us had ever had a blind date, and though we weren’t expecting great things from this one, we couldn’t help feeling just a little anticipation as we congregated in Brother Feagin’s living room the next evening. Perhaps it was as much curiosity as anticipation, but it had a certain luring effect which made us all show up on time.
“Well, who are the lucky ladies?” Tad asked as he pulled at his shirt collar and cradled his corsage.
“They don’t go to Rolling Hills,” Sister Feagin spoke up, “but one was a beauty queen.”
“Keep going,” Tad said.
“In high school, none of them worried about getting a date. They were very popular. And pretty.”
I began to chuckle. “I’m dying to hear the catch. What happened after high school? Did they all get run over by a train?”
“No catch. You really couldn’t find better people.”
“I’ll take the beauty queen,” I spoke up. Clay and Tad glared at me.
“All right, Ross,” Brother Feagin said, “you’ll take Mandy Wilson.”
“Mandy Wilson.” I smiled. “Sounds nice.” I thought for a moment. “Is she any relation to Sister Wilson that lives over on Alpine Drive?” Brother Feagin nodded. “Granddaughter?” He shook his head. “Great-granddaughter?”
“Closer relation than that.”
“Daughter?” I gasped. Brother Feagin shook his head. “Well, how much closer can you get?” He didn’t answer. I stared at him and my eyes began to narrow. “Now wait a minute,” I said slowly in protest. “Just a minute.”
“What’s going on?” Clay asked, utterly confused. “I don’t get it.”
“Mandy Wilson isn’t Sister Wilson?” I rasped.
Tad and Clay both bolted to their feet. “What?” they asked in horror.
“You set me up with Sister Wilson?”
Brother Feagin remained calm. He had his arm around his wife’s shoulder and was looking steadily at the three of us.
“And who are we going with?” Clay demanded.
“Bette Douglas and Liz Arnold.”
“Not Sister Douglas, not that Bette Douglas?” Tad wheezed. “The one that lives over by the elementary school?”
“That’s the one. And Liz Arnold lives over in the 15th Ward.”
“But they’re old ladies,” I protested.
“Sister Wilson is 74, Sister Arnold is 77, and Sister Douglas is 75.”
The three of us stood gaping in shocked silence.
“They’re very nice women,” Sister Feagin said. “Fun ladies.”
“What do we have to do, pick them up in a wheelchair and hire a nurse to give them periodic heart massage?” Clay asked.
“They’re all in very good health. They don’t even carry canes. And if you’re not too terribly thrilling, they might not even have a heart attack.”
“They’re married,” Tad cried out.
“Widowed. That makes them eligible. There’s no law that says you can’t ask someone out who’s older than you.”
“They’ve probably got grandkids older than we are.”
“No probably about it. They all have grandkids older than you. Look, you’re not going to marry them. There’s an adult two-stake dance tonight. You’re going to take them out for an evening and show them a good time. Something they don’t get very often.”
“We’re just a bunch of kids. They’ll be wondering if they’re supposed to baby-sit us.”
“Prove to them that you don’t need a baby-sitter anymore.”
“Brother Feagin,” I groaned, “they’re not going to want to go with us.”
Brother Feagin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll admit,” he said, nodding his head, “that you’re probably not first on their list of eligible males, but you just happen to be all there is. Don’t flatter yourselves. They have some misgivings themselves.”
“But they won’t want to go,” Tad insisted.
Brother Feagin thought for a moment and then said, “Do you know how many years Sister Arnold has been a widow?” We shook our heads.
“Thirty-five years. Her husband was killed when she was 42. She had eight kids under 18. She went back to college, got a degree, and then taught for the next 19 years. She didn’t have much time for a social life. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go 35 years without a date? That’s twice as long as you’ve been alive. People never outgrow their need for doing things with other people. Oh, she’s gone to a church dance occasionally, but always with a couple, always feeling like a fifth wheel. Now she has a chance to go out and be the main wheel. Going with someone young enough to be her grandkid won’t be ideal, but it beats staying home for 35 years.”
“But why us?” I mumbled.
“I know you can play football and basketball. I know you can push weights. I know you can get good grades. I know you can charm the girls at school. Now I want to see if you can be gentlemen.”
We were silent, staring at the floor, knowing that whatever this service project wasn’t, it was certainly unique. No one else would have dared ask us to do something so utterly crazy. No one else could have asked and had us accept. Brother Feagin was probably the only person in the whole world we knew we couldn’t turn down. There was just no way we would have disappointed him.
“All right,” I muttered without enthusiasm, “we’ll go for you.”
“I don’t want you to go for me,” he said, his voice soft but charged with emotion. “I want you to go for those three sisters. I’m happy. I have a wife and three kids at home. I don’t need to go to that stake dance tonight to be happy. I can stay home and be happy. But those three sisters are alone.”
No one spoke for a couple of minutes. We just stood around avoiding each other’s eyes and waiting for someone else to be the one to break the stifling silence. Clay ended up being the bold one. He took a deep breath and cried out, “Well, let’s get going before the flowers wilt. I’m not giving Bette a crumby wilted flower.” Turning to Tad and me, he ordered, “And get those glum looks off your faces. We’re not going to a funeral.”
Never in my life had I been so nervous to pick up a date. When we drove up to Sister Wilson’s place, my mouth was dry and my cheeks burned with an annoying blush. I’m sure I was sweating, but I was so uptight that I couldn’t think about anything so trivial as wet underarms, bad breath, or messed up hair, the usual considerations I had before picking a girl up.
“Why don’t all three of you go,” Sister Feagin suggested as the van stopped.
“Yeah, let’s all three of us go,” I joined in. Tad and Clay looked dubiously at me. “To all three of them,” I quickly added.
So all three of us marched up to Sister Wilson’s front door. Amanda Wilson came to the door in a navy blue dress. She had a narrow face, creased with smile wrinkles about her thin lips and her piercing blue eyes. She smiled. “Well, hello, boys,” she greeted us warmly. I’d never paid much attention to her in the past. There had never been a need. She was just one of the older women that I’d seen wandering about the church on Sunday. I wasn’t even positive what ward she was in. But on this particular evening, standing on her front steps, I took a good look. I could still detect those faint features that had made her a beauty queen in her youth.
“Are you ready?” I stammered.
She laughed. “I guess I’ve been ready for half an hour.”
“We’re not late, are we?”
She shook her head and smiled. “No, I’m just early.” Her voice broke slightly, and her cheeks colored some. I was taken back as I realized that she was just a little nervous. We were the ones who were supposed to be nervous. We were the kids. She was the adult. But we were making Sister Wilson nervous. Or was it a rare kind of excitement?
“This is for you,” I said, holding out the corsage.
Her eyes widened and she clasped her hands together in front of her. “A flower? For me?” she gasped, happily surprised. “You shouldn’t have,” she whispered. “I had no idea.”
I just smiled and shrugged.
“I really wasn’t expecting a flower.”
“Well, there is one catch,” I said, grinning. “I’m not an expert when it comes to pinning them on.”
While Tad and Clay watched, I fumbled about to pin the corsage onto Sister Wilson’s dress. My hands were shaking badly and I almost took two of my fingers off trying to get the pin through everything it was supposed to go through. “You sure your mom isn’t here to do this for you?” I muttered in jest.
Sister Wilson laughed. “Will my grandson do? He lives across the street.”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid he’d be as clumsy as me. I don’t know why they don’t just tape these things on instead of using these pins.”
Tad and Clay had to pin their corsages on their dates too, and they weren’t any better than I was. When we all got in the van, I noticed for the first time how excited these three older ladies were. Here they were going out with a gang of boys and they were excited. I had been so worried about me that I hadn’t noticed them until I heard and saw them talking and laughing with each other. It made me feel warm inside to think that I could make someone feel that good.
“I feel privileged to be going with such handsome young men,” Sister Douglas laughed.
“There are going to be a lot of unhappy young girls at home tonight, wondering why you young men aren’t taking them out instead of old ladies.”
Clay sighed and answered, “These young girls just don’t have what it takes. We like our dates to be—” He groped for the word.
“We like them to be mature,” I helped out with a smile. “And we take only the best,” I added as the women laughed.
“Actually,” Tad injected, loosening up and getting into the jovial spirit of the occasion, “we’ve been wanting to take you out for a long time.”
“And what kept you?” Sister Wilson asked.
“Well, we were just waiting until you were—well, until you were old enough!” Everyone laughed. “We wanted to make sure you were old enough to date.”
“I’m glad you didn’t wait much longer,” Sister Arnold joked back, “or we might not have been available.”
I had never imagined that a date with a 74-year-old woman could be fun. But it was. I suppose what made it so fun is that they were so appreciative of everything we did. When we opened a door, offered them our arm or any of the other little common courtesies, they were so quick to thank and praise us. I soon felt so proudly chivalrous that I was about to burst.
When we entered the stake center for the dance, we heard the soft music, which wasn’t exactly our style, and I leaned over and announced to the three women, “You’ll have to be a little patient with our dancing skills—or lack of them. We play a pretty mean game of football, but we’re not too great on the dance floor.”
Sister Wilson smiled and patted my arm. “We’ll show you,” she said. “Our football days are behind us, but with a little support we can still dance a pretty wild waltz. At least for girls our age.”
“Don’t expect to be danced breathless, though,” Sister Arnold chuckled.
We felt awkward at first, being in there with all the adults of the two stakes, but the awkward feeling soon left as we saw how pleased the women were to be there, not just to sit on the periphery of the action with another couple but to be escorted by someone of their own, even if that someone was as young as we were. I could tell they were proud of us. Every time they saw someone they knew, they would introduce us and brag how they had “the cream of the crop tonight.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Clay announced around 11:00 as we sat at a table for a rest and drank punch. “Let’s drop over to the youth dance.”
“What?” Sister Douglas asked, almost choking on her punch.
“Sure,” Tad joined in, “we’ll show you how the—other side lives.”
“I don’t know if we could do anything but stand around and watch,” Sister Arnold said.
“We’d love to go,” Sister Wilson spoke up. “And we’ll even dance.”
We loaded up in Brother Feagin’s van and headed over to the South Stake Center to the youth dance there. By then we had all grown accustomed to the idea of being with three older sisters and we walked right in and started to dance. It was a fast one and the ladies were a little reluctant to get started, but with a little encouragement from us, they were soon swaying and shaking their arms and laughing and having a good time. The kids at the dance were shocked at first, but soon they got a real kick out of it.
Halfway into the third dance, someone tapped me on the shoulder and growled in my ear, “Do you think you can keep her to yourself all night?” I turned around to see Tye Brown grinning at me. “Don’t be so greedy.”
“I’m cutting in,” he said, slapping me on the back and pushing me away. “You don’t get all the fun. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.”
As I walked off the floor and went over to sit by Brother and Sister Feagin, I noticed that two other guys were cutting in on Tad and Clay. I laughed and dropped into the chair next to Connie Feagin.
“I’m proud of you, Ross,” she whispered over at me while her husband visited with Clay and Tad.
“I’m having a good time,” I laughed. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I’m just glad we were able to talk you and Brother Feagin into coming with us.”
She smiled. “I’ve never seen them so happy.”
“Yeah, I think they’re having a good time.”
“No one else could have brought them here tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“All the young people respect you and Clay and Tad. Everyone else would have been afraid to be so bold. But now that they see you doing it, they all want to be part of it too.”
I was quiet, listening to the powerful pulse of the music and watching Sister Wilson joke and dance with Tye. Soon Tracy Hall walked up and stepped in for Tye. “Maybe we shouldn’t have come here. It looks like we’re going to lose our dates,” I observed.
“Remember last year when you were chosen to the All-State team?” Sister Feagin said, leaning over so I could hear above the music. I nodded. “Sam and I were so proud of you. I’d never seen Sam so excited about anything. Until tonight. He’ll probably never tell you, but he’s so proud of the three of you that he’s almost ready to bawl.”
When we took the sisters home, we walked each one to the door and said goodnight. Sister Wilson was the last to be escorted to her front steps. When she reached the front door and opened it, she turned and faced the three of us. Then she reached out, took my face in her hands, pulled me down and kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said softly. There were tears shimmering in her eyes.
When we returned to the van, we were all quiet for several minutes, deep in thought. Brother Feagin was the one to break the silence. “Where do you want to go for your steak dinner?” he asked.
Clay chuckled, “Oh, you’re too late, Brother Feagin. I’ve got another date with Sister Arnold.”
We all laughed. “No, seriously,” Clay went on, “I think we’d like to take you out.”
“No,” Brother Feagin objected, “I promised to take you out for a steak dinner if you’d go tonight.”
“You promised to take us if this wasn’t the best service project of our life. It was the best.”
Tad and I nodded our agreement.
“And,” I added, “we’ll be by in the morning at 5:30 to pick you up.”
“Tomorrow at 5:30?” he asked puzzled.
“Yeah, there’s a ward work project over at Sister Call’s place. We’re painting her house.”
Brother Feagin laughed. “I think you guys have put in your service hours for the month.”
“Don’t try to weasel out of it,” Clay spoke up. “We don’t want to chase after you and drag you over there. But we will. Don’t you know that a guy can never get all his service hours in? That’s what the Church is all about, Brother Feagin. Didn’t you know that? And if you go over to Sister Call’s and don’t come away with a warm feeling, we’ll pitch in and buy you and Sister Feagin a steak dinner tomorrow night.”
“You’ve got a deal,” he laughed.
“We’ll throw in the steak dinner anyway,” I added. “Just to tell you thanks. For everything.”