Happy Birthday, Sarge!

“Happy Birthday, Sarge!” New Era, Nov. 1996, 9

Happy Birthday, Sarge!

It’s amazing how a cake and a few candles can melt a hard heart.

Great! I thought sarcastically. I had to come up with a devotional for seminary on service, and I didn’t know any good stories to tell.

“What should I do?” I asked my mom when I got home from school and explained the situation.

“Well, your dad is going over to Grandma’s right now,” she answered. “Why don’t you go with him and ask Grandma for an idea.”

When we arrived at Grandma’s house, she greeted us with her usual smile.

“Do you have any good stories about service?” I asked. “I have to give the devotional in seminary tomorrow.”

“Stories?” Grandma said. “I have a bunch of them. Let me go get my binder.”

She returned, flipped the binder open and said, “Now, here’s one you could use. In fact, I feel like this one would be perfect.” She proceeded to recall the details of an experience she had had many years earlier.

“This happened during the Vietnam War, when we lived in Colorado Springs. Your grandpa, who was flying in Vietnam, was gone, and I was staying busy just trying to keep up with all the kids.

“I was singing in a chorus made up of officers’ wives at the Air Force Academy. During a break at one of the rehearsals, a friend told me about a service project she was doing for wounded servicemen who were recovering at the Fort Carson Army Hospital.”

Grandma explained how her friend would go regularly to read magazines and books to the servicemen. Some of them had birthdays coming up and she wanted to take cakes to them, but she was discouraged because she couldn’t find anyone to help her, and she couldn’t bake them all herself. Grandma volunteered immediately to help her bake some cakes.

The very next day her friend called and asked if she was really serious about helping and could she have one ready to go that afternoon.

Grandma told me, “I was pretty busy myself that day with family and Church responsibilities, but I felt like I should help. I made a chocolate cake from scratch and topped it with white frosting and chocolate swirls.” I knew exactly which cake she was talking about. She had made it before for family gatherings, and it was one of my favorites.

That afternoon Grandma’s friend came by to pick up the cake and take it to the hospital. Two hours later, she called and said, “I thought you would be interested in what happened with your cake. I took it to a 36-year-old sergeant, a veteran of many years in the army. He was recovering from wounds received in Vietnam. He looked like a typical, tough drill sergeant without a kind word in his vocabulary. When I took the cake into his room, handed it to him, and wished him a happy birthday, he looked up at me with a stunned expression on his face. Then the tears started rolling down his cheeks.”

The sergeant told Grandma’s friend that this was the first birthday cake he had ever had. Nobody had ever cared enough to bake him one.

As Grandma listened to her friend, she was amazed that one small act of service could have such an effect. Grandma closed the binder and said, “Tell your seminary class that I’m glad I took time to bake that cake.”

Seminary began as it usually did: we sang a hymn, recited the scripture-of-the-week, and said the prayer. Then I began telling Grandma’s story about service. As I spoke, I kept noticing my seminary teacher, Brother Olsen, in one of the desks on the back row. He looked really serious.

Great! I thought. I hope he’s not mad at me. Maybe this wasn’t what he had in mind when he asked me to do the devotional. I finished the story by saying, “I hope we can all take time to serve others like my grandma did, because we never know how much good one small act of service can do.” Then I quickly sat down in my desk.

My seminary teacher didn’t say anything. He just sat there in the back row. Everyone started looking at him.

“Man, I must have really blown it,” I thought.

Finally Brother Olsen spoke. “Lindsay, what is your grandma’s name?”

“Mary Lois Gunnell,” I answered. What was he going to do—call her and make sure I hadn’t made up the story?

Brother Olsen continued, “Do you know who that sergeant was? That was my sergeant while I was in the service myself, and I was very close to him.” Everyone in the class started whispering.

“No way!” said one of the boys. He thought we had planned this all out before.

“Really,” Brother Olsen said sincerely. “I knew him before he was wounded and after he recovered. He told me that same story himself and said how much that meant to him to have a stranger care enough to bake a birthday cake for him. He wanted to thank the woman, but never knew her name.” Brother Olsen looked right at me. “Lindsay, that cake wasn’t just a birthday cake. It was the beginning of a whole new life for my sergeant.”

I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t wait to tell Grandma.

“Class,” Brother Olsen continued, “I want you to know that Lindsay’s Grandma’s act of service literally changed that sergeant’s life. Before he was wounded, he was pretty mean. Every other word out of his mouth was a swear word. After he received that cake in the hospital in Colorado, he decided to change. He told me he was going to try harder to be a better person, and that’s just what he did.”

Until hearing about Brother Olsen’s sergeant, I never realized how much just one kind deed could affect another. My grandma sweetened a bitter man’s life with as simple a thing as a cake. Her story gives me hope that my small acts of service—a smile or a kind word—may also add richness to other people’s lives.

Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh