“Lessons I Learned as a Boy,” New Era, Oct. 1998, 4
I grew up in Salt Lake City, a very ordinary kind of freckle-faced boy. I had a good father and mother. We lived in what I thought was a large home. It stood on a corner lot. There was a big lawn, with many trees that shed leaves, and an immense amount of work to be done constantly.
In my early childhood, we had a stove in the kitchen and a stove in the dining room. A furnace was later installed, and what a wonderful thing that was. But it had a voracious appetite for coal, and there was no automatic stoker. Coal had to be shoveled into the furnace and carefully banked each night.
I learned a great lesson from that monster of a furnace: if you wanted to keep warm, you had to work the shovel.
My father had an idea that his boys ought to learn to work, and so he bought a five-acre farm which eventually grew to include more than 30 acres. We lived there in the summer and returned to the city when school started.
We had a large orchard, and the trees had to be pruned each spring. We learned a great truth—that you could pretty well determine the kind of fruit you would pick in September by the way you pruned in February. Further, we learned that new, young wood produces the best fruit. That has many applications in life.
We got sick then just as people get sick now. In fact, I think we did more so. When we were diagnosed as having chicken pox or measles, the doctor would advise the city health department, and a man would be sent to put a sign in the front window. This was a warning to any who might wish to come to our house that they did so at their own peril. If the disease was smallpox or diphtheria, the sign was bright orange with black letters. It said, in effect, “Stay away from this place.”
I learned something I have always remembered—to watch for signs of danger and evil and stay away.
I attended the Hamilton School. The bane of my first-grade teacher’s life was my friend Louie. He had what psychologists might call some kind of a fixation. He would sit in class and chew his tie until it became wet and stringy. The teacher would scold him. Louie eventually became a man of substance. I learned never to underestimate the potential of a boy to make something of his life, even if he chews his tie.
As the years passed, I finally reached the sixth grade. One of my friends was Lynn. That wasn’t his real name, but that’s what I’ll call him. He was always in trouble. Lynn seemed to have a hard time concentrating, particularly when spring came and things looked better outside than they did in.
Miss Spooner, our teacher, seemed to have it in for Lynn. One day at about 11 o’clock, Lynn disturbed the class, and Miss Spooner told him to shut himself in the closet. Lynn obediently went and closed the door behind him. When the bell rang at 12 o’clock, Lynn came out eating the last bite of Miss Spooner’s lunch. We couldn’t help laughing, all but Miss Spooner, and that made matters worse.
Lynn went on clowning throughout his life. He never learned until it was too late that life is a serious thing, in which serious choices are to be made with care and prayer.
The next year we enrolled in junior high school. But the building could not accommodate all the students, and so our class of the seventh grade was sent back to the Hamilton School. We were insulted. We were furious. We’d spent six unhappy years in that building, and we felt we deserved something better. The boys of the class all met after school. We decided we wouldn’t tolerate this kind of treatment. We’d go on strike.
The next day we did not show up. But we had no place to go. We couldn’t stay home, because our mothers would ask questions. We didn’t think of going downtown to a show. We had no money for that. We didn’t think of going to the park. We were afraid we might be seen by the truant officer. We didn’t think of going out behind the school fence and telling shady stories because we didn’t know any. We’d never heard of such things as drugs or anything of the kind. We just wandered about and wasted the day.
The next morning, the principal, Mr. Stearns, was at the front door of the school to greet us. His demeanor matched his name. He said some pretty straightforward things and then told us that we could not come back to school until we brought a note from our parents. Striking, he said, was not the way to settle a problem. We were expected to be responsible citizens, and if we had a complaint, we could come to the principal’s office and discuss it.
There was only one thing to do, and that was to go home and get the note. I remember walking sheepishly into the house. My mother asked what was wrong. I told her. I said I needed a note. She wrote one. It was very brief. It was the most stinging rebuke she ever gave me. It read as follows:
“Dear Mr. Stearns,
“Please excuse Gordon’s absence yesterday. His action was simply an impulse to follow the crowd.”
She signed it and handed it to me.
I walked back over to school and got there about the same time a few other boys did. We all handed our notes to Mr. Stearns. I do not know whether he read them, but I have never forgotten my mother’s note. Though I had been an active party to the action we had taken, I resolved then and there that I would make my own decisions on the basis of my standards. I would not be pushed in one direction or another by those around me.
That decision has blessed my life many times. It has kept me from doing some things which could at worst have resulted in serious injury and trouble, and at the best would have cost me my self-respect.
My father had a horse and buggy when I was a boy. Then one summer day in 1916, he came home in a shining black Model T Ford. It was a wonderful machine, but by today’s standards it was crude and temperamental. For instance, it did not have a self-starter. It had to be cranked. You had to crank it correctly or you could break your hand. But you could prepare it for safe cranking by retarding the spark. The car was also hard to start if the motor got wet. But a little canvas properly placed would keep it dry.
I learned that making preparations can save trouble.
In 1915 President Joseph F. Smith asked Church members to have family home evening. My father said we would do what the President asked, and we held home evenings in our parlor.
We were miserable performers as children. We could do all kinds of things together while playing, but for one of us to try to sing a solo before the others was like asking ice cream to stay hard on the kitchen stove. In the beginning, we would laugh and make cute remarks about one another’s performance. But our parents persisted. We sang together. We prayed together. We listened quietly while Mother read Bible and Book of Mormon stories. Father told us stories out of his memory.
I still remember one:
“An older boy and his young companion were walking along a road which led through a field. They saw an old coat and a badly worn pair of men’s shoes by the roadside, and in the distance they saw the owner working in the field.
“The younger boy suggested that they hide the shoes, conceal themselves, and watch the perplexity on the owner’s face when he returned.
“The older boy … thought that would not be so good. He said the owner must be a very poor man. So, after talking the matter over, at his suggestion, they concluded to try another experiment. Instead of hiding the shoes, they would put a silver dollar in each one and … see what the owner did when he discovered the money. So they did that.
“Pretty soon the man returned from the field, put on his coat, slipped one foot into a shoe, felt something hard, took it out and found a silver dollar. Wonder and surprise [shone] upon his face. He looked at the dollar again and again, turned around and could see nobody, then proceeded to put on the other shoe; when to his great surprise he found another dollar. His feelings overcame him. … He knelt down and offered aloud a prayer of thanksgiving, in which he spoke of his wife being sick and helpless and his children without bread. … He fervently thanked the Lord for this bounty from unknown hands and evoked the blessing of heaven upon those who gave him this needed help.
“The boys remained [hidden] until he had gone.” They had been touched by his prayer and felt something warm within their hearts. As they left to walk down the road, one said to the other, “Don’t you have a good feeling?” (Adapted from Bryant S. Hinckley, Not by Bread Alone, 95).
Out of those simple meetings in our home came something indescribable. Our love for our parents, brothers, and sisters was enhanced. Our love for the Lord increased. An appreciation for goodness grew in our hearts. I learned that wonderful things came about because our parents followed the counsel of the President of the Church.
We knew that our father loved our mother. That was another of the great lessons of my boyhood. We didn’t openly speak about love for one another very much in those days. We didn’t have to. We felt that security, that peace, that quiet strength which comes to families who pray together, work together, and help one another.
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12). As a boy I came to believe in that divine commandment.
At the age of 50, my mother developed cancer. I recall our family prayers and our father’s tearful pleadings. He took her to Los Angeles in search of better medical care, but it was to no avail. I remember with clarity the return of my brokenhearted father as he stepped off the train and greeted his grief-stricken children. We walked solemnly down the station platform to the baggage car, where the casket was unloaded. We came to know even more about the tenderness of our father’s heart. This has had an effect on me all of my life.
I also came to know something of death—the absolute devastation of children losing their mother—but also of peace without pain, and the certainty that death cannot be the end of the soul.
My father is long since gone. I have become a father, and a grandfather, and a great-grandfather. The Lord has been very kind. I have experienced my share of disappointments, of failures, of difficulties. But on balance, life has been very good. I have tried to live it with enthusiasm and appreciation. I have known much of happiness, oh, so very much. The root of it all, I believe, was planted in my childhood and nurtured in the home, the school, and the ward in which I grew, where I learned simple but important lessons about life.