I read the letter from the mission office again – Skowhegan Maine. The irony was enough to deflect a compass needle. After nine months in my first area I was finally getting a transfer to what would probably the most awkward area for me in the New England States mission – (er) the “The Massachusetts-Boston mission”. Six months earlier a more uniform system for naming stakes, wards, districts and missions was adopted to make places easier to locate but the new names lacked a bit of charm. Charm was the least of my worries though – a little more than a year earlier as a student at Ricks College I had become involved in a brief romantic misunderstanding with a young lady from Skowhegan and I wasn’t looking forward to the icy glares and barbed comments of her family and friends in the local congregation .
My worries were in vain; the area hadn’t had any missionaries for a couple of years so my companion and I had lots of work to keep us diverted . As was the case with most missionaries we spent most of our time tracting. Known in our mission as “dooring”, tracting entailed walking from front door to front door making cold-call approaches to whoever answered the door…which made for a very wide range in responses. I was just winding up the first third of my mission and so far while tracting I had been:
- Threatened with a shot-gun.
- Quizzed for two hours about numerology and alien invasion while standing on a doorstep in103 degree heat.
- Propositioned by a nubile young lady clad in a marginally secured robe made of a very loose knit.
…none of which was likely to happen this icy month of January in Maine. Going from door to door usually meant doors that never opened to sub-zero temperatures. Oh, from time to time people would talk to us – especially when they found out that my home was in Alaska, but we soon found out that their interest had more to do with meeting someone from a colder-than-Maine locale than any interest in theological discussions.
It was also a mill town, with most of the people working in hard physical labor during the week so the last thing they were looking forward to on a Saturday morning was the sight of two young missionaries on their door-step. Soon after my arrival in town we received a mission bulletin instructing us to make Saturday mornings our primary tracting time reasoning that success in teaching improved when we met with entire families on Dad’s day off. I complied, but it had me wondering if I was the only one in the mission who had ever worked a “grown-up” job that wore you out so badly that weekends were little more than recuperation. Unfortunately the first Saturday was a disaster – the threats and caustic comments were so hard to take that Miller and I stopped knocking on the fourth door and trudged back to our attic apartment to come up with a better plan.
It turned out that the men of our local congregation had an ongoing service project clearing land for a local farmer. The wood was cleared, cut and divided into bundles and then either given to welfare aid recipients to heat their homes, or sold with profits being donated to the welfare program. As missionaries we were technically not part of the congregation and not obliged to help with the program but the locals would often drop rather broad hints about the tremendous help two strapping young men would be with such taxing labor, and it was when I was considering the latest “suggestion” the answer came to me:
- We would help cut, haul and stack the wood on Saturday mornings.
- The men from the local congregation would invite non-member friends to work on the project as well.
- With those men working alongside us we could strike up low-key conversations and thus be able to report our activity as “father contacting time”.
- The wood got cut, welfare recipients got assistance and we got smiles from our mission leaders for “working the program”.
It worked well for the first couple of weeks and those wood-cutting sessions earned us a lot of credibility when the locals saw that we could and would work and that I knew my way around woodsman’s tools. However, even though I had extensive experience with saws, axes and chain saws the congregation leaders stayed between us and any of the edged and/or power tools. No one wanted an injured missionary on their watch
Not that it would have been easy to do. As we went out on one mid-February it was “wicked cold” as they say it in New England and we were all bundled up in several layers of clothing to provide insulation against the sub-zero temperatures. The sight of all those cutting tools triggered my typical knowledge nerd response and I couldn’t help but see my clothing in the same light as the quilted cloth armor MesoAmerican warriors used as protection against the obsidian edged swords favored by the Aztecs, only in my case the quilted cloth armor looked suspiciously similar to a blue air force parka, bib overalls, flannel shirt, sweat pants and woolen long johns with galoshes over sneakers serving as boots.
I was shaken out of my reverie by an indistinct oath – the farm owner was kneeling over his chain saw where it was stuck in a tree. The weight of the tree he was cutting had shifted and put a bind on the blade; instinctively I reached over and pushed on the tree to shift its weight and free the saw’s blade. We couldn’t really talk over the bbrrrraaaappp! of the chain saw but it was pretty obvious that he was going to pull his saw out and start on another tree so I stepped back to give him room to move. At that moment we both kind of stumbled and sloshed around, during which I felt a bump on my shin. When he finally got past me I looked down and saw that all that shifting around had kicked up some mud…then I looked closer and realized that it wasn’t a reddish brown color I was seeing, it was just plain red.
I spun around checking everyone for cuts, and then I happened to look down at the snow around my own feet.
I started to get a little light-headed and knew that I was going into shock so I told Miller what was going on and started walking toward the house, my thoughts and surroundings swirling into that odd sort of compressed existence I call Tardis-time. Outside of my brain and body things were happening at a lightning-fast clip but inside my thinking and perceptions had slowed down to a sedate, manageable rate. I was able to clearly see everything going on, evaluate the information coming in and devise a workable plan for getting everything “fixed”.
I was feeling like a merry-go-round rider on his fifth ticket when I got to the kitchen but when people crowded around I calmly remarked “I’m going to be OK but I am going into shock for awhile”, put my head down as close as I could get to my knees and silently thanked the Lord for the advanced American Red Cross First Aid training I took the year before. Once my head was down I was able to surrpetiously inspect the wound and breathed a sigh of relief when I found out that it was much, much less serious than I had expected.
When the chain saw came back it hit my leg, but instead of hitting the back of my leg and chewing into my calf muscle the blade hit the front and bounced off the tibia, fibula or both. I gave the wound a preliminary cleaning and wrapped it tightly after applying a fairly sloppy butterfly closure, then after consulting with the bishop we went back to the apartment to change into our regular suits before trying to find some treatment.
…which proved to be difficult. We hadn’t been totally forth-coming with the mission office about participating in the Saturday morning project, and while they were happy with our teaching numbers this was all happening during an era when full-time missionaries were discouraged from doing that sort of hairy-chested heavy labor type service. Going to the emergency room would mean getting approval from the mission office so that was ruled out. As a military retiree’s dependent I was eligible for treatment under CHAMPUS but it appeared that there wasn’t a health care professional on duty at the time that knew what the acronym meant, much less the procedures required to get authorization. There was supposed to be a retired doctor in town that would treat missionaries free of charge but a quick phone call ruled that option out (he was wintering in the south of France).
….which is why I ended up sitting on Sister Harris’s table with my pant leg rolled up to my knee and grimacing while she cleaned the wound and closed it with another, more professional “butterfly” closure made out of surgical tape. The process of getting patched up wasn’t nearly as unpleasant at the stern lecture we got – Joyce was our surrogate aunt in Skowhegan and we could always count on her to give a totally unvarnished opinion, which in this case was very negative. She had been concerned about us working on the firewood project from day one for the precise reason I was sitting on her table at that moment – someone could get hurt. However, as I got down from the table she gave me a light cuff on the shoulder and remarked that our willingness to get down and dirty with physical labor had gone a long way in establishing creditability in the town and our congregation.
With one look at the dimming light in the sky as we left the Harris home we decided to call it a day. As Miller and I started trudging through the snow we talked about the events of the week – and especially the day – and wondered how we could “safely” account for all the time on our reports. It was at that point that Miller came to a complete stop in the middle of the street, turned to me and said”
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
I stared at him dumbly.
Again (though not quite so agitated) ” Deitrick, what are you doing?”
“Well, I guess I’m walking down a very icy street, and just narrowly missed falling on my butt.”
Miller went on: “You just had your left shin chopped open with a chain-saw. Why aren’t you writhing in agony and screaming in pain?” (Prior to coming to New England Miller was a pre-med student and was prone to hyperbole when it came to medical issues.)
….but he did have a point. The laceration really didn’t hurt all that much. As we shuffled our feet in the snow for a minute or so and talked about the events of the day, our conversation evolved into the sort of thing that you assume happens quite regularly on a mission but in fact rarely happens – a spiritual experience. We talked about why were out in New England knocking on doors. We talked about the people that would be warm that night because of the firewood we helped provide…and we talked about a Father that would spare a young man serious pain.
….then a car passed by at a high rate of speed, splashed us with very wet snow and the moment was gone.