The first missionary I ever met made the best observation about the experience that I would ever hear:
- He couldn’t wait to finish the best two years of his life.
- He was glad he went on a mission but didn’t know if he’d do it again.
- Two years goes by a lot faster than you think.
I thought about those comments on the long flight(s) from Boston back home to Alaska and as the hours went by I came up with a couple observations of my own:
- I had knocked on approximately 100,000 doors during my two years in New England.1
- Going home from a mission was as scary as going out in the first place.
Any major change will bring on anxiety but it didn’t help that I was leaving the best area and companion of my entire two years of bicycle penance. Many of my missionary peers considered Fall River (MA) to be one of the toughest to work in but I found the maritime climate pleasant and the extensive Portuguese influence intriguing2. In a similar vein I must have been friends with Elder Phil Haslam in a former life. I couldn’t have picked a better “last” companion – With our similar interests and talents we didn’t tract as much as put on a portable door-to-door comedy act that brought greater success to our labors than a more conservative approach.
My passage home was for the most part uneventful; I did go through a slight moment of disorientation when I was given my formal release3 but all too soon I was crumpled on the bunk in my attic loft bedroom, totally exhausted and jet-lagged but mentally agitated about the next phase in my life. I wanted to achieve my bachelor’s degree and a commission as second lieutenant in the army as soon as I could but I had a formidable obstacle to overcome first:
Swanson River Oil Field.
By the end of the coming week I would be back at work for Chevron USA at the Swanson River Oil Field and I had mixed feelings about doing so. I had worked on the field twice before –as a roustabout for Chevron in 1972 and a general laborer for Northern Oil Operations in 1973. My time there had been a “qualified” success. The first summer I was an adequate worker but I failed to get hired back the following year and was able to get on with Northern Oil scant weeks before my return to school in the fall.4
I hoped that during the intervening years I’d changed for the better –between ROTC and my mission experience I had developed an elevated level of discipline, industry and initiative. I decided that I was going to apply those lessons when I returned to the oil field and a job that paid extremely well, a job that I wanted to keep coming back to every summer until I finished my studies. My only hesitation was a social concern as most of the people I would be working with had life styles much more hedonistic than mine. I wondered if there would be mockery or harassment, but given the emotional gauntlet missionaries have to run daily I figured I could handle anything in the locker room.
I needn’t have worried; while TH Auldridge was still the roustabout gang foreman, there had been a 90% turnover among the crew during the preceding three years. There were extensive changes among the production operators, mechanics and other workers on the field as well so it looked like I would be making a fresh start.
TH and his family were also our closest neighbors so I’d hitch rides with him a couple of days each week. I was hesitant about riding with him to begin with – he had been pretty gruff that first summer on the lease, with an endless litany of corrections about everything from the way I put my paycheck in my pocket to how I addressed other men on the job. It turned out to be a much different situation this time around – he took interest in my mission experiences and plans for the future and in turn shared stories about his service in World War II and his subsequent career in the oil field. The closest he came that summer to a critical remark was when he told me “a man don’t need to run while he’s working” when I would hustle between the tool truck and work in progress.
I came to see him in a new light as I did other more seasoned men like the head mechanic Ken Slater. My mother and younger sisters belonged to the same Girl Scout troop as Ken’s wife and daughters and I’d spent an evening or two in his home when I was dating a young lady they’d taken under their wing. That familiarity may have been the reason he was slower to accept my changes as genuine, but that hesitation left the day he stopped by while I was working at the shop located by the field main office.
I was using a steamer to clean some heavily encrusted valves that TH wanted to repurpose for repairs on a washed out line. As Ken started talking to me I could hear just a trace of a familiar accent in his voice that I hadn’t noticed in years past. I knew that the Slater family had moved to Alaska from California but there was almost an east coast inflection to the words he spoke. Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I asked him where his home had been – where he’d grown up.
He grew quiet, started to fidget a bit then began; “It’s not something I talk about very often. I grew in a rough environment. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of despair and I wound up running with a gang when I was a teenager.” He continued “I doubt if you’ve ever heard of the place – it’s so far away from here. It’s a town on the southwest coast of Massachusetts called Fall River”.
I replied casually: “So….did you run with the Flint Street Gang or the Tecumseh Street gang?”
It was the classic deer-in-the-headlights look. Ken stood there tongue-tied, his eyes darting left and right then quietly said “What?”
For a millisecond I was torn – do I mess with his head or do I let him off – but respect won out over snarkiness. Instead of laughing I smiled and told him that less than a month earlier I had been in Fall River living on the more peaceful end of one of those streets. He chuckled and said that I was the first person he’d met in twenty years who knew where Fall River was located, not to mention knowing individual street names. We continued to chat for a couple of minutes then he left for the compressor plant and I finished cleaning the gunked-up valve.
I’d driven to work that day and without a passenger or working radio I was alone with my thoughts on the dusty commute home. When I was younger my quick wit had been the only defense in a bipolar household so the street gang response had happened automatically. I’d put Ken in an awkward situation and in earlier years I would have drawn out the moment for maximum amusement, but this time was different – I’d eased Ken’s bewilderment almost immediately. Was it only because of the respect I had for a great mechanic, father, and man of faith? Was I feeling empathy for his discombobulation after twenty-four months of being on the receiving end of verbal harassment myself?
…or was there a third option? When I got home from New England all I heard at first was how different I looked. True – I had shed 30 pounds since 1973 and I was a better worker, but perhaps the most important difference was something that was not readily visible.
…maybe I had grown up just a little bit
1. During August of 1975 I kept track of the number the doors we knocked on in one hour. I multiplied that number times the average number of hours we went tracting each week then multiplied that by the 104 weeks I spent as a missionary… and got approximately 100,000 doors.
2. A local humorist dubbed the Braga Bridge over the Taunton River as the longest in the world because it stretched from Massachusetts to Portugal.
3.As the district president was conducting my release interview I slowly realized that I’d been in that room back when another family had owned the house – it had been my friend Mike’s bedroom. President Lind figured I was just happy to be home but I was trying not to laugh as I sat there in my suit, white shirt and tie and trying not to think about sitting in that same place in 1971 knocking back beers while listening to “Funk 49” by the James Gang. Isn’t repentance great?
4. At the time I was told that the summer hire positions were to be given to minority applicants as part of a Federal equal rights quota. To his death bed my father maintained that I was not hired as a form of retaliation against him for his union activities, but when he broached the subject 6 months before I came home he was told that as long as I had improved my driving habits I was welcome back.