In 1950 our church burned down. Some said Old Walt was careless, letting the wood stove get too hot. We held church in the Riverside gymnasium or in Brother Miles’ new skating rink and dance hall, until our new building was finished. Thankfully, the foundation for our new brick church was already underway.
Our family was in the midst of a personal crisis, also from fire. We were harvesting potatoes near the house when our beloved very smart brother Paul, almost 5, determined he would assist in burning the cottonwood tree stumps piled in the pasture. He got matches from the top shelf of the cupboard, then jiggled the handle of the locked farm tank until he collected gasoline into an old can. About half of it spilled onto his new Levis.
When he struck a match, his gasoline-soaked clothing exploded. Miraculously Paul was able to run to a nearby hydrant and douse the flames, although the steam made his burns worse. The fact his jeans were so new likely helped slow the flames somewhat.
Mother was off on a short errand, and no one was in the house, so with wisdom far beyond his young age, and impossible odds, he made it to the field.
My potato-picking partner and I were working nearest the house so it was our sad duty to render first aid. I saw his torn wet jeans and mildly reproved him, thinking he’d climbed through a barbed wire fence and then fallen into the irrigation ditch instead of going by the road into the field. No, he hadn’t fallen in the ditch, he said in a sad little voice, so unlike his usual boisterous manner, and no, he hadn’t crawled through the fence. He just kept repeating, “I hurt me. I hurt me.” I was 15, and didn’t realize how badly he was hurt, as the poor frantic child in a semi-state of shock danced in pain.
We had no choice but to quit work — a real no-no at harvest time when every minute counted, not only for farmers but also for us with what we could earn.
When I finally realized his new jeans were burned, not torn, I chided him for getting matches, and sternly told him he must never do that again, as I began searching for burn ointment. Thankfully, Mother returned from her errand and knew immediately just how seriously he was hurt. It was a long six miles into Blackfoot, Idaho, to the doctor. We picked no more potatoes that day.
The next weeks were a blur and daily reports from the hospital weren’t good. Mother went alone to Idaho Falls for his first skin graft surgery on Thanksgiving Day. We questioned the holiday timing but appreciated the doctor’s willingness to take the first available opening at the larger hospital. We could only hope the skin graft would be successful.
As Christmas approached, Mother quietly suggested Christmas might be sparse, but since we weren’t used to lavish gifts that didn’t seem so unusual. We’d already pooled our meager harvest earnings for our individual family gifts. It was Mother’s next words I would remember.
“With your sister at BYU plus hospital and doctor expenses, money is tight. You ought to know what kind of man your father is. The bishop brought a sizable check to be ‘used as needed.’ Your dad kept it a few days and then gave it back, telling the bishop to use it for someone in need. It would have meant a better Christmas, but I agree with his choice.”
I’d seen that check for $100 in the cupboard where money was kept from items sold such as a calf or hay, until deposited. It was the bishop’s personal check, not a church check. It felt good to know he understood our difficult times, but felt better knowing we could make it on our own.
I have only one other memory of that Christmas. The doctor was jubilant when one tiny patch of pink new skin formed just below Paul’s knee. Once a small area began to grow, new skin would spread like tiny islands that would eventually connect. It would still be weeks before this energetic little boy would walk, and there would be lifetime scars. Yet we could not know one day he’d place in the top four runners in an Idaho state track meet, but the beginning of healing was our Christmas miracle.
Oh yes, and Old Walt sat in the back row each week in a suit when our new church was done, since he had no chores on Sundays. We learned there are many kinds of miracles.