Riding down the Harbor Freeway toward Palos Verdes, I felt the warm afternoon sun on my hand draped over Angelas shoulder. The distinctive purr of the MG motor rumbled in through the open windows. Angela brushed her blowing hair away from her eyes. The wind and motor noise precluded conversation. It was an hours drive to Pacific Coast Highway and up the back of the hill to Lees trailer on a large undeveloped lot overlooking the ocean.
According to our plan, the three of us would have dinner in Palos Verde, after which Angela would drive back home to Glendale. Lee would take me to my mothers home in Santa Ana the following day to pick up my car.
I looked forward to seeing him, and couldnt help remembering our childhood in the barren little high-desert community of Basin in north-central Wyoming. When the dry August winds blew off the badlands of the Torchlight oilfields, Lee and Fred Johnson and I would spend our days on the muddy Bighorn River, fishing, rafting, or swimming, and exploring the caves of nearby Deadhorse Gulch.
My family had pioneered that part of the state. My grandfather had opened the first general store in Basin. My grandmother had been instrumental in building St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Basin, where I was baptized when I was five. In time I had been confirmed and served as an acolyte, helping the minister serve Communion. I remember sitting on the polished oak pews of St. Andrews, listening in rapt attention to the minister speak of eternity. The hymns and prayers touched me.
My parents stormy marriage ended in divorce the year I turned twelve. Previously, I had been an excellent student, but following the divorce my grades fell, my attitude became sullen and I dropped out of school my junior year to join the Navy.
In the first year after my discharge, while I worked for an electronics company near San Bernardino, Lee worked in the construction business and was about to form his own company. We spent lots of time together, drinking some, trying out various techniques on girls, and I, of course, playing poker.
But we recognized, in many late-night talks that turned to God, that our hedonism was futile. One night Lee told me he had heard a rumor that our friend Fred Johnson had made a commitment to Jesus Christ in a Billy Graham Crusade in Kansas City. We didnt know what to make of that.
As Angela and I pulled into Lees driveway high atop Palos Verdes peninsula, we were met by two big Labradors showing teeth. Getting out of the sports car, I offered them the back of my hand. They recognized me immediately and became friendly. Lees truck was nowhere in sight.
We walked up to the mobile home set on blocks under a large shade tree. Under the trailer I could see boxes of old bottles, silverware and other antiques all part of Lees collection. The door, as always, was open. Inside, in the refrigerator, I found a six-pack of beer. At least my Mormon friend hadnt completely lost his mind!
Soon we heard Lees pickup bouncing up the lane. The dogs began barking excitedly. From the front door I saw them circling the truck. He grinned at us and waved, threw his hard hat into the back of the pickup, stopped to acknowledge each dog, then strode toward the trailer. He was big six feet, about 220 pounds, and barrel-chested. Though Lee was only 22, his hair was already thinning.
Inside the trailer he threw his lunch bucket on the table and gave me a bear hug. "Long time no see, hombre!" Then, turning to Angela: "And what we have here! Spencer where did you find this beautiful lady?"
"Get a grip on yourself, man!," I said. I held up the can in my hand. "By the way, I helped myself to a beer."
"Good," Lee responded. "I dont drink anymore, but I like to keep something for my friends."
"Dont give me that. You may have gone off the deep end of the religious pier, but you havent given up scotch and water."
Lee smiled. "Yes I have."
"Give me a break! Lee, Im not sure I want to talk to you anymore."
"Drink up while I shower, he said. Then lets grab some supper. Those of us who work for a living are hungry!" To Angela he added, "I ought to warn you about Spencer. Hes fickle and untrustworthy. Hell bring you to a bad end."
"Go take a shower, Lee."
"Yeah," said Angela. "Cool down."
"Oh, I like her, Jimmie!"
We had supper at the foot of Palos Verdes, on Pacific Coast Highway. Then I kissed Angela goodbye and promised to call her in a couple days.
When Lee and I returned to the trailer, we walked to a brow overlooking the ocean. The moon was nearly full and almost overhead. The waters of the Pacific crashed far below. The gray line of the horizon was visible against the black of the night sky. I lit up a Viceroy. Lee shook off my offer of a cigarette. We were both quiet.
"O. K., man tell me about it."
Lee looked out toward the distant horizon. Something did seem different about him. It wasnt just the fact that I had not seen him take a drink. Or the fact that he didnt smoke. Or even that I had not heard him swear all evening. But I had known Lee since he moved to Basin in the sixth grade. We had shared our first drink together. We had fixed up an old 37 Chevrolet and driven it forty miles a weekend to court a pair of sisters in Lovell. Mormon girls, I seemed to remember. Lee and I were like brothers. And now there was definitely something different about him more peaceful, maybe.
"I dont know, Jim. Its really strange. I dont know if youll understand, but I have to try."
"I want you to try."
Lee chuckled. "Remember the fifth of tequila under the Russian olive tree in Basin?"
"Of course I do!"
Silence. "Last spring, Jim, I took a trip home to Wyoming. I had a couple weeks off. Wanted to be home for Dads birthday." Lee looked straight ahead and his voice grew soft. "I stopped in St. George, Utah, for a sandwich. I got into this conversation with the waitress and asked her out for a drink when she got off work. She told me she didnt drink, but would be glad to have a Coke with me when she got off.
" Jimmie, we talked until two in the morning. I know youre going to think this is crazy, but when she told me the story the real story of the Mormons I knew she was telling me the truth."
"What do you mean, you knew?"
"Its hard to explain. But as she talked to me I had this feeling. She was telling me about the early history of the Church. And as she spoke, all I knew was that she was saying something I needed to hear. Any way, that was the start of my investigation. I promised her that when I got back to California Id get in touch with the Mormon missionaries and have them teach me about the Mormon Church. You know, hear them out. Well, I went through six of what the Church calls discussions with the missionaries."
"What were these discussions about?"
"I want to go into that with you. But let me say right off the bat that Im not an expert in these things. Matter of fact, Ive only been a member of the Church for about six weeks. Ive got a lot to learn. But at first, you know, I was very skeptical." He glanced at me. "Like you are right now."
Lee laughed. "Hey, I dont blame you! Just dont close your mind, O. K.?"
We talked into the wee hours of the morning. Lee told me of his discussions with the missionaries. How he had searched his heart. And how one night, when things were weighing heavily on him, he had climbed the fence of a football stadium and, sitting alone in the bleachers, made the decision to join the Mormon Church. He knew he had made the right decision. And I could tell Lee was fully convinced.
As he finished what he called his "testimony," Lee turned to me. The moonlight revealed a tear edging slowly down his cheek.
"Ive found the truth, Jim. I tell you I know by the power of the Holy Ghost, that Jesus is the Christ; that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, was a prophet of God; and that the Mormon Church is Gods only True Church today."
I didnt like what Lee said. I liked less the way he said it. It made me uncomfortable.
But Lee was unequivocal and passionate. "Jim," he said, "this is what weve been searching for."
"Lee, I dont know where youre coming from. I can see that something important has happened to you, but frankly, I cant imagine you have found the truth in the Mormon Church."
"I know what you mean, Jim. I had the same doubts. Listen, Im not able to explain myself very well. I want you to talk to the missionaries."
"Im always open to new ideas, Lee. You know that. But dont get your hopes up. This Mormonism stuff sounds pretty spooky to me." I slapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, you have to work tomorrow. Im going to think about what youve said. And I will talk to these missionaries. Listen, I want to watch the water for a while, so why dont you hit the hay? Let me sleep in the morning. Ill catch a cab to the Horseshoe Club when I wake up and you can meet me there after work. Then I can catch a ride to Moms in Santa Ana."
Lee rose and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Sure thing, man. Ill pick you up around seven." He grinned. "Dont spend that entire Alaskan bankroll in one place."
As Lees footsteps faded into the night behind me, I looked at the beautiful buttermilk clouds silhouetting the moon. Fifteen miles out in the San Pedro Channel, a freighter cleared Santa Catalina and made her way into Long Beach Harbor.
I didnt know what to make of Lees experience. He said he had found the truth. Inwardly I hoped there was such a thing as truth. Lee had asked me not to close my mind. That was reasonable enough. At least I believed there was a God. Maybe it was just a holdover from my childhood in St. Andrews, but in the last few years, even as I became less certain who God was, I became more certain that He was.
I had a haunting sense that God was trying somehow to point me toward truth. In recent years I had had a number of intense experiences in which I had, as Lee put it, felt close to Him.
One was a near-death experience in the Gulf of Alaska when an unexpected gale had hit. Our ship, while rolling dangerously, had somehow, miraculously, not capsized. Though I had sailed thousands of miles in heavy weather and seen lots of whitewater on the bridge, I had never been in peril at sea; and the wonder of the reprieve remained fresh in my mind thirty days later.
A second brush with death had occurred just after my discharge from the Navy. While I was driving home blind drunk one night, I rolled my Chevrolet at ninety miles per hour. I was thrown through the windshield, and as the car slid sideways through the grass, I hung over the front fender with my feet tangled in the steering wheel. When the car began to roll one more time, I knew I would be crushed beneath it. But at the last second, it slammed back down on all four wheels and catapulted me high in the air. I landed on my head and shoulders, breaking only my collarbone.
As I lay there in the grass, my head bleeding, my shoes torn from my feet and my lungs feeling as though they had been punctured, a surprising feeling of peace flooded over me. I knew God had spared me.
A third, seemingly inconsequential experience had also had a profound effect on me spiritually. In Hong Kong three years earlier, the captain of our guided missile frigate had hired some impoverished Chinese men to paint the ship, paying them for their labor by allowing them to collect our garbage to feed their families. I cant explain the impact it made on me as a smiling worker scraped the contents of my dinner tray into different garbage cans one can for meat, another for peas, another for bread.
Why, I cried out to God, was I in a position to give my slop to other men? I felt the humiliation of these Chinese fathers men whose manhood seemed crushed as they silently collected garbage from rich American boys who seemed to have no greater concern than to hasten into Hong Kong to drink Tiger Ale in the brothels.
Now, in the still of the night high above the Pacific, I got up and walked back toward Lees trailer. Reducing things to the barest minimum, I knew one thing and suspected another. First, I knew there was a God. Second, I thought He had spared my life for some reason. Twice in two years I had smelled the cold breath of death and I didnt like it.
Was God trying to show me something? And could that something be Mormonism?
chapter one||chapter three