It was New Years Day, 1969, and the snow crunched under the tires as I drove into St. Anthony, Idaho. I had packed all our possessions into a U-Haul trailer. Nestled among pillows and clothing in the back seat lay my one-year-old daughter, Erin. The front seat was occupied by me and a caged parakeet. Margaretta would follow by plane two weeks later.
We rented a small apartment in St. Anthony. Margaretta got a job at a local bank a block from the apartment and I commuted to school nearby in Rexburg.
We had no furniture, but Margarettas folks provided some used things and bought us a good mattress, which we laid on the floor of the only bedroom. As we unpacked, Margaretta looked around and frowned. "Where are we going to put Erins crib? There isnt enough room in our bedroom."
"How about in here?" I called from the depths of a large closet opening off the living room. The closet turned out to be a fine bedroom. There was even enough room left over for storage.
Eating our first supper together in the little kitchen that night, I looked across the table at Margaretta. "Well, kid, what do you think? Are you glad to be back in your hometown?"
"I really am. I like it here. And how do things look at school?"
"Ive taken a full load. I didnt realize its been nearly ten years since I went to school. Itll be a challenge."
"You can handle it."
"Did you know I was on probation?"
"Because I was a high school dropout, and only got my diploma by taking these correspondence courses. So when I registered they said Id be on probation the entire first semester. I have to get good marks."
"You can do it."
"Im worried about my Spanish class."
"Im taking second-year Spanish."
"Good grief! Why?"
"I told the professor Id spent a lot of time in Mexico and could speak the language pretty well."
"Man that was dumb!"
"What do you mean?" I replied indignantly. "I have spent a lot of time in Mexico. I can speak Spanish enough to get by!"
"Listen, buddy, I was with you in Mexico. You couldnt order a taco from a street vendor."
"Give me a break."
She was laughing. She came over and sat on my lap. "The last thing you need is a break. My job is to keep you from getting a big head."
"Well, youre a real success," I said sullenly. But I looked up at her sparkling black eyes and laughed. I shoved her off onto the floor and began tickling her.
Ricks College overlooks the farming community of Rexburg from a hill marking the boundary of the Snake River flood plain, which stretches like a flat ribbon across the state. Rexburg is part of a group of communities that form the center of the famous Idaho potato industry. The people of the Upper Snake River Valley are hard working, prosperous, politically conservative and dedicated to the Mormon Church. Mormon parents send their children from throughout the United States to the two-year college in Rexburg, knowing they will be safe from drugs, crime and revolutionary ideas.
With college campuses in revolt during the 1960s, I felt privileged to be accepted at Ricks. Here things were safe and secure. Bright-eyed, moderately dressed students scurried across the campus like bees in the Deseret hive. The most radical activity I observed was that of students violating the Keep Off the Grass signs.
Although I had been placed on probation, the class work proved easy, and after the first semester I was an honor student with a scholarship. But before long I began to wonder if the college atmosphere was a little too secure. In an attempt to avoid the liberal extremes of college life, the philosophy of Ricks promoted conformity at the expense of intellectual excellence.
The fact that I was nearly ten years older than most of the students, who were freshly graduated from high school, made things seem even more difficult. I soon found that I had more in common with the teachers than the students. I became close friends with one of my professors. We played chess together during lunch break. With our wives, we double-dated to the movies and got together for dinner.
Bill Fredericks and I saw many of the same problems at Ricks. We decried the provincialism and isolation as a head-in-the-sand approach to real life. We longed for expanded thinking and discussion and, yes even debate on relevant issues of the day. Neither Bill nor I connected the problems at school with problems within the Church. "The Church is perfect," we would say to each other. "It is the people who are imperfect."
I was surprised at the tactics used to enforce discipline on campus. Students who lived on campus gave up certain civil liberties. Campus police could, for example, conduct unannounced room searches at any time, day or night. And campus dress codes were extremely strict, not only forbidding long hair on male students, but also requiring them to be clean-shaven. Despite Mormonisms hairy-faced founders like Brigham Young, even a mustache meant expulsion from school.
The town of Rexburg had been founded by a Mormon polygamist named Ricks. More than ninety percent of the 10,000 townspeople were Mormon. Rugged individualism was the cornerstone of the community. Conservative third-party candidates were welcomed here. Polling places were located according to Church ward boundaries. A volunteer posse was organized among the Mormon faithful, which the county sheriff fearfully called a vigilante group. Many neighboring towns, rather than hold parades on the Fourth of July, elected instead to celebrate July 24, the anniversary of Brigham Youngs entrance to the Salt Lake Valley.
During my stay at Ricks, the nation was agonizing over the Vietnam War. Hippies and protest marches dominated headlines. But never was there a march or demonstration at Ricks College. In fact, there was never even a public discussion of the war.
I myself was far from radical: I was a veteran, family man and loyal, committed Mormon. But I believed that part of the responsibility of an institution of higher learning, religious or secular, was to challenge young people intellectually and present a balanced view of current events.
So the intellectual paralysis on campus began to trouble me. Ricks College seemed to be in the business of producing men and women who were unquestionably dedicated not only to the moral but also the political and social values of the Mormon Church.
The Churchs position regarding Blacks became a particular trouble spot in my thinking. In the 1960s Blacks could not hold the priesthood. According to the Church, Blacks were descended from Ham, the son of Noah, and under a curse. Brigham Young had said that Blacks would never hold the priesthood.
It shamed me that many of my Mormon friends used the Church to support their racial prejudices. They liked to point to the story in the Book of Mormon in which dark-skinned Lamanites turned "white and delightsome" (1) when they believed the gospel message. I myself was not racially prejudiced and had a hard time believing God was. But I was forced to submit to the Churchs position regarding Blacks. After reading all I could by Church leaders on the subject, I was finally forced to relegate one more troubling issue to the back of my mind. The Church, being infallible, must have the understanding I lacked.
In my last months at Ricks, I witnessed a series of events that revealed deep-seated problems.
One incident had its roots in a conflict among Mormons regarding the Word of Wisdom, which prohibits, among other things, "hot drinks." All Mormons agree that this includes coffee and tea, but the most conservative Mormons believe it also includes soft drinks containing caffeine for example cola drinks.
The official college position was anti-cola. There were numerous soft drink machines on campus, but none contained cola only root beer, lemon-lime, grape and orange.
As an older and privileged student, I had contacts with the faculty and was invited into the faculty lounges to play chess with the teachers. I discovered that all the faculty lounges had Coca-Cola in them. In fact, some of the lounges were literally stacked with cases of Coke.
To my knowledge, it never occurred to anyone to question the procedure. Everyone knew that the president of the college had decreed that there be no cola on campus. The entire faculty and staff knew that the lounges were full of Coke. The students brought their own supply. Yet no one seemed to think anything was amiss.
By this time I was a staff member of the college newspaper and wrote a weekly editorial column. Often in the column I would point out contradictions in college life. In time, the column began to be viewed as controversial.
One day, while playing chess with Bill and sipping a Coke, I suddenly realized how silly it was for two grown men to sneak around hiding soft drinks.
"Bill," I asked as I watched him capture my kings rook, "what would you think of a column called The Great Coke Cover-Up?"
"Not much," he replied absently. Then, sensing I was serious, he looked up. "Really Jim, I do not think that would be wise."
"Because all I think you would do is infuriate the administration."
"Yeah, but the position is dumb. Here we are telling everybody you shouldnt drink Coke. And here we sit, drinking the stuff ourselves."
"I mean, we need to either get the stuff off campus or put in Coke machines. And since one hundred percent of the students and ninety-eight percent of the faculty drink Coke, I think the latter course would be more reasonable."
"Jim, theres no use talking about it. Its an area that cannot be discussed."
"Any area can be discussed!"
"Not here. Youre in check, by the way."
But I had lost interest in the game. "Come on, Bill, help me write an editorial."
"Not on your life."
I sighed. "O.K., Ill have to do it on my own."
Bill stared at me. He could see my mind was made up. He got up, picked up a manila folder and headed for the door.
"I have a class in ten minutes. Since you choose to be obstinate and recalcitrant, I am leaving early."
"See you tomorrow for lunch," I said.
What a nervous Nelly, I thought as I closed the door. How could anyone get that upset about a story thats factual?
When the paper came out the following week, I found out that Bill had a better understanding of the climate on campus than I did. The hue and cry that went up from the faculty astonished me. They felt they had been betrayed, that the security of the lounges had been breached. It was as though the teachers had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
None of them had dared to challenge the administrations position on cola. None of them, on the other hand, seemed to worry about the ethics of ignoring the dictates of the administration. Their only concern seemed to be that they had been caught, and that their Cokes were being taken away!
Not long afterward I received a late-night phone call at our apartment in St. Anthony. Margaretta and I had already gone to bed; it was nearly midnight. I padded out to the kitchen to answer it.
"Why dont you just knock it off, Spencer?" came a male voice I didnt recognize.
"Who is this?"
"Someone with good reason to question your loyalty to the Church. What are you doing at Ricks, anyway?"
By this time I was getting mad. "No wonder you wont identify yourself," I retorted. "People who make anonymous phone calls are cowards!" And I slammed down the receiver.
Back in bed, Margaretta was unruffled. But I was seething, particularly since my loyalty to the Church had been called into question by some zealot who probably wouldnt even think for himself.
That was the first of a series of strange late-night phone calls. One suggested we get out of town. All questioned my commitment as a Mormon. What I had considered a ludicrous situation in need of resolution was apparently hands-off to many people.
By the end of my two years at Ricks, though I remained totally committed to the Church, I was beginning to have doubts about the practical effectiveness of Mormonism. It wasnt the Church doctrine that I struggled with; it was the difficulty translating faith into action.
Bill and I discussed it. He felt the same way, though he was not ready to let his thinking go as far as mine. On the one hand he openly confessed that many of the students were dull and evidently shallow. He did not enjoy the other faculty members and he did not respect the administration. But his loyalty to the Church was complete. He told me one day that even if he came to find that Mormonism was not true, he could never leave the Church.
For myself, I knew that Mormonism was more than a religion. I was coming to see that, as a social system, it touched every part of a members occupational, social and family life.
I continued to commute twelve miles one way each day from St. Anthony to Rexburg for classes. Each day I passed twice through the little town of Sugar City. One afternoon, on a curve just outside town, I had another experience that focused my growing recognition of the shallowness of the Church.
I stopped to pick up an old man who was hitchhiking. He must have been ninety. Laying his cane in the backseat, he squinted at me through his one good eye (he had a patch over the other one) and thanked me for the lift.
"Been hitchhiking since L. A.," he said. "Spent my Social Security check on a ticket from Anchorage." He winced with pain as he shifted his dilapidated little frame in the front seat.
"Where are you headed?"
He turned his head to focus his good eye on me. "Michigan."
"Michigan! Thats a long way old-timer."
"I think I have some people there."
"You think? Dont you know?"
"Whatll you do if you dont find anybody?"
He eyed me with amusement. "Sonny, do you have any idea how long Ive been taking care of myself?"
The old guy was pleasant, polite and good-natured. Obviously no drunk or drifter, he was a sparkling conversationalist.
Since evening was approaching, I invited him to spend the night with Margaretta and me. We fed him supper. But because our apartment was small and Margaretta was not feeling good, we decided to try to find some other place for him to stay the night.
I called my bishop, who finally told me to take him to the local hotel and get him a room and the Church would pay for it. The room cost $5.50.
The next morning I gave him breakfast, packed him a lunch and found him a ride with a gasoline tanker into Montana. I felt good about the experience and was glad to see the Good Samaritan response of the Church. But on Sunday my enthusiasm was dampened.
"Jim," the bishop called as he spotted me coming into church. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
In his office, he sat down in a swivel chair behind an old blonde desk, looking apprehensive. "Jim, I need to ask you a question."
"Sure. Fire away."
He looked down at his hands folded protectively in front of him on the desktop. Without looking up he asked, "Was that old man you took to the hotel a member of the Church?"
"No," I said, growing defensive. "He wasnt. Why?"
"Well, Im afraid we cant pay for the hotel bill. The Church does not authorize us to do this for non-members."
"What kind of position is that?"
He looked up in irritation. "Im really sorry, Jim, but I dont make the rules, I obey them."
I shoved back my chair and stood up. "Bishop, I am not going to tell you what I am thinking." I walked to the door, stopped and turned around. He continued to stare at his hands. I walked out.
I felt angry. What kind of Christianity did not have time for the poor? What was the story of the Good Samaritan all about, anyway? No matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I realized this was not an isolated incident; it represented Church policy.
One of my last experiences at Ricks was particularly tragic. One morning a baby was found in a ladies room in one of the girls dorms. The baby was alive and in good health, but it had been abandoned in a cardboard box.
The identity of the mother was never disclosed. The baby was quietly adopted and, after a minor flap, the decorum of the community remained unmarred.
I was shaken by the implications of the incident. Things like that happened everywhere, of course. But the image of a young girl bearing a child at a religious, middle-class institution and then having to abandon her newborn or even worse, giving birth alone on the cold tile floor of a restroom made me sick with pity. Was there no one she could go to? No one who could love and understand her? No parent? No bishop?
I was frustrated by what I saw at Ricks and in my ward and among my friends. The reality of Mormon life did not square with the picture our public relation writers painted of the typical Mormon family: parents and children smiling wholesomely at the world from the pages of paid advertising supplements in Readers Digest.
I was floored when I heard that Utah, the great Mormon state of Deseret, had a higher divorce rate than the national average, and a higher rate of child abuse and teenage suicide.
For the life of me, I could not shake the spectre of the baby in the bathroom. I was having difficulty suppressing the waves of sickening emptiness that I was beginning to feel.
I could not understand a God prejudiced by colored skin. Or a church that could not spare $5.50 for an old gentleman in need, simply because he was not a member. Or family relationships that were orderly but superficial and shallow. Or a school that was isolationist and unable to provide young men and women with basic dialogue on human relationships and problems. I found myself in a no-mans land where obedience was blind and justice monstrous.
I watched helplessly as Gods True Church placed tremendous social pressure on young brides to stay constantly pregnant, and then turned a blind eye on the queue of young mothers at the pharmacy for their weekly stash of Valium. I was becoming wary of smiles, stock answers and shallow thinking. I served the Mormon Church with zeal and faithfulness. Indeed, the Church was my god now the god was becoming hostile and foreign.
Nevertheless, despite what I saw and heard, I continued to cling to the same hope that something must be wrong with me. Perhaps I was not trying hard enough. That must be the answer. It was, in any case, the only one I could live with: that regardless of my opinions, the Church had to be right. It was imperative for me to find a way to bend my will and inferior thinking to line up with the Church. Anything less would cost me my soul. I decided with renewed determination, even desperation, to fit in.
Although I was an honor student, after completing my two years at Ricks I did not apply to graduate. I did not care for a certificate from the school. I had been accepted at Arizona State University and was anxious only to be on my way. I hoped a break from the oppressive, inbred community would clear my head and let me get a renewed perspective on my faith.
------- 1. Later, during the racially explosive 1970s because of the Churchs racial policy, Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball received a "revelation" granting priesthood to blacks.