This morning on the way to work I heard a song that made me smile.
It was about 3:40 and I had been unable to sleep and after stopping at Wal-Mart to buy a shirt to wear to a speech tonight I had fallen into a reverie on the drive north through the dark.
I thought about a girl I knew years ago and that connected to a place that connected to a time that connected to a life that is spent and long passed. A life in the desert and the mountains, on the reservations of the Southwest, where I didn’t quite become a man but I did start to stop being a boy.
It was 35 years ago that I dropped down into Gallup, New Mexico, on a commuter plane. It was me and a lady named Dorma and we were missionaries come to set the world on fire. A smiling man with gray hair and a giant turquoise ring met us at the airport and drove us to Holbrook. He was Don C. Hunsaker, the president of our mission, and ultimately the most important man in my life.
It was him and his dear wife and their family and maybe 150 of us spread across the Four Corners, visiting hogans and trailers and apartments, chopping wood and saying prayers and teaching where we could. I turned 20 out there, and 21, and in a white shirt and tie in the company of people I loved and admired I tried to serve the Lord the best I could.
Some days I got it, and some days I didn’t, and some days the loneliness and longing closed me in and weighed me down. Other days were lost in the joy of people made better and miracles plainly done. It was hard and sweet and if I go to heaven I want it to be back there, with the Hopi and the Navajo and the Apache, and the sun-baked Arizonans with the pioneer roots, working side by side with fellow believers in a worthy cause.
For six months toward the end I lived at the mission home with the Hunsakers and the staff, and travelled through the week, holding conferences and visiting the missionaries and tending to what needed to be tended. Once or twice a month there would be missionaries coming out and missionaries going home, some to be picked up at the airport and some to be driven to the airport, orientations and farewells, new friends and old friends.
The day before a missionary went home, after two years of being away, he would come to the mission home for a dinner and an interview with the president and in the evening, before the Hunsakers’ youngest daughter cut off his tie with a pair of scissors, we would all sit in the dark in the living room while a pair of slide projectors and a half-hour’s worth of pictures would fade from one to another before our eyes. People and places and memories, tears of laughter and tears of joy and tears of parting, flashed photos of forever playing out to a quiet background of music.
A background of music that always began with “Here Comes the Sun.” Beautiful music and a picture of an Arizona sunrise and the reminder that our motto was Warriors of the Son.
And the next morning I would drive them to the airport, usually Winslow or Flagstaff, and wave goodbye as they went back to the world on tiny prop planes.
Then, after two years and two months, my turn came, my time came, and we watched the slides and Sister Hunsaker asked for a lapel pin I always wore – a laughing Santa Claus – and the next morning I drove myself the long stretch of I-40 to Flagstaff, all alone, and left the mission behind.
As much as you can leave something like that behind.
Life has been a tempest since then, a raging flood, a thunderous jet stream, an army on the march, over heights and depths, come hell or high water. And it is what it is and I wouldn’t take anything for it. But none of it was imaginable back then, and back then is hardly imaginable now. And were it not for pictures, and artifacts in my soul, I would some days wonder if it ever really happened.
But this morning in the glow of the dashboard lights I thought about that girl and that time and that place, for long warm minutes, the people and the events and the years since, and ultimately, tangentially, in the random association of thought, of the secret sign off to a podcast I’m starting. It’s for people of my faith and for people from Utah and I end each segment by saying, “With kindest regards, I’m Bob Lonsberry.”
With kindest regards.
That’s how Don C. Hunsaker signed his letters.
And each time I sign off I am quietly tipping my hat to that man and that time and that privilege.
And I thought of that this morning, at about 3:40, and felt happiness and peace.
And as I did so, out of the radio speakers, came the first notes of “Here Comes the Sun.”