My Father has never been one to speak much of himself; he is almost painfully shy about being honored, even in private. Not surprisingly, then, I have only ever heard snippets of his life story. Still, I have become acutely interested of late in better understanding my heritage generally and my Father’s story specifically. This summer, with his begrudging permission, I read through his old journals and letters, marveled as I watched his story come to life, and tastedâ€”though distantlyâ€”the deep sorrow and joy that run like rivers through his history.
As my Dad has noticed my research, and as my admiration for him has deepened, he has protested: â€œthere’s nothing special about my story, everybody just passes through the challenges life gives themâ€”and life challenges everyone.â€? While I agree, I think my Fatherâ€™s story is somewhat remarkable. I share it here with his permission.
I have a bit of trepidation sharing this story online because I cannot know who will read this, in what spirit they will receive it, or what they might do with it. While this is true with any form of publishing, posting on the internet is especially daunting because I push a button and â€“zap!â€”the story is beamed across the world, available for any and everyone to read. Iâ€™m sharing the story anyway because I think the events it chronicles are important and beautiful. I hope you, the readers, will receive it in the same spirit I have written it.
My Father grew up on Hollywood Avenue in Salt Lake City. His immediate ancestors were hard-scrapple immigrants and his father sold clocks to make ends meet. My Dad’s spiritual pedigree included the Kimballs (Heber C. and David P.) on his motherâ€™s side and Scandinavian converts on his Fatherâ€™s side. My Father’s round-faced and jovial Dad once whispered advice to a departing missionary: “donâ€™t take yourself too damn seriously.” My Father’s Mother, on the other hand, was a fragile woman with a striking cloud of vibrant dark hair; her spirit sparkled though myasthenia gravis had weakened her body to the point of near-exhaustion. My Father and his motherâ€”Gwen, or Nana as he called herâ€”were especially close, sharing an intimate and intuitive connection to the divine.
My Fatherâ€™s youth, as it pertains to this story, is most remarkable for the actions of his sister, Teresa. She, a red-haired fireball, inextinguishably adored life. Beginning during her junior year of high school, however, she began a path of experimentation that ended in her complete immersion in the roaring hippie movement. She bathed herself in the tide of sex, drugs, and moral recklessness; her vim and vigor were almost irresistible, even as she sped toward self-destruction.
Long sideburns notwithstanding, my Dad harbored no such rebellious impulses, feeling, instead, an innate affinity to the Gospel. When he turned nineteen, there was no question he wanted to serve a mission. And so, in the autumn of 1975, my Father entered the LTM (language training mission) with a call to serve in the Colombia, Cali mission. His first entry is typical of a newly-minted missionary: â€œsaying goodbye was quite the emotional experience. I was told that sacrifice meant the giving up of something good for something better. The difficulty comes in not understanding the â€˜betterâ€™ part. That is what makes sacrifice sacrifice.â€?
After leaving the LTM, my Dad spent three months in Texas (visa problems) and then made his way to Colombia, where he served for two years under President Jay Jensen, whom my Father grew to deeply admire. Under President Jensenâ€™s direction, my Father served as both a missionary and as the missionâ€™s financial secretary.
As my Fatherâ€™s two years drew to a close, my Grandfather wrote a letter to President Jensen which must have seemed, at the time, fairly routine; later events, however, would lend it an almost prophetic tone. In part, Oscar (my dadâ€™s father) wrote:
â€œI note the date today 18th July 1977. Elder Johnson entered the Missionary Home 18th October 1975. Time passes swiftly. Whenever he is released, would you kindly give him some advice about making the transition from missionary life, to life at college or whereverâ€¦. The change for some of the elders is a traumatic one. Elder Johnson will think strongly on whatever you tell him. Perhaps you could dictate a letter, outlining some of the things he should do, to make the change more comfortable. We would really appreciate this very much.â€?
My father was supposed to return to Utah in October but, because it was so difficult for the Church to obtain Colombian visas, he wanted to extend his service until December. The First Presidency granted his request and his mission was extended until near the end of the year–the 12th of December was his last day. That afternoon, as he sat on the first of the four airplanes that would bring him to Salt Lake, he wrote of the experiences he had had that morning. In that journal entry, my father speaks of a tearful farewell meeting with his mission president as well as of saying goodbye to beloved members. It is evident from this and other entries that leaving Colombia was at least as hard as leaving home had been: as my father had invested such a meaningful part of himself in Cali, it tore at the fabric of his heart to leave. He ends the entry this way:
â€œI cried most of the way to the airportâ€¦.Colombia is almost gone. I am more than ever grateful for the unchangeable things, like the divinity of the Savior and his mission and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and the blessing of a living Prophetâ€¦.Many things change, some things do not. I am more grateful than I can explain, right now, for the things that do not.â€?
After finishing writing in his journal, my Father sat watching South and then Central America slip over the distant horizon as his plane flew into Houston, his second stop. He then boarded the third plane, which would take him to Denver where Teresa lived with her husband. As he flew the third leg of the journey, my Father pulled out a letter from his mother dated Dec. 3, 1977. She had written every week of his mission, regular as the rising sun, and this was the last letter he had received. The letter, in part, reads:
“Dear Son, Now I didnâ€™t say I wasnâ€™t looking forward to your coming home. That would be a lie. What I said was, I was trying not to think about it because in my heart I had said you could be there till April. Since this will be my last letter (it seems so impossible that itâ€™s hard to believe) I shall make it shorter…. Xmas is in the air and I guess no mother will have a better one than me [;] what more could one ask for than to get a son for Xmas…. You have done such a great job and you have proven yourself to be a worthy servant. Oh! The things I could say. A happy mother I am.”