Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, July 24, 2006

Happy 24th

Here in Utah we are celebrating the 24th of July, in which we shoot off all the illegal fireworks we bought from Wyoming or Nevada and failed to shoot off twenty days ago. We also have parades in which people tie lawn chairs together the night before so they can get the best spot to sweat in the July heat and watch their children sweat in the July heat as they march down the middle of Main Street.

Of course this whole holiday thing is a little confusing, because it is a state holiday but not a federal holiday. So are the banks open and the mail closed or is it the other way around? And is the trash getting picked up? Can I get a haircut, or is Supercuts driving a giant razor in the parade? Also, some companies have the day off and others don’t. Of course my company doesn’t, but I think my publisher does. Very confusing.

Anyway, the whole point of Pioneer Day is to honor our forefathers and foremothers. Or if our great, great, grandparents, didn’t cross the plains, to honor someone else’s foreparents (is that a real word?), while wishing we could claim direct decendencey (another made up word I fear) from Brigham Young or at least Joseph Fielding Smith.

As it turns out I’m 50/50. My maternal line was in the Martin handcart company while my paternal (This is a real word I believe) line are more recent converts. But I don’t believe your descendants (way too many hard words here for a guy who lives and dies with spellchecker) must be pioneers in order to celebrate pioneer day. In fact, may I suggest that this is a great day to honor anyone who came before you who influenced your life in a positive way. Of course those might be pioneers who crossed the planes, but they might be pioneers of another type.

Two people who come immediately to my mind are my high school creative writing teacher and my maternal grandfather.

My writing teacher, Bill Sheehy was the kind of guy who for the twenty plus years he taught was constantly nominated for teacher of the year. He filled his classroom with couches and filled our heads with ideas. He’d sit up on the table at the front of the classroom with his legs crossed and his Mickey Mouse socks not quite covering his hairy shins, and he would open his students’ eyes to the world of English.

He pointed out to me how a dab of shaving cream in a scene from the Great Gatsby could sum up the entire book. One day he asked several of us to leave the classroom while the rest of the class discussed a plot idea for a novel. When we came back in we had to ask yes or no questions to figure out the plot. Only after we had uncovered a really fun story idea, did we learn that there had been no plot at all. The class members had simply answered yes or no based on the last letter of the question—proving that anyone can come up with a great storyline if they ask enough questions.

Interestingly enough, even though I felt like I was goofing around in his class most of the time, more of what he taught has stayed with me than any other HS teacher. I have committed to have him as a character in my first published national.

My grandfather was another kind of guy entirely, but equally admirable. After his wedding reception, as he and his wife were making their way through crowds of rice throwing friends and family, he told my grandmother that he would get the car and meet her on the corner. When she showed up and he wasn’t there, she began to worry. Wondering if she was at the wrong corner, she circled the block. Finally he pulled up just as she returned to the original corner. Turns out he’d stopped for a hamburger on the way. You gotta admire a guy who would even think of that.

Okay so maybe it wasn’t his marital skills I picked up, but he was the greatest salesman I have ever known bar none. When my mother was born, he was in the jewelry sales business. He showed up at my grandmother’s hospital room and told her, “Well you can stay another week. I sold a bracelet.” Later he would cross the country selling homemade oven cleaner to restaurants. He would rent a hotel room. Mix up a batch in the bath tub. Label some plastic jugs and set out across the city selling the cleaner. Wonder what the EPA would think of that now-a-days? One time he called my grandmother in Oakland and she asked him, “Where are you Wendell?” He said, “Okalahoma.” She told him to turn around and start for home.

Although he never graduated from college and never worked for anyone else, he always provided a good living for his family.

Once when I was in my early twenties, he offered to let me in on a business venture. Although he was in his late seventies, he was still selling. He’d offer a local eatery free placemats and then sell ads around the outside. I worked this small town up and down for three days and was proud to have sold 3/4s of the latest mat. Of course he wasn’t satisfied with that.

“Try again,” he told me.

I was stunned. “I’ve been to every business.”

“Well try again. How about that paint store?” he asked, pointing to a building down the street.

“They’ve already spent their ad budget. I talked to the owner”

“Come on.” He led me by the arm into the shop. Knowing I was a very good salesman, I felt smug that he’d learn a little something from his oldest grandson.

As soon as we entered the store, the owner said, “I already told your salesman I’m not interested.”

Grandpa smiled. “This isn’t my salesman. He’s my grandson. Now tell me about your business.”

Thirty minutes of chitchat later, the owner of the store said, “So tell me about those ads again.” He bought a double ad. Three hours later the mat was sold out, and I was the one who had learned something.

Appropriately enough, I heard that my grandfather had died while I was on a trip to Disney World with my family. A trip I had won through high sales at the company where I worked. At the funeral, I sat in the stand at the front of the chapel and looked down on the many friends and family gathered there. Suddenly I realized something. There were many grandchildren and “adopted” grandchildren in the audience. And while almost none of us had college degrees, we were all providing good livings for our families just as he had done. He taught me, along with a lot of others, the value of perseverance and good personal relationships.

So on this 24th, who can you look back to and thank?


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