Saturday, March 22, 2008

Remembering President Hinckley

Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, passed away in January of 2008. Many personal stories have been recorded to honor his memory. This is one of mine, and it’s all true.

President Hinckley would have only one 90th birthday and only one 90th birthday celebration. If you were a student reporter assigned to cover the event, you would either be there, or write the “lost and found pets” column for the rest of the term.

I was assigned to report on the event along with Photographer Greg for BYU’s student paper The Daily Universe. It was my first actual “go-and-cover-this-story” assignment for my journalism class, and I admit to being both excited and a little nervous.

We barely started our hour-long journey from Provo to Salt Lake City when the air conditioning in Photographer Greg’s truck, desperately needed in Utah’s June heat, coughed and gave up with a shrug. We both developed instant coatings of glistening sweat. Several miles later other, more vital, bits of the truck showed they could shrug and give up just as well as the air-conditioning. The vehicle lost power, then suddenly lurched forward, then lost it again. Any obvious engine problems ran away and hid when we pulled over to investigate, only to reappear when we started toward Salt Lake again.

My grandfather never said “If trucks were meant to crawl they’d have limbs,” but if he had I’d have remembered his wise words at this point. Photographer Greg’s truck was crawling admirably. Salt Lake was getting nearer at the rate of 15 to 30 miles an hour depending on whether we were going up hill or down. We would barley make it on time and an air of uncertainty settled over the trucks increasingly clammy interior. Certainly the back of my mind was already working on new ways to report on lost pets.

Eventually the truck decided it was much too fine a day to be doing anything but sunbathe; it lurched its last and the engine died. As a subtle reminder that we should not loose our tempers, the truck had given up the ghost opposite the LDS temple at Jordan River about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City.

In his jeans and boots, Photographer Greg was far more suited to be walking alongside the dusty freeway than I was in my dress shoes, shirt and tie, and suit. In barely the time it took to say “dust” it covered our clothes and stuck to our non air-conditioned skin.

The priority was to get to a payphone (in answer to your question, no; cellphones among students weren’t nearly the epidemic in 2000 they are today). As luck would have it we were close to a multiplex that was sure to have one. All we had to do was get over the eight foot high wire mesh fence that ran along the freeway in each direction as far as the eye could see.

Photographer Greg was also better dressed to climb the fence.

As we walked toward the cinema I felt a pleasant breeze on my leg. Then another. In fact I felt a breeze every time my left leg took a step. I glanced down and saw a rip in my left trouser leg, extending from my waist, to below my knee. Step, flap, step, flap. A tear big enough to hide the Grand Canyon in exposed the seldom aired whiteness of my left leg to the elements.

Grimy from sweat and dust we walked into the air-conditioned lobby of the multiplex. Two young men behind a desk asked cheerfully if I would like a free membership to Gold’s Gym for a week. “Does it come with a complimentary sewing kit?” It did not, and the problem of getting 15 miles in 20 minutes eclipsed every thought of physical fitness.

I called an old roommate in Salt Lake who owed me a favor; a favor which I had decided was to be trouser shaped. No answer. “Lost any pets recently?” I asked the Gold’s Gym reps, planning a flying start to my new column that was looking likely to begin the very next day. Photographer Greg had better luck getting in touch with some relatives who lived nearby and arranged transport. Five minutes after we should have walked into the Conference Centre, we were again standing next to a sunbathing truck in the summer heat on a dusty freeway. Greg’s kinfolk pulled up in a big white truck and we continued our journey Salt Lakewards.

I thought the odds that they had happened to bring a pair of charcoal gray, self-stripe, 34 waist suit trousers with them remote, so I didn’t ask. But they did have a roll of clear packing tape which it was agreed I could take.

There are 160,000 people living in Salt Lake City and every one of them that owned a car was driving it around the Conference Center. Those that didn't were on foot, blocking the crosswalks. Realizing I could barley name three breeds of dog, I found myself planning emotionally charged lost pet stories and heart-warming found pet stories facilitated by my kidnapping and returning of the same.

At 6:25 p.m. Photographer Greg and I left the confines of the truck and walked (flapped) the remaining blocks. The parting in my trousers, big enough that I expected to see the children of Israel cross it any second, was too big to disguise, but people were too kind or embarrased to mention it and we entered the building without incident.

I quickly found a restroom and readied my suit for repairs. The packaging tape lived up to its name in that it was ideal for packaging. It was fully aware that sticking to cloth was not a compulsory part of its job description, and its efforts to stick to my poly/cotton trousers were half-hearted at best. I therefore used a lot of it, applying liberally down the tear, across the tear, and all the way round the inside of the leg at several places. My trousers could now stay up whether or not I was in them. I was as ready as I would ever be to go and see the prophet’s birthday celebration.

My every step was accompanied by a very audible crumpling noise and there were some curious looks from people as I walked across the lobby sounding like a giant packet of Doritos. But at 6:55 p.m. I finally walked into the media room and discreetly sat in a corner, legs permanently outstretched. Photographer Greg disappeared into the auditorium and I set about taking notes for the story. Gladys Knight closed the evening by having the entire congregation sing Happy Birthday to President Hinckley. I could well be the only person in history to sing Happy Birthday to a prophet while wearing a suit held together by packaging tape (though never let it be said I did not also have faith and hope).

The celebration over, we set out to find Photographer Greg’s kinfolk. He had arranged to meet them by the nearby Delta Center. The Delta Center takes up a whole block and we had not specified where around it we were to meet them, so for 40 minutes he walked and I crumpled around the Center until we stopped to stand conspicuously on a street corner. Had we known they switched their truck for an SUV we would have had a better chance of spotting them.

All had worked out for the better though. The prophet was 90 and well, we were on the freeway heading back toward Provo with words and pictures, and I did not expect to be writing stories that included the phrase “answers to the name of” any time soon.

The SUV lurched. And again. It sputtered, shrugged and lost power, and soon enough we found ourselves in a stationary vehicle at the side of the freeway. “I’m not jumping over any fences,” said I, but I didn’t have to. The SUV, perhaps realizing we didn’t have any more important appointments to keep, decided it wasn’t worth the effort to not make an effort. We restarted the engine and while there was no more lurching, the drive continued both cautiously and very, very slowly.

The next day in the newsroom I requested a reduction in stories requiring travel from my editors. I simply didn’t have enough trousers.

23 June 2000

The article about President Hinckley’s birthday celebration became my first published—albeit in the online edition only. This “story of the story” I made public for the first time in March 2008, a few weeks after his passing.