Sunday, February 28th was one of those Sabbaths that the Brethren counseled us against a decade or so ago. The video meetings together with the in-person sacrament meeting started at 8 am and went to 4 pm, when we had to excuse ourselves to make dinner for the missionaries. At home, I might have been a little annoyed by the overscheduled Sunday. But in the mission field, in COVID, I enjoy the interactions all day long. Sis Hatfield did have a moment of stress however, when we walked into sacrament meeting, all but late. Pres Fingal made a bee line for her, and asked if she would substitute on the organ. (We never did find out where our organist was, but that didn’t matter much.) And of course, it was immediately time for the opening hymn. Fortunately, the computerized organ had the opening hymn, A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, in its repertoire. Unfortunately, the organ was set at 129 beats per minute, and with beat adjustment knob nowhere to be found, neither the conductor nor the audience could keep up. And with the verses of this hymn being so long, the organ finished a good 10 seconds ahead of everyone else. And then it marched right into the next verse. By the end, the organ was finished while we were half way through the fourth verse. Thankfully, Sis Hatfield found the time adjustment before the sacrament hymn.
The Traveling Technology Trainers, Elders Scheurman, Reader, and Petty. They have helped play an important role in spreading technical knowledge around the mission, and indeed, around the North America Central Area, to help finding and teaching in this new age. I’ve written about Elders Scheurman and Reader before. We’ve been close to them for a long time now. Elder Petty, who we know a little less, has an amazing story. He is a Florida mass shooting survivor. His sister did not survive the shooting. The experience galvanized his determination to serve a mission. I admire his strength. Later that night, we had a surprise drop in from Sis Bell. She is just like that. You never know when she is going to bring something by. Tonight she made cookies. Back at home, Pres Bell is in an intense Mission President/Stake Presidents/Seventy coordination meeting. Over hearing the video meeting, Sis Bell is a little nervous, hearing Pres Bell discuss his concerns that without greater member support, neither the mission nor the stakes will achieve their goals for teaching and baptizing. Apparently, it’s a little tense. Sis Hatfield thinks Sis Bell had the feeling she needed to add some positive energy to the world, and what better way than baking dessert and sharing. So happy ending, right? About ½ hour later, Sis Hatfield got a text from Sis Bell with a picture of a swollen ankle and bloody knee. On her way out, Sis Bell had stepped on a sweet gum tree seed pod, a brown, spiky, hard pod about the size of a golf ball, and a hazard to persons in flats, much less a person in heels. Our front walk is in a grove of sweet gum trees, littered with the pods. Sis Bell stepped on one, went down, twisting her ankle, hopefully not breaking it, deeply skinning her knee and palms. Sis Hatfield offers to come watch the kids so she can go to the emergency room, but they decide to see how the night goes. As Sis Hatfield said, no good deed goes unpunished. Or so it sometimes seems. The Bells don’t need another trial, but they got one.
On Monday, March 1st, I started as a plumbing coach. Sis Brown called from Washington, Missouri that she had dropped a small retainer down the bathroom sink drain. She called to ask what could be done. Because Washington is a good hour away from St Louis, I asked if they would be willing to try to disassemble the drain trap themselves. Sis Brown was game, I think mostly because she was worried, and necessity sometimes nudges us to new territory. I talked them through it, and sure enough, they got it. Next, the elders in the Missouri River area called and their kitchen faucet was running and wouldn’t turn off. They hadn’t thought of a valve under the sink. It was a little balky, but after turning it back and forth a few times, it finally went off and I got them in touch with their apartment maintenance team for a full repair. The Rockwood 1st elders called and said that their garbage disposal wouldn’t work. After trying all the easy fixes, which didn’t help, we resorted to contacting the landlord. By now I was late for getting to the office. But I was happy that the first call was from David Hanley in the Illinois State Mental Health Hospital, in Alton. I am sure he had wanted to talk to Sis Hatfield, but she wasn’t there. I was able to tell David that Sis Hatfield had wrapped a copy of Saints, volume one, and I had put it in the mail to him. He was delighted. It is gratifying to support and encourage him in small ways. On the other hand, we are starting the audit of our mission this week. I knew that one of the things that the auditor looks for is any reports of untested fire alarms, so I had worked hard to get the missionaries to test their alarms and record the results over the last 10 days or so. This morning, with the start of a new month, the system posted 11 new “unsafe houses,” meaning, the allowable period between tests had expired. So, I was calling missionaries to test their alarms and record the results—again.
Later in the day, Sis Hatfield harvested some interesting statistics: since the beginning of the Pandemic, 149 missionaries came to the Missouri St Louis Mission after originally being assigned to a foreign mission (save one, who inexplicably was reassigned from Tri-Cities, Washington). Of those, we still have 105; 24 or 16 percent have been released; and only 20 or 13 percent have transferred to their original assigned mission. Not many yet. What prompted the tallies was the receipt of Elder Atwood’s reassignment back to Mexico. He has felt left out because his MTC companions have all gone back some time ago. And Sis Hatfield has taken more phone calls from Elder Atwood’s mother looking for update information—and ideas on how to push for her son’s return to Mexico—than any other missionary mom.
Tuesday, March 2nd I got to the office a little early to get some desk work done. I wasn’t there 30 minutes when in walked the auditor. But Elder Jacob wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another hour. That meant I had to help the auditor get started, a task I hadn’t planned on. Sis Hatfield isn’t coming into the office this morning because she is heading directly to the mission leadership council to help get things set up and the lunch prepared. Her help is particularly needed with Sis Bell hurt and in a boot to support her ankle that may be broken. The housing elders meet me at the office and we load up the mobile kitchen equipment, mission mail, and nearly expired mission emergency food supplies for distribution at MLC. I have the auditor set up as best I can, and hopefully Elder Jacob will arrive at the office soon. I need to get to the St Louis Stake Center where the MLC is going on. Sis Hatfield has set up and lunch well along. We set out the boxes of mail and food, and head to Columbia.
We stopped at a sandwich stop for lunch. There we ran into a five month member of the Church, a young man named Michael. Elder Nielson had served here before becoming a housing assistant and knew Michael well. Michael was able to take a few minutes to visit with us. It was inspiring to hear his story. Michael was married on Valentine’s Day, barely two weeks ago. His new wife is being taught by the missionaries. Nourished, we got to work. Our job in Columbia was to make the Bear Creek apartment habitable. I’m the judge of that, and in the housing coordinator’s opinion, the elders have been living in filth. I won’t move the sisters in while the apartment is in this condition. The window frames are coated with black mold. I set up Elder Nielson with a bucket of Pine Sol, a brush, and rags. I thought the walls needed painting, but in fact, they were covered with dirt from shoes around the desks and kitchen table and body oils around the beds. I demonstrated how to wash walls for Elder Buck and he got started with a rag and his own bucket of Pine Sol. I took on the bathroom, which had a tub that was as black as any I’ve ever seen, to say nothing of the mold in the seams. I scrubbed it with Comet three times. I scrubbed the sink and toilet between tub scrubs in order to let the bleach soak in. The bed box springs were cracked and bent, and with the well worn mattresses, landed in the dumpster. We took a break at the hardware store to buy a mop, rust remover, and some electric plug covers. Back at the apartment, I washed the fridge and stove, and the elders vacuumed the bedroom carpet and swept and mopped the vinyl flooring—twice. While elbow deep in the refrigerator cleaning, Elder Jacob called looking for a receipt from August of last year to give to the auditor. I can’t help much from across the state with my rubber gloves on. At least I know Elder Jacob made it to the office today to work with the auditor. We were back at the mission office by 8 pm. After catching a few office balls, we have a late supper of pulled pork and potato salad left over from the MLC lunch. Thanks, Sis Hatfield, for thinking of us!
Wednesday, March 3rd was our day to head south through the western side of Cape Girardeau zone. It’s a 2.5 hour drive down there, so we decide we will start up Saints as worthwhile entertainment. Reviewing Saints seems appropriate while studying church history and the Doctrine and Covenants this year. We had a bedroom to take down in Poplar Bluff and a weights set to take up the space. We also recoat our previous patched hole in a bedroom wall and take some pictures of problems that I’m quite sure the landlord will want to address in the bathroom and kitchen. I have learned that water is both a blessing and a source of trouble, neatly fitting into the doctrine of opposition taught in 2 Ne 2:11. On the way back, we stop in Farmington to give the elders there replacement beds, since they have asked for new beds and those we retrieved in Poplar Bluff are relatively new. When we arrive at the duplex house in Farmington, I’m confused, and there is no one home to talk to. The elders have moved their beds into the front room, and put their study tables in a bedroom. The other bedroom is occupied by all manner of clutter. So, there are two bedrooms in the house, but the beds are in the front room. The only thing we can conceive is that someone is sleeping on the couch, so to keep missionary rules, they had to move one bed by the couch. And if you move one bed, you got to move the other, so that the study tables can fit in the bedroom together. The Farmington elder’s house is also unbelievably cluttered and dirty. One might think that six elders lived there with all the stuff lying around. Because the Farmington elders are on exchanges with other elders, I’ll wait for the companionship to get back together, and then I will need to have a frank conversation with them. On the last leg home, I get a phone call from an apartment complex that no rent has been paid. That is not unusual these days, because the mail is so unreliable. Starting the rent payment wheels turning on the 20th of the month was more than adequate once upon a time. Now, who knows how much time is really needed. But the odd thing here is this complex was switched to electronic payment a month ago to avoid this very problem. I’ll need to investigate.
Friday, March 5th was staff meeting. Sis Hatfield reported on the progress she and Sis Atkins are making on compiling last year’s mission history. She did have a question for the team: what was Sis Bell’s title? The previous year, the mission president’s wife was denoted by a parenthetical. I observed that Sis Bell’s role was far more than parenthetical. So how should we denote her? Apparently it is a question that has been out there for a while. The Church News calls wives the “mission president’s companion.” That says something about her relationship to the president, but not much about her contributions to the broader mission. We settled on “Sister Mission President.” Perhaps this is a bit unconventional, but much more descriptive. Sabotaging our attempts at healthy eating, we had two treats at staff meeting today. Sis Everton made whole grain Mormon Muffins. Sis Bell made raspberry cookies with lemon frosting. Oh my word, it was all so delicious. At the end of the meeting, I raced off to Fed Ex to get Sis Hatfield’s quilt top and bottom sent to the quilter in Lindon. She will have one work week to get it done. But I think she is up to it. When RaDene called and talked to her about the difficult timing some days ago, she kindly replied to send it if there was any time at all, and she would get it done in 24 hours, if necessary. She asked, “is this for the little girl with the magic blue eyes?” Indeed it is.
That afternoon, it was my appointment with the auditor, Bro Klein. We went through a page of questions on practices and procedures relating to leases. I drew one “exception.” Our mission lease deposit ledger showed $25 less than one lease says should have been deposited. Because this is an old entry, and the landlord is not looking for any more money, to my way of reckoning, that leaves the mission $25 to the good. I’ll take that as a satisfactory audit result. Sis Hatfield and Sis Jacob were getting an exception for missing “Internal Record of Purchase” (IROP) shipping receipts. Sis Hatfield detailed for him the impractical, broken, and ultimately useless IROP process where the church is poorly tracking assets going from one pocket to another. Bro Klein was sorry he brought it up. Meanwhile, the housing assistants and I headed out to the sisters in Oak Valley and identified that their disposal was leaking. I called the manager who was delighted to hear that we had put a bucket under the sink to catch the leak. We also rehung dangling towel racks and exchanged the sisters for a working vacuum. After a quick stop at the elder’s apartment in St Peters where we hung a new smoke/CO alarm, we headed for home.
Saturday, March 6th included a date with the Bells. Sis Hatfield and I have been wanting to go to Ulysses Grant’s St Louis homestead, which is a National Historical Site managed by the Park Service. It is in south St Louis, only 20 minutes from our apartment. Although we had less than an hour of time before the site closed, it was plenty of time to get into the Grant house and take a look around. The construction was vertical logs over which slats were nailed and plastered on the inside to make a smooth finish, and clapboards nailed over the exterior. As was typical, there were several fireplaces in the house, with shallow boxes to reflect more heat into the room than modern fireplaces. The house was spacious by Nineteenth Century standards, with ground floor living areas, including a parlor, dining room, and master’s office, a winter kitchen in the basement to conserve heat, and upstairs bedrooms. It had some large porches and breezeways. The outbuildings consisted of a summer kitchen, and ice house, and a chicken coop. Perhaps most striking is the Paris Green paint on the exterior, which is somewhere between lime green and chartreuse, trimmed with a deep forest green. This unexpected brilliance is the original paint color, as can be seen by a partially uncovered wall.
Perhaps most interesting is the social history around the site. Grant was an Ohio native but despised his father’s tannery business. Eventually, Grant went to West Point, and on graduation, was stationed in St Louis. After only reaching the rank of Captain, Grant retired from the army and worked to improve the large Dent farm. Here Grant met his wife, Julia Dent. Grant was a determined abolitionist, but the Dent family was slaveholders. There was considerable disagreement and controversy as Grant took over the homestead and his views against slavery became known and acted on. The strife between Grant and Dent was a microcosm of the strife between north and south across the Nation. Later, as war was brewing, Grant was recruited by Lincoln to be an Army General in the State of Illinois. He proved to be a very effective leader and was promoted by Lincoln to be the commanding general of the Army at a crucial time of the Civil War. Grant rightly believed that if he took the war to the south and expanded fronts of conflict, the agrarian south could not possibly match the resources of the industrial north, a strategy that had eluded Grant’s Union predecessors. Grant continued his command in the Mexican-American War. He was popular, and became an important civil rights leader during his presidency. Sadly, he died at age 63 of throat cancer, probably because he was an intrepid smoker, and his time preceded pensions, so he and Julia were in financial straits. Fortunately, Grant had written memoirs, which Mark Twain helped Julia publish, and which eventually paid her $400,000 in royalties, a fine sum in the late 1800s. Grant’s homestead is now managed in two pieces. There is the house itself, which I described above, managed by the NPS. Separately, Anheuser-Busch owns and manages the large farm and ranch lands. They are now an animal preserve, and the home of the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. The A-B properties have been closed during COVID. I look forward to returning to see the horses.