Chez l’Américain

Train NancyBW Part Eleven in the Derailleur Series

Just before I was discharged from the hospital in Charleroi I was given a referral from an orderly who was attending to me. He was Flemish, but his English was good enough to convey that he knew of a man who lived north of Charleroi who’d be very interested in our message. He gave me his name and address and said that perhaps someday soon I may feel up to paying him a visit. A month went by before I did and on a short December day my new green companion and I boarded a train and traveled north to the town of my referral. This was why. I knew it. Now there was some sense to the circumstances of the past two months somehow circumscribed to get me in that hospital on that day on this guy’s shift to get this priceless information. I just hoped I paid the price well enough to receive whatever blessing was to come through all this.

It took us most of the morning to get there, a place not covered by any of the villes in the mission. In fact, I had my doubts it was in the mission boundaries, but who was I to second-guess the work of the Lord. I wasn’t going to let logistics stand in the way. We arrived at the stop, no station, just an elevated queue above the middle of town and the two of us were the only ones getting off. No one boarded.

We descended down to the main street and began our search for the address. We made several inquiries of local merchants and folks on the street, but no one revealed the address, they just changed their demeanor and walk away from us or went back to their labor. We searched for a while, through the afternoon and without any success in finding the address returned to the queue before it got too late for us to get back to Charleroi in time for curfew.

Just before ascending the stairs a boy stopped us and asked if we were looking for a certain man, the one whose name was on the slip of paper given me by the orderly. I said we were and the boy pointed to a house on the other side of the queue not more than half a block away. People must have thought us to be idiots asking for an address in such proximity. He walked us to a free-standing house, unlike the typical Belgian row houses that line the streets. This one was set back off the street and sidewalk and had a picket fence and gate.

The boy stayed outside the fence line while we approached the door. We were greeted by a man, thirties, affable and American. He smiled and shook hands and invited us in saying he’d been expecting us for some time now. He took our coats and disappeared for a moment and that’s when I noticed the books, floor to ceiling shelves lining the perimeter of the foyer, stacked with volumes; The History of the Church, Discourses of Brigham Young, Mormon Doctrine, conceivably all that had been published up to that time about Mormonism was held within those shelves. My comp was reading the titles, too, when the American came back into the foyer and invited us further into the house.

I was surprised to meet two other evangelists, a proselyting minister from Algeria and a preacher, whose denomination escapes me, from South Africa. Pleasantries were exchanged and we were invited to sit and join the conversation. When the American left the room to help his wife with beverages, the minister warned us that we should leave at our earliest opportunity. The preacher nodded in agreement. Both appeared shaken and fearful.

Before I had a chance to ask why, the American returned with his wife with coffee for the preachers and water for us. And a manila envelope full of secrets. One after another they were presented in eight by ten black and white glossy photographs; the signs, the tokens, the robes, the executions of the penalties, the true order of prayer, the entire endowment authentically depicted, a man and a woman standing side-by side, dressed in temple robes appropriate to the signs and penalty executions they were depicting. One photo showed the execution of the penalty of revealing the first sign of the lower priesthood by placing the thumb of the right hand underneath the right ear and the then drawing it across the throat to the left, simulating how one would allow their life to be taken were they ever to divulge the sign or the first token. Subsequent photos went through the entire endowment.

There they were laid out on a coffee table. The priest and minister averted their eyes. The couple kept their contact with us. Today this stuff is just a Google away, but in 1982 this was privy only to righteous temple recommend holders sworn to guard its sanctity by laying down their own lives if necessary. The American smiled an apology. The significance of revealing this to us was not lost on him nor his wife and in retrospect they were sympathetic with the disclosure.

My companion went silent and did little else but stare at the photographs. I remember looking around the room and feeling like the corners were filling with darkness, not unlike the young prophet whose tongue was bound just before the revelation that would eventually lead me to this very point. In the third version account of the first vision, Joseph Smith indicates a “thick darkness” that gathered around him, an attempt by the adversary to somehow thwart what was about to happen, an event that would change mankind in the restoration of the only true and living church on the earth. This was one of the few logical plot points of the Joseph Smith story that held credence for me – it made sense that the ultimate antagonist would do what he could to stop the stone from rolling forth – so logical that it added to my conviction as well as to my perception of what was happening to me.

It wasn’t long until I couldn’t hear what the American was saying; the noise inside my head drowned it all out. My companion was catatonic and I defaulted to the flight mode of being backed into an ecclesiastical corner. I stood and grabbed him by the neck of his shirt and jacket and lifted him to his feet and dragged him out and down the stairs to the entry.

I stopped there to look at all the books again, trying to make some sense out of it all, my mistake being the assumption that this was a member’s house, my mistake being the assumption that I was somehow lead there, that this was the reason. I was furious. But wasn’t part of my stewardship to separate the wheat from the chaff? Outside their door on the stoop I raised my right arm to the square and dusted my feet, committing both my companion and I to stand as witnesses against this American at the judgment bar. We stepped off the porch and walked to the gate where a group of children had gathered, waiting, I suppose for us, maybe even to witness that peculiar ritual which probably had been played out at that doorstep before.

We exited the boundary of the home and walked back to the train platform. The children escorted us. It was late and dark and odd that anyone would be out let alone these kids. A girl took my hand and led me, others crowded around Parry and took him by both hands and walked with him. At the platform we sat and waited for a southbound train that would stop there.

The children sat with us, some played and taunted each other. They were young kids, four or five years-old to teenagers, maybe sixteen, seventeen years old. They asked about America and talked about popular American movies. When the train came we boarded and I looked to the platform to wave goodbye, but it was empty along with the street below.

Revisiting this in writing is fascinating to me. I remember the indignation and the self-righteous impetus to put this guy in his place and on some levels that’s a little frightening. My frame of reference was inundated with the conviction of ransomed principles. Convinced I’d follow through with the penalties prescribed in the endowment, that sacred oath I took, surfaced the extremist in me, a feeling antithesis to compassion and charity.

Now, I see that American very differently.

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