By Thomas Kimball
As a railroad bull working for Western Pacific, my grandfather was the dread of ride-hitching hobos. Until late in life, he wasn’t active in the Church. To my knowledge, he didn’t ordain his sons or participate in Mormon priesthood rituals. His cousin, then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball, corresponded with my father along with other Kimball family servicemen during WWII encouraging them to retain their Mormonism and consider serving Church missions when they returned from the war. Though my dad didn’t ultimately serve a mission himself, he did become an active, believing Latter-day Saint. When I was set apart for my mission, my dad stood with our long-time neighbor and stake president and placed his hands on my head as my mother looked on.
On the evening of 22 January, I sat in a church boardroom as a stake president set my nineteen-year-old son, James, apart for a mission. When the time came, the stake president called up Randy, the only other adult male in the room, to participate. Though I knew I would not be included, I was surprised at how conflicted I felt when I sat outside the small circle. As the blessing began, I felt somehow disrespected, as if someone were saying, “Tom, you are an outsider now and you are welcome to sit quietly with the women and children while we bless and advise your son for you.” It made me feel as though I was no longer up to snuff; second class. I began to wonder if this is what Mormon women have been feeling all along—left out, looking on, as men bless their children for them. Or do I only feel this way because I know first-hand what it is to gather in the circle, to rub shoulders, to lay on hands, to say the words, to invoke the blessing?
My only real connection to the night’s ritual was through Randy. He was the compassionate, thick-skinned bishopric counselor who had advocated for Page and me as we tried to sort things out with the Church. He was the one who had sat stunned as Page and I walked out of the bishop’s office for the last time.
Tonight, looking on, I felt as if Randy put his hands on my son’s head for me. For this, I thank him.
The next day, we brought our son to the MTC where, with the best of intentions, we attempted to follow the new drop-off policy. The car drives up to the curb; parents and family stay in the car as missionaries pull bags from the trunk; the boy gets out; and the car drives away. It is a perfunctory ritual, considering we wouldn’t see our son again for two years. But, in a way, a merciful one.
As we drove away, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw James carrying his bags toward the brown-brick buildings. I couldn’t help being reminded of the movie Soylent Green where Charlton Heston’s character follows his father’s body as it moves through a large factory, discovering at the end that the corpse is being processed for human consumption.
What will my son be like when he comes out the other side of his mission? Will he be a priesthood zombie? Will the numbers game that rules so many missions open his eyes to my unbelieving view of Mormonism? Or will he come back as a compassionate, mature young man who has learned how take care of himself and others? Who knows?
For now, I have lost my partner in crime. The kid who listened to 70’s rock with me; my action-movie buddy when Mom is at work. Despite my lack of belief, I would have loved to help set you apart.
Good luck kiddo. Make good choices. Ohio is lucky to have you.