Sometimes I tell full time missionaries today that the reason they have so many mission rules is that when I was a missionary 55 years ago, we didn’t!
There’s more than a hint of truth to that. For example, on my mission we were on our own to find a place to live. No written guidelines. No directions. No rules. No nothing. And that made for some very interesting experiences. In early 1962 my companion, Elder West, and I were sent into a new area in Parramatta just west of Sydney, Australia. After looking around for a place to live, we met Mrs. McLaren, a 50+ year-old widow, who had a room in her house for rent. We took it—and had an experience we could not have imagined.
Mrs. McLaren was a nurse and worked in a hospital at night. During the day she was usually either asleep or drunk. There are stories there that aren’t my focus today, but I’ll relate one to give an idea of the uniqueness of our situation. In her home, we had our own bedroom, used her kitchen to prepare our meals and store our food, and washed our clothes in her little “automatic” washing machine. So Mrs. McLaren’s daytime imbibing didn’t affect us that much, and we were gone during the day anyway.
From time-to-time, though, she offered to “help” us. We were like her sons, she said. One day she asked if we would like her to wash our clothes. Or rather, if we would let her wash our clothes. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, we said we had some socks that needed washing. That’s all we were willing to entrust her with. We gave her all of our socks except the pair we were wearing. They would be clean and dry when we got home, she assured us. They weren’t. When we arrived later that evening, Mrs. McLaren had gone to work, and our socks were sitting in a tub full of water! We would be wearing the same socks we wore today, tomorrow. And in spite of her promise that the socks would be ready the next day, we were stuck with the same pair of now “scented” socks for the next three days.
Finally, at the risk of making her feel bad, we scooped our socks out of the now murky water, rinsed and washed them, and hung them up to dry. We didn’t let her wash our socks (or anything else) again.
But my story today is about Mr. Kraft, the only other boarder in the house, and his parakeet, Jock. Mr. Kraft was a small, wiry man in his early 80’s. He had been a station hand (ranch hand) all of his life until he retired, and he had lived with Mrs. McLaren for a number of years. He was crotchety, barely said a word, and pretty much kept to himself. He was not much for taking baths either (not hard to tell). He had an artificial leg and did his best to keep that fact from us. We knew though, because it squeaked when he walked. Taking a bath was an ordeal as he had to remove that leg, then put it back on. That was at least one of the reasons he avoided bathing.
We shared the kitchen with Mr. Kraft, Mrs. McLaren . . . and Jock. Sometimes Jock would squawk or screech, but would never talk. Mr. Kraft would stand by his cage saying words to get him to repeat them, but it was futile. Elder West and I saw Jock as a worthy challenge. We ate at different times than the others, and every day we would spend a few minutes by Jock’s cage trying to teach him just three words: Jock’s a Mormon!
Then it happened. As we sat in the kitchen eating, a voice shrieked out: “Jock’s a Mormon! Jock’s a Mormon!” Elder Paul West and Elder Steve Hanson had just converted a parakeet!
From then on, a steady stream flowed from Jock’s beak and always the same words. “Jock’s a Mormon! Jock’s a Mormon!” Mr. Kraft was not a happy camper. By the hour, he stood by Jock’s cage repeating, “Jock’s a Baptist! Jock’s a Baptist!” The bird’s reply never varied: “Jock’s a Mormon! Jock’s a Mormon!” That parakeet was firmly in the fold.
Over the next days, Mr. Kraft became even more sullen and depressed. Finally, Elder West and I decided it was time to teach Jock some new words. Every time we were by the bird’s cage, we repeated another phrase. We were studying in our room one day when Mr. Kraft hammered on our door and literally shouted: “Elders? Are you in their elders? Elders?”
We looked at each other wondering what we’d done now to offend him. We got up and opened the door. Little Mr. Kraft stood there with a smile we had never seen before, while tears streamed down his cheeks. “Did you hear him?” Mr. Kraft cried out. “Did you hear Jock?”
We shook our heads.
Mr. Kraft was almost dancing now. “Jock said, ‘I love you, Mr. Kraft! I love you, Mr. Kraft!”
Two very wet-behind-the-ears missionaries learned the lesson of a lifetime. It is far better to be kind than clever.