Hello, family and friends.
You may have noticed that we don't blog any more.
That's been a conscious decision that came from multiple reasons. The biggest is probably that when you are 40 and your kids are teenagers, the issues you deal with are not as easily shared. They are surely just as universal and we probably should all talk about them. But we don't. Teenage issues are very personal and can't be broadcast so freely as childhood issues.
It turns out that this is also true for lots of 40-year-old issues. Who knew?
We also felt like we ran out of things to say. The blog ran for nearly three years and made small inroads in to dozens of countries. We shared our personal message of faith to a handful of people all over the world, including places we'll never see like North Korea and Pakistan. We're proud of that and celebrate it. But it had run its course and it's time for us to move to other passions.
As some people know, I'm earnestly working on a biography of my great-great-great-great grandfather, William "Uncle Billy" Rogers, who was a wild frontier man his whole life. He was not a great father or husband. But seems to have been a great friend and the kind of guy you'd love to drink a root beer with.
From time to time, I'll post some pieces I'm working on. I believe that this biography will take at least a decade to finish, so there will be lots of opportunities to share. I'll also post some other writing I do when I'm brave enough. I do still occasionally write some poetry when I’m extremely brave and I fiddle with some other prose. Fiction is still a mystery to me. I can’t hardly read it and I certainly can’t create it.
I actually tried at first to make this biography into a novel of biographical fiction. That seemed “easier.” It certainly wasn’t. Within a week I had somehow written nothing besides a fairly detailed love scene between my great-great-great-great grandparents. And no one should go there.
So I’m back to writing just what I know how to write.
Today, I'll share a piece I'm writing about the 20 years Uncle Billy spent working as a riverboat pilot on the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. We don't know much about his own experience then, because he wasn't yet famous and left no personal record I'm aware of. But we do know a whole lot about life on the great rivers (which were then on the American frontier) because so many other people left records about those times.
Here is my snippet from this morning:
The pious who live in milder times and places must remind themselves regularly that they are subject to a greater power. But those who lived and worked on the great rivers of the western frontier in the 19th Century needed no reminding. The very real—and very capricious—power of the rivers was ever present in their lives and haunted their minds.
The rivers became animistic forces and pagan gods who gave and took life at will. When they were generous, they watered crops, relocated pilgrim families, and shipped a limitless supply of goods and materials. But they were also temperamental deities who belched malarial swarms of mosquitoes and swallowed up the unlucky.
Some lost everything to a river. They sacrificed their sons and daughters to its depths. They burned up in feverish agues from its disease. Their wagons toppled into it and made offerings of every possession a family owned.
A young Samuel Clemens, who nearly drowned a dozen times himself, lost a boyhood friend to the Missouri River. He recalled in his autobiography that the deceased was the only boy in town who slept that night. All others lay awake trembling in a fear not just of the river itself, but also of their own heavy sins. For, as they were assured by all the adults in town, it was the weight of sin that sunk a boy to the bottom and fed him to the river.
The great lakes and great rivers didn’t just open the frontier and shape the course of a nation, they meddled with individual lives. They settled into secret consciousness and became the actual providence of fortune or despair. They were the reason and the foundation of human decisions.
When a 16-year-old James Garfield—who, like so many others, had abandoned school to work the canals—fell off his boat at night and was miraculously saved by a rope snagged between two floorboards on the deck, he knew a greater power had preserved him. Confident that he was called to a higher life, he left the river at once to convalesce at home and return to school with all his energy. He launched an explosive career that lead from teaching to school administration to a brigadier generalship in the Civil War. He went on then to congress and, finally, to the presidency of the United States.
His contemporary, Charles Guiteau, survived a terrible boat wreck that drowned many and burned alive others. Fifty of the 300 passengers perished. As Guiteau dried out on the riverbank the next morning, he was equally certain he had been providentially preserved for a greater cause. His calling, as he would grow to see it, was to assassinate President James Garfield, whom he fatally shot a year later.
The Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, declared by revelation that the Missouri River was cursed and that “the destroyer rideth on the face thereof.” So strong was his conviction, that Mormons still fear the water today. We’ve tucked away all other folk magic and mysteries that once complimented the early faith. But a sincere fear of water lingers.
Today, an otherwise no-nonsense Mormon lawyer, engineer, or corporate vice president—a person devoid of any other superstition—will gladly share a third-hand story of some near drowning or boat accident that confirms Satan’s control of the water. The most rational Mormon can yet explain with zeal why water is obviously, rationally, and scientifically more subject to the devil’s influence than is any other element.
Even now, Mormon missionaries are forbidden to swim and they fearfully avoid the banks of lakes or rivers. Other Mormons—those who are not as righteous as missionaries—aren’t as delicious to the water and can therefore swim or boat without pause. But no Mormon of any caliber could ever swim on a Sunday without feeling a tingle of fear run up the spine.
In my own childhood, my Mormon congregation was racked with controversy when our Boy Scout troop decided to canoe for two days down the Missouri River. My best friend was forbidden to go, and his devout father arrived on the morning of the trip to urge the rest of us from our folly.
Fortunately, none were taken by the river gods that week. But it was a sin to tempt them anyway.