Ron Madson practices law with his son, Josh and daughter in law Cheryl in an restored pioneer home on main street Alpine. They could not find any photos of the pioneers that first built the home in 1870 so they put up a dozen pictures of their own ancestors in the reception area and make up stories as to who they were and what they did depending on the audience and as the occasion dictates.
“Rings the bells…forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in”
My father died nearly four years ago. I inherited from him many of my grandfather’s church books—one published as far back as 1846. I knew my grandfather was a bookophile– collecting, reading and leaving his underlining/commentary throughout his books. While surveying these books, I unexpectedly found his missionary journal. I didn’t know he kept one and his worn leather journal had entries for every single day of his mission from October of 1906 to October of 1908 in the Northern States Mission. Grandpa’s mission had been an inspiration for the Madson clan. His progeny knew by heart the story of Grandpa’s hat. While serving his mission he encountered a great deal of religious bigotry and persecution. He and a group of Elders were holding an evening meeting in a barn with one single light bulb. During the meeting someone shot out the light bulb. Elder Madson got another light bulb and while trying to install it he was suddenly shot in the head. He was immediately taken to a nearby hospital. Days passed and he was not getting better and in fact getting worse. His mission president came to the hospital to give him a blessing. The mission president through inspiration realized that the medical staff was giving Grandpa Madson poison. He was taken from the hospital and fully recovered. The story was further reinforced when the Madson family could produce the very bullet-holed hat that he was wearing at the time. This faith promoting story had left a mark with all of us.
My first impulse was to race through the pages and find this wonderful account. However, for some reason I felt restrained as I held what I considered a sacred family text that for all intents and purposes had just been unearthed. Sensing a duty to share it with the entire Madson tribe, I decided to immediately start typing each page until I had transcribed the entire record and then surprise them by sending copies to all my extended family as a Christmas gift—my Grandfather being born on December 23rd so stories of Grandpa, Joseph Smith and Jesus were all wrapped together at Madson Christmas parties. I was only reading the pages that I transcribed and anxiously awaiting for the miraculous story to unfold—more than enough motivation as I waded through endless days of Grandpa writing about the rain, rejection, and no noticeable success other then selling a Book of Mormon now and again. The transcribing of days, weeks and months passed by quickly and I waited with anticipation believing that maybe it would be the next page that would reveal Grandpa’s story. Then I read and typed an account of him and his companion going to a home and a man coming to the door pointing a shotgun at them telling them to get off his property. Then about two weeks after that incident he recorded that someone threw a rock at him causing a cut on his head. He went to the hospital to have it dressed. Meanwhile, the Mission President was also taken to the hospital because of an attack of appendicitis. They were both treated and recovered. Could it be?
I plowed forward transcribing each day now guardedly optimistic that the story involving the bullet ridden hat and the spiritual intervention would appear. Page after page Grandpa Madson doggedly persisted in his missionary efforts. He defended polygamy (he stated: “all they ever want to talk about is polygamy”) as best as a young missionary could at that time. He defended Joseph Smith and our church history. He studied the gospel and read everything he could get this hands on. He went door to door and walked long distances from town to town with little purse and even less scrip. He became a battle worn missionary who would not give up no matter how much his message was rejected or misunderstood. I came to the last few pages and finished the work—transcribing his exact words that he recorded every single day with spelling and grammatical errors left intact. I was pleased to have completed this gift for the Madsons, but I had a certain melancholy realizing that the inspiring story involving Grandpa’s hat was most likely a melding of the gun incidence, his head being hit by a rock, and meeting the mission president at the hospital. It seems that over the decades all of us had, quite naturally, contributed to taking ordinary events and stitching them together to create an inspiring story. In my opinion, there was never any intentional fabrication, but simply the fertile mix of human nature, religious expression and time.
I called our families’ genealogist/historian Aunt to tell her the good news about having the missionary journal and it being completely transcribed. I told her that I needed all the e-mail addresses of aunts/uncles/cousins, etc. She was really thrilled. Before sending it to her and others in cyberspace I asked her about Grandpa’s Hat story. She enthusiastically confirmed the story. I then told her that the story may very well be a patching together of a few events over a three week period—and I explained to her why I believed that the hat story is most likely an embellishment. She went stone silent on the other end of the phone. Then suddenly she protested: “ You are wrong. I know that it happened—we have the hat with the hole in it.” I knew better then to contend with such a noble and strong matriarch’s testimony. I thanked her for her assistance and we talked family and then after entering dozens of e-mail addresses I pushed “send.” Now the only actual first hand account of William Hyrum Madson is out there for anyone who wants to read the word for word daily record written by his very hand.
My grandfather returned from his mission, married grandma, had six children and though of small means created a large personal library consisting of all kinds of church and secular histories and great literature. His written high council talks reflected his love of learning and desire to know the truth. My father, his oldest son, told me that Grandpa was always searching to know everything he could about his and his families faith and heritage, that he believed that “Mormonism is truth and truth is Mormonism,” that “in Mormonism we are only required to believe that which is true,” and that if something is true then we embrace it and if not then we discard it. My father inherited his father’s beliefs and books and now they are in my possession.
My home is a home where books and questions are welcomed. So now everyday people and historians are pushing the “send” button making available previously “hidden” books, journals, and original histories/documents that have been shelved and, prior to the internet, accessible to only a few. Once being habituated to wanting to “know things” it is only natural to fire up the “search engine,” but I have found that by accepting these offerings one enters the Faustian deal where there is no going back. I sometimes envy those who manage to have their hats, stories and testimonials intact and untouchable by new “facts.” There is so much comfort, peace and inspiration in Grandpa’s hat story. My first and most immature impulse has been and still is to make sure that everyone knows, as I have discovered, the “real story,” but with the passing of time I now believe that the real miracle is not to be found in what may or may not be the completely authentic stories in his life or the ones we tell each other, but in recognizing the legacy of my grandfather’s virtue, goodness, and fidelity to faith and family not only during his mission but throughout his life—without which the power and influence of the stories we have shared or will share lose their meaning.
But it is my lot to have inherited from my grandfather the journal and not the hat. I also inherited his belief that the truth is the “fairest of gem that the riches of world can produce” and that in the end it will prevail. So what I consider the real story is now in cyberspace so if any family member cares enough to actually read it then they can draw their own conclusions without my assistance. Soon enough in this age of information where the simplest “internet ploughboy” has at his disposals original sources some, if not many, of our myths and stories that we tell each other in family settings, community, church, and our national tribe will continue to be eroded or totally lost—whether we like it or not. Because the power of myths (real or not) are essential to all families, communities and nations some, or perhaps many, may understandably want to protest any new information, call it a lie, and demand allegiance to a certain story/myth while others will insist that it be given up. Patience, listening to each other and wisdom will be needed. However, recriminations back and forth may just be the inevitable transition process where something must die so that something new and better can take its place. For I believe we will find in the end a paradigm shift where we grow into a much more mature, nuanced and profound faith—less tribal, more inclusive and far less dependent on sensational, unsupportable claims that we might feel compelled to spend our whole life’s mission defending despite the evidence. So Grandpa’s hat has a hole in it. So do many stories we tell each other, but we should appreciate the holes in our individual and collective hats— for that is how the light gets in.