Sunday Brunch Special: Home Teaching and Adrenaline

One of my older brothers who is dead now and can’t punish me for telling this story, was the family rebel (hereafter referred to as TR). By the time he turned 13 he smoked, had been in jail overnight for drunk driving (yes, that’s right, not juvy) and had experienced the charms of several older neighbor girls.[1] We lived just on the edge of suburbia and beyond our house to the west were empty fields, formerly farmland, now lying fallow and destined for new subdivisions. If you went far enough the land became boggy, with salt pools forming the boundary of strips of muddy ground populated by weird weeds. As my brother matured, his misadventures multiplied but gradually he toned things down, entered the Army, got married and had several children.[2] One passion we shared, one of the few, was cars.

Somehow, TR had acquired an old Willys pickup sporting 4 wheel drive. This was somewhat of a rarity in that time and place and TR, always looking to push the envelope, decided he was going to give the thing front and rear “dualies.” This means, for the benefit of the unschooled, that all four wheels would have two tires, something like what you see on a semi-trailer in the US. At the time, I had just gotten married and was a full time student and unaware of his project, since my time was basically occupied with either working, snuggling, studying, school or church.

One winter night about 7pm, TR came to our home. “Hey, you want to go 4-wheeling?” I was tempted to say no, but when he told me that he now had an essentially unstuckable vehicle and that he was heading for squishy-land, I made my excuses to my somewhat anxious new wife and hopped in the frankenstein truck. We drove west for 10 or 12 miles and then headed off-road. I noticed off to my left that there were railroad tracks. This was a dual-tracked line to California and at this point trains were moving at 65 mph or so, with 120 car freights the norm (even in full emergency, it would take a mile or two to stop).

It was exhilarating! Driving through the mud at 40 or 50 miles per hour, literally just sitting on top of the goop and rolling, sometimes at an angle, crab-like! There began to be island like features with deeper goop surrounding them. We would hit these low island things at speed, bouncing pretty good. After a couple of these, I saw something really strange in the beams of our headlights: it looked like a tire rolling rapidly away in front of us. Weird. Then I thought I saw another one. I turned to TR who was now struggling with the steering, a look of consternation on his face. We were slowing down, heading closer to the tracks. As we came to a stop I noted that the truck was definitely tilting to the right.

It was cold and very dark outside. I opened my door and in the reflected light from the headlamp I saw the dreadful sight. No wheel. The bare right front axle was digging into the ground, everything gone, no brake drum, no nothing. TR came around to look.

It turned out that his design was a little faulty. He had attached the outside wheel by welding a lug nut to one side of a piece of plumbing pipe and then a stud into the other end. So each outside wheel was attached to each inner wheel by five pieces of thin-wall pipe. Not exactly high test material. With the stress of our driving, the pipes had broken the bolts on the hub and everything had, icarus-like, melted away. Naturally we didn’t have a flashlight.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something moving. Lights. A few miles distant, a train was heading west, toward us, moving really fast. I later learned from someone (a railroad employee) that although many locomotives were geared to run about 65mph max, the Cali line often sported engines that could do 80 or more. As this train approached, I noted that we were actually very close to the tracks. The engineer noted our presence with a lot of horn blasts. Nice.

So we were stuck out in the wilderness, no help nearby, pre-cellphone. After about 20 minutes, I got the brilliant idea that we should get on the ballast[3] which was slanted at about 30 degrees or so. This would hopefully keep our bare axle from digging in, and we could get back to an actual road where we might get help. For some reason however, I can’t recall exactly why, we thought it was necessary to cross the tracks first.

Back in the truck, just before attempting to back over the tracks, we saw the moving headlights again. Train whizzes by. About 20 minutes between trains.

So, we start backing, get the rear wheels over the first set of rails, and, yup, we’re stuck. TR guns it, but we don’t move. I get out and see the bare axle is dug in deep. We decide to try going forward. Nope. I’m looking at my watch and 10 minutes have passed. We try several more times with me either pushing, or pulling. Nothing. I start to have visions of derailed locomotives, dead train crews, and jail. At the very least a hundred grand to repair a train engine. Like going to med school but without an endgame. By this time, I’m praying. After another 5 minutes, I’m promising to donate future babies to the Church. Then I see the headlights.

I’m pushing the truck, standing on the tracks. It might be better to go that way, than stay around for the aftermath. Finally, I pull out the big gun. I promise to do my home teaching, every month, forever. Suddenly, the truck moves forward, bounces off the track and lands about 10 feet away.

I’m not claiming there’s a causal relationship. TR probably happened to hit the gas at just the right time. But just to be sure, I’ve kept up my end.


[1] Parents: TR is the possibility that haunts you. This was clearly consensual stuff – he was some kind of girl magnet and he would have been in therapy today. I didn’t know about this until much later in life. There was a six year difference in our ages. By the way, he was, even at this young age, a very handsome guy, though not very couth. That’s always the way isn’t it, John Hamm?

[2] TR was basically fearless (a fact that probably made his tragic suicide less of an obstacle for him). The day before his enlistment was up, his sergeant accosted him in the base parking lot. TR broke his jaw with the first punch, but TR’s hand was also broken. To avoid staying on base beyond his discharge date, he never went to the hospital. His hand had a permanent bow in the fourth metacarpal.

[3] Ballast is the rock scree that tracks sit on. On high speed lines, the ballast can be pretty high in order to keep the track level and stable. In this case, high enough for us to drive on it, sitting at an angle steep enough to keep our bare axle in the air, well away from the moving trains. (Well, at least a couple of feet away.) This is all about geometry and we eventually found that the strategy really worked, although I had to sit on the fender, hood open, periodically putting my hand over the carburetor to get the engine to suck some gas into the float bowl. Engineer drive-by was a hoot. This was not the end of that truck. We had some other equally stupid experiences in it. But well away from any railroads.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:


  2. Awesome.

  3. There is a “Lemon Law” on those kinds of promises___you have three days to take them back!

  4. Epic.

  5. Ron Madson says:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite Burt Reynold’s movie scene–from 1978 movie “The End”–nine minutes long but worth it:

  6. The Lord works in mysterious ways! Kind of an extreme way to convert a guy to 100% home teaching!

  7. what happens if you miss a month?

  8. The right front wheel comes off his car when he least expects it. That’s how God works.

  9. SLO Sapo: Exactly.

    You find odd experiences like this all through religious literature. How does one approach them? Are they merely coincidence? The backstory is that I was a pretty rotten home teacher at the time. It was really only later that I interpreted this as a bit of encouragement to get it right. For me, it was win-win. Carl Sagan’s milage varied.

  10. Wow.

  11. Excellent narrative. Sorry about the tragic end noted in n2. I imagine a similar Mormon community to the one Levi Peterson describes growing up in. Full of wonderful anecdotes but pretty far removed from my formative years.

  12. living in zion says:

    Sheesh. As a mother, I got major heartburn just reading this. There is a special place in heaven for your parents.
    So glad you made a doable deal with God. I think the unkeepable deals just annoy Him.

  13. I just hope you tell this story to the kids of families you home teach. I can tell you for sure that my kids would listen intently to every lesson you ever taught after that!!

  14. I think I just got grey hair for you parents…oy…and your wife

  15. I’ve made a promise like that, only for church attendance. Since I had generally gone to sacrament but was leary of Relief Society, my original promise to God was perfect attendance except for actual sickness to all three meetings every Sunday for three years. I have since extended the promise, with a little more leeway to skip Mother’s Day and to try when on vacation, but not beat myself up if I didn’t make it when I was out of town or there was company in town.

    Honestly, I consider it the most important covenant I’ve made in my adult life that involves just me and God.

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