THE PRICE OF WISDOM
Kerry Winfield Bumham
A couple of times a year, some new acquaintance will ask me, "What happened to your thumb?" In response I hold up my right hand. It bears evidence of extensive skin grafts and suturing.
"This one?" I ask.
"Itís not a thumb," I say, "Itís my big toe."
"No, itís not," is always the incredulous reply.
"Yes, it is. Look," I say, holding my two thumbs together for comparison. It is easy to see that the toe is thicker and a little hairier than the thumb. I point out the suture lines and the three separate skin grafts. Sometimes I roll up my sleeve and show the skin donor sites on my forearm. Sometimes, especially for curious children, I take off my shoe and show that I have no big toe. I do this to build credibility, because I will need it.
"Gee! How did that happen?" always comes next.
"I was run over by a train," I say. The listener has a hard time with this. Anyone run over by a train needs to be dead or at least missing a couple of legs. The listener always asks a reality-check question to catch me in my lie, and the question is always the same.
"Where did this happen?"
"Argentina," I say, failing the reality test. At this point most people accuse me of lying.
I laugh and say, "Let me tell you the story from the beginning rather than the end. Itís easier to believe." Then I tell them this story.
I turned nineteen on 4 December 1970 and received my call to the Argentina South Mission on Christmas Eve. After eight weeks in the Language Training Mission in Provo, Utah, I was on my way to Buenos Aires. I had been in the mission field just a little over four months when I was assigned on 26 August 1971 to work in Caseros as a senior companion.
My companion, Guillermo Soto, was a twenty-nine-year-old Peruvian convert who had struggled to make a living as an artist and used street drugs extensively until he joined the Church about two years earlier. He had not felt called to go on a mission. Instead, his branch president had told him that he felt inspired that Soto should serve a mission. Soto was poor and the only member of his family in the Church, so a wealthy American was supporting him financially. He had arrived in this mission field just eight weeks earlier. Elder Soto had difficulty memorizing the discussions, desperately wanted to go home, and would already have left if he had enough money for a ticket. In a way he was a captive. He depended completely on the Church for his food, lodging, and transportation.
My mission president, Verden E. Bettilyon, was an attorney from Salt Lake City who had served a German-speaking mission in Argentina some thirty years earlier but who essentially spoke no Spanish. He gave me the special assignment to encourage Soto to stay and fill an honorable mission.
On one hand I was surprised by this assignment. I was not expecting to be made a senior after only four months and especially not with a problem elder. Bettilyon and I had had no interaction prior to this special assignment, so I didnít think he had any basis for selecting me. On the other hand, it seemed like an assignment that I could handle. I had a good heart and decent talent. I had earned the rank of Eagle Scout at age thirteen and had been seminary scripture chase champion of my stake and region. To prepare for my mission, I read all the standard works and such classics as Articles of Faith and Jesus the Christ. In addition, for my prowess with the Spanish language in high school, I was named outstanding foreign language student of my graduating class.
Our first month was discouraging for us both. Elder Soto became increasingly vocal about wanting to go home. He tried but failed to memorize even the first page of the first discussion. He got headaches whenever he studied. He felt useless in the lessons with investigators because he could not participate as a teacher. He also experienced a variety of physical symptoms. For two weeks he had a sore throat. Then he developed what he thought was a urinary disorder. As troubling as either of these ailments was a cold sore in the corner of his mouth. Being an artist, he was quite sensitive over this flaw in his appearance. Nor was I a picture of health. As a proud male teenager I declined to eat properly or acknowledge any homesickness. Consequently I had my share of colds.
On 7 October we went to the mission home, a two-hour trip by train and bus, to pick up supplies. As we were returning home on the train, Elder Soto ran away. A few hours later he returned to our apartment and admitted that he had disappeared to find a place to sell his few art supplies, naively thinking he could raise the price of an airline ticket to return to his home in Peru. We had a long discussion about his frustrations and fears. For the first time I understood how seriously he wanted out of the missionary business; but being a product of the missionary training program, I suggested that perhaps we hadnít been working hard enough. We made a bargain. We would work very hard for one month. Then, if he still wanted to go home, I would take him to see the mission president and support his effort to return home.
For the next three weeks we worked hard, maybe too hard. During October we averaged seventy-five hours of work per week. Elder Sotoís headaches became more severe and frequent. Having observed him at close range, it was my opinion that he was not ill. I thought he had mental and emotional imbalances that produced a wide variety of psychosomatic symptoms. I hoped that the work would distract him. But Soto was sure he had a brain tumor. For him it explained the headaches and his inability to learn even one scripture. He feared that the tumor would eventually kill him. He thought the tumor was real, and that was what mattered.
On Monday, 25 October, our preparation day, Elder Soto announced that he still wanted to go home and demanded that we go see the mission president. A deal was a deal, so we showered, dressed, and went to the mission headquarters. I felt that if Guillermo Soto wanted to go home, he ought to go home. I could see no reason for him to stay.
At the time, I considered President Bettilyon (and every other man above the rank of bishopís counselor) a spiritual giant. As I reflect back with adult perspective, I see him as mature and practical, equal to the workload of running a mission. He lacked charisma, but he was good at rolling up his sleeves and working. I failed to detect any vanity in the man. He asked to speak with me first. I explained that Soto wanted to go home and that he feared he might have a brain tumor. He asked if I thought Soto would stay if he could have a physical exam and get a clean bill of health. "I donít know," I responded, "but it wouldnít hurt to ask." We called Soto in.
I translated while Bettilyon proposed to Soto that he undergo a thorough physical exam. I fully expected Soto to reject this proposal. To my surprise, he not only accepted the suggestion, but he embraced it. In two months I had not seen him smile so glowingly or show such profound relief and enthusiasm. Perhaps if he had not reacted so intensely, I would have pushed for the early return home. The president scheduled the exam for Wednesday morning at the British Hospital, the best medical clinic in the country. Soto and I returned home.
The next morning, Soto was a changed man. His demeanor had become morose. His communications were terse and demanding. I have no experience in clinical psychology, but it is my honest opinion that he became clinically psychotic that dayóthat he could no longer perceive normal reality. He refused to get out of bed, claiming he was too sick. Then at noon he arose, dressed, and demanded that we go to the hospital immediately. Because the physical exam was scheduled for Wednesday, I telephoned President Bettilyon, and he suggested that we spend the night in the mission home, which we did. Soto remained morose and introverted throughout the evening.
In hindsight I can see that Soto felt stuck with two intolerable options. Either he had a malignant tumor and would go home to Peru to die, or he was well and would have no convincing argument for going home. He would lose either way.
The next morning Soto and I left the mission home at 6:30, headed for the hospital. We took a bus to the Los Olivos electric light rail train station where I bought tickets for the next leg of our trip. As the train pulled into the station, Soto pushed me off the platform into the path of the train.
His timing was impeccable. The train struck me while I was still in the air. My body bounced and landed parallel with the tracks in the narrow space between the tracks and the platform. When the train came to a stop, the front of it had passed several feet beyond me. The blow from the train knocked me unconscious, but I came to within just a few seconds. I found myself lying on my back under the train, pinned in two places and unable to move. I later learned that I suffered from shock, a concussion, a broken leg, a compound dislocated ankle, some severe electrical burns, and assorted abrasions. It took the firemen two hours to rescue me from under the train. I was taken by ambulance to the British Hospital where I spent the next three weeks.
The Bettilyons and the mission staff were good to me while I was in the hospital. President Bettilyon worked hard to get me the best medical care available. Sister Bettilyon visited me as her schedule allowed and catered to my adolescent whims, such as bringing me music tapes and a cassette player. After three days Bettilyon came to the hospital and told me about Soto.
Soto was not as lucky as I was. Or maybe luckier. Witnesses in the train station pointed him out to the police, and they arrested him for attempted murder. When Bettilyon arrived at the jail that evening to visit with him, the police informed him that Soto was dead. He had tied one sleeve of his white shirt to a high fixture in his cell and the other around his neck. In his own way, Soto left the mission and went home, which is what he wanted all along. Between the shock, the physical trauma, the concussion and the pain killers, I was too exhausted to react, but Sotoís suicide seemed like a fitting conclusion to the story.
A few days later, two elders on the mission staff came to visit me. They confided that Bettilyon was stressed over the whole event. He questioned why he had received no divine inspiration to prevent this tragedy.
In mid-November the Church sent me to Minneapolis where my parents lived. I spent three more weeks in a Minneapolis hospital where my right thumb was amputated because of electrical burns. After fourteen weeks recuperating at home, I was reassigned in March 1972 to the Arizona Tempe Mission where I completed the last eleven months of my mission. In 1989 I had the great toe of my right foot transferred to my hand. In all, I have had eleven operations and spent eight weeks in hospitals from this event. The Church paid all my medical bills for the first couple of years. My insurance companies and I paid the bills for subsequent surgeries.
For most people, this is where I end the story. Then they say "Wow!" and I say, "Itís not that remarkable. Lots of people have experiences where they nearly die." Then the phone rings or a dog runs through the yard, and the conversation breaks up. But my phone is not presently ringing, so I would like to share a little more with you.
The few seconds that I was unconscious from the blow of the train were the most uncomfortable moments of my life. I was aware of the blackness and the anguish and speculated that I was having a nightmare of some sort. When I opened my eyes and looked up at the bottom of the train, my initial emotion was of relief. I was pleased to have a pragmatic explanation for my discomfort. My second thought was a clear knowledge that Soto had pushed me, even though I had no memory of the event. I did not, nor have I ever felt any anger or desire for revenge against him. As I lay there I told bystanders in my best concussion Spanish that I wanted to talk to Soto. I wanted to tell him that everything was all right, that I wasnít upset with him, that I took no offense at his actions. But I couldnít speak well and they didnít understand, and I never saw him again.
When my parents heard the news from their bishop the next morning at seven oíclock, my motherís initial emotional reaction was that she was glad it was I and not someone else. She didnít think many other people would be able to handle it as wellóanother strange reaction to a strange event. The rest of her reactions were quite normal. Both she and my father were caring and supportive throughout the three months I lived at home while I healed and recuperated.
The general approach of the Church to this event seemed to be one of damage control. The other elders in the Caseros District were immediately transferred to opposite ends of the mission. Bettilyon instructed me that I was not to talk about these events in the same breath that he told me of Sotoís death. A few months later, an apostle visiting a stake conference in Minneapolis held a private audience with my family and instructed us all to remain silent. There is some evidence suggesting that Church leaders did not
give members of Sotoís home branch the true story of his death. My profound reaction to this cover-up effort is a sense of having been "used" by the Church. In spite of the "great worth of a soul," I have sensed that the General Authorities of the Church, as a matter of policy, were more concerned with maintaining the Churchís whitewashed image than with my personal integrity or with giving Sotoís family and friends an honest account of his death.
There are still times when I cry about Guillermo. My heart hurts when I think about this innocent man who died. I sometimes feel as if I killed him. I was there. I made him work when he wanted to go home. My defense is that I was a kid and didnít know any better. Verden Bettilyon probably killed him as much as I did. Heís the one who told me to keep Guillermo on his mission. Heís the one who wouldnít buy him the airline ticket. This reaction raises some serious questions because Verden and I were good guys. We worked hard, we cared about people, and we prayed frequently to God. We didnít mean for Guillermo to die. We were just doing our best to follow the programs and rules of the Church.
Between the severely damaged ankle and the loss of the big toe, my right foot hurts continuously. But I wouldnít have it any other way. I like the pain because it reminds me that I am alive. It reminds me that I have a guardian angel and will not die before my time. But more than this, it reminds me that obedience and conformity are not necessarily virtues. It reminds me that people are more important to me than programs. It reminds me that personal righteousness cannot be defined by institutions.
The pain is the price I pay for wisdom.
To this day I mourn Guillermo Soto as one of the great losses of my life.
(c) Copyright 1998 by Kerry Winfield Burnham. Used by permission.