Forefathers on my mother's side of the family were some of the original pioneers who settled San Bernardino, California and my great grandmother was the first white female born there.
As a small boy, we lived just a few doors away from my great grandfather Hallstrom, whom I used to visit quite often. During his productive years, he was a harness maker and did quite well until the advent of the automobile gradually put horses and oxen out of business. While I was just a toddler, he made a harness for me with a long strap which my mother could clip onto the clothes line, giving me quite a lot of room to play, yet keeping me away from the large creek that ran along the back of our yard.
We moved away later on, but I still got an occasional chance to go visit. When my great grandma passed away, I sat with my great grandpa and accompanied him during the services. Then when my grandfather died, I again accompanied him during and after the services. I visited with him only a couple of times after that, due to us moving, and later, his moving. I was about ten years old on my last visit; however, it was a visit that I remember quite vividly because of a promise I made.
Neither of my parents were church-going people, but I was encouraged to go to Sunday School and services at the local Whittier LDS Ward. At the age of eight I was taken to the Temple and baptized into the Mormon religion along with the boys I played with in the neighborhood.
On my last visit with my great grandfather, he was getting ready to move in with one of his many sons, and leaving his house made him feel low. He talked about my great grandma and how he missed her and especially her cooking and he spoke of many things about his younger years.
Then in a very different and more serious tone, he asked me if I attended church regularly. I told him I did and he asked me quite a few more questions about the religion, which I can't recall exactly, and then said to me, "Donnie, I'm going to tell you a story. Do you think you can keep a secret just between the two of us?"
I told him, "Sure grandpa, I can keep a secret." He then told me the following story and I'm going to relate this in the first person, just the way he talked to me.
"Things here in Utah are a lot different from when I was a young man and Brigham Young was in power. Him and the church had their own laws, which were very strict, and you had to obey them or the Danites would take care of you. Has anyone ever told you about the Danites?" he asked. "No Grandpa, what is a Danite?" I asked. "Well, they went by that name as well as the 'Avenging Angels,' and those were the men who were Brigham Young's special police." He laughed and said, "Called themselves the Lord's soldiers." He then told me something about remembering both names because I would hear more about them later on.
"Some people didn't like the way things were around here in those early days and wanted to leave the valley. In order to leave, you had to have permission from Mr. Young before you could leave. If it was to farm in one of the other settlements it was O.K., but if it was to join a wagon train going through to California, it was usually No."
He placed special emphasis on the next thing he told me. "If you had a special trade and you were needed, then you could not get permission to even leave town." I asked him, "Did you want to leave?" "Donnie, there were times that if it wasn't for the fact that I had a good woman and then kids started coming, I'd have probably made an attempt."
"One day, a good friend of mine, who was a blacksmith, was talking to me and told me he wanted to leave and go to California and knew he wouldn't be given a pass to go, but was going to go anyway and asked me if I would go with him. I told him I would like to go but couldn't take the chance because of my family. I told him not to let too many people know what he planned, because it was dangerous."
"A few days later I passed the blacksmith's shed. The forge was cold and he was nowhere in sight. Thinking he may be ill I knocked at his door but there was no answer. Then I remembered our last conversation and wondered if he had really left town. Later that night there was a light tapping on the back door, and when I opened it, it was him. He wouldn't come in and told me he didn't want to cause me any trouble, but he needed enough food to last him a couple of days. I asked him where he had been and told him I had seen his forge cold and thought he had fallen ill, and he told me that he had been approached by a couple of the Church Elders the day before who told him that they had heard that he wanted to leave the valley. They told him how much his services were needed and if he would reconsider they would show him a mine where he would be permitted to go on his off times, and dig for gold. They made an appointment to meet with him and go up Cottonwood Canyon where he would be shown the mine. He agreed and that evening they met. He then told me that there were three 'Angels' that had left for 'Heaven' and wouldn't be back in Salt Lake again."
Grandpa told me, "I gave him enough food to see him through a few days and he left. I never expected to ever hear from him again." Grandpa got up from the table and went into his bedroom. He returned a few minutes later. "A couple of years went by and one day I got this in the mail." He laid an old postcard down in front of me face down. It was addressed to my Grandfather, and written on it was, "Wisht you was here." (I remember how wish was spelled with a 't' on the end) He said, "Turn it over!" I turned it over and it was a drawing of a blacksmith at his forge. I turned it back and looked at the postmark. It was from Sacramento, California. I can't remember the date now, but it was the late 1800s.
I said, "I wonder why he didn't sign the card?" Grandpa said, "The Angels, even today, have a long memory and very long arms and no one is safe if they cross them. That was mailed from Sacramento, but I know my friend* is not there - he's smarter than that, or he wouldn't have been alive to have mailed that card. When you get a little older I have quite a few things to tell you, but I want you to promise me something." I said, "Sure Grandpa, what?"
He was very serious and stuck out his hand for me to shake and said, "This is a man's promise you're making!" Being very impressed by him I took his hand and said, "Yes Grandpa, I promise." He said, "Good. First, don't tell anyone what I tell you for a long time, until you have a son of your own. By that time it won't matter." I replied, "I promise."
He continued, "Second, don't let the church get its hooks into you! Keep as far away from it as you can!" This startled me, and I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Donnie, this is very important to you. You may not know it now, but someday you will thank me. Remember now, you promised!"
Unfortunately, the next time I had the opportunity to see him again, many years had passed and he was both almost blind and deaf and was in his late nineties. I was not able to thank him for the promise he made me make, and I have always wondered if he ever told my father any stories and if he ever made him promise as well. It seemed strange to me that my father's sister and brother were both very good Mormons, but not only did my father consider himself a jack-Mormon, but he married my mother, who said she was a Baptist, and I was never questioned about not going to church after my visit with Grandpa.
Over the years, I thought about listening to my great grandfather that day, and can still remember the oilcloth on the kitchen table where we sat. I guess that is why that story stuck in my mind all these years. I remember when my great grandma sat at that table and watched through the back screen door as I, as a small boy, lay in the hammock with grandpa and pulled on a cord fastened next to the back door which would cause us to swing.
I believe to this day that my Grandfather meant to tell me stories that would have included some of the people still alive at that time, which is why he made me promise not to tell anyone until I had a son of my own. That would have been a minimum of at least ten more years, and by then I would not place anyone in jeopardy if it included anything against the church. By that time he probably figured they would all be gone.
Well, other than bits and pieces, that is the most memorable thing I can remember about my Great Grandfather.
* Grandpa mentioned the blacksmith's name during the telling of the story, but I can't recall his name now.
- Don C. HallstromComments? Write: firstname.lastname@example.org