Salmon: a true story

by Allen Hackworth   

 

Chapter 1

On June 28, 1995, who could have foreseen such a tragic event happening to a young boy?  Later this week, an event sickened of all of us: Todd Mortensen, Craig and Matt Frisby, Garv Gianchetta, Shad Johnson, Evan Hendrickson, Strider Teague, and myself.

 

When I was first invited to float the Salmon River with the Rexburg Third Ward Explorer Scouts, I thought we would take a ride similar to the float trip I took years earlier on the South Fork of the Snake River. On that float which started south of Hoback Junction near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we left everything to the professional guide.

 

Our bearded, robust guide skillfully steered our raft around treacherous rocks and through boiling rapids. I assumed the same arrangements on the Salmon so I quickly agreed to go. Later, I found our Salmon River guides would be young men, similar in age to our own scouts. We would be doing our own rowing, and on the second day, we would take our own kayaks down the river. I had never been in a kayak; they looked extremely unstable.

 

After driving to Salmon, North Fork, and Shoup, we finally arrived near the camp. In the parking area, across the river from the camp, orientation started. Standing on a bucket to gain more height, Rudy Ballard, the camP director, cheerfully said, "Welcome to our Salmon River High Adventure. You are going to have the best three days of your life. If you want to make this a memorable experience, listen carefully to everything I say and follow our camp rules exactly."

 

Rudy wore dark, army-green paints and a bright, red, nylon jacket, characteristic of the jackets worn by all the camp staff members. He wore glasses and had short, dark hair. I was impressed with Rudy's pleasant manner and with his ability to express himself clearly. He was formal yet casual, stern yet playful.

 

Director Ballard then explained how things worked: when we would eat, where we would sleep, how our groups would be organized. Rudy continued, "This morning, we introduce you to the river. But first, load

your gear into the ferry. We will take you across the river. Stow your gear in a tent or teepee of your choice and meet back at the river in 15 minutes. The adults use the large, dark-green, army tents, and the youth use the giant, white tepees."

 

We loaded our gear on the north side of the river. In shifts, approximately 70, wide-eyed candidates for high adventure ferried across the swift, mountain river. The scout groups came from Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. The scout camp, located on the south side of the river, was not accessible by road.

 

Eventually, after selecting a tent and after stowing our gear, we all met back on the grassy, weed-covered bank of the river. Little did any of us suspect the trauma we would soon experience. Our group, the Panthers, listened to Steve, our suntanned, young leader from Salt Lake City. He shouted, "Put on your life jackets, your helmets, and your hole covers. Find a kayak and follow me into the river. Meet at the sand bar out in the river. Drag your kayaks behind you."

 

The hole covers were like a short skirt which was made of the same material used in a wet suit. The top of the skirt stretched in a thick band around one's waist and belly. Once in the kayak, the rider needed to stretch the bottom of the skirt over the hole where one sat in the kayak. When rolling down the river, this boot was to keep the splashing river from entering into the kayak.

 

In Idaho this year, swollen rivers and streams flowed freely with spring run off. The Salmon was no exception. This mighty river lapped high at its banks. Willows, which normally grew on dry ground, now swayed downstream because of the pressure caused by the fast water. I stepped into the river. Immediately, I felt pain in my feet and legs caused by the icy water.

 

Our high, Idaho mountains still had snow on their peaks, and the Salmon River carried some of that recently melted snow. My pain intensified as I fought the current and dragged my kayak toward the sand bar.  All I wanted was to hobble out of the water and to stand on the muddy, wet sand.

 

As soon as we all waded to the sand bar, Steve said something which terrified me. He smiled and authoritatively barked, "All right, kayakers. Joe and I are going to teach you how to pull out of your kayaks when they roll over. Each of you must demonstrate that you can do this. When you roll, it is very important not to lose your paddles.

 

Once you turn over, while upside down under the water, move your paddle alone the side of your kayak. Then pull your rip cord. This will release the boot. Next, lift yourself out of the kayak. Once you rise to the surface, still cling to your paddle. Grab your kayak and swim for the nearest shore. If you lose a paddle, you might pay for it."

 

I am not normally afraid of water, but I dreaded the idea of submerging in this icy, swift river. The thought was a nightmare. After Joe, the second youth leader assigned to our group, demonstrated a roll-over, Steve shouted, "Okay. Who's first?"

 

Matt Frisby immediately volunteered. He was successful. He bobbed up with his paddle and grabbed the end of his kayak too. Knowing I was destined to experience this great adventure, knowing I could not "chicken out," I said, "I'll go next." With trembling hands and legs, I slipped into my tight, sleek kayak. I stretched the boot over the entry <hole where I sat, positioned the kayak in deeper water, took a deep breath, and rolled to the left. I was surprised at how easily my kayak tipped over.

 

Although the cold water shocked me, I was preoccupied with getting out of the kayak. For some strange reason, I got it right. I pulled the rip cord, slipped out of the narrow boat, held tightly to my paddle, and bobbed into the bright, Idaho sunlight. I then grabbed the end of my kayak and struggled back to the sand bar.

 

The roll-over and the time under the kayak was short, and I quickly and awkwardly splashed out of the water. Eventually, all eight Panthers completed a similar maneuver. Some had to repeat the procedure several times until they got it right. For example, Garv kept dropping his paddle.

 

After we all certified, we advanced to the most challenging feat. Steve said, "Now, float down stream. Get into the water and drag your kayaks behind you. Don't lose your paddles. Swim to the shore and then you can eat lunch." I dreaded getting cold again.

 

As I waited for my group to certify, my body had warmed from the heat of the friendly sun in a perfectly clear, blue, windless sky. Yet I plunged quickly into the river and was immediately swept downstream by the strong, swift current. Because of the shock of the cold water, my breathing was labored, and my breaths were short. I gasped for air. I could no longer touch the bottom of the river. Now, my time in the water seemed lengthy. It took great effort to swim to the shore while pulling the kayak behind me and while still clinging to the paddle.

 

Only my feet propelled me, and they were encumbered with thongs. By the time I finally reached the shore, I was exhausted. Was I happy like Rudy Ballard predicted? Actually, I was. After I finally dragged myself, my kayak and paddle up the 15-foot bank of the river, and after I had once again caught my breath, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I pulled off my dripping, red, life jacket, removed my protective helmet, stripped off my wet, yellow wind breaker, wiggled out of the hole cover, and once again found pleasure from the warm sun. Yet I would not have been so content if I had known what would happen later this day.

 

Chapter 2

After lunch we shuffled down to the dock area and selected our paddles. We then ferried across the river, climbed the river bank, and unloaded a raft from a trailer. The trailer was attached to the back of an old, yellow, school bus which was used to carry rafters to various locations on the river.

 

We pumped additional air into our blue, 12-man raft. With preparations completed, spacing ourselves evenly around the raft, eight of us grabbed the tight chord attached to the outside of the raft. We then carried the raft down a steep path to the river. (To accommodate the many people at camp, some groups kayaked while others floated in the rafts. The next day we would kayak.)

 

We boarded the raft and straddled the round edge of the boat much like one would straddle a horse. The raft silently slid into the never-ending current, and we began to glide past the rocks, boulders, trees, and high, green mountains which lined the river. Steve shouted, "All right, Panthers. We are going to learn to paddle and to follow commands."

 

Steve sat at the back of the boat using his paddle as a rudder. We became the motor. Steve took us through a series of commands and kept us working as if we were training for a serious race. He continued, "We need skill and power as we thread our way down the river." I didn't like the rowing practice; I didn't like a 17-year-old kid acting like a drill sergeant and treating me like a recruit. But I kept plunging my oar into the water, pulling hard, plunging and pulling, again and again.

 

Occasionally we splashed through some small rapids. The water smashed into the front of the boat and sprayed across our hot bodies. It felt good. It was a perfect way to spend the next three hours, the time needed to reach our destination. After Steve felt we had paid our dues and had learned to work as a team,

he told us to relax.

 

We drifted quietly. On our left and right, the rugged mountains provided an endless variety of rock formations. Lodge pole and ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir covered the steep hills. Because of ample rain this spring, the mountains were green with lush, tall grass, and wild flowers were abundant. Both the view and the motions of the raft contributed to idyllic feelings of peace.

 

As we moved deeper into the Salmon River Canyon, the river narrowed, and the canyon became steeper. Now, white water was more frequent. Now, waves breaking across the bow of the raft delighted us so much that we began to shout and scream with excitement.

 

We quickly became addicted to the rapids. We shot through one series only to crave more. Often, there was no time to look at the mountain scenery. Our task was to follow the instructions barked out by Steve. Pulling hard to align the raft in the proper position, we shot over and through the fresh water like a blue cannon ball.

 

Once we hit the Mad Dog Rapids, we could no longer hear Steve's commands; yet the roar of the water added to our excitement and joy. Matt Frisby was washed overboard in spite of his best efforts. Two Panthers quickly grabbed Matt by the shoulders of his life jacket and dragged him into the boat.

 

A wave of water washed me into the boat, and I had a hard time finding my balance because of the violent motions of the raft. I wanted to climb again to the edge of the raft so I could do my part in helping to control the boat. We immerged all too soon into calmer waters, but swift water nevertheless. Now we could hear Steve's voice again. Steve shouted, "We have bigger rapids ahead. They are Upper Dutch Oven and Lower Dutch Oven. Are you having fun yet?" We screamed, "Yes. Yes. Yahoo. Let's have more mad dogs on this river."

 

Before we knew it, we saw a spray of water hover in the air, and we felt the roar of Upper Dutch Oven. At this point on the Salmon River, you can not stop and ponder whether or not you will go through such a rapid. Life grabs you in an iron grip and sweeps you forward. Deep troughs and high peaks of tumbling water, white and foamy, made one feel out of control.

 

In an instant, we were quickly swept into tons of rolling turbulence. Our raft bucked and jolted, plunged and dipped. All the while, roaring waves of angry water broke repeatedly over our boat. Then, as instantly as it all started, we shot out of the other end of Upper Dutch Oven into fast but calmer water. Steve shouted again, "Lower Dutch Oven is bigger than this one. Hang on!"

 

I was apprehensive but willing. What else could one do? Our wills were completely subservient to the powers of nature. Having put ourselves in peril, having once started down the tube, we could only go one direction. An awareness of "he who hesitates is lost" was tacitly felt by all.

 

Again, we saw the early warning signs of extremely rough water: the white mist which rides continuously above the rapids; the pounding roar which filled the air, 24 hours a day. The lights were green. We shot down the freeway and instantly were thrown into the mouth of a merciless, churning machine.  In an instant, our raft pointed skyward; in the next, it pointed steeply down. This action threw Patrick, a young man from Logan, four feet into the air. He came down, chin first, on my head. It was a heavy blow, and although I wore a helmet, the crash caused my head to immediately ache. With hand and feet clawing the air, Todd Mortensen was washed from the front bow into the boat. We all scrambled to paddle and to hold tightly to our chance for survival, our invincible raft.

 

The waves were a monstrous roar and once again, as before, we shot out of Lower Dutch Oven as quickly as we had entered. In calmer water, I asked Patrick how he was doing. He answered hesitantly, "I'm okay."

 

Soon we came to the spot where we needed to meet the bus, so we paddled to the shore, lifted our raft up the bank of the river, and placed the raft in a parking area. We then waited for the bus and trailer. While we were rafting, a group from Thane, Wyoming was kayaking in a section from North Fork to Dead Water and then from Dead Water to Base Camp. It wouldn't be until early the next morning at the flag ceremony that we would learn about the tragedy that struck this group.

 

Chapter 3

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the scouting program to help build faith and character in young men.  The scouting program is rich and full.  It can only be comprehended and appreciated completely by those who have worked through its various levels.

 

The eight to 10-year-old boys are Cubs. Eleven-year-old boys are pre-scouts. Boy Scouts range from 12 to 14; Varsity Scouts from 14 to 16; Explorer Scouts from 16 to 18. Although awards beyond the Eagle are available, the Eagle Scout Award is considered the highest rank.

For Varsity and Explorer Scouts, once a year these young men plan a Super Activity. Ideally, this event should be something out of the ordinary, something memorable. Back in December, 1994, in Thayne, Wyoming, Mitchell Skinner's Team started planning for a summer outing. The young men in Mitch's Ward knew the thrills of rafting.

 

They lived only 25 miles away from the mighty Snake River. The South Fork, which flows from the Jackson Hole area on the east side of the Teton Peaks, runs south to Hoback Junction, then west to Palisades Reservoir. Why not float another famous river, the Salmon? Plans and reservations were made; money was saved. It would be a world-class adventure.

The team arrived at the BSA Salmon River High Adventure Camp at 8:30 a.m. on June 29, 1995. This Thursday morning, Mitch was filled with the same feelings of wonder, excitement, and apprehension that I felt. He felt confident, but he knew that dangers lurked in all fast-flowing, high-water rivers.

 

Fifteen-year-old Mitch was quiet and reserved, yet witty and energetic. He was loved and respected by his friends and leaders. Back in Thayne, his family and relatives were key people in the church and Star Valley. Still having much room to grow, Mitch would eventually be as strong and tall as his grandfathers and father. Life was full and promising for Mitch. His character was well-formed. At a young age, he respected others, both adults and his peers.

 

Thursday morning, Mitch's group, like our own, went through the kayak/swim training on the river. In the afternoon, while we were rafting, they continued their adventure by kayaking. Nathan Lausch and Casey Dean, the youth leaders for Mitch's group, decided to take their group up to North Fork and then float down to Dead Water. This would give everyone experience on a placid section of the river. The group reached Dead Water. Everyone enjoyed the warm, bright, mountain afternoon. God had placed this beauty on earth for their enjoyment.

 

After some additional practice, the group eventually moved beyond Dead Water. Once past Dead Water, the river moved faster, and small rapids appeared. Soon, two or three kayakers had capsized. The kayakers swam to shore, drained their kayaks, and again slithered into their boats. All was well. The happy journey continued.

 

Because of the need to move to the right bank to drain the kayaks, the floaters were now positioned on the right side of the river. Down stream from the place where the kayaks were drained, a large log jam had formed in front of an island. Seventy percent of the river water flowed to the left of this island and log jam. Thirty percent of the water smashed into the jam and then flowed down a channel to the right of the island.

 

The floaters were told to paddle hard to the left to miss this jam. Such an action required moving 45 to 90 degrees across the main current. Some of the young men made this quick maneuver. Although one or two hit the edge of the jam, they were able to escape to the left into free water. Mitch was not so fortunate. He hit the jam dead center. Another boy then rammed into Mitch but was able to escape the clutches of the logs. The force of the water quickly pushed Mitchell's kayak under the heavy, slick, water-soaked logs. Mitch clung desperately to sections of this massive obstruction.

 

Youth leader, Nathan Lausch, tan, seasoned, large and strong, immediately sprinted over the water like a water skipper. He hurried to Mitch and tried to pull him from the logs. Nathan pulled, stretched, and tugged, but Mitch would not budge. It was later discovered that Mitch was still in his kayak, and because of the kayak's angle under the water, and because of Mitch's position, his body could not be extricated.

 

After approximately 45 minutes of trauma, Mitchell showed signs of hypothermia, and he relaxed into narcosis. During this time, employees from the forest district used a chain saw to cut some of the offending logs. Eventually rescuers were able to pull Mitch from the logs and kayak. Mitch Skinner was then rushed to the Eastern Idaho Medical Center where he died in the early hours of the next day. This young, exemplary, eagle scout died on June 30, 1995 from hypothermia. Perhaps this death would change the nature of our stay on the Salmon River.

 

Chapter 4

The next morning at 7:00 a.m. the camp gathered at the pole for a flag ceremony. The crisp, cold, morning air made me wonder if we would be required to jump in the river again. Many wore light coats. At this point, we had not heard about Mitchell Skinner.

 

The company was called to order, and Rudy Ballard stepped forward. With kindness and respect, he said, "At 3:30 a.m. this morning, Mitch passed away. We have reviewed our camp procedures and have decided to continue with all our original activities. In light of Mitch's accident, if any of you want to reevaluate your schedules, feel free to do so. We will fly the flag at half mast in honor of Mitch."

 

The posting of the colors was then performed, and "To The Colors" was played on the bugle. The American flag was slowly lowered to half mast, and we repeated the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the company was dismissed with instructions to meet with our guides and to decide how we would spend the day.

 

Our group had no idea what Director Ballard was referring to, but after talking to others who were standing around, we learned about Mitch's accident. The details were sketchy, so I talked with Rudy, asking for additional information. At this early date, Rudy's knowledge was limited, and he could not answer all of my questions.

 

After rejoining the Panthers who were with Steve and Joe, I found these undaunted young men eager to explore the river. So we dressed appropriately in swimming trunks, thongs, kayak hole covers, helmets, and wind breakers. We put on sun block and insect spray, selected a boat and paddle, and hauled our kayaks across the river.

 

The plan was to first float from North Fork to Dead Water in order to get some experience with the kayaks on a slower part of the river. After loading the kayaks in trailers and busing to North Fork, we slid into our boats and wiggled into the water. We would be on the river for two hours, eat lunch, and then float downstream for another two to three hour trip.

Quickly the bright, morning sun heated the mountain air. Mother Nature whispered the promise of an exciting morning: the splashing river; the chatter and laughter of the boys; the blue, clear, unpolluted sky; and the blue birds, sparrows, and robins which sailed and darted overhead.

 

It felt good to sit low in the cold water, yet, at the same time, to be protected from the icy stream by the rigid fiber glass of the kayak. I felt smug. The hole cover would keep water off my legs; I would beat this river. I would play with the snake's rattle and never feel the sting of the fangs. Let the waves dance, splash, and roar. I would skip over the tops of the energetic, loud, intrusive waves.

 

I would follow Steve's instructions exactly. He stressed, "When you hit the rapids, don't stop paddling. Paddle all the way through. That way you will keep your balance."

 

It was all new to me, the feel, balance, and motions of a kayak; but I sliced through the water with surprising ease. Yet I wobbled and paddled awkwardly. It especially took effort to move against the current. At first, I felt as unsure of my balance as I had felt many years ago at Grandpa South's forest saw mill when I learned to ride a bike.

 

The mill site was my divorced mother's summer home. Back then, I shoved off from the fresh-water well, where deer and elk drank out of a bucket during the night, and careened left and right, trying to avoid conspicuous pine trees. Now, in the river, there were no trees; I had plenty of room to zig and to zag. I was a novice, a boy again, an adventurer who temporarily forgot about Mitch Skinner.

 

We completed the first leg of our trip and abandoned the river before we came to the fatal log jam. We again loaded our boats and drove back to camp. I was so hungry and thirsty because of our vigorous, outdoor adventure. After lunch, we floated downstream from camp.

 

Foolishly, but with great pleasure, I had eaten an excessive amount for lunch. I felt fat, bloated, and uncomfortable as I shimmied into the confining kayak. Once in the river, the water rolled on steadily, placidly, peacefully. Rapids were slight and few. After an hour and a half, my full stomach began to feel more comfortable. But my legs began to hurt. I longed for a chance to change to the position of my legs, but my movements were severely restricted.

 

As explained earlier, the river narrowed as we moved deeper into the cavernous throat of the Salmon River Canyon. Consequently, it was not long before we started punching through white water. A raft's motion, which bounces up and over the waves, differs from a kayak's. The sharp nose of a kayak breaks though the waves and allows ample water to roll over the kayak and against one's body. The water felt good because I was sweating. At times, the wash completely obscured my view, but I kept paddling vigorously, enjoying every moment. We were in the clutches of so much raw energy and beauty.

 

Too quickly we reached the end of our ride. We had not pushed downstream far enough to ride the bigger rapids (Mad Dog, Upper and Lower Dutch Oven) which we had floated in our raft; nevertheless, not one in our group was sorry. We knew these explosive rapids would be too much for our current skills.

 

Both Shad Johnson and I kayaked this day without turning over. The other Panthers all took a plunge. This day, Shad and I had won against the Salmon. Perhaps tomorrow we would not be so lucky.

 

Chapter 5

Our last day in camp, Saturday, started again with a flag ceremony. This day the Panthers elected to run the river again with kayaks. This morning I wanted to drive to appropriate locations on the river to take pictures of the rafters and kayakers as they bounced over and sliced through the rapids. One scout, Strider Teague, came with me.

 

Also Robert Lausch, Nathan's father, traveled the river road with me in my Toyota 4Runner. Earlier, at Rudy Ballard's request, Mr. and Mrs. Lausch hurried to the camp to help Nathan through some difficult days. This same Saturday morning, Mrs. Lausch and Nathan's girl friend accompanied Nathan and a group of scouts in a raft.

 

Later in the morning, I took Mr. Lausch to the location where Mitchell Skinner smashed into the log jam. At a road turnout, where a man and his son were camping, we stopped. The camper and his son saw the accident on Thursday.  They explained what happened.

After hearing the accident details, I wondered how this tragedy could have been avoided. What went wrong? I did not assign blame to anyone. Yet, realizing the visiting scouts are young, inexperienced, and vulnerable, and realizing that parents send their children with expectations of strict safety, I wished for something to have been different.

 

Perhaps scout officials were caught off guard because of the camp's excellent safety record. To date, the most serious accident had been a deep cut caused when an angry boy threw a rock into another boy's tent. The second boy would not shut up during quiet hours. On this occasion, the injured boy was driven for 45 minutes to a doctor in Salmon. Several stitches were taken.

 

Saturday afternoon, after lunch, we cued up and snaked our way into a hot, musty, army tent to check in our equipment. Shad Johnson won the Dry Back Award, given to anyone who kayaks for two days without turning over. We started home, still thinking about Mitch.

 

On the way, Todd Mortensen, Evan Hendrickson, Strider Teague, and I continued to discussed what preventative actions should have been taken. As a group we also considered, "Who was to blame?" Evan Hendrickson said, "No one was to blame. These things just happen. Everyone who came for the trip accepted the dangers when they signed up." After four hours on the road, we finally drove into Rexburg. I delivered each man along with his gear to his home. After returning home and resting, I wondered about Mitch's funeral.

 

Chapter 6

On Monday, July 3, 1995, I allowed two hours to drive to Thayne, Wyoming. I wanted to attend Mitch's funeral. From Rexburg, I took the Archer Highway to Ririe, then east to Swan Valley, then past Palisades Reservoir and into Wyoming. At Alpine, instead of going to Jackson Hole, I drove south toward Afton.

 

Thayne is located in Star Valley, a beautiful, green Eden. The valley is filled with farms, ranches, and vacation properties. Mountains can be seen across the lush, green meadows on each side of the highway. Each summer, hundreds of tourists pass through Thayne on their way to Jackson Hole, Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.

 

Here many residents wear cowboy boots, Stetson hats, Levi jeans, and broad buckles on their leather belts. The area reflects authentic, western life. Horses and cattle are abundant; deer and elk live in the nearby mountains. Late model cars, pickup trucks, and tidy homes are seen in Thayne, a town with approximately 300 residents. Of course, the population is much larger when one includes those living on acreages outside of the city.

 

I easily found the Thayne LDS Ward Chapel. The red, brick building, typical of so many chapels, was modern and large. Without being gaudy and pretentious, the building was strikingly beautiful. Abundant, landscaped, parking areas were on most sides of the church. Green grass, trees, and flowers flanked the sidewalks. Inside, the chapel was completely full.

 

Additional chairs had been set up in an overflow area at the rear of the chapel. The overflow area was a large gym. I sat in the very back of the overflow because few seats were available. Approximately 1100 people were present.

 

As I sat, waiting for the funeral to begin, I consider the beauty of the building. One finds a large, well-furnished chapel; a junior chapel with little chairs and benches for children; a full-court gym with glass backboards; a stage on one side of the gym which is used for drama productions and talent shows; a baptismal font next to an adjourning room; bishop and clerk offices; a scout room; a beautiful, feminine room for the Relief Society; and numerous class rooms. (Dear Reader, my description of the church, its size and beauty, is important for a point I want to make later.)

 

Quietly waiting for the funeral to start, I watched a few people near me. I watched late-comers shuffle into the gym and look for seats. People of all ages filled the congregation. Many of them were physically beautiful.  In front of me sat a young family.  The tall father had thick, black hair.  He wore a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. His chair seemed undersized for his large build. His pretty wife wore a red print dress. She helped her two, well-mannered little girls slide onto their chairs.

 

Next to this mother was an attractive, blond girl, approximately 16 years old. Her thick, curly hair hung down her back. She sat alone. On my left sat another young couple. The man had long, carefully groomed, brown hair which curved back below his ears. He too wore a suit and tie. On the row in front of me, to the far left, sat the assistant camp director from the Salmon River Camp and his son.

 

As mentioned earlier, Casey was one of the young river guides for Mitch's group. (During the funeral, Casey often bent forward in his chair and put his face in his hands. On these occasions, his father put his hand on Casey's back, showing support and affection.)

 

Eventually, a man at the front of the chapel said, "Would the audience please stand?" At this time, the closed coffin was wheeled to the front of chapel. The coffin was followed by family members who took their reserved seats on the front benches of the chapel. (The family had been in the Relief Society room prior to the funeral service. Here they had received friends and guests who wanted to pay their respect to Mitchell and his family. A family prayer had also been offered before the casket was closed.) Then we were asked to sit down and the funeral services proceeded.

 

The meeting included opening and closing prayers, speakers, and musical numbers. All who performed and spoke did so with great dignity, love, and eloquence. The talks were filled with conviction and faith in Christ and his promises to his children. I was deeply moved and pleased with the services.

 

The spoken words also paid tribute to Mitchell and his family. At one point, between speakers, 15 to 20 young ladies, sang "Stay With Me." I had never heard this song, but it was well rehearsed, well performed, and melodically pleasing. The accompaniment was sensitive, precise, and dynamic. These young Laurels stood politely with poise and dignity.

 

One girl was tall and stately, another tan and beautiful. Yet because I was away from the front of the chapel, I could not notice specific facial features. But their youthful, feminine voices make me glad. They were additional flowers which had sprung from American the blessed, from mountain homes, and from an LDS culture.

 

During this funeral experience, because of the beauty of the building, the grandeur and majesty of the mountains and farms, the dignity and simple powers in the people, the depth and spiritual maturity of the -ordered lives of Mitchell and his family, I realized I was observing a profound human experience.

 

Having recently returned from Russia, and now having a chance to compare this funeral experience with the austerity and backwardness of Russia, I realized how far the Mormons had come toward developing a Zion society.

You must not get me wrong. I know that God's spirit has nothing to do with a professionally designed, useful building. In fact, recently in Nishni Novgorod, Russia, in a rented room, I was moved by the spirit of God, by the spirit of the Russian saints, and by the love, dedication, and maturity of young LDS missionaries. The feelings generated on that occasion were strong enough to become indelible.

 

Yet in Thayne, Wyoming I saw the consequences of many years of struggle, of many years of right decisions, of many years of living lives filled with truth and vitality. I appreciated what I was seeing and hearing. I believed that some sitting in the audience had little awareness of their own greatness and beauty.

 

Some perhaps took for granted the way of life that God had given them through revelation. And I realized the stupidity and baseness of the world when it scorns the LDS Church. Out of the pains of death, I observed a wholesome way of life, and I listened to gospel teachings that I knew were true and noble. Mitchell Skinner's funeral was spiritual, memorable, and elegant. May God bless the Skinner family, these gentle children of God, now and for evermore.