Elwin Pulisipher was a warrior by profession and by character. He was a fighter defending his family, religion, country, moral principles and life to the end. He never waived a white flag of surrender. His weapons ranged from battle firearms to a wink and a wisp of a smile.

The firearms he used in two tours of duty in Viet Nam. The wink and smile he used to counter an enemy wilier than a sniper.

Elwin was no mad dog Rambo. He was called to lead LDS servicemen groups wherever his military assignments took him. He provided for and presided over his family in love and wisdom, and whenever possible he turned his sword into a plowshare of peace. After he retired from the military he earned a doctor’s degree and worked with students as an administrator at Brigham Young University.

He could give better than he got on the battle field, but his greatest challenge was against an enemy for which there was, and still is no attack weapon and no defense. It slowly dragged him down from hiking boots and running shoes to a cane, then crutches, a wheelchair, and finally an iron lung. He developed ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; better known as Lou Gherig’s disease after the famous New York Yankees first basemen, “the pride of the Yankees” who died from it. The disease slowly dismantles the signal system to the voluntary muscles.

In Elwin’s case it left him with two muscles that partially functioned. He could wink one eye and lift slightly one corner of his mouth.

The first time I went to sing to him, I leveled with him, “Elwin, I have come to sing to you because I know you’re not going to walk out in the middle of my show.” He smiled his subdued half smile. We both knew Elwin was never going anyplace outside the iron lung that was breathing for him.

Thereafter Friday afternoon usually found me picking and singing, and him listening as the sun set behind the western mountains and twilight closed in on his room. Then I would sing our closing theme song, “Blue Shadows on the Trail”, pat his arm even though I knew he couldn’t feel it, and look forward to next week. I figured a tough guy like Elwin growing up in a little town in Nevada surely must have some cowboy in him. Rhea, his wife confirmed my assumption.

Elwin had other friends giving their best to help him. His home teacher Laval Pitts used his craftsmanship and ingenuity to help Elwin write letters with his winking muscle. Laval built a paddle affair with a hole in the middle, and twenty six notches around the edge of the hole. Lavall painted a letter next to each of the notches. He would take a pencil and click it from notch to notch. When he came to the letter Elwin wanted to use, Elwin would wink his eye. Laval would write the letter on a piece of paper. Thus tediously he helped Elwin communicate with the world outside his iron lung.

Computer technology gave Laval and the family members a break. Apple developed a program that would continuously circle the letters past the curser on the screen. A switch strapped to Elwin’s forehead would activate by winking his eye. The letter or space would be added to the document on the screen. The writing was still slow and tedious, but he could do it by himself. This was a giant leap for him.

For seven years and 25,000 meals of a slurry of fortified Cream of Wheat poured down his throat, Elwin lay in his iron lung. The warrior was down but not out. With his eyebrow writing system he counseled his wife and instructed his children through their teen-age years. He faithfully fulfilled his Church calling which was to write a weekly letter of encouragement to the missionaries serving from their ward. He would send me a copy. The letters always ended with, “Have a good day.” From this hero victorious over so many battles, I took that as an order that I have tried since to fulfill.

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Country becomes cool

Growing up I sat by the Philco table top radio and sang along with my Dad and my brother Gordon to the top ten pop songs on “The Hit Parade.” In high school Dick Davis and I along with whoever we could convince to join us tried to imitate the cool jazz sounds of The Four Freshmen, and we dug Stan Kenton’s jazz band. More than a few years later I made the investment in time and concentration to develop a taste for some classical music, especially Pepe Romero or John Williams on guitar.

Meanwhile another musical genre floating through the air was either ignored or ridiculed by me and my friends. Sometimes I had to sit through it despite myself, such as a church party when a rancher, member of our congregation, and his wife would render something about “You’re as hard to hold as quick silver when you kiss and run away.” Mom would sometimes tune into “The Old Corral” on KSL radio as we were stumbling into the kitchen to get ready for school. If child abuse had been invented back then I would have accused her of it. Waking up to “Pistol Packing Mamma lay that pistol down” or Eddie Arnold yodeling “Cattle Call” was not the way I would choose to start my day.

This hillbilly music was beneath my dignity until the first summer I worked in the mountains of the Idaho panhandle. Stuck in a tent deep in the forest seven miles from the nearest road, we made our own entertainment. My ukulele and I were welcomed by this captive audience. A bunch of these boys were from Texas and Oklahoma. They wanted to hear their music. I like to honor requests, particularly when they come from people like Carl McClure the heavyweight golden gloves boxing champion of Oklahoma. I played and we sang “Tennessee Waltz”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, and “I’m Movin’ on” until my fingers were sore and my strings were sagging.

In the process a strange change crept over me. I fell in love with country music. This was, as the song says, when “Country Wasn’t Cool”, to quote Barbara Mandrell and George Jones. Back home at the end of the summer my friends thought mountain fever had warped my brain.

Whatever the mental condition, it has never left me. For a while I was a d.j. on a country music station. This sunk pickin’ and singing’ even deeper into my soul.

And why not? Look at the messages tucked inside those tunes. Waylon Jennings psychological therapy, “I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.” Tammy Wynette’s marriage counseling, “Stand by your man.” What husband would slay dragons for a woman who sang that for her creed? Or Annie Murray singing, “You needed me.” Kenny Rogers financial advice from the gambler, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” If I had followed that counsel in 2008 before my humble stock portfolio went over the cliff, I might not have been singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Oh well, in the words of Roger Miller, “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.” Could have been worse, I could be singing with Buck Owens, “I got the hungry’s for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line.”

But, “A country boy can survive” according to Hank Williams Jr., And when things don’t go my way I find wisdom in Garth Brook’s observation, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

And, of course, country music would go broke without broken hearts. “Willie Nelson’s “Blue eyes crying in the rain,” “Cold, Cold Heart” way back from Hank Williams Senior, and the anonymous classic, “I got tears in my ears from lying on my back, cryin’ as I think about you.”

But sometimes the gods of love smile down, and romance erupts. Ernest Tubb offering to “Waltz across Texas” with his beloved, Sonny Kershaw crowning his wife, “The “Queen of my double wide Trailer,” What woman could resist Aaron Wilburn’s declaration of devotion, “If my nose was runnin’ money honey, I’d blow it all on you.”

Our musical group The Three D’s, once toured with a show that also featured a jazz combo and a country band. I walked into a rehearsal of the jazz group once and they were imitating the country band. They were breaking each other up at how corny the music was. What they didn’t know was that the joke was on them. They could no more play country than the country boys could finger the complicated riffs and melodies of jazz. True, country music may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because as Sara Evans sings, it’s “Three chords and the truth.” The three chords may be easy, but the truth has to come from the depths of your soul.

Party Guy

“Hey Hiatt, you want to bring your ukulele? We’re taking my boat out on the lake Saturday then hanging out at Millie’s,” said the handsome young camp boss. Or as it translated into my ears, “You want to ascend to teen age heaven for a day and night, while making points with the boss and meeting who knows how many beautiful girls?”
I replied, “Let me check my social appointment calendar. I was going to climb a pine tree, and maybe do some serious pocket knife whittling that night, but I’ll see if I can work you in.”
Working in Idaho’s Kaniksu national forest was an adventurous summer job; especially compared to thinning beets on my uncle’s farm. But the after work social program in the forest was feeble, mostly playing a game we invented, (a combination of basketball and karate), and plunking my ukulele. This was before I graduated up two strings to a guitar.
But if one had a car, which I hadn’t, one could drive a few miles to Priest lake, which I didn’t; maybe even meet members of the opposite sex, and hang out at “Millie’s” the local watering hole. If one had a motor boat, or a friend who did, Priest Lake could make paradise look like boot camp by comparison.
Let this be a motivation to you. Practice your instrument, and/or your voice. The only reason these college guys invited me, the high school kid was because I could make music.
Priest Lake in the Idaho panhandle was a visitors’ bureau’s dream. Pristine blue water, smooth beaches, cuddled inside pine wrapped peaks. The only things prettier than the lake were the beautiful women who frolicked there. That was the opinion of us tent fevered young men from the mountains who had seen enough pine trees for now, but not enough women.
The boat and the college man camp boss were a babe magnet. The ukulele and the skinny high school kid playing it were not. But I was still a valuable addition to the festivities.
Late afternoon the party moved to Millie’s tavern where everybody ordered their favorite lubricant. Mine drew comments.
“Come on kid, get a man’s drink.”
“Are you the designated driver?”
“No he’s the designated party pooper.”
“The camp boss surprised me with, “Come on Hiatt, you’re not on your mission yet.”
“Where did this Oklahoma Baptist (I assumed) hear that word?” I thought. Turned out he knew more than a bit about Mormons. He had even attended Brigham Young University for a quarter or two.
I smiled and kept strumming and singing. When they saw me standing my ground, the jokes petered out. They told me how much they admired me for holding to my standards. They realized they didn’t have to drink to have fun. They began to ask about the Church. We had a great time singing and laughing together. I was invited to parties all the rest of the summer. Several of them have since joined the Church. The camp boss enrolled at BYU again, and the last I heard was a stake president in Tulsa.
Sorry to spoil a good story. Actually, they included me out for the rest of the night and the rest of the summer. But it was still the right thing to do.

Did you think to pray?

“Ere you left your room this morning, when your heart was filled with anger, when sore trials came upon you…did you think to pray?”

This old hymn beloved of many Christian churches including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suggests to us sample situations in which it would be well to pray. These represent an infinite number of possible situations including the famous foxhole bullet ducking moments in which it is reputed there are no atheists. Indeed in our Church and, I’m sure many others we are admonished to keep a prayer in our hearts always.

Some insightful wit said, “There are two kinds of people in the world; those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.” That’s more Zen than my circuits can handle. But likewise, I suppose there are two reasons for praying: one, to help us get out of pickles and two to help us avoid getting into them in the first place. Jesus included these in his famous prayer when he said, “deliver us from evil,” and, “lead us not into temptation.” (Better translated, let us not be led into temptation.)

I got delivered from evil once through screaming the shortest prayer of my life. The answer came even quicker. Late one night cruising across the salt deserts of western Utah at 75 miles per hour, I hit black ice. Instantly the truck slipped out of control angling southwest, west, northwest and back again at the whim of my ice skating tires. Dick and Denis my two singing buddies in The Three D’s were blissfully asleep, or climbing the walls of the camper in the back of the truck. No time for formalities I just hollered out to the Lord for help. He heard me, centered the truck wheels on the highway at the exact moment I hit dry pavement again, and we continued westward (at a much slower pace, and with some quivering of the steering wheel under my white knuckles.)

The save us from temptation aspect of prayer’s beneficence happened to three of our sons. They related the tale at our last family conference. I opened the door to confession by assuring them that the statue of limitations had kicked in, and they could speak freely about their boyhood adventures. They did.

Their mother and I were out of town, they said, and the car needed to be driven. So they took it upon themselves to do the job. The only problem was they were too small to pass for legal. So they enlisted one of their brothers who was taller, and maybe even old enough to look legal to a passing policeman. The older brother was willing, but apprehensive. They backed the car into the street. Then the driving boy had second thoughts. Vaguely the potential catastrophe of what they were doing settled upon him. Fortunately, he knew where to go for support. He said, “I think we’d better say a prayer.”

“A prayer? We’re rebels for crying out loud. You don’t pray about a thing like this,” they said.

He convinced his younger brothers. They prayed, then he put the car into gear, and slowly drove—back into the car port.

“So when life gets dark and dreary…” as the song says, or when it gets too reckless and exciting as the song does not say, then, as the song says, “Don’t forget to pray.”