What is There to See on a Sagebrush and Prickly Pear Sidehill?

If Freddy Parchinee had not been searching for the truth, he probably would not have found it, and we would all have peace and quiet around here. I guess I should blame God, since He made it what it was and because He, in all his off-the-cross glory, was the truth Freddy expected to find, and of course, because God made Freddy who he is, too.

But I blame Freddy. We all have our agency. God may make us foolish and gullible, but we can all decide whether or not it makes sense that God would arrange a thicket of sagebrush and prickly pear on a Montana hillside to look like Moroni handing the Prophet Joe the Book of Mormon. It doesn’t make sense to me, but who am I. It apparently made sense to Freddy and it was his choice to use his God-given privilege of being alive to see just that.

He could have been satisfied to just be Freddy, and God be damned. But he wasn’t and as a result, it looks like I’m going to be able to pay off the ranch debt and retire a fat old man.

I will say this. At first, I was amused. I was rocking on the porch, bare footed, bare legged, my Levis, hip waders and sock hanging over the edge of the porch to dry. It was a normal June evening, and the sparrows and robins were squabbling in the willow and cottonwood. I was enjoying that the water was still running high enough to wet my ass and pleased I would probably get the whole place flooded almost twice before the Gods squeezed the last of the mountains’ winter ice into water and sent it down Carlson Creek to my ditch. Freddy’s Dad, the Bishop, would say it was an irrigator’s prayer sort of summer. Myself, I am not much of a praying man.

Like I say, I was sitting there having a beer and planning how to set dams to get the most ground water-covered with a five-hour, overnight set. Then I see Freddy. Or rather I hear him first.

“Tit’s blue. Tit’s blue. Tits blue,” he’s screaming. Then I see him hurdling through the alfalfa. My alfalfa. He’s stumbling, falling and getting up, hurdling some more, coming through the alfalfa, splashing water and raising timothy pollen in halo cloud around him, the killdeer and curlews and that mallard pair that is nesting below the third ditch trying their damnedest to not get stampeded and to protect their nests at the same time. Then I see it’s Freddy and understand he is not yelling “tits blue.” But he is proclaiming “It’s true. It’s true. It’s true.” Which makes more sense, this being Freddy, son of the Bishop and last year’s Relief Society President.

Normally, when I see somebody coming for a visit, and I am outside not doing any more than waiting until it’s time to do something, I get up and meet a person at the cattle guard at the end of the driveway. And if I want to spend some time shooting the breeze with them, I ask them over to the porch to sit in the sunshine and have a beer or a coke, whichever they would prefer. I stopped asking them into the house a long time ago. Jen has cussed me enough on that, inviting folks in if she hasn’t spent two weeks spic and spanning. “I don’t want people to think I keep house like you keep shop,” she’ll squaggle.

If it’s Missionaries or an Adventist, I make excuses about having to get out to change the water or shake down a colt. I tell them maybe Jen’s got time for a chat and wave toward the house. I get squaggled for that too, but with the Missionaries, at least she is pleased to see them, though it’s me they are after. As for the Adventists, she likes showing them where they are damned in the Bible and Book of Mormon, dirty dishes in the sink be damned. So, the little squaggle she gives me as she tells me of her adventures, is worth it on both counts.

But, as I have noted, I was in my underwear and thought it more dignified to wait for Freddy to come on over and tell me what was going on.

“Brother Orrquister, Brother Orrquister,” Freddy was so out of breath that he had to stop. He leaned on his knees and shook his head. I waited for him to get some air.

Finally, he says, “You won’t believe what I saw.”

Then, before I can assure him that I probably wouldn’t believe it, he says, “I saw Moroni giving Joseph Smith the plates.” By this of course, he meant the Book of Mormon Plates. Which made about as much sense as Lazarus.

“Well, you’re right about that, Freddy,” I said. But he misconstrued my skepticism.

“Oh, man, you have to see it. It’s a picture in your pasture.”

Like I say, a fifteen-year-old kid telling you something like that is amusing. I chuckled and told him, I was not dressed for the occasion and was waiting for my pants and boots to dry so I could go do the night set on the water.

“It was like in the Temple,” Freddy said. There were tears of rapture in his eyes.

“Well, like I say, I’m not dressed up to meet God,” I lifted my leg to show him my BVDs, which are in fact, not Church wear for the initiated. Which I was once.

“Like in the te…mp…le,” Freddy’s rapture dissipated slightly with each syllable. He has noted the BVDs. His face is bright orange. What else would you expect of a kid coming out of a rapture to learn that an Elder is not dressed to meet his God? “I gotta go. Gotta tell Dad,” he said. And he was gone, hurdling the cattle guard at the end of the driveway and raising June dust down the road home.

I expected that to be the last of it. But it wasn’t, and my amusement has taken a turn toward cynical. At first, there were just a few, mostly Catholics an a few Baptists. They drove into the yard, and if I wasn’t outside or off in the fields somewhere, they knocked on the door and asked whoever answered, me or Jen, where the Madonna and Child was. Apparently, the translation from Mormon gossip to non-member gossip had altered the picture somewhat. Jen actually went across the fields with Father Justinan to see it. She said she thought she saw the Sacred Grove, but Justinan said it was Jesus in the lap of Mary. They got into a little tiff about it.

Then things got worse. Mormon’s tend to be skeptical, even the believers, of physical sign manifestations. God speaks through Prophets, not through idols on a sagebrush and prickly pear sidehill. But there are the crazies. And Freddy got up during meeting in July and said he saw “Moroni handing Joseph the plates and that proves it.” That provoked poor Fanny Dibolt, who should be institutionalized, to come out, and she saw Brigham Young saying “This is the Place.” She got up in the August meeting and spent about twenty minutes weeping and saying “It’s Brigham YOUNG” and that PROVES it’s TRUE. The next thing you know somebody has heard about Jen’s set to with Father Justinan, and not a few of the sisters set out to prove either Jen wasn’t wrong or neither of them were wrong. They came in droves, from every ward between Bozeman and Boise. They tromped through my hayfields, scattered my windrows, and were a general pain in the hooey. Some thought they saw Mary at the Annunciation, some Jesus on the Cross, some just sagebrush and prickly pear.

Then it got in the papers. The Madisonian, The Chronicle, The Tribune, The Standard all carried features over the summer. Then KWBZ sent a reporter out. She came out to report on a religious miracle. That was the day that four Catholic Priests, seven Adventists, nineteen pastors of various denominations, and the whole Parchinee clan, including the California, Utah and Idaho branches, showed up at the same time. The KWBZ reporter got an exclusive on a riot in the middle of a sagebrush and prickly pear sidehill. I wish I had been there to see it. But the KWBZ coverage was pretty good.

That’s when I used my God given agency and made my own sense out of the whole thing. I set up a booth and hired the Marshall kids to sell tickets and lead tours. I made sure their route stayed off the alfalfa. Each one of them told a different story when they led the tour. The kids tell me there are a lot of arguments about what the sagebrush and prickly pear is telling. Sometimes, somebody gets a bit rowdy in defense of seeing a particular shadow as a nail in the hand of Jesus. I eventually had to hire off duty town and county deputies to run security, and so the disagreements generally come to conclusion without much violence.  And people always come back.

Jen thinks my making money off people’s belief is sacrilegious. If it weren’t for the debt getting paid off, she’d be Jesus cleansing the Temple. But I have put the booth out of sight off the road, and so it’s not as bothersome for her, being out of sight out of mind. Besides, she’s happy to tell me the oldest of Marshall boy (who has told me “sagebrush and prickly pear and cow shit”) has used his earnings to head off to BYU this fall. And it promises to get the other six of them an education as well.

I guess I am still amused. It is still Freddy Parchinee’s fault, and it’s still a sagebrush and prickly pear sidehill, but with dollar signs on it.

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