Before there were itty bitty chips inside wafer-thin iPods and cellphones, there were transistors inside hand-held radios and portable televisions – gadgets that seem like bricks today, but which were masterpieces of miniaturization in the 1960s and ’70s. Before transistors, electronics were controlled by multiple glass-and-metal vacuum tubes of various shapes and sizes. These tubes burned out with use and had to be replaced. One bad tube might mean a loss of volume and some scratchiness; a second bad tube might mean severe static; additional failed tubes meant progressively poor reception, until the radio failed entirely.
That’s necessary back ground for a story told frequently by Harold B. Lee. One version of the story, from which I pull excerpts for this post, is found here.
“Some years ago when I served as a stake president,” President Lee said, “we had a very grievous case that had to come before the high council and the stake presidency and that resulted in the excommunication of a man who had harmed a lovely young girl. After a nearly all-night session of the council that had taken that action, I went to my office rather wearily the next morning to be confronted by a brother to this man whom we had had on trial the night before. This man said, “I want to tell you that my brother wasn’t guilty of that thing which you charged him with.”
“How do you know he wasn’t guilty?” I asked.
“Because I prayed, and the Lord told me he was innocent,” the man answered.
I invited him to come into the office, and we sat down. I asked, “Would you mind if I ask you a few personal questions?” and he replied, “Certainly not.”
President Lee asked the man a series of questions: Did he keep the Word of Wisdom? Did he pay his tithing? Did he attend priesthood meeting? Did he hold family prayer? Did he study the scriptures?
“No, sir,” was the answer to one question after another.
President Lee continued, “In my home I have a beautiful instrument called a radio. When everything is in good working order, we can dial it to a certain station and pick up a speaker or the voice of a singer all the way across the continent or sometimes on the other side of the world, bringing them into the front room as though they were standing right there. But after we have used it for a long time, there are some little delicate instruments or electrical devices on the inside called radio tubes that begin to wear out. When one of them wears out, we get a kind of a static—it isn’t so clear. Another wears out and if we don’t give it attention it fades in and out just when we are about to hear who makes the winning touchdown. If we don’t give that attention and another one wears out—well, the radio sits there looking quite like it did before, but something has happened on the inside. We don’t hear. We can’t get any singer; we can’t get any speaker.
He went on to say that there was something analogous in the soul – a “Go-to-Sacrament-Meeting” tube, a “Pay-your-tithing” tube, and so on.
If one of these becomes worn-out by disuse or is not active—if we fail to keep the commandments of God—it has the same effect upon our spiritual selves that that same worn-out tube in the radio in my home has upon the reception we otherwise could receive …
“Now, then,” I said, “fifteen of the best-living men in the stake prayed last night. They heard the evidence, and every man was united in saying that your brother was guilty. Now you who do none of these things, you say you prayed, and you got an opposite answer. How would you explain that?”
And then this man gave an answer that I think was a classic. He said, “Well, President Lee, I think I must have gotten my answer from the wrong source.”
This was a story I heard a number of times in my childhood and youth, when President Lee was first an apostle and then president of the Church. President Lee’s was a favorite name in my extended family, since he had been the beloved long-term stake president of my mother’s childhood stake. Like many other members of that stake, my mother had been very happy when he was sustained as president, and like many she was shocked when he passed away after such a short term.
We don’t hear this story as often as we used to, probably both because President Lee’s administration was so brief and so long ago, and also because, well, who responds to an object lesson about radio tubes anymore? But it was very familiar to Church members at one time, as familiar as President Monson’s widows.
Almost as familiar to me, that is, as some of my mother’s stories about her life in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. I liked to look at her photo album from those years – she was a photographic specialist, and her album was more extensive and more exciting than most people’s. It included a series of pictures of my mother with her little sister, a girl in her late teens, wearing pilots’ jackets, posing in the cockpit of a small airplane. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder why Aunt J— was there, in Texas, far away from her Salt Lake home.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” my mother started, and then stopped. I held my breath, hoping she would go on.
“Your Aunt J— wouldn’t like me telling you this … Oh, well. J— needed to get away from home for a while, to clear her mind and see new things. I arranged with my commanding officer to let her come and stay with me on the base for a week or so. She lived in the barracks and went with me to work every day.”
That was a surprise. I can’t imagine that happening on a military installation today. But that was not nearly as surprising as what came next.
“You know that story President Lee tells about the man whose brother was excommunicated? The man who admitted that when his inspiration differed from President Lee’s, it was because his radio tubes were burning out, so he got a garbled signal?
“Well, that happened when he was our stake president. J— had become involved with a man who had convinced her that she should become his polygamous wife. When our mother found out about it, the man was excommunicated, and J— came to stay with me to help her get her feet back on the ground.”
That’s the only time I ever heard that story. I have no documentary evidence to support it. But my mother – whose stories, usually oft-told, never varied from telling to telling – has proven time and time again to have been an uncannily accurate reporter, so I believe it.
Image courtesy of W5GW & the Mountain City, Texas Observatory.