Incident to World War 2, before I was thirteen, I had been uprooted four times: from my birthplace in Donegal, Ireland to Scotland; evacuated back to Ireland to live with foster parents after the Luftwaffe bombed Glasgow; back to Scotland and my, by-then, unfamiliar parents; and finally, to Canada. I longed for some sense of home.
Typical of the times and British working-class tradition, I left school at fifteen and took a full-time job. I made some friends of fellow high-school dropouts, but I just didn’t fit in. I had been raised in Ireland by Christian foster parents, and felt uneasy among those who smoked, drank, and used bad language. There must be more to life, I thought.
One day at a Toronto mall with some of my feckless friends, a pretty girl walked by and the guys whistled at her and made crude comments. I turned away in disgust—longing for better friends and a better life. One night during this time, in the fall of 1956, I had a vivid dream of the Rocky Mountains in all their splendor. They beckoned me. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to go there.
A heavenly dream is planted in my heart and mind
The dream’s draw never left me. In late May, 1957, despite my parent’s objections, I quit my job and headed to Alberta with one of my friends, Doug, who wanted to be a cowboy. We took the train to Winnipeg and hitch-hiked the rest of the way to Calgary. Most of our rides were with respectable people, but one was with two burglars driving a stolen car.
In Alberta, we earned ten dollars each for a day’s work on a ranch near Nanton. Doug wanted to find more ranch work, but I insisted we continue to the Rockies. In the town of Banff, we unsuccessfully searched for work and then headed to Lake Louise. That night we stayed at a government campground, where we met a Deer Lodge employee who said there might be work at the lodge.
Early next day, a four-mile hike up a steep and winding road, brought us to the rustic Deer Lodge near Lake Louise. A bell-boy told us the manager wouldn’t be available till noon, so we walked down to the lake. We stood on the shore of, to my eyes, the most beautiful scene in the world. The aquamarine lake was surrounded by verdant mountains and a brilliant glacier at the far end.
“It’s spectacular,” I said, awestruck. “A dream come true.”
“It’s okay,” Doug said. “But If I wanted to work in a hotel, I could’ve stayed in Toronto. Let’s go back to Calgary.”
We argued for a while.
“You win,” I finally sighed.
Reluctantly, I turned from the magnificent scene and trailed Doug down the road. As we passed Deer Lodge, a shout stopped us.
“Do you fellows still want work?” the bell-boy yelled from the lodge entryway.
“Yes!” I replied, before Doug could speak.
We were hired to work in the dining room kitchen. An elderly woman supervised the kitchen staff. One day she took me aside to say that her granddaughter, Lenora Smith, was coming to work at the lodge.
“I’d like you to meet her,” she said. “She’s a nice Mormon girl and attends BYU.”
“What’s a Mormon and what’s BYU?” I asked.
Observe the Lord’s hand at work
A week later, a pretty, tanned girl entered the kitchen. I was captivated. The supervisor introduced her by her nickname, Dolly. She politely acknowledged me and abruptly turned away. At the time I was a little miffed. l later learned that good Mormon girls were taught to stay clear of young men with duck-tail haircuts, long sideburns, and motorcycle boots. Two days later, we met again in the crowded recreational room. At a shift-change, the room emptied and Dolly and I were left alone. After an awkward silence, I asked her if she’d like to play table-tennis. She agreed. Thus, began a summer romance. As I look back on that momentous meeting, I have no doubt that it was the object of my dream.
Dolly was not shy about sharing her religion, and I was happy to learn. We often made the forty-mile trip to the Banff Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had never met such friendly people. At my first meeting, I was especially impressed with a young missionary, who, despite a speech impediment, bore a fervent testimony of the restored gospel.
One Sunday, Dolly and I attended an evening sacrament meeting, where it was announced that a “fireside” would be held at the McKay’s. Before the fireside began, I stood gazing through a huge, picture window as twilight descended on the magnificent mountains and valley. I could hardly believe my changed circumstances. Not long ago, I was riding in a stolen car with two felons and here I was, a guest in the luxurious, vacation home of Don McKay, mayor of Calgary!
At the end of August, the brief tourist season ended and Dolly and I had to part. BYU was waiting for her and I—well, I had nowhere to go but Toronto. I dreaded going back to my old life. As the train left the mountains, I felt as Adam and Eve must have felt when expelled from the garden.
Not long after returning home, I phoned the Toronto mission home. The mission secretary, Elder John A. (Bert) Stevenson, invited me to the venerable updated mansion. With the aid of a flannel board, Elder Stevenson unfolded the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I can still recall the spiritual elation I felt on those evenings. Learning about Joseph Smith’s inspirational rise from uneducated boy to the great Prophet of the Restoration taught me that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew19:26).
On November 16, 1957, I was baptized. I had longed for a physical home, but had found a spiritual one instead. Although my life since then has had many ups and downs, my testimony of the restored gospel has never wavered. In the twilight of my life, I can say without hesitation that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the Savior’s true church on Earth.
Although our paths diverged, I am eternally grateful to Dolly for introducing me to the Church. I am also thankful to Elder Stevenson for his instruction and friendship. Above all, I thank my Heavenly Father for the dream that drove me to the Rockies and a new life, which eventually included a full-time mission, two university degrees, and the dual career of college history teacher and novelist.