“What do you think we should do?” asked my Dad. “I want to go to Disneyland,” I proclaimed.
For months all I could think of was Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Pluto; fast rides, lots of candy, and the magical fireworks to come. That was the mindset of this nine-year-old boy looking forward to my first trip to Disneyland, a trip I first learned about at Christmas time.
That’s right, the big old jolly one himself spread the news of the trip at Christmas to me and my sisters, using his trusted elves…my parents. Our family bought big beach towels, shovels and pails, along with other fun beach paraphernalia for our trip, as we planned every detail. We were so excited and with every passing day, week, and month, the excitement built, and the anticipation almost overwhelming.
During this young time in my life, my Dad had been called to an ecclesiastical position, to oversee a geographical area of our neighborhood—a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His responsibilities in this position was very taxing as he watched over and assisted in meeting any of the temporal and spiritual needs of all the people within the geographical boundary—roughly 500 people. This was a volunteer position that required 20-30 hours of work each week, all in addition to his full-time job and caring for his own young family. We all looked forward to the trip where we could spend time together without any outside interruptions.
On Friday, July 24, 1981 the clouds gathered, and rain began to fall as we packed the family Suburban from top to bottom, preparing for our travel the next day. Living in Utah, the second-driest state in the country, the rainy day during the hot summer month was a surprise. Accompanying the rain was a terrible thunder and lightning storm. But nothing could dampen my spirits—or so I thought.
Later in the day, my parents brought us all together in our living room. The living room was one of those rooms that we didn’t use very often, mostly for more formal visits. So being summoned to the living room was a sobering event in and of itself. As my sisters and I shuffled into the room, we quietly asked each other, “What was wrong?”
“There has been an accident,” my Dad explained. Our mood became even more somber as all eyes were glued on our parents. “Brother Carruth and his son were struck by lightning while out golfing today. Brother Carruth is in critical condition. Reed has died.”
There was a collective gasp by my older sisters. Reed, just 13 years old, was a schoolmate of theirs. The Carruth’s daughter, Amy, was my age, and I knew her well.
“How? Why? When?” came the questions. “We don’t know for sure, but we believe they ran under a nearby tree to escape the downpour of rain. The lightning then struck the tree they hid beneath,” my Dad continued.
We sat in shock. Nobody knew what to say.
“Their family will need a lot help,” my Dad continued.
Of course they would. Even in my young mind I could imagine the sadness they must have felt, as my own stomach felt uneasy, not knowing how to process this information. I had never known anyone personally that had died and it would be years before my great aunt would pass away in 1988.
“We have a choice to make,” continued my Dad. “We can get in the car and head on vacation like we’ve planned,” he said pausing for a moment. “Or we can cancel our trip and stay here to help their family.”
Cancel our trip? Was he serious? No Mickey! No Minnie! No rides! No beach! My immature adolescent mind started to spin. I looked around the room at the solemn faces. Nobody wanted to make that decision. Especially my Dad, who was torn between his responsibilities as a father and as a bishop.
“What do you think we should do?” asked my Dad to us kids. One by one each started to answer.
“I think we should stay here,” said my oldest sister. “Yeah, we should stay,” said another. Their greater maturity was evident as they more easily grasped the weight of the situation. Me on the other hand.
“I want to go to Disneyland,” I proclaimed.
Looking back, I can clearly see my selfishness and to this day I feel a sense of guilt that I ever thought about continuing the trip, not to mention having the audacity to voice that sentiment. Had I been older, I may have felt different—I hope I would have felt different.
We didn’t see Mickey that year, but did so many times after. Each visit has brought fun and excitement that lasted a brief moment. I don’t remember those visits too vividly, but I do remember that summer July day. I felt disappointed by the decision my family made that day, but the feeling was more than just disappointment. It was confusion. Never before could I remember such a turmoil—a battle between what I wanted and what was right—rage within me.
Now these many years later, with a lot more miles of experience and maturity, I can see this defining moment of my childhood more objectively. And it was just that—a character-building moment. Having experienced heartache more deeply now, I can more easily feel empathy for the Carruth family as they lost a son and brother. I can more fully appreciate how much pain and anguish they must have felt. I can also understand how as parents, my Mom and Dad must have felt a tug-o-war within themselves, trying to put their family first, while knowing that the right decision, wasn’t going to be the easy decision for us kids.
Why has this experience remained so engraved in my memory? It’s funny looking back at my childhood and identify what experiences I remember, and imagining all those I don’t. Why does this one remain? Perhaps it was a lesson I needed to learn at a young age, a lesson that would help shape who I became. It was a chance to learn empathy. It was a chance to learn putting the needs of others before my own desires. It was a chance for me to learn the importance of helping a friend in need. It was a chance for me to learn, as I’ve grown older, that priorities in life shift and the hardest decisions are those where there is good in either direction you choose to follow.
I imagine the sting of Reed’s death felt by the Carruth family has finally found the soothing balm of time and healing. As for me, when I look back and reflect on this memorable and impressionable experience, I find great gratitude that I have parents who taught me how to love and care for others, to put aside personal desires for the much more rewarding remunerations that come from selfless acts of love and kindness.