A Missionary Memory

by Wallace Bruce, missionary companion of H. Clay Gorton

During World War II, the members of the Church in Argentina had little contact with Salt Lake City. The missionaries were withdrawn in 1941 with only 24 hours notice to leave the country. Many of the branches were small, there were few Priesthood holders and the Argentine members who suddenly were “on their own,” had tremendous challenges. There were fewer than 600 members in a country 1/3 the size of the United States. Anti-American feelings were very strong and in most instances, the members went “silent,” as they would otherwise be accused of being Yankee followers. Prior to World War II, the work was basically among the German speaking people in the country. As soon as the conflict spread, the German saints separated themselves from the few Spanish and Italian members and looked to Germany for their spiritual support.

After four years without any guidance from Church headquarters, some 40 returned servicemen were called to go to Argentina. We were sent down on cargo ships, spending a month or so crammed into the converted machine gun turrets near the stern. The Argentine government had placed a ban on allowing any LDS missionaries to come into Argentina, but the Lord had other ideas. A number of us entered the country through Uruguay. Others came down the Pacific coast, around Tierra del Fuego and then up into Argentina. Before the Peronists realized what had happened, we were scattered out across the country, attempting to revitalize the mission.

The day after I arrived in Buenos Aires, I was assigned to the branch of LaPlata. The mission president took me down to the railroad station, gave me the address of the branch building, the name of Elder Clay Gorton who would be my senior companion and a prayer that I would measure up to what was needed.

In those times, there was no language program for missionaries. What Spanish I acquired was from the 30 days on the cargo ship. I took a taxi from the railroad station out to the branch building and there I saw a small white building with the sign, “Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Ultimos Dias.” I was now a missionary.

I knocked on the door… but it was not Elder Gorton who greeted me. Two middle aged sisters recognized who I was, embraced me, and pulled me inside. They insisted on helping me unpack. In as much as they couldn’t speak English, I had a difficult time understanding that Elder Gorton had taken the train into Buenos Aires, expecting to pick me up at the mission home. The telephone company in Argentina had been operated by the British. When World War II broke out, the government expropriated it, found it had few Argentine technicians to service the lines and the system gradually deteriorated. There was only one telephone in the entire branch. It belonged to a retired English couple who had worked for the railroads until the Argentine government seized them from the British. This couple didn’t speak Spanish and so the branch basically was without immediate communication with the mission home unless one went downtown to a pay phone (owned by a Swedish company) or convinced the English couple that it was "una emergencia."

The sisters insisted that I eat some dulce de leche and then pushed me into the chapel where the branch choir was beginning rehearsals. I have never been able to carry a tune since passing through adolescence, but the sisters insisted that they needed one more tenor. For over an hour I attempted to read the words and follow the music. I knew that I was off beat, not in tune and causing some snickers. For the first time I wondered why I had accepted the call to serve on a mission. How wonderful it would have been to be sitting in a physics or psychological lecture at the University of Utah.

Suddenly the front door opened and in marched Elder H. Clay Gorton. He had red hair, was somewhat crippled in his walk but projected a spirit that told you, “This is a man to follow and emulate.” I was scared to death. He was somewhat irked that he had spent most of the day riding on the trains, but he welcomed me, took the baton and began conducting the choir.

At the conclusion of the practice, he bade everyone "Buenos Noches," locked the front door and took off his shoes. Then he said, "Welcome to LaPlata, Elder Bruce." Those were the last English words I heard him say for several months. His philosophy was that the only way to learn to speak Spanish was to be immersed in it 24 hours a day 7 days a week. That was the beginning of a relationship that has continued for some 60 years.

Each morning he woke me up at 5:30 a.m., had me read the Book of Mormon in Spanish, taught me how to prepare cereal on a tiny kerosene burner, take a bath with a tiny hose, shave without shaving cream and be ready to go tracting by 8:30 a.m. He had me memorize the basic message of each tract. From 8:30 to 12 noon and then again from 2:30 to 5:30 we went from door to door… being rejected about 99% of the time. The Catholic priests had told those attending mass and confessions that it was a mortal sin to listen to the Mormons. Some days we would hit 150 homes with not one smiling reception. However, Elder Gorton never waivered in bearing his testimony or pinching me to give mine in halting Spanish. It was only later that I learned how painful it was for him to walk along the cobblestone sidewalks but he never once discussed his foot problem. In the afternoon, he would give me a Spanish lesson from a text book he had purchased. After a quick supper, we would go out into the city, looking up lost members, visiting the few that were still active and offering free English lessons to the people in the neighborhood. By eleven at night, he would say the closing prayer in Spanish... and off to sleep we went.

After two weeks, he repented somewhat. One afternoon he told me that I was to go up to Brother and Sister Taylor’s, a retired English couple, every Thursday afternoon where I could speak English for one hour. I didn’t know whether to hug him or kiss the Taylors. Brother Taylor had helped build the railroad line near LaPlata, had lost his family in England during World War II and so decided to remain in Argentina.

Each Saturday night Elder Gorton coached me in preparing a Sunday School lesson for older members. His patience often wore out as I butchered conjugating the irregular verbs… but the members seemed to understand the message. He taught me how to mop the tile floors, clean European commodes and ride the tiny ancient busses that required a new ticket every few miles.

All of that background he had acquired in just two months prior to my arrival. Until I came, he had two Argentine members assist him in running the branch. I now understand why they embraced me upon my arrival. What a dynamo. They had truly been “well-trained” as emergency missionaries.

Our first baptism was in the Rio de la Plata. Unfortunately, it was a high tide with a wind blowing away from the shore. He assigned me to baptize a 250 pound sister who was fearful of the water. Just as I began to immerse her, a gigantic wave completed the ceremony… burying both of us in about ten feet of cold salty water. When we finally came to the surface, Elder Gorton was staring in our direction with his mouth wide open. As we finally waded to the shore, he whispered to me, "Nothing like doing it whole hog." (He was from a farm in Idaho.)

He was my senior companion for over one year. The schedule seldom deviated. He was respected and loved by the members. He had no problem in calling them to repentance when necessary but they sensed that he really loved them. It was an awesome relationship. How I matured… as a man, as a Priesthood holder and as a missionary. But above all, I finally understood what brotherhood was really all about. I seriously doubt if today’s policy of transferring missionaries every two or three months permits the development of brotherhood that can add such strength to a young man.

During our post mission years, we kept in touch by letter. He went on to become a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Physics. He taught at Ohio State University, did research at several institutions in the mid-west, and then accepted a position in management at a large chemical corporation. Upon “retiring,” he was called to be a mission president in Central America and returned again to South America. Today he is a temple worker in the Bountiful Temple. He has served as a president of the Missionary Training Center and is the author of the best-selling series, “Ask Gramps.” The books touch on all aspects of the Gospel, the challenges of daily living and how to accept the challenges we encounter. His lines are often laced with a deep sense of humor.

Postlude

After leaving LaPlata, he was assigned to reopen the work in Cordova, near the Andes. After serving there for over a year, he went to Buenos Aires, It was only after returning to Idaho after his three year mission that it was announced that he was going to marry a convert whom he had contacted while tracting. They both immediately realized that theirs was going to be an eternal relationship but that everything was to be “put on hold” until he completed his mission. Only Elder Gorton could have successfully carried out that commitment.

Some 55 years later, here in Universal City ward, I was given the name of David Gorton, an inactive member of the Church, to visit and see if he could be activated. What a coincidence. He was Clay’s son who had been in the Philippines in the service, had married outside of the Church and had only sporadic contacts with his parents. It was a most humbling experience for me. That night I called Clay on the telephone and we both cried a little bit. Today, David is active in our ward, working with one of my grandsons in the Cub Scout program, his wife is a teacher in the Primary and their son is a close friend of Christopher, our senior grandson.

Clay and his dear wife, Podge and their son and daughter-in-law continue to have a profound impact upon my life. He has explored a variety of careers, interests and developed a number of unique talents. He continues to expect maximum productive output from himself… and has inspired the rest of us to follow (or else).