Memories of my Father, Rees Dubois Gorton

by H. Clay Gorton

Simeon Ralph Sterrett, Rees Dubois Gorton & Henry Clay Gorton, 1942

My father and his twin brother, Ralph Shoup, were born on January 3, 1891. Rees and Ralph had two older brothers, Henry Clay and George Waylett, and two younger brothers, Jay Phillip and Kenneth Eastman. He and my mother, Sarah Dorleska (Dorothy) Sterrett, were married 16 October 1921. I was the oldest of three children; my two younger sisters were Gayla and Leah Patricia (Pat).

Since I was left handed Dad thought I could develop into a good baseball pitcher or a good violin player, so when I was about eight years old he bought me a baseball and a violin. He would try to get me to practice throwing the baseball with him, but he threw it so hard that it hurt my hand, and so I wouldn’t play with him.

With my violin, I became a member of the grade school orchestra when I was in the third grade. However, I was the only boy in the orchestra, which was tremendously embarrassing, so I managed to break the violin, and was thus released from the onerous obligation of playing in the orchestra. I must have been a keen disappointment to my father.

Although mother belonged to the LDS Church, Dad was a Presbyterian, and his parents were prominent members of the Presbyterian Church. I was told that as my parents planned their family the decision was to split the children between the two churches. The first would go to one church and the next to the other. It was decided that the first child would go to the Mormon Church. Since I was the oldest I got to go to the Mormon Church, and so I started in Primary. By the time my younger sisters were old enough to go, Dad had decided that the benefits the children received from the LDS Primary were so valuable that all the children should have the same experience, so my two sisters were allowed to go to the Mormon Church also.

When I was about ten or twelve years old I asked Dad if he would take me squirrel hunting. So we took the 22 caliber automatic rifle that had been in the family for years and went hunting. Dad had me carry the gun. He showed me how to carry it, how to cross a fence with it, how and when to load it, how to always have the safety on unless I was shooting, and how to shoot it. We had a great time hunting that afternoon. A while later, I asked if he would take me hunting again. He said that he wouldn’t, but that I could go by myself whenever I wanted to. However, he would never let me go hunting unless I was by myself. His younger brother, Jay, had been killed by a shot from a companion’s gun when they were out hunting together; and his older brother, George, had the calf of his leg blown off by his own shotgun as he was crossing a fence.

Our family lived with Dad’s mother, Leah Maria, in the old two-story, ten-room house that had been built by my Grandfather, George Washington Gorton. The house was of the same style as the house built by his father, Job Pierce Gorton, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and was one of the larger homes in Soda Springs. It was built with rough-cut 2x6's for the wall joists, and the ceilings were eleven feet high. When I was about 14 years old Dad decided to lower the ceilings to eight feet and to wire the house for electricity. He appointed me to be the engineer and to determine how it all should be done. I would develop my plans, review them with Dad for correction and approval, and then he would dispatch me to Horsley’s lumber and hardware store to buy the lumber, nails, electrical wire, sockets, etc. with which to do the job. He made me feel important and worthwhile.

Behind our home were two buildings. About fifteen feet from the back door was the coal house and icehouse. The front part of the building was used to store wood and coal for heating and cooking. The rear half was used to store blocks of ice cut from the reservoir to use in the icebox during the summer. In the winter time blocks of ice eighteen inches to two feet on a side were cut from the lake, hauled to the house by a team of horses, and packed in the ice house--each layer of ice separated by a layer of sawdust. We could store enough ice to last for the entire summer. Behind this building by about a hundred feet and at the end of a wired-in space used as a chicken run was the rabbit house. This building was approximately 15x40 feet and was used to house rabbit hutches. At one time Dad raised chinchilla rabbits and sold the fur.

When I was a small boy I remember the hutches filled with chinchilla rabbits. Later, however, that enterprise was abandoned and it was determined to tear down the rabbit house. Dad had me help him. The building had a ceiling of 1x12 boards nailed under the ceiling joists. To remove the ceiling boards I climbed a ladder with a pinch bar and Dad stood on the ceiling board adjacent to the one we were removing. With a hammer he would knock his end of the board loose and I would knock my end loose with the pinch bar. When we got to the last board, Dad was standing on it. So I was going to get down from the ladder and move it over to where Dad could use it to get down. However, I thought that I should knock my end of the board loose before descending the ladder. So I hit it with the pinch bar. Dad’s weight on the other end of the board was sufficient to break it loose from its moorings, and down it came. Dad threw the hammer in the air, spun around and caught himself on the edge of the wall. However, his arms hit just below the elbows, scraping off all the skin down to his wrists. He managed to hang on to the wall until I could get the ladder around to get him down. There was never a word of chastisement mentioned.

Over the years the bricks of the chimney on the roof over the living room had weathered away to the extent that Dad felt that they should be replaced. So he assigned me the task. He answered my questions on how to mix mortar, let me go downtown to buy the bricks and materials and left me alone to do the job. That chimney is still there today, and the amateur nature of the job is clearly visible.

We had a large front yard shaded by several black willow trees. In front of the yard, and about fifteen feet back from the sidewalk, was a picket fence. The fence posts were of cedar, and Grandfather Gorton had blasted holes through the dense rock under the soil that had been hauled in for the lawn in order to be able to set the fence posts. The fence was about 100 feet long. I suggested to Dad and he agreed that we should take down the fence and extend the lawn out to the sidewalk. Between the fence and the sidewalk in earlier times there had been a ditch. Although it was now dry it still represented a significant depression in the ground. Since this activity represented a major project, Dad let me hire my friend, Victor Wood, to assist in the project. Tearing down the fence was not difficult, but getting the cedar posts out of their holes was almost more than we could manage. The holes in the rock were hardly bigger than the posts, so we couldn’t just dig around them with shovels. We had to chip into the posts with crowbars, one on each side, then using all our strength we could lever them up a bit at a time. By this technique we finally got all the posts up. Next we had to fill the ditch in with soil. We acquired a two-wheel trailer, attached it to our 1928 Durrant Super Six, and drove out north of town where we would fill the trailer with top soil from under the sagebrushes by the side of the road. We’d bring the trailer full of soil back to the house and shovel it into the ditch to be filled in. I don’t remember how many trailer loads of dirt we brought in, but it took us much of the summer.

We then smoothed the filled in area, and rolled it with a heavy roller, and then planted lawn seed. It was a fairly successful project, and taught me something about responsibility in hiring someone to work with me and to see the job through to completion.

Dad bought the Durrant as a new car in 1928, when I was five years old. By the time I was fourteen, I had essentially taken possession of it. Not only did we drive it all over town, but up into the hills to get trees to plant in the lawn. I would frequently bang it up, and Dad made a deal with my cousin, Alva, who was a few years older and an aspiring mechanic, to fix it up after I had wrecked it. In recompense he got to use the car for awhile every time he fixed it up.

The other major home repair activity that Dad let me manage was to tear down the front porch. The porch extended out from the house about ten feet and was about forty feet long, extending in front of the living room and the front bedroom. It was covered by a roof that ran at a shallower angle than the roof from the center of the house, and the floor was about two feet above ground level. I spent one summer in removing the porch, laying a cement foundation around the perimeter on which we set two layers of cinder block, and hauled in several loads of soil, as we did for the lawn. This area was planted as a large flower garden. We had Uther Woodall make a new porch, which occupied only the area in front of the living room and sitting room doors.

Although I was not aware of it at the time, our family was very poor. We lived with Grandma Gorton because Dad didn’t have a place of his own. One of my tasks when I was a child was to cut cardboard inserts for Dad’s shoes since the soles were worn completely through. He worked for the city repairing breaks in the city water mains when they would occur, which was not very often. The city water came from a large spring on a hillside about two miles east of town. The water was drawn from the spring in a wooden pipe about eighteen inches in diameter. The pipe was constructed of 1x4-inch boards bound with wire rings. As the wood became wet it would swell and seal the pipe. These pipes ran along all the streets in town providing a source of water for the homes. However, they would occasionally spring leaks, and it was Dad’s job to fix them. He would dig down through the mud to the pipe, then drive wooden shingles into the break to stop the leak.

Later, Colin Chester, who was the county recorder, offered Dad a job as the assistant recorder. That job paid $75.00/month, which was not sufficient to maintain the family. So Dad got a job tending bar in the local pool hall after work hours. He would work from five or six P.M. until the place closed at midnight. I was nine years old at the time, and would often go down to the pool hall to help out. I was allowed to serve beer over the counter and rack up the pool balls between games. There were several gambling tables in the place where pinochle was played. Dad’s older brothers, Henry and George, were good pinochle players. They would make enough money during the winter playing pinochle to support themselves fishing on the Snake River during the summer. Henry lived in a small, shabby apartment in the rear of the warehouse that was part of the Gorton Supply Store.

In 1942, at age nineteen I decided to join the Army Air Corps. I was to enlist at Ft. Douglas in Salt Lake City. Before enlisting, however, I wanted to get whatever protection the Church had to offer, and so I was made an Elder and received a temple recommend to go through the temple before enlisting. Dad accompanied me to Salt Lake City, and on Friday, October 31, I received my endowments in the Salt Lake Temple. Dad waited outside for the two+ hours that I was in the temple. He then returned home and I spent the week-end visiting friends at BYU before joining the Air Force at Ft. Douglas the following Monday, November 3.

Before we left for Salt Lake City, Dad counseled me that I would have a lot of time on my hands in the army and that there was ample opportunity to get involved in unsavory activities. He suggested that I should plan to do something that would keep me occupied so that I would not get involved in things that were not wholesome and uplifting. So he gave me a Triple Combination and suggested that I could use my time well reading the Book of Mormon.

I had never read the Book of Mormon before, and so I made it a project. I was assigned to basic training at Shepard Field, Texas. I would read when I had opportunity, and after lights out at night, I would read with a flashlight under the covers. I soon read through the Book of Mormon and received during that reading a firm and unequivocal testimony that the book was indeed the Word of God and contained the truths of the gospel.

I was discharged from the army on January 21, 1946, and the day after I returned home I visited with Bishop Frank Kunz and asked if I could be sent on a mission. The call came and I was to report to the mission home in Salt Lake City sometime in late June. Dad and I had several long conversations during the period before I left. I remember one in particular when we were both lying out on the grass east of the house looking up into the sky in which were a few high cirrus clouds. I had been a weather observer in the service and I was able to explain to Dad something about weather systems and frontal phenomena.

During my mission I was deeply concerned that my father would receive a testimony and join the Church. Never a night went by but what that topic was the subject of my prayers. I sent Dad all the literature about the Church that I could get my hands on and wrote to him trying to explain the principles of the gospel. (I later learned that he would read only those parts of my letters that were not the preaching parts.) Finally, I learned to stop preaching to my father about the Church, but to continue to appeal to my Father in Heaven that He would bless him with a testimony.

I returned from my mission at the end of January 1949, and Podge and I were married the following April 7. (At this writing we are celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary.) When we were married Dad gave us $100.00 for a wedding present, a gift that he could ill afford.

That fall I enrolled as a student at BYU. We learned shortly thereafter that Dad had a heart condition, which the doctors suspected was an aneurysm of the aorta. By placing his hand just below the sternum, Dad could easily feel his heart beat. Dad’s temperament changed from his usual confident, dry wit, to one in which he was quite morose. He no longer enjoyed life, but was preoccupied with his physical condition.

While at school we learned that Dad was to undergo an exploratory operation to determine if indeed he had an enlarged aorta. Aorta transplants had not yet been done, and there was no known cure for the condition. We came up to Soda Springs to be there for the operation. When they wheeled Dad into the operating room I stood out in the hall looking around the corner into the room, the door being open. Dr. Tigert, who was performing the operation, looked up and saw me, and said, "Put a mask and gown on that boy and bring him in." So I was permitted to watch the operation. After they had made an incision about five inches long down from the sternum, the doctor put his hand in and around the aorta, showing that it had ballooned to a diameter of about two inches. The enlargement continued on the left branch of the aorta but not on the right branch, which was of normal size.

So while he was still on the table I asked, "I wonder what his appendix looks like?" (Dad was the only member of our family who had not had his appendix removed.) So the doctor fished around, found the appendix, and said, "It looks healthy enough, but we might as well take it out." So he cut it off. When Dad came out of the anesthetic I told him what had happened, and he said, "Hell, I wanted that!"

Dad was an habitual smoker, consuming up to two packs a day, and the doctor advised him that because of his condition he would have to give up smoking. So he had no more cigarettes. However, he developed a rather severe cough, and broke his incision open three times. On the third time they sewed it up with wire, and it held after that. The experience was extremely painful, and Dad said, "If I have to go up there one more time, I’m not coming back!"

After graduating from BYU in 1953, I took a position as a research physicist at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Early in 1955 the medical center at Ohio State University announced one of the first three aorta transplants to have been performed, and it made the headlines in the local papers. I sent the clippings to Dad and suggested that he come back to Ohio State for an aorta transplant. To our very great surprise he and Mother agreed to come.

He was admitted to the OSU hospital for examination. Although Dad had been the secretary of the hospital in Soda Springs, he was extremely fearful of being a patient. Every time the doctor would come into the room to examine him his blood pressure would soar. He was in the hospital for two weeks before the doctors were able to do a thorough examination. In the examination it was determined that he had had cirrhosis of the liver, and as such, would not be able to tolerate the anesthetic for the four hours that the operation would take. So the conclusion was that it was inoperable and that he should act as though he had a weak heart.

He was discharged from the hospital on Thursday or Friday on the week of May 8. They were to leave for home by train on the following Sunday evening. On Saturday morning Dad asked out of the blue, "If I were to get baptized, would they let you baptized me?" I replied that I would ask the branch president, and of course permission was granted. Then Dad said, "I might as well get baptized before we go home."

We went to Priesthood Meeting and Sunday School in the morning, and then at 2:00 P.M. we met at the YMCA swimming pool in downtown Columbus, where I baptized my Father and confirmed him a member of the Church. That evening in Sacrament Meeting, the branch President, Brother Murray Udy, announced, "Since this is the day of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, I think we should ordain Brother Gorton a deacon. All in favor?" So he was called to the stand and I had the privilege of ordaining my father a deacon. Then Brother Udy said, "Brother Gorton, would you sit down there and help the other deacons pass the sacrament?" So I was privileged to receive the sacrament from my father. After the Sacrament Meeting was over, Dad said, "I’d better get out of here before they make me a bishop."

From the church we took Dad and Mother to the train station where they boarded a train for home. That was the last time that I saw my Father alive. He died the following December 22. A post mortem examination showed that the healthy branch of the aorta had suddenly enlarged and burst. It was also found that a blood clot had formed around the walls of the enlarged aorta, which had calcified, taking pressure off the aorta wall. That condition permitted him to extend his life for three or four years. We were informed that patients with such aneurysms are not expected to live longer than a year.

I am convinced that the Lord extended his life long enough for him to join the Church. When he and Mother returned to Soda Springs he was called to teach a genealogy class, which he did up to the time of his death.

I was proxy for him as he and Mother were sealed together. Then someone else stood proxy for my father as the three children, Gayla, Pat and myself, were sealed to our parents.