'Baby Charlie' brings large handcart family together

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:37 PM

"Families," the well-known Mormon slogan tells us, "can be forever."

But sometimes, it's just for three days.

Which, let's face it, can actually feel like forever. Especially if you happen to be stuck out in the middle of heaven-knows-where with a "family" made up of your real-life spouse, 10 totally unrelated teenagers, and one 7-pound beanbag vaguely shaped like an infant. (Don't ask.)

Welcome to the Farmington 21st Ward's Pioneer Trek 2012.

That's right, people. Last weekend, while the rest of you were out enjoying yourselves, a group of 43 teens and 28 adults were wandering around a particularly remote area on the Utah-Wyoming border, pushing and pulling handcarts in a grueling three-day re-enactment of what I can only assume was an ill-fated Mormon pioneer company.

I've been a member of the predominant religion here in Utah for 40 years now. How I managed to avoid these pioneer treks all those years is nothing short of a minor miracle. But, like jury duty, death and that automated telemarketing call that starts with an annoying blast from a ship's horn, the pioneer trek experience eventually finds us all.

For those of you unfamiliar with the trek idea, LDS congregations occasionally rent handcarts, don pioneer outfits and sojourn into the wilderness in an attempt to approximate what life was like for the Mormon pioneers crossing the plains back in the mid-1800s.

You know, sorta like those odd folks who insist on re-enacting the Civil War. Or the mountain man era. Or "Star Wars."

My wife and I were called to be one of five "Ma and Pa" couples for our ward's recent youth pioneer trek, basically becoming surrogate parents to a group of a 10 teens for the duration of the three-day ordeal.

As for the beanbag, that was a little surprise that trek organizers sprang on us the first morning. Each Ma was blessed with the "birth" of a life-size beanbag baby.

Our family ended up with Charles Martin Herbert, a seven-pound bag o' beans named for a small child who originally crossed in the Willie handcart company. We would be responsible for keeping our virtual infant safe throughout the trek.

Our teen kids instantly took to "Baby Charlie," as they called him, at times even fighting over who got to carry him as we walked. (Everyone quickly realized that little Chuck was basically a bean-filled immunity idol -- whoever held the baby didn't have to be pushing or pulling that stupid handcart.)

OK, so if we are to believe the LDS Primary song, pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked. As for our latter-day teenagers? They did a fair amount of singing as they walked, too. Church hymns. Broadway show tunes. Contemporary pop hits. Advertising jingles. Songs whose sole purpose, near as I could tell, was simply to annoy the living snot out of anyone within earshot. (Just you try listening to a mile-and-a-half's worth of "I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves, and this is how it goes.")

The one thing these young people didn't do? Complain.

Oh, a few of us adults did.

Well, one adult.

OK, me.

But not the kids. The children in our temp family -- Sunshine and Matthew and Bee and Alyssa and Kae and Matt and Scott and Weasel and Zach and Math -- never whined once. Not only that, but they all went three days without any of the usual trappings of modern technology. No Facebook. No iPods. Not a single incident of the deadly texting-while-handcarting.

And I don't know what it is, but I must admit that pioneer attire suits my wife. Shelooked amazingly H-O-T in that prairie dress, apron and bonnet. (Memo to trek organizers: You might want to start working on another beanbag baby for Ma and Pa Saal, if you catch my drift ...)

Of course, the crowning moment of our pioneer trek came on the final day. I had managed to avoid having to hold Baby Charlie for extended periods, successfully pawning him off on one teenager after another. But on the final day, as the handcart company stopped for a snack, Ma cornered me and handed me the baby. And that's when I got the idea.

Working with another adult, we secretly unwrapped a handful of Tootsie Roll Midgees and placed them in a strategic spot inside Baby Charles' blanket. I then gathered the family around.

"Has ANYBODY bothered to change this baby's diaper in the last three days?" I asked.

Ten blank stares.

"Just as I thought," I continued. "Well, then, I suppose I'll have to do it."

Unwrapping the blanket and lifting the baby's bottom to expose the small cache of tiny chocolate logs, I picked one up, briefly examined it, and with a shrug popped it into my mouth.

Now, today's soft, modern teenagers might have recoiled in disgust at such an act. But teenage pioneers, hardened by three days on the trail? All hands were quickly rooting around in Baby Charlie's diaper.

Yes sir, that's my family.

Next re-enactment Saal signs up for? Post-transcontinental railroad. Contact him at 801-625-4272 or msaal@standard.net.

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