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IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS: Retracing the Mormon Trail : Twisting, Shouting, Trailing

Kathy Stickel of Huntington Beach is retracing the 1,000-mile route of the Mormon migration from Iowa to Utah 150 years ago. The following is a periodic report.

May 11, 1997|KATHY STICKEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COLUMBUS, Neb. — Pioneer children sang as they walked, but they never sang like this.

Following an off-key racket through covered wagons and draft horses, I came upon a gang of children jumping up and down, with small boys turning cartwheels as they all sang "Twist and Shout."

The four Abbotts were there, along with the six Dinwiddies and the four Tomasers, all from Omaha. With them is Bobbie, or as they call her, the Widow Astle (her husband had to work this weekend and couldn't make it).

They camp together at every opportunity, and "Twist and Shout" is their favorite camp song. In their gingham dresses, bonnets, overalls and bare feet, they lifted their sunburned faces to the sky and cut loose, especially on the "shake it up, baby now" parts. Even after 17 miles of hiking on dusty and / or muddy roads, the kids can still twist, shout, sing and dance on the Nebraska prairie.

But this group also writes its own numbers to suit any occasion. The children, ranging from ages 2 to 12, have put together a blues drag for their pioneer experience. In honor of their forebears who were persecuted by mobs, they call it "We Left Our Brick House in Nauvoo" and it isn't half bad:

"We left our brick house in Nauvoo / There was nothing else for us to do /They killed our prophet and our people too / We left our brick house in Nauvoo," they howl to the accompaniment of Paul Tomaser on guitar. "We crossed that frozen river (M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i-) / we crossed that frozen river (cold, my oh my) / amidst the tears and shivers / we crossed that frozen river. . . ."

This morning's weather is fodder for more verses: "It's not the rain that makes us sad / but it's the mud that's really bad / It's up to our waists and our thighs / And that's not raindrops on the ground / it's the tears coming from our eyes," they sing cheerfully.

The original pioneer children also sang as they walked here. I like to think that they sang something special while camping in what is now eastern Nebraska, to celebrate the birth of Thornton Hepworth, my great-grandfather, born in a wagon five days before his company left Winter Quarters. His mother, Emily, had to carry the new baby across the plains and nearly died from the strain.

For my part, I'm both amazed and grateful that she and the baby survived. I have a photograph of Thornton as an adult, and he looks much like any man of his time. He was born, lived an ordinary childhood, married, raised a family, worked hard and was involved in his community. He died at 77, and it was said of him that he was honest in all his dealings. The very fact that he was so ordinary is what endears him to me.

To me he is all the children who made it through that trek. For though the hardships of the exodus killed thousands of children, now buried on the wayside nearly six to a mile from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley, it did not take them all.

God bless his mother, and all those mothers who carried their babies and children though they themselves were near death from exhaustion.

There are people walking on this trail today who are here in honor of the mothers who lost fingers, toes and ears to frostbite because they used their shawls and blankets to cover their children. They walk here for all the mothers who suffered and starved giving their food to children.

The Dinwiddie, Abbott and Tomaser children are rounding into the last verse, and they're singing louder and louder with every word, "WE LEFT OUR BRICK HOUSE IN NAUVOO, THERE WAS NOTHING WE COULD DO. . . ."

They're dancing and turning somersaults on the new prairie grass as they sing, and it seems a good thing that they don't yet understand the tragedy they sing about.

Few children of the pioneers understood the sacrifices that were made on their behalf, as few children of any age or situation do.

The effort of the mothers is what I think of when I see my great-grandfather Thornton Hepworth's face. I look at him in wonder at the extraordinary effort that was required to preserve his very ordinary life.

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