29: The Hero's Journey
Losing their dad in a plane crash when they were just kids left KC and Brian without someone to do the things that dads do—like building a pinewood derby car and making sure they made it to the father-son campout. When the men in their local ward stepped up to fill the gap, KC and Brian learned how a Heavenly Father uses others to be there for us when he can’t.
Welcome to This is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
I'm not a dad. I know that seems like an obvious statement but it's important to say it out loud because our episode today is all about fathers and fatherhood. And despite the fact that my voice can hit some really low notes in the morning before I'm fully awake, I don't know much about the highs and lows of that particular role. But I do know the impact that good men have in our lives and the way their presence in our day-to-day growth is an important part of gospel living.
I think it's a little funny that we don't often use the word "fathering" in the same way that we use "mothering" in our culture to encapsulate all the hard work of caring for and nurturing one another, whether we share DNA or not. I actually wish we could use it that way today because our story is a celebration of all the men who step up and step in to act as fathers to us when our own father can't.
Our storytellers are KC and Brian, two brothers who lost the opportunity to grow up with a dad in their home but found a ward full of men who are willing to help them and share their goodness.
One thing to note: KC and Brian have really similar voices so you might actually have a hard time telling them apart in the audio. If you want to see a picture of them and their third brother Jeff, who couldn't join them for the recording but is an integral part of their story, we'll have those in the show notes for this episode at ldsliving.com/thisisthegospel.
We'll start with KC, and then you'll hear from Brian as they tell their family's story.
So it's the late 60s. My father was a fighter pilot in the Navy. He had done tours in Vietnam and had been stationed all over the Pacific Rim on aircraft carriers. And because he spent much of his 20s deployed, being stationed in the U.S. was a new opportunity to date more. You know he's a young guy with a fighter jet and can fly to different places in the country on training missions, and so you talk to his buddies and found out where there were some good singles scenes in the church. One of those was the Stanford singles ward in California. And so he flew out there one weekend, landed at Moffett Field, and went to an institute dance and that's where he met my mom. They hit it off pretty quick. Then in a brief period of time, they realized that they had found the love of their life and they got married.
My father retired from active duty Navy, they moved to San Jose California and bought a house there. He got a job with Pan Am Airlines as a pilot and he and my mom had three boys. There was a lot of turmoil at the time though in the airline industry and my father got laid off from Pan Am, and he bounced around to several different airlines. He even flew the plane for the Los Angeles Dodgers for a couple of years, but eventually, he ended up with another commercial airline called Transamerica Airlines that also had a commercial freight business.
So it's the summer of 1983. I'm 10 years old. KC is eight years old because his dad had just baptized him, and our youngest brother Jeff was four and a half. We were taking our usual trip for the summer which involved a drive up I-80 up to Salt Lake, see our grandparents there, and then we head up into Idaho where my mom was from and her parents are from, and we always spent a week in Sun Valley where her parents had a place. While we were there though, my dad had to leave on a trip for Transamerica Airlines. They had a kind of a cargo route that they were running, a contract in Angola, Africa, and I'll never forget the morning he got up and he needed to head down to the little airport in Haley to catch his first flight to head to the other side of the world. And fortunately, I for some reason woke up that morning, and I remember him leaving. I literally have it seared in my memory even though I didn't know the significance of that moment, but I remember him walking out the door and he gave me a big hug and a kiss and told me he loved me. And I said, “Great, see you soon, Dad.”
So we enjoyed a couple more days in Sun Valley and then drove down to Salt Lake again to see our grandparents one last time. We stayed in the basement and heard the phone ringing. My grandpa came down and woke up my mom and said, “Diane there's a call.” I remember my mom being really worried because obviously, you get a call in the middle of the night from your husband's airline—it's not a good thing. So I went upstairs and listened. She got a more and more concerned tone on the phone saying things like, “So you don't know where he is?” And “When do you think you'll know something?” And I was just feeling this gloom and dread. She gets off the phone and she is in tears and we went back downstairs to go to bed, not really sleeping well. I know she didn't sleep at all.
Now, a little background on Angola: it was extremely dangerous. It was flying cargo on C-130 prop planes that could fly on dirt runways in basically the bush to supply materials and fuel and equipment to some of the diamond mines there. At the time Angola was in the middle of a civil war. The previous crew of this plane that had done this exact same route about six or eight months before had been hijacked on this dirt runway by a bunch of the insurgents and they marched the American crew into the jungle, and they held them hostage for months. They eventually, I believe, let them go, but it was obviously a very dangerous, dangerous job and I know my mom wasn't thrilled by my dad doing it, but my dad was trying to provide for our family.
There was a good chance his plane had just been hijacked. But there is also a chance that he could have crashed, and we didn't know. So my mom was worried as we're driving back from Utah. One moment I'll never forget, and my mom will never forget, as we're driving across the Nevada desert and my grandpa is sitting up front and he had brought a pillow with him and he had it against the window. Somehow he leaned on it wrong with the window open, and his pillow got sucked out the window. We're going about 75 miles an hour. It sounds funny, but it was just kind of the last straw for my mom.
She pulls over and, you know, has to get out of the car. I remember her walking the length of the back windows of our station wagon, and I could see the tears in her eyes, and she was just really upset. She was talking to herself. She had to go back 150 yards because she didn't back the car up. She grabbed this pillow and when she got back her hair was a mess and it was windy. Her eyes were red and puffy. And she later told me that as she was doing marching down there she just finally had her breaking point. She couldn't take it anymore, and she poured her heart out to the Lord like, “Why are you doing this to me? I have three boys. I can't be a widow. Tell me he's going come back, and that he's okay. He's going be okay. I cannot deal with this.” It was just a moment for her to release, but it was just also a really sad thing.
We get back to San Jose and it's time to start school. I remember sitting in fifth grade and just thinking, “This is so weird. We're just studying arithmetic, and I'm not sure if my dad's alive or not. I don't know what that means for the future. I'm the oldest son, and what am I supposed to do?”
It was about two weeks after his plane went missing. It was what we thought was a normal morning. We finally got the word.
I have a pretty vivid memory of that morning. It was a bright, sunny California day. I remember sun streaming in the windows and my mom waking me up and telling me that my dad had been killed in an airplane crash. It wasn't a total surprise. I mean, it just confirmed our worst fears.
I remember there being a lot of people in the house. I went into my mom's room and I just laid face down on the bed and just cried. I remember just crying for a long time. And thinking back about that, I think how incredibly painful it must have been for my mom at that period to have to tell her sons that their father wasn't coming home.
Later, she recounted a story to me. Early that morning, after right after she got the phone call, she went into our living room and knelt down at the couch and began to pray. She began to pour out her heart to Heavenly Father. And immediately she was filled with a powerful feeling of love. Over the last couple weeks of him missing, she had kept feeling like things would be okay. She thought that that meant that my father would be coming home. But she says that at the moment that she was praying, the words came into her mind that Heavenly Father had been trying to tell her that my dad would not be coming home. But He had a plan for our family. My father was in heaven and he was watching over us, and he would provide for us and protect us.
When they found the wreckage of the plane, part of that is the black box, they call it. It's the flight recorder that records all the voices in the cockpit; it records all the instruments. We've been able to read all the transcripts of what happened. The pilot of the plane (my dad was the co-pilot had) done this mission numerous times before and was clearly worried about being on the runway too long, having had a previous mission, not one he was on, be hijacked by rebels. On the flight recorder my dad is talking and says, “Hey, we need to double check all these things.” And the pilot says, “No, not here we’ve got to get this plane off the ground. Everything's fine.”
They flew in the direction that they thought they were supposed to go for the time and speed they had punched in. When they got to where they were headed, they couldn't see any lights. It was just pure darkness and jungle. It was a time of year when they burned the elephant grass in this part of the world, so there's a lot of smoke and haze. So the pilot thought, “Well let's go down a little lower. I mean, we just can't see. It must be this haze.” And my dad said a couple of times, “We shouldn't go down until we know where we are for sure.” And he says no, “We're in the right place. We just can't see.”
Ultimately, the pilot insisted they go down another thousand feet and that's where the transcript ends. They were like 40 or 50 miles in the wrong direction from where they thought they were, and there was a mountain there and they flew in right into it. What ended up happening was two of the numbers were transposed in the navigation system. So when they got to where they thought they were supposed to be there was no runway. That's also why they disappeared: they didn't know where to look for them because they weren't where they were supposed to be.
It took a couple of weeks for a search group to find the wreckage and bring our dad home.
Pretty quickly we had a funeral. I remember it was a huge funeral because my dad was young, and all of his friends were still alive. He had friends in the military. And then just, of course, all the members of the church. I remember it just filled and went all the way back to the stage. It was kind of a surreal experience. This was such an alien thing to see in this place where each week I feel such peace and joy, where my dad had just a few weeks before been sitting on the stand each week as a counselor in the bishopric. And now, to be sitting here with this strange casket in front of me that means that I no longer have a father, and my brothers are fatherless, and my mom's a widow was really, really difficult. And the thing that made it even stranger is that the following Sunday we're back in that same church and we're having just regular meetings. Suddenly we're just, you know, we took up one less spot on the row that we usually were sitting in.
I think the moment that I realized the full implications of dad being gone was that first pinewood derby race I had to build the car for after he died.
It's a pretty pitiful story. My mom helped me build my car and, of course, I was excited to see how it would do on the track. We get up against the other kids, and I think it barely made it down to the bottom of the track. We definitely weren't in any contention for any awards with that car. As soon as that happened I remember running out of the building by myself and running around the side of the building and just crying against the wall of the building saying, “Why don't I have a dad like all the other kids to help me build my car?” And it's silly to think about now, but I remember feeling really sorry for myself at that moment.
That's not silly at all. When you're that age, that's exactly the kind of immediate effect you see. We grew up in an area where half of the dads were working for IBM as Ph.D. computer engineers, and some of those cars were amazing. We had a garage full of tools because our dad was extremely handy and knew how to do that sort of thing. But my mom didn't know how to use them, and we were too young to know how to use them. To go to the pinewood derby and see other people just race past our cars that wobbled down the track, really was a visceral way of bringing to life the fact that we were missing something that they had at the time. Things like the fathers and sons outing that would come up every year, something you'd done with your dad year after year, and you really looked forward to suddenly, “Who's going to take me?” becomes a question. This is where the men of the church and of our ward really stepped up.
I remember the first year around we had multiple men call my mom and say, “Hey, I want to take your boys to the fathers and sons outing.” And we quickly realized that we weren't going be forgotten. It wasn't like they were in our face all day like, “I'm going to be your surrogate dad.” But somehow I just kind of felt like people were always there to help. To make sure we got our Eagle. To make sure we got a home teaching assignment and learned how to do that. To make sure we learn how to drive. To show us how to change the oil in a car, or change a car tire. People did step up and fill that void.
Each of the three of us boys took on a different role in the family. Brian, being the oldest, was definitely big emotional support for my mom. I remember him and my mom having a lot of long conversations. They were very close and my younger brother he's kind of the life of the party. He kept us all laughing all the time, and to this day I think he is the one who shows our family how to have joy. I personally was very interested in fixing things around the house and being a handyman and building things. One of our young men's leaders recognized that I had a real love for woodworking and different things home repair and so he invited me over. He was building new cabinets in his living room built in cabinets and he invited me over under the guise that he needed someone to help hold some plywood while he would cut the big sheets of plywood. But in hindsight, I realized that he probably had bigger ideas in mind. He wanted to help me develop that talent like my father would have helped me develop that talent.
One time when my mom picked me up at his house, I remember him walking out and he started talking to my mom and telling her how good he thought I was it understanding the measurements and different things, and that I'd even caught a few mistakes that he'd made by not subtracting the width of the board of plywood or something like that. I remember feeling really proud that, yeah, this is something I'm good at. And that stuck with me. It gave me a lot of confidence.
I know that it probably would have just been easier for him to have an older kid or his wife even, just hold some plywood and push it through the table saw. But it meant a lot to me to have that time with him. There's a great ending to that story: because of that mentorship, I actually became pretty good at building stuff and working with my hands. When I was 14, I helped my younger brother build his car his last year of Pinewood Derby, and that car took second place in the pinewood derby that year. It's just a great rag to riches story and I was super proud of that.
One of the great memories I have of our adolescence was we had an incredible ward with a terrific bishop who was very involved. We had an incredible young men and young women's program. It was incredible because there were leaders that took the time to really dedicate themselves to giving us activities and opportunities that took a lot of work on their end. I knew at the time it took work, but now that I'm actually an adult myself, I know how much effort it took, and I'm amazed at the things they did.
When I was 14, our scout troop decided that we were going to bike from San Jose, California all the way down to Disneyland. It's about a 550-mile journey. We would be doing anywhere from 70 to 100 miles a day for an entire week. Let's just say I wasn't in the best shape as a 14-year-old, and I was going to need a lot of prep in order to be ready to do this bike hike. We did a lot of training rides as a ward group. But I remember I was pretty slow at first. My young men's leader would call me up and he'd schedule special rides after school. He and I would do 12 to 15 miles round trip up to the reservoir and back. That kind of one-on-one attention really meant a lot to me. I think it's one of the reasons I was able to be successful in completing that trip and to be honest that trip was a huge boost to my self-esteem growing up. We have a saying in our family that we can do hard things, and I look back at my childhood and that was something I could point to. Yes, if we put our mind to it, I can do hard things. I can even ride my bike all the way from San Jose to Disneyland.
Those things had a huge impact on our lives, and they were often at a great cost to the time that they had for their own family.
Every year we did a good scout activity. One of the trips we did was to the Grand Canyon. It was probably a week away total with the drives and the lead-up. And it was a fantastic trip. It made lifelong memories and lifelong friends for me and my brothers. But when we returned home, we pulled into this one particular leader’s, he was our scout leader. This leader particularly had dedicated himself to Casey, Jeff, and I in filling that void. He’d really gone out of his way and done a lot for us that was a great sacrifice, I realize now. We pulled into his house, and I'll never forget his wife, who was a wonderful woman, came out and holding their toddler daughter, maybe she wasn't even a toddler yet, and the baby was crying in total meltdown mode. And she came out charging out of the house holding the baby in outstretched arms and in tears says to him, “This baby hates me.” And she proceeds to hand the baby over, and then just kind of collapses in tears of what had obviously been a very trying week on her own without any support, and no way to even vent on the phone like we would now.
And I remember feeling terrible that this was my fault like I had been one who contributed to this tension, and to him being away from home. I remember quickly grabbing my stuff and saying thanks for the week by and taking off. That stuck with me.
Years later I was in a very similar spot. I was a scoutmaster. At the time my wife, we had four kids under the age of five including newborn twins, and I'm a scoutmaster. Every time I’m at one of these things my wife Rebecca is home with these kids. And one day I had to camp out and I was just feeling total stress for her and our life. Not to mention work, and all the other things going on and fighting the traffic to get the hour drive home to get to this campout. And I remember I'd go home, get all my gear and throw it in the car. I wasn't in a great mood. The kids are all screaming. I feel terrible I'm leaving my wife again. She's stoic about it; she's not complaining, but I know this is really difficult.
I jump in my car head down to this Coast Guard base where we're having the campout. And I get to the gate and they won't allow me in because I have not put my new insurance card in the car. I'm expired by a month and, of course, I'm still insured but they won't let me on the base. So this was like my apoplectic moment my meltdown in the driveway. I just said, “You've got to be kidding me.” I drive all the way home, and I have to go into the house again, and it's a little bit in turmoil. I have to say goodbye to the kids again. I just kind of had my own meltdown moment that was very similar to the meltdown moment that my scoutmaster’s wife had had decades before. I'm thinking I just don't want to do this anymore I need to be with my family. And it was at that moment while I'm having this meltdown that I remembered what that leader had done for me. I remembered the sacrifices he had made for me were critical in my development in who I was now, and the roles I'd taken on in the Church, the leadership, the priesthood growth. I'm blessed to have an incredible wife who said no get back and go to the troop.
And I'm just so grateful those men who gave me an example so that I could take the baton. I stand on their shoulders now. I'm trying to be somebody that has an impact in the lives of our youth now, especially those who were like me who don't have maybe a father figure in the home.
That was Brian and Casey Blake. I love this story. And I love hearing brothers tell it together. I also love that it is a long story, really a lifelong story because losing your father creates a hole that never quite goes away. As I've thought about the story this week it actually reminded me about this thing in storytelling called the hero's journey. You might remember that from a high school English class. It's a common story arc in mythology and superhero tales, and it often comes in the form of a quest to find a father who is somehow missing whether physically or emotionally. That theme of seeking for a father is huge in the books and movies that we love. Think about it. From The Odyssey to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, there's Superman, and even Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Basically, every story that has ever had an exploding planet can be added to the list of this archetype.
It makes so much sense to me that this is a reoccurring theme in the narratives that we've shared throughout the ages because the hero's journey and specifically this "father quest" is the journey of this life. We are the hero of our own story and were sent here to Earth with a deep and cosmic longing to understand who we are, where we came from, what we're capable of becoming, and what we're going to do with the gift of our life. And the key to that discovery is to step onto the path of adventure as we seek for and find our Heavenly Father. In doing that we'll discover His traits and Divine Nature and ourselves.
In some cases, we're blessed with an earthly father who can offer us a positive starting point to our understanding of who God is and by extension who we are as His children. But Casey and Brian's story is a sweet and important reminder that in times when our earthly father isn't there to give us that gift, or perhaps can't because he's battling demons in the valley of his own hero's journey, our Father in Heaven will send help so that we can find Him. He'll send his armies to ward off our enemies, seen and unseen, and He'll send guides to show us hidden paths and tutors to teach us what we can't learn any other way.
It makes me look at the people around me with new eyes. Who might need more from me? And how can what I have, fill their need? How can I be the help that God would send?
Maybe even my simplest offering could be transformative. Casey is one of the producers of this podcast so I happen to know that he is an excellent woodworker, and I've seen some of the beautiful walnut bookshelves that he's made. And now that I've heard this story I love to think that maybe the beginning of his belief in himself as someone capable of building walnut shelves was that comment from a ward member who took just a minute to notice Casey's talent and to compliment him on it. A small act, probably not something that ward member even remembers doing, but it blossomed into a lifetime of a beloved hobby and skill that I know Casey continues to use to serve those around him. And even more than that, maybe that moment showed Casey that he is a creator just like his father.
I think it's safe to say that we all have times when we feel close to Heavenly Father like He's just around the corner grilling on the barbecue. And then, of course, there are other times when we can't seem to find Him anywhere and we feel fatherless as we make our sad pinewood derby car alone. I think that's just honestly a natural consequence of being separated from God in this life. Those ups and downs are normal. But the good news of the gospel is that as we seek Him He promises that we will find Him. And in doing so, we will finally be conquerors heroes in the story of our own spiritual lives.
That's it for this episode. Our deep gratitude to Casey and Brian for sharing their stories, and thank you for listening. We'll have a link in our show notes at ldsliving.com/thisisthegospel to some of those photos of the Blake family.
If you have a story to share about living the gospel, we'd love to hear it. Call us on our pitch line at (515) 519-6179. You'll have three minutes to leave us a message with a short synopsis of your story. If your story is something that fits one of the themes we're working on for upcoming episodes, we may give you a call so make sure you leave your name and your phone number. And of course, be sure to check out past episodes of this podcast and the All In podcast at ldsliving.com/podcasts or on the Deseret Bookshelf Plus app. This episode was produced and edited by Sarah Blake, Casey Blake, Katie Lambert, Davey Johnson, and me, Corinne Lee. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix it Six Studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. Have a wonderful week.