Confession of a Canine Scripture Scout
by Marvin Payne
Did I ever write a column here that dealt with my species-change operation? You’d think I’d remember. It’s been fifteen years now since that event. (I probably shouldn’t say “event”–it actually was more of a process, involving a number of procedures over the length of many months, beginning in the winter of 1986. It must have been complete by 16 December of 1987, because my journal informs me that I confessed it that evening to a stunned group of close friends. It wasn’t particularly painful–the procedure, not the announcement–except for a lingering mild discomfort in my throat, which probably wasn’t really designed for barking.) The change caused a little bit of a stir. Some found it disturbing.
For example, I remember being interviewed on local radio in my new persona (animala?). Everything was going reasonably well when I suddenly found myself gnawing the (very bone-like) microphone. The station program director, a very conservative sort of guy, had a hard time with that.
I guess I shouldn’t try to blame circumstances, or excuse my choice on the grounds that I was far away from the stabilizing influence of home and family. But still, that’s how it happened. Unfortunately, a certain kind of guy, when he gets involved with the military, gets tattoos, starts using tobacco and refined sugar, and reverts to using some of the words he learned in junior high school (not everybody–some commence immediately to be all that they can be, but only if they believe in their hearts that they’re really an army of one, and, well, anyone with the intellectual will and creativity to believe in that notion can probably resist any temptation the Adversary may throw in their path). I think I may have similarly succumbed, and I wasn’t even enlisted.
I’d been hired to play some concerts for soldiers training at Ft. Benning, which is a sub-state of Georgia. (It was placed in Georgia because it wouldn’t have fit in Connecticut–or in any number of other states, but who can resist any excuse to write, speak, whisper, or merely ponder the spelling of “Connecticut”?) I was there for a weekend, but that’s all it took. On the third day, I found myself sitting on the lawn in my host’s backyard with a legal pad on my lap, recklessly mapping it all out.
Not only would I dare to become canine, I would surround myself with people who would accept me without question, with neither prejudice nor patronization, and who would never raise the awkward question, “Is this natural?” Because I retained enough sense to realize that such people couldn’t be found in the real world (remember, this was way back in 1986, and anyway, I’m not, for this particular column, considering either the executive district of San Francisco or the judicial district of Massachusetts part of the “real world”), I determined to invent these people, right there in the shadow of the dark Georgia woods. They would be children, no less: an unquestioning boy named Skyler, his co-conspirator in this charade, Sue, and a near-toddler in their thrall, Baby. And they would pretend it all could be real within the innocent walls of their tree house. Yeah… that just might work.
So began “Scripture Scouts,” at the prompting of one Larry Barkdull, creative entrepreneur who simply requested, “Something for kids about the scriptures, and we gotta have Melanie Hoffman songs.” Melanie and her musical wizard husband Roger (the title of whose song “Consider the Lilies” would one day grace the sides of busses in Utah, being the title-song of the Tabernacle Choir’s hit CD) joined with me in making a series of musical audio-adventures for children (if that didn’t make sense, imagine “radio plays”) about the Book of Mormon. Not long after we began, I was teamed with Janice Kapp Perry (who was already plenty famous without even the benefit of busses) and her able son Steven Kapp (Perry, of course. The “Kapp” is so people won’t confuse him with the lead singer in “Journey,” which I’m told is a group engaged in making young-people’s music). We dove into the wonders of the New Testament, and came up, spluttering with joy, with six more episodes.
I was the sheriff of the scripts for these adventures, directed the kid actors, and played, yes, the dog, Boo.
(Larry brought his three-year-old son Nathan with him to my studio one day. Larry and I had to talk some business. He had told Nathan that they were going to where Boo lives. My studio in those days was also a theatre, and Nathan immediately began searching the place for Boo, coming back periodically, discouraged. To keep him out of our hair–I had some, then–I would go out, duck behind some curtains, and bark something at him, whereupon he would look for a while longer and his dad and I would confer. This happened two or three times. Finally Larry had to give up the deceit. He called Nathan into the control room and said, “Nathan, do you know who this is?” Then I talked to him for a long time as Boo. His eyes were shining. When he got home, he ran to his mother and shouted breathlessly, “Mom, mom! I went with dad and we met a man who could talk just like Boo!” Well, what can ya do?)
Sometime during the New Testament series, Larry introduced me to Natalie Sleeth, a popular (nearly worshipped, I believe, in some quarters, although she will not hear and answer your prayers) Protestant composer who lived in Denver. You’ve heard her music, if not her name. Larry, a sometime music publisher, had hooked her up with the Tabernacle Choir and it was love at first sight. It boosted Larry’s stock significantly. So in time, she heard some Scripture Scouts and joined the team, canine collaborator notwithstanding. (Not only was it the only time she ever collaborated with someone from another species, it was the only time she ever collaborated with anybody. I felt kind of honored. We worked very closely, spending time together almost daily, wrestling out meanings and trying to capture them in our stories, but we never actually met face-to-face. On the phone, I tried to talk as much like a human as I could, but she never dared a meeting.) She and I made a series beginning in the Old Testament, and then she died, but not without writing several dozen yet unreleased songs to my story outlines for the next couple of unreleased series, because she wanted to go out writing Scripture Scouts.
There were others who weren’t offended at my species change. Some were so deeply unoffended that they mortgaged their farms in Idaho to help pay for it. I finally abandoned my last worry about it offending people when Deseret Book Company (not widely recognized as one of your more liberal and devil-may-care publishing houses) picked up the project and commissioned a new series on the Articles of Faith.
We (Hoffmans, Perrys, and Paynes) had a funny experience with Deseret Book Company one evening last week. They had, in 2003, released all the old Scripture Scouts episodes on CD, so we were invited to their annual “Thanks to the Authors” banquet on top of the church office building (well, not actually on top–I mean, it was still February, so they gathered us in the banquet room just under the top). The funny part is that we were sitting around tables with people who were fresh from finishing their 2003 releases, suffering so much from writer’s cramp that they were having difficulty operating their forks, and we were shoveling down Chicken Oscar as though we deserved it, even though we hadn’t done any work for Deseret Book for eleven years. They’re so nice they probably would have served us Purina Dog Chow if I’d asked.
This is why I’m reminded of my species-change operation now at Backstage Graffiti time. You see, in 2004 we’ll be up there again on the 26th floor around those tables, and probably get Purina for sure. This is because they’ve asked us to make another series of Scripture Scouts, this time about the Family Proclamation, which we have nearly completed. In fact, I should be in the other part of the studio right now, singing Boo’s songs for episode five. (This is the one about “wholesome recreational activities.” And wait ’til you hear the super-adventures of “Dadman” and “Nurturemom”!)
We love learning together about these treasures of the Restoration. Hugh Nibley said that if you can’t make something clear to a five-year-old, you probably don’t understand it yourself. So we’re trying to understand the proclamation. And emerging from that understanding is a strengthened resolve to repent (once the series is out, of course) of my species change. This scene, from episode two, helps me in that resolve:
BENNY At the reunion, Grandpa read us the Family Proclamation.
BABS Our treasure map!
BENNY Yup, and he said, “I want all you boys and girls to be happy with your gender!”
JEN Yeah! (sings)
Be happy with your gender,
it’s part of who you are,
like the wetness of the water
or the shining of a star.
BENNY Jen, you sound just like Grampa!
JEN You try. He’s you’re grampa, too!
BABS Mine too!
BENNY I got one! I got one!
BABS What? A gender?
BENNY No, a verse.
Be happy with your gender
whichever it may be,
’cause if you had no gender,
you’d be no he or she.
BABS Wow, I’m glad I’m a gender! It’s fun bein’ a girl!
BOO (to the tune) Woof woof woof woof woof woof woof…
KIDS Boo, whatcha doin’?
BOO Woof! Sounding like my grampa! I think.
Be happy with your gender,
it’s not an accident,
because your Father made you
the way that you were meant.
BABS You sing funny, Boo!
Be happy with your gender,
it’s in your DNA.
And that part never changes,
no matter what they say.
Be happy with your species,
’cause if you are a dog…
BOO Okay. Is gender important?
BABS It’s totally important at this reunion!
BOO How do ya know?
BABS Today they’re having a whole big meeting about genderology…
(back to the column)
Well, genders, species, let’s leave ’em alone. God knows best–although he may ask some odd things of us as we try to serve in his army.
Which reminds me, a kind of funny thing about Scripture Scouts is that, even though the whole thing got invented on a military base, the following realization, a creative year later, came as a surprise to me.
12 September 1987
“With all the adversity surrounding this Scripture Scout work, it never really hit me until about midnight last night that we really are at war with the Powers of Darkness, and they fight dirty. So this beautiful autumn afternoon I choose to do battle in the tree house, armed with my son Joshie’s little tape player, my new little scriptures, and my friend Rosanna’s little word processor. (The first scripts were penciled on a legal pad.)
“There is already evidence of weakness in the Enemy’s strategy. He arranged to have our telephone disconnected in order to dishearten us, but instead it has brought a marvelous peace into our headquarters. He has also foolishly made an ally of the power company, which could result in our defeating the television.
“I feel confident of a small victory today, although my sentinel in this tree house fortress, Frisky the cat, is asleep at his post.”
I suppose the fact that Frisky and I could coexist so amicably in the tree house might tend to betray this whole species-change thing as not entirely real. Okay, it’s not. You probably didn’t think so, anyway. And I think Frisky would agree with you.
But don’t tell Boo.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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