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Cover image: “Wagon Trail” by Granger.

After the Teton Dam broke and flooded the valley, everyone busily worked to help those who had been affected. My dad owned both a large farm and a business selling farm equipment, and the tractors were quickly put to use moving mountains of mud and debris. My oldest brothers ran those.

My brothers just older than me helped dig mud out of houses and do other cleanup work. I was in my mid-teens, and I was the youngest one who was still old enough to take on the farm work at home. While they were off helping, I was left milking cows, changing pipe, and fixing fence. At times, my dad would also have me come in and help do mechanic work at his farm business as the amount of repair work on damaged machinery was overwhelming for the workers. I really wanted to be out helping those affected by the flood like my brothers were, but my father said he needed me too much.

There was only one thing that I was able to do that made me feel a little like I was helping in the recovery effort. My mother was in charge of distributing the food that came to the local church building. When a big shipment arrived, she would call and tell me they needed my help. I would then unload truckloads of flour, sugar, and canned goods.

I was often up before five a.m. and worked until well after dark to keep up with the extra chores I needed to do while my brothers were gone. But each day, when they came home and told stories about who they had helped, I would feel less and less like my contributions were of any value. One day I could stand it no longer, and I begged my dad to let me go with them.

He smiled and asked, “Son, which wagon do you think is the most important wagon in the wagon train?”

I couldn’t see what that had to do with anything, but I answered, “The first one. It’s the one leading the way, showing everyone where to go.”

He shook his head. “The first one is actually the second most important. The most important one is the last wagon, even though that is the one that no one ever hears about, and it is the one that gets everyone else’s dust.”

That seemed crazy to me. But my father explained. “When they choose those who will be in the last wagon, they look for the ones who are the bravest and most reliable. They have to watch over everyone. They must make sure no one is left behind. They have to help those who struggle or grow weary. They usually carry the greatest burden, having to deal with other people’s challenges along with their own.

“But most importantly,” my dad continued, “they must be willing to give their lives for everyone else. You see, if an attack comes, it will almost always come at the back of the wagon train. Those in the last wagon must be the ones who are always on guard and can hold off the attackers until the others have time to circle up and form a defense. Quite often, in so doing, those in the last wagon give their lives so that the others might live. And they usually do it with little or no recognition.”

As I pondered this, my dad continued. “Right now, you are the last wagon. You are the one that picks up the pieces so your brothers can help others. I know that while they may be receiving praise for the great work they are doing, you receive almost no recognition at all. But without your efforts, they couldn’t do it.”

I thought a lot about that back then, and I have ever since. Now, when I am just a person in the choir and not the soloist, when I am the person in the play helping move the set, and I am not the star, or when I am the person on the committee doing the hard work while others receive the recognition, I simply remember the last wagon in the wagon train. And then I am okay with being the last wagon.