The Rainbow Correction

Earlier this month, we had a spell of very odd weather in Salt Lake City. It would be sunny, and then it would rain, and then it would be sunny again, all in the course of a few hours. Traditionally in this part of the country, if it rains, it’s gloomy all day. It’s consistent and reliable, like a Swiss watch. (Not so much like a Swiss person, of course, as the Swiss are notoriously deceitful and untrustworthy.)

But one plus side of this unusual weather pattern is that when the clouds dissipate and the sun emerges following a spring rain, you can sometimes see rainbows. I’ve seen three rainbows in the past couple weeks; I don’t think I’d seen one in a decade before that.

The downside, however, is that whenever I see a rainbow, I’m afraid my mom is dead.

Believe me, this makes perfect sense. In the late 1970s, the Mormon Church (of which I’m a member) produced film strips for young people telling stories of an inspirational and/or doctrinal nature. This was before VCRs, and film strips were cheaper to produce than actual movies. So you’d have this series of still photos run through a projector, with an accompanying cassette tape providing the soundtrack. Every time you’d hear a “BEEP” on the tape, you’d advance the film one frame further.

Everyone wanted to be in charge of the film projector, because it carried with it a sense of power. It was almost like directing the movie yourself, except the actors weren’t moving, and there was a “BEEP” telling you when to do things. But still. The problem with letting ordinary kids run the projector was that ordinary kids can be as undependable and shifty as a Swiss person, and it was often unclear which frame the strip should be on when the tape was started anyway, and so the pictures being projected were often out of sync with the soundtrack. Perceptive children such as myself would know almost immediately that we were off-track, but we were powerless to act, as the projector had been entrusted to someone else. Eventually there would be an obvious misalignment — the narrator would say, “Billy had fun sinning and carrying on in a shameful manner,” but the picture projected would match what he was ABOUT to say, which was, “but soon he felt sorry and remorseful” — and the projectionist would advance a frame or two and catch up. But in the meantime, the soundtrack not matching the images made it impossible to pay attention to the principles being taught, the same way you cannot listen to a sermon delivered by someone whose tie is crooked or whose hair looks funny. (I’m not the only one, right?)

When I was in charge of the projector, I ran a tight ship, let me tell you. I also was not afraid to put my own cinematographic touches on the experience. For example, there was a film called “Leon’s Truck,” in which a teenage boy saves money to buy a truck only to subsequently wreck it by drinking and driving. When the storyteller said that Leon was drunk, and the accompanying picture showed Leon in an inebriated state, I turned the focus knob on the projector so that Leon and his surroundings looked appropriately fuzzy. This earned a laugh, yes, but I think it also taught a valuable lesson about drinking and driving.

Anyway, probably the most famous film strip of that era was called “Families are Forever,” more popularly known as “I’ll Build You a Rainbow.” The doctrine being taught was that families can continue to be together as a family unit in the afterlife, too, and that we therefore need not be so frightened of death. (Assuming we were righteous, of course. Naughty people should still be afraid.)

“Families are Forever” was a story told in music. The verses were spoken while an acoustic guitar and strings underscored them; then the storyteller would break into the chorus, which was sung. The story was about an 11-year-old boy named Jamey whose best friend in the whole world was his mom. She played football and went on bike rides with him and stuff, and all the other kids on the block said they wished their moms were like Jamey’s mom. I’m only guessing here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them thought she was hot. I’m just sayin’.

Well, then, wouldn’t you know it, she died. Jamey got called home from school early one day and when he arrived, there was an ambulance in the driveway. He went in to see his mom, and she was in bed, and she told him she was dying. The song doesn’t tell us what she had, but apparently it came on suddenly. Food poisoning, maybe, or bubonic plague. Anyway, Jamey’s all, “You just can’t die, Mom! You just can’t!” And she tells him not to worry, because families are forever, and she’ll be in heaven waiting for him and watching over him, and he’s like, “But how will I know that you’re really in heaven?” And she thinks a minute, and then the singer bursts into the chorus:

“I’ll build you a rainbow way up high above,
Send down a sunbeam plumb full of love,
Sprinkle down raindrops, teardrops of joy,
I’ll be happy as springtime watching over my boy.”

And then she dies and they haul her away in the ambulance. Jamey and his dad are standing in the driveway and Dad starts crying and Jamey looks up and sure enough, right up there in the sky is one hell of a big rainbow, and Jamey goes, “Dad, Dad, it’s all right: Families are forever!” And then the chorus returns, this time with backup singers:

“I’ll build you a rainbow (I’ll build you a rainbow) way up high above,
Send down a sunbeam plumb full of love,
Sprinkle down raindrops (sprinkle down raindrops), teardrops of joy,
I’ll be happy in heaven watching over my boy.”

And that’s when YOU CRY. No matter who you are, no matter how funny you think the phrase “plumb full of love” is, no matter what kind of a heartless jerk you are, when Jamey looks up and sees that rainbow and tells his dad families are forever, YOU WILL CRY.

Doctrinally, I’m not sure how sound the story is. Not the part about families being together in the afterlife, because I believe that, but the part where newly deceased mothers can barge into heaven and start flinging rainbows around willy-nilly. Don’t you have to get approval for that sort of thing? Do people who have just arrived in heaven even know HOW to build rainbows? Besides, there must hundreds of mothers dying every day. They couldn’t let them ALL build rainbows, or the skies would be a never-ending kaleidoscope — but if the moms DON’T build rainbows, will their distraught families assume that means they didn’t make it to heaven?

For that matter, what if Mom does go to hell? Could she send word of that development to her family, too, perhaps to warn them not to follow in her footsteps? “I’ll build you a forest fire”? “I’ll build you a devastating hurricane”? “I’ll build you some puppies with deformities”?

I imagine Jamey’s mom approaching the first person she sees in heaven and saying this:

“Hi, hey, listen, um, I just got here, and — what? Oh, food poisoning … yeah, out of nowhere, really, surprised us all — anyway, so I just got here, and — it’s kind of embarrassing, really — but I sorta promised my kid that I’d, um, build him a rainbow? You know, a rainbow? So he could, like, know that I’m here and everything? So … who do I talk to about that? Is there, like, a department or whatever? Do I need a permit? Are there forms to fill out…?”

While we’re on the subject of songs that are supposed to make you cry whose doctrine I find questionable, there’s the recent sappy, crappy country hit “Christmas Shoes” (not to be confused with “Live Like You Were Dyin’,” “Already There,” or any of the other sappy, crappy country hits that are produced at the rate of one song per week). It’s about a guy standing in line in a store at Christmastime, and this filthy urchin in front of him is buying a pair of women’s shoes, which he declares to be for his mother:

“Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please
It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there’s not much time
You see she’s been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight”

Because, what, Jesus can’t abide a barefoot woman? Or a woman who has shoes on that aren’t beautiful? And who says Mama will be wearing shoes when she gets to heaven anyway? I believe the old saying is, “You can’t take it with you.” Does that not apply to shoes? Is there supposed to be an asterisk next to it?

You can’t take it with you.*
*(except shoes)

Anyway, the kid in the song winds up getting the singer to buy him the shoes, because of course he’s too poor to pay for them himself. I picture him thanking the man profusely, then hurrying out the door with the shoes to his mother, who’s waiting in the car, smoking a cigarette:

“What took you so long? Here, let’s see ’em … What, these are the best you could find?! Pumps! I told you pumps! These are heels! I can’t wear these, they make my feet hurt, you stupid brat! You better get it right at the next store. And would it kill you to cry a little? See if you can get someone to give you some cash, too. Mama can’t buy lottery tickets with shoes.”

And my question is, does this make me a bad person?

This column follows a circuitous route to its eventual point, and then turns out not to have one anyway. Long-time "Snide Remarks" fans will recognize this sloppy pattern as being the norm for those beloved old Daily Universe-era columns (1997-1999), and I confess a certain fondness for it, too, even though disorganization and random tangents technically make me a bad writer, not a good one.

After years of believing the original recording of "I'll Build You a Rainbow" to be completely unavailable except on musty old cassette tapes, I found it online, complete with the original film strip that accompanied it! Bless the people at All About Mormons.

However, this is not the complete version. The version that was on the "Gates of Zion" cassette tape that I can't find anymore had a different climax. The one I linked to just has Jamie remembering what his mom said and telling his dad, "It's OK! Families are forever!" The REAL version has them looking up in the sky and seeing the rainbow. I mean, that's kind of the whole point, right? I don't know why it's abbreviated in that link, but it's the best we can do for right now.

(Also, my memory is that the man sings by himself at first, and the backup singers join him later, as indicated in the column. The version of the song I just linked to, however, suggests the backup singers are there all along.)

At a Christmas party five months before this column ran, the host and hostess performed "Christmas Shoes" with the express purpose of mocking it. They even made a cue card with the lyrics so that we could join in on the chorus. It was the high point of my holiday season.

It turns out the song wasn't particularly recent. It was first recorded by NewSong in 2000, and then the next year by 3 of Hearts. Both did well on the country charts. In 2002, CBS aired a TV movie based on the song, and it resurfaced. Apparently it was still being (over-)played during the 2004 holiday season.

I was putting the finishing touches on this column in the presence of my Fat Brother Jeff, who read some of it over my shoulder and insisted I include a reference to rainbow-building "permits." We also had a discussion of an asterisk next to "You can't take it with you," so that's where that came from.

An unfortunate coincidence to my baseless attack on Swiss people is that I happen to know a Swiss person, and she's married to my grandfather, and she's perfectly upstanding. But the expression is "as reliable as a Swiss watch," so I had to go with it. No harm intended (not that Grandma II has Internet access anyway).

(Also, do you like how I said "of course" about Swiss people being dishonest, like everyone knows that? That's awesome.)