by Mark Smith (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
During 1971-73, our family lived in Avellino, a one hour drive into the mountains east of Naples. I was a captain in the US Air Force, the Comandante Americano of a communications facility located above the monastery at Monte Vergine. It was a beautiful location. One could see across the valley to historic Vesuvius and Pompeii. There were a hundred technicians assigned, about half of whom lived on the local economy with their families. Myself, my wife Linda, and our three young children, were the only Latter-day Saints in all of Avellino. We had to travel to the NATO base in Naples to attend the American Servicemen's Branch. Our branch president was Wayne Clay, an Air Force fighter pilot. Because of the long distance for many other families, we had a three hour block program several years before it was adopted church-wide.
In 1972, two missionaries (Elders Raymond and Stettler) knocked on our door. They had been sent to open Avellino for proselyting and needed our help. We did help, by setting up their apartment for living and worship services, and referring our friends. We had many American families over for dinner and to see the filmstrip, "Man's Search for Happiness." No one seemed interested at first, until the elders tracted out an American family that seemed golden to them. For the life of me, I couldn't imagine who they had found that we hadn't already introduced them to.
I was shocked to learn it was Gary and Jennifer Quillen!! Gary, nicknamed "Beef", was a cussing, smoking, drinking, big mean Kentuckian. A linesman on the military tackle football team in Naples, he was often in jail because of brawling with sailors. While drunk at site parties, he would taunt me that he was going to join my church. I was afraid of him and encouraged the elders to drop him. But he was sincere and encountered a lot of criticism from old friends as his study turned serious and he began going to church with us.
Several months later, I found myself in the elders' portable font baptizing Gary. He's been my best friend and our paths have crossed many times over the years. He and Jennifer had seven children. Three of their boys have served missions, all in Brazil at the same time!! The impact of the Quillen's conversion continues to bless the lives of many.
My third son, Matthew, was born in Italy and was later called to missionary service in Milan. Upon completion, my wife and I traveled back to Italy to escort him home. We returned to Avellino, looked up old friends, and drove the mountain road to the site. I was shocked to see it locked up and moth balled - obsolete because of new satellite communications technology. What had been a coveted military experience for me was now a rusty ghost town. And then I realized that the more important reason I'd been assigned there twenty years ago wasn't to be a commander, but to help a best friend find his way home.
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