There is a certain category of life-experiences that I refer to as “Twenty-Mark Note” stories. The name for these experiences comes from a talk by the same name, given by President Packer at BYU-Idaho in 2002 (excerpted below). I suspect that once you read President Packer’s remarks, you’ll immediately recall your own Twenty-Mark experiences:
I very seldom entitle talks, at least before I give them, but this one is entitled, “The Twenty-Mark Note.”
That title comes from an experience that I had something over 30 years ago. I was assigned with then-Elder Thomas S. Monson to organize Servicemen’s Stake Europe for the military servicemen in all of Europe. We met at Berchtesgaden, Germany, a resort high in the Bavarian Alps…
After we had finished setting apart and completing that organization in Germany, we were assigned to go to Berlin to a stake conference…
That night near 10:00, two missionary elders came to the airport [where we were to catch a plane to Berlin]. We knew then that the planes would not fly [because of the fog]. They told us there was a train leaving Munich for Berlin at midnight. They took us to the mission home. My wife rummaged through the kitchen, found some canned soup, and made us a quick supper. The elders took us to the train station, bought our tickets, and saw us aboard the train which would take from about midnight until about 10:00 the next morning to arrive in Berlin.
As the train was pulling out, one young elder said, “Do you have any German money?” I shook my head, no. He said, “You better have some,” and, running along side, pulled from his pocket a twenty-mark note. He handed that to me.
At that time the Iron Curtain was very “iron.” The train stopped at Hof on the border between West Germany and East Germany, and they changed crews. All of the West German crew members got off the train, and the East German Communist crew got on the train. Then it set out across East Germany toward Berlin.
They had just begun to issue five-year passports. I had a new passport–a five-year passport. We went to have my wife’s passport renewed. They sent it back saying that the three-year passports were honored as a five-year passport, that she still had more than two years left on her passport.
About two o’clock in the morning, a conductor, a military-type soldier, came and asked for our tickets, and then, noting that we were not German, he asked for our passports. I always hate to give up my passport. I do not like to give up my passport, especially in unfriendly places. But he took them. I almost never dislike anybody, but I made an exception for him! He was a surly, burly, ugly man.
We spoke no German. In the car, the compartment, there were six of us–my wife and a German sitting to the side of her and then almost knee to knee in a bench facing us were three other Germans. We had all been conversing a little. When he came in, all was silent.
The conversation took place, and I knew what he was saying. He was denying her passport. He said, “Drei Jahren!”
And I said, “Five Jarhen!”
He went away and came back two or three times. Finally, not knowing what to do, I had a bit of inspiration and produced that twenty-mark note. He looked at it, he took the note, and handed us our passports.
The next morning when we arrived in Berlin, a member of the Church, who was the head of the Central Intelligence Agency for the United States in Berlin, met us at the train. I rather lightly told him of our experience. He was very sober, very suddenly. I said, “What’s the matter?”
He said, “I don’t know how to explain your getting here. East Germany right now is the one country in the world that refuses to honor the three-year passport. To them, your wife’s passport was not valid.”
I said, “Well, what could they have done?”
He answered, “Put you off the train.”
I said, “They wouldn’t put us off the train, would they?”
He said, “Not us, her!”
I could see myself having someone try to put my wife off the train at about two o’clock in the morning somewhere in East Germany. I am not sure I would know what to do. I am glad that passed.
I did not learn until afterwards how dangerous it was and what the circumstances were, particularly for my wife. I care a good deal more about her than I do for me. That intelligence officer convinced us that we had been in very serious danger. Those whose passports they would not accept were arrested and detained.
All of this comes to this point: the elder who handed me the twenty-mark note was David A. Bednar, a young elder serving in the then-South German Mission, who sits here on the stand as president of BYU-Idaho.
So, why was it that this young elder from San Leandro, California, handed me the twenty-mark note? If you understand that and understand what life is about, you will understand really all you need to know about life as members of the Church. You will understand how our lives are really not our own. They are governed–if we will and if we live as we should live–then we will be taken care of.
Different people get different things out of a Twenty-Mark story. Sometimes, these experiences give us a glimpse of the awesomeness of a decision to surrender our agency. They might be moments when we finally understand why it was important to heed a particular spiritual prompting. Maybe we could call these experiences “tender mercies” of the Lord – stories that remind us we’re being watched over. Sometimes, a Twenty-Mark story makes us believe in the ministry of angels – of “heavenly help” or angels not from the other side of the veil. They are perhaps the moments when we finally realize that by letting ourselves be governed, we let ourselves be taken care of.