Sunday, May 25, 2008


The trip to Bolivia was long, but uneventful. We stopped in the middle of the night in Brazil at a large, modern, deserted airport and were able to deplane and stretch our legs. After traveling all day and through the night we finally landed in Santa Cruz where we walked down stairs to the tarmac to have our passports and visas checked by Bolivian immigration before proceeding on to La Paz.

Bolivia has two capitals. La Paz is the executive and legislative capital and the largest city in the country and is huge. Sucre is the judicial capital where the Supreme Court is located and is lower in the Andes and much smaller and laid back. I would wind up spending most of my mission in these two cities and all of it in the Andes mountains. The country is bordered on the west by the Andes mountains which separate it from Chile and Peru. It used to have a band of land that ran to the Pacific coast but it lost this state during a war with Chile and has been landlocked and without its own port ever since. In the northwest part of the country, starting at La Paz and extending across the border to Peru is the high plain or altiplano. This huge, arid plane is over 13,000 feet in elevation and is also the location of the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. Most of its major cities and population live in the high and rugged Andes mountains, but in the east the country falls away rapidly into the Amazon basin in the north and east where it borders Brazil and the plains of the Argentine plains or pampas and chaco in the south and south east where it borders Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Know today as a source of coca leaves and cocaine, historically Bolivia was known for its mines and as you travel across the altiplano and past the mining cities of Oruro and Potosi you see a landscape colorfully marked by enormous tailings from the mines that have hollowed out the surrounding mountains. Some of the mountains have had so much silver, copper, and lead removed that they were rumored to be dangerously unstable and in danger of collapse.

In La Paz we were met at the airport by the APs (assistants to the president or apes) and loaded in the mission's Toyota Land Cruisers. The airport was on the altiplano above the city and we got onto a modern looking cement freeway or autopista and headed to the city. We were told that the autopista was constructed with the help of the U.S. Navy's Seabees and it showed. It was smooth and well constructed, unlike most of the rest of the roads I saw in the country. Apparently the road, which was the only way into the city from the altiplano, used to get washed out nearly every year during the rainy season.

We abruptly reached the rim of a huge valley and saw the city spread out below us in steep, deep, brown bowl carved by erosion from the plain. Rows and rows of poor, brown adobe houses with corrugated steel roofs clung to the steep sides of the bowl and surrounded downtown like a grand stadium watching the bustling streets, markets, hotels, high rise office buildings, governmental building, cathedrals, and stadiums of the bustling capital. Unlike many cities, where the rich live in the heights overlooking the city, La Paz's wealthy lived at the bottom of the city where all of the infrastructure was located and the poor dug into the rocky hillsides with limited resources like water, sanitary sewers, and electricity. The poorest of the poor live near the rim of the valley called the ceja or eyebrow. We descended through neighborhoods of adobe houses clustered on the hillsides and into downtown where large, modern buildings rose from the valley floor. We checked into the 5 star Sheraton Hotel where we would be spending our first night in Bolivia.

The heart of the city is a bustling metropolis with modern high rise office buildings and hotels along with modern hotels, government buildings, a covered Olympic style swimming stadium, and a magnificent soccer stadium with a pitch of luscious grass that is blindingly green compared to the bland browns and grays of the rest of the city. Like much of latin america, there is a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor and a very small, almost non-existent middle class. As missionaries, we rarely were invited into the homes of the wealthy and did nearly all of our work with the large number of poor people.

Because of the altitude and aridity of the climate not much grows in La Paz. Grass was rare and sparse. The only trees in the city were eucalyptus trees near the ceja. I don't think they are native to Bolivia, but they seemed to thrive where they were planted and provided welcome greenery.

My mission president was a short, rotund, gruff Argentine. We had dinner with him at the hotel and interviews with him. I don't remember much about him because I only met him twice during my mission. He warned us about what we should and should not eat so we could avoid sickness. He then somewhat ominously told us to make sure to get medical care as soon as we got sick and to not let things get bad hoping that the Lord would heal us and allow us to continue to work. Specifically, I remember him telling us to not wait until we were pooping blood to get medical care. That stuck with me and I was always worried about crapping blood. This turned out to be very good advice that I took to heart. It wasn't very long before, despite being careful of my diet and hygiene, I was sick with worms. I had parasites and other intestinal infections nearly continuously during my stay in Bolivia, but at the first signs of illness I always got tested and immediately started taking appropriate medicines. In the end I left the country with a ravaged intestinal tract but without having lost very much weight.

We were met the next day by the apes and given our assignments. Some of the greenies would be flying out to other cities but I was staying in La Paz to work in the Obrajes area. The ape said, “It's a very nice area. Enjoy it because it will be all downhill from there.” My companion came to pick me up, but at the last minute he was diverted by the apes where there was some animated discussion. They came over and informed me that there had been a last minute change of plans and that I would have a different companion. I later learned that my original companion had been caught kissing a girl that lived in the house where he stayed and that when his companion found out he was getting a greenie he had ratted him out. So, instead of getting Elder Amore, I got Elder Brinks. But until they figured out what hell hole Amore should be sent to I had both Amore and Brinks as companions.

I gathered my luggage and headed to the lobby. The porters kept us from leaving until the tab was settled at the front desk and while I was there I was greeted by some of the missionaries. Many were sunburned, scruffy and dirty. They were working up in El Alto on the altiplano above the city. Apparently the living conditions were primitive there and the missionaries would come down each week to the El Gloria Hotel to take showers. “If I were you I'd slit my wrists now,” said one with a wry smile. Then they found out I was going to Obrajes. With jealous looks they told me to enjoy, but it would only make the rest of my mission worse by raising my expectations.

With such pleasantries we walked out to the street to go to my first area. Normally the missionaries road on the micros, or buses, but with my luggage we hailed a taxi, a dirty, beat up Nissan compact car. We wound down the main street along a dirty river lower and lower into the city. We turned off the main road at what appeared to be a large supermarket onto a road paved with stones and stopped at the base of a large hill with a steep dirt path running up it. Apparently this was it. I could see nice, stucco houses at the top of the hill and we climbed the hill to one of them.

Our house was owned by a divorced woman who belonged to the church and lived there with her two teenage sons, parents, and maid. It was a nice two story house made with a steel reinforced concrete frame and the hollow red clay bricks used to build nicer houses. The walls were covered with white stucco and the house was surrounded by a high wall topped with glass from broken beer and soda bottles. Inside the house was as nice, maybe nicer, than my home. It had wood parquet floors, nice furnishings, a living room, dining room, family room, bathroom, kitchen, and separate servants quarters in the corner of the small backyard. We lived in an airy, second story, corner room with large windows and a closet with two nice beds. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


As I prepared to enter the mission field one of my biggest concerns was getting along with companions. I've always been a bit of a loner and for whatever reason I never really felt comfortable socially and had a problem making friends (a problem that continues to this day).

You'd never know it from looking at me today, but I was always on the small side. My birthday was one day before the school cutoff so I started kindergarten when I was 4 going on 5 and was always the youngest kid in my class with some kids nearly a year older than me. The problem became worse in high school when my body matured late and slowly leaving me probably the last pre-pubescent boy in the locker room. I also graduated a year early from high school so for my last two years I was going to classes with the class ahead of me and was sometimes two years younger than my classmates.

For some reason, when I was in kindergarten the public school decided I was "too motivated" and eager to learn and decided to put me in a slowed down class in first grade so I wouldn't become bored and drop out in high school. It doesn't make sense to me, but that is apparently what they told my parents who pulled me and my siblings out of public schools and enrolled us in a small private Christian school that was initially run by a Baptist church and later by a large evangelical church. I didn't go to public schools again until junior high school so I received six years of education that included daily prayer, Bible study, and scripture memorization.

I grew up in Iowa where Mormons were a rarity. My father was a member of the John Birch Society so I was raised with a "unique" political perspective full of patriotism, nationalism, and international conspiracy theories. My parents were also strong believers in fringe medical practices such as chiropractic, mega-vitamin therapy, and laetrile. My father's convictions were strong and he wanted to share them so my siblings and I could often be seen going through the neighborhood on weekends distributing hundreds of JBS political pamphlets. We attended church every Sunday for up to 5 hours, during the week, and at other special church occasions. I wasn't allowed to play with friends or watch TV on Sunday in order to keep the Sabbath holy. All of my parents friends were either members of the church or JBS members. We barely knew or associated with our neighbors and since I didn't attend public school I didn't know any kids in the neighborhood except for my best friends who lived in a duplex behind our house.

At home things I was raised by parents who were conscientious and caring but demanding, emotionally detached, often harsh, and sometimes violent. Hugs, kisses, and expressions of affection or love were rare, but discipline was omnipresent. My father's skinny dress belt was feared, but hair brushes and wooden spoons were also favorite instruments of punishment. At one school ball they had little paddle balls that have a bouncy ball connected by a rubber ball. We made the mistake of bringing them home only to have them turned into spanking paddles. We never made that mistake again. One spanking ended in the emergency room when my sister stuck her hand behind to protect her butt and wound up with a broken finger. My spankings ended on the day I tried an experiment. I figured it would only work if I cried or showed pain. So, as my mother laid into me with the belt I started laughing. The harder she spanked the harder I laughed and the more I laughed the angrier I got until I was laying face down on the bed laughing until tears streamed down my face while she hit me as hard and as fast as she could. After she tired I got up much sorer, but with the satisfaction of having beaten her by not giving her what she wanted. I never got spanked again.

One of my earliest memories, when I was four or five, was being in bed and hearing my father yelling angrily at my mother. The yelling got louder and louder as my mother retreated from the living room, through the kitchen, and neared the back of the house where I shared a bedroom with my brother. My father hit or pushed my mother and I saw her fall on the ground cowering outside my bedroom as he towered over her yelling and holding his fist up.

My father claims he had a wonderful upbringing. I guess that is his perception. But his parents separated and divorced shortly after he was born. His father joined the Navy and his mother didn't want him and his brother so he spent his childhood being raised by his aunts and uncles and later by his alcoholic mother and step father and itinerant father and step mother. As a teenager his mother tried to get custody of his older brother, but didn't want him if my father came as part of the package. Both my uncle and my father boxed in high school and my father was actually a golden gloves boxer. I don't know what that says about their upbringing, but it seems strange that both would choose such a violent sport. My parents married when my dad was 18 and my mother 17. Soon his older brother joined the Mormon church and my father and mother soon followed him. Then he joined the Air Force and served his entire career in the military. Despite their young marriage and the problems in the house, they have remained together for more than 50 years.

I always believed that religion had a rehabilitative effect on my father. He could be a monster when he lost his temper, but the discipline of religious observance made him aspire to constantly improve himself. Unfortunately, I don't think he had any role models for normal family life growing up and so his ideals were formed based on church talks, church lessons, and church media that presented a highly idealized, but hardly realistic representation of the challenges of real life and solutions that worked. I think this resulted in him becoming extremely frustrated that despite his efforts his family was never like what he thought it should be. Those frustrations only seemed to grow and I grew older.

I had what I guess could be best described as a disciplined, hard working childhood. We worked hard around the house and in additional to normal chores also did major tasks such as reroofing and painting the house and doing all of our own auto maintenance and repairs. My father could be extremely tolerant and patient, but when his he finally lost his temper it was a terrible thing to witness. I never saw him lose his temper in public, but it became increasingly frequent as I got older and the challenges me and my siblings presented to him became harder for him to deal with. Remember that he was 6 foot 4 inches and 175 very solid pounds, a former golden gloves boxer, and a fighter pilot who had to stay fit by regularly running and working out at the YMCA.

Two episodes stand out. He started yelling at my mother and doing who knows what, but she ran to their bedroom and locked the door. He chased her and when confronted with the locked door he simply kicked it open and followed her in. I don't know what happened after that; I was hiding with my sisters in the farthest room in the house until he calmed down.

Everyone in the house lived in fear of my father and tried to avoid angering him. I learned by watching the abuse of my older brother that you really couldn't win a direct confrontation with my father so I learned avoidance. But I didn't like the feeling of helplessness I felt both at home and at school. I was brainy, but wanted the popularity of the jocks so I always went out for sports despite my small size and rather conspicuous absence of athletic talent. When everyone else grew and I didn't I finally got tired of getting pummeled and quit football. After the season I signed up for wrestling. Part of it was a desire to get an athletic letter and I figured I had a chance against people my own size. But part of it was also to be able to defend myself both against bullies at school, but especially from my father's anger and abuse.

During my last year of high school my sister did something to upset my dad. I think she was sleeping in on a Saturday and he wanted her to get up and do chores. He finally resorted to trying to drag her out of her bed and a fight ensued. She ran to the bathroom and locked the door. He stood pounding on the door and yelling for her to unlock the door. His anger built into a roaring fury and when she didn't come out he simply kicked the door open and shattered the door and jamb. By now I'd grown some, although I was still dwarfed by my father, but more importantly I'd gathered a hard won physical confidence on the wrestling mats and was quite strong for my size and able to use my leverage effectively. I steeled myself and walked into the bathroom to find my sister cowering and screaming hysterically in the bathtub and my father with both hands around her throat trying to drag her out. I walked up behind him, grabbed him around the waist, and carried him out into the kitchen. When I set him down he started yelling at me and I stood inches from his lightning eyes and yelled up into his face. I wondered if I was next, but he stormed off and eventually calmed down. He knew he was in the wrong, but this was also the first time I'd ever seen anyone stand up to him.

I don't remember him ever apologizing for such episodes. In fact, after the bathroom incident I remember piecing the door and door jamb back together with wood glue and clamps since it was the only bathroom in the house and it was a little difficult to use when you couldn't close and fasten the door. Locks in our house only seemed to result in broken doors, not safety, so to prevent future lockins and breakage I disabled the lock on the handle when I put everything back together. He never offered to help and in fact his bedroom door was still broken and without a door knob when we moved from that house.

I was a brainy, skinny, small, afraid kid who wanted to be athletic, respected, and sure of myself. So I participated in sports and for my whole life I lifted weights to try to remodel my naturally slim frame. When I graduated from high school I was 6'1" and 145 pounds. Two years later when I left on my mission I was still lean, but I weighed 165. At 43 I am 6'2" and my lean body weight is up to 185 meaning that if I wasn't such a fat ass I'd still weigh a lean 200+ pounds instead of 225.

While I was a freshman at BYU I made an interesting discovery. Someone said something mean to me and not having a sharp wit for comebacks I gave him a dirty look. I was surprised when he looked a little afraid at my angry look and apologized. Hmmm. I started perfecting my glare. Soon my motto became, "A smile is much more disarming when preceded by a scowl." With no friends to lose I got a perverse pleasure out of trying to be intimidating. Not really very cool, I guess, but it did have its moments.

One day I came into the Morris Center cafeteria. My friends and brother were sitting at a table and I greeted them with my nastiest look. One of my buddies said, "Here comes the president of ACBAC." Huh? Apparently I'd been appointed in absentia as the found and president of the A. C. Bad Ass Club. I found it uproariously funny that someone had noticed.

Anyway, what does this have to do with my mission? In many ways my life was ideal preparation for a mission. I was used to hard work and discipline. My social isolation made me need to belong to something. The church was my comfort zone and my support structure and made up for deficiencies at home. I was used to rules and discipline. I was physically fit. I was well educated.

However, I knew my social limitations and problems with roomates at BYU meant that I was concerned with being able to get along with companions. In fact, my biggest concern when I entered the MTC was whether or not I'd be able to keep from killing a comp during my mission.

Finally, this might explain some episodes later in my mission where without trying I apparently became feared as something of an intimidating enforcer by some of the missionaries. I'll save that for another tale.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I'm Not Using Circular Logic, You're Asking Circular Questions

I absolutely love this. I'm pretty sure it's a parody, but it's difficult to tell because some of the fundy media is its own best parody.


Saturday, May 10, 2008


The MTC (missionary training center) was essentially part of the BYU campus. It was located at the north end of campus and it's facilities and services were provided by the university, which is also owned and run by the church. It was a cluster of modern tan brick buildings surrounded by a tall chain link fence. It was completely self contained so that the only reason missionaries had to leave was to go across the street to the temple or down to campus for haircuts at the BYU barber. It had dormitories, class rooms, a large cafeteria, laundry facilities, a large gymnasium with a full basketball court and three volleyball courts and weight room, and a huge auditorium that could hold all of the missionaries in the MTC at once.

Missionaries who were going to English speaking missions were in the MTC for 2 weeks to memorize the missionary discussions (lessons) and practice basic missionary skills. Then they were quickly off to their mission to learn on the job from an experience senior companion.

Missionaries who were called to foreign language missions stayed in the MTC for 8 weeks of total language immersion. The first two days were spent learning the basics of their new language and instructors and missionaries were allowed to speak English. The third day was known as Helen Keller Day. On that day English was no longer permitted except for emergencies and as a result most communication for the first week or more was done with ineffective gesticulation and grunts. Missionaries learning Romance or Germanic languages had a much easier time because the languages share a common alphabet and word roots with English. But missionaries going to the far east to China, Japan, or Korea had a much tougher time and often left the MTC only knowing a few rudimentary phrases and one discussion. It wasn't uncommon for Spanish speaking missionaries to leave after two months with all seven discussions memorized and basic conversational skills.

One of the first orders of business was to pay for my stay at the MTC. We were all volunteers and I brought a personal check from my parents to cover my MTC expenses. No check; no admittance. In the first week or so some of us received additional vaccinations that were required by our missions but weren’t commonly available. In my case I still had to get a yellow fever vaccination and a gamma globulin shot for hepatitis. The yellow fever shot was no big deal, but the gamma shot was something else. It was affectionately known as the peanut butter shot because the serum was so thick. It was fairly large in volume too so it had to go in a large muscle like the buttocks or thigh. They stuck me in the butt and I could feel the large lump. Gamma wasn’t a vaccination but it was supposed to boost your immune system. In our mission we had to get a booster every 3 to 6 months.

The MTC turned out to be the highlight of my mission. I've always been a bookworm and a loner and the monastic lifestyle suited me. The accommodations were comfortable and clean. The food was plentiful and healthy even if it was cafeteria food. We got an hour of exercise and recreation every day except Sunday in the gym. Other than that we spent the remaining time in classrooms. We woke up at 6:00 am, ate breakfast and went to a morning class. Then we had lunch followed by class all afternoon with a break for gym. Then we had supper and all evening was a review class. All our classes were taught by BYU students who were returned missionaries from Spanish speaking missions. Our morning teacher was a very cute red headed sister who'd served in Peru, our afternoon teacher was a towering, slim BYU basketball player who'd served in the mountains of Chile, and our evening teacher was a friendly, bespectacled linguistics major who loved to joke around as he helped us review what we'd learned during the day.

The only break from the routine was preparation day (P-day). On that day we were supposed to attend the temple and then we could do our laundry, write letters home, get our hair cut, and take care of any shopping we needed to do. But we had to stay with our companions and were supposed to visit with friends or family. I stuck to the rules and didn't go visit my friends or girlfriend even though they were only a mile away. I know other missionaries who snuck off, but I think it was the exception.

The environment was one of isolation and conformity. It was a very disciplined, structured academic religious environment. We all dressed the same, had the same rules and schedule, and the same goals. I was raised in a military family and somehow I dropped right into a comfort zone. The leaders noticed and I was made an assistant to the branch president for our missionary branch. This was something of a big deal to me at the time and I felt blessed to be noticed although in retrospect it wasn't really a big deal. I was basically the person in charge of keeping an eye on the missionaries in the branch and serving as the liaison between the branch presidency and the missionaries. I think the most exciting thing I had to do was notify the elders that they weren’t supposed to gather in the true order of prayer taught in the temple. Apparently one group had been meeting each night in a prayer circle like in the temple including giving all of the temple signs and tokens.

The MTC was organized into branches of about 80 missionaries and each branch was composed of several districts that had 8 to 10 missionaries. Each district had the same schedule and went to classes together for the entire 8 weeks. We had 5 elders and 4 sisters in our district. All 5 of us elders were going to Bolivia. The sisters were going to Columbia. We got to know each other quite well and were lucky that we all got along. I think that I annoyed some of the elders with my gung ho attitude, but all I remember was a strong feeling of love and camaraderie between everyone. Without outside distractions it was very easy to focus on our studies and try very hard to live the gospel.

It wasn’t all work and no play. I loved playing basketball and looked forward to gym each day. The long days meant we played hard for the short time we had. Gym started off with Timed-X, a calisthenics program the church had for the missionaries to help them stay in shape, but after that we were on our own. I somehow managed to tear muscles in the arch of my foot while making a cut during a basketball game. They actually had a trainer and could get the foot taped each day so I could keep playing. Then a week later I did the same thing to my other foot. My feet still hurt when I left for Bolivia. But I was lucky. One elder blew his knee out and had to go home to get surgery.

The evening review classes could get goofy after a long day of studying. Our review teacher helped several classes so we were often alone and unsupervised. This allowed us to sometimes visit in English and joke around. The starchy cafeteria food the nasty side effect of giving us all a lot of gas. One evening Elder Follows and I had our own symphony going so we decided to have a contest to see who could fart the most times in a half hour. Everyone joined in and soon the classroom was almost unliveable. I don’t remember who won, but the winning count was in the 30s.

When non-Mormons learn I was a missionary in Bolivia they often ask why I chose to go there. They seem a little perplexed by my perplexed reaction. Mormon missionaries don't get to choose where they go. They submit their papers to the church and wait to be called. The church then chooses where they go. The calling is personally signed by the prophet and most missionaries , including me, thought that the callings were the result of revelation or inspiration by the prophet. It never occurred to me that it was possible to choose a destination and it certainly never occurred to me to turn down the calling. In fact, I remember in shock when a missionary in my branch at the MTC switched to a different mission because his father complained to the church and refused to let him go to South America.

I was later disappointed to learn that the assignments were done by the missionary department based on the needs of the missions around the world and based on the aptitude and appearance of the missionaries and that the signature of the prophet was done by a signature machine. Knowing what I know of the health risks in places like Bolivia and the atrocious medical care provided to missionaries, I’d never allow one of my children to go there on a church mission. But at the time it would have never occurred to me or my family to do anything other than what the church asked of us.

The selection was aided by scores on a language aptitude test taken as part of the application process. This was an odd test. A local member was the proctor and I was the only person taking the test that day. I arrived at the church and was taken to a classroom. I sat at a desk and was given an answer sheet. Then the proctor put an audio cassette into a tape player and pushed play. For the next thirty or so minutes a disembodied voice would introduce the vocabulary and grammar of a completely made up language so that knowledge of a particular foreign language was no benefit. Then they'd ask questions about the language. They'd say a word or phrase or sentence and then ask what it meant. You selected your answer and then it continued. I might have had some advantage on the test because I'd had three years of high school Spanish and 15 hours (3 semesters) of Russian while I was at BYU. The test was a little like learning Russian (in 30 minutes) which uses a completely different alphabet and which has a very unique grammar. I actually thought it was kind of fun and think I did pretty well. At least I don't remember being particularly lost. I could easily imagine some people being lost pretty quickly.

The church never tells you how you did on the test, but the results affect who gets called to foreign language missions. It's not a sure thing since some missionaries still have a terrible time learning their new language. But it mostly works; missionaries usually become quite fluent in their new language. Later in my mission I learned from one of the office elders that the score becomes part of your missionary file. I asked how I did and was told that he hadn't ever seen anyone with a higher score.

At times those 8 weeks in the MTC felt like they were never going to end, but before we knew it the day of departure neared. Family and friends were allowed to meet missionaries at the airport before they left. I arranged to say goodbye to my girlfriend in the lobby of the MTC since she didn’t have any way to get to the airport. I think this was technically ok, but I was confronted by some officious young mission official as I nervously waited in the lobby with my companion and I got many disapproving looks when my girlfriend arrived. We were only allowed to visit for a few minutes before I had to say one last goodbye and give her a tentative hug and a peck.

The sisters in our district had trouble getting visas to Columbia so they were sent to Houston to wait for their paperwork to clear. The church didn’t have a problem getting missionary visas to Bolivia so the 5 elders in my district left on schedule just after Thanksgiving. We were shuttled off to the airport. My companion’s family and girlfriend and I got to stand awkwardly to the side while he visited until our flight boarded and we flew off to a different world.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mission Preparations

I received letters from the church with lists of things I'd need for my mission. I bought a cheap but sturdy black polyester suit with two pairs of pants to go with the one jacket. I didn't realize that this would cause people for the next two years to constantly ask me why I was "en luto" or mourning. I stocked up on white shirts and ties and bought a tan trench coat. Why a trench coat? Apparently that is part of the stock missionary uniform which was apparently invented in the 1950s. A trench coat turned out to be highly impractical while hiking up and down steep mountain paths and because of the length it tended to wrap around your legs in the wind.

I bought my missionary library which included "The Articles of Faith", "Jesus the Christ", and "The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith" but I wasn't allowed any other books or recordings beyond those classics of Mormon theological literature.

I also had to prepare to travel out of the country. I had to get my U.S. passport, but worse I had to get vaccinations for some nasty diseases. That was uneventful except for the typhoid. I was warned that it would hurt so I got it in my left shoulder. When I got home I went out and played a little tennis in the hope that a little exercise might help the muscle from getting too sore. However my shoulder soon started getting sore. By supper it was warm to the touch and getting red around the vaccination site. By bedtime my entire deltoid was red, swollen, hot to the touch, and unbelievably painful. That night I struggled to sleep because any movement or touch on that shoulder woke me up in pain. The only position that was bearable was on my right side. I remember thinking, "If the vaccination is this bad, I wonder what the actual disease feels like?" Unfortunately, I found out. It turns out the vaccine only protects against the worst strains of a disease that has many, many strains.

I went to the temple on the Saturday before I was scheduled to leave and then on Sunday I went to the stake president's office to be set apart. He laid his hands on my head and I was officially an ordained missionary of the church for the next two years until I had an interview where he released me. During that period I was required to live by all missionary rules including constantly being with my companion. Until I arrived at the MTC my parents were my companion and I wasn't allowed to be alone any more.

I packed everything I'd have for the next two years into two suitcases and boarded the plane to Salt Lake City. My best friend, who was attending BYU, picked me up and I stayed at his apartment that night. I met my girlfriend that night, but since I was set apart I wasn't allowed to be alone with her and we had to say our goodbyes with a room full of people. I told her not to worry about waiting for me and she said she wasn't going to. We had both grown up in the church and knew how few relationships survived a mission and we didn't want to continue the stereotype of Dear John letters. Better to just have low expectations for the future.

The next morning Bill drove me to the north end of the BYU campus across the street from the Provo temple and dropped me off to join a large crowd of new missionaries. Many of the new missionaries had been escorted to the MTC by friends and family. I felt so alone and disoriented as I watched many tearful goodbyes. I was surrounded by people I didn't know and had no idea what to expect. Soon, the missionaries were directed to a large room and we collectively took a deep breath, walked through the door and left one life behind as we entered a completely new one.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Bolivian Laundry Duty

My missionary wardrobe consisted of a sturdy black suit with two pairs of pants, a pair of brown slacks, and a bunch of white shirts. They got worn every day and quickly got dirty. Everything was machine washable, but I never saw a washing machine or dryer my entire time in Bolivia. I'm sure some people had them, but none that I ever knew. Instead, all my laundry was washed by hand.

The missionaries would typically pay a cholita or ward member to do their laundry for them once a week. It was somewhat important to hire a member or a trusted person to do it because the laundry included our temple garments and they weren't supposed to be hung out to dry in public. In my first area we had a maid and she did our laundry in a large cement utility sink in the back yard. She'd use a large green block of laundry soap and hand wash the dirty clothes in one side of the sink and rinse them on the other side before hanging them up to air dry. The clothes always came back clean but a little stiff from air drying.

After a while my suit jacket and ties got dirty too, and I didn't think they'd handle hand washing so I took them to a dry cleaner where one of our investigators worked. Everything came back nice and clean except for one minor detail. They smelled like they'd been washed in kerosene! The fumes were overpowering and it took weeks for the smell to finally dissipate. This was apparently typical, so after that I took special care to keep my suit jacket clean, mostly by not wearing it except to church.

Mission Papers

Son, everyone does it. But, you see, no one talks about it.

John Goodman as the father on Roseanne

I'm going to candidly address an uncomfortable topic here and one that is more than a little embarrassing for me. If the topic of masturbation offends you, then please move along.

When I turned 12 I received the Aaronic priesthood. This meant that every Sunday I now had to get to church at 9:00 am for priesthood meeting before sunday school at 10:30. I also had to go to stake priesthood meetings twice a year and the general priesthood meeting broadcast twice a year. I also had to pass the sacrament each Sunday during sunday school and sacrament meeting. I also had to be a junior companion to an adult for monthly home teaching visits to three or four families that we were responsible for.

In those days, the churches didn't have satellites for receiving general conference broadcasts. Instead Bonneville, the church owned broadcasting company, had broadcast the audio over phone lines that were hooked to the PA system in the chapel. So, for general priesthood meeting all the priesthood holders would come to the chapel on Saturday evening and sit in the choir seats to listen to the crackly audio of the sermons being given from the Tabernacle on temple square in Salt Lake City.

I still remember an early general priesthood meeting. In it Elder Boyd Packer addressed the young men of the church. His talk was later published by the church as a pamplet entitled, To Young Men Only. For some reason I couldn't find it on the church's web site any more so maybe continuing revelation has again revealed that what was true when I was young is no longer relevant. I remember my father going on about how delicately the apostle handled such an important topic. I guess the message got mixed up for me.

The basic premise of the talk is that your testicles are like a little factory that produce at a certain rate. The body produces until it has too much semen and then it has a natural safety valve that releases the excess. This is a natural process that shouldn't be tampered with. But if you stimulate them then they start working overtime and the more you stimulate them the more release is needed in an ever increasing spiral. The only solution is to leave them alone and let things slow back down to their pre-ordained function.

Now, I remember having no idea how to go about doing this, but most of the boys at school were already going through puberty and getting pubic and armpit hair as well as getting much bigger. Meanwhile, I hadn't grown at all and didn't have a hint of hair anywhere on my body except my head. I wondered if perhaps stimulating my little factory might make jump start me into puberty.

This led a period of experimentation whose main goal was to grow some pubes and hopefully stop being the smallest, scrawniest kid on the football team. I had no idea what I was doing but I eventually figured it out. It actually took a long time before I independently discovered what an orgasm was and why you should always keep a box of Kleenex next to your bed. Now, that was a pleasant surprise and suddenly I had a new reason for stimulating my little factory.

Of course, as I started doing it more regularly, I felt increasingly guilty. Every year we had a lesson in priesthood meeting telling us that masturbation was a sin. When I neared 14 I had a personal worthiness interview with my bishop. He asked if I masturbated. I was mortified and of course I lied. He then proceeded to explain that masturbation was also called self abuse and that it really was abusing your own body. I listened attentively and then lied again. No, I wasn't abusing myself. I was terribly worried about lying to the bishop and I felt really guilty about it, but I wasn't about to confess to something so horrible and get in trouble.

I'm not lying when I say I felt guilty. We read scriptures as a family and I remember the story of the priest who reached out to steady the ark and was struck dead on the spot. I remember one Sunday. I'd masturbated in the shower that morning and had to pass the sacrament. As the prayer was said I fretted about whether or not I was worthy. I was seriously worried that perhaps I'd be struck with some kind of shock as I took the tray of sacrament bread. But I risked it and hesitantly reached out my hand. Nothing. Whew!

Later in my teenage years my father pulled me aside at least twice to interview me and ask if I masturbated. The first time I lied. The second time I said I used to but that I'd stopped some months before.

I really tried to stop. But the longer I went, the worse it got. Finally, I'd give in to temptation and fall again. But I did notice that it didn't really work the way that the apostle said. The longer I went, the worse it got. When I didn't masturbate my thoughts became obsessessed with sex. More so than normal. But as soon as I serviced myself, I had a period of peace.

This went on despite my feelings of guilt and unworthiness. I lied again when I was interviewed at 16 to become a priest. I kept trying to stop right up until I prepared to go on my mission.

When a young man in the church turns 18 he has to get ready to submit his "mission papers." These papers include medical and dental exams. They also include a worthiness form and recommendation that has to be filled out by the bishop. I was healthy but I was worried about the worthiness part. I decided to come clean and when I went in for my interview with my bishop I confessed that I had a problem with masturbation. It was really embarrassing and he notified that I couldn't serve a mission with this problem. His counsel was that I should go running or exercise when I felt the need. I tried this, but the physical activity just made me hornier than ever.

I managed to keep clean for a couple of weeks and passed the next interview. But he wanted to make sure so he made me wait and come back for another interview. Of course, I gave in, but I'd already gotten a scholarship deferral from BYU for my mission and if I didn't go I'd lose my scholarship. So I lied. The bishop's spirit of discernment was inadequate to detect my lies. So was the stake presidents. My mission papers got signed and sent to Salt Lake City.

Then I had to wait for my mission call.

It came as my family was preparing to move from Iowa to Washington D.C. I was called to Cochabamba, Bolivia and I was entering the Missionary Training Center in September 1983. Now I got ordained an Elder in the Melchisedec priesthood and got a temple recommend so that I could receive my temple endowments before leaving on my mission.

I've written about my temple experiences elsewhere. It was shocking and unsettling. I felt guilty that perhaps I hadn't felt the spirit because I was unworthy due to not only masturbating, but also lying about it to my church leaders. I once again resolved to stay clean and went back to the temple to try to feel the spirit. It didn't really work.

Once I got to the MTC, it was somewhat easier to resist temptation. The missionaries lived in dormitories with 4 people to a room in two bunk beds. No privacy there. The showers in the rest rooms didn't have shower curtains and the water was at best luke warm. No privacy there either. I really doubt the shower situation was a coincidence.

I was in the MTC for 2 months in order to learn Spanish. I only fell once. I was in bed and got a throbbing, pulsing erection that wouldn't go away. With an image of Victoria Principal in my head (from Dallas) that wouldn't go away I gave a couple of squeezes and it was over. I was crushed. I was so intensely guilty. Then next day was a disaster. I put my head on my desk on the verge of tears. What was I going to do? I felt I'd have to go confess my sin to my branch president and I was terrified of being sent home in disgrace for my sexual impurity.

Eventually my fear of disgrace overrode my guilt and I kept my sin to myself and resolved to postpone the price for the eternities. Maybe God would forgive me if I worked hard.

Other than that, I worked my butt off. Maybe my guilt made me work even harder.

Throughout my mission, I continued to struggle with my sin and occasionally gave in to temptation. But my concern lessened when I noticed that I was often more effective afterward. In fact, I noticed that some of my most powerful spiritual experiences and missionary experiences came after sinning. I was consoled by the fact that God seemed to be more than capable of working through me despite my sins.

After my mission I went back to BYU. One Sunday our bishop, a psychology professor at the university, stood up in priesthood meeting and talked to us about masturbation. He said that it was normal and that we should stop coming to him to confess about it. As long as it wasn't an obsession that controlled our life then it wasn't a problem. There were nervous chuckles all around, but I was quite relieved. Maybe I wasn't such a terrible sinner. When I got back to my apartment I had a roommate who was incensed. He told us what a huge problem they had in his mission in Guatemala with masturbation. Apparently lots of missionaries were doing it. I was secretly relieved.

Apparently everyone does it. We just don't talk about it. Normally.

Sorry for sharing, but this was a serious subtext throughout my mission that caused me to constantly feel guilty and unworthy to be in the work of the Lord.

Update: A little searching on Google explained why I couldn't find this talk in the conference report in the November 1976 Ensign. The talk was given on October 2, 1976. In December 1976 the Ensign had the following:
The recent October conference address of Elder Boyd K. Packer, given in the priesthood session of conference, has been published as a pamphlet to be distributed to bishops for further distribution to parents of young men. Elder Packer’s address was not included in the November Ensign’s conference report by determination of the First Presidency. The address was a sensitive treatment of the important subject of chastity.
I suspect that the topic of sex was deemed inappropriate for a magazine that would be read by the general membership of the church. I believe that church leaders can still order and distribute this pamphlet to cultivate guilt in their young men like they did with me.

As someone else said, "Guilt is great for the church. If they can convince you that something is wrong with you then they can convince you that they have the cure."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mission Memories

I hate to be a copy cat, but apparently Runtu's blog posts have shaken something loose inside my head. I don't normally dwell on the past and when I talk about my mission it's mostly to entertain people or gross them out. But my mission was a significant personal sacrifice as well as a huge sacrifice for my family. For me, it was a rite of passage to adulthood and it has left its mark on me. Overall it was a positive experience, but it wasn't without its traumas. So, apologies to Runtu, but I feel a need to write some of this down and share. In fact, I've barely been able to sleep over the last couple of nights as memories of my mission have flooded back, triggered by reading Runtu's stories. Our missions mostly overlapped and we had some of the same companions and knew some of the same characters that inhabited that strange place.

My older brother served a mission in Ecuador so when my mission call came to Bolivia I had an idea of what to expect. People congratulated me because everyone knew that missionaries had lots of success finding and baptizing new members in Latin America. But I knew that it meant I'd be living in poverty and getting sick as well as being in danger of being mugged or worse. I'd hoped to go to Japan or Russia, but I definitely didn't want to go to a third world country like Bolivia. As it turned out, it was much worse than I'd even imagined even though some missionaries suffered much more than I did.

For my whole life missions were 2 years duration, but during the recession in the early 1980s the church shortened the duration of the missions to 18 months in order to reduce the economic burden on the missionaries and their families. I was called to serve for 18 months, but at the end of 1984, with less than 6 months left in my mission, the church announced that new mission calls would once again be for 2 years and that all currently serving missionaries had the option to extend their missions another 6 months. I wound up extending my mission for 4 months so that I could get home in time to start the fall 1985 semester at BYU. So I served for 22 months, but I generally round up to 2 years because its easier to say and explain.

I entered the mission field with a strong testimony and a desire to be a good missionary. I wasn't one of those young men who went to get a testimony or to comply with social expectations. I'd grown up in the "mission field" in Iowa so no one other than my family would really have been disappointed or even notice if I'd decided not to go. I'd already finished two years at BYU and during that time I'd read the Book of Mormon through from cover to cover and really believed that it couldn't be an invention of Joseph Smith and therefore it must be true. Based on that conviction I was ready to head out and share the message that God was alive and lead his church through living prophets. In preparation I'd gone out tracting and teaching with the local missionaries in Iowa. When I left to enter the MTC I was willingly leaving behind my schooling, family, friends, and girlfriend in order to do what I believed God wanted me to do. I wouldn't say I was thrilled to be going, but I committed to doing it right and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and message of hope and good living with the people I taught.

And so a great adventure began that changed me, tempered me, and gave me a wealth of interesting and colorful stories to share for the rest of my life.