Today my father would have been 75 years old, had he not succumbed to complications from prostate cancer nearly three years ago. I want to post something about the old man, but the closest thing I have to a remembrance at hand is the second chapter from the latest in-progress revision of my memoir. It's not exactly complimentary on the whole, but it does attempt to trace the trials my father went through trying to secure a better future for his family, which I believe he succeeded ateven if he died doubting it.
By the way, I was in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and I hunted down the house in Highland Park where we lived until I was six. My mother had warned me that I really didn't want to visit that neighborhood, but since when have I ever listened to my parents' advice? Anyway, the neighborhood was just finequiet, even. The house, perched on hill on Aldama Street between Avenues 53 and 54, was much, much smaller than I remembered. And there were parrots squawking in a tall tree overhead.
In 1984 my father and I were driving back roads somewhere east of Victorville in the California desert when he sprang a terrifying question on me. "Son," he asked, "do you want to serve a mission?"
I didn't know what to say. This was something I'd never been asked before, at least not in a way that betrayed any genuine interest in how I felt. I must have fielded that stock question hundred of times growing up, from relatives, family friends, and people at church, and the expected yes was always my reflexive answer. But the look on my father's face told me this time was different.
I'd been raised to believe that, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, missionary work was my duty. One of the earliest songs I learned in Sunday school was "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission," and most weeks two living exemplars of that sentiment showed up for church services at our Los Angeles meetinghouse. I adulated those missionariesclean-cut young men dressed in white shirts, ties, and black name tags whose job was to go around teaching people about Godeven if my understanding of their day-to-day lives was vague. My parents sometimes invited them over to our house for dinner. After the elders had shoveled up all the food in sight, we'd retire to the living room where they'd set up a flannel board and practice teaching the story of Joseph Smith's First Vision. The cutout figures enraptured my sisters and me. Telling gospel stories with a flannel boardthat's what I wanted to do when I grew up. Preferably in Germany, like my father had when he was younger.
I knew that missionaries were supposed to teach people about the Church, but at the age of five I didn't fully appreciate what the lifestyle entailed. In fact, I had no firm grasp on the distinction between faiths other than our own. In the car, I would sometimes point to a church and ask what it was, or why it had a lowercase t on the top of its steeple. "They worship the devil there," my father would say, which did little to set me straight (and for many years caused me to find the sight of a cross unsettling).
It was with some confusion, then, that I began attending kindergarten in 1972 at Good Shepherd Lutheran School. An affordable alternative to public school in our largely Latino neighborhood of Highland Park, Good Shepherd is where I first smacked heads with a competing religious philosophy. I was a good student in most respects but drove my poor young teacher crazy with my frequent contradictions of her morning gospel lessons. Once for show-and-tell I proudly brought the German edition of the Book of Mormon my father had carried as a missionary. I couldn't understand the puzzled looks Das Buch Mormon drew until Miss Rasch attempted to make clear that not all faiths use the same sacred texts.
The realization that I shared a Bible but not much else with my Lutheran classmates blew my little mind. I had already acquired the bad habit of lying awake in the dark, trying to wrap my mind around the concept of an infinite universe, turning the puzzle of God's origin over and over, and basically making myself feel so insignificant I scared myself silly. To this volatile stew I added the question of what would have happened had my wisp of a spirit been sent down from heaven to a Lutheran family instead of my good Mormon parents. Presumably I'd have ended up slurping down false doctrine and believing it correct, hellbound and knowing no better. Was it only the luck of the draw that I'd landed in an enlightened home? The randomness implied by that near miss terrified me to my bones.
Mixed messages defined those early childhood years. My fatheran industrial-arts teacher pursuing a doctorate in education at UCLAfilled our shelves with cast-off math and science books from his school library. Disneyland trips were interspersed with visits to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Yet my father insisted, despite what I read in those books and learned from planetarium shows, that my beloved dinosaurs had never existed, and that the earth was a mere six thousand years old. His firm pronouncement on the subject of cavemenno such thing!made me feel profoundly sinful as I sneaked peeks at the Neanderthal skulls in my book on early man.
Late in 1973, when I was six, we moved to the first of a series of small towns in northern Utah. My parents enrolled me a grade ahead in school, where in a strange version of culture shock I was startled to find that the kids at school were the same as the kids at church. And uniformly white.
My father had landed a job teaching at Grantsville High School, his next stepping-stone toward a principalship or better. He couldn't have been more proud ofnor, I'm sure, hopeful aboutthe Dr. Shunn nameplate on the door to his wood-and-metal shop. Born in 1936, the fifth of six children, he had dragged himself up from his poor Los Angeles roots through hard work, stubbornness, and a big assist from mentors in the local Mormon leadership. Though exposed to the Church by his mother as a child, he hadn't thrown himself into it until early adulthood, after his parents had both passed away. He credited the Church, through those mentors, with saving his life, and it became his one sure lodestone. Between a stint in the Army, missionary service in Germany, and teaching gigs in both L.A. and Salt Lake City, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Brigham Young University. His doctorate, the culmination of a decade and a half of struggle, school, interruptions, and endless side jobs, was going to be the ticket for him and his growing young family into security and respectability.
My father and I shared a close bond when I was small. I was named after himmy birth certificate reads Donald William Shunn IIthough where people called him Don, I was Bill. That was the name of a uncle favorite of his, and what he wished he'd been called. As firstborn son, I occupied a special place in the family hierarchy, a position of privilege. My favorite of the German phrases he taught me, in fact, was good for little else than asserting that position: "Ich bin der Erste" ("I am the first"). I had always loved tagging along with him around L.A., no matter how prosaic the errand, and meeting the colorful characters he always seemed to know so well. Once, at Rudy's Barber Shop, I insisted on having my hair cut just like hisand he was nearly bald on top.
But in Utah that bond began to fracture. My father had a severe temper. Most infractions, real or imagined, merited spankings, but the serious ones earned a date with his leather belt, in the worst cases administered full-force to a bare bottom. The mere threat of the belt was enough to send my sisters and me into spasms of begging and sobbing. I got the belt for walking the wrong route home from school, for repeating novel words I'd heard from classmates. I remember getting an erection once while trying to pee, and the terror of attempting to hide the fact when my father blundered onto the scene. It wasn't what it looked like, but that hardly mattered to the belt. I must have been seven or eight.
The arbitrary and often unearned punishments, the belittling corrections when I offered an answer or opinion he didn't like, the constant sense that I was doing something wrong, taught me to keep my mouth shut around him, and drove me to avoid him as much as was possible in the same house. This was not always difficult, as work and church took up so much of his time. His career was not working out for him the way he had hoped. Despite endless applications, he never landed the administrative position he believed his degrees and hard work should have earned him. He'd been turned down for jobs as far away as Guam, but he reserved a special bitterness for what he regarded as the culture of nepotism and Church favoritism in Utah schools.
My father was a Mormon, yes, but a California Mormon. He had left behind his personal, professional, and Church networks when he moved us to Utah, not to mention better pay and all his seniority. He could never make friends who might advance his career, and in fact often shot himself in the foot with his inability to keep quiet about what he saw as the stupidity and graft above. He almost always had another job on the side, anything from janitorial to construction work. National Guard duty claimed one weekend a month, and he even spent a few summers away in Los Angeles at an old job, driving a bread-delivery truck. I loved those summers, if for nothing else than the mental breathing room they offered.
Except at the highest levels, a lay clergy runs the LDS Church. Leaders rotate, called from the local congregations, or "wards," and fitting their duties around full-time jobs. My father held several different positions in the wards where we lived, including, for a time, that of counselor to the bishop. My father probably held as many poor opinions of local leaders as he did of school administrators, but it never swayed his zeal for the Church itself, which he insisted was perfect in design. If he pushed any two ideals as keys to success in life, they were higher education and devotion to the Churchmissionary service being a key component of the second.
Since the beginnings of the Church, Mormons have dispatched missionaries to all corners of the globe to spread their message of the restoration of the important lost bits of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Young men are expected to serve when they turn nineteen, laboring for two years, at their own expense, in a destination not of their choosing. I was still in grade school when my father opened a savings account for that purpose in my name. When I was fourteen, he arranged a summer cabinetry job for me with the school district, building bookshelves and study carrels and the like, and he stuck my paychecks straight into the bank. Occasionally I pulled some money out to have a little fun with, but that felt like stealing from the Lord, like embezzling consecrated funds.
As a child I'd looked forward to the adventure of a mission, dreaming of the exotic lands I might visit, but as I grew older I'd begun to resent and even dread the coming two-year imposition. A missionary's time was not his own. He couldn't watch TV or movies, couldn't read newspapers, magazines, or any but a handful of approved books, couldn't work on personal projects of any kind. My love for math, paleontology, astronomy, and reading had led me inevitably to the science fiction section of the library, where I discovered a deep and abiding passion for pulpy adventures in space and time. I read voraciously and always had stories or novels of my own in progress. My junior year of high school, when I was fifteen, I started submitting to magazines in a serious attempt to get published. Two years without a novel to read, two years without a pen and notebook, was as awful a prospect as two years without a hand. The only real upside I could see to a mission was the possibility of gaining fluency in some useful foreign language, but there was no guarantee I'd do my time in a non-English-speaking mission. The Church would send me where it needed me, not where I might want to go.
I daydreamed about skipping out on a mission, but I knew that would never fly in my family. The flip side of firstborn privilege is that I was expected to set an example of probity and obedience for my younger siblings, who numbered seven by the time my parents decided to retire from procreation. Besides, if I revealed my natural reluctance, not only would I shame myself before my family, I'd shame my family before the community. Because I was a good student of the scriptures and could speak well from the pulpit, I was regarded at church as a spiritual wunderkind, possibly a future bishop or better. For Bill Shunn not to serve a mission would be a scandal of Biblical proportions. My parents wouldn't be ostracized at all, but they would have to face the congregation's pity every week, and the knowledge in their own hearts that they'd failed in the matter of my spiritual upbringing. Perhaps more importantly, it would damage my chances of someday finding my perfect Mormon wife. The Church cautioned young LDS women of marriageable age, with their blue eyes and rosy cheeks, to avoid serious relationships or even dates with men who had not served missions.
With all those factors stewing in my brain, my reluctance to serve made me feel wicked, ungrateful, hypocritical. I kept it all to myself and never breathed a word of it. I didn't even confide my secret to my few close non-Mormon friends, who thought throwing two years away was stupid. I defended mission service to them when we talked about it, in fact. How could they give me clear advice on what to do when they didn't share the beliefs that caused me the problem in the first place? The only course I could see was to pray to God to change my heart so I could find the joy in doing what I knew was right.
I graduated from high school in 1984, still a couple of months shy of seventeen. My family had settled in a town called Kaysvillepart Main Street USA, part suburban tract housing, part shrinking farmland. I had in hand a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to the University of Utah, our fair state's suspect bastion of liberal thought. I had to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and that somewhere was my resolve never to attend BYU. I could do a two-year stretch in the mission field, but the idea of an education from a school where religion classes were core curriculum, social success was measured in terms of marriage, and students were forbidden to wear their Top-Siders without socks was beyond the pale. My parents were devastated that the "Y," their beloved alma mater, was not among the half-dozen schools I applied to, but they eventually accepted my choice of the "U" less because of the scholarship than because I could live at home and commute the twenty miles to Salt Lake City.
That first year of college was a difficult one for me, as the oldest of my high school friends began leaving on their missions. With so long left until mine, nearly four years would pass before I saw some of them again. Still, I could feel the clock ticking.
One long weekend that fall, my father and I took a road trip to California together. This was not unusual. My father loved long drives, and he'd make the run to L.A., where crash space with relatives was plentiful, on the flimsiest pretext. He preferred back roads, maybe because they reminded him of his early student days when he could do the route home from Provo in his Corvette convertible in ten hours or less. He also required company on his trips, which is how I had come to know the roads between Kaysville and Los Angeles as well as the route to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Which is to say, I could do it with my eyes closed, and frequently did.
As hard as I'd tried to wriggle out of this trip, there I was riding shotgun, lodged deep in the uncomfortable silence that always reigned when my father and I were alone together. I liked seeing my L.A. cousins; the getting there and back was the painful part.
So when my father broke the silence to ask, so piercingly, if I wanted to serve a mission, my first instinct was to throw myself out the car door and take my chances in the gray desert. I had recently learned about a six-week summer workshop in science fiction writing at Michigan State University, and I wanted to apply. I'd have to use some of the money from my mission fund to go, though, and I'd been trying to figure out how to broach the subject. But this was evidently the wrong time to tip him off to my real priorities.
Fearing that my father might see through an outright lie, I groped for a plausible evasion as the dusty landscape churned past my window. The words of Spencer W. Kimball, at the time the Mormon prophet, rang in my head: "Every young man should serve a mission. It is not an option; it is your obligation."
With what I hoped was a casual shrug, I said, "It's what I'm supposed to do."
"No, son," snarled my father. He hunched over the wheel of our old brown station wagon like he was gnawing his tongue off. His vehemence made me cringe, even though he hadn't laid a hand on me since I was ten or eleven. His eyes blazed blue as he turned them, bulging, toward me. "That's not how you should be thinking. This is a serious question. Do you want to go on a mission?"
My ears roared. My lungs burned. The reptile in mefirstborn, example, martyrcurled its scaly armor around the underbelly of my hidden self.
"Yes," I said. "That's what I want."
"Why?" he demanded.
Boys go on missions for a lot of different reasons. Some because their parents promise them a car or college tuition when they get home. Some at the insistence of their girlfriends, who would otherwise marry someone more devoutand often do, anyway. Some out of inertia, or boredom, or to put off other, more momentous life decisions. The path of least resistance.
I often heard it said at church that there are no wrong reasons to go on a mission, only wrong reasons to stay. But I needed a right reason. Though he rarely said much about his mission, I was sure that my father had gone for the right reason. In his day, missions lasted two and a half yearsdown from three years or four in even earlier times. You don't do that for a car.
"I want to serve God," I said, the words ashes in my mouth. "I want to spread the gospel, so other people can feel the same joy we know."
"It's a solemn responsibility," my father said, eyes narrowed. "Not to be undertaken lightly."
He gazed balefully at me, then returned his attention to the road. "Okay, then."
A green milepost ticked past.
"The church is true, son," my father said, staring down the asphalt into the future or the past, his face painted with that jumble of cynicism, grief, and resolve I had learned to recognize as solemnity. "If it weren't, the missionaries would have destroyed it a long time ago."
I usually chuckled at this adage, as if it made entire sense to me. But this time it didn't sound funny.