How I became a terrorist without really trying

| No Comments
I've told this story many times, in many ways. This particular version was written for The First Time: First Crime, an evening of readings at Second City's Up Comedy Club in Chicago on April 17, 2013. I read it again at Tuesday Funk #61 on September 3, 2013, and later posted it as an answer on Quora (to the question "What are you banned from? Why?") and as an essay on Medium (where it became an Editor's Pick). As long as it was available for free in those places, I figured it ought to have a home here too. So here it is. Happy Canada Day.

They caught up with me in the men's room of a bus station in Great Falls, Montana.

Now, the fact that "they" were after me might lead you to presume that I was running from the law, that the cops or other authorities were hot on my trail, but that's not the case. My felony was still two months in the future at that point, though I was on the lam.

I was on the lam from the Mormon Church.

It was the last week of 1986. I was nineteen years old, and I'd spent the past three months in the dreary oil town of Brooks, Alberta, Canada, the first posting of my two-year assignment as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I never wanted to serve a mission, but I grew up in Utah, in a devout family, and to not do so would have meant admitting to my parents and my community and my church leaders that I just wasn't that into Mormonism. I had college to finish. I had novels I was burning to write.

But I also had shame, so like a good boy I put in my mission application papers, hoping for a plum assignment like Brazil or Sweden or Japan, someplace I could at least learn a foreign language and rack up some cool life points. Instead, Canada--and not even the part where they spoke French. Western Canada. For a bright Mormon kid from Utah, this was almost as humiliating an assignment as Idaho. But that's where the grayhairs in Salt Lake City said God needed me.

Missionary life, if you're curious, was horrible. Knocking on doors for twelve hours a day in miserable weather. No television, no movies, no newspapers, no books but the Bible and the Book of Mormon. No dating. No phone calls home. The constant presence of your assigned partner, your so-called "companion," with whom you spend every waking moment of every single day, lest one or the other of you should fall into temptation. Oh, and always referring to each other by your title, "Elder," instead of by your names.

After three months of this, I'd had it. I was stir-crazy and depressed, and I'd figured out that they call it "serving" a mission because it's a lot like "serving" a prison sentence. I wanted to go home, but I knew if I brought it up with our mission president in Calgary, President Tuttle, he'd just find a way to talk me into staying. So, a few days after Christmas, I snuck off to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning and made my escape.

That bus ride--west to Calgary and then south to the border, running for my freedom, running from my duty to God--was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Once my absence became known, the Church activated its remarkable emergency communications network--invaluable in times of natural disaster--to put out an A.P.B. on a fugitive missionary whose only crimes were wanting to read science fiction novels and make out with his girlfriend.

At the border crossing, I managed to avoid the two missionaries they sent to intercept me as I transferred from one bus to the next. I felt like a real super-spy. I felt like James Bond.

But that evening in Great Falls--well, I had a bad feeling as the gray-haired man in the black leather jacket trailed me through the bus station toward the men's room. To show you how useless I am in stressful situations, I went into the men's room anyway, because while James Bond never seems to need to pee, I really did, and I didn't see an alternative.

Sure enough, as I was taking care of business at the urinal, this man in his black leather jacket came in, leaned against the wall, and said, "Elder Shunn?"

To make a long story short, this man was the local Mormon stake president--roughly comparable to a Catholic bishop--and he was there to convince me, if not to resume my mission service, then at least to go back to Calgary and request an honorable discharge from my mission.

Look, it's hard for a Mormon kid to say no to authority figures, which is why I didn't want to talk to my mission president in the first place. Which is all by way of saying that I did go back to Calgary, with delusions of that honorable discharge dancing in my head. To my credit, I managed to hold out against President Tuttle's onslaught of compassionate brainwashing--and that of the people like my parents whom he put me on the phone with--for all of about five hours.

"Oh, Elder Shunn," he exclaimed after I'd caved, "I'm overjoyed at how the Spirit has touched your heart! Oh, and I want you to know that you are in no way on probation or in trouble with me for going AWOL. No, the one who's in trouble is that lazy companion of yours in Brooks who failed to do everything in his power to keep you from getting on that bus in the first place."

Now let's fast-forward two months. I've been reassigned to Calgary, where I'm doing pretty well, with plenty of other missionaries around to keep the loneliness and depression at bay. I'm actually starting to have a reasonably okay time.

It's late February. I'm on temporary assignment with a missionary I'll call Elder Finn. Both our regular companions are district leaders, and they're off somewhere at a mission leadership conference with President Tuttle and thirty or forty other district and zone leaders.

(If this sounds like sales terminology, by the way, that's probably not an accident.)

It's nearly evening, and I'm at Calgary International Airport, where Elder Finn has forced me to accompany him. He's been planning this excursion for weeks, planning for the day when all the mission's most diligent elders are tied up at a conference, and when he's partnered with the infamous Elder Shunn--that one who tried to run away.

Elder Finn, who's only been out on his mission for four months, is planning to fly home, to Sacramento. He's done.

But there's one thing Finn hasn't counted on. He thought I was the kind of missionary who'd help him. He thought, based on my past behavior, that I'd stand by and give him time to get away before calling President Tuttle.

He miscalculated.

I spent the entire drive out to the airport trying to talk Elder Finn into staying on his mission. He wasn't having any of it, so now I've slipped away from him in the crowded terminal, and I'm desperately dialing numbers at a pay phone. President Tuttle is not at his office, of course, and none of the missionaries whose numbers I can dredge up from memory are home either. The clock is ticking down to Finn's departure. I have this crazy, half-formed backup plan--but am I willing to do everything in my power to keep my companion from leaving?

I rip open the phone book before I can talk myself out of my scheme. I look up Western Airlines and find what I recognize as a local number. I plug my quarter into the slot. My hand shakes as I dial.

The line picks up on the first ring. "Western Air Cargo," says a young man. "How can I help you?"

I take a deep breath. Slowly, clearly, and distinctly, I say, "There's a bomb in a suitcase on Flight Seven-eighty-nine."

And I hang up.

I wish I had time to tell you what happened next--how I watched airport security quietly mobilize, how the plane in question was grounded, evacuated, and searched, how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police--yes, the fucking Mounties--caught up with me, how I was convicted of felony public mischief and sentenced to jail, and how to this day I'm forbidden to set foot in Canada. Oh, right, and how Elder Finn was one of the few passengers that night who actually managed to reach his final destination. That's all a story for a different day.

What I will tell you is what still unsettles me at night and keeps me awake, which is how easily faith and circumstance can warp a rash impulse into an act of terror. Any of us could be standing on that brink without suspecting it, as I well know.

Leave a comment

Featured Book

William Shunn

About This Entry

This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on July 1, 2014 9:42 AM.

800 miles behind us, one year ago tonight was the previous entry in this blog.

Grand Motherfucker (an epic sci-fi poem) is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.