Inhuman Swill : Missionaries : Page 4
            

We had no idea that what we were really doing was a cover shoot for my memoir.

It was the late summer of 1987. I was stationed with my assigned mission companion, Elder Tim Bishop, in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. We lived rent-free in a small house owned by a local Mormon farming family. The house was a couple of miles outside of town, in the middle of a vast swath of wheat fields. The Kootenai River meandered nearby. Occasionally a moose would wander by or a bald eagle would sail overhead.

I'd been there since May, so I'd gotten to watch much of the growing and harvest process. At the end of the season, the farmers let us know that they would soon be burning the stubble of one of the fields, which would lie fallow the next year.

Even with advance warning, it was quite a shock when Bish and I, returning home in the late afternoon from a day of whatever missionaries do to occupy their time, spotted the smoke rising in the distance. Driving up the dirt road between the burning fields was a surreal experience, even with the greatest part of the fires having died down. It was so surreal, in fact, that we did exactly what you would expect from bored 19- or 20-year-old kids.

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The Falcon and the Snowman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack In 1985, I was a far bigger fan of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny than just about any other musician. The album that infected me was 1982's Offramp, which sounded unlike anything else I'd ever heard. I became a hardcore consumer of any and all vinyl featuring either Metheny or his compositional partner in the Pat Metheny Group, pianist Lyle Mays. (My friends and I could and did spend hours debating the meaning of the 20-minute title track from As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Yes, we were not normal.)

Thus it was inevitable, thirty years ago, that I would buy the new album from the Pat Metheny Group as soon as it appeared, even if it was the soundtrack to a movie I had not seen. I had a vague understanding of the true-life espionage case behind The Falcon and the Snowman (based on the book by Robert Lindsey), which told the story of Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, two young men from southern California who were arrested in 1977 for selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union. (Boyce was a falconry enthusiast and Lee a cocaine dealer, which is where their sobriquets came from.) I always meant to see the film, but never did.

But that didn't affect my enjoyment of the soundtrack. In fact, it might have enhanced it, as I could listen and try to imagine what was happening on screen during each passage. It wasn't my favorite Metheny album by any means, but parts of it I liked quite a lot. I even grudgingly came to enjoy the collaboration with David Bowie that kicked off side 2 of the record, "This Is Not America"—though I disliked the way the credits on the single made it seem like the Pat Metheny Group was just Bowie's backing band.

Anyway, it was late in 1985, when I was 18, after I'd been living with the album for eight or nine months, that a close friend of mine, whom I call "Andy Kilmer" in The Accidental Terrorist, came to me with a request. This passage is from the book:

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A previous outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist ended with these lines:

Women wield a strange power over the male missionary—even women who don't exist. Perhaps especially women who don't exist.

There's another scene in the book that addressed what I was alluding to there—at least, I thought there was. When I went looking for that scene, I couldn't find it. I had to dig way back to the second draft of the book to locate it, and now I'm not sure what possessed me to take it out. Believe me, it's going back into the latest draft.

Names, of course, have been changèd.

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In a message exchange a few months ago, a friend and former colleague from my missionary days reminded me of a funny story from 1988 involving the elder who was then my companion.

I didn't immediately recall the incident, but then when I was rooting around the other day in a very old draft of my memoir The Accidental Terrorist, I found that I'd remembered it well enough a dozen years ago or more to include it.

Here's that deleted excerpt. My friend who reminded me of the incident is the "Sister Evans" who appears below, by the way, and the Word of Wisdom is the strict Mormon commandment against using alcohol or coffee.


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I've always believed that I have a pretty good memory—in particular, that I can recall formative events and conversations from years or even decades ago in reasonably good detail. When I started work on my memoir The Accidental Terrorist, I made a list of incidents, events, and bits of lore from my mission that I wanted to include. The more of these that I wrote down, the more others I started to remember. My notes ran pages and pages and pages.

I'm now working my way through a revision of the book with notes from my editor, Juliet Ulman. The occasional query scrawled in the margin questions details I seem to recall clearly. I've started wondering how much I can trust those old memories, especially the smaller moments I could easily have misremembered or invented. I've started looking for bits I can actually confirm.

Last night I came to the passage below, which seemed like it should be eminently verifiable. The scene is southern Alberta, October 1986:

On Friday of that week, we were talking heavy metal when I mentioned that the only band I liked of that sort was Rush.

"Ah, so you're one of those," said Fowler. "Same as every other missionary in Canada. You know last winter they had a concert scheduled up in Edmonton?"

"That was the Power Windows tour. What a great show. I saw it in Salt Lake."

"Well, I was serving in Edmonton at the time. I swear half the elders in town must've had tickets."

I gaped. In my civilian life, I had the right to choose to see a rock concert if I wanted, whether or not the Church or my father approved. But for a missionary, ordained and set apart as a representative of Jesus Christ, the rules were different. No music, especially not rock music, and especially not live rock music. That was just handing Satan the keys to your soul's front door.

"Including you?" I asked.

"Naw, Rush ain't my thing. But anyways, the day of the show this massive blizzard hits. No joke. Shuts everything down. No planes in or out. Concert canceled."

"Whoa."

"You're telling me. You think God wanted all those missionaries rocking out in clouds of dope smoke? No way. It would have killed the Spirit dead in Edmonton for a month."
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The Accidental Terrorist (charity auction edition)
I never expected it would take so long to make this announcement, but my Mormon missionary memoir The Accidental Terrorist will be published by Sinister Regard in 2015.

Although it might end up with a different title. And the cover definitely won't look like the one below. And Sinister Regard is actually me.

I'm very excited, nevertheless.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly when I started work on this book. The events it chronicles took place mostly between September 1986 and March 1987, when I was a Mormon missionary serving in Alberta. But before that time span had even ended, I was already learning to tell bits and pieces of the story to an audience. In 1988, I told the full story to a few fellow missionaries—with a tape recorder running. Here's an excerpt, in which you can hear me at age 20 with my Utah accent still fully intact:

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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.

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book_of_mormon_elder_shunn.jpg
To follow up on yesterday's belated review of The Book of Mormon, I wanted to tell you about a funny thing that happened after the show. As at most Broadway productions, we were invited to contribute to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS by depositing cash in the buckets that cast members would be holding various exits. When we reached the main floor from our nosebleed seats, I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and made a beeline for Lewis Cleale, who was still in his Joseph Smith costume.

Now, you have to understand that I came to the show in costume. Laura had dug up my old missionary name tag, which I proudly wore together with a white shirt and tie (much to the amusement and/or chagrin of our theatergoing companions). Imagine the confusion and concern of the poor actor, dressed as the founder of Mormonism, as, after a production lampooning the faith, a stout Mormon missionary marches straight up to him. According to my friend Chris Connolly, the man flinched as if I might attack him.

Imagine his relief when all I did was tell him what a great job he'd done as I dropped money into his bucket. Yeah, that was fun.

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book_of_mormon_poster.jpg
It used to be that when people would find out I'm a former Mormon, they'd ask me whether or not I watch Big Love and how closely it matches my experience of growing up in Utah. (Answers: "Yes" and "Not much.") Over the past year, though, that has changed. Now they ask whether or not I've seen The Book of Mormon.

The answer to that is yes. In fact, as soon as the Broadway production was announced, Laura and I started making plans to visit New York and see it. With my background, how could we not? We put together a group of friends that included my agent and got tickets for April 9th, about two weeks after the show's official opening. I bought our tickets early enough that it wasn't hard to get seats for a group of eight on our preferred date. But by the time we actually saw it, the hype had revved up to such a wild extent that people were asking us how on earth we'd managed to score tickets.

The Book of Mormon—from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez—was the most celebrated new musical of the 2011 Broadway season, and it's easy to see why. It has everything an audience in search of some dangerous New York City titillation could ask for—dirty words, blasphemy, violence, Mormons, sexual innuendo, frequently all crammed together into catchy production numbers—all consumable from the relative safety of a plush theater seat. It's been a giant hit with crowds and critics alike, landing nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical), five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding Musical), and who knows how many best-stuff-of-the-year lists. It kicks off a national tour this August, and a Chicago production will take up residence in the Bank of America Theatre this December. People are falling all over themselves to tell you how good it is.

Is it really that good? I don't think so. Did I enjoy it? Yes, to an extent. Was it funny? Yes, to an extent. Was it anything like my experience as a missionary? Yes—but to a very small, almost irrelevant extent.

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But what shall we do with Number 4?

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Private printing has arrived!
I know it's not nearly as cool as getting a carton of books from a traditional publisher, but the private printing of The Accidental Terrorist from my Magick 4 Terri auction has arrived, and I think these books turned out really darn well, if I do say so myself.

I've signed and numbered every copy, and I'm excited to get them out to the winners. In fact, I'm heading off to the post office right now to overnight them.

But this only makes a vexing question more vexing. Of the five books I ordered, I'm sending three (Nos. 1-3) to the auction winners and keeping one (No. 5) for our own bookshelf.

But what shall we do with No. 4? I've considered several different options for disposing of this volume, but none that I've quite found satisfactory. If you have any suggestions for where I should send it or what I should do with it, please let me hear them.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

Signed editions
that even a
missionary
could afford.

Order yours now!

William Shunn

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