Chapter 1: Come South, Young Man


It may not surprise you to learn that I was once a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—dark suit, tie, name tag, short hair, the whole bit. Two entire years spent knocking on doors, from the tender age of nineteen to the oh-so-lofty legality of twenty-one. I was called to the Canada Calgary Mission, which covered all of Alberta, parts of British Columbia, and the entirety of the Northwest Territories. I labored there from September of '86 until March of '87, at which point I was transferred to the Washington Spokane Mission and served out my next eighteen months before returning home as the most infamous son of the sleepy burg of Kaysville, Utah.

This is the story of that transfer, and how it came about.

I left a girlfriend behind when I went on my mission, a young woman by the name of Katrina McCormick. In high school she had been a member of the drill team and part of the popular crowd. But regardless of her social position, she was awfully smart. She read SF—Frank Herbert being her favorite—which was part of our initial attraction. We didn't start dating until two years after high school, just three weeks before I was due to leave for the North Countries. In that short time we fell in love, and Katrina resolved to wait for me so we could get married when I returned from my mission. Yeah, so we were a couple of naïve, mixed-up kids. I guess everyone was at some point.

Of course, I missed Katrina horribly once I reached Canada, and in the first few months the two of us talked on the phone several times. Now, you must understand, not only are missionaries not allowed to date or to fraternize with members of the opposite sex in a social way, they are also not allowed to talk on the phone with anyone from back home. It's too easy for them to get too trunky too quickly when they're supposed to be working "with an eye single to the glory of God," having put the cares of a "normal" life behind them. (Of course, letters are very important to missionaries. Pity the missionary whose companion receives a lot of mail while getting none himself.)

Anyway, my first area was Brooks, Alberta, a town of about 10,000 people, 120 km due east of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. It's plains country—lots of wheat—and the famous Alberta Badlands are just to the north, with lots of nifty dinosaur fossils. I arrived there on September 25, 1986, and my first companion (as you may know, missionaries always come in twos) was Elder Marty "Methuselah" Fowler, a tall redheaded redneck from Ogden, Utah, whose two-year hitch was up in just a couple of months. (As you may or may not also know, male missionaries all have the title "Elder." Accordingly, I was Elder Shunn. People we met were constantly amused by the necessity of calling young bucks like us "Elder.")

Anyway, Fowler was a good companion, if a little lazy. We got along well, and I dealt with my trunkiness pretty well. But early that December, Fowler was released and went home. He was replaced by Elder Drew Dedman, who hailed from somewhere on the coast of Washington. Dedman had been out on his mission for something more than a year, and he was pretty much the laziest missionary I ever met. Him being the senior companion, we did virtually no work for two weeks, which meant that my trunkiness had ample opportunity to overcome me. (This is one reason why missionaries are supposed to remain "anxiously engaged" in their work.)

Early on Christmas morning—a particularly difficult day for me—Katrina called me. Among her other protestations of love, she said something to me along these lines: "You know, I've finally pretty much resigned myself to the fact that you'll be gone for another twenty months. If you were to show up on my doorstep tomorrow, it would be the biggest shock of my life—although I imagine I'd adjust to it fairly quickly."

Now, my trunky, addled, nineteen-year-old brain heard this as an invitation from Katrina for me to come home. (And who knows? Maybe it was meant somewhat in that spirit.) But here is something else you must understand: completing a mission is very important in the Mormon community. The mere social pressure to go, if nothing else, is very strong. (I had looked forward to my own mission with much dread, and I might not have gone if it weren't what everyone had expected of me.) But worse off than the ones who don't go are the ones who come home early. At best, they are seen as weaklings who couldn't cut it; at worst, they are suspected of being sent home for some kind of sinful indiscretion—illicit sex being, of course, the most likely assumption.

For me, hearing my intended wife tell me, in effect, that it was okay for me to come home, that she would still love me and wouldn't think the worse of me, was a real revelation—even if I was only hearing what I wanted to hear.

So I resolved to leave.

The next day, I called the local Trailways office to find out about buses to Salt Lake. It turned out that there was a bus to Calgary that left at three-thirty in the morning, and from Calgary I could catch a bus to Salt Lake. The cost would be one hundred sixty dollars.

I started packing my stuff.

Of course, I did this in secret, not wanting my companion to try to stop me. I can very bullheaded at times, and I don't like people to call me on it, or to try to talk me out of something difficult that I've resolved to do.

At one in the morning on December 27, 1986, having gone to bed in my clothes and stayed awake for hours, I snuck out of our apartment very quietly with my suitcases and placed them in the car. As I was about to get in and drive away—having planned to take my suitcases to the bus station, leave them there, bring the car back, and then walk back to the station, which was about three miles away—Elder Dedman jumped on me. From right over the top of the car. He loved to jump out from behind things and scare me, but this was the biggest scare of all. "Where the hell are you going?" he demanded.

Well, it seems I had been pretty naïve to expect that he would overlook the fact that all my clothes were missing from my drawers. He hadn't gone to sleep that night either, and had waited to make his move just as patiently as I had waited to make mine.

Dedman told me to get in the car, and he drove us to the local church building. After letting ourselves into the darkened chapel, he tried to convince me to pray about what I was doing. I refused. I told him that I had done my praying already and knew that what I was doing was right. This was pure fiction on my part—what I'm best at.

Finally Dedman relented. If I wanted to go that badly, he said, then he would help. He drove me to the bus station and promised not to call the mission president to report my absence until late in the morning, so that I'd have plenty of time to get clear of Calgary before the rest of the mission was mobilized into trying to stop me.

So I caught the bus and set off west down the Trans-Canada Highway, on my way to Calgary, headquarters of the mission. It would be the most perilous part of my journey—or so I thought. As the bus pulled away, I watched Dedman standing there outside the station in his big blue parka, waving goodbye and looking sad.

And perhaps a little envious.

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

About This Story

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

Powered by Movable Type 4.38