Chapter 2: Escape from Canada!


The bus rolled into Calgary at around six-thirty in the morning. I waited for the transfer bus anxiously in the huge downtown Greyhound station, fearing that someone from the mission would spot me and the game would be up.

Now, the way I'm telling the story, you may get the impression that a mission is something of a police state. If so, you wouldn't be wrong. It has all the same trappings—totalitarian leadership, constant indoctrination, "protection" from non-approved media, and even informers. According to the party line, no missionary is compelled to do anything he doesn't want to do. If he doesn't want to stay, he doesn't have to. In reality, however, the pressure to stay is applied mercilessly. Our hypothetical runaway is counseled very strongly to try to stick things out, if even just for another month. And if that works, then he's counseled to try staying for another month after that, and so on. I'm sure you catch the drift.

Admittedly, there is a somewhat defensible rationale for this—assuming the missionary intends to stick with the Church and not apostatize completely. For those who actually believe, leaving one's mission can lead to a sense of failure or incompleteness in life that is difficult to shake. My father is a good case in point—he came home from his mission in Germany after only six months and still can't shake that sense of failure—but that's another story.

In any event, in order to have a chance to bring this sort of pressure to bear, a mission president will wish to have a rather serious chat with any elder who wants to leave—laying out the facts of life, so to speak.

I still believed in the Church at that point. Even so, I was eager to avoid that chat at all costs.

The new bus left Calgary soon enough, and we wound south through hilly farming regions for the remainder of the morning. Some time early in the afternoon, we found ourselves at the American border, where we had to go through Customs and transfer to another bus. In the course of this processing, I had to turn over my Canadian work visa to the American Customs officials. After the brief paperwork was complete, I strolled across the border with my bags and prepared to board the American bus.

Then a serious, sun-glassed, straight-backed, uniformed Canadian Immigration officer stopped me. "Are you Donald William Shunn the Second?" he asked.

I nodded, suddenly nervous. The sun was very bright that day.

The officer said, "There are two representatives from your Church organization in my office. They would like to talk to you before you board. Let me tell you that you are under no legal obligation to speak to them. I'm merely passing along their request as a courtesy."

These would be the elders serving in the Cardston area, or their zone leaders. (I became a zone leader myself, eventually, thank you very much.) The word had gone out. Elder Shunn was on the run. Dedman had given me a good headstart, because no one had caught up with me until the last possible stop. In a few more moments, I would have been out of reach.

I knew what they would say, how they would try to talk me into staying, talk me out of going home, but I had already made up my mind and I didn't even want to lay eyes on them. Leaving would be too much harder on me that way, emotionally. I wasn't prepared to argue about anything. I just wanted to go.

"No," I told the officer. "I don't want to see them."

"I'll tell them that," said the officer. "Welcome back to the United States."

That was a good feeling. A really good feeling. Back in the U.S.A.

I got on the bus and went all the way to the back. As we pulled away from the border, I looked back and could see two miserable faces pressed against the window of the Canadian Customs station. I felt unaccountably sad to see them like that, but I also felt free. I swear, it felt as if I were in a movie and had just escaped from East Germany or something.

The thrills weren't over for the day, though. We rolled into Great Falls, Montana, around four that afternoon. The bus station was old and decrepit, and the restrooms were upstairs. As I climbed the stairs, it seemed as if someone were following me. I entered the men's room, stepped up to a urinal, and—well, let's just say I was in no position to run when a short, stocky, white-haired man in a black leather jacket entered the room and stood a few feet behind me. "Elder Shunn?" he said.

That frustrated the hell out of me. "You picked a great time to confront me, didn't you?"

As I washed up, he introduced himself as the stake president for Great Falls. I forget his name, but he didn't match any of my preconceived stake president stereotypes. He wore black aviator sunglasses with his leather jacket, and it turned out he drove a black '86 Camaro. He was very friendly, very compassionate, as I learned. He invited me to his office for a chat, and later to his home.

Apparently, some bright boy either back at the mission or at Church headquarters had plotted out my bus route. Church officials near the major stops were alerted to keep an eye out for me. (The L.D.S. Church is nothing if not well-organized.) This stake president got me on the phone with my mission president, an affable former businessman named J. Matheson Tuttle, who pleaded with me to come back to Calgary and talk to him. He said if I got back and still wanted to leave, I could, but that we should go through proper channels to have me released, rather than having me just run away.

God help me, but that sounded reasonable at the time. After a bit of prayer, I decided I would go back—but only to get a proper release. The stake president put me up for the night with a couple of local missionaries (in which sojourn there is a whole-nuther story), then picked me up in the morning for the trip to the bus station, where he bought me a ticket to Calgary. We shook hands, and once more I hopped onto a bus, with a long trip in front of me.

All was going swimmingly until we reached the border to go back into Canada. A pretty young Canadian immigration officer had to interview each person on the bus briefly before she could let it cross the border. She asked me my business. I explained as best I could. At that point she took me to her office, where, after a few phone calls, she explained that I could not reenter Canada—because I had surrendered my work permit to the Americans the previous day.

It seemed I was stuck at the border.

“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!

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