Chapter 3: The Full-Court Press


So there I am, unable to reenter Canada, closed up in a stuffy office with this pretty young Immigration officer who's staring at me like I'm something from the bottom of the Marianas Trench as I try to explain what's been going on in my life for the past couple of days.

There are two things to keep in mind at this point. First, I was not returning to Calgary with the intention of returning to my mission. My intention was to go back and get a proper release, then to catch a nice Western Airlines flight back to Salt Lake City. The second is that I had surrendered my work visa to the Americans the previous day, having stated that I had no intention of returning to Canada.

The officer grilled me interminably, wanting clarification of what a missionary was and what that entailed, asking why I was returning to Calgary if I was only doing so to facilitate going back to Salt Lake, wondering what strange sort of cult this was I belonged to, never quite seeming to grasp anything I was trying to explain.

After an eternity of my sweating this out (though it was probably only fifteen minutes or so), the officer finally cracked a smile and said, "Missions are hard, aren't they, Elder? Mine sure was, harder than I expected."

She was a returned L.D.S. missionary herself, and she'd been having a great time letting me twist in the wind. It was at once a big relief and a big embarrassment.

She explained that she really shouldn't let me back into the country, but that she would bend the rules a little for me. She called one of her friends at the U.S. Customs office over on the other side of the highway, and it turned out they still had my work visa there. She retrieved it (a minor no-no, actually—though Mormons seem to have little trouble bending the law when it happens in service to a "higher law"), returned it to me, and wished me luck both on the journey ahead and on the rest of my mission. (Which, as far as I was concerned, would only last for a couple more days.)

I used to count it a rather fortuitous happenstance that I had run across another Mormon there at the border post—one of the few people who would understand why it was necessary that I be readmitted to Canada. Almost as if I . . . well, as if it were important that I go back.

I tried not to think about that fact too hard on the way back to Calgary.

(Now, of course, it's not such a great stretch for me to imagine such a thing happening at random. Southern Alberta was, after all, originally settled by Mormon pioneers, and there are still more Saints thereabouts than you or I could shake a stick at.)

Late that evening, I was met in Calgary by the apes. They drove me back to the mission office, telling me how good it was to have me back, blah blah blah—gladhanding me all the way.

President Tuttle (a balding and slightly rotund man who looked a bit like Touché Turtle—some of the elders, in fact, called him "Touché" behind his back) greeted me at the office with a warm hug. He was quite disappointed that I wasn't going to stay, and counseled me strongly against returning home. ("You'll be setting a pattern for your entire life, Elder . . .")

I stayed that night at the apes' apartment, having promised to do a lot of hard thinking and praying. But in the morning, I was still intent on going home. President Tuttle offered me some more counsel before trotting out the heavy guns. This took the form of a pair of prearranged phone calls. President Tuttle answered the first call when it came. "Elder Shunn," he said with his best look of surprise. "It's for you."

It was Elder Vernon Vickers, a close friend of mine from our time in the M.T.C., urging me to stick things out. When that didn't work, my stake president from back home in Kaysville, a Western Airlines pilot named Hank Clearmountain, "coincidentally" called.

Tuttle then turned me loose to give me more time to think. I went to the piano in the main meeting room. (Most every Mormon structure contains a piano, which was nice because that has always been my favorite way to relax.) As I was playing a piece of my own devising, Elder Hardy (one of the apes) wandered into the meeting room to listen. When I was through with that composition, Hardy told me how much he had enjoyed it. Then he asked how long I had been playing the piano.

"About ten years," I said.

"Was it always easy for you?"

"No. I used to hate to practice."

"But apparently you kept it up. You play beautifully."

Only then did I realize what he was driving at. (Duh. Welcome to Obvious But Inappropriate Metaphor Central, Elder Shunn. We hope you enjoy your stay.)

In the end, it took phone calls from each of my parents to talk me into staying. My father was completely distraught, and it was only then that I learned he had never finished his own mission. But it was my mother whose concerned arguments finally won through. After many tears were shed, I hung up, went into the next room, and said to President Tuttle, "I'm going to stay."

Good thing, too (he said acerbically). I spotted a note on Tuttle's desk about then which listed several names, all but one of which had been crossed out. Vickers, Clearmountain, Dad, Mom, then Keith McCormick—my girlfriend Katrina's father. I'm glad I never had to take that call.

Tuttle hugged me again, then said he never would have gone to so much effort to keep me if I hadn't been someone he had great plans for in the mission. Nailing me in place. Pouring the cement into the bucket around my feet. Shoveling on another spadeful of dirt. "You're going to be one of the great ones, Elder Shunn," he said. "If you'd been just some run-of-the-mill kind of punk, I would have given you a plane ticket yesterday. But you're going to be one of my leaders. I've known that from the day you walked in here."

(As a matter of fact, that never happened. The small matter of the headlines I made two months later cut that prophecy off at the knees. But who could have guessed then that I'd be the one to put not one but a dozen gray hairs on President Tuttle's head before he was shut of me?)

Then President Tuttle told me who was to be my new companion. He didn't want to send me back to Brooks with the less-than-diligent Elder Dedman. He said he was keeping me in Calgary, partnered with an Elder John Snow, so that he would be close by if I started having any more difficulties. Of course.

Snow, who had been out only two months longer than me, was a district leader, and President Tuttle let me know that I should watch Snow closely and learn from him, with the unspoken understanding that I was being groomed for an eventual district leadership of my own.

Snow and I had tremendous success in the two brief months we were together, at least in terms of the number of people we converted to the Mormon church. But we also became fast friends. When we played, we played hard, and I have to admit that some of our exploits achieved almost legendary status in the Calgary Mission (a fertile ground for the sowing of myths, if ever there was one). No adventure was more legendary, however, than the incident of 23 February 1987, which is now something akin to an urban legend amongst Church members across the continent.

I do not exaggerate.

“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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