Chapter 4: The Bell Tolls for Me


As I said last time, Snow and I had numerous adventures in our two and a half short months together, most of which once made for great telling at mission reunions. There was the Mattress on Top of the Car, the Evening of Two Hearty Dinners, the Week We Lost Our Wheels, the Great Chinese Fire Drill Prank, and even the Unexpected Fart During Prayers (which I have sworn a solemn oath never to relate). These are all entertaining stories in their own rights, but none hold a candle to our current narrative, as you'll see if you stay with me.

Snow and I had so much fun together (though I can't pretend that I wasn't still suffering from a trunkiness that was only tenuously held at bay) that it seems impossible in retrospect for it all to have happened in just two and a half months. Overall, though, the first six months of my mission seemed to take years to drag by, so maybe it's not so strange that my time with Snow seems to have lasted so long. (Conversely, the last six months fairly flew by. I think it's a function of the ratio of time passed to time remaining.)

Snow was the district leader in our little corner of southeast Calgary, and there were four other missionaries in our district besides the two of us. Elder Van Wagoner (an off-putting name until you realize that it's German for bear foot) and his companion Elder Bishop had the area just south of ours. Sisters Roper and Steed worked in the neighborhood east of us. Snow and I ended up spending the bulk of our spare time with Roper and Steed.

Monica Roper was about twenty-two and quite attractive, and if her manner hadn't intimidated me so much I would probably have had a big crush on her. She came from Amarillo, Texas, and she had a way of acting as if she were the captain of whatever enterprise was at hand. She was very outspoken, and she was forever questioning me about why I had come on a mission. I was usually uncomfortable around her, because her questioning seemed to indicate that she knew I had tried to run away (a fact that President Tuttle had labored to keep under wraps as much as possible, so that I wouldn't have to endure a lot of humiliating innuendo from other missionaries). It turned out later that Roper's questions were the result of nothing more than simple curiosity—that's the way she was—and my paranoia the result of, well, simple paranoia.

Emma Steed was closer to thirty, and she was what is often and unkindly referred to as a "sweet spirit"—the kind of woman who comes on a mission once she's convinced she isn't getting married anytime soon. You'll never meet a nicer, more caring person than Emma Steed, though, and I'm glad to have known her. She came from Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Snow and I, jokingly but fondly, dubbed these two "Doper and Weed," not because it was a particularly nice thing to do, but because the spoonerism was too perfect to resist.

The neighboring district, which consisted of six more missionaries, was led by one Elder Something-or-Other Bruce, a tall southern Californian who could have stepped off the cover of GQ. (It's sad but true that missionaries often never learn each other's given names—at least not in a way that sticks.) His companion Elder Stewart Finn came from Sacramento. Finn had been on his mission since October of 1986, a month less time than I.

Elder Finn. Elder Finn.

Again I say: Elder Finn. Remember this name. (Yes, as you may have guessed, this is rather heavy-handed foreshadowing.)

I ran into Elder Dedman on occasion, though I tried to avoid this as much as possible. He had also been moved into Calgary from Brooks, so that President Tuttle could keep a close eye on him. (I believe two sister missionaries were sent to Brooks as our replacements.) Dedman had apparently gotten into a whole ugly mess of trouble with the president for not doing more to keep me from leaving and for waiting so long to report the fact that I was AWOL.

There was a lot of unspoken unpleasantness between Dedman and me—most of which was probably my fault. I couldn't stand being around him, because I blamed most of my earlier unhappiness on him and because I'd let myself be brainwashed into thinking that he hadn't done me any favors by letting me leave Brooks without a lot of fight. Deep down, however, I think I was ashamed around Dedman. He may have been the best friend I had in that mission, because he was the one most willing to let me exercise my free agency—something Mormons claim to be very big on without often backing it up—and I had betrayed him for his trouble.

You see, Dedman, after talking with me for a while to find out how I really felt, had let me do what I wanted to do—leave my mission—and he was paying a steep price for it. And I had helped to exact that price, since I was the one who told Tuttle how little work Dedman tended to do. So Dedman was high on the president's shitlist, and I was the one who had put him there, all because he respected me enough to let me do my own thinking. Is it any wonder I tried to avoid him—even to the point of feeling misdirected hostility toward him?

As I roam back in memory, it seems now that Dedman was always tentative and a little gun shy when we ran into each other in Calgary. Like he wanted me to say a kind word to him, hold a kind thought for him.

And I never did. Not then, anyway.


Well, it so happened that on a Monday late in January of 1987, a leadership conference was convened. This was nothing unusual. Generally there was a leadership conference once every four to six weeks. Every zone leader and district leader from throughout the mission came together in Calgary for a couple of days of meetings and training sessions and other more spiritually uplifting activities. Since Elders Snow and Bruce were both required to be at this conference for two days—and since missionaries are always supposed to have a companion close at hand—Elder Finn and I ended up spending that time on a split-off.

Ministerial certificate
A facsimile of the official ministerial certificate that allowed me to preach legally and to golf for free. My signature is genuine, but Ezra Taft Benson's is a reproduction.
Once a week, missionaries have a "p-day"—a day for shopping and doing laundry and writing letters and, most importantly, for playing. (A common Mormon joke goes as follows: "Q: Why do missionaries have such big bladders? A: Because they only get one p-day a week." See what a culturally rich tale this is?) The most common pursuits on this day are basketball, racquetball, and golf (as ordained ministers, we normally got a ministerial discount at the links), though there was a place in Calgary called Survival City where we could shoot each other with paint-pellet guns, and that was also popular amongst the elders.

In our mission, p-day fell on Mondays, so leadership conferences were normally also held on Mondays to minimize downtime (which I always thought was a raw deal for the leaders). Finn and I spent that day at Survival City, having a great time, then visited some member families in the evening. All in all, we got along very well. Elder Finn was a convert to the Church. His family had all been baptized when he was in his early teens. Before his mission, he had worked for a radio station in Sacramento and as a freelance deejay for dances, and we talked for hours about music that night.

In the morning, the leadership conference ended and we returned to our regularly scheduled companions.

Transfers struck a couple of weeks later. This exciting event comes about once a month, timed to coincide with the arrival of the latest batch of greenies from the MTC. (Here's a good joke to play on a greenie. You're walking along the street when an airplane flies overhead. "Hey, Elder," you say. "How far away do you think that plane is?" "I dunno, five miles?" "No, about six months for me, about two years for you." Pretty cruel, actually, but always fun.) This is the time of month when companions get switched every which way across the mission. In general, you can expect to be in one area anywhere from two to four months (and with a single companion for maybe one to three months) before the transfer bug bites and you get moved to a new area.

In this fateful early-February transfer, Elder Bruce was moved to Edmonton, where he was promoted to zone leader. This meant Elder Finn got a new companion—Runaway McKay, who would serve as the new district leader in Bruce's place.

Now, no one called Elder McKay "Runaway" to his face. But the fact was, there were two Elder McKays in the mission, and when referring to one of them in conversation, you could only avoid confusion by calling one J.R. and the other Runaway. Runaway McKay was only four months from being released when he was transferred into Calgary, so the incident which earned him his nickname was far behind him. Early in his mission, he had decided (like me) to throw in the towel. He bought a plane ticket and sneaked off to the Calgary Airport, but the apes caught up with him in the departure lounge. They only succeeded in talking him into staying by calling him names and attacking his manhood.

(You begin to see that attempted runaways are often held in contempt by other missionaries, and why I was so afraid that my own attempt would leak beyond the few who were in the know. I can't imagine how I would have dealt with being called Runaway Shunn.)

A third sister joined our district during that transfer (which happens on occasion—I mean, what do you do if you have an odd numbers of missionaries of a certain sex?), by the name of Sister Herzog. She stood only four-eleven, but she was damn cute, and I did develop a huge thing for her. Her nickname was Mad Dog—which she hated—which meant that the threesome of Doper, Weed and Mad Dog were all living together in the same apartment.

How delicious.

So we have Snow and Shunn. Roper, Steed, and Herzog. Van Wagoner and Bishop. Finn and McKay.

The stage is nearly set.

Another leadership conference was fast approaching, this one to kick off on Monday, February 23. Elder Finn called me rather frequently—more and more frequently as the conference drew nearer—to make sure that he and I would in fact being going on splits together again during that conference. He was terribly worried that I might change my mind and split off with some other district leader's companion. "No," I assured him, "it'll be you and me, just like last time."

After all, we'd had a really good time in January. I had no reason to think things would be any different in February.

If only I'd known.

“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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