Chapter 32: Dreadful Sorry Berenstein


It started innocently enough. Elder Summers, as zone leader, periodically went on splits with the district leaders he supervised. One day he made plans to split with Elder Berenstein, who was the district leader in Ellensburg, a college town fifty miles north of Yakima in the foothills of the Cascades.

Summers and I drove to Ellensburg in the morning. There, Summers picked up Elder Berenstein—a tall, thin, shy fellow with homey good looks and a cowlick in his hair that made him look like a deeply tanned scarecrow. They drove back toward Yakima, leaving me to spend the next twenty-four hours with Berenstein's companion, Elder Wally Brown.

Brown was a ruggedly good-looking swinger who had a fixation on Top Gun. He wore aviator sunglasses, planned to become a fighter pilot, and wanted to be Tom Cruise. Everyone called him Wally, because there were two Elder Browns in the mission.

Wally had only been out for two months, but he had the kind of dominant personality that made it all but impossible for me not to tag helplessly along on whatever mad errand he wanted to pursue. And what we did that night was to spend several hours hanging out with the two gorgeous college cheerleaders who lived in the apartment next door. Nothing untoward happened, but I was uncomfortable about the situation all evening long—while at the same time enjoying the thrill of doing something illicit. (What a mass of contradictions I am.)

The next morning, Summers and Berenstein returned. At about the same time, the postman brought Berenstein and Wally their mail. Wally sorted through it as the rest of us chatted. After a few minutes, Wally said, "Hey, Shunn, you transferred down from Calgary, right?"

I nodded. I had told him my cover story the previous night—illness, with the "mental" part left out.

"Did you know Sister J up there?"

I'll call her Sister J here, because—well, you know the drill by now. "Black woman?" I said. "Really pretty? Hasn't been out long?"

"That's the one," said Wally. "I just got a letter from her. She and I were in the M.T.C. together, and we were good friends there." Big surprise. "She says some elder up there in Calgary got thrown in jail for calling a bomb threat in on an airplane. She says the guy's companion was going home, and he was trying to stop him."

I didn't say anything. My cover was about to be blown for good. Boy, wouldn't that be a relief!

But Wally failed to put two and two together. "The guy went to jail and everything," he said, scanning the letter. "Can you believe that? Did you know this guy?"

Summers covered his mouth with his hand. I nodded. "Yeah, I knew him," I said.

That was when soft-spoken Berenstein piped up. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard!" he said. "I mean, can you believe how stupid someone would have to be to do something like that?"

Summers was trying hard not to laugh. I grew defensive. "Maybe he had a good reason," I said.

"Good reason, my foot," said Berenstein. "My gosh, the guy must have had the brains of a flea!" And so on.

Later, after my story had become general knowledge in the Spokane mission, I would take advantage of every opportunity I could to razz Berenstein about the way he had called me stupid to my face—without even knowing that it was me he was calling stupid. Berenstein was very, very embarrassed about the whole thing, and every time I mentioned it he turned bright red and said, "Jeez, Shunn, do you have to bring that up again? I've said I was sorry. Jeez."

It was a delightful and satisfying reaction.

After I'd been in Yakima for a few weeks, Elder Breinholt returned from his recuperative stay in Spokane—and he and Summers and I were thenceforth a threesome. He and Summers fought a lot, because Summers was a worker and Breinholt was a kicker. It was my misfortune to get along well with both Summers and Breinholt, so until May I was caught in the middle of a rather uncomfortable situation. Salvation came when I was transferred to the small town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and promoted to district leader.

Bonners Ferry is the last town of any size that you'll find as you travel north through Idaho. The population of the town is about two thousand, and it lies only thirty miles south of the Canadian border. "Now, I can trust you not to cross the border, can't I, Elder Shunn?" said President Aames when he phoned me with the news of the transfer and the promotion.

I laughed. "Absolutely," I said.

My new companion was Elder Rob Hull, a native of Glendale, California. He had been out on his mission a month longer than I had, and he acted resentful of the fact that I was the district leader and not him. To worsen matters, Hull was a topper, which made him all but insufferable. (For an example of his inconsiderate behavior, consider the simple farming family we were visiting one day. They were telling us about how exciting it had been the previous summer when they had visited the West Edmonton Mall—at the time, the world's largest indoor shopping mall. Hull's only comment was, "When they finish it, the Glendale Galleria back home is going to be even bigger." The asshole.)

Life with Hull might have driven me right 'round the bend had it not been for the fact that I loved Bonners Ferry. It was a beautiful little town, nestled high in the forested mountains of northern Idaho. I also liked my district quite a good deal. The district was unique in that it had only two elders. The other four missionaries in the district were sisters. Sister Sigmon and Sister Parker served seventy miles east of us in Libby, Montana, while Sister Sullivan and Sister Barkdull served forty miles south of us in Sandpoint, Idaho, on the shores of the beautiful Lake Pend Oreille. We got along pretty well, the six of us, and our district meetings were usually a lot of fun.

(I'm very pleased to be able to report that I've gotten back in touch with Lisa Barkdull as a result of this Web site. Even if nothing else, these pages have accomplished that much.)

Bonners Ferry would hold nothing but good memories for me if it weren't for something that happened late that first month. A letter arrived for me from Katrina, and the news was not good.

The strain of waiting for me had become too much for her.

I had thought I was immune—every missionary does—but I was wrong.

This was my Dear John letter.

“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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