I pitied the woman seated a few rows up from me on the flight from Salt Lake City to Frankfurt, West Germany. The seatbelt light had been a starter’s pistol for the two newly-minted missionaries who were double-teaming their first victim in horrible German – their new language. Nineteen year-old Elders Keir and Walsch – recent graduates of the Missionary Training Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – were doing what they’d just spent two months being programmed to do: Ruin a nice lady’s day.
What had started as a little pleasant chit-chat in her native tongue blossomed into a full-on assault on Roman Catholicism by the two enthusiastic and aggressive boys. I didn’t feel like preaching and was relieved to be pinned in the window seat by Elders Leahpin and Nast – both similarly on the prowl. My missionary companion, Elder Buzz Leahpin, all five foot six inches of him, scanned the compartment of candidates for any hints of interest.
The reason it says Elder or Sister on those black name tags, instead of their birth name, is because their former identities are no longer their personal property. These pairs you see on bikes and walking the neighborhoods belong to the Lord now. The term, Elder, is a title like Doctor and indicates the level of high priesthood the men have achieved. The women, by contrast, are awarded no such universal advantage and are relegated to holding their priesthood leaders’ beers – which nobody in the church drinks. Publicly.
It had been drummed into our heads that every person we encountered was a potential convert to the LDS Church – someone we may have made a promise to find while still in the spirit world prior to this life. Anything less than absolute commitment on our parts could cost one of God’s children their only chance to enjoy the blessings of the gospel – a breach of obedience with eternal ramifications for which we would be held personably liable in the afterlife.
What do you know about the Mormons? Would you like to know more?
It was the “golden question” intended for every man, woman and child on earth – to be asked in their own language. I wondered how often anyone answered yes to it.
I’d flown on airplanes before and had been as far outside the country as Nova Scotia, but this journey was altogether different. I was leaving home and was on my own for the first time. It felt marvelous.
“Can I get you anything?”
“O-negative.” I’d mumbled it loudly enough to be overheard by the buxom and shiny Sister Abbot – and misunderstood by the flight attendant. The attractive redhead may have heard it all in her day, but my drink order was apparently new to her. She pressed her piquant nose into our row with a polite grimace of convincing caps.
“Water,” I said.
Bad boy, Elder Larabee’s voice called out a few rows back. “Scotch and soda.”
As new Mormon missionary recruits, we presented a conspicuous knot of dark suits that reminded me of a congress of undertakers. We may have been 38,000 feet above Kansas, but we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Crowds had parted at our approach. Instead of the smiles and admiration we’d taken for granted in Utah, these people had avoidance in in their faces. A young Hare Krishna disciple struck up a conversation with me outside the restroom.
“I like your uni.” His heavy eyebrow raised as he assessed the suit, tie and name tag. The young mystic was arrayed in flowing layers of peach fabric with beads around his neck and a dark braid jutting out the back of his smoothly shorn scalp. He clutched his holy book with the same fervor I clutched mine.
He extended his hand. “Kowalczyk.”
I accepted it with a smile.“Elder.”
There was a strange spiritual equivalence between us I wouldn’t have thought possible – considering he was an agent of Satan.
“I was a Mormon missionary too.” He laughed with an upward glance. “Once upon a time.” He finished the statement with a jig like a marionette – wrists dangling loosely. It had never occurred to me that someone would leave the Lord’s true church to hop around in foreign airports and jumbo jets with finger cymbals. “Toronto North Mission,” he said.“Way up yonder. I was an Assistant to the President for six and a half months. Baptized like crazy.”
“Wow.” But I was thinking, what in the hell happened to you?
"Now I’m awake and alive,” he sang, bowing.“Where you bound, my brother?”
“West Germany.” My expression dimmed.“Duesseldorf.”
He smiled and bobbed.“Cool.”
The passengers watching us must have known they were being treated to an unusual moment of religious détente as we bowed and shook hands in the aisle of a 747 bound for Europe in the Fall of 1977. A long-haired young man with a scarf and glasses furiously clicked away at us with his Nikon until the diminutive Elder Leahpin interjected himself into the scene, brandishing his usual air of Napoleonic disapproval.
“Chatty time’s over, Elder Ladd.”
The young seeker bowed once again before retaking his seat and I returned it.
“Namasté,” he said. “Peace on your path.”
Those photos are out there somewhere and I would love to see them.
“No airplane has ever crashed with missionaries on board,” Elder Leahpin pronounced as the engines droned in the darkness.“So we should be safe enough.”
In the absence of documented fact, faith-promoting rumor was a satisfying, time-tested staple. I pondered his comment for a moment and found I had a different take.
“Hey, man. If you gotta go, go out serving the Lord.”
We were interrupted by the flight attendant announcing the in-flight movie. Screens dropped from the ceiling in a single syncronized motion. We scrambled to find headphones, but discovered they wouldn’t be provided for free. None of us was willing to pay the three dollars they were charging for audio. Besides, Leahpin had decided it was probably against the laws of God to view a PG-rated motion picture. So we all sat in unsatisfied silence pretending to read our scriptures. Well, nearly all of us.
In-flight audio was delivered through hollow tubes in those days. The gangly plastic headset cord plugged into holes located in the armrest. I found that by field-stripping, connecting and bending my three cheap, BIC pens into a rough semi-circle, I could plug one end into the hole at the edge of the armrest and the other into my ear. Leahpin came unglued.
“That’s stealing, Elder LADD! You trying to jinx this flight for the rest of us?”
Within minutes, his ear was jammed into Silent Movie by Mel Brooks with the rest of us.
My oldest brother, Lance, had served his mission in Switzerland and was fluent in French. I told people I’d go where the Lord needed me, but I was lying. I was pulling for Germany or Denmark. A second language would be a bonus. It hadn’t mattered where I was called to serve as long as it was foreign. It isn’t admitted to, but a scoring system exists among church membership regarding missionary assignments. The announcement of a stateside mission call is often attended with the barest hint of apology. Foreign land, foreign-speaking. That’s the winning combination; the white and ready field where the big dogs hunt. Of course, my preferences didn’t factor into the process. I’d go where I was sent and act thrilled about it.
I’d taken Spanish and Mandarin in school, but had made it a point not to disclose that fact on the questionnaire attached to the Language Aptitude Test. Tipping my hand about previous language experience to the Missionary Committee opened me up to scary possibilities like sleeping in mud huts or kneeling in rice patties for two years. My goal was civilization, clean shirts, creature comforts and a fashionable change of continent. And I’d pulled it off.
A Mission Call might as well be a legal contract. I was now obligated. Unless I washed out and came home early – a taboo with eternal ramifications – I would soon be living in a foreign land, preaching a gospel I didn’t know, in a language I didn’t speak, for a church I’d seldom attended without protest, all the while testifying to the truthfulness of a book of scripture I’d never laid eyes on. Now, all that remained for me was to KNOW that church was true beyond the shadow of a doubt – and do it within the next few hours. It wasn't going to be easy.
Joseph Smith, the young man who founded the Mormon church in upstate New York in the 1800’s, reminded me a little too much of...me. I’d been running a subtle con on myself and others for as long as I could remember. And it struck me I wasn’t the only one. Having never taken a drug or tasted alcohol in my nineteen years, my memory and other faculties were perfect. Not so the young prophet. He produced a series of different tales about his visitation. If I happened across God the Father and His son, Jesus, in a forest grove one spring morning, I wouldn’t create nine competing versions of the story. Like Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Smith’s ninth version of his First Vision was his most inspired and was the first thing out of our mouths when dealing with fresh meat.
Such glaring contradictions didn’t matter to church membership. Lying to yourself and lying for the Lord are the coins of the realm in the Kingdom of God on earth and everyone did it without realizing it. Growing up Mormon, I’d lied continuously from the time I was old enough to stand at the tiny podium of the church’s Primary Organization for children.
“I know the church is true.” Four year-old me parroted the woman whispering in my ear with her scary, vivid red lips. “I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I love my mommy and daddy. InthenameofJesusChristamen.”
My testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel hadn’t gained much oomph in the meantime. I was in a pickle. Within hours I would depart the last creature comforts I’d enjoy for the next twenty-two months. I was pretty sure the spirit of God wasn’t dwelling within me and I was even less sure that I had enough con left in me to pull it off. The rewards of a successful mission were nothing to sneeze at.
It’s an unsubtle reality in the Church that to the faithful go the spoils. For men, these include respect, popularity, position, invaluable career and networking opportunities and first pick of the females – the only prize I’d ever shown any interest in. Those in Mormonism don’t consider it religion. It’s everyday living in the Kingdom of God – an all-inclusive culture rich in its own unique traditions, metaphor, buzzwords, jokes, rewards, punishments, banishments, idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies and epiphanies. And side dishes. Mormonism is a nation like Israel is a nation. Its doctrines reinforce the virtues of obedience and selfless service; a second-nature carefully cultivated through a sunny blending of praise and condemnation. To be LDS is to have an answer for any question and a rationale for every action. Your Mormon friends will tell you they’re like anybody else, but they’re just being generous. Latter Day Saints are a race of superior beings.
The sound of a call button repeated urgently as a loud murmur spread from section to section until it consumed the cabin. Voices called out for a doctor and we were all directed to take our seats. When I finally caught a glimpse, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The German woman my two cohorts had been harassing since lift-off was now stretched out in the center of the aisle a few rows from where I stood in my window seat, head craned up against the bulkhead, gaping. She was in her silver years with a girth typical of the German diet.
You guys killed her, I thought. She chose death over having to listen to another word out of your mouths.
“Baptism for the dead, guys. Baptism for the dead! It counts on the stats!”
Elder Larabee was going to hell.
Our flight was currently over the Atlantic and the flight crew were left to their own meager devices. A well-muscled Polynesian steward wheeled out emergency oxygen and got busy performing CPR.
“Saddle up, boys.” Elder Leahpin’s voice carried easily over the crowd. “It’s time for us to pray.” He bowed his head, “Our Father –”
“If there is anyone aboard capable of assisting in a medical emergency, please use your call button now. The same request was repeated in German.”
The seconds ticked off as the plane held its breath. And then, after several moments:
A flight attendant signaled the caller to come forward. Elder Leahpin strutted after her with a military gait. He turned and pointed to me.
“Whaddarya waiting for, Elder Ladd? Get up here.”
I didn’t know everything about my missionary companion of two months, Elder Leahpin – the nineteen year-old son of a dentist from LaVerkin, Utah. We weren’t allowed to talk about pre-mission life, but I was certain he had no medical training beyond the Boy Scouts. Nevertheless, I scampered out into the aisle behind him. The crew leader cleared our approach as Leahpin and I went in.
“Your oil,” he snapped.
“We’re going to BLESS her?”
He took a knee and put a drop of consecrated olive oil on the head of the unconscious woman. His recitation to deity followed the standard priesthood blessing format to the letter. All of the Elders and Sisters on the plane began singing the hymn, We thank thee O' God for a Prophet. Leahpin motioned me down.
“Go,” he whispered. “Get on with it.”
Getting on with it involved putting my hands on the woman’s head and praying to God to perform a healing – or worse. I panicked. Was I supposed to call her spirit back from the dead? I opened my mouth to speak, but my God had forsaken me. This was a life and death situation and the only executive function I’d ever performed was as a swing-shift manager of a McDonald’s in high school. I closed my eyes, bowed my head and did my best to remember the words of blessings that had never worked when my dad ministered similarly in my behalf growing up.
“Our righteous and eternal Heavenly Father. Uh...we asketh you – thee – to, uh...blesseth this woman to...not be, uh, dead.”
“That’s it?” The crew chief yelled it in my face. A vessel popped in his forehead. “That’s your big medical assistance?” He pushed us out of the way and continued chest compressions. “Get out of here. Go back to your seats,” he roared. “Nice job. This woman is dead.”
The entire group of Mormon young men and women were stunned into silence. One by one they began to pray in unison. I kept my trembling mouth shut. Had I just killed someone with my lack of faith? What horrors awaited me the moment we deplaned? What horrors awaited me in the afterlife? It struck me as a pretty damned risky thing to do – sending a gaggle of farm boys out into the real world to heal the sick and preach the good word with zero life skills or training. I wondered what God was thinking about the whole dead woman on a transcontinental flight situation. After all, His pattern of behavior was all over the map and hard to pin down. From sending global floods to wipe out entire civilizations, nuking Sodom and Gomorrah and drowning thousands of Egyptian soldiers, to kicking a couple of innocent kids out of Eden for tasting the produce – getting God on a good day was important.
The entire plane erupted in spontaneous cheers and applause.
I strained for a better look as the dead woman came miraculously back to life. She sat up – dazed and embarrassed, but clearly among the living. They escorted her to the first class cabin amid a cheer that would have raised the roof off any Pentacostal revival in the deep south. Our impromptu Tabernacle Choir provided postlude music as the airliner finally settled down.
In nineteen and a half years I had never experienced anything close to what I was feeling in that moment. The wild swing from abject, soul-ringing terror – to complete and utter relief was consciousness altering. Having never had sex before, I imagined that’s what a climax must feel like. My body burned with ecstatic chills that pulsed through me in waves.
“We did it,” Leahpin screamed. “We raised the dead. Jesus kicks butt!”
Eleven of the twelve of us started chanting, “Je-sus, Je-sus, Je-sus!”
Our wheels squeaked on the tarmac of a strange land hours later. I stood, neck craned, waiting for my escape as the plane emptied. The crew chief and other passengers wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I was getting used to it.
“Put that landing on your resume.” The captain motioned me into the cockpit.
“You got lucky today, son.”
“But Mrs. Helga Friemantel got luckier.” He pressed a bottle of wine into my chest. “Good effort," he drawled. "If what you did had anything to do with what we all witnessed, you’ve earned it.”
His gift might as well have been hydrochloric acid because of our rigid and all-consuming obsession against coffee, tea, tobacco and the demon drink. I fondled the bottle – musing about what it would be like to down that puppy without coming up for air. I vowed to try it the moment my mission was over. Or not. I still hadn’t decided what I believed in.
The flight crew began to titter then chuckle as the captain broke character and cracked up with them.
“I’m sorry son,” he grinned, reaching for the bottle. “That’s just a little Trans World Airlines humor.”
“I’ll keep it,” I replied. “If I get thirsty, I’ll turn it into water.”
About the Creator
The only rule of heaven is to follow your heart. The only rule of hell is to follow someone else's. I've written for everyone else during my career. Today, I'm following my heart and writing for people who love to read, laugh and grow.