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The Long and Winding Road to Idaho
A homesick Mormon missionary embarks on an elaborate quest to get sent home without imperiling his soul. Easier said than done, on both counts.
An abbreviated version of this essay was first performed April 17, 2013, for The First Time: First Crime at Second City Chicago’s Up Comedy Club. The story is told more fully in my 2015 memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary.
They caught up with me in a bus station men’s room in Great Falls, Montana.
Now, given that they were after me, you might assume I was on the run from the police, or maybe the Mob — but the truth was an unholy combination of the two. I was on the run from the Mormon Church.
It all started in Utah in 1986. I was the firstborn in a modestly sized Mormon family of eight children. We were devout, which meant more than just no coffee, no tea, and no television on Sundays. The expectation in my family was that all the boys would go on a mission when they turned nineteen, giving up all worldly pursuits to preach the gospel of Joseph Smith in some remote corner of the globe for two years. It’s kind of like the Mormon Peace Corps, but without the possibility of hooking up.
My relationship with the Mormon Church was ... complicated. I’d been repressing severe, secret doubts about my faith since a young age. I didn’t so much believe the church was true as I feared that it was true. The last thing I wanted to do was throw away two years of my life on a mission, but as the eldest child and the example to my younger brothers, there was no way I could wriggle out of it.
So, just shy of my nineteenth birthday, I mailed my application papers to church headquarters and waited anxiously to find out where my mission would take me. What, did you think we got to choose where we served as missionaries? Oh, no no no. You go where the Lord wants you to go, with His will divined apparently by means of darts thrown at a spinning globe.
As far as I was concerned, the only redeeming feature of a mission was the chance to become fluent in a foreign language. My high school friends were being sent places like Brazil and Japan, so with three years of French and a year of German under my belt I figured I was a lock to go somewhere cool like them.
When my mission call finally arrived in the mail and I tore open the envelope, though, I couldn’t make sense out of the word sitting there in the middle of the page. Canada? They were sending me to Canada? And not the French-speaking part either, but western Canada. Specifically Calgary, Alberta, a city most famous for a sports arena shaped like a goddamn saddle.
I was mortified. It was hard to look people in the eye when they asked where I’d been called on my mission. The church was sending me due north to preach the gospel to cowboys and roughnecks. As a measure of my personal spiritual worth — and to Mormons, it’s all about how spiritual you appear — this was almost as embarrassing as being sent to flippin’ Idaho.
So, in late September it was amid a hurricane of conflicting emotions that I boarded a plane for Calgary, only to be dispatched from there to a remote oil town on the Alberta prairie, called Brooks.
Missionary life, if you’re curious, was horrible. Knocking on doors for twelve hours a day in sun, snow, or subzero cold. No television, no movies, no newspapers, no books but the Bible and the Book of Mormon. No phone calls home. No dating, not ever, under any circumstances. The constant presence of your assigned partner — your so-called “companion,” with whom you spend every waking moment of every single day, lest one or the other of you should fall into temptation. Each of you pretending, when you’ve spent way too much time in the bathroom, that you weren’t just in there jerking off to thoughts of Madonna or your girlfriend back home.
I hated being a missionary. I fell into a dangerous depression, and I wanted to go home. But in Mormon culture, you just can’t just quit your mission and go home — at least, not without admitting to your family, your community, and yourself that you’re a weak, defective, sinful wretch, unworthy of the attentions of any good potential Mormon wives.
I fantasized in bed late at night. Like Corporal Klinger bucking for a Section 8, I fantasized about ways to get sent home that no one could hold against me. Maybe I could break my leg just badly enough to need physical therapy. Maybe I could develop the kind of cancer that makes you look brave and gets you laid and then miraculously goes away.
But after three months, I was done fantasizing. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to go home. But I couldn’t call up the doddering old mission president in Calgary and tell him so, because I knew he’d just talk me into sticking things out. My particular psychosis, instilled in me as a child, was that anytime one of my Mormon leaders commanded me to do something, it sounded reasonable and convincing in that moment. That was my Achilles’ heel. That was my kryptonite.
So, it was a few days after Christmas that I sneaked off to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning and made my escape.
That bus ride — west to Calgary and then south to the border, running for my freedom, running from my duty to God — was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Once my absence became known, the Church activated its remarkable emergency communications network — invaluable in times of natural disaster, but easily put to evil use as well — to issue an A.P.B. on a fugitive missionary whose only crimes were wanting to read science fiction novels and make out with his girlfriend.
At the border crossing, I managed to avoid the two missionaries they sent to intercept me as I transferred from one bus to the next. I felt like a real super-spy. I felt like James Bond.
But that evening in Great Falls ... well, I had a bad feeling as the gray-haired man in the black leather jacket trailed me through the bus station toward the men’s room. To show you how useless I am in stressful situations, I went into the men’s room anyway, because while James Bond never seems to need to pee, I really did, and I didn’t see an alternative.
Sure enough, as I was taking care of business at the urinal, this man in his black leather jacket came in, leaned against the wall, and said, “Elder Shunn?”
To make a long story short, this man was the local Mormon stake president — roughly comparable to a Catholic bishop — and he was there to convince me, if not to resume my mission service, then at least to go back to Calgary and request an honorable discharge from my mission president. And I bought it, his whole line. Because, you know, kryptonite.
Now, it’s a testament to my naïveté that when I boarded the bus back to Calgary I actually believed I was on my way to collect an honorable discharge and an airplane ticket home. But the next day, when President Tuttle actually deigned to see me, it was to launch a multi-pronged onslaught of compassionate brainwashing intended to convince me that if I abandoned my mission I would initiate a pattern of indolence and failure that would cripple me for the rest of my life.
To my credit, I managed to hold out against him for five whole hours before I finally broke.
“Oh, Elder Shunn,” President Tuttle exclaimed after I’d agreed to stay, “I’m overjoyed at how the Spirit has touched your heart! Oh, and I want you to know that you are in no way on probation or in any trouble with me for going AWOL. No, the one who’s in trouble is that lazy companion of yours in Brooks who failed to do everything in his power to keep you from getting on that bus in the first place.”
Now let’s fast-forward two months. I’ve been reassigned to Calgary,—the Stampede City, eh? I’m actually doing reasonably okay, as there are plenty of other missionaries around to help keep the loneliness and depression at bay. I haven’t exactly drunk the Kool-Aid, but — like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption — I’m just trying to keep my head down and my nose clean and quietly do my time.
It’s late February. I’m on temporary assignment with a missionary named Elder Finn. Both our regular companions are district leaders, and they’re off somewhere at a mission leadership conference with President Tuttle and thirty or forty other district and zone leaders. (And by the way, if that sounds like sales terminology, it’s probably not an accident.)
It’s nearly evening, and I’m at Calgary International Airport, where Elder Finn has forced me to accompany him. He’s been planning this excursion for weeks, planning for the day when all the mission’s most diligent elders are tied up at a conference, and when he’s partnered with the infamous Elder Shunn — that guy who tried to run away.
Elder Finn, who’s only been out on his mission for four months, is planning to fly home, to Sacramento. He’s done.
But there’s one thing Finn hasn’t counted on. He thought I was the kind of missionary who’d help him. He thought, based on my past behavior, that I’d stand by and give him time to get away before calling President Tuttle.
He was wrong.
Afraid of the punishment I might get for letting him escape, I spent the entire drive out to the airport trying to talk Elder Finn into staying on his mission. He wasn’t having any of it, so now I’ve slipped away from him in the crowded terminal, and I’m desperately dialing numbers at a pay phone. President Tuttle is not at his office, of course, with the conference going on, and none of the missionaries whose numbers I can dredge up from memory are home either. The clock is ticking down to Finn’s departure. I have this crazy, half-formed backup plan — but am I really willing to do everything in my power to keep my companion from leaving?
I rip open the phone book before I can talk myself out of my scheme. I look up Western Airlines and find what I recognize as a local number. I plug my quarter into the slot. My hand shakes as I dial.
The line picks up on the first ring. “Western Air Cargo,” says a young man. “How can I help you?”
I take a deep breath. Slowly, clearly, and distinctly, in my best telephone voice, I say, “There’s a bomb in a suitcase on Flight 789.”
And I hang up.
I wish I had time to tell you what happened next — how I watched airport security quietly mobilize, how the plane in question was grounded, evacuated, and searched, how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — yes, the fucking Mounties — caught up with me, how I was convicted of felony public mischief and sentenced to jail, how to this day I’m forbidden to set foot in Canada — which, to be honest, I never regretted much before this election year — and how I somehow became a folk hero to the thousands of Mormons in Calgary and surrounding areas.
Oh, right, and how Elder Finn was one of the few passengers that night who actually managed to reach his final destination. That’s all a story for a different day.
But I do want to tell you about a meeting I had shortly after my release from jail. A member of the church’s second highest governing body, the First Quorum of the Seventy — seriously, I’m not making this shit up, they come just below the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — happened to be in Calgary for a conference and asked to visit with me.
I sat cloistered with this intimidating gray eminence as he grilled me about what I’d been thinking that day at the airport, while in finest Mormon fashion I shaded the truth to make myself look as virtuous as possible.
At length he sat back and studied me like a bear trying to seem friendly while deciding where to take the first bite. “Elder Shunn,” he said, “I believe your heart was in the right place. The Brethren of course cannot condone your actions, but they have no desire to punish you further. At the same time, however, your notoriety now makes it impossible for you to continue your work here as a missionary effectively.”
A strange lightness filled me. Clouds parted, and I swear I heard heav’nly hosts sing alleluia. I had done it! They were sending me home! I had somehow stumbled through a tiny loophole in the missionary rulebook, and now I was actually getting my Section 8!
But in the next moment the teeth snapped shut on me. “For that reason, Elder, you’ll serve out the remainder of your mission back home in the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
Which is how I ended up a missionary in motherfucking Idaho. ∅
My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, is available from all the usual sources online, though I would encourage you to order it either from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.