Latter-day Saint missionaries may now phone home once a week from wherever they are called to serve on Earth.
Even better, they can Skype with their families. It can be dangerous because it enables the romantically involved to see how much weight has been gained and/or hair lost.
Such immediate communication is a huge change in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Until 1960, missionaries were obliged to write home with crayons once a month and, after that, only by pencil until 1975. Serving the Lord back then was not for the easily homesick.
I didn’t get homesick. Going on a mission was like running away from home. Still, I was surprised about how long it took mail to find me.
A good example would be the news of a friend’s death that arrived in a badly wrinkled envelope, which found me in a roach-infested apartment in Nalgas de Mono, Uruguay.
Since Bo was a walking pharmacy for as long as I had known him, his death from an overdose in Mill Creek Canyon didn’t come as a huge surprise. What caught me off guard was how long it took me to find out about it.
The letter’s postmark was dated 3 1/2 weeks before I received it, or a good five weeks after he died. It was ancient news to everyone but me.
Bo was cremated and his ashes dumped in the Pacific Ocean. By the time I received word, I calculated that his remains were somewhere near Japan, Guam and Alaska.
Back then, we were permitted to write home (by hand) once a week. In turn, the mission home sent our mail to us once a week. Since Bo’s mom hated me, and any condolences I sent wouldn’t reach her for another month, I didn’t bother.
Delivery times between Salt Lake City and Montevideo varied. It took anywhere from 16 days to nine weeks to never for a letter to arrive. Any news we got was always old news. Hell, the Old Man was in Vietnam before I even learned that he had orders to go there.
One of my companions got a “Dear John” letter so old that by the time he received it, the former love of his life was not only married to someone else but also approaching the second trimester of her pregnancy.
That was rough. But I understood. The worst letter I received was scrawled on a Playboy foldout by a bunch of “friends” telling me to come home. Like Elder Retcher, I was a zombie for a while.
Even communication within the mission took time. Missionary transfers came by way of a bicycle-delivered telegram or in a weekly package on a bus.
It made coordinating things difficult. On one transfer, I sat on my luggage outside the apartment for 17 hours until the rest of the district got back from a zone conference.
Calling home was almost unheard of during my time, never mind actually talking face to face. If I remember correctly, we were allowed to call home for Christmas and in the event of a critical injury.
I called home once, but the connection was so bad that whoever answered the phone sounded like Bullwinkle. I hope it was home, because I yelled, “I love you, Mom” before the connection was lost.
I’m not sure if more immediate news is better than old news for missionaries. Either way, it’s probably a necessary distraction. Sometimes you just need to know there’s a whole other world out there.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.