From experience, I can tell you that being called to serve a Latter-day Saint mission 50 years ago was a lot like getting drafted — physicals, interviews, paperwork, orders to report for training and a mandatory dress code.
Arriving at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, was a lot less stressful on me than the then-Language Training Mission in Provo, Utah. Vietnam was still a factor in 1971, but worrying about getting killed was a mere vague concern, whereas wishing I was dead on my mission wasn’t.
Tough as my mission became, I managed to hang on for the entire two years. Several factors were involved, including the fact that I was thousands of miles from home, the possibility the Old Man would have paid me to stay away, and a pathological stubbornness on my own part.
I couldn’t do it today. Ironically, while thousands of missionaries are coming home today because of the coronavirus pandemic, calls to serve missions continue to go out. With a few major changes, of course.
Example: Ricky Smoozer, Gravel Pit, Utah, is called to serve in the Chile Tierra del Fuego (Yaghan speaking) Mission.
As you might expect, Ricky is totally amped by such an exotic call. He can’t wait to eat bread made from seaweed, sleep on a mattress of dirt and manure, and spread the word among the easily annoyed Yaghanes people.
Ricky is set apart and becomes Elder Smoozer. He buys a short ton of missionary gear, including 21 gallons of bootleg hand sanitizer, a tent, and a set of scripture in Yaghanese.
Then comes the surprise. He is told to stay home and serve the Yaghan people from the comfort of his home in Gravel Pit. He’ll learn Yaghanese online, and teach the Yaghanese the gospel via Skype.
Smoozer [in atrociously Utah accented Yaghan] • “Pishtekal’to migz Moroni tewquassti uut nooti Joseph Smith yitqui…jigi.”
Some guy 7,200 miles away • “P’uup ziqui…gul-den plats?”
It just wouldn’t be the same. A large part of the reason for me going on a mission in the first place was to get away from the temptations of home.
Locked up in the LTM — now called the Missionary Training Center — it was impossible for my friends to drag me out. Instead, they just parked in front of Knight-Mangum Hall, honked the horn, and yelled obscenities until the cops came.
But my friends weren’t the real problem. It was the constant thought that I didn’t belong among righteous missionaries that nearly did me in more than once. But I had companions who helped me along, some by pissing me off to the point that I stayed just to spite them.
Had I been called to South America but required to conduct my mission from home via the internet, there’s no way I would have finished.
I wouldn’t have had a companion at home to make me get up on time. I eventually would have stopped. Likewise, I might have lapsed back into my old habits regarding the Word of Wisdom. Ditto dating.
It’s possible that the church already recognizes such possibilities and has implemented safeguards to keep missionaries on track.
It still wouldn’t have worked for me. I needed a complete change of scenery to go along with my complete change of lifestyle.
Being able to look out the window and see what I was missing would have inevitably resulted in the mission authorities sending me to where I already was — home.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.