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Three score and ten or more

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Last of the Mormon Missionary Stories

The Last of the Mormon Missionary Stories

I have been careful not to get theological or to deal with religious issues and spiritual experiences.  I have been trying to deal with the experiences of living and working in a new culture. (and with the culture of twenty-year old men almost anywhere.)  That is not to say that there were not some rather intense missionary experiences.  Missionaries are expected to study, to get up early in the morning, read scriptures, pray, keep their rooms clean, call on the sick, learn the language and keep going for most of the day, every day.   If I had a complaint early in the mission, it was because all the missionaries who came home during my youth told us all about the marvelous friends and the great spiritual experiences of their missions as if that was all there was.  I had some sort of warped idea that the spirit of the Lord was going to sustain me to the stage that everything was going to be EASY and WONDERFUL.   It was a bit of a betrayal to find out that it is just as hard to get up at six o’clock in the morning when you are a missionary as it is when you are a college student (who really tried to avoid this six A.M. thing at all costs.)  When you are living on a pittance food doesn’t rain from the trees, and when you are exhausted at 10:00 P.M. you are just exhausted.  I was shocked to learn that , even  with prayer, missionary work is HARD work.

I will continue on this same path, and this will be the last mission tale for a while.  Tracksy says my readership has dropped into the tank, so I will go back to other stuff.

When I left you at the last episode Elders Pollack, Morrow and Johnson had left our friends from the army  at the dock and we went along home, which was the chapel.  It was an apartment on the second floor of a building that had entrances both from the street and from the piha, or courtyard..  On the ground floor, next to the entrance to the chapel was a Valio, or dairy and bread store.  There was another store on the corner, but I can’t remember what it was.  Upstairs, there were a couple of offices, one of which belonged to one of the members, and at the end of the hall, our “apartment”, the chapel.  I am pretty sure that the chapel had five rooms in addition to bathrooms.  As you entered, on the left was a small room that was used for a classroom.  As you came past that, the chapel proper was straight ahead, and there was a room on the right that was used as a bedroom for the elders.  In the upper right corner was a small kitchen and a bathroom.  From the kitchen, there was a window onto the fire escape into the piha or courtyard.  It was typical that many of the chapels at that time consisted of of the houses and apartments which also served as residences for the local missionaries.  All the rooms but the bath  were used as classrooms on Sunday with two classes, one at each end, in the chapel proper.  The beds for the elders were actually cots, which, covered with a bed spread were used as benches for the Sunday School classes.  Elder Morrow used to jokingly (????) complain that he was sure that there were people who sat on his bed every Sunday and broke wind so badly that he could smell it for days.   I’m sure that there were closets, but I can’t remember where they were.  I think that there was a table in the “residence” room which we used as a desk, and as a dinner table.  There was (I think) a water heater on the wall in the kitchen into which you put coins if you wanted hot bath/shower water or dishwater.  One advantage (or disadvantage) of living in the chapel was that you couldn’t leave your clothes lying around or on the floor or some member would sit on them or use them to erase the chalk board
.  
In the bath-room were typical accessories.  What I remember most vividly was that the toilet tank was mounted about five feet up on the wall, with a long pipe leading to the connector.  One flushed it by pulling an overhead chain.  

There were also at least two missionary sisters who worked in Turku, who must have had rooms elsewhere, but I don’t remember where. When I arrived, the sisters were Leah Antsola, and a Sister White.  Sister A. was a native Finn, the sister of Irmeli, who had so strongly “gotten” my attention in Helsinki.  She was a very pleasant looking lady with mousy blondish hair, but not at all striking like her sister.  I quickly learned to depend on Sister Antsola to translate my talks into Finnish, to help me understand the scriptures in Finnish, and for almost anything else that was important.  She was intelligent, diplomatic, very fluent in both Finnish and English (I later learned that she had been one of the translators for the hymn book, along with Sister Patjas) and seemed to know how to cool everyone’s tempers. She also had a wonderful disarming sense of humor.  Her companion was (I think) a Sister White.  If  I remember correctly Sister White was energetic, tall and a bit overweight, with black hair and a braying loud laugh (I hope she never reads this.)  I seem to remember that her Finnish wasn’t too good, but at the time, mine wasn’t either, so who was I to complain. Somewhere along the line, before I left, Turku, Sister Willow Wagstaff was in town.  I really don’t know if she was there with a companion when I arrived (If she was, I think she was with a Sister Huhta,)  Sister Wagstaff was unique.   She was so much like most of the girls I knew in the theatre, sort of a pre-beatnik with long red hair and a mind that was sharp as a tack but seemed to drift.   I don’t know if it were she, or the girls like her at home, but if she wasn’t a vegetarian, she should have been, and I think she espoused every “social justice and equality” impulse of the day.

Our District President (who served both as District President for the members and as what would now be called Zone Leader for the Missionaries) was Elder Gibb, and he seemed to be really on top of everything.  I went out with him to see some inactive members my first Sunday in town and was truly impressed.  He must have had a companion, but I don’t remember who.  The members, as a group were outstanding in most ways.  I remember a few families particularly well, though I won’t discuss them here.  It really bothers me that I can’t remember the name of our Relief Society President.  She was a really intelligent impressive small lady with grey hair.  She was a Sauna Lady, and frequently expressed her frustration that the elders never came to patronize her sauna, but we discussed it, and as a group decided that once she saw the elders naked, she would never look at them with the same respect again. Actually, in retrospect, I don’t think it would have bothered her, and she would have quit complaining that we never came around.  She was a professional, did her job well, and I don’t think anything would have fazed her.

One family I will mention because they were part of an experience that was really precious to me.  The Heinonens were a lovely elderly couple who were very poor.  They both had tuberculosis, and were in generally shaky health.  One of my most lovely memories from Turku was an occasion when Elder Pollack and I were asked to come administer to them.  (We believe in anointing with oil, and blessing the sick).  When we arrived, sister Heinonen had prepared a really wonderful pea soup with ham, and insisted that  we have dinner with them.  We had major guilt feelings about taking their food, when we knew how little they actually had, and we both felt strange about eating the food that was prepared by someone with tuberculosis.  I almost felt that I could taste every germ going down.  In spite of all that it was a lovely visit, which we concluded by giving blessings to both of them.  It was really the first time in my life I remember feeling that the Lord dictated the words of my blessing, and the spirit was so strong that by the time we left, we were all in tears.

While Elder Morrow was with us, we had some really strange experiences “tracting” (the Mormon term for door to door proselyting) as a trio.  Occasionally either Elder Morrow or I would stay home, but usually we all went together.  One of the strangest experiences was when we were invited into a house where Elder Pollock began the first discussion.  As he spoke, doors opened along the wall, and attractive women came in one at a time till there were thirteen or fourteen women sitting, on chairs and on the floor, listening to Elder Pollock.  When it was over, one of us said a closing prayer and we began a wholesale handing out of tracts, two or three to each.  Then they came up and one by one they hugged us and sent us on our way, promising to attend church on Sunday.  It wasn’t till we were outside, and discussed the meeting between us that we came to the conclusion that we had just left a house of prostitution.  We spent some thoughtful time wondering if some of them would really show up to church, but they didn’t, and when we went back for our second discussion a lady met us at the door, and suggested that we were wasting our time.

Sometimes we would be out tracting when some lady would come to the door and see the three of us.  The eyes would widen in fear, and the door would slam shut.  I think some of them had seem enough James Cagney movies to feel the Godfather effect.  On another occasion, I was sitting on the couch, not understanding much of what was said, when a little boy, four or five years old came over to visit with me.  I knew a couple of slight of hand magic tricks, so I took a coin out of his ear, cut a piece of thread in half and ‘chewed’ it back together etc.  As a conclusion I did a trick where I appeared to separate one half of my thumb from the other half, and he had hysterics, screaming, pointing at me, and finally throwing up on the floor (thankfully not on me).  Suffice it to say that was my last adventure with magic tricks.

Elder Morrow left in November.  He was tranferred to Nokia, which was regarded by most elders as the armpit of the mission.  (Never having been there, I couldn’t judge).  Nokia had an enormous rubber tire factory there (called Nokia - big surprise) and it was heavily unionized, and the scuttlebutt was that the unions were so strongly Communist, that it was very hard to work there.  With that kind of scuttlebutt, everybody teased Morrow unmercifully till the day he left.  Of course Nokia is now known world wide as a great maker of cell phones.  I assume that the labor situation is changed.  At the time of my mission Finland was a very poor country (which made it really inexpensive for missionaries.)   According to the Helsingin Sanomat, the Helsinki newspaper, Finland  is very rich and is officially the most expensive country in the European Union.

We did have an adventure in Turku which infuriated the Missionary Sisters, especially Sister Antsola.  We noticed that pigeons were frequenting the fire escape outside the kitchen window.  On a whim, we decided to encourage their visits with dried crusts of bread.  We then set a trap on the fire escape (I doubt that it was anything sophisticated, probably a box propped up with a stick, and a string to remove the stick, I really can’t remember clearly) and we caught five or six pigeons.  We then cleaned them, gutted them and cooked them. (You have never seen anything filthier than a Finnish down-town pigeon; lice, dirt everything you could imagine on the surface.).  They were- - - - edible (We implied, without literally lying, that they wore wonderful.)  The meat was all dark meat with a fairly gamey taste. I think some other elders were visiting us, but however many elders we had eating them, we didn’t finish all the meat, and no one went back to eat the leftovers.  They were inexpensive though, and we were poor.  When we told the sisters, Sister Antsola was really angry and revolted, (and somewhat disbelieving, I think she would have been less surprised if we had eaten rats.)  Her companion didn’t say much, but I think she was a little put out that she wasn’t invited.

Trips to stores have a habit of being difficult and embarrassing when you are a green elder.  This is especially true if one asks a companion for help.  Soon after my arrival in Turku I was  given the task of buying milk.  The Valio (milk and bread) store was on the ground floor of the building,  right at the bottom of the stairs.  At that time in Finland, bottles and cartons of milk were essentially unknown.  The process of buying milk included getting a small milk bucket with a lid (provided in this case by previous elders), taking that bucket to a milk store and asking for milk.  The clerk (almost always female) would dip a one liter dipper into a big milk can and take out as many liters as you asked for (or as your bucket would hold)..  It came my turn to buy milk, so I was given the bucket and told to go downstairs and get it filled. (I should have been suspicious when both companions and the district president (our supervisor) and his companion schlepped downstairs to give me encouragement).  As we entered the store I asked Elder Pollock for a refresher on what to say.  “Olkaa hyvaa” (please) saanko teista   (May I receive from you -using the polite or plural ‘te’ rather than the familiar sina) kaksi litra maitoa (two liters of milk).”  I dutifully made the request as explained to me.  Almost as I began to talk the clerk began to giggle and was in full, blushing, hysterics by the time I finished the sentence, as were both of the other clerks whose attention seemed to be drawn to me.  

I turned to the escorting elders to see what was wrong, and they were collapsed upon each other hysterically giggling and pointing at me.  Nonplused, I asked the elders what was going on, so that they explained that I had used the “sta”(from) ending on “te”(plural or formal you) rather than the “lta” (from) ending.  “sta” means from within while “lta” means from outside of.  What I had functionally done was ask the clerks for milk from within (obviously from their breasts) or in other words I had asked them to “milk” themselves for my two liters of milk.  Blushing furiously I snatched the empty bucket and stormed back upstairs.  It was a “set-up” and I was humiliated.  It wasn’t till some time later that I realized how much of a “set -up” it was when I remembered that the clerk started to laugh almost as soon as I stated talking, so it was obviously not the first time a green elder had been drawn into the trap.  I can testify from experience that it was not the last time, either.

One interesting and kind of sad thing happened just before I left Turku.  Elder Cushing (who was the Billy Cushing that got me all confused my first day) was sent home for his health.  After treatment, instead of returning to Finland, he was to be transferred to the western states mission in Denver.  I don’t remember what was wrong with his health, (Kidney problems I think).  He was really depressed about it because he had just reached the stage where he was really fluent in Finnish and was able to work, and he was going back to the states.  He said it felt as if the first part of his mission had been wasted. (The part where he didn’t know enough Finnish to function).

He came to Turku to leave on the boat, our new Mission President and some folks from Helsinki came down to see him off.  Several members came to the boat as well and sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again”.  It was a little teary.



4 Comments:

At 12:42 AM, Blogger Thotman said...

it is amazing how similar missionary life in Italy was to what you discusss here...I loved reading this...but of course you new I would. Whenever we think of various descriptions..as the RS Pres whose name you didnt recall... memories are born...for me they were from Napoli. When I watched Gods Army produced by Richard Deutcher, I didnt identify with the American type mission like I do when I read your blog. As for readership, I think these fit in the catagory described in my blog #40...pup tent philosophy

 
At 12:43 AM, Blogger Thotman said...

knew not new....lol..

 
At 1:22 PM, Anonymous Mark Green said...

Dear Richard Johnson,

I am also LDS and currently living in New York City while attending Columbia University. I had an interesting conversation with my doorman about how he once new a Mormon and how much of an impact she had on him. He has wanted to get in contact with her for many years but never knew how.

He told me her name and that she served in the Helsinki Finland Mission. So, as I googled her, your blog came up. Her name is Willow Wagstaff. I noticed that you wrote about her and the fact that she served in that mission and has such a unique name; it has to be the same woman.

The man that is trying to find her is Walter Brown. He is in his 80's and I would love to get these two back in contact.

My question for you is if you might possibly have any contact information or any sort of a lead for me to find this woman. She may have married and have a new last name or even have passed away by now but if you have any information, I would greatly appreciate it.

I don't want to post my email address on the blog but if you reply to this post so that I know you got my message, we could arrange to exchange email addresses.

Best regards,

Mark Green

 
At 4:34 AM, Blogger Patmos Pete said...

Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.

 

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