Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mormons IV: Rudy Hamster and a Kindergarten Crush

Fascinating as I find the history of polygamy and Joseph Smith, a story I find even more extraordinary is the speed with which the Latter-Day Saints transformed from pariah group into a mainstream conservative force in the United States. The LDS now claim a membership of nearly 15 million. Thanks to a strong missionary tradition, half of this membership hails from outside the United States. Mormonism is now well on the road to becoming one of the world’s major religions. With my long-standing interest in fanaticism, I am usually willing to lend an ear to the proselytizing folk from the Jehovah’s Witness to the canvasser for Greenpeace. The most interesting of these encounters have come with Mormon missionaries both at home and abroad.

My earliest encounter with a Mormon testimonial was in the fourth grade at Harding Academy. One afternoon the new kindergarten teacher visited our classroom to give a presentation about her religion. She was young, and beautiful. Her long brown hair, honey touched skin and warm smile was a welcome contrast to our teacher the decrepit Mrs. Bach. Though she was probably born after the turn of the last century Mrs. Bach's old school notions ran back to the 1800’s. So I still remember the substitute though it was only a few minutes, of the light in that young teacher’s eyes as she told us the story of her church. She employed sweeping gestures and a high, almost sing-song voice she was accustomed to using with the younger students. In the fourth grade I felt I was not so far from adulthood, but I didn't mind a little babying from this woman.

She spoke about the LDS and her home state of Utah. She told us the tale of her pioneer ancestors who had come from England and Scandanavia, recruited by missionaries to settle a glorious new land in the western America. These new immigrants crossed the Atlantic and traveled by train to Iowa City which was then the western terminus of the American railroads. In the fields outside of town they built handcarts to carry provisions a few precious possessions across the Great Plains and to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. As she recounted their arduous trek she handed out Bit O Honey candies. She explained how the Mormons compared their church to a colony of honeybees, an industrious and determined people with a strong sense of community. (Brigham Young had wanted to name the Mormons new territory Deseret, which according to the Book of Mormon means honeybee. Congress opted for Utah.) There are many references to the honeybee in Mormon country. The LDS sanctioned newspaper is the Deseret News and the beehive is on the official state seal as well as on all of the road markers in Utah. She also used the treats it to segue into how Mormons chose to abstain from caffeine and alcohol.

I am a bit shocked when think back to how much I remember of her talk. It made a lasting impression on me. It was clear even to a fourth grader that there was something special about these Mormons. There was a vitality to her tales lacking in the Biblical stories from Sunday School. Her protagonists were easier to imagine, a people from our land and our history, closer in time and distance than the ancient Jews. I didn’t need a map to visualize the Mormon exodus. I could close my eyes (after she left the room) and imagine a band of hearty pioneers we had learned about in Social Studies, only swap their wagons for handcarts.

Maybe she was my first, second, teacher crush. Her radiance was something I wanted to be close to. When she reached out to put the candy on my desk, I instinctively touched her hand. If she had been my teacher that year I am sure would have fallen deeply in love with her.

I am amazed that the school allowed her talk at all. Perhaps it was nothing more than a young teacher giving an extra planning period to an elderly colleague—could Mrs. Bach even hear what was going on that day? In the moderate to conservative suburban social climate I was raised in, the Mormons were a people who would have stood apart had they been on the radar at all. When I was in high school a Mormon won an award from the the Nashville chapter Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When it was circulated amongst this community that the boy was a Mormon it triggered an uproar. Certain elements of the FCA claimed steadfastly that Mormons were not Christians and that the young man was not eligible for the honor. Imagine what the same parents, those wanting to strip an athletic award from a high school student, might have done had they been informed that their children were given a thirty-minute introduction to Mormonism in the classroom.

I was watching tv in my senior year college house after the replay of Sportscenter had run through a second time. I dozed. When I open my eyes, Jesus Christ appeared on the screen. He was floating in a shaft of light above a mountaintop. A voice over beckoned me to call the number scrolling beneath his ethereal perch to receive a video that promised to explain his miracles. It was 3am. We were out of beer. Clearly having nothing better to do, I dialed the number.

I was a bit startled when a live operator answered after only a couple of rings. I told her I wanted the video. She asked for my name. I hesitated, and my eyes drifted to the glass aquarium where Rudy was running on his wheel and Cecil was sleeping in a burrow he had dug in the wood chips.

“Could you spell that last name?” she asked.

“H-A-M-S-T-E-R. You know, like the animal,” I said.

“Hmm…We don’t seem have that surname in our system.”

“It’s Hungarian”

The LDS has the largest genealogical database in the world. The church uses this catalogue to baptize dead souls from other faiths. In an important temple ritual, a stand-in is dunked in the water while the names of the baptized deceased are read from a list, dozens at a time. These after-life conversions are practiced ostensibly because Mormon missionaries had not been able to reach these souls during their time on earth. Think of an American historical figure and he or she has almost certainly had this ex post facto baptism. Your ancestors have likely had their names read and been baptized by proxy as well. This practice came under intensive scrutiny when it was revealed that the LDS had begun baptizing names from the lists of holocaust victims. But the most extensive genealogical database in the world had no record of the surname Hamster, at least until the spring of 1999.

“Ok, Rudy, is a there a time we could send some representatives of the church to visit you and Cecil?”

Sunday early afternoon seemed appropriate for a home visit. It was one of the few times in our schedule when a visit from missionaries might not interfere with our drinking. We had gotten serious enough about our softball league to at least get on the field and go once through the lineup before boozing. The game was at 4.

I told my housemates the next day about my late night Mormon drunk-dial, and we joked about the various scenarios the missionaries might walk into at 72 High Street. It was a joke long forgotten by the time the weekend rolled around. We had had a party to plan, and between the keg purchase and, well, buying and hauling a keg seemed like a lot of work in college.

So no one was awake yet when the bell rang early Sunday afternoon. The James Moy Band played its best show yet Saturday night, and to a great attendance as evidenced by the flotsam of beer cups and cigarette butts adrift on living room floor.

Friend of the house Sam Hoyt had passed out on the couch and was the only person woken by the bell. The guys on the front steps waited patiently as he crunched his way over the cups to the door. I can imagine the two young men in their matching suits at the moment the door opened and the house belched the stench of fermenting beer and stale cigarettes. I’m sure they held their smiles even as the fumes burned in their nostrils. They might have needed a second to focus on the face before them obscured as it must have been behind wild hair and matted beard as noxious sin continued to waft out from behind him.

“Hello. I am Elder ________, and this is Elder _________. We are here to see to Cecil and Rudy.”

“Uhh, Sure thing” Sam said. He had no idea why two guys in matching suits with name tags wanted to visit with the hamsters, but this was Wesleyan after all. Sam invited the missionaries in and led them to the corner with the aquarium.

“Looks like they’re asleep,” Sam said.

The missionaries looked at Sam, then looked at the hamsters. They turned back to Sam.

“Well, thank you for your time.”

Polite to a fault.

I will occasionally tell this story to a properly cynical audience and it always draws a laugh, sometimes beer through the nose, even if I am the asshole in the story. I do wish Sam had taken pictures though, maybe with the missionaries holding the hamsters. Little did I know at the time, someone made a record of our college hijinx. Years later the soldiers of Zion would repay the visit.

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