Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mormons X: Beehive House

Sister Amador had promised details about plural marriage at the Beehive House, so I made my way east from Temple Square.

The Beehive House was one of Brigham Young’s two primary residences in Salt Lake, the home to his most prominent and senior wives. The house is named for the beehive sculpture that sits atop the roof, otherwise the white columned front porch and plantation shutters on the sandstone and adobe house resembled an antebellum mansion with a southwestern flair.

Inside an elderly man in a black suit gave me a hearty greeting, and by golly, I was just in time for tour! He directed me to a row of benches where the other visitors were waiting. The benches looked identical to the white pine pews from the tabernacle, though these, we would learn, had been made from the parts of broken down wagons and handcarts the first Mormon settlers pushed across the prairie.

The tour was a few minutes away as the greeter was trying to lure a couple of Brits who had walked in looking for the restaurant next door. No sale. A couple of 19th century city maps caught my eye from across the room and I got up to investigate. An older woman got up from the information desk came over to see what I was interested in. She also liked the old city plans. She wanted to know where I was from.

“Are you a member of the Church?” she asked.

“Well, my parents aren’t that religious.” I said.

Perhaps she mistook the way I stare at maps for a reverence for this city built by the Mormon pioneers. But it was just my love for maps, and my best strategy for evading unwelcome conversions project myself onto the wall and disappear for hours. A map of transitioning Eastern Europe in the back of my Marianna, Arkansas Special Education classroom was one my favorite places to wait out the bells once the kids stopped trying to run me out of the county every afternoon, or kill each other, and settled into the malaise that was our ship of the damned.

I could feel the eyes of docent were still on me, and without disengaging from my favorite of the old city plans, an ambitious grid that stretched out far beyond what the settlers of the time could have populated, I gave her a little more. “My grandmother was a saint. She died a long time ago.”

I hoped my grimace gave her rest of the story she was looking for. It’s not that I imagined my elliptical suggestions would give cause for my hosts to drop the official slant and pull me into a room where I could look at the real artifacts left behind by the Mormon Moses and his 55 wives. I wanted something other than what I was going to get from this tour. An invitation to the singles ward, a family story, something more than the friendliness that substitutes for any interesting conversation with these missionaries who are under the constant surveillance of their peers.

The greeter ushered me back to the pew and gave us his practiced introduction about Brigham Young and his (Young’s, though the guy seemed old enough) role in the Mormon exodus and the building of Salt Lake City. He asked us to imagine this front room as it might have been in the early days of the Utah settlement. A dozen secretaries would have worked here on the ground floor of the Prophet’s home. They crammed in back to back at desks squeezed into this waiting area, the official bureau of a burgeoning theocracy. They worked like the busy bees Young wanted to name his territory after.

Two young missionaries entered on cue from a back room and introduced themselves as our guides for the next half hour. Sister Sessions and Sister Slight were both Americans, from Michigan and Pennsylvania, respectively. Slight was built like her name, slender and with a mousy voice. Placed next to her, Sessions with her muscular frame looked like Slight’s bodyguard. Sessions did not have her partner’s sweet demeanor, what might have been intended as a smile came out closer to a scowl. I noticed Sessions suspicious eyes in my direction while Slight welcomed us to the tour.

From what little I know about the Mormon mission placements, it is a distinction for a young man to be placed for service overseas, the more exotic the higher esteemed the candidate. As for the second class part, all female missionaries seem to be a wrung below their male counterparts, their numbers are fewer, their expected service shorter, and their roles usually in the auxiliary. Men hunt for souls, women lead tours. Then again only women serve as guides at the Temple Square attractions, and as they hail from all over the world perhaps it is an honor to be a hostess of Zion.

I guessed Amador hadn’t seen that LDS commercial, “you tell one lie and leads to another,” that played everyday during the afternoon cartoons of my youth. Her claim that we could get some answers about polygamy at the Beehive House was full of shit. They admitted that polygamy took place, but in the same hokey way that fox of a kindergarten teacher explained it to me all those years ago. This was a shrine to Brigham Young, and anything that took away from his glory was not appropriate on a tour of his first Salt Lake City residence and his franchise of families.

Sessions and Slight worked in the same alternating paragraphs as my guides at Temple Square. They took turns showing us Brigham Young’s cloak and a cane that lay across his bed, with bits and pieces of the mythology built up about his founding of Salt Lake City. During their back and forth they peppered the spiel with anecdotes that impressed upon us Young’s great parenting skills.

As they led us through the house, they only identified the room of one wife, his first plural wife, surprising considering 50 more lived with him at some point in his Salt Lake City homes. All the other rooms along the corridors turned out to be for his many children. I kept a little back from the group since it was easier to take notes away from the crowd, but this drew attention from the sisters. Sister Slight dropped back to keep an eye on me, nervous with all my scribbling.

“Are you writing a research paper?” she asked.

“Something like that,” I said as I leaned in to take a look at the spines of the old books on a hallway shelf. Two books jumped out from the bland offerings of the 19th century canon, Darkest Africa by Henry Stanley and Livingstone’s Last Journals. For a man who preached that God had punished ancient heathens with the curse of black skin, these books must have read like pornography. When does a man with 55 wives find the energy to beat off? One of the many under examined downsides of plural marriage.

“You like books,” Sessions asked, just behind my back shoulder.

The bad cop of this duo wanted to know about my family history, this grandmother I had mentioned to the docent. It was more a challenge than a question, but I just mumbled that she had died when I was too young to understand. In an old reflex I was drifting away from her, the old titles after all were a map of the Prophet’s world, he had held these now dusty spines as he escaped for a time to a world outside the confines of Mormon theology.

Her scowl edged into frown as she directed me to keep closer to the group.

The sisters kept trading off, one leading the tour, the other trailing just behind me as if I were a black man browsing in a record shop. I looked up to find Sister Sessions next to me at the velvet rope separating us from one of the second floor bedrooms.

It was a modest room with a single bed and pine dresser with a dark varnish. A child’s dress was on display in front of the dresser.

“This was Clarrissa’s wedding dress” Sessions said.

“That’s a wedding dress?” I said.

I had guessed the white lace dress might have been for a baptism. Mormons baptize after a child’s eighth birthday. Sessions saw my thoughts.

“She was 21 years old when she married,” Sessions said.

“She was so tiny,” I said.

“21 years old,” she repeated.

Maybe Clarissa’s diminutive stature is so well known in Mormon lore that there is there is nothing remotely scandalous about her child sized wedding dress. I consider myself pretty well informed for an outsider, and I had never heard of Brigham’s midget bride. This was a tour for outsiders after all.

Accounts of modern polygamy repeatedly expose the institution as cover for predators who slake their desire for adolescent flesh under the cloak of religious sacrament. Judged by Sessions reaction to my reserved astonishment, and by Latter Day Saint’s universal hatred for their polygamy practicing backwoods cousins, one would think they’d just find a bigger dress to display to the world.

But the tiny dress fits the Temple Square’s presentation. This was the second tour where they provided an inquisitive person just enough to ask the uncomfortable questions right as the half hour time limit expires. Is this part of the Mormon missionary experience, galvanizing the believers through the skepticism of outsiders, however blatantly provoked?

Now I had provoked Sisters Sessions. She was on my right elbow for the remainder of the tour. She kept close to me as her partner handed out the honey candies. Slight explained would leave us sweet memories of our time in the Beehive House. Her words made me tingle with the memory of from my last mnemonic honey candy, the afternoon I touched the hand of that brunette storyteller all those years ago. Puppy love in a fourth grade classroom.

One of the other tourists approached me asked if I was here working on a project. His tone was sufficiently conspiratorial that I told him I was a freelance journalist. He handed me a card.

“I support independent research”, he said, then in a hushed tone he gave me the name of a website and a movie that I had to check out.

I told him I’d look for them on Netflix.

“You won’t find that in any video store,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder, then continued in a whisper. “Temple Rituals. I have a friend who spent over a year looking for this one.”

I could feel Sisters Sessions glare on me even though she had already left the room. I told him I’d look for the movie.

Maybe if I had more than a day in Salt Lake I’d have asked this guy for his story. But I am here for the stories of the believers. I decided to go back to a Temple Square tour, this time in Spanish.
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Saturday, July 11, 2009

No Hitter

It is 730 on a beautiful summer evening, clear and a little cold with a steady wind whipping off the Pacific. Tie for my first baseball walk of the season. I do not need the exercise, but I had found my pocket radio earlier today, turns out it was hiding under the unmatched socks in my clean clothes hamper.

Jon Miller’s Giants play-by-play has always been the perfect accompaniment for a twilight walk through the hills of San Francisco. I tuck the radio into my coat pocket and start west to the top of Alamo Square Park and its classic view of the painted lady Victorians across the street that are framed by the downtown buildings in the distance.

It is the top of the second inning and Jonathan Sanchez is on the mound for the Giants. He had come into the season as the fifth starter, but has since been demoted to the bullpen after a disappointing two and a half months. He is now back in the rotation filling in for an injured Randy Johnson. Miller announces his crisp 1-2-3 top of the second inning.

Looking across to the green of another hilltop park, I decide I want to watch the sunset from there, so I head north, down into the dodgy blocks of Western Addition and then uphill to posh Laurel Heights to Alta Plaza Park, a peak atop the ridgeline that looks down upon the Golden Gate, the Marina, and the Bay. The low sunlight is painting fiery colors on the city skyline to the east and colors the fog rolling in south of Twin Peaks a deep mauve.

The wind is strongest on these hilltops, but with a sweater and a jacket and the body heat from my uphill walk, I am warm enough to sit on a bench with a view to the water. It helps that the Giants are now up 4-0, and Sanchez is off to his strongest start of the year, he has retired his first 12 twelve batters. It is the bottom of the fifth and Dave Flemming has relieved Miller for a couple of innings of the broadcast. Sanchez is throwing more pitches now, and Flemming notices that he has lost his release point, He is not hitting his targets as he battles with Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres’ one feared slugger. Gonzalez chases a ball in the dirt for strike three, and Sanchez retires the next two Padres.

Sanchez has a perfect game through 5 innings. I get the hunch that as long as Sanchez keeps retiring batters I might as well start walking in the direction of the stadium. I can always turn for home when the Padres get a hit. It’s a little bit silly as it sounds like Sanchez is already showing fatigue and he hasn’t started in nearly three weeks. But this is baseball, and you never know what might happen.

I figure will have plenty of chances to turn back, as it is just over 3.5 miles from Alta Plaza to the free views from behind the right field fence at the Phone Booth. I figure I might be able to get to the yard by the bottom of the eighth, depending on how quick the game goes.

I head east down Jackson atop the spine of Pacific Heights. I had forgotten how clean and quiet it is up here amidst the mansions that must still run into eight figures.

It is a long bottom of the 5th, Pablo Sandoval is up to bat with two men on. The Panda crushes a ball, and Flemming calls the shot as it rockets over the 20-foot high arcade and the 421 sign in the deepest right center field in the majors. By all accounts it is one the longest home runs hit to that part of the yard. It is 7-0 as I approached Russian Hill, still about 45 minutes away from the stadium. Sanchez regains command after the lengthy top half of the inning. Strike out, fly out, strike out, he has retired 18 in a row. The bottom half of the inning passes just as quickly, I am about to crest Nob Hill and it is suddenly the 7 inning.

At the top of the hill a young man tried to stop me on the sidewalk. He had a full beard and was wearing a dated suit that looked vaguely like an Hassidic Jew.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked?


“Then have a nice weekend.”

Hassidic indeed. Whatever he is up to he reminds me of those old men who approach the tourists at the Wailing Wall. If you are Jewish they help you with the prayers, if not, they tell you to have a nice vacation. I chuckle and tell him this without breaking stride.

He shouts at my back, “In Israel?”

I can hear the electricity building in the crowd as Sanchez strikes out the side in the 7th. His pace is quickening, his stuff must be phenomenal tonight. I too quicken my pace. I am crossing the filthy streets of Chinatown as the Giants go quietly, and too quickly, in the bottom half of the 7th. I am still at least 20 minutes away. I can’t get a cab, I’ve already crossed Grant and there are no taxis around. Besides, I’m superstitious, and I am positive that as soon as the meter drops, a Padres bat will produce a ground ball that squeezes through the infield.

I am now close to a jog, heading south through the Financial District as Adrian Gonzalez is leading off the 8th. If Sanchez can get Gonzalez, he has a real chance. I don’t even want to think it, but there have only been 17 perfect games in the 132-year history of baseball. Gonzalez hits one to deep to left, but Bowker runs it down at the warning track. I can hear the crowd buzzing as the anticipation of something historical begins to build.

As I am crossing Market Street, now within minutes of the game, Chase Headley hits a grounder to the left side that Juan Uribe cannot handle off what Miller describes as an awkward bounce. Uribe had shifted to third base when Pablo was taken out in the 6th. The Panda would have fielded that one, for sure.

The perfect game is over. Sanchez fires the next pitch to the backstop. He is laboring. But he gets a flyout and then a strikeout on a ball that actually hits the batter. I am now within blocks of the yard, and I notice a few groups clad in Giants paraphenalia walking in other direction.

Bad fans. Very bad fans.

The Giants add some unnecessary runs in the 8th, though they give me time to get to the right field fence without having to run for it. This is where I used to eat lunch during day games when I worked downtown. It was exactly 22 minutes from my chair on the 24 floor of 44 Montgomery to the second archway behind the right fielder. Usually it is possible to lean right up to the chain link, but tonight people are backed four deep behind the fence. It is a good thing I am tall.

Everyone is on their feet. The first batter in the bottom of the ninth hits a sharp ground ball to the left side. Renteria runs deep into the hole to the snare it and has to throw a perfect strike to Ishikawa for the out. Two more outs to go. Adrian’s older brother Edgar is up to bat. Sanchez misses badly up, then bounces one over the plate. The next pitch is a strike, but too much of a strike, and Gonzalez crushes the middle-of-the-plate offering to center field. Sanchez doesn’t even turn around; he is sure it is a home run. The crowd behind the right field wall surges forward to keep Aaron Rowand in sight line as he races back to the centerfield fence. Rowand takes a last step on the warning track, jumps, and stretches out as he crashes into the wall for the second time this week. He holds on for the second out.

The knothole rowdies are now jumping up and down and banging on the chain link with such force that it wobbles like a slinky. On the first pitch the batter contemplates a bunt. The crowd showers him with boos. the next pitch is in the dirt, 2-0. A strike on the outside corner, 2-1. A foul ball evens the count. The next pitch is a curve that breaks down into the zone, called strike three.

The last time the Giants threw a no-hitter was almost 33 years ago when I had just turned 4 months old. And Sanchez’ effort is actually a “no-no”. Though the term is often used interchangeably with no hitter, a true no-no means no hits and no walks, a much rarer and more difficult feat.

It is a great story for Sanchez. A pitcher who has struggled with command problems all season, who has been undone by the walks he allows, comes back into the rotation and throws the most dominant game of his career. More special still, his father flew in from Puerto Rico to see him pitch, the first time Papa had seen Sanchez start an MLB game.

Hopefully this night portends good things for the Giants season. They have far exceeded anyone’s expectations, and with their dominant pitching in a mediocre National League, it could be a special year in San Francisco.
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Friday, July 10, 2009

Mormons IX: Temple Square

I’d like to think I’d be fascinated with Utah even if those missionaries way back when hadn’t seeded powerful religious visions in my dreams. I am historian as much as I am a wanderlust nut job, and history of Mormonism illustrates so much of what I love about American history. The revivalism of Second Awakening, the 19th century Immigrant experience, and the internal migrations across the prairie to the frontier are all integral themes of the early Mormon experience. A Trip to Salt Lake enhances an understanding of all these aspects of this American religion. The hundreds of Europeans I saw walking around downtown must have come to a similar conclusion, or at least their guidebooks had, though some of them may have needed a place to stop over on the long trip to the West Coast.

I was met at the gate to the Temple Square by a pair of smiling missionaries. These were not the black suited duos trolling for baptisms on dusty streets the world over. First, they were female, and second, instead of the black and white nametags I can spot from two hundred yards out, these women had softer looking nameplates that included the flag of their native countries. Judging by the nametags of the hostesses leading tourists around the grounds, this was a veritable United Nations of Mormonism. My greeters were an oddly matched pair, Sister Khalium, a short, soft-spoken Mongolian, and Sister Amador, a plump, dour faced Mexican who looked like she had stepped out of a Oaxacan convent.

I asked Sister Amador if she would do the tour in Spanish. She told me no, but that I could find the Spanish tour near the seagull statue. She told me to first take her tour and then take the Spanish tour. She insisted it would last no more than 30 minutes. She was oddly intimidating. If she had dressed in a habit with one look she could have scared a classroom full of the rowdiest special ed kids into compliance.

A couple from Florida was also waiting for guides so the three of us started off into the grounds. The sisters led us into the tabernacle and explained that virtually everything from the dark wooden pews to the faux marble columns had in fact been made of white pine. Khalium began with the story of the building, but her heavy accent and was difficult to understand, so I tuned her out, though careful to appear attentive as Amador had a sharp eye on me. I scribbled some notes for her approval. I wasn’t much interested in the empty tabernacle was already wondering when they would show us the talking statue of Jesus. I probably had to wait till the end as what else could possibly follow a talking statue of Jesus.

In her baritone, sister Amador demonstrated the perfect acoustics of a building that was ascetic even by Protestant standards. What had convinced this woman’s family to leave the colorful world of Mexican Catholicism, with its holy days and magical saints, the thinly veiled continuity with a colorful and awe inspiring Aztec priesthood the Spanish had so masterfully assimilated? According to the book of Mormon, her dark skin was given to her ancestors as a curse on their people.

The Florida couple asked a few polite questions and soon the tour moved into a museum that looked like a Smithsonian devoted to the Mormon foundation myth. Though corny, it was probably a necessity that a young faith curates its stories in this way. Foundation myths are difficult to sustain in the era of the printing press. The possibility of detailed and mass produced historical record puts new religions at a disadvantage to the more ancient traditions. In spite of the limitations of operating within a scrutinized historical space, the Mormons have been able to incorporate their history into a foundation story that echoes both the Old Testament and the unique historical experience of a growing United States.

The first gallery was designed to set the Judeo-Christian mind at ease with floor to ceiling action paintings of the Jewish prophets as they conned pharoahs, parted seas, crossed deserts, and pacified hungry beasts. We climbed a staircase to a large room with a 25 foot ceiling. The walls were covered with a celestial mural of stars, planets and far away galaxies. In the middle of the room was a large statue of Jesus. Was this the talking Jesus? I felt slightly ridiculous asking the question, fearing Sister Amador might slap me with some Hail Mary’s. I kept my mouth shut, so did Jesus.

The next room had a series of exhibits with wax statues reenacting the stories unique to the Mormon faith: the prophet Mormon himself inscribing his book onto gold plates, Joseph finding and translating the plates hundreds of years later, Brigham Young asserting authority over a the tested flock, and handcarts, the man powered equivalent of the covered wagon and icon of the Mormons exodus across the Great Plains.

Sister Amador declared our 30 minutes had expired almost as soon as we reached the last room, though she invited us to continue looking at the exhibits. The woman from Florida looked disappointed, and suddenly she let go with the question that had been gnawing at her since Sister Khalium had garbled us through outer space.

“What about the Polygamy?” she asked.

Until this point I hadn’t been sure if the couple were Mormons on holiday, so I had kept my questions to a minimum out of respect for their experience. But now the gauntlet was down, I too turned to Sisters for an answer. Khaliun disappeared down the hall and Amador made a motion with her hand and led the three of us to some chairs at the center of the exhibit. For a moment I felt like she had just given us a timeout. But then Khalium reappeared and handed us some brochures to the Beehive House, Brigham Young’s former residence down the street, and Amador explained that the tour there would give us more details on the history of plural marriage. They were out of time, Amador said, and abruptly bid us a good rest of stay in Salt Lake. They left us to find our way out of the museum.

I was just as disappointed as the woman from Florida. There had been no talking statue, and no talk of polygamy, though the question had been asked. Even the LDS Kindergarten teacher who presented her Mormonism in sing song one afternoon to my fourth grade class, as she handed out Bit O Honey’s and captivated me with her warm hazel eyes and long brown hair, even she mentioned plural marriage. It was a historical necessity in her tale. Precious few men who pushed those ill-conceived handcarts across the prairie survived the 1000 mile journey from Iowa to Utah. All the surviving women and children needed roofs to sleep under.

It was probably unfair for my tour guides that my expectations for Temple Square were the equivalent of a six year old’s for Disney World. Disney World and Temple Square in the same sentence may seem suspect, but there is an analogy there, both Mormon and Mouse have attracted the masses as markers of dreams. The early Mormon Church grew through immigration from northern Europe—where the populations were suitably white and non-Catholic—as early missionaries fished for converts in soot stained mill towns of England and hardscrabble villages of Scandinavia.

Joseph Smith’s first missionaries offered a new brand of Jesus Christ and taught that the world’s miracles had not dried up with the bones of the old prophets. Their message dovetailed perfectly with their strongest selling point, a bountiful new land across the ocean. These first converts, whatever their convictions for the teachings of Joseph Smith, would have had visions of the American Dream and the promise of a better life to pull them from their bleak surroundings. The new Zion by the Salt Lake must have sounded like a city from a fairy tale, a place free of menacing smokestacks, a community where the community did not let individual families starve in the winter. They sold the American Dream, 19th century style, and they built this square with these new pilgrims in mind.

If the Orlando theme park is the 20th century version of the dream, perhaps I would have been happier the days of the frontier. Disney begins marketing to kids before they say their first word and then shamelessly holds toddlers’ happiness as a ransom to suck every last cent out of befuddled parents. If attractions around Temple Square aren’t quite Magic Mountain, at least they were free. They want your soul of course, but will ask for your address only if you volunteer interest in a Book of Mormon and a visit from the missionaries. If I had to choose between the story of a prophet who believed in a god considerate enough to pay my country a visit, and a bug-eyed rodent who schemes to brainwash my future children in order to reach into my pocketbook— well, screw the mouse.
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