Unfolding the Map
This post is about some Mormons in my life. I'm not concerned here with questions about Mormonism as a faith or religion. I am writing about a friend, who happened to be Mormon, and the profound effect he and his family had on my life at a time when I needed a sense of normalcy and stability. William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) visit to Hill Cumorah, where the Mormon faith began, is what occasions this recollection. See where Joseph Smith found the golden plates on the map.
"Joseph Smith, an eighteen-year-old with small hands and big feet, a quiet and 'unlaughing' boy, encountered the Angel Moroni, son of Mormon, on a drumlin alongside a litle road south of Palmyra in 1827. The road is now New York 21 and the drumlin, a streamlined hump of glacially drifted soil, they call Hill Cumorah. It is not a Mount Sinai or an Ararat, but rather a much humbler thing, yet apparently of sufficient majesty for angels and God to have chosen it as the place to speak to Smith. There he unearthed the golden plates that he said were the source of the Book of Mormon. With the aid of an ancient pair of optical instruments, the Urim and Thummin, which Smith found with the plates, he was able to translate the 'revised' Egyptian hieroglyphics, although he insisted on dictating his translation to scribes from behind a curtain."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 5
In this presidential election season, where the nation's first black president will be squaring off against the nation's first Mormon presidential nominee, a lot of questions are being asked about Mormonism. The questioning isn't as bad or as pointed, it seems to me, as the questioning that occurred when the Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. But you occasionally see media reporting on attitudes toward a possible Mormon nominee and president, and more articles about the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. Some people will most likely always have an underlying fear of Mormonism and the Mormon Church.
My exposure to Mormons was much simpler and more profound than politics, and convinced me that a needless fear of Mormons is unjustified. I'll put it out there - I disagree with Mitt Romney's politics and am quite sure I won't vote for him, but my choice will be based on his politics alone, and not his religious beliefs.
I went to a small-town's schools, where each year the class was small enough so that everyone knew each other. Therefore I knew John, but I really didn't get close to him until high school. We were both members of our school's storied cross-country team that dominated the north coast of California's small schools and a few larger schools throughout the 70s and 80s. At the time we had similar builds, though he was a little more husky than I was, we were both smart enough to put us at the top of our class, and despite the fact that he was an extravert and I an introvert, we seemed to connect pretty well. We quickly began spending a lot of time together.
At the time, the dysfunction in my family was becoming terrible. At 15, I had stood up to my alcoholic father and ended my sexual abuse at his hands. However, I kept silent about it, and his alcoholism degraded him further and further. By then, my sister was well into her long and ongoing struggle with anorexia-bulimia. My mother, desperately trying to keep control over an uncontrollable situation, was at the end of her rope and manifested an obsessiveness with order and cleanliness and trying to help my sister. My youngest sister did as well as she could under such circumstances. We all did.
It was at this time that John strode into my life. He seemed confident, assured, and willing to have a lot of good, clean fun. Of course, he was restricted by his religion in what he could or couldn't do, but in hindsight these restrictions on him were really good for me. Because I hung out a lot with someone who was religiously barred from drinking, I really didn't get too involved with drinking myself - I did drink and got intoxicated a couple of times, but not to the extent that a lot of my fellow high school classmates did. After all, I lived in a small town far from any metropolitan areas. There wasn't a lot to do and, unfortunately as I have discovered after the fact, a lot of my fellow classmates were dealing with similar dynamics in their own households.
John drove an orange VW bug and I spent a lot of time with him in that thing, often listening to early 80s rock. He became almost a part of my family. My mother loved him, and his personality tended to drive my dad into the corners when he was at my house. What John did best for me was serve as a reminder that there was a normal life out there. His family was very gracious in welcoming me into their home. His father was a biology teacher at our high school, and his mother was a sixth grade teacher at a local grammar school. Their household modeled to me what a normal household looked like. His mom always apologized for a messy house, but I relished the disorder in their house because my mom's control issues meant that I had the most spotless teenage room in town, perhaps in history.
John's religion rarely played any influence in our friendship other than superficial issues, like drinking. We talked about our churches once in awhile. I was Catholic and enlightened him a little on my church, and I learned a little about his. His church responsibilities occasionally got in the way of activities we wanted to do, but his church was also a source of fun. It was built around a large multipurpose room which served as the community gathering and service area, but it also had an indoor basketball court on it, and John would often invite a group of us to come and play basketball there in the evenings.
John also had a way with the ladies, and I believe that it was his innate self-confidence that allowed him to date some very sought-after girls in our class and in the classes behind us in high school. We often talked about dating and the mysteries associated with girls. While I didn't have a lot of self-confidence and my dates tended to be disasters, John was always there to give me some gentle ribbing and then help me to move on.
Some things eventually happened that caused us to part ways, though I often think of him now. We went away to different colleges, he to Utah State and I to Santa Clara, but we saw each other in the summers. One summer, however, he seemed to grow distant. He was planning to go on his mission, which he did in Brazil, and he seemed to draw apart from me and others. I didn't understand at first, but now I think it had to do with the preparation he was undergoing for this combination of church duty and spiritual quest - this was a journey I couldn't do with him. When he came back, we picked up our friendship again. He soon found the woman he wanted to marry, a Mormon girl from northern Wyoming, and he settled there. I was asked to be best man, but as a non-Mormon I could not attend the ceremony so someone served as my proxy when he was married at the LDS temple in Salt Lake City. I lived in Milwaukee at the time, and took a long Greyhound trip to attend the reception.
We keep in touch via Facebook now. John has a large family with children who are all in their teens or older. I don't really know any of them. I saw John a few years ago when he came to Albuquerque for a work trip and we relived some old times. I was a little nervous because I had grown more liberal and I worried that we wouldn't agree on a lot of things. As I danced around what I thought might be prickly issues, John, as forthright as ever, said "You know, Mike, I don't think we're as far apart as you might think we are."
As the debates go on about the impact of a Mormon candidate and possible president, I know that John and his Mormon family helped make my difficult teenage life a lot easier. If religion had anything to do with their kindness to me, then I am grateful to them for acting out of their faith. But I know that my friendship with John went beyond religion. I was a troubled kid, and John was my friend, and he acted just as he would have acted regardless of his religious beliefs.
I'm not Mormon, nor do I plan to become one. But I'm very thankful for a Mormon family who probably doesn't realize just how much they helped a young man's difficult teenage life. Thank you, John.
Here's a non-musical clip from The Simpsons that I always laughed at:
John and I used to cruise Main Street in Fort Bragg in his VW during our senior year of high school. We listened to this song by Aldo Nova a lot while we drove up and down the length of the town, talking and looking for something to do. I doubt the Pope and the College of Cardinals or the LDS President and his Quorum of Twelve would have approved, and I don't really care.
If you want to know more about Hill Cumorah
Next up: Palmyra, New York