The Mission Office

When I left Tarija, all I knew about Cochabamba was that the mission home was there and there was supposed to be good ice cream there. I’d been in Bolivia for 9 months but had never been there. It was dark as we drove through the streets, but this was obviously a bigger place than Tarija.

Beck told me that I would be the travel and statistics secretary, as well as the mission historian. What this meant was that I had two responsibilities: keep track of mission records and get missionaries in and out of the country. My companion, Dannelly, was the financial secretary, which was not an easy job, given the 24,000% inflation rate that year. We pulled up to a white, two-story house in a nice neighborhood. After I got my suitcases out, Beck drove the Land Cruiser into the small garage and padlocked the door. The front yard of the house had several rose bushes along a wrought-iron fence in front. Two large poinsettia trees stood on either side of the walkway to the front door.

Beck helped me carry my bags upstairs to the back bedroom, next to the nicest bathroom I’d seen outside a hotel. In the bathroom were a shower/bathtub, a toilet, a sink, and a bidet (unsuspecting greenies were sometimes told that it was a drinking fountain). In the middle of the bathroom stood a gas water heater, so I would have hot and cold running water for the first time in my mission. Our bedroom was carpeted; although it was threadbare and old, the green carpet still seemed an unimagineable luxury.

Beck and his companion had a smaller bedroom on the other side of the bathroom, and the president’s two assistants had the large bedroom at the front of the house. For the next three weeks, the missionaries Dannelly and I were replacing would be training us, and then we would be on our own.

The outgoing travel secretary, Dash, reminded me of Fred Flintstone: chubby with a square head and square dark hair, he had a short fuse, which of course was not a good thing if you were dealing with the Bolivian bureaucracy every day. He showed me his missionary name tag, on the back of which he had stuck 30 of the little red dot stickers we’d received for memorizing discussions.

“I have one for each day I have left here. Every night I take one off. I’m down to 20,” he said, smiling and peeling one off.

The next day he took me to the airline offices and the two Immigration offices I would become familiar with. Each office required forms and stamps and signatures, all of which cost money. The forms were hilarious, as they asked for minute details about each missionary’s life: their parents’ names, their education level, and the names of each of their siblings. We ended up putting names like Greg, Marcia, Peter, and Jan for the siblings and making up other bogus information for the rest of it.

As we drove back to the office, we heard someone yell “huevos!” and Dash slammed on the brakes, leaving the truck in the middle of the intersection. He ran over to the teenaged boy who had yelled at us, whipped his name tag from his shirt pocket, and held the red dots up to the kid’s face. “See these dots? They mean that I only have three more weeks in this miserable country. But you, you’re stuck here for the rest of your life!” He calmly walked back to the truck, and we continued on our way.

There was a lot to memorize, but I figured I could do it. Each zone would sent in the baptismal forms, and I would sort them and count them. At the end of the month, I would fill out a report listing baptisms by zone and then send a copy to Salt Lake and put another in our files. Baptisms were clearly the only thing church headquarters was interested in. I was also in charge of updating the mission history, which at that point was a large three-ring notebook full of yellowed pages.

The travel part was going to be the hardest. Essentially I arranged all travel for the mission president and his assistants, and I got missionaries in and out of the country, making sure they had the right visas.

Dannelly and I worked in the office until 1:00 and then went home for lunch and siesta. After reading our scriptures, we would walk to our area, which was probably three miles from our house. A couple of weeks in, I got in the shower one morning wearing my flip-flops according to mission rules. I slipped and banged my knee hard against the tile wall. No big deal, I thought. I went to the office and worked, my knee a little stiff and sore, and then we went out to work.

By the time we got to our area, I could hardly walk because my knee hurt so much. “We really need to go home,” I told Dannelly, so we hailed a taxi and headed back to the house.

At home, I could see that my knee had swollen to about the size of a cantaloupe. It was difficult to get my pants off, and I couldn’t walk at all. I hobbled outside, and we caught a cab to a clinic funded by the Belgian government.

We sat in a dirty waiting room waiting to get into the exam room while a child inside screamed, “No, don’t touch me! No, that hurts!” What was I getting myself into. A half an hour later, a woman came out carry a small child whose arm was heavily bandaged.

Dannelly helped me get onto an example table with a blue, bloodstained cover. This was not a good sign.

“Oh, gross,” said Dannelly, pointing at the floor. “I think this is a piece of flesh.”

Eventually the doctor came in. In his thirties, with disheveled hair and glasses, he took one look and said we needed an x-ray. Dannelly helped me get across the hall to the x-ray room, and I lay on the table, hoping this guy knew what he was doing.

“You’ve torn a ligament,” he told me. “We need to drain the knee and immobilize it.” That sounded reasonable.

I got back on the bloody exam table, and the doctor readied a needle of lydocaine. He jabbed it under my kneecap, and I screamed in pain. “It will get numb soon,” the doctor said.

A minute later he had a large needle with a syringe the size of a turkey baster, which he poked into the same place behind the kneecap. I screamed again, and Dannelly came over and patted my head, saying, “It’s OK, you’re going to be all right.”

“Shut up, and get your hands off me!” I screamed. “You touch me again, and I’ll kill you.” He took his hand away.

The doctor held up a syringe full of yellowish fluid, telling me it had come from my knee.

“Is he done?” I said through clenched teeth. “If he’s done, why does it still hurt so much?” I looked down at my knee, and I could see that he had snapped the syringe off the needle, which he had left protruding from my knee.

“Shit!” I screamed when he snapped the syringe back on and drew out more fluid.

“Don’t worry, that’s all of it,” the doctor smiled. He sent Dannelly across the street for some medical supplies. Soon I had a cast on that reached from my ankle to my hip. Dannelly said it looked like a bit too much, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t hurting as much. Dannelly handed me a bottle of codeine pills, we paid the doctor, and took a cab home.

At home I ate a quiet dinner and then went up to bed. I couldn’t do much more, so I lay in bed reading my scriptures until it was time to go to sleep. I told Dannelly I wasn’t going to take the codeine. If Joseph Smith could have his leg operated on with no anesthesia, I could handle a bad knee without drugs.

In the middle of the night, I woke up in serious pain, so I grabbed the codeine and a glass of water Dannelly had helpfully left; he knew, as he’d had knee problems before.

In the morning, the president was shocked to see the cast, but I managed to do my job. It didn’t require much walking. Just after our morning meeting, the zone leaders from Potosi called and said that the welfare hermanas were missing. No one knew where they were, but they had packed their bags and left. The landlady had said they might be headed to Cochabamba.

Immediately, we called around to all the zone leaders in town and all the hotels, trying to find out where they were. About ten o’clock, the two sisters walked in, saying very little. Sister Van Buren, a heavy redheaded woman from England, asked to see the mission president. She went in the office and was inside for a very long time. When she came out, she was crying, and her companion, who had been staring at the floor, stood up and walked into the office without saying a word.

The next morning, the mission president and his two assistants held a “disciplinary council,” meaning that they were determining what kind of punishment to mete out for what Sister Van Buren had done.

She was pregnant.

Dash and I hurriedly prepared her travel papers. She would leave in two days, the day after Thanksgiving.

For Thanksgiving, Sister Nichols had cooked us a large turkey, and just about all the missionaries in Cochabamba gathered at our house for a pot-luck dinner. I sat on the couch, my leg stretched out in front of me. The swelling had gone down, so the knee flopped around loosely inside the cast.

“You need to get that off,” said Van Buren, who was a nurse. She helped me remove the cast, changed the bandage, and carefully wrapped the knee in an ace bandage. “Try and stay off it, and you should be OK.” I couldn’t believe that, amid all that she was going through, she had stopped to take care of me. I’ll never forget that.

After dinner, we gathered in our living room, and a missionary brought out a guitar, and we sang hymns in Spanish for quite some time. He stopped and said, “I have a special song I’ve written for this occasion.”

He began singing a song all the Americans knew, though he had changed the words. When he got to the chorus, we all sang along: “Welcome to the Hotel Cochabamba … You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” We all laughed through the song, but the president looked a little displeased.

The next morning we put Hermana Van Buren on a plane to London. Her companion went to Lima to finish her mission.  We were deeply saddened for someone who had come to Bolivia as a divinely called missionary and who was now no longer a member of the church we represented.

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