Zone meetings in La Paz were always interesting. Beck’s new companion was Elder Woodward, one of the two guys who had been about to go home when the mission length had changed. He was still the same: rigid and seemingly unable to engage in even the most superficial of human interaction.
Hermana Stevenson, one of the welfare missionaries, had made it her personal mission to “loosen him up.”
“You know, Woodward,” she had said at one zone meeting, “You’d be a much better zone leader if you took that stick out of your ass.”
Each week she would egg him on, letting him know that she saw through the facade to the insecure young man underneath.
She began openly flirting with him, and he would turn bright red, saying, “Hermana, this is not appropriate.”
One week as we filed out of the meeting, she pinched his butt as she walked by. I have never seen a more horrified look on a missionary’s face. She laughed about it at lunch the next day.
“I’m going to kiss him,” she said. “He’s going home in a couple of weeks, so what’s he going to do?”
“You wouldn’t dare,” I said.
Sure enough, at the end of zone meeting, she motioned for Woodward to come over.
“I need to tell you something,” she said, looking very serious. “Come closer.”
As he leaned toward her, she planted a big, wet kiss on him. Even Beck laughed.
The next week, Hermana Stevenson and I both got transferred. She was going to Potosi, and I was getting a dream assignment: “roving” missionary.
As I’ve mentioned, the previous mission president had used outlying branches as “punishment” for wayward missionaries. My assignment was to work in three such branches in El Beni, the remote jungle region in the north of the country. Very few missionaries had ever been there, and I was going to see all three towns.
President Nichols explained on the phone what he wanted me to do: “Go to Riberalta, where the branch is struggling. Do what you can to help the branch president, but focus on teaching and baptizing. I don’t want you to knock on doors, but find the members and try to get them to help you find people to teach. When you run out of people to teach, move on to Guayeramerin, and then when you’re done there, move on to Trinidad.”
The next day I went to the airlines and bought a ticket to Cochabamba, where I would be meeting my companion before flying up to Riberalta. This transfer was going to be expensive. The new government had tripled prices on most items, and they had flooded the market with dollars, meaning that our dollars were suddenly worth much less than they had been before. Plane tickets had previously cost between $8 and $15, and now the trip to Riberalta was going to cost nearly $200. But that was the only way to get there, as there were no roads or trains leading to that part of the country.
It snowed all morning, and by the time we reached the airport, a few inches blanketed the ground. Willka seemed a little relieved to have me leave, but I suspect he wasn’t as relieved as I was. It had been a very trying time dealing with such a hypercritical person. Oh, well. His next companion was to be a Bolivian, so maybe he wouldn’t start with automatic prejudice, as he had with me.
The office missionaries met me at the airport in Cochabamba and took me back to the house. There I met Elder Richards, who was Dannelly’s replacement as financial secretary.
“He can’t leave the house,” one of the elders said. “He’s under house arrest.”
“You’re kidding,” said. No, they were not. “What happened?”
Richards told me that one night he had finished up the books to send to Salt Lake and had needed only the president’s signature to send them off, so he had driven to Cala Cala to have him sign it. On the way, as they drove up the hill a few blocks from the president’s house, a drunk man on a bicycle had suddenly swerved out in front of the car, and Richards had hit him.
“I could tell he was dead as soon as I saw him,” he said. A crowd had gathered, and they decided that they would hang Richards from a street lamp. They had already put a rope over the pole when the police arrived. Richards had been taken to the courthouse, where he had slept on a bench for three days until a judge decided to let him go to the house, on condition that he not leave the house at all.
I arrived just a couple of days later, and Richards was still pretty shaken. The day after I arrived, another huge strike paralyzed the country. Riots and roadblocks filled the cities, and of course, the planes were grounded. This meant that my companion would not be arriving from Riberalta until the strike ended, and no one knew how long that would be.
The office missionaries seemed pleased that someone would be there to keep Richards company. Missionaries weren’t supposed to be alone, and they had been taking turns staying with him.
Richards was a great guy. Tall with piercing blue eyes and a great sense of humor, he was from San Diego and, like me, had spent a lot of time on the beach growing up. Richards was in Dannelly’s old bed, so I would lie on my former bed, and we would try to do missionary-like things: reading scriptures and studying Spanish, but you can’t do that all day. So, we would end up listening to music (he was into heavy metal) and talking about home and BYU, where he had worked in the Health Center.
“I hated that place,” I said. “They made me get the hernia and prostate check from a woman.”
“Oh, who was that?” he asked.
I fished out my immunization card and showed him the signature.
“Oh, Celia,” he laughed. “She loved doing those. She’s such a horn-dog.”
I was completely mortified.
“Hey, at least she’s cute,” he said. “I used to work in the lab, and we’d do a lot of missionary physicals. You’d be surprised what we’d find in the urine samples. Sperm in almost every one of them.”
Only once did he talk about the accident. “I don’t feel guilty at all about it,” he said, his voice very quiet. “I’ve replayed the whole thing in my mind so many times, and there’s nothing I could have done to avoid him. It wasn’t my fault. Every day I wish I could undo it, but I know it wasn’t my fault.”
I stayed with Richards for a week or so, and then President Nichols said I should go out and work with some missionaries in the city, since it wasn’t right for me to be spending so much time doing nothing. So, the next day the office elders dropped me off at the house of two missionaries. One I recognized, Sheldon, from our zone in La Paz. Like the last time I had seen him, he was in bed.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Still sucks, man,” he said, sounding really tired. “But at least it’s not La Paz.”
His companion, Elder Crouch, told me that Sheldon hadn’t been out of bed in weeks, so he’d been going out with local church members doing missionary work. He was glad to have a missionary to work with. We went to a few appointments and knocked some doors until the sun started to set.
“We have to go home right now!” he said.
“Why?” I asked. It was still light out, and we could have worked for a while longer.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said, now walking rather briskly toward the house. “Our novela will be on in a few minutes.”
When we got back to the apartment, Sheldon was lying on the couch in front of the TV. “Dude, you almost missed it.”
“It” was a Mexican soap opera (telenovela) called Tu o Nadie.
“That Lucía Méndez is hot,” said Crouch, settling into a chair. I called the office and asked them to come and pick me up.
“Aren’t you going to watch it with us?” asked Sheldon. “It’s really good.”
“No, I decided a long time ago I wasn’t going to watch any more TV,” I said, trying not to sound self-righteous.
“Look, this is the only thing that’s kept me alive,” said Sheldon. “I don’t know how I’d make it through the day if I didn’t have this to look forward to.”
I figured he was probably right, but I waited out in the kitchen until the truck arrived, and we went home.
Back at the house, I went into the spare room and lay down on the bed. Follows came in a few minutes later and closed the door.
“I need to tell you something,” he said. “I haven’t had anyone to talk to, and I’m really glad you’re here.”
“What’s the matter?” I’d never heard him sounding so scared and desperate.
“It’s Charo,” he said.
Instantly I knew. Charo was the 19-year-old niece of our live-in cook; she had moved in just before Christmas.
“I only have a few weeks left, and I’m not sure I can hold out that long.”
“What do you mean? I asked.
“I’m in love,” he said. “I almost kissed her once, but I put one finger over her lips and then kissed over it.” I would have laughed if he hadn’t sounded so distraught.
“You have to tell the president. If you don’t get out of here, something bad could happen.” By that I meant that they might have sex, and that would ruin his mission. He would go home in disgrace.
“I can’t do that,” he looked at me with real sadness in his eyes. “President would be so disappointed. I can make it. I just need someone to watch out for me.”
“I’ll do what I can,” i said. For the next two weeks, whenever I was home, I would stay with Follows and make sure he didn’t get too close to Charo. A few more weeks, and it wouldn’t matter, but right now he was a missionary keeping missionary rules.
After three weeks, the strike ended. The new government had cracked down and broken up the roadblocks and demonstrations and had declared a “state of siege,” meaning martial law was in effect. Rumor had it that the leaders of the COB, the main labor union, had been rounded up and sent to camps in El Pando in the far north. When the strike ended, my companion, Elder Cannon, arrived.
He and his previous companion had been on the plane between Riberalta and Cochabamba when the pilot had announced that the airline was on strike and that they would be landing in Trinidad, where the plane would remain until the strike ended. Fortunately, the two of them had the address of an apartment where the missionaries had previously lived, so they at least had a place to stay, but all their luggage was on the plane, and they would not be able to get it for three weeks. Cannon’s companion had a checkbook, so they lived off his money and bought t-shirts and shorts so they had something to change into when they washed their missionary clothes.
They looked pretty dirty and ragged when they arrived, but finally we were going to get to our area. Follows made it through his mission without “falling” (mission slang for having sex), and Richards was transferred to southern Chile, once the church paid a $25,000 settlement to the widow of the man he had killed. He ended up marrying one of the welfare hermanas; I saw him a few months ago at Primary Children’s hospital in Utah. He’s a successful doctor at the University of Utah Medical Center, but I’ll always see him as the sad and scared missionary stuck in the house for a month.