The Missionary Training Center (or MTC, which is what most Mormons call it) stands at the northernmost end of the Brigham Young University campus, in Provo, Utah, just down the hill from a gleaming white temple that at the time had a golden spire pointing heavenward. The buildings, made of light-orange brick, are utilitarian in design, most of them housing either classrooms or dormitories. A large administration building stood at the front, the flags of several nations posted along the semicircular drive marking the MTC entrance.
I got up early and dressed in my suit: a brown pinstriped wool blend I had picked up cheap in the garment district, a wool sweater vest underneath, the only extravagance a gold tie bar my sister had given me for Christmas. We stopped at BYU to have breakfast in the student union, where I posed for a last photo with my parents in front of a large snowbank.
We pulled into a driveway that was already jammed with missionaries and their parents unloading luggage from their cars. We got my two suitcases out of the trunk, and Mom and I waited on the sidewalk while Dad parked the car.
When he arrived, we walked into the lobby of the building, where an elderly woman directed us to a large chapel to one side. Most of the new missionaries had the same look on their faces that I am sure I had. They looked a little scared, but mostly just sort of resigned, as if they knew they were now part of something well beyond their control.
The head of the MTC then stood at the podium and welcomed us. He told us that the Lord was pleased with our decision to serve him, and that here we would learn how to be true servants of the Lord. He outlined a few rules—no visitors, no phone calls, no fraternizing with the opposite sex—and then told us it was time to say goodbye to our loved ones. I hugged my parents and told them I loved them, and then I walked out the door to a different life.
The hallway outside the door was lined with tables, behind each of which sat a person with a notebook. As you passed each table, you gave your name, and they gave you the appropriate items: a black name tag with “ELDER WILLIAMS” and the church logo (in Spanish, of course) stamped in white letters; a copy of Spanish for Missionaries, a thick, red, paperbound book containing basic grammar and vocabulary that we missionaries would need; a Spanish hymnal; the University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary; a room key; and a “White Bible,” the small plastic-bound booklet containing a list of missionary rules and a small certificate showing that I was indeed an authorized minister of the church.
I followed the directions I had been given and found my room. The room looked like a typical low-rent college dorm: two bunk beds at opposite corners, with a large double wardrobe and dresser at the foot of each. For some strange reason, there was an enormous stack of empty soda cans against one wall, reaching up past the windows. The industrial-grade carpet was rust-colored, with rough curtains to match.
The room assignment listed my companion as an Elder Grolsch, who arrived as I was unpacking my clothes and arranging them in the wardrobe. Grolsch was a little shorter than I was, with dark brown hair; very light, freckled skin; and intense light-green eyes. A wrestler in high school, he had a thick neck; broad, muscular shoulders; and a tiny waist. He told me that he was from northern Idaho, a place of pine forests and beautiful mountains. It sounded like a nice place.
After lunch we had another orientation meeting. The speaker stressed two things. First, we needed to learn to love our companions because if we didn’t love them, we couldn’t have the Spirit with us. And without the Spirit, we could not teach effectively. Second, we needed to make sure we had confessed every sin before we left for our mission assignments. If we had “unresolved sins,” we needed to confess and repent now, before it was too late. Carrying around the burden of sin would also deprive us of the Spirit.
Then we went to our first class, which was held in a small classroom perhaps ten feet by 15 feet, if that. Each of us had a desk/chair like you would find in a high school classroom. On one cinder-block wall was a large chalkboard, and the other three held posters representing the countries where our group would be going: Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.
Besides Elder Grolsch, there were four other male missionaries in our group. Michaels was a friendly guy from suburban Salt Lake City who struck me as not being particularly bright. His companion, Elder Gonzales, was a Puerto Rican guy from Brooklyn, New York, who was four years older than we were at 23. Elder Lynn was from the San Joaquin Valley in California, and we immediately hit it off. The last guy was Elder Justice, a very tall and very quiet guy from somewhere in Oklahoma. They were all going to Rosario, Argentina.
Two women (“hermanas,” or sisters) were assigned to our group. Hermana Taylor was from Texas and already spoke fluent Spanish, having lived in Mexico for many years while she was growing up. Hermana Marshall was quiet with almond-shaped blue eyes and red hair. Both Hermana Marshall and Hermana Taylor were heading for Arequipa, Peru.
Our instructor, Elder Haver, was a guy who was joking so often that you never knew when he was being serious. He had done his mission in Venezuela and during the next couple of months would enjoy telling us stories of rule-breaking and fun P-day activities. I think he mostly liked seeing the utter shock in our faces when we heard such things, which were definitely not in the White Bible.
We would have three regular classes during the day, and we were expected to make the most of our time both to learn Spanish and to memorize the lessons (called “discussions”) we were to teach. In the morning, we met with Elder Foote, a painfully thin guy who had recently returned from Chile and who would regularly update us on his dating progress. Haver had the afternoon shift, and Elder Curtis had the evening Practica y Repaso (practice and review, or P and R, for short). Curtis, who had also been in Chile, would write his favorite quotes and sayings on the board in Spanish and challenge us to interpret them. I liked all three of them, though they were very different in temperament and personality.
That first evening we would have “branch meeting,” where we met to worship with about a hundred other missionaries, all of whom were going to Spanish-speaking missions.
Before dinner, we were handed a slip that read as follows:
Soy Elder _______
Voy a la mision _________
In branch meeting, the branch president would call us each up to the front of the chapel where we would read the slips to tell people who we were and which mission we were going to.
Grolsch thought it was a good idea to practice. I had taken four years of Spanish in high school, so I went first:
“Soy Elder Williams. Voy a la mision Bolivia Cochabamba.”
“Nooooo!” shouted Grolsch. “That’s not it at all!”
“What do you mean?” It seemed pretty straightforward to me.
“It’s not Co-CHA-bamba,” he said, clearly indignant at my butchering of the city name. “It’s Co-KA-bamba.”
“I’m pretty it’s not,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“Look, I know Spanish, and you have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, looking far too happy with himself. So I just ignored him.
At the meeting, I stood there in front of all those missionaries and read the line the way I knew it was supposed to be read.
After giving me a very dirty look, Grolsch said, very loudly, “Soy Elder Grolsch. Voy a la mission Bolivia Cokabamba.”
Several missionaries snickered, and the branch president said into the microphone, “I believe that’s pronounced Co-CHA-bamba.”
Grolsch’s face was red with humiliation, so I didn’t say anything.
We went to bed that night sleeping in opposite corners in the bottom bunks, as we didn’t have roommates. I really couldn’t believe I was actually in the MTC. I had felt like my life had been planned up to this moment, but I wasn’t sure what was coming.