Friday, July 11, 2008

Nothing To Do

My client calls me in my hotel room at nine this morning and says, "there's nothing for you to do today. You have the day off." I thank him, and assure him I'll have my cellphone with me if he needs anything, and smile to myself. Just because he has nowhere for me to fly today doesn't mean I have nothing to do. My day's to do list already includes:

  • order nasal cannulas
  • buy charts
  • find out the contact person for permission to access restricted airspace
  • find shop that can do 100 h mx check
  • buy garbage bags
  • send weekly paperwork to boss
  • buy antiseptic wipes for the icky masks, pending the arrival of the cannulas (cannulae?)

But I'll let the client maintain the illusion that I'll do nothing all day.

It's quarter to twelve when I'm done the paperwork and finished all I can do in the way of maintenance and airspace related phone calls and e-mails. I log on to the Utah public transit website to find out when the next bus downtown is. They have the usual little app that allows me to tell it where I am, where I want to go and when, so I punch in that data, telling it I want to leave at noon. I figure I can walk to the bus stop by then.

The application comes back and tells me to board a bus at 11:46. That's now. I click on the route schedule to find out when the next one is. Over four hours from now. Hmm. Time for Plan B. It turns out that the business/church association runs a free shuttle from the airport to downtown, intended to lure travellers with long stopovers into the temple and/or local stores. And my hotel has a free shuttle to the airport. I combine these to good effect and am soon downtown, at Temple Square.

My last night's hosts had warned me that the free tour of the square was weak on history and long on religion, but I could stand to learn more about the local religion, so I attended. The tour guides were young women, missionaries who had signed up for an eighteen month mission anywhere in the world, and they found themselves in Utah. The tour had a little of the aspect of watching news videos posted online, where you have to listen to the commercials in order to get to the content. So we would get a little spiel on the first Mormon commandment of faith, as 'background' and then some historical information. The guides took us to a room that looked out on the Temple Square buildings, and which was surrounded by busts of Mormon prophets. The first was Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, then Brigham Young who led the faithful to Utah, and at least a dozen, maybe two dozen, more all around the outside of the room. They had somehow managed a continuous succession of prophets. I wondered how they went about finding the next prophet, after one died. Was the next identified as a child, like the Dalai Lama? Elected by the elite, like the Pope? Elected generally like the President? I asked, and they explained that each new prophet is chosen by and from the ranks of the apostles of the previous one, through prayer and consensus.

Next I toured the house of Brigham Young, where my guides were from Brazil and Italy. We saw the furnishings and restored interior of the house he had built and in which he lived and entertained visiting dignitaries. I had noticed by this point that all the missionaries carried around a copy of The Book of Mormon, much the way Phil has to be within reach of is flight attendant manual. (Thanks to Phil, I was momentarily distracted from the presentation by the idea of a doubly burdened Mormon flight attendant. Yes, Phil and I are trying to arrange to meet up, but when two people are in aviation, meeting is complicated.) Eventually I asked one of the guides if I could see her Book. She said of course, and I sat down to look at it. It read, and I hope I can say this without offending anyone, much like a book of the Bible it supplements. Records and prophesies and stories and lo and beholds. I didn't read enough to see anything reportable, I was just looking to see what it was that Joseph Smith had written. I was wondering to myself at how prolific this man had been, when the missionary mentioned that the book was written in 600 AD. That didn't line up with what I thought I knew. She said that the book, actually engraved plates, dated to the year 600, and had been passed from prophet to prophet until it reached the last one, Moroni, who had no one to give it to, because the people of Jerusalem had become wicked. So he hid it in the ground. This really didn't match what I knew of this being a very recent religion, and one founded in the US.

I asked something like, "But ... six hundred .. Joseph Smith?" The Italian Sister's English was not perfect. She perhaps said the wrong word or number somewhere.

But no, she went on and explained that the last prophet Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith as a resurrected being and revealed to him where the gold plates bearing these scriptures were hidden. He unearthed them and translated them.

"And where were they?" I asked.

The answer was an exotic name that I didn't recognize, so I asked where that was.

"New York."

"New York? United States New York?"

Yes. That New York. Okay, the language barrier had caused some problem here. "How did they get to New York?"

"By boat."

Eventually, after a bit of back and forth, it dawned on me. "This was a trip from Jerusalem to New York that ... most people don't know about. It isn't recorded in ... regular history?"

And she confirmed it. Wow, this religion is starting to sound like an Indiana Jones movie.

"What language were they written in?" I asked.

The answer was in the Egyptian language, but with the Hebrew writing system. The Sister anticipated my next question and warned that this part might be hard to understand, but Joseph Smith was not a very educated man, he translated the plates using the power of God. Given the biblical story of the tower of Babel, and even some non-religious stories of people understanding foreign speech in extremis, that didn't really stand out as the astonishing part of the story. I'd just been told that there was a historical artifact, a written record of biblical times that had been found on North American soil. And I'd never even heard of it! Was this religion so persecuted that something like that could be covered up?

"Where are the plates now?" I asked.

She explained that there are replicas of some of them in the museum, but at that time the people were wicked and they could see that Joseph had these things that looked like gold, and they wanted them, so the angels took them back for safekeeping.

And the act of translation was the hard to grasp part? And then I had a little revelation of my own. All religions are based on faith, faith in something that appears fantastical to someone who does not have that faith. And once you believe in something that others don't, it doesn't really matter how convoluted it is, it's your faith. And perhaps the strength of the faith that is required to support the beliefs is a strength that carries one through adversity, such as the mountains of Utah, the Nazi concentration camps, or simply the horrors of grade nine in high school. It's likely that every single person in the world believes something that I don't. I am absolutely not going to judge or condemn them for that. I'm sure I believe some things that other people find highly unlikely. It would appear that regardless of their beliefs that these people work hard for themselves and to deliver humanitarian relief as well as evangelism to people who need it.

I did not tell the nice woman that her faith was an Indiana Jones movie, already written and ready to be scored by John Williams. I do keep an eye out for evidence that Joseph Young wore a fedora or carried a bullwhip.

I continued walking around Temple Square, looking at fountains and sculptures and monuments. Here's a detail from one commemorating "Brigham Young and the Pioneers," the first group of people to make that trek through the mountains to find this place. The plaque lists all their names, with stars next to those still alive at the time of the engraving. As you can see from the picture, this was summarized as 143 men, 3 women and 2 children, along with assorted animals. The male-female ratio struck me as an odd foundation for a polygamous society that rejects homosexuality, but apparently that group was merely the vanguard, the next year hundreds more people joined them. I counted the names to see if the "colored servants" listed separately at the end counted as men, and they did. Depictions on the monument also acknowledge the Ute Indians and the hunters and trappers who had made it to the valley before the pilgrims.

I had lunch at a restaurant called The Lion House, a historic home also on Temple Square. It was cafeteria style, quite good food and they offered Jell-O among the desserts. I was sorry to observe that there was no green, only red and orange, so I still haven't had the Utah state food. I had black forest cake instead.

I walked from Temple Square up the hill to the State Capitol. I learned about something called book cut marble, the way patterns like the one in the picture above are produced. The marble is cut four times as thick as it needs to be, then sliced in half like a layer cake, and then those leaves are again sliced, allowing the grain of the marble to form a fourfold symmetrical pattern. I spotted this mural of Brigham Young arriving in the valley. It appears that he did have a fedora. Perhaps his bullwhip is in the covered wagon.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Keep reading.

They ran Joseph Smith out, and later he was lynched. When outsiders approached Salt Lake City in 1857, the favor was repaid many-fold.

Thanks for spurring my "research"! I had never heard about the true history of Salt Lake, despite having multiple friends from childhood who were/are members of the LDS.

PS: on those icky masks, wipe em clean, let em dry, then put a little powder or cornstarch onto a cloth, wipe it into the contact areas, then wipe off as much as you can. Used to work on the old
M-17A1 and MCU-2/P.

Julien said...

Hi Aviatrix,

You so have to watch the South Park episode on Mormons:

Everything will be revealed. Couldn't find a youtube link though.


Seth R. said...

Mormonism's slice of American history is a fascinating read, but you have to be picky about your sources. A lot of hate groups have specifically targeted Mormons and published boatloads of attack material, a lot of which eventually finds its way into various other historical accounts.

Regardless of what historical source you read, I'll freely admit that Mormons have a controversial history to say the least. Which is what makes it so much fun IMO.

Sounds like a pretty fair and open-minded first encounter with our religion. Enjoyed reading it.

To clarify on the good sister missionary's account of the Book of Mormon...

The book starts with an Israelite prophet in Jerusalem at around 600 BC. God tells him to take his family, and a friend's family, and split, because the city is doomed (the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem soon after). They spent many years wandering around the Arabian peninsula and eventually, at God's direction, set sail on the ocean before arriving somewhere in the Western Hemisphere from the Pacific side (current LDS scholars think the most likely location to be a small chunk of Central America about the size of Alabama at biggest).

Upon arrival, bitter rivalries among brothers split the group into two factions that would eventually grow into nations and fight each other for the next several hundred years.

At around 400 AD, one of the two rival factions got the upper hand and pretty-much wiped out the other one. One of the last survivors of the losing faction - the prophet Mormon - compiled an abridgment of all their historical records on a book of gold plates (using a specialized and adapted form of Egyptian writing), and handed them over to his son before dying. His son Moroni wandered in the wilderness for years hiding from his enemies before finally burying the gold plates in a hill in present-day upstate New York.

In the early 1800s, Joseph Smith had a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, then was visited by the same Moroni (mentioned above), who told him where to find the hidden record. Upon getting the gold plates, Joseph translated them, via spiritual means, over the course of a few months and published the finished product as the "Book of Mormon." Then he went on to start a religious movement today known as the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" - popularly known as "Mormons." He was killed by a mob in Illinois, after which the movement was led by his successor - Brigham Young - who organized a mass exodus (to get away from their enemies in Illinois) of thousands of Mormons across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains to the barren wasteland of the Salt Lake Valley where they made a go of it. And there you are.

Sorry if I'm being too wordy, but you seemed mildly interested, so I thought I'd clarify a bit.


Greybeard said...

It's easy to find fault with any organized religious group, and the "flexibility" of Mormonism over the years has made them one of the easiest...
But isn't it nice to be able to question or poke fun at adherents of a certain belief system without fear of being beheaded or stoned to death?

Anonymous said...


As a life-long "Mormon", I must say that I found your account of a first encounter with Mormonism simultaneously humorous, entertaining, and surprisingly charitable in comparison to other such accounts I have read over the years.

I also felt, quite acutely, that you deserved to have obtained a more correct and understandable rendition of the basic foundational elements of what is commonly termed "Mormonism".

But, in reading the few comments you have received, I see that seth (above) has already done a very admirable job of providing you with a sufficiently concise and accurate account of the origins of the Book of Mormon. I hope you read what he had to say on the matter. I endorse it whole-heartedly, as I commend you again for your well-written and entertaining log entry concerning your day with the Mormons.



P.S. Don't regret too much your having been deprived a sample of the "state food". Not all that jiggles is gold.