I know you won’t believe me, but it happens to be Christopher Plummer’s fault that I am an apostate from the Mormon Church. You are probably thinking, so who cares, how could anything to do with Mormonism is more interesting than watching wheat grow. Of course, you are dead wrong.
My father prayed for my immortal soul daily. Dad, a devout Mormon was steady as a fence post. Always worked in the church. As the train pulled away from Union Station, Salt Lake City, I saw his shoulders lift, then drop. It was only later, I realized my father had taken a deep breath. It was his first in a long time.
You need to understand the function that a two-year mission for the Mormon Church provides. It is a function well beyond the conversion of new membership. New members with their attending new tithes is only the bonus. Polygamy had its place and will have again at some future time. Mormon’s of the true-blue variety are born and raised in the church. The conditioning starts at the cradle. The more babies the better. Come, Come Ye Saint, No Toil Nor Labor Fear (title and lyrics of a Mormon song). The mission is that certain rite of passage where a young man goes out into the real world for the first time, about 50,000 a year, and takes the true word of God to the children of men.
The nineteen year old, wet behind the ears, boy who left his mother two years before returns home an experience hardened hero of the Mormon Church. His testimony of the gospel has been tempered in the fires of rejection and harsh put down. He has dodged rocks, been spite on, cursed and sometimes injured. A few have been killed. He returns home a true blue believer to take his place as part the backbone of the church and the army of God. This is how Mormonism prevails.
Mom, waved with pride. Dad relief. I was a Mormon missionary. I would be two years before I returned to Zion.
Dad was never comfortable with my passion for live theater. Did his duty, came to opening nights at the University, never said much. This business about play-acting on a stage was beyond him. He thought, people should do something useful with their lives.
Me? I was never fully alive until rehearsals started. A month earlier Professor Dodd, the director, called me to his office and handed me a script.
“It’s open casting, yes, but be ready for tryouts. I chose the play and the part with you in mind.”
Not just any part either, but a rich, juicy, lead.
Most go to college to get an education. I went because it was a calling – the stage – always calling. One evening after classes I vaulted into the house and was half way to my room when I heard dad’s voice.
“There’s a letter for you.”
The flat timbre of his voice struck me odd. I backed up. Went to look. For a moment, the return address didn’t make sense.
The First Presidency
The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Salt Lake City, Utah 84321
God had come to my father’s rescue! I had been born and raised for this. There was never a question that one day I would go on a mission for The Church. Still it struck me like a low blow to the groin.
How do you put your dreams on hold? Two years. An abandoned script? Torture! The timing could not have been worse.
“Dad. We have to write the Church! Postpone my mission one semester.”
Enthroned in his reading chair, Book of Mormon open, he didn’t look up, nor did he say anything.
“The First Presidency, Dad, they must consider special circumstances . . . you know . . . a temporary thing,” I desperately urged.
“It’s the Lord that’s calling you son,” was all dad said.
Nineteen years old. Dreams coming true. A director that believed in me. I’d had the world in my hands for God’s sake. I was being torn apart. I honestly think, I could have cut off a finger easier. Yet, always dutiful, I told myself there would be other parts and reported to the Mission Training Center in Salt Lake City.
Two weeks later my father drove to town to watch as I was set apart, an instrument of the most high, a representative of God’s true church. From that moment forth I would be known as Elder Oborn.
As I debarked the train two senior missionaries were waiting for us at the Toronto Train Station. One, from Nephi, Utah introduced himself as Elder Clanton and indicated I was to go with him. Elder Clanton was tall and lean and said he had one month left to serve. He opened the trunk of the car, took my suitcases from me. I was ready for a hot shower and a shave.
For about twenty minutes while he drove we talked about Utah, people we both new. He was going to start school at Brigham Young University at his return.
“This is the Polish section of the city,” he said as he pulled over to the curb.
“Which one is the mission headquarters?” I asked.
Elder Clanton got out of the car. I followed. We approached a street filled with moderate sized, wood clapboard houses.
“We don’t waste daylight hours. God’s harvest comes first,” Elder Clanton said.
I watched his hand come up head high and rap on the door. A man with rolled up shirt sleeves, a bored expression, and an open newspaper in one hand stood behind the screen door. My heart jumped into my throat.
“Good afternoon. We are Ministers from the Church. We have an important message for you and your family. May we come in for a moment?” Elder Clanton said, and to my horror reached for the screen door.
A door slammed in my face. I blinked. For a moment, its weathered veneered surface seemed curious to me. When I turned Elder Clanton was half way to the next house.
“Not interested.” I heard again.
A week later I was transferred to Windsor, Ontario. My new companion, Elder Serious met me at the train station. A husky blue suit with a crew-cut haircut was walking toward me as I exited the train. When he shook my hand I couldn’t help noticing he had no neck.
Mornings we rose early to pray, study hour; pray, breakfast; pray, knock on doors. So it went, the daily challenge, minutes that were hours. Except for those times it rained hard and we stood under an awning in front of a florist shop or a grocery store telling ourselves God understood, it was one, long, repetitious blur.
The excitement of the theater pulled at me day and night. Walking, knocking, it spawned a moiled routine of endless drudgery. God’s chosen was growing calluses on knuckles that would remain and remind for twenty years.
Once a year an Apostle from the Quorum of the Twelve in Salt Lake City would visit for a mission wide conference.
“Thank God. A respite,” I said one evening.
My companion, Elder Serious, took righteous offence at my poor attitude.
More than a hundred dark suits would gather in Toronto from all reaches of the Eastern Canadian Mission. Ottawa to the east, Tilbury north and Windsor south.
Senior Elder Serious and I would travel by train.
“Have we heard which Apostle is coming?”
I was excited. We all were. Which Apostle would the Prophet send from Salt Lake?
“Our Apostles have stood in the presence of the Savior in the Salt Lake Temple.” Mom had said many times as I was growing up. Dad, looking up from reading, would smile, nod.
Expectations ran high among the missionaries. Everyone wanted to shake the hand of someone who had been that close to the Godhead. The message from our prophet would be exclusive, insider information about our purpose in the changing events in these, the last days.
By this time I had stumbled on the knowledge of a Shakespearian Festival in Stratford On Avon, Ontario and guess what? Stratford was midway between my current field of labor in Windsor and Toronto where the mission conference was to take place. Can you believe, the train would go right through Stratford On Avon. I became insatiable, read everything about the festival I could get my hands on.
Every Friday each missionary wrote a letter to the mission president. I had worked on my letter asking for permission to attend the festival for days. I explained that my major at Brigham Young University was theater and this was a tremendous opportunity. One performance. One afternoon. Nothing more. Hamlet was being performed for God’s sake. It meant leaving earlier in the day. Some guy named Christopher Plummer, who was billed as up and coming, was playing the Dane Prince. My letter was crafted with great care.
Senior Elder Serious was a football hero from Idaho. Legend in his own mind. Arms as big as my thighs.
“Never seen a play in my life. Football, that’s my thing.”
“Football? What’s that, an Idaho, potato holiday?”
But the Mission President had already given me permission, with conditions. No overnight. Mission rules prevailed. Always together and worse, Elder No Neck must agree. He hummed and hawed. I hung the letter, from the Mission President giving us permission, on the bathroom mirror. At that it fell to a showdown. I knew that humor aimed in and about his physical prowess was his weakness and I was getting good at using it. “You have one choice,” I said. “ Either sit though Hamlet or defend yourself.” He didn’t stop laughing for twenty minutes. I faked my reaction. Had counted on that – that the comedy of it would amuse him. It worked. Elder Football Hero sat through Hamlet, the entire play, but never, for the rest of our time together, did he stop kidding me about the boys in tights.
We were late for the first session of conference that was all. It was a general session with the Canadian members also. The next day there was a meeting just for us, the missionaries, or as our mission president called us, God’s Commandos. We waited in rapt attention for God’s Apostle. The instructions he carried to us were direct from our prophet, essential to our work in this, the dispensation of the fullness of times.
As he took the podium, he adjusted his feet, extended his arms and grasped the sides of the lectern. He was cool. As he looked out over us the air was electric.
Curious, I realized as I listened to his message that a touch of guilt was building in me. My time and interest in the theater often drew me into a focus of attention off center of most.
As the conference progressed I was suspended in some surreal afterthought I couldn’t stop. Something strange was turning inside me. Mission Conference enlivened me. I was exhilarated. Our Apostle had me in his hands. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. He called sin and righteousness into a room with skill and finesse. I had, just that afternoon, watched a twenty-two year old Christopher Plummer do the same thing in Hamlet. He performed with a cast on one leg, broken a week before during a performance of Twelfth Night. At that he gimped about the boards with grace and turned in a performance both robust and powerful. There I was, among the important, doing the important. As I listened I assimilated the heady flow of his delivery. I measured the choice of a word, a phrase. The way he nudged inflection to accent and lift. He drummed out cadence and it was breath taking. The dark blue suit gave a serious and imperial presence. His immaculate, white hair formed a halo about his long, even features. Softly at first, a voice mellow and soothing like my father’s when I was sick. Then, as a gathering storm, he called thunder and lightening into a pounding fierceness that pierced my heart with fear and elation. A master puppeteer played the strings of my emotions. Our speaker utilized a note of angelic lightness at one point and the sledgehammer of perdition at another. He knew exactly when to pause and how long to hold. Where was I, but transported to the dark battlements of a Denmark castle? Where was I, but equating the gesture and eloquence of a Ghostly King to the horrors of a Princely heir? A hell bound King related a tale of deeds heinous and foul to a woeful son.
“My hour is almost come, when I to sulfurous and tormenting flames must render up myself.”
Then as he faced the other side of the podium, a son’s princely reply echoed in the bitter night air.
“O my prophetic soul.”
It was sheer, joyous reverie to be in that chapel as he carried us up into the ecstasy of God's revealed word and then down into the grip of evil, damnation, and apostasy. The way he turned inspired. His body gave us a half right with the restoration of the priesthood to Joseph Smith. With a half left we descended into the retching horrors of paradise lost.
Without fully realizing it, I locked into memory his entire speech. I gave his rendition of God’s word permanent category and reference, mine forever, vivid and ready, eager and waiting . . . waiting? For what? That’s when I knew the source of my guilt. That’s when I knew I hadn’t heard much of his message at all. That’s when I knew the adventures of that day would hang in memory until script and stage called for action. Somewhere in the future a director would hand me a script.
“I need a preachin” man, a fire and brimstone guy. Can you do it?”
“Can I do it? Can air crackle? Can tongue titillate? Can thunder boil?”
But someone else would have to put the words to the script, because as the conference came to an end I realized I couldn't tell you much of anything he talked about. Where was I, but hopelessly listening; not to the message, but to the delivery; not to the content, but to the expression; not to the good news, but to the gesture, the dramatic note, the man’s impeccable technique.
After, as I came down from the ecstasy of a brilliant performance I knew Christopher Plummer to would not have been able to resist the thrill of an eloquent performance.
Why had I not listened to God’s words instead of the delivery? What was wrong with me? If I am immersed in the work of the Lord will I not be fulfilled beyond the temptations of personal interest? What compels theater’s metaphor, life’s masquerade, evangelical parody? The stage holds no deceit. What it offers up it offers honestly. An honest mockery. The wrong was in me, bad seed, the DNA of apostasy. Back and forth, animated elation, retching guilt. I watched a performance and missed a message. Could I have tried harder, fought to see only the message and not the soap opera underpinnings of a heavenly drama? Did I trade something celestial for a third act?
It was a memorable performance Mr. Plummer. I can still see Hamlet with cast. I can still see one eloquent performance reflected against another. Two great actors. Two great scripts.
Dad hasn’t smiled in years. He blames himself today; not my sin, but his, something he did or didn’t do. That’s when I realized, it never ends, a circus of serious comedies that play on forever.