We’re Going to Africa92946_000_015
The first time I ever said that I was going on a mission for the Mormon church was at the intermission of the New York Philharmonic Annual UNICEF concert. I was standing beside my parents as they discussed the performance with their friends and a Mr. Blaiseworthy turned to me and said, not that he really cared, “And what are you going to be doing after your graduation next spring?”
My mother immediately began to explain that we, meaning she, had sent off applications to Princeton and Harvard and New York University, that we would probably be studying business. I had heard this “we” answer before. But I swallowed once hard and without looking at my mother replied, “I will be going on a mission for the Mormon church, sir.” Then I smiled.
My mother, not smiling, smoothed things over carefully and explained that I have a wonderful sense of humor but that Harvard was really our preference. Mr. Blaiseworthy gave me a peculiar stare and politely hurried off. In minutes my mother was back laughing with some woman in blue hair. I believe they were discussing how we had loved Eaton.
I don’t really mind my mother living in the eternal plural pronoun—we, as in we must get you some new socks, Jack. We must see to the packing; we must choose a university carefully, etc.—but I had really not loved Eaton, my preparatory school.
In the first place, I was a day student which made me in the minority. Everything interesting that happened seemed to occur in the dormitory after 5:00 P.M. when I was already heading by chauffeured limousine to my own clean and spacious bedroom.
And that was my second problem, being rich. I mean filthy, fourth-generation, snobbish rich. I had never lived anywhere but the poshest of residences, walked on any but the most elegant of streets, eaten only in the most elite restaurants, shopped in the finest of shops, and gone only to the best of the best private schools, finally winding up at “our” choice, Eaton. Actually, I myself could not have chosen anything better or worse, not knowing anything else.
For the same reason, I was not unhappy. I didn’t know anything else. My environment was carefully controlled from friends to TV and books, the plan being that I would follow in my father’s career steps; I would spend my life maintaining, if not increasing, the family fortune.
But that was all before I began using my famous one-liner: “I intend to go on a mission for the Mormon church, sir.” This was not an original phrase for me. I just happened to pick it up one day in World Studies II, Advanced Review of the Emerging Third-World Nations. In this class we spent a lot of time memorizing the African states, capitals, and leaders. A Mr. Cranberg from Trenton, New Jersey, taught the course very methodically. Most days I quickly memorized my three countries and went on to my geometry. I never noticed that everyone else around me did the same until one day I suddenly detected a slight change in Mr. Cranberg’s drone.
“Sir?” replied Anderson, standing in the formal Eaton manner.
“What are you doing?”
“How then, explain, do you expect to succeed in this class? And if you do not succeed in this class, how do you expect to understand this complex world in which you live?”
“I live in the dorms, sir. It’s very educational.”
Even I snickered at this.
“Don’t be funny, Anderson. You do not seem to understand the necessity of succeeding in this world. What may I ask do you intend to do after your graduation?”
Looking straight ahead and without a smile, Anderson replied, “I intend, sir, to go on a mission for the Mormon church.”
“A mission, sir.”
“To where? Africa?”
“My brother, sir, went to New Jersey.”
The class broke into an uproar. Mr. Cranberg, furious at this apparent slight toward his home state, assigned us all 18 extra pages of reading, with outline. All of us except Anderson who got 36. No one complained much because of the great joke. And also because of who Anderson was.
He was fairly good-looking and a pretty good athlete, but most of all he was just the sort of fellow who was friends with everyone. Never crude or wild or conceited like some of the boys I watched, he was always so friendly, as though his world were an excellent place into which he wished to draw all his fellows. Even me, it seemed, which puzzled me. I had never had a close friend with whom I confided my problems, my hopes, my dreams. I believe that is why his warmth fascinated me. And also that is why I took as my own his famous line.
It was not that I intended to go anywhere for the Mormon church. In my mind the Mormons were still out in the Rocky Mountains trudging around the hills in their covered wagons. I didn’t connect Scott Anderson with them; I just admired him so much that I stole his line. Besides, I was tired of being “we” and needed a conversation stopper.
But soon after I began using it, I became Anderson’s close friend.
It happened in gym through a bizarre accident. We were on the field playing soccer, when suddenly a ball came sailing from nowhere.
“Save it, Jack, save it,” I heard, and the next thing I felt was a terrible blow to my head. Some primitive instinct told me to fight back, so I kicked with all my strength and heard a crunch before I fell into blackness.
When I awoke, I saw the white curtains of the infirmary and knew I was going to be sick.
“Want me to call Ol’ Collins?”
I rolled over and in my misery saw Anderson’s grin with a slightly fat lip and missing one tooth.
“Anything you want,” I groaned.
Collins came bustling in, murmured about “concussion” and “our mother” and bustled out.
“I didn’t know you could kick so hard.” Again I saw the snaggly grin.
“It must have been the blow to my head. It gave me strength.”
“Your head is only half your problem. We also have two months in the clink together for fighting.”
“Fighting? Who was fighting? And what’s the clink? Where am I, Africa?”
“You and I, sir, have two months in detention hall.”
And that’s how I met Scott Anderson.
For a first friend there could have been no better. He showed me how to play soccer, and I showed him geometry and sentence diagraming. He explained to me the caste system of Eaton from the lowliest freshman to the headmaster. His parents had been assigned to a post overseas, so he was at Eaton finishing up his junior year. His comprehension of human systems astonished me just as my understanding of split participles fascinated him. I felt as though that day of our soccer crash had been for me a grand awakening to a world that had always been but I had never seen. I was a blind man granted sight.
It was four weeks into our detention that I mentioned to Anderson his famous quote from World Problems.
“That was some line,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s no joke, you know. I really am going on a mission.”
“A mission, a mission, what is a mission, Dr. Livingstone?”
“I’m going out into the world to teach people about the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Because the Church is true.”
“Are you really Mormon?”
“Sure thing, died in the wool, true blue.”
“No kidding. I never thought they got out of Utah.”
“Yeah, they did. Got out all over the world.”
So not only did I meet Scott Anderson, but also the Mormon church.
Too soon the term came to an end. When I came back from vacation, Scott Anderson was gone. “Moved,” somebody told me, “back to Utah.” I clung even more to his famous one line in memory of our friendship.
It was a fresh April day at the Apothecary Outdoor Restaurant when I had a final chance to use Anderson’s line. We had just finished our salad and were beginning our soup when an acquaintance of my mother stopped to greet us. He added the usual, “And what are you going to be doing next year, Jack?”
“I will be going on a mission for the Mormon church, sir,” I replied.
“You will?” He seemed more than astonished. “Why I didn’t know you were Mormons!”
“We’re not,” my mother smiled her let’s-get-on-to-other-things smile.
“But I am,” the man went on. “As a matter of fact, I’m bishop of the Manhattan Third Ward.”
“A bishop? I’ve heard of bishops,” I said. “You see, I had this friend at school …”
And so I met Bishop Beesely. And now I am going on a mission for the Mormon church. My father thinks that I am tomorrow’s Dr. Livingstone because I am going to South Africa.
My mother, though, is her same plural self. Just yesterday she said, “We’ll be needing some white shirts and dark suits now, won’t we, Jack?”