The Bubble People
My LDS mission was coming to a close, and I was looking forward to returning home. For two years, I had been teaching LDS doctrine to the English, and now that part of my life was coming to an end. I had been looking forward to returning home, holding a girl in my arms and feeling her body next to mine, and having my own car to drive; but returning to school, earning money, and dealing with the looming draft gave me cause for apprehension.
For two years, I had been doing exactly what I was told to do every hour of every day. I had no financial issues. I just studied and taught the gospel and enjoyed England and the English people. I had adjusted to the arm’s length policy regarding women, and I managed to live without parental control. Although I had to rise at 6:00 am each day and work 60-80 hours a week, life had been easy.
I had dated several girls just before I left home two years ago, but Nancy was the only one who kept writing. I had taught skiing and she had been in one of my classes the winter before I left. We dated that summer, but mostly we talked on the phone, sometimes for 3-4 hours at a time. I could be myself with her since she was from the other side of town and younger than me, so I was not at risk socially with her.
The first few months of my mission she wrote long letters faithfully every week that must have taken her hours to write. She wrote the things a missionary wanted to hear, such as how much her seminary teacher liked her and how she prayed often and long. I enjoyed writing her, too, as often as I could. We even fantasized about getting married some day. We created fantasies about lives we imagined.
Eventually the letters became less frequent and less lengthly—both hers and mine. I figured she was just busy and had less time to spend on the letters, but there was comfort in knowing I had a girlfriend who would be there when I returned. I did not want to think I was no longer the love of her life; she never said she wasn’t. Even though I received just one or two letters during the last six months of my mission, I wanted the comfort of believing she still loved me.
When I got off the plane in Salt Lake City after spending a day or two with my sister in Kentucky, Nancy was there along with my family to greet me. I noticed she had put on some weight, and she told me later that she had gained the weight on purpose because she wanted an excuse to explain why I did not want her if my interesting had waned. It seemed like totally illogical thinking, but how could I begin to understand a girl’s mind?
The next few days were busy. I had to meet with church leaders to finalize my release from my mission, I had to meet with a neighbor across the street who had recommended me for a job with a florist delivering flowers, I had to meet with the florist, I had to finalize my registration for school which started the next Monday, and I had to register for the draft. I had left on my mission early so I could arrive home just before classes started at the University to avoid being drafted.
I had arrived home on a Wednesday afternoon, and by Monday I had a job, a full load of classes at the University of Utah, and on top of that, Nancy wanted me to drive to Granger to see her every day. (Did she really want to see me or did she just want me to have no time to see any other young woman?) The next few weeks were insane. I wanted to study hard and do well in school, but with working, school work, and having to drive from the east side of town nine miles to the west side of town to see Nancy, I was having a hard time and something had to give.
My parents were not helping either. I am sure they understood my frustration, but instead of talking about it, they just made demands. I had to be home by 10 pm and by midnight on weekends. I was 21 years old and I had adjusted well to living away from my parents, and I did not need that kind of hassle on top of everything else. I had told them that Nancy had mentioned getting married, and their response was to threaten to not let me have any of my money if I were to get married. They had control of my money while I was on my mission and still did.
I had always had some kind of job ever since I was old enough to have a paper route, and by the time I left on my mission, I had saved enough money to pay cash for a new car. I even had it picked out, a new Pontiac GTO. When I returned from my mission, however, I found that my parents had a new car and I had $400 in the bank. I was surprised to find out that those checks I received every month while in England had come from my own account. So I was broke, too—real nice—one more thing. I was angry, but I was never allowed to be angry. It was not so much that I paid for my mission, but that it had never been discussed if I would pay for my mission.
During the first two weeks of classes, Nancy came to the University and attended my mythology class with me a couple of times. One of those times, after we said goodbye, and without her knowing it, I followed her to her car; and when she got in the passenger side of her car, she leaned over and kissed a guy who was sitting in the driver’s seat. He had evidently been waiting for her while she attended mythology with me.
So what did that tell me? Nancy had another boyfriend. I did not know then that they had been lovers while I had been on my mission, but I did not expect her to have “sat home like a toad” either (an expression we used back then). How could they still be lovers when she wanted me to come to see her in Granger every evening?
I could not handle it. I had to ignore it. I could not deal with a breakup at that time. For two years I had assumed I had a girl in love with me, and now I find out she is two-timing me. I did not want to have to go through the process of finding another girlfriend. I just did not have the energy. Obviously, love is blind. I did ignore it.
I had been home just over three weeks. On the 7th of October, Nancy and I were at a concert at Skyline High (where I had attended) to see a group called “Up With People.” My parents were out of town for the weekend, so Nancy and I went to my house after the concert where we ended up on my bed. We had a saying regarding sex that as Mormons we could do A, B, C, D, E, but not F. We had gone through E, but I figured we had not done F when Nancy said that it counted as F—and that we indeed had sex. I was confused. I had never had sex before and was she right? The guilt engulfed me. I did not think we had intercourse, but it didn’t matter; we had come close enough. Every sin I had ever committed came back to me. I felt worthless, a sinner, an embarrassment to my family and to myself. The pressure of the last three weeks compounded my apoplectic consternation.
Nancy suggested we just go to Nevada and get married. It was a totally insane idea, but it may be a way out. I would not have to travel to Granger every evening. I could get out of the house and out from under my parents’ control. Much of the insanity would stop. What were my other options? There was always Vietnam. The army would take me in a minute. I may die over there, but how bad would that be; I would not have to get married. Just moving away from home for no apparent reason would mean a direct confrontation between me and my parents. I would have to tell them I did not want to live with them. It would be a big crack in their idealistic glass bubble to find out that I was not and did not want to be one of the bubble people. There was something in my upbringing, some kind of control that I did not fully understand, but it kept me from considering just moving out for no “acceptable” reason. I could not talk to my parents about this, and there was no one else. All my friends were on their own missions.
Nancy viewed me as her ticket out of Granger. She hated living in Granger on “the west side,” she hated her abusive father, and she hated her impoverished family, so she set a trap. I suspect that her attraction to me was motivated not by love but by her desperation to get out of Granger.
I figured, “What the hell!” We decided to go for it. We gathered some of my clothes and some food from the kitchen, including a roast from the freezer, and my collection of old pure silver half dollar coins. I took Nancy home and she grabbed some things and climbed out her window (a classic elopement scene—where was my camera?). She went to a friends house and borrowed a ring, a veil, and a little cash and we headed out for Elko, Nevada.
We got as far as Wendover where half the town is in Utah and half in Nevada. I did not want to get busted for taking a minor over state lines (Nancy was only 17 years old) so I made her get out and walk when we crossed the state line. We found a cheap motel and got a bed for the rest of the night. We climbed in bed together. I did not know Nancy was not a virgin, but I soon found out. She seemed to know a lot more about sex than I did. While we were in bed together, she explained that she was not a virgin and that she and Eddie (the guy in the car) had been sexually active for quite some time. I was a virgin however, and I had no idea of what I was doing.
We had sex for sure that night. It was awkward and very disappointing. I remember thinking, “This is not that great; what is the big deal? I have committed this huge sin for this? Is this what I have been working so hard to avoid these past few years? If I had known it was like this, I would not have had to worry so much about it.” “The anticipation is often better than whatever is being anticipated,” is not an uncommon phenomenon. It was disappointment fueled by anger, betrayal and a sense of hopelessness, and being totally alone emotionally.
We did not talk about it in the morning. We just had breakfast, got in the car, and headed across the Nevada desert for Elko where there was a Justice of the Peace on duty all weekend long for idiots like us.
I learned that the girl I loved only existed on the pages of her letters—a misrepresentation of the girl she actually was. Why was I running off with this girl when there were other girls?
My first day home I went to visit a very attractive girl, Mary Billeter, who lived in my ward and whom I had know most of my life. I had had a crush on her since one evening when I was about 15 and rode with her in a very crowded car. She had to lay across the laps of four boys in the back seat. Her legs were on my lap, and I had no place to put my hands but on her legs. I held my arms in the air for a few seconds, but that looked , so I laid my hands on her legs. Her legs were smooth, firm, shapely, and the most marvelous thing I had ever seen and especially felt. I did not know Mary all that well, but I certainly fell in love with those legs. It was one giant step in my sexual awakening. Mary was pleased to see me, but she was leaving in two days to attend school in Switzerland. Unfortunately, there was no chance for a relationship with Mary.
Dana Howarth was in my linear algebra class at school. She was from Idaho and I liked her a lot. I had not asked her out, but I was looking forward to someday having the time to, and she seemed to have an interest in me.
Then there was Sandy.
In London, just before I came home from my mission, I was in the mission home speaking with the mission secretary about my reservations for my flight home. I wanted to visit my sister and her family who lived in Murray, Kentucky, a small college town about 80 miles North of Nashville. He recommended flying from London to Washington D.C. and then on to Nashville. That sounded great to me since I had never been to Washington D.C., and I asked if he could arrange a layover to give me some time to see the sites. He said I could arrive in the evening and out the next morning. I could at least see a hotel room. There was another missionary, Elder Doug Marriott, standing nearby who was from Washington D.C. I asked him if he could recommend a good hotel there. He and some of the other elders laughed, but I had never heard of a Marriott hotel so I was none the wiser. He just wrote a number down a phone number on a piece of paper and told me to call his father when I got to the airport.
My companion and I were living with a member couple named Hammond in Greenwich, and I told them of my plans to stay in Washington D.C. on my way home. There had been an attractive young woman in the Greenwich branch named Sandy, who was a good friend of our landlady, and who had just gone to the United States to be a nanny. Just before she left, she and I had sung a duet with guitars together for a church program.
When I got off the plane in Washington D.C., I was surprised to see Sandy at the gate. I had not known she had gone to Washington, D.C. to be a nanny, only that she had gone to the U.S. We talked for a while until after the last shuttle had left and I needed a taxi. I was alone with a very attractive young woman in the Dulles Airport. I was still a missionary and would be until I met with my Stake President after I returned home. The arm’s length rule still applied. This was a bit of an awkward moment. I needed a hotel room, but what about Sandy? She and I in a hotel room together? I had barely enough money for one hotel room and a taxi. I could not afford two rooms. She was way too attractive to share a hotel room with and still be a missionary, but the way she looked at me let me know that a hotel room was just what she had in mind. She had the most beautiful blue eyes, long blond hair, a body to die for, and although I had honored the arm’s length rule, we had become good friends while practicing our singing and guitars together. I had feelings for her. If this was only some other time…
I remembered the phone number of Elder Marriott’s dad, so I called him and told him I was a friend of Doug’s and that Doug had told me to call him to recommend a hotel. We talked about the mission for a few minutes, and then I told him that a young lady from England had met me at the airport. He was a Stake President himself and he asked me what gate I was at and told me to wait and he’d be right there. It did not take him long to arrive, and we climbed into his Mercury station wagon. We were making small talk as he drove, and I asked him what line of work he was in. He said he and his brother were in the hotel business. The timing could not have been more perfect because at that moment, we drove past a large 20-story building with “Marriott” on the top. I said, “Is that one of yours?” He replied, “Yes, that is one of ours.” Then I knew what those elders were laughing about when I asked Doug Marriott if he knew of a good hotel in Washington D.C.
I mentioned to Brother Marriott that I had wanted to see some sites, but my flight out the next morning did not leave me much time. So after we had dinner in one of his hotels (The waitress did not give him a check; he just gave her an account number.), he drove us by some of the sites. The city was beautiful at night, and I loved seeing the monuments, the capitol, and the stunning beauty of the city. We drove by the side of the White House, and I asked him to stop the car so I could take a picture. I got out of the car, grabbed my tripod, ran out onto the lawn to set up for a timed exposure photo, and as I was setting up, I was suddenly swarmed by secret service agents. I guess it is not a good idea to set up a tripod at the back of the White House. I had to explain who I was and what I was doing, while noticing how Brother Marriott (I guess I should refer to him as President Marriott) was in the car laughing. I got away without taking any pictures, or going to jail, and we ended up at the Marrott’s home where Sandy and I were properly separated and chaperoned. The next morning his wife took me to the airport, and I assume she took Sandy home. It would be a long time before I ever had the opportunity to stay in a Marriott Hotel, but not too long before I saw Sandy again. She was not going to give up that easily.
Nancy and I were in my old 14-year-old Plymouth and I was pushing it a bit too much (95 mph) when somewhere in the middle of Nevada, I began to hear a knocking sound in the engine. I pulled into a service station, and the attendant said it was a rod knocking. I had blown my engine just as I was about to blow my life. It would still run, but I had to go slow. This was one more bad omen. The car had about 100,000 miles on it, and cars just were not made to go any further than that in those days. My father had once told me that he would never want to own a car with more than 50,000 miles on it.
* * *
That Plymouth had been a great car. It was a plain, light green sedan with a flat-head 6 cylinder engine, but I loved it, and it was very reliable, so I guess you could say it loved me, too. My mother had purchased the car in 1953 just after my father died. It had only 6,000 miles on it. It had become the second car when my mother married my stepfather, and after I got my drivers license the June before I turned 16, I became the primary driver and was responsible for its maintenance. I had installed new seat covers, replaced the tires, shock absorbers, installed a rear speaker, and a new battery.
The battery should have been replaced earlier before the winter of my senior year of high school, but I was tight on money. On cold mornings I had to push the car to get it started. I parked it on the street in front of our house that had a slight incline towards the rear of the car. I would get in the car, turn on the key, put my right foot on the clutch, and my left foot outside the car to push the car backwards. After one or two pushes with my left foot, I would release the clutch and the car always started. I did that all winter long.
It was great in the snow, too. It was made of heavy steel with a relatively small engine, so the weight was evenly distributed. Even though it was conventional rear-wheel drive, I did not hesitate to drive it up the canyon to Alta when there was 8 inches of new, unplowed snow on the road. It made it up with no problems, passing several cars that could not make it up.
For a while, the car had a front-end problem. It would begin to shimmy at about 50 mph. One evening I was late for a date with a girl attending BYU in Provo, about 50 miles south. I did not have the patience or the time to keep it under 50 mph, so I just let it shimmy up to about 85 mph when I heard a kind of pop. It stopped shimmying at that moment and it never shimmied again. I was told it had something to do with king pins somewhere in the front end, but auto mechanics was never my focus. I was just happy the car loved me enough to fix itself.
The car had an emblem on the dashboard with an image of the pilgrims’ ship Mayflower (I still have the emblem), so my friend Jim Wilson called my car “The Mayflower,” and the name stuck. We called it the Mayflower from then on. Now the car was offering itself as a supreme sacrifice in an effort to save me from a huge mistake.
* * *
We finally arrived in Elko. The first thing we did was to go to the Justice of the Peace. We first had to get a license before we could get married, but there was a problem. Nancy was not of legal age; we could not get married without written connect from her parents. How many times did I need to be told that I was making a bad decision? Here we were in Elko, Nevada, with a blown engine, very little money, and we couldn’t get married. We found a motel room where we could go and figure things out. I had to pay more for a room with a kitchen because of that damn roast we grabbed from my mother’s freezer. We also had to buy a pan to cook it. That roast cost us a lot of money, but grabbing it was not the only dumb thing I did that weekend.
We discussed it and decided to call Nancy’s parents. My parents were still out of town. Nancy’s parents did not even know she was gone; they just thought she was sleeping in. I only heard one side of the conversation, so I don’t really know her mother’s reaction, but it must not have beed too bad because they agreed to have a permission document notarized and put on a Greyhound bus going to Elko. They were probably happy to have her gone without needing to pay for a wedding. The document was not going to come soon enough for us to get married on Saturday; we had to wait for Sunday. When we got in line for the Justice of the Peace after getting our license, the couple ahead of us was drunk and the couple behind us was expecting a baby any day from the looks of her.
Nancy’s parents set out on Sunday morning to meet us with the idea that maybe our car would not make it back. We met them half way. I did not dare drive the car over about 50 mph, but it made it home. That evening in Nancy’s parents house, we began to think of real world issues like where we would live. We all laughed when Nancy’s little brother said I could sleep with him. As it turned out, Nancy’s grandmother had a vacant room in her home near the University of Utah that she normally rented out that we could have for $35/month. I was making $30/week and Nancy’s dad owned a service station and he offered to gives us our gas. Nancy was working for a hamburger joint part time. I figured we could make it for a while. We had to share a bathroom with some old guy we had never seen, but the price was right.
I was wondering what my parents would say.
* * *
My parents’ lives were governed by a stifling set of religious ideals. There was always pressure to live up to the expectations set by the leaders of the church, the scriptures, and my parents. Anyone who did not meet those standards was severely criticized. If I ever slipped up, my parents said it was either someone else’s fault or it was not discussed at all. As a child, my parents did not want me to play with Jimmy Morton because he said “gad.” I could not play with other boys whose mothers worked outside the home. As a teenager, my stepfather once found a Playboy magazine in my room. He took me into the fruit room, a small cement room under the front porch where we kept all our food storage, to confront me with my sinful behavior lest my mother should see that evil magazine. I almost laughed at the drama of the fruit room scene, but the fear of criticism along with the the severe criticism of others who likewise erred is partly what kept me in line. We lived in a kind of religious bubble that kept the rest of the world out.
Once when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was asked by my Sunday School teacher if I had chores to do around the house. I said, “Yes, I take the garbage out.” Someone (likely an old lady who was hard of hearing) overheard it and thought I said, “I clean the coffee pot.” “Good” Mormons do not drink coffee. It hit the gossip mill, and my mother heard it from someone in the ward and she was humiliated. It became a scandal, and I was drilled as to what I had said.
My mother took me to Utah Bank and Trust when I was 5 years old and had me open up my first bank account to “save for my mission.” Since that time, the subject of my saving for and paying for my mission was never discussed. If we had discussed the money, of course, I may have had a problem with it or I may even have questioned it. That would put me outside the bubble; I would be a disgrace to the family that I did not want to give all I had to the work of The Lord. It would have broken the crystalline structure of the perfect family of which we fervently subscribed to in all our communications within the family and without. If such a fact were exposed, we would be a disgrace as perceived by all their friends in the church and the bubble would be broken. My parents could not take that risk so such things had to be ignored.
I cannot remember ever being counseled as what to do when confronted with temptation or how to deal with moral slippages. I had no brothers to talk to, only two sisters, a totally anal stepfather, and a frustratingly obedient mother.
I remember similarities when my father died of polio when when I was 7. When I heard of my father’s death, I remember faking crying because everyone else was crying and it was expected of me to cry. I also remember thinking a lot about what it was going to be like not having a father and how my life was about to change. I remember very strong emotions, but I had to fake crying. I was told that my father died because he was too perfect and he had more important work to do on the other side, but what was more important than me having a father? I did not want to die young, so then I did not want to be that perfect, but I dared not say anything and reveal the illogic of what I was told. I guess I learned at a very young age that you did not express emotions; you suppressed them or acted them out in some other passive way.
Young Mormons go to Sunday School and Primary every week from the time they are three years old until they are about nineteen or go off to college, join the army or get married. In all those classes they are taught how to prepare for one thing. For boys it is going on a mission. For girls it is temple marriage. So what about after that? What about the other 60 years of life? Should we, just maybe, have been prepared for that? Either life is over when the mission is over or we should just figure it out ourselves. That is where I was, at that time of my life.
The bubble phenomena is supported in most every church classroom—Sunday School, Relief Society, Priesthood meetings and even Primary. Teachers are required to stay strictly with the material in the lesson manuals from which the “ideals” are taught. Members naturally don’t want to talk about the problems they are having in their lives in front of all the other members, so they just nod and try to find something in their lives that conforms to the principles that are being taught so they can contribute to the discussion. An instructor may be telling women in a Relief Society class how putting stickers next to their child’s names on a chart may encourage that child to read the scriptures, while some women in the class are more concerned with keeping their children out of jail and off drugs. There will be no discussion of how to deal with drug problems. Those problems are ignored. They have to be ignored; they are not in the lesson manual. It is assumed that gospel principles have been taught to their children since they were three years old and that those principles have been practiced constantly and taught in the home during Family Home Evening, and as a result, there are no drug problems. This unlikely scenario often carries over to everyday life and some people make the assumption that, if it is not discussed in class, it will not happen and behavior or circumstances outside the lesson manual never need to be prepared for or discussed in the home. For those people, life goes along fine as long as family issues never fall outside the lesson manual boundaries.
This was my mother and step-father’s life. My mother had taught Relief Society classes for years. Our family never ventured outside the lesson manual. She had never needed to deal with drugs or even alcohol and tobacco. Except for Jimmy Morton saying “Gad” and the Playboy magazine I carelessly left out, life had been easy for her—until now.
* * *
When my parents found out that I had eloped that weekend, it was a far greater blow than I had expected. My parents life had just collapsed. The bubble had burst. They had never experienced a tragedy like this one. My mother was so upset she could not get out of bed for a week. I had eloped, I was married to that girl from Granger they did not like. They called her Peek-a Boo because she wore her hair in her eyes. We were not married in the temple, and everyone would know. So now I was not as perfect as my father had been, and there was no escaping or ignoring that fact (good, I may not die early). Either my mother or my stepfather called my bishop; he called me, we met, and he suggested I get an annulment, and he could make the arrangements. I should have listened to him, but I told him I had made a commitment that I had to live with. That just added to my guilt. I talked to my parents very little for several weeks.
Nancy’s grandmother’s apartment was in a good location and roomy, but Nancy did not like sharing a bathroom. Nancy had an old Chevy, older than my old Plymouth. My car was still running with the piston rod knocking, but neither car could make it up the hill to the University. We needed a new apartment, a new car, and a good kick in the pants.