One of the first lessons I learned in life is that nothing’s as bad or good as anticipated, that in life there can be quite a gap between the ideal and reality. Nowhere was that deduction more valid that it was in missionary service. As I started my two-year bicycle penance I imagined that my service would include:
- Working in tandem with equally motivated companions
- Spending the bulk of my time teaching truly inquisitive individuals
- Fitting into each community as a recognized and accepted member of the clergy
Reality was somewhat different as the work routinely involved:
- Struggling to motivate culturally backward companions on their first experience away from the Intermountain West.
- Spending many, many more hours knocking on doors than teaching people
- Surviving the social food chain, spending an inordinate time avoiding dogs while knocking on the aforementioned doors.
It was one-third of the way through my mission that I learned another great life lesson: Any form of illness seems infinitely more serious when you’re three thousand miles away from the family doctor. Such was the case when I contracted the Port Chalmers strain of the flu shortly after I transferred to Skowhegan, Maine early in the winter of 1975. Getting sick right after the transfer was very disorienting as the move to Maine had been most welcome – after eight months in Lynn, Massachusetts life in an urban area had worn thin and I was eagerly anticipating both a change of scenery and an opportunity to recharge my spiritual batteries while turning a new leaf in my service.
I had actually anticipated this new area as I already knew a little bit about Skowhegan after dating a young lady from the area while I was enrolled at Ricks College six months before starting my mission. I was also delighted with Skowhegan’s more northerly location and abundance of trees and snow which made the area feel like my home in Alaska, a similarity that extended even to the floorplan of the local meetinghouse (identical to the one back home) and the rustic nature of the service projects the congregation engaged in. For example each Saturday morning we would cut and haul firewood for less fortunate members and it was during one of those charitable expeditions that I became aware of the family doctor life lesson referenced above.
The day had started nicely enough as we chopped and hauled away, but when I developed a queasy stomach and slight temperature my companion and I headed for home long before our normal 12:00 noon quitting time. By evening my temperature had soared to 102° and I was making regular trips to our bathroom to engage in what is alternately referred to as
- Doing the Technicolor yawn
- Worshiping at the porcelain altar.
I threw up so many times that at one point I began wondering if I needed to check for a lung or some other organ coming up with everything else. Unfortunately, the projectiles kept projecting until early Monday morning when my misery eased for approximately thirty minutes as my body changed gears (and orifice) and I began to deal with:
- Montezuma’s revenge
- Rocky Mountain quickstep
- Trouser chili
The misery went on for another four days, my only respite coming about early Wednesday evening when I collapsed on the hallway floor, dehydrated from the non-stop hurling. Fortunately as the week progressed the intensity of my visits to the bathroom began to ease off and by the following Saturday it looked as though we’d be able to honor a dinner invitation extended to us by the Miller family, stalwart members of the local congregation and parents of the aforementioned young lady I had known at college the year before. Ever the trencherman, my companion was relentless in his insistence to make it to that dinner appointment no matter my condition, but even before the illness I had been hesitant as their daughter had expected more out of the relationship than I, and ended up with bruised feelings…so I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get in their house.
(The fact that their other child would be at dinner and happened be one of the toughest highway patrolmen the state of Maine had on its roster may have been a factor in that reluctance as well.)
As the day progressed the tummy rumbles lessened but did not cease, so ever the erstwhile ROTC cadet I carefully planned the quickest route through town on our area street map. Skowhegan straddles the Kennebec River at a point where several highways merge to cross the waterway by way of a set of bridges connecting mid-stream Skowhegan Island to each river bank. In addition to those road bridges there are two foot bridges, one a former railroad bridge in the center of town and another connecting the Island with the southern bank at a location some distance to the west of the automotive bridge. To reach the Miller’s home we would be walking from our apartment on the northern side of town to the first island bridge, then after crossing we’d veer to the right to the footbridge which conveniently connected to the southern shore not more than 100 yards from the Miller’s home.
I figured it would take us no more than a half hour (45 minutes at the most) but as we started walking a sobering thought came to mind, no doubt jostled loose from my memory by the military aspect of my pre-walk map reconnaissance. It was a quote from the 19th century Prussian strategist Moltke who opined that “No plan of battle ever survived contact with the enemy”. Having been holed up in our apartment for the week neither one of us had a sense for what the weather had been like so we were both surprised when instead of negotiating either freshly plowed or snow-free we would be trudging through sloppy slush that could easily double our walking time.
Unfortunately, dwindling finances required a trip to the post office in the hope that a check from my dad had arrived, a detour to the east that added a further fifteen minutes to our journey, however true anxiety didn’t set in until we slushed off from the post office and I felt the dreaded URK! in my lower tract that I had hoped to avoid, so we picked up the pace only to be stopped by our district leader just as we reached the first bridge. He and his companion were on their way home after spending the day at a leadership meeting in Augusta and in his zeal to avoid spending seventy-five cents on a toll-call later that evening he took the opportunity to briefly pass on an important change in our weekly reports (something about ink color), “brief” being defined as “forty-five minutes.” When they finally drove off to the east it was colder, darker and I’d already been through three butt-clenching URKs! while we’d been standing shivering in the snow, and as we stepped out smartly across the first bridge the rumbles continued.
Midspan I knew I wasn’t going to make it as the URKs increased in both intensity and frequency. For an instant I thought about turning around but I didn’t know of any bathrooms available before we got home. Prospects for immediate relief were bleak at best as the few structures on the island consisted of a volunteer fire station, a small park, and church with an attached residence, all of which were closed and dark save for a single light burning above the fire station’s front door. With no other comfort in sight I veered toward the station but as I turned toward it there came an ominous double URK! from my midsection that my companion could hear ten feet away.
I knew I was doomed.
In a panic I turned towards the clergy house set to the side of the church and tried to trot as quickly as I could with my fourth-point-of-contact tightly clenched. Not a light was burning in the place but as I slowly bounced closer I could see that the basement garage door was ajar so I adjusted my trajectory accordingly.
What followed as I reached the garage door happened in split-second increments:
- I stepped through the door into the dark basement
- Located a stack of firewood against the wall
- Concluded that stack of wood was a reasonable substitute for an outhouse seat
- Launched myself towards the nearest stack
- Reached for my belt buckle
….at which point my luck (and sphincter control) ran out.
For the next week arguments ensued in town: Had there been a sonic boom from a low-flying jet or had there been an explosion in one of the mills? I was just very thankful that no one had been home in the house above my improvised rest stop and that it was both cold and dark as we walked back to our apartment. During the entire trip my companion never ventured closer than ten yards to me and when we did get home I went straight to the bathroom, stopping only to ditch my wallet and shoes before stepping straight into the shower fully-clothed.
Since the seventies, polyester (“double knit”) clothing has endured no small amount of criticism for the use of colors not found in nature and for having all the breathability of Saran Wrap. People forget the fabric’s ability to hold a crease forever, to resist wrinkles and (in this case) repel stains while cleaning up with soap and water. As nasty as I looked (and smelled) that night I was able to wear that same suit the following week with no ill effects…or odor.
Never long on empathy my companion grumbled about the meal we’d missed during the long walk home and continued to snivel until the Millers appeared at our doorstep with covered dishes holding our dinner. When I called later to thank Sister Miller we had a pleasant conversation that put to rest the worries I’d had about the abortive romance with her daughter the year before. I also learned from an article in the newspaper she’d used to cover our dinner that my case of the flu had probably run its course and I needn’t worry about a recurrence of symptoms.
Nevertheless at my first opportunity I sat down again with a street map and marked the location of every public restroom within city limits