Like many members of the Mormon Church, I did my duty by serving a two-year mission preaching repentance and Family Home Evening to the wayward masses. (One missed FHE equals one hour of drug rehab for your teenager later. Just so you know.) Unlike some of my friends, I was fortunate to be assigned to remain in the United States in relative comfort in the Washington, D.C. South Mission, and not out on the tundra of the Outer Mongolia Mission living in a musk ox pelt hut where you had to burn your own pooh just to keep warm. Nor to the tropical climes of the Inner Zambia Mission where one bite of the Dreaded Mortalibus Brain Rot Tensy Fly would give you cold sweats and random hallucinations for the rest of your shortened life.
Because many areas of my mission were among the most affluent on earth (thanks to their proximity to the seat of a wise and fiscally responsible national government) the Church saw fit to assign us many vehicles to aid us in our proselyting. Granted these were not luxury vehicles by any stretch of the imagination. One of those cars was an old Chrysler K-car left over from the mid-1980s. Sometime in the distant past — probably back when the car was still in the Eastern States Mission — a missionary carved the name “Lurch” across the steering wheel. By the time I was sent there, Lurch was being used as a “punishment” car to be assigned to those missionaries who continually failed to keep the mission rules with proper exactness.
This was back in the day before the Mormon Church socialized missionary funding and each missionary was expected to pay his or her own way on their mission. Lurch was not many things, and he took especial pride in not being “low maintenance.” Missionaries would be relegated to eating beans and rice for months just so they could scrape together enough to buy the case of oil a week that Lurch demanded. Lurch did not put great stock in being properly aligned either. Many missionaries retold stories of near catastrophes because they forgot to hold the steering wheel a full half-turn to the left to avoid going off the right side of the road. One missionary described the horror he felt when the driver’s seat suddenly collapsed backwards while going down the road. Another described how you could lift up the carpet on the passenger side and watch the asphalt go by through the rust holes in the floor.
Despite his many shortcomings, Lurch had a way of endearing himself to the missionaries unfortunate enough to have him. Many missionaries were so touched by his refusal to die that they honored him by using the only part of him that consistently worked, the cigarette lighter, to burn their initials into various areas of his remaining upholstery. Lurch required a lot of love to keep running. That’s why an uproar ensued when he was assigned to a pair of sister missionaries. We all know that women care about cars about as much as they care about pro wrestling, and we knew that this assignment would be the death of old Lurch. The counter argument was made, however, that these particular sisters deserved Lurch for going outside their assigned areas on numerous occasions. One was even caught purchasing and reading contraband (a current newspaper) because she had inadvertently heard that the Berlin Wall was coming down. Um… did I say “Berlin Wall”? I’m not that old. I meant, “she heard that the iPad had just come out.” Yeah, that’s it, the iPad.
Well, we lost the argument (mainly because we never brought it up — you’re never supposed to question your leaders in the Mormon Church) and needless to say, Lurch finally met his end. It happened not but a few days into their stewardship that these lovely sisters called up the Mission Office saying Lurch failed to start that morning.
“Did you pound the upper right area of the dashboard three times like we showed you?” asked the elder who was our official Mission Car Czar (we had one long before Obama).
“Yeah,” they replied.
“Did you make sure the bailing wire around the fuel intake valve was tight?”
“Well, have you been putting his daily gallon of oil into the engine?”
“Um… what kind of oil would that be? We have canola,” they replied.
I wasn’t there at the memorial service, but I heard it was a real tearful affair. The missionaries who were gathered at a local chapel parking lot for regular transfers formed an honor guard of vehicles as Lurch’s earthly remains were towed out to the junkyard. Even the missionaries without cars parked and stood beside their bicycles in orderly fashion with bowed heads to show respect to this fallen hero for the cause. They would have removed their bicycle helmets out of respect except they hadn’t been invented yet. Bicycles were a lot safer back then.
Many return missionaries may regale you with their life-and-death survival stories preaching among Nazi cannibal head-hunter Eskimos whom they came to love after many hours shared together warming themselves over a turd fire, but we state-siders had our trials, too, and came to love them just the same. To Lurch, wherever your recycled metal may be now, I honor your faithful service and so hope that none of your engine block metal is in the can of soda I’m drinking right now. Though it would account for the oily taste.
John Hamilton, creative director for Transcript-Bulletin Publishing, is venturing into the world of punditry and riches beyond imagining.