Jack & Lucky Chapter 9
Jack entered a period of transition in his mission. He became engrossed in extraneous reading. This was an outward signal of a powerful inner turmoil that would surface in Bari, an otherwise serene and beautiful Mediterranean community. He purchased a Time Magazine for the ride south. He had just finished reading the book “Doctor Zhivago” during his last idle week. Many more books would follow.
There was one curious coincidence on train. The compartment consisted of two padded benches covered with brown leather facing each other. There was a sliding glass door that enclosed the benches from the corridor. This was designed to be enough space for eight seated snugly. He found himself enclosed with two nuns facing him at very close range and with only three occupants Jack felt the compartment was much too crowded. He sat next to the window using the folding table as both a reading stand for his Time Magazine and a divider between him and these smiling Sisters.
He had been exposed frequently to nuns and no longer had his original fear but these close quarters over a prolonged exposure put his resolve to a test. Between Padova and Bologna he sat in absolute silence glancing irresistibly at these Sisters as they whispered between themselves. Being in such close proximity made him not only nervous, he found himself strangely attracted to them.
Both Sisters were reasonably young, one probably his own age. She had a natural beauty, perfectly formed facial features and could have served as a model for the Pieta`. It was only with difficulty that he refrained from staring at her. During the trip his imagination ran wild and he had them both undressed in his mind before they arrived in Bologna.
These two nuns were wearing the traditional, stark, black habit with white around their faces. The curious part was:
One was reading an interesting article on marriage for clergy. They were reading together and pointing at the words then laughing politely when they came to a point of interest. I figure the Catholic Church clergy will be marrying within two years.
Jack could read the generalities of the article and found their rather prurient interest even a greater source of attraction.
The coincidences were: he represented his own Church, was equally celibate and wore special clothing. He didn’t divulge his secrets to the Sisters, he just watched and eaves-dropped in silence. He was so attracted and curious he was tongue tied and only managed a polite, nonchalant smile. He wanted in the worst way to strike up a conversation but was afraid; he knew he would fall hopelessly in love. He imagined they would too, so he simply saved them all the pain and suffered in silence.
Jack wasn’t the only religious envoy that read extraneous material.
He changed trains at the Bologna station and purchased a postcard.
I wrote and mailed a card to Julie from Bologna, just to show she was coming with me.
She was in his mind in every idle moment, like a mild intoxicant, except of course when he was fantasizing about nuns.
An exhausted missionary arrived in Bari early in the morning.
Always as one leaves the train stations there are little old men trying to carry your bags. They ask to make hotel arrangements and find taxis. I ignore them with an assumed aristocratic attitude, like a rich American tourist. I bought a map and gradually made my way to the house of the district leader.
As he walked through the bustling streets he grasped at freedom for a few hours like a survivor from a sinking ship reaching for a buoy. Construction workers were building new apartments and vendors were moving around the city like ants storing food in their hives, each knowing precisely where to go. These ancient streets had been teaming with this activity for more than a thousand years, and now he was part of it. He felt empathy for their enthusiasm for life which was evident from their smiles and polite behavior.
Jack enjoyed this opportunity once again to introduce himself to his new city as though it were a new culture. He had followed the same strategy in Bologna and Padova. Each city offered a new kind of bread, different shapes of spaghetti or ravioli and different building materials and shapes. The flowers, trees and grass were different. By walking through the city alone, he could taste this new culture before it was flavored by the orientation he would receive from his Mormon friends.
He was estranged from his purpose, a brief reprieve, as he wandered around until about 3:00 PM, then joined the others. There had been four other elders in Bari. Jack and his companion would make six. They lived one street from the transient market occupying a whole street for more than a mile. The outdoor market was a wild conglomeration of humanity with impatient buyers moving aggressively between kiosks and food vendors. Books, vegetables, fruit, clothing, jewelry, shoes, luggage, fish and more fish, eye glasses, you name it, it was there. The next day the street returned quietly to the residents for a week.
When Elder Alan Will arrived it was evening. He, likewise, made it to the apartment on his own. He was carrying two large bags, a camera case around one shoulder and a tape recorder around the other.
Jack met him at the door and greeted him warmly. “Al, it’s nice to see you again. Still alive after, what is it, about eight months?”
Jack was sincerely pleased to see him again. He was another of the “twelve apostles” that came to Italy with Jack. For whatever reason they had not become well acquainted.
“What did you screw-up to deserve this assignment Jack?” Al’s rare smile was short lived.
Elder Will was shorter than Jack with a round face stacked on a flabby body. His out of condition physique disguised a person who was especially well coordinated on a bicycle, as he would later demonstrate. His uniform dark suit and tie below his unsmiling face only hinted at his emotional torture. He was hiding a deep sadness about the pending loss of his girl.
He had demonstrated a bad attitude in his previous assignment and assumed that was why he had been sent to Bari.
These two missionaries irreverently called each other by their first names. “Beats me Al, I thought it was a promotion. Figured they needed someone particularly talented like me to deal with someone eccentric like you.”
“You mean `peculiarly’ talented don’t you?” Al didn’t smile to betray his dry humor and besides that was probably more accurate.
Jack scowled and reached to take one of the bags. “Follow me, I’ll show you our temporary digs.”
“I see your missionary experience hasn’t improved your sense of humor. That’s comforting.” Al followed through the dim hallway.
“No, it’s still the same fun lovin’ ole me, for better or worse. We’ve been waiting for you so we could all go to the university cafeteria for dinner. You hungry?”
They entered a large room containing two wide beds. The room was open with a high ceiling but was crowded and cluttered now with four occupants and all their luggage. Two more missionaries lived at the far end of the hall. They were all situated in the home of a widow who still had a teenage child at home.
“Ya, geese I’m starved. But I might have to borrow some money. This trip set me back. Had to carry my bags all the way. Didn’t even have enough money for a taxi.”
“No problem.” Jack put the large bag on one of the beds. “I have enough to get us by for a few days. I’m low too. But I’ll share what I have. After that we can just starve together.”
Al continued without acknowledging Jack’s offer. “I think my parents have abandoned me or my mail has gotten lost. I’m about ten days overdue for my check and in debt to my last companion too.” Al stacked his stuff in the corner.
Jack moved toward the balcony windows and stared at the busy street. He could just barely see the nearby ocean between the brown, water-stained buildings. “I’ve been there. I know how it feels.”
“Do I have time to clean up? I don’t smell very good.”
Jack chuckled and quipped, “I noticed,” even though he hadn’t.
The district leader looked over his reading long enough to answer the question, “Not much, the place closes by 8:00.” He acknowledged the new arrival and joined the greeting ceremony.
By the next evening the two Senior Companions were getting along famously. Jack wrote:
We talk a lot, and joke a lot. Things are looking good.
He was yet oblivious to Al’s attitude, he felt being in Italy was ruining his life. He was secretly considering going home but kept his own council.
Jack had scheduled another meditation session with Julie for the 16th of April. It wasn’t as difficult as it might have been in these cramped quarters because the other missionaries slept late.
In the morning I arose early and wrote a letter to Julie. It was one of our get together sessions. It was good–I wrote her a letter and thought about her.
Jack and Al began their days in Bari by looking for an apartment.
We checked the paper, saw a few rent signs on buildings. That is the best way to rent an apartment, just run around following rent signs. We had many disappointments but eventually success.
Along the way they occasionally introduced themselves as missionaries and tried to provoke interest, this was an unorthodox, randomized pattern of proselyting to be sure. They counted all this time as work.
It was a full week of wandering around before the two found an apartment. They met, by chance, a business person, Signore Lidisa, who was in the edible nut business. Nuts were an important crop for the area and he was involved in the international market for edible nuts.
“You guys came about two days too late, I just rented a convenient, main floor apartment that had a nice room for your church. It would have been perfect.”
“If we don’t find an apartment with a meeting room, we need to find at least a place to stay.” Al was beginning to get anxious.
Jack was disturbed, thinking to himself: “Don’t show him you’re desperate, he’ll raise the price.”
Lidisa suggested, “That should be easier.” He thumbed through his records which was a series of large cards arranged in some order. “There is an open apartment in a different neighborhood. But I need time to clean it up and get it ready.”
“How about we clean it for you instead of paying rent the rest of the month?” Jack looked for every angle.
He didn’t answer immediately. “Its on the fifth floor. It has one bedroom and a nice living area including a balcony. But I have to have a damage deposit since I don’t know you, 10,000 Lira. Okay, we can start rent on the first.”
“That’s no problem our Mission Office will provide the deposit. It sounds good. Can we see it?” Jack was aware of these deposit arrangements even though he hadn’t done this before.
After further discussion, Signore Lidisa took the two to the apartment in his white, sporty Alfa Romeo.
“Nice car, the nut business must be good this year.” Even Al was impressed.
“Yes it was. They nearly had a crop failure in California, so we had unusually high prices.”
The fifth floor apartment was cozy and well organized. It was relatively new and partly furnished. It had a kitchen, one bedroom, a living room and full bathroom. Outside the bedroom there was a large balcony that had a friendly territorial view of neighboring roofs. They agreed to take the apartment. They could get their daily exercise just going up and down the staircase.
Even after settling, Jack and his companion, by either silent ascent or default, spent little time on missionary activities. They found it more convenient to just be inefficient. Neither challenged the other’s recurring excuses or pattern of laziness, nothing like the dedication Jack had sustained previously.
I am afraid I have become rather lazy. This lack of writing in my diary for some 20 days typifies my attitude at the present time. Neither I, nor my companion have been diligent in doing the work which is expected of us. There is no hope of recapturing the exact events as they proceeded day by day but I will try to present an explanation of the most significant activities.
After securing the contract for our house, the next day or so we moved in. The events were rather humorous. We loaded our luggage on a borrowed `tri-cycle’ cart and peddled the necessary distance which exceeded two miles. I took the first trip and found it very arduous going.
It happens in such events that the road that was so flat when riding on the bus turns into steep hills when you start peddling an old bike. This was especially true for a vehicle with only one speed and carrying a heavy load. Even worse was the difficulty keeping balance and keeping all the freight inside the basket. It was like a long term juggling act over bumpy sidewalks. Since the pair had more time than money, it was cheaper than a taxi at any price. It had looked like such a simple idea to use the tri-cycle before they started.
Soon after Jack had arrived in Bari, the group received notice regarding a missionary conference in Pisa the 1st of May. That was another good excuse not to begin working too hard since they would have to postpone any appointments they might make.
On the way to Pisa, the missionaries stopped only briefly in Roma. They took some tourist brochures and were excited about the prospect of returning.
They continued north by train arriving in Pisa by 4:00 PM. They went first to the leaning tower.
The tower hasn’t changed to any great degree in spite of the rumors of its decline. The shops are mostly closed due to the May Day festivities. We ate pizza. (It is very proper to eat pizza when in Pisa.) Then we registered at the Youth Hostel where we received accommodations for the whole group. I took the opportunity to renew many acquaintances and play some ping-pong. I mostly lost, even after paying for the flipping ball.
The conference followed the next day at a nearby US military facility. The group rode to the conference in military buses.
On the way Al expressed his characteristic sardonic attitude, “This feels like the time I went for a pre-induction physical.”
Jack’s mood was only a little better. “I haven’t had the pleasure yet.”
“Its no great pleasure, believe me. You get lined up, then on the count of three everybody bends over and grabs their ankles. The doctor walks down the line and sticks his finger up each butt.”
Another missionary asked: “How could they get these buses for us?”
“It must be okay, but I don’t feel very comfortable, something like a sheep being hauled to the slaughter,” Jack offered.
“This is too much of a reminder of the temporary nature of my draft exempt status,” Al suggested. It was a sobering dose of reality in an otherwise idealistic existence.
The bus drove through the suburbs as the dreary houses and apartments flew past the window in an ugly blur. Soon they were in the rural area and saw a refreshing glimpse of the ocean.
After a sober silence, Jack remarked, “This bright green country-side is always such a beautiful contrast to the ugly brown, run-down buildings of the slums.” But no one responded.
Al just shrugged his shoulders.
Jack continued, “This will be a treat to see Americans and maybe eat some real food for a change,” trying to see the bright side.
“You’re supposed to be looking forward to the spiritual renewal. Maybe you could even have a revelation? Who knows?” Al threw down the gauntlet.
“I’m ready for that too. But the probability is so much lower; I’ll bet on the food. It’s a sure thing.”
“That’s your whole problem, Jack, you’re too cynical.”
The two combatants faced each other with foils raised.
“Said the professional cynic to his friend.” – Touche’
“You’re too calculating. Just relax and let it happen.”
“You could be right there but that’s the way I survive.”
Al poised, -On Guard!- “That’s wrong twice. The first mistake is to think you can solve all the problems you confront. The second is trying too hard. You close out the possibility for serendipity and creativity.”
“That’s an awfully big word for a reactionary conservative, ‘serendipity’.” – Touche’.
Al smiled and parried- “Just mellow out and let your intuition and conscience guide and inspire you.”
They deserved each other. They could compete without taking it personally. That’s probably why they stayed together. They couldn’t be themselves with others because they didn’t want to be pleasant and talk politely. They were both in sour moods underneath their forced smiles and banter.
Jack had borrowed a science fiction book from Elder Green when they reunited but it didn’t capture his interest. He was looking up frequently from his reading along the way. Possibly his concentration was disturbed by the proximity of the US military.
The major purpose for the conference was to meet again with President Ezra Taft Benson. He gave the first speech followed by President Downey and their wives. Each missionary was permitted a short interview with President Benson. He had returned to Italy because his first visit at the time of the Dedication had been interrupted by the flood. When it was Jack’s turn to meet President Benson privately:
I talked for some 20 seconds in part describing my experience with street meetings. The discussion revealed nothing from either one of us except the fact that I had nothing to reveal, nor did he.
We listened more to speakers. I slept as much as possible…my conscious and conscience won’t allow me to concentrate on the book, so I returned it to Elder Green un-read.
At least the meeting had inspired Jack’s conscience if it didn’t light a fire to his conscious morale.
We ate dinner around 6:00 PM at the Snack Bar, real American food. I had two cheese burgers, chili, crackers, root beer, ice cream sundae, salad, donuts and a banana split. Probably something else but was thoroughly satisfied with that. Then we had an open meeting for the members in Italian and English. I slept in that too, but gleaned the essence of the message as it disturbed my efforts… Then after all, we went home to the local church by bus. I talked to Elder Seaburg (still District Leader in Brescia) about my lacking a testimony of prayer. He attempted some help but time did not permit our complete discussion.
His initial discussion with Elder Seaburg about his specific doubts follows on the letters he had written to President Downey from Padova. The question about “prayer” concerned his feeling that there was no entity or Great Spirit there, anywhere, that actually listened to prayers. Therefore the idea of fasting and praying had little meaning to him because all he got was hungry. He never felt inspired or touched. He was seriously doubting the veracity of the mythical god. What was he missing? He didn’t get any answers during this conference. This question about prayer was the easiest problem to discuss, he was also confronting other issues of the Mormon religion that were bothering and nagging him. At this point Jack is well beyond transition from enthusiasm, to serious doubter.
Nor did the missionaries have time to tour or appreciate the beauty in the city of Pisa during this visit. On the return trip to Bari, the group stopped in Roma to be tourists for a day. They arranged to sleep at the home of other missionaries thus avoiding the serious expense of a hotel.
We travelled by bus to the Vatican and that was interesting. Then to the Coliseum and the ruins. Then to the fountain of Trevi. We met some Australian girls there and helped them secure food… We concluded to go on our journey that night. Only Elder Will and I decided to go on to Napoli. We got there about 3:30 AM…
Al had lived in Napoli so he knew the way to the area of cameo factories on one of the hills of the old town. They arrived before the stores opened, and just in time to enjoy a spectacular sunrise.
At first the silhouette of the city appeared in black and tones of gray, then faded into pale browns and yellow and finally the sky exploded into color, alive in the vivid, vibrant pink and orange. Jack and Al watched incredulously in silent reverence from a bench on the hilltop as the city awoke.
Jack stretched his hand over the vista of roof tops and caressed Sleeping Beauty. The innocent maiden roused from an intoxicated dream along with the pigeons and greeted the new Sun. The two missionaries who watched, entranced, bonded from the shared emotion this phenomenon evoked.
Once the stores opened they went about the purpose of this side trip, to purchase authentic, hand crafted cameos. They are carved using a particular shell found in the nearby sea. The more intricate and beautiful the features, the more intriguing and of course more expensive the cameo. After searching several inventories Jack found a large one that reminded him of Julie’s profile. He bought that one for her and a second for his mother.
The next few days we did a little work, not much… Sunday we visited the local festival of Saint Nicholas. We met a `Brother,’ Father Christopher from the US. He was a minister in the Anglican Church…
“Hi, you fellows must be Americans?”
“Is it that obvious?” Al even began his greetings with strangers laced with mild sarcasm.
“Well some things you just can’t hide. The fact that your friend is six feet tall and blond is an obvious give away. Of course, I overheard you talking.”
“Where you from?” Jack joined the conversation and extended his hand to the man wearing black with a minister’s white collar.
“Los Angeles, California. How about you?”
“I’m from Oregon. He’s from Arizona but we don’t hold that against him, he can’t help it. He was born there.”
The three shared their different perspectives on the celebration. He was surprised to learn that the Mormon Church had missionaries in Italy. He was there as a tourist after having attended an ecumenical conference in Roma.
“Since it’s so hot, can I treat you to an ice cream? That will give me an excuse to have some.”
“Sure. It stays warm here even in the evening. Bari in May is possibly an ideal climate.” Jack was theorizing again. He hadn’t had enough experience to say that but that was his mode of expression.
“It reminds me of San Diego.” Father Christopher wasn’t quite accurate, it got much hotter in Bari. More like Jacksonville, Florida.
“Thanks. The ice cream here is excellent. Just around the corner is a good place. It won’t be as crowded.” Al had a good memory for location, especially for ice cream vendors.
“Was the Mormon Church represented at the ecumenical conference? I don’t remember meeting anyone from your Church.”
That was an easy question for Jack. “No. They wouldn’t be. We would never intend to compromise our doctrines in any such conference.”
Al finished the answer. “We have a modern Prophet who leads The Church, so Mormons aren’t particularly interested in the Ecumenical Movement.”
“Oh, I see. We have a much different perspective.”
The three talked for several hours but only briefly about religion after that staunch statement of fact by Al. This all counted as teaching time on their weekly reports.
Jack translated some religious literature for Father Christopher dealing with the festival. He said he would pay more attention to the Mormons when he returned to California.
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