Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Guest Post: Mission = Prison?



Reed Soper was born and raised in southern California.  He considered attending the Lord's University but opted for BYU instead where he met Kathryn Lynard doing his home teaching. They married in 1992 and have seven children. Friends and loved ones often describe Reed as "difficult" or "a slow learner." In his spare time, he likes (virgin) pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.

I live in a neighborhood that is possibly the most mormony neighborhood in the heart of mormondom. Every home adjacent to my home is filled with mormons. The homes adjacent to them are also filled with mormons. You have to go out two or three more levels before you hit your first gentile. One of the characteristics of a neighborhood like this is that there are a lot of missionaries. A lot. Let me repeat, a lot. At one point, my ward had 24 missionaries out. There are fewer in my ward now but the adjoining wards are picking up the slack. This leads to a lot of missionaries coming home.

There is a custom that occurs in my neighborhood when missionaries come home. Of course, there is an obligatory sign that might say something about honor or service or something like that. The yard is almost always decorated with yellow plastic plates decorated with happy faces and stuck in the front lawn. Balloons have been seen attached to fences, mailboxes and other front yard features. Those balloons are also generally yellow [1]. I am generally perplexed at how 50 or more happy-faced plastic plates convey the love and emotion a family may feel at the return of their son or daughter. But even more perplexing is the common sight of one or more coordinating ribbons tied around one or more trees in the family’s yard. That’s right: yellow ribbons.

Now, I realize that readers under the age of 40 might have no clue why this sight is so bewildering, so let me explain what yellow ribbons mean to those of us born before the end of the Vietnam War: bus-riding ex-cons with unresolved relationship issues. This was explained to us by the musical trio, Tony Orlando and Dawn. It starred, not coincidentally, a music artist named Tony Orlando and two women back-up singers referred to as Dawn [2]. TO&D had a hit song in 1973 called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” This song, which sold 3 million record in three weeks [3], led to them starring in a weekly variety show in the heyday of variety shows [4]. For those not familiar with it, the song is about a guy getting out of prison. He wrote to his wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/whatever hoping they could get back together, but he emphasizes that he doesn’t want a reply by mail -- for some undisclosed reason, he couldn’t bear that. Apparently, their post-prison arrangement never came up while he was in the pokey. I'm going to go out on a limb a bit here and suggest that the friend never contacted him at all during his sentence. So he suggests that he/she/it tie a ribbon on a big tree (an old oak tree, specifically) “if you still want me.” By contrast, no ribbon means he’ll “stay on the bus; forget about us.”

I have a few questions. First, one for Tony: if your special friend completely ignores relationship status talk while you are in prison, what do you think that means? Second, one for the “friend”: why go to all the trouble of putting all the ribbons on the tree if he/she/it can’t bother to pick up a pencil and write a letter? And, for that matter – is it really a good move for his special friend to go to that effort for an ex-con? What crime did he commit? Was he guilty, or was it a set-up? Will he find the real killers/bankrobbers/jaywalkers [5]?

But my biggest question is not for Tony or his friend (or for Dawn) but for anyone up to the challenge: what does any of this have to do with returning Mormon missionaries?

Okay, there are some parallels between prisoners and missionaries (unresolved relationship issues for one), but the comparison goes south pretty quickly. In the song, the guy was in the clink for three years. Missions are one-and-a-half to two years [6]. He broke the law and he got sent up the river. The joint. The big house. On a mission, you are in the “field.” In jail, you get three hots and a cot and generally the hots are terrible and the cot is substandard. On a mission, you generally are lucky to get one hot, a baloney sandwich, and a bowl of cereal and a crappy mattress. Maybe I am reading way too much into this early ‘70s pop culture reference, are the parents of these returning missionaries suggesting that we should we equate a mission call with a prison sentence [7]? Is there any way to get off early for good behavior [8]? What is the mission equivalent of getting shanked with a shiv (or is it getting shived with a shank?).

For those still undisturbed by the potential implications of yellow ribbons for returned missionaries, I have one final point: in the song, the ribbon was tied around the tree by the convict’s lover – for a missionary in my neighborhood, the ribbon is placed his … mother.

That’s messed up.

[1] I have to believe that this has led to an abnormal spike in yellow plastic plate and balloon sales in the greater South Jordan area. I wonder if this practice has led to the good folks at the central hub of dollar stores asking themselves, “what the heck?”. FYI, these plates can be found here.

[2] I feel it is important to note that even at my tender age when watching this show, I was troubled that two women were called “Dawn” collectively. Some may say that Dawn was the name of the entire group and Tony was just featured in the name. In any event, I want to go on record as saying that calling two women by one name is wrong.

[3] One of these copies was purchased by my father. I can remember hearing him play it on his hi-fi and being shocked at hearing the word “damn” and questioning why this evil influence was unleashed on my home.

[4] Variety shows were all over the place during this time. Everybody knows about Carol Burnett and Donny and Marie. Do you remember when Sonny and Cher had their show? What about Shields and Yarnell? Shields and Yarnell were mimes. Two mimes had a variety show. Mimes did. Every week, the mimes would put on a show. I do not miss the 70s.

[5] I have other questions but they may be less important to some of you. Was the ex-con responsible for taking all the ribbons down? They didn’t just leave them there. That’s littering. Plus, those ribbons will slowly fray and look terrible. Is the fraying of the ribbons a symbol of the state of their relationship? I feel strongly that someone should take those ribbons down. It reminds me of political campaign posters than linger on the roadside, staked to the ground or attached to chain link fences. All too often, these signs remain past November, into December and into the next year. If you lost the election, wouldn’t you want those all down? I would think seeing them would rub the loss in your face every time you drove by. If you won, what kind of person would leave them up?

[6] They can be less. The shorter ones tend to be the result of those who change their minds, get in trouble, flame out, get sick. Do you still get the plates in the lawn if you come home early? Is the number of plates pro-rated? If you only go a year of the two, you only get 25 plates instead of 50? Or are the plates all there, but there are frowny faces instead of happy? Maybe sad faces. Angry faces? Indifferent faces?

[7] Come to think of it, there were plenty of days on my mission when it felt a little like prison. But then again, I got to go to Cleveland, the heart of the rust belt. The residents there affectionately referred to Cleveland as “the mistake by the lake”.

[8] You can get off early for bad behavior. See the footnote above.

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