The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2016 Results

Uncle Al and the Mormons

Copyright © Gregory Joass 2016

My Uncle Al had lived a long and colourful life without the benefit of much in the way of formal education. He had run away from home in his teens and become a swaggie in the outback. He had lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and later in life started reading history books to try and find out what had been behind these traumatic events. From this he had developed a general taste for books on modern history, so that by the time I came into his life he was one of the most knowledgeable people I ever knew. This was not always immediately obvious as his face and deportment bore all the signs of the harsh life he had led.

One day Uncle Al answered a knock on the door. On the doormat were two slim, young men, of unequal height. He didn't need to hear their accents to guess their origins. The grey suits, white shirts and slim black ties were a dead give away. "We're members of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Later day Saints," the taller suit said.

"Mormons," said Uncle Al. "Yes I thought as much. Here to covert the heathen savages are you?" The two young men looked uncomfortable. While it was true they were there as missionaries, this sort of language was no longer considered acceptable, particularly by those it was applied to.

"Well heathen I might be, but I can't promise you much in the way of savagery, not at my time of life," Uncle Al continued. "So I s'pose you’d better come in and have a cuppa." As he shuffled inside, the two young men looked first at each other and then at the invitingly open door. This wasn't the way it went. Normally they were lucky if they got away with handing over a pamphlet or two. No one ever invited them inside. But Uncle Al was made of sterner stuff. He'd been a swaggie in his youth and the hospitality of the bushman still ran in his veins. You always made strangers welcome, even if you had little to share, possibly because everyone had so little to share in those days.

"You'll have to have it black,” said Uncle Al, referring to the cup of tea, and when he said black, he meant black! Old habits die hard and milk didn't keep well on the track. He also added six spoonfuls of sugar to his own mug, it helped take the edge off the tannin. The two visitors said they'd take one sugar please. A decision they were soon to regret.

"Biscuit," said Uncle Al proffering a battered tin of large, brown, miss-shaped disks. The two youngsters looked from the scruffy tin to the scruffy hand and up to the scruffy face above it. They hastily shook their heads. On top of the scalding cup of bitter tea, it was too much for their youthful sensibilities. They should have had more faith! Years of practice had honed his culinary skills, at least for his limited repertoire, to a high level of proficiency and the Anzac biscuit recipe dated back to his days in the Navy, during the war.

"Could we perhaps interest you in some of our literature?" said the short suit, attempting to regain the initiative, by resorting to old habits.

"Sure," said Uncle Al, a confirmed, but open minded atheist. "I'll read them in bed tonight." The two visitors automatically re-interpreted this to mean "I'll throw them in the bin as soon as you're gone", without realizing Uncle Al actually meant what he said. It was, after all cheaper than buying books and less effort than a trip to the library.

"Perhaps we could explain some of the articles," hazarded the tall suit, encouraged by his associate’s success. "Well, if you don’t mind, I'd like to ask you a few questions instead,” said Uncle Al. The two youngsters were almost quivering with eagerness now, like hunting dogs that have just scented something small and squeaky in the bushes, and never dreamt that it might turn out to be as prickly as a porcupine.

"Your church was founded by Joseph Smith wasn't it?" queried Uncle Al. They nodded in slightly disconcerted agreement. Little old men who weren’t members of their church shouldn't, in their experience, know about Smith.

"And he was spoken to personally by God?" This time the nods were accompanied by a 'Where is this going' glance at each other. "The thing is" continued Uncle Al, "I've always wondered what happened to the golden plates that were given to Smith. Have you ever seen them?" There were a number of Um's and Err's and attempts by both to start speaking at the same time, suddenly curtailed as they decided it was safer to let the other go first. "The thing is," Uncle Al repeated into the silence, "I've never even seen photographs of them."

"Oh, they're much too holy for that," said the shorter and clearer thinker of the two. “So where are they now?” Uncle Al asked. The two visitors gave each other a ‘You’d better take this one look.’ Finally the shorter one admitted, “We don’t really know.”

“You don’t mean you’ve lost them,” said Uncle Al. “That’s a bit careless isn’t it, after all they were handed to your leader by the big guy himself. I suppose that makes them more articles of faith, rather than fact."

This seemed to confuse them, but didn't seem to require an answer, which was just as well as none was forthcoming. The taller of the two absent mindedly took another sip of his tea. Not a good idea, but at least it took his mind, momentarily, off what the old man was saying. When he stopped spluttering, the conversation had moved on to Brigham Young. Or more exactly, to Brigham Young's wives, of which there were many. "Why so many?" asked the old man. "Was it for sexual gratification?” He was assured that it wasn’t. “A status symbol then, and what does that make the women, possessions, trophies, slaves?"

"No," they hastily assured him, feeling they were at least on firm ground here.

"So true love then, except how do you know it was true love, when the next, truer love comes along? I ask out of curiosity, not having ever managed the trick even once, myself," said the confirmed bachelor.

"A man can love more than one ..." began short suit. "Our faith allows a man to marry more ..." began tall suit. They both stopped simultaneously in confusion, and failed to re-start in equally simultaneous confusion. Being young missionaries they hadn’t yet started collecting their own harems, so they were given the benefit of the doubt.

Uncle Al used the opportunity of the pause to change topics again. "I believe when your people first moved into Utah they had close links with the local Indian tribes," he said.

"Yes, I believe so," replied short suit nervously, wondering where the old man was heading now. He had been taught Theology in the seminary, not history, and this old man seemed to know far more about it than he did. It was unfair, it was so much easier to be a missionary to the ignorant.

Uncle Al continued relentlessly, "I seem to recall that your people were involved in a number of wagon train massacres, non Mormon wagon train massacres, at about that time. Something to do with fancy dress. Only I was wondering what was behind it. Why try to shift the blame to the local Indians if they were acting in a just and godly cause. I know it was a bit before your time, but I’m curious what they teach you about it now."

"Time, time, is that the time?" said tall suit, seizing on the word like a drowning sailor would a life preserver, "we'd better be going, we've still got a lot of pamphlets to deliver and time is getting away."

They left in such a hurry they forgot to finish their cups of tea. They almost got jammed in the doorway in their haste to be away. They never returned, nor did any missionaries from their church. Perhaps there is a sort of ‘Free Masonry’ operating amongst the field workers from the various religious groups, but somehow the word got around. From that day forth no missionaries ever came to call on Uncle Al again. There are some places where even missionaries fear to tread.