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Friday, October 13, 2006


Roaming the Western States Part 6 - The South Visitors Center

The last installment in this neverending series stopped in the middle of our trip through Temple Square. We'd seen the exterior of the grounds and the seagull monument but what was waiting inside the South Visitors Center?

Temple Square South Visitors Center reminded me of a scene from Back to the Future part II. In the movie, Marty McFly winds up an alternative reality where his father's tormentor, Biff Tannen, has become a wealthy billionaire. Marty wanders the ruins of his once low-key small town and heads into a casino in search of answers. In the foyer is a small museum devoted Biff's legacy. A video offers a sugar-coated view of his life, painting him as a hero instead of a ruthless megalomaniac.

I've heard a lot of negative things about the Mormon church over the years. Tales of cryptic practices, families torn apart and tithing (!) - the stuff atheists' nightmares are made of. The South Visitor's Center was devoted to explaining the church's emphasis on family values. A long oil painting near the entrance showed the key stages of every Mormon male's lifespan. Evidentially, this consists of: birth, learning to read the Book of Mormon, planting crops, getting married, cranking out kids, burying their wife, playing with their grandkids and finally kicking the bucket. Here's one segment of the painting, which had to be at least fifteen feet long:

The center also offered a museum recollecting the years following the arrival of Mormon Settlers in Utah. They say history is told by the winners and in Salt Lake City we know who that is.

The place was mostly empty and the missionaries wandering the halls seemed to busy to pay us any heed. Maybe Mormon missionaries are like the T-Rexes in Jurassic Park. As long as you don't move or make a lot of noise, they won't notice you. As long as we kept a low profile we could comfortably take in the sights without the threat of any uncomfortable conversations.

Then I made the mistake of pushing a button on an interactive display. A woman popped up on a TV screen, her voice filling the corridors as she told us all about faith and family. As I always do in situations like this, I slowly walked away and tried my best to look like I hadn't done anything.

But it was too late. They locked on to us. Mormons, everywhere! To the left! To the right! Coming out of the walls and roped-off escalators that led down to the basement and parts unknown. We fled around a corner past a waxed dummy diorama exploring the pitfalls that plagued the construction of the Salt Lake Temple. But there they were! Four hundred Mormons, each toting copies of the Book of Mormon. "Prepare to be converted," they cackled, pointing their infrared eye beams at our heads...

....yeah, none of that happened. As we had already learned, becoming a Mormon is a laborious task that takes way longer than getting eyeglasses at LensCrafters, ordering a pizza or getting assimiliated by the Borg. After I triggered the display, we rounded a corner and did spot two college-aged missionaries. At that point, we decided it was time to leave but we were distracted by a display telling us what all goes into getting hitched in the temple. These two girls must have jogged up the corridor because they were standing right next to us ten seconds later.

What ensued was probably the most uncomfortable, awkward pause filled conversation in the history of the world. From here we were headed to Vegas but it wasn't like we were going to tell them that. Instead, I said we were heading on to LA but would be spending the night in Carson City, which is completely out of the way in western Nevada. As you can tell, I'm quite skilled in the art of deception.

Undaunted by my terrible lying, the two continued to ask us questions about what we thought of Portland's temple, had we been there and would be staying to watch the Tabernacle perform that night. After they said, "that's really cool" fifteen hundred times, they wrapped things up with a "do you have any questions about the church?"

Thousands of possible questions flooded into my head. I had an open invitation to put these two on the spot. "Why did you join the church?" "Were you born into it or did it just kinda happen?" "Are you really cool with tithing or do you do it because you have to?" "Isn't this whole missionary thing a hassle?" "If you were really, really tired and had absolutely had to drive another 100 miles, would you bite the bullet and pull up to a Starbucks for a cappuccino?" "How many kids are you going to have?" "Do you really want to have that many?" "Wouldn't you rather join a sorority, get some birth control and a degree, become a scientist and do something besides crank out babies for the next twenty years?" "When you get right down to it, don't you think the Book of Mormon is at least a little bit contrived?" "Aren't there days when you'd rather kick back with a DVD set of Ellen and a box of wine?" "Salt Lake City: boring, boring, boring. Am I right or am I right, ladies?"

But I didn't do that because, while I'm a jerk, I'm not enough of a jerk to heckle two wide-eyed Joseph Smith fans. Plus, we were on their turf and there's no telling how they deal with smart asses around those parts. Neither of us wanted wind up in a backroom buried four stories below Temple Square.

So we thanked them for their time, headed for the exits and grabbed a few Jesus bookmarks on the way out. Mine is currently wedged about halfway through a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Next time: 15,000 Star Trek nerds in a Vegas hotel + William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy + one Ewok doll = ?

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