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Stories: Muu Baan Tracting

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Muu Baan Tracting 12 Jul 2003
MUU BAAN TRACTING By TIMOTHY TORKILDSON Went to visit some people way the heck over in Thonburi last night. In fact, this was way past Thonburi, down a dribbling dirt road that looked like it was going to take us into a rice paddy. Instead we drew up in front of a brand-spanking new muu baan, a Thai housing development, that seemed to rise from the mists like King Arthur’s Camelot with banners waving and guards smartly turned out at the front gate. My mind, which needs very little stimulation nowadays to flip back on itself with memory spasms, immediately hustled my thoughts to those long-ago glory days when I did nothing but tract out muu baans. The Mormon missionaries do not go door-to-door anymore in Thailand. My understanding is that this sort of hit-or-miss proselytizing is frowned on by Salt Lake as a poor use of time and effort. Amen to that. I never enjoyed it, but felt duty-bound to do it. Housing tracts in Thailand are meant to keep out the tropical shabbiness of shedding coconut palm fronds, mangy dogs and peddlers, and the inquisitive eyes of khamoys – those mysterious black presences that come in the night to steal whatever is not nailed down. Thus in America you might gauge the wealth and security of a person by the wide expanse of open lawn and shrub and garden that surrounds a palatial home bursting with French windows and balconies; but in Thailand the better-off people rear walls around their homes that would baffle Godzilla, topped with broken glass, nails, barbed wire and possibly land mines. The only glimpse you have of the house is through the peephole in the huge metal front gate that looks like something David O. Selznick would use for Gone With The Wind. The gate is always painted black with bronze sunburst outlines that give you the feeling that black slaves from H. Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines will presently troop out to push it open. The houses are solidly built of dazzling white concrete and stone, with driveways laid out in pink brick. The dinky windows are shuttered or barred, or both. The heat of the tropical sun bounces off all that concrete to create narrow streets sizzling with broiling waves of heat. A few hours in a muu baan in the middle of the day and you’d find two Mormon Elders nicely broasted, ready to be served up with some barbeque sauce and coleslaw. The utter futility of it was that no one was ever home in these muu baans during the weekday. Mother and father went to work; the kids were in school or at special lessons. Only the maid and the family pug dog inhabited the place between seven in the morning and eight at night. The quiet was unsettling. I remember feeling like one of those poor schmucks in a Fifties sci-fi movie, who wakes up to find himself all alone amidst the towering, empty buildings of some Gotham. My companion and I could do up an entire muu baan in a few days if we walked fast and knocked hard. It was meeting a mindless quota, imposed by our own Pharisee-like conception of what missionaries were supposed to do. On weekends, of course, the whole muu baan took on an entirely different aspect. Mom and Pop were sure to be home, exhausted, and the kids moped about the house, wanting to go out for ice cream or pizza or see a movie. Grandma sat in the corner, her lips a thin, disapproving line as she surveyed all this decadent luxury that a really faithful Thai Buddhist didn’t need to indulge in; a wooden house on stilts near a klong with a large clay pot full of rice grains was good enough for her generation! The problem on weekends was that we were literally nearly killed with kindness. We’d bang on a door, the father would saunter out, we’d give our spiel about wanting to help him be a better father would he like to hear our message please? Without further ado he’d crack the gate open and motion us in. Before we could even mention Joseph Smith or The Book of Mormon he’d say “Of course, you’ll have something to eat first?” Thai etiquette demands that you accept such an offer without reservation, which inevitably led to a full-course meal being laid out before us. The first two or three banquets weren’t so bad, but even a glutton would be hard-pressed to keep eating after the rice starts pouring out of your ears. I never knew a Thai householder who didn’t try to stuff us insensible when we were tracting. And if, by some miracle, we were offered just a piece of fruit and glass of hibiscus water, we still had to compete with the TV and the kids. Thais keep the TV going full blast no matter who they’re talking to or what the subject may be. You can ask them to turn it down, which they’ll do, but immediately one of the kids will rush up to the infernal machine and send the volume soaring again. Thais indulge their children enormously, so that puts an end to all moderate dialogue. You can either scream your lungs out or start miming. The very last muu baan I ever tracted out before coming home, I had a greenie companion. I patiently explained to him that we would be spending the next five hours striding from one gate to another, never being admitted and having our brains nearly baked out of our skulls from the heat. That is what the Lord wanted. My greenie innocently asked if we couldn’t say a special prayer, asking the Lord to please put a family in our way. I humored the lad and let him offer up his plea. Wouldn’t you know it, the very first gate we hit, the family was actually home on a Monday. Well, I would show my greenie that Elder Torkildson knows how to take advantage of such an unexpected situation. We ate some mangosteens and guzzled Fanta politely for ten minutes, then I dramatically asked for a glass of pure water. The wife brought me water in a beautiful cut crystal glass. I solemnly explained that we wanted them to know that sin, any sin, leaves you separated from God. To illustrate I took out my fountain pen and plopped a drop of ink into my glass of water. See how it spreads, darkening everything, I told the family. The mother gently took the expensive crystal glass from my hands and went to rinse it out while I told the rest of the family about the Plan of Salvation – but my eye kept straying to the kitchen, where it was obvious that the ink was not coming out of the crystal glass. I’d ruined it. My head of steam dissipated rather quickly; I let the greenie struggle through the rest of the discussion in his halting, toneless Thai. We bid the family good day and went back into the white hot street. “Well” I said resignedly, “I guess I blew it with them.” “They seemed pretty nice” said my greenie. “Can we go see ‘em again tomorrow?” “You can if you want” I replied. “Tomorrow I’ll be at the mission office and then off on the big tin bird for the good ol’ USA! I’m as trunky as a luggage store.” Several weeks later, as I was lolling about the snowdrifts in Minnesota I got a letter from that same greenie. He and his companion were still teaching the family, had just given them the baptismal challenge in fact. “That boy is AP material” I mumbled to myself as I dodged a plunging icicle. I don’t think I ever answered that letter. Sometimes I’m so petty I disgust myself.
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