The questions took me off guard. “So, are you divorced?” she asked. “Is your friend married?” These queries were definitely not part of the script. The experience was too surreal not to write about, so here goes …
My friend Dave and I were taking a tour of the historic Pine Valley Chapel in beautiful Pine Valley north of Saint George. I had been amazed to see such a place so close to the red rock country further south. “It looks just the Ponderosa,” I told Dave as we drove into the valley. “I keep expecting Hoss, Little Joe and Ben at any minute to ride over the crest of the next rise.”
As the historic chapel came into view, it looked oddly familiar to me. I didn’t realize until much later that this was because I had seen the chapel’s replica in This Is the Place Park in Salt Lake City. Dave asked if I’d like to stop and see the building. “It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It was built by a ship builder and is designed like an upside-down ship.”
I was game. We pulled up and walked into the building where we were greeted by an older sister missionary (whom I’ll call Sister Miller) and her middle-aged companion (whom I’ll call Debbie) who, we were later to be told in great detail, is not a set-apart missionary but a local resident. Both were a little on the chunky side.
The personalities of the two women quickly became apparent. Sister Miller obviously took her calling very seriously. When Debbie asked if we wanted the long tour or the short tour, Dave and I replied simultaneous, “The short one.” Sister Miller, however, simply brushed this aside and proceeded to read, word by word and line by line, the prepared historic timeline of the chapel that was posted on a large bulletin board. We wanted to go upstairs and just see the bloody chapel, but we would have to get past Sister Miller and the bulletin board to do so. That obviously wasn’t happening until Sister Miller had said her piece.
By the time we (finally) moved upstairs, my friend and I had been engaging in playful banter with Debbie. While Sister Miller seemed disconcerted that we were getting off-topic, Debbie seemed to be enjoying herself. I mean, how often do two gay guys drop in for a tour?
The old chapel was interesting and quaint, but what really captured my attention was the pump organ that looked very much like the one my grandmother had in her house when I was a child. After Debbie found out I could play (she asked), I sat down and enjoyed playing a couple of hymns on the old organ. Sister Miller smiled sweetly. Debbie was groovin’.
I got up, then Dave sat down and proceeded to show Sister Miller some things about the organ. It turns out he is a bit of an authority on this type of organ. Meanwhile, Debbie saw her opportunity and took it. “So, are you divorced?” The question took me off guard. In a split second, I both asked myself how she would have surmised that I am not married, then realized that it was because I was not wearing a wedding band. Just as quickly, I got over the initial shock of being asked such a personal question by a guide at a church site.
“No,” I finally replied, “I’m separated.” “Oh,” Debbie said, “that’s too bad. So is your friend married?” Again, surprise. “No,” I replied.
“Oh,” Debbie pressed on, “so how did you guys become friends? Were you friends in high school?”
Debbie was on a roll now, and I could see there was little likelihood of derailing her. I half wondered whether she suspected we might be gay.
“No,” I replied, chuckling. Not to be deterred, Debbie shot back, “So how did you become friends?” This was the only point in the interrogation that my gears briefly disengaged. I swear I could hear my brain idling, trying to re-engage. The moment’s hesitation, however, did not faze Debbie. She simply moved on to the next question.
“So. How old are you?” I couldn’t believe this was happening. By now, the whole situation was becoming surreal. This is the type of conversation that one might expect to hear in a bar, but this woman was married and was a guide in an LDS chapel! I tried to go with the flow, however.
“How old do you think I am,” I retorted. “Well,” Debbie replied, “younger than me. I’m 46. I’d say maybe … [here I was preparing myself to hear her say 40] I’d say 30, maybe 28.” I couldn’t believe it! Was this woman for real? I had to resist the temptation to reach out and kiss her. It was pretty scary there for a moment or two, but then the urge passed. “You’ve just made my day,” I instead said. “Actually, you’ve made my week and my month. I’m older than you are.”
Just when I thought Debbie could not possibly say anything more personal, more awkward, more out of place, she said very matter-of-factly, “You look good. You look really good!” The gears had disengaged again and I heard that whirring noise. Then, re-engagement: “Umm …. Thanks.” Surely, I was thinking, this conversation could not possibly become any more bizarre.
I was wrong. By this time, my friend was finished with Sister Miller. I took advantage of the moment to suggest we complete the tour (and get the heck out of there before Debbie asked what kind of underwear I had on). I wanted to see the inverted hull in the attic (pictured above). As we climbed the steep stairs, I heard Debbie ask Dave how many children he had. “None,” he replied. “Nine?” Debbie queried. “No!” said Dave, “None, not nine. He’s the guy with all the kids.”
Without missing a beat, Debbie turned to me and said, “Oh? How many children do you have?” Sigh. Was this ever going to end?
We quickly completed the tour and made our way as quickly as we could back down the two flights of stairs and back outside, laughing as we got back into Dave’s truck and headed off. Poor Debbie: she was probably dying of curiosity, unable to fit together the various puzzle pieces she had managed to extract out of us. Dave suggested we should have told her that we had just got married and were on our honeymoon. That would have at least relieved her anxiety over trying to figure us out. But it would have probably given Sister Miller palpitations. It had definitely been a memorable tour. I’ll never again think of Pine Valley without thinking of Debbie.