Impromptus

Salt Lake City Journal

From a portico of the Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City (Jay Nordlinger)
People and sights in a very American place

On the flight from New York to Salt Lake City, there is a Mormon missionary, whose nametag identifies him as an “Elder.” This always makes me smile a bit. These fresh-faced youngsters, referred to as “Elder.”

This one has just served two years in Virginia. I guess I should have described him, above, as an “ex-missionary.” He is through with his service (this service, at least). He is from a town just outside Salt Lake. He has not been home in two years (in accordance with the rules, I gather). So, this is an exciting day for him: a homecoming.

Sitting next to him is a man from Israel. The two strike up a conversation. (The Utahn is in the middle seat. The Israeli is to his left, I to his right.) Having ascertained that the other fellow is an Israeli, the Utahn asks, “Are you Jewish?” Indeed.

This is an odd question, maybe, but not an outlandish one: There are non-Jewish Israelis.

In turn, the Israeli says to the Utahn, “I hear there’s a Broadway show, The Book of Mormon.” “Yes,” answers the Utahn, “I’ve heard of that.”

I admire the young man’s tact. He does not get into further conversation on the subject. The show, as I understand it, makes a mockery of the Mormons. Bret Stephens wrote a memorable column about it in 2012 (here — though a subscription is required, I’m afraid). The Israeli doesn’t know much about the show, obviously. He is just making polite conversation.

Overhearing this, I can’t help thinking of the 1976 presidential campaign (political junkie that I am). Jimmy Carter was from Georgia, you recall. And, when he’d arrive in some town, somewhere in America, the band would play “Marching through Georgia.” Once, Carter remarked to an aide, “Doesn’t anyone realize that’s a Northern song?”

• In the airport — Salt Lake — there is a sign: Visit Salt Lake, Different by Nature. There is a great, great stress on nature here, as throughout the American West. Rah, nature.

• A sweet voice wafts from speakers around us. “Hello, I’m Mayor Jackie Biskupski.” (I’m going from memory.) “Let me be the first to welcome you to Salt Lake City. Here you’ll find …” Later, I do some Googling: “the city’s first openly gay mayor.”

I remember what a friend of mine — a native of the city — has told me: “Salt Lake is not just the Mormon Tabernacle and white bread.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with either the tabernacle or the bread.) “It’s a diverse city, with all sorts of communities and subcultures.”

• In the airport, there is a small crowd of people, ready to greet the returning missionary. Welcome Home, Elder [So-and-so], says a banner. There is an older woman in a wheelchair, perhaps a grandmother. Another sign reads, Mission Accomplished. The scene is rather moving.

• I’ve often wondered whether Mormon missionaries feel ripped off when they are assigned to an American state, or region, rather than to an exotic or otherwise appealing foreign locale. (I’m talking about American missionaries, of course.) Virginia versus, say, Papua New Guinea? I’m being extreme, but you know what I mean.

• In journals from various foreign cities, I’ve noted Mormon missionaries. I admire their nerve, evangelizing, being “out there.” I myself sometimes hate to bother someone by asking where the bathroom is.

• Salt Lake City turns out to be ringed by mountains — snow-capped mountains — and it’s beautiful. Who knew? Everyone who has ever been here, I suppose.

• Let me pause for nomenclature: When referring to the city, do you have to say “Salt Lake City,” or is it okay to say “Salt Lake”? Or does “Salt Lake” refer to the lake, only? I’m told that you can call the city either “Salt Lake City” or “Salt Lake.” As for the lake, you can call it “the Great Salt Lake,” “the Lake,” or “the Salt Lake.” In each case, “the” comes into play.

Okay, how about this? I have used the word “Utahn.” There is also “Utahan.” Frankly, I prefer the latter term, always have. (I also prefer “Alabaman” to “Alabamian.”) But the more common is “Utahn.”

• The Great Salt Lake turns out to be a great salt lake, yes — but it is also a vast marsh, or one could even say “swamp,” I guess. (I’m not sure why “swamp” has to be pejorative.) Who knew? Again, those who have been here …

• Behold, a license plate. It shows an arch — a natural arch — in the desert and says, “Utah: Life Elevated.” That is meant to have a spiritual connotation, I gather.

• In the city, I see a street named after John Stockton and a street named after Karl Malone. Those are legends of the Utah Jazz (an NBA team). (Why are they called “the Jazz”? Because they moved from New Orleans.) (Why are the Los Angeles Lakers called “the Lakers”? Because they moved from Minneapolis.) I also see a sign for Japantown.

That, I was not prepared for. (Later, I will meet a hostess in a Western restaurant, a ranch house. An elderly lady, she is from Tokyo.)

• I have a memory of George W. Bush — than whom no one has ever been more natural around people. Any people at all. Once, he was talking to a man from New Orleans who had escaped Hurricane Katrina. The man had fled all the way up and over to Utah. Bush narrowed his eyes, leaned in, and asked, “Were you the only black man in Salt Lake City?”

• A restaurant, the Red Iguana, advertises “Killer Mexican Food.” It is, too.

• I’m pleased to see a sign for Abravanel Hall. I remember Maurice Abravanel. He was the conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra for many years. Beautiful name, isn’t it? Sephardic Jewish.

• There are lots of young Mormons around the tabernacle — many sporting nametags. There is an air of wholesomeness and well-being about them. The girls are notably pretty. Am I allowed to say that? Probably not, but I don’t care, and the older I get, the less I care.

• I have known Mormons in my life — not many, but some — and they have always struck me as especially good citizens. If your car broke down on a country road in the middle of the night, you would want one of them to come along. They would stop and help.

I also have a memory of the NBA, in the 1980s. Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge were teammates on the Celtics. McHale said of Ainge, “He lies all the time and cheats at golf. He’s the worst Mormon I’ve ever seen.”

• Mormon history is a very interesting slice of American history — dramatic. (All too dramatic, particularly in the early years.) I am looking at a monument whose accompanying sign I will quote:

The Handcart Pioneer Monument is a tribute to the thousands of hardy Mormon pioneers who, because they could not afford the larger ox-drawn wagons, walked across the rugged plains in the 1850s, pulling and pushing all of their possessions in handmade, all-wood handcarts. Some 250 died on the journey, but nearly 3,000, mostly British converts, completed the 1,350-mile trek from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Salt Lake Valley.

And that’s just one episode, a tidbit.

• Now I’m looking at the Beehive House — actually, to cite an old sign with exactitude, the Bee-Hive House. (You know the pattern: Phrases start out as two words, then get hyphenated, then get scrunched into one. The classic example is wild life, wild-life, wildlife.) Constructed in 1854, the Beehive House (or whatever) was an official residence of Brigham Young. Utah is “the Beehive State.” I’ve never known why.

Do you remember that hairdo, way back? The beehive?

Let me quote from an online source:

Utah’s nickname is The Beehive State. The beehive is a symbol of hard work and industry, and is in fact Utah’s official state emblem (Utah’s state motto is also simply the word “Industry”). The beehive appears on Utah’s flag and state seal, the Beehive Cluster is recognized as Utah’s official star cluster, and of course, the state insect of Utah is the honeybee.

An official star cluster? I don’t think my home state of Michigan has one of those. (A cluster with an upper peninsula?) Anyway, I’ll quote from a second online source:

Young had an expansionist’s view of the territory that he and the Mormon pioneers were settling, calling it Deseret — which according to the Book of Mormon was an ancient word for “honeybee”.

• I’m walking up to the Utah state capitol. This is really a capitol hill, let me tell you — steep. Incidentally — not so incidentally, actually — a local has told me, “The state capitol towers over everything. It has pride of place. It was important that the government, the secular authority, assert that authority.”

• Before I get to the capitol, I see another building. The Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Nice — another of those “points of light,” as the first President Bush said. Here, have a look:

• What the …? When you cross the street, you can take an orange flag with you, “for added visibility” (says a sign). There are two of them, on each side of the street, waiting for you in canisters. I have never seen this before. And I think, “They’d be stolen in a second in Ann Arbor” (my hometown). (Maybe that’s too cynical.) (Maybe it isn’t.)

• On the lawn of the capitol, there is a stirring monument to the Vietnam War dead. The theme: “but not forgotten.”

On one stone, or tablet, there is an eagle symbolizing national defense — and the words “For those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.” Other tablets list the dead. In the middle, you read the following:

This memorial is a tribute to all Utahns who unselfishly served the cause of freedom in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The names engraved on these tablets represent the diversity of Utah’s citizens who answered their nation’s call in the same spirit as those who served in previous wars. [That’s tellin’ ’em.] Many served in the innocence of youth. [Ditto.]

They kept the faith. They made the ultimate sacrifice.

Yes.

The most interesting tablet, to my mind, says this: “Woe to the statesman whose reasons for entering a war do not appear so plausible at its end as at its beginning.”

Utah has an unusual — unusually blunt, unusually pointed — Vietnam War memorial.

• There is another memorial, another monument, here on capitol grounds, unusually beautiful:

This is the monument to the Mormon Battalion, which served in the Mexican War. They were the only religion-based unit in U.S. military history.

• A school group is visiting the monument. The following transpires between two kids:

“Ooh, you ate snow, gross.”
“It’s not gross.”
“Yes, it is. Someone peed on it.”
“No, they didn’t. Then it would be yellow.”

An adult chimes in, “Not if you were well hydrated.”

I’m just reporting …

• Someone is driving a truck around the capitol, hauling a large electronic sign: Utah voted to expand healthcare, not cut it. Respect voters.

About this issue, I can’t tell you …

• Guarding the capitol are four lions — four impressive-looking lions, whose sculptor is Nick Fairplay. Isn’t that a neat name? Out of Shakespeare, or Dickens. The lions symbolize Fortitude, Integrity, Honor, and Patience.

• I find it odd to be standing in snow while wearing shirtsleeves (no jacket). We don’t do this in Michigan much. When there’s snow on the ground, it’s cold, as a rule.

• Take in a view, y’all:

• Back on the mean streets of Salt Lake, there is a Brink’s truck, paused. A man stands outside it, brandishing a machine gun (I believe). Kind of a jarring scene, although normal at the same time. Strange.

• As in other cities, there are many, many homeless, or vagrants, or beggars, or street people, or whatever wording you prefer. Mainly white, and Indian.

• Like Greenwich Village, Salt Lake has a Washington Square. In it sits City Hall — majestic and marvelous, don’t you agree?

• Check out a statue honoring the Pledge of Allegiance. The boy is pointing to the flag (outside the shot). Norman Rockwell would positively blush.

• I see the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse. Years ago, I would use him as an example. In the right circumstances, given the right candidates, Republicans can be elected in Democratic states, and Democrats can be elected in Republican states. Massachusetts had a slew of Republican governors. And Scott Matheson — a Democrat — was governor of Utah (two terms).

• Salt Lake City has light rail, I see. We conservatives used to howl at light rail. Nothing could make us howl or snort louder. Light rail! I wonder whether it works, and is efficient.

• I’m on foot. At intersections, cars often wait for me — even when I have the red light and they have the green. And even when there are cars behind them! No one honks. I have seen this in one other place in my life: Oxford, Miss.

• You know the old joke about “Martin Luther King Boulevard”? It’s where you buy drugs? It’s in the bad part of town? Well, it seems to be true here, too. I have an idea: Why doesn’t some city name one of their best streets — a main, glittering concourse — after MLK? That’d be a switcheroo.

• The University of Utah is here. They are the Utes. They still got that name? Yup. In the town of my birth — Ypsilanti — Eastern Michigan University had to give up “Hurons,” long ago. How long can these Salt Lakers hang on to “Utes”? Maybe forever, as they’ve hung on this long …

• Look, Jimmy John’s may be a sandwich place. But what do they advertise with? An ice-cream cone. That tells you something.

• I see this sign, I can’t help thinking of a Texas Senate race. Also, can’t they get that apostrophe turned around?

• I have no clue. No clue.

• This is funny, you have to admit. Don’t you? Come on.

• If you get a chance, go to the Maddox Ranch House Restaurant, out in Brigham City. (That’s where the Japanese hostess is.) And, by the way, you say “Mad-ox,” not “Maddicks.” I’ve had rolls as good, I’ve had a hamburger as good. Better? Never, never.

Thanks for joining me, y’all, and go Utes.

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