Japanese rode jitensha the way Los Angelenos drove cars. Anyone who lived too far from the train station to walk or too close to bother with the bus rode a bike. That added up to a lot of bikes.
Fortunately, the only good proselyting was at the train station and most missionaries lived close enough to a station not to have to bother with bikes.
Gordon hadn’t bothered with bikes, even at the old Odawara apartment where it took a good half hour at a brisk pace to walk to church. He was indifferent with good reason. The bikes were monstrous contraptions with steel tube frames and skid brakes and fender racks big enough to carry a missionary’s entire set of luggage.
“You can pedal downhill and coast on the level,” Gordon explained to Matlock, who had expressed an interest. “But don’t try going uphill, and don’t count on stopping in any kind of a hurry going either direction.”
Gordon had been trying to dispose of the bikes for some time. He left them under the stairs, in rather plain view, with only the fork lock engaged. The fork lock was a pressed-metal gimmick that threw a bolt through the spokes of the front tire. The bolt could be circumvented simply by twisting the lock around on the fork. Not much of a deterrent. Consequently, the bikes were stolen about once a week by drunks stumbling home from cabaret row after the trains and buses stopped running.
Getting the bikes to remain stolen, however, was a bit more difficult. Attached to the crossbar was a large metal plate on which “Mormon Church” was painted in white block letters.
“Think of it this way,” said Gordon. “Some guy is going haul home on one of these things, realize he’s stolen church property, get all guilty, and then show up on our doorstep wanting to get baptized.”
Not in any of their lifetimes.
The local police dutifully retrieved the bikes every time they were stolen. They often called early in the morning to inform the missionaries of the location of the vehicles before the missionaries knew they were missing. But the bikes finally did disappear for good.
“Hosers must’ve finally got smashed up enough to get the crates right into the river,” remarked Gordon.
And he was right about meeting people because of the bikes.
“Are you the Americans whose junky bikes keep getting stolen?” a junior high school kid asked Gordon one day after getting beat soundly at Space Invaders.
“Yup,” said Gordon.
“My dad’s a cop. He could get you some good bikes.”
“How?” asked Matlock, who was watching them play.
“The police auction is this Sunday. I bet he’d let you pick out a couple before it started.”
Thackeray and Matlock stopped at the police station Sunday morning on their way to church. The boy’s father was pleasant and understanding.
“You should have come by earlier,” he said. “Those bikes you had were, well, not so good.” Then he took them behind the station where several hundred bicycles were chained together in a long row that stretched around three wall of the compound. They picked out two ten speeds, each rusty but mechanically sound.
“You ought to see all the bikes they got there,” Matlock told Gordon that afternoon. “I bet they’ll have some good ones left over after the auction.”
But Gordon wasn’t interested.
“You’d save a lot of time,” Thackeray pointed out.
“It’d mess up my suit.”
“Besides, I’ve got enough time on my hands as is. Why should I want to save any?”
So Gordon never rode the bikes, but the very next Sunday he did come to appreciate them. It all started during the weekly meeting with the branch mission leader. The phone rang in the branch president’s office. Thackeray left the meeting to answer it.
“Good morning, Elder. This is President Atkinson.”
“No kidding? No, I mean—”
“Is this Elder Thackeray?”
“What? Oh, yes. Good morning, President Atkinson.”
“Is Elder Gordon there?”
“Just a moment. I’ll go get him.”
He gingerly put the phone down and hurried back to the room. “Hey, Gordon—” he gestured to him from the door.
He hissed in English, “The mission president is on the phone!”
“Fetch! What for?”
“I don’t know. But it didn’t sound long-distance.”
Gordon hurried off. Thackeray sat down next to his companion and began reviewing their investigator sheets. Gordon was back a moment later.
“What did he want?”
“He wants to see the apartment.”
“‘Because he hasn’t seen it in the flesh. We got it a couple of months ago. Anyway, he’s coming here and then he wants us to show him where the place is.”
“We can’t do that.”
“I know. But that’s not all. He wants to attend church too.”
“Why can’t he see the apartment afterwards?”
“Because church doesn’t start for another hour.” Gordon said to Brother Iwakawa in Japanese, “The mission president called. He’s going to attend church today.”
“Really?” Iwakawa was pleased.
Gordon said to Johnson and Matlock, in English, “You guys take the bikes and get down to the apartment and clean the place up. Stay on the east side of the station and go around the back.”
Johnson and Matlock left at once. Gordon and Thackeray continued with their meeting until the mission president and his wife drove up to the church in their white Toyota.
Gordon and Thackeray got in. The interior of the car was hot, the vinyl seat covers warm and sticky.
“We couldn’t find your apartment,” said President Atkinson.
“Well, yeah, it is kind of off the beaten path,” said Gordon. “Take the road past the west station exit and it’s the first right under the tracks and then left around the corner.”
The mission president’s wife turned to them and cheerfully asked, “How are you young men doing?”
“Oh, fine, Ma’am.”
“No health problems?” she asked, in a way that made them feel guilty for not having any.
The president pulled up in front of the apartment building. Gordon and Thackeray got out and stomped noisily up the stairs. Thackeray went straight in while Gordon waited outside for the president and his wife to catch up.
Matlock was coming out of the bathroom. “Get everything? whispered Thackeray.
“I put the dishes in the furo.”
“What about the tape players and Johnson’s radio?”
“Under the futons.”
“The JAL posters?”
“In the tea boxes.”
Thackeray hurried into Gordon’s room as Gordon and the mission president and his wife stepped into the genkan. “Yes, this is a nice apartment,” they both observed.
“Johnson, what about the magazines?” Thackeray pointed at the formidable collection of Time and Asahi Weekly by Gordon’s desk.
Johnson grunted and hoisted up the stack of magazines, stepped out onto the balcony, and dropped them over the railing. They landed with a loud thud and a cloud of dust—to the great delight of a couple of kids skipping rope in the alley. The crazy gaijins next door could be counted on to enliven a dull day in the most unexpected ways.
“You can see we have air conditioning,” said Gordon. “Our landlady wired the phone for free.”
“That’s very nice.”
Thackeray and Johnson smiled and agreed.
“Well, I think it’s about time we got back to church,” said the mission president, glancing at his watch. “We don’t want to be late.”
“Of course not,” Gordon gravely agreed.
The mission president and his wife went back into the genkan to put on their shoes. Gordon looked at Thackeray and sighed.
They both nodded and said under their breath, “Way too much excitement for one day.”