Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube.
Welcome back to the Vault. This week we jump back to 1957 for a Decision—a 15-minute film produced by BYU for the “Personal Standards Committee” of the church. Sounds like a rip-roarin’ committee to be sure. The film was made in cooperation with the Utah National Guard and the United States Air Force.
The film begins with epic music reminiscent of what you would hear of military or war films. We see the opening credits superimposed over an illustrated map of Australia. We hear the voice of U.S. Air Force Sgt. Don Carlson as he is on board a military transport plane with other service men. He had been stationed in a dusty part of Australia’s Northern Territories and was being transferred to attend ballistics school with the Australian Air Force in another part of the country.
As he disembarks he runs into Bob, an old friend he met before they shipped out of the States. They walk to receive their rooming assignments and get the lay of the land. We hear Don say how he has forgotten most of what he learned at the ballistics school, but he had an experience there he would never forget.
Don is sure he is the only Mormon (his words, not mine) at the school. In other assignments his friends from the U.S. knew he didn’t drink, and he was concerned what the Australians would make of it. He was sure that knowledge of his religion spread quickly as in his experience it usually did.
Later in his stay at the school all the American students were invited to attend the annual Australian officers party. It is a fancy dinner with crystal, silver, candles and table cloths—the works. The evening starts with what Don calls “the biggest faux pas of the year” as he begins to sit before the commanding officer does. The evening progresses nicely with many courses of delicious food. He felt he had performed admirably but then began to worry as waiters brought in bottles of decanted wine.
The commanding officer stands and invites everyone to join in their toast to the King (George IV at the time). He explains the procedure: they circle their glasses with the bottle and then fill it before waiting for the toast.
Don is troubled as he watched the bottle come closer and closer. It’s one drink. Who would know? He doesn’t want to offend his hosts by refusing the toast and make them think he doesn’t respect their monarchs. He sees his friend Bob drinking without problem and thinks he has it easy. As the bottle came to him he felt every man in the room was looking at him. He circles his glass and then just passes the bottle on. He toasts the king, the regiment, the officers and many others with his glass of water.
At one point the drinking progresses and Don makes a strategic retreat. He tosses restlessly in his bed and consoles himself that he stood by his principles and is ready to “sweat out the consequences of the terrible impression” he felt he made that night.
The next day he is summoned to the flight commander’s office. As he leaves he asks Bob “If he should pack now or later.” Another classmate sings “Taps” as he walks out to his meeting.
He reports to the flight commander and as he waits he flinches under the gaze of the royal portraits of King George IV and Queen Mary. (Can you tell I watch The Crown?). He is admitted to the office and waits while the commander finishes his paperwork.
“So, you’re a Mormon, Sergeant?”
Don acknowledges that he is as the commander continues.
“Your papers said you were, and last night when I saw you pass up the toast to His Majesty the King I assumed your principles caused you to do it. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Mormons and would like you to tell me something about your religion and your people.”
“I would love to sir,” Don replies. “It’s a great story. Where would you like me to start?”
We next see Don walking out of the office building with a smile on his face. His narration says it’s “strange how large a decision can loom at the time, and how good you feel when you know you’ve made the right choice.” He thinks it would have been so simple to take the easy way but then acknowledges the damage to him and the church for compromising his principles.
Decision is a simple film with a narrative we have heard before. It works as a story on keeping the Word of Wisdom, or more broadly, keeping your principles. Its narrative rather than didactic approach still works. It also teaches how as observant members of the church we can engage with others when they choose to drink.
My father served in the Air Force (as did my oldest brother and my wife), and watching this film brought back memories of my father and mother attending “Dining Out” events. They had this tradition of a “Grog Bowl” which was a weird punch. As part of the evening people would be jokingly brought up on “violations” and punished with a trip to the grog bowl. I remember asking my dad how he dealt with it and he just said there was always a non-alcoholic option.
He also taught me that being in places with alcohol was not something you could or should always avoid. Whenever there was a cocktail hour at the Officer’s Club he almost always went. He said it was important to build relationships. He just got his club soda and went with a list of people he needed to see and topics he needed to cover. When his list and his soda would were done he would excuse himself—just like Don did when the drinking seemed to amp up a little.
This advice has served me well in business school and many other experiences. I became a fan of Shirley Temples, Roy Rogers and club soda and had many good times chatting with classmates or colleagues. I never felt pressured to abandon my principles and built valuable relationships. I also agree with Don and my dad—there is always a time to withdraw on a good note.