At any moment of the day or night, Katie Vigil knows exactly how many days, hours, minutes and seconds it will be until Jason Thurgood returns from his LDS Church mission to Oslo, Norway. She simply glances at the "countdown clock" sitting on a desk in her dorm room.

The 19-year-old Brigham Young University student has several little aids to help her heart grow fonder in his absence: what Vigil jokingly calls "the shrine," which displays dozens of framed photographs of him or the two together, and the little diamond "promise ring" she wears on her left hand.

The freshman from Albuquerque has written every week to Thurgood, the boy next door she has dated since she was 15. She has sent periodic care packages and worked to stay close to his family. Each night before she goes to bed, Vigil affixes a heart-shaped sticker to the calendar charting his remaining days. "I imagine we will be engaged pretty soon after he gets home," she says.

Vigil's "waiting, not dating" approach is an extreme example of what thousands of other Mormon girls are doing while their beloveds serve two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. The church has a continuously replenished missionary force of 60,000, most of whom are 19-year-old men.

At a point in life when other young men are well into college or jobs, the Mormon youth put everything on hold to serve God. One curious measure of the impact: most Utah colleges are nearly emptied of men of that age. At BYU, there are 6,000 19-to-20-year-old women for their 300 male counterparts.

Thus has the Mormon missionary system -- which allows telephone calls home only on Christmas and Mother's Day and e-mails no more than once a week -- spawned a bevy of letter-writing romances with their own internal rules and rituals. Dear John letters. Missionary folklore. Statistics about marriage outcomes. Advice about the best mail system. And a whole industry of kitsch for the waiters, including key chains with slogans like, "I Love My Missionary" or "I Belong to Elder X."

> It is a phenomenon whose nearest parallel is found in wars of long ago, when thousands of American men left their lovers and wives behind to fight in foreign lands.

Just as love begins to bloom and young Mormon couples feel the stirrings of physical attraction, the men are whisked off to parts unknown, embarking on a disciplined, supervised spiritual journey that the girls left behind experience only vicariously. Sexual abstinence is expected of all parties. (Now that more young women serve their own 18-month missions, there is a small group of young men waiting in the wings.)

The vast majority of couples agree to write, but take a "wait- and-see" view, making no commitments about the future. "It's a period of life where people change and grow and develop so much," says Carmen Pingree of Salt Lake, who served as the "mission mother" to hundreds of young men and women while her husband, John Pingree, was a mission president in Mexico City from 1998 to 2001. "Sometimes they grow in the same direction and sometimes they don't."

There is nothing wrong with waiting for someone and nothing wrong with not waiting, Pingree says. "People just need to keep their options open."

Rituals of Waiting

Not long after the first letters are exchanged, many girls experience a letdown. The missionary's missives inevitably become less personal and more focused on the task at hand. The transition from "mushy" warblings of starry-eyed lovers to impersonal letters about the mission experience can be tough.

"Before he left I was one of his biggest priorities," says Amy of Salt Lake City, whose boyfriend is in Argentina. "Now he is focusing on his missionary work. He was not especially spiritual before. Now he is totally on fire." "I wouldn't want it any other way," says Amy, "but it's still sad."

Similarly, the tone of Thurgood's letters became more distant, "less romantic and emotional," Vigil says. She responded by trying to match his style. "I wanted to keep from being a distraction," she says. "I understand and he understands that he is there to serve with his whole heart and mind. This is a small sacrifice to make to have him forever when he gets home."

Letter-writing can enhance or destroy a relationship. And it can have a powerful effect on the missionary's ability to function in the system. "It depends on the quality of the communication. If they are talking about ideas and issues, sometimes they get to know each other better that way," says Pingree. If letter-writers are "distracting and not on a mature level, it makes it difficult for the missionary, but if they are encouraging and helpful, they can be a serious source of support."

Gwen Bruner wrote to a missionary for the full two years, but when he got home, the relationship didn't work. But she doesn't regret it at all. "It was nice to know that someone far away supports you," says Bruner, of Salt Lake City. "For me, it was a good experience all around. I think it was the same for him."

The missionary ended up marrying her best friend and she was the maid of honor. Just writing to missionaries makes many young Mormon women members of a sort of club with its own particular patterns and rituals.

"One respondent sent a 'picnic package' that included a red-and- white checker table cloth, paper plates, napkins, plastic silverware, a loaf of bread, jelly, powdered donuts, potato chips, apples and Kool-aid. The cost was about $60," wrote Ginger DeHart, who gathered data on girls who wait for a folklore assignment at BYU. "Creative packages are the old, cliched 'whipped cream on fruit.' Just like creative dating, sending fun packages strengthens their relationships."

But club members are also subjected to rampant rumors about relationships gone sour. At BYU and other LDS student wards, "waited for nothing" stories are passed around as cautionary tales about the many unhappy endings.

The "Dear John" letter

No matter how well-intentioned a couple may be, things happen to break them up. And it's almost always initiated by those left behind. The two have grown apart. She meets someone new. She is tired of waiting.

That's when the infamous, relationship-ending "Dear John" letter is fired off. No one knows who the original jilted "John" was, but the phrase apparently originated during World War II.

"You can hardly talk to a Mormon who has not heard a 'Dear John' story," says Hayward Alto, a former BYU student who looked at the phenomenon for a folklore class in 1997. "It is part of our cultural identity."

Alto began to study missionaries' long-range relationships when he was teaching Russian at the Missionary Training Center in Provo. Elders would sidle up and discreetly ask him to "call girlfriends, buy roses and even date a girlfriend until the missionary returns."

He collected stories about "Dear John" letters. Some were real, others just legends among the missionary population told as "a warning to those who believe they are immune to the dreaded letter," he said. "It also creates an esprit de corps with other missionaries."

Every missionary has heard the one about two missionaries writing to the same girl, for example. And most learn of such "Dear John" customs as putting the letter and all photos of her into a pile, igniting it and then sending the heartbreaker a photo of the tiny bonfire.

Receiving a "Dear John" letter is "a dramatic event for the missionary who believes that the world will stand still for him or her while serving a missionary," Alto says. "The letter is often the first evidence that the world will not."

In the early 1990s, an elder in the Czech mission had his girlfriend's photograph printed on his pillowcase. He was always talking about her, convinced the two would wed, recalls Chris Williams, also in that mission.

After the besotted elder got his "Dear John" in the last six months of his mission, Williams says, "he was a mess. He did not handle it well." When other missionaries got their own "Dear Johns," elders would chime in, "At least you don't have her face on a pillowcase."

Ben Cloward of Spanish Fork dated his girlfriend on and off for three years. Before he left on a mission to Baton Rouge, La., in 1999, she pressured him to buy her a "promise" ring. Just four months later, she broke it off. "It was very, very unexpected," says Cloward. "I was absolutely miserable. I cried for three hours straight."

Cloward, who has been back for more than a year, says the rejection did not undermine the rest of his mission. "I learned a lot about myself and about relying on the Lord."

A Perfect Ending?

In his informal survey, Alto concluded that 90 percent of all girls waiting for a missionary eventually give up the life of limbo either by tapering off the correspondence or mailing a "Dear John." Seven percent wait it out, resume dating him when he returns -- only to eventually break up. Only about 3 percent of the girls who wait for their missionary end up marrying him, Alto found.

Amanda Sorenson of Sandy knows how it feels to break up long distance. She dated her missionary for two years before he left for Brazil in March 2000. "I missed him a lot for a long time and I still really care about him," Sorenson says.

On Christmas, during the missionary's semi-annual call home, Sorenson told him she had found a new love -- a returned missionary. "He didn't cry or anything. He was cheerful and understanding," she says. "He knew that things might not work out and wished me the best."

About a year after Hilary Haws of Centerville began writing a missionary she describes as her "best friend," the relationship took a romantic turn. For the next 12 months, Haws dated only casually, telling any one making the moves on her that she was waiting for someone else.

The day her missionary returned, the two came to the same conclusion: what were they thinking? "We had been such good friends, we got confused about our feelings," Haws says. "We are really just like brother and sister now."

Liz Gardner Jaggi of Salt Lake City is one of the few who married her missionary. Liz and Tim Jaggi dated all during their years at East High School. Tim left for his mission to Seattle right after graduation; Liz went to Boston University for a year. They wrote. She dated just a little.

"We pretty much knew we wanted to marry each other," Liz Jaggi says. "Every date I went on while he was gone was a reminder of all the things Tim was that other people weren't. It felt kind of pointless."

The letter writing was a plus, she says. "We got to know each other in a different way than we did before."

Tim Jaggi returned on October 5, 1999. They were engaged in three weeks and married two months later. "We've been married for two years and it has worked out the way we wanted it," Liz Jaggi says. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

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