“Twenty-Mark Note” Experiences

There is a certain category of life-experiences that I refer to as “Twenty-Mark Note” stories. The name for these experiences comes from a talk by the same name, given by President Packer at BYU-Idaho in 2002 (excerpted below).  I suspect that once you read President Packer’s remarks, you’ll immediately recall your own Twenty-Mark experiences:

I very seldom entitle talks, at least before I give them, but this one is entitled, “The Twenty-Mark Note.”

That title comes from an experience that I had something over 30 years ago. I was assigned with then-Elder Thomas S. Monson to organize Servicemen’s Stake Europe for the military servicemen in all of Europe. We met at Berchtesgaden, Germany, a resort high in the Bavarian Alps…

After we had finished setting apart and completing that organization in Germany, we were assigned to go to Berlin to a stake conference…

That night near 10:00, two missionary elders came to the airport [where we were to catch a plane to Berlin]. We knew then that the planes would not fly [because of the fog]. They told us there was a train leaving Munich for Berlin at midnight. They took us to the mission home. My wife rummaged through the kitchen, found some canned soup, and made us a quick supper. The elders took us to the train station, bought our tickets, and saw us aboard the train which would take from about midnight until about 10:00 the next morning to arrive in Berlin.

As the train was pulling out, one young elder said, “Do you have any German money?” I shook my head, no. He said, “You better have some,” and, running along side, pulled from his pocket a twenty-mark note. He handed that to me.

At that time the Iron Curtain was very “iron.” The train stopped at Hof on the border between West Germany and East Germany, and they changed crews. All of the West German crew members got off the train, and the East German Communist crew got on the train. Then it set out across East Germany toward Berlin.

They had just begun to issue five-year passports. I had a new passport–a five-year passport. We went to have my wife’s passport renewed. They sent it back saying that the three-year passports were honored as a five-year passport, that she still had more than two years left on her passport.

About two o’clock in the morning, a conductor, a military-type soldier, came and asked for our tickets, and then, noting that we were not German, he asked for our passports. I always hate to give up my passport. I do not like to give up my passport, especially in unfriendly places. But he took them. I almost never dislike anybody, but I made an exception for him! He was a surly, burly, ugly man.

We spoke no German. In the car, the compartment, there were six of us–my wife and a German sitting to the side of her and then almost knee to knee in a bench facing us were three other Germans. We had all been conversing a little. When he came in, all was silent.

The conversation took place, and I knew what he was saying. He was denying her passport. He said, “Drei Jahren!”

And I said, “Five Jarhen!”

He went away and came back two or three times. Finally, not knowing what to do, I had a bit of inspiration and produced that twenty-mark note. He looked at it, he took the note, and handed us our passports.

The next morning when we arrived in Berlin, a member of the Church, who was the head of the Central Intelligence Agency for the United States in Berlin, met us at the train. I rather lightly told him of our experience. He was very sober, very suddenly. I said, “What’s the matter?”

He said, “I don’t know how to explain your getting here. East Germany right now is the one country in the world that refuses to honor the three-year passport. To them, your wife’s passport was not valid.”

I said, “Well, what could they have done?”

He answered, “Put you off the train.”

I said, “They wouldn’t put us off the train, would they?”

He said, “Not us, her!”

I could see myself having someone try to put my wife off the train at about two o’clock in the morning somewhere in East Germany. I am not sure I would know what to do. I am glad that passed.

I did not learn until afterwards how dangerous it was and what the circumstances were, particularly for my wife. I care a good deal more about her than I do for me. That intelligence officer convinced us that we had been in very serious danger. Those whose passports they would not accept were arrested and detained.

All of this comes to this point: the elder who handed me the twenty-mark note was David A. Bednar, a young elder serving in the then-South German Mission, who sits here on the stand as president of BYU-Idaho.

So, why was it that this young elder from San Leandro, California, handed me the twenty-mark note? If you understand that and understand what life is about, you will understand really all you need to know about life as members of the Church. You will understand how our lives are really not our own. They are governed–if we will and if we live as we should live–then we will be taken care of.

Different people get different things out of a Twenty-Mark story. Sometimes, these experiences give us a glimpse of the awesomeness of a decision to surrender our agency. They might be moments when we finally understand why it was important to heed a particular spiritual prompting. Maybe we could call these experiences “tender mercies” of the Lord – stories that remind us we’re being watched over. Sometimes, a Twenty-Mark story makes us believe in the ministry of angels – of “heavenly help” or angels not from the other side of the veil. They are perhaps the moments when we finally realize that by letting ourselves be governed, we let ourselves be taken care of.

27 comments for ““Twenty-Mark Note” Experiences

  1. President Packer was inspired to bribe an East German official? Yikes! It truly is a wonder he wasn’t detained.

    We met at Berchtesgaden, Germany, a resort high in the Bavarian Alps

    Elevation of Berchtesgaden: 2,297 ft
    Elevation of Salt Lake City: 4,226 ft

    Does that mean general conference is held even higher in the Wasatch Range?

  2. Peter,

    On the bright side, I don’t think Pres. Packer could be liable under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for his bribe – but I defer to Marc on that…

    Relatedly – I think grease payments by the Church – in particular, mission offices – are not uncommon. In Brazil, the officials handling our visas always expected a lil’ somethin’ in exchange for doing their job. Friends who have served in the former Soviet bloc countries have reported the same thung; and my brother, who served in West Africa, said that bribes were just a fact of life.

  3. bribes were just a fact of life

    I suspect no one knows how true this is better than Siemens, the company that was surely not alone in practically institutionalizing bribery as business as usual in the course of its dealings with the usual suspects like Russia, Nigeria and Libya.

  4. Peter,

    Don’t forget Siemens’ bribes to government officials in Argentina, Bangladesh, China, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Venezuela, and Vietnam. For more on the Siemens bribery debacle, check out the description in this FCPA alert.

  5. Back when my wife and I got married, we decided to honeymoon down where I served part of my mission, in Fallon and Reno NV and Susanville CA. We drove down from Alberta Canada, visited various areas I had served in and took in some of the sites and beauty that northern Nevada and California had to offer. The day before we were to return home, we decided to go to an outdoor water park in Reno. After a hot July afternoon at the water park, unknown to me – my very white and never seeing the sun for the previous 2 years shoulders were severely sunburned.

    Our route home took us through northern Nevada and into Utah, and by the time we got to salt lake, I really started to feel the effects of the sunburn. We took a break from driving and stopped by temple square for a rest. As we continued to drive north, we got to some place in southern Idaho (I think it was Idaho Falls) and stopped for gas. My sunburn had progressed so bad that the skin on my shoulders started to crack and ooze if I moved my arms too much or too suddenly. After filling up, we paid for our gas and also purchased some cream and gauze to apply to the burn, as well as some pain medication.

    As we were about to leave, a lady walked across the parking lot and approached us. We had no idea who she was and as far as I know, she didn’t know us or anything about our situation. She handed us a $20 bill and said something to the affect that she thought we might need it. We tried to decline and give it back, but she wouldn’t have it. We thanked her and she drove away. We didn’t think much of it at the time.

    As we continued to drive home, changing bandages and cream as we needed to, we ended up purchasing more first aid supplies at each stop we made. When we made it to Shelby, Montana, we realized we were going to need some more gas to get home and all we had was the $20 that the lady gave us. We got our gas and drove the rest of the way home. As we pulled into our home town in Alberta, we were driving on fumes. That $20 was exactly what we needed to get home.

    My wife and I have always wished that we would have got the lady’s name and phone number to thank her. Those twenty mark note experiences are pretty special.

  6. JM,

    Exchange rate notwithstanding – that’s as close to a 20-mark story as you can get! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Packer should be in the clear. To violate the FCPA, an improper payment must be made with the purpose of obtaining or retaining business.

  8. I can’t speak to all that went on, but in Romania, we would generally play dumb when dealing with customs and visa officials. We almost always were able to wear them down with a little bland-yet-smiley persistence.

  9. The following is not very inspirational, but seems appropriate for this post.

    Let me tell you about $20 corner – otherwise known as the intersection of 4th and Grove in Ontario, California. I’d heard of this intersection when I first entered the mission because there is a baseball field on the SE corner where A League of Their Own was filmed. One day my companion and I are on bikes and waiting for the traffic light at the intersection to change. A van pulls up, side door opens, and a 10-yr old pacific islander kid jumps out, runs across traffic, hands us $20 and then goes back in the van. I’d learned by then never to turn down money from islanders (another good story) and so we waved “thanks.”

    Even though it was the end of the month, my companion and I were still fine on funds. But later that night we met with the DL and found out that he and his companion were low. So we treated them to dinner. We went to Burger King. I vividly remember handing the money to the cashier and then noticing that a feint green residue remained on my fingers. The cashier noticed it too and proceeded to run the bill under a faucet. All the ink ran off of what was clearly a counterfeit bill. The four of us just stood there in amazement as the manager came out and said “hey, what are tyring to pull?” Having no other money on us, we quietly left, assured that no one who had witnessed the event would ever open their door to LDS missionaries.

    I need to note here that I am 100% sure the members who gave us the counterfeit bill had no idea it was counterfeit.

    Anyway, at this point the DL and his companion decided to return to their area. My companion and I went the other way, which took us back to the intersection of 4th and Grove. Waiting for the light to change again, the wind picked up and blew a piece of paper into my chest. It was a $20 bill. My companion and I each ran it under a faucet a dozen times to make sure it was genuine. It was. We gave it to the DL to help him finish the month, but none of us ever had the nerve to go back into that Burger King.

  10. Pres. Packer should also be in the clear for making the payment, more than likely, prior to the Act being passed into law in 1977. And well outside the statute of limitations period, which is 5 years under the FCPA.

    However, I wonder whether a Church official carrying out his official church activities could be considered to be obtaining or retaining business. Especially in a Church with significant non-profit dealings. Certainly the Supreme Court’s opinion in Smith would allow criminalization of acts carried out by religious officials provided the criminalized acts are broadly defined and not specific to religious activity.

    Regardless, I often find such stories “hokey,” (due to my own failings) but found this one inspirational. I do think there comes a time in every religiously-oriented person’s life where you have to finally hand over your problems to Christ because we are simply incapable of solving them ourselves. Great post.

  11. Applying the FCPA seems laughable to me, at the very least on ex post facto grounds (I’m not a lawyer, but even so…) and on the grounds that for whatever other reason, Packer and his group were in the DDR to get through it to Berlin, not to do business or influence any part of that government. That law wouldn’t even apply, thus, he wouldn’t need to be “in the clear” on the statute’s limitation grounds.

    Let’s not even begin to try and unravel the mess the State Department would have made if the wife of a prominent U.S. citizen were detained because *they* gave her bad advice, hmm?

    Further, are we to suppose that getting a border control official to do his job without his committing the sin of tyranny, or of endangering the person at his mercy, constitutes the same crime of bribery as the mess large corporations regularly make of poorer countries?

    That would be just as laughable to me.

  12. Rob… errr… isn’t that what I said? “To violate the FCPA, an improper payment must be made with the purpose of obtaining or retaining business.”

  13. Then Russian missionaries should be in the clear under the FCPA. A Russian MP I know occasionally had to resort to giving extra funds with the purpose of *facilitating expeditious approval* of applications that had already been approved, etc.

  14. Couldn’t these things be considered tips instead of bribes? I’m just wondering because if they are so routine in some cultures, they probably seem to the people in the culture something like the way we “bribe” waiters at restaurants to give us good service. Of course, the tip in our case comes at the end, so it’s not like there’s a threat of the service being withheld if we don’t pay but perhaps in cultures in which bribery is pervasive it feels routine and unobjectionable in the same way as a restaurant tip does to us.

    Another thing we do along those lines is give mail carriers, paper carriers, and others in service businesses tips or little gifts at year’s end. There’s no coercion, of course, but the unspoken expectation is that better service will be forthcoming. That makes me wonder now if my mail carrier continually delivers my letters to my neighbor up the street with a similar address as retaliation for the fact that I never give a present of this type. I don’t think so but it’s possible. (Do people do this in other parts of the country, too, or just in the southeast? It seems a leftover from a more paternalistic time.)

    Yet another thing is campaign contributions for legislators from people and businesses. Though it’s not a purchase of services or a bribe, it’s certainly clear that companies feel there is value for them in doing it. Like, they aren’t doing it as a public service, really. They’re expecting in return, at the very least, that their stories and needs can be heard. Might that not seem corrupt to someone from another culture as well?

    I don’t know what I’m arguing here, that all of the above are actually corrupt, perhaps. Or if I mean none of the above. What do you think?

  15. As for the twenty-mark-note experiences, I’ve had them as well on several occasions, though I can’t recall specific circumstances at the moment. I do remember feeling more than once due to events that transpired an uncanny sense that I’m under constant watch and care. Or perhaps someone else near me is, and I’m benefiting from the fallout. The corollary of that thought, then, is that when bad things do happen, we’re meant to experience them? I’m not sure that idea isn’t somewhat problematic too. At least it’s pretty disturbing, given the extreme horror of some of things humans experience.

  16. I had a sibling who worked in the mission office in the Donetsk mission some years back. There was major palm greasing (even a little smuggling) that went on there. He can tell some pretty wild stories, but not of the stars-aligning-everything-working-out-perfectly variety.

  17. the way we “bribe” waiters at restaurants to give us good service.

    Actually, I think tipping has more to do with restaurant owners holding their patrons hostage in order to pay their employees wages.

  18. I can attest that the way to get Visa’s processed quickly on my mission in Africa is meat. Lamb, pork, beef, chicken, game. It all worked pretty well.

  19. When speed limits aren’t enforced, they no longer function as “speed limits”. “Traveling” (as defined in the rule book) is almost never called in the NBA, so taking an extra step is not traveling anymore. It’s just taking an extra step (or, according to Lebron James, a “crab dribble”). The very definition has changed due to lack of enforcement. When any standard is not enforced, standards don’t exist.

    To echo Tatiana, as usual, when “bribes” become simply a matter of life (when everyone knows about them and nobody does anything about them), they become no more than a business practice and a normal business cost. They cease to be “bribes”. They only resurrect as bribes if enforcement begins again.

  20. Ray, regardless of any relevance to this post, that is not technically true. Even without enforcement, bribes continue to be an economic drain on the government or market system by adding unintended transaction costs that lower efficiency. Noonan’s masterpiece on the subject, a 500+ page book entitled simply (and very appropriately) Bribes spends a lot of time on this theory attempting, I think successfully, to debunk the view that without enforcement bribes cease to be bribes.

  21. Paul, please direct the first part of your comment to almost everyone who has posted a comment on this thread. (16 of the 20 comments before mine, as well, to be precise) Thanks.

    Also, your point about the effect on the economy is totally irrelevant to the actual point of my post (since I never addressed the effect of unenforced bribes on the economy). However, “regardless of any relevance to (my comment)”, your point is correct. Much more irrelevant to the thread than mine, but correct, nonetheless. Thanks for the additional commentary.

  22. Ray, 23, I think it comes down to malum se vs. malum prohibitum. Speed limits are largely malum prohibitum, wrong because an enforcement body (here a state or city government) has declared driving over 25 mph bad. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with driving over 25 mph (it may be bad at certain times, certainly, but nothing per se wrong about it). Whereas bribery is malum se. There is something intrinsically wrong about bribery. My argument above, simply parroting Noonan, is that it clogs the economic machine actually harming other actors within the economic market, every time it happens (not just under some circumstances). In this sense your earlier point about standards can confuse the issue. Morality is a standard but adultery did not cease to be adultery when the government got out of the business of enforcing it as a crime (malum se). Whereas speed limits do cease to be speed limits when not enforced (malum prohibitum). And I apologize that my earlier tone came across as offensive. It was a passive attempt at engaging in an off-topic discussion with you that struck me as very interesting.

  23. Here’s a 20 mark experience that I’m grateful for, but I’m not sure what to make of it, even 30 years later.

    In 1979 we moved from Orem to Seattle for graduate school. I had no idea how much more expensive life would be in Seattle than Orem. Rent was triple, and gas was double (we moved right at the time of the Iranian revolution). We packed everything we had into an 8-foot U-haul, and to avoid drop-off fees, we rented the U-haul to Yakima instead of Seattle. We didn’t have housing lined up in Seattle, but we naively figured we could just find a nice place once we got there.

    Obviously, everything went wrong. We barely had enough money for gas to get to Seattle, and what little we had left we had to spend on accommodations until we found a place to live. When we finally found a house to rent, the trailer was 2 or 3 days overdue, and we had no money to take it to Yakima, let alone to pay the late fees. I called the U-haul center in Seattle to explain the situation, but they weren’t sympathetic. They said I would have to forfeit my deposit, pay the drop-off fees and pay the overdue fees. I said that I had no money, but I would come drop the trailer off anyway. I braced myself for the worst.

    We had moved into the house in Seattle on Saturday evening, so it was Sunday morning before I could take the trailer back. I didn’t like the idea of doing business on Sunday, especially business in which I would have to ask for leniency in my agreements. But I figured it would just be worse to wait until Monday, so I set off. I told my wife I would go face the music and be back as soon as I could. I had a map of Seattle on the seat beside me, and I set off to look for the U-haul center.

    I had gone a mile or so wrapped up in self-pitying thoughts of how stupid we were to move to Seattle with no money and no place to live. I was stopped at a traffic light when I became aware that the man beside me was honking at me. As I looked at him, he took a cigar out of his mouth and pointed across the street to a closed service station with U-haul trailers behind it. After I pulled into the service station behind him, he got out and said he was closed but I was in luck. He would just go ahead and take my trailer since he was in the area anyhow. I told him about being late and having agreed to take the trailer to Yakima. He looked at me, took the cigar out of his mouth again and said “I won’t tell if you won’t.” Then he gave me my $20 deposit.

    I drove home dumfounded. When I got home, I showed my wife the $20 bill (which was what we needed to get through the next week), and told her that an angel smoking a cigar had given it to me.

  24. Bruce,

    Thanks for sharing. I likely won’t forget the image of “An angel smoking a cigar” for a while.

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