With the Mormons

IN JANUARY1995, we drove from Phoenix (Arizona) to San Diego (California) via Yuma (Arizona). Between Yuma and our destination, we traversed the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego. We made a detour to see Box Canyon in that area. After we had finally arrived in San Diego, we had an interesting experience.

Box Canyon

On our way to San Diego, we stopped in the desert at a couple of roadside information signs placed overlooking a rough track in a chasm beneath the road along which we were driving. This was part of the road along which migrants from the eastern part of the USA made their way by foot, on horseback, or in wagons, to the ‘promised’ land of California. According to the sign beside the road, in 1825 Lieutenant Santiago Arguello of the San Diego Presidio (1791-1862), a Spaniard, discovered this pass through the mountains whilst chasing horse thieves. Later, the American frontiersman Kit Carson (1809-1868), the US General Kearny (1794-1848), and gold-seekers, travelled along the route Arguello had discovered. By 1847, a road suitable for wagons had been built through the chasm by members of The Mormon Battalion. Commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Philip St George Cooke (1809-1895), these hardy men used hand tools to prepare the thoroughfare.

The Mormon Battalion, which existed in the 1840s, was the only US battalion ever to consist solely of members of one particular religious group. All the members were volunteers and they helped to open up the Southwest of what was to become part of the USA. Apart from being involved in various battles, they also constructed the road, whose remnants we saw on our way to San Diego.

Soon after our arrival in San Diego, we stumbled upon a building related to what we had seen at Box Canyon. It was The San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Having just seen the result of Battalion’s heroic feat of labour, we felt compelled to enter the building. We were greeted amicably and warmly by an Elder, who was immaculately dressed in formal attire. Politely, he asked us if we would like to see the diorama that explained the history of the battalion and its role in opening up the west. We wanted to see this and were led into a room with chairs set out as in an auditorium in front of a large diorama.

The lights were dimmed and then our host explained what was depicted in the diorama as different parts of it were illuminated one after another. He told us the history, the details of which I cannot recall. After the ‘show’ was over, the lights went up and the Elder asked us politely whether we would like to see something else, rather special. We were game for that and he led us into a neighbouring room.

Our host invited us to sit in comfortable chairs in front of a large pair of curtains just like those hiding a theatre’s stage. Then, he pressed a button on the wall and the curtains began to part slowly and silently. They opened to reveal a huge painting in pale shades depicting a religious scene showing Jesus in heaven surrounded by pink clouds and light-skinned angels. Proudly, he informed us:

“This is a genu-wine oil painting all the way from Salt Lake City.”

After we had made politely appreciative remarks, he said to us:

“Now, if you have a moment, I would like to show you something else.”

My wife was against this, but my curiosity was fired up. He led us to another room, which contained glass display cases. They contained metal plates covered with illegible writing. Our host explained:

“Here are the tablets that our founder Joseph Smith discovered back in 1823”

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was the founder of the Mormon religion. In 1823, so the Mormons believe, an angel directed Smith to a spot where he discovered the gold plates on which the texts of The Book of Mormon were inscribed. Our guide in San Diego was quick to explain that (unlike the oil painting we had just seen) these plates in San Diego were faithful copies of the originals, which after Smith had transcribed them, were re-buried and never seen again.

When I expressed my genuine interest in what we had been shown, the Elder offered to show us even more but my wife, who was beginning to worry that I might be about to be converted to Mormonism, said that we had to leave as we were running out of time. There was no fear of my adopting a new religion, but I was interested to know what further delights were on offer. Our host asked us where we were from, and we told him: London. He said:

“Leave me your address and I can arrange for someone to get in touch with you at home in London.”

My wife said:

“Thank you, give us your address and we can contact you.”

And with that, we exchanged polite farewells with our Elder.

My apparent interest in what we had been shown reminded my wife of her father, whom I grew to know well. Like me, he was interested in a variety of things. Once, he and I attended a trade exhibition in Bangalore (India), where he lived. We approached a stall promoting the sale of concrete beams used for constructing large buildings. Daddy engaged the representatives in conversation, asking many of the sensible questions that builders might well ask. The ‘reps’ answered enthusiastically and informatively. As this proceeded, I began to get worried that Daddy was about to buy a concrete beam for which he had no need at all. Just when he reached the point that both the reps and I expected him to write out a cheque, he shook their hands and thanked them politely before moving on to another stall.  

When we were in San Diego, I had not yet got to know of Daddy’s behaviour as described above and wondered why my wife had become so concerned at the Mormon institution. After years of accompanying my delightful father-in-law to many trade fairs and exhibitions, I now understand the cause for her concern.

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