It’s true. When I was a missionary I almost drowned to death. It was one of the few times in my life that I ever thought I was going to die.

It happened this very week about fifteen years ago and there were only two witnesses to the event, my companion and myself. We both almost drowned at the same time.

My companion’s name was Elder Ortega. He recently posted the story of our near-death experience on our Mission website. English is Elder Ortega’s second language, but he’s quite skilled with it, and this is what he wrote:

Between the years 1990-1992 I was serving my mission in Chaitèn, Carretera Austral in the Chile Osorno Mission. My companion was Elder Brian Gibson who served later as a financial secretary at the office in those years…chaiten.jpg

One day we were reading the Doctrine and Covenants, in the section 61, very close to the cooker. Elder Gibson started to tell me stories about disobedient missionaries who had drawn in the water and there were some others who just took pictures in rare situations and the mission president had seen those pictures later on because some jealous member was the one who developed the pictures in the town. That day was a “P- day” and we had reserved a vhs movie to watch that day. The assistants called us and told us that from that moment and on we were not allowed to watch movies anymore due that Hollywood was doing a lot of films with nudity and missionaries could be spiritually weakened. So we had to cancel the movie. We planned to go to take pictures to the beach which was a deserted one.

We packed our cameras and I took my missionary journal with me. We walked along the beach and we saw a big hill in the middle of the sand almost interrupting our way but there was enough way to pass by. The hill was really particular had a cave in the base, we tried to go in but we heard the ocean inside!! We took a quick look and we saw many little holes on the floor some of them were full with sea water that pulled up and down and could splash us a bit. So we didn’t go in. We kept walking along the beach and we’ve spot some rocks where we sat on. We saw the most beautiful sunset, that honestly I’ve never seen again, my companion told me that it was time to go and that it was close to 6:00 pm and we were supposed to getting dressed. I took a big breath and I recognized in me some right “the right of an old missionary” and I said: Elder, I’m always running and I’m always trying to keep the rules and I never have time to contemplate something like this.chaitenariel.jpg

Once I’ve said such thing, the light went off like someone had turned off the light, well certainly someone did it, but that was ridiculous!!! I stood up and walked only with the senses and we were really amazed how we didn’t have any light at all. To our surprise the water had risen and we couldn’t pass to other side because the hill was in the middle! We had four options: 1. We had to climb the hill, but was really steep!!! No option. 2. To one side there was the forest, we didn’t know it and we had heard of little lions around. No way! 3. To swim. No we couldn’t. No option. 4. To go through the cave, full of holes on the floor!! Well it could be! So we grabbed our hands ready to go in but we couldn’t see inside, so we came out again carefully walking because we could fall into the holes and sink. We decided something really peculiar. To use our camera’s flashes but went blind!! Chaiten Sunset We came out and magically little steps of rock on the water came out and we decide to go stepping on them through the other side!! Of course we fell down and started to sink I remember wearing a new raincoat, and Gibson was disappearing of my sight cause he was sinking and I took him out and I sank and he took me out and he sank etc many times, I asked Gibson what to do and he said: Let’s pray. The water looked alive for a minute, and knocked me a couple of times. Still in the water, I couldn’t see Elder Gibson and I felt guilty for that situation, and felt horribly. It went through my mind many headlines of Chilean Newspapers: Two Mormons die in the waters of the south!!! Suddenly I was out of the sea spit out by the tide, but I didn’t see Gibson I was afraid that I almost loose him, because he was coming out of the water we hugged and we laughed because we had another opportunity. Later we remember that the spirit was telling us the whole morning not to get into the water. Also we read that in D&C 61 says that if we are faithful and we repent of our sins the lord will allows us to keep going. In the name of our lord Jesus Christ, amen.

I was thrilled to find this story on my mission’s website because it gave me a chance to get back in touch with Elder Ortega, who I hadn’t heard from in at least a decade. Escaping the destroyer that rides the waters together creates a permanent bond between two people, and I’d spent a lot of time wondering how to get back in touch with him. Plus, I really enjoyed the way Elder Ortega tells the story. I think it’s made even better by the fact he’s writing in English.

Still, I have to be honest, reading this the first time left me a bit disturbed, because it’s more true than it is accurate. It captures the spirit of the event, and the character of who we were at the time. I was a self-righteous, rule-enforcing, junior companion with a sick fascination for stories where missionaries suffer for their errant ways. Elder Ortega was the older missionary that valued sunsets over ending P-Day precisely on time. However, some of this information is false. Some of these things didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen exactly this way. Plus, I think some of what happened is lost in translation.

Elder Ortega, if you ever read this, I think you’re a great storyteller and I love you, but you’re fuzzy on some of the details. I was never financial secretary. I was the secretary who handled travel and visas. The assistants didn’t call us that day. We didn’t even have a phone. I’m sure we didn’t read section 61 that morning. That would be just too freaky. I am sure that we read it as soon as we got home after we nearly drowned.

I’ve told a lot of people the story, but I’ve never written the experience down. I didn’t write home about it because I didn’t want my mom to worry, and I didn’t want my dad to think I was stupid. So much of history in general, and our church history in particular, is pieced together by personal writings of this nature. This is recent history. Really recent. It was only fifteen years ago. Reading Elder Ortega’s account made me contemplate how fast what actually happened can be clouded or lost. Obviously, I think my memories are more precise, but who’s to say, and how would a historian, or future generations (assuming they would even care) ever know? There were only two of us there, after all.

What I want to know is how historians deal with these issues? How much can we ever truly be certain of? Is the past lost forever? I know there’s a lot of historians out there in the bloggernacle and I want them to weigh-in before I record my version of events.