Guest Post: “Crossing the Threshold of the Preexistent State”: Hugh J. Cannon, David O. McKay, and the Seasick World Tour
It gets some of us on long car trips, others on airplane flights, and often at Disneyland or Lagoon. Motion sickness can drive even the most hearty and healthy individual to their knees in humility. I’ve suffered the queasy feelings myself a time or two after a few spins on the Tilt-a-Whirl, or even in a fairly small boat on the waters of the Puget Sound.
For many church members, historically, a long sea voyage while emigrating or departing on a mission often was the first experience with the peaceful, gentle swells of the oceans, the graceful rocking of the ship, and accompanying gastrointestinal gymnastics involved in trying to keep food down once you had eaten it. Just on a whim, I’ve started looking at accounts of seasickness in various journals and letters, and found some truly epic descriptions. Spoiler alert: Cargo is discharged, fish are fed, and metaphors are thrown up in wild abandon here. Be ye therefore of strong stomach, before you read this account of Hugh J. Cannon and Davd O. McKay and their adventures with seasickness on a world wide tour of the church.
Apostle McKay and Liberty Stake President Hugh J. Cannon were called in 1920 to conduct a tour of the church congregations and missions throughout the world. Their travels included, among other places, Japan, Korea, China, the South Sea Islands, India, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Great Britain. This journey helped to impress the future president and prophet with the world wide nature of the church, and was chronicled in a book written by Bro. Cannon, but only recently rediscovered. Not surprisingly, most of the long distance travel as well as many of the shorter trips occurred by ship. As a result, the book is full to overflowing with accounts of seasickness that seemed to afflict someone at almost every exposure to the effects of waves and currents. Mission presidents and local church leaders often accompanied McKay and Cannon on the shorter voyages, and they were equally afflicted. For those of us seeking some vengeance against Bro. Cannon for his magnum opus about the expatriate Nell Redfield, we get some small measure of satisfaction.
Cannon did seem to fare better than McKay. But here is his description of how the voyage began upon departure from Vancouver, Washington:
Numerous invitations to dinners and other social affairs where rfreshments were served were extended to the special missionaries during the weeks immediately preceding their departure. Such acts, intended as kindness and greatly appreciated, were poor preparation for a rough ocean voyage. Some of these delightful dinners were destined to come up later in a most distressing manner. Have you ever been aboard a vessel on an extremely rough sea? Have you felt it roll and toss and plunge, then when struck full force by a mighty wave which washes its decks, felt it shudder and tremble as though it had received a death blow and must assuredly sink? And all the while the stomachs of the sensitive passengers are performing
similar evolutions and are dancing about as wildly as the ship itself. Frequently not more than a dozen people out of several hundred passengers were at meals.
It wasn’t long before McKay began to feel the effects. He wrote a good-natured letter about the experience, which is included in Cannon’s book:
Brother Hugh J. and I were in prime condition, I thought, when we boarded the Empress of Japan on the evening of December 7, 1920. Kind friends had showered us with good wishes and blessings, had feted and dined us for weeks previous, and had sent along with us boxes of the choicest cream chocolates to make our journey sweet and delightsome. Even as we walked up the gangplank at Vancouver, we were accompanied by a score of Elders and Saints, who, with President Iverson, bade us a heartfelt Bon Voyage.
It was storming when we left port, and the movement of the boat was keenly perceptible even before we went to sleep. The pitching of the vessel in the night awoke me and every nerve and muscle of my body responded to the movement of the boat. As this movement became more pronounced and intense, the contents of my digestive organs joined in unison with nerves and muscles. Twenty-one years ago, one morning on the Atlantic, I had experienced a similar feeling, so I knew I had better dress carefully and get on deck. At that moment Brother Cannon jumped out of bed as bright and pert as a ten-year old boy. He would steady himself as though he were anchored.
I concluded to take his advice, when he said: “If you aren’t feeling well, I suggest you don’t look in the mirror.” “No, I wouldn’t eat breakfast, probably would feel better if I fasted…”
However, before attempting to dress I ate an apple which Hugh J. handed me. Without hurry I put on my clothes and started for the deck; but the swaying staircase and the madly moving world of water stirred my feelings with a desire for solitude. Yielding, I hurried to my room, where in less time than it takes to tell you, the apple and I parted company forever.”
Feeling somewhat better, I started again for the deck…At any rate, I had company in furnishing amusement for the chosen few. This time I reached only the top of the stairs when that intense yearning to be alone drove me back to my cabin. Good-bye last night’s dinner! Good-bye yesterday’s luncheon! And during the next sixty hours, good-bye everything I had ever eaten since I was a babe on Mother’s knee! I’m not sure I didn’t cross the threshold into the pre-existent state.
Thursday I managed to eat a little soup and retain it…Brother Hugh hadn’t been quite so brisk as usual, and I noticed that his rosy cheek had a somewhat faded hue; but he went to breakfast as usual…About 10:30 he came in somewhat flushed about the face but pale about the mouth and eyes. For a moment, neither of us said anything; then the humor of the situation getting the mastery, he said, ‘I guess I might as well confess to you that I’ve just had my turn.’ …He explained that after breakfast he went to the library to write some letters, when all at once he became aware of an unpleasant feeling creeping over him. With the instinct of his sea-faring ancestors, he started for the pure sea breezes that were blowing on deck; but suddenly the company of fellow passengers became most objectionable and turning his back upon them, he started downstairs most unceremoniously. Fortunately, he managed to reach the passageway leading to our room, when, Presto! He reached seclusion, but the deck behind him looked like the ‘milky way.’ The incomprehensible thing to me is that this spontaneous outburst ended his seasickness.
I have already collected a number of select accounts of seasickness in other missionary journals. I’d be interested if any of you Keepa’ninnies are aware of any accounts of seasickness that you’ve run across in family history accounts or your other research. I think there is a great story to tell here, if you are willing to share.
 Hugh J. Cannon, David O. McKay: Around the World; an Apostolic Mission, Prelude to Church Globalization, Spring Creek Book Company, Provo, Utah 2005, p 14-17. (Reprint). The trip was also serialized via letters in the Deseret News throughout 1921.