On the tour buses passing by former president Richard Nixon's beachfront property in San Clemente, Calif., the guides tell a funny story that they swear is true.

I strongly doubt that the reported incident really happened, and so does Bryan Crimin of Layton, who heard it told recently.This beautiful San Clemente beach, the tour guides say, was very popular with the local surfers, but during Nixon's presidency his portion of the shoreline was designated off-limits to the public.

Some evenings, the president liked to swim in the ocean by himself, and on one occasion he got caught in some big swells and was in danger of drowning.

His cries for help were heard by two local surfers who were trespassing on the off-limits area, and they rushed over and were able to save a very grateful Nixon.

The president told the surfers that he would repay them by granting each one any wish that was within his power to make come true.

The first surfer asked that the beach property be opened again to the public so everyone could enjoy it, and Nixon granted that wish at once.

The second surfer asked if he could have a burial plot for himself in Arlington National Cemetery.

The president thought about this for a moment, and then said he thought it could be arranged. But he asked the young man why he had made such an unusual request.

"Because," the surfer replied, "when my father finds out that I saved Richard Nixon, he's gonna kill me!"

You've got to wonder about this story: Why were Nixon's Secret Service bodyguards not standing by during the president's solitary swims, and why did no journalist ever report the dramatic incident?

But, as Crimin wrote to me, "When I challenged the guide about the story, he swore it was true. He had related it to thousands of tourists over the years, including many foreign visitors."

I wonder if Utah tourists are extra skeptical of tour guides' "true" stories, since we have several popular but doubtful tales circulating in our state.

A favorite local legend tells how LDS leader Brigham Young, weak from a bout with mountain fever, sat up in his wagon and spoke four simple but eloquent words when he looked over the Salt Lake Valley as his band of pioneers entered the region on July 24, 1847.

A 20th-century Utah folksong pictured the scene thus: "Brigham Young! He made a broad statement when he raised up on his elbow and said `This is the place!' "

An impressive "This is the place" monument and visitors center stands at the spot where church president Young supposedly spoke the historic sentence, and every tour guide repeats some version of the story.

But no such statement by Young appears in contemporary accounts. The first published report of it appeared many years later and reads, "This is the right place. Drive on."

The real nature of the "truth" lying behind historical legends is that if the famous person did not say exactly what our favorite stories claim, then at least it's what that person should have said on the occasion.

The same idea applies to pioneer Ebeneezer Bryce, for whom Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park is named. Tour guides and park brochures relate that Bryce's first remark upon discovering this wild area full of convoluted rock formations was, "That would be a hell of a place to lose a cow!"

If he didn't say it, he should have!

But the same remark is credited to other pioneers gazing at different stretches of rough terrain in several other Western states, and the comment really is appropriate, if not literally true, for each region.

The best recent Utah tour-guide story, I think, turns the tables on a naive visitor who expects the Latter-day Saints to have horns or to be dressed in some kind of dark conservative sectarian costume.

This tourist, according to the story, asks the guide as he boards a tour bus, "When we're on this tour, would you please point out to us one of those awful Mormons?"

And the guide, without a word, smiles and points to himself.