LAST MONTH, WHILE I was traveling through Southern Utah, I stopped at a sandwich shop in the polygamist town of Hildale and got in line behind a young boy eyeing the ice cream flavors.

"Mom!" the boy shouted.And every woman in the place turned around.

OK, I'm just kidding about the "Mom" part. But I really was in that store, and after the boy got his ice cream cone, and after I ordered a "Butterfinger shake," I asked the shop girl waiting on me if all the women at the far table were, uh, you know, like married to the same husband.

Did they all have the same last name? Did they all balance the same checkbook? Did they all nag the same man to take out the garbage?

I had driven into the store's parking lot behind these women. There were six of them in a Chevy Caprice, three in the front, three in the back. They were dressed almost alike, and their braided hair was virtually identical. When they got out of the car they could have been a marching club.

Inside the sandwich shop, they sat together at the same table and were joined by three more women, bearing wrapped presents and babies. I figured it was someone's birthday. Party time in Hildale.

I knew I was in the cradle of plural marriage, so to speak. The town of Hildale and its adjoining sister town of Colorado City, Ariz., started out earlier in the century as a place called Short Creek that purposely straddled the Utah-Arizona line so the practitioners of polygamy could quickly run north or south, depending on whether the state troopers on the way were from Arizona or Utah.

But that was then and this is 1998, and times have changed. There are no more raids on Hildale/Colorado City and, as evidenced by the shop girl's response to my question, polygamists live just like anyone else, as impervious to the appearance of outsiders as a grizzly bear in Yellowstone.

"Yes," she replied. "They're all married to the same man."

"But isn't that illegal?" I said.

"Oh no," she answered. "It's not illegal."

My great-grandfather was a polygamist. If he hadn't married his second wife while he was still married to his first wife, I wouldn't be sitting here worrying about what I'm going to write for Wednesday's column.

He was living on an island in Arkansas in 1855, joined the LDS Church, and the next thing he knew he was pulling a wagon across Nebraska and getting married again.

Polygamy was legal then, but by the 1890s it wasn't legal, or encouraged. I know my family did not complain. Nobody moved to Short Creek. Speaking for the family in general, the overall reaction to the mandate for monogamy is "Whew!"

It's a religious thing, of course. All sorts of people in the world's history have practiced polygamy, including as we speak. Saudi Arabian wives hit sandwich shops en masse all the time, and no one bats an eye. They wonder what's up when a woman arrives alone.

There is a Himalayan kingdom named Bhutan where the ruler, King Wang-chuck, has four wives. The king also happens to be an NBA nut - he has all the games cabled in - so that puts him in the somewhat unenviable position of having four women embroidering those "We Interrupt This Marriage To Bring You The Basketball Season" needlepoints all at the same time.

But the thing is, Bhutan isn't Hildale, and never will be.

Enforced or not, acknowledged or not, right or not, polygamy is still against the law at this time in this place.

And especially in light of all the current problems regarding polygamist abuses ranging from welfare to wives to children, I find myself wondering the same thing I wondered as I drove away from the sandwich shop: Just what part of illegal don't they understand?