Dad never wanted me to wrestle. “One wrong move and that nose of yours will break like a peanut shell,” he said on more than one occasion.
But Dad encouraged Sam. In fact, when I stepped onto the wrestling mat, he usually didn’t watch but would spend his time warming up my best friend for his match, making him laugh, loosening him up.
Sam and I would wrestle most Thursday nights. We’d fight at the little gym at our school, or Dad would get the car started and take us to Crowsnest Pass or Sparwood in British Columbia or even across the border into Montana. He may not have approved, but Dad was always there. He’d wash off the coal dust and put on his Sunday boots, and we’d spend the best part of the evening in an overheated gym where I would lose more matches than I won.
Sam, however, never lost. He was smaller than I was, a lightweight, with long arms and short iron legs. He wasn’t LDS. In fact, there were very few of us in town. But my family treated Sam like one of us, especially since his father had died the previous summer, coughing in his room until the end. Now and then Sam would come to church with us, but most Sundays he’d hitchhike to Crowsnest to play pool.
We were 16, and in a year we’d be gone from there. But in the spring of 1934, we had a carefree life—unaware that it couldn’t last.
On a Saturday in April, Sam stopped at my house with his old wrestling shoes hanging by their laces around his neck. Dad cranked the Ford, and it fired on the second turn and sputtered to life. We all climbed in for the ride to Sparwood.
“Who you boys wrestling tonight?” asked Dad as we drove by the coke ovens on the way out of town. Cold air was rushing through the floorboards and swimming around my feet.
“Ed said he’s bringing a truckload of kids from the coast,” said Sam, turning sideways in the front passenger seat. I noticed then that he had a pack of cigarettes stuffed in his shirt pocket. Dad noticed too.
“Good,” said Dad half-heartedly. “That’ll be … er, a change.”
We nodded, waiting to see if Dad was going to talk religion. He was.
“Sam,” he said, “were you ever baptized in your church?”
“Don’t know that I ever had a church,” Sam replied. “We went to the United once, when my mom’s family was in town, but …”
Dad interrupted, “I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just our Church believes in baptism, but a lot of religions do it differently. I was just wondering how you were baptized.”
I rolled my eyes. Dad was so obvious.
“I …” Sam didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sure Jed told you all this, but when Mormons are baptized and confirmed they take upon them the name of Jesus Christ. And we believe a person must be completely immersed in water, not just a sprinkling over the head.”
Sam looked back at me. I hadn’t told him anything about baptism. I couldn’t read his face, but I guessed he was wondering where this conversation was going.
“Hmmm, interesting,” was what he picked to say.
We reached the bottom of the border pass, and Dad revved the engine to get the Ford up the facing hill. It was a steep climb, and the old car slowed to a crawl. Dad talked to it all the way up, patting it on the dashboard like a horse, and promising it a sugar cube if it made it up without quitting. We laughed. Dad was usually full of jokes, except when he talked religion.
The mountain pass got steeper just as we reached the snow line. Suddenly, a burst of steam blew from under the hood. The car shook and thumped, and Dad pulled it over to the side only a few hundred yards from the top. He shut it off and pulled the park brake. We all climbed out while Dad found his water jug in the trunk.
“Jed,” Dad said to me as he grabbed a rag and pushed down on the radiator cap, “What does it mean to take upon you the name of Jesus Christ?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Pray. Read the scriptures.” It was the answer we gave in Sunday School every week to every question. It was also the answer I gave Dad every time he asked a religious question in front of Sam.
“Thanks for the effort,” said Dad, and he twisted the cap. We all jumped back to let the steam hiss out of the brass radiator. While we waited for it to cool, Dad asked, “Could you give it a bit more thought?”
I sighed. “It means being good. Doing stuff that you’d do in front of the Savior, if he was here with us.”
“That’s better. It also means we are representatives of the Savior on earth, which is a pretty big responsibility.”
“Why are we talking about this?” I asked, upset that Dad was distracting us from wrestling and fixing the car.
“Because I want to ask Sam something.” He poured water into the radiator slowly and then tossed the water jug back in the trunk. On his way back, he reached into the front seat and pulled a copy of the Book of Mormon from a paper sack.
“You’ve come to church with us a lot, Sam,” said Dad. “And I think it’s time that you found out if what we are doing is true.” He handed the book to Sam.
“This was my first copy,” Dad said. “My dad gave it to me when I was a bit younger than you.”
We all stared at the battered book. I felt an ache of jealousy that Dad was giving my friend something that should have gone to me. I didn’t even have my own copy. I couldn’t help being resentful.
“Would you read it?” asked Dad.
Sam shrugged and stuffed the book into his pocket. Then we stood awkwardly for a few minutes until Dad decided the radiator was cool enough to continue.
“I’m going to try going over alone,” he said. “I’ve seen Sam thrown to the mat enough to know his head is full of rocks. I think the dead weight is slowing us down. I’ll see you at the top.”
He cranked the car, and it fired. He drove back down the hill and up for the far rise. A minute later we turned to see the Ford racing up the hill toward us, revving with an increasingly deafening roar. It passed us but slowly. We ran to catch up and put our shoulders to give a good push.
At the top, Dad stopped the car and let it idle. Then we all stood in front and stared down at the green and white Elk Valley, the far side climbing peak after peak into the golden horizon. Sam and I were anxious to get to the competition, but we stood there with Dad, looking at the view for a minute.
Dad finally broke the silence. “Thanks for the push, rock head,” he said to Sam.
“Sometimes you need a little help in life.” Dad reached over and patted the book in Sam’s shirt pocket. “There’s help in there. In fact, just about all the answers to life’s questions are in those pages. And I know you’ve got questions.”
Sam nodded but didn’t say anything.
That night Sam won on points over a tough red-haired kid from the coast and then had an easy time pinning a local guy he’d beaten many times. I was almost pinned in my first match by a little kid who was quick as a gunshot. But the second match, I got paired with a Crowsnest kid from our Consolidated High School whom I’d beaten before. He was a good wrestler but had dislocated his shoulder once and couldn’t go left. We were in a clinch late in the second when I shot at his strong leg and was able to lift him off balance and trip him to the mat. His back was exposed, but before I could finish him off, he spun free. Still, the move gave me enough points to win the match.
Dad didn’t say much, but he patted Sam on the shoulder and said something funny as we left the gym.
Two weeks later, the teachers at the Consolidated let us out early without telling us why. My sisters and I ran home and crashed through the door only to find Mom and Dad sitting at the kitchen table. Their faces were white and gray, the color of locomotive steam, and they told us the mine had closed and Dad was heading east that night—to find work in the Ontario mines. He’d send for us when he got settled.
I turned cold. My younger sister yelled that she couldn’t leave. I remember Mom and Dad holding her and saying something comforting, despite her rage. And I remember taking Dad down to the station, carrying one of his heavy suitcases.
“Sell the Ford if you have to … if you can,” he said to Mom on the platform. Then he kissed her.
The train let out a groan and inched away from us. Dad reached down the stairs and shook my hand. “Don’t let Sam slip away,” he said, and our hands were pulled apart.
I resented that, at the time. I hated that my father’s last words to me were about Sam, and I kept it in the pit of my stomach for a long time.
Several weeks later, we had a big meet. I saw Sam from the front room window peddling his bike up the street. We had a 10-mile ride to make, and the district finals began at five, so I didn’t expect him to stop for long. But he didn’t stop at all, and I had to grab my shoes, run outside, jump on my bike, and race to catch up.
“In a hurry?” I asked near the corner.
“What took you so long?” he asked, smiling.
We rode to Crowsnest in near silence; the only sounds were the rhythmic metallic clink of my peddle rubbing against a chain guard and the heavy rumble of passing lumber trucks on the highway. By five we were waiting in a hot gym as a man with a megaphone and a few sheets of paper stood on a chair and began reading rules. The wrestlers were grouped according to weight and record, the man explained. The athletes with the best league records, like Sam, would face the wrestlers with the worst league records in the first round. Losers would go home; winners would go on to the medal round. So-so wrestlers like me would face the other so-so wrestlers, and then, if we won, would meet the top kids.
He began to read names, and Sam’s was one of the first called. He’d wrestle third. I’d go sixth, which meant I’d have to wait almost an hour. I was excited and nervous and knew that I’d be tired for the match if I didn’t relax. I moved Sam into a corner of the gym and spent my time getting him warmed up for his match. I remembered what Dad used to do—practice moves, stretching, and the like, although my jokes weren’t as good. We kept ourselves away from the crowd and the faint ring of the bell and cheers of the boys. Finally I heard, “The winna!” and looked around to see the ref holding one boy’s hand in the air.
That’s when I noticed a familiar figure in the doorway—out of place. It was Mom. She smiled and waved, and I ran over to her.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I said. “It’s a gym.”
“I can go anywhere I want,” she said. “I’ve come to see you and Sam wrestle.”
I shook my head, but it was obvious she was staying.
“And I brought you something.”
She held a box tied with string. It had a return address in Ontario.
“Your dad found work,” she said.
I nodded and ripped the box open. Inside was a letter and something bulky wrapped in newspaper.
“Open the letter first,” said Mom.
I shrugged and did as she said, pulling the letter out of its envelope as I walked outside to read it alone. It was in Dad’s unmistakably bad handwriting made worse because it was written on a bumpy ride. He began:
“I’m here. The train ride is long, three days of wheat fields and another couple of pine trees, so I got to thinking about you and Sam.”
I stiffened with the thought of Sam sharing my only letter from Dad, but I read on.
“As you know, I did some missionary work with him, and I hope the Spirit can touch him. He needs that direction in his life. I guess it was embarrassing for you sometimes to be put on the spot, but I wanted you to share that missionary experience with me. I care a lot for the Church and believe in the restored gospel with all my heart. I hope you can carry on the work without me.
“Somewhere near Winnipeg, as the wheat fields began to end, another thing occurred to me. I got to worrying that you didn’t know why I paid so much attention to Sam, and that maybe you felt like I was a better dad to him than to you. I guess I need to apologize for that, but after Sam’s own dad died, it was obvious that he needed a father in his life, even more than you did at the moment. You have a maturity and a direction that Sam doesn’t. I can’t tell you how proud I am that you’re my son.
“I guess that’s all for now. We’ll meet up soon enough and talk then.
“P.S. The package is for you. I hope you do well in the district tournament, but remember that Sam is a much greater challenge in the grand scheme of things. Good luck.”
I folded the letter carefully and reached into the loose paper inside the box. Even before I unwrapped it I knew by the feel that it was a book. I pulled it out and breathed in the deep scent of new leather on the copy of the Book of Mormon.
I don’t exactly know why, but I had to shake my head to fight back tears. I can’t say what moved me—if it was the valuable gift from my penniless dad, or the fact that I finally understood that he was not playing favorites with Sam. He was just trying to be an example.
And something whispered to me, just then, that I could do the same. Suddenly I knew that it wasn’t important if I won or lost my match that night. It was more important to be there for Sam, to be an example, to lead the way.
Later that year we settled near the mine in Sudbury, Ontario. I remember lying awake one night after getting a letter from Sam. He wrote that his mom and he had let in a pair of Mormon missionaries that were knocking on doors enroute from Lethbridge to Cranbrook. Sam let them in because he knew a good LDS family, and he didn’t think it would hurt to learn more. He wrote that they were coming back on their return trip through town.
I fell asleep about then, thinking that our new house was quiet, peaceful, and that it was nice that my family was together under one roof. At that time, I was not afraid of anything, because I knew we’d pull through. We had before.
Something told me we were together forever.