Sink or Swim

“Sink or Swim,” New Era, Oct. 1996, 38

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O Canada


Sink or Swim

How was I supposed to help Lanny when I was barely staying afloat myself?

Lanny McDonald O‘Brien and I were born Newfies. In 1978, just before I was born, my family moved to Wolf Point and bought the old house overlooking the harbor—next door to the O‘Briens. Lanny and I arrived in the world a month apart. Living so close, I guess we had to be friends.

Where we grew up is a remote part of Newfoundland near the channel port of Basques and 55 minutes by boat from the nearest LDS church. On the Rock it’s cold and wet all the time. So cold that at night, before your body has a chance to warm them, the sheets on your bed are slick as ice. So cold that we leave our front doors unlocked, because keys can break off in the frozen locks. So cold … Well, you get the idea.

For a long time, my family and I were the only Mormons in this fishing outport. Then the missionaries arrived on our end of the island and the Hagens and Alberts joined. So then every week we’d all get dressed in our Sunday best and the women in their dresses, the men in their suits, and the missionaries standing on the bow—all splashing through the dark green ocean toward Basques.

I’ve been LDS all my life. But I remember wondering why the Hagens and the Alberts joined—why anyone would join the Church just to spend every Sunday boating to church and back. Sure, there were some cute girls at meeting, but the Hagens and Alberts were old and married. I didn’t get it.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The spring Lanny was born, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the quarterfinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs—led by the playmaking defense of Borje Salming, the quick goaltending of Mike Palmateer, and the scoring touch of right winger Lanny McDonald.

Mr. O‘Brien was a big Maple Leafs fan. In fact, while his wife was delivering in the hospital in Basques, Mr. O‘Brien watched game 7 of the quarterfinals in the waiting room. By the time the doctor came out to say “It’s a boy,” the Maple Leafs and New York Islanders were locked in a 1–1 overtime battle.

The doctor, who liked a good game of hockey as much as the next Newfie, stayed. And finally, when the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] announcer screamed in a breathless frenzy that Lanny McDonald had scored to advance the Leafs to the semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens, both the doctor and Mr. O‘Brien had the same idea: The kid’s name must be Lanny McDonald O‘Brien.

They signed the birth certificate before Mrs. O‘Brien had a chance to slap them both.

Lanny and I never talked about religion. He was a Catholic, but his family only went to church at Christmas and Easter. He knew I was a Mormon, but for the last few years I’d been less and less excited about it. And Lanny knew better than to bring it up.

But one Saturday, the winter when we were 16, almost 17, something changed all that.

I was walking back from the store. My little brother, Tom, was behind me. He was tired and was kicking snowballs the plow had left along the middle of the road.

“Move it,” I told him.

“I um,” Tom whined deeply, his nose full. He looked up at me and gave me a pathetic smile. I rolled my eyes but bent down, and he ran and jumped onto my back. When we turned down our road, I began to jog. Behind me, my brother laughed and covered my eyes with his wet gloves.


We spun and landed in a yaffle [a jumble] in the slushy snow in front of Lanny’s house.

“Huh, huh … huh, huh, huh,” Tom laughed.

That’s when I noticed them—a couple of bikes leaning up against the side of the O‘Briens’ house. It was strange. Who would ride bikes in one of our rare snowstorms? Then I noticed two figures in the O‘Briens’ window. Two guys in dark suits. Familiar faces.

Then it hit me. The missionaries were in Lanny’s living room, standing in front of the fire to warm themselves like they belonged.

“Cum onnnn,” said Tom. He was standing a couple of yards away, flapping his arms up and down.

“Yeah, yeah.”

I pulled myself away from the window, and we trudged the last few meters home.

On Saturday nights, Lanny usually stopped at my house and we’d wander down to the town building where they’d play a movie or have a dance. That night he knocked about seven o’clock and I grabbed my coat. We dug our hands in our pockets and walked outside. Since it was too early to be seen at the dance, we headed down toward the harbor.

The wind had been blowing in snow from the island all day, and it was dumped in little drifts in front of every one of the blue and yellow houses. But as we crunched along, the wind began to die and the beginnings of a fog started moving in from the ocean.

Lanny began whistling between his teeth. He couldn’t whistle very well, and he only did it when he was nervous.

“You ever get sick? I mean really sick?” he asked me.

That’s how Lanny McDonald O‘Brien started out most conversations—with a question about something he’d been thinking up all day. He was always thinking, always wondering about something.

“You ever see me go to the hospital?” I asked him back.

“I guess not.”

“Then you know the answer.”

We walked a little more before he said, “I was just thinking I could be a doctor one day.”

“I guess. I could see you cutting people up, taking out stuff, charging them lots of money.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I could do that.”

We walked a bit more, thinking about Dr. Lanny McDonald O‘Brien, until he said, “Those Mormon guys came over today.”


Lanny took a glance at me, to size up my mood, then added, “Said your parents sent them.”

That ticked me off and he noticed my face redden. “My parents sent ’em?”

“What they said.”

“I’m gonna … Gosh, I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “I don’t care. Didn’t bug me.”

We rounded the fence at the bottom of Main and jumped the ballycater [an icy fringe] at the edge of the dock. Under our feet, the snow hadn’t settled on the rough boards, and we took two to a step. Farther along we walked into the cold ocean fog that hung like a veil. We were alone. No one came out on the dock on a winter night.

“They want to come back again,” said Lanny.


“The missionary guys.”

“They always do,” I said. “That’s their job: to come back and back until you join.”

“Join what?”

“The Church. The Mormon church.”

“Nah, they didn’t say that,” said Lanny. “They were just visiting.”

I laughed. “One of those guys is from the States. You think he came to Wolf Point to talk Maple Leafs hockey with your dad?”

Lanny shrugged.

“What part of the States?” he asked.

“I don’t know. They give you a lesson?”

“I guess. They talked a lot.”

“They teach you how to pray?”


“That’s the first discussion. They want you to join,” I said.


We reached the end of the pier and leaned on the rail—the same rail that one winter Lanny had licked to see if his tongue would really stick to frozen metal. It did. And for a month Lanny had talked with a lisp.

We stared out at the icy water, but it was too dark and the fog was too thick to see much.

“Okay, I got a question,” said Lanny, nodding his head.


“The Mormon guys said the Book of Mormon is like the Bible. I know that’s not right ’cause it says at the end of the Bible that there isn’t supposed to be anything added to the Bible.”

We had talked about that in Sunday School once, but I couldn’t remember the answer. “Well … um …”

“And they told us about the guy who said he saw God and started the Mormons.”

“Joseph Smith.”

“Yeah, I thought it was Brigham Young. Anyway, how does anybody know he didn’t just write the book himself?”

“Well, there were a bunch of witnesses who saw the plates he wrote it from,” I said.

“Yeah, they were probably Mormons too. Do you guys pray to him?”

Lanny kept asking questions, most of which I couldn’t answer. My first instinct was to defend the Church. But he was my friend. I should tell him how I really felt: that I wasn’t even sure if I believed anymore, that I was kind of embarrassed to be a Mormon.

I drew in a breath, ready to tell him everything … but I couldn’t. From somewhere inside I felt the need to do something I hadn’t done in a long time—say a prayer.

I opened my mouth to say something, but I didn’t have the words.

Okay, I thought, I’ll pray.

So as Lanny talked I silently told Heavenly Father that I didn’t know if the Church was true or not, and I didn’t really know what to say.

I waited a few seconds. No answer.

I opened my eyes. Lanny had stopped talking and was looking out to the harbor. He was squinting, trying to focus on the dim lights of a trawler that was bobbing in and out of view in the fog.

I don’t know why, but I guess that was the moment when everything started making sense.

Lanny needed the gospel, just like I did. We were young. Our lives were confusing. The gospel would answer questions we both had about where to go, who to become.

This time, as I opened my mouth, I felt a peace that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. “At church once, some old guy told a story,” I began. “It’s about a kid who’s 18 and goes to work on a fishing boat out of St. John’s. And sometime in the summer of his first year on the boat it hits a sandbar and sinks. Most of the crew climbs aboard the lifeboat, but this guy and the captain get caught by a current and pulled away.

“They don’t have life jackets or anything, and for a long time they just tread water—hoping for someone to find ’em.”

“Wow,” from Lanny, who had been on enough fishing boats to know how big the ocean was, and how impossible it would be to find anyone swimming in it.

“Anyway, finally the captain realizes that the water’s too cold for them to last much longer, so he swims over to the kid and says ‘We’re not gonna make it.’ And he asks the kid if he’s religious. Well, the kid is just like me. He’s a Mormon, but he’s been kind of goofing off and it’s been a while since he’s been active. But he says he’ll say a prayer for ’em.”

“And what happened?”

“He and the captain close their eyes, and the kid says a prayer out loud … And when they open their eyes they see the light of a buoy. They swim over and hang on, and a few hours later they are found.”

Lanny smiled. “And the guy telling the story turns out to be the 18-year-old kid, right?”

“Uh, no. The guy telling the story was the captain. He joined the Church.”


I pulled my hands out of my pockets and stuffed them back in again, not sure what to say next. I was feeling guilty for my years of goofing off, for not being able to answer Lanny’s questions. But somehow I knew it wasn’t too late.

“You said the missionaries told you how to pray. Did they say a prayer too?” I asked.

“Yeah, but no one was drowning.”

“Wise guy. How did it make you feel?”

“I don’t know, didn’t think about it.” He looked out to the ocean and breathed out. “Okay, maybe I thought about it.”

I turned to him, my eyes wide. “And?”

“Before I left tonight I prayed by myself.”

That night, instead of climbing in bed, I opened my desk drawer and pulled out my copy of the Book of Mormon. I flipped through the pages. They were filled with red and yellow highlighter, but I realized it had been a long time since I’d studied what was in there.

It was a story. It was a light in the darkness.

I began to read.

Illustrated by Keith Larson