I climbed the ladder to the south blast furnace to learn, upon reaching the floor, that I had been assigned to the north furnace. I walked across the floor and entered the passage connecting the furnaces, glancing into the control room that held enough gauges to make a commercial pilot salivate. The crew boss called me over and assigned me to the slag side. I had been waiting to be Level Two since my first day, because he stood around and did nothing for the majority of the cast. I handled the new position with aplomb for the first six hours of the shift over the course of as many casts. As a cast ended I approached the trough where the molten iron poured out into the runner heading down the iron side for my final sample as the last ladle filled. I extended the rod into the trough and took another step and tripped falling across the runner. I dropped the rod and braced my right hand just inside the trough wall a few inches above the flowing iron while my left hand caught my greatest moment of luck bracing against a sturdy plate extending off the back of the trough, my body straddling over the runner. I got up and my right hand was on fire but the trough had not seared through my glove, another but less monumental piece of good luck. Standing above the end of the trough I noticed a three-by-five-inch triangle plate connected to the runner, which I hadn’t noticed before.

—Your brother said you’re going to Harvard.

—At the end of the summer.

—What are you working here for?

—So I have enough money to get me there. I’d like to buy a laptop too.

But I found myself asking the same question my last three weeks on the floor when I added stretching my hamstrings and lower back on any ridge that could hold up my legs and lying on the picnic table in the break room, to my post-cast routine of changing shirts in front of the air conditioner. I packed my lunch with ibuprofen for four pills every four hours, consuming them faithfully at the beginning, twice during, and at the end of the shift.

Josh continued to bunk with Jake and me and did his best to include us in non-steel-related chaos. On Saturday morning we got on the road early. Josh didn’t enter the biggest rodeo in the world every year. His bull was in the first section of the matinee show at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, and we had about seven hours to cover on Interstate 80 to get there from Provo. With no problems we’d arrive with enough time for him to conduct his necessary rituals behind the chutes before his ride. You can see a lot of Wyoming in seven hours, and we did. The road trip didn’t faze me. I was used to taking day trips with Jeremy and Josh to rodeos in small towns throughout Idaho and Utah all my teenage years growing up with them. Heavens, I had spent enough time on the road I could have read every great Russian novel twice. Instead I listened to Chris LeDoux and George Strait and Alabama and whoever else’s cassette tape was in the car, and I tried to snooze. Combining the time on the road with the hours at rodeos over the years, I could have read every classic novel written and still not missed a second of Jeremy and Josh’s bull rides.

The drive to Cheyenne passed as expected for a long run. We rolled into the arena and parked between pickup trucks, and I stepped out and did the same thing I always did at every rodeo. I found a bathroom to relieve myself. Even though I didn’t compete I was nervous the entire time I sat in the stands up until the announcer called Jeremy or Josh’s name, and then through their attempt at eight seconds of glory. After a sturdy pee, right away I started asking God to bless them with safety, which intensified as I repeated the request faster and faster the closer it got to their rides.

The biggest show on earth was no different. Josh headed toward the chutes and after finding the bathroom I walked around the vendors with concentrated prayers keenly distracted by the staffs of the Jack Daniels and Copenhagen booths, manned by tightly fitted, hardly-clad young women. I did some of my greatest pondering at those moments whether at booths or walking around bleachers at what seemed like every rodeo, asking myself what a brave, tough, handsome cowboy had that I didn’t.

The first section of the bulls rolled around and Josh’s bull was in one of the first chutes. The grandstands were as tall and long as any rodeo’s that I’d seen, and they were packed. Josh had drawn a bucker and it flung him high into the air shortly after it kicked out of the chute. He wasn’t hurt as he stumbled out of the arena. I left my seat and loped around the chutes until he appeared a few minutes later.

—Had a good one, he said smiling and shaking his head.

—He bucked.

—Let’s go.

I didn’t say anything because you don’t tell a bull rider who just bucked off a ton of twirling fury that you looked good while you were on it, but it was just that last split second before you bucked off you looked like a rag doll, or keep positive there, cowboy, you’ll have better luck next time, or not even Don Gay rode ’em all. Sometimes being there was just enough, but then sometimes being there was just the bare minimum.

I entered my senior year of high school fit and hungry for my final year of wrestling. I had committed myself to compete close to my weight of 165 lbs. at the start of the season. For once, I had some muscle and aimed to make the most of it and was going to manage my weight reasonably, competing at the 152 lb. class. Josh came to the preseason practices. After passing on his rodeo scholarship in Oklahoma, he had a few free months before his Mormon mission. He wrestled growing up but had played basketball in junior high and high school. He came to practice to roll around for exercise, and he knew I had been working hard in the offseason, so he encouraged me to fight my best. The first tournament approached, and coach called for the first wrestle-offs of the season to determine the varsity team. A sophomore challenged me for the 152 lb. spot and, to my surprise, took me down early in the match and, to my frustration, prevented me from scoring the rest of it, beating me.

I was beside myself sitting in the locker room where I ignored the coach’s consolation. I finished practice unresponsive to teammates. We left the gym in the pitch of darkness. Josh drove the yellow Chevette home in silence. I stepped out of the passenger side and Josh met me in front of the car and grabbed me and hugged me. I stood with my arms to my side and he squeezed me tight and didn’t let me go. I had been hugged before but not by someone in my family. If someone had tried, I would have punched him. I had been hugged by a woman in the ward at my mother’s interment. She grabbed me through a sea of people from where I had been standing, staring at my mother’s casket and the large purple rug underneath it, unsure my duty as pallbearer had ended as people started moving around after the ceremonial dedication. I thought I would be asked to help lower her into the ground. Pulling me through large bodies she told me she loved my mother, and that my mother had been one of her very best friends. Her large bosom pressed out all my breath and pushed the pin from the boutonniere into my chest. Only Grammie had hugged me before like that.

We left Cheyenne with plenty of daylight. A couple hours down the road an eighteen-wheeler semi truck pulled over and turned on its flashers. A small man jumped out of the passenger side and an average sized man jumped out of the driver side and ran around the front of the tractor at the small man who swung wildly. The men twirled around and around until the bigger man landed on top as we passed them. A few miles farther down the road there were belongings strewn across the median and the other side of the interstate. Cars had rolled off the road and a large Suburban sat in the middle with a man still draped over the steering wheel.

Jesse Elison grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho. He served a proselytizing mission for the LDS Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied at Brigham Young University, Harvard Divinity School, and University of Oregon. He lives in Missoula, Montana, and works as a corporate attorney. My Best Mormon Life is his first book. It can be purchased as an e-book and in print at Amazon.com.

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