Dad, the jeweler, in jail

Dad was transferred to the minimum-security prison in Agassiz, where we visited him one memorable day—Saturday, October 22, 1966.

We packed a special lunch with his favourite foods, such as cold chicken, potato salad and pickles. Mom still couldn’t drive so Grandpa drove us out in his true red 1963 Ford Comet with a “three in the tree” gearshift. We motored through a valley so green and wet it courted neon. I recall the day so sharply because it is the first time we saw Dad in more than six months. I sat back balancing a coco-cream-filled chocolate cake on my lap as a fine mist soaked the world—we passed flooded fields, cows shivering under trees and a few shuttered houses rimmed by rusting hulks of trashed metal. This was the same broad valley Mom and Omi emigrated to from Russia via postwar Germany some seventeen years earlier.

We arrived at a high, wire-fenced, flat-roofed concrete building and were ushered into a large, overheated room with benches and plywood tables crowded with other prisoners and their visitors. Omi and Grandpa stayed in the car. There was Dad. His face surrendered into Mom’s shoulder for what seemed like forever and then he pulled back and hurriedly hugged and kissed us. But before we unpacked the feast, he recovered and began joking, ridiculing boyfriends we didn’t have, daring us to get straight As, reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or stanza after stanza of “The Highwayman”: “The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.” He was so clever, so witty — no matter what, we adored him.

After the meal, which he picked at, he rolled a cigarette and then brought out a surprise: three pieces of jewelry he had created in the prison workshop. My sister got a bracelet with glinting blue and green gems. I received a sparkly guitar-shaped brooch. Mom’s gift was the prettiest: a multi-spiked chrysanthemum ornament festooned with amber stones. We were agog. Not only was Dad a superior craftsman but he had access to jewels—in jail. The only explanation that made any sense was that he was treated special because people at the top knew he was innocent.


They were a couple in contrast—a maddening mismatch. Not exact opposites, but different to such a degree that friends wondered why it took them so long to see the inaptness. Perhaps it was love-lust. Or simply a blind need nested so deep it hid like a slow-growing cancer from their consciousness. At least that may explain the long-lasting attraction and part of the impending disaster.

He was 6 foot 1. She was 5 foot 2. He wanted to be older. She yearned to be younger, and lied about her birth year to everyone, including emigration officials. She outlived two husbands. He predeceased two wives. He was fair with a high forehead, fine, swept-back honey-brown hair and eyes big and blue as a northern sky. She was brown-eyed, gypsy-eyed, with dark arched eyebrows, light olive skin and a waterfall of blackness cascading over her shoulders. Where he avoided the sun, she worshipped it. Where he was indolent to the point of squalidness, she was enterprising and exact. Her best colour was scarlet, his dove grey. He shunned the modern world. She embraced it. Born in a city, he was happiest in the bush or a town the world forgot. Born in a rural Russian village, she was happiest in a metropolis offering a decent opera and a symphony. He was a devout atheist. She was born and raised a Mennonite, although the brand never took. She saved every letter, card and note he ever sent her (257 letters and 26 cards, plus 3 Canadian National telegrams). He tore up or burned almost every one of hers. Before they met, she had had a capital-L hell-raising, heartbreaking, action-packed, screen-scorching, passion-packed, thrilling, explosive, rollicking, rough and raw Life. In Technicolor. Until she entered, he’d lived a sepia-toned existence—narrow, dreary, punctuated by a strained home life, fleeting friendships, a lackluster stab at university and tedious work in underwhelming jobs for two-bit mining companies in remote small-town BC. If not technically a virgin groom, he was so emotionally. At their October, 13, 1951, wedding in a Fraser Valley Mennonite church, he knew only the bride—no family, no friends, no acquaintances. His best man was a Mennonite fellow she’d asked to stand up for him.

They were Gerald Henry Priest and Helen Friesen, Dad and Mom.

Cold Weather in a Cold War World

We thought we knew cold but this was something cruel, sharp and cutting like a knife. The cold cracked our thermometer, and for the better part of a week the town shut down: no school, no mine, no coffee shop or cookhouse. Everyone sheltered indoors. For us children, this weather-enforced internment was the most excitement we’d had since Mr. Harper’s dog got eaten by a wolverine. When we scraped Jack Frost’s fingerprints off our single-pane windows we saw grey—the air thick and murky, silent and primed to kill. Too cold for human, beast, bird or even snow. Dad said it was 70 below and we weren’t so much as to poke our noses outside without wrapping two woollen scarves over our faces, thick enough to choke us. Then he filled a tin bucket with water, opened the door a wedge, and as a razor sliced into the room, Vona and I held our breaths and hid behind his legs. He flung the bucket skyward, and as the water droplets reached their apex and descended, they transformed into pellets of ice. Pointing at the glint on the ground, he said, “That is how your blood will look if you inhale one exposed lungful of outdoor air.”

Although we liked school and missed playing outside with our friends, we weren’t miffed. School was good. The town was good. Home was best. We lived in a one-storey, three-bedroom, red cedar squared-log home known as a Panabode in a hiccup of a town at the top of the world. The map on our classroom wall proved it: pink Australia sat down at the bottom and we—pink too, like all the Commonwealth countries—were perched at the top left corner of Canada. If you went further left you hit blue Alaska. And if you went a bit higher you’d slip over the North Pole and slide down the other side to Russia—where we knew life was worse than terrible. Somewhere on the far right of Russia, close to Alaska, Mom’s brother and Omi’s three surviving sisters and four brothers had disappeared. Dead or alive, we didn’t know. We did know they experienced cold as extreme as ours. But that’s where the parallels ended.

We weren’t innocents. Along with spoonfuls of cod liver oil, we swallowed tales of Communist atrocities, near-death escapes and anti-starvation tips. Turnips could keep you going a remarkably long time. If you had some. But what happened when you didn’t? One night our grandmother divulged a story about Stalin-inspired starvation in the Ukraine that had gone on for so long that after eating all the dogs, all the cats, all the mice, all the birds, all the leaves off the trees, all the grasses in the fields and all the roots under the ground, people began eating each other. Hansel and Gretel was a welcome change.

A Cardinal in a Town of Sparrows

In the Yukon, Helen was an exotic, if somewhat peculiar, beauty—a cardinal in a town of sparrows. A flat outdoor surface was rare in Elsa. No sidewalks, no streets, only roads covered with snow, ice, mud, dry dirt or gravel. Yet Helen dressed in taffeta gowns, billowing skirts, velvet jackets and tight side-zippered slacks, all of which she sewed herself after seeing them worn on the silver screen by the likes of Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor. Once home from the movies, she would quickly sketch a dress or other article of clothing and trace precisely sized outlines on newsprint or scrap paper. With help from her nimble-fingered mother, she’d create a chic wardrobe, and had no qualms about showing it off in a jerkwater mining town. The dresses fitted her petite figure like a hug, and with a full skirt flaring from her cinched waist down, she rivalled any southern glamour queen.

As the mother of two girls born 360 days apart, she designed and dressed her children in matching ensembles; everything from fluffy butterfly dresses to plaid cowboy shirts to traditional Ukrainian dancing costumes with shamrock green skirts, puff-sleeved blouses and hand-embroidered aprons. She always wore pumps with two-inch heels and never owned a pair of jeans. Gentle and trusting by nature, when you met her, she would smile shyly, lock your eyes with hers and extend her delicate, manicured hand for a firm, warm touch. If she’d met you more than once, she’d greet you with an embrace. She never coloured her nails but filed them into almonds and painted them a shiny clear finish. She was the spirit of vitality and spontaneity, as long as you didn’t look too closely.

Worth Stealing

Between July and November 1961, United Keno Hill Mines Ltd. was in the last phase of excavating the richest vein of silver ore in its history and indeed one of the richest silver veins on the planet. Discovered in 1957 at the 525-foot level and called the “15-foot vein,” this ossified river produced the highest silver assays UKHM ever obtained, up to a phenomenal 7,500 ounces per ton. At the time, the average grade of UKHM ore was a decent 40 ounces silver per ton. The five-month span in 1961 was the final stage of a three-year period during which this small, short vein was completely mined out. And some geological goblin had saved the best for last. At about 165 feet below surface, the vein blossomed into a silver rose of splendid mineralization. Miners call these buried treasures “bonanza” oreshoots, or stopes. The Spanish word bonanza, meaning fair weather, had been used for centuries to describe an especially rich metal lode. This one measured about 165 feet long, 100 feet deep and 7 to 10 feet thick. At its heart sat a 2,500-ton nut averaging 1,500 ounces of silver per ton. All told, what came to be called the Bonanza Stope produced 4.5 million ounces of silver.

Numbers like those are enough to quicken the heart of any prospector, miner, geologist or shareholder, perhaps even an assayer. Indeed, as Bob Cathro later wrote, UKHM’s Bonanza Stope was so rich it had “the dubious honour of being one of the few sulphide oreshoots in Canada that was worth stealing.”

Out of Dad’s hands

Saint Paul had his epiphany on the road to Damascus. Mom had hers on Main Street. While he was being tried, she’d told her husband she held a single thought before her, and turned to it like the North Star whenever she felt lost and discouraged—he would come back to her. Although she would always, she vowed, stand by her man, her man couldn’t or wouldn’t always stand by her. In fact, chances were he’d be elsewhere for a long time. Despite her faltering heart, she had two promising girls and two dogs depending on her and she wasn’t about to hook their futures to the whims of a landlord. Even the birds didn’t rent, Mom used to say, which irked Dad no end given that his parents viewed a mortgage as a capitalist ball and chain.

The same month Dad was locked up, Mom revealed that Uncle Ken, Ricky’s realtor father, had found us an affordable home—a house to own, not rent! But Omi would pay the down payment. Unbeknownst to us, years before Omi had bought a small plot of Fraser Valley farmland in Clearbrook. She would use the $1,000 from its sale for a down payment for our new $8,000 property at 6136 Main Street, between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Avenues. The rectangular, flat-roofed, two-bedroom, one-level cottage was painted white with bright blue trim, blue awnings and cherry red front steps, giving it a Mediterranean flair. Two white faux-Grecian urns bookended the front entrance. Perfect for life in a rainforest. The cottage sat far back from Main Street traffic on a long, narrow lot with a small tool shed and a cement pad for a backyard. Our home was, by Omi and Mom’s mutual agreement, registered in Omi’s name to ensure that Dad never got his hands on it.