Carnett: Memories of a treasured friendship

He's been gone 27 years.

Can it really be nearly three decades since my wife, Hedy, and I sat in his memorial service in a Costa Mesa church? A mentor to both of us, Sam Peterson was truly an unusual and remarkable human being.

I was 41 when he died, and I thought that at 68, he was ancient. That's my age today.

A West Point graduate, Sam served 24 years in the U.S. Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He worked for two decades as a college professor and dean.

Sam was one of the smartest guys I've known, and one of the toughest to decipher. You never quite knew if he was being straight with you or jerking your chain. But he was never malicious.

Armed with a rapier-like wit, he also exhibited an X-rated vocabulary — forged, no doubt, in the crucible of war. He served in World War II and Korea.

Sam regularly wore a sly smile. It was as if he were privy to a piece of information that the rest of creation hadn't yet discovered. When you suspected he was pulling your leg, you were wise just to clam up and offer no further resistance.

The thing that amazed me most about Sam — even more than his prodigious intellect — was his physical fortitude. Wiry of frame, Sam routinely put his body through the ringer.

A heavy smoker, he possessed the telltale smoker's cough. His face was weather-beaten, exhibiting more creases and fractures than a Pennsylvania slagheap.

His high-octane personality was fueled by mega doses of caffeine. He daily swilled a dozen cups of coffee and more.

"Health" and "food" were two words Sam never employed in the same sentence. If it was rich, fattening or deep-fried, he loved it. And, oh the sugar!

One Saturday morning in the 1970s, Hedy and I took Sam on an outing to the local desert. We stopped for lunch at a diner near Palm Springs. He insisted that it was his treat. Hedy and I ordered soup and sandwiches. Sam said he wasn't hungry so he made do with a chocolate shake — then had a refill.

After finishing our entree, Sam insisted we order dessert. Hedy and I selected small bowls of ice cream. He ate a banana split.

I marveled at his cast-iron constitution.

In about 1977, Sam's lovely wife survived a serious bout with cancer. She was a devout Christian while Sam was a skeptic. They invited Hedy and me to accompany them to a weekly Bible study. We accepted. I figured that with Sam in the mix, the study would be anything but dull.

I was right. The discussions were always invigorating.

It was a wonderfully eclectic group. The membership represented a diversity of careers, interests and lifestyles, and we enthusiastically attended for a couple of years. It was while we were members that I began to make important faith decisions. I was introduced to the works of C.S. Lewis, and they deeply affected me.

Ever the reluctant adherent, Sam posed some of the most intriguing questions imaginable at our weekly gatherings. They prompted discussions about issues I would not have pondered on my own. I was never able to know for sure if he ultimately resolved certain "faith issues" to his satisfaction, but I thoroughly appreciated his probing mind.

His wife, on the other hand, was a woman of deep conviction who gladly shared her forged-in-the-furnace beliefs. For her, all issues were settled.

I secretly suspected that Sam attended the Bible study for the sole purpose of partaking in the riotous after-session dessert extravaganzas that put the cap on each meeting. The delicacies were, in a word, heavenly.

Sam's wife fought bravely but lost her battle to cancer several years later. He survived for a couple of years beyond that, then died rather unexpectedly. It was a great loss to all who knew him.

These many years later I still fondly remember Sam. I think I'm accurate in saying that he had absolutely no idea what a profound role he played in my faith journey.

Thanks, grizzled provocateur, for a treasured friendship.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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