I wrote the following story about Dad for the Daily News. It was published on June 15, 2003. Dad died on September 20, 2011. This is in his memory.
Three years ago, when my father turned 80, he reversed gears. Instead of gathering possessions, he began giving them away. I first received a nail puller, chain saw, hand scythe, and pickaroon. More recently, a fly rod, brush mower, Filsun jacket and radial arm saw. As he lets go the treasures accumulated during the course of a lifetime, he is left to hope that my brother or I will do justice to the things that served him so well for so long.
Jim LeMonds Sr. owns no golf clubs, tuxedo jackets, or finely carved brier-stem pipes. He’s a Depression-era farm boy who escaped to timber country as a kid and never found a reason to leave. The LeMonds family fled South Dakota in the mid-1930s, arriving in Castle Rock at a time when the state’s population numbered 1.5 million, less than a third the current total.
Life on the Plains had been bleakness, poverty, cold and heat. It is easy to understand why my father saw the Northwest as paradise, a horn of plenty overflowing with smelt, razor clams, ducks and blue grouse. This is where stories are set that tell of green timber, thick chinooks and five-point bucks; where Wolf Creek, Spud Mountain, and Grindstone Eddy provide backdrop for narratives about bad weather, long packs and turquoise riffles ripe for the art of cast-and-drift.
The West my father’s family came to possessed a dimension that made greatness a possibility. The land was rugged and green, with enough elbow room to convince people they would never feel trapped. Dams hadn’t relegated native steelhead to a memory or backed the Columbia into a series of slack-water reservoirs that stretched into Canada. The Olympic Peninsula retained 70 percent of its virgin timber, and in Southwest Washington an old growth forest ran up the Toutle River Valley toward Mount St. Helens like a blessing without a back edge.
Because he has always been a physical man — hardy, muscular, melded to the outdoors — the items my father sees fit to pass along are woven to logging, hunting, fishing, building and brushing. In his understated way, he sends his message: the formal declarations read by a lawyer at a probate hearing in the not-so-distant future will carry little meaning; the items he delivers to me during his last years will constitute my real inheritance, the portion of him that he believes is worth saving. He has lived a rich life fashioned from common things. Taken separately, they don’t amount to much, but examined as a whole they are the notes that comprise the song of his existence.
The fly rod is a Wright-McGill, split bamboo, a Granger Special with a Pflueger Medalist reel, purchased in 1950 for $55. At the time he bought it, the Wright-McGill was a mid-range rod, a reliable model with a price that made it accessible to working people. In the days before children, my father caught steelhead and harvest trout in the Toutle River, and rainbows and eastern brook trout from a string of lakes in the high Cascades. Truck maintenance and remodeling projects consumed the better part of his weekends. As my brother and I grew into Little League and high school sports that demanded his attendance, he was left with fewer and fewer hours for fishing. Eventually, the Wright-McGill was broken down and wrapped in canvas. It is now relegated to an aluminum storage tube at the back of my closet.
My father bought the Filsun Cruiser in 1952 for $40; the same item would run $200 today. Because he was never a sports-jacket kind of guy, the Cruiser became his dress coat. He wore it to football and basketball games, to the annual Fireman’s Ball, on Sunday visits to the homes of relatives, and on rare occasions when he and my mother ventured out for dinner at a local restaurant. The fabric is crisp, worsted wool that holds its shape like Perma Press. A Filsun representative told me that manufacturers have been unable to come up with a synthetic that matches its appearance and durability. When I began wearing the jacket during a cold spell last January, my friends refused to believe that it was nearly 50 years old.
A man-sized mower
My father purchased the radial arm saw from a construction contractor in 1981. He didn’t need the saw. He was moved to this act of imprudence by the birth of his granddaughters. After using the radial arm to cut rafters for their playhouse, he never had occasion to drag it out again. When I asked to borrow the saw to cut two-by-sixes for my deck, he seemed relieved to hand it over, as though its usefulness finally justified the expense.
The mower is a nasty machine, a briar-chewing, thicket-clearing dynamo, with a huge, exposed front-end blade, supported by bicycle tires and driven by an 8-horse Briggs & Stratton engine. My uncle Ed once sliced off a three-quarter-inch galvanized water pipe when he lost control of his. A friend of my mother-in-law forfeited a finger during a run-in with the same unruly model.
When my parents sold their home in town during the 1970s and moved to a 10-acre brush jungle west of Castle Rock, the purchase of the new mower symbolized the transition to a wilder place. It also confirmed my father’s belief that the right man with the right equipment could do any job. Put away the garden clippers, it said. Bring out the heavy artillery.
I wasn’t allowed to operate the brush mower until I was 48; my father deemed it too dangerous for me to handle. I finally stopped calling to ask if I could borrow it, not only because the answer was always no, but also because such requests meant that he would spend the better part of the next day doing the job for me.
With aching knees and brittle hips, he walked the beast up and down my hilly five-acre plot, he and my mother firm in the opinion that I “might get hurt” if they allowed me to give it a go. When I see my daughters’ high school boyfriends who were on the scene during those years of humiliation, they ask if I’ve been given a license to drive. That my father has bestowed this privilege upon me stands as acknowledgment that he is, at last, no longer the man he once was.
Pulling back from rituals
Together, we face the fact of his aging, the onset of his arthritis, the hesitance in his steps, the stiffness I see as he lowers himself into his favorite chair. In 1998, for the first time in 60 years, he did not buy a hunting license. After he retired in 1985, Dad liked to hunt a trail near his home. The trail winds through jack firs, and then connects to an abandoned logging road. The roundtrip was less than a mile, but he had good luck there, killing a spike elk and a three-point buck.
Perhaps for the few minutes the journey required, he strode into a past where the land was wild, and he was flexible and tough and never out of breath. When the walking became too much for him, my father road-hunted with my uncle Cliff for several seasons. I don’t believe that either of them was interested in hunting any longer, but they’d been at it for so many years they seemed unable to put it to rest.
This fall, my parents talked of walking Dad’s hunting trail to look for chanterelle mushrooms, but the plan never made it past the talking stage. They don’t pretend as much anymore that there is urgency in completing errands or in conducting harvests that once stood as rituals of renewal in their lives. Like my father’s decision to give away his possessions, it is one more type of pulling back, of reducing life to those things closest to home.
My father has never been a churchgoer. His faith is of a different type, tied to the dependability of seasons, the security of a good roof and a fire in the woodstove, the miracle of a sharp-shinned hawk sailing beneath the cedar trees that front his house. His chair in the front room sits near the picture window. Outside, he has erected a bird feeder in a vine maple that borders the deck. With sunflower seeds and chunks of suet, he lures the game of his final years: nuthatches, towhees, black-capped chickadees, pine siskins, Stellar’s jays, and purple finches. He looks to spring and hummingbirds, content to dream like a blue-collar Buddhist, his reincarnation handed down in good wool, bamboo, and steel.
In 1938, when my father was 18, he left Castle Rock to spend the winter cutting timber for a tie mill near Kinzua in north central Oregon. Four months later, the company went bust and the crew was cut loose, having received neither a paycheck nor an apology. Desperate to earn his way home, my father took a job bucking and stacking ties at a nearby mill. The ties, which were in 24, 32 and 48 foot lengths, had been milled into slabs seven inches thick and left wide and rough on the sides. My father used a handsaw to buck and stack 5,400 ties in 10 days. The wage of a penny-a-tie provided him with $54, enough to pay for a train ticket to Castle Rock and leave him with a little cash in his pocket. That journey was as close as my father ever came to a vision quest.
A recent ad in a Portland paper suggested that those Northwesterners who ride mass transit are “the new pioneers.” It’s not enough for me. I understand that I can’t live my father’s story; I am in the process of creating one of my own. In it, I’m hoping for some portion of that rich life, close to the land, some part of that ruggedness born at Kinzua that defined my father and anchored him here.
I wait now for revelation. I heft the nail puller, make ghost casts with the fly rod, pull the Filsun close around me on evening walks, secure in the belief that a father’s history will never leave the heart of his child.