The bank of the Applegate River, way better than a funeral home: site of the memorial service for my brother James Staunton Britton (1947-2018)
On the Fourth of July, I skipped the parade and hopped on a nonstop flight to Phoenix, then on to Medford, in southern Oregon, to deliver the eulogy at my brother Jim’s memorial service on Friday, July 6. If you read this blog regularly, you know that our dear Jim died in February, unexpectedly, at age 70. Landed in Medford at 4:15, hugged Jim’s widow Pam, hopped in her car, and headed west to their wonderful house in the hills above the historic town of Jacksonville. Had a beer on the patio, and the first of many yaks with Pam, then headed inside for shrimp tacos and refried beans.
The Arizona landscape from above, and as interpreted by student Sandy S. at the Mohave Middle School in Scottsdale
After kitchen cleanup, at 7:15 Pacific time (past bedtime back home) I said goodnight to Pam and put on my pajamas. In the guest room were some mementos of Jim, which prompted the first tears of the visit: his tiny cowboy boots (must have been from about the time I was born); a favorite 1930s era necktie, “Bird Brilliance,” he got in the 1960s and wore at his wedding; a wonderful hand-tooled Western wallet from Montana (familiar, and I think a project from his junior-high leather class, 1959-60); and an oil painting our mother created in the 1940s, when she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My mind flooded with memories, the first of many torrents over the next days.
Was up well before sunrise the next morning, cup of coffee, and out the door, over the Cascades to help Pam tidy up the building lot they bought in 2014 at the Running Y Ranch, a golf resort on Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon’s largest. At the time, they thought they might move there, then Jim got sick and plans went on hold. The lot is now for sale. My job was to run the mower over the weeds and grasses on the half-acre lot. Hard work, especially with gimpy knees, but we were done in an hour. Zipped west, and was home before noon.
The house Jim built in 1997, and a yard resident; below, scenes from the drive to Klamath
No time to rest, hopped back in the car, alone, and drove south 15 miles to the pleasant college-and-culture town of Ashland, to spend the afternoon and early evening with Ed and Erin Finklea. Ed was a college chum from the U of M; we met while organizing Earth Day on campus in 1972; Erin is his second wife, who I had not met before – indeed, I last saw Ed in Portland, Oregon, in 1989. We kept in touch a little through nearly three decades, so there was a lot of catching up to do, on their splendid deck. Ed moved west to go to law school in Portland, and like a lot of folks never headed east again. We yakked for a couple of hours about families, careers, and the Pacific Northwest. Ed’s an energy lawyer, and has a grip on the economic pulse and cultural ethos of the region, a place where, as he said, every fish has three lawyers. He also had some regional humor, including a joke about Sunflower, son of hippie parents, whose grades, especially in math, improved dramatically after they enrolled him in a Catholic school (email me and I’ll send the joke and another one that cannot even be summarized for a general audience!).
On the campus of Southern Oregon University
One of three main stages of the OSF
Toward the end of the afternoon, Ed, Erin, and I headed into town for a tour, first to Erin’s alma mater, Southern Oregon University, a small (5,000 students) public college, then into downtown Ashland, site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Established by a visionary professor in 1935, with the first stage built by Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the festival season today offers 700-800 performances from February to October, attracting 400,000 people, and providing a huge anchor for the local economy. The power of cultural tourism!
After a good walk around the OSF campus, we had a drink in a main street bar, then headed home for a huge and delicious dinner: grilled salmon, halibut and scallops; orzo and watermelon salad; stuffed zucchini; and a colossal tres leches cake for dessert. It was great fun to get to know Erin, a wonderful and solid person who managed to transcend a very troubled childhood. She was a perfect exemplar of grit. Drove back to Pam’s in the last light.
The Rogue Valley and town of Ashland
Was up way early Friday morning, and Pam delivered news that Interstate 5 was closed south of Ashland because of a wildfire, eliminating our route to the intended site of Jim’s memorial service, atop Mt. Ashland. So we hopped in the car to scout out Plan B, and by 7:45 had found a perfect site on the banks of the Applegate River, along Palmer Creek Road, a narrow lane that was a favorite bike route. The sounds of rushing water and breeze in the fir trees was a plus. We cleared the litter around the site, and drove back to Jacksonville for a major breakfast at a place Jim and Pam frequently visited.
Jacksonville City Hall
Back home, I sorted through two boxes of stuff, keeping a few items, notably a green ceramic “sculpture” Jim created in junior high art class (had to email TSA to make sure it would get through security!), and more. Tucked a small part of Jim’s ashes in my backpack, for a little further scattering the next month in northern Minnesota. Spent an hour going through a memory book Pam produced. At the end, I started to cry, and cry hard. Pottered around the house for an hour, worked my email, then drove the last of Jim’s tools into Medford to donate to Habitat for Humanity. His materials live on (months earlier, we found a home for two of his seriously excellent road bikes; the local bike-racing club will lend them to aspiring young riders who could not otherwise afford a great ride).
I kept the green head, left Jim’s high-school graduation tassel with Pam, and recycled the prayer book (a curious keep, given that my brother was agnostic!)
Scenes from the backyard (three days after snapping these, Amazon delivered a brand-new Italian flag for the former bike shop!); below, the curious sideways-growing laurel trees
At 1:30, one of Jim’s gym buddies, Wendy, arrived (she also grew up in suburban Minneapolis). We hopped in Pam’s car and drove to the memorial site, Jim’s ashes in a canister firmly between my feet. Soon 11 of us, friends from work and play, were gathered on the riverbank, and I began my remembrance:
Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us today as we remember a life well lived.
Our dear Jim was born in Chicago and grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As noted in his published obituary, he was reborn when he moved to the West, to Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1971, and he loved every part of this vast region. Jim was born yet again when he met and married Pam in 1989, and the arc of his life soared upward. I would not be honest nor complete if I did not tell you that before Pam he had more than his share of struggles, all the way back to childhood and adolescence, travails that marked his life and indeed may have shortened it. But the combination of a loving spouse and the wonderful and diverse landscapes of this part of our nation truly propelled his life in better directions.
A few weeks ago, I read an opinion piece in the newspaper that helped me frame these words. The writer observed, wisely, that people “are always way more complicated than we think,” that “most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences,” and that “our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person.” Those ideas certainly fit our Jim. We’d be here hours if we really wanted to understand and appreciate all that he was. We might miss the beer in Jacksonville! So let me focus on just three of the many things we all loved about our dear Giacomo. (Giacomo: some of you may not know that after the first of several memorable trips to Italy, where his 25% Italian DNA shone brightly, he took on that nickname). Alora, as the Italians say, so, let me talk a little about three things that defined Jim: strength, engagement, and curiosity.
Thing 1: strength. Strength on his bike. Jim was for many years a competitive cyclist. He was fast. He also did a bunch of long-distance rides across the West, pounding out 150 miles a day, or more. Strength in the workplace, through a long career as a builder of beautiful things from wood. In his carpentry, and in so many other parts of his life, strength also meant that “close enough” was never part of his vocabulary. It had to be just right. Jim did not cut corners. Strength to turn his life around in the early 1980s, away from darkness and conflict, and on an upward trajectory. And strength in these last few years, when his illness, never properly diagnosed, tried hard to pull him down.
Thing 2: engagement. Jim was engaged. I don’t mean as precursor to marriage, but engagement with almost everyone he met. As his little brother, I benefited from that engagement early, for he nearly always included me in the stuff he did with friends. He almost never said “Go away, you’re too little.” He even invited me to some pretty wild parties when he was in college. Engagement means being quietly influential, and sometimes noisily so. We know and love that he was a man of strong opinions. Truth is, he came from a family of strong opinions, the Italian-German side of the family. We have a sort of righteousness gene, woven into our DNA, and manifest in a sense of justice, fairness, and decency. He could be cranky, but he was usually right about things that matter to us as Americans. Engagement also meant long and loyal friendships that changed the lives of those fortunate to call Jim a friend. Last summer, on our road trip that Jim described as “epic,” we met his decades-long pal Boone Lennon for breakfast in Bozeman, Montana. After Jim died, Boone wrote, “Linda and I met Jim as a young bike racer and grew to enjoy and appreciate his company and building expertise so much so that he became the backbone of our move to Montana.” Finally, engagement meant understanding and exercising the responsibilities we take on as citizens. Jim always voted, and before casting his ballot, took plenty of time to learn about the candidates’ views.
Thing 3: curiosity. Jim was curious, and that was manifest in so many, and such varied, ways. His superb and uncompromising carpentry skills were entirely self-taught. He taught himself lots of other stuff. Take car repair. I vividly recall several successive summer evenings in the mid-1970s when, home from Idaho, he replaced the entire transmission in his 1964 Volvo. Not in a shop, in our parents’ driveway. I remember asking him, as I held some bracket or tool, how he knew how to do all that stuff under the hood. “Well,” he replied, “I know how to read.” Reading is such a fine proxy for curiosity, and some of my happiest moments over the last ten years were our always-too-seldom conversations about good books we had read. Western writers like Ivan Doig, Timothy Egan, and many others. And I gotta lift up the last book we both read, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan.
Jim’s was a life well lived. Shorter than any of us wanted, but at a moment like this I am reminded of a wonderful summation from the prominent psychologist and economist Amos Tversky, who died at age 59. Just before death, he said, “Life is a book. The fact that it was a short book doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book. It was a very good book.”
We know that Jim’s book was also very good. We miss him, but we remember all his good.
I practiced the text twice that morning, and delivered it with only one small quiver. But when it was done, I wept. Several of Jim’s friends then offered remembrances: Perry spoke of political discussions, noting Jim’s views but also his willingness to respect other positions, as long as they were reasoned; Charles, nicknamed Carlo, spoke about Jim learning Italian and jumping into the language with more enthusiasm than aptitude when they cycled in Italy; Wendy talked about Jim’s winemaking; others spoke about Jim’s broad skills. Then we cast his ashes to the wind, to the water, and back to the earth. I looked heavenward, and we departed.
Wendy baked Jim’s favorite molasses cookies
Drove back to Jacksonville and the Brewhaus Schoolhaus, a German restaurant that Pam, Jim, and I visited when I arrived for our epic 2017 road trip. All but two of the friends from the memorial service joined us for beer and an early dinner. I filled in some of the detail of Jim’s life for a couple of them, and they in turn offered some shading – Carlo told me that last summer Jim somehow rallied in anticipation of our boys’ trip. It was a nice time. Pam and I drove home, we yakked for an hour, and I was asleep by 8:30, anticipating the alarm.
It went off at 4:20. Hopped in the shower, dressed, and Pam drove me to Medford airport. Flew to Seattle and spent a pleasant three hours in the Alaska Airlines Lounge – coffee, breakfast, and England vs. Sweden in a World Cup quarterfinal. Flew on to Bozeman, Montana, one of our destinations on the road trip the year before – there were a couple of things we did not see, and I wanted to tie the loose ends. When we drove to Bozeman in 2017, elapsed time was 30 hours; flying was just 6, including the 3 hours in SEA. And the scenery along the way was as outstanding as from ground level: the land turned from brown and gold in southern Oregon to green and blue at Puget Sound, then back to brown and gold in eastern Washington, then green again in Idaho and Montana.
Bozeman airport was hopping – summer vacations not only for Americans, but lots of the world arrived to see nearby Yellowstone National Park, the Tetons, and the northern Rocky Mountains. Picked up a Hyundai and zipped east on Interstate 90 to Cousin Betty’s house on the edge of town. We had a good yak over a salad lunch, and I repaired to the guest room for a tonic nap.
You really know you’re in the West when your bedroom has a photo like this: Betty’s dad Uncle Harold with two bears he shot, circa 1932.
Betty’s husband Dwain, who has had some health issues of late, was doing what he loves most, riding an ATV (“Four wheeler”) in the Beartooth Mountains near Cooke City, 135 miles southeast. We watched the TV news, ate a light dinner, and at seven I peeled off for town.
I headed back to the Bozeman Brewing Company, a microbrewery Jim and I visited in 2017. John the manager was on duty, as he was 12 months earlier, and it was good to reconnect. I explained that in the interim Jim had died, and that it was nice to be back, with Jim there in spirit. Had a marvelous couple of T-t-S: with Luke on the stool next to me, and Eric, a bartender-trainee. His parents owned restaurants in Billings, Montana, 140 miles east, and two years ago bought a bar in Edgar, Montana, population 60, that makes way more money than you can imagine! In addition to his new part-time gig at “the other BBC,” he was about to start a job at Lockhorn Hard Cider, a local producer and restaurant. Luke was born in Kalispell, in the far northwest of the state, grew up in Colorado, landed a job with the National Park Service, and has done a bunch of other interesting things, including five years on a potato farm nearby. His best phrase, complimentary, was “Nice work”! It was a fun two hours. Back at Betty’s, soulful blasts from a freight-train horn and truck traffic were clear signs to this Transport Geek that I was adjacent to a major transport corridor: Interstate 90 interwoven with one of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main lines west (the Northern Pacific Railway was completed from Chicago to Seattle in 1883, the first northern line to the western sea). And directly above, the flight path for Runway 12/30 at BZN. Mobility in bunches.
My glass at left, and one for Jim
Eric, Luke, and John
There’s a reason Montana is called Big Sky Country
Up early Sunday, long chat and a nice walk with Betty (now 75, youngest child of Uncle Harold), then zipped off for breakfast with Jim’s long Montana friend Boone Lennon. We tucked into eggs in the same restaurant where the three of us met a year earlier. I brought Boone up to speed with Jim’s final months, he reminisced a bit about the man he called “Jim-Bob,” to prevent confusion with the other Jim who together built his big house outside of town. Peeled off and spent a pleasant hour walking Main Street, Bozeman, a wonderful townscape from the last decades of the 19th Century and first three of the 20th. Several whole blocks of Main were on the National Register of Historic Places, and helpful plaques interpreted history and structures. My favorite excerpt describing the 1906-08 plan to pave the main drag: “Dust did not agree with tourism.” Indeed.
Above, the old Bozeman Hotel; below, detail from the Hotel Baxter, opened 1929, and other Main Street scenes
Back at Betty’s, her nephew David Weiser had arrived from St. Paul (Betty’s older sister, my Cousin Sylvia, was often at our house growing up in Minneapolis, but I’ve only seen her once in the last five decades). We all had a good chat.
After an afternoon nap, we hopped in my car and met Cousin Cheryl; she’s actually my first cousin once removed, the granddaughter of my Aunt Constance (b. 1904). I had never met her before, and it was wonderful to connect with more kin. (I hoped to meet her sister Gayle, who lives 100 miles east, but she’s been quite ill.) We visited the graves of Aunt Constance and Uncle Harry (McPherson), and of great uncle T.A. Gunby and wife Lillian, in the city cemetery. Being with kinfolk sometimes gets intense, so I was glad to hop in the car and drive east 25 miles to Livingston, Montana, an old Northern Pacific railroad town. Parked, ambled around the old NP depot, splendid and huge, then headed to the Livingston Bar, made famous in Jimmy Buffet’s “Livingston Saturday Night.” Sat at the bar and had a nice chat with bartender Kate, starting with my favorite opener (used with Ed Finklea three days earlier): “I hope you understand how lucky you are to live in this special place.” “Oh, I do, totally,” she replied. “I’m from here, and didn’t get it when I was younger, but I’ve moved around and I do now.”
Northern Pacific Railway depot, Livingston, including ornamental treatment of the railway’s longtime yin-yang logo
At the Katabatic
Brass lion’s head rail, Livingston Bar, and a grain elevator that is a distinctive feature of the West
I moved on to the Katabatic microbrewery, right across the street from the railway depot. The storefront had garage-like doors, opened on a pleasant evening, and the bass thrum of freight locomotives idling on the nearby tracks provided counterpoint to the rock and roll. The place was full of youngsters, young families with well-behaved kids, and several dogs. At my dinner venue, the Neptune, I had a truly remarkable T-t-S with Tom Robertson and Ellen Girard. After making friends with Bailey, Tom’s cattle dog (who coincidentally came from a cattle ranch not far from where Uncle Harold ranched), I asked if he was from “here.” More or less, he replied, elaborating that he came west to work in Yellowstone National Park some decades ago. “My cousin Jim Fredian worked in the park in the 1980s,” I said. And it came to pass that Tom had worked for Jim. Another total small-world moment. And a good fish dinner. Driving home on I-90, I passed a train with mixed freight, including two 737 fuselages traveling from Wichita to Boeing in Seattle. Drove ahead, exited the freeway, and took some photos. What a fine evening!
Bailey, a true Montanan
But Monday was the best. Cheryl arrived at Betty’s about nine to look through some old photos, and we then hopped into my rental car and drove up to Maudlow, where the Brittons lived from about 1918 to 1922 (when my dad was four to eight). It was a scenic drive north, close to the western slopes of the Bridger Mountains, past small properties and some large ranches. Taking pictures of some falling-down buildings, Cheryl and Betty flagged down Wayne Morgan for a chat and guidance on the best roads north to Maudlow. Montana neighborliness.
The landscape changed quite a bit, from irrigated plains to rolling hills, to forested slopes before we dropped down a hill into Maudlow. We were finally there! Jim and I tried to visit a year earlier, but got lost driving from the east, so when we parked I looked up and said, “Jim, we made it.” First stop was the old school. I climbed through a window into the classroom, strewn with old textbooks, then the kitchen. To the east were swings, slides, and basketball backboards, all weathered. We motored down the hill and found the house where Aunt Constance and Uncle Harry lived before moving to Butte. Harry was with the Milwaukee Road, the last railroad to build west, and he was the station agent. Naturally, I found a way in, gathering some papers from the mid-1970s, just before the line was abandoned. I later did some research, and learned that this part of the Milwaukee main line was electrified in 1914-16, 438 miles – it seems remarkable that electric locomotives, not steam, chugged through town when my dad was a kid. Final building to spot was the old hotel, where my grandmother worked as a cook after my ne’er-do-well grandfather abandoned his wife and four kids. When we drove closer to the tracks and Sixteen Mile Creek, we spotted the writing on the north wall of the school: “1909 | School District 21 | Maudlow. So this was the school where my dad began his studies; in a very real sense, some of my own education started in that white clapboard building. Whew, whew, whew. That was pretty overwhelming.
Maudlow School; below, former pupils (I need to study the pic at left more closely, but my dad is second from left in the photo at right)
Above, Sixteen Mile Creek; below, the Milwaukee Road agent’s house and the former Maudlow Hotel
We drove across the bridge over the creek, east a bit, then turned around and began to head back. Paused in a shady and grassy spot for a picnic lunch. Drove home a quicker way on a better road.
Back at Betty’s, I opened a book I purloined from the school, copyright 1900, wondered if any of the Britton kids ever looked at it, and was reminded of Faulkner’s great quotation, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It was just a way-cool excursion.
Cheryl headed home, I took a nap, and at three hopped back in the car and drove 10 miles east to the Montana Grizzly Encounter, a bear rescue and education sanctuary, to admire these huge animals. Two were in the enclosure, and were surprisingly active given the heat. It was wonderful to see these beasts, and behind a fence – my last encounter, in 1988, had no fence; Cousin Jim and I startled a sow and cubs while jogging back to the car after a hike in the Tetons, rather too close a call.
Then it was time for a beer, so I stopped at the 406 microbrewery in Bozeman, then on to the liveliest of the five craft beermakers in the area, the MAP Brewery north of town. The place was hopping. Had a nice chat with Patrick, the owner, and recounted our visit to Maudlow. When I described the school there, he told me that his three kids attend the one-room Springhill School, 12 miles north. Sixteen pupils, two teachers. Turns out the state of Montana, with only a million people, has one-third of the one-room schools in the U.S. (population 325 million) – more than any other state. Surveying the lively scene as I finished my beer, I thought “I don’t want to go home.”
But I did, the next morning, via Dallas/Fort Worth. It was a wonderful trip: a fine sendoff for Jim, and a great few days in the state accurately described as “The Last Best Place.” My roots are in Montana, and I’ll be back.
Two postscripts: four days after returning, I hung the oil painting our mother created almost eighty years ago, in our bedroom; and sister-in-law Pam sent a photo of the new Tricolore for Giacomo’s bike shop, which lives on: