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Saying Good-bye To A Legend – Riding Off Into The Sunset

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“Saying Good-bye To A Legend – 
Riding Off Into The Sunset”
by Leroy Thissell
“The visits have continued. In fact I am heading over there tomorrow on my bike, for a late summer run to see my Brother. It will be a one-dayer; a long ride but so worth it. Just the ride itself is priceless, a biker’s dream. And the visit will be good.”
I wrote the above at the end of my previous article, The Golden Good-bye. By my error, it was titled LEGEND. This is the one that could rightly been called that. It was indeed a beautiful ride and a very good visit. Tom was once more able to rise from his bed and slowly and painfully make his way to the shop. We talked for a few hours and then it was time for him to once more bow to the inevitable end of his strength and ability to withstand the pain. I helped him into his house, into his prison of a bed, and then headed back home.
Two weeks later I made yet another visit, on a Wednesday. I had been forewarned by his wife that he was about at the end. And he truly was, lying limp and staring vacantly and unblinking to one side, unresponsive to my approach. And yet, at the sound of my voice, his eyes flickered and over the course of the next thirty minutes or so, he slowly came out of his stupor. His wife sat crying softly in the next room, completely amazed that he was able to rouse himself. He even was able to slowly grip the overhead rail and lift himself up to a more upright position. He couldn’t receive any help because even the faintest touch brought excruciating pain.
Over the next couple of hours, we talked one more time. I have not smoked in many years, but when he wanted a cigarette, I smoked one with him, just as we had done so many years before. Then came the moment we had talked about several times over the last year. He told me in no uncertain terms, as he gripped my hand and with tears rolling down his cheeks, that I had to leave and not return. He had explained in visits past that he couldn’t stand the thought of people watching over him as he lay unconscious, dying. And the struggle to rise up from that deep place he had settled into, to inter-act, was far too difficult and painful to continue doing so.
I prayed with him one final time and then stood. “Well, I guess this is good-by then, Brother. I love you. See you again, one of these days.” He squeezed my hand one last time and said, “I’ll save you a seat.”
We stared into each others eyes for a moment and then he nodded once and closed his eyes. His hand went slack and fell onto his chest. He turned his head to the side, eyes closed. I watched him for a moment as he quickly slipped back into that all-enveloping dark unawareness, and then turned away. (Tom never again rose from that deep deep place, not in this life. A few days later, on Sunday, his wife called and told me that he had passed on.)
On the drive back I listened to the Dead, “American Beauty”, and thought about my friend and the many years we had shared. Tom had told me, many times, of his days of following the Dead around for a few years. He had, by his count, seen them 57 times. He was a serious aficionado of both the Dead and the Beatles.
Some may call it a coincidence, or serendipitous, but after all these years I usually recognize an intimate gesture, a lovingkindness from my God when I see it. Following a thread back reveals intricacies and inter-twinings that don’t always seem immediately apparent.
The only reason that I had this CD with me at this particular time was because several months earlier Tom had asked me if I would make him a copy of it. He had somehow lost his CD, which was a major surprise considering his attention to his CD collection. My computer had issues at that time and I wasn’t able to burn a copy, so I loaned him my original. He never did find his copy. After our last good-bye I talked with his wife for a few minutes, gathered that CD and one other small item that had been Tom’s grandfather’s that he wanted me to have, and drove off.
I was driving through the Powder River canyon as the album started and incredibly it started to rain as “Box of Rain started”, with lyrics that were about as appropriate for the moment, and the relationship with Tom, as any song I have ever heard. It lifted a heavy heart.
Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter, members of the Dead, wrote this in ‘70. Lesh wrote it to and for his father, who was in his final days. According to Hunter, “Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words. If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did – as fast as the pen would pull.”
About an hour later I stopped to eat in a small town, Prairie City, that’s roughly halfway between Baker and Burns. It is on the highway across the John Day River from Strawberry Mountain and its range. Even though I didn’t recognize any faces, I know that I would know most of their names if I heard them and I know that most of the locals know my family name. I sat and ate, enjoying the company of strangers and yet not strangers, and taking great pleasure in the view of the mountains only a few miles away, mountains that I have roamed since I was no older than 7 or 8.
Several of my family, over the years, have lived in that small town and in many of the towns all around that area, for probably a hundred miles in any direction. In fact my father was raised maybe ten miles away or so from Prairie, in the upper foothills at the bottom of that mountain range, in a part of what is now the Strawberry Wilderness area.
All children tend to have ‘hero-worship’ towards their fathers. There are certainly exceptions, but as a rule, the male authority figure in a young person’s life is given exaggerated levels of ability and wisdom. Mothers are given a similarly exalted reverence, but usually with an eye toward other, more nurturing, characteristics. Sons and daughters share in this awe but I’ll be coming from the perspective of a son. This will be about my father, even though my mother has her own touch of strength and character. After all, she is partnered with a man who truly is a legend.
As we develop and mature, we are one day confronted with the knowledge that this hero is only human, with flaws and quirks that, seemingly overnight, leap out and shatter our adoration. The resultant swing often goes too far the other way, and our previous hero becomes nearly a monster.
But this is not about Dad’s flaws or strengths, both of which he has in abundance. As we all do. The stuff of legends, however, is a wholly different matter. That is what I want to relate. Not a child-like hero-worship, or a mythical character conjured in my own mind, but a telling of someone who is an exceptional person from a family of exceptional people, who lived in the company of noteworthy people in a wild and isolated time and area.
Dad was born in 1930, in Corvallis, Oregon. The telling of his story would actually make a book, something several family members have hinted that I should write. Therefore, I will keep it to the highlights as much as possible. He was the youngest of five brothers and one sister. Three of my uncles were ten years or more older than him, from my grandfather’s first wife. His sister and other brother were from a second wife, the grandmother that I knew. My uncle, Bill, at 90 and Dad at 89 are the last of the whole bunch, including their cousins.
Dad took his first paying job when he was 8, as a horse wrangler for Murderer’s Creek Ranch, which is still in operation to this day. I don’t know what led him to that place to work, because it is about 40 miles from their homestead at Prairie, deep in what is now the Malheur National Forest. My guess is that Grampa Fred or one of the older brothers worked there, and took him with them. That set the stage for the rest of his life.
The stories were a never-ending source of awe to us kids, the things Dad and my uncles talked about around many an elk camp fire, miles deep in the Wilderness Area. We didn’t know any other life and, drawn by the fascination and excitement these stories fostered, we could hardly wait until we were old enough to join in.
The oldest uncle, Clyde, was a Marine BAR gunner in the Pacific, in some of the hottest fights; Guadacanal, Kwajalein, Iwo Jima and the occupation of Japan. By all accounts he was one real hard-core bad-ass and had quite a load of medals from the war. He was highly respected by his fellow VFW friends. You just can’t fake that. He seldom spoke of that time, but occasionally we could get him to open up about it. He only spoke of the Banzai charges one time, sitting around a campfire miles deep in the Wilderness, to Dad, me and a cousin my own age. We saw a side of him then that we had never seen before and never saw again.
The second eldest, Glen, was in Europe and had his own share of medals and stories. He was a crack shot with a Luger he had taken off of a German officer in France. He would shoot bucks with it, while running side-by-side with them full-out ahorse-back. I knew him only by the stories; he died in the mid-50s.
All of the brothers were wild-horse chasers, bronc-busters, loggers and cowboys extraordinaire. They hunted monster mulies and massive elk, and had a great disdain for those who just hunted horns. The meat always came first. They never brought the horns out, even massive racks that would no doubt be record-holders to this day, until the law mandated that they do so. Any of them could track, as the saying goes, ‘a snake across a rock patch’. They built houses and managed/developed ranches of 15,000 or more acres. They were handy with just about any tool, whether wood-working, metal-working or leathercraft. They were about the best marksmen I have ever seen. Their word was as solid as the mountains they were raised in, and was not to be doubted.
So you can see, this family was pretty noticeable. And they didn’t stand out as much as you might think; there were a lot of rough and capable people back then, there in the isolated forests, mountains and deserts of Eastern Oregon.
Along with all that these brothers did, Dad was also a D-8 dozer operator, a faller, a log-truck driver, a rancher and a professional range/forest fence builder. He was the one that always went that extra step or two. As the youngest I think he felt that he had a lot to live up to, that he could never measure up. I don’t think he ever noticed, though us kids did, that all the other brothers usually asked him his opinion on what should be done. “Louie,” they would say, “what do you think we should do, here?” And they meant it. Only the brothers called him Louie, after his middle name.
He rode the hardest broncs to a stand-still. He was usually the one that rode them first, rough-broke them. My uncles could, and did, break horses quite well, but none had the passion for it as much as Dad. He was also the best roper, by far. He could dap a loop out and catch a wild horse he was chasing, going hell-bent-for-leather, in a clearing maybe two jumps across. Hard to believe, but I saw it with my own eyes.
We all had one favorite horse, even though we could and did ride any of them. Except Dad. No one rode his horse but him. Not because he just wanted it for himself, but because most of them could rightly be called outlaws. Usually it was a stud caught wild that was a few years old, young but grown, though I do remember a couple of really rank mares. A couple of my uncles could ride them if need be, but only Dad wanted one he had to keep a tight rein on and watch every second.
There were some, over the years, that were flat-out dangerous. I remember, one winter when I was about 6 or 7, when we were feeding off of a horse-drawn sleigh wagon. My Dad’s newest outlaw, Nugget, was tied on behind the wagon to teach him that he could be led. We were heading back to the haystack when Clyde said, “You know, Louie, that one’s got a pretty mean eye.” He laughed. “Watch this.” He went to the front of the wagon and dropped his coat on the ground. When the coat came out from beneath the wagon, Nugget snorted, whistled and then jumped square onto that coat with all four feet, like a cat, and began stomping it into the ground, all the while being dragged by the wagon. That was the kind of horse Dad always rode. He made sure the rest of us had solid mounts, even though they were quite spirited, but his were always on a razor’s edge.
That drive and push-the-limits attitude was the same in everything else he did. Always the extra effort, always just a bit more because ‘I can’. His only competition was himself, never anyone else. To the best of my knowledge, he never thought about it. He just did it. He simply lived the life he wanted to. I asked him, once, if he had ever had a job he hated. He shook his head and said, “No. I’ve never worked anywhere I didn’t want to.”
In everything he did, he had a drive to do it as well as humanly possible. Not for fame or competition with anyone else, but because he would never settle for letting himself do anything less than his absolute best. The result was a never-sought reputation, a name for getting anything done that was needed, no matter what. He had great respect from his peers, and still does amongst not just the very few of them still left, but many of those of my generation and even the next.
The stories I could tell… But this is not a detailed account of his exploits, nor a deep study of the man. As I wrote earlier, that would take a book. This is about saying good-bye to him. Most of us know the stress of watching our elders slowly wind down. And I would wager that there’s more than a few of us here quite aware that there are eyes watching our inescapable descent, at whatever speed each of us sinks.
Dad was told by doctors that he would be dead a long time ago, at least 20 years or more. Probably closer to 25. He has high blood pressure, diabetes and congestive heart failure. Half of his heart is perfect and the other half… well, it’s mush. And yet he broke his last horse years after that ignored pronouncement should’ve been realized. It’s been amazing, watching him fight this last battle with the same matter-of-fact determination that he has lived his life. No fanfare, no complaints; just life.
Where we are now has our roles reversed, but he still has that ineffable quality of unspoken authority. There is no doubt that he is still the head of the house, of the family. Even on those occasions where I have had to race to my folks’ house to lift him when he has fallen, sometimes in greatly embarrassing circumstances, he has shown an aplomb and humble accepting strength that never wavers.
This saying good-bye is far more my construct than his. But then I have always tended to over-think. He considers this all as just one more day until that last day, whenever and however it shows up. As always he just does the best he can, and calls it a day when it’s time to go to bed.
For me, I say good-bye by operating this ranch as best I can, by dropping by almost every evening to relate what the day’s work was. We reminisce about hunts and wrecks, about funny events and losses. We solve together some of the daily issues that crop up on this ranch that he and Mom created. We talk about some of the world events that swirl and twist in the distance that surrounds this remote area, like threatening storm clouds seen over the tops of distant mountains. Storms that we both know will someday finally reach this valley. I can only hope that he doesn’t see the final end of what he has known his entire life.
He is riding up that last long slope, with the silhouette of his battered horse-wrangler Stetson rising above the break of the hill. He hasn’t reached the place where he sits and looks back, and waves his final good-bye, but he is outlined now, becoming ever more a dark shape against the golden glow. Soon he will lift his hand and drop down over the hill, out of sight, as he rides off into the sunset.
“What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through.”
Again, one of these days I will trot out the third part, “Saying Good-bye To A Dream.”
Grateful Dead, “American Beauty”, Full Album
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