Best Friends

In Mrs. Hall’s third grade class, only the best and brightest students got to sit in the back row.  Each year, Mrs. Hall would pick the top boy and the top girl to sit in what she called the “honor row”; being picked to sit in the back meant extra privileges. When the rest of the class was assigned busy work, the honor students watered plants, cleaned the back chalkboard, and any other little odd-job Mrs. Hall might have. On the first day of class, anticipation would fill the room until Mrs. Hall announced her final decision. As expected, Mrs. Hall picked Corky and Peggy.


Corky was always good in school and everyone loved him; he was also a good athlete. Corky just had one of those swaggers; everybody knew he was special. Peggy was short, with black curly hair. More often than not, Peggy would wear little dresses: yellow, pink, red, blue, always bright colors.


Corky liked that Peggy wore dresses. On rainy days, when Peggy’s hair seemed more curly than usual, Corky thought she looked like the little Indian dolls his parents had brought back from the west. Corky would spend hours watching Peggy from the corner of his eyes. When his friends started to notice the attention Corky gave to Peggy, they would remind him that she was a girl, and in the third grade girls were the enemy. 


Corky didn’t always think of girls as the enemy. Secretly, Corky adored Peggy; in front of his friends, he would hardly speak to her. Chris and Ed were always riding Corky about Peggy and for being a teacher’s pet. Chris had extremely wild hair that was always out-of-place and he would crack Corky up with his antics from the front row. Ed would just look back and forth between the two and laugh, until Mrs. Hall would notice. The whole class would get busy work; Corky and Peggy would water and arrange the plants.


Mrs. Hall had many rules about her plants; she had collected most of them on trips around the world. Colored stars, to indicate where the plants had come from, were placed on the maps that covered the back wall. Most of the older plants were in fancy pots that Mrs. Hall had gotten from her mother and Corky and Peggy were well versed in the proper care.


Occasionally, Corky would finish his homework while Peggy watered the plants and cleaned the chalkboard. Peggy would clean a little, flirt with Corky a little and clean some more. The classroom seemed unnaturally long on those days, with most of the students way up-front, with rules and Mrs. Hall. Corky would laugh at Chris and Ed from the back, while they were busy on some problem set.


It was on one of those long-room days that Corky and Peggy’s relationship changed.  Corky was working at his desk when he heard some noise behind him. There was a small crash, followed by the sound of water hitting the ground. As Corky turned to see what had happened, he noticed Peggy standing on a chair. She had dropped the eraser, and tears ran down her face. Peggy looked down at Corky with her doll-like eyes and said, “Don’t tell.” It was only then that Corky noticed a liquid pouring down Peggy’s leg.


Time seemed to slow to a stop as Corky looked back and forth from Peggy to the front of the class, where Chris and Ed sat. There was only one thing to do. With a flash, Corky was standing on his chair and as the class slowly turned to see what the noise was all about, Corky yelled, “Peggy’s peeing.”   



Life is Fiction


This weekend is the annual Jim Syron float on the Yellowstone River.

I wrote the following words a few days after his death and I planned on reading this at Jim’s wake, but I could not; I can still barely read it today. By the way, this is my least favorite week of the year.

Life is Fiction


Dark clouds swirled through Paradise Valley all morning.  Streaks of rain swept down the mountain slopes as if they had been painted by a great artist.  Along the Yellowstone River, the sun was sneaking through the clouds just enough to give the valley a brilliant greenish-gold tinge.  Spring’s arrival of birds filled the river bottom with the sound of life.  As we stood waiting for the remainder of our group, Megan and I skipped rocks into the murky water.  With Megan being a geologist and myself being a geographer, we laughed about how there in that small valley our two disciplines met head-on everyday.  The wind and water continued to beat against the rocks in an attempt to expose Earth’s history.  We loved living in Montana. 

When our party showed-up, we unloaded the canoes and kayaks while anticipating the first float of the season.  The trip was to celebrate two birthdays and our home, Greater Yellowstone.  We weren’t really worried when Jim didn’t show; Jim was a great student, and with finals approaching he was most likely in the library preparing for his final few tests; that is where I should have been. We enjoyed the river for him on that day.  We floated in and around fast spots in the river, played on rock islands, and reminisced about all our history in the region, as osprey and eagles hovered above. Nature reminded us about spring in Montana with gusts of wind and a few short periods of rain that would fade back into sunshine once again. 

By evening we were at camp, and our party’s numbers steadily grew.  By dark there were maybe twenty-five friends in camp; we all had worked in Yellowstone at one time or another.  The Yellowstone family was great to be a part of.  When Jim still didn’t show, we laughed about him canoeing in the dark, but we really believed he was stuck in town with school work.  We enjoyed good food and drinks until late in the evening. 

Sunday morning was beautiful; a dusting of snow covered the surrounding peaks, only to taper off at the lower elevations.  The overnight rain made the air feel crisp, as puffy white clouds sailed across the sky.  Megan and I spent the day in Yellowstone; it was opening weekend.  We had always loved spring in the park.  For old Yellowstoners, that time of year has always been special.  Mother nature seemed to pull the white blanket of snow back just in time for baby animals to arrive: it was time for new beginnings.

For me, the new beginnings of life seemed just around the corner; I was to graduate in two weeks, and marry Megan in one month.  As we had been doing my entire senior year, Jim, Katie, Dave, and myself were to meet for coffee between classes.  When Jim didn’t show, we figured he was studying; I thought about that all day.  In the evening, I was watching the news before going to bed.  When they mentioned a man had been killed on his bike on Friday, and still had not been identified, I got one of those feelings that we never want to have.  For a few minutes, I paced the floor, afraid that my mind would even think those thoughts.  After calling Jim’s and not  receiving an answer, I went to his apartment.  The door was ajar about two inches, which at first gave me a feeling of ease, but that quickly faded.  Mail was still in the mailbox, there was old food on the stove, and Jim’s touring bike was gone. 

Back home, I talked to Sean, one of Jim’s oldest friends.  We agreed that I should call the coroner.  After I described Jim, the coroner told me it sounded like we were talking about the same man.  We made plans to meet the next morning.  Trying to sleep was all but impossible; I tossed and turned, while slipping in and out of consciousness.

On Tuesday, I went to school around 6 AM, in an attempt to study.  It was impossible to concentrate on work; thoughts of Jim were all I could filter from my head.  At 8 AM, Sean and I met with the coroner; our worst fears were realized; Jim was dead.  Identifying a friend is something we should never need to go through.   

The day continued like a dream; dozens of Jim’s friends started to arrive from all directions.  Phone calls by the hundreds, along with tears and laughter dominated the day.  We told old stories, including the way Jim shifted his green onions from hand to hand when we were in the backcountry, in an attempt to decide how many to use for each meal; he was a numbers man. We laughed at the way he wore those black socks with his shorts, and about the green slacks he always loved.  I could picture the web of Jim’s life connecting to all parts of the country: calls from Yellowstone to Arizona, Wisconsin, Maine, Washington, and beyond.  There was food and wine, and more tears. 

Later in the day, as I sat on my front steps, I found myself waiting for Jim to come walking around the corner, something I had witnessed many times.  But Jim never showed, because that would have been real life, and we all know life is fiction.  I miss him. 

George Heinz










Becoming an Eagle


In 2000, the Yellowstone family lost one of its greatest outdoorsmen and one of my best friends. Jim Syron was killed when he was hit by a car in Bozeman, Montana while riding his bike. Sean Harrigan and I met the coroner to identify his body. That image will never leave my mind. I read this the day we poured Jim’s ashes in the Yellowstone-

It has been five months, two weeks, and one day since Jim left the world that surrounds us.  I have often wondered what that really means.  I ask myself what really happens when we die, but the answer seems to escape me.  I do realize that the real answer doesn’t matter.  The possibilities are what make life worth living.  I dream of all the potential variations of the after life.  Maybe we sit in a real place called heaven, maybe we don’t go anywhere.  I love the thought of us becoming part of the earth.  In my mind, I have pictured all of Jim’s friends watching his ashes float away.  Within minutes, fish scoop small portions of the ash up.  Later in the day, Jim is part fish, only to suddenly become part bear, or better yet part eagle.  He will be watching us from the sky by the time we leave the valley today.  For the next few weeks or months, Jim will be making the great river trip toward the Gulf, being born again in many places, and maybe flopping around the bottom of a few drift boats along the way. 

The possible outcomes of life after life will continue to flow in and out of our minds, as sure as the memories of Jim will forever make us laugh and cry.  I’m sure we all picture Jim, with his long black socks and skinny legs, hiking or skiing out in front of us (maybe not you Hahn), or standing in the back of the crowd, Camel in hand, taking in the big picture.  I miss that.  I like to picture Jim sitting with his legs crossed, along a river or high on a ridge, holding a map between his fingers, while he studies some detail that seems to escape the rest of us.  SHHH, SHHH. 

I’m fairly sure these little descriptions of Jim are clear to all of us; just as I’m sure everyone could throw a few dozen of their own into the mix.  I also know that Jim would not want this to be a sad day.  This is a day to remember and laugh.  This is a day to be safe, in many ways.  I really mean that.  This is Jim’s day, please be careful today.  And from this point on when we drive or float through the valley we will all watch for that skinny eagle.  You will know the one when you see it; It will be the one in wool pants.

                                                                                    George Heinz





More Than A Bench


If you are ever in Olympia, stop by the farmers market and spend some time on Ron’s bench. It is something that Megan and I and now Oly do often; we took Oly there when he was just three months old. The Olympia’s farmers market is a special place in a special town. Like most urban areas, time is catching-up to Washington’s capital city. There are more homeless people than there used to be and the fads are different than they were when any of us were young. But, at the farmers market, if you get a chance, relax on Ron’s bench and watch for Ron’s spirit. It is there among the apples and crafts. Maybe it is floating on the music. You will notice the flavor of the people; Ron was one of them.

Ron worked in the same hospital in Olympia for 30 years. He was a mental health specialist and you would find it hard to locate a local family that Ron did not impact in some positive way. Ronald Joseph O’Connor passed away two days after he retired; two days. That still pisses me off.

I had many special moments with Ron. One of the most memorable was when Meg, Ron and I were paddling in Mud Bay near Olympia. As we paddled among some old log pilings, a baby seal surfaced and swam along with us; it would swim and then roll onto its back and then repeat the entire motion. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone, but I have never forgotten that sight or the pleased look on Ron’s face.

Ron was Oly, Isabella, Ben and Mia’s granddad, he was Megan and Sarah’s father and he was my friend. Ron was a spiritual man. He studied to become a priest when he was young. He was Zen Buddhist as an adult and he was a Christian when he died. He liked religion and he did not care where your spirituality came from; he had respect for all people’s beliefs. The world would be better if we all had the values of Ron O’Connor. The world would be better if we still had Ron O’Connor.

I hope Ron found his heaven and if he did, I bet there is a nice basketball court and I hope Izzy is his cheerleader.