Rep. Michele Bachmann announced that she won’t seek re-election. She will be missed at fairs, carnivals and tractor pulls.
The trouble started well before Jerry Butler was born. Mrs. Butler, Jerry’s mom, started having problems with her pregnancy in about her third month; by the forth month she was bedridden and miserable. The doctors, as well as family members, started to suggest she terminate the pregnancy, but Mrs. Butler was determined to have the baby. As she approached the third trimester, it became unrealistic to think the baby wouldn’t be born early. A quick look at Mrs. Butler in bed made people think of a bloated cow; how could a woman’s stomach stretch so much? Finally the doctors decided it was time to induce labor and deliver the child.
The cesarean section took hours, and the doctors were flabbergasted by what they saw. Jerry was healthy in every way, but his head was the largest one anyone could remember. Jerry’s body was normal in size, which made his head look even bigger. After the initial shock faded, Mrs. Butler was just happy to have a healthy child. During the first couple of years, there were not many problems that couldn’t be addressed. Normal baby clothes had to be altered to fit over Jerry’s head; Mrs. Butler became an expert at adding zippers and snaps to clothes that were made to be pulled on. The Butlers bought a baby carriage made for twins and took the divider out so Jerry and his head would fit.
The hardest and most frustrating period came as Jerry was learning to walk. His head was so heavy he couldn’t lift the weight into an upright position. While all babies have trouble with balance, that trouble was multiplied for Jerry. He learned to place his forehead on the ground and pull his feet under himself. This worked well on wood or tile floors; Jerry could slide himself from room to room without much trouble. It was strange to watch him slide around the house. Slowly, Jerry learned to pull his head off the floor just slightly, but he still couldn’t stand.
When he was about ten, Jerry’s back and neck were getting strong enough to pull his legs up and under himself, and with fast footwork he could stand. It was crazy to watch; Jerry would rush forward and then backward, much like a circus performer trying to balance objects in the air. Jerry wore holes in the carpet from swinging back and forth, while attempting to remain upright. Kids in the neighborhood would gather just to see Jerry stand.
When mere standing was no longer a problem for Jerry, Mr. Butler rigged a bicycle with a huge u-shaped brace that Jerry could rest his head in. As long as Jerry stayed on streets that were flat, things were not a problem, but once, when Jerry went down the hill by school, he gained so much speed, with his head bent forward, he couldn’t make the turn at the bottom, and he shot off the road and into the woods. The local kids were always trying to get Jerry to ride that hill again.
Instead of getting hurt by all this, Jerry decided he could use the weight of his head in a positive way. Jerry took skiing lessons. The lift operators were great to Jerry; they would let a few empty chairs go up and then help him on the chair. Crowds would gather to watch Jerry get off the chair, and once he turned downhill there was no stopping him. Other skiers would move off to the side of the runs as Jerry raced by, going faster than any skier had ever gone, while throwing a trail of snow into the air as if a semi had driven by. You could hear people whisper, “Look at the head on that one.”
Jerry had finally found something he was good at. Until his skiing days, Jerry had always thought he would end up as a mascot for some football team or something. Today, whenever people ask why skiers are so big-headed, I tell them they just want to be like Jerry Butler.
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.”
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.
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.
“GOOD FOR YOU”
If you know Montana, you know what I mean when I say it was a Montana type of day. Puffy white clouds dotted the otherwise deep blue sky. There were mountains and there was a river. It felt as if the world was just waking. It was clean and fresh.
Our place was still buried in winter, but we could see the open land down slope. The people who live down there, below us, were in spring. We had to go visit and escape the mountains, if only for a while.
The snow still covered everything above 6000 feet and while the river bottom was soggy and brown, it was snow free. In most areas, a crusted fringe of lingering white ice gripped the river’s edge, refusing to melt.
After driving out of our winter world, we found a spot along the river where we could access a rock covered beach; our house was in view back in the frozen distance. After dressing Oly in several layers, we worked our way along the bank until we could cross a small drainage and search for rocks on an exposed island. It was Oly’s first trip to the Yellowstone River since the snow had abated to the mountains.
Strolling along the river, looking for rocks, is one of my favorite things. I can clear my mind and free myself from the rest of the world. I stumble around plucking different rocks from the sand. Some are chosen for beauty, some for color or shape. Other types catch my eye because of how they were made.
Different people are drawn to different types of rocks. In the world of geology, you are a sed-petter if you study sedimentary rocks, a hard-rocker if you study metamorphic rocks and a hot-rocker if you study igneous rocks or volcanoes.
I’m a hot rocker first. I like rocks that show signs of how the Yellowstone ecosystem was formed. So I stumble along, crouched over, filling my pockets with petrified wood and agate. Today, I filled Oly’s back pocket with a nice piece of petrified wood.
I can see the future. Oly will be walking back to our raft with his swim trunks around his ankles because his pockets are full of rocks. Like father, like son.
I would like to be able to say that March is when I really start to yearn for spring, but that would be a lie. I start thinking about spring as soon as the first snow flies. This winter, that was in fall. When the first snow came, Oly was just a month old. So for him, it has always been winter: cold, windy and barren.
Winter has its beauty; there are not many views more spectacular than a snow-capped mountain in the distance. Ecologically, winter is the most important season. For wildlife, it is hard; every step needs to be calculated and there always needs to be an escape route. For trees, extended cold helps keep different infestations at bay. It is a time when the earth gets to rest and store some resources. Summers are made by winters.
The cold feels clean. In many ways, nature is at its best when it is well below freezing. When it is really cold, tree sap begins to freeze and as it does, it begins to pop and crackle. I love that sound; it reminds me of when I lived at Snow Lodge in Yellowstone. Skiing through a frozen world like that is spiritual; the crunching of the snow as you ski along, the sound of your breath and that popping of the trees is all you hear.
We have that same beauty as we ski from our house here at the Cirql H. During those moments, when we get to ski, Megan and I love living up here on our mountain; I’m sure Oly will too. But, during everyday life, when we fight the snow and cold just to survive, we think of spring.
It is in early March, when I really start to feel it. But soon, the bluebirds will come back; their blue, along with the yellow of both the glacial lilies and the buttercups, will bring some color back into this frozen world. Ahh, then the arrowleaf balsamroot.
I believe it was Matt Higgins (or Jeremiah Johnson) and Hatchet Jack that said,
hj- You wouldn’t happen to know what month it is would Ya?
jj-March. Maybe, April.
hj-March maybe. l don’t believe April.
jj-Winter’s a long time going?
hj-Stays long this high. March is a green, muddy month down below. Some folks like it; Farmers mostly.
So, as the muddy season hits us, we will anticipate floating the Yellowstone and teaching Oly about the water. But for now, we wait, because you just can’t cheat the mountain, pilgrim.
Oly is 4 months and 3 weeks old and he is nearly crawling. As we watched Louisville basketball last night, in their 5 overtime game against Notre Dame, Oly kept looking at me as if he was saying, “Put me in coach”. Louisville lost and I know we have years until he can sport a Card uniform, but we may have done better with him in the game. Oly’s grandmother GG, was calling at what was nearly midnight and wondering what was going on; she is 80 and still rooting the Cards on. After the loss last night, I think Oly is soft on his commitment to the Cards class of 2029.