Boise’s Oldest Store to Close

  David Graves jokes that he’s “the mayor of Eighth Street.”

  “If there were such a thing, I’d be it,” he said. 

  Graves has worked at the Alexander Davis men’s clothing store in downtown Boise for 38 years. He’s sold suits to senators, governors, mayors and billionaires.

  And to regular folks who just want to look good in their clothes. He’s waited on as many as four generations of the same families.

  The store is a piece of Idaho history. Alexander Davis, 812 W. Bannock Street, is the oldest retail store in the city and possibly in the state.

  It was founded in 1891 by Moses Alexander, a two-time Boise mayor and Idaho governor. The store has operated continuously for 131 years, supplying menswear to customers from miners and farmers to tycoons and statesmen. Hanging on one of its walls is a framed copy of its workman’s compensation policy – Policy No. 1A, the first ever issued in Idaho. 

  An upscale store with high-end merchandise, expert tailoring and employees with decades of experience, it’s believed to be the eleventh oldest clothing store in the U.S. 

   But its  long run is about to end.

  “It’s time,” Graves said. “Our last day will be April 30.”

  Graves purchased the store from the Alexander family in 2006. Covid hurt sales, as it has for many businesses, and after nearly 40 years of working there he was ready to retire.

  In his time at the store, he’s sold suits to Idaho’s U.S. senators, Gov. Robert E. Smylie and every other governor since Cecil Andrus, seven in all. His customers have included Idaho’s potato king, J.R. Simplot, and Joe Albertson, founder of the Albertsons grocery store chain.

  As you might expect, he’s had his share of memorable encounters with customers.

  “There was a time on a Saturday after closing time when I heard a panicked knock on the door. I opened it, and a guy walks in and says ‘I need an outfit for a wedding tonight!’”

  Graves found a sport jacket for the man, pressed it and “told him with assurance he would blend into the wedding crowd with ease and not to worry. The wedding was for 7:30 that night, and it was after 6:30 at this point.”

   On his way out, the customer told Graves that he wasn’t merely part of the wedding crowd. He was the groom.

   “I don’t know how it all turned out as I never saw the man again.”

  Another customer clearly had hoisted one too many before coming to the store to complain about the way his new shoes fit.

  Actually just one shoe. He said it was so tight it hurt his foot. The other shoe seemed to fit just fine.

  The customer had had so much to drink he didn’t realize that when he put the shoe on he forgot to remove the shoe horn.

   “It took a heck of a tug to get it out,” Graves said.

  When he began working in the store, there were a dozen Alexander Davis stores from Twin Falls to Ontario, Ore. Downtown Boise had multiple menswear stores –  Alexander Davis, Reilly’s, Roper’s, Men’s Wardrobe, Marshall’s … It had four theaters, five department stores.

  “Downtown used to be the place to come for high quality, interesting businesses,” Graves said. “There were men’s and women’s clothing stores, high-end department stores, five jewelry stores … That’s all changed now.”

  One reason for that was the opening of Boise Towne Square Mall in 1988. Many of the kinds of stores that used to be downtown are in the suburbs now.

  Another reason has to do with ways downtown has changed. 

  “I’m a two-stop shop. Most often you have to come back after what you bought is tailored. You have to park twice, and parking has changed with bike lanes.

  “When Covid hit, the city allowed patio dining for bars and restaurants. Sidewalks became choke points with pedestrians, scooters, bicycles and skateboards. The dynamics of the city have changed.”

  Now the changing city is about to lose an iconic business that has stood the test of time, and then some.   

  “Everything good has to come to an end,” Graves said. “It’s bittersweet, but I think it’s time for me to retire and enjoy what a weekend is. It’s unheard of for retailers to get two days off in a row.” 

  He considers himself “the last of of the old guard,” owners of Roper’s, Brookover’s, Angleton’s and other downtown stores, now fading memories.

  “What I’ll remember most are the wonderful people who have supported us. It’s comforting knowing that the store has impacted a lot of people. My head’s held high. I feel like we’ve been a good steward for the community.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

When Journalists Were Colorful

 Here’s to the late Miriam Barr, who died last month at 99, with almost half of her long life spent as a journalist. May she now be writing stories for the ages on a celestial typewriter reserved for her exclusive use. 

  I met her when she was just a kid in her late forties, working out of The Idaho Statesman’s Caldwell bureau office. I was the new kid on the block, hired just out of college to help with the paper’s Canyon County coverage. A co-worker confided that Miriam was a bit of a character, an assertion she wasted no time confirming.

  A woman with snow white hair and piercing eyes greeted me on my first day at the tiny bureau office.

  “Hello,” she said. “I’m Miriam. The file cabinets and the desk next to them are mine. The other desk is yours. The typewriter on that desk is  yours, too. Don’t ever touch the typewriter on my desk.”

  The last sentence was spoken with as much vehemence as if she’d been telling me not to rummage through her underwear drawer.

  My successor in the bureau learned just how possessive she was of that typewriter, a gleaming, black Underwood with a touch as soft as a baby’s cheek. He thought he’d have the office all to himself one afternoon when she walked in and caught him using her typewriter.

  “What did she do?” I asked him.

  “She picked it up and threw it across the office.”

  She was an old-school reporter who seldom strayed from her beat, but wasn’t afraid to take on those who offended her sense of propriety. The owner of pornographic book store learned that the hard way when she tracked him down in another state and grilled him mercilessly for an investigative story. 

  Barr was one of a legion of colorful characters once common in newsrooms. A few were famous for being colorful.

  The late Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle was said to have had a desk in the paper’s newsroom – where no one had seen him in years.

  One of his favored haunts for writing his columns – which could be about anything from the benefits of sleeping in to the difference between shower people and bath people – was a North Beach bar. If he didn’t finish a column by his fifth bottle of “the Green Death,” his name for Rainier Ale, he threw it away and started another one.

   Statesman Sportswriter Jim Poore was locally famous as a larger-than-life character. Tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds, he was forever meaning to lose weight but unable to resist temptation.

  “Hey, Woodward,” he would say. “Let’s get in that ugly little car of yours and go to the Fanci Freeze for a Boston Shake (a hot fudge sundae at the bottom of a milkshake).” When a waitress turned to leave after taking his order for a family sized combination pizza and a pitcher of Coke, his dinner companion memorably called after her, “Wait! I’d like something to eat, too.”

  Hanging from a wall in my home is a framed poster for the Jim Poore Invitational Golf Tournament, illustrated with a photo of a  pepperoni, olive and golf-ball pizza.

  Jim divided his mail into two piles, bills and everything else. The bills he consigned to a trash compactor.

  He didn’t file a tax return for several years year in a row, prompting an “invitation” to visit with IRS agents. He left them laughing – and the IRS owing him money. Impossible to refuse or dislike, he charmed a dour, tight-fisted editor into sending him and me to England to look for ghosts.

  And he wrote beautifully and almost effortlessly. 

  Al Shayt was an old-school Statesman copy editor. He wore a green eyeshade, had the unusual hobby of fashioning model airplanes out of soda and beer cans, and was a gambler extraordinaire.

  Returning from weekends in Jackpot, Nev., he elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from envious co-workers by pulling fat wads of hundred-dollars bills from his pockets. He had invented a winning system and even written a short book about it.

  We were shocked the weekend he returned with no Benjamins in his pockets.

  “They called me into the casino manager’s office the minute I walked in the door,” he explained. “He said they were not in the business of providing second incomes for their customers and that I was banned from setting foot in the place.”

  He most likely responded with his trademark expression:

  “Well, I’ll be a bruised peach.”

  A few weeks of becoming a persona non grata in Jackpot, he quit his job at the paper and moved.

  To Atlantic City, N.J.

  Features editor Betty Penson traveled the world on press junkets, staying in five-star hotels and dining with the likes of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Like Barr, she was not a woman to be crossed, as I learned after a column of mine mentioned her with what she judged to be a lack of deference. Biting references to “young Woodward” appeared in her columns intermittently for the remainder of her career. 

  Copy editor Gordon Peterson wore a cowboy hat, shirt and boots – and occasionally chaps – to work. With his long white hair and beard, he could have passed for Wild Bill Hickok’s older brother. 

  He came by the look honestly, having previously worked as a cowboy and as an editor for the Tombstone Epitaph, the paper famed for its coverage of the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was rumored that he kept a bottle of whiskey in one of his desk drawers. Having alcohol on the premises was strictly forbidden, but he was so good at his job that he was allowed to get away with it.  

  They don’t make newspaper characters like that any more, and in some ways that may be a good thing. Journalists today look and act more professional. 

  But they sure aren’t as colorful. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

The Real Book Typo Culprit

  A woman I know stops reading a book if she finds a typo. It doesn’t matter how much of it she’s read. She could be several hundred pages into a book she’s crazy about and a single typo stops her cold.

  She’d have made it as far as page 46 in my latest book.

  As you know if you read it or have seen The Idaho Press’s  advertisements for it, the book is a memoir. It’s about many of the things that comprise a life, but mainly it’s about growing up in a very different Boise of 35,000 people, playing in a rock band and my career as a reporter and columnist at The Idaho Statesman.

  With the first printing a few dozen books short of being sold out and the jury out on whether to do another printing I can write about it without  shamelessly promoting it. Who writes an article to promote a book that’s almost out of print? And it’s not really the book itself that’s today’s subject. Mostly I wanted to write about its typos – to explain to readers that it wasn’t cobbled together singlehandedly by a feebleminded geezer who couldn’t find his reading glasses and wouldn’t know a typo from a Bingo chip. 

  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is easier to miss than a typo in a book. Including the time spent writing it, I must have read the entire manuscript a dozen times or more, and parts of it more than that. Three other people read it, too, all of them smart, well-read individuals. I’d have sworn that there were’t any typos or other mistakes in the book, yet some horrifyingly obvious mistakes got by every one of us.

  One of the more embarrassing was a wrong last name, specifically the wrong last name of the late Jim Morrison, lead singer for the 1960s rock group the Doors. I’ve played some of Morrison’s songs, known about him forever, and for a reason that is a complete mystery to me wrote Morrissey instead Morrison.

  Morrissey? I’ve known plenty of people named Morrison, but to the best of my knowledge have never known a soul named Morrissey, or even heard the name before. What would possess me to write such a thing? It would be like writing John Lemmon or Paul McCartly.

  One of the proof readers who painstakingly reviewed the manuscript was a teenager in the 1960s, is well versed in the music of the era and was horrified to learn that she missed such a glaring error. 

  That made two of us.

  Some of the easiest typos to miss are words repeated that shouldn’t be. A textbook example is found at the bottom of the aforementioned page 46: 

  “It was far enough from the city proper that I’d fall asleep on the on the way home.”

  That, at least, is understandable. The eye goes right over those sorts of things.

  Less understandable, and arguably the most embarrassing mistake in the book, is a sentence about my late Aunt Nita and Uncle Edward. What makes it even more embarrassing is that it took a reader to bring it to my attention weeks after the book was released. Aunt Nita and Uncle Edward became Aunt Edward and Uncle Nita.

  Aunt Edward? Uncle Nita? How could any of us, let alone all four of us, have missed that?

  A mistake that jumped out the first time I held the book in my hands had to do with my mother’s name. A cutline accompanying her picture identifies her as Margaret Woodward.

  Her name was Marguerite Woodward.

  There are a lot of things I don’t know or may be a bit hazy on, but one thing I do know beyond any possible doubt is my mother’s name. There is no way on God’s Earth I would have called her Margaret.

  So how did it happen? A good question. I’ve been working with Jeanne Huff, my Idaho Press editor, long enough to know she wouldn’t have changed it, so my best guess is that it happened somewhere in the publishing process.

  It helps a little bit to know that no one escapes the typo curse and that some typos are laugh-out-loud funny.

  One of my favorites was in a cutline on the front page of a weekly newspaper in a small town in Washington State. The town was so small that when its only church got a new minister after months without one, it was big news. Pictured on the front page were the new minister, his wife and their three sons.

  Except that what should have been an “o” in “sons” was an “i.”

  Not even bestsellers from major publishers are immune. Amor Towles’s “The Lincoln Highway,”  for example. It was a No. 1 New York Times best seller, chosen  by Time, NPR, The Washington Post, Barack Obama and others as a Best Book of the Year.

  The porpoise notwithstanding.

  The porpoise makes its unlikely appearance on page 456 of “The Lincoln Highway.” It splashed onto the page where Towles intended to write “purpose.”

  The book was published by the venerable Viking Press, whose authors have included D.H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, John Steinbeck and other great writers. It presumably has some pretty fair proof readers as well. 

  One of the most infamous typos, an omitted word, occurred in a reprint of the King James Bible. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” became “Thou shalt commit adultery.” It inspired the reprint’s enduring nickname, “The Wicked Bible.” 

  What could be responsible for such egregious errors finding their way past even the most conscientious proof readers?

  I think it’s the devil.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Normalcy Revisited: No more Column Reruns

  It’s been two years now since the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency that disrupted life as we knew it. It wasn’t long before one thing after another was being canceled or suspended. 

  Including this column. The pandemic-related loss of advertising revenues led to my new columns being reduced from every other Sunday to once a month, alternating with previously published columns.

  Omicron notwithstanding, maybe things are looking up. Some medical experts are predicting that after a tough couple of months, we may have something approaching herd immunity by spring. And starting today, I’m back to writing a new column every other Sunday. No more reruns. 

  Actually, I kind of enjoyed doing what came to be called the “Woodward Classics.” It wasn’t a lot of fun retyping them, but they were fun to revisit.

  A few of my favorites:

  * State of the art confusion, inspired by shopping for a new stereo and understanding almost nothing of what the sales people said. Their incomprehensible jargon about bandwidths, energy transients, harmonic distortion and other gibberish left me feeling, as my mother used to say, “like two cents waiting for change.” Nobody wants to go shopping and be made to feel stupid. It’s been a lot of years since that column was first published, and I still haven’t bought any new components. My old, hopelessly outdated stereo is just fine, thank you.

  * National Nude Weekend. This actually happened. It was billed as a “celebration of nude recreation, sun and freedom by nudists from coast to coast.”

  An American Sunbathing Association representative I interviewed said there were 50,000 card carrying nudists in the U.S. He wasn’t amused when I asked him where they carried their cards.

  The column was a satire. Promoting nudity was the farthest thing from my mind, but at least one person took it seriously. She furiously demanded to know just who I thought I was to encourage readers of a general circulation newspaper to walk around naked all weekend. 

  * A Textbook Woodward Vacation. Readers used to ask whether my wife’s and my vacations when our kids were small were as bad as they sounded in print. They were.

  One of the more memorable began with arriving at Yellowstone Park during a rare summer snowstorm:

  “The weather was so miserable that we left Yellowstone and drove to a fishing hot spot in Montana, where the fish weren’t biting but the mosquitoes were ravenous. My wife fell in the river. … One of our daughters woke up the next morning with chicken pox. Two days later, I had them. We opted to come home early, having had as much vacation as we could stand.” 

  Some of the reruns were mini-profiles of memorable Idahoans – raptor expert Morley Nelson, construction magnate Harry Morrison, the Small family of Small, Idaho (once listed in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the smallest town in America), “Prairie Captain” Bob Ertter, whose double life took him every other week from selling groceries in a tiny store on the Camas Prairie to running an oil tanker on the San Francisco Bay.

 Now I wish I’d reprised more of those. Idaho has been home to enough colorful characters to fill a book. And then some. 

  It was tempting to rerun some old columns that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut.

  * A column about an alarming number of U.S. senators who looked like Elmer Fudd. I ended up not using it because some younger readers may have no idea who Elmer Fudd was (a cartoon character doomed to being forever outwitted by Bugs Bunny).

  * The Lowman Burping Contest. This also actually happened. It was a way for locals to pass the time because, as one of them pointed out, “the winters are pretty long up here in the mountains.”

  The contest’s winner, for the second consecutive year, was a woman named Rose.

  “You probably think all this is silly or disgusting, and maybe it is,” the column concluded. “But everyone had a good time, nobody got hurt and, as previously noted, the winters can be awfully long in Lowman. As I buttoned my coat and walked out into the snow, a mocking shout broke the stillness of the forest.

  “‘Come on Rose! The contest is over.’”

  * A column about one of the state’s political parties giving an award to a congressman newly released from prison for failing to report nearly a third of a million dollars in financial transactions while serving in Congress. Readers could be forgiven for thinking there was no honor in politics.

  And how could I forget Elvis? Elvis was a spider monkey at Zoo Boise. When I went there to interview a zookeeper, he saw me as a rival for her affections.

  Elvis’s eyes were “a psychotically vibrant shade of blue and seethed with hatred. Every fiber of his being was focused on annihilating me. There wasn’t the slightest doubt that if he’d gotten out – and the wires of his cage door suddenly looked way too flimsy – he’d have finished me off in less time than it takes a pit bull to finish a Slim Jim.”

  Fun as it would have been to run some of those columns again, the return to all new columns is welcome. And maybe, just maybe, the hoped-for end to the pandemic is just months away. Fingers crossed on that. 

  The most difficult thing about writing a regular column, as anyone who does it will tell you, is the ongoing need for new subjects. I’m always looking for them, and ideas from readers would be appreciated.

  Something you’d like to see in the paper?

  An interesting story?

  A colorful  character?

  Someone with a unique job, hobby or collection?

  I’d love to hear about it. You can reach me at the email address below.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Love Letter to Idaho

Tim Woodward’s new columns have been alternating with Woodward Classics during the pandemic. This one, slightly modified here, originally was published in The Idaho Statesman after the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption in 1980.

  A fair part of the state has choked on volcanic ash, and a scientist has predicted Idaho will fall into the sea.

  No resumes are in my mailbox; no moving van is outside my door

  A world without Idaho? Unthinkable.

  What is Idaho?

  Idaho is mountains. John Steinbeck called them real mountains that reach to the sky.

  Idaho is farm country. It’s irrigated valleys with shimmering arcs of portable water, rain-swept hills of green grain. Smudge pots and spray planes and sweet-pungent earth. 

  Idaho is basins where the snow never melts, forests where the sun hardly shines, sagebrush immensities where you can spend a whole day and hear nothing but the wind.

  Idaho is an old man lamenting the demise of his favorite trout stream, a newcomer flushed with the discovery of unpolluted air and free campgrounds.

  Idaho is heart-stopping emptiness, half again as large as England with a fiftieth as many people. You can start at the northern border and drive all day without seeing the southern border or a high-rise building.

  Idaho is Sun Valley, America’s first ski resort. Exclusive shops, cocktails in the Duchin Room, suntanned jet-setters in gleaming Porsches. Grand memories – Cooper and Hemingway, Shearer and Sothern, Harriman and the UP – and simple fun – a Volkswagen full of backpacks and pizza at Louie’s.

  Idaho is corporations with offices from coast to coast, a weekly newspaper with a staff of one.

  Idaho is an abandoned cabin on a windswept plain, a lonely teacher in a one-room school.

  It’s elk grazing on a hillside, jackrabbits dying on a highway.

  It’s hermits in the back country, newcomers in the suburbs.

  It’s smog and computerized traffic, a town with a single parking meter.

  Idaho is a thousand little towns with names that dance lightly on the tongue:  Santa and Jerusalem and Coeur d’Alene, Eden and Hope, Pearl and Gem, Harvard and Princeton, Elk Creek and Three Creek, Grimes Pass and Good Grief. Bear, Eagle, White Bird, Elk River, Duck Valley, Horseshoe Bend.

 Idaho is millionaires. We have the Potato King, the Supermarket King, the Timber King and other royalty, and wages among the lowest in the nation.

  Idaho is a mansion with a view of a skyline, a baby crying in a migrant labor camp. Idaho is a general store with everything in the midst of nothing, a restaurant that serves eight kinds of homemade pie in the middle of nowhere.

  Idaho is wilderness: jade lakes in granite basins, stories around the campfire, hot springs under the stars. It’s huckleberries and hummingbirds and hunters in the hills. Raptors and rookeries and rivers on the run.

  Idaho is Basque country. Chorizos on the grill, weightlifters in the park, Oinkari dancers in the streets. Girls with flashing eyes and boys in tow, a solitary sheepherder in a wagon called home.

  Idaho is Indian heritage – Sacajawea, Chief Joseph, Pocatello – and Indian reality – Fort Hall, Lapwai, Duck Valley.

  Idaho has been called a natural paradise and a cultural backwater.  The reality is somewhere in between. You can’t pigeonhole a state like Idaho. It’s too big, too diverse; a geographic jumble, a cultural stew. 

  Idaho can be ugly, barroom brawls, dirty politics, sewage flowing from a pipe – and it can be lovely – flowers on the Camas Prairie, a full moon over Hells Canyon, sunlight on the St. Joe. Anyplace in the mountains. Any mountains. Take your pick.

  Other states have beckoned, but the sum of their offers is at best a trade. When you’re tired of Idaho, you’re tired of life.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him a woodwardcolumn@gmail.com

Has Boise Lost Its Soul?

 When one of my recent columns asked readers for help tracking down a man who wanted to leave Boise 30 years ago because he thought it was getting too big, I figured the odds of finding him were about the same as those of finding Slim the cockatiel.

  Slim, a Woodward family pet, flew out an open door and into the sunset more than 20 years ago. 

  The name of the man who thought Boise was too big is Don Taylor. According to howmanyofme.com. there are 649 Don Taylors in the U.S.

  Long odds against finding him. And after three decades and counting, there was no guarantee that he was even alive. 

  So you can imagine my surprise when he emailed me. a relative and a friend of his hand read the column and told him I was trying to find him. 

  Taylor, 71, grew up in Boise when its population was 35,000, roughly 15 percent of what it is now. There were two tall buildings, and one of them was the Statehouse. Traffic was non-existent. Anything west of Curtis Road was considered rural. He and his family lived on a  farm that’s now part of Interstate 84.

  Disillusioned by how much the city had changed since then, he dreamed of moving to a small town with “a sense of community, a phone book less than half an inch thick, no traffic-watch planes and no mall.”

  Did that happen?

  Did he in fact move to a smaller town?

  If so, how have things worked out there?

  Does he ever return to Boise, and if so what’s his take on it today?

  It turns out that Taylor and his wife, Jacque, did in fact move to their dream town. It just took about 25 years longer than expected.

  “We had three young kids, and we had to get the kids raised before we moved,” he said. 

  Their dream town?

  Nehalem, Ore. They moved there in 2016. 

  “We’d gone there on our first family vacation with the kids and fell in love with the place,” he said. “We finally moved there five and half years ago when we retired.”

  Nehalem is on the Oregon Coast. Its population, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates, is 303.

  “They call it a town, but to me it’s more of a village. It’s a river town, a fishing and logging town. Things don’t change much in Nehalem. They built some nice pickle ball courts recently. That’s about the only thing that’s changed in the time we’ve lived there.”

  Is tiny Nehalem what they were hoping for when the Taylors left booming Boise? Are they happy there?

  “Very happy,” he replied. “We just love it.”

  Jacque Taylor says she feels “perfectly at home in Nehalem. No traffic, noise, sky or air pollution. That’s a huge plus. And we felt a sense of community from the get-go. … We went to our local Grange yesterday for a Christmas bazaar and ran into so many people we know. That used to happen in Boise, but not any more.”

  Their oldest daughter was nine when the Taylors discovered Nehalem during the family vacation, in 1991. She was so taken by the place that she wanted to be married there. 

  And she was, in 2006. She and her family now run two inns there. 

  The Taylors’ other daughter got engaged on the beach at Nehalem. Her fiancé knew how important the area was to her so he brought her there to propose.

  Nehalem’s slower pace suits the Taylors just fine. Retired from their respective careers in electronics and banking, Don and Jacque spend their free time playing pickle ball, kayaking and cycling. They enjoy spending time on a beach a mile from their home and are active in a community garden and land trust.

  That said, Jacque added that Nehalem isn’t perfect and isn’t for everyone:

  “I’m not saying that we don’t have problems. Growth is also a huge issue here. (But) there are policies in place that don’t allow any franchises or buildings more than two stories. … As more people of our generation are retiring, they’re selling their homes in Portland and moving to the coast. Building is occurring, but it’s happening with a lot of community input.”

  As much as they love the area, she adds that “it’s not for everyone. You have to drive 25 miles north or south to get to retail stores. … The closest Costco is 50 miles north.  We’re good with all that. It’s so worth it living here because of the soul of our community.

 Their take on Boise today?

 “We have friends who had to move out of Boise for work and then came back,” Don said. “We asked them how they felt being back in Boise. They said ‘We still love Boise, but Boise’s lost its soul.’”

  The Taylors saw the Boise they knew and loved slipping away from them more than 30 years ago.

  “As farms and land disappeared, we could see what was happening,” Jacque said. “Boise was being loved to death. We as natives felt like the minority.”

  If anything, the trend has accelerated. We didn’t used to see a lot of out-of-state license plates in what recently OF LATE? has become one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. Now you can’t drive more than a few blocks without seeing them.  

  “I hear friends who live in Boise complaining about how much bigger it’s gotten, and they moved to Boise just ten or 15 years ago,” Don said. “It’s changed a lot just since then.

  “ I hate seeing this done to communities all over the country. People move to places for the quality of life, and then it’s destroyed. We shouldn’t be doing that. We should be able to protect and preserve that quality of life in the places we love.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

When the Last Kid Leaves Home

Tim Woodward’s new columns are alternating with Woodward Classics during the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman in 2007.

  It’s almost spooky at our house these days. The other night I woke up and went downstairs to turn off a light that wasn’t on. I thought it was our son, up for one of his nocturnal snacks with a light turned low, but it was the moon shining through a kitchen window. 

  I see him in his room, on the computer, around every other corner. I hear a television and think it’s his voice. I start to reply, then realize he isn’t home. 

  And won’t be any time soon.

  Our youngest left home last week to attend school in another city. For the first time in years, there are no kids at our house. Just the two of us now, rattling around in a house built for five – seven if you include a deceased dog and a pet cockatiel that has long since flown. 

  Some of the changes have been okay. We buy a box of cereal and it’s still there the next day. The stereo is getting a breather, the fury of Metallica serenely absent. These, however, are small things. The big thing is more complicated.

  When you first have kids, you feel like they’ll be around forever. Then you make the mistake of blinking and they’re gone. That’s when you start to wonder, in all that unaccustomed stillness, whether you wasted too much time along the way. You wonder whether you appreciated them enough, whether you did enough for them.

  Were you a good enough parent?

  If you had it to do again, would you do it differently?

  Everyone who has children knows a time will come to let go, but the generations don’t seem to learn much about it from each other. A letter my parents wrote after I left for the Navy has come to mind a lot lately. They wrote about how quiet it was around the house – I was the last kid, too – and how they were struggling to fill the time once taken by parenting. 

  A few blinks later, I’m in exactly the same situation, never thought to ask them how they handled it, and now it’s too late.

  Should we do what they did – play golf, go fishing, buy an RV?

  Somehow I don’t see myself in golf shoes and a pork pie hat, muscling a gas hog around Arizona.

  Part of the problem is that we didn’t plan for this. Like many parents, we’ve been so wrapped up in work and being parents that we never gave a thought to how we’d fill the time when there was no one around to parent. 

  Canoeing, maybe? Canoes have always intrigued me. Maybe we could buy a canoe.

  No, that wouldn’t work. My wife hates canoes.

  Harleys?

  No, too expensive.

  Ballroom dancing?

  No, one of us is too clumsy. (Hint: it’s not my wife.)

  One thing that does help fill the time is that we’re having to do the things our newly departed son used to do around the house, primarily cooking. He gets it from his grandfather, who also loved to cook.

  Maybe there’s some  hope there. I have my eye on an Internet cookbook. Maybe a latent gene will kick in and I’ll while away my anecdotage puttering with pots and pans.

  It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. When people learned that our nest was newly empty, their reactions varied wildly. The wildest was an observation that with the kids gone we could walk around the house naked.

  The neighborhood is breathless with anticipation.

  The most insightful question anyone has asked so far is whether we still know how to talk to each other now that the kids are gone.

  Yes.

  But a fair amount of the conversation tends to be about the kids. Something that fills three decades of your life doesn’t just go away. You never really stop being a parent.

  You do have to move on, though. It would be nice to tell you we have that part figured out, but we don’t. Not yet, anyway. Talking about the kids and puttering in the kitchen will only get you so far, and continually seeing a face that isn’t there is one of the worst kinds of lonely.

  If any of you who read this have a suggestion, I’d love to hear it.

  And if you read this, Mark, know that your parents still miss you like crazy.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Mardi Gras Owner Dies at 106; Iconic Boise Ballroom to be Sold

  On a recent Saturday, for no apparent reason, Lydia Merrill came to mind, making me wonder whether she was still living. A few days later, a call came saying that she wasn’t.

  She died the day I’d been thinking about her. 

  Maybe it was her way of saying goodbye.

  I’d have liked to have said goodbye to Lydia, the owner of Boise’s Mardi Gras Ballroom. In her quiet way, she was the heart and soul of the old ballroom at Ninth and River streets. I’ve attended or played music at events at the Mardi Gras since I was a teenager and there was never a time when she wasn’t there.   

  “If you went to the Mardi Gras, you probably saw her,” her son, Tim Merrill, said. “She took tickets, counted the money, answered the phone, did a lot of the cleaning.”

  “She was pulling tables around in her 90s,” daughter Lana McCullough added. “If a dance ended at one or two in the morning, she’d curl up on a recliner and sleep there.” 

  Interviewed on the occasion of her hundredth birthday, she said she’d try to make it to 110. She came within a few years, dying of Covid 19 complications at 106.

  The ballroom is almost as old as she was. Her husband, Orson Merrill, bought it in 1958. It was already a local institution by then,  opening in 1928 as the Riverside Pavilion, an open-air venue. By the time the Merrills took over, it had a roof and a history of hosting big bands and jazz artists – Buddy Rich, Glenn Miller and his orchestra and Gib Hochstrasser and the Kings of Swing to name a few.

  The Merrills initially operated it as a roller skating rink. When roller skating didn’t prove to be as popular as they hoped, it went back to being a ballroom and an integral part of the local music scene for decades. The Ventures, Johnny Winter, Leon Russel and Edgar Winter, Albert Collins, the Animals, David Lindley and his El Rayo-X band and R.E.M. were among the famous acts that played there.

   It could take forever just to get close enough to the stage to see the band at some of those events. I was there the night blues guitarist Buddy Guy had fans packed elbow to elbow – 1,200 of them filling the dance floor, the lobby, tables and chairs, nooks and crannies, anywhere with sitting or standing room. The  music was so loud you felt it in your solar plexus.

  In my high school years, the Mardi Gras was a magnet for teenagers drawn by the music of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Dick Cates and the Chessmen, the Chancellors and other local groups. Along with the Miramar and Fiesta ballrooms, now both memories, it was one of the happening places to go. 

  If the Mardi Gras had a front man, it was Orson Merrill. Outgoing and colorful, he enjoyed chatting up the bands onstage while they were setting up. I still laugh about the time he carved “Orson” with a nail on one my group’s microphones, thinking it was his. He once poked a teenager with a hat pin for sitting on a table and was known to stop the music during dances to clean the hard-rock maple dance floor, which he installed himself. 

  And always, behind the scenes, there was Lydia – an icon in her own, quieter way. She helped keep the ballroom running for over half a century, kept the books in her younger years, and in her 90s was still vacuuming, cleaning tables, answering the phone, overseeing pretty much everything.

  “She’s probably the hardest working individual I’ve ever known,” McCullough said. “The two things that gave meaning to her life were being able to work and being able to learn. Until last few months of her life, she talked about wanting to go back to school to learn to speak Spanish.”

  On her hundredth birthday, she received an honorary certificate from Boise State University – where she earned over 100 credits as a senior citizen.

  “She had bookshelves in almost every room of her house,” McCullough said. “She read everything – self-help books, cookbooks, religious books, political books, everything except fiction. To her, novels were just stories. She wanted to learn, and she read everything she could to do that.”

  The ballroom during her last years wasn’t the force it had once been on the popular music scene.

   “It was mostly used for ethnic celebrations,” Tim Merrill said. “Mexican, Laotian, African, Afghan, a Bosnian party. … Mom went to a few of those. She had a T-shirt with ‘Security’ written on it.”

  With her passing, the iconic ballroom’s days most likely are numbered.

  “I think it’s going to go the way of Lydia and Orson,” McCullough said. “I think they were the only two people who could do the job the way they did it.”

  Developers, she added, “have been interested in it for years. It would be great if someone bought it who wasn’t just in for the money, who wanted to keep it a ballroom. I’d be all for that. Money isn’t everything. I’m hoping for something that would be a legacy for Lydia and Orson.”

  And for the city. How many venues do we have that have been around for nearly a century and entertained Idahoans with artists from Artie Shaw to Pinetop Perkins?

  Here’s hoping that McCullough gets her wish and someone who appreciates its history will buy the Mardi Gras, pump some money into it and bring the artists and the crowds back. We have plenty of banks, office buildings and condominium complexes. There’s only one Mardi Gras. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Mystic Writes Memoir Book, Now Available for Christmas Season

Okay, so this technically isn’t about the Mystics. But I wanted to let those of you who follow our blog know about my new book.

It’s a memoir. The title is “Finding My Niche.” It’s pretty much my life story, but its three main elements focus on growing up in a very different Boise (35,000 people, no high rises, no traffic), playing in the Mystics, and my career as an Idaho Statesman reporter and columnist. Readers will learn what it was like growing up in a town where kids caught tadpoles and swam in the Boise River. They’ll go inside The Statesman newsroom for a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of Idaho’s largest newspaper, and will read the stories of how the Mystics came to be and continue to be one of Idaho’s longest running rock bands.

“Finding My Niche” is available at Rediscovered Books, 180. N. Eighth Street in downtown Boise, on amazon.com, and will soon be at Barnes & Noble, 1315 N. Milwaukee, near the Boise Towne Square Mall.

And, as long as I’m at it, a bit of Mystics news: We’ll be playing at the Sapphire Room in the Riverside Hotel on January 8.

Thanks,

Tim Woodward

Was Boise Too Big Even 30 years ago? Don Taylor thought so

Tim Woodward’s new columns are alternating with Woodward Classics during the pandemic. This one originally was published in The Idaho Statesman in the late 1990s. We’ll leave it to readers to decide how relevant it is today.

  Most people move to Boise because they’re looking for a better place to live. Don Taylor is thinking of leaving for the same reason.

  “I’m tired of our officials telling us what a wonderful place they’re making of Boise,” he said. “It already was wonderful.”

  A Boise native and fourth-generation Idahoan, Taylor misses the Boise of before the boom. He knows his views on growth aren’t popular. In fact, he considered canceling the interview he requested with me to speaking for the overrun-native faction. He didn’t want people thinking he was an anti-growth zealot.

  “I try to be positive, and there are some new things about Boise I like,” he said “I’ve gone to some hockey games and enjoyed them. I like having more concerts. But I’m not sure that what we’ve gotten is worth what we’ve lost.

  “ … It’s hard for newcomers to understand. We had Boise at its best. They may think it’s great compared with where they came from, but what about those of us who have lived our whole lives here? Is our opinion any less valid?”

  Taylor, 47, grew up in a Boise that is now a memory. Its population was 35,000. Downtown had two “towers,” the Statehouse and the Hoff Building. The North End was riddled with dirt-cheap building lots. Anything west of Orchard Street, once aptly named, was considered rural.

  “I grew up on a 40-acre farm off of Maple Grove,” he said. “My father bought it to get us out in the country. The farm is part of the Interstate now. The house was moved and converted to a day care-center.”

  The Boise of his youth was geographically isolated, slow to change. Growth was almost imperceptible until the 1980s, the beginning of a 50,000-person population explosion.

  “Until then, we had normal growth cycles. What’s happened since isn’t normal. It’s crazy.

  “I miss the sense of community. It wasn’t really a small town, but you always ran into people you knew. People weren’t in such a hurry, and it was so easy to get around. We didn’t know what traffic was.

  “Now, whether you’re going to church or out to dinner or whatever, you have to wait in long lines. My wife and I used to ride bikes with our kids on Maple Grove. And that was just a few years ago. Now we wouldn’t even think of doing it.”

  Taylor isn’t anti-newcomer. His complaint is with “our officials who welcome any big development with open arms. … The people who settled this area called it the Treasure Valley because it was a treasure. But we’re paving over it as fast as we can.”

  Like his parents, Taylor thought he’d spend his entire life here. Now, he and his wife are looking for “a place with a sense of community, a phone book less than half an inch thick, no traffic-watch planes and no mall.”

  In a few years, when their children are grown, he says they’ll leave Boise.

  “My biggest feeling about Boise now is sadness,” he said. A lot of the newcomers are very gracious. They say wonderful things about what a great place this is.

  “They should have seen it 15 years ago.”

  ***

  It’s been roughly 30 years since this column first appeared. If he’s still living – he’d be in his 70s now – I’d love to find Don Taylor and interview him again.

  Did he in fact move to a smaller town? If so, how have things worked out for him there? Does he ever return to Boise, and if so what’s his take on it today? I tried searching for him online, but as you can imagine there are lots of Don Taylors out there. If anyone who reads this knows his current whereabouts, please email me at the address below:

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Howard the Halloween Grinch

  Most Idahoans remember J.R. Simplot as the Idaho Potato King. The man who emerged from the front door of the mansion on Simplot hill every Halloween, however, more closely resembled Santa Claus.

  Boisean Shelley Smith Eichmann remembers a jovial Simplot wearing a red sweater and handing out envelopes to trick or treaters. 

  “If you got to his house early enough, you got an envelope with a silver dollar and a poem,” she said. “A well written poem and a shiny silver dollar. He’d tell the trick or treaters to invest it well and to let him know if they had any good investment ideas. It was so special for the kids.”

  Simplot is gone, but Halloween remains a special time for kids today. It’s an almost universally positive experience for them. 

  And a relatively tame one. Treats are abundant, tricks all but forgotten.

  We didn’t have a J.R. Simplot in the neighborhood where I grew up. We had a Halloween Grinch. And a trick he played on me one year is one my most vivid Halloween memories. 

  Howard the Halloween Grinch lived across the street from my parents’ house in North Boise. He was the nicest of men 364 days a year, a friend and mentor to those of us lucky enough to have him take us under his wing.

   The man could fix anything. His garage and basement workshop contained as many tools, nuts and bolts and miscellaneous parts as a Home Depot store. It was Howard who built our soapbox derby racers, fixed the flat tires on our bicycles and was ready and waiting with the proper tools and knowhow to repair anything from a BB gun to a ham radio.

  He enjoyed few things more than teaching kids the basics of hunting and fishing. It was from Howard that I learned to cast a fly, lead a bird on the wing. A hunting or fishing trip with him seldom failed to result in a duck or pheasant dinner or a cooler filled with trout.

  An exception to that was a duck hunting trip on a below-zero morning. We had just pushed the boat into the river when the expression on my face told him the trip was over.

  “Are your boots leaking?” he asked me.

  It was so cold that river water splashed on the sides of the boat instantly froze, so cold that the water in my boots felt like fire. If he hadn’t immediately helped me back to shore, built a fire and massaged my feet, it would have meant at the very least a trip to the emergency room. 

  The incident exemplified the compassionate, caring man who was like a second father to every kid in the neighborhood.

  Except on Halloween. 

  No treats from Howard the Halloween Grinch. Instead of handing out candy like all the other grownups, he turned off all the lights in his house and pretended he wasn’t home.

  This did not sit well with trick or treaters. Why he disliked Halloween so much was a mystery, but it was irritating enough that one year I decided to get even. I would soap his windows.

  For those not familiar with the practice in the age of treats without tricks, a word of explanation. Soaping windows consisted of using an ordinary bar of soap to write on window glass. It was a harmless trick, as the soap easily washed off the day after Halloween.

  What I would have written on the Halloween Grinch’s windows has long since been forgotten, but there wasn’t the slightest doubt in my boyish mind that it would have been devastatingly clever and cutting. 

  If only there had been a chance to write it.

  To make sure the grinch wasn’t lurking his darkened living room watching for trouble, I crept to his front porch and rang the doorbell. This was when his Halloween trick was revealed. He had wired the doorbell to shock any trick or treaters brave or foolish enough to ring it.

  It wasn’t a serious shock, but definitely enough to get your attention.

  And to make me even more determined to get even.

  Soap in hand, I crept around the corner of the darkened house to a picture window and was reaching to write on it with my soap when a voice scared me more than any ghoul or goblin could have.

  “Don’t touch that window!”

  I turned to look, and there in the crook of a tree, silhouetted against the Halloween moon, was the Halloween Grinch – brandishing a shotgun!

  It didn’t help to know that Howard loaded some of his shotgun shells with rock salt to make their effect merely painful rather than lethal. I took off like a rocket.

  It was a fright remembered for life.

  To this day, I don’t know whether Howard recognized me in my Halloween getup that night. If so, he never mentioned it. We remained friends until his death many years later, in his late 90s.

  Maybe it’s a good thing that Halloween tricks are less prevalent now. Some of them went too far. 

  That said, there was something to be said for a deliciously scary prank. Getting scared was half the fun. Simplot’s silver dollars and the Halloween Grinch’s electrified doorbell both had their place on what was once was the creepiest, most enjoyable night of the year.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

The Smallest Town in Idaho? That Would be … Small, Idaho

Tim Woodward’s regular columns are alternating with previously published columns during the pandemic. This one originally was published in The Idaho Statesman in 1989.

SMALL, Idaho – It’s hard to say for certain which is the smallest town in Idaho, but it would be hard to beat Small. At one time it was listed in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as the smallest town in America. 

  Its population then was one – the postmaster.

  Last year, Small had a population explosion. An entire family moved into a house on a hill above town. (No one lives in the town proper, which consists of the post office and an abandoned store.)

  I went to Small because it was a tiny, intriguing dot on the Idaho road map. And it was only a small distance out of my way.

  “If you want to know about Small,” a woman who lives in the house on the hill said, “go up the road to the second ranch on the left. The people there know all about it.”

  “Thanks. What’s their name?”

  “Small.”

  Lee Small has lived up the road from Small all his life. He and his wife, Mary, own a cattle and horse ranch. Their sons Kevin and Butch and their adopted son, Marty Forester, are cowboys.

  Not just any cowboys – rodeo cowboys. You don’t expect to meet big names in a place like Small, but the Smalls’ sons are famous. All have placed among the top 15 rodeo cowboys in the nation. Butch has been in the top 15 for seven consecutive years.

  Lee invited me into their living room – its walls are literally covered with rodeo photos – and among other things told me how Small got its name.

  “My granddad, Dennis Small, came here on his way west in 1881,” he said. “He ran horses, too. He went on to Oregon but then came back, had ten children and got the town named after him. There have been Smalls here for over 100 years.”

  “Do you like it here” I asked him.

  “Oh, I know there are better places to live. I don’t like the winters, but I’m 69 and don’t know anything else. And the kids turned out good. They all went to college and haven’t ever been in trouble. There’s no crime here. We never lock our doors. Yeah, I guess I like it, all right.”

  We sat and talked for a spell. Then the boys took me out back for a look at their bunkhouse.

  The bunkhouse is like something out of a Roy Rogers movie – rifles hanging from log walls, boots and spurs lining the bunks, cowboy paraphernalia everywhere. You half expect to see Gabby Hayes gumming a sourdough biscuit.

  So where do the hands go when they need something from the Twentieth Century?

  “If it’s small, we go to Dubois,” Lee Small said. “If it’s big, we go to the Falls (Idaho Falls).”

  He laughed and added that these days there isn’t much reason for anyone to go to Small.

  “These ranches never did pay much. In the old days, people stayed and tried to make it. At its peak, there might have been 30 people who got their mail at Small. Now, you’ll have one guy who owns three  or four places and lives in the Falls or even Utah.

  “We’re the only original family left, and except for granddad the Smalls never were very productive. There aren’t even many Smalls at Small anymore.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwarcolumn@gmail.com.

Peppers how hot? Unbearable

Two of the contestants looked like they might need stretchers.

 Their faces were red; their eyes streamed tears. They gasped,  groaned, coughed, spluttered.

  “Does anyone know CPR?” a comedian in the crowd asked.

  The occasion was the Nampa Farmers Market’s second annual Hot Pepper Eating Contest, featuring 16 contestants and some of the hottest peppers grown anywhere in the world.

  I’m a bit late with this. The contest was held last month. Writing just one column a month has made me late getting in the paper, but it was too good to pass up. I couldn’t resist an opportunity to cover a story about others suffering as I did as a kid, when an uncle got me to eat a pepper so hot my mother threatened to call for an ambulance. 

  One of my daughters and a friend of hers attended the contest to cheer for a friend of theirs – “Hot Pepper Mike” Vessel. Vessel had been training for the competition for several months by downing bottles of hot sauce every day. One was so hot his daughter had to sign a waiver to buy it online.

  Vessel would need all the preparation he could get to hold his own against some formidable opponents, the most formidable being Toby Waters, last year’s winner. 

  Several of the contestants squirmed or fidgeted as the event began. One looked as if he was meditating, or perhaps praying. Waters was the embodiment of calm and collected. He  looked like he might be thinking of taking a nap.

  The competition began with relatively low-voltage peppers. To the surprise of many in the crowd, one contestant dropped out after failing to finish a jalapeño. Child’s play.

  Peppers are ranked for spiciness, or heat, using a tool known as the Scoville Scale. The scale measures the amount of capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the heat. A pepper with a low number of Scoville Heat Units, is mild, like a poblano. The higher the number of units, the hotter the pepper.

  The scale was invented by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. He did it by adding extract of capsaicin to a beaker of sugar water and putting it on people’s tongues. (And how much fun would that have been to watch?) 

  Scoville diluted the sugar water by adding plain water until the tasters told him it didn’t taste hot any more. Numbers were assigned to peppers based on how many times the water had to be diluted. There is no record of whether any of the tasters dropped out, screamed obscenities or broke Scoville’s beaker over his head.

  Anyone who has eaten peppers knows that some peppers of even of the same variety are spicer than others. Because of that, each variety is given a range of Scoville units. Jalapeños are rated at 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units. A Purple UFO pepper is rated at 30,000 to 50,000 units. If Scoville dropped 50,000 drops of sugar water on his tasters’ tongues, he wasn’t paying them enough.

  After downing his Purple UFO, a contestant named Kyle closed his eyes tightly and put his hands over his mouth, clearly in pain. An announcer told the contestants that painful as it might be, eating hot peppers wouldn’t harm them.

  That’s usually the case, but there have been exceptions. Two British journalists were hospitalized after taking one bite of a chili burger made with sauce said to be hotter than pepper spray. In 2016, according to health.com, a man “burned a hole in his esophagus after consuming and subsequently retching ghost peppers during an eating contest.”

 In other words, don’t try this at home, folks.

  Contestants cruised through the early rounds of the contest, but the Sugar Rush Red Pepper – 100,000 to 150,000 units – was hot enough that two dropped out after all but hyperventilating. They couldn’t get to the milk table fast enough.

  The dropout rate accelerated as the peppers grew ever hotter. Vessel’s undoing was a chocolate habanero pepper – 300,000 Scoville units.

  “For some reason, sitting down made it worse,” he said. “When I was training at home, I could get up and walk around. At the contest, we had to sit, and sitting there after the chocolate habanero was unbearable.”  

  By the time the Crazy Head Double Dipper pepper was introduced, the number of contestants had dwindled from 16 to seven. This was the point at which Kyle shook his head, wiped his nose, reached for a barf bag and exited. He had suffered enough. A crowd favorite, he was enthusiastically applauded.

  The T Rex Yellow Pepper – 1.4 million to 1.8 million Scoville units –  winnowed the number of contestants down to five. All showed signs of stress except for Toby, who from all appearances might as well have been eating bonbons.

  All five contestants made it through the Carolina Reaper, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s hottest pepper, but an even hotter pepper was lurking in the wings for the final round. The insanely hot Primotalii pepper is rated at over 2 million Scoville units –  hotter than some pepper sprays.

  Four contestants made it through that round. Three were grimacing, sweating, wiping their eyes on their sleeves. Waters look looked almost bored. 

  With four contestants still in it after surviving the planet’s hottest peppers, it came down to a tie breaker. The contestant who downed six Primotalii peppers fastest would be the winner.

  It wasn’t even close. Waters gulped them down in a mere 11 seconds. For the second year in a row, he won the first-place prize of $300.

  How does he do it? Does he even feel the heat?

  “Definitely,” he said. “I’m not some super human. I mentally prepare. I compartmentalize. I look at the plate and the trees and compartmentalize the pain. I feel it, but I’m able to set it aside.”

  After effects?

  “When I get home, my stomach gets tight, and I have cramps. I sit in a Lazy Boy with a fan blowing on me and sleep for two or three hours. Then I have a couple of glasses of milk and I’m fine.”

  Hot Pepper Mike says he’ll be back next year.

  “The camaraderie of being with the other contestants and having people cheer for me made it 100 percent worth it,” he said.

  I asked Waters if he’d return next year to defend his title.

  “Sure,” he said. “I love peppers. And it’s free money.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

A General Store with Everything -in the Middle of Nowhere

  The mottled hills and green fields around Picabo seem an unlikely place for a commercial enterprise. The nearest town of any size is Carey (population 300), six miles to the east. The more populous towns of Hailey and Ketchum are half an hour away on a narrow country road.

  Picabo itself has a population of about 50. You could throw a rock from the center of town to the Holsteins grazing in nearby pastures.

  There is a commercial enterprise in Picabo, though. You see it long before you get to town. It’s an uncertain color, somewhere between red and lavender, and on a clear day it’s visible for miles in every direction. Two words painted in white on one of its walls can be read from half a mile away: 

  General Store.

  I’ve been in stores from one-room Mom and Pops to stores covering more square yards than a football field, but have never seen anything quite like the general store at Picabo.

  If it’s legal, you can get it there.

  Hunters will find firearms and ammunition, and with famous Silver Creek nearby the fishing section is formidable. You can get anything from a gray hackle to a pair of chest waders. If you need a hat, sunglasses or sunscreen they have those, too. 

  Walk half a dozen steps and you’re in the grocery section. The store is a fraction of the size of a typical supermarket, but it sells just about everything that’s sold in supermarkets. It has dry goods, canned foods, produce, pet food, utensils, greeting cards, medicines, detergent, beer, wine, paper products, pastries, you name it. You can buy anything from a fresh pineapple to a can of minced clams to a fly swatter.

  Groceries are more or less in the middle of the store. The products in the front of the store are more like what you’d find in a department store – blenders, electric can openers, toaster ovens, deep fryers, electric ice cream makers … In this part of the store, it’s possible to purchase anything from a pair of socks to a carpet shampooer. You can pick up towels for the bathroom, sheets for the bedroom, pottery and glassware for the kitchen, a clock for the living room, knickknacks for the dining room. When you’re finished, you can buy a camera to take a picture of it all. 

  The back of the store is reserved for harder stuff. You can get a Number 14 bucket there. You can get an edger for your sidewalk or a set of shoes for your horse. Plumbers and electricians will find enough wire, pipe and gadgets to fill a workshop.

  Carpenters can buy necessities from hammers and nails to power tools. Gardeners will find tools from pruning shears to lawnmowers. You can pick up a new set of tires for your car, purchase a replacement for your water heater.

  The Picabo General Store is the only place I know where you can buy African Violet food, alfalfa seed, panty hose, a chain saw, water chestnuts, a horse bridle, paperback books, a hundred pounds of wheat, a bottle of perfume, a dozen eggs and a load of lumber all in one stop.

  While you wait for your lumber to be loaded, you can sit down in one of the two booths at the front of the store and be served a hot sandwich and a soft drink. 

  On your way out, you can mail a letter (one corner of the store is a post office) and, in parting, fill your gas tank at one of the pumps out front. A person could spend a lifetime within driving distance of the store and, barring medical emergencies, never have to go anywhere else.

  The store’s manager and part owner is Gordon Eccles, a fast-talking, no-nonsense businessman with a cluttered desk and a phone that never seems to stop ringing.

  Eccles, who answered my questions between long-distance calls and inquires from employees, said Picabo began in the 1880s as a railroad stop and farm center. The name, he said, comes from an Indian word meaning shining waters, most likely a reference to Silver Creek. The store was built in 1952. It serves travelers, but relies mainly on the farm trade.

  “There are a lot of stores in out-of-the-way places in this state, but none as diversified as this,” Eccles said. “This is a true general store. We deliver fuel, feed and seed all over the county, and we have regular customers who come from 20 miles or more away.”

  I don’t know which would be more unexpected – to find this clearing house for just about everything in the middle of nowhere or to meet a high-powered businessman like Eccles there. Maybe it was just an unusually busy day, but he seemed as if he’d have been more at home on Wall Street.

  I didn’t want to take too much of his time, but on the way out the door I thought of one last question and asked if there was anything the store didn’t sell.

  He put his calls on hold, thought for about ten seconds and replied affirmatively.

  “Yes, come to think of it it there is. We don’t sell cars.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com

Don’t Make Kids Wait Another Summer to Use City Pools

  The summer that officially ends this holiday weekend is the first in almost seven decades to pass without a couple of beloved Boise institutions. For the first time since 1953, a summer has ended without cannon balls, belly flops and squeals of delight at Lowell and South pools.

  Both are showing their age. The city closed them because they need millions of dollars worth of repairs. Issues included dilapidated interiors, cracked asphalt and outdated supplies. Lowell also was found to have violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  For their patrons, it was a frustrating summer. The pools are popular as ever with the youthful denizens who flock to them. Kids who live in their neighborhoods count the days until they open for the summer. 

  I know because I once was one of them. Though lacking personal experience with South Pool, Lowell Pool was a short bike ride from my childhood home. For the kids in our neighborhood, it was the place to be on hot summer afternoons. We all but lived there. 

  Memorial Day weekend in those days meant two things. One was a trip to an aunt’s farm near Star to put flowers on the graves of ancestors buried in the cemetery there. A sumptuous picnic feast followed at Aunt Amy’s house.

  The picnic was a prelude to the true beginning of summer. Long before dessert was served, my thoughts had turned to my friends who would be lined up at the entrance to Lowell Pool. We couldn’t get home from Star fast enough for me to join them.

  Every kid in the neighborhood learned to swim in that pool. We were good swimmers, but for reasons that were never clear to us, the neighborhood mothers united in insisting that we all take swimming lessons at the YMCA. We protested, but they were adamant. 

  When the instructor at the Y promoted us from tadpoles to flying fish on the first day of class, our mothers relented and said we wouldn’t have to go any more. Armed with our newfound flying-fish status, we were back at  Lowell every day from the pool’s opening at 1 p.m. until it closed at 5 p.m. for dinner.

  It was a big deal to graduate from the low dive to the high dive. A big deal, and badge of honor. Kids who conquered the high dive walked a little taller. I don’t remember how many times I waited in the line, making it as far as the ladder before chickening out.  And who could forget the first time actually making it to the diving board, high enough to see for blocks, summoning the courage to take the plunge. That I succeeded likely was due less to bravado than to jumping being the quickest way down.

  Cannonballs required no such derring-do. All you had to do was run a few steps and leap, locking your hands around your knees to form the “cannonball” before hitting the water. This did not go over well with the lifeguards who got splashed while working on their tans.

  Flirting with the lifeguards was another pastime. Even after all these years, I remember their names – Kip, Ruth and Carolyn. The flirting was to no avail, of course. The lifeguards were older and considered us obnoxious pests.

  Just across the street from the pool was a drive-in restaurant. Hamburger Korner was the perfect place to go for a flavored Coke, a milkshake or a burger after working up an appetite in the pool. The specialty of the house was the Belly Buster, a double burger with special sauce and a slice of ham. Alas, the savory Belly Buster and Hamburger Korner itself are  memories now.

  The pool was such a kid magnet that a friend and I tried to sneak in before its official opening one year. From a vantage point on a limb of a nearby tree, it was possible to see that the pool had been filled. Climbing the wall to get to it was virtually impossible, however, which was probably a good thing. The water was so cold that that early in the year that we’d become ice sculptures.

  For readers unfamiliar with them, the design of Lowell and South Pools is unusual. They’re above-ground pools with walls made of cinder blocks. You enter through a front door, pass through ground-level changing rooms and climb stairs to the pools themselves. That, according to Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway, “affects the accessibility of the pools and contributes to the ADA violations.”

  Replacing them with ground-level pools would improve access, but South and Lowell have “a storied history” and “a unique attachment for anyone who grew up swimming in them,” Holloway said. 

  Besides having a place in the hearts of those who used them, the pools are rarities – and becoming rarer all the time. Only about 100 were built, by the Wesley Blintz Co., between 1919 and the 1960s. Fewer than 20 still survive. Some, according to the Wesley Blintz website, have been renovated while others are “nearly unrecognizable ruins.” 

  The city is asking for opinions from the public on what should be done with the pools. With Lowell and South comprising a significant percentage of those still standing anywhere in the country, it would make sense to renovate them for their historical value. And as someone who knew Lowell Pool as a beloved neighborhood hangout, I’d love to see it repaired and brought up to code.

   If that’s too expensive, ground-level pools would be an alternative. Either way, it would be a shame for the pools to stay closed for a second summer. Kids don’t care why they aren’t open. They just want to swim. And when you’re a kid, two summers without a pool is forever.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Bring back the Pioneer Route

   If this summer’s unprecedented drought, scorching temperatures and wildfire smoke aren’t reasons to get serious about climate change, nothing is.

 The extreme weather we’re seeing this summer, scientists say,  wouldn’t be possible without climate change. 

  What can we do about it? We can walk and cycle more and drive less, turn up the AC, switch from gas-powered engines to electric motors … For more, Google Goodside ebooks. 

  If we could, we could ride trains more and fly less. Passenger trains  produce significantly fewer emissions than airplanes do, but sadly we haven’t been able to ride Amtrak trains in southern Idaho for almost a quarter century. That’s not likely to change any time soon, but revived efforts in behalf of Amtrak’s Pioneer Route that once served this part of the country are encouraging.

   President Joe Biden has proposed $66 billion for Amtrak repairs and developing new routes. The U.S. Senate has asked Amtrak to look into restoring four abandoned Amtrak routes, including the Pioneer, and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo has been working for years to restore it. Boise’s city council unanimously passed a resolution in June urging return of the route.

   The Pioneer, which ran between Seattle and Denver from 1977 to 1997, brought passenger service to Nampa, Boise, Mountain Home  and Pocatello. Like Crapo, late Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, U.S. Sen. Frank Church and U.S. Sen. James McClure worked hard to bring the route to Idaho and keep it running for two decades. 

  It would be nice to see Gov. Brad Little and Sen. Jim Risch start making some noise about getting our train back.

  One who is making noise is Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg. Clegg is a member of the transportation infrastructure committee of the National League of Cities and has personally contacted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about resurrecting the Pioneer.

  Clegg, according to a recent story in The Idaho Statesman, rode the Pioneer as a child.

  “It was so much fun,” she was quoted as saying.

  No argument.

  One of the best assignments I ever had as a reporter began on the Pioneer. Amtrak was advertising two-week passes to anywhere it went. My editor bought me one and told me to see how far I could get, writing a story a day.

  I made it as far east as Putney, Vermont, as far south as Birmingham, Alabama. The most memorable stop was in Piggott, Arkansas, where the editor of the weekly newspaper was killing time on a slow day when I stopped to ask for some help. 

 “You’re looking for something to write about?” he asked.

  “Yes, and I don’t have a lot of time.”

  “Good. You can write about me. I’m a pretty good story.”

  With that he took me on a tour of the town. My desperation must have been obvious when, an hour later, he was proudly showing me Piggott’s water tower and I still didn’t have a story.

 “Let’s head out to the old Pfeiffer place,” he said. 

  The Pfeiffer place was a stately, two-story house on the outskirts of town. It was a beautiful home, but instead of showing it off he led me down a hill to a structure that could be described as a cross between a barn and a shack.   

  “See the burn marks on that wall there?” he said. 

 “Yes?”

  “I was out hunting one day when this building caught fire. A man was trying to get the shutters open to throw some papers out of the upstairs window. He shouted at me to come and help, so I did.”

  And that was how Laud Payne helped Ernest Hemingway save the manuscript to “A Farewell to Arms.” Hemingway was then married to Pauline Pfeiffer, whose family owned the house on the hill. 

  I had my story for that day.

  When I was a kid, my grandmother used to ride the train from Colorado to visit every few years. It was about the only time my father ever saw his mother. It was a Union Pacific train rather than an Amtrak train then, but for a kid the difference was immaterial. I enjoyed every minute of her arrivals, waiting to hear the train’s whistle as it approached, putting my ear to the rails to listen for the vibration, putting pennies on the track for the locomotive’s wheels to flatten.

  When our kids were little, we rode the Pioneer to Olympia, Wash., to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer vacations with relatives there. To borrow Clegg’s words, it was “so much fun.”

  We played cards and board games on the tables in the diner car. The crystal and white linen of earlier days were gone, but the meals and the service in the diner cars were pretty good. The kids enjoyed looking out the big windows at the scenery, as did their parents. Scenery is one of the reasons for riding a train. You see towns and cities, rivers, lakes, fall colors, things you don’t see from  an airplane.

  If not for Amtrak, we’d have had to miss Christmas with the family  one year. Fog had closed the airports; a snowstorm had closed the freeway over the Blue Mountains. The train was literally the only way to get there.

  We played games, read books, “oohed” and “aahed” at picture-perfect snowscapes while the train negotiated the mountain pass –  silent, closed off from the bustling world, deep in fresh snow. It was one of our best trips ever.

  It’s been too long since southern Idahoans were able to enjoy those kinds of experiences. If you’d like to see the Pioneer return, consider contacting those who could help make it happen.

  Their email addresses are: Gov. Brad Little, gov.idaho.gov; Sen. Jim Risch, risch.senate.gov; Sen. Mike Crapo, crapo.sen.gov.

  The return of the Pioneer would help Idaho’s economy, introduce many Idahoans to a type of public transportation they’ve never known and be a small but welcome step toward fighting climate change. It would be great to see all of Idaho’s political leaders working together to make it happen. In less divisive times, that’s what political leaders did. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

The Late, Great Mr. Morrison

  No one celebrated when Harry Morrison left.

  When word came this week that William Agee was retiring as chief executive officer of the Morrison Knudsen Corp., employees honked horns in the company parking lot. They partied at a Broadway avenue bar, all but did cartwheels in the hallways.

  This was not damning with faint praise. It was damning with resounding joy, which is infinitely worse. 

  I didn’t know Bill Agee, whom employees blamed for undermining the company. But I did know Harry Morrison, the its co-founder, and the difference between what their employees thought of them couldn’t have been greater.

  In Agee’s defense, it can be said that few executives wouldn’t suffer by comparison. They don’t make leaders like Mr. Morrison any more.

  My use of the word “mister” is intentional. Even people who worked with him for years addressed him as Mr. Morrison. He commanded that kind of respect. 

  Lyman Wilbur, MK’s chief engineer for many years, said people were willing to work for the Boise-based engineering and construction  company for less than they could make elsewhere because they considered it a privilege to work with Mr. Morrison. His professional stature and public influence were enormous, but he didn’t make employees feel small. He trusted their judgment, helped them with personal problems, loaned them money when times were hard.

  This was a man honored on the cover of Time magazine as having “done more than anyone else to change the face of the Earth.” The company’s projects included Hoover Dam (and more than 100 other dams), the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Penn Station, air fields, highways, railroad lines … 

 In Idaho, MK projects included Bogus Basin, the New York Canal, Cascade Reservoir, Ann Morrison Park (named for his first wife) and others. Without Harry Morrison, Boise wouldn’t have one of its signature entertainment venues, the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts. 

  I knew him slightly through the son of his second wife, Velma Morrison. Her oldest son and I were in a band together in high school, and we practiced at the Morrisons’ home on Harrison Boulevard. It was a nice house, but not at all pretentious. Its owner didn’t need to show off. His accomplishments were more than enough.

  I’ll never forget the night I met the famous Mr. Morrison. I was lugging a guitar amplifier through his darkened living room, where he was watching cars pass by on Harrison Boulevard, probably thinking big thoughts. White hair, craggy face, impossibly distinguished looking. If Hollywood needed someone to play God in a movie, he’d have been perfect for it.

  I was 16 and more than a little intimidated, but he couldn’t have been nicer.

  “Here to practice?” he asked me.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Play well,” he said. “Do your best.”

  He was getting on by then, nearly 80, and in failing health. Why he put up with us is a mystery. He couldn’t have liked our whanging away on rock and roll songs week after week, but he remained cordial, even encouraging.

  Even though he was ill, not going anywhere or expecting anyone, he always looked imposing – impeccably dressed, often in a dark suit with a tie, his bearing erect, his presence majestic. I remember thinking he would have made a good president.

  There was something rock-solid about leaders like Harry Morrison. They had survived wars, weathered the Great Depression, gone from humble beginnings to changing the face of the Earth.

  When they said things would be all right, you believed them.

  You celebrated their achievements, not their departures.

  When ultimately they did depart, you mourned,

  That was the difference. 

 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

Pinto Bennett, Icon -1948-2021

  There was nothing simple about Pinto Bennett.

  Bennett, who died June 29th of a heart attack at 73, was a paradox. A country singer who cited Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as influences. A onetime party animal who got religion and talked to God while living a solitary life in a sheep wagon. A charismatic performer who once drew crowds of thousands but spent his last years living in a trailer park, playing for $50 a night or tips. 

  He wrote songs like no one else, with some of his lyrics bordering on genius. The late Rosalie Sorrels, a gifted songwriter  herself, said he “should have been a superstar.”

  His career began when he was a teenager playing at a drive-in restaurant in Mountain Home and spanned the better part of six decades. He was famous in Europe, a commercial failure in Nashville, a country music icon in Idaho.

  And loved wherever he went. 

  The day after he died, three of his former bandmates met me over coffee to share their memories of him.

  Jake Hoffman played steel guitar with Bennett in Tarwater, regionally known for playing “hard country music” for most of the 1970s. Previously Whitewater, the group renamed itself after a colorful Mountain Home character, Bud Tarwater. Hoffman was living in Salt Lake City when he got a call to play a 1973 New Year’s Eve gig with the group in Pocatello.

  “I didn’t know Pinto or anybody else in the band, but he stole my heart and my head,” he recalled. “He was just this larger-than-life guy. He’d written some songs, and he knew every song in the world. He sang from his heart, and he was just so charming. People couldn’t help but love him.”

  Rob Matson was one of two guitar players in Bennett’s second notable band, the Famous Motel Cowboys. His first night with them was in the fall of 1980.

  “They were calling themselves Pinto Bennett and the Republicans then,” he said. “I didn’t know who it was, but when I got there, I realized it was the Tarwater band. I remember it being a total revelation – fast, loud music, like country playing rock and roll. That was the integrity of what the band did, the high energy. It was what attracted so many good musicians through the years, that driving energy.”

  Matson was with the Famous Motel Cowboys during their glory days in England, where they had a hit record and two well received albums, opened for Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle and played for crowds of up to 20,000 people.

  “Pinto had this amazing charm that disarmed people and kept him out of trouble,” Matson said. “We were on a plane to go from London to Switzerland when this old English lady got on the plane. She sees this big guy with a cowboy hat and long red hair and a beard. You could see her nervously looking at him.

  “She went over to the flight attendant, and we could see her pointing at him and saying she didn’t want to sit next to him. The flight attendant probably told her that he was a nice man because she sat down next to him and the whole trip they were talking and laughing. He completely disarmed her.”

  Brad Dewey played mandolin in Trio Pinto, begun in 2005 and continuing for the remainder of Bennett’s life.

  “In 2005 we went to England, where he still had a reputation,” Dewey said. “They sent a limo to pick us up – champagne glasses and everything. But we were a little trio, and they were expecting a bigger band like the Famous Motel Cowboys. It was tighten your belt time.”

  Bennett never again experienced the arena-sized crowds that the Famous Motel Cowboys played for in England and Europe. When the group returned to the U.S., they were fired from their first gig for not playing any songs by Southern rock group Alabama. 

  The most famous Motel Cowboy of them all spent five years in Nashville, where he befriended Chet Atkins, Don Everly and other icons, but never got a record deal. Returning to Boise, he played in honky tonk bars, performed for free at myriad benefit shows – and never stopped writing songs. He wrote more than 200 of them, often staying up all night writing lyrics on scraps of paper.  

  “There’s so much to his lyrics,” Matson said. “You hear a song, and six months later you hear it again and realize you didn’t get it the first time.”

  “There’s no ‘Oh, baby’ in any of his songs,” Hoffman added. “How many songwriters write lines like, ‘being disconcerted and lookin’ at my shoes’?”

  Or, “Somewhere in time I was a river. Somewhere in time you  were, too. Somewhere in time I was a taker and a giver. Somewhere in time so were you.” 

  Or “I hold the bottle, you hold the wheel.”

  The bottle haunted the man who wrote those lyrics. He was, in Hoffman’s words, “on and off the wagon most of his life.”

  When I first met him, more than 30 years ago, he told me was “gettin’ a handle on my drinkin,” Words I’d hear again and again.

  Some of his words, and deeds, haunted him. By his own admission, he said and did things that offended people. He’d show up drunk for a recording session or make off-color remarks that angered people at performances. His improprieties and his intentions, however, were at odds.  

  “Sometimes he’d hurt people, but he never meant to,” Hoffman said. “He had his demons. One of them was ‘I never meant to do that.’”

  He went out of his way to visit with homeless people on the street. He spent hundreds of hours volunteering at the Idaho Veterans Home and VA hospital. He was known for telling friends and co-workers he loved them, and punctuating the sentiment with a slobbery kiss. 

  I don’t know how many times he told me – and meant it – that he’d be famous after he was dead, that his songs would reap  rewards then that he never knew as an old man, blind in one eye, playing for tips in honky tonk bars.

  Grammy Award-winning band Reckless Kelly thought enough of his songs that it recorded an entire CD of them, calling them “powerful and timeless.”

  Nashville studio musician Sergio Webb said in 2007 that Bennett was “one of a handful of people you use as the standard. Is this as good as a Pinto song? Is this good enough to show Pinto? He’s that kind of an influence.”

  Like works of art whose value increases after the artist dies, his influence may grow now that he’s gone. His prediction just might come true. If anyone deserves to be famous after he’s dead, it’s Pinto Bennett.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

My $250-a-plate Dinner with Morley, and a “regular gal”

Tim’s new columns are alternating with previously published “Woodward Classics” during the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman in 2010, following the death of actress Lynn Redgrave.

  Occasionally, not often because there aren’t a lot of them in Idaho, readers ask me what it’s like to interview famous people. 

  The answer depends on the famous person. A few are arrogant snobs, but most are just regular people who happen to be famous.

  I like regular people. I’m comfortable with them. That’s why, on the night I had dinner with Lynn Redgrave, the famous actress, I was looking for a regular person to hang out with instead.

  The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the Morrison Center. Velma Morrison was hosting a $250-a-plate dinner at her home. The newspaper paid $250 for me to go and write about it.

  For someone whose idea of dressing up is wearing my best pair of jeans, it was unnerving. Some of the men were wearing tuxedos, and most of those who weren’t were sporting suits that cost more than my car. The women were wearing formal gowns and expensive jewelry. No jeans anywhere.

  The guest list included corporate presidents, university presidents, congressmen, society mavens, a governor or two … You could have thrown a boomerang and not hit anyone who frequented a tavern or a tattoo parlor.

  I was looking for someone I’d feel comfortable having dinner with and not finding anyone when my attention was drawn to a regular looking guy wearing a corduroy jacket and a string tie, sitting alone at a table for 12. Figuring that he felt as uncomfortable and out of place as I did, I pulled up a chair next to him.

  And that’s how I met the world famous raptor expert Morley Nelson. 

  “Anyone sitting here?” I asked him.

  “I don’t think so,” he said.

  Considering that no one but him was sitting in any of the other 11 chairs, I thought he was joking.

  Until a big shot asked if he and his wife could join us.

  “No,” Nelson replied. “That’s where Lynn and her family are sitting.”

  “Lynn” was Redgrave, who was appearing at the Morrison Center that evening in a one-woman play she’d written. Searching for regular folks, I’d stumbled into the last seat at the VIP table.

  You can imagine my surprise when Redgrave herself sat down beside me, so close our elbows were touching, and introduced herself.

  As if she needed an introduction. This was a member of one of Britain’s preeminent acting families – Sir Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson to name a few. She’d become a household word in the title role of the movie “Georgy Girl, won two Golden Globe Awards, was nominated for two Academy Awards and was critically acclaimed on both stage and screen,

  As if that weren’t enough, she was then omnipresent on television in a series of Weight Watchers commercials. I might as well have been sitting next to Oprah.

  Normally the situation would have left me tongue-tied. It probably did, in fact, until I realized something surprising. I was sitting between two of the most regular folks in the room. Nelson was one of most down-to-earth people you could meet, and Redgrave couldn’t have been nicer.

  In the unlikely event that you didn’t know who she was, you’d never have guessed that she was a star. It wasn’t just that she was utterly lacking in attitude; she had a way of effortlessly putting you at ease. It was like talking to an old friend over a beer. She was funny and genuinely interested in what you had to say. In two minutes, you felt as if you’d known her for years.

  We spent the evening talking about acting, Morley’s birds, population control and other subjects that interested them. I’ve seldom enjoyed an evening more.

  It’s hard to believe they’re both gone now – two people who made it to the top of their professions, received worldwide acclaim and had the good sense not to let it go to their heads.

  I’ve been missing Morley, who later became a friend, since his death a couple of years ago. Now I miss both of my onetime dinner companions. Landing at their table was one of the luckiest accidents I’ve had.

  The $250-a-plate lasagna wasn’t bad, either.

Tim Woodward’s column runs every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com