I inadvertently posted on my blog information about my new book that was supposed to have been in a message to those on the email list for my band, the Mystics. Sorry for the confusion. The information about the book, at least, is accurate.
I inadvertently posted on my blog information about my new book that was supposed to have been in a message to those on the email list for my band, the Mystics. Sorry for the confusion. The information about the book, at least, is accurate.
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.
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:
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 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?”
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.”
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.”
“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 email@example.com.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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’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.
The last time I saw Dr. Geoff Williams, in 2006, his foundation to help children with facial deformities was in its infancy. It was’t quite a one-man operation, but it wasn’t far from it.
Fast forward 15 years. Today, Williams’s International Children’s Surgical Foundation has medical workers from South America to Southeast Asia. He personally has performed more than 3,000 surgeries on some 2,300 children in 13 countries – all at no expense to the kids or their parents.
Along with Fr. Rick Frechette, who has devoted his life to helping the poor in Haiti (studying by candlelight to become a medical doctor so he could tend to their physical as well as their spiritual needs), Williams would get my vote for sainthood.
The pandemic has restricted his travel, giving him more time to spend at home and an opportunity for us to catch up. We met at the same place where I interviewed him 15 years ago, then his parents’ home in Boise. They’ve since passed away; the house is his now. Little seemed to have changed, with one notable exception – a playpen filled with toys in a corner of the living room.
Williams, 65, is a bachelor who spends most of his time working in other countries. The playpen and toys seemed incongruous until he explained the reason for them.
“They’re for Conchita’s little girl,” he said. “She’s three years old.”
Conchita Hernandez was five years old when the house where she and her mother lived in Oaxaca, Mexico caught fire. She got out but ran back to save her mother and was badly burned. Williams did surgeries to treat her burns, helped her with her homework, sent her to nursing school. Some 20 years later, he brings her to the U.S. several times a year for more surgeries. She and her daughter stay at his house while she recuperates.
How many doctors do you know who will cover your travel expenses, operate on you for free and let you stay at their home while you recover?
Williams grew up in Boise. He went to medical school at the University of Utah, studied surgery there and at Vanderbilt University and studied plastic surgery at the University of Texas in Galveston. He received additional training in Taiwan and at Stanford University. He could have had a comfortable private practice. Instead, he chose a less lucrative but arguably more rewarding path. He was doing a fellowship in Taiwan when he was invited to join three Chinese doctors on a medical mission in Vietnam. It was a turning point in his life.
“We went into a poorly lit gym where about 200 mothers were waiting for us, all mothers of kids with cleft palates. Because I was the tallest and the only westerner, they pressed me against the wall and held their kids up to my face. It was like a melee. Sadly, we were only there for two days and only did 20 operations. I remember looking at the lights in the countryside from the plane as we were leaving and thinking of all those mothers who had been turned away. That’s when I got the idea to volunteer full time in poor countries.
“I planned to do full-time volunteer work for two years, get it out of my system and come back to the U.S. to start a practice, but in that time I accumulated lots of complicated cases that required a long-term commitment for more surgeries. Kids would ask me when I’d come back. Partway through, I realized I could never come back and do a full-time practice. That’s when I started thinking about starting the foundation.”
Local hospitals and doctors helped.
“St. Al’s started donating supplies. It could have been a nightmare without that. St. Luke’s also stepped in later, and a there’s group of doctors in the area who go with me sometimes.”
You’ve probably received donation requests in the mail from charities who do work similar to what Williams does. We’ve all read the literature, seen pictures of the children. What we don’t often know is the kids’ stories.
One of Williams’s patients was a teenager named Maria, in the Philippines. Her face was so deformed that even with his years of experience he was “aghast” when he first saw her. She didn’t just have a cleft palate. Hers was a “global deformity,” clefts running all the way up to her eyes. Temporarily speechless, Williams was trying to decide how to respond to her when a co-worker told him she’d just graduated from high school.
“I could not believe what I had just heard, that a girl with such a deformity would be so brave as to go all the way through school to the point of graduation. … I immediately saw Maria in a different and new light. I felt as though I was sitting in a hallowed place in front of this 18-year-old who had, I am sure, gone through so much teasing, marginalization and outright ridicule, day in and day out, to attend and finally graduate from high school.”
The members of his team gave up their day off for Maria’s surgery. It took eight and a half hours. The girl with the face that left him aghast now has a face with a smile.
Another Filipino girl, a seven-year-old named Rosemarie, had one of the saddest faces he had ever seen.
“She had a look of a child who had been teased mercilessly and had begun to feel as though every day at school was a day of unpleasantries. She had a forlorn look, more so than the other kids we see. I wondered if anything we did for her could ever improve such a sad face.”
After her second surgery, he asked her to return the following year for the foundation’s speech therapy session. She said she would, but didn’t. Refusing to accept a no-show, Williams and his team procured a van and set out to find her.
All they had to go on was the name of her village, and her home wasn’t even in the village. It was deep in a jungle. They were about to give up when they saw her, walking down a road. She apologized for not attending the therapy session and promised to come the next year. And, after years of being teased at a school, the girl with the sad face told them she had decided to become a teacher.
It was an example, he said, “of the change that can come on the inside when the outside is fixed. And how the four hours of operating for the cleft lip was worth the time and backache.”
Williams has brought smiles to faces in India, Kenya, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Tanzania, the Philippines, China and Vietnam. He was mugged in Mexico. In Peru, he treated a young man who had had a grenade blow up in his hand. In Mexico, he operated on a man whose chest had been branded by a cartel.
The foundation he started in Boise now has medical workers in Bolivia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In Vietnam, he trained a young surgeon to do cleft palate surgeries. She in turn is training other doctors, so his work is having an international ripple effect.
Though the surgeries are free for the patients and their parents, travel costs and other expenses are ongoing. The foundation relies on donations. To help, click on icsfoundation.org or send a check to ICSF, P.O. Box 4594, Boise, ID 83711-4594.
I asked Williams whether he had any regrets about choosing a life of endless travel and work in poor countries over a cushy private practice.
“I think the main regret is not having a normal social life or circle of friends. That, and I’ve always gotten by on just the basics. I still have the same car I’ve had most of my life, a 1992 Honda. I still drive it.”
His priorities have nothing to do with living in a mansion or driving a Mercedes. The payoff for his travels (he has a million and a half frequent fliers miles with United Airlines) and long hours at operating tables is “the change in the lives of these kids, to know that we’re giving them a new life. And not just them but their mothers, their families. When a child is born with a deformity, the whole family grieves.”
Soon he’ll leave for Bolivia on yet another medical mission. At 65, he isn’t slowing down at all.
“I get asked all the time if I’m going to retire” he said. “The answer is no. As long as my hands can hold the instruments, as long as my eyes can see to do the operations and my neck can hold my head up, I want to keep doing this. I realize age will eventually catch up, but for me to say I’m going to retire? I can’t see myself ever doing that. That would be the saddest day of my life.”
Dear Blog Readers: Sorry this is a few days late. I’ve been out of town and returned to a computer glitch. (Thanks to Zack Sheppard for getting me back online!)
My mother has been gone nearly nine years and a day seldom passes that I don’t think of her in one context or another.
Her colorful expressions:
“She made me feel like two cents waiting for change.”
“I read it in The Daily Blab (her moniker for newspapers.)”
“You need to have sticktoitiveness, Tim.”
Her sense of humor. Little things that tickled her, made her laugh and even now make me laugh remembering them.
Her meticulous housekeeping and her penchant for getting rid of anything that wasn’t being used – including my baseball card collection. (I’m over it now.)
Some things, however, she saved for life. One was a box of old photos, a gift from one of my nephews after my sister died. They gathered dust on a closet shelf for a long time before I got around to looking at them, and was treated to unexpected glimpses of my mother’s life.
The photos spanned more than a century. Many were of the sort you’d expect – snapshots taken on family outings, vacation pictures, group photos … Others were intriguing, funny, mysterious:
A photo of my mother, her brother and his wife, for example. It could have been taken on another planet. They were surrounded by eerie, steaming rock formations. Yellowstone Park came to mind, but I’ve been to Yellowstone in virtually every season and not seen anything remotely like the scene in the photo.
A photo of the same uncle at Yosemite Falls, on a road now gridlocked throughout the tourist season. His was one of two cars.
A winsomely smiling woman and a boy in a scout uniform. A dour-looking woman and two girls on a porch. An elegantly dressed woman seated on the deck of an ocean liner. All of their identities lost in time. People in the pre-digital era should have written names and dates on the backs of photos, for those of us who would come after them and wonder.
A postcard to my mother, postmarked a month before Pearl Harbor, featured an idyllic winter scene at “Sun Valley Village.” In those days, and for a long time afterwards, a village was exactly what it was. No condos, no mansions, no traffic. It was isolated, self-contained, magical.
On the back of the card, my father had written “Wesson you could be here with me.”
No, he wasn’t a terrible speller. But he was, for a time, a traveling salesman for the Wesson Oil Co.
My parents married for life after brief first marriages. One of the funnier pictures, to me at least, was of Mom’s first husband holding hands with a mystery woman. Mysterious because someone (my mother?) had cut all but her arm and hand out of the picture. I could picture my Irish-American mother – her maiden name was O’Leary – doing something like that.
Some of my favorite photos were of long-gone relatives. My Aunt Helen and Uncle Wayne, who seemed exotic to me because they had lived in Peru and he’d been the foreman of a mine there. I could listen forever to his tales of working deep in the Andes.
My Great Aunt Amy, who chased chickens around her barnyard as the first step in making what is still the best fried chicken I’ve ever had
My Great Grandmother Susie, cherished by all who knew her. She came across the plains in a covered wagon, outlived three husbands and three of her children, survived three house fires and somehow remained the jolliest of all the relatives. Mom counted the days till her grandmother’s visits. She’d come and stay with us for a week or two at Christmastime, filling the house with the aroma of baking and the joy of the season.
There were, of course, pictures our mother had saved of my sister and me when we were growing up. Mom used to complain that I ruined every picture she took by making goofy faces. Now I know what she meant.
In addition to the loose photos in the box was a scrapbook, meticulously assembled by my mother when she was in her early 20s. Her beautifully penned captions raised more questions than they answered.
Several of the photos are of couples posing on the road to Idaho City – on Easter Sunday, 1929. They looked so young, so happy – blissfully unaware of the economic catastrophe that waited just a few months down the road.
I’ll say this for my mother and her crowd: they got around. The scrapbook documented trips to Coeur d’Alene, San Francisco, Catalina Island, Dillon, Mont., Hollywood … She spoke wistfully of the California trip for the rest of her life, often saying that she didn’t want to come home.
This was the first time I’d seen pictures of her and her friends from that odyssey, and they were stunning – the men robust and handsome, the women svelte and beautiful. Some of the names and faces were familiar, but many were complete mysteries: Archie, Ed, Jack, Bud, Charles, Jida, Gertie, Skeet, Roberta. Their images appear again and again – never with last names.
Who were those people? My mother never mentioned any of them, and by now everyone who knew them is long dead. If you’re truly gone when the last person dies who knew who you were, my sister in this case, then those once striking people are truly gone.
I should have asked Mom about them.
I should have done a lot of things. I should have spent more time with her in her last years. I should have thanked her for all the times she made me laugh, for the long talks that helped get me through troubled times, for being the one person who was always there for me – from the first moment of my life till the last of her own – no matter what.
Most of all, I should have told her how much she meant to me. How much she still means. I couldn’t have asked for a better Mom.
Even if she did throw away my baseball cards.
Working in the yard at this time of year never fails to lift my spirits. Spring, after all, is a time for new hope, new beginnings. Regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the world, preparing for summer in our little corners of the world makes us feel better about life.
The purchase of my first electric lawnmower was a hopeful new beginning. No more gas or oil, no exhaust fumes, better for the environment.
Getting the yard art out of winter storage is always a welcome task. Out came the wind chimes, the spinners, the hanging doo-dads. It was cheering to see them again. Shopping for new plants and flowers also put a spring in my step.
This year, however, is different. Along with the normal rebirth, there is a sense that after a long winter and one of the longest years any of us can remember, we may have reached the beginning of the end of the pandemic. And the odds of returning to something approaching normalcy will only increase as more people are vaccinated.
And there’s the rub. After a promising start, the pace of vaccinations has slowed. Some say they don’t believe the vaccines are safe. Others are saying they don’t have time to get vaccinated or don’t think it’s important. Incredibly, a few are still saying the pandemic isn’t a big deal or a hoax.
It could be argued that we are suffering from a simultaneous epidemic of stupidity. Stupidity Exhibit A is our mostly maskless state legislature, which had to adjourn for two weeks because it didn’t think Covid was a big deal – until legislators started coming down with it. When they returned, many of them still weren’t wearing masks. And, belying their supposed support for the autonomy of local government, legislators who did their best to grab power from everyone from the governor to the dog catcher tried to make it illegal for local jurisdictions to order mask mandates.
How anyone can say the pandemic isn’t a big deal when more than half a million Americans have died from it is mind boggling. It really hits home when someone you know dies of Covid. A former band member and friend of mine died of Covid. A friend of one of my daughters almost died from it. He was in intensive care for two weeks.
Nothing reverses pandemic denial like actually catching Covid. Rock musician and anti-vaxxer Ted Nugent, who previously dismissed the pandemic as a scam, said after testing positive that he thought he was dying and “could hardly crawl out of bed.” He’s singing a different tune now.
The best thing we can do to stay well, protect those we love and return to life as we once knew it is to stop denying the seriousness of the virus, take the experts’ advice and get vaccinated.
Getting the shot is not a big deal. Being apprehensive about it is understandable, especially if you have a fear of needles. But it only takes a second, and you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to have a severe reaction to the Covid vaccine.
The chances of having a severe reaction, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, are a little over one in a million vaccinations. (The odds of being struck by lighting during your lifetime are one in 15,300.)
My wife and I got our shots in February. The injections themselves barely hurt, and only for a second. We both had sore arms the next day, but the pain was minimal and gone the next day. I had some achey muscles after the second shot, but no worse than sore muscles from exercising, and again they were gone in a day.
One of our daughters had a low-grade fever for a few hours after one of her shots, but no other reaction. Our other daughter and our son had virtually no reaction. Friends who have had the vaccine say their only reaction was a slightly sore arm for a day or less.
Compare that with being in intensive care on a respirator and possibly losing your life if you don’t get vaccinated.
It isn’t just that getting vaccinated lessens the chances of you and those around you getting Covid. It also gives us the welcome and long overdue freedom to do things the authorities have been telling us for months that we shouldn’t do.
Health officials now say that fully vaccinated people can go without masks outdoors when walking, jogging or biking. We can enjoy meals and drinks with vaccinated friends at outdoor restaurants.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the house to go on a walk and had to come back because I forgot my mask. Since the new guidelines were announced, I’ve come back to put my mask away because I don’t need it any more. The feeling of freedom that resulted from that small return to normal activity made the minor discomfort of getting vaccinated seem insignificant.
Thanks to vaccinations, the band I play in can rehearse again after months of not playing. Another welcome return to normal life.
A couple of Sundays ago, I fired up the grill and enjoyed a meal with vaccinated family members in the back yard. No one minded much that it was a chilly, windy day. We were just happy to be together doing something we hadn’t felt comfortable doing in far too long.
It took a while for me to remember the last time I’d been on an airplane. It was more than a year ago, just as the pandemic was beginning. Now that it’s relatively safe to fly in the U.S., my wife and I and some friends are planning to fly to Florida in September for the opening game of Boise State University’s football season. All of us have been vaccinated. We’ll still be required to wear masks on the plane, but that’s fine. It’s a requirement that makes sense.
It’s liberating to know that we can travel again and do other things we haven’t been able to do safely for almost 15 months.
I can’t tell you how great that feels. You have to experience it yourself. If haven’t because you haven’t been vaccinated yet, I hope you’ll reconsider getting the shot. It’s easier to get one now than it’s ever been.
You might be one of the smartest people around. Your IQ may be off the charts. But if you don’t get vaccinated and end up in the hospital, you’re going to feel pretty stupid.
My new columns will alternate with previously published columns for the duration of the pandemic. This one originally was published in The Idaho Statesman following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The nuclear accident at Chernobyl has highlighted a startling fact about Idahoans.
The startling fact is that Idahoans have a remarkable sixth sense for impending disasters.
Whenever disaster strikes, regardless of the circumstances or the remoteness of the location, an Idahoan is almost certain to be there.
It happens virtually every time. No matter how unpredictable the tragedy, no matter how distant the location, at least one Idahoan will be in just the right place at just the right time to represent the state and relay a breathless, first-person report to a waiting world.
Think about it. How many major disasters, calamities, catastrophes or crises in recent years have failed to be detailed in eyewitness accounts by Idahoans?
There haven’t been any. Or, if there have been, they were second rate and not worthy of an Idahoan’s attention.
The latest to uphold the tradition is Hank Birnbaum, of Sagle, Idaho. Birnbaum was one of six American college students who were in Kiev, Ukraine a short distance from the site of the reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Most Americans had never heard of Chernobyl prior to the accident, let alone been there, but Birnbaum had strategically positioned himself within a few miles of it. When the meltdown occurred, he was ready and waiting to observe and be interviewed,
“Kiev is calm,” the canny Idahoan told an anxious world watching on television. “When we left, everything seemed to be going on normally.”
Except for the glowing hair, of course.
Birnbaum’s account was reminiscent off the 1979 Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania nuclear emergency, which Boisean Teryll Lynn Schasse described in a dramatic telephone interview:
“You don’t know what’s going on here,” she said. “They said the worst thing that could happen is a rainstorm and a thick cloud cover that might cover us with fallout. I’m looking out of the window right now. It looks like rain to me.”
Two days later, Schasse was back in Boise, answering questions from reporters and providing Idahoans with an up close and personal perspective on the nation’s worst nuclear accident.
The most surprising thing about Idaho’s role as supplier of commentators on the world’s disasters is that the odds against it happening are almost overwhelming. That a state with a population smaller than that of the Seattle area would have a personal emissary to most of the great upheavals of our time defies logic, yet it happens regularly. It makes no difference where the crisis occurs, how few people are involved or how minuscule the chances are of an Idahoan’s being there. One invariably is.
The Iran hostage crisis, for example. When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by militants, Idahoan Henry Lee Schatz, an agricultural attache, was just down the street. Schatz avoided being captured by the militants, but was forced to spend three months hiding from anti-American mobs. He also was one of six Americans who provided a bright spot in the hostage crisis by escaping from Iran on forged Canadian passports.
After being questioned by the media and meeting with the president in the oval office, Schatz returned to Idaho, where he modestly told reporters that he was “just in the right place at the right time. Or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.”
The other hostage crisis involving Americans in the Mideast was last summer’s hijacking of a Trans World Airlines flight in Lebanon. Sure enough, an Idahoan not only was there but was in the cockpit!
For 17 days, the world watched as the plane’s crew and passengers were held hostage by Shiite Muslims. A key figure in the drama was flight engineer Christian Zimmermann of Cascade, who was quoted at length about his role in the ordeal and went on to write a book about it.
Though seemingly partial to manmade crises, Idahoans are no less adept at witnessing natural disasters. When an earthquake destroyed parts of Mexico City last fall, Saul Zamora of Gooding was in the thick of it, ready to observe and answer questions from journalists.
It’s an established fact, of course, that whenever a dam collapses or a volcano erupts, an Idahoan will be on hand to collect big bucks from the news magazines by photographing the event with a cheap Kodak camera. It happened at the Teton Dam disaster, the Mount St. Helens eruption, you name it.
So why are Idahoans always on hand for calamities?
The answer is obvious. We need the exposure. It’s one of the few ways we have to avoid being confused with Iowa.
With the days getting longer and warmer, it’s time to put away the winter clothes, get out the beachwear and start working on a summer tan, right?
Or … maybe it’s time to rethink that.
The winter just ended gave me a different perspective on the desirability of getting a “healthy” looking suntan. Or for that matter, spending more than a few minutes in the sun without protection from it.
I’ve never been one to spend hours lying in the sun in hopes of becoming the next George Hamilton. But like many people, I liked the idea of having a summer tan and was pretty casual about wearing hats or using sunscreen.
Not any more.
In addition to a love of music, a good story and an occasional tipple, my Irish ancestors passed on a predisposition for skin cancer. I’ve had carcinomas on my face frozen more times than I can count, and more serious ones surgically removed from my chest, one of my legs and one of my ears. Even with all that, I remained pretty lackadaisical about following doctor’s orders.
“Given your history,” a doctor once told me, “I don’t want you going from your house to your car without sunscreen.”
Obviously, he was exaggerating. I blithely ignored his advice, for the most part, using sunscreen when I thought about it but more often not thinking about it. Or, worse, thinking about it and not doing it.
That changed after an appointment with a specialist my dermatologist referred me to for a spot on my forehead. She did a biopsy; the lab work confirmed that it was cancer.
The reason she referred me to the specialist is that the procedure he uses results in minimal scarring. Layers of skin are removed one at at time and examined under a microscope. Successive layers are removed until all of the cancer is gone. The patient waits while this is happening. My appointment took about four hours.
It didn’t hurt a bit. I had no idea of the extent of the procedure until I got in my car, looked in the rearview mirror and saw the bandage. It covered almost half of my forehead. Part of it was nearly an inch thick.
All that afternoon, I waited for the anesthetic to wear off and the pain to start. It didn’t.
“A piece of cake!” I said to my wife. “Doesn’t hurt a bit.”
The anesthetic took about eight hours to wear off, then made up for lost time. It had been a long time since anything hurt that much. The three ibuprofen tablets I took might as well have been M&Ms.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor and asked for something stronger. My wife drove me to the pharmacy with the prescription, graciously refraining from making sarcastic remarks about my more or less constant whining.
The pharmacist wasn’t much help.
“We’re out of the painkiller the doctor prescribed for you,” he said. “We’ll have to order it.”
That day and the next were two of the most painful I can remember. I couldn’t think about anything but how much my forehead hurt. It hurt so much it made me nauseous. I’ve had three fairly major surgeries in my life, and none of them came close to hurting as much as that one little spot on my forehead.
Actually, it wasn’t so little. When I took the bandage off, the guy looking back from the mirror might as well have been Frankenstein. It looked like an angry caterpillar was crawling down my forehead.
Fast forward two months to the “wound-check appointment.” The wound had completely healed and left virtually no scar. Clearly my dermatologist made the right call in referring me to the specialist. There are still flashes of pain, but they only last a few seconds, are down to a few a week, and the specialist said they’d go away completely after three to five months.
Never would I have believed that such a tiny spot on a forehead could cause so much pain and angst. It put me in mind of Tom Menzel.
Menzel was a former neighbor and co-worker of mine who had a skin cancer removed from his scalp. Everything seemed to be fine, until it metastasized and killed him.
His last wish to his family and friends: Wear a hat and use sunscreen.
The type of skin cancer I had isn’t usually life threatening, and thanks to two excellent doctors serious complications were avoided. In rare cases, however, it can be fatal. It results from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, as in sun or tanning beds.
So I won’t be sporting a tan this summer.
Tans are overrated anyway. Don’t learn the hard way to heed Tom Menzel’s last wish. Wear a hat. Use sunscreen. It could save your life.
Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with Woodward Classics for the duration of the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman and in his first book, “Shirttail Journalist.”
The Corral Store floats on a sea of land. For as far as you can see, there is only the Camas Prairie and the surrounding hills.
That high plain is so big and silent, so softly enveloping, that it seems a world of its own. You can stand on the Camas Prairie, its gentle wind blowing in your face, and think that the land stretched forever.
A sign outside the little red Corral Store advertises that “It’s Coffee Time,” and somehow it always is. The man behind the counter welcomes you with a tired smile. He sells groceries, pumps gas and provides direction to nearby towns as if he had done these things all his life. You’d never figure him for anything but a prairie shopkeeper.
You’d be mistaken. Every other Sunday, usually around one in the afternoon, Bob Ertter takes care of last-minute details at the store, kisses his wife, Mamie, goodbye and drives his Chevrolet El Camino to Boise, 90 miles away. He parks at a service station near the airport, buys a newspaper at a vending machine in the airport terminal building and boards a jetliner.
An hour and five minutes later, he gets off at the San Francisco airport, catches a limousine to his usual stop and walks two blocks to a cheap but decent motel. His other car, an old Pontiac, is parked outside. He spends the night, gets up early and drives to the docks. Bob Ertter is a man with a double life: prairie shopkeeper and San Francisco Bay barge captain.
Traces of the sailor emerge as the shopkeeper tells me his story. His eyes are blue and have that restless, faraway look common to men of the sea. His sleeves are rolled up, exposing a tattoo on each arm. Like most sailors, he is intolerant of landlubber terminology. If I said “ship,” he’d jump in with a correction. A barge isn’t a ship. A barge is a barge.
The barge he operates is owned by the Crowley Maritime Corp., Ertter’s employer for most of his working life. It’s a hundred feet wide, nearly as long as two football fields, and is operated by a crew of two tankermen, or captains. Ertter and his counterpart work seven days at a stretch, 12 hours on, 12 off – unloading the giant tankers and carrying their cargo to the Bay Area refineries where it becomes the stuff you and I pump into our cars’ gas tanks.
Barges are used to unload the oil because tankers are too large and draw too much water to reach the refineries. A single tanker can carry almost half a million barrels of oil. Ertter’s barge is small by comparison, holding 178,000 barrels. In one week, though, that one barge on the San Francisco bay can unload five tankers with a combined cargo of four million barrels, enough to keep the entire country running for six hours.
Ertter and his fellow captain share quarters about the size of an average living room, with two desks, two cots and just enough room for a few personal belongings. One man works while the other sleeps or reads.
You’re probably wondering how an Idahoan who lives in a place like Corral came to such a life. It began 40 years ago, just after Ertter graduated from Boise High School.
“I was a wanderer,” he said “I’m not any more, but in those days, boy did I have a case of wanderlust!”
He joined the merchant marine as a seaman and spent 12 years seeing the world. I asked him if there was anyplace he hadn’t been.
“Yes, there is,” he said after thinking about it. “We never made Russia.”
After a dozen years at sea, the wanderlust was gone. Ertter went to work as a tankerman on the San Francisco Bay and has been there ever since – 28 years on the same job. He has the commute down to a science. He’s made it from the store on the prairie to the dock on the bay in three hours.
“It’s nice to have a week off,” he says of his unusual schedule,”but I don’t usually make it down there in three hours. You use up about a day coming and going, and by the time I get home I’m tired. I spend the first couple of days here sleeping. That only leaves about four real days off.”
He doesn’t mean it as a complaint, just a statement of fact. His complaint, and biggest worry, involves hanging on to his double life. Skyrocketing air fares threaten to end the lifestyle he and Mamie looked so hard to find.
For 16 of his 28 years as a barge captain, they lived in the Bay Area and “couldn’t take it any more,” he said. “I’d grown up in Boise, but we couldn’t take that, either. It was growing and spreading out so much. We looked three years to find this place and buy the store. My wife likes it here, and I’d hate to go, too. After twelve years here, we’re friends with practically everybody that comes down the road.”
His round-trip airfare to San Francisco more than doubled in three months.
“If it gets to the point that it’s eating up my paycheck, that’ll be it.”
In the 12 years the Ertters have owned the store, it’s turned a profit once. Ertter is 57, still eight years from retirement.
You hear it said that the sea is a sailor’s first love, but it isn’t always so. As we sat drinking coffee in the little store, its seafaring proprietor gazed wistfully out the window at the prairie he has come to love. His face was drawn, his eyes tired. You could see how badly he didn’t want to move back to the Bay Area to avoid the high cost of commuting.
“I suppose if we have to, we have to,” he said. “It’s the only thing I know.”
Suggested headline: ‘The kindest man I’ve ever known’
The first time I saw Terry Shibata, he was smiling happily while flagrantly violating a no-parking zone at the ferry dock in Seattle.
He was impossible to miss, wildly waving his hands at us while my wife, one of our daughters and I disembarked. It was worth it to him to risk a pricey parking ticket to make sure we spotted him.
There are people you don’t have to know long or well for them to affect you deeply. Terry was one of them. When word came that he died last month at 86, we felt as if we’d lost an inspiration, a model for how life should be lived.
He and I and a friend in St. Louis were the contemporary equivalent of pen pals. Terry and Bob Hagar, my St. Louis friend, met on a group tour and began exchanging emails. That led to the three of us exchanging emails, and a long-distance friendship was formed.
The reason he was waiting at the dock in Seattle that day was that he knew we’d be in the area and had offered to take us to a Seattle Mariners game. We tried to pay him back for the tickets he’d purchased, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
At the game, featuring the woeful Mariners against the even more woeful Baltimore Orioles, he surprised us by pulling Costco hot dogs out of his jacket pockets and offering one to each of us. Then he announced his intention to go the concession stand to buy us insanely expensive cups of beer.
“Let me get them,” I said. “I’ll come with you.”
“No, no, no. You stay here and enjoy your hot dogs. I’ll be right back with the beer.”
After the game, he took us to one of his favorite restaurants. Despite repeated offers, he wouldn’t let us pay for dinner. Only when it became clear that allowing us to pick up the tab would have ruined his evening did we acquiesce. He reluctantly let us pay the tip.
A resident of Everett, Wash., and an avid fan of the Mariners, the Seattle Seahawks and the University of Washington Huskies, he loved buying their team gear for people, whether or not they were fans.
“He was most generous,” Hagar said. “He sent us Washington Huskies caps, Seahawk blankets, University of Washington sweatshirts …”
A Huskies cap is lurking in my closet as well. He sent it to me as a good-natured joke a few days before Washington played Boise State in the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl.
And never said an unkind word about the Huskies embarrassing the Broncos.
Two years ago, we all met at the Hagars’ home near St. Louis. Terry insisted on sleeping on a couch so my wife and I could have the guest room. We went to places that required a lot of walking, which was difficult for him because of a back injury. He painfully shuffled to museums, the top of the St. Louis Arch and a Cardinals game, never once complaining.
“He’d been taking steroid shots for his back for more than 20 years,” Toni Mullins, one of his daughters, told me. “The doctor told him he needed an operation, but he kept getting the shots instead. He didn’t want to let an operation interfere with his travels.”
Asked how many countries he’d visited, he said it would be easier to count the ones he hadn’t visited. He traveled with his wife until her death in 2009, then on his own. He went to Antarctica – alone – in his early 80s.
In his 86 years, he worked on a fishing boat, in a cannery, pounded rivets into Boeing airplanes and worked his way up at a succession of supermarkets, eventually opening his own – Terry’s Thriftway, in Everett.
He took his dog to church with him on Sundays. The dog happily attended the service along with the rest of the congregation. Later he got a cat named Oreo and took her to church. Oreo had to wait in the car.
She “shredded his upholstery,” Mullins said. “He never got mad at her, though. … Oreo was definitely spoiled. He fed her raw tuna. He had a freezer full of it for her.”
Her father was among the few remaining survivors of the Minidoka Internment Camp, northeast of Twin Falls. It was one of ten camps created after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entering World War II. Fearing that people of Japanese ancestry would side with Japan in the war, the government ordered those living on the West Coast to leave their homes and report to the camps. More than 9,000 were sent to Minidoka.
It was a shameful chapter in our history. Virtually all of those sent to the camps, including the Shibata family, were loyal U.S. citizens. While they were interned at Minidoka, their business, a Seattle bakery, was taken from them. A child at the time, Terry Shibata was too young to understand fully all that happened. He told me once that what he remembered most about Minidoka was playing baseball with the other children.
“He was nine years old,” Mulllins said. “He could tell that something about it wasn’t right, but he made it fun for himself.”
She remembers her father as “always happy and joking.”
His nickname: Hap. Shortened from Happy.
I knew him for only a few years. The total time we spent together can be measured in days rather than months or weeks. I didn’t even know his nickname until Mullins told me about it.
He didn’t need a lot of time, though, to make an indelible impression. His passing affected me as much as if he’d been part of my life much longer. He may have been the kindest man I’ve ever known.
My daughter who went to the Mariners game with us and spent no more than six or seven hours with him in her life had the same reaction.
“Of all the people I’ve ever known,” she said, “Terry is the one I’d most like to be like.”
Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with previously published “Woodward Classics” for the duration of the pandemic. This one, slightly revised here, originally was published in The Idaho Statesman in 2017.
How many times had I passed the building, once so dear, without stopping?
The old brick building has graced the corner of Sixth and Idaho streets in downtown Boise for over a century. I’d walked or driven past it countless times, invariably with memories drifting back, but always in too much of a hurry to stop and venture inside to see how it had changed.
Until now. It was a slow day, no need to hurry anywhere, and the building seemed to beckon. Why not?
It was built in 1912 as the Fraternal Order of Eagles building. It had a beautiful hardwood dance floor on the second floor, which eventually led to its becoming an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. For much of the 1960s, it was known as the Fiesta Ballroom.
For its patrons, the Fiesta was a teenage dance hall. For me and my friends who played in a band there on Saturday nights, it was a clubhouse, a second home.
It had been closed for a couple of years when we got the idea to reopen it. We were desperate to find a regular place to play, but the man who previously ran it had had his fill of the dance business. No amount of reasoning or pleading would convince him to get back into it.
My father, who was more susceptible to pleading, agreed to sign the lease with the understanding that we, the band members, would run the place. It would be our responsibility to pay the rent and other bills, hire security and maintenance people and not lose our shirts. He made it clear that we were on our own. If we failed, there’d be no bailing us out.
We didn’t fail. We advertised on the radio. We hired police officers to patrol our dances, one of the toughest kids in town to work as a bouncer and friends to run the soft-drink bar and do the janitorial work. For two of the best years of our lives, the old ballroom was packed with teenagers every weekend.
We made more money than we’d dreamed possible and had an idyllic hangout. It was perfect for everything from rehearsals to parties to telling ghost stories late at night with the vacant third floor creaking and groaning above us. There were times when we swore we heard footsteps up there. One night when I went to the ballroom to get a guitar, a heavy amplifier began to tilt back and forth – all by itself – and tip over on the stage. No one else was in the building, and no one in the history of feet has run faster.
Fast forward to today. The building has been renovated and is now mostly offices. The stairs we used to lug our gear to the second-floor ballroom have been replaced by an elevator leading to the three upper floors. I rode it to where the ballroom used to be and stepped into a hallway finished in muted greens and earth tones. Locked offices lined either side. Where hit songs once played and hundreds of people danced, it was eerily silent.
A window provided a view of the building across the alley. Now an office building, it used to be Boise’s jail and police station. On hot summer nights when the fire-escape door was open, prisoners shouted song requests at us from the jail windows. Through some mystery of atmospherics, our amplifiers picked up police radio transmissions – a source of amusement to most and of occasional strategic value to those planning illicit activities.
A window in a deserted conference room offered a view of a concrete ledge and the roof of an adjoining building, which also used to be a dance hall. It was where our primary competitors played.
When some of our gear mysteriously vanished, we blamed them and decided to get even by breaking into their clubhouse and swiping some of their gear. The obvious choice to squeeze through an alley window and let us in was a band member named Vance. Vance was small enough to fit and had experience in such matters. It might have worked, too, except that he got stuck halfway through the window. It was at this inopportune moment that a police car entered the alley.
The officer driving it was Vern Bisterfeldt, later a city councilman and county commissioner but then a cop who, among other things, patrolled our dances. Asked what we were doing in the alley, we told him we were waiting for someone to let us in so we could rehearse.
“Oh,” he said, seemingly satisfied, as he started to drive away.
Then, stopping after a few feet: “Why is Vance stuck in the window?”
He’d recognized him by his stubby legs, which were flailing madly. We made up a cover story, which he pretended to accept and drove away. We avoided jail (conveniently just a few yards away), and our one and only fling with attempted burglary was mercifully terminated.
The aforementioned ledge was our “emergency entrance” to the Fiesta when we’d forgotten the key. From the top of the fire-escape stairway, it was possible to leap to the ledge and pry up a window to get inside. The leap was patently dangerous. A fall to the alley below would have been fatal. Between that and some of the other stupid things we did, I sometimes wonder how we survived our teenage years.
Another elevator ride led to the fourth floor and more offices. It was late on a Friday afternoon; all of the office workers seemed to have left for the day. The fourth floor, like the others, was almost spectrally quiet.
Then, an unexpected sound.
Piano music. Played haltingly, like someone practicing.
In the old days, this floor was the spooky part of the building, the part that creaked and groaned and inspired ghost stories. The music was coming from an office down the hall, but the view through its door window revealed … absolutely no one.
The song being practiced: Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man.”
Vance had been our piano player.
The only member of the original group to have passed away, he also was something of a practical joker.
Breaking the creepy silence that preceded it, the piano music with no visible source gave me goosebumps.
It’s possible, of course, that there was an unseen piano somewhere on the fourth floor. Or maybe a practice tape was playing behind one of the locked doors.
Or maybe …
I’m glad the developers saved our old clubhouse. Instead of being torn down, it was tastefully restored and is home to new tenants.
And maybe a ghost or two.