I'd like to tell you about a buddy of mine. He was as good a friend as I've ever had, and I still think about him all the time. If you've ever lost a friend, and I think most people have, then you know how it is: you can imagine what they would say to you in a conversation, almost hear how they would say it. George, rest his soul, is that way for me.
He passed away a few years back. He was a few years younger than me, but his refusal to give up his smoking habit finally led to his death. I suppose that to someone young (and when you're as old as me, everyone seems young), he might have seemed like an old man when he passed on, but if the world was run the way I'd have it, he'd have stuck around much longer. His bad habit of smoking was his singular defect, and he could easily get through a pack a day. I pointed out many times that the cigarettes were cutting his wind, and that he should stick to pot, since he'd be smoking it less, but enjoying it more. But George would only smile and tell me to shut up.
Less than ten days before he left us for good, you could still plainly see the twinkle, the mischief, and the simple good cheer in his eyes.
We had been peas in a pod, brothers from another mother as they used to say, but no two peas sharing a pod were ever more different than my old pal George and me. We came from very different backgrounds, for one. George looked like a hippie, acted like a hippie, was laid back like a hippie; he embodied hippieness in the same way that I was a redneck, looked like a redneck, and acted like a redneck, and well, just plain was redneck. Simple as that. I fixed things with wire and duct tape. My hair was as short as his was long.
He and his Mom, and Dads family had moved from some part of Texas. I never did ask exactly what part. I grew up in central Montana, so there alone was a huge difference. You might think that Texas and Montana are pretty much the same thing, but there are nuances that delineate at least marginally different cultural heritages, not the least of which are that a Montanan thinks in acres, and a Texan thinks in sections.
I met him in 1975 when I moved to his adopted hometown of Forsyth, Montana. It was, then, a sleepy little town on the banks of the Yellowstone River. However, there were boom times on the way, and the town was destined to wake up in a hurry. The coal boom was about to hit hard, and the BN Railroad was starting to run coal trains about 10 minutes apart to the big cities in the east. They had just announced that the town of Colstrip was to get four big coal-fired power plants. Units 1 and 2 were to start building right away, with units 3 and 4 destined to be twice that size. Construction would start in the next year or so.
At that time I only knew one person who lived there, and that one person told me that Burlington Northern (it had not yet acquired the SF of BNSF) would be hiring on some help very soon. So, I applied, got interviewed, and got hired. I was told to start on Monday. During the weekend, feeling a little like I'd just signed up for the Marines or was about to go to war, I hit the local taverns to enjoy my last days of freedom. That's when I met George. With all due respect to Forsyth, I wouldn't say that the bar that afternoon was full of a bevy of smiles. Rather, in the Budweiser-scented half-light, there were a lot of lined faces, weathered old men staring into their mugs, and cowboys whose body language indicated that after a long day of roping they were only interested in one or two things: a fight or a romantic dalliance, and I wasn't in the mood to provide either. But I did notice a shaggy bear of man wearing a goofy, slightly narcotic-looking smile. It was George, of course.
Seemingly out of nowhere, George asked me if I had ever "fired a doobie." I had no clue what he meant, but not wanting to lose face, I said, as cooly as I could muster, "sure, on occasion."
So he got up from the barstool and said, "this is an occasion." Off we went to the parking lot, until we reentered the tavern giggling like school girls a few minutes later. It might be a cliche to say we were fast friends, but some cliches are cliche for a reason. Anyway, that's how I met George.
He ended up also taking a job on the rails so we worked the Colstrip local together. That local, Forsyth to Colstrip, carried virtually every carload of material that would become the power plants.
Over the next few weeks, I met the rest of his family. His mother was always extremely kind and generous to me even though her favorite son had taken to hanging out with such an inveterate redneck. It probably made matters worse that the redneck boy had a fairly obvious crush on her daughter Kay. Nothing ever came of the crush, to Kay's credit - unlike her brother, she knew well enough to stear clear of rednecks.
So anyway George's mother would always drop what she was doing, put on a pot of coffee, and chat amiably whenever I came around, which turned out to be quite often, because it turned out George, only lived across the alley and down a few doors from her house. So if he wasn't home, I checked his mother's place. Often he could be found pulling weeds in his mom's garden. Sometimes his sister was there too, and I would take the opportunity to ogle her as politely as I could manage. The house I shared with by brother Neal was about the same distance to George's house as his was to his mother's, and my brother, after meeting the family, took the same shine to them as I did.
One of the things I admired about George, though I dont' think I ever told him as much, was that he possessed a wise man's aversion to extended hard work. Now, I'm not trying to say he was lazy exactly, just that he didn't have the same zeal that I had to work as hard as possible for as much time as possible. For my part it was (and is) the product of Catholic guilt, an impoverished childhood, and a mother who gained no small enjoyment from pointing out the defects in whatever labor I'd performed around the ranch. And, with the benefit of hindsight, all that hard work didn't really amount to much - my back's always sore and I'm just as poor as ever.
I have reached the conclusion that George was the wiser of the two of us, at least in terms of what constituted the meaning of life. His disinclination to strenuous industry now seems to me the better way.
Don't take this wrong, he was a good man to work with, and reliable. I just think the family circumstances made it just a little easier for him to take a day off, since he just didn't seem to need the money.
I remember one day he said, "let's take a little car ride."
So we head northeast of Forsyth in my old pickup truck. We eventually ended up on top of a huge ridge that seemed a mighty long distance out on a dirt road. He commented that if it were to rain, we'd be here a while. It was a god-forsaken desert of dirt, rocks, and cactus. I remember asking him, "you think you, can you find your way home from here?"
Two of Montana's major rivers originate in Yellowstone park, and drain out to the north and then both, eventually, run west to east with the Yellowstone turning south again near Glendive and dumping into the Missouri not far from Sidney Montana. Imagine being on that ridge in the middle of the state, realizing that if a rain drop lands just right, half would drain south into the Yellowstone, and the other half would drain north into the Missouri.
Ignoring my question, he said, "look out there, that's called the 'devils dancing ground.'"
I said, "what is?"
He pointed to the southeast, "---that."
And sure enough, way out there I could see perhaps 50 or 60 miniature swirling dervishes, often called dust devils. Some not so miniature, either, maybe 100 to 200 feet high, all spinning at once.
He said, "the Indians tribes used to call this the Devil's Dancing Ground." We stood there silently a moment, looking out over a big chunk of Central Montana, our big beautiful state. I was sufficiently awed to forget that I had asked him a question that had, in fact, concerned me at least a little - did he know where we were?
And then he said, "welcome to the ranch!"
"As far as you can see in any direction." That had to be nine, ten, and might well have been way more sections of land. At that moment I began to understand two things about George: why he didn't feel the need to go to work that day, and that Texans might just see the world a little differently.
But then, maybe we weren't so different after all. George and I both had a passion for camping - canoe camping, in particular. We camped and canoed down the Yellowstone River from Yankee Jim, just out of Yellowstone Park, all the way to the end of the river at Fort Union several times. We floated the Big Horn from just out of the canyon all the way to the Yellowstone, and then on home to Forsyth, also several times. We floated the Mighty Missouri River from below the dams near Great Falls the whole length to James Kip State Park probably a half-dozen times. He, my brother, and I were damn fine camping buddies. True River Rats. And if I reflect on it, which I hesitate to do because it comes with at least a little sadness to do so, I begin to realize these may have been the happiest days of my life.
Eventually, my brother and I purchased our ranch, "The Wild Rose," about 25 miles downriver from Forsyth, meaning we could float from Forsyth to the ranch, which we did many, many times. I'd have a fifth or so of Jim Beam, largely eschewing George's generous offer of wacky tobaccy, with which he was always more than liberal. My brother, though, was all too happy to accept.
Now, all these years later, it's nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around the sad fact that those great big power plants we drove supplies to are just as worn down now as we are, the men contracted to help build them. Even the railroad has all but shut down, and Forsyth is again just a sleepy little town with a river running through it. And George, well, George is gone too.
Not a day goes by that I don't miss George. The endless conversations about the stars, old Westerns, bands we liked, girls we saw, the railroad business, motorcycles, and all the other flotsam out of which our lives were assembled. George was a philosopher, in his way, and a very good friend. I will forever miss that impish look in his eye.
Life was good, then; I had good friends, we lived in good times.
I reckon just about everyone has a few friends they hold especially dear. If they're still around, treasure them. If not, celebrate their memories.
I don't know how else to close this, since I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm getting a bit misty. So I'll pour a couple shots of rye. One for me, and one for George, wherever he is.
A toast, to great friends!
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.