Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 04:37PM
It occurred to me a time or two that when it came time for my maternal grandfather, Francis D. Engle–though always “Gramps” to me–to transition to the Hereafter, my family would likely approach me with the task of eulogizing him. I could imagine no greater honor. The original of this brief treatise on Gramps’ life, entitled Dauntless Gramps, was occasioned by his having a stroke last April, at which time it further occurred very strongly to me that the time and energy spent coming up with a fitting eulogy after someone passes might be better spent on a tribute said person might actually have an opportunity to see while still living. This touch-up/rehash of the original is being produced for Gramps’ 90th birthday on November 26, 2013.
Gramps’ “mild” stroke, whatever the hell that means, more than mildly freaked out those of us closest to him. Here he was well into his ninetieth year, yet it seemed never to have occurred to any of us in any meaningful sense prior to the crisis that we might at least consider initiating an earnest round of contemplating life without this ever-present Force of Nature at or near the center of it. Defensive avoidance at its most humanly typical, I reckon.
The brush with infinity rudely awakened us to those long-avoided realities. Speaking for myself–although the others doubtless felt similarly–it also underscored Gramps’ heroism and all of the reasons I’ve idolized him throughout my life. The event itself occurred on April 15 of this year (yeah, tax day often makes me want to have a stroke too, but I wish he’d not taken it so literally). He had already been in a weakened state from some heart and respiratory issues that had been sapping his vitality over the preceding week. The stroke itself temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body and rendered him unable to speak for a few days. He gradually improved, with a spirit that frankly surprised even those of us who know him best, frequently smiling and easily laughing throughout the entire miserable ordeal. If he’d been demoralized or depressed for even a second, he did a masterful job of concealing the fact. Nor was there ever a cross word or merest inkling of impatience or exasperation with the armies of medical professionals daily prodded, menaced, harassed and discomfited the old lion. Not a one. As a patient under similarly dismal circumstances, there’s virtually no chance I’d be able to maintain my composure anywhere near so perfectly.
I’ve often thought of the inevitability of one day boring my kids without mercy about Gramps, and about the stalwart generation of those just like him who, without the least exaggeration, saved the world from the blackest tyranny to ever threaten humankind. Of how they stepped up and performed this incomparable feat with unwavering purposefulness. Just a few nights back I was watching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with my children, and was attempting to explain the opening scene of the film to my eldest. “Honey, the Germans were dropping bombs on the city of London, England, and people had to send their children out to the countryside to live with kind people who would shelter them from danger. It was the worst war that has ever happened, and your Papa fought it in, and helped win it, and saved the world for all of us.” Yeah, she didn’t get it. Granted, she’s 5, but how will those of us who knew those immortals ever be able to explain it to those who didn’t? It can’t be helped, for it is both the privilege and the curse of my generation–their grandchildren–to be the last that can lay claim to a direct, personal connection to the one FDR laureled with a “rendezvous with destiny” and which Tom Brokaw declared–correctly–to be simply “the greatest.” We’re the last who will have full consciousness of what it truly is that’s being lost as they pass on–a damned irreplaceable national treasure.
Roosevelt plainly understated the case. It was a generation that, in far too many instances, had a rendezvous with a lot of bullets at a tender age, preventing in far too many cases the begetting of the very children and grandchildren that would eventually be telling their story. Gramps took me to Omaha Beach–“Bloody Omaha”–in Normandy when I was 18 as part of a trip that was a high school graduation present. This was the setting of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, and it was here the U. S. Army’s first wave landing force took the worst of it on D-Day. I’ve given that haunted scrap of real estate a good going over, both from the perspective of the dug-in Krauts in their reinforced concrete pill boxes and bunkers, and that of the boys charging forth as the gates dropped on the Higgins boats. They were the gates of hell. Private Ryan was no exaggeration of the horror or carnage. Our troops were utterly at the mercy of Nazi machine guns and mortars. Who got hit and who didn’t was not a function of speed, smarts, piousness, popularity or resourcefulness. It was the blindest and most pitiless of luck. Some simply got hit and some didn’t before making it to cover, of which there was virtually none over the first hundred-odd yards of beach. The Memorial lies a short distance from the beach, and it was there that I beheld the dozens of acres of grave markers for over 9,000 of our dead. At the time, all I could think was, “Most of these guys were my age.” They should have been looking forward to college, or dating, or starting a family or career. They should have been lapping up all of the delights of that incomparable stage of life: first independence, college (where applicable) and early adulthood. These were thoughts too big to get my head around, then as now.
America no longer produces near so many of the sort of uncomplicated patriots capable of charging into a wall of steel to secure freedom for generations yet unborn. Most of them weren’t thinking on matters from so celestial and historically retrospective a vantage, of course. They were doing their duty, because they had the sort of strong and straightforward sense of it that seems quaint, perhaps even somewhat foreign to us now. Our fatuous, self-indulgent youth, taken as a group, could never pull off such a feat of word-defying heroism. In the simplest terms, Gramps’ generation was wrought of stouter timber than the 2.5 that have come of age since. From Depression to war was from frying pan to fire, and out of the war they engineered the period of sustained prosperity that secured for their children and grandchildren a life they could only have dreamed of in their youth. And if there’s some vicarious pride I’ll always be able to hold over the of those coming after me for having known so many of them intimately, so be it.
For that’s what Gramps was and is. There’s no discussing the man separate from the generation he was a part of. It was one that endured privations unthinkable to most of us now, and whose reflexive sense of duty was coupled with zero sense of entitlement. What one acquired, one worked for, and ones obligations were straightforward and unquestioned. They had character born of simplicity in morals and ethics. Relativism, revisionism, and similar faddish intellectual detritus had yet to take hold in any mainstream sense. They were ordinary men and women, but the finest and best of ordinary. And almost to a man and woman, they focused whatever gifts they may have had toward giving their children a better shot at the good life than they were given, whether we deserved it or not.
Much of Gramps’ life–certainly the part that predated my arrival into it in 1973–is far hazier in my own mind than I’m comfortable admitting, and it required the assistance of my mother, father and aunt to piece some of the details together. The third of four brothers, he had lost both of his parents by the age of 11 to ailments easily curable today, and he and the other three essentially raised each other from that point onward in then-very-rural Eagle, Idaho. They lived with an aunt for a while, and eventually all four would live in the home his mother had left them once the oldest, Maynard, had married. They worked as loggers by day. With today’s equipment, logging is the toughest profession on earth. With the antiquated equipment of the 1930s, it was orders of magnitude tougher. Tougher still when you’re 12 and 10, as Gramps and his younger brother, Edgar were when they formed a team running the “misery whip,” which was the large crosscut handsaw used for felling timber prior to the widespread adoption of chainsaws. If there were any child labor laws in effect at the time, it would appear they were indifferently enforced. By night the Brothers Engle had a band and played in taverns. Gramps was on fiddle.
I also know that as a kid he acquired, for the princely sum of $2, a Winchester single-shot .22 rifle with a busted stock, which he repaired in shop class. He used the rifle to shoot rock chucks, also known as yellow-bellied marmots, which are a large burrowing rodent ubiquitous in that area. Entrepreneurial from his earliest beginnings, he would sell the fat from the rock chucks, which was popular for use as boot grease. That .22 is the first rifle I ever fired, at the ripe old age of two. Gramps would help me hold it as I aimed it at fresh cow pies, and I’d squeal with delight as I blasted turd particles all over creation.
Gramps was an exceptional athlete, and actually had solid recruitment prospects in major league baseball as a pitcher. As with virtually everything else, the war interfered, and shortly after Pearl Harbor the brothers made their way to the Tacoma area where Gramps went to work in a shipyard welding together the hulls and innards of the vaunted Liberty Ships. He met and wooed my grandmother (“Granny”), Patricia DuCharme, a Tacoma girl and the eldest daughter of a well-to-do Quebequois Canadian developer and entrepreneur. Knowing his draft number would shortly be up, he enlisted in the Army. For an assortment of reasons not altogether clear to me, he was the only one of the four brothers eligible for military service.
At some point after basic and perfunctory follow-up training, Gramps was transferred to Camp Abbot–which today we call Sunriver Resort–in Central Oregon. It was an Army Engineers training facility during the war, although its time as a military installation was short-lived. The volcanic dust tended to play hell with any troops who had respiratory issues, particularly during the dry months, so it was mothballed after less than two years. Sometime after Gramps proposed (by breaking into song, or so I’m told–all four brothers were quite musical), Granny rode a train down to Camp Abbot for their wedding with her mother, who was the only member of either’s family to attend the ceremony. Not a single photograph recorded the event, which occurred in what is now called the Great Hall–the only building in Sunriver still standing from the Camp Abbot area. Then it was the officer’s club. Gramps had helped to build it, but as an NCO, was not allowed inside it (other than for his wedding). They lived out the remainder of his time at Abbot in one upstairs room of an older couple’s house, with a single hot plate for cooking and a single shared bathroom for the entire house. From Abbot, Gramps was eventually transferred to Fort Lewis, Washington, whereupon Granny joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and somehow finagled an assignment working for the colonel commanding Gramps’ battalion there. The couple had a few months together in quarters designated for married NCOs before Gramps shipped to Okinawa in 1943, and would not see each other for two long years. Such painful separations were, of course, the norm for servicemen while the shooting war was still on.
If Gramps’ youth prior to Okinawa is hazy to me, my knowledge of his time actually spent there is also pathetically lacking in details. I’m to blame, given that I never really pushed much to get him to open up about it. I know he hit the beach after the worst of the fighting was over–during the start of the “mopping up” stage–but that the bullets were still flying and the situation was still tense, frightening and by no means secure. I know he took an Arisaka (rifle) and bayonet off a dead Jap. He sold the rifle sometime after returning home, but still has the bayonet. I frequently got into trouble as a kid when I’d be found playing with it. As a supply sergeant, he was placed in charge of a small group of Jap prisoners, one of whom spoke English reasonably well. He told me that while they were vicious and scary as hell as enemies, they became perfectly docile as prisoners. He got along with them and treated them well. This isn’t to say he “liked” them. Like most who served in the Pacific Theater, that was a bit of a reach. Even decades later, I’d catch him saying such things as, “I used to kill the little bastards, and now I sell them lumber!” After Pearl Harbor, and as the reports trickled in of their treatment of our prisoners in Bataan and other earthly hells, the lingering antipathy is understandable. He did manage to get roaring drunk and have some noteworthy good times with many of his Japanese customers in later years, so obviously the tension had slackened somewhat by then. Gramps is nothing if not forgiving, adaptable, and always willing to reassess even his most strongly held assumptions. He was never a man set in his ways. He certainly came to appreciate that the Japanese of today are not the same people as the beastly, genocidal militants raised under marshal law and the Bushido code during the Imperial era.
I also know he and his fellow engineers built a very nice house on Okinawa that was intended for MacArthur to use as a headquarters, and that they were all a little miffed when the great man changed plans and didn’t end up spending so much as a single night in it.
Gramps indicated to me on more than one occasion that he would have been in the first attacking wave had it been necessary to invade the Japanese home islands. Given the casualty projections MacArthur and others had calculated for such an attack, it’s highly probable he wouldn’t have made it. So I’ll count myself as one Republican forever in the debt of one Harry S. Truman for coming down on the right side of so agonizing a decision and dropping the only two nuclear bombs ever used in warfare. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t exist had he decided against it.
On his return home, Gramps, his wife and brothers (and their families) settled in the Elma/McCleary, Washington area, where they returned to logging. My mother, Linda, was born in Elma in 1947. Not long after, they relocated to Roseburg where my aunt, Marsha, was born 3 years later. They started Engle Bros. Logging in the early 50s, and somehow managed to scrape together the capital needed to buy 12 quarter sections of timber in the coast range between Roseburg and Hubbard Creek. Thereafter they started a small sawmill on Hubbard Creek–their first foray into the manufacturing end of the timber business. They logged their quarter sections to feed the mill, along with whatever supplemental timber they were able to purchase. None held managerial desk jobs, as all three actively worked for the partnership as millwrights, sawyers, log truck drivers and so forth. When a massive, stand-replacing inferno swept through the area after its first few years of operation, they were able to dismantle the mill and get out with their equipment and personnel literally hours ahead of it.
They sold the dismantled mill and returned, more or less, to a strictly logging-based business model for a time. Maynard and Leland–the two elder brothers–sold out and moved on to other logging and commercial fishing ventures in Newport and Alaska. Ed and Gramps soldiered on, gradually morphing the business into earthmoving and road construction (Engle Construction Corp.), which operated steadily through the 1970s and early 1980s working for the Forest Service, the BLM and numerous private timberland owners. Engle Construction built many of the most iconic roads in the Umpqua and Willamette National Forests. While these road systems were initially put in for timber extraction, they continue to be used by hunters and other recreationists. They also put in the original road system and all of the ponds for Wildlife Safari.
While the logging and construction firms were going strong, Gramps was involved in an assortment of land deals and other ventures. Most went well, although a few did not. At one point he owned a vast ranch encompassing what is now most of the Edenbower/Stewart Parkway corridor of Roseburg–the area occupied by the hospital, the mall, Wal Mart and so forth. He developed it and sold it off in parcels, dubbing the overall project “Garden Hills.” Once when he, my father and some Engle Construction employees got a bit too exuberant with a blasting project in Garden Hills, a rock the size of a large pickup truck landed in the BiMart parking lot. That brought some unwanted attention. He also got swindled into buying a grapefruit orchard in Texas, and lost his ass.
Of the vast assortment of commercial dealings in which Gramps managed to involve himself over the decades, one merits special mention: His foray into the movie business. Bill Farmer, a friend of one of Gramps’ long-time employees, Dale Wright, was involved in the movie Sasquatch. It was Farmer’s crew that shot the famous, now iconic shaky, grainy footage of Sasquatch in Northern California, where an unknown creature is seen is walking across a gravel bar on a river, then turns and looks back over his right shoulder before disappearing into some brush. That was a cowboy dressed in a hot costume. Another film maker, John Fabian, was also involved. This was an era of great clamor for wilderness and survival entertainment, such as Grizzly Adams, The Wilderness Family and others.
The cast of characters behind Sasquatch made an improbable quantity of money, and Dale somehow finagled Gramps into getting involved in a venture with them. Gramps instantly took a liking to Farmer and Fabian. These two knew some nut over in Utah named Robinson who believed he was the reincarnation of Grizzly Adams. Robinson had written a script for a pilot about him, and was allegedly turned down. When the TV show came out, and had apparently made liberal use of his ideas, he sued and eventually won a multimillion dollar verdict. Most of that went to his attorneys, so he was seeking investors to finish a film he’d started about a guy riding a buffalo. In short order, Gramps was hooked.
He and my father went to Utah to watch some of the filming. He financed the building of some of the sets, and, after disagreements led to a parting of ways with Robinson, finished the film himself using copious footage purchased from him. He hired someone to finish out the script, along with some extremely amateur actors out of Eugene to play some of the roles. He also hired music and editing personnel to piece together the final product. Unable to find someone he trusted to distribute the film, he handled the distribution logistics himself–first under the original name–“The Life and Legend of Buffalo Jones”–later shortened to Buffalo Rider.
There was a Grand Opening in Roseburg at the Garden Valley theater, complete with a raucous drinking party, and another big opening in Lubbock, Texas (John Fabian’s hometown). While the Roseburg opening was well-attended (my dad and I couldn’t even get in!), it was a miserable, costly flop in Lubbock, thanks in no small part to its having uncharacteristically snowed in Texas that night. Texans don’t go anywhere when it snows, but Gramps still had to pay for the theaters he’d booked. Undaunted, he was determined to play the film until he got all his money back. This he did, though he had a rough go of it. After the initial run, the film was stored in my dad’s basement for a time. After that, his brother Ed ended up with it when they split up the assets of Engle Construction. The film can now be found, full-length, on YouTube, where someone posted it mistakenly believing it to have lapsed into the public domain. Finally, a musical group in Austin called the Possum Posse has used clips of the film in several music videos that can be found on the internet by googling “Guy on a buffalo.” Buffalo Rider, it seems, lives on.
Engle Construction was thriving in the early 1980s. Then, as it has the lamentably frequent tendency to do, the timber industry tanked–hard–around 1981. Engle Construction went from having several million dollars and thirty-odd miles of road building work booked out ahead of it to zero, as his main clients–Pope and Talbot, Douglas County Lumber Co., Willamette Industries and several others–brought their road construction projects to a grinding halt. In a fit of desperation to keep his sizeable crew busy and continue making equipment payments, he bought a large timber sale requiring $1 million in road work. What he hadn’t counted on was the collective snub that followed. It being taboo in those days for a logger or road builder to compete with their customers by buying timber sales, nobody would buy the timber off the sale, and many friends of long standing turned their backs on him. So in true Gramps fashion, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1982, he arrived at the hair-brained idea of purchasing an old rust bucket of a cedar mill in Cottage Grove. His experience in logging and road building for various integrated forest product operations had convinced him sawmilling was where all of the money was to be made in any case. So he bought the derelict old heap and set to work in his usual manner–no half-measures. He restored, refurbished and retrofitted the mill from one end to the other, leaving literally nothing unimproved. By the time Starfire Lumber Co. began operations in 1983, Gramps had leveraged literally everything he had worked his entire life to accumulate. At sixty years of age, when most men are thinking about what sort of RV to buy when they retire, Gramps was so deeply in hoc with his latest business venture that his bank refused to issue him a Visa card.
To say the venture rode the razor’s edge and had innumerable brushes with oblivion over its first two years in no way overstates the case. Starfire’s long-time timber manager and later CEO, Robbie Robinson, particularly enjoys telling the story of the single timber sale that finally propelled them into the black, and how they were literally nickels away from their maximum bid when the others begged off. It was that close. From those precarious beginnings, Starfire became one of the top producers of custom high-grade Douglas Fir cuttings in the world, a status that continues to the present.
He and Granny were deeply involved in local philanthropic activities for decades. His cumulative successful enterprises enabled him to create hundreds of jobs and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to such causes as the Douglas County Library, Mercy Hospital, Wildlife Safari, the Salvation Army and numerous others.
We lost Granny to cancer in January of 2010. It was a few months after their 66th wedding anniversary. She was extraordinary, deeply loved and irreplaceable.
That’s the abbreviated tale of Gramps’ origins and background. What to say of the man himself? We’ve arrived at a point in the narrative where it becomes far easier to select observations that may appear random than it is to determine what to leave out. Here I sit, more or less, at the periphery of middle age, and find myself trying to capture the essence of someone who has been a central player in life as I’ve known it up to now. The experiences breezed through in the foregoing paragraphs forged a man of a certain character and temperament. He’s tough, strong, determined and fearless. But it’s equally self-evident that he’s gentle, good humored, stunningly generous and solidly secure. He’s a man who knows who he is and what place he occupies in the world. He has a sounder intellect on his worst day than I do on my best, yet despite being erudite and well-read on any topic that catches his fancy, he’s anything but an “intellectual.” The dialect of his rural Idaho boyhood never left him, nor would it have occurred to him for a moment that it should have. He would bristle at being called “Mr. Engle” by anyone, no matter how humble; to everyone he’s simply “Francis.” Putting on airs and attempting to be anything other than what he is–logger, lumberman and country boy through and through–would be as ridiculous a notion to him as it would be repugnant.
His love for family is a straightforward affair: It is has no limits, which makes it God-like.
If a single word characterizes Gramps, it is warmth. I’m aware of nobody who’s ever reacted to him in any way other than to instantly like him, and to do so purely as a natural consequence of who he is, rather than from any effort on his part to come across a certain way. He’s incapable of affectation. His laugh–a cackle unique in all the world so far as I can tell–is probably my third favorite thing in life right behind my daughter’s lisp and light freckles and my son’s mile-wide, goofy grin. There’s little doubt I’ll miss it more than anything else when he’s not around anymore. It is a contagion that’s impossible to resist, lifting me out of my darkest moods and compelling me to join in even if I didn’t find whatever initially sparked it remotely funny. Damn, but do I ever love that cackle.
Gramps, out of his natural generosity, has given me more material and financial things than I could list or even remember. He’s been a bottomless well of encouragement, moral support and sound advice. But all of those things become insignificant next to the example he’s provided for the sort of man I should strive to be. And strive I will, until I get to the place where I’ll never have to worry about losing him again.