The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue


Jack's Last Ride

     by DeWitt Henry

My oldest brother, Jack, who had been more father to me than my father, had made his life in Colorado, near Ft. Collins. He had been married to a woman with a ready- made family of two boys and a girl, and had built up an excavating business over the years. Then had divorced and remarried, and moved to a small town near Greeley, where he had built and sold a pipe-laying machine of his own invention. But when the economy turned down, he'd been forced to auction off everything and retire. At the same time, his health declined. In 2000, he was hospitalized with an "acute exacerbation" of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. He had stopped smoking before and had occasionally needed oxygen, but now specialists put him on a steady regimen of oxygen, antibiotics, steroids, and other medicines. For stretches the steroids would help, but they also damaged his immune system, and after a near fatal bout of pneumonia, he resisted taking them. He couldn't trust the doctors. He couldn't travel. He couldn't leave his house, except for short periods of time. Friends had to come to him. He needed oxygen all the time. On waking, he spent hours just clearing his clogged lungs. Jan, his wife, was loving always, and together they took the challenge of his disease and fought it, hoping to find a way of slowing its progress and keeping quality of life.

The more I heard about his illness, the more I worried how much time he had left. Despite the distance, cost, and my teaching duties, I felt that I had to see him. I couldn't imagine such an active man being cooped up and helpless like that. Above all, I wanted my seventeen year old son, David, to meet him while he could. My wife, Connie, had to work, but she urged me to go and take David with me. So in July of 2002, we set off on our first trip together, father and son: flying from Boston to Denver, renting a car, driving to Ft.Collins and checking into a motel. Jan had warned us that they couldn't put us up.

As soon as we reached Ft. Collins, I called and Janice answered. She said Jack was sleeping and tomorrow would be fine to visit, but to call first, around noon. That morning, we drove around Ft. Collins. Bluish, snow capped mountains lined the horizon to the west, with foothills starting just outside the city limits. Since my last visit, the city had tripled in size. Colorado State University went on for blocks and blocks, surrounded by boutiques, bookstores, and exotic restaurants, as well as by the usual franchises and malls. This time when I called, Jack answered. I wanted Dave to see the Rockies, so our plan was first to drive down to Loveland, up through Estes Park and onto Trail Ridge Road ("the highest continuous paved road in the world"); then return and arrive at Jack's for dinner.

The mountains were majestic. The road climbed to 12,000 feet, well past the tree line and tundra. As a teenager, I had mocked my own father's timid driving on this road when our family first visited and toured. Now as the driver myself, I cringed from sheer drops without guard rails. We were eye level with opposing peaks, and the intervening valleys spread thousands of feet below. I knew we'd need time to get back, so I stopped just before the highest point to turn around. But Dave insisted on getting out to explore first, marveling at the snow stakes as high as telephone poles, then climbing the slope up from the road to pose on rocks. I felt unsteady, but climbed after him. We took each other's pictures.

The distances, the amplitudes, the alpine breeze and vivid sky, all lingered in our senses, as we drove back to Ft. Collins. From there we followed Jack's directions east; passing large stockyard feeding pens along the way; also alfalfa and beet fields, with elaborate ranks of sprinklers that cast their intersecting arcs. Dave with his beagle nose was overwhelmed by the smells, mainly of manure.

I tried to spark his interest in meeting Jack. "He's funny," I said. "He's a great story teller. He was like a Dad for me, growing up. He's a genius mechanic. All his life, he's loved cars." Dave stared out at the fields. "He restored antique cars. He drove racing cars. He even came in third behind Sterling Moss once."

Dave turned: "Who's that?"

"Moss? One of the all-time greats back in the Sixties, sort of like Dale Earnhardt now." I explained about Jack's coming to Colorado for his asthma, then dropping out of CSU and starting up his excavating business.

"We also took some road trips out here, too, Jack, Chuck and me together, with me the little brother. They both loved fly fishing, and I didn't. I didn't like the little bones in the trout they caught. I was your age when Jack got me the job on the ranch. Remember the picture? Me on the horse?"

"Yeah, I thought you were doing round-ups and stuff."

"No, just a hay hand, for the hay harvest. They let me drive a scatter rake pulled by a little Jeep tractor. That's how I got the nickname, 'Ol' Speed,' or 'Speedy.' You and your buddies could probably get work up there next summer, if you wanted."

"Yeah, thanks, no thanks."

In bits and snatches, I told Dave again about the Staggerwing airplane that Jack had rebuilt and flown for years, and the pipe laying machine, but what caught his attention most were the guns. "He's got a whole collection of guns, shotguns, deer rifles, and pistols; even a .44 magnum like Dirty Harry's."

"Can we see them? Think he'll let us see them?"

"Sure," I said, "let's ask. But we'll have to play it by ear, okay? He's really sick, remember."

Entering Pierce, I recognized the water-tower, the grain elevator, the railroad depot, and stores. I turned down Main Street, and around to Jack's gravel street, passing houses on both sides, and pulled up in front of his house, a car and pickup in the driveway. Jan greeted us at the door; and as Dave followed me inside, Jack stood smiling in the kitchen doorway, with his oxygen clip under his nose and the plastic tubing trailing behind him. We each hugged Jan hello, but Jack apologized for being unable to touch or hug us because of his immune system; germs could kill him (Jan was okay because they lived together, but anyone from outside could give him something).

I was proud to present Dave.

"My god, look at this guy," Jack said. "You're all growed up!" He shook his head. Off to one side, a contraption that looked like a dry vac hissed away, with its lengths of plastic tubing that coiled and led to Jack.

"That's Jack's oxygen pump," Jan said. "He didn't like the way it worked, so he tinkered and modified it; it changes the air to oxygen, so he's got a constant supply."

"Like fish gills, neat," I said.

"Yeah. Something like that," Jack said  "God, it's good to see you."

We had arrived for dinner. We sat at the dinner table while Jan cooked. Jack sat at the head with the back door open, providing circulation so he wouldn't pick up germs, and Dave and I sat a few seats down. We spoke about his finding a specialist he could trust. He showed us a clamp that fit on his finger and monitored his blood oxygen level. The oxygen tether was long enough to follow him through the house. He and Jan were hopeful about folk remedies that they had researched on the computer, especially colloidal sliver, which sounded far- fetched to me; but Jack had ordered a jar and took some orally every day. Jan explained that it killed different microorganisms, especially staph.

Dinner was ready. She brought us plates and bowls. Soup, steak, baked potatoes, beans, corn on the cob: all delicious. She sat near Jack. But as we ate, Jack barely touched his full plate. He had no appetite, he said. And Jan: "You have to try. A few more bites, hon. Please."

"I've been admiring your rogues' gallery there." I pointed at the framed photographs that filled the wall behind Dave: Grandpop Thralls as a young man, Nana Thralls in a bustle, pictures of Mom, her two brothers and sister, Dad and Mom, Chuck, Judy, me, a formal portrait of Grandpop Henry. I was touched by the display, particularly by several tintypes that I hadn't seen before (passed on apparently by Mom to Jack after her mother's death). Dave turned to look.

"Yes, we're very proud of that," Jan said. "I love researching genealogy." Her own parents and children were there as well.

Jack and I started trading family stories for Jan's and Dave's benefit, and Dave was rapt. In connection with Dave's getting his driver's license, Jack told about when he had been fourteen or fifteen. "I kept bugging Dad to let me drive, but he said no. So one day, when he was away, I went up into the attic in Bloomingdale, where there were all these old trunks. You know those big steamer trunks of Nana's and Aunt Peggy's? Anyhow, I found Nana's old clothes. I put on a fancy, oversized dress — Nana was big — and a big old hat with a veil. I figured the veil made up for not having a wig." I laughed; I'd never heard this. "So I go down, get in and start the car. I'd never driven before, just back and forth in the drive. I back out onto Lenore Avenue. I start to get the feel for the clutch. I'm into first, and second. I turn onto Bloomingdale. I'm having a fine old time. Stop, start. I drive down past the school, but suddenly I see a cop car following me. There's that hill up to the pike, and on the way up, I stall out. I can't get it started again. The cop car stops. And who gets out, but Captain Bones... 'Excuse me, Ma'am, is something wrong?' He's our next door neighbor and Chief of Police. He'd spotted me and followed me around the block. 'Can you take your hat off for me, please, Ma'am?' Of course, they took me to the station. They impounded the car. Dad had to go get it later. They called Mom, 'We've got your boy here, driving without a license and dressed up like a woman!' I got off with a warning. Meanwhile Dad was too tickled by the whole thing to be mad for long."

"I love these stories," Jan said. "Remember when Chuck was here? You two were up all night."

"You guys, how did you get away with it?" I asked, thinking of Dave's escapades with his friends, their freedom on the web, their overnight parties, their experimenting with sex and drugs, and overall their defiance of authority. "Chuck plays with matches and sets a closet on fire. You all keep deviling the elevator man in the apartments on the corner. You blow up chemistry sets. You sneak out at night. You shoot out your back window at crows."

"Who says we got away with anything? Dad was always ready with his razor strap. Remember the time Chuck tried padding his pants with comic books, but forgot to cry; and Dad kept whaling away harder and harder and couldn't figure what was wrong; then when he finally figured it out, he gave it to him for real? But seriously, nothing we did was ever meanness. Just boy stuff. Besides, Dad sort of half sympathized, after he'd been held down by Nana; and Mom had grown up with three brothers. But how about you, little brother?"

"Me? I was tame compared to you guys."

"What about your printing? You printed up that bunch of Christmas cards that said, 'Merry Commercial Holiday from an Agnostic.'"

Dave laughed. He was loving this, listening to every word.

"Say, here's a question," I said. "You still have your guns?"

"Sure I do, yeah. Why do you ask?"

"Dave was hoping he could see them. He's never seen or handled a real gun. And I was telling him about the handguns."

"Well, sure.—Help me, hon." He and Jan got up. He started through the kitchen and down the hall, dragging the tubing behind him. Jan followed. They returned, each carrying two pistols — three in shaped holsters, one in a red silk bag. Jack settled back in his chair, and pulled out the .357 magnum, which I recognized, with its oiled bluing, and the special wooden grip with the thumb rest. He passed it over to me. It felt like three pounds, with its six inch barrel. I opened and closed the cylinder, and passed it carefully to Dave, butt end first. "That one's the cannon," Jack said.

"What happened to the .44?"

"I sold that years ago. That thing was a monster."

Dave held the .357 in both hands and sighted away from us. "Did you ever shoot this one, Dad?"

"Yeah, a few times, long time ago. I remember we were shooting at rats in the Ft. Collins dump. The recoil from it practically knocked me over."

"I don't like shooting that one, either," said Jan. "It's too much gun."

"Wow, it's heavy!"

Jack passed around the familiar .38 snubby, as well, and then a new Taurus .22, a beautifully balanced eight-shot with a six inch barrel. Then he opened the red bag and pulled out a nickel plated .32, not much bigger than the snubby. "This was Grandpop Thralls's."

"So this is it!" I'd heard about, but never seen the pistol that Mom had brought back to St. Davids after his death in Brooklyn (he had packed it with a license into the bars that he frequented, and it probably had a history all the way back to Missouri and his banking days). Mom hadn't wanted it around the house and had given it to Jack, who then had taken it with him on a commercial flight back to Colorado—this before the days of hijackings, but even then he had had to give it to the pilot for safe keeping. It was a five-shot top-break, with black hard rubber grips. I passed it on to Dave, who carefully passed back the Taurus.

"So what do you say? You guys come tomorrow morning, and if I'm up to it, maybe we can go shooting. You like that, Dave? Come around ten. We can have lunch. Your plane doesn't leave until late, right?"

On our way back to the motel, Dave said, "Boy, that magnum was something else! I love his stories too."

Instead of a chore, where he politely went along for my sake, or even out of respect for Jack's illness, he had genuinely enjoyed himself.

The next morning, Jack greeted us and was ready to go. I had no idea where yet. Dave and I climbed into the cab of his Ford V8 pickup. Dave sat in the middle. Jack carried a portable oxygen bottle, just in case. Sometimes, he said, outside like this, he didn't need the oxygen. He was feeling good. He put the oxygen bottle and guns behind the seat. Jan would follow in her car and join us later. He drove the highway north, driving as he always drove, with total vigilance and comprehension, in charge of his machine. After four miles of flat fields, we turned onto a county road, then up a private dirt road of what looked like a farm, with a main house and annex and a gravel parking area, beside which there were picnic tables under a tent roof. This was "Great Guns," a private shooting club. "Friends of mine," he said. "Ever since I built that skeet tower for them." He pointed to a skinny, one-hundred foot, steel-girdered tower that stood back off the yard; stabilized by two long cables at each corner and painted bright orange, it looked like a radio tower, or something you would moor a dirigible to. A ladder went up the side. He'd designed the whole thing himself, including the catapults at different levels, which were loaded and controlled electronically from the ground. Surrounding fields stretched out to the horizon.

After introductions to the owner, his wife, and a son a few years older than Dave, all of whom were glad to see Jack and asked how he was feeling; and after we had visited the annex office, where they gave us earplugs, the son took his own pump-action 12 gauge and a box of shells and led Dave and me to a shooting stand, which resembled a garden arbor, just down from the tower. Meanwhile, Jack and the owner settled at a picnic table to watch.

The son loaded five shells, and had me push a button on a corded controller, which launched a clay pigeon from the tower behind us; he led it in his sights and blam! — it shattered into powder. He demonstrated for us several times, ejecting a shell each time he cocked the slide, and hitting every pigeon. As he reloaded, he told me he'd won prizes for his marksmanship. He offered the shotgun to Dave and showed him how to tuck the cushioned stock to his shoulder, and lead the target as it flew. Dave did well, three out of five, although he was surprised by the recoil (later, he'd complain that his shoulder was bruised). They both insisted I try as well; I hit a few of the high-flying pigeons, but none of the ones thrown bouncing from hidden traps and meant to simulate rabbits.

We went back to the shaded tables, where Jan had arrived and sat with Jack as he loaded his handguns. The owner was there too.

"You like that, Dave? How'd it go?" Jack asked.

"I love it, yeah!"

And the owner's son: "Pretty good shot. He caught on right away."

They had set up a series of knock-down targets about ten yards across the driveway, against bales of hay that served as bullet traps. They were different animal shapes that flipped over, and spinners.

"Here you go, Dave, try a handgun."

He gave him the Ruger target automatic that I remembered from St. Davids. Dave held it out in both hands, aimed, and plinked away at the metal rabbits, ducks, rats, and squirrels until he had finished the ten-round clip. He'd hit a few, but did even better next try. We all took turns, including Jan and Jack. Trying out the .22 revolver from last night — hammer cocked, aim, squeeze — I hit four medallions in a row, though my hand trembled and the sight wavered with my breathing each shot. Jack kept reloading. When it was his turn with the Ruger, he shot one-handed and never missed.

Before we started back, Jack went inside the office, and brought back hats for us, one tan, one blue, both with the "Great Guns" insignia, featuring ducks and clay pigeons. Dave chose the blue, and replaced his gray Red Sox cap with it; I slipped on the tan; we both said thanks. We climbed into the pickup; and this time Jack turned on his oxygen bottle and hooked up the tubes and nose clip.

"You should join the NRA back in Boston and follow up with getting Dave into a shooting program," he said.

Without thinking, I laughed. "The NRA? I don't think there is any."

"They have chapters everywhere. Just ask in any gun shop."

"There's that shop we pass in Nonantum," Dave put in.

"We'll look into it," I promised, hoping to sidestep a Second Amendment debate. In Massachusetts, where we had a mandatory one-year sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm, the NRA meant militias, guns stolen from home break-ins, kids with guns, and all the urban woes. I could already imagine Connie's scorn at first sight of our hats.

"Seriously. The NRA gets a bum rap from the anti-s. It's not about irresponsible gun ownership, just the opposite. You can't let the crazies and bad guys ruin it for the rest of us. And you ought to try hunting."

"Well, this sure was a thrill, anyway. Thank you!"

We left it there. Whether or not we joined the gun culture, what counted was Jack's loving, laden gesture of taking Dave shooting, as he had me, a lifetime ago.

Jan made us lunch, with Jack sitting apart again by the open door open and hooked up to the oxygen pump. He said it was ironic how he'd come out here originally for his asthma, but what he needed now was oxygen and would do better at sea level. Jan suggested, "Maybe we should buy a self-propelled trailer house. I'll drive it, and we can go touring to Florida." She sounded serious, but he let this go. Their life was in Pierce. He'd served as Sheriff for a while, and had been on the board of selectmen for years. He had ideas about fixing the town water supply to support a new housing development. Before we left, he said, "If it wasn't for Jan, I would be dead now. She's all that's keeping me alive."

And me: "There are people here who love you, Jack. Hang in there for us. Let's find you the right doctor."

Dave took our picture before we left: Jack, Jan and me, with me reaching behind Jan and giving Jack the traditional devil's horns; Jack is shrunken from his younger 6'-1" to 5'-8," big-eared, some belly, gray-haired, red crescents under both eyes, a thin grin. He apologized again for avoiding touch: no goodbye hugs.

We continued to keep up through emails and occasional phone calls, but now Jan wrote the emails for Jack. He was sick again. The doctor had put him back on steroids. He was seeing a specialist in Greeley next week. I wrote back regularly with our news, the adventures of our daughter in Colombia (where she had a Fulbright), birth of her daughter, Dave's girlfriend and progress in school. Jack and Jan followed all of this, the swirl and complication of our lives like a universe expanding, even as Jack's contracted. They loved the pictures of our granddaughter, Eva ("She is beautiful!").

Still, the outlook for Jack continued to be grim, despite Jan's love and care. Poignantly, Jan wrote that an old pilot friend of Jack's had come over to visit and stayed for hours, and all they talked about was flying and airplanes. "It was wonderful for Jack. It is so difficult for us to get out anymore."

I wasn't surprised by Jan's choked, sobbing, yet matter of fact call in August of 2004 that "Your brother is gone." He'd been in an accident and hit a tree, she said. He'd seemed fine that morning, had told her that he was taking out the truck to charge the battery, and not to come along. He'd said he'd be right back.

I didn't press her for details; nor did the local authorities. or his fellow townsmen. Everyone honored and granted his passing. My older sister and I, of course (and surely Jan herself, though she never voiced it), suspected that his death had been deliberate.

After four years' ordeal, Jack would have had enough. Bedridden, at best he had a few good hours each day. He lived in constant fear of germs. He had no shop, no dream; no airplane; he was no use around the house; he seldom saw friends; he had no hope of getting better. The more he clung to Jan, the more he must have felt that he was suffocating her, even as his illness robbed him of strength and breath. He wanted her free. If suicide by gun ever tempted him, he'd ruled it out; but with an accident, there'd be no problem with life insurance and there'd be less guilt for Jan.

We'll never know for sure. Dave himself rejected this version. He thought that Jack blacked out or had a coughing fit. The tree in those relatively treeless flat lands just happened to be there. The former race car driver, the pilot, the master mechanic and inventor, the rescuer of others always (as I saw him), had simply lost control and the acceleration surged.