Tuesday, May 24, 2016
A Hero, A Storyteller, A Sheriff
Three weeks have passed since a very important man in my life departed. I have thought of him often over the days while working on my writing or in my gardens. I look back through my childhood and wished I spent more time with him, especially in high school when we moved back to the town he resided in most of his life. Alas, I was busy chasing boys and he was busy running and working as the Lincoln County Sheriff. When I left the area for college and my adult life, I saw him at family gatherings, celebrated his 50th Anniversary to his beautiful bride, Shirley, and visited when I could. I wish it had been more.
As a little girl I remember him as a hero bigger then life. I mean John Wayne didn't have anything on Uncle Ray. Now, this story I have of him may be a little embellished, but it is the way I remember it. One night, my family drove to Libby from Eureka. I was tired and fell asleep in the car. Either my mom or dad carried me into Uncle Ray and Aunt Shirley's house and into one of the bedrooms. I didn't wake up at all. The next morning, I woke up to the smell of bacon, eggs, and pancakes. My stomach rumbled, so I tried to climb out of bed. I froze in fear. Laying next to the bed was a black bear. I scurried to the headboard and waited. My name was called, but there was no way I was going to let that bear get me. I worried I might miss breakfast, but the bear worried me more. I continued to wait. Finally, my tall, strong uncle filled the doorway. "There's a bear on the floor," I announced. He laughed and in two strides came to the bed, stepping on that old bear. I crawled up into his arms and he took me to the kitchen for breakfast. My uncle saved me. From that day forward, I knew he would always protect me.
When I got older, the woods department in northern Lincoln County closed up and sent the workers south. My dad spent the week in Libby and came home for the weekends. During the summers, I was blessed to spend every other week with him at the family cabin. We are talking old Grizzly Adams type cabin without an outhouse, not one of these fancy houses out in the woods people claim are cabins. That is like saying camping in an RV with television. Please. If I had to go pee in the middle of the night, I found a tree. During the day, we went across the dirt road and through the front yard to my other uncle's house to use their bathroom. Uncle Albert lived at the bottom flat meadow of the mountain and Uncle Ray lived up on the side of the mountain. These were my favorite summers. Many evenings, my uncles, dad, and cousins sat at the dining room table telling stories. I would lay on the couch on the other side of the half-wall reading a book. Well, I pretended to read. I actually listened to all the hunting, logging, farming, and fishing stories. I fell asleep to their deep voices and laughter.
Tired of being away from the family so much, Dad finally moved us to Libby my freshman year. My junior year, Uncle Ray ran for sheriff. I listened to his deep reassuring voice on the radio during the debates. I was so proud of him. Now, I knew and liked the current sheriff, but there was no way he would beat Uncle Ray. I turned 18 before the election, so my first time voting, I marked the box that read Ray Nixon. Pretty cool. Even better? He won. One story I have, he didn't even really participate in and I don't think I ever told him. As the class of '87 prepared for graduation, one of my friends was telling me about the Senior Keg. He bugged me to come. "Are you kidding?" I scoffed. "My uncle will throw me in jail." No, one would doubt that, but my friend had a plan. "That is why we are crossing the state line. The party is in Idaho just so we won't get caught by him." I laughed. "Do you really think and invisible state line would stop him from picking me up?" I mean really, this is the man who saved me from a bear! "I guess you have a point."
I came home that first summer after graduation. I worked at the local Town Pump during the graveyard shift. I really don't remember ever being scared working on my own. My uncle's deputies stopped by nightly. If I called for help, they were at the store in a matter of minutes. One of the women complained once that I got preferential treatment because I was the sheriff's niece. To this day, I don't know if that is the case. I never asked him if he had the men keep an eye on me. In all the stories at the dinner table, I learned from the men in my life to respect authority and give them a hand. You see, any deputy that came into the store received free coffee from me. If they came after 10, they received the food that would be tossed for the night. I took care of them and they took care of me. I smile thinking of the sheriff growling at them to watch for my gray pickup though.
The family information line had said hospice had been brought in to help Uncle Ray. I had a conference in Kalispell and left a day early to drive home to visit him and the parents. Seven days before he died, I was blessed to visit him. He was having a very bad day, which was hard to see my hero struggling. At one point with the nurse hovering, he looked over at me. "Lisa, you’re here. I haven't even talked with you." I smiled. "It's okay, Uncle Ray. I am just happy to be here." A little later, he looked across the living room and we shared a smile before the pain meds kicked in and he fell asleep. I will treasure that smile. I traveled back to my hometown two weeks after I had been there to say my farewell at his funeral. The minister talked about asking Aunt Shirley and my cousins to say one word that represented Uncle Ray. My sister turned to me and we each whispered our word for him. Mine was storyteller, but hero, sheriff, and uncle are right up there with that word. I obviously will miss my uncle. But I have to say, I find great comfort knowing the sheriff of Lincoln County is barking orders for deputies and angels to keep on eye on all of us.