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Colley: Remembering Christmases past

My parents never shed their Depression Era childhoods. My mom missed the worst of it but knew the deprivations caused by World War. It dominated their views on raising children during a period of plenty. The story of one of my father’s Christmases reached comic proportions. Somehow my grandparents scraped together enough money to buy two tiny cast-iron fire engines for their little boys. When my dad shared the story 40 years later he explained the trucks would actually shoot a stream of water. Each truck stored roughly enough water to fill a thimble. He and my Uncle Louie decided to test the equipment. They torched some high grass. “The Great Lewis Run Fire” is how the old man labeled the memory. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but the family didn’t stay in Lewis Run, Penn., for long. Probably a good thing. The Colley boys weren’t terribly popular after several acres burned.

My parents had a testy personal relationship, although Dad had a fondness for Mom’s family. What I know of my Grandfather Gordon is all through stories. He died when I was just a little more than 1 year old. He never bought a new car. Back in Black Creek, N.Y., there was a fellow named Fran Milliken (I’m not certain of the spelling of the last name as I never saw it in writing). Fran sold used cars. Jalopies as my dad called them. Back in the day Grandpa would give Fran 25 bucks and get an old car and drive it until it fell apart. “Or until you’re Uncle Frank would smash it up,” as my old man explained. Then my grandfather would go see Fran and get a cheap replacement. Uncle Frank had a wild streak. As kids we found him very funny. He would tell bawdy stories in mixed company just to get reactions.

There wasn’t any money in my grandparents’ home. Electricians hadn’t been much in demand during the Depression and when war broke out Grandpa Gordon got a job in Buffalo. Before major highways, the drive to work could last a couple of hours. In summer. In winter it was all white knuckles behind the wheel. Which makes the story of one wartime Christmas almost mythology within the family. The big day was coming and with four little kids at home Grandpa was stressing over gifts. One night driving he saw a neighbor piling up four broken down runner sleds for the next morning’s garbage truck. When the neighbor heard the request he was quite willing to allow someone else to haul away his trash. The sleds ended up hidden in the garage. Late at night when the children were asleep the repair work would begin. This from a man who wasn’t getting much sleep, what, with all the time he devoted to driving to and from work. He scavenged wood and cut the pieces down and for weeks sanded and polished. The rusted metal was sanded and fresh paint applied. Then Grandpa found some rope, and after measuring he cut strips. Anyone who ever owned a Flexible Flyer knows the rope gives you the impression you’re steering.

The work lasted for a couple of weeks. On Christmas morning four smiling faces woke and found they each had what appeared to be a new sled. And an orange. It’s hard to believe, but one generation prior to my childhood oranges were exotic and popular Christmas gifts. My mother told me the story when I must have been 11 or 12 years old and my uncles all later confirmed the veracity. I’m not sure it had as much of an impact when it was shared with me more than 40 years ago as it has when I recite it today. It brings tears to my eyes. My Uncle Paul, the oldest one of the four, is the only member of the family still living, in a house a few hundred feet away from where he was raised. Aside from six years in the Navy he never left and never took long vacations and had no desire to live anywhere but Black Creek. No traffic lights and where the general store is the Post Office and gas station. Where he and his younger siblings attended a two-room school until they were bused five miles to the old high school to start the seventh grade. Uncle Frank got plenty of use from his sled, and on another Christmas broke a leg going daredevil downhill. He was loaded into a car and got a long ride to the hospital. He died almost 20 years ago, a week before I promised to visit him for Independence Day at his house near Erie. The previous Thanksgiving he sat with me at the funeral home as we greeted visitors who came to say goodbye to Grandma. Uncle John died a couple of years later at 59 years old and my mother followed in 2005.

They grew up with almost nothing. As adults they lived frugally and, honestly, they never wanted much. Big homes, baubles and world travel had no appeal. Yet, they loved sharing the stories about growing up in a town so small the firehouse has just one bay and can only hold two trucks, single file. It’s where the harvest supper is held when the maple leaves change colors. The trucks are moved and the women all bring pies and the seats are all filled. It’s where we took our own children when they were young despite some long trips getting there. It’s as if all time stood still and Black Creek is an American version of Brigadoon. There was a time when I was a boy when I thought I would never leave those valleys in the Northern Allegheny Foothills. Now more than a decade has flown by since my last visit. The world grew up. Everything moves faster. Christmas is an orgy of giving and a few telephone calls to long lost friends and a handful of surviving relatives. When my daughter and niece were young I would start shopping in February and stash gifts until Thanksgiving weekend. Then I would wrap them and stash them again. Christmas planning became a precision operation. If we were on the road, the trunk and much of the car was loaded with boxes. And somewhere there is an echo. The sound has waned over the decades but then there are the days when it stops me in my tracks and my head whips around and it confronts me. The sounds of kids. Shrieking in joy. Then they race up a snowy hillside and it begins, once more, and over again.


Columns
Readers Comment: Congress should support Risch's wilderness bill

I, like many Idahoans, depend upon our public lands for my livelihood. As a representative of the timber industry, I understand how important it is to have healthy forests that produce wood for products that we all use in our homes, jobs, and hobbies. But I also understand how critical it is to preserve our wildest lands — the lands that keep our water and air clean and serve as a home for wildlife. That is why I was pleased to hear that Sen. Jim Risch introduced the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Act. This legislation will safeguard roughly 13,900 acres of public lands in Bonner County as wilderness.

My love and respect for our nation’s wild places began long before I worked in timber. I was born in Montana, but have lived all over the northwest. As a kid, I spent a lot of time outdoors with my dad. He was in the Air Force near Spokane, and we would hunt for pheasants in the fall and hike and fish in the mountains during the summer. The time I spent in the forest made me realize that I never wanted leave. After I graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in forestry, I started working in the timber industry.

A lot of people don’t see the connection between conservation and the timber industry. However, over the past 30 years, conservationists and timber representatives have slowly come together to find solutions to preserve the wildest areas that we all love to hike, hunt, fish, and horseback ride in while also providing people with the wood they need.

One such place is the Scotchman Peaks. Idaho’s northern nine counties contain many roadless areas, but none are protected as wilderness. The Scotchman Peaks proposal is a posterchild for an inclusive, collaborative effort to preserve certain areas as wilderness.

People from all walks of life — including hunters and anglers, local business owners, elected officials, and outdoor recreation enthusiasts, have come together to craft a proposal that worked for everyone. The supporters also include Bonner County Commissioners, Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, and the Idaho Forest Group.

The area is home to grizzly bears, bull trout, Canada lynx, wolverines, moose, and our world-famous mountain goats. People come to hike, camp, snowshoe, cross-country ski, hunt, fish, forage for wild foods, and enjoy the solitude. Visitors travel here to experience all that northern Idaho has to offer, thanks to our outstanding wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities. And with these visitors comes economic growth in the outdoor recreation, tourism, and hospitality industries. In fact, outdoor recreation and forest products generate thousands of direct jobs in Idaho alone.

The Scotchman Peaks and other public lands don’t just draw visitors — they also attract people who choose to move and build their lives here. More and more we are seeing businesses opt to locate near places where their employees have access to the great outdoors. These growing communities spur more economic opportunities for grocery stores, libraries, health care providers, and more. In fact, several studies have shown a strong link between protected public lands and diverse, vibrant western economies.

Public lands like the Scotchman Peaks is one reason why I chose to make Bonner County my home. Today, I have hunting dogs and still hunt pheasants like I did with my dad. The Scotchman Peaks take your breath away. One only needs to hike and see the beautiful views to understand why this special place needs to be protected. In short, this area brings people together.

I want to thank Sen. Risch for listening to his constituents and introducing the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Act. I urge Congress to pass this common-sense bill.