“And what’s the secret to life?,” I ask Gary one warm December night, half-joking, half-curious what he’ll come up with.
We’re sitting around the table at the ranch. Gary’s lives next door, and is the only neighborhood drunk (and there’s many) Ella would allow at the house when her daughter was growing up. That’s because the man’s got charm. He may be “pretty pickled,” as Ella puts it, but there’s still just something about Gary.
So when he comes a knocking on the kitchen door, we’re quick to let him in, pour some whiskey, break out some homemade bread, and sit down to hear a story…or two.
He’s six and he’s growing up, “a mountain boy,” in Northern California with his “Pa” and brothers. They’re dirt poor. They wake up and it’s “three punches before chores” so they can learn to fight right with their fists. His father, on the stoop of their shack, leans forward in his chair to look at the fire and ask him “Boy, is that coffee burnin’?” And that’s all Gary remembers about that.
He’s ten and is ready for his own life. He leaves the shack and goes out into the woods. He survives and finds his way around mountain towns. He learns to drink at thirteen from some “Canucks” in southern Oregon. He turns sixteen and goes to San Francisco to join the Navy. He sees it as his ticket to the world. On his tour, they stick him working in the naval ship’s boiler room. He loves it.
He loves to fight, too. In those days, he’s full of anger. A guy (“a Negro”) he doesn’t like comes down the stairs to the boiler room to pick some bone with him. At this, sitting across from Gary, I see his hand roll into a tight fist and catch a glimpse of that sixteen year-old. Then he’s gone. Gary switches stories but not before you get a taste for his anger, the smell of that boiling fire, and wonder what happens to both men at the bottom of the stairs.
He’s in his twenties, out of the Navy and living in Idaho. He calls himself a “jippo,” a tree faller, a cutter, a road builder. He discovers he’s good at carving wood too. And drawing. Art. He makes friends with the meanest guy in town by asking to do a carving in his likeness. He lives out of his truck and looks for bars with pick-ups parked outside full of saws. He goes in and asks for work. He usually gets some. He usually goes home with the bartender too and lives with her until her trucker boyfriend returns. “Things always change,” Gary says. One barmaid and him go up into the north Idaho woods to find Buckskin Bill. Instead of a hermit, they find “part man, part bear.” He does dope until he reaches the end of it, and then he starts again.
A promoter for the mines (copper and gold) in Crown King finds him “thirty two years ago.” He needs some roads built. Gary flies down from Idaho but not before he gets paid up front. He lands in Arizona with two grand in his pocket. It’s more money than he’s ever dreamed of having. He discovers he likes living “between 3500 and 4500 feet” and never leaves.
He’s fifty and owns a gallery with his wife in nearby Wilhoit. He draws pastel pictures of shadowy ocean scenes, orcas and seals leaping through foamy waves. He sprays salt water one night underneath the picture down the wall to the floor. In the morning, he tells the kids to look. They find the salt trail and think the ocean has spilled out into their world.
I visit him one day next door at his trailer. He’s 70 now (or so — he changed his age every time I saw him). I see the beauty — the 1950s bus he wants to fix up to take his art on the road, the block of wood that lays barely chiseled ready to become a mountain lion. “This will be a mother and her two cubs,” he says. And I can see it as he describes her stance and think yes, maybe someday she will emerge from his hands.
I see the darker shades, too. The beer cans crushed in neat, quiet piles alongside the rusted cars, semis, “cats,” and trailers of his junk yard. The paintings that lay unfinished around his studio — all commissions Gary says he’ll “get back to one of these days.” He talks about needing the right mix of drugs and alcohol to truly capture an ocean. And something that takes me by surprise: the calculating coldness in his voice as he talks about setting up his art in stores and “bullshitting and such until someone bites.”
I take it all in, this beauty and destruction of a man. And Gary, he let’s me see it. Let’s us see it all.
So, what do you think the secret is, Gary?
He breathes in, smiles, pauses. “My dear,” he says in a singsong Irish voice that makes it sound like one whole word, “the secret to life is two things. The first,” he pauses again. “The first is to stay single.” I laugh. “And the second,” I coax.
“The second is to, above all, be yourself.”