Monday, July 7, 2014

Uncle Joe

After five chapters explaining how a splendid tailback like Quintus LeClaire could drop onto the roster of a small-college football team, I decided it was time to shift gears. Chapter 9 of "The Leather Man" doesn't just move the focus away from the Canyon State College campus, it transports it into another world _ the colorful life of Joseph Xavier Talty. Readers will remember that Talty, known as Uncle Joe throughout the rest of the book, is the only person mentioned by name in the Prologue.

Uncle Joe's gift to the Canyon State football program is his nephew David, an outside linebacker who will be announced as one of the team's four captains when training camp commences in the summer. But Uncle Joe already has given many gifts to humanity as a precursor of the Greatest Generation. A bit too old to fight in World War II, he nevertheless helped in the war effort. Hired as a heavy equipment operator by Idaho-based Morrison-Knudsen Co. in time to work on Hoover Dam, he went on to build airfields on Pacific islands and naval fuel-storage tanks in Hawaii as part of the reconstruction of Pearl Harbor. Uncle Joe kept globe-trotting, mostly on dam projects which made Morrison-Knudsen one of the world's largest construction companies. When he retired, the Montana native picked a spot along Idaho's Lemhi River, a feeder of the spectacular Salmon River, south of the city of Salmon.

As it does with many, retirement gave Uncle Joe a nudge toward environmentalism. Enchanted by the beauty of his seven-acre "pasture of plenty," he lets the lawn go natural to spare the spring flowers. Never one to forget his Irish heritage, he names his dog Flynn, his quarter horse Quinn, and his prize Black Angus bull Mick.

Now that "Davey," the orphaned nephew he raised as a son, is a few hours south playing football in the Magic Valley, Uncle Joe is left to his memories and shares some of them with Flynn. One that he recalls frequently is his worst on-the-job mistake _ allowing his Caterpillar tractor to become part of a landslide down the back of an earth-filled dam under construction in South America. Uncle Joe thinks about jumping but stays in the cab and steers the D8 tractor to a safe landing at the bottom.

At this point I'd like to point out that I had expert advice on whether it would be possible to survive such an experience. It turned out that Cary Holverson, a friend mentioned in the Acknowledgments section, had had a similar experience while driving a different piece of heavy construction equipment. He read the chapter and vetted it for accuracy, contributing greatly to my peace of mind going forward.

His memories make Uncle Joe nostalgic: He knows that the wisdom he's acquired will largely be ignored by the young, but that doesn't alter his belief that his life's work was important. He thinks about writing a history of Morrison-Knudsen, and dismisses that quickly:
Ah, let some company tool take care of it!
However, the thought leads to a paragraph which I believe sums up Uncle Joe's life and suggests how he inculcated values in David that make him a brilliant defensive player for the Wranglers:
Still, he couldn't shake the idea that there was grandeur in the toil of working men, a tale of internal-combustion stamina and imagination and courage written in the sweat and blood of the finest men who ever represented the greatest nation on earth, Art Deco janissaries out to raise the whole world's standard of living. Someone would chronicle their achievements, list what they'd built or dreamed up, but would anyone ever live again with that combination of resourcefulness and daring?
It seemed to be a question worth asking and, reading it again, it still seems so.


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