My Friend Duane
by Richard Franklin Bishop
THE PLOT - The year was 1900 -- in Wyoming. One day there appeared at the farm a mysterious stranger named Shane (Alan Ladd). Since he makes a sympathetic and reliable impression, Starrett (Van Heflin) offers him work. But, in fact, Shane is an ex-gunslinger who is trying to leave his bloody past behind. While the Mother, Marian (Jean Arthur) feels herself more and more drawn to Shane; little Joey (Brandon de Wilde) has developed a childlike admiration for his new friend -- for him the cowboy is a hero.
This Western style movie and classic tale about Farmers, Cowboys and Land Barons is not as important to my story as is the relationship of little eight-year old Joey to Shane. This is a clear case of hero worship and happens occasionally in our childhood days. Unfortunately, there are not enough John Wayne or "Shane" types to "go around" and serve as models and so, many children do not get exposed to this positive influence on their lives which usually comes from outside the family circle. By the way, I changed the names in the following article to protect the innocent.
My own experience was with a person from our neighborhood. His name was Duane G. Smith (1918?-1963). He was our neighbor and worked his Father's farm a quarter of a mile to the South of us on West Milham Avenue, Portage, Michigan. He was the youngest Son of Boyd D. Smith (1881-1967) and Moira E. (Jones) Smith (1887-1971). He had an older Brother, Henry (1911-1984) and an older Sister, Alexis (1914-2008). I would guess he was born about 1918. He was 20 years younger than my Father but they became good buddies just the same. When, I knew him best (1938-1955), he was in his " rarin' and roarin' " twenties and thirties; most of the time a free-swinging bachelor who threw his lasso wide.
He stood about 5' 8" tall but was about a yard wide. He probably weighed-in at 195 lbs.; all of it solid bone and muscle. In other words, he was built like a brick-outhouse and was just as tough and durable. For all his bulk, he was as quick as a cat and I think he would have made a great Fullback if he had gone on to college and played Football. Since all my real Uncles were living miles and miles away in Illinois, as an eight-year old, I felt that he would have made a great Uncle. Actually, I wished that he was.
In the winter time, when all Farm work was minimal, he and my Father would use this spare time in maintaining their respective Tractors or Pick-up Trucks or Family Cars to include full engine overhauls (valves, rings, etc.) in one end of a storage shed that my Father had insulated and furnished with a space-heater and lots of bright, electric lights (later, as a teen-ager, I also used this facility often to work on an ancient twenty year-old 1925 Model-T Ford Coupe. And I always had plenty of free mechanical advice on how to maintain it; both Adults having owned such a Ford in the past). In other words, Duane was at our place a lot. And during these scores of hours I used him copiously as a sort of life-counsel and his advice and opinions about the big world "out there" were greatly appreciated by a growing boy. He had no end of patience and always answered all of my questions no matter how nagging they could be.
Also, in the Winter time, when his own farm work was slow, he drove a giant Caterpillar tractor snowplow (with wide wings on the front) for the County of Kalamazoo. Our narrow country road (Angling Road) and his wide main road (Milham Avenue) never wanted for plowing because he kept them clear -- without being asked. I have a photograph (taken in the really bad Winter of 1947) looking down at my Model T Ford taken from the five foot snow-shelf created by the snowplow-wings. His being able to operate that behemoth of machinery with ease raised him up high in our esteem.
Ah, yes. He was a character! In his early twenties, he had been a sometime heavyweight boxer. Duane was tough as nails and never hid it. Once, when a traveling show came to town, they set up a Four-Post boxing Ring (yes, on wheels) at Carpenter's Corners (at the corner of South Westnedge Avenue and Milham Avenue). Then they proceeded to paste placards all over town challenging one and all to come on over and box with their "Champion." Duane beat-up their "Champion" so badly that he had to be hospitalized with a broken rib.
He always told us Kids about his fist-fights on Saturday Nights up at the Dixie Tavern (also called the Dixie Pavilion) near Wayland, Michigan -- about halfway between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Back about 1940, when he was just 22 years of age, he owned a really sharp 1939 Buick Roadmaster Convertible. After a few beers, the local Red-Necks kept trying to steal things off of it (the Spotlights, for instance), and he would periodically go outside to check if all was OK. He didn't drink much and so he usually could catch them red-handed in the act and (in his own words) "beat the pixx out of them" and then lifted $ 20.00 out of their wallets to pay for the scratches they had put on his shiny Buick paint job.
Duane was really proud of that car. Kalamazoo is exactly half-way between Detroit, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. About 130 miles each way. He had a Girlfriend in Chicago and bragged about how he could make it from Kalamazoo to her house in two hours and fifteen minutes. That was over a two-lane main highway with several stop-lights and so, he would have had to travel much of the time at 100 m.p.h. (or 160 km) to make that kind of time (an average of 57.77 m.p.h.). With no traffic, it was possible. Perhaps after midnight. But, we did believe him.
He and my Father were game for just about anything. Once when we had a giant boar Hog that weighed in at about 250 lbs. and was nearing the end of his useful paternal life, they were told that he could not be sold to the slaughter-house in his present state. He was really smelly (as only old boar Hogs can be) and they said the meat would be tainted and strongly odiferous -- they recommended that he be castrated and then sold after a minimum of 6 months without the male hormones. They also said this waiting time could be speeded up a little if he were fed acorns or walnuts or some such feed that would add an acceptable gourmet flavor to the pork (intimating that this special feeding might even "raise" the price somewhat).
Well, that set the stage for "The Great Castration Day." One of the strange but serious preparations was obtaining a full bottle of Whiskey. Another was the sharpening of a couple of hunting knives to a fine-honed edge, apiece. They had locked the Hog in a comfortable straw-lined ex-Horse stall the night before.
I was young enough not to be in on everything that day -- some of the details were spared me because they locked themselves in the barn (so he couldn't bash his way out, they said). This also kept prying eyes out of the process. . . . in case the word had gotten around our multi-cultural neighborhood of Dutch, German, Polish and Hungarian farm families that a castratie, kastration, kastracja or Kasztrál was under way. If you were the owner of a local Tavern, you could have filled your bar to overflowing -- if that kind of information had gotten around!
You see, to provide for the Winter's victuals, it was not unusual for a family to do its own butchering of animals -- that was not a "big deal." But, an operation like this was "news" because the great 250 lb. Hog was known far and wide for his past services -- he was practically famous in his own right! And when enraged, he was big and strong enough to tear out the walls of the ex-Horse stall where the incisions were to be made. And my Father and Duane planned to do the job without anesthetizing the Hog. Hence, the Whiskey . . . . they were afraid that they were both going to get "thumped" soundly in the process (correctly, as it turned out). If they were one on each side of him in the narrow stall, one double-wag of his head could pound them both senseless (besides, they thought that the Whiskey would keep their courage up . . . erroneously, as it turned out!).
About two hours later, after much scuffling by them, they both emerged. During that time, the crashing sounds of a deadly tussle came floating out to me amid such horrendous squealings as I had never heard before, punctuated by yelling and painful cussing. They each took one last pull on the now mostly empty Whiskey bottle and dazedly wandered off to find some liniment with which to treat the myriad black and blue contusions.
Now, my Father was not exactly skinny. He stood about 5' 11" and weighed about 185 Lbs. Both of them had been thrown down repeatedly. Together, these two strong men could just barely hold the brute . . . but not firmly. Hence, they had gotten flung off . . . several times. Then they would each take another pull at the bottle and start all over again. They said later, that each drink of the raw Whiskey was like drinking water and had no more effect than water would have, either. So the keeping up of their courage by drinking Whiskey was a big failure. They just had to furnish their own bravery. My Father said: "Take notice of that, Son." And I said: "Well, then -- if that's the case, instead of wasting it on yourselves, you should have given the Hog some of that Whiskey."
They had used a mixture of turpentine and tar as a way to keep the insects off the wounds. There was no infection because they had dipped the knives in pure alcohol. The operation was a complete success; the wounds also healed successfully, and six months later the great Hog was sold at a premium price without the suggested extra special feeding.
Somewhere back there in time, Boyd D. Smith and his two Sons, Henry and Duane, decided to re-roof their barn. They had just finished installing the 30 or so 2" X 8" roof frames spaced 18" apart when a big storm hit it and scrambled them all and they had to start all over again. They made the roof frames shaped with a double-angle (called a "gambrel-roofed" Barn; Wikipedia says that this style roof is believed to have come over from Holland) . . . . it became a landmark because of this "different" look. During the process, I was persuaded by Duane to pull the rusty nails out of all the used lumber they had discarded from the old roof (for pay). They did a remarkable job, because that old barn is still standing (according to the Google MAPS Photograph © as of Oct. 2007).
I put a lot of hours into that boring nail-pulling work. Come to think of it, Boyd D. Smith provided a whole lot of that kind of work to the neighborhood. Our farm was mostly into cash crops plus (alfalfa) Hay while Boyd D. Smith leaned toward "Truck Farming" for the market. That is, Potatoes were a big item with him. Now, Potatoes have some of the "meanest, orneriest routines known to Man" in their life cycle. One hated job was snapping off the short sprouts on endless bushels of the seed-Potatoes to leave only the "eyes" showing before planting. And in harvesting, one of the most back-breaking routines in the world is to pick them up out of the furrow and put them into a sack or a tub. Naturally, the Adults knew all about this and decided that these were routines just perfect for Children (and some younger neighborhood Housewives seeking a little extra income). Some spare "pocket-change" to supplement our allowances would be OK they rationalized. And no heavy lifting, no dangerous exposures and so Boyd D. Smith would send out for the Children. As Children, we didn't know many cuss-words but we spat out all that we knew while sitting in a dark, damp cellar de-sprouting or dragged ourselves along the furrow gathering them up into the bushel baskets. Boyd D. Smith was a sly fox and knew we Kids all hated that kind of boring, unimaginative work (even for pay) so he would send young Duane to soft-soap us Kids into being recruited for this Season’s "grind." And we Kids would all give in to Duane's pitch (he would have made an excellent Encyclopedia Salesman) while later regretting every minute of having "fallen" for his line.
Duane married while he was young to a Schoolteacher named Melanie. Her place of work from 1935 - 1937 was practically on the Smith Farm and was diagonally right across the intersection of Milham Ave. and Angling Road at the Portage 2nd District one-room Schoolhouse (The Brooks School - also sometimes known as the Smith School). That marriage didn't last long and then he was a free-roaming bachelor again.
In later years, Duane gave up the bachelor life again and married a really nice lady named Patricia C.; a Widow with a young daughter. He explained it thusly: "When I felt I was failing, I got married!" As I said before, Ah, yes. He was a character! My Sister Betty used to "baby-sit" for them whenever they wanted to go out to Dinner and a Show.
Sharing special experiences such as those described above sort of knits one together with others. I have never forgotten Duane. When I returned to Kalamazoo in 1954 after an absence in the Military for four years, Duane insisted that I and my Wife pay him and his new Wife, Patricia C. , a visit at the Parental home. We traveled the entire quarter of a mile with relish and paid our respects. He was 36 then and his marriage to a good woman had obviously been favorable for him because, instead of remaining an uncut diamond, he had become an upstanding gentleman in every way. He could have said, when introduced to my Wife: "My name is Bond, James Bond," and he would not have been out of character! This was 58 years ago and my Wife, Elfi (then very new to the U.S.A.) still remembers every detail of their kind and gracious hospitality
Duane is not with us anymore. I had just returned from a three-year Tour of duty in Japan and was stationed as an Air Force Captain at Lookout Mountain Motion Picture Laboratory in North Hollywood, California, in 1963 when my Wife and I were sad to hear that he had suffered a fatal heart-attack. He made his Wife, Patricia C., a two-time Widow. He died before both of his parents and twenty-one years before my Father. Since they were such good buddies, I thought that it was fitting that my Father was later buried in the same Cemetery where Duane was interred. All five members of the Boyd D. Smith family are now deceased. While the others are a faint memory, Duane is still sorely missed.
Now, at the 50th anniversary of his death, I do realize that we all have to go sometime. And if he were still alive, he would now be 95 years of age. My Father died at the age of 86. It's really rare when someone lives on into the Nineties (my Mother died at the age of 92½). To be philosophic about it, had he not had the heart-attack, he would probably have been long-gone by now from other natural causes.
But, his short forty-five years on earth gave us something that was rare, valuable and therefore eternal; i.e., what are really missed are the constant demonstrations he put on for those around him. It wasn't just big talk, it was big deeds that he was known for. Many of us, after our Parents are gone, find ourselves asking the (now) rhetorical question: "I wonder what Pop (or Mom) would think about that?" I am now 82 years old and I am only a few years past the stage where I asked: "I wonder what Duane would think about that?" He was honest, direct, tough and never wavered with these everlasting characteristics. He could be hard as flint to outsiders but soft as butter to his friends and us Kids. In everything he did, he gave 110% and there wasn't a lazy bone in his body. Like John Wayne and Shane, they just don't make them like that anymore!
Richard Bishop's Biography and Story List
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