In March 2018, my Uncle Clair had been visiting his son, Jim, in Phoenix and was ready to return to Utah. I offered to fly down to drive back with him so he wouldn’t have to travel alone. My aunt Linda (Clair’s sister) was concerned. He was, after all, in his late eighties. I jumped at the chance to spend time with him, though I knew he was fully capable of making the trip on his own. So, you see, there was a little self interest in my offer. My father, Lee, one of Clair’s younger brothers, had passed away just a few years before. What I had missed more than anything since my father’s death was the chance to talk freely about everything under the sun. Not small talk. But vast conversation with no limits. I knew with my cousin Jim and Uncle Clair that was exactly what would happen. I was desperately hungry for such talk.
Arrival in Phoenix
The promise of deep conversation without limits commenced the moment Uncle Clair and Jim picked me up at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. We didn’t talk about the perfect 70-degree weather or about our lunch of green chili enchiladas and horchata. Or about the need to pick up Jim’s car at the repair shop on the way home. Or about the cheese, olives and pasta Jim would purchase for dinner. Rather, we dove right into theories about artificial intelligence and crypto currency and about how the free market operates like a living entity resisting any attempt to tame it or predict its behavior. We talked about my son’s autism and my father’s death and his pivotal decision to forego yet another dangerous, crippling surgery to go on hospice and died five days later. Then we were on to the Gnostic gospels and later to Kierkegaard’s theory that many things are unknowable. You get the idea—no small talk.
Once we arrived at Jim’s home, Clair went to the guest room for a nap, while Jim and I continued the conversation. Jim loaned me a pair of walking shoes, our feet being the same size. It was perfect weather for a walk in the desert hills near his home. Saguaro cactus stands guard all around and rabbits cross the golf greens. In the sky—hawks and ravens. The adobe homes blend, almost invisible, with the landscape. But we didn’t say much about these things. Instead we commiserated about the deep mystery of parenting—how we basically start from scratch with each child. We’re both grateful to the bone for the chance to be parents and agree it is the best life experience, in spite of teenager angst. In our conversation, we traveled through time and place—all the people and common experiences we share in Portland, Oregon, and Utah. The same neighborhoods and schools and churches throughout childhood. Family trips to Hawaii, tennis lessons, skiing the slushy slopes of Mt. Hood, scout camps, common high school friends and shenanigans, dreaded landscaping work, missionary service, sharing the Chevrolet Monte Carlo for college dates. Our conversation was natural and unforced, as if no time had passed. It would be impossible to recall even a fraction of what we had shared, but we gave it go.
Jim’s Bike Accident
After his nap, Clair rejoined the dialogue when Jim and I were trying to sort out the facts about his childhood bike accident when he knocked out his front teeth and lay unconscious in a ditch for some time (hours?) before he was discovered. Clair’s wife Marge had to take Jim to Clair’s dental office to have the loose teeth extracted. Clair said, “Jim was so alarmed when I approached him with a large set of pliers. He said, ‘Dad, you’re not really going to use that.’ And I told him, ‘Well, this is the easiest way.’ And Jim said, ‘But it’s also the hurtingest way!’” Jim always had a knack for creating new words to fit the moment. I remember being so afraid Jim would die and standing at his front door stubbornly refusing to leave until I set eyes on him. Jim was in his darkened bedroom, but Aunt Marge kindly brought him to the front door to ease my anxiety. Jim rubbed his eyes and squinted into the bright sun. He was alive and still himself, minus a few teeth. I was satisfied. This image is etched in my memory. But we couldn’t all agree on the timing of my visit or the tooth extractions or exactly how long he was unconscious in the ditch or how he was discovered. Memory is malleable and faulty—but persistent.
A Shared Meal and More Stories
Jim and his wife Laura prepared an Italian meal for us the night before we left Phoenix. Roasted peppers and zucchini and broccoli on the grill, pasta, cheese, olives and fresh bread. Hard to think of a better meal. Izzy (Isabella), Jim and Laura’s youngest daughter, also joined us for dinner, along with her friend, Joseph. While we ate, the “everything under the sun” conversation continued, though we did let up on the Kierkegaard. We got Laura and Izzy laughing hard with one story about scout camp in the mid-1970s. One year our troop camped near a beach on the Oregon coast and we had the bright idea of dividing the troop in half and playing at war. Each “army” built a fort out of driftwood, then we hurled chucks of sodden driftwood at each other for hours on end. Everyone took at least one glancing blow to the head. “It’s really a miracle someone didn’t actually die,” Jim said. Laura was a bit put out (and also very amused) Jim had never told her this story. Izzy asked: “Dad! What were you thinking?” Then Clair assured us all there wasn’t much “thinking” going on back in those days, “or even now!”
Departure for Utah
The next morning, we were not in any hurry to leave. Jim mixed a variety of cold cereals and made a bowl for each of us. We lingered over our simple breakfast and stretched out the conversation. When we did finally say goodbye, I could see Jim was especially sad to see his father leave. Jim took on his boyish manner as he controlled his emotions—turning his head slowly from side to side, looking down at the ground as he waved, a kind of “aw shucks” gesture. I had seen him do this a thousand times. As we drove away from Jim’s house, Clair said, “I can’t even begin to explain how much I love my son.”
Just as we started out, Clair and I had trouble with the GPS system, which Jim had insisted we use. Even though I was here to help with the return journey, I wasn’t exactly famous for my sense of direction, and Jim, perhaps more than anyone, knew this. When we were teenagers, I got us lost in downtown Portland many times. Clair said, “Let’s pull down the road a way, out of sight, to fix it. I don’t want Jim to worry.” After consulting the operator’s manual, we soon got it working and set off North to Utah. The GPS system took on a kind of animate life during the trip. We started calling “her” Marilyn, as in Marilyn Monroe. Often, when the female voice told us about our next move, Clair would say, “Well, thank you, Marilyn.” This harked back to an old joke of Clair’s about his annoyance with the beeping alarms that warn you to wear your seatbelt. “I would prefer a sultry Marilyn Monroe voice saying, ‘You rich S.O.B., you don’t have to put on your seatbelt if you don’t want to.’”
This was an ordinary journey, I suppose. Clair and I had both made the trip between Phoenix and Salt Lake City enough times. What made the trip extraordinary was how we never, not once, turned on the radio or paused in our conversation—not in two days, not over meals or at rest stops. It was not so much the physical landscape we covered—though the desert vistas were magical—it was our travels through time as we exchanged stories. I know I won’t be able to really capture it, but I’ll do my best.
The Korean War
Uncle Clair was a soldier during the Korean war.” It turns out the National Guard units in rural Utah did not go unnoticed,” Clair said. So, my 19-year-old uncle was called up for a one-year tour of duty. He left behind his wife Margery and two very young daughters, Vickie and Marci. Uncle Clair has written about his Korean War experiences in an essay called “The Forgotten War,” so I won’t try to recreate the account here, except for one or two stories he told me on our trip.
As an Elder in the Mormon church, Clair wore the required temple undergarments. This proved to be a bigger problem than you might think. “We were out in the field and dirty all the time. The other GIs would get fresh underwear delivered to them, but I had to wash out my temple garments in my combat helmet.” Clair described a time when he had spread out his white temple garments to dry on the bushes near a river. He was soon confronted by his commanding officer. “What the hell are you doing, soldier? Sending semaphore messages to the enemy?” After a vain attempt to explain he was just drying out his Mormon underwear, he gathered up the damp garments and returned to camp.
Clair served in an artillery unit doing what he described as “basic arithmetic” to convert intelligence from the front lines to firing coordinates for distant targets. He talked of his experience as if there was nothing to it. He told me, “It surprised me how absorbed I would get in my work, how interesting it was, and how often I would forget what was happening at the other end of our calculations.” He said many days passed almost as they would in an ordinary job back home. There was one occasion, however, when they received orders to fire on a nearby village. Intelligence indicated the enemy had been hiding troops and ammunition in the village for some time. The artillery unit followed orders and targeted the village. It was close enough they could hear cries of terror. Some soldiers in his unit cheered and celebrated the direct strike. “That didn’t feel right to me, not at all, to celebrate that way,” Clair said.
I confessed to Clair that when Jim and I were about six years old, we found some of his war photos in a box under his bed. The photos were black and white, a bit blurred, and seemed to reach far back in time. There were the cannons and the soldiers striking heroic poses in front of them. There were the clusters of tents and the deep wheel tracks in muddy roads. And, there was one photo of a dead Korean soldier that struck us silent. I can still see it in my mind’s eye.
The Early Days of Cantwell Brother’s Lumber
The family business, Cantwell Brother’s Lumber, is yet another shared memory, though Clair’s memory reaches back to the very beginnings in the 1940s. My father, Lee, also worked for the lumber company, delighted give up on the dairy farm and try something new. Clair’s youngest brother, Wayne, ran the company until it closed only a few years ago. His sister, Linda, worked in many jobs connected to the family business. Both Jim and I had worked summers there during high school and early college years.
“In the early days, the business, if you want to call it that, was no more than a three-sided turkey shed with a tin roof and a thin curtain to keep out the winter cold,” Clair told me. “On one side of the shed they piled the rough lumber. And, let me tell you, it was rough. On the other side was a pot-belly stove and a telephone. Uncle Milo would man the phone. People called in asking for lumber in specific sizes and lengths. Whatever they asked for, Uncle Milo said, ‘We’ve got it. Come on over.’ Of course, Milo had no idea whether we had it or not. He said this in the belief they would buy something if he could just get them to the shed. Most of the time this turned out to be true.”
As a teenager Clair made almost daily drives, in all seasons, in all weather, up the canyon to the sawmills in Bear Lake and back to Cache Valley with loads of lumber. “Uncle Milo had a stick about 16 or 20 feet long. He’d say, ‘Go get some wood about this length.’ Then I would go up to the sawmills to gather it up, secure it to the truck with chains and make the perilous drive back, often into the night.”
On one winter night, a snowstorm closed in around the truck on the drive down the canyon. Clair had a hitchhiker in the passenger seat. An Oldsmobile in front of the truck slowed down so quickly he couldn’t stop the truck in time and had to turn off the road. The truck fell over on its right side and dumped the load of lumber. The windshield shattered and snow poured in and buried the hitchhiker on the passenger side. Clair started to dig frantically in the snow. Soon a hand stuck out through the snow and Clair pulled the hitchhiker out. “No doubt the man wished he’d hitched a ride with someone else,” Clair said. They had crashed the truck during a blizzard, at night, in the middle of the canyon, too far to walk out to any settlement or shelter from the storm. Their lives were in peril. “It was at this point that the driver of the Oldsmobile felt pangs of conscience,” Clair said. The driver of the Oldsmobile must have seen through his rearview mirror that he had caused the accident. He came back and all three men rode out the storm in the Oldsmobile and returned—though slowly—to safety in Cache Valley.
Our Journey Continues
Clair and I had followed the advice of our lovely GPS (Marilyn) to take Highway 89, the alternate route, which passed the beautiful Red Vermillion Cliffs. It was like driving on Mars. Enormous red boulders the size of trucks and even small houses littered the landscape, as if they had been carried there by giants or fallen out of the sky. We weaved up through the mountains of the Kaibab Forest, driving due South and West rather than North. We wondered if our trusty GPS, Marilyn, had led us astray. Neither of us had a map to consult. So, we decided to put our faith in Marilyn and forge on. Soon enough we arrived at Jacob Lake where we gassed up the van and ordered bacon cheeseburgers at the lodge.
A kind young woman cooked our meal. She was soft-spoken and genuinely interested in us. She took our photograph. She was probably in her early twenties at most but was crippled with a hunched back. Clair felt a real tenderness toward her. “How hard it must be to face life with such a burden,” he said. We drove north on Highway 89 then west on Highway 14 to Cedar City where we spent the night. He mentioned the kind waitress several times: “To be so young and to have that trial.”
During our two-day trip, we settled into a synchronized rhythm. We both wanted to stop at the same times to walk around the car and shake out our legs. In Cedar City, Utah, Clair paid for two hotel rooms, blaming his loud snoring and insomnia. Yet even being in separate rooms, we were perfectly synchronized—both ready at precisely the same time to go get dinner and then to leave the next morning for the final leg of the trip.
Courting His Wife Margery
Clair told me about courting his wife Margery. He was 17, she 19. “We dated and married young in those days. We didn’t think about being old enough for a driver’s license or a marriage license.” When Margery Peterson took a job in Salt Lake City at the state capital, Clair made the two-hour drive down from Cache Valley as often as he could. He was afraid of losing her. “It’s not like I had all that much to offer,” he told me. He referred to the near penniless 17-year-old driving lumber trucks up and down the canyon at night. But I’ve seen photos of the young Clair and Margery Cantwell with their Hollywood good looks and style. They occupy a mythical status in my imagination, like JFK and Jackie, Bogart and Bacall. As a kid I would see their wedding photos and think surely there have never been more beautiful people than these two. They were married for more than 60 years.
The Keeper of Anecdotes and Theories
Clair is a priceless repository of anecdotes and knows many things about my own family I’ll probably never know. On our trip, he told me one story had never heard about my Grandpa Ralph, my mother’s father. Grandpa Ralph struggled, as we all did, to get along with my “crazy” aunt Cathy (my Uncle Robert’s first wife). She brought great misery to my mother’s family. I won’t go into all the details. It’s enough to say she was likely both a heroin addict and an alcoholic and once held my Uncle Robert at gunpoint to prevent him from rescuing their daughter, Julie, from her reckless care. I remember Aunt Cathy as an emaciated redhead who had probably once been beautiful but had ruined herself with riotous living. A true prodigal. So, now Clair’s story: Cathy had taken to dancing at a club and wanted to be seen and supported by the family. Grandpa Ralph went reluctantly to see her perform. But after a few minutes, he couldn’t bear to watch. He said, “She looked like a marsh bird stomping on frogs!”
Uncle Clair has an intriguing theory about the concentration of evil on planet Earth. We explored the idea together while driving through southern Utah. “This is just one of God’s worlds without end,” Clair said. “But surely, those other worlds can’t all be as bad as this one. This planet of world wars and countless genocides and the murder of Christ cannot be typical of God’s creations.” He speculated Earth may be home to the best and worst of humanity. “In the next life we may get quite a reaction from God’s children from other worlds when we tell them about Earth: ‘You lived out your mortality on Earth? Well, no wonder you’re so far behind!’ Perhaps it will buy us a little generosity on judgement day.” His theory rings true to me. Especially when I consider the alternative—countless worlds of comparable violence and catastrophe. Clair said at one point, “I find myself feeling sorry for God’s fate to endure such sorrows.” We both agreed God must see eternity unfold with a perspective far beyond our understanding: an eternal moment of perfect peace—where past, present and future exist at once.
A Dream after September 11
Near the end of our trip, as we drove through Sardine Canyon in Northern Utah, Clair told me about an extraordinary dream he had after the September 11 attacks. In the dream, he rides up in an elevator not unlike those in the fallen World Trade Center. On either side of him is a terrorist. They hold him fast in their grip as the elevator rises. He told me, “What I felt in the dream was a pure certainty that they would take me somewhere high in the building and kill me.” He had given up all hope of escape. Then suddenly he passes through the top of the building and continues to rise up into the sky. The two terrorists are gone. He rises up and out alone, through the clouds, up into the high atmosphere where the round earth takes shape beneath him. But he doesn’t stop there. He continues up and up, higher into space until the planets and then the galaxies whirl around him and he is filled with joy and awe.