Growing up, I had the great fortune to have been surrounded by a group of amazing men. There was nothing lacking in my own father, but if he had not been around, any one of these guys would have been a perfectly adequate emergency replacement. There were the Margetts brothers, who owned a business in Salt Lake that made cast metal parts for everything from swing sets to space ships. Another guy had a sort of obsessive relationship with his lawn. He lived across the street from Mac McGregor (who died unexpectedly at 101, after sky-diving on his 100th birthday). Mac had a ramshackle shop behind his house filled with welders and power tools that looked prehistoric. Those two bickered and griped at each other constantly -- and were inseparable.
An uncle on my mom's side of the family, inventor of the Springbar Tent, and an uncle on my dad's side, who ran the ranch for about 45 years, rounded out the squad. I still picture these guys, dirty from working on some project either on the ranch or on the neighborhood's primitive water system, sitting around the kitchen table at our house. There was always a box of rock-hard Hostess sugar doughnuts, and, despite all of them being Mormons, a giant pot of coffee. Great things were engineered on paper napkins.
If I could slip into Mac's shop, or the farm shop up at the barn, and watch them fixing something with cutting torches or welders, sparks flying, it was like being witness to the creation itself. A piece of scrap iron became an ornamental gate hinge; a pile of pipe and a little specialty sewing from the tent factory became a cab for the swather so we could mow the hay without choking on the pollen.
I was mostly in the way, but as I got older, I got to help on some of the projects. Eventually Mac moved to St. George. Operating the water system became my problem for no reason other than I knew where the valves were buried. The whole batch of them were children of the Great Depression, and would do anything to fix something themselves rather than spend actual, cash money to hire a professional. We're hiring professionals now to undo a lot of their handiwork, but at the time, to a curious kid, they appeared to know what they were doing.
Time flies, as they say, and these guys I thought of as superheroes 50 years ago, when they were young and strong, have all died. My dad was the first of them to go, and that was a long time ago. The last and youngest of them, my uncle (married to Dad's youngest sister), died this week. He was old and frail, and terribly lonely since my aunt died several years ago. He hated being dependent, and insisted on living in his own house even though he needed more help than he could get out here.
The fear was always that we would find him on a snowy morning, out in the barn with a broken hip after trying to climb on the big John Deere to plow his own snow. He was convinced that once a guy can't plow his own snow, it's over. Fortunately, it didn't end that way. He went out to dinner, got back in his truck to drive home, and his heart stopped before he got the engine started. It was important to go with his boots on.
My uncle and I were next-door neighbors (albeit nearly a half mile apart) for 30 years, but we were not especially close. I always remember the first time he seemed to acknowledge me as a useful adult. He phoned and more or less instructed me to get the John Deere serviced for winter. Like everything said in a family, there is history. The tractor is mine, but he has always used it to plow his house out in the winter. If I ever "borrowed" my tractor, I got the third degree. He had never allowed me to put fuel in the tank unsupervised. Now he trusted me to get it switched over for winter. While I was at it, I hot-wired around a finicky starting circuit that had been bad for years. It had left me stranded out in the field too many times. I replaced the bad wiring with a push button on the dash. Without asking his permission. Making an unauthorized repair to my own equipment was unprecedented. But he loved being able to start it reliably. He actually called to say thanks before complaining that I put the button in the wrong place. I was 58 years old.
It may sound strange, but I'm really going to miss him.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.