My Dad Gary Canode
My son Edan is the only son of an only son of an only son of an only son. That’s as far back as I can trace the only sons. There could be more only son’s back there somewhere but I have yet to do that research.! I knew my Dad’s dad, Willard (Bill) Canode, pretty well. We had a somewhat close, light hearted relationship. My Dad shared very little about his and Bill’s relationship. I get the feeling Gary always pined for more acceptance and closeness from his father. I’m not going to write about Bill (Papoo to me) too much nor his wife, my grandmother, Eileen (Nanny). I will add however that it seemed my grandmother was an extremely loving and caring mother who seemed responsible for spreading that love well into future generations. Willard as far as I can tell was stoic and somewhat lacking in vulnerable sensitivity. Mostly these accounts are about growing up with my father Gary Canode and are intended for my son Edan and his sons and/or daughters and grandchildren should he have any. If you knew Gary you know he turned in his wings way too soon and maybe you will enjoy these recollections. I am the only person except for my Mom who can pass on this intimate knowledge. Seems its my responsibility to share my dad’s story and how his life shaped my life and through the threads of the Universe and ancestry everyone that will follow him.
Dad was found dead by my Mom on his first day of retirement in August 2001. He was found in a seated position on the ground with his legs straight out in front of him, the rear plow blade of a 1950’s era Ford tractor resting on his legs, the tractor itself lightly nudged against the rear wall of the adobe brick house my parents and I spent several years building in the “valley” land of Yuma, Arizona. He had a cut on his head and his trusty swiss army knife, blade out, was on the ground next to where he sat. From my mom’s description there was no real visible trauma to his body other than a bit of blood trickling down his temple. The coroner said he died of internal trauma.
The story goes the tractor must have somehow rolled over and crushed him, either because it “fell” into gear, as was somewhat common with old tractors, or it may have started in gear as my dad was working on the tractor. I’ve always been curious as to what exactly happened to my dad that day. If nothing else then for an example of what NOT to do when working on an old tractor. I, like my dad, am attracted to mechanical things that breath petroleum and its not at all unlikely that I might be faced with a similar situation in my lifetime.
Mom was horrified and devastated upon finding her husband dead. She was married to Gary young, moving more or less out of her parents house to start a life with my dad, and after nearly 30 years of marriage with him she took the loss hard. The world my dad and her had spent their lives building had fallen apart in an instant. I was 29 years old when Dad died and was living in a groovy 1970’s RV with my wife Amy on my Dad’s parents land in Durango, Colorado. We were napping after a day of inner tubing the languid summer flows of the Animas river which flows by the property. My cousin Lori knocked on our door and in tears gave us the news of dad’s death.
To me, other than an initial 60 seconds of shock, dad’s exit from this world made perfect cosmic sense. I had sweet and tender relationship with my dad always ending any visit I had with him with an “I Love You.” and a hug. In essence I had no regrets, no unresolved issues or things I’d always wished I’d said. I was, however, afraid and sorry for mom who had very much lived her life for and because of my dad. He was a wild and unsteady influence in our lives. But he was also one of the most gentle and loving men I have ever known and i’m sure my mom felt the same way. Dad provided lots of adventure but also drama fueled by manic depression. I knew that my mom would be better off in the long run without Gary. The drama would end as would the emotional arguments I always remember my parents having. I hated those arguments. As my parents prepared for retirement I began to sense a bitterness in my mom. As I write this now at age 45 I can see it was dad’s addiction to sugar and a poor diet that did him no favors in the mental stability department. I know this because I too suffer from the same addiction. My wife Amy has opened my eyes to this fact. Like any addiction though its difficult thing to face. As Amy puts it Dad and many members of the Canode family had the “sugar blues”. It led in part to a deep seeded negativity and cynistic outlook on life. Put simply, Murphy’s Law was my dad’s law. There was a twist in the classic paradigm however in that if something bad was going to happen it was going to happen to Dad, effectively making it Gary’s Law. Dad started to joke later in life as retirement approached that “With his luck he’d keel over on his first day of retirement.” As I mentioned before Dad certainly called that one! Albeit with a little help from a Ford Tractor.
Gary was born in Decatur, Illinois. I know very little of his life in Illinois other than the fact he fostered a deep relationship with his grandfather “Pop Canode”. Pop had a small farm and was a milk man. He had all kinds of machinery on the farm and Gary loved things with engines. Dad would recall riding with pop, delivering milk at the crack of dawn in Decatur, which was a more or less typical midwest town. Dad always identified with the movie a “Christmas Story” saying the town, the school especially, and the neighborhoods depicted in that movie were exactly how he remembered his boyhood in Decatur. Dad would absolutely lose it with uncontrollable belly laughs during the scenes when the “Old man” in the movie played by Darrin McGavin would curse at the “stinking furnace”. I think not because it reminded him of his father Willard, (Willard had no mechanical skills whatsoever) but because it reminded him of himself and the way he would take out his own frustration at inanimate objects.
Willard and Eileen moved to Durango, Colorado when dad was still a boy, around 10 years old. Willard took a job as superintendent of the Durango school district. In Durango Gary quickly took to snow skiing having lived right up the street from Chapman Hill. A precursor to Purgatory resort it is the little city owned rope tow ski hill in Durango. He joined the city ski team and was mentored by Dolph Koos, who went on to train olympic athletes. I believe dad had the skills to go to the Olympics, just not the enthusiasm or support of his family. My dad was one of the most graceful skiers I have ever seen. Growing up in Durango he spent lots of time exploring the river banks of the Animas River around Riverview Mesa where he lived with his 2 sisters. Dad always spoke fondly of his boyhood in Durango. Durango in the 1960’s was far different than Durango of the 2010’s. Even in the 80’s when I lived there in a little chalet that my parents built the feeling was much different. There was a much more western feel and flavor back then. These were the days before recreation became Durango’s main industry, real estate was affordable, and cowboy hats were actually worn by real ranchers and cowboys.
When Gary was in highschool, around 1959 or so, Willard and Eileen bought a mining claim in Needleton, Colorado. Needleton was an impermanent mining outpost in the wild heart of the San Juan mountains accessed only by the Durango/Silverton Railroad. The “town” was washed away in 1917 or so by large floods. What remained was some private land that was eventually split up into small parcels for cabins. I have no reservations when I say this is one of the most beautiful spots on earth and I could tell the my dad felt the same way. Here Willard purchased an unfinished aspen log cabin that Gary helped complete. The Cabin would become a family hermitage for 5 generations and counting of Canode’s and Thurmonds. It would further influence and enhance Gary’s love for nature, but more so his love for mountains. Dad used to talk about the treehouse that was built at the cabin and the times he would hoist the family dog in a bucket up into the trees. He once attempted to visit the Cabin during November with a friend, not long after the normal visitation window of May-October. He describes the visit as the coldest night he has ever experienced and talked of piling mattresses on top of himself do add insulation to the inadequate sleeping bags they carried.
Gary Canode loved to fly, lived for it actually. If there was any over arching theme to attach to Gary Canode it was his love for aviation and all things that hurtled through the air, be it an aircraft, sports car, motorcycle, boat, or buggy he loved to feel the power and sound of an engine pushing or pulling him through space. Leaving the ground was the ultimate for him though. My grandfather shared none of the desires or passions of my dad and did nothing to foster my dad’s desire to fly. Even though my dad seemed to have a troubled relationship with his own father, never receiving recognition or respect he thought he deserved, I thankfully had a wonderful childhood. Dad was my best advocate, generous benefactor, and my biggest fan. If only everyone son the world had it so good! From my scant recollection it was Dad’s grandfather “pop” Canode, who helped facilitate dad’s first ride in an airplane when he was a teenager although the details have been forgotten. My Dad later saved his own money to get flying lessons in his early twenties soon after he had married my Mom, Laura Schmitt. Immediately, he convinced my mom that there would be an airplane in their future and as a couple they saved up for his first plane using meager elementary school teacher salaries and the occasional automobile flip. The plane was a Piper Colt, a small fabric coated steel framed airplane that can seat 2 and reach a maximum speed of around 125MPH. Behind the pilot and “co-pilot” seats was a cargo area big enough for a couple carry on size suitcases. And for a short time when I was 3 or 4 it doubled as my “seat”. I have fleeting claustrophobic memories of that space. I never enjoyed flying, whether with my Dad or anybody else and I’ll try to describe why.
When I was 4 my first experiences with aviation were spent in a gasoline fumed haze that many times resulted in air-sickness. It was hell. Why were there gasoline fumes in the airplane? Back in the day all aircraft were required to operate using Avgas, a higher octane, much more expensive version of car gas. My dad soon found, through his own “trials”, that low octane car gas ran “just fine” in high performance high, compression aircraft engines and somehow he convinced himself it was better than the avgas the engine was designed to run on. Thus wherever our family traveled anywhere of great distance in Dad’s airplanes an empty 5 gallon jerry can or two would accompany us in the cargo hold of the plane. Upon touching down, Dad would take the Jerry cans to the nearest filling station (sometimes it took a couple trips) and ferry them back and top off the tanks in the plane. Sometimes he did it at night so as not to attract attention because technically it was illegal. Sometimes he did gas runs in what we referred to as “airport” cars (Old jalopy automobiles usually acquired for a maximum of $500 that barely ran) planted at a couple different airports in the southwest. Sometimes he’d hitchhike with his gas cans into town for a refill too. I say “in town” because many times Dad would just land in the middle of nowhere, but down the road from a rural gas station. Dad had mental GPS points all over the southwest, country dirt roads he marked as usable along his various regular routes bisecting Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California. Because of this penny pinching, gas hauling habit, the scent of gasoline would eventually penetrate the interior every airplane (and there were several) Gary owned. Even if the jerry cans were not in the plane, the pervasive nature of gasoline fumes always occupied the cabin of the aircraft. As I became older the scent of gasoline became like a sinister pavlovian trigger for my air sickness. Sometimes it wasn’t all that bad…just a hint of gas, but thats all it would take to trigger nausea and terror for me. The vast majority of my early childhood traveling in the plane, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles back and forth between Arizona and Colorado, would find me in the back seat of an airplane with my head buried like an ostrich under blankets. I know my dad was disappointed and even felt bad I was wasn’t having the time of my life. I’m sure he wanted his extreme joy of flying to be my joy but it was never to be. The unleaded petroleum fumes are the root of my fear of flying and it has taken nearly 25 years for me to make that deduction. If dad hadn’t been a cheapskate I believe I might not be so irrational about it. This isnt to say gas fumes were the only fear factor. I also have a perpetual fear fall falling from extreme heights which in all likelihood stems from past lives. Incidentally years into dad’s practice of “running car gas” the Federal Aviation Administration OK’d certain aircraft to use cargas instead of avgas, dad’s planes included. So I guess he was ahead of his time in a way but my “flying legs” seem forever ruined by the practice.
I completely trusted my dad’s piloting skills. He was a conservative, safe, and extremely focused pilot. However, I grew to distrust the machinery involved and again, perhaps irrationally, the physics that allows man made things to fly. This also is another root of my fear. Gary Canode was a frugal man, a master of DIY. Through hill-billy ingenuity, Tom Joad creativity, and more than above average self taught mechanical skills he was able to stretch a dollar a mighty long way. (See my story on dad’s friend Ernie Munoz for more on this.) He had no training and no certifications but he knew some very smart and interesting people that could help him solve problems or finish the projects that he himself could not. He also had an intense problem solving desire, enough so that he was able to eventually own and fly multiple airplanes and countless sports cars, boats, motorcycles, etc… on a elementary school teacher’s salary. The most common reaction people had upon meeting Dad and learning that indeed he flew planes for fun while not taking the salary of doctor or lawyer to back up his “playboy” lifestyle was that of incredulity. ‘He had to be running drugs in those planes!’ Indeed, dad had several visits from law enforcement over the years to make sure this was not the case. Eventually he would accumulate and corral 3 airplanes in our backyard in Yuma although most of the time only 2 at a time were actually flyable. He was a redneck renaissance man. One would think Gary grew up poor but that was not the case. His parents were upper middle class socialites with acute miserly tendencies that could only be born out of the Depression era of the 1930’s. To be honest the depression mentality handed down to my baby boomer parents has continued to ripple into my life. It will be interesting to see how it affects my son Edan.
When I became a teenager and started to drive cars I appeased my dad by learning how to fly. I could take off and land his 1948 Aeronca Champ. This plane was a glorified kite made of wood, fabric, and a bit of steel here and there. It was his favorite plane, a ‘puddle jumper’ he called it that meanered around the sky. Dad and I sat in tandem in its cockpit he in the front, me in the back. The Champ was controlled by a classic joystick rising between ones legs, a sliding doorknob for the throttle on the left, and little pedals to control the rudder. It flew very slow topping out at about 90 miles per hour with huge wings and when it was in the air it rattled and vibrated like crazy. It could however, land and takeoff in rather unforgiving conditions. Dad loved to put the plane down where, in all likelihood no plane had ever landed before including boulder strewn deserts, gopher pocked fields, or the odd country road. I never enjoyed it when it was my turn to fly but I grinned and beared it because I could tell it made dad proud. My sweaty palms would reluctantly grip the joystick and I would nervously maneuver the plane for final approach, or pick a point on the earth to practice “orbiting”, a tight holding pattern in which we would circle in space and try not to gain or lose altitude. To this day I have recurring nightmares where my dad, crazed in the pilot’s seat and against my wishes, throws the plane into wild inverted dives and loops while I scream in terror for him to stop…but he doesn’t and I wake up, heart racing and angry at my dad.
As a teenager I did enjoy our father/son adventures. For one I was the only kid I knew who got to do this type of thing. Flying around in a plane for fun, zipping up to Colorado to ski for the weekend, or flying to Big Bear lake in California for lunch. On the weekends or after work/school Dad loved to fly out into the desert around Yuma, Arizona and just ‘tule around’. The desert around Yuma is a historic training ground for the Army, Navy, and Marines and is littered with paved auxiliary airstrips in the middle of nowhere. They were playgrounds for my Dad and I where we’d practice touch and go’s in the Champ or we’d sometimes land and blow up my toys with firecrackers. Many kids were envious of my life as they also yearned to take to the skies or maybe they simply wished they too could have amazing adventures with their father. There were lots of airplane adventures, but there were also cross country motorcycle trips, living on boats in San Diego, and “jeeping” the high San Juan mountains of Colorado, all under the leadership of Dad. He was a rolling stone.
I never took the last step of getting my pilot’s license. The fear always remained. It took an enormous amount of courage to even take my first commercial jet trip and even then I only did it because it was required for my job. To this day my fear remains and I dislike flying at any elevation over a couple thousand feet above the ground. Oddly enough I do enjoy helicopter rides though and have had more than my fair share of exhilarating flights in them during my time as a photojournalist. Helicopters are pretty cool contraptions.
I’ve got “flying with Dad stories” to tell. Because of Dad my youth was full of high adventure. Much of it happened in the sky, involving aircraft 50 or more years old and most adventures were terrifying and disconcerting in the moment and only became “adventures” because nobody died. One of the things that used to drive me bonkers was the old Tank Switch trick dad liked to do. Airplanes have multiple gas tanks. Usually one in each wing and maybe another between the wings. Dad, being the afore mentioned frugal type, used to like to run one tank “dry” before switching to another tank. When the tank would run dry the motor would sputter and cough, the airplane decelerating until my dad quickly switched to another tank. The windmill motion of the propeller would in essence “jumpstart” the engine and we’d continue on our journey. (This practice eventually resulted in the only crash my father was involved with as a pilot. One he was luckily able to keep a secret from the NTSB). Depending on how quick dad’s reflexes were on hitting that switch was how far my heart would drop out of my chest. Most times he would not warn me. Most times even he didn’t know it was about to happen. It was just part of his routine to fly along and wait to run out of gas. I guess my Mom always trusted he knew what he was doing and I am guessing trusted his mechanical skills as well. She would always confide to friends however that if Dad ever keeled over from a heart attack in the pilots seat she’d have no idea what to do. I remember Dad forcing her to learn the basics of piloting an aircraft but like me she did not relish in the exercise or enjoy the “lessons”.
This is a dominant association I have with traveling with my Dad. In fact Gary’s moniker was “Life is a great adventure or nothing at all”, a little known Hellen Keller quote. There’s no doubt I had great fun too but that was always predicated on the overall health of the boat, plane, car, motorcycle we happened to be traveling in at the time. Dad LOVED anything with an engine. When I found out an old tractor had resulted in his ultimate demise I pretty much shrugged and thought “Well… that makes sense.”. My mother once estimated Gary bought and sold well over 200 automobiles in his lifetime. One of his “things” was to get a “great deal” on a car and flip it for a bit of profit after he was through having fun with it. And really that was always his motivation. To have fun. He never bought a car and RESTORED it. Rather he’d fix the most apparent flaw and get it driveable and hit the road. More times than none another flaw would reveal itself soon after he fixed the first one and there we’d be on the side of the road usually in the middle of a hot desert or in the mountains in freezing conditions. A common memory is dad’s legs sticking out from underneath the car like the wicked witch of the west, a string of obscenities floating out from reverberating of the undercarriage. This happened quite often as a kid because back then car’s just were not as reliable as they are today. As a child I did not look upon the reliability of Dad’s airplanes as much different than his automobiles or boats or motorcycles, all of which he spent a ridiculous amount of time working on and most of which would break down at very inopportune moments. Much of my fear of flying stemmed from my belief that at any moment something catastrophic would happen to the aircraft in which I was a passenger. That never happened though.
I feel we all are shaped by our relationships and Dad was friends with some very interesting characters.
As a kid I remember always being “drug” out to Dale’s place, usually on a Sunday afternoon. Dell lived outside Winterhaven, California just on the other side of the Colorado River from Yuma. He basically lived in a junk yard. (At least to my 11 year old eyes it was) He always had a cigarette in his mouth, had lots of teeth missing, and spoke in such a thick Arkansas drawl I usually needed my Dad to interpret what he said. I do remember chickens in the house and that right there should give a sufficient picture of Dell’s day to day life. A little transistor radio was always on and tuned in to the local AM radio station’s “Radio Flea Market” where the announcer would take calls from the public and they would do their best to describe all the great things for sale live on the radio. I am sure a good portion of those things ended up in Dell’s back yard. From what I can ascertain though, Dell was probably a certifiable genius. Regretfully, I’ll probably never know his background or his complete story. Whenever we went to Dell’s it was because dad “needed a part” or some advice concerning an engine or a contraption of which Dell had every conceivable example hoarded in his couple acres of stuff. Planes, swamp buggies, railroad stuff…if I hadn’t been so young and encouraged not to live inside with barnyard animals I probably would have had a great time exploring his junk pile. But as it was I remember following Dad and Dale around the junkyard walking in the used motor oil and transmission fluid saturated dirt, Dad excitedly pointing out a vintage this or that or the salvaged wreckage of a search and rescue helicopter. Me, I was too busy making sure not to get too close to the black widows and other creepys that inevitably made their homes in Dell’s junk piles. The last I remember of Dell, was seeing a colossal boat made of steel that he was building from scratch in his back yard. In reality i suppose it was more a SHIP because it had to be 75 feet long and took up a huge portion of the junkyard. It was half done the last I saw of it in the late 80’s but I do remember my dad mentioning Dell had completed it and had put it in the water. Whether Dell sailed of into the sunset or sold the ship I don’t think I’ll ever know. Dad was friends with Dell for many years and I have no doubt he facilitated a great many of the personal accomplishments my Dad was proud of. My Dad liked interesting people. People you couldn’t really peg even after knowing them for a while. Dell was certainly one of those people.
Dad used to like to fly out into the desert and land his little Aeronca Champ in the middle of nowhere. He used to dream of being an Alaska bush pilot and in the desert southwest I believe he imagined himself in that role often. In the public land surrounding Yuma there is an annual population explosion of transient winter visitors who squat in RV, pickups, busses and trailers. Winter visitors or snowbirds triple the population of Yuma, AZ in winter when the weather is pretty darn perfect all the time. One day after work in the mid-eighties Dad landed in a rocky lunarscape that is the desert around Yuma and was approached by a bearded man of retirement age that somewhat resembled Santa Clause. His name was Harry and Dad and him became instant friends. Seems Harry used to teach at a monastery somewhere in the Dakotas amongst many other places of higher acedemia around the world. Harry lived alone spending a couple months out in the desert in a beat up 15 foot 60’s era vintage travel trailer pulled by a decrepit American pickup truck of similar vintage. Again my memories are cloudy and incomplete but I knew Harry to be classically educated with high degrees in classic philosophy and literature. Speaking with him was fun I recall. We as a family didn’t know anyone else who spoke so eloquently. He was a modern monk in my eyes. He lived an austere lifestyle on his little impermanent spot of rocky ground living in his mobile hovel in the desert and had a beautiful sayings for every observation or situation. My Dad would drop in on him and Harry would occasionally do likewise at our house including special occasions like holidays. Harry died in 2013 of cancer but it seemed he more died of a broken heart. A year or two before his death a wildfire swept through his compound near Cochise, AZ. It was a place he retired to 15 years prior. In that time he delved deeply and worked diligently writing local history for the various old settlements and ranches of Cochise county. The fire destroyed everything, his home, all his research, most of his earthly belongings really. After this it seemed a rapid deterioration of his health led to his death in 2013. Its a bummer I don’t remember more about him but I do know he was one the people that truly had positive influence in my Dad’s life.
Ernie Munoz was a short balding mexican who ran a Aviation garage at Yuma International Airport. His spanish accent was thick and throaty, the result of a cigarette and alcohol habit. His office/home was a crusty, well used single wide at the airport. While Ernie didn’t allow chickens or barnyard animals inside, the place was thick with the stench of cats with a disregard for kitty litter and aviation grime (used motor oil, grease, and industrial solvents). The place always reeked of cats who bred as freely as they peed and had the run of the place. I don’t think I ever saw Ernie where he wasn’t mostly coated in oil and grease. I certainly never saw the skin below his forearms. Because of this I never remembered an opportunity to shake Ernie’s hand. Ernie leased land from the airport to operate his business which provided tie downs or parking spaces for general aviation (sport pilots like Dad) and he also provided airplane repair services. Carcasses of half built, mostly dismantled aircraft were scattered throughout his domain. In aviation one must be “certified” by the federal government to work both on airframes and engines of aircraft and Ernie was indeed certified. A requirement of owning a plane is that the owner must take the aircraft to this certified mechanic and have an “annual” performed, a yearly inspection of all the critical things in an airplane that make it not crash. Ernie Munoz might be singularly responsible as the man that enabled my Dad to do what he truly loved (Fly) with the modest income he and my Mom earned. Ordinarily airplane mechanics charge far and beyond what your normal auto mechanic charge and rightly so. The implications of a mistake or shoddy work is much more severe! (Dad always had a framed quote on our walls growing up. There was a picture of a vintage biplane crashed into a tree, the only tree around for miles it seemed. Under it was the quote: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.“) Ernie would allow Dad to do most of the major work on his own plane and Ernie would “sign off on it”. To this day I get the feeling there were some grey areas being navigated. If anything else it was the deplorable conditions of Ernie’s garage that led me to put two and two together. I’ve been in a good many mechanical garages throughout my life and I’ve grown to judge them for organization and cleanliness. If the garage looks like a showroom where I can eat off the floor I tend to trust the services offered there. This isn’t the end all be all of mechanical skills and service but a result of conclusions I feel are pertinent. Ernie’s place looked like an assemblage of various airplane crashes, the various fluids left to drip and spill and puddle onto concrete or soak into the dirt.
I believe Ernie’s relationship with my Dad directly influenced my fear of flying. As mentioned previously, my fear of flying had to do with my distrust of the airworthiness of the aircraft I flew in. Even as a child I somehow got the idea my Dad was squeaking by and around certain requirements of aircraft ownership. In reality airplanes like my Dad flew around in were rather simple pieces of machinery, aircooled, no electronics, no hydraulics. Its just that the RELIABILITY of those simple mechanical components needs particular attention. To this day whenever I step aboard any sort of aircraft I still have at least a bit of distrust about the unseen hands that maintain said aircraft. I admit none of this is rational. I realize it for what it is, years of mild trauma, gasoline fumes, turbulent air and scary movies involving airplane wreckage. “Ernie’s” was a travel hub for my entire childhood much like Southwest Airlines uses Phoneix as its hub. We frequently had an “airport car” stashed at Ernie’s. The cars always barely ran and were rarely worth much once we were done with them. Ernie’s was in far out of the way corner of the Yuma Airport and Ernie never had a problem when dad would unload his jerry cans and fill up his plane’s on the tarmac. It really was the wild west of aviation. From Ernie’s you could look out across the tarmac of Yuma’s biggest economic driver at the time and see the Marine Corp Air Station Yuma. One of several strategic airbases placed far enough in from the Pacific ocean and international borders to still respond to a foreign adversary. All day long the F-4 Phantoms (arguably the loudest fighter jet ever made), huge rocket boosted C-130 cargo planes, and even Russian Migs supplied to Saudi Arabian pilots that trained at MCAS Yuma would incessantly take off and land again. Beyond the base lies 20 miles of desert then Mexico. Ernie’s seemed to be a no man’s land until 9/11 when airport security and FAA regulations went off the deep end. Now in its place is Yuma’s corporate business jet port. Long gone is the dilapidated Flight Service I grew up with run by Ernie Munoz. I always thought it was a good thing my Dad didn’t make it past 9/11 2001. He would have hated all the new rules surrounding the sport of flying.
A Dad Saves his Dad
I was about climb into bed when the phone rang on a cold and gray December Colorado evening . I was nine years old and we were living in the rustic, cozy “kit chalet” my parents had built (and were continuing to build) in the early 80’s. The chalet was located in a beautiful, sandstone cliff lined canyon 5 miles north of Durango, Colorado, a stones throw from where Esther a somewhat famous Anasazi mummy was found in the 1960’s. On the phone was my dad’s childhood friend Biff Stransky, Snow Ranger for the U.S. Forest service for the San Juan National Forest. He was with my grandmother, Eileen (“Nanny” to the family), and she was beside herself. Biff broke the news to my dad that my grandfather, Gary’s father (Papoo to the family), had gone missing. Earlier that day Nanny and Papoo had ventured up into the San Juan National forest, only 3 or 4 miles as the crow flies from our house, with the intention of cutting a Christmas tree as he’d done for the past 10 years. Leaving Nanny sitting in their old Chevy El Camino, Papoo had ventured into the forest trudging through a couple feet of snow, ax in hand, looking for the perfect Christmas tree. No doubt he told Nanny he’d be gone only a matter of minutes and would return dragging a fresh cut fir tree behind him to take back to their retirement home along the Animas River in Durango. But the minutes turned into an hour, and then another, at which time Nanny knew something had gone wrong. She attempted following his tracks but was unprepared for snow hiking and returned back to their El Camino in a panic. She eventually flagged down another passing car as darkness approached and was driven to the nearest home up junction creek road to make a phone call to the La Plata county Sheriff dept.
Within a half hour Nanny was on our couch in tears, my mom trying to console her while my Dad strapped on winter gear and prepared to join Biff and the La Plata County search and rescue team in an attempt to find his own father. By the time the rescue team had reached the El Camino where Papoo had begun his search for a Christmas tree snow had started to fall from a dark December sky. A group of 30 or so trained back country rescue personal split off into smaller groups and began methodically combing the mesa above our house. Comprised of nearly 50,000 acres at an elevation of 8-10k feet, the mountain through which the Junction Creek road bisected and ascended was made up of mature spruce, ponderosa, fir and Aspen trees. Small creeks created a spiderweb of gullys, draws, and canyons that on many sides terminated to hundred foot cliffs that overlooked larger glacial valleys below.
My Dad and Biff Stransky would search together. Biff and Gary had been best friends throughout the vast majority of their lives having met when they were just boys. As a kid I remember enjoying Biff’s company immensely. He has a dry and hilarious sense of humor and was one of the best water color painters and pen and ink illustrators I have ever seen. He used to make my Dad and I laugh a lot. He is an imposing man of over 6 feet tall with a deep Sam Elliot style Colorado drawl and bushy Sam Elliot mustache to boot! His preferred method of travel was either on horseback or British sports car (One reason my Dad and Biff got along so well) Biff spent much of his life working his way up in the forest service spending much of his time as a back country ranger riding around the most remote areas of the San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness area. While mounted on his horse Biff was the quintessential postcard Marlboro man. By the time the search for my grandfather would begin in earnest new snow would cover my grandfathers tracks he had made only hours prior. It was anybody’s guess as to his whereabouts. Eventually searchers would find his Christmas tree after he had left it behind but after hours of searching, as the temperature sank to well below freezing, spirits were beginning to sink for the rescue team and especially my Dad.
Searching for my grandfather continued into the wee hours of the night as fresh snow began piling up. This made for difficult and dangerous search conditions as searchers could not reliably track Papoo or even each other. I can remember staying up late even though it was a school night and feeling despair and worry from my mom and grandmother Eileen. At the time, even as an 8 year old, I had a good idea of how serious the situation was. I rarely saw desperation from my grandmother but as that night wore on with no sign of my grandfather, the tears came as did the wringing of the hands and anticipation of a phone call with some good, or maybe not so good news. With midnight come and gone the rescue team started discussing postponing the search until morning for the safety of the rest of the searchers. This was a critical decision to ponder as the likelihood of my Grandfather surviving winter storm conditions overnight was slim. My grandfather was no stranger to the outdoors but was by no means a survivalist. Already in his 60’s Papoo’s days of extended outdoor adventure were behind him. You could still find him casting a fly line into the mountain creeks of the San Juan Mountains but he was never far from a cold beer or running water. He was at home in the great outdoors but he had been caught in the middle of winter in Colorado woefully ill equipped to overnight in extreme winter conditions lacking any sort of winter clothing, water, or food. In addition it was determined he probably had no means of starting a fire or basic tools to prepare a shelter. Already December storms had brought several feet of snow in places and more was piling up quickly that night.
As the story was told to me by my dad, and recalling the many times he would tell the tale to friends and family over the years Biff Stransky and my Dad had exhausted all logical routes Papoo might have taken in his lost state and were getting ready to call off the search for the night. There was however one route left, this one not so logical. The route dropped off the edge of the mesa nearly vertical into darkness below. As he told it, he just new his dad had dropped off the edge of that mountain. Eventually, if one were to descend off the edge, a road and a scattered neighborhood of homes known as Falls Creek Ranch could be reached. It wasn’t far a the crow flies, maybe less than 2 miles, but was very rugged and heavily treed and could easily stretch out to 3 times that distance. Even though Papoo had somehow completely turned himself around and was seemingly heading in an illogical direction, he had spent years traveling these mountains and might have known more or less where he was and thus quite possibly COULD have descended off the mesa in search of Falls Creek Ranch. At least this is what my Dad was thinking. This was all confirmed when Biff and my Dad came across a set of tracks that headed outside the designated search pattern established that night. Next to the regular set of human footprints being buried in the snow was a round hole every couple of feet. Upon seeing this my Dad immediately knew these were the tracks left by his father. Biff explained to me after all these years that at the time my dad recalled that when Papoo would go cutting Christmas trees he carried with him a long handled ax and would use the ax as sort of a walking stick. After realizing this my Dad had to be “held back by his collar” as Stransky put it in order to wait for the support of additional searchers to join in the effort in this new direction in steep terrain.
Biff and Gary had grown up together in Durango. Now in their 30’s they were still the best of friends and only lived a ½ mile from each other. Biff had made his career patrolling and exploring the San Juan Mountains on foot and on horseback and had attended countless search and rescue missions. Some were successful, but in the winter the success rate of finding someone after a night out in the mountains unprepared dropped significantly. After summoning more rescue team members to accompany them they began the search anew in very steep unforgiving terrain. Quickly their route funneled into a draw that soon intersected a small creek. They followed the creek down several hundred yards sweeping the darkness with their flashlights looking for a sign of my Grandfather. And suddenly, appearing like a zombie in the flashlight beam, there he was. Sitting on a rock in the middle of the creek Bill Canode had removed his boots and had his bare feet soaking in the frigid water. He was nearly catatonic but had remained conscious and hypothermic. All at once my grandfather’s would be rescuers went to work. Bill was removed from the water, wrapped in blankets and two fires were started on either side of his body. My Dad and Biff immediately began attempting to restore circulation into Papoo’s extremities in an attempt to stave off frost bite as well as reverse his hypothermia. A back country evacuation basket was brought up the mountain from the Falls Creek neighborhood below and Bill was wrapped up and loaded into the stretcher to be carried to safety.
My half frozen grandfather was carried down to Falls Creek Road where paramedics waited with an ambulance to further assess his condition. He had mild frostbite on his ankles and face and was very weak and still hypothermic but he would ultimately live to tell his harrowing and ego bruising tale. I was asleep when he was found. The next morning when I got up to catch the bus to school there was several inches of fresh snow on the ground in our valley. I learned that my dad and Biff had found Papoo and everyone was going to live happily ever after. He had been lost in the Colorado winter, unprepared at over 9000 feet elevation for nearly 12 hours in a snowstorm. Biff told me recently when corroborating this story with him that my Grandfather would have lasted just another 30 minutes alive in the state he was in. After a night and most of the next day in the hospital Bill Canode was back home with my relieved grandmother but still no Christmas tree!
The following year, and for the next 10 or so years, the La Plata County SAR team would present Bill and Eileen with a fresh cut Christmas tree every December. It was a funny gesture, but one that I have no doubt stung my Grandfather’s pride on an annual basis. At the time no one had any idea about how this event would affect my Dad and Bill’s relationship for the next 25 years. Some would say an experience like this would bring people closer, especially family members, but I don’t believe this was the case. Although the search and rescue members involved that night all agreed it was my dad’s knowledge and split decision that saved Bill’s life that night, it seemed my Grandfather never fully acknowledged or, according to my Dad, actually thanked his son for this heroic act. Steinbeck or Shakespeare could not have written a more searing epic of a drama. In the years to come this conflict would smolder beneath the skin of both men, never really resulting in outright hostility until just days before my dad’s untimely death. In that final confrontation my dad and his father had harsh and hateful words for each other over the phone. The subject of which had more to do with Bill’s living trust and the dividing family assets, than the night in which Bill failed to come home with a Christmas tree. But i’m guessing the emotions were similar, unrecognized accomplishments and unexpressed love between father and son.
Just 2 days after their fight over my grandparent’s estate Bill would receive the last phone call any parent wants to receive, their only son was dead at 55 years old. No doubt that last hostile conversation played over in my Grandfather’s mind in a sadistic loop until his own death. Bill’s health quickly deteriorated and he would join his son in the afterlife less than 2 years later, my grandmother would live on just another 2 years herself.
As I write these words and recount the relationship with my own father I am so thankful for the heartfelt and loving manner in which we related to each other in life. Even though he died much too early and suddenly I can honestly say I have no regrets or unexpressed emotions surrounding his absence and passing. I continue to encourage my own son Edan, now 9 years old, to speak freely about what he is feeling and try my best to be a good listener when he is in need of support. I continue to try my best to admit to my own wrong doings and mistakes hoping that my ego will never interfere in the sweet relationship I have with my son as life goes on.
Special thanks to Biff Stransky for reaching out and helping me get this story straight! Biff and his wife Tess are retired in Arizona and spend the summers wandering around the West on horseback. Biff still dreams of owning a 1969 Jaguar XKE Coupe while riding his horse in the back country.