Sunday, October 13, 2019

Uncle Dean is gone


My Uncle, Dean Dixon, died this week. He'd been in hospitals and nursing homes for the past three months and this was not unexpected.
He was in a nursing home bed and attended by a couple of pretty nurses. Just his kind of thing!
He asked me to have him cremated and interred on the plot with Aunt Phyllis and that is what I plan. At this time, we're thinking just the dedication of the grave at interment and try to put together a memorial service later.
Uncle Dean was a great fisherman and hunter. He taught me all about such things and many more.
He married my mothers sister, Phyllis, just before he enlisted in the U.S. Army and went to fight in Korea.  In Korea, he was a truck driver for a while, hauling supplies around the country.   At some point, he was reassigned as a tank driver.  When he came home from Korea, he went back to his life in S.E. Idaho, often working with our family in the logging camps around West Yellowstone, MT.
During the '50s, my grandfather and his brothers logged the West Yellowstone area and lived in tents and half-tents in camps near their work sites. Each month, one of the men would take off from the logging work in order to provide camp meat for the whole camp. My understanding is that if no one else was having any success, Uncle Dean was the go-to guy for bringing in the game!  He used to have an old bolt action .22 rifle that he called his "moose gun".  When I laughed at him, he told me he'd taken more moose with that .22 than I had ever shot elk.  He said: "If you shoot them in the head, the go right down and if the game warden is more than 50 yards away, he didn't hear the shot!"
For those in today's world, this probably sounds harsh.  But those people lived on wild meat year around.  Animals weren't killed for fun, profit or as trophies but were used to provide food for big families with little or no money.  And "hunting season" wasn't as big a consideration because we had to eat all year long, not just in the fall.  The game wardens of the day knew these things and pretty much looked the other way, even having dinner with our family once in a while, eating moose meat along with everyone else.
Uncle Dean was also a great fisherman.  I can't remember a time that he came off a fishing trip "skunked".  Even if the rest of us didn't catch anything, he always did.
We had gone fishing on Willow Creek (aptly named) in the Island Park, ID area when I was very young.  There were at least four or five other men going fishing in addition to Uncle dean and myself.  Anyway, I took a little too long getting ready and by the time I was ready to leave the car and hit the creek, everyone else was out of sight.  There was only a small area of clear stream bank, where the road crossed the creek and both up and downstream seemed to be blocked by an impenetrable wall of willows.  I started crying because I couldn't figure out where to go.  Aunt Phyllis shouted "Dean!" and he came back to the car.  He showed me how to navigate through the wall of willows and find water to fish in.  Once I had caught one on my own, he left me to it and went on his way.
Our big family group, probably four or five families together at one camp, were at Island Park Reservoir (the Backwaters) fishing.  I really didn't like fishing with bait; throwing your worm out as far as you could and then watching the tip of your pole intently, waiting for "a bite" and I quickly got bored.  Uncle Dean had propped his pole up near me and was behind me, near the campfire, drinking coffee with the rest of the men.  Anyway, I started throwing small rocks at his pole.  When one hit, his pole would bounce as if he had a bite, he'd come running down the bank and haul back on the pole in an effort to "set the hook" and then give up in disgust, thinking the fish had not completely taken the bait.  We kids were quietly laughing at getting him to keep trying.  Anyway, one time, I got his pole to bounce and he came running down the bank alright...picked me up and threw me in the lake!
He was hunting elk one fall near West Yellowstone.  He got on a set of tracks and began following.  More than once, he saw antlers moving through the trees but could never get quite close enough to get a shot.  He kept following for quite some time.  At one point, he crossed a road and wasn't sure which road.  Then, a truck with Idaho plates came by and the driver told him that he was a couple of miles into Idaho.  He had to turn around and track himself back!
He worked at Elk Studs sawmill in West Yellowstone from almost the time it opened until around 1975, working every position in the mill, finally including Millwright.  The millwright is the guy who keeps everything working.  Later on, he moved to Townsend, MT and went to work at Wickes lumber, later RY Timber.  He retired from there a few years ago.
He was married to my Aunt Phyllis for 43 years before she died.  The two were almost inseparable from the time he came back from Korea.  The love between the two was almost visible. "Phyllis and Dean"  or "Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Dean".  Rarely one without the other somewhere close by. They never had any children and I guess I was the prime beneficiary of that fact.
When they first moved to the logging camps, as newlyweds, there was a fallen down old cabin on the campsite.  All the other men said they would help get the cabin fixed up so that Dean and Phyllis wouldn't have to live in a tent.  But, work and other activities kind of kept putting off the job until one night there was a grizzly sniffing around their tent.  The next day, while the men were all off working, the women got together, at Aunt Phyllis's urging, and got the cabin fit for occupancy.  When the men got back, Phyllis and Dean were moved!
When we went fishing or hunting, Aunt Phyllis would usually go along and sit in the car, reading or sewing or something, waiting for us to come back.  I remember one hot summer day, Uncle Dean and I were fishing the South Fork of the Madison river near West Yellowstone.  We had a great time, caught a bunch of fish and pretty much stayed on the river for most of the day.  When we got back to the car, the windows were all up, Aunt Phyllis was seriously hot and sweaty and she had made a little pile of mosquito carcasses on the dashboard.  If she opened the windows of the car, they just swarmed in at her so, all that time we were having a great fishing trip, she was fighting hordes of mosquitoes.
Aunt Phyllis's kidneys began failing in the early 80s and she had to start dialysis.  This meant three times a week she had to go to St. Peters Hospital in Helena, MT, early in the morning, and spend the day hooked up to the dialysis machine.  Uncle Dean took the graveyard shift at the mill so he could work all night and then take her to dialysis for the day.  He'd sleep in the car while she was there, take her home and go back to work. This went on for over ten years. That kind of says it about the devotion the two had for each other.  
Aunt Phyllis died in early '96 and Uncle Dean, as someone who had literally NEVER lived alone, soon remarried.  He showed the same devotion to his second wife, Vivia, as he had Aunt Phyllis and the two traveled a lot after he retired, driving around the country with a fifth wheel trailer behind his pickup.  Vivia died about three years ago and he was finally on his own; by himself and he really didn't like it.
I hadn't realized that he was having so many problems with finances and home repair and so on.  About a year ago I began helping him with those things, managing his bank account and keeping things going with his house and that sort of stuff as he slowly drifted into more and more acute dementia.  He never really had any major physical impairments, he just kind of stopped eating well or doing things.
A few months ago, he fell, apparently trying to replace a light bulb, and hit his head.  The caregiver I had arranged for called me and said he looked injured but wouldn't let her take him to the Dr.  I went to his house as soon as I got off work and found that he had a big knot on his head.  I told him we were on our way to the VA in Helena.  He said: "I don't need to see no GD Doctor!"  I said: "I didn't hear anybody ask you".  The VA found that he had a fractured vertebrae in his neck and from then on he went from one facility to another, winding up in a nursing home in Great Falls where he finally died.
He was just an all around nice guy. I can't think of hearing anything particularly bad that he ever did. He was always friendly to everyone and always seemed to have a good, positive attitude, even at the end.  I had gone up to see him only a week before and we talked for a while.  The nurses and residents all liked him and he seemed to be enjoying the company.
He has one brother and three sisters left of an original 11 kids. They were born and raised in Ashton, Idaho. 
When I first got him signed up for the VA medical service, he still had his original copy of his DD214 in his wallet. "They told me to keep it with me" he said. Over 64 years carried around in his wallet!
I'll miss him.  He was a wonderful Uncle and friend and I hope Aunt Phyllis is satisfied with my efforts.

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