Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: The Circle of Life
Cousin Tom and his three boys were back in South Dakota, doing some hunting this fall. They were staying at the family homestead, sharing time together, hunting and talking. They had a great time. We had lunch together the day the boys were all returning to their far-flung homes in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington DC, and Tom was driving back to Montana. We talked about families, shared some memories of growing up on the plains of central South Dakota, and felt the kinship the Heintz family has for one another. Especially Tom and me.
Tom, being six years younger, grew up a tag-along to his brothers and me, but that didn’t make him a bother. He wanted to be a big boy, and did his best to prove it. He struggled lifting bales onto the back of the hay rack, did his chores everyday without being told to, and loved to ride with us. He had a black and white pony that thought he was a big horse, herding cattle and exploring along Medicine Creek. We all had fun horseback.
I graduated from college and returned to Harrold to teach high school English for nine years. Tom was a sophomore the first year I taught, and it was a little strange to be teaching a cousin who was also a friend. I ended up teaching my sister and Tom’s sister also, and I was probably a bit harder on them, although they were all good students, me not wanting to show any preference to family. Tom was a natural leader in his quiet way, always an example to his classmates. He excelled in sports, especially football. His greatest passion seemed to be hunting. I spent many cold mornings in tree stands, archery hunting deer with Tom. He used to spend a lot of time at our house, just to visit and talk about sports, horses and hunting. We became good friends.
Tom went to college in Brookings, working his way through in the summertime farming for a neighbor. I didn’t see much of him when he was home because he was riding a tractor all the time. He would stop at our house when he was home from breaks at school, and began asking us questions about our membership in the LDS church. He had been talking to a classmate and missionaries at school, and was interested in what they had to say. He also met a girl that had the same interest in the church, and they were soon dating.
Tom graduated and married the girl. He worked for the college for a few years at the experiment station out at Phillip, then took a job with the Forest Service in Wisdom, Montana. His love for the mountains started there. One night a year or so after his move to Montana, Tom called to ask me if I would come out there and baptize him a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I told him I would be blessed and privileged to do that for him. We got to Wisdom a few days early and Tom and I spent a day horseback in the mountains. It was easy to see the mountains were home to Tom. He said this is where he wanted to be when he retired.
Tom took transfers to several other locations, including one in Lemmon, South Dakota, before ending up in Twin Bridges, Montana, near Dillon. It was his plan that was to be his last station, and he bought a little place and made it home for himself and his second wife, Judy. Judy worked as a dispatcher for the forestry service, coordinating fire teams during fire season. Tom and his twin boys were all fire fighters and Tom ran a fire crew for ten years or so, always being a leader who led by example. He would compete in the annual physical qualification test, besting many of the young men in endurance and strength.
Tom’s dream of retirement was to live in Twin Bridges, hunt and guide and spend time in his beloved mountains. He kept busy with his place, putting up small hay bales for the horse people in the valley, guiding older friends on elk hunts and getting to know his grandkids.
He made plans to go on an elk hunt, alone, the Monday before Thanksgiving, walking into rugged country, setting up camp, hunting on Tuesday and being home by noon on Wednesday. He had a favorite spot he was heading for, and had hunted there many times before. He contacted Judy Monday to let her know by GPS where his camp was. That was the last she heard from him. She didn’t become worried until late Wednesday afternoon. She hadn’t heard from him and it wasn’t like Tom to be late. Her concern turned to worry, and then to fear. Search crews were assembled, Tom’s twin boys were called, and they flew in to join the crew, since they knew the area well, having hunted with Tom there in the past. It was rugged country, and the only access was on foot or helicopter.
It was Friday when the boys found Tom’s body. He was less than 300 yards from camp, in a secluded spot that he had hunted from before. His gun was leaning against a tree, and it looked like he sat down to rest. He seemed to be peacefully asleep.
They airlifted Tom’s body out by helicopter. Everyone on the crew knew Tom and it was impossible to come to grips with reality. Tom was a rugged, experienced mountain man, happiest when he was high up in the rocks, hunting elk. It hadn’t been an accident that killed him. It was his heart.
Just weeks before his death, Tom had purchased cemetery plots in the cemetery near Harrold where his parents and grandparents were buried. It seemed impossible we would be burying Tom there so soon. He was returning to his first love, the prairie where he grew up. Judy asked me to dedicate the gravesite in a simple graveside ceremony. I was grateful to be part of his returning home.
This has been a difficult few weeks. Tom’s life has touched mine for over sixty years. We were friends more than cousins, it seems. To baptize then bury Tom has an ironic symmetry to it, one that has hit me pretty hard. I realize more each day what a fragile thing life is, that we have so much time allotted to each of us, and we need to do the best we can with that time. We need to have faith and understanding that we have a purpose here in this life, to grow, to learn and to love. Everything else is just fluff.
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