Commentary: Memories of my brother

The Merced Sun-StarMarch 13, 2012 

Eighteen years ago this week I lost the person closest to me in the world.

That was my year-younger brother James. He died at age 47 of a brain aneurism in Eugene, Ore., where he was working and going to school.

We grew up together in Oklahoma City and Topeka. Until high school, we did most everything together. Shared a room. Caught snakes, lizards and baby raccoons. Fished. Rode bikes. Picked up sticks so the old man could mow the lawn. Read Tarzan and Captain Marvel comics and Classics Illustrated. Fought over encyclopedia books.

Wore Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Went to movies together (we thought maybe Fess Parker had somehow sneaked out of the Alamo right at the end of the Disney film). Served Mass as altar boys. Let Mickey the dog into the room when the other one was getting whipped by Mama (with a switch we had to cut ourselves) because the dog would bite Mama's ankles and make her stop.

In high school we drifted apart some. I was a jock. James ran with a wilder crowd. But we shared a room till my senior year when our folks moved to a new place and we each got our own. And James threw a surprise party for me on my 18th birthday.

I gave him my '55 Ford when I went away to college. First weekend I came home, it was wrecked on the side of the driveway. Let's just say that for a year or so after he graduated high school, James rode 'er down to the rims, literally and figuratively. One night he climbed the wall of the zoo and dropped onto a bison. Rode it aways before he was bucked off. He enlisted in the Army instead of "smellin' cold iron," as Mama put it.

The Army changed him. (Not completely. During a weekend pass from basic training he wrestled a bear for two rounds outside Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.) He found his calling as a leader. Went to OCS as a tanker at Fort Knox, then spent a year in South Korea, another in Georgia when he returned. When I went to visit him after I got out of basic in Texas, he met me on the runway; you could do that back then. We were both in uniform.

I stuck out my hand. He stared at me. Then I got it. The first lieutenant younger brother was gonna make the private E-2 older brother lock his heels and salute. So I did. We hugged and cracked up.

After he got out of the service, he worked for the Santa Fe in Albuquerque; our dad helped him get the job as a special agent dog handler. I was in Dallas. We hooked up several times a year and always kicked out the jams. One of the best stories I ever wrote was about a Tewa Indian potter, Blue Corn. We found her after hanging out in the Land of Enchantment together for a week.

I was on a fast track in journalism. James was searching, trying to figure out what he wanted to do. We could and did talk about anything and everything to each other. Our family reunions in 1970 in Durango, Colo., and in 1973 in Sedona, Ariz., were planned by James after scouting the territory.

His first marriage went south. So did he, down to Las Cruces, where he tried his third or fourth college. Became a fire watcher for the Forest Service, which took him to northern California where he met Linda. After a tornado romance, they got hitched one Christmas Day in Topeka.

Papagene's and Mama's present to him was a blue denim shirt. "That's called a work shirt, James," Papa said. James just grinned. He and Linda wound up in Oakridge, Ore., where they both worked for the Forest Service. The folks and I went there several times in the late '70s because it was so peaceful and pretty and because it was family.

Papa called James' humor "wild and deep," and he could make me laugh my tail off in a heartbeat. But his wild streak also kept getting him in trouble, and Linda finally put her boot down. "Stop drinking or I'm gone."

So he stopped. A little later he joined the Oakridge police force, soon making sergeant. He was big -- 6 foot 3 inches, 240 and mostly muscle -- with a gunslinger mustache. He sure filled out a uniform. Linda and James had two daughters, Vanessa and Rachel. He was made chief.

(After he died Linda became happily remarried to Bob Holly, a high school math teacher and football coach. Vanessa teaches high school in Portland and Rachel's a hair stylist in Eugene.)

And as happens, the younger brother and the older brother switched roles. I was going through bad patches. James was the one person I could talk to. He never wavered in his love for me, but he'd ask the questions that got to the heart of my troubles. He wouldn't tell me what to do. Just listened and asked the right questions.

Our folks had moved to Oakridge from Topeka in 1982 to be closer to James and his family. Papa died in '84 and Linda took in Mama, till she died in 1990. Every summer in the early '90s, I'd drive from L.A. to Oregon with Nao, my son, visiting from Japan, and Dylann, my daughter. We'd camp out, go swimming in the lake, catch snakes and salamanders and go snipe hunting. They worshipped Uncle James.

James also took up basketball with a vengeance. We'd play games every night I was there. It was better if we were on the same team. If we were opponents, blood didn't count. Once after he fouled me hard, and I called it, he started moving toward me. "I'm gonna tell Mama!" I yelled. We laughed and went back to playing.

We sounded so much alike that when my boss called me from Washington while I was visiting Oakridge and James answered the phone, my boss started talking to him about my next assignment.

He introduced me to most of the music I still like -- the Beach Boys, Doors, Creedence, Temptations. He danced like a dream. He could shoot. When my Japanese journalist partner Kanabayashi came to America for the first time, James took him to the firing range. When he got back to Tokyo, my partner told me, "Around James I feel very safe."

My brother never left his Catholic religion. He went to Mass every Sunday. Didn't try to impose it on anybody else, but he kept the faith.

As a cop he was firm but fair. Once a guy with a shotgun threatened to commit suicide in back of a roadhouse in Oakridge. James stood out there for hours, his left hand on his holstered sidearm, talking the guy down. Finally, he handed over the shotgun to my brother. Afterwards, a newspaper photographer took a picture of him. James told me, "I'm glad they couldn't see the tears in my eyes."

Another time at another roadhouse on a freezing Saturday night in late January, his dispatcher called him to say it looked as if a big fight was breaking out in the parking lot. He drove up without lights or siren, put on his Smokey the Bear hat and in his body armor and winter jacket, he must have looked huge. The crowd parted as he walked through. Got to the middle and saw the combatants, both squared off. "Nobody here wants to be in jail tomorrow and miss the Super Bowl, do they?" the chief drawled. Dead silence. Then giggles. Then everybody drifted away. James went back on patrol.

That was one reason the funeral church was filled with law enforcement officers from all over the state. Later, Oakridge built a pedestrian bridge across the Middle Fork of the Willlamette River and named it the James Tharp Memorial Bridge.

The last two years of his life he decided to fight crime from the other end. He resigned as chief and became a counselor at a place called Serenity Lane in Eugene. He helped people -- some he'd once arrested -- with their addiction problems. (The center later named a hall after him.) He was finishing his college degree and was in class one Saturday when he collapsed. The college later gave him an honorary degree.

I traveled all night from L.A. to get to the hospital. He was alive but brain-dead. Linda and I had to make the call to pull the plug.

The last several years of our lives together, he and I had argued over who was taller. In countless photos we're trying to get an edge on each other.

As I leaned over and kissed his forehead that Sunday morning, I whispered, "You're taller, James."

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