An abbreviated version of the following story appeared in the Philomath Bulletin and was titled "Tribute to a Happy Warrior".  This complete and more graphic description of Don is a chapter from my forthcoming book Chief.  The photograph of Don is courtesy of his wife Joyce.  At the bottom of the story is a photograph of my uncle, Paul Jones, climbing into bed with his friend and one-time roommate, the great W.C. Fields.  That picture comes courtesy of Uncle Paul's daughter, and my cousin, Julia Jones Cusick.

My Own W.C. Fields

By Joseph Fulton

W.C. Fields has always been my favorite comedian.  So when I found out that Fields was my great uncle’s best friend I was elated, but a bit jealous.  Paul Jones, a little known movie producer, was married to Julie Biner, the youngest sister of my grandfather.  Aunt Julie and Uncle Paul visited our family in Portland and I remember him as a jolly and dapper gentleman with a thin moustache.  But I didn’t know then that he had spent his life producing and directing the likes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Joel McCrea, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and of course, the great W.C. Fields.  

In her book Lulu in Hollywood the actress and gossip columnist Louisa Brooks contends that Fields had few friends and that the only man he ever loved was Paul Jones.  In fact, the two men were roommates before they managed to find women who would marry them!  I say managed because, even though they were exceedingly fond of pretty young women, both men were a tad crass, a bit frumpy and certainly homely.  It was their irresistible humor that saved them.  Jones won over my pretty aunt, who in turn adored her niece, my mother, Betty Biner.  

Paul Jones died in 1966, but Aunt Julia lived until 2006.  In 2003 I visited Aunt Julia in California, along with my mom and my brother Chuck.  Despite being 100 years old at the time, Aunt Julia was happy to tell me about her husband’s friendship with “Bill”, the name by which she referred to the great W.C. Fields.  When I asked her if Fields ever flirted with her, she quickly responded, “Oh my, yes.”

After I moved to Kings Valley, a tiny rural community in the Coast Range of Oregon, I discovered that one of my neighbors was a replica of W.C. Fields.  He was crass, frumpy, homely and above all, absolutely hilarious.  Naturally, we became close friends.  Don Brewer was never famous and he never made a movie; but having him for a neighbor was almost as good as having Fields for a roommate.  

Don retired from the logging industry in 1986, the year after I moved to Kings Valley with my wife Debra. It didn’t take long for Don to discover that his newest neighbors not only appreciated his crass sense of humor, but they agreed with his political views, too.   Tired of biting his tongue around rednecks who would feel right at home in the Deep South, Don let loose a torrent of progressive sentiments every time he walked the half mile to our house for a cup of coffee.  And he did that hundreds of times; so often, in fact, that his gentle wife Joyce became concerned about it.

If our phone rang while Don was visiting I could be relatively certain that it was Joyce on the other end.   Her high, sweet voice was always filled with concern.

“Joe, is Don still down there bothering you?”

“Hello Joyce.  Yes, Don is still here, but how many times do I have to tell you that he never bothers me?  I love having Don visit.”

“Well, I just don’t want him to wear out his welcome.”

“That’s impossible, Joyce.  Don’t worry about it.”

Of course, Joyce did continue to worry about it.  That was her nature.  But it was never a problem for me when Don waddled down for a cup of coffee and some hilarious banter. Don was one of the most amusing and singularly unique individuals that I have ever met; and I’ve met thousands of people.  Quite frankly, and this should come as a surprise to Joyce, Don became a major influence on my life.  He helped me learn to laugh at myself.

When Don Brewer died on February 12, 2010 at the age of 83, I not only lost one of my best friends but the world lost one of the last rugged and radical individualists molded by the experiences of the Great Depression and World War II.

Don was born outside of Silverton, Oregon in 1926.  He and his twin sister Dorothy were the last of ten children for John Brewer and Louise Atwood.  John Brewer was 54 when his youngest children were born; coincidentally the same age my father was when I was born.  John was a farmer from Tennessee who supplemented his income with a little sawmill. When the Great Depression hit, John and his family found relief through FDR’s New Deal.

Don’s oldest brothers went to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped beautify and preserve some of Oregon’s most treasured locations, including the exquisite Silver Creek Falls.  The government also purchased logs from John Brewer’s mill to build the beautiful visitor’s center that still stands at Silver Creek Falls State Park, which some Oregonians feel should be a national park.  Don credited FDR and the New Deal for helping his family survive during those difficult years and he was anxious to show his gratitude by volunteering to fight when America entered World War II.  But he was too young.  Instead he finished high school at Silverton and competed in the 440-yard dash at the 1944 State Track & Field Championships.  When he graduated at the age of 17 he immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Don’s first deployment was to Northern Africa, but shortly after his ship arrived, Germany surrendered and the war was over in Europe.   Don’s ship then sailed to Japan, arriving there in time for Don to be part of the occupying force following Japan’s surrender.  His memories of war-torn Tokyo were heart wrenching and profound.  He said that the entire city lay in ruins.  Everything was burned to the ground except a few brick buildings and brick chimneys.  The Japanese people were so frightened of the American soldiers that they would rush out, knee down in subjugation and offer their last worldly possessions for mercy.  It broke Don’s heart.  He refused to take anything and tried to assure the vanquished Japanese citizens that the American soldiers were there to help them rebuild their lives.  But Don did partake in Japanese beer, which he found far more desirable than the cheep “green beer’ issued by the Navy.

Returning to the Pacific Northwest after an honorable discharge in 1946, Don began a forty-year career as a logger.  He worked in the woods of Oregon and northern California and it was during those years that Don honed his skills as a merry prankster.

It will sound grotesque, but many of Don’s most memorable pranks involved excrement of one form or another.  When Don was grading logs piled high on the sides of logging roads or atop high lead operations he would use cans of spray paint to mark the quality of logs on their cut ends.  That would enable the loggers to know what they were delivering and the mills to separate the logs accordingly.  As happens so often when working outdoors, the need arises, but no restroom is available.  The logger, like the runner, hunter or hiker might decide, out of dire necessity, to relieve himself (or herself) in the woods.  Never the shy one, Don simply took a crap on the logging roads.  After all, the roads were far less pristine than the woods they cut through.

After one such break Don noticed that his deposit was in the shape of a wrench.  So he pulled out his silver spray paint and gave it a careful coating.  Then he hid in the woods and waited for a truck driver to come by for a load of logs and in the process discover a camouflaged load of shit.  Sure enough, the trucker spotted the “wrench,” stopped his truck and got out to retrieve it.  When it fell apart in his hands he realized his mistake and cussed up a storm, but Don remained mute in the bushes and saved his laughter to be enjoyed the many times he repeated the story.

Another logger was fooled by a brand new box of “chocolates” left on a stump by the forest jester.  The original contents had already been consumed by the voracious Don and carefully replaced by fresh animal dung.  Don “never would forget” the look on that logger’s face when he sniffed a box of shit.

But the worst Don Brewer prank was so bad that he wouldn’t even give himself credit for its perfect execution.  Instead he claimed that the dirty deed was pulled off by a couple of friends.  I do not doubt that Don needed accomplices to pull off this job, but judging by the way he retold the story and the sheer delight he got from the climax, I also have no doubt that Don was the mastermind.

There was a small trailer park in northern California occupied by characters that Don and “his friends” did not like.  As I recall one of the residents was an ornery boss who always tried to cheat his workers.  

Late one evening Don, I mean his friends, placed a stick of dynamite under the lid of the trailer park’s communal septic tank.  Then they rolled a heavy, old pickup truck on top of the lid and ran like hell.  When the dynamite exploded the lid held, but great green gobs of shit flew up through the sinks and toilets of every trailer in the park.  It was a stinking mess, but Don, I mean his friends, got away with it.

Although Don clearly enjoyed his years as a logger, he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the men he worked with.  Don was a committed FDR Democrat and therefore surprisingly progressive in his world-view, but sometimes his views even surprised me.

For example, Don was the only person I knew who actually thought O.J. Simpson was innocent.  He watched all of the Simpson trial with deep interest and had many logical reasons as to why he agreed with the verdict.  Furthermore he understood that thousands of black American men had been wrongly accused of crimes and lynched throughout American history and it disgusted him.

Don despised Bush and Cheney.  He would mock their constant “orange terrorist alerts” by promising to rush down our road and protect the new culvert that the county had installed.

Don Brewer was no big city, bleeding-heart liberal.  He was an overweight, chain-smoking WW II vet, and a hunter and logger.  His usual attire included a food-stained t-shirt, suspenders and baseball cap.  But he kept a cynical eye on authority of every stripe and he possessed a deep and sincere compassion for the downtrodden.  

Don married his wonderful wife, Joyce Turner, in 1974.  They had no children of their own, but they delighted my children and other kids on our dirt road in Kings Valley.  Don was like a good-natured grandfather to every kid he encountered.  No strangers to sarcasm, our children relished in Don’s abuse.

Leland was pretty hip for a young boy and was wearing an earring by the age of ten.  This act of genderless individualism brought a great amount of teasing from Don.  “Do you squat when you go pee?” was a favorite question that Don directed at Leland.

Pretending that he could not pronounce my daughter Rhea’s name, he insisted on calling her Rur, a nickname she proudly carries to this day.  Deb took Rhea shopping for shoes when she was a very young girl with the intention of purchasing an appropriate pair of sturdy outdoor shoes.  But Rhea insisted on dress shoes with a broad heel, “Because,” as she explained to her amused mother, “I want to look like Yoke’s brother.”  

Yoke was Don’s tiny dog that accompanied him every time he strolled up to our house in a pair of old dress shoes.   From that day forward Don was always Yoki’s brother to me.

Don loved to tease every female he met at our house and it was a common threat that the next time he visited he would be wearing nothing but a thong.  He also loved to expose his huge, gruesome scar from a triple-bypass surgery.  Anything that made you squirm was good medicine as far as Don was concerned and that applied to animals, too.

Our tomcat Felix hated to have his stomach touched, so naturally Don went for his stomach every time he saw him, and when Felix sank his claws into Don’s arm my mischievous old neighbor simply laughed with glee.

A family gathering, or our annual summer running camp, never prevented Don from walking up for his morning coffee.  In fact, it just made it a more desirable adventure because he had more people to offend.  A Catholic priest, and longtime friend of the Fulton family, was at a summer reunion when Don dropped by.  As Don and I sat outside and sipped our coffee I pointed out the priest in the distance.  Don turned to me with a feigned look of alarm and said, “He won’t try to molest me, will he?”

Joyce Turner Brewer, a fifth generation Oregonian, got a kick out of her irreverent husband and they had a playful relationship, even though Joyce would never tease anyone (as Don always did) and even though Joyce was a devout Christian (while Don was more of a skeptic).  Joyce did manage to drag Don with her to church on a fairly regular basis and one of her ministers admitted that it was always a mental challenge to have Don sit in on a Bible study.  

Don once told me that Joyce went to a “Holy Roller” type church where people might suddenly drop to the floor in spasms when they were filled with the spirit.  This was believable to me since the Holy Roller Pentecostal movement actually originated in Corvallis, Oregon over a century ago.  Intrigued, I asked Don if he ever fell to the ground at church.

“All the time,” he responded with a smirk. “I roll around and pick up the loose change.”

Don had several health problems, probably as a result of his long addiction to cigarettes, which he said began when the sailors were issued free cigarettes; a most clever contribution to the war effort from our big tobacco companies.   Don eventually suffered a couple of heart attacks and had triple bypass-surgery.  He also had prostate cancer, a hernia and numerous other ailments.  But you would have never guessed by his disposition.  Don lived on because he knew how to laugh and he never took himself too seriously.  In fact, he told me that someone should plant skunk cabbage on his grave…or on Joyce’s grave if she died first!

I loved Don Brewer, so I don’t think I’ll plant skunk cabbage on his grave.  

However, I just might toss him some loose change.



Copyright 2010 by Joseph E. Fulton

 

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