I find it hard to fathom that almost 15 years have passed since my dear friend Herb Ringer left us, almost as long as the length of time we were friends. I met Herb in the late summer of 1981 and he died in the waning days of 1998. Both passages of time feel like a blink. He blessed me with the kind of friendship that rarely exists across generations, like a very special love between father and son. And, in fact, because Herb never had children, he once asked me if I could “fill in” as the son he never had. I always told him it was an honor.
He also bestowed upon me the role of ‘keeper’ of his memories, magnificently told via the extraordinary collection of words and images he assembled in a lifetime. We offer a small but very memorable portion of that collection in this very special issue.
Elsewhere in these pages, you’ll find a history of Herb as he told it to me and as I recount it here. And, of course, Herb tells his own story better than anyone. In this issue, you will hopefully examine and read and ruminate and marvel on the scores of new images and wonderful observations that we’ve posted from his original journals (and those of his father–Joseph Ringer). It’s like stepping into a Time Machine; at least that’s the way it feels to me.
But I’d like to offer a couple of postscripts here…one that occurred just days after Herb died, the other from last week…
Herb’s health had begun to deteriorate in the summer of 1998. In August, he gave up his home of 46 years and moved into a retirement center; he was almost blind from macular degeneration and he felt he had no other choice. But I feared that he’d lose his identity, if he walked away from the old Smoker trailer he bought in 1952. And indeed, within weeks, he declined rapidly. For a man whose memory meant everything to him, Herb must have felt like an alien to himself, as the history of his life ebbed away.
In late November, I spent some time on the phone with Herb’s doctor. Though there was no immediate cause for alarm, it seemed to him that Herb had lost the will to live. I wasn’t surprised. Later that day, I described Herb’s declining health to a friend.
“You know,” I said, “I think Herb is going to die on my birthday.”
He looked startled. “Why would you say that?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. Just a feeling, I guess.”
But the feeling didn’t go away.
The next Zephyr press day was December 11, and I’d already planned an issue called, “Then and Now—the way we were, the way we are.” On the cover were two pictures of Herb. The first was a childhood image, taken by his father in 1917. The second was one of my own, shot the previous August when I helped him move.
On the morning of the 11th, I made the two hour drive to Cortez, Colorado, where The Zephyr was printed for 14 years. All day I was haunted by premonitions. In early afternoon, I loaded the last of the copies into the truck and raced back to Moab, convinced I’d find a sad message on my answering machine when I got home.
But when I walked in the door, the blinking red message light was dark. I breathed a sigh of relief and walked up to Dave’s for a cup of coffee. An hour later I came home to the blinking light I’d been dreading.
Herb had died at 2 pm.
That afternoon, I contacted the hospital and then the retirement home. A wonderful woman there, an RN named Patty who had taken a personal interest in Herb, helped me deal with all those “arrangements” that have to be made, when we are least capable of dealing with anything at all but our own grief.
A few days later, I had the most remarkable dream….
I was standing waist-deep in a swift clear mountain stream, but safely in the shallows and out of the current. Floating on his back in front of me and looking perfectly serene was Herb. Only my firm grip on his shoulders kept him in the backwater.
The banks were green and lush but mid-stream granite boulders disrupted the water’s flow and created eddies and swirls. It looked dangerous to me, but Herb wanted me to push him into the current. I argued with him, insisted it was too risky, but he just nodded and smiled.
“It’ll be okay, Jim…just give me a push.”
I hesitated again and he put his hand on mine and patted it.
I reluctantly released my grip and as he floated by me, feet first, I gave his shoulders one last push. The current grabbed him almost instantly and I watched Herb enter the heart of the stream. But as he passed one of the granite boulders, Herb was snared by an eddy and I watched with alarm as he spun in small circles near the rock.
“Herb!” I cried out. “Are you alright?”
But no sooner had I called to Herb than the eddy released him into the free current. As he floated downstream, Herb Ringer raised one hand and waved goodbye.
That remarkable dream has stayed with me all these years and is as vivid in my mind’s eye now as it was then. I’ve never known such clarity, in the image of the dream or its meaning. I still feel good about it. All these years later, Herb, via our times together and the photographs and stories he left me, never seems far away. Last week, yet again, I would swear he stopped by to say hello.
Recently, I have been spending as much as 14 hours each day, reviewing and scanning Herb’s photographs and re-reading his journals. It’s been such a pleasure and at times I’ve forgotten just how long ago he left us. One afternoon, he seemed determined to let me know he was still here.
In 1997, as Herb prepared to sell his trailer and move to the retirement home, I became the recipient of many of Herb’s treasures. Among them is a beautiful Swiss-made clock that had been in the Ringer family for decades. He presented it to me one day, carefully showing me how to wind it with the brass key he kept hidden in its base. “Not too tight,” he warned. He advanced the hour hand to the twelve o’clock position so I could hear the chimes. “Lovely,” he said.
We carefully wrapped it in a cotton sheet and placed it in a box for the trip back to Moab. I set it on my bedroom dresser and for years I fell asleep nightly to the tick-tock of Herb’s clock and its hourly chimes.
Then one day, it stopped. I thought maybe I’d forgot to wind it, but no…the clock quit ticking. I searched unsuccessfully for a clock repair person who might be able to revive my beloved Herb Clock, but finally gave up. It was still a beautiful contraption, even without its ticks, so I took comfort in just looking at it and remembering all the memories contained within in it. A decade passed.
Last week, it started ticking again. I walked to my dresser to dump some loose change and heard an almost familiar sound— and could not believe my ears. Or eyes. The pendulum was swinging back and forth as it always had. The familiar tick was back. And last night, about 2 AM, it chimed.
I’m not quick to believe in the Otherworldly, but on this occasion I’d prefer to. I’d love to believe that Herb dropped by, gave his beloved clock a tap in just the right spot, and silently chided me, “I told you not to wind it too tight.”
Next time Herb, I promise to wind it right.
Jim Stiles is the Founder and Co-Publisher of the Zephyr.