I’d been away from Monticello for a couple months, but one evening last week, after a long, hard drive, I pulled into the old elm-shaded driveway and started to unload my bags. Just then, the siren went off. For Monticello-ites, we usually know it’s not a fire. It blasts three times a day, but every time I hear it now, I think of Gene Schafer. Once, just after I moved to town, I was at Gene’s shop and, when the siren sounded, I said, “It must be six o’clock.”
Gene snorted, “Hell, Stiles. That ain’t what those sirens are. You think it means 8 AM, Noon and 6 PM, right?”
“Well,” I replied. “What else could it mean?”
He said, “First siren, time to get up, second siren, time for lunch. Third siren? One more hour til the liquor store closes.” That was Gene.
It’s been three years, this month, since our buddy Schafer left us, long before I expected him to. In fact, I was sure he’d outlive me and maybe all of us. I figured he’d still be strutting around his shop and pulling dead junipers out of the ground with his bare hands until he was well past a hundred. Though he only made it to eighty, you’d have to say he got to be Gene, right to the end.
During my decade here as his neighbor and friend, I came to depend on Gene for his kindness and generosity, but also his wit and irreverence. I think he sometimes thought of himself as my caretaker. During one hard time in my life, Schafer came by to check on me. I opened the door, he took one look and said, “Damn…you look like shit…I’m gonna go get you some meat.” He always kept a freezer full of beef, thanks to a deal he’d made to help a friend, many years ago. Now he was passing the fruits of his kindness on to me.
He was always working on my truck and there were many times when he wouldn’t take my money. So I started buying him Scotch. Gene loved single malt Scotch, especially Glenlivet, so whenever I stopped by the liquor store, Fritz would reach for the good stuff. I’d swing by the shop and show him the paper bag; if he had company (and he almost always did), he’d whisper, “Bring it over to the house later…I don’t want to share my Scotch with these guys. Hell, they wouldn’t know good liquor if it bit ‘em on the ass.” Gene was as generous a man as I ever met, but NOT with his ardent spirits!
More than anything, Gene was generous with his time. If he thought you needed his help, he was there. And he was like that because he never knew of any other way to be. He didn’t want praise or excessive gratitude for his assistance, because it never occurred to him he was doing anything extraordinary.
The danger in singing Gene’s praises, however, is the risk of suggesting he was some kind of a benevolent and saintly do-gooder. Imagine using the word ‘saintly’ and ‘Gene Schafer’ in the same sentence! We all know better than that. Gene was as outrageous and outspoken as anyone I ever met. For you who never had the pleasure of Gene’s company, here’s how it was….we all know how most of us have that little gate in our brains that keeps us from saying the things we think and would like to say, but choose not to. That block between the mind and the mouth. Gene never closed that gate, or maybe he didn’t have a gate. All I know for sure is that, whatever Gene had on his mind, he told us…all of it.
One morning, an emergency erupted in my bathroom, and as always I sought Gene’s help. I’d been taking a shower, when suddenly I heard the most godawful noise. It sounded like a water line had burst somewhere under the house. I shut off the shower and the noise continued. I was sure the main line had ruptured. With soap in my hair, I dressed quickly and raced to the shop. Gene was there, of course, and with tools in hand, he jumped in his truck ‘Windy,’ and followed me back. He shut off the main line at the meter, walked inside and we could still hear the noise. Puzzled, Gene leaned into the shower, paused, and then looked over his shoulder at me and said, “I won’t tell nobody.”
He reached into the metal accessories rack that hung from the shower head and produced….my electric toothbrush. Still running…
“You want me to turn this damn thing off, or do you wanna do it?”
And despite his pledge to keep this little incident between the two of us, within hours, strangers on the street were stopping to ask if I’d found the ‘off’ button on my toothbrush yet. Gene couldn’t pass up a good story.
I think Gene loved every day of his life and his family and his friends and all the people he encountered each day. He saw the humor in just about anything. And he loved Monticello. Years ago, when I used to make my annual pilgrimage to Australia, he’d admonish me to give up my travels and stay home. “What the hell you going to the other side of the planet for?” he’d complain. “ Everything I need is right here. If it ain’t here, it ain’t anywhere.”
I’d like to think Gene is rattling about, somewhere nearby, making un-Earthly wisecracks at his non-drinking Mormon friends, or stoking a Heaven-sent woodstove with a hundred feet of old garden hose, or maybe waiting for me to do something stupid (again). But one thing’s certain, wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, I’d bet Gene Schafer is having a good time.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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