He arrived on November 13th, 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression. The second child born to Jim & Mag during their marriage. He had a four year old sister named Eleanor who doted on her baby brother. Jim and Mag’s family would continue to grow, adding another 3 boys over the space of a couple decades. Leslie Dale in 1941, Arlyn Carl in 1944 and John Wayne (my Hubs) in 1948. They named their first son James Roger. All of them would carry shortened versions or nicknames through some or most of their adult lives. Elly, Jimmy, Les, Arly and Johnny Wayne. Jimmy and Arly strongly resembled their dad while Elly, Les and John looked like their mom’s side of the family.
It’s kinda weird. I always considered him ‘Jimmy’ when I talked about him, but after Jim Sr. passed away in 1987, Jimmy just sorta morphed into the ‘Jim’ status. He was done being a barkeep and ventured into the field of law enforcement, first as an officer, then as police chief. Jim just sounded older, more professional. You gotta have some street cred, even in a small town like Rock Valley. Now with the Hubs it didn’t take that long. Once he left Rock Valley, he preferred being called John so that’s how coworkers knew him. But Elly, Les and Arly’s names stuck, at least in the family.
I first met him in 1965. He was 30, (twice my age) big, intimidating with dark hair, piercing brown eyes. Business owner but not a place (it was just your small town, neighborhood bar) this teenage girl, who had the strictest parents in town should frequent. Mom and Dad always seemed to know where I was. They kept someone on retainer, trying to keep me on the straight and narrow. Not a chance. Actually I was a highly trained professional at dodging my parents on my last known whereabouts through my teens. I knew all the hiding places in that town.
Jimmy married a quiet gal named Eleanor in the fall of 1960. (I know, what are the chances that your only sister and brand new bride share the same first name? But Jimmy’s Eleanor was never Elly, at least not to me. She was always Eleanor). She had black hair and eyes. I knew her for 25 years and I’ve never met a person like her before or since. Not once in those 25 years did I ever hear her say a negative, derogatory, bad remark, or a sarcastic, unkind, hurtful word about another person. Or swear. Ever. Who goes through life like that? I mean there’s always a character or 2 in your life who drive you crazy just breathing air right? Not to Eleanor. (My friend Char runs a close second in this kindness department). Dang I got enough pent up anger issues to make up for the both of them. And then some.
During our early years of marriage we rarely socialized with Hubs’ brothers, spouses and kids besides family events but it did happen once in a while. They were older, more established (they had discretionary money-we most definitely did not) Both Jimmy & Les were avid fishermen and frequented the countless lakes of Minnesota during the summer. Lake Ottertail and Battle Lake were favorite spots and we got invited a time or 2, once with Jim and Mag who shared our cabin. (Memorable vacation for me because while the rest of the family fished one day, toddler Shannon and I were preparing our next meal. I struck a match to light the oven and there must have been the tiniest of gas leaks. The force of the explosion pitched us all the way across the cabin. We were unharmed but pretty shook up and deaf for awhile). That could have turned out much more serious, we were lucky.
I guess Jimmy noticed me first. John (the whole town knew as Johnny Wayne back then) had worked for various farmers for a couple summers and saved enough money to buy a brand new 90 CC Bridgestone motorcycle. Yeah, he was bad to the bone alright. Since we were in the early stages of dating, we spent most of our time tooling around Rock Valley, me planted behind him. Jimmy asked his mom, “who’s that girl on the back of Johnny’s motorcycle?”
He was 14 years older than John so they didn’t spend a lot of their free time together when Jimmy was still home. He graduated from high school about 1952 and enlisted in the Marines soon after, making Hubs about 5. Jimmy called his mom once and said he was going to Mexico on leave. “Say, ask Johnny Wayne what he wants me to buy him when I’m in Mexico?” Mag relayed the question and was instructed by the kindergartener to please buy him a burro (ha-ha). Instead, Jimmy mailed his youngest brother a leather jacket with long fringe on the sleeves and a sequined sombrero which the Hubs wore until there was nothing left of either.
Jimmy had a black 650 CC Triumph motorcycle which he dearly loved, but it didn’t have an electric starter. You had to use the kick starter. One day Johnny went into the house, walked up to Mag and asked, “Mom did you know that Jimmy named his motorcycle?” “He did? What does he call his motorcycle?” “Well every time he’s trying to go for a ride, he puts his foot on that thing and pushes down as hard and as fast as he can. And it never starts the first time. Jimmy says, bitch! He doesn’t think I can hear him, so he pushes down even harder the next time. Then he drives away really fast. His motorcycle’s name is bitch.”
My first close encounter with Jimmy after Hubs and I eloped was a few months later. I was hospitalized for an infection of unknown origin for a few days. Jimmy drove to Sioux City (about 60 miles) to visit me. He must have stopped downtown at Younkers first. Talk about an ice breaker. He waltzes into my room and hands me a 2 pound box of my favorite candy, milk chocolate Annaclairs. How did he even know? I was tongue tied and a bit embarrassed. Nineteen year old newlywed wearing an ugly hospital gown and still intimidated by Hubs’ older brother. I’ve never forgotten that sweet gesture for his punk teenage sister-in-law.
Jimmy and Eleanor had 5 children over the course of their 30 year marriage. Their kids were similarly spaced over 2 decades just like Jim and Mag’s family. We love S P A C I N G. Unfortunately Eleanor got cancer and passed away on New Year’s Day, 1991. Four of the kids were adults and on their own but their youngest son had just started elementary school.
The time during Jim’s tenure ￼(mid-80’s & 90’s) as Rock Valley’s police chief ended up affecting me a lot and I was living 750 miles away. Mom had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a couple rounds of chemo treatments which caused a stroke from which she would never fully recover. Both Mom and Dad were too proud/ashamed/embarrassed to seek help (just a few hours of help a week) for several years. The results were pretty much a disaster. Dad was NOT a caregiver for her physical needs. Yup he was a stand up guy if your soul needed saving but baths, laundry, cooking, cleaning were not on his radar. At all. He and Mom were about the same size, 6 footers with lean builds. (what happened with short, chunky me? Who exactly are my real parents)? When Dad was helping Mom get from one place to another, invariably they’d both end up on the floor, more times than I care to remember. Well RV’s fire and police departments would get the call that the Gerritson’s needed help again. I can’t tell you how many times Jim came to their aid, oftentimes right from his house because he lived a block away.
One time I had flown to help Mom and Dad out for a week, mostly cooking in bulk and freezing meals. But without a car I was stranded. Jimmy offered to drive me to Orange City so I could buy a piece of Blue Delft for my collection. (A tradition when I was in northwest Iowa). I can’t remember the name of the store, wasn’t on Main Street and looked like a dark brown barn. Probably something clever like Wooden Shoe Factory. It was winter and frigid so Jimmy came in the store with me, looking like a bull in a china shop. Eyes bulging at the hundreds of choices which I had to narrow down to one. Shaking his head and muttering, “can you believe the price of this crap? You really gonna pay that?” (In my defense I only bought one or 2 pieces a YEAR). I picked a plate to hang on the wall and yes it was a hundred bucks. He shook his head over that for years!
In January of 2018, the Hubs and I flew to Arizona for a couple weeks. Our time was limited because our grandson Landon, the basketball phenom was in the middle of his junior season and I couldn’t bear to miss many games. Les and Mary Jane had been wintering in Yuma for several years and Jim and Dee (his wonderful lady friend of 20 years) were driving out for a 2 month stay. This trip was the first time in decades Mag’s 3 boys were vacationing together again. (Brother Arly had passed away in 2012 at age 67). This vacation was a game changer in many respects. The small car we had reserved wasn’t available after we landed so they upgraded us to a minivan with all the bells and whistles. The six of us fit comfortably. We went to the desert, casinos, church breakfasts, flea market. Had margaritas, wine, dips and chips on Les’ fabulous deck every afternoon. Met somewhere almost every night to eat supper together.
But it was after we got back when I really noticed the change between Jim and John. The phone calls grew more frequent and lengthy, always ending with an, “I love you little brother.” “I love you too Jim.” Reminisced about the baby coyotes, raccoon and fox Jim brought back to his little brother to raise during the 50’s after a hunting trip. Things were just different between them and their chatter was nice to hear during their calls.
Jim hadn’t been feeling well and finally went to the doctor in mid April, 2020. He called John the next day (Saturday) with devastating news. He had been diagnosed with acute leukemia and the doctor had given him days to live. Because of the pandemic they encouraged him to go home because he couldn’t have visitors while in the hospital. He passed away 3 days later. We decided not to travel home because of the federal restrictions at funerals. But when you don’t attend, you really don’t have closure either. What really helped was because Jim was a retired law enforcement there was a city processional led by local patrol cars, county sheriff’s department and the Iowa State Highway Patrol, plus a 7 rifle volley from the veterans. All of this was recorded by the city of Rock Valley and posted on Facebook, which brought tears to our eyes. What a tribute. End of watch Jim. Rest easy. Hone your shuffling techniques and card skills because we got some serious games of pinochle to settle. He was a card shark (with a bit of a temper when he played) which made my seldom wins even sweeter…