Looking for Buzz


   From the beginning of my time on the river, there has been only one true Canyon hero for me. I did not know then that the figure of Buzz Holmstrom would come to carry the weight of my own dreams and wishes about life on, as well as off, the river. That he would come to represent for me what is best and right about the Grand Canyon. And that later on I would always use the Canyon and his journey as markers by which to navigate through the often maddening thing we call modern life. I did not truly appreciate the value of just knowing that there is a place like the Canyon. Nor did I appreciate its power to challenge and inspire the likes of a Holmstrom. Until I left.

   Over the years I toyed with the other Canyon figures and usually found them wanting in some respect. Major Powell was too “scientific”, too much the authoritarian for my spirit. Stanton obviously loved the place, but was always trying to make a buck. Dellenbaugh, a gentleman and writer of books, a wee bit too self-conscious. I liked Galloway, maybe for the same reasons I came to admire Holmstrom. But I couldn’t find out much about him. Marston and others–perhaps too proprietary about their place in the Canyon. Loper’s character and achievements were too vague somehow. I couldn’t get a handle on him. And of course, sheer ignorance eliminated numerous other possibilities. Somehow, none of these satisfied my evolving conception of what a hero should or could be. Always, I came back around to Buzz.

   It is only now, years later, that I understand why I went looking for him and what I found along the way.

   What made Holmstrom my hero were his idealistic, almost naive motives for making the journey through the Canyon. The honest means he used to achieve his goal revealed a certain strength of character. The unique nature of his solo river journey speaks for itself. Consider the genuine humbleness of the man as seen through his diary–towards his craft, the Canyon itself and afterwards, his reflections on what he had done. And then there was the sad mystery of his suicide in May, 1946 near the Grande Ronde River in eastern Oregon. On his death certificate, under “usual occupation” it reads “Expert Boatman.” In the 1970’s, knowing nothing of Buzz Holmstrom and even less of rivers, I would begin my apprenticeship as a river guide. Here on the Grande Ronde, a shallow, fast moving river I would first learn to read the water. A coincidence, I guess. Even his half-hearted attempts to capitalize on his adventure somehow endeared him to me. Was Buzz the real thing, I wondered? Could this Oregon boatman and part-time gas station attendant stand the scrutiny of my modern sensibility? After all, I had grown up in the ‘60’s with the corrosive notion that everyone could be famous for fifteen minutes. We had antiheroes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yet here I was, ready and willing to believe in an old-fashioned, too-good-to-be-true hero.

   At the start, I went looking for Buzz in the usual places–books and articles. Relatively cheap, easy access, no interruptions and reliable, to a point. The facts and dates and details accumulated quickly. They are easily available to anyone willing to take the time. Buzz’s journal and the 1938 Saturday Evening Post article by Robert Ormand Case temporarily satisfied my amateur’s hunger to know more. I began to query my river running friends. Eventually some of these neophyte historians steered me in the direction of the “old timers,” who passed me around with much care. One source that proved rich in advice and inspiration was Pat Riley. He, along with Martin Litton, was responsible for putting the first dories in the Canyon. Since I lived in Portland, he suggested that I visit the Oregon Historical Society. There I might find something about Buzz. So one rain soaked morning I dragged myself out of a warm bed and trudged downtown. With the help of an elderly historical society assistant, it didn’t take long to retrieve a short stack of newspaper accounts of Buzz’s journey and suicide. While I looked through these, the assistant disappeared. A few moments later he returned with a film canister, asking if I wanted to see an old movie about river running. Why not? He led me to a small cubicle. There I watched a rickety ten-minute “film” that Amos Burg had made of Holmstrom’s second journey through the Canyon. At the time I remember feeling like I had made a great discovery.

   But the real discovery was to come later, almost by chance and almost missed. During one of our late night, catch-up conversations Brad Dimock suggested I call Joan Nevills Staveley. She knew lots of folks, Brad said, and if she could help she would. It was here that my search for Buzz would take an unexpected detour that left the books, artifacts and museums behind. For Joan would lead me to a source that would offer a point of view that I did not even realize I was looking for. And it was literally in my own backyard.

   “Had I contacted any of Buzz’s brothers yet?” she asked.

   “Buzz’s brothers?” I replied, “He had brothers?”

   Rolf Holmstrom was fifteen years old when his brother ran the first solo trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1937. He would have been a young man, about twenty-four, when Buzz took his life near the Grande Ronde in 1946. When I spoke with him in his Vancouver, Washington home in December 1986, Rolf was a solid looking sixty-four year old man with fond memories of his older brother. To this day I remember distinct things about Rolf: the leathery thickness of his neck and the immense size of his hands and wrists. The clear, pale blue eyes set above a firm jaw. He spoke in a deliberate, measured manner that Saturday afternoon. And it was not difficult for me to imagine that I was sitting there with Buzz.

   We sat in his den in front of a roaring fire and drank cup after cup of coffee that winter afternoon. Mostly I listened (and recorded). Rolf’s own life story quickly became intertwined with the memories of his brother and the famous journey. His actual knowledge of Buzz’s first trip was limited. People were proud of what Buzz had done, said Rolf, but no one made a big fuss. The only “river fact” I learned had to do with the whereabouts of Buzz’s boat. And this was only partly true. A rumor had been circulating among amateur historians that the craft was in someone’s garage up in Oregon. In my heart I entertained secret dreams of finding it. But Rolf remembered that after the 1937 trip, Buzz brought the wooden boat to his mother’s home. It was placed on stilts in the backyard where it remained for a number of years. After Buzz’s suicide the boat became too stark a reminder of her son. Francis Holmstrom gave it to a friend of the family, Billy Stewart. Billy was a fisherman as well as a postman and so the boat would have been put to good use. Where was the boat now? Rolf wasn’t sure, but he guessed it probably got left somewhere on a muddy bank along the Coquille River, or maybe behind a barn, a victim of southern Oregon weather.

   And what to make of the suicide? Perhaps it was an “accident” as one river historian speculated. A newspaper article from the Oregonian (May, 1946) suggests that Buzz was despondent over the failure of his boat to navigate some of the rapids of the Grande Ronde. I found that hard to believe. Rolf said that he had seen Buzz just two weeks before the incident. Buzz was “happy, upbeat, full of it...” Then Rolf paused, as if he were searching back through time for an explanation. “A lot of World War II vets went through this kind of thing after coming back. For a lot of farm boys, that war was the most exciting thing that ever happened to them.” Rolf had been in the service himself and I wondered if he was speaking from his own experience. “The family grieved for a while,” he said “but eventually we took up living again.”

   But mostly Rolf reminisced about the small events and the personalities that make up the bulk of any family story. Did I know that people “just took to Buzz?” That when Buzz worked at the gas station, folks would come in for gas and end up hanging around for hours to chat with him? I was reminded of the story of the headman on Kiriwinia Island in the South Pacific during World War II, who wanted to adopt Buzz as his “white man son.” Rolf also spoke of a loving father, who died when Rolf was four. And how Buzz worked the farm and took Rolf under his wing in the years to come. Did I know that though Buzz was not an “active believer”, he was very much a Christian? I thought I understood what Rolf was trying to get at. Buzz: the natural athlete, the outstanding student, his younger brother’s hero. Often after telling one of these anecdotes, Rolf would apologize. He hoped I didn’t think he was “bragging” too much about his family. There was that unique Holmstrom blend of quiet pride and deep humility.

   It was dark when I left Rolf’s home. The heat of the fire and the hours of talk had left both of us tired. We exchanged addresses and telephone numbers. He also gave me the address of his other brother, Carl, who still lived in Coquille. As I drove home, I remember thinking that I hadn’t really discovered anything new about Buzz. I would visit Carl in the spring. Perhaps he would have more of what I was after. Years later I would realize that I had simply failed to fully appreciate what Rolf was sharing with me that afternoon. My hero was becoming a man.

   Coming from Bandon on the south Oregon coast, the 42S road parallels the Coquille River much of the way into the town of Coquille itself. That morning the road sides were fresh with spring bloom–bright yellow of the gorse, pale pink of the wild rhododendrons, rich purple of the lupines. The river itself rollicked along, flush with a week’s worth of rain, towards the Pacific. If there was any boating to be done, this would have been the time. But I was here to visit with eighty year old Carl Holmstrom, Buzz’s older brother by two years.

   Through letters and over the phone, we had arranged to meet in Coquille. He had said he would be in front of the Standard station on Main Street about 11:00 a.m. Not knowing exactly where it was, I made my first pass through town and of course missed it. I turned around and drove back. Mr. Holmstrom was there waiting for me. He was physically smaller than his younger brother Rolf, but carried the same solidness in his frame. He wore the clothes of a woodsman, a logger-flannel shirt, suspenders, Carhart double kneed trousers with the cuffs cut high (what we in grade school had called “flood pants”) and sturdy well-worn boots. I stopped the car and got out. “Mr. Holmstrom?” I asked. He smiled and reached out to shake my hand. Again those Holmstrom hands, as if they were chiseled out of blocks of wood. Boatmen’s hands, I thought to myself. “Glad to meet you” he said. “We can go to my place to talk if you’d like.”

   As Carl directed us through the side streets of Coquille to his home, he warned me that he lived “bachelor style” and hoped that I wouldn’t mind. He explained that things were comfortable and as tidy as they needed to be. I wouldn’t mind at all I assured him. Soon we arrived in front of a hobbit like house, pleasantly ramshackle, whose front yard looked like a miniature lumber mill. It was littered with logging tools and equipment, much of it rusty and resting in peace. Wood chips served as a front lawn. Small piles of firewood waited for stacking. The air was seasoned with the odor of saws and oil and freshly cut wood. Carl escorted me inside, shooed the cats away and offered coffee and the most comfortable of the hard backed chairs. We began to talk.

   Carl had lived in Coquille since 1935. He had finished eighth grade and immediately gone into the woods. His first job had been as a “whistle punk.” Now they used walkie-talkies, he guessed. (Probably cellular phones, I think as I write this article.) Except for his time in the service (at sea), he had spent his life in the woods. Fifteen years ago he had retired from the mills. Much, much later I would realize that his memories and anecdotes were sharper than Rolf’s. But of course! He was closer in age to and had shared more common experiences with Buzz. Carl told of building crude boats with Buzz on the family farm. The middle fork of the Coquille ran along their property. They would launch their craft (usually in late spring), ride for a mile or so and then hike the distance back home, somehow carrying the boat with them. They did this over and over again, he said. I asked him about the boat Buzz had taken down the Grand Canyon. Yes, it was given to a fellow named Billy Stewart. But Mrs. Holmstrom had made Billy Stewart promise that if for some reason he no longer wanted the boat, he had to burn it. Mrs. Holmstrom didn’t want it passed around. It occurred to me that she might have dimly grasped the significance of what Buzz had done. This was her effort to preserve the memory. Carl was certain that the boat had been destroyed.

   When I asked about Buzz’s suicide, Carl just shook his head. Where Rolf had been accepting about the interpretations of the incident, Carl was suspicious. He mentioned a dispute with the cook of the surveying crew and how the folks “out there” in eastern Oregon made their own laws in those days. He said his sister felt the same way. He did not speak of religion. The afternoon shadows of the ponderosa pines fell on the house. It had grown chilly inside and Carl lit a fire in his ancient wood stove.

   Carl told me many stories that afternoon. About his cats, World War Two, how the lumber mills had changed since the 1930’s. About his life on a farm in a river valley in southern Oregon. He felt that Buzz’s greatest achievement was the work he had done on the farm as a school boy after their father had died. As with Rolf, Buzz’s Canyon journey slipped into the background of Carl’s narrative. The wood stove crackled and the sun set early behind the green-black west ridge (despite the season). I found myself missing Carl’s words, but listening to his voice. After awhile we sat quietly, suspended across time. Then Carl said he had something for me. This is it, I thought. A piece of the historical rock. Something of Buzz’s. He slipped out of the room. Moments later he returned, carrying a circular piece of stone, two inches thick. Carl handed it to me. It felt like sandstone. Buzz had brought this back from one of his trips, Carl said. Would I like it? It was a core sample six inches in diameter, probably from a dam survey, certainly from before World War II. Streaked with purple. Tapeats Sandstone? My geological memory failed me. Yes, of course, I answered. It would be a privilege. Carl carefully wrapped the gift in newspaper and then slid it into a brown paper bag. At the time I remember feeling like the kid at Christmas who knows he should be pleased with what he has received, but can’t quite manage the feeling.

   It was getting late. On the way out of town we stopped at the cemetery. Carl had offered to show us the plots where his mother and brother were buried. “There’s not much to see,” he said. But he seemed genuinely pleased that we had come and that he could show us. After an afternoon of talking, we didn’t say much. There was a particular scent to the late afternoon air–the mingling of smells from the nearby river, the farms and the surrounding forest. I took some pictures. Finally we did say our good-byes and I offered to drive Carl back to his place. “No, I’d just as soon walk,” he said. “ I usually ride my bike about ten miles a day, even though half the gears don’t work. I missed out today. Thanks just the same.”

   I have a son now. He likes stories. Some I read and others I make up. Jake was born on May 18, 1989–the anniversary of the eruption (rebirth?) of Mt. St. Helen’s as well as the death of Buzz Holmstrom. I have made these things part of my story, some of my markers on the river of time, a way to remember. They will be a part of Jake’s story one day. Perhaps we select these things unconsciously and arrange them in some order that makes sense only to us. Then we begin to pass them on to those around us. When Jake asks about heroes, I will tell him about Buzz, of course. When he goes looking for heroes, I’ll point towards the Grand Canyon for starters. If I am really lucky and he is still listening, I will tell him about Buzz’s brothers, Rolf and Carl, and the stories they shared with me. I’ll hand him the core sample also and hope he understands that heroes are made up of more than their deeds.

Vince Welch