Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Tinkerer at Heart

My mother used to say that Uncle Bernard always gave her heart a little pang.  Not because he was incredibly good looking (although he was as a young man), but because he had a quirky smile that reminded her of her father who she lost when she was six years old.  I think that my Dad thought Uncle Bernard was one of the smartest and most interesting people he ever knew.

John Bernard Gage was the third of ten children.  He was called "Bun" by his family - which I think had something to do with his ears.  My grandmother was his older sister and she always said that she was especially close to Bernard when they were growing up.  He was her comrade and playmate and during their childhood they had many adventures in and around the farm at Mapleton, Iowa where they spent their childhood.  When they moved to Hatter Creek near Princeton, ID in 1935, Bernard enjoyed tinkering around the farm.  He made himself a gun that he used to hunt around the place.  This homemade gun is a bit infamous in the family - it had the name of Diploducus and many of the younger generation wonder if it is still back in the scrap pile behind Bernard's old place.
Bun and his homemade gun "Diploducus"
Because of some sickness and stubbornness, Grandma, Uncle Orland and Uncle Bernard all graduated from Potlatch High School in 1939.  I think they might have had a class of 20 and three of them were Gage's. When he heard that they were going to have the Tin Lizzy derby in Lewiston in 1939, he got is car ready to race only to find out that he couldn't drive it as he wasn't quite old enough yet.  So he talked his sister's fiance (my Grandpa Frank) to drive the car in the race, it is still one of my favorite pictures.
Grandpa Frank ready to drive Bernard's Tin Lizzy in the Derby in August of 1939
Bernard flying his Corsair over Emeraru
 It didn't take that long after high school for Bernard to become restless.  One day he took off and road the rails back to Nebraska and Iowa to work.  It took a while before his parents knew what had happened with him.  Just that quickly, he came back home and decided to sign up with the Marines in early 1940.  He lied about his age saying he was about a month older than he really was. 
Bernard began the great adventure of flying a plane and was an experienced pilot who had already flown missions over China when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Bernard flew over 400 missions in a Corsair flying reconnaissance for the most part, but after the war was over - Bernard was ready to come home.

Bernard and brother Don and his Indian!
Bernard's younger brother still remembers the day that Bernard came roaring up the road on an Indian motorcycle.  I know for a fact that that motorcycle thrilled his younger brothers who were enthralled with the cool machine.  Bernard was home to stay and I don't think he ever wandered too far off the mountain for the remainder of his long life.  He might make a few visits to some places...but home was always calling him back.  His wandering days were over.  Bernard settled down with his wife and young family and farmed.  My Dad has always said that Bun was probably one of the finest mechanical minds he ever knew.  Bun could take an engine and make a few adjustments and tweaks and pretty soon it was running better and with more power.  I know that on one occasion, some guy wrecked his car on Hatter Creek and Bun bought the car from him.  All he wanted was the engine - he took the powerful engine that was in that car and put it in his tractor.  (Dad tells me that it was called the Olds Rocket 88) Then he put smokestacks along either side and one evening took it on its maiden voyage.  Down the road, Dad could hear the engine roaring and looking up at the horizon, he could see flames coming out of the smokestacks.  Pretty soon they just fell off...too much heat I guess.  Bun was always tinkering with something.  He got an old VW Bug frame and used it to try engines out for airplanes.
Bun and his VW test vehicle!
 Even towards the end of his life he still had the itch to tinker with an engine.  My brother bought an old tractor from another uncle and went by Bernard's before he headed home.  Bernard looked at the tractor and half jokingly said that he would be willing to make a trade.  He was willing to trade his tractor that had been already tweaked for an old one that needed work.  He got a new riding lawnmower a year or two before he died.  Bernard was quite seriously considering buying some 4 wheeler wheels for his tractor to give him better traction...and probably more power.
Bun trying to negotiate with my brother for his tractor!

Bernard was part of the "Greatest Generation,"  like many men who had military exploits in the war, he didn't really talk about them all that much.  Perhaps to his brothers or sons - but not for general consumption.  I'm not sure that he really understood a lot of his nieces...his nephews made more sense to him.  When it came time for a hug though...he was front and center with that wonderful twinkle in his eye and quirky smile.  I learned a lot about Uncle Bun when I was older and appreciated what he had done in his lifetime.   I learned not too long before his death that he didn't allow anyone outside of the family to call him Bernard or Bun and that he was instead referred to as John.  I didn't even know his real first name was John until I was an adult.  He was always Bernard or Uncle Bun.  There was nothing that Uncle Bun liked better than to work in his shop on his latest project.  When he got to the point that he couldn't do that anymore, I think that a lot of the fun of life left him.  Bernard never liked to leave his home and after he died, his brother and son scattered some of his ashes over the home place so he would never have to leave!