It has been noted that nobody gets to pick their neighbors.
When we moved to Montana twenty-seven years ago, we barely knew anybody in this old rail-and-ranch town. In fact, we even bought the house sight-unseen. We met our neighbors on both sides and from across the street. It was a great, inviting block with friendly people from all walks of life who kept their homes tidy on a not-so-busy street. From the get-go we felt safe and welcomed. There was a sense that our neighbors looked out for each other.
Geri and I were keeping an eye on things for our neighbors to the south when they went on vacation. I happened to be in the backyard when I noticed a man on the roof, opening a second-story window. I chuckled at the thought of this little town having a “second-story” man—that urban burglar who enters through upstairs bedroom windows. But we were concerned enough for Geri to call the police.
The cops arrived and I watched them as they interviewed the house’s new owner.
We hadn’t heard that the home was even listed, let alone sold.
There was a good amount of chuckling as the story unfolded. And then the man who would soon be our neighbor thanked us for calling the police on him. He said it made him feel good about the neighborhood—a neighborhood in which few ever bothered to lock our doors.
Jack Heckles and his wife, Wendy, have been our neighbors for what must be about twenty-five years. We could not have asked for better ones. They watched our children grow up. We count our blessings for our neighbors to the north, Tondi and Gunnar, whose children we’re watching grow up—the youngest of which is a friend of our granddaughter; the oldest who just last week chose to register to vote on her eighteenth birthday. Amy and Jon are a warm and caring couple across the street who have a weird fence and who keep an old pickup truck for anyone to use. They rallied when our grandson died. Our block has changed some, but not the quality of its citizenry. Everybody seems to have each other’s back.
It’s difficult to approach the next paragraph.
Jack died on Thursday after falling from a cliff, just northeast of town off Convict Grade Road. He was pursuing his passion for the outdoors, taking pictures of eagles as he’d done for more than twenty years. And no doubt he was just marveling at the natural beauty of where some of us are fortunate enough to call home.
A Marine veteran and holder of a degree in literature, Jack worked in construction. He was a skilled finish carpenter whose work expressed both his fine craftsmanship and his keen eye for precision and detail. He was soft-spoken and well-read, a progressive liberal with an unflappable ethic and an appetite for history. He played the fiddle. The last time we spoke, on the day before he died, he was on that same roof where I had discovered him all those many years ago. He was high atop a ladder, caulking the eaves, preparing to paint the house this summer. We joked about our advancing years (“No sense buying large jars of mayonnaise!”) and how we wanted to survive long enough to see Trump thrown out of office.
He asked about the new electric lawnmower we had just received. I told him it was light and that I thought it would make mowing the lawn a lot easier for me. I got about a third of the backyard mowed before a spring storm rolled through that day.
Jack and I worked a house demolition job in Clyde Park together. It was his gig and we used my pickup truck to haul the demo-ed materials off site. I’m sure that having that truck gave me about a month’s worth of employment. Jack was methodical in his work and he had only one speed; he never rushed and he never slowed. He had the alarm on his wristwatch set for 10, 12 and 3. When the ten o’clock alarm sounded, he’d drop his hammer in mid-swing because it was time for some tea or coffee and a pastry. The three o’clock break was for a piece of fruit.
And the noon alarm was a simple reminder for him to eat his lunch.
There’s an old adage that says good fences make good neighbors. We were in the midst of enclosing our backyard with a six-foot wooden fence that we hoped would contain our escape-artist dog. (It didn’t.) Jack told me that I should have creosoted the posts. “They’ll last forty years,” he enthused. Since they were already in the ground, I told him that I wasn’t about to dig them up. “In forty years,” I said, “at best, I’ll be in a rocking chair, drooling on myself.”
Then he helped me build a gate so we could access each other’s backyards. It was a gate that was never locked, and I wish we had used more frequently.
Later, when I was turning our carriage house (too narrow to be called a garage) into my office, Jack, knowing of my fear of heights and just being his neighborly self, joined a couple of other friends and installed the skylights and roofed the structure while I schlepped the shingles up a few rungs of the ladder. Beer, something Jack was very picky about, was the only reward. I splurged and bought the best.
After I built our deck (Jack had come over several times to inspect my work), I asked him if he would help me hang a glass door leading from the kitchen to our new deck. I had framed the opening and as Jack was truing the doorjamb, he said that this little job was making him happy. He liked the way you could now see through the length of the house from the front door, and he liked that its twelve panes brought some of the outside in.
We went hunting together a couple of times, the most memorable being when we spent half-a-day futilely chasing a herd of antelope over hill and dale on a vast expanse of high prairie. It was freezing cold and the wind burnt our faces. Jack was an avid fly-fisherman, a habit he had nurtured in his home state of Pennsylvania and took to a higher level on the rivers and streams of Montana. We once went on a fishing/camping trip with my son, Daniel, that took us to the Missouri River and continued at the Musselshell in Two Dot, a town we found deserving of visits from all of us. Well, at least the Two Dot Bar. We fished the Shields on the way back to town.
And then we got sick, pretty much at the same time.
I was in hospital for a treatment of a lung that had spontaneously collapsed. A morning or two later, Geri told me that Jack had suffered a brain aneurysm and was life-flighted to Billings where he underwent emergency surgery. Not too many years later, we were both patients in Billings—he for a quadruple heart by-pass; me for follow-up procedures following a lobectomy. We were there at the same time on different floors.
He was a man of great resolve and he recovered with remarkable swiftness. He, along with my friend and neighbor, Gunnar, resumed shoveling the snow that would cover our sidewalks. Jack would mow the lawn when I was too weak during my own recovery to push the old gas-powered mower for more than four or five minutes.
We joked about our mortality across the fence I had built. We talked politics in the front yard or on his front porch while sipping cocktails. We agreed vigorously. He would frequently deliver a still-warm loaf of sourdough bread wrapped neatly in a tea towel that Wendy had baked.
Geri and I want so badly to offer our warmest, most sincere condolences to Wendy, but there’s no hugging from six feet away in these days of the pandemic. And I’m guessing there will be no services any time soon to offer a chance for their many friends to gather, tell some stories, lift a glass or two, eat from the covered-dish casseroles we bring to such occasions in our small town. And that means we’ll have to wait for closure.
The idea of a virtual service would be appalling to Jack. There was nothing virtual about him; he was the real deal. As Daniel said when I called him Friday, “Jack was awesome.”
On Thursday afternoon, I drove out to the hospital to pick Geri up from work. When we pulled up to the house, she looked at the front yard and asked, “Who mowed the lawn?”
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Italian Cottage Pie
For my money, this is comfort food of the highest order. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make and it tastes just how comfort food should.
2# floury potatoes, like Russets
1# Italian pork sausage, crumbled
1 small onion, finely diced
2 Tbs. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 oz. butter
½ pint lukewarm milk
Freshly grated nutmeg
2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks, well beaten
Cook unpeeled potatoes in salted boiling water until soft.
Meanwhile, fry crumbled sausage and onion. Drain.
When potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and mash or rice them with the parsley and butter.
Add milk, a grating of nutmeg, the cheese, egg yolks and sausage mixture. Mix well.
Pour into buttered baking dish and bake, covered, for 20-30 minutes at 350°.
Remove cover sprinkle liberally with more Parmesan. Return to oven for a few minutes until the cheese has melted on top.