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Jimmy Pearce

by John Culbertson |

Many jumpers and pilots will remember Jimmy B. Pearce from the old Alaska base on Airport Way, and later at the newer facilities at the "T" hanger at Fort Wainwright. Ever a fixture in sneakers and Levis, cowboy shirts cut off at the sleeve and a Marlborough hanging on his lip, Jimmy was the only jumper I ever saw who worked out skipping rope to the country ballads of Marty Robbins. On anybody else it wouldn't of worked. The rhythm was all wrong, especially when viewed from the distance of the rock-charged workouts of the 90s. But for Jimmy it was just right. A white man with rhythm, he would pause for a smoke while changing tapes and exude confidence and satisfaction.

Watching from the corner of the weight room, where I attempted to squelch my never-ending supply of urban nervousness with another set of pull-ups, &Mac218; Jimmy couldn't have been more different than me if he had tried. An orphan from Kansas, Jimmy had been on his own for a long time. A former paratrooper, ranch hand, and Forest Service fire fighter, he had lived on the Modoc Reservation in northeastern California for awhile, then drifted back to being a hired hand outside of Alturas, at the foot of the Warner Mountains near the reservation.

Jimmy's idea of a good deal was rolling down the road in his Mercury convertible to pester the waitresses at the Beacon Coffee Shop in Alturas after the jump season was over in Alaska. He had money in his pocket, top down, country music blasting, hair slicked back with Vitalis, and his street shoes on. I was freezing my butt off, as this event usually occurred during mid-December, but as Jimmy said, "When ya got a fine car like the Merc, ya gotta show it off."

I first met Jimmy in Seattle at the SeaTac Airport. The ultimate good deal of my nineteen-year-old life had just occurred in the form of a free ticket from Los Angeles to Alaska, courtesy of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). Having some hours to kill while waiting for the Wein Consolidated flight, I inquired if there were any other people listed on BLM flight status, and if so, to please page them. Drink in hand, Jimmy came drifting out of the lounge in the company of a pleasantly plump barmaid, asking the world in general, "Who could be wanting little ol me?" I fessed up to paging him, and then he looked me up and down, asking, "Are you a real cowboy?" I must have been quite a sight. Not knowing a thing about Alaska, other than watching "North to Alaska" three or four times, I had taken all my cues from John Wayne and the films Owens Valley High Sierra setting and so had fitted myself out in true dude ranch form. I admitted I didn't even know how to ride a horse. Then he asked, "Is that a gold pan strapped to your pack?" I told him, "Yes Sir." We quickly ascertained that we both were gold panning fanatics, and had spent our days off from the Forest Service prospecting. In fact, he had a pan in his pack too.

Jimmy turned to the lady on his arm and said he needed to speak to me a minute. Then in a most courteous and respectful manner told me to go into the men's room and take off those "silly-looking clothes." When I returned in running shoes and a ball cap he handed me a drink (something I was not used to) and said, "Now that's you." I knew I had met a friend for life.

I told Jim I was nervous about this jumping business, but he brushed it off, saying he'd done it in the Army and it wasn't "no big thing." He commented, "The way I see it is we do whatever they want us to do, then take our pans along on the jump. When the works all done there's gotta be some fooling around, waiting to get out...were going to find gold." Speaking of gold, Jimmy asked if I didn't think it was sorta funny that the BLM was paying for our flight to Alaska, and would give us free room and board. They had even sent letters, informing us we would be paid overtime for the flight. He said, "Ya know the Forest Service is just so dang cheap I have a hard time believing the BLM would be so loose with its money." We had no idea we were looking at the tip of the iceberg! Well, the years went by and Jimmy and I couldn't get enough of Alaska. We both loved to work, and we worked our tails off for the BLM. I found in Jimmy someone more mature and settled than myself, but still blissfully lost in the conviction that hard work is a reward in itself and that life is a never ending adventure. We beat down flames with our spruce boughs till we were cold and shivering, then rallied to do it again, as though the fire was a personal challenge and the reputation of the jumpers rested on our shoulders.

We filed on state land, then found ourselves too busy to prove up on it. We panned for gold, never got rich, hoboed rides on the Alaska Railroad once looking black as the soot of the coal car we landed in through stupidity and rode to Healy, caught huge strings of grayling, got chased by bears, fell in love with native women, were befriended by old sourdoughs, watched native crews dance and sing in a language we could not understand, got drunk on cheap wine, sat around a thousand camp fires, howled at the moon, and stared out at the long sub-arctic twilight. In the winters Jimmy taught me to ride a horse, and set me up for one of the most painful experiences of my life, a real cattle drive, with real cowboys.

Just like his love of country ballads, Jimmy loved to listen to poetry and we were both fascinated with Robert Service. He laughed to the "Cremation of Sam McGee" and got sentimental with "The Men That Don't Fit In."

I bought a little copy of The Spell of the Yukon and in the evenings read out loud while Jimmy would doodle with his pen and paper, eventually creating a whole set of logos and stationery for the jumpers.

Along with some crazy ex-Missoula types we bought a bright red 55 Pontiac convertible for forty-five dollars. It had an Indian chief on the hood that lit up at night, burned two quarts of oil per tank of gas and had so many rust holes in the floor that we left a trail of beer cans and Rocket brand reclaimed motor oil containers wherever we went.

One fall Jimmy signed us on with Bob Betts (RDD 66) on the only official search for a Sasquatch, or "Bush Man," in Alaska. We never found the "Bush Man," but we thought we were on the best adventure in the world. In late fall he decided to ride a full-dress Harley "Hog" motorcycle south on the snow-covered Alcan Highway, falling eleven times between Big Delta and Tanacross before being arrested for his own protection by a state trooper who eventually befriended him and drove him down to Haines. I remember the few jumpers that were left at the loft standing in the snow giggling hilariously as Jimmy took off, his down-filled arctic work suit billowing in the wind, making him look like the Michelin man before diving into a snowbank.

Jimmy was forever the one to turn the other cheek, look out after others and lend a helping hand. I wasn't there to help Jimmy when the troubles of his world came down on him. In the winter of 78/79 he took his own life on a ranch near Davis Creek at the foot of the Warner Mountains in northeastern California. As always happens when a jumper takes his own life, there was a great deal of soul-searching and just plain sadness when Jimmy died.

It was several years before I could bring myself to go back to the Alturas country and spend some time in Jimmy's stomping grounds. Many of his old ranch friends had passed on or moved away. The door to the bunkhouse he had turned into a home swung in the wind and the ranch was closed and unworked. Red, the horse Jimmy taught me to ride, was no longer in the stable. I put a bouquet of sagebrush on his grave and lay down on it for many hours listening to the wind and watching the clouds pass by.

I cried so hard I threw up, and in the evening walked the long ridge behind the bunkhouse into the next creek to the north. I met two small boys, brothers age seven and ten, pushing old bikes up the hill for one last death-defying run before supper. They were in old torn clothes, cheap shoes, and covered with dirt. The kind of hardscrabble kid Jimmy probably had been, except these kids had a little trailer house and a mom and dad on some rented land down in the canyon.

The older boy said they had seen me walking for some time as they had been in the hills all afternoon. He said, "You're looking for Jimmy aren't you! You're one of the smokejumpers...he was our friend too." The little guy looked all around the hills, like a kid will do when he's working up to talk. He looked at the sagebrush, juniper and pinion in the cold purple twilight and then said, "We still see him sometimes, he walks up here. He's OK."

Editor's Note: The Jimmy Pearce story is a fascinating true story about a jumper who John thought of as a big brother. John mentioned that the ending of the story really happened and thought it would be good to share it with Jimmy's friends. John currently lives at Carpinteria, California10 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. He has worked for the Santa Barbara fire department for 19 years, involved in "fire landscaping" for city homes and the demonstration of fire effects in urban areas, among other tasks. He still travels to Alaska.