Thomas Jefferson (Not That Thomas Jefferson)

In a blog that I follow there was recently a cartoon of a fish asking another fish “how’s the water”. The point was that a fish’s only perspective is water so how could it relate the experience? This brought to mind a quandary I had relative to my grandfathers. (In my previous post I wrote about my father’s step father, Charlie). The predicament I had was that other kids had a set of grandparents with whom they shared the same last name. That was strange to me. There was something going on that I did not understand, suspicious, strange, something just not right. Didn’t everyone have a Grandma Barr and a Grandma Galbreath. Because I remember being perplexed, it must have been something that I ruminated over at some length. This may have been compounded by the fact that I did not know my mother’s father, Thomas Jefferson Galbreath, who would not love to have that name? Thomas was killed in a train accident shortly after I was born.

In the previous post I wrote about a letter I found from Charlie. In the collection of memorabilia that contained the letter from Charlie, was a newspaper clipping showing the train collision that killed Thomas. The pickup truck in which Thomas was riding turned in front of a railroad locomotive on a rural road in Skagit County, Washington. Thomas was killed instantly.

I have a distant cousin, Lori, an historian who has assembled our family’s tree. Lori keeps all manor of information on I should upload the clipping, says I; not so fast bucko. I was hesitant to upload an image of the clipping as it is pretty gruesome. (There is a huge arrow pointing to Thomas pinned in the cab of the pickup). Lori thought that the clipping was “powerful”; I uploaded the picture. This exercise got me thinking about the differences in legacy between Thomas and Charlie.

Of course I have no memory of Thomas, I was not yet two when he was killed. However, there are some interesting stories that I have heard. When guests would leave, Thomas might say “come again when you can’t stay so damned long.” I can only dream of getting away with that. My favorite is his relationship with indoor plumbing. The original farm house that Thomas shared with my grandmother, Emma, and their seven kids burned to the ground. The replacement had indoor plumbing, a new high tech feature at that time, especially in rural Washington State. This new fangled convenience was likely installed at the behest of Emma. Emma was a school teacher: educated, forward thinking and tremendously strong willed. Thomas’s observation was that “it is a dirty bird that craps in it’s own nest.” Thomas’ life story is for others to tell. Teaser, he was kidnapped as a child from the family farm in Indiana in the late 1800’s, he was brought to Washington to work on a farm. I consider myself honored to share the memory of Thomas.

Other than the clipping, I do not have much else from Thomas: some 8mm film of infant Bill and beaming grandpa Thomas, some photos. And, his watch chain. Mom gave me the chain many years ago. No watch, just the chain. Originally it had, I understand, an Elk’s tooth attached. The Elk’s tooth was also missing. Years later my father gave me a pocket watch, I added the watch to the chain. That left the little bit of dangly chain where the Elk’s tooth had been. I added a gold nugget. In the 1980’s I attended a church in Pittsburgh, PA. I was an usher. The ushers at this church wore cutaway morning coats, stripped trousers and a black vests. I considered myself quite “dapper” in that outfit especially when I added the watch and chain. Although, I was completely outclassed by fellow usher, Rob. Rob could have been mistaken for “The Great Gatsby”.


Like many others, I am filling my time at home during the CORONA 19 sequestering and doing projects around the house. One project is selling “stuff” on eBay. “Stuff” is a euphemism for unwanted or never used items that Tina and I want to be rid of. EBay is great; stuff gets to someone who wants it and, it is kept out of the landfill. Often “stuff” is shipped back to China where it originally came from. “Stuff” also includes items inherited from our parents. Although it seems we have lots of “stuff”, I take comfort in the fact that we actually have space for our cars in the garage. One of our goals is to not leave a burden of “stuff” for our children.

In my meandering in the attic in search of eBay inventory, I came across a bundle of miscellaneous documents. These had been the contents of “the brown box”. “The brown box” was where my parents stashed items that were “important”; things like diplomas, certificates, marriage and death announcements occupied the “brown box”. After my mother passed I became custodian of “the brown box”. I had completely forgotten about it until now. It was interesting to go through the stack. In the bundle of paraphernalia included WW2 ration stamp booklets and union dues receipts from 1942. Unfortunately nothing was worthy of being placed on eBay. But, I also found one letter. A letter from Charlie to my father.

Charlie was my father’s step father. On the rare occasions I mention him in conversation, I describe Charlie as being a hard individual. And, I understand that he was very hard on Dad in Dad’s childhood. Dad left home to live on his own at fourteen. A sawyer by trade, Charlie had been in the Klondike during the gold rush. In the Klondike, Charlie was a teamster, not a prospector so no lost goldmines. Perhaps looking at the back end of horses all day can put a dent in your personality. Charlie operated sawmills in Washington State when I knew him. These sawmills were small operations consisting of a couple guys operating a sawmill in the open air. The thing that impressed me at the time was that the giant saw blade was missing many of it’s teeth, I was in preschool then. Looking back, there were no safety precautions at all. Men working around a giant toothless spinning blade out in the rain. Dad was always good to Charlie. When my mother would express her bewilderment at Dad’s kindness to Charlie, Dad would say “well, he was always kind to Mom”. One of my recollections of Charlie was that he played checkers with me once. It was not a pleasant experience; I haven’t played checkers since.

Back to the letter. As I read the letter I realized that this, other than his tombstone, was likely the last remaining artifact from Charlie’s long life. As I recall Charlie passed in his late 80’s. Charlie had no children of his own. The letter is essentially a rant about the purchase of property that somehow went awry. Unkind things are written. Charlie writes that he believes Dad should send him money because Dad somehow was involved. My admonition and the point of this entire post is to be be circumspect about what you write. It may turn out to be your only legacy.

In closing I would like to say something further about Dad. I do not believe Charlie was close to properly characterizing Dad as an ingrate (not my word but the impression left in the letter). At the end of Charlie’s life Dad took Charlie in after Charlie was thrown out by Dad’s sister. (There is another story here for some other time). Charlie was living in a lean-to on ten acres that Dad owned in Whatcom County, Washington. Dad brought Charlie to our home in Seattle (I was at University at that time), had a small house built on the ten acres, and let Charlie live out his years there at no cost to Charlie. I do not think Dad was the ungrateful SOB Charlie described in the letter.

The Future Looks Bright

There appears to be a great deal of pessimism in the media. This view is reinforced by the peculiarities of the CORONA 19 epidemic. I do not want to minimize the current situation. People are ill, some are passing, in some places the healthcare industry is being challenged, the economy is sputtering. Everyone is acutely aware of all this. Literally, everyone on earth is aware of the epidemic. The media seems to paint a pretty dark picture of the situation and the prospects for the future. One reason I have been avoiding news broadcasts. Factoid – Bad News Sells. Wednesday, Tina and I participated in a weekly market review that our financial gut, Greg, has been putting on during the sequester. One statistic Greg presented is that neutral news has a neutral response from listeners, positive news a negative response and negative news a positive response. So, to sell ad time make it as negative as possible.

Last evening our son, Jim, had a gathering of his buddies from Suffield Academy. All had gone off to college and most were graduating. They came from all over; Bentley, Penn State, Hartford, Skidmore, and Puget Sound. They cooked and ate, had a bonfire and camped in tents. Yes, they did practice social distancing – well, for the most part. what a remarkable and capable group of men. Would I say that they have it all figured out, no. But these guys will definitely figure it out.