LIVING LIFE HEAD-ON
By Gary Fletcher
Observer Staff Writer
JOSEPH "Everybody I've always known, has called me Van," E.H. Van Blaricom said.
And virtually everyone around these parts knows the indomitable Van.
With his farmer's tan, sagebrush wit and outspoken enthusiasm to live life head-on, some might be surprised that he hasn't been a life-long feature of the local rugged landscape.
His most memorable New Year's Day was coming home 60 years ago.
There it was the Golden Gate Bridge, plus San Francisco's Nob Hill, Fisherman's Wharf, cable cars.
"We knew the reason we were fighting there was America," Van said.
He had multiple shrapnel wounds and had lost most of his right hand in combat a year before. He'd been in hospitals and had spent the previous three weeks on a ship bringing wounded veterans from New Zealand.
A defining moment in his life, and "being tested" is how he describes his war experience.
"These are the things that shape you," he said also about the poverty he knew growing up during the Depression in the 1930s.
Few things are as demanding as a dairy farm. That was where Van invested himself the 15 years before he moved to Joseph.
In 1969, he thought it was time to reduce the workload, so he moved from the rat race north of Pasco, Wash. There the long growing season produced four to five cuttings of hay.
When their last of four daughters went off to college, Van asked his wife Betty, "Why don't we move to Wallowa County?"
From previous hunting and fishing forays, "I kind of fell in love with the place, like a lot of others," he said.
"They only have a 90-day growing season there," a Pasco pal told him.
"Hey, now you're gettin' the idea," Van replied.
Van Blaricom next ran 150 head of cattle on an Upper Prairie Creek ranch at the foot of Mount Howard. He got one cutting of hay "and the elk got the second," he said.
Eventually he teamed up with the late Max Gorsline to organize the neighbors. They convinced the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission to finance an elk fence from Kinney Lake to Wallowa Lake.
Of Van's community projects, visitors are more likely to notice the sign denoting the Prairie Creek riparian project that he headed up for the Rotary club on the east side of Enterprise.
Always in agriculture
Van grew up in what once was a rural part of the present Portland metropolitan area near Gresham.
As a boy he wandered the hills and streams with his dog, fishing pole and .22. There he began to develop a woodsman's skills as he grew into an outdoorsman.
He wanted to attend Oregon State College. When the time came, he had no money so he went to Alaska to earn his tuition.
But then came war. Van enlisted in the Marine Corps the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
His unit was sent as reinforcements to Midway Island. The ensuing battle in June 1942 was a turning point, when the Americans, against overwhelming odds, claimed their first victory over the Japanese in the war in the Pacific.
In December 1942, Van was wounded on Guadalcanal. Several hospitals later he made it home "to marry the girl I left behind." Van and Betty were wed July 14, 1943.
"It'll never last," Betty remembers someone saying.
Unbeknownst to them, the next day another Van, his older brother, a B-24 Liberator pilot, did not return from his bombing mission while based in the Aleutian Islands.
The young Van and Betty began farming in Clackamas County. With family and farm to care for, Van would not achieve his dream of attending OSC full time.
However, near the close of World War II, Congress passed the G.I. Bill. It enabled him to complete a four-year college course in agronomy and animal husbandry. He attended night school, ag experiment station field trips and a couple of lectures per month at the Corvallis campus. "I've been in agriculture ever since," he said.
20th century homesteader
Next, Van used the G.I. Bill to help him build some sagebrush land into an all-Jersey dairy farm in Eastern Washington.
Similar to the old Homestead Act, the government allocated Columbia Basin Project land to WWII veterans. As a winner of a drawing for land, Van became a modern-day homesteader.
He also bought some acreage, and rented some more, where he and Betty raised four daughters who eventually gave them 8 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.
Pens weekly column
During Van's years of cattle ranching, riding to check fence line or driving a tractor while baling hay, he could put the mechanical process on auto-pilot. With his mind free to roam, he could construct a story or plan an essay in his head. He has also written his memoirs for his family.
Nearly a decade ago the Wallowa County Chieftain asked him to contribute a weekly column. A survey once determined him to be the most read columnist.
Van thinks that 85 percent of the community agree with his views. "I can tell by the way the county votes," he said.
Van finds writing to be "therapeutic, an outlet for things that frustrate me."
"Very frustrating" is how he describes his hearing loss. With hearing aids, the noises of meetings come to him all jumbled together. It forced him to give up writing the Rotary newsletter.
But Sgt. Van is still full of quotes, quips and jokes at Rotary gatherings.
He does fine one on one, and talking on his amplified telephone, but he can't distinguish the language that gets co-mingled with background noise. And, he can't pick out TV dialogue, unless it's unbearably loud for Betty. So, Van is a prolific reader.
More than a half century before, Van had to relearn to write with his left hand.
Some five years ago, nerve damage from the shrapnel wounds to that arm forced him to go back to using what's left of his right hand to write in long-hand his weekly column "The Nature of Things." Then he manages to peck it out on his electric typewriter.
A wall area of his home office is covered with plaques for his civic achievements.
On one, the U.S. Forest Service certifies that in his ramblings up McCully Basin, Van discovered the state record white bark pine on the flank of Aneroid Mountain.
Other walls have hunting and trapping trophies, like his Dall ram.
Downsizing: Smaller = slower?
Three years ago Van and Betty retired to 5 acres of juniper, pine, fir, deer and quail near Hurricane Creek.
"I kind of like living off the land," he said.
He lays in six cords of firewood that he burns instead of electricity.
"I'm a conservationist," he said, though in his column he blasts radical environmentalists.
He and Betty are among the first in the spring out mushrooming. As soon as the huckleberry patches are ripe, they are there. He hunts chukars, and regularly fills his deer tag.
"He's a good shot, Betty said, adding that every Marine is a good rifleman.
Next, "I'm going to take up turkey hunting,'' Van said. "They are really becoming abundant out north."
Van keeps insisting that he's slowing down. However, "You have to challenge yourself once in a while."
On his 80th birthday he made the long haul up the Matterhorn reputed to be the highest peak in the Wallowas.
In August, on his 81st birthday, he climbed to Twin Peaks. "I'll never do that again. There used to be a path there. Now that ridge is a six-inch knife blade. It's unstable, deteriorated something awful," he said about the crumbling formation.
"I guess it's good to have your doctor along with you," he said about another time he was on that trail near Joe LeGore's old mine. "My balance isn't what it once was." He did a half-gainer onto some rocks that took some "meatloaf" out of his arm.
His companion, Dr. Lowell Euhus, had him soak the arm in Falls Creek's frigid waters. Then he proceeded to use a piece of Van's torn-up shirt to wipe the granite grit out of the wound.
But when it was all said and done, Van once again returned home where his beloved Betty treated it.