ENTERPRISE - Rural Joseph resident E.H. "Van" Van Blaricom says he is both embarrassed and flattered to be asked to be featured in The Observer's Wallowa Life section.
"I consider myself quite ordinary in a field of doers and thinkers in Wallowa County, and have never been one who lights up a room when I come through a door," he says.
Those who know him would disagree with this colorful, well-known, outspoken and therefore controversial local personality.
Some folks are sure to say that Van's comments are well thought out and express a quite practical point of view.
Others may say that Van is well-informed but too conservative.
Van, 86, admits he's a conservative.
"Sometimes I think I'm a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh," he says with his trademark chuckle and twinkle of the eye.
To stay involved in the community, this retired rancher has authored the column "The Nature of Things" regularly in the
Wallowa County Chieftain weekly newspaper.
"I try to be the voice of the Depression babies of World War II. I get far more atta-boys than hate mail ... but am frequently at odds with the editors," he says.
To those who complain about the views he expresses in his columns, he says, "It's not compulsory to read that. There are some people whom I don't read what they write."
Van types his column with two fingers on a typewriter.
"I type fairly slow, but I can type as fast as I can think, so it balances out," he jokes.
"More recently I have been doing commentaries once a week on KWVR Radio (called 'Think About It') where I have almost no restrictions on what I want to say.
"And for those who don't want to hear me, there is an off button," he says.
Van seems to have come by his conservative outlook honestly.
"I guess that I overdosed on patriotism at a young age, and that carried over into adulthood,'' he says. "In my school room there was a picture of George Washington on one wall, Abe Lincoln on another, the American flag on the third and a clock on the other. They were the only things on the four walls.
"We would have some little anecdotal play. Maybe some of it would fall under the heading of myth, but each story always had a moral equivalent that made me proud to be an American."
Motivated by that patriotism, Van enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps immediately after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"I survived boot camp training in San Diego back when it was what today's liberals would call 'torture,' " he says. "The Marine Corps takes a cocky young 20-year-old, shaves his head and strips him of any self-importance and rebuilds him."
Van fought in three major battles in the Pacific: Midway Island, Tulagi and Guadalcanal.
He says he could go on and on about the combat experience, but would rather not.
He simply says that his combat experience was relatively short but extremely violent.
"I came away with the kind of pride and satisfaction that nearly all veterans have, knowing that my courage under fire was tested and I never wavered in standing up to doing whatever we were asked to do," he says.
Van is impressed with the courage of other veterans, and that of the other Marines whom he saw in combat.
"Some men go through their life and their courage is never tested," he says. "We were yesterday's high school kids who wanted to live, fighting fanatical Japanese soldiers who thought that it was the highest honor to die for the emperor.
"Unlike today, we knew the American people supported us and we were motivated by old-fashioned patriotism and the honor of upholding the traditions of being U.S. Marines."
With some encouraging, he did share a little about one battle.
"On Guadalcanal it felt like the U.S. Navy had abandoned us. We had no naval or air support. Four cruisers had been lost in a night battle and the Navy decided not to risk any more ships," Van recalls. "But, the Navy had planned an evacuation of the officers. The Marine officers rejected the idea, the general saying that there had been one Bataan Death March and there would not be another.
" 'We're going to stay here, and we're gong to fight,' the general said.''
On Guadalcanal, Van was severely wounded by a grenade in December 1942.
He did some hospital time in Wellington, New Zealand, then finished rehabilitation at San Diego Naval Hospital.
Even though he endured five years of malaria fever attacks and a decade of war nightmares, Van says, "I feel fortunate that I was able to come home and marry the gal I left behind.
"Even today, it gnaws on my gut to think of the thousands of America's best youths who never got to do that.
"What's really sad is when I think about the thousands of sailors who went down with their ships," he says, pointing out that there can be no trace of them with any white crosses or memorials to their sacrifices.
Upon returning home, Van and Betty had what he describes as a "quicky, no-frills marriage that has lasted 63 years.
"We were like eagles. We took our wedding vows seriously and mated for life," Van says.
"In our 'Aerie' we hatched four beautiful daughters, all of whom went to college during the Woodstock generation. We are proud that none of them joined the counter culture of the 1960s or '70s."
Van says he is proud that all four daughters have stable marriages and are prosperous, productive citizens and have raised their children with the same values.
"Part of their success is from the work ethic of being raised on a family-operated farm where they excelled in 4-H, and part was from having their mother as a role model," he says.
The family first farmed on the "wet" side of the mountains in Clackamas County. They then took advantage of the Columbia Basin project where Grand Coulee Dam irrigated some 1.5 million acres.
It was somewhat like the old Homestead Act. It gave preference to allocating to World War II veterans cheap land that they had to prove up on, Van says.
They operated what he calls a "fairly modern" dairy farm for 15 years north of Pasco in some of the most productive alfalfa-growing areas in the nation.
They owned two irrigated farms and leased another.
"After our last daughter left for college, we asked ourselves, 'Why are we working so hard?' Since I was more of a mountain man that a flatland farmer, we moved to Wallowa County to raise the kind of cattle that don't have to be milked twice a day,'' he says. "Next to marrying my wife, that was the best decision I've ever made."
They bought a small cattle ranch (by Wallowa County standards, he said) on Upper Prairie Creek and raised "only" about 150 head a year.
They ranched there for 30 years, making money each year but one when they lost $10,000 "when cattle prices went in the tank," he says.
Van is 38-year member of the Enterprise Elks Club and has a life membership in the Eagle Cap Shooters Association.
He is a past president of the Wallowa County Farm Bureau, the Wallowa County Stockgrowers and the Wallowa County Rotary Club in which he held membership 36, 35 and 24 years respectively.
Van has been the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce Ag Leader of the Year. He won the Riley Freeman Award from the Oregon Cattlemen and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, was inducted into the Oregon State Farm Bureau Hall of Fame, was the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Grassman of the Year, and received an honorary life membership into the county stockgrowers.
He is a past president of the Prairie Creek Fence Association and has been chairman of the Wallowa County Republican Central Committee and the Oregon State Cattlemen's Wildlife Committee.
Van has been named the Rotarian of the Year and won the International Rotary Preserve Planet Earth Award for establishing and maintaining the Prairie Creek Riparian Project along Highway 82 on the eastern city limits of Enterprise.
"Having no sons to carry on with our ranch, we sold it about nine years ago and went into full retirement," he says.
An avid outdoorsman, Van kept fishing, hunting and mountain climbing clear through his 70s.
Up McCully Basin he found an 87-foot-7 circumference whitebark pine tree that scored the largest in the state.
On his 80th birthday he climbed the Matterhorn, once thought to be the highest peak in the Wallowas.
Now at 86, Van says his legs are too wobbly and stamina too diminished for the stresses of hiking.
E.H. Van Blaricom may not be hiking anymore now that he's 86, but I can remember not too long ago trying to keep up with him up the steep Falls Creek Trail to Twin Peaks.
It seemed that the trees on each side were sucked in toward the trail as my lungs strained to suck in every ounce of oxygen possible. Despite my being a quarter of a century Van's junior, I found there was still no way that I could carry on a conversation at that pace.
Yet Van had the stamina to share his observations all the way to the top.
- Gary Fletcher