A knucklehead’s salute

Commentary by Chris Carlson

There was a period during my earlier years when one would have thought my name was “knucklehead.” Everything I did, I did either incorrectly or in an inefficient manner. This would prompt my uncle Rolla (pronounced Rol-li) Brigg to look up to heaven with a wry smile and say, “You knucklehead.”

Then he explained how it should be done correctly. He had a knack for teaching, for imparting the lesson without making one feel stupid. Because of that wry smile, you knew he was saying to listen up and to smarten up. He never berated in a manner that humiliated.

The summers I was 12, 13 and 14 years of age, I worked for Uncle Rolla and his wife, Ardis, in Salmon at the family-owned National Laundry. The home plant in Pocatello was owned and operated by my grandfather, Fergus Briggs, Sr. (Troy Parisian bought them out a few years back).

There were four Briggs boys (Fergus P. Briggs, Jr.; Robert L. Briggs, Rolla and then Jack Briggs) plus my mother, Margaret, and a much younger sister, Mona. All spent many hours working in the laundry, folding towels, shaking sheets or driving delivery routes. The Great Depression as well as slim profit margins forced some consolidations, but business was good enough that three of the four boys were able to join the family enterprise.

“Junior” took over in Pocatello and Rolla started running the Salmon facility. Neither Rolla nor Jack went to college, but both were blessed with a ton of common sense, country smarts and embodied an ideal work ethic. Additionally, they read assiduously.

They also married sisters; Rolla married Ardis Lowers of Pocatello on December 31, 1946. Jack married Lois Lowers shortly thereafter. When Rolla passed away recently at the age of 87, he and Ardis had been together 68 years. Neither thought that as exceptional — they had taken vows, kept those vows and grew closer together as they gracefully aged. Rarely did one hear them referred to separately — it was almost always Rolla and Ardis.

Among their shared passions, besides their four children (Larry, Debra, Pamela and Freida) and their grandchildren, was a love for Idaho’s outdoors, especially the Salmon River backcountry. There was also their shared love for flying; both were pilots.

For 20 years, they were stalwarts in the Salmon community — both were JayCees, and Rolla belonged to the Elks, Rotary, Masons and the Knights of Columbus. He was voted the Distinguished Citizen of the Year and was a volunteer fireman.

I will always remember the summer night the fire siren began to wail. Being close to the fire station, half-dressed Uncle Rolla went rushing over only to discover it was the station itself that was on fire. Despite the fire already being well-along, he and several others were able to rescue the all-important fire pump truck before the building collapsed to the sound of one long-lasting final siren wail.

This knucklehead learned what hard work was, working mornings as the town dry cleaner and in the afternoon feeding sheets into a large barrel press in heat that reached 130 degrees in August — all for the princely sum of 75 cents per hour.

I rapidly concluded that hard labor was not the way to make a living, nor that were we done after work. Rolla would send us off to Williams Lake to assist in the construction of some A-frame summer cabins he and several friends were building. I learned just enough about carpentry to be dangerous.

Uncle Rolla also taught me how to drive before I was 14 — a young boy’s dream — but somehow it was building materials I was carrying around, not pretty young girls.

In the mid-1960s, he and Ardis bought into the Selway Lodge deep in the heart of the Selway/Bitteroot Wilderness. Several Septembers before returning to New York City and my undergraduate school Columbia, Uncle Rolla or Syd Hinkle would fly me into the lodge for a few days. Rolla knew my “mountain batteries” needed recharging.

Rolla was the first to recite to me a wise saying: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are no old, bold pilots.” This may explain why he was able to walk away unscathed from the one mountain crash he ever had.

His eternal co-pilot called him home to the backcountry airstrip in the sky on April 23 in Boise.

In many respects, he was your typical, common sense, hard-working Idahoan. He thoroughly enjoyed Idaho’s bounteous beauties and was always grateful for his blessings. He had that wonderful, wry smile and sometimes a witty comment to go with it when calling me knucklehead.

I knew though he saw some potential and was proud of my accomplishments in later years. I hope he knew how proud of him I was. No matter how you say it, he was also a rarity in this old world — a real man’s man. As Will Rogers once said of Mother Earth, “They just ain’t makin’ ’em anymore. Rest in peace, my uncle. Your old knuckleheaded nephew, Chris.

A native of Kellogg, journalist Chris Carlson pens his column from his retirement home near Medimont in northern Idaho. He is a former teacher and was press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus.