Harmon’s Histories: Meet Dick Venable, an irascible old codger with a flair for prose
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
It’s fascinating how one thing can lead to another, then another. That’s just what happened after last week’s story about Sex Peak Lookout.
A second U.S. Forest Service lookout popped up in my research – the Black Pine Lookout (a portion of which can be visited at the Smokejumper Center in Missoula). And that led me straight to an irascible old codger by the name of Dick Venable.
When Dick was a member of the Missoula Senior Forum, I had to hound him constantly to write his autobiography for the group. It was like pulling teeth.
Most folks just wrote a prose-version of their professional resume. Not Mr. Venable.
After a year or more of cajoling, he produced what can only be described as a work similar in size to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” - and that was just Part One.
What a writer he was!
Dick titled his story, “The cross-eyed kid from Cottonwood Creek; The beginning of an Autobiography.”
Cottonwood Creek was “about half way between Miles City and Locate, which is on the South bank of the Powder River (a mile wide, an inch deep & runs uphill).”
Venable described his dad as “a horseman who had been making a living buying, selling and breaking horses for the Army & riding in the saddle bronc event on the rodeo circuit.”
The ranch, or “headquarters,” could only be reached by crossing a creek, and only when it was mostly dry. Even then, you needed a plan.
“You would back up, floorboard her and then, with the engine roaring, wheels spinning, throwing pieces of sagebrush, rattlesnakes, cactus and dried horse manure, you would make a run at & up the opposite bank. Once over the top, it was a mile or so to the house & outbuildings.”
Venable’s schooling didn’t start out well: “I ﬂunked the ﬁrst grade! No excuses, no alibis. I just ﬂat ﬂunked out. I wouldn’t read; I would color all day, but no reading. The next year was better: I colored some & read a lot. Every day I learned more about how to deal with things & people that were strange & new.”
“I learned early-on that it is really easy to get into trouble; getting out of trouble is really hard. When I figured that out & spent more time trying to remember to stay out of trouble, my life got a little easier.”
“I also found out early on that I was the only cross-eyed kid in elementary school,” and that led to name-calling and fights.
“I lost a lot of ﬁghts. Many pairs of glasses got broken. So Dad paid a club boxer he knew to give me boxing lessons. The word got around the neighborhood real quick & I noticed the other kids started giving me more space.”
Dick’s “high school years and the War Years were one and the same.” He was a Freshman in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. When he turned 18, in his Junior year, he tried to enlist, but was flatly rejected because of his his poor eyesight and lack of depth perception.
“There were homes with blue star flags in the windows to show that a family member was in the service. A gold star sadly told passers-by that there was a mother or a wife living there, whose son or husband was never coming home.”
In his household, the emphasis was on “getting our home work done, planning & going to the junior & senior proms, dances at the Elks Club after games, home parties, driving around, and parking. We were doing the best we could to make the passage from puberty to man (& woman) hood as much fun & memorable as we could.”
In 1945, Venable and his classmates “went out into the cold, cruel world, each in search of adventure & ‘the good, the true & the beautiful.’”
To get a well-paying job, many youth had to leave Montana. “I chose to go to work for the Geotechnical Corp. out of Dallas, Texas, which had a seismograph crew working in eastern Montana, northwestern Wyoming & western North & South Dakota. I spent that Summer & Fall exploring most of what is now known as The Bakken Field.”
From there, it was on to a brief attempt at higher education (Montana State College), bar-tending at the Texaco Club in Miles City, getting to know the “ladies” of Miles City’s west end, and then on to LaCrosse, Wisconsin for a job with the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific railroad.
The cross-eyed kid from Cottonwood Creek then followed a series of jobs that took him from Wisconsin to Virginia, California and Arizona. As chance would have it, he was working for the Army Corps of Engineers (934th Engineer Aviation Unit) when the unit was dispatched to Korea. As a result, he ended up serving with the military in a combat zone, so (despite his earlier rejection by the recruiters) he received an honorable discharge.
“The next morning I bought a one way ticket on N.W. Airlines to Miles City and on to another adventure.”
Dick married Norma Hertz in 1954, while attending the University of Montana. He graduated from UM in 1957 with a degree in forest economics, and began a long career with the U.S. Forest Service.
At the conclusion of the first chapter of his autobiography, he noted (because of all my cajoling), “This is the end of part one. Part two will come along when it is done. And that will be when it is done. Patience is a virtue; practice being virtuous.”
Richard M. (Dick) Venable (born September 22, 1926) died at age 94 on July 15, 2021.
I’m still working on that patience thing.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.