I was only slightly acquainted with two Baker City men who died recently yet I felt a kinship with both because each of us has a great affection for our area’s forests and mountains.
Bob DeMastus died on Jan. 6 at age 59.
Jim Smeraglio, who was 70, died Jan. 12.
I knew Bob better than I knew Jim.
When I worked on a trail maintenance crew for the Baker Ranger District in the summers of 1990 and 1991, Andy Ballard was one of my co-workers.
Andy had had that job for the previous couple of summers, and he told me several stories about his former colleague, Bob DeMastus.
Many of these involved Bob’s legendary skill with a chain saw.
I learned later, possibly through Andy although my memory on this point is murky, that Bob was even more accomplished working one handle of the two-man “misery whip” — the apt nickname for a crosscut saw.
Indeed the DeMastus family, including Bob’s father, uncle and brother, was to the World Championship Logging Circuit — people who can saw through logs almost as fast as a machine — what the New England Patriots are to the NFL.
I met Bob in the summer of 1990, probably one afternoon at the Forest Service compound off 11th Street. I talked with him several times over the ensuing years, most often the sort of random encounter that a person has in a small town, at the grocery store or on a downtown sidewalk.
I had no reason to make note of any of these conversations, of course. Yet I’m certain that Bob never said anything about his abilities with saws unless I broached the topic and posed a question.
And in those cases he answered with the sort of reluctance that characterizes people whose expertise is exceeded only by their humility.
Bob was always eager, though, to talk about the Elkhorns. He knew that I liked to hike in the mountains, and I sensed that he would be happy to swap stories about trails and peaks until either of us had to go on with whatever business we had been up to. I think we were both pleased to have interrupted our humdrum schedule for even a figurative visit to our favorite place.
I learned from reading his obituary that Bob also wrote poetry, enjoyed butterflies and cultivated rose bushes.
None of this surprised me.
Bob always seemed to me a soft-spoken man, and I can imagine he would have relished the solitary task of composing verse, and appreciated the grace and beauty of butterflies and blooming roses.
His obituary noted that Bob had looked forward to taking his grandkids to the Elkhorns. I’d like to believe that when they go to the mountains their grandpa will still walk with them.
Jim Smeraglio loved the mountains as Bob did, but Jim’s eyes invariably focused on a particular part of the fauna.
Indeed when I think of Jim the moniker that comes to mind is “Birdman of Sumpter.”
Jim was living in a trailer on a friend’s property near Sumpter when I met him in June 2006. The purpose was professional rather than personal — I was there to interview him for a feature story about his artwork featuring birds.
Jim had drawn his first bird at age 7. When I talked with him he was 59 and his interest in the avian world, so far as I could tell, was still keen more than half a century on.
It is the chance to meet, and to write about, people such as Jim that makes this job so interesting and, occasionally, so rewarding.
I don’t believe I would have had reason to compare Jim and Bob, to ponder the minor intersections of my life with theirs, had their deaths not happened in a six-day span.
But when I thought about the matter it struck me that their personalities, at least based on my limited experiences with both men, were quite similar.
Like Bob, Jim spoke of his talents both grudgingly and, occasionally, almost dismissively.
But when Jim talked about why he loves birds he shed his self-deprecating persona. His voice was louder, his gaze more intense and fixed on his visitor, his passion palpable.
It was as if, once he had steered the conversation away from his own exploits, which would always be modest and unimportant in his estimation, to the birds, then he felt free to express the thoughts that ran in his mind when he was alone even as he sat across from someone scrawling on a pad of paper.
I don’t know whether Bob and Jim ever met but I suspect they would have enjoyed each other’s company.
I can easily imagine the pair sitting beside a stream or a meadow in the Elkhorns, perhaps chatting about saws and sketches, poems and peregrine falcons .
Or merely relishing the silence of the mountains, the clean air in their lungs and the fresh scent of pine in their noses.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.