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The magical Don Brown

Over the last 25 years, Laramie has grown around its edges. Where before, it was a three-mile drive down Grand Avenue off of I-80 before you ran into anything—a bar, restaurant, the university. About the furthest thing from town was a Walmart that I never used, though, Lord knows, I shopped for discounts the whole time I was at the University of Wyoming from 1991 to 1993. (Even back then, Walmart just wasn’t my speed. I was more a thrift store shopper. Plus, I just didn’t need anything. I had a car, the clothes on my back, a backpack, and a fly fishing rod and box of flies.)

Now, motels and chain restaurants pop up just a mile from the Grand Avenue/Business I-80 exit, exit 316. The golf course seems to have gotten bigger. Gone is the University powerplant, an old coal fired model that supplied electricity and steam heat to the school for over 60 years. Rows of car dealerships and fast-food places bottleneck at the shiny new University Welcome Center. New suburban development spread out from the University to the east and north. From the highway to the university, this area of town looks like any suburb, anywhere in the United States

So, I took a drive from the motel out by the interstate into town to see what’s become of the Laramie I loved so much. The residential district east of downtown has changed little. The bungalows and two-stories line up neatly under the shade of giant cottonwoods and oaks. Downtown has changed but only in the kinds of businesses that inhabit the buildings, all of which stood 25 years ago. Of interest to me, the little bookstore, Personally Recommended Books, was still on the second story of a building on East Ivinson just down from First Street. The Old Buck Horn Bar is a fixture time has not altered one bit.

We were fortunate to have arrived in town in time for me to make it to an AA meeting. The meeting used to convene downtown on the second floor of the Holliday Building, named after the famous Doc Holliday, gambler, gunfighter, dentist, and lawman. But on checking the Website, I found it at a new location. I set the kids up with Taco Bell and took off to find the Laramie Plains Civic Center, an old WPA building in the center of the residential district. It’s a sprawling building built around a gymnasium/arena. Several floors of meeting-room and nonprofits rise up behind the comfortable Depression-era façade.

I introduced myself and sat down to a lively meeting, one that I could recognize anywhere. For two years, I’d listened to the stories of drunks in the small city. Some drug in off the railroad tracks as homeless with no hope, others lived in trailers in what was once West Laramie, a part of town now incorporated into the larger burg. Their stories had not changed much, but anywhere I’ve attended AA meetings—24 states and four countries—drunks’ stories have personal quirks but are essentially the same.

But there was one man there—let’s call him Bob—who remembered my old sponsor and close friend, Don Brown.

Bob said he had known Don only from meetings. Bob was only a few months sober and didn’t take to Don, Don being an odd egg. Don was frugal but not a tightwad. He did all his own car-trailer-snowmachine-motorcycle repair. He owned a patch of dirt in West Laramie with six single-wides on it that he called the “Blue Sky Trailer Court.” He had rabble for neighbors, though he said for the most part they paid rent (even if not on time) and were quiet. He used old tuna cans with one side bent in for ashtrays. He always smoked those slender brown cigarettes and often let them go out as he carried them in his mouth. He always wore a green hat with porcupine quills stuck in the hatband.

Bob said that his sponsor told him he had to go to Don’s funeral when Don died in 1998. While he didn’t know Don well or even liked him much, he was enthralled as he listened to family members and friends talk about Don. What he heard from the podium, Bob said, was nothing less than the AA program come to life. Each of the speakers told their own stories of love, generosity, tolerance, forbearance, a spirit of giving. Don influenced a lot of people and had close ties with family, something many AAs are not known for. At his funeral were the common people of Laramie, along with heads of companies and some public and civic leaders. Bob said that nothing in Don’s demeanor or presence at AA meetings spoke of such a wide body of friends.

Bob gained a lot of respect for Don at that funeral, and often thought of him when times got tough or when he wasn’t feeling generous or when he thought his time was precious and didn’t want to give it others. Don had become something of a model for him.

When I met Don, I was going through a particularly hard time, with burdens of school, finances, and fatherhood heavy upon me. I heard him at a couple of meetings but hadn’t introduced myself. The night I shook his hand and spoke my name, I told him that I heard he had a cabin up in the Snowy Mountains and I asked if I could use it as a getaway. He looked at me head cocked. He didn’t know me from Adam. He thought it over a second and said, “Sure.”

I came to know Don very well over the next year and a half and used his cabin many times while I was at the University and for years after I left Laramie. He was a frugal man, though not a skinflint or tightwad. I never knew how he made a living, unless it was from rents at the Blue Sky Trailer Court. He was generous with his things, though I never knew him to have pocket money. He owned a couple of vans, one for parts for the other, which had a bed, cooler, and propane hot plate. He owned three snowmachines, all identical, one for parts for the other two. He owned two kayaks and had gotten into river rafting in a rubber boat. We used the snowmachines a couple of times in the winters in the Snowy Range. We went snow camping on cross country skies.

Years after I left Laramie, Don would drop by my house. We would go to meetings and sit around the living room, talking late into the night. But he never stayed in my house. When bedtime came, he retreated to his van parked out front. I’d see him cheerful and rested and ready for coffee at the front door the next morning.

Don always had a way of showing up in unexpected places at random times. One miraculous day, I pulled into Nebraska City on my Missouri River trip back from Montana. To my surprise, there was a van there, a black Ford with colorful stripes down the side. It couldn’t be, I thought. There was no way. I stuck my head in the open driver’s side window and, sure enough, there was mail on the seat addressed to Don Brown.

That night, Don came rolling into the riverfront park on his Yamaha 750. (yes, he owned two, one for parts.) I was traveling with a guy I met on the river in Omaha. We stayed at the riverfront park for two days running. I went to an AA meeting in Nebraska City with Don. We spent time riding the rolling hills around the town and down by the river. It was the only time I was ever on a motorcycle and remember those rides vividly.

Don kept dropping by my house and I his, when I was out his direction. When his niece contacted me about his death in 1998, I was devastated on the one hand, and on the other, I knew that Don would have accepted the turning of the leaf. I heard that he died in his trailer at the Blue Sky in his armchair, in the living room, where I had often spent the night on the floor. He had been dead for three days before someone found him. He had a peaceful look on his face and a tuna can in his lap.

As I listened to Bob, I thought what a wonderful thing it was to be able to talk about Don with someone who knew him, even a little. I think of Don all the time, and it amazes me that it’s been nineteen years since he’s been with us. Bob mentioned a bunch of little personal details about Don. He and his face came back to me, and I enjoyed thinking of him as I talked to Bob.

I spent the next week in Yellowstone with my kids and my good friend Pat O’Kelley. I went to bed almost every night with a smile on my face thinking about Don. Even now, as I write, I feel a personal bit of joy. It’s bittersweet, thinking of not having Don in my life. But I think again. Don influenced me, the way I conduct my life, and the way I build personal relationships. It’s as if Don’s never been away.

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