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Uncle Jim

Jim expertly maneuvered the massive RV around a tight corner, barely missing a lamppost. We were somewhere in the middle of Los Angeles, trying to find a friend’s place of business. My wife, our two young sons, and I gaped at the morose cityscape with rising alarm.

“We’re not lost,” announced Jim cheerily, shifting his ever-present pipe to the other side of his mouth. “We’re just making smaller circles!”

We had flown to L.A. in 1989 to visit my wife’s much-adored aunt and uncle, Doris and Jim Granflaten, and to do some typically touristy things. And who better to serve as tour guides than someone who lived in the area?

Jim and Doris resided in San Luis Obispo, but were happy to pick us up at LAX and squire us to such tourist destinations as Disneyland (the happiest and most expensive place on earth), NBC studios (we saw Leno’s Corvette!), and the Spruce Goose (Howard Hughes’ aeronautical plywood marvel). We wouldn’t have experienced any of those things without Jim’s unflappable driving skills.

Doris and Jim grew up on farms in the Madison, South Dakota, area. Shortly after they were wed, they moved to California with little more than the shirts on their backs and hearts full of youthful hope.

Jim soon landed a job as an assistant surveyor for San Luis Obispo County.

“I was the guy who ran around with measuring chains and a shovel,” Jim said. “It didn’t take long to figure out that it would be much easier to be the guy who stands behind the transit and waves at the guy with the shovel.”

Jim would eventually become the San Luis Obispo County Surveyor.

With his insatiable curiosity and a passion for history, Jim was a walking encyclopedia. He could recite intricate details about topics that ranged from geology to astronomy. Who else would know that the banana slug was almost named the California State Mollusk?  

But Jim’s biggest passion was railroading.

Soon after we arrived at Doris and Jim’s home, Jim took us out to their garage. Using a clever pulley system, Jim lowered a platform from the ceiling. The platform held a model railroad layout that included tiny yet realistic trees, a town, and people. It was every kid’s Christmas morning dream.

When they neared retirement, Doris and Jim purchased a plot of land near Durango, Colorado, and began to make it ready for their dream log home. Jim used his 9N Ford tractor to drag up rocks for the home’s enormous stone fireplace. He experienced some chest pains but wrote it off as the effects of altitude.

Just before his last day as county surveyor, Jim decided to have a physical. At the conclusion of the physical, Jim’s doctor instructed him to go directly to the hospital for coronary bypass surgery.

“I woke up after the operation with a small plastic tube down my throat to help me breathe,” said Jim from his hospital bed. “The more I told people about it, the bigger the tube became. Before long, it had turned into a rusty ¾-inch galvanized pipe!” 

Retirement did not find Jim idle. He and Doris became involved in the Galloping Goose Historical Society, a club dedicated to the restoration and operation of the bus-like narrow-gauge railcars.

Once their log home was completed, Jim began to construct a G-scale garden railroad layout. The tracks traveled through miniature farms and a small town. Jim built a marvelous double-loop wooden trestle, and Doris wallpapered the interior walls of the tiny houses.

“The trains run on schedule, but it’s my schedule,” Jim smiled.

Julie Nelson's aunt and uncle
Photo courtesy of Jerry Nelson

Not satisfied with model railroading, Jim and Doris helped found the Durango Historical Railroad Society. The group then tackled the monumental task of bringing back to life No. 315, a steam locomotive that had sat in a city park since 1968. It took seven years of volunteer labor to get the hulking steel behemoth back into running condition.

“We took No. 315 out for a trial run, and there were foamers at every intersection,” Jim said. 

Asked what foamers are, Jim replied, “They’re people who are such railroad enthusiasts that they foam at the mouth whenever they see a steam locomotive.”

We just received the sad news that Jim has passed away. He and Doris celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this May.          

Jim had taped much of our 1989 California adventure. Shortly after we returned home, we received a copy.

The tape ends with footage of a jetliner lifting off the runway at LAX. “There goes Jerry and Julie and the boys, winging their way home,” says Jim’s voice.

And now too, so has Jim. Rest well, old friend.

            

           

                      

                                          

Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at workman.com/products/dear-county-agent-guy

           

          

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