HOME PLACE - Brother's memorial is his gift to sister

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Holding a photo Sheila Hagar's late brother which will be inset into the bench he is making, Les Gardner talks with the columnist at his shop. In background is Jim Hudson, shop steward. (June 14, 2010)

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Les Gardner applies a coat of finish to the commemorative bench he is making for columnist Sheila Hagar which will be placed at Valley Residential Services when finished. (Andy Porter photo) (June 14, 2010)

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A photo of Sheila Hagar's late brother, Dwight Hagar, which will be inset into the commemorative bench being made by Les Gardner. (Andy Porter photo) (June 14, 2010)

Les Gardner understands that I need to get something crossed off the list.

The list contains the promises I made to my developmentally disabled brother, Dwight, right before he died. We started compiling all the things he wanted done during the 40 days we had between diagnosis and death.

Oh, that guy loved fanfare, not just for himself, but for all people in his life. His vision of just how we would honor him was clear.

Best obituary in the universe - check. Picture, too.

Big funeral - check. Lots of people saying nice things - double-check.

Potluck celebration - check.

Drive to the cemetery, with police escort - check, if we are counting deputy sheriffs to the state line.

His name engraved on the headstone just so next to Mom's - check.

Memorial bench for all his friends to sit on - oops.

It wasn't like I didn't try (she whined). At first I shopped in garden departments and on the Internet for a bench that would comfortably seat three or so adult guys. That would stand up to weather and fly-by pooping.

In my dreams, apparently. I could either choose cheesy and flimsy box-store seating or spend thousands on a custom bench.

That would be a double "no."

And, while I never gave up hope, I found my time to make calls and cajole people more and more limited.

When my husband died, my advocacy to honor Dwight's last wish went just plain dormant. I couldn't much think about benches when I had to rebuild my world (she whined again).

Then along came Les.

I'm willing to bet most of you have never met a guy like Les. For starters, the 60-year-old lost a leg four years ago and uses a high-tech, fiberglass-and-magic limb with artistic overtones.

His gray hair is past his shoulders and he's more wiry than most men in their 60s. He moves faster than most of those guys, too, fake leg or no.

Let me start over. After growing up as water sports fanatic in Santa Cruz, Calif., Les joined the United States Marines and served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970.

That was about the last time Les lived in Normalville.

The details are numerous and not easily corralled, but I'll do my best.

Les hadn't had much use for the military - specifically the VA - since he was denied a home loan not long after getting out of the service. "I had been working full time in San Jose," he recalled. "Full time, self-employed with my own painting and construction business."

Les had found the perfect place to set his hopes on, a home in the mountains with a kiln already there to feed his artist's soul.

The VA, however, said his self-employed status did not qualify Les for a home loan, causing the veteran to scream from the counter in the San Francisco office. "I was so mad. I was yelling at veterans to not trust these people. I washed my hands of the VA, I said ‘To hell with these people.'"

It got worse. But it wasn't until Les was on his fifth "driving under the influence" charge - on a suspended license - that he realized he might be trying to commit suicide. "I (overdosed) until I got sick enough most people would have died."

Bad? Not bad enough, not yet.

In 2006 Les took a ride on his motorcycle down in Coos Bay one night. A vehicle forced him off the road, where he hit a guard rail hard enough to take out seven posts and break 16 bones.

"It threw me 150 feet from my motorcycle. When I stopped rolling and tumbling, I reached down to feel my leg. And I found out I didn't have one."

Les ripped off his belt and made a tourniquet. Then he crawled to the roadside.

Bad? Wait.

As he thrashed along, Les went through tumbleweeds. A piece of one jammed into what was left of his right leg. The resulting infection yielded a life sentence of amputation, leaving the guy who loved to snowboard and surf with one leg.

It took two months for Les to recover mobility. He cast his wheelchair aside and refused an electric scooter ... still does. "I'm only 60. I'm not ready to be in the chair yet," he told me.

Once he could leave the hospital, he knew he had to do something to support himself and help out his sons, one who has cerebral palsy and another who is blind. Those relationships have given him a passion for disabled people, he said.

So Les revisited another line of business he was well-versed in.

Yes. Marijuana. Lots and lots of marijuana. He had plenty of experience after growing 2,500 plants in the wilderness of Oregon. While living in Idaho.

Les Gardner does everything big, I've found.

He moved to his land in Kahlotus, dug out a hole big enough to bury four metal shipping containers under a layer of soil. He then set to growing 500 pot plants and created an apartment in one of the containers.

He lived there 95 percent of the time, Les estimated. His sons, who lived in a house on the top side, had no idea what was under their very feet. And when they didn't see Dad, they figured he was off on another adventure.

A friend brought food to the well-concealed entrance from time to time, Les had video and audio systems set up. He was on electronic home monitoring and probation, which showed Les as being right where he was supposed to be - on his own property.

Then, more bad, or so it seemed.

It came to a crashing halt the day sheriff's deputies arrived with a tip off. They followed the signs of underground vents melting the snow on the ground and drilled down.

Here's a snippet of the story of the bust from the Tri-City Herald:

"More than 500 marijuana plants, electric fans, timers, carbon dioxide generators, electric air blowers and grow lights were found in the buried metal shipping containers."

The story fails to recount the officers were at a loss at the complexity of the operation. Nor did they initially understand they were walking over the top of him, Les told me.

"When they came in for the containers, they were not prepared to see me," he said, with perhaps a tiny trace of pride in his voice.

He thought about blowing someone away with his gun, but decided instead to strap on his leg and stand to face the music.

It was time. Pain from his leg and torture from Vietnam flashbacks had taken a huge toll on Les via prescription drug abuse. He was about out of fight.

There's more, like a legal screw-up in his arrest that spared Les from more jail time, even as he once longed to be kept in a structured environment. A safe-from-himself environment.

Getting out of jail had meant disaster with previous incarcerations, he said. "I knew I had a whole pile of legal drugs waiting for me on the outside."

Les considered suicide but decided he just couldn't do it.

Despite that long-ago oath, he turned to the VA for help. "So I got here, and basically, this is the first time in more than 40 years I've been straight. Straight for 19 months, going on 20."

Les gives a lot of credit to the staff at the VA for helping him realize why drugs and dangerous behavior called his name so loudly.

He had never even heard of post traumatic stress disorder, Les said, staying as he did as far from military anything as he could get. Yet he could no longer deny PTSD was running his life. Ruining his life.

After addiction treatment, Les entered the CORD program, which helps homeless (and newly clean) veterans stay sober, get housing and learn skills.

There, at the program's new shop and community center, Les has reclaimed the woodworking talent he barely remembered.

CORD is under the umbrella of and in the same building as Valley Residential Services, which served my brother the last three years of his life.

You see where I'm going, right?

By the time I dropped into this story, Les had already made one bench. Ironically, it was for my brother's roommate, Jim, who recently joined Dwight on that porch swing in heaven.

"But ... Dwight was supposed to get a bench," I told the CORD manager, Rhonda Lund. Yes, she knew, and she had a plan.

Introductions were made. I told Les a lot about Dwight and, because it was a day of sadness, a little about my late David. Especially the part where my sweet husband tried to keep my brother from getting fired for drinking one 50-cent can of pop from the employee fridge.

But David failed, thus ending Dwight's 17-year career as a grocer.

"That's not right," Les said quietly when I finished.

"That's not right," I echoed, tears falling all over again.

And Les, well, he's making right what he can. He has built the mother of all benches for my brother. It took my breath away when I arrived at the shop last week to see it.

Not only is it the most amazing bench I've ever seen, it will bear my brother and husband's picture, screen printed onto fabric, fused with wood and inlaid into the bench.

Like my heart, inlaid with all those memories.

Their names will be there, along with the title of a song that fits so well for both my guys - "Finally Home." In green, Dwight's favorite color.

The bench will live at Valley Residential Center, close to Jim's bench, in the courtyard the clients love. It will serve them in a way Dwight no longer can. Just what he wanted.

As for me and Les, we are forever connected now. The master carver has whittled a bond of wood and wrapped it in mutual respect. He trusts me to tell his story, I trust him to memorialize Dwight in a way I cannot.

"We all try to find closure someplace," he told me. "You need to get this done for your brother and I need to close the door to my past."

Isn't it amazing how Dwight keeps on giving? Don't you just know he's watching all this, asking, "You know me now, Les? You my friend now?"

Yes, Honey, Les is your friend. Our friend.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom or by calling 509-526-8322.

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