I cut off the end of my brother’s finger once. He laughed and cursed, but eventually forgave me.
We had been sent by our father with small hatchets to our Henderson backyard to chop down a cedar post. (Giving young boys hatchets passed for responsible parenting in Henderson in the early 1960s.) We whacked at the wood each in our turn, but when my big brother Jim signaled to stop and check our progress, I took one swing too many.
There was a lot of blood from him and a loud scream from me. My brother barely flinched at the pain. He cracked a joke despite having to search for the partial digit in a pile of wood chips.
That was my brother, Jim: always working, often getting hurt, and forever trying to laugh.
He died shortly before Christmas of heart and lung problems developed after years of hard working and harder living. He was 61.
Anyone who knew Jim knew that he had what could kindly be called a mischievous side. I think the authorities called it juvenile delinquency, but the statute of limitations has run out on most of the incidents. My brother was a construction worker by trade, but he was skilled at blowing up things, too.
I remember the quiet Christmas morning in Henderson when we gave the folks some weak excuse about testing my new coat outside in the elements. We sneaked down a silent Elm Street to the edge of the desert, where an open sewer lid gave Jim a chance to light a cluster of M-80 firecrackers.
Even one was capable of blowing off a kid’s finger. A half dozen down a manhole were enough to get the cops out of bed on Christmas morning.
By the time the sirens grew loud, we were back in our house on Elm Street.
As a proud member of Painters Union Local 159, Jim ran taping and drywall crews on some of the biggest construction projects in the history of the Strip.
The job paid well for a working man; but it was hard, sometimes dangerous, and promised to take a toll on the body.
It managed to wear down even big Jim.
When I drive down Paradise Road or up Las Vegas Boulevard, I am reminded that my brother was part of the boomtown construction crews that built the International, the first and second MGM Grands, and other megaresorts. He participated in building the Las Vegas skyline, and was one of the brave — some say foolish — souls who worked on swing stage scaffolding outside the Stratosphere Tower. He survived high winds and equipment failure 900 feet in the air.
That’s the irony of the new Las Vegas. Despite what you may have read, it wasn’t really built by billionaires. It was constructed by a generation of hardworking men and women whose names generally only make the newspaper in the obituary pages.
Like his father before him, hard work defined my brother’s life. But with such men the question is always: When have you worked hard enough? For many years, Jim worked hard at the expense of other things, and as he grew older he understood this.
He died too young, but he was also a lucky man. He lived long enough to appreciate the love of a wife and family, to celebrate his children and grandchildren. In other words: to know the important things in life.
Our brother’s life changed forever when he married Kelly and put his big arms around her three young children: Karli, Amber and Steven. Together with Jim’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, he finally had the family he always wanted. He was proud of all of them, but had a special place in his heart for his boy and talked about his accomplishments in the military every day.
Even with his big heart giving out, Jim managed to escape the hospital several times in recent months. He was failing, but Lord, he was fighting, too.
On the last night, he spoke with his sisters and shared some laughs. He called my daughter Amelia three times to tell her she had inspired him to keep fighting.
His final days are a reminder that it’s always the right time to get in touch with your family, to tell them, “I love you,” to make amends, to share a kind word and a laugh. Do it while there’s daylight left.
Jim rarely ended a conversation without saying “Tamp ’er light” and “Adios.” Tamp ’er light is something our mining Grandpa Curtis used to say. Our father said it, too. It is a prospector’s expression, generally equivalent to “Take it easy,” because if you tamp the dynamite too hard, you’ll blow yourself up.
Tamp ’er light. In the end, my brother managed that trick.
So tamp ’er light, brother. Adios, go with God.
And I’m still sorry about your finger.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.