Bert James is a huge, bearded man who can build, drive, or fix anything. When I arrived at his place five miles north of I-90 near Kingston, Idaho, I expected to and did see him astride one of him many machines. We first met when he approached me in 1994 during the filming of Heartwood and offered to help.
“What can you do?” I asked him.
“Anything,” he responded…and I discovered it was no lie.
He showed me his motorcycle, airplane, vintage Greyhound bus, dump truck, water hauler, golf cart, ATV, and various non-rideables…like a portable sawmill.
Over a decade ago, Bert moved from Mendocino County to Idaho, bought eight-plus acres of nearly undeveloped riverfront land and a couple of buildings, and figured that his unrelenting flood of sweat could turn a marginal campground into a living wage.
“Five years,” he told me when I visited years ago, “and I’ll be able to sell all this to some rich Californian for a half-million more than I paid for it.”
“All this” is Albert’s Place: country bar, trapper’s cabin, general store, rolling hamburger stand, and RV park about 30 miles east of Coeur d’Alene (the trendy Santa Fe of the north country) on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. It’s a strange piece of property. Two county roads cut through the parcel, forming a T and separating river from park from bar and store. The speed limit is 15, laughable to the locals. All Bert’s buildings are on the dry side of the county roads, including one, the general store, which ten months previously was on the other side of the river. The store fills only the front half of the first floor. In the back is Bert and Ann’s home, a two-bedroom, two-bath affair. Built in the 50’s, the general store/home was used as the local general store in the filming of the Pierce Brosnan disaster flick Dante’s Peak (set designers added fake dormers to improve its quaintness). The building became vacant five years ago and was subsequently flooded by the river into FEMA’s uncaring hands. Shoshone County took over from the Feds in 1996 and decided to destroy it. Bert bought it last year from the county for $250 on the condition that he remove it immediately from its location on the flood plain. It took him 42 days longer than immediately to accomplish the feat of jacking the 90,000-pound dwelling onto 24 truck axles and pulling it across the low-water, summer river with a bulldozer.
“Look at these photos,” Bert crows, extracting an envelope of Kodaks from behind the bar.
“He’s even got it on video,” Shane, one of the bar’s regulars, volunteers. “You should see Bert wading across through four feet of water, pushing the bastard.” The three other Wednesday 3 p.m. denizens chuckle at Shane’s jab, but Bert’s face shows that he is reliving a crossing that required his total concentration to accomplish. Those 42 days cost him $4200 because the county fined him $100/day for not living up to the agreement he signed.
“Under duress,” Bert protests. “Either I signed right then, or they said they would burn it. And it took me a long time to find someone who could move a whole house across a gravelly bottom river.” Now it sits on a cement foundation one foot above the hundred-year high-water mark.
“We didn’t break a pane of glass or crack a single wall lifting and moving that building,” Bert brags, “but when I set it down on the foundation, every damn door went out of plumb. I guess it had never, ever been true. The ends were low, so I had to jack it back up and stick about two inches of shims in the middle.”
His exploit got written up (with photos I can no longer find) in the local paper. Now, the store/house (my wife and I have one of the upstairs bedrooms) looks like it has been here forever. Bert is proud. This morning I flipped on his large-screen TV and watched five minutes of John Wayne leading The Fighting Seabees across the South Pacific. Had Bert served in World War II, he’d have been the Duke’s main man.
The summer is ending now, and it hasn’t been a particularly profitable one for Bert and Ann. The weather did not cooperate. Ann, a no-nonsense head-down worker, figures the cold and rain cost them half the expected revenue from RVers and inner tube floaters. But cash flow is not their biggest problem. Bert is a doer. If it can be done, he’ll make it happen…efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, Bert’s way does not always match County regulations. In addition to the $4200 fine currently on his head, he has completely alienated the Health Department. He is convinced that the addition of a store/house and a restaurant (under construction in the bar) and six cabins and so on and so on will not overtax his septic field. He is good at what he does (and he does everything), so I suspect he is correct. But the Health guy simply kiboshed everything. No explanation. Just a flat-out denial…without tests or measurements. So Bert got written up in the local paper again. Headline: “Albert’s Place Owner Not One for Technicalities”.
Sans lawyers, sans technical experts, sans the ability to read and write (he’s crunchingly dyslexic), Bert is forging onward. For almost everyone in this backwater, the Rules are in the way. It’s a cash-under-the-table economy where exceptions are granted to cronies. Bert finds it “coincidental” that the man who installs new septic systems in the area is the father of the health department official who poleaxed Bert’s.
Tomorrow morning I will spend a couple of hours reviewing a $215,000 refinancing proposal (60 densely typed, daunting pages from Countrywide Mortgage) with him. With this money, Bert thinks he can prevail. I worry that someday soon a small-town bureaucrat will find Bert’s frontier/can-do spirit just a bit too insulting to the dignity of his high office.
In the Old West, someone would’ve gotten shot.
[Bert died several years ago. The above is a memorial.]