Copyright © 2013 by Peter Richmond
By day, they’d spend long shifts at the foot of the 585-foot Anaconda Copper smelter stack in Anaconda, Montana, stoking the war effort. By night, they’d roam the saloons spending the company’s money. Twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday night, there’d be salvation and repentance from Charles and Elisabeth Jackson, itinerant bringers of the Word at the Assembly of God church. When Elisabeth Jackson, the Sunday-evening-service pastor, pronounced, “Christ is the only answer,” people tended to listen.
September 17, 1945, was a Monday. Elisabeth wouldn’t have preached the night before in Anaconda; there was an impetigo epidemic in town, so she gave birth over in Deer Lodge, 25 miles away, to her third son, Philip Douglas Jackson. But it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that she was back spreading the word in Anaconda the following week, and fervently so.
Charles, the ordained minister, was strict enough in his beliefs about following the word of God. His wife’s daily message was even more insistent: Listen to no one but Christ, or come the day when Gabriel rapturously blows that wild trumpet, be prepared to be left behind.
Shipbuilder John Jackson had come over from Bristol in the 1600s, settling in New England. John’s grandson, a Tory, accepted the fifty thousand acres the king had deeded him in Ontario on the banks of the Ottawa River. Some generations later, Charles Jackson quit school at the age of fourteen to work the Ontario farm and then married. He and his wife produced a daughter, Phil’s half-sister Joan, but his wife died during her second pregnancy. Charles took this as a sign from God, dropped down across the border and became a lay preacher in western Montana.
In the meantime, Elisabeth Funk’s grandfather, of Dutch stock, speaking “low German,” had gone west to seek his fortune in Saskatchewan. His heritage proving a liability during the First World War, he moved the family to a plot outside Wolf Point, Montana. After captaining the girls’ basketball team and coming up just short of valedictorian, Elisabeth taught in a one-room schoolhouse for a couple of years, burning cow chips for heat while looking for a truer calling. That curiosity drew her to Pentecostalism. After attending seminary at Central Bible College in Winnipeg, she and her brother and sister became a team of traveling evangelists . . . and when she met Charles Jackson, the die was cast.
“The Pentecostal movement changed regular church-going citizens into fanatics,” Phil would write in his first book, while still a Knick, trying to distance himself not from his parents, whose love he would forever embrace, just from their immutable beliefs. As he’d later say, “They saw miraculous healings and they heard their neighbors speak in tongues.”
They were a special kind of pilgrim, these carriers of the word in the snow-capped outback. “In the great, nearly empty stretches of northern Montana,” Tom McGuane once wrote, ”. . . some radicalized soothsayer would arise—a crop duster, a diesel mechanic, a gunsmith—then fade away, and the region would go back to sparse agriculture, a cow every hundred acres, a trailer house with a basketball backboard and a muddy truck. Minds spun in the solitude . . . the wind blew for weeks at a time, icy wind, and that, after a while, that constant wind would make you crazy.”
The end of the war, coinciding with Phil’s birth, gutted the copper town. The Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railroad came to a halt in.
Anaconda . . . six hundred miles short of the ocean. Today, the lonesome stack is still visible for miles.
The Jackson family odysseyed its way east, the youngest child trying to fathom the nature of the journey and to grow into normality—while falling asleep to the poster on his bedroom wall: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Now on to Deer Lodge, another company town, location of the state prison, a turreted fortress, and nearby, the state hospital, holding two thousand psychiatric patients (the largest unincorporated gathering of people in the state). Several souls to be saved here, too.
Then it was on to Miles City, on the Tongue River (there’s no record of it speaking): then a vibrant horse-trading town, home of Fort Keough, built after the Battle of the Little Bighorn by a man named Nelson Miles, who used the fort to complete the subjugation of the Native Americans of the area, although, as he would later say, whiskey brought him more trouble than the Indians. (Today a mural outside of the fairgrounds depicts a skeleton riding a bull, accompanied by the caption “Don’t Let Meth Be Your Last Ride.”) Miles City wasn’t inhospitable by any means; it never got colder than 38 below in the winter.
Except for the omnipresence of the Creator, the Jackson household was like any other in one respect—older brothers Chuck and Joe fought and got whupped for it—but unusual in another: the male-female balance was healthier than most. Phil grew up with respect for women’s equality. When Elisabeth Jackson preached on a Sunday night, Charles cooked the dinner.
Charles and Betty’s fame preceded their arrival. Whether Betty actually performed a miracle on a boy born without eyes is clearly open to question. What is certain is that the apocalypse was due—not that the parents went out of their way to keep Phil healthy enough to meet it; he saw no doctor until he was six. Today, in hip Montana restaurants, honey and deer lard would be an emulsion to slather onto an elk steak; back then, applied to Phil’s chest, the salve would protect again chest colds. An infection? A poultice, of milk, oatmeal and bread crusts.
The youngest Jackson was bright but kinetic: “You used to wear out my apron,” his mother once told him. One churchman suggested exorcism. Charles, fundamentalist but not insane, dissuaded the churchman. But no one doubted the Jacksons’ compassion, parentwise. Phil was, yes, a PK—a preacher’s kid, raised in a rigid way of life—but he never lacked for love at home. And being out there on the fringe, looking in, peerwise? There was no TV; card games were played with cards with no faces, because kings and queens suggested a mortal hierarchy that smacks of a golden calf; forbidden to dance or go the movies. What better perspective to have of what’s possible within the pasture than from the fringe?
Add the geography, the view from the roads and rails leading into and out of Anaconda, Deer Lodge, Miles City: horizonless, a word not meant to imply “empty” but “without restraint.”
The next Jackson family move was a like a wormhole voyage to another star system. When Phil was seven, his father took a position in Great Falls, the largest city in the state, as the supervisor of all of Montana’s Pentecostal churches. The first settling point for the Paleo-Indians crossing the Bering Straight, fifteen millennia later, Great Falls had all the things that make a town a city: a state university branch, industry, pro baseball . . . and museums. Charles Jackson built a house, and as the kid grew like a bean sprout on steroids Charles would plant a hoop in some cement. He knew secular talent when he saw it.
In the meantime, visiting his maternal grandfather’s stable and boarding house in Wolf Point, Phil was given a view of Native America that mirrored every preconception of a European-blooded settler: “They were supposed to be dirt and weren’t to be trusted and had no concept of civilization,” Phil later wrote of the white man’s belief of the Sioux in the area. His grandfather, lodging Native Americans in a boarding house, derided them as “shiftless drunks and thieves.”
He learned now of the plight of Native American life. Little wonder that hereafter he’d turn to Native Americans for spiritual guidance; the Pentecostal thing wasn’t finding traction, if the first speaking-in-tongues attempt was indicative. Chuck and Joe had passed with flying colors, but as Phil would later recall, “All of a sudden this thing was supposed to fall on you. Then you would turn to jelly and start speaking some kind of gibberish. Joe told me he had faked it. I tried to be very serious.”
People laid on hands. Philip sat for hours. He cried. He stammered. But only in English. “He just about spoke in tongues,” Betty said. “I have faith that he will.”
Possessed of his mother’s athleticism and both parents’ intellect, Jackson entered school a grade ahead of his peers. He hooped, he swam, he played hockey, he fished on a trip to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, leading into the lake that is now his permanent residence, hooking his first rainbow trout with a worm on a bamboo pole, Huck Finn–style, against the backdrop of a mountain called the Tea Kettle, the Great Northern tracks zigzagging their way across its face.
In the big city, new destinations beckoned, like The C. M. Russell Museum. That would be Charles Russell, one of the most celebrated Western artists (in 2005, a Russell sold for nearly $5.6 million). Picture Remington without the press. Russell’s representational paintings of Native Americans so captivated the young man that he fantasized about living in Montana a century earlier, before the white man. Two Native American classmates in sixth grade lived down by the flats on the Missouri. He found himself drawn to their self-sufficiency (in contrast to the lost souls wandering around the grounds of the statewide revival meeting at which his mother was an annual speaker: “humming, wailing and praying.”)
As Bill Bradley recounted in his Life on the Run, those classmates had “spoken (to Phil) of a dis-attachment from material need. Wild food, from antelope to herbs, was enough to survive in brutal country.” “Boys were taught the ways of animals,” he told Bradley. “Storytellers passed on the traditions and history. The whole concept of life was how to stay in tune with your environment.” He would later write of fantasizing about being an adopted Native American.
Adoption? By his eighth-grade year, the family structure had lost its center, his father often absent supervising Pentecostal outposts. Jackson and his two brothers—now fifteen and nineteen—were too much for the mother to manage alone. His half-sister, Joan, was away at seminary school.
His father thus resigned the Great Falls job . . . and now needed to find another church. The final destination was ninety miles farther east but this time across the state line, in the northwestern corner of the true outback: the empty state of North Dakota—specifically, the village of Williston tucke,d into the top northwestern corner.
“This is where the Lord wants me to go,” Charles said—to a state where, not so many years earlier, a windstorm had razed half of the capital. Where at the height of the drought-plagued Depression, women hung wet sheets across their windows, vainly trying to repel the flying dust that had been loosed by immigrant farmers tearing up the prairie grass for seasonal crops. Where in any winter, if you were out pumping water and your fingers were freezing, the best way to thaw them was in the snow.
Montana legend had it that North Dakota had no trees. Eric Sevareid, native of the midstate crossroads of Velva, put it more eloquently: “There wasn’t much shade.” But this monotonal terrain would provide enough soil for the man with eleven rings to grow.