Papa called James' humor "wild and deep," and he could make me laugh my tail off in a heartbeat. But his wild streak also kept getting him in trouble, and Linda finally put her boot down. "Stop drinking or I'm gone."
So he stopped. A little later he joined the Oakridge police force, soon making sergeant. He was big -- 6 foot 3 inches, 240 and mostly muscle -- with a gunslinger mustache. He sure filled out a uniform. Linda and James had two daughters, Vanessa and Rachel. He was made chief.
(After he died Linda became happily remarried to Bob Holly, a high school math teacher and football coach. Vanessa teaches high school in Portland and Rachel's a hair stylist in Eugene.)
And as happens, the younger brother and the older brother switched roles. I was going through bad patches. James was the one person I could talk to. He never wavered in his love for me, but he'd ask the questions that got to the heart of my troubles. He wouldn't tell me what to do. Just listened and asked the right questions.
Our folks had moved to Oakridge from Topeka in 1982 to be closer to James and his family. Papa died in '84 and Linda took in Mama, till she died in 1990. Every summer in the early '90s, I'd drive from L.A. to Oregon with Nao, my son, visiting from Japan, and Dylann, my daughter. We'd camp out, go swimming in the lake, catch snakes and salamanders and go snipe hunting. They worshipped Uncle James.
James also took up basketball with a vengeance. We'd play games every night I was there. It was better if we were on the same team. If we were opponents, blood didn't count. Once after he fouled me hard, and I called it, he started moving toward me. "I'm gonna tell Mama!" I yelled. We laughed and went back to playing.
We sounded so much alike that when my boss called me from Washington while I was visiting Oakridge and James answered the phone, my boss started talking to him about my next assignment.
He introduced me to most of the music I still like -- the Beach Boys, Doors, Creedence, Temptations. He danced like a dream. He could shoot. When my Japanese journalist partner Kanabayashi came to America for the first time, James took him to the firing range. When he got back to Tokyo, my partner told me, "Around James I feel very safe."
My brother never left his Catholic religion. He went to Mass every Sunday. Didn't try to impose it on anybody else, but he kept the faith.
As a cop he was firm but fair. Once a guy with a shotgun threatened to commit suicide in back of a roadhouse in Oakridge. James stood out there for hours, his left hand on his holstered sidearm, talking the guy down. Finally, he handed over the shotgun to my brother. Afterwards, a newspaper photographer took a picture of him. James told me, "I'm glad they couldn't see the tears in my eyes."
Another time at another roadhouse on a freezing Saturday night in late January, his dispatcher called him to say it looked as if a big fight was breaking out in the parking lot. He drove up without lights or siren, put on his Smokey the Bear hat and in his body armor and winter jacket, he must have looked huge. The crowd parted as he walked through. Got to the middle and saw the combatants, both squared off. "Nobody here wants to be in jail tomorrow and miss the Super Bowl, do they?" the chief drawled. Dead silence. Then giggles. Then everybody drifted away. James went back on patrol.
That was one reason the funeral church was filled with law enforcement officers from all over the state. Later, Oakridge built a pedestrian bridge across the Middle Fork of the Willlamette River and named it the James Tharp Memorial Bridge.
The last two years of his life he decided to fight crime from the other end. He resigned as chief and became a counselor at a place called Serenity Lane in Eugene. He helped people -- some he'd once arrested -- with their addiction problems. (The center later named a hall after him.) He was finishing his college degree and was in class one Saturday when he collapsed. The college later gave him an honorary degree.
I traveled all night from L.A. to get to the hospital. He was alive but brain-dead. Linda and I had to make the call to pull the plug.
The last several years of our lives together, he and I had argued over who was taller. In countless photos we're trying to get an edge on each other.
As I leaned over and kissed his forehead that Sunday morning, I whispered, "You're taller, James."
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