- Associated Press - Monday, November 13, 2017

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A 15-foot Black Hills Spruce stands watch behind a house on the Pierre side of the Missouri River, across from La Framboise Island.

Gordon Van Ash wound 40 feet of colored lights around the tree, adding to the 100 feet he’d woven through its branches a few days before.

More lights are needed now than when the City of Pierre placed it there, in early December 2011. Back then the spruce measured maybe nine feet. As the 86-year-old Van Ash put it, “The darn thing grew!”

The current tree is a replacement of one that stood there before. It was sacrificed to the temporary levee built in summer 2011 along Island View Drive, to hold back the water from the flood that year.

So, for Gordon Van Ash and his wife Lois Van Ash, the new tree serves as a reminder of the 2011 flood. The way they endured the flood waters is now documented in a 10-page booklet with the title “Bummer Summer Survivor,” which Lois Van Ash wrote for family members.

It’s a story of a family filling sandbags, city workers constructing the levee, National Guardsmen patrolling the top of the 12-foot wall, border patrol agents recruited from the Mexican border checking ID cards to prevent looting, and the couple packing up essentials in case they had to leave quickly.

In “Bummer Summer,” Lois Van Ash chronicled the loss of the first tree: “Was sad to see our favorite tree cut down, then left on the corner in all its beauty.” While many trees were lost, she wrote about the one that “was so pretty the last time I saw it laying on its side on the corner.”

The current tree is a reminder of more than the flood. The final page of the “Bummer Summer Survivors” tells the story of the original tree, and why the City of Pierre placed it there, sometime in the 1980s.

The first tree to be placed there, also a Black Hill Spruce, was a memorial to Lois and Gordon Van Ash’s daughter, Jeanine Van Ash, who was was working as a city employee when she died in 1980 at age 19. According to the Capital Journal’s front-page coverage, she was found in the “wet well” of the sewage treatment plant. It was her first day of work for the city.

The tree was replaced in a way that made Lois Van Ash wonder if it were magic, a miracle, or Santa Claus -because an unlikely confluence of events allowed the city to surprise the Van Ash family with a new tree. It was in early December, during the only time they left town that year, there was no snow to impede planting, and the city had just received a suitable tree.

Like the original, the replacement tree is framed by the kitchen window that looks out to the river, back past the garage, a pickup truck, and a boat. The truck is still painted with the “Gordy’s Plumbing” logo, though it’s been altered to read “Gordy’s Done Plumbing.” He’s been retired for six years.

Asked what he does with his spare time in retirement, Gordon Van Ash at first simply pointed at the boat. It’s apparent from the words Lois Van Ash wrote that he likes to fish: “(After the flood) when the fishing ban was lifted, Dad and his two sons pulled 51 fish in the boat in two hours. Can only keep four walleye apiece, so it was a fast catch and release.”

After pointing, Gordon Van Ash clarified, “Fishing and horsing around.”

The description “horsing around” probably covers a lot of ground, and water, not all of it necessarily mischief. It might include disassembling the solar-electricity generator powering the tree lights, to diagnose an apparent short circuit - as he did while seated at the kitchen table.

The seats at the table offer a clear view of the tree through the window. Gordon and Lois Van Ash enjoy looking through that window, not just at the tree. “It’s kinda fun to sit in front of the window and watch whatever interesting things go by,” Gordon Van Ash said.

He picked up a small digital camera, remarking, “I’ve taken a lot of pictures at this window.” Scrolling through three years’ worth of images, he finds one that was taken last fall, of a deer crossing through the backyard near the river bank. “You don’t know you’re living downtown!” he exclaimed.

Gordon Van Ash described how he’ll throw a piece of bread out in the back for a squirrel to eat. He was late one morning, and the squirrel came up to the window as if to investigate why the bread was tardy.

Even though their lives inside the house seem oriented toward the river, the address is Missouri Street, which is on the opposite side of the house. In a play on the name, the title page of “Bummer Summer Survivors” notes that it was “written in the house on Misery Street.” And in conversation, Gordon calls the place where they live “East Misery Street.”

But sitting with the pair at their kitchen table, it’s apparent they enjoy their life on the river.

Their granddaughter, Jeanine Maskovich - who was named for her aunt - confirmed the pair loves their life there and loves to talk about it.

The spirit that flows through “Bummer Summer Survivors” is not one of miserableness, but of gratitude. Lois summed up the replacement of the tree this way: “Knowing how many cared to make this Van Ash family happy, I feel my cup runneth over.”


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, http://www.capjournal.com

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide