On Saturday, November 22, 2014 at 5:50PM, Jim Engeseth, better known as Squirrel, left this mortal coil at the Agrace Hospice Center in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. He died peacefully, in his sleep, with his friends, Vern Landmark, Julian Petersen, Tasha Petersen, Cindy Curtes, and myself at his side.
His passing leaves a Squirrel-sized hole in the universe, and while that probably doesn’t sound like much, those of us who knew him will know what I mean when I say that. It’s a big loss, a big hole that will never be filled, except with memories. And Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin where Squirrel lived is a bit emptier now.
I’m usually never at a loss for words, but I’ve never had to write about a close friend who’s passed away before. So forgive me if I don’t cover all the bases. I’ll try, at least, to capture a little bit of the spirit of the man and hopefully those of who read this who don’t know Squirrel and never met will at the very least miss him a wee bit once the imagined sounds of these words have drifted away like a train whistle fading in the distance.
Railroads, trains, private railcars were a lifelong passion of Squirrel’s. And he was an adept photographer. One of his many railfan trips was with his friend Luther to photograph the Milwaukee Road 261 which was hauling private railcars from Dubuque to LaCrosse. While they were chasing the train from Dubuque to La Crosse Squirrel leaned out the passenger window and snapped the 261 at speed. Later, at La Crescent, Minnesota, Squirrel got some great shots of the Indian Rapids, the Olympian Hiawatha Skydome observation car which was designed by Brooks Stevens just before the train crossed the Mississippi River into La Crosse.
Squirrel always preferred to travel by train. For him, first-class on Amtrak was the way to go. He made many trips between Wisconsin and North Carolina or California. One time, at my suggestion, he and JT took a bus to Chicago to ride the Empire Builder to Minneapolis on a rare-mileage trip that was detoured over the BNSF due to flooding on the Canadian Pacific in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
He also made a few journeys by private railcar, and like that rare-mileage trip on Amtrak, I was always envious about them whenever we discussed trains which was often.
Which leads me to a little oddity.
In all the years I’ve known Squirrel, despite both of us being big railfans, we never took a railfan trip together. All of our railfanning, together, was done down at The Grumpy Troll, or The Firehouse over a few beers…..sharing stories and photos of our own railfan exploits rather than driving off somewhere and railfanning together. Instead, I would share all the excruciating details of the day the Empire Builder, Amtrak 8, arrived in La Crosse 8 hours and 14 minutes late, complete with photos….while Squirrel would reminisce, say, about an Amtrak trip to California many years ago when a passenger he’d just had supper with passed away during the night and the train was stopped for several hours in Albuquerque waiting for the coroner to show up.
It was moments like that where Squirrel and I conjured up magic worlds of trains out of mere words and pictures that I will miss forever.
On Sunday, September 26, 2004, John Kerry stopped in Mt. Horeb during his campaign trip to prepare for the presidential debates. Squirrel had gotten word of this from his contacts in Dane County Emergency Management where he’d worked before his retirement. So when I headed down to The Firehouse to watch the Colts/Packers game which due to tee off at 3:00 and saw Squirrel walking OUT of the Firehouse, I could not believe what I was seeing at first.
Then Squirrel said, “Michael….John Kerry is going to be at the Main Street Pub & Grill….” And off we went, past the gauntlet of county deputies and on into Main Street. We met John Kerry, had a nice chat with him, and the next day, to be honest we were both astonished to find our picture with John Kerry on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal. It was also the most downloaded photo on Yahoo News worldwide that week.
This is the only photo of both me and Squirrel, btw.
I remember the utter horror and astonishment that Squirrel felt one day when he came into The Firehouse and saw me drinking a can of HAMMS. I immediately answered by singing the old HAMMS beer jingle from the 60’s. “From the land of sky blue waters…..HAMMS the beer refreshing, HAMMS!!” Squirrel was also a bit bewildered when he saw me with a bottle of PABST. While the HAMMS a no go, I was able to cajole Squirrel into posing, albeit reluctantly, with a bottle of PBR.
Squirrel was more about quality in his beer. Craft beer as opposed to crap beer. His favourites were the MAGGIE and the HOPPA LOPPA at the Grumpy Troll. Down at the Firehouse it was HOPALICIOUS from Ale Asylum.
Wherever he was, if there was a brewpub, he was in favour of it….and he favoured it with his presence. And his presence made it a better place. Always.
A wonderful, kind man is gone forever now, gone from our mortal coil….but there will always be a spirit of him, lurking where some might least expect it…..in a grace note, or a chord, or lyric of a song….or suddenly emerging in the fruity hop nose exploding from a bitter IPA with a soul-enriching malty finish. Squirrel always believed that energy is neither created or destroyed….so his energy is among us and it will, in some breathless moment, pop up and enthrall us, and brighten our world.
Squirrel always like to say, “It’s all about SCIENCE!”
And there’s a poem by the great science-fictions writer Isaac Asimov that is apropos:
- In memory yet green, in joy still felt,
- The scenes of life rise sharply into view.
- We triumph; Life’s disasters are undealt,
- And while all else is old, the world is new.
That was Squirrel in a nutshell ((pun both intended, and not)).
I should end with that, I suppose, but I can’t forget his oldest friend of all….
Vern Landmark knew Squirrel since they were in kindergarten, and I can picture them both being two little devils back then. As adults they were two little devils, so just imagine….
This was a tough loss for Vern, but he and I were there when Squirrel traded the happening world for his eternal private railcar. Death, you see, is as much about the living as it is about the dead. Squirrel’s death hit Vern like a ton of bricks…enough bricks to build a hundred railroad stations. But it was better that way, to be there at the end, sad and terrible as it was, than to receive a cold and impersonal telegram in the middle of the night.
Vern has a million and two thousand more stories to tell about Squirrel than I’ll ever know. More stories, I’m sure than there are visible stars in the sky. I hope someday he’ll tell them all.
I hope all of Squirrel’s friends will tell their tales and fill their emptiness with dreams and stories all of us can share. Squirrel would have wanted it that way….I’m sure of that.
We’ve been left behind, of course….the train has left the station way too early and carried Squirrel away. All we can do is watch the FRED, it’s red-light blinking blinking blinking in the night until it’s gone and the knocked down signal returns to green and all is silent.
All we can do is tell stories and memories and hopes and dreams. The same as we’ve always done and the same as we always will do. Only now, there’s a Squirrel sized hole in our world. And it’s up to us to fill it….and be better, kinder people in the process.
I guess I’ve written both too little and too much. There aren’t enough words to do Squirrel justice, but I’ve tried.
I will miss him dearly. I will miss talking politics with him, talking trains with him, drinking beer with him, and annoying him with soccer scores.
I will miss the day I got annoyed with him and flicked his hat off his head and it flew through the air like it was a focking rocket ship.
I will miss the day I cried when he sent me and my wife a sympathy card when our dog Mac died.
I will miss a million things about him and whole lot more. And so will you, even if you never knew him.
When the funeral home finally came for him, and the hospice honoured him as he was wheeled out to the waiting hearse, we played a song for him that was poignant and sad and apropos: “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul & Mary. And anyone who was not in tears was not human.
But I don’t want to end with sadness. That train has left the station. Instead I’ll leave you with a song of hopefulness that was near and dear to Squirrel’s heart: