Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
Ruth, my Grandpa Daniel’s sister, acquired a camera and started shooting home videos on eight-millimeter film sometime during the early 1950s. I watched the reels with my Grandma Francine earlier this year; the movies are subject to overexposure, but they offer a unique and colorful glimpse into a time and place that I have only ever heard about and imagined (oddly enough) in black-and-white.
The legendary flood of 1952 (wherein my grandma, pregnant with my father, crossed the Milk River in a boat to deliver in a hospital) still rages on Ruth’s reels, and Ruth’s siblings — most of them now buried in the Hillview Cemetery in Hinsdale, Mont., — are very much alive in these hazy frames, playing cards at a kitchen table, water-skiing on the Frenchman Dam, wrestling one another in fields, smoking cigarettes, and laughing in silent voices.
One short video features the Jensens (minus baby Keith, who died at 6 months of whooping cough) together in Grenora, N.D., near the family homestead from which my ancestors had departed as children in the wake of their mother’s death. On the grainy film, they have returned to the farm as young adults for the funeral of their father. The Jensen sons are so alike in their physical demeanor and bearing that it is nearly impossible to distinguish one from another. This is the last surviving image of the nine Jensen siblings together. Four months to the day after their father’s funeral, on Dec. 14, 1954, the remnant would assemble once again in Eastern Montana to bury two of their own. No photographs or films exist to bear witness to that event.
Yellowed and fragile newspaper clippings tell the story of how two men in their 20s died of carbon monoxide poisoning while camping in a trailer on a remote Bureau of Land Management construction site on the Montana Hi-Line. These brothers, Marlin and Burril, had spent the larger portion of their short lives together. They even managed to stay close to each other throughout World War II while serving as Seabees, and photos place them side by side in Cuba and other shores unknown.
These brothers made light of military discipline and gave gifts of their sailor caps to various nephews, and the camera captured Marlin wearing one of the hats turned inside out in playfulness. This illicit transfer of government property was not the first time the boys shared a joke at Uncle Sam’s expense — a number of tools embossed with the title “U.S. Navy” still hang in my Grandpa Daniel’s shop. Ruth also filmed the soldiers racing around her farmyard in a unique sort of Jeep. According to my father, two military officials once tracked the jalopy to the high plains of Montana, but the serial numbers had been punched out and ground off, and charges of theft could not be proven.
Nevertheless, Marlin and Burril finished their terms of service honorably and returned to Hinsdale to live in their brother Frank’s bunkhouse. They worked for the family business, General Earth Construction, building roads, reservoirs and dams.
While Grandma Francine generally contributed a colorful running commentary on the family footage, she became strangely quiet whenever Marlin and Burril were on screen. I asked her what the brothers were like. Marlin loved to tell a story, she said, and he could entertain for hours. I can easily believe this of his personality; he is often pictured with a cockeyed grin, chatting with those around him or making inside jokes, a cigarette hanging loose in his lips, at ease and in lively form.
Burril, in contrast, was shy and a man of few words — but then, still waters sometimes run deep. Burril seemed to me the handsomest of all the brothers. He was also undoubtedly the toughest, according to Grandpa Daniel. Grandma Francine noted that the Jensen siblings were mostly blue-eyed, but Burril stood apart with beautiful brown eyes. Francine’s words and tone indicate a certain fondness, but then, I guess, my grandma has always felt greatly indebted to Burril. In a way, it was Burril who gave Francine something of a second chance at life.
You see, it was my grandparents and their children who were appointed to stay in the lonely trailer that cold night in December, and it was Burril who insisted that he and Marlin go in their place. And so it was that death came to these brothers not violently in battle but silently, without shape or color, suffocating them in their sleep. According to my father, a number of reservoirs in the area, “Hard Luck” and “Finale” in particular, are so named on maps, and in local lore, specifically in memoriam of their passing.
Francine helped arrange the funeral. Ruth had asked her to pick out coffins for the boys, and she personally saw to it that they were buried in suits. While going about the business of attending to death, Francine herself was born again. When Francine heard the bodies of the Jensen brothers had been discovered dead in that trailer, she reached for her Bible, and she has held the Good Book in her hands every morning the sun has risen since Dec. 9, 1954. The pages have been ground fine and her pen has marked nearly all of the canon with underlines and commentary. Francine was not ignorant of scriptures in her youth —she had been raised Catholic — but she knew a great deal of religion and only little of God until Marlin and Burril died together on the snow-covered and windswept prairie. It seemed evident to her that God had plucked her and her family from the clutches of certain death for His own purposes. So she lived, and went about her Father’s business.
What becomes of the things we leave behind? While my father and his brother Carter echo the brothers in their physical appearance, neither Marlin nor Burril had heirs. I do not know who cleared the bunkhouse of Marlin and Burril’s worldly possessions. The Jeep was sold years ago. The Navy tools still see regular service, and my dad retains Burril’s treasured copy of “Audel’s Mathematics and Calculation for Mechanics” among his own books. The sailor caps have been lost and now exist only on film and in a few photos.
It could be said that not much is left of Marlin and Burril beyond their names; names which are engraved on a veterans memorial in the Hinsdale Legion Park, and likewise upon two identical white tombstones that stand side by side in a cemetery. The brothers now sleep in a valley that was carved years ago by the floodplain of the Missouri River, before glaciers rerouted its natural course.
In some ways, the death of Marlin and Burril Jensen left as much of a legacy as their lives. You see, in small Montana towns, some families are defined by tragedy, some families know redemption, and nearly every family is marked by both. Every morning my grandma reaches for her Bible, and as captured on camera, Marlin and Burril stand laughing and beckoning from the banks of a muddy Milk River flooding in a timeless spring.
The water is wide.
Brittany Jensen grew up in Hinsdale (located somewhere between Canada and North Dakota) and now lives in Billings. She graduated from Rocky Mountain College and works for a railroad all the livelong day.