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Free as the Byrds – Flathead Beacon

Free as the Byrds - Flathead Beacon

“Aw, the Byrds all want to fly,” Maureen Byrd says, the irritation in her voice obscuring the unwitting pun she’s delivered. “The ground is not fast enough.”

Byrd is, on this second, seated round a big eating room desk together with her youngest son’s arm round her shoulders and her two different youngsters — and their three spouses — ringing the remainder of the desk. They’ve been smiling, laughing and joking for hours, pouring glasses of purple wine and sharing tales about their lives and the lifetime of a person sitting just some ft behind them, on a recliner, together with his grandchildren enjoying throughout him.

The person, Maureen’s husband Chris, is the supply of Maureen’s irritation, or a minimum of he was some 20 years in the past when he introduced residence a RANS airplane package, a 10,000-piece puzzle that might someday grow to be, he hoped, a practical method for this Byrd to soar. Chris labored on his aircraft for years, painstakingly assembling the fever-dream equal of an IKEA bookcase. The aircraft got here with a 1,000-page guide, and Chris learn each phrase, jotting down notes in the margins as he went alongside till someday, round the flip of the 21st Century, it was completed, so he took the aircraft to a small airstrip close to the West Glacier KOA and ready to unfold his wings.


Chris was a licensed pilot however it had been a minimum of 10 years since his final flight, and, getting ready to take the maiden journey in a aircraft he assembled himself, his spouse and two of his youngsters got here alongside to observe the spectacle and, grimly, to know the place to search for his physique if issues went sideways.

Virtually instantly, issues went very sideways. Maureen screamed as the aircraft rose from the airstrip, tilted violently and dove instantly at a thick patch of timber.

“I thought for sure he was going to crash,” Maureen says.

Chris didn’t crash, although, and as soon as he mastered the controls, he ended up enjoying in the wilderness for hours, training landings in the backcountry whereas his household was ready again at the airstrip, not sure of when, or if, he can be coming again.

He did come again, in fact, as a result of he all the time did. When he was 14 years previous and drove the 430 miles to Enterprise, Oregon by himself on a tiny 50cc motorbike to work on a farm, Chris got here again. When he hopped on a pogo keep on with his household’s retailer and continued to pogo down the aisles as he shopped, he got here again, nonetheless pogoing. When he was working at the Hungry Horse Dam, a job he beloved, and determined to tiptoe round the dam’s glory gap for nonetheless unknown causes — a daft stunt that, had he fallen, would have definitely killed him — he got here again.

“One of the most confident human beings I’ve ever known,” O’Brien, Chris and Maureen’s oldest son, stated. “Everything that he did was with full confidence. He never wavered. Never backed down.”

The Byrd household. Courtesy photograph

Bernida and Herman Byrd got here to Northwest Montana to assist construct the Hungry Horse Dam, and in 1947 they gave delivery to a son, Chris, who would years later tempt destiny at that exact same dam. Chris is considered one of 12 siblings, and he and his brothers and sisters added one other 60 grandchildren to the brood a era later.

In the late 1960s Chris matriculated to Carroll School in Helena the place he took a freshman biology class and was partnered with a younger lady, Maureen (herself certainly one of 10 siblings from a farm in South Dakota), on the first day. They married in 1969 and can rejoice their 50th anniversary subsequent yr.

Chris ultimately graduated from Montana State College in 1970 with a level in plant and soil science, earlier than he and his new bride joined the Peace Corps and have been stationed in Ecuador, though they have been, in Maureen’s phrases, “not successful volunteers,” battling the lack of construction that then plagued the Peace Corps program.

Chris Byrd and his spouse Maureen. Greg Lindstrom

In order that they got here again to the United States, settling shortly thereafter in a two-bed room cabin simply 500 yards away from the residence the place Chris was raised, and only a block from the household enterprise. Byrd’s Meals Mart, situated the place U.S. Freeway 2 now runs by way of the Dangerous Rock Canyon, would turn out to be a staple of the area and make use of quite a few Herman and Bernida’s youngsters, together with Chris and Maureen. The store included a laundromat, trailer park and butcher store, the place Chris reduce recreation and Maureen wrapped it. Ultimately, a liquor retailer opened inside, and Chris and Maureen took possession of that enterprise, later shifting it to its personal constructing and including a second liquor retailer, Montana Liquor and Wine in Kalispell. Two of their youngsters adopted them into the household enterprise, with Brenden taking management of the Kalispell retailer and O’Brien and his spouse, Melanie, opening O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine in Columbia Falls, in 2004, 4 years earlier than the household bought the Hungry Horse retailer.

The liquor and wine enterprise was by no means a part of the plan, however dwelling in Northwest Montana was, and for the affable Maureen and onerous-working Chris, they made an excellent pair in retail, serving their clients with aplomb, doing virtually all of their very own development and, in fact, recruiting their youngsters to assist.

“If somebody had told me then that this is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, I would have told them they were crazy,” Maureen stated.

“We live where people come to vacation,” she added. “They get two weeks out of the year and we lived here year-round. And it was worth it.”

The land in Martin Metropolis that Chris and Maureen personal, surrounded by different Byrds, is a spectacular piece of earth. And the place as soon as stood a cabin now stands a stunning home that Chris and Maureen constructed themselves, except for the odd help from a couple of relations to boost the partitions. Off the kitchen, a big sliding glass door presents a wide ranging backdrop, one thing straight out of a Montana tourism brochure. There are snow-capped mountains, dense forests and a bucolic creek splintered from the Center Fork Flathead River operating by means of all of it.

Chris and Maureen would increase their household right here, and years after that two of their youngsters — O’Brien and Tiffany — would be a part of them in houses close by, a flock of grandchildren in tow. In the 70-plus years since the Byrds first landed in Dangerous Rock Canyon, jobs haven’t all the time been straightforward to return by, there has not often been cash to spare, however the household has continued.

“That was the mentality of this Martin City/Hungry Horse area,” Brenden, the Byrds’ youngest son, stated. “There’s a lot of other families up here, but the Byrd family’s stuck it out in tried and true times, when there was no income, when there was no economics here, they found a way to stick it out and stay and keep roots in this area.”


Brenden and his siblings are spending most of the night again at the kitchen desk cracking one another up. One story particularly has everybody roaring with laughter.

“I still have people ask me now, like, ‘I just don’t see you and your dad’s resemblance,’” Brenden says. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m not bald.’”

The punch line kills on this specific room. Brenden, tall and lean with a full head of hair, really does look nothing like Chris, who’s of common construct and stricken with male sample baldness. That, and Brenden is darkish-skinned, like his sister, Tiffany, and their brother, O’Brien, who has a medium complexion. Maureen and Chris are very white. The couple had talked about adoption from the earliest levels of their relationship.

The Byrd household. Courtesy photograph

“We just felt like (adoption) was something we could do and something we should do,” Maureen stated. “So I never got pregnant, and then everything just kind of fell into place. It wasn’t traumatic for me or Chris; he didn’t care if we adopted or had our own. He was very happy with adoption.”

It was an commercial in a church newspaper that first alerted Chris and Maureen to Catholic Social Providers, an adoption company, and never lengthy thereafter they acquired a letter in the mail telling them that their son, O’Brien, was able to be introduced residence. The household of two turned three when O’Brien was two months previous, in 1977, and their lives modified instantly.

“It was a religious experience for me,” Maureen stated. “I wasn’t prepared for how much I loved him. I thought I’d love him like I love my brothers and sisters, and it was totally different. It gives me shivers right now. It was really amazing.”

Not lengthy after, Tiffany and Brenden joined their older brother, and from the very starting all three of them knew they have been adopted, and all three now know who their start households are, at Maureen’s urging. It by no means was, and nonetheless isn’t, an enormous a part of any of the youngsters’s identities. Years later, the truth is, Brenden and his spouse, Megan, would undertake a daughter, additionally by way of Catholic Social Providers.

“I forgot I was adopted for 99.9 percent of every day,” O’Brien stated. “That’s my mom, that’s my brother, that’s my sister. The fact that we were brown — really brown in the summers — (and) our parents are really white didn’t even dawn on me. Like I never even thought about it.”

That didn’t imply everybody else on the town was so colorblind. O’Brien was referred to as the n-phrase by a classmate in second grade, and ran residence when the boy and two buddies challenged him to a struggle after faculty at some point. When he acquired house, Chris requested him why he ran. The subsequent day, when the similar factor occurred, O’Brien punched the boy in the face. That was the finish of that.

There have been a handful of different moments tinged with racism, however for the most half the youngsters stated they have been unbothered rising up, one thing they virtually definitely owed partially to the undeniable fact that they have been in the Byrd clan. Herman, their grandfather, was a famous group chief — the boys stated they as soon as talked themselves out of hassle when a cousin requested a livid home-owner if he knew Herman Byrd — and the youngsters grew up surrounded by a gaggle of a minimum of 10 intrepid cousins who caught intently collectively. It was an upbringing that feels like a piece of fiction.

The Byrd household photographs and scrapbook. Greg Lindstrom

“Did you read ‘The Adventures of (Huckleberry) Finn’ as a kid?” Brenden asks. “OK, (our childhood) pretty much followed right along the line.”

The household virtually by no means watched tv, had no video video games in the home and would collect collectively for breakfast and dinner day by day. In between was pure freedom.

“You’d wake up, have breakfast, meet the cousins and disappear until somebody had to be somewhere,” Brenden stated. “It’s just amazing to imagine, as kids, to have almost a 30-acre piece of Forest Service property that surrounds (you) to run free and wild.”

And, as one may surmise for the youngsters of a person who lived most of his life with out worry, there was no scarcity of childhood journey, whether or not it was driving bikes, getting pulled behind snowmobiles or leaping off cliffs.

“If I ever needed money to, like, go out with a girl, I would go to (mom),” O’Brien stated. “If I ever wanted to go camping with my buddies or take my motorbike somewhere, I’d ask dad.”


In Might, Chris Byrd hopped in his automotive and drove away, and his household was terrified that this time he wouldn’t come again.

It was a decade in the past, in hindsight, that Maureen says she and her youngsters first noticed the indicators that one thing was fallacious. For Chris’ spouse, it was the method he obsessed over the constructing of their Kalispell liquor retailer, a lot in order that he skipped a deliberate journey to go to his daughter and son-in-regulation, then dwelling in South Korea. For Chris’ two boys, each highschool soccer coaches, it was the approach their dad misplaced monitor of their seasons, one thing he used to comply with intently.

“You’re just not listening, you’re not paying attention, you don’t maybe care as much any more,” O’Brien remembered considering. “But when mom first said, ‘Hey, I think dad’s got dementia,’ I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, that makes more sense.’”

In 2014, docs found shrinkage in the frontal lobe of Chris’ mind, an incurable, irreversible degradation of the assured, sensible and considerate man who constructed virtually his complete life with simply his naked arms. Docs advised Maureen they consider the shrinkage is said to a trauma, however nobody is certain what that trauma was or when it occurred, and it wouldn’t matter even when they did.

“For me it’s been every day, just enjoying every little moment that I have with him,” Tiffany stated. “And just loving him the way he is.”

The Byrd household. Courtesy photograph

Lately, Chris spends a great deal of time together with his grandchildren, who watch the similar cartoon again and again, an expertise their grandpa doesn’t appear to thoughts. As his situation has worsened, the household has bought a watch he wears that tracks his location, and Maureen now wants to wash her husband, who has fallen in the bathe greater than as soon as. However, they are saying, Chris appears at peace.

“I am really grateful that he’s happy; well, not happy, he’s content,” Maureen stated. “He’s not happy, he’s not sad. He just is.”

When Chris jumped in the automotive and took off in Might, his watch wasn’t monitoring his location. Nobody had any concept the place he was. A bulletin was put out by the Flathead County Sheriff’s Workplace and native TV stations shared the alert. He made all of it the strategy to Eureka, one way or the other, earlier than he was found, safely, however alongside the approach the Byrds heard from dozens of different relations, associates and even complete strangers who knew the household, knew of the household, or simply needed to assist.

“That’s how deep this family is in this area,” Brenden stated. “It was amazing the phone calls from random people, like, ‘What can I do?’”

What the Byrds will do is carry on, hold constructing, hold serving their clients and hold collectively as a household. There are not any plans to maneuver Chris to a convalescent house — maybe nothing sounds much less Byrd-like — however as an alternative to maintain Chris concerned as lengthy as he can. When Chris’s dad, Herman, suffered a stroke late in his life, his sons nonetheless strapped him to bikes and snowmobiles, an entire half of his physique limp, so he didn’t need to cease dwelling all the strategy to the bitter finish.

“There’s just so little of what he was like left,” Maureen stated. “He’s still pleasant, thank God, but I think it’s been a hard adjustment for all of us. We miss him.”

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