One rarely sees James Frederick Claffey, without his four-legged companion. Buster. Downtown Buster Brown. I’ve passed by them often.
One of my most missed photo opportunities came the day I was on my way back to work and saw the man and his dog sitting patiently on the corner of Michigan Ave. and Center Street. There was a small placard which said, “Dog Petting Therapy - 25 cents.” I kicked myself for not having the camera with me, but also pondered the rest of the day about how many people (or dogs) received counseling that day.
The opportunity has finally come around to ask. After chasing him down on foot, Mr. Claffey agreed to an interview and to be this month’s Savvy Senior. I had to promise not to make it sound like an obituary, and I wasn’t sure how to interpret that, but I knew ahead of time this would be a Savvy Senior like no other.
“I’m a different fish in town,” says Jim. “Some know me from writing letters to the editor, some people know me for my poetry, but it’s Downtown Buster Brown that has made me famous.”
I’m well familiar with his letters to the editor he shares regularly with the Clearwater Tribune. They are well written, thought provoking and quite entertaining in general. Quite often, they make me laugh. Downtown Buster Brown is frequently mentioned in his letters and has gained quite a following, and if Buster could speak, I’m sure he would have a few stories of his own to add.
I also fondly remember being one of many kids in the neighborhood to visit the girls in the Claffey home. It was always full of kids, full of laughter and even a little chaotic on occasion. How could it not be a little crazy with so many kids?
I believe Jim was in the military at the time, I don’t remember much about him. The years pass and that’s how this story came to be.
In a nutshell…
Near the very beginning of our interview, Jim tells me, “There’s seven things that describe me in a nutshell:
Artist, poet, cartographer…those are things I do.
I’m a Vietnam era veteran. Note, I say ‘Vietnam era’. I never went to Nam. I was stationed at Kitzingen Army Airfield in Germany. I was an Avionics Communications Equipment repairman, and fixed radios for the helicopters. Many soldiers coming back from Nam were sent to our base to fulfill their term. I heard their stories. That’s where some of the poems come from.
I am an alumni of both LCSC and the University of Idaho, with an accumulation of 180 credit hours.” (He later adds that he worked for the Forest Service and the Corps of Engineers during the summers and all the way through the month of November) “I’d save my money for tuition, room and board during the spring semester. When I went to college on the GI bill – that was my party money.)
I’m a student of biblical prophecy, an amateur astronomer, and author of ‘Defiant Cry,’ a book of poetry.
And I was reminded to tell you,” he adds with a grin, “I’m a great supporter of Women’s Rights.”
In retrospect of our interview, I can think of one more thing he talks about at length which helps to describe him: a self-made “mountain man and guide of adventure.”
Author and poet
I ask him to back up a little and tell me more about writing,
Jim explains that he started writing poetry while he was laid up with a knee injury he received when a cable snapped while he was logging. After the third day of being home he said he couldn’t stand to just sit and watch TV for two months, so he wrote. “It just went on from there. I wrote poetry on a regular basis for about 10 years.”
Poems in Defiant Cry cover a wide range of subjects, reflecting on nature, on war, history, family and Roy Rogers. There’s one about seeing his aging mother holding his newborn son and the eternal image formed in his mind of that moment. His book is available for the asking and $10. I found his collection of thoughts to be well-worth the investment.
Jim continued, “My next writing experience was writing letters to the editor. I read other editorials, but most of them just seemed to be complaining. I try to send letters that are funny, and hopefully uplifting. Life is kind of funny sometimes.”
Jim also lists the jobs he has worked throughout his lifetime. I was astonished at how he remembered the dates of each one as if he had just copied them off of a list, accounting for each year beginning in 1969 and ending when he retired in 2014. He was no slacker, he assured me.
Jim worked for the Forest Service, Konkolville Lumber, U.S. Army, the Corps of Engineers, Idaho Transportation Department, at a fish cannery in Bristol Bay, AK. The list includes construction, logging, and concrete work, to name a few of the skills he’s acquired.
“I never really had a career per se, I just worked to make money to feed my family. I never had any one particular job that I could have stayed with for life, but I did love working for the Forest Service and the Highway Department, running heavy equipment, plowing snow, fixing potholes.
His thoughts and ideas are more intense than one might anticipate at first glance, but Jim’s lifestyle is simple. “Material things aren’t important to me. I never wanted to be rich, I could be happy living in a tent.”
“Ask me why I don’t drive,” he said.
I wasn’t going to ask this question. I assumed I knew why he didn’t drive and I was rather surprised by his answer. I was set straight.
“I don’t drive because I drink,” explained Jim. “I’ve never gotten a DUI and I don’t intend to get one now. I enjoy a drink or two, so I walk.”
When asked what is important now, Jim says that he’d like to see his book of poems on Amazon. He recites the first verse of Defiant Cry, a poem about a death to the fight between a dove and a hawk.
I ask Jim to tell me what he thought most people would be surprised to learn about him.
“I think most people would be surprised that I’m a Christian,” he said without hesitation, then added, “Sometimes, not a very good Christian, but I believe in Jesus.”
I decide this may be a good time to ask about being a student of biblical prophecy.
Jim tells me he faithfully studied the Herbert Armstrong Bible course. It was a correspondence class, where he would receive study materials in the mail with a pamphlet of questions to complete, followed by a test. He would get new materials every four months, for about five years.
I didn’t ask if he graduated.
Women and children
We didn’t talk much about women, but I wanted to ask about his children.
“I never hooked up with a babe,” he started. I take this to mean he never had a serious relationship until he was in his 40’s.
Jim said he had four children and explained that the two oldest children were step-children, although he loved them and raised them as his own from the beginning. “Then I have two more with another woman I was with that are mine. I love them all with my whole heart and soul, but it was little Joe that rocked my world.
“My wife was so upset with me that I didn’t feel the same about Francis, Joshua and Christina, but I couldn’t help it. That little kid and I – we clicked and I figured out what life was all about.
“Holding him, that tiny baby boy showed me a love I had never experienced in my whole life. For the first time in my life, I understood. I finally knew what unconditional love truly was.”
No obituary here
So, that’s the story of James F. Claffey in a nutshell. He isn’t an easy person to catch up with, but he’s still very much alive and most likely he and Buster are on their way to the next watering hole while Jim works on a new letter.
Many thanks to Jim’s sisters, Janet and Susie, who created the beautiful memory albums (one for each sibling) dedicated to their parents. Most of the photos for this article were borrowed from the album.