I’d like to open up a dialogue, which may only result in a monologue.
We can’t change the past, but we can build the future. Consider this letter an introduction of sorts, from a man who was once your brother and who would gladly suffer in order to be again. Even if you have no interest in any form of reunion with me or anyone else, I implore you to read this missive in its entirety. The following words contain the most potent and valuable vaccine I can devise, and seeing as I have become a professional storyteller, it’s appropriate that this vital dose of medicine arrive in the form of two tales—both of which are, to my knowledge, retold as precisely and faithfully as they were told to me by people who were there.
The Well of Resentment
Our first story begins over a century ago, and when I say ‘our story,’ that is precisely what I mean.
A young German man named William crossed the Atlantic ocean alone in search of a bright future. He took odd jobs on the east coast of the United States, demonstrating his work ethic and wits as he worked his way to the Mississippi River with an eye on the vast, untamed territory called then (as now) Big Sky Country.
He accumulated some small measure of wealth working the Mississippi before crossing it, and after doing so, he sent for the woman who would become his wife. She was Norwegian, and fifteen years old if memory serves, when she answered the call, boarded a ship, and came to meet him. Marriages were different then, as villages and townships in Europe held longstanding relationships with other villages. These relationships forged deep, binding ties between communities, sometimes even between communities located in different nations. Some of these ties were economic, some were fraternal, and some were geographically convenient, but all of these intercommunity relationships were based on a level of trust and commitment that is largely lost to the modern world.
So when William sent for the woman who would become his wife, he did so in a sense as a military officer requesting support from headquarters after establishing a position in a contested frontier. His wife’s family knew the risks, but also knew that he came from a family of hardworking, intelligent and adventurous people. They knew their little girl would have a better future with him than she would if she stayed in her homeland due to the instability both before and after what was then known as the Great War, but which we now call World War I.
When she arrived on the East Coast, she made her way to meet him on the Mississippi, and together they moved west until they arrived in Montana. They acquired a large tract of land, raised horses and cattle, grew crops, mined coal, and cut lumber, all on an industrial scale. It wasn’t long before they had two hundred head of working livestock and fifty employees, which William’s brother came over to help him manage. Theirs was a thriving business, and their family blossomed with children—which included a young man named William Jr.
Then the Great Depression hit, followed by the Dust Bowl, and William Sr. lost everything he had worked so hard to build. Their business died, they had to sell their livestock, and eventually they even lost their land due to some underhandedness on the part of the lawyer William Sr. had recruited to help him acquire the property in the first place. The Great Depression had already removed the possibility of acquiring financing to help support flagging operations like his, and so William Sr. had no choice but to abandon his homestead and move west in search of water to grow crops. His dream was shattered, his family was brought to destitution, and he had no choice but to head further west in search of rain and mere survival.
They settled in a place called Winlock, where a resentful and bitter William Sr. acquired scattered parcels of land using what few funds remained to him and then borrowed money to build a house for his family. He built a little house and a barn on Tennessee Road, where his family tamed the land, and established a small farm centered on a strawberry patch in the corner field where horses now graze. They dug a deep well using shovels and concrete culvert sections, which they covered with wooden planks and surrounded with a handmade pumphouse to match the one they lived in. They used that well for drinking water and to irrigate the entire property, including the strawberries which, after consecutive bumper crops allowed the family to pay off the debt of acquiring the property and building the house.
But William Sr. was unable to move on from what happened in Montana. At some point, he learned that the land in Montana which used to be his had yielded the largest oil strike in Montana State’s history. The lawyer who had wronged him and stolen his family’s hard-earned estate (probably with foreknowledge of the land’s multi-million dollar oil field) was now the wealthiest man in town, while William Sr. was back where he started so many years earlier: with little but a bowed back, bare land and broken dreams to call his own.
So one day, he left Winlock, returned to Montana, walked into the lawyer’s office, and shot him in the chest. With the lawyer bleeding and gasping what certainly appeared to be his final breaths, William Sr. sat down in the chair opposite the man who had taken everything from him and waited for the police to arrive. They shortly did so, whereupon he told them the details of his situation and said he would accept his fate. They arrested him and sent for his eldest sons, including our grandfather, William Jr., who drove the family pickup to attend his speedy trial in Montana.
As it happened, despite his effort, William Sr. failed to kill the lawyer, who received prompt medical attention and survived. The trial was therefore held for attempted murder, and after a ludicrously brief deliberation of the available evidence (including William Sr.’s testimoney), the jury came back with a verdict of ‘Not Guilty.’ William Sr.’s lawyer rushed him out of the courtroom, where on the courthouse steps he told our grandfather to drive as fast as they could to the state border and never return since there would most certainly be a retrial, conviction, and hanging due to the lawyer’s influence.
The men returned to Winlock, WA, where William Sr. became a bitter shell of his former self. He did little to help his family, who worked the new farm as best they knew how, and spent his days brooding over things he could not change. He drank heavily and soured his relationships with his wife and children, before eventually leaving a second time. He was shortly thereafter found dead in a motel in Idaho, where the police determined his death to be a suicide. Our grandfather and his siblings disbelieved that version of events, and were convinced that he had gone back to Montana to finish the job but the lawyer had gotten to him first.
William Sr. was a deeply flawed but hyper-capable man. As a teen he strode across the Atlantic Ocean with nothing but ambition and ability, which he used to build both a thriving business and a strong family in a strange, new world before fate conspired to take the former from him. He resented the circumstances of his sudden change in fortune, and that resentment blinded him to the value of what he still had: a strong, hardworking family who needed nothing but his leadership to flourish in their new home. His resentment caused him to overlook this rarest, most precious of resources, and eventually even that was taken from him by his all-consuming darkness.
You might think our story finishes there, but we’re only half done. Resentment has not yet finished wreaking havoc on our line, as our next tale keenly demonstrates.
Jeffry Charles Wachter was the third child of William Jr. and his wife, Doris. He was strong and intelligent, with an IQ north of 150 and the strength as a sixteen-year-old to buck 60lb haybales one-handed to the top of a six-high stack in the bed of a pickup (yours truly was never able to match this feat, though I could buck 110lb bales the same height using two hands). When he was working in his twenties at Blasen & Blasen Lumber in Portland, Oregon, he would play chess in his head with his fellow workers as he moved from station to station in the small lumber mill where he learned how to operate and maintain industrial machinery. He would play six or eight games simultaneously, never losing track of his position despite having no board to refer to, and he would almost always win.
He and his elder brother, Robert, lived togethr in Portland, Oregon, which was and remains a rough town. As a pair of redheads in an urban environment, they were frequently subject to racial tensions and Jeff was not the type to let an epithet pass unmolested. Many times while they were driving through town, a group of men would shout ‘Honkey!’ ‘Hick!’ or something similar, which invariably prompted Jeff to jump out of the moving car and make his way to the group while his brother desperately looked for a place to park so that Jeff’s odds would be better than five-on-one if things turned violent (which, with Jeff involved, they frequently did). More often than not, Jeff would square off on the biggest of the bunch and end the affair with one move (usually a piledriver to the pavement, which Jeff wryly told me was his favorite combat technique since, in his words, ‘there’s no defending it’).
It was on those streets where Jeff discovered he possessed rare talent for violence, though paradoxically his appetite for it never really matched his ability. His brother helped him find a dojo where full-contact Tae Kwon Do was practiced by an ultra-competitive team right there in Portland, and here Jeff honed his skills as a heavyweight (despite being 20-40lbs smaller than his competitors) until eventually taking Third in Nationals and making the Olympic Team as an alternate.
But despite all of his ability, Jeff harbored a stain deep down, and it was the stain of resentment.
He and his brother, Robert, struck out on their own to build their own lumber business after learning all they could at Blasen & Blasen. Jeff’s raw ability and problem-solving capacity were second-to-none, but his work ethic was far from ideal. He would sometimes take days or even weeks off from work, during which time his elder brother would have to hold things together. When Jeff was there, production skyrocketed and quality improved. When he wasn’t, things deteriorated. The brothers argued about this, as brothers do, and Jeff felt like he wasn’t being fairly appreciated. He began to resent his interactions, and eventually they parted company.
Years passed, and Jeff never made anything substantial happen on his own while Robert built a thriving business with over fifty employees. During that time, Jeff worked for a few operations throughout the South and Midwest, helping them fix their mills and streamline their production, but he just couldn’t put anything together on his own. He even teamed up with his younger brother, Paul, who had also entered the lumber industry as a skilled machinist and mill supervisor, but the two quarreled constantly and parted company under similar circumstances to Jeff’s parting with his elder brother.
After lumber Jeff even became involved in a local tech company which provided internet access back in the day of BBS’s and dial-up internet, but he found no more success here than he had in lumber. He became convinced that his failures in life were external in origin, that the problem was with everyone else rather than with himself, and this caused his resentment to deepen until it darkened every facet of his life.
Just a few years ago, after living in a single-wide mobile home on the wreckage of the last lumber operation he ever tried to run, sixty-two-year-old Jeff was visiting our brother Josh in Winlock. They were chatting and kibitzing, as the two of them always got along incredibly well, when a fire truck rolled past their house and made the turn toward that little farmhouse on Tennessee Road. Jeff’s eldest sister, Leanne, now lived there alone following William Jr.’s recent death. The fire truck pulled up in front of the house where Jeff and his siblings had been born and raised, prompting Josh and Jeff to hurry over in concern for what happened.
Jeff’s sister, Leanne, had been chlorinating the property’s old well that morning by dropping tablets down the shaft as is usual for well maintenance. But she wasn’t exactly physically fit, and she stepped through the rotten boards covering that old, hand-dug well and fell forty feet down into the frigid water below. Jeff’s younger brother, Paul, had been there but he had been unable to pull Leanne out of the well—and, of equal importance, he had not called over to Josh and Jeff for help.
Jeff, being a deeply flawed but hyper-capable man in the mold of his grandfather, rushed forward to help pull his sister out of the dark, frigid well, but Paul argued with Jeff. I don’t know what was said, as I wasn’t there, but the firefighters and sheriff (who had also arrived to help) eventually took Paul’s side. In no uncertain terms they ordered Jeff, the most capable and emotionally invested person on the scene, to step back.
Jeff protested, “My sister is down that well. I’m going to help get her out!” But the crew was insistent, commanding him to step back while Paul was allowed to stay. Jeff shot a dark look at Paul and said, “If you won’t treat me like family, I won’t treat you like family. We’ll settle this later.”
Josh and Jeff left the property and returned to Josh’s house, where Josh kept a travel trailer that Jeff would sleep in when he stayed over. Jeff went to the trailer alone, closed the door, and wrote a note while the crew pulled Leanne out of the well and took her to the hospital. A few hours later, Jeff emerged from the trailer and drove back over to the house of his birth. He walked up to the barn where he had worked and played with his siblings growing up, and where Paul was standing with a neighbor who lingered following the harrowing scene at the well. Jeff then said something to Paul.
No one knows what Jeff said, not even the neighbor who was right there since the neighbor happened to be deaf. But several people saw Paul turn his back on Jeff, at which point Jeff drew a pistol and shot his brother dead. After confirming he had murdered his own brother on the site of their childhood, Jeff turned the gun around and destroyed himself.
Both Jeff and Paul had one child apiece, and those children had children. Their grandchildren are denied the chance to know their grandfathers because of what happened between these estranged brothers, just as those brothers were denied the chance to know their grandfather, William Sr.
Aside from an old farm well and the common genealogy of the characters within, these tragically true tales might not appear to have anything in common. But if you take a closer look at the stage and scenes depicted, you’ll find the hand of resentment hovering like a puppeteer’s over them both.
William Sr. was unable to let go of past wrongs and material losses, and his resentment blinded him to the vast wealth he still possessed in the form of his family. Imagine what the Wachter family might have achieved with him leading his sons and grandsons, guiding them through life and helping them avoid some of the same mistakes he’d made while turning their considerable abilities to a unified purpose? I think the fact that we’ll never know might be the greatest tragedy of William Sr.’s entire story—and, indeed, our entire family’s.
Jeff had the same fundamental problem. I loved Uncle Jeff. I consider him my Second Father, and I will forever cherish his perspective, guidance, and fraternity. Here was a man who would stop whatever he was doing to have a calm, patient, informative conversation with a complete stranger if he thought he could help them understand something he himself had once struggled with. Many times, in restaurants or grocery stores, we would overhear people talking about a subject of interest and Jeff would politely engage them on the subject. Very rarely were those engagements rejected, while more usually they were met with half-hour-long enthusiasm by these complete strangers. He had a lot to offer the world, and it’s tragic that he never found a way to consistently contribute. His bitterness overcame him, eventually causing him to kill his own brother and himself, but the sad truth is resentment had already taken his life decades before Leanne fell down the well.
I see a lot of myself in Jeff, which is why understanding his end is so important to me. ‘There, but for his example, go I,’ I’ve thought to myself literally thousands of times in my life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a crossroads and asked myself two questions, ‘What would Jeff say to do here?’ followed by, ‘What would Jeff have actually done here?’ He was a profoundly wise man, but his wisdom didn’t extend far enough into his own life to keep him from drowning in despair.
Honestly, the only way I’ve been able to avoid the same all-consuming resentment which destroyed him was by recognizing when the answers to those two questions differed. This gave me confidence to turn left when he would have turned right, and to do what he said rather than what he did. I’ve since come to know that his wisdom sprang from far brighter wells than the one which eventually triggered destruction. Those bright wells were dug by men like Thomas Jefferson, Aristotle, Socrates, Zhuge Liang, Confucius, Mencius, Marcus Aurelius and a host of others. But without my uncle Jeff’s example to reference, for both good and ill, I would never have discovered the importance of those philosophers…and I’m grimly certain I would have already been fatally infected by the same strain of resentment which has already wrought so much carnage on our family tree.
You don’t owe me anything. You’ve become an adult and made your way through life without my brotherhood, so there’s no reason to expect you won’t continue doing so. But we were sundered by forces beyond our control, and torn apart by actions (and kept apart by inactions, some of them mine) the right and wrong of which have largely vanished beneath the horizon. All that remains to us now is how we act in the present and what we make of the future.
I would like us to share in that future or, at the very least, I would like to share what little wisdom I’ve accumulated during my life in the hope it might help you find your own way a little less painfully than might otherwise transpire. If you have no desire to speak with me directly, but might still wish to learn a little more about me, you can find most of my written works on Amazon under my name. To put it as simply, succinctly, and directly as I can manage in six words:
I want to be your brother.