A Dragon Called Gordon
When I think of a dragon, I imagine a battle-scarred veteran sleeping atop a mountain of treasure. He battles his entire life and collects whatever catches his eye.
At his memorial, when a few of us who knew him, met with the family of local hunting legend, Gordon Campbell, we all came away with new perspectives. I saw pictures of him as a boy growing up outside of Sundance. The others shares their memories and I saw him through the eye of those who fought alongside of Gordon though two wars, worked with him at the Homestake Mine, and hunted with him through the decades.
A nearly 96-year ride that left me envious of a life filled with riches collected in the field, hunting and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with brothers who came forward to attest to his magnificent run.
I only knew Gordon for the last third of his life. We shared a love for South Dakota history, served as officers in the same engineering battalion a few decades apart, and enjoyed careers as guides here in the Hills.
Gordon had a dream job during the golden years of Black Hills hunting when our region was described as the “Whitetail Capital of North America.” Every fall, Homestake paid Campbell to leave his position as the head of procurement for mining operations and spend the entire season guiding influential politicians to trophy deer. Just starting out as a guide when I first met him, no one I knew had more experience or better advice than Gordon.
His son Gary described him as a mountain man born a century too late, a true western “Marlboro Man” to his daughter Sue Ann. A story board of photos featured hunts for elk and bear, caribou and moose, Dahl sheep and mule deer.
There were tales of Europe and Korea. One described his climb down cargo nets as a young soldier at Normandy, how he fought to hang on when transferring from ocean-tossed transports to landing craft. The angry ocean claimed many boys before they ever made it to the infamous beach. Once in Germany his job was to build and destroy bridges across the Rhine. Chuck Lein came up from Rapid to share war stories and stated that he never served with anyone who loved his country more. Gordon got the nick-name Rusty from an inspection gig on his rifle, an imagined spot in his barrel. Friends still called him Rusty for years.
Gary handed me a journal from 1977. It described his dad’s once-in-a-lifetime hunt for bighorn sheep in Custer State Park. There were pages of hand-written notes of a weeklong hunt in below-zero weather.
Gordon wanted to harvest an animal that met his own high standards. It left him hunting alone long after the other fortunate hunters had harvested lesser rams and headed home. On the sixth day Gordon found the ram of his dreams. It had 33-inch beams and 16-inch bases and was the largest harvested that year. He finished his notes with a tribute to his father, writing of how he wished his dad could have been there, how much he missed him, and how carrying his father’s knife on the hunt had given him comfort.
I carry my dad’s knife too.
Gordon was a bit of a collector of all things historic. I bid against him at auctions several times and he would even occasionally let me win. But his collection grew into a mountain that filled a small country high school and numerous storage facilities. Several local real estate ventures were merely storage for Gordon’s “gold”.
As his energy began to wane, Gordon struck up a friendship with our community’s most charismatic young contractors, Jared Capp. Starting at ten, Cappy began working construction projects for Campbell, proving his worth and character and developing a personality shaped by men sixty years his senior.
All three of those Capp boys were Eagle Scouts. The only time I ever saw them come late to school was when they volunteered to haul sandbags to protect their neighbors during a flood. It didn’t surprise me when Gordon chose Jarrod to help him with his bills and meals over the last few years. Someone to check in on him and tell stories to. Someone he could trust.
Cappy was bringing him dinner that last night when he discovered Gordon in distress and quickly got him to the hospital. Jarrod’s little girl Alex, brought Campbell a pick-me-up stuffed dragon to give him a little cheer in his dreary hospital room.
Jared shared with those gathered at the memorial that she asked to take it home after he passed. She wanted to keep the dragon and name it after their friend.
A dragon called Gordon.