Helena raconteur Tom Harpole is what you might call a thinking man’s Evel Knievel. Not that’s he’s a daredevil, exactly, but, by his own count, he’s broken at least 40 bones and sliced and diced himself open through one mishap or another even more.
But Harpole was never a braggart or a jerk, so maybe the resemblance ends at the broken bones and flayed flesh.
In any case, both men sure logged a lot of crazy and interesting entries in the journals of their lives.
In the case of Harpole, I use “logged” in the literal sense, because he spent a good portion of his life as a logger—often using mules or horses.
And while it’s true that someone made a passable ‘B’ film back in the 70s about Mr. Knievel, Tom Harpole was smart and educated enough to have a second career writing about his exploits firsthand, publishing hundreds of essays and prizewinning stories along the way. Not bad for one of nine kids from Deer Lodge, Mont.
That opening paragraph sort of makes it seem like they’ve both passed on, but I assure you Harpole is very much alive—despite all his mishaps.
He’s bigger than life itself, you might say.
Not many folks can so casually catalogue a long list of traumas they’ve heaped upon themselves and still maintain the glint in their eye.
He’ll tell you about almost killing himself in the Oregon woods under an “eight-story-high tree” just as calmly as if he were giving you directions to a good fishing hole. I defy anyone to spend a half hour with Tom Harpole and not walk away thinking, “Man, that guy should write a book.”
Well, it turns out he has written a book—soon to be released from Riverfeet Press in Livingston, Mont.
Tentatively titled, Regarding Willingness, the book gathers together a worthy collection of essays and stories Harpole has penned and published in places ranging from Sports Illustrated to Smithsonian Magazine.
The book’s title captures the spirit of the author, too, because, more often than not, what has led to Harpole’s various misadventures is that he’s one of those rare souls who is always up for anything, no matter how dangerous.
One of the stories appearing in Regarding Willingness offers a good example.
“In 1985, when I was taking classes at Carroll College, I wrote a story about how I hold an NFL record that will never be broken,” he said. That story first appeared in Sport’s Illustrated back in 1988.
The essay recounts a wild tale about catching a football launched from a Denver Broncos practice cannon that he and his brother jacked up to 90 pounds per square inch of pressure, even though the usual setting is 15 PSI. Harpole snagged a ball from the cannon that had been shot 600 feet, straight up in the air, falling at more than 100 miles per hour. He broke a thumb and finger and ripped a nail off, but the Broncos gave him a trophy and certificate, to prove he caught a football traveling faster than any other human has ever caught.
The book also has essays on his logging years in Oregon, his exploits as a sky diver, and even a great nostalgia piece about one of his first mishaps at 9 years of age, when he raced off on an old runner sled for the first time, only to lay open his thigh and wreck his leg on a shard of granite.
“I’m excited to publish this book,” said Dan Rice, proprietor of Riverfeet Press. “Tom is just such an entertaining writer with a jovial voice. If you know Tom, you know he’s a writer who has always been compelled to push hard on life. He is unafraid to take his adventures (or misadventures) to the brink of fatality. It’s a fun book.”
According to Rice, living life with that kind of verve means that “he writes the way he lives.” When Harpole describes running a chainsaw, you can smell the oil and the sawdust in the air as you read along.
Born in 1949, Harpole grew up in Deer Lodge and went to Carroll College on a basketball scholarship in 1968. Early in the season, he fractured his skull at a practice and got cut from the team.
That episode was unfortunate, but a second basketball misadventure kept him out of Vietnam. In 1971, he broke a shoulder playing basketball the night before his physical.
After getting his Bachelor’s degree at Carroll, Harpole got a Master’s degree in Forestry at Oregon State University.
He started writing seriously in the 80s and spent two years in Ireland. The second year was at the invitation of Faber and Faber, the famous British publisher. Harpole’s brilliant short story “The Last of Butch” won that year’s Irish writing contest. On the publisher’s dime, Harpole spent his second year in Ireland, giving readings at pubs and offering workshops for local writers.
In 1988 he traveled to the USSR with his pal Whitt Hibbard, to write about a group of American Aikido experts who had been invited to the Soviet Union to teach the martial art.
Interestingly, martial arts were illegal in USSR at the time. The Aikido senseis and writers all stayed with host families. Harpole lucked into meeting Irina Solovyova, who was a candidate to be the first woman in space.
“I ended up staying with a family over there who were Antarctic explorers,” Harpole said. “Irina was one of the people on this team of eight women explorers.”
Through his connection to Solovyova, he became the first American to skydive from a Soviet military plane, a tale he wrote about for the Smithsonian Magazine. Harpole recounts ll of these stories and many others in the Riverfeet collection.
His non-fiction essays are right up there with those of Livingston travel writer Tim Cahill. His short fiction pieces are among the most poignant short stories to appear in the Treasure State. Harpole is a character by any fair measure, but with the publication of this collection, he stands to become an institution.
He still occasionally works as an arborist under the appropriately named company “TreeIncarnation” and is always happy to share his encyclopedic knowledge of forest lore and tree science.
Though he estimates he’s broken 40 bones in his lifetime, he’s also suffered considerable damage in other ways. He nearly dismembered his right arm and had to have several surgeries to keep it functional and attached to his body. He also broke his back and had to have vertebrae fused.
At 71, he walks a little stiffly, and, to be honest, he seems to have lost little of his youthful exuberance.
How could he not, with the abuse he’s subjected his body to?
One of his more minor injuries involves having sliced off the end of a finger—a small mishap you might not even notice, except that, in true Harpole fashion, he had a smiley face tattooed on the stub. It’s a little grin that lets you know he doesn’t regret any of it. MSN