By John R. Lang
Most of us have or have had a crazy uncle. I’m sure to my nieces and nephews, I am easily that guy. In the most affectionate way possible, my Uncle Hank Humphreys is that to me.
A Vietnam vet hero with seemingly endless energy, my mother’s brother Hank, who was raised in Colden, is an amazing character.
When I was young, he would be in town for holidays and it was always fun. My brother and I loved his stories of Haight-Ashbury and the cool cars he had. I wish, and I’m sure he still wishes, he had that Austin-Healey 3000 Mark 3.
When I was wandering a bit aimlessly first out of high school, Uncle Hank asked me to help him out with his lightning protection business. We worked all over Western New York grounding out, running wire and cable on everything from silos and barns to houses and large commercial buildings. We worked hard, ate well, drank better and shared a lot of laughs together that summer of 1980.
Uncle Hank always encouraged me to challenge myself. He was an incredible athlete and inspired me to run and stay in shape.
When I first started piecing my sound system together, he urged me to go big, telling me to get some bigger and better equipment. He then helped me buy some new gear and let me work off what I owed him. Yes, he is that kind of guy.
In the early ’80s, he told me about a group of Vietnam vets who parachute into Death Valley, Calif. They then spend a week running 100 miles across the desert. The event was put together to help raise awareness of Vietnam vets and the employment issues that can challenge them.
So that February, off we went to Death Valley. My Chevy van was loaded with Gatorade, ski equipment and my sound system. I knew this would be one heck of an interesting trip. Uncle Hank is a believer that your life should be the most interesting story ever.
Our first stop was just outside of Denver at Copper Mountain Ski Resort. Next was Vail to ski for a day. Then it was on to Death Valley for the parachute jump and run.
When we arrived in the oasis of Furnace Creek, the team of about 20 guys had one heck of a week ahead of them. Most of the guys had it figured out: They would parachute in on day one, then split the run into 15 miles per day, with the last day being 10.
I was there to help with support, getting water and whatever else the runners needed all week. The bar manager told me to set up my sound system nightly for a celebration like no other.
These vets, their families, friends, other support people and lucky campers traveling through town were treated to some of the funniest people on earth.
That year, the race started near the north end of Death Valley at Scotty’s Castle and finished down past the lowest elevation spot in the country called Badwater. The first 10 miles are basically down a mountainside, which might sound OK until you really think about it. It can wreck toenails and hurt your quadriceps in a hurry. These guys didn’t care. They rallied nightly, living life like the people they are – the toughest people on the planet.
As we pulled out after the farewell ceremony, Uncle Hank and I were already planning for the next year. We went West together for a bunch of years in the ’80s. I even participated one year, parachuting in and running with the guys.
Death Valley National Park is an amazing place. The diversity of the landscape is incredible, with large snow-covered mountains and huge sand dunes.
I had to go to a work meeting in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. I rented a car and took the two-hour drive over. I went for a jog and called Uncle Hank. He was proud.