It’s partly the spectacular view of the snow-swept La Plata Mountains from his rural home on the Durango-Bayfield border.
It’s partly that a man from Appalachia with an eighth-grade education, who began working in the coal mines at age 14, doesn’t take anything for granted.
It’s that and more. Bob Nickell, sitting in the comfort of his Mountain Vista Ranch house, can take a quick glance at past and present and find it easy to marvel at his life’s path.
“From the shack I lived in in Kentucky to this is a long ways,” Nickell says.
The journey took him to the Pacific Theater during World War II, where he earned six Bronze Stars. And into a top-secret career that landed him, among other spots, in Pakistan and the Soviet Union.
This is a guy who was born with a tool in his hand and, at 86, shows no signs of letting go. He has enough projects going on in his self-built 15-by-40-foot shop that he can’t keep track. Whether he’s playing with his carrot-topped 6-month-old granddaughter, Kayden, or showing off Boots, his dog that counts to three, his eyes sparkle like a child’s.
“If you can’t run with the dawgs, stay on the porch,” reads his ballcap.
“He’s just as fit as a fiddle,” says Mary Thomas, assistant manager at the La Plata County Humane Society Thrift Store, where Nickell volunteers each Thursday. “And he has a story to tell every day.”
Since 1998, Nickell has helped in the store’s electronics department, fixing and analyzing donors’ toasters and coffee makers and old clocks.
“He can help us identify antiques because he’s one himself,” Thomas jokes.
Usually it’s Nickell doing the joking, not always politically correctly. With his repertoire of witty sayings and tall tales, “he’s just a crack-up,” Thomas says. “He just entertains us all. ... All the girls love him.”
As his wife of 56 years, Jean, puts Kayden down for a nap, Nickell eagerly shows off his shop, 100 yards down a gravel road from the main house.
He recently has built a trailer. The tool collection – several types of wire- and bolt-cutters, a wide variety of pliers, vices and other instruments – would inspire jealousy in many a handyman. And we haven’t even seen the power tools.
John Kessell, a decade Nickell’s junior, was only mildly surprised to see his next-door neighbor up on the roof the other day, stringing electric wire to prevent ice from forming in the valleys.
“I sure want to be where he is in a dozen years,” Kessell says.
If Nickell’s life seems grand now, know that it wasn’t always fun and games. At 14, he lied about his age so he could be 16, get a Social Security card and work in the coal mines. When he qualified a year later for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and “only” had to work a standard shift, “that was almost like a vacation,” he says. “You worked eight hours a day, and that was it.”
Nickell was born in Lizzie Lane, Ky., which no longer exists, and raised a county away in Helechawa. Among six children, only he and a brother remain. When he returned to the homestead in the 1950s, a still for moonshine greeted him in the barn.
“Two of them drank themselves to death. My dad did the same thing, and I had a pretty good start,” he says. “I said, ‘To heck with that noise.’”
By age 17, he’d left Kentucky, and with the onset of World War II, he was quick to join the Navy.
“Young people were different,” he says. “We figured, man, you can’t win a war without us.”
He tells some stories of his service with relish, but that, too, wasn’t a lark. He understands post-traumatic stress. There’s a recurring dream where several people are chasing him.
“I’ve outrun ’em so far,” he says.
Although he was involved in multiple battles – he earned six Bronze Stars – it was Mother Nature who gave him the biggest scare.
As his destroyer escort, the USS Donaldson, traveled among a fleet from the Philippines to Okinawa, a typhoon hit. The storm, named Typhoon Cobra, sank three ships and killed more than 700 servicemen. Nickell hung onto a pipe and swung so hard that his feet flew up and hit the deck above.
“I don’t know why that thing didn’t roll over and sink, but it didn’t,” he says. “The Japanese didn’t hurt me, but that typhoon left a mark on me.”
Nickell and a Navy buddy spent four months missing in action, prisoners at a Japanese soldiers’ camp. The story behind his capture?
“Me and a guy went souvenir hunting, to be honest with you,” he says.
After his honorable discharge in December 1945, he discovered he was going to have trouble making it as a civilian. So he joined the Air Force for a 20-year career that ended in 1968. He spent a dozen years in Security Service, the CIA’s military branch. Sometimes, missions kept even him out of the loop.
For example, he learned the purpose of a mission near Vladivostok, USSR – he was told to watch train tracks for something suspicious – when it was declassified decades later and he read about it in Reader’s Digest. The two huge tires he saw were for a gargantuan plane that crashed when tested, the periodical informed him.
The Nickells, who have five children, lived in New Mexico for 21 years. In 1990, they bought their La Plata County acreage and house for, by today’s standards, a measly $90,000.
“Ain’t no place in the world like this,” he says.
With two artificial knees to keep him mobile, the self-proclaimed patriotic redneck is happy – ecstatic even – to enjoy his grandparenting years. Spend an hour or two with him, and you can’t help but learn a few things. Foremost among them:
You don’t need a college or even high school education to be smart. And you don’t need to be young to keep running with the dawgs.
email@example.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.