Sunday Essay: Remembering Wes – story of a homeless man
Special to the Post Independent
On June 3, 2017, Wesley Paul “Wes” Bright, 45, a homeless man, was accidently struck by a truck crossing Colorado 133 in Carbondale between Village Road and Dolores Way. Bright was pronounced dead at the scene. He was three days shy of his birthday.
“Homeless” isn’t exactly the correct label for Bright. In a town that has many multi-million homes with spectacular views of Mount Sopris, Bright’s home was underneath the bridge at the intersection of Colorado highways 82 and 133, in a hollow created by the girders that support the bridge. Bright was a resident of Carbondale in all but address for much of the last decade of his existence.
Bright’s parents, Dennis and Pauline Burlingame of Lineville, Iowa, visited the town where their son lived and died on the anniversary of his death.
“We just wanted to get a sense of the place,” said Dennis, Bright’s stepfather, 67, a retired nurse who worked for much of his life for the California Department of Public Health between stints living in Iowa.
The Burlingames, who’d had no contact with Bright for the last 25 years of his life, requested letters asking about their son in the obituary published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. While here, the Burlingames met with Carbondale Police Lt. Chris Wurtsmith, who wrote them in response to the obituary, as well as a former waitress at the Pour House who would often have coffee with Bright.
They also received letters from other Valley residents who knew their son as “Wes,” a flawed human being with a severe drinking problem who could also be a sweet and charismatic man.
Much of the Valley knew Wes by sight if not by name. For years, Wes could be seen in all weather panhandling on the concrete island in the middle of Highway 82 near the Carbondale turnoff. He was often in the company of his best friend and “Big brother from another mother,” a bearded, wizard-looking fellow homeless man and Wisconsin transplant 20 years Wes’ senior known as “Hawk.”
Hawk died almost a year to the day before Wes. Wes took his friend’s death pretty hard. In the summer of 2016, an unusually dejected Wes could often be found sitting on bundles of firewood out front of the Carbondale 7-Eleven store, drinking moonshine out of a repurposed plastic sports bottle, telling his favorite stories about Hawk and chain smoking Pall Malls.
Seated in a booth at the Red Rock Diner, not far from where Wes died, Dennis Burlingame smiled at the mention of his stepson’s choice in cigarettes.
“We have a few packs of those,” said Burlingame. “We found them in his backpack the coroner sent us.”
Those in Carbondale who took the trouble to know Wes took a liking to him and showed him great kindness. The tab for his coffee and meals at the Pour House was often picked up by the bar’s other patrons. Wes never requested this charity and was always willing and able to pay his own way. Sometimes, he would even use his own meager bankroll to help others. I personally witnessed him cheerfully give up bus fare to Glenwood Springs to a fellow homeless couple.
“We got to get these people home, Jerimie,” Wes said with the hard-won voice of a lifetime of cigarettes and cheap beer, smiling to reveal his missing top front teeth.
shunned by some
As is often the case with the homeless, not everyone Wes made contact with was a fan. He was banned from at least one local bar due to his lax hygiene and spoke of being bullied and shoved to the ground by a bouncer.
The homeless are among our most vulnerable residents, living in the hardest parts of a hard world. One of Wes’ defense mechanisms against hostility was personal myth making, which the Burlingames say began when was a boy in their lonely part of Iowa. Wes would sometimes yarn and falsely claim he was an ex-Navy SEAL who’d been wounded during the first Gulf War, or in his darkest, drunkest moments snarl, “The cops know better than to [mess] with me.”
The truth was that Wes was cordial, even friendly with the police. If Wes had an outstanding warrant, the local police would wait for cold weather before taking him into custody. Like some homeless, Wes made poor life choices, sinking deeper into his alcoholism and occasionally serving short stints in jail.
“I have known (Wes) for most of my 23 years at Carbondale P.D. and we have always had a friendly/decent relationship, even when I had to arrest him,” Lt. Wurtsmith said.
Pauline Burlingame, now 69, thinks back to the tumultuous time of her son’s birth. Wes never knew his biological father — “Disappeared when I told him I was pregnant,” said a rueful Burlingame.
“I’m the only father he ever had,” Dennis said.
Pauline lost her clerical job at Look magazine when the magazine learned she was pregnant out of wedlock, the job loss a casualty of life in conservative early 1970s Iowa.
Pauline and her son lived on the family farm with her mother and her brother Gene for many years. She remembers Wes was content on the farm, and she thought he would choose to live there forever. When he was about 10, Wes was placed in special education classes.
“I fought with the school about that for years,” says a still-angry Pauline. “I told them Wes was no dummy and could learn anything given time, but they didn’t listen to me. I think because I was a single mother.”
His classmates taunted the boy, calling him “dummy” and “retard.” Frustrated, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.
Adding to the young man’s troubles was his contentious relationship with his new stepfather. Though she was an attractive woman, Pauline never dated when Wes was a boy.
“I’d been burned,” Pauline said. Wes was 14 when his mother married Dennis.
“As you get older, your outlook changes,” said a thoughtful Dennis. “If I had it to do over I would have been less strict with him about the smoking and other things.”
Wes became an angry and resentful kid. It was also around this time that his lifelong troubles with alcohol began. Teenaged Wes lived with family members for a time before ending up in foster care and eventually walking off a Job Corps site in Utah.
The last time Pauline saw her son was on a Mother’s Day in the mid ’90s. She remembers, “Wes walked out the door without saying anything or even looking at me.”
A short time later, Wes drove to Colorado with two Iowa friends looking for work in the logging industry. The two friends soon returned to Iowa. Wes once told me he spent his first year in Colorado living in his car in Summit County.
I first encountered Wes while working as an overnight cashier at the Shell station in Aspen in the summer of 2005.
Wes was camping on Aspen Mountain then. As mentioned, Wes was an alcohol and cigarette enthusiast. Over the years I managed to cadge jobs selling beer and cigarettes up and down the Valley. As such, Wes and I became friendly.
It was while working at Carbondale 7-Eleven in the fall of 2016 that I made a short cell phone video of Wes discussing the first time he was struck by a truck crossing 133, just 18 months before his death.
In fact, according to Police Lt. Wurtsmith, the car accident that killed Wes was his third in Carbondale alone.
His parents received a hospital bill for this accident in the mail.
Sitting in the far corner booth of the Red Rock Diner last week, Pauline watched the video on my laptop. It’s the first time she’s seen or heard her only child in more than 20 years.
In the video, Wes looks a good deal older than his mother appears now. That’s the price of 20 years of hard outdoors living, but he seems happy.
Said his mother, “From all the nice things I’ve heard, it sounds like Wes was maturing.”