WOMEN AND TIMBER
The Pacific Northwest Logging Community, 1920 - 1998
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| Women and Timber
Oral History narrator: Myrna Ihrig
Date of interview: November 22, 1998
Indexed/partial transcription by D. Sutphen, 12-3-98
Notes: Interviewer Debra Sutphen. Interviewer's questions are bolded. Indicated quotes are not always precisely quoted here.
003--How are you connected to logging industry? Husband worked for logging industry; as a child she grew up in a little town that logging "kept going"; husband was a choker setter mostly for gyppo logging outfits; son-in-law also a logger. Lived in Mitchell, OR and Prineville with husband; son-in-law (Ken Cook) lived in Tenino, WA.
013--Note from interviewer: I interviewed Gaye Lynn Cook about two weeks before this interview. Gaye Lynn was married to Ken, thus Myrna is Gaye Lynn's mother.
016--When asked if she wanted to talk about logging from perspective of wife of or mother-in-law of a logger she replied, "logging has just kinda been part of my life. I think one of the first sounds that I ever remember hearing was the sound of the crummy when it would come to pick up the guys in the morning." Her mom's house near a large family group in Mitchell --9 or 10 brothers--all of their dad's worked in the woods--crummy would stop on the corner near Myrna's house and pick those guys up for work. She'd hear that curmmy in the morning, and remembered that at night they couldn't play around that house because those guys had to go to bed early in order to get up and go to work. Up there you could log all way through the winter because the ground froze--they'd be laid off in spring.
031--Ken a choker setter and knot bumper--did lot of different things--when he was killed he was falling, but he was just learning to fall and didn't know how to do it that good.
034--When you married your husband what did he do? He worked for the USFS, and then he got on with a couple of gyppo outfits. Did he like it? Not really--it was so cold. Person had to wear everything they owned to work in the woods. Not a very glamorous life.
040--Myrna said that what she disliked most about the gyppo workers is that they all drank. "Every Friday night all the men would get drunk and then their wives would have to hunt 'em down and drag 'em home." She occasionally had to drag her husband home. Told a story about a bunch of them getting drunk on a Friday night and driving up on a slick road way up a mountain and had an accident, drove off the road. Said she went up there with a woman named Alice, whose husband was with the bunch. Myrna said "I wouldn't have gone after David--I'd have let him set there on that mountain all night, but nooo--she had to go, so we went and got 'em." They went out every Friday night pretty much, either meet at each other's homes or go out-sometimes drove 90 miles to Bend. And they were hard drinkers--didn't just mess around."
056--"I used to have to get up and get David off to work in the morning--4 or 5 o'clock in the morning--it's a hard life, logging is." She'd get up and make breakfast, but then he wouldn't get up and eat it, so she quit making it. She he'd get up and eat pie because she quit making breakfast.
065--What did she do during the day while David at work? She had two kids, and there wasn't any work up there for women. So she stayed home and took care of kids--the two were only 18 months apart. "He didn't make very much money when you logged--made fairly good wages but they were laid-off a lot too. So it all had to be split out--you drew unemployment and tried to hold onto some of your pay, and if you all went out drinking on Friday night you didn't have much left of your paycheck. (laughed)" How was that living with that kind of insecurity? "It was most always frightening . . . I think that's one of the reasons those women would chase those guys down when they went out drinking because if they got arrested and went to jail then there went the paycheck and if they took off with the paycheck, which they usually did, when they got back there wouldn't be hardly anything left of it . . . them guys could drink up a lot of money in a hurry, and windup in jail, or hurt . . . since it was an economy where the women didn't work, it depended entirely on the man's paycheck, so he had to be kept in good condition."
081--Did he do anything else besides logging (take care of house, etc)? "Oh, no, no, no . . ." she took care of all of that, "I even painted the house, and then David had the nerve to say, 'would you not do that when the guys are going by --it embarrasses me--" (laughs). David not a repairman, he was no better at that than me." Myrna says David's a lot better at that sort of thing now, but they were only kids when they were married--19 when they got married.
091--"Gaye Lynn's husband LOVED to be a logger--he was totally different from David--David wanted to get home and get a bath and get cleaned up and forget that place, but Ken would wear them old cork boots," and the stagged pants-he never take it off. He was clean, but he loved wearing those clothes. Ken was very proud of being a logger. "I think they're a special breed of men--like Gaye Lynn said they're a man's man--they're tough, loggers have a reputation . . .it's a dangerous job . . . I remember lots of time when I was a kid men would get killed in the woods--logs would fall on them or a tree would fall." "I remember once one of my girlfriend's dad got his leg cut on his chainsaw, he was a faller--got his leg cut really bad--but he didn't lose the leg and went right back to falling, and when he retired . . .he was a big man . . .he walked around all bent over, almost bent double from arthritis, from packing that chainsaw--it was a BIG chainsaw--big blade--he could fall a lot of timber ina day, made a lot of money."
114--When your husband was logging did you have friends, other women friends in the community that you hung out with? Yes, because they all worked for the same gyppo outfit they all hung out together, took care of each others kids--they were all strangers in town. When they were doing this they're kids were all under school age--so if one of the women had to go to Prineville to the doctor or something someone would take of their kids for them. How about when people got hurt? Did they kind of take care of each other? "Being hurt in the woods at that time was a strange thing, because it was kind of like nobody wanted to be jinxed by appearing with the one who got hurt, so they tended to just kind of stay away, instead of going to help them."
129--Did you ever go out in the woods to help your husband? No, never went with him, not to do that. Went out in the woods at different times in her life, but didn't hang out in the woods because it was a dangerous place, and they didn't want us out there. But loves it in the woods--"it's clean, and smells good . . . " She said they used to go now and then to the landings and watch them--said it's safer now than it used to be (eg now they have the forks on the log trucks to hold logs in--used to just chain them . . . "
141--Tell me about Ken--how was your relationship with Ken? "I loved Ken." How long did you know him? Since Mayme (Gaye Lynn's biological daughter, Ken's stepdaughter) was about 5 (she's now 17--he died 3 1/2 years ago--he was 31 when he died. She knew him about 6 years). "He loved the children --Gaye Lynn had Mayme when they met--never heard him call Mayme his stepdaughter--he was always her father . . . she started going by his name . . . . then they got Casey, and he'd carry her everywhere they went--she was always in his arms. After Gaye Lynn and Ken split he'd take the kids down to Zoe's (his mother's) for the day at 3 or 4 in the am--kids would sleep down there--but he always insisted that they go home at night with him."
162--Ken drank some, but Ken worked all the time. David was not real ambitious--he didn't want to do things. But Ken did work around their place (a good sized farm) so he worked about all the time. Then he'd go there to Myrna's and work on her trees or rake leaves, etc. He was a really big guy--trimmed her big maple in back, shipped everything. Fell in love with the chipper--"he was beginning to eyeball the back porch . . . laughs" He was a big strapping young man and was a hard worker. Myrna told the story about Ken being afraid of heights but always wanted to be a topper, so Ken got this friend to dig a hole under a big tree, lay down in the hole and Ken got up above him, barely off the groun--looks like he's ten miles in the air but he wasn't, he was just barely off the ground (laughs)." When Ken was afraid of something he was really afraid of it--he also could cry at the drop of a hat. He did that every time they watched a movie that had any sad scenes in it--he was just very sensitive for a logger. She told a story about going to Tenino days parade--Mayme had gone downtown and entered a contest and was "Little Miss Tenino"--rode in the back of a convertible, wore a crown from Burger King--and some guy came up and Ken introduced Casey and said, "and my other daughter is in the parade." "he was a wonderful man."
210--At this point I asked if Myrna wanted to turn off the tape recorder because Ken's youngest daughter, Casey, now age 8, was sitting there at the table coloring as we talked, and I wanted to ask Myrna about ken's death. Myrna told Casey that she was going to talk about Ken's death now, and did she want to go into her bedroom and play? Casey said no, she wanted to stay out there with us. So I turned the tape recorder back on. Casey's voice is not heard in this interview.
212--Ken not fond of horses, but Casey loved horses so Ken had horses and rabbits for Casey and Mayme.
220--Can you talk about Ken's death in the woods? "I was always afraid for him . . . he took toomany chances and he was too brave or foolharddy or something. He brought Mayme down ont he weekend to go up to Ellensburg volleyball camp at the college, and then he went home and I was going to take her home and did take her home on the 5th of July. We spent the 4th out running around--the next day we shopped and run around, and then I had to go to work. She went over to my friend Linda's, and then she came home here. And about 8pm the phone rang at work (she was giving medications at work--she's a social worker, now works for CPS in Kelso, "WA)--it was Gaye Lynn--"where've you been all day, we've been trying to call you all day?"--Myrna replied that she'd been just running around. And she said, "Mom, my Kenny's dead," and I just refused to believe that, I just kept saying 'no, it can't be, he can't be dead,' and she was crying and of course my clients, who were all mentally ill, were getting all upset, so she had to make them leave the room, and they sent one of her co-workers in and brought her home. She called Linda, her friend, and had Linda come stay with Mayme until she could get home. Myrna didn't know if anyone had told Mayme or not. And she didn't want to talk to her on the phone. When Myrna got home Linda and Mayme were standing in the door, and knew something was wrong. "As soon as I got out of the car Mayme said, 'what's the matter,' and I didn't say anything, and she said, 'is it my mom?' and I said 'no, honey,' and she said, 'it can't be Ken,' and I said, 'yes it can,' and she said, 'I'm going to throw up,' so we went in the bathroom and she sat on the floor, she didn't throw up, but she sat there and cried for a long time, and i just sat in there and held her, and then she said, 'I got to go home,' so we got ready that night and I took her home to Zoe's house,' and Zoe and I sat there for a,ong time and cried together. Then like all small communities a lot of people came."
Mayme wrote a paper about it--the teacher wanted one of those, "what I did for summer vacation" stories. Mayme's paper read: "I could tell you about going to Maui or Cancun, but I'm going to tell you about what happened to me that changed my life forever, tell you about when my dad died. My grandma came home, and I never, ever want to see that look on her face again." People brought them food, and she wondered why--food wasn't going to help--Myrna had to explain to her how people wanted to help, and thought food was one way that they could. He was dead almost a week by the time they had the funeral--just a graveside service--lots of people there. The loggers all came in their logging clothes, straight from work, and they buried him in his bluejeans and a teeshirt with a smiley face on it that Mayme had made him in school. She couldn't find it in the house and worried that he might have been wearing it that day, but they finally found it. "They would not let us see him . . . I will always regret that I didn't get to see him and tell him goodbye." "The day he left he brought Mayme down and had Casey in his arms--getting ready to go and I said, 'I love you Ken,' and he said, 'I love you too Mom.'" Even thought he and Gaye Lynn were divorced he was still my son, he was the father of my babies and I loved him. He loved the woods but he was scared of trees . . . he knew what they could do to you, and rightfully so, they killed him." (Mayme is a very bright, articulate, and fiercely independent teenager. She attends Tenino High School--chose to stay there to gradute with her class. She earns excellent grades, is a cheerleader, acts in school plays. She went to a therapist, reluctantly, after Ken's and Zoe's deaths. She is a very mature young woman with a wonderful and infectious sense of humor. Has an excellent relationship with Myrna.)
296--Ken was killed by a branch that really wasn't that big, was it? "He fell a tree that fell into another tree and created what we call a widowmaker. He got the first tree on down . . he was just learning to fall, and they should never have let him alone, but he was working one place and the other guy was working around the hill, so he got it down, and had used all his gas, and stopped and sat down under the tree to put gas in his saw and wind came up, something happened--but a litle branch fell out, wasn't very big, fell out of that tree that was left, hit him in the head. To this day Gaye Lynn will not wash his quilt--she made a little quilt for him for Christmas--she still thinks it smells like him. There was a man came to her house (her and her new husband's) and Gaye Lynn said that he worked in the woods and she just wanted to grab him and hug him and smell that smell of the woods--they always smell, David and him and all of them--always smell like wood and grease and gasoline--they always had that smell about them. And you could always smell them in the evenings--they always smelled like wood chips and fresh cut wood. But he (Ken) was always so proud when he became a faller."
314--Myrna talked about how the loggers worked their way up from choker setter to cat skinner, to fallers. Status of the different jobs. She talked about how fallers always worked alone--also talked about timber cruisers marking trees to be falled, then the fallers would come in and then they'd set up a landing, etc. She also talked about how along time ago they could set up a landing and have it for a long time, but not now, because there aren't a lot of trees. She said that now the helicopters are doing a lot of that moving the logs out of the woods, and said "I'm kind of glad to see that because it doesn't tear up the land nearly as bad as those cats and the trees being pulled out of the ground and torn up."
332--"I'm glad that none of my grandkids will end up in the woods. Casey wants to go to college to do with animals--maybe veterinarian or something--and she will probably meet somebody in school to marry . . . I don't want 'em to ever . . . (trails off her by talking about another family member who works in the woods still, but how most of them don't. She clearly meant to say that she didn't ever want her granddaughters to marry loggers).
339--"I hate it because these two little girls will never have their dad--I hate it because she asks me why her daddy had to die and I don't have any answer --he was only 31 years old--and I see people out here, especially at my job, and they're not worth anything and they're just still going around, and the guy who took care of his home, took care of his children, took care of his business, is no longer here." (Casey, who listened to all of this, had begun to cry and crawled up in her grandmother's lap. Myrna was comforting her, rubbing her back).
I said to Myrna at this point that Gaye Lynn had told me in her interview that the thing she will regret more than anything else is not being table to tell her daughters about Ken, that she had to leave that to you, and that was just terrible, and she'll just hate herself for that. Myrna's response was, "seems like I've always had to be the bearer of the bad news. I would have done anything not to tell Mayme about that. I think it's the hhhardest (Myrna actually stuttered here) thing I ever did to walk from that car out there to the front porch, cause I knew she knew something terrible was wrong, because I think that Jeannie had called her and Gaye Lynn had called here but they wouldn't either one tell her what was going on because they knew that she was here alone. To see the look on Zoe's face (Zoe was Ken's mom--now deceased)--Ken was her favorite child, I think--he was the one who was always around, helped her take care of her property . . . " (I had to turn the tape off at this point because Casey at this point began crying hard, and Myrna needed to comfort her.) "I get angry with God because this little kid can't watch anything on tv that has to do with death of dying--you know, she lost her daddy and then we put her where we thought she'd be safe, with her Grandma, and then she died. And she says to me, 'my Grandma was old and should have died when she was sick, but not my Daddy.'" "And she's not the only little kid out here whose dad's died in the woods--she's not the first and she won't be the last. Woods workers are big, strapping tough guys and trees are even bigger and tougher. I've know four or five men who've spent the rest of their lives in wheelchairs when they were hit with trees--I knew two brothers, one of them spent his remaining years in a wheelchair and the other one had a leg cut off from trees--it's just a hard life. They never go out in the daytime that you don't worry that they won't come back."
387--Did you worry about that (about her husband not coming back?) "Yes, I always did. I always thought will he come back today--he always did, and I guess that we relaxed too much, and then Ken didn't come back. Maybe if we'd have been more vigilant and more watchful, our thoughts and prayers or whatever could've kept him going. (By this time Myrna is crying too.)
395--Gaye Lynn's had lots of problems since Ken died--do you think that his death was part of why she has had those problems? "I think so--I think part of her problems were already there, and then bad things happened between her and Ken and then he was killed and she always felt an enormous amount of guilt because of the bad things she did that made him so unhappy, and then she never had a chance to make it any better or say I'm sorry before he died.
407--"When I was a kid growing up everybody in town was connected to woods or sawmills." She talks about Hudspeth's coming in in the 30's and logging, owning great big mills in Prineville, and John Day--how they had their own logging trucks and fallers, etc. Then talks about how they went into ranching, talked more about the Hudspeth's. Comments about how big companies have driven out the small, private, family-owned businesses.
441--"So now I have to be momma and daddie and grandma all three for her (Casey)." Myrna's getting custody of Casey. "After Casey's daddy died she moved in with her Grandma--Ken's mother--who'd always been a really healthy woman (Myrna described how healthy she was, and how she raised 6 children, how she was an outdoor woman not an indoor husband, made an excellent helpmate to her husband, etc). Then Zoe, in her 70s, was diagnosed in December with cancer and died in March. So Casey went to live with an uncle, but wasn't happy there (doesn't know why) so came to live with Myrna, "and that's fine with me . . . she and I are doing okay." You've had her about three weeks now? "Yeah, and I'm tired already. It's not that she's hard work it's just that it's a change in my routine."
493--Myrna is 57 and a social worker for State of WA Child Protective Service--investigates reports of neglect and abuse--physical and sexual abuse. She works in an office but deals a lot with people who work in woods in Kelso-Longview area. Drives 40 miles each way to work every day--works full time--takes care of Casey and her house. "I've got to get a maid."
508--When you look back on your life and years of your life, how much has being connected to logging industry affected your life? "Logging was always there, when I was a little kid growing up in Mitchell that's how people made their living. It affected my life when I was a kid because it affected who I went to school and how many kids there were in my class-the year I graduated from high school was the last year of the mills-the school was much smaller after that--almost all of the kids that I went to school with the parents worked in the mills or the woods. David's father not woods workers but were ranchers--but they sold the ranch the year she and Myrna got married, so they bought acreage at Redmond that they could do alone so there was no work for David on the ranch so he went USFS and then the woods. Eventually they moved to Redmond where he went to work in a sawmill in Redmond, which to them was a big step up because he kept regular hours, didn't have to be at work until 7am, came home for lunch and also had the evenings. "You asked me earlier if men didn't do anything around the house--they were too tired, they got up at 3am , got onto that crummy, ride two hours to the work site, ride two hours home, and it would be like 6pm when they got home--that was a fourteen hour day, and they'd eat their dinner and fall into be. They had no lives until the weekend came. So to us that was a big step up to have regular hours in our lives."
Myrna told a story about a guy that her husband David worked with in the woods, and the fights that this guy and his wife had (laughing).
Talked about how much he ate, how he loved Gaye Lynn's cooking.
594--"I would say that it (logging) has always been a part of my life--not always a primary part " She talked about how Gaye Lynn and Ken lived in Tenino, so they weren't primary parts of her life but she always worried about him. Talked about how one year she bought Ken a pair of L.L. Bean suspenders and he was so proud of them--wore them--the guys all called him the yuppie logger--he wore them until the cloth part wore out, and then saved the leather part that buckled to his pants. When he died Gaye Lynn gave Myrna the leather parts and Myrna took those and put them together with some hawk feathers from her son and a friend made a wall hanging from it all--Myrna has it on her kitchen wall. Myrna also gave him a couple of L.L. Bean shirts, and the guys just thought he'd gone "high society" because he wore yuppie logging clothes. "He was so proud of those suspenders." So logging wasn't a primary focus of her life after she and her husband split up, but then she went to work in a paper mill for years so depended on logging--.
625--Would you feel a special connection to logging women you didn't know? "I would feel a connection because of my loss. Because no matter what my life is and no matter what I do logging is what brought me to this fork of my life with this child. Had Ken lived she would have stayed up there with him, Mayme and her both. And now, I have to take care of her because he's dead and my daughter can't. So now it's back to primary again. For all those years it was primary, and then it went to secondary, and now it's back to primary because his death has changed my life completely. We don't live in a vacuum and we don't die in a vacuum. Death affects everybody around us. After Ken died his mother was never the same." She thinks that Zoe's cancer was partly brought on by the stress of Ken's death, and not having him around any more. He was the most important thing in her life, and when she lost him . . . .I thought that this baby (Casey) might keep her going, but it wasn't. "His death has been very hard on all of us--trying to explain it to the children, missing him, we all miss him--and I think of him--a young strapping man, good looking young guy, always smiling, always laughing, and I cannot even think of one logical reason for his death, not even one."
She said that if she were put into a room of logging women that she didn't know, and told them that she was there because her son worked in the woods and died in the woods, they would welcome her with open arms--she said she feels like she would be immediately part of a family because of the connection through Ken's death.
668--Myrna commented on the specifically female connection to the occupation of logging. "The women had to do everything at home--all the child rearing, all the work around the house, all the repairs, everything because the men weren't there, and when they were there they were too tired to do anything. Once they come in they just staggered in and sat down in a chair, ate their dinner, took a bath, and went to bed. I could remember when I was a kid--they'd leave really early, and they wouldn't come home until it'd be getting almost dark again." The kids would be run outside because the men would have to go to bed. On the weekend the men drank, and they'd have dances up at Mitchell and everyone went to the dance, kids and adults. But there was real separation between kids and adults. Kids were to be quiet and kept out of the way so their dads could sleep. When they got bigger they became kind of a help to their mothers, but when they were little they were the woman's job, period. There was a BIG separation between men's roles and women's role, and the man would have just died if the woman said take care of these kids, do this for these kids."
"About the most David ever did was carry them from the house to the car, that was about it. I did all the grocery shopping, take the kids to the doctor, did the washing and ironing." She also took care of the money in their house--David didn't know how to. He didn't worry about it because he knew that she could. When he was out of a job it was also her responsibility to see how they got money. "When we were out of work he'd go out in the woods and hunt for deer and go fishing--men just didn't do what women do--if he was out of work for two weeks he didn't stay around the house and repair he went down on the river with my cousin and fished, or went hunting with his brother or something. And the roof could just fall in, he didn't care. And it was not expected that he would care--if I couldn't fix it myself I had to find somebody who could--I certainly wasn't going to depend on him, and he would have been mad if he had to."
703--Do you feel like being married to a logger that you were unusual among other women your age? No, not where she lived, because the whole economy revolved around some phase of logging, so they certainly didn't stand out.
719--She says that she would have called herself a traditional wife then. He went out in the woods and that was it. He would have been highly insulted and razzed by his buddies if he'd had to change a diaper, etc. But ken did things for his kids that David never did, never. If David had been stuck with the kids he wouldn't have raised the kids, his mother would have. David would have let his mother make all the money decisions, medical, school decisions. Ken made those for his kids--he depended upon his mother as a babysitter, but that was all.
738--The best and worst things about being related to logger? "Best thing was that they were men's men--they were a different breed of men and were looked upon even by the mill workers as the elites--the cream of the crop--they were number one--so by osmosis so were their wives--the women then became the elite." "The worst thing about it was the horribly long hours, always being alone, always having all the decisions to be made, about the kid's doctors, do we have enough money for them to go, because nobody had anything called health insurance in those days. When they came home at night out of the woods those things were to have been taken care of --if the kid was sick you did that during the day--you certainly didn't wait until your husband came home and ask him if he thought this kid was sick enough to go to the doctor. Most of them hardly even realized that them kids were there. And of course the danger of it made it a
horribly . . . but the mills were dangerous too . . . " (then she told stories about girlfriends she had whose dad's were killed in horrible accidents in the mills--esp. by "the hog." "So it wasn't like the woods were the only dangerous place, but if a tree hit you you died--you just didn't get a second chance." Told other stories about logging accidents, and how they were more dangerous because they were more apt to be fatal accidents and happened so far away that people had less chance.
788--"When those kinds of things happened . . rumor . . . long before we knew who it was everybody would know that somebody was hurt in the woods, and then you had to sit and wait until you found out who it was, and . . . .this may sound horrible . . . but everyone secretly relieved to find out that it wasn't their husband, their support, their children's father, whatever. Whether they'd admit it or not--that was probably one of the reasons why they stayed away from the worker's family for awhile because kind of deep down inside of you you were always thinking thank god it wasn't us, thank god it wasn't my husband, my children's father." "But I can remember lots of times when I was a kid, rumor had it that someone had been killed in the woods and all the women in town would just be wrecks until the ambulance came in and said it was so and so from Prineville, no one we worked with--and then life could go on, but everything just kind of went into a suspended animation while you were waiting. But the women in Mitchell did everything--we even fought fires, when the men were in the woods we'd fight fires."
808--Do you think that women who were connected to loggers, like you, deserve recognition? "Oh yes--I think they're kind of unsung heroes of the west--without the women the men couldn't have done what they did." She said that "the women kept these men going--they washed their clothes, they fed them, they raised their children, they balanced the checkbook--they did everything so that the man could get up in the morning and work all day without any worries--he knew when he got home dinner would be on the table and a bath would be waiting and he could go to bed in peace and quiet--wouldn't be any problems with the kid--those women took care of everything--other than the actual logging itself they did much more work than the men did. And those women that were married to loggers from the time they were 19 until the men retired or died were really heroic--they did a lot of hard work raising children and stuff alone."
831--What do you want people to know about logging? "I just think that they should know that there were a lot of young me who died out there in the woods, a lot of things have been learned about their deaths--how to make it safer--a lot of children raised without these men." My son-in-law did a lot of things in his death that saved them--he was killed on the job so they got L&I (industrial) and social security so they'll have money to go to college on, they have a home--"but I'm quite sure that if we could we would give up every penny that these children have on this earth to see him one more time, and kiss him, and tell him we love him." (She's holding Casey still).
851--end of tape.