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Remembering a canyon man gone to rest

Tom Fridrich was driving down the Canyon from Quincy on Feb. 5 in the westbound lane when he was struck head-on by an eastbound Subaru. The Subaru was traveling at a stated speed of 80 mph, passing another car on a right hand turn. Fridrich and a couple following him on a motorcycle were killed instantly. This is not a piece about finger pointing or blame, but the memorial of a Feather River Canyon fixture.

Twenty years ago I met Tom at the Maple Leaf tavern. He and his business partner Nick Oman owned the place, which was a social gathering point for locals and travelers. No frills this place, just a down-home joint where one could catch up on local gossip, road conditions or shoot a game of pool. At one point, a waterspout came into the parking lot and busted out the windows of cars parked therein.

For the most part, the Leaf was a friendly place, but sometimes folks went off on each other. Fridrich had a way to smooth the way to peace or as near to it as the Leaf ever got. Was this guy a saint? Are any of us saints? He liked a beer; maybe another, but for all that he remained Tom and he was well loved in the Canyon and beyond.

On New Year’s Day 1997 during the catastrophic flood of that day, the Maple Leaf was filled with rock and dirt to within two feet of the ceiling. The force moved the building off its foundation. Fridrich and Oman didn’t have the funds to rebuild, and Fridrich especially was devastated as were we’uns who loved the place.

For some time he was inconsolable trying to figure out life without his beloved Leaf. Finally he shook himself clear and began working for the Forest Service at their fire camps. He traveled around the country to wherever a fire was being worked and went back to his laid-back way of life in the off-season. In the last couple of years after a scare with heart disease, Tom quit drinking and smoking cigarettes and concentrated on a healthier lifestyle.

If I have learned anything in the years I’ve spent covering incidents in the Canyon, it’s that one never knows what lies around the next bend in the road. Life works much the same way wherever it exists. Tom knew that and indeed we all do after a certain age. It’s never easy to accept the loss of a friend, but in the process we can celebrate the life we knew.

Tom will live in my heart while I’m still around, and many others whose time he touched.

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