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WWII vet lived tall-tale life on the reservation

FARMINGTON, N.M. — While Huckleberry Finn was just a figment of a writer's imagination, Jim Ashcroft was the real thing.

Ashcroft will never get the recognition that Finn received, but his story is no less mesmerizing than the one made up by the legendary Mark Twain.

Ashcroft, born Feb. 26, 1921, in Fruitland, died Jan. 1 at the age of 91 but was buried at Greenlawn Cemetery in Farmington this past week. His stories, however, will never die.

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"There are so many," said his son, Kelly Ashcroft.

They begin in his early childhood, when Ashcroft was a blonde, freckled wild child who ran around barefoot with donkeys and horses. His parents ran a trading post outside of Kayenta, Ariz., where he helped with the trade as much as he could.

His father, who at one point also served as the local police chief, was white. His mother was part-Navajo, and part-Paiute.

As a young child, he learned Navajo quickly and fluently, especially once he started attending the boarding school in Kayenta with almost all Navajo children.

"His parents would send him off on his horse Monday morning, and he would ride 25 miles to Kayenta," Kelly said. "And then he would get back on his horse Friday after school and go home."

On the weekends, he hung around the trading post, trading with the local Navajo. Eventually, he started getting savvy, figuring out what products were hard to acquire so that he could try to acquire them in his own mischievous way.

Hummingbirds, for instance, were in demand by the medicine men. Naturally, Ashcroft took it upon himself to knock the birds down with a sling shot, and he would bring them to the medicine men the next day.

Skunks were a whole different story. Ashcroft devised a way to trap the skunks then drown them because they couldn't spray him from underwater. He then would skin the skunks and sell their furs.

"He always knew how to make money," Kelly said.

In his later years, when he was in ninth-grade he dropped out of school, figuring it wasn t for him. He took a shot at becoming a sheep herder and roamed the desert with his Navajo friend.

His sheep-herding "apprenticeship," as Ashcroft called it, did not work out so well, so he moved to San Diego, Calif., where he started working at a riveting plant. Not long after he started his job riveting airplanes, World War II broke out, and Ashcroft came back to the Four Corners to enlist.

He went to Durango, Colo., where he tried getting into the U.S. Navy. The recruiters told him to go to Denver, where he would undergo a physical, which he later failed.

Discouraged and aimless, he moved to Moab to find work and instead found a restaurant where a lovely waitress worked. The waitress, Zona Shumway, must have liked him a lot, as she used to save him extra food from the restaurant.

Shumway was fired for her sly handouts, but she ended up marrying the handsome, hungry man that had enchanted her.

"That was our mother," Kelly said.

The two married and were sealed in the Salt Lake City temple. After meeting Zona, though, the U.S. Navy changed its mind about Ashcroft.

He joined the U.S. Navy and served as a gunner in a B-24 aircraft flying over the Atlantic in search of German submarines.

"He never had to fire a single shot," Kelly said.

He and his crew, however, did find a surfaced submarine, and they watched over it until a battleship arrived and took the crew prisoner.

After the war, Ashcroft returned to the Southwest where he and Zona raised four children in the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. Ashcroft and his wife went on four missions in their life, each bringing them closer.

Toward the end of his life, he lost his vision, though he never lost sight of the moments he relished in life whether they were with his family, friends, or a couple of stinky skunks.

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