He began writing to Richard Brautigan as a high school sophomore. And when he did, Beef Torrey chose his words carefully. Brautigan, after all, was a cult hero, having penned such groundbreaking novels as “Trout Fishing in America” and “In Watermelon Sugar.”
The latter turned the Scottsbluff teenager into a fan.
A friend had given him a copy of the book, telling Torrey it was a must-read.
The story — one critics say is about a new Eden in a postapocalyptic world — fascinated him.
“I was totally enchanted by it,” he said. “It was far different than anything I had ever read.”
So Torrey read more.
Brautigan’s style impressed him so much Torrey felt compelled to tell him so.
He put pen to paper and wrote.
“It was somewhat difficult because I knew this guy was a writer,” Torrey said. “I knew you would have to write really good letters if this guy is ever going to write back.”
The famous novelist did write back — again and again. They were pen pals until the night Brautigan changed that.
It was late, and Torrey, by then a graduate teaching assistant at a small Oklahoma college, was entertaining students at his home when the phone rang.
The voice on the other end said, “This is Richard Brautigan.”
As he tells the story, Torrey eases back in his chair and gazes at the pictures on a wall of the home he shares with his dog and cat on an acreage outside Crete.
They are photos of Brautigan, the tortured soul who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1984.
He was 49, the same age Torrey is now.
The photos hang among several framed words featuring the writer’s haunting talent. Torrey stands, moves to the wall and reads from one of them.
Reverence fills his voice.
“He was an incredibly destructive guy,” Torrey says. “At the time, even I could tell. The guy was very, very shy, kind of awkward and seemed uncomfortable in his own skin …”
It’s Torrey’s day off, and he’s dressed appropriately for the warm spring day — tan cargo shorts and one of his many Hawaiian shirts.
Born Gregory Kent Torrey, he goes by Beef, a nickname bestowed upon him when he played football as a kid.
The team’s quarterback begged his coach to get him “some beef” on the field for protection. The coach sent in Torrey. The nickname stuck.
Torrey is still burly — as well as a dead ringer for David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame — with a shaggy mess of hair below a bald dome and round, wire-rimmed glasses.
Torrey studied philosophy and religions as an undergraduate at Doane, but later he devoted his life to helping people.
He is a psychologist associate at the Beatrice State Development Center, where he’s worked for 10 years. Prior to that were stints as a school psychologist in Crete and Lincoln.
According to his supervisor at the development center, Shawn Bryant, he is good at his job, especially in working with the center’s clients.
“He loves the interaction with the people who live out there,” Bryant said.
His ease with people carries over to his personal life. His friends boast of his cooking, his hunting prowess and his sense of humor.
“He’s very interesting,” Omaha friend Kevin Simonson said. “There’s never a dull moment when you’re around him.”
Friend Gregg Orr of St. Louis remembers taking a trip with him to Livingston, Mont., where Torrey tries to visit once a year.
“We’re going to different bars and walking down the street and everybody is saying, ‘Hey, Beef,’” Orr said. “Everybody knew him … He said it’s because of his name. I think it’s because he’s a bigger-than-life kind of guy.”
He’s also, according to friend and Doane English professor Liam Purdon, “one of those rare individuals who was at the right place at the right time.”
Because of his association with Brautigan, Torrey became acquainted and developed friendships with a number of American writers and artists who came to fame in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Jim Harrison. Hunter S. Thompson. Thomas McGuane. Ralph Steadman. Russell Chatham. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“Because Beef is the gregarious type of person he is and because he embodies many of the principles those writers strove to define, many of those writers gravitated to him and maintained their friendships with him,” Purdon said.
The friendships are real.
Torrey tells stories about hunting with Harrison in Mexico. Attending parties in Montana with Brautigan. And taking Vonnegut to a downtown Lincoln strip club.
Orr of St. Louis, a Harrison fan and collector, admitted he was skeptical of the tales. He and Torrey are working on a Harrison bibliography that the University of Nebraska Press plans to publish.
“When I first heard all these stories, I thought either this guy is full of s*** or he’s really well-connected,” Orr said. “Beef might exaggerate to make his stories more colorful than they were. … It’s amazing how many people this guy knows.”
Like Harrison, author of “Legends of the Fall.”
The two are close. They often hunt together, with Harrison confirming their Mexico trip in a humorous e-mail interview.
“I determined that Beef can see in the dark because he continued to shoot doves when I couldn’t see anything at all except the big outlines of trees,” Harrison writes. “This is a handy ability in our time.”
Harrison also has spent his fair share of time at Torrey’s acreage, enjoying sausages from nearby Wilber.
“Beef is, of course, indescribable,” Harrison writes. “He is one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met, though often without a specific direction for his enthusiasm except toward literature.
“He is clearly a literature obsessive, and also a collector, which is occasionally irritating because if you aren’t a collector, it is incomprehensible. I’m always trying to get rid of things rather than keep them.”
McGuane, who penned “The Sporting Life,” also acknowledges in an e-mail Torrey’s passion, calling him “an exceedingly warm person with a high degree of commitment to his friends, a profound love of literature and great curiosity about the world.”
Torrey recently edited, “Conversations With Thomas McGuane,” a book published by the University Press of Mississippi, featuring several interviews with the author, including one with Torrey.
Blame Torrey’s literary fervor on Brautigan.
The writer strengthened his friendship with Torrey via their phone conversations.
“It was always an after-11 call,” Torrey recalls. “He would basically rattle on and on.”
The calls eventually led to an invitation to Brautigan’s Montana home.
The visit is something Torrey never will forget. It included introductions to Brautigan’s fellow Montana writers Harrison and McGuane.
It also wasn’t without surprise.
“It was kind of a mixed bag,” he said. “It was a lot different than what I thought it was going to be like. I was young and stupid.”
What Torrey found was a frail, incredibly shy man struggling with alcohol issues. He wasn’t anything like the virile, cocky person pictured with beautiful women on his book covers.
“It dampened my impression of him to a certain extent,” Torrey said. “There was this real negative side to him that would have devastating consequences in the long haul.”
Still, Brautigan was his friend. His passion for the man and his work is evident in the photos and framed writing he has hanging in his house.
He’s made Montana a second home of sorts, returning at least once a year to Livingston, usually for the town’s Fourth of July celebration.
“Richard Brautigan actually was the key figure that pretty much exposed me to a whole new world,” Torrey said.
He remembers Brautigan pulling Harrison’s “Farmer” off a small bookshelf in the writer’s house and giving it to him to read. Torrey returned to the guest house and buried himself in the novel. It was the first time he had read anything by the rough-and-tumble writer.
“I was totally blown away by it,” Torrey said. “It was one of my favorite books … The next day Jim was in town, and Richard introduces me to him. I was particularly floored by the whole thing.”
Torrey loves to share his passion.
A visit to his home includes a tour of his collection. The Chatham original paintings are as striking as are the signed first editions of various authors.
A visitor could spend hours just reading the framed pieces Torrey has hung throughout his house.
He decided long ago to use acquaintances and his knowledge to benefit his writer friends. He’s published several works about them in such magazines as Firsts, Foreward, Blue Suede News, Cowboys & Indians, RayGun and more.
“I have the in,” he said. “I want to use it to bring some exposure to people who are somewhat deserving.”
“He worked hard on ‘Conversations,’ unearthed things I had never seen or had forgotten,” McGuane writes. “His questions led us both to some insights that might have been missed forever, and he ended up prying from me a greater awareness of what I’d been doing all along.”
“Conversations” is part of the University Press of Mississippi’s “Literary Conversation Series.” Torrey is working on another one with Omaha friend Simonson on gonzo journalist Thompson.
And then there’s the Harrison bibliography that he and Orr have worked on for seven years.
He enjoys writing, inspired by his many famous friends and by how they turned a phrase or used a metaphor.
In the May 1999 issue of the book collectors’ magazine Firsts, he describes Harrison:
“Jim is easily caricatured, becoming a collage of the photographs of his dust jackets — a burly, barrel-chested, mustachioed version of Cheech Marin, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his forearms and and biceps the size of a ham hock and a hog’s hindquarter, a smoldering American Spirit between his fingers, wearing knee-high moccasins, standing next to a snow drift. …”
And to think it all started with a fan letter.
Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or email@example.com.