Thursday, October 2, 2003

Junk man salvages a family


Six years ago, James Buntain lost the woman he loved, but he's determined to build a good life for two young boys

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] James Buntain and one of his sons, Ethan Sturgil, 15, stand atop piled-up auto parts in Buntain's Pendleton County salvage yard.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
Everyone has a story worth telling. That's the theory, anyway. To test it, Tempo is throwing darts at the phone book. When a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed.

A dead-end road leads to an unmarked dirt lane. It wends downhill past dozens of broken-down cars and trucks, hundreds of engine blocks stacked like cordwood, and one gravestone.

In a garage at the bottom of the hill, a man hunches over the back of a tow truck. He's up to his elbows in grease. His name is James Buntain. He's a junk man.

"I love what I do," the junk man says.

He's a wiry fellow, 29 years old, with reddish hair and pale blue eyes. His left cheek bulges with chewing tobacco.

He spends his days salvaging junkers, selling the useable parts, sending the rest to recyclers. He does some towing on the side.

His place, which occupies three rural acres near Falmouth, doesn't have a sign, or a name. "If I was going to call it anything," he says, "I'd call it Buntain Salvage."

Hard work built this place. Some heartache, too.

He was the second of six children, and never knew his father. "I grew up on food stamps," the junk man says. "Till I was 11 or 12, I didn't know people had jobs. I thought everybody got welfare."

He dropped out of high school to work. He's held a lot of jobs - in construction and in tobacco fields and in lumberyards. He's driven garbage trucks and he's slung trash into them.

"I've always junked on the side," says Buntain (pronounced BUNT-in). After work each day, he'd collect soda pop cans, copper wire, whatever he could find, and toss it into his mother's '82 Pontiac. Friday nights he cleaned up his junk; Saturdays he sold it.

In time, he got a pickup, and started hauling engine blocks. Then he got a trailer, which allowed him to cart away bigger stuff. And then he got a forklift. "Now," he says, spitting tobacco juice, "I got five." Also, two loaders and three tow trucks.

A good junk man doesn't get too attached to things. A good junk man is willing to part with anything. Or almost anything.

"I just got rid of between 600 and 700 cars," Buntain says. They were everywhere, up and down the hillside, piled five and six deep. Junkers covered every bit of grass, except for a small patch near the gravestone at the top of the hill.

That's where Paula is buried.

Together seven years

Paula Reaser and James Buntain were a couple for seven years. She was older by six years, and had suffered through two failed marriages. They had a child together, named Carl.

Paula had six other children: Four had been placed in foster care and eventually were adopted; another lived in a relative's home. Paula still had custody of a son named Ethan.

She was driving to Falmouth, alone, on an October morning six years ago when she lost control of her pickup. She died that day, at age 29.

Says Buntain: "If she told me once, she told me a thousand times: 'If anything ever happens to me, promise me you'll take care of the kids.' "

Carl was 4; Ethan, 9. Carl was Buntain's own flesh and blood. Ethan was not, but Buntain had been part of the boy's life since he was 2. "I didn't feel like he needed to go anywhere," the junk man says.

And yet, "I knew it was going to be rough getting custody."

At the time, Buntain was a helper on a garbage truck. Home was an 8-by-12 foot outbuilding he shared with Paula. The two boys lived with Buntain's mother, Ruby Biery, in a trailer just up the hill.

To have any chance of becoming Ethan's legal guardian, Buntain knew he would have to prove in court that he could provide for the boys. So within a couple of weeks, he got a commercial driver's license and became a garbage truck driver, which boosted his pay. He took another job building pallets at night. He continued junking, often taking the boys with him.

Somehow, he also found time to start building a house. "You can't take care of kids," he says, "if you ain't got a house for 'em to live in." He did most of the work himself.

Eight months later, Buntain was awarded legal guardianship of Ethan.

Since then, the junk business has grown. So have the boys. Carl is 10. Ethan, at 15, is only 14 years younger than the man he calls Dad.

"He's been a good dad," Ethan says. "Sometimes we butt heads. We're mad at each other for a few days, and the next day, we're happy.

"We love each other."

A father-son business?

Ethan is a freshman at Pendleton County High School. He talks about being the first one in his family to graduate. Buntain knows it will be a struggle. The boy is a lot like he was at that age.

"Ethan will get in the oil, he'll get in the grease, he'll catch on to mechanical (things) so quick," the junk man says. "But when it comes to doing school work, he gets frustrated, he throws fits, he don't want to do it."

It's not inconceivable that someday they might become business partners. They've talked some about that.

If the place had a name, it might be called Buntain Salvage. Passersby might not see anything here worth keeping.

The junk man knows better.

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com




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