Willoughby: Youth migrate to popular places and then turn homeward | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Youth migrate to popular places and then turn homeward

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Fourteen-year-old William Ruppert of Maryland breaks 1929’s flagpole sitting record of 23 days.
library of congress/courtesy photo

Wanderlust infects young people who live in small towns. Those who do not venture far often dream of leaving. Although many youth have left Aspen for greener fields, others have left their small town homes to live the Aspen dream.

Taking my Aspen High School graduating class as an example, many went off to college and most did not return. But the annual number of departures remained much smaller than the total of new arrivals. Newcomers fled other cities for Aspen’s outdoor life, the allure of skiing and greater acceptance of diverse lifestyles. Hawaii, the Big Apple and Aspen ranked as top destinations, and some nomads managed to log a few years in each city.

Wanderlust hit my father during the late 1920s. Facing job scarcity in Aspen, a few of his classmates left town to look for work elsewhere. Father had begun work at the Midnight Mine the day after his high school graduation. He worked his way up from a mucker — the one who loaded ore cars and trammed them out of the mountain — to a driller. After a few years passed, he yearned for travel to escape working for his father, and to make his own way.

Father was one of many youth who headed to Los Angeles, a city fueled by growth. As the country transitioned from horse-and-buggy to automobile, California’s oil production expanded. And a new enterprise had taken hold, the glamorous film industry.

Father saved enough money to buy a used car and headed West. One of his best memories was of crossing the Great Salt Lake. Not much of a road complicated his journey, just ruts in the salt. He first encountered pavement when he approached Los Angeles.

Father landed a job as a hod carrier—the person who muscles cement and bricks for a bricklayer—with a construction project that built the new Shell refinery. This did not quite fit his dream of a career position. But his muscles, well developed through physical labor, qualified him immediately for the easily found job. He rented an apartment in downtown Los Angeles, close to the city’s every offering. To split the cost, he rounded up three other former Aspenites as roommates.

The boy who grew up in the mountains immediately connected with the ocean. He spent many of his off-hours at the beach. Pole sitting was the rage and some athletes chose the beach for their attention getting hobby. Father enjoyed chatting with them.

One day he and a friend dared each other to take a plane ride. Barnstorming drew crowds of people who felt curious about airplanes. Father and his friend went up in an old double wing plane from World War I. It appeared that coat hangers cobbled it together. The pilot swooped the plane above the beach, a new perspective for a mountain kid. The motor conked out and Father thought twice about his rash decision. At the last minute the pilot got the engine going again.

At night, father and his friends attended dance pavilions. Large orchestras kept the crowds jumping. The elders thought the too-loud noise could hardly be termed music.

Father had first experienced movies as a boy, when he traveled from his native home of Hotchkiss and discovered Aspen had two silent movie theaters. In Los Angeles, he saw the first talkies. What more could you want?

The Shell building wall complete, his job ended. Despite the strong lure of Los Angeles, Father wanted to return to his work as a miner, underground. He worked Arizona’s copper mines for a few months, but Aspen held his heart.

What a town! People still tighten or cut their ties to Aspen. Some newcomers stay long enough to welcome departed old-timers when they return.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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