Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
In the brilliant comedy routine “The 2,000 Year Old Man,” Mel Brooks ” in character as that 2,000-year-old man ” is asked if he’d met Robin Hood.
“Oh yes,” answers Brooks. “Lovely man. Ran around in the forest.”
“They say he stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” says the interviewer.
Brooks snorts with laughter. “Ha! He stole from everybody and kept everything. ‘He stole from the rich and gave to the poor.’ Who knew? He’d give you such a knock in the head, you’d forget everything.”
I mention this because Brooks is pointing out ” even as we laugh ” that folk heroes can be double-edged, rough-edged characters.
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It doesn’t pay to worship a folk hero. You can wind up broke ” with a concussion.
Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde ” they were all small-time crooks and violent killers who somehow became “folk heroes,” usually through the hero-worshipping efforts of people who never had anything to do with them.
And so we come to Jim Blanning.
It is tempting, of course, to sadly say that Jim Blanning ” who shut down Aspen on New Year’s Eve with a bomb threat, backed by real bombs, and then killed himself ” was another of those “true Aspen characters” who once formed the heart and soul of the town and are now rapidly disappearing.
Which is true.
It is also tempting to say that Jim, like too many others before him, was another Aspen character driven crazy by Aspen.
A lot of people have already said that Jim’s craziness came from his disgust at what Aspen had become ” a playground for the heedless rich. But that misses a very important point: Jim desperately wanted to become one of those wildly rich Aspenites.
He worked endlessly to become rich. He worked hard to become rich.
He just didn’t work honestly.
Jim Blanning was smart and imaginative, handsome and seductive. He was a charming scoundrel ” but “scoundrel” is one of those words that walks a fine line. A scoundrel is worse, certainly, than a “scamp,” but not nearly so bad as a “petty crook.”
After all, I can call Blanning a charming scoundrel, but you’d never call anyone a charming petty crook.
But Jim Blanning was charming. And he was a petty crook.
I didn’t know Blanning very well. But even on the basis of our very casual acquaintance, I could sense his charm.
More than that, I was fascinated by his story. His widowed mother moved to Aspen, into the run-down Hotel Jerome, around 1940 with her very young sons. She partied hard, leaving her sons to more or less raise themselves in the company of the handful of remaining miners who also lived in the Jerome.
The image of that young boy ” pre-teen and then teenage ” sitting for hours with old miners, hearing their tales of great exploits and lost glories, is a poignant one.
Jim roamed through the old mine shafts in the mountains and then, as he grew older, pored over the old mining records in the courthouse.
Few, if any, knew more about Aspen’s mines and its mining claims.
It is, all in all, a romantic story ” if you stop right there. But Jim Blanning took that past and the lessons he learned from it and went his own way ” and finding any romance in the path he followed would be a mistake.
Yes, he was a good friend to his pals, and he often enough helped out people in need.
And, yes, not every land deal he was involved in was dishonest.
And, yes again, he may have worked harder on his dishonest schemes than he would have had to work to make the same money honestly.
And, yes, yes again, I just said that I too sensed how charming he could be.
He was indeed an Aspen character, a modern link to the town’s past, unique, valuable in his own way.
But he wasn’t the legendary Robin Hood; he was the “steal from everybody,” “knock you in the head” Robin Hood.
Blanning was famous for using his research skills and his deep knowledge of mining law to find legal (or semi-legal) ways to snatch up the title to mining claims that the government had seized for non-payment of taxes after the mining industry went bust.
But snatching up land from the government wasn’t all he did.
If Jim Blanning thought he saw an opportunity, he would swoop in and try to snatch up land, not from the impersonal government, but from other living, breathing human beings.
And if their home was on that land ” well, tough luck.
There are people in this town who spent years ” and many thousands of dollars ” fighting to save their property from Jim Blanning.
And it was one of those land grabs gone bad that landed Jim Blanning in prison.
He tried to steal someone’s land and home right in Aspen. Not an old mining claim, but ordinary, modern property ownership. And, again, not the government, but another local resident ” someone who knew Blanning, someone who might even have considered him a friend.
They sent him to jail for too long ” and jail made him crazy. But he’d been heading for a bad ending for a long time.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Blanning seriously hurt a lot of people with his final act. He destroyed New Year’s Eve and cost a lot of hard-working people a lot of desperately needed money.
He didn’t hurt the government much, and he didn’t really hurt the banks. He didn’t hurt those rich people he claimed to hate. He hurt the small business owners and, more than that, he hurt the waiters and waitresses and dishwashers ” people who are struggling to get by in Aspen.
And yet, when the news came that it was Jim Blanning who had caused the upheaval, I had a moment of gladness.
I was glad it wasn’t terrorists. I was glad it wasn’t some political stupidity, some protest by outside activists, enraged at something or other.
In the end, it was an Aspen story. As one of Blanning’s land-scam victims said after it was all over, with surprising charity, “It was one of us that went crazy.”
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