The end of a rowdy era
December 14, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoThere doesn’t seem to be any good way to start this column other than to say it’s about the Red Onion. My ol’ saddle buddy, Tim Cooney, asked if I was going to write such a column, and when I said, “Hell no, it’s over,” he suggested maybe I ought to reconsider.I started going to the Red Onion at age 10 or 11 as the guest of my great uncle, Tom Stapleton. Uncle Tom could fill a column on his own, but suffice it to say not too many were privileged to settle in with him and his cronies over an afternoon beer. Guys like Harry Holmes, Auget Ericksen, Hod Nicholson and others would gather at either the Onion or the Ski and Spur (the precursor of the Limelite Lodge) for a couple of afternoon brews. Tom liked to doctor his suds with ketchup and salt, a concoction that turned me off of asking him for a sip, but which put a smile on his face. (As my lady friend Lawren reminded me, the Onion was always referred to in the family as Uncle Tom’s “office.”) Those old boys (above), by then in their 70s and 80s, had all worked the dying silver mines, helped clear Ruthie’s Run, ranched and broke horses together, and sometimes, just sitting there together in Beer Gulch, without saying a word, seemed to be enough for them.The first time I got thrown out of there, I was fresh out of high school and had grandly ensconced myself behind the nightclub piano – after closing, of course. I always blamed Ted Armstrong for the debacle, but he only encouraged my behavior. Breakfast patrons, trying to eat in the restaurant next door, were streaming back into the club to see who the drunken piano player was. Werner Kuster, the owner, didn’t find this too humorous and ordered me out of the place, in a kind of unfriendly way, too. Years later, I asked him if he knew how old I was at the time, and he said something like, “Too young, that’s for sure.”Of course, there are enough anecdotes about the Red Onion to fill more than a couple volumes of preferred reading, but reality never gives us enough time to reminisce as we should. Oh, yeah, we could all meet at the Onion, suck up booze like there’d be no tomorrow, and hoot and holler, and tell jokes and lies, and puke our guts out on the way home, but then, we wouldn’t remember much about the farewell, would we? But some of us’ll try it.It would be hard to think about the Red Onion without remembering the black-curtained nightclub cloakroom, located in a dark corner, the one that served as “la petite boudoir” for a romantic afternoon entanglement between a lady friend and me. For many years, the Onion was the unofficial Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol headquarters, and still, I remember the drawer behind the bar, the one that held the beer and whiskey tabs. Every payday meant a trip to the Sundeck and the Onion to square accounts. For sure, I’ll miss being able to walk down the stairs and find Wabs in his secret office, going over the books. He and Tom Elder usually had time to talk, and whether it was business or life in general, we managed to wade through the philosophy and the humor of it all with a smile.There was a period of about 10 years in my younger life when I seldom missed a Red Onion happy hour, unless I was out of town. Very soon, there won’t be a choice.Aspen is a tough town, and the building’s owners have to eat, so one can’t begrudge them the decision to raise the rent. Besides, a working man’s bar is kind of a rowdy joint, anyway, not the sort of place we want to have in a town continually distancing itself from its roots.Tony Vagneur sometimes wishes he still drank. Read him here every Saturday and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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