Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Gondola Plaza is a thriving gob of adrenaline-laced people midmorning, reminiscent of a country marketplace. Folks scurry by statues of icons past, looking for tickets, ski partners, or just looking straight ahead at whatever they hope the day will bring.

A quick look at the ski rack reveals that your skis are nowhere to be found. There’s a rising sense of urgency overtaking your demeanor and just before the panic mode sets in, a tall, graying gentleman with a smooth, Southern accent offers his help. He listens to your story as he walks you to the nearest rental shop, tells the man in charge to give you whatever you want, and says as he walks off, “Don’t worry about your skis. I’ll have ’em right here when you get done today.”

The only thing missing is the silver bullet as you wonder, “Who was that uniformed man?” We all know the Skico big-shots: Carolyn in guest services, Frankie the equalizer, King the manager, Burkley in operations; Mike-something-or-other, the head duck, and then there’s the Colonel. “The who?” you say.

If there’s one person who operates under the radar, who takes responsibility for keeping Aspen Mountain running smoothly, it is the Colonel, John Holsonback. It’s not so much that anything is particularly his province, but if he sees a problem, he owns it until there is a resolution.

It doesn’t matter who you are, he’ll help you, and this writer has personally witnessed, time and time again the Colonel displaying pure genius when it comes to finding misplaced, lost or stolen ski equipment. Or lost partners, kids, even over-stimulated minds on the verge.

Many Skiing Company name tags contain the hometown of the person wearing them, and the number for Holsonback might be long, listing either his homes in Germany as a military brat, or Charleston, S.C., where a big chunk of his soul resides, or any number of other places the Colonel knew growing up. He met his bride, Hilde, in Germany and learned to ski all over Europe, a past that uniquely qualifies him to work on Aspen Mountain as an internationally sophisticated skier, fluent in foreign languages.

The Citadel in South Carolina is one of America’s top military schools, up there with West Point and the Air Force Academy, but is the only one that still embraces the “fourth class system.” You don’t necessarily need to know what that means, but if those other schools are designed to turn boys into men, you can trust that the Citadel turns boys into tough men, the kind you want on our side. The Citadel is John’s alma mater and precursor to a successful military career which earned him the rank of “Colonel,” only one field rank below “General.”

I mean, let’s face it, if you’re used to commanding infantry brigades (3,000-5,000 soldiers each) in Vietnam, Turkey or anywhere else, finding someone’s lost skis or helping out a friend in need is not something to flinch about. And I suspect that most everyone who has come into contact with John now counts him as a friend.

We could talk about John’s good attributes all day long, but that’s not why we’re here. Some people want to know how many scalps he took, how many bronze or silver stars he earned, and other bloody basic stuff. I’m not gonna say. And it’s just a hunch anyway, but I think he’d like to be a cowboy.

But, I will tell you that John cares deeply for Aspen, for the character of the town, not the characters in town. He’ll emphasize that distinction. According to John, the good character of Aspen is built upon the personal independence of its citizens, those pioneer miners, ranchers and skiers who are the foundation of today’s Aspen. And that group includes John Holsonback.

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