Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore | AspenTimes.com

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

In the days when McCulloch Oil owned much of the Hunter Creek Valley, memories of Lamech sheep bands wandering the valley floor and Jenny Adair’s entrepreneurial sawmill weren’t so distant as to be indistinguishable from the “olden” days. Van Horn Park was summer home to cattle herds from Woody Creek, Brush Creek, Starwood (Trentaz) and points in between.

A group of us, hooked to McCulloch Oil in one form or another, scored the key to the locked gate and gained permission to spend the weekend in the old cabin not far up the valley. It wasn’t any spur-of-the-moment camping trip, for we were going first class, at least for the times. A couple of the boys brought along a cooler full of crappie and bass, we rounded up some steaks, potatoes, corn on the cob, and naturally, brought along enough beer and whiskey to float a solar-energy-company loan. Someone had the brilliant idea that we should cook a goose, literally, and Joe “No Problem” Candreia’s name came up as the obvious source of such a fowl.

Joe lived at Buttermilk (before Bumps Restaurant) in an upstairs apartment over the ski shop with a blue-haired woman who no doubt was a lot of fun, but who had a tongue sharper than a barber’s straight razor, at least when she was talking to Joe, which seemed to be most of the time. His reply was the toothless and usual, “No problem,” softened by a plug of tobacco in one cheek or the other and a tongue habitually numbed by alcoholic libations. In addition to being a Ski Corp. mechanic, Joe was considered to be the night watchman and as such, entitled to live about any way he pleased, which meant raising chickens, ducks and geese on the roof above the ski shop. Joe wasn’t sure he wanted to see the goose leave home, but for $5 and a bottle of hooch, the deal was struck.

We left work early on a Friday afternoon, loaded our gear into a brand-new Dodge pickup truck, including the gawking goose, and followed it all in an open-topped Jeep, about a 1952 vintage, stocked with fishing gear and other accoutrement that likely could have been left at home.

Deep-fried fish, the first I’d ever had, was great on top of about a case of beer, and we finally got around to dressing out the goose. I guess the idea was to cook it and let it sit overnight, ready for a lunch-time feast the next day. More savvy cooks than I lowered it into the deep fryer, and the last I remember hearing was, “Somebody wake me at midnight to check on the bird.” To coin a phrase, “No problem.”

About 3 a.m., I heard a commotion and one of the cooks running outside, yelling, “The goose, the goose!” Upon inspection, it wasn’t a total loss, but what the difference was, I couldn’t say. It was a tragedy, there’s no doubt, and we felt bad about it all weekend. Still do, as a matter of fact.

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That was in the early 1970s. The man many of you knew as “No Problem Joe,” the man for whom No Problem Bridge (Neale Street) is named, had something else to say to the rest of us (every time we saw him) after we explained what we’d done to the goose. Like a little kid, his eyes would tear up, and he’d let his face contort into a sad expression, and he’d say, in that inimitable way he had, “Go away. You ruined my goose.”

I thought he might never get over it and would hold a grudge forever, but sometime in the early ’90s, not too long before he died, he invited my uncle and me into his house to share in an after-breakfast snort. He took a big swig off a tabletop bottle, passed it to my uncle and then elbowed me in the ribs with a teasing smile, “You’re the sumbitch who cooked my goose. No problem.”