Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
You could walk up to the corner of Cooper and Galena today and buy one of the nicest cowboy hats in the West, or let the staff at Kemo Sabe show you a pair of the finest boots available. The store is a plethora of western attire and accouterments, where shoppers with discriminating taste can while away an easy afternoon. But it wasn’t always so.
Odds are you don’t remember, but Tompkins Hardware used to occupy the Kemo Sabe corner, in a long brick building of a different sort, and while its customer’s pockets weren’t lined nearly as well as today’s clients, they were certainly as discriminating. My dad and grandfather occasionally bought dynamite there, as well as other obscure supplies, so I kind of had an “in” with the proprietor, L. H. Tompkins.
If you looked through the big display windows along the sidewalk, all you could see of the interior was black, with little glimmers of brass here and there, as though nothing much existed inside. Entering through the worn and squeaky double doors facing Aspen Mountain, it became apparent that lighting was not a management priority. A man alone, Tompkins (or his impostor) stayed behind the counter, dressed in dark bib overalls, and about the only brightness one could see amidst the rows and rows of merchandise was the white hair on the old man’s head.
Mr. Tompkins wasn’t what you’d call real personable, at least not with kids, and our entrance could be counted on to get his antennae up, but as I said, I had an “in,” which basically meant he didn’t throw us out immediately. Like addicts, we’d quietly mumble our needed fix for that day, a small paper bag of “calcium carbide, please.” Carbide, when mixed with water, creates acetylene, a flammable gas, which is what makes carbide lamps burn, deep in the silver mines. I suspect Tompkins had been stuck with that carbide since the last mines closed in the 1920s, so in spite of his better judgment, he kept selling it to us.
We’d collect some pop bottles out of the alleys around town, gather a few corks from here or there, go somewhere secluded, mix a little water and carbide in the bottles and cork the top off. The bubbling of the water as the carbide turned to gas created great pressure inside the bottle, and before long, the corks would blast high into the sky. Kids with little patience, but long on experience, could sense the imminent blast-off pressure, and would, with unerring accuracy, pelt the glass bottles with rocks, creating explosions that only young tyrants of our time could truly appreciate. Someone should have lost an eye or at least part of a face, but we always slipped away unscathed. A 15-cent bag of carbide could fill up an afternoon.
The intriguing part of the story, I suppose, goes back to the dynamite mentioned earlier in this column. It was another world in those days, and ranch kids like myself had access to blasting caps and dynamite, simply because it was part of ranch life. We could have made a lot of trouble for ourselves and God knows who else, but we had fathers who might have personally killed us had we misused any of the explosives at our disposal. Along with “hands-on” practice came instruction in how to use the stuff, tedious lectures on how dangerous it was, admonitions to always be careful and to above all else, think.
We could have put a stick or two of dynamite under someone’s car, or in another’s driveway culvert or garbage can, but for some reason, it just didn’t happen. Our dads get most of the credit for keeping our heads on straight, but I think we also owe old man Tompkins a debt of gratitude for selling us access to a certain amount of explosive fun that may have partially sated our youthful appetites for willful destruction.
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