Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 7, 2009
They came from all over town, just to sit in the big rocking chair in the kitchen corner and tell their tales. The three women who lived there would hover around, making tea, getting out the assorted homemade cookies, and setting up the straight-backed oak chairs in a semi-circle around the leather-covered rocker. And the honored guest was made to feel just that.
The Aspen Times came out once a week on Thursdays, so there was a need for some method of getting the news out to the folks on other days, and neighborhood visiting was the best way any of the old-timers could find, particularly for the women. At my maternal grandmother’s Bleeker Street house, the great, old, comfortable leather rocker was where the guest always sat.
Guests like Lilly Reed, daughter of Katie, namesake of the Katie Reed House uptown, and Iola Ilgen, who lived across Bleeker from Grandma’s house. The two women were contrasts in philosophy – Lilly would send notice that she would appear at a certain date and time (and was as imperiously punctual as an executioner), whereas Iola would request permission to visit at a time and date convenient to my grandmother’s household and generally arrived within striking distance of the agreed upon hour.
Such visits created great excitement with the women in Grandma’s household, but generally drove my great-uncle, Tom Stapleton, to head to the Red Onion or Ski n’ Spur to hobnob with his buddies. Similarly enough, when one of Uncle Tom’s cronies would show up, the women all disappeared, either into the living room or the garden.
Harry Holmes, rancher and miner, would sit in the rocker, putting his booted feet up to rest on one of the oak sitting chairs, and either play with his pocket knife or complain about things he should be getting done at his house. He didn’t hear all that well, and wore a huge hearing aid that never seemed to work. Uncle Tom would lay out the plan for the day, or just ask Harry how he was doing, and the usual household noise would be ruptured by the sound of Harry’s booming, scratchy voice. “What? Goddammit Tom, you know I can’t hear. Speak up.” Harry and Tom were two guys who talked mostly in silence, occasionally throwing out words just to make sure their thought patterns were both still in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Every once-in-a-while, Harry would bring his son Russell along, which put a different shine on the conversation. Russell’s nickname was Rasputin, which I always found amusing, but it didn’t matter, for Rasputin, or Russell, was always after Uncle Tom about the mines on Aspen Mountain.
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“You’ve been way deep in there, haven’t you, Tom? Why the hell did they tunnel that direction, anyway? Seems like they put a bad angle on ‘er, if you ask me.” Russell has long been credited with having a ton of knowledge about Aspen’s old mines, and he did, but that’s only because those taking stock didn’t have the privilege of talking to Tom or Harry before they died.
Of course, Harry would have trouble keeping up with the conversation, what with that huge hearing aid, and eventually Uncle Tom, who seemed as patient as Job, would holler out, “For Christ’s sake, Harry, go wait in the Jeep while Russell and I finish this conversation. We can’t yell at you all goddamned day.”
As the song says, “If the rockin’ chair could read the thoughts from people’s minds, Oh, the stories it would tell time after time . . .” And I reckon it’s true, but you’d have to know a little bit about the people to fully understand the stories.