Tony Vagneur: Rounding the bases of life
The thing about history is that it happens all around us, and we pretty much just walk through it, or at least our relationship to it.
As a kid on a local ranch, my organized town activities fairly well stopped when school was out for the summer. From the age of 9, I was expected to be around the ranch, doing the job of whatever a 9-year-old could handle, like fetching tools, water, raking hay and helping Gramps move cows.
Maybe it was a mother’s insistence, something unknown to me at the time, but my mom made sure I got off the ranch several times a summer, one of them being a trip to Grand Junction to visit my cousins, the Francis Stapleton family.
Francis was my mom’s first cousin, born and raised on the Owl Creek ranch, graduated from Aspen High. He married Ella Cerise, daughter of John Cerise, who owned the downvalley ranch and lived in the El Jebel house that became, for a long time, Wiegner’s Restaurant, later Cilantro’s. She was a Basalt graduate. A match made in heaven, they no doubt thought, and maybe it was.
Anyway, they stuck it out on the Owl Creek place for a few years, where their first-born, Fred, came into the world. He beat me here by two or three years, and we didn’t really have a childhood connection because his family moved away shortly thereafter.
Now, you may not remember, there used to be a country store on the way to Meeker, right where the Piceance Creek road takes off to the west. That’s where Francis, Ella and young Fred went after leaving the ranch. That Rio Blanco store was my favorite stop between Rifle and Meeker (when I used to travel that road a lot), and I never went by without stopping. Only in the last few years did it come to my attention that the Stapletons were the owners of that roadside respite for a few years. Sadly, it’s now closed.
To stray further from the main story would be misleading, so the Stapletons ended up in Grand Junction, where Francis worked as an engineer for the D&RG railroad and Ella ran a neighborhood grocery store on the corner, directly out their back door, aptly named, “This is It.” It was on the order of a 7-Eleven, stocked with items neighbors needed quickly or had special ordered.
Their house was one of those old, rambling styles with very large rooms and everything was wood or wallpaper. The enclosed front porch with square colonnades was a giveaway to the rest of the place.
Baseball was the game de rigeur for the summertime kids in the neighborhood, and along with Fred’s younger brother, Alan, we’d walk the three or four blocks to the diamond, where the meeting time was not official, just understood.
This was most of my exposure to baseball, hardball, the American game, and a country boy like myself wasn’t an established player like the rest of the kids. They’d put me in the batter’s box and one of the pitchers would burn ball after ball by me, educating my eye and my reflexes to the incredible speed of a well-thrown ball.
After baseball, we’d hit the small store behind the house for a cold RC Cola from the soft drink fridge. We lived for those colas, it seemed.
My skills improved, in the week or so I had every year for a few summers, but I never got to experience the spiritual level of the game, as so ably described by Roger Marolt in several of his columns. One spring, I was on Billy Marolt’s team of sandlot baseball out in the West End, but other than recess “work up” in grade school, that was about it.
Those visits left a lasting impression on me, and about 20 years ago, I drove through that Grand Junction neighborhood, just for a quick glimpse into the past. The Stapletons had long moved on, but “This is It” grocery was still there, although there was a closed sign in the door window. The baseball diamond was hanging on, but not as well kept, as times move on and parks begin to provide more variations to increasing populations.
Around 1980, I spotted cousin Francis operating a D&RG train, loading coal outside of Carbondale. With an attitude practiced years earlier while bumming rides on steam engines at the Aspen stock yards, while shipping cattle, I hopped onto the huge diesel locomotive without invitation and announced myself.
Scared the hell out of Francis, too. He hadn’t seen me in years, and at first blush in the sneak attack, he confused me with my dead brother, Steve. Strange, the ways we all pedal through this land we call home.
Those weeks I spent with my Grand Junction cousins gave me a taste of town life in the summer for which I’m forever grateful.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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