Tony Vagneur: Bud Strong’s friendship and legacy touch many souls in Roaring Fork Valley
From the looks of the crowd, it could have been a day in the 1970s or even ’80s, when something was happening at the firehouse. Not a holiday, but clearly something special, an event that got fire department families to gather on the tarmac in front of the big doors.
You don’t wear AVFD badge No. 1 and sneak out the back gate when your road on this planet ends without folks taking notice. John “Bud” Strong Jr., Aspen native, 92 years old, a man who spent a majority of his life in Aspen, passed last month into that great forest in the sky, leaving behind generations of family and friends who truly would miss him.
It’s hard to grasp the significance of a person’s life in a short ceremony, designed to offer condolences as well as healing memories, but Bud’s many-faceted life left numerous opportunities to reminisce at the Nov. 13 gathering.
“Take a seat, we’re ready to begin,” intoned Fire Chief Rick Balentine, and we sat facing the 1953 FWD fire truck, the symbol of a new era in Aspen firefighting, with Bud’s uniform displayed along the side; helmet, pants, jacket, and that unique badge, No. 1.
The honor guard, in true military style, hushed whatever remaining crowd rustling there was, and we were off, a walk down memory lane of Bud Strong and the volunteer fire department he served for many years. Also, sitting at the front were two U.S. Navy sailors to perform the flag ceremony in honor of Bud, a Korean War vet.
Like all of us in the audience, my mind darted off to different experiences I’d had with Bud over the years. If nothing else, he was a dedicated hunter and was known as one of the best around. For umpteen years, he and his family, including various friends, had a yearly elk hunting camp in Kobey Park, so well known that many times, geographic references about game or hunter movements were talked about in relationship to “Strong’s Camp.”
When I was a kid in the 1950s, we always stopped by the Big Lift Ski Shack at the bottom of Lift One, owned by Bud Strong and Byron Shipp, to get our skis waxed. It was a fun place to wait your turn, listening to all the town and ski bum gossip. Bud always treated us local kids with the utmost attention to detail.
One fall, hauling hay to cow camp in anticipation of hunting season, I found Bud above the ranch, truck broken down. He might have been headed to their camp, high above our cabin, taking in necessities, I don’t remember.
There was a lot of new snow on the ground and he said, “I’ll ride along with you, the snow will get deeper as we go. We’ll work on my truck on the way out.” Bud was my co-pilot (and life-saver) as we drove through at least 2 feet of newly fallen snow, helping to keep me on the path in those places where the road was indistinguishable from the landscape. Bud was in his 70s then and even though he had his own problems, he took the time to give me a hand.
Bud and I drank a lot of beer through the years at the old Eagles Club on Galena, but we weren’t afraid to dive into a Stinger or two if the mood happened to strike us.
Dance night at the Eagles or Elks Club, or just a quiet afternoon in town, if the fire siren went off, many of the male population would blast out the door, running to the fire station and scrambling onto a truck, headed to whatever emergency called them forth. Most firemen lived in town then and they’d be running or driving from all directions, putting everything else they were doing aside. The serious looks, the determination to do a job they volunteered for, the sheer energy of the men you knew you could trust, couldn’t be denied.
Bud’s last team (all loggers have teams of horses), Pearl and Tom, came to my rescue when I was doing sleigh rides at the T Lazy 7. One of my draft horses got injured and could no longer pull, so Pearl and Tom, who were spending the winter at the Vagneur ranch, got pressed into service. Couldn’t drive that wonderful team without thinking of Bud and his generous nature.
The U.S. flag — red, white and blue, folded three corners — was carried to the front of the audience by the Navy sailors and carefully unfolded, all with total silence and attention from the crowd. Then, in a dramatic flash, the flag was unfurled to its true majesty, inspiring an involuntary breath of surprise from the gathering. My eyes filled with tears at the significance of the gesture tied to the memory of a man’s life.
Bud Strong, you were a good man, a good friend, and you will be missed.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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