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Tony Vagneur: Red Onion closing brings tears to the eyes

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Tuesday morning at Bone’s Barber Shop in Basalt, the seating appropriately spaced, the congenial ambiance welcoming as always, and the conversations all over the place. It was cold outside and some overflow people were waiting in their cars for their turn, novel virus and all, you know.

Lonnie had a sign up, advertising organic honey for sale, from his own hives, and naturally someone wanted to know what the difference was between organic and non-, and for those listening, we learned a lot about honey bees and their habits. We might have known the questioner, a distinguished-looking gentleman, but the facemask prevented positive identification. That’s how it is these days.

From the straight-backed chair tucked in the corner, a generous six-feet away from other seats, came a recognizable voice decrying the closure of the Red Onion. “What the hell,” someone said, “is that for real?” Been there since 1892 — it takes a lot to bring down a brute like that. The great-uncle of my schoolmate, Posey Crumpacker Nelson, built the place — his surname, Latta, is still visible in the floor tiles just inside the entrance.



Dick Merritt, the corner chair, distinguishable just from the sound of his voice, although when he walked in, we couldn’t tell who he was, wondered aloud how that closing would affect the employees of the Onion. You know Dick Merritt, who along with Dan Glidden, soldiers both, are the faces of the Veterans Day services over at Veteran’s Memorial Park, although there are many people behind that effort.

Then Merritt let slip that he had been on the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol (actually he’s been on all of them at one time or another), but the mention of Aspen Mountain piqued my interest as that made us fellow alums of that exclusive group of professional first responders. What else you hidin’ up your sleeve, Dick?



In the 1970s, the Red Onion was the official after-work gathering spot for the Aspen Mountain patrol and its followers. If you wanted to know what was going on in town, you didn’t want to walk by the Onion without stopping in. That’s where a lot of talk went on about, well, about everything, including the upcoming ski patrol unionization. Think Teamsters.

It was a different time, and a different issue, but in December of 1971, the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol went on strike. I’d been on the patrol a little more than a month and was fully stoked, without grievances, but we were a tight-knit group and once you’re accepted, you’re part of the team.

We picketed in front of the Little Nell base, and throngs of people, here for a Christmas ski vacation, walked through our line, sympathizing with our position while at the same time emphasizing that they were in town to ski, not honor picket lines. That we understood, although at the same time, we tried to explain the issues.

The Teamsters paid us $10 a week for manning the picket line, payday coming at Beer Gulch in the Red Onion every Friday night, ten-dollar bills pulled out of a fat, white envelope. Hallelujah, beer money.

It was a very lean winter, especially for those of us who had been laid off the previous season in February when the Ski Corp. abolished the professional trail crew. Those of us lucky enough to make the ski patrol the next season were now in our second winter of monetary drought.

It was brutal. I tended bar part-time, ironed and folded commercial sheets at Aspen Laundry with Blue Neal (I only lasted 2 or 3 nights — it was too tough for me), drove a garbage truck on the weekends, and finally got on with Mountain Ambulance as an EMT. I was broke all the time, forever behind on the rent, but managed to survive the winter. Don Stapleton gave me a used pair of red Head Competition skis, 213cm, fast. Romeo Pelletier, Buddy Ortega, Kristi Lein and I did a lot of ski racing (Independent town team champions) because we had a lot of time to practice.

That’s a lot of story to tell, but the bottom line is, as Dick Merritt wondered, what are those 30-35 Red Onion laid-off employees going to do? Who would have thought the venerable Red Onion could be brought down by a friggin’ virus. It lived through the flu pandemic of 1918. Certainly, those employees were as surprised as anyone, if not more. And it does tickle the back of the mind; without saying so out loud, some of us are wondering if the Onion is just the first domino to fall.

Just days before Christmas, it’s not pretty, but many, if not all of those employees will find a way to get through this winter. We send them our best wishes, and remember, tip your servers well.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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