November 1, 2006
"I was not partying! It was research!"
As many of Gary Kimball’s longtime friends and acquaintances will tell you, he is a "piece of work" of the highest order. And those who have read his latest coming-of-age mining camp memoir, "Of Moths and Miners and Other Tales of Old Park City" would be hard pressed to disagree.
Many, if not all, of this collection of wonderfully spun yarns previously saw print during the past decade or so upon the pages of Park City Lodestar — now Park City Magazine. But, after immersing oneself in these oftentimes hilarious tales, one after the other, it becomes quite evident that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.
Concerning themselves with that more-organic space-time of the 1950s and ’60s that preceded Park City’s transformation to ski town, the accounts are nuanced with a sense of love and place — and, more importantly, love of place. In the sense that Kimball is a lifelong "Parkite" and the narratives are depicted from his point of view, the anecdotes form a cautionary tale replete with male mischief and a sense of history.
Harboring a perspective that the changes wrought by the "skier boom" were not the saving grace many would have you believe, Gary’s book deals more with what was lost within the community itself. Taking you along as he wanders the back streets of memory, you are able to witness the now legendary characters who populated what many were beginning to call a "ghost town" go about their daily business in their unhurried yet methodical fashion.
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The chapter on "Big Wayne" Putman, affectionately known as "Put-Put" or "Wall-of-Fire Wayne" to most of the ski bums he befriended over the years, painted a picture of a seventh-grade, big man on campus that had me laughing, and crying, out loud. Big Wayne had a big heart before it finally gave out and, although we were longtime friends, I felt like, with these new episodes added to the myth, I had truly met him for the first time.
As could probably be surmised, I first laid eyes upon Gary in a bar. I can readily imagine the roll of his eyes and the "get a load of this guy" that played across his sensibility as another newly-arrived poster child to the "Californication" of his beloved town stumbled through the door.
And it would be within the polished wood ambiance of Park City saloons that Gary and I would come to know each other. A man of few words, his wrinkled brow or knowing grin could speak volumes. He was often preoccupied and, as I would discover later when he began to publish his accumulated lore, for the most part his hours spent on barstools constituted "research."
That quirk of behavior proved to be far from the only thing we had in common. When it comes to the distinctly acquired neuroses flaunted by those who came of age in Western mining camps, it takes one to know one.
The history of my old stompin’ grounds — Kellogg, Idaho — during those years pretty much paralleled that of Park City. Strikes at the mines and the smelter and the trickle-down effect of the vacillating lead, zinc, and silver markets were directly proportional to discretionary income. It especially hit hard if one was employed in the lawn-mowing, paper-route, or bowling-alley-pin-setting industries.
The first chapter, the one from which Gary’s book takes its name, concerns the legendary "Cozy," a tavern located for millennia near the base of Main Street. It was the thirsty wayfarer’s "first chance," as the sign read if you were heading up-street, and "last chance," as it read if you were heading down.
The Cozy was the last bastion for the Park City locals circling their wagons as the mining community attempted to hold on to their "family values" and hold the somewhat non-traditional skier ethic at bay. Not that they cringed in fear that we Johnny-come-lately types were a threat in the physical sense. Quite the antithesis, actually.
And that is why I have only one "Cozy" story to my name — while many of my friends ended up working and hanging out there for years. It was early winter of 1970 and a snowstorm had lain white all up and down Main Street — a postcard if I ever saw one.
Finding myself heading back to my digs at the bottom of the ski hill for the second night in a row without liquid sustenance and not wanting to re-negotiate the uphill trek to a more friendly purveyor, I bit the bullet, double parked out front, and moseyed in – just as I had the previous evening.
All conversation ceased! The eyes that seemed non-committal the night before had now acquired an agenda. The six-pack that had cost me three-bucks the night before was now six-bucks. I mentioned the discrepancy to the very same female barkeep who had "waited" on me during that other lifetime. She informed me that I must be mistaken.
A couple of long drinks of water arose from their stools with purpose and headed my way. Ratcheting-up whatever "meek" I could muster under the circumstances, I grabbed my change and the "sixer" and sought refuge in the still-running VW Bug. For whatever reason, I, a local barfly of some note, would never re-enter Park City’s most famous tavern.
But, not to worry. Gary has many more watering holes and haunts and stories to go with them. "The Club" and "The Oak" and "Pop Jenks" all led quite different lives during the ’50s and ’60s than they would once the ski lifts had been running for a spell — and therein lies the joy of "Of Moths and Miners."
It’s the idiosyncratic component of the town and the tales that most reward. The chapters detailing the "Ski Lift Operator’s Union" and the one which makes available "Strong Coffee and Cheap Sex" present a Park City seldom heard from anymore.
It’s about going back to a time when shenanigans were performed against a backdrop of commonality, when you knew all the players, and the grass was always greener and the girls always less-restrained over Heber way. "Big Wayne" could have filled you in on that.
You can’t beat an old mining camp as a "theater of the absurd," and Gary Kimball has done all us newcomers a service by keeping these spirited legends alive. It just goes to show what can come from years of diligent research.
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