Mining Philipsburg, Part 1: Leroy Owens (p.s. Nuts to you, Exelon)

Ice on the snowman, darkness in the streets.

Ice on the snowman, darkness in the streets.

Wednesday, Feb. 5 – Madness is in the air. It is full and ripe and wanton. It is ready to burst.
May the fates help us then.
Sirens wail. Branches bend toward the road and groan under the weight of ice and snow. Fearsome branches fall from the icy heavens. They are the ultimate dumb bombs.
There’s no electricity at Chez 531. Seems it’s the same just about everywhere. The Wayne House of Bitterness is crawling with 21st century refugees in search of a precious outlet.
I leave home in early afternoon. Devon is a ghost town. Starbucks is shuttered, as is Whole Foods and every other neighborhood business.
Darkness at noon. Indeed.
Rubashov said:
“Our Press and our schools cultivate chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance.”
Why does this strike me as germane? All of which brings me back to Starbucks. Again. I drive to Paoli, only to find the same situation.
At the Paoli shopping center, I see a remarkable sight: at least 25 utility trucks staging in the Acme parking lot. They all bear the insignia of Mirarchi Brothers, Inc., a private utility firm from Warminster, a town 30 miles north and east of here.
A few more numbers:
Philly.com reports: This morning’s ice storm left more than 623,o00 Peco customers powerless, shattering applicable company records. Peco, founded in 1881 as the Philadelphia Electric Company, is now a just branch office of the Exelon Corporation. Turns out Exelon, a power-hungry corporate octopus, is almost comically ill-equipped to respond to the situation.
Why?
Is this storm really that devastating? Has Exelon pruned its staff of union linemen? Has it cut corners on line maintenance?
I don’t know the answers. I have my suspicions, of course. It seems that nature has inflicted far worse upon us in the past.
And so lean, mean Exelon flexes its workforce to respond to the crisis. It dispatched crews from as far away as Chicago in an effort to bolster Peco’s overmatched staff.
Exelon, oh Exelon, you are a garden-variety corporate behemoth in the post-New Deal universe. You are Tepco with a Chicago address.
Forbes reports Exelon rewarded CEO Christopher Crane with a compensation package of $5,562,144 in 2011. Five and a half million. Plus. How the hell can Exelon afford to keep Chris Crane in Croesus-like riches?
I don’t know, but skimping on security at its nuclear reactors probably freed up a few dollars. In 2009, Exelon got caught letting security guards (private contractors, naturally*) sleep on the job at Peach Bottom Nuclear Generating Station, which lies about 70 miles west of here on the banks of the Susquehanna River.
And you thought Homer Simpson was an absurd caricature. Hell, I thought Homer Simpson was an absurd caricature.
Fear not. Our vigilant watchdogs of democracy at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have our backs. The NRC fined Exelon a whopping $65,000 for the oversight. Exelon, for the record, reported $18.9 billion in revenues in 2011.
That’s not all. In 2006, Exelon and Illinois officials announced, oh, by the way, that the company’s Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station southwest of Chicago had suffered an insignificant series of accidents which flushed millions of gallons of radioactive tritium into local waterways. For more than a decade. They waited four years to inform the public.
But, you know, why cry over spilled tritium?
In any case, Exelon described the risks from the spill as “minimal” and issued a belated apology.
Enough capitalism-bashing. It is like shooting pigs in a barrel.
Capitalism or communism, it all ends up in the same dark place, driven to the dungeons of despotism by the desperation to build and maintain power.
I am sorry. I am a shameless class warrior.

*In the interest of fairness (and accuracy), Wikipedia reports that the public shaming prompted by the Homer-at-Peach-Bottom snoozefest prompted Exelon to hire its own security personnel.

*******

Before the ice storm, there  came plenty of snow.

Before the ice came, there was  plenty of snow.

I leave Paoli and drive back through Devon on to Wayne. Hey, an open Starbucks.
There is, of course, no place to park. The parking lot is a hopeless morass in the best of times.
Once I’m in, it takes me 10 minutes to get out of the lot. I drive two blocks west and park on a side street.
I lock the car and hump my shit to Starbucks. I carefully sidestep the small lake at the front door, belatedly noticing the handwritten sign encouraging patrons to enter via the rear door.
What do I see? Not a single outlet without a plug. There’s an Old Testament ambiance here.
Espresso machines whir frantically. Baristas shrug their shoulders.
People sprawl on the floor, looking like travelers stranded by canceled flights. They are legion, and they charge computers and phones and conduct business.
One man, who apparently hasn’t heard about headphones, engages in some sort of online medical course. The topic seems to be “how best to manage patients after you’ve screwed up and pissed them off.” We are treated to a bit of prerecorded role play. Then our man offers his response.
An electronic voice tells him no, pal, you got that wrong.
Howard Schultz is evil, but I got to give the devil his due. What a business model! I hate this place, but I always end up here.
Actually, I hate the idea of Starbucks. But they’re so damn ubiquitous. They are convenient in a pernicious sort of way. So many plugs. Comfortable chairs.
And then there’s the three gift cards I received for Christmas.
Even Starbucks is not convenient today. It is the only game for miles around. I loiter at least 20 minutes, waiting to pounce should a table go vacant. Or floor space adjacent to an open receptacle.
When a table doesn’t open up, I try to find the appropriate balance between frenzied vulture and decent human.
I err on the humanity side. Before I speak, a woman at the next table jumps up and asks the exiting patrons if they’re all leaving.
Damn.
Can we share, I ask sweetly?
She says sure.
Sweet.
I peer under the table and spy the outlet. I fumble for my cord. Or think about fumbling for my cord. Before I can move, I watch with equal parts astonishment and bemusement as the woman at the next table snakes a hand into my field of vision and plugs one of her devices into the last vacant receptacle.
Awesome.
I sit patiently for another 20-25 minutes. No problem. I got a book that needs to go back to the library in three days.
So I read, occasionally glancing about for imminent vacancies.
A tempestuous river tops its banks and swallows wagon in a single gulp. Mules go legs up in the angry water and roll over and over. A bloated hog floats past.
A recently finished coffin, occupied by the carpenter’s dear, departed mother, spills into the roiling madness and disappears downstream. Traumatized humans wrestle the elements and come to terms with their ragged impotence.
All of which makes me feel better about my plight.
On an intellectual level, I know reading Faulkner is better than surfing the Internet.
Still, I chafe and wait my turn.
Finally, another table opens up.
I share it with a guy in a Villanova baseball cap. He’s got four kids at home and no heat. He’s worried. His 10-year-old son asked him to bring his phone so he might charge it.
Hopeful news: Father declined son’s request.
Villanova says goodbye. He is quickly replaced by three kids with as many devices to charge.
The oldest, a boy of maybe 12 or 13, wears a Washington Capitals jersey and plays a games on a laptop which prominently sports a Los Pollos Hermanos sticker.
They’re nice kids and fine company. Their mom checks in occasionally, admonishing them to be quiet.
Two hours hence, they get up to leave. A mother and her two young children are first into the breach.
We are all powerless comrades here. By the time I leave, we are old friends. Well, at least new acquaintances.
I know her name is Hadley Witcher and that her son, Avery, has a bloody tooth.
I wish Avery well, issue the boilerplate call to “stay warm” and thank them for their company.
My day at Starbucks is over.

*******

Leroy Owens show off the remnants of the True Fissure hoist.

Leroy Owens show off the remnants of the True Fissure hoist.

Monday, July 15, Philipsburg, Montana

Things are looking up.
Sun slants through a kitchen window. Sausage sizzles in a pan.
The warmth is palpable.
Leroy Owens stands over a stove, wearing an apron and wielding a spatula.
He’s cooking breakfast.
Scrambled eggs and huckleberry pancakes are the marquee items. There’s orange juice. There’s coffee. There’s bonhomie to spare.
Leroy’s been a miner, a barman, a school teacher and more. He’s an unlettered carpenter, a worker of household magic.
Most of all, Leroy’s a raconteur.
Chuck promised we’d hook up with Leroy sooner or later. The prospect of Leroy’s mining stories flickered on the horizon of my consciousness, casting a beacon of hope as I stumbled about Wyoming and Colorado and fumbled the narrative.
Before he could get to the stories, he had to make us breakfast. It’s what he does. And the food? It was hearty, and it was good. Get you some of Leroy’s huckleberry pancakes if the chance ever presents itself.
He took us out the back door, across the street and into the house he’s remodeling for his son. He exudes a fierce pride in a job well done, and who can blame him?
Breakfast devoured, we prepared to head to the mines. Before we got out the door, Leroy’s wife, Nancy, whom we’d only just met, volunteered to watch Max while we journeyed up to the mines above Philipsburg.
We piled into Colleen Stark’s Subaru Forester. Leroy’s father, Alex Owens, came here with his brother, Roy, and Blackie Hartley. Yeah, Blackie Hartley. You know it’s going to be a good day when Blackie Hartley shows up in the discussion.
The back wall at the White Front bar is plastered with a hypnotic collection of photographs. They are snapshots of old miners. A good many of them are now dead.
Leroy said he got that display started. He hasn’t worked at the White Front in more than 30 years, but it still bears his stamp. He tended bar there on and off from 1964-82 and was co-owner for eight years.
It was, simply, a miner’s bar.
One night he dispatched a couple women to take photos of a regular playing in a local basketball league. When they returned, the were still film left in the camera.
“So we started taking pictures of the guys in the bar,” he said. “When somebody died, we put a star on them.”
On most nights, the White Front rocked and rolled to the rough-hewn rhythms of boisterous tramp miners.
“They would be in one place for a couple months and then move on,” he said. “They’d mine in Wallace and Kellogg in the the Coeur D’Alenes, then they’d come into Montana, work in P-burg and Butte, go down to Colorado and work around Leadville, then go to Lark, Utah. We always had a a variety of these people coming and going.”
They were hard-working, hard-drinking men. They had colorful nicknames and personalities to match. There was Mumbles and Machine Gun, Poot and Pine Cat.
“They were all real characters, all of them had hundreds of stories to tell,” Leroy said, his blue eyes fairly twinkling. “I first started working in the mines in ’64. If I worked six days a week, I could clear $243 every two weeks. Which was pretty good money.”
We stopped at an abandoned wretch of a mine, a hanging-on hulk they call the True Fissure.

Leroy and Charlie.

Leroy and Charlie.

Leroy loves to discourse on the subject of miners. We are avid students today.
“Miners are interested in about three things,” he said. “Number one they’re interested in booze. They’re interested in women and they’re interested in fast cars, and every damn one of them thinks he’s going to be another Muhammad Ali.”
We climbed over rocks and sidestepped fallen timbers. We walked out of the sun and under a listing structure that housed the True Fissure hoist.
Leroy said he worked here
 in the 900 level. Came home from college one Christmas and earned $52 a day working a silver stope located deep beneath the earth we stood on.
“That was a hell of a lot of money in the ’60s,” he said.
Bags billow under his eyes, but he pulses with energy. Probably he doesn’t sleep much. In addition to reworking his son’s house, he’s a voracious reader. Lately he’s been into Malcolm Gladwell.
The track overhead once rumbled and squeaked with rolling carts spilling over with ore. You get the feeling it is rumbling and squeaking in his mind right now as he explains the mining process as it occurred here.
Every so often, he pauses and asks, “See how all that works?”
Mining 101.
He shoveled information as fast as he could to fill the reservoir of our collective ignorance.
He briefed us on raises and stopes, timbers and drifts. He told us about the buzzers and bells which allowed miners in the bowels of the earth communicate with the hoist engineer up top. Hoist cages were outfitted with bonnets and dogs, to prevent the disagreeable prospect of runaway cages.
“See how that all works?”
Leroy said he spent most of his time underground in a square-set, timbered stope. Worked in a drift, too. And sometimes he worked topside on weekends.
Stories? He’s got them. Tons of them. Come ’round any time, and he’ll tell them. You have to let him make breakfast first, but you won’t mind.
The only problem is how do you share them all? You just have to wind him up and let him go.
“I think the most awesome story I ever heard about this mine,” he began, “was about a miner named Mike Ellissoff. They called him the Wild Russian.”
The Wild Russian. He was off to a good start. The Wild Russian was working with another man, a guy with the ordinary name of Paul Meara. Maybe Paul lacked a colorful sobriquet, but Leroy assured us he was a character.
“Honest to God, I could listen to him all the time,” he said. “So one time (mine owner) Frank Antinioli tells Mike he wants him to go down on the 800 level and run a raise. Mike and Paul, they both went down there to work on the raise. About two weeks later Frank Antinioli, he came down there and said to Mike, ‘Jesus Christ, Mike, what the hell you doing here?’ Mike said, ‘well I’m running a raise; that’s what you hired me for.’
“And Frank said, ‘God, I wanted an eight-post raise here.’ Mike said, ‘Well geez, every other raise in this mine is a six-post raise.’ Finally Mike Ellissoff has enough of his bullshit and he said to Frank, ‘You know Frank, I’m a raise miner; I’m not a goddamned mind reader.’
“I can still see old Paul Meara. He’d shake his head and he’d say, ‘He fired both of us. Me too! I never said a word, and he fired both of us.'”
Leroy takes time to review drifts, raises and stopes. Drys and dogs and bonnets. There’s all kinds of stopes, he said. Timbered stopes. Stulled stopes. Cut-and-filled stopes. Shrink stopes.
“It goes on and on,” he said. “Whatever type of stope you can get by with. OK?”
Well, OK. But how about a story?
We veered off on the social history of mining. The inexorable clashes between management and miners, the inevitable accidents.
“These guys were all good miners,” he said. “You never hardly saw an accident. At that time, the unions were strict. So if you had a guy who wasn’t doing what the hell he was supposed to do, the union would approach him. But they got rid of the unions and now all people do is sue mining companies. That causes a lot of trouble. We were better off with the unions.”
Momentary silence. An unseen bird sings a plaintive song.
Leroy’s eyes twitch a little. His limbs jolt imperceptibly. You can feel it coming.
“Another funny story about this mine,” he says, launching into a tale about a shell-shocked miner named Charlie Cyr. Everyone called him “Machine Gun,” because of his habit of mowing down people who annoyed him with an imaginary gun.
“He never ever got over the Second World War,” said Leroy. “He drove a truck across Germany and France, and you wouldn’t talk to Charlie very long before you’d be in that truck riding. Kind of a sad old guy. This is all he talked about. ”
That and his machine gun. If miners came up out of the shaft two minutes early or five minutes late, they’d provoke the ire of Machine Gun Cyr.
“One time Charlie says, “I’d like to set a 50-caliber machine gun up in the collar of that shaft. When they broke the collar of that shaft I’d make you a bet they wouldn’t do it again.’ Kind of an eccentric old guy.”
But that’s not the story he wanted to share.
“So one night I was working here,” he said. “I was going to school, working here as a top man. There was nothing to do, you just come in here and BS on a Friday night. I was sitting over in the corner reading a book from school. An old guy by the name of Huck Finn was running the hoist. He was sitting on the bar stool reading a book waiting for somebody to signal something. All the sudden, Huck (born Everett Finn) looked up and said, ‘here comes that goofy goddamn Charlie Cyr!’ And Charlie worked day shift. He never come around at night. Old Charlie jumped out of his truck. He come running through the door; he run right past me, he looked at Huck and said, ‘Huck, if I had 15 men with a machine gun, I could take over the White House.’
“Huck jumped off the bar stool and said, ‘I know you could, Charlie. I know you could. But then what the hell would you do?’ Charlie looked at him a couple times. His mouth opened and closed and he didn’t say nothing. He turned around and out the door he went.”
You get the feeling Leroy could tell Machine Gun stories until the sun went down. But he sensed the need for a change of pace. He recalled a story from the White Front starring a character called Carbide Storer, a miner who liked to frequent Butte’s red-light district.
“Albert Walkup was in there,” Leroy said. “He was  a mine foreman. He was drinking and Carbide come in. Walkup said to Carbide, ‘I need a good miner up in the Scratch Awl. Why haven’t you ever rustled me for a job? And Carbide says ‘Charlie Cyr won’t hire me.'”
Why Charlie wouldn’t hire Carbide is the point of the story. Slowly, deliberately, Leroy walks Carbide and Machine Gun up to the denouement.
Until finally, Carbide Storer makes a confession.
” ‘I went over to Butte, I got down to the red-light district and I got a good case of the crabs,’ ” Carbide said. “He said, ‘I come back, and when I hoisted my basket up (see you changed your street clothes into your mine clothes) some of them crabs crawled over onto Charlie Cyr’s clothes. He never would fool with me again.’
“This is the kind of stuff you deal with. Wilbur and Oliver Storer  (aka Carbide and Poot), they were really characters. They lived at home with their mother.”

DSCF7086

Leroy Owens.

Leroy took us visually around the mine one more time. The ore, the tailings, the hoist. The buzzers, the bells, the drifts and stopes. The bonnets and dogs.
“Kind of see how all this works?” he said, though he knew we didn’t really see it.
Mining, he said, had a tendency to get in your blood.
“Once people get mining, they never want to do nothing else,” he said. “I always noticed, a guy would come in a bar and he get to drinking. He might be a lawyer or a teacher or something. He’d get to talking to you and he’d say, “My God, if I had to live over again, I’d do something besides that.’ But those old miners would come around and pretty soon one of them would say, ‘I remember when I was working in the Gonk, in 1949. We were working on the 600 level back there and we turned off to the right. If I ever quit, I’d go back and turn off to the left, because we missed the ore.’
“That’s all they ever wanted to do. There was an old saying, when they were in bar, all they ever talked about was mining. And when they were up here mining, all they talked about was the red-light district in Butte.”
There was, however illusory, a sense of independence beneath the earth’s surface.
“They give you a stope to work in, and you’re kind of your own boss,” he said. “The mystique of it is the people you work around. I mean, you go to work in the courthouse on a Monday morning and someone says they spent all weekend making a quilt.
“When you walked in the dry in the morning, pretty soon you’d say, ‘Jesus, where the hell’s the Rabbit at? And someone would say, ‘Oh Christ, he’s over in Butte in jail. Didn’t you hear what happened?’
“It was just fun to be around. They sure as hell had a lot of stories. They always had a story to tell you. Just fascinating to listen to.”
In the old days, Philipsburg was a miner’s mining town. It was full of bars which filled up with miners who told and created stories at the same time. The Antler’s, M&M, the Club Bar, the White Front, the Silver Tavern. The Rodeo Inn.
“When I first started tending bar, I worked the night shift at 5 o’clock,” he said. “Sometimes you worked all night till 8 o’clock in the morning. They just sit in the bar and party and raise hell. They had a lot of money to spend.”
The brawls and whores, they were just part of the fabric of mining life.
“Put it this way. you didn’t give them too much guff,” he said. “If a boss started giving them a bunch of stuff, they’d tell him to stick it. Old Poot Storer, he always had an interesting way of putting it. When some guy’d come around and start bugging a miner, he’d say, ‘well, I’ll tell you what you can do: You can go pick your own goddamn huckleberries.’ “
When he was a boy, his dad got killed in a trucking accident at one of the mines. That was in 1955. Still, Leroy is uncharacteristically terse on the subject.
I asked for his favorite story. He looked down at his feet, then glanced at Becky. Shook his head sheepishly.
Can’t tell it right without cussing, he said.
We assured him Becky could withstand a little cussing.
He introduced us to an unpopular foreman called ‘Halibut Head.’ Poot Storer hung that one on him.
One night at a bar in Drummond, Halibut Head got crossways with a Native American miner new to the area.
“This Indian, he got all full of booze,” Leroy said. “Halibut Head was in there drinking, and he didn’t know who Halibut Head was. One word led to another, and he beat the shit out of Halibut Head. Old Halibut Head come to work and he had two black eyes and scratches all over his face.
Halibut Head kept a low profile for a long time while his injuries healed.
“He was always trying to get the best of Poot, but he never could,” Leroy said. “Poot was way too witty for him. About two months later, Halibut Head got his nerve up and he come on up to Poot. He says, ‘Storer, everybody around here has had some smart comment about my black eyes and my fighting. You never opened your mouth; never said a word about it.’
“Old Poot looked at him and said, ‘you kind of looked like the last chapter of What the Fuck Happened?’ Halibut Head, he kept badgering him. And old Poot says he never heard a thing about that fight.
“Halibut Head says, ‘what the hell did you hear?’
“And Poot says, ‘I heard you were fucking the old lady dog-style and she run under the bed.’ Jesus everybody just roared.”
We stood on a rocky outcrop, looking down on Philipsburg.
A few seconds elapsed before Leroy introduced the Pine Cat. His real name was Elmer Lampert, Leroy said, but everybody called him Shorty. If you called him Pine Cat, you’d have a fight on your hands. The Pine Cat stood about 5-feet tall and wore a stovepipe hat. 
Unfortunately, it was time to get going.
We drove back down the mountain, stopping at a bubbling spring below a building that once housed a local brewery, owned by a family named 
Kroger. Silver Spray was their most popular brew.
Leroy assured me the water was clean and giardia-free. I retrieved a cup from the car and filled it with spring water. I took a tentative sip and handed the cup to Leroy.
He drank it down with satisfaction.
Chuck asked Leroy what he thought about Philipsburg’s consumer renaissance.
“I don’t really care what they do,” he said. “It don’t bother me. If they wouldn’t have come, the whole town would’ve fallen off. This was just a dirty, old mining town. Look at the way they’ve redone all these buildings, painted them and fixed them up.”
In a few minutes, we were back at the Owens house. We went inside, retrieved Max and visited for a while longer.
Chuck promised Leroy we’d meet him later for dinner at the senior center. Just now, we had a hankering for something else.
We had Wild Meat on our minds.

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