Thursday, Feb. 6.
Dateline: International House of Bitterness, Paoli (Pa.) branch.
Before I return to Philipsburg, Montana, a few thoughts on the Great Ice Storm of 2014. More than 24 hours in, the local offices of utility juggernaut Exelon acknowledge that more than 405,000 of its customers remain powerless.
At Chez 531 in Berwyn, we count ourselves among the candles-and-blankets crowd. As of 11 a.m. today, the interior temperature was 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
Everything else is situation normal. I drove Becky to work this morning. A few hours later, Max and I gathered our computers and cords and bid adieu to her parents, who were huddled by their battery-powered radio.
We made the two-mile trek east to Paoli without incident. Unlike yesterday, when it was shuttered, this joint ripples with electricity. The atmosphere is surprisingly typical. This corporate coffee house does not overflow with power-mad refugees like the Wayne office did yesterday. Nonetheless, this place will stay open through the night in an “effort to serve our communities and keep our customers warm.”
Nice. When you order your $4 coffee, don’t forget to ask your barista to leave some room for the milk of human kindness.
Way back on Monday, when Max was home from school due to a conventional snowstorm, my pal Lauri forwarded me a link to a New York Times piece by Nelson D. Schwartz about the disappearing middle class.
(Jesus Christ behind the wheel of a BMW convertible in polo shirt and mirror sunglasses, Nelson D? What’s with the middle initial, Nellie? How many Nelson Schwartzes are writing for the New York Fucking Times, anyway?)
More to the point, Nellie’s story is about the corporate world’s tacit recognition of the downfall of America’s fabled middle class.
For the leaders of industry, this phenomenon is not debatable. It is a fait accompli.
America’s putative economic recovery is really just an economic boom for the already rich. Since 2009, the top 5 percent of earners have increased their spending by 17 percent, as opposed to 1 percent for the remaining 95 percent.
As Sears and J.C. Penney fall to their knees, Nordstrom and Dollar Tree rake in profits.
As the center caves, retailers covet high-end consumers.
In 21st century America, you are either riding high or you are going down.
Here on the Philadelphia Main Line, we stand astride this cultural shift. The evidence is ubiquitous. Some of our neighbors are, you know, doing OK.
Stately Fairlawn lies across the street from Devon Elementary, where Max used to attend kindergarten before an ice storm plunged us into the 19th century. Fairlawn, the real estate literature waxes, is a “graceful and elegant historic Main Line mansion” which “rests on a magnificent 6 acres of mature grounds including a gated tree-lined drive.”
Among its amenities are eight bedrooms, eight full bathrooms and 16,000-square feet of space.
It is a single-family home, of course. The listing (not sure if it’s current) is for a cool $2,495,000.
In the market for something more affordable but still want to live in Devon? You don’t have to look far. Around the corner and a half mile down the road sits lovely Ashwood Hall.
Enterprising business interests have divided the sprawling estate into eight separate lots.
Interested? Contact Bentley Homes, which is offering inviting single-family units starting at $1,499,000.
Less than a quarter mile from Ashwood Hall, a gleaming Maserati dealership has popped up like a crystal palace on the north side of Lancaster Avenue. The Mercedes Benz dealership is just across the street.
Main Line Maserati’s website says it’s one of two stand-alone Maserati dealerships in the country. Stop on by the showroom when you get a chance. You can get a certified, pre-owned Maserati for as little as $61,995.
And amid all this staggering wealth, somehow a little ice storm has managed to cripple an entire region for days.
Update: After 36 hours in the dark, the lights went on here last night. In a flash, we rejoined the 20th century, 14 years after it came to a close.
Is it unfair to think widespread and prolonged power outages should be, if not a thing of the past, less common then the were 25 years ago?
Measured by power outages, the Great Ice Storm of 2014 ranks as the second-worst storm in the annals of the erstwhile Philadelphia Electric Company. Hurricane Sandy is No. 1.
Once upon a time, Peco was a vital part of this community. It had a stake in the region’s economic vicissitudes. Now it’s a glorified branch office of the Exelon Nuclear Octopus.
And when shit goes bad, Exelon must marshal resources and manpower from Chicago, Canada, Arkansas and other far-flung places to respond to the crisis.
And so it was that thousands remained without power through the weekend, wondering when they’d return to the modern age.
And now, back to Philipsburg, Montana.
Monday afternoon, July 15. Philipsburg, Montana
The man they call “Wild Meat” lives in a cabin in the hills above Philipsburg.
On this day at least, this hardscrabble landscape is an enchanting tapestry of straight-backed evergreens and jagged boulders.
The unseen ghosts of long-gone miners wander in and out of the dilapidated mine shafts and forlorn mills which animate these hills. They are bawdy and querulous and unflinchingly honest.
We drove up here Saturday to look about Granite, the lost city they once called “Silver Queen.” This place rocked during the silver boom of the late 19th century, imploded in 1893 with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and then disappeared altogether during the Great Depression.
“Wild Meat,” aka Davey Harris, is a Philipsburg lifer. He was born here during World War II. He was one of 26 members of the Class of 1962 at Philipsburg High School.
He’s spent his entire life within the borders of his home state.
He lives in a place called Tower, a geographical relic named for a Philadelphia lawyer. Abraham Lincoln was 2 months old when Charlemagne Tower was born in Paris, N.Y., on April 18, 1809.
Tower began life with all the advantages Lincoln lacked, including an aristocratic name fit for a king of industry. He exploited them to the fullest, collecting a degree from Harvard before striking it rich with a wildly successful scheme to monopolize the anthracite coal fields of Schuylkill County, Pa.
Having made his mark in industry, Tower seized the opportunity to chase battlefield glory when the Civil War erupted in April 1861. He recruited 270 men to serve a with the “Tower Guards,” a company attached to the 6th Pennsylvania.
By midsummer, he’d seen enough of war’s ugliness and returned to safer and more lucrative pursuits.
Eventually, he turned his vision westward. He met with five prospective partners in a Philadelphia office in December 1873 and formed the Northwest Company. They set out to exploit the Speckled Trout silver lode hereabouts.
We arrive at 126 Tower Road and find Wild Meat laboring over a Ford Model A, 1930 vintage.
A portrait of concentration, he shuffles from workshop to car and back to his workshop, where he machines a latch for a recalcitrant passenger door.
He tweaks, tests and tinkers.
We kick up dust and admire the scenery.
It is, all in all, a fine day for waiting. The sky is a radiant canvas of azure broken here and there by cottony cumulus clouds. For 360 degrees around, there’s not a hint of the “various grays the mountain sends.”*
Wild Meat is dressed for work in well-worn blue jeans and engineer’s cap. Suspenders frame his seagreen work shirt.
Finally, the door shuts without a hitch.
Wild Meat permits himself a thin smile.
He gives us a laconic welcome, invites us in and offers us a beer. Only three left in the fridge. One for each of us.
We plunge into a rambling conversation. He fills our heads with local lore. At one point Chuck asks if Wild Meat makes his own whiskey. He nods in the affirmative and asks if we want a sample.
We are enthusiastic in the affirmative.
I’m no connoisseur, but it is the best goddamn whiskey I ever tasted. A faint aroma of caramel accents the robust liquor.
It is so good I immediately worry about its disappearance. I savor it jealously. Chucks throws his down in one gulp.
Undeterred, I revel in its glory for nearly 30 minutes.
Might we purchase a pint of this amber nectar?
Nope, he says.
Wild Meat, you see is a craftsman. He is not a salesman.
The recipe, like most everything else around this place, is old. His partner, one of the Antinioli brothers, had a grandfather who was a prosperous moonshiner in Butte during Prohibition.
The moonshiner’s descendants became prosperous mine and mill operators in the Philipsburg area.
I don’t know much about Wild Meat, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve hated Charlemagne Tower.
He is the walking antithesis of pretension. His simple, cedar-sided house is a homespun museum of Philipsburg history.
Wild Meat chooses his words with care. His cadence is deliberate, his tone marvelously dry. He’s not in love with the sound his own voice. A pause is just as good as a sentence. If not better.
What is it about the mining life that beckons a man into the bowels of the earth?
“Be damned if I know,” he says. “But it does get in your blood.”
Davey Harris, 69, still inspects and visits nearby mines, helping to bolster listing head frames and buttress falling-down shaft collars.
In a word, he’s a throwback. An anachronism. Miner. Hunter. Trapper.
As for the latter, he goes after marten nowadays.
“Did pretty good last year,” he says.
When he departs for an elk-hunting expedition, he opens his front door and sets off on foot. Chuck asks about the biggest elk he ever killed.
“Four or five years ago,” he says. “Jesus. That son of a bitch was like a draft horse. I was eating on that for damn near two years.”
Does he ever fantasize about living in an earlier time? Would he have been happier in 1913?
“Well, yeah,” he says. “Except for the part about the medical treatment you can get now that you couldn’t then. I’d be in a helluva shape if it wasn’t for that. I’d have one leg and other various other things.”
The sound of a combustion engine coming up the road sets the hair on the back of his neck to twitching. If you’re interested in buying land, he’s not interested in you.
“Some guy came here, says ‘I’m looking for some land; maybe you can help me,’ ” he says. “He hauls out an armload of maps and photographs. He says, ‘I’m looking for the True Fissure claim.’ I said I don’t know anything about it, which I do. I just got rid of him.”
He’s accumulated about 35 acres in all and owns partial shares in three mining claims. He is protective of his place in these hills.
The nickname. What’s that all about? Wild Meat. It is a helluva sobriquet. What does it mean? Is it a reference to his passion for hunting?
“Yeah,” he croaks. “It don’t have nothing to do with my sex life.”
If you really want to stoke his ire, ask him about the newfangled, tourist-friendly Philipsburg.
“I hate it,” he says, voice rising. “I hate it. What they need is some genuine work here, where working people will live here.
“God I hate it when I try to drive through town when tourists are there. They’ll get in the intersection and just stand in front of you and take pictures. Christ. Sometimes I think they gotta take a stupid test before they let ’em out of their home state. You’re letting them cross the road, but they’re just ‘um-oh, um-dum-oh.’ Man, you just want to get out and punch them.”
Not that he has any ideological opposition to tourism as an industry or anything.
“I don’t have any problem with tourist businesses, but we do need some real work here, too,” he says. “There’s nothing here to keep a kid staying and raising a family here. They get out of high school and leave. Because there ain’t nothing here for them to do.”
He might not be copacetic with the revitalized Philipsburg, but he’s not going anywhere. He’d rather battle the tourists here than live in a place like, say, Missoula.
“I’d kill myself before I’d live in Missoula,” he says. “That’s a whorehouse anymore.”
His dad was a carpenter, his mother a telephone operator. Family lore says they narrowly escaped Wallace, Idaho, during the Great Fire of 1910.
Flames lashed the train as it pulled out of the depot. That’s the story.
“Well, it was pretty tight,” Wild Meat says. “He said the depot was on fire when they left there.”
Addison and Lois Donnelly Harris had a little house in town, tucked away a block behind the bank at the corner of Granite and Montgomery. Though they didn’t use street names.
“My mother went to work right when she got out of high school in 1927 and stayed there until they went dial in 1964,” he says.
An old-time telephone, circa 1916, hangs on his wall by the front door. It is a silent tribute to his mom. And to things that last.
“Well, it works, too,” he says. “You can’t call out, but you can answer it.”
Is he much like his dad?
“In some ways, I guess,” he says. “He was a pretty fair carpenter. He didn’t like working in the mine. He was a mill hand most of his life. And he retired off the Anaconda smelter, which is gone now of course.”
As for his mining career, he describes himself as a “one-county tramp.” Says he held more than 40 different jobs in nearly three decades underground.
His sentences are elliptical. There isn’t much bullshit about him. He is nothing if not matter-of-fact.
He has no regrets, save contracting the silicosis that makes breathing an increasingly nettlesome chore. That said, he is not haunted by the things he might have done differently.
“No, I never did give it any thought hardly,” he says. “So I guess I probably wouldn’t change none. I might have been a little more careful about the dust in the mine. … It’s progressive. it gets worse, and there’s no treatments for it. So, might as well not bitch, I did it to myself.”
What did he want to be when he was a kid?
“Well, I kinda thought I wanted to mine,” he says. “But my Maw, she got on me something fierce. ‘You gotta go get a higher education’ and all that. I went to forestry school for a couple years but, ah, that didn’t fit too good. Finally I decided I’d just rustle the mines here and went to work.”
A slab fell on him once, leaving him with a broken neck. Not that he stopped to complain.
“I didn’t even know it,” he says. “I just kept on a-working. About three months later, I couldn’t hardly turn my head. Went and seen the doc. He says, ‘well it don’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s the matter with you.’ He showed me the X-Ray; one vertebrae looked like a wedge. I say, ‘You mean I been going around working with a busted neck for three months?’ He says ‘Yeah, you’re a lucky son of a bitch.’ And that was his words.”
At 83, his car is older than he is. You would in any case be hard-pressed to invent a more appropriate metaphor for his lifestyle.
It is old. It is simple. And it still works, though it can be cantankerous.
“Had that for 46 years, but it wasn’t running for over 40 of them,” he says. “Didn’t get it running till last year.”
He stored it in a friend’s barn. He had a bunch of mechanical work done last year. When it got running, he got to work.
“I built some mounts and put modern hydraulic shocks on the front,” he says. “I gave it that paint job, all new glass, and I built that sideboard on the back.
“It runs pretty good. The Bendix spring in the starter broke the other day. Got that fixed yesterday. Don’t know how long it’s going to stay fixed, but it’s working now.”
He is a bit of a legend downtown. Everyone seemed to agree he’d be an interesting person to talk to, and everyone seemed to agree one should be very cautious when approaching Wild Meat.
“There’s some ignorant people around,” he says. “Oh, I’ve heard it; It’s got back to me that some of these dingbats have said, ‘don’t go around there; he’ll shoot you, that son of a bitch.'”
We didn’t dodge any bullets.
“Well the thing is, they’re the ones that’s different,” he says. “Forty years ago I wasn’t even noticed. But these are new people, and that just don’t savvy.”
That is the problem with being a throwback: you fall into the chasm separating then and now.
In any case, he belongs to a dying breed. His kind of miner is a thing of the past.
“The kids that work in the mines now, it’s so much different,” he says. “It’s mostly machine work. They’re not mining these little narrow veins of higher-grade ore. They’re mostly mining in these disseminated zones, a whole big area of low-grade rock. And they’re drilling, blasting muck. It’s really not mining to me. When I talk to these young guys, they don’t savvy what I’m talking about.”
About an hour in, he cracks open the photo album. The stories get a little more colorful.
He pauses upon a photo one depicting a group of men hanging onto a fire truck as it rumbles through town.
“I know probably seven, eight, 10 of these guys,” he says. “They’re all dead now.”
Who is the most colorful guy in the frame?
Has to be Henry Luoma, a miner of Finnish descent. Henry, like most miners, loved to get drunk and cut loose every now and then.
“He lived in a cabin out past the Antinioli family mill, the Bi-Metallic,” he says. “He’d get drunk and Jesus, he’d just go plum-ass nuts, holler and scream. I was walking down by there. I’d been to Granite up in the gulch. It was after dark, and he was on one of them rippers. Just scared the hell out of me.”
Henry Louma came by his drinking honestly. His mom was a character, too.
Her name was Maria, but they called her Gumboot Mary.
“She wore rubber boots and old-time long dresses all the time, year-round,” he says. “She froze to death one winter going home drunk. They found her hanging on a power pole there, froze.”
Poor Gumboot Mary.
“They tell one story … You used to be able to get a beer in a bucket. She’s all fucked up and she’s walking down the street and she puked in a bucket of beer. And then there was a sucking sound. She threw it all down in one gulp.
“And they think I’m different.”
I needed to take a piss. I asked Wild Meat if I should use the indoor bathroom with running water or the outhouse.
“Depends on which end you gotta go from,” he says.
There are long periods without conversation. But they engender no discomfort. A slow, sipping conversation.
He recalls the man who wrecked the cabin across the road, a place he once lived. He described this fellow as “the dirtiest man this side of pack-rat heaven.”
The longer we stay, the more right this place feels. I want to go back sometime and sit in his kitchen, watch the afternoon shadows creep across the floor, sip homemade whiskey and say very little.
Another snapshot, another bygone character: Lou Cunningham. The Kingfish.
Wild Meat says the Kingfish was a good man. He only got to know him later on, when he used to hang out in the White Front.
“He chewed Copenhagen there,” Wild Meat says. “He’d take his lower lip and scoop out about half the can. He’d be drunker than hell and it’d run down his neck.
“One time they tell about, I wasn’t there, but he shit his drawers. “Somebody says, ‘Lou did you shit yourself?’
“And he just says, ‘Yep.’
“‘Well goddammit,’ the guy says, ‘why don’t you go home and change?’
“‘Ain’t done yet.’
“That’s a true story.”
We’re ready to go, but Wild Meat is not quite done. He wants to take us to the San Francisco Mine site.
We scramble up the hill. The silicosis claws at his breath, tries to strangle it, but he beats it back.
The San Francisco Mine ceased operations in 1929, a decade and a half before Wild Meat was born.
Now it is not much more than a leaning hulk, structure without material substance. At least it appears that way to us.
We are neophytes. For Wild Meat, it is a hall of memories. It oozes history, rich veins exploited, others missed. Men who gave their lives to the underground gods.
This place speaks to Wild Meat in meaningful tones.
I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask. I wonder if he’s ever been in love, romantically speaking.
He meditates on that one for a bit.
“Oh, I thought I did a time or two,” he says. “But it didn’t happen, and I’m kind of glad it didn’t.”
He is part owner of three mines that had their heyday more than a century ago. He cooks on a Depression-era stove. He’s got a telephone from 1916. He drives a 1930 automobile.
He’s got a radio, but no television.
Though he had a TV once.
“It went haywire I threw it away and never got another,” he says. “So much I see on there pisses me off that I’d probably be throwing a boot through it or something if I had one.”
Why does he like old things so much?
“Don’t have a why,” he says. “Don’t have an answer for that. Just do.”
* From Richard Hugo’s poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”