Book Chapters 8-9

Chapter 8 – Crossing the tracks

There was not doubt that Cobalt was a company town.  The company managers and engineers lived in the north end of  the Panther Creek meadow in white houses with Forest Service green trim.  The miners lived in the south end of the meadow in smaller houses of their own design, painted in multiple shades of muted colors.  In between was the core of the town, the Post Office, the gas station, IGA market, the Rec Hall, the Dormitories and the Dinning Hall. The employee houses nearest the center of town were also white, but farther down the road there were shades of brown, green and gray.  The government houses were all a dull gray with a sameness that chilled the spirit. The school house in the south end of the meadow was also white asbestos shingles  with green trim.

I asked Jim Caples a long time employee of the mine during an interview in 2002, why were company buildings were all white with green trim, including the company houses.  “I am not sure who’s idea it was” he said, “but the goal was to make the company houses and buildings to look like Forest Service buildings, so the Forest Service would more positive about a town in the National Forest.”  “We could not tell the employes what color to paint their houses,” said Caples, But, Calera did not want any red houses.”

Our first house was brown shingles, with a bright daisy yellow door.  It was the most colorful door in town. Dad wanted to use the white asphalt shingles, but Mom would not stand for more anonymous white.  Houses on both sides were white asbestos shingles.  She shingled the whole house in pre painted brown shake shingles, and then painted the front door bright yellow.

I am sure you have heard about how railroad tracks divide a town, the wealthy on one side of the tracks and the working poor on the other side of the tracks. Often referred to as the wrong side of the tracks.  We did not have any railroad tracks in Cobalt, but there was two sides of town. There was a management and labor division in the town. Labor on one end of the meadow, management on the other.   When ever there was company party the managers went home early, before the miners got drunk and decided to start a fight over some real or imagined slight.

Even as young as eleven, I knew that our playmates from the management end of town had more freedom of action that I did,  the son of a miner.  When we returned to Cobalt for our second residency, my Dad was the Rec Hall Manager for most of the time we were there. That seemed to places us in between labor and management. Once Dad took over managing the Rec Hall my brothers and I assumed a more superior attitude.  We were not of the labor class, but not of the management class either. I think we rather enjoyed our positions as son’s of the Rec Hall  Manager and the Bookkeeper.  We certainly benefited by holding part time jobs at the Rec Hall, including setting pins for cash and tips in the bowling alley.

I had two unique jobs at the Rec Hall, I was  responsible for cleaning the bowling alleys and one summer  was an assistant projector operator on Saturday.  As a result, I may have assumed more status than I was entitled.

Shortly after we arrived in Cobalt, Mary Smith,  the daughter of Ed Douglas the Mine Manager arrived,  and I was instantly smitten. Mary lived with her remarried mother in Texas, and was visiting for the summer.  She was a brunet with chin length hair and wore fuzzy pull over sweaters that left no doubt she was a girl.  She was smart and funny, a lovely person to be with.  She was often with Patty Hower, the Chief Engineers daughter, who I learned later had a crush on me. But, my focus was on Mary. We never kissed, but I took every opportunity to give her a hug. She was warm, soft and smelled wonderful.  At the end of summer when she returned to El Paso Texas and we agreed to write.

I wrote five letters with a number two pencil on college ruled paper, and put them in plain white 3 x 5 envelopes.   After I sending them off to Texas,  I went to the post office everyday looking for a reply, but none ever came.   Mary was soon pushed to the back of mind, as I started getting ready for my Senior Year at Salmon High.  My brothers and I would be boarding out in Salmon with George and Hazel La Munyan for the school year.  More about this adventure in the next chapter.

Coming home after our first stay over in Salmon, walking into the house my mother called out from the kitchen, “An envelope came for you, its  on your bed.”  My heart leaped as I ran to my bedroom, really only about five steps from where I was standing in the kitchen door. There on my bunk, was a large manila envelop. There was no return address, but it had a El Paso Texas stamp cancelation. My heart beat faster as I slowly open the envelope and dumped out the contents on my bed. Five unopened 3 X 5 envelopes slid out of the envelope with my hand writing on the front.

Suddenly I knew why there were no letters from Mary. She never received my letters.  They were gather up by someone at her house in Texas and returned with no explanation.  Well that was my ego saving explanation.  I was a boy in a mining camp, a boy from the wrong side of Cobalt’s imaginary tracks.  Not someone a upper class mother from Texas would want her daughter corresponding with in an Idaho mining camp.

Mary visited my dreams over the years while I was at Idaho State College and in the Air Force Aviation Cadets program in Harlingen Texas.  When I graduated as a 2nd Lt in the Air Force, I when to Electronic Warfare School in Biloxi Mississippi at Keesler AFB.  Before reporting to my first operation assignment at Loring AFB, Limestone Maine, I came west to visit family in California and attend Survival Training at Stead AFB, just outside of Reno. My path went through El Paso, Texas.  Stopping for lunch, I looked in the phone book for a Mary Smith. There were pages and pages of Smiths in the phone book. My silly notion was to prove I was not a looser from Cobalt to Mary and her mother. There were  too many Smiths in the phone book and not enough time to call them all.  Soon, I would meet Ellen my wife and never think about Mary again, that is until I started writing about Cobalt and thinking about crossing the tracks.

Chapter 9 –  Boarding out in Salmon

By the time we returned to Cobalt in 1956 both of my brothers and I were in high school. With only a four room school, 1st through 8th grade school in Cobalt, when students graduated from elementary school and move on to high school, families had several choices. They could send the students to live with relatives in the region and some did. Or, they could board out in Salmon, or Challis.

We were a special case, three of us in high school. Mom and Dad were looking for a place that could board all three of us. I am not sure how they got connected with my parents, perhaps through the school,  but George and Hazel La Munyan  agreed to take in the “Steele Boys.” The La Munyan’s had raised children and had two empty  bed rooms upstairs with a bathroom.

They agreed to house and feed us two meals a day, five days a week.   We had to go home to Cobalt on weekends and find our own lunch.  I am sure George and Hazel looked forward to the weekends when we were not there. We were not the best house guests, my brothers were a bit wild without some strong parental supervision.  I was expected to provide the necessary guidance. Fat chance my brothers would listen to me.

For a whole year I became the parent figure, trying to survive my Senior Year and keep track of two emerging delinquents. Ron was sent home before the year was out, demoted back to the eight grade by Mom and Dad.  We had 1950 Ford four door which we shared. Both Bob and I were old enough to drive and often competed for access to the car. Dad gave us gas money for the trip in and the trip home, but my brothers often drained the tank cruising around town before Friday. I found a job setting pins for the Thursday Bowling Night League, to make sure we had some gas money to get home.

On night I walked  home from the bowling ally and noted the Ford had a unique squat, the back end was nearly dragging on the gravel street.  The trunk was lock.  Coming in the house the La Munyan’s had retired for the night.  I climbed the stairs and woke up my brothers.

“What’s in the trunk” I asked.

“Batteries,” said Ron

“We are going to sell them for scrap like we did in California,” said Bob.

“Where did you get’em,” I asked

“Behind the service station, they were in the alley,” said Ron.

“Geesus Christ, you stole those batteries,”  was my response.

“They’ll never miss them,” said Bob.

“Give me the keys, I am taking em back,” as I grabbed the Ford’s keys off the dresser.

It was after mid-night when I pulled up behind the station, and started unloading the batteries. One was a big truck battery and I could hardly lift it, leaning over the trunk. I climbed in the trunk and got it up on the lip of the trunk, and it fell out cracking the case. I tried to slide it behind the station wall and got battery acid on my shoes and pants cuffs. I was scared that the police would show up with batteries still in the trunk, and it would be too hard to explain I was putting them back and not stealing them.

As I slid the big battery to the side of the road, I could see some lights coming slowly down the alley, a spotlight checking the doors on the back of buildings.  Slipping behind the wheel of the Ford, with the lights off , I crept down the alley to the east, hoping not to be spotted by the police. It was well after 1:30 when I got back to the house. The next morning the La Munyan’s had a lot of questions. Why I had come in so late they wanted to know.

I made up some story about extra pin setting at the bowling alley for a run off, but they seem very skeptical. The next week there was a note in the newspaper about some vandal smashing batteries behind the service station.   When I got home Mom wanted to know how I got battery acid on my pants and shoes. I had to tell another lie to protect my brothers.

I do not want to give the impression that my brother’s were the only ones that enjoyed the lack of adult supervision. One night I was cruising through town with Linda Murphy, my some times high school girl friend in the Steele Boys 1950 Ford Fairlane. By brothers had removed the mufflers and replace them with straight pipes.  Down shifting to second would send a thundering roar ricocheting down the street.

The Salmon police parked mid-town in front of the local service station. As we drove East on Main Street, rolling off the bar above the Salmon River, across the bridge picking up an assist from gravity. When we were abreast of the local policeman snoozing in his car, I down shifted to second and popped the clutch. Roar! As we sped East on Main the policeman did a U-turn in the intersection and gave chase.

Linda and I, with two of our friends in the back seat, turned South on Route 93. We could see the police car following in the rearview mirror.  Tuning off the head lights, I turned toward the Salmon hot springs, driving by moon light and reflections off the snow covered fields.  Coming down the single lane road we could see headlights and pulled over. It was church group returning from a swim at the hot springs.  On the shelf behind the back seat there were swim suits rolled in towels from a earlier visit to the hot springs.  We unwrapped the towels, hung the swim suits on the side mirrors, the girls wrapped the towels around their hair, I spit on my hand and mussed up my hair, as we joined the train of cars returning from the church outing at the hot springs.  We slipped right by the police car that had pulled to the side of the road waiting for the church group to pass.

After I graduation I was planning to go to Idaho State College, now a University, in Pocatello.  Mom and Dad were worried that my two brothers boarding out in Salmon without some supervision could get into some real trouble.   There was just too much potential for criminal trouble, so my Dad found a job in Pocatello as the shop forman at the Buick Dealer. We moved in the fall of 1957 and I stated college mid semester.

George and Hazel La Munyan were really nice people.  George like to tell us stories about when he working in Colorado, hauling coal with a wagon and team of horses. Hazel made sure we started the day with a good breakfast and dinner was usually meat and potatoes, with canned fruit for salad.   After Ellen and I were married in the winter of 1963, we drove across the country from Loring AFB in the spring of 1964, and made a short stop in Salmon on our way to California. I wanted Ellen to meet Hazel, and see Salmon.  We started exchanging Christmas cards with Hazel and staying in touch for many years.

Responses

  1. My name is Judy Ward Talbot, I remember Laura (Coppernel) at the mine site and spent the night there with you. I left there in 1959.

    • Hi Judy,

      Thanks for dropping by. Do your have any interesting stories to tell about Cobalt and living there?

      Russ

  2. I remember Sheron Smith but not Mary. Hum, must of had my eyes shut which I did a lot because the sun on the snow really hurt my eyes so maney times I would walk up the road in your direction with my eyes closed , seeing how far I could go and stay on the road. I once walked into the bumper of the fuel truck leading with my forehead. Still got the scare to prove the stupidity.

  3. I was amazed when I saw your story about Cobalt! I lived first above and then in Cobalt with my grandparents. When we first arrived we lived at the mine site – actually just above the Mine Offices and far below the mine portals and later the open pit – in a “house” built of a combination of two travel trailers and a room my Grandfather built between the two. My age ranged from 3 years (when we arrived) through 11 years. We moved down to the Cobalt townsite when I was 10 years old. At age 13, I attended Junior High School in Salmon and had to be boarded out to families there like you. When we lived up at the mine, the giant ore trucks roared down the road continuously creating dust a foot deep in the summer and potential death were we to get in the way during the winter as they traveled on the snow pack in front of our “home” just yards away. I never attended High School in Salmon as I was sent to live with my father when the mine closed. I have many stories as well of that time of my life – I remember getting 25 cents a frame for pin setting at the bowling alley! I would love to communicate with you further – Most Sincerely, Laura L. Sheperd – I am on Facebook – I live in Sacramento, California.

    • Hi Laura,

      I remember you! We were in fifth grade together – probably earlier too, – but fifth grade most of the year there was only we four girls. Theresa, Irene, you and me. I remember your grandparents’ house up near the mine. And I recall all the baseball games that spring. I have a class photo from then of the 5th through 8th grades as we all shared one classroom.

      Marlana Geisler


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