Author: Cornish, Rick

Shakespeare in the Rockies

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Okay, so this is not a story strictly related to bluegrass. Alright…’s not related to bluegrass music at all. But I’ll bet with a lot of time on my hands and way, way more talent than I actually have, I could use the story to write a very cool bluegrass song. Well, maybe.

This is the story of the best summer of my father’s life. I believe it’s a true story because as I was growing up, and even into my adulthood, he told me the story many, many times. And each time not a single detail ever changed and during every telling his voice was full of the same wonderment and delight.

My dad’s name was Bebe and he was born and raised in a sod house on the flat Nebraska plains. One Saturday morning in the Spring of 1928, he and his nine brothers and one sister and his mother rode their buck-board into town for supplies—they did this once each month. The family was third-world poor, pre-food stamps poor, pre-social services poor. Bebe’s father, an alcoholic itinerate preacher and abuser, had run off after the last of the kids were sired and the family scraped by on a dollar here and a dollar there made by the older brothers doing odd jobs and my grandmother taking in sewing.

It was in the general store of the tiny plains town of Marshall, in southwestern Nebraska, that my grandmother, Maude, was approached by two men. Both were strangers to the town, both wore full beards and looked to be in their early thirties. They wore clean, modest clothes and appeared to be working men. One of the men told Maude that they’d seen her ride into town with her brood and that they were interested in hiring one of the boys to work for them for the summer. They explained that they were silver miners, headed to their stake in the Colorado Rockies for the season, and that they were looking to take along a boy who could prepare their meals and keep the cabin “clean and proper”.

“We’ll pay a hunnerd,” said the man called Bob, “fifty now and fifty when the boy returns in the fall. And we’ll be good to ‘em, mam.” Bill, the other man, nodded.

It’s impossible to know exactly what was racing through my grandmother’s mind there in the little general store at that moment. She loved her sons and her daughter as much as any mother could possibly love her children. And to be sure these were two strangers, rough looking men about whom she knew nothing. But one hundred dollars could guarantee there would be food on the table for several months to come. And too, letting one of her sons go with the men for the summer would mean one less mouth to feed, though she shuddered at even thinking such a thing. But Maude knew that it was not uncommon for miners to hire cabin boys during the summer months—the time that mines could be worked in the high Rockies was very limited by crushingly harsh winters, and bringing along a youngster to do light chores enabled the miners to focus their efforts on what was important….finding and extracting silver.

Maude agreed. And there was really only one of her sons who could go. The boys older than Bebe all had odd jobs on spreads neighboring the family’s small plot of land. My dad was twelve, too young to do heavy ranch work but old enough to keep a wood fire going and cook and clean up. Buford, nick-named Red and the hell-raiser of the nine, was only eleven months younger than Bebe, but sending him was out of the question. Lord only knows what mischief Red could get into, and he surely wouldn’t do a lick of work once he got to the mountains. No, Bebe would be the one to go.

When my father came to this part of the story, he always used the same words to describe the scene. “They put me up on tailgate of that old Model T, wedged in between the boxes and sacks, and off we went. Mama was cryin’ hard and so were the younger kids, especially Millie, my little sister—I was her favorite. But for me, it was the happiest day of my life. I spent my whole damned life on land that was flat as we were broke, but now I was headin’ for the mountains. The Rockies.”

It turned out that Bob and Bill were on the level, mostly. They did have a cabin in a remote part of Chaffee County, Colorado. At more than 14,000 feet elevation, their silver stake looked down upon the rich green of the Upper Arkansas River valley. The closest town, Leadville, was about sixty miles southeast, but the road up the mountain to the stake was so steep and rough (actually little more than a trail) that it could have been six hundred miles. The cabin, a large, single room of rough hewn logs, was situated high up on the side of a steep canyon, and Bebe loved that no matter where you looked, the ground either went either up or down, but never flat. And he loved the spruce and pine trees. Why, he could see more trees just looking out the cabin window than he’d seen in his entire life back home in Marshall.

Bob and Bill treated the twelve year old well, just as they’d promised Maude they would. In just a few short days, Bebe had established a routine, one that was quite to his liking. An hour before dawn the boy would be up and preparing breakfast for the two men….fried eggs (the miners had brought three hens along) fried side pork, biscuits and gravy and strong coffee. (And of course after the men left the cook got his breakfast too—Bebe couldn’t remember a time in his life when he’d eaten so well…..and so regularly.) While Bob and Bill ate their morning meal, their cabin boy would prepare their lunch and pack it in a tin bucket along with two bottles of root beer. After the silver miners left for their day’s work, there were the usual chores….make the beds, sweep the cabin floor and front porch, clean up the breakfast dishes, maybe wash some clothes or occasionally go out and shoot and clean some squirrels for dinner. But by ten or so, the work was done, with nothing to do till it was time to bake bread and start preparing dinner. And that’s when Bebe started the best part of his day. He would read Shakespeare.

Going to school wasn’t something that any of the ten Cornish kids did much of or with any regularity. Bebe had gone pretty steady till his twelfth year (after returning from Colorado he would not attend school again until he was sixty-two and enrolled in a junior college California history class—“for the hell of it”). Some of the kids went a little more than Bebe, some a lot less. But Maude and her nine boys and her single girl were all readers…..voracious readers. Somehow she’d always been able lay her hands on books, even during the toughest of times, and there was always something around to read in the sod cabin. Pickings were a lot slimmer there in the mountain cabin, but Bebe discovered the first week that Bob was a reader too, and he told the boy to help himself. One book, about three inches thick and leather bound, caught Bebe’s attention right off—The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He’d heard that name, heard his mother say it, and he instinctively placed some sense of importance on it. So the twelve year old decided to read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, cover to cover….and he was determined to finish it by the end of his summer in the Rockies. The first play, a comedy, was All’s Well that Ends Well and Bebe loved it once he’d gotten used to the strange way people talked in those days.

And so it was a wonderful and warm summer of easy chores and majestic mountain views and terrific, ample food and William Shakespeare. No back-breaking work on the farm, no endless competing for blankets with his brothers during cold winter nights, no worrying about whether mama would be able to put food on the table the next day. And Bob and Bill were okay, especially Bob. They’d take off before dawn and come back to the cabin after dark. And they rarely yelled at him. Once, when he’d discovered that he’d forgotten to pack their root beers into the lunch pale and tried catching up with them on the trail down to the mine, Bill
Posted:  12/18/2003

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