By James R. Van Liere | PREVIEW Columnist
It was between my junior and senior years in college when I headed to Jackson, Wyo., to get a job in construction. My plan was very simple: drop into a restaurant at noon, look for a group of construction workers and strike up a conversation and hopefully land a job.
The Paradise Café in Jackson looked as good as any, so in I went. I didn’t find a likely group of construction workers, but I did spot a possible candidate sitting alone at the counter and there was an empty seat next to him. Without hesitation, I grabbed the seat and ordered lunch. The gentleman sitting next to me was dressed blue workman’s overalls, a plaid shirt, a baseball cap and brown workman’s boots. He was not a very large man, but with his tanned face and rough hands, you knew immediately that he obviously had spent some time outdoors, possibly in construction.
After some small talk, I got around to asking if he knew where a fellow could get a job in construction.
“Strange you should ask; as a matter of fact, I could use some help,” he said.
He then explained that he was from Palm Springs, Calif., and was here helping his friend rebuild the Jackson Trading Post next door, which had suffered a bad fire the previous September. The owner of the store had an establishment in both Palm Springs and Jackson, and he, Johnny, was hired to rebuild the Jackson store.
It seems the owner of the store, whose daughter was Miss Wyoming, was in Atlantic City with his family for the Miss America contest when the store caught fire. The amazing thing is that the movie “Spencer’s Mountain” was being filmed in Jackson Hole at that time. Once the fire was discovered, Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and many of the other actors pitched in and helped carry out as much merchandise as they could, such as clothes, jewelry and souvenirs.
Much of the interior of the store had been gutted by the fire and had to be rebuilt, but the basic walls of the structure were still intact. Thus, it was Johnny’s job to rebuild the interior, such as partitions, shelving, display cases, sound system, et cetera.
He asked when I could start work and I said right now, except I had to find a place to stay. Johnny said try Al’s Motel; they are not expensive, family owned and just down the street. He was right; I got a room at a reasonable price, and I could see why. The room was basically a small, one-room cabin with exposed 2-by-4 studs forming the exterior walls, a small bathroom and a small kitchen area with shelves, a hot plate and a sink, but nothing else.
After checking in, I headed back to the Jackson Trading Post, where I was introduced to a couple of employees hauling in merchandise and stocking some shelves that had already been built. Immediately, I went to work with Johnny building some partitions to form an office and storage area. Luckily, my dad had taught me how to use a saw, hammer, level, et cetera, so working with Johnny was fun and I learned a few more tricks of the trade. After we had built a partition on the floor, we set it up to be attached to concrete floor. At that point, Johnny asked me to take the nail gun and attach the sill plate to the floor. Without thinking about it, and knowing I had to shoot into concrete, I loaded the nail gun with a magnum shell and starting at a corner, fired away. We forgot to tell the help what we were doing, and because they could not see me, they fled the store when the shot was fired, thinking that a robbery was in progress. As for me, I couldn’t hear for two days.
One day, Johnny asked if I had any ideas on how to raise and hang a 250-pound moose head high up on a wall. After studying the situation, I rigged up a pulley system to a roof beam, raised the moose head and attached it to the wall. Johnny was quite impressed and wanted to know if I had ever attended college. When I told him I was going to be senior in civil engineering at the University of Wyoming in the fall, all he said was: “Well then, I have another job for you. We need a large structural frame to hold the big sign up on the roof. The job is all yours.”
I drew up a simple plan, went down to the lumber yard and got everything I needed, and built the sign. When that job was finished, I tackled the music and PA system, setting up the control center and mounting and wiring in all the speakers.
Every once in awhile, Johnny would ask me to run next door to the hardware store and pick up something he needed. Of course, he knew there was a young lady working there, so I think it was his way of getting us introduced (of course, there has to be a girl involved in this story). We went on a couple dates and then, one day, she asked me if I would take her trout fishing, which she had never done, and is what I did when I wasn’t working.
“Sure,” I said. “How about tonight?”
So, after work, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed to the Snake River.
I selected a nice, quiet location where the river was slow and formed a decent backwater pool. After about 20 minutes of instruction on how to cast with a spinning rod and reel, she became proficient enough for me to stand back (way back; my insurance did not cover teaching how cast with real hooks). After about 10 minutes, she caught a nice 12-inch rainbow trout.
As I started to release it, she said she wanted to take it home and have it for breakfast. Luckily, I had a 5-gallon bucket in the car, so we filled it with water and put in the fish. About 10 minutes later, she caught another nice rainbow and wanted to keep it also. About this time, it was starting to get dark and time to leave. When I dropped her off at her boarding house, I mentioned that the fish had to be cleaned.
“No problem,” she said. “The cook will clean them for me tonight and put them in the freezer and I will have them for breakfast in the morning.”
Of course, the next day I found an excuse to visit the hardware store to see how she enjoyed her fresh trout for breakfast.
All she said was, “It’s all your fault.”
Needless to say, I was a little befuddled because all she would say was, “It’s all your fault, because you took me fishing.”
Finally, she explained that she was being evicted from her boarding house because of the fish. By now, I was really confused, until she explained that the cook was gone for the night, so she had filled the bathtub in the community bathroom with water and deposited the fish. Of course, by the next morning, the fish had used all the oxygen in the water and died, which wasn’t so bad, except early the next morning an old geezer who was three sheets to the wind went to take a bath and there were two dead fish floating in the bathtub. Needless to say, he complained to the manager, and my little friend was evicted, which was now all my fault because I took her fishing. (The logic here completely escapes me.)
Luckily, she had a friend who had a cabin outside of town, so the next Saturday I helped her move. Unfortunately, our little relationship cooled off and we never went fishing again.