Updated: Jan 6
In the winter he’d sit in the cab of his beat up old white Ford pickup. Every now and then he’d start it up and run the heater long enough to warm up the cab. He wore a full length insulated brown canvas overall with a red liner and shiny brass zippers, and an insulated plaid baseball style cap with the earmuffs folded down on top of his head. He always brought two thermos full of coffee and sat slouched behind the wheel with the shiny chrome cup that came from the top of the thermos in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other. He smoked filterless Pall-Malls end to end and never cracked the window if it was cold.
His main job was to collect dump fees and as a perk he could salvage anything he wanted and recycle or sell it. He always had a collection of oddities that a curiosity shop would have been proud of that he’d rescued from oblivion. All of his stuff was lined up at a safe distance from the bulldozer that plowed the refuse into a pit. There was strange furniture made from all kinds of materials, a box full of tangled eyeglasses, a dusty stuffed moose head, bag after bag filled with Playboy magazines, radios and televisions from eras long gone. Every now and again someone would come out and poke through his collection and he’d always find a way to get a few bucks out of them.
On cold days he’d wave me over to the truck. I’d sit there in that haze of cigarette smoke and watch him and listen to his stories, most of which had probably started with some truth in the 20s or 30s and had grown and been polished over the years until when I came to know him in the mid 80s they were full blown myths that had been told and retold so many times they had a life of their own. He’d stare out the window as the dozer pushed piles of tangled garbage like a technicolor wave into the pit, and in turn I’d watch him. The fingers on both his hands were stained orange from the constantly burning cigarettes he held. He looked like a mean son of a bitch, but his eyes told a different story, they were light blue and washed out from age, and there wasn’t an ounce of malice in them. In his earlier days he’d been a logger. The stories he told were from the heyday of western Montana’s logging camps. It’s funny, but he rarely talked about the actual work unless it was an almost unbelievable story. Mostly he talked about the men he’d worked with, friends and acquaintances from 50 years in the woods. They all had nicknames, no one was just named Frank or John, they were always called Skinny Joe, or Ace Henderson or something too vulgar to mention here. He told incredibles stories that were so unbelievable that they almost had to be true. One time he’d ventured to northern California and got in on a patch of massive yellow pine. The bark was so thick on one massive tree that it took 10 minutes of trimming it away just to get to the wood. Once there he dogged the saw in and cut into a hollow patch. Water started spraying out and he said it smelled like rotten sewage. I believed that part of the story, but then he told me it spewed water for the better part of 4 days, thousands of gallons poured out. He told these stories with such conviction, like there was absolutely no chance it wasn’t true. He always gave you a little corner of the eye look, like he was gauging if you’d bought his bullshit or not, I think there were a few grains of truth to those tales, but like sand inside an oyster, layers had built up over the years to create a pearl.
I always got the feeling that he was just biding time at the dump, waiting for a new adventure to open up an opportunity for him. He was not ready to pack it in. He always told stories of guys he knew who’d made fortunes overnight from different ventures, prospecting, oil fields, etc. He was ready all the time for that kind of get rich quick scheme. His eyes were electric even when he was just talking about it. He’d reached an age where he seemed to know virtually everyone that had made any kind of success, “back when they were wet behind the ears and didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” He came across as gruff and grouchy and tougher than hell, but he was very intuitive. I was a kid and couldn’t manage money at all. He always seemed to know when I was broke. I’d be out salvaging in the dump and he’d yell at me almost like I was in trouble to come in. Then he’d make up some bullshit story in order to pay me early. “There’s a damn good chance I won’t be here to pay you next Friday because I’m gonna be out of town. Thought I’d give you part of what I owe you now just in case.” I knew damn well he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d slip me $50 bucks, “Now don’t go wasting that on nonsense like work clothes or bills, spend it right…on women and booze.” Then he’d laugh a death rattle laugh that was half cough and sounded like something terrible needed to come up. When payday did roll around the $50 was never taken out. I knew that he purposely forgot. He was the last of a bygone era, a true adventurer, risk taker, and true liver of life.