Monday, May 27, 2024

The rube sits and smiles

by Jim Elliott
| May 9, 2024 12:00 AM

After having unloaded all my farm equipment from the railcar that had brought it from my late father’s farm back east, I knew that I had come to the right part of the world when Dude and Shorty, who had helped me unload it, looked at the wheels on my hay wagon and pronounced them “high-speed” because they actually had ball bearings instead of old-fashioned babbitt bearings.

A person with less class than Shorty and Dude might have rightly said, “What a bunch of wore-out junk.”

Their reaction told me I had landed squarely among people I could understand. In Trout Creek in the 1970s you seldom saw a new pickup, and when you did you knew who it belonged to. If you saw a baby blue 1954 Chevy pickup or the same color 1954 Chevy sedan you knew that Bob Eaton was near at hand.

The state had damn near priced Bob out of the driving class when the Legislature settled on a new and simple method of taxing vehicles and suddenly Bob’s daily rides were “antique autos” of great value and taxed accordingly. It took the Legislature two years to replace that mistake with a different one, teaching me a lesson that has stood the test of time, “nothing is simple.”

When Bob’s eyesight got the better of him he was reduced to driving the short way to town on his lawn mower – but tax free.

George Casteel was a single-jack miner across the river who roped me into baling 25 acres of the finest crop of spotted Knapweed I have ever seen. It was over the tractor tires in its best spot.

George’s house was an interesting place to enter. There were ore samples all over the floor next to empty – mostly – dynamite cases, some of them closer to the cookstove than I might have put them. He took me into his workings once, leading the way with a hissing Alladin lantern.

I could still hear, then, and asked him if the hissing didn’t annoy him. “What?” he said. “Never mind,” said I.

If you asked him how he was doing it was always, “Showin’ a little color,” meaning he was just a foot and a half from pay dirt. He had a single-jacker’s arms from pounding a rock drill with a five pound hammer all day. He also had a deep indentation on his forehead which I assumed was from standing in the way of a blast of dynamite until I heard that it happened because he and Madge, who owned a bar in town, had closed up for the night and had an argument about who would drive home.

“You’re too drunk to drive George,” said Madge, and shoved him out from under the steering wheel so hard that George went out the other side and landed in the parking lot. Madge gunned it and felt a significant bump and backed up to see what she had just run over. It was George’s head, of course, which she managed to score in the backing up as well.

I found out later that it was, indeed, a blasting iron that had done the damage, but I liked the bar version better.

I became a member of Trout Creek café society when there was a café to hang out in. That’s where Helen Stout often cooked and served. Never was a woman more aptly named and never was a husband more poorly named. Lyle Stout was anything but that, maybe five-and-a-half feet and 135 pounds, while Helen stood a good six-feet plus and probably tipped the scale at over 300 pounds.

She liked to play tricks on the customers, but it went both ways. One day I had been ribbing her about something and she took the bait. “Really?” she said. “Nah, Helen, I was just pulling your leg.”

Her high-pitched giggle went into full volume until she could find the breath to say, “You want to pull my leg, mister, you better get some help!”

Bob’s cars are in some junkyard now, George’s knapweed field is all houses, and Helen and Lyle are in the Whitepine Cemetery. Me, I sit and think about it and smile at the past.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for more than 25 years. Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.