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This is good news – more or less

Essay by Martha Quillen

Local life – April 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S THE FIRST WEEK OF MARCH as I write this, and it’s freezing outside — and in. For the first time since Ed and I moved into this house more than twelve years ago, our pipes are frozen.

At the same time, our daughter Columbine is yacht-sitting in the Virgin Islands and my refrigerator door is brimming with pictures of tropical splendor. (Her father and I are welcome to visit, of course, but we don’t relish paying off the airfare for the next two years.) Although winter has its charms, at this point it’s hard to remember just what they are. But there’s work to do.

This morning I piled up the local newspapers, and I was transported. Things hereabouts seemed pretty good. Westcliffe and Buena Vista are gearing up for town board elections; Salida is looking for a mayor. A kid in Leadville earned a state wrestling championship. Fairplay’s jail is making money (which is good news for our neighbors — even though I yearn for a society where jails are obsolete).

The most persistent controversy in Salida in the last month has been about how John Denver should or shouldn’t be honored. And in the midst of a war, this bizarre dispute indicates that Salidans are fortunate — even if we don’t always appreciate it.

But Salidans have also shown concern about a more somber issue recently. Some time back, Roy Smith wrote The Mountain Mail (February 18) and said that he’d been threatened and harassed because he was black.

“I have been having trouble with certain people in this town. About seven to be exact. The police and firemen have been helpful to me and my problems. I haven’t been able to drive my own truck because of the threats that have been made against me and my life because of my race. They say they will blow up my red truck.

“I have never said a bad word about Salida or its people, but I am wondering why the people of Salida are allowing the threats against my life to go on….”

“There are many people who see what’s happening to me and refuse to help. I was forced to run for my life because these men threatened to beat me into a coma….

The letter concluded: “They said they can do anything to me and the law won’t believe me.”

In the ensuing weeks, The Mountain Mail published numerous letters, expressing concern and support for Smith.

Then on March 1, Police Chief Darwin Hibbs weighed in.

“Mr. Smith has been a member of our community for approximately five years. During this time, it appears that he has been well received, and his presence has been welcomed by the vast majority of our residents.

“He has, however, reported conflicts with others numerous times during his residency in the area. Every allegation has been carefully and completely investigated. None of the reports has been corroborated by any witnesses or other credible evidence….

“To further complicate the total circumstance in which we find ourselves, Mr. Smith recently pleaded guilty to filing two false reports to the police, in which he alleged he was assaulted.

“In an attempt to gauge the effectiveness of our investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated an independent investigation. They also have been unable to corroborate or substantiate Mr. Smith’s allegations. This is not to say that Mr. Smith has not been victimized in some manner in our community, but as of this time, we have no substantiated evidence of any wrongdoing against him.”

Hibbs’s letter goes on to give the police department’s phone number and encourage everyone “to be watchful for criminal acts against those who are vulnerable to threat or intimidation, and to report it.”

Whether Smith has been persecuted in Salida, or merely feels persecuted, this is a tragic affair.

BUT I’M ENCOURAGED by the response. Letter writers have shown a stirring display of intolerance for intolerance. And the local paper has done its job, functioning as a forum for Smith and the police department and local citizens.

Life isn’t perfect, and transgressions happen. But in cases like this, I think publicity offers at least a small protection against lawbreakers. And if Smith disagrees with the police department’s position, he can write another letter to the paper. As I write this, it’s been less than two weeks since Smith’s letter appeared in the Mountain Mail, and although Smith’s problems may not be resolved, Salidans seem to be taking them very seriously.

Still, things can go sour pretty easily. If, for example, someone believes that Smith has unjustly pinpointed him, or if parties angry at Smith seek retaliation, or if the community turns against Smith or those they perceive to be his persecutors without due process, it could get ugly.

But nonetheless, I was encouraged by the way things have been handled thus far for numerous reasons: First, Smith expressed approval for the police so apparently he hasn’t been ignored or treated rudely by the authorities. Second, Hibbs encouraged vigilance even though his investigation had so far come to naught — which puts him one up on the Boulder police and Colorado’s governor: without sufficient evidence, Hibbs doesn’t insist on an arrest, he supports further investigation. And third and especially, I was encouraged that so many Salidans expressed total contempt for discrimination, harassment, unkindness and bullying.

IN ESSENCE, I guess I’m just reiterating Ed’s message from last month: Sometimes Salidans do things right.

But even so, I am not so cynical that the idea of Salida functioning satisfactorily can cheer me up, and as I said earlier, the paper rallied my spirits (even though my water is still barely dripping from the taps).

But another Mountain Mail letter brightened my day:

Dear Editor:

My wife and I have spent the past month in Salida looking at relocating here.

But your problems with your ‘city’ government — your mayor and pool manager resigning because of the new city council — a council that will more than likely violate the Sunshine Law and now the threats that Roy Smith has been receiving have changed our minds about moving here.

Wow, sometimes dark clouds really do have silver linings, don’t they?

All right, that was uncalled for, and I’m sure that the letter writer and his wife are truly lovely people and we’ll miss them. But I am always astounded by people who write letters like this one.

Colorado is notorious for its anti-growth sentiments and xenophobic display of “Native” stickers; yet people persist in writing to small-town newspapers righteously proclaiming that they will not move here.

Are we supposed to be upset about that?

Such letters always strike me as funny. A few years ago a couple from a suburb of Detroit wrote to the Westcliffe paper to say that they were thinking of retiring there — except the town had too many ugly metal buildings. Hey, I grew up in the Detroit ‘burbs, and the city’s not quite as bad as people think, but if you want to eliminate ugly buildings, you’ve got more to work with in Detroit.

I suspect that working towns get the most insults. Over the years, I’ve seen several disparaging letters in the Leadville paper, but Kremmling was a magnet for critics. When Ed and I owned the newspaper in Kremmling, it was a ranching and logging town with lots of sagging old wooden buildings and trailers, and Kremmlingites were damned proud of that.

They were proud to live in one of the coldest, harshest, most isolated regions in the country. Once when a private plane crashed north of Kremmling, the family offered a $10,000 reward and hordes of treasure hunters went looking, but it still took 18 months to find that plane. Local ranchers told stories of being snowed in for months at a time. Women told stories of delivering their own babies because only the spring thaw could deliver the doctor.

A month after Ed and I moved from Kremmling, a nearby town became famous: Radium. It sat along the Colorado River and the only way to get there was the notoriously steep and twisting Trough Road. Radium was tiny; less than a dozen residents lived in the railroad town, and many of them were children, but workers from there made sure that the California Zephyr could get through Gore Canyon — which was prone to rock falls and mud slides. In 1978, two young Radium women died within days of each other.

KREMMLING, HOME TO ABOUT 1200 people then (and 1578 now), was the closest town with grocery stores, restaurants, hardware and lumber outlets, and a hospital. After two apparently healthy women from Radium died within days of one another, a Kremmling doctor called in state investigators and the state called in the feds. Fear spread throughout the region, but it wasn’t long before medical investigators eliminated local causes. Radium’s water, air, soil and wildlife looked clean. The cause was ruled Toxic Shock Syndrome.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The women took turns going into Kremmling to shop — and thus they used the same products — and the investigation zeroed in on that. The Radium deaths seemed linked to an increase in similar deaths throughout the nation. With the help of that unusual case, researchers soon realized that an innovation in tampon manufacturing was responsible for a rash of deaths in the late 1970s.

Kremmling has changed a lot in recent years, but in the ’70s life was still hard for a lot of the ranchers, cowhands and loggers who lived in Middle Park. A lot of the work available was dangerous, and the hospital was hours away from their jobs.

Insults were a staple in Kremmling. A lot of tourists on their way to Steamboat didn’t like the fact that the gas stations all closed before 9 p.m., there wasn’t a deli or a bakery, the women’s clothing store was open by appointment only, and the hours kept by many businesses were erratic. (If you lived there and you wanted something, you called first and made an appointment.)

But in Kremmling, insults were appreciated. People collected them, savored them, traded them. Kremmlingites loved it when tourists said that the place was too damned cold, too damned windy, and too damned muddy. That’s what they liked best about it — that it wasn’t some wealthy, cute, comfortable place like Steamboat or Vail — which just goes to show that one man’s insult is another’s man’s compliment.

Dateline: March 5 (Two days later).

Our pipes are clear and the news just keeps getting better and better. This morning, The Denver Post ran a front page story headlined, “Clean homes tied to asthma.” According to the text:

“Researchers have identified yet another problem you can blame on Mom: asthma.

“But only if she was a meticulous housekeeper.”

Asthma runs in my family and Ed’s, and our kids do have some allergies — a little hay fever, and itchy rashes now and again — but no asthma.

They should thank me.

With such uplifting news pouring in, I’m hoping to see another story:

Disorganized cupboards increase intelligence

Medical experts have long contended that learning new skills — such as how to play a musical instrument or speak another language — can increase memory, improve mental function, and perhaps even inhibit the onset of senile dementia.

But disorganized cupboards may produce geniuses. In a new study, subjects with disorganized cupboards outperformed fastidious subjects on memory inventories and intelligence tests by 30%. The researchers who designed the study speculate that searching for misplaced objects requires coordinating various skills including memory, analysis, and inquiry, and may thereby improve brain oxygenation and increase synapsis.

Future tests are planned, however, to rule out the possibility that people with high I.Q.s just normally have disorganized cupboards.

Oh, sure, this news may be a long shot, but stranger things have happened.

–Martha Quillen