Employed for a Stint Amid Clouds and Peaks
AT first I was convinced that all employed above the clouds, expatriates from the drizzle below, were as cool, unneurotic, and pure as the weather. Some must have been born up there, because it seemed no one read Time magazine or worried about fighting for the spotted owl in the Oregon woods. They walked around with rights to wear lederhosen and edelweiss pins, on the Western volcano, Mt. Hood. A few affected a slight European accent to flavor the piney air, and holidays were this fest and that fest, so as not to get infested too much with American life happening a few miles down the road, where there was still the Fourth of July and hustling a buck - and rain.
Such was the charm of Timberline Lodge. It had an old-world comfort, built for the West in the 1930s.
I signed on as a busboy there. I was passing along on the coast, just back from some war or another, and I saw an ad in the Portland paper. I knew I'd hit a vein of silver, free and above-ground and shimmering.
The maitre d' hired me and gave me quarters below the lodge in government camp. With the change the Army had given me for busfare, I ordered a bowl of soup and crackers at the employees' snack bar.
The waitress whom I began to know as Barbara, said, "That's it?"
I looked up. "Employees can eat $5 worth - per meal. It comes with working here."
"Busboys?" I stammered.
"Good as any," she said heartily; and I knew I'd found a temporary home.
They collected us for work, in a van, and took us up to the main lodge through the pines. The place was a wonder of Works Progress Administration accomplishment. It was beamed by out-of-work builders during the Depression; even the rugs and curtains, hand-loomed from colorful cotton strips, were collector's items. Surplus railroad ties fixed banisters, and rails, as I recall, were bent to make grills for the stone fireplaces. There were fires glowing in the grates and wood stacked waiting, to boot.
I had been looking for a stop, a halfway house, to get the expression on my face cleaned up a bit, before reintroducing myself to my believing and innocent sisters, back East. I thought this place would do.
I was content with stacking dishes for the waitresses in the huge dining room and fell into a happy nirvana, knowing if I didn't have to talk about anything and lie, I'd get the comfort of my first stages of grief.
Every night I lay happily in my bunk above a waiter with a broken leg - a skiing accident. "This is a great place," he said. "You can stay here forever. It's like college. They don't fire you. Look at me, I got reassigned to the commissary."
It never occurred to him some of the rest of the world would like to own property or go home and not be regulated by dorm hours. But for him, it was bliss.
Perhaps he'd found freedom in the issueless prison of the lodge's fiesta heartbeat; I'd known those in the Army who'd reenlist for the security and stay with jobs. I'd been a follower of the group heartbeat; now I'd have to go it alone.
"Just don't sign up for lift-crew. One slip-up and they'll fire you good, there."
"Thanks for the advice," I said.
I loved it there, and I didn't have to think about a dreary thing; I hadn't even tried the skiing yet.
There were a few in-house problems, so slight that as my heart began to beat with its old Western confidence, and I caught myself on the verge of a smile or telling a funny story again. I was so grateful for my new strength, that I only had the heart to overlook these little problems.
There was one waitress who insisted on being my pest, called me "novice" if I didn't keep water glasses brimmed. She never left the dishwasher a tip, and gave me a dollar when others dropped a handful of cash on the sink. I just took delight in her swinging long braid and the fact that some human being was talking to me.
My broken-legged friend must have read the journal I was keeping on my top bunk. I didn't hide it. I must have written something about mosquitoes and skirmishes, because I got an invitation to visit the commissary director. Perhaps the call would have come anyway, as I discovered in the social employee order of "Olympus," that if you were a contender for a place there, you had to pass through his "office." He had set himself up, a former English teacher, as official nickname-giver to employees. If he lik ed you, you were supposed to be OK.
I put off this nonsense for awhile. But once passing him at a back garage, where he was slicing open a carton of peas, I stopped.
"Are you genuine or fake?" he wanted to know.
"Possibly," I said, parrying the question, laughing.
He was an elfin-looking tall guy, clean shaven.
"I keep a journal."
He seemed to like that.
"Good. Most people come up here to the most beautiful place in the world and leave their minds below. They're either animal or vegetable."
I didn't agree. But I guessed he liked me because he thought I was a thinker - like him. That was generous enough.
HE told me about other "established" employees, using their poetic and sometimes not-so-poetic nicknames, which he'd willfully given them. If I were to be in his camp, I'd pleasantly follow this and that advice. He railed particularly about the ski lift-crew as "vegetables": they were "hedonists," (first time I heard the word) just into sun and snow and eating and making merry. Sounded exactly like what I'd like to do! I nodded humbly.
"And watch out for Walt."
"Walt" was a Viennese Austrian, an older man who ran the crew, the chairs, drove and repaired snowcats. He probably had been at the lodge since it was conceived. "There's no poetry in him, and he rules like the Gestapo."
Whenever I saw Walt, red-faced in his knickers, I wanted to be accepted by him. He was the backbone of the lodge, I was sure. I said, "Gritzie!" to him, startling him with that Swiss hello. One day on his hurried way to morning duties, plowing, I said: "If you get an opening on lift-crew...." He nodded meditating on a rusty bolt in his hand, then left.
"One rule only. No sleeping on the job, OK?" he said a few weeks later. He offered me midway, a shack and ramp halfway up the slopes. A heater and a desk. A stop-go switch for emergencies. For a safe start-up they'd call me on the phone: "Let her buck!" I'd say. I don't know where I got that expression. But on the pure sun side of the mountain and living "dangerously" with Walt as boss, I felt enthusiastic. Walking down the mountain in the evenings made me hungry. I was a "hedonist" at last!
Then, from internal sources, I learned my new nickname had been issued from the commissary. "The Jar."
"The Jar?" I asked my source (Barbara the waitress). "If you put five pounds of waste in a four-pound jar, what's left over - a veteran!" That was the word from the commissary director, she said, but kindly told me not to worry.
"I'll ride it out," I said.
Some people began calling me Jar. It didn't sound bad. I played with "Hey, Jar.Come here, Jar." It sounded European, Finnish. I didn't know if Walt knew it or not, even my own real name.
I blew it, on a snowy afternoon. My gas heater was on, and my journal open; counting no skiers, I dozed off. I heard tramping on the ramp, not skis, jackboots! Opening the door, there was the Big Man.
"I didn't see you at the window," Walt said.
I was about to say, I'll get my stuff and leave the mountain; I knew they shot you for sleeping on guard duty.
"This heater leaks a little. I'll get someone to fix it. Keep the door on the crack. Fresh air will help you stay awake."
He looked at my desk. "A writer, eh? Do you know German? I have a collection I'd like to get translated. Do you know German poetry?"
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Keep an eye out. Sometimes it's hard, alone."
And he was gone in the snowstorm to check the well-being of the other men. From then on, I would rather have skied off the volcano backward into the pit than fallen asleep on old Walt. I wanted to serve him as "hedonistically" as possible.
I got my chance. I saw the big cat, Walt driving, go up after some climbers. It slipped sideways on the horizon, trying to steady itself, then zigzagged and tipped, one track wildly buzzing in the air. I called down, grabbed a shovel, and went to dig Walt out. I opened the door. He heaved himself out. "My friend from midway! Do you know what you get when you put a 150-pound busboy on the lift crew: 'Let her buck!
No one was more surprised at that remark than I. I'd forgotten I'd said it. It was passed from mouth to mouth, on the lift-crew: I had earned something legitimate.
So my name was changed, on the lift-crew, to "Buck." I liked the sound of it. If the "hedonists" were saying "Buck," I'd take it. I knew it would stick when one night I went to the fireplace near the dining room, and the waitress who'd held back her tips to me, said, "Hi, Buck. I had a good season. So here you go." It was a complete night's work.