Thursday, August 27, 2009


When I listen to the radio these days, it seems that there's a "new" 40th Anniversary of something every day this month. Then I hear the report: Senator Kennedy passed away on August 25th, closing the final chapter of America's Camelot.

I remember the other Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts. When I knew of him, he was President, the first one I paid any attention to...the first sitting President who's name I even knew. President Kennedy visited Salt Lake City in 1963, and his motorcade drove right down the street by my elementary school. I remember his Lincoln, his suit, and the slush on the sidewalk that we kids kicked around while we waited for his limo to pass on his way out to the airport.

About two months later, I was in Music Class at that school when the announcement of his end was made. I remember it like it was yesterday, at least some of it. All the sorrow of that week of televised events around the assassination...Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, LBJ and Jackie and the funeral, has blurred the specifics now that forty-six years have passed. But the announcement...that moment is indelible, frozen like a snapshot, unedited and still profound.

When I was in elementary school, history was not my favorite subject. Back then History was just dry old dead men, and rote learning of important dates in history. Boring.

Forty-six years of living well have given me a love of history that I never would have expected back in my Salt Lake City school days, but I might have gotten an inkling of what history would come to mean if I'd had the wisdom that's been knocked into me over those decades. I might have gotten a clue on a field trip my class took the next spring, but the sixth grade kid hadn't started listening to the little voice in his head yet.

We took a bunch of school buses out to Promontory Point, UT on the 95th Anniversary of the "Driving of the Golden Spike" commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The place was amazing, there were two parallel roadbeds out there in the High Desert. Though the rails and ties were gone, the site was still littered with artifacts! There were shovel heads, and sledge hammer heads and railroad spikes laying all over the place.

Looking back, I'm amazed that we just walked out to the site, on the actual there would be a boardwalk...a sensible distance from the twin roadbeds, with a fence to protect said roadbeds from the public. Our teacher told us that the Congress had authorized the two railroads to build the new railroad across the country, but neglected to stipulate that the two roads be joined as soon as they met! That's what history is about! Nothing dry or boring, just a good yarn that's easily remembered.

About twenty years after that May day on the Utah sagebrush plateau, I was living atop Donner Summit, working as a groomer, and setting foot on history everywhere I walked! History is everywhere up there, and the Transcontinental Railroad climbs right over Donner Summit. China Wall, built by Chinese labor for the Central Pacific RR just east of the summit still stands, and was a still a working roadbed for the Southern Pacific into the 1980's. Just west of China Wall is the Summit Tunnel that was bored through solid granite. It was such hard rock that Union Pacific Construction Boss Charles Crocker had the blasters use nitro-glycerin to speed progress.

In April of 1866, three crates of nitro-glycerin bound for the Summit Tunnel arrived in San Francisco. One of the crates detonated, destroying the Wells Fargo office and killing fifteen. It's said that this accident was the impetus for Alfred Nobel & Company to invent dynamite. The fortune made from dynamite has grown geometrically, and funds the Nobel Prizes to this day.

I've heard a lot of History as it's made and reported while in my snowcat. I heard about Ronald Reagan's brush with the assassin's bullets in a Cat, I remember the run I was grooming when I heard the news of Kurt Cobain's suicide, and I was grooming the lower bunny hill when I heard of the Space Shuttle Columbia's re-entry demise. That one was poignant, because my whole crew saw Columbia fly over on her way to meet her fate that morning.

I was leading all of the Free Groomers in a pack that night, and I planned the shift so we'd be in the best position to see the Shuttle zoom over. I'd seen one shuttle re-enter seven years earlier, and it was spectacular, so I was looking forward to a treat. There was some scattered cloud cover, but the sky was open enough to see Columbia heading east. Things got real busy that morning, and I was on the 2-Way so much that I turned my stereo off until after sunrise. One of the Guys heard the news, and let us know by 2-Way, Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas and all hands on board were lost...pretty stunning. I had a Winch Operator on top of the mountain at the time of the shuttle pass, and he radioed that the orbiter seemed to be sparkling, a detail obscured for us lower on the hill by the sparse cloud cover.

Over the following months, I learned that the "Sparkles"seen by my Winch Operator, were melting aluminum bits shed from the foam-damaged wing of the doomed orbiter.

Another bit of History, that's far from dry and boring...I can't help but wonder...what's history got in store for us this season?

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