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It was a high-lead show in a foot of snow,
The boys had a fire goin’ down below,
When up walked that big hooktender
And he said,
There ain’t a man of the bunch who could pack my lunch,
‘Cause it was one to stop ‘er and two to go back
Three to call the hook and four for slack.
The first time I ever saw Montana was at the Trinity County Fair, in Hayfork. It was early evening, just after dark, and he was on the Midway, amongst the colored lights and game booths. He was hard to miss; about 6 1/2 feet tall, with a good lookin’ woman under each arm. His head was shaved, and he wore a gold ring in one ear. He weren’t quiet, neither. He had a great hearty laugh and a deep, growly voice.
That would have been about 1967 or ’68, because I was still in high school. I worked at the fair for my summer employment. Back then, Hayfork was a pretty darn conservative town, still a couple of years before the hippie movement changed everything. None of that bothered Montana, tho, and no one bothered him. He was just havin’ hisself a good time, like any logger might do.
It weren’t until ten or twelve years later that I got to know Montana personally, talking to him in the bars. In those days a young country boy could still move back home and find a job logging. That was before the Sierra Club cut off the logging and ruined the local economy. At any rate, that was what I did; moved home and went to logging to support my wife and newborn son. I worked on the high-lead, as described in the poem above, and I wound up talking to ‘ol Montana over a beer or three, every now and then.
If you caught him just right, say late in the afternoon after the crummy dropped you off at the bar, you might hear him recite that poem. There was a lot more of it, but that is all I can remember. I have never heard it anywhere else, and I cannot find it on the internet, so I believe he composed it. Probably never wrote ‘er down, tho, just kept it all in his head. He could play a mean honky-tonk piano with those huge hands, too, when the mood hit him, and he had a decent singing voice, tho a bit on the rough side. No tellin’ where he picked up all this stuff. Like a lot of loggers in them days- the ones who survived, anyway- he was quite intelligent and creative, tho not well-educated.
Montana was a big man, as I said before. He looked like Mr. Clean, only longer and leaner, sort of stretched out and wrapped in baling wire. I was never quite sure how tall he actually was, ’cause it always seemed like he could straighten up another inch or two if he felt like it. When I knew him, he was probably in his 50’s. It was hard to tell. He worked as a timber faller.
Now it happened that one winter, when there was no logging, I went to work gold mining, up at the Kelly Mine for the Bonn brothers. They were opening up an old drift, trying to find the quartz vein that Tom Kelly had worked, but lost. Tom Bonn thought it was reverse-faulted, which is common in the area. At any rate, Hippie Chuck taught me how to drill and blast, and we were putting in 4 foot rounds every day. Drill and blast, then come back the next morning, shovel it out and do it again. Think of 16 Tons, only with rock instead of coal.
Now, a fella can get pretty strong doing that every day, and I took to arm-wrestling for beers. I was beating some pretty big guys, too, out of my weight class. Not all of them, but a lot, so one day in The Lookout, I thought I would try out ‘ol Montana. Well, he wrapped that big ‘ol hand of his around my tiny little one, and we both commenced to pullin’. Pulled into ‘er nice and easy, gentleman-like. So we pulled up tight, and I pulled in hard, to take him down, but nothing budged. No movement at all, so I pulled harder, as hard as I could, but still nothing happened. Well, he seen how it was, so he just went ahead and pulled me on over nice and easy, and that was all there was to it. Not that he didn’t have to work a little to beat me, but there was still more left in that arm of his that he never needed to use. I guess timber-falling can get a man pretty strong, too.
So, here’s where the part about the telephone pole comes in. Here is how he told me the story, to the best of my recollection:
“Back aways ago, when I was a young highballer just down from the north woods, I wound up in Redding, drinking in a bar up on California Street. Well, I got to tellin’ some of the fellas that I was a timber-faller, and how I cut the big trees up there. Some of ’em didn’t believe me, so I went out to my truck, pulled out my chainsaw and cut down one of them telephone poles, right there on the street.
Well, right away I realized that I might be in trouble, so I took off a runnin’. I run down California Street, and cut off up a side street, but the cops come and surrounded me.
‘Awww, ya caught me,’ I says, and I give up. Well, I done six months in jail for that, which learned me my lesson. I never done that again.”
All of that was long ago, when upper California Street was still a rip-roarin’ row of saloons, long before the Downtown Mall was put in and the streets all chopped up. I really do not know how long ago it happened, and have not found any historical references. Likely it was back in the late 1950’s or early ’60’s, but I’m just guessing.
Here’s the kicker: the bar he was in was the Empire Hotel, which is no longer a bar, but a recovery center, and I now sit on the Board of Directors. How is that for completing a circle of sorts, from fueling drunken escapades to serving as a recovery center? Its been a long time since I drank with Montana, and longer still since he cut down that pole, but a few of us still remember him.
Actually, I have no way of proving the bar was the Empire- there were other bars nearby- but it’s fairly likely, so I’m claiming it was, ’cause it helps the story, and nobody can prove it ain’t so. Montana wouldn’t have minded, anyhow; he might have stretched a tale a bit once or twice, himself, just for the effect. Its not really lying, just fictionalizing, something I need to practice in case I should decide to run for office, someday.
The last I heard, he was living in a mobilehome in French Gulch with his wife, Genevieve. They needed to be near Redding, as she was on dialysis. That was quite a few years ago. A friend of mine, whose husband was a timber faller back then, tells me that he and another friend went to visit Montana there just before he died. His actual given name was Melvin Liestead, but to me he will always be just “Montana,” one of the icons of my youth.