Clippings: Happy greetings from a gruff codger
“Have a happy, happy!”
The emphasis was always on the second “happy” and it was said, back in the mid-’70s, by my climbing buddy’s dad. He loved saying it, as if it were his own contribution to the nation’s lexicon — “Have a happy, happy!”
It was a New Year’s Day greeting, of course, although Lou said it throughout the year whenever the mood struck him, which wasn’t, by the way, that often.
I was 18 when I met Brian at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Brian was to be my foreman on trails for the summer of 1971, and we would be climbing partners and good friends from then on. The work was an ideal summer job between college years: we cleared hiking trails from tree fall, and reworked the drainage dips in the trail to keep torrents of rain from eroding the trails. It was pick and shovel work, chainsaws and the occasional axe when it was faster to travel light to cover a lot of ground. We blasted some rock when building new trails, and built the occasional 8-foot wide plank bridge with banisters — dropping huge pines, skinning them and dragging them with come-alongs 20 feet at a time (a process that could take a crew a week to build) — but mainly we did lots of hiking and trail maintenance.
Brian, Lou’s youngest son, had attended a military academy high school in Wentworth, Mo., and then had come back to Colorado to play football for Adam’s State College in Alamosa.
We figured it was the pushups he had to do at the academy that built up his arms, or maybe the competitive swimming, or lifting weights for football… but whichever it was, we nicknamed him “the arm” because his biceps were as big as my thighs and his forearms were like Popeye’s.
As climbing partners we would go on to do many faces throughout Rocky Mountain National Park, a winter ascent on the Grand Teton stymied by a winter storm, a New Year’s Eve push up the East Face of Long’s Peak at 20 below zero (what were we thinking!) and finally an attempted first ascent in Alaska of a 2,000-foot spire called the Tusk. Brian and I were included in a team of six rangers-climbers from Colorado and Alaska for the ascent, spent seven days there in early April camped in the snow in sub-zero weather to climb ice instead of the rotten rock.
Brian was, in short, a buddy who had saved my carcass many times, and whose behind I had saved as well. We were fast friends, shared good times, created great memories.
It all comes back to Lou, however, and his phrase (“Have a happy, happy!”) because when we weren’t climbing, or clearing hiking trails, or occasionally going on rescues to help injured climbers, we were at Lou and Jean’s house putting down sod around their new home by Lake Estes, or cleaning the pool at their Best Western Hotel, or working short stints in their liquor store at night after our regular work hours. They were our surrogate parents for those summers, and anchors in a period in our lives when anchors were too often cast aside.
A bricklayer by trade, Lou built his hotel one unit at a time from the late ’50s into the more prosperous ’60s. Destined to become a tourist town, Estes Park treated Lou and Jean well.
Jean was a Polish mom, full of love and whose whole intent seemed to be to fatten us up every time we came down off unbeaten paths, scraped and bloodied, survivors (in her eyes) of yet another adventure — sometimes the vanquished, sometimes the victors, always the worse for wear. Jean knew what we needed and delivered with ample nourishment — both in calories and hugs.
Lou was rarely impressed. Not that he didn’t appreciate the effort that went into climbing — or the challenge and risk — but that there was work to be done. Real living. The hard stuff that mattered: Building a business, a home, putting steaks on the table, sending kids to college, making a life of it all.... not frittering it away in some risk-prone game of chance that came way too close to Russian roulette. Not that he would ever say that, but I think that was what he was telling us in what can only charitably be called his no-nonsense manner.
And that’s the irony. Lou was a gruff man. Short and stocky with steely eyes, Lou had been a glider pilot in WWII and all I ever got out of Brian was that his mission sometimes had him landing behind enemy lines and then he had to make his way back to allied troops using whatever devices he could.
He never talked about it. Couldn’t drag it out of him. But you could see it in him: how he lectured us, how he measured success and valor and the worth of a man.
Laying sod on his new lawn one late afternoon after an 8-hour-day on the trails, a few of us were hefting 80-pound rolls barehanded and had most of the lawn done before dark when Lou came out from his front door (the one with a plaque that read: “An old bastard lives here!”) and told us in so many words that we hadn’t done such a bad job “for a bunch of bums” and he figured it was time for a little food — the juiciest, most delicious two-inch thick prime beef ever cooked, with Jean’s side dishes and desserts and beers to wash it down.
“Have a happy, happy!”
But it wasn’t all easy. One of Lou’s granddaughters had died as a young woman in a tragic fire, and after years of climbing and leading a life of adventure, including the trip to Alaska where Brian would stay, Brian developed MS. It started slowly and didn’t interfere too much with his job blowing avalanches in the steep chutes overhanging Alaskan highways, but it got worse, as that disease does, and then Brian’s first wife died of cancer, leaving him as a single parent of a young son. He’s been in a wheelchair for the past decade or more, and lo these 25 years later, much water has passed under the bridge, so to speak, and it’s best left as water flowing by, life moving on, as if tomorrow is more hopeful than yesterday.
“Have a happy, happy,” Lou used to say, no doubt knowing that life throws some mean curve balls along the way, and that the best panacea is to look at the new year (or anytime) as an opportunity to add happiness onto happiness, regardless of what has come your way.