Lumpenproletariat Revisited

“There is nothing on this earth that is more to be prized than true friendship.” St. Thomas Aquinas

For over ten years, what started as a set of personal reflections shared with family and friends has been viewed tens of thousands of times, an outcome for which I am surprised and grateful to all of you who have engaged in the conversation. I’ve enjoyed many discussions via email or comments, way more than I ever expected from this.

Quite a few current readers have subscribed in the last couple of years. I thought it might be interesting to repost a couple of early ones for folks who are new to the blog. This is the first of them.

When I was reviewing some old posts, I came across a comment that caught me emotionally from a good friend, Rick Champagne, who passed away a few years ago. Rick was a talented illustrator and artist. He owned a small business that specialized in customizing vehicles with terrific artwork. While serving in the Marines in Vietnam, he was exposed as many others were to the defoliant called “Agent Orange,” which eventually caused the cancer that he fought valiantly for years. He was part of our informal Saturday morning breakfast clan that met at a favorite haunt for at least ten years and shared our lives together.

What he started as a pinstriping specialty in his autobody shop grew into a sought-after customizing business, especially for motorcycles. Here is an old link that still works. Some of his creations, all hand painted are included on his Facebook page as well as some original fine art landscapes and portraits. It remains up after almost three years, so I hope it works for you to get to know Rick a bit.

An innovator and terrific storyteller who loved tinkering, inventing gadgets, and gardening, Rick is missed by many, including me. RIP, our dear friend.

I am unable to repost without converting the old ones to drafts and then publishing again. That wipes out the comments, so I’m going to add a link to the original in case you were interested in his short comment. Link to original “Lumpenproletariat.” Rick enjoyed the blog, and we talked about some of the stories together.

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” Henry David Thoreau

I posted the original under the category of “Tree Stories” about my younger days as a climber. I’ve made some minor edits for clarity and corrected a couple of typos. Hope you are inspired to comment or send me an email with your own early work memories. This is almost entirely cut and pasted from the old one ten years ago.  If you find any errors in my memories, please let me know. My memory is a noted faulty instrument.


tree climber

Making a Move

The scream of Wes’s customized Sachs 250 dirt bike came out of the foothills, and then kicked up a great cloud of dust on the long dirt driveway, signaling the beginning of our workday.  He was rarely late, but never early; his avocation was motocross racing, which he did professionally, but not lucratively.  His daily bread was earned, like the rest of us, cutting trees for EZ Tree Service in 1969 Colorado.  Our fenced in staging area on the plateau north of Boulder and just east of the beginning of the Rockies was where Ed Zemeckis stored and split his for-sale firewood. The lot provided parking for the various bucket trucks, chip trucks, log trucks, trailered large woodchippers, pickup trucks and stump grinders with which we plied our trade.

Ed was a self-taught genius mechanic who could fix, weld, or fabricate almost anything.  He weighed in at over two twenty and couldn’t get up a tree if a grizzly was chasing him, but he could run an organized and effective business.  My interview for a job was typical of skills-based hiring methods at the tail end of the post war boom.  I drove into the yard between his house and barn for our appointment, and as I walked toward the front door past an eight-yard dump truck, I heard a grunt, then a “put the pin in for me, will ya?”  Looking around, I saw a hefty set of legs protruding from under the truck.  Ed was bench pressing a drive shaft back up to the transmission and needed someone to jam in the bolt to secure it.  What he would have done had I been late was never made clear.  Perhaps he was waiting to show me how strong he was.

He slid out from under the truck and asked me if I had my rope and saddle with me.  Of course I did, and Ed gestured towards a large cottonwood in his side yard.  I threw the rope into it with one cast; foot locked up to a low branch and scrambled to the top, tying in when I got there.  “Can you start Monday?”  “Sure.”  His Prairie Home Companion pleasant, pretty, fiftyish wife brought out some lemonade, and I had a job.  Both of us knew that should Monday prove that I was adequate at a climbing interview, but fell short in cutting or pruning skills, there wouldn’t be a Tuesday.

“Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”  Henry David Thoreau

Two of the crew worked in the lot full time cutting and splitting the hardwood we brought back with Ed’s homemade, vertical log splitter, which was powered by a barely mufflered Ford industrial strength engine and his own concoction of foot pedal and hydraulics.  The terrifying monster functioned as a guillotine for logs, could easily blow apart 18” oak and would have horrified any hapless OSHA inspector who stopped by – not that one ever did.  Load the log between the channel iron guides, step back, step on the foot pedal, and the blade would slash downward with the inexorable slam of a pile driver.  No safety lock-out (not even shutting off the motor, because the hydraulics held enormous pent- up force), no cage, no emergency shut off – just drop in the wood and get the hell out of the way.  The rest of us mounted up in whatever configuration of equipment the assigned work required, and off we went.  The good old days.

The climbers were Wes, who had a degree in History, Ted, the lead foreman with the handlebar mustache and quintessential Westerner, Hatch, originally from Boston, who we later discovered stole high performance cars as a side business, Bob, a multi degreed (Math and Physics) Rocky Mountain Rescue Group mountaineer, and I, newly hired. Ron, who supplemented his income as a part time marijuana dealer, and Stan from Chicago, a former Oakland Branch Hell’s Angel, were the bucket truck operators.  The rest of the crew worked on the ground, running lowering lines, chain sawing up fallen trees, chipping, dragging, loading, and raking up chips in the yards of our customers.

Young and fit men all, but the alchemy of the late sixties, especially in a place like Boulder, melded a disparate cast of characters into a crew, a team, who worked, played, and took considered risks together.  Men of quite different backgrounds and education, but mutually respectful and sharing a common, fundamentally American, understanding of how the world worked.  Some of us challenged that understanding, but we all had no doubt that it was how things were.


Take Down

We were brought up to share the principles and promise of capitalism:  success and opportunity if we “worked hard and played by the rules.”  The differences among us regarding the “playing by the rules” part were legion, but everyone fully integrated, indeed never thought to question, that every day we got up and worked hard at rough physical labor.  We all simply expected it of ourselves as a given.

Karl Marx postulated in The Communist Manifesto that there were only two classes, the ownership and the workers – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppressed and oppressors, and the violent resolution of that “exploitation” would create a utopia.  As it turns out, Marx soon compromised his premise by parsing his dichotomy into many subsets.  The lowest of the low was the lumpenproletariat, that “dangerous class”, and there were elements of that outlaw self-perception among the well-educated, countercultural, and possibly underemployed tree guys.  Set apart – sweaty, dirty, brawny, laughing, profane and derisive of those outsiders who were condescending towards those of us who did for a living what most of them would never attempt.

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.Ralph Waldo Emerson

With the foolish vanity of youth, I saw our motley band as made up of the kind of guys recruited by Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles: “rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists.”  And proud of it.

After an additional forty more years, I now recognize the naïveté, narcissism, and vainglory of such posturing, but at the time, invulnerable young men held it dear.

I have stories to relate – both about the work and the men who did it.  We can go down that road together, if you like, in future posts.

“If boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?”  Vincent Van Gogh

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective, Tree Stories

One response to “Lumpenproletariat Revisited

  1. Joseph McKenna

    Fascinating… as usual.


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