Thursday, January 26, 2012

Park City Utah (Why My Neck is Red) Part II, The 500 Stairs

One weather worn hand gripped the hand rail firmly. The other held a cane. Once again, Grandma Started the long journey up the two flights of stairs to her home in Midvale.

Many questioned why a 95 year old widow would continue to live on the 2nd floor of a modest condo. "To many stairs Lela" they would say. "Move to an assisted living center or in with family who will take care of you". They had no idea that the stairs were an intregal part of what kept grandma alive. They represented a cornerstone of her life.

She had moved to Salt Lake 12 years earlier. The winters in Park City had become to harsh for her to continue to live there. The last one had been particularly brutal. I still remember the 140 mile round trip I made nearly every week to shovel more snow off the old miner shanty she had called home for 70 yrs.

Fourteen feet of snow fell that winter. By March, I was standing on the roof throwing the snow up onto banks of snow to keep it from crushing the ancient roof. By spring she relented and left the only place she had known as home for the gentler winters in the Great Salt Lake Valley.

She was born in Park City, Utah on July 24, 1910 to Clyde and Magdalena Yates. Her first home was on Rossie hill 500 stairs up from what was known as "swede" alley, the street directly below mainstreet. Her father worked the mines as an electrician. Because he had an education, Clyde's lot in the silver mines of Park City was better than most who toiled underground on twelve hour shifts with no Unions or health care to protect them. He died in his 40's of pneumonia; a direct result result of his work in the mines. Even with the better job and social standing he enjoyed, his family, like my Grandfathers, was left destitute. No company life insurance or pension, and the Social Security Program was many years away from saving millions of retirees from spending their last years in poverty. Things we just take for granted now.

Often, in her younger years she and the other children would coax the miners to toss lumps of coal out of the ore carts that crossed the town between the many silver mines that wound underneath the city. Coal was a precious commodity and a couple of lumps meant the difference between a warm nights sleep and a cold one. especially to a poor widowed mother and her children. Eagerly, she would take the prize up the 500 stairs to her mother.

She married Grandpa at 16, and moved to the home she would know for the next 70 years in empire Canyon on Daley Avenue. She still continued the climb up the 500 stairs to take care of her ailing Mother. Somehow she also managed to take care of her husband, her husbands mother and raise 2 children.

I remember many stories she would tell me of marching up and down the stairs on Rossie Hill. To school, church, social events. Each required 500 stairs.

When I was 8 years old, I made the journey with Grandma up those stairs on Rossie hill to Grandma Yates house. I have always been active, but, I remember... just that one trip wore me out. I wanted to quit, but, Grandma wouldn't let me...I was tired and angry. Why did she make me finish that ardous climb?

Many years later, I now understand the important lesson she taught me that day.  Never shirk from helping others in need, no matter how many stairs you have to climb. All true miners know that mining communites have always banded together to help each other. Even if its their last dollar. They continue that tradition today. Dont believe me?  Ask a miner. 

Her whole life, she never complained, about life's journey or the many stairs you have to climb along the way. She endured the death of her sisters, her son and her husband. At 97, she was still volunteering at the senior center, helping much younger seniors get meals and arrange Dr.'s appointments.

She conquered those stairs at her condo 3 time a day every day she lived there.

It was no surprise to me that all those stairs never defeated her. She fell in a flat parking lot at a Walmart, breaking her back. To old to recover, her brave soul ended its journey at age 98.

So my friends, I'll proudly say my neck is red...and now you know why I am pro-union, Social Security and support single payer Universal Health Care.  To do do any less does not honor their sacrifices of blood and sweat.

Companies don't care about you. They are not people because they do not understand right from wrong. They only understand souless profits and losses.  Miners have understood this since the beginning of time.  That why unions began.  Its also why they stick together and are the most generous people I have ever met.  Its a shame so many of us have forgotten this basic lesson.

I leave you with one vivid memory that was the inspiration inspiration for this piece.  I took grandma to Park City to on a Memorial day to decorate the graves. We had a great visit with Nan Macpolan and decorated all our family plots. Both of us were exhausted at the end of the drive home. I helped her out of my truck and held her arm as we approached the stairs to her Condo.

Gently, she pulled away and as I watched those hands grip that rail,... as that determined look came on her weathered, beautiful face, I realized what importance those stairs had for my grandmother. I could almost hear her say..."One more time old friends"

Friday, January 13, 2012

Park City Utah (Why my neck is red)

Today Park City, Utah is a world class ski resort. Snow has replaced the silver mined from the mountains that started the Hearst newspaper fortune more than 100 years ago. Million dollar homes line block after block of the town. Rolls Royce, Mercedes and BMW are the cars that line the streets. Foreign brands. I guess its fitting. Park City was a town built on the sweat and blood of immigrants from Europe and Asia. The difference now is "old" Park City was community of nations that loved and supported each other.

My Great Grandfather was named Nikola Frkovic. He was raised in the town of Gospic, Croatia. Aprox. 90 miles from Trieste, Italy. It is said he deserted from the Austro-Hungarian army in 1905 and made his way to relatives in Detroit MI. From there it is not clear how he made it to Utah, but at the time the Silver mines of Park City were thirsty for the cheap labor of new immigrants. He left a wife Katherine and young son named Ivan back in the "Old Country". He promised regularly to send money  to bring them to Utah.

Month after month passed.  Katherine, tired of waiting and knowing Nikola’s drinking habits, obtained passage on a liner as a maid. She and Ivan arrived in Park City circa 1910. One can only imagine the family reunion. You see, Slavs are a very Matriarchal society.

There were no unions protecting workers rights and health back then.  Lacking proper safety gear, Nikola died of miners consumption in 1913. The newspapers noted he was a well liked  person who was commonly known as "Pete Smith". I guess he was worried about the desertion even then.  No health or life insurance, no Soscial Security or survivors benfits, the Frkovic family was left destitute...

Ivan (Grandpa then 10) took on most any job he could to help pay the bills. He completed the 6th grade and then worked full-time at various jobs, including delivery of the local newspaper. He would recount how he would deliver the newspaper to the "Red Light" district and talked with great fondness of the ladies there and the good tips he would receive. When pressed for how much or what type of tip he was talking about... his only response was a gleam in his eye.

Ivan, pronounced "eh-fi"was called "nefi" by the local Mormon children, Nefi was a prominent figure in Mormon scripture. He became know as John and after starting a successful car garage and Dodge dealership, he changed his last name from Frkovic to Fritch.

He cared for his mother from the time he was 12 yrs old until she died in 1973,. She lived next door to him. As the mines veins ran dry so did the city. Johnny, as he was now known, was involved in helping the unemployed and sick miners stay on their feet. Even though he was a shrewd businessman, he never forgot his humble beginnings. Many was the time he would write off a repair and tell the recipient he was "adding it to his tab". A Tab that was never collected for widows or miners who had fallen on hard times or in the hospital. Grandpa was able to help people and allow them to keep their dignity.

A widowed aunt told a story of a new car she bought from Johnny at a great price. When she pressed him on the big difference in price between his car and a competitors similar model his reply was " I just picked it up on a great deal Bernice".

His Park City Garage was destroyed in a fire in 1953. He lost everything. He decided to move to the west desert of Utah and work a mining claim he had bought several yrs earlier. Remembering his generosity over the previous 24 yrs, the residents in the unemployed, broken town raised more than $5000 to help rebuild his business and convince him to stay. For many it was their last few dollars. Yet, the feeling was if Johnny left, nothing of value would be left of Park City.

The garage was rebuilt and Grandpa retired living in the only home he had known in America, halfway up empire canyon on Daly Ave.. He died at the age of 87 in 1989. The day before he had pulled an engine from a car he had bought at an auction. You see retirement for grandpa meant moving from the garage downtown to the garage in his house.

Now as  I drive up the "main street" that has been rebuilt according "Hollywood" specifications....the old, clean mining town they imagine in their "millionaire reality" dreams, I am slightly repulsed. 

 I remember a different Park City: "Swede" alley, the Red-light district, Chinatown and Empire Canyon, where my ancestors, the "bohunks" lived, loved and died.

You see, park city was always a miners town...The term "red neck" comes from mining...miners, lacking proper breathing gear wore red kerchiefs to block out the dust from choking their lungs and giving them consumtion. 

It means...Union man, brother, family....and miners always took care of each other...even if it was their last dollar.

As I drive by the boutiques and trendy bars, where "Pop Jenks" soda fountain and the Blood and Guts saloon used to be.. I smile and a small gleam comes to my eye.  The Park City I knew may have died...but it will always live on... if we remember who we are and where we came from.

You can build any fantasy.....that only takes money, But, you can never rebuild a community without remembering the people who made it.

That was Park City.