Mike Kuzara

Mike Kuzara

“Okay, I’ll give you white guys credit for one thing,” Shoobie White Clay conceded.

“And what’s that?” I asked as we sat on a bench in the mall commons waiting for our wives to finish shopping in the women’s wear store. Shoobie had had a few beers and was waxing maudlin about perceived injustices of the past.

“Indoor plumbing!” Shoobie blurted as he smiled broadly at the bitter humor I’d grown used to while working around and associating with our ‘Red Brothers.’

“Yes,” I agreed, “anyone who has been tent camping can imagine that people used to living in a tepee would certainly appreciate an old-fashioned outhouse or better yet, a bona-fide bathroom.”

I imagine Mr. White Clay had anticipated laying a guilt trip on me by trying the old “What you guys did to us” sad song but it didn’t work. I told him I certainly hadn’t done anything to him and he had never done anything to me.

I agreed that his tribe got a tough break back “in the day,” but thankfully things were changing in spite of the fact that his people were still scalping the white man. Shoobie looked surprised until I reminded him of reservation casinos.

Yes, things were tough back in the “good old days,” but everything is relative.

I thought of my grandparents who had to move back to Sheridan from Windham, Montana in the winter of 1918. Grandpa was in a furniture store business with a man named Dunsmore. Dunsmore cooked the books and took off with all the liquid assets, leaving Grandpa to sell off everything to pay the creditors.

This is the good news, bad news part of the story.

Good news was that Grandpa still owned property north of Sheridan that he could move back to.

Bad news was that it was leased out and the lease had about 6 months until it expired. The man who held the lease would not agree to move out of the house until the lease was up, but did agree that my grandparents could camp on their own land. They spent the winter of 1918 in a wall tent with 6 kids. Fortunately, the two oldest boys, aged 16 and 18, were fighting in France or there would have been 10 in the tent. It was probably a relief for Grandpa to be working in the coal mine to make ends meet.

There was a wagon mine right across Big Goose Creek where they dug coal out of the hillside. It was dangerous since there was no shoring. The kids could peck coal out of the back wall, load it onto sleds and pull it across the ice. Years later, I pecked coal out of the same mine to heat my father’s machine shop until he went to work for MDU where employees were allowed to hand-load coal at the MDU-owned Welch mine near Ranchester.

By 1954, my parents, with my 5 brothers and 3 sisters, were living in the house my grandpa had expanded into a five-bedroom one-bathroom collection of add-ons.

Grandpa had his own coal mine in the 1940s and his miners lived in cottages on the home place. By 1954 most of them were gone, so I moved into a two room “shotgun shack” that had a lean-to kitchen. So I was back to packing water in a bucket and a two-holer 30 feet from the back door. Some thought that was rough, but my high school and junior college friends envied my independence.

Growing up, we kids swam in Goose Creek downstream from Sheridan. We thought nothing of pulling leeches off our legs, drinking raw milk and untreated well water, saving bacon grease to fry pancakes and eggs, and quite often I could find something floating in my water bucket.

Yes, in the “good old days” people were tough. But there are some pretty tough people around today, too.

One may sigh and say, “I was born in the wrong century,” wishing to go back to the 1880s. Let me say this: It’s okay to dream, but at 80 I’m glad I am alive in 2019 living on one level with running water, central heat AND an inside-out-house!

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Mike Kuzara lives with his wife Mary out on the high flats halfway between Sheridan and Big Horn where the only thing breaking the wind is antelope legs. Email him at m-mkuzara@actaccess.net.


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