Requiem For A Small Town

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The people who still live in Sopris or nearby sit around kitchen tables and drink the wine, remembering when the place was good and the people were a part of one another and the spirit that united them ran as strong as the wine.

A celebration was held prematurely on the Fourth of July so six hundred Sopris people who had moved away could come back for a final farewell.

The day before the event the cars streamed up from Trinidad, crossed the rusting iron truss bridge, dodged the potholes in the neglected road, and headed single file for Catherine Maccagnan’s tavern in the shadow of the reinforced-concrete tower that prefigures the dam. The tavern is worn and plain, without a sign to announce it, but it is known for miles around as “Catherine’s place” or “Katie’s.” Inside, there isn’t much besides the long mirrored bar, “the only black, green, and orange bar in the world”; a few booths along the opposite wall, with local scenes by an itinerant artist painted on triangular panels above; a high embossed-tin ceiling from which descends a single electric fan; family pictures stuck up above the ancient cash register; a juke box, a pool table, and a few pinball machines. Everyone drinks at the bar, presided over by Catherine for thirty-five of her sixtyfive years. She doesn’t look her age, but that night she proudly claimed, “It took two thousand years to produce this face,” as the beer ran like water, the hail beat down on the roof, and the crowd sang loud and off key the same as always.

The next day dawned bright and clear with a freshness in the air following the night’s rain. All along the road to Sopris hand-lettered signs were nailed to trees and posts: GOD IS ALIVE AND WELL IN SOPRIS; DAMN THE DAM; SMILE, YOU ARE IN SOPRIS; YOU CAN TAKE THE PEOPLE OUT OF SOPRIS BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE SOPRIS OUT OF THE PEOPLE ; and at the church, THIS CHURCH is STILL USED—DO NOT DAMAGE—THANK YOU. Inside was a banner draped from the choir loft that said: FATHER JIM MADE TODAY—THANK YOU FATHER , because the person most responsible for the idea and for making it work was Father Jim Koenigsfeld, a twenty-seven-year-old from Iowa who came to the adobe church only two years ago fresh from his ordination.

The families came with lunch baskets and coolers and picnicked in front of their old homes. Salvage men who had bought up some of the old houses for scrap arrived during lunch, and the sounds of demolition punctuated the laughter. One old miner said in mid-afternoon, “They just took away the porch I was eating on.”

The old men stood arm in arm under the cottonwoods and the elms, glancing up at a jet streaking across a brittle blue sky and the sun gleaming on Fisher’s Peak away to the east, drinking beer and speaking their mother tongue. Shorty D’Ercole, eighty years old, stood with Pop Incitti, who is seventysix. Both are under five feet tall, both worked all their lives in the mines, and both have faces that have come from the earth. The two old men danced together in the gym, played boccie , and talked of old times. Shorty said to Pop, waving his hands excitedly as though it were happening then, “The mules, remember the mules in the mine that was caving in? There was the lead mule, that red one with a face like a horse, in there tangled up in the chains. And I said please somebody get out the mules, and they were making the noise and scraping the feet and I couldn’t stand it and I went in and brought them out. Then the whole thing collapsed.” The two old men laughed and went down the street together.

Grist Cunico went into the mines at fourteen and came out fifty years later, though his face is unlined and young and he appears to have spent all his life outdoors. His son, like most Sopris children, was sent to school instead of into the mines. Grist, Jr., is thirty-eight and has a degree in electrical engineering. He stood with his arm around his own small son and suddenly bent down and kissed him. “There’s something here that can’t be replaced,” he said. “We climbed those hills as kids. We had our first loves here … I’ve been in sixteen foreign countries and forty states and I make a good living in Tulsa, but I’d give it all up to come back here to live and die and be buried.”

When all the beer was gone, when the band stopped playing and the people began to leave, Pop Incitti went to his new home in Trinidad carrying a lump of coal awarded to him for being the oldest miner at the celebration, because Shorty D’Ercole went home early. He went to his cellar, drew a bottle of wine from the cool sand, and his dark eyes danced and a grin spread across his weathered face. “The wine is still good,” he said. “The wine you can still make. The wine you can take with you.” And by and by he got out his old accordion and began to play the old songs, and his family sang with him and drank his wine. After a while the old man stopped playing and took a pencil and wrote a poem in Italian about the end of Sopris. One line went: “We will leave all the roses to rest beneath the water.”