Russ Remembered

One of my first jobs was as a newspaper reporter. Like almost everyone else who reported for that newspaper I wasn't long out of the crèche. That is to say we were all young, brash, idealistic, ambitious and dumb. One day I was kidding one of the other reporters who was recently married. I asked him if he had any nude pictures of his wife yet. When he said no, I aked: “Do you want some?”

… well, some people can't take a joke. I was lucky to get away without having the stuffing beat out of me. That was what we in the West like to call a learning experience. Mine

Life is full of learning experiences. You reach your peak at 16 when you know everything there is to know about everything. It's downhill from there because every day after you know less and learn more. Some lessons are easy. Some, like the life-threatening incident with that muscle-bound reporter, are hard.

One thing you learn in the Black Hills is never ask a miner if he's finding any gold.

Which brings me to Russ.

Russ was really old. Around here they'd say he was older than dirt. But for nearly 35 years he worked a placer mine up near Mystic. It was (and still is) a tunnel in a hillside with a rickety rough wooden door and a huge padlock. I don't know how far back that tunnel goes because Russ never let me or anyone else, for that matter, inside. If ever asked the “indelicate” question, Russ would answer that he never pulled a speck of gold out of that mine.

Never call a man with a pick a liar.

If you ask a miner if he's getting any gold, it's like asking a newlywed if … (well, I'm not going back there.) Forget the fact that Russ spent all that time and effort digging a hole for no apparent reason. A hobby, I suppose. Everybody needs a hobby. Think of the guy in the Tennessee hills who the feds suspect is a moonshiner. It's not that he needs all that corn meal for making stuff … he just likes to feed wild birds. See. It's a hobby. So it is with gold bugs who never find any gold. They just like digging and panning. The thrill of seeing a first speck of gold in a pan has nothing to do with it.

It's said that gold is the only drug that produces deleterious effects without being ingested. Certainly there's more than a few folks around here who have some sort of fever. Perhaps Russ was one.

We will never know, because Russ passed and one can hope that his fate was more than just a hole in the ground. The figure of this 94-year-old man emerging from his mine with matted beard and hair, all covered in dirt, with buckets of non-gold-bearing ore will be missed in these Hills. You cannot say he was one of a kind. But you can say he was the last of a kind. The lone miner working a pit in solitude. He and all of his kind are missed.

By the way, although Russ looked every bit of the part of a grizzled old miner, I'm told that he actually spent most of his life as an aircraft engineer at Boeing. Like much in the Black Hills, things are not always as they first appear. It's something you learn on your 17th birthday.

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