It happened sometime in the mid-1970s. My grandmother, her second husband Tom and his two teen-aged kids were in a car, driving back from a family reunion in Oklahoma. North of the town of Trinidad on I-25, Tom apparently fell asleep at the wheel. The car left the pavement, went over an embankment and rolled. Tom and Tom Jr. were killed; Tom's daughter and my grandma survived, just barely. She clawed her way up the embankment far enough to catch the attention of a passing driver.

My dad boarded a small plane and went to Denver -- 140 miles round-trip from C.S. to pick up blood to match my grandma's unusual type -- then flew back down to Trinidad. By the time he landed there was no need for his special cargo as a successful call for volunteers had already gone out over the radio in southern Colorado. Turns out that there were far worse places to suffer a critical injury than just-north-of-Trinidad, as grandma not only got her blood but ended up in the care of an excellent surgeon, the same guy who would later become famous for performing transsexual operations.

I was maybe six at the time and too young to really understand the thousand-yard stare my grandma had for years afterward. Now I get all choked up thinking about that tremendous sudden loss and about my dad flying back and forth along the Front Range in the back of a little plane, tossed by turbulence and wondering if his mom might not be alive by the time he reached her. He was probably thinking of the last time he saw her and what they said to each other. Can you imagine? Many of you can, and, unfortunately, many of you don't have to, as such tragic wrecks are not uncommon in this world.

Trinidad remains a source of deep emotions for my family needless to say. It's also an interesting place from a historical perspective. The town lies at the intersection of two very old wagon routes, and is one of the older settlements in the western United States. It's said that Main Street in Trinidad was actually part of the Santa Fe Trail itself. I find the place quite lovely, but that is, how you say, a nonstandard view among people who have been spoiled by the many other more strikingly pretty garden spots in Colorado. Most Coloradans' experience of Trinidad involves driving right past it on the edge of sleep.

In the late 19th century Trinidad emerged as one of those raucous centers of commerce, where several railroads converged in the early decades of railroading, a major hub for agriculture as well as coal mining. Along with the mining came a civil war known as the Colorado Coalfield War, which culminated in a frenzy of killing in 1914. The Ludlow Massacre of that year occurred very near the spot where my step-grandfather, a labor organizer himself, veered off the highway about sixty years later. At the Ludlow tent city, where striking miners and their families were living after being evicted from their company houses, eleven children and two women were suffocated in their hiding place when the National Guard burned and looted the camp after an all-day battle between strikers, militia and company goons. This incident sent the miners on a rampage. They went into the hills and attacked as many mines as they could, burning whatever they could burn and killing any company guards they could find.

When one young fellow arrived in Trinidad over one hundred years ago, he described it as a rough town full of desperados, hustlers and whores. "That was a bleak and scary place..." he later recalled. That fellow happened to be Walt Chrysler, who had accepted a job there as foreman for the Colorado Southern Railroad in 1903.

Like his father, Chrysler was a railroad man, quite unusual background among automobile pioneers. Growing up in Kansas and servicing the expanding net of railroads in the western states, Chrysler quickly built a reputation as a master of touchy locomotive engines and began moving up the ladder. He had to turn in his union card when he became a foreman in Trinidad, but he continued to identify with the workers. While his outfit proved it could tune any locomotive around with precision, legend has it that those machines that were supposed to pull government troops or scab workers to the mines around Trinidad somehow managed not to function after they left Chrysler's roundhouse.

 

TO BE CONTINUED...