Monday, August 10, 2020

Remembering Bob Teitler—and the Butte in the ’70s

by George Sibley

Bob Teitler died April 8 of the current plague, a month short of his 80th birthday. This is not an obituary, but a remembrance of him and the time when he lived in Crested Butte, the 1970s—both unusual enough to deserve recall at his passing.

As is the situation for most past and current inhabitants of Crested Butte, Bob Teitler’s life began elsewhere, and after a time he left the Butte, but the Butte and the years here were formative and pivotal for the life that followed elsewhere, and was lived with a larger awareness nurtured by the years here.

Bob was born and raised in Brooklyn (while the Dodgers were still there), and lived there his first 30 years, working in New York City and Philadelphia as a salesman of sophisticated adding machines; he married there and had two sons. A typically promising start on a typical American career—and in 1971, he threw it all over and moved to Crested Butte.

In the spring of that year, he and his wife, Helene, and sons David and Kenny came to the Butte to visit Bob’s friend since grade school, John Levin, part of a consortium of New Yorkers who had bought the Grubstake Restaurant in 1970. By mid-summer, the Teitlers had completely relocated to Crested Butte; Bob left his career and his suits without a backward glance, bought a big red tow truck and began a new life hauling vehicles out of winter snow, spring mud and summer bad judgment.

Bob later reflected that three things had primed him for that kind of life change: the musical Hair, which he saw in New York; a drive up California Highway 1 after a business conference on the West Coast; and marijuana. His Brooklyn family had sent him to straighten out a younger cousin at college they’d suspected of experimenting with marijuana. The cousin confessed, but challenged Bob to try it, which he did—“I’ll try anything once,” might have been his life motto—and it became part of his life thereafter, even after it became legal.

With a nod to his former cultural conditioning—the business of America is business—Bob also bought the Sunshine Garbage Company soon after arriving. Within a year he had replaced the pickup for hauling trash with an actual garbage truck, and was growing the business—but then he sold it. When asked why he had sold a business just becoming successful, he said, “I didn’t want to spend the next 20 years hauling garbage.” And that was the end of a conventional business career; he was here for something else.

Authority figures tended to chafe him, whether abstract and national or knocking at the door, and running the tow truck put Bob in frequent contact with the various police presences in the valley. But he came to appreciate Crested Butte’s marshal at that time, Kemp Coit.

From the late ’60s into the early ’70s, Crested Butte went through half a dozen marshals. When new people, mostly young, began trickling into town in the ‘60s with the advent of the ski resort, the old timers who had remained after the closing of coal mines were cautiously glad to see them, continuity for the town. But when the trickle turned to a flood in the early ‘70s, the old timers circled the wagons and petitioned the town council for a marshal to “clean up the town.” The newcomers, on the other hand, favored a “peace officer” over a “man of law,” someone sensitive to the nuances of things locally acceptable if not legally so. These were the town’s “King of Hearts” years: most of us newcomers thought of the Butte as a kind of experimental asylum, even though it was getting hard to distinguish between the growing influx of hippies pretending to be new-wave entrepreneurs and the infiltration of old-wave entrepreneurs pretending to be hippies.

After some wild extremes with marshals, the town actually found a reasonable balance in the person of marshal Kemp Coit, who had no formal police experience but who could be even-handedly tough when needed, and had good instincts about keeping provocative things off the streets. During the tow truck years, Bob petitioned Marshal Coit to take him on as an unpaid volunteer deputy because he thought people were driving too fast in town. He thus became one of Coit’s “rogue deputies”; he credited Bob with teaching him “love’s role in law enforcement,” although what that meant hasn’t been explained.

While there was definitely a cultural tension in the ‘70s between the old timers and the newcomers, on a more one-on-one basis there were some good relationships between the two groups. One of Bob’s more impressive achievements was to gradually work his way to acceptance in the group that assembled daily around the big stove in Tony Mihelich’s Conoco and Hardware (now the Mountain Heritage Museum).

Some of Crested Butte’s other male old-timers met daily in Frank Starika’s and Tony Kapushion’s bars, but the Conoco stove group avoided the bars. They were far harder to infiltrate for a newcomer—you couldn’t buy them a beer—but Bob drew on his Brooklyn background to shed their guff while appreciating their stories, and gradually he was accepted—not as an old timer but as an acceptable newcomer. Bob knew he’d made it when a towing customer tried to stiff him by saying he couldn’t pay unless Bob could accept a credit card, and Tony—who disliked credit cards—offered to run the card to get Bob’s cash.

Bob’s most unconditional love was children, which most children returned as unconditionally. Marie McHale Drake, who grew up with Bob’s sons, remembers Bob looking out for all the town’s “feral children.” This included educational night tours of the Grubstake or Tailings when a band was playing he thought they should hear. It also included Saturday morning softball, a pickup game for anyone eighth grade or younger. Bob was pitcher for both sides. Eventually the kids were allowed to have a team—Bob’s Cats—in the women’s softball league.

In 1973, Thatcher Robinson, a social scientist and “rogue educator,” started an alternative school in his house, and Bob became an enthusiastic patron and participant, enrolling both sons and helping however he could. The curriculum was progressive and experiential; one history lesson was conducted on a hike to the abandoned coal town of Floresta. David and Kenny remember “building things” at Thatcher’s school, including a complicated water-powered clock that was displayed at the third Summer Arts Festival.

Thatcher’s school lasted only one year; then it was back to the public school for the boys. At that time, Crested Butte only had the grade school; since “consolidation” in 1967, Butte students had been riding the bus to Gunnison from seventh grade to graduation. Butte parents in the early ‘70s, citing growth, began the long process of petitioning, appealing and harassing the consolidated RE1-J school district board into returning the middle and high schools—a process not finally successful until the 1995 bond election created the K-12 Crested Butte Community School. Bob participated in that process as long as he lived in town, and they did succeed in getting the seventh and eighth grades back in time for his sons to finish that part of their education in Crested Butte.

As has often been the case, the Teitler’s marriage did not survive the radical transformation, and after he and Helene split, Bob engaged in some creative “alternate living.” As numerous others were doing for affordable housing, he fixed up an old shed, on the banks of Coal Creek behind the Atchley house. “The River Condo,” his sons called it. And for summer living he acquired a tipi, which for a couple years he pitched on an old mining claim in Virginia Basin high above Gothic.

Bob always had horses, even when he and the boys had precarious living circumstances, and they frequently commuted between town and Virginia Basin on the horses, rain or shine. Bob also took the boys on pack trips into the mountains with the horses when they were still under 10. Some of his success with—and enjoyment of—young people may have to do with the fact that he seemed to treat them more like partners, co-conspirators, than as children. This was not everyone’s idea of responsible parenting today, but it is probably every boy’s dream.

He also challenged the boys at times. Kenny told about a moonlit summer night when he was only 8, and he and Bob got a late start back to Virginia Basin on the horses. Bob pointed out to Kenny how the places on aspen trees where branches had broken off looked like eyes under the moonlight. Then he asked Kenny, “What would you do if I got hurt when we were out alone like this?” “I’d go for help,” Kenny said. And Bob said, “Okay, let’s imagine that has happened; you ride on ahead like you were going for help.”

“So there I was,” Kenny said, “an 8-year-old alone on a horse at night in the woods, with all those trees watching me.”

That challenging attitude was another side of Bob—as it was of many of the post-urban and post-Vietnam newcomers then, who were not constantly mellow peace-love-and-joy. Bob’s roots were Brooklyn, where in-your-face was local culture with kids, and Bob could be pretty confrontational and challenging—especially the shaggier he got. That occasionally manifested itself dramatically—as when the town council decided a big old ramshackle Kochevar relic next to the Atchley house on Elk Avenue had to be torn down, along with related outbuildings along Coal Creek, because too many local artists were using them as unauthorized affordable housing. But when a local contractor approached with his backhoe to destroy the old building, he was confronted by Bob and one of the artists, both with rifles. The contractor retreated for the moment. The building eventually came down anyway, but Atchley’s “Foundry” and the River Condo survived and no one got shot. You could take the man out of Brooklyn, but you couldn’t take Brooklyn out of the man.

Another ‘70s Butte activity that rang Bob’s bell was the Hotshots, Crested Butte’s 1970s wildfire crew. I first got to know and appreciate Bob when the Forest Service flew us to Idaho for a big project fire. At that time, the Hotshots represented a significant piece of the town’s summer economy. There were not many summer jobs yet; and for those not attracted to steady work anyway, an intense week of 12-hour shifts paid for a fair amount of fishing, camping and loafing time. The Crested Butte Hotshots developed a great reputation for hard work on the fireline, but a bad reputation for hard play in the bars off the line, and the Forest Service stopped calling the crew in the late ‘70s. By then the summer economy was beginning to coalesce around construction and resort work, with steadier if less stimulating jobs, and the Hotshot era ended.

All of that happened in Bob’s life between 1971 and 1976. In 1976, he started to leave Crested Butte, although he returned often (and the Butte never left him). He bought a remote piece of land in a small valley off the Cochetopa Canyon, in the far southeast corner of the Upper Gunnison Basin, and that summer he moved the tipi and the horses there. He built a cabin, with help from the boys, visiting family members and Cochetopa jack-of-all-arts George Page, and he was moved in by the winter of 1977, apparently retiring to a reclusive life.

But in the mid-’80s, with both boys graduated from Gunnison High and off pursuing lives of their own, Bob transformed again, into a kind of cosmopolitan bohemian—shaggier than ever—and began wintering in Belize, where he fit into the local culture as seamlessly as he’d managed to do in Tony’s Conoco and Hardware; he found a friend who became like a brother and taught him to sail; he bought a boat to live on there, and made sailing forays to Guatemala, where he began buying up handmade sewn and embroidered goods that he brought back and sold at fairs around Colorado.

He met two intriguing women in Guatemala. One was Manuela Macario, a street vendor selling hand-knit hackysacks. He sensed opportunity, bought out her entire stock, and within a few years every major sporting-goods store in the West had a candy jar on the cash-register counter filled with hand-knit hackysacks, and “Manuela Imports” was supporting a whole Guatemala village as well as Bob.

The second intriguing woman he met in Guatemala was Maya Kartha, a young cosmopolitan who had grown up in Bermuda and was there scouting out travel options for a Canadian travel company. Even though she was roughly half his age, she was as fascinated by “Rasputin,” her name for Bob, as he was by her, and when he came back to Colorado for the summer, she came with him. They married in 1998, and a few years later had a daughter, Sophie. They bought a house in Gunnison when it became time for Sophie to go to school, and also to handle the ever-growing volume of business for “Manuela Imports,” and the Cochetopa cabin became the summer home.

Tragedy struck the family in the mid-2000s, when Maya contracted an incurable cancer; in 2007 she died, and Bob—in his late 60s—became a single parent for Sophie. She is now an honor student junior in Gunnison High and a talented dancer. Bob’s one concern was that, given his age, he might not be able to see Sophie through her school years and into her own life, and he took steps to make sure that Sophie would be okay in that eventuality—which now has happened. Possibly his best preparation for this, however, was that “partnering” kind of relationship he’d had with his sons and continued with Sophie, now a young woman mature beyond her years.

And so, to Bob, from Bob’s example, T.S. Eliot’s words: “Not fare well, but fare forward”—a man who would try anything once, and lived a rich and varied life trying as much as possible. A life that turned, like the stars around the Pole Star, around his life-changing years in the unusual place that was Crested Butte in the ‘70s.

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