Action County: Joe Gruden
If you want action, Joe Gruden is probably not the first person you’d think to talk to. The 74-year-old is tucked away this Saturday in a quiet corner of Copper Mountain, tending to lockers beneath the Union Creek cafeteria. You approach him anyhow and ask him about his past.”Well, I’ve been working 19 years at Copper, the first eight at the Copper Mountain Post Office, the next five in the Lost and Found and the last six years, strictly lockers,” he says softly. He slides a token into one of the lockers and turns the master key to make sure it’s fixed. Then he explains that his wife Janice has worked at Copper since 1981, his daughter Judy has worked there since 1986 and his other daughter Karen has followed suit since 1989.”Between the four of us, we have 95 years of seniority here,” he says. You scribble down notes as he talks. Shy but strong, you write first. Then, Fingers that look like they’ve been somewhere.When he finishes speaking, you ask him about his life before Copper.”Oh, that’s long gone,” he says, but you persist.And so he tells you about the action.***There are numerous chapters he could begin with, but Gruden starts with Alaska. It was 1951, and the boy born in Leadville 20 years before had been summoned into the U.S. Army for the Korean War.”They needed us to go to Alaska,” Gruden explains, “because the Russians were a threat in those days.”Those days being back when Alaska was a territory at the forefront of the Cold War conflict.”As an infantryman, it was mostly training,” Gruden continues. “We would do maneuvers where we’d simulate taking over a mountain. It could be a 100-degree high or 63 degrees below … When it’s 60 degrees below, they have what they call ice fog. It’s hard to see maybe 50 feet.”But Gruden never waged a war in the fog of Fairbanks, or the heat. He returned unharmed to Colorado in 1953, traveling over Loveland Pass on a paved road that had been dirt three years before.Back in Leadville, he took a job with the Climax Molybdenum Company, working first in their ball mill (grinding down ore to fine sand) and later in their security plant protection, where he would stay for 28 years.”I helped people with a car accident, and then the next day I’d rescue a minor from a cave-in,” Gruden said of the latter occupation, one he identified as the most rewarding of his life. It was dark and dank in the mine shafts, a constant 40 degrees, but saving a minor from injury was an uplifting affair, just as putting out a fire in a mill was, as well.”It was dark, definitely dark, and not warm,” Gruden said of the mines. “The accidents, sometimes rocks came down or equipment malfunctioned … just the regular accidents.”***On Jan. 1, 1986, Gruden retired from the mines and took a job at Copper Mountain, which brings him (it would seem) back to here and now, Saturday beneath the Union Creek cafeteria.When you ask him how he feels about living a life on the safe side of action – responding to accidents in the mines, training for war instead of participating – Gruden casts you a knowing smile.”Before my girls were born,” he says, “my wife and I traveled to every state in the United States … Later with Karen and Judy (his daughters), we made all 48 continental states with motorcycles.”Gruden looks like he could go on, and he does.”I started skiing in 1946, when a season pass at Cooper Hill was $5 a year. I’ve been to Europe twice and …”Gruden pauses for dramatic effect.”I actually died, and they brought me back with shock treatments.”That was in 2002; a heart attack that kept him in the hospital for 30 days. Since then Gruden tells you he’s tamed his life a little, but he still travels to a few destinations each year with his wife for polka festivals.And, of course, he still works.”Here I am now,” Gruden says. “If I went to work for you for nothin’, I’d do the best job I could.”
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