The Circle of Knowledge

The local hardware store in Ridgway, Colorado, where I make home, is the gathering spot for a five male retirees who are referred to by town residents as the “Circle of Knowledge.” This cabal of elderly men gathers around the pot-bellied stove every morning, no matter the season, to share stories imagined and real, tall tales, and creative rumors, and I sometimes join them during a visit to the hardware store. When the pot of coffee reaches its dregs by late morning, they head home feeling refreshed and invigorated.

The origins of the Circle are still in question. Some say the Circle appeared overnight, like a nasty virus, and that it will only be eliminated by death. Others say the Circle was God’s gift to Ridgway, His way of bringing culture to this isolated community. Charlie Castle, retired from the county’s road crew, claims he’s the rightful founder. “One day some years ago at the hardware store after I purchased a jar of bag balm for my cracked hands and the owner, Jake asked me to sit down and have a cup of coffee by the pot-bellied stove. Of course I accepted. I spread the word to some friends about the free coffee, and before you knew it, the Circle started to form.”

Joe Bissell, who never returned home to Alabama after a successful hunting season in Ridgway twenty-eight years ago, staying on in the area as a hired ranch hand, dropped in one morning at Charlie’s suggestion. He’s never missed a daily gathering since, except for the day he had to attend his wife’s funeral. Even then he really didn’t really miss the day’s gathering because the entire Circle, in their cleanest funeral attire, abandoned the pot-bellied stove that day to comfort Joe. Joe was known as the best listener within the Circle mainly because he couldn’t talk without his dentures, which he usually couldn’t find in his overalls. On those rare occasions when he could find them and talk, no one could understand his “foreign” drawl.

In an attempt to add intellectual firepower to the Circle, Charlie and Joe brought in Alvin Kettle, the recently retired American history teacher at the high school and the grandson of an original homesteader. In the 1950’s Alvin had graduated with honors from the teachers college in nearby Gunnison, Colorado and for the next half century taught generations of Ridgway students about FDR’s New Deal–  “ a socialist conspiracy which is sure to destroy this country.” –according to Alvin. His interest in history, however, took a back seat to his knowledge of Indian motorcycles.

Gary Koontz, a former county commissioner and sheep man, joined the Circle after he returned to Ridgway from Telluride where the local environmentalists brought a suit against him for animal cruelty. Every spring Gary would tie up one of his sheep dogs in the back of his pickup, one that was in heat, and drive up and down Main St. in Telluride. One week, just before his trial, he captured fifteen male dogs. They were never to be seen again; but as Gary said in his own defense, “sure as hell didn’t have much trouble that summer with dogs chasing my sheep. “

The newest member of the “Circle,” Pat Cassidy, had only recently retired as Deputy County Sheriff when he joined. He was invited into the circle primarily so that he could share gossip about some crimes and sexual shenanigans rumored to have occurred over the years. “About that human corpse someone found at the town dump,” he said during his first sit-down, “After we verified he wasn’t a county citizen, we dropped the case. No reason wasting good taxpayer money on someone who didn’t live around here.” Then he confirmed one of the Circle’s most creative rumors. “Yes, of course, the Reverend Wolf was poking the choir mistress every Thursday evening after rehearsal for years.” Jed, the retired history teacher, had created the rumor after the good reverend testified against Jed’s character in a hotly contested divorce trial, but what do you know? It turned out to be true.

The Circle doesn’t hesitate to dispense opinions on local, national, and international affairs, nor do they back away from offering advice on matters ranging from marriage to gun laws. Just about any subject is within their range of our collected expertise, though truth is not the highest priority. For example, a newcomer to town recently stepped up to the counter and asked store owner how to repair a cracked plastic drain pipe. Charlie, overhearing the question and as the senior member of the Circle, spat out a glob of tobacco juice in the direction of the spit can and advised the customer,“ Sir, I’d take a wrench and knock the shit out of the plastic pipe. Plastic don’t work around here, especially in the winter.” The rest of the Circle sat silently but nodded their approval in unison as if programed by an electric impulse. Another visitor to the store said he’d been sent over to the Circle from the town’s historical museum to answer the question of how many crew worked on the daily train to Telluride back in the twenties. The Circle turned to Jake their certified historian who answered “usually six, three males and three females. The men– engineer, brakeman and fireman– managed the train, while the Madam and her two assistants serviced the miners on their way to the mines. You walk those train tracks today, out there by Harry McClure’s ranch, you’ll find more old whiskey bottles off to the side than anything else. I once found a rusted revolver and a lady’s shoe.”

Not long ago, death came to the Circle after Joe died alone at home, choking on his dentures which he’d put in backwards. Charlie said the Circle needed to replace Joe with a new member. To get the discussion going, Charlie suggested that we needed more “diversity”.

“What in hell are you talking about? “Alvin responded. “We got a Catholic and an Irishman in Pat Cassidy. That’s double diversity. Then we got Bissell, a Baptist, and Koontz, whatever he is.  What more diversity do you want Charlie?”

“I was thinkin’ about Paul Rodriguez. He just retired as janitor at the school. I’ve known him for years. Good family man, hard worker and smart like the rest of us.” Silence. Four heads nodded in unison. The Circle stayed whole.

© 2017 Western Slope Press