one winter morning, a couple of years back, Gene Schafer was busy at
work on a Toyota Corolla. He was working alone in his shop, as he usually
does, with the bay door closed and only the fire in his huge homemade
wood stove to keep him company. He had the rear end of the car on jacks,
had yanked the wheel to get a better look at the frame, and was trying
to pull off the McPherson strut. Suddenly, the spring-loaded strut broke
loose and the force of it drove into Gene’s lower jaw and pinned his
head to the inside of the wheel well.
So here he was, alone,
the doors locked, nobody within hollering distance, with his head squished
between the sheet metal wheel well and the mean end of a McPherson strut.
Like a grapefruit in a vice. Blood was squirting from the wound which
should have snapped his jaw like a pretzel and for a moment, Schafer
thought he might pass out.
But he took a deep
breath, tried to appreciate his situation, and then said out loud, to
nobody in particular, "I’ll be goddamned if I’m gonna end up dying
And Gene Schafer did
what he always does–the improbable, or the downright impossible. With
one hand, he managed to pry the strut from under his chin, something
two men could not accomplish under normal conditions, and pulled himself
out of harm’s way. The entire right half of his face was blue from the
bruises and swollen to the point where that side of him was "beyond
recognition." And he could barely use his whacked up jaw to chew
But he managed. Later
that afternoon, he was back on the job, trying to finish up the work
he’d had to briefly abandon that morning. After all, he was in reasonably
good shape otherwise. And he was only 72 years old at the time.
Gene Schafer. There are some people who are a legend in their own mind.
Schafer is the rare individual who is a legend in his own time. That’s
why I can assure you, not long after he reads this, I’ll hear a pounding
on my door and there will be Gene, shaking his head with The Zephyr
in his hand and he’ll say, "What’s all this bullshit about me being
a legend?" But he’ll also have a bottle of Scotch in the other
hand, wrapped in a grease rag. And then he’ll say, "...to hell
with it...You got any ice?"
Gene Schafer contains
multitudes. He was born in Texas, moved to southern Utah when his dad
saw an ad for free homestead land near Monticello. He knew practically
nothing but hard work for most of his youth, but still found time to
appreciate the joys of swing dancing, pretty girls, a taste for good
whiskey and a well-tuned fast car. He’s walked and hunted and rode a
horse over much of San Juan County, but also ran southeast Utah’s only
ski resort for 20 years. He slaughters his own beef each spring, but
claims his good health can be attributed to the two or three cloves
of garlic he eats whole every day (he keeps a jar of them --pickled
with hot jalapenos--in the fridge in his shop). He appreciates good
Scotch and prefers Glen Leavitt, but will settle for cheap brandy in
He’s the most honest
man I’ve ever known, which causes both chuckles, frowns and a squirm
or two from a broad range of friends and adversaries. He grew up a Gentile
in a community that is 90% Mormon; yet he has earned the respect of
practically everyone, regardless of religion, because in the end, Gene
Schafer is a straight-shooter. He never tries to be anyone but himself,
and in this godawful time of political correctness and pained pretension,
just his ‘tell-it’like-it-is’ approach to life makes him a unique and
unforgettable man. He once told San Juan County’s most celebrated curmudgeon/misanthrope
that he, "crapped too close to the house," and not only lived
to tell the tale, he made the guy laugh.
No one could ever
call Gene Schafer a phony. Some people work hard at being a character;
with Gene it just comes naturally. And he tells the story of his remarkable
life in a most unremarkable way–as if everyone has shared in the same
kind of adventure...
brother, my Uncle Aaron had worked in the hayfields near Montrose and
Delta, and he brought back a little government booklet about homestead
land in Utah and Colorado. So Dad got a hold of a little money...this
was during the Depression..and he and Aaron came up here and found this
country. They looked at the Yellowjacket area first but it was too flat–reminded
him of Texas. Dad saw these mountains and just kept going. There was
a piece of ground out here that talked to him so he got it. Someone
had settled on it back in the early 1900s and abandoned it. But they
left a little cabin and Dad wanted it. Then he brought us all out to
His dad needed work
and started to sign up with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) but
when word got around that his dad was a whiz with engines, the lumber
company that ran a mill up on the Saddle in the Blue Mountains hired
him as a mechanic. But everyone in the family worked...
"In the winter,
we’d go out to the ranch in the snow, and I’d wrap me legs in burlap
sacks and tie them with baling wire..the snow won’t stick to burlap...and
we’d walk out into the trees and cut cedar posts. Then I’d carry them
back. We’d get thirty cents a piece for them and sometimes I could make
six or seven dollars a day. We could live a couple of weeks on that."
They lived on the ranch for a few years, but when the kids needed to
attend school in Monticello, his father bought a piece of ground in
town ("I think he paid twenty-five dollars for it."), hauled
some logs off the mountain, had them milled and built a new home for
But almost from the
time he could remember, Gene loved cars. He had his father’s gift for
fixing things, especially cars and trucks, and by the time he was in
the 9th Grade, Schafer was already working at a service station.
"I was just hanging around the co-op washing windshields and I
thought I was pretty smart...One night I was there and Raymond Compton,
the fella that worked there full-time, took off and went to Grand Junction
and told me to watch the place. But that night the boss showed up and
pretty soon he offered me the job. So I was working eight hours a day
at the station and going to school six...This was in the mid-40s. Me
and the teachers were the only ones that had cars at school. I had an
old ‘27 Chevrolet. In fact, I used to work on all the teachers’ cars
or else they wouldn’t have graduated me.
"Toward the end
of high school, I bought a ‘41 Plymouth down there at the Chevrolet
garage. I paid $29 a month or something like that on payments. This
was in ‘48 or ‘49. I bought it from Tommy Nielson who was a salesman
down there. He was star of the basketball team too. Selling cars and
still going to school. That’s how it was in those days—everybody worked."
But a year later Gene
joined the Army. Did he volunteer?
"No...I was sort
of asked to join because I was bootlegging wine."
to tell this story...
"Well, I was
at the station and this guy named Bob got thrown out of a car. I was
just standing there and it was late at night. So Bob says, ‘Is that
your car?’ and I said it was. He said, ‘I’ll give you $20 to run me
to Dove Creek.’ So I thought, Man that’s ok. We drove there and loaded
up with nine cases of wine and then when we got back, he said, ‘I’ll
give you another $20 to drive me to Bluff. I thought, it’ll be sunup
before we get back. But I was only making $75 every two weeks at the
garage. Then he said, ‘How about $30,’ and I said, OK.’ So I started
doing that every two weeks . He’d get five bucks for a bottle and he
was only paying ninety cents in Dove Creek. So they were wondering how
all that wine was getting down there and here it was this little kid
in high school bootlegging it.
"So then my dad
and the sheriff spotted me going down the road and I got caught. This
was during the Korean Conflict and they sort of gave me a choice of
the Army or reform school or something. Hell, I was old enough to go
in the service anyway, but I had more fun in the service than anywhere
else. By the time I got in there, the Korean thing was winding down,
so I ended up going to Germany. You see, when I signed up, they asked
me if I could speak a foreign language and I said German, because my
father’s dad had come over here to get away from the Kaiser. But I didn’t
really speak German, except I knew some cuss words. But hey, after I
got over there. I started to pick it up pretty good.
"I think that
was the most interesting time in my life. Whenever I had some time off,
I’d travel. I didn’t smoke so I saved a lot of money. I’d sell my cigarette
rations and would use that money to take off. I went all over, even
skied all over the Alps."
Now you wouldn’t think
a kid who grew up on a ranch, hauling fence posts, working on truck
motors and bootlegging wine in one of the most remote sections of the
Lower 48 would know the first thing about skiing, but as usual, Schafer
doesn’t fit the mold...
"When we lived
out at Dodge Point, Dad would ski out there and back, about five miles
cross-country and he’d pull a sled to haul things. Kent Frost made the
first pair of skis I ever saw out of a 2 x 6 that he’d planed. But Dad
bought us our skis and used to pull us with a rope down the side of
the highway. Like waterskiing down the road. And we’d get behind horses,
and it was sort of dangerous, but it was a lot of fun."
Schafer got out of
the service in ‘53 and worked in the uranium mill for a while. In ‘55
he was the first man to drive a dual-axle ore truck up the old Comb
Ridge Dugway. "It was sort of sweaty and hot on that hillside.
The truck would vapor-lock a couple of times but I’d figure it out and
go on...it was a hundred feet or more over the side of that dugway.
There’s a bunch of cars still at the bottom of that gulch."
Like so many others
who lived in southeast Utah in the ‘50s, Gene worked for and knew the
"Uranium King," Charlie Steen. "I used to go up to his
parties and I dated Charlie’s partner, Mitch Melich’s daughter for a
while...she liked me because she loved a good dancer. And I had a ‘56
Lincoln too. I was the best dancer in high school. Clear up to a few
years ago, people would ask me to teach them to dance.
"I was in Cortez
once and this girl came over to pick me up to start dancing. Pretty
quick, I said, ‘Why don’t you come over and sit at my table?’
and she said, ‘No...my husband is sitting over there,’ and then she
says, ‘Why don’t you come over and sit at our table?’ And so
I did. I ended up getting invited to their house and I taught him
how to dance. But if a guy’s got two left legs and they’re both on the
right side, well hell, you can’t teach him how to dance.
"When my kids
were in high school, up in Price, I used to go to the college dances,
and pretty quick I’d be dancing. And then another girl would come up
to dance and they’d meet me on the dance floor. One girl came up to
me and said, ‘Hey wild man, can I sit here?’ Finally my son, Stan, came
up to me and he said, ‘My hell, Dad, has it been like this all the time?’
And I said, ‘Hey all you gotta do is dance good, son. If you’re a good
dancer you can flat do anything.’
Gene left Monticello
twice, first in the late 50s, to work as a Diesel mechanic in Fresno,
and then again, in the mid-60s. He came back from Fresno in the early
60s and ran the tractor on the family farm when his dad became ill.
Gene returned to California in 1965 for a few years and worked in Balboa,
Van Nuys and a few other places, working on condos, but never could
really take to the place. "Too many people. I tried to think of
something I liked about it, but I can’t...it was just different. Too
many people. Hell, people have more respect for each other on a stock
car track than they do on a freeway."
When Gene came back
to Monticello, he worked at the Chevrolet garage for a decade and he
also did the stock car circuit in towns around the Four Corners and
he ran the farm and he started his own shop and towing service and he
got married–it’s always hard to trace Schafer’s chronology because he
was always doing seven things at the same time...
"...and I had
a couple of brats. Two kids...most people say they had kids, but I always
say I had Superstars, you know. They’re good workers but they thought
they were playin’. When I went on a wrecker call in the middle of the
night, they’d come with me. I’d take out 30% and I’d give them half
of what was left. They’d come along and sweep the glass off the roads
an everything. Rigby Wright, the sheriff, would say, ‘Gene, you’re breaking
crew in early,’ and
I did. They had little brooms and they worked hard.
"When I decided
to start my own business, I bought that land on Third East and tore
down the old cabin and built my home. Owen Severance helped me build
the shop. He said he didn’t want anything for helping me build it, except
to be able to use the shop to work on his own car. So here it is, all
these years later and he’s still coming in...I figured somebody’d have
killed him by now, but he still stops by a couple times a week. He’s
college-educated but I can’t hold that against him."
It was also during
the ‘70s that Schafer got involved with the Blue Mountain ski area.
Of course, he’d always been a skier, and he had really honed his skills
while he was in the army in Europe. But in the late ‘50s, a group of
Monticello citizens developed a ski area in the Blues. "Grant Bunson
put up $27,000 to get it started. Then the townspeople got up there
and cleared the land with a front end loader. It was kind of a cliquey
thing for a while. Sort of a private ski area. They didn’t even want
tourists to use it.
"Anyway I’d been
working on the towers and been involved in the maintenance, and finally
they came to me and wanted me to be on their board of directors. I had
all this other stuff going on with the farm and the shop and didn’t
really want to be on the board, and finally they just came to me and
said, ‘Here, it’s all yours.’ and I ended up with my name in all the
ski magazines.’ I made some changes...we started staying open Friday
through Sunday, and we’d get people from Grand Junction and Cortez.
The Indians used to come in from Shiprock by the busload. But they all
liked this hill because it wasn’t groomed and we had the moguls...those
moguls made a man out of you. You talk about neat. You could feel that
in your legs. And all the guys from Moab, the river rats, I called them,
I’d let ‘em in for nothing. Of course, the kids were up there working
with me all the time. Hell, they’d go up the towers to fix shorts.
"I hired a girlfriend
of mine to collect the tickets and she also sold hot dogs and made some
extra money. And a guy from Slavens came over to rent skis. We did ok."
But in the late 70s,
two factors conspired to shut down the Blue Mountain ski area—rising
insurance premiums and no snow...
"We were paying
$5600 a year for insurance and then we had a bad snow year. The next
year the premiums went to $9000 and the snow wasn’t much better. I asked
what was going to happen the next year to the premium and they said
$16,000. So the premiums went up and the snow went down. Finally in
the early 80s, we shut it down and that was the end of it. Now, there’s
just a few of the cables up there.
some stories about the ski area—they did a show on KUED and it made
the Tribune. I was even ‘Citizen of the Year’ in ‘68. But we
never did get enough snow to start it up again. Some guy asked me what
we could do to start it up again and I said nothing. He said, ‘You’ve
got a negative attitude Gene,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t...we just don’t
have any snow!’ I think the last year was ‘82."
Even though the ski
area was gone, Schafer managed to stay as busy as ever. He was legendary
for pulling stranded, stuck or broken down vehicles out of the backcountry
with his trusty tow truck. Again, he does the impossible...
"I used to drag
cars out of Canyonlands—Beef Basin, Bobby’s Hole. I pulled a lot of
them out of there. But nobody can go where I go. I used to tell them,
‘I can go places you can’t even walk.’ I remember one guy I pulled out
of Bobby’s Hole. It was a five or six hour haul out of there and so
there was a lot of time to talk. But every time I asked him what he
did for a living, the guy would change the subject. Finally when we
were almost back, I asked him flat out and he looked at me sort of funny
and said, ‘Well...to tell you the truth, I work for the Internal Revenue
Service. I’m a tax auditor.’ I kind of laughed and said, ‘I guess it
is a good thing you didn’t tell me ‘til now. If you had I would have
left your ass back there in the canyons.’"
Gene still wakes up
before dawn, still heats his home and shop with wood that he cuts and
hauls to town from his ranch. "I got about 20 cords but I guess
I better get some more, just in case." Still munches on whole garlic
cloves as if they were peanuts. Still works on cars almost every day
of the week and never gets tired of it either. "I look at every
broken down car as a challenge...I love figuring it all out." And
he still speaks his mind to just about anyone he feels like speaking
his mind to. "Some of them aren’t worth talking to at all,"
And in a part of the
West where religion plays a major role in daily life, Schafer hasn’t
much use for any religion. "I never thought about joining
any church. You can take a Bible and put your own words into it. And
that isn’t right. You can quote it, but just quote the words. Don’t
go trying to change it. One day back in the ‘40s, a lady here came up
to me from the Baptists and asked if I’d get up and lead the service.
They didn’t have a preacher for that day. And I said. ‘Ok, but I’ve
got an idea..I want to ask the congregation some questions about how
to solve some people’s problems.’ And so that’s what we did. We all
tried to figure out how to help each other. But then the preacher from
Dove Creek came over and said, ‘I hear you’re saying all kinds of things
to the congregation and we don’t do it like that in this church.’ So
that was my last preaching job...I figured I could just have Gene’s
Church from then on.
"I never could
stand two-faced people...if you tell somebody something one way, and
then you go up the street and tell it some other way...well, that isn’t
right. You got to treat people like you want to see them the next day.
If they’re two-faced, I like matching wits with them. People know I
tell it straight...I got 27 votes for mayor once and I wasn’t even running."
Gene Schafer, at 74,
doesn’t plan to retire—ever. He’s still as tough as a ten penny nail.
He once told a man who seemed to be thinking of popping Gene in the
nose, "I never seen you fight anybody unless they was twice your
age and drunk..and I sure as hell ain’t drunk." He was a kid and
Gene let him have it without ever throwing a punch. "You kids think
you’re something but you’re not...hell, you probably can’t piss hard
enough on the ground to make foam yet."
If he gets sick of
working on a car he’ll walk away from it for a while, but he always
comes back. "Every broken down car is a challenge, but then again,
people are a challenge too. My brother Victor pointed out to me once
that when these people who are 2000 miles from home, when they break
down and you’re working on their car, you bring them in and give them
a beer and pretty soon, they’re having more fun than if their cars had
kept going. People from all over the country come back to see me...just
to see if I’m still alive."
Last week I stopped
by to see Gene. He was in the shop, under a Ford 150. He slid out from
under the chassis and stood up to say hello. But I had to back off a
bit. "Damn Gene...you’ve been eating your pickled garlic cloves
he said. "Nobody may want to come near me, but I’ll outlive all
you sons of bitches."
He probably will.