1971 was a pretty good year for me. I got the first real big promotion of my career as a home designer. I had worked a lot of years as a builder, an actual hammer and saw guy, when I got a somewhat private gig with a local Montana businessman, Burnett Perkins, who wanted specific perks on his new self designed home. We had met as I worked my way up the coast to Portland Oregon and Yakima and then east to Helena, Montana. I had a crew of 9 independent contractors and usually hired locals as we built a few specific designs of homes. As Burnett Perkins building progressed on paper, via blueprint, the draftsmen I employed and I began to show him how impossible some of his specializations were. He always grew livid with my telling him couldn't do some the things he wanted. He eventually told me he had designed the grocery store's he owned and didn't need me. (they were all essentially retail boxes) Following me, he soon brought in Sylvan Lemke, a professional designer, an avante-garde famous for many of the art-deco, and artsy-fartsy buildings he had done around the world. I was startled he spent that kind of money to get someone with a pedigree to kiss his ass. However, once again Perkins heard about what he couldn't do. He basically wanted to build a home that would fall down because of architectural defeats due to gravity and improper weight bearing. Where I said yes to some things in his architecture, the "artiste" said NO, so he rehired me to work "with" him. Eventually I worked in tandem with the man who would become my mentor, my idol, Sylvan Lemke. He was much sought after by newly minted "rich" of the era. We designed a good part of the "upper middle class mansions" of the early to middle 70's The Population had boomed at the time, peaking around 1976-78, while the home-price index actually went down since its previous all time high in the 50's. Unemployment was at its lowest rate in 25 years at the time and money was plentiful for people who hadn't known such wealth. That building boom would eventually erode by the middle 70's when the unemployment rate quickly went from just over 2% to over 8 %. But Lemke and I were as busy as we could have been. He loved my "eye" and my "middle class sense" where he felt I could speak to the "new" class of people who were hiring him for design. (Lemke was an elitist, but mostly from the way the avant-garde rich treated him)
He signed me to a 5 year contract and put me into one of his homes near the Capital of New York. He had a 9 room home that sat on the edge of the Mohawk River on theold section of River Road. (It was a home he bought at the beginning of his career and hadn't designed it, it simply sat on one of the most beautiful spots in the Northeast) River Road had public parks and recreation areas at one end and High Tech Nuke Research facilities at the other near Schenectady. The old River Road was now a spur of the main road where he was located and the road went to an almost one lane, ending up a No Outlet Dead End. Where the spur began was just off the public entrance to River Road and its amenities and Labs.
It was early December and I had just flown in to Albany from Edmonton, after a 3 week job, via New York City on the last flight allowed in due to a major snow storm. By the time I got my baggage, my equipment, and my car, 5 inches of snow was down, but I still had time to visit a favorite, Charlie's Diner, near the Airport. When I got going towards River Road, the streets and roads had become hazardous.
I got to the entrance to the River Road area and the plow had been through in the last 15 or 20 minutes and I made the right onto the spur instead of the left the plow had taken down the public thoroughfare. I was encouraged because the spur seemed recently plowed but once I turned I saw it was only plowed about 500 feet, to the water plant, and the rest of the road be damned. It was an area of mostly affluent locals and somehow their convenience was not a priority. I had a heavy new Toronado with its new (at the time) front-wheel drive in a full size car, so I felt confident I could make it the little over 3 miles to my digs, if I took my time. It was Friday, I had all night, little did I know...
About a half mile above the water plant it was apparent I made an error in judgment to continue past where the plow had gone. I could go about 20 or 30 feet before I bogged down and would have to back and plow ahead a few more feet. Finally I was going to have to give up. I didn't want to leave my car on the pavement, so I herky-jerked the car off the road up beside a chain link fence that protected a nursery farm. I grabbed a few things I needed, bundled up and, ever so proud of myself because I snowshoe a lot on the winter and was prepared for the cold, put on the boots, gloves, scarf, and snowshoes in the trunk and planned to walk the rest of the way. (Remember this was before cell phones and instant communication devices)
The snow was piling up quickly and it was getting dark fast but I still thought as long as I was warm, could still make home. The wind soon picked up and I realized I was screwed, no two ways about it. Homes were sporadic and far off the road in this area and I didn't see any lights in any homes I did see. I was warm enough but really almost out of strength. I had to keep going or stay in one spot and freeze waiting for a plow and that could be not until morning at best.
So, I pushed myself as hard as I could and I was going to be half the night getting home, IF I could find my way in the near white out it seemed. If I was walking more than 5 or 10 steps a minute, it was a lot. The only sound was the wind in the trees and the snow blowing over the existing snow when I heard what sounded like a farm tractor. I stopped because I thought I might be hearing things, as a farm tractor would be out of the question in this snow, but I grew up in Kansas farm country, and I HEARD A TRACTOR.
As much as I hated to, I stopped and scanned the area in the direction of the sound and saw the oddest thing I think I ever saw. It was what seemed to be a tractor head, it's exhaust spire chugging out puffs of gray smoke, but instead of wheels, it ran on top of the snow on two revolving corkscrew tubes. At first I thought I was hallucinating or seeing some sort of UFO, but as it got closer I saw it was a Fordson Snow Machine or Snow Devil. They were invented back in the early 1900's but never really caught on, but I think it was eventually used for militaria applications. My Grandfather had taken me to the Kansas State Fair and they had one they gave rides on in a field flooded with mud. I remember it seemed to float on the mud as long as the screw propelled drive was active.
Even though I knew what it was, I didn't know WHY it was there. It pulled up beside me and a little man with a mask pulled over his face hollered down to me in his shrill but gravelly voice.
"What in hell are you doing out here? You'll be dead before nightfall. Pull yourself up in the cab."
Well, the "cab" was three sided and really gave you no protection from the cold, it only kept your face out of the wind in your face.
"Where are you going?" He asked.
"I live ahead in Rivers Edge Manor." I shouted and pointed due south.
"Sylvan Lemke owns that, but he's never there. He just leased it."
"That would be to me. Can we make it in this?" I shouted, hopefully.
"I don't even know if I can make it back to my place. You're coming with me!"
With a jerk the machine just glided over the snow as the motor chugged, spat and mis-fired following the quickly disappearing path it made coming to get me. Soon a large log house with smoke coming from the chimney appeared through the snow behind a stand of pines. Now I'm not talking log cabin, I'm talking log mansion. Two full stories and just HUGE. A large side building that looked more like a horse barn was open and he pulled right into it. I jumped down glad to have something solid beneath my snowshoed feet. I knelt and took the shoes off and the little man grabbed them and my one bag I took with me and said, "Come on before we both freeze out here."
We plowed through the snow up a couple steps, stomped off our feet and he opened the front door and suddenly I was in a warm house, a fire glowing and a local TV station doing an emergency broadcast about the storm on the big (for the era) 30 inch TV.
The wiry little man unzipped the hood over his head and whipped off the goggles he wore and suddenly the little man was a young girl who shook out her long light brown hair. When I think now, her voice was like Demi Moore, but a little more rough. Looking at her face and hearing her, she was real sexy, whether she wanted to be or not. Maybe it was because I thought it was a little old man. The old contraption, the rough voice that sounded shrill as she shouted over the storm and the machine.
"I was in the upstairs bedroom getting a sweater when I saw you. I was still chilled from going out to get firewood an hour ago. I could just make you out over the pines and at first I thought it was my father, but he called just about that time to say he wasn't going to make it back himself."
"I can't thank you enough! My name is Wes Mantel, I work with Sylvan Lemke, or I should say we are partners in a 5 year venture. Where did you get the Fordson?" I said in a flurry of statements as I blathered on, so happy to be safe and warm after thinking I might freeze to death.
She took off the thick parka, but still in snow pants she stepped towards me very businesslike and said, "Paige Gibbs. Can you feel all of your extremities? You could have had frostbite out there." She asked still more concerned about my well being than details.
.... There is more of this story ...