A LIFE IN THE SIERRA
I’m in damn good shape for an old, fat slob who can’t hear.”
So said Duane Rossi as he was peeling potatoes at his summer job as camp cook at Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit.
84-year old Duane Rossi.
Ostensibly retired Duane Rossi.
Sheet: So how’d they lure you out of retirement?
Rossi: J.D. said they needed help. Nobody wants to work!
J.D. Summers is the Pack Outfit’s 3rd generation owner. Rossi’s mom and dad went to school with J.D.’s grandfather.
“I was loving retirement, but when friends call and they say they need help, well …” explained Duane.
Rossi may be 84, but you wouldn’t know it by the twinkle in his eye.
He’s the product of a generation that had nothing and wanted for nothing. A generation of generalists versus specialists who just know a lot and are innately competent.
Rossi’s worked jobs on drill rigs. He’s been a miner, carpenter, packer, trapper. At one time, his steakhouse in Big Pine was ranked among the top 25 in California according to the Cattlemen’s Association.
Born in Bishiop and raised in Big Pine on property his family has owned for more than a century, Rossi enlisted in the service at age 17 and was married at 18. His first wife very early on was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease. “Nobody lived that ever had it, but she did,” said Duane.
The couple had three children.
His first job after getting out of the army was working for Jimmy Nicholas at the local service station. He’d work the graveyard shift from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. for $1.35/hour. From 9 a.m.to 4 p.m. he’d do ranch work for $1/hour. That was six days a week.
“I had three kids in diapers,” he explained. “You do what you gotta do.”
Rossi owned Rossi’s Corral, a combination restaurant and pool hall with a poker room and a dance floor, with his father and brother in the ‘60s. “We eventually sold out because we couldn’t keep up with it,” he said. The bars were packed. There were always movies shooting on location. It was insanity.
But really, Duane enjoyed trapping more. “After that, I trapped in the winters, worked for the cow outfits in the spring and pack stations in the summers.”
He trapped from the age of five, first taught by his grandmother. He would trap the skunks and weasels around the chicken pens.
In the late ‘50s, the price of fur went sky-high and there were as many as 12 trappers in the valley.
Nowadays, he laments “you can’t set a trap in the state of California.” As a result, “All we got these days are predators – ravens, raccoons, mountain lions. When i was a kid, the only guy I knew who’d ever seen a mountain lion was my dad. Now, you can’t find someone who hasn’t seen one.”
And he misses the songbirds. “My favorite songbird is the meadowlark and I haven’t seen one in six or seven years,” he says. “The crows and ravens are eating up all the songbird eggs.”
He said, “When we were kids, we weren’t on those things [pointing to my phone]. We were out shooting … They used to have a bounty for crows and magpies at twenty-five cents a head.”
Another thing that’s been bugging him lately: forest management.
“The Forest became mismanaged as soon as they professionalized the management,” he says.
“Fire is like Forest Service Christmas,” he continued. “But with global warming, you’ve got to put the fires out quick and thin the forest. When I was growing up, there was a sawmill on every creek.”
Rossi paused to dig a photo of a folder, taken in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s at the Inyo Lumber Company Sawmill, located where Millpond Recreation area is now.
“Would you rather look at this?” he asked rhetorically, “or look at a photo of a bunch of houses going up in a wildfire? You should stack those photos right on top of each other and ask people what they’d rather have!”
A final topic: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Rossi has mixed feelings about the LADWP.
On the one hand, “Without L.A., we’d look like Minden/Gardnerville. The land would be all private. You wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing.”
On the other hand, “They originally took the surface water. But the wells are sucking us dry now.” He says some of his former duck hunting spots have all dried up.
Rossi divorced his first wife when the kids were in grammar school. He then remained single for 35 years before meeting his second wife, Marie, at a dance. Together, they started Rossi’s Steak and Spaghetti in Big Pine.
When I asked him the best way to prepare a steak, he replied, “It’s not the way you cook it. It’s the way you buy it. Buy the best meat you can buy, so if you don’t cook it just right, well, you still won’t get any complaints. I bought from Bill Pratt.”
When Rossi was 60 and his wife was 48, they quite unexpectedly had a daughter, Mary.
“She thought she had a tumor,” said Duane with a grin, “but I felt a kick one night. I knew she was pregnant. She said I was crazy and that it was just a ‘change of life’ thing.”
When the pregnancy was confirmed, Duane said his friends razzed him. “You have any idea who got to her?” they’d ask.
Mary, who just obtained a Master’s degree from UC-Santa Cruz, became the apple of her father’s eye. “I was working so hard when the other three were growing up,” he explained, that the fourth time around, he relished being present. Sometimes, he admitted, “I’d go wake her up just to play with her.”
As I watched Rossi peel a potato, I noticed he was missing the pinkie on his right hand. I asked him about it.
“I lost it in [following] a roping accident,” he says matter-of-factly. “They said they could put it back, but it’d be stiff, so I said hell, cut it off.”
He then held up both hands, showing me that the fingers on his right hand had all sort of shifted over time to compensate for the loss of his pinkie, whereas the fingers on his left hand were a lot straighter.
Rossi still lives on the 12 acre plot of land his grandfather bought in Big Pine more than a century ago. He said if you look up the old county record, it says in notation that “Anthony Rossi deeds this property … for the love, devotion and future welfare of Rossi children forever.”
So that’s why the property remains in the family.
Finally, when I asked him about working at 84, he told a story which demonstrates that a lifetime of work runs in the family.
He said his Uncle Rafael was 76 years old when WWII broke out and immediately hired on as a carpenter in a wartime shipyard to support the war effort.
“He took all his money in war bonds,” recalls Duane, because he never took a paycheck in his life.
While the recent forest closure shut down the Pack Outfit for the season, it’s probably a fair bet Duane Rossi will return to the kitchen next summer. But, as he says, “I’d like to have a kid come in so I can teach him.”
The stories alone would be worth the price of admission.
As a word of advice to Mammoth Lakes Town Council on this Labor Day weekend and after hearing MLFD Chief Frank Frievalt talk about being thin at captain and engineer and suffering a lot of attrition because of housing costs …
Instead of comforting Frank and saying I wish the media would celebrate how awesome the MLFD is more often, how about getting more real (and constructive) by helping the MLFD retain employees via setting up a down-payment assistance program similar to that of the Water District?
The Water District has helped 13 employees over the years acquire housing by offering 50%/$500,000 towards home purchase at no interest, but participating in a share of the home’s ultimate appreciation.
“We initiate about one per year,” says the District’s General Manager Mark Busby.
Instead, Council replied to Frievalt’s presentation by suggesting a new “revenue measure” is necessary tio support the Fire District.
*That breeze you feel? That’s the sensation one gets when a buck is passed.