Can’t Bust ‘Ems by
(166 Stories)

Prompted By What We Wore

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I still own a pair of black Can’t Bust ‘Em dungarees that I wore while working as a timber cutter at the Buckshot mine in Eldora, Colorado. I don’t wear them anymore — I’m a little beyond a 1970 waistline — but the rugged old pants still sport the brass buttons sewn onto the beltline to hold heavy red suspenders. I needed the suspenders to hold up the thick Can’t Bust ‘Ems — worn with waffle long johns underneath, two layered checked shirts, a heavy sheepskin vest and a Carhart “chore coat,” worn shiny by the Buckshot mine’s massive white pine timbers.

I lived and worked in a Rocky Mountain collective, it was October, and I wasn’t sporting bell-bottoms and a flowered shirt. My black Can’t Bust ‘Ems formed a sturdy counterculture variant, drawn from back-to-the-land necessities in an extreme climate, where all — regardless of background — worked with their hands to civilize rickety cabins, coax ancient trucks to life, haul wood, water and coal, and wield a chain saw. My Can’t Bust ‘Em uniform provided me with a warm and loose-fitting costume for those wind-driven days at Eldora’s Buckshot mine.

In 1970, Eldora was an abandoned mining town built within shotgun range of the Continental Divide. The mine was called the Buckshot in honor of the wind that roared through the narrow venturi between the rocky top of the Divide and the dense jetstream air above.

One year earlier, a quiet clairvoyant named Arthur Sigismunde bought the Buckshot. He was convinced that the old diggings still contained ore. It was possible. Previous to our counterculture endeavor, work on the Buckshot had come to an abrupt halt in the 1950s after the two owners had gotten into an argument. While one partner drove his truck down to Denver to talk to his lawyer, the second partner drank himself nasty and lowered a bucket of dynamite with a lit fuse halfway down the vertical mine shaft. The resulting concussion sent splintered mine timbers, copper wire, galvanized pipe and a cascade of gravel, granite, and mud spilling hundreds of feet down the shaft where the whole mess fused into a massive “plug” that blocked access to the ore below.

In an alleged fit of extrasensory clarity, Sigismunde had visualized masses of rich, silver ore pulsating below the plug. He managed to convince a clique of Denver entrepreneurs, men who could smell the romance of silver in the mountains and had money to spend. Sigismunde avoided hiring high-waged miners who belonged to the United Mine Workers. Instead, he hired Eddie Williams to run the operation.

Eddie was a pal of mine. He sported a similar, lived-in uniform to mine, replete with jeans, heavy suspenders and half-leather, half-rubber boots with felt linings for the winter and sweat socks in the summer. He called them “duck boots” and loved to comment that — except for his boots — it was rare to find a duck at 11,000 feet. Eddie was my age but loved to play old-time and was considered a genuine character in the fringes of Boulder’s academic aristocracy.

Boulder’s tiny cadre of literati marveled at Eddie’s “natural” intelligence and unpretentious, cut-to-the-chase style. He and Sigismunde had drifted through many a notable conversation at Boulder parties and Eddie had done a stint as a hard rock miner somewhere in his enigmatic past. So authentic did he appear, that few knew he had been disinherited as the black-sheep son of a Boulder professor emeritus.

Eddie immediately engaged a handful other counterculture workers from the collective. The amateur miners were supposed to re-timber the mine and untangle the mass of dynamited debris that hung, suspended precariously 800 feet above the bottom of the Buckshot’s shaft. Eddie and the others were literally dismantling the floor they stood on. Far above, on the surface, dressed in my layers of underwear, Can’t Bust ‘Ems, checked shirts, burnished leather vest, chore coat, and a blue watch cap, I roared through timbers with my screaming Stihl, ecstatic with the intensity of our wild adventure into the Colorado quartz, while the wind catapulted the sawdust past my leather- and wool-clad shoulders, over my blue watch cap and steel-toed boots, blowing like snow down the hillside.

Never had I lived further from a pair of bellbottoms.

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Read more of my work at my web site and peruse excerpts of my ‘resistance’ series @ my Amazon author page.

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    Your stories prove that the counterculture was much more than tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. But you left us in suspense! Did the amateur miners succeed in dismembering the debris without falling down the mineshaft or caving in the mine? Did they ever succeed in finding more silver?

  2. You make a good point, JZ! Many more chaotic Buckshot mine episodes followed. Perhaps I’ll follow up with the exciting conclusion that includes a 300-foot bucket drop, a blizzard on the continental divide and the dramatic appearance of the International Workers of the World. I’ll get to it!

  3. Susan says:

    My dad and uncles all wore Can’t Bust ‘Ems working on the farm and tinkering with their cars. Thanks for a fun memory.

  4. You’re welcome, Susan. And thanks for the comment. I kept the pair mentioned above, I think to remind me of how different my life has been from chapter to chapter. — CD

  5. rosie says:

    I want to read the rest of the story, please get it up here. I enjoyed your style and way of propelling each word into multiple meanings and places.

    • Hi, Rosie. Thanks for your obos re: “Can’t Bust ‘Ems.” Means much to hear from you. Actually, that short reminiscence, set in the Colorado Rockies, is explored in much the same style as a novel I recently wrote, A Bowl Full of Nails.

      Set at the end of the turbulent 60s, Nails follows the adventures of a young radical theater activist who leaves the city for the supposed simplicity and solitude of a high-altitude Rocky Mountain town. There, of course, all hell breaks loose!

      Nails is set during those times and places and people seem to like the story. Nails won a bronze medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards and is on the mystery short list for an INDIE, sponsored by the fiction trade journal, Foreword Reviews. You can read a brief review of A Bowl Full of Nails here.

      I’m sure I’ll be writing more about that “Can’t Bust Ems” world as Retrospect continues to offer us intriguing writing prompts.

  6. Constance says:

    I wore similar gear, especially when using dad’s chain saw to generate piles of firewood for the season. Not the first time I noted that men get to wear much more comfortable and practical clothes as a rule.

  7. rosie says:

    I Enjoyed this second reading as much as the first time. I will look up the book.

  8. Suzy says:

    I missed this story the first time around, posted here more than a year ago. Having now read your terrific book, A Bowl Full of Nails, I recognize the setting (and recommend the book to all). I echo JZ’s question about what happened with the mine – you tantalize us with your response to his comment!

  9. Betsy Pfau says:

    I just love the name “Can’t Bust ‘Em”. So evocative.

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