Nebraska

In Memoriam: Lee Joseph Kinney 1946-2014

I have lost a friend of my youth.

I was in high school with Lee Kinney, but it wasn’t until our University days that out friendship blossomed, and Lee was with me for many of life’s “firsts.”

Lee was with me circa 1966 on my first-ever information picket, against the presence of the Dow Chemical Company’s recruiters on our campus, the University of Nebraska. It was a low-key, peaceful enough affair in the Student Union, but such events, while common enough across the country at the time, were still a rarity at Nebraska. You feel apprehensive, always, on your first picket line, exposed and more than a little silly, but Lee was there with me, handing out the broadside I’d just written and mimeographed, condemning Dow for profiting from its manufacture of napalm, which was being dropped on the people of Vietnam by U.S. forces with shameful abandon.

Once our University days were over (Lee and I were both drop-outs) we decamped Nebraska, as unfettered flatlanders are wont to do, and made a beeline for the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

There our rambles and adventures were numerous in the small, hippie-infested towns high up in the Front Range above Boulder. Places like Jamestown, Gold Hill and Ward. We weren’t hippies, but we were working on it, becoming shaggier by the day, with hair over our collars and moustaches. Lee, especially, had a luxuriant ‘stache. He was always a strikingly handsome debonnaire figure, wearing clothes with panache and swagger, usually accompanied by a warm smile, always at the ready to savour the absurdities of life and our own impecunious predicament.

We’d do aaanything to avoid steady, gainful employment. There was the time we decided to engage in a two-way traffic in trucks and dope between Boulder and Lincoln. It was a can’t-miss scheme: pick-up trucks, we discovered, were cheaper in Lincoln than in Boulder. Marijuana, on the other hand was abundant, and therefore cheaper, in the freewheeling college town enclave of Boulder than it was in straitlaced fusty old Nebraska. (And I’m assuming here the statute of limitations has long since expired).

You get the picture: buy grass in Boulder, drive it to Lincoln, and offload it at a healthy profit, use the proceeds to buy a truck, drive it back to Boulder, and turn yet another profit. Brilliant! What could possibly go wrong?

Our first miscue occurred early as we made our first bulk marijuana purchase. The vendors saw us coming—a pair of gormless prairie boys still wet behind the ears. Oh, they had the cannabis, all right—hefty garbage bags full of it, there was just one little problem: it was freshly harvested, and still, therefore, a bit damp. We made the buy, anyway, lugged the bags away, eager to set out for Lincoln, and then we opened the bags. Think spinach. We tried to roll a joint to test the product, but, try as we might, we just couldn’t spark the stuff up, it was that wet. We contemplated—and discarded—the bright idea of using a clothes dryer at the local laundromat—too risky.

We headed for Lincoln anyway, but there were no takers for garbage begs full of putative weed the colour and hydrographic density of last night’s uneaten spinach.

Undaunted, we dipped into our dwindling cash reserves to buy a truck—a 1953 International half-ton, if memory serves. It expired, poor tired old beast, somewhere on the long, westering climb across the state of Nebraska through the Colorado foothills toward the Front Range of the Rockies.

Defeated as budding, genius, semi-legal entrpreneurs, Lee and I finally—and most reluctantly—found honest work in a brickyard on the eastern outskirts of Boulder. It was hard, dirty, mind-numbingly boring manual labour that began each day well before sunrise, but Lee and I stuck it out as long as we could, which is to say a few weeks. But the job did have a singular, wholly memorable compensation. In front of us at a distance of maybe twenty miles were the very first, eaternmost peaks of the Front Range, their summits still deep in snow. The sun rose, finally, behind us, its light first striking the tips of those lofty peaks. The colours morphed from the deepest blue to violet to pink to the most glorious, soul-stirring glowing orange in the space of about fifteen minutes. It was a sight of the purest transcendence, and I shared it with Lee, who never really left the mountains he so dearly loved, and which, much later, would provide his métier as a boot fitter in the ski-happy, mile-high city of Denver.

Lee started his own business as a custom boot fitter—he called it “The Custom Foot”, and when he succumbed, finally, a few weeks ago to multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, he was even the subject of a feature obituary in the local daily, the Denver Post, which is kind of a big deal.

But what moves me most is the way Lee, ever the trailblazer, has continued to live on in this digital age on his Facebook page.  Tributes and warm memories from all the people whose lives he’s touched continue to, as they say, pour in. Many reference Lee’s spirit, which, for me, will always reside in those first glorious, fleeting moments of the sun rising on the Front Range.

Godspeed, old friend.

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