In December of 1970, I suddenly found myself without a place to live. The three other guys I was sharing a house with had all decided to go their separate ways and I only had a few days to figure out a new landing place. Several people recommended I try at one of the old second-floor rooming houses downtown near the railroad tracks.
Laramie, Wyoming got its start as a “Hell on Wheels” tent town during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868. Most of these temporary towns – created to separate the railroad workers from their pay – picked up and moved West as the rail head moved. A few, including Laramie, hung on. As the Turn of the Century approached, foundations were laid and the town of Laramie grew up around the Railroad tracks. General stores, saloons, hotels, livery stables, and more saloons went up. On many of these a second floor was added that contained a warren of smallish rooms. Railroad workers – Brakemen, Conductors, Engineers, Switchmen, and the like – would need a sleeping room for a day or two until the next shift.
By the early part of the Twentieth Century these rooms had added plumbing. There was a small sink in the corner of each room, a bathroom down the hall, and a common kitchen. But by mid-century, the diesel engine was replacing steam on the railroads. The trains needed less labor to run and were faster, so there were fewer layover points and the railroads rented entire hotels for that purpose. So the little one-flight-up rooms by the tracks in most places went away. But in Laramie, a university town, poor students kept them fairly-well rented.
On Ivinson Avenue, half a block from the tracks, I found a door lettered “Slyko Rooms.” I went up the long flight of stairs, knocked on the Manager’s door, and for $35 a month, found a room with a lovely view of the garbage cans down in the alley. After two years of getting high on nearly every recreational chemical in the book, I had resolved to completely quit all that and, instead, to practice Transcendental Meditation twice a day. I had already faced the fact that doing this on my own would be a tall order when I realized that 6 or 7 people I knew who had also started TM were living in rooms just down the hall. We became fast friends, fellow meditators, and comrades in crazy.
The Slyko Rooms were located just across the street from the Buckhorn Bar. The Buckhorn is one of the oldest continuously operating dive bar saloons in the state of Wyoming. Nearly every other bar you can name has only a door facing the street. If the building had windows they would have been painted over, perhaps to keep angry housewives from driving by and seeing their husbands inside drinking away the money for the gas bill. But for the Buckhorn it is not so. The length of the street frontage is covered by large, clear glass windows. This was great for us because one of our rooms was in the front of the building with large double-hung windows looking out on the street. On any given night, you could open our windows and spend time just watching what was going on in the Buckhorn.
In fact, one night we got so carried away with the spectacle of it that the guys carried furniture down that long flight of steps and set it up on the sidewalk while the girls made popcorn. We had a couch and several overstuffed chairs all lined up on the sidewalk where we sat, laughed, ate popcorn, and enjoyed the show across the street.
Rod, one of the Slyko crew, was stopped one afternoon as he walked down the alley behind the Buckhorn by one of the shabby, local homeless guys. With his long, uncombed hair and ragged tie-dyed bell bottoms, Rod must have made the old guy feel sorry for him because the fellow gave Rod a paper sack that contained two pickle and mayo sandwiches on Wonder Bread.
One Friday Night in May of 1971, I happened to be upstairs in the front room by myself. The windows were open and the Buckhorn was in full swing. Then I heard a “bang” out in the street that sounded like some yayhoo had set off a cherry bomb out there.
“”it’s pretty early for fireworks,” I said to nobody in particular as I got up and stuck my head out the window to investigate. I didn’t see anybody up to no good around the Buck. In fact, I didn’t see anybody at all inside the place. Drinks were on the tables and the bar, chairs were knocked over, but I couldn’t see a soul in there. I decided I might get a better look at what was going on from street level. I ran down the stairs, opened the door, and peered out. About twenty yards to my right, by the light of a streetlamp, I could see a man behind the front fender of a parked car holding a hunting rifle.
I then decided that this might not be a safe place from which to watch, so I jumped back inside and raced up the stairs to the front room. As I ran I heard what sounded like two or three more of those loud “pops.” I cautiously poked my head out the window far enough to see. The shooter was hunkered down behind the car, his left hand resting on the hood and cradling the forestock of the rifle while he looked through the scope into the bar.
Suddenly a Sheriff’s car, lights ablaze, blew out of the mouth of the alley. The driver slammed on the brakes and with tires smoking, the car slewed a quarter turn to the left as it skidded to a stop. Before it had stopped rocking the Deputy inside was opening the door to step out.
At that moment a man’s head poked out around the bottom corner of the front door of the bar. “Across the street! Behind a car!” the man shouted, then pulled his head back out of sight.
Then the Deputy did what was probably the bravest and the stupidest thing I have ever seen a man do. He stepped out of the squad car and faced the shooter full on. He held a shotgun in his right hand – no vest, no protection from the .30-06 bullet that was surely going to hit him square in the sternum – and yelled, “Put your weapon down and raise your hands over your head!”
Whether it was the sudden weight of Authority, the adrenaline that was practically squirting out of the Deputy’s ears, or the display of cowboy bravado, whatever it was – it worked. The shooter laid the rifle on the hood of the car and put his hands up.
The next day it came out that the shooter – a construction worker on a new campus building – had got himself a snootfull and decided that the female bartender was the love of his life. Both she and her boyfriend, who was sitting at the bar, vehemently disagreed. The construction worker went home and came back with his hunting rifle.
The man’s first shot went through a window and into the ceiling, another slammed through the back mirror. They had the window replaced, but left the mirror with the bullet hole in it as part of the ambiance. Nearly fifty years later, it is still there.