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Gonzales ready to share tales of Wilkeson past
Lambert “Skeek” Gon-zales proclaims to know more about the history of Wilkeson and its glory days – when the rich natural resources fueled the local economy – than any person alive.
Part of his education is purely personal, based on family history: Gonzales was born in 1928 and grew up watching his father trudge off to the mines each day; his maternal grandfather was killed in a mine disaster in 1930; and, years later, after returning home from a tour of duty in the U.S. military, Gonzales would land a job at the sandstone quarry, shaping the slabs that had been blasted from the hill.
He has also studied the history of the upper reaches of the Plateau, mining the small nuggets of wisdom that he would impart to tour groups that visited a couple of decades ago.
At an age when others have retired to a rocking chair, Gonzales has slowed down just a bit. He continues to own and operate his Wilkeson business, Skeek’s, providing locals and visitors with a meal, a jolt of espresso or ice cream.
And, in the last couple of weeks, he landed a position as a night watchman at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, keeping an eye on things from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
He could call it quits and live a comfortable life, drawing Social Security checks and his pension from Safeway, but there are still places to go and things to do. The lifestyle he wants, Gonzales said, requires a bit more cash than a full-time retiree pulls in.
Of course, keeping busy is nothing new.
Gonzales entered the world in 1928, just in time for the heart of the Great Depression. He was the second of seven children born to Antonio and Jesse Gonzales and was born at the couple’s Carbonado home, just like five of his siblings. In 1932 the family packed up and moved to New Mexico where his father continued to work in coal mines.
“Dad was proud of the fact that we never went on welfare or any type of government program,” Gonzales said. Like most families, the Gonzales clan raised livestock and tended a large garden, keeping food on the table.
Occasonally, his mother could dole out 11 cents to each of the children when they went to town – “10 cents for a movie and a penny for candy.”
Eventually, the family returned to Carbonado, his father went back to the local mines and Gonzales entered Buckley High School. That lasted until March 1946 when he joined the Navy. After a tour that included nearly two years in China, Gonzales was back on the Plateau. He landed a job with Safeway but left when his hours were cut back; a young man with a car and a girlfriend needed more cash than the grocery store provided.
So Gonzales joined the long list of locals who made their way to the sandstone quarry, advancing from a “grunt laborer” to a job in the mill where he would help slice chunks of sandstone into made-to-order slabs.
“It was hard work,” he said, but he avoided any major injury.
He was pulling in $3.10 an hour, but the mill offered nothing in the way of health insurance, Gonzales said. By that time he had a wife and two little girls to think of, so he returned to Safeway; the job paid just $1.50 an hour, but the company offered 100 percent medical coverage for all employees and their families.
Through a series of happy circumstances, he received two promotions in less than six months and saw his pay climb to $3.40 an hour. He stuck with the company and eventually worked in stores throughout the Puget Sound region – Bellingham, Renton, Kent, Midway, Panther Lake and, finally, West Seattle.
Along the way, he also went to carpenter school and became a contractor. There was a time he set off for barber school but found the classes full; there were openings in the beauty school, however, so he and a friend became licensed beauticians.
In 1974 he purchased the business in Wilkeson and, four years later, bought the historic, 1880s-era building.
Gonzales enjoys passing along words of advice and a common theme is that people should actively pursue their dreams, not putting things off until tomorrow.
“The minute I reached 62 I started collecting Social Security,” he said, and retirement from Safeway came as he was fully vested in the company’s retirement plan.
For Gonzales, pursuing a dream meant traveling the world. There have been trips to Spain and Portugal, a month-long stay in Austria during the 1976 Winter Olympic Games and a more recent tour of Ireland.
The real dream, however, was to travel through Russia by train, something he pulled off in 1998.
Next on the wish list is to visit the Czech Republic or, closer to home, to tour the United States in a motorhome. He longs to dine on a fresh lobster he pulled from the New England waters, then head south for “to hear some good Cajun music and eat some good Cajun food.”
Looking back on his decades spent on and around the Plateau, Gonzales maintains that the biggest difference is the traffic. He recalls relatively quick trips to downtown Tacoma when motorists were weren’t constantly stopping for traffic lights. In his youth, Lambert recalls, kids could walk four abreast along country roads and not see a car for hours.
Today, he said, “you better be careful trying to walk across the street. There’s traffic 24 hours a day.”
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