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Cliff Levers: a view from the top

Friends & Neighbors: EVERYONE HAS A STORY.

April 21, 2010
By DIANE?CHASE, Special to the Enterprise

Not many people have a ski run named after them. Then again, not many people can claim that experience from oil rigs in Wyoming and construction in Texas would equal the necessary skills needed to help get a chairlift up and running after a 10-year rest.

At Big Tupper Ski Area, Cliff Levers is known as the local expert. Cliff laughs that his expertise started on Sept. 2, 2009. He knew nothing about chairlifts before working on the ski area's Chair 2 - only about cables and pulleys.

"I now work at Tip Top Electric in Tupper Lake," Cliff said. "I am also a jack of all trades - and master of none.

Article Photos

Cliff Levers, harnessed in, works on a lift tower of Chair 2 at Big Tupper Ski Area this past fall.
(Photo —Denise Davis)

"I lived with my grandparents. I would have graduated high school in 1976, but a friend, David Miller, and I joined the military at 17. If you saw my boot camp picture, you would swear I was a 12-year-old."

"Originally, I wanted to go into the Seabees because I watched a lot of John Wayne movies, but it was a nine-month wait and I couldn't wait nine months, so I went with the quartermaster school in navigation. I was in for a year-and-a-half and got out with general and honorable conditions."

John Wayne starred in a 1944 film, "The Fighting SeaBees," which highlighted the Navy Construction Battalion's history of building bases, airstrips and other projects.

Cliff came back to the Utica area for a short while and worked on a farm milking cows for $1.26 an hour. It was in the Utica area where he met his now-ex-wife.

She had a girlfriend living in Wyoming, and Cliff had friends from Tupper Lake who were in Casper, so he strapped 80 pounds on his back and $80 in his pocket, and three days later he was out west.

"I was out in Casper, Wyoming and worked for friends for a few weeks painting houses," Cliff said. "My wife's friend called and told me if I could get over to Kemmerer, where the oil fields were, I could find work. I went there and started working in the oil business for $9.50 an hour and no experience.

"The first job you do when you don't have experience is called the worm. The worm does the jobs no one else wants to do, like cleaning out tanks - anything grungy. Nothing in life prepares you for the oil fields. Back then, people got shot in bars for 50 cents on the pool tables.

"You heard of the '49 Gold Rush? Well, this was black gold. People were coming from all over. One of the drillers on my team went through 28 hands in 31 days. Every day he would make the worm take his clothes home because he wasn't sure if the guy would come back to work the next day."

An oil worker had to be driven, quick and dedicated to continue, only because his life depended on it. The oil field was a place of hierarchy where some drillers lorded over the members of their team. Cliff describes one incident where he was asked to "sack up" his belongings because he brought the wrong tool to the driller.

He still displays shock in being told that he was to be let go for such a reason. A fellow worker stuck up for him and told the boss that Cliff was going to "make a hand," which is slang for being a hard worker. Cliff was immediately hired on another team. Six months later, the man who had let Cliff go apologized, acknowledging that Cliff was indeed a good hand.

"If you show me something, I can pick it up and do it in two or three tries," Cliff said. "I never had a good work ethic as a kid because there was no one there to guide me. In the oil field, you get ethics quick or you don't have a job."

Accidents were just part of the job, like when 270,000 pounds dropped on the top of his steel-toed boots. He shrugs off the incidents where he broke fingers, or fell 25 feet. Cliff says workman's compensation wasn't for the little things.

"It was a cut-throat business," Cliff said. "If you weren't seriously hurt, you better show up for work the next morning or someone else would have your job. Once my fingers were better, I was put 85 feet in the air.

"My wife followed me out, but I was young and making a stupid amount of money and let her get away from me. She came back to New York with my daughter.

"Work in the oil field began to peter out, and I started doing building maintenance for a few people. I was doing that and going back to school."

He received a two-year degree in welding from Central Wyoming College in Riverton. He stayed out west until 1995 and then moved to Dallas, Texas to weld in a fabrication shop.

After working there, Cliff left to work for the Iron Worker's Union, where he hired out for projects or, as he says, "boomed out" for other unions, such as the Philadelphia Eagles' football stadium, the Diamondbacks' baseball stadium in Arizona, the Dallas Cowboys' football stadium and various hospitals. He was made a foreman and worked as such for many years.

"You have to be careful about who you upset," Cliff said. "This was really true in the ironwork industry. Someday the same guys may be working for you. I had men that I worked for that were mean and nasty. I didn't like them, but I needed a job. When I became foreman, those same guys came looking for work and I told them I didn't need them.

"It's the Golden Rule. You treat everyone like you want to be treated. That way, life is good. I don't sweat the small stuff. Well, that isn't completely true. When that lift breaks down, I do get excited."

His return to Tupper Lake came in the form of his 25-year high school reunion.

"I ran into an old buddy who had a painting business and told me if I came back in the spring I would have a job," Cliff said.

"Well, how can you not love Tupper Lake? I was born and raised on this mountain." He points behind him at the slopes of Big Tupper. "I quit the union in April, loaded up my truck and worked all summer here."

That was 2002. For three years, he would drive back and forth between Dallas and Tupper Lake. After three years, he realized he could make the move permanent.

In August 2009, Cliff's current girlfriend, Denise Davis, a waitress at the Swiss Kitchen in Tupper Lake, informed him that Jim LaValley of ARISE (Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy) and some others were talking about starting up Big Tupper, so Cliff sent word that he was available to do the high work because he still had his body harness and tools. He would go up and grease all the pulleys.

"Later on, Jim saw me and asked if I still wanted to help," Cliff said. "I asked when I could start, and he said right away. So on September 2, I started.

"Five years ago, engineer Larry Woolum, of All Ski Lifts out of Watertown, came up and started everything just once and gave Michael Foxman, the developer, his assessment of what would be involved to get the lifts going. Larry was instrumental. Basically, what I did was climb the towers and grease all the wheels."

There are four wheels on the uphill side of the towers and usually two on the downhill. But some of the towers at Big Tupper have four on the downhill side.

"There is an easy way," Cliff said. "If you grease one fitting, the grease will come out the other. I didn't know that until later. I looked at the wheels to make sure the liners were OK. There was stuff that I didn't know about, but I did know if something didn't look right. It's just common sense and paying attention.

"I never expected to be where I am now. I just wanted to do the high work and change the wheels out. It was a combined effort for the community to pull this off."

"This" was reopening Big Tupper Ski Area after it had been closed for 10 years. His dedication and hard work was so greatly appreciated that a trail was renamed in his honor, "Cliff's Cliff."

Cliff continued to work as a volunteer, but when it came time to open the ski resort, three officers had to be paid for liability reasons. Cliff was asked to be one of those three, with the title of lift manager.

"Someone had to be responsible and accountable for the facility," Cliff said. "So I'm one of the guys. I am here all the time, and I know this place inside and out. I ride the lift once or twice a weekend, and I know what each tower sounds like, and I know what each squeak means. The lift talks to me, and I know what it is saying. I know how it acts - the nature of the beast."

Cliff says that he used to be one of those kids who would be at Big Tupper until the end of the day. Now, he sees other kids doing the same thing - sometimes being the only ones at the mountain.

"Now I see these kids that want to go up for one more run, no matter the weather," Cliff said. "I remember guys like that. The atmosphere here in Tupper Lake has changed. The townspeople have pulled together. Even those people that doubted the mountain could open and that we could pull it off, they still appreciate what happened. This is a safe place for kids. It is a family mountain.

"My daughter lives in Herkimer with my first grandchild, and she is expecting her second. Next year, my grandbaby will be on skis here. I'll take her down Cliff's Cliff." He pauses slightly and adds with a laugh. "Well, maybe she'll be helping me down it. I hope that I'll be right here," he points to the mountain, "continuing to put smiles on people's faces. That is what it is all about. There is only upside, not a lot of downside."

Now that the ski season has ended, Cliff has a crew and is dealing with maintenance issues, grooming trails and trimming trees that his team was not able to take care of because of snow at the beginning of the season. They'll go up and get the overgrown trees low so it won't take as much snow to cover the trails for the next year.

"On April 6, the ski season and my salary end," Cliff said. "I go back to volunteering. We will have the whole summer to be prepared, not just a few months.

"When I first started, I was a volunteer, and then I started getting paid. Whenever I see a 3-year-old who has never been on skis with a big smile and begging his parents for one more run, I know it's all worth it. I'm not stopping just because the pay stops. I'll be volunteering now. I see that smile on those kids' faces, and that is payment enough."



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