Friday, April 22, 2011

Pascal “Pete” Heuga, 102

Pete Heuga, father of Jimmie Heuga and a fixture at Squaw Valley from its opening day until his retirement in 1985, died on April 17. He was 102.

Pascal Heuga was born to an impoverished single mother on April 15, 1909, in St.-Jean-Pied-le-Port, on the French side of the Basque PyrennĂ©es. His mother, Marie, departed for America in 1919, leaving Pascal and his infant brother to be raised by their grandmother. At age nine, Pascal was apprenticed to the town’s butcher, and thereafter spent his summers slaughtering pigs, sheep and cows, lambs and calves. The work was brutal, and Pascal, though barely five feet tall, became the toughest kid in town. At 14, on a borrowed bicycle, he won the local Tour de Pays Basque bike race.

The following year, his uncle Jean-Baptiste, then working as a gardener in San Francisco, sent him money for passage to America. After weeks of travel Pascal arrived in Bakersfield, Calif., where his mother had married a sheep rancher named Eugene Chounet. Pascal was sent off into the foothills southwest of Los Banos, California, with a burro, a dog, a wagon and several hundred head of sheep. Knowing nothing of the sheepherder’s art, Pascal promptly lost three dozen of the beasts, many to coyotes, but many more to rattlesnakes surprised in the sagebrush. Over the summer, Pascal learned to control the herd, and killed over 75 snakes.

In the fall, Pascal, now 16, found a job tending bar in Fresno. It was the height of Prohibition, and a tough, underage kid was just what a bootlegger wanted to work in a speakeasy. Whenever the law shut down the saloon and hauled the employees away to jail, the cops were powerless to hold a minor. Within a few hours he’d be out on the street again, ready to work at a new location.

After a summer communicating only with an old sheepdog, Pascal had not yet learned much English. The bartending job did wonders for his command of language. Unfortunately, the language wasn’t English. Most of his customers and colleagues spoke Spanish or Italian. He lasted through five years of busts, brawls and continual changes of venue, and came out a master of Latin patois. In April, 1930, he turned 21 and could be charged as an adult. This made him useless to the bootlegging trade. Out of work in Fresno, he got a ride with a friend to Yosemite and applied for a job as a cook at the three-year-old Ahwahnee Hotel.

Perhaps impressed by his French accent, the Ahwahnee’s chef took him aboard. But it wasn’t a French kitchen, and the boss dubbed him Pete. The hotel sent him out into a paradise of waterfalls, meadows and towering peaks, to cook for guests camping up-valley. In the winter, Pete learned to skate on the lodge rink. 

Late in the spring of 1931, Pete met Lucille Dutton, who had dropped out of UCLA after her junior year for want of funds. Sights set on a government job in Washington, D.C., she was working a summer job in the Chinquapin post office. They spent a year together.

In the fall of 1932, Lucille received notification that her position in Washington awaited. She boarded an east-bound train.

Pete bought a new 1936 Dodge sedan and followed. They lived together for a few months, and then drove one night to Frederick, Maryland to make the marriage legal.

Arms production for the looming World War II was quickly transforming the American economy, especially on the West Coast. Lucille found work as a secretary in San Francisco, while Pete worked at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond. Two boys were born, Robert Pascal Heuga in 1939, and James Frederick Heuga, in September, 1943.

After the war, the couple moved to Lake Forest, just north of Tahoe City, and bought a tiny grocery store cum gas station cum post office. For Pete, running a store was a simple matter, at least compared to operating a speakeasy. It was hard work, but nonviolent. The store was a natural focal point for village social life, and Pete soon organized a round of community events. His mid-June barbecue became an annual happening, drawing 500 people from towns all around the lake.
The kids grew up skating and skiing. In the fall of 1949, Pete started work as a lift operator at the new Squaw Valley ski area, which opened for Christmas. Young Jimmie wasn’t old enough for school yet, so Pete took him to work. The ski school director Emile Allais, pre-war world champion, could barely speak English, and began hanging out in Pete’s shack, drinking wine and gossiping in French. Allais began coaching six-year-old Jimmie.

Within a couple of years Jimmie was winning local races. Pete and Lucille took turns driving kids from the Squaw Valley Ski Club to races up and down the Sierra. At 12, Jimmie was a nationally-ranked junior, and friends pitched in to get him to races in Sun Valley and Aspen.

For years Pete supervised operation of the Squaw Valley tram, and every Tahoe skier knew him well. His life after retirement took tragic turns: both sons, Bobby and Jimmie, were crippled by multiple sclerosis; after Lucille’s death, Pete lost his eyesight. But in 2005, he returned to St.-Jean-Pied-le-Port with Jimmie, to visit his grandfather’s grave. –Seth Masia