MEET THE MAN, THE OPA

Mel Lee Ellenwood sits across from me in his living room, in his casual cowboy attire; his walls are adorned with family photos and memorabilia he’s salvaged from trash piles. Behind him, a giant bear hovers over his head. “This is just normal to me,” he says.

We sit there trading stories and beliefs about why we both salvage things, our respective work ethics, the importance of creative visions, of being yourself, the joy of living life in a light-hearted way. Ultimately we center on how to pass to the generations coming up the importance of fixing things and using our hands.

 

“What I have found is that the enjoyment of a project is not in the end. The exciting part is laying in bed at night and dreaming and thinking about it,” he says. “I used to know these guys who’d go buy a motorcycle, it’d sit in a garage, and that’s when it was exciting. It was exciting when they’d have to problem-solve and fix it, not when they got to finish it, not when they got done with it. It was fixing it, sitting in the garage with it, dreaming about it. I would say that was the real fun part of it.” 

Mel was born in Colorado on May 8th, 1943. He said for as long as he could remember he was picking up junk. He said his first question was always “can I fix it?.” He said that’s always when things got fun, because “you gotta get creative to make it work when it’s someone else’s junk.” In many ways, it’s hard to peg an exact career for Mel. He’s been everything from a construction worker to working for Youth for Christ to a janitor to a cowboy actor, a chuckwagon caterer to a factory worker to a singer. He’s also been a landscaper, an ice cream shop owner, a safe cracker, and has painted cars. Heck, the man even bottles his own wine. I honestly think it would be easier to tell you what he hasn’t done than what he has done and I am sure I left ample things off that list.

We start exchanging stories on how we live in a paradoxical time where everything is just thrown away or is at our fingertips and with that, we both are a bit troubled with where this will lead upcoming generations when it comes to craftsmanship. “If you don’t have to work for something, you’ll be missing out. It’s the people who get everything for free or easy who have the most issues in life. I would rather rebuild everything instead of just getting something easy.” He starts reflecting on his current project he’s helping a local woman with, he’s been out clearing a property that is filled with old cars and other various relics of time. He says “she had everything and it was just thrown aside and left there to just fall apart in a field.” I can tell he struggles a bit with this, just as I do. He tells me “I will always just give something to someone else if I think they have a better chance of fixing it than I do, the idea of picking up junk is not about just me having it, it’s about someone else seeing potential in it that maybe I can’t see.” I laugh and tell him, “there’s no such thing as junk in my world. Everything has potential if you are willing to put effort and elbow grease into it.”

 

At that point, our conversation flips into the importance of involving the younger generations of family into our projects.  We start talking about how great memories are not based in money, great memories are based in experiences. “I worked where I didn’t make a lot of money. I would pay cheap rent and put effort in to make a nice home for my family,” he explains. His daughter sits at a diagonal from him on couch, with a taxidermy raccoon across from her, laughs and says “Dad would take us to the dump on the weekends for our family outing.” She looks at him with a big smile and a loving shining in her eyes. “I built her a house out of free stuff I found, didn’t pay for any of it besides screws and paint, it’s still her favorite home.” His wife, looks up from reading, adding,  “we only paid $12,000 and it’s worth a lot more now.” Mel says “it’s so nice to be able to see my kids enjoy my work while I am still here, ya know, many parents and kids don’t get that; the kids gotta wait until the parents die to get something from them, for there to be a pay-off, get some money. I have gotten to see it while I am here and I built it for them myself.” He pauses and says “we are a family of fixing things. I never spent much money, I used a ‘gimmie’ way to build our family’s homes.”

One thing that stands out at this point is the importance of passing on his work and his work ethic to both his children and grandchildren. “I have always brought my children and grandchildren into my projects, then it becomes an enjoyable family thing.” He starts telling me about how when he moved to Boerne, Texas, “everyone told me I was too poor to buy a house, I had been making $200 a month, had to carry my water home, and spent my time at a dump, auctions, sales, and with a metal detector to put nice things together.” Upon moving here, he negotiated a deal the real estate agent thought would never work, but it did. He said “I literally bought a house with no money and I fixed that thing up.” To this day, his son’s family owns that home, and now through his skills and creative ingenuity, it’s a popular Bed and Breakfast that he says “people just love”.

 Mel and I have been conversing back and forth for two hours, “he says I thought you were going to interview me?”.

He worked at a grocery store and funeral home to put himself through college. He “crammed 4 years of college into 5 years”. There he met his wife, Troy. “I was climbing up a flagpole to fix it and look over and there’s this girl teaching all these boys how to shoot a gun, I knew I needed to meet her.” He graduated with a degree in Applied Religion. At this point, our conversation begins to shift to another huge sector of his life, religion and working with youth. Upon leaving College, he began working for Youth for Christ. That was a job that sent him to Topeka, San Antonio, Denver, and Cheyenne. 

We then started discussing youth programming, as it’s something very close to my heart as well as his. I mentioned that my path has brought me in touch with creative kids that I try to guide the best I can. I mention to him that teen mental illness and their suicide rate is the highest it’s ever been and that I believe there are two factors, kids not connecting to real life things and also the pressure to conform to that box and being forced to be something that does not feel true to their core. He starts talking about how he led a high school club on suicide and he’d play a tape a guy made for his friend before he had killed himself. He would put these kids in small groups and tell them he wanted them to come up with a reason for this guy to keep living. He said it was such a simple question “why is life worth living?”, yet he said, “these kids would struggle with it. They would struggle to the point of finding me afterwards still looking for the answer.” We went back and forth discussing how important it is for kids to have both strong morals and ethics, work ethics,  but also to be true to who they are, their creative visions.  

We continue discussing our beliefs of how to help kids today and help them find that balance. I mentioned to him that one of the reasons I am there talking to him is because I think younger generations need to learn more about his generation; people like him. They need to learn the stories behind the people that build things with their hands, don’t just throw things away; that upcoming generations need to learn how to fix things, create things, salvage and restore things.

I then mention the old trucks on his property and how I have been looking for an old truck or car to create a multi-generational community build with. I tell him, “I have this vision of seniors and kids restoring a car together, telling stories, sharing knowledge; over the perfect blend of creativity, mechanics, and problem-solving”. He says, “I used to be a janitor at a high school, I would watch these kids in shop painting these cars in a sloppy way because the teacher cared more about teaching them how to artificially inseminate a pig over how to paint a car. Eventually, I just went in and started teaching kids how to paint a car the right way. I used to paint cars, flames and all.” I then pause, and ask “what about that fifties ford truck out there, is that your truck? What year is it?” He says “It’s a ‘54, I gave it to my grandson, he is supposed to be fixing it. I got it from the school district in Westminister, CO, that’s why it’s yellow”. Apparently, they had some terrible landscapers and Mel offered to do the job, but needed the truck and more money for it. He said that they called him the next day and offered him the gig. 

I have been pressing poor Mel on a 1935 Chevrolet Truck in his one of his sheds for our RodRides community built project, so I turn my attention there. I ask him “have you thought anymore about selling me that truck?” He says, “I am torn on it.” I start asking about its history, he says “I got it when I was in Wyoming, has a big 6 in it.” I respond, “when was the last time you tried to get it running?”. He replies, “well it needs a gas tank, but that hasn’t stopped me from crawling under it to make sure that the engine is still spinning. You are going to have to tear all that wood off and replace it with metal”. I smile, “I was already planning on it. I have plans for it.” He then tells me that was his plan too, he was going to pull the wood off in the back and replace it with metal, then use it in town for work. He then says, “but sometimes you have to accept you aren’t going to finish a project.” 

At this point, he starts talking about his health, “I should be dead right now. I have stage 4 cancer.  You know I had a quadruple bypass and have prostate cancer that’s spread to my bones. I was in the hospital for 22 days, they’d written me off, my muscles just stopped working, everything, including my digestive system”. His daughter speaks “yes, we thought he was gone, he had lost 40 pounds, he was nothing.” He pipes up “but I got back up and started walking, cracking jokes. I have to go get shots once a month, here I am with other cancer patients, nurse says when I come in, the waiting room is a party. What we can do is be positive, that’s what we can do. I had a lady tell my wife that I was such an inspiration to her because I was always happy in there and wanted to make other people happy, get them laughing.”  

We then venture back to the shed that I knew the ‘35 Chevrolet truck that I am in love with sat alongside his daughter’s old Karmann Ghia with a bad transmission. I told him if he let me pull it out of there and take it, I would make him proud. I started making my case “that could be the truck that brings the generations together in a build”. I continue with my plan and vision and he listens intently. I could tell he knew I was deeply invested and passionate about it, but I also told him not to feel pressured, as I pressured him.  I assure him that if he allows me to take the truck, I would include his grandson in the build and all the skills he wants him to grow would be focused on. I could see the desire in his eyes to give me the truck, but I could also tell it was still very challenging to let go of for him. We walk out, only after he offers me more junk and a sink (which I take), he bends over and picks a bunch of unimpressive flowers growing in the dirt and laughs “these are what we call desert flowers” and hands me a small bouquet (which is currently sitting on my kitchen counter). I smile and say, “they are beautiful”. 

As I drove away into the hot Texas summer sun with a truckload of rusty junk and a bouquet of desert flowers, I realized that I had just spent the entire day with a true kindred spirit. Mel is who I want to be in 40 years, that’s my dream life.  Forget the saying “God Bless, John Wayne”, in my world, there’s a real cowboy legend, “God Bless, Mel Lee Ellenwood”.

“What I have found is that the enjoyment of a project is not in the end. The exciting part is laying in bed at night and dreaming and thinking about it,” he says. “I used to know these guys who’d go buy a motorcycle, it’d sit in a garage, and that’s when it was exciting. It was exciting when they’d have to problem-solve and fix it, not when they got to finish it, not when they got done with it. It was fixing it, sitting in the garage with it, dreaming about it. I would say that was the real fun part of it.”

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RodRides buys a 1935 Chevy one-ton truck from a Grandpa with stage 4 cancer to restore as a RodRides Community Built Project.

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