It's a lazy morning in this little lumber town and the men are nursing their cups of coffee at the counter of Pike's drugstore, musing over the state of the nation's economy.
"In Washington, they don't believe there's a recession," remarks Doug Cummings, owner of Gambles hardware store across the street.
"Yep, it's a different ball game," says Don Parkin, a millworker with a rippling tattoo on his arm. "Long as the government's working, their salary in Washington keeps going up."
In Superior, a town of 1,450 people in the northern Rockies, they know what the recession is all about. The largest employer, a Diamond International lumber mill, closed down April 10, throwing about 300 people out of work -- half of whom worked directly for the mill and half for independent logging firms who supplied lumber.
But Superior isn't the place to go to find a sob story. While the recession is reflected in the daily life of almost every family here, the picture that emerges is as murky as it seems from Washington. The suffering is cushioned by umemployment checks, working wives and understanding bankers. People aren't sure how the economy will affect their votes in November.
"This is the typical small town," says Bill Pike, leaning over his counter to chat. "Everyone knows everyone else's business and when you get in trouble, everyone is here to help you. No one is starving to death. The people having troubles now are the ones who were having troubles before."
When the plant closed down on a Friday in this picturesque, forested valley, two men from the state employment office drove in from Missoula, 50 miles away, and set up shop in the high school the following Tuesday to process claims.
The workers, who earned $7 to $10 an hour at the mill, are entitled to $119 each for 26 weeks, regardless of family size.
"If there's been any change since the plant closed," says Mayor Erin Goosey, "it's that a guy probably goes to the store and buys a sixpack of generic beer instead of paying 75 cents a glass at the bar."
Mayor Goosey is also vice president of the Montana Bank of Mineral County and it is probably thanks to him that the men are buying beer at all. If a man can't afford the monthly payments on his pickup or his mobile home, he goes to Goosey.
In five days, Goosey had given a dozen loan extensions -- three times the usual number. "People would default if we took the attitude that we would not cooperate," he said. "But they come in when payments fall due to make sure we know their intentions are good. These are honest people."
Willis McLees, 44, laid off from the Bust Your Ass lumber company (another local outfit is the Grunt 'n' Groan), got several extensions on the $133 monthly payments for his camper. A husky man, dressed in a frayed lumber jackets, he draws unemployment while his wife works as a restaurant manager.
"We've made it all right," he said "But there's a lot of things we don't get to do."
Like what? he is asked. There is a long pause while he tries to think of something.
"Well, usually every weekend in the summer we'd go fishing. Now we don't go as often as that."
Timothy Haskins, 28, isn't doing so badly, either. Haskins, president of the local International Woodworkers of America chapter, said his wife works three part-time jobs to support the family, as a clerk, a librarian and a waitress.
Haskins, who collects unemployment, wouldn't take those jobs himself, he said. "I'm not qualified. And besides, $3 an hour wouldn't be worth it." h
Haskins, who expects the mill to reopen this week, had a lucky break, too. Three weeks after being laid off he sprained his ankle in a softball game and was able to collect six weeks worth of $125 a week disability insurance.
Nonethless, Haskins, who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, now says he's thinking about voting for John Anderson "if nothing else, to protest the two choices we do have." McLees is leaning toward Reagan.
Goosey, however, guesses that most people in Superior, a Democratic stronghold, "feel that Carter wants to be reelected and he's going to cause a resurgence of the economy so he can get four more years in the White House."
The closing of the mill had little discernible effect on Superior's dozen businesses.The four bars stayed open, selling as much booze as ever. The hardware store reported people were fixing broken appliances more frequently, rather than turning them in. The local grocery store is actually doing more business, since people don't drive to Missoula as often to shop.
A few men left town for jobs in the coal and oil fields of Wyoming and eastern Montana. A few got construction jobs on the interstate and seasonal employment in the U.S. Forest Service took up some slack. Some even took to panning for gold in local creeks.
But for the most part, says Goosey, "they go down to the drug store or the restaurant" and tell tall tales from their lumberjack days and "just log to beat hell over a cup of coffee."