Betty and I are getting ready to celebrate Christmas here in Idaho. These last few years, Christmas has been muted, so to speak, vis a vis earlier years with lots of flashy glass ornaments of flutes and lutes and little angels, gifts wrapped like works of art and family get-togethers where we had to pull out and deploy both leaves for the kitchen table.
These years it’s usually a trip to the movies on Christmas Eve, sourdough pancakes with some of our Idaho friends on Christmas morning, and then a trip out in the ice and cold to photograph the magic of snow hanging off sage and the wild patterns of ice on the rivers. The light this time of year reminds me of the rays of light in Renaissance paintings, a rich hue that adds layers of meaning to what we can hear in our mind’s ears.
As always, pondering the future sends me searching the past for images of other Christmases: chasing quail through the old flood plains of the Feather River or riding my new three-speed Huffy along the streets of my old home town, my arms and legs festered with boils, but the joy of the new bike so illuminating, the pain of seeping sores could not compare.
Every year I remember the Christmas I spent in Vietnam. It was 1967 and I was about as far from an American Christmas as you could get, not just geographically but ideologically, too. We were stuck out on Hill 881 South just a few miles east of Laos and a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. We were surrounded by hills and rough country, creeks and streams, jungle, and though they had not shown their faces much, the North Vietnamese Army.
Christmas Day began with a Red Alert that had us all in the trenches long before the rise of the sun. It was wet and so foggy we couldn’t see five feet in any direction. If enemy sappers had been in our wire, working their way toward our positions, we would have heard them long before we saw them. Private Foster, as he did every night or morning, depending on when he stood his watch, refused to get out of the rack and take his position on the line and when ordered to do so, threatened to whip me, the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and Lieutenant Dillon.
In the morning, I broke out several packages from home and opened them like I would have done on any Christmas. My mother made lots of fudge and hand-dipped bon bons and chocolate chip cookies and Christmas sugar cookies that looked like red stars and blue bells and green Christmas trees. She sent candles and socks which I shared with the men in my fire team, since we were always in need of candles and socks. There were tins of sardines and oysters which we opened and enjoyed along with our chicken noodle soup or ham and lima beans or beefsteak with potatoes.
As soon as the fog began to burn off, I led a fire team-sized patrol down the trail on the southwest side of the hill all the way to the bottom beside the stream that bubbled along from north to south. There were five of us…my fire team of three other Marines and the platoon right guide and me. We worked our way north along the steep western shoulder of the hill. Despite the grim and gory nature of the war in Vietnam, to have been with the five of us in the Annamite Mountains on December 25, 1967, would have been to experience the vibrant greens of a land with signature peaks that looked like the Alps without the snow, and long vistas of elephant grass waving in the winter breezes. The triple-canopy jungle sported huge trees and vines and fresh water frolicking down the steep flanks of the ridges and hills and mountains.
I remember that day, the sun suddenly warm and cheery as we patrolled along the trail, looking for sign of the enemy, boot prints in the red mud or rounds for an AK-47—the weapon of choice for the North Vietnamese Army—or 61 MM mortar rounds. We also kept our eyes open for cobras and bamboo vipers and other denizens that might harm us and hoping beyond hope, we watched for tigers and elephants. There is an old saying about men who have been in combat, that they “Looked the tiger in the eye and rode the elephant.” On Christmas morning of 1967, we did not want to see that metaphor come to pass, we were just hoping for the real thing. But alas, we only saw the verdant hillsides and heard the tinkle of the creek and enjoyed a momentary basking in the rare warmth of a meager sun.
I spent about four months out my thirteen-month tour tromping the wilds around Hill 881 South and I knew the trail and the creek and the hillsides, where the streams rocketed down through the wooded depressions that fed the creek below. It was a land of many greens, and the amber light of winter and the amber color of the jungle grass.
Presently we climbed back up the northwest end of the hill and entered the perimeter at the north gate. Not long after, choppers came from Khe Sanh Combat Base and brought Christmas Dinner.
In Vietnam, as I recall, we had A-rats, B-rats and C-rats, and I am not talking four-legged rats although we lived in close proximity to some of the most audacious rats you can imagine. A-rats was chow you got hot-cooked in the chow hall, B-rats was chow that was cooked at the chow hall and hauled out into the field in cans that kept the food warm, and C-rats was what came in small, individual-sized cans and boxes, chow for the Marine in the field and something we ate three times every day if we were lucky.
Christmas dinner of 1967 was B-rats and I can’t recall if it was ham or turkey or both, and if it was yams or mashed potatoes or both, and if it was hot rolls or just bread, and if it was corn or green beans or none of the above. Maybe there was pie—I suspect there was—and maybe ice cream that was mostly melted by the time we ate it. None of that mattered; what mattered was that for just a moment we were different, we were just men, sharing time together on a holiday that most of us knew well.
I was reared in the deserts of southern Arizona and the fall of the year was like most of the year. Dry and dusty. And it could be hot, too. So when I heard people gasp and praise the colors of New England or the vast aspen groves of the Wasatch chain, it did little to stir my innards. I looked at photos and yes, the reds and oranges, yellows and golds, russets all were pretty but little did I understand how those colors in real life could rivet your eyes to the serrated edges of leaves, the black of ash tree branches hiding behind the bright gold of the leaves, the shimmer of the blood red aspen leaves ringing high New Mexican meadows.
And yes, I did live in New Mexico and there I became aware of the acres and acres of aspen that grew in the cold spots of the Sacramento Mountains. Some years the autumn reds and golds blazed, and some years not. Some Septembers the rains came in phalanxes of black and gray and tormented the leaf peepers from the desert climes of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Those years the leaves immediately went from green to a wan yellow pocked with dark spots and quickly to dull black. A wet mess that instead of drifting in a brisk breeze like flags on top of an alpine bed and breakfast, fell splat in damp blankets that pasted the ground beneath the trees.
I’ve lived almost all of my life in the west and I’ve seen the best the west has to offer in terms of fall color, so when people say that Ruidoso or Taos or Heber City or Squaw Valley rival the colors of New England I am here to tell you that generally speaking, those folks are hyping real estate or some other reason to get you to come to their country. The hills of Maine and Vermont and New Hampshire are without a doubt one of the most outstanding places to be when the maples show their flashy—yes, I think I can say—their brazen petticoats of autumn. When I say outstanding, I mean in the world, the planet, the universe as we know it from our tiny point of view.
But…but, there is often a but…this year, 2013 in the western United States, from my vantage point, has to be one of the most amazing years for color that I’ve ever seen…maybe the most amazing, and this includes the autumns of New England.
Betty and I were in Garden Valley, Idaho, for the initial turn of the aspen, and then in the Wood River Valley, and the Stanley Basin of Idaho. And the colors rose up off the leaves and glared at me as if I was being inspected by the trees and I must say, it made me feel small, made me feel wanting, and that feeling was followed by an exhilaration that was mindful of balloons rising in the fall of the year over Albuquerque.
By way of a caveat, I will say that one of the things that made the 2013 colors of autumn in Idaho so outstanding was the contrast between the blaze of tints and the harsh sage brush and cheat grass land surrounding the rivers and creeks and seeps that snake down the mountains, hills and valleys of Idaho. And it wasn’t just aspen and cottonwoods and maples and ash trees that seemed to glow in the brisk, sunny light, it was the riparian willows turned to red and gold as they defined where water runs in this arid land.
But of course, the colors of autumn are ephemeral and leave us too soon, and leave us, too, with the sad knowledge that winter lurks in the near future.
But as Idaho’s autumn tints began to dim, Betty and I went south and found the colors just starting to show in Nevada, like huge surprises, the cottonwoods on the Truckee River as it meandered off the Sierra Nevada into the sinkholes of Central Nevada, and up and up over the top at Donner and down into the Sacramento River Valley, the colors less aggressive, still with a benign green that promised an autumn to arrive real soon, in the week, the weeks coming…and just for a moment I hoped for an endless autumn.
But there are no endless autumns. Autumn to me parallels the period of my life that I now inhabit. An autumn where the colors are so vibrant they leave me searching for the meaning of beauty, where the days are brisk and drive energy into tired bones. And the sadness that comes as you understand that what is to come will be more like the rubbed-raw blast of winter.
“We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.” …Eleanor Roosevelt
Somewhere in one of my texts for a university political science class, I read that the first rule of political science is: The world is ungovernable. And one of the few ways humanity can overcome this ungovernability is to encounter some kind of genuine outside threat that will force us—a family, a community, a nation, a species—to cooperate.
You may find the association unusual but I thought of this “rule” last Friday evening as Betty and I and some other folks stood outside in the cool night in Garden Valley, Idaho, and listened to elk bugle. We were staying, along with communications and internet guru Stephanie Worrell, with friends Ken McKay and Elaine Ambrose the night before Elaine’s fifth annual Write by the River retreat.
Not only were competing males, or bulls, bugling across the meadows—the distinctive sound caught in the nooks and headers of the pine-covered ridges—but we also heard chirps, mews, squeals, whines, barks and bleats. The language of an elk herd. One bull, the male who seemed to be closest to the herd, sounded like he possessed the best bugle with the most music and oooomph at the end, and I speculate that he was the leader of the harem and also the herd.
With a flashlight, you could barely see a few of the elk, mostly an outline of their large-deer bodies and the beam of the flashlight reflected in their eyes. We guessed there were sixty or seventy out there.
All the bugling and chirps and mews were a serenade that rose into the night. A serenade by an elk symphony with different and individuated voices singing at us. Something about the music touched me. I don’t know what it was. A similar feeling as when I perch on a mountain top and see the Milky Way strung out over me like an artistic morph of a time lapse photo of LA freeways. Or the music from the singing of a thousand toads and frogs awakened by the late summer rains that wash the dust from a desert sky. Or the liquid gold notes from competing meadowlarks as their mating cries skip along the tops of sagebrush at dawn. A feeling that clutches me in the gut and squeezes out an emotion so primitive it’s hard for me to articulate…an emotion born of eons of familiarity between the molecules that now inhabit me and make me the twin, the cousin, the relative of all the things that ever were and will become.
Later, we heard the crash and crack of antlers as the bull elk battled over who would govern the harem of cows and as a reward, and a duty, breed the females and perpetuate the line. And that was part of the symphony, too, the conflict within a species to make sure the top bull passes on the best traits to ensure the survival of the species. A chaotic mix of cooperation, begetting, and battle carried across the breezeless nighttime meadows of the Idaho mountains.
It also occurred to me as I stood there and listened to elk music that even in the face of the chaos of breeding, the music was something that anyone could hear for miles…any friend, any enemy. Besides the goofy preening and posturing that I knew the males were doing as they bugled, they still managed to stay focused on what dangers might be around—men, cougars, bear, wolves, coyotes, all which live in the general vicinity. And just as important as breeding and begetting is survival in the moment, for both the elk and us, and for that matter everything else that lives on Earth.
All this takes me back to the poli-sci business of being ungovernable that begins this blog. The thing that keeps these elk together and working as a herd is the fact that something might eat them or their young. They have their conflicts, but the need to keep the herd together and protected is crowned over all other behavior.
And that makes me wonder about us, in this country, right now, and all the rancor and division that comes with, I suppose, democracy in action. But it seems to me that the bile only gets worse, and from both sides; epithets like “liar,” “idiot,” and other names for those who don’t agree with what we want and think. I wonder if we might end up eating ourselves, metaphorically speaking, instead of being eaten (Read: destroyed) by outside enemies. To quote the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It seems to me we need to see our problems as something bigger, something approaching a national survival crisis, so we can come together once again and be “governable.” Like the elk herd that performed for us in Garden Valley, Idaho.
This winter, Betty and I expect to travel to southwest Texas to attend the 28th annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the town of Alpine. While there with our friends Mary and Roger Engle, we intend to explore the area: Big Bend National Park, the ghost town in Terlingua, the Marfa lights, the old train depot in Sanderson and a lot of other spots. We’ve wanted to check the area out for nigh onto three decades and hopefully 2014 is going to be the year.
When I was a kid in southern Arizona, I spent some time herding sheep with a local Basque family. A lot of the sheep we herded came from the Big Bend country, so the names of the places Betty and I want to visit are lodged in my memory along with bleating ewes, coyotes skulking around a herd of mixed-breed Suffolk and Columbian lambs, traps, strychnine, fence, sheep trucks. And there’s the Southern Pacific Depot at Sanderson, Texas, constructed in the early 1880s which is now deserted. I want to see it before it gets torn down.
Thinking about the depot at Sanderson makes me think about the depot in my hometown, Casa Grande, Arizona. The last time I visited there, the depot was no more, having burned down in 2009. Even though it’s named on some of the rolls of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, it is no more.
That depot was the center of attention in my small town when I was a kid. We used to walk down Main Street and watch the cattle and sheep come down the ramps onto the asphalt paralleling the tracks, cowboys and drovers running around, or riding cayuses around, trying to keep the herds from straying off among the bail bondsman, the shoe stores and the pharmacy and the bars. That was before the railroad went way south, to employ an often overused metaphor. But railroads did head south, they dried up, and left the passenger/freight business to trucks and things like that. And I hate that because I loved the sounds of the trains, that metal-on-metal percussion of the wheels on the tracks, how it boogied over the tops of the gum trees that lined the streets of our old town.
But before the railroad died—oh, I know, it didn’t die, it just contracted into a long distance hauler, leaving all the old time short haul and passenger jobs for someone else, like bus lines, airlines, SUVs, hybrids, truckers, etc. But before it died, I got to go down to the old Southern Pacific Depot a few times with the Basque sheepherders and load wool bags onto boxcars. When I say Basque sheepherders, I’m not just talking about the ones I grew up with and went to school with, but also with men who came from Spain. Big-shouldered, thick-wristed men with biceps so muscled they looked like blocks, men who spoke no English. Men so strong…well, I have to show you…
Men with names like GRAN, meaning big, insinuating strength, and how strong he was and so were Benjamin (the way we said it, his name sounded something like Ben-hah-meen) and Marcelino and Augustine. The wool bags weighed four or five-hundred pounds and had girth enough for three men or more to get their arms around, and they were tall, ten feet or so, and unwieldy. The wool buyers wanted the wool bags at the mill, wherever that was, but we didn’t care about that. We cared about loading.
Loading and cramming the sacks into the boxcars. Sweat in our eyes and our tired muscles shouting at us…give us more, we want more work and as crazy as that sounds, we did. We wanted to be part of all these strong men, doing this ancient thing, loading wool bags, something not done with a forklift or a squeeze, but something done by the arms and backs of man.
And somehow we did it, and often it became a test of strength. The competitive nature of these Basque herders was amazing; they competed at everything. Building fence, tearing down fence, loading bobtail trucks with bulky loads of page wire, loading posts, jumping flat-footed onto a honky-tonk’s bar, shooting snooker. To them, work, and maybe life, had a bit of the game to it. They parlayed often difficult and necessary tasks into something to be anticipated, something to be enjoyed, and the joy wasn’t about winning, it was about the doing of it.
Who was the strongest and who might actually pick up a wool bag by himself…Gran could do it, and so could Augustine. And sometimes it wasn’t about one single mountain of a man bending down and shoving the bag up against the side of the box car then leveraging the bulk onto his shoulder and then dropping into a crouch and then up, somehow balancing all that weight as he thrust the wool bag into the open door of the boxcar. Sometimes it was about all of us, and the last man, the smaller man, the weaker man, getting his outstretched arms into just the right place to help get the bag inside, to make it all a little easier. And that collective sense that together we did something worthwhile, even though we didn’t speak the same language and came from different societies and most probably didn’t agree on politics, religion, marriage…that collective sense really mattered to me, and to them too, I believe.
Yes, in March, maybe we’ll go over to Sanderson and check out the old depot before it burns down or they knock it down in favor of something more…modern.
The paint peeled and the old bricks disintegrated and the wood splintered and the heat cooked the patched pavement.
This was Hannibal, Missouri.
Betty and I ventured there on our recent jaunt from Boise to Nashville, Tennessee. Going to Hannibal is something I’ve desired since I was a kid and read some of Mark Twain’s stories. All about whitewashing fences and rafts on the Mississippi, piloting down the river, sounding the channels to fathom the depth. All of this has been imprinted on my mind for decades. But much to my chagrin, downtown Hannibal where Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was really named) spent his boyhood looked battered, neglected, forgotten.
Some of the buildings where Twain lived as a youngster cannot be entered because they are too dangerous for visits. Outside of downtown, the structures and the lives of the residents may be dandy, but the old town where Mark Twain played and snookered his compadres à la Tom Sawyer is like an old man on his death bed.
And I must say that surprised me. Hannibal, the surrounding locale, and a lot of eastern Missouri play off Twain’s fame to draw interest and tourists. There are schools named after the man, and a national forest and a Missouri State park. The list of Twain namesakes is somewhat exhaustive, not to mention all the hotels, motels, restaurants, insurance agencies, and other businesses that have chosen to use Twain’s moniker for…for…for what? Does that name give a business some kind of cred, some familiarity, some notion of stability and honesty and strength? I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems strange to me that a region that plays on a famous man’s name might not recognize that they have some interest in keeping in good condition the actual environs where young Twain romped.
This is not to say that the general Mississippi River area is not a magical place with all the water and the green and the history and the red headed wood peckers and the kettles of turkey vultures and the endless railroad tracks, the bridges over the river and the old river towns with their what I imagine to be hankerings for river boats steaming along, gamblers and cotton brokers lining the deck railings waving their wide Panama hats at the folks packed on the levees and the docks waiting for the mail, the lover, the banjo and tambourine bands.
But all the quaint and soiled elegance of a bygone age doesn’t, for me, overcome my fear…is it fear?…that Twain and all he stands for…history, humor, great literature, satire and sarcasm and more…will soon be forgotten.
All the meandering on toward Nashville and the stimuli, visual and otherwise…memory and literary…lead me to further cogitate about Twain, Hannibal, Twain’s history and his books.
Over the last century and more, this country has had an interesting relationship with Twain. We made him a rich man and his books, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been considered to be masterpieces of creative writing. Yet in our history that particular book was banned in 1885 for being “trash and only suitable for the slums.” It has been banned at certain locations at certain times (and still is) in this country since then because it is “oppressive” and keeps alive “racism.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does employ some provocative scenes and language, most notably the “n” word that totes so much freight in our society.
And certainly that word, for African Americans and for a lot of other folks, is anathema and should never be uttered and probably never thought. I certainly understand how the use of that pejorative causes folks to cringe. It can make me cringe. But banning a book with all the virtues that the story of Huck Finn brings the reader is something I rue. Yes, we could alter the diction to eliminate the “n” word, but do we have the authority, morally and intellectually speaking, to make that decision? When Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the use of that nefarious word was quite common. The text of the book is what it is. In the portrayal of the story’s main African American, Jim, Twain does not appear to want to denigrate Jim’s character, but portrays him instead as wise and good, and in this way the paradox of good character and vicious word creates a contrast that to my thinking helps illuminate the character of Jim.
Of course, I am one who reads books about how things are, or were, and not books about how things ought to be. And yes, like so many words such as Nazi and Hitler and Communist, the “n” word comes at us like an overloaded freight train out of control. The past, slavery, lynchings, get to the back of the bus, freedom riders, Martin Luther King, the Civil War, Nat Turner…the list is extensive, exhaustive, and all of it comes click-clacking down the track at us when that word is written and spoken. Words often carry a load of context that can create a brouhaha much bigger than the simple letters and sounds that are used to create that utterance.
My father was a man who used the “n” word more than once. I can recall my mother scolding him for saying it in front of my sister and me. He came from a family with southern roots that I am sure was involved in some association with slavery. Yet my father worked with black men back before civil rights was much of a reality and I remember him always speaking with respect to those men, not demeaning. When he hired men for his own company, race had little to do with his decision. He was more interested in results than color or in a person’s religion or ethnic background or sexual orientation, for that matter. His best friend was a black man. So it seems to me that words, even though they carry freight, are not always the measure of a man who uses them. Sometimes I think we forget that…that humans are complicated, good and bad, and we need to be careful not to forget that most of us are 90% good and only 10% bad.
But I don’t want to come off as an apologist for racists, racism, apartheid or any other nefarious activities or attitudes directed at specific segments of humanity, because judging folks and groups of folks based on color, creed, religion, sex undermines the fact that we are what we do, not necessarily what we believe, think or look like. I’ve seen racism in Malaysia and Mexico and France and Italy. I’ve seen it in Arizona and Washington, DC, and Texas, New Mexico, California and Idaho. Racism is something that won’t go away. Prejudice is as ancient as the human race. And I hate to say this, but in my life I’ve had moments when prejudicial thoughts and comments have spurted into my mind or blurted out of my mouth and I suspect most folks would have to admit likewise if they were honest.
For me, in terms of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the “n” word is just a word, and one that we might consider putting in its place, in its time, as we read the bigger message of Twain’s story. And I’d like to see the folks in Hannibal, in Missouri, in the US, fix up the structures that are all that is physically left to speak to us about Twain and his youth on the Big Muddy. Somehow I can’t get the desolation of the old downtown Hannibal out of my head. The cracks and busted pavement, the peeled paint, for me, all work as a metaphor, for the abrasive affair we have with race in this country. Busted and cracked. And never-ending.
Throw the baby away? Can we imagine that? I’m not talking abortion, I’m talking about a mother who throws her baby away…into a garbage dump. Is that person a murderer? These are the thoughts that rocketed through my head after reading Pushcart Prize nominee, Jamey Genna’s short story “The Wind Chill Factor Kicked In.” The prose in this short-short story is tight and searing:
Then, one day during the search, the deputy found a strange note—it was scribbled on an envelope.
The baby is here, it said, or it said, look here for the baby.
That’s what they said it said. The winter was a long one, mild in December, but during January—the wind chill factor kicked in.
Look for the baby here it said.
Jamey Genna writes literary fiction. She writes short essays and poetry. Her recent book, Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral, is a compilation of fiction. The stories, twenty-one in all, are gritty, realistic pieces, the kind of fiction Jamey would call Dirty Realism, which is a name for a sub-genre that focuses on the tougher side of life in spare, lean language.
Some of the best stories in this collection are very short and fit the description of Dirty Realism at its best. The language is often mean, hard and lean. And it is also quirky. When you first pick up a story by Genna, you question the word choice, the syntax, but you soon get it…this is the voice of a narrator who speaks to us in a quirky vernacular that may be a result of family influences, regional dialect…but who cares. The voice mirrors the subject matter of the stories; family, lovers, husbands, all revealed as if caught beneath the glare of a police interrogation lamp. We see the shadows and nicks, the wrinkles caused by sadness, and yes by laughter. The characters in this collection are complex…they do good things and they do bad things. They covet, they cheat, they love, they admire.
The folks in these stories really talk to me. They are like the women and men I’ve known in my life. That’s why I prefer to read literary fiction. Unlike popular fiction where the plot generally drives the narrative, the characters in literary fiction—in Genna’s tales—are unpredictable, like many of us. And that unpredictability creates plots that keep us on edge because we don’t know what these people are going to do.
One of my favorites in Genna’s collection, a story I first read almost fifteen years ago, is “The Light in the Alley.” This story captures the death of an infant in a large family. The parents fumble and stumble around as they try to cope with the loss of this precious child. But the story is much more complicated than just a rendition of an infant’s demise. It exposes the family’s…how should I say this? complicity? inadvertent participation? involvement? in this child’s death. And despite the narrative’s complications, these people are truly stunned by the loss, their sadness indicative of a spiritual evisceration.
Another of my favorites, a very short-short story titled “Dry and Yellow,” shows us a young woman spending some time with an ex-husband, Lee, and his mother. The prose is hard and tough and poignant. An excerpt:
I hadn’t divorced just Lee, I’d left her behind, too and hadn’t wanted to maintain a relationship because of Lee’s new wife. And because it hurt to see his new life sitting on his mother’s mantle. What I mean to say is that his mother must’ve loved me too, and she didn’t get any explanation. Just like my mom saying, “I loved him. But you don’t suppose he’d ever stop by or call if he was in town.” And I said, “No, mom, I don’t suppose he would.”
Most of the pieces in this compilation have been published in periodicals and magazines, both print and online. And if you like stories with flawed characters who have tough rows to hoe and whose choices may not be in their own best interest, then I recommend Genna’s book.
You can find Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral on Amazon at here.
The beginning of this October, I am to participate in a writers’ retreat about blogging with some fine fellow bloggers, and I suspect there will be a bevy of useful tips and advice for writers of all levels.
My experience as a blogger is: I know how to get my blog up on my site and add pictures and videos and other graphics. I know how to write, or it seems I should, since I have been blogging fairly steadily since 2010. I manage two blogs and have written as a guest at a number of other folks’ sites. I read other people’s work, too, so I have a notion of how my creations stack up.
As of late, I have not been blogging. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing why I am not blogging with any regularity, but let it suffice that if I am going to present at the retreat, I best get my rear end in gear and compose.
When I am on a roll, I generally blog on a weekly schedule, and the subject matter veers from book reviews to memoir to philosophizing to film reviews to travel blogs. The array cuts a fairly wide swath through types of blogs and thought processes and I suspect that occurs because after four years I’ve begun to frantically ask myself, “What am I going to blog about?” I think about this, I think about that, I grab a book off the shelf that I recently read, I think about a film I watched. Lately the only emotion that has been evoked by any of those actions is a big “HO HUM.” So, what’s the solution?
I am a thrill freak in some regards. I suppose it comes about as a result of my time in Vietnam when adrenaline rushes were what helped keep me alive. Nothing boring about getting shot at. After forty-five years, I still crave that thrill.
I have learned that you can capture, or re-capture, that thrill in writing. Danger is not the only stimulus that can give the writer a thrill. Any kind of thrill might be the impetus to get you banging away at the keyboard. For our purposes today, danger will be the fuse that lights the dynamite. The excitement comes at you as you begin to remember something that was dangerous, or had the capability of becoming dangerous. Once you let your imagination meet your memory, events can be relived, so to speak, and you are there, running from the snap-whine of a sniper’s rifle fire or digging your fingers and toes into the bottom of a trench even as incoming artillery rattles everything around you. You can be vicariously thrilled writing about memories. You can turn memory into action-charged prose (or poetry if you choose).
My mind is searching over my history to find some moments when I was scared and thrilled at the same moment. Sitting here writing this, I’m back at Thanksgiving of 1971. I was employed as a sheep herder/fence builder/truck driver in southern Arizona. The day before, we had moved a band of sheep into an alfalfa field lying leeward of the Sierra Estrella. We pounded metal posts into hard white calíche and fenced-off eighty acres, then moved the sheep in. I dropped two big water troughs inside the wire enclosure and filled them up out of the water truck I was driving. The foreman who supervised me leaned against his pickup and smoked a Marlboro.
Across the field was the farmer’s headquarters: a house, a shop, several Quonset huts, a set of corrals, an old chute that hadn’t been used in a long time. Looking over there I noticed what looked like a bunch of dogs. Now, most town folk, animal lovers and non-sheepherding folk don’t understand how a sheep man feels about dogs. As my old friend Bob Moser used to say, “One dog’s a pretty good dog, two dogs is half a dog, and three dogs is no dog at all.” Packed up, dogs can and often do kill sheep, or worse, they maim them. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and most dogs seem to like me. But there is something about ancient predator/predatee relationships that often make a bad mix with sheep and dogs, especially sheep that are not protected by a herder or paradoxically, guard dogs. And of course, the dangerous dogs are the ones that are not managed by their owners and that gang up in packs. So, seeing four or five dogs darting around between those Quonset huts made both the foreman and me more than a little nervous.
As if on cue, the farmer got in a flatbed truck and drove out of his headquarters, down the dirt road that ran along our new fence, and pulled up. Dust boiled all around. Immediately upon stopping, the sound of barking and yapping dogs filled the air. As the dust calmed down, I could see five Blue Queensland Heelers prancing around the back of that flatbed. Their ears were up and so were their snouts. It was a primal moment, watching those dogs strut their business—the business of herding animals. Heelers are herders by trade. The sheep all balled up and ran into one of the opposite corners of that large field. They obviously had notions of their own about what those dogs’ intentions might be. I heard bleating complaints out of the ewes as they scampered around and moved their lambs as far from those Queensland Heelers as possible.
The farmer got out of his truck and walked over. He wore a smile on his red face and sported a scraggly mustache. He stuck out his big wrinkled hand and introduced himself real friendly like. He and the foreman talked for a while about alfalfa and sheep and the weather and water and then he said, “Do not put any poison out.” I did not blame him for saying this since he had five fancy dogs in the primes of their lives and also because sheepherders, us included, had a reputation for trapping, shooting and poisoning dogs and other predators. And our reputation was well earned because we did all those things. Remember what I told you. Dogs kill sheep.
I left after that and returned the next morning to check on the sheep. The sky wore a flat gray mantle and a cold wind whipped off the Sierra Estrella as I pulled off the highway onto the dirt road that ran along our page wire fence. I stopped and climbed over the fence. I heard a vehicle start up. I checked the water troughs and they had plenty of water. I pulled my old Levi jacket closed to keep out the chill. I heard a vehicle coming. I looked up and saw that flatbed truck turn onto the dirt road. I watched the truck for a moment, noticed the rooster’s tail of dust that reared up behind. I thought, seems like he’s coming a little too fast. It was kind of like radar going off inside my mind. I shook my head and told myself I was not at Khe Sanh and looked around to see if there was any sign of dead sheep since we did not put out any poison. I heard the truck behind me as the driver laid on the brakes. The tires bit into the gravel on the road. I heard the door slam and the farmer (whose voice I recognized) yell something at me.
I turned and immediately noticed he was toting a hog leg; looked like a .44. It had a chrome barrel and a black grip. I had an old World War I Mauser bolt action rifle in the truck that I had never shot, and besides I didn’t think I had time to get to it so we could have a standoff. I looked around for some place to disappear as his boots scuffed the ground and he mumbled stuff I couldn’t understand. The only place to hide was behind one of the water troughs but that would be ridiculous since he’d seen me and would just come shoot me if that’s what he wanted.
I felt as if I was lost out there with those troughs and those sheep and that farmer climbing over the fence. He did so awkwardly because he had that damned pistol and because he wanted to make sure, I’m sure, that he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I noticed there were no dogs on the back of the truck. The sheep bleated and moved around as if there was nothing wrong. But something was wrong. No dogs strutted on the back of the flatbed.
He stomped up to me and his face was three times redder than yesterday and his eyes were worn out. I’d of said he’d been crying but he was carrying that hog leg. He yelled, “Out, out.” I said, “What do you mean?” He blurted, “Get them sheep out of here, now.” I know I looked incredulous. He yelled, “Now!” I shrugged and turned the palms of my hands up. “Where? It’s Thanksgiving and I don’t…” He stuck the end of that hog leg in my face. It was close enough that it reminded me of the round eye of a dead ewe. I threw my arms up. “Whoa,” I shouted, “whoa. You need to settle down.” All this while figuring out how I would disarm him, or escape him or…or…or… He got his face close to mine and stuck that hog leg in my gut. I could smell coffee and garlic and the faint whiff of whiskey. He hissed, “I told you no poison.” I replied, “I didn’t put any poison out.” The gun jabbed further into my too-soft stomach flesh. “Get ’em out.” He didn’t seem to be in any mood to discuss the matter, so I lifted up the fence and after much chasing, haranguing, running and sweating as I cussed my foreman for putting out strychnine, I got that band of sheep out on the road pointed in a totally different direction than the business end of that hog leg .44. Getting them somewhere safe, somewhere they were wanted, and with water and feed was a totally separate adventure. Subject matter for another blog.
My wife pointed out how the voice and energy in this piece changed as soon as my memory dropped back to Thanksgiving, 1971. That anecdotal evidence jives with my notion of how memory and thrill might be a way to drive writing one’s blogs.
Betty and I are off venturing in the foothills of Northern California on the beginning of another screening tour. One of the things we like best about traveling like this is how we get to see so much of the US that we might not be able to visit otherwise. We get to meet people we probably would never have met. We get to shoot video and take photographs. We get to SEE.
The last few days we’ve conducted a prolonged and detailed discussion about film and video and photography, something we seem to do a lot. Each of us is toting around multiple cameras and we have been taking in and recording what we have discovered. Beside our screenings, paramount on the agenda have been a couple of days shooting photos in the Mono Lake Basin and Yosemite country. We are old travelers in this part of the world but remain amazed and hypnotized by nature’s variety. Tufa tubes like soft, crumbling teeth, and new aspen leaves the color of Bearss limes, snowy peaks far above the tree line, ice on the high meadow tarns, spots of dirty snow (it’s a dry year here and the portents are for FIRE).
On Wednesday, Mono Lake wore a variety of hues, some like high mountain lakes in Idaho, some reminding me of the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Majorca in the channel between Isla Dragonera and the fishing village of Sant Elm. Besides dental imagery, the tufa formations reminded me of hoodoos in the south of Utah and as Betty says, the ancient remains of Roman villas on the west coast of Italy.
In Yosemite, the moisture content is dangerously low and the threat of fire will hang over the Sierra until major rain/snow shows up and drops heavy doses of relief. Despite the lack of snow, the meadows are the color of fresh mornings and the waterfalls thunder and thump, throwing echoes into the walls of the canyons.
Some of the conflict between film photography and digital photography just got resolved around our outfit. We used to shoot film. Then we put our old Pentax K1000 film cameras away with all the lenses and the accoutrements of a past artistic age and moved on to digital cameras which we have to upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade because the ones we own right now just…they just don’t….they just can’t…we don’t like….
We got our K1000s reworked, renewed; bought some film…yes it still exists…and we’ve been taking photos of the country with our new old cameras. Black and white film is our milieu and that means it is about form and shape and shades of gray. It’s also about planning the shot, thinking of aperture and shutter speed and light, things that you think of too with digital, but film is finite in a number of ways—how many shots on a roll, how much they cost—not like digital where you just throw away what you don’t like at no apparent cost, although I suspect that with the act of shooting a photo there is a cost in time and effort and something more that cannot be regained, something about artistic moments lost and never again showing up. Because each moment, each shadow, each glint of light on a distant piece of quartz, the osprey pair on the tufa formations, the coyote at Glacier Point, the mule deer in Yosemite Valley, all these things in composite will not occur again, just the same way, in our short lives. Too, with film there is something very satisfying about the sound of the film advancing and the click the shutter makes when you take that photo. Digital doesn’t do that although they try to make the cameras so that they might sound that way. But it is not the same.
We still shoot digital too, and especially if the scene, like Half Dome over the rush of Merced River rapids, is about the vibrant colors of May in the mountains, yellows and greens and blues, not black and white and gray. We use our cell phones too and shoot both still and video. Hopefully we will look at what we have created as not just shooting photos for the act of shooting photos, but shooting photos for the aesthetic. For what it means, whether black and white or red and blue, or digital or film or….
This is the season of remembrance and I suppose as we get older we can expect our opportunities to mourn and grieve to line up and bang at our metaphorical portals. This one is a bit tardy, but nevertheless, I choose to now write my remembrances.
Last summer Betty and I were traveling in the east when our friend Cam Cunningham died. We were far from northern California when his memorial celebration occurred, and even though I was sad, and am sad, I missed it. But in some ways I am also relieved that I was in Nova Scotia. Something about good-byes, especially final good-byes, bothers me to the point that I tend to elude them. Maybe what I do is elide. Elide in the sense that I slide around them, keep them at arms length if they must happen.
In some ways Cam and I were very different. I was one of the two or three resident rednecks of Sebastopol, California, and more than once he described himself to me as an Anarcho-Marxist. In terms of war, economy, history, we saw things very differently.
But we also had many things in common…more in common than we had in opposition. I first met Cam in a poetry class. I think it was the fall of 1995. He came into the classroom, a tall, long-haired man with a booming voice and a Texas drawl. He announced he planned to become a poet. Over the course of five weeks we found out, besides our differences, we shared some parallel experiences. When he was young, he’d hunted dove and quail, like I used to do. He was from the southwest and had lived and lawyered on the Navajo Reservation. I had not lived there, but I’d spent a chunk of the summer of 1963 on the res. We’d both been caught up in the craziness of the 1960s. We’d both been victims of ourselves…substance abuse and other personal disturbances. We both liked blues music. We both liked poetry. We talked football and baseball. We talked about the oil field and cowboys and….
Over the course of the next five years, I bumped into Cam a number of times, at street fairs and art shows…besides a poet, he was a painter.
In 2001, Cam became a student of mine. We worked on poetry together. He wrote and wrote, putting out copious amounts of poetry, musical things with snare drum rhythms and a voice often trapped between Baptist fundamentalism and Delta blues. His poems roughed you up at the same time as giving you a glimpse of the spiritual; a native mask, a prickly pear cactus, a bottle of Mescal, a stumble down a south Texas street, a native god sitting on a fence post both smiling and frowning at you. As my wife Betty says, “Cam was the closest thing to Magical Realism that I know.” When Cam wrote, your shoe soles were firmly on the ground while simultaneously bouncing along atop a Navajo country thunderhead. He also composed pieces that investigated how one segment of humanity tromps on another. He was blantantly political and irreverent while still remaining spiritual. Sometimes he would actually sing his poems and his voice would soar over the audience and lift the rafters. Cam could warble…he had a powerful baritone voice that was as familiar with scat as it was with old time rock and roll…way-back stuff, like Carl Perkins songs, and Elvis, and Johnny Cash. I really liked when he mixed spiritual-style music with the lyrics he composed. Made for some sweet hearing on my part. It wasn’t unusual to have him break out in song in any location, in the park, in a coffee shop, in class; something I had heard when my older sister played her little radio, like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Tiny Bradshaw.
By 2005 I’d moved on to Idaho and he and I had become pretty good buddies. He’d been to see me. I’d gone to see him; had lunch with him fairly often at K & L Bistro where we both enjoyed juicy cheeseburgers of the highest quality. Then…Cam got sick. And even though I thought of him everyday, I stayed away. We got fairly regular reports about his progress…it didn’t sound good.
Finally, Betty and I went to visit Cam at his home up on the ridge where you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Wind blew in the gum trees along the road. Cats sat on the deck and lounged around like nothing could be wrong. Cam sat trapped in a wheelchair and his appearance frightened me. Not for who he was, I think, but for a vision into what I will become one day. Sick and leaving this existence. He reminded me of a cadaver, a really old man, except for his eyes and the way he sat in that wheelchair, ramrod straight. Cam’s face had always been so alive and animated that I had never noticed the power in his eyes. Even in a weakened condition, those eyes reminded me of chunks of burning mesquite in a campfire. Orange and blue flame sizzling, and his mind too. Not much gone wrong on that end at all.
Of course we talked about a lot of things, one of them being the future and us…and when I left, I wondered if I’d see him again.
I didn’t, because he died not long after.
But I’m still thinking about him every day.
It seems like whenever I think it may be time to move on from Idaho and experience some other part of the world that moment of indecision coincides with a trip to the one-hundred-five-year-old Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding environs in southeastern Oregon. The country there is a mix of high sage and bitterbrush flats, juniper dotted ridges, and to the north and east, mountains. And in the spring, the Malheur country, or Harney County, is a place full of birds. Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owls and Short-eared Owls.
Every year, Betty and I hit our personal high spots, the roads and fields around Crane and the Pete French Round Barn, Diamond and the Diamond Loop, the P Ranch, the Central Patrol Road that meanders parallel to the Blitzen River. Yellow Warblers and American Bitterns and Northern Shovelers and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Cinnamon Teal.
We go south of Frenchglen and check out the road into the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area and look for the herd of mustangs that rove there. Cassin’s Finches and Vesper Sparrows and Warbling Vireos.
We go along The Narrows and into the refuge headquarters where the cottonwood trees tower over the old masonry buildings and Coots graze on the grass and the Lewis’s Woodpeckers haunt the treetops. Cassin’s Vireo and Northern Goshawk and Dunlins and Forster’s Terns and American White Pelicans.
This year we did something different, as we do every year. For instance, last year we went around on the east side of Steens Mountain and checked out the arid Alvord Desert and then climbed up into Crane passing numerous small lakes, seeing lots of mule deer and pronghorn (or antelope as the locals call them). And of course, birds; Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes and Cormorants. Osprey and Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers.
This year we asked around to see if anyone was working cattle since it was time for branding calves, and lo and behold, we were invited to a branding which we stood and photographed, shooting picture after picture after picture. Shooting something like a branding is different from landscape or portrait or still life photography…it’s kind of wild, the buckaroos building loops to head and heel the calves, the cows on the prod (folks are messing with their babies), the vaccinating, the branding, the tagging, the cutting. It goes on with the smoke and the dust boiling up and the scent of burned hide from the branding and the loops of lassos that float on the horizon just before they snake in and capture a calf. The shouting and laughing, the bellowing of the animals, the cutting horses twisting and turning, digging in their heel bulbs when necessary, and this is all going on at rat-a-tat machine gun speed, and if you wish to photograph this you are on your toes, so to speak, with the zoom going in and out and in and out, finding those moments when the action gets caught, like a packaged explosion just about to ignite. Vavoom! Wow!
What a comedown, but not a sorry one, after that experience. Then on to the tiny burg of Diamond where the poplar limbs still stood naked as if they didn’t trust the warm breaths of the breezes. We photographed old buildings and big trees and hunted for sign of White-faced Ibis and saw Sandhill Cranes and Great Egrets.
Then on to the Buena Vista ponds in search of signs of Black-throated Sparrows and Sage Sparrows. Instead, it was the haunting mating call of a male Sora from the marshes below, and Western Kingbirds darting from sage to sage catching the little creatures whose short, flitting lives come and go in the course of a few days.
From there it was back to Burns, and the following day we took that drive south of Frenchglen and located over forty mustangs. A lot of the Harney County ranchers hate these creatures and I understand that, for the mayhem they create on the range, but still, there is something that gets up inside my throat when I see them out there lazily grazing on the new grass down in the swales. Something primitive speaks to me about freedom and all that stuff that often gets stuffed when we start thinking in terms of dollars and cents.
While in search of mustangs we found Warbling Vireos and Cassin’s Finches and an ambiguity of sparrows that left us perplexed as we thumbed through our Sibley…is it this kind of sparrow or that? We think we saw Lark Sparrows and Vesper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. We know we saw White-crowned Sparrows.
Then we traveled down to the P Ranch and hiked along the Blitzen River. Two Caspian Terns circled us like fighter jets, squawking as if berating us. One showed up with a fish as it swept by and then abruptly veered overhead as if to show off the latest morsel of piscine paradise. At The Narrows again, Ruddy Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Ruddy Ducks.
The next day, on the road home, we cut off the macadam and bumped down some dirt roads. Pickup trucks pulling trailers loaded with saddled horses sped up behind us, and we pulled over multiple times to let these earnest travelers get on their way and soon we found out where they were hurrying. A branding, but not so formal in terms of corral and pens and headquarters structures as those we encountered earlier in the week. Here, the corral was makeshift, mostly trucks pulled up end-to-end and some portable panels wired together.
A hot fire crackled in a fifty-five gallon drum turned into a fireplace. Branding iron handles stood out from the sizzling orange-red and the smell of burning calf hair filled the air, along with the dust, and the voices talking local cowpoke gossip, or the boss-man barking orders about where to drag a calf, or comments on the quality of the calf crop or who was going to be the header and who was going to be the heeler. Wild action, back and forth, and loops built and caroming off the sky and onto the dusty ground, caught on the camera screen like something you might see in a Charlie Russell painting. Yeehaw! And Mountain Bluebirds…so bluebird blue.
Betty and I drove away and headed home and she commented to me, “Pretty darned western.” And it was, and it was more, and just a part of why we stick around.