Branson

I hitched lifts with college students from Brooklyn, then a diesel driver, and then two farmers who drove a vintage ‘57 maroon and white Buick with round silver louvers on the front fenders. One farmer was old, and the other was his son. They wore cliché’d bib overalls and brogans, their ball caps dramatic with sweat stains where the bills met the crowns. They drawled at me about my part in the war. My San Diego Marine Corps universe was so far from their macadamed straight-road, white fence, perfectly-painted-red-barn world that I felt like an illegal alien.

My parting with the girl in Iowa City still rankled like wheat straw beneath my collar. I couldn’t help thinking if I’d articulated my feelings about concentration camp Jews and freedom-fighter Black folk better, she might have invited me in her knickers.

Later, a man picked me up on his way home from work and ranted about hippies and long-hairs. I kept my tongue shut up in my mouth. He dropped me in front of the Camdenton, Missouri football field and I paced and stomped in the approaching dark as Friday night gridiron crowds rooted for their teams. The sounds rose from the stadium like flocks of starlings and came at me like pain out of separate speakers, the sound waves a half beat out of time.

I was picked up by a short-legged man who had a problem with anyone who passed him, so we sped and caromed through the twilight Ozark landscape. I kept slamming my foot down on an imaginary brake every time he scared the hell out of me, which seemed like every five minutes. He was headed to Kingman, Arizona and wanted me to go along, and said he hadn’t slept in the last three days.  Leery, I got off at Springfield and found a pay phone and called Wayne’s grandfather.

He told me Wayne had ventured to Iowa City in search of me. We’d passed on the road. He said for me to find my way to Branson and he’d give me a bed, beer and hot chow. I walked all the way across Springfield in my Dingos, blisters soring up and ouching at me. On the south end of town I found a National Cemetery and against my better intuition rolled out my bag. I figured no one alive would come in there and bother me. The night was crystal and chilly. I slept with my boots on. The stars hung in the sky as if they might come down in one vast drapery of dust. A sickle-shaped moon hung over the tree line on the other side of the highway. I actually slept, the local haints deciding I wasn’t worth scaring. But my dreams were invaded by the night cries of that Iowa City girl and the emaciated grimaces of Jews in Buchenwald jammed into death barracks, their faces like the skull symbols on pirate pennants. Scenes of Little Rock, Arkansas Blacks being fire-hosed and attacked by Alsatian kill dogs crammed in between. I awoke shivering from the cold dew that soaked my bed gear. I watched the sun come up over a ground fog, water dripping off everything.

I stood out on the road to Branson and stuck my thumb out. The first car that came down the road was a ‘66 white and turquoise Ford Fairlane. It sounded like a rocket freighting into the perimeter of a combat post. About the time it roared parallel with me, the driver laid on the brakes and the smell of smoking tires singed the inside of my nose. Three men wearing big black cowboy hats stared at me. The one in the back seat opened the door and his long, Levi-ed leg, shod with a black riding-heeled boot, stepped out. He drawled, “Want a lift?”

I nodded and got in. The stench of old whiskey permeated the interior, and each man stunk of a long night ‘s worth of cigarettes. They called me Boy. The first time wasn’t so bad. They talked about roping steers and riding broncs and dogging bulls. They called me Boy again. I said, “How old’re you fellers?” They were nineteen and twenty, not as old as I. They said they were on the way back to work. They asked me, “Where you going, Boy?” That word, boy, started to prick me in the back of the neck. I wondered what would happen if I had to throw hands with one of them, or all of them, if it came to that. When I told them my short version of who, what and where, they started on about the war, how bad it was. One of them said, “You’re pretty stupid, hunh, Boy, for ending up over there doing the rich man’s calling?” He was the one in the back seat next to me. He owned one of those noses that looked like a hatchet head, but thin and weak-boned. I figured I’d bust his nose and that would take care of him. They were doing over one-twenty an hour as they laughed. One of them laughed about the girls they’d been trading off with all night. But they just couldn’t talk about it, they had to scream.

The one in the front passenger seat would be the biggest problem. He sat so he could watch me. He was doing the bulk of the talking, calling me Boy.  If I had to, I’d gouge one of his eyes out. I acted like I couldn’t hear what he was saying and leaned close to see if there was a weapon on the front seat. I didn’t see one. The driver would be easy. In eight seconds I could choke him to death or reach around and stick my fingers in his eyes. We came to a junction and they told me, “Git out.” Then they headed west to work, and I stuck my thumb out again, glad to be shed of them and the trouble that was coming.

I was still seething when a rusted old ‘56 GMC pickup with stock racks on the bed pulled up. An old cow and two white goats stood in the bed. A man and woman sat in the front. She rolled down the window and smiled, “Where you headed?”

“Branson.”

She opened the door, slid into the middle of the seat and said, “Get in.”

I climbed in. They were old, in their fifties most likely. He wore a big brown cowboy hat.

“We’re going to Branson, too,” she said.

He said “Where you from?”

“I’m in the Marine Corps in San Diego.”

She laughed and slapped the man on the arm. “See Jake, I told you he was a Marine.”

She had a lot of silver in her teeth as she grinned at me. “Our son is in Vietnam right now.”

I wanted to say, “I’m sorry for that,” but just nodded. Iowa City girl’s face kept slipping into my thoughts.

The rest of the time, they ignored me, or maybe I ignored them. They seemed pleasant folk and talked a lot about southwestern Missouri, about Arkansas just across the border, the changing leaves, the cattle market, the garden she needed to harvest so she could put up okra and green tomatoes. I thought about the attack Alsatians in Little Rock. My hosts giggled a lot and she crooned off-key to a couple of Ferlin Husky songs playing on the tinny-toned radio. I thought about Buchenwald.

In Branson they took me to a Richfield station that had a pay phone. They waved as they pulled out. The cow and the goats had to set their hooves at a different cant to keep from being spilled onto the floor of the pickup bed.

I phoned Wayne’s grandfather and thought about the girl in Iowa City.

Iowa City

Older Sister hemmed and hawed and pranced around from one foot to the other. A grin spread across her face. She looked a lot like the lady I had come for, but more beautiful, mature, and nicer. If my target had been trapped like this, she’d have lashed out like an adder and stung someone, me most likely.

The hippy kid from Philly let out a shrill whistle that made the children in the yard giggle and the birds all explode out of the trees with cries like school bell alarms. She said, “Well, is that everything?” as she pointed to my knapsack. I nodded at her, and she canted her head and rolled her eyes in a goofy way and gave me a wicked smile. “I guess all I can say is ‘come in.’” Of course she could have said something else, but she was too kind and besides these were the 1960s and peace and love and dove adorned the world.

I said, “I’ll see them off,” and headed back to the car and bumped fists with the hippy Kid from Philly. I leaned in the window and said, “Thanks” to the car thief. The hippy kid from Philly grabbed my hand and slipped a ten spot into my fist. I said, as I smiled, “Naw, I can’t…” He turned to the car thief and said in his gravelly voice, “Let’s head out for better things,” and the back tires on the Biscayne burned a little rubber.

When I turned to the porch there was no one there and the kids had disappeared and I glanced up the street and the brown Biscayne turned the corner. I felt about as big as one of the red ants that toiled alongside the busted-up concrete in the old sidewalk. Then I heard the Volkswagen putter and I looked and the kids were in the back seat with both their mugs pasted up against the window as they made wild and funny faces at me, pulling on their ears and sticking their tongues out, putting their index fingers into the corners of their mouths pulling them wide. Older Sister sat in the driver’s seat staring at me. “Well. Are you coming?”

I looked at my gear and shrugged. She yelled, “Drop it inside the front door.” I hesitated. She said, “We don’t lock the door. This is Iowa.”

In the Bug she chirped, not unlike a happy house sparrow sitting in a maple tree, “She’s at class, today I think it’s chemistry.” The maple leaves hinted at turning and there was a bank of low clouds in the west. “She’s a freshman, says she’s going to be a psychiatrist.” She looked at me and rolled her eyes, “But you probably know all this.” I didn’t, other than my heartthrob was in college. What she wanted to be wasn’t related to my intent. “I don’t have any place for you to sleep unless it’s on the couch . . . We need to go to the grocery store . . . I’d like to stop and call my husband and tell him . . . You should make sure you go see . . .” I loved the old houses as we drove down the street.

We picked up my heartthrob in front of campus. When she saw me her eyes grew large and she got one of those, “Well, I’ll be . . .” looks on her face that changed suddenly like a window blind had been pulled. In the car she didn’t speak to me other than, “What are you doing here?”

Older Sister, “Tch, tch.”

I slept on the couch. For six nights. Older Sister’s husband worked nights. Once I went with him on the BMW motorcycle he was trying to sell. We roared to a lake near Cedar Rapids. He swam for hours. I smoked Winstons. I went to Burlington with him and we drank beer in an old bar frequented by Negroes. No other white guys, just us. We played old blues—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson—on the jukebox as the Negroes ignored us. Like we didn’t matter.

I shopped for groceries, cut the lawn, pruned trees, washed dishes, ran the vacuum cleaner, anything to help out so I wasn’t a leech. Anything to ingratiate myself so my intended target would pay attention to me, but she was busy with chemistry and English and French and elementary psychology. Deep down I knew if she’d been interested in me she’d have found time.

I found myself drawn to Older Sister. Helped her stir dough for peanutbutter cookies, roll out pasta for lasagna, wash lettuce for salad, chop carrots and onions for soup.

Two nights before I was supposed to leave, I phoned Wayne’s granddad but the phone service was so poor I didn’t get to finish our conversation. I decided to head down there and catch up with Wayne before he hitched up to Iowa City.

My last night there, Heartthrob was giving the two young boys a bath and somehow jammed her hand through the bathroom window and cut it. Blood shot over everything. They hauled her to the hospital and I was left with those two boys. They had climbed out of the bathtub and were in the bedroom coloring in coloring books. Their little pink butts were bare and water dripped off their elbows and made spots on the hardwood oak floors.

I scooped them up with both my arms as they kicked and squealed. Rage vaulted into my forehead like the heated tip of a bayonet. I bellowed, screamed, and cussed them out. Dropped them in the water like bombs, then gathered the busted window glass left on the sill and as the kids cried, I told them to “Shut the f**k up.” I wondered what was wrong with me.

Later, after Older Sister, my quarry, and the brother-in-law came home, we had a Strohs or two and then went to sleep. In the middle of the night I heard Heartthrob sobbing. Her bedroom was just down the hall from the front room. I heard her crying and I could have slipped down there and comforted her. I just laid there listening. She mumbled and sniffled. Finally she said, “Ken.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sad?”

I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t think I was sad. I wasn’t happy that I’d come all that way to be ignored. But I couldn’t blame her either. She hadn’t invited me. I wasn’t sad.

“Are you sad for all the black people and Jews who have died at the hands of the white man?”

I thought, yeah I’m sad for them, but I’m sadder for all the Marines getting their asses shot off in Vietnam.

“Ken?”

“What?”

“Are you?

“No, well, yes…but let me explain what I mean…I mean…”, but then I didn’t say anything.

Brother-in-law and my quarry hauled me to the edge of town so I could thumb a ride. She stood leaning against the yellow Bug with her arms folded, looking down the street at a mattress shop. I walked up and tried to give her a goodbye kiss. She resisted. Only let my lips brush hers.  Some crows rasped out of an oak tree. I stalked off and stuck my thumb out, looking for a ride all the way to Branson, MO.

Highway 61

Dawn snaked across the Texas Panhandle llano on the heels of a cool breeze and mist that soaked us to the fibers of our cotton Levis. The hippy kid from Philly sneaked west a quarter of a mile. Wayne stood like a destitute man with his thumb begging for someone to pick us up. Down by the hippy kid from Philly, a brown 1968 Chevy Biscayne stopped and he jumped in. As the Biscayne sped toward us, water hissed behind the back tires. The car slowed and stopped. Wayne and I jumped into the back seat.

The driver said, “I’m heading east. Been to California.”

Wayne asked, “Where you headed?”

“Muscatine, Iowa.”

Wayne slapped me on the chest. “You’re in luck. Close to Iowa City.”

From Amarillo to Shamrock, Elk City to El Reno. Wayne and the hippy kid from Philly slept. I watched the back of the driver’s head. Short dark hair. Bad cut. Like he might have done it himself. Dorky clothes. Didn’t say much and then on Interstate 44 outside Miami, Oklahoma, he let out a litany of confessions. “I stole this car from my mom.” I started watching for the cops. “Headed to Venice, California, to get stoned on acid.” Wayne woke up and asked him if he had any acid.  The car thief liked to duck his head as if something was coming at him. “Naw, I turned around at Gallup and decided to come back.”

At Springfield, Missouri, Wayne handed me the rest of his cash, “My granddad will come up here and pick me up.” I nodded and he gave me a big hug and tried to kiss me on the lips just to blow everyone’s minds. He sniggered as he looked around at all the Springfield folks gawking at us parked in the middle of the street, him trying to embrace me like we were lovers of some sort.

We left him headed for a payphone. Sitting in the back seat I felt lost. We stopped in St. James and went into a restaurant. The driver announced, “I’m buying.” I ordered beef and potato soup. He wanted to know why I didn’t want a cheeseburger, or a hot roast beef sandwich. I couldn’t say it, that I was embarrassed to be out there with less than five dollars. Wayne had told me traveling without cash . . . living like the poor . . . was noble. Maybe poverty was noble, but I felt like a cockroach sneaking a ride inside an old bag of potato chips. No, no nobility there.

We motored on into dusk and the road to St. Louis, Missouri. At Sullivan we got some gas and the driver said, “You take over.” I got us to St. Louis just as dark smelted around the tops of buildings, the skyscraper lights like eyeballs from strange civilizations. Now, I often wonder if it is only a dream—the St. Louis Arch—or one of those memories of something you never really did, but wanted to do so badly you thought you did. I remember the arch in all its glory. I wanted to see it. Heading north I asked, “Where’s Hannibal and Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer?”

The car thief said, “Yeah, Highway 61, we’ll go right by it.” I’d had no sleep since before Albuquerque, and I wanted to drift off, but I was driving. Past Troy, and Whiteside, and Bowling Green, my eyelids like sarcophagus doors at the last breath of the funeral wind. The hippy kid from Philly and the car thief talking, rattling about Philly, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Canned Heat. At Frankford I stopped and staggered out and announced. “I can’t drive.” I slid into the back seat and battled to stay awake for Huck Finn and Mary and Jim and Injun Joe. My eyelids died. My eyelids died.

I woke as the sun knifed over a low cloud to the east. Flat land, some oak trees, a service station sign that said, “Argyle.” I thought of Scotland and Robert Louis Stevenson then Mark Twain and regret’s rapier needled at my innards.

I was sitting in the driver’s seat and wondered what I was doing there. The hippy kid from Philly woke up in the front passenger seat. He grinned. I said, “What’s up?” I exaggerated my arms as I threw a big shrug.

He stared at me. “Don’t you remember?  We almost ran out of gas, and we’re lucky you stopped here. Even though they were closed.”

“I didn’t stop here. I wasn’t driving.” He nodded at me as I shook my head. I frowned, “Not me,” and his grins pissed me off and I barked, “Stop fooling around.” The car thief woke up and said. “You drove.” I said, “I got out at Frankford.” They both laughed and shrugged at each other. “You drove straight through.”

“I don’t remember it.”  Was I asleep behind the wheel, a zombie loose on backwoods Missouri roads, an unmanned missile amok, slaughtering unsuspecting high school lovers sneaking home from a Mississippi River tryst in the woods?

I remembered one of my old saws. “You got to be lucky. You got to be lucky.”  I scrambled out. Dew hung off the service station’s white eaves, and smattered the glass on the gas pumps. Lucky.

I shook my head. “You drive.” I stomped my foot.

The car thief took over. We pulled off Highway 218 in Washington, Iowa, and ordered breakfast. The car thief offered to buy, but I didn’t want any more of that six-legged cockroach feel, so I bought black coffee and a sweet roll. The café was full of Elmer Fudd-hatted farmers talking about corn and bean yields, about their Berkshire and Duroc hogs and their Hereford cows. They smiled and joked at the hippy kid from Philly with his red boots and split-leather jacket, his long hair. Those Iowans didn’t care what we looked like. They talked to us, over us, at us.

In Iowa City we found the house, an old two-story down the block from a corner grocery store. Two little blond boys played outside. They had orange and yellow daisies painted on their cheeks. They wore shorts and t-shirts. The trees—oak, ash, maple—needed pruning and the blue paint on the old house was peeling. A little yellow Volkswagen was parked in the driveway.

The hippy kid from Philly bumped fists with me and the car thief asked if he needed to stay (I’d let them in on the fact that my coming was a surprise). I thought about it and nodded. I knocked on the door. After a while a pretty blond woman opened the door. I instantly saw her resemblance to the woman I’d come here for. She said, “Oh, have you come to look at buying the motorcycle? If you have, it’s out . . .” I was stricken by a dose of lust. It always comes at the most inappropriate moment. She reminded me of . . .

I said, “No,” I told her my name, but she looked at me like she’d never heard of me. I said, “I’ve hitchhiked here from California to see . . . I’d guess from what I know about her . . . you’re her older sister and I’ve come here to see her and . . .”

A look like shades dropping down over an open window, two or three “Oh’s” and then a double-take at me from top to bottom, my denim shirt and Levis, my dingo boots, my knapsack on my shoulder, the car in the street with the two young men in the front seat.

Midnight in Amarillo

Long black hair draped over the hippy kid from Philly’s shoulders, like the dripping leather thongs that hung off his split-leather jacket. He wore fancy red-toed cowboy boots, although the first time I scoped in on him I knew he wasn’t any kind of Western hand . . . no calluses or rough spots on his palms, his fingers. And then he talked—no cowpoke I ever knew spoke with an accent like busted-up asphalt. But he had some money and he liked me, so Wayne and I stuck close to him. The pickup ride across the Mojave from Barstow to Williams, Arizona. We could have ridden into Flagstaff but all the road men told us, “Stay out of that town. The cops pick hitchers up and they disappear.” Somebody used the word, “Kilt. They git kilt.”

From Williams to Albuquerque in a Chevy with a broken trunk lock. Highway patrolmen stopped us seven times on Interstate 40 because they thought the car was stolen. We got bored. No pot in the back, no guns in the driver’s trouser pockets. Just careful cops with their heavy flashlights good for battering things, their pieces concealed in black holsters.

At Albuquerque we went in to eat, burning up half our cash. We met a kid going back to the University of Texas, had to make some classes. He seemed too urbane, no long locks, no experience in war, just avoiding the draft by going to college. Said, “I need to be there by 10 o’clock in the morning.” I didn’t have a map in my head, but guessed the distance to college a pretty far piece.

We stood by the on-ramp to I-40 at the last exit out of town; Central Avenue where all the Chicanos cruised up and down, up and down the street. Some sneering, some grinning, some shooting us the peace sign, some shooting us the finger.

A red ’62 Impala stopped.  A guy stuck his head out. “Where you headed?”  “Austin,” and “Springfield, Missouri” and “Iowa City.” The hippy kid from Philly didn’t say anything.

“Git in,” and we did. Texas kid in the front, in the middle. The hippy kid from Philly, Wayne and I in the back. We settled in. The driver and his sidekick, each discharged after six years in the Navy.  “We were career men,” one of them said. “But hell, it’s gotten too chickenshit.”

I nodded off.

A lot of screaming and cussing. One of the Navy men—not the driver—waving a pistol around as I woke up. His tight blond curly-haired head like a ping pong ball bouncing as he jabbed the whiney Texan in the chest with the mouth of that gun. “Get out. Get out,” as the tires screeched on the asphalt.

Fuzzy-muzzled with sleep still in our brains.

That shrill, “Get out, get out.”

Wayne asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Shut up and get out, all of you get out.” A Marlboro stuck out of the corner of the driver’s mouth. Smoke poked him in the eyes and he squinted, then glared into the rear view mirror. “Get out.” A freeway sign that read, “Lubbock, thirty miles.” We were headed in the wrong direction. The knappy-headed Navy dude slapping the Texan on the top of the head. “What are you trying to do to us, Texas boy?”

“Hey, cool it man. Just trying to get to Austin before class tomorrow.”

The driver shouted, “All of you get the hell out.”

The barrel of that pistol glared directly in my eyes. It bared its canines. Wayne mused, “Wait a minute, we didn’t do anything.” Shouts rattling around the head liner, “Get out and shut up. Damned Marines, anyway.”

“We didn’t do anything.”

The driver banged his head on the steering wheel. “We lost an hour coming down here ’cause that loud-mouthed Texan steered us in the wrong direction.”

Wayne mentioned, “I appreciate your dilemma, but that’s not our fault. If you’re heading to Ohio, you need to turn around. You can haul us, too. We didn’t do anything.”

Pistol man bared his canines at Wayne and waved the weapon around. An old .32 revolver, not much of a piece, but deadly enough in close quarters. I didn’t appreciate the way his finger sat on the trigger. His blue eyes reminded me of those squirrely things Australian Shepherds use to see with. He waved the muzzle at the back door, “No way. No way.”

The driver jammed the tranny into neutral and yanked on the emergency brake and jumped out and stomped around in front of the headlights. He looked like a gangster-movie goon the way he disappeared into the night through the grasshopper-gut-pocked windshield. Blondy climbed out too as the Texan struggled up the freeway in front of them with his thumb out at everything that roared, whooshed or jangled past. I looked at Wayne. He said, “I’m scared.” I shrugged and giggled and the hippy kid from Philly grinned. I said, “Time to get scared is when the shooting starts.”

The two ex-swabbies charged back up to the car and each one put a foot on the front bumper. They wrangled. The knappy-headed wild man’s face shaded scarlet. They both nodded and got back in and the driver pointed at each one of us. “I’ll take you, you, you, back to I-40 and then you are out on your asses.”

Wayne whined, “But wait, we didn’t do . . .”

I grabbed his arm and said, “Great, thanks.”

Later, standing in a drizzle, we thumbed but it was too late or too early, the traffic dead, only a blare of air horns from passing diesels.

I quit trying.

The hippy kid from Philly strutted in his fringed leather jacket and his red-toed boots, taking his turn, trying to hitch us a ride.

Red Cadillacs

10/22/2010

For the next few weeks I plan to ruminate on a hitchhiking trip I made in the fall of 1969 from San Diego, California, to Iowa City, Iowa, then back to San Diego. Lately, images from that trip slap down inside my recollection.

My buddy Wayne was a Marine like me. I think it was the audacity of his ideas that moved me to like him. The vast scale of his schemes—to buy a teak Chinese junk in L A and sail it to Honolulu; to rent a house in Pacific Beach, California, among the richer folks, even though we didn’t have any money; to purchase and keep a white-throated Capuchin monkey that gnawed the baseboards and door frames inside that house in Pacific Beach. And then to convince the landlord to give us all our damage deposit back.

When he proposed the hitching adventure, I slumped, envisioning psychopath murderers loose in red Cadillacs. He spun visions of adventure and the exotic . . . somehow Branson, Missouri, would be exotic (that was the original destination, long before Branson became famous). The road, the realm of lusty young men, returned warriors, turned loose to discover what America really meant. He talked of women picking us up on the road and asking for sex in payment. I particularly liked that. I dreamt of blonde women loose in red Cadillacs, looking for me. Yahoo! Nothing would be better.

We assessed funds (we were short of those), routes, stops, havens where we could meet if we got split up. Originally, Wayne had assumed I’d be going to Branson to his paternal grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.  But I harbored other notions. There was a girl I’d met in San Diego, a friend of Wayne’s, who’d visited California but lived in Iowa City. I hankered after her. I announced, “I’m going on to see her.”

He asked me, “Did you call her and ask her, or at least tell her your plans?” I shook my head. “Are you planning to call her?” I shook my head.

We left on a mid-September morning each with a five-buck bill, a pup tent shelter half, a wool blanket, some clothes, a toothbrush, some toothpaste. No razor. We rolled everything and threw it over our shoulders like Civil War knapsacks.

The early part of the trip proved uneventful. We caught rides up 395 to San Bernardino, then to Cajon Pass on Interstate 15. We stood at the on-ramp and hung thumbs out as traffic bored past. Late afternoon came on. We felt cool. Wayne said, “We might get cold. We need to get better visuality. Get out on the side of the freeway .” I said, “The signs say, ‘No hitch hikers.’”

He sneered. I walked out to the freeway and stuck up my thumb. Cars whizzed by. Comets, Mustangs, Falcons, GTOs—no red Cadillacs. People waved, shot me the finger, spit at me, yelled things I could not understand and then suddenly a California Highway Patrol Officer pulled over and wrote me a ticket for hitchhiking on the freeway. The he loaded us up and hauled us down the freeway to a warmer on/off ramp. He said, “I don’t want you to freeze.”

He dropped us off at a Texaco service station. A cool wind blew out of the west as we stood there on the edge of the parking lot. My spirits slid around the tops of my Dingo boots. People glared, ignored us, frowned. Dusk was only an hour away. I was hungry, my throat was dry. I thought, “Let’s catch a bus back to San Diego.” But I didn’t say it.

A dark blue ’62 Chevy Impala cruised by us. The way the engine idled reminded me of Soviet tanks rumbling out of the jungle. The windows wore a dark tint, so it was hard to see inside. The Impala pulled up to a gas pump.

Wayne bantered and crowed like a rooster. How fun this was, how exhilarating, how mind-expanding. I sniggered, “Mind expanding.”

The Impala crept away from the pumps, rumbled around and stopped in front of us. A window rolled down. A Chicano stuck his head out. “Wanna ride?” I saw Wayne hesitate, but I said, “Sure,” and the back door opened and a lanky Chicano climbed out and thumbed at the seat. Another Chicano sat on the other side. Something was stacked on the back seat floorboard. But I wanted to get on with the adventure, to get my mind expanded. I slid in and glanced at Wayne who shrugged. I said, “Come on, let’s go.” He climbed in. When the tall Chicano coiled in behind I noticed the fake pearl-handled butt of a thirty-eight revolver sticking out of his left front trouser pocket. I didn’t tell Wayne. He declaimed any use of guns. Funny for a Marine to say, but he tended towards peace, love, dove.

Whatever was on the floorboard forced our knees beneath our chins. The driver smiled at me in the rear view mirror as he pulled onto a side road and drove slowly north. Gold caps rimmed his canines. The Chicanos talked Spanish too fast. I couldn’t understand. My knees ached and my thighs burned from the awkward position. The late sun lay on the land like sea spray. Joshua trees jumped out of sandy spots between the fields as we rumbled by.

I leaned over after a while and looked at what was on the floor. Wrapped in blue paper and the shapes of bricks. I leaned closer and smelled pot. I sat up and glanced at the Chicanos on my left and my right. My heart hammered. Both the Chicanos in the back and the one riding shotgun stared at the alfalfa fields we passed. I looked in the rear view mirror. The driver kept shooting his eyes at me. I stared into the mirror like nothing was the matter. I glanced at Wayne, who dozed. I sniggered  again. “Talk about mind-expanding.”

They pulled in at a farmhouse and the driver got out and talked to the man who lived there. A nod, some cash. I noticed a bulge in the back of the driver’s tan trousers. Another gun. Two of the blue packages were handed out the window. My knees rested better without those kilos down there. From farm to farm we went. At every farm a short conversation in Spanish, or English. Sometimes what looked like a farmer, or a farmer’s hippy kid. Or a farm hand. Or his wife. At each stop a different Chicano got out of the car and talked, then took cash and stuffed it into his front pockets. They all packed weapons. The late daylight draped into dusk and the sweet peace of autumn on the Mojave Desert.

I kept my eyes on the driver, who seemed to be the boss. I wondered what kind of piece was stuffed in the back of his trousers. Nine millimeter, .357 Magnum. .45? Sometimes the late rays of the sun caught the gold caps on his teeth and the glint lit up the desert air.  Wayne snoozed through it all. The emptying of the floorboard and all the kilos stuffed in the trunk of the dark blue ’62 Impala.

Impalas are known to leap and run up to fifty-five miles an hour. But this Impala rumbled and chugged and stopped a lot, into the wheeze of the cooling evening when the Joshua trees popped out of the dark on the side of the road. Like ghosts.

Commerce in 1969 in South central California. Eventually, in the cool dark, they dropped us off in Barstow. Mind expanding? I don’t know. I started looking again for red Cadillacs.

Wolves

Betty and I motored through the Rocky Mountains out of Cook City, Montana, where Soda Butte Creek cuts a sharp canyon. At the northeast gate into Yellowstone, I asked the young woman at the entrance kiosk if we might witness any of the Druid Peak tribe of wolves in the Lamar River Valley. She said they hadn’t been seen for a week or so, “but they are around.”

Saddened a bit, we drove down the valley and stopped to look at the snow-white mountain goats on the cliffs overlooking the road, the creek, the dried-out meadows. And all the bushy bison feeding out in the plains.

In the wide Lamar River Valley, I understood why the wolves shied away. Hundreds of fisherman dotted the huge landscape, knee-deep in the river, trudging across the wide grassy meadows. It felt like an invasion of spacemen. I didn’t say that, but that’s how it felt. I wanted wolves and instead got trout fisher-people.

In 2004 Betty and I and our longtime friend, Helen McStravick, visited Yellowstone and watched the Druid Peak gang hunt the Lamar River Valley on a late June evening. Before the wolves even arrived, cow elk smelled the pack and circled around and around like crazed Jewish mothers awaiting a Nazi raid. Black bear chased their own cubs up aspen trees to protect them from the undulating wave of gray, black and white canines that roamed across the wide alluvial plain, their noses down, sniffing, ears up like radar antennae. The normally ever-present pronghorn were nowhere to be seen. Viewing the hunt, electric vibes chimed the tines of my backbone, my mouth dry as the dust beneath the sage. A terrible scene of beauty, my legs shook with a weakness I hoped no one else noticed.

The weakness I felt might be an indicator of why the wolf is so despised in my part of the country. And maybe, too, why it is so revered. The fear it instills. The admiration, too. Sheepmen and cattlemen, elk hunters, deer hunters, generally hate the wolf and rage against the federal government for its reintroduction into the mountain northwest. Nature lovers praise the wolf’s acumen, its savage skills.

Up here you love them or hate them. I’m not sure how I feel. I loved seeing them on the hunt, across the new June grass like a band of raiders intent on rape and plunder. That excited me. But they kill lambs and calves. And I once worked in that world, so I understand the loathing livestock people feel for this most efficient of killers.

Up here they are killed legally, illegally. People fear being killed by them. To these folks, the wolf is evil, cunning, and lies in wait to rip their children in half, in quarters. To the other side wolves are revered as if deities, noble and regal and deserving to be at the top of the food chain with us, ultimate predators of sage ground and mountain.

I think we humans view these beasts as personalities that act and think like us. They are noble. They are evil. But to me the wolf does what it does, kill, because that is what it needs to do to survive. Remember, all of us, even vegetarians, live by consuming some other living being. The wolf is good at what it does, as are we, sometimes.

I believe game hunters of the northwest despise the wolf because they think that our elk, pronghorn and deer herds are somehow theirs, like the bands of domestic sheep that browse on the Camas Prairie, or the cattle herds that graze on the ridges below the Lost River Range. The wild game are their own private meat stock, there for the harvesting, like fat feedlot steers ready for market. I have little sympathy for hunters.  I hunted successfully for years and know the word hunt does not mean guaranteed carcasses hanging in the cooler.

I do understand the rancher’s hatred, though. Ranch folk earn a living off their animals and their life is a steady pound of hot and cold, and wind and death, and livestock birth and somewhere in that birth the hardest of ranchers is softened and becomes a husbandman. One who husbands lambs and calves and even though he or she ships them off to market, there is a tie, an emotion that hangs around like the scent of September sage.

I once met a poet from Wyoming who raised sheep. When asked what she thought of wolves, she said, “I love them in the abstract.” And I think that captures the essence of this complicated quandary we face up here in Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana. We love wildness. But to what extent? Is it only so the elk herds can prosper for our October hunt that we love the wild? Or is it something more, the love of space, and no towns, no four-wheel-drives, no foul buzz of four-wheel ATV motors. The love of wildness for its own sake? And I wonder how all these in-town wolf lovers will react when the wolves begin to descend from the hills behind Boise and kill their dogs and cats, the pet mule deer that eat the plants in the back yard. Will the love of wildness still be there?

Like I said earlier, the thought of wolves hunting wild in Idaho and neighboring environs sets my mind to running on leather-clad legs across the high plains of dreams. My heart beats a little faster. But I know hating wildlife too, or if not hating it, knowing the necessity of its death. Thirty years ago, coyotes were once the object of my destructive wrath. I shot them, trapped them, watched them strangle to death on snares I hung off the bottom strands of barbed-wire fences not low enough to close off an arroyo. I poisoned them. Hell, I murdered white German shepherds that ran across the sheep fields with snouts bloody from massacring lambs. I poisoned registered Poodles and Rottweilers and Dobermans, curs and pure-breds, hunted coyotes constantly with my .243 on the seat next to me.  It was my business.

We forget how brutal the world can get. When a wounded coyote ran out of the sheep in an alfalfa field and in the front door of an old lady’s house south of Chandler, Arizona, a federal trapper and I burst in the front door and watched it pee on the couch as it sat slapping its tail on the damp fabric like any loving dog. We cackled as we toted that sheep eater outside like a pet and shot it between its dull yellow eyes.

Yet at the time, unlike some of my fellow livestock men or some of my liberal friends, I did not see dogs or coyotes as evil or noble, I saw them as animals in competition with me for resources. I understood… I understand now, I think…that if they do not kill and eat, they will weaken and starve to death. Or something else will eat them. Most probably one of their own kind. They have no choice but to kill.

Now, I generally shoo the neighbor’s cats out of the orange gladioli, and I pet dogs. Coyotes amuse me with their pranking. Wolves? I am ambivalent—they are killers extraordinaire—I revere them.

***

Some of you know that Betty and I are creating a documentary film about my Marine Corps rifle company’s tenure at the Siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. Along with videographer Mark Spear, we have completed a trailer for the movie and invite you to view it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFUJyUmB9Yw.  Or you can view it on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/15870694. Take a look and see what we are up to.

Incident at Anderson-Palmisano

10/8/2010

Sometimes creative writing is exciting, illuminating, surprising, but it can definitely be a chore, too. One of the things I’ve discovered since I started these regular Friday blogs is how often I have to find something to write about. When we were traveling, the subjects were hollered out at me, rolling behind the hum of our tires as we ran between the soybean fields, the sagebrush pastures. But now it’s, “What am I going to write about?” Often, the writing act locates subject. Get started and the focus looms into view.

My memory retreats to 1964, early August, Casa Grande, Arizona. The year I first went to work for the sheepherders.  A vicious drought in south Texas and sheep were dying. Truck load after truckload arrived in the Casa Grande Valley. Unlike Texas, rain drowned the Sonoran desert and the fescue and filaree sprung up in the wet calíche ground. Alfalfa fields, too, and other types of pasture lay waiting. We unloaded semi-truck after semi-truck, sometimes ten or fifteen a day into the chutes at the little feedlot on Sunland Gin Road.

We rose before sunup, three-thirty AM or four, and unloaded semis, built fence, pounded posts, moved bands of sheep, tore down fence until the 108-degree heat drove us out of the fields and back to Sunland Gin Road and an early lunch. We were a bunch of high school kids, but they usually let us have a cold Coors or a glass of Paisano red that we poured out of a gallon glass jug into tall plastic cups.

One particularly hot day we went in around 10:30 A M and ate bologna and cheese sandwiches, an iceberg lettuce salad with not-quite-ripe tomatoes and gone-by cukes, some chocolate chip cookies, whole milk and Coors and Paisano. Too much Coors and Paisano, can after glass, laughter, cold Coors not swallowed but caught in never-never land and shot back up into the sinuses, the nose and out the nostrils onto a paper plate of half-eaten sandwich, gummy white Wholesome Bread. Giggling, antics, acting like we were dancing with the girls at the Teen Center in the old National Guard Armory, someone singing Paul McCartney’s “If I Fell In Love with You,” with a spent Coors can like a microphone you’d see on “Shindig,” the dancer acting like he was holding a girlfriend close although for us summertime sheepherders, girlfriends were something yet to come.

I got stupid and slobbery but so did three or four of the others. It would probably have been okay, we could have napped it off, but some sheep trucks arrived from south Texas. The temperature at one-hundred ten or so. Triple decks of starving and thirsty, bleating, urinating, defecating, maniac sheep. I crawled in the decks on my hands and knees and ran them out. Piss and shit dripping on my head. I must have puked more than once. I must have stumbled. We got them in the corrals behind the bunkhouse and all the jefes showed up to sort the sheep. We were supposed to help run the sheep into a skinny little corral so we could vaccinate and worm them. But we stampeded the sheep again and again and more than one got balled up in a corner, the dust rising off the wool, the fevered frightened bleats of the ewes, the thump of hooves on bodies down in the dirt and  smothered and I heard the jefes cussing in español about how much each one of them cost and they’d take the money out of our wages and all I cared about was how my tongue felt bulging inside my mouth, the Paisano and Coors running drag races on the inside of my dead brain, the sweat flooding my eyes. My stomach going around and around like a ram chasing a cycling ewe.

And then we slept if off. Just a lot of mumbling in the afternoon, and mouths so dry the deserts there could not be slaked by the rusty water out of the spigots. The jefes kept their mouths shut. I figured we were free from that one. The jefes all drank. To excess. They understood. I knew that. They understood, even though responsibility rode my neck and a little bit of guilt, too, whispering in my ears from both shoulders later that night as we rode to the moving-picture house in the back of the bobtail truck we used for hauling fencing material. On the way to see “A Shot in the Dark,” and then home in the sulled-up and searing black of night and then to bed, a hangover gonging inside my skull, tolling, tolling a tune you wouldn’t hear on “Shindig.” Something more mordant, like the seven or eight dead sheep (sheep I was responsible for killing—should I say, murdered?) we hauled out to the dead pile that evening for the buzzards and the coyotes to eat.

The next morning the regular three-thirty tap on my window and out the door and into the truck but just me and one of the jefes. “Where’s everybody else?” The cool reply, “They’re going over to Eloy to build a fence. You and me got other business.” The steamy morning waiting for the ball of red fervor to come up in the east. Rattlesnakes coiled in the highway, cooling their slithery bones on the macadam. I could hear them strike the rear-end differential as we roared over them. A shudder of truck, at least in my mind, as I stared in the side-view mirror and watched them writhe in pain from fangs banging hard steel.

At Hartman Road we dove off the highway. I banged my head on the top of the cab. We sped out to Anderson-Palmisano farm, a rooster tail of dust boiling up behind the truck. He stopped on the powdery road and nodded at a big, beat-down, sheep-eaten eighty-acre field. “Roll up all that wire.”

“By myself? There’s over thirty of them.” His black eyes drilled my innards. My guts sank and my mouth scratched itself as I begged for a ball of spit. “I need some gloves.” He shrugged. I dug under the seats, in the glove compartment. No gloves. “I need water.” He smirked. “Got none.”

I knew if I quit, something would happen. He’d laugh. My friends would laugh. But something deeper and darker lurked in quitting. I spit into the dust, but nothing landed. I marched into the field. Dead tumbleweeds crunched beneath my boots. I started rolling up the page wire. (Good for keeping sheep in a field, about four feet high, with an iron pipe on each end. One-hundred feet long. Made of strong wire structures in rectangles about four inches by four inches, top to bottom, end to end.) After half a roll, my back burned, sweat boiled my eyeballs in front and behind. I dry-heaved. I looked up. He stood outside his truck watching me. Like a sentry. By the third roll, my tongue felt like a big piece of raw meat. It hurt when it touched my searing teeth, the roughed ridges of my hard palate. The harsh points of tumbleweed pricks stuck in my hands, my fingers, itched and burned. I’d never make it. He sat in the truck reading something, a girlie magazine, maybe, a sex book.  By roll number seven my hands bled and my feet burned, the crick in my back felt like an iron rod crammed into my spine. My head spun. He got out of his truck and took a leak in the canal. By number eighteen I was halfway around and I quit, walked off for the farmhouse and a telephone to whine for my mother. I jumped across the concrete-lined ditch. I looked at the algae-slimed water in the lower end. My tongue throbbed. I whimpered, tears slipped down my cheeks onto my chin. He leaned against the side of his truck, his arms folded as he watched me. He got in and started it up and headed towards me. I was whipped. I wiped my face with my bleeding hands and then for some reason a roar rocketed out of my mouth into the wide universe. I was mad. Mad at him, the wire, the tumbleweeds and the rattlers that snapped at the truck bottom. If I showed up like a whipped border collie, my mother would croon, “That’s alright, son,” and my father would say nothing. I changed my mind and stomped back into the field and for hours more, bleeding hands, I rolled them up, hauled them to the road, my lower back on fire. My spirit soared.

Devils Tower

Remember that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when Richard Dreyfuss frenetically sculpted his compulsions out of mashed potatoes? Remember the scene where he first sees Devils Tower? If you haven’t seen this movie, maybe you should, as both an anthropological treatise on 1970s American family life and as an artistic rendition of one man’s obsession, as well as a possible metaphor for the spiritual drive by which a person can be obsessed.

Interestingly enough, one of the places Betty and I visited on our whirlwind trip east and back, dealing with my obsession to make a documentary movie, was Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. As I stood looking up at it, I understood why it was the perfect image of obsession for Close Encounters. There is a power rooted in that stone monolith that sabers you in the innards when you grip that initial view.

We first saw it from Wyoming State Highway 24, just south of Hulett. The monolith shoots up about 1300 feet above the Belle Fourche River and the surrounding meadows and escarpments, and announces the western edge of the Black Hills.

Betty and I arrived at Devils Tower after passing through Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Belle Fourche is French for, according to the lady who worked the counter in the local Conoco service station, Beautiful Fork. The river, upstream from the town of Belle Fourche toward Devils Tower, is beautiful: sometimes a valley with fields of hay, black cows, red cows, pinto horses; sometimes a gorge with red-rimmed cliffs topped with juniper and ponderosa. The river horseshoes, oxbows and arrows northeast towards the Cheyenne River, which joins the Missouri, which joins the Mississippi on its obsessive journey towards the sea.

I had no intention on staying in Belle Fourche long. I just wanted to see where Billy Otis (more about Billy later) is from. They were tearing up the main drag in Belle Fourche, sawing concrete, unloading base material, pounding stakes, surveying, giving the surrounding buildings a pale, concrete-colored cast. There was a well-kept grain elevator on the railroad tracks that ran right through the middle of town. There was a bar, some cafes, an Art Deco movie house that looked like it was still showing films. There was a building downtown that harbored information about Belle Fourche being the geographic center of the United States, that is if you include Alaska and Hawaii in the mix.  All the frenetic roadwork and drive to spend Belle Fourche’s share of the stimulus money reminded me once again of our need—not just our want—for mammon.

As we drove up and down the street dodging traffic used to dealing with the particularities of the road-building, I noticed characteristics of a place that gets cold. Cold and windy. Blistered paint, roughed up paint, no paint at all. I understood why Billy Otis headed south to Arizona where I knew him.

I first met Billy when I was a student obsessed with being a cattleman. I registered in his artificial insemination class at a junior college in Arizona. Billy was a cattleman then, too, and ran a company, if I remember right, that did breeding management plans for ranches, which included artificial insemination. We sat in the classroom all day Saturdays back then in 1972 as he lectured us about semen, and cervix, and the right kind of working pens. Once or twice we got to journey to the state prison at Florence, Arizona, and actually worked on inseminating and pregnancy-testing the old, beat-up Holstein cows in the prison dairy herd.

Years later, I ran into him again while we both worked for J. R. Norton, III’s agricultural empire, in the cattle feeding division. Billy and I helped wind down and phase out the big Spur Feeding operation on the Gila Indian Reservation at Santan. We did a lot of drinking and carousing as we looked at cattle, gave tours to visiting mid-westerners from the National Cattleman’s Association, climbed around in a storage bin hefting double handfuls of burnt beet pulp, assessing it for nutritional value as a component in the feed we milled for our cattle.

I can see him in my memory, a can of Coors in his stubby right hand, a load of snoose crammed in his lower lip, his grey and battered Stetson hat with the work stains just above the sweat band. He always wore long-sleeved shirts and high-priced but well used cowboy boots. His shirts, in my mind anyway, were always plaid, a modest plaid with modest colors. Many mornings we began long before sun-up and ended long after dark as if intent on gathering together everything life could possibly offer, whether good for us or bad. After Spur Feeding shut down, I lost track of Billy.

A couple of years ago, my friend Ray Fred Kelly told me Billy is now an evangelical pastor. What a surprise, but then maybe it shouldn’t be. Everywhere Betty and I traveled this last summer we saw evidence of a strong return to spirituality—or maybe it was always there and I just hadn’t paid attention. Traveling across America we saw Burma Shave-sized signs spouting scripture, and a proliferation of highway billboards singing the praises of Jesus Christ, and evidence of Christian activity on all levels. And Jewish stuff, and Buddhist, and at Devils Tower, Native American activity. All around the base of the mountain, where the scree and scrabble had tumbled down for eons, little shrines supplicated—bird feathers, snippets of red and blue and orange fabric, white animal bones—to the deities of the mountain. The National Park Service had signs posted, alerting visitors to the sacred nature of those places. This was not something to chuckle at; it was serious stuff.

I already had a notion that Devils Tower was sacred to this continent’s original human inhabitants. I saw it in the 1989 Native-American cult classic film titled Powwow Highway. In that movie, so different from Close Encounters, the movie’s protagonists, played by Gary Farmer and A Martinez, scramble atop the tower and conduct spiritual ceremonies that propel them into a more arduous physical and spiritual journey in search of who they are and what their lives mean. I suppose Betty and I were searching for something like that on our journey that led us to Belle Fourche, and Devils Tower, and later that day, Lame Deer, Montana and then the Little Big Horn.

But then again, that’s what the characters in Close Encounters were seeking, too, when I think of it, and the spirituality was represented in the metaphor of aliens from some other galaxy. I’m not sure how I feel about God or Jesus, or Yahweh or Buddha or the other deities that can be worshiped and prayed to at Devils Tower. And do I dare ask if all these spiritual quests are some sort of obsession? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that my journey to get to DC, to Wyoming, back to Idaho, the journey inside myself, this story I am obsessed with telling, way back in the back of my mind, and creeping up my spine, represents more than stimulus money, pocket change, fame, a greasy cheeseburger and a thick chocolate milkshake. I suspect Billy Otis knows that, too, as do the men and women who maintain their shrines at the base of Devils Tower.

Meat Bees

Yesterday evening Betty and I ate out on the back patio. Much of the year in Boise is too chilled or sizzly for us to enjoy dining on our bar-b-qued portabellas and pork roast out there, but yesterday’s mild weather allowed the white butterflies to flit from arctic willow to carpet rose. Dragonflies jetted back and forth, preying on the small things that live in the lawn. Vs of Canadian geese honked past on their way from corn stubble to the river. We chatted as mourning dove cooed from the eaves of our neighbor’s patio. But then a yellow jacket showed, buzzing its angry little patrol around our plates, our forks, our faces, with its hostile yellow cast an alarm for all to know that it arrives to seize what’s rightfully its and then steal the rest. When I lived in New Mexico the old timers called them meat bees. Meat bees, cheat bees, nuisance bees.

Betty has sour experiences with these critters. They sting her and then infections erupt from the wounds where they attacked. The doctors told her yellow jackets love to feed on all kinds of things, both good and nasty, so that when they sting, they inject a lot of infectious demons besides the jolt of poison.

I recall a year in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains when meat bees swarmed out of every old stump, piece of rotten Ponderosa, or hole in the ground. Standing outside on the boardwalk outside of the Western Bar they’d check out the red burn on the end of your Winston. They’d snitch the deer meat off the end of your fork. They’d sample the milk, the cream, the cotton candy. As long as there was only one buzzing around, I could act like I wasn’t going to panic, but get two or three showing curiosity and my heart rate would amp up to one-hundred plus. I don’t know why I’m so damned scared of some little buzz-nut like that, but something about them sets off all my internal alarms.

That year I was involved in tearing up a bunch of high-mountain country to make a subdivision. It was fall.  Wofford was cutting roads through the fractured limestone. Alarcon and his wood crew cut right-of-way through the spruce and fir and pine. One Saturday I sat in my Ford Bronco II and watched Wofford maneuver his yellow D-6 crawler, pushing huge chunks of chalk and mud, yellow boulders around and down the banks as he cut the road out of Young Canyon up towards Rawlins Ridge.

I had gone out there to see if I could find the buttery blossoms of Hooker’s Evening Primrose, but cold Coors doesn’t seem to mix too well with identifying flowers. And I had Coors. I’d killed a couple before going out to the diggings, and now I sat watching Wofford and sipped more cold ones. I liked to hold the cans in the sun so the light reflected off the yellow and gold of the paint and then reflected off the glass of my rolled-up windows and back into my eyes, blinding me momentarily.

From time to time I opened a dog-eared copy of William Manchester’s massive tome titled the Arms of Krupp in which the author chronicles the family’s (and arms manufacturer’s) rise as the world’s greatest producer of weaponry from the 1600s through World War II. As I read it, I marveled at the warp and woof of the arms trade in this world. I had to laugh, too, as I sipped my cold beer, at how Krupp now makes appliances. At home I was grinding my coffee beans with a tool made by the most infamous arms dealer the world had known. Hmm—cannon cockers to coffee grinders. It’s all about technology and how we so easily convert the benefits of scientific and engineering expertise into tools both benign and deadly.

Once I looked up and watched Wofford as he roared and huffed his D-6 close to my Bronco. He waived at me and that’s when I noticed a swarm of yellow jackets gathered around the front of his Cat. I wasn’t sure why they buzzed and hovered around the bonnet over the engine. The cab was open and they didn’t seem to bother Wofford, just craved the front end of his Cat. Alarcon drove up. In some kind of serendipitous moment he wore a yellow hat that read CAT on the front. I supposed he needed to ask Wofford something about the right-of-way up the mountain. As soon as Alarcon got out of his blue truck the yellow jackets attacked his head. Had he just stood there they might have left him be, but as I sucked a long swig off my cold Coors, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him as he began to punch and swat, then run as they balled up like a yellow spirit out of Hell and began to swarm after him. I don’t know if while reading about death, about dive bombers and ballistics, I’d missed some of the earlier action, but it seemed that every yellow Jacket in Otero County had congregated on the road project and was suddenly after Alarcon. He ran, dodged, stopped, spun around, threw his arms up over his face, then ran again, stumbled, crashed to the ground, crawled under a young Douglas fir tree where an errant branch knocked off his yellow CAT hat. As he managed to get up on both feet and sprint across a grassy spot on the side of a steep hill, the yellow jackets stayed behind with that yellow CAT hat. Who knew that they loved yellow? But as I looked around, everything was yellow. The late afternoon sun caught in the tops of the aspen that were turning . . . yes, yellow . . . and the tops of the windmill grass and the sleepy grass and the imported Kentucky blue grasses planted by the early settlers a hundred years before.

It took me several weeks to read The Arms of Krupp and all the way through I marveled at our ability (I mean us humans) to institutionalize our violence, our hostility. We own it in so many ways. Man on man, man on child, man on wife, man on dog or horse, or sheep or cockatoo. Oh, and lest I be maligned as overly chauvinist, women beat men, too. We do it in groups. Hell, even yellow jackets are hostile. They don’t build cannons, but get them riled and they might sting you to death.

Later that year, my business partner, Robert Moser, went to Alaska and killed a moose and a caribou and brought some meat back and stuck it in his freezer. The next fall I volunteered to cook that meat and made a big chili stew. I thawed the back straps and diced them, then sautéed the meat in garlic and red pepper and a little salt.  The scent of cooking meat grew heady and I decided to open the windows. I slid them open so that only the screens protected me from all the hostility outside. As I cooked, I drank a Coors, then another, and listened to the Marshall Tucker Band sing “Can’t You See” over and over and over again. But something was amiss. A low hum interfered with the music. I walked over to the stereo and looked at it. Seemed okay, and the speakers too. I fiddled with the controls, swore a time or two and then kicked the woofer. No change. I scratched my head and looked around and noticed something on the screen on the back door. All light from outside was blocked from coming in. I walked closer and noticed the kitchen window was the same. A quick assessment of the rest of the house told me some sinister force was blocking the last light of early autumn from getting into my life. I wanted to walk closer, but shivered. I took one step, then another as the hum grew louder. And then I saw  them. Meat bees. They smelled me cooking moose meat and they wanted what I had. My heart began to pound and I had to sit on the green and russet couch in the front room. Yellow jackets, thousands and thousands, hell maybe millions, were on my screens trying to get in. I wondered if they could eat the steel in the wire mesh in the screens. I turned the simmering meat off and bit my fingernails and suddenly thought of Krupp, his guns, and I understood why we do these things. Starts out with fear, moves to protection of the self, then the clan. We get good at it. The yellow jackets are good at it and they are supposed to have no brains at all. But there they were, and if I’d had a huge can of RAID, I’d have murdered them all. What about my pistola? I could hull away at them from inside the house, but then I’d blow a hole in the screen and then one would get in and another and…


Amo, Amas, Amat

Wednesday morning I stood on the boardwalk in Nevada City, Montana. In shadows cast by the old ghost town’s buildings, my feet slipped on a thin sheet of ice and I caught my breath. A cool breeze blew out of the west and captured moisture rising off the roofs of well-preserved stores and shops that once roared and hummed in the town’s old 1860s days when it was famous for placer gold diggings and vigilantes lynching claim jumpers.

This is not the first time I stood in Nevada City. I arrived in late July of 1962 visiting with two busloads of high school kids from Arizona. We were conventioning at Montana State University in nearby Bozeman and had ventured for a day to Nevada City and its neighbor, Virginia City. Back then the place was what in the Marine Corps we would call a geedunck—greasy hot dogs smothered with mustard and chopped onions, strawberry phosphates, chocolate malts, cheap wallets with wild buckaroos stamped into fake leather, tourist trap crap.

We were in Montana with the Junior Classical League, studiers of Latin. Some of you might chuckle at the thought of me studying Latin, and you would be right about your intuition. The Latin teacher at our high school, Mrs. Johnson, didn’t care for me as a student. I continuously chewed gum in direct disobedience to her demands that we not chew gum. But that was only one of many torments I inflicted on her, and here she was stuck with me for four weeks of her summer as we traveled from Phoenix to Bryce Canyon to Salt Lake to Yellowstone to Bozeman to Missoula to Seattle for the World’s Fair, to Crater Lake, to Reno, to Las Vegas and back to Phoenix.

While in Bozeman we competed in translation contests, and mythology tests, argued about the history of Rome. I don’t recall doing well or not well in those things. I do recall chasing a weasel, treeing some red squirrels, eating hamburgers in the college rec area where we shot Snooker instead of attending lectures on Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.

I was a mediocre student that year in all my studies. I was underweight, fighting pimples, my voice caroming high low high without warning. I hated my parents, my sister, and most of my friends. I was too small to be an athlete, and girls giggled at me (or so I imagined) when I tried to talk to them.

In Latin class we conjugated a lot of verbs, such as eō, which means “go.”

eō                           I go
īs                             You go
it                              He, she, it goes
ī́mus                     We go
ī́tis                         You go (the plural you)
eunt                        They go

I can see in those Latin words some roots of our own lingo:  Itinerary, itinerant…itinerant, journeyor, that’s what I have become, or maybe that’s what I always was. On our just-completed journey to Washington, DC, and back, sensory input bored through my eyes and ears and nose and got inside my brain and scrambled around and around like crazy cats chasing their long calico tails. I don’t know how long it will take for the profundity of it all to seep into my ken. I suppose that was one of the many reasons I wished to embark across the continent (besides making movies) . . .  the discovery of a lot of other mysteries and magnificences about our country, our people, about myself. And I am surprised by the affection I suddenly feel for my country, its landscapes, foibles, folks, critters.

Looking back, I want to list everything I saw and all the moments and sights that rattled my senses, but doing so would make this blog way too long. But I will say what surprised me the most. Brown County, Indiana, surprised me. Right now (and this might change) I think Brown County is the most beautiful place I saw on the entire trip. The hardwood groves and the old country roads. The ancient stonehead road marker carved in 1851 by a resident meeting his annual requirement to work six days on the local roads. The old log cabins, some as old as Honest Abe Lincoln, I suppose. The smell of wood smoke, the sound of roosters crowing, crows cawing, woodpeckers battering the bark of sugar maples, the taste of fried chicken and Maxine Bailey’s homemade noodles . . . all these things, mixed with the vernacular the Indianans speak, something we may have heard come directly out of Honest Abe’s mouth.

South Dakota surprised me, too, one of those states I tend to forget about when I think of this country. Sparsely populated, it moves from a lush, fertile east, to a flat, harsh center, to a hilly conifered west along with its fabled badlands. We saw it all. Sunsets so red you thought the gods were bleeding onto a table of black clouds. The Mount Rushmore faces of Honest Abe, and G Washington and T Jefferson and T Roosevelt, so life-like, enormous, peering out over the hills, visible for miles, as if looking into our dark and cloudy future. And I don’t want to forget—we saw bison, bison, bison, a vestige of our greater age.

Amo                       I love

Amas                     You love

Amat                      He, she, it loves

Amamus               We love

Amatis                  You love (the plural you)

Amant                   They love

This is the Latin conjugation I remember. Back in 1962 and all that Latin Club trip jazz, there was a girl from Phoenix, a girl who looked like a woman, a pretty woman, smart, a straight-A student, who tried to kiss me out behind one of the shops in Nevada City. She may have succeeded, but what I remember is that she tried and when she did, lizards scrabbled up the insides of my legs, their little claws itching my thigh bones, my shins.

Moving towards home three days ago, we drove through Yellowstone National Park. I experienced that scrabbly feeling again when I spotted the white shaggy bodies of mountain goats above the Lamar River Valley and even more so when a grizzly bolted across the highway in front of us. His whole frame shook like muscles in motion. I stopped and peered into the thickets of lodgepole pine that ganged up like sentries in the evening light. Like the girl back in 1962, that bear was long gone.

The day before that, at Little Bighorn Battlefield, Betty and I wandered around the national cemetery and photographed headstones from every American war since the 1870s. A man asked me where Custer was buried. I told him, “At the US Military Academy at West Point, NY.“ He glared at me like I was lying and I suddenly figured he wanted to know where Custer was killed. I started to point up towards “Last Stand Hill,” but he interrupted me. “What’s that bird?” he asked. A sage grouse stalked between white gravestones. Unafraid of all the visitors, it headed south to north as the late dusky sun threw long headstone shadows. Two men struggled along as if they were looking for the name of some long-dead relative. The breeze hummed a tuneful anthem through the pine trees.  Amo, amo. Something inside my spirit wanted out of my self-imprisonment, to sing, to dance. I could have stood there the rest of my life and exalted in…in what? What was to come the next day, the day after that? What is to come forever?

Right then, like all of us, I didn’t know what was to come, that I was going to stop in Nevada City, Montana, and remember Caesar, Amo, that girl who wanted to kiss me.

Richmond

Greetings from Canning, South Dakota.

Last week, Betty and I went to Richmond, Virginia, to visit our friends Lee and Betty Plevney.  They showed us around the city and took us to some historical sites. We ventured along the James River and watched the water roll over the rocks. We bumped along the cobbles on Canal Street. Drove beneath the gigantic statue of a Confederate Army officer who stared down into the old city from one of Richmond’s many hills. One-hundred-plus-year-old tobacco warehouses lined the river banks. Smoke stacks, red brick Georgian homes, white colonial architecture with massive columns that hold the heads of houses and buildings up high, up proud. As if they never lost the Civil War. Did they lose? Really Lose. They don’t act like it. It was green and ninety-nine degrees when we finally climbed up the steps to the old St. John’s church where Patrick Henry delivered his fiery speech on March 23, 1775, when he supposedly said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

When we drove up to Old St. John’s I expected something grandiose and pompous, a reliquary worthy of those hallowed words, but what we found was a small church on a hot hill. It looked like it would need a paint job some summer real soon. The big trees were dusty and the church yard was crammed with old gravestones scattered hither and yon with names that meant nothing to me as I stared at them and tried to read the names of the deceased. The stones flaked off and parts of the names had turned to sand and dust. A lot of the stones from the seventeen-hundreds were scripted in letters with big, showy flourishes which would  have made reading them difficult even if they had not been damaged by wind, water and sun. I wondered how many of the bodies there died as a result of the war that Henry and others helped to incite with their heady calls to arms.

After a great visit with the Plevneys, we headed north back to Washington, DC, and passed Cold Harbor and Spotsylvania Courthouse, the old 1964 battlefield called The Wilderness which, the year before that, was called Chancellorsville; and we passed Fredericksburg, and then Manassas where two monumental conflicts were fought. We missed Malvern Hill, and New Market, Petersburg, Harper’s Ferry and Appomattox.

My great-grandfather, my great-great grandfather and his brother were most likely at Appomattox, defeated and disarmed when Phil Sheridan and U S Grant cornered Lee and finally forced a capitulation. My father told me my great-grandfather walked all the way home to Texas after Lee’s surrender. That’s probably 1500 hundred miles and would wear out a pair or two of good boots, if he had them.

In Richmond the Confederacy lives on: That big statue I mentioned earlier, and monuments to Stonewall Jackson and Jeff Davis and the Confederate flags that flap on the little staffs that fit on the backs of cars and trucks. That slap slap slap they make as Virginia-licensed vehicles sped past us acted as reminders that they have yet to give in. Do I like that? That they won’t give in? I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand I admire their tenacity and think it speaks to some of the things that make this country what it is and some of those things I even admire. But then again, I don’t like the buried tint of racism I think lurks there, beneath the patina of Confederate bravado. Do I believe that all the people who fly the Confederate flag or who say, “The South is going to rise again,” are racist? I don’t think so, but still, there is some malice there in spite of Lincoln’s words, “With Malice Towards None.”

Virginia is a land of elan: the Marines, the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. Those old battlefields, Washington and Jefferson’s homes, Madison and Monroe, Jamestown and Old Williamsburg, Hampton Roads and Norfolk. Virginia holds the heart of militarism in this country. We are a military bunch, like it or not. 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Mideast of today.

And that’s just the big ones. Betty and I visited, not once, but twice, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and got a sense of all the other little scrapes, shootouts, assaults and invasions we have been involved in. The numerous Indian Wars as we like to call them (Blackhawk, Comanche, Creek, Sioux, Nez Perce, Apache, to name just a few), the Barbary pirates, and incursions in Chile, Nicaragua, Mexico, Japan, the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine insurrection, Haiti (how many times?), and ditto the Dominican Republic. In our lifetimes, how about Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, and on and on?

We are a nation of warriors. My mother’s ancestors, descendents of pilgrims on the Mayflower, fought for both the rebels in the American Revolution and for the British, too. My father’s clan fought for the south. I had a second cousin gassed in the Argonne in 1918. My father and four of his brothers, and my mother’s younger brother fought in World War II, as did two of my cousins. I had two cousins serve in Korea, one dying by the hand of a Chinese soldier on the frozen road south out of Chosin Reservoir. I, and I don’t know how many other of my kin, fought in Vietnam. Now we are in the Mideast and I am sure some of my family is over there. A lot of families in the country have similar warrior pedigrees.

Do we learn? Does it matter? Does it matter that the seed of men who fought against each other in the revolution and the civil war now fight together against our common—is the correct word enemies? Or are we the enemy? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pacifist, nor am I a war monger. I fought in the big disaster meddled with by the politicians while we waited for permission to load our weapons as the VC came through the wire. I am ambivalent about war, feel it is what we do—dare I say it is what we do best?

Later, after we left Richmond, we went to Nashville, Indiana, to visit Michael O’Hara and Maxine Bailey. We journeyed down to the local cemetery and looked at old graves. There was a grave for a union soldier who fought In the Grand Army of the Republic. The graveyard was full of World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans. As we ambled between the stones, we noticed a lot of common names and one of the locals told us that everybody in that place was related. A spider web, a string of interlocked families tied by lives and graves. Graves etched as monuments to war.

Back home at O’Hara’s, we talked Vietnam War memories and talked about our wealth of scars. I looked at pictures of his children and thought of my children and how we inadvertently pass on the remnants of our combat experience—death, blood, fear, violence, hate, anger. We scar our children and grandchildren, often without malice towards them.

We pass it on. It goes on—and on.