Endless Autumn

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.

Garden Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

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.

Aspen, Wood River Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

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.

Salmon River Country, Stanley Basin, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

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.

Donner Lake, Sierra Nevada, California Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

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.

Railroad Depots and Wool Bags

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.

Southern Pacific Station in Sanderson, TX, circa 1903. Photo by Robert Prosser

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…

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

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.

On Sheep, Blogging and Hog Leg .44s

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.

On Wood Storks, Murder and Idabel, Oklahoma

A couple of days ago Betty and I motored north out of east Texas up US Highway 259 into McCurtain County, Oklahoma, towards the small town of Idabel. I can recall my oldest living aunt, who would have been born around 1903, talking about that town when I was a kid. I have no recollection of what was specifically discussed, but I suspect the clan inhabited the place or adjacent diggings in the days before they had to flee the country for the searing climes of south-central Arizona.

The border between Texas and Oklahoma in that locale is the Red River. North of the river lies Red Slough, a marshy, tree-bedizened terrain pocked with ponds and sumps that before the Anglo settlers showed up and diked and drained would have been a tough place to farm and run cows.

As we drove north we spotted a large number of big white birds sitting on the other side of a long, narrow pond. Some of them looked like egrets, but others seemed larger and more…can I use this word to describe birds…authoritarian.
The day before, between Tyler and Mount Pleasant, Texas, we had seen what looked to us—or when we first saw them we didn’t know what they were because we’d never seen them—like wood storks. But the books say the storks live further south and blah blah with other stuff bird identification books say. But still, we thought we saw them. But we have thought we have seen rare birds before, only to find out they were something else, and the feeling of having made a rookie mistake forces us to hesitate anytime we think we have a rare bird identified.

Wood Stork, courtesy of Wikipedia

Wood storks are the only storks that breed in the US. They are big white birds with dark heads and big long bills. They stand forty or so inches tall and weight six to seven pounds. They like to hang around in ponds where the water is receding so that as the fish concentrate, the storks can wade in and use their big long dusky yellow bills to capture dinner.

South of Idabel I stopped in front of a rundown Oklahoma honky-tonk and turned around and parked in a spot by the side of the pond. A line of bushes partially obscured the birds in question. Across the road, old rusty rakes and swathers and tractors and trucks ganged up around a falling-down barn. We got out and took a good look at the birds. We had our Sibley bird book out and our binoculars that had fogged-up lenses because they were cold from the air conditioner and it was hot and humid outside. We rubbed the moisture from both the lenses and the eyepieces again and again and as we looked up, one of the suspect birds flew in low for a landing and the flight feathers were black, a distinguishing factor in wood stork identification. The big gang standing around in the water sported dark heads and big long dusky yellow beaks just like Sibley says they should if they are indeed wood storks.

Given our experiences mis-identifying avian critters, and given the experts saying that the birds hang out further south, I was hesitant to write this blog.

The Internet is a terrible thing sometimes, and sometimes it is wonderful. As I type this blog, the Internet is wonderful. This evening I found enough blog posts from local Oklahoma birders to believe that we really did see wood storks. Evidently, they tend to hang out around McCurtain County, Oklahoma.

In my memory, my paternal ancestors fled the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas region because of murder. Maybe there was a trial and the killer was acquitted, or maybe they hightailed it west with a name change providing just enough curtain to hide them from the law.

As I watched those wood storks near Idabel I had the feeling that I was observing something ancient and full of wisdom like judges, but not the local circuit court justices who would have judged my murderous grandfather or one of his killer brothers, but something more in the vein of half-human, half-avian beings that judge the dead as they enter the netherworld. Bird-like thinkers who own a roll call of every deed a man or woman ever did, bad or good, a ledger of sorts, toted up and spit out from the big dusky yellow bill as one passes his/her way into eternity.

Maybe Dante was thinking about something like these wonderful storks when he penned those words “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Of course the scientists will say they are just birds who cannot think or reason and as such they are incapable of making calculations of any kind. But I am a creative writer and a filmmaker and I say if I can conceive a notion, then I can believe in its possibility.

Back there in Idabel, Oklahoma, Betty asked me if I felt any ancestral tugs as we passed through the land where my father’s father, and his father, spent large chunks of their lives, and I told her, “No.”

But tonight, here in Memphis, Tennessee, I think maybe I did. Maybe I felt that tug that tethered them until they had to leave in the night and change their names from what…from Banta or something like that…to Rodgers. Part of that tug was the gut feeling with which those big judges with the long dusky yellow bills have netted me, or I have netted myself, or I am so enamored with those birds, and with the land, and its history, that I create my own realities. And of course, maybe I should be more tentative about all this speculation, like I often am when identifying rare birds.

On Tax Day, Auditors and Cow Manure

Tuesday last was tax day and as I usually do around April 17, I ponder taxes, money, accountants.

All of this, of course, fuels imagery that erupts from the past: characters, events, some funny, some sad, some unwanted, some I am glad I remembered.

In 1979-1980 I worked for a big corporation in the ag business; cotton, lettuce, ranches, feed lots. I was part of a team who ran a feedlot on the Gila River Indian Reservation at a place called San Tan, southeast of Phoenix.

When somebody from the Phoenix corporate office called and said “Audit,” images of three-piece suits came to mind. Imagine a suit (an auditor) on a cayuse. A twirling lasso cutting the breeze, stirrups, chaps, saddle (an auditor?).

When you work outside at a feed yard you fight manure dust biting the eyes, the ears, the nose. Flies, sweat, cattle wild with fear. Frightened cattle don’t eat. That stops them gaining weight. It costs money when they don’t gain weight.

Not making money…hmmm…the thought of an auditor causing loss of money seems an oxymoron, but a lot about the cattle feeding business is strange. Somewhere the task of providing protein for a hungry world gets caught up with the drive to make a buck. We all understand making a buck, but when keeping track of making bucks hinders the efficiently production of a t-bone steak, it causes a buckaroo to pull off his Stetson and scratch his head.

They’d be out on Saturday morning. That’s what they said. “Saturday.” It was going to be 105 degrees so that meant a dawn start. We’d need to chouse the cattle before they had time to eat.

My cohorts, Robert, the manager, and Ed, the cattle boss, showed up before the sun sliced the eastern horizon. We copied lists and lot numbers and waited for the auditor.

A dark blue BMW pulled up. Two men, one whom I recognized as the corporate controller and who was wearing fancy orange and gold Nikes, and another whom I had never seen, got out and stomped up to the front door. Both looked rough…hangover rough, pallid skins. A day’s dark whiskers glooming their faces. When the controller walked in, those orange and gold Nike’s cut the dim like the glint of coin in a counting house. I thought to myself, those shoes are a bit brash for knocking around in cow manure.

Robert said, “It’s going to get hot fast. And it’s hard on the cattle. We best be moving now.”

Two cowboys showed up on horseback. Flies began what flies do: eat, lay eggs, die and bother horses, cattle and humans. The sun grew surlier as the day swelled.

As soon as the auditor and Mister Controller picked a pen of cattle (we were trying to see if the actual count matched what the records said) the cowboys drove the lot into an alley between the pens and we’d count. Dust rose with the temperature. The auditor broke an early sweat and Mister Controller complained about everything: the heat, the flies, the dust.

If the count was off, we’d run the lot out into the alley again and count them a second time. The cattle didn’t like it. Once or twice, big hump-backed smoky-gray south Texas steers hurdled the sucker rod fences which dismayed the auditor, messing with his tallies. Ed and the cowboys cackled. Mister Controller spent a lot of time pontificating on cattle, especially south Texas, half wild smoky-gray hump backs. It sounded like a bunch of…how should I best say it?…like a bunch of manure.

We had eight or ten lots to tally and were keeping pretty close on our counts which made Robert happy…less chousing the cattle. It was hard to tell what the auditor thought. He looked to me like he needed a cool place to vomit up his hung-over guts. Mister Controller kept babbling about cattle this and cattle that.

On the last lot, we drove the steers out into the alley and threaded them back in. In the middle of the pen, a big wet spot about ten feet across marked the tan dust a dark brown. All of us, the cowboys, Robert, Ed and me, avoided that spot. There was a leaky water line down below the four or five feet of dried manure.

Robert and Ed told everyone to stay clear of the wet spot. As we finished the count, Mister Controller crossed the pen, wiping his hands like he’d just finished a big chore.

He yelled at the auditor, “What’s the count look like?” as he stepped into the big wet spot. Ed yelled, “Hey, don’t go there.” Mister Controller frowned and said, “I don’t take orders from…” and he began to sink. As if it was all a fantasy, he walked on into the middle of the spot with a look on his face like he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He sunk past his knees. Robert yelled, “It’s like quicksand.”

Mister Controller stopped and glanced down as he sunk an inch at a time. He stuck out his hand. “Help me.” The auditor looked at me and I shrugged. Mister Controller looked at me, too, but I shook my head. He almost sobbed, “Why?” One of us, I don’t remember, said, “Because you’ll pull us in.”

One of the things a cowboy loves to do more than anything is build a loop and rope something. They will rope anything…a dog, a goat, a horse, a set of horns on top of a saw-horse. I don’t know if one of us suggested it, but before you could slap a blow fly off the side of your face, the two cowboys had their ropes in their hands building loops. Mister Controller sank deeper, his face paralyzed by the realization he was caught in the nefarious grip of cow shit.

One loop, then two, whirled in the hot air. Somebody chuckled, and then laughed as one loop, then two, flopped over the torso of Mister Controller. Drawn tight, trapping his flailing arms. He yelled, “Hey, wait a …” We laughed, even Mister Hung-over Auditor, as the cowboys pulled Mister Controller out.

I don’t know how much weight gain was lost as a result of the audit. But there were other rewards, wastes and squanders. Mister Controller lost one of his fancy orange and gold Nike’s. Sucked right off his foot into that manure sinkhole. I have often wondered what else he lost.

On Honky-tonks, Wild Folk and Newborns

Our daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Baruch, are expecting their first baby in July. We have grandkids already. One, Justyce, is already zooming her way to young adulthood. The prospect for the arrival of a newborn is damned exciting.

As I think about this new granddaughter, the season is Spring and outside the daffodils are smiling the color of the sun. Down the streets, pear trees’ white blossoms balloon the moods of commuters. Pink and reds and purples emerge. It is a season of birth, re-birth, new growth.

Then I think about the old days and how mothers produced sons and daughters that were cold as stone when they emerged from the womb. Youngsters died of measles, mumps, smallpox, scarlet fever before they had a chance to mate, get drunk, find Jesus, get old. Those were the days of small farms where women and men hoed rows of corn and dug their spuds. Milked cows, sheared sheep, cooked oat cakes over cast iron stoves that threw heat like the halls of hell. Chores galore; stirring dirty clothes in a big cast iron pot full of boiled water and harsh lye soap. Candle making, quilting, sewing; all created a dire need for lots of hands. Lots of children were needed to help out on the farm

In 1971 my father and I took my son, James, to see the movie Man In the Wilderness, set in the Northwest during the early 1800s, with Richard Harris and John Huston. The characters in the film were fur trappers and one of them, the Richard Harris character, voyeured a Native American woman giving birth to a child. Out in the thick woods, she just squatted, without help, as her man kept watch from afar, I suppose to keep grizzlies and wolves from attacking her as she birthed that baby.

At the time, I thought that scene was a little over the top in terms of dramatization. I remember my now-long-deceased friend Richard Madewell scoffing, “That’s all a bunch of BS to sell movie tickets.” I tended to agree. Son James, who was about three years old, seemed more interested in the bear that attacked Harris’s character and didn’t have much to say about the on-screen child birth.

That was back in the honky-tonking days of my youth. I spent spare time down at the bar on Main Street where the skid row drunks sat on the high curb and waited for the sun to come up and the bars to open. My watering hole was a rough location, a bar as old as any of the businesses in town.

Big fans beat the air around the pressed tin ceiling with its fancy curlicues and circles. We listened to Dire Straits and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, tunes from the Allman Brothers’ Idlewild South.

We downed flat draft beer and shots of cheap tequila, Bloody Marys, Spañada, wine coolers, bad Scotch and VO with Seven, not to mention more nefarious substances. We shot nine ball and eight ball, got in fights, in shootouts. We got drunk, and not drunk. Hippies, cowboys, college professors who taught Español, drug salesmen of both the legal and the not legal, ag teachers, baseball glove vendors, miners, cotton farmers, plumbers, sheepherders, butchers, house painters, short order cooks in Mexican food restaurants, wives, daughters, they all made their way to sit on the tall stools at the ancient bar.

Some wild individuals denizened the joint. One pair I recall—it was just around the time I went with father and son James to see Man In the Wilderness—showed up one day and joined right in. They usually arrived for tamales and red beers…that was breakfast. He had long, stringy hair and wore a beard a foot thick. He donned a stained and battered New York Yankee hat and claimed to be from Manhattan but his deep Texas accent belied that. His mate was wild, too, wore fringed buckskin shirts and trousers, blue and red and yellow beaded buckskin moccasins that looked like they were made before Geronimo went to Florida under guard of the United States Army. She claimed she made all her own clothing and I did not doubt that.

For some reason they liked to drink around me and I’d have to be pretty toasted to stand the scent of lard and mesquite-coal smoke that hung all over them. She bragged about cooking over one of those old cast iron stoves my grandmother used back before my mother was born. I didn’t doubt that, either. They rented a falling-down adobe building with rotten wood floors that was about as old as our town. The adobe sat behind Ronquillo’s Radiator Shop…I think I remember this right…at the corner of Sacaton and First. I always knew it as the Prickly Pear House because a prickly pear sat out in front of the old adobe. The cactus had big flat paddles wrinkled like the face of my grandmother and probably as old.
This particular wild bunch would also show up in the afternoon and drink their favorites….shots of Jose Cuervo with draft Coors back. One, two, three.

I always thought it was strange that she drank like that…as well as smoking unfiltered Camels and no telling what else…because she was heavy with their first child. Heavy….hung out like a hot air balloon. But one, two, three, down the hatch, she’d laugh and dance to Dickey Betts’ guitar riffs in “Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Awkward and scruffy, she shuffled and puffed on her smoking Camel.

One hot August afternoon under the cooling click of the ceiling fans, a few of my friends and I sat and sucked down cold glasses of draft as the two of them, both of this wild pair, pirouetted and wheeled to the tunes blaring out of the juke box.

She suddenly stopped and yelled, “Honey, it’s time.”

Without another word they stomped out the front door. A moment later his thick-bearded face showed back in the doorway as he yelled, “Be right back.”

The barkeep chuckled and mumbled, “Right. She’ll be lucky if she and that kid survive, as much poison as she puts in her body.”

Two hours later they were back. That hot air balloon was suddenly gone and the leather blouse with the fringe on the seams looked almost big enough for two of her. She held a red, wrinkled baby in an old wool blanket. Her man began handing out cheap stogies with a cigar band that announced, “It’s a Girl.”

I said, “They let you out of the hospital that fast?”

She twanged, “Didn’t need no hospital. Done it myself.”

We all looked to her man. He grinned and nodded, “I watched, but that was all. She just squatted and spurted that young’un out.” He grinned and hugged her. “She’s one hell of a woman.”

The baby squalled and the mother giggled. The father let out a roar, “Barkeep. For my lady-love, a Jose Cuervo and cold Coors back”

He spun around, his long hair whirling like a jigging woman’s skirt. He yelled, “I’m a daddy.”

I sure hope Sarah and Baruch experience a different kind of delivery.

The Wind

The wind blows in Idaho this time of year. Totes the angry vestiges of another aging winter. Grass leans, limbs break, birds balance in the tops of aspen branches that tilt away from the gales that holler off the east Oregon desert. Time moves east to west around here, the wind sweeps west to east and yells back at us about what we time-mailed West Coast way yesterday.

And yesterday the wind blew, and last week, most of the week except for one or two golden days where the rays made us think of planting spinach and snap peas; but then, here it rolled in again, the blustery breath of early spring, stirred up by differences in barometric pressure. Wind is air movement pushed out of high pressure areas into low pressure areas. Winds create havoc in hurricanes and typhoons, can lift the land off the top of Wyoming and haul it all the way to the bottom of the Atlantic. It carves, cuts and makes you crazy.

Once Betty and I stood above the Palais de Papes in Avignon, Provence, admiring a late spring view of the Rhone, the hills, the old town, when a blast of hot air known locally as the Mistral almost knocked us over. I recall reading somewhere about that wind, and Gauguin and Van Gogh and how the Mistral helped drive Van Gogh crazy.

When I lived in southern Arizona, the wind got up in the spring and blew a layer of dust for days, stinging eyes, skin, the leaves of newly planted pansies, testing your ability to stay focused on the business of getting by. In the summer, great hullabaloos formed up over Tucson and harangued our way, as if to furiously eradicate the city of Phoenix and everything in between.

I lived in that desert in early the seventies, not too long back from the war and metaphorically speaking, walking backwards into a stiff gale. In 1972 I recall standing outside my house and watching one of those brief and violent late afternoon holocausts rear up and try to exterminate everything in its way. Spiny Sonoran Desert mountain ranges over four thousand feet up were dwarfed by the chocolate brown fury. It roiled and rolled, like a flood rush of muddy water. When it attacked us, the sky turned black, trailer houses moved twenty feet to the northwest, telephone poles snapped like match sticks, privet bushes lost half their leaves. Everything and everywhere owned a coat of fine brown clay.

When Betty and I lived in the high mountains of southern New Mexico, the wind blew from late February through May. Steady. Brisk. The moan and whine of old spruce trees as they rubbed up against each other and the wood in your back porch deck. The gales, gusts, and breezes that hauled Arizona’s surface over the Gila massif, the Black Range, the San Andres, finally picking up the white gypsum sand outside of Alamogordo. Plastering it on the sides of mountain top Ponderosa pine and red fir so that it looked like snow. The season of creaks and cracks and listening to the trees complain in the middle of the night. Worrying about the hood of your car. The roof over your bed.

In Cloudcroft, NM, the bars bustled that time of the year. Men stormed in and threatened each other with big Bowie-type knives, .357 magnums, fists, snow shovels. The schnapps and cheap whiskey spilled all over the bar tops. Boot heels up in the air. Old woodstoves smoking where the melting snow leaked in and dripped dripped dripped.

Everyone seemed on edge. That was the time of boredom, before planting, before moving the cattle, often too muddy to go into the woods to work. Just time to drink and dream and stew. That’s when the Apaches would come to town and irritate half the white folk. I don’t know if it was all on purpose, the back and forth between the white folk and the natives. But it bubbled up everywhere: in the mercantile, the gas station, the Western Bar. Barkeep Frieda used to get after the young Apache men as they taunted her over their glasses of draft Budweiser. She’d call the law. They’d laugh. The law would show up. Sometimes a fight ensued.

Once a young Apache man came to town and ran out of gas in his pickup. The wind blew that day, too. I recall the fluttering skirts and scarves of women bustling on the boardwalk, the American and New Mexican flags slapped straight out from the flag pole.

That young Apache man went around and begged for change to buy a couple of gallons of gas. I sat in the Western Cafe and drank hot coffee and watched. He tried at the gas station. They threw him out of the bank. He walked up to the door of the bar, but thought better. I don’t know, maybe he’d been kicked out of there before when he wasn’t so needy.

He went from store to business to store down the length of Burro Street. Out of sight I wondered about all the animosity between whites and browns, whites and yellows, black and brown, yellow and red, hell, anything that makes one different is enough to start the process, like a little breeze that gets up in the afternoon, then steadies into a wind that gusts with particular fury. Sometimes it’s a typhoon and blows the world down onto its knees.

After finishing my coffee, I walked down to the post office to get the mail. The wind forced me to tilt my back into it. People in the street leaned this way and that, any way they could to fight the power of what they could not stop.

After I checked my mail box, I saw that young Apache standing at the door, hitting everyone up for change. He wasn’t having any luck and I wondered how I could slip by him and out into the wind. I didn’t want to get caught and have to say, “No.”

For a moment, a gaggle of women dammed up against the entrance…purple pant suits and the quilted outers of down jackets. L. L. Bean boots. I saw my chance to escape but by the time I arrived at the door he was standing forlorn and single. I figured if I didn’t look him in the eye, he’d leave me be, but for some reason I looked him in the eye. What I saw was nothing to fear.

He said, “Hey, man, I ran out of gas and I…”

I already knew his story. It’s as old as mankind. For some reason, against my will, I stuffed my right hand in my Levi pocket and pulled out a lump of dollar bills, quarters, pennies, dimes.

I shoved it at him, “That’s all I got.”

I swear some tears rose in his eyes and I doubt it was from the wind. He started to pull off a silver and turquoise ring the size of my thumb, and said, “Here, man,” but I threw out my clenched fist and said, “Naw, ain’t necessary.”

He began to say something else, but I didn’t stick around, just had to get out into that wind.

On Mice and Men–Mostly Men

Last week Betty and I watched the 1992 rendition of Of Mice and Men starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. This particular adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name was predated by a 1939 version starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bob Steele.

Sometime around 1952 or 1953, at 111 Beech Street in Casa Grande, Arizona, I sat on the big oval hooked rug made from tatters of denim and other disregarded material that kept the chill off me from the concrete floor beneath. Towheaded, with my gapped front teeth already making their statement about the image I would become, I was watching KPHO TV Channel Five when the 1939 version of Of Mice and Men came on the tube.

My mother was in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies, and between visiting on the phone with friends, her mother, her brother’s snarly wife, she sang Mormon hymns. She must have heard the announcer presenting the day’s morning feature film—it was Saturday—because, and I distinctly remember her saying this, she told me, “Kenny, I don’t think you should watch that movie.”

I must have said, “Why?” because right now I recall the conversation definitely going on, the words flitting back and forth, my mother’s words coming out of the kitchen along with snippets of the tune “Give, Said the Little Stream,” and the scent of those sweet cookies.

What I probably sent back to her in response to her signals were mostly smart-assed mental messages. I probably made some faces, too, scrunching up my lips beneath the end of my nose, shaking my head and body as I silently mimicked, “Kenny, I don’t think you should watch that movie.”

She kept saying it, she kept saying it. She kept saying it. Even at that age, five or six years old, I already understood how my mother operated. If she really hadn’t wanted me to watch Of Mice and Men she’d have stomped into the front room and turned off the TV and if necessary she would have switched my butt with the flyswatter. Sometimes I forced that . . . the switching with the fly swatter.

But she didn’t switch my butt, she just kept sending me sweet-worded warnings along with the lyrics to a song.

I don’t remember many of the details of that 1939 version except hating the Bob Steele character, Curley, and loving the Lon Chaney, Jr., character Lenny (who suffered from what we now call a developmental disability). Because of how the story was structured, I was supposed to hate Curley and love Lenny.

In the end, Lon’s character, Lenny, kills Curley’s wife, not maliciously, but regardless, ends her life and so he must pay. Lenny’s best friend and protector, George, instead of allowing Lenny to be ripped apart and murdered by a mob (and probably also to save himself), shoots Lenny in the back of the head while telling Lenny about the wonderful farm they are going to own sometime down the road.

Until the sound and image of that murder, I really liked George, too, but instantly, besides being confused, I loathed George, and loathed something much larger which I could not reasonably articulate but certainly felt in my gut and bone marrow. I suspect that something larger and my loathing of it was what my mother was subtly warning me about.

I remember, much to my chagrin, breaking out in sobs after George shot Lenny. Sobs weren’t encouraged around our house, so I was flummoxed pretty good to break out the way I did, as if all the gates named reticence were broken down.

My mother took me in her arms and we lay on the couch, her soothing me and yet advising me how she’d not wanted me to watch that film.

Twelve years late, my senior year in high school, I checked Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men out of the library. My tow head had turned sandy brown and my gap teeth were definitely prominent. Reading about Curley and Lenny and George I received a dose of realism in the first degree.

Realism . . . Steinbeck wrote the book during the Depression and he aimed, I surmise, to portray the hard world of labor and poverty and wealth during that era. But he was also writing about the hard world of love and friendship and mutual respect.

George was hard on Lenny all through the story, but he loved Lenny and respected him as a person although in the end he killed him; one, for Lenny putting George in the position of being his protector and thus responsible for Lenny’s actions, and two, to forestall Lenny having to deal with what was to come. Talk about hard stuff . . . George’s realization that the decisions we make to save ourselves might also be the decisions that destroy us and often the decisions cannot be avoided.

Here it is almost sixty years since I first watched Of Mice and Men and the impact of Steinbeck’s tale still lives on in my thoughts. That’s what I call power in a story. We can rant and rail concerning the inequalities, or lack thereof, inherent in humanity’s behavior towards one another and it doesn’t mean much. But drape the issues on the backs of characters like Lenny and George and you can penetrate the human heart.

Steinbeck knew that. Tortilla Flat, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath are some of his other novels that can bash our emotions. Steinbeck wrote about the essence of being human.

I suspect my mother, too, understood the power of story to move us and even though she warned me about Of Mice and Men, she let me watch it, let me get an early lesson about the power of story, and more than that, about humanity.

On Ancestors, Asparagus, Saints and Independence Rock

Back in my mid-to-late twenties I worked at a feedyard in southern Arizona. Every late winter/early spring, cattle buyers descended from heaven with boxes and boxes of asparagus bartered fresh out of the fields of the Imperial Valley of California. Gifts to us, the working stiffs trapped with a gazillion flies, and miles and miles of cow shit.

Betty and I were talking about that last night, fresh asparagus and those yahoo cattle buyers. I got to yarning about seemingly random thoughts that jutted up into the bottom of my skull. The month after the fresh asparagus arrived, the men who delivered hay from the Wellton-Mohawk Valley just east of Yuma hauled in boxes and boxes of fresh cantaloupe. We owned so much cantaloupe we couldn’t give it away.

I remarked to Betty how I used to take half a case to my father. He relished cantaloupe and would cut one in half and cram each natural bowl with vanilla ice cream. Betty remarked that we should buy a fresh cantaloupe and fill each half with vanilla ice cream in memory of him, and then eat it.

I remarked that, yeah, maybe we should and right now might be a good time because his birthday was somewhere around the 17th of March. She said, “St. Patrick’s Day?” Immediately I knew that wasn’t right because on St. Patrick’s Day, for most of my adult years while my father was alive, I stayed away from him because I usually spent a goodly amount of time at the El Rancho Tavern or Quick Draw’s Saloon or the Western Bar drinking glass after glass of green beer. So if I remember a multitude of cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream birthday bashes, the date must have been other than March 17th.

I told Betty that it couldn’t be the 17th, so I went to look it up and while there discovered the name of one of my mother’s ancestors who was born in England: Abidnigo Clifford (and I don’t know what led me to spend time looking at that), who had a son, Henry Clifford, also born in England, Gloucester to be more exact, where he and his wife Ann (nee Clayfield) begat daughter Mary near Nailsworth, south of Gloucester, and then they immigrated to America. In Utah, Mary Clifford married Merlin Plumb who begat William Lafayette Plumb who married Mary Elsie Riggs who begat Ruth Plumb who married Dale Walter Rodgers who begat me.

In 2009 Betty and I traveled to a Khe Sanh Veterans’ reunion in Denver, Colorado. We drove from Boise and one of the travel nights we spent in Rawlins, Wyoming. After getting settled in at our digs, we drove north towards Independence Rock. Independence Rock was so named because if you were traveling by covered wagon or hand cart west on the Oregon, Mormon or California Trails, you wanted to be at Independence Rock by the Fourth of July or you were headed for weather problems later in the journey.

Independence Rock is a rounded hump that, incidentally, reminds me of the top of my father’s head. He was mostly bald in his later days, and that big rounded-off landmark was reminiscent of Dale Walter’s pate. Maybe at this point in my life I have become sentimental about Dale. We didn’t get along well when I was young. He was mean when he was young, as was his father, and his father’s father, as was I. By the time my father got over being mean, it was late and I was busy and he died.

Maybe I was thinking of his shiny pate as I stood out there in that little valley bounded by humps and bumps of old mountains, not young mountains like Colorado, and Idaho and Utah, or for that matter, some of the ranges in Wyoming. Lightning cracked and a west wind whipped the sage. Mosquitoes attacked my arms and legs. Summer twilight in the north country lasts a long time and we’d arrived at Independence Rock at twilight’s commencement. I stood out on a little bridge that spans the main part of the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. The literature said you could still see the wagon tracks in parts of the trail and I looked but didn’t see any. Once or twice lightning stabbed close and the thunder rattled off the old mountains and boomed through my bones.

I stood there imagining Henry Clifford and his daughter Mary Clifford in a wagon passing that way towards Salt Lake City sometime in the mid 1850s. They were Mormon folk at that time and would have traveled with lots of other Mormon folk most likely mustered up at Council Bluffs, Iowa for the trip west. I imagined them singing the words from an old Mormon hymn, “Come, come ye saints, no toil or labor fear…”

I imagined all the sour weather, all the toil of just making sure you had something to eat. Out there in that sagebrush plain, what would you burn for cooking fires, and how would you make a new axle for the wagon if the old one broke? How did you fix wheels and keep the supply of water so that everyone had enough for their needs? What about Sioux and Shoshone and Cheyenne warriors? How did you keep the horses, the cattle, the hogs from wandering off? What about wolves? Grizzly bear? What about smallpox and yellow fever?

Lightning cracked and I jumped and it made me laugh at myself for being afraid of the outdoors, but then I thought, I can get in my car, go to a room, sleep out of the rain and the wind. My food comes from the grocery store. There is plenty of that, or so I assume. Not so, 150 years ago on the Mormon Trail.

Looking down the Mormon Trail I thought about all those relatives of mine who made that harsh journey that they thought would lead them to the promised land. I thought about my maternal grandmother, Mary Elsie Riggs, who journeyed from Zion’s Canyon to Mesa , Arizona in a covered wagon in 1882. That lead me to thoughts of my mother and how sometimes I miss her even though she drove me up the wall a lot of the time.

Out there at Independence Rock, tears started to gather at the corners of my eyes. I hate that. I fought it. It didn’t make sense. History is something you cannot control. Neither is the future. Maybe the promised land is whatever stands in front of you right now. Maybe you can control the personal right-now and I did. I stopped that tearing up. As I walked back to the car I mused on my emotions and how my father used to tell me if I needed something to cry about, he’d give it to me.

Nevertheless, on March 13th next, Betty and I are going to buy a cantaloupe and cut it in half and stuff each half full of really good vanilla ice cream.

On Elko

The halfway point of winter in the northern hemisphere has arrived here in Idaho with dry and warm weather. Trapped in some kind of drought, I suppose I should be saying stuff like, “We need snow in the mountains, we need rain on the flats,” or maybe I should be circling around dancing with my arms stretched towards the sky. But I am a pilgrim here from southern climes and must say that I enjoy the mild weather.

Last week we peregrinated down to Elko, Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the mild days and cool nights were much to my liking. We still got to take photos of the snowy flats below Wild Horse Crossing, and the blood red and yellow-orange willows that ganged the banks of the frigid east fork of the Owyhee River. We captured images of lipstick red berries backed by river ice. We shot pictures of horses and pronghorns and starlings and eagles and the thin clouds that scraped the blue like whispered rhymes from the mouths of poets.

Berries and Ice

We took photos of poets, too, and cello players and singers. We took pictures of partiers, painters, big Stetson hats, red cowboy boots, gold-tinted neon signs and all manner of other things Elko. We listened to an array of tunes from traditional drover songs to a capella pieces redolent with the new that lives in the old west…we heard jazz, the blues, folk, cowboy music, Mexican lullabies and Crow Indian chants.

I think the number of visitors to the Gathering must have been down this year because things seemed a little less frantic in Elko as we trooped around and met with old friends and new friends. That’s one of the most important things Elko is to me….friends. An amazing compendium of styles…political, poetical, musical, philosophical and generational show up and mingle. A tolerant mood holds forth and accepts long hair and short hair, cattle rancher and sheep man, octogenarian folk singer and yodeling ten-year-old.

Owyhee Horse

Elko is surrounded by mountain ranges that capture snow and shadow like a painter’s canvas. When the winter light lies down at low angles, the land seems to smother the sheen, leaving a splendidly muted scene where ice and rocks and cottonwoods meet. The long draws and dips of the foothills remind me of a soft-voiced mother singing a lullaby to her child.

There have been years when you could hardly get out of Elko because of the snow and the wind. One year I set out south to view the Ruby Mountains, but a gale got up and drove the snow so blatantly as to blind me. That year it seemed to snow every night, all night and it was a chore to clean off the windows of the car so you could make it the half mile to the venues to hear Paul Zarzysky recite his poems. Or Henry Real Bird chant in Crow, or Wallace McRae throw down a bucolic challenge to oil and mining companies ravenous for the raw fuels that percolate beneath the surface of the west.

This year, the Western Folklife Center brought in a lot of performers from the southwest and that fluttered the chambers of my innards. I lived many years in Arizona and New Mexico, so the music and the poems and the stories all delighted me, drawn from agricultural milieus flavored with the curious mingling of Spanish, Anglo and Native American.

Cowboy Poets

That stuff makes my blood run hot. Takes me back to a memory home. A place I can only return to in my mind. The wild land as remembered is now homes and cars and racetracks and highways, but in my mind, my memory, I can see blankets of sheep cover the draws beneath the conical hills of the Sonoran Desert. I see the pine-clad peaks that jut up like isolated islands in a sea of ocotillo and saguaro. I can hear the songs of tamales and conquistadors, of the time before the white man, before the Native American tribes now on the land, the time before….the time of Anasazi, Hohokam and Mimbres culture…petroglyphs and rock art and primitive irrigation systems that served thousands, adobe castles crammed into the naves of canyon rock.

It was once my land, the land in which I lived, and still it’s the land of my mind.

All hail Elko…where memories rear up out of verses of poetry and song.