Canyon de Chelly

Recently Betty and I journeyed to the Southwest to show our film and visit family members who live there. On the way back to Idaho, we visited a few places that we had not seen for many years as well as a few places that were on our wish list.

One of the destinations was Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. I was born and raised in Arizona and yet had never ventured there. My father often talked about us visiting Canyon de Chelly. (He pronounced Chelly, as Shelly, instead of the Spanishized word “Chelly,” which has been incorporated into English so that it is pronounced “de shay.” The Navajo word for the canyon is “Tseyi” which was borrowed by the Spanish as “de Chelly” and incorporated into English from there.) But we never went and I suppose it was because my father did not like to go anywhere too far from his house, his job, his business, and I also think he didn’t really want to go much of anywhere with me. My saying as much isn’t to rebuke my father, because I was a handful when young, always getting into messes in places I had no business getting into. I talked incessantly and asked a lot of questions. I had opinions—strong ones—which when expressed, often made my father’s face turn the red color of the cliffs in northern Arizona.

In the summer of 1963, I worked on the Navajo Nation in a little slaughter house that killed dry ewes. The packing plant sat on a small piece of private land outside of Window Rock, not really that far from Canyon de Chelly. But I never ventured to the canyon, just hung out trying to see if I liked smoking cigarettes, getting trucks stuck in the snotty clay of a wet summer, dreaming about sex and being scared near to death about the sin of it all, the chilling thrill.

But two days before Christmas of 2011, Betty and I met Leon Skyhorse Thomas, a Navajo guide, musician, filmmaker and native ceremonial officiate, at the visitor’s center of the canyon. We climbed into his beat-up white Jeep with our camera gear and drove into the heart of Canyon de Chelly. The walls are the color of terra cotta when the light is right, and almost orange when the light is right a different way. They shoot right up like someone cut them with a cross-cut saw, then used an adze to shape them. It was early and cold and the breeze was like Kit Carson’s saber when he drove his U S Army troops into the canyon in the 1860s to destroy the native strongholds and their beloved peach tree orchards.

First Ruin

The ride in was rough along roads that seemed to change like the tracks of sidewinders in a wind- driven sand. The walls were narrow and Chinle Creek was mostly frozen. I asked about the notorious quicksand of the canyon and he laughed and told me he’d buried three vehicles in the canyon. After hearing that, I seemed to sit lighter in my seat as we jounced and bounced and battered our way down the track between the narrow walls. Several times Leon stopped, got out, and surveyed which route might be the best.

There are still farms in the bottom of the canyon, and people live there in the summer. The way the light lit up the warm, south-facing walls of the canyon played against the dark walls of the cold side and we were rocking and reeling back and forth between the dark and the light.

White House Ruin

Leon spoke Navajo to us. A lot. He sang to us in Navajo, too, and he chanted a prayer. And he took us to First Ruin and White House Ruins and to natural alcoves, one where Navajos had scratched pictographs in charcoal that documented a Ute Indian raid into the canyon. We saw Anasazi petroglyphs and Hopi petroglyphs and both ancient and more modern native pictographs. Petroglyphs are art sculpted into rock. Pictographs are painted with pigment onto rock. And the wind knifed through the bare limbs of the cottonwood trees. And the cold pelts of the resident cattle and horses were fluffed up to deflect the cut of the morning.

Canyon de Chelly Petroglyphs

Once, parked next to some rock art, Leon began to explain the Navojo sensibility vis a vis the canyon. As he spoke he changed from English to Navajo. We didn’t know what the words meant but we understood the emotion of them as they flew away from Leon and married the sculpted and concave walls of the towering cliffs. His words began to echo, around and around us, through the trees, along the fence lines, and back against the walls.

Canyon de Chelly Pictograph of Ute Raid Into the Canyon

For visitors to Canyon de Chelly, there are motels with clean rooms and good food. The Navajo people are friendly and attentive. I suspect summertime is very busy and very hot. The fall might be the best time to go, because as Betty likes to say, the fall is always the best time to travel.

Leaf Peeping

I am a desert rat and have since childhood mouthed dialogue about the beauty of the mountains vis à vis the desert. The mountains generally have no sand and wind that drives the sand and pits the paint job on your new Mercedes Benz, no short-legged plants, no spiny cacti, but trooping phalanxes of spruce and fir and pine. But here I am after a life lived and I’m still in the desert. The mountains are close, but I still hover around the roots of the big sage, the bitterbrush, the winter fat.

Once it was mesquite and palo verde and saguaro and Indian wheat. The names have changed but the milieu remains the same. Relatively dry, relatively warm. Big open vistas, a certain beauty to the landscape, even if it is harsh, or its ambiance is harsh.

Yet the harsh nature of the desertscape is no more dangerous than what one encounters in the pine-clad high country to the north of Boise, Idaho, where we live. I’d say fifty below is harsh even if it inhabits the pristine beauty of a winterland of ice crystals and frozen mist and miles and miles of spear-point spruce sheathed in an armor of ice. Maybe that is why I stick to the lower extremities of earth.

Regardless of my obvious preference for desert climes, for six years I lived in the high mountains of southern New Mexico and the legacy it left me, among other things, was a love for the turning of the leaves. Once I read an essay in The New Yorker Magazine by Stephen King about “leaf peepers.” When I saw the title I was curious about leaf peepers and what kind of insect they might be that sat on leaves and peeped their lives away in search of sex, breeding and compliance with the ultimate command to all life on earth: survive. When King described the leaf peepers, I was surprised to find out they are the people who come to Maine to watch the colors of the maple trees change from green to red and gold. As I read that article, I knew right then that at heart, I was a leaf peeper. I admit it. I am a tourist of foliage, a consumer of ripe reds, and orange tones that look like phosphorescent tints, and rusty hues that are redolent with memories of old Caterpillar engines left out in the rain for ages.

Two weekends ago, Betty and I, along with friends, ventured to Sun Valley, Idaho for a number of reasons, one being to take part in leaf peeping. We arrived on a Thursday evening and were disappointed with the color, but it was spitting a mixture of rain and snow and there was snow in the high country and I figured as soon as it cleared off, the frost would arrive and then the color change would accelerate.

On a Saturday morning that broke clear and fresh, we pulled out before sunrise and headed north out of the Wood River Valley, over Galena Summit and down into the Stanley Basin. As we broke over the summit, the Sawtooth Mountains on the west of the basin and the Boulder-White Clouds on the east reared up with their high shoulders, their peaks covered with fresh snow. The sunlight was just breaching the dawn and lighted up the peaks of the Sawtooths snaking from south to north. Sawtooth is an apt name for the peaks that remind one of the saws lumberjacks used to employ to knock down the big trees, long before chain saws showed up. Saws with large, sharp teeth that could bite into live wood, or flesh.

Fog and mist and nary a hint of air pollution hung in the air. Pronghorns grazed in the pastures of cow and sheep outfits with names like Busterback Ranch and Stanley Basin Ranch and Sawtooth Mountain Ranch.

I love aspen and learned it I suppose from the huge groves that cape the cold sides of the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico. Aspen grow in huge gangs there, and love places where the snow gets deep and stays deep into the spring. Elk and deer and black bear seem drawn, as do I, to the groves.

When autumn arrives, the trees know (do they know like we do on some epistemological level?) that they need to go into survival mode to make it through winter. The green color in the leaves vacates and leaves the underlying golds and reds behind. The sugar in the leaves gets trapped and the frost, when seared by sunlight, reacts with the sugar and the leaves take on even more brilliant hues. This is what I adore, this chemical reaction turned into art….art….art.

When I was young, I went on camping trips with the Boy Scouts up to Holly Lake in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was usually August, so the leaves had not changed by then, but I still wondered at the way the Rocky Mountain Maple leaves reminded me of Picasso-like hands and how the sunlight caught in the dimples of the aspen leaves and shimmered as they quaked in the alpine breezes. (The locals called them “quakies.”)

One summer as we loaded vehicles to head out of the high country, we discovered a porcupine climbing an aspen. Since porcupines tend to be nocturnal, I suppose it was climbing up to find a notch in the limbs to sleep the day away, or maybe it was headed for an aspen leaf breakfast. I watched with…with…with what….horror? as some of the bigger boys bombarded the creature with stones, then large rocks and big rounds of aspen we had cut down for firewood. I recall the porcupine fell to the ground and I refused to look at it as they laughed and finished it off. I walked away and got in the back seat of an old green Chevy Suburban and we drove out of the mountains, back into the Sonoran Desert.

But on this latest leaf-peeping trip of a couple of weeks ago, the violence of humanity was not so readily apparent. Nestled in the coves, the rincons, the draws of the mountains and foothills lining Stanley Basin were stands of aspen in varying degrees of leaf peeper heaven. Yellow, gold and a red tints that seemed to capture all the glitz of Times Square as they shined at us, neon-like, as we drove the road toward Stanley. And they shined something else at us, a promise…a promise of more color to come.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When I was a kid in southern Arizona, I went caving and spelunking with a guy who was a middle school teacher in the town where I lived, Casa Grande, Arizona. We walked into basalt cave mouths in the Silver Bells and Silver Reef Mountains, and into our own little Sawtooths. We sniffed around for the scent of gas as he told us about canaries in coal mines. He was from coal mining country. We pitched rocks down mine shafts that had claim markers that looked like they were still maintained by prospectors. The rocks clicked and clacked and often we heard the rattle of diamondbacks climb out of the shafts. I wondered if they were albino rattlers or if they climbed out at night just like the ones we killed with forked sticks and shovels. I wondered if they captured and swallowed kangaroo rats and other small things, wrens, and such. Sometimes there were windlasses and big containers that would lower you into vertical mine shafts, but I was always frightened to go down in. The possibility of snakes scared me, and the thought of the ropes breaking scared me too, and that I might end up dying down there while the teacher and his two sons ran back to town in an effort to find someone to save me.

I have always had a primal fear of going into the bowels of the earth and admire miners with the way they go miles down into the tunnels that wind and penetrate below the surface. Likewise, I admire the men who go into caves and search below the earth for life and remnants of life.

Last Wednesday night, Betty and I went to see the Werner Herzog documentary film titled, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film is available in 3D but our art house theater didn’t have that option, so we watched the film in two dimensions. Earlier this year, I heard Herzog talk about the film and one of the things he said was that it was the only film he would ever make in 3D.

But even in 2D it was impressive. The cinematography was outstanding from beginning to end with some very odd frame composition that worked, I think, to help set on end our modern arrogance about how smart we are. The cave, Chauvet, which is in southeastern France, is mostly off limits to anyone but scientists studying the geology; or the Paleolithic era information about cave bears and wolves and cave lions and horses and bison; or the astounding artwork, some as old as thirty-five thousand years. Human activity inside the cave presently is limited so the film crew was restrained as to the types of lighting and camera equipment they could employ. What they created is truly a fine work, particularly given the limited gear they could take into the cave.

All great films have obstacles that must be overcome by the characters on the way to reaching goals and in this documentary, the physical restraints and the restraints imposed by the French government become the obstacles that must be defeated. Herzog, who narrated the film, gives us this information right up front so the requisite tension to keep us interested is created.

What is on the walls of Chauvet are astounding paintings at least twice as old as anything previously discovered on this planet, and the likenesses were amazingly correct, not primitive like some of the old Hohokam rock scratchings that we used to find in the caves of southern Arizona, but sophisticated artwork displaying not only the fauna of the time, but fauna behavior that included breeding and hunting. The cave paintings included great, stunning murals of horses and bison being hunted by lions and bears; and wooly rhinos fighting each other. I think I was doubly stunned because of what the images told me about the intelligence of the people who created this ancient art. When T. S. Eliot came out from viewing the sixteen-thousand-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux, he is reported to have said something along the lines of, “We haven’t changed a bit,” and I could see that, I could see what he meant, as if Picasso or Klee or Matisse or de Kooning had been down there, painting away, or at least their spirits encaved in the bodies of Cro Magnon man.

I also liked the music in the film. It was often melodic and spiritual like the milieu it described, especially at the end, where the narration takes a holiday and lets the camera work. The fine lines of the cave drawings along with the choral voices allow us to step back into our racial memories, our racial minds, and contemplate the long run of humanity on this planet. They allow us to ponder what is possible, what might come to pass.

At one point in the film, Herzog takes us out of the cave and on a cinematic sojourn to the University of Tübingen in Germany where a large exhibit of small sculptures of Venus and animals of the Paleolithic era is housed. We get a clinical analysis of these artifacts‘ relationship to the paintings at Chauvet (evidently they are all from the same time period, give or take five thousand years) and how Cro Magnon could carry on so advanced a concept as paintings and art while his neighbor Neanderthals were not capable of creating anything of the sort. All of this was interesting, but to me, felt as if the magic created by the paintings, their rendition in Herzog’s film, and attention to the power of art were all defeated by the measuring stick-and-caliper outlook of the sciences of studying ancient peoples.

I was glad when that train of thought ended and we returned to the magnificence of the paintings, what they said about my ancestors’ intelligence, their powers of observation and creativity. Some of the paintings are five thousand years older than others, so the time frame in which the cave was used as a ceremonial site, but apparently not lived in, is as long as the history of the written word in our Homo sapiens sapiens sub-species.

Given my innate fear of caves, I sat and wondered if I would go down to look at these images and I have to say yes, I would. In the film, Herzog points out that he and his crew often felt as if they were being watched by the ancients, and he remarked that the anthropologists, the geologists, the paleontologist also had the same sensation, so maybe my old fears are not without grounding in the human psyche.

I would definitely recommend that you go see this film. It is a visual masterpiece, and to boot, stimulates the imagination. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams will force you to ponder various issues, how far apart we are from the artists who created the Chauvet paintings, and how alike we are. They were smart, as smart as the men who built the windlasses that lowered miners down into the vertical mine shafts that we investigated in my youth. As smart as we are now. Not yet with the tools that make us what we are in this time, but smart enough to understand the world they inhabited and to record and interpret what they saw.

Putting Up String Beans

Tuesday I went out back into the garden and picked a mess of green beans. Of all the things I harvest back there, the beans are my least favorite, not because I dislike their flavor but because they grow at just the right height for me to have to bend my knees and lean in to pick them. After a while, my knee joints and back hurt. The leaves are verdant and lush and the beans hide in among them, a strategy, I suspect, developed in the long millennia before we domesticated and hybridized them. That ability for the beans to camouflage between the thin stems and the broad leaves means other things are hiding in there too—yellow jackets and arachnids—and I might get stung or bitten on the bare hands that I snake in to find the beans.

But I had no mishaps except a sore back and knees and I picked myself a mess of string beans. That’s what my father used to call them, and I remember when I was a kid we used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the big wood-cased radio that sat in the front room, and there was a character called String Bean on that show who strummed a banjo and cracked corny jokes. My dad used to laugh at him a lot, but he wasn’t always so jovial when he demanded that I eat my string beans at dinnertime. The only ones we ever got in our house were the kind that were canned somewhere in California or came frozen from Safeway. Not like the ones I picked on Tuesday.

I picked them, and washed them and cut off the ends and then sliced them into inch long cuts and then blanched them in boiling water, chilled them in ice water and then froze them, but not until I had eaten a plate full…just plain, no pepper, no salt, no butter. Just plain. They were sharp and sweet. And even though they are frozen now, when we pull them out in November, when the slant of the sun’s rays lay like back porch light refracted off the icy bird bath, they will still be mighty fine chow.
There is something about growing and harvesting beans and broccoli and squash and tomatoes and beets that sets my mind at ease. I don’t know exactly what creates the satisfaction. The work is simple, things I learned long ago that besides the vagaries of the weather and water, seem to work no matter what, and I get a crop and I share it with friends and eat it and put it up. It is ….hmm…is it fun? No, I think it is more than that.

I always wanted to be a farmer since my high school days back in Casa Grande, AZ. The majority of the economic activity there was agriculture related so it was in the blood, so to speak. I even owned part of a farm one time in Lordsburg, NM; a big, twenty-five-hundred acre corn farm with ten wells and houses and a mule out in the trap behind the barns. The farm sat just below the foothills on north side of the Pyramid Mountains and the upper fields were steep with long runs so the irrigation water was like a torrent when it sluiced into the bottom end. We never farmed it. It was in the 0-92 program with the United States government. If we grew zero crops on it, they would pay us ninety-two percent of the historic yield of the crops grown on the place.

We got the farm from a bank in a trade and I doubt they knew about that particular largesse or they probably would have kept it. We spent the money on other things besides seed and fertilizer and tractor parts.

When I told all my farmer friends we were on welfare with the 0-92, they got a little antsy in their pants, because most of them were on some form of income redistribution where the government transferred money from the United States Treasury to their pockets for growing a particular kind of crop, or as in our case, no crop at all. A lot of those farmers used a strategy where they farmed the subsidy program, and not wheat, or cotton, or corn.

I used to get a chuckle when I heard them talking about the state of the nation and all the poor folks in Phoenix and back in Chicago on the take from the government. I pointed out that so was I, and so, in many cases, were they. According to their ways of looking at it, their kind of income redistribution was okay, other kinds not. Occasionally there were sharp words thrown around, some threats and then a wife or two would have to step in to keep the peace.

Once my partner and I palavered about planting a field of beans on that Lordsburg outfit because beans were outside the 0-92 program and we had a patch of land that we could have tilled and sown and watered. According to the professors at the agriculture college the price of beans was high right then and if we hit a lick we could make some money. Above and beyond our welfare payments.

But we didn’t. It might have turned out to be a lot of hot work; sore knees, sore hands, sore back. Instead, I think we went bird hunting.

Dreaming of Tularemia

Last night I had a dream about killing rabbits. Trails of coyote scat loaded with desiccated mesquite beans and the small bones of rabbits. Now that I try to recall the dream’s details, maybe we were hunting coyotes. The mood of the dream—you know how dreams have moods even when you don’t know what the dream was about? When dreams like that arrive I often wake up with the mood on my back like a western saddle, all day, maybe into the next night for a repetition of the dream, or some sequel that drifts off to some other surreal moment. Often it’s war dreams that come like that, but this isn’t a blog about war dreams, or maybe it is; all my dreams could be version of war dreams.

Anyway, my dream last night owned the mood of something a la Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing or Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men. Harsh stories about wolf murder and freedom and the angel of death and the angel of retribution. Last night’s dream was populated with companions who I don’t think I even know, all chambering rounds in weapons; rifles, shotguns, pistolas. We dug around in stringy coyote scat with big-bladed knives we pulled out of leather scabbards that hung off cowboy belts with our names etched in the back of them, but right now I don’t recall any names.

And I don’t recall how the dream ended, or maybe it didn’t, maybe it just segued into another dream, something about my mother and her long-gone-ness or about my father spitting verbal rebukes and fireworks at anyone who crossed him. He and I used to hunt a lot when I was a kid but he wouldn’t let me shoot the rabbits. Not that he was averse to killing, we hammered dove—back in those days, the early 60’s, I recall you could kill ten mourning dove and fifteen white winged dove—twice a day over the Labor Day weekend and we shot quail and once or twice we chased desert mule deer through the stab-spined thorns of ocotillo cacti that guarded the slopes that led to the scrub oak groves below the caprock where the big bucks with the nice sets of horns liked to hide.

But we never killed rabbits. He claimed, as a kid, that dove and quail kept all sixteen of them alive in the thirties, the sixteen who lived in the little board and battened, tarpapered shack my grandfather called a home. I wonder if they tried to eat rabbits, too, but couldn’t overcome fears of tularemia, a bacteriological disease one can get from uncooked or undercooked rabbit meat in the months that have no “r” in their name. May. June. July. August. That was the rule of thumb for my friends who did shoot and eat rabbits. No May, June, July, August.

They wouldn’t hunt in the months with no “r” in the name, but come fall winter and spring, they’d stuff their pockets with boxes of .22 longs and holster their .22 rifles in makeshift holsters and ride their bikes, and take me with my BB gun out into the flats north and west of town where big chunks of desert still allowed plenty of jackrabbits (which are really hares) and cottontails (which are really rabbits) for us to shoot at. I say shoot at, not kill, because when they moved it was fast, and when we shot (I don’t believe I could have killed a rabbit with a BB gun, I needed a .22, too, but had none; father didn’t like them), we were bad, standing, firing offhand, as rapid-fire as we could while the jackrabbits bounded and veered and the cottontails darted and veered. We could see the dust fly above and below them as we followed them along, stitching up the desert with our poor aim. Rarely did we kill anything and if we did, one of the others who was not afraid to eat them, would gut them and skin them and oftentimes we could spot the places where the flesh looked sick and malignant and those rabbits and hares got left for the carrion eaters.

Sometimes we went into town lucky enough to have a hare or rabbit or two tied to the handlebars of a Schwinn or a Huffy. Whoever it was who did the killing usually liked to find someone, usually a crowd of girls, and show off the kill. It was never me and I went home while they tried to style the gals about how cool they were because they killed and gutted a rabbit or two. Only a few of the girls showed any interest. Usually they turned up their noses and shooed the hunters off.

Over the years, I hunted and occasionally someone would shoot a cottontail and it would end up in the pot with dove or quail and lots of jalapeños. It was a leap of faith for me to eat it though, I guess because I could hear my father back in the recesses of my memory rebuking me for taking the risk. While I was masticating the meat, everyone would ooh and aah over the sharp flavor of wild cottontail, but to be honest with you, I never thought it that good. It may have been damned good, but the onus of taking the risk with tularemia probably made it taste like it needed to be upchucked out in the pink eye weeds.

My father never was a risk taker, so of course, I tended to take risks. Early on I wanted to get into the sheep business. It was pretty high risk and I hung around with all my sheepherder friends and built fence, and moved sheep on foot, and tore down fence and vaccinated and drenched sheep. One of my friends managed some of his family’s herds down in the desert between Phoenix and Yuma, at a place called Welton. Once he called me to come help him kill rabbits.

I said, “Why?”

He said, “They are eating all my alfalfa and I need it for the sheep.”

I said, “You have hundreds of acres of alfalfa.”

He said, “I got thousands and thousands of rabbits.

Visions of rabbit herds like sheep herds came into mind. Like a dream, I saw myself shooting them as they ran by me, as if I was plinking targets at the carnival. I told him I was in. We loaded two Dodge Chargers full of beer and boys and shotguns and rifles. He made us put the weapons in the trunk as he chuckled and mumbled things about overkill.

We got to the fields at night and parked. Instead of lush green, the pastures were buff colored like rabbits. We piled out of the cars with their head lights left on and our host handed us bats and clubs and laughing said, “These are all you will need.”

There was no sport in it, at least for me. But he had bought us beer and hamburgers and said he’d give us each twenty dollars, so I waded in. The hares and rabbits didn’t even run, just looked at us with alarm as we dispatched them….thunk, bonk, whack, thump, thunk; further into the fields we charged, the rabbit carcasses, tularemia or not, left to spoil in the desert heat. The great horned owls who showed up flapped over our heads as if they were chagrined. And why not? They’d had easy pickings. And so did we.

I am not sure we saved any pasturage for my friend. We did get drunk and we crowned a lot of rabbits and hares. Maybe there is a reason they keep showing up in my dreams. Like war dreams.

A Day at the Races

I cleaned my office this last weekend and as I straightened the bookshelves, J Edward Chamberlain’s, Horse (Blue Ridge, New York, NY), fell on the floor. Horse is a narrative that laymen can read about how mankind and the horse have developed a somewhat unique, symbiotic relationship.

As I hefted the book, an image of the racetrack vaulted into my mind. Not just any racetrack, but the racetrack at Ruidoso, New Mexico where they specialize in American Quarter Horse racing with the distance being a quarter of a mile, the money pot being in the millions.

Ruidoso crouches beneath the shoulders of Sierra Blanca, a twelve-thousand-foot peak in the southern part of the state. A lot of big Texas “awl bidness” money hangs around the restaurants, boutiques and honky tonks. There is a ski area and more important to horse folk, a racetrack.

One of my father’s younger brothers, Hugh, and his wife Lona Beth, owned a house on the Rio Ruidoso in the older part of town. They had box seats at the race track, too. Betty and I, for a time, lived thirty miles south in the more modest village of Cloudcroft. But we got invited to the track and we sat and watched the races and we bet from the sheet and lost money until Aunt Lona Beth pointed out that one shouldn’t bet the horses. They should bet the trainers and the jockeys and the owners. I thought, but geez, that means you have to know them. She read my mind and smiled as she went back to her racing notes, and then to the window to get her winnings.

The rest of the day I imagined I witnessed(or maybe I really did see it) the jockeys on the favorite horses in particular races pulling back on the reins so that one of the other horse owners could win some money and pay a feed bill, pay the veterinarian, pay for his daughter’s wedding in Telluride or Steamboat Springs.

Right then, I understood what was meant years earlier in the palaver I heard in Prescott, AZ about jockeys holding the horses back. That was in1976 when I summer-long hung out at Bruno’s Buffet just across the main drag from the racetrack. Bruno’s was chock full of horse owners and trainers and jockeys, not to mention the other gambler denizens. I was more interested in the vintage pinball machines against the back wall and the homemade tamales and burritos and of course the Coors and the schnapps and the Dewars and water. But I do recall the men sitting at the bar winking and giggling about shenanigans at the track. Drugs to speed up a steed or slow him down, or her if she was a filly. They fought, too, bringing their competitive natures from the track into the bar where the liquor started doing the talking and then fists started cracking faces and the pointed toes of ostrich skin cowboy boots bomb-shelled into opponents’ soft groins. Humans are a competitive bunch and they sling their drive to win onto the shoulders of all kinds of things: their hands, their feet, their fellow man, their brains tied to poker hands of aces and queens, the back of a horse, a pinball machine.

Back in the early 1970s I used to hang out on Sunday afternoons outside of Casa Grande, Arizona at the weekly races sponsored by the Los Conquistadores, a local Hispanic caballero club. Cars would line up along a makeshift track, their trunks open and loaded with Corona and Dos Equis and Coca Cola and orange sodas from Fanta de Mexico, or Jarritos, and better yet, fresh tamales and burritos, lots of jalapeño and Serrano chile slices laced among the beans and meat. The kind of food that made your mouth burn and your nose run and your head sweat and goosed you so you felt like you might just get out there and run beside those elegant caballos whose owners let them strut and kick up puffs of dust to whet betting appetites. A lot of cash changed hands out there one race after another, the green hundred-dollar notes flapping in the breeze as one man agonized and another rejoiced. Sometimes the tempers flared and men threatened others, but then one of the gentes managing the race stepped in and refereed, negotiated.

Back then I used to work at a large agricultural concern out west of town in the flat Sonoran desert plain below Dick Nixon Mountain and Table Top. One of the owners’ sons, whom I will call Butch, loved racing horses and bought a fancy prancing young dun stud he hoped would win him money and fame. He didn’t ride it himself; he hired one of the hostlers who worked for the company instead. That man was a slight Vietnam Vet whose seamed and ruddy face told stories he would never relate. He sat a horse like he was part of the animal; they reminded me of a centaur. The dun stud and the hostler would lope across the flat, greasewood-pocked ground leaving their caliche clay signature on the wisps of the wind. That dun was a moody, cranky thing and the only man who could handle him was the hostler.

Late one Saturday evening a strange pickup truck and horse trailer pulled up outside the office and some Chicanos I had seen all my life, but did not know, unloaded a big dapple gray gelding who stood around and sniffed with suspicion the eighty-two-thousand head of Hereford, Brahma, and angus cross-bred cattle in the feed pens.

I asked a cowpoke what was up and he told me there was a match race for big money. Of a sudden, cars and pickups began to arrive and the hostler brought the dun out and it snorted and cavorted sideways as the hostler talked soft words of comfort in its ears that reminded me of radio antennae the way they checked out the hubbub building with the powdered dust of the parking lot.

All of a sudden too, big white Panama-hatted cowboys and long-haired hippies and Chicano dudes arrived in large groups, drinking Dos Equis and speaking Español; also a couple of Yaqui Indians who hung back, leaning against some sucker rod fence as they laughed at all the proceedings. And yes, the greenbacks started to flash and a lot of harsh talk, as if words of intimidation from one man to the next would make a difference in how a horse would run. One man had a .357 Magnum six-shooter sticking barrel first in his left rear pants pocket. I hoped it wouldn’t fall out, go off and hit me.

The jockeys jockeyed their horses to the line. A cotton farmer with a long-barreled .22 Magnum said something about the race, although I was more interested in the array of weapons I saw sticking out of boots, hanging on belts. I wondered when the war might start. Was this a horse race or were we going to invade Baja California? All the Chicanos and most of the hippies sided with the owner of the dappled gray. Most of the cowboys and some of the hippies sided with Butch, the hostler and the young dun stud.

A stocky man stomped back and forth between each group, swearing in English and Spanish as the horses snorted and jumped around as if infected with the sense of competition. The bets continued. I kept my wallet in my pocket.

The stocky man flexed his fists like he wanted to hit someone and I heard talk that he liked to drive sixteen-penny nails into railroad ties with those fists. I doubted he could do that and smiled, but only on the inside, as I thought how that might feel, to pound a nail with the fist. Why in the hell would someone want to do that unless to show somebody else up, I reckoned as I inched my way to the back of the cowboy crowd.

While I was watching the hammer-fisted dude slinging his vernacular of violence around, the .22 Magnum reported and as I stood on the toes of my boots I saw those two horses, the muscled dapple gray and the young dun stud, erupt like funny cars at the drag races. They were gone and each of the jockeys, especially the hostler, leaned off his ride, slapping at the other jockey with his quirt. A lot of the men in each crowd were busy hurling epithets at counterparts on the other side and missed Butch’s dun win the race by better than two lengths. An anti-climax, for sure.

I moved back and stood next to the Yaquis, anticipating the fireworks to come. My heart sped up with the thought of some fist fights, a knifing, a shooting; but while the winner’s crowd ganged around Butch, the hostler and the dun, the loser’s crowd quickly sneaked off, leaving a lot of hot-tempered talk about welching on bets and the like.

It’s amazing, I think, how a man and an animal can symbiotically interact and create an entire industry—horse racing—that so perfectly corrals some of the essential best, and worst, of human emotions. The horse usually being the one that does most of the heavy work. The humans creating the rest—the hubbub, the competition, the hate, and yes, the love.

Oh Outhouses, Four-Holers, and Burning the Heads

One of the Twitter headlines for The Washington Post.com on 4/5/2011 was, “Is it impolite to bring reading material to a public restroom?” I chuckled when I read that and not because of the inanity of the query, but because of memories that hove into my mind’s view.

In early April, 1968, I had just escaped from the siege of Khe Sanh and was killing time in the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment rear at Phu Bai south of the old Vietnamese imperial capital, Hue, waiting to go home. Luxurious being able to sleep in every morning on a cot, above ground, in a covered hooch, no mud, no incoming. Luxurious with hot showers, hot chow, movies, sodas, beer, no work parties. Luxurious, too—and this will sound basic, basic as hell—walking to the head with the latest edition of The Stars and Stripes military newspaper without doing the Khe Sanh Shuffle. Not worrying about being blown off the toilet seat while taking care of one of your most intimate acts.

The battalion head at Phu Bai was a four-holer housed inside a substantial building vis à vis the one-holers I was used to. I had some experience with heads…crappers. On several occasions, I had to burn the “shitters” as we called them in Vietnam. I had shitter-burning detail for a whole month in August-September 1967 on Hill 861. Alphabet (a Marine with a Polish last name too hard to say or spell), Spooner and I had given each other Mohawk haircuts, out of boredom, I suppose, and the Company Commander, after catching sight of one of us, ordered us to fix the damned things. So we did the only thing possible, we shaved our heads and of course, given military logic, that was worse than a Mohawk, so the three of us had to run all the way around the trenchline of Hill 861 as our fellow Marines pummeled and slapped and kicked us as we stumbled and huffed and puffed and elbowed each other to come in first which really was not part of the punishment, to come in first, but as you know, coming in first is important. As I hunched my shoulders and kept my face buried to avoid the hands and fists attacking me, I recollect I thought of Tyrone Power in The Black Rose when Orson Welles as the Mongol warrior Bayan forced Power’s character to run lengthwise on a log through a dangerous gamut of Mongol warriors slugging Power’s character with inflated pig bladders with the intent of knocking him off onto spearheads buried point-end-up on both sides of the log.

Our reward (Alphabet, Spooner and I), whether we finished the circuit of Hill 861 first or not, was burning the shitters and the trash dump. Which we did. Twice a day. Using gasoline, diesel, and wet matches. Ignominy was draped on our shoulders. We smelled like what we tried to burn. Everything was monsoon wet. We joked about it and laughed and exaggerated our every crapper-burning action, but no matter how hard we tried, we were shitbirds, as the term goes. Luckily for me, time and time-in-grade moved me past my shitbird moments, through the dank wet of monsoon floods, red mud, two trips out-of-country on R & R, and then as a grand finale, the siege.

Then on to Phu Bai, where the head in Phu Bai was not under constant attack, as had been the heads in Khe Sanh. Right now I can smile at the guttery notion of it all, running between incoming rockets, mortars and artillery to do your business, but men were killed and wounded while conducting their affairs in the head. So, being able to sit on the throne and read The Stars and Stripes without fear of flying shrapnel, even though there was little privacy between stalls, just a half wall, was still paradise. That’s one of the things you learn in war and privation, the elegance that can be had with the most basic of functions in the most basic of places.
In the head at Phu Bai, what was scratched on the walls was more interesting than reading in the paper about Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for re-election, or who won NBA basketball games, or who got killed that week in-country. Some of the messages left dug into the unpainted walls were names, dates, home town, home states. One of the most interesting things I read:

We are the unwilling
Lead by the unqualified
To do the impossible
To help the ungrateful

I laughed when I read that little verse. It was cynical, yes, bitter, yes, but something about it drove home a little sharp stake near where I imagined my emotional heart, not necessarily the physical heart, lived. The unqualified out there tearing up a country, killing people, getting killed…and most of those we were trying to help, ungrateful. Not a comforting thought as you sat there, relaxing…not a comforting thing to think about. But like having to dodge shrapnel on the way to the crapper, not much about the Vietnam War was comforting.

To this day, while driving down country roads in Idaho, finding abandoned homesteads, often one can still find the outhouse. When I was a kid in Arizona, some of them were still functional. My grandfather had one on his old outfit. Tar paper, black widows, cold seat, hot seat, gossamer trailings into the dark corners. Flies. Seeing those old outhouses, with their doors flung open, hinges missing, throws memories at me, about incoming artillery rounds, my shitter-burning details, running the gamut, getting pummeled like Tyrone Power, and that message carved into the wall at Phu Bai.

I’ve never had an affinity for communal heads, and try to avoid them as much as possible. I’m not sure if that’s due to my bathroom days in a war zone, or the unwanted but often truthful messages carved into the paint on the walls. And whether someone carries Time or Good Housekeeping or Playboy into a stall is not my concern, nor is it my business.