There is an early scene in The Missouri Breaks, a 1970s big-budget Western starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, where Harry Dean Stanton’s character tells us why he became an outlaw. He tells us how his father shot his dog “for putting its tongue on a pat of butter”, and how he came within an ace of executing the old man in his sleep. “I come this close,” he says, finger and thumb an inch apart, “to puttin’ a bullet in the old bastard’s brain pan.” But, instead of killing the old man, he shoots his prize bull, steals all his money and lights out for life on the owlhoot trail.
The first time I saw that scene it felt as if I had swallowed an icicle. Felt as if the guy who wrote it, Thomas McGuane, had looked into a dark corner of my heart and held it up for the world to see.
Shortly after arriving in America, my family went to live on a dairy farm east of Denver, on land where the condos of Windsor Gardens stand today. The farm was owned by a shirt-tail relative, a dour and humorless Dane who had married my Irish great-aunt sometime around the First World War. The farm was 160 well-irrigated acres on the Highline Canal. We grew mostly alfalfa (for cow feed)–and every day, twice a day, my father and the other two hands (the owner’s sons) milked 160 head of Holstein cows. By machine, thankfully. For a kid, a new life on an American farm seemed idyllic, but I was unaware of its dark, depressing underside.
Unaware, that is, until the day the dour, humorless Dane shot my dog, Sam, a little black-and-tan hound without papers or pedigree, whose main claim to fame was being a freebie, the runt of a litter a neighboring farmer had been unable to sell. While I was at school, my great-uncle executed Sam for jumping up on one of my cousins, trying to lick her face, but scratching it instead. What’s more, he shot the dog in front of my parents, left the body for me to bury after school.
I’m sure my father was white with fury. Wanted more than anything to snatch the rifle from the Dane’s hands and shoot him in his turn. But, of course, he couldn’t. And not just because of the law.
Like a thunderclap, I came to understand the hopelessness and despair of my parents’ position. They needed my father’s job, needed the pittance it paid–just as they needed the thrown-in house, even though it was by far the meanest house on the place (the Dane and his sons had much newer houses, only a year or two old), and even though some of its rooms had floors of packed dirt. (On the first measly payday, my mother spent a little hard-earned cash at Monkey Wards for some cheap linoleum to throw down over the dirt.)
I came, too, to understand the systematic oppression of life under that dour, humorless Dane. That the worst, and dirtiest, chores around the farm always seemed to fall to my father–the top of the stack at haying time, working with a pitchfork while one or the other of the sons drove the tractor and bullrake; cleaning out the troughs of wet manure behind the cows as they were being milked. And so on, and so forth.
Because for a time my folks had nowhere else to go. Until finally my mother’s older brother, Jimmy, who owned a successful nightclub in Denver, came to understand what life on the farm had become–perhaps because my mother, in desperation, had asked to borrow enough money to move back to England. Whatever the cause, Uncle Jimmy over-rode his wife’s objections and moved us into his basement–where we stayed for a couple of years while my mother dealt plates off her arm in his nightclub, saving up her tips (which must have been pretty impressive) until we had the down payment for a little post-war house in Athmar Park.
Did I want to kill Sam’s murderer? You bet, and would have if I had the means and opportunity. Did I think, like the movie outlaw, of killing some of the Dane’s prized Holsteins? Yes, indeed–but now I realize that would have been unjust, the cattle didn’t deserve to die for their owner’s sin.
Years later the Dane sold the farm, moved to an orchard somewhere in California where he died in a barn fire caused by a broken kerosene lantern. When I heard the news I laughed out loud, and to this day I feel no shame or regret over that. The old bastard deserved a hard death.
There is this, though: I realize now that coming to America in the early years of the last century, the Dane must have had a hard life; must have worked many hard years to finally own a fine farm and a fine herd of Holsteins; that he had his crosses to bear–a wife confined by severe arthritis to a wheelchair for the last 25 years of her life, and the loss of his oldest son when the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the last days of the Second World War.
So I guess that now, some sixty-plus years on, it wouldn’t hurt if I took a little advice from the title of Peter Ustinov’s autobiography–Add A Dash Of Pity.