Spelling “Auntie Mame” When You Run Out Of Ms

The marquee of the Skyline Theater in downtown Canon City is blank and empty today, 99 years after the theater began providing escapist dreams for a dime or a quarter–then later a few dollars, or so.  Given its lifespan, the Skyline had seen the first rueful comedies of Charlie Chaplin; Laurel and Hardy trying to get that piano up an impossible flight of stairs; John Ford’s masterful depiction of shadowy British soldiers prowling a fog-bound Dublin–all on a Hollywood soundstage.  The theater’s flickering darkness was a place of refuge, comfort, tears and laughter while the world outside was plunged into the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Second World War and all the other calamities betwixt and between.

It was in the Skyline that many people–some still living–watched in awe as actors seemed to talk on screen, and a few years later witnessed the wonder as the flicker of black-and-white film bloomed into the Technicolor land of Oz and Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest.  Countless Saturday matinees were the scene of countless pint-sized riots as kids–most of them now grown old–grew restless between cartoons, serials and cookie-cutter westerns.  The floor beneath their feet sticky with Green River, wads of chewing gum stuck to seatbacks for a later day, they bounced in their seats in time to well-mounted Indians in pursuit of stagecoaches and Conestoga wagons.  All gone now, victim to DVDs and streaming video, but mostly to a film distribution system geared to big-city multi-plex cinemas rather than isolated small-town theaters.

If there’s a glimmer of hope in this tale of progress it’s the vague promise of the Skyline’s last owners to host an “old movie festival” sometime in the future; if my luck holds I’ll be in line for my ticket, as long as the “old movies” are flicks with live action, not spinning electrons from a computer, with flesh-and-blood stuntpersons,  and a main character that hasn’t already appeared in a comic book.  Whether or not the festival–if and when it happens–might be a recurring happening like as not depends on the attendance–and rightly so.  I’ve often wondered if a theater could survive showing old movies, and have day-dreamed just as often of having such a place.  There is a theater in Santa Fe that does just that, but Canon City isn’t Santa Fe (which ain’t all bad).  That Santa Fe theater, by the way, is the love child of one of the most successful authors on the planet, so I like to think he can sacrifice the bottom line to the love of what was once the defining art and entertainment of the 20th Century.

In the middle part of that century–while in high school (and for nearly a year afterward)–I worked nights and weekends as an usher at the Mayan Theater at First Ave and Broadway in Denver.  To this day, that was the most fun job I’ve ever had–which may, or may not, be a sad commentary on my adult life.  Leading people to their seats by flashlight (and quelling Saturday morning riots with the same instrument) didn’t pay a fortune and pretty much screwed up my dating life, but I got to see one helluva lot of movies.  The Mayan was a second-run house in those days.  We usually ran a double-bill of A-list films, changing the bill and the marquee twice a week; that works out to about a hundred movies a year, which was a little more than Hollywood’s output in those days.  The gaps were filled in with occasional re-releases of older movies that still had strong box-office appeal.

Hard to believe in these days of multiple-screen cineplexes, but there was a time when new films opened in just one (rarely two) theaters at a time.  In Denver the so-called first-run houses were downtown–the Paramount facing the Denver across 16th Street, while the newer Centre was a bit further south, handy to the new hotels; the Denham was kinda remote, over on 18th St. if I remember correctly, while the RKO Orpheum was on Champa (or maybe Tremont) right across from the Welton.  I never went to the Welton, nor knew anyone who did, but I vividly remember that theater’s scandalous “lobby cards” propped in store windows along South Broadway.

Denver was in the rear-view mirror of a car I didn’t even own anymore by the time, the 1980s, when the Mayan narrowly escaped progress and the wrecker’s ball.  The grand old dame was saved thanks to the efforts and fund-raising of a group called The Friends Of The Mayan.  Living over a hundred miles away, I heard nothing about it, or I would surely have lent my enthusiastic support.  Still, a part of the Mayan I knew only too well did not survive: the box-like lower marquee which reached to the curb, and the V-shaped upper marquee that was tucked under the vertical “MAYAN” neon sign.  In their place is a flat black rectangle, flush with the building, showing a little neon but not much imagination.  It does, however, allow a terrific view of the Mayan’s magnificent façade, with its wonderful rendering of a pre-Columbian temple as Cecil B. DeMille might have imagined it.  The façade soars three or four stories above Broadway for all to see now that the dangerous old marquee is no more.

One of the duties of ushering–besides flashlight work guiding unsteady feet up and down shadowy steps, or illuminating illicit Friday (teen) night shenanigans in the balcony–was changing the marquee twice a week.  Hanging onto a shaky stepladder on a sleet-laced evening was akin to  watching Jimmy Stewart clinging to that rain gutter in Vertigo, a fellow usher crouching on the upper level with a stack of ever-dwindling red plastic letters, handing them down as I wiped wet snow from my eyes and tried to remember how the hell to spell Sayonara.   Usherettes were exempt from this high-wire act; their duties were confined to the box-office, the concession stand, and checking the Ladies Room to find out why three teen-age vamps had been in there for the last half-hour.

Getting two movie titles–and sometimes a star’s name–on three marquees was often a challenge given our fairly meager alphabet.  Downtown management, or our own tight-fisted manager, was forever reluctant to replace letters that had gone AWOL or splintered in the cold.  Nice short titles like  Picnic or Separate Tables were no problem, but a double bill like Witness For The Prosecution and The Three Faces Of Eve was a nightmare spelling bee.  (Not that I can recall those two on the same bill, but you get the idea.)

Best of all, though, was the occasional “blockbuster” as our ever-eager manager would call them–movies with strong carry-over box-office that would run by themselves, usually for at least a week.  There weren’t many such that I recall–Raintree County was one, Sayonara another, and for reasons which escape me now, a mild service comedy called Don’t Go Near The Water.  Auntie Mame also got a week all to herself, due in part to her nearly three-hour running time.  Telling the world she was here proved a bit of a problem, however–Mame demanded no less than six Ms on our three marquees, and we were down to three.  Yankee ingenuity led us to three Ws in decent shape; the result looked a bit mountainous, but got us by.

They Went That-a-Way, Pt. 2…”The Lost Cause”

About mid-way through She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, the second movie in what’s often called John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, there’s a funeral scene for an elderly private killed in a skirmish with Indians.  “We commend to your keeping, sir, ” John Wayne intones, “the soul of Brougham Clay, late Brigadier General of the Confederate States Army, known to his comrades as Trooper John Smith, a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.”  Then, while the bugler blows Taps, a few soldiers step forward and drape the coffin with a miniature Confederate battle flag sewn together from remnants of a lady’s petticoats.  First time I saw that scene it had little or no significance for me–recently arrived from England, I hadn’t a clue about the American Civil War.

England had had its own Civil War (about which I was only slightly less murky) a couple of centuries earlier than their Yankee cousins.  But somehow that conflict is not nearly as enshrined in the nation’s history as is our domestic version–perhaps because the English rebels under Oliver Cromwell were rather more successful (although not in the long run), even managing to cut off the King’s head.  Hard to make a case for a romantic “lost cause” when you win the bloody war.

The South, of course, lost their war–and for some reason that lost cause became a familiar plot thread in westerns, with ex-Confederates often cast as sympathetic and heroic characters.  Today, with statues of Confederate generals–many of them “gallant soldiers and Christian gentlemen” in real life–being draped in black or hauled to unknown destinations in the dark of night, it might be hard to sell such an image.  In fact, more modern movies (see: Tarantino, Quentin) portray a much grimmer image of the Confederacy than the nostalgic view of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” westerns.  That’s in part because  those movies were careful to ignore the 800 lb gorilla in the room;  ex-Confederates were usually ranchers, lawmen or Indian fighters before the Civil War, not genteel plantation owners–and, by extension, slave owners.  The lone exception I remember was Gary Cooper in Vera Cruz, and even he was in Mexico trying to raise money to help out the folks back at the plantation who “depended on him”.  Uh-Huh.

Perhaps the strongest–and most honest–ex-Confederate in those westerns is Ethan Edwards, John Wayne’s indelible character in The Searchers.  Ethan  is an unrepentant Confederate, riding into the film’s opening shot (literally an opening doorway) wearing a Confederate Army greatcoat and lugging a saber three long years after the war’s end.  The mystery of those missing three years–and the 180 “Yankee double eagles, fresh-minted, ain’t a mark on ’em” in Ethan’s saddle bags–is never answered, just left hanging in air.  As for the saber, Ethan tells Ward Bond, a former comrade in arms, “I don’t believe in surrenders.  I still got my saber, Reverend.  Didn’t turn it into no plowshare, neither.”  A few minutes later the Reverend watches Ethan’s sister-in-law carefully folding that Confederate Army greatcoat.  The camera then cuts to Bond’s weathered visage, his eyes focused on the far distance, while the Confederate ballad “Lorena” plays on the soundtrack.  To me, it’s obvious the guy is remembering his lost war, but some people like to think he’s worrying about a romance between Ethan and his sister-in-law.  These are some of the same people who think Sound Of Music is about the Second World War.

In Bend Of The River, James Stewart plays Glen McKlinnic, an ex-border raider, a sort of irregular ex-Confederate.  It’s a tricky proposition, making a hero out of a border raider, since guerrilla bands on both sides were often guilty of atrocities.  Glen is trying to go straight, guiding a wagon train of really nice folks up to Oregon (to settle on land the local Indians no longer had any use for), when he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who is about to be lynched by some fur trappers.  Cole is also an ex-guerilla, although on the opposite side.  The two become edge-y friends, like two sides of a coin, warily circling each other as the movie progresses.  Cole is the more charming of the two (he even charms away Stewart’s love interest for a while), but he is unable to resist the temptation of stealing the settlers’ supply wagons and selling them to a gold camp on the next mountain.  After dispatching Cole (in the title’s river bend) and retrieving the settlers’ groceries, Glen’s faith in human nature is restored when the boss settler (Jay C. Flippen as avuncular as always) forgives all and admits a bad guy really can turn into a good guy.

Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne’s only Oscar performance in True Grit, is yet another not-so-reformed ex-guerrilla.  Cogburn readily admits to having ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders, but denies (accurately, I have read) they killed women and children while raiding Lawrence, Kansas.  Cogburn also admits to having robbed a “high-interest bank” in New Mexico and, years after the war, is part-owner of a marmalade cat named General Sterling Price, the only Confederate cat in movies.  Frank and Jesse James also rode with Quantrill, so Rooster likely felt he was in good company.

But the most dyed-in-the-linsey-woolsey of all ex-Confederate, ex-guerrillas has to be The Outlaw Josey Wales .  Clint Eastwood’s peaceful farmer (no plantation, no slaves you notice) is transformed when his family is slaughtered by Union Jayhawkers.  He spends the rest of the war riding with “Bloody Bill” Anderson, one of Quantrill’s lieutenants who operated alongside troops commanded by General Sterling Price (see marmalade cat above).  When his comrades are Gatling-gunned while trying to surrender, Josey takes off for Texas, and ultimately Mexico.  (Sterling Price, in real life, tried something similar–taking some of his troops south rather than surrender.  He offered his services to Maximilian, Napoleon III’s puppet emperor, but was turned down.  In Vera Cruz this same Maximilian hires Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster and their little band of thugs.  Guess their price tag was lower.)

In the end Josey finally decides peace is the best course, but only after blowing away the Redleg that killed his family and comrades.  Peace is always easier when your enemies are dead, and when you’re encouraged to smoke the peace pipe by a seven-foot-tall Comanche like Will Sampson.

This Bud’s For You, Gen’l. Custer

In 2014, after many years of procrastination, I finally journeyed to Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.  I went there for the annual re-enactment,  held on the anniversary of the battle.  The re-enactment is great fun, and well worth the drive.  The white re-enactors seem to take it a bit more serious than the local Indians (Crows, who actually scouted for Custer, not the Sioux and Cheyenne who wiped him out).  But then, after all, they lost.  I purposely arrived a day before the re-enactment, to have time to walk the battlefield, to satisfy long-held curiosity, to cherish or demolish long-held beliefs.

Long before there was a world-class shopping center on the banks of Cherry Creek in Denver, there was a rather rundown little neighborhood saloon called The Old Pioneer.  Wasn’t much of a place, as I remember, just a single low-ceilinged room with a mirrored bar along one wall and a line of high-backed wooden booths on the other.  My dad and uncles usually spent Sunday afternoons there, getting used to thin American beer served cold (something they seemed to manage okay), grumbling or laughing about the previous Saturday’s too-slow horses at Centennial, or too-clumsy greyhounds at Mile High Kennel Club.

For me, those afternoons tended to drag, drinking Duffy’s root beer out of a shot glass and pretending it was whiskey (good habits are best instilled when young).  “Drinking the heart out of the afternoon”–to quote James Crumley–I whiled away the hours studying a large colorful print of “Custer’s Last Stand”, one of thousands that graced the walls of saloons all across America courtesy of Anheuser-Busch.  My opinion, it’s their second-best marketing gimmick ever, right behind those marvelous Clydesdales that draw me like a magnet whenever they appear at the State Fair.

For a beer ad it’s pretty graphic.  Dead soldiers, dead Indians and dead horses litter the field.  Some of the dead troopers have been stripped (with scraps of Army blue shielding sensitive eyes), and there’s quite a bit of scalping going   on.  One scalpee even looks disconcertingly alive.  Custer, of course, is center stage, standing with pistol and saber amid a fog of dust and gunsmoke, the American flag and 7th Cavalry guidon still fluttering bravely, not yet carried off by victorious Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

To paraphrase Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, that was the start of my Indian Fighter Stage–a stage that, thankfully, is continuing into old age.

I have no idea how many books have been written about Custer and the Little Bighorn.  Somewhere in the thousands, probably.  I’ve read quite a few of them over the years, and it’s always fascinating separating fact from fiction–especially when so much of the fiction is so damned entertaining.  Hollywood, naturally, has contributed its fair share, and then some.  They Died With Their Boots On is utter fiction, but manages a hilarious Oh Shit! moment when Errol Flynn’s Custer, charging across an open field, catches sight of the Indians and hauls his horse to a stiff-legged skidding stop.  Little Big Man is entertaining, but its Vietnam-era treatment of Custer borders on libel.  Custer Of The West is probably the worst of the lot, with Robert Shaw literally riding around in circles.

Then there is Son Of The Morning Star, a TV mini-series adapted from Evan Connell’s book (which is one of the better Custer books).  If you can get past 3 hours or so of George and Libby’s high-school romance, the last hour is the most accurate depiction of the battle on film.  You just have to bite your tongue at the ridiculous shoulder-length blond fright wig sported by David Strathairn as Captain Benteen (who in real life had white hair worn longish, but not that long, and certainly not with bangs).

In 1976 a group was organizing a 40-mile horseback ride for the battle’s 100th anniversary.  For some reason I had a wild hair I might like to go along on the trip, and said so out loud.  My nearest-and-dearest managed to keep a straight face, reminding me the last (and only) time I had been on horseback (summer camp, about the same time I had first admired the Budweiser poster) had turned into a one-man cavalry charge when the brute I was riding had grown lonely for his stablemates.

So it was 38 years before I finally made it to Little Bighorn.  And it was everything I had expected; everything I had imagined for year after year.

The Little Bighorn winds along one side of the valley floor, and it’s easy to imagine the Indian camp circles of long ago, shaded by the cottonwoods lining its banks   The pony herds were on the low hills to the west, but I-90 runs below them now, its four lanes passing over the very spot where Major Reno’s charge was stopped.  There’s a small museum there today, with a gas station/convenience store, all calling itself the town of Garryowen, Montana–named for the 7th Cavalry’s theme song.  Some years back the whole “town” was listed for sale (In High Country News, I think).  Naturally another wild hair popped into my mind, and just as naturally my nearest-and-dearest–well, you know …

The bluffs above the river are not as tall as I had long imagined.  It’s easy to see how Reno had a hot time of it on his hillside.  About five miles further along the low bluffs is Last Stand Hill, with its little cluster of markers behind a wrought iron fence, and the obelisk monument to the 7th.  The slope down to the river is long and gradual, but it seems to me a horse could have made the distance in a very few minutes.  There are other markers scattered along this same slope and on the smallish nearby hills where various troops of the 7th made their own final stands.  In recent years the Park Service has erected red granite markers to honor Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who fell “to defend their way of life”.  Besides those individual markers, a very artistic Indian memorial has been constructed on the back side of Last Stand Hill.  It is just a few yards away from a much smaller, and usually overlooked, memorial to the horses that died that day.

Standing on that hill, a hot June afternoon that must have been almost identical to the day 138 years earlier, it was easy to let my imagination fly. I could hear the buzzing of insects and the soft murmur of a light breeze in the tall grass–none of which I would have been aware of on the real day, when the air was thick with dust and gunsmoke, the shrill cry of eagle-bone whistles, the crash of guns, the cries of men and horses on both sides…

So very much like–and so different from–the movies, the books, my early imaginings.  So very much like–and so different from–a beer advertisement hanging on a saloon wall.

“They Went That-a-way” Pt.1

Later today Sony Movie Channel is showing The Man From Colorado with Glenn Ford and William Holden.  Had to set my DVR to “record”, because this is the first flick I saw in America, at a theater in Times Square.  Only a day or two off the boat, we were bound for Colorado in just a few days.  Given its title, I suppose my folks were hoping to learn something about our impending new home from this movie.  Kinda doubt they learned much, but it’s worth remembering that in 1949 Colorado was considered remote and even exotic.  Goes to show you how a few ski areas can louse a place up.

In his intro, Ben Mankiewicz, the affable and urbane host of Turner Classic Movies, says movies are in his blood, that the flicker of a film is like a heartbeat.  I know how he feels, and have felt the same way for as long as I can remember.  Ben, given his job, devotes his attention–and affection–to all of classic moviedom.  Me, I tend to lean in the direction of Westerns.  Not all of them, by any means, just those that are good and memorable (in my not-so-humble opinion).

The Searchers, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is considered by many to be the best Western ever made.  Wayne certainly considered it his best, but Ford (a four-time Oscar winner) was his usual cryptic self.  Personally, I was a member of the best-ever club for years, but lately I’ve begun to hedge somewhat, drifting in favor of….

Shane, with Alan Ladd and Van Heflin, was filmed in Grand Teton National Park in the days before the arrival of jet airliners and Dick Cheney.  I remember my folks took us to see Shane at the East Drive-In out in Aurora, way out past the streetlights, and maybe even the pavement back then.  I remember because my dog had been shot that afternoon,  and a night at the drive-in was the best they could do to make up for it.  There’s a stunning scene in Shane where Jack Palance guns a man down in a muddy street, followed by a mournful funeral on a windswept hillside.  Could be that’s the reason the movie is growing in my estimation, that funeral in the sagebrush.  The director, George Stevens (in his one and only Western), shows us a brilliant sky cut by the sharks teeth of the Teton Range, the dead man’s dog whining over the coffin.  Pretty heavy going, but then he somehow caught those kids playing with the foal, oblivious to the nearby burial of an adult.  A brief glimpse of humor, until Stevens cuts away to Ben Johnson sitting on a bench in front of Grafton’s saloon, his face a mask of remorse and regret.

And then there’s Red River, what some wag (probably Bosley Crowther in the New York Times), called “Mutiny On The Bounty on horseback”.  The best of the “cattle drive” school (until Lonesome Dove) has John Wayne made to look older than his actual years, playing a man driven to the edge by the prospect of losing a lifetime’s work unless he can get his cattle to market.  As he becomes more Bligh-like (and murderous), his adopted son takes the herd (instead of his ship) and sets him adrift on the prairie (instead of the ocean).  Clift’s character is a soft-hearted gunfighter–a character flaw his rival (John Ireland in a memorable turn as a rattlesnake ready to coil at a moment’s notice) tells him is likely to get him killed–this when Clift wounds, instead of killing, a hapless cowboy who caused a stampede.  Stampedes, by the way, are an essential ingredient of “cattle drive” epics.  Apparently Texas Longhorns can be set off by the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings.

That’s it for Pt. 1 of “They Went That-a-way”.  Other parts will follow, but not all at once.  Not everyone’s as interested in cowboy movies as yours truly.

A Good Walk Spoiled

No one knows for sure who first laid that definition on the game of golf.  Legend says it was everyone from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill, but legend says this without a grain of proof.  What’s more, it’s not even the funniest thing said about the game–that honor will forever belong to the late, great Robin Williams.  His skit as a drunken Scotsman explaining golf to someone who has never played the game may be the funniest thing available on You Tube, and a reminder of how much we lost with his passing.

My very first job–if you could call it an actual job–was caddying for my Uncle Jimmy as he played his weekly 18 holes at the old City Park golf course.  There were no golf carts in 1951, at least not at City Park, so we walked the entire course, me lugging my uncle’s golf bag over one shoulder, bitching to myself and counting the steps to the ninth hole break.  (Memory may be playing tricks here, because it seems to me we played on Sunday mornings, meaning I would have missed attending Mass.  Not that I would have minded, since church was always a major pain in the ass for me, but it was a big deal to my mother.)  The job paid a buck, as I remember, along with a hot dog and a Duffy’s orange pop between the ninth and tenth holes–plus another Duffy’s at the 19th Hole while my uncle and his golf buddies downed a few and tried to figure out what the hell had gone wrong with their game that particular day.

One of those golfing buddies was a doctor who had lost his right leg above the knee at Anzio.  In spite, or maybe because, of this handicap (a golfing term freighted with irony in his case) the doc played a ferocious–sometimes angry–game of golf.  Hooks, slices, balls buried in sand traps or floating insolently on water hazards, all produced a stream of invective profanity unmatched for color and variety, stuff I’m sure the doc didn’t learn at Harvard Med.  Have to say the doc’s vocabulary, and familiarity with human anatomy applied to profane purpose, was a revelation for a good (at that time) Catholic schoolboy.  In fact, the doc held the record until I arrived at the Navy’s boot camp in San Diego where profanity had long been considered an art form.

The doc apparently had no use for an artificial leg–which the VA would surely have provided.  Instead, he navigated the course with the aid of a crutch, his right pants leg pinned–or maybe sewn–in place.  He’d lock his left leg, tuck the crutch firmly into an armpit and grimly attack the ball, as often as not swinging with one arm, rather than two.  I think now he likely wasn’t the best duffer on the course, and that he slowed down my uncle and the rest of their foursome.  If so, they never showed it; I remember those outings as filled with laughter, jokes and a wealth of creative profanity.  And that if we were too slow we simply stepped aside to let other guys play through.

The doc’s only concession was using a little wheeled trolley to haul his bag of clubs around.  When I mentioned to Uncle Jimmy that a cart like that would make my job a lot easier, he agreed–then allowed as to how it would also save him a buck every Sunday, along with the price of a hot dog and an orange soda.

I dropped the subject.

Dog Story

 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.

 

 

Wild Flowers and Wildlife

On one of my daily walks yesterday I counted 18 varieties of wildflowers in bloom on my small (ish) patch of high desert.  This is my 24th summer on the hill, and one of the rainiest.  In my memory, only the fourth or fifth time so many wildflowers have appeared.  They range from sunflowers the size of baseballs to a tiny star-shaped blossom not much larger than the tip of a blunt pencil.  Curiously, with only a trio of exceptions–clumps of white daisies, some ground-hugging blue four-o’clocks and waist-high purple thistles of the kind that once saved Scotland–all of the flowers on my hillside and on the slopes across our narrow valley are yellow.

There were earlier flowers this summer–red and yellow blossoms on the prickly pear and cholla cacti, flowers that show up in dry years as well as wet.  The yellow roses on the prickly pear are now reddening fruit, much smaller than the ones for sale in Hispanic grocery stores.  Too small to be of any use to humans, but I know for a fact that coyotes eat them–the scat I often find in my driveway during the winter is usually loaded with prickly pear seeds.  The antler-like cholla, some of which are over 7 feet tall, grow a hard waxy fruit that turns yellow in the late fall, but I know of nothing that eats it.  Some of the birds, maybe.

Speaking of birds, a couple of days ago a pair of pinon jays have returned to my feeders.  Along with their cousins, the ravens, they summer up in the rugged canyons a few miles north of here.  Their return is a harbinger of fall, and this year they’re a little early.  Maybe they’re just after some handouts, because the turkey vultures are still roosting in the cottonwoods along the creek bottom, still riding the thermals each afternoon.  When they finally take wing and head for Texas, or wherever they spend the winter, THAT’S the day I’ll head in to Tractor Supply and buy a few bags of stove pellets.

Other than birds, there’s a fair amount of wildlife around here.  Mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, rabbits and (very rarely) black bear and mountain lions.  The deer and coyotes rarely cross my land in daylight, but quite often during the night.  And a few times a year, sadly, we find the bodies on the nearby highway–usually a rabbit or a deer, sometimes a coyote or a fox.  And once a smallish black bear.  We have found lion tracks near our water tanks, but have never seen one.  About a year ago, a neighbor across the valley saw a lioness and two large cubs lope across her yard in broad daylight.  And I once watched a black bear for about 15 minutes as it ambled along the creek below my house.

There was a time, shortly after we moved up here on the hill, when coyotes and foxes took a heavy toll on our chickens, turkeys and geese.  It was our fault for allowing the birds free range, which caused the predators to view us as their local supermarket.  Good fences cured that, and now the sighting of a coyote is fairly rare, and always at a distance.  They keep checking us out, though–every few days I find coyote scat within a few feet of our front porch.  Unlike most of my neighbors, I find it hard to hate ’em–they have a tough time keeping food on the table.

Piggy Didn’t Go To Market

Gator, my granddaughter’s prize pig, didn’t make the cut at State Fair, and so returned home Sunday night instead of being sold off to the Spam factory.  Reserve Grand Champ at County Fair, Gator had put on a few in the interval between fairs, had gone a tad beyond the point of piggy perfection show judges look for.  It’s only a temporary reprieve, however–Gator, like the poet said, has “an appointment at some disputed barricade” sometime in October.

During his somewhat brief life I have made a point of not getting to know Gator.  Call me squeamish, or sentimental, or whatever.  Still, when the time comes, I will probably grill some Gator-chops and sizzle some Gator-bacon for breakfast.  As long as it’s lean enough.  I’m one of those guys that rifle through the bacon at the supermarket looking for the leanest, but at least I always put the packages back in a neat display.

Every once in a while, riffling through the bacon, I give a thought to Mrs Clancy, a character vignette in Dominic Behan’s autobiography Tell Dublin I Miss Her.  Old and poverty-stricken, Mrs. Clancy lives in a Dublin slum (this is the nineteen-fifties, long before the Celtic Tiger remade Ireland into a modern nation).  Behan tells us about her gathering up some raggedy bits of whatever to take to “the pawn”, hoping for a shilling or two for her supper.  Toddling down the street, she dreams of the fine bacon she’ll buy, with maybe a bit of cabbage, or even a potato.  But when the pawnbroker beats her down from shillings to just a few pennies, she realizes that instead of meaty rashers of bacon she’s reduced to nothing but fatty bits and ends.  No cabbage.  No potato.  It’s the most damning indictment of the poverty inflicted on Ireland by England (and the Catholic Church, as well) I’ve ever read, and though it’s been 50 years since first reading it, I’ve never forgotten the story.

Gator is not the first pig I have watched grow up on its way to the table.  During the Second World War cities in England dispensed with the niceties of mingling livestock with city dwellers.  I hear that Denver and Colorado Springs now allow backyard chickens, but not roosters (which in England we called cockerels) because their crowing might disrupt the neighborhood.  In Coventry we didn’t mind the early-morning crowing of cockerels–the U-boat packs prowling the North Atlantic tended to focus our thinking on not starving to death.

In our neighborhood we tended to diversify, then pool the results.  My mother kept a large flock of chickens in the backyard (including noisy roosters), mostly for eggs (which were prized) and only occasionally for meat.  Whenever a chicken fell ill my mother’s remedy was always a couple teaspoons of brandy down the bird’s gullet.  (The same remedy was applied to my Labrador, Vino, whenever he was hit by a car, something that happened at least three times.)  For whatever reason, the brandy always seemed to work, and to this day no vet has explained to me why.

Our next-door neighbor raised a pair of pigs, to which everyone along our street contributed table scraps and leftovers.  When the pigs’ date with destiny arrived, the honors were left to my father, apparently for his familiarity with, and ownership of (unspoken and unexplained, then as now) a British Army Webley revolver.  I think most likely he came by the gun because he was in the Home Guard, but given his murky background in Ireland of the 30’s (and my ferocious Irish grandmother), who knows?

And, yes, I did witness his swift and efficient dispatching of the pigs, a single shot to each.  I was at most 5 at the time, yet I don’t remember anything traumatic about it.  To this day, I can’t explain that.

Still, though, you notice I didn’t make friends with Gator.

 

Too Long At The Fair

It’s State Fair time again, the last ten days of August.  A big deal down here in the state’s economic backwater, the Fair is one of two major cultural/social events of the year–the other being the Pueblo Chile and Frijole Festival.  That tells you a lot about Pueblo and the surrounding area–and I say that with great affection.

Once the Fair is over the powers that be up in Denver will start grumbling about the Fair losing money (or not making a big enough profit–it varies with the telling).  The solution, they always say, is to move the Fair up to Denver, where it’ll have access to all of the money in Colorado that isn’t stashed in Aspen, Vail and Telluride.  They’re probably right, but who the hell cares?  Poor old Pueblo hasn’t got a helluva lot going for it since Colorado Fuel and Iron went tits up along with the rest of America’s steel industry.  Pueblo’s average income is already $20,000 below the state average, so I hope the  politicians will cut us a break for once and leave the State Fair where it’s been held for more than a century.

I was a late-comer to the country life, not moving out of Denver until I was 32 years old.  That came about partly for a business opportunity, but mainly because Gayle, my late wife (who was a country girl at heart), had long wanted to raise our daughters in a rural setting.  Less than a week after the move Gayle bought a Hackney pony for the girls, and with that the camel had its nose firmly in the tent.

Gayle enrolled our daughters in 4-H, following in her own youthful footsteps, and became an active leader herself.  Showing of animals, however, was limited to dairy goats and horses–mostly because even a city kid like me knew that neither species was liable to end up on the menu.  That has changed with my granddaughter, who has raised, shown and sold for slaughter meat goats (Boers), and this year for the first time a brace of pigs.  All of this–helping piglets to enter the world, name them and raise them like pets, win blue ribbons with them and then sell them for big bucks to the place where Spam is made–happens with the co-operation, and even enthusiasm, of my granddaughter, her mother and her two aunts.  The lot of ’em are made of sterner stuff than me.  They get it all from Gayle, who looked like a movie star but was tougher than a Marine gunnery sergeant.

Now, I’m not one of those bleeding-heart PETA types who wring their collective hands over allowing all animals to enjoy “rights of self-determination”.  Hell, I’m so old-school British Empire I think it was a grave error to give countries self-determination, let alone bloody parrots.  (On second thought, maybe parrots.  But not chickens.)  That said, I’ve always had a nagging problem with the core of 4-H, the pet-to-slaughter part where kids are crying over the fate of their animals–although to be honest, I notice most of them recover nicely when the auction checks arrive.

Watched a clip on KOAA the other day in which a 4-H spokesman said the most important lesson kids learned in the pet-to-food process was  learning how to provide food for the nation as future farmers.  He’s partly right, of course, but only partly.

For my money, I think the underlying (and lingering) lesson is about life itself– its frailty, its inevitable losses and inevitable ending.  Because to live life is to endure loss.  That’s the price of love, whether for an animal or another human being.  And, of course, the greater the love, the greater the sense of loss, the greater the price to be paid.

If you’re lucky–and I most certainly have been–the price is worth it.

 

Smuggler’s Blues

In 1948 I made my first and (so far) only trip to my ancestral home in Ireland.  I think now the trip was mainly so my father could say goodbye to his mother, brothers and sisters because it had been decided we were going to emigrate to America–which we did the following year.  All went well–in varying degrees–until I was nabbed by Irish Customs on the way out of the country.

We rode the train to Holyhead in Wales, then boarded a large ferry to cross the Irish Sea, a notoriously unruly body of water.  It was a dark and stormy night–rough seas and a high wind singing in the various wires and halyards strung between the ferry’s mast and funnels.  And I loved every minute of it.

My father’s village, Cashel,  County Tipperary, sits at the foot of the Rock Of Cashel, probably the most photographed spot in all of Ireland, and one of the most photographed places in the world.  Not so in 1948.  Tourists had yet to discover Ireland, there was no Aer Lingus offering non-stop flights from Chicago and Boston so that retired cops and firemen could visit the Ould Sod, cry over pints of Guinness because the old days were gone forever.  That all began to change a couple of years later when John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Victor MacLaglen arrived in County Mayo to make “The Quiet Man”–for my money the most charming and loveable two hours of bullshit even put on film.

I remember my grandmother as a rather fierce-looking old lady, with a hard face and dressed all in black (although that last is probably my fractured memory).  Family lore says she was a dedicated rebel during Ireland’s War of Independence, which may explain her coolness to a grandson who spoke with a distinctly English accent.  There is a story (which may be as much bullshit as “The Quiet Man”) that a meeting of rebels was being held at her house  and they were warned “the Tans” were on their way.  (It’s always “the Tans” in these tales, as if British regulars never left their barracks.  More dramatic, because the Black and Tans were mercenaries and generally murderous bastards.)  At any rate, my grandmother and her chums hid their guns in the bushes out in the yard.  In the event, the British never showed up–which was just as well, since during the night a herd of goats had eaten all the leaves off the bushes, leaving the guns dangling in plain sight.

I have no idea if it’s true–but it’s a nice story all the same.

My grandmother’s house was at least a hundred years old.  Maybe more.  There was a courtyard in back enclosed by a stone wall.  At the end of the yard was my uncle Bill’s blacksmith shop.  It was a true forge, like something out of the 18th century, with a huge hand bellows which he let me operate for him.  He made his own horseshoes in the forge (along with a lot of wrought-iron fencing, gates and railings).  Being a blacksmith in Ireland those days must have been a license to print money.  There were a helluva lot more horses in Ireland then than internal combustion engines–draft horses, hunters, thoroughbreds and all manner of (generally bad-tempered) ponies.  My uncle shoe-ed them all–hot shoes glowing red from the forge, hissing and smelling as he placed them on freshly-trimmed hooves.  The various draft horses, I remember, had hooves the size of dinner plates.

Among her many other attributes, my grandmother had a grim sense of humor.  One afternoon she sent me out the shed to bring in turf for the fire (she actually did some cooking in a great iron pot in an open fireplace).  I went out, flung back the shed door and this great bloody red thoroughbred reared up and missed my head by inches (again, this may be my poor memory, the horse probably missed by six feet, but it felt like inches).  The horse was still hitched to a cart and just as startled to see me as I was to see him.  I stumbled backward into the yard ass over tip–all of which Grandmum thought was bloody hilarious.

Oh, yeah–my brief career as a smuggler.

For some reason my father bought a football (soccer to you) to take back to England.  Have no idea why, except that maybe footballs were hard to come by in England since we were still on wartime rationing.  At any rate, there must have been a custom’s duty on footballs (or maybe they were outright contraband), because my dad deflated the thing and tucked it into the shoulders of my overcoat.  I don’t know if, when going through Customs, I looked guilty–or if a 7-year-old with shoulders like a longshoreman looked suspicious–but I was stopped by the Customs Inspector at the foot of the gangplank.  I remember him as a tall dark-haired man in a trench coat (honest to God) looking a bit like James Mason–and enough like my father they could have been brothers, or at least cousins.  I think now the Customs man was delighted to not only have apprehended a smuggler, but an English one at that.  That’s when my dad stepped forward and the two had a quiet chat–in Gaelic, by God.  That language made all the difference  and I was sent on my way with a stern warning:  “Don’t you bloody try that again, lad!”