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!”


Enjoyed a private showing of “Dunkirk” last night–private in that I was the only person there for the 7 o’clock showing at Pueblo Tinseltown.  The movie has been out for over a month and that probably accounts for my lucky solo viewing.  I have an idea, too, that “Dunkirk” likely enjoys better box-office up north in Colorado Springs, which has a large military population, along with enough ex-Brits to support a couple of stores specializing in British food and candy.

Very first movie I can remember seeing in a theater was also a war flick–“Sahara”, with Humphrey Bogart.  One of my uncles took me to see it at the Gaumont Theater in downtown Coventry (England).  This would have been 1947, or ’48, even though the film was released in 1943.  Not sure if it was a re-release, or if “Sahara” had been held back from British audiences until the war ended.  For one thing, “Sahara” was (and is) a little anti-British slant.  The only Englishman along for the ride on “Lulubelle” the tank is an effete, tea-drinking worry-wart.  The Americans, the Canadian and the Australian are stalwart chaps to a man–hell, even  the Frenchman is a tough guy bent on revenge.  Of course, if the English were miffed, Italian audiences must’ve been royally pissed at J. Carrol Naish (an actor as Irish as Paddy’s pig in real life) and his portrayal of an Italian soldier as an organ grinder’s monkey groveling in the sand, saying things like “Please-a don’t-a leave-a me behind”.  Hollywood could get by with a lot of crap in those days.

War movies (I try not to use the word “film” much) have changed remarkably over the years, from a lot of jingo-istic propaganda to anti-war themes that flirt with treason.  Some movies from the Fifties still delight (“The Caine Mutiny”) or can still make me cringe (“Paths of Glory”, Kirk Douglas at his all-time best).  A couple of modern “serious films” offer interesting contrasts: in “Saving Private Ryan” American GIs are freshly landed in action, still learning, still somewhat clean and bright, hopeful and cracking wise; fast-forward a few years to “Fury” and its grimy tank crew hardened beyond belief and at least as homicidal as the enemy they face.

Just a note to thank my middle daughter, Elaine, for getting me out of the starting gate and onto the first furlong.  She navigated the minefield of setting up this site, something I had thrown up my hands over a dozen times, stopping just short of firing the computer into the dog yard.

Standing In The Starting Gate

(Getty Images)

This time a week ago I probably couldn’t have accurately defined the word “blog”, or the verb “to blog”.  But this morning I are one, the end result of well-meaning nuns hammering simple English sentences into my noggin such a long time ago.

There is no great purpose to this (although fame and fortune would be nice), except to keep the gears in my head from freezing up–sort of like Slick 50 for the mind.  Whether it’s widely read or totally ignored is ultimately not the purpose.  Of course, every writer wants to be widely read and admired, but no reader is under any obligation to comply.  Subject matter will likely be as wide-ranging and off-the-wall as the echo chamber between my ears.  Means always personal, always self-centered, and so in great danger of failing to interest to anyone else.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

While I’m still in the starting gate: I’ll try to steer clear of politics and religion–except in the occasional historic context.  Those subjects seem to be arguments without resolution and depressing to boot.  Besides, you can get all the bloody politics you want just about anywhere else these days.

The “hill” in the domain name is not very large, but it stands at the very edge of the Great Plains.   The foothills of the Rockies rise just half a mile to the west, while half a mile east the land falls off into flatness clear the hell to the Alleghenies.  Or maybe the Smokies.  View from here runs upwards of a hundred miles in one direction or another.  That view, and its changing light and weather will likely show up here fairly often.  So, too, will my flawed memories of a long, reasonably uneventful life (so far).

I’ve lived through some interesting decades, but my memories–the ones I’ll write about here–are not of great events, but rather the small stuff of every day: movies seen, books read, people and places long gone or still clinging to existence.  Dogs and horses–and people–loved and lost.

And so to begin, every day (if possible)–think of it as an aging guy talking to himself in the mirror, a mirror fogged with hot water while shaving.