Being There First

Because I was raised in a building that previously sheltered turkeys, the news that I am actually a blueblood came as quite a shock. No, I can’t trace my people to the Bourbons, the House of Tudor, the Kennedy’s or even the Osmonds. But it is a fact that in 1866 my great-grandfather, trembling with greed, joined a rush of equally foul-smelling fools who galloped off in the dead of winter from Last Chance Gulch in what is now Helena to the Sun River Country—where Charles M. Russell would set his paintings of cowboys and Indians—after some frontier wit spread a bogus rumor of gold. The date of the Sun River Stampede is importantThomas Moran because it establishes that old Thomas Moran had set up housekeeping before 1869 in what would become the Treasure State. And that accident of history qualified me to join our premier organization of vintage names—the Sons and Daughters of Montana Pioneers.

As the date of my induction in Helena approached I got a little bit jumpy. First, would the other Sons and Daughters be snooty? After all, although Thomas Moran possessed determination and courage, he wasn’t exactly a fine gentleman. Before he made his way to Montana he had fled Ireland, was rejected for service in the Civil War, and sailed off in a snit to San Francisco, where he milked cows for a living.

But Kitty, my wife, reminded me that most of the citizens who founded this high, wide and handsome place were also scum. In fact, she and her four sisters, who had likewise been accepted into the Pioneers, claimed as their legacy a thief who built a minor fortune stealing cattle from his employers, and who lost it because he couldn’t stop getting married.

But my other anxiety was more vexing. The keynote speaker would be Stephen Ambrose, the best-selling author of Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage, a history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I had just published an article in a magazine about a long journey of my own, playing golf and drinking vodka along the Lewis and Clark Trail from Great Falls to St. Charles, Missouri. To say that my account was not an academic treatment would be kind. In it, for example, I had described the explorers as carnivorous, murderous barbarians, and deduced that Meriweather Lewis was a homosexual who’d been having an affair with Peter Cruzatte, one of his men, both of whom were deeply into leather. I had further hypothesized that when Cruzatte shot Lewis in the butt during an elk hunt in North Dakota the assault had been intentional, the result of a lovers’ spat, and not accidental, as Lewis had claimed.

Still, I couldn’t be certain that Ambrose had read this hare-brained literature. But when we got to the dinner and saw the distinguished historian in bifocals and an angry red tie poring over his notes at the head table, my stomach sank. I began to imagine the vocabulary with which he would roast my eccentric scholarship, and how the Pioneers would rise, fingers pointing me to the door, eyes burning like those of Red Sox fans the night Bill Buckner let that grounder hop between his legs. Kitty patted my hand and ordered a beer. A gang of bushy-faced men in buckskin and fur filed through the door to honor the explorers with a loud rendition of a song from the period called "The Lowering Day." Then they sat down at a table together to gorge themselves on beef.

Two hours later, long after the dessert plates were cleared, the officers of the Pioneers were still giving each other awards and eulogizing dead comrades. Ambrose looked like he’d been trapped in night court. The speaker began announcing the organization’s 70 new members. As she called out my name I slouched in my chair and pretended that the program was the most riveting prose I’d ever read.

When he was finally introduced Ambrose stared right at me and launched into a story in a gruff, overused voice about how a twenty-something T-shirt clerk in the mall where he had signed copies of his book that day asked him who Lewis and Clark were.

“‘You graduated from high school in Montana and you don’t know Lewis and Clark?’” Ambrose growled, a mimic of himself.

“‘Well, I’ve, you know, heard the names?” he warbled in falsetto. “But, like, when were they?’”

I pushed myself lower in my chair. At the next table one of the senior Pioneers, head down, hands on his glutinous American belly, was already nodding off. He dropped into a deep coma when Ambrose began describing two chapters of the book his publisher had axed. They dealt with the tribes who helped the Corps of Discovery through its first winter and over the Rockies. “Without the Mandans and the Nez Perce Lewis and Clark might never have seen the Pacific,” he said, looking out at us. There was not, of course, a single Indian face looking back. “The Canadians would have armed the Blackfeet. And none of you would be here.”

It was a terrific speech. The applause even woke up our dozing Pioneer. But I wasn’t about to give Ambrose another chance to nail me in front of this partisan crowd. When the applause died and a blonde got up to sing "God Bless America," accompanied by a boombox instrumental in what sounded like a whole other key, I took Kitty by the elbow. Clutching our little blue Montana Pioneer ribbons, we slipped out into the hot, starless night and went looking for a martini. (By Bill Vaughn, 25 December 2015)


Barbarian Days

[read from the beginning] Di Salvatore and I would become friends, teammates and business associates. He would go on to write extensively for the New Yorker, as would Finnegan, who is still a staff writer. But an account of their over-the-top odyssey would not appear until almost four decades later, in the middle chapters of Barbarian Days.. Reading it, I see now that these adventures indeed would have made ideal hooks for pieces in Outside (exotic locales, dangerous sport, insane bravado). And both of the adventurers had enough literary talent to turn what in lesser hands would degenerate into those dreary and predictable tales of how Me-and-Joe-Went-Surfin’. But at the time I had no idea who these guys were or what they wanted. And if I had, and convinced my superiors to give them an assignment, it might have altered the course of history and deprived me of the pleasure of reading Finnegan’s best–selling memoir.

It begins with his coming-of-age discovery in California and Hawaii of two things that make you feel alive—fist-fighting and surfing. His skirmishes reminded me of the running battles I fought (unlike Finnegan, I never won). Boyhood was different when we were boys, less supervised, less organized, and, at least for white kids, more violent, with shiners, goose eggs and bruises flaunted as badges of courage. While I was living a motherless, feral life exploring the floodplain of the Missouri River Finnegan was a creature of the ocean. The river was devious and dangerous but his world could stop your heart with its terrors. "Waves were the playing field,” he writes. “They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world." Finnegan describes this world with language uncommon in the typically stoned and slurpy literature of surfing: oneiric, pelagic, schadenfreude.

In one passage he describes the expatriate life he and Di Salvatore lived on a snake-infested island in Fiji called Tavarua, a picture of the tropical, Lord of the Flies dreamscape envisioned by boys who want to run away from home. “We reminisced about favorite meals back in the world—fried chicken, big American hamburgers. . . . We made a list of every bar in Missoula, Montana, where either of us had ever had a drink, coming up with fifty-three. We were becoming characters, we knew, in a desert-island cartoon. ‘Do me favor, will you—stop saying entre-nous.’”

Tavarua was also a surfer’s dreamscape. “The wave had a thousand moods,” Finnegan writes, “but in general it got better as it got bigger. At six feet it was easily the best wave either of us had ever seen. Scaled up, the mechanical regularity of the speeding hook gained soul, its roaring, sparkling depths and vaulted ceiling like some kind of recurring miracle.”

Following stints in Bali and Thailand, living in a tree house in Java, Finnegan’s bout with malaria, and crossing the desolate Center of Australia by car, the partnership dissolved and Di Salvatore moved back to Missoula to kick my ass and wallow in a plethora of paper products, leaving Finnegan on the road in India and South Africa for almost another three years. The remote and lovely surfing spots they discovered would be overrun by an army of surfing freebooters, and the renegade sport would become establishment and mainstream.

For me, an inept swimmer uncomfortable with water deeper than a bathtub because things live down there that crave human flesh, Finnegan’s most enlightening passages concern the nature of waves and how to extract from them the thrill of forward motion. As someone who has never stood on a board and never will, I nevertheless came away from Barbarian Days convinced that there is no other sport offering more ego-reducing immersion in the power of the natural world than surfing.

(By Bill Vaughn, 14 February 2016)