Planes, trains and automobiles By Bill Vaughn
Railroad passenger service in rural states can work again, but only if the trains offer casino-style gambling, legalized prostitution, and a berth for your car.
EVERY TIME GAS PRICES SPIKE geeks start thinking about railroads. They barrage strangers with numbers detailing fuel savings and economies of scale. They get all gooshy about a happy trip they took thirty years ago aboard the The Empire Builder to St. Paul or on the City of New Orleans to Chicago. They come home from Europe and bore people at dinner with tales of their “adventure” on the bullet train from Paris to Avignon. They go down to the yards and smell the freights.
I know this because I’m one of those geeks.
One of my first memories was a trip to Oregon with my mama, the moon shining on the blue snow as I played train crash in the aisle of a passenger car with a little locomotive made of redwood. Then when I was eight my old man gave me a model train set. What I liked most about it was putting M80s under the tracks and blowing the shit out of the miniature cars.
I also enjoyed spending time at the real tracks near our cold comfort farm laying items on the rails for the trains to run over. Coins, my sister’s stuffed toys, dead rattlers and muskrats, that sort of thing. And then when I went off to college I liked to get drunk with my brothers in the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at the University of Montana, and hop the freights from Missoula to little Hootervilles like Paradise and Drummond.
And so it seems now like a logical course of events that I would go to work for a railroad. I say logical because at the time of my employment in 1969 the
rail companies were trying to dump the passenger side of their operations, which had been leaking money for twenty years. All those routes and depots and rolling stock rarely filled with passengers, not to mention expensive union employees like those guys from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. If the railroad execs could show the feds the truth that there just weren’t very many people who wanted to travel by train anymore, the government would let them abandon a form of transportation that had become romantic but useless.
My brief career began on a spring morning when a white-haired man in a gray suit walked up the steps of the Delta Sig house, and hired everyone who wanted a summer job. It didn’t matter that most of us were hungover, or still drunk, or already high on the hash we kept next to a keg of Hamms down in the basement of our creepy old Queen Anne on Gerald Avenue. The Great Northern Railroad needed porters for their sleeping cars running between Seattle and St. Paul. And the Delta Sigs had come “highly recommended.”
As the summer wore on higher-ups in the railroad must have been pleased to see that their strategy was genius. Passenger complaints trickled in, then became a flood. The old Pullman porters were famous for their attention to service—for example, if you left your shoes outside your compartment when you went to sleep you’d awaken to find them beautifully polished. The Delta Sigs considered this a waste of time that took us away from our main preoccupation: hustling girls. The sleeping compartments we were supposed to keep clean were often filthy.
And then there were people who missed their stops because the porters didn’t wake them up. For example, one woman who was supposed to get off in Williston, North Dakota, woke up to find the train pulling into Grand Forks, 150 miles away. (This wasn’t entirely my fault. My pal, Dave, who was portering in another car, said he’d deal with it if I gave him five bucks, but he also slept through the stop.) Money and personal items went missing (although I never had the energy or the opportunity to steal anything, I knew those who did.)
One week Dave and I were given an assignment to porter a train of Boy Scouts from Chicago to Farragut State Park in Idaho for an international jamboree. But the smell of all those paramilitary monkeys crammed into a small space became so overpowering we jumped off the train when it was moved to a sidetrack by a freight, and walked away.
My most treasured memories of the summer came whenever we pulled into Missoula for a 45-minute stopover to take on fuel and supplies. The moment the doors opened onto the loading platform at the North Higgins Avenue depot a dining car attendant named Pie Thompson jumped down and made his way to the nearby Smith Hotel, where a fat blonde named Carol was waiting for him in the room she’d rented for the day. We placed bets on how many seconds before the train pulled away that Pie would return. A sweet-talking man, he claimed his brothers were named Puddin, Cookie and Cake).
Congress finally caved in to the railroads, and in 1971 Amtrak was created. A couple of its routes, like the one from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, and from Washington D.C. to Boston, are popular. But most of them, especially in Flyover Country, are monster money-losers that stay operating only because of massive Federal subsidies.
My next train saga began when I built a boat that sails on railroad tracks. Sometimes the Molly B. used abandoned tracks, sometimes we had permission to sail on private rail, and sometimes we trespassed, with near disastrous results. READ SHIP OF FOOLS
Meanwhile, there are laudable grassroots efforts all over the country to reinvigorate short commuter routes. However, I believe these are doomed to fail, unless the railroads offer commuters more than just a ride into the city. In urban centers where mass transit is neither efficient nor plentiful (and in America that’s almost everywhere), some commuters will want to put their cars on the trains, or at least their bicycles, so they can run to market before commuting home at the end of the day.
And to make the experience of riding the train special these new rail ventures ought to offer casino-style gambling—you know, with roulette and blackjack and craps—and legalized prostitution of at least two varieties. Instead of boring yourself with the daily newspaper wouldn’t it be fun to get a nice blowjob before work, or pocket a hundred dollars from the tables?
When that day comes the previously tedious daily commute will truly become the stuff of which fond memories are made.
To Hell. And Back.
A review of the world’s most tedious adventure. By Bill Vaughn
I don’t read much expedition lit, preferring girl stories and dysfunctional melodramas to those weird death-wish chronicles of bourgeois men who risk their lives in the Third World looking for something to write about. But one night, weeping as I finished Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed, I wandered into my library looking for another tearjerker and found an adventure yarn so awful I couldn't put it down.
"After some difficulty we succeeded in obtaining enough camels for our purpose." Thus begins L. M. Nesbitt's relentlessly boring account of his 1928 expedition with two Italians through the chartless heart of Abyssinia, what is now called Ethiopia. One of the last installments from the jodhpur-and-pith-helmet school of British adventure (and currently out of print), Hell-Hole of Creation is also its crankiest.
Bribing his way 400 miles by caravan over the broasted wastelands of the Afar province, the arrogant 37-year-old Nesbitt is not amused by the locals. The "unruly" Danakil tribesmen are by turns "sinister," "restless," and "slothful demons" who appear to wear the dried testicles of their victims around their necks.
Nesbitt reminds us—constantly—that no European has ever returned alive from the region. Like a hypochondriac announcing his pulse rate, he relates the soaring temperatures in the sulfur flats: 146 degrees, or 157, or 168. "Sitting half-stunned in the silence of this glowing furnace," he records in a style evoking the torpor of playing video games on Xanax, "we were like men struck motionless by the curse of fate."
Nesbitt claimed the "purpose" of his trip was to collect mineral samples, as he and his pals staggered in an endless fever dream from one dung-fouled water hole to another. But I didn't buy it. So if he wasn't after some mother lode, what compelled this mad Englishman to go out in the noonday sun? A book contract? A lecture gig at the Royal Geographical Society? Was he just not getting any at home?
I kept turning the pages, anticipating the comeuppance that he so richly deserved. Alas, it never came. But the account became perversely more intriguing once I suspected that his maps were intended for the Italian generals who would command the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Indeed, a year after his ordeal, Nesbitt traveled to Rome with a present for Mussolini's zoo: a crocodile snatched as a baby from the River Awash and carried across Abyssinia in a tin box.
When I finished those final lines, I laughed. And then I cried.
We knew she was big, but was she big enough to be a champion? By Bill Vaughn
Whenever we need extra good fortune Kitty and I tie ribbons to the hawthorns at Dark Acres. Green for money, red for health, blue for protection. And sometimes we go overboard, when things aren’t working out at all, we hang family heirlooms on the branches of these thorny trees, as well. A necklace, rings, scraps of old clothing, and loops of yellowed paper cut from the margins of World War II letters my mother sent home from the Philippines. We do this because we’re children of Ireland—our great-grandfathers were born on the Big Green Island—and we believe that this Celtic superstition, which the Irish Church could never suppress, can’t be any dumber than buying lottery tickets.
I started decorating our hawthorns after a rare form of pneumonia last winter put Kitty in intensive care and a week-long coma. But she pulled out of it, and is healthier than ever. Our relative good fortune continued. In July the Men’s Journal flew me to Austin, Texas, to interview Monster Garage star Jesse James for their cover story, and I got to see the spectacle of one million bats surging out at dusk from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. In August our huge, annual equestrian sporting event, the Barrel of Gold, was bigger and better than ever. In November, for the first time in a couple of years, the slough behind our house defied the drought and filled with water from an unexpected autumn downpour. When this deluge froze we suddenly had all the hockey ice we wanted. In December, the Missoula County Commissioners killed an insane proposal by the guy who owns the ranch next to Dark Acres to build an asphalt plant, a massive gravel pit and a cement factory at the very spot where the sweet waters of the Mabel issue from the earth.
And this week we were notified that we were the proud parents of the biggest river hawthorn in Montana. Last spring, after we learned about the Montana Champion Tree Program, which is a register of the largest individuals of the Treasure State’s native species, we dug out our field guides and read all about Crataegus douglasii. It’s named after David Douglas, the peculiar 19th Century botanist, mountain-climber and explorer who “discovered” this hawthorn (although the Blackfeet, among other tribes, have been using hawthorn berries for food and medicine for thousands of years).
Most of the river hawthorns at Dark Acres are bigger than average, even though the majority of the species grows in parts of the Pacific Northwest that get tons more rain than western Montana. Poking around in the jungle between our sloughs we found a hawthorn thicket so dense there isn’t enough sunlight for grass to grow. And at the core of this thicket we discovered Maeva.
By far the biggest hawthorn in our floodplain, we named this tree after the mythical Irish queen Meábh, which means “she who intoxicates,” a reference to what the Celts believed were their monarch’s supernatural powers. In other words, Queen Meaábh was a witch. Because the Celts believed that the drooping branches of the hawthorn looked like witch’s fingers, and that at midnight fierce Irish faeries gathered to dance under the hawthorns, which guarded the entrance to the Underworld, this name seemed to fit. (Modern Irish believe that Queen Meábh is buried in County Sligo on Knocknarae, a promontory known by locals as “the Tit.”)
After we discovered Maeva we called Helen Smith, who’s a researcher at the Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, and Montana’s Big Tree Coordinator. She and her associate, Mitch Doherty, used lasers to measure Maeva. Her main trunk (she has eight of them) is 40.8 inches in circumference (measured 4.5 feet from the ground), her crown is 38 feet wide, and she stands 35 feet tall. These numbers aren’t impressive when compared to those of our old cottonwoods or our gigantic Ponderosa pines, but they’re more than good enough to retire Montana’s previous champion. Using a formula for grading trees, Smith gave Maeva 85.3 points, which surpasses the former biggee by a whopping 55 points.
The largest river hawthorn in America lives in Beacon Rock State Park on the Columbia River in Washington. This gargantuan is 110 inches in diameter, has a crown 57 feet wide, and stands 41 feet tall.
Kitty and I are going to visit this tree in May. And we’re going to bring along some ribbons. Just for luck.
Wayne Herrin struggled to stay straight, but he finally had to tell himself the truth.
WHEN WE WATCHED the 120th Tournament of Roses Parade we thought about Wayne Herrin, Kitty’s uncle (Kitty’s the good-looking person in the banner above). That’s because her uncle’s company, Wayne Herrin, Inc., was for years one of the foremost designers of floats in the parade.
Not much in Wayne’s background prepared him for this career. He grew up the youngest of five boys on the Herrin Hereford Ranch outside Helena, Montana, the same thousand acres where Kitty grew up. Although he could always draw he seemed fated to spend his days chasing cows.
He got married and had a son. But after a dalliance at the Denver Stock Show a light seemed to come on in Wayne’s life. One night in 1956 he said good-bye to his family and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he became a florist and opened a shop.
The truth was, Wayne was gay. It had taken him a long time to admit that fact, but there it was. After a few years in Portland he fell in love with a man named Don, and they moved to Pasadena, where Wayne got into the float-construction business. His work was in great demand, and he prospered. Meanwhile, he never lost touch with his brothers, and his parents, who lived on the ranch as well. Every summer Wayne and Don would drive north in a Cadillac convertible to spend their vacation on the ranch. During one of these visits Wayne and Don repainted the bathroom in Wayne’s mother’s house. They painted it black, with pink flamingoes.
After Don died Wayne got into the real estate business in California with his son, building big houses on spec. A few years ago Wayne died, as well. All we have to remind us of him is the Parade, of course, and the pin pictured here from the 97th Tournament of Roses.
Betting the farm
If you believe that voting for a politician will make your life better you might be right. But only if you've bet money on the candidate who wins.
I GAMBLE for the same reason I put Tabasco on scrambled eggs: Just to make it interesting. Like millions of Americans I play poker and gin for money, waste hours on Rotisserie baseball, bet on the ponies, fill out brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament, enter football pools, and feed keno machines in bars. Plus, despite knowing that the lottery is designed for morons who haven’t done the math, or can’t, I buy a ticket once in a while.
I won’t tell you about my losses because what fun is that? But here are some of my wins: With a pal one day at a fair we won $800 on the horse races. My wife and I won $3500 after our fantasy team, the Mo Better Vaughns, wiped out the competition in the Eddie Gaedel Baseball League (The Rotisserie League For People With Short Attention Spans). In 1991 I put down a $20 bet with the Caesar’s Palace sports book in Vegas on odds of 75-1 that the Atlanta Braves would win the National League Pennant. They did, of course, coming back from last place at the All-Star Break to put $1500 in my pocket.
Now I’m thinking about betting a couple hundred bucks on the U.S. Senate elections. Just to make it interesting.
The offshore sports books where I’ll place this wager are highlighting several "exotics" at the moment. For example, you can bet on who will win Mark Burnett's racist CBS reality show "Survivor: Cook Islands," whether or not Donald Rumsfeld will be still be Secretary of Defense on New Year's Eve, who will be the next Secretary General of the U.N., and whether or not Harry Potter gets whacked in the next novel.
While betting on stuff like this might be amusing, the wager that gives me a true gambler’s rush is the obscure contest in Montana pitting Republican incumbent Conrad Burns against the president of the state senate, Jon Tester, a 50-year-old farmer who raises organic peas and lentils. Burns, 71, is a former livestock auctioneer and current skuzzball who took more money from convicted scam-artist Jack Abramoff’s lobbying firm than anyone else inside the Beltway. (Skuzzball: noun; Middle English; a small, dense wad of dried rodent feces that carries a negative electrical charge and attracts dirty fluff, putrid organic matter, carrion insects, and lobbyists; usage: Montana’s junior Senator is a skuzzball.)
While gambling is a simple, harmless pleasure for most people, it brought about all of Abramoff’s felony woes. He pled guilty in January to three criminal counts in a D.C. federal court for committing an oxymoron, that is, corrupting public servants, and also for a redundancy, for defrauding Indian tribes. The following day he pled guilty in Miami to two criminal felony counts for bilking investors in a scam involving phony casino boats, for which he’s serving a six-year term in a federal pokey.
A former movie producer, Abramoff sent inflated invoices for millions of dollars to Indian tribes that wanted him to lobby solons to help the tribes grow their casinos and stifle the competition. The Choctaw Indians of Mississippi, for example, own two casinos taking millions from southern bettors, a revenue stream threatened in 1999 by the intention of the bordering state of Alabama to introduce a lottery and to put video poker machines at racetracks. Abramoff’s firm funneled money to Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, who organized a ballot measure against gambling in Alabama. “Gambling is a cancer on the American body politic,” Reed said.
While swindling tribal leaders, Abramoff referred to them in emails as “fucking morons, monkeys and mofos,” according to Sean Flynn, writing in the August issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly.
And it is gambling that has got Burns’ panties all in a knot. Between 2001 and 2004, while chairman of the Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations, Burns received nearly $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff, his clients, and his Rolodex. The Tigua Indian tribe of El Paso, Texas, for example, who wanted help getting their casino reopened, ponied up $22,000 in campaign contributions in 2002. Last year a tribal leader told the Lee Enterprises state bureau that he believed Burns was part of “Abramoff's group.”
Abramoff told Vanity Fair magazine: “Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns’s committee] we got. Our staffs were as close as they could be.”
Burns, who claims he was never influenced by Abramoff, has given all of the payola to charity and to some of the tribes who were bilked. However, when he tried to give $110,000 of this booty to the Wyoming-Montana Tribal Leaders Council the group refused the gift, saying it was tainted. Julia Doney, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council and a member of the tribal leaders council, said the tribes were “tired of being used” and didn’t want to help Burns with his political problems.
Like a guy who eats dirt, barks at the moon and slaps himself, Conrad "Old Yeller" Burns says and does so many stupid, self-destructive things you have to believe he's on one part or another of the Tourette's Syndrome continuum.
But whatever, Burns’ problems as a politician have become my problems as a gambler. On one hand it seems like a reasonable bet that Jon Tester will beat Burns come November. According to a recent SurveyUSA poll 57 percent of Montana’s voters think Burns is doing a shitty job. And a Lee Enterprises poll puts Tester up sampled Montana voters by seven percent. On the other hand, Tester’s running a timid, boring and spineless campaign that looks more like a chess club election than it does a fight for the most powerful office in a wild and wooly state where everyone owns a gun, and which once lifted speed limits on its highways.
Instead of jumping all over Burns every day and every way for his close association with a serial felon, The Farmer launched a “positive ad campaign” that emphasizes his commitment to lowering the national debt, energy prices and the cost of prescription medicine.
I suppose Tester strongly opposes wife-beating and pedophilia. We know, in fact, that he’s against flag-burning, thinks American ports and borders should be sealed off to prevent illegal immigration, and supports the troops in Iraq.
A yawn as big as my lawn.
The only issues that matter to me in this campaign are (1) immediately ending America's ruinous wars of imperialism, (2) insituting free, universal health care, (2) providing free higher education to students who qualify, and (4) mandating public control and ownership of the utilities. (Oh, plus, Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans should be publicly flogged, the entertainment value of which would be the first time this Mormon eyesore will have provided her constituents something useful.)
Abramoff’s mule, Ralph Reed, got slaughtered in his bid to become Lt. Governor of Georgia. His opponent in the Republican primary, Casey Cagle, nailed Reed at every opportunity in a delicious frenzy of mud-slinging that worked wonders.
Eat Like An Indian: In order to shed those dangerous election campaign pounds Farmer Jon Tester ought to switch to the traditional Montana diet.
Adding to my dilemma is the matter of Tester’s weight. The guy began the campaign with an admirable beer gut, but now his girth has ballooned to a critical mass that looks like it could explode at any minute. While there’s a certain sick thrill in seeing this, like watching John Candy or Chris Farley perform and wondering if this would be their last movie, the gambler wonders if The Farmer is going to last long enough to vote for himself in November.
Although it can be said that there's no perfect body type because different races and varieties of people evolved to maximize the exploitation of their unique environments, you can make some general statements about the pending health problems of European white people like Jon Tester by employing various simple formulas. For example, the Body-Mass Index (BMI).
Figure Tester's height at 5'10", his weight at 280 pounds, and his waist at, oh, say 40 inches. (Although Tester's campaign hasn't answered my questions about The Farmer's dimensions, I can make guesses based on observations. And Mr. Tester, please correct these figures if you feel I'm in error.) When calculated together these numbers produce a Body-Mass Index of 40.3. According to the 1992 Federal Department of Health Conference on Obesity the normal BMI for a 50-year old male is 22 to 27. By these standards the Farmer's high BMI places him at a greatly increased risk for diabetes and heart disease, compared to 50-year-old men whose BMI fall into the normal range.
It's no wonder The Farmer is putting on the pounds. Campaigning in Montana, where local wags like to say the streets are 500 miles long, is grueling. And the marbled meat-and-gravied-potatoes diet of farmers and ranchers is yummy but lethal. Plus, when you don't get much sleep, which is the curse of the active campaigner, you tend to eat way more than you should.
If I bet on Tester now, and he doesn't last until November 7, I don't get paid.
So I suggest The Farmer try to get himself signed up as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. Or, more realistically, he could switch to Montana's traditional diet. That is, the bison, wild game, roots and berries that sustained the Plains Indians, who have been flourishing in Montana for at least 10,000 years. (Of course, a lot of fat contemporary Indians living on pizza and Ding Dongs would do themselves a favor, as well, by returning to the old foods.
Well, hell, I’m going to put down a bet on Tester, anyway. I just don’t know yet about the spread. At this rate, the election could be closer than a jar-head’s haircut.
But one thing’s for sure. I’m not going to bet the farm. [Updated 3 October 06]
How can we be certain that Conrad Burns is really a person?
Montana Senator Conrad Burns recently told an interviewer that in light of the Justice Department investigation implicating him in an influence-peddling scandal starring jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, he hired a lawyer specializing in white collar crime because “I need another pair of eyes.” That picture is scary enough, but when you combine it with the description of Burns published this spring in Rolling Stone magazine as a “sack of potatoes with a mushy, half-caved-in pineapple on top,” the image becomes downright frightening. In my mind it ranks up there with scenes in Texas Chainsaw Massacre of Bubba Sawyer wearing faces skinned
from his victims.
Date movies aside, while Burns was hiring D.C. mouthpiece Ralph Caccia, he should have also conferred with a lawyer who’s read the U.S. Constitution. I say this because Pineapple Head has introduced legislation called “The Fair and Accurate Representation Act of 2006,” which could have the effect of giving Montana a second seat in the U.S. House.
It would require the secretary of commerce, who oversees the Census Bureau, to “make such adjustments” to total population figures “in order that aliens who are in the United States in violation of the immigration laws are removed from the count.” Big states such as California and New York presumably would lose a couple of seats, one of which they took from Montana after their populations grew much
faster than that of Montana.
While some Montanans believe Burns has a good idea here, there’s one problem: it’s unconstitutional. That's because the Fourteenth Amendment requires the states to provide equal protection under the law to all persons, not only to citizens, who live within their jurisdictions. And that means equal representation, as well. So the U.S. Census counts everyone, including children and felons, who also can’t vote.
An an aside: You wonder how many undocumented aliens it takes to wash Pineapple Head's car, mow his lawn, and cook for his wife, Phyllis, who doesn’t appear to be missing any meals.
Burns, who received $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff and his associates, brings new meaning to Montana’s state motto: oro y plata (gold and silver), and its nickname: The Treasure State. In March, Abramoff told Vanity Fair magazine that his lobbying firm got "every appropriation we wanted" from Burns' Senate committee, adding that his staff members were "as close as they could be" with the Montana Republican's staff.
Burns returned the bribes or donated them, and claims he was not influenced by Abramoff. Burns also believes that the only good farm program is Hee-Haw.
In response to Burns’ bill Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman of New York has written a draft of legislation called the B.U.R.N.S. Act, which would have the effect of excluding Pineapple Head from qualifying as a “person” in state population counts the feds use to divvy up the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (it take 646,952 people to equal one politician.)
“Is the junior senator from Montana really a ‘person?’” Ackerman asks.
Rumors of Stan Jones' demise have been somewhat exaggerated.
While it may be true that for many politicians Montana is a political graveyard, the carcass of the 67-year-old Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate is not moldering in the woods nor, as it turns out, stinking up his house. Jones showed up Monday on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman to debate Democratic Jon “The Farmer” Tester and Republican Conrad “Old Yeller” Burns. Hewing to what Libertarians consider a hard line drawn by the rich, white, slave-owning framers of the U.S. Constitution, Jones denounced most everything in America as unconstitutional, called for the impeachment of George Bush for attaching unlawful riders to bills passed by Congress, and accused Burns of intellectual property theft when Old Yeller declared that Montanans know how to spend their money better than the Federal government does.
Meanwhile, Burns praised the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq and the alleged barrels of pork he’s shipped back to the Treasure State. Then The Farmer wrung his hands about the cost of college and medical care but, as usual, offered no plans. While Jones has no chance of winning Montana’s Senate seat, in the latest polls the perennial candidate is drawing three percent of the vote, and could turn out to be a factor in what is shaping up to be a close race.
Jones is a colorful figure. Literally. He’s called The Blue Man because, well, his skin is blue. In 1999 he began taking colloidal silver supplements, which crackpots believe is an antibacterial agent, because he feared that chaos sparked by the “millennium bug” might lead to The End of Days, plus a shortage of antibiotics. Eating silver, however, causes a medical dysfunction called argyria that permanently turns the skin of white people a silvery blue. However, at the debate Jones appeared to be glowing with good health. Was it makeup, or the result of some quality time in the old tanning booth? [10/12/06]
Being There First
Accidents of history have placed us in the elite ranks
of Montana's most venerable white families.
Because I was raised in a building that previously sheltered turkeys, the news that I was 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 important 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.
A fire in the sky makes every day seem a little bit sweeter.
THE AFTERNOON of August 10, 1972, was calm, clear and hot—a dog day, a perfect day to fish. For me, it would turn out to be the crowning day of a memorable year.
First, I’d been caught up in the drugs, high drama and copious sex of the antiwar movement. Then, maybe as punishment, the army drafted me. However, a couple days before I was supposed to report to Fort Lewis, Washington, for boot camp I was informed that my government didn’t want to use me for cannon fodder after all because Richard Nixon had decided to turn over the war to the Vietnamese. My reaction to this official caprice was to immediately drop out of the University of Montana, which I had attended indifferently for four years—or was it five?—only because my enrollment there shielded me from the draft.
I was working for the last underground newspaper in America, and couldn’t afford a truck. So my fishing trips were less expeditionary than those of most anglers. I was living with two other wastrels in a shabby rented house on the banks of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, a short distance from this sweet, cold stream’s confluence with the Clark Fork River. So there was lots of good fishing literally a stone’s throw away.
My best friend at the time, a Jewish communist from Baltimore named Harmon Henkin, was an accomplished fly fisherman who would publish several highly regarded books about the subject. Just the night before, he’d walked into the house bearing an enormous brown trout he’d caught at the mouth of the Rattlesnake on some bristly little fly he’d invented, and tied himself. You might ask, how big was this trout? And I would answer: We found the stub of a cigar in its stomach.
When I saw this lunker my heart sank. That’s because all summer long I’d been feeding Wonder Bread and grasshoppers to a wild brown trout that looked very much like this behemoth. My Moby Dick emerged every afternoon from under the little East Front Street bridge to take my treats, as trusting as a park squirrel. Watching Henkin drive off in his Volvo to share this feast with his wife, I felt vaguely cheated.
But the next afternoon, when I went down to the creek with a crust of bread and tossed it in, my fish darted from under the bridge, and took the offering with a vicious slap of water. It was now or never, I thought.
I went back to my room and retrieved the springy little fly rod I’d picked up for a few dollars second-hand. Then, thinking again, I put it away and grabbed a spin-casting pole instead, leveling with myself about my ability to cast a fly precisely where I wanted it to go. I found a small, single hook, tied it to the line and weighted the line with a bit of lead shot.
In the bramble of weeds that passed as our garden I caught an enormous grasshopper, and impaled it on the hook. Then, after slowly edging toward the creek, I saw that the fish, facing upstream in the fast, cool current, was still waiting for another treat. Maybe the water was distorting his size, like a magnifying glass, but he seemed even bigger than Henkin’s fish. I was giddy now, anxious for the trout dinner that would earn me monster points with my roomies. I might even invite a girl I was trying to impress to this dinner. But more than that, I wanted Henkin to see what I’d caught.
The grasshopper landed with a little splash and quickly drifted downstream toward the exact spot where Moby Dick was lurking.
Then the heavens exploded.
I grew up around Air Force bases and I've heard sonic booms many times. But nothing as deep and as resounding as this one. In an instant the fish ran back under the bridge. He was permanently spooked. I’d never see him again.
The great hunk of rock, glowing and hissing and trailing smoke, passed directly over my head, from south to north, and sailed out of sight behind Mount Jumbo.
Gaping at the place where it had gone I wondered: What just happened here? Am I hallucinating? Was this an illusion, some kicking-in of a random bit of mescaline or LSD that had lodged in a remote back alley of my brain?
But as I would learn, the thing I had seen was real.
Thousands of people from Utah to Canada had witnessed what would be called The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972. There were hundreds of pictures taken of the thing, and a pair of home movies, and it was tracked using infrared sensors aboard an Air Force satellite.
Scientists inferring from the temperature of the ball and its 900-mile trajectory from Utah to Alberta calculated that it passed over Montana at an altitude of less than 35 miles, was between ten and thirty feet in diameter, and weighed at least 4,000 tons, big enough to obliterate a Denver-sized city with a force equal to Little Boy and Fat Man, the uranium and plutonium bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because no trace of the beast has ever been found, and because no sonic booms were heard as it sailed across Canada, astrophysicists now believe its low angle of descent allowed it to skip off the earth’s atmosphere like a flat stone on a still lake. One scientist predicted that the fireball would return in 1997, but no one saw it.
In 1972 the earth dodged a bullet. My fish dodged a bullet. And I dodged two bullets. From then on just standing by a stream would always seem a little bit like winning a prize.
As the nights get colder a man's thoughts turn to firewood.
First I hugged the tree. Then I cut it down.
The hug was a supplication: I beg you to fall here, and not there. But whatever you do, please don’t fall on me. My embrace confirmed that this gargantua, Pinus ponderosa, was the biggest tree I’d ever tackled. Almost nine feet around at my shoulder, it rose 170 feet as straight and true as the mast of a sailing ship. Its ten-ton body stored enough energy to heat our place all winter. My heart pounded with avarice as I plotted the calamity I was about to cause.
From where it stood on the right bank of the Clark Fork I wanted the colossus to crash onto a narrow strip of wheatgrass and snowberries parallel to the water. That way I could slice it into rounds, and float the rounds inside a boom a mile downstream to a boat landing, where I could back my old pickup right to the water.
If I screwed up, the tree would hit the drink. Or it might veer to the other extreme and fall on its children. Although unlikely, if it got hung up on these smaller trees bringing it to earth would require surgery far too dangerous for someone with my primitive skills as a sawyer. But think of the triumph if everything went right!
Back at the house, giddy with anxiety and anticipation, I fitted a brand-new chain around the 20-inch bar of my new Stihl “Farm Boss” saw, which had replaced the wimpy 14-inch model I had worn out, which itself had replaced the incomparably girly electric saw I once used before I knew any better. Then I bolted on the plate, used a screwdriver to ratchet up the tension, checked the reservoir to see that there was plenty of chain lubricant, and filled the fuel tank with gasoline stained aquamarine by two-stroke engine oil. I grabbed my safety glasses, and a pair of those waxy earplugs people wear on long flights to muffle the racket of brats. Imitating the preparations of people who do this sort of thing for a living gave me the clean lines and clear thinking I needed, the artificial confidence of a checklist. Before I returned to the river I shut our dogs in the house.
Carrying the Stihl on my shoulder, I walked the 400 yards from our house to the river. The saw roared to life, and bit hungrily into the ponderosa, spraying shavings with an eagerness that seemed feral. I guided the blade slowly through the lines I’d sketched with a marker on the rough plates of sienna-colored bark. To my relief and pleasure these cuts produced exactly the notch I wanted, a foot-deep, foot-wide wedge all the way across the side of the tree facing its landing site. Now that the path of least resistance was established, I fished out the wedge, pleased to see that the wood was dense and hard and free of rot. Then I moved to the other side for the coup de grâce.
I checked my escape route again to make sure there was nothing I might trip over, and began making a deep cut aimed at the notch. At the moment of truth, when the tree shuddered with a barely perceptible movement of forward motion, I pulled out the blade. Then I fled.
The ponderosa hesitated, as if making some final decision. Then, slowly, living up to its name, it gathered momentum as it surrendered to gravity, and began keeling over in a graceful arc toward the exact place I’d chosen. My cheer was drowned out by a thunderous crash that was at least four times louder than I expected, a primal whump! that jumped from the ground straight into my spine. And then the boom echoed off the Bitterroot Mountains across the river as ducks and geese rose in terror.
Even before the tree’s limbs stopped tossing in its final throes I began to feel the regret of seeing a great thing leave the world. But this tree was doomed before I cut it down. It had already been killed by bark beetles. Its trunk was leaking yellow pitch from thousands of holes drilled by woodpeckers feasting on the beetles, and the ground around its base was littered with shredded bark. And even if it had somehow survived these parasites the meandering Clark Fork would have taken out the bank around its roots in a year or two.
I counted the rings, a recording of the accumulation of wealth as patient and relentless as the entries in the ledger of a miser, and saw that my lord of the forest had sprouted in 1864. That was the very year my great-grandfather rode into Montana, searching for a new life. Scattered all around the trunk were pinecones knocked loose by the crash. I gathered up a dozen of these and scattered them on the floor of the forest far away from the reckless river, at a spot where the sun was shining through.
To the batcave, Robin
The solution to the mosquito problem at Dark Acres
may be living under a bridge in Texas.
The worst mosquito season on record at Dark Acres is finally ending. As our swamps and sloughs go dry in August after filling during an unusually wet spring, the bugs are running out of still water in which to lay their eggs. And the dragonflies are making fast food of the few that hatch. If I could have figured out a way to capture the skeeters that bit me and Kitty and the dogs and horses this summer I would happily torture every one of the little bitches, driving tiny hot needles into their heads, say, or injecting them with chilled gasoline. Or most painful of all, making them listen to speeches by Montana Senator Conrad Burns.
We’ve tried lots of ways to control our mosquitoes. We’ve bought electronic bug zappers, for example, and laugh out loud at night when the patio lights up with the glow up skeeters going up in flames. We’ve experimented with gizmos like the $500 Mosquito Magnet, which lures biting bugs inside with heat and carbon dioxide, then vacuums them into a net, where they dehydrate and die.
We’ve anchored scores of $2 “killer doughnuts” in the swamps, cakes of a nontoxic insecticide made from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, which begins to kill mosquito larvae in five minutes by disrupting their bloodstreams. They become paralyzed, and die of starvation. Hooray!
Then there’s something we’d like to try called the Larvasonic, which supposedly kills larvae with ultrasonic sound waves that destroy their internal air bladders. However, this device costs several thousand dollars.
The problem with all of these weapons is their range. There are hundreds of acres of wetlands on and around Dark Acres, which breed gazillions of mosquitoes. The ones that bite, the females, will fly up to half a mile to get a meal of blood. Spraying is out of the question; first, because these nasty commercial insecticides kill every sort of insect, and, second, because along most of the floodplain there aren’t any roads for access to the wetlands anyway.
And so in July when I went to Austin to interview a celeb for a magazine I put aside a hot, luscious Friday evening for the greatest event a mosquito-hater can experience. No, this isn’t gorging on Austin’s famous Tex-Mex, or bar-hopping in the live-music clubs that make the Texas capital a true cultural mecca. What I’m talking about is the bats.
First I polished off a plate of fat, grilled shrimp and chillies at a restaurant called Serranos near the capitol building. Then I walked a mile down Congress Avenue, stopping here and there for more Pacifico and Tecate and the wash of music along Austin’s throbbing main drag. Finally, a half hour before dusk, I found a place in the crowd gathering on the east side of the Congress Avenue Bridge. This long span reaches over that part of Colorado River called Town Lake, which divides Austin in two. Fifty feet below me on the landscaped grounds of the daily newspaper, the American-Statesman, people had spread blankets. Other people were moving into place directly under the bridge, raising umbrellas over their heads.
Finally, at 8:17, it began. There was a palpable flutter of something moving under my feet. And then the air was full of life. “Ooh!” went the crowd. And then “Ahh!”
Between 750,000 and 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Congress Avenue Bridge. They migrate here every March, attracted by the bridge’s deep recesses, where they feel safe to raise their kids, called pups, because of the narrow openings leading to these recesses. The bridge, in fact—without the intention of its builders to be so—is an enormous bat cave. The bats, Tadarida brasiliensis, huddle inside all day with the pups, waiting for the sun to sink to the horizon. Then colony after colony dives out of the bridge and soars around the city in great clouds. It can take as long as forty-five minutes for the last bat to exit the bridge.
While this spectacle is impressive enough, the thing that the bats will do until dawn is what took away my breath. That would be the eating of mosquitoes. Millions of mosquitos. Tons of mosquitoes. Many times the number of mosquitoes at Dark Acres. The free-tails, nine centimeters long, weighing 15 grams, covered in dark brown fur, their ears wide and set apart to help them find prey with echolocation, are, in fact, mosquito-eating machines. (Actually, they’ll eat most any insect they can catch, but it’s the mosquitoes I like to imagine disappearing down their gullets.)
After the last bat had emerged from the bridge I waved down a cab. The day had worn me out, but it was the good kind of tired. When the driver asked what I thought about the bats I could only smile and mutter: “Cool.”
“It’s a good thing,” he told me. “Down here everything bites. Today I’m sitting out in my yard and a ladybug landed on my arm. ‘Hello, little lady,’ I said. And then you know what? The little bitch bit me! Can you believe it?”
Maybe it’s because of global warming, I thought. And that led me to thinking about the range of the Mexican free-tail. They’ve now migrated as far north as Utah. How much longer, I wondered, before rising temperatures make Montana look attractive to them?
And then I started designing a bridge. Oh, not anything as big as the Congress Avenue, of course. But big enough to cross one of our swamps. And big enough to give some visitors from Mexico a nice place to spend the summer.
Stop the presses?
A small market newspaper publisher grapples with the questions: to web, or not to web, and if to web, how much?
John VanStrydonck, the publisher of the Missoula, Montana, Missoulian, has got his tit in a wringer. Pretty much the only people who subscribe to his corporation’s newspaper these days are old farts. You know, Baby Boomers and beyond who grew up with newspapers, and aren’t comfortable using a computer to get their news from the World Wide Web.
Then there are old farts like me, who refuse to subscribe to local sheets like the Missoulian because I don’t clean my house very often; in the past, when I took the paper, all that newsprint tended to congeal into the sort of unsightly heaps that harbor mice and explode into flames.
Plus, my redneck neighbors sometimes swooped by the Missoulian’s little yellow box way out at the end of my driveway and helped themselves to my paper on mornings when I didn’t stagger out there first.
So when the Missoulian and many hundreds of other newspapers began posting news every morning online I traded my daily hit of ink for the hypnotic glow of my laptop. This habit became even more compelling when I dropped the odious AOL and subscribed to a great local wireless connection, montana.com. The speed! The acceleration! The googly illusion of omniscience!
While the circulation area of the Missoulian has grown to almost 175,000 people, paid daily subscriptions to the paper have actually receded in recent years, from 32,000, for example, in 1999 to 30,400 as we speak. Plus, this Lee Enterprises rag is no longer a small-town monopoly. There’s now an established weekly in town, the Missoula Independent, and a terrific regional online magazine, newwest.net, that posts items all day long, a couple of pretty good television news departments, a highly rated public radio station, and gobs of online sites where you can buy and sell vehicles and most anything else, thus depriving newspapers of a tasty stream of revenue. For example, my wife, Kitty, recently sold one of her old saddles at ebay.com for $500.
Van Strydonck has tried to block this encroachment into what was once exclusively Missoulian country. (I discount as a threat to this hegemony my own 1970s-era monthly, the Borrowed Times, because it was designed to appeal to a limited number of commies, running-dog lackeys, labor radicals, environmentalists and other such marginalia.) He refused to accept a help-wanted ad from newwest.net, which was looking for a marketing person. And after a Missoulian reporter published a story about the fledgling online daily VanStrydonck, like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel 1984, ordered it purged from the publication’s online archives, as if it had never existed. It’s not that I don’t like Missoulian-type papers. These small market journals are enormously entertaining when they do their job. And that job is to record weddings, deaths, births, bankruptcies, real estate transactions, DUI convictions, juicy court cases, grisly accidents, and all manner of fires, local sports, and dogfights. The pleasure I get reading about these events is derived not just from schadenfreude, but because the players are often people I know.
As a reporter of these poignant dramas the Missoulian isn’t the hardest-working, but it isn’t the laziest either. While I’d like to see an extensive police blotter that explains the fender-benders I pass every day, for example, and who got the shotguns and the snowmobile in a divorce settlement, I like learning that many of the area’s sex perverts and violent offenders are fond of moving into low-rent shitboxes very near our cold comfort farm at Dark Acres.
This week Van Strydonck declared that henceforth, missoulian.com will limit its content. If visitors to the site want to read certain stories they’re going to have to buy a printed copy (or subscribe for $190 a year or fifty bucks for three months).
For example, in the July 15 print edition I could read about beleaguered Senator Conrad Burns' efforts to protect Montana’s adopted motto “The Last Best Place” from trademark applications for another year. However, this self-serving, bullshit ploy by King Con to attract voter attention doesn't sound interesting enough to make me smudge my fingers with ink.
I emailed Vanstrydonck and suggested that he could save a ton of bucks converting the Missoulian to an online-only publication. Think of it: No more expensive printing presses that break down all the time, and cost a fortune in property taxes, and no more of the relentless monkey business of putting piles of newsprint in vending machines and newsstands and driving this detritus around to subscribers all over the region.
Nor would there be the sort of humiliating revelations such as the one unearthed by the Missoula Independent on July 13. The weekly reported that the Missoulian and a sister paper settled a class-action lawsuit brought by 400 newspaper carriers, who were compensated by Lee Enterprise for some of the money they’d been screwed out of between 2000 and 2005. It seems the papers raised their cover prices but didn’t pass the increase along to their downtrodden, hard-working carriers.
Anyway, here was VanStrydonck’s response to my modest proposal:
Sorry you don’t see the value in the printed newspaper. On-line news sites have benefited by the subsidy they have received in form of free or discounted news that they get from print and broadcast media. At the Missoulian we employ 42 professional journalists who are paid professional wages. An online model alone will not support a staff of that size in a market the size of Missoula. They generate original content that is often reused by sites that contract with the Associated Press for their content, and is often used by other sites without our authorization or permission. We are going through an interesting transitional phase in the journalism business. If the print newspaper is seriously diminished or ceases to exist, so will the bulk of comprehensive and reliable journalism. It will not be available for free on the internet, if it is available at all.
Enjoy your free lunch, if enough people follow your lead, you will eventually get what you are paying for. Regards, John VanStrydonck
To be fair, I forgot to tell VanStrydonck that if Lee Enterprises converted the paper to digital-only I would be quite willing to pay for it. After all, I’ve subscribed to other online news sources off and on for years, salon.com, for example, medibiastro.com and niche news sources such as publishersmarketplace.com.
And I might even cough up more than the currrent asking price, if I could get that divorce and dogfight news I crave.
Culture of Death
Montanans choose a loaded symbol for their new quarter.
In a frenzy of democracy reminiscent of the gangsters who stuffed ballot boxes in Chicago on behalf of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Montanans have “voted” to engrave one of four competing designs on 500 million quarters honoring the Treasure State. The two-bit pieces will be coined next year by the U.S. Mint in Denver. While the quarter honoring Wisconsin features corn, Georgia’s shows a peach, and the Statue of Liberty graces New York’s, Montana’s coin will show a dead bison’s skull. More than 10,000 rednecks and other yahoos cast their ballot for this design, which garnered 34 percent of the total, and beat out images featuring an elk, the sun rising over the mountains and the plains, and a river running from the mountains to the plains.
Images that didn’t make it into this short list included a Pork Chop John Sandwich, invented in Butte, Montana, and a three-wheeler tearing up a ridge.
While some would say, hey, man, lighten up, it’s only two-bits, others argue that symbols can have life and death implications. For example, although the swastika is a common mark representing the sun in traditional Indian cultures of the American Southwest, it’s not an image most of us would care to have embroidered on our baseball caps.
Montana’s most famous artist, Charles M. Russell, incorporated a bison skull into the signature he put in the corner of his paintings. Most of his work depicts the cowboys and Indians of the Sun River country, where there are hundred of ancient buffalo jumps, such as the Ulm Pishkun, used by Plains Indians to drive whole herds of bison to slaughter. (During World War II farmers bulldozed more than thirteen feet of bison bones accumulated at the base of this cliff to fertilize their Victory Gardens.)
The bison skull is also a reminder of the fact that the U.S. government tried to destroy native cultures by slaughtering the herds that gave Indians their power. By 1900 the 65 million bison thriving in North America a century earlier had been reduced to a mere thousand animals. Yellowstone Park was created partly to give this beleaguered species a sanctuary.
Speaking of Yellowstone, the skull also represents one of Montana’s worst public relations disasters, ranking just below the election of Senator Conrad Burns. In recent years bison that wander out of the boundaries of the Park have been shot by hunters given permits by a state government under the control of the cattle industry, which is afraid its beeves will become infected with brucellosis, a bison-borne disease that causes heifers to abort. To date, however, not a single case of a Montana cow infected with bison-borne brucellosis has been documented. This is the same ranching community that was paid in the late nineteenth century by the Feds to supply beef to starving Indians herded onto reservations.
On the other hand, some tribal leaders are trying to reintroduce bison into the diet of Indians who have grown fat and diabetic eating America’s ghastly concoctions of junk food. And now that the wholesale price of bison is competitive with that of beef some institutions such as the University of Montana are featuring it in their food services.
In our home there’s always some bison meat in the freezer. Low-fat, nutritious without the hormones that taint beef, and full of fiber, to my way of thinking it’s the King of Meats. Paradoxically, the more popular bison becomes as food the more bison there will be. The animal, which weighs a ton and runs faster than a quarter horse, is a perfect symbol for Montana. But for my money I’d prefer the image of a live animal instead of a dead one. Say a big bull trampling some little French tourist, with Old Faithful blowing off steam in the background.
The joy of building walls
Every stone I add makes me feel just a little bit better.
Walls built to keep people apart are only popular after they fail. While the Mexicans are rightly insulted by ten-foot barriers built of military surplus steel segregating California from Tijuana, and the Palestinians regard the line of 20-foot concrete pilings ringing the West Bank as a cage, some of the world’s greatest engineering feats are walls. Take the walls around Carcasonne and Avignon in France, for example. Or Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans 73 miles across the waist of England. Although it may have been intended to protect Latin civilization from the smelly hordes of the north, Emperor Hadrian probably had it erected in order to give his troops something to do. And then there’s that Wonder of the World, you know, the one described by Paul Simon:
They’ve got a wall in China
It’s a thousand miles long
To keep out the foreigners
they made it strong
Building walls may be innate, an impulse that’s hard-wired into our paranoid little brains. How else to explain why there are so many of them, and in every sedentary culture?
While my greedy redneck
neighbors lobby the county
to let them litter our rural neighborhood with even more subdivisions, and the flood of shitboxes, traffic and pollution they’ll bring, I’m building walls to keep the new people and their dogs at bay, and to keep all this squalor out of sight. Plus, I like being able to step out into my own back yard for a good long pee.
In May I put up 200 yards of pine privacy curtain nine feet high behind a caragana hedge twenty feet high. This fence is a recurring message from Dark Acres to the illiterate, Bible-thumping, gun-toting yahoos hauling trailers into a bordering fiefdom. The message says:
“kiss my ass.”
Then there’s the stone wall I’ve been working on for years. It’s now six feet high in some places. Mortared among the rocks in this cordon sanitaire, which were taken from our river or stolen after work from construction sites, are stones I’ve brought home from my trips. Here’s a little white brick from Venice, which the Italians call an istria. Here’s a piece of quarried shonkonite from the ruins of the boarding schools at St. Peter’s Mission, a haunted place in Montana where the Jesuits and the Ursulines tried to bleach the paganism from the souls of little Blackfeet kids. And to balance this sad, adamant rock is a perfectly square slab of limestone from the Blackeet reservation. Here’s a piece of French shale from Séguret, a jewel of a hillside village in the South of France, and a hunk of yellow sandstone I found on a beach in Borneo.
This spring the hedges I’ve planted from Peking cherry, blue spruce, moonglow juniper and purple willow are exploding with green in all our fine, wet weather. And I’m planning an ambitious new building project involving cinderblock and that scourge of my Irish ancestors, the hawthorn. This prickly tree was one of the principal weapons used by English landlords and their Irish Protestant running-dog-lackeys to enforce the Enclosure Acts, which used hedges to bar scum like my great-grandfather from poaching-and-gathering on what used to be common land.
Like the walled gardens of Provence I’d like to top the cinderblock with broken glass embedded in cement. But Kitty, my wife, says that’s redundant. What she probably means is that no one’s going to climb a wall with someone like me on the other side. Or, again, as Paul Simon sang:
I’ve got a wall around me
That you can’t even see
It took a little time
To get next to me
Smaller dogs, bigger trucks
My love affair with the OJ-mobile.
As I drift through middle age my dogs get smaller and my vehicles get bigger. Clara is a skinny Border collie whose luxurious black-and-white coat and feathered tail shrink so much when she swims the wake she trails is more muskrat than canine. Lyndon Baines Johnson is a Corgi the size of a watermelon, so named because of his eager and politically gifted sucking-up.
I started my life behind the wheel with a 1948 Chrysler featuring a crude automatic transmission called Fluid Drive. Then I moved to a 1951 Chevy coupe, which was followed by the sort of cars you might buy (and were actually bought) at the auctions in Los Angeles of vehicles formerly owned by the government. These included a Dodge Dart and a Ford Falcon. Long after I should have put childish things away (1 Corinthians 13:11), I drove a VW Bug, a Corvair and a Volvo sedan the color of mango sorbet.
But when horses became our main sport we decided it was time to mature. Kitty and I bought our first brand new truck in 1980. It was a white Ford Bronco with FWD and shocks the size of George Foreman’s arms. Lashed to a horse trailer, it was the perfect picture of redneck bliss. And I treasured the stares I got while driving in the Ozarks just after the verdict in the OJ Simpson murder trial was announced. (We’d been tempted, like a lot of white Ford Bronco owners, to sell our baby in California to one of those silly rich people clamoring for this very item.)
By then everyone in Montana was driving Big Trucks. Even if we’d wanted to return to Little Cars doing so would have been highway suicide. Kitty beat down a salesman so we could afford a brand new Chevy ¾-ton, and the Bronco was retired from the horse business. Still, I couldn’t part with him. I wore out one engine, and then another. And finally, just last week, a third. No longer road-worthy, my old friend, who still sputters along, belching smoke, can never leave the front gate again.
We’re shopping for another truck. We want something even bigger than the Chevy. We want a crew cab with duallies. But we don’t have the $50,000 such land boats cost. We’re willing to settle for something with an extended cab so the dogs can ride in the rear seat.
Meanwhile, when we need another mount we go to Rent-A-Wreck and hire a Chevy Cavalier for $28 a day. Although this tiny tin can has a certain zip, I barely fit in the front seat. And I get claustrophobic when I’m wedged in city traffic, cowering as the owners of the Big Trucks stare down at me with contempt. As soon as I can I get in the Bronco with a little dog or two and put on a Van Morrison tape. Then I feel good again.
The historic events of May 29
And a brief word about my mother-in-law
ON MAY 29, 1986, Jon Pennington won the 59th National Spelling Bee by spelling the word odontalgia (toothache). On May 29, 1973, Thomas Bradley was elected first black mayor of Los Angeles. On May 29, 1960 the Everly Brothers tune “Cathy’s Clown” hit No. 1 on the box office charts. On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first known humans to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. On May 29, 1919, Charles Strite received a patent for the pop-up toaster. And as Montana Senator Conrad Burns no doubt remembers, on May 29, 1849, Abraham Lincoln said in a speech: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
The reason I’m familiar with this arcania is because the most recent May29 was my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. Not your stereotypical mother-in-law, Molly B. Herrin worked as a reporter for the United Press, eavesdropping on Forest Service telephone calls to pick up information about the 16 men killed in the Mann Gulch forest fire of 1949. Herrin also worked as a librarian, and is the mother of six. On her 80th birthday she competed in a barrel race at the King Equestrian Center outside Great Falls, Montana, riding a palomino mare called Little Sister, and won $180.
She is famous for an incident that occurred shortly after her 70th birthday. One Friday she found herself with a dilemma. She had driven one of her Suburbans to work at the county library on Last Chance Gulch, and had received a phone call that her other Suburban had been repaired and was waiting at the garage. Herrin’s home is out in the Helena Valley, eight miles from the library. A true self-reliant Montanan, her solution was to drive one vehicle a mile down the road, then jog back to get the other, which she then drove a mile beyond the first.
And so forth. When she finally got both Suburbans home it was time for Leno.
O, Tannenbaum. It’s become what newspaper people call an evergreen, a story that repeats itself. In this case it’s about employees getting laid off at the same time corporate officers rake in bonuses. The employees were 23 newsroom, advertising and production staffers at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch canned last week just days after Mary Junck, the CEO of Lee Enerprises, which owns not only this paper but several dailies in Montana, including the Missoulian, was awarded $655,000 in company stock because, according to Lee’s executive compensation committee, her pay is “substantially below that of her peers in the newspaper industry.”
In March Lee gave Junck a $500,000 a bonus for taking the corporation through bankruptcy. Lee reported that in its fiscal third quarter it lost $1.4 million. Lee’s stock has plummeted to $1.24, down from the year’s high of $1.81, but up from the year’s low of 49 cents. (7/30/2012)
Birds on a Wire. The sudden blast of wind that roared through Dark Acres Friday afternoon damaged trees and roofs, but the only loss that mattered to us was the death of an osprey. We thought the bird lying on our county road was the adult male we named Duke a few years ago after Northwestern Energy moved the nest he shared with his mate, Doreen, from a power pole to a pole mounted with a platform dedicated to preventing these theatrical raptors from getting fried (read more).
We put the dead osprey in a plastic bag and put that in a cooler filled with ice. Then we called Eric Greene, a biologist at the University of Montana studying the effects of high levels of mercury found in osprey along the floodplain of the Clark Fork River in western Montana, which is still tainted with poisons deposited a century ago by assholes mining for gold.
We were somewhat relieved when Greene told us that the osprey in the cooler wasn’t Duke, but one of the three rapidly growing chicks the osprey parents were raising. Because bringing chicks to maturity takes both adults—one of them to spread its wings above the kids to shield them from the summer sun, while the other one hunts for fish to feed everyone—it’s unlikely an immature bird can survive with only one parent.
After the storm passed Duke returned to the nest with a sucker, and the family ate a sad meal. (7/21/2012)
Dewey Wins. Reporters and news agencies fuck up all the time partly because they’re always frantic to scoop the competition. Well, not because consumers care who gets it first, but because by the time the also-rans report an event it’s already old news.
More often than hysteria, journalistic fuck-ups are the result of sloth. For example, a graduate of the journalism school where I taught publication design for a couple of years reported on camera that a death row murderer in Virginia had just been executed. In fact, the execution wouldn’t occur for another ten minutes. A columnist for our local daily, the Missoulian, got caught publishing verbatim the work of a columnist several states away. And I once claimed in a national column about the CBS show Survivor that some Aborigines had been cannibals (“People who eat people are the luckiest people in the world,” the headline claimed. This column was followed up by one about Irish cannibals in Australia—"Nothin sez lovin like thumpin from the oven." ) In fact, had I done any research instead of relying on some ludicrous hearsay offered by a friend who married an Australian, I would have learned that there’s no compelling evidence Aborigines ate people at a higher rate than any other human population. (6/29/2012)
Oxymoron. The mantra of Montana Republicans running in the June primary is “less government, more jobs.” As an “idea” their slogan exists on the same intellectual level as the advertising for Miller Lite, “Great taste, less filling.” Putting aside the fact that the only reason lite beers are less filling is because after the first sip you don’t want to drink any more, do Gopers mean to say that reducing government will create more jobs? What reductions are they talking about? And what kind of jobs?
The fact is, local, state and federal employees make up 20 percent of the workforce in Montana, and earn more money per capita than workers on private payrolls. According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, “Federal workers had the highest average salary at $57,800 in 2009, followed by state workers with an average salary of $42,900. Local government workers have an average salary of $33,200, and private payroll workers have the lowest average wage at $32,200. However, state workers are more likely to work a full 40-hour work week than private sector workers, thus making the differences in annual salaries greater than the differences in hourly wages.”
Further, “Comparing simple average salaries also does not take into account that jobs in state government are different than jobs in the private sector and generally require a higher level of education and skills. A large number of private workers are employed in the Retail and Wholesale Trade industry, or the Leisure Activities sector, in jobs that do not require a high level of education or experience, such as retail salespeople, cashiers, fast food workers, or hotel desk clerks. In contrast, most government workers work in the Education, Health Care, or Public Administration industries in jobs that require higher levels of education and experience, such as nurses, professors, researchers, and program administrators.”
So Gopers want to eliminate good public sector jobs and replace them with shitty jobs in the private sector? (6/2/2012)
Spinning It. Like high school girls who post topless photos of themselves on Facebook, some University of Montana administrators don’t seem to understand that what happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace. For example, in March, during the growing shit storm swirling around their inept and devious efforts to conceal the extent of the sexual assault problem at the 15,000-student campus, UM Vice President Jim Foley emailed Dean of Students Charles Couture and asked him if the University could punish a coed who talked publicly about her alleged rape and UM’s handling of her case. This message and others were obtained by the Missoulian, its relentless reporter, Gwen Florio, and the Wall Street Journal as the result of a Freedom of Information request.
Besides being stupid, the messages underline the administration’s mania about controlling UM’s image so it can “grow” the school in order to extract as much tuition as it can, as if this third-tier public college was in business to make a profit. The emails also raise questions about UM’s attitude toward sexual assaults, especially when they might involve members of its wildly successful football team, which drives a ton of money into Missoula. While it would have been more prudent for Foley to conspire against a female student through a face-to face meeting with Couture, or a phone call, his email helps us understand why some people think there’s a “war against women” raging in our country tis of thee. (5/21/2012)
Hit Me. We cheered when Montana Rail Link announced that it was resuming freight service between Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. The line will re-open May 19 after a year’s hiatus due to the faltering economy. Although the nine-or-ten-car freights will carry livestock feed and manufactured goods produced in Ravalli County only a few times a month, this development encourages us to press forward with our idea for commuter passenger service between Missoula, Darby in the South, and Kalispell in the north. Our passenger trains would be like no others. Check it out. (5/18/2012)