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At the Movies: If Only You Could Cook

April 23rd, 2014 No Comments

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We watched If Only You Could Cook the other night. It’s one of the early screwball comedies (1935) and by no means one of the best. The premise is worthy of four Pinocchios, the script has holes in it you could drive a Peterbuilt through, the directing is only competent (William Seiter, who made his name directing excellent slapstick with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, but screwball is not slapstick), and even the great Herbert Marshall seems to have trouble with his thankless role as the millionaire executive pretending to be a butler. It has Leo Carrillo looking and sounding as if he were doing an imitation of himself, and the great Lionel Stander with his voice like a cement mixer in need of new ball bearings. Great actors and great comedians all, but none of them are enough to really make it work.

But it also has Jean Arthur, the great, the delicious, the delightful, the incomparable Jean Arthur, the beautiful, vulnerable Jean Arthur. And I think it is that last quality that defined her and made her career as much as her talent, her comic timing, and her marvelous unique, raspy/squeaky voice.

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It’s a very difficult thing, trying to define what makes one person a star and not another. We use the word charisma, but I not sure what that means or how to define it. It has to do with talent, but it is not talent. It’s something many actors can’t define or sometimes even recognize in themselves. There is a story possibly true, possibly apocryphal, that when Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud were doing some Shakespearean play together (Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, where they took turns alternating playing Romeo and Mercutio? some other play?) on one particular night Olivier reached a transcendent level of performance, wowing the audience and awing his fellow actors. But instead of basking in the glow of congratulations, he stormed into his dressing room and slammed the door. The other actors, dumbfounded, gawked at each other, and only Gielgud had the courage to go in and confront Olivier.

“My dear boy,” he said, “what on earth is the matter? You were absolutely, unbelievably magnificent.”

And Olivier looked up at him and said: “That’s what’s wrong. I know I was, but I don’t know how I did it.”

Of course many actors have techniques and tricks and tools they know work and work well, and they use them, but many actors never quite understand themselves what makes them so special. (On the other hand, of course, some are actually fools enough to believe their own press and think they really are special when in reality they are, at their best, dreary, and frequently loathsome.) Jean Arthur was beautiful, but not a great beauty. She was talented, but so were many others. She was sexy, but not nearly as obviously or as much so as many others. She was charming, but so were all of the ladies of the screwball comedy genre. But what made her so singular was the combination of beauty, talent, sex appeal, charm, the voice, all of it masking a tremendous vulnerability and fragility. She obviously knew enough about herself to understand her strengths and weaknesses (she preferred to be photographed from the left only), and she said herself she loved acting, but she also was apparently so stricken with stage fright that she used to frequently throw up before filming a take. Many actresses and even some actors throw up from fear before a stage performance, but I have never heard of any other actor who threw up from fear before filming on a sound stage. It evidently became worse as she got older; she was the original choice to play the lead in Garsin Kanin’s Born Yesterday, but got so terrified she quit, making Judy Holiday a star. She had a nervous breakdown trying to do Shaw’s Saint Joan for director Harold Clurman. She walked out on two more Broadway plays, unable to stand the extreme stage fright, and finally walked out on her career. She became an acting teacher, first at Vassar (where one of her students was, supposedly, Meryl Streep), and later at the University of North Carolina, and finally retired to a reclusive life in Carmel, California where she steadfastly refused to do any kind of publicity or interview. Even at the height of her success she was as reclusive as Garbo.

These actions have, to me, all the earmarks of a very vulnerable person, and I believe it was that quality underlying the raspy wisecracks and the niceness that made her so…well, okay, charismatic.

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But in 1935, when she was just beginning to come into her own in terms of ability, fame, success, recognition, she manages to be the reason to watch If Only You Could Cook. It’s not even one of her best performances, but it has that wonderful charm, that quality of being a girl a man could talk to, would want to talk to. You want to take her in your arms and kiss her, but you want to say the things that will be a natural set-up for one her quips. You want to make her laugh and to laugh with her as you hold her. That’s Jean Arthur.

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Battle Lines Being Drawn, Nobody’s Right if Everybody’s Wrong

April 21st, 2014 12 Comments

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When I was in college, the nation was divided by the Viet Nam war. The vast majority of the country was conservative, red, and pro-government. A small minority, primarily college students like me with long hair and in need of a bath, were liberal, blue, and anti-government. (Of course, back then, the concept of red and blue didn’t exist.) Today the nation is fairly evenly divided between red/blue, conservative/liberal but with the difference that today it is the conservatives, the reds, who are anti-government, while the liberals, the blues, are pro-government.

One of the fascinating things about this sea-change is the change in the media. The media used to be regarded as an autonomous watchdog, the entity that brought the harsh glare of truth to bear on government. The most notable example, of course, is the Washington Post breaking the story about Watergate, a story that eventually drove Nixon out of the White House and into retirement at San Clemente. Things have changed. Today, the only mainstream media entity to have covered the Fast and Furious debacle, to pick one example, was CBS, and they came late into the game. The story was broken by two conservative bloggers, David Codrea of www.waronguns.blogspot.com and Mike Vanderboegh of www.sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com and even after CBS picked it up, much of the rest of the mainstream media devoted their efforts to painting it as right-wing conservative hysteria. No one was killed because of Watergate; at least two Americans and countless hundreds or thousands (no one knows how many) of Mexicans have been killed because of a Department of Justice operation that violated international law, Mexican law, US Federal law, Arizona law, and Texas law, yet there is no moral outrage among the media.

Do you think I’m a wild-eyed and exaggerating conspiracy theorist in a tinfoil hat? Consider Guantanamo: it was the symbol of all that was evil about the Bush administration and it was decried in the press daily. Obama ran on a promise, among other promises, to close it. It is still in operation, but when was the last time the media said anything about it?

An interesting side effect of all this red/blue, liberal/conservative, us/them polarization that has been growing exponentially in America is the stance more and more conservative states, county sheriffs, and firearm or firearm-related manufactures are taking.   Half a century ago, young left-wing hippies and a small number of liberal “extremists,” doctors, teachers, entertainers, writers, artists, and such, started holding anti-war demonstrations and burning their draft cards and railing against the “establishment,” by which they meant the government and everyone who supported it. Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, and so many others advocated some form of civil disobedience or resistance. Civil rights marches in the South were brutally broken up by police. In the North, the National Guard fired on and killed students at KentState, and Chicago Police, acting under orders from Mayor Richard Daley, beat up students protesting outside at the Democratic Convention, and roughed up reporters inside the convention.

Now the pendulum has swung to a side I thought I would never live to see.   President Obama signed twenty-three executive orders designed around “common sense” new gun laws, and in response Texas, Wyoming, and most recently, Idaho promptly proposed legislation that would make it a crime in those states for any law enforcement officer to enforce new federal gun laws, statutes, rules, or regulations. Sheriffs and police chiefs in many cities and counties across the nation have also announced they will not enforce any further gun bans or regulations enacted by the federal government.

Today, California, Washington, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, and most notably New York and Connecticut, have all passed or proposed laws that would, by “grandfathering,” make law-abiding gun owners de facto felons, subject law-abiding citizens to confiscation of private property (sometimes with compensation, sometimes without), create registries of non-confiscated firearms, impose labyrinthine fees and restrictions, and subject firearm owners to warrant-less home “inspection” by law enforcement. In fact, the state of New York rushed their new and draconian laws through so quickly they inadvertently made illegal most of the firearms their own police carry. In response, over one hundred (last time I checked; the number was growing steadily) firearm manufacturing companies (I am including companies that make accessories and related items, such as magazines) have refused to sell their products to state or county law enforcement agencies where those same products are not also available to the civilian population.

The second amendment, the fourth, and the fifth all take a beating from these new laws, but putting Constitutional issues aside, it indicates clearly the great divide that exists in this country.   I was reading about all this and I decided to explore correlations between political affiliation, gun laws, and financial solvency, and after wasting an inordinate amount of time cruising the highways and byways of the internet, this is what I found:

According to Forbes, the five states with the most severe economic troubles and debt are all blue states: Illinois, New York, New   Jersey, Connecticut, and California. The five states in the best economic condition are primarily red states: Utah, Nebraska, and Texas, along with two politically mixed states, Virginia and New Hampshire.   Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California are also the five states with the most draconian, repressive, and constitutionally questionable gun laws in the nation. Utah, Nebraska, Texas, and New Hampshire, are rated by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as barbaric (my word, not theirs) with no gun laws worthy of the name, while Virginia gets a bad rating from them as one of the states with the weakest gun laws.

What can we deduce from all this? Damned if I know. But taking as a guide the quotation variously attributed to Mark Twain, or to Benjamin Disraeli, or to someone else entirely (“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”), we can say, speaking in broad and general terms, on average, Republicans with guns are richer than Democrats without guns, and this is a seriously divided country. And that’s about all one can deduce.

I also tried to correlate the relationship between gun laws and murders committed with guns on a per capita basis by state, but the FBI considers its data on a city basis, not state (that I could find) and beyond that there is so much conflicting information out there, and so many completely contradictory studies and statistics and maps and graphs and God knows what else that the task became overwhelming. However, one indisputable and terrifying fact did emerge: when it comes to either murder by a firearm, or murder by any means whatsoever, the hands-down leader of the list on a per capita basis, by an overwhelming margin, is not a state, but the District of Columbia, which is tied with Chicago as having the most restrictive and absurd gun laws anywhere in the country. Here, at least, we can make a logical and irrefutable deduction: governmental good intentions can kill.

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The Tortoise/Rancher Debacle: Another Perspective

April 18th, 2014 11 Comments

I have never before posted anything I have not written myself, but Montana rancher and author John L. Moore sent me two views he wrote about the Bundy-Federal government stand-off, and I find them both so compelling that I have asked him for permission to post them here. He graciously consented, provided I wait until they were published by Aleteia. They have been published and I post them now for your edification and enjoyment. The second piece in particular is very apt for Good Friday.

 

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Bunkerville

If you took a map of the United States and colored the federally-owned land in red it would appear as if the American West was bleeding. Or on fire. It is.

The ongoing Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada is evidence of that. On April 5, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, utilizing helicopters and hired cowboys, began removing Cliven Bundy’s 900 head of “trespassing” cattle. Citing threats from Bundy over the past two decades, the feds arrived with their own law enforcement including hilltop snipers and attack dogs. Two designated “free speech areas” were set up by authorities which was insult-to-injury to Bundy supporters, many of whom were well-armed. Soon YouTube was sparking with videos of citizens being “Tased” and set upon by dogs. Not good public relations for the feds.

Bundy, on the other hand, looked like an overweight John Wayne, though some had reason to question if his white hat really represented his nature. It is easy to have sympathy for the state of Nevada unless you’d enjoy living where 85% of the land is federally-owned; the largest urban center is nicknamed Sin City; vast landscapes hold the ESA protected Desert Tortoise (the said reason for the termination of cattle grazing in the Bunkerville area); a senior U.S. Senator, Harry Reid, who’s viewed with contempt by many; and a history, including the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s-80s, of fighting for states rights.

It is not quite as easy to have sympathy for Bundy, though one may concede a certain admiration. Bundy is not of the ilk of the late E. Wayne Hage, whose Nevada ranching family continues its seventeen-year battle against the BLM and government intimidation. The Hage family wins lawsuits. Bundy, representing himself, loses. To Bundy supporters it doesn’t matter if he is scalawag, scofflaw, skunk, or saint. He is there. And those on the far right are demanding that he is theirs. This question of character and whether it counts, has caused deep division in the already-fractured West.  On a personal level, I’ve had numerous people, including two friends, challenge me passionately because I urge caution before jumping on the Bundy bandwagon. “This is a bellwether event,” one said, insisting Bundy had to be championed “warts and all.”

Those of us who not only remember the Montana Freemen Standoff, but were close to it, don’t jump quickly. Through the late winter and spring of 1996, I watched conveys of FBI and news media vehicles drive past my eastern Montana ranch on their way to Brusett, Montana where the Freeman — described by Wikipedia as a Christian Patriot movement — were barricaded in a small farm house the media called a “compound.” The vehicles went north in the morning. They returned at night. The Freemen spouted lofty ideals, but essentially, were farmers in financial trouble who hated banks, liked guns, and used bullying tactics. The FBI used restraint, but no one believed they wanted to. What seemed to have a Waco-destiny to it, was resolved peacefully when a true ‘white hat,’ Montana Lt. Governor Karl Ohs, rode his horse up to the compound and talked the Freemen out. Long prison terms awaited them.

The two situations, Bunkerville and Brusett, are similar but not the same. The Freemen were attacking an economic system, the Bundys, at their best, are challenging a states rights issue. The Montana Freemen are now just a footnote in history. What will this Bundy incident be?

The last sentence above — “What will this Bundy incident be? — sounds like a concluding question, but this story is larger than Cliven Bundy and Bunkerville and reveals a terrifying reality. The rural West is fed-up. We are tired of being treated like the nation’s petting zoo, tourist destination, and ecological petri dish by eastern elites, left coast Cannabis consumers, agitated animal rights activists, and many high priests of the various denominations of the High Church of Environmentalism. For decades we’ve endured schemes, both unrealized and implemented, that stagger common sense: The Big Open, The Buffalo Commons, mustangs (feral horses), reintroduction of wolves (and not even the same wolf that was here, for it is already extinct); free-roaming bison, one endangered species after another, and it could all come to a fiery conclusion with the Greater sage grouse, if not before. The Greater sage grouse is one of several wild fowl that could be placed on the Protected Species List in September of 2015. I choose it for my example because I know the bird. I can see them daily if I want to. The sage grouse habitat area is said to be 186 million acres spread over 11 western states. Of this, 40% is on private land. The ESA is the big hammer. Private land be damned, is it’s mantra. If Cliven Bundy is fighting mad over land that is questionably his, wait until the nation sees what happens if thousands of ranchers and farmers on deeded ground face removal or unrealistic restrictions. Then the West will glow red. People here are already talking civil war. The frustration is buried so deep, the love of freedom so intense, that some seem itching for the shooting to begin. The West is boiling and Clive Bundy is simply the thermometer in the pot.

 

On Cowboys, Conflict, and Christ

When I was approached by Aleteia to write an opinion piece on the Clive Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada I was surprised but not daunted. I have years of experience with ranching, dealing with the government, and observing others doing the same. When Aleteia came back and asked for a follow-up on how a Christian should respond to confrontation I was not surprised, but I was daunted. I am a Christian, but not a Catholic. I am neither a theologian nor a historian. But I am storyteller and this is my story.

I am a person of the land and in that I relate to the Jewish people. Is there a culture or religion on this earth more defined by land? I was born into ranching in 1952, left it for eight years to experience life: a little college, a few years of newspaper work, 12,000 miles of hitchhiking, a stint in the Air Force, but the pull was always there. When my father died I received a hardship discharge and returned to the ranch. That was 1979.

In the past 34 years ranching has tried breaking me many, many times. Not just financially, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Several times, at the end of our ropes, my wife Debra and I cried out to God saying, “we will leave if this is what You ask.” But the nudge was to stay, to push on, to persevere. We endured the family tests that all ranching families know: Death. Too many heirs, not enough land. We saw our two children, not sensing land in their immediate destiny, leave for cities. I’ve endured frostbite, hypothermia, and drought so long and bitter your soul tasted like sand. I’ve broken ribs and one leg, displaced a shoulder repeatedly, separated ribs, torn a meniscus tendon, cut through a tendon in my foot, and, at 61, have arthritis in my hands, limited motion in my neck, and stiffness in pain in my lower back. I’ve fought fire until the smoke damaged my lungs, have had calves die in my arms, put good old saddle horses down at my hand, and have seen hail ruin our pastures not once, not twice, but four times in four straight years. And I would do it all again. I know how ranching families feel about land, and as a Christian, I feel also, the call of stewardship and the warning to hold nothing too tightly.

Of all the threats against our heritage, I only fear two: the government and environmentalists. I know that government can be helpful when it is small and sees its role as a servant. I know the bullying and arrogance of a government that has grown so large it is convinced it does not work for you. You work for it. I fear environmentalists because they are, to me, what so many accuse Christians of being: smug, self-righteous, above reproach or questioning. When I was young I wanted to be a naturalist. As a high school leader I started the first Earth Day in my community — I regret that now. But, those were the days of ecology. We understood that systems were part of a whole in Nature’s world and one effected all. But I don’t know what an environmentalist is. It’s like the word cool. How do you define it? Teenagers on Facebook, celebrities on television, even little old ladies at bridge clubs announce they are “an environmentalist.” So, it is something beyond science and training. It is a belief, a philosophy, a creed.

I have had disputes with the Bureau of Land Management. Nothing like what is transpiring in Nevada, but enough to make you lose sleep at night. Most of these were small concerns: matters of a government employee’s attitude, a problem with trespassers, the pettiness of certain inflexible rules. Personally, I have liked many BLM people. Still do. Only once did I reach the point of demanding to meet with the State Director. Over coffee in a cowboy cafe I expressed concerns that seemed to bore him to death. He fidgeted, look at his watch, acted like I was small and he was big and his time more valuable than mine. So, I did what I hate to do. I played the journalist card. “I’m not just a rancher,” I had to say. “I’m a journalist, too.” He gave me a bemused stare. “Look,” I said, “I’m not talking about writing a letter to the local paper. I’ve been published in the New York Times Magazine. Everything changed then. He became a political animal and couldn’t offer to help me enough.

So when I saw the Bundy conflict on television and YouTube I empathized with the protesters. Good for them! But as the emails and Facebook messages begin flooding in I felt sick. Two main groups were writing me. Cowboys and ministers. The cowboys being mad I understood, but declared men of God was another matter. Where was Christ in this? I saw the law officers in another light. Surely among them, perhaps the one that might catch a Militia bullet, was a devout young man with a wife and young family. He probably served his country in Iraq and Afghanistan and dreamed of a career in law enforcement. He was not a “jack-booted thug.” He was a brother.

True evil always stands behind a few deceived men who stand behind a thousand men who do not understand the men they work for. Had I no compassion for men under orders? What would change their minds, their hearts? The threats of bullets? They are warriors. The threat of women being put at the front so the nation might see them die at their hands if shooting started? They are men under command. Of all things in the emails and messages I sorted through, what bothered me most was the rancor and opportunism from some of my Christian friends. Was this the day, as Christ said, that we go and buy the sword? The Body of Christ has known those days before. Was the cheek-turning over, had peacemaking ceased, were we ready to reap the seeds we seemed so eager to plant? Were our methods as noble as our cause? Did we so fear Tribulation we demanded to hurry it?

In that rancorous din I found one peace: A man had to follow his own heart. I was reminded of a dream I’d had in May, 2011. In the dream what seemed to be an angel said to me, “The key to the End Times is Ezekiel 1:12.” I awakened and read the Scripture. “And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went.” How cryptic can you be, Lord? Straight forward to where? Forward to battle? Forward to a cross of sacrifice? But that wasn’t the message. It wasn’t a matter of where. It was a matter of listening and obeying. It was a matter of priorities. Of what comes first. Not country, not land, not Constitution, nor righteous anger.

But God.

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The Transformation of an American

April 12th, 2014 3 Comments

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Tonopah—it’s a Shoshone word meaning either “water brush” (a small desert shrub) or, more likely, “little spring”—in central Nevada, owes its existence to a sometime hay farmer, sometime prospector, and sometime district attorney (for thirty-five dollars a month) named Big Jim Butler who camped there in May of 1900. The story goes that his burros wandered away from him in the night, and when Big Jim found them they were sheltering from the wind near an outcropping that looked likely. It turned out to be somewhat more than likely, assaying out at a staggering six hundred and forty ounces of silver to the ton. Less than a year later, Tonopah was a town of sorts, with eager hopefuls living in tents, or in shacks made out of barrels or oil cans or glass bottles set in adobe, living even in the shafts themselves.

In 1903, some Mormons decided to jump a claim on the edge of Tonopah and when the mining company representative confronted them, they pulled their guns on him. Among the townspeople who came to see what the commotion was about was a fifty-five year-old saloon-keeper who looked down the vertical shaft.

“You gentlemen get on out of there. This ain’t your mine.”

“Oh, yeah? And who the hell are you, old man?”

“My name’s Wyatt Earp.”

It was many years since his days as a lawman, many years since Tombstone and the OK corral, many years too since he had made and gambled away a fortune in Alaska, but such was the strength of his reputation that the claim jumpers climbed quickly and quietly out.

His reputation was not strong enough, however, to keep him from being run out of town shortly afterward for fixing a boxing match.

The Pine Creek Ranch lies about sixty miles north of Tonopah and has the reputation of being the single most isolated ranch in the United States. The hardtop ends at the picturesque old semi-ghost mining town of Belmont (summer population between twenty-five and thirty, winter population six), once the county seat, with an elegant brick courthouse, and it is eighteen miles of dirt road from there to the ranch headquarters. The ranch owes its name and its existence to the creek that comes down out of the mountains there; the water made it a natural place for a stage stop on the Belmont to Austin stage line back in the eighteen-sixties, long before Tonopah.

I know this land. This is where, as a transplanted Easterner, I began to fall in love with the West. I have hunted and camped multiple times in the Arc Dome Wilderness in the ToiyabeRange, and on TableMountain in the MonitorRange. Trout streams empty into ponds the color of strong tea. Elk and deer move through the pastures and woodlands. In the Arc Dome, after I shot a five-by-six buck, two mountain lions trailed us almost all the way back to the camp; we found their tracks over ours the next morning. On Table Mountain, near 11,000 feet is an aspen grove known as Porno Grove where lonely—and seriously horny—Basque sheepherders once carved their fantasies into the trunks of the trees: naked women standing, on their backs, on all fours; breasts with life-support systems attached; men with heroic phalluses, coupling in every imaginable and some unimaginable positions; hundreds of images carved into the trees. Most are done just about as crudely as you might expect. Some are elevated by aesthetics or humor, a few by both.

It was on Table Mountain that a white mule—who has since gone, unlamented, to his just reward—led our entire pack string, in hobbles, away from camp and back down fourteen miles of exceptionally difficult trail to the valley floor.

There are few things in this life quite as deflating as bouncing out of your tent in the pre-dawn hours to go feed the horses and finding them conspicuous by their absence. You stand there with a bucket of feed in each hand and your jaw listing southward, reflecting that not only is it fourteen miles to the trailhead, but another honest fifteen or twenty miles from there to the nearest and only ranch—Pine Creek—where there might—emphasis on might—be signs of life. Suddenly you begin to think fond thoughts of mass transportation and the interstate highway system and beltways and traffic jams.

Fortunately, our outfitter’s wife had a cell phone with her. Fortunately the weather was clear enough that she was able to get a signal. Fortunately the cell phone at the Pine Creek Ranch—they had no hard-wiring for phones or electricity—was working (it also functioned solely at the whim of the weather). And, most fortunately of all, there was someone there.

The next afternoon a young buckaroo rode into camp, leading our string—and the damn mule. The young hand wore a flat-brimmed, round crowned black Stetson, neckerchief, chinks, Carhartt jacket, Garcia spurs, and a Garcia bit on his horse, and he looked as if he just ridden right out of a Will James or Charlie Dye painting. His name was Wayne Hage, Jr., and that night he and I sat up late on opposite sides of the fire drinking Coors and Jack Daniels as he told me the story of his family’s legal battles and harassment and persecution at the hands of the United States government. It was easy to dismiss his tale as the delusional ravings of a disenfranchised cowboy, which is pretty much what I did, until one May night several years later when Tom Brokaw said something that made my ears perk up.

NBC Nightly News is hardly a hot bed of radical right-wing thought. Like all the major networks it tries to both reflect and influence the thinking of the mainstream majority of Americans, so when Tom Brokaw announced, “And the Fleecing of America. The government seizing private property just to increase the tax base. Is that fair?” I sat up. I had heard words very similar to those on top of TableMountain. I decided I wanted to know more.

 

Nevada

There is a lot of arid nothing to drive through in Nevada, and zipping through with the cruise control set at seventy does nothing to change that impression. But the thirty-sixth state gets its name from the Spanish word, nevar, meaning ‘to snow,’ and Nevada, meaning ‘snow clad,’ or ‘snow covered,’ is an apt name. The Sierras in California block most of the westerly storms—the western slope of the Sierra Mountains may get as much as eighty inches of precipitation in a year, while the eastern slope averages around ten inches—yet despite that, the mountains of Nevada get enough snow each winter that at the higher elevations the nation’s most arid state has some surprisingly good trout fishing—native brook trout—and equally good grass range. In a state where eighty-six percent of the land is publicly owned, that good grass range has become a bitter bone of contention.

In 1862, in an effort to encourage Western settlement and relieve urban labor pressures, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which essentially gave one hundred and sixty acres, free, to anyone willing to occupy and cultivate the land for five years. One hundred and sixty acres, a quarter section, one half mile square—free! To Easterners, accustomed to rich, arable land, and thinking in terms of pasturing many cows per acre, one hundred and sixty acres—free!—must have seemed like manna from Heaven.

Unfortunately, unlike the manna, rain did not fall from Heaven.

The ninety-eighth meridian runs a little ways west of the North Dakota-Minnesota border. It runs down through Mitchell, South   Dakota, home of the aptly-named CornPalace, a little east of Grand Island, Nebraska, near the staging grounds of Sandhill cranes on the PlatteRiver, and in Kansas it runs just west of Wichita, where Wyatt Earp served briefly as a lawman. In Oklahoma it pretty much follows highway 81, west of Oklahoma City, and in Texas it passes near former President Bush’s home in Crawford and on down through Austin. It is an arbitrary line, but it is significant because it is an isohyet.

An isohyet is any line connecting points on a map that have equal amounts of rainfall, and along the ninety-eighth meridian the amount is thirty inches, the bare minimum needed for agriculture. Speaking in generalities, one can say that east of the ninety-eighth meridian enough rain falls to make one hundred and sixty acres a decent farm. West of that line there is not enough rainfall to make one hundred and sixty acres productive agriculturally, and a quarter section is not enough land to ranch. The farther west you go, the less rain there is. For thousands of eager settlers the Homestead Act was just a cruel joke. Homesteaders sold, mortgaged, and borrowed everything they could lay their hands on to make the journey west to their free piece of paradise, and by 1890, only one out of three had managed to stay on their dream long enough to gain the title.

In the desperately arid Great Basin of Nevada, as in most of the West, you can’t think in terms of multiple head of cattle per acre. You think instead of how many acres it takes to run a cow-calf unit, and in some places it may take an entire section, six hundred and forty acres, or more, to run a single unit. Where grass is converted to dollars through the medium of cattle, good grass is almost as valuable as gold.

So in a state where the Federal Government claims public ownership of eighty-six percent of the land, grazing rights become an extremely valuable commodity, and if you’re a rancher, those grazing rights directly affect the ultimate value of your ranch, as well as your ability to earn a living.

Even more valuable than grass is water, both kinds of water. Ground water is reasonably straight forward: it means any water that is under the ground. Surface water is a little more complex. It can refer to the obvious, such as streams and lakes, or it can refer to wells or stock ponds or other collecting systems that are influenced by surface water. Either way, without water the land is useless, so water rights become critical, and the history of water rights in the West is a story of bloodshed, chicanery, legal maneuvering, politicking, fraud, lobbying, graft, greed, malfeasance, and shady dealings so complex and so convoluted as to be almost unbelievable. If John Grisham and Tom Clancy collaborated with Jackie Collins, they might be able to do justice to the story.

But if you own the land, all this is moot, right? Well, no. Land ownership in the West is nowhere near that simple. For one thing, in addition to the water rights and grazing rights, there are also mining rights, timber rights, oil and gas rights, wildlife rights, easement rights, development rights, trespass rights, and possibly other rights that I’m not aware of. It is a concept known as the ‘split estate,’ and to take it to its illogical extreme, it is theoretically possible for you to own a piece of land in the West with which you can’t do a single damn thing except pay taxes and boast.

Conversely, if you own grazing rights, say, on land controlled by the Federal government, when you die, the IRS will tax those rights as your ownership interest in the land, your private property.

For ranchers throughout the West these rights, grazing, water, and so on, have become inextricably entangled with the question of property rights as defined under the Fifth Amendment. If the government decides to take your property for the greater good of society, should you not be compensated fairly, as spelled out in the Fifth Amendment?

 

When I was there, The Pine Creek Ranch was 757,000 acres, give or take a plot or two. 757,000 acres is—if I’ve done my math correctly—roughly 1,183 square miles. To give you an idea of the scale of the place, Rhode Island, at 1,214 square miles, is only slightly larger, while the country of Luxembourg (nine hundred and ninety-nine square miles) is substantially smaller. The country of Liechtenstein (sixty-one square miles) would barely qualify as one of Pine Creek’s pastures. The ranch was eighty-two miles long, running north-south, and varied in width from eight miles at the narrowest to almost thrity-five miles wide. It encompassed two separate mountain ranges with peaks ranging from 11,000 to 12,000 feet. The ranch headquarters on the valley floor sit just at 7000 feet.

7000 acres of meadows and hay fields on the valley floor were owned by Wayne Hage, Sr. in fee patented land (sometimes called full fee simple, or fee simple absolute) which means he owned both the land itself and all the inheritable rights that come with the land. 750,000 acres were fee lands, which means the public owns the land, while he owned some of the inheritable rights, in this case water rights and grazing rights.

This is a little like saying, “I own the chair, but you own the right to sit in it,” but that’s the way things have evolved in the West, thanks to a raft of frequently contradictory and indigestible slabs of legislation such as the Homestead Act, the Organic Act (the one of 1897, of course, not the Organic Acts of 1849, 1884, 1890, 1900, 1916, 2003, or any of the others by the same name), the Taylor Grazing Act, the Forest Reserve Act, the Mining Act, the Stock Raising Homestead Act, the Illinois Central Act, and the Act of July 26, 1866 which has surely the most spine-tingling, breath-taking, pulse-racing sub-title of any act ever passed by Congress: “An Act granting the Right of Way to Ditch and Canal Owners over the Public Lands and for other Purposes.”

Clearly, any cattle baron with 757,000 acres and the intestinal fortitude to duke it out toe-to-toe in the middle of the legal ring with the United States government for twenty-five years must be larger than life, a titan of a man in a twenty gallon Stetson, a sprawling, brawling, hairy-chested, two-fisted cross between John Wayne and Daniel Webster, shaking the devil by the scruff of his neck, while dispensing home-spun wisdom and rough justice from a ponderosa-pine castle.

Not exactly. I once had a sweetly vague professor who would occasionally try to absentmindedly write on the blackboard with the stem of his pipe. That’s who Wayne Hage, Sr. reminded me of. Small, rumpled, portly, hair and shirttails both sticking out at variegated angles, his Stetson little more than a glorified fedora, a beard that managed to somehow be both short and untidy, he was an unlikely warrior, who dispensed his hard-won legal knowledge from a modest cinderblock ranch heavily festooned with dozens of mud cliff-swallow nests.

There were three common rooms in the ranch house: Wayne’s office, which looked like a cross between an unsuccessful law office and a disorganized history professor’s inner sanctum; a family room with an enormous fireplace and a television set; and the great room, a combination kitchen, entry, and dining room, with a wonderful antique wood-burning cook-stove and some prints by Western artist Jack Swanson on the walls. Wayne and I sat at the long table in this room on the folding metal chairs that served as dining chairs, looking out at an ancient unpainted wooden barn (possibly a hangover from the old stagecoach days) and the great expanse of the MonitorValley.

Before the advent of instant celebrity and super-lotteries and reality television, Americans used to admire Horatio Alger men, men who overcame adversity through hard work and pluck and self-reliance.

“I started working as soon as I was old enough be able to. My father was in mining, a consulting geologist, but a lot of the other members of the family were involved with ranching, so I pretty well grew up with ranching, up around Elko.

“The winter of ’51, ’52 was devastatingly hard, so I persuaded my parents to let me drop out of school. I spent my high school years working around on different ranches in that country. At that time you had the big cattle outfits and they’d put out a roundup wagon and just stay out on the range for maybe ten months of the year. For a teenaged boy, that kind of life made school seem pretty dull and uninteresting, so I just stayed with it.

“I was breaking horses in the OwyheeMountains when the Korean War was going on. I figured I’d beat getting drafted and enlist in the Marines, but at the recruiting office I ran into a friend of the family. He said, ‘You’re a dumb S.O.B. Just look at you. You haven’t even been to high school. You enlist in the Marines and put in three years, and when you get out you’ll still be a dumb S.O.B.’ Then he started telling me about all the educational opportunities that were available in the Air Force, and before I knew it I had signed on the line and enlisted for four years. I got good schooling, came out at the top of all my classes, learned a lot about electronics, made up my high school with a G.E.D. test.”

At the end of the long table where we sat was a stack of magazines, Western Livestock Journal, Range, The Economist, Archaeology, and a carefully folded American flag. As we spoke, his ran his fingers over the flag, much as a man might run his hand absently over the head of a dog.

“When I came out of the Air Force I went right back to work on the ranches. Once that gets in your blood, making your living on horseback in that environment, it’s hard to get it out of your system. But I had the G.I. Bill, so I went ahead and got my degree. I was working on my Master’s at Colorado State when I got married, so I came back to a little ranch just over the Nevada line in northern California, finished up my Master’s at the University of Nevada. About fifteen years later I had the opportunity to buy this place, the kind of ranching I like, big open range kind of ranching.

“I knew the people were selling the place ‘cause they were having a lot of trouble with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, but I had worked for both of them, and I had taken a lot of courses relating to range science. I thought to myself, I understand good range management better than they do, and if that’s what they want, we’ll get along just fine.”

Wayne bought Pine Creek Ranch in 1978, and two months later the National Park Service met with him at a coffee shop in Tonopah and informed him that they were going to buy his ranch.

“They offered me a price that was about half of what I had just paid for the place, so I said, ‘OK, that’s fine, that’s for the land. What are you going to pay me for the water and the grazing?’ They said they weren’t going to pay me anything, that I didn’t own those. I told them I disagreed, that I had just paid a whole lot of money for those rights and I expected to be paid for them in turn. I said, ‘You go on back and do your homework. If those grazing allotments are public lands and the government owns them, then we’ll talk your price. If they’re not public lands and the government doesn’t own them, then we’re going to talk my price.’ Well, they went back and did their homework and I never heard from them again.”

All this is perfectly standard. America is a nation of laws, and when you and I disagree on something, we turn to the law to resolve our differences. And as proof of the efficacy of the system, you need look no further than Pine Creek Ranch, for Wayne Hage Sr. won every ruling in every court at every stage of his twenty-five year battle with the federal government.

What is not standard, and what Wayne Hage was not prepared for, was what happened outside the courtrooms, a dreary litany of unrelenting harassment: gates left open, fences cut, vandalism, destruction of property, his cattle mysteriously turning up over and over again on the wrong side of allotment fences, all of it coupled with an overwhelming avalanche of paperwork. In a single grazing season, one hundred and five days, Pine Creek Ranch had seventy ‘visits,’ and forty citations from the United States Forest Service. (One of these was an accusation of failure to maintain the fences on TableMountain. After two days of riding the fence line, a hand found the Forest Service flag marking a single missing staple.) Forty-five separate trespass citations (for cattle) were served, all of which were subsequently dropped when an eyewitness saw Forest Service employees moving Hage’s cattle onto restricted land. A major spring was fenced off and the water illegally diverted to a local Ranger Station. The Forest Service filed claims over water rights, and each claim had to be defended before the state water engineer. Permits were cancelled, suspended, and burdened with impossible conditions.

Finally, Forest Service employees armed with semi-automatic rifles and wearing bullet-proof vests came in and confiscated one hundred and four head of cattle. They must have been a little disconcerted when Wayne Hage reached into his truck for his own weapon, a thirty-five millimeter camera, and asked them to, “Smile pretty, boys.”

But by that time four administrative appeals against the Forest Service (at $50,000 to $200,000 each) and fifteen years of legal battling had left him bankrupt.

“I thought to myself, ‘They’ve driven me into the ground. I’m broke. I’ve spent all my money fighting the Forest Service. They’ve made it so expensive for me to operate that it costs me twice as much to run a cow as I can hope to gain out of her. I can’t even maintain the essential functions of the ranch. If the United   States wants this ranch that bad, they can have it. I’m not going to argue anymore. I’m folding my tent and getting out. But the Fifth Amendment says they have to pay me for it.’”

Which of course begs the question of just why the United States wanted the Pine Creek Ranch that much.

In the play The Zoo Story, Edward Albee has one of the characters say: “Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way in order to come back a short distance correctly.”

Asking Wayne Hage, Sr. about the motivations of the government, or the relationship of the various administrations to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management over the last twenty-five years, or the legal issues at the heart of his lawsuit, would invariably prompt a response that would have made Edward Albee proud. One hand absently stroking the flag, he would look at the swallows flashing past the window and say, “Well, now, let me walk you through that…” and off we would go on a long hike across the dry and rocky terrain of the jurisdiction authority of the Federal District Court versus the United States Claims Court, prior appropriation doctrine, riparian law, alienable rights versus unalienable rights, the inappropriate influence of the Sierra Club on the Department of Agriculture, the externalizing of the national debt under the Johnson administration, the implications and interpretation of the fourteenth Amendment….

But the bottom line, like everything else in the West, was water. Or money; in the West the two words are pretty much synonymous. The Pine Creek Ranch sits on the largest source of fresh water in central Nevada, some 80,000 acre feet worth of ground water, readily and regularly renewed by the run-off from the MonitorRange on one side and the ToquimaRange on the other. At 7000 feet that water is an easy gravity feed to either Las   Vegas, the fastest growing city in America, or even to Los Angeles, which is expected to add six million more people to its freeway system in the next twenty years. So instead of raising beef and supporting the elk and deer and antelope—and brook trout—of central Nevada, the Pine Creek water will go to fuel the fountains in front of those tastefully understated casinos in Sin City, or to water those oh-so-vital and ubiquitous lawns and golf courses in what Richard Henry Dana, Jr. once described as, “…a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the center of which was the Pueblo de Los Angelos…”

The final phase of this ordeal was the determining, by the United States Court of Claims, exactly how much the grazing rights and water rights on 750,000 acres were worth. According to various sources, the ultimate settlement, delivered after Wayne Hage’s too early death, was $4,000,000. Was it fair? Would ten times that amount have been fair? When looked at in the context of having your way of life taken from you, or in context of the harassment he and his family had to endure, would one hundred times that amount have been fair?

 

The kid who once found high school too dull and uninteresting ended up knowing more about constitutional law and American history, and legislative history in particular, than most superior court justices, but that knowledge came at a terrible price. Sitting at that long table, I asked Wayne Hage, Sr. if, after everything that had happened, after all his legal battles and victories, he had more or less faith in America.

“Well, the situation has changed.”

“But you’ve won.”

“It’s not that simplistic or that clear.”

“Wayne, you took on the United States government in the courts, using the United States laws and the United States Constitution, and you won.”

“Constitutional rights don’t exist under Federal Courts. All they’re interested in is what the rules are and did you violate the rules. I was smart enough to go through the Claims Court. If I hadn’t done that, I would have lost.”

“Yes, but…” I couldn’t let it go. The man who sat absently stroking the flag and gazing out over the land that would soon no longer be his wasn’t bitter or defeated or victorious, but somehow infinitely sad, and I wanted him to at least acknowledge what he had achieved with Hage v. United States, both for himself and for all property owners. At last he looked at me.

“You bet I believe in the rule of law, but most people are trapped in a fiction of law, rules and regulations, and don’t understand the law at all.”

I had to be satisfied with that, but perhaps that’s Wayne Hage, Sr.’s greatest lesson and legacy.

 

As I left, as my dog and the ranch border collie both walked around stiff-legged, taking turns peeing on all four of my tires, I turned to Wayne Hage.

“A hypothetical question for you, Wayne. If you get all that money and you could still keep the ranch, what would do?”

“I’d be like the rancher in the old joke. Rancher wins $250,000,000 dollars in the Super Lotto. Goes down to pick up the check and the press are all there and one of them asks him, ‘Now that you got all that money, what are going to do?’ Rancher takes off his Stetson, scratches his head a bit, puts the Stetson back on, says, ‘Well, I reckon I’ll keep on ranching until all that money is gone.’” He laughed for the first and only time during my visit.

We shook hands.

“Well, Wayne, I hope you get a fortune out of the government. You deserve it, and you’ll be a rich man.”

He didn’t hesitate. “I’ve always been a rich man. I’ve always had a roof over my head, clothes on my back, three meals a day. I’ve always been rich.”

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Let Them Eat Tortoise

April 12th, 2014 25 Comments

Desert tortoise

 

The standoff in Nevada between rancher Cliven Bundy and the United States government is being represented by some portions of the mainstream press as being about a stubborn rancher’s refusal to pay grazing fees to the federal government on “federal land.”

Even on conservative Fox News that was the stated cause of the current standoff, Fox News being evidently as unaware as the more liberal press that this has absolutely nothing to do with “federal land.” For one thing, there is no such thing as “federal land.” Article I, Section Eight of the United States Constitution says: “[The Congress shall have the power to] Exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings…” That’s it. The federal government is allowed to own the District of Columbia and the land necessary for military use, and nothing else. All the rest that the feds and others like to call “federal land” is actually your land. My land. Our land. The feds may administer it, but they most emphatically do not own it.

Other more liberal news organizations have attempted to make it seem as if this is about environmental issues, specifically a desert tortoise, trying to portray the tortoise and cattle as adversaries, never mind that tortoise and cattle have co-existed on desert land ever since cattle were first introduced to North America. Besides, Nevada’s Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, has apparently already moved the boundaries of the protected desert tortoise land to allow some of that land to be developed by one of his cronies, so it can’t be about the tortoise.

More recent news reports claim Senator Reid and his son, Rory Reid (already embroiled in a campaign contribution scandal), want the land for a Chinese energy firm represented by Reid, Jr. that plans to put up solar panels, and that that is why the Senator made his former Senior Policy Advisor in charge of public land issues, Neil Kornze, the head of the Bureau of Land Management. And that may very well be part of the reason why Mr. Bundy is being driven off his land.

But if you watch the news, you will see aerial shots of Mr. Bundy’s ranchland with cattle grazing near a stream, and the old Watergate adage of “follow the money” is applicable here, because in the American West, “follow the money” and “follow the water” are the same thing. Water is gold in the American West, and whoever owns the water rights is—or will be once the water is diverted from cattle to golf courses in Las Vegas and Los Angeles—very, very rich. And taking ranchers’ land away from them on thin or non-existent pretexts to get their water is nothing new.

For those of you unfamiliar with land ownership and water rights in the American West, there is a concept here called the “split estate” which makes land ownership very interesting. If you buy a big tract of land, you get just that, a bunch of soil, but the water rights and grazing rights are separate properties that may be purchased or sold by themselves, as are the mining rights, timber rights, oil and gas rights, wildlife rights, easement rights, development rights, trespass rights, and possibly other rights that I’m not aware of. If you take the concept of the “split estate” to its illogical extreme, it is theoretically possible for you to own a piece of land in the West with which you can’t do a single damn thing except pay taxes and boast.

Of course, if you own the land and the water rights near Las Vegas, you can make a fortune putting up houses, solar panels, and selling water to drought-stricken cities. It’s a very lucrative win-win for somebody.

Update: As of this morning, the Federal Aviation Administration has declared a “no-fly zone” over the area around the Bundy ranch, effectively preventing news helicopters from obtaining footage. One wonders what they’re afraid the American public might see. Other than the water.

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Is Man Really God’s Last Word?

April 1st, 2014 28 Comments

blackpup   For the first time in all the years we’ve been married, Darleen and I are down to one dog. We’ve never had less than three, and at one point, due to circumstances beyond our control (soft heads, soft hearts, dogs in need of rescue) we had five, and the chaos level in the house was on a par with a badly run kindergarten. Imagine the lunatics not even bothering to run the asylum. We have decided to keep it down to two, but that still leaves us one dog shy, so we drove down to the nearest city to see about rescuing a dog. I’m not sure why, but southern California seems to have more than its fair share of irresponsible pet owners. Between three and four million dogs and cats are euthanized at shelters all across America every year. That translates to roughly 80,000 animals a week, and the shelters in southern California are overwhelmed. Apparently large numbers of people labor under the misapprehension that neutering old Rover or Miss Tabby is somehow cruel. Or maybe they’re just so dumb they don’t even think of it at all. The Audubon Society claims that the single greatest killer of migrating songbirds is the domestic (or feral) cat, yet people all over the nation think it is cruel not to let their cats out to play. It is possible the birds who get played with have a different perspective. And every mentally negligible moron in the country seems to think his dog is worthy of reproduction (“Let the kiddies see the miracle of birth.” I have actually heard that.) with the result that every time you go to the local shopping mall there are kiddies standing out in front with cardboard boxes of puppies they are trying to give away. Or starving pit-bulls running loose along the interstate. Or unidentifiable messes of bloody fur on the asphalt. In the years we have lived in our little rural corner of the mountains, ten miles out from a very small town, Darleen and I have averaged two stray dogs a year on our property. For the first four or five years we earnestly tried to find the owners, but after one such paragon of compassion told Darleen on the phone, “Ah, just kick him in the gut and send him on home,” (that’s a direct quote) we stopped trying to return them. Now we feed them and take them down to the shelter or, if injured, to our local vet. If you’re too stupid and irresponsible to get your dog micro-chipped, and you can’t be bothered to even keep a collar with a tag on him, you don’t deserve to get him back. But rescuing a dog is not as easy as you might imagine. We had to rule out a wide range of the shelter’s offerings. Pete is a male, a male with a tendency for brawling, and I have broken up more than my fair share of dog fights during my life, so it’s female only. We ruled out dogs with obvious communicable diseases, and dogs that showed any signs of aggression toward people or toward Pete or toward cats. After that we ruled out various characteristics or breed types that would make our lives miserable for one reason or another. We spent two days at two different shelters and finally gave up. The best of the bunch was a sort of Labrador kind of cross that had been neglected in a backyard for so long that it had reached a state I can only describe as catatonic in terms of its reactions to humans. She was fine with Pete, but completely unresponsive to the vet tech, to me, to Darleen. I can understand a dog being unresponsive to me, but if a dog is unresponsive to Darleen, it has serious problems. A pet rock would respond to my bride. So we are still, for the time being, a one-dog family. But what the experience left me with was a conviction that there is something seriously wrong with man’s relationship with his best friend. And if man can treat an animal with such callous disregard, how will he treat his fellow man? I don’t think we’re going to see peace on earth anytime soon.

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Belle

March 19th, 2014 30 Comments

008 (800x600)   We had to put our old corgi down. She, Belle, is the alert one in the photo above, shown with her friend Scooter in a chair I used to be able to sit in myself. Old is a relative term; she was only ten, which is old for some breeds, but not—or it shouldn’t be—for corgis. Belle was a semi-rescue (what breeders euphemistically call “pet quality”) that no one else wanted and so, being soft-headed and soft-hearted, we took her. She was a delight. She had tremendous charm and brains enough to know how to use it. When guests came over, she would work the room like a cabaret singer, and when we went out with her somewhere, she invariably made everyone smile. She was a mess. She had terrible structure, including excessively turned-out feet that caused her great difficulty and necessitated a surgery in her later years. In her later years (which should have been her middle-aged years) she also developed Cushing’s disease, something I had thought only horses got. She was a delight. She was hands down, without question, the finest and most alert watch dog I have owned, seen, known, heard of, or encountered. If she went on high alert and growled at the back door, it invariably meant there was something up on the hill behind the house, frequently something so far away that it took us and the other dogs a long time to spot it. If she went on high alert toward the front of the house, it invariably meant someone was driving up the lane, even if the car was still a quarter mile away. Both of these she did regularly, summer and winter, even when the house was buttoned up tight and the television was showing the Animal Planet. She was a mess. Her nerves were so bad she was terrified of practically everything, which made taking her anywhere extremely difficult. Even walking her around the fields in our own neck of the woods could be problematic: my neighbor to north sometimes practices shooting in the canyon north of his house. The distance is about half a mile, and the shooting is always muffled by the canyon wall, but she would begin to shake and, if she was off-leash, she would run back to the house. Since the only way to (hopefully, possibly) get a dog over a fear factor is to ignore any behavior exhibited, taking her anywhere was a challenge. She was a delight, getting along with everyone, human, equine, canine, and feline. She always stayed calm around the horses, resolutely ignored the cats, and bedeviled Pete the Boxer into games. She also used to bedevil me into playing tug-of-war with her, but only with one very specific toy. I lived in fear that toy would disintegrate and that she would be inconsolable. We purchased another, identical in every way save color, but she wouldn’t touch it. Unfortunately, the toy lasted longer than she did. She was a mess, badly bred by an irresponsible breeder; but even the typically callous, venal, avaricious breeders so prevalent today in America, even that despicable person couldn’t destroy the essential sweetness of one of the world’s oldest breeds. She was a delight.

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Rocky Mountain High

March 4th, 2014 28 Comments

Colorado flag

 

Arguably the most beautiful state in the West, Colorado seems to have veered off onto a course that has more in common with California, New York, Connecticut, and possibly Oz than with any semblance of sanity. Let’s review the bidding:

Just a little over a year ago, Colorado passed four questionably constitutional anti-gun laws, laws that a majority of the state’s county sheriffs publically announced they neither could nor would enforce. The passage of the laws, coupled with an extraordinarily insensitive response to a rape victim by then state Senator Evie Hudak, resulted in a recall election in which two other senators lost their seats and Ms. Hudak resigned. The passage of the laws also prompted one of Colorado’s larger employers, Magpul, a manufacturer of firearms and firearm accessories, to leave Colorado entirely. (They are still technically in Colorado, but are in the throes of moving their manufacturing plant to Wyoming and their corporate headquarters to Texas.)

Just a few months later, the state passed Amendment 64, legalizing the use of marijuana. Regardless of your views on drug usage, marijuana use, possession, sale, distribution, or cultivation is still illegal under federal law. In my state of California, marijuana is cultivated by drug cartel employees in remote places where both hunters and Fish and Wildlife agents have come under fire, making the once bucolic job of Fish and Wildlife one of the most dangerous law enforcement jobs in the state.  (Marijuana is also, according to the Sheriff’s Department in my county, considered to be as much of an impediment to driving as either alcohol or cell phone use. It is further considered to be a “gateway” drug, meaning it—pick a word—encourages, inspires, tempts young users to try other more dangerous drugs.)

And now, a U.S. District judge in Colorado, Christine Arguello, has handed down a two-year sentence for a woman who was convicted of buying a gun for a recently paroled felon and known white supremacist who subsequently used that gun to murder two men, to severely wound a Texas Sheriff’s Deputy, and to fire multiple rounds at other police officers during a high-speed chase. Purchasing a firearm for a person who is himself legally unable to buy a gun is a straw purchase. It is a violation of multiple federal and state (specifically Colorado) laws. Since in this particular case, the gun was knowingly bought for a convicted felon, and subsequently used in two murders, it would not be a stretch to charge the woman in question as an accessory to murder. Instead, Ms. Arguello chose to give the woman in question a slap on the wrist.

So what is cumulative message being sent here? We can deduce that Colorado state legislators regard federal laws more as suggestions than as laws and that they, the state legislators, may pick and choose which of those suggestions they wish to enforce. We can deduce that the state legislators also regard the (federally illegal) marijuana business as more desirable than the legal firearms manufacturing business. We can also deduce that Colorado state legislators regard passing laws restricting the freedoms of law-abiding gun owners to be an effective way of discouraging criminals, even as we also deduce that at least one federal judge regards being an accessory to the murder of two men and the wounding of third as a relatively insignificant crime. We can further deduce that if violating existing federal and state gun laws (conducting a straw purchase, for example) is not taken seriously by judges, those laws become as meaningless to criminals as, oh, all other gun laws, or let’s say the federal drug laws the Colorado legislators choose not to enforce.

And finally, we can deduce that perhaps Colorado is no longer the crown jewel of Western states. Unless of course you’re in the marijuana business.

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At the Movies: Lone Survivor

February 28th, 2014 7 Comments

Lone_Survivor_poster   Back in the golden days of classic Greek theater, when Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were ruining their health and tearing their hair out dealing with narcissistic actors who complained they didn’t have enough lines, or it would be better if their character did it this way, or couldn’t they move here instead, there was a tradition of violence taking place off-stage. This was done, in part, because the Greeks of the classical era knew very well that nothing they could show would ever be as appalling as what the audience could imagine.

Fast forward roughly two and a half millennia to, oh, let’s say the days of Simon & Simon, when television censors demanded all violence be sanitized, made tasteful and decorous, so that a man might be beaten, stabbed, shot, and thrown off a rooftop, but when the camera closed in on his dead body, all the audience saw was a delicate little trickle of stage blood from one corner of his primly closed mouth.

Now fast forward again roughly two and a half decades to the over-the-top movies of, oh, let’s say director Quentin Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein, where mindless and meaningless violence is glorified almost as an independent art form in and of itself. (Remember Steve Martin as the producer of ultra-violent movies in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon? “Where are the brains? When he shoots him the script calls for brains splattering against the window. Where are the goddamn brains!? Am I the only one who’s trying to be true to the script here?”)

I am not a fan of the Quentin Tarantino/Harvey Weinstein oeuvre. In part, I find their movies moronic, and in part, having been shot twice, I have no need to be titillated by their grotesqueries. (To be fair to both of them: I briefly attended an acting class where Quentin Tarantino was a student, back in the early eighties, and found him highly intelligent and quite funny in a quirky sort of way. And Harvey Weinstein, in spite of his tasteless and morally bankrupt hypocrisy in making a fortune exploiting gratuitous violence with guns and now vowing to destroy the NRA for being violence-mongers—never mind the complete inaccuracy and dishonesty of that assessment—has actually made some delightful and life-affirming movies, notably Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chocolat.) Nothing shown on film can ever be as horrifying as either reality or imagination. Do us all a favor, please: don’t sanitize it and don’t glorify it. Don’t even show it. Take it off-stage.

Which brings me to quite the most violent film I have seen in a long time, possibly ever, a movie so graphically violent that my friend, screenwriter Dan Bronson, simply couldn’t watch it. The difference is that this is violence for a very specific cinematic purpose, violence seen from the point of view of the men committing it and to whom it is committed. It is violence portrayed in a way that vividly brings home an understanding of the PTSD returning vets have to deal with.

Lone Survivor is based on the non-fiction book of that name, written by the eponymous Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg. The plot, very briefly, revolves around a four-man Seal team sent out to kill a Taliban leader. In a complete fluke, two Afghan boys and an old man, herding goats in the mountains above their village, stumble onto the team, and the characters in the movie, like the real-life members of the team, are thrust into the greatest moral dilemma any man can face, a moral dilemma worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides. There is no question about the loyalties of the three Afghans; even with no understanding of a word they say, it is clear they will run back to their village and alert the Taliban. The mission has been jeopardized, and the only possibility for the Navy Seals to even have a minute chance of success, or even to survive, is to kill or neutralize the civilians. They quickly distill their choices down to killing the villagers outright; tying them to trees, with the certain knowledge they will freeze to death during the night or be eaten alive by wolves; or letting them go.

From a purely historical perspective, I found this to be the single best moment in any movie I have seen in memory. How do ordinary men make such decisions? It is war, and in all wars from the beginning of recorded history until very recently, the rules have been very simple: there are no rules. We want this land, wealth, whatever, and we simply kill or enslave everyone who stands between us and our goal. I have an unnerving memory of a national hero from World War Two, a man whose name is now a household word for all we revere in our warriors, telling me once how he bombed a town in Germany (we bombed without concern for civilians back then, remember?) and the next day, knowing the survivors would be burying their dead, he went back and strafed the funeral procession, killing the women and old men and children who had escaped his bombing.

Today, war has changed. There are rules of engagement, ludicrous Marquis of Queensbury rules for fighting against people who still fight by the old, bloody non-rules of Tamerlane and Attila and Genghis Khan. We are supposed to surgically destroy the soldiers while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the widows and orphans we create. It is perhaps the stupidest philosophy of war ever known. And yet…

And yet, what would you have done?

One of the things Lone Survivor does is to put you there on that mountain, with the means, the motive, and the opportunity for doing what should be done, what must be done, not merely for the sake of the mission, but for the sake of life itself, and asking you if you have the stomach for it. Could you kill someone to save your life? It’s not an abstract question. It’s not a question of death at a tastefully sanitized distance, from the cockpit of a plane, or from a sniper’s position eight hundred or a thousand meters away. It’s not death in the unambiguous throes of combat, killing the man who is lunging at you with your death in his hands. It’s not a moral question of saving the lives of your wife and children as the door bursts open in the night. It is playing God in the most agonizing possible way, Abraham cutting his own son’s throat, the boy’s eyes looking up in disbelief, incomprehension, three Isaacs helpless before you on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Watching, you know what the smart thing is, as do the ordinary young men who have been put in this position. You know very well that to let those three Isaacs live is to seal your own fate, to make your own death an immanent and gruesome reality.

What would you have done?

The rest of the movie is devoted to the frantic and hopeless attempts of these young men to stay alive, and it concludes with the equally random fluke of Marcus Luttrell’s survival. And at the very end, there is a montage sequence of the actual soldiers who were killed on that mountain, real-life snapshots and a video of one of them from their civilian lives, with beloved mothers and fathers and wives and children, a happy dog who will never again see the man who makes his life, and that montage brought Darleen and me to tears.

What would I have done?

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A Sentimental Fool

The only good to come out of having so much of my material accidentally deleted is that in going over the recovered posts, I realize that some need a lot of revision. This is a revised and greatly expanded version of the original post.

Karen Allen two

Have you ever had one of those sensory memories that transport you through time and space? It’s like being outside on a dark night, out in the country, away from any town lights, and having a flash of lightening illuminate a landscape known and remembered, but unseen, where every sense—except the one that transported you—is heightened, intensified. It happened to me in the grocery store the other day.

 

Darleen had a cold and I was doing the shopping. I was heading for the meat counter, pushing my cart up an aisle between tinned soups and tinned fish, neither happy nor sad, thinking—to the extent I was thinking at all—about not forgetting anything on my list, just absorbed in the unfamiliar routine of the mundane. And suddenly, as suddenly as a flash of lightening, I was three thousand miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over thirty years ago, sitting in a makeup trailer, on a tall, canvas-covered folding director’s chair, the wooden arms hard and smooth under my fingers. I could smell the pancake makeup, hairspray, even the deodorant of the makeup man. I could feel the welcome warmth of the lights on my face, the colder raw early spring weather on my back every time the door opened. I could see all the round pancake containers, eyeliners, little brushes, glue, mascara, tubes with unknown contents, spray cans, sponges, all laid out on a white towel on the Formica counter, the large square of the mirror, surrounded by lights, the face of the makeup man—he had a graying moustache—a man I haven’t even thought of since that time and that place. I could see my own face looking back at me, improbably young, in a blond wig and with a blond moustache glued on. And, most important of all in this split-second flash, I could see in the mirror the incomparable Karen Allen, getting her makeup done in the chair next to me, Karen Allen, intelligent, beautiful, sweet, charming, cheerful, remarkably free of both ego and neurosis in spite of her staggering beauty and talent, singing softly along to—

 

And I was back in the grocery store, standing between the soup and the sardines, shopping cart in my hands, listening to Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers singing What A Fool Believes:

 

He came from somewhere back in her long ago

The sentimental fool don’t see

Trying hard to recreate

What had yet to be created…

 

And it was that sense, a song unheard, or at least only unconsciously heard, piped in for the customers, that had for one brief, startling and magnificent moment transported me back to Cambridge, back to a beginning I once thought would last forever.

 

There were other songs that long ago spring, but in my memory it is always What A Fool Believes playing on the radio in that little makeup trailer, What A Fool Believes that Karen always sang softly along with, smiling happily if she caught you watching her going for the high notes.

 

It was spring in Massachusetts, spring in my life, spring in hers, spring in poor Brad Davis’ life, who wouldn’t live even to see his own summer, but who died with rare courage and dignity. The movie we were filming, A Small Circle of Friends, turned out to be a disaster. Not the movie itself—that was fine, certainly not great, but better than its fate—but its anti-war themes offended somebody high up at United Artists and they buried it. I went on to do Simon & Simon, Brad died of AIDS only a few years later, and Karen, God bless her, went from triumph to triumph: all the Indiana Jones movies, Starman, Shoot the Moon, with Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, a boatload of other movies and plays.

 

She was, when I worked with her, in a relationship with the musician/singer Stephen Bishop, and while I had a major crush on her, her relationship and my then marriage to a very pregnant wife precluded that crush ever being anything other than something both distant and unspoken, even unacknowledged. Besides, for all her easy friendliness and kindness there was a quality of the unknown and unknowable about her, a sense that she kept her heart firmly and wisely in check. Beyond all that, it was my period of intimidation. It was my first experience, as an actor, of slapping up against my own limitations, the narrow confines of my talent as weighed against the wide extent of my dreams and ambition. It was the first time I became aware of being in way over my head, working with other actors I felt were so much more talented than I. That dawning awareness made me feel very intimidated, by her, by the director Rob Cohen, by the fact of the film itself and the importance everyone attached to it (none of which it lived up to), by Brad and his wild, incandescent, unpredictable talent which sadly coincided with his equally wild, incandescent, unpredictable life. But most of all I was intimidated by my dawning recognition of own limitations as an actor.

 

As if by way of compensation, it was also the spring of my living dangerously. I was heavily into karate in those days, and whenever I had an evening free that coincided with the nearest dojo being open, I would walk up Columbus Avenue (I think) for a couple of miles to train and spar. For some reason, on one particular night John Friedrich decided to accompany me. I don’t remember why now; possibly he was interested in karate, but if so, the events of that evening almost certainly discouraged him from ever pursuing it. (And whatever happened to John Friedrich? He was so immensely talented. Why did he quit? Where is he now? Is he well? Is he happy?)

 

We had just passed from the relatively elegant environment of the Back Bay area into the less than elegant area of Boston proper when we saw trouble ahead. A girl was being followed and molested by four teenaged boys, and as we got closer I saw one of them grab her up underneath her skirt. She screamed, not a loud scream for help, but rather a sound of fear and despair. But she got help. I was still young enough to believe I was a lot tougher than I really was or ever would be, and I intervened. There’s no point describing it all in detail. It was an ugly and interesting and dangerous few minutes, and when it was finally over, the girl long gone, the boys—vicious little urban punks—finally backing down, I turned around and saw John’s face, and only then understood how much danger we had both been in.

 

The next day we were filming in an alley somewhere and a man, an ordinary man in an ordinary car, started to drive down the alley as grips and various crew members were trying to move light stands and dolly track and all the other paraphernalia of the business. The Business. God only knows what happened—I don’t—but suddenly the man stomped down on the accelerator, driving over equipment as crew members dove for safety. Rob and I were at the end of the alley, rehearsing a scene, and as the car sped toward us I only remember being angry, outraged at such outrageous behavior. I stood my ground and held up a hand (oh, imperious and majestic Jameson Parker!) for the driver to stop. He didn’t, and at the last moment I jumped, slapping the hood of the car with my hands, my body bouncing off the windshield, and I ended up on the asphalt. The driver actually slammed on his brakes, backed up beside where I was lying on my back, aired out but unhurt, and said, “You’ve got good reflexes, kid,” and he was gone before anyone had the wit to make a note of his license plate.

 

Two nights later, Brad Davis and Karen Allen and Gary Springer (another nice and talented actor vanished from the business) came to my room to party. Poor Brad was heavily into cocaine at that time, but Karen and Gary and I were sharing a bottle of Cognac, and when Brad and Karen left for their respective bedrooms, Gary and I decided to finish the bottle. So we were both feeling no pain when I walked out into the hall with Gary, very late or possibly very early the next morning, to say goodnight. My room was at one end of the hall, next to the laundry chute where the maids would drop the dirty sheets and towels, and the elevators were down at the opposite end. As we said our goodnights, we both noticed smoke at that far end of the hall.

 

Marijuana was even more ubiquitous than cocaine in those days, and Gary, who was as funny off-screen as he was on, made some joke about somebody having a party and why hadn’t they invited us, but even as we laughed, we could see the smoke was increasing. Gary came to his senses quicker than I.

 

“Jameson, I bet somebody’s fallen asleep in bed with a cigarette. We better go put that out.”

 

“Good thinking. Let me grab a blanket off my bed in case we need it.”

 

I didn’t really think we would need anything that dramatic, but I had once smothered a small household fire with a blanket, and I’ve always believed in being over-equipped. But as we turned around we saw smoke starting to come up out of the laundry chute by my door.

 

Never have two actors sobered up so quickly. For a moment we stood, staring, and then, like some old vaudeville routine, we each grabbed at the other, saying, “Oh, my God,” in unison. There was no mistaking the implications of what we saw.

 

I turned to Gary. “Go sound the alarm. I’ll start banging on doors and waking people up.”

 

He took off running for the far end of the hall. I started hammering on doors. It was after midnight, so people were asleep and discombobulated about being woken up. As each door opened, I would calmly, or as calmly as I could, explain that the hotel was on fire, that they needed to get out quickly, use the fire escape at this end. And each time, to a man, and to a woman, the response would be, “Oh, let me go pack my things!” And each time I would have to say, “No! Grab a coat and get out!”

 

The one exception was a guy who was totally naked. The alarm was screaming, and the smoke was so thick by this time that I was crawling on my hands and knees down the corridor, banging on the doors. A door opened and because of the thickness of the smoke, all I could see, from my perspective, were two very hairy legs and a penis. I did my little spiel and he immediately started down the corridor, gloriously naked and hirsute. I had to yell at him. “Hey, Mister! It’s only about forty degrees outside. You might want to grab a coat.”

 

We got everyone out in our hall, Gary hammering on the doors on one side as I went down the other. Then we crawled back down to my end of the hall, where the emergency door now stood open to the fire escape. Smoke was pouring out the door and we stood out on the metal platform of the fire escape, helping people (I remember an elderly lady in a bathrobe, with permed white hair, who could only step down on one leg, and the agonizing slowness with which she moved) trying to calm them, urging them all to hurry as best they could.

 

And then we heard a woman’s voice, back through the smoke at the far end of the hall. “Help me! Help me! Please help!” We looked at each other.

 

“Don’t do it, Jameson.”

 

“I have to. I have to try.”

 

I thought I could do it. I really thought I could be a hero.

 

I took a deep breath and ran into my room, which was right by the fire escape. I quickly soaked a towel in the sink, then ran back outside, took a few more deep breaths, clamped the wet towel over my mouth and ran down the corridor. I knew I could hold my breath for a full three minutes, but I forgot to take into account the fact of running, of physical exertion.

 

The electricity had gone off and emergency lights at either end of the hall had gone on, but the smoke was so thick that all you could see was dim, gray haze. I couldn’t even see the doors on either side of me as I ran. My eyes were tearing up so badly that I couldn’t see much of anything. At the far end of the corridor, my hall T-boned into another. It was even darker, the smoke even thicker down there. The voice had stopped calling.

 

“Hello! Where are you? Hello?”

 

Nothing.

 

“Hello! Does anyone need help? Hello!”

 

Nothing.

 

I must have taken an involuntary breath, because I began choking and coughing. I clamped my wet towel back over my mouth and took a deep breath. And learned when smoke is that thick, a wet towel doesn’t do you a damn bit of good. I knew immediately I was in trouble.

 

I started to run back toward the fire escape, but the hotel suddenly tilted on its side and I ran up against the wall, running and sliding until I fell. I was on my feet in an instant, running again, but this time the hotel tilted the other way and down I went again, the hotel now rocking and spinning around me like some horrible and malevolent carnival ride. I tried to get my feet under me, but the best I could do was crawl, and then Gary was there, his hand under my arm, half dragging, half carrying me to the fire escape, gasping, choking, coughing, wheezing, crying.

 

It was a terrifying moment. I really hadn’t understood how quickly a man could be overcome by smoke.

 

It was far more terrifying for others. Two people burned to death. Dozens of others were hospitalized for burns, for smoke inhalation, for broken bones as they jumped for their lives (including our sound mixer, who broke both legs). Rob Cohen hung by his hands from the window ledge of his room, screaming, for five minutes before he was rescued by a fireman on a ladder, and he was not what you would call a strong or physical type. I know it was five minutes because our producer, Fred Zimmerman, was crouched on the ledge of his room and timed him as something to take his mind off his own danger.

 

Finally, toward dawn, with the fire out, everyone rescued or accounted for, the Copley Plaza made arrangements for other, temporary accommodations, sending some people to a Sheraton up the street and the rest of us to some other hotel. Pity the poor devils who went to the Sheraton. It turned out that the fire had been deliberately started by a disgruntled former Copley employee, and that son-of-a-bitch went to the Sheraton and bragged to his uncle, who worked there, about what he had done. The uncle, not unnaturally, didn’t believe him, so the son-of-a-bitch set fire to that hotel, compounding the nightmare.

 

So, the spring of awareness, the spring of intimidation, the spring of living dangerously. It was also the spring of new beginnings. My oldest son was born just a few days later. I flew down to New York and got there in time to welcome him into the world. It is a delicious, intoxicating feeling, the birth of your children. Any newborn thing, cat, cow, horse, dog, whatever, fills you with wonder about the miracle of life on this abused old planet, but your own children add to that a sense of the divine order of things, of infinite, glorious possibilities and bright, confident new dawns. Manhattan twinkled below me as I floated back to my apartment on West End and 70th. The next day I was back in Boston, filming.

 

All these memories and many more as I ticked off items from my shopping list, walking between the eggs and the lettuce, the bread and the oranges.

Karen Allen three

Karen Allen. So beautiful, so talented. Always kind, always even tempered, always smiling.

 

Being a sentimental fool myself, I went on-line to see how she was doing and what she was doing, and found—to my delight—that she is apparently thriving. She has a son, writes plays, has a yoga institute, designs clothes, and has a website where she sells handmade cashmere clothing of her own design. I have added it to my favorites; if you buy something from her, give her my love and tell her I wish her well. Tell her I saw her in a small-town grocery store on the other side of the continent.

 

She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale

Never coming near what he wanted to say…

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