Other Writings

The Transformation of an American

April 12th, 2014 3 Comments

Nevada 2

 

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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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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A Man with a Tight Mouth

January 30th, 2014 1 Comment

Another young Mac

 

What I remember most is laughter.

We would be on the set, waiting in our chairs, or rehearsing, or, most likely of all, actually filming, and one of us, usually Mackie, would ad-lib something or come out with some one-liner and off we would go. God only knows how much film was wasted on shots of one or both of us becoming suddenly incoherent with laughter, roaring, gasping, eyes tearing, legs weak, stomach muscles burning as we staggered out of frame, howling.

I remember fatigue, rare bursts of temper, occasional adolescent behavior, some misbehavior, even tears. I remember famous names and famous faces, as well as glamorous ancillary events that our own fame brought us, events I feared and despised. I remember anonymous names and faces, many greatly loved, many dead now. I remember press junkets that made me feel like a much prized frozen hamburger—catered to, the center of attention, pampered, and absolutely indistinguishable from the hamburger ahead of me or the hamburger behind me. Or the undiscovered hamburger still to come a few years hence. I remember girls, lots of girls. I remember feeling lost, unsure of who I was, and trying to forge an identity that had nothing to do with me or reality.

But most of all, I remember laughter.

Mackie, Marlowe

I attended a convention a few years back in New Orleans, a huge, Outdoor-industry thing, exhausting in its size and scope. I had made plans to meet Mackie there—somewhere, somehow—prior to our having dinner that night at Galatoire, his favorite restaurant, on Bourbon Street. I hadn’t seen him in many years. We missed each other repeatedly at our agreed upon meeting spot and I was weaving my way through the crowd when, suddenly, there he was, standing still, just as a cat might freeze before it pounces, watching me with the old bemused look I know so well. It is a look that says: Gotcha, I saw you first. And: I have a half-dozen quips ready on my tongue. And also: Let’s see what you come out with. It is a look both welcoming and challenging, as if humor, even kindly humor, were a competitive thing, a weapon of civilized war.

He is heavier now, and grayer in both face and hair, the unhealthy gray of the heavy smoker he used to be. In certain lights, at certain angles, I could see in one eye the tell-tale flat and fishy iridescence of potential cataract problems, a gleam I recognize from professional boxers I have known over the years, a gleam that speaks of blind spots and trouble ahead. But the handshake that greeted me was as strong as ever, the tongue as quick, the tilt of head as confident.

I know this man. I know him as well as it is possible for one man ever to know another. For eight years I spent more time with him, day in, day out—and many a long night too—drunk and sober, working, playing, camping, hunting, the vast portion of each year, more time than I spent with my then wife—and in some ways as intimately, too, for acting, like jazz, involves an intuitive interplay that is almost like making love—until I know him so well I can detect nuances that tell me instantly when he is honest or false, sure or uncertain, happy or sad, lying to me or lying to himself.

I have known him in good times and bad. I have seen him craven in the face of circumstances, physical and moral, that left me unfazed. And I have seen him show towering grace and dignity in circumstances that would have undone me. I have seen him indulge in ridiculous pettiness. And I have seen him show real and royal generosity. I have seen him show childish immaturity, and singular wisdom. I have seen him, in short, at his best and at his worst, as he has seen me. And, for better or for worse, like it or not, we are forever linked in the public memory, like Fric and Frac, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Like Simon and Simon. Whenever I am recognized and asked for an autograph, invariably I will hear, “What’s your brother up to?” “Where’s your brother?” “Why aren’t you doing another show like your brother?” My brother.

Auditions are the worst thing, the most excruciating thing. Auditioning for a play, on a brightly lit stage, staring out into a darkened and empty auditorium—empty of all but disembodied voices that offer neither help nor hope—is perhaps slightly worse than auditioning for a movie, which is characteristically done in an overcrowded office where you can actually see the boredom on the faces you are trying to impress, but we’re only talking degrees here. It’s like saying: Being roasted over hot coals is worse than being boiled in oil. There is a reason why actors who reach a certain stage of preeminence refuse to audition anymore. They may argue, and rightly so, that they don’t have to because of their stature and reputations, but it is also because they don’t like the diarrhea-inducing agony any better as stars than they did as wannabes.

But back in those days—this would have been late ’79 or early ’80—producers generally had greater respect for and empathy with the desperate and terrified actors who paraded before them and it was customary to chat for a few moments and give the actor a chance to stop hyperventilating.

So when I walked in to audition for a pilot at that time called Pirate’s Key, I was introduced to the writer and executive producer, Phil DeGuerre, and to Milt Hammerman and Robert Harris who were representing Universal Studios. After we had shaken hands, Phil made the mistake of asking me how I liked the script.

“God, I love it. It’s got a great energy to it, a wonderful blend of tension and humor. The relationship between the two brothers is inspired. It’s as if you took the character from…” and I named the hero of a famous series of detective novels “…and divided him into two people, Rick and AJ, and then added some of the sense of humor of…” and I named a highly successful television detective series.

All three men froze. There was a long silence during which all the blood drained from Phil’s face. He looked like a man who realizes, too late, that he has just swallowed a bad oyster. The silence continued and all three of them looked at each other.

I started to laugh. I realized that I had, quite by accident, named the precise sources of inspiration for Pirate’s Key. Stealing is routine, a way of life in Hollywood. The rule of thumb back then was: The better the source you are stealing from, the better your end product is likely to be, so steal from the best. (Obvious examples: West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet; Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness.) There is nothing wrong with it. Shakespeare stole from other sources for most of his plays. The key is, if the original author is still alive—and consequently in a position to sue—make sure you change things around enough to avoid messy litigation. Clearly, all three men were now wondering if, in fact, things had been changed around enough.

Phil pulled himself together first. “Don’t ever say that outside of this room.”

I read for them and either because the script was so good that no one could mess it up or because I now felt somewhat in a position of power, I did an excellent job. I read so well that the upshot was that I was offered whichever role I preferred. Since I looked barely out of my teens, it would have been an act of madness to take the role of the older brother, even though I felt it was better written. Instead I chose AJ and a few days later Phil called and asked me to read with the actors auditioning for Rick. I was delighted to be asked. I was delighted to do it. I had no idea what an eye-opening experience it would turn out to be.

I thought it was going to be very easy. I really did. The script was so well written, the patterns of speech and rhythm of delivery so intrinsic to the character, so obvious, I thought, that it would be a simple matter to find a Rick. Instead, we were at it for weeks. It seemed we auditioned everyone in Hollywood. If they were breathing, sentient, capable of getting in and out of the room under their own steam, and male, we auditioned them. I read with famous stars who had had their own highly successful series, and with unknowns who had just gotten off the Greyhound bus. I read with one Tony award winner, and with an actor who went on a few years later to win an Emmy. I read with poor devils who seemed to have cleft palates and dysphasia (though, to be fair, I have given that impression myself at more than one audition). I read with men who looked enough like me to pass as my twin. I read with men who resembled me only to the extent that they had the normal accompaniment of appendages. I read with men who towered over me and with men I could have used conveniently as a coffee table.

Then, finally, after several weeks of this, we were sitting in the office one day when Phil stopped pulling out fistfuls of hair and got a thoughtful look on his face.

“You know, I remember an actor who worked with us a couple of years ago on Baa Baa Black Sheep who was very good. What the hell was his name? McRaney! Gerald McRaney. Let’s see if we can locate him.”

He leafed through his Players Directory and made a call. (The Players Directory no longer exists, driven into oblivion by the internet, but it was a sort of studbook for actors. It was divided by sex, obviously, and then further divided into categories: Children, Characters, Comedians, Young Leading Men, Leading Men. I never understood the tacit implication that if you were funny, you couldn’t be a leading man. Or if you were a character actor, you couldn’t be funny. I was always disappointed that they didn’t have an Aging Roué category, but that would probably have taken up too much space.)

“We’re in luck! He’s right here on the lot, doing an episode of The Incredible Hulk. Let’s walk down and see him.”

In those days, Universal hadn’t yet figured out that they could make more money as a theme park than as an actual working studio and there were many TV shows and movies constantly in production on the lot. On any given day you might see Jim Garner cracking jokes with his crew, Jack Klugman reading the Racing Forum, Rod Taylor with a six-shooter on his hip, Angela Lansbury dining in the commissary, or even, once, Robert Redford talking quietly to Sidney Pollack in an alley between two stages. There was a constant hum of activity and it was all very heady and exciting for a young, naïve, star-struck actor only recently arrived from New York.

We went down to the Incredible Hulk set—I caught a glimpse of poor Lou Ferrigno, painted green from head to toe and looking about as happy as you would under those circumstances—and asked for Gerald McRaney. In due course a man came out of the make-up trailer and walked over to us. I took one look at him and knew immediately, beyond any possible shadow of a doubt, that this guy was all wrong for the role of Rick. He was skinny (Mackie was always thin in those days, but he was just getting over a bout of stomach flu and was positively cadaverous), balding, and because he had shaved his moustache for the role he was playing and was wearing a suit, the general impression was of a preternaturally serious Certified Public Accountant. A CPA with a secret sorrow and an upset stomach. There was no hint or trace of Rick in him and I knew this was never going to work.

Nevertheless, we shook hands and chatted for a few moments and he took a copy of the script and agreed to come read for us later that afternoon.

As we walked back to the office Phil peered at me.

“What do you think?”

“Well, Phil, to be honest, he isn’t at all what I had in mind, physically. I mean, he’s incredibly thin and he just doesn’t look like what I thought Rick would look like.”

“Yeah, but he’s a good actor. Let’s see how the reading goes.”

Well, we had already auditioned some very good actors. We had already auditioned some award-winning actors. On the other hand, I happened to know my afternoon was free.

He didn’t look any better out of make-up. In fact, the poor devil looked like he still had the stomach flu, which, of course, he did, though we didn’t know that. We took our scripts and stood in the middle of the room. Milt Hammerman and Robert Harris smiled politely and tried hard not to look as if they were bored to tears. Phil leaned forward in his seat. I took a breath and we were off.

Thirty-two years later that moment remains, etched on the copper plate of my memory. He was perfect. All the rhythms and shadings and inflections I had heard in my head, that I knew were there in the writing but that no one had been able to reproduce before, all of them were suddenly being spoken. The scene that had been creaking ponderously, dustily along in other hands now crackled to life with humor and energy. Phil looked ecstatic. Milt and Robert were blinking like men who have had blindfolds removed in bright light.

Several days later we read again for the CBS executives. According to protocol—after all, CBS was going to be paying for the show—we gave them two possibilities. I read first with a very nice, amiable, Famous Actor who had just finished a six-year run starring in his own series. He was as good as anyone and better than most and was, at that time, a household name. Then I read with Mackie. Again, he was perfect.

They left and a few minutes later Phil came out into the hall.

“Which of these two guys would you rather work with?”

I thought about it. I liked them both. The Famous Actor was a nice guy and I felt vaguely embarrassed for him, for I knew what the right choice was. But I also knew that if we went with the Famous Actor, the odds of making it onto the air were infinitely better and I said as much.

“Phil, if we go with [Famous Actor] we’ll be on the air in the fall. If we go with Mackie, we may not make it on the air, but at least we’ll have made a hell of a good movie of the week. I’d rather make a good movie of the week than a bad series.”

Phil smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’m going to go back in there and fight for Mackie, but I may need your help, so stay close.”

He didn’t need any help. The CBS executives were no fools; they knew what they had seen. I knew even then, and time as proven me right, he was a far better actor than I.

th0RPZM0CT

Buster Welch is the legendary grandfather of cutting horse trainers, the best there ever was. He is the man novelist Tom McGuane, himself in the National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame, has described as an oracle. In an interview, McGuane once quoted Buster Welch as saying, “Every really good horse is a freak. Anybody who sets out to do something unique is going to acquire the status of a freak in his own family.” Mackie is the freak in his family.

He was born a story teller, a raconteur, a master of the amusing anecdote, the unexpected quip, in Collins, Mississippi. Curiously, he always talked more about his grand-parents and older brother than of his parents and sister. In particular the brother, Buddy, loomed larger than life in his anecdotes, so that I had a vision of a towering titan of a man, a heroic, two-fisted swashbuckler. When I met him, I was surprised to meet a quiet lawyer smaller, physically, than Mackie, but just as charming, just as funny. Many years later, when we did a Simon & Simon reunion movie, Buddy played a judge, and it was easy to see why Mackie became an actor.

His father was a builder of spec houses and Mackie started working with him very young, eight or nine years old. Then, in junior high Mackie hurt his knee playing football and with a combination of a free school period and knowledge of what to do with a hammer, someone suggested he help build sets for the school play. Someone else put him in the play. It was like giving crack cocaine to an addictive personality.

“I loved it, right from the start,” he told me recently. “And then a year or so after that I saw the film of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, the one John Gielgud directed as a dress rehearsal, and the light bulb went on. I thought: That’s what it’s all about.”

He made a show—probably the only bad performance he has ever given—of following in his older brother’s footsteps and went to Ole Miss, but he dropped out and moved to New Orleans where he built a life around working half the year in a repertory theatre and the other half on off-shore oil rigs. After five years he lit out for Hollywood.

Mackie-024-Small1-225x300

Mackie and I were both essentially mischievous children and we settled into a routine of bedeviling each other and the crew of Simon & Simon with practical jokes in a variety of amusing ways. Amusing for us, anyway. Some of it was completely juvenile (jacking the producer’s car up onto apple boxes so that it looked as if everything were normal, but the wheels had no traction; breaking into the same producer’s office one night and carefully reversing everything in his office, so that the picture on the right side of the desk was switched with the one on the left, the contents of the right-hand drawer switched with the left-hand drawer, and so on) but some things were more imaginative.

We were filming a scene in a bank, down in San Diego, and as we were well ahead of schedule, we persuaded the director to let us have some fun. The scene consisted of Rick and AJ questioning a crooked bank manager. When the camera was on us, you could see the extras playing the tellers and bank customers over our shoulders. One extra who worked with us fairly regularly, a kindly, gentle man in real life, was enormous, and had one of the most threatening, villainous faces I have ever seen. We gave him a prop gun, a .44 magnum with a six-inch barrel, and instructed him to rob the bank while we were doing the scene. So what you saw, while the camera was on us, was Rick and AJ earnestly and obliviously interviewing the bank manager as a robbery took place behind them.

It was a very funny sequence. After we saw it we decided, just as a joke, to cut it into a complete version of that episode, to be sent to CBS as if it were intended for airing. Predictably, what we got the night the CBS executives screened it was frantic phone calls. Even after we explained that we had a real version standing by, appreciative laughter was conspicuously absent.

Mackie’s birthday preceded mine by about three months. The first year I did something pretty benign, put some balloons in his trailer, gave him a bottle of wine, something like that. But the second year I started going down a road which was ultimately to have disastrous consequences.

That second year, prompted by some mischievous little gremlin that lives inside me, I came early to the studio with thousands of balloons. I had made arrangements to have a canister of helium standing by and with the help of some of the crew, I was able to get all of those balloons filled up and crammed into Mackie’s trailer, crammed from floor to ceiling, crammed so that he couldn’t even get in, crammed so thickly that even with a knife it would take him about twenty minutes to fight his way in. It was fun. Mackie was suitably amused.

The third year, for reasons that are now obscure, I decorated his trailer with scores of Playboy centerfolds and all the flimsy, trashy lingerie our wardrobe mistress could lay her hands on, which was quite a lot. I also had some rather less subtle, ancillary items lying around. The general effect was of an exceptionally tacky bordello the morning after the night before and prior to the cleaning lady’s arrival. Every man on the crew had to stop by and take a look. It was fun. But Mackie wasn’t quite as amused as he had been the year before because his then wife, who had tendencies towards jealousy, was following him to the set to spend part of the day with him. The only reason she hadn’t arrived with him was because she had gotten caught in traffic. Mackie showed a turn of speed I had never seen before, hastily tearing down centerfolds, cramming bras and panties into my and the wardrobe mistress’s arms, hiding stuff under pillows and in drawers. Mackie wasn’t quite as amused, but I was immensely gratified.

The next year I guess I really did go over the top. We were filming in Freemont Place, a gated, highly exclusive enclave within the already exclusive neighborhood of Hancock Park. When we were on location, we were picked up in our motor homes and so I was unable to do anything to Mackie’s trailer. Instead, I hired a stripper-gram. She arrived shortly after lunch and preceded to sing, after a fashion, Happy Birthday, while doing what she had been paid to do, as the cameras kept rolling. The director had conniption fits, convinced that if the neighbors reported us, we would lose our filming permit. The crew turned out in droves and had hysterics. The young lady finished her rendition with very little left on, sitting in Mackie’s lap, running her hands through his hair and making cooing sounds. And the cameras kept rolling.

Mackie was suitably mortified. I was laughing so hard I could barely stay upright. But when the young lady finally let him up, Mackie looked at me through narrowed eyes and breathed heavily through his nose. “Oh, are you going to pay.”

Well, forewarned is forearmed. When my birthday rolled around we were filming on location in a dance studio somewhere in Hollywood and I was very much on my guard. The morning passed uneventfully and I was just beginning to relax a little when I noticed Mackie’s stand-in, Scott, standing next to a very tall, not pretty, but highly sexy redhead. Warning bells went off and as soon as I had an opportunity I confronted Scott.

“Hey, Scotty, who’s your friend.”

The son-of-a-bitch never missed a beat. “Oh, she’s one of my clients.”

When he wasn’t working as a stand-in, Scott was a small arms instructor, and I knew he prided himself on his ability to teach ladies how to fire handguns. But still I was suspicious. I turned to the girl.

“What kind of handgun do you shoot?”

But Scott was ready and he jumped right in. “She’s just starting. I’m going to let her try a bunch of my guns, different ones, and see what works best for her.”

Well, damn it, that’s exactly what a good instructor does, so I let it go.

A few minutes later we broke for lunch. I noticed that Scott and the redhead had disappeared, but before I could give it any thought my stunt double, Randy Hall, suddenly stepped in front of me as I was walking out to my trailer, a length of rope in his hand.

“Hey, JP, do you know how to tie a Turk’s head knot?”

And without further ado, he started tying one. But he clearly hadn’t mastered the damn thing because he couldn’t tie it for beans. Finally, after innocently watching this pathetic charade for several minutes, I said, “Randy, that’s absolutely fascinating, but maybe we could do this after lunch. I haven’t got much time.” And I pushed past him.

I walked out into the street and over to my trailer. I stepped inside, closing the door behind me. My lunch had already been put on the counter and I was focused on that. I was dimly aware, out of the corner of my eye, down a little corridor, that something was on the bed in the back, but our wardrobe man would frequently lay my next costume change out on that bed, so I really didn’t pay any attention. Just then, with exquisite timing, there was a knock on the door and as I turned around I got an eyeful of what was on the bed.

It was the redhead, and the only thing she was wearing was a Happy Birthday card propped up between her spread legs. She was a real redhead.

The door opened and there was my then, now ex, wife, bottle of champagne in one hand, present in the other, stepping in the door.

There may be men who can deal gracefully and imaginatively with the unexpected and simultaneous conjunction of a wife and a naked redhead. I am not one of them. With great presence of mind I said, to the world in general, “Jesus Christ! There’s a naked girl on my bed!”

My ex laughed and closed the door and came up the stairs as the redhead rose up from the bed. She was very tall and had a lovely body.

I believe I mentioned that Mackie’s wife was jealous. My ex made his look like Saint Rita of Cascia, the patroness of marital fidelity. Under these circumstances, it would be hard to find any spouse who wouldn’t display at least some ruffling of feathers, and I felt confident that feather ruffling was about the very least thing that I could expect now from my spouse. She looked at the redhead, who was walking down the little corridor with a wavy motion, and her jaw sagged. Then she turned on me. She threw the champagne and the present at my feet and hissed: “You bastard!” She managed to get more “s’s” into both those words than I would have believed possible. And then she ran out of the trailer, slamming the door behind her.

Meanwhile the redhead walked up next to me. Her breasts were practically in my face. “Happy Birthday,” she purred.

Well, I admit I wasn’t handling things very well at this point. In fact, it would probably be safe and accurate to say that I had totally lost my grip. “Oh, thank you. Thanks. Thank you very much. Thanks. Thank you,” I babbled. It then occurred to me that my marriage was ending and that it might behoove me to find my wife before things got too completely out of hand.

“Would you excuse me? I think I better go find my wife.” I actually said that. I actually said that to a naked redheaded hooker. And I vaulted out of the trailer.

My wife was nowhere to be seen. She was nowhere to be seen for the very good reason that she was hiding in Mackie’s trailer where the two of them were laughing their damn fool heads off.

After that I called it off—no more practical jokes. Clearly, if Mackie was going to be that devious, that underhanded, that treacherous, not to mention low enough to enlist outside help, there was no telling where it all might end. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything to top him.

Apart from talent and a sense of humor, Mackie has a quality I greatly admire. It’s a quality best expressed by Big Daddy (a role Mackie is finally old enough to play, a role I would love to see Mackie play) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “A pig squeals, but a man keeps a tight mouth…”

A man who keeps a tight mouth wouldn’t want his troubles hung out on the internet for all to see, so I will only say that in thirty-two years life plays many jokes on all of us, some kind and amusing, some not so. Mackie has known death and loss and sorrow and the duplicity of that false housewife Fortune; he has experienced all the unexpected shocks we all expect from life—physical, emotional, personal, professional, financial—but through it all he has kept a tight mouth. He shares his joys and triumphs, never his reversals. Even when I called to commiserate with him about his lung cancer, he remained positive and upbeat, and sprinkled the conversation with enough one-liners to make me laugh.

He beat the cancer. He also beat the odds in the riskiest crapshoot of any career a man could choose, and has worked steadily for over forty years, starring not only in Simon & Simon, but in Major Dad, Promised Land, Jericho, Deadwood, a host of movies and TV movies, on Broadway, off-Broadway, directing, producing, winning awards in the career that was born of an injured knee in junior high. There is now a Gerald McRaney Street in Collins, Mississippi. There is also an historic marker in the town, showing the site of Mackie’s birth place. Those are admirable things and he deserves them, but when I see him next, I will have many unflattering comments to make to him about a man who is old enough to have a street named after him, not to mention an historic marker. Historic, for God’s sake.

It won’t matter. He’ll top me.

What I remember most is laughter.

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The Kid, at Twilight

January 29th, 2014

Rob Smets

 

The second ride of the evening did not go well.

Rogerio de Souza Pereira came out on Wild Thang and within two seconds, on the third or fourth massive, twisting buck, Rogerio was in trouble, his head snapping back, throwing his weight off balance. The Kamikaze Kid was already moving. Things that were happening faster than thought appeared to be in slow motion.

On the next buck, Rogerio was thrown forward, his face hitting the bull’s head, which was now coming up. It’s unclear if the damage was done then, or if it happened later, when Rogerio’s head hit the bull’s horn as he flopped at Wild Thang’s side, the young Brazilian’s hand caught in his own bull rope—‘hung up’ is the technical term—but by the time the Kamikaze Kid freed Rogerio’s hand, the bull rider was already unconscious and bleeding heavily.

Rogerio fell on his back, loose and inert as a sack of grain, one arm out to the side, the other almost straight above his head as if he were still riding. The bull, still bucking, stepped on his belly, 1700-pounds concentrated onto a hoof the size of a dessert plate, and a collective sound of pain and pity went up from the crowd.

The Kamikaze Kid and the other two bullfighters, Dennis Johnson and Greg Crabtree, were still in motion, twisting and dodging in front of the bull, drawing him away from the fallen man. As soon as the bull peeled off after Dennis Johnson, the Kamikaze Kid, still running, circled back to the injured rider. He knelt by his side, placed his hands on Rogerio’s chest as delicately as a man might touch a sleeping baby, and bowed his head in prayer. The eight-second buzzer sounded.

The whole incident, from the moment Rogerio’s head snapped back, to the stillness of the two men in the dust and noise of the arena, one helpless, the other praying for him, had taken less than six seconds.

Rob Smets and rider

“Anticipation is a lot of it.”

The Kamikaze Kid is not a kid anymore at forty-six. His name is Rob Smets and he is considered to be the greatest rodeo bullfighter that ever lived, though he would never admit that.

“You see a rider’s chin come off his chest, you know he’s fixing to come off that bull. Or if you see his back ‘C’, you know, not sitting straight anymore.”

Rob slumped forward like a sullen teenager. His normal posture is Marine color guard at the White House.

“That’s called riding on the pockets and it’ll cant his pelvis. Or if his free arm goes past his head on the back swing or too far across his body on the front swing, ‘cause that’ll torque his hips and then he’s off balance. Or if his feet start flopping, though sometimes that just means the rider’s trying to get a better hold. That’s the sort of stuff you look for. You got to read the bull and you got to read the rider and you anticipate.”

Rob Smets is sitting on the edge of his bed in the Marriott Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, eating a room temperature room service hamburger, his typical dinner before he leaves for the ‘office.’ The ‘office’ tonight is Kansas City’s Kemper arena. Next week it will be the Dallas, Texas American Airlines Center, then the Bismarck Civic Center in North Dakota, then the Prescott Rodeo Grounds, then Cheyenne, Tulsa, North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, California, the states and cities and arenas, the hotel rooms and airports, all piling up like snapshots in a shoebox.

But tonight in Kansas City will be Rob’s first night back after a ten-week layoff following a broken leg in Albuquerque. There are unavoidable hazards to messing about with animals that weigh in the neighborhood of a ton, and it doesn’t make much difference whether you’re trying to sit on their backs for eight seconds or trying to outrun and outmaneuver them on the ground. The Professional Bull Riders Association keeps a running news brief on its website listing the sidelined riders and bullfighters and the extent of their injuries—broken shoulder, fractured ribs, facial injuries (resulting in a titanium plate in the skull), fractured and dislocated hip, broken collar bone, perforated bowel, concussion, dislocated shoulder, torn ligaments, herniated discs, broken ankle, torn groin muscle, the list goes on—but it doesn’t mention the ancillary financial impact on the athletes.

Unlike other professional sports, the PBR makes no allowance for injuries. There is no second string, no backup, no sitting on the bench, no injured reserve list. If you don’t perform, you don’t get paid, so the combined motivation of pride and paycheck is considerable. Rob had already tried to make it to the office in Phoenix three weeks earlier, but the leg refused to hold him on a sharp cut to the right during a practice run, a down-and-out pattern. He has a ranch in Texas that needs to be paid for; he has a wife and child counting on him; he has horses, dogs, cattle to be fed. Above all, he has pride.

“I’m competitive. I want to win. I don’t care if it’s flipping a coin, I want to win. When I get knocked down by a bull, I get up mad. I want to get even.”

Eating his dinner he is strangely relaxed for a man who is about to risk his life—more than risk it, offer it up—to save someone else, someone he may not like nor even know particularly well.

Our mutual friend, Mike Schwiebert, Rodeo All-Pro Bullfighter of the Year in 1978, long retired from bull fighting, is sitting on the other bed: “A bullfighter is like a Secret Service agent,” he says. “The job is to protect the rider at all costs, and if that means taking the shot for him, that’s what you do.”

The analogy seems to amuse Rob and he grins, transforming his face. He is a former Golden Gloves champion and long-time barroom brawler, his face battered and broken by gloves and bare fists and bulls, and within the collage of mashed lips, flattened nose, and scar tissue are eyes as unblinking and dispassionate as a bird of prey. Would it be worth my time to kill you? Would you be good to eat? But when he laughs or smiles the eyes become lighted windows, the mouth a welcome mat.

“Stepping in front of the bullet.” He laughs as if it were the funniest thing in the world, as if the degree of danger from either bull or bullet wasn’t worth anything more than a laugh.

“I first saw Rob in 1977 in Ardmore, Oklahoma and I thought, That kid will never last; he takes too many chances.” Mike is looking at Rob as he speaks. “Three years later I was finished. And now, twenty-six years later, he’s still going strong. How’s the leg?”

“Good. I was in the pool doing therapy two days after I broke it. It’s fine now.”

What he doesn’t say is that those two days were spent alone in a motel room with over-the-counter pain killers, without even having had X-rays taken or anything more than a cursory examination by the emergency doctor behind the chutes after he was helped out of the arena.

“I wanted to wait till I got home to my own doctor. Cheaper. And I couldn’t grab an earlier flight out without paying extra.”

Medical insurance is not an option for someone who makes his living doing whatever it takes to save a fallen rider, relying on his own timing and speed of reflex to distract a misanthropic 1500- to 2000-pound animal. That’s when everything goes well. When things get Western, it can come down to hurling his own body over an unconscious rider and enduring whatever he must endure until the other bullfighters or the single mounted cowboy in the arena, known as the safety-man, can pull the bull’s focus away.

Over the years the broken bones, torn muscles, and torn hide have added up, but most obvious is the aftermath of a twice-broken neck (once, C-1, the same vertebra that paralyzed the late Christopher Reeve). Rob has some partial mobility to the right, but none to the left, so when he turns now to look at the clock he has to turn his entire torso, twisting from the waist and rolling his eyes.

“Oh! I got to go. We’re having a prayer meeting. Hand me that shirt, will you.”

He pulls his T-shirt off and grabs the red PBR shirt he will wear to the arena. He is a stocky, powerfully built man, slightly bow-legged, an attribute that is exaggerated by the extra-long blue jeans falling in folds—called a stack in cowboy parlance—around his boots. The bow-leggedness and his slightly rolling gait make him appear deceptively clumsy in a bear-like way, but now, as he changes shirts, the thick bones and heavy muscles show the boxer he once was. The shoulders especially are massive and speak of long hours on the heavy bag, driving T-posts into hard ground, tossing bales of hay onto a flatbed, staying in shape to stay alive.

Prayer is something new for Rob. His father was a heavy machine operator who worked for mining companies in Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Puerto Rico, and around the States, and fighting seems to have come naturally to a tough American kid in foreign lands. He was finally asked to leave school in Salinas because of the constant brawling.

“My friends were all Hispanic and I didn’t like it when people would pick on them.”

The statement is both true and disingenuous. The impulse to save, to help, to protect—to don dented armor, grab a rusty sword, and ride off in all directions—is undoubtedly very strong in Rob. He wouldn’t be a bullfighter if it weren’t there. But there is also a lot of pit bull in him too.

Three months earlier, a group of men were standing in the kitchen of a remote hunting camp in California, waiting for supper. The men were excited about the next day’s pig hunt, and beer and whiskey and margueritas were flowing. The combination of booze and empty stomachs was making everyone boisterous, everyone but Rob. He was the center of attention, the star, as he is in places where men know anything about rodeo and bull riding, and he leaned against the sink, his face flushed with alcohol, still and deadly quiet. Whenever anyone asked him anything he would answer politely, but the more he drank, the more he gave the impression of a ticking clock attached to a stick of dynamite. The conversation turned to boxing, and from boxing to fighting generally, a few of the men recounting their own exploits, usually humorous, usually self-deprecating, but always coming back to Rob, to his brawls in and out of the ring.

“Hell, Rob. Didn’t you ever lose any fights?” The man who asked was no drunker than anyone else, but perhaps his judgment was worse.

“No. I never lost a fight.” He said it as softly and matter-of-factly as another man might say, No, I’ve never been to Morocco, or, No, I’ve never driven a race car.

“Well, aren’t you worried someone will take you someday?”

“No one in this room.” It wasn’t surly or aggressive or ugly, just a quiet statement of fact, yet behind it was an eagerness no one was drunk enough to ignore.

At least half-a-dozen of the men in that kitchen were substantially bigger than Rob, but there was an uncomfortable moment of silence and then Mike Schwiebert stepped gracefully, humorously in, deflecting and defusing, and the group recaptured their anticipation and high spirits.

The next morning Rob came to the breakfast table looking as much the worse for wear as the others, but his eyes were lighted windows. He stood by his seat as if he were standing in front of the blackboard and said his piece.

“I had too much to drink last night, and I said some things I shouldn’t have. I apologize to everyone here. It won’t happen again.”

It didn’t.

Rob Smets, bull

The bull fighting came almost by accident.

“I was sitting on the fence at a high school rodeo watching the bullfighter,” Rob told me, “and I could see what he was doing wrong. I kept yelling at him to get closer to the bull until he finally turned around and said, Why don’t you try it, kid. So I did.”

He was an instant sensation in the rarefied world of bull riding, his insane, daredevil style of charging the bull earning him the nickname Kamikaze Kid. But there was another side to rodeo life in the late seventies and eighties.

“I was a total pothead. I’d roll a joint first thing in the morning before I got
out of bed. I worked stoned. Sometimes I’d smoke a joint, do a line of cocaine and then go out and fight bulls.”

He is very candid about the drugs and the booze and the brawling and nameless girls in the back of horse trailers, candid too about the price he paid in a failed marriage, failed friendships, and failed finances. What he doesn’t mention are the triumphs: an unprecedented five World Championships; being voted to the PBR finals seven times and to the National Finals Rodeo six times. He doesn’t mention qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo bullfighter’s competition seventeen times in a profession where ten years is the top end of a bullfighter’s working life. Instead he talks about getting off drugs.

“When I broke my neck the second time the doctor asked me if I smoked cigarettes. Well, no, I’d never smoked a cigarette. But he said it could make your bones brittle. So I lay in that hospital bed and thought about it. I thought if tobacco could do that to you, pot probably could too. When I got out, I rolled one last joint and smoked it as I drove home. Then I threw the bag out the window, and that was that. Took me six months to get over the smoker’s cough.”

The next step was meeting his wife, Carla.

“She was a big influence. She works with disturbed children, and I’m her biggest case study. But the religion…. That came because I was always searching for peace, for happiness. I finally realized it wasn’t about booze and drugs and girls. And I realized I couldn’t fix everything, that Rob Smets couldn’t do it all. I had some friends, Lynn Shawls and Rope Myers. They were in a church. I could see the joy in their eyes, and that was what I wanted.”

Now, in Kansas, he grabs his suitcase and his bag with his uniform and athletic shoes and pads—similar to those worn by hockey players—and carefully places his twenty-X Stetson on his head. At the door he turns and smiles again.

“I’ll see you there.”

Rob Smets and bull

Most of the sports that came out of the cowboy lifestyle used to be lumped together under the name rodeo. Today, while there is still bull riding in rodeo, it has evolved as a sport on its own, as have cutting (separating a single cow from the herd) and reining (riding a set pattern at different speeds, spinning, and a slide stop, as a test of the athletic ability and training of the horse, and the horsemanship of the rider).

Traditional rodeo events such as saddle-bronc riding, bareback-bronc, bulldogging (steer wrestling), calf roping (tie-down roping), team roping, barrel racing, even reining and cutting, all had their genesis in the day-to-day activities on the long cattle drives in pre-barb wire days, or in the day-to-day activities on the great ranches post-barb wire.

The exception is bull riding. There is no practical reason why any sane man would ever try to ride a bull. In the unlikely event you could get the thing broke to ride, it would be the sorriest form of transportation in the world, worse even than a camel.

Bull riding has only existed as a pure expression of cowboy machismo. Somewhere, back in the dust of history, some idiot put his beer down and yelled, “Hey, y’all! Watch this,” and was promptly killed or invalided. The ancient Minoans risked their lives against bulls in ceremonies that evolved out of the ritual slaughter of their king every eight years to ensure a bountiful harvest, but even those slim and agile youths merely vaulted over the bull. They didn’t actually ride the sucker. (Of course, if you’re going to have your throat cut or be roasted alive for the benefit of the community, anything you can do with a bull, even riding it, looks pretty good.)

Bull riding was always the glamour event in rodeo, and today it stands on its own under the aegis of the Professional Bull Riders Association. It stands on its own because it is more dangerous than any other sport. Infinitely more dangerous. It is not a question of if a cowboy gets hurt; it’s simply a question of how badly and how often. In a society where the threat of dying is no longer a quotidian issue for most of us, where there is pill for every ache and every discomfort, people are thrilled by the spectacle of men risking their lives, and will pay money to see it. ‘Recreational terror,’ as writer Jeff MacGregor calls it, has become big business in America.

All sports, from bowling to boxing to bull riding, offer the spectator a chance to experience vicariously what his own limitations, physical or psychological, keep him from doing. All people and all societies admire courage, whether you’re the first man ever to eat an oyster, or the first man ever to fly a plane faster than sound. The appeal of bull riding lies in the courage of the young men who do it. There is absolutely nothing you can do that is more dangerous than bull riding. It is the ultimate Fear Factor.

But there is far more to successful bull riding than mere courage. There are the issues of balance, coordination, timing, speed of reflex, and – just as important as courage – the ability to ignore pain.

Add to all this the fact that bull riders are young, greyhound-lean and fit, attractive, clean-cut, and have the ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ manners of the cowboy culture, and you can understand why they have such an incredible following. They are revered and idolized. Perhaps not quite as much as the bulls, whose Breyer statuettes sell like hot cakes, and whose names are whispered with breathless admiration—Bodacious! Little Yellow Jacket! Blueberry Wine! Mossy Oak Mudslinger!—but enough that sponsors fight to be first in line with their checkbooks, fans with their autograph books. And after the bulls, Rob Smets is the biggest selling item, even more than any of the riders, on play sets, playing cards, figures, T-shirts, a host of other forms of licensed merchandise.

Cabela’s was one of the sponsors of the Kansas City event (Ford Motor Company, truck division, is the primary sponsor of the whole thirty-one city tour, which bills itself as The Ford Built-Tough Series, presented by Wrangler, the secondary sponsor) and they arranged for Rob and some of the riders to come sign autographs at their 150,000 square-foot store.

You might think nearly three-and-a-half acres under roof would be enough space to accommodate any amount of autograph signing, but the folks at Cabela’s know their business.

In the parking lot in front of the main entrance they had set up a tent capable of holding a three-ring circus, which was pretty much what it held. There was an archery booth inside a specially designed eighteen-wheeler, where people could test their skills with high-tech compound bows; a similar booth, just as large, selling bratwurst; another selling candied popcorn; an enclosed ring with an inflated pad and a fuzzy mechanical bull where people stood in line for a chance to imitate the young men at the autograph tables. The stuffed and padded bull bore a remarkable resemblance to Barney the dinosaur, only brown, not purple, and with horns, and moved in an equally stately and non-threatening manner, but no one lasted eight seconds.

And amid the crowds and confusion and blare of country music, autograph seekers waited patiently in lines so long they snaked around the displays and booths and games and out into the bright heat of the June Kansas sun, waiting to have their scraps of paper or hats or T-shirts signed, their pictures taken with the all-American heroes.

Rob sat behind a table with a stack of photographs in front of him. It’s a color shot of him leaping onto a bull’s back, totally focused on the bull rope and the hand of the airborne young man hung-up below him. And as each person stepped to the table he turned his full attention to them, focusing on his nameless admirers as he had on the hand of the hung-up rider, signing autographs, chatting, answering questions. Over and over he stood up to pose for pictures, until, in an effort to save his legs for the event that night, he began pulling the women down onto his lap, smiling disarmingly at their husbands and boyfriends, laughing and joking, wishing them well, signing more autographs.

Rob Smets on bull

Kemper arena is a circular building with a tunnel, also circular, that runs under the seats. Sprouting off the tunnel like cogs on a fly-wheel are storage rooms, maintenance rooms, electrical rooms, janitorial rooms, private entrances for athletes, a private bar and restaurant for VIP’s, administrative offices, and, of course, dressing rooms.

The riders are in one dressing room, the three bullfighters—and the single clown, also known as the barrel man—in another. It used to be that all four men were referred to as rodeo clowns, all wore garish makeup and ridiculous costumes, and all were responsible for entertaining the crowd as well as protecting the riders. In recent years the two functions have evolved away from each other in the PBR, and now the clown does nothing but entertain, the bullfighters nothing but try to keep the riders alive. A documentary on Rob Smets filmed only a few years ago shows him putting on makeup before going into the arena, but that too has been dropped now. The only hangover from the old days is the loose clothing, but that has a very functional purpose: the chest protector and pelvic padding preclude tight jeans or shirts.

In the riders’ dressing room the moods vary widely. Some men sit quietly on benches with mouths as tight as their jeans. Some pray. One young cowboy who had missed the prayer meeting got on the elevator in the hotel praying softly under his breath. He punched the lobby button and finished his prayer before he nodded politely to the other people in the elevator. Now he sits on a bench by himself, lips moving.

Some of the riders laugh and joke and roughhouse. Tony Mendes, currently number six in the PBR standings, is loose as a goose, roping people as they pass by. It is an activity that might spark anger if anyone else did it, but Tony’s goofy charm allows him to get away with a lot. It is hard to tell if the joking and horseplay are a result of relaxed confidence or an effort to stimulate that condition.

The bullfighters’ dressing room is very different. The barrel man has already dressed and gone off somewhere, and Rob, Dennis Johnson, and Greg Crabtree are the only ones in there, so it’s much quieter, for one thing. There is a good deal of razzing and laughter as they dress, but there is also a good deal of the casual catching up of people who know each other but haven’t been together for awhile. Dennis is working with a broken arm and he is struggling to get his shirt on over the cast. Without being asked, without interrupting the story he is telling, Rob pulls the shirt down for him and keeps on talking and getting himself dressed.

All three men are mixing dressing with cursory stretching. All three could benefit from a yoga class. Greg Crabtree, who has the reputation of being the craziest man in the PBR, which is really saying something, lies on the floor in the position known as the plow.

Rob stops talking and looks down at him. “Damn, Greg. Doesn’t your wife let you be on top sometimes?” He and Dennis laugh as Greg keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to touch his toes to the floor.

“We go after each other in here,” Rob fakes kicking Greg in the backside, “we even get into it sometimes, but if anyone out there goes after one of us, he better be ready to go after all of us.”

It is the warrior sentiment, the psychological glue that binds squads and platoons and battalions, the motto of men who only feel truly alive when risking death together. It’s not just talk.

A rider got his spur caught in the flank strap in Greensboro, NC earlier this year. Unlike the bull rope, which is wrapped around the bull’s withers and has heavy bells that hang below to make it come loose as soon as the rider releases it, the flank strap is tied on, and the spur must be worked free or the strap either untied or cut. As the rider came off, the flank strap half-hitched around his spur, jerking him underneath the bull. The animal continued to spin, each turn adding another half-hitch. Cowboy boots are designed to allow the rider’s foot to slip easily out for just this reason, but bull riders use a leather strap just above the ankle to keep the boot secure when they grab hold with their spurs during the ride. There was no way the boot could come off or the spur come free.

Rob, Greg, and Dennis went instantly after the bull, who kept running, bucking, kicking, spinning. Time and time again the bullfighters were thrown, tossed, knocked down. It all happened in a fistful of seconds as the rider continued to be dragged and stepped on.

And then the riders came over the bucking chutes, five, ten, fifteen of them, each man with a knife in his hand to cut the strap, and under their combined weight and strength the bull was finally brought to a halt. The bull had gone from rival athlete to enemy and the entire assemblage of PBR had come together as a single unit to combat him.

Rob is wearing a pair of tight-fitting shorts and a T-shirt that go under his pads and uniform. He walks out into the tunnel and starts for the physical therapy room. Located midway between the two dressing rooms, this is the heart of pre-event activity, a steady stream of young men coming in for attention from one of the three therapists. It is stunning how many of these men are riding injured. Ankles are taped, shoulders are taped, ribs, knees, wrists, elbows. Brendon Clark, a young Australian rider coming back from a knee injury, has his entire leg taped from groin to ankle. (It doesn’t help him. Later that night he will be thrown twice and the second time he will hobble out of the arena in obvious pain.)

Rob briefly rides a stationary bike to warm up his muscles and then lies on a table as a therapist tries to help him stretch out the hamstring of the leg that was broken. Then the therapist tapes the leg from knee to ankle, and Rob starts back to his dressing room.

The circular tunnel is crowded with people: sponsors, press, TV crews, wives, friends, stock contractors, hangers-on, PBR reps, and little knots of remarkably pretty girls. These last are all heartbreakingly young, all blond, all wearing hip-hugging, low-rider jeans that have been spray-painted on, and shirts that leave their arms and midriffs – and as much of their fronts as possible – bare. In the rock music world, they would be called groupies. In the bull riding world, Annie Proulx has called them buckle bunnies.

Walking toward Rob around the curve of the tunnel are a man and woman and a little boy. The boy, five or six, wears glasses and has one arm in a blue cast. Rob has an affinity for children, his own, his deceased grandson, any children.

“Hey, pal. What’d you do to yourself?”

His eyes are beaming benevolently, but the battered face is what it is, attractive but intimidating, and the little boy shrinks back next to his father.

The father tries to do the right thing. “Tell him how you broke it.”

Rob squats down. “Did you fall down while you were playing ball?”

The little boy tries to get between his father’s legs. “Tell him what happened.”

“I just got my leg out of a cast.” Rob pats his taped shin. “They sure aren’t any fun.”

“Tell him how it happened.”

But it’s clear the boy is on the Audible-Speech-Injured-Reserve list.

“Well, since we both had broken bones, give me a high-five.”

This the little boy is willing to do, cautiously and gently, with his good hand.

Rob stands up and the mother speaks for the first time.

“Oh, my God!” She is staring at Rob. “Oh, my God. Do you know who this is?” She doesn’t turn her head away from Rob so it is unclear if she is speaking to her husband or her son, but she doesn’t wait for a reply. “It’s Rob Smets! We got to get a photograph. Can we get our picture with you? Oh, my God!”

She and her husband take turns photographing each other posing with Rob and their son, and either the little boy is aware of who Rob is or he picks up on his parents’ excitement for as Rob starts to leave the arm in the cast comes up and the fingers wave a farewell. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, son.”

Rob Smets clown

The noise in the darkened arena is deafening, visibility almost non-existent. The show starts with pyrotechnics and pounding music, and then the riders walk out one by one in the glare of a spotlight as the announcer calls their names and gives a one-sentence update, this one’s standing in the ratings, that one’s most recent injury, another one’s most famous ride.

The young men walk out from their place by the chutes in their black or red PBR shirts and brightly colored chaps festooned with sponsors’ names—Mossy Oak, Ford, Rocky Boots, Jack Daniels, Luchesse, Branson tractors, Enterprise Car Rental, Jim Beam—and as each hears his name he doffs his hat to the crowd. The applause and cheers are constant, but certain names cause a swell in volume: Adriano Moraes, Justin McBride, Tony Mendes, local Missouri rider Matt Bohon, J. W. Hart, Ross Coleman.

At the other end of the arena the three bull fighters and the barrel man stand in the gloom, waiting. Greg and Dennis and the barrel man fidget and shift nervously from foot to foot, Greg kicking at the dirt with each shift in weight. Only Rob stands absolutely still, arms hanging loosely by his side, and the contrast of his stillness to their constant motion is compelling, the old gunslinger surrounded by anxious townspeople. He is the last to be introduced and he is the only man of the evening to be introduced as a legend. As he jogs forward in the spotlight beam, the applause and cheers swell as they did for the handful of popular top-ranked riders.

The smoke in the air, from the pyrotechnics and a fog machine, and the volume of the announcers voice and the music—an eclectic selection, ranging from Charlie Daniels to Pink Floyd—and the excitement of the crowd, lend a surreal atmosphere to the event, so that it is possible to imagine almost anything occurring in the sand of the arena: a rock concert, a magic act, a sporting event, a human sacrifice.

Behind the platform where the riders are grouped are the chutes where the bulls wait. They are magnificent beasts, all massive, sculpted muscle, reminiscent of some of the more powerful top heavyweight boxers of a few generations ago, Ken Norton, or Ernie Shavers, a young George Foreman.

Looking down on the bulls from the stands it is hard to appreciate the sheer, staggering size of them. From the stands, their size only becomes apparent when one of them gets near the safety man. He is mounted on a rangy, sixteen-hand sorrel, but every time a bull comes near him his horse suddenly looks like an emaciated Welsh cob. It’s like putting a Hummer next to a Mini Cooper.

Walking around the chutes gives an immediate, visceral appreciation of their size. They are colossal, mythological, Jungian symbols of some nightmare archetype.

In size. In temperament, standing placidly and patiently in the holding pens, they are very docile, gazing through the bars with dull curiosity. One of the riders drapes his chaps over the top rail of a holding pen and the Brahma raises his head to smell them attentively. The chaps are fringed and after smelling them for several seconds the bull extends a long pale tongue and samples the fringe. His eyes are bulbous and ringed with white, making him look like an apoplectic bullfrog, but after deciding the chaps are not edible he goes back to his serene contemplation of the flow of traffic around him. A foot-long string of slobber hangs from his mouth.

The bull in the pen next to him paws impatiently at the ground sending a spray of sand over the waiting riders, the TV crew, the paramedics, a PBR official, and some buckle bunnies who have made their way down here. The buckle bunnies squeal and bend over to shake the dirt out of their hair and everybody watches them appreciatively.

The bulls are moved from pen to pen and ever closer to the bucking chutes by a system of inter-connecting pens and gates no less intricate and no less mystifying than the labyrinth Daedalus designed. The two men who move the bulls are respectful of the animals, but not unduly cautious. Of the sixty waiting bulls, only three cause the men to scramble up the rails of the pens. Three alert, aggressive bulls that move quickly and unpredictably, heads swinging from side to side as if looking for someone or something to fight, turning unexpectedly back to the pen they just came out of, or spinning around to catch the men before they can clamber to safety.

But those three are the exception. The rest are true to Hemingway’s assessment: the pacifying effect of the herd instinct makes them safe in numbers. Alone, out in the arena, they will become dangerous.

In the arena the three bullfighters are very busy. Rider after rider gets thrown, a string of nine unsuccessful rides. But even successful rides keep the bullfighters busy. After the eight-second buzzer the cowboy may use the momentum of the next buck to spring to the ground, but the bull, alone and aggressive, is completely unpredictable. He may continue bucking or he may stop. He may charge the first person he sees or he may simply run back to the gate that leads back to the pens. He may fixate on a fallen rider or he may swing erratically from bullfighter to rider to another bullfighter. He may run down to the far end of the arena where the safety man, on his suddenly small horse, will try to get a rope on him. He may just run around randomly near the chutes.

The bullfighters are responsible for distracting him and trying to guide him back toward the pens, and until the gate swings shut behind him anything can happen.

One rider gets his spur caught in the flank rope. The bull runs in a circle, dragging the rider face down and terrifyingly close to the massive pounding hooves of the hind legs. There is an audible intake of breath, almost a groan, from the crowd. The three bullfighters close in on the bull and he swings suddenly to face one of them. The dragged rider becomes airborne as the bull turns; his weight is so insignificant relative to the bull’s strength that it is very possible the bull is completely unaware of his presence. Then suddenly all three bullfighters are on the bull. Dennis has grabbed the horns, Greg the tail, and Rob is on the animal’s back trying to release the spur from the flank strap.

That frozen vignette, less than a second, almost a duplicate of the picture Rob autographs for fans, illustrates the puniness and futility of their efforts. If the bull bucks, Rob will be thrown. If the bull hooks with his head, Dennis will be injured. If the bull kicks, Greg might very well be killed. Yet for no reason, the bull suddenly stops. A second later the rider is freed, the bullfighters move away, the bull gallops back to the open gate, and the crowd breathes again.

Mike Schwiebert, applauding with the rest of the audience, shakes his head. “Sometimes it just pays to be lucky.”

The next rider is thrown hard and Rob runs between the fallen man and the bull. It is a tried and true tactic to distract the animal and it works now. The bull goes after Rob with its head lowered. Rob runs, feints, and cuts to the right, but the bull catches him and tosses him like a cheese omelet, then swerves to go after Dennis. Rob falls and rolls onto his feet as gracefully as a cat and when he turns there is murder in his eyes. His fists are clenched and everything about his body language says there will be no more running, he will stand and fight. But the bull is already on its way back to the gate.

Rob roars and punches the air in rage and frustration. The crowd laughs and applauds. This is part of why they love him so much. He is the ultimate contender. He will never quit. He will go down fighting.

In the stands Mike Schwiebert stares down at his friend. “Ten years ago, even five years ago, that bull would never have caught him like that.”

Just before the last ride of the night the announcer lets the audience know that Rogerio de Souza Pereira is alright. He has suffered lacerations and a concussion and will be out of action for an indefinite period, but the protective vest saved him from any serious damage when the bull stepped on him. The crowd applauds.

A middle-aged woman waves and calls to Rob from the stands. She is wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of kittens wearing bikinis made of hamburger rolls with the caption Beach Buns. She is sitting with a man who appears to be her husband, but she screams mightily.

“Rob! Rob! I love you! You’re the greatest!”

Rob turns. It is unclear how much he has heard, other than his name, for he looks up at the right section but not at the right row. He raises one hand and smiles, happy, proud, the best there ever was. Then he turns. He will face one more bull tonight. He will shower and go straight to the airport. There is a roping in Reno where he hopes to win a few bucks. The Kamikaze Kid will be back in the office in Dallas next weekend.

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An Adventurous Lady

May 10th, 2013

Gertrude-Legendre

The guests at Medway Plantation had finished dinner and moved into the library, old Mrs. Legendre leaning on the arm of one of the men who served us, perhaps a butler, perhaps some other title. We were going to shoot wood ducks in the morning and had to get up very early, so most of the others went to bed, but Mrs. Legendre had spun tale after tale at the dinner table, recounting hunts in the Teton Range decades before it was discovered by Hollywood, safaris in East Africa before Hemingway, horseback treks through French Equatorial Africa, travels by pirogue through the Mekong delta of Indochina—known to young American men many years later by a different name—hunts in the mountains of what was then Persia, Spartan camps in Kashmir, safaris in Abyssinia, a dozen other places, a dozen other adventures, and I wanted to hear more.

But as she was helped into her chair and I settled myself with a whisky, I had a sudden memory of drifting in and out of consciousness in an isolated hunting camp and waking once to find a silver-haired man standing over me and asking—I think I spoke—if he was the doctor.

“No,” he said, “I’m the angel of death and I’ve come to take you home.”

Well, that’s alright, I thought, he looks like a good man to go with.

I remembered too a tacky, dirty little room in a tacky, dirty little hotel in a decidedly unromantic arrondissement of Paris where I awoke alone after thirty-six hours of unconsciousness, and thought before I passed out again, Well, this is where I’ll die, just like Oscar Wilde.

Those two incidents flashed through my mind as Mrs. Legendre and I settled ourselves and I reflected that I was almost fifty years younger than she, and I had the advantage of vaccines and medicines and doctors that were nonexistent in the time and places she spoke of.

“Mrs. Legendre,” I said, “you make it all sound so carefree and exciting and fun, but surely there must have been some hardships, some bad times.”

“Oh yes,” she said…

 

Her life spanned an arc from the horse and buggy to the space shuttle. She was born Gertrude Sanford in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1902, but time and place are meaningless. It is more accurate to say she was born into an aristocratic world of wealth so rarified and glamorous that she became the inspiration for the wealthy heiress played by Katherine Hepburn in Holiday. Her ancestors included Thomas Welles (1590-1660), the only man in Connecticut history to hold all four top offices: governor, deputy governor, treasurer, and secretary. Her father and grandfather were both New York congressmen as well as immensely successful businessmen, owners of the Bigelow-Sanford carpet company whose slogan was: “A title on the door deserves a Bigelow on the floor.” Her brother Stephen “Laddie” Sanford was an internationally famous polo player whose team won the US Open five times.

Her family followed the pattern of their class and era, migrating with the seasons from their Beaux Arts mansion on East 72nd Street to their upstate horse breeding farm to the milder climes of Aiken, interspersed with regular trips to France and England, where her father kept stables of race horses. These migrations always included a retinue of servants: butlers, chauffeurs, French governesses, cooks, most of whom—typically for that time—were considered family members in their own right. Eighty-five years later, Mrs. Legendre’s memories and stories of a cook, a horse trainer, a chauffeur, a butler, a beloved sewing-and-cleaning maid who chose to stay with the family rather than leave with her fired husband, were more vivid and real than her stories of her parents.

In Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award winning play Equus, the psychiatrist says: “A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly, one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why?”

Of all the sophisticated and accomplished people her parents exposed her to as a child, from Arthur Rubenstein to the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, later still the Duke of Windsor), the one who most influenced her later life was a man named Paul J. Rainey.

The vastly wealthy heir to a coal and coke-production fortune, Paul J. Rainey was also a product of his class and era. His life revolved around hunting and horses and dogs, luxurious homes and private railroad cars, and polo. His was the first American polo team ever to beat the British, and the round brick stable he built still stands on the grounds of his once vast estate in northeastern Mississippi. But Paul Rainey also had an adventurous side. He conducted expeditions to the Arctic to collect specimens (legend has it he roped a polar bear and brought it back alive for the Bronx Zoo, a feat I should have liked to witness—through binoculars) and was one of the very first—possibly the first—men to film African animals while on safari.

In the summer of 1914 Mrs. Legendre’s parents hosted a party for Paul J. Rainey where he screened a film of one of his lion hunts. Young Gertie had been sent to bed, but the excitement was too much for her.

“At nine, with sounds of the dinner ending downstairs, I was wide awake. I got out of bed, opened my bedroom door and scanned the hall. I darted to the head of the staircase and eased my way down along the banister. As I peered through the slats of the railing, I could just see through the half open curtain of the living room archway. There it was: Africa in jumpy, badly lighted, black-and-white images against the far wall. I may have had a poor seat, but that evening changed my life. From that moment on, I knew I would go to Africa someday.”

However, before that chain of shackles could be completed, she had to grow up. She was educated at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, then and now a prestigious boarding school for the well-heeled daughters of very affluent parents—the annual tuition is slightly more than the annual median American household income—the kind of school where girls take their own horses for fox hunting.

Most of Foxcroft’s graduates in 1920 spent the summer in a swirl of debutante balls intended to help them marry well and then retire. Gertie Sanford opted instead to go hunting with two family friends in the Grand Tetons back when Jackson Hole was, in her words, “a dusty frontier town consisting of a post office and couple of houses.”

Fox hunting and bird hunting were things she had grown up doing, but this was her first big game hunt.

“Even the waiting was a thrill. There I was, sitting on a log beside a game trail on a ridge in the middle of the Wyoming mountains on a beautiful afternoon. I held the gun tightly, in a ready position, across my knees. The faint scent of gun oil mingled with the scent of the surrounding woods…”

When I met Mrs. Legendre eighty years later, that first bull elk still hung in a place of honor in the log cabin she built at Medway Plantation to house some of her trophies.

Wyoming was followed by a succession of hunting and fishing trips to destinations that would be considered adventurous today—Alaska, Canada, the Laurentians, New Brunswick—and for game that are still considered challenging: Dall sheep, caribou, moose, brown bear. And all this was done at a time when Alaska’s largest city, “…in those days resembled a T.V. Western set—several bars and one hotel.”

Thirteen years after watching movies while hidden on a staircase, Gertrude finally made it to Africa. Harold Talbott, president of the firm that produced more wartime airplanes during World War One than any other company, and later Secretary of the Air Force, invited her and her brother to join him and his wife on safari.

Just getting to Mombasa involved eighteen days of ocean travel for the perennially seasick Gertie, and with it came strange and conflicting advice for how to stay alive when they got to Africa. A hot bath every night would ward off germs. A hot bath every night would kill her. A strip of red flannel to keep the sun off her spinal column was the only thing that would keep her alive. If she went outside without a pith helmet she’d be deader than a smelt in just a few hours. The only advice she followed was to take quinine with her whiskey and soda.

The business of safaris was only just beginning, so everything had to be purchased on the spot in Nairobi: clothes, food, camping gear, medicine, even the vehicles that had no discernible springs and required constant tinkering and repair, tires going flat, radiators boiling over, making them happy if they could manage forty miles in a day, a different camp site every night, folding chairs around the fire, toasts with whiskey and quinine, mosquitoes the size of moths beating against the netting, the grunt of lions, the eerie mocking laugh of the hyenas, and always the plains full of game in unimaginable amounts, numbers so great it was impossible then to imagine it ever coming to an end.

“It was often a time for reflection—the kind of thoughtfulness that many people have never known. I still remember that feeling of remoteness from the world of cement walls and streets and city noises. I was miles away from the routine of social life—weddings, parties, polo, fancy clothes, and repetitious, trite, silly talk. I remember thinking I would like to stay forever in that open land with its strange night sounds and smells.”

She couldn’t however, and return to social life three months later introduced her to her future husband. Her father decided to rent an estate near London for the summer, a neo-classical confection known as Osterley Park, designed by Robert Adam and sometimes described as “the palace of palaces.”

Osterley-Park

 Among the many guests who drifted in and out were two brothers, Sidney and Morris Legendre, heirs to a sugar fortune in Louisiana. Gertrude Sanford was so smitten with them that when she went to the Riviera she invited them both to join her.

The Riviera in 1928. The Great Depression was still two years away and the Roaring Twenties were in full swing, the height of the Jazz Age: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; Ernest Hemingway; Somerset Maugham; Harpo Marx; acerbic Alexander Woollcott and George Kaufman who would later write a play about him; suffragette poet and novelist Alice Duer Miller ofThe White Cliffs of Dover; author and professional hostess, “the hostess with the mostest,” Elsa Maxwell; Philip Barry, who would write Holiday about young Gertie and her family; wild stunts with motorboats by day; wild dances by night, the Charleston and the Black Bottom and the Lindy Hop, the very rich and the famous and the wannabees all playing as hard as they could, almost as if they knew the good times couldn’t last much longer.

Sixty years later Gertrude Sanford Legendre would write: “The roaring Riviera. What’s all the fuss? Simple-minded nonsense and a lot of fun…” And also: “I honestly don’t remember anyone working that hard at writing except [Somerset] Maugham and he was a complainer and not very likeable… Maybe it’s a mistake to meet authors. Being a good writer often has nothing to do with being a good person. In fact, the opposite is frequently the case. I don’t do somersaults at the mention of Hemingway or Fitzgerald; they were drunk most of the time.”

But while the band played on that summer, young Gertie danced with them all.

 

In the fall of 1928 she began making arrangements for another safari and invited both Legendre brothers to join her. She had decided to collect specimens for the African Hall of the American Museum of Natural History, specifically mountain nyala.

According to James Mellon in African Hunter, the mountain nyala had only been discovered twenty years earlier, in 1908, in south-central Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. Also according to James Mellon: “Sooner or later, every serious trophy hunter has to contend with the mule and the Abyssinian; both are visited upon us as plagues and the mule is the more agreeable of the two.”

Typically, Gertrude Sanford did it in style.

“We had to ship practically everything from the States to the port of Djibouti and hope that it would get there. I remember we spent hours in David Abercrombie’s store ordering special tents and flies to be made. We even got one of those invaluable portable toilets. It was the greatest invention of all; it made camp life almost civilized.”

Gertrude and Donald Carter (one of the curators of the Museum of Natural History) and the Legendre brothers met in Paris and started their trip from the Hotel Ritz. It took seventeen days just to get to Djibouti and another three by train to get to Addis Ababa, the capitol, where there was only one hotel, and they were warned that if they went out at night they should carry large sticks to ward off hyenas and wild dogs.

Haile-Selassie

 Also typically for Gertrude, they were invited to visit the Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God, direct descendent of both King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It took them twenty-nine days to assemble the necessary gear and crew and mules and they spent their evenings with the emperor in what she described as a study in contrasts. The palace itself was a simple wood-frame building and the palace soldiers were all barefoot, but Haile Selassie sat on a golden throne and they ate fourteen-course meals off gold plates, while drinking tej, the national honey wine. Some evenings were spent watching formal entertainment; other evenings the emperor would play records on a Victrola and dance with the young lady who had already shot five lions in Tanganyika and who had come to do what only one or two men had yet done in his country. He must have been quite taken with her for he presented her with a riding mule from his own stable, along with a silver bit and a green velvet saddle.

James Mellon again: “Woe to the efrenji (wretched foreigner) who wishes to rent mules for a nyala hunt…” Gertrude and the Legendre brothers finally assembled their fifty mules and muleteers, trackers, skinners, and the gear they needed to survive for four months, and on the day of departure she and the others spent an entire morning carefully weighing and balancing the loads on their mule train. The lead mule promptly started bucking and, “…threw off his entire load and the rest did the same. It was chaos. Equipment was everywhere. I’ve always said the easiest hunting is on elephants. You can have the mules!”

But the mules were only the beginning.

“The whole trip was a tough one—heat, rock cliffs the mules couldn’t climb, thorn trees, lava slopes, flies, mosquitoes, anything else you can imagine.” The muleteers came from different tribes and fought amongst each other. One night they got drunk and got girls from a nearby village into their tents and raised such hell the Legendre brothers had to drive them all away. Smallpox broke out in the camp and all the tents and blankets had to be burned. Then malaria broke out. The muleteers got drunk again, and when Morris Legendre fired the headman, the whole group quit. The cook mistook fly repellent for cooking oil. But they hunted constantly.

“Finally, we had to turn back. Our plan had been to cross the Omo River and follow the White Nile, but the river was too high to ford and the mules would not swim it. The rains had come early and chicka mud was so thick that the mules couldn’t get a foothold. We had to lay down our tent flies for the animals to walk over. Everything was soaked through and never dried out. It finally got so bad that after a day’s progress, we could look back and see where we’d camped the night before.”

But the safari ended with over three hundred mammalian specimens, from rodents to a forty-inch nyala bull, over a hundred birds, and with Gertrude Sanford engaged to be married to Sidney Legendre.

 

In today’s recession the truly rich have been unaffected. The same was true during the Great Depression. The moderately affluent, the middleclass, and especially the working poor were wiped out, but families with names like Vanderbilt, Biddle, Duke, Rockefeller, Pratt, Mellon, Sanford, and Legendre were unaffected.

Gertrude Sanford and Sidney Legendre were married on September 17th, 1929 and Black Tuesday (October 29th) came and went without making a ripple in the newlyweds’ lives. Part of that was because their honeymoon was a pack trip through the Cassiar Mountains of British Columbia, where they stalked sheep and goats through snow drifts and were tent-bound for days in a blizzard. Her description of it was simply: “It was glorious.”

Medway-3-150x150

When they returned, the first thing they did was buy Medway Plantation, the oldest masonry structure in South Carolina. Today it is a beautiful and unusual pink Dutch-stepped-gable gem whose ivy-covered walls lean in toward each other as if each was politely trying to hear what the other had to say, and whose 6,695 acres are protected by conservation easements and environmental trusts, courtesy of Gertrude Legendre. When the young married couple bought it, however, it was a dilapidated historic building with no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, no heating. Only a couple whose dream honeymoon was hunting in the snow could have fallen in love with the ancient wreck.

Medway-1-150x150

From 1932 to the outbreak of the war, Gertrude and Sidney Legendre led three more expeditions for various museums, each of which lasted almost a year, what with planning, travel, procuring permits and supplies, and hunting.

In Indochina they hunted their way alternately by pirogue and elephant and horseback, in places with a French army escort against bandits. She was the first white woman “Meo” tribesmen (Hmong) had ever seen and they were confused by her wearing men’s clothing, the men bowing, the women reaching out to touch her. In Laos they visited the king in his stucco palace overlooking the Mekong River. In the northern mountains she shot the only tiger they took, a nine foot, six-hundred pound specimen.

In Southwest Africa, later Namibia, they hunted across the Kalahari to the Okavango. Waiting and waiting and waiting for supplies in Windhoek, a local official berated Sidney for taking his wife on such a dangerous expedition.

“I’m not taking her; she is taking me,” he replied.

They hunted their way through clouds of flies, blistering heat so severe they could only hunt until nine in the morning, constant thirst, bad water, and bad tempers among their drivers. One, an Afrikaner almost seven feet tall and three hundred pounds, was capable of single-handedly lifting a truck out of “ant bear” (aardvark) holes. They took everything except kudu, which eluded them time after time until finally, after three months of hunting, they had to give up and hunt their way back. Five miles from the downtown Windhoek, they found a bull in a ravine.

Bureaucratic red tape and flies in the Kalahari, bureaucratic red tape and bandits on the Mekong River, and in Persia, only recently renamed Iran, even more bureaucratic red tape and secret police.

“They were so obvious and clumsy that one day I motioned to them to get into our droshky” (a horse-drawn Victoria) “and show us through the market to buy pustines.” (sheepskin-lined leather coats) “To my surprise, they climbed in and rode around with us all afternoon speaking good English. They were very cooperative for secret police.”

They needed permits for everything, and even after they paid the permits still didn’t arrive.

“Tomorrow.”

“A month from tomorrow.”

For obscure reasons, the Minister of Education was in charge of the permits, and after twenty-two days of waiting he called them into his office where he announced they wouldn’t be allowed into the country with so many guns. “Over five hundred,” he told them solemnly. Someone had mistaken the listed calibers and gauges for the number of guns being brought.

The Shah’s hotels were riddled with fleas, and the toilets consisted of a hole in the floor with two foot supports, but the Shah wanted to impress them, so they were allowed to eat trout and caviar, partridges and Russian vodka, and to buy gold and pearls, rubies and emeralds in the markets, but “…the people seemed anxious, maybe even frightened. Most were very poor and seemed unhappy. They clung to their pustines, their only possession. Summer, winter, spring; they never let them out of their sight.”

Finally, accompanied by their secret police escorts, they drove north into the mountains, past mud-walled cities and ornate mosques with onyx and alabaster floors. The bureaucratic delays had put them into the rainy season and they hunted in continuous mud, but managed to get everything they wanted. They had their trophies and specimens, but the secret police wouldn’t let them leave without examining every item, developing (and damaging) all the film, and demanding egregious “export fees.”

 

World War Two. The Greatest Generation. Like practically everyone else in America, the Legendres immediately dropped everything and volunteered. Sidney joined the Navy and was shipped off to the Pacific. Gertrude used her connections to wrangle a job for herself in Washington at the precursor to the Office of Strategic Services which was itself the precursor to the CIA. Government in those days, especially any part of government that had anything to do with intelligence, was very much an Old Boys Club. OSS was commanded by Colonel (later General) William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who may have been the first generation son of Irish immigrants, but he was a football hero graduate of Columbia University, a decorated World War One hero, a lawyer, a US Attorney, and most importantly, a trusted advisor and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When Wild Bill Donovan tapped David Bruce, who was very much an Old Boy, to head OSS in London, Gertrude was one of six women chosen to work there. She stayed there, enduring the blitz, until the September following D-day when she was sent to recently liberated Paris to help OSS set up shop locally.

Much of what OSS did during the war is still, to my knowledge, classified, so much of what Gertrude Legendre later said and wrote about her motives for going to front, specifically to Wallendorf where German prisoners were being interrogated, should be taken with a block of salt.

“A crazy lark.” “A wild adventure with some old friends I just happened to run into.” “Something to do during a five day leave.”

Right. One of the old friends was a Naval Lieutenant Commander, the other an Army Major. She did indeed love adventure, and she undoubtedly had tremendous courage, but she wasn’t stupid.

Whatever the reasons, four days later (excuse me, what was that again about a five day leave?) she and the soldiers she was traveling with came under sniper fire only a few kilometers from Wallendorf. Two of the three soldiers were wounded, and as they lay together in a mixture of blood, mud, and motor oil, waiting to be captured, they all quickly burned their OSS identity cards and concocted cover stories. (Excuse me, what was that again about “old friends she just happened to run into?”) And Gertrude Legendre became the first American woman taken as a prisoner of war on the Western front.

(After the war, Wild Bill Donovan maintained the story that it was all a wild and irresponsible lark, but that too should be washed down with salt.)

What is unquestionable is that if the Germans had suspected she was with OSS, her fate would have been horrifying. As it was, they seem to have bought her story that she was a Red Cross volunteer who was working temporarily as an interpreter for the two officers. In fact, they seemed confused as to precisely what to do with her. Initially she was interrogated by the regular German Army officers and kept in an ever-changing sequence of conditions, improvised jails in private homes, vast prison camps little better than concentration camps, an old barn, a barracks, a spectacular thirteenth century castle in Diez.

Then she was turned over to the Gestapo and taken to their headquarters in Berlin.

Torture was a specialty of the Gestapo, as were murder orders that were issued with the victim’s name space left blank, to be filled in at someone’s whim, but she was transferred almost immediately to a criminal prison in Wannsee and kept under twenty-four hour guard. She was repeatedly interrogated, but confusion reigned supreme in the German army toward the end of the war, and no one seemed to know what to do with her or what to make of her. Once she was asked outright what the letters OSS stood for and got away with playing the bubble-headed society girl.

“Oh, heavens, I don’t know. I suppose it’s some sort of officers’ social club.”

Finally she was moved to the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg, on the banks of the Rhine, where Hitler used to go to relax. Her fellow prisoners included French generals, colonels, diplomats, the Prince of Montenegro, and Charles de Gaulle’s sister, and for two months her situation improved dramatically. When the American army began to close in on the Rhine, the prisoners were all moved across the river to the Hotel Petersberg in Königswinter, another luxury hotel where Hitler once made a fool of Neville Chamberlain. When the American army reached the banks of the Rhine, Gertrude and the other “special” prisoners opened all the windows just so they could hear the sound of American tanks.

The next day they were force-marched east and herded onto a train, but just before it took off, two civilians ordered her off and drove her to a private house in Kronberg. For several weeks she lived in comparative luxury with a well-to-do family, the idyll marred only by continuous Allied bombing raids.

The circumstances of her escape are as mysterious as her “jaunt” to the front.

She was told orders had been issued in Berlin for her to be turned over to the Swiss. SS officers drove her south, but at the border, customs officials had no such orders and refused to let her cross. The SS took her to a safe house until night, and told her she could get across the border by train, that she was to stay on the train until it got to Singen, that her story to the Swiss authorities was to be that she had been helped by French farmers, and that she was never to mention any kind of German assistance.

She walked by herself through the darkened streets to the train station. At the far end of the platform a tall man in a trench coat was watching her. When the train arrived, she slipped on board in the dark and confusion of descending passengers and hid under a seat. An official began to make his way from compartment to compartment, checking the seats with a lantern, so she slipped out and locked herself in the toilet. The train finally started and she once again hid herself under the seats.

Then the train stopped. She could see the white gates of the border crossing, but the train had stopped short of it. She climbed out of the train onto the tracks and walked slowly, staying in the shadows of empty freight cars. When she got to the last car, only fifty yards or so from freedom and safety, she suddenly sensed someone behind her. It was the man in the trench coat.

“Run,” he said.

She ran. She heard whistles, someone shouting at her to halt, threatening to shoot, footsteps chasing her, the Swiss border guard ahead of her shouting at her to stop.

“American,” she screamed. “American passport,” and she ran under the barrier.

“I have no idea why the German guards didn’t shoot me,” she said later. “Perhaps something had been arranged. I never found out.”

 

In 1946 she was already planning her next expedition, this time to the Indian state of Assam for the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all successful expeditions are alike; each unsuccessful expedition is unsuccessful in its own way.

Assam is in the remote northeastern corner of India, and in 1946 you couldn’t get there from anywhere. The good news was that a tea plantation had been converted to a vast military base during the war, where B-24 bombers flew over the eastern end of the Himalayan mountains, dryly referred to by pilots as “the Hump.” The base and all its provisions, seven square miles worth of supplies where tigers roamed at night, had been abandoned, so gearing up was relatively easy. Unfortunately, their porters, trackers, skinners and bearers simply refused to go into certain prime hunting areas because that territory was inhabited by headhunters. One of their head guides ran out of opium and refused to go anywhere until his quota arrived. One species, the takin (a member of the sheep family that looks like a cross between a yak with mange and a wildebeest) had to be abandoned altogether because the porters refused to make a ten thousand foot climb so close to the Tibet-Burmese border. The portion of jungle they could hunt was completely void of game. Crossing a river, their riding elephant (named Alfred) and the opium-smoking guide were both washed away and had to be rescued. The best chance for a tiger came as they were crossing a river on bamboo rafts and an enormous tiger came out to drink less than fifty yards from Gertrude. Her rifles and camera were all packed away.

The highlight of the trip home was visiting the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar where Gertrude did shoot a leopard, but without any pride in the accomplishment because it was a driven hunt.

 

Back at Medway, with neither warning nor fanfare, Sidney’s heart gave out. Forty years later Gertrude wrote:

“Every evening, I sit at one end of the dining room table facing his portrait. He stands there in his shooting jacket with a gun over his shoulder, looking cool and detached at the portrait behind me—that of a young, confident woman looking less like me than I remember. Sidney is exactly as he was. I have no memory of his aging. In my mind, I shall always be married to a young and vital man who sees only the youth in me.”

 

She hunted again, of course: Nepal, for the Peabody Museum again, where she visited the Maharaja of Nepal, and they took some fine specimens; Chad; French Equatorial Africa; Rey Bouba, now part of Cameroon, but then an independent sultanate where she was entertained by the Sultan; Gabon, where she stayed with Albert Schweitzer. She even married again, briefly, but Medway and memories began slowly to become more important to her. She had two daughters to raise, almost seven thousand lovely acres to protect. And age slows us all down. Forty years later her writing and conversation were always of the time when Sidney was alive, the hunts with Sidney, the adventures with Sidney, the good times with Sidney.

Medway Plantation property manager Bob Hortman stands by the main plantation house in Goose Creek

“Mrs. Legendre,” I said, “you make it all sound so carefree and exciting and fun, but surely there must have been some hardships, some bad times.”

“Oh yes,” she said. She waved her hand casually, as if waving away a mosquito, or a memory. “Oh yes, there were some hardships, some bad times, but I don’t remember any of that.”

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The Girl on the Motorcycle

May 5th, 2013

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The past fell out of a book last night.

I caught a glimpse on television of Lawrence Olivier in John Osborne’s The Entertainer the other evening, and it prompted a thought that led to a thought that led to… You know how it goes. So I pulled down my copy of Osborne’s play to look for a quote.

Because I used to be an actor, I have a pretty extensive collection of plays. It’s not as extensive as I would like, but it’s a hell of a lot more extensive than Darleen would like, she being an advocate of the Zen-Clarity School of Interior Design, while I lean toward the Absent-Minded, Cluttered-and-Dusty, But Comfortable school.  I have shelves of Samuel French editions, many of them dog-eared and frail, packed with histrionic and directorial notes from over thirty years of studying and earning my living as an actor. I have shelves of paperback editions, hardbound editions, collector’s editions, anthologies, books on set design and lighting and costumes, theatrical history and criticism, multiple copies of every Shakespearean play (you can never have too much Shakespeare), entire shelves devoted to nothing but Shakespearean analysis and exegesis, a massive copy of the Norton Facsimile of the First Folio… The list goes on.

But I knew exactly where my copy of The Entertainer was, and I curled up to read it again for the first time in almost forty years. A card fell out.

It was an elegant card on heavy bond paper, with beautifully printed calligraphic font on the outside. It was John Donne’s famous quotation from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

On the inside were the handwritten words, “Just to say I love you, Ellen, 3/5/76”

Ellen. Ellen Parker. No relation, just a coincidence of name. We were in acting class together. That particular class catered to professionals, which included models, so some of the most beautiful women in the world were in that class. (Yes, yes; some of the most handsome men, too, but we don’t need to dwell on that.) Among all those towering beauties, you might have expected Ellen to go relatively unnoticed. She wasn’t tall, and she didn’t have the classic dying swan look that seems to reign supreme on the covers of fashion magazines decade after decade. Her beauty was of the clean, healthy, fresh-faced, good humored variety. She always looked as if she might have just stepped out of the shower after milking the family cows. (In fact, she was born in Paris, and her parents were restauranteurs.) She did not go unnoticed, however, at least not by me nor, later, by stage and screen directors who recognized her talent immediately: her career has included Broadway, off-Broadway, movies, and both nighttime and daytime television, including an Emmy award for her work on the soap opera Guiding Light. She had a sort cheerful confidence to her, and her eyes were extraordinary: large and luminous, and with something in them that hinted at intelligence and passion, laughter and tears, but mostly laughter. She always smelled good, soapy good, not perfumey, and her skin was the flawless kind that begs to be touched.

We did a scene together. Time steals so much that I can no longer remember what the scene was, but I do remember rehearsing with her in her apartment somewhere downtown. I remember her coming to a party or parties at my apartment. I remember having dinner with her (Once? Twice? Multiple times?) at a restaurant or restaurants. I remember her telling me about a cross-country motorcycle trip she took with her (then) actor husband, and possibly because of that I have either a memory or an image, a fantasy, of her stepping off a bike in blue jeans and a leather jacket, pulling off her helmet and shaking out that glorious mane of hair, sexier than hell, but I don’t know if it is real or not. Mostly I remember those rehearsals at her apartment.

If it sounds strange to you that I should remember rehearsals without remembering what scene from what play we were doing, then you know how I felt about Ellen. Don’t misunderstand: she was married, and I was married, but I always felt so comfortable and so right in her presence, and there was something kind about her, something thoughtful one doesn’t often find in actors. I remember too a rehearsal when I had a cold and she gave me a tea I had never had before, chamomile possibly.

“And she feeds you tea and oranges

That come all the way from China…”

But there was one rehearsal, one moment in particular, that lingers. We were finished. I was leaving, standing by the door, turned back into the room—Spartan, like all impoverished actors’ apartments—and she came up to me and kissed me on the lips, briefly, gently, and then stepped back and looked up at me, smiling. What she intended by that kiss I do not presume to know, but what she achieved was overwhelming desire. I wanted her at that moment more than any woman I had ever known or held or touched or kissed. I wanted her so much it left me breathless, breathless and confused. But she was married and I was married. I left.

What she meant by her note in the card I also do not presume to know. I have no memory of the occasion for the book—birthday? Christmas? A random gift?—nor why she chose that particular play, but I know she must have given it to me, for I would never have thought to save a card from her in a book she hadn’t given me. Was it just an exuberant expression of affection from a girl in a profession given to exuberant hyperbole? Was she expressing a desire for something my conscience would not allow me to give? Was she expressing a longing for something her actor husband could not give? She is married to a doctor now, so I very much doubt it is the same man who was off doing a play in Boston back in that long ago time. How did that card make me feel back then? I don’t remember. I only know it meant enough to me that I carefully preserved it, and I know what it means to me now. And I know too how it makes me feel now:

“And would it have been worth it, after all

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worthwhile,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’ –

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all.’”

 

This is what happens when the past falls out of a book.

Several years after we were in acting class together, just before I moved out to Los Angeles, Ellen was cast in the Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s brilliant Equus. My (then) wife and I went to see it. If you’re unfamiliar with the play, it’s about a very troubled teenaged boy’s religious and sexual fascination with horses, and there is scene where the boy and a teenaged girl who works at the stables both strip totally naked on stage. The play deals with themes of social norms and conventions versus individual desires and passions, the religious versus the sexual, the conforming and commonplace versus the rare and spontaneous, the confining orthodoxies of society versus the vital pagan within. There is a very moving speech by the psychiatrist who is treating the boy where he admits he envies his wild young patient, envies his pagan passion and freedom:

“…He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable. What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply reattached, like plasters? Stuck onto other objects we select… He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he will never touch hide again! With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control…”

I heard all this and I watched Ellen’s naked body as I sat next to a woman I already knew I should never have married, and I thought of that kiss and remembered a line from another play, The Dream Play, by August Strindberg: “…For sins one never sinned remorse is felt…”

Faulkner was right in Requiem for a Nun. The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Sometimes the past can fall out of a book. The past is not in her sixties, married to a doctor, with an adopted daughter. She is still in her twenties, smooth-skinned and sweet-breathed, shaking her mane of hair out from under a motorcycle helmet, lovely, luminous, and laughing.

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