Other Writings

In a Silver Land

December 18th, 2018 1 Comment

 

We stopped at a carnicería in the marshes two or three hours north of Buenos Aires. It was a combination gas station and carnicería, the gas station looking like any whitewashed gas station might look. The meat stand was also whitewashed, what there was of it: low walls to designate space, tree trunks that held up the thatched roof, the two great grills, one rounded and dome-roofed for the traditional slow-roasting method where slabs of beef are sandwiched between metal grills that lean in at an angle around the fire.

A man was grilling meat over wood coals on the flat grill and our driver told him we would like cerveza to cut our thirst, and meat and papas fritas, and vino tinto to wash down our meal. We sat in the shade of the thatched roof and drank our beer, Eisenbeck, crisp and cold and delicious, as we waited for our food.

None of us spoke any Spanish. I had the most and so I would use the few words and phrases I knew to tell our driver what we wanted and he would then translate as if I had spoken in English or German instead of pigeon Spanish the man at the grill could understand just as well as our driver. Perhaps it was a subtle way for our driver to lord it over the man at the grill, to underscore that he, the driver, was a cosmopolitan accustomed to picking up strange Americans at the airport and ferrying them through the vast, decaying sprawl, eighteen million strong, of Buenos Aires and then on to elegant estancias deep in the country, while he, the other, was a simple dweller of the ciénagas, perhaps one of those who lived in one of the tiny shacks on stilts surrounded by collapsing lean-tos and a few pigs and chickens and the ubiquitous and requisite sway-backed and spavined horse.

Whatever the reason, the system worked. Soon the table was covered with plates and glasses and a vast mound of papas fritas, the fried potatoes that are served with practically every meal in Argentina, and a bottle of their strong, underrated wine. Then the man brought a miniature cast-iron grill, black and greasy, to the table and set it by my elbow. On its little lower tray a few wood coals glowed and crackled, while on an upper tray ribs and slices of liver and sweetbreads and chorizo and blood sausage sizzled and popped in their own fat.

We toasted the upcoming hunt and ate and laughed and talked exactly as if we weren’t all dead with fatigue from a cramped and dangerous eighteen-hour flight. Dangerous because of the sudden, violent, unexpected turbulence that left un-seat-belted passengers sprawled in the aisle after bouncing off the ceiling of the plane, food and glasses and newspapers and blankets everywhere, a stewardess unconscious, people screaming and praying, myself not least among them.

But all that was past, and we toasted the upcoming hunt, the joy of eating outdoors on a fine day in an unfamiliar land, the excellence of Argentine beef and wine, the pleasure of each other’s company. We ate and drank and laughed, and then we climbed back into the rickety Fiat van and drove north. Chris and Lars fell asleep, but I wanted to see this new and unknown land, so I sat up front with our driver and watched.

It was all marsh, just as it had been ever since we left Buenos Aires, with meager shacks built on stilts and, occasionally, a slightly grander, whitewashed shack built on a raised mound of earth not unlike our Indian burial mounds. But mostly the marsh stretched away, flat and empty save for cattle and horses grazing in water up to their bellies. I wondered how they kept their horses from getting thrush and hoof-rot or if they cared enough to worry about it. The Argentines are famous for their love of horses and their horsemanship, but men are men everywhere and famous for their ignorance and cruelty around the world.

As we drove further north the land raised imperceptibly, so that the marsh became broken, the cattle and horses grazing on drier ground. We drove past occasional tilled and planted fields, past growths of pine and eucalyptus, maguari storks and rheas, gauchos on sturdy little bucket-headed horses, horse-drawn wagons. In Gualeguay we saw a three-up pulling a wagon down a dirt street at a fast trot so that for a moment I was able to imagine I was in 19th century Russia.

We were driving through the Entre Rios Province, the Province Between the Rivers, the two rivers being the Parana to the west and the Uruguay to the east. The province is huge, bigger than many American states, which doesn’t make it sound so big until you realize that much of it is still marshland, undrained and unimproved by modern technology, which is why the hunting is so good, of course.

We drove on, angling away from the Parana, the river first explored by Sebastian Cabot in the late 1520’s, who gave not only the Río de la Plata its name, River of Silver, but also Argentina itself, both names inspired by his delight, or cupidity, with the silver work of the native Indians. The land rose a little more to the northeast, just a little, still mostly flat, with some slight undulation, rather like Kansas. We started to see estancias, a few grand and hidden at the ends of great allées of eucalyptus, some very modest, close to the road and huddled in small stands of trees, most somewhere in between in scale, all whitewashed and red-tile-roofed.

Then we turned onto a dirt road and through a gate, El Rincón in black wrought-iron letters on both whitewashed stone posts. It is called El Rincón because it stands on land at the corner where two rivers come together, but it is also a play on words because rincón means not only corner, but also a remote or private place, and it also means a dwelling. It is all of that and more.

For the first mile or so the drive was bordered only by random growth of hedgerow, wild shrubs and bushes that the guides would later cut with machetes and carry with us to make our blinds. Then we passed into an allée of eucalyptus, towering old trees, and drove along that for another mile. At the end of the allée the road divided, one branch heading back to the servants’ houses and barns and kennels, the other to the main house. We passed through another gate and into a large formal park and there was the estancia, not whitewashed and low with a covered gallery in the front as I had expected, but an enormous, gray, Italianate stone castle, the kind of hunting box an industrial robber baron or minor archduke might have built for himself in eastern Germany or Czechoslovakia around 1890.

A large and dignified German Shepherd and a languid young man with a mass of curly dark hair and a bad head cold came down the front steps to greet us. The young man was our host, Enrique, a self-described sometime professional hunter, sometime professional student from Uruguay. As men poured out of the house to take our bags and gun cases, Enrique ushered us up the steps, across a gallery of painted Spanish tiles and into the house. Sixteen-foot high ceilings on both floors, gun room, dining room, drawing room, game room, a master bedroom on the ground floor, massive oak stairway leading up to a balcony looking down on the entry hall below, bedrooms off the balcony, and overhead, probably thirty-five or forty feet over the entry, a stained-glass ceiling lit by the windows in the tower above it. Rich, dark, oak wainscoting, six feet high around every wall of every room on the ground floor, corner fireplaces with elaborately carved mantels, Turkish rugs, over-stuffed chairs and sofas, English hunt prints, paintings of horses, poorly done taxidermist’s mounts in the dining room of the ducks we had come to hunt: Brazilian ducks, Rosey-billed Pochards, Silver Teal, Speckled Teal, Ringed Teal.

A little later, after I had unpacked, as we sat on the front gallery in wicker chairs, sipping whisky, shooing a black Lab and an assortment of pointers away from the hors-d’oeuvres, watching the last of the sun turn the world golden, parakeets and pigeons and doves circling through the trees, I was overcome by a desire to settle in here and never leave. That feeling remained.

The first morning we hunted over a narrow, weed-infested slough at the edge of the great marsh that is the Entre Rios Province. Branches and saplings cut from the hedgerow along the drive were driven into the mud to make our blind. Our marsh stools were driven into the mud and branches laid down around them to give us a kind of platform to stand on. Without those branches, after only a few minutes you would sink so far into that black super-glue that nothing less than a backhoe could ever free you. It was very warm, and we shed our jackets and sprayed ourselves liberally with DEET to discourage the clouds of mosquitoes that swarmed around us. The ducks started swarming in almost as thick as the mosquitoes while it was still too dark to identify them.

These were puddle ducks: the ubiquitous Brazilian Duck, South America’s version of the Mallard in numbers and adaptability, even if it is truly a perching-duck; various teal, mostly Speckled and Ringed. As it got light enough to shoot, we could see in the distance, over the marsh, large flights of Roseybills circling and dipping over the larger water they prefer. The puddle ducks came into our decoys in twos and fours, occasionally in groups of eight or ten, coming in very fast, braking suddenly, then flaring off as we shot.

We had time between flights to look around us at the great flat emptiness of the marsh, little pockets of mist rising up off the water, towering Eucalyptus trees behind us where the parakeets screamed and whirled, and, inexplicably, in the mud near our blind, an old rusted electric sewing machine there in the marsh, miles from any house and further still from any house with electricity.

Chris is very knowledgeable and has hunted in South America before and had an Argentine bird book for reference. One of the teal we hunted that morning was called a “corn duck” by Enrique, but when we identified it, it turned out to be the Speckled Teal. They live in the nests the parakeets build, enormous structures, some four or six or even eight feet tall, in the upper branches of whatever tree is available, but the higher up the better. The parakeets are very communal and very numerous, and they build these great nests out of thorny branches, with multiple entrances, but the Speckled Teal move in as squatters, driving the parakeets out. The teal lay their eggs in there and I would give much to see one of the precocial fledglings leaving the nest for the first time. Unlike our Wood Ducks, whose nests in the hollows of trees are usually only six or ten or perhaps fifteen feet up over water, these Speckled Duck nests, the usurped parakeet nests, are frequently forty or fifty feet up and over dry land. How do the fledglings survive that fall? I don’t know.

In one group of Brazilian Ducks there was a very pale duck flying with them. I thought it might be a hen and swung past it to shoot a drake, but Chris shot it. Later, when we recovered it, it turned out to be, not an albino, but almost; a very pale color-phase of a Brazilian duck, a light caramel color that caused all the bird-boys to gather around, admiring and wondering.

We shot well. Chris and Lars always shoot well, but I was shooting better than I normally do, and in a very short time we had forty or fifty birds down and called it a day. The bird-boys waded out into the slough, aided by Tyson, the black Labrador, to collect our ducks. The limits in Argentina are very liberal—some species have no limits—and no one cares how many you shoot anyway. Even now, even after landowners have learned that Americans will pay large sums of money to hunt down there, farmers still consider the vast numbers of waterfowl as pests, on the order of parakeets or doves, and will still conduct aerial spraying of poison, killing tens of thousands of ducks at a time, irrespective of species, limited or not, endangered or not, pest or not.

Usually we dropped off most of ducks at the local landowner’s little estancia. We think of estancia as meaning hacienda, a mansion or large ranch, but in Argentina it can also mean any small farm, and that was where we usually took the birds. This first morning though, the gaucho rode up on his sturdy little bucket-headed mare, followed by a two or three-month old foal who immediately collapsed for some much-needed rest as the gaucho collected the ducks in burlap feed bags. The horses are Crillollos, specially bred by the gauchos for ranch work and highly prized for their great strength and endurance, for their quick gait yet calm and steady temperament, rather like our Morgans, though nowhere near as good-looking.

I walked over to look at the mare and was stunned by the tack. There was no saddle, or not what we would call a saddle. It appeared to be nothing more than a saddle-tree covered with a raw sheepskin blanket, both held to the horse by a single, rather narrow strap around the widest point of girth, what cowboys in America would call a center-fire rig. The stirrup straps were as delicate as you might find on our English saddles and the stirrups themselves no bigger or more substantial either.

The headstall was a little more reminiscent of our tack: a crudely hand-cut rawhide hackamore (which comes from jaquima and simply means headstall). Unlike our hackamores, there was a central woven piece, about the size of a playing-card, that sat in the broadest part of the mare’s forehead, just between the eyes, and everything else, brow-band, poll-strap, cheek-pieces, was woven out from that in one unbroken piece. The rawhide strands had been hand-cut and were not delicate or refined, but it was still an amazing piece of craftsmanship. The bosal was a little more refined but also out of the same hand-cut strands of rawhide, and the whole thing was greasy with tallow. Another strap held a bit, which the gaucho showed me, a simple sweet-iron bar with a low spade and no rein attached; this was a young mare still in training.

The gaucho himself was as stocky and strongly built as his horse. He wore black knee-high leather boots with very loose, puffy, full-cut pleated blue pants tucked into them. (Later, when one of the gauchos on El Rincón grilled meat for us on our last day, I saw that they only wear the boots when riding; the rest of the time they wear a little black slipper and the pants narrow tightly at the ankle.) He wore a short, close-fitting jacket and a flat-brimmed hat. Around his waist was a very wide—three or four inches—leather belt that he had clearly decorated himself with rawhide strips woven into it in a pattern. Thrust into the belt at the small of his back, in a sheath that matched the belt, was the knife that all the gauchos carry at the small of the back. It is a big affair, with a ten-to-fourteen-inch blade, that they use for everything from cutting wood to grill their meat, to cutting the meat itself, to cutting the strips of rawhide for the jaquima. Later I would learn that they use it too for another, more deadly purpose.

He spoke politely to me, with Enrique as interpreter, and let Lars take photographs of him. Then he tied the two bags of ducks together and threw them over his mare’s withers and rode off, followed by the young foal, a vaquero as at home in the marshes as American cowboys are in the mountains and plains.

Every day we followed the same pattern. Mabel, pronounced Ma Bell, the merry, chunky, flashing-eyed majordomo, would wake us at five and we would have breakfast in the great dining room (to distinguish it from the children’s dining room behind it, or the servant’s dining room behind that): freshly squeezed orange juice, thick, strong café con leche, eggs and bacon, and small pancakes smothered in a dulce de leche sauce that was delicious and ruinous for my waistline.

Then we would go out to duck hunt. We always hunted duck in the morning, but each morning the venue was slightly different. The small slough for teal the first day; a long boat ride down a river to a smaller tributary for Rosey-billed Pochards the next morning; an even longer boat ride the following day across a vast, shallow estuary to hunt a mixed bag of everything in a strong cold wind where the birds rose up off the water in waves and came screaming in like rockets; and on the last morning, a long drive to the far side of the province to hunt in a misty, dike-lined marsh that reminded me of Holland, where between flights we watched a snipe conduct his noisy courtship flight, climbing in spirals to drop like a stone, the wind in his wings making the harsh raspy noise that, presumably, drives lady snipe wild.

After the morning hunts we would go back to the estancia for lunch, always some kind of meat, always the strong red wine, followed always by a siesta. It is such a lovely word for a civilized and romantic custom. A nap is falling asleep on the sofa with your mouth open. A siesta is a ritual rest, as much a part of the pattern of the day as any meal, and it carries with it the unspoken implication that it should include a darkened room and a beautiful woman.

In the afternoons we went out for upland game. The first day we hunted dove, standing by a copse as the birds came screaming in from the fields at unexpected angles, zigging and zagging erratically as dove are want to do. It was fast and tricky shooting, but I was still shooting well and it was fun.

The dove are called eared-dove and are a separate species even though they are indistinguishable, to my eye, from our mourning dove. They even make the same call, coah, cooo, cooo, cooo, though in a much harsher, raspier tone. Think of a mourning dove with laryngitis. In America it takes an average of seven shots for every dove taken, and the eared-dove of Argentina were no easier, but we laughed and razzed and dared each other to take ever more difficult shots, Enrique shooting with us.

In the late afternoon as the light began to fade the bird boys came to gather the shot dove, in this case ‘boys’ being the literal term, small children, male only, from impoverished estancias near and far, chattering and laughing like small predators as they ran about in the dusk gathering our fallen birds for their families. As we drove out we passed their bicycles in the ditch by the road and I wondered how many American children would work that hard for their food.

The three following afternoons we hunted perdiz in the fields, the dogs sweeping back and forth in front of us in great figure eights, locking up on point and then creeping slowly, cautiously forward as the birds ran. The birds are called perdiz, which means partridge, but they aren’t. When the Spanish first settled in the pampas the birds reminded them of the red-legged partridge of the Iberian Peninsula and so they called them that. In fact, they are Tinnamou, members of the ostrich family, but they are almost as devious and sporty as our pheasant and the hunting was wonderful.

The first afternoon we hunted them it was raining horizontally and the birds were especially wild, getting up forty or fifty yards out in front, sometimes too far away to even try shooting, but we were all shooting well and we bagged a respectable number. The second day the weather was perfect, soft and mild, and the birds held better. Chris’s shotgun was hanging fire so he stopped shooting and took photographs while Lars and I shot until we ran out of shells.

Some other hunters had come down from Uruguay and Enrique had driven them to another field a couple of miles away, so when the shooting was over we started walking, looking for the van. We walked in the golden evening light along a sunken dirt road with hedgerows on either side that reminded me of France, my game vest heavy with the perdiz that aren’t perdiz at all. The pointer, a little lemon-and-white bitch was still hunting, quartering through the fields above our heads until our guide called her back in and made her walk along the road with us. He had just done this when I saw the espantajo a quarter of a mile ahead, walking toward us, and I knew there would be trouble.

The word means scarecrow, but also something more, something frightening. He was clearly a local, yet not a gaucho. He wore the same flat-brimmed hat and close-fitting jacket, but not the pants or shoes of a gaucho and there was nothing about him that suggested a horseman. He had a small bundle thrown over one shoulder and walked with the easy steady gait of a man who has walked a long way and has a long way to go, but no particular hurry to get there. As he drew closer, his face had the same sharp, watchful look I associate with the gypsies I used to see as a child, growing up in Europe, the gypsies my parents warned me to stay away from.

Whatever it was that I had sensed about him, the pointer sensed it too. She started walking with the deliberate, stiff-legged steps that a dog uses when approaching another, unknown dog. Then she made a short, stiff-legged charge, barking.

Instantly he dropped his bundle, but before it had even hit the ground his hand had gone behind his back and the great knife was out, quicker than thought, held easily in his hand a little away from his body, his attitude conveying readiness and confidence. Four men with shotguns and a dog were clearly nothing for him to be too alarmed about. It was, as Chris said afterward, the instinctive reaction of a man who has practiced that particular movement countless times, the reaction of a man used to fighting with a knife, a man used to winning.

Our guide ran forward a few steps, hands up, palms out, conciliatory, alternately speaking to the espantajo and calling the dog off. He got the pointer by the collar and we moved on, the espantajo lowering his arm, the knife hanging loosely by his side.

As I passed him I nodded, the brief, quick nod that is a universal gesture of courtesy, a polite, non-committal greeting. He nodded back, but his was far grander, the stately, condescending movement of head that royalty grants to the respectful multitude.

A few yards later I looked back. He was just finishing returning the knife to its sheath. He stooped and picked up his bundle, threw it over his shoulder, shrugged it into a more comfortable position, and resumed his steady, unhurried gait along the sunken road.

On our last afternoon we hunted in untilled land, picking our way through heavy, matted grass and fire-ant mounds and something that looked like a cross between Spanish-dagger and aloe. We shot a few of the larger Red-wing Tinnamou, almost as big as a domestic chicken, and when the hunt was over we trudged back to the van, parked by a small shabby estancia in a grove of eucalyptus and pines. Enrique had built a small fire and was grilling chorizo and slabs of crusty bread, like the traditional French baguettes. We stood by the fire in the pink and golden light and ate the spicy sausage on chunks of warm bread and washed it down with strong red wine and joked with the guides in pigeon Spanish and wished we had another day, another lifetime, in a silver land.

Piltdown Review

August 22nd, 2018

For those of you who love dogs, or enjoy reading, or enjoy my writing, the online literary magazine, Piltdown Review has published a short story of mine. Here is the link (https://dogb.us/samandjoe ). If you enjoy it, pass it on. Oh, heck; tell the world.

Teaching the Bear to Read

June 6th, 2016 6 Comments

Wallace called and asked me to go duck hunting with him at the legendary Pintail Slough Club. You know Wallace; at least you know his work. He specializes in classic waterfowling scenes: meticulously detailed oils of mallards dropping into mist-shrouded sloughs; panoramas of pintails and widgeon whistling over choppy waters on a stormy northwest wind; portraits of speckle-bellies surveying flooded rice paddies; the sort of oils that sell for five-figures, and whose prints have five-figure runs. I have one of his prints above my desk, complete with a remarque he did of my old black Lab.

Pintail Slough is one of those fat-cat hunting clubs bazillionaires join so they can network with other bazillionaires, the kind of place with original art on the walls and framed photographs of celebrity guests, crystal decanters and glasses filled with the member’s drink of choice and engraved with the member’s name, where men shoot Benellis and Perazzis and occasionally custom-made Purdeys with thirty-inch barrels and talk about deals and tax shelters. Not the kind of place I like, not the kind of people I like, so I told him I couldn’t go.

Wallace shares my resentment of the fat-cats, but he regards them with humorous detachment; after all, they’re his bread and butter, even if half of them can’t tell a Baldpate from a gadwall. “Come on,” he said. “What else are you going to do this weekend?”

“Finish that article for American Hunter.”

“You’ll get it done. Besides, Joe Link is going to be there.”

Remember Joe Link? Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle way back in the sixties, known as Breaker Link because he broke up—take your pick—so many player’s bones or so many plays, depending on who’s talking. The only one who doesn’t talk about it is Joe. He’s a great storyteller, but he’s a fat-cat himself now, with a real estate investment company and holdings all over California and Nevada, and he’d rather talk development than football. He was smart enough to buy up a lot of land in the Palmdale area outside Los Angeles long before the city had forced working stiffs out of the San Fernando Valley and into an hour commute, and he’s in a higher tax bracket than God. But unlike most of the fat-cats, Joe knows what to do with a shotgun, and he knows his birds in the air, not just on the ground. I had met him a couple of times, running my Shorthair for him at the San Andreas Ale and Quail Club, and he’s an okay guy, so I let myself get talked into it. I drove up Friday night and got there before Wallace.

It’s an interesting thing to watch fat-cats in action, like one of those 18th century dances with hierarchical rules and movements. There’s always a herd bull, the richest guy in the club. At Pintail Slough it’s—let’s call him Mr. Motel. He owns a chain of motels that all bear his name and he’s probably the only true multi-billionaire there. There’s Mr. Shanty-Slapper, a real estate developer from the Bay area, who’s second in line. Mr. Asphalt owns the largest private highway construction company in the state, and he’s also in billionaire category. Mr. Dotcom is the youngest by about twenty years; he invented an app that was bought by Google or Samsung or somebody. After him they slide down into tacky, run-of-the-mill multi-millionaires: Mr. Caddy (five Cadillac dealerships in three cities); Mr. Lingerie (a chain of department stores that bear his father’s name); Mr. Wall Street owns a West coast investment firm. There are a few others, some of whom I’ve met over the years—if you write about hunting and run dogs for a living, you get invited to a lot of places—but none of the rest of them were there that weekend.

Mr. Shanty-Slapper and Mr. Wall Street were talking business, and Mr. Dotcom was talking on a cellphone the size of a credit card. Mr. Motel, Mr. Caddy, and Mr. Lingerie were playing poker by a flat screen TV the size of a garage door. They had it tuned to a porno channel, two girls and a very hairy guy doing extremely athletic things on a circular bed, but they didn’t seem to pay it any attention. Mr. Motel asked if I wanted to join the game, but having only recently finished paying off my mortgage I didn’t feel like losing my house. I’m such a lousy poker player I really don’t enjoy the game in any case. The only other person who spoke to me was Mr. Shanty-Slapper who asked me my name and then said, “Oh, yeah. You’re with Wallace.”

After that I nursed my drink and watched.

 

The hierarchy of the dance changed, as I knew it would, when Joe Link walked in. There’s something about professional athletes, especially football players, that commands the attention of even the richest men in America. The poker game broke up. Mr. Dotcom slipped his phone into his shirt pocket. Mr. Shanty-Slapper and Mr. Wall Street both stood up, and everybody shook hands with Joe. Somebody even turned the damn television off. Joe made a point of shaking hands with me, and pretended he remembered me. And as soon as I mentioned my Shorthair, Gretel, he really did remember me, and I found that kind of endearing. She’s a great dog.

Joe is pushing eighty now, and his back is stiff, so that he’s always canted slightly forward, but he’s fit and still has a handshake you can feel in damp weather for weeks after, and he has a quick, alert quality to him. When he’s hunting, when I ran Gretel for him, he doesn’t talk much, but now he chatted politely with everyone. When Wallace finally got there we all went into the dining room and everybody started pumping Joe about football, the inside stories about the toughest guys in a tough sport from the long-ago days. Dick Butkus. Jim Otto. Jack Youngblood. Larry Csonka. Jack Lambert. Mean Joe Greene. Lawrence Taylor. All the legendary names, the guys who made you want to watch the game. And somehow, in the middle of all this, Joe told us about Sonny Liston.

 

It was the summer of sixty-one, late summer (Joe said) a miserable damn summer even by Philadelphia standards, start sweating as soon as you get out of the shower. I was living in the same building as Sonny. He and Geraldine lived one floor down. I’d see him every now and then, nod to him, congratulated him after he knocked out Howard King, that sort of thing, but I didn’t really know him or anything.

Then one day I was walking home and came around the corner of my street from the north. The apartment building was down much closer to the southeast corner, and Sonny came around that corner at just the same time. What I saw was a little boy, maybe five, six years old, playing on our stoop, and as I watched, he took a header, ass over teakettle, right down those concrete steps. Sonny and I both began to run, but he was a whole bunch closer and got there first.

This was back when Sonny was the meanest, baddest, most hated man in America, the man vilified in the press as a “jungle beast,” “a gorilla,” “strong as a yoke of oxen and just as dumb,” “the personification of evil.” They actually wrote all that stuff back then. So when I got there, what I saw was the most dangerous and despised man in America, kneeling by a little white boy, wiping the blood off his knees, brushing the tears away with a hand…

That man had the largest hands of any person I’ve ever seen. It was a hand that looked like it could have crushed that boy’s skull, but he was being as tender as a mother, and after the boy stopped crying, Sonny gave him a dollar.

Well, after that I sort of looked at him a little differently, spoke to him a little more when I saw him. Not much. I was in training, and he was training for the Westphal fight, so it wasn’t like we hung out or anything, but we’d say a few words on the steps, that sort of thing.

The Westphal fight was that winter, right there in Philly, at the old Convention Hall, one round, first time Westphal was ever even knocked down, never mind out, and the next morning, not even light yet, there was a knock on my door. It was Sonny.

“I need some help.”

“Sure Sonny, what do you need? Congratulations, by the way.”

He ignored the congratulations and jerked his head toward the staircase. “I need you to help me count my money.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said, “Okay, let me get my clothes on.”

“No. I’m in a hurry. Right now.”

The baddest, meanest man in America, the man they called the Big Bear, actually wasn’t very big at all. I was about five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier, but, well, he was Sonny Liston. So I went with him in my pajamas.

We walked down to his floor and went in his apartment. There was no sign of Geraldine, but there were two brown paper grocery bags on the floor filled with cash, mostly hundred dollar bills and fifties, some twenties and tens, both bags stuffed with bills.

Sonny didn’t say anything about it, but I found out many years later from some of the sports reporters what had happened. Sonny was run by the mob. Everybody knew that. Hell, he had started as a goon, breaking up strikes and striker’s heads for them. And Sonny was illiterate. Everybody knew that too. I don’t mean he had trouble reading and writing or counting. I mean he couldn’t. But there’s a difference between illiterate and stupid, and the mob had made the mistake of thinking Sonny was stupid. He had figured out he was being shorted, so after he knocked out Westphal, I mean that same night, right after the fight, he went over to the mob’s money man with two brown paper bags and told him he wanted his money, right then, right there.

The accountant’s some skinny little middle-aged guy, and he says, “Sonny, you know I can’t do that.” Sonny says he wants his money. The accountant says he can’t let him have it. They go through that routine three times and then Sonny picks up the accountant and turns him upside down and tells him he’s going to bounce him up and down on his head until he gets his money. He got it, and he’d spent most of that night trying to count it.

So. I sat down on a sofa and started arranging the bills by denomination, Sonny sitting right next to me, watching. I got one bag done and I started counting out the bills, starting with the hundreds. All of a sudden, a finger as big and round and hard as a dried pepperoni sausage comes down on a bill, just below Ben Franklin’s picture.

“What’s that say?”

I knew he was illiterate, but it caught me off-guard, and I didn’t want to make him feel bad, so I made out I couldn’t see what he was pointing at.

“What? Which word?”

“That one.”

I’d gotten my wits together and I played it very matter of fact, no big deal. “Oh. That’s Franklin’s name. See that first letter? That’s F. A, B, C, D, E, F. And that’s pretty much how you say it. Ef. And that next letter, that’s an R.” I worked my way through the alphabet to R. “Are. And when you got an R right after an F like that, it sounds like Fur. Fur-anklin. That next letter, that’s an A…” And that’s how we did it. I sat there in my pajamas on Sonny Liston’s sofa teaching him to read the words off bills, Grant, Jackson, Hamilton, letter by letter. The only word he knew on any of them without me telling him was “America.” He pointed at it and said it, and I said, “Yeah, that’s right!” Just like I’d say it to a kid, and just like a kid, he smiled. And then he heard something out on the street and walked over to the window.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

I went over to the window and looked out. It was that dreary early morning grey you get back East. There was a limo and guys were getting out. Guys. Big guys. Guys bigger than me.

Sonny started throwing all the money back in the bags. “You got to get out of here. Take this with you.”

“Sonny, if there’s going to be trouble, I’ll stay here and help you.”

That stopped him. He looked up at me. He was only about six feet, maybe a little more, but small to me, and there was something in his eyes… I can’t tell you what it was exactly—he had the most impassive face I’ve ever seen on anyone—but there was something there at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on. Then he said, “You get out. I can handle this, but if Blinky sees you, you’re a dead man.”

By now we could hear footsteps in the stairwell and Sonny led me into a bathroom. There was a little window that went out onto a ledge.

“Go out there,” he said.

“Sonny, I weigh two-hundred and sixty pounds. I can’t get out that little window.”

“You got to.”

And the way he said it, I didn’t argue. I got my head and one shoulder out, and then I got stuck. He picked up my legs and put his shoulder against my ass and shoved so hard I went through the window and damn near right off the ledge. Then he handed the two brown bags out to me and slammed the window.

Everybody’s got something they’re afraid of. With me, it’s heights. But to be honest, I was even more afraid of what was coming in that apartment behind me. So I got up. It was about twenty degrees out and I’d lost one slipper, so I walked along that ledge, three stories up in my pajamas, with one bare foot and two paper bags of the mob’s money until I got to the fire escape and climbed up to my apartment.

I was dating one of the prettiest brunettes you’ve ever seen, and by the grace of God she was awake and heard me tapping on the window. If she hadn’t heard me, I might have frozen to death out there. There was no way in the world I could even begin to explain what the hell was going on, but she was smart enough not to push it too far and we went back to bed.

I put Sonny’s money in my dad’s old green Army duffle bag and took it with me everywhere I went. I didn’t see him or hear from him or hear anything about him for almost a week.

We were out in Hershey, training, getting ready for the last game with Detroit. It had warmed up a lot and we were all in shorts and jerseys, when all of a sudden, here comes Sonny, walking right out onto the field. One of the assistant coaches ran up to him to stop him, saw who it was and stopped in his tracks like he’d run right into a wall. Again, it was an interesting thing to see. He was one of the smallest men on that field, but everyone stepped back, away from him, as he passed. He walked up to me.

“I need my money.”

“Sure, Sonny, but we’re right in the middle of training here. Can you – ”

“No. I need it right now.”

Well, we weren’t getting any training done anyway with him there, so I yelled at the coach that I’d be right back, and we went into the locker room, me slipping and sliding on my cleats. I had the duffle bag in my locker. I spun the combination dial, pulled the bag out and opened it up.

“There you go, Sonny. It’s all there.”

He reached in and grabbed a hundred dollar bill. “One…hundred…dollars,” he said, pointing at the words. He pointed below Ben’s picture. “Franklin.” His finger moved up. “America.”

For a moment we looked at each other. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s right.”

Then he slung the bag over his shoulder and was gone.

I only saw him once after that. He was coming down the steps of our building as I was going up. Geraldine was with him and he was dressed up in a suit and tie with a fedora on his head. He was carrying a little girl. I don’t know if she was his and Geraldine’s or hers from a former marriage or somebody else’s child, but he was brushing her hair back with one hand, one monstrous hand, and he was smiling and talking to the girl. When he saw me he gave me a little nod, one of those upward thrusts of the chin, but kept right on talking to her, something about they were going on an airplane, wasn’t that exciting, just as any father might talk to any daughter. The meanest man in the world.

Well, we beat Detroit, but we lost to them later in the Playoff Bowl, and that September Sonny knocked out Floyd Patterson in one round, the first time in the history in the heavyweight division that a reigning champion lost by first round knockout, and very suddenly, as suddenly as he did everything, Sonny moved to Denver, saying, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the Mayor of Philadelphia.” I heard later from one of the sportswriters what had happened.

He was the caveman everyone hated. The press wrote about him in ways that would get them run out of business today. They said he was an inferior negro at a time when all negroes were considered inferior. He was less than human. He was the hated ex-con who ought to be locked up again. When his picture appeared in a magazine wearing a Santa Claus hat he was described as the last man America would want to see coming down the chimney. Even the NAACP hated him. But Sonny thought everything was going to change after he won the championship. It was probably the only thing he ever did that really was stupid, believing a championship would change anything. He had a speech all prepared for his triumphant return to Philly the day after the fight. That’s how I know all this, because he asked that same sportswriter to help him with it, give him the right words, polish it up. It’s true. He spent the whole flight home working on the speech he was going to give to the crowds waiting to greet him at the airport in his adopted hometown, telling them how he was going to do things to help his people, how he wanted to build a home for orphan kids, black and white, all kids, how he wanted to make sure every little kid got an education. Sonny Liston.

But when he got off the plane there were no crowds. There were only one or two local sports reporters. That sportswriter, the one who told me all this so many years later, said he’d never seen anything like it and would never forget it, how Sonny, who had been so full of dreams and generosity and goodwill, laughing on the plane, how his face just closed up again like a fist, and he wasn’t Sonny Liston, World Champion heavyweight anymore. He was the Big Bear again, glowering in his corner, waiting to fight the world that hated him.

Everybody knows what happened after that. No one believed Ali had a chance. Sonny sure as hell didn’t believe it. A lot of people claimed he was actually hung-over when he climbed into that ring down in Miami. Sonny always had a drinking problem. Hell, it was the booze that killed him, not heroin. He was making his living the only way he knew how out of the ring, working for the mob, and he started moving drugs for them. But he knew too much, and he was of no use to the mob anymore, so they got him so drunk he passed out. Then they took him home and stuck a needle in his arm and made it look like Sonny was a user who just got a hot needle. That’s why that footstool was broken in the bedroom. They dropped him as they were carrying him in.

Even in death the press got it all wrong about him. They claimed he was thirty-eight. Hell, he was older than that back when he fought Ali. They claimed he was a junkie. They still wrote of him as a “hoodlum,” “a bad negro,” “the last man America wanted to see coming down the chimney.” Think of that.

The only one who got it right was Geraldine. She talked about how he loved kids. She called him a gentle man.

 

Wallace and I went out together the next morning. We called in two drake mallards and a hen. Not we. Wallace. He is to a duck call what Yo Yo Ma is to a cello. Both drakes came in on my side and I took them with the kind of shooting you wish had an audience for, but the only other person there to witness it was one of the club dogs, a yellow Lab named Cindy. She did a great job of retrieving them.

Joe had already left by the time we got back from the blind. It was a shame. I wanted to show off my two mallards. I may buy my calls at Walmart and I shoot an 870, but at least I know what to do with them. The others were all playing poker and ignoring the porno channel. I told Mr. Motel what a great job Cindy had done. I told him how much I liked her and I joked that I’d be happy to take her off his hands for him. He told me to make an offer and I walked out without bothering to say goodbye to any of them.

The Other Side of Paradise

April 16th, 2016 18 Comments

 

The camp stood in a clearing in the bush, wall tents surrounding a wall-less thatched-roof structure, with a bar and stone fireplace, where meals were both cooked and served. The wall tents added a specious air of genuine, old-fashioned safari, but they were as permanent as the dining room, set up on platforms with grass mats, zebra and impala rugs, tables, bureaus, and cast-iron beds that could only have been moved by Mayflower or Bekins.

The PH was not a laconic, gin-drinking Englishman with cold eyes. He was a stout, displaced Boer as big as Africa and twice as furry. Blond, glossy pelt sprouted from every pore, from his nostrils and ears, a large cinnamon bear in khaki shorts. When the little plane that flew us out into the bush—circling over a small herd of giraffes running in slow-motion—when it finally landed and we climbed stiffly out, disheveled and disoriented, in neither this time zone nor that, he was there at the foot of the stairs, arms thrown wide—“Welcome to Africa!”—his voice rumbling up out of the vast caverns of his belly.

“I am Dietrich Maartens, your PH. This is Jocko.” He waved a huge paw at a sandy-haired, fresh-faced boy standing next to him. “This is Friday,” a tall, delicately-built black man, “my assistants. Come. Staff will bring your bags and guns. Come.”

We climbed into one open Land Rover as staff, four silent black men in khaki jump suits, climbed out of another.

In my tent, unpacking clothes, laying out gear, I could hear the other American, his voice booming all the way from the far side of the dining area, telling his wife what a damn fine camp this was and what a damn fine safari this was going to be. Young trophy wife, pink and golden, starting to plump, diamond the size of a Peterbuilt headlight on her finger.

First night in camp is always the same: moose in Alaska, deer in Wyoming, safari in Africa, it makes no difference. You spend some time drinking, then eating, then drinking again, feeling out the guides, the other hunters, the whole operation that will be your home for the next week, two weeks, month, whatever.

There were four of us, plus the wife, and I knew before we got to the dinner table that it wasn’t going to be good. The other American was loud in his tent. He was louder after a few drinks at the bar, cruise director, font of wit and wisdom, self-designated entertainer, suddenly belting out part of some Italian opera for the benefit of the other two hunters. I thought the PH might shush him, but the big Boer seemed a little nonplussed, his blond beard opening to show appreciative white teeth at the wit, a deep concurring rumble at the wisdom, and a gape of stunned surprise at the opera.

The other two hunters were an Italian father and son, and at the sound of the aria there in the African bush, they both seemed to suddenly forget the excellent English I had overheard them speaking at the airport. They kept their eyes on their drinks and went right to their tent after dinner.

I went to mine, but the voice followed, filling the camp, the surrounding bush, all of Africa. It was going to be a long hunt.

 

In the morning, after breakfast, we went to a range near the camp to check our rifles. The other American had a custom bolt-action and a double that had been built as a set, with exquisite bulino engraving of zebra and gemsbok on one, cape buffalo and lion on the other. I wanted to ignore him and his guns, but he was too loud and the guns were too beautiful to be ignored. And he knew how to use them.

When we were sighted in, the father and son took off with Friday and two trackers in one Land Rover. Dietrich signaled to me to climb in with him and the other American. And the trophy wife.

Seated up front, in a chair welded onto the front of the vehicle, was our tracker. His name had a lot of glottal stops and vowels in it, and in spite of the temperature, already hot and getting hotter, he wore a blue woolen watch cap and a woolen surplus German Army greatcoat over his khaki jump suit. A flatbed with three more black men followed us, two of them standing up in the back, watching for game.

The other American immediately began a lecture, his voice rising easily above the sound of the engine.

“You know, of course, the best trackers in the world are the Bushmen in the Kalahari. Much better than these guys. And they don’t ride in the vehicle. No sir! They run alongside watching for tracks as they run, and they can go all day long, day after day. If you could ever get one of them to compete in a marathon, they’d win it hands down. The Ethiopians and Kenyans would get left in the dust, but of course those Bushmen don’t have any competitive spirit in them at all. They’re too goddamned lazy. They just do what they have to do to stay alive and that’s it. But they can track. And that Kalahari desert is hard to track in. I mean hard, literally. You’ve hunted the Kalahari, of course, haven’t you?”

He slapped me jovially on the shoulder.

“No.”

“Oh. I thought a guy like you would have hunted there. Well, you think of the desert being sandy, right? But it isn’t. It’s hard-packed and rocky, and when you do find a place where it is sandy, a dry wash, something like that, it’s so dry that the sand just sort of spreads out under your feet, so it’s impossible to track anything. But those goddamn Bushmen can track an angel across the head of a pin. Amazing. Much better than these guys.”

Since our tracker with the unpronounceable name and wool coat had said, audibly and clearly, “Hello, Mister,” when Dietrich had introduced him, I wondered what he made of this unflattering comparison. I didn’t find out. He never spoke again or even looked at us.

“I was hunting lion there one time…”

It was a long story about how his shooting prowess had saved the life of a less than competent PH from an attacking lion.

But, damn it, he could shoot. While I only had five animals on my tag—all I could afford—he apparently had a permit for everything that walked or crawled in that part of Africa. It seemed as if every few miles one of the staff would spot a herd of something the other American had on his license and off they would go while the trophy wife and I cooled our heels and drank copious amounts of water until we heard the inevitable shot and the staff would bring another body back, throwing it onto the bed of the truck.

I made the mistake of trying to talk to the trophy, but it was like talking to cotton candy. Intelligent cotton candy. She was no fool, but other than a mild desire to upend her, there was nothing about her that didn’t make me yawn until my jaw creaked. They were having their house redone and the decorator just didn’t understand the importance of blending English floral chintz with trophies. They had done it in their condo in Telluride and it worked beautifully. Not only worked, it was absolutely necessary to keep from being overwhelmed by the raw masculinity of all those trophies, which are beautiful, of course, but just so very masculine.

I idly contemplated overwhelming her with my own raw masculinity, but some of the staff had been left behind, presumably to ensure nothing of the kind occurred.

 

I put up with this for three days and then I took Dietrich aside.

“That’s it. Either I go off with Friday or Jocko or I’m going to add an obnoxious American billionaire to my hunting tag. I can’t take this anymore.”

“What can I do? It is two hunters for each guide. If I send you off with Friday, this is not fair to Mr. Rovarino and his son.”

“Dietrich, this is probably the only safari I’ll ever be able to afford. I came here to hunt and to have a good time. I’m not having a good time.”

“But just yesterday you took a wonderful red hartebeest, and the day before…”

“It’s not the hunting, Dietrich. It’s the company. It’s not going to look good on your record if I shoot this pompous ass. Let me go out with Jocko.”

“Oh, Jocko is only nineteen. He is only apprentice. He does not yet have full license. It is illegal.”

“Who the hell is going to know? I’m not going to tell anyone. You’re not going to tell anyone. The only way to get here is by plane. In the highly unlikely event that the government sends someone out to check on us, we’re going to have a little warning as he lands his plane.”

 

The next morning Jocko and I drove off by ourselves, no staff, no tracker, a cooler full of water and sandwiches in the back of a topless, army-green flatbed truck, and the sounds of Figaro echoing in our ears.

“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, FiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigarOOOO!”

I don’t like opera. I hate it at breakfast.

The only high-dollar animal I had on my tag was greater kudu. We hadn’t seen any sign of kudu in three days, but now, as if getting the hell away from the diva had changed my luck, we spotted a good one before lunch, over 50 inches, Jocko said. We sat in the truck and glassed him, half-a-mile off, standing in the sparse shade of some stunted, scrubby little tree.

“This will not be easy.” Jocko glanced briefly at me at me and went back to his binoculars. “Do you feel wind?”

I did. I felt the wind in my left ear. I felt the wind in my right ear. I felt it on the back of my neck.

“I don’t care about easy. This is what I came for. Let’s go have some fun.”

For a moment he sat, still glassing the kudu. Then he grinned and grabbed his rifle.

“Yes. We go have fun.”

Well, we didn’t get that kudu, but we did enjoy ourselves. The swirling wind kept pushing him out in front of us, but Jocko kept on him. It was an impressive job. He would point out tracks with the barrel of his Mannlicher-Schoenauer, a beautiful, battered pre-war 10.75X68mm I had spent the morning lusting over, and only then could I make out the prints. I wouldn’t have seen any of them if he hadn’t pointed them out.

At other times he would seem to stop tracking entirely and would walk very rapidly, 50 or 60 yards to some spot picked at random, as far as I could tell, and always there would be a track.

We went on like that all day. Three times we saw the kudu, a glimpse in the distance, a vague movement of gray in the scrub, gone as soon as it was noticed, until finally, just before dark, we stumbled onto a really good warthog and I took him as consolation prize. It was a hell of a good day.

 

The other American was celebrating heavily when we got back. He had shot a Cape Buffalo, a fine one that would put him high up in the record books, and he was louder than ever, holding forth at the bar and ordering drinks for everyone as if it were all going on his personal bill. After we moved to the table, while we were eating, the trophy put her hand—the one with the diamond—on his shoulder and purred, “Tell them how you shot it, honey.”

I could have killed her.

It was an interminable tale. He was already drunk and the more he drank the louder he got. Part way through the saga he got unsteadily to his feet to act out how he and Dietrich had stalked up on the buff—that was what he called it—slipping up to within twenty yards…

I saw Dietrich’s mouth open, but he must have thought better of it for he closed it again.

…but then the treacherous wind had swirled and the buff had spun to face them.

“Could tell the bastard was about to charge. Tell you something,” he was addressing all of us, the whole group, the quiet elderly black man in a spotless white shirt who waited on us, the cook on the far side of the building, the unseen staff, enthralled throngs in distant lands, “it takes brass ones, baby, to stand your ground when a buff’s about to charge.”

He grabbed his crotch. He actually grabbed his crotch in case no one understood which brass ones he was referring to.

Dietrich finally protested. “No, no, I don’t think he was going to charge. He was trying to locate…”

“Going to charge! He was going to charge, Dieter. When you’ve taken as many buff as I have, you’ll know, you’ll learn to recognize the whatdoyoucallits, signs.”

Dietrich’s eyebrows went up, like two small blond dogs jumping into the air, and he opened his mouth again, but then he just put food in it.

“Had the Rigby double with me—470 Nitro Express, 500-grain bullet; handle anything, anything—stepped in front of old Dieter here …” He paused, his face flushed and furious. “…and… I… just… stood there. Stood there and looked the bastard right in the eyes.”

Well, it was unfortunate, but just at that moment I happened to look Jocko right in the eyes and both of us instantly became completely hysterical. He handled it better than I did. I had just taken a mouthful of rice which went everywhere, including up my nose, and I used that as a cover, staggering out into the cool night air, choking, gasping, howling, coughing. I choked and coughed my way back to my tent, put the pillow over my head and laughed until my lungs burned and my stomach muscles cramped.

 

Two nights later we were all sitting in the bar after dinner. The other American had missed a very long shot at a sable and either because of that or because he was tired, he was, for once, quiet. The trophy had already gone to bed and the two Italians and Dietrich were talking by the fire. I was nursing a single-malt whisky and a feeling of contentment. I had taken a good impala that afternoon so, except for the kudu, my tag was filled, The weather had warmed and I was enjoying the mild breeze that always seems to come with a full moon, blowing through the dining area, stirring the grass thatching of the roof.

I had swung around on my stool, leaning my back against the bar, when I saw movement in the shadows between two of the wall tents. A moment later Jocko stepped out into the moonlight. He was staring at me. He made a small movement with his head in the direction of the vehicles, then stepped back into the shadows and vanished.

I waited about a minute, then took another sip of whisky and walked out in the direction of my tent. I walked past the tent and circled around behind to the cars.

Jocko was sitting behind the wheel of the open flatbed, the Mannlicher-Schoenauer in the rack.

“Come. I will show you lions. They have made a kill, only a few kilometers away. Come.”

I climbed in. “Why the secrecy?”

“I am only apprentice. It is not allowed. And too, I like better not to have any brass ones come with us.” He grabbed his crotch and grinned at me.

We drove a long way through the bush on one of the rough tracks that meandered out from the camp in all directions. Then, abruptly, for no discernible reason, the bush ended, first on one side of the road, then on the other, opening out into a vast, grassy plain. In the moonlight it looked like another, better world, a golden plain of wheat and infinite possibility you might want to run through forever. We drove on for about a mile and then Jocko swung off the road and into the grass. He stopped the truck, took his rifle out of the rack and jacked a round into the chamber. Then he put it back in the rack and we drove on again.

“That’s a great rifle. Where’d you get it?”

“My father.”

“Oh, is he a professional hunter?”

“No, he is dead. He was farmer in Zimbabwe, but we lost our farm. He was also very good hunter, but only for himself, for my family.”

“Was he the one who taught you how to track?”

“Oh, yes. He was very good, my father.

“And is this what you wanted to do, be a professional hunter?”

“No, I wanted to be farmer like my father, but the government took our land, all the land of the white farmers. There.”

I had never seen lions before outside of a zoo. They were by a small waterhole, a perfectly round pond maybe fifteen feet across with a single tree growing beside it, as if both had been placed there by a landscape designer. Jocko drove right up, stopping thirty yards away.

It was a male and a female, crouched over a kill, a wildebeest, and in the moonlight their bodies, so much larger than I had realized, were the color of rich cream. They kept feeding, the male ignoring us, the female watching as she braced her front feet on the carcass and tore off strips of meat, jerking her head back and up. The sound of the frogs in the pond was deafening, but over it I could hear the wet smacking of the lions eating, the occasional cracking of bone.

A golden plain, a full moon, cream-colored lions feeding in a balmy wind. So, I thought, this is Africa. This is what they all wrote about, Hemingway and Roosevelt and Ruark, moments of paradise like this.

The female had never taken her eyes off us and now she rose suddenly and walked away from us, turning her head to look back over her shoulder as she went out into the grass. She walked away for about a hundred yards and then started to swing around in a large semi-circle on my side of the flatbed, the moonlight reflecting off her, a splash of cream in a field of butter, her face turned, watching us, always watching. When she walked past us I swiveled around in my seat to keep an eye on her. Finally I couldn’t take it any more.

“Jocko, I think we’re about to become the second course in this dinner party.”

He put the truck in reverse and backed up very fast, putting the lioness in front of us again. Then he turned quickly around so that she was on his side and we drove back toward the road, but I kept watching her as long as I could see her.

“My God, Jocko. Thank you. You just made this whole trip. I’ll remember those lions on my death bed.”

“Good. I am glad you saw them. Tomorrow, the male, he will be dead.”

I turned to look at him. “Why?”

“Brass Ones will kill him. He has a lion on his tag.”

“Does Dietrich know where those lions are?”

“No, but I will tell him.”

“Why?”

“It is my job. I would prefer that no one kills this lion. Most of all I would prefer not to have Brass Ones kill him. But this is what he pays for. This is what I am paid for. It is what I must do.”

 

It was my last day of hunting and I was feeling very ambivalent. I wanted to stay forever and go out after animals every day, to see the sudden, surprising variety and richness of Africa for the rest of my life, to tramp across the whole damned continent, shooting my meals as I wanted, discovering places never seen before, dozing at midday in the sparse shade of trees I couldn’t name, spending my nights in wall tents, warming my hands in the first cold of morning over a wood fire, becoming one with the land. Any good place makes you feel that way. Of course, what I wanted had ceased to exist long ago, probably before I was born, and I had a home and wife and children and commitments half a world away.

Jocko had decided to make a last all-out effort to get me my kudu. We left very early, driving out past where we had spotted the 50-incher to an area I hadn’t seen before. We stopped at the top of a low escarpment where the land sloped away into the distance, and we hunkered down in some rocks and glassed for a long time. I could almost trick myself into believing I was deer hunting in Utah or Colorado, and then I would see the heads of giraffes moving among the tops of distant trees, or a herd of wildebeest raising a cloud of dust, and once, a cow eland within easy rifle range.

What we didn’t see was kudu. We hunted hard, dropping down the escarpment into the open bush below and working our way carefully along the lower edge for a long distance, to where the ridge above us trailed off into nothingness. Then we hunted our way back to the truck and drove on, driving down into the lower plain and hunting on foot. We did this all day, driving, glassing, hunting, driving on again.

In the late afternoon we turned around and began to hunt our way back. We were driving along a rough track that Jocko seemed to know. He was telling me a funny story about his father and a pet zebra that belonged to a neighbor and terrorized everyone. We were laughing, we were both laughing, when he suddenly braked hard and backed up, looking off to his side.

“What is it? What do you see?”

“A truck has driven down here.” He pointed off into the bush.

Just like the kudu, once he pointed it out, I could see it, tracks of tires in the grass, curving away and down into the trees.

“Probably Dietrich. Or Friday. Did they hunt up here?”

He shook his head. “No one has hunted here.” He put the truck in gear and started forward. Then he stopped. “No. I go look.”

He backed up again and then drove slowly forward, putting the truck into the old tracks.

We dropped down into a shallow depression where the bush was thicker. When we had gone about a hundred yards the tracks curved sharply to the left and we drove into a crudely cut clearing.

At first I didn’t know what I was seeing. My eyes saw it, but my brain couldn’t compute what it saw. I thought for a moment that it might be where they, the safari company, processed all their animals, a sort of outdoor abattoir. First I saw the giraffe’s legs, five of them, wedged in the crotches of trees. I looked for the missing legs and saw parts of carcasses hung from the trees, wildebeest and hartebeest, others rotted beyond recognition. Hides and fragments of hides had been tossed casually into the branches. Impala legs littered the ground, hundreds of them, bones of other animals I couldn’t identify, a fresh kudu hide, lying amid Coke cans and beer bottles. Dried blood and shreds of meat too small to be bothered with were everywhere, as if the animals had been torn apart in some kind of monstrous orgiastic frenzy.

“What the hell is this?” I think I already knew, but my mouth still said the words. “What does this mean?”

For a long time he said nothing. Finally he exhaled, as if he had been holding his breath against the stench. “It means I come back tonight with my rifle.”

I turned to look at him. He looked old, older than any nineteen-year old should ever look, and his face was gray.

“I don’t understand, Jocko. Who did this?”

“Poachers.” His voice was small and distant.

We sat and looked. I tried to calculate how many animals this represented, to identify different species, to imagine the men who could have done this and how they differed from me.

“Was this for food? Are these people just trying to eat?”

At first he didn’t answer. Then he pointed to some of the rotting carcasses.

“They have no heads. You see? The heads have been cut off for trophy. Everything we shoot here, our hunters shoot, we give that food to local people. Everything. This is for money.”

I swung my legs over the side of the truck, but he grabbed my arm.

“No! No tracks. And do not speak of this when we get back. I will tell Dietrich, but no one must know. Otherwise…” He made a gesture with his hand. “Gone.”

He put the truck in reverse and backed carefully out, staying in the same tracks we had driven in on.

We didn’t even make a pretence of hunting our way back. We drove back in silence, and when we parked just outside the camp he sat, looking ahead, almost as if he were still driving.

“Do you have to go back there tonight? With your rifle, I mean.”

“We are the law out here. We must enforce the law. I will go back with my rifle.” He got out and turned to look at me. His color was better, but he still looked ancient and very tired. “I am sorry we do not get you a kudu.”

 

The other American got his lion. They had some kind of celebratory ritual, chanting and dancing, carrying him in a chair around the bonfire in the center of camp, but it all looked very silly and very choreographed to me, like one of those Revolutionary War reenactments with people pretending to be shot.

After they put him down he bellowed at me to come see his lion, but I told him I had already seen it. I didn’t tell him I had seen it before he had.

 

The next morning Dietrich and Friday said goodbye to me before they left for the day’s hunting. I gave Dietrich a tip for Jocko, but then, as one of the staff drove me out to the little runway, we passed him driving in to camp in the green flatbed. I waved to him as we passed each other, but he didn’t turn his head to look at me. There was something on the bed of the truck, covered with a tarp, and I wondered where he would take that load.

The Virtues of Tobacco

February 9th, 2016 2 Comments

There were an unknown number of strays hidden in the canyons and higher pastures along the northern end of the ranch. The Foreman and the Oldest Hand were sitting their horses in the shade of a sycamore waiting for the crew to spread out when the newest member rode back to them. He was a stocky young man from out of state and this was his first day on the ranch.

“You told me when I get up to the top of that mountain to head east or west?” He turned his head and shot a stream of tobacco juice at a rock. “Bull’s-eye.”

“I told you to go east first,” the Foreman said, “until you come to the fence line, then turn around and head back west with any cows you find till you get to that year-round stream. Then bring your cows down along that. We’ll be coming down the valley about then and we’ll take them all to the chutes in a herd.”

“Gotcha.” He shot another stream at the rock. “Missed. Damn.” He turned his horse and trotted off through the sage.

The Oldest Hand shook his head. “Disgusting.”

He was carefully rolling a cigarette with one hand and the Foreman stared at him.

“I don’t see how chewing is that much more disgusting than smoking.”

The Oldest Hand licked his paper. “I wasn’t talking about his chewing. I was talking about his association-tree saddle and his nylon rope and that taco-brimmed hat. He looks like a damned Texan. That’s disgusting.” He lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Tobacco, in any form, is one of those things the Good Lord gave us to make us better men.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Tobacco makes a man patient and tolerant and easy going, and without it there’d probably be a whole lot more violence in this old world.”

The Foreman snorted. “Sounds like it makes a man senile too.”

The Oldest Hand looked at him with pity. “That’s just the childlike ignorance in you talking. Didn’t I ever tell you about the time I tried to quit smoking?”

“If you did, I was able to forget it.”

“Well then, I’ll tell you again, ‘cause there’s an important lesson to be learned.”

 

Alice and me (the Oldest Hand said) we’d just met, and I was courting her pretty hard and pretty serious. In fact, I was trying every damn thing in the world I could think of to get a reata on her and wasn’t having no damn success at all. I was riding for the Double J back in those days, and I got into a routine of getting back to headquarters, cleaning up, and going straight over to Alice’s place. I’d tell her how pretty she was and how much I loved her and how I couldn’t possibly live without her and would she marry me, and she’d laugh at me and tell me no, and I’d say, oh okay, and the next night we’d do it all over again. It was real comfortable and all like that, but I was starting to get a little impatient. I knew she liked me so finally, after a couple of months, I asked just exactly why she wouldn’t marry me.

“Daddy won’t let me. He says you have all the bad traits of my brothers and none of the good traits.”

Alice was only seventeen and still living at home with her folks and her two brothers. Her daddy was the local preacher man, one of them hell-fire and brimstone types. He was built along the lines of an Angus bull and when he’d get worked up and start pounding the pulpit the whole damned church would rock on its foundations.

Her two brothers were built just like their daddy, but that’s where it ended. It’s a funny thing how that happens in preachers’ families. The wildest kid in town is always the preacher’s son. Who gets arrested for drunk and disorderly ever Saturday night regular as sunup? Preacher’s kid. Who gets into a fight ever time he gets liquored up? Preacher’s kid. And who’s dumb enough to try and duke it out with the sheriff ever time he gets arrested? Preacher’s kid.

That’s just how it was at Alice’s. Her daddy was a teetotaler. Them two boys was busting up a bar ever Saturday night. Her daddy thought smoking was the devil’s invention. Them two boys only took the cigarettes out their mouths when they was shaving and maybe not even then. Her daddy was a regular model of morality. Them two boys could find their way around Madame Louise’s social club blindfolded. In fact, when Alice told me what her daddy said it kind of left me speechless, ‘cause I couldn’t think of one damn single good trait them boys might have. They was always going after me ever time I went to the house, laughing at me and making fun of me on account of Alice wouldn’t marry me and all, but I made up my mind early on that I wouldn’t let them get under my skin no matter what they said, ‘cause I wasn’t going to do nothing that might turn Alice against me, and I wasn’t going to do nothing to give her Daddy any excuses to run me off the place. So that’s where things stood.

Well, I went to studying on it. It was in the early summer and we was moving a pretty big herd up into the mountains and that gives a man plenty of time to think. I was riding old Freckles back then, best damned horse I ever had, the kind of horse I could of just about stayed in bed and sent him out with the herd all by himself. I dropped the reins and started to roll myself a cigarette to help the thinking process. It’s a well-known, well-documented-and-calcified scientific fact that smoking stimulates the brain, and by golly, it worked just like a damn charm this time.

My thinking went kind of like this: Alice wouldn’t marry me because her daddy wouldn’t allow it. Her daddy wouldn’t allow it because he said I had all of the bad traits of them two boys and none of the good traits. So what I had to do was list all the traits of them two boys, good and bad, and then figure out which ones her daddy might think I had or didn’t have, and then start working on them, dropping some and adding others. You follow my thinking so far?

Okay. I pulled out my little tally book and a pencil and I made two columns and it sort of looked like this:

 

Alice’s Brothers

Bad Traits                                                   Good Traits

Drinking

Fighting

Whoring

Cursing

Cheating

Stealing

Fat

Lazy

Ugly

Smoking

 

Well, of course that made my job a whole lot easier on account of I didn’t have to waste a bunch of my time figuring out which good traits to work on, so I set about studying the bad list.

Drinking. Well, I do like to have a little chat with Mr. Jack Daniels in the evening after the work is done, but I don’t usually ever have more than one, and at that time I wasn’t even doing that on account of trying to make a good impression on Alice’s daddy and all.

Fighting. Ever now and then a man runs across someone who just naturally needs to have his head thumped, but other than Alice’s brothers I hadn’t met anyone like that in a pretty long time, and like I said, I was trying real hard to ignore them so as not to give her daddy any excuse for running me off.

Whoring. I’m not going to say I hadn’t never been to Madame Louise’s, but with Alice on my mind, I couldn’t even think about another girl, so that was out.

Cursing. I’ve always prided on myself on not using no damned strong language, so she was out too.

Cheating. I don’t even cheat myself at solitaire, so that wasn’t it.

Stealing. Other than girls’ hearts, I never stole a damn thing in my life.

Fat. I didn’t weigh a pound more or a pound less back then than I do today. Still wear a 32-inch waist.

Lazy. I starting putting in an eight-hour day soon as I was old enough to go out on a horse by myself, and I shifted up to working full-time soon as I graduated high school.

Ugly. Well, of course it don’t do for a man to brag on himself, so I’ll just say my family has always been known for its good looks.

Then I got to smoking. Tell you the truth, I almost hadn’t even put her down on the list. The only reason I did was on account of I knew the old man didn’t approve of it, so I figured he might have some unnatural prejudice. But the more I thought about it, the more I figured that had to be it. That had to be the whole damned reason behind her daddy’s dislike for me.

I took my pack of tobacco and papers out and looked at it. I thought about that first cigarette in the morning with your coffee, and I thought about that last one at night as you’re sipping on your bourbon. And then I thought about Alice.

Well son, I’m not going to lie to you. I felt pretty much the way a man does who has to choose which one of his kids he’s going to throw out in the snow ‘cause there ain’t enough food for the winter and the wolves is howling outside the door. But I dropped that pack, tobacco and papers and matches and all, right into a cow patty and kept on riding.

And a funny thing happened. I didn’t know it back then, but there are three separate stages a man goes through when he quits smoking.

The first stage is kind of hard to describe, but I guess it’s sort of the way Saint Paul must of felt in the Bible when Jesus gave him all that trouble with his eyes and then that guy in Damascus fixed it and all. I was blind but now can see. Or maybe that was someone else said that. Anyway, that’s what you feel like. You feel like you just want to go around doing good things and helping people. When we stopped for lunch and I saw old Sam Gingold, who was the cowboss back then, lighting up, it was all I could do not to rip the cigarette right out of his mouth. The only thing that stopped me was I knew damn well he’d fire me on the spot, and if I didn’t have a job I wasn’t never going to get married.

That night, when I went over to Alice’s, her two brothers was slopping around on the porch, smoking, and they right away started in on me.

“Here comes old Hopeful.”

“Looks like a mangy old hound trying to figure out how to get inside the fence.”

“Say, Hopeful, ain’t you getting discouraged yet?”

“Maybe you should consider becoming a monk, ‘cause you sure ain’t having any luck with the girls.”

But I just thought about Jesus saying in the Bible that we should turn the other cheek, and so I smiled at them and walked on in the house. Their daddy was sitting right there by the door and he shook his head in disgust when he saw me, but I smiled at him too. And by golly, I felt good about it.

And after I’d kissed Alice a little bit I asked her again to marry me and she laughed at me and turned me down again, and instead of feeling frustrated I felt like I could forgive her anything. I almost felt like I’d be satisfied to go on wanting her and getting turned down for the rest of my natural life. I just felt…. Virtuous! That’s the word I was looking for.

The second stage is a little different. You’re drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning and you reach up to your vest pocket and there ain’t nothing there, and the first thing you feel is shock. Then you remember, and it’s like remembering that the person you love most in all the world has died, like maybe your whole damned family and your best horse and your dog have all died. You don’t know what to do with your hands, and you’re so damn depressed all you want to do is go jump off the bridge and end it all, and then you remember that it was the driest winter in twenty years and there ain’t enough water in the river to drown you and the best you could hope for is maybe you’d bust both your legs. So you go and start your day and ever time you reach up to that vest pocket the day gets a little greyer and drearier, like the sun is trying to shine through an old sweat sock, a damned dirty sweat sock that ain’t been washed all season.

And that night you go to see Alice and them two brothers are slopping around in the yard with cigarettes in their mouths, and when they start in on you –

“Yee-haw! Old Hopeful’s back for his nightly refusal.”

“He’s like an old gelding in with a bunch of mares. He knows he’s supposed to do something, but damned if he knows what it is.”

– all you want to do is cry. And when you walk in the house and see her daddy shaking his head the way he does ever night you start thinking maybe there is something wrong with you after all. You’re so damned depressed you don’t even feel like kissing Alice, and when she turns you down again, you actually have to go into the washroom and put cold water on your face before you can look at her.

But it’s the third stage where things get kind of interesting.

I’m pretty confident, having been through it and all, that the third stage is responsible for all of the wars and most of the murders that have ever taken place. I know there’s no mention of it in the Good Book, but I’d be willing to bet you that Cain was trying to give up smoking and that’s why he was so rough on old Abel. ‘Cause, son, when you’re in the third stage, you just naturally hate the whole damned human race. In fact, there isn’t a single living thing on this earth you wouldn’t happily kill with your hands.

You step outside and your dog wags his tail when he sees you and all you can think is where the hell did you leave your gun. Your horse knickers when you get to the barn and the sound goes through your skull like a masonry drill. You pass someone on the street and they wave and say, “Have a nice day,” and all you want to do is slam them up against the wall and say, “Don’t you dare tell me what kind of a day to have, you miserable son of a bitch!” You keep thinking if you could just kill fourteen or fifteen people how much better you’d feel.

Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, all them guys? They was just trying to quit smoking.

Well, I made it through the day without killing anyone, mostly on account of I didn’t see anyone all day. And when evening came I didn’t want to go see any ugly, half-grown, half-witted girl and her loathsome family of morons, but habit is a strong thing, so I showered and put on some clean clothes and went over there.

Her two brothers was slopping around near the woodpile, making a show of chopping some kindling, and the sight of the cigarettes in their hideous mouths was just more than I could stand.

“Say, Hopeful – ”

That’s all it took. I hit him so hard he was still airborne when I slammed him into the water trough. I was holding him under and had him pretty near drowned when his brother called out.

“Hey!”

That dumb tub of lard was staring at me with his mouth open. He still had the ax, not like he was fixing to use it, but more like he had forgotten he was even holding it, and I ripped that thing out of his hand and if he had been a fraction slower they would of had to bury him with the ax still in his skull. But he was quick. Both them boys was a whole lot quicker than you would have given them credit for, and the last I saw of them was where the driveway curved heading out to the road, running neck and neck, and I’m telling you, you’d of had to have a horse with pretty damn good speed index to have caught either one of them.

When I walked back to the house Alice and her daddy was both standing on the porch with their mouths open.

“Why young fella,” her daddy says, “I thought you was a man of peace.”

“Shut your trap you big damn fool or I’ll run you right off after them two damned hogs you’re dumb enough to claim as kin.”

“I thought you wanted to marry my daughter.”

“If I wanted to marry that feeble-minded mud fence of yours I’d of done it long before this.”

“Am I to take it you no longer wish to marry my daughter?”

“You can take whatever you want and stick it where the sun don’t shine, and if you don’t like it feel free to step on down here and do something about it.”

I still had the ax in my hand and I was looking forward to using it. In fact, I was already working in my head on a short list of people in town and guys I worked with that I was going to go looking for as soon as I finished up with the old man, but he did something strange. He turned to Alice and just beamed at her as if this was the finest evening of his entire life. She beamed back at him, and then he turned around and went back inside and I could see him picking up his paper and sitting in his chair by the door.

Well, that so disgusted me I slung the ax out into the pasture and started back toward my truck. But I hadn’t taken two steps when I saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in my life. Not Alice, though she came down off the porch and was standing next to me, but a cigarette lying in the dust, still smoking, that one of her fool brothers had dropped.

I picked that cigarette up and brushed the dirt off the wet end and took the longest drag any mortal man has ever taken. It was like I had lungs all the way down to the soles of my feet.

And you know, as soon as I did, the milk of human kindness came rushing into my veins by the quart, by the half-gallon. I looked at Alice and she was smiling up at me like I’d just won the world championship of everything, and it began to cross my mind that maybe I had said and done some things that a beautiful and intelligent and sensitive girl might find a little on the harsh side. After all, there are some girls who might not enjoy seeing their daddy and their brothers killed with an ax. And of course there are some girls who might misunderstand if they heard you calling them a feeble-minded mud fence.

But she was just glowing at me. “You were magnificent,” she said.

“Uh, well, you know, maybe, just maybe, I might of kind of over-reacted there just a little bit, but – ”

“No. You were wonderful. Aren’t you going to kiss me?”

“You want me to kiss you?”

“Yes. Oh, yes. And then we need to go in and set a date for the wedding. I thought we could maybe wait until the roses are all in bloom, but not too long.”

“What about your daddy?”

“Oh, Daddy will be happy to marry us anytime.”

“You mean he won’t mind us getting married?”

“Mind? Why, he’ll just be tickled pink. He only objected to you because he thought you were kind of spineless, putting up with my brothers and all. But he said when he saw you trying to drown Cletus and only giving up on the job so you could brain Rufus with the ax, he knew right away he had misjudged you. Kiss me you fool.”

So when you think that we’ve been married going on 45 years, me and Alice, it just goes to show what a good thing tobacco is.

Sweetie’s Box: Mystery, Mendacity, and Love

July 27th, 2015 2 Comments

My father’s ancestors were all prosperous Baltimoreans in a quiet, middleclass way. My grandfather, however, owned an iron business and was extremely prosperous. (There were several iron foundries in and around Baltimore and the men who owned them became known as ‘The Iron Men.’ Most of them, though not my grandfather, were ardent duck hunters, with elaborate hunting clubs in marshes up and down the Chesapeake from Havre de Grace to Cambridge, and it is largely due to them that we have the dog now known as the Chesapeake Bay retriever.) My grandfather died before I was born, but the sole anecdote that I know about him makes me think I would have liked him.

My father was working with him, or for him, in the iron business up until the war when, like so many others of that generation, he quit to join the Navy. But at this time it was still several years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and there was some obligation or deadline that had to be met that could only be met if the workers made a heroic effort. My grandfather offered them the usual pay incentive and then, showing a shrewd understanding of human psychology, offered to dance a polka the entire length of the foundry if they achieved the needed goal. They did and my grandfather brought in a Victrola, wound it up, and he and my father took off their coats and danced up the length of the foundry and back while the workers clapped time and cheered.

I don’t know who led, but I can see them as clearly as if some memory had been transmitted to me from my father’s muscle and blood: my father very lean, handsome, high-spirited, his hair in a crew cut; my grandfather, bald, portly, very dignified in his pince-nez and stiff high collar, but also with the same streak of playful high spirits, their white shirts in fulgent contrast to the dark and dirt of the foundry floor, both of them laughing as they danced, their laughter mingling with the workers’ and with the tinny scratching of the music.

My father’s father, who died not long after that dance, appears to have been an essentially kindly man. Not so my grandmother. She came from a much lower social, educational and financial level than my grandfather, but she brought with her three gifts: brains, burning ambition, and great beauty. Even as a shrunken, shapeless old woman—a ragbag held together by diamond brooches (Somerville and Ross)—it was possible to see the beauty; not even time could destroy the quality of those bones. Nor was time able to destroy the brains or the ambition. As soon as she was married she got herself accepted to Johns Hopkins and got her degree, something almost unheard of in those days. She wrote terribly arch and artificial short stories and had them published by a vanity press. She studied art and architecture and what she would have called ‘antiquities.’ She attended lectures by every learned speaker who came through Baltimore. All of this was admirable enough, but it was all geared to her achieving the position in society that she craved. By himself, my grandfather would have been prosperous; she drove him to become stinking rich. And as the money came in she spent it on the trappings she felt would elevate her. They had four residences within twenty miles of each other around Baltimore: There was a house on St. Paul Street, huge enough by itself; a farm, called By-Way; a converted railway station she had taken a fancy to; and, the pièce de résistance, a vast, pseudo-Gothic pile grandly called, The Cloisters, for God’s sake. This last, which had its own chapel and ballroom, stood on a seventy-five acre hill in the Maryland hunt country, complete with a working antique Flemish windmill brought over stone by stone and blade by blade, because, of course, every well-run Maryland country home needs its own windmill.

(The original name of this property was Bad Road to Midnight, as romantic and colorful a name as you could hope to find, a name filled with mysterious possibilities. It says much about my grandmother’s need for respectability that she changed it to the pompous and pedantic The Cloisters.)

She had no ancestors, so she simply created them. Paintings by Copely and Peale were bought and given fictitious provenances going back to historical people—or possibly made up people, for all I know—who were then identified as this great-great-grandfather or that great-great-great-grandmother. Emulating that man so deserving of emulation, William Randolph Hearst, she would take prolonged shopping trips to Europe where she would stagger grandly around buying up everything that wasn’t red hot or nailed down: furniture and paintings; mantelpieces and cornices and other architectural elements that were then built into The Cloisters; suits of armor; entire libraries; walnut panels; tapestries; everything you can imagine plus a bunch of stuff you could never dream of. Some of it was very good; some of it was garbage.

Toward the end of her remarkably long life she got a little peculiar. Not senile, mind you. She was quick and malevolent as a coyote to the end. She just became more outrageous than she had been, which is saying something. One of the last times I saw her was when I was about eighteen or nineteen. My father, my old friend Rowland Kirks, and I had gone up to Baltimore for something and we met her at The Cloisters in the early afternoon. She had become highly mistrustful of everyone and wouldn’t have maids or servants of any kind so the whole place was covered in a lovely thick blanket of dust. We were sitting in the living room and to give you an idea of the scale of the place, a grown man could stand upright in the fireplace and yet the fireplace was in perfect proportion to the rest of the room. She had offered Rowland and me some sherry, which we had refused (my father, with a look of panic on his face, shaking his head violently behind her back. Afterwards, driving home: “My God! That stuff would have killed you deader than a doornail. It’s been in that decanter since World War Two.”) and we were talking about art when she mentioned that she had a painting of the Virgin, painted by St. Luke. Even to my highly gullible ears, this sounded a little unlikely.

“Wow, Sweetie.” (This was her self-chosen, oxymoronic nickname. I have never been a good speller and when, as a young child, I would write to her, I spelt her name ‘Sweaty’ for years. I can tell you all you need to know about the relationship between my father and his mother by saying that my father never bothered to correct my spelling.) “Wow, Sweetie. I’d love to see it. Which room is it hanging in?”

She smiled beatifically. “Oh, no, dear. It’s much too valuable to hang on the wall. I have it hidden under a rug.”

As it was intended to, this left me speechless.

Later, in the ballroom, I admired two elaborate thrones that flanked the doorway to the entry hall. Even then she was planning to leave the entire place to the city of Baltimore as a museum, a monument to herself, where, presumably, happy throngs could file past the crypt in the basement where my grandfather, an uncle who died in infancy, and later she, were all buried. Consequently, everything was labeled with little three-by-five index cards.

“Go read about them, dear.” She leaned in conspiratorially, lowering her voice as though the nearest neighbor, over half a mile away, might be eavesdropping. “They’re thrones from the Duke of Milan’s court.”

Sure enough, the little card Scotch taped to one arm identified them as coming from the Duke of Milan’s court, circa sixteen-something, along with some other Italianate provenance.

Driving home that evening I commented to my father that taping three-by-five index cards to valuable furniture might not be the best way to preserve the finish. Daddy snorted.

“Thrones my ass! I can remember when she bought them at the fire sale of the Biloxi movie theatre on Mulberry Street.”

She had a boyfriend, an unctuous toady in his forties who lived up in the Boston area and whenever circumstances forced us all together he would fawn on her, sighing tragically every time she and my father disagreed about something, and nattering on about how he intended to marry her just as soon as some unspecified encumbrance back in Boston was resolved. From the way he looked at me, I had a pretty good idea of what that encumbrance might be and an even better idea of just how unlikely matrimony was.

Eventually, when she was either eighty-seven or ninety-one, depending upon which passport you chose to believe, things came to a head. She was in the townhouse on St. Paul Street, where she had taken to burning her trash in the fireplace. She threw an aerosol can into the fire and the resulting explosion blew her across the room, breaking her hip. Despite what must have been unbelievable pain, she had the presence of mind to take her purse and crawl down the long entry hall, down three steps, and unlock the four deadbolts on the inner door. She then crawled out into the little black and white marble vestibule where she unlocked three deadbolts on the outer door, but she was unable to reach the fourth and topmost lock. It was a Saturday and the mail had already been delivered, so there she lay, calling for help, all day Saturday, all Saturday night, all day Sunday, all Sunday night, and all Monday morning until the mailman found her.

Even after all this, she insisted on carrying her purse with her to the hospital where she refused to allow them to treat her until my father arrived to take possession of the bag. My father, knowing his mother all too well, refused to touch it until a doctor and a nurse were both present while he inventoried the contents in front of her. It contained a little over $10,000. Cash.

It was clear that at that age and with a broken hip she would never return to the house on St. Paul Street and the police advised my parents that the place would be stripped clean if it were left vacant. The upshot was that my father and mother and my father’s sister, Aunt Kitty, all went down to St. Paul Street to do an inventory. Also present were my grandmother’s lawyer and Aunt Kitty’s lawyer, because my father refused to set foot in the place without them as witnesses. My father was no fool. They were all standing in the living room when someone, I believe it was my mother, noticed what looked like a dollar bill sticking out from under a sofa cushion. By the time they were done, they had found over $100,000 in cash, and almost that much again in negotiable securities, hidden under pillows, behind paintings, under rugs, in silver teapots.

My father had to go back to Virginia, but my mother and Aunt Kitty and the two lawyers agreed to meet there the next morning with some men who worked for Aunt Kitty to pack up the most valuable items. In the meantime, my father went to the hospital to say goodbye and to inform his mother of what was happening and to tell her that they had been unable to find the key to the silver drawer of the Hepplewhite sideboard in the dining room, or the key to the metal fire door that separated the basement from the rest of the house.

My grandmother listened to everything impassively and then said, “Jimmy, on top of the Chippendale chest-on-chest in my bedroom, hidden behind the swan neck pediment, there is a metal box. Whatever you do, make sure you get that box.”

She refused to discuss the contents of the box or any or other matter.

The next morning, my mother arrived first. She opened the first, the outer door and stepped into the vestibule. She unlocked the first three locks of the inner door and was just turning the key to the fourth lock when she heard a sound behind her. And so it was that she pushed the inner door open as she was turning around. It was the mailman who had found ‘Sweetie’ and my mother thanked him appropriately. When she turned back, she was looking down the long hallway that led into the dining room. From where she stood she could see the Hepplewhite sideboard, the silver drawer now standing open with the key in the lock, it’s little cardboard tag still swinging slightly.

Being no dummy, she stayed where she was, watching and waiting. One of the lawyers arrived, but he lacked the nerve to go in even with my mother, so they continued to wait until Aunt Kitty showed up with her two men. Then they searched the house. The silver in the silver drawer, old-fashioned, heavy, valuable, was still there, gathered into bundles as if someone had been scooping it up with his hands. The metal fire door to the basement was standing open, the key still in the lock. The door from the basement to the alley had been opened with a key, then closed again, but not locked. The metal box behind the swan-neck pediment was gone, only a clean square in the dust to show where it had been.

 

‘Sweetie’ never spoke of it again. She showed neither grief nor rage and never told my father or Aunt Kitty what had been in the box. When I asked my father what might have been in it, he shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t tell with her. It might have been the lost crown of King John, or it might have been a collection of old lightbulbs.” And when I asked him if he planned to try and get it back, he just laughed. “We’ve reported it to the police and I don’t care enough to do anything more.” That too speaks volumes of his relationship with his mother.

The boyfriend vanished. Temporarily.

He reappeared several years later after ‘Sweetie’ finally handed in her dinner pail. My father had already been killed and we were all a little stunned to find that she had not only left her entire estate to the City of Baltimore, for a children’s museum, as planned (it is now open to the public and may be rented for private events; the movie star Will Smith was married there), but that she had also left personal items of my father’s and Aunt Kitty’s to the city as well. Aunt Kitty hired a lawyer, an incompetent invertebrate, and we sued. Picture our confusion when we were told that we have to stand in line. The Boston Boyfriend had already sued the city, claiming that she had intended to marry him and that therefore he was entitled to the entire estate. He managed to make such a pest of himself that eventually the city gave him $70,000 just to go away. We got nothing.

Ten or fifteen years later, my cousin Ellen, a frightfully successful lawyer in New York, married to another equally successful lawyer, was leafing through a Sotheby’s catalogue and was rather surprised to see a painting she remembered well from The Cloisters being offered for sale. To cut a long story of avarice and mendacity short, the millions that had been left with the estate had all vanished, the museum was no longer, and the city was liquidating the remainder of the estate. I say remainder because many of the most valuable paintings and furniture had also vanished. Ellen forced the city to allow her and my sister to walk briefly through and claim only those items they could prove had belonged to their deceased parents. Right. My sister Judith went down to Baltimore with her daughter, Rachel. She was unable to persuade the staunch guardians of the public weal to let her have our father’s childhood diary, but they did let her take a cast iron bulldog that had been a toy of his as a little boy. She took that for me and some other equally innocuous item for herself and left. But Rachel was made of sterner stuff. Scrupulously honest in every way, Rachel has a highly developed sense of right and wrong and she was enraged by what she saw happening to her mother. When they got back to their car, Rachel produced from under her coat three small nineteenth century, Dutch, oil-on-board paintings that she had found, unframed and filthy, leaning in a corner. God bless her! So my patrimony consists, in its entirety, of two of the Dutch paintings, a cast iron bulldog, and a series of landscapes of the Baltimore harbor in a single frame that my father’s beloved great-uncle, William David Jameson, had commissioned in the 1890’s and which Daddy had taken, as his rightful property, when ‘Sweetie’ broke her hip.

 

I only returned to the Cloisters once after my father was killed. It was after ‘Sweetie’ had also died and we were there, my mother and Kitty and various lawyers, because of something to do with our lawsuit against the city. Losing patience with the arcane shenanigans of the legal types, I wandered upstairs to see one last time the room that had been my father’s as a little boy. One of the city’s legal eagles tried to stop me, saying something vague and lawyer-ish that clearly indicated he was afraid I would steal something. I told him that if he saw me sneaking out with a Goddard-Townsend desk under my arm he should feel free to stop me, but that if tried to before then I would knock him down. Furious, indignant, sad, I went up to my father’s room. But he wasn’t there. Try as I might, I could make no connection between the four-poster bed—I had slept in its trundle myself as a small child—or the bureau or the desk or any of it and the man I so adored and whom I missed so bitterly. But at one point I pulled open one of the bureau drawers (See the child. See him looking through his father’s shirts and handkerchiefs, socks and cufflinks. This is more than idle curiosity. This is the boy trying to find the man he hopes to become.) and found a yellowed, dusty brochure for some patented, guaranteed, sure-fire cure for baldness. So I didn’t find my father in that expensive, contested room, but instead a handsome young man who smiles out at me from a few surviving old photographs and whose smile conceals his own anxieties and modest vanity.

 

Many years later, long after ‘Sweetie’ and my father were both dead, I found myself at one of those huge, crowded, noisy, infinitely boring parties that everyone in Hollywood seemed compelled to give all too often, self included, in those days. I struck up a conversation with a pleasant looking man a few years younger than I. I had zoned in on him because his clothes, his speech, his manners, all stamped him as your standard, garden variety, prep-school-ivy-league type, and his accent marked him as coming from the mid-Atlantic states.

“Where are you from?”

“Baltimore.”

I took a shot. “Gillman School?”

He did a little double take, then grinned. “Yes. Did you go to Gillman?”

“No. My father did, a million years ago.”

“But you’re from Baltimore?”

“No. My father’s family was from there. You may have heard of them. They were pretty well known. Or at least my grandmother was pretty well known. She was pretty well known as the craziest woman in Baltimore, Dudrea Parker. She had a big place called The Cloisters out in…”

“Oh my God.” His jaw had fallen into his drink and he actually recoiled from me. “Oh my God! You’re… That woman…that Mrs. Parker… she’s your… Oh my God.”

And after that things kind of went downhill. If I had given him incontrovertible proof that I was the offspring of an illicit liaison between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, he couldn’t have been more flabbergasted. He kept staring at me with his mouth open, giggling nervously from time to time, occasionally going back to his mantra: “Oh my God.” After awhile I got embarrassed and abandoned the effort, staggering off in search of the bar.

 

I returned home from a trip a few years ago, and as I got off the airplane I suddenly noticed a man ahead of me whose ankles reminded me of my father’s. Well, more accurately, it was the shoes and the cuff of the khaki trousers and the slight gap between those two. I followed him all the way out to the parking lot. He had the same build, the same air of rumpled elegance my father had and it was only some vestige of common sense that kept me from talking to him. It must seem odd to think of anyone following a stranger simply because his ankles resembled those of a man dead over forty years now, but I loved him that much.

 

Making Game

April 8th, 2015 15 Comments

 

MAKING GAME

 

 

“The P. H.’s used to take bets on who would be the first

to bed the client’s wife.”

 

Former professional hunter, talking about Africa

 

 

 

 

He was an old man, self made, who had hunted all over the world, but always he had been drawn to Africa, to the freedom and beauty of Africa, and now he wanted one more safari, one last carefree adventure. He hadn’t been back since his first wife had died, more than twenty years now, partly because he associated Africa with her. They had discovered it together, explored it, hunted it together, his wife plump and pretty with cameras slung around her neck recording each new adventure. He was young then, strong and restless as the animals he hunted and death was somewhere else, waiting for someone else. They had raised a son and a daughter and then had stood holding hands as they buried the remains of what may or may not have been their or someone else’s son, Viet Nam, friendly fire. They had married their daughter twice, watched her divorce twice and slide into alcoholism. They had helped her climb back onto the inconstant dry ground of sobriety. And then he had watched his wife die, cancer, and stood finally with no hand to hold at her graveside and Africa faded into memory.

When he remarried, his new wife had no interest in hunting or the outdoors and she had had enough of travel, but she was loving and attentive and he was wise enough to content himself with what was and not try to duplicate what had been. But now it was time and there was little of it left.

 

It wasn’t at all what she had expected. She had thought it would look like California in the summer, rolling hills and golden grass dotted with oaks. Not this endless flat, monotone scrub. Twice she saw roads, unpaved, going nowhere, fading off into the unending bush like bits of frayed string. Once they flew over a tiny village, a dozen or so little huts, some round, some square, a few with thatched roofs, the rest tin, and no people. She had expected lions and zebras. There was nothing. Finally she did see in the distance a long flowing black line beneath a cloud of dust and the Old Man turned around in his seat and pointed. “Wildebeest,” he said and he looked happy. And then again there was nothing but sameness and light so bright it made her head throb.

The banking of the little plane woke her to a different world. The land was the same dreary flatness, but the first thing she saw was two giraffes running through the scrub and she realized with delight that what she had taken for slow motion on television was just how they ran. The plane was very low now, dropping as it banked, dropping and straightening. As they shot along the clearing, great clouds of earth rising around them, she caught a glimpse of men, white and black, standing by two open Rovers. The land had been empty for so long that the sight of men and machines was a jarring incongruity. The plane slowed and turned and she saw them again: two black, two white, two vehicles, waiting with predatory stillness. She put on her sunglasses.

When the door opened the combination of heat and light was overpowering and dizzying, but the Old Man moved down the steps with bounce and looked better than he had for months. The two white men moved forward to meet them. One introduced himself as their professional hunter. He was almost as tall as the Old Man and looked stronger and more feral than any animal she expected to see in Africa. The other was little more than a boy and was introduced as an apprentice, not yet licensed. The two black men were not introduced, but started loading the bags and gun cases into one of the Rovers.

The Old Man had said that Africa was a land of extremes and she had seen the contrast between the slums—townships, they called them—and the concession owner’s comfortable and walled suburban home. But now in the camp which looked just as the Old Man had said it would she was unprepared for the impression of luxury. Wall tents and canvas folding chairs and hides of unknown animals spread over grass mats became an enclave of comfort for them, an island in the bush. And they, the P.H., the boy, the Old Man, even she, moved through the alien island as their rightful place in the world, while the blacks waited on them, diffident and deferential, as if they belonged neither to the little island nor to the surrounding bush.

The Old Man went off with the two hunters to sight in his rifles while she took a shower and here too she was surprised. What she had expected to be primitive and uncomfortable was titillating: to have warm water flowing over her under an open sky; to have only canvas hiding her nakedness from Africa.

That night they dined under a canopy by a great fire that took little of the chill out of the air. The long table was set with a white tablecloth and silver and they ate impala and drank strong Cape wine until at last in their tent they fell into exhausted sleep. Once she woke, dreaming of lions, but it was only the Old Man, snoring, and she slept again.

 

“She’s quite the piece, eh?”

They were in their tent, lying in the dark. They could hear the Old Man and, more distant, Khulu, the head tracker, matching him snore for snore.

“She looks like a film star.” The boy was on fire. He’d never seen anything so beautiful. “They’re from California. Do you think she is?”

“We’d have heard of her.” The P.H.’s voice was soft and husky in the dark.

“What’s she doing with an old geezer like that? He’s got to be twice her age. How old is she? How old do you think?”

“Forty.”

“Forty! Not possible. She doesn’t look forty. Do you think she’s forty?”

“She’s American. They all have face lifts.”

The boy lay thinking about that. Way off, barely audible, he could hear a hyena. At last he said, “Are you going to ride her, then?”

The P.H. laughed softly. “Yeah.”

“Do you think she will?”

There was a moment of silence before the P.H. answered.

“It’s why I love it when the old ones bring their trophy wives. They’re bored. The rich are always bored. After a week she’ll be so tired she can’t think straight and more bored than ever. Then I’ll send him out with you and, yeah, I’ll ride her.”

The boy was burning hotter now just thinking about it. Forty? Couldn’t be. She didn’t look anything like it. Jesus, his Ma wasn’t much over forty.

“And then I’ll take him out again,” the P.H. said, “and you can have a go at her. Put a notch on your wanger.”

The thought of it made the boy’s skin feel too tight. “Do you think she will, then?”

“How much do you think she’s getting now?”

The boy lay still for a long time. At last he said, “Do you always ride them? The pretty ones? The trophy wives?”

“Sure.” The P.H.’s voice was heavy with sleep. “It’s another form of hunting, isn’t it? The old ones go out after game, I go after their wives.”

There was silence then, only the distant sound of frogs down by the river. The boy lay in the dark, thinking of her, of the faint sweet smell of her he’d caught as they shook hands, burning, until at last he too rode off to sleep.

 

The P.H. was puzzled. They had hunted hard for days—at least they went out early, covered miles and miles of Africa, glassed countless animals and came back late and tired and dirty—but the Old Man showed a strange reluctance to shoot. On the second day he had shot a lone cow eland with a broken and festering leg—

She: “What happened to it?”

“Poachers. Wire snare. You can see a piece of the wire still caught in the joint. Here.” The P.H. passed her his binoculars.

“Oh,” a quick intake of breath, “What will become of it, her?”

“Hyenas will find her tonight.”

“Oh,” again, smaller this time.

The Old Man stepped down without a word, rifle in hand, and glanced at the P.H. For a moment they looked at each other, then the P.H. nodded and the Old Man brought the rifle up and shot quickly, easily, without hesitation. The cow jumped forward, stumbling onto its nose, then onto its side, kicked and was still.

—but then he passed up animal after animal, some really good specimens. He clearly knew what he was doing, he had paid a prince’s ransom for this safari, but he seemed content to glass and stalk.

On the third day the P.H. asked him to shoot a hartebeest for the camp—Perhaps he holds back for her or some other reason and this will start him—and the Old Man did it easily and cleanly and went right back to glassing.

And every day she went with them, uncomplaining, enduring the heat and dust and fatigue. Once a baboon had chattered at them and the P.H., on impulse and without thought, had chattered back at it, provoking it to frenzy, and she had laughed and giggled long after the baboon was out of sight. But mostly she was very quiet, none of the usual American wives’ look-at-me talk. When he or her husband would point out an animal to her she would glass it dutifully, but she said little. She thought the impala were lovely, leaping like ballet dancers, and when they came unexpectedly on a small herd of zebra that wheeled and turned in confusion before they ran off she gave a little cry of pleasure. Beyond that she voiced neither enthusiasm nor discontent, as self-contained as a cat. And her quiet puzzled him as much as the Old Man’s not shooting.

 

“When you’re at home, do you have a career?”

She waited a moment for him to add, “or are you just a housewife?” But he didn’t.

They were sitting in one of the Rovers. It was the day the P.H. asked the Old Man to shoot the hartebeest and they had gone off, the Old Man, the boy and three of the blacks.

“I used to be an airline stewardess, but I quit when we got married.”

“We thought you might be a film star.”

“A movie star?” She looked at him to see if he were teasing. She was used to men reacting to her in a certain way, but no one had ever said that before. He was playing with the keys, still in the ignition, his arm stretched out, cords of muscle moving under black hairs as neat and straight as if he had combed them and when he glanced at her there was no humor in his face; it was just a statement.

“God, no. I didn’t even move to California until we got married.”

“Where were you from, then?”

“Baton Rouge.”

“That’s not in California?”

“No.” She smiled at him and saw his eyes leave hers and go to her mouth. “It’s in Louisiana. In the south.”

“Ah. So that’s a southern accent, then?”

“Yes. And your accent? Is that how everyone talks here?”

“The whites.”

There was a shot in the distance that might have come from anywhere. He raised his head and waited, listening.

“One shot,” he said finally. “That’s good.”

“Why is that good?”

“One shot usually means a clean hit or a clean miss. Not always, of course, but he’s a good shot, your husband.”

“How did you become a professional hunter?” It seemed such an extraordinary life-choice, like saying I’m going to become a hit man or a cowboy or an astronaut.

“It’s all I ever wanted. My Da had a ranch just a few hundred k from here.” He gestured to the east. “I was raised in the bush.”

He told her about his childhood, growing up not unlike an animal himself in an Africa that was now fast disappearing. He told her of pets he had had as a boy, a three-legged gazelle, an orphaned zebra with a foul temper and quick hooves that terrorized everyone for miles around, an eland that grew to the size of a small horse and wandered through their house in search of apples. He told her of his introduction to hunting with his father’s rifles when he was still so small that nearly every shot knocked him down. He made her laugh at things that would have appalled her had she witnessed them, charming, self-deprecating, making even death, the end result of his way of life, a bumbling, slapstick, comic figure.

She was laughing when the Old Man and Khulu and the boy came back into the clearing. The head tracker sat on the front of the Rover, pointing their way through the bush over a mile to where the hartebeest lay, the boy telling what a fine shot the Old Man had made, and he, her old husband, winking at her, neither proud nor flattered.

She had watched the Old Man shoot the dying eland, but they had simply left it where it fell. Now they stood around the red coat and strangely crooked horns and she was struck by the unreality of this dead thing. There was no bullet hole that she could see, not even blood, just this strange looking animal, not beautiful, lying on its side. ‘We will eat this tonight, this that was alive just a few moments ago, served to us by black hands with pink palms like those I knew as a child, but so different, so foreign here.’ Already the blacks were gathering around, pleased and excited, waiting to put the dead thing in the truck, to carry it back to camp.

 

At the end of the week they spotted a greater kudu of marvelous size, four full spirals of horn, maybe sixty inches in length, and the Old Man became a man possessed. Day after day they went out after that particular kudu, passing up several in the fifty-inch range, ignoring scores of other fine animals, and always they came back empty handed. Twice the wind betrayed them and twice his tracks simply vanished, leaving Khulu scratching his head and the P.H. cursing under his breath and the Old Man happier and more excited than before. And still she went out with them, rising early every morning, stumbling exhausted to the dinner table at night, until one afternoon the Old Man came back to the Rover and found her with her safari jacket pulled up around her head against the tiny unrelenting black sweat bees, a look of despair on her face.

“That’s it. We’re quitting.”

“I’m all right.”

“We’re quitting. Tomorrow we’ll just hang around camp and rest.”

And so it was that they were lounging under the canopy after breakfast when two local villagers strolled into camp and said that they had just seen a kudu bull bigger than any they had seen before, bigger than any man had seen before, bigger than any in the memories of their fathers and they would show where it was in exchange for a lift.

The P.H. was holding the big truck’s carburetor in his hands and he glanced at the Old Man.

The Old Man looked at his wife. “You stay and rest. We’ll be back before dark.”

“Take Khulu and as many as you need of the others.” The P.H. turned from the boy to the Old Man. “Good hunting.”

 

They tracked the kudu all morning through the bush, following prints that meandered without purpose as he browsed randomly. The Old Man and the boy walked together a few respectful feet behind Khulu who pointed out minute disturbances in the sandy soil, depressions and ridges so vague they might have been anything. Khulu would point with the crooked twig he carried and the boy would nod or grunt and Khulu would take a few hesitating steps and point again. Other times he would stop looking altogether and walk very rapidly thirty or forty yards at a time, the filthy woolen German Army coat he wore in defiance of the heat flapping as he sped to a point picked… How? Yet always there would be a print. After a time the Old Man came to believe there was some kind of understanding between Khulu and the bull—animals are unpredictable but knowable; it is people who are predictable but always unknowable, each of us locked behind the walls we present to the world—as if every step of this day had been rehearsed before by man and beast so that each knew what the other would do, knew too what the outcome would be.

At midday they stopped and ate sandwiches in the sparse shade of some unknown tree. He must have been far more tired than he realized for when the boy shook him awake part of his sandwich was still uneaten in his hand.

“We’ve found your bull.”

A surge of excitement went through him, but what his heart and spirit felt couldn’t be conveyed to his exhausted body. Each limb was twice its normal weight as he struggled to his feet and stumbled stiffly after the boy. It wasn’t far, a few hundred yards, to a vast shallow pan that tilted away to the north where Khulu and two of the others were waiting, pointing as he walked up. He could see nothing.

“Right.” The boy’s voice was shaking. “Use this tree as a rear sight and that tall one, the tallest tree, as your front sight. Now go out about three hundred yards. There’s a sandy patch. He’s just at the edge on the left side, in the shadow.”

Still he could see nothing. Even through binoculars he could see no trace of hair or horn. Then an ear twitched and like one of those trick pictures where an image is only visible to the unfocused eye the entire bull materialized, great gray body with cream stripes, wide spirals of horn, even the ivory tips, their movement exaggerating the slightest shake of head.

The eye’s field of view is limited only by the turning of the head. Even binoculars bring a large area in for examination. But a scope distills and focuses the hunter’s world down to a moment of intimacy, two separate beating hearts connected through metal tubing.

 

When did she know? At what point did she think, this isn’t just polite conversation, the paid guide keeping the paying client amused? The paying client’s wife. And what told her? The way his eyes kept going to her mouth? Some subtle excretion of pheromone? Whatever. When realization came, she understood her mind was only now catching up with what her body already knew.

A bird was calling in the bush, had been calling for some time now, metallic and monotonous. She asked what it was.

“A gray lourie. We call them go-away birds for their call, but they sound more like the Cowardly Lion. Remember in The Wizard of Oz? ‘Come on! Come on!’” He put his fists up like a boxer from a hundred years ago. “’I’ll take you with one paw tied behind my back. Come on!’”

She laughed and he laughed with her.

It was flattering. She was used to the attentions and desires of men, and it was always flattering. Now, from this man, not handsome but attractive, made attractive by his confidence and easy authority, it was flattering and more. She felt as she had that first afternoon in the shower.

He was easy to talk to. A careful blend of interest in her, her life, thoughts, feelings, concerns, mixed with judiciously relevant anecdotes of his own adventures, a few famous names dropped with exquisite casualness, a diplomatic anonymity kept for the Famous Actor who ran like a rabbit from an equally frightened Cape Buffalo. Oh, yes. It was very flattering. But as the morning passed she became aware of a direction, a focus. There is a difference between a man who wants and a man who wants badly enough to pursue.

“Another gin and tonic?” He was on his feet, her glass in his hand.

“God, no. I’d be sloshed.”

“That’s all right. It’s what one goes on vacation for.”

“To get drunk?”

“To let go a bit.”

He was amusing. ‘They’re not very subtle, men.’ She stretched and yawned, graceful as a cat, one paw over her mouth.

“I think I’ll go lie down for awhile.”

He stepped close to her and the body heat that emanated from him was shocking, not sweaty heat, but life itself, as if vitality could be measured in degrees Celsius. A touch, a big dry hand on her shoulder, light and delicate, as a man might touch a rare and frangible thing in a shop. She could feel the quick thudding of her heart in her ears, her breath squeezed into her throat, the hairs on her arms suddenly alive.

“No.” Her voice was ragged and foreign in her ears.

He smiled, lips apart, and inclined his head just a little, his breath the clean smell of gin. His face was pink and tan, his forehead gleaming white above his eyebrows.

“No.”

His hand left the neutral harbor of shoulder and moved lightly, easily down her back, her skin jumping like a horse’s under his touch. It came to rest gently above the swell of buttock. “Come on.” The lourie bird.

“I think not.” Her claws came out, displayed for just an instant, all that was necessary.

For a moment they stood like that, a moment of anticipation captured in marble. Then:

“Right.” He withdrew his hand. “Well, then. Beg pardon.” He moved stiffly away.

 

When the Rover and the truck pulled in they all gathered around and admired the great bull. There was laughter and hilarity, white teeth against black skin. Even the young one with the sullen face and the fez who stoked the night fire was smiling and joyful. They clapped the Old Man on the back and ran their hands along the four deep curves of horn, testing the ivory tips with their palms, calling excitedly to one another. The boy told how the shot was 320 paces, how they had glassed it and stalked it and tracked it to that final moment in the sandy clearing. The P.H. thrust a whisky into the Old Man’s hand and when she asked the Old Man if it really was a big one the P.H. translated and they all laughed and Khulu gestured with his hands to show her the length of horn of other, lesser bulls.

And through it all the Old Man was happy and uneasy. How? Why? If an animal can smell a man’s fear, can we not somehow smell deceit? Perhaps there was just a shade too much formality, an embarrassment that had not existed before, a careful not looking at each other, some change of energy too subtle to quantify. She put her arms around him and all was well, but when he went to shower and change little doubts and insecurities, like bright pieces of glass, niggling dis-eases he could not identify, turned in his stomach.

At the long table under the canopy, as they dined and celebrated, he tried to push his feelings away from him even as he looked to confirm what he feared. But it was while his mind was in fact on something else entirely—a question of the boy’s about hunting bear in America—that the kaleidoscope stopped turning and the myriad green and red pieces of glass suddenly fell into a recognizable pattern. The P.H.’s glance lingered just a fraction too long, hers turned away a fraction too quickly and all he thought, could think, was, ‘I am old.’ At night he would lie awake sometimes feeling and listening to his failing body not in sorrow or in anger but with a kind of wonder that it could no longer perform as effortlessly as it once had, knowing that soon even the most natural tasks would become intensive labors, but even then he had not thought of himself as old. Dying, yes, not old. But now, as if looking at a photograph, perhaps a candid snapshot taken by her, he saw himself, his own lanky frame from which the muscles were already wasting away, skin pinkly blotched by the unaccustomed sun, knees and elbows large and lumpy as grapefruits, standing next to the P.H. with his broad shoulders and well-muscled sun-browned legs, hair black and glossy as a Labrador’s. ‘Yes. I am old. She looked so happy, and young, when I came back after the hartebeest, when he made her laugh at the baboon, so young, so young. I am old.’ Both thought and admission caught him by surprise.

And later that night, lying in his cot: ‘If I am old, how can I blame her?’ He remembered a time long ago when he had followed his own imperfect desires. ‘Do we judge one sex differently than another? Particularly, should I? It was I who chose to leave her behind, who told her to stay behind. If I had asked, she would have come.’ And so he had achieved something almost like comfort when suddenly, unbidden, came the memory of an early date when he had run his hand through her hair and his hand had burned like a flame he wanted her so, and with that memory came grief that was physical pain. He covered his mouth with his hand, the same hand he had run through her hair, mottled coldly now with liver spots, and stopped the grief inside him.

 

In her cot, across the tent, across the skin of some animal she could not identify: ‘Perhaps I should tell him. Not now, not here, but after we are on the plane or maybe at home. I won’t tell him I was tempted. Only that the offer was made and refused.’

The Old Man made a small sound unlike any he made in his normal sleep and she became alert, but he did not make it again. She lay thinking with satisfaction of the gift of her own virtue and she was almost asleep when suddenly: ‘No. Why tell him at all? Why cause him any distress? If I tell, he may think this happens whenever he is out of my presence and that would only upset him. Trotting out my strength and fidelity like halter horses for him to admire makes me feel good, but will only hurt him. I love him and the best is to keep my mouth shut and him free of pain.’

Across the tent the Old Man made the same small strained sound again. For a time she lay listening, but he was quiet and eventually she slept.

 

“What a bloody strange safari.” The P.H. started the Rover. “You just can’t tell about Americans.” The little plane was still climbing, banking away to the south. “Italians will shoot everything in sight. You have to watch them so they don’t shoot the trackers and the cook. The Germans only care about how their damn toys work, their rifles with all those pop-up bells and whistles. The English have to kill everything the right way or it doesn’t count. Japanese don’t care what it is or how they get it if it’s the right size. And Arabs don’t care if they kill anything or not as long as there is enough whisky in camp. But Americans… They’re impossible to predict. Fourteen days and he’s going home with one damn trophy.”

“They were nice though.”

A rhinoceros trotted out into the track ahead of them and stopped, its ears focused on them like leather cornets. The P.H. quickly put the Rover in reverse and backed up a hundred feet or so and they sat, waiting, until it finally walked on into the bush.

“And people say they’re unpredictable. God help us if they ever breed an American rhinoceros.”

“Did…” The boy stopped.

“Did what?”

“Did you ride her?”

The P.H. drove on for awhile. “Well, let’s just say the whole safari wasn’t a total waste.” He smiled at the boy. “Bad luck you didn’t get your turn. Can’t be helped. It was a damn strange safari.”

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.”

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…

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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