February, 2016

Seriously, Do We Need a Constitution?

February 26th, 2016 17 Comments

Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1

 

There is a phrase that I heard for the first time only within the last few years, but since then—like suddenly becoming aware of a pimple—I can’t turn around without hearing someone use it. It is used to describe the Constitution—our United States Constitution, yours and mine—and the phrase is “living document.”

Briefly, when someone says the Constitution is a “living document” what is meant is that the Constitution is document that should be changed and amended and updated to reflect the transient needs of an ever-changing society. The idea behind the concept of the Constitution as a living document is the Darwinian notion that man and society have both evolved since the days of the founding fathers, and that many of the tenets expressed within the document are no longer valid or viable. And the idea behind that notion was first expressed by Woodrow Wilson in a speech he gave during his successful 1912 campaign for the presidency.

In several speeches, both before and after he became president, Woodrow Wilson expressed the opinion that it was no longer necessary to enumerate the human rights expressed in the preface to the Declaration of Independence. In 1911, in an address to—of all things!—the Jefferson Club of Los Angeles, where he was ostensibly honoring Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson actually said, “…if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.” In other words, forget all that stuff about all men being created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights [of] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…governments deriving their powers from the consent of the governed… Forget all that antiquated stuff.

Then came his campaign of 1912 where he said, referring again to the preface of the Declaration of Independence: “The trouble [with the preface] is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its function by the sheer pressure of life.” In other words, the Constitution should be interpreted to mean whatever the hell we think it should mean for our temporary convenience.

Since then, one progressive administration after another has glommed onto that concept like a tick on a dog. Most presidents have been smart enough not to attempt any large, draconian changes, contenting themselves instead with nibbling away at our enumerated rights under the illusion of progress. Our current president has repeatedly used the phrase, “because it’s the right thing to do,” to justify his flouting of his own oath of office as it is clearly written in Article II of the Constitution he ignores.

But subtle nibbling is clearly a thing of the past and sweeping, draconian measures appear to be the order of the day. Consider the platforms and statements of the two current Democrat candidates.

One of them has said plainly and honestly (to his credit) that he plans to transform America into a democratic-socialistic country, by which he means, among other things, eliminating “income inequality” by means of greatly increased taxation of the most productive members of society and, essentially, redistributing that money through governmental bureaucracies to less productive members. It may or may not be an admirable goal, but it does not hold up to Constitutional scrutiny: equality in the Constitution means only equality of opportunity and equality under the law. It does not mean equal income for unequal abilities and unequal productivity.

The other candidate for Democrat nomination has openly declared war on the second amendment and, somewhat more subtly, on the first. What she intends in terms of the second amendment needs no elaboration here, but her desired modification of the first amendment could, in theory, make what I am writing right now a criminal act. Specifically, she has said publicly that she is open to a constitutional amendment specifically to overturn the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision. That decision states the first amendment prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by non-profit organizations.

In plain English, let’s say the NRA, as a 501(c)(4), paid for campaign advertising against Hillary Clinton on the basis of her opposition to the second amendment, that would be illegal, if Ms. Clinton has her way. The Supreme Court ruled: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from firing or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” And that’s what Ms. Clinton wants to overturn.

In its infamous front page editorial on December 4, 2015, the New York Times wrote of the second amendment: “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Putting aside the logical question that raises of who gets to determine what is reasonable, the NY Times seems to have forgotten that under Barack Hussein Obama, Associated Press records were illegally seized, the mother of Fox News reporter James Rosen was placed under surveillance, Rosen himself was placed under investigation by the Department of Justice, that then Attorney General Eric Holder named Rosen a “criminal co-conspirator” in order to obtain search warrants on Rosen, and that then the FCC came up with a plan (called “Critical Information Needs”) to place monitors in newsrooms. So the NY Times might wish to ask what regulations of the first amendment it considers reasonable.

It is not a coincidence that under Barack Hussein Obama’s “transparent” administration, the award-winning international freedom of the press organization, Reporters Without Borders, has dropped the United States down to forty-ninth place for freedom of the press, putting us below such hotspots of democracy and freedom of expression as Burkina Faso, Niger, and El Salvador.

And now Hillary wants to modify the first amendment.

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

February 24th, 2016 14 Comments

bobcat and Bear 023 (Small)

 

Little Bear, our Australian shepherd (shown much younger), alerted us to a coyote on the hill behind the house. He didn’t bark, but he had been sitting by the sliding glass door, as the dogs often do, gazing out at the steady parade of birds and chipmunks, when suddenly his whole energy changed, and his casual gazing turned into an intense, focused stare. I went to investigate.

He had good reason to stare. It was an almost totally naked coyote, by which I mean not that his winter coat had fallen out, but that he had little or no fur at all on his body, and his tail was a thin and naked embarrassment of an appendage. It was—or certainly appeared to be—hands down the worst case of mange I’ve ever seen on any animal.

Coyote with mange

 

We tend to think of disease as unnatural, as an aberration away from the norm, but because we see it in ourselves and our fellow man, as well as in our dogs or cats or horses, we accept the occasional aberration as unfortunate but not unnatural, something to be treated and cured. Because we do not usually see it in wild animals we tend to think it doesn’t occur, or at least only very rarely, but I suspect it happens far more often than we realize.

Think of the rabies outbreaks that from time to time sweep through various parts of the country. When I was very young, rabies was still common among dogs, especially in the South, and I can remember my father and mother once cautioning me about the deadliness of the disease, and what to look out for. Today it is a thing of the past among household pets, but when we first moved up to these mountains, the local game warden told me that a rabies outbreak had decimated the gray fox population and in fact it was almost twenty years before I saw one.

7212601

 

Also here in California, I was once attacked by a skunk I assume was rabid. I don’t mean that he sprayed me (though I have had that happen too—memorably) but that he kept charging me and trying to bite me until I finally just outran the little bastard.

skunk

 

I have seen fluctuations in the local rabbit population, ranging from their being so numerous that they were a pain in the ass and I practically had to kick them out of my way every time I went out of the house, down to non-existent. Last year I didn’t see one at all, and I have yet to see one this year; even the jackrabbit numbers seem to be greatly reduced.

Blue tongue (hemorrhagic disease) and Chronic Wasting Disease have had their impact on the whitetail herds in parts of Missouri where I like to hunt with my old friend Hal, and deer are also susceptible to tuberculosis and any number of parasites. Birds can carry—and die from—West Nile Virus. Wild pigs can have brucellosis, swine fever, and pseudorabies, which has nothing to do with actual rabies, despite the name. Domestic sheep are subject to more diseases than you can shake a stick at and I’m sure wild sheep have a lengthy list of species-specific illnesses, but the one I am familiar with is pneumonia, which strikes wild herds fairly frequently. I was once asked to help rid a ranch in Texas of its herd of red sheep (mouflon), a task that turned out to be more difficult than you could imagine. Wild sheep are far more cunning and wary than even whitetail deer, and at the end of three days of three men hunting from dark to dark in a relatively small high-fenced pasture, the grand total was two sheep, both of which I shot. One was a lucky snap-shot at a running sheep, and the other was a poor thing I found bedded down under a juniper, too sick to be able to get on its feet. As far as I know the rest of that herd is still on that ranch.

I’m sure the list of wild animal disease goes on to things I’ve never even heard of. I’m just going off of personal experience.

But in addition to diseases, animals are also subject to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: think of the countless times we’ve all seen wild animals going about their business on three legs.

For those of you who live in greener parts of the world, foxtail is the name we give to a ubiquitous grass here in the West that, when it dries, has a sharp, barbed point, rather like a miniature porcupine quill, and if it gets caught in an animal’s fur, it works its way in until it punctures the flesh and then continues working its way in until, in the case of domestic animals, it has to be surgically removed. It’s why after running the dogs we check them over carefully and thoroughly. I once asked our local game warden what happened to coyotes when they got foxtail in them and the answer was that they either lived in discomfort or died slowly.

And sometimes animals hurt themselves because of their own clumsiness.

The first time it ever occurred to me that an animal might be clumsy was when I was about seven or eight. I was exploring in the woods and pastures near our home when I came across the body of a red fox hanging impaled on the broken vertical branch of a sapling that had gone up through his lower jaw and into his skull. I was so stunned by the sight of the fox that it was several minutes before I chanced to look up and realized what had happened: there was a bird’s nest on one of the lower branches of a tree, and I knew in flash that the fox had jumped for the nest and the eggs or fledglings, missed, and fallen on the vertical branch.

Sometimes, like an old Laurel and Hardy movie, there is a certain humorousness to wildlife mishaps.

Hunting in Colorado, I once watched a young buck strolling along on the top of an embankment above a logging road. He stumbled and went ass-over-teakettle down the slope, jumped up, and then (I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize) looked around in embarrassment before trotting off down the road with great intent—a busy deer with places to go and important things to do.

Deer 011 (Small)

 

I also once watched a bobcat, surely one of the most graceful and athletic of all of God’s creatures, slowly and carefully stalk some unseen rodent on the side of a hill. When he finally pounced, he not only missed the rodent, but he missed his footing and did probably three full somersaults before he got his feet under him.

Bobcat 023 (Small)

 

And on a memorable occasion, quail hunting with General Chuck Yeager and Colonel Bud Anderson, the three of us were eating our lunch overlooking a valley and we watched two coyotes trying to catch a jackrabbit. The coyote is one of the most efficient and effective predators in the world, and when they work in pairs, or as a pack, they are unparalleled. I voiced the opinion that it wouldn’t take long before they got him.

General Yeager shook his head. “He’ll outsmart them.”

He did. In fact, it was such a comical mismatch that after a few minutes I actually began to feel sorry for the two coyotes. When they finally gave up, they sat down facing each other, yards of tongue hanging out of each of them and disgusted looks on their faces. I would have given much to be close enough to hear what they said to each other.

 Wile E. Coyote

Republican Debate

February 16th, 2016 21 Comments

Morton Downey Jr. two

 

I watched the last half of the Republican debate last Saturday night and I’ve never seen anything so unpleasant and unprofessional in all my life. It reminded me of a nightmare drive down a congested interstate with the world’s most loathsome, obnoxious, ill-mannered seven-year olds in the backseat.

“He touched me!”

“She’s looking at me!”

“He took my crayon!”

If any of my children had ever misbehaved in public that badly, they’d still be grounded, and I’m a grandfather.

The only two grownups on the stage were John Kasich and Ben Carson and unfortunately I’m afraid that both of them would get eaten alive in a debate by Hillary, not because of a lack of knowledge or experience, but because neither one of them has the ruthless, bloodthirsty cunning she has.

I realize Dr. Carson has less political/world affairs knowledge than any of the other Republican candidates, but I also suspect he is far more intelligent than the current occupant of the White House, and unlike the current occupant, Dr. Carson does not appear to be so crippled by his own arrogance and over-inflated opinion of himself that he would refuse to listen to his advisors.

John Kasich has all the knowledge and experience in the world and would make a great president, but putting him on stage with Hillary would be like putting me in the cage with the current heavyweight MMA champion: it might be amusing to hear my screams of agony as my bones broke, but it would not be productive. Kasich would do a lot better against Bernie, but who knows if Bernie will be the nominee.

Of course, if Hillary is nominated by the Democrats, she will set all kinds of firsts: first woman president; first former First Lady as president; first candidate ever to win the presidency while under federal investigation; first president to serve her term from a federal prison cell…

In the meantime, back on the right, we also have the Trumpster, who combines the most positive and uplifting qualities of the late Morton Downey, Jr. (see the photo above) minus the charm, and the intellectual depth of the Jerry Springer Show. We have two very able, knowledgeable, and well-spoken candidates who spend more time tearing at each other with their brighter-than-white teeth than expanding on their views and beliefs, with the result that you want to send them both to their rooms, and poor Jeb Bush, who is eminently qualified, sounding more and more petulant and defensive trying to get a word in edgewise.

It ain’t looking good, folks.

Bernie for President?

February 13th, 2016 46 Comments

Bernie Sanders

 

I did something I normally never do. I went onto the Facebook page of someone I love very much (which is why I don’t spend time trolling on Facebook: if I love someone, I’m usually in at least relatively consistent contact with them, circumstances permitting) and read an intelligent and well-written article she had posted about why not to vote for Hillary. The article was written by someone else, not the young lady whose Facebook page I visited, but I was able to glean from it and from some other postings that the young lady in question is probably going to vote for Bernie Sanders.

Believe it or not, that is something I can understand. Bernie Sanders is hot on the left for the same reasons that the Trumpster is hot on the right: both represent radical change and at this point, almost all Americans are so sick to death of the venality and self-serving cynicism of Washington politics they long for any kind of change. And Bernie has a sort of Robin Hood appeal to all his proposals; it’s an unrealistically simplistic message of taking from the evil rich to give to the deserving poor, but it’s the kind of simplistic message geared for people who don’t really think much or in depth about the issues, a sort of socialist version of the Trumpster’s monotonous braying about making American great again and making us all sick of winning. (Curiously enough, Bernie and the Trumpster actually agree on a few objectives—reversing Bill Clinton’s trade policies, for instance—even though they disagree on how to achieve those objectives.)

But besides the idiotic playing to the lowest IQ in the house that both men indulge in, I can understand Bernie’s appeal if for no other reason than Hillary Rodham Clinton is an exceptionally unappetizing choice and if you’re a Democrat or a liberal or a progressive liberal, Bernie Sanders is the only currently viable option.

The Shady Lady is so blatantly, unambiguously, unrepentantly ambitious, so desperately hungry for her putative place in history, that she would happily have live sex with a donkey in Times Square on New Year’s Eve if she thought it would get her into the White House.

She is so completely hypocritical that I honestly don’t think she sees there is a problem with saying she is anti-Wall Street even as she takes Wall Street’s money in the form of both campaign donations and public speaking fees.

She is so fundamentally dishonest that she qualifies as a chronic liar. (That is, as I understand it, a pathological condition characterized by a compulsion to lie even when there is no reason or need to lie.) All politicians lie constantly, whenever their lips move, but it is usually for reasons of political expediency. In the Shady Lady’s case, in addition to political expediency, think of her bragging about “dodging bullets in Bosnia” even though there were press crews there taking photographs of her accepting a bouquet of flowers from a little girl and then calmly walking off the tarmac with local dignitaries; that’s like Brian Williams, telling easily disproven lies for no purpose whatsoever.

She has proven herself not particularly competent as a professional public figure, whether you count that as First Lady, Senator, or Secretary of State, but the email scandal, no matter what your political leanings or how you look at it, reflects, at the very least, unbelievably self-indulgent laziness, a willingness to compromise the safety and lives of intelligence officers (not to mention the American public generally) for personal convenience.

She is the only politician since Richard Nixon who is so busy starring in the movie of her own life that she regards any of her fellow Americans who disagree with her or hold different opinions (in Hillary’s case the GOP and the NRA) as “enemies.” Yeah, that’s sure a great way to reach across the aisle and bring the country together, Hillary, you betcha; and what exactly would you call ISIS? Hillary, you’ve got to get over this blaming everything up to and including your hemorrhoids on “a vast, right-wing conspiracy.”

As you might imagine, I happen to disagree with her attitude toward the Second Amendment, but she has also declared war on the First Amendment: Hillary has stated she would support a constitutional amendment to end First Amendment protection of nonprofit groups’ rights to political expression. Clearly I’m putting this in baby talk, but essentially that would put limits on your right, my right, our right to free speech, limits that would be determined by the government, and just to bring everything around full circle, I’ll remind you that for years the NRA has said that if the Second Amendment goes, the First will be the next to fall, the pen being mightier than the sword and all that.

And finally, she is so obviously arrogant. You can see it in her face whenever she is asked a question she doesn’t like, a combination of disdain, annoyance, and contempt for any little person who might dare to question her. Bill Clinton is—was as president—equally arrogant, but he had a sense of humor and the native wit to use that humor to hide his arrogance. Hillary either can’t or can’t be bothered.

So I understand Bernie’s appeal. But more than just being the least of two evils, there is actually much to admire about Bernie. For one thing, if what I read is accurate, his net worth after twenty-five years as a public servant is only $300,000 dollars, making him the only politician I know of since Abraham Lincoln to serve the public and not, somehow, mysteriously, accumulate vast wealth. (Name another.) So maybe he’s honest; that would be a refreshing change. And that would make him an outsider, which is what both left and right want.

For another thing, I think he really believes much of what he says, and I don’t mean that in the smug, mean-spirited way of Barack Obama’s reported statement to journalist Richard Wolfe (“You know, sometimes I actually believe my own bullshit.”) but rather that he seems to have some fundamental beliefs beyond his own ambition that guide him.

Unfortunately, it is the hows and whys of those beliefs with which I strongly disagree.

According to his Bernie-for-president website, and according to what I have heard him say on television, Bernie believes in pretty much free everything, espousing a fundamental change in government to make America operate more along the lines of European nations: free this, free that, free everything for everybody. Clearly, I’m again putting this in baby talk, because I haven’t the time or energy to go through all his proposals one by one, but the bottom line is that if you stop and think just for one nano-second, it should be obvious that there is no such thing as free anything. Someone has to pay for it, and that someone is ultimately always the taxpayer, and that’s you and me, baby, not just the wealthy, either directly in the form of taxes, or indirectly in the form of higher prices slapped onto products by manufacturers to offset their higher taxes. Which brings us to the core of all of Bernie’s beliefs and the underlying principle that guides him.

Bernie really believes it is wrong for there to be such an enormous gap between the very rich and the very poor. That gap is, in fact, ugly and distasteful, but that gap has always existed throughout all of history, and in every civilization that gap is responsible for art, sculpture, music, literature, and above all architecture. Whenever a government has attempted to artificially remove that gap, the end result has been chaos, a stifling of the human impulses that lead to both financial gain and creativity. Name a great artist, sculptor, writer, musician, or architect of mainstream communism in the old Soviet Russia (in other words, no creative geniuses from the underground counter-culture such as Solzhenitsyn or Pasternak). Name one in any socialist government. Actually, go one step further and name any civilization, in all human history from the earliest beginnings in the Mesopotamian cradle until today, that has adopted a socialist form of government and lasted more than one hundred years. You can’t, because none has ever lasted that long. I’ll go further and suggest that the obscene gap between rich and poor will always exist, no matter what kind of government you have, even as it did—albeit surreptitiously—under the communists in Soviet Russia. Just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t make it better.

So, historically speaking, socialism and income equality are not conducive to creativity. Don’t believe me; do your homework. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in “The Grand Inquisitor” section, there is a wonderful quote: “All the riches in the world are not worth a child’s tears.” It’s very true, but you need to remind yourself of that every time you go to a museum to enjoy the beauty of ages past.

And finally, I do not believe it is the government’s place to compel people to be altruistic and charitable through taxation. It won’t work. If it were that simple, the government could compel people not to be criminals. Some people, rich and poor alike, are always going to be generous, and some will never be, but if you tax all the wealthy on the grounds that a bunch of bureaucrats can do more good with their money than they can, the generous ones will vanish quietly into the shadows. People capable of making that kind of money are equally capable of hiding and protecting their wealth, and Switzerland is a nice place to live. Do you really think Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and the international coalition of billionaires they have put together who are donating time, expertise, and more money than you and I can dream of to a wide array of good works in every corner of the globe, do you really think they would continue to spend money they no longer have because a socialist government has taxed it out of their hands? I can’t speak to every species, but with horses, dogs, and especially the human animal, the carrot has always been a far more effective tool than the stick.

 

Gun-owners Versus Muslims

February 10th, 2016 9 Comments

Barack Obama

 

“Now, this brings me to the other reason I wanted to come here today.  I know that in law-abiding gun-owning communities across our country, this is a time of concern and, frankly, a time of some fear.  Like all Americans, you’re worried about the threat of terrorism.  But on top of that, as gun-owners and NRA members, you also have another concern — and that is your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few.”

President Barack Hussein Obama, February 3, 2016

 

Just kidding.

Barack Hussein Obama spoke those words (at a mosque in Baltimore that is under FBI surveillance) but instead of “law-abiding gun-owning communities” and “gun-owners and NRA members,” he said “Muslim communities” and “Muslim-Americans,” respectively. And what I find fascinating is the disconnect between his (and almost all progressive liberals’) understanding that it is wrong to condemn all Muslims based on the violent actions of a tiny minority, but their willingness, even eagerness, to condemn all law-abiding gun-owners based on the actions of a tiny minority who aren’t even allowed to own firearms in the first place (it is a violation of federal law for any felon—and the majority of homicides are committed by repeat offenders—to “possess, ship, transport, or receive any firearm or ammunition”).

Sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander, unless you’re a progressive liberal.

 

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.

Bald Eagle

February 1st, 2016 17 Comments

Bald eagle

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

I have seen two bald eagles (or, more likely, one bald eagle twice) in the last three days.

The first time, the poor thing was being harassed by two ravens who followed him, like jackals trailing a lion, for a remarkably long distance. The second time, he was by himself, flying quite low, but flying like an eagle on a mission, an eagle with things to do, places to go, and other eagles to meet. And both times it made my heart leap.

I’m an unabashed patriot. I love America and believe strongly it is the greatest country the world has ever known. It gives me a thrill every time I see our flag flying; I get emotional when I hear the national anthem; I feel a burst of pride whenever I see young men or women in uniform, especially young soldiers in their dress uniforms on state occasions; I even feel proud when I see a photograph of the Capitol Building, though I’d like to wade in there with a bullwhip and a branding iron. But bald eagles especially get to me. In part, this is because they are incomparably, dramatically beautiful birds; in part it is because they are our nation’s symbol; in part it’s because they are relatively uncommon in this part of the world (in twenty-five years I’ve only seen one here on two other occasions, though I’ve been to those places in Alaska where you can see hundreds on a daily basis); and in part it’s because the first one I ever saw was with my father, so I associate them with him.

I was home from college, and I had only recently reached the stage Mark Twain (apocryphally) made famous by discussing how much his old man had grown up in seven years. My father was by then director of Gunston Hall, the museum once home to George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration Rights, and on pleasant evenings that summer after the tourists had left, my father and I would take our drinks and walk around the magnificent gardens, the towering allées of boxwood and lilac, the acres of roses and jasmine and nicotiana, the air heavy with scent and the heat of a Virginia tidewater summer. At the end of the gardens, where the land dropped down steeply to the woods and the distant Potomac, there were two gazebos, and we sitting in one of those one evening when a bald eagle sailed by, skimming over the tops of the trees, below us, so that we looked down on his back and the incredible, brilliant white of his head and tail.

It’s a rare thing ever to be in a situation or place where you can look down on the back of a raptor, and to be able to look down on the back of a bald eagle, our national symbol, while talking to my father just as I was beginning to appreciate what an extraordinary, completely unique man he was and how lucky I was to have him in my life, made it one of those moments that will warm me on my deathbed.

And later, before his untimely and much too early death, my father was able to use that sighting and the fact that there was a nesting pair in the woods at the end of Mason’s neck, to get the federal government and the state of Virginia to join forces and protect much of that land from development. If we hadn’t been sitting there that evening and hadn’t seen that eagle, he might not have been able to do it, and Mason’s neck would now look like all the rest of northern Virginia, a sprawling mishmash of subdivisions and shopping malls, all the unimaginative cookie-cutter development that passes for progress in America these days.

But we were, and he did.

 

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