April, 2016

Matthew 7:20

April 16th, 2016 12 Comments

St.Hubert

 

I am a life-member of both the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International, and I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to write those words knowing that it might cause some anti-gun or urban animal-rights activists to have hysterics. But apart from my glee in agitating the kinds of willfully ignorant people who make emotional responses to issues about which they have no knowledge whatsoever, I belong to both those organizations because both of them do very good and important work.

What the NRA does needs no explanation, but SCI fights very hard and spends a lot of money supporting the kind of scientific research and volunteer work that actually protects and helps preserve various species around the world. Yes, they also lobby for hunters’ rights—and I’m glad they do, being a hunter myself—but they also lobby for the kinds of governmental policies that might actually help keep certain species, particularly certain African species, on the planet for another generation to delight in.

SCI publishes a monthly newspaper which I receive, and I was struck by the strange juxtaposition of four separate and disparate articles in the most recent issue.

The first was an article by my friend, retired Colonel Craig Boddington, about efforts to fight poaching in Africa, where that crime is epidemic. Anti-poaching efforts across Africa are both funded and implemented primarily by private outfitters, a phrase which in Africa can mean either the landowners or professional hunters who lease great tracts of land. Governments try to combat poaching on the national game preserves of their country, but elsewhere it is for the most part a private war conducted by private parties and funded almost exclusively by the men and women who go on safari. It’s one of the reasons why hunting in Africa is such an expensive amusement: the landowner tacks on charges to help pay for the private armies (essentially) needed to fight the poachers.

Since I have witnessed the effects of poaching in Africa (I will post a fictionalized account—The Other Side of Paradise—of that experience under my “Other Writings” tab) I have some first-hand experience of what poachers can do, and a lot of sympathy for the poor, courageous devils who take them on.

The second article was an obituary of a father-son team of professional hunters who were shot and killed while on an anti-poaching patrol in Zimbabwe.

The third article was by another friend, renowned and highly respected gun writer Terry Wieland. Terry usually writes about rare and unaffordable guns and obscure cartridges and the famous hunters of a by-gone era, but this particular article was about a broadcast on NPR, the result of joint effort by the BBC and NPR, on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

It appears that Antonin Scalia was an ardent hunter and a member of an ancient hunting fraternity called the International Order of St. Hubertus. I happen to know a little about the International Order of St. Hubertus. A very dear old friend, a hunter whom I have known for decades, was invited to join St. Hubertus, and he asked me if I would write one of the required letters attesting to his character. I did, and I guess they liked my letter because they not only inducted him, they kindly asked me to join too. I had to decline because it costs more than I can afford, but between my writing the letter and being invited to join, I had done a bit of research on the order. This was not difficult to do, since they have a website, and it only took me two phone calls to get some more information from an acquaintance. It did not involve any arduous investigative journalism.

This is what you too can read for yourself on the internet:

“The International Order of St. Hubertus is a worldwide organization of hunters who are also wildlife conservationists and are respectful of traditional hunting ethics and practices. Founded in 1695” [by Count Franz Anton von Sporck] “the motto of the order is Deum Diligite Animalia Diligentes, or Honoring God by Honoring His Creatures.”

They also have, right on the home page, a listing of the functions of the order, all of which involve doing good in various ways, including a mandate to, “encourage wildlife conservation and help protect endangered species from extinction.”

But, boy oh boy, the BBC and NPR were able to find much to censure in that. According to Terry, the program began by describing the order as a “secretive hunting society.” How secretive? I found them on the internet.

According to Terry, NPR found it alarming that the founder, back in 1695, stated hunting was a good training ground for war. Yeah, that’s pretty dangerous and radical stuff, if you are so ignorant of history that you don’t know hunting has always been used as training for war. That concept has been a staple of every civilization you can think of, from the North Sea to the China Sea, from long before classical Greece to sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century when warfare changed so dramatically it rendered hunting obsolete as a training device.

According to Terry, the program described the International Order of St. Hubertus as sinister because of its religious associations. Yeah, right. Radical Islamic terrorists are bombing and beheading, but a Christian organization is sinister because it was founded by Christians, took its name from the seventh/eighth century patron saint of hunters, Hubert (who was converted to Christianity after he had a vision of a crucifix in the antlers of a stag), adheres to Christian values (which, curiously enough, do not include slaughtering non-Christians), and because the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, was an early member. Ooh, that’s scary stuff, all right.

According to Terry, the NPR commentator’s response to the organization’s reverence for all God’s creatures was a snarky, “Yeah, we love God’s animals so much we want to shoot them all.” Heh, heh, heh. I wonder what that man has done to help combat poaching in Africa. Or America, for that matter.

And the final article was about something completely unrelated, but it contained a reference to SCI’s Sportsmen Against Hunger program, intended to help feed the needy, which in Missouri last year donated almost 27,000 pounds of venison. That’s just one state in one year.

Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know 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.

Book Review: American Gun

April 12th, 2016 20 Comments

Turnbull 1911

 

Chris Kyle was the Navy SEAL who wrote the autobiography American Sniper which in turn was made into a blockbuster movie starring Bradley Cooper. Both the book and even more the movie generated a firestorm of controversy, most of which consisted of mean-spirited and hysterical snarkiness from the usual suspects, self-proclaimed liberals who—and I’m taking this from a consensus of the comments I have read in both mainstream press and online—felt it was wrong to portray the killing of men and women (and in one case—almost—a child) all of whom were trying to kill American soldiers.

This is not the place for a debate about whether or not America was justified in going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, what stunned me was to read hysterically angry reviews and comments from people who seemed to have no problem with vastly greater body counts in movies about superheroes and galaxies far, far away, or even inner-city drug-dealing gangstas happily shooting each other in a variety of bloodthirsty and barbaric ways. What seems to have offended so many liberals about American Sniper was the political context of the movie. One writer for Rolling Stone actually began his review by mentioning that he went into the theater primed to hate it. The same writer then defended his own admittedly biased and negative review by saying it was more important for him to be a liberal than to be a journalist, a comment that once upon a time would have gotten any self-proclaimed journalist immediately fired from any self-respecting magazine, which perhaps explains why he writes for Rolling Stone. (To be fair, another Rolling Stone writer, the movie critic, praised the film.) The point is, if a creative work of art (movie, play, book, poem, concert, ballet, painting, sculpture, whatever) can only be judged by how it makes us feel within the framework of our own ideology, then we’re no better than the barbarians who destroy art and antiques that conflict with their distorted religious beliefs, or the pampered little college cupcakes who get hysterical whenever someone disagrees with their personal opinion.

With this in mind, any reader who is not interested in firearms would be well-advised to stop reading now.

Before he was murdered, Chris Kyle was working on a book called American Gun: A History of the United States in Ten Firearms. The book was published posthumously and probably actually finished by his co-author, William Doyle, and his widow, Taya Kyle, but regardless who finished it, it is a very engaging and informative work.

The subtitle is more than somewhat disingenuous in that it has little to do with the history of the United States and much to do with the history of firearms development in America. But that history is fascinating, a combination of an intricate linking of various factors: need; painful learned experience; the natural inventiveness of man and his ability to improve on what already exists; and occasionally a flash of genius that seemingly comes out of the ethers, uninfluenced by anything that already exists. (A good recent example of this would be the Glock, not an American gun, but one that Kyle pays deserved tribute to for both its own merits and its transformative effect on modern pistol design.)

Kyle does many things gracefully in this book. He links one development to the next, showing how A led to B. He lays out just enough history to help us understand the need for improvement that inspired each new step forward. He provides a wealth of fascinating trivia that forms both a background and a context for each progressive step. He shows how each new invention helped the men for whom it was intended, or—in too many cases—how it would have helped the men for whom it was intended if it hadn’t been held up by paper-pushers in Army Ordnance who didn’t have a clue about battlefield realities.

(As an example of fascinating trivia, one of the Army Ordnance deadheads who completely missed the boat on firearms advancement, and thereby contributed immeasurably to the loss of American lives at San Juan Heights and Kettle Hill, was none other than Stephen Vincent Benét, grandfather of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of the same name.)

A large part of what makes this little book so enjoyable is the presence of Kyle himself in the words. I have only seen Kentucky long rifles or Spencer rifles in museums, and I’ve never fired an M16 or even held a Thompson machine gun, but Kyle has the ability to convey the perfection of those tools for their specific tasks. Yes, it helps that he and I clearly share certain prejudices (specifically for the Colt Single Action Army .45 and the M1911 .45 Army pistol), but he manages to make understandable the passion that others have for other tools. And more: he makes you feel that you would have greatly enjoyed knowing him. Of course he would be your first choice to stand at your back in a gunfight (or maybe for you to stand behind his back and let him do the heavy lifting) but he also comes across, not just as a hero, but as the kind of guy you would have loved to have a beer with, share a steak and some stories, the kind of decent and courageous guy we could use more of in America.

Easy Characterization

April 6th, 2016 28 Comments

Old TV set

For those of you who might not know of him, Dave Stamey is an acclaimed Western singer/song-writer who has been described by Cowboys and Indians magazine as, “the Charlie Russell of Western music.”

It’s a good and accurate description, but like all thumbnails, it leaves out so much more of the man, all the stuff that is not only fascinating, but that contributes so much to actually making him the Charlie Russell of Western music. Even Dave’s self-written bio on his website (http://davestamey.com ) merely states that he was once a cowboy, a mule packer, and a dude wrangler. True enough, but it’s a little like saying Sir Walter Raleigh was once a poet. Well, okay, that’s accurate as far as it goes, but what happened to the soldier, sailor, pirate, explorer, courtier, historian, spy, not to mention unscrupulous butcher of too many unfortunate Irish? Not to imply that Dave Stamey has spent any time butchering people, at least not as far as I know, but you see where I’m going with this.

One of things that Dave resolutely does not tell people about himself is that, apart from his song-writing, he is a damned good writer. In fact, he once wrote and published cowboy novels under a pseudonym, and he still writes what he describes as “an occasional newsletter” he sends out to friends and followers. This is his latest:

SNARKY TV           

We don’t have television at our house.  It was a decision we made several years ago after realizing we could click our way through a hundred channels and find nothing worth watching, and we were paying a good chunk of money every month for the privilege.  It seemed a silly thing to be doing, so we pulled the plug. 

Getting weaned was tough, especially for me, because, being a guy, I am genetically predisposed to sitting on the couch eating potato chips and staring at a screen where inane things are going on.  It’s in every man’s DNA, right there next to the part that makes you want to scratch yourself in public or leaf through the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition at the news stand when you think nobody’s looking.  But I struggled through, and got some distance on it, and can proudly say I’m completely cured of the habit.  Until, when out on the road, I check into a motel room somewhere.  The first thing I do is flick the dreaded thing on.  I grab the remote and scroll through forty or fifty or a hundred and twenty channels, whatever’s available in the town I find myself in, and discover—surprise!—there’s still nothing on.

            It’s all the same show.  Every production is about a group of people between the ages of 23 and 33, living in a stylish urban setting, all of them very slim and fit with good teeth, teeth that are white and straight like chiclets, saying snarky things to each other.  This seems to be the whole point.  Everybody walks around with a curled lip, looking very fashionable and sexy, being caustic and snide, and at the end of the episode whoever the star of the show is gets off the snarkiest bit of dialog and the show is over until next week—or until the next program comes on and the same thing starts all over again with a different cast, all of which are interchangeable. Even if it’s a cop show, solving the crime is of secondary concern.  The real purpose of the mystery is to allow the clever and biting repartee to occur between the characters. 

            The only variance in an evening’s line-up is the so-called reality show full of rednecks with scraggly beards and exaggerated southern accents.  These rednecks are also interchangeable.  They dig for gold or make moonshine or wrestle with alligators, and they all seem to be the same bunch of morons.  I can almost hear the directors shouting at them between shots.  “You’re not acting stupid enough!”  Because everybody knows if you don’t live in town you are a hick, and hicks are backward and ignorant, and probably sub-human, and do and say stupid things. 

            Twenty years ago, when I was still in the “dude business,” I took a middle aged gentleman on a two hour horseback ride.  He was balding, bespectacled, perhaps a little melancholy, but a nice enough guy.  In an attempt to keep things interesting, for me as well as for him, I asked what he did for a living.

            “I write for television.”

            “No kidding!”  I said.

            He nodded grimly, as if it were something regrettable, and mentioned several things he had written.  They ran the gamut, from sit-coms to dramas, even a couple Movies of the Week.  I became immediately fired up.

            “Mister,” I said, “You’ve got a lot to answer for.  I know you’re not personally responsible for it, but you’re as close as I’m likely to get.  Explain to me why it is whenever a character on TV is supposed to be from a rural area, he’s always a toothless, tobacco chewing rube.”

            “Because,” the writer said, “the producers who run the studios honestly believe that’s how it is.”

            “You can’t be serious.”

            “I’m dead serious.”

            Starling.  But, considering everything, I’m not surprised they believe it. Of course they do.  It’s not their fault, really.  They’ve just bought into the same B.S. we’ve all been fed, year after year, decade after decade.  Convenient characterizations are time-savers, because once we’ve got ‘em we don’t have to stop and consider actual people.  And they’re lots of fun, too.  Aren’t they!  Judy Canova was hugely popular in the forties on radio, playing the goofy, gingham clad country girl with red pigtails and–as my friend John Reese once put it—an innocence so vast it was almost a form of stupidity.  Simple people.  Trusting people.  Foolish.  Think Ma and Pa Kettle.  Think the Beverly Hillbillies.

            On the other side of the coin, movie stars Ronald Coleman and Myrna Loy were the constant thrust and parry of rapier wits, as were the urbane Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and weren’t they smart and wouldn’t we all like to be them, so erudite and glib with such nifty wardrobes to boot?  City people, smooth and classy. 

            Convenient characterizations.  The problem is, these days the characterizations have become mean spirited.  The innocent and trusting are now portrayed as idiots.  The smooth and classy are depicted as arrogant and cruel.  Everything has to have an edge to it.  Everything has to sting.

So we don’t have television anymore.  I find that this has improved my attitude and lowered my blood pressure.  Because when you go out there and start walking around, there’s just people.  Very few Ronald Colemans, even fewer Judy Canovas.  Just folks.  None of them have writers feeding them dialog, witty or otherwise. 

Thank goodness.  I would never be able to keep up.  

I wanted to run his “occasional newsletter” here because I see so much of this kind of convenient characterization by most of the political candidates and virtually all of the pundits discussing the political candidates. If you support Trump, you’re a knuckle-dragging, red-necked Neanderthal with a single-digit IQ and violent tendencies. If you support Hillary, you’re a slick, conniving, unscrupulous LGTB well-connected insider hoping to steal money from widows and orphans as soon as she gets elected. If you support Bernie, you’re a pampered, spoiled, ignorant college student who thinks everyone should get a gold star just for taking up space on the planet. Rooting for Ted Cruz? Clearly you’re a bible-thumping creationist who wants to take America back to the days when seven year old children worked sixteen hour days in the coal mines.

You get the picture. Personally, I used to be an angry, old, white, bible-thumping, gun-toting racist who believed in Dr. Ben Carson’s quiet civility and intelligence, but in politics quiet civility and intelligence have obviously gone the way of the one-horse shay and the ox-drawn plow, so I guess I’ll have to find another easy, denigrating characterization for myself.

In the meantime, just to cheer you up, I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics to one of Dave’s most hauntingly beautiful songs:

          The horse I ride is old but he has served me well

          Coat like old tobacco rich and warm

          He is old but he is sound

          My rein chains ring like bells

          We fit well together as we glide above the storm…

 

         The life I live goes on it fits me oh so well

         Old and new together evergreen

         I mount my horse at dawning

         My heart rings like a bell

         And we ride through the canyons

         Where the air is fresh and clean….

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