A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
Okay, bear with me here. This is a little like a blind man in a foreign land leading a bunch of the local inhabitants who all have 20/20 vision, but…
My agent informs me that something called “Kobo” is offering a special promotional purchase opportunity on Changing Earth, Changing Sky. The link is:
Since I am a stranger in a strange land, I have never heard of “Kobo” nor do I understand how any of this works, but since I’m sure all of you are far smarter and more internet savvy than I, I feel confident it will all make perfect sense to you.
Don’t get lost.
James Garner was one of the most underrated actors ever and I think the reason had much to do with his acting. He made it all look so easy, so effortless, his personal brand of charm and humor always showing through, so that it was hard to believe he was really doing anything. His first acting job was apparently a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, starring Henry Fonda, and if you have any interest at all in acting, and if your IQ is bigger than your hat size, it would be impossible to watch Henry Fonda night after night without learning a lot. No one ever accused Jim Garner of being stupid, and you could say he had some interest in acting.
Darleen and I fell in love in part because of James Garner. This is one of those tricky series of coincidences, so follow me closely here.
Around 1978 (I don’t remember the exact year; dates and I have never gotten along too well) I quit the soap opera One Life to Live and got cast in a movie that started filming literally the day after my last day as OLTL’s Brad the Cad. The movie was an ambitious project, an unsuccessful film version of Sylvia Plath’s famous autobiography, The Bell Jar. In keeping with my bad boy persona back then, I was cast as the narcissistic, preppy, predatory college Lothario, Buddy Willard. The star of that movie, the lady playing Sylvia Plath, was Marilyn Hassett.
In 1980 (give or take a year or so; damn dates), James Garner filmed a pilot for a new series called Bret Maverick, based on his highly successful late-fifties series, Maverick. The lady who co-starred opposite him in that pilot was Marilyn Hassett. Garner got injured doing a stunt, took some time off, looked at the footage for his pilot, and decided he didn’t like Marilyn’s work, or that they didn’t work well together, and decided to re-cast her and re-shoot the pilot. One of the girls who auditioned for the replacement role was an exceptionally pretty, sexy little redhead by the name of Darleen Carr.
The problem was the “little” part. Darleen claims five-two, but I think five feet is closer to actual fact. Garner, on the other hand, was six-one or two and taller still in cowboy boots. Garner liked what he saw in the filmed audition scenes, but everyone kept telling him it would never work because of the height difference.
In the meantime, also in 1980 (again, that date is more or less) Simon & Simon was filming its first season, showing in a disastrous time slot, and earning ratings somewhat lower than the test pattern. We were filming an episode that had something to do with a zoo, and the lady chosen to play the head zoo keeper was an exceptionally pretty, sexy little redhead by the name of Darleen Carr. She had already filmed two auditions for Bret Maverick, and they asked her to film a third one with Garner. She refused, saying it would interrupt her shooting schedule on Simon & Simon.
We were filming at the zoo in Griffith Park, and Darleen was sitting in a car, going over her lines, when out of nowhere a limo pulled up, James Garner got out, took her hand and helped her out the car, spun her around once, and said “You’re not too little,” got back in his limo and drove off. That was her third and final audition, and as soon as she finished filming with me and Mackie, she went to work playing photographer M. L. Springer on Bret Maverick.
(Above: Darleen as M.L. with James Garner. I know that look well and my heart goes out to poor Bret Maverick.)
The show was an instant hit and got excellent ratings. Simon & Simon, on the other hand, sank down lower than the local Chamber of Commerce airings and was cancelled. Over on Bret Maverick, the writers had decided to add a love interest for M. L. Springer, and I was cast as that potential love interest in the very last episode of that season. It turned out to be the very last season, period, the only season. A lot of varying reasons for the show’s demise were trotted out, none of which made a lick of sense, given that it was the highest-rated new show of the year. The truth, which was hushed up for obscure reasons, was that Garner—nobody’s fool, as I said—had discovered that one of the producers had been stealing from his production company (an incident I later incorporated into Return to Laughter) and in disgust he pulled the plug. That turned out to be fortunate for me, because the creator and producer of Simon & Simon had been waging a very successful PR campaign to have us aired at a better time during summer re-runs, our ratings had suddenly sky-rocketed, and CBS decided to give Simon & Simon another chance. In the meantime, I had gotten to know the exceptionally pretty, sexy little redhead and decided I liked her. Nothing more than that: we were both married to other people, but I thought she was definitely okay. Quite alright. Fun. Intelligent. Talented. A lot of fun. Not to mention exceptionally pretty and very sexy.
While I knew none of this until many years later, after Darleen and I had gotten married, Garner won my loyalty by his treatment of Darleen. Her son was dying slowly of an undiagnosed illness and she had notified Garner and the producers that her three year old was in the hospital and that things were not looking good. She would check in multiple times every day, calling the hospital from the stage, and it just so happened she had just finished rehearsing a final scene with Garner, her last of the day, when she made one of her calls and was notified that her boy wouldn’t last the night. She turned around, intending to film the scene and rush to the hospital, but Garner took one look at her face and pulled the plug on that day’s shooting. She protested, saying they had to finish and then she could go. He replied, “We’ll get it when we get it,” and steered her to the door.
(Above: Darleen as M.L. You can see why I fell in love.)
Garner was nominated for an Academy Award and countless Emmys, Golden Globes, and a slew of other awards over the years, many of which he won, and he deserved them all. He had a reputation for being extremely loyal to his friends and all the people who worked for him, and while some of his friends were household names, just as many—perhaps more—were just anybody he happened to like.
Garner had, by all accounts, an appalling childhood, and he could have taken any one of the myriad doors for good or ill that open to us all. He chose to became a gifted actor, a great star, a good and loyal friend, and from what I read, a devoted husband and father. He was an easy-going affable man, but not one who would tolerate anyone trying to take advantage of him. His multiple lawsuits against multiple entities in Hollywood are famous. Less famous, because he didn’t make a big deal about it or gloat publicly, was the fact that he won every single one. Also less well known is the story of his cornering the president of MCA, Sid Sheinberg, at that time the most powerful man in Hollywood and one of the defendants in Garner’s lawsuit against that company. Mr. Sheinberg had very publicly said some very uncomplimentary things about Garner, and when Garner trapped him in a hallway at Universal Studios, Sheinberg had a pretty good idea of what going to happen and called out to a security guard:
“Stop him! Stop him! He’s going to hit me!”
Garner turned around and looked at the guard. “Are you watching?” Then he slowly and deliberately raised one fist and decked Sheinberg. Easily. Effortlessly. With his own brand of charm and humor.
The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers!
Dick the Butcher, Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, sc. ii
Quail hunting in Georgia many years ago, I ran into Mary Ann Mobley and her husband, the late Gary Collins. It’s been multiple decades now, so don’t hold me to getting all the facts absolutely right, but this, briefly, is the story they told me as I remember it.
They had a home in Beverly Hills. They went out to dinner one night and someone broke into the house. Their Doberman chased the burglar out of the house, across the lawn and over the wrought iron fence. Unfortunately for the burglar, in his fear he made a bad crossing of the fence and fell, impaling his leg on one of those little arrow-shaped points at the top of the fence. Said burglar was arrested, charged, and convicted, but he then turned around and sued Gary and Mary Ann, and the basis of his suit was that the injury he had received while trying to get over the fence was so severe that he would no longer be able to pursue his chosen occupation as a burglar.
I kid you not.
In keeping with this lunatics-running-the-asylum theme, I have decided to add a blog category to track some of the sleazier doings of that most sleazy of professions. (Well, I exaggerate: lawyers take second place to politicians when it comes to oily sleaze, but it’s a close second.) I will start with an item that caught my eye recently, and unless multiple news agencies are coordinating in a hoax, it’s absolute gospel fact.
Here is the story as reported by Natalie DiBlasio in USA Today (I have deleted the man’s name because such scum are not worthy of having their names recorded):
“After brutally beating a man with his Nike Jordan shoes, a pimp filed a $100 million lawsuit against Nike for not providing a warning label that their shoes could be used as a dangerous weapon.
In June, *************************, 26, of Portland, Ore., repeatedly stomped on the face of a client with his Jordan shoes when the man refused to pay [the pimp’s] prostitute. The man required stitches and plastic surgery after the beating, The Oregonian reports.
The newspaper reports that the jury also found [the pimp] guilty of robbing the man and beating the 18-year-old woman he forced to work as his prostitute; her injuries were so severe that she bled from her ears.
[The pimp], who is representing himself, is asking a Multnomah County judge to order Nike to put warning labels on all their “potentially dangerous Nike and Jordan merchandise.”
[The pimp] handwrote a three-page complaint from the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton where he is incarcerated, the newspaper reports.
The complaint says that Nike “failed to warn of risk or to provide an adequate warning or instruction” that their shoes are a “potentially dangerous product.”
Two things make this worthy of being the lead blog in a sub-category of a small and insignificant website. First, because the pimp (who received a one-hundred year sentence for this and various other crimes) is representing himself, it provides us with a good comparative baseline for all lawyers. Second, it is worthy because according to several news sources, the suit is actually pending in front of a judge. Only in America.
I interviewed a lady named Sheila Varian a while back for one of the magazines I write for. For those of you who don’t know who she is, she breeds and trains Arabian horses, some of the finest Arabians anywhere, but what she is probably most famous for is being the first amateur, and the first woman, ever to win the Open Reined Cow Horse Championship at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That was back in 1961, when the modern rodeo world of (relatively) big purses and associations was just starting to hit the big time. What made her accomplishment even more astounding was that she did it all on her own Arabian. To wipe the eye of life-long cowboys who were and are confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool, born-and-bred Quarter horse men, and to do it with an Arabian was, well, epochal. But what was fascinating to me was her accounts of the rough-and-ready world of rodeo back then, a world that reminded me greatly of Garth Brooks’ famous song, Much Too Young to Feel this Damn Old:
This ol’ highway’s getting longer
Seems there ain’t no end in sight
To sleep would be best, but I just can’t afford to rest
I’ve got to ride in Denver tomorrow night
I called the house but no one answered
For the last two weeks no one’s been home
I guess she’s through with me, to tell the truth I just can’t see
What’s kept the woman holding on this long
And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold
I‘m much too young to feel this damn old
All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole
I’m much too young to feel this damn old
The competition’s getting younger
Tougher broncs, you know I can’t recall
The worn out tape of Chris LeDoux, lonely women and bad booze
Seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all
And the white line’s getting longer and the saddle’s getting cold
I’m much too young to feel this damn old
All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole
I’m much too young to feel this damn old
Lord, I’m much too young to feel this damn old.
It was, as the song implies, a world spent on the road (or in the hospital, depending on your luck) chasing a dream and betting your health and life on your skills and reflexes, a world where only a tiny fraction of the competitors actually come out with anything to show for all the years and pain and injury but a handful of buckles.
All of Sheila’s stories came flooding back the other night when Darleen and I watched The Lusty Men, with Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, and Arthur Kennedy. It’s a black-and-white, filmed in 1952, about the rodeo life, about chasing a dream, about the risks and temptations and the prices that even the lucky ones, the most successful ones, have to pay.
I am a huge Robert Mitchum fan (I once took an acting job in a short film without even reading the script because it starred Robert Mitchum and I wanted to meet him), but I had never heard of this movie. Nor had Darleen. And that’s a shame because it deserves more recognition.
A movie, just like a novel or any work of fiction, invites you to willingly suspend your disbelief and enter into that world, and the better the fictional world is created and portrayed, the more likely you are to suspend your disbelief. The Lusty Men captured the early-1950s world of rodeo so completely, so accurately, so believably, that there were moments when I almost believed I was watching a documentary. After all, this a world where many of the details are made up of little things that Darleen and I both know, so that a throw-away line about a horse coming out of the King Ranch breeding, a line most people might not even have heard, resonated with us. I know many of the towns and rodeo grounds where the movie takes place, and it all, even most of landscapes in the background, looked authentic to me (or very close to it), something that rarely happens in old films, where snow-covered mountains suddenly appear in the distance in Oklahoma, or open oak-studded savannah is supposed to represent the lush, heavy forest of the deep south, or—my favorite—flourishing farms sprout out of the Painted Desert.
But behind the technical details of filming (and some great performances, especially Mitchum’s) was the writing, writing that absolutely astounded me. I immediately went to look up the author and…And was disappointed.
The movie credits say it was based on a novel by Claude Stanush, but unless I have somehow missed something in my research, Claude Stanush only had one novel to his name, and even that was a co-authorship with his daughter written late in his life, long after The Lusty Men. He was primarily a journalist and short-story writer from San Antonio, Texas, who managed to hornswoggle his way into a stint with Life Magazine by camping out for weeks in the office waiting room until the editor, in frustration, finally agreed to speak to him.
(The conversation, apparently went something like this:
Editor: “What are your qualifications?”
Editor: “You’re hired.”)
But whatever his qualifications might have been, Stanush (who only died in 2011) was never a cowboy, nor even—until that one novel with his daughter—a novelist. The idea for the movie was taken from an essay he wrote while with Life. Was he so good at his research that he was able to capture the essence of rodeo life and rodeo cowboys so perfectly, so accurately, both the good and the bad? How did he learn so much about the details of horses, broncs, pick-up men, bulls, calf-roping, saddles, reatas, the endless driving from one rodeo to another, the wives, the buckle-bunnies, the broken down hangers-on, the self-destructive world outside the arenas, the whole panorama of that then small, tightly knit world?
On the suspicion that his essay-turned-movie script might have been sweetened by some other writer with first-hand knowledge of that world, I checked the credits. A total of six writers (including Stanush) were listed, three of them as “uncredited.” “Uncredited,” according to Dan Bronson (http://hollywood-nobody.com/) probably means it was a case of arbitration by the Writers’ Guild. But of those six writers, one was a Brit, one was from New York, one from Tennessee, one from Hungary, and one was the Brooklyn-born, the legendary Jerry Wald, who wasn’t even really a writer at all, but rather a producer, a hustler, an “idea man,” (a guy who is paid to brainstorm ideas for everything from titles—this one is dreadful—to storylines to plot twists), and the putative inspiration for the character of Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? The only one who was even from the West (if you count a major city like San Antonio as the West) was Stanush. Not one of them knew a damned thing about cowboys or rodeo, but somehow, between them, they turned out probably the most realistic rodeo movie ever made. I’m going to assume the credit has to go to Stanush; as a journalist, he would have understood the importance of research and accuracy, but he must have spent an awful lot of time on the road doing that research.
The bottom line, however, is that The Lusty Men is a great example of the magic of Hollywood. Take an idea, add a bunch of disparate men from all parts of the globe, all of them bursting with ideas and ambition and contention, and somehow, sometimes, out of this chaos comes magic.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to throw Robert Mitchum into the mix.
For some reason, many readers of this site seem to think I am a conservative. They seem to think I’m an old-fashioned right-wing Republican conservative. I consider that an insult, because I am so much further to the far right than those Republicans that I make them look like Obama Democrats. In fact, I’m so far right I make Genghis Khan look like Nancy Pelosi’s wussy younger sister. It is my belief, as regular readers know, that America would be a better, happier, more prosperous place if we just followed the good example of some of the ancient Greek and Roman city-states, and immediately hung any and every politician who had the temerity to propose a new law. Any law, for any reason. Hell, hang ‘em all even if they don’t propose a new law.
On the other hand, I do consider Ronald Reagan to have been a prophetic genius. He may have done some good things, and he may have done some bad things, but no one can deny the searing brilliance and foresight of his statement that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Whatever the government touches, no matter how small and no matter how benign their intention, is doomed to disaster. The sheer, staggering incompetence and frequently outright corruption of the American government has reached new levels, set heights and standards that no other civilization will ever be able to even approach. Let’s just look at one small example: Telemarketing.
I am the most patient of men, the kind of mild and easy-going fellow who sails serenely through life, never allowing the little ups and downs of the modern world to disrupt the tranquility of my disposition. However, when the telephone rings during the dinner hour, all I really long for in this world is a fully automatic .50 caliber machine gun and the chance to put that sucker to good use. There should be an open season—no, a bounty—on telemarketers. Since, sadly, there isn’t, Darleen and I took the most reasoned steps available to us. We’ve taken to turning the phones off, completely off, ringers, speakers and all. We then naïvely, as all good little modern-day American citizens are supposed to, turned to America’s Mommy-and-Daddy-and-Nanny all rolled into one: the federal government, the same government that keeps telling us we should trust it, that it can and will take care of us all, that it’s in control, that it can handle everything, it will make the world a better place.
The United States government’s Federal Trade Commission website (“protecting America’s consumers!” it lies blatantly on its home page) has an entire section devoted to a Do Not Call Registry. The fact that the FCC has to have an entire section devoted to this should give you some idea of the scope of the problem, but this is not a case where misery loves company. It is, rather, a case where the existence of such a site makes you begin to suspect the government has no more control over this than they do over anything else, the Middle East, the VA, the border, meteorites from outer space. And since we have already registered our telephone number, and verified that registration, you might think all would be well, that dinner at the Parker household could proceed in peace and quiet, uninterrupted, with the kind of old-fashioned dignity and graciousness of Downton Abbey. Well, okay, maybe not quite like that, since we eat at the kitchen counter and the butler has been conspicuous by his absence in the Parker household since long before I was born, but you get the idea.
Since I do not have access to a .50 caliber fully-automatic machine gun, and since the number of robo-calls has actually increased since we registered, I went back to the site, and went right to the Submit a Complaint tab, and just as I was about to waste more of my time and energy filling out that portion of the site, what do you think caught my eye?
“Reminder: even if your number is registered, some organizations may still call you, such as charities, political organizations, telephone surveyors…”
Wait! What was that? Say that again. “Political organizations?” Political organizations! You mental midgets! Who the hell do you think I’m trying to get to stop calling me?!
I got so frustrated when I saw that sentence that I gave up and decided to go back to work, and as I backed out of the site, another sentence caught my eye, and I kid you not. I couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s on the front page, at the bottom, in a little box:
“Scammers have been making phone calls claiming to represent the National Do Not Call Registry. The calls claim to provide an opportunity to sign up for the Registry. These calls are not coming from the Registry or the Federal Trade Commission, and you should not respond to these calls.”
Sooooo, telemarketing scammers are so intimidated by the threat of dread legal repercussions from the FCC that they are actually pretending to be the very governmental organization they’re ignoring? Oh, goody. The federal government sure has everything firmly under control, you betcha. I just can’t hardly wait until the IRS takes over the administration of Obamacare. That should solve a lot of our over-population problems.
In the meantime, should you call, I’m trying to get Darleen to leave the following message:
“The Parkers are dead. If they owed you money, call their lawyer. Do not leave a message.”
I have released another book for your reading pleasure, your literary satisfaction, your general edification, your artistic amazement, your… Oh, never mind. I have released another book.
Changing Earth, Changing Sky (the title comes from an incredibly obscure poem by an even more obscure poet—the official poet to the court of Henry VIII—that I stumbled across somewhere and have been unable to find since; but the phrase stuck in my head) is about a young lady determined to change her life, every aspect of it. But like so many of the plans we make, the changes that occur are not necessarily the ones she had in mind.
I had no intention of writing a book when I began the thing. I started it for myself primarily as an academic exercise, the kind of thing you might be assigned at one of those writer’s workshops, to see if I could write from a woman’s point of view, just a handful of pages to see if I could pull it off. But more or less by itself, without any real volition or control on my part, a handful of pages turned into a hefty chunk of pages. That’s not surprising, really—I can’t even sign my name to a check in less than several hundred words—but what did surprise me was finding I had done the Pygmalion thing and fallen in love with my creation.
I admire people with spunk. I am bored by what the Germans’ colorfully call a Waschlappen, which literally means a washcloth, but figuratively means a spineless invertebrate who can be walked over and taken advantage of. And as I wrote, that desire for spunk came out in my creation, and the more it came out, the more I found myself drawn to it and writing more to see what she might do next.
In Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he talks about where story ideas come from, how out of the blue a thought pops into one’s head that might, by itself, have no significance or inspiration, but it pops in just as one happens to see something completely unrelated, and the two things come together and sort of juxtapose themselves, and the next thing one knows, one is off writing, either about an interesting girl looking for change, or about oneself using the arch abstraction of “one.” Fortunately, I chose to write about the girl. But some of the things that happened as I wrote were that random, that unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated images and events. I don’t want to give too much away here, because I want you to spend your hard-earned dollars and read the thing, but in the course of doing some chores in the nearest big city, I saw some gang-bangers, the kind of men who radiate danger and contempt for everything and anything, and without my really intending it, they ended up muscling their way into the book. With interesting results…
A reader who stumbled across the book on Amazon took me to task—very nicely, very gently—for not doing anything to publicize the book or even announce that it was in existence. I plead extenuating circumstances. First, I had trouble with my website, which apparently decided it didn’t have to take orders from anyone as computer/internet illiterate as I, and began to misbehave disgracefully. I had to call in the big guns, in the form of my website administrator to figuratively take website out behind the woodpile and give it a good talking to. Then I had trouble getting a copy of the cover with the right number of pixels or whatever they’re called. And then work reared its ugly head in the form of various deadlines, and—in short—what with one thing and another, the book went public before I did. I apologize. You can find it under my “Books” tab, and that will take you to Amazon.
As always, if you like it, please give it a good review and a “Like” on Amazon. If you don’t, please maintain a diplomatic silence.
Oh, are you going to have fun!
My friend Dan Bronson (that’s him up above, pressing down hard on the old mental accelerator) is a semi-retired screenwriter. That’s a little bit like saying, “Spike is a semi-retired pit-bull.” Spike may not be actively engaged in killing anything and everything on four legs just at the moment, but it doesn’t mean the bloodthirsty impulse, the longing for the taste of blood, the murderous instincts, the essential desire for violence and mayhem (all of which are traits writers share with pit-bulls) have all been retired; it just means Spike isn’t killing anyone as I write this.
Dan, who—to be honest—perhaps isn’t quite as bloodthirsty as a pit-bull named Spike, has written a memoir of his time cringing under the lash in the salt mines of Hollywood. It is entitled Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody (available on Amazon), and it qualifies as a wild, irreverent, raucous, and howlingly funny account of the ups and downs, the hits and misses, the mendacity and arrogance, the back-stabbing and phony friendships, the eccentricity and frequently self-destructive behavior, and the occasional true friendship and loyalty that epitomize the golden glamour of the show biz racket in the city of angels and dreams and demons. I recommend it wholeheartedly. It is as refreshing a memoir as I have read in a long time. Perhaps only David Niven’s great autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon comes close to the same delicate balance between honesty and humor, but Dan’s writing is a wild and unique style worth reading for itself alone.
So I recommend the book, but you will notice that I have added a link to his website (Hollywood Nobody) in my “Links” column. (Duh. Where else would you add it, Jameson?) He has started a website in part to publicize the book, but primarily because he is starting an online screen-writing class. Since I have known Dan for a longish while now, and have had a small taste of his abilities as teacher, I can wholeheartedly recommend his class to anyone with any interest in learning how to write screenplays professionally. (Actually, if anyone really wants to learn how to write screenplays, I would recommend taking his class in conjunction with psychotherapy, but perhaps I’m a trifle cynical.) But even if you have absolutely zero interest in ever having anything to do with Hollywood beyond reading the headlines of the National Intruder while unloading your grocery cart, I also strongly suggest you visit his site for sheer entertainment value. Dan has the kind of loopy sense of humor that really appeals to me, but more than that, the site itself is fun, full of pages and tabs and links and connections that amuse and delight, including a tab where you can listen to him read chapters from his book. To quote a famous old character actor I worked with once long ago: If you don’t like this, you don’t like chocolate cake!
Many years ago (never mind precisely how many; suffice it to say it was back in the days when the 33&1/3 LP was king) I was browsing through a record store (Yes, children, there used to be stores, just like bookstores—remember those?—where one could browse through vinyl records and… What? You don’t know what a vinyl record is?) and I stumbled across a Caedmon recording of Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. The fact that there is a recording at all is something of a miracle: it was recorded at the last moment, as an afterthought, when an unknown someone, who deserves a front-row seat in Heaven, placed a single microphone on the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York during the first reading of the play, the only reading ever that included Dylan Thomas.
I was—and still am—a big Dylan Thomas freak. Miserably unhappy at my first boarding school (in Switzerland) I turned to poetry as an escape. Literally. Or, more accurately, as part of an escape: I would take a book of poems and walk away from the classes, away from the shabby building, the sadistic students jockeying brutally for dominance, teachers who thought their students were despicable and who expressed that thought regularly by slapping faces and boxing ears and kicking backsides, from the food that put at least one student into the hospital, from the ridiculously and artificially structured and meaningless discipline, from all of it, up into the vineyards that lined the hills above the school, and looking out at Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, in English) I would read poetry out loud to myself and for the edification of the grapes. Those vineyards that year probably produced the worst wine ever to come out of Switzerland, and that’s saying something. I called this keeping my sanity; the school called it running away, and I was eventually thrown out for it. But one of the poems I had recently discovered, and that I read out loud to sour the grapes, was Fern Hill:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…
Oh, yes; I can still do much of it from memory. But in that record store so many years ago (I was in college at the time, Beloit College, or perhaps on suspension) I was thrilled to see the LP, with Dylan Thomas’ fleshy, pug-nosed face on it, looking as if he were trying unsuccessfully to hide pain with a veneer of arrogance. I had never even heard of Under Milk Wood, but I snapped it up. And I was transfixed, transported, mesmerized by those lyrical, lilting, rambunctious, randy, rollicking words; by Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary voice—vintage-port-in-a-seaside-pub made audible—by the performances, all of them (only Sada Thompson might be still remembered today, for her work on the TV series Family), by the sly humor and pathos of it, and most of all by the naked love expressed in those words.
It is described as a play for voices, but it is by any standards an odd play. Structured loosely—and much more briefly—along the lines of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which Thomas almost certainly had never heard of, it is a portrait of small Welsh fishing village seen through the dreams of its inhabitants, and through the words of the dead and the dead past brought to life by those dreams. It takes place in a single day in the village of Llareggub (and if you read that name backwards, you will get a hint of Thomas’ sometimes schoolboy humor) as the inhabitants gradually wake and go about their business, until night, “bible-black,” gradually closes down once more around the town.
It is, as all the best of Dylan Thomas is, rich, evocative, incomparable in its playful use of language, moving, funny, bawdy, and—like all good art—it lingers with you long after you’re done.
I hadn’t read it in forty years, but something Darleen said prompted a memory and I pulled my copy down the other night. I had planned to just dip into it, a passage here, a fondly remembered speech there; at one-thirty, the whole thing savored slowly, I staggered happily off to bed.
Many people don’t read plays. I think this is, in part, an unconscious realization of the truth of Stanislavski’s famous epigram: “People don’t go to the theater to see what the playwright has written. People go to the theater to see what the playwright has not written.” I suspect most people do want a director and actors to flesh out the bones strewn upon the page, that most people don’t have an imagination that is geared to that particular process. This is not, and is not intended to be, a pejorative statement; it just takes a certain way of reading, one that actors must, of necessity, develop. And even then, a good director can transcend anything even the best imagination can come up with. I had read Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times in an ecstasy of passionate adolescent delight when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s movie and realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was there.
But Under Milk Wood is, as Thomas described it, a play for words (it was intended originally for radio broadcast only) and so it qualifies as a very short epic poem. Or perhaps as just a long narrative poem. Or perhaps just as a damn good poem of any category or description. And as such, it can be very effectively read all by itself. Like any poem, it should be read out loud, and like all of Dylan Thomas’ work it should be read out loud with great relish and uninhibited enthusiasm. Don’t worry about “understanding” it; poetry isn’t intended to be understood in an intellectual way any more than a painting is intended to be understood. It is intended to evoke an emotional response, and if there are occasional words you don’t know (a “courter” is either an archaic variation of courtier, or one who courts, but I had to look it up) don’t worry about it. Get the overall emotional ebb and flow of the piece, let the words wash over you like music, and worry about understanding later.
But get your hands on a copy and read it. Get to know blind Captain Cat, and affectionate, erotic, kindly Polly Garter, the feckless and would-be-murderous Mr. Pugh, Rosie Probert, Gossamer Beynon, Sinbad Sailors, get to know all of them. Get to know a Wales that may never have been, but that will never cease to exist.
It’s hard to know to what extent the rest of the country, or the world, is aware of the drought affecting much of the West, but it’s bad. It’s bad throughout all the Southwest, but especially in California. Like an old vaudeville routine, it begs the question: How bad is it?
Objectively, it is severe enough that there is something about it on the news practically every day. These reports feature colored maps with most of the Southwest in some shade of yellow or red, but with almost all of California shown in a dark and dirty shade of brown, a sort of über-red. A few days ago I drove down to the Central Valley, the salad, fruit, and nut bowl of the world, and the giant electronic billboards normally used to warn drivers to “Click It or Ticket,” or occasionally to post an Amber alert, were all lit up with warnings to conserve water. Some of the farmers down there are actually pulling out their citrus orchards: there isn’t enough water to keep the trees alive. The water in the Sacramento Delta that would normally grow oranges is being withheld for a tiny fish, called a smelt, that may or may not be endangered, depending on who you talk to, a decision made by environmentalists with swimming pools who play golf with politicians on manicured courses in Palm Springs.
Anecdotally, there are almost no cattle no speak of left in the mountains in this part of the state; the herds have all been sold off or shipped north. When I go out to clean the pastures, abnormally short and stunted grasses crack beneath my feet, and little puffs of dust rise up around my boots. Even the hardy, obnoxious, and ubiquitous mustard weed is dry and brittle.
But what really brought it home was something that happened the other day when Darleen and I were trimming branches on some of the trees around the house. I was taking advantage of being forced at wife-point to do chores, and I had turned the hose on very low to water two cottonwoods we planted many years ago as shade trees for the horses. Cottonwoods are tough, double-tough, capable of driving their roots deep into the ground for any kind of moisture, but even they need some help in times like these.
I was doing the heavy lifting, piling up the branches into the bed of my truck, tying them down, then off to the local dump. On the way back, after about the third or fourth trip, as I drove up my driveway, I saw one of those steel-cuts of a deer silhouetted in the shade under one of the cottonwoods. You know the kind of thing: yard art cut out of large sheets of metal in the form of deer or elk or horses or perhaps a cowboy leaning up against a wall, charming or tacky, depending on your point of view and on the skill of the artist doing the cutting.
But this one surprised the hell out of me, because I had never seen it before, and I wondered when Darleen had bought it, how she had gotten it home and hidden it without my seeing it, and how she had managed to get it set up under the trees. The damn things are heavy.
I kept driving closer, my brain addled by heat and work, staring at it, until, when I was only about twenty yards away, it raised its head. It was a very live button-buck (a fawn that is old enough to grow its first set of antlers) drinking out of the well around the base of the cottonwood.
I want to delineate the magnitude of this: It was at the height of the afternoon heat, a time when deer normally stay bedded down in the shade to avoid heat stress; the cottonwoods are at least a hundred yards from the edge of the hill behind the house, where the trees and boulders provide shade and shelter; the hill behind the house is south-facing, and in these mountains, only north-facing slopes have any springs or rivulets. Yet this little buck was so desperate for water that he had come a long way down a dry hill and crossed all that open space in bright sunlight just to get a drink. Not only that, but he was so desperately thirsty that when I stopped my truck only twenty yards away, he only looked at me briefly and then went right back to drinking. He drank steadily for about five minutes, occasionally changing his position relative to the water, but never again lifting his head, resolutely ignoring an idling pickup.
The late Roger Ott, a part Cherokee horse trainer, once told me that the plains Indians used to capture wild horses by the simple expedient of posting squaws at every known water hole. Then the young braves would start to chase the horses in relays. The wild horses of course would run away easily at first, but as the day went on the heat began to build they would need water. The squaws would chase them off the waterholes, and this would go on and on until finally the desperate and exhausted horses would stand in a nervous group, uncertain what to do. One of the braves would walk up with a water bag and give the dominant mare a sip, just a taste, of water from his hand, then turn and walk away. And that mare and rest of the band would all follow.
It’s a sign of how bad things are when animals become desperate enough to ignore their own survival instincts in order to follow an even greater imperative. I suspect we have many nocturnal visitors to the horse troughs down by the barn. And I pray our well holds up.
Just for fun, I post this marvelous quote by Auberon Waugh (eldest son of Evelyn, nephew of Alec) sent to Steve Bodio by another wonderful writer, Tom McIntyre:
“There are countless horrible things happening all over the country, and horrible people prospering, but we must never allow them to disturb our equanimity or deflect us from our sacred duty to sabotage and annoy them whenever possible.”