March 2013

If I had been just a little smarter

Montana was very new, at least white-settled Montana was, and almost all the people who had come early on had come after the railroad came in. And that was in the 1880’s, and in the late fifties some of those folks were still around, not many, and others who seemed ancient to a ten-or twelve-year-old boy were very much around, and had been since before the First World War. My father and many of his colleagues had been in the services during the Second World War, which had ended the year that I was born, but the First World War was as remote in time to me as the Civil War or, for that matter, Agincourt. (Time is new to a twelve-year-old and very hard to measure, and now I just wonder where all those damn decades went.)

Merrill Burlingame, the historian, had come to teach at Montana State in 1920, and then there was Doctor Caroline McGill, who had come in 1910, and she was a quite amazing woman. She was a physician with a large practice, a power in the state, the owner of a dude ranch, a horsewoman of great skill, and I wish to the heavens I had just fastened my teeth into her ankle and hung close. But to a boy, she was just a formidable old woman who dressed in an ancient style and for whom I had no measure. I do now. I met her in the Quonset hut on Eighth Avenue, which led up to the campus from Main Street.  She, and Merrill Burlingame and some others including my mother had somehow gotten a small museum going.  I spent a great deal of time there. It was not noble public service, I seem to remember a growing number of old buffalo rifles–many people had these dreadful relics in their attics or tack rooms–lever-action rifles with long octagonal barrels—and I suppose I was more or less wondering how I could swipe one.  The possibility of one being given to me for good and faithful service was absurd. For openers, my parents did not like guns, at all, and some antique cannon like a .45-120 was not easy to conceal. The shells for the rifle were seven inches long and hard to find. Ah well, noble public service……

Merrill Burlingame addressed a luncheon attended by local businessmen and when he totted up the take after his plea for money he found some generous soul had given one quarter and that was the entire contribution. He was still sore about it forty years later. But the museum was well begun. Doc McGill was there often, and our family from time to time were guests at her dude ranch–real guests, since my father’s income from his professorship was not enough to cover what the place would have cost– and I began to piece together Doc McGill’s amazing story.

She had been born in Missouri, went to the University of Missouri, and was denied entry into their medical school, even though her grades were perfect she was, after all, a woman, and of course that would not do… she took a PhD in Physiology. Then she got a scholarship to study in Europe, and she went for a couple of years, sending back over a thousand postcards as her journal of her time there.  She was accepted at the Medical School of the Johns Hopkins University, finished the four-year course in two, but was not allowed to march in the graduation parade, even though she was first in her class. She was a woman and a delicate male ego would have popped with each step of her dainty foot. She got on a train, and sent a postcard to the folks back home in Lebanon, Missouri. “I am going to Butte, Montana, aren’t I smart?” it said.

Butte, Montana was a huge mining camp, many of the miners were immigrants, and the real Labor Wars were dead ahead.  Butte’s history, had I but one sentence to describe it, can be found in the number of the local miner’s union. WFM/UMWA Local # 1. She treated the miners and their families. Proud people, they paid her with heirlooms they had brought from the old country. China and clocks and the like.  She kept them as a trust. She knew and supported artists. She seems to have known everybody in the state. A friend of mine from an old Montana family says that he knew she was the most powerful single person in eastern Montana and when he went to Missoula to go to college he found that she was the single most powerful person there, too.

She died in 1959, and the little museum is now The Museum of the Rockies.

And I remember her as being quite beautiful, with fine features and clear, shrewd blue eyes, and though she seemed to like people well enough, she was never fooled by them. I committed some heinous act at her ranch and was brought before her to apologize.  She knew I was adopted. “So,”she said sweetly to my mother,”have you thought of taking him back for a refund?” And her eyes twinkled merrily…..

and what will come, will come…….

Last year was rather awful for the summer and well into the fall.  There were a lot of fires and the smoke was thick and there was heat, many days one after another when the temperature was ninety or more, which I don’t recall much of here in Montana. A day or two now and again, but not months of heat, and no rain at all, which does happen. The newspapers say there is a “water deficit” by which I suppose they mean a drought. The water table is below normal. I have wondered how normal was calculated and have yet to hear a useful explanation. There seems to be a witless conspiracy to replace perfectly good words with precise meanings with others not so well found. Drought is replaced by “water deficit” and the silly “impacts” seems to replace “effects” and neither improves much of anything.

People talk of the weather so they can talk about something when they wish to talk. For most of my life the weather has been something that came on and there was not much to do about it and so one complained or approved or felt thankful for the better sort. It hadn’t much spread to it. Not any more. Weather is very politically fraught these days. In Montana, our wondrous Legislature passed a resolution stating that “global warming is good for business.” Last summer’s heat was taken by some as final proof of the End of Days unless……something. Outlaw internal combustion engines, the burning of coal, the use of charcoal fires to cook food on, whatever. This is not going to end well, of course, but there isn’t much to be done about it. Humans are a very successful species and they won’t be the first to eat themselves out of house and home. So it goes.

But here, so far so good, but I hope that the year does not bring abundant fires and smoke and heat. I like living here because it is usually pleasant. Clouds of smoke and walls of flame and days spent coughing and nights spent blowing the hot air out of home are not as much fun as I would like to have. It has gotten warm enough so beetles have killed a dismaying percentage of our forests, and then the great fires of 1910 and 1911 meant a bloom of lodgepole pine–their seeds don’t open unless the  cones are fired–and lodgepole pine lives around a century and then the trees die of old age. I have seen writings that state that the entire Rocky Mountain chain’s forests burnt altogether in the middle of the fourteenth century. It could happen again.

Last year a large number of ill-sited homes in many places burned, and the seas took other houses that were built in places that perhaps should not have been built upon ever. My parents lived for decades in the little California college town of Chico, which was built upon topsoil twenty feet deep. Nearby are scablands, useless for agriculture, which would serve for building a town on just fine, thank you.  But that didn’t happen and it won’t.

So here I am, hoping for a cool and rainy summer, not so much rain it spoils the fishing, like most people here.  We will get what we get, though, and complain if we do not like it. We are a bunch of damned fools and always have been, and never able to make sensible decisions about much of anything. The small questions baffle us and the larger ones offer vast disasters which we seem always to set in train.

So, I do believe I shall go fishing, and later, since it is a nice day, I shall set some hardwood charcoal alight and grill some burgers, and after that play some music and then go to sleep……


Winter and Feathers and Magic

We arrived from Colorado in August of 1955, having passed through Yellowstone Park on the way.  We went, of course, to Old Faithful, which had a couple sets of those cheap green bleachers remote schools have in their gyms and an appalling amount of litter. Even at ten, I was aware that good manners were rare. And so I had a few days for important matters such as fishing before trudging off to the Longfellow School to serve my time. I had grown up in a house filled with books and a father who loved mathematics because at least they were certain, and I sat in a resentful, bored stupor which come to think on it I still had at the University of Michigan years later, with some notable exceptions for wonderful professors who taught…..ah, well.

Winter came and in December the temperature sank to forty below. The exhaust from the house furnace went straight up in a tight column to a pale sky. My mother heard of a course for small bored boys taught by a man who lived a couple blocks away. “You can learn how to tie trout flies,”she said. That was the most interesting thing I had heard since we had moved here.  Off I went, and all I had was a little red bench vise, a toy, really, and a bit of curiosity. I don’t recall the teacher or much else from that first class, but I will never forget and can see it yet the magic of a hackle being wrapped. A rather ordinary chicken feather from a rooster’s neck cape was stripped of fluff, tied by the butt of the center quill to the shank of the hook, and then it was wrapped round.  And there was a magnificent ruff, which looked vaguely like those ridiculous things men wore round their necks in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth.  It was a magical moment, right up there with the spider who had the underwater home.

Ever after I have been tying trout flies. It is soothing in the winter, and they make much appreciated gifts. I even tied commercially for a while, but concluded I could much more profitably take on a job at McDonald’s. I used the flies that I tied and I sold flies to older fishermen, usually colleagues of my father at Montana State College. It was a lot of fun.  I used trout flies in some rivers and seasons, and I used lures or bait in others.  I still do. I like fishing, don’t much care how I go about it.

I guided a little but concluded that if, fifteen minutes into the float, I was thinking about harvesting the client’s organs for transplant or mink food I probably should think of doing something else. I liked the fishing well enough, and had the luck to live in a place with great trout waters everywhere about. Long ago, when I was a young feller, there were a few fishermen about. I could go to the Madison and see perhaps four other people in a day……and then…..Industrial Fly Fishing came along and now all summer the ludicrous guideboats, prow against stern, parade down the rivers. Mackenzie riverboats, often enough, designed for the big coastal rivers and steelhead fishing, and now used here.  They are so noisy it is rather like hunting deer at the head of a marching band. The favored rods are stiff, so one may cast long distances, which has nothing at all to do with fishing, at least here. The visiting fishermen pretty much wear silly costumes–shirts with suncapes and embroidered flies on the pockets. Some wear their many-pocketed vests to restaurants. Christ, some wear their waders……but they do spend a lot of money, and Livingston depends for much of its income on them.

I need not expatiate on the opinions held by the residents here on the “tourons and fishdips” who come. Like any resort economy or occupied country the invaders are not loved.

But I do recall the hackle spun about the hook’s shank and the days alone on the river and never mind what it became.


How many brook trout do you want?

We lived in a small two-bedroom house on Grand Street, a few minutes walk from the campus. Langohrs nursery was the other direction, and they had a pond which held the water for irrigating their flowers and trees and shrubs which served for the trackless Amazon and so forth, when a kid could pole a small and sodden raft around or, as a friend did one day, pour the gasoline in the handy can for the lawnmower on the water. The culprit tried to get me to throw a match after the spreading rainbow stain but I was too wary even then. So he did and there was a whoosh and sudden flame and his eyebrows and the front half of his hair burned away. I pointed out that he might not have tossed the match from the end of the little dock. Shore would have done as well.  He was too busy blinking and sorting explanations for his peculiar appearance to pay much attention.

The water was diverted from a little creek that meandered through the meadows south of town, deep soil accumulated in the holds of the beaver dams that once had been here in some numbers. William Clark and his men tried to cross the gathered waters at dusk, on the return trip from the Pacific, and between the mosquitoes and the deep ponds it was unpleasant enough for him to recall it years later as one of the worst times of the trip.  The little creek had cut down into the old pond beds, and ancient beaver dams were visible in the walls cut by the stream.  The bark of the sticks used by the beavers had turned orange, and all the dams were in the shape of a V inverted, the top sticks flat and jiggery. The beavers were wiped out by trappers, but the dams held for decades, and when Bozeman’s first settlers came in from the west–Oregon–to grow crops to sell to the miners in Alder Gulch, they pulled the dams down and turned the black soil, rich as soon as it got some air.

The little creek was a spring creek and thick with scuds, freshwater shrimp, and brook trout fed well and had pink flesh, mark of the crustaceans. Most trout are about as flavorful as a wedge of newspaper, but these small fish were good.  There was no limit back then but a vague “twenty pounds” and I soon learned how to catch as many fish as any friend wanted to cook.  I had a long pole, a few feet of line, a hook with a split shot right on top of it, and a piece of worm. I dabbed this through the holes, standing back enough so I could not see the stream or the fish see me, and flipped out fish on to the meadow grass. Twenty out of one hole the size of a pool table wasn’t unusual, and all of them were fat and bright- colored. The creek itself was beautiful, the water weeds swaying in the currents so gracefully, the fish hiding in them, easy to see if one looked for a bright orange pectoral fin amid the dark pulsating green.

At a pond in my mother’s hometown of Pierre, South Dakota, I saw a spider run down a cattail and into the water.  I sped back to my grandparent’s house and made up a tube with some clear cellophane taped to one end.  I went back to the cattail where I had seen the spider and poked the tube in the water and there the creature was, in a little bell-shaped spider house. The spider was scraping bubbles of air off its body, to add to the air at the top of the bell. It was wonderful and marvelous then and it still is to me. So I made a larger one and explored the creek as well as I could.  There were great numbers of fish, amazing for such small waters, and no matter how many I took–a hundred was not unusual–it never seemed to make any difference whatever to their numbers hiding in the weeds.

Now it is a ‘burb, houses here and there, cheek by jowl clear to the mountains, and the creek is still there but doesn’t look healthy, and it actually doesn’t make me all that sad, since my time there was a long time ago now, and do have that. The past is past and people need houses to live in, and if there are more people in Bozeman now, there are fewer in eastern Montana, and the fish are much better eating.



…And Over There Are Willows, and Therefore Trout

In our present state of political quarreling, the Guvverment is snarked at as an evil pestilence upon the land. Democracies are sloppy and fractious and only when pressed by external enemies do our folk quit battling each other and do a few things for us all. In the horror of WW II some thought was given to the peace, and the almost inevitable economic depression which comes when wars end. So, and this measure was so sensible it became probably the most successful public policy any country ever, ever came up with, our leaders passed the GI Bill. Since government then is like government now–a bunch of lawyers who went to good schools, mostly–they thought that perhaps a quarter-million of the twelve million men and women who had served in the military might like to go to college or a trade school.

Nine million of the twelve did indeed wish to get a good education and this gave our country the best-schooled population any country on earth had and the economic power of that brought us untold wealth and opportunity. My father was one of the people who could go on and get advanced degrees and it meant that instead of being a high school mathematics teacher he could enter university life. Like most human experiences, it was a bit more complicated than his merely deciding to go on with his education. He had a job teaching mathematics in the high schools of Boulder,. Colorado. But then there was a financial kerfuffle, a millage didn’t pass or something, and he was given notice that he would not be teaching as of the first of the year. He went on home, feeling quite down about it, to the little stone house he and my mother had bought, and she gave him a message.  “This man has called twice,”she said.

The Colorado School of Mines had, I seem to remember, lost their wrestling coach to an automobile accident and did my old man want the job? He said he would need a couple of hours to think it over, and he went back to the high school, found his mentor, and asked if this seemed a good idea. “If you have a chance to enter college life and work, take it. TAKE IT. said the man, so we moved to Golden and my father went on to get a Doctorate at the University of Indiana, in Education, and I recall how damn muggy and buggy Indiana was and how with our great good fortune we were there when the seventeen-year cicadas were hatching and mating and bellowing all day and all night about it. (I drive through the state time to time but I do not linger.) In time my father got a position at Montana State College and so it was that we left Colorado and came to Bozeman.

Bozeman was a pretty little Western town with a small cow college in it set in a long valley and near the mountains. We arrived, in August of 1955, and stayed in the visiting athletic teams’ quarters in the old Romney Gymnasium. I looked off to the east, saw a line of willows, grabbed my fish pole and an entrenching tool, and found Sourdough Creek.I dug a few worms, tossed in the hook, and what was to me a giant fish took the bait. I pedaled my bike back to the gym, bearing the fish. All trauma of dislocation had evaporated.  Matter of fact, Montana was home and would be henceforth.

I had a paper route soon enough, and my last stop was always the Oaks, a bar long gone from Main Street.  It was finished in oak, even unto the coolers and the top of the bar, and in the front of the place there was a big round table and around it were old cowboys who lived in one or another cheap hotel and who sipped red beers or whiskey ditches most of the day, as they waited for death. Some were in their eighties, even nineties, and claimed to have ridden up from Texas with the first big cattle drives in the 1880’s. They were my friends and teachers, and they always told the truth. Or so they said…..and the West was very young, even then.

My mother took me to lectures on Montana history some evenings, given by Merrill Burlingame, who I first saw in the classroom. The room smelled of floorwax and chalk and Professor Burlingame came in and began his lecture with: “….they were all here, those Westerners you read about, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane and Red Cloud and Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, and it was not very long ago….” and Montana’s wildly romantic history came from him, punctuated with the thwap of chalk hitting the old blackboard. And I was entranced.

Still am……

and now to Ten-Cent Jack and Collateral Matters

My dad returned from his nearly four years in the Navy–he got an early discharge to attend college, and a good thing, too, because he was supposed

to be in until 1 October 1939 and when Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September the Navy froze all discharges. If you were in on 2 September you were

still in in 1946.

He was to enter Iowa Teacher’s College, in October–the agricultural cycle still ruled academic time then, and college began when the harvest was

in. But, that was two months away and so he looked for and found work…..with…..Ten-Cent Jack and his carnival, still staying one bounce ahead

of the law.  The olive oil, the musclebound louts, the mangy lion……but the money was OK.  And then he began his Higher Education. If he took a very

heavy load of classes he could graduate sooner, and so he did. and, unable to continue the Travelin’ Life he worked here and there, sweeping and cleaning

a jewelry store at the end of the day, doing this and that, and some of those, and working in the College Library for a few hours each week.  He also

wrestled and played tennis for good ol’ Iowa Teachers.

One day, as he stood behind the Circulation Desk, rubber stamp to hand, a pretty girl came in and she pushed a book across the counter. “I think you

would like this,”she said.  It was a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel”. (At least he heard the shot that got him.)

Her name was Marie, and she had been born in and nurtured in the little state capital of Pierre, South Dakota.  In the 1920’s it had about three

thousand people in it and it was a Western town, with cowboys and Indians in the streets and horsedrawn wagons as well as motorcars. Her father

little girl.  Like most fathers, he was a bit clueless in the matter of daughters, especially ones with a stubborn streak and minds of their own.

And so it went.  Marie took my father home to meet the folks.  My grandfather saw no use in the man.  Dad did not drink whiskey.  He would not

smoke a cigar. My grandfather thought dark thoughts of Baptist hog farmers from Iowa. This simply would not do.

My father and mother would wed in June of 1942.  My mother, who had gone off to college aged sixteen, would graduate and then go and teach

for a year and change, far away from Iowa Teachers College, where dad was finishing up. See if the thing held. She went to Traverse City, Michigan.

My grandfather made inquiries about this Baptist hog farmer, and, to his delight, dad’s employment in Ten-Cent Jack’s carnival was discovered.

Ah. Well. Gramp had another bourbon and a cigar.  Things were looking up. It was a good ten months until the wedding. Plenty of time to work

on Marie, convince her to dump the tee-totaling non-smoking…..and Gramp blew smoke at the benevolent and twinkling stars.

Dad graduated in December, of 1941. By the time they wed, he would be teaching mathematics in a high school somewhere, out west, they had

agreed. Colorado. Montana. Someplace like that.  Christmas was coming, Marie would come home to Pierre, and Gramp would pounce.

Gramp was satisfied, life was good and all was well.

And then…….The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and my father was certain to be wanted by the Navy, and soon.  He called my mother, they

sorted things out, and were married on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, Marie called home.

“He spent the day in his study,”said my grandmother,”biting his imported cigars in half….”

My mother knew about Ten-Cent Jack, of course, and found my dad’s work there both funny and enterprising. She had known about Ten-

Cent Jack for a long time.

Things were a bit sour for a while, until at the end of the War as my parents and I, aged two months, were driving from San Diego to Boulder,

Colorado, where dad would go for a master’s degree, the car caught fire, consuming all they had.  There was no housing in Boulder, there was not

much housing anywhere.  So my mother took the train, with me, to Pierre.  The first grandchild….and….

The old dragon would slip into the nursery, sniff me, tap a claw, fart, and go back to his glass and his cigar, and when Dad came he put a new

roof on the house.

Peace was restored, as it usually is, if you have the time……