Peter Bowen’s Montana (the Blog)

…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……

My Old Man,Summer 1932

In June of 1932 my father graduated from  high school.  He had grown up in the little town of Casey, Iowa, where his parents worked a small farm.

The Great Depression was hard on the land there, and money was tight, so when a pupil had the basic skills, they were handed a diploma and wished

well. And gone.

He and a friend wanted to celebrate this passage, so they decided to take a trip.  In America, adventure is to the West, and so they hopped a freight

train.  They each had purchased a WW I Army greatcoat, a long, heavy woolen garment that served as tent, sleeping bag, and backpack, and the

pockets were stuffed with sandwiches made by their mothers.

They rode and rode and rode, unable to sit down or to sleep, until the train stopped in a big railyard one night.  They had to get down, walk the kinks

out, find something to eat.  The lights of a town burned near, they walked toward it, staggering a little.  They crossed a busy street, walked through

a neighborhood of small bungalows.  The air was thick with the scent of blooming lilacs. The night was cool and promised cold.

A man called out from his porch, asked if they were on the road.  Yessir, they said, and he offered them the porch for the night.  In the morning the

man’s wife cooked them a big breakfast, and they walked on.  They came to a fast-flowing river, saw mountains rearing up, for the first time in their


They were in Livingston, Montana, where I live now.  They found work on ranches nearby, haying, laboring, and after a few weeks they headed back

home to Iowa.

My father had seen the West, though, and he loved it.

Poor as his family was, poor as the farmers were in the Great Depression, the teachers my father had told him he could find another life, one freer and

more interesting. If he got a good education. My father knew he would.  But he had no money, so he planned to join the United States Navy as soon as

he could. and save most of his pay.  But he had to be eighteen, and that was a couple of years away. Work was hard to come by, but there was some, if

you looked hard, and special skills always help.

My father was Welsh, built like a fireplug, and he had been a champion wrestler. So he found work in a carnival, wrestling all comers who wanted

the twenty-dollar prize.  He wasn’t terribly big, but he was immensely strong, and he knew the properties of olive oil.

The carnival was owned and run by a man called Ten-Cent Jack, and such a carnival in those days usually had a mangy lion, a patched tent, games

of chance that weren’t all that chancy, and a passel of dancing girls who of course were also whores.  The carnival would pull up to a grove of trees

near to a couple of small towns, a site recommended by local Lawn Forcement (fee negotiable), and open for business by evening.

It was a time-sensitive business, in that the carnival could stay until the local pecksniffs got wind of it and the People of Decency provided fell

shrieks which reached the ears of Lawn Forcement. Forty-eight hours was about usual.

My old man was undefeated, and I know this because Ten-Cent Jack was not a fool, and had dad lost to anyone, Ten-Cent Jack would have hired

the victor.  Just like that.

Dad rassled in season, and did this and that–I heard mention of “the railroad” but no more, and in time he was old enough for the United States

Navy, which he joined on October the first, 1935.

I was and am very proud of my old man and his time spent working for Ten-Cent Jack, and that early professional experience was to have some

effects for the rest of his life. And those effects, upon my mother and her father, most signally, are for another post…….

In Montana


“Montana always shimmered in my mind,”an old cowboy told me,”we was all tryin’ to get here…”and he had, on a cattle drive, in 1884.

He was one of the old cowboys who sat most days at a big round table at the front of the Oaks bar in Bozeman.  There were half a dozen of them,

sipping ditchwater highballs and waiting for death.

That was a long time ago, when I was a kid peddling newspapers in Bozeman, Montana. In 1957. there were men in their 80’s and 90’s who

had been there since the beginning.

How I ended up in Bozeman, Montana, like anyone’s life, was the sum of a series of small events, which somehow got linked.  The odds were incredibly high,

like they are in anyone’s life, that his would happen, but, then, it did.

Now I can look back on the markers in the arc of my life before I had one.

My father’s splendid athleticism, my mother and the Dust Bowl, water, the books of Thomas Wolfe, the Great Depression, a cuckoo clock, the attack

by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, and a character called Ten-Cent Jack, who owned and captained a small and fast-moving carnival that toured the

Midwest and the Upper South.

Any child’s odds of being born at all are about twenty-five million to one for openers, so, it is hard to find a plan in there.

Now I live in Livingston, with about seven thousand other people, and from my window I can see Sheep Mountain, a scarp marking where the land

was when the Yellowstone River began to flow about ten million years ago.  The river carved and chewed its valley, and if I squint right I can see ghost rivers

writhing in the air.  South of me The Dragon sleeps, the largest volcano ever known to exist. The three vents, the holes, are larger than the state of

Delaware.  When it last blew, it dumped twelve feet of ash, in Maine.

Lots of stories here, lots of stories…..

Some a little too good to tell, I would expect……