Getting Started

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Horses from the Chauvet Cave, France, circa 30,000 B.C.

The world has known some famous horses. Alexander’s horse Bucephalus, for instance, who had one blue eye, a star on his forehead, and died after the battle of Hyaspes in 326 BC. He was celebrity enough to be buried with honors, to have his tale told down through history, and to this day has a province in Punjab named after him.

Comanche is another famous horse. He was ridden by Captain Keough at the Little Bighorn and found two days after the battle, badly wounded. Captain Keough, of course, didn’t survive the fight, but his horse did, and was ultimately nursed back to health and retired by the Army. Comanche is now stuffed, like another famous horse named Trigger, and on display at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.

The list of famous horses is virtually endless.

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Comanche

Somehow, in a twist on the natural order of things, the world’s most successful predator, and arguably its most successful flight animal have—in the best cases—been able to merge into a single creature and accomplish amazing things.

Horses are believed to have been first domesticated somewhere on the Eurasian steppe about 5500 years ago, but our appreciation for them goes back much further. Our Paleolithic ancestors found them fascinating enough to paint them on cave walls more than 30,000 years ago.

Which brings me to Remi, a two year-old colt down in our barn. I fell in love with him from the moment I first saw him. He was only six days old, but alarm bells immediately started ringing in my head. My blood pressure spiked. I momentarily lost the capacity for intelligent speech.

Standing there, watching him show off his newfound legs in the tall grass, I was also doing a lot of math in my head. It occurred to me that he might be the last colt I’ll ever start. That’s just a result of hope and calm calculation: hope that he lives a long and healthy life, and the fact of my own advancing age.

The first colt I started was an adopted two year-old mustang I picked out of a corral at the Litchfield Wild Horse Corrals in California. I’m not even sure why I did that, other than that for $100 bucks it was in my financial wheelhouse, and I figured it couldn’t go terribly wrong. And it didn’t. I hauled him out to the big desert ranch where I was working and in the evenings, after the cow work was done, would run him into the willow corrals and sort him out.

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Young Remi

There were some others. A horse I called Super Dave, after Super Dave Osborne and his talent for pulling stupid stunts. A passel of roughstring horses on a big Nevada ranch. And I started a few horses for my granddad–including one that bucked me off in front of a schoolbus full of cheering children.

My grandfather started more horses than I can count. But he was also of the old school of horsemen who thought that a horse was meant to be “broken”. He had tremendous success with cutting horses even when his methods were often, to the modern eye, unreasonably or unnecessarily severe. Toward the end of his life I know that he had regrets about those methods, because he told me so.

The whole “natural horsemanship” approach was only then filtering out into the broader world and I think, given the chance to do it all over again, he would have changed his ways considerably.

Anyone who has ever started a horse from the ground up, and ultimately swung a leg over for that first ride, can appreciate what the moment means. It’s singular in a way that not many things truly are. After a long courtship, it’s something like that very first kiss in a long, loving, and mutually beneficial relationship. I like that analogy because the first ride comes with no small measure of apprehension, and plenty of room for the unknown. And we want it to be perfect. No fuss, no muss, and certainly no bucking.

There was a time I rode bucking horses on purpose, though that ended with broken ribs and a wedged vertebrae on a horse called 8-ball at an Apache Junction, Arizona, rodeo.

But Remi and I are doing something else. And mostly, that requires that I not be an idiot. It is entirely too easy to be an idiot with horses. Moreover, it takes a long time—and a few stiff drams of humility–to really learn that.

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The author starting one out on the big empty, Nevada.

A smart person once said that starting a horse is like looking in the mirror. If you don’t like what you are seeing in the horse, look at yourself. There’s more to it than that, of course, but I think that’s close enough to the truth to have tremendous value.

With horses, and in human relationships too, we do so much better when we stop insisting on ourselves, and our piety, and merely listen. A good horse really can teach us to be better humans, and they often do, if we just shut up and listen long enough.

Maybe I’ll never start another colt. It’s impossible to predict. The world heaves around and we can’t possibly know what’s in the offing. But a couple of days ago I walked Remi out into the round pen and we went after our groundwork routine.

I was watching him closely and after a few minutes I realized he was trying to tell me something. I wasn’t sure what, and then I realized, in a gift of crystal clarity, that he was just bored. He was ready for more and he wanted me to know it.

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First ride on Remi

So, out there in the sand, under the bluest May sky, I took another look at the cinch, poured sweet promises into his ear, then put my foot in the stirrup and swung aboard for that first kiss.

And it was heavenly.

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A Man You Never Knew

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Bruno Selmi, lining one up.  Photo by Liz Margerum.

Word has reached me, carried on the wind, that Bruno Selmi, legendary owner of Bruno’s Country Club, in Gerlach, Nevada, has passed on. I had known that Bruno wasn’t feeling well, after stopping in for a visit last year, but am forced to admit that I was nursing a strong, and stupid, hope that he might live on forever.

Some eras in our lives remain so formative, so rich with experience, that our subconscious keeps them in a special place, preserved in a kind of memorial amber. Bruno, and his watering hole, featured prominently in the personal amber rooms for many of us who once called the great Nevada Outback our home.

Bruno was an immigrant, arriving in Nevada in the 1950’s without much English. He bought the Country Club, in those days called the Longhorn Saloon, for a few thousand bucks. Ultimately, he would own most of Gerlach, build the only motel for a hundred miles in any direction, and become the de-facto mayor of a town that never had one. He was a kind of outback Al Swearengen, without the Shakespearean diatribes. Rather, he was acerbic, and possessed a razor wit, which he could, and would, occasionally unleash.

He was a man you could never really know.

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Bruno at 91, still working the bar…

The truth is, Bruno never said much at all. He either liked you or he didn’t, and if he didn’t he would tell you—and he meant it–to get out of his place and go across the street. Across the street there was nothing but empty desert.

If less is more, and it often is, Bruno’s quiet and laconic nature helped build him into the giant he was, and it may be the reason he was so universally respected, even by those who faced his ire. Because at the bottom of all that ire was a generous heart. He was the kind of guy who would advance a man’s paycheck from his own till.

When the first Burners started coming into Bruno’s–before Burning Man became the over-hyped and strangely corporatized art-funk techno blowout it is now–they were as nervous and shifty as any troop of dandies stranded at a frontier trading post.

Bruno didn’t like them, once warning a man wearing a skirt, and with a hockey puck stuck in his lower lip, that he should be careful walking around the desert because the bird he had wired to the top of his hat was a game species. I only know that is true because I was there when it happened, saw the fear in the poor man’s eyes, and heard the bar break up in laughter. But I also know that Bruno eventually came to like them—certainly he liked the money that came with them.

What made Bruno’s such a great place wasn’t just his stuffed raviolis on a cold day, or the generous drinks he poured. It was the abiding sense, compounded by all of that open desert, that we truly were on a lost frontier, and that just beyond the next jagged ridgeline the world held a promise of rugged exploration and wild discovery.

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The author, with California Cowboys Dan McGrew and “Uncle” Bill Wrankle, at the Country Club.

The cast of players who inhabited the Country Club on a Saturday night only reinforced the notion. Miners, cowboys, truckers, hunters, itinerant singers, Indians, Mexicans, whites and Basques, we were all drawn to Bruno’s in a kind of marvelous modern rendezvous.

It could, and sometimes did, get rowdy.

But the world is always shrinking, slouching toward a kind of sad and somnambulant uniformity, and I think that’s a large part of the reason I hold memories of the Country Club, and of Bruno—the master of ceremonies–so dear. His death is, in many ways I still don’t fully understand, the last door on the wild frontiers of my youth slamming shut.

I can foresee a day, maybe not long from now, when I will return to the Country Club, belly up to the bar, and order a drink from a sassy bartender with pink yo-yo’s stuck in his ears. He won’t care about anything I might have to say, any stories I might tell of the sunny slopes of yesteryear, because he was never there to see just how western the Country Club could get.  He will never have seen Bruno pull out his shotgun to restore order amongst the heathens.

And I can imagine my instinctive reaction to the new guy’s attitude–the strongest urge to give him an Augustus McRae style pistol-whipping.

But I probably won’t.

We’ve graduated from pistol-whipping surly bartenders, it seems. Instead, I’ll probably just shrug, stare at my own reflection in the mirror, and pull at a mournfully weak bourbon and seven. And at some point I’ll rally–I always do–and raise a quiet toast to Bruno Selmi, and all the beautiful ghosts of yet another lost frontier.

The Great Wall of Trump

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall—Robert Frost

Many of us remember Robert Frost. Typically, we even have enough of his inestimable work committed to memory to recite a few lines: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” for instance, or the notable bit from “Mending Wall” where a laconic neighbor says: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

That line may even be true—I often think so–though the speaker in Frost’s poem doesn’t buy it.

I don’t know what to make of the proposed Trump Wall on our southern border. I don’t know if it will happen, or if Trump’s pledge was merely pulp for popular consumption. And nobody can know with any certainty what the result of building it might, or might not, be.

I once sat in a room full of narcotics detectives where DEA agents shared photos of the ramps built on the southern side of the border fence–to jump cars laden with meth from Culiacan Superlabs into Los Estados Unidos.  Fence, wall, or barricade, the people who want to get here are going to get here.

I can only make inroads toward an intelligent opinion when I put the proposed wall up against my own experience. Here in Oregon, and particularly in Sisters, we are largely insulated from thinking about the results of illegal immigration, and the attendant human and dope trafficking, because we don’t brush up against the consequences each and every day.

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The Great Wall of China

I will stipulate in advance that my thoughts about wall-building–from the perspective of law enforcement–do not, and should not, frame the entire discussion.

The vast majority of people I arrested in narcotics work were in the country illegally, to the point of near exclusivity. This is not surprising, given that Mexican cartels control virtually every aspect of the narcotics trade.

What was surprising, at least to me, was our inability to do much about it.

For a time, obtaining an ICE detainer on arrested subjects merely required a phone call and a sympathetic agent on the phone. The detainer was faxed to the jail, and the arrestee held. One day that suddenly changed and it became impossible to acquire a detainer under almost any circumstance–other than a homicide booking—and even that was questionable.

Then it changed again: we were unable to even arrest people with felony re-entry warrants. To be clear, it wasn’t that we couldn’t physically take them into custody—we just couldn’t book them because the jail—with a Sheriff mindful of his constituency, and a facility perpetually over-capacity—simply wouldn’t take them.

Wrap your head around that.

California officers, and I suspect the same is true of those in Oregon, and elsewhere, routinely accept Mexican Consular Cards as legitimate identification—though that is actually against the law. The people I encountered most always carried bogus social security cards, and other counterfeit forms of ID, all of which were crimes, and none of which the DA’s office would ever prosecute.

Often, after our department began taking thumbprints on every citation, the lab techs would discover the cited subject had given a false name, and was actually wanted on multiple warrants, often in several states, under a menu of different names, and for a smorgasbord of both violent and non-violent crimes.

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Border Fence US/Mexico.  Photo by the author.

The hospitals in the city I served were overwhelmed, routinely, with illegal immigrants who filled the emergency rooms and used the services as a primary care solution. It was not uncommon to find large crowds of people waiting in the parking lots outside. It was also generally known that being brought in by ambulance was a smart move—it at least guaranteed being wheeled into the actual hospital, and perhaps even being treated in a timely fashion. Provided, of course, that the available beds weren’t already occupied by gang members—many of them illegally in the country–full of bullet holes or stab wounds.

All of that trouble is headed toward Central Oregon, by the way.

On May 2, the US Department of Justice released statistics on illegal immigrants incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As of March 25, 2017, there were 41,528 illegal immigrants in the federal prison system, to the tune of about 1.2 billion taxpayer dollars a year. Those numbers only account for the federal system, and say nothing about the county jail and state prison populations across the country, which are considerably higher, and whose cost can fairly be assessed in the many billions more.

On the other hand, it’s also likely that illegal immigrants have done more than anyone else to preserve the relatively low cost of living we all enjoy, by virtue of their willingness to work for nearly nothing. A fact that many large businesses—who lobby vigorously against meaningful immigration controls–also enjoy.

There is, furthermore, absolutely no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of people who come into this country—legally or otherwise–want nothing more than an opportunity to improve their station in life, to educate their children, and to pursue happiness. Even as they break our laws to get here, the overwhelming percentage of illegal entrants take up quiet–almost subterranean–lives once they arrive.

The real question, it seems, is whether or not building a gigantic wall is the solution to any of these problems. One wonders if a huge border wall isn’t destined to become a shabby tourist attraction for some distant version of us, like the Long Walls of Athens, or Hadrian’s Wall.

Frost didn’t like his neighbor’s insistence on a wall. “Before I built a wall,” he wrote, “I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out”.

That’s a good and important question, with resonant consequences, and we should probably, if we are still capable of it, engage in a more circumspect conversation about what it means to build a wall. We should wonder aloud if it will actually work, at least in the way it is couched, and at the very least with a studied eye on how our great, great, great, grandchildren might come to understand our intent.

12 O’Clock High

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The Aluminum Overcast, photo by the author

Some things are so intrinsically American they have helped define the way we understand ourselves. The B-17 Flying Fortress is one of them. Though there are only about 15 of them still airworthy today, for a few years in the last century the B-17, and the men who flew them, did enough of the hardest work to cement their rightful place in our national identity.

Last week I had the opportunity to fly over Central Oregon in the Aluminum Overcast, a restored B-17G now operated by the Experimental Aircraft Association. For me, it was less of a joyride with other media-types than a rare chance to achieve a kind of synesthetic appreciation of the conditions and environment experienced by Army aircrews in the Second World War.

That’s a dicey proposition. No one was shooting at us from the ground. We were not fighting al-fresco in the waist gunner positions at -50 degrees Fahrenheit, with frozen guns, while angry hives of Nazi Focke-Wulf’s perforated the fuselage. No one was packed into the lonely world of the ball turret.

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The isolation of the ball turret

There is, admittedly, a limit to how much one can really learn in an exercise like this, but a determined mind can sometimes find a moment, a takeaway, a direct line into the past that resonates.

The Aluminum Overcast itself did not participate in the war because she was delivered to the Air Corps too late to join the fight. Nevertheless, she has enjoyed a varied career in the skies, serving on aerial mapping operations in Africa and South America, hauling cattle in the Caribbean, fighting fire ants in the deep south, and now as a fully restored flying museum.

Her service history is irrelevant, of course, because today she serves in honor of those planes and their crews who were in the fight. The Overcast carries the colors of the 398th Bomb Group, and flies in honor of a sister ship shot down over Le Manior, France, on August 13, 1944. It was her 34th combat mission.

Despite their reputation for absorbing extraordinary abuse, and returning home, some 4,700 Flying Fortresses were lost in combat, and another 4000 in training accidents. In August, 1943, on a raid over Schweinfurt and Regensburg in Germany, the 8th Air Force lost 60 B-17’s out of an original flight of 376 bombers. In October of the same year, in a similar raid over Schweinfurt, they lost 60 more. Between the two disastrous raids, which led to a temporary halt in the American daylight bombing, 1200 empty bunks were left behind at bases in England.

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The B-17 was famed for its ability to take a punch, and return to earth

The magnitude of World War 2 is, I fear, somewhat lost on many of us who did not live through it. It is hard for us, in this age, when we fight simultaneous wars that require almost no personal sacrifice, commitment, or even attention from the average citizen, to wrap our heads around the enormous losses incurred in the struggle against the Axis powers. During the war America lost an average of 6,000 servicemen every month, and from 1942 onward we lost 170 airplanes each and every day. A staggering total of 43,581 airplanes were lost during the war.

And still they flew. And fought on.

Men such as Clark Gable, who flew five combat missions as a waist gunner over Europe, and Tom Landry, legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, who flew 30 missions as a pilot and lost his brother in a B-17. And there was Jimmy Stewart, who was a B-17 instructor before flying 20 combat missions in B-24s. Or Norman Lear, producer of All in the Family, who flew as a radio operator out of Italy, or Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek, and who piloted B-17’s in the pacific theater.

These were among the more famous men to fly in the fortress, but for each of them there were thousands more whose service and sacrifice is lesser known, if at all. Men such as Brigadier Frederick Castle, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, for remaining at the controls of his damaged aircraft so that his crew could bail out. Or 2nd Lieutenant David Kingsley, a firefighter from Portland, Oregon, who became a bombardier, and who also received the honor posthumously, for tending to his injured crewmates and giving his parachute to a comrade as the plane went down over Romania.

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 In the bombardier’s seat, with a Norden bombsight.

Eight decades later, the legacy of this iconic aircraft, and its heroic crews, men capable of serving up astonishing acts of selflessness in the middle of unconscionable and inescapable horrors, miles above the earth, remains with us. There is an entire science dedicated to the appreciation of B-17 nose art, from Betty Lou’s Buggy of the 91st Bomb Group, to the Hell’s Angels of the 303rd. There are countless books, television shows, and movies.

And then there are the guys like me, who thumbed the ink out of books as a child, studying the pictures of B-17s in the skies over Europe and the south Pacific, desperately imagining what it might have been like to sit in the open plexiglass nose as a bombardier, seeing the world rush by and manning the secretive Norden bombsight.

For my patience, some 40 years later, I was rewarded with the opportunity to explore the plane at length, to feel how she took to turbulence, to stand in the bomb bay somewhere over Redmond, to take in the radio room, the flight deck, and finally to crawl down beneath the pilots into the most astonishing view in the nose. I was able to sit for a time in the bombardier’s seat, and to watch as we came in over the green pastures of Powell Butte, quieter now with the four giant radial engines grinding away behind me.

Sitting there, taking it all in as fast it came, I was rewarded with the just the slightest notion of what it might have been like to come in off the channel over Belgium or France, bound for the dark bowels of the Third Reich.

Like most good things it was over all too soon, and I could not, as I wandered back to my seat beside the .50’s in the waist, avoid thinking long and hard about the silver ball embedded in the floor beside me, an enclosed orb sitting motionless and quiet, perhaps the loneliest of all worlds.

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A view from the radio room

As we came in over Bend, winging past the river and the Old Mill, and lined up our approach, I began to think about Randall Jarrell’s poem, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. Jarrell served in the Army Air Corps, during the war. He tells us something about youth, and fear, and the blind commitment it must have taken for a man to seal himself into the ball turret alone, fully aware of the odds, and to stare suddenly into the frenzied Nazi maw. He wrote:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

But it would be wrong to leave this column there, because that is not the whole story. The whole story, I think, says something more about who it is we think we are, collectively, and the lengths to which we will go in order to preserve the good in all of us, and bear that forward. There are still men among us who did, once, in B-17s over a darkened Europe, in the most destructive conflict the world has ever seen. Sisters’ own Russell Williams, for instance, now 94. He’s your neighbor. To many he’s a friend. And on Saturday mornings you can find him still quietly and humbly serving–the war never entirely far from his mind–down at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.