Nuclear Winter

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Fire on the Mountains

Oregon is burning, and we’ve now lost a month of summer to the smoke. Each morning I look out toward the barn, where it sits in a kind of primordial orange pall, and I can see the ash falling like snow in the offing. Inside the house, which is buttoned up, it smells like a campfire, and the back porch is covered in flakes of black and gray ash that eddy in the occasional hot breeze.

Satellite imagery of Oregon shows an overcast of smoke smothering the Cascades in a broad swath from California to Washington. It’s odd to look at, knowing we are somewhere underneath all of that.

Worse, we are seeing the effects of all this smoke in the garden now. The tomato plants are beginning to choke, leaves curling at the edges after weeks of bad air and limited natural sunlight. The tomatoes, by far the best we have grown thus far on the Figure 8, are large and lush and on the verge but hanging now in the acrid smoke, freckled with ash, and just when we need every last drop of summer sunlight and heat to push them into their final ripening.

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So Close, and Yet So Far

I should be used to this by now. We’ve lost gardens to hailstorms in the middle of July, to waves of golden mantles, and my own stupidity, so smoke would be next on the list of unexpected and infuriating setbacks in our effort to grow good food.

To be certain, it beats living anywhere on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey, and we should keep our difficulties in perspective. When Krakatoa went off in 1883, it created a kind of nuclear winter, dropped temperatures in the northern hemisphere for several years and added record snowfalls to its planet-altering achievements. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo dropped global temperatures for three years. In 1815, Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, lost its temper, and is blamed for mid-summer frosts and June snowfalls across New England and the eastern seaboard in what later became known as the “Year Without a Summer.”

So we are, it appears, still winning.

Mixed into this strange post-apocalyptic life came word that John Kattai, a friend, mentor, colleague, and one of the finer police officers and men to have ever hustled a beat, anywhere, has passed away. John retired, not so very long ago, after 36 years of service to the people of his city. He leaves behind him a legacy of commitment, undomesticated humor, and an outsized heart that will be impossible to replicate or replace.

If there is any good news in this at all, it’s in the manner that he was found. It was supremely just and poetically appropriate that the men who found him, Ed Olsen and Danny McGrew, be among those who stood in the ranks beside him, whose shields bear the same unmistakable dents from hard campaigning in the barbarous forests of our American criminal wilderness.

It was important, I think, that this legendary warrior, who gave so much in so many ways, to so many people, be found by his tribesmen, warriors who once bled beside him in battle and who loved him for his devotion, his humor, his irascible wit, and his enormous sacrifice.

We can, all of us who loved him, be grateful for that, though I am afraid it will take its hard and inevitable toll on Ed and Danny. One learns early in police work that every call for service carries a price tag.

This morning, as I bumbled around the house in a state of hard mourning–and John’s death, coming so unexpectedly, has hit me hard–I saw a bird on our place I haven’t seen here before, and later identified as a Northern Flicker, a kind of woodpecker.

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Northern Flicker

I was sitting in the kitchen, nursing a cup of tea, when movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. So I sat and watched the bird for a long time. He was perched on the edge of the porch, just on the other side of the window, close enough that I might have reached out and touched him. He stood out because of the beautiful red streaks, like warpaint, under his eyes. I watched how his little feet clung to the edge of the porch as he surveyed the grass below for ants, or beetles, or worms, with those fast twitching head-turns that only birds, it seems, have been gifted to master.

I watched him shake, then tilt his head and stare at the wisps of ash that fell from his back, and my mind, for whatever reason, drifted hard toward the real winter that is coming, and the passing of seasons–so much faster every year–and these friends we keep putting into the ground.

And then I thought of this passage from Wendell Berry, writing about a hill on his farm in Kentucky, and I remembered that fire and smoke, hurricanes and flooding, and the too-soon passing of our friends, the hard work we do in the middle to make something native and ours in this world, and to hold onto it against calamity, and loss, isn’t desperation against the inevitable. It is a kind of celebration of the hardships, the inescapable difficulties we endure together, and that celebration is rooted firmly in the beginnings, not in the ends.

“And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt at about the third button below the collar. At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence—that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstance, happened to be lying. The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history. Portent begins to dwell in it.                

           “And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground. Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay. Other leaves fall. My body begins its long shudder into humus. I feel my substance escape me, carried into the mold by beetles and worms. Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves. For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling—and then that, too, sinks away. It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.

            “When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.”

 

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John Kattai, Centurion for the Ages

 

 

 

 

 

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Breakfast on the Blue Nile

 

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Truman Capote, No Stranger to Dining Dust-Ups

We like to eat out. We don’t think of ourselves as, say, Truman Capote and Joanne Carson dining at La Côte Basque, but we do enjoy the occasional easy weekend brunch in town, where we often bump into people we know, and value, and spend a few minutes catching up.

And really, that’s all we had in mind a few days ago when we were seated, handed our menus, and ordered up some coffee at our favorite breakfast joint.

Sometimes such an easy thing just isn’t meant to be.

No sooner had we been seated than a woman, unknown to us, and sitting with a companion across the otherwise empty room, launched into a forcefully loud and seemingly endless political tirade.

It quickly became clear that she was not directing the diatribe directly at her companion, or even directly at us, necessarily, but she clearly felt compelled to speak loudly enough, and passionately enough, to be heard by everyone.

Because, after a time, I had caught her referencing our table after each new cast of political virtue–as if watching a bobber on the lake–I couldn’t help but think that she might have been triggered by my cowboy hat.

The cowboy hat, if you don’t know, is a notorious symbol of over-wrought and ultimately dull machismo, the historical oppression of virtuous bank robbers, homicidal frontier loners, and the indefensible subjugation of bovines.   Nevermind that some us wear them mostly because, as in my case, we are bald, and prefer the luxury of shade over the risks of melanoma.

And maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe it was just an outbreak of sudden theater.

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James Bruce, a Scotsman, Who Found the Source of the Blue Nile on November 14, 1770, After a 7 Years Journey

Whatever the cause, my wife and I ordered our food and sat looking at each other wistfully across the table while being treated to a somewhat stumpy harangue on the full litany of American evils. It came from a particular side of the political divide, but in matters of bad manners affiliation hardly matters. The invective that spilled forth, while her companion worked valiantly to bring reason–speaking in that lower and slower tone reserved for embarrassed adults in the face of misbehaving children–would have made the saltiest Navy Chief blush.

We had options. I thought, momentarily, of addressing the outraged djinn across the room with a request for self-restraint, this being Sisters, after all, and well before noon, but the cop in me thought better of saying anything at all. One of the first rules of police work is ironclad: never try to reason with a drunk.

Not that she was drunk, she wasn’t, but there is another rule in there too, which has more to do with letting someone lean so far into their opinions that they eventually fall over.

Also, sticking it out was more in line with our commitment to an ultimate victory over the purely mundane, a vision of our lives lived less on the spectrum of endlessly repetitive and predictable ritual, and more as a thoroughly unpredictable expedition up the Blue Nile.

Mindset matters, naturally, but more importantly: the food was terrific.

So we endured and pondered the mysteries. My wife and I ate in virtual silence, forced into the role of a captured and unwilling audience, reduced to communicating through a kind of method-acting pantomime that would have thrilled Lee Strasberg, and which every married couple out in the field knows quite well.

What fueled this woman’s outrage at the machine, which had obviously been bubbling for some time and which she felt duty bound to share with everyone in the restaurant was, I think now, a kind of rage born of impotence. There was desperation in her vibrato wails against the various agonies of empire, but in the end, though I doubt she could see it, the result was a spectacular demonstration of juvenile pathos rather than a persuasive call to man the barricades.

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William F. Buckley, Threatening To Sock Gore Vidal

It occurred to me, as I shoveled a beautifully crafted omelet into my face, that the larger problem wasn’t this woman’s opinions because, really, who cares?   It was her obsession with theater over debate; it was made abundantly clear during her monologue that opposition to her views, or even moderation of her positions, was an intolerable affront.

It is a common modern failing:   an inability to distinguish the difference between highly viewable, and highly illuminating, opinions.

I’m tracking a lot more of that sort of thing lately, though there is a sound argument to be made that the root blame belongs to ABC News, who in the 1968 presidential campaign chose to feature debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley rather than the standard “gavel to gavel” coverage of the conventions. It was those debates, which famously concluded with Buckley losing his grip and threatening to punch Vidal in the nose, which ushered in the age of televised political punditry from which we may never, it seems now, recover.

For our endurance, the hostess—long suffering herself–gave us a thoughtful certificate for ten-percent off at our next visit. She didn’t have to say anything at all, and neither did we, as we passed outside into the strange light and primordial smoke from the seemingly endless forest fires.

And, with the passage of a little time, this whole breakfast scene–as we man the deck of our little steamship and chortle up the Blue Nile–now puts me in the mind of Wallace Stevens, who wrote in his beautiful poem “The Snow Man” how important it is for the unwilling audience to hear in these kinds of passionate, theatrical, and sometimes inappropriate outbursts, both the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

A Little Help

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The Milli Fire, as seen from Sisters

Before the Milli fire started getting that strange look in it’s eye, filling the sky with smoke and causing the evacuation of Crossroads, my wife and I were pleased to host a couple of through-hikers attempting the Pacific Crest Trail. Because of the fires in Central Oregon, numerous trail closures, and active measures by our much adored firefighting professionals, they were forced to abandon the trail at Elk Lake.

We were happy to help in whatever ways we could.

We were brought into this hosting and support enterprise at the invitation of Sisters residents Kathryn Godsiff, and her husband Allan, two absolute gems of Sisters Country, in support of a marvelous organization called Warrior Expeditions.

Warrior Expeditions sponsors transitioning combat veterans on through-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, an across the nation bicycle ride known as the Trans-America trail, and an epic paddling adventure from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

Warrior Expeditions is open to any veteran who has served in a combat zone.

Warrior Expeditions was created by Marine Corps Veteran Sean Gobin who, in 2015, was given CNN’s Turner Broadcasting “Hero” Award for a program he started called “Walk Off The War”. That original organization has grown exponentially and become Warrior Expeditions. They now enjoy the broad support of numerous gear and equipment manufacturers, and are united under the notion that modern military to civilian transitions are often inadequate for veterans to process their experience in healthy ways.

Gobin took up the idea after his own return to civilian life, when he completed the 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

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A Good Drop on the Fireline

Several weeks ago, we were thrilled to meet one of the first through-travellers crossing into Sisters Country, a Special Forces Veteran participating in the Trans-America bicycle ride. Kathryn and Allan hosted a fine meal at their home on Willow Ranch, and Mark, who was utterly exhausted from his months of endless pedaling, shared many fine stories of his incredible trip across the country.

Mark, who wasn’t shy about sharing some of the difficulties he has faced in the aftermath of nearly two dozen deployments, was off the next morning, after a power breakfast made by Kathryn, and reported later that he had safely made the Oregon coast and completed his remarkable and life-transforming trek.

Next came Patrick, who enjoyed a night with the Godsiffs, but still needed a ride around the closures the following day. Patrick is originally from a very small town in Kansas, where his graduating class could fill a single school bus.

Patrick, who as I write is still on the trail, somewhere in Washington, has lost almost 40 pounds on his trip up the PCT thus far, which worries him some. “It doesn’t matter how much I eat,” he told us, “It all gets walked right off.” Talkative and sincere, Patrick told us that after leaving the Marine Corps he has spent much of his time variously riding bulls in Arizona, setting up promotions for archery companies, working toward his private pilot’s license, and trying to focus on the next best steps in his life.

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The Pacific Crest Trail

So my daughter and I drove Patrick and his gear up to Frog Lake, in the shadow of Mt. Hood, where the PCT crosses Hwy 26. Back home, the Milli fire was still just a few puffs of smoke, the sun was shining, and nary an Eclipsalypser was hogging the road in one of those fabulous jalopies we have seen since.

We pulled into the Sno-Park and stood around the truck looking at the trailhead and up the trail, where it curved away into the shadows and trees, but Patrick, it was obvious, was in no particular hurry to get back on the trail.

I tried to encourage him with a “Canada is just up there, a little ways,” remark, but that fell pretty flat. So we talked some more about archery, and rodeo, and that strange world that has done so much to define us both: the Marine Corps. And finally, just when I was about to ask if we ought to turn around and give him another day of rest, he said, “I better get after it.”

And so he shouldered his pack, and got after it.

We took in two more veterans the next day. They were here just long enough to get some good meals, do their laundry, sew back on a few buttons, do some BookFacing, and watch the explosion of the Milli fire. With the sudden conflagration of vehicle traffic for the eclipse, they ended up staying an extra day.

On the morning of the second day we had breakfast at The Gallery, where the plates are always delicious and bountiful, and we spent the rest of the day on the porch back at the Figure 8, watching the growing columns of smoke, swapping stories of foreign lands and yes, drinking plenty of cold beer.

And in the way of these things, spending time with these veterans ended up being more helpful to me, in many ways I think, than it was to them.

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Sean Gobin on the Appalachian Trail

The visits from these veterans, who are working so hard to find their new place in civilian life, were a terrific reminder that we are never alone. Somewhere, along every trail, there are people willing and able to provide support. Mostly, these guys just needed some real food, to do some laundry, and to sleep in a nice bed for a couple of nights.

But sometimes, in our own lives, we might forget that no one really finishes out the trail alone, and from either pride or embarrassment simply forget, or fail, to ask.

And now that the Milli fire has run many of our neighbors out of their homes, let’s not forget to offer ourselves up to help. One of the reasons it is so great to live here is that we almost never do that sort of thing. But at the same time, it never hurts to say “I can help” loud enough for someone else to hear it.

An Angry Reader Weighs In

Borrowing a page from one of my favorite writers and historians, Victor Davis Hanson, I’ve opted to share this recent angry “letter to the editor” of the newspaper I write for, and my response.  The writer of the letter has been triggered by last week’s “Charlottesville” piece.  I wouldn’t normally post this sort of thing, but the writer betrays something of the totalitarian mindset lurking just beneath the surface of so many of the more animated social justice warriors.

 

The Angry Reader:

Craig Rullman’s column in the Nugget titled “Charlottesville” (The Nugget,  August 15, page ) is a barely veiled, and completely wrong, claim of moral equivalency of white supremacists and counter protestors, more specifically those of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement, during the recent demonstrations in Charlottesville.

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in 2015, white supremacists accounted for 38 percent of all extremist killings, followed by Islamist, anti-government, and anti-abortion extremists. Left-wing extremism accounted for around 1 percent of all killings; so-called “black extremism” did not register.

We can accept the belief that black lives matter. We can accept the belief that white lives matter. Each of these statements is true by itself, and stating one by itself does not diminish nor negate the other. It is sad and telling that a group feels the need and compelled to state that their lives matter.

Rullman dismisses the media, as he has in the past, parroting Trump’s ridiculous accusations of “fake news”, as biased and misleading, but he says nothing about the media’s pursuit of the truth when presented with Donald Trump’s lies. The latest lie, Trump stated the counter protestors did not have permits to demonstrate, but they did have permits.

Rullman states there is no institutional racism in the United States, but we don’t have to look beyond the White House to see it, where Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka not only bring with them a history of racist rhetoric and acts, but who are currently stoking and inculcating racism in government, and the populace, with their opinions and policies.

If you claim to be an American, and that you love the United States, then you must be against those, and monuments to those, and the disgusting “heritage” embodied by those, who tried to destroy the United States, such as Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and you must be against those who now don’t believe in one of the United State’s most admired principles, that all people are created equal. Unfortunately, this principle is under growing attack, and Rullman has implicitly lended his support by his column.

John Mapes

 

THE RESPONSE:

Dear Angry Reader,

Your letter, like so much of the current atmosphere, is full of righteous “musts”. That’s unfortunate, a missed opportunity really, and I would submit that you risk painting yourself into a very tight moral corner when making such blanket demands of, and accusations toward, your fellow intelligent and free-thinking citizens.

I’m sorry that you insist on a belief that America is institutionally racist, apparently based on your vehement dislike of the current administration. Many millions of your fellow citizens, from all walks of life, would be rightly appalled to find themselves so condemned. You do honest people a terrible injustice with that approach, which can only serve to be divisive.

Notably, you do not condemn the many violent actors in Charlottesville where, in a scene reminiscent of Altona, in 1932, both brownshirts and communists, moral equivalents by any objective standard, met in the streets to do violence.

Naturally, you are entitled to believe that a statue of Robert E. Lee, or any memorial at all—one supposes—is subject to demolition during spasms of atonement.

There are, as I’m sure you know, motions currently afoot to defund the Jefferson Memorial for the same reasons. One can be forgiven for asking, then: if I refuse to disavow Thomas Jefferson, will I one day be lined up against a wall by the latest arbiters of truth? Must I be?

The world has seen that sort of thinking before.

You are factually wrong in your assertion that I “dismiss” the media. That isn’t nuanced enough. Rather, it’s that many of us recognize a growing trend toward hyperbolic news, which often devolves even further into hypothetical news, which isn’t really news at all.

A discerning adult must question the coverage bias of the information provider, and I certainly hope my column encourages readers to do so. Each day, it appears, there is less and less journalism and more and more political ideology masquerading as balanced reporting. That’s true across the spectrum. Unlike you, I’m often left unconvinced that our monolithic news organizations are, in fact, pursuing the truth over an agenda. I’m glad you don’t struggle with those notions.

In fact, I like the media so much, I wonder if you would join me in condemning the supposedly peaceful counter-protestors who brutally beat two journalists in Charlottesville after they refused to stop filming Antifa antics?

In the meantime, while you savage your neighbors with vile inference–whose only fault is testing some of your positions–I’ll stick with Alveda King, who said of Charlottesville: “I believe that if we pray, and we act like reasonable, thinking people, one blood, different skin colors, one human blood in America, we will get to the bottom of some of this. My uncle Martin Luther King said, ‘I decided to stick with love. Hate is too difficult a burden to bear.’ I agree with that.”

Amen.

 

Charlottesville

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What I Wanted to Write About

This week I had planned to write about our garden. After a few years of heartache and disaster, I wanted to share a tale of success–the 18 lbs of peas we’ve harvested so far, the bucket loads of green beans, the beautiful squash, and the luscious ears of corn that have sweetened up just right and taste exactly like a Central Oregon summer.

But then Charlottesville happened, and a young woman named Heather Heyer was murdered by a serial loser named James Fields, a basement Nazi from Ohio. Fields managed to severely injure a lot of other people too, by plowing his car into a crowd of people rightfully, and thankfully, protesting the presence of Nazi sympathizers, white nationalist and supremacist jackwagons.

Charlottesville, if you haven’t been, is a wonderful place. Which is why so many fine people—and some not so fine—came out to counter-protest the presence of greasy jackboots marching around with tiki-torches, Nazi flags, and SS headgear. The not so fine element of counter-protestors included equally repugnant, and intellectually bankrupt superstars of the radical left–BLM and Antifa goons in their apparently mandatory Che Guevara shirts, Soviet flags, and bicycle helmets.

One side was pure fringe, and the other had just enough fringe that the resulting violence was probably inevitable.

We’ve seen this before.

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The Offending Edifice

We will see it again.  And again.  And again.

Coverage of the event followed the typical pattern. CNN instantly jumped the shark with their entirely droll “What We Know” and “What You Should Know” mastheads. Internet trolls and waxen network figurines almost immediately assailed President Trump—then assailed his condemnation of the violence, parsing it endlessly for hints of dog-whistling to the invisible army of white nationalists plotting a nationwide American krystallnacht.

To be fair, Trump’s original condemnation wasn’t overwhelming, and required a do-over, but anybody who thinks Trump is somehow a bagman for these morons hasn’t been paying attention.  Trump is a narcissist, not a supremacist.

Even David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the idiotic Klan, was trotted out and given air time, as if anything he has to say, on any topic whatsoever, deserves to be heard. You can assess for yourself why any self-respecting journalist would even bother.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for participants and observers alike to blame the cops for the outbreak of violence, even as two Virginia State Troopers were killed in a related helicopter crash.

What often gets lost in these events, and very quickly, is perspective.

The tragedy in Charlottesville, painfully real, is not representative of some alternative American reality, in which strictly white Americans have all just become very good at hiding their inherit racism and national socialist sympathies. Watching the network and cable news coverage, cynical people with a vested interest in pumping the story for every last advertisement dollar no matter how distasteful the angle, it would be hard to know that.

The city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee—the wisdom of which is something honest people can peacefully debate—was exploited by a small group of actual racist nitwits, most of them out-of-towners, to advance their vile ideology. But it was a very small group of nitwits, after all, and there were just enough nitwits amongst the counter-protestors to turn friction into an actual fire.

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Peaceful Antifa Protestors Set These Parisian Police Officers on Fire

Horrifically, this collision of stupidity cost Heather Heyer—who by all accounts was led by the same kind of sincere bias for liberty that saw thousands of men die storming the beaches of Normandy–her life.

America has individual racists. Every country has them. Every country will probably always have them. But America is not institutionally racist. Not anymore. While still imperfect, and to a degree that can and should be debated, America continues a historically remarkable record of self-correction in matters of race, and the real tragedy of Charlottesville will come if it is further exploited to suggest otherwise. That road leads only to more division and distrust.

No country with almost 400 million people is going to be without its radical fringe groups, whether it’s StormFront types from some rusting Ohio backwater, La Raza militants in Southern California, ISIS sympathizers in Minneapolis, or New Black Panthers intimidating voters in Philadelphia.

And in America, even when we don’t like it, even when their ideology is thoroughly and demonstrably stupid, they have as much right to assemble and make noise as anyone else.

But thankfully, that isn’t most of us, and not by a long shot. Many of us have relatives who fought against actual Nazis in North Africa, or Italy, or France, or against Japanese fascists and their brand of virulent racism across the Pacific. Some of you, reading this, are the people who actually did that hard work for the rest of us.

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American Paratroopers with a captured Nazi Flag.  The only time it should ever shown.

Most of us are repulsed by swastikas and by the nematodes who harbor the weak flame of that ideology in their hearts. Most Americans reject racism in all of its forms and understand the damage it does to real people, and therefore to the country we love. Most Americans, I strongly believe, reject fringe thinking no matter which end of the political spectrum it springs from.

I hope that I’m right about that.

Maybe no one has ever really loved America for what it is. It is a big, difficult, and sometimes violent and ugly place. But we had better not stop loving it for what it can be, for its limitless potential, and for what the overwhelming majority of us, quietly toiling away in our little gardens, taking care of our neighbors, and working for peace in our communities, still want it to be.

Arrivederci, Scaramucci

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The Mooch, Getting Jiggy With It

I, for one, am going to miss Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. If you didn’t know, The Mooch was sacked as White House Communications Director after an explosive and “colorful” interview with Ryan Lizza, a writer for The New Yorker.

The Mooch, raised on Long Island, was brought to us by Tufts University, Harvard, Goldman Sachs, and later SkyBridge Capital. He was a fundraiser and supporter for both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, but may have fallen out of favor with democrats when he famously asked Obama when he was going to “stop whacking Wall Street like a piñata.”

Later, he endorsed Republican Scott Walker, and then Jeb Bush, and then told the Fox Business Network that Trump was going to be the “President of the Queen County Bullies’ Association.”

Somehow Scaramucci, author of such noted tomes as “Goodbye Gordon Gekko, How to Find Your Fortune Without Losing Your Soul,” “Hopping Over The Rabbit Hole” and “The Little Book of Hedge Funds” (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) became Trump’s main communications man after calling the future President a “hack politician” and “anti-American” during the campaign.

What endeared The Mooch to many of us was the absolute sincerity with which he showed up to work, even though most everyone in the world could see that he was exactly, 100 percent, without question, the wrong guy for the job.

Somehow, I have to believe even The Mooch knew this. But then again, in the land of beltway egos and overwhelming Ivy-League hubris, maybe he was as tone deaf as the President who appointed him.

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The Mooch, Man of Letters

Scaramucci was so totally wrong for the job, so obviously unprepared in both intellect and temperament, one could only scramble to recover from a sudden onset of apoplexy at the announcement of his elevation.

But The Mooch, for all of his hand-waving bombast and immaculate suits, did give us a gigantic gift we can be thankful for.  He gave us, forever, a new term to describe a certain acrobatic feat of auto-fellatio: The Bannon.

What’s fabulous about “The Bannon” is how it can be deployed as a description, a directive, or a metaphor. We can also mix it up, as in “The Steve,” or “The Steve Bannon”.

As something of a traditionalist, however, I think I’m going to stick with just The Bannon, for now, and enjoy a loud laugh every time I think of the actual Steve Bannon knocking about in the West Wing in an ill-fitting suit, cradling a sharpie and a whiteboard, looking precisely as if he just woke up under a bench in the train station.

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Has Whiteboard, Will Travel.  Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist.

The Mooch’s run as Comms Director was not the shortest one ever. That honor goes to Jack Koehler, nee Wolfgang, who was born in Dresden, moved to the US after World War 2, and changed his name to John. Koehler became a journalist, and ultimately a bureau chief, general manager, and managing director of the Associated Press. He was pals with Ronald Reagan and lasted eleven days as Reagan’s Communications Director after it was discovered, or revealed, or leaked, or however those things work, that he had once been a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, a Nazi youth group.

Koehler, who at least had legitimate bonafides in the world of directing communications, was caught wrong-footed, but tried to recover by saying that the group he belonged to was “the Boy Scouts run by the Nazi party.”

Speaking of tone deaf.

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Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell

It would have been interesting to be in General Kelly’s office—remember, in case you missed last week’s episode, Chief of Staff Priebus was disappeared after the Sean Spicer immolation and the Mooch elevation, then replaced by Ned Stark of Winterfell, I mean General Kelly—when he booted The Mooch.

I would like to have seen how Harvard Law stacked up against Quantico, and whether or not The Mooch took his beating from the White House’s newest enforcer with or without whimpers.

As sad as all of this is, and it truly is bad for the republic, don’t worry about Scaramucci. He will land on both feet, no doubt perfectly astride the rabbit hole he wrote about. He knows people, and doggone it, many of them like him, even if, as Felix Salmon from Reuters described his pre-White House financier activities: “He is putting people into hedge funds that really shouldn’t be invested in hedge funds. He has this extremely expensive smile and very good hair, and they trust him. And to the degree that he’s accomplishing it, he’s hurting America.”

So there’s that to consider. And at any rate, it’s just a fact that political life-expectancy around this White House is short. You may recall that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn made it 23 days before he was forced to resign for allegedly cavorting with Russians.

But there was something special about Scaramucci. I’m not sure if it was the frightening thought that there may be no adults left in the White House, or the inescapable and inevitable air of Mafioso sleaze that he brought to the podium.  Maybe it was all of that. But at the very least, the Scaramucci era made for fascinating entertainment.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, 8 August, 2017

Lashed to the Mast

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Len Babb In His Studio, Paisley, Oregon

If you were ever lucky enough to live out on the great sagebrush sea, like I was during a certain vanishing era, you might have enjoyed a slice of old Americana in perhaps the rarest of ways: trailing cattle and working horses.

The outback was, in those days–and still is to some degree–a kind of underworld, a parallel universe, richly populated with characters and stories both real and imagined.

Most folks, I think it’s fair to say, travel through the desert without much pause. They might admire some dazzling vista, or stop at a favorite greasy spoon, or even camp for a night or two on a lonely butte, but mostly they pour coal to the fire and yawn at the empty miles.

But there is a real enough daily life out there on the big oceans of desert, and it was out there, last Friday, that I was blessed to spend some time with a real American legend, Len Babb.

I first started hearing about Len, and his magnificent saddles, in the long ago, when I rode the big empty with another legendary buckaroo named Bert Lambert. Bert was a Mescalero Apache, up from New Mexico, who could rope a tick off of a dog’s ass at a dead run, and whose stories were so outlandish, so outrageous, and so thoroughly questionable, that I actually started writing them down. I have an entire notebook I titled, way back then: The Bert Lambert Lies.

An example from the notebook: “Bert said today that he once rode an ostrich somewhere near Christmas Valley, up in Oregon. ‘Not much buck,’ he said, ‘But they sure do run fast.’”

Imagine my surprise then, all of these years later, when I finally met Len Babb in person, and was enjoying a fine lunch prepared by his wife Gloria, and learned that so many of Bert’s imaginative stories of mayhem were actually true.

What makes Len Babb a hall of famer in the buckaroo world is not just his wonderful artwork, his appreciation for fine horsemanship, or his work for storied ranches such as The Padlock, out in Wyoming, or the ZX here in Oregon. It’s the longevity of his career. Most buckaroo careers look more like mine did: a deep, and altogether too short, dive into the depths. With wages stuck forever in the 19th century, that’s really just a matter of economics, and very few ever accomplish what Len and Gloria did, let alone raise 6 children.

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Len Babb as photographed by Bank Langmore, in his landmark book:  Cowboys

Sipping root beer under the wind chymes on his porch—Len told me he had real beer, but we agreed the interview might go awry–I asked him the obvious question: Why did you stick it out all these years?

“Because I love it,” he said. Simple as that. And it filled me with a certain hard-edged, inexplicable personal remorse such that I couldn’t find a way to the next part of the interview. Len, mercifully, gave me an out. Bills are bills, he said, and then told a joke about his friend John Adamson, who was being interviewed by photographers out documenting the buckaroo life. They were curious about the changes John had seen in his decades as a working buckaroo. “Well,” John told them, “the wages are the same.”

I’ve long held a thought in my head, maybe too simplistic, that as soon as they start paving the roads, a mostly unexplored and unfamiliar and wide-open chunk of country is more or less finished. The mystery runs all out of it. At least for the folks that once enjoyed it for its demanding, and beautiful, remoteness. That’s possibly stupid, but when you’ve lived mostly horseback on a country, and learned its moods that way, there is more than a bit of remorse to see how easy it suddenly is to get from here to there.

We commiserated, just a little bit, on how the big ranches are breaking up and disappearing with increasing speed. We talked about how the country was filling up with people, “settling up” in Len’s words, and I mentioned, perhaps too bitterly, that “We can’t stop what’s coming.”

Len just smiled: “You can’t even slow it down,” he said. “Just be glad you got in on a piece of it. That’s the way I look at it.”

One of the things I love about Len, and it’s been true of so many of the real buckaroos of his generation, is how genuinely open-minded he is. “I never wanted anybody telling me what to do, and I never wanted to boss anyone,” he said.

A man like Len can say that without irony, and offer his life as proof, which makes him rare enough in the world.

In his hand-built log studio, which could easily stand in for a perfect bunkhouse on any ranch I’ve ever known, Len has an old FA Meaney saddle sitting on a rack. It has the WT mark on it, meaning it was built in the Wyoming Territory, probably in the 1860’s, and most likely in Cheyenne, by Frank Meaney—another legend of the cowboy underworld. He has a collection of beautifully crafted rawhide reatas—which he still ropes with—beautiful enough to make a sadsack towny like myself cry out loud. He has a pair of big-rowelled spurs that his father traded off of a Sioux Indian back in Wyoming, a rack of muzzle-loaders that he has killed bucks with, and a single skylight that throws the heavenly desert light down onto his canvas while he works.

Winters, he sits by the big wood stove in the middle of the room, turning beeswax into beautifully sculpted horses.

He has a buckaroo’s hands, lithe and precise, soft in a horse’s mouth, steady for brushstrokes on canvas, but hard enough in the right places to knock a rude man into next Wednesday.

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Len Babb, Buckaroo Legend, Artist of the West, photo by the author

Len focuses his work on the early years of the open west. “After the automobile came in, the glamor of cowboying went out the window,” he said. “I did a lot of good cowboying, but not like you wanna draw pictures of. People come around and say, ‘Well, Len, I guess you get a lot of ideas out there,’ and I tell ‘em I really don’t because what would you paint? Somebody getting out of a horse trailer? An old black cow staring at you?”

Len wants his paintings to sell, and they have, and I’m confident he’s on the edge of something much bigger, once the world finds him, but that isn’t why he does it. “The people I’ve associated with could count all their money without taking their hands out of their pockets,” he said. Which is the same motivation a buckaroo finds when he is moving three hundred pairs alone, miles from anywhere, up-canyon in a storm blowing sideways. Money isn’t the reason a man signs up for that kind of thing. It’s passion, a deep, abiding, unwavering passion.

My own grandfather begged me not to go out into the desert. “You’ll never have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of,” he said. He was right about that, and I knew it, but we both knew that it in my case it wouldn’t matter. You either hear the siren song or you don’t. And if you look out into the desert and hear it, and chase it down, lashed to the mast like Ulysses, it alters forever the way you see the world.

What informs Len Babb’s art, his drawings, paintings, and sculptures, is that siren song. He’s heard it his entire life, since the day his father moved the family from South Dakota into Glendo, Wyoming, hauling one truck full of horses, and one full of cattle, and stopping every now and then to pour water on the over-heating engines.

And then Charlie Russell came into Len’s life and threw gas on the fire.

Len Babb truly is a legend, and a man I am honored to have shared a few laughs with on a beautiful desert afternoon. He has heard those beautiful sirens of the outback singing in his ear, been lashed to the mast, and has sailed as close to the shores of Titan as a man in the modern era ever will.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, 1 August 2017