Several months ago, one of my journalism and writing heroes, Tom Zoellner, invited me to review Saving Yellowstone for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I was a bit cowed by the prospect, to be perfectly honest. I don't have any standing, in senses literary or academic, to critique the work of Dr. Megan Kate Nelson, the book's author. I hadn't yet read her previous book, The Three-Cornered War, which had been a Pulitzer finalist. I was, upon first consideration, well out of my depth and not particularly inclined to take on the assignment.
And then I reconsidered. If Dr. Nelson's literary ambition is to peel back history and explain it to a general audience—as well seems to be the case—then I'm about as general as they come. I'm curious and informed, I live in the region where the events of Dr. Nelson's book unfolded, and I try to live my ideal that an engaged life and mind require making some inroads into all you don't know (a considerable pile for me) and challenging those things you think you do know (also a considerable pile).
In those ways, I was redeemed by reading and reviewing Saving Yellowstone—and by backtracking to read The Three-Cornered War. The review speaks for itself, I think. Beyond the completion of my assignment, the book has stayed with me. I've repeatedly recommended it, in sometimes obnoxious ways (see the tweet below). I've put it in the hands of friends. I've pondered the way Dr. Nelson's presentation of history—as something connected, something that breathes and reverberates—stands at odds with the lessons of the garden-variety public education I received in my Texas suburb, in which events were stand-alones and dates were to be memorized and regurgitated.
Dr. Nelson's book details the Hayden expedition into Yellowstone, yes, and the establishment of our first national park, but also so much more, including the influences of capitalism, the literal and figurative erasure of Indigenous peoples, how the grappling with Reconstruction was not just a southern story but also a western one. One of the jarring lessons of the read, for me, was seeing the way the Grant administration's attempt to bring freed slaves into the body politic lay parallel with a policy of dispossession and extermination of Indigenous peoples in the West. The aims of the former policy largely failed; the aims of the latter were vastly realized. The result of both has been lasting inequality. The book is a triumph of dot connecting, of context, of presenting the bigger picture that lies outside conventional framing. It cannot be read without the realization that the fracture points of yesterday linger today.
In the reading, I was reminded of something I often impart to editing clients when I sense that their narrative has gone passive (something that is NOT an issue for the history Dr. Nelson illuminates or the way she goes about telling it). The "and then, and then, and then" structure of storytelling will not compel an audience's attention or investment. I mentioned the polished-up version of history I absorbed and spat out for tests in my youth. That's how it was often (not always, but often) presented to me: Here's this. Here's this. Here's another thing. Here's still another. Hey, why is your head down and what's with all the drooling?
Dr. Nelson's book, a work of scholarship, clicks along the way good storytelling does. It has sinew and electricity and a heaping measure of "but therefore ..." It moves. It speaks. It is kinetic.
You must read this book.
Yesterday, I drove from Billings to Livingston to see a lecture by Dr. Nelson and by Dr. Shane Doyle, who detailed the fascinating history of Indigenous peoples in Yellowstone.
Their presentations were sponsored by Elk River Arts & Lectures and the Park County Environmental Council and served as a fundraiser for the All-Nations Teepee Village, an event "to honor and recognize the many Tribal Nations with connections to Yellowstone and highlight the indigeneity of the landscape." To learn more about that effort (and to donate), go here, please.
I've been in Montana for a while now--much longer in my heart than in my physical presence—and every day that has included a trip to Livingston can be filed away under the heading of "Best Days." Beers and yuks with the great Scott McMillion (who wrote the quintessential Livingston appreciation). A quick bite and more imbibing with Marc Beaudin. Chatting with Elise Atchison and Max Hjortsberg and Tandy Miles Riddle. Seeing pals on almost every corner.
May your life be blessed with interesting travel and good friends.
... and into the rest of the story, or at least more of it.
I've been on the masthead of Montana Quarterly for the better part of a decade now. But back in 2010, when I had one novel to my name and not much else in the way of published literary work, I was just a guy pitching an essay to Megan Regnerus, then the magazine's editor and now our beloved editor emeritus.
I called it The Small Things, and it was written after my father, Ron, and my Uncle Bob Witte (RIP) ventured out to the Fairfield Bench, near Great Falls, and found the dairy farm that shaped Dad's young life in some pretty horrible ways. I won't say much else here; you can read the piece for yourself, and I hope you will, because it provides a good anchoring for some discoveries I recently made while digging through archives. Long story short: I've always wondered about some of the details my father told me that day on the bench, not because I thought him dishonest about the general gist of things, but because he was 71 years old (he's 82 now), and that's a lot of time for the finer points to get lost.
But he hadn't lost them. Not really.
Let's dig in ...
From the piece: "I’d heard, or maybe I’d assumed, that my paternal grandfather, Fred, had walked out on the family when Dad was two or three years old. But here was Bob, telling me that it had been a proper divorce and that Dad’s mother had rejected the children."
The archives say ... Pretty much dead-on, if Fred's account of it is to be believed. He sought the divorce. He also tried to get the children (Dad, his older brother Duaine, his older sister Dolores).
From the piece: "When Fred showed up to get Dad a week later, Dick locked the little boy in the basement and met Fred at the road. He carried a shotgun, all the better to send Fred on his way. Three children could accomplish a hell of a lot more work than two, and Dick aimed to keep Dad close, be it with a gun or a fist or a horse whip."
The archives say ... Nothing I found speaks directly to this episode. Still, I'm not about to contradict Dad; he remembers it, he's shaken by it all these years later, and trauma has a way of imprinting itself immutably. What I know for sure is that Fred and Della and the man who became her new husband, Richard Mader, had confrontations. Here's the evidence:
I've saved the best one for last. The remembrance of my father that was shrouded in the most mystery was where he went and what he did when he finally ran away from Richard Mader's dairy farm for good. Dad's memory is that he went to work for a farming family near Three Forks. I had no reason to disbelieve him, of course, but Three Forks is a fair distance from Fairfield. I wondered how he got there and whether he might have actually ended up somewhere else, somewhere closer, and just lost the place to the intervening years.
From the piece: "After a few weeks, he ended up on a farm in Three Forks, doing odd jobs and being attended to by a kind family that kept him shielded from Dick, who was still looking for him. After a year or two, Dad told the farmer that he would like to see his father again, and the man agreed to find Fred and take Dad to him. A few weeks later, word came: Fred was in Butte.
"More than fifty years later, Dad’s voice broke and his eyes floated in tears as he revealed what happened next. They were the only emotions he betrayed in telling the story.
“'The farmer told me, "I’ll drive you to Butte and once you’re there, I’ll put you in a cab and follow you to your father’s house. Once I see that he’s come out to get you, I’m gone." '
"In a singular act, that Three Forks farmer, whose name has been lost to the intervening years, did for Dad what no one else could be troubled to do: He acted in the best interest of the child."
The archives say ... Well, just have a look from a newspaper's "persons sought" column:
Getting at the details of my father's life has been a driving pursuit for many of my own days. Part of it is that I'm his only child, and if there's a story to be salvaged, it's up to me to mine it and tell it. And part of it is that I'm so heartbroken for the boy he once was, a clearly smart youngster who was denied so many of the blessings of his age, who was brutalized and stunted and who has persevered despite it all. I know how violence cycles from generation to generation, and I also know that the man I call Dad has refused to spin it on into me. It's the great achievement of his life, and he probably doesn't even know it. I want to drag the shit that happened to him into the light, the best disinfectant for what was visited upon him.
He's not a hero. He is, in fact, a deeply flawed man (as is his son, as was his own father—there's more to that story, for another time).
But he's my dad, and I love him.
Addendum: There's an earlier piece, originally published by the San Jose Mercury News in 2004, that focuses more on finding out what became of Fred after Dad reunited with him in the mid-1950s. That was the last time father and son saw each other. Dad went into the Navy, and Fred went ... well, that's the interesting thing. You can read about that here.
It was after Ned Beatty died—which came not long after Gavin McLeod died, which came on the heels of Charles Grodin's death—that my friend (and best man) Jim Thomsen said, via text, "We're losing the generation we looked up to."
Indeed, we are, as early Gen Xers, and there's a reason for that: We've made a right turn at middle age and are headed not away from Albuquerque but toward our own burning out. If people twenty and thirty and forty years our elder are finding the exit of this mortal coil, it's only proof that time is immutable and undefeated. We will follow them into stardust, and that eventuality is already close enough to whisper to us.
My reply to Jim that day: "Dying is the one thing we were born to do."
I've been thinking of that a lot—not necessarily Jim's observation, nor mine, but the relentlessness of time. It's not sentimental. It's not personal. It's not tender or caring. It just is. Every fraction of a second of every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year...
I've also been thinking of it a lot since finding out that my Aunt Barbara died last week. If there's someone who has been in my life from cradle to now, my parents aside, it is her. An early friend of my mother and father. The sister of my eventual stepfather. The mother of cousins, once and twice and thrice removed.
I've been driving for thirty-five years, and many of those years have seen me drive into or through Casper, Wyoming, the first home I ever had, just a few houses down from where Barbara and her family lived. And almost every time, I've made a stop to see Barbara, and before that Sammy, her late husband. It's a ritual that seems inseparable from what I know to be the way of my life: If I'm in Casper, I swing by and say hello.
There will be no more of it, at least no more that terminates at her front door. Time is not sentimental, but I remain so. I might still turn right off Poison Spider Road. I might still cast a glance left at the first house I ever knew. I might still wonder what my long-ago friend Richard is doing these days. I might wave at Barbara's house as I go by. But go by I will, because there's no longer any reason to stop and say hello.
It's hard to part with that. Hard for me, anyway.
After the second reading from And It Will Be a Beautiful Life last weekend at This House of Books, I was talking about the prominent roles of memory and reflection in writing, and I relayed the story of reconciliation with a former college roommate whom I wronged more than 30 years ago. The video above begins with the salient part.
The brief retelling in the video covers the major points. I ruined a good friendship with selfishness, and I left him holding the bag on what was supposed to be a shared obligation (rent). We never talked again after I bailed, and that sucks—the bailing and the not talking. It was not a proud moment for me, and occasionally, the memory of it has drifted through my head and shamed me anew. And I'll just say this: The occasional shame was a reasonable toll for the way I inflicted my immaturity on someone else.
A few years ago, the woman who ran the student publications department at UT-Arlington, Dorothy Estes, died, and tributes poured in from all over, including one from my former friend. Long after I should have done so, I reached out:
Seeing your lovely remembrance of Dorothy Estes brought forth a lot of memories, many good, some bad, and the bad ones all on me. I've thought about you from time to time these past 25-plus years. It may well be ancient history, but it's something I've left undone, so if you'll indulge me I'd like to close it up now: I'm sorry for the way I left you holding the bag on that apartment all those years ago, and for the way that effectively ended what had been a good friendship. It's been a source of shame and regret for me for many years, as well as a point of departure. In the aftermath of that, I started growing up, which was long overdue.
I was telling my wife about those years this morning. The Shorthorn, and UTA, don't occupy the same place in my history as they do for so many who've come together to remember Dorothy. Those were difficult years for me—difficult in my own skin, in my studies, in owning up to the responsibilities of being a man in the world. I found my way later on, but I've certainly harbored regrets for the prior mistakes and idiocies. Again, I am sorry.
I hope this finds you well. I loved your remembrance. It evoked in me something I remember often feeling when I read your stuff all those years ago: Damn. I wish I'd written that.
What he wrote in response belongs to him, but I can assure you it was kind and considerate and reflective of the young man I knew him to be and the older man he'd obviously grown into. We closed the book on something between us, and I think we both felt good about that.
One of the things I've learned about myself is that I crave closure, and that yearning can be good and bad. On one hand, the compulsion allows me to reconsider past encounters rather than just calcifying into positions that might not be healthy. On the other hand, sometimes situations are meant to be exited wordlessly and expediently, a true change of trajectory. Wise words from a former counselor of mine, as I walked through the rubble of a divorce: "In some things, closure is overrated."
In this case, though, I think it's just what the moment required. For both of us.
Here, though, is where the story takes a turn …
I went home that night after the reading and reflected again on the original unkind act and on the subsequent, many-years-later reconciliation, and the next morning I sent my erstwhile friend a copy of the video above, pointing him toward the bit about our history. And then, for whatever reason, I ran a Google search on him.
Roy R. Reynolds, my long-ago friend, died earlier this month. Fifty-three years old. Young. Far too young.
I feel privileged to have known him, once. Regret for not mending the breach before we did. Gratitude that the mending happened at all, that I reached out, and especially that Roy met that outreach with grace. He didn't have to do that, but he was the kind of man who wouldn't have done anything else.
Originally published December 10, 2020
In the first piece I wrote for whatever this series of essays is becoming, I blithely noted a lifelong tendency toward restlessness. It’s a force that has driven research papers, inspired literature, informed film, and, in real-life situations, has ripped apart families, ended jobs, and launched fanciful and ill-fated dreams by the millions.
A worthy topic, no?
Here’s one small slice:
In my primary career, that of a print journalist, I worked for ten newspapers (1) in seven states (2) over the course of twenty-five years (1988 to 2013). The shortest stint in a job was three months (hello, The Olympian, and the tumultuous year 2000 (3)). The longest stint was the final one, seven-plus years at The Billings Gazette, from summer 2006 to late fall 2013.
In all of those years and all of those moves, I would pull up the stakes and fill the UHaul trailer for many reasons—money (4), status, opportunity, a sense of running to or running away—but the only factor that cut across every decision was this one: There looked better to me than here.
If you read a lot of pop psychology (5), you come across the phrase “Wherever you go, there you are.” It has a subtle efficacy, straddling the line between inane (it is what it is) and something much more profound. In my case—and, I suspect, in many cases—it manifested like this: I could spot another job (believe it or not, newspaper gigs flourished in the early years of my career), I could apply for it and get it (because I was good at what I did), and I could pack up all my crap and haul it somewhere new, put down first and last on an apartment, find a new grocery store and some restaurants that suited me, meet new co-workers and bosses, and make a startling, yet thoroughly unsurprising realization days or weeks later:
I’m the same broken jackass I was at the last place!
It took me a long time to learn that I wasn’t feeding the part of me that required some care, the part that had yet to suss out the important differences between fulfillment and happiness amid the considerable overlaps. Not long after my initial career ended, I was picking through the debris field of a marriage with a counselor’s help, and with a lot of reflection and reading, some of these concepts started to click for me. I said to her: “Jesus. I must be the dumbest man alive not to have figured it out before now. (6)” And she smiled at me the way my mother sometimes does when I am in the vicinity of a realization without actually arriving there. “You’re in your mid-forties,” she said. “That’s when most men get it, if they get it at all.” (7)
I don’t think I’ve gotten it. Sometimes, I think I’m asking the right questions, though. That’s progress.
I followed my stepfather into journalism. The difference between us—and it’s vast—is that the job was something he did, not something he was. I used to think I’d figured out something vital that had eluded him, that by pouring myself into the job and remaining mobile (no kids, no attachments), I was making my career work for me. That was an illusion. Truth was, the job was working me, and I was willingly giving it some of my best years without insisting on my share of that time.
My stepfather, meanwhile, rode out the vicissitudes of employment in a single place. Whether the job was good or bad or something in between, whether the bosses were genuinely caring or ogres, he did his work and came home to his family and his home and his life. He knew the difference between durable fulfillment and transient happiness.
Like many dumbasses, I thought I was so smart.
Let’s get back to restlessness. Certainly, that’s a condition that can lead a guy to choose the fleeting over the sustainable (8), to think he’s improving his lot when he’s really just going deeper into the hole. Restlessness, in itself, is not the problem. But restlessness is a gateway to transformative decisions, and those can be problems.
Restlessness, applied well, can be a good and useful thing. And if restlessness is in you, I believe it’s there to stay, so better to manage it than to be managed by it.
My newspaper career ended in 2013, and in the denouement, I was luckier than most: I granted myself release on my own recognizance. My first few novels had started to sell (9), I saw an opportunity to go, and I went.
That first year of not having any obligation that I didn’t willingly take on, I slowly unwound the spring in my chest. I wrote when I wanted to write, I played golf when I wanted to do that, I traveled, I made merry, I finished crashing my first marriage on the rocky outcroppings of incompatibility and disregard.
And somewhere in there, I felt the old stirring again. I wanted something to do, something to learn, somewhere to be. I was bored, a condition that’s the precursor to restlessness, which in turn is the spark that leads to decisions, good or bad.
This is how I became a pig tracker. (10)
In mid-October 2015, after a few weeks of dropping inscrutable hints about what I was up to, I wrote this on Facebook:
I'm working on a pipeline crew, if I haven't been perfectly clear in my pig ramblings this week. Specifically, I'm a pig tracker. A pig is a tool placed in the pipeline that runs from point to point. Different pigs have different uses. Some clean. Some scan the interior of the pipeline. Some purge. And so on.
A tracker stays in front of the pig—the tracker hopes—and records its passage at various crossings, gathering information on time, speed, etc. On a long, gentle run like this one, where the pig is moving about 3 mph and has to cover about 330 miles, that means the trackers work in shifts, day and night, 24 hours daily, all the time. We've been at it since Wednesday morning. We have a ways to go yet.
I'm on the night shift. Midnight to noon. Then I find a hotel somewhere down the line and I bang out some sleep. I just finished that part.
It's a weird, thrilling, lonely thing to skulk around the pipeline in the dark pitch of night. There's a lot of hurry up and wait on this job. There is, occasionally, a lot of hurry up and hurry up. You have to anticipate. You have to react. You have to figure out time and distance. It's fun. It's tedious, too, on occasion. Three days (nights) in, I'm exploring new frontiers of exhaustion. I'm reinforcing an old lesson, that Super 8's are, in many cases, not so super, and that Comfort Inns are not so comforting. …
What I love is that I'm seeing the America I don't know well. Dirt roads and empty precincts and ghost houses and forgotten cemeteries, and a million other things. …
I'm not doing it for money, although I'll certainly take it. I joke sometimes that I do it to stave off boredom, but that's too glib by half. No, it's something else. A chance to see and do and learn. All my life, I've been touched with wanderlust, that compulsion to see beyond present horizons. But I'm getting older and more rooted … I don't wander the way I used to. I miss it sometimes. Here, I can do it on my particular terms—work when I want it, without a desk on some office island, without some new corporate paradigm being triangulated by tiers of bosses. It's me and my night-shift buddy and our day-shift counterparts and the pig. We all keep rolling on.
Pig tracking falls into the good-decision bucket. It's never been more than an occasional job—too many other things to do: books to write, stories to edit, magazines to design, life with Elisa to savor—but the work speaks to both who I am and what I’m fundamentally interested in. Time and speed and distance, man. Wherever we are, however we live, those are the measurements that build our equations.
Without restlessness tugging at me, pestering me, maybe I never see that in such sharp relief.
(1) Deep breath: Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Peninsula Clarion; Texarkana Gazette; Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer; Dayton Daily News; Anchorage Daily News; San Jose Mercury News (twice); San Antonio Express-News; The Olympian; The Billings Gazette.
(2) Shallower breath: Texas (thrice); Alaska (twice); Kentucky; Ohio; California (twice); Washington; Montana.
(3) In less than a calendar year, I moved from San Jose, Calif., to San Antonio to Olympia and back to San Jose, where I clearly should have just stayed in the first place.
(4) Not too damned much of it, in retrospect.
(6) Hubris dies hard.
(7) Men are in a lot of trouble. More on this later, I’m sure.
(8) Guilty, many times.
(9) Talk about transience. It was glorious while it lasted, though.
(10) The main character in my upcoming novel, And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, is a pig tracker. This is not a coincidence.
Originally published December 3, 2020
Just when you think Facebook has turned you away for good with its money- and data-grubbing perniciousness—and I do think this, on the regular—a friend posts something that commands your attention and sends you down the rabbit holes of memory and easy information, among the few reliable outposts in a pandemic that has separated us from each other.
The compelling headline: “The Rare Humans Who See Time & Have Amazing Memories.” The friend who posted it, Ingrid Ougland, commented: “I see the months of the year as this sphere or oval, with December and January at the top, spring months slide down to the right, the summer months are at the bottom and kind of flat, then we climb back up with the fall months. I can’t visualize it any other way!”
Envy was mine. I don’t see time that way at all. If anything, I see it in the old-timey movie effect of the passage of days, calendar sheets flying off in the wind, and suddenly Joseph Cotten (1) is a grownup standing in a place once occupied by a boy. Seconds tumble into minutes tumble into days tumble into weeks and months and years. Time compresses and stacks up, and I occasionally marvel that a colleague, blessed with what seems to be boundless youth, is, in fact, in his mid-thirties and should probably think now about doubling his 401(k) contribution. I wish I had (2).
I would love to see coming time in colors or shapes, if only to make the inevitable passing of it more interesting.
Upon thinking about it more—and herein lies the gift of Ingrid’s post: subsequent ruminations on time (3)—I realized that rather than seeing the days to come in some sort of order, I account for the days gone by with a storage system that’s varied in its cross-referencing and startling in the level of detail it allows me to access long after the time has slipped my grasp.
It’s difficult to get at proving this thesis with any degree of abstraction, so here is a concrete example pulled from the archives, such as they are.
Summer of 1976
A basic fact before we proceed, as it will clarify this anecdote and, in all likelihood, future writings: My mother and father divorced in 1973, when I was three years old. This is not an event that causes me to look backward in wistfulness, wondering if things might have gone better for me had those crazy kids stayed together. Indeed, things almost certainly would have been worse for at least two of us (my father, alas, never had it so good). So, please, if you feel compelled to pity, exercise it for a freckle-faced kid in some alternative universe who had to grow up in that household under the umbrella of that marriage. I’m fine. Really.
What their breach did saddle me with was a sort of bifurcated childhood—two wildly different existences that I had to stitch together as a whole. During school months, I lived in a suburban house out of central casting, with two and sometimes three siblings (my stepbrother Keith being the wild card there), a mother who ran the homefront operation and a stepfather who worked hard and was present to his family life. Call it Cleaver-esque if you wish. That’s not an entirely on-target assessment—there are a few sprinkles of Yours, Mine and Ours, too—but if shorthand is your thing, I’m not going to let us get derailed on the particulars.
Once school was out, my father would send for me, and I would spend summers with him in remote precincts of the West. Dad was an exploratory well digger, a job that scarcely exists anymore. (Slight deviation for self-promotion: My second novel, The Summer Son, will satisfy even the heartiest appetites for tales about well-digging.) He would drive from job to job with his truck-mounted drilling rig and a crew of helpers (sometimes one, usually two, and when I was around, I’d make three—or maybe two and a half) and would dig test holes that were subsequently detonated and picked over by geologists, whose task was to determine whether the findings warranted further extraction.
These jobs lasted for varying lengths—sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of months—and so I have this passel of childhood summers spent in such places as Montpelier, Idaho, and Baggs, Wyoming, and Limon, Colorado, and Sidney, Montana, and Price, Utah. I slept in motel rooms and on fold-out couches in fifth wheels, and, occasionally, in tents. Every morning, I’d ride with my father and his crew out to the fields where they were working, my sleepy head bouncing on Dad’s shoulder as he made the daybreak commute.
We spent the summer of 1976 in Elko, Nevada, and here’s where the cross-tabbing of memory comes in. I remember it was ’76 because Dad’s helpers were my new uncle Barry and my new stepbrother Ronnie (4). I remember because Dad and his new wife and Ronnie and I were jammed up in a Holiday Rambler, often unable to escape each other, and I remember that the fissures in the marriage were almost immediately exposed by such unceasing proximity. I remember because “Play That Funky Music” was ever-present on the radio, and because I told Ronnie that I liked “Silly Love Songs” better and he told me I was just a dumb kid.
I remember because, one day, another family in another trailer pulled in and set up camp, and their kid, a few years older than I was, punched me in the nose, bloodying it (and, perhaps, contributing to my fear of such confrontations). I remember because Dad and Uncle Barry responded to this assault in a way that can be described, only with considerable charity, as disproportionate. They carried baseball bats to the other family’s campsite, waggled the lumber with menace, and suggested those folks move along. Dad still tells this story from time to time, when he gets enough alcohol in him to open the dark rooms of his recall, and he always finishes with a laugh and a “man, you’ve never seen anybody drive away so fast.”
I remember because I have to live with two distinct reactions to that sight, separated by years of reconsideration: In the moment, as a bloodied little boy, being in awe of these men who stepped in on my behalf, as if they were superheroes. And now, much older than either man was that day, wondering what the hell was wrong with them. Forty-four years’ worth of calendar pages have been cast to the wind, and I can sit here today and close my eyes and see the terror on the faces of that man, his wife, and their boy. I am much more in tune with how scared they were than I am with how I felt as a six-year-old who watched the scene unfurl.
Summer of 2006
On Day 1 of my two-day move from California to Montana, I skirted along Elko on Interstate 80, and recall was stoked not just by the name but also by the bends in the highway and by the hills in the distance. I guided my pickup-UHaul combo off the interstate and, with neither GPS nor memory of the name of the campground we had stayed in thirty years earlier, I drove right to where it was. I knew the direction and the topography, I knew the hill it sat upon, and I knew the turns I had to make to get there.
Had it occurred to me that this was unusual, I might have made more of it, but I’d been doing similar things in other places throughout my adult life, and I’ve continued to do it since. Drop me most anywhere I’ve spent an appreciable amount of time, whether as a child or a man, and I can find my way to the places I occupied in some past era of my life. And once I’m there, the time gone by indeed has shape and color. It settles uneasily atop or alongside whatever is happening there now. I can stand in front of my first house, off Poison Spider Road in Mills, Wyoming, as I did this past summer, and I will see the boxy white house with the single-car garage, ever-present in my memories since I last lived there in 1978, and I will also see what it is now: a sort of cinnamon red, the garage long ago converted into more living space, the street out front paved rather than dirt and gravel. I can connect with what was and allow it to coexist with what is. I have to. There is no other choice.
Time is a slow-motion wrecking ball—it wipes out businesses that once existed on corners, housing developments, schools, the names by which we know things. Few human constructions can survive it. But none of that matters if it’s the corners to which you’re beholden and not what sat upon them while you were passing through.
Those corners call to me.
(1) I’m not sure why Joseph Cotten popped out of the ol’ cranium for that example. I’m not terribly familiar with the bulk of his work, although he looms large with me for two reasons: First, Shadow of a Doubt might be the best movie ever, and yes, I’m willing to fight you. Second, I always momentarily confuse him with Josef Sommer, which is thoroughly inexplicable.
(2) Seriously, retirement is a pipe dream. I’m going to have to die with my hands on the keyboard.
(3) I mean, I’m not Proust, but I do spend an inordinate amount of my energy ruminating on the illusions and erosions of time.
(4) While it’s true that I’m an ardent believer in the benefits of a necessary divorce, I really would like to urge those among us who cannot sustain the institution of marriage (in this case, I’m looking at you, Dad) to keep the rest of us out of it. At one point in my young life, I had three brothers and three sisters, thanks to the kudzu-like entanglements of several mergers. And then, with the stroke of a divorce judge’s pen, half of them were gone. I did not get a vote in the decision to add these sort-of siblings in the first place. Nonetheless, I accepted them as my own and loved them. I also didn’t get a vote in their departure. It sucks.
Originally published November 26, 2020
When I was nine years old, my stepfather picked me up from school one day and took me to a junkyard somewhere between downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and the middle-class suburb where we lived. We went into a squat cinderblock building with a couple of slat windows and scant ventilation, a place where men worked and sweated, and even today, forty-one years later, I can remember the air that hung heavy with that aroma of ancient perspiration.
There, we met a man named Gary Barcroft, the head honcho of Little John’s Wrecking Yard Boxing Team. He was a man of hard angles, with a placid face and a harsh voice, and my stepfather handed me over and gave Gary permission to make a fighter of me. Actually, now that I reflect on it, that ambition was probably too lofty for the likes of the kid I was. What my stepfather hoped, I think, is that I might become unafraid of being punched, because that pervasive fear was coloring my interactions with other kids I knew, who could smell the fear on me and wanted to have a go.
I think my stepfather’s aims that day were entirely pragmatic. A kid who can fight = a kid who doesn’t get bullied. I doubt he had his eyes on any notions that were larger than the moment demanded.
And yet …
I mentioned in a previous post that one of my best friends and I have bonded, in part, over the fact that we’re both big guys who look like bruisers but who don’t have any desire to rumble with anybody. This isn’t just a function of our current ages; believe me, we’re both well aware of how pathetic it would for a fifty-something and a sixty-something to go around tossing knuckles. Even as a younger man, with less of a handle on my rage and, perhaps, more of an excuse to give it an outlet, I wasn’t that guy. And yet, on occasion, trouble came sniffing around me. When you’re a big guy, you’re every bit the target that a little guy is—perhaps not to someone who doesn’t want a hassle and can find easier marks, but certainly to the alpha who seeks dominion or to the guy who thinks he can get his by taking yours.
An example: Thirty years ago, I was playing pickup basketball at the Y in downtown Fort Worth, back when I had endless wind and knees that didn’t groan under my weight. The publisher of the newspaper I worked for at the time was on the court, too, and the first time we divvied up teams, he and I ended up on opposite sides, and he slapped my chest and said “I’ve got the big man.” I knew what that was, even at twenty years old. He didn’t know me—I was just a low-level correspondent in one of his far-flung suburban bureaus—but he knew what I was. I was his trophy that day.
Events unfolded predictably. He pestered me. Jabbed me. Stretched the thin line between aggressiveness and assholery till it snapped. Taunted me. Tried to get a reaction from me. I wasn’t giving that up. I’m not claiming here that I was in possession of endless patience. It’s just that I knew where an escalation led. There’s a violent turn that such encounters can take, and once that happens, everybody involved becomes known to each other. No way would the outcome of such an encounter favor me. I wanted to keep writing newspaper stories and cashing checks without this guy being aware of my existence.
At one point, late in a game, I got him on my back, jutted my ass end to keep him there, called for the ball with an upraised right hand. Once I had it on my palm, I dropped my left elbow dead center into his chest, heard the breath go out of him, a most satisfying deflation, and spun to the hoop and scored. When the game ended, I gathered up my stuff and went home, no words spoken, no outward satisfaction at my rejoinder.
Me 1, Provocateurs 0.
Gary Barcroft is the guy third from the right in the old picture above. It was taken in 1963, sixteen years before he met me. In 1979, the man was as good as his word. He put me on a heavy bag. Taught me how to beat out a rhythm on a speed bag. Instructed me in the ways of skipping rope. Sent me out on long runs with other fighters, from pipsqueaks like me on up to some of the up-and-coming pros in Fort Worth. Got me in the ring, moved me around, turned sparring partners loose on me. He taught me. I learned to throw the basic suite of punches—not especially well, as there was little that could be done about my substandard athleticism or my lack of foot and hand speed, but well enough to say, OK, the kid is ready for a real fight.
I got one in Waco, ninety-some miles south. My parents and little brother and sister went down to see it. Gary was the referee, and one of his assistants was my cornerman. The bell rang, I lumbered out, threw a punch, left it dangling out there, and the other kid hit me directly in the nose. I dropped my arms, started bawling, and Gary ended matters. Abject humiliation, the worst I’ve ever felt, poured over me. The memory, even now as I type this, is sticky with failure and shame.
I suppose my folks would have been fine with a lost night and a long drive home and no more boxing for me, but I went back to the gym the following Monday. I fought again the next Saturday and went the full three rounds. It was another loss, in that the other kid’s arm was raised by the referee, but it was also the biggest win ever.
That season of boxing ended with my holding a 1-8 record and emerging into the rest of my life with a surety that I could handle myself in a physical confrontation. Funny how one never really showed up after that. Oh, I had a few boyhood rows with neighborhood kids, and I’d lose some and win some, but the gift of boxing is that it just wasn’t worth the time of anyone who knew me to throw fists. I might lose, but I wouldn’t make the winning easy for the other guy. Confidence and security come with that.
For some time that season and beyond, I harbored fanciful dreams of fighting professionally, but both my record and my latent suburban softness exposed the incongruity of my capabilities and my fleeting aspirations. I had a trainer that year who wanted to see if I had some pent-up rage and whether he could coax it out of me. Well, I didn’t, at least not in any quantity that was useful to him--I was freaking nine—and his methods stood at odds with the limits of my comprehension. He would tell me about the great Roberto Duran and how he would convince himself before a fight that the man across the ring had done horrible, unspeakable things to someone Duran loved, to the point that his mind accepted the premise and his hands would chop down the opponent who’d been reduced to a mere proxy. It was jarring to hear that talk when I was a fourth-grader, and it remains jarring to consider at age fifty. I couldn’t access that kind of raw anger, not then and certainly not now. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
When it came to boxing, I fell in love with artistry, not power. I adored a boxing champion from my hometown, Donald Curry, who in my youth had more of my attention than Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson. Years later, I wrote a novel about a boxer, a man who also lacked rage but had world-class talent. The Hugo Hunter of my imagination was a winner but couldn’t scale the biggest heights. Like the very real Donald Curry, the fictional Hugo closed the book on his fighting life by leaving unrealized potential on the table. I find the stories of striving that comes up short so much more compelling than triumphant narratives, whether in real life or between the pages. If we haven’t approached the fullness of what we can be, and we still have time to work at it, that’s a reason to keep punching, right?
“What I had was not a lack of passion. I had an abundance of human frailty. You want to tag me with that, go right ahead. Guilty. But don’t say I didn’t have heart.”—The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter
With more yesterdays behind me than tomorrows ahead, I think sometimes about what it felt like to be young and afraid and how transformative it was to be given something that took the fear away. Nostalgia is nice and all, but I hope I’m not someday prompted to rely on that muscle memory and square off. I can’t be sure the fight is still within me, and in any case, I’m old enough to be someone’s grandpa and should be done with such foolishness. Leave me alone and stay the hell off my lawn.
On the other hand, as long as I’m on this side of the dirt, I’d like to have some vitality, because the air I breathe doesn’t taste as good without it. I don’t have to take the guy who lives across the street up to Knuckle Ridge and see who can hurt the other. That would be stupid and pointless, and I try to stay out of those areas as much as possible, unsuccessful though I sometimes am.
I’m thinking here of lifelong learning, of having some kind of ongoing or shifting challenge, of keeping an eye on some beacon beyond myself that offers a reason for getting up each day beyond obligation and the allure of breakfast.
Gary Barcroft taught me to throw a jab and a right cross and a left hook and an uppercut. They were good lessons for the time, for the kid I was, and for the man I was yet to become. Forty-plus years on, I feel most alive when I have something new to learn. Maybe that’s progress. Maybe that’s how I move from middle age into dotage with a modicum of grace and a manageable amount of frustration.
I can see examples on both ends of the spectrum in the men I call father. My dad was born on the cusp of summer in 1939 and is sliding through the remainder of his days bewildered by what he sees from a world that has left him behind. A more accurate assessment would be that he left himself on the side of the road with a set of skills and interests that stopped expanding sometime around 1985. He’s stubbornly not online, except to the extent that I serve as a proxy. Computers confuse him. Phone trees enrage him. Betrayed by his failing eyes, he can no longer dabble in fixing things, in jury-rigging solutions, or in driving his truck (he no longer has a truck, nor a license) to a fishing hole. He sits and he waits for his next doctor’s appointment or our next backgammon game, and he’s astonished that he somehow made it this far and, distressingly, that he seems to keep going. He’s 81, and he comes across as so much older.
My stepfather, a January 1942 baby, runs and reads. He builds websites and chases his grandchildren around the yard. His interests are wide. He’s always been that way, for as long as I’ve known him (going on 48 years now). At 78, almost 79, he seems two decades younger than my dad does. The difference isn’t rooted fully, or even mostly, in the physical condition. It’s in his willingness to engage mentally and emotionally with the world he occupies.
Put more simply: One man has yielded to his fear, and the other keeps finding some fight.
The lessons from both of them are mine to take.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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