Dog and cat battle dan kincaidDrawing by Dan Kincaid


“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart, introducing his live-in, Genevieve, the viola player. She is 50-ish, stylish and thin, with a shock of white in her hair, like Susan Sontag. She was born in Belgium and takes the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French. She has a throaty voice in the same register as her viola, although her instrument probably didn’t spend a lifetime smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

We were having dinner, the four of us: Stuart and Genevieve and my wife and me. Stuart did the cooking; Genevieve poured the wine. And oh, how a little Beaujolais can get Stuart talking.

“It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not. But I’ve never met any of those.”

And Stuart was off to the races.

“Everybody and his brother-in-law splits the world into two categories: male and female; conservative and liberal; Gene Autry fan and Roy Rogers fan; those who get it, and those who don’t.”yeats

Stuart had just finished reading A Vision by William Butler Yeats. Stuart had an epiphany, he said.

“Yeats divides human personalities up into 28 ‘phases,’ like the phases of the moon. It’s really brilliant, if a little loony. Ideally, there is no Phase 1 or Phase 15 — the first and middle phase of the moon’s monthly round of waxing and waning: The new and full moons; these are too pure and unmixed to exist in the real world. But all the phases are defined by their ‘tinctures’ of two essential personality engines, which Yeats calls the ‘primary’ and the ‘antithetical.’ Simply put, the lumpy and the poetic.

“He gets quite lawyerly in parsing the bits. And I had this vision of my own, although it is somewhat simpler to understand.vision phases

“It is that underlying every other distinction is this basic, fundamental one: between dog and cat. You can have your phases of the moon, but really, but all those personalities are either canine or feline.”

“You mean, like a dog-person or a cat-person?” my wife asked. “I’m a cat person; we gotta have cats around the house.”

“No,” said Stuart, “not a question of which animals you prefer as pets, but rather, which you are in your cor cordium, your self of selves. We are all one or the other. You can see it in the faces of everyone around you.

“But it goes beyond people. As I now see it, every animate being on the planet is one or the other.

“They are opposed personality types. They function in the world differently and see the world differently.

“For the dog, the world is essentially simple. Truth is truth, up is up and down is down. The dog has a direct relationship with the things of the world: They are what they are.

“A cat, on the other hand, sees the world metaphorically. Things may be what they seem, but are never only what they seem. They can mean one thing Monday, and something entirely different on Tuesday.

“When dogs read poetry, they like to read, ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ They can be scholars and critics, and they can be quite discerning and bastions of good taste, but their world view is essentially single-tracked. Their vision is clear, if not very imaginative. Their word is their honor and they have 30-year mortgages.woman in the dunes

“Cats love Japanese movies with subtitles and long shots of shifting sands. Dogs like Adam Sandler and Kristin Stewart.

“Cats enjoy the jostle of ideas. Dogs talk about wines.

“You may think I’m tipping the scales in favor of cats, but that is only because I am one. There is downside to either class, and dogs really are important for the continued functioning of the society that makes cats’ lives possible.

“Cats never decide on a college major and fritter away their parents’ money taking courses in Incan pottery and creative writing. Dogs stick to their curriculum and go to Career Days.

“Dogs become Eagle Scouts and join the Rotary Club. Dogs dream of a house in Syosset and a Bill Jr. to take to the zoo. Cats dream of pirates, scoundrels, military heroes and Tamerlane.

“There are many kinds of dogs in the world. Some are bureaucrats and some, the more stylish, wear whatever is touted in Esquire. Hell, the Playboy Advisor was written for them. Some are noble and become doctors or missionaries; others bring my slippers at day’s end.

“It is plain, especially to dogs, that the world functions only because of them. And truly, we couldn’t do without them.

“But cats have eyes that change as the moon changes. They live by their own rules and amend them as their mood shifts. They are filled with prevarication and treachery. Their minds shuffle like a gambler’s deck of cards and we never know what face will show, or what suit. ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’

“When it comes to poetry, cats often prefer to write their own.”

Stuart noted that my wife writes poetry. He explained that cats don’t only write bad poetry, but rather, all poetry, no matter what the quality.

“Well, there are exceptions,” he admitted. “Edgar A. Guest and Ella Wheeler Wilcox are woof-woofs. But you get the gist.”rust sings

(My wife’s poetry has been published in a book, called Rust Sings. I recommend it.)

“There can be little meaningful dialog between the dog and the cat,” Stuart continued, “because they mean different things when they use the same words.

“This frustrates the dog no end; he cannot pin the cat down, while the cat delights in the ambiguity, and will even do what he can to amplify it.

“Dogs are trustworthy. A dog will be on time; a cat will be late, cancel or forget.

“A dog joins the Rotarians; a cat never does, unless he can use his membership toward the end of world domination, or something else he thinks might be fun.

“Among women, cats can wear too much eye makeup; dogs put too much mousse in their hair, like a TV news anchor. The difference is total and complete.

“For instance, a dog can certainly be selfish, but it takes a cat to be egocentric. A telling difference.

“Dogs have faith in the basic goodness of the world, and although they make a place for evil, they nevertheless believe it is something that can be overcome. A cat may or may not believe in evil, but whatever else, he believes in the relativity of goodness and truth.

“This isn’t just people: All animals are also dogs or cats. Think of a sea otter. Cat or dog? There can be no question. Anything that can sleep floating on the ocean surface so curled up that its head rests comfortably on its own belly, is a cat. Sturgeon are dogs. So are bears, horses, elephants and cows — ungulates as a class are dogs.fox cheetah dyad

“It is interesting to see this play out in nature. Don’t be confused by taxonomy. It is not names that define dogness and catness. Foxes, for instance, are classified as canines by the doggy scientists, but they are nevertheless cats. And cheetahs — you only have to look at those stiff, tensioned legs to recognize their essential dogginess.

“The main physical difference is in their bendability. Pick up a dog by his middle and what do you feel? The beast is stiff as a two-by-four. He is uncomfortable off the ground. He whimpers. Put him back down and his tail wags.

“Pick up a cat, and it drapes over you, form-fitting and at ease. I know a man who used to wear his big orange cat as a kind of living Davy Crockett hat. The cat sagged over his skull and down his neck and never wavered. The cat just purred.

“You can tell the relative caninicity or felinicity of a person when you dance some old-fashioned thing like a waltz. If your partner’s spine is rigid, he or she is a dog. A cat-partner will swing and sway with the rhythm like an willow in a gust.

“Does anyone remember seeing archival TV film of Richard Nixon attempting the Twist? The very definition of a dog.

“That is because a dog is all of a piece; he is one thing, head to tail. A cat is a loose concatenation of impulses, a pile of multiple personalities. When a dog dances, every part of him has to move in the same direction at the same time. A cat is syncopated.

“This pervades their world views. A dog is regimented and feels most comfortable when most conventional. A cat is individual, and often takes little notice of what is expected of him.

“Cats and dogs have been eternally at war. The dogs think the cats are kooks, hippies or commie sympathizers (although most communists are as doggie as the board of directors at General Motors). They have difficulty conceiving of anything not established by precedent. Community standards actually mean something to a dog.

“And when it gets down to battle, the dogs, like the redcoats of the American revolution, fight according to the book, in lines standing and kneeling, firing volley after volley on command.

“The cats, rather than being organized soldiers, find the dogs a nuisance and, like American Minutemen, take potshots from various convenient hiding places.

“Groucho Marx, taking his potshots, is the quintessential cat. If a canine becomes too officious, a cat is always there to flick his cigar and wiggle his eyebrows. Although dogs do not understand cats, cats understand dogs all too well.

“Interestingly, although almost all politicians are dogs, the most effective religious evangelists are cats. They don’t actually believe the piffle they spout, but get a great deal of pleasure from persuading listeners to line up behind them, cheering (and sending money).

“Or rather, the cat believes what he is saying as he says it. It is just that tomorrow, he can say something else. I’m thinking of Marjoe Gortner, for instance, or Lyndon Larouche. ‘A foolish consistency,’ they rejoinder.

“A true cat will really enjoy making one argument now, then switching hats or podiums, proving himself wrong in the next breath. The pleasure is in the arguing, not the results. Strife is the natural order of things.

“This makes dogs very, very uncomfortable. For the dog, arguments are proof that the world is out of balance. Equilibrium must be restored: The two sides in a dispute must work it out, so the truth will prevail and peace — the dog’s natural order of things — will reemerge.

“The dichotomy is at the bottom of some of the most familiar cultural pairings we know. Benjamin Franklin, with his “early to bed, early to rise,” was a dog; Thomas Jefferson, with his house filled with maps and stuffed elk, inventive contraptions and lack of heat, was a cat. It takes a cat to say ‘All men are created equal,’ while owning slaves and fathering children with them.hemingway faulkner dyad

“Tolstoy was a dog; Dostoevsky was a cat. Hemingway went woof woof; Faulkner, meow.

“If you have ever wondered why some old sayings seem to contradict others — ‘Opposites attract’ vs. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ — it’s because one is true for dogs, the other for cats.

“Even the proverbs that cats repeat, sitting around a cracker-barrel in an old Vermont store, bear this out.

–”The dog sees not the same tree the cat sees.

–”The hours of a dog are measured by the clock; but of a cat, no clock can measure.

–”If a cat would persist in his folly he would become wise; a persistent dog becomes the village idiot.

–”One law for the dog and the cat is oppression.

“Cats have a built-in sense of the ultimate void and how much fun it can be.

“The very earliest organized philosophies broke down along these lines. Plato was a cat. Even now, you can never know for sure when he actually believes some of the hogwash he comes up with. Aristotle, on the other hand was the very model of a dog. ‘Let’s make lecture notes.’

“Of course, just as with Yeats’ A Vision, there are wheels inside wheels, all spinning on their own doggie-cat axis. Yeats expands his vision to include not just personality types, but all of history. Well, my dogs and cats does the same.

“The ancient Greeks were cats, proving with logic, when it amused them, that it was impossible for anything to exist. Romans were dogs: They invented concrete and designed plumbing.

“The Renaissance was a quintessentially dog era, the Baroque that followed it was all cat. Modernism barked, Postmodernism meows. wayne-nicholson dyad

“Nothing makes my case better than concrete examples. Think John Wayne and Jack Nicholson. Both fine actors, each in his way — think of The Searchers — but I think there is little doubt who is the dog in this pair. Your reaction is instantaneous. You don’t need to explain: It just is.”

“Yes,” said Genevieve. “Like Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

“Of course,” said Stuart, “That’s why Biden will never be president.”

“What do you mean?” asked my wife. “A cat can never be president? What about Bill Clinton?”

“You got me there,” Stuart said. “But that is a reversal of the pairing. Clinton was a cat and Al Gore was pure dog. These pairings make clear the dog-cat dyad, the paradigm.Martin Luther King

“Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Dog and cat,” I said.

“It can become a party game,” Stuart said. “Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.”braque picasso dyad

“Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso,” Genevieve said.

“Perfect.”

“Mahler and Bruckner,” she said.

“For years, the nation divided between doggie Jay Leno and cat-man David Letterman,” Stuart said.

“Well, until Letterman lost his cat license,” I said. “He’s gotten kind of doggie in his later years.”

“See, what a profitable lens this is for understanding the world?” Stuart said.

“It explains the difference between Obama and Putin,” Genevieve said.

“And between Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol; between George Burns and Gracie Allen…”

“And between Fidel Castro today and Castro 50 years ago,” Genevieve said.

“Between Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau.”

“When it comes to marriage, a dog can be happy married to a dog,” Stuart said. “But a cat can be happy married to either a cat or a dog. There is fun either way. matalin carville dyadThink Mary Matalin and James Carville. But you see, there is a built-in paradox. How many marriages do you know where one party is happy and the other isn’t? The reason, I tell you, is always the same: One dog, one cat.

“Two cats mated can be happy briefly. But such marriages don’t tend to last. Think of a Hollywood marriage and you pretty much get the picture. Variety is not just an ideal for a cat, but a way of life.

“Of course, the arts are heavy with cats, just as the field of accounting is not. You don’t last long at H.&R. Block if you believe arithmetic is a matter of opinion.

“At bottom, we need both animals in the world. You need the dogs to make life possible; you need cats to make it worth living.”

Stuart brought out a flan and a well-used bottle of amontillado and asked if anyone wanted a cigar. Genevieve was the only taker, but then declined. She said she was giving up smoking again. Ninth time. One more and she got a free sandwich at Subway.

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

When she brought in the last bag of groceries, she popped open a diet drink and unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse.

“Hot.”

Al pulled his undershirt, nearly transparent with sweat, down over his belly, in deference to decency. The hair on his belly was black in sweatcurls. His trousers were rolled up over his bony knees.

“Yeah, hot.”

They have been married long enough that they had become furniture to each other, like a sofa or bridge table.

“Hot.”

“Yeah.”

“Matthew is visiting this week.”

“Oh yeah? I didn’t know.” He opened up the fridge and yanked back the tab on a cool one.

“Yeah.”

“It’s been what? A year?”

“Two.”

“Yeah.”

He shuffled out of the kitchen and back to the TV to catch the final three innings.

Mary was 52; Al, 59. Matthew was 25, but still in school, working on his second masters degree. The first, in Media, had proved useless.

Now, he was in engineering. “Still avoiding a job,” thought Al.

The Braves were hopeless in the ninth. Philly was leading by seven runs and Atlanta had only the bottom of the order. It was a time Al could be reflective; the game was going nowhere, so his brain wandered.

“Who’s he seeing now?”

“Seeing?”

“Yeah. Who’s he going out with?”

“He’s been living with the same girl for three years. Remember? The little Oriental girl.”

“Oh, yeah. He still with her?”

“Yeah.”

“Quiet, isn’t she?”

“I thought she talked a lot.”

“Oh, yeah. Ran her mouth on about Japan or someplace.”

“She’s from Thailand.”

“Thailand?”

“Yes.”

“He bringing her along?”

“I guess so.”

“Don’t like that.”

Pinch hitter made it to second, but a freak bounce led to a 6-4-3 double play and the post game was a pitcher. Al hated pitchers. They talked too much.

“Damn candy ass,” he yelled.

“Oh.” Mary assumed this was an opinion about the girl. She didn’t quite understand, but let it pass.

In actuality, Elizabeth, the Asian girlfriend, was a graduate student, too. In English literature. Four point Oh. She was small. She did have dark hair. And her almond eyes were brown as basketballs. She was from San Diego.

“They’re coming Saturday.”

“When?”

“Saturday.”

“No, I mean morning or afternoon?”

“Afternoon, I guess. It’s a six hour drive.”

“Wonder why.”

“Traffic mostly.”

“No, I mean why are they coming?”

“Matthew said it was a surprise.”

“I hate surprises.”

“I know. I told Matthew you hate surprises and all he said was, ‘Then, he’ll really love this one.’”

“Atlanta’s gonna play the Mets.” He put down the tube guide and wondered if it would be a good game and whether he’d have to miss it.

2

Saturday came and it rained in Georgia. TBS ran a Rory Calhoun movie and Matthew and Elizabeth didn’t show up till dinnertime.

Their silver VW bug with one orange fender had broken down in Lincoln and they had had to wait several hours for a mechanic to change a fan belt. They looked quite happy. Al was suspicious.

After settling down and having lemonades served by Mary, Al began the inquisition.

“So how’s school?”

“Fine, Dad.”

“You gonna finish this year?”

“Probably. Really all I have left is my thesis.”

“What about Kwan Lee?”

“Elizabeth? She’ll be done in December, if she stays on.”

“You still living together?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Atlanta rained out.”

“Huh?”

“Ball game. Rained out.”

“Oh.”

“Waited for you instead.”

“Sorry, Dad. It’s an old car.”

“Why don’t you get a new one?”

“We will, when we have to.”

“Does it keep breaking down?”

“It’s been good.”

“So, how’s it go?”

“It goes fine, Dad.”

“No, I mean between you. How’s it go between you two?”

“Real good. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk about this weekend.”

“Oh. Good. Glad to hear it. Things are good between Mom and me, too.”

Mom and Elizabeth were in the kitchen getting supper ready. Pot roast; mashed potatoes; boiled carrots; a jello salad; gravy.

“Can’t afford a roast much anymore, but we thought you and Matthew coming was kind of special.”

“That’s very thoughtful.” Elizabeth and Matthew were vegetarians. A little fish now and then.

Her nose is really quite small, Mary thought.

3

“Really flat chested, isn’t she?”

“She’s just fine, Dad.”

4

“Another evening with the folks.”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Matty.”

“I can’t help it. They’re so narrow minded, you’d never believe Dad used to teach at the university.”

“Your mom was real nice.”

“Especially the pot roast.”

“At least there were plenty of carrots.”

“Warning: Bacon for breakfast.”

“It’s OK, I brought the rice bran.”

“They drive me nuts. Did you notice they never talk about anything?”

“What do you want them to talk about?”

“Anything except the damn roast or the ball game. You know, even when Dad taught history, he never talked about it at home. It was, like, just a day’s work for him.”

“Maybe it was.”

“News says the weather is clearing in Atlanta and tomorrow is a doubleheader. We won’t be able to get much explained between innings.”

“We can talk to your mom and she can tell him.”

“Probably have to do that.”

He looked long at her belly.  A faint stripe of pigment made a line just to the left of her navel and extended down about four inches.

5

Al was out buying a newspaper. Elizabeth was still asleep.

“There are several things we needed to talk about, Mom.”

“Maybe we should wait for your father…”

“The ball game. Besides, he may not take our news too well. We thought it best if you told him.”

“This sounds serious.”

“Elizabeth and I are moving to South Dakota.”

“We’ll miss you, but that doesn’t sound so awful.”

“She’s got a job at the Indian school on a reservation.”

“You mean Indians?”

“Yeah, Mom.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be raising the kid, mostly.”

“The kid?”

“Yeah. Elizabeth is pregnant.”

“You going to get married?”

“No more than we already are.”

“What about the baby?”

“He’ll do fine.”

Al pulled into the driveway and swung out the big door on the Olds. He didn’t have a paper. He swept into the kitchen like a big drop of sweat steaming down a face.

“All gone. It’s hot out there already.”

“Matthew says he and Elizabeth are going to have a baby.”

“Oh, shit. What are you doing now, kid?”

“We decided to try an experiment, Dad.”

“Since when is having a baby an experiment?”

“I thought it always was.”

“A genetic experiment? You and Kwan Lee?”

“Well, not quite, Dad. I’m not the father; not biologically, anyway.”

“What?”

Al hated knuckleballs. Just pitch’em straight down the plate. Your best stuff. A knuckler is cheating.

“Elizabeth and I have done a lot of heavy thinking…”

“That’s thinking with rocks in your head?”

“…Thinking about the state of the world and all. We wanted to do something or try something.”

“You mean besides being a vegetarian and saving the lives of countless cows?”

“Yes, Dad. Seriously.”

“But what about the child?” Mary asked.

“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“What about the poor child? Why are you experimenting on a poor child?”

“It’s no more than you two did with me.”

Al scraped his fingertips over his stubble. “OK, then, who’s the father.”

“He’s a man we both know at school, a doctoral student from Lagos.”

“Lagos? Where’s that?”

A look of recognition brought a ghost of a smile to Al’s face. Then a second look of recognition brought the ghost to its knees.

“Nigeria,” he whispered.

“Nigeria?” Mary had a blank look on her face.

“Africa.”

“Africa?”

“Black.”

“Black?”

“Yeah, Mom. His name is Mbwengwe and he’s black.”

“How? … black?”

“His skin is that sort of purplish black; real deep.”

“Why?”

“All his people are like that.”

“No, I mean, why is he the… I mean… I don’t understand.”

“Elizabeth and I have been thinking, like I said, and we, well, we’re not so sure about the viability of white European culture.”

“Viability?”

“Yeah. We think logic is a dead issue and …”

“What’s that got to do with having a kid? You’re not making sense. I think I need to sit down.”

“OK, Mom. Like European culture is based, we think, on yes/no categories, you know, the basis of logic. A thing is either A or Not A. And what has this thinking led us to? Digital watches and thermonuclear bombs; acid rain and Third World starvation…”

“Third World?…”

“Yeah, you know. Ethiopia and all.”

“Look, son,” Al chimed in, “Europe did OK by itself. I wouldn’t want no juju man shaking a rattle over my pneumonia.”

“Why not? If it worked.”

“Worked? How could it?”

”Well, maybe not for you, but if you believed it, it would.”

“I don’t believe.”

“Yeah, sure. But Elizabeth and I were thinking how about combining the best of all world cultures. She’s mostly Japanese…”

“I thought she was Thai.”

“She was born in Thailand. Her folks were from Osaka. Mbwengwe is African and black. I would be the nurturing father and white and European; and we would live with the Indians where all the kid’s playmates would be Indian.”

Mary’s face never got back its expression. She was trying to take all this in and it was overflowing like a faucet forgotten over a bathtub. Mary’s floor was flooded.

Elizabeth had heard the last of this conversation standing by the kitchen door.

“But you haven’t heard the best part yet,” she said.

Mary wondered what could be better.

“When we get to the reservation, we have it all arranged so that Matty will have another baby with an Indian.”

“Yeah, Mom. We don’t know her name yet, but it’s all planned out.”

“You’ve both gone crackers,” Al chimed in. “Why are  you doing this to yourselves? Why are you doing this to your kids?”

“We’re doing it for the kids. We have it all worked out. It came to Elizabeth in a dream last year…”

“That’s right. I dreamed it on New Year’s Eve and it was so vivid, I knew it would have to come true…”

“And now it’s happening. But this is only the first part of the dream.”

“Maybe you should tell us the rest of it,” said Al. Up to now he had seen a smidgen of surreal truth in what Matthew had been saying. But this last was getting strange again. He wondered if he should tiptoe to the phone.

“According to the dream, my baby will be a boy, and Matthew’s will be a girl. They will both be beautiful.”

“We’re counting on that, with the expanded gene pool and all.”

“Yes, and the boy’s name will be Solar Wings and the girl’s name will be Hilda…”

“Hilda?”

“I know it sounds funny, but that’s what the dream said. Dreams can be funny.”

“Tell me.”

“Solar Wings and Hilda will grow up together on the reservation, learning all the ancient wisdom of the shamans.”

“And what about the wisdom of the Greeks?” asked Al. “Doesn’t he get any logic at all?”

“Yes, Matthew will tutor them in Western Philosophy.”

“Didn’t you get a ‘D’ in philosophy?” asked Mary.

“Yeah. But that was a difficult semester for me, with the drugs and all.”

“If I get the drift of your insanity,” Al said, “you will then marry off Moonbeam and Edna and their kid will be a kind of quadroon extraordinaire. Am I right?”

“Yes, Dad. Our grandchild will embody all the genetic and emotional wisdom of the planet.”

“This is quite a millennial dream you suffered.”

“But that’s not all, yet.”

“What could be next? The end of time?”

“No. The beginning of time, a new Time that will not be like the one we have now. The new one will not be able to be measured by timeclocks. There will be no more punchcards when the new Time begins.”

“And how long do we have to wait for this new Time?”

“A long time.”

“How long?”

“First Solar Wings and Hilda will grow up and get married. Then their child — the daughter of the four worlds — whose name will be Frem, will be made ready and the Star Father will arrive.”

“Star Father?” Al’s skin was beginning to get clammy.

Mary’s eyes were rolling in their orbits.

“According to my dream, an extraterrestrial being will arrive in a giant spacecraft made of a type of plastic unknown on Earth and he will be the product of genetic breeding on his planet.”

“What planet is that? Krypton?”

“I don’t know. The dream didn’t say. But it is a planet of peaceable warriors. The alien will be named Beltenamine and he will mate with Frem. The product of this union will be the new Time. Our greatgrandchild will be the new order of the universe. It’s really exciting, isn’t it?”

Mary was crying.

“No, Elizabeth. It’s nuts.” Al talked in a calm manner, not aggressively, just stating a rather obvious fact. “It’s nuts.”

“No it’s not. It’s real. I dreamed it.”

Matthew eyed his old man. “You had dreams when you were younger, didn’t you? What ever became of them? We intend to live ours out. That’s not nuts.”

6

“What were our dreams, Al?”

Al sat at the kitchen table, looking out at the trees. He cracked open a pecan, salted the meat, snapped his head and hand back and started chewing.

“Owning this house was one.”

“And now we own it.”

“Making full professor was one of mine.”

“But there’s nothing wrong with associate professor.”

“Nah, I guess not.”

“When I was 10, I wanted to be a ballerina.”

“But you’re tone deaf.”

“I said ‘ballerina,’ not ‘musician.’”

“But you gotta hear the music, don’tcha?”

“I can hear the beat just fine.”

“What happened, then?”

“Mama didn’t think it was a good idea and she refused to send me to dancing school.”

“Why?”

“She said I should get married like she did.”

“Did you?”

“I married you, silly.”

“I mean, did you get married like she did?”

“What do you mean?”

“I remember your Mama as kind of bitter. She spent her whole life serving your old man.”

“He was very old fashioned, even for then.”

“So? Has your life been better?”

“Better than Mama’s?”

“Yeah.”

“I guess so. I don’t really know how happy she was. She never said.”

“What were their dreams?”

“I don’t know. Well, I guess Dad always wanted to be a missionary to China. Mama would have none of it. She liked being a minister’s wife; she liked the social role.”

“What was her dream?”

“I guess she just wanted a bigger church, a larger congregation.”

“My folks had a dream that I would go to college and get and education and a good job. I guess I made their dream come true.”

“Some dreams come true and others just never pan out.”

Al cracked another pecan. It was rotten inside.

“Just like these nuts,” he said.

“Yeah, I worry about Matthew and Elizabeth, too.”

“No, I mean the pecans.”

“Oh.”

national gallery front 2
I was in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., standing in front of one of my oldest friends, Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, Mary Queen of Heaven National Gallerymelting in the presence of the colors and textures that that anonymous artist was able to pour like cake frosting over the surface, when who should show up but my old friend Stuart.

“What a coincidence,” I said, “to find you here today. I didn’t know you were here in D.C.”

“Been here for a few days,” he said. “I’m on my way back to Portland.”

Stuart currently lives in Maine, not Oregon.

“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”

He said he is now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”

Stuart has a long history of serial monogamy, and the prognosis for this relationship is no better than 50-50.

“It’s strange how often you find yourself in a city and meet someone you know,” I said. “You’re the last person I would have thought to run across in the art museum.”

“It’s interesting you should notice the coincidence,” Stuart said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidences lately. I don’t really believe in them.”

We took a moment to bask in the glory of the painting and decided to meet later for lunch.

That’s when Stuart unloaded his latest theory.

“I was reading Tom Jones and couldn’t help notice all the coincidences needed to keep the plot flowing. When I read several essays about the book — which I just loved, by the way — several people held up the coincidences as a flaw, that such coincidences just weren’t believable.

“Of course, several Postmodern critics mention the same coincidences as proof of the author’s knowingness, that he is tipping us off that he knows that we know that he knows, etc., that this is fiction, that this is a piece of art and not reportage. A wink and a nod.

“But I take issue with both groups. I’ve given a lot of thought to coincidences and realized that coincidences are not the rare thing we usually think they are, but rather the most common occurrences in life. Essentially, everything that happens is a coincidence. When I go to the doctor’s office and an old woman comes in the door behind me, that’s a coincidence. When I drive down the road and there is a red car in the next lane, that is a coincidence. After all, what are the chances that that car will be red, or that we both arrive at the same stoplight at the same time. The chances are astronomically against it. When I go the the deli and order a pastrami sandwich and the guy behind the counter tells me that the customer just in front of me got the last one and he is currently out of pastrami: Well, that’s a coincidence, too.

“So, I have no problem with Tom Jones being filled with coincidences. The difference between some coincidences and others — those we pay attention to and those that pass without our notice — is not the coincidence part, but the significance part. When we invest a coincidence with meaning, then it seems to rise to the level of notice, and to the level we give it some sort of magic significance. It is the significance and not the coincidence that is notable.

“And where does that significance come from? Not the event itself, but from our brains. We invest the thing with significance, but understand it as if the event itself possessed the significance we have tagged it with. We’ve got it all backwards.

“And it is the way we build a narrative structure, connecting some coincidences together into a net, that gives us a sense that the world has meaning — and when it’s a work of fiction and we notice the network of significance, we think, that could never happen in the real world, but it does, it happens every day, even every minute.

“It’s like you and me meeting today. My Brownian motion has set me on one course, yours on another; they cross and it seems as if fate has lent a hand, but it isn’t so. Purely accident. But because we know each other, the crossing seems almost miraculous.

“This first hit me, I think, after seeing the Kieslowski ‘Three Colors Trilogy.’ The three films — Red, White and Blue — are loaded with coincidences, too many to mention. But most notably, at the end of the third film, there has been a ship sinking and there are seven survivors, and they turn out to be the three couples, each from one of the three films, and a random seventh person. At first, it seems miraculous that just those three couples, which we have been watching over the three films, should coincidentally be the lone survivors of a disaster. Too much coincidence to be true, you say. Kieslowski is playing with us.

bridge at san luis rey cover“But look at it from the other end: A ship sinks, and Kieslowski takes six of the seven survivors and gives us their prequels. You can do this for any disaster. Take the survivors and write down their stories and miraculously, no matter how random the choice, the fact that they survive at the end seems unbelievable coincidence. But it isn’t: It’s the Bridge of San Luis Rey effect.”

Stuart had been talking so much, he’d barely touched his game hen, while I — providing the accepting ear — had managed to get on to dessert already.

“So, it’s all a question of significance,” he continued after a quick bite of chicken.

“The issue of coincidence is a red herring. They are everywhere all the time. But we cast a net of meaning out over the world and those coincidences we notice, and that fit our narrative, we decide mean something. The rest evaporate in unknowingness and oblivion.

“After all, what is the human mind if not a great machine for pattern recognition? If you take a bowl of marbles and drop them on the floor, when they stop rolling around, you will be able to discover in their distribution a pattern. It’s pure pareidolia, but it feels real.ursa major

“It’s the Big Dipper over and over. The night sky is really just a bowl of marbles spilled into the empyrean, but we have found patterns there. Everyone recognizes the Big Dipper, even if they call it the Plough, or call it the Seven Sages, or the Great Bear — oddly, with a long tail — or Charlemagne’s Wagon, or in Finland, a salmon weir. Same stars, different asterisms.

“Or the Virgin Mary seen in a tortilla. Or the million conspiracy theories that people get arrested by.

“Really, it’s a Rorschach universe. Meaning is cast out upon the waters and it drags in what it will. Meaning is not found, it is generated.

“And that is how we view coincidence: It is something we notice and if it fits a pattern we are projecting out into the world, it seems important, meaningful, significant. But the coincidence itself couldn’t be more pedestrian, quotidian, bland and ordinary.”

At some point, Stuart usually empties the balloon of all its air and there is a sequent quietening of his enthusiasm, as if now that he’s made his point, there is no point left to existence. Enthusiasm is followed by passivity. He’s worn himself out.

We walked out of the Garden Cafe and back into the galleries. Stuart walked out the door, off to his violist, and I went back to my Mary, Queen of Heaven.

And it is no coincidence that I picked up the check. Again.

road into hills BW
In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. The previous blog entries covered Texas and the Central Plains. This final installment brings the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

wounded knee 2

Mile 1294, Wounded Knee, S.D.

Most of the action by the U.S. against the Indians in the past century was reprehensible at best. The list of atrocities is nothing to be proud of, from Sand Creek to Washita River. But one of these massacres bothers me more than the others.

It is the photographs that make the difference.

On Dec. 29, 1890, a Lakota elder named Big Foot and more than 200 of his band were gunned down by soldiers at Wounded Knee, S.D.

The Indians had obeyed Federal orders to come to the reservation and had obeyed orders to give up their rifles. Big Foot was deathly sick and coughing up blood.

But the soldiers didn’t believe the Sioux had given up all their guns. One remained, and as it was being turned in, a gun somewhere went off and the army went crazy, gunning down not only the Indians, but up to 30 of their own men. The Indians, wearing “ghost shirts” they thought would protect them, fought back as well as they could with knives, hatchets and a few pistols. But most of those killed were women and children.

Of the battle, one is reminded of My Lai in Vietnam. Writer Herbert Welsh, who saw the battle site soon after, wrote, “From the fact that so many women and children were killed, and that their bodies were found far from the scene of action, and as though they were shot down while flying, it would look as though blind rage had been at work.”

It isn’t the stupidity or the injustice that gets to me — there are many examples, not only in the so-called “Indian Wars,” but pretty much in all of history. Humans have not been good to other humans anywhere on the globe.

No, what gets to me are the photographs.

big foot corpse

Taken three days after the massacre, they show the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot, with his hands knotted up arthritically and his body bent up out of the snow in frozen rigor. He is isolated against the blank, white background of the snow, and all the more symbolic for that isolation. A few soldiers stand off in the background talking and a horse puts his nose to the ground for some grass sticking through the snow.

Another shows a line of soldiers standing behind a mass grave. James Mooney, who wrote the first definitive account of the Ghost Dance phenomenon and the Sioux uprising of 1890, wrote:

“A long trench was dug and into it were thrown all the bodies, piled one upon the other like so much cordwood, until the pit was full, when the earth was heaped over them and the funeral was complete. Many of the bodies were stripped by the whites, who went out in order to get the ‘ghost shirts,’ and the frozen bodies were thrown into the trench stiff and naked.

“They were only dead Indians,” he added, with an accusatory dose of irony.

There is another set of photographs that come to mind — the emaciated, contorted bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Dachau and Buchenwald.

For many, the Indian Wars are just cowboys and Indians stuff from a long ago history. But for me, they sing of a continuity of outrage. The “Final Solution” of one century mirrors that of its predecessor.

So, I have wanted to visit the site at Wounded Knee and when I got there, was surprised to find it barely marked at all. Perhaps both sides feel shame over it. The whites for the evil they don’t like to recognize in themselves, the Indians for the humiliation.Pine Ridge Reservation square

The Pine Ridge Reservation in southern South Dakota is more beautiful than it has been described, with grassy hills and cedar trees dotting the plains. While it is true that poverty is endemic, it is not the fault of the landscape, which is better than some of the grasslands I passed through in Nebraska on my way north.

But the actual massacre site is little more than a spot in the road. There is a hand-lettered wooden sign that describes the event, but there are no official markers, no commemoration, no visitors center, no rangers ripe with interpretation.

wounded knee gulley

The dusty ground at Wounded Knee is a gully with the bridge on one side of the road, and a hill with the Indian graves on the other. During the battle, troops had placed cannons on the hill and lobbed exploding shells down the slope at the Indians.

There are also a few ramadas. In the summer, there are booths selling Indian crafts. In October, most were empty, although there were two young Lakota girls with a clothesline strung with dreamcatchers.

I stopped and asked them if this was the massacre site and they said yes.

“Where did it happen here?” I asked.

“All around.”

The older was about 12, the younger, 8. We talked about being Indian, about the effect of history and about the price of dreamcatchers.

“We need to sell them. Our sister is in the hospital and needs our help,” said the elder, in an ages old play for sympathy. I wondered who had taught her to scam me. If I had any doubts over whether it was a scam or not, they dissipated  when I said: “I’m sorry to hear that. What does she have?”

The girl looked caught out and gave me a distressed look, as if she hadn’t anticipated the conversation getting this far.

“Why is she in the hospital?,” I repeated.

A wait of two beats: “She’s sick.” It was almost a question.

I felt more sorry for her being caught in a lie than I did for her probably imaginary sister, so I bought one.

badlands 1

Mile 1379, Badlands National Park, S.D.

Near Kadoka, S.D., the rolling grass of the plains is cut through by erosion, sculpted into spiky, spooky mazes of canyons and hills. They were called by the early French trappers, “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bads lands to cross.” And they certainly would be, if it were not for the smooth roads of the National Park Service.Kadoka sign

The Badlands National Park is a long, gangly loop of lands lodged in the corners of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In places, the park is less than a mile wide, although if you walked from one extreme to the other along its length, you would hike a semicircle of something like 60 miles.

Most of it is flatland. As you drive along S.D. 44 from Scenic to Interior, the badlands themselves are a whitish line of crenelated hills on the northern horizon.

Only when you get close to them, near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at its eastern end, can you really appreciate the blasted, washed out, weathered exhaustion of them.

blizzard headlights

Mile 1707, Bismarck, N.D.

A freak October blizzard blew across the Dakotas. One day, I was in Pierre, S.D., and it was 80 degrees; by the time I pulled into Bismarck, N.D., the next day, a front had barreled through and the thermometer had dropped into the 30s. With winds at a steady 50 mph, the wind-chill was more than a TV weatherman’s conceit: It could mean frostbite.

During the overnight, a line of powerful thunderstorms had run from Texas to Manitoba along a cold front that moved east with the speed of a freight train. Tornado warnings were issued for the whole length of the front.

One day the Prairie population was talking about their tomatoes lasting so late into the season, the next day, they are scraping windshields with parkas pulled tight around their cheeks.bismarck night snow downtown

Just before the blizzard moved in, I wandered through the streets of Bismarck, looking up at the sky that was turning ever more slatey and frigid.

To get in out of the cold, I wandered into several downtown stores, including one antiques shop. The woman behind the counter also does home interiors: One side of the shop is given over to fabrics, the rest to consignment antiques.

The proprietor was a bubbly woman of about 50, who praised the plainness of the  Prairie people.

“Even the politicians are ordinary people,” she said. “The governor is a regular customer and his wife says she’d come here more often except that she has to clean the house.”

But there are cosmopolitan Bismarckians and those who are less so.

“I ask my customers if they’ve ever been out of North Dakota,” she said. “If they have, I know they’ll go for the weird things, some of the more tasteful and unusual treatments.” She fingers one of the fabrics that is tightly gathered with pleats.

“If they’ve never been outside North Dakota, well, I bring out the J.C. Penney catalog. They’re really conservative.”

I told her that I take it to be an inborn modesty they seem to have in the Plains Midwest, a desire not to appear more fashionable than they are.

“But it’s not quite modesty, either,” she says, “almost a kind of lowered expectation.”

Like Pierre, S.D., whose tourism brochure proudly claims it is the “tenth best small town in America.”

Or the High Plains Museum in McCook, Neb., whose billboard promises only that it is “interesting and free.”snow tractor bismark

As I begin driving again, the skies have begun flaking and the crystals blow around the pavement like sand blown across the beach in a storm.

What are predicted are snow showers and snow squalls, but by the time I’m 100 miles out of Bismarck, it is a full-scale blizzard.

Luckily, the roads are still warm enough that nothing is sticking to them, although the farm fields are speckled with white, catching in the furrows making a scumble of white and black.

It is a tailwind, so as I drive, I hardly notice it, except to see the grasses bent sideways and vibrating on the shoulders. And the snow dances on the pavement in front of me like some sort of fairy mist, swirling and shifting. I can see the flakes bobbing around in front of the windshield.

But when I stop at a rest area and step out of the car, I can see that the snow is rushing past me horizontally. I can barely put my foot down where I intend as I walk through the gale.

Visibility is reduced at one point to less than a tenth of a mile; the world is whited out and the windbreak trees at the other side of the cornfield are faint ghosts.

Contending with weather like this, I decide, must make you modest. You are not likely to believe the hype of the American media siren when you know a pair of jumper cables can save your life.

By the next morning, the wind has died down, although the snow flurries continued. When I set out again, the landscape is white and astonishing.

snowdrift on highway

Mile 1869, Canadian border, N.D.

It seems as if there is nobody left on earth. The hills are empty of buildings and if it were not for the tractor paths through the fields, you might actually believe that the acres and acres of sunflowers grew there naturally.

In the summertime, the expanse of yellow is astonishing. I have driven through North Dakota when the sunflower crop is as brilliant as trumpet music.

In October, though, the color is gone and all the heavy seedheads, browned and dried, bend over like so many showerheads — and all facing east.

Sunflowers in two seasons

These giant flowers should not be confused with the roadside sunflowers that cover the Great Plains. Those, with their ten or a dozen three-inch flowers per stalk, swaying in the breeze, are delicate and lacy compared with the commercial variety that grows in the fields.

Each of those grows a single giant flower on a woody shoulder-high stalk with a central disk crammed with the sunflower seeds we nibble on at ball games. But it isn’t as snacks these fields are filled, but for their oil, used in food processing.

You can see them in the summer, armies of them, over the rolling hills, cut through only by the two-lane blacktop and, every few miles, a farmhouse surrounded with its outbuildings, fences and a couple of pickup trucks parked in the gravel driveway.

I first came through North Dakota on a train, some 20 years ago, and I was fascinated by the lonesomeness of the land. Neighbors are miles apart; the only way you know you are on an inhabited planet in the winter is to see the smoke from a distant chimney coming over the snowy rise.

It is this country that Gertrude Stein meant when she said that, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”

And it seems to me, as I finish my odyssey up the 100th Meridian, that it is this Heartland that seems the most American to me. It is this country of Thomas Hart Benton paintings and Hamlin Garland books that seems to hold the nugget of Americanism.

New England may have been the intellectual center of the growing nation and the twin coasts may have driven the commercial development. But it is this central axis, furry with grass, that has been and remains the heart of our country.

It is the Plains that spread out in front of the wagonloads of pioneers and gave them the epic sense of continental expansion.

It is the Plains that separated the Atlantic and Pacific, as guts fill the space inside our skin.

It is the Plains that gave the country its defining metaphors, whether cowboy, Indian, sodbuster, religious migrant, long stretching miles of highway or landscape that must be tamed. We learned self-reliance and cooperation, we learned how to adapt when we must and how to maintain tradition when we could.hundredth meridian sign ND

It is the Plains and the Indian Wars that provided us — second only to slavery in the South — with the guilt that gives emotional complexity to our national naiveté and, when we don’t deny the sin, our depth as a people.

In the cities of East and West, we can pretend that society is paramount and that human beings have charge of the world. It is in cities that theories are propounded.

But in the Plains and prairies, we are forced nakedly into the realization that we live on a planet, with the racing sky above and the blackbirds dotting the snow beneath.

It gives us perspective.

road ribbon

In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. Previously, I covered the part of the trip in Texas. This second part covers the Central Plains. Next will come the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

cheyenne okla

Mile 631, Cheyenne, Okla.

One cannot forget the Native American presence in the Great Plains. The sense of the Plains, with the Cheyenne and Lakota riding horses across it, looking for buffalo, still is felt in every little corner not yet given over to corn and sorghum.

And one sad reminder of the history of Indians is the Washita River, near Cheyenne, where George Custer and his troops slaughtered a band of friendly Cheyenne Indians who were camped in the snow along the banks of the creek in late November, 1868.

The band, under the leadership of Black Kettle, attempted to remind the army over and over that it intended to remain peaceful.

“We want peace,” he said. “I would move all my people down this way. I could then keep them all quietly near camp.”Washita woodcut

But Custer and his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan, decided to “make battle.”

In the cold of Nov. 27, Custer divided his troops up into four parties, just as  he would do eight years later at the Little Bighorn. But there was no Native army lying in wait at Washita. Just a village filled with families.

When Black Kettle realized what was going on, he fired his rifle in the air to alert the rest of his band that they should flee for their lives. Black Kettle had seen this sort of thing before: He had lived through the massacre at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864 and knew what was coming.

But it was too late, the army had already descended on the encampment. Black Kettle was one of the first to be killed, with a bullet ripping through his belly. His wife was killed at the same time.

After the action, Custer reported that he had won a great battle and had killed 130 warriors. A later counts run from as few as 11 warriors and 19 women and children to around 100, mostly women and children.washita battlefield

The site of the battle is in a coulee a mile west of town. Most of the countryside around it is farmland and grazing land, but down in the wedge, along the stream is a dark line of trees where the Cheyenne camped. It is a lonely place among the lonesomeness of the Plains.

woodward downtown 1

Mile 705, Woodward, Okla.

County historical museums exist in almost every small town in the Plains. And there is a peculiar sameness to them.

They all seem to have the identical items on view, but gathered from their different locations. After wandering through a few of them, you come to know what an old-time dentist chair looks like, or the old telephone switchboard, or the pigeonholes from the old post office.

There are white-enamel ladles, wagon wheels, butter churns and moldboard plows. There are “Old Flo” blue china sets, cornucopia-topped Victrolas and immense oaken bankers’ desks.

But it is the sameness that is important. For, north of Texas, the Great Plains is surprisingly homogenous culturally.

Whether it is Oklahoma or North Dakota, the same rugged immigrants plowed the land. German here and Irish there, but otherwise, the same.woodward museum

Like the land itself, the variation is slight.

One of the best tended and displayed of these museums is the Plains Indian and Pioneers Museum in Woodward, Okla. It tells the familiar history: a land occupied by Native Americans; incursions by whites; a growing cattle industry on the open range and cows replace buffalo; the raising of fences and the building of farms.

In this portion of Oklahoma, the white invasion began in earnest in on Sept. 16, 1893, when northwest Oklahoma was opened to permanent white settlement in the third great land run in the state. Some 100,000 homeseekers carved the prairie into 160-acre homesteads in a single day. Almost overnight, towns popped up — first as tent cities — as land offices registered homestead claims.

Woodward itself sprouted 500 buildings in its first three months of existence. The railroad came through.kansas sod house

Outside the towns, however, buildings were hard to come by. Many settlers made their homes in dug out hills. Others built up “soddies,” or sod homes made of dirt bricks spaded from the turf. In those dusty, buggy, leaky homes, they set up their lives, cooking, sleeping and freezing their way through winters with nothing to burn in their stoves but buffalo chips or cowpies, and sharing that warmth with mice.

Yet, they made the best of it, usually whitewashing the mud walls, tamping down the dirt floors, bringing in their sideboards and pianos.

If they succeeded in busting through the soil knotted with grass roots, planting and harvesting their potatoes, wheat or corn, they may eventually have built a lumber house.

But much of the farm life of the Plains was disrupted in the 1930s by drought and the blowing dust. They had to adapt, and those who didn’t move away, did.

The “dusters” sometimes blackened the daytime sky for a week at a time, stuffing sand under the doorjambs and blowing the precious topsoil to Virginia and New York.

Now, the crops are mostly forage corn and milo, mixed with wheat. Cattle still take up a lot of the land, but there is a change in the wind — literally and none too pleasantly.

“There is a pig boom going on in Oklahoma,” explains Louise B. James, director of the museum. Huge hog farms are being built across the Plains, to make pork intended to pick up the slack in beef sales.hog snout

“They make pork chops and Spam, yes,” says James, “but I’m boycotting them. It doesn’t seem to be doing any good, though.”

Runoff from the farms is seriously polluting streams and groundwater.

“It’s real touchy stuff. A lot of people really hate the pigs. This is cattle country, but many people look to the hogs as salvation.”

Meanwhile a law is slowly working through the state legislature that would control the size of the hog farms.

dodge city

Mile 747, Dodge City, Kan.

I took up life as a pedestrian in Dodge City.

This wasn’t a state I would have chosen for myself; it was brought to me when my rental car coughed, wheezed and then decided to take a nap in the turn lane of Wyatt Earp Boulevard, which is both Main Street and Motel Row in this Kansas cattle town.

The problem, I was told, was not really bad and could be quickly fixed, if they could find the part they needed. Unfortunately, the nearest part turned out to exist in Oklahoma City.

“We can have it here tomorrow,” they said.

Which was going to leave me on foot. First they drove me back to my motel so I  could arrange for the room. The man who drove me was 83.

“I came to Dodge City in 1921 in a covered wagon,” he tells me.

“We came from Colorado. My father worked for the government.”

I asked him what had changed over the years.

“It’s all changed,” he answered. “There used to be a livery stable on this corner and over there,” he motioned to a vacant lot, “that used to be City Hall.”

The railroad tracks run through town, paralleling Wyatt Earp Boulevard.boot hill

“That used to be Front Street,” he says. Now Front Street is a tourist trap behind a chain link fence where you pay $5 to see “Boot Hill” and a streetfront of Hollywood-set buildings where you can get a sarsaparilla at the “Long Branch” saloon or pay to have the printer work up a wanted poster with your name on it.

“Is that the way Dodge City used to be,” I ask.

“Hell, no,” he says. “That’s just for tourists.”

He has lived in Dodge for most of his life.

“Do you like it here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know nothing else, I guess.”

For the rest of the day, I walk. It wasn’t a first choice, but Dodge  City is light on public transportation. There are no buses and when I call the taxi company, I get a recorded message that asks me to leave my name and number and they’ll “get back to me.”

So, I head off in the direction of downtown, following the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line (or more accurately, in this age of railroad megamergers, the BNSF rail line). On the other side of the tracks are green fields and old houses.

Grasshoppers jump under my feet like popcorn.dodge city grain elevator

The gigantic grain elevator roars with cooling fans and a train pulls by me, squealing and humming.

After so many days of driving, it is a revelation to be on my legs once more. When the wind shifts, I can smell the feedlots on the edge of town.

Wyatt Earp is lined with Taco Bells and Burger Kings. It looks like every generic “Miracle Mile” in the West.

The Dodge City most people think of from Gunsmoke reruns is a flat town surrounded by the Hollywood version of the West, full of woods, deserts and mountains.

There are no mountains anywhere near Dodge City, but surprisingly, the downtown is built on one of the few hills in the area. Walking through it means climbing steep streets paved with bricks.

The Chamber of Commerce plays up the “Old West” angle and everywhere you see come-ons that tout the “gunslingers” and saloon girls.

The prize, though, must go the the Gunfighter’s Wax Museum, which is even cheesier than it sounds. Taking up the second floor of the Kansas Schoolteachers Hall of Fame, it’s dark corridors are filled with cartoonish murals lit with blacklight. There’s Jesse James and Davy Crockett, although I never heard of Crockett called a gunfighter before.

But then, John F. Kennedy wasn’t a gunfighter, either and he’s here, along with LBJ and Dracula.dodge city bull statue

A gigantic bronze longhorn steer acts as official greeter for the town: It is the first thing you see when you reach downtown.

It commemorates the hundreds of thousands of “beeves” that were herded to Dodge City in its prime, to be shipped on the railroad back to markets in the East.

As I walked back to my motel after dinner, I saw a cloud of about 2,000 or more blackbirds trail across the sky like a river, slowly filling the sky channel from one horizon to the other, then the first birdstream was joined by a second, running right beside it, with its own several thousand birds.

It was a monumental Western sight, a Milky Way of black stars spread out over the twilight. When the first herds rode through, a third followed and after they left, a fourth: a sky with something like 10,000 blackbirds, twisting and skittering like sparks from a fire.

oakley kansas sign

Mile 880, Oakley, Kan.

Vi Fick couldn’t stop collecting shark’s teeth. She collected so many in the fossil beds near Monument Rocks in western Kansas that she didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

So she wound up giving them to the tiny community of Oakley, Kan., providing, she said, that they erect a building for the collection, which included not only the 11,000 teeth, but dinosaur bones, mammoth teeth and the hysterical paintings she created with them. The museum opened in 1972.fick museum exterior

For Vi Fick had something of the crazy folk artist about her. She painted oil paintings in the learn-to-paint-from-the-TV-painter school, but she added a touch of her own with bits of seashells, bones and shark’s teeth.

The Fick Fossil and History Museum is one of the must-see stops in northwest Kansas. Not only will you find her bones and her pictures, but a decent local history museum, with its usual collection of old Victrolas, antique dentistry tools and antediluvian flour canisters.

The fossil collection is genuinely impressive and scientifically identified. Some of the fossils are from Fick, others from the collection of paleontologist George F. Sternberg, including a 15-foot Portheus molossus, a kind of huge prehistoric fish.

But you have seen fossils before, I’m sure. What you probably haven’t seen is a painting of the American flag with sharks’ teeth for all the stars and the stripes covered in more teeth, pointed one way for the red and the reverse way for the white.

Nor have you likely seen an entire wall lined with 2-foot tall oval picture frames — 30 of them — each filled with neat, symmetrical arrangements of sharks’ teeth.vi fick art

There are also the great seals of the U.S. and Kansas, outlined in the teeth.

There is a photograph of Vi Fick in the museum. You can tell from her modest dress, set with a cameo pin at the collar, and from her well-scrubbed face that she was a hard-working, pioneer-stock God-fearing woman.

But you can likewise tell from the pile of tight white-haired curls, gathered in a football-shaped pompadour over her head and rivaling it for size, that she wasn’t completely in control of herself.

If you have any doubts, just look at her eyes, wider than any normal person feels comfortable holding them and staring out at you with the intensity of thumbtacks.

It may be true that the obsessive dedication Vi Fick felt toward her sharks’ teeth and her wacky paintings is the very dedication needed to make a successful life on the farm in the Great Plains, where everything in the natural world conspires against you.

oberlin kansas 2

Mile 942, Oberlin, Kan.

The wind blows across the plains the way it blows across the ocean, ceaselessly, raising great waves in the grasses and grains that cover the great sea-swell of the hills.

It is not possible, once you have been here, to imagine the plains without the blow. Spiny tumbleweeds barrel across the road in front of you and if you look in your rear-view mirror, you may very well see one caught in the grille of the  car behind you.

Near Oberlin, Kan., I saw the biggest tumbleweed I have ever seen, and the darkest. Usually, they are a kind of straw-yellow and a foot or two in diameter. The one that blew straight northward with me on U.S. 83 was about four feet in diameter, rotating on its edge like a wheel. It sped along in a 40-mile-per-hour gale, turning top over keel for a hundred yards down the highway.tumbleweed 1

When I passed it, it was still following me till I lost sight of it in the back window as I drove up over a rise. For all I know, it made it to Nebraska just behind me.

The wind rattles the windows at night and if it gets under your house, can seem to be in immediate danger of lifting it in the air like a kite.

The worst winds, in terms of consistent blow, are found in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and western Kansas and Nebraska, where the average hourly wind velocity climbs to 12 and 14 miles per hour.

As I drive through, the wind runs a constant 40 mph, gusting to 50. When I step out of my car, the wind rips my shirt clean out of my trousers.

When I ask in North Platte about the winds, an old town resident thinks carefully and tells me, “On Aug. 13, 1947, we had a calm day. I remember it well.”

bailey yard 2

Mile 1039, North Platte, Neb.

Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., is the largest railroad classification yard in the world. Every day, 10,000 railroad cars in 120 trains run through on the 260 miles of track telescoped into a yard 8 miles long.

It runs through the city and out for miles to the west, where an observation tower is built for trainwatchers.

But, when I drive through North Platte in October, the yard is also something of a problem.

This fall has brought one of the best harvests ever to the Great Plains and there is concern that there are not enough railroad cars to transport all the grain, corn, sorghum, milo and beets.

“North Platte is reportedly one of five railroad ‘bottlenecks’ in the Union Pacific system that are causing disruption to business and industry across the country,” I read in the North Platte Telegraph.

The problem is the merger between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways. Bookkeeping and bureaucratic snafus have tied up some 10,000 railroad cars in limbo and there are not enough locomotives to redistribute the needed cars.

Senator Bob Kerry (D., Neb.) expressed his concern about “delays in grain car deliveries, pick ups and system gridlock,” an article reads.

“These shortages and backlogs are especially troubling since the harvest season has barely begun,” the senator said.north platte grain elevator

Nebraska beef producers were running out of molasses, which they mix into their cattle feed.

Concern has been expressed for the health of Nebraska cattle. UP delivers entire train cars of molasses that beef producers use to make feed more appealing to their cattle.

Trucks have been hired to move the molasses, but a business spokesman said that trucking “can’t continue to handle loads of this magnitude.”

“We have a plan in place to fix (the problem),” said UP Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Davidson.

The company said it had purchased 288 new higher-horsepower locomotives this year and would buy another 229 next year. To help with the short-term situation, Davidson said, 214 locomotives have been leased during the past few months.sandhills square

North of the town, the Sand Hills spread out like a lunar landscape, if they grew grass on the moon. Ducks fly west along the Platte River so low I can see their eyes.

And when I reach Thedford, at the edge of the Nebraska National Forest, the wind is blowing at 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 and there are people out on the golf course, playing.

Next: The Northern Plains

 


road
I have traveled across the country so many times, I can no longer accurately count. Mostly east to west or west to east: on train, on plane and in automobiles. I’ve been across the top tier of states, the southernmost tier and across the middle. I’ve boon to every one of the continental 48 states and all Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island.

And I’ve gone vertically, too. Drawn a giant Tic-Tac-Toe grid across the landscape. Past blogs have chronicled the trips I’ve made from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada; north along the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Nova Scotia; and down the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. 

In each of these trips, I’ve learned more about my nation, most of it good, but in a few cases — like the persistence of racism — troubling. 

One trip I haven’t blogged about yet I took in 1997 for the newspaper where I worked — up the Hundredth Meridian from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border. That line is the mythic backbone of the nation, a dotted fold-line that divides the country in two. It’s just a line of longitude, and therefore imaginary, but this particular line has traditionally marked the beginning of the West. To the east of it, more than 20 inches of rain falls annually; to the west, less than 20 inches. hundredth meridian map

That means that to the east there were once tall-grass prairies that are now farmland; to the west, the High Plains where cattle now graze.
kine

Of course, the change doesn’t exactly run due north and south; it meanders back and forth over the 100th Meridian, so the drive up its length passes from prairie to plains and back, moving from cotton field to feedlot, from pasture to spinach.

It’s the perfect drive to see the middle of America that is so often forgotten by the majority of us whose attention is too often turned solely to the twin coasts.

If you take a trip up this spine of America, you will see more than a few kine, some goats, some sheep and a couple of ostriches.

To say nothing of some interesting people.

Ah, green grass, blue sky and a yellow line down the center of the road.

Some things have changed since I wrote these stories: Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q is closed; a flashy new visitor center has opened at the Washita Battlefield National Historical Site; and several of the elders I talked to have now passed on. But I thought the trip as a whole was interesting enough to revisit in this blog. 

It will take three entries; the first never gets out of Texas. 

THE TRIP
laredo texas 2

Mile 0, Laredo, Texas

The planet we live on is divided into 360 degrees of longitude, beginning with the one that runs north and south through Greenwich, England.
meridian mapNot many of the meridians carry much significance: The Greenwich Meridian has been the one that keeps the world’s time; the 180th Meridian, for the most part, is the International Date Line, separating Mondays from Tuesdays. And the 100th Meridian has traditionally marked the eastern edge of the American West.
It is purely a geographical accident, but the 100th Meridian is where the rain gives out. To the east, crops grow with little help; to the west, there is either dry farming, irrigation, or, mostly, cattle grazing.

I took a week in October to drive up the six states that form the central axis of the country, keeping as close to the meridian as I could, but occasionally detouring east or west for interesting sights.

The trip begins in Laredo, Texas.

The 100th Meridian enters Texas just to the west of the border town of Laredo.

The city’s downtown looks more like Tijuana than any other American city I’ve seen. There are the narrow, uneven sidewalks; the old storefronts with overhanging eaves, whose windows are filled with carefully lined up watches, wedding dresses or toys. The streets are narrow through the old part of town.

Laredo was first settled in 1755 and the Woolworth’s looks at least that old.

There are a bunch of border crossings in town, and the lines of people move constantly through the archways; maquilladores flourish across the border and the employees move from one country to the other.

North of the old part of town, Laredo looks more like any other Western American city. Along the interstate that pushes north are hordes of strip malls, Wal-Marts, Popeye’s chicken franchises and home-repair discount supermarkets. Every 1.6 miles, there is a McDonald’s.

U.S. 83 heads northwest out of town and soon crosses the 100th Meridian, then paralleling it in its march to North Dakota.

As soon as you leave the city, you begin to see evidence of the uncertainness of the geography, as you move from farms to ranches.

The prairie doesn’t turn instantly to plains: There is a wide, undulating transition zone.

First, surrounding the city are “winter gardens,” where tomatoes and other vegetables are grown for places that can’t. But as soon as we leave the garden area, we hit the chaparral, where there are hundreds of ranches in the scrubland filled with mesquite, juniper and, most of all, purple sage, which turns patches of the chaparral into an inky lavender.

But as soon as you hit the tiny town of Asherton, the ranches give way once again to agriculture.

spinach, crystal city texas

Mile 89, Crystal City, Texas

During World War I, the small community of Crystal City tried an experiment: to grow a winter crop of spinach. In only a year, spinach became the area’s principal crop. There was a “spinach boom.” People talked of “green gold.”

By 1933, the Crystal City Cannery was producing 10,000 cans of spinach a day. In 1945, Del Monte took over as primary processor; it now produces an average of 2 1/2  million cases of spinach a year.

In 1936 the Chamber of Commerce held its first Spinach Festival and crowned its first queen and Texas Governor James Allred proclaimed March 16-21 as “Spinach  Week” and Crystal City as “the world’s largest spinach shipping center.”

popeye statueBut the chamber of commerce wanted a symbol and found one in Popeye the Sailor Man. They arranged with Elzie Segar, the comic strip’s creator, to use Popeye to sell spinach and a “life-size” statue — if you can say that about a cartoon  character — was erected, which now sits on a pedestal in front of City Hall.

“Let us give three rousing whoops for Crystal City,” wrote Segar.

Crystal City has its Spinach Festival every year on the second weekend in November in honor of its “Patron Saint” Popeye. The city of 8,000 grows to 50,000 for the three day event.

Spinach, though, is no longer even the main crop. “We grow onions in the summer and cabbage in the winter,” explains the woman at City Hall.

There are also murals all over the building, including a giant cowboy, Mexican vaquero and a large crocodile. I don’t know what the croc is doing there, but there are some peccaries behind it, and an Indian on a horse with a spear and his head hanging low. Also a Jesus and an American flag, some campesinos and a woman in a graduation gown. It’s quite an iconographical salad.

But not all of history is rosy for the town. During World War II, a Japanese internment camp was built here, which at its peak, held 3,374 people, mostly Japanese American, with a few German and Italian families added, held temporarily as potential immigrants.

US 83 Uvalde Co. Texas

Mile 128, Uvalde, Texas

Uvalde, Texas, is best known as the home of John E. “Cactus Jack”  Nance, vice president of the United States under the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt.

The irascible Nance, who had been a powerful member of the Senate and House, termed the job “the first demotion of my life,”  and said that the vice presidency “ain’t worth a bucket of warm piss.”

During a long career in the House and Senate, Nance had built a great reputation as a parliamentarian, and over the years, he was given scores of “honorary” gavels to replace one he broke in use.garner museum

These gavels, along with his canoe, hunting rifle, official papers, tons of PR photographs and some very nice oil paintings made by his wife, are on view at the Garner Museum on one of the shady back streets of Uvalde.

About 30 miles north of town, a state park has been named for Garner, in the spotted green canyons of the Texas Hill Country. The park, along the Rio Frio, is bumper to bumper with visitors in the summer, but on an October morning, it is nearly deserted, save for one family swimming in the icy clear water of the river, which is lined with bone-white cobbles eroded from the limestone hills.

Farming has given way once again to grazing land, although most of what chews the tough dry grass are sheep and goats. Central Texas is the Angora wool and mohair center of the nation.

“But we don’t eat mutton,” explains the volunteer at the park information desk. “You know, there’s a historical antagonism between the cattlemen and the sheepherders. That hasn’t completely disappeared.”

“Oh, but it’s changing a little,”  says her colleague in the office. “You can buy sheep meat in the H.E.B.”

The H.E.B. is the local chain of supermarkets. It is short for its owner’s name: Howard E. Butt, a major figure in the area, whose name you keep running across for his charitable donations.

If my name were Butt, I’d name my store with my initials, too.

menard texas

Mile 260, Menard, Texas

The land flattens out by the time you reach Menard, Texas. The town was founded in 1858 and was once — this is a litany in the Plains states — prosperous. Now most of the old stores on the town’s main street are empty.

One exception is the old Luckinbach hardware store, which now houses one of the world’s most successful manufactury of hunter’s game calls.WF4 Deluxe Predator Call

Burnham Brothers specializes in predator calls, but they carry all kinds, from turkey to mouse calls. You squeeze them, hammer them, blow into them and rub them together, to make the variety of squawks, wheezes, yelps and chatters that will bring your desired prey into the sights of your 12-gauge.

Outside of Burnham Brothers, the towns main income comes from sheep manure, according to Coby Phillips,  who works behind the counter.

“My father used to work in the hardware store, and now I work in the same building,” he says. “It was his first job and this is mine.”

J. Morton Burnham is “recognized as the father of predator calling,” says the catalog. In 1952, his sons started up the business using their father’s know-how. They sold it in 1991 to its present owner, who supplies predator calls to the world. They have mechanical calls, cassette tapes of animal calls, and most recently, they have added 60 digital animal calls.

The catalog lists a Coyote Howler, which looks something like a child’s toy trumpet, a Buck Grunt Deer Call, a Coon Squaller, a Mini-Squeal and, Phillip’s recommendation, a Mini-Blaster, which has variable pitch and is “the best for calling coyote and bobcat.”

I am taken with a slate and wood turkey call and ante up the purchase price of $13.95.

“This is one of the top three turkey hunting areas in the world,” Phillips says.

Phillips was born in Menard and can’t imagine leaving. “Many young people do leave, but a lot come back when they are older,” he says.

He has a long list of reasons to stay, despite the generally depressed economy.

“The town is small, so everyone knows everyone else. There’s no crime to speak of and a good school system with small classes. My high school graduating class was 22.”

He was a Menard Yellowjacket.

And in the winter, “There’s only a week and a half out of the year that’s freezing.”

ballinger texas cotton

Mile 317, Ballinger, Texas

Near Ballinger, Texas, I start seeing fields of cotton. The fields are completely white with it, looking almost like snow.

Like many of the small towns — this one has a population of 4,170 — there is not much of note.

ballinger crossHowever, there is a giant high-tech steel cross on the rise overlooking town and a bronze statue of a cowboy in front of city hall. Like many such city halls, the building is the most impressive architecture in the county and and built of sandstone.

When I tune in the local radio station, the newscaster tells me there is some controversy in the city over the community center, which is sometimes used on weekends to hold dances.

Several neighbors have complained about the noise.

“Curtis Jennings appeared before the city council and said he felt past city fathers did not build the community center to be turned into a beer hall and dance hall.

“He told city councilmen that the music went on till almost 1 in the morning.

“Councilman Jerry Willingham said he felt 10 p.m. should be set as the time to shut down activity at the community center. Mayor Rudy Hoffman instructed them to set guidelines and make recommendations for the next council meeting.”

Big, white, puffy cumulus clouds are moving across the sky like a marching band.

abilene train

Mile 373, Abilene, Texas

Nothing says Texas like a good, thick steak in a sleazy tin-sheathed dive.

Harlow’s World Famous Bar-B-Q and Steaks in Abilene is just off the interstate and just the ticket. Ribeye is sold by the measure: from three-quarter inch (for sissies) up to 2 solid, meaty inches.

The ceiling is patterned tin sheathing, punctuated by six slow-moving fans. The walls are in need of a good scrubbing and are covered in a variety of neon beer signs. A piece of a Texas flag is framed at one end of the room and the 17 tables in the front room are lined up under plastic tablecloths. The chairs are  a grab bag of ’30s oak office furniture and ’50s kitchen dinette moderne.harlow's

Racks of potato chip bags hang on the counter next to the cash register and the menu is hand-printed on posterboard above the bar.

One old sign says “Beer 5¢” and just under it, “Dancing girls,” but the beer is the normal price and the closest thing to dancing girls are the jeans-and-T-shirt waitresses who hustle from one end of the painted concrete floor to the other.

The owner of this establishment is Timmy Harlow, who looks to be somewhere between 69 and death.  His white hair and gaunt body look like that of an old, worn-out cowboy. His beach-ball gut is largely covered by his red apron, but from behind, he has no shape at all: a thin, tubular body with neither shoulder nor hip nor waist. His jeans hang low on his frame and stay up only the way crew socks stay up on skinny shanks.timmy harlow

In actuality, Harlow is 49 years old and a worn-out former beer distributor. His Lone Star franchise fell through in the oil bust of the early ’80s and Harlow, always a hard-liver, had to drop out. There were divorces, some hard times and an inspiration.

So, he opened this restaurant in the former beer warehouse. The building still looks like a warehouse — or at least the back of it does: a  utilitarian cinderblock box with “Harlow’s” painted its length.

But in front of that, he has built a kind of garden, with trellises made out of unfinished wood and lots of climbing vines. You have to walk through this little paradise before you get to the fried onions and potatoes with sour cream.

There is a back room, also. It is fitted out with aviation memorabilia in honor of nearby Dyess AFB. There is also a shrine to Chuck Yeager, who has been known to eat here.

Yeager, in fact, so enjoyed the homemade honey ice cream that he asked Harlow for the recipe. Harlow said he wouldn’t give it away, but would trade it for one of Yeager’s flight suits. The suit now hangs near the front of the room.

There is also a wall full of dinner plates signed by celebrity customers. Among the 40 plates, I spotted George Strait, Clint Black and Lori Morgan. Many of the names are less luminous — at least, I didn’t recognize them; probably local radio personalities.

The clientele was a mix with on one hand,  well-to-do slummers in their “stone” colored chinos and Oxford-cloth shirts and on the other hand a few broad-bellied men with scraggy goatees and glassy eyes who looked like they just got off the construction site, or more accurately, had stopped on the way for a six-pack or two.

It’s a very Texas mix.

The mesquite broiled ribeye, by the way, was juicy and delicious.

crowell thunderstorm

Mile 492, Crowell, Texas

Crowell is one more dried up little town in the flat plains of northern Texas.

Most of the buildings along the downtown highway are closed up. There is little traffic through the town as I step into the M and M Family Restaurant across from the courthouse and order my breakfast.

“Two scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy and your largest orange juice.”

“I’m sorry, but I just ran out. I mixed up a whole gallon this morning and it’s gone.”

“That’s OK, I’ll have water then.”

I find out from three retired farmers who are lollygagging in the M and M that the whole land is thirsty for water.

“All there is in the wells is briny, so we can’t use that to irrigate,” says Abe, who is about 65 and has gone through two heart surgeries and is on the waiting list for a third. He wears a straw cowboy hat and a white shirt.

“The government has a brine reduction project with a pipeline that runs from Guthrie and tries to impound the briny runoff from wells, to reduce the saltiness of the Wichita River so cattle can drink out of it,” Abe says.crowell elevators

“But don’t give this gentleman the idea that we don’t like it here,”  says Joseph, who is in his late 50s and seems a little more cosmopolitan than Abe. He turns out to have once run the local newspaper.

“What do you like about it?” I ask.

“Everything,” Abe answers.

But the conversation seems to center on the disasters.

“The problem here is it’s always too hot, too cold, to dry and too wet,” cracks  Abe. “The weather is too irregular to make a regular living.”

And the weather is the constant topic of conversation — that and government policy.

The biggest weather they ever had was a tornado in April, 1942. It killed 11 people and tore straight through town.

“That tornado was the biggest thing that ever hit this town,” says Joe.

“I wasn’t here for it,” says Wendell, “But I got here the next day.”

Wendell is 92 and talks slowly. He is also wearing a white shirt, although it is now a couple of sizes too large for him, and a ball cap.

“It took the dome off the courthouse and took off three of the clock faces. One dial was left, but the works was blown out.”

“No, you can’t count on the weather,” Joe says. “We normally get 24 inches of rain a year, but in 1941, we had 40 inches and there were lakes all over.”

But the usual problem is not enough, or at least, not at the right time.

“It’ll rain all around us and Foard County won’t get any,” says Abe.

“Story is, when Noah had his flood, Foard County got a half-inch.”crowell wichita river

In the flat country around town, they tell me, the main product is cattle and wheat. A bit further south there is also cotton, but they don’t grow it anymore in Crowell.

“It’s the boll weevil,” says Joe.

“Deliver us from weevil,” says Abe.

“They got a weevil eradication program and it’s the best thing the government spends money on,” he continues. “Maybe one day, they will eliminate the problem — now I’m not saying they’ll ever completely get rid of it — but maybe they’ll reduce it enough that you can make a living with cotton again.”

He doesn’t sound convinced, more hopeful than anything.

As for government, Wendell says the only real non-agricultural industry in town is a company that makes “gimme” caps, but they are feeling the pinch from Mexico.

“I don’t like talking politics,” he says, “But you can hear that giant sucking sound that Ross Perot spoke of.”

North of town I spot a box tortoise slowly trying to cross the road, with his head tentatively dangling in front of his dome.
quanah parker

The roadside weeds are drying in the October sun. The sunflowers have passed the flower stage and a spattering of black seedheads dot the tan grass. Clouds blow quickly across the sky, leaving racing dapples of sun over the fields.

With the car window down, you can smell the damp straw in the fields, the wet earth and the smell of the cattle as they go by in a truck. Once in a while, the rhythm is broken by the smell of a roadkill skunk.

Just north of Crowell is the Pease River, where Cynthia Ann Parker was stolen back from the Comanche Indians in 1836 after 24 years of living among the Indians. Her Indian son was Quanah Parker, the greatest of the Comanche leaders. His name meant “fragrant.”

And the next town on the route is named after him.

Next: The Central Plains

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