Thursday, December 13, 2018

THE LEGEND OF QUEEN LIL, Part One


Jim says it was the Gypsies who did it. Gypsies...that’s what we called them back in the day. It was before we knew—a recent development—that they no longer like to be called Gypsies. Now they prefer to be known as Romani, Roma or Rom, which, I’m told, means Man in some variations of their language, also called Romani. The moniker Gypsy was hung on them by Europeans who thought they were an Egyptian tribe. Egypt...Gyp...Gypsy. That, I understand, is how the name evolved, and why they now no longer want to be called that. But I’ve heard there are still those among the Romani people who don’t object to the term Gypsy, which is so filled with fantasy, romanticism and color, if also sometimes with prejudice and disdain.
That’s neither here nor there, however. This is a story about my friend Jim Bowsher, some Gypsies he met, and a long-deceased woman named Lillian Forbes McFarland (1865-1935), better known as Queen Lil. Queen Lil is an urban—small town, actually—legend in my home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio. Although, if you ask millennials about the tale, they’ve very likely never heard of Queen Lil. It’s one of those stories my (boomer) generation is still curating, handed down by parents and grandparents, and once we’re gone, so will Queen Lil be...finally and definitively, despite the fact that she’s already been dead these 80-odd years and her heyday was long before that.
Lil was famous (and infamous) in Wapak for putting on airs, for being wealthy and arrogant, and for flaunting her inherited fortune every chance she got. She was nothing if not flamboyant. She had, they say, a matched team of chestnut bay horses to pull her fine carriage before the advent of motorcars. She dressed to the nines and was haughty as could be with the neighbors, who, people say, grew really tired of her loud parties and carryings-on any night of the week.
Queen Lil’s father, F. G. Forbes, wasn’t the typical industrialist magnate who built an empire during the industrial revolution and beyond. In fact, when Lil was a girl growing up in Middletown, Ohio, Forbes and his family were quite poor. There are those who theorize that his daughter’s high-flying lifestyle was a way of whistling in the dark, of warding off the curse of poverty she’d suffered as a child, of telling the world, “I’m rich, and I’ll never be poor again.” Although he missed out on the gold fever of the 1840s and the California Gold Rush that started at Sutter’s Mill, Forbes did indeed later strike it rich in gold and after that showed his natural gift for high finance by investing in a variety of fields, and very succesfully so, amassing a hefty fortune.
Other than as evidence of the source of Lil’s wealth, the story of F. G. Forbes is not, however, really relevant to the tale of Queen Lil. Those who know her legend probably wouldn’t be able to name her father (or her husband) if you asked them. Nor would Queen Lil have been famous as anything but a vaguely recalled, eccentric personality of another era, had it not been for the murder.
In small towns, homicides are not nearly as common as they are in the big cities, and so, they become a kind of mile-marker in small town history, as in, that was before that murder over at that roadhouse on the Dixie Highway. Or, So-and-So was the brother of that guy they shot in the head during a card game at the Nag’s Head Saloon. Murder, in a small town, is a major incident, because there’s no anonymity. Everybody knows everybody else and their brother. And the fact that the murder involving Queen Lil and her circle is an officially unsolved one makes it an even more memorable slaying. Although, Jim Bowsher would argue that it’s not unsolved at all. He’s pretty sure he knows exactly who was behind it.
Like I say, Queen Lil was a party girl. And her parties were truly major events for a small town like Wapakoneta. VIPs from cities all over the country attended them, so well connected were Lil’s father, and her husband, Wapakoneta native William McFarland, who, it was rumored, had also made his seed fortune in gold and might once have been Forbes’s business partner. Like Lil’s father, McFarland was a wise investor, who would later make a vast fortune in real estate.
McFarland House on West Auglaize as it appeared in 1893
So well attended were Lil’s parties that even Ohio-born President Warren G. Harding traveled to Wapakoneta for them before and after he became a presidential candidate. Indeed, Harding’s wife, Florence (neé) King was said to be an intimate friend of Lillian McFarland’s, and to share Queen Lil’s passion for spiritism—a trending topic in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Queen Lil’s fascination with “the occult” meant that her parties sometimes ended with groups of her closest guests remaining behind to participate in séances and other manifestations of spiritism.
The urban legend the way I heard it was first told to me by my fifth grade teacher, Jessie Crawford. Miss Crawford was old enough to vividly remember the incident. She had first started teaching, fresh out of Normal School, in the days when she still drove a horse and buggy to work. Indeed she had been my mother’s teacher before me, back when Jessie taught at, and my mother attended, one of many one-room red-brick schoolhouses that dotted the rural Ohio landscape every two miles or so—this particular one in Shelby County, near the Auglaize County line. But like many other Wapakonetans, she remembered the tale of Queen Lil in a version that was told to her rather than as it happened. 
According to Miss Crawford’s version, Queen Lil was the talk of the town for all the years that she held court in her big rambling house on high-end residential West Auglaize Street. It was Jessie who told me about Lil’s matched team of chestnut bay horses (later historians would speculate that the horses were matching white) and her fine carriage, built specially for her by the locally owned and operated Kreitzer buggy factory.
In Miss Crawford’s version, the crime was an utter mystery. It took place at Queen Lil’s home during one of her legendary parties. The house was full of guests drinking, dining and dancing. In the midst of it all, people heard a scream on the second floor. A woman who had climbed the stairs to fetch something from her coat or in search of the bathroom found another guest, “a man from Chicago”, according to Jessie, lying dead on the floor in a pool of his own blood.
There were theories, of course: that the man had quarreled earlier with someone over an outstanding debt; that the man from Chicago had been Lil’s lover and that either Lil’s husband or another would-be suitor had killed him in a jealous rage; still others figured it was random, a spur of the moment argument or insult that ended with one man dead and the murderer slipping anonymously into the party crowd.
Miss Crawford claimed that murder seemed to bring a curse down on Queen Lil’s head and home. She eventually lost everything, her fortune, her myriad acquaintances and, finally, her mind.
After her death and before that cursed and haunted house was finally torn down, people swore, Miss Crawford told me, that if you happened by the abandoned mansion on the darkest of nights, you could see a light in the second story window. And if you looked more closely still, you would also see a specter, the ghost of Queen Lil, holding a candle and then stooping low to inspect the bloodstained floor where “the man from Chicago” had died.
Miss Crawford’s story was, like so many other versions of the legend of Queen Lil that took shape over the years, one in which facts, with time, became merely  anecdotal, a frame on which to hang a legend, a ghost story. In the main, they were simply wrong—right down to the gender of the victim. The victim was, in fact, not “a man from Chicago” at all, but Lillian McFarland’s close friend, Nellie Harris.
“How could local storytellers even get the sex of the victim wrong?” I wondered, and indeed posed that question to Rachel Barber of the Auglaize County Historical Society. Rachel’s theory is that confusion arose because of made-up details parents passed on to their children. At a time of strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell social norms when it came to sexuality, the probability that Queen Lil and Nellie Harris were lesbian lovers was a hard pill to swallow in Wapakoneta society, especially considering that Nellie was the direct relative of an Ohio politician.
“So,” says Rachel, “everybody made up their own version of the story and people heard lots of different things.”
At the time of her death, Nellie Harris had been living with Queen Lil in the big house on West Auglaize Street for about a year, according to research files collected by the Auglaize County Historical Society. Nellie was from a well-to-do family, the thirty-four year old daughter of a former Republican congressman, and a native of Bucyrus, Ohio. The real story pieced together by local historians has little to do with most of the versions of the tale of Queen Lil that those of us from the boomer generation heard as children, a half-century or more after the fact. The fact is that there was a fairly detailed inquiry into Miss Harris’s death at the time, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that local historians probed public records and discovered details that allowed them to separate truth (or a reasonable version of it) from fiction and from the ghost stories that grew out of it.
The bare-bone facts are that Nellie Harris, Queen Lil’s friend, house guest and likely lover, disappeared from one of the numerous parties for which McFarland House was famous. Some say that a search was mounted by other guests. Others say that Queen Lil stumbled upon the mortally wounded Miss Harris on entering her boudoir and opening the closet door. Whatever the case may be, Miss Harris was found in an upstairs closet, critically wounded as a result of a gunshot to the head. Yes, the dying woman’s body was not discovered lying in a pool of blood in the upstairs hallway—as was said to be the case of “the man from Chicago”— but was found in a closet along with the murder weapon.
At first the death was reported to be a suicide. Nellie had shot herself in the head. And that was the story that Lillian McFarland would push like crazy, even after a coroner’s inquest was initiated. An interesting side light is that, although there was apparently no “man from Chicago” connected with the incident, there was indeed—cherchez la femme—a woman from Chicago somewhat involved, if for no other reason, then at least because of her suspicious behavior. According to reports from that time, it wasn’t half an hour after the body was discovered in the wee hours of the morning that another house guest, a socialite named Mae McPherson, was rushed out of the McFarland home, taken to the train station, and placed on a passenger train back to her home in Chicago.
It wasn’t long before the suicide theory was challenged. In the first place, it seemed odd that the woman would have shut herself in the closet before shooting herself. In the second place, the coroner found none of the traces of gunpowder on the corpse that would have been consistent with her having held a gun to her head and shot herself. The angle of the entry wound also called the suicide theory into question, since rather than being in the temple just behind the eye, the bullet had entered the skull from an angle consistent with a shooter’s position being somewhat behind and to the side of the victim.
The coroner, Dr. F.C. Hunter, was clear about his belief from the outset. On the very day of the murder, October 23, 1909, Dr. Hunter would state, “"I do not believe that the wound was self-inflicted." The subsequent investigation, however, failed to connect anyone to the murder and no one was ever indicted—despite the fact that Mae McPherson, “the woman from Chicago”, never again set foot in Wapakoneta, or that Queen Lil was said to have burned some of Miss Harris’s clothes along with some documentation that was never identified, even as Nellie Harris lay dying.
Jim Bowsher (left) discussing the Queen Lil saga with mutual 
friend Mark Gallimore 
Anyway, on a recent visit to my friend Jim Bowsher’s mind-bogglingly eccentric house, I brought up the legend of Queen Lil in one of our marathon conversations that, for the past several years, have become a sort of annual event for both of us, whenever I can get back to Ohio from my home in Patagonia. Now, Jim is something of a local legend himself. A storyteller by trade (he makes his living writing, as well as giving talks far and wide), Jim Bowsher is also a respected local historian and a kind of curator of Wapakoneta culture and folklore. He is also the creator of a fabulous rock garden and its centerpiece, the Temple of Tolerance, which fill the entire center of the block behind his house, and that is such a stunning phenomenon that it draws visitors from all over the United States and the world. But that’s a topic for another day.
Jim’s house in itself is an ad hoc museum. Actually, more than a museum, which it is hard to describe. But suffice it to say that it is an otherwise unremarkable house from the early twentieth century in which its owner and heir has amassed the most incredible array of objects imaginable. There is practically not a square inch of wall or other flat surface in the entire house that is not jam-packed with items that Jim has been collecting ever since he was in grade school (and he is now seventy). The question almost every collector will inevitably ask is, “So what does he collect? Art, antiques, artifacts...what?” The answer is, “Stories.” The pieces that cover—indeed, clutter—every square foot of the house have only one thing in common. Each and every one has a story behind it. Jim doesn’t collect anything that doesn’t come with a story. The objects are only important to him because of the stories they tell. They are all pieces of an historical puzzle that only makes sense when Jim pieces them together.
I’ve learned over the last few years of short but intensive contact with Jim that there’s hardly a subject related to the history of our town that won’t prompt him to spring from his seat and go fetch an object (and a story) to go with the theme. So I wasn’t surprised when I brought up Queen Lil and Jim leapt from his seat and retrieved the painting of a Roma woman in full Gypsy garb and excitedly exclaimed, “It’s not an unsolved murder! It was the Gypsies who did it. And they got the wrong person!”
To be continued...       

Thursday, September 27, 2018

THE RELUCTANT LEGACY OF HARPER LEE



I recently read Go Set a Watchman, the late Southern writer Harper Lee’s second—depending on whether you believe Rupert Murdoch’s Harper-Collins or investigative reporters at The New York Times— and last published book. It is a work of fiction that was never meant to be published but ended up being marketed, allegedly but perhaps not necessarily factually, to help finance care for the elderly author, who died in February of 2016, at the age of 89. Not unsurprisingly, it ended up being a lot more lucrative—an enormous bestseller—for Murdoch than for Lee, who barely lived long enough to see it published.
I remember when I first read Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. It was a fairly new book then, since it was, perhaps, 1964 or so when I read it. But it was already a very popular novel, a book that had won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. And in 1962, it was made into a blockbuster movie. Fortunately, I read the book before I saw the film. Both were good. The book was infinitely better. I have re-read it every decade or so since then. It is, without a doubt, a literary work of art.
Mockingbird was on one of our high school reading lists. When I read it, I remember being surprised that it was on the list. Ours was a small conservative Ohio town, and rape, which figured as a principal element in the plot, wasn’t the sort of subject that usually formed any part of the curriculum. I figured my teacher knew what the book was about, but I couldn’t imagine that the school board did. It was known and touted as a “coming of age story”, which might have made it seem more like a book for adolescents, which indeed it was, if for adults as well. But to me it came as a surprise to find such a book on any reading list that could wend its way into the Wapakoneta City Schools system.
The other thing that surprised me enormously, however, was how a lot of my classmates got that it was also a story that delved deeply into racial inequality, but that they couldn’t seem to see any moral or social equivalency with our own town. Perhaps it was that the book underscored, for us, what we’d had ingrained in our thinking from infancy—namely that the deep South was a hotbed of racial discrimination, a place where African Americans, whom we still called Negroes back then, were segregated from the white community and that this segregation was upheld by local laws that went against every tenet of the Bill of Rights. And that those laws were in turn upheld not only by local law enforcement but also by vigilante justice—which often overlapped.
Jem, Scout and Dill in the 1962 movie version
It was a North-South thing for many. We were the “good Northerners” who had stood with Abe Lincoln, freed the slaves, formed part of the Underground Railroad and saved the Republic, and they were the “bad Southerners” who had committed sedition, precipitated the bloodiest war in our history, and continued, right up to the present, to discriminate against blacks—even though “we” had “whipped the South” during the Civil War, in the name of freedom and justice.
So how was it, then, that we lived in an all-white town? Not even a single token black in the population? Perhaps it was because our town, like so many other small towns in the North, had long fostered a more hypocritical brand of racism than the open segregation practiced in the South at that time. If you asked around, many people in our community would have declared themselves “not racially prejudiced”—they just didn’t want blacks living in our town, or going to our schools, or attending our churches. In fact, there was an unspoken rule that it was crucial that “the sun should never set” on a Negro in our town.
It was well-known, if a tacit truth, that the one in charge of maintaining that rule was our chief of police, who had been chief for as long as just about anybody could recall. And that was one of the reasons why. What was less well known was that the Ku Klux Klan—which many of the more naïve among us thought of as an odious Southern white supremacist vigilante organization—was alive and well in our Ohio town. In fact, it was alive and well in the entire area. When my father was a young boy growing up in nearby Lima, Ohio, the KKK had held one of its most successful public rallies in the country, drawing a crowd of more than a hundred thousand “nice white Northern people” and choking the arteries of the downtown area of the Ohio oil-boom town.
In Wapakoneta, however, especially during the formative years of people of my grandparents’ generation, it was more like a secret lodge, the classified roster of which included some of the most prominent of the town’s male citizens, who lent their support to the police chief’s anti-black crusade. But nobody talked about it. It was only the occasional whispered reference overheard among people of my parents’ generation that fed my curiosity.
My mother seldom mentioned race. But I recall her once saying that she was glad to see how racially unprejudiced my sister and I were. Maybe, she said, this was how all the hatred and ugliness would eventually be overcome—gradually, generation by generation. Her father was an unapologetic racist whose language was often peppered with the most hateful of terms when referring to African Americans. She, on the other hand, was much less so. She made it clear that she would be disappointed if any of us kids ever decided to date or marry a black person, but that was mostly, she said, because it would make the world a lot tougher place for us to live in, and it would surely be a burden for any mixed-race children we had. But she went on to say that perhaps by our children’s children’s generation, it would no longer be an issue, and that would be a great thing—the world, she assumed, finally as God wished it.
In Mockingbird, the narrator is a grade school girl named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Although she talks a lot about growing up in a small Southern town in the 1930s, and about the adventures she has with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill, who comes to stay each summer with his aunt who lives next door, the main element of the plot is the corrosive nature of racism in early-20th-century Southern society.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) defends Tom Robinson 
(Brock Peters)in the 1962 movie version
The backdrop for this entire narrative is the ill-fated trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman (who, in fact, we surmise, is being abused by her father). The hero of the story is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, the highly principled and highly respected defense lawyer who takes on Robinson’s case, even though it brings pressure to bear on him from local Klansmen and from the father of the alleged rape victim. This man, Bob Ewell, will eventually seek to harm Scout and Jem in revenge for his and his daughter’s public humiliation in court, but the Finch kids will be saved by the mysterious “Boo” Radley, a shadowy, frightening and almost supernatural character in the summer fantasy world of Scout, Jem and Dill. 
Despite all evidence to the contrary, and in spite of Atticus Finch’s best efforts, the jury ends up convicting Tom Robinson. The point and the lesson that the book proffers is that the racist nature of the white supremacist society in the South of the early part of the 20th century places all odds against Tom Robinson. He cannot get a fair trial in Southern white society. Finch’s attempt to prove him innocent is a quixotic fool’s errand that only such a principled man as he would take on.
Author Harper Lee with Mary Badham who played Scout
in the film version of Mockingbird
It is disturbing, then, to read Go Set a Watchman, since the Atticus Finch whom we have raised, like Scout and Jem in Mockingbird, to the status of mythical hero, here is portrayed as a flawed character who disappoints his now grown-up daughter (and us) by demonstrating that he too views blacks as inferior to whites and by joining other local movers and shakers in resisting the interference in Southern society of federal lawmakers and of the NAACP.
In Watchman, Scout in now Miss Jean Louise, a sophisticated 26-year-old woman who makes her home in New York City. She is back in her home town of Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit. Her father, Atticus, is now an aging town icon, plagued by arthritis, but still practicing law, although now with the assistance of Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s childhood friend, later boyfriend and now suitor. Henry has taken Atticus as his mentor and plans eventually to take over the Finch law office. He hopes it will be with Jean Louise as his wife.
In this “new” book, Dill is but a faded memory and Jem has long since dropped dead from a heart attack. But while these characters have been cruelly erased from the scene—for those of us who loved them almost as much as we loved Scout—a new and colorful character is introduced: Atticus’s brother, Jack, an eccentric doctor who has a cynical view of the world and takes comfort in his huge collection of books. It is Jack to whom Jean Louise will resort when her world appears to be coming apart at the seams later in the book.
And then too, there is Alexandra, Atticus and Jack’s sister, who has been living with Atticus and caring for him ever since Jem’s death—her husband having long since “moved to the fishing camp”, where he won’t have to put up with her overbearing personality any more.
Harper Lee in her latter years
Alexandra has sent home another beloved character from Mockingbird, Calpurnia, the black maid who was practically a mother to the Finch children after their own mother died. For Jean Louise, Calpurnia was everything, disciplinarian, counselor, friend, mother. She misses Calpurnia terribly and finds her aunt a poor replacement. Opinionated, meddling, unbearably pious, as well as a gossip, Alexandra is the complete opposite of Jean Louise and as such, they clash constantly. Alexandra is furious when she finds out that Jean Louise has visited Calpurnia. To her mind, Negroes have always been treated well in Maycomb, but now have grown uppity, at the prompting of the NAACP, and should be ignored for their ingratitude.
Calpurnia, for her part, receives Jean Louise coolly, and speaks to her with the practiced manner that Scout recognizes as the talk blacks reserve “for company”. She is devastated. It’s like being given the cold shoulder by her own mother.
But there’s something deeper going on here. Zeebo, a relative of Calpurnia’s, has been involved in an auto accident in which he was speeding and a white person was killed. Atticus has decided he will defend Zeebo. But this time, his motives are not as noble as those invoked when he defended Tom Robinson. This time he has taken on the pro bono job to prevent the NAACP from sending in a lawyer of their own and turning the trial into what the people of Maycomb see as a potential media circus and unwanted interference in the town’s race relations.
Jean Louise ends up spying from the empty “colored balcony” of the county courthouse on a private meeting of Maycomb movers and shakers in which both Atticus and Henry are present and active, and in which all manner of racist statements are tolerated by them both. She becomes, literally, physically ill and has to leave the place.
The rest of the book is about her struggle with these new and hurtful feelings and how her liberal Uncle Jack helps her to come to grips with them. She feels as if she has gone insane. She and her aunt are at loggerheads, her beloved Calpurnia treats her like a stranger, Henry, she is now convinced, is a racist with whom she can have nothing more to do, and Atticus has betrayed every moral tenet in which she was brought up to believe. She begins to wonder if perhaps she hasn’t truly gone mad, because it seems impossible to her that she has suddenly been dropped into a bizzaro world in which everything is the opposite of what it should be.
It is her Uncle Jack who eventually convinces Jean Louise that her father is no racist, that he is simply working from the inside to change minds and customs little by little. A sort of if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach it would seem. I was immediately reminded of my own mother’s description of how each generation might become less and less racist. I wasn’t terribly convinced of that then, and although Jean Louise eventually takes her uncle’s explanation as valid and forgives her father, I’m still not very convinced of it now. Nor did I come away from this story feeling that working in the midst of, and as part of, a corrupt, bigoted and unjust system so as to “improve it little by little from the inside,” or at least to mitigate somewhat the evil it engenders, was in any way a strategy bound for success.
The controversy about Watchman that has rocked the literary world has to do with whether it was a second book by Harper Lee or if it was an earlier draft of Mockingbird, which editors at the writer’s original publishing company, J.B. Lippincott, convinced her to re-write with a more upbeat message. Indeed, the writing in Watchman is a starker, less meticulous example of the author’s enormous talent, if still a compelling and well-written book. The charge is that Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, waited for the writer’s sister and long-time protector, Alice, to die so that she could take the manuscript of Watchman to Murdoch’s Harper Collins where it was seen as the money-grab of the decade. Although Carter fought to keep the contents of Lee’s will a secret, a suit filed by The New York Times eventually forced her to make the contents of the will public. The will named Carter the sole executor of Lee’s estate.       
Beyond the controversy about whether Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before or after she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps its message, like the one my mother imparted on me all those decades ago, is that no matter how much laws might change in the search for justice and equality, social change, unfortunately, takes a lot longer and can’t be legislated. It takes each generation becoming ever more moderate, ever more liberal, ever more tolerant of diversity and intolerant of racial prejudice. And perhaps that’s the greatest danger of the kind of fundamentalist times in which we’re living right now, when the new normal seems to be, one step forward and two back.

Monday, August 27, 2018

AMÉRICO



I once camped under the same tree with my wife for twelve days. Out of that dozen days, it rained eight and snowed one.
This was in Los Alerces National Park in Chubut Province, Argentina, almost two million acres of stunning wilderness located in Andean Patagonia. At the time, I was trying to strike up a relationship with a renowned mountain guide so as to get him to help me set up some trekking circuits.
Los Alerces National Park
It's a long story... I was about forty at the time and had recently left my job as a newspaper editor. I decided that I wanted to do something else, something fun, with my life for a while. This was about 1988. I had been traveling to different parts of the vast Patagonian region every chance I got since about 1975. I loved the region and eventually wanted to live there.
Anyway, I got it into my head that a good way to mix business with pleasure would be to bring groups of no more than six Americans at a time to Patagonia on walking tours of some of the wildest areas in the Andean wilderness. I would eventually take a three thousand-mile working tour of the region with a nature photographer whom I had known for some time, and we would make contact with different trackers and guides in the various places we visited to get a commitment from them to help us if we started bringing American travelers in. The guy I happened to be tracking down now was a cantankerous mountain man and fishing guide called Américo Rosales, who had made his first trips to the surrounding mountain tops on horseback under his father’s poncho when he was only four. Now in his fifties, to say that he knew the area like the back of his hand was an understatement.
I tried to seek Américo out on my own but he shunned me. I was invisible to him and the messages I left him in the different places he frequented went unanswered. So I tried a different tack. I made friends with a nephew of his who was the owner of a campsite—the one where we set up our bivouac while I waited for Rosales to deign to talk to me.  César, Américo’s nephew, and his wife, a descendant of Welsh settlers whose name was Elizabeth, were nice, pleasant people. We spent some time at their comfy cottage by the fire, drinking mate or coffee and enjoying the biscuits or pastries that Elizabeth fed us.
Eventually, I explained my plight to César. I had heard that Américo was the best guide in this part of Chubut and I wanted to see if I could get him to work with me if I started bringing small groups of Americans down for trekking tours.
His uncle, César said, was a loner. A difficult man with an irascible nature. It wasn’t easy to get him to meet people unless he himself decided he wanted to.
Seems, for instance, that he had once taken up with a woman for a couple of years who shared a shack by the lake with him. Once he came home carrying one of his dogs that had been opened up by a wild boar that Américo and his pack had been hunting (he hunted wild boar with dogs and a knife). The boar had ripped the dog’s side open with its tusks and now Américo laid the whimpering dog on the kitchen table, got out peroxide, iodine, needle and monofilament fishing line, and starting cleaning the wound and sewing the animal up.
Just then Américo’s woman friend came in and immediately said, “Get that thing off of my table!”
Américo looked up from his sewing, stared at her with his cold blue eyes and said, “This thing, as you call him, is my dog. He’s been with me nine years. You’ve been here two. You can get the hell out, now!”
But César promised he would see what he could do.
Obviously on César’s urging, Américo began to observe me. I could tell, because he started showing up at the campsite oftener than usual. He would pretend not to see me, pretend to be going down to the lakeshore to get something from his fishing hut or to check the moorings of his boat or whatever. But I realized that he was keeping an eye on me, seeing how I was coping with the inclement weather, how I built our cook fires, how I stowed my equipment—in short, seeing if I was nature-worthy. Clearly, his first impression of me was that of some American journalist type by way of Buenos Aires and that, as such, I was bound to be a tenderfoot pain-in-the-ass who would be a liability in the field if ever there was one.
But after keeping an eye on me from afar for a while, he finally decided to give me a try. It was raining torrentially that afternoon and snowing in the high country. It was way too wet for a fire so my wife and I had managed to boil some broth and noodles on the gas ring, washed them down with a so-so red wine, and then settled into our damp bedding for a nap. The squawking of a couple of tero-tero birds (they're better than a watchdog) woke me and I heard feet shuffling on the ground outside and sat up. Under the tent flap I saw a pair of well-worn military hiking boots and heard somebody clear his throat. I opened the flap a tad. It was Américo Rosales. He looked sternly down at me and said, "Feel like taking a little walk?"
It was the first time he’d ever spoken to me. He clearly didn’t stand on formality. No introductions. No names. Not even a howdy-do. Just, “Feel like taking a little walk?”
“Sure,” I said, pulling on my hiking boots, my jacket and hat. I drove, following his instructions, along flooded, swampy dirt roads and up a mountain side on an old logging trail as far as my poorly adapted two-wheel drive Ranchero pickup would take us. Where it stalled out and refused to go any further, we set out on foot.
La Torta
“We’re going up there,” the crusty guide said, pointing to the truncated summit of a mountain known as “The Cake” (La Torta). “Takes a few hours to get up there and a couple to get back down and we’re starting kind of late. So we don’t have time to take the trail to the top. We’re going cross-country. You got a problem with that?”
“No,” I said, knowing that any other answer was unacceptable.
So off Américo went in front of me, opening the dense underbrush with his hands and a sharp facón with a bone handle that he carried stuck crosswise at his back through the black sash that he wore to hold his pants up. His pace was incredibly fast. I was immediately reminded of my first hunting trips when I was still very small with my tenant farmer grandfather. Grandpa was long-legged and a tireless walker. He’d take off through cornfields and overgrown thickets setting his own pace and you either kept up or were left behind. This was the same thing.
 The land was a densely wooded roller coaster of ridges and ravines punctuated by impassable cane breaks leading toward the summit. It was apparent that Américo was putting me through my paces. I hadn’t done a forced march like this one since I’d taken my Basic Combat Training with Ranger and Green Beret instructors at Fort Bragg North Carolina nearly 20 years before. But I knew it was of vital importance to keep up, to be dogging his heels all the way up the mountain.
Somewhat more than halfway to the top, we crashed through a dense thicket into a high mountain clearing where the wind suddenly grew chilly. There were a couple of fallen trees there. Américo reached into a hollow in one of them and retrieved a Tetra Brik carton of common red wine. Seeing my surprise, he said, “I keep a carton here and a carton there in different places.”
From the small canvas field pack that he was carrying, the guide removed two loaves of French bread and a small salami. Américo handed me one of the loaves of bread, and on a fallen tree trunk, he used his facón to cut up the salami into about a dozen slices. In silence we ate bread and salami and passed the carton of wine back and forth to wash it down. When the carton was empty, Américo put it back into the hollow tree. “These are good for cooking,” he said.
“Cooking?”
“Yeah, you catch a fish, you put it in one of these cartons that have tin foil inside, you put it on the fire and when the carton has burned off and only the tin foil is left, your fish is done.”
Now the forced march became even more intense. It was a grueling climb through tangled thickets going almost straight up the side of the mountain. When we finally broke from the vegetation at the tree-line and reached the last gravelly few hundred feet, the climate changed drastically. We were wet with sweat under the outer shells of our clothing and now we had to brave thirty-five mile-an-hour “Andean breezes”. Sleet blew almost horizontally, slashing at our faces.
Above the tree-line
As we stood catching our breath, quail-like copetonas, unaccustomed to human company, came almost up to our boots to check us out. “If a person were pernicious,” said the guide, “these birds are really good eating.” He grinned, shooed the birds away and we made the last run to the top of the rock.
The view was spectacular, range after range of Andean wilderness. “I wonder what’s beyond those ridges,” I said a little too romantically for Américo’s taste.
“More ridges,” he grunted. “And eventually, the Pacific.”
“Let’s take a picture,” I said, digging my 35mm camera out of my shoulder bag.
“It’s going to be a picture of us dying of cold,” he said. It was the first time he’d shown any sort of weakness.
“So what?” I said, found a rock to perch the camera on and set the timer.
Afterwards we climbed back down to the tree-line and prepared for our descent.
It was then that Américo turned to me and said, “You walk pretty good!”
I smiled. It was the best compliment anyone had ever paid me, and I knew I’d made a friend.  
   

Saturday, August 11, 2018

BRUSH...


I’d like to explain my absence.
Where to begin?
A couple of weeks back I had what, at the time, I considered “a little accident”. I was doing some work outside the house here in Patagonia—scraping the snow off of Virginia’s car, checking to make sure the entry valve to our water storage tanks wasn’t frozen, unsticking the padlock on the front gate so Virginia could get out, etc.
I was doing all of this in my indoor shoes, something I seldom do in freezing weather, but I was in a rush and not putting on my boots, I thought, would save some time.
It was as I was again climbing to the top of our flagstone steps to open the gate for Virginia that I stepped on a patch of ice and felt myself starting to slip. Now, I’m usually sure-footed and immediately sought to recover, but failed to be able to get off of the ice or to stop the slide.
Unfortunately, I was at the top of a six-foot drop into our patio and simply, like a man washed overboard, slipped off the edge back first. The first thing to break my fall was a large granite boulder. Obviously, my body did the giving. I tried to scramble to my feet so as not to scare Virginia who was running back to see what had happened, but I was feet upgrade, head down, and scrambling never came into it.
I struggled to turn over, got on my knees and managed to push myself to my feet with the help of the roof of a sturdy doghouse. The pain was excruciating. I knew it was bad. Nothing had ever hurt like this before. But I managed to convince Virginia to go ahead about her errands. I just needed to catch my breath, I told her.
Inside the house, I did a quick damage control. The pain was persistent but I was getting my breath back. I could walk with certain difficulty but none of my limbs was broken. I was sure it was just a bad fall and that by the next day I’d be feeling better.
The next day, however, I realized that certain ways I moved a rib was clicking and decided to get myself looked at. At the local clinic they took x-rays and confirmed that I had a broken rib. There wasn’t much I could do about it, they said—wear a wrap eight hours a day and take painkillers. No going out for at least five days and no physical exertion for at least two weeks.
The third day, a Saturday, I did as I was told, but I started feeling worse all the time. I had to wear the wrap only a couple of hours at a time rather than eight straight because I was having difficulty breathing. In the evening when I took off the wrap, I immediately felt dizzy and confused. I had tunnel-vision and felt that I might black out. I told Virginia that I wanted to lie down on the couch and that if I didn’t get to feeling better soon, I’d let her drive me to the clinic to get checked out.
That never happened. Once I was down on the couch, I was never able to get up again under my own power. Virginia called the paramedics and in a short time, two consummate professionals, a man and a woman, managed to sit me up and started asking questions. I kept trying to doze off but they kept talking to me, loudly, assertively.
“Come on, champ! Hang in there. You’re going to be all right.” They asked about medication, ailments, etc., and I muttered answers as coherently as I could. But by now, all I wanted to do was sleep, and they apparently had to avoid that at all costs.
They’d had to leave their vehicle fifty meters above the house, partly over rough terrain. They wanted to see if they could get me there on foot. They managed to drag me to my feet, but as soon as they did, everything went black. Next thing I knew the male paramedic was yelling my name in my face. I think I tried to say something like, “Just let me sleep a while and I’ll be okay.” But I don’t know if I actually said it.
Finally, with the help of Virginia, they were manhandling me into a strange sort of wheel chair and strapping me in. How they did it I’ll never know since the woman couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds, but between the two of them, they managed to maneuver my 235 pounds up the path one step at a time, across the gravel and into the ambulance.
Once inside they locked my chair to the wall so as not to have to get me onto a stretcher. They told Virginia to follow us in her car. It was already well after midnight by this time. We had a mile of rocky pitted mountain road to negotiate before we reached the highway. They were constantly asking how I was doing, if I was with them. I could hear them like from very far away talking among themselves. The woman was driving. At one point he was consulting her about my condition, reading her my vital signs, such as they were, and she stopped the ambulance and climbed into the back with us.
She was busying herself over me, perhaps giving me an injection, when I heard him say, “You’re lucky you got her, champ, she’s a genius.”
And then we were under way again. I felt the jostling stop as we pulled onto the blacktop of the highway. As we drove, the guy stayed close, talking to me, squeezing my hand, saying, “Stick with me, champ! Come on, it won’t be long now. You’re doing great!” But then I heard him say to the woman, “Hit the lights and step on it. I can’t find his pulse anymore.”
At the clinic they were waiting for us. Between sleep and semi-consciousness, I felt myself being borne dizzyingly fast on a stretcher through the narrow halls, the front end being used as a battering ram to open successive swinging doors. There were drips hanging above me and they were taking blood pressure, temperature, pulse. Somebody cut my shirt off with surgical scissors. Then I felt them slide me into the tunnel of a tomography unit. I wanted to warn them that I was claustrophobic, but suddenly I was asleep again.
The next thing I knew, a doctor was shouting in my face, “Danny! Danny! Can you hear me?”
I nodded.
“You punctured a lung, buddy.” I wanted to mention that I was taking blood thinners, but clearly, he was already aware of that. Instead, I grimaced and nodded. “The surgeon’s here. We’re going to get a tube into your lung to draw off the blood.”
Later, in recovery, I heard the surgeon say, “We’ve drawn off about four and a quarter pints of blood. We’re leaving you hooked up because you’re still bleeding and we’re taking you to the ICU.”
I would later find out I’d lost another couple of pints to an intramuscular bleed that had bloomed across my back and side.
When I awoke in the ICU the next morning, I knew where I was. I was fairly comfortable. I’d gotten an end bed with a window where I could watch the sunrise on the mountains and the lake. As I lay there watching the beautiful red light tinge the snow-choked mountain tops, the phrase “brush with death” came to mind. And I suddenly, to my surprise, teared up and felt a wellspring of emotion thinking, “This is what it means. I might never have seen this again.”
Then I thought, “It’s a new day, the only one I have, and nothing will ever be the same again.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

ANTHONY BOURDAIN, A WRITER’S CHEF


TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life earlier this month, would have been 62 years old today. I thought this might be a good occasion to remember him briefly, because although he was best known as a “foodie” he was so much more than that.

Bourdain once described his TV shows as “stand-alone essays”. That was, indeed, what they were, outstanding literary pieces set to food and film excellence. Some years ago, I began watching his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel while I had my lunch, and quickly became an avid fan. Although I appreciate good food of all sorts, I’ve never given any importance whatsoever to the finer points of the culinary arts. But that wasn’t why I watched Bourdain’s program. I watched it because it was, perhaps, some of the finest writing on television. And it was, as well, a cultural gold mine, a guided tour of the world from the vantage point of native dinner tables and backstreet food stalls, where Bourdain not only delved courageously into abundant and outrageously varied food and drink, but also into the politics, history and grassroots culture of the places he visited.
Bourdain was the type of guy every writer wants to meet (and be). I remember feeling a moment of grief when I heard he had done a show in Buenos Aires and I felt as if I’d missed a chance to see if I couldn’t, perhaps, meet him and talk to him for a while. I would have liked to have gotten to know him well enough to call him Tony.
But writers, I think, must have also envied him his powers of observation—a kind of radar that seemed to come on automatically as soon as he touched down in yet another country—and his ability to take those observations and mold them into a powerful, accurate, yet pleasant and compelling portrait of the places he visited.
In my own case, I couldn’t help also envying him his gig, not so much the part that concentrated on typical cuisines and how they were made, but surely the part where he stood up from the table, walked the streets in the company of locals, and described so eloquently what he saw, smelled, felt and heard. He was, without a doubt, a traveler, not a tourist, a philosopher, not an investigator, and he did a full immersion course in every culture in which he found himself, literally, breaking bread with the world.

But the pieces he crafted were never travelogues per se.  Clearly, it was more literature than TV show. Like an audiovisual version of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. His competition was never other foodies, but the memory of other great TV travelers who preceded him, like CBS roving correspondent Charles Kuralt, or “the world’s foremost globetrotter” and 1950s CBS TV personality Lowell Thomas.
From the time I had watched Thomas as a boy and Kuralt as a teen, there was a voice inside me that told me that this was what I wanted to be, a traveler and writer. Seeing Bourdain’s show brought that longing back, made me want to be on the road again. Numerous times over the years, I’ve longed to put aside my other journalistic activities, the politics and the financials, and write about what really matters in life: the people, places and customs of different world cultures, what we all have in common and what sets us apart.
Few have done that as well as Anthony Bourdain. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A BRILLIANT SHORT-LIVED WRITER WITH AN UNLIKELY NAME: PANCAKE



On April 8th, Palm Sunday, 1979, Breece Pancake went to Mass. In recent days, he had been giving a lot of his stuff away. Things he figured he wouldn’t be using anymore.
These things that he gifted to others included some of his guns. Like a lot of boys who grew up in the Appalachian hills and hollows of West Virginia, Breece had long been a hunter, though often a repentant one, with a real sensitivity for nature and a mind well attuned to the existence and lives of critters of all sorts that inhabited the hills of his homeland along with him.
But he didn’t give all of his guns away. One in particular, a Savage over-and-under shotgun, he kept with something like aforethought and intention.
Breece D'J Pancake
A few hours after that Palm Sunday Mass, Breece Pancake used that Savage shotgun to blow his own brains out. He was twenty-six and almost famous. But not quite. And so ended the life of a brilliant writer, who surely had compelling stories left to tell, but who decided—selfishly in the estimation of those of us familiar with his work, I’m sure—to leave behind only a tiny legacy of extremely well-crafted literature.
For the brief “quarter of an hour” that Breece was almost famous, he signed his work as Breece D’J Pancake. The pen name was the result of one of his first great successes, the 1977 publication in The Atlantic Monthly of a story of his entitled Trilobites. When the magazine printed the story up, there was a typo in his name, in which he included his middle two initials (for Dexter John). Breece liked how that out-of-place apostrophe looked and decided not to correct it. So, as if Pancake were not a unique enough name, the D’J in his nom de plume stuck—for the two years that he would live afterward and on his published works up to the present day.
Despite the deceptively back-woodsy settings and plots, and the simple style of Breece’s stories, he was not a self-made writer. Five years before his untimely death, he had received a BA in English from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. As a graduate student, he later attended the University of Virginia’s creative writing program, headed up by National Book Award-winning novelist John Casey and by Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist James Alan McPherson. With that education under his belt, he would later teach English at Virginia’s Fort Union and Staunton military academies.
Breece D’J Pancake was a short story writer. We’ll never know if he might ever have written a longer work. At the time of his death, his entire body of work comprised a dozen extraordinarily well-crafted short stories—six published in The Atlantic Monthly and another half-dozen only published posthumously. They are all anthologized in a thin volume entitled, simply, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (© Helen Pancake, 1983, pub. Brown-Little, available on Amazon).
In Trilobites, probably Pancake’s best known short story, the main character is stuck on a failing family farm that he doesn’t know how to leave or where else to go. The surrounding hills contain trilobite fossils (an extinct prehistoric marine organism from the time when the oceans covered vast expanses of the earth). The unfolding story of the protagonist, who feels stuck in the middle like the fossils he sought as a boy, takes us on a guided tour of the flood of emotions that assails him when his mother decides to sell the farm and move to Ohio. Why should he want to stay, he wonders, when he has no knack for farming and is merely overseeing the spread’s demise? But still...  I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round, the narrator says. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters.
Pancake delves into the despair and darkness of the poor mining and farming communities of his native West Virginia. It’s a rugged world of truck drivers, mechanics, waitresses, miners, river rats and hookers. But there is always an underlying feeling of discontent and longing mixed with an itch to move on and a taste for violence. There’s a tacit darkness and foreboding also, never as well expressed as in Time and Again, in which what appears at first glance to be the story of a lonely man whose hogs are his only company, ends up making us wonder if a stranger who hitches a ride on a snowplow hasn’t just had an unwitting brush with a serial killer.
But then too, there is a stunning sensitivity that challenges the brutality of the society he describes, like when he opens a scene by telling it from the viewpoint of a possum and her young, steering clear of the danger posed by all men, or when he makes a fox the real protagonist of a story in which hunters play the antagonists.
Breece has been compared to Hemingway, and indeed he admitted Hemingway’s influence on him. But this is Hemingway without the ego. This is a world inhabited by anti-heroes and confused characters, people for whom life is a baffling conundrum, as it very likely was for the author himself. The simple complexity of his writing is stunning and tears at your imagination, but also at your deepest fears, your deepest feelings and at your heart.
Other powerful writers who admit to being influenced by the incredible craft demonstrated in such a paltry body of work include such successful fiction writers as Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk and the acclaimed author of House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III.
Bestselling novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote the following in a letter sent to Breece’s former professor, John Casey, after the young writer took his own life: “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”
None of us will.