The entrance to hell is just a tiny hole in the ground,
The size of an old pecan, soul-sized, horizon-sized,
Thousands go through it each day before the mist clears
thousands one by one you’re next
There is a good story of Winston Churchill in the White House. After the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt declared war Churchill made steam for D.C. on the Duke of York, no doubt spilling bubbly all the way across the black waters of the North Atlantic. The story goes that on that first night, Inspector Thompson—who was Winston’s bodyguard—and Winston were alone in their room, scouting the various dangers, when they heard a knock at the door. Thompson opened the door to find Roosevelt alone in the hallway, in his wheelchair. Thompson wrote that he saw an odd look come over Roosevelt’s face. “I turned,” he recalled, and “Winston Churchill was stark naked, a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other.” Churchill did not cover up, but instead “walked around the room naked, sipping his drink, and now and then refilling the president’s glass.”
We may all be going through the hell hole, but some of us have done it with aplomb.
On a CH-46 helicopter the hell-hole is in the middle of the beast. Some time ago, on some other planet, we would line up inside the helicopter two minutes out from our target, which was usually a ship at sea, or an oil-platform. Then, one at a time, we’d grab the fast rope with welding gloves and descend through that screaming hole into whatever was waiting below. The sudden quiet was always interesting. Sometimes it was a helicopter pad on a Go-Plat at night, sometimes it was the top of a container stack on an enormous cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes it was the bridge-wing, or a sack of rotting dates on an Arab dhow. No one ever wanted to hang up in the hell-hole, which was easy to do with all of that gear, and weapons, and trepidation.
It was far better to simply slide on through the portal into whatever was coming next.
The most obviously present hell-hole today is the daily news. Today marks the worst weekly streak in the stock-market since 1932. That costs some of us. It’s akin to laying your balls on a wooden block and letting someone swing at them with a rubber mallet once a week for eight weeks running. You take the blow and spend a few days in the fetal position, perfectly aware that at least half of the country thinks you deserve it. They also think men can have babies. The good news for them is that every single policy espoused by the erstwhile president of the United States, who is naked in every way Churchill wasn’t, is designed to make the whackings and the suffering continue well into the unforeseen future.
This is me, shaking hands with thin air.
The souls get sucked through the hole, one by one. Of course, the losses are only real if you book them, but then again there is, in fact, a black hole in the center of our galaxy, from which nothing can escape. When the poet John Berryman leapt off a bridge in Minneapolis he was sober. He’d been largely drunk up until that morning but he was scarred forever by his own father’s suicide and probably every tall building looked something like a hell-hole.
He also didn’t hit the water. It was a hard landing on the banks of the Mississippi.
I spit upon this dreadful bankers grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn
which is at least some proof that actions have consequences, particularly on children. Meanwhile, he gave us The Dream Songs, which are among the finest collections of poems in modern English.
The western United States is running out of water. But don’t tell anyone. Also, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now wants to eliminate Brown Trout from the Deschutes River. They have their reasons, wrapped in cotton-wool. Speaking of rivers, this week I began a reread of Huckleberry Finn because I was walking by the bookshelf and it virtually leapt into my hands. It’s hard to read the book now without hearing an army of woke nitwits chanting in the ether. Which probably means they are winning.
Secretary Mayorkas: “I don’t have that information Senator, but I will get it to you.”
CIA Director George Tenet: “I don’t have that information Senator, but I will get it to you.”
In my salad days, which lasted well into my thirties, I wore Tony Lamas, Panhandle Slims with pearlsnap buttons, Levis, and a leather jacket that was worn in all the correct places. I could get all of my gear into the back of a pickup in 15 minutes. I had safe-houses and stash-houses scattered to strategic corners of the desert. I would drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Montgomery Pass, Nevada, starting at midnight. I did that because the only other people on the road were truckers and I had a CB and we would talk about things of concern to midnight travelers hauling their various loads. I was a kind of refugee from graduate school and I kept a Sig P226 under the seat, but in those days I couldn’t have hit the broad side of the Titanic from the dock. I bought that pistol through a store window, with a hamburger and fries, in Flagstaff.
I’d roll through the hell-hole of Las Vegas jamming Jack Kerouac’s jazz-poetry classic Pull My Daisy on a cassette tape and smoking Marlboro Reds. I was trying on all kinds of things in those days and I still had a full head of hair and a great hat I picked up in Strawberry, Arizona, and steamed into shape over a wonky kettle in the kitchen of my pad in the trees south of Flagtown. When I started nodding into the rumble strips north of Mercury Test Site I’d pull off into the desert, make a camp, and sleep for a while under a Tijuana blanket. Then I’d get up, brush my teeth in a canteen cup, and keep driving through the desert with a cold buckskin from the cooler. I did not believe there was anything better on earth than driving through the Amargosa Desert early in the morning in a truck without air conditioning or power steering, with the windows down, a fresh pack of cigarettes in my shirt pocket, a Zippo freshly soaked with Ronsonol, and my saddle in the back. I’d spend a few days with my grandfather gathering cattle or branding or whatever was going on in Queen Valley and eating from paper plates loaded with cowboy beans, pickles, and French bread while standing up in the narrow and dingy kitchen of his bunkhouse. Outside, Boundary Peak shot 13k feet into the sky and glowed in the starlight as though it had been transplanted from the Swiss Alps. I’d pester him about cowboying in Argentina, and Mexico, about fighting in Bougainville, and Iwo Jima, about all of those lovely girls in Australia. Evenings we’d drive down to the corrals with toothpicks and a stash of drinks. We’d park in the purple dusk and sit in the cab watching a corral full of bulls fighting it out — listening to the LA Dodgers playing through the pickup radio.
In the morning, when I left, he’d fill my pickup from the ranch pump in payment for my labors, and tell me to write when I found work.
I’m out of pithy cultural insights. My oracle medicine runneth out. The tea leaves are just tea leaves, the chicken bones merely chicken bones. We have landed where I thought we would some five years ago, when Cornelius and I sat in lawn chairs on the porch of his office at The Nugget considering this project. Now what? My good using horse is injured and can never work cows again. Jim Harrison wedged himself into that pecan-shaped hole in the ground and isn’t coming back. Great portions of Texas are on fire. I already mentioned the geniuses who want to kill brown trout in the Deschutes.
My friend Donley Watt wrote a book called Can You Get There From Here? which seemed timely then and even more so now. We bonded over a question of green onions. We were together at an event, chatting about the kind of life where men wear boots and try to write things about a life where people wear boots and get dirty and know about things other than computers and memery. A woman approached and wondered if she could use the tops of green onions in her cooking. It was a weird question and perhaps meant to be flirtatious. I don’t know how it came up. It was weird then and it is weird now. Donley and I looked at each other, silently and internally appalled, and had another round of drinks.
The first line of Thomas McGuane’s genius work, Ninety Two in the Shade is this: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic…”. I am heartened that McGuane was having those questions in the long ago, when his manuscripts kept getting rejected by morons and landing with a thud through the mail slot, and I’m glad he decided to simply say it out loud. He also penned the terrific line from The Missouri Breaks, and put it in Brando’s mouth for the world to hear: “Granny’s tired now.”
She was tired then, and she is exhausted now.
Last week, in Montana, I kept borrowing a line from that same film: “I’m in the implement business, up in the Shonkin Range,” I’d say, to anyone who would listen, which only my wife understood because she is aware of my obsessions and I remain grateful she laughed. I would imagine Mme Zelensky over in Kiev gets an earful every evening. I wonder if she knew about her husband’s brass balls before the nuptuals, or was just pleasantly surprised when the rocket barrages started falling on churches and hospitals and Soviet armor started rolling across the border to liberate the world’s black-earth breadbasket from imaginary Nazis.
Meantime, Huck and Jim are still drifting downriver on a raft with those jackanapes The King and The Duke, who just swindled an entire town out of their money with an exclusive–two-nights only– presentation of The Royal Nonesuch. I close my eyes and listen to the river and the clatter of steamboats in the mist, smoking a pipe and sitting alone with Huck and Jim down on that janky raft. Jim is tired because he spends his days dressed up in a garish costume holding a sign that reads: “Sick Arab–but harmless when not out of his head.”
It’s meant to throw the slavers off our trail.