“Mister, nobody but a fool would go into the rocks after a wounded Apache.” Con Conagher
Enjoying the pandemic much? That’s a fair question because so far, from my little combat outpost where I sit and dream of a former life — when I thought I was Con Conagher — we seem to be collectively overdoing the doom. Don’t get me wrong, I take this virus very seriously, as I would any potentially fatal illness, but there is a noticeable absence of optimism in the air. It reminds me of the gloomy little trader’s post where Conagher tried to trade some rifles for beans and coffee — it’s just a little too dark, a little too cold, and a little too unfriendly.
I drove into town this morning – we are good on supplies but I wanted to drop some eggs and meat off to a friend of ours who isn’t, and also to patrol the aisles of our local market – Rays. The market was in much better shape than I had anticipated though the plebians had utterly ransacked the bread aisle. All that remained was a package of hot dog buns, a loaf of some bizarre looking seven-grain bread, and a pile of gluten free something or other. Six feet away there was bread flour stacked both high and deep which should tell you everything you need to know about what Americans have become.
Also, the puffy jacketed stewards of our environment – and there is a small army of angry little Greta’s marching around the rimrock of central Oregon — had not spared the shit-paper aisle. It’s notable that the concerns formerly afforded us in our luxury seem, many of them, to have disappeared. Two weeks ago the government of Oregon was still actively trying to destroy the timber industry – and therefore all future shipments of shit paper — with a cap and trade bill. Fortunately the tonsured hypocrites in Salem were prevented from selling indulgences — but they’ll be back on that crusade when this nightmare finally ends.
Also, we don’t hear much about all of those children stuffed into cages on the Mexican border anymore.
Ever the opportunist, and enjoying my walkabout, I noticed a sale on pistachios and so grabbed a couple of bags. I like to eat them in the evening in front of the television where NBC is now virtually indistinguishable from Putin’s favorite channel: Russia Today. Also, I grabbed a bunch of bananas. Who can pass on good bananas? The bananas looked healthy though I suppose some other wandering pleb could have sneezed all over them before I got there.
One nice touch in Rays was the hand-sanitizer at the checkout counter. I rubbed it all over my debit card, dabbed a little on my balls and behind my ears, and then stuffed my stuff in the mandatory bag we all have to carry around our necks like dogtags – despite the under-publicized fact that at least two epidemics have been traced back to reusable bags. I’m not even making that up.
Still, we await word from Emperor Brown on the emergency supply of bread and the possible resurrection of single-use plastics. I tried to make a joke about all that with the checkout guy but it fell flat. One, I’m not that funny and two, he was clearly in no mood. He sees every customer as a pulsating bag of puss and pestilence.
One bright note was a phone call I received this morning from my great friend Mark Solomon. Mark is a welder and travels all over the western United States welding the hell out of things. His company builds tanks mostly, big municipal tanks for desert municipalities who will still be short of water — a lot short — when the virus craze passes. That has to do with diminishing returns but I’m triaging the various existential crises and prolonged drought has been bumped down to a yellow tag. Mark’s son is six and learning to handle a 410. He likes to hunt birds with his dad, and tries hard all week not to get his name written up on the chalkboard by the scowling school marm types who have historically tried to prevent anything resembling fun in America’s schools.
At any rate, Mark is presently working down in Kern County, on the dusty streets of Bakersfield, and we had a great talk about what he is seeing out there on the highways and biways of Buck Owens America. What Mark sees is working people still working hard: construction guys, truck drivers, tank builders, linemen, roughnecks, the backbone of the whole damn thing who, should they not show up to work, would leave the rest of us utterly and truly fucked.
Mark and me were buckaroos together out on the big deserts of Nevada. Once, we drove up to Oregon to do some daywork on the Circle G Ranch out of Jacksonville. We helped brand and vaccinate and drank a bunch of whiskey. Up in the main house Bill Bass, who was once a bullpen catcher for the Dodgers and then became a ranch manager, had a Royal Flush his father had drawn while playing poker on the mess deck of a liberty ship during World War 2. The winning hand was framed and hanging on the wall, the cards fanned out as he had held them on his way to combat with the Imperial Japanese Army. His luck held true and he made it home to his family.
The Circle G was a nice little ranch and Bruce Campbell, whose brilliant turns in Army of Darkness and Bubba Ho Tep should by now have secured him a lifetime achievement Oscar, had his own outfit up the road. Even farther up the road Sam Elliott, Con Conagher himself, had a little spread. I kept looking up in that direction hoping I’d see old Sam come whistling our way, but timing has never been my strong suit.
Mark and I were really just saddle bums then and — as it turned out — extras for a little film project called Cows in the Road, which was being produced by some gal whose bonafides escape me. She knew somebody that knew somebody and kept giving us the side eye, as if we stunk a little bit like horse sweat or cow shit, or maybe both, so we didn’t linger too uncomfortably long around the film types. We went down to the barn where there was an absolutely perfect, and essential, rope swing hanging from the rafters. Without much encouragement but with plenty of liquor on board Mark, who is an enormous human being, went flying around on that rope swing and it remains one of my favorite images of all time — this enormous cowboy flying through the air and whooping it up for all he was worth.
I bring all of that up because Mark’s call was a reminder to me about optimism. He was upbeat and brought some levity to the whole damned and dour virus scandal. Optimism used to be an American trait, and sometimes we forget how awfully important it actually is. You don’t win at Guadalcanal or Carentan without deep draughts of it.
Also, a sense of humor goes some distance. Just today, while watching another breathtaking episode of what Jim Cornelius calls “Donald Reading to the Class,” I heard one of the White House Correspondents try to start a fight over whether or not we are allowed to call this whole virus mess “Chinese”. It was a stupid question, a waste of everyone’s time, but it reminded me of my grandfather’s retort, when my dad asked him why my grandmother (like many of the WW2 era women) had so much “Chinese shit” decorating their house. My grandfather replied, without breaking stride: “Why do we have to call all of this shit Chinese?”
My grandfather never drew a Royal Flush, so far as I know, but he too survived combat tours against the extremely mean-spirited Japanese Army.
At any rate, I’m at home with a fine bunch of bananas, and aiming high for real optimism though I’ve got just a touch of the Rope Swing Blues. When I close my eyes I can still see Mark swinging through that barn, hollering for all his life with joy, and I can still taste the cold Coors and hear old Buck Owens, turned all the way up as we bombed through the high desert with the windows down, looking for anybody who’d let us ride, and rope, and chase their bastard cows off into the sunset.