A Life in Shreds and Patches, Chapter 1: In Search of a Vocation, Part E
Movies and radio programs furnished the structure and raw materials for the games we played, day after day throughout the Summer. Somewhere we got hold of some building materials and, with a few nails and a bit of rope, constructed “horses.” I had a particular favorite that had a red streak of heartwood which I imagined to be the mane. We “rode” all over the neighborhood in gangs of rustlers and sheriff’s posses, endlessly forming, dissolving, and reforming alliances, each one of us imagining we were Roy or Gene or Hoppy. And if we were not acting out our cowboy dramas, we were playing “men.” We spent hours arranging plastic soldiers in various positions where once time was called, we would try to agree who could shoot whom. The real fighting was between the generals setting up the “men,” and I am not sure we ever finished a battle.
Parents frequently wonder what goes on in the minds of their children. It is as if in growing up and leaving home, they somehow underwent both metamorphosis and amnesia and as butterflies no longer recognize kinship with the caterpillars we bring into the world. If they could only remember, they would begin to understand how quickly the child’s mind is sucked into a vortex of group fantasy, how easy children accept as immutable some fantastic rule they only made up the day before, how quickly they slip into a regimented alignment of insiders and outsiders, hostiles and friendlys, winners and losers, and they could spot the telltale signs, when their kids adopt the Goth look or hint mysteriously of the undead or exchange emails about the Slender Man who lives in the Nicolet forest of Northeastern Wisconsin.
We never slipped into any territory more dangerous than the Wild West or World War II, though I do remember, at about the age of twelve, a strange fascination for Dracula movies. What would it have taken—some popular newcomer in school, a TV show, a role-playing game—to have pushed some of us over the edge? I don’t know. However, when I saw the Bunuel film, Exterminating Angel, about a dinner party that none of the guests can escape, I recognized that hallucinatory world of long ago. As the days go by, two of the lady guests start meeting in a small bathroom where they flush the toilet that leads mysteriously to the outside world. Watching the film, I felt as if I were at the dawn of a religious cult.
Stick horses grew stale, and I quickly got over my Western delusions. Horses were all right in the books of Walter Farley, but up close they seemed stupid and temperamental. Years later, as I learned some modern Greek, I approved the abandonment of the classical hippos in favor of alogo—“the irrational.” The few “cowboys” I met—the men who worked at a riding stable we could visit by cutting through the woods—were not cast in the heroic mold, though they did teach the boys in my neighborhood how to roll a tight cigarette with one hand. That skill, which would undoubtedly prove useful in the late 1960’s, was not enough to counter-balance the obvious disadvantages of poverty, ignorance, and alcoholism. The stable hands and riding instructors were probably not a fair sampling of the breed, but they were the only working cowboys I was likely to run into.
Not wanting to be a cowboy is still a rather open-ended category. I could narrow it down by a few more negatives: I did not want to go into business, and I did not want to be a doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief. In the movies, at least, cowboys usually had the best of their encounters with the noble red men.
As everyone is supposed to know, we all hated and despised Indians in the bad old days. They were all filthy thieving savages. If you wish to hold onto this impression, be careful not to watch western movies or radio and television shows, where Indians come in every variety, from “filthy thieving savages” to “faithful companions like Tonto or Fennimore Cooper’s Chingachgok, to noble warriors fighting for their people, most notably Cochise in Delmer Daves’ 1950 Broken Arrow and the television series based on the film. Even Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers is worthy of respect, and it is the Indian-hating Ethan (John Wayne) whose stability is suspect.
In most parts of the United States, you could live forever without running into Indians, but in Northern Wisconsin, it was difficult to avoid them. Some of my Italian friends, brought up on the fantasies of “Carlo” Mai, were fascinated by “i Pellerossa” (the redskins) and envied me the chance to meet these exotic primitives. It was if I had been abducted by space aliens. They were no more naive than I was, in imagining that Sicily was dominated by princes, peasants, and noble men of honor. As a young boy, I was given a large picture book on the Plains Indians, and to this day I retain rather mythic notions about the Cheyenne and the Sioux. Sam Houston, whose favorite reading was the Iliad, acted on a similar fantasy and went to live with the Cherokee, whom he regarded as latter-day Ajaxes and Achilles.
Most of the Indians in Superior kept themselves fairly separate from the White community, though there was a family—ironically named White—whose kids went to public school, and who knows how many people bearing French names were really part Indian? My father always claimed that a fairly well to do family named St. Orange had to be Indian, an observation from which it would be unfair to draw any conclusion except that he knew a lot of Indians. In the bar of the hotel he managed, he violated the law by permitting an Ojibwa “chief” to drink. The chief, who worked hard in the shipyard, was a good man who could hold his liquor, a gift not given to all his people. Indians are worse than the Irish, and I have just enough Irish blood to understand what a curse that is.
These days, whether for good or ill, nearly half of Wisconsin’s Indian population resides in urban areas. In the 1950’s, in the Northwest at least, they still tended to live on reservations. The Lac Court d’Oreilles reservation (Ojibwa), which was and is still near Hayward, was only a bit more than an hour away.
My father had a friend on the Reservation, known to the family only as Jake. Jake was a first rate fishing guide, and perhaps once or twice year, we would drive down to the Res and go fishing with Jake. I don’t recall exactly where we fished but it was probably some part of the Chippewa Flowage, created by damming several rivers that flowed from lake to lake. The land could not be developed, apart from little clusters of houses that had been grandfathered in after the flowage was created, since both the Reservation, which owned one side and the power company, which owned the other had pledged not to build. The Flowage is still a great place to fish, especially for walleyes and muskies.
My sister Kathleen, who was bright, talented, and fond of charming men of any age, always got to sit with Jake, while I had to sit disconsolate on the other side of the boat, not catching fish trolling with worms or minnows, not catching fish casting spoons, plugs, or bucktails. As a little brother, I exercised my right to whine that it was unfair that she got to sit on the good side of the boat. Jake, without ever changing the expression on his face, would with good humor switch sides, and no sooner did my sister cast from the unlucky side than she caught a big walleye.
Eventually, Jake would sit with me and I would catch my share of fish. Indians, as my father would later explain, have a tremendous sense of humor, but their biggest leg-pulls or most extravagant jokes are always with told with a stone-faced deadpan that took in the Whites every time. When we had enough, my father would drive all of us up to our house in Superior, where Jake would sit in the breakfast nook at the end of the kitchen and clean and cook the fish, sautéeing the fillets and making a wonderful white chowder out of the scraps. The cleaning took forever, and I would hang around pestering him with questions about hunting, fishing, and life on the Res, about which I had the haziest idea. Jake would then—deadpan as always—tell me that Indians made leather moccasins out of fish skin, which had to be scraped very carefully.
When I pleaded, “Show me how, Jake,” he took the skin off a big fish—a Northern, as I recall—and, after showing me how to scrape it, set me at the kitchen counter, where I could not bother him. Every ten or fifteen minutes, I brought the skin to show him what progress I had made. “Oh, you have to do a lot more.”
I have always admired men and women who could do well what I do only do badly or not at all, so long as what they did was worth doing, wheth9er catching fish or finding the way through the woods, riding horses or training dogs, making bread or tortelli, speaking Russian or crafting a line of verse. Naturally I wish I could shoot like my father (or Jeff Cooper), cook like my wife (or Ada Boni), deliver quips like Joe Sobran (or G.K. Chesterton), but far from envying any of them their proficiency in skills I have only imperfectly developed, I take joy in reflecting on their successes. Some talented or brilliant writers, it is true, can be spiteful, petty, and envious, but most of the accomplished people I know have been, if not precisely humble, then magnanimous, which is inadequate Latin-English for the Greek megalopsychos. When second-raters are faced with talent, they respond first by envying and then by doing everything to dragging the man of talent or genius down to their own level. Some, like Iago, do it through innuendo and gossip; others through conspiracy and sabotage in the profession; still others write book reviews and learned articles that reduce, say, Walker Percy to the level of a conventional academic leftist.