15 November 2014

Revisionist Westerns - The Homesman

Having been engaged in other work all summer, I get to Fall and yet again it seems to be Westerns on every side, or "revisionist" Westerns, as the current term dictates.

The latest is "The Homesman" directed and starring Tommy Lee Jones, but few notices I've seen mention the brains and craft behind the story - the novelist Glendon Swarthout 1918-1992.

Like a shadow of his subject matter, the man has been a long time gone, and yet he still exerts a pull that can only be admired. Not for him the glossy and pasteurised vision of the Old West. From Swarthout's West came The Shootist, Bless The Beasts And Children, They Came To Cordura and a whole lot more. 

The Homesman takes its water from the same creek as Thomas Eidson's The Missing, even The Unforgiven, in that I'll read it, watch it, muse on it, and be grateful I don't live in the time when such decisions had to be borne almost alone.

5 July 2014

The Revenge Western on Screen...and Paper

It seems that among movie men the Revenge Western - is this truly a sub-genre? - is flavour of the month, or at least of 2015. Coming up there's Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, Jane's Got A Gun and In The Valley of Violence. Meanwhile, By Way Of Helena sees an 1880s Texas Ranger locking horns with a fundamentalist preacher, while waaaay back in the 1820's a bear- and man-mauled fur trapper becomes The Revenant.

While By Way Of Helena was written for the screen, The Revenant comes from Michael Punke's 2003 novel, or faction, based on the experiences of Hugh Glass. A member of The Rocky Mountain Fur Company, after being mauled he was subsequently robbed and left for dead by the two men supposedly caring for him, John Fitzgerald and a young Jim Bridger.

Y'know, I can see that one being a Revenge Western, even though we know that Jim Bridger became an "old" Jim Bridger. Dead Men's Fingers might be in good company.

15 June 2014

Navajo Code Talkers of WW2

I've just read that Chester Nez was laid to rest earlier this month. May his God and his ancestors welcome him. 

We were in Albuquerque in 2008, early to breakfast in our hotel but not early enough to be first down. A group of men, wearing distinctive red caps and gold-coloured jackets, and sporting an array of silver and turquoise jewellery, were sitting at a table talking in a mixture of English and what I suspected was Diné. Not until I was returning with my tray did I read the lettering embroidered across the backs of their jackets. The Navajo Code Talkers Association from WW2 was having a reunion.

As they readied to leave, we went across to say hello. It was a short meeting, friendly, they wanting to know where we were from, where we were going, offering suggestions of what we should see on our travels. We returned to that hotel the next year, and the next, and the next, always in the same month, meeting them again and again. We became their joke “They’re following us!” while our smiles hid the knowledge that the number round their table was dwindling.

The last time we also met them by chance outside a bookstore in Albuquerque’s Old Town. “You are following us!” Although other books have been written about the exploits of the Code Talkers, It Had To Be Done was produced by themselves from their own interviews to help fund their Association. 

Some of it makes grim reading, and not for the most obvious reasons. Chester Nez tells of being in a government boarding school about the age of ten, of being beaten for speaking his native tongue when he hardly understood a word of ‘Anglo’. Yet in 1942 that same government, in the guise of the Marine Corps, drew together 29 Navajo men, including Chester Nez, and locked them in a room. Their instruction was to create a verbal code for use in radio transmissions based on that same despised language. 

The rest is bound into the history of Guadalcanal, Iwa Jima, Guam, Peleliu and others too many to mention. Their code was never broken, and was even used in Korea and Vietnam – by Navajo, who were the only ones who could use it.

The Navajo Code Talkers Association  

A movie based on the exploits of the Navajo Code Talkers was made in 2002 entitled Windtalkers.  

With the code’s success, other Native American languages were utilized by the US forces, including that of the Commanche in the D-Day Landings.

26 January 2014

January Disputes in the Old West

It might have been cold, but the weather never seemed to stop a man once his blood was up.

It was in mid January 1836 that Sam Houston sent Col. Jim Bowie and twenty-five men to San Antonio. What followed became history, became legend. Ten years later President Polk sent Gen. Taylor and 4,000 troops to the Texas border as war with Mexico loomed, and we know what happened after that.

They may have involved less men, but new-found mining deposits fuelled both disputes and organised crime, and in turn saw the rise of the Vigilance Committee. Virginia City, MontanaTerritory, had a lynching in 1864 of five members of The Innocents, including Jack Gallagher, a deputy sheriff. It wasn’t much better in the aptly named Hell’s Gate.

Disputes of a more personal nature were the norm, and we may never know of their extent or regularity.

In 1876, in Mobeetie (Sweetwater), Texas, Bat Masterson was dancing with a saloon girl when an army corporal from nearly Fort Elliot took offence. The woman, Mollie Brennan, died when the corporal opened fire. Bat Masterson was wounded before shooting the man dead, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

In 1896 Albert Jennings was travelling with his eight year old son from Lincoln, New Mexico Territory, to his home near Las Cruces, but both were murdered along the way, the bloody scene but no bodies being discovered later. Talk was that notorious outlaw Black Jack Ketchum was to blame, but many looked to Oliver Lee, noted rancher, land developer and part-time Deputy US Marshall. No one was ever charged with the Albert Jennings' murder, and those charged with his son’s murder were acquitted. It was one of a number of incidents that contributed to the region's lawless reputation and delayed its statehood until 1912.

11 January 2014

Enjoying the Weather, Back in the Day

January is with us already. I hope you are coping with the weather, wherever you are pitched. I thought I’d start the year by looking back aways and the weather seemed a good place to start.

The first item I found was from January 2nd 1862: waters from the Colorado and Gila rivers flooded Arizona Territory between Fort Yuma and Pilot Knob. Reflecting more of today, on January 9th, 1875 in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, the temperature fell to -38F. It wasn’t much better ten years later in Bismark, Dakota Territory, where it was reputedly -35F at noon.

We might grumble into our coffee about what’s outside our window, but we sure need to give thanks for modern clothing and houses, and think of those who made the best of what they had. I wouldn't want to change places.

Image "Prospect Park, Niagra Falls" c1893-1902
By Keystone View Company -- Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

24 December 2013

Sending Friends & Neighbors Seasonal Greetings

Whether you are surrounded by family or riding a lone trail, take a moment to gaze at the stars. Be humbled, and grateful for their presence. One of them shines on you.

May the New Year bring a peace of spirit and a determination to do good in this world.


24 November 2013

The Englishman Who Brought the Grand Canyon to the World

When the first US government survey team set eyes on the Grand Canyon its leader reported that the region was “altogether valueless”. When Fred Harvey saw it less than forty years later, he knew it would make him a fortune.

Fred Harvey was a man of vision. He left England in 1850, a fifteen year old seeking his fortune in an America gripped by gold-rush fever, but he got no further than pot-washing in a New York restaurant. He learned fast, though, most notably how the emerging middle class aspired to a luxury lifestyle, and he became determined to provide it for them. 

His own first restaurant fell foul of the American Civil War, but with the cessation of hostilities he joined one of the new cross-continental railroads, immediately seeing how the provision of good quality fare at restaurants and hotels enroute would benefit passengers, the railroad and, most importantly, himself. The Fred Harvey Company was born.

A fastidious man, Fred Harvey was appalled by the conduct of his male waiting staff drawn from the cow-towns of what, in the 1880s, was the height of the Wild West. He advertised in eastern newspapers for young women, 18 to 30 years old, of good character, attractive and intelligent and paid a stunning salary of $17.50 a month, all found. His specially trained ‘Harvey Girls’, attired in black with a white apron, reminiscent of the staff attendant in an English tearoom, brought a sought-after decorum to long distance travelling just as the West was opening up to a new industry – tourism.

Fred Harvey understood the merits of preserving the landscape and the way of life of its indigenous peoples, even to the extent of organising ‘Indian Detours’, a forerunner of the cultural tourism we know today. If the participants weren’t always authentic, few patrons knew the difference.

The Grand Canyon, the prize of the Southwest, beckoned. By the late 1890s it could be reached by stagecoach from the nearest railhead at Flagstaff, but that took a bone-jarring eleven hours with little in the way of comfort to greet travellers who managed to reach the south rim. When a spur line was mooted, Fred Harvey decided he’d have a hotel of splendour to meet it. Alas, he died in 1901, not living to see it open. 

El Tovar, early 1900s
The rustic El Tovar, built in the style of a European hunting lodge in stone and spruce, remains the Grand Canyon’s most prestigious hotel, its elegant entranceway a few steps from the rail terminus and a mere 20 feet from one of the most awe-inspiring views in the world. If you want a room there mid-season, you’d better consider booking it two years in advance.

The Fred Harvey Company finally took possession of all concessionaires on the rim when the Grand Canyon was granted National Park status in 1919, and the ethos of its founder has been preserved ever since. There are no garish billboards or signage, no tacky gift shops or litter. Even the pernicious automobile, just beginning its ascendancy when Fred Harvey died, has been contained by some judicious planning and the use of a free low-emissions shuttle bus service. 

There are still horses, of course, or at least sure-footed mules, waiting to take the adventurous down to the Colorado River. Even in Fred Harvey’s time Bright Angel Trail had enough of a draw for a photographer’s studio to be sited on its lip. Kolb Studio still stands guard and is now a bookshop and exhibition hall showing many of the Kolb brothers’ early photographs.

Every visitor, then or now, wants to witness a sunset over the Canyon, to try to capture on camera the changing colours of the buttes and mesas as they turn through pinks and reds to hues of mauve and purple.

If dusk is full of shared murmurs of awe and the clicking of digital cameras, a dawn is full of silent reverence as small groups gather on the overlooks for the first glimpse of the Canyon bathed in the light of a new day. No one says a word. Hardly a breath is taken as the ambient light rises to reveal skeins of pale mist woven around the ghostly shapes of rock formations millions of years old. In a diamond flash, sunlight breaks the horizon and the piercing rays slowly make their way one mile down to illuminate the hiking trails and ultimately the Colorado River.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fred Harvey gives you… The Grand Canyon