When my friend Ron loaned me this book a few years back, knowing I’m a huge fan of Garrison Keillor’s stellar radio work, he said, “I loved these stories.” Despite that endorsement, the book sat on my “to read” pile in my writing studio for quite a while. This fall, I finally took up Ron’s challenge and dug in. Man, what a disappointment!
As is true with some, though relatively few, of Keillor’s radio monologues over the years, this book is simply tedious, sophomoric, and really shouldn’t be on anyone’s bookshelf. It pains me to write such words about a person I consider to be our generation’s Will Rogers; a humorist for the ages. But as I slogged my way through silly story after silly story filled with breasts and boogers and vignettes without meaning or plot or commanding characters, I kept thinking, There must be something more here, something I’m missing. Nope.
I was going to include a passage from one of the stories here as an exemplar of what I’m trying to tell you, kind reader. But as I searched the stories in this collection, I couldn’t pinpoint one sentence or paragraph to sum up my disappointment in the man, who for more than a decade, has provided my morning writerly inspiration through A Writer’s Almanac, first as a part of MPR, and now, as a podcast. Finishing this book reminded me that once upon a time, Garrison had ditched his PHC crew and taken to the road to read excerpts from Mark Twain, foregoing the monologues and music that made PHC a Saturday evening staple for so many listeners in favor of trying to prove something to the world. I caught that show with my wife and Ron and his wife at the Big Top and you know what? I was disappointed then as well.
Not everyone is perfect.
1 star out of 5. Ron wants his book back and I can’t understand why.
It started with a text. Patrick “Poncho” Scott texted me sometime after out annual Whiteface Fishing Opener, an event the Munger and Scott families have shared for more than fifty years. The gist of the message was “We should do a Munger/Scott pheasant hunting trip.” I replied that his suggestion had merit but didn’t do anything immediately to put Poncho’s plan into action.
Sometime in late summer, I sent my sons and Poncho and his older brother Tim a text asking if there was any interest in trying southwestern Minnesota as a locale for a Munger/Scott outing. With COVID raging and work obligations, none of the three Munger sons who are hunters committed to a trip in the fall. Poncho and Tim were both “in” and the planning began.
“What about Marshall?” Tim texted sometime in August. “Sounds good,” was my curt reply. See, the thing is, we never, until the day to leave for hunting dawned close, actually chatted the old fashioned way, on the telephone. No, despite all three of us being over sixty, we communicated the 21st century way-via text. Be that as it may, Tim did some preliminary map scouting and I arranged for a hotel stay for two nights, Sunday through Tuesday morning, at the Marshall AmericInn. Poncho’s son Christopher, who is newly married, Poncho’s Labrador Bailey, Tim’s Lab Ruby, and my Brittany Callie were slated to make the trip so I reserved two rooms through Expedia and the gig was on.
Given our schedules, we picked early December, Saturday the 4th through Tuesday the 7th to hunt public land, which Tim assured me there was plenty of around Marshall. We knew the roosters would be flighty, having escaped numerous brushes with death over the course of the Minnesota pheasant season. On the plus side, most bird hunters had cleaned their shotguns for the final time, tucked away their upland hunting garb, and ended their quest to put a rooster in the crock pot. We expected, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually alone in the field.
We were right.
Behind all the planning and texting and thinking through the short trip to Minnesota pheasant country was this truth: I’ve never, in fifty-five years since completing gun safety through the Boy Scouts, shot a Minnesota pheasant. I came late in life to the sport, having hunted ringnecks only once as a youngster with my father and godfather, Jim Liston, back when I was newly married and attending law school. I drove from the Inver Grove apartment I shared with René to the little farming community of Benson, MN where my uncle Paul lived. Paul, who’d had a heart attack and bested kidney cancer, no longer hunted but drove us to various locales in hopes of bagging roosters. If memory serves me right, my dad hit a hen by mistake and I believe that was the only bird we shot. Then, in my late fifties, my old man invited me to join him hunting pheasants in North Dakota, which is how I fell in love with the sport. That said, when I arrived at Tim and Sandi’s home outside the Twin Cities to stay the night, having never shot a pheasant in my native state, I was nervous that, despite the planning we’d done, our trip would be a bust.
I was wrong.
With Tim acting as my co-pilot, our two dogs crated, and the cargo area of my Jeep filled with guns, ammo, and our gear, we met up with Poncho in Marshall and proceeded to find Walk in Hunting, Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), and other places to chase roosters. Conditions were relatively mild; it was overcast and in the twenties when we exited the vehicles (Poncho and Bailey were in Poncho’s pick-up truck) and started our quest.
Not minutes into our first romp, Bailey rousted a big fat rooster in front of Poncho.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The only rooster we put up on that piece of land flew away unharmed.
The second location we hunted turned out to be a dandy, at least for Tim. While I skirted a creek, Tim and Poncho and their dogs worked a frozen marsh.
Tim had the first Minnesota rooster of our trip in the bag. But that, other than Callie and Ruby chasing up a few hens, was it for that slice of pheasant heaven.
Working a dry slough the dogs kicked up a rooster. Tim shot. I shot. The bird flew on. I pulled the trigger a second time on my Stevens 555 twelve over/under and the bird went down. Callie, who’d pointed the pheasant like a champ, is only a year and a half old and still learning to retrieve so I called Ruby over to find the bird. Nothing. Tim was convinced the bird, hit but not dead, had run into thicker cattails. We sent the dogs in, with Poncho and Bailey working the far side of the rushes. Nothing. After a good half-hour of searching for the downed bird, we pushed on. I counted the missing pheasant as a bird in the bag despite my game pouch being empty. Tim agreed as his pup was the one unable to come up with the retrieve. But to be fair, Ruby was distracted from task when Callie flushed two hen pheasants from where we thought the wounded rooster was hiding.
“Look at that,” I said over a brutal wind, pointing across the mud flats of the dry pond. Not more than fifty yards away, a huge raccoon waddled, completely ignorant that it was being watched by men with guns. “Hope the dogs don’t see it.” They didn’t and within a few steps, Callie was back on point. Out of a small cluster of grass, a rooster exploded. I took aim and this time, there was no doubt.
We ate lunch in the field. I’d brought bread and cheese and ham and mustard for sandwiches, making them the night before at Tim’s, so we gobbled sandwiches and jerky and oranges, topping off our thirst with GatorAid. Back at it, we hunted a big Walk In area abutting a harvested field, the tall grass and marshes prime pheasant cover. That was the thing about the maps Tim printed out from the Minnesota DNR: nearly every spot listed as open to public hunting was a good one. Unlike some of the PLOTS land I’ve hunted in North Dakota, where private farmland is open for public hunting but farmers or ranchers till or graze the acreage (making it useless as bird cover) every piece of public land we hunted in Minnesota boasted excellent pheasant cover.
The three of us spread out to work the big Walk In area. The dogs kept their noses to the ground as we moved forward. Callie locked up hard on a tuft of grass just along the edge of the harvested field. A rooster cackled, took flight and, with one shot, was down. There was no need for a dog to retrieve the bird as it landed a few feet away but Callie seemed intent on bringing me the rooster. Except. She learned first hand about spurs. The rooster was on its back, feet and spurs clawing the air. I picked up the bird, snapped its neck, and slid the bird into my game vest. “Good girl, Callie,” I said, happy, if I included the lost bird, to have shot a Minnesota pheasant limit.
We ordered Pizza Hut pizza, sipped cold beer, and watched television in the room Tim and I were sharing as we nursed sore feet and muscles. The dogs snoozed on the queen beds in their respective hotel rooms. Oh. There was one small glitch with the hotel. Not with Expedia but with Poncho. First, a few days before our trip, Poncho let me know Christopher couldn’t come. I still figured we’d need two rooms anyway for three guys and three dogs. Second, as we checked into the hotel, Poncho let us know he had to work Tuesday. Which meant we only needed the second room for one night. I canceled the second night at the desk, but, because I’d prepaid, no refund. Even so, the trip was relatively inexpensive as hunting expeditions go.
Monday morning. The wind howled. A cold front dropped the temperature into the single digits. We bundled up, drove south of town, and worked the same Walk In area where we’d ended our Monday hunt. Despite seeing oodles of hens and roosters get up out of gun range the previous day, nothing flushed. We decided to try a WPA that, from the road, looked promising. There was iced-over water on a big pond surrounded by cattails and what looked to be very walkable bulrushes and grass. But soon into the hunt, our mistake became evident: there was no grass alongside the cattails; only thick, nearly impenetrable cattails lined the frozen water. It was a hard go. A few hens got up in front of the dogs before Callie went on point. A rooster flushed and cruised right over the spot where Tim should have been.
Except he wasn’t there. Tim had had enough but didn’t communicate his departure to Poncho or me.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked after calling Tim on my cell phone.
“Too thick. I gave up. I’ll meet you on the far side of the lake.”
Good to know, old buddy.
Poncho and I waded through the crap, chasing up another five hens, birds that Callie pointed and Bailey flushed. Nary a rooster was found. After our arduous trek, we met up with Tim. “That was a mistake,” was the common consensus, especially from me because, in trying to crash through jungle, I’d pulled my right hamstring and was limping. After our dubious exercise in poor judgment, Poncho and Bailey said farewell and Tim and I stayed at it.
The wind died a bit and we found another lovely piece of ground to hunt. In a plot of waist-high cattails, Callie went on point. I stepped forward. Callie moved slightly. I stepped again. Beneath the cattails, a rooster was running, its head ducked, a wing dragging behind it. “Wounded bird!” I yelled so Tim could hear me. Tim sent Ruby over to assist but the dogs were unable to pin the rooster.
We moved on.
We worked a drainage ditch and again, Callie went on point. A rooster flushed and scared the bejeebers out of me. I shot, thought I’d hit the bird but it was Tim who hit the pheasant broadside. With a fine retrieve by Ruby, Tim had his second rooster of the trip. We continued to work the Walk In area, pushing through dried swales and waterless ponds, flushing a few hens but no roosters. As the sun set on our second day in the field, we headed back to the Jeep. We came to the area where Callie had chased the wounded rooster and she became excited again. Then, she went on point. Then she moved. Went on another solid point. And moved. Her incremental pointing and creeping went on for ten minutes with the Brittany covering every square inch of cover in the half-acre plot we were working. Tim watched, thinking we were searching for the wounded pheasant again. I had no idea what was going on. When Callie finally locked solid and did not move a muscle, I took one step and a healthy rooster exploded from beneath my boot. One shot and the bird was down. Ruby ran across the prairie, found the dead bird, and brought it to Tim.
“Nice shot. I thought you guys were looking for that mythical wounded bird.”
“Always trust the dog,” was my patented, tongue-in-cheek reply.
“Two birds,” Tim said as we drove back to town in twilight. “Poncho should have stayed.”
That evening, I nursed my strained calf in the hotel hot tub as Tim took a shower and the dogs fell into the sort of deep sleep that comes from long, hard days afield. After getting dressed, we drove to Applebees for dinner and adult beverages, satisfied we’d hunted as hard as two old farts can hunt.
Tuesday morning. The temperature on the Jeep’s thermometer registered one above. We dressed, packed our lunches and our gear, and checked out of the motel. Marshall was covered in a soft, white blanket. More snow fell as we drove west. The first piece of land we found to hunt looked like a pheasant factory. But after working cattails (walkable and not a jungle), a big slough, and tall prairie grass, with Callie pointing her little heart out and Ruby working the edges of cover, the plot only revealed hens. “That was disappointing,” Tim said. Despite the two of us being retired and of social security age, we felt good enough to tackle another big plot of Walk In land that, on paper and from the road, looked to be great pheasant country.
“That was godawful,” I said when we got back to the truck, Callie having dragged me into yet another cattail marsh from hell. We’d managed to kick out a few hens from very thick cover but no cacklers rose before us. Though the setting seemed ideal, apparently the birds thought otherwise.
It then became a bit of a hide-and-seek exercise to find a place to hunt. We drove and drove and drove in search of another site but kept coming up empty. Much of our flailing around had to do with the fact that the DNR map Tim had printed out didn’t correspond with the reality of the landscape or my Jeep’s GPS map. After an hour or so of aimless wandering, just before dusk, we discovered one of the best, if not the best, pieces of hunting land available to the public in southwestern Minnesota. With the sun out and the wind down, we exited the Jeep for one last walk.
“You know,” Tim said as we loaded our shotguns for the final push, “we’ve put in nearly thirty miles on foot.”
“How many miles do you think Ruby and Callie have put in?
The interesting thing about our last hunt was that, until Tuesday, we’d seen only one or two other hunters out and about. We never had to forgo a spot we wanted to hunt because someone else was already there. The last piece of grass and marsh and ditch we hunted was an exception to this observation. As daylight grew scarce, as we grew more desperate for a place to end our hunt, we saw, as we pulled off the side of the road abutting the parcel we completed our journey on, that others had already worked the plot. From prints in the snow, it looked like two hunters and one dog had been in ahead of us. But, given the late hour of the day, and given we’d seen roosters moving in the fields now that the sun was out, we made the decision to forge ahead.
“Shit! Fuck! Good girl Callie,” was my uncensored cry after missing a big, fat Minnesota rooster my beloved Brittany pointed not ten feet in front of me.
“Nice language, Munger,” Tim quipped as he watched the pheasant fly off. Not long after that, Tim missed his own chance and repeated my mantra word for word, causing me to double over with laughter.
Working our way back to the Jeep, covering the last bit of dry cattail swale on the parcel, Callie and Ruby started going nuts, getting “birdy” as we hunters say. Then, the little Brittany locked up, her tail rigid, her eyes staring straight ahead. After a few seconds, a gorgeous rooster burst from cover. Tim shot. Once. Twice. The big bird flew on. I drew a bead, pulled the trigger, and hit the bird about thirty yards out. Ruby tore through the bullrushes, found the dead rooster, and brought it to Tim.
With that, our epic hunt was over.
Callie on Point
“I was pleasantly surprised,” was the common theme in the Jeep as we drove through darkness towards the Twin Cities. Tim had convinced me that Callie and I should spend the night at his house. Given my aching body, I yielded to Tim’s common sense. Sandi greeted us at the door, the smell of pizza wafting from the kitchen.
“There was better cover and more birds than I’d expected,” Tim said at various times during the three hour drive to his house. Our first pheasant hunt together was a scouting expedition, a learning experience, and an exploration of Minnesota pheasant country. The first ever Munger/Scott bird hunt wasn’t about how many birds we shot. It was about hunting an elusive and wily prey with old friends over great dogs in our home state.
The title of this essay references my infatuation with the David Gutterson novel, East of the Mountains, and actor Tom Skeritt’s portrayal of Gutterson’s protagonist in the film version of the story. In essence, Ben Givens (Skeritt’s character) finds out he has incurable cancer and decides to wander off into the vastness of the West in search of partridge with his Brittany. There’s an allusion or two to the ailing hunter taking the Hemingway approach to ending it all but thankfully, Dr. Ben doesn’t take that route.
With things all balled up politically, an aging mother who just lost her significant other and was due for a cognitive assessment likely to end her driving, and the hint of mortality whispering in my ear as the seasons turned, I set out to hunt pheasant with Kena (an eight year old black Lab) and Callie (a year and a half old Brittany).
The wisdom of a sixty-seven year old wandering about the prairie without human companionship is dubious. An old guy can stumble and break a leg. Or a hip. Or an ankle. Or have a heart attack or a stroke. Any manner of possible bad outcomes await a hunter foolish enough to venture out into the unknown on his or her own. The trip, one facilitated by the kindness of Mark and Brad, two guys I’d met along the way who open up the Miller ancestral farmhouse for me to use as a basecamp, wasn’t supposed to be a solo endeavor. But my sons backed out of the trip for one reason or another and, well, as I made clear before, this journey was one I needed to make.
I brought with food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; simple, easy fare like packaged rice dishes and dehydrated chicken for supper, oatmeal and breakfast bars and milk and juice for breakfast, and peanut butter, chips, candy bars, apples, and bread for making lunch to eat on the move. When I arrived at the Miller Farm near Dagmar, Montana I unloaded my gear, stashed the dog kennels in the garage, fed the dogs and tucked them in for the night, Mark greeted me with pizza and we shared some Linnie’s dark I brought from home. Brad was off working on important stuff, leaving Mark and I to talk about life, politics, family, and old men foolish enough to hunt alone. Tired from the twelve hour drive, I said goodnight, unrolled my sleeping bag, and fell into bed.
5:30am, I was up and about, fixing breakfast, getting dressed, feeding the dogs, and making ready to hunt the Miller Farm. Before 8:00am, my canine companions had flushed (Kena) and pointed (Callie) two fine prairie roosters. My nearly-new Stevens 555 over-under twelve barked but the birds flew away unscathed. I trudged on through the morning dew and thick swale hoping upon hope my dogs would forgive me.
By noon, after taking two splendid roosters on the Farm and finding another on a nearby BMA (Block Management Area; private land open to hunters), I had my first Montana limit of the trip.
Giddy from success, I tweeted and texted and sent all manner of messages back to my sons and wife and friends about how the hunt was going. Sure, I’d missed two birds but hey, I hit the next three with one shot each. I envisioned a trip where, by the time I was done hunting Montana (three days) and North Dakota (three more), I’d have my possession limit of fifteen big fat roosters in my cooler. That was the dream.
The reality was something else. I put in, as my iPhone computed it, over forty-four miles walking swales and grasslands and treelines and hills over the next week. In the end, I missed a hell of a lot of cackling, bursting-from-cover, seemingly invincible male pheasants. The next two days, I walked and walked and walked in the bright sunshine of the Montana prairie and shot one additional rooster and one wayward Hungarian partridge that, given it was about half the size of a pheasant, one wonders how I was able to draw a bead on it. Through it all, the dogs were stellar. Callie doesn’t, at least at her young age, retrieve. But her points were rock solid and she, despite a Brittany tendency not to listen to voice commands, got the eCollar messages I sent. Kena, who’d only pointed a rooster or two on previous trips, got in on the pointing thing and amazed me with her German Shorthair-like ability to lock on birds. More importantly, we did not lose a single downed bird.
Tuesday night, Mark (with Brad still off doing the Lord’s work), came home from teaching kids to sing and play musical instruments at the K-12 school in nearby Grenora, ND, cooked up a lovely meal of spaghetti and french bread for the two of us as the family pet Mourning dove (a rescue bird) zoomed around the living room. Once the bird was put away, two cats made themselves known, seeking the occasional belly rub before wandering off to do whatever cats do. Wednesday evening, we feasted on Fraboni’s pasties I’d brought with. Thursday, as Mark was providing keyboard accompaniment for a musical being produced in nearby Antelope, after a long and tiring day of shooting that solitary Hungarian partridge, Mark drove us to the Antelope Bar. After eating hearty flat iron steaks, baked potatoes, salad, and having adult beverages (my treat) we attended the play practice. Despite the remoteness of the place and the likely scarcity of folks willing to act and sing in public, the acting and the singing and the play itself were actually quite good.
Thursday, as I sought my zen moment and resumed treking over hill and dale, I was blessed to roust a ginormous bull moose from cover, watch pronghorn dash across the plains, count any number of owls and hawks in flight, and chase myriad whitetail and mule deer from their hiding places.
Friday, my Montana license done, I hunted near Grenora on my ND license. Amazingly after my dismal showing on Wednesday and Thursday (where a clown with a rubber hammer could have knocked his or her limit of pheasant out of the clear Montana sky) I limited out on ND roosters. We worked a big piece of WPA (Waterfowl Production Area) and bagged two beautiful roosters. It wasn’t like I became a deadeye or anything. No, I missed some easy shots, causing Kena, who has somewhat of a superiority complex, to turn her head and look at me with those big brown Lab eyes as if to say, “What? Now I have to shoot the damn things too?” Callie never slowed down, even when as I took stock of her after downing the last bird to my limit, I discovered she’d cut herself either on barbed wire or underbrush. Her feathery white fur was blemished with pink; blood she’d shed working her ass off for her master.
Knowing what old fences can do to Britts (after taking my beloved Britt, Leala, to the Williston Vet for twelve staples two Novembers ago) I’d recently purchased a canine first aid kit. I bandaged Callie in the field and called it a day.
Friday night, I ate one of my rice packets and dehydrated chicken pouches for dinner before settling in to watch Godfather II. Mark and Brad eventually made it home as Pacino had an unsuspecting Fredo dispatched while fishing from a tiny boat. We chatted about life, politics, hunting, and the world at large but, given the length of my wandering and tired legs, I turned in once the movie ended. Before hitting the hay, Brad found me some ointment to put on Callie’s wounds. I removed the bandages, noted things weren’t as bad as I’d first believed, salved the now-scabbed sores, and put my girls to bed.
I arose on Saturday feeling melancholy. I made the decision to take Callie with but only allow her out of the crate if we were hunting easy ground; no cattails or swales for the little girl. I donned my orange hunting jacket, slid on gloves and an orange stocking cap, put on my hunting vest, and motored off in rainy gloom. Despite the inclement hand God dealt us, Kena found a rooster in cattails bordering a frozen pothole. I hit the pheasant with the one and only shot I’d fire that day. As the wind whipped and drizzle turned to snow, I yelled above the gale, “Kena, dead bird.” She worked the shoreline over and over and over. Nothing. She got disinterested, at one point even flushing a second rooster from cover, raising my ire that she’d given up on the dead bird. “Here, Kena,” I yelled above the howling wind. “Dead Bird.” She complied and, after another ten minutes of covering the same small patch of bullrushes, I saw her stop, nuzzle the ground, and lock up. Forty-five minutes had passed and yet, the forever puppy had done her job. “Fetch,” I yelled. And she did.
Mark cooked a pork roast with scalloped potatoes and a salad for dinner. I was bone weary and had nearly decided, as I watched Callie scamper across the gray plains when I finally let her join the hunt at the end of the day, fresh snow blowing about us, to pull up stakes and leave Sunday instead of Monday as planned. I was disheartened at missing so many opportunities presented by my loyal and hardworking companions. The dogs continued, even with Callie’s afflictions, to put up roosters and sharptails well within range; birds I missed without reason or excuse. But after thinking it through, I decided to see my epic journey through. I’d shot eight pheasants and the one Hungarian; the trip could not, I mused, end because I hadn’t been as successful a hunter as I would’ve liked. My walkabout, my journey to Dagmar, wasn’t made to fill my larder with dead birds. It was to rejuvenate my beleaguered soul and find purpose, if such purpose could be found, to my being. So I stayed.
When I awoke on Sunday, the sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. I’d made the decision to drive north through Plentywood, Montana, and head east towards Fortuna, ND. The reasons behind my long-distance meander were two-fold.
First, I wanted to fill up the Jeep. Dagmar has no gas station so I either needed to drive east to Grenora, where I’d already filled up once, or north to Plentywood. Wanting to scout out additional BMA land for next year’s trip, I made my way to Plentywood, filled up, and took Highway 5 towards North Dakota. At the top of the hill east of town, I was teased by a gathering of between thirty and fifty Montana pheasants pecking grain on a mown field. The sight was both aggravating (my Montana license had expired) and hilarious because the flock of pheasants taunting me was feeding right across from a BMA Jack and I’d hunted, without seeing a single bird, the year before.
The second purpose behind my long drive was I wanted to check out the PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) around Fortuna, ND. This I did. The one easy-to-hit bird Kena and Callie (I used her sparingly) rousted for me flew off without a scratch. The rest of the day, I saw few birds, mostly distant coveys of sharptail and Hungarians; birds I had no chance to bag. The dogs managed to point and flush any number of hen pheasants; birds they wanted me to shoot but off limits to human hunters. Mostly, we tooled around, fighting the clay-based muck of section-line roads that threatened to, but never did, mire my Grand Cherokee. One road was so greasy, the Jeep felt like it was going to slide into the ditch despite me throttling down to a crawl. I had no wish to call Brad, who has a new Ford F150 4X4, so he could pull me out of the mud. I stayed the course, saw tons of mule deer and ducks and geese, and headed back to Dagmar.
As our last day on the plains waned, we returned to the WPA where I’d shot two roosters. It was drizzling again as Kena and I took one last walk along the rushes. That’s the thing about this year. The experts forecast a tough year hunting due to drought. The evidence of the lack of rain was clear in myriad empty potholes dotting the prairie. The WPA we ended our hunt at was no exception. As Kena and I moved, our legs tired, our sprits flagging, the snows and Canadas and swans riding the wind high overhead towards Nebraska and the Platte, the entire basin of the wetland was a vast sea of frozen mud. Still. Kena locked up hard. Her snuffling had once been loud but, as she stopped moving, the world grew eerily silent save for the calls of the great migration overhead. Then it happened. A big fat, North Dakota rooster burst from cover close enough for me to grab it. I fired my twelve gauge. Once. Twice. And still it flies.
I learned something about myself as I wandered the fields and prairies of the West. While prolonged solitude might be a worthwhile experience, hunting for a week straight without human companionship proved to be too much isolation for this old man’s soul.
After a hot shower, I ended my time in Montana with a fine steak dinner (thanks to Brad and Mark), excellent company, and some lively political discussions. I was up and out the door by 6:30am Mountain Time. The twelve hour drive home was spent thinking about my gracious hosts, my aging mother, my beloved wife, and my kids and grandkids. Central to my nostalgia was thanking my father, Harry, the man who introduced me to pheasant hunting as a young boy.
Today, as I write this essay and reflect, I feel refreshed and satisfied despite my inability to down the easiest of birds taking wing. The dogs? Callie’s on the mend and Kena seems to have forgiven me. I sense they’re anxious to make our last hunt of the year; a trip planned for early December to chase Minnesota roosters with Tim and Poncho Scott.
The number of dead roosters in the freezer is of little consequence to me. The takeaway from my recent journey west is this: I thank the Creator I’m healthy enough to witness my dogs working the prairie, the majesty of their steady points, the adrenaline rush of roosters bursting from cover, and the whirl of pheasant wings in the bracing November air.
I’m in the process of trying to hack out another novel. The main theme of my invented story is based upon the murder of Minnesota author and muckraker, Walter Liggett, who died in a hail of bullets in the 1930s. So, in doing my research on the early days of investigative journalism, I figured I needed to read Upton Sinclair’s novel about the meat packing industry in Chicago circa 1900; considered by many to be the groundbreaking piece of muckraking fiction.
Jurgis Rudkus, Sinclair’s Lithuanian immigrant protagonist has, in a nutshell, a hard life. He has, other than farming abilities, no real marketable skills when he lands in America. He marries, has children, all the while trying to make a living in politically and economically rigged early 20th century Chicago. Sinclair really is laying out his Socialist agenda here so that the characters he draws, including Rudkus and his young, suffering wife, Ona, and Rudkus’s extended family seem flat and perfunctory; mere pawns in the author’s efforts to shine a light on American economic and political inequality. For the first three-quarters of the story, there’s enough plot and character and soul to move the novel forward such that it’s a tolerable read. But then, inexplicably but certainly intentionally, the book takes a dramatic and unaesthetic turn.
The last quarter of The Jungle has Jurgis at a Socialist rally “seeing the light” and becoming a political activist for the cause. That, in itself, isn’t so surprising given Sinclair himself ultimately became active in Socialist politics, including attempts to become governor of California as a third-party candidate ala Minnesota’s Floyd B. Olson. But, in much the same way Ayn Rand bogs down Atlas Shrugged by having John Gault give a twenty or thirty page speech on the evils of Socialism and Communism (praising Rand’s Objectivism philosophy in the process), so too does Sinclair lose sight of the story he was telling. For the last quarter of the book, readers are bludgeoned over the head with Socialist propaganda, either spewed by tertiary characters or the book’s now-enlightened protagonist. I get that the author had a viewpoint he wished to share with me, the reader. But in the process of preaching Sinclair’s gospel, the book loses any semblance of art or literature.
Still, it was a worthy read as research and, if you are interested in how today mirrors the America of the past, The Jungle remains an important, if flawed, journal of its times.
3 stars out of 5
Confession time: I listened to, rather than read, Anthony Doerr’s highly acclaimed novel of the year. That said, this book is a work by a writer of genius. But the book itself is not a work of genius. Why do I say that?
Here’s the thing. Doerr juggles at least five balls in the air in terms of story and plot in this long and winding tale. There’s a contemporary plot involving an environmental terrorist hell-bent on blowing up a real estate office next to the town library. He has no access to the office but has access to the library so that’s where, in a strange and not very well thought out manner, he plans to plant two bombs to take out the adjacent real estate office. Why? Because the agents of the company are selling off an old growth forest next to his double-wide trailer, destroying a place he considers sacred.
Then there’s the narration from a character inside a mythical and long hidden novel by an ancient Greek poet, the title of which, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” gives the novel its title. Little snippets from the old text (written on velum and concealed from the world for centuries) weave into the story as first-person narration from the tale’s protagonist, and, for the duller of us who don’t get it, are repeated in other plot lines.
Zeno is an old man who, though without any educational training beyond high school, stumbles across “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and attempts to translate it and piece the tale, such as it remains, together. His story is told in loving and vibrant detail, including the fact that, at age 86, he ends up rehearsing a play based upon the ancient novel in the library just as the bomber is ascending the stairs to blow the place up. He’s a Korean war vet who, while never formally coming out to the folks in the small town he inhabits before and after the war, longs for an Englishman he met in captivity in Korea. It is the Englishman who convinces Zeno he is smart enough to tackle, without any formal training, translating ancient Greek into English.
Then there is the storyline set in the 15th century during the siege of Constantinople involving a young Greek woman, again, a person of limited education, finding a copy of “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, preserving it, escaping with it, and meeting up with one of the Muslim enemy; a young Bulgarian woodcutter. The two interact outside the walls of the city as the former capital of Christianity is about to fall and end up falling in love. Through it all, Anna keeps the manuscript safe and eventually, the manuscript ends up in the archives of the Vatican, preserved for Zeno to decipher.
The final plot thread involves Konstance, a young woman (circa 2060) hurtling from Earth with her parents and a few dozen other souls towards a distant planet where they have been told they will start life anew. This is necessary because Earth is in the throes of disease, and famine, and floods, and inclement weather such that it is becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. During her long journey, things happen to Konstance that confine her to a secure pod within the space ship where she discovers, in the Argos’s virtual library, “Cloud Cuckoo Land”. That’s where the story arc of the final segment, along with the environmental themes and the presence of owls (you need to read the book to figure out that connection!) all come together.
That’s a lot, right? A historical novel, A thriller. A literary piece. Fantasy. Science Fiction. It’s all here in one story. To make it work, Doerr asks the reader for two things. One, infinite patience because the threads of the tale bob in and out like a boxer trying to avoid a punch. And two, the ability to forgive him for using so many coincidences throughout the five separate story arcs he welds together into this mammoth work. Doerr’s writer enough to pull it off, though, in the end, this is not a great work of literature like All the Light. It is, in the end, an experimental piece along the lines of Ulysses, which is of interest since, of course, Ulysses the Greek hero does indeed figure in the telling of the tale.
4 stars out of 5. Not a masterpiece of fiction but a wild, somewhat predictable gathering of genres into one story.
Again, we listened to this book on Audible. While it’s clearly a novel designed and written from a woman’s perspective (It’s a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick), there’s enough in the story to keep an old man listening. The story follows the life and trials and tribulations of Lakshmi, a child bride who ran away from her abusive husband, Hari and found work as both a henna artist, painting the bodies of rich Indian women with designs and images, as well as a natural healer. It was Hari’s mother, a beloved figure to Lakshmi despite the beatings she suffered at the hand of Hari, who taught Lakshmi holistic medicine and, not inconsequentially, the powers of plants that can trigger abortions. Lakshmi uses her knowledge to assist, at first, courtisans (high level prostitutes and concubines) in getting rid of unplanned pregnancies. But then, at the urging of a wealthy man she meets, she agrees to supply “morning after” type potions to mistresses of wealthy Indian men who find themselves pregnant.
The tale also follows the journey of Lakshmi’s younger sister, Radha, who leaves home after the death of the girls’ parents, and finds Lakshmi, a sister she has never met. The author does a masterful job of character building with respect to the sisters, and it is their interaction, disputes, love, conflict, and the mess of family that is the book’s over arching theme.
Set in the late 1950s in India, not long after independence, the story has a very narrow focus. It does not pretend to be a historical novel, does not attempt to explain all the religious and caste issues that plagued India then and now. It is simply the story of two sisters finding each other and trying to create a life of family and belonging.
4 and 1/2 stars. Obviously, a great pick for a women’s book club.
Another audiobook we listened to on our long drive to and from Camp Verde. OK. So if 43,000 folks weigh in (on Amazon) and the overwhelming view is that this is a masterpiece, it must be so, right?
Wrong. While this story is, at times, a compelling tale of evil and revenge set against the Viking era in England (late 900s to early 1000s), both my wife and I agreed, while listening to this long and winding tale of wicked men and duplicitous women, that the characters Follett draws are universally flat, cartoonish, and well, not all that interesting. Then there is the timeframe for the novel. While choosing to set it in the era identified apparently fits in with the sequence of other “Kingdom” novels the author has penned, in fact, very little is really known of the era depicted and nothing of real note, in terms of history, took place. Which leads the author to do two things that make this nowhere near the book Pillars of the Earth is.
First, the dialogue includes many contemporary sayings and expressions, which causes the reader (or here, the listener) to disengage from the suspension of disbelief. And second, the characters are really cardboard cutouts; mere actors in a play where every evil person has nothing redeemable within them and the heroes and heroines are all universally good and moral.
In the end, I found this to be a long and rambling journey to a trite and tidy conclusion (I won’t spoil it with details but the bad people all suffer their just desserts) that really didn’t add much to my understanding of England during the timeframe or the inner lives of the people inhabiting the story.
Last week we debuted our new Newsletter Feature – 5 QUESTIONS! This week we’re profiling local author Mark Munger, whose new book Duck and Cover: Things I Learned Waiting for the Bomb (A Memoir) is on sale now.
1) How do you describe your books in 10 words or less? “My books depict the history, people, times, and events of northeastern Minnesota in fiction and nonfiction.”
2) What’s in your cup while you’re writing? “Vanilla and hazelnut flavored coffee. Very hot and black and always two cups in the morning while I write.”
4) Why are Independent Bookstores important?“It used to be that local/regional authors could count on the big box stores, Borders and B & N, to host events in support of our work. My very first event was a reading at the old stand alone B & N store in Duluth back in 2000. That’s no longer the case. It’s the Indies who support the work of local and regional authors. Without them, I’d have no place to sell my work or make appearances. There is also something comforting and intellectually stimulating to walk into a small, cozy, independent bookstore where folks can help you find your next great read. You don’t get that in a big box store and you certainly don’t get that online.”
5) How would you describe Duluth to someone? “Duluth is a lovely city on a hill overlooking the wildest and most beautiful of the Great Lakes. It’s a university town and a deep water port full of students, hard working folks, bookstores, fine restaurants, cozy pubs, and intelligent, caring people.”
Mark Munger is a non-Finn with an interest in Finnish Americans.
What’s your ethnic and personal connection to the Finnish American story?
JR: I’m Finnish on both sides. My Mom’s line is from the Kuortane area. My Dad’s line is from the Vaasa area. Both sides were Swedish-speaking Finns, which is why my last name is Rundman. My Great-Grandparents came to Ishpeming from Finland. My Dad was a teacher and taught briefly in Hancock. That’s where I was born in 1971. My parents then returned to Ishpeming where I grew up. I’ve been wondering if my birth in Hancock (the hospital is now part of Finlandia University) connected me to the history of the Suomi Synod.
My grandparents spoke Finnish and/or Swedish but didn’t teach my parents those languages. In the ‘40s the trend was “We’re Americans so speak English,” though I heard Finnish around me, and my home church had Finnish language services.
As a child, were you steeped in Finnish history and culture?
JR: Finnish identity is part of my family narrative. My cousins and I grew up valuing it highly. My relatives had saunas and we enjoyed Finnish coffee bread, and Nordic artwork and home furnishings. In the late-90s I connected to cousins in Finland, and they sent me Finnish folk and pop music CDs. My wife and I visited Finland in 2001 and return every five years or so.
How did you become a touring musician?
JR: As a teenager I dreamed of being a musician. In high school, I had paying gigs playing folk/rock music and Lutheran church music. I graduated at seventeen but instead of attending college, I hit the road playing music. My career started in the late-80s, just as CDs became popular. Then, as the internet emerged, advances in technology allowed independent artists like me to build national touring careers. Playing on NPR’s Mountain Stage was a highlight! The show is taped in West Virginia, but occasionally they take the show on the road. They scheduled a taping in Minnesota and wanted to feature regional musicians. Producer Larry Groce was familiar with my album Public Library, so I was thrilled to be invited to perform, especially since as a teenager, I was a huge fan of The BoDeans from Milwaukee, the headliners on the show!
Were any of your immediate family musicians?
JR: I have aunts on both sides who were church organists. Music was a huge part of my childhood. I took piano lessons, immersed myself in the Top 40 hits, and drew inspiration from MTV. I started writing songs, inspired by Paul Simon and folk-flavored rock bands like the Rainmakers, the Silos, John Mellencamp, and the Hooters.
Was there an evolution of your music where your Finnishness became part of your writing, singing, and performing?
JR: The first time I played Finnish music was 1989. I was part of a band performing Pekka Simojoki’s Finnish African Gospel Mass. I included a selection from this liturgy “The Prayer of the Church” in my new book.In 2000, I released an album—Sound Theology—featuring my arrangement of a Finnish hymn called “Arise, My Soul, Arise.” That song also appears in the new book. I got caught up in a whirlwind of activity, playing Finnish fiddle music with Kaivama and Arto Järvelä. I didn’t know anything about the pelimanni tradition. It was a bit overwhelming to be thrown into touring in a new genre. But it was great fun and I continue to play Finnish folk music in my concerts. I have two teenaged kids who are excellent fiddlers. I’m proud to pass down the tradition to a new generation.
Talk about the transition from touring musician to seminary student.
JR: I’ve always been an active Lutheran, but never thought I’d become a pastor, because I was into my musical career and had no college degree. I was the guest musician for an event at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. While there, Rev. Dr. Kirsi Stjerna sat me down and said, “I think you should go to seminary.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I replied, “Thank you, but I can’t because I didn’t go to college.” Kirsi replied, “There are now pathways for non-traditional students like you to go to seminary.” She gave me suggestions of people to call. I entered candidacy in the ELCA, was accepted to Luther Seminary, given a full scholarship, and in 2018 became a student! After 30 years as a touring musician, I was pleased to be home with my wife and kids. I’ve enjoyed the challenges of the academic life. I’ll graduate in 2022 and be available to take a call as an ELCA pastor. That next chapter will be an adventure!
You’ve been working on the book you mentioned, Lost Songs of the Suomi Synod?
JR: Research began while performing at Nordic events where people shared Suomi Synod material with me. I also explored archives at Finlandia’s Finnish Heritage Center. Whenever a new hymnal is published, the previous edition becomes obsolete. Songs get lost and are never sung again. Where a song hadn’t appeared in English, I translated it. For example, I based my translation of “Pium Paum” on English interpretations, the Finnish original, and the Kalevala. For “Psalm 100” and “Psalm 150” I used my seminary skills to translate from the Hebrew and then Finnicized the images. Elias Lönnrot, the collector of the Kalevala, first brought Martin Luther’s German hymn “Holy Spirit We Pray” to Finland in the 1800s, and “rebuilt” it on a Finnish folk tune. I had great fun taking Lönnrot’s structure and crafting it into English. Hymns are metrical and mathematical, so it was a challenge to take images and ideas from Finnish and adjust them into English.
Let the readers in on the process used in creating new music for the book that fits in with original Suomi Synod hymns.
JR: It was important to let people know that hymnody is a living tradition. This is not historic preservation, like a Civil War reenactment or a Beatles tribute band. Music is always evolving. Finns love music and Finnish composers continue to create inspiring work. I included my own material, some which also appears in All Creation Sings (published by Augsburg Fortress). I’m pleased to continue the legacy of Lönnrot, Runeberg, and Sibelius. I would love it if Finnish-Americans could send new music back to Finland!
What parameters went into curating music that’s included in the book?
JR: A few Nordic hymns are beloved … such as Sibelius’ FINLANDIA (often sung as “This Is My Song” or “Be Still My Soul”), and classics like “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and “How Great Thou Art.” I didn’t include these because they’re not “lost”.
Describe the editorial choice to include synod and musical history in the book.
JR: I read dozens of books and articles. I found no clear, concise Suomi Synod timeline or history of Lutheran hymnals. Most of the published material dates is from the 1960s (or earlier) and is out-of-print. I hope my book is an accessible resource, not only for musicians, but for historians.
Are you performing?
JR: When I started seminary, I decided to retire from showbiz. I knew it’d take all my brainpower to finish my schooling. As COVID restrictions loosened, I was offered opportunities, so I’ve been touring with Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos and working on his new recordings. I’m also recording songs from the book to be released via streaming services. My debut single is a new arrangement of Runeberg’s “Paavo the Peasant”. People can listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. Coming up, there’s a book-release concert at Luther Seminary in St. Paul on September 21 at 7:00pm (free and open to the public). I’ll be a part of Finlandia University’s 125th Anniversary Celebration in December. I’ll be performing at the Luther500 Festival next summer in Wittenberg, Germany. Folks can also book me for their town, church, or Finnish heritage event to hear songs that haven’t been heard in North America for a century!
With the book being released on September 7th where can folks find it?
Someone handed me this book, signed by the author, at my retirement party back in January of 2019. Not particularly interested in reading what looked to be a self-published or vanity published religious novel, I placed it on my “to read” stack and it sat there until this past weekend. Looking for something short and to the point to read while I sat in the autumn sun and hoped for rain (our river, the Cloquet, is still very low), I was pleasantly surprised to find a well written, can’t-put-it-down regional novel that, while there are elements of faith within its pages, is not preachy in the least.
The story is really two stories in one. There is the contemporary tale of Bob Sorenson skiing a Minnesota state trail in the dark with only stars and meteorites to guide his way towards waiting high school pals (the men are all middle-aged by the time the story unfolds) until he stumbles upon tragedy. I won’t spoil the plot by giving away what Bob encounters on the prairie other than to say his discovery leads to revelations about himself that Bob was, as he skied in the dark, struggling to uncover and address.
There’s an additional plot line, essentially a series of flashbacks to Bob’s youth and time spent fishing with both his father and his uncle. The title of the book reflects Bob’s love for and connection to Uncle Art and the kind, yet manly way Art taught the younger version of Bob life lessons centered around a family cabin on Little Hanging Horn Lake near Barnum. That’s where Bob grew up. With Uncle Art at the helm of an old, wide-beamed wooden row boat powered by an ancient three-horse two-stroke, the older man made it a point to guide his young nephew in search of sunfish for the frying pan, all the while teaching Bob life lessons. It’s those glimpses of wisdom that manifest to middle-aged Bob as he skies through the dark, eery night.
This is not high-brow literature. The language that Swanson uses to tell is simple, succinct, and direct. But there was, despite the simplicity of art and story, enough “meat” to compel me to devour this slender volume (less than 190 pages in trade paperback) in one sitting. That says a lot for the power of well-crafted prose that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. In the Hands will not likely make any bestseller lists nor achieve any lasting fame. It will not change your life or cause you to ponder your existence beyond, perhaps, kindling your own reminiscences of youth. But it was a welcome surprise to find a regional author who tells a tale in such terse, fine, and complete fashion.
My only criticism has to do with the fact that there are a number of layout and printing issues in the copy I received. On page 10, there’s an entire narrative paragraph printed in bold for no apparent reason. Then, at the conclusion of the story (p. 186), the publisher/vanity press/editor (don’t know who made the decision) inexplicably placed “Author’s Notes” on the same page as the tale’s conclusion rather than placing those notes in a separate section of the book. Not major issues and I didn’t find more than a handful of other typos or grammatical errors in what was otherwise a very enjoyable read. Having now published 13 books on my own, some with major flaws, others with only a typo here or there, I can let such small insults to my readerly eye be. They are, in the face of a pretty darn good yarn, inconsequential.
4 stars out of 5. This would be a great book club selection for a men’s book club (of which there are so very few!)
Here is the thing. One can be an accomplished writer of nonfiction prose, possess a Masters in Nonfiction Writing from a prestigious American University (Sarah Lawrence), have engaging historical events and characters to build upon, and still not be a great storyteller. That, in essence is why this book doesn’t pass muster.
The story of the White Rose, a group of students who tried to upend Nazi Germany from within, much akin to the plot to kill Hitler envisioned by disheartened military men, is one of supreme courage. It is no secret that three of the university activists involved in distributing anti-Nazi literature paid for their deception and perceived treason by being beheaded. That fact alone should be sufficient to build upon and, if you are trying to enter into the hearts and minds of the protagonists and antagonists of the story through fiction, create a plot and characters to remember. Ms. Lehmann, despite all of her training and education and the blurbs on the back cover and inside the front of this novel fails at the essential job of a novelist: to tell a story that strikes a chord with the reader.
When folks set about trying to write fiction and are cautious as to applying the historical record to their storytelling, what readers are gifted is boring, uninspiring narrative and dry, unrealistic dialogue. That’s what the first two-thirds of the story of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Sophie’s love interest, German soldier Fritz Hartnagle,yields in the hands of this author. The use of excerpts from the letters of the participants, actual part and parcel of their communications during the war, is handled not with deftness and creative impetus: it is handled as an intrusion into story. There are no sparks, there is no, despite the title, light between Sophie and Fritz until the very end of the tale. It is in the last portion of the book, after Sophie’s arrest and detention, that the author hits her mark. But, by then, it’s too late to save the overarching narrative of the tale.
I think much of the book’s deficit comes from this truth: the author considers With You to be “narrative nonfiction” (see page 311) and yet, those supplying blurbs for the book consider it to be “historical fiction”. This confusion of genre is the likely cause of the book’s inability to inspire, enrapture, or move the reader. The book, quite frankly, attempts to be a memoir hiding in the guise of a novel. But the book wasn’t written by a participant to the events and hence, cannot be considered a memoir or autobiography. This literary schizophrenia, in my humble opinion, dooms the exercise.
As a writer of historical fiction, I so wanted to love this book. I cannot. I find myself, at the end of the day, lamenting that I did not read Frank McDonough’s nonfiction account of Sophie’s life, The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler. That would have been a far better use of my time.
She was a plain looking girl with an extraordinary mind living an ordinary life.
Lucinda Clark sat on a hay bale, the fibers dry and prickly against the bare skin of her ankles. Her hazel eyes scanned the valley of the South Platte River flowing meagerly through the drought-impacted landscape. The knoll she occupied was littered with several hundred bales of hay cut for the upcoming winter. The squares were strewn randomly across the stubble of a mown alfalfa field no more than two hundred feet above the river’s course. The land climbed from the river bottom to Lucy’s vantage point in gradual fashion.
She was dressed in denim jeans. Lucinda favored Lee’s, straight-legged and baggy despite her solid shape. She wore a long sleeved “Colorado Avalanche” sweatshirt, and beat-up discount store tennis shoes. Seventeen years old and a senior at Sterling High School, Lucinda Clark was amply chested, more so than she liked, boasting shiny brown hair with auburn highlights that, when they caught the sunshine, sparkled like rare gems under a jeweler’s lamp. The color of her eyes matched the hue of the prairie sky standing thin over the grasslands surrounding her family’s ranch.
It had been a tough day at school. No one understood her. She wished that her mother was still around but Gayle Clark was living somewhere down south, near Santa Fe or thereabouts, having met a man, a poet that she claimed to be in love with. They’d bumped into each other, leading, apparently, to a lot more serious bumping into each other, when Dale Eckhardson gave a reading at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Cherry Creek last February. Gayle began to sneak around, making more and more obvious excuses to escape the smallness of Sterling for the bustle of Denver at odd times, seemingly during the moments when Lucinda needed her mother the most.
The girl watched a herd of Black Angus mosey from one dry patch of grass to another. Though her eyes were locked on the cattle, her mind was on other things.
Harold Clark, the girl’s father, tried hard with Melinda, Lucy’s ten-year-old sister, and Lucy, tried to fill in the emptiness and the void left by a departed mother. He wasn’t much good at the empathy and soul- unburdening part of that equation, though he took a concerted stab at it when asked. Mostly, Lucy found herself turning inward or to God when she had questions. She tried to help Melinda out as much as she could, imparting whatever wisdom her seventeen years of life could impart.
The thing at school troubled her. For the first time it pitted her humanity against the Divine in clear and contentious ways.
“What do you think of President Bush’s response to the events of September 11th?”
Mrs. Blanchard, Lucy’s 12th grade civics teacher, had posed the question to Lucy’s class during second hour. The students were deep in the midst of hashing out what should constitute an appropriate military response to the terrible acts of Bin Ladin and his cohorts when the question came Lucy’s way. Up to that point boys in Lucy’s class had directed the discussion.
“We oughta nuke those stinking towel heads back to the Stone Age,” Benny Morrison had postulated.
“Benny, are you suggesting we use atomic weapons on Afghanistan, against innocent women and children?” Mrs. Blanchard interjected.
“Why stop there? I’d blast every last freakin’ Muslim country on the planet. Let ’em know who’s boss.”
“That’s bogus,” Emmett Carlson chimed in. “Some of the Muslim countries are our allies, like Saudi Arabia.”
Benny had grinned.
“Ya, but if we blew them to little pieces, we wouldn’t have to beg them for oil. Plus, that’s where Bin Ladin and most of the suicide guys came from. I say nuke ’em.”
The discourse centered upon military tactics, upon the necessity of sending in American ground troops, of what the public’s reaction would likely be to scenes of dead American soldiers coming home in body bags. Through it all, Lucinda Clark, the brightest kid in the senior class, and usually one of the first to join a debate, had maintained her own counsel.
When the question was finally turned in Lucy’s direction, she understood why the teacher wanted her involved. The Clark’s were Friends. Quakers. Pacifism was an integral part of her family’s faith. There was history here, in little Sterling: an invisible line ran between the three Quaker families located in and around the town and their neighbors. Mrs. Blanchard clearly knew that history and was drawing upon it to spur discussion.
Trouble was, Lucinda, normally eager to swagger into a verbal fray, wanted to shrivel up and disappear rather than discuss the finer points of America’s response to September 11th. The reasons weren’t complex. The reasons were simple. Somehow, what had taken place in the peaceful autumnal atmosphere over New York City on that fateful day was so vastly different, so incomprehensibly evil, when considered by a seventeen-year-old young woman from a Colorado ranching community, that the old guideposts and measures of her religion no longer seemed useful.
“Lucy?” the teacher had repeated, staring hard at the young woman’s face.
The girl’s eyes moistened slightly as she watched Beau Gunderson, the next-door neighbor’s seventeen- year-old son, lope across the dusty grassland on a spirited black and white paint towards the cattle. The Angus stood complacently, their heads turning in unison towards the on-rushing cowboy, the slope of their strong, thick backs appearing as dark humps against yellow ground.
She studied the far reaches of the valley, where newly turned soil appeared black. The dirt would eventually dry beneath the unfamiliar November sun and turn the color of coal ash; becoming nearly identical in color to the powder that settled over the horror-stricken faces of the people Lucinda watched escape the collapse of the Twin Towers on network television news.
“Yes, ma’am,” she had answered.
“I know you must have something to say about what’s happening in Central Asia.”
The teacher’s eyes widened though her temper didn’t rise.
“Surely you have something to add regarding what will likely turn out to be the most memorable event of your generation,” Mrs. Blanchard coaxed.
“Come on, Luce,” Barton Morales, one of a handful of Hispanics in her grade, had chided. “You’re always ready to give an opinion, even if it’s bogus,” he added, a wide grin showing white against tawny skin.
Others added their derisions. Lucinda drew a deep breath and thought of a response. “Let’s say that Bin Ladin, and maybe even the Taliban, is responsible for what happened,” she began.
“Maybe? Where you been hiding girl, in a cave?” Carla Morales, Barton’s twin sister castigated. “They’ve got old Bin Ladin dead to rights. All that’s left is the finale to his sorry little one-act play.”
Lucy had smiled. She liked Carla, liked her assuredness and her natural ability to cut to the chase.
“Fair enough. Suppose, instead of sending 50,000 Special Forces to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, we send a couple of hundred thousand civilians: men, women, kids like us, over to Pakistan. Then we all march across the border, unarmed, seeking a parlay with the Taliban. Do you really believe that they are so inhumane, so brutal, that they’d attack us?”
Missy Forestall, a cheerleader and a short, finely proportioned blond with athletic thighs and deep brown eyes set in an exquisite face, laughed.
“Carla’s right. You’ve completely lost it if you think those animals would be willing to listen. Especially to women. Don’t you follow the news? Don’t you understand how they beat, mistreat, and subjugate women?”
Lucinda frowned. Mrs. Blanchard attempted to reassert control.
“Keep your critique positive, folks,” she admonished. “I see you have your hand up, Edgar. Go ahead.”
Edgar Brewster, a slow thinking, large-boned tackle on the varsity football team cleared his throat. His voice was soft, at odds with his stature.
“I dunno. Maybe Lucy’s got something here.”
Noisy objections erupted from the class. The instructor raised her hand.
Thin strips of white, fingers extending two-dimensionally from a bank of high clouds resting to the north, up near Cheyenne, reached across the high atmosphere. The rancher’s daughter detected the beginnings of the foothills from her perch, gentle peaks immediately adjacent to Fort Collins, visible though seventy miles away as the crow flies. The spine of hills rose above the flatness of the western terminus of the prairie as a magnificent apparition.
“God, why did it happen?” she asked softly, a faint breeze beginning to stir. The answer, she knew, was in the hearts of men and not in the mind of God.
At the edge of the Gunderson pasture, Beau and his Border collie, Blue, drove cattle through an open gate towards a watering station. Several hundred yards away, a windmill spun violently despite the meager wind. A horse neighed from the ridge behind her.
“Obligation,” she murmured, turning her head, her hair jostling as she moved. She whistled to her horse.
A blaze of white broke across the drab landscape. Dust churned from beneath the Arab’s hooves as the animal raced towards the girl, its shoulders undulating as it ran, gray mane and tail trailing the effort.
Lucinda had formulated a feeble response to her teacher’s inquiry .
“It’s a puzzlement, to me, being Quaker and all. My faith tells me that war is something that, only in the direst of circumstances, should be engaged in by humankind,” the girl whispered weakly.
Mrs. Blanchard stood next to the young woman.
“Well, isn’t this such a time?” Barton Morales had challenged. “I mean, the son of a…excuse me, Ms.Blanchard…bee killed civilians. What we’re doing isn’t really going to war. It’s more like a police manhunt.”
There were murmurs of approval from other classmates.
“That’s one way to look at it,” Lucinda Clark demurred. “But what about all the Afghan women and children who’ll be killed or hurt? Dropping bombs indiscriminately looks an awful lot like war to me.”
“There’s no right or wrong to any of your positions,” Mrs. Blanchard had concluded. “But I do think that Mr. Morales has brought up an interesting approach. If the acts that were committed were against civilians, isn’t Barton right? Isn’t this really a case of a criminal act and not an act of nation against nation, an act of war? Lucy, does that make sense to you?”
The young woman regained her feet. Stroking the soft nuzzle of the Arabian, her mind wandered from the death and the destruction, focusing instead upon an image of her mother.
Gayle Clark’s eyes had been filled with sorrow and remorse as she sat behind the wheel of her Mazda 4×4, the vehicle’s off-road tires worn smooth and resting on the gravel of their driveway. Melinda clutched her mother’s hand, refusing to relinquish her grip, unwilling to let Gayle leave. Lucinda stepped up and pulled her little sister away, the child convulsing in grief as the pick-up truck disappeared.
A strong odor of horse disbursed the memory. Lucinda stood quietly beside Obligation, massaging the horse’s velvety skin, inhaling the animal’s distinct musk. Lucy’s eyes steadied on the flatness of the land. Footsteps echoing off the wind-hardened surface of the ground interrupted her reflection.
“Thought I might find you up here,” her father said as he approached from behind the girl, his lanky form in marked contrast to his eldest daughter’s square stature. Harold Clark’s rugged face looked down kindly at his oldest child. His eyes, shadowed as they were by the brim of his Stetson, the off-white felt of the headgear worn and smudged from the business of ranching, looked diligently at Lucinda.
She pointed towards the Gunderson boy as horse and rider galloped across the plateau.
“I was just watching Beau and his dog work.”
“Looks like Obie was giving you some comfort as you eavesdropped,” the man remarked, dispensing a wad of chew into the warm air through tobacco-stained teeth.
Harold kept his eyes on his daughter. “I’m worried about your baby sister,” the rancher admitted, his words soft. Lucy patted the belly of her horse and sent the animal off to graze.
“She doesn’t seem to be coming out of her spin since your mother took off.”
There was no sugar coating it. Their mother, his wife had done simply that. Taken off, leaving them all to fend for themselves with only intermittent telephone calls as the singular connection between them. Gayle didn’t write or use the Internet. There were no letters, no emails, no photographs depicting Gayle’s new life in New Mexico as a reminder to the girls that their mother cared.
“I guess,” was all the girl replied.
“You seem troubled,” Lucy’s father observed, a task- roughened hand coming to rest on the back of her right wrist. “What’s eating you?”
Lucinda thought about dodging the issue. Instead, she met the question head on.
“Dad, why do we have to be Quakers?”
A look of mild injury crept into her father’s eyes. “Why would you ask such a question?”
She shuffled her tennis shoes over the soft topsoil. “Today at school we were talking about President Bush’s response to the Trade Center thing. Everyone but me pretty much thought going to war over what happened was well within our rights.”
The man’s hand loosened on her arm.
“I see. What did you say in response?”
“Some lame suggestion that we send a few hundred thousand pilgrims over to Afghanistan to show Bin Ladin and the Taliban that we’re peaceful, reasonable, God-fearing folk.”
Wind blew her father’s curly black hair loose of his neck and ears.
“Doesn’t sound lame to me. Sounds like something Christ would say himself. Remember your scripture:
‘To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Love your enemies, do good, hoping for nothing in return.’
Luke, Chapter 6, Verses 29-35.”
The young woman frowned and kicked at the ground. “And what if what happened on September 11th wasn’t an act of war but an act of murder?”
The man smiled. “You really do need to go to law school, young lady. I see your point. Your argument has an attraction. But aren’t you simply replacing the word ‘war’ with the word ‘murder’?”
She returned the grin. It was the longest they’d spoken since her mother had left. Her eyes studied the tanned outlines of her father’s profile against the glimmering sunset. Red, yellow, and gold tendrils ignited the western horizon. Shadows began to spread across the lowlands.
“Didn’t Jesus also say ‘render therefore to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?'” she asked.
“Luke 20, Verse 25. But how does that relate to remaining a pacifist and steering clear of militarism?” the rancher postulated.
Lucy adjusted herself on the hay bale. Her father lifted his right leg and placed a well-worn cowboy boot on compacted alfalfa.
“If the law, which is Caesar’s, requires a penalty to be paid for a crime, an earthly sin, shouldn’t we then obey Caesar’s law unless it speaks against our faith?” the girl asked.
Harold stroked the haggard skin of his chin, his jaw thick and prominent, the only portion of his face that mirrored his daughter’s. He patted his child on the top of her shoulder.
“Girl, you really do need to go to law school,” the cowboy muttered through a devilish grin.
The rancher and the young woman watched the sun settle. Dusk descended. Twilight faded. Evening prospered and crept eastward until it enveloped the rancher and his eldest daughter in twilight.
(Sterling, Colorado appears in the short story collection, Ordinary Lives. You can find it above under the “Books” tab and, if you like what you read, order your own copy under the “Buy Books Direct” tab. But the point of this post isn’t to sell books: It’s to reflect on what that day meant to you, your family, our nation, and the world.)