Daily Archives: February 6, 2010

Randy Ford Author- PIKES PEAK, a snapshot of history 4th Installment

      Jack earned a few dollars, which gave him a few days in New Orleans.   He saw the sights, watched people, got drunk, and spent his money.   He loved the city, from Bourbon Street to Congo Square and did as he pleased.   Pushed along through the crowds, seduced by them, pulled off the streets by the jazz clubs and peep shows, the honkytonks and plain joints, he gawked. T  here were the stripping blondes and gyrating brunettes named Cup Cake and Tinkerbell.   Feeling very, very lonely, he rode up and down Canal Street, caught a street car named Cemeteries, got off, ate red beans and rice for fifty cents, added smoked sausage and the price went up to a buck.   He tried to talk to the bouncy lady at the counter.   Never got beyond a smile and “hi darlin’.”   Starving as much for conversation as for pork chops.   Didn’t think he’d like collards.   He perfected talking to strangers, people who told Jack about high stepping and strutting.   Poor Jack, thinking about Betty Davis.   Found the place where the pirate Jean Lafayette plotted to rescue Napoleon from the Island of St. Helena.   Learned to love and eat chilled, salty Louisiana oysters.

       Jack saw the dangers of having too much freedom.   Even roaming the woods near his home had exhilarated him.   Sex pumped him up even more.   Constant foraging that verged on theft, raffish promiscuity and a taste for wicked women, these experiences were all new and different.   He proclaimed himself happy, but it was questionable whether he really was.   By letting impulse guide him, he achieved with strangers a degree intimacy that he had never enjoyed before.

       No, not all of us have strayed into a Y without knowing anyone there.   You know the YMCA and the good times that can be had there.   Jack stayed the maximum time; but I don’t think he would’ve stayed so long had he not run across an old, worn, dog-eared copy of Wendell Willkie’s ONE WORLD.   Willkie also came from Indiana. ONE WORLD, a dollar book, sold a million copies faster than any none-fiction work had before.   Willkie loved bantering and loved long bull sessions.   He was a politically inexperienced lightweight who ran for president.   Willkie took a trip around the world, disregarding protocol by cracking stale American jokes and slapping the Shah, the King of Kings, on the back.   Everybody loved it.   He flirted with Madame Chiang Kai-Shek who flirted back, and became an item with her husband.   Willkie said it was the only time he’d been in love.

       He misunderstood, or misrepresented in the China section of ONE WORLD the truth about the Generalissimo’s army and said Chiang was fighting “truly a people’s war.”   Jack didn’t know that by then Willkie’s dream of a New World order had already been severely damaged by Mao Tse-tung’s revolution.   Burma was falling apart.   The long-range Communist plan, laid down in 1920, was to create Communist governments in all of the colonies of the world.   And about then McArthur declared, “I will defend Korea as I would my own country, just as I would California.”

       Do you think Jack understood the implications of any of this?   Or knew anything then about the evils of the great agrarian awakening?   Or about an international proletarian conspiracy?   Willkie’s vision of the world was a world perhaps best depicted in World War II movies, where the Brooklyn Jew, the Indiana farm boy, the Italian from Chicago, and the Polish emigrant from San Francisco all pull together to defeat the Nazis.   Who knew who lost China?   Or who allowed Manchuria to be transformed into a hell?   Give General Cheng a stout straw rope to hang himself.   His obituary should’ve read, “Trust us, arm us and we shall fight the Communist bandits.”   Lying in a grubby room at the Y, not far from the French Quarter, how could Jack have felt the blows amid the shouts of “Get down!” “Get down!” and “Free speech!” “Free speech!” or understood the havoc those words caused in China?   He couldn’t have heard wicked bandits sing their bitter songs.

      “Some say we’re Communist raiders.”

       “Old Chiang, old Chiang, we feel sorry for you.”

       With the possibility of becoming a deck hand or a watchman, and eventually working his way up to mate, to pilot, and finally to skipper, flexing his muscles everyday off and on the water, from New Orleans to Cincinnati and then back down the rivers, why would he want to move on?   Every opportunity had to be considered.   Accordingly, a particular bend, where the Mississippi was so majestic and spirited, spoke to Jack insensibly in a way that he could never have explained.   There he sat for hours, sad and adrift, trying to decide.   He had long talks with long shore men on the docks, fishermen and merchants selling soul food before he turned away from the river.

      Which way to go from there?   Without much drive, he turned his eyes west.   It was the West that first had irrevocably lured him away from home (a more palatable idea than being driven away).   It was the West that would, perhaps, cure his sadness.   The West where his passions would find expression.   It was the West that gave him a reason for losing himself.

        From New Orleans, Jack rode slow trains west.   His face got very dirty and was covered by a partial beard.   He hopped freights.   He would grab boxcar doors or ladders and swing himself up.   Often challenged by a railroad dick yelling, “Where you goin’ boy?”   “To the dogs, you fool!” became his pat answer, which seemed to be the password cops wanted.   Often he shared the car with a group of bums, who didn’t worry about having a frying pan or nothing.   His basic plan was to slice Texas in two.

       He had to learn to worry about nothing, except sometimes shacking up with a goddamn woman in a sleeping bag, which seemed a hell-of-a-lot better than sexy shit in a regular room.   That sounded good, but Jack wanted to throw himself on a horse more.   How about hominy and grits, and arresting someone with a gun?   He’d wear a tin star or become a bounty hunter.   After bouncing an inch or so off splintery floors for days, he was less inclined to think about horses and more ‘bout gitin’ tired.   For a smoother ride, he’d look for a gondola or a flat car and was glad it wasn’t winter.

       Summer had truly come.   He couldn’t drink enough water and roasted.   Drank from Clorax bottles and roasted.   No substitute for water except for the fifty-cent wine drunk by fucked up tramps.   The heat and wine burned them inside out.   Shirts did no good.   So Jack learned about hard knocks the hard way.   He learned that tramping was no snap.   But still riding the rails could get in his blood.   It could get where he wouldn’t want to stop, where he had to keep going; where he didn’t give a shit where he was going as long as he was going because the things he was running from had totally disappeared.

       Friends ate steak out of cans and heated beans on coals until they bubbled.   They carried everything with them, frying pans, oleo, and eggs, except food never kept.   So there was little to wash up.   That made them feel righteous about how little they had.   Jack liked listening to them talk about themselves.   Wanting to be one of them, he told them he was not Jesus Christ.   This surprised them because he looked like a choirboy or a Bible thumper.   For sure he wasn’t telling the goddamn truth about being an atheist.   When he paid lip service to the devil, his listeners seemed sympathetic.   All of them sat around shooting the shit and would pause to acknowledge him with nods.

       Painfully away from a daughter and grandchildren (too ashamed to look them up), Tex called boxcars home.   He was crossing his native state, close to home.   As a vagrant, he felt guilty as charged.   This should’ve satisfied him greatly; and Jack could see, perhaps, it did.   But instead of boots, the old cowboy wore old shoes.   He had nothing to prove that he once rode the rodeo circuit but healed breaks that still gave him fits when it turned wet and cold.   More and more it hurt.

       Jack didn’t know then just how close to the end of the ride the cowboy was.   Yet, at one time he’d been a highly experienced horse wrangler, a character familiar to those who go to the movies, generally recognized as the ranch foreman, a figure of resolute independence and intelligent detachment. T  ex had sadly left the ranch behind after a bitter divorce.   Sad and bitter, he never picked himself up again.   He expected a lonely death, lonely and meaningless.   After he experienced a breakdown, drunken wanderings, drunken moments, drunken memories of drinking, drinking half-serious and half staged: upon the wobbling legs of a drunk, Tex would spill his whiskey.

       Imagine Tex having to fight an Apache standing on a rock, with a rifle aimed at him.   He dives for cover.   At the same time, the tall cowboy spirals deeper into a personal hell and feels bankrupt.   No one can save him. Here was Jack’s West, a bitter parody of the traditional Western, where one man withstood the compulsion to shoot himself or stand in the line of fire of an Apache. P  erhaps Tex still eagerly waited for the cavalry: Jack never knew.   Here was one man’s struggle kindled by living a hard life.   Tex had been a bum, it seemed, practically all of his life. Still he lived by a code born on the frontier, with warring ideas demanding a man to stand tall and not sink into self-pity.   But he still felt in his bones the barren and savage terrain, and was preoccupied with dreams of being taken seriously.

       Tex, the same as Jack, had always looked for a chance to break free.   It was not hard for him to see himself as a lone rider, astride his horse, followed by a pack-pony trotting to keep up.   He lost his bearings more than once.   With his help, Jack entered into a labyrinth of rocks and saw the Apache.   He got off his horse.   Naturally he had a gun in his hand, as he sneaked up on the Apache from the rear.   But Jack couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot the Indian; while he was so keenly absorbed in speculation over rather he would or not, he missed a section of the film that might’ve shaped his whole destiny.

       Jack began thinking that he had no guts. Sitting close to Tex, sitting close enough to touch him, he asked, “Have you ever shot anyone?”

       “No my friend, I only carry a pocket knife.”

       With their defenses stripped away, the link between the two grew stronger. Jack would soon have time to examine every idea in his head, but first he had to listen to a man, who made no effort to be clear.   Jack imagined the old man, with only a few words, making a frontal attack on society.   It would be an expression of theory and chivalry.   “The highest good can be a source of evil, and too often the uncluttered hero dies an irrational death.”

      Gone were the simple, easy answers.   “Idealism suffers in the face of evil,” or “we’re all lost.”   “Sheriffs have to carry long rifles.”   “Heroes are roped and dragged through fire.”   But what did the rope and the fire have to do with Jack?   Yet he couldn’t stop until he caught the outlaw.   As the camera zoomed in on the sheriff, shaking, he cocked his gun.

      Randy Ford

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