Thursday, June 29, 2006

Here are some of Red Haw State Park's redbuds in bloom along the west side of a small cove off the south shore of Red Haw Lake. Posted by Picasa

This is another view of redbuds in bloom along a cove off the south shore of Red Haw Lake. Posted by Picasa

Finally, these are red haw blossoms on a specimen tree that grows near the park ranger's house. Posted by Picasa

Red Haw's Redbuds

Although named for the red haw (hawthorn) trees that grow there, redbud trees are the springtime wonders at Red Haw State Park, a mile east of Chariton, underplanted in the woods around the lake and elsewhere. Quite a show!

These photos were taken during early May, on a Sunday afternoon when the redbuds were at their best and the park was full of people admiring them. I intended to put them here then, but didn't quite get around to it.

Red Haw, built during the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps project, is a great little park with a classic stone shelter house from the CCC era that serves as a venue for everything from picnics to weddings --- even funerals now and then.

An interesting footnote involves the fact that if it ever gets really dry in Lucas County, those of us who live in Chariton are entitled to drink the lake! That's because when its dam blocked the creek above the lakes that provide Chariton's regular source of water during the 1930s, the city wisely reserved the right to tap Red Haw Lake if those lower lakes went dry. Iowa's Department of Natural Resources got nasty about that a few years ago, forcing Chariton to go to court to affirm its right to Red Haw water if worse comes to worst.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Heath Ledger (left) as Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist. Posted by Picasa

Brokeback Fever

You know that movie about those two gay cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist? Darned embarrassing at my age, but I’ve got me a bad case of Brokeback Mountain fever. Joined the Ultimate Brokeback Mountain Forum a while back. May look for a Brokeback Mountain support group before long, too.

Fact is, that’s me and my first Jack up there on Brokeback around 1963 and I already knew every word, every move, every touch and every whisker. Painful to watch the first time. A kick in the gut. I just sat down and bawled about it. Coming home after 40 years away. Hard thing to do.

It seems to affect most of my people that way.

I was late seeing Brokeback. Gave up on theaters long time ago, so waited for Wal-Mart. Was rewarded by the DVD checkout gal’s little smirk: “Are you sure you’re at least 17?” Lots older than that, ma’am; earned every wrinkle and every spot.

Maybe she didn’t mean anything by it, but that sure did take me back to when you had to be real careful about what you bought and where you got it ’cause you didn’t want anybody to guess you might be queer --- even though they always did and let you know it.

Here’s my clumsy Brokeback summary: Ennis and Jack, both 19 and dumb like all us country boys were then, get jobs together herding sheep on an allotment up on Brokeback somewhere in Wyoming during 1963, fall in love, love a lot, then come off the mountain that autumn, part, get married and have kids.

We were all supposed to get married and have kids back in those days. Remember? Find a good woman, boy, and you’ll get over it. Lots of good women out there with big holes in their hearts because of that. Ennis and Jack didn’t get over it either.

Jack was the starry-eyed one, ready to give love a chance. Ennis was the practical one: “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” he says. And so they stood it for 20 years, Ennis in Wyoming and Jack in Texas, getting together a couple of times a year, fishing up on Brokeback. You damn well know those fishing lines never got wet.

Then Jack dies, and Ennis, long divorced, has daughters he adores but an otherwise empty heart. Closing scene in a banged up old trailer. Ennis walks to a closet where two bloodied-up shirts saved by Jack from that first Brokeback summer nestle one inside the other, hanging beside a cheap postcard view of the mountain. “I swear, Jack,” he says. Fade out.

Seems like simple stuff. But Annie Proulx’s short story is a wonder. She’s straight, you know, and how she got it so right I don’t know. Maybe it really is that universal love story they talk about. Film’s a wonder, too. Beautifully made by Ang Lee, it moseys along like most cowboys I’ve known, but under everything there’s something and behind what you see the first time is something else. Dead-on acting, even if Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are straight boys not used to simulating gay sex and kissing men. You’d never know it. Dead-on to the way it was back then, too. I swear.

Thing is, it’s so good the line between fiction and fact isn’t there. That’s the power. I’m not qualified to talk about how straight people see it, but every gay male I’ve run into and a good share of lesbians, too, see themselves in it, or reflected. My people have never had anything this good before.

Like I said, that’s me up there. Not nearly so good-looking, damn it. But my Jack was and he grew up Wyoming cowpoke and dirt poor, too. I grew up farm boy. Brokeback mountain wasn’t ours, so we didn’t go up it. We went down Ten Sleep instead. A big piece of my heart’s still somewhere in that red canyon, not far off the road over the Big Horns from Buffalo to Worland.

After Vietnam, my Jack came back to Wyoming and tried wrangling dudes for a while. Couldn’t take it, did that Jack thing and moved to Denver. Good life there, but AIDS came along and got him. No fix for that then, so he did it the cowboy way with a clean shot through the head, just like he’d done it for an old horse with a broken leg up in the high country years before. We left him scattered in the mountains, too.

After Vietnam, I did the Ennis thing: Came back to Iowa. Still here. Still alive. Transfixed by places, hooked on people. A couple of other Jacks after that, an Ennis or two, some damnfoolishness in between.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve gotten love, given love and have no more regrets than anybody else I know, gay or straight. But man it was hard to go back to the beginning and watch it all again. So I started talking about it, mostly with people like me, mostly riding the online range. Thousands of us out there doing that.

Here’s some of the stuff I heard. No way scientific but a fair account I think.

A lot of us, especially the younger ones, start blaming Jack and Ennis for the troubles those two had back then. Why they should have just rode off into the sunset, found that little ranch and settled down together. In a way this blame game’s good, because it means things have gotten better and lots of us are doing just that nowadays. But I’m here to tell you it was real hard to do back then, especially in the country. If you wanted to stay alive. Can’t forget that, boys and girls.

A lot of us see our own screwed up relationships and missed opportunities in Jack and Ennis. Some of us beat ourselves up pretty bad. Shouldn’t do that. Others start making resolutions and promises to themselves not to let it happen again. Good. Just remember to carry through when that DVD wears out.

A lot of us blame you straight folks and we’re still mad. But you know, you did do your best to make us miserable when we were kids and you knew we were vulnerable. You called us names, beat us up, kicked us out, fired us when we got older, spit on our relationships, killed us if you felt like it and then, when we got AIDS, said for a long time that we deserved it. That’s why a hell of chunk of my generation’s dead. That takes a lot of getting over, cowpokes.

A lot of the folks I’ve talked to identify as Christian. Now isn’t that funny? The church as a whole is not our friend. There’s the United Church of Christ and those Unitarian Universalists, bless ‘em, plus a few specifically gay outfits. Yea, there are some friendly people behind some church doors. But the majority just figures they’re in charge of that old express bus to glory and maybe they’ll let us sit in back or maybe they won’t let us on at all.

Thing is I guess, Jesus isn‘t like that. Jack and Ennis watched out for those sheep, and He’s out there on old Brokeback with us now. Found a lot of us long time ago and He’s looking for the rest. He made us like this, you know, and never gives up calling. Just stands there with wide open arms hollering something like, “Jack Twist, I swear.” Doesn’t pull a Bible and fire point-blank. Just grabs ahold and hangs on tight. Real easy to talk to. So many of us call ourselves Christians because of that and figure what goes on between Him and us is nobody’s business but ours.

That‘s where epiphany comes in, that big word that just means sometimes all of a sudden, probably when you’re not even looking, grace knocks you flat, floods in and you know you’re home.

Lots of gay men, especially us older ones, gave up on happy endings long time ago. So a lot of guys who look at that last scene in Brokeback and see Ennis standing there at that closet, about 40 now, looking at those two old shirts and that postcard, figure that’s all there is, the end.

But neither the short story nor the movie specifies that; they leave it to us to write the rest of the story --- just like life does.

“I swear, Jack,” Ennis says, and that hard old conflicted heart of his cracks wide open and begins to fill. At least that‘s the way I see it.

My first Jack rode off into the sunset long ago, and there goes Ennis now --- another good man beside him I’ll damn well bet.

Kind of hope I don’t get over Brokeback fever. But what ever happens buckaroos, gay and straight, I hope grace finds you and that you find your Jack or Ennis, too. That’s all there is, you know.

And that’s about as straight as this queer old wrangler can tell it. Cowboy up!

Judy Corbett's "Castles in the Air." Posted by Picasa

Books less traveled: Castles in the Air

Problem is, we’ve run out of places to run to. That used to be part of the answer when the world went nuts. Or when you started waking up in the morning thinking the best way to deal with the neighbors might be just to shoot ’em, putting everybody out of their misery thataway. Saddle up old Blaze (or pack the wife and kids in a wagon) and head west.

Like I said, that’s a problem now: The West’s a gonner, overrun by new money and old tourists. We ran out of it maybe 50 years ago.

You can still hitch up to a book, though, and that’s some relief. To my mind one of the best places to look is down a lesser-traveled path, maybe in the “travel narrative” section at Borders (certainly not among the best-sellers).

Take Judy Corbett’s “Castles in the Air” for example. My idea of a good read --- sit down to graze and find you can’t stop until you’ve swallowed it whole.

Granted, you’ve got to like a yarn where the main character is a cranky old house --- in this case Gwydir Castle near Llanrwst in North Wales --- to like this book. But I do, and did.

Corbett, a bookbinder, and her spouse, Peter Welford (an architectural historian), got fed up with the 20th/21st century, too; saddled up and headed west to the 16th.

When Corbett and Welford found Gwydir, seat of the once-powerful Wynn family, during the early 1990s it was heading toward dereliction. Rebuilt on the site of an earlier house by Meredith Wynn about 1490, it had survived quite nicely into early 20th century, then suffered a variety of indignities --- gutted of its contents (including the paneling and other fittings of two of its most important rooms) during a 1920s auction, damaged by fire, victimized by a 1970s “restoration.” Finally, it had deteriorated into a squalid nightclub and home to squatters with failing roof and in the opinion of many --- including Britain’s National Trust --- beyond redemption.

As sometimes inexplicably happens, however, Corbett and Welford fell in love, scraped together enough cash, bought the relic --- along with 10 acres of overgrown garden --- and moved in during November of 1994.

Thereby hangs the tale of its gradual restoration, bit by bit, stone by stone, slate by slate, never with adequate financial resources, always with leaking roof and during most of the process with no heat other than that provided by open fires.

The story is replete with ghosts --- among others an ancient hound and perhaps Lady Margaret Cave, who turned nasty when Corbett and Welford decided to turn their partnership into a marriage --- but mercifully short on sex and violence, excepting the damage a damp, cold, falling-down old house can do.

A major Welford coup was discovering that the fittings of Gwydir’s grand Jacobean dining room had been purchased for William Randolph Hearst, then abuilding San Simeon, at that 1920s auction, packed into 14 crates weighing six tons and shipped to the United States --- then never unpacked. They found the untouched crates in a remote Manhattan warehouse, among holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with help from Cawd, the Welsh historic monuments association, purchased the fittings and returned them to their rightful home at Gwydir.

Like all good yarns, this one has a happy (continuing) ending --- restoration of Gwydir’s dining room attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, who paid the Welfords a royal visit during 1998.

And today, with its roof and other parts secured, the restoration continues as the Welfords raise operating cash from tourists and bed-and-breakfast patrons.

Gwydir has its own Web site, if you’d like to take a look:

Corbett, Judy, “Castles in the Air,” London: Ebury Press (Random House), 2004. Available in paperback for about $14.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Names ...

EIGHT HUNDRED AND FIFTY-THREE NAMES have power, punched alphabetically into slabs of black granite; more power when read mindfully, one by one.

Sun-baked Sunday before Decoration Day and early. We brought beer, cigarettes and roses; combat veteran and Saigon warrior (me), odd couple, old and scruffy by dawn’s early light.

This was Des Moines, down a path southeast of the Capitol at the Iowa Vietnam memorial, a curved shadow of that big Wall in D.C. with 58,249 names on it. A small ritual, nothing special, and why this year I'm not sure.

Already under the names when we got there: Peonies with stems wrapped in a damp cloth and tied up with string. Somebody's mother had been there, maybe.

A FEW DAYS LATER and sitting around up here with other folks and talking about military plans to teach combat ethics to troops now that word of an apparent massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha is getting around.

“Teaching killers ethics?” one guy asks. A slip of the tongue I suppose.

A COMMON DENOMINATOR that links all veterans of all wars is a need to justify --- to make sense of it, to explain what was seen and done, to fit it into something bigger. For some of us, it’s just one of those exercises life imposes. For others, sanity depends on it. Most work on it quietly, never say a thing.

It’s been hard to justify Vietnam, but for years I thought I had it down pretty good. We bought time and life for millions of younger ones, ended the draft, fixed it so they didn’t have to live with war, so they could be self-indulgent and shop. You wondered sometimes if they were worth it --- and still do --- but that’s just getting old.

SEPTEMBER 11 and Afghanistan come along. No huge problem there. Afghanistan had to be done you tell yourself.

Then Iraq, and you begin to think those good old boys and girls in Washington might be forgetting a few things and you begin to wonder.

Don’t start a war unless you’re 99 percent sure you can finish it; never underestimate the enemy; don’t plow into cultures you don’t understand if you can avoid it; never lose sight of what combat will do to the youngsters you send into it.

And that most inconvenient of the new commandments, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as theyself."

Now that alleged massacre in Haditha.

Well what did you expect? Forget My Lai? It was much bigger, much worse. But this is the same chapter, just a different verse.

I DON'T WATCH much TV, but happened to see a Monday night special on PBS: "American Experience: Two Days in October" that juxtaposed 17 October 1967, the day 64 of 142 U.S. troops died in a Viet Cong ambush in Vietnam, with 18 October 1967, the day police responded with extreme brutality to a large anti-war protest on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Anybody else remember that, when America was so badly divided over the Vietnam War that we had a war within a war back home?

You can argue till kingdom come about that one, too, but one result was undeniable: the total disconnect between the soldiers in Vietnam and many of the folks back home they’d been told they were fighting for.

Friends of mine got off planes in the U.S., frazzled and worn out, and were taunted. One guy I knew, escorting the body of a KIA buddy home to Missouri, was spit on. Hadn’t done a thing to deserve it.

I'M AFRAID it’s going to happen again. That’s why “teaching killers ethics?” scared me. I think this war will end the way Vietnam did; declare victory and walk away. That this is the way many will start to think about our soldiers, Marines, corpsmen, airmen.

They’re talking about a new memorial, maybe out at the new veterans’ cemetery near Van Meter, for Iowa’s dead from Afghanistan and Iraq. Forty-one now, I think; but many more scarred mentally, pieces blown away.

I’m scared about how many names will be on that memorial before everything’s said and done. Scared for those whose names won’t be there.

I’m scared we’ll forget that the fingers that pulled those triggers in Iraq were extensions of ours, that they were us.

I’m scared that when we scramble to find someone else to blame for this war that we’ll betray another generation of the young, those we’ve been calling heroes (they would not call themselves that, you know; it's just our way of making ourselves feel better). Then turn away.

JUSTIFICATION. I didn't have it worked out that well after all. But there’s something else, and my buddy could tell you more about it than I can because he lived it.

Those politicians, Memorial Day orators and others will tell you those kids died for freedom. But if you get right down to it, in the blood and guts of a war zone, they live, fight and die for each other.

How does the Good Book put it? "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

If you don’t get that, try this: They die for your sins, and mine; did it then, do it now --- day after bloody day.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Land of the free, home of the brave

Ya know, it's probably time to get this thing going again. Been a while for no particular reason other than local history takes time and I kept running out of it. So the future probably will include more introspection and less history. Don't mean to disappoint, but it is my blog, after all.

Visiting this morning with a friend in England about British vs. American television (and my affection for expensive British mystery series on DVD) got me to thinking.

I do not watch television at all here in Mason City during the work week, but sometimes do evenings at the house in Chariton. Two programs this weekend past were especially affecting. PBS's "Frontline: The Age of AIDS" astonished me by jerking me back and reminding me how much fury, frustration and sorrow a few years had managed to dilute --- The U.S. has a very short attention span and once reasonably effective H.I.V. medication was available here and the death rate slowed, we managed to almost stop thinking about it, even though some 40 million or more are now infected worldwide. They are mostly "those people," black and/or poor, gay, I.V. drug users, of course, and although we are a remarkable nation, we are a remarkably prejudiced one, too. Sorry to say, I realized I'd almost stopped thinking about it as well. Mustn't do that.

The other, "American Experience: Two Days in October," juxtaposed 17 October 1967, the day 64 of 142 U.S. troops died in a Viet Cong ambush in Vietnam, with 18 October 1967, the day police responded with extreme brutality to a large student anti-war protest on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. That one broke my heart.

I was vulnerable.

Met a buddy of mine (a combat veteran; I was a Saigon warrior --- military intelligence) at the Vietnam memorial in Des Moines early Sunday. He brought beer and cigarettes (for them, not us; such things were sacred over there back then), I brought roses and we sat down and read the 853 names on the memorial one-by-one and then bawled about it --- early, as I said, so at least we didn't make a public spectacle of ourselves.

It's 80 (F), sunny and clear here in the heartland this morning, and I've got to get to Super Wal-Mart, where hundreds of us will be scrambling for thousands of things we don't need --- all under one roof; just what those guys fought and died for. It takes courage to go to Wal-Mart at mid-morning, but we don't call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave for nothing.