Friday, July 31, 2009
It’s my favorite time of the day. I sip a beer watching the sun slowly drop behind the trees. Over water, the air quickly cools. Most boats are heading in, but I paddle on, working hard to ward off the chill. At dusk, the wind has finally died and I pull out a fly rod and work a small spider across the water, quickly picking up a number of blue gills and one small bass. Soon, it’s so dark I’m getting my line tangled. I decide to switch to a spinning rod, to toss a plug across the water to tempt some Leviathan bass to rise up from the deep and strike. But when I look in my sack of tackle, I realize that I don’t have any such plugs with me. A mosquito, taking advantage of the still air, buzzes around my head. The quarter moon and the brightest star, probably Vega, the bright star in the summer sky, are reflected in the still waters of the lake. It’s time to go in. I pick up my paddle and draw it through the water, setting a course to the light across the lake to the boat ramp. It’s been a pleasant evening and I will sleep well.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (Louisiana State University Press, 1980: Blackstone Audio Version, 1997)
It’s an understatement to say that Ignatius J. Reilly is unique. The only thing larger than his body is his ego and vocabulary. Never has there been such a narcissist! And why should Ignatius use a couple small words when a half dozen or more large words would suffice. Not only is he obnoxious, he's weird. He wears a flannel shirt, baggy tweed pants and a hunting cap with ear flaps (as if an arctic storm might strike New Orleans). He's on a crusade against the modern world, drawing his enlightening from a late medieval philosopher, Boethius (Interestingly, I ran across this philosopher twice in one day, once in Toole's book and again in an article I was reading on Dante!). He has a "bad valve" and digestive system and, when things don't go his way, belts out "Oh my God!" and blames someone else (or Fortuna) for his problems. A Confederacy of Dunces is Ignatius story and it is a hoot!
There is something in A Confederacy of Dunces to offend just about everyone except perhaps medieval Catholics (but there aren't too many of them left around). Toole goes after modern Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, Right Wingers, Liberals, Fascists, Communists and Capitalists, Caucasians, African-Americans and homosexuals. No one is safe from Toole's pen; but since just about everyone is included, we can all laugh at ourselves.
Toole had a wonderful ability to create characters. He was a master of dialogue. The reader follows Ignatius around as his mother strives to create a life for herself and to get her son to take responsibility for his own life. The journey starts with Ignatius waiting for his mother in front of the D. H. Holmes Department Store. After an encounter with the police in which an old man is arrested, it quickly moves to the in the Night of Joy, a stripper club where Ignatius and his mother sought refuge. Through his misadventures, we are introduced to a host of unforgettable characters. Lana Lee is the owner of Nazi-like owner of the Night of Joy and Darlene is the clueless stripper. After making a scene in the club, Ignatius and his mother are thrown out and then his mother wrecks her car, putting the family in a financial pinch which necessitates Ignatius getting a job.
Ignatius is hired by Mr. Gonzalez, the office manager for Levy Pants. Gonzalez is just glad to have a body to fill the position. His co-worker is Miss Trixie, a senile accountant who just wants to retire. She is no longer useful and mostly sleeps, but Gonzalez must retain her because Mrs. Levy demands it. Mr. Levy, the second generation owner of the factory, hates Levy Pants and is henpecked by his wife who keeps berating him for not living up to this father's standards and who constantly threatens to tell his daughters about their incompetent father. While working for Levy Pants, Ignatius decides to strike a blow against the system, an act designed to impress Myrna, his former girlfriend. He attempts to lead the factory workers in a coup against Gonzales. The crusade fails when the workers decide they don't want to be arrested for following a fool. Ignatius is fired.
Ignatius next job is as a hot dog vendor, a position that allows him to eat most of the profits. While pushing the cart, he's befriends George, a high school boy who finds his cart a wonderful location to hid his contraband, pornographic pictures. George is in business with Lana Lee. He's also befriended by Dorian Greene (is Toole playing on Dorian Gray?), a gay man who loves to throw parties. Although at first revolted by Dorian (Ignatius refers to him and his friends as "Sodomites), Ignatius decides that maybe they are the key to attacking the modern world. He envisions a society with gays having taken over the world's militaries and spend their time creating fancy uniforms and throwing parties instead of making war. Seeing this as the answer to world peace, he partners with Dorian for a grand party. Dorian and Ignatius have different views of what the party is to be about and in the end, Ignatius flees in the face of three lesbians who are out to do him bodily harm.
Paralleling Ignatius troubles are the happenings at the Night of Joy and the misfortunes of Patrolman Angelo Mancuso. The Night of Joy hires a new janitor, Burma Jones. As an African-American, h e needs a job to avoid a vagrancy charge. Knowing this, he's hired below minimum wage. Throughout the book, he makes snide comments about his wage. The owner often responds by reminding him that if he doesn't have a job, the police would arrest him. He responds, noting there’s something fishy about her "charity work." Like Ignatius, Jones plans to sabotage his employers and in the end, helps Patrolman Mancuso breaks open a high school pornography ring. Mancuso, who at the beginning of the book made a stupid arrest of a grandfather, is sent undercover into the bus station bathroom (a way his sergeant can punish him). In the end, he gets a surprise break. Not only does he receive credit for the break in the pornography ring, he also arrests the three raging lesbians who'd attacked Ignatius. For this, he's in line for a promotion.
Like a Shakespearean comedy, the book concludes with a reversal of fortunes. Ignatius is reunited with Myrna (although one is left wondering how long it will take before they get on each other's nerves). He’s in the backseat of her car as they drive back to New York. Mancuso is no longer in danger of being fired from the police force. Mr. Levy is interested in the well-being of Levy Pants and decides to take up his wife on her suggestion to start a foundation in honor of his father. But as a way to get back at his wife, he decides to honor Burma Jones as the first recipient. Levy had read about Jones in the newspaper account of the arrest at the Night of Joy. Irene, Ignatius' mother, and Claude, the grandfather arrested by Mancuso, are together and untroubled by Ignatius, whom they think is being comfortably cared for at the mental hospital.
I listened to the Blackstone Audio Edition (via Audible.com) on my Ipod. Barrett Whitener, who read the book, did a wonderful job of creating distinctive voices for each of the characters. I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to reading (or listening) to this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book brought me many laughs.
This is my third book in Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge…
Monday, July 27, 2009
I’m posting a couple more photos today: the rail yard at North Platte, Cedar Breaks National Monument and a fire on the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
Union Pacific Train, Upper Colorado River, between Kremmling and Bond
Virgin River, Zion National Park
Road in Capital Reef National Park
Me crawling, Mesa Verde National Park
Road, Utah 128 near Moab, UT
Road, Utah 24, near Hanksville, UT
River Bend, Gooseneck State Park, UT overlooking the San Juan River
Road, Utah 128, near Moab and along the Colorado River
Mesa Verde National Park
Me: Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Snowfields, Rocky Mountain National Park
Saturday, July 25, 2009
I'm back! I'm overwhelmed at the stuff on my desk, but here are a few photos from my absence... I probably should have spent more time organizing them but didn't. I wonder if anyone can guess all their locations? I'll try to get around and see everyone this weekend.
Friday, July 17, 2009
"My Life as a Country Boy: Part 3," or "The Cigarette Czar"
Bert called me into work early. Coming into the store, tying my tie as I walk over to the time clock, I see Bert talking with Ed, one of the two brothers who owned and ran the store. They called me over and tell me they need me to participate in a lie detector test. I was a bit shell-shocked and didn’t have time to object before we were in the office and there was a man with a machine. They had me to sit down and the man, whom I’d never seen, explained a bit how the machine worked and said he’d ask me questions abou. All I could think about were the few bananas or grapes that I’d eaten while mopping the floor at night. I was sweating. Bert and Ed left the room. If I remember correctly, the man put clips on my fingers, much like oxygen sensors used in a hospital. He asked me a bunch of easy questions and then the big one came.
“Have you ever stolen anything from the store?”
I was nervous and decided that my goose had been cooked. I admitted to have eaten a few grapes and a banana or two while there late at night mopping. I tried to rationalize saying there was no one to pay and pointed out that other times I had weight the fruit and left the money on a cash register. The man asked more questions about stealing money or about taking things out of the store. Finally he got to cigarettes and spent some time asking if I or if I knew of anyone who’d stole cigarettes. My answers were honest. I knew of no one who’d stolen money or merchandise.
I was sweating like a pig when he finally finished. Thinking that I was in trouble for my petty thief, I asked him how I did. “I’ll make a report, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he said.
That night, as we were closing, Bert told me what was up. In one of the other stores, they’d discovered a regular criminal ring. The guy who handled the tobacco products was ordering more cases than needed. As this was back before barcode scanners, the only way to know how much product one sold was by home many items were missing from the shelves. According to Bert, the guy would order extra cases and leave them behind a dumpster instead of putting them into the tobacco storage room (which was locked). Then at night, he’d put the cases in his car. He’d been skimming off five cases or so (30 cartoons a case) a week, and selling them to someone who resold the cigarettes up north. When they discovered the ring, they decided to have all key employees (those who handled lots of money like the cashier supervisors as well as those who handled tobacco products) take a lie detector test. I had no idea whether or not it was legal, but I was glad to have survived and to know that I wasn’t going to be fired for being the great grape thief.
About six months after I started working at Wilson’s, the guy who’d handled the cigarettes went off to college and Bert asked me if I’d be interested. I’m sure he was hoping he’d have me for several years in the position, which turned out to be the case. Furthermore, I was a good candidate because I didn’t smoke. At that time, it was legal to smoke in North Carolina when you were fifteen, but the store’s policy was to use non-smokers to handle tobacco products. This was in the fall of 1973 and at that time, in North Carolina, a carton of regular cigarettes (ten packs) sold for $1.89. Do the math. That’s about the 1/3 of the cost of a pack today. If you wanted the longer cigarettes, it was a dime more for a carton. By the time I left the store in the summer of 1976, cigarettes had jumped to $2.39 and $2.49 a carton.
Every day I worked, I spent about half an hour filling the shelves with tobacco products. This also meant that I had to work more days in order to keep the shelves stocked. On Wednesday, it took me several hours as I first helped unload the truck, rotated the shelves and fill the depleted ones, straighten up the tobacco room in the back and then make the order for the next week. It was fun to project how many you’d think you’d need and people were mad when you didn’t have their brands. We sold lots of Winstons and Salems and Marlboros. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it seems I generally ordered 30 cases of each of those brands. We also sold a fair number of Camels as well as Virginia Slims which were become the cigarette of choice for women. In the summer, we sold more as tourists would stock up before heading back north. There were a number of smaller brands that we might only sell a carton or two a week. As you wanted to keep your product fresh, we’d only have five or six cartons in the store at any one time. Occasionally a tourist would come in looking for some old brand, like a Chesterfield, and buy us out.
In the summer of 1976, between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I took a job at the bakery. Bert asked if I’d like to stay on and continue to do the cigarettes and I agreed. At the time, I thought I’d be back at the store in the fall, when school resumed. Bert and Ed were talking to me about becoming what was known as “the third man,” in a new store they were building. When the manager and assistant manager were off, I’d be in charge and would have to close up the store a few nights a week. It sounded good to a college kid, but then at the end of the summer, Don, the Production manager at the bakery, asked if I’d like to stay on through the school year. He assured me that they’d keep me on second shift so I could attend classes in the morning. They were paying me more than the grocery store was offering and Don even hinted that I’d be in line for a supervisor. I agreed to stay on at the bakery and right before school started back, I trained my friend Tom to take over the cigarette business at Wilsons. Two years later, I became a supervisor at the bakery.
Other stories about working in the grocery store: Part 1, Part 2
Stories about working in the bakery: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Friday, July 10, 2009
Kevin tagged me on facebook, but I’m going to answer him here. It’s been a while since I’ve done a meme, but books are always fun to talk about. As with Kevin, I am avoiding using the same book more than once…
1. What author do you own the most books by? Hard to say and I ain’t going to count them… It may be John Calvin. Of authors whom I read ever word of the books I’ve own, it could be Mark Twain, Edward Abbey or Herman Hesse
2. What book do you own the most copies of? Bible (but they are different versions)
3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions? It was a bit awkward, but if I let that bother me, I ain’t living right.
4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with? Christine in Oscar Lewis’ I Remember Christine
5. What book have you read the most times in your life? It would have to be the Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton! It was my daughter's favorite book and I probably read it at least once a day for two years... I miss those years. As a more serious book, it would probably be Herman Hesse’ Siddhartha.
6. Favorite book as a ten year old? It was a biography of Daniel Boone
7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year? I haven’t yet finished it… but I’m thinking it’ll be An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, & Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River by Steven Wise (And, as if you can guess by the title, the book is really about the pork industry. If you did guess that, I want to talk to you about stock tips!).
8. What is the best book you’ve read in the past year? Rick Bragg, Ava’s Man
9. If you could force everyone you know to read one book, what would it be? Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue
10. What book would you most like to see made into a movie? Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang
11. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read? It would have to be my pitiful attempts to read either Don Quixote or the Gospel of John in the original languages.
12. What is your favorite devotional book? The Psalms
13. What is your favorite play? Shakespeare’s Macbeth
14. Poem? Dante’s Divine Comedy
15. Essay? Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam
16. Who is the most overrated writer alive today? Dan Brown
17. What is your desert island book? Roy Blount’s book of Southern Humor
18. And...what are you reading right now? John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces
Feel free to "tag yourself" and answer the questions. If you do so, leave a comment below so I can go over and check out some of your favorite books (when I am back in town). Next week, I'm posting another story from my first job, back at the time I was the cigarette czar in a local grocery store. Stay tuned.
Sunday, July 05, 2009
Thursday, July 02, 2009
“This street used to be bustling with noise,” I think, as I stroll down Main Street, Treasure City. The sounds of wagons and the clicking hooves from horses, added to the cussing of teamsters, the pounding of stamp mills and the music from saloons would have too much. But I swear I can still hear voices in the brisk wind, bringing a chill the summer air. My belly is full. Ralph and I had just eaten a steak and a baked potato, along with a salad. We’d drown it with a beer. Before hitting the sack, I decide to walk the length of the road. Ralph stays behind to tend the fire. The distant mountains are turning purple. This street had once a thriving business district with forty stores and a dozen saloons, but today just the shells of collapsing rock structures remain.
By the time I get back to the truck, Ralph has let the fire die down and is already in his sleeping bag. I blow up my mattress and rolled my bag out on the other side of the truck. Plopping down, I watch the summer stars and listen to the wind and Ralph’s snoring. Soon, I too am asleep. I wake at first light. The wind has died and silence seems eerie. While the coffee perks, I explore some nearby ruins. The evening before, I’d made sure I had stayed on the road, knowing the mountain was pitted with mine shafts and a wrong step could send you several hundred feet down and into oblivion.
In the later part of the 1860s, miners from Austin and the Reese River Mining District in search of another mother lode discovered rich in what became the White Pine Mining District. One of the first discoveries, in 1865, was named Monte Christo. It’s just a few miles west of here. From there, miners set out in all directions and in 1867, discovered what became known as Treasure Hill, the mountain upon which we’d camped. The land was unforgiving. There was little shade in the summer and well above 8,000 feet, the winters were brutal. But with some of the ore as pure silver chloride and assayed as high as $15,000 a ton, people were willing to put up with the hardships. By 1869, Treasure City with a population of 6,000 had been established on top of the mountain. There were nearly 200 mines along with ten mills to crush the ore into powder, in preparation to leaching out the silver and gold. A water company laid pipe and had the ability to pump 60,000 gallons a day to the top of the thirsty mountain. But it was all short lived. Most mines played out after a few hundred feet and the rock proved a formable challenge. Early in 1870, the excitement began to wane. By the end of 1870, only 500 people remained. In 1880, when the Post Office closed, there were only 24 people left living on the mountain.
“Many of [the mines] do not represent any good accomplishment and have no right to be. They are monuments of fraud and ignorance—sin against science. The drifts and tunnels in the rocks may be regarded as the prayers of the prospectors offered for the wealth he so earnestly craves; but like prayers of any kind not in harmony with nature, they are unanswered.” (Elliott, 105)
Our first stop is at the site of Osceola, where in 1872, a unique mining community was established. Hard rock mining is the norm in Nevada, as miners dig and blast into rock for ore which has to be crushed and chemically treated to extract the precious metals. However, in Osceola, most of the ore was free and in sediment and could be placer mined. As in many of the California gold fields, all that was needed were shovels and pans and perhaps a sluice box. The only difficulty with placer mining here was the lack of water. Early in the town’s history, a ditch was dug up Wheeler Peak, where water was diverted to the town. This mining district boasts the largest gold nugget ever found in Nevada. There is not much left of the town that existed here for nearly fifty years. Fires, the bane of mining camps, sent most of the town up into smoke. Modern mining operations what little was left. Only the graveyard remains along with some mining equipment that has been used more recently in modern attempts to mine the region. Interestingly, even with gold near historic lows (this was in the late-90s), there’s still a few people mining in this district.
Leaving the cemetery behind, we drive out of the canyon and head west, across an alluvial fan and toward the highway. Reconnecting to US 50, we continue on to Ely where we stop and have lunch at the historic Hotel Nevada. I suggest we eat on the road to make better time, but Ralph cringes. “If I can’t sit down and enjoy my meal, I’m not living right,” he insists. After lunch, we continue west on US 50, passing the huge open pit copper mine at Ruth and thirty minutes later, the Illipah Ranch. Somewhere between Ely and Eureka, we abandon the pavement and head south on a gravel road.
Hamilton is our first stop, nine miles south of US 50. It sits on the north side of Treasure Hill and served as a logistical point for the various mining communities south of here. The town was first called Cave City as so many miners from the mountains sought refuge there in caves during the harsh winters. As mining flourished in the region, a town was laid out and by the spring of 1869, more than 10,000 people lived here. It became the county seat for the newly established White Pine County and a courthouse was constructed. Stage coaches connected the town to Austin and Pioche and the railroad at Elko. But the town’s life was short. The excitement lasted on a few years and by the time of the 1870 census, less than 4,000 people remained. The town struggled on. In 1873, a shopkeeper by the name of Cohen, seeing his investment falter, set his store on fire in the hopes of collecting on his insurance. The fire spread and much of the town burned. Another fire destroyed the courthouse in 1885 and in 1887, the town’s future died as the county seat was moved to Ely. Today, only a few ruins and a cemetery remain. There’s plenty of mining junk left out, along with the leftovers of a cyanide leaching operation and a few junked house trailers which were used in the last attempt to mine in the area. We see no one as we poke around.
After Hamilton, we head south to Treasure City, located just a mile and a half from Hamilton, but on top of the mountain. We take the wrong road and I find myself out in front of the truck with a shovel, clearing rocks as we make our way up a switchback road to the top. Had we known, another road to the west would have taken us to the top without any trouble. It’s getting time for dinner and we find a place along Main Street where we stop for the evening. I build a charcoal fire. As soon as we have coals, I put in two foil wrapped potatoes and, in a wire basket, begin to grill the steaks we had socked away in the cooler. As the sun drops toward the horizon, the wind picks up and soon we’re both pulling on jackets. We eat dinner, washing it down with a beer. I throw a few pieces of pinion onto the coals and the fire blazes. After chatting for a bit, I take off on my walk.
The next morning, we head south off the mountain and stop by the sites for Shermantown and Eberhardt. We link up to the Hamilton-Pioche stagecoach trail and follow it to US 6. Turning left, he head back into Ely in time for lunch and to gas up the truck. Then we head south, stopping at the Ward Charcoal Kilns, a state historic site. It’s interesting that there was a large charcoal operation in this desert region. All the pinion and juniper from miles around had to be cut to feed these massive kilns. The charcoal was mostly used to roast the ore in the milling process. Leaving the kilns behind, we head down US 93, stopping at Pioche, another mining town. Pioche is still alive and holding on now as an out-of-the-way tourist town. The community received a new lease on life in World War Two, at a time when the government was forcing the closure of gold mines as non-essential industries. But the ground around Pioche included large deposits of zinc, which was considered an essential mineral for the war effort. Zinc mining continued on in Pioche till the 1980s. We stop long enough to have dinner at the Overland Saloon, and then headed on home. At Panaca, a Mormon farming community, we leave US 93 and head east, toward Cedar City. An hour later, as we approach the city with the sun setting to our back, the red hills glow in the evening light.
Sources of Information:
Shawn Hall: Romancing Nevada’s Past: Ghost Towns and Historical Sites of Eureka, Lander and White Pine Counties (University of Nevada Press, 1994)
W. Turrentine Jackson, Treasure Hill, (University of Arizona Press, 1962)
Russell R. Elliott, History of Nevada, revised edition. (University of Nebraska Press, 1987).