Sunday, May 31, 2009

True Grit

This last week was the birthday of John Wayne. One of my childhood heroes. He was a man's man, a true warrior. I can't imagine "the Duke" eating Arugula Salad and hugging people who openly state that the U.S. is evil.

Do you think any of us as little kids would have watched Gun Smoke if Marshall Dillon, when confronted by evil, started a petition drive? No. Our heroes were people like Matt Dillon and the Cartrights, the Rifleman, and for my older brothers, the Lone Ranger. The shows themselves all had a elemental core of justice, fair play, truth, sportsmanship. Firearms were common and shown in a positive light, as instruments of protecting the weak, weapons to defeat evil.
Such shows are rare today with regards to showing a true measure of the human spirit. That as why, as a kid John Wayne was my hero. Though the majority of his movies came out before I was born, many of them left an ineffable mark on my young spirit. No one particular film stands out for me, though all were excellent (OK, Jet Pilot was lame but it had some great aerial shots, especially footage of the F-84). I don't think it was the quality of his acting that made one take notice; it was the measure of the man he was, and portrayed. I was glad when he finally got an Oscar for True Grit, though I was too young to see or remember that.

I don't believe the award came so much for his acting in this particular film, but for his lifetime body of work. Yet I could never forget the climatic moment in the film where the grizzled old marshal confronts the four villains and calls out: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will it be?" "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," their leader sneers. Then Duke cries, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and, reins in his courage, rushing at them while firing both guns. Those four outlaws did not provide a threat at the next sunset.

Foolish perhaps. The last time I charged multiple targets they were printed on paper. One a man, one an Al Qaeda terrorist with an automatic weapon and the other two a gopher and a squirrel (we were running a bit low on targets that day). Foolish yes. But I pray that I never become so jaded by life that I can not summon that same risk spirit to protect my country or the life I hold dear.
He wasn't the perfect man, and he was often criticized. Ironically, Wayne, who angered John Ford by avoiding service in WWII for fear it would interrupt the momentum of his career, would be remembered in a few folks people’s minds as having won that global conflict single-handedly, thanks to films like The Sands of Iwo Jima. Many people find only true patriotism in his movies and see him as flesh and blood symbol of America, the land of the free and home of the brave, while others ridiculed him as a symbol of their America, the worlds superpower, the land of Peace Thru Superior Firepower. Whichever you believe, you have to admit he had an honesty in living and a grace in the face of this criticism, that showed us all what we should be, a person of honor, an defender of what they believe is right and true, and the force of America as a nation united.

Sadly now, the West is not the West of our youth, the true cowboys of spirit being crowded inland and south, hunkering down on the open plains where you can hear the sound of thundering buffalo among the afternoon thunderclouds. The West I remember is now socialized and urban, its citizens pining for things it can not afford while looking to others to fix their problems. Where I live, if something breaks you fix it, if the fence is down you mend it. Gardens are tended and food canned, and when threatened by others we circle the wagons and care for ourselves. My friends in Reno and LA and the Valley laugh at my longing for this life, as they drive 2 hours in traffic to go back an forth to houses almost empty of furniture because they bought a 5 bedroom house for one person. They posture for social position while maneuvering for easy money. There's a few true Cowboys in spirit out West, but they are fewer and fewer. That's just not a life I want any more.


I came to the southern Midwest as a young bride, and I learned fast. Spring snowstorms thawing into mucky puddles into which new life was coming. Calving season. In the cold I learned about impending birth, in the heat of a barn I learned about death. I've pulled more than one calf from a womb when I was all alone, arm rubbed with Betadyne and lube, the contractions almost breaking my arm. I learned to cut a recalcitrant Longhorn calf from a herd of very pointy parents to tend to an injury with a shot of cortisone. Nights ran into days and days to nights with only the wet of birth water and burnt coffee to keep us going after a day spent already outdoors. It's a life that's prepared me for the one I live now.

Nothing is so very entwined with life as birth and watching the new ones come into the world with last century technology and only ourselves to assist, was a lesson that many old timers would understand. That little calf whom I assisted that last night, as my husband was hours late and the phone lay silent, took every bit of strength I had to free her. But Mama had been in labor four hours, the calf was stuck, and I had to do something or lose both of them. Yet, with work and grit he was born, soon suckling my finger as Mama tried simply to breathe, resting uncaring against the wood slicked with fluid and red. I hold him up to check and weigh him, and she hears, stumbles over to lick him. Mothers love. Wonder. They'll both be OK. Their barn this night will be filled with light.


Exhaustion drove me to the farm house, unusually dark and quiet except for the bark of our black labs, myself, quietly concerned about the darkness when the house should be lit, anxious for hot water and the sleep of life, not death. Sleep did not come that night, but the strength of the land was already in me, and life did go on, even if I did it alone.

I had my share of chores before, now I had chores for two. I had to rally myself up early to tend to the place, at the rooster's crow at first light, rising early as poets do. Lighting a fire from antique ashes, assembling my spirit from wounds and balm, from water pump to barn stall. Time beginning with measured intent, and from seeds and the dry bones of the land, I grew, I tended. Whatever the hand of circumstance had brought, it was my duty, to be there on time. To reconcile hot and cold, dark and bright, richly expanding a much bruised heart, to nourish the land or the trusting beast in the stall.

The days of living a comfy life of subdivisions and parties out West were gone. Time went back a hundred years, the days slowing to a crawl of duty and need; long nights crying for something I didn't know until too late that I needed. A time when everything seemed looming, demanding, large and unchanging. I heard a cow moan low for her calf in the distance. Or was that me?

My hero John Wayne would not have given up; neither would I. So I stayed until the cattle were gone and the small bit of land was sold to cover the debts and I could move on. Move on, not back to the city from whence I was married, but to this life that had honed me like the landscape, a life black and white in values and history. I left in an old Buick with just my clothes, some cookbooks and my furry friends, but I took with me a life that I had earned. A life I know I could not live without.

"There's right and there's wrong," the Duke said in The Alamo. "You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around but in reality you're dead.".

When I arrived here I was pretty well flat bloke, and would now, not be considered rich, but what I have is mine, earned with my sweat and maintained through my own actions. The sky is clear and blue, the land rich and strong, those that tend it are pioneers, of that earth, of the principals on which this land was founded. I would not trade that for a McMansion in the city, for any amount of promise and wealth. For I have my home on the land that I love, a house in which old Westerns would play, and rustlers and shooters and renegades would gather around, but only for lasagna and an old John Wayne movie after our successful gunfight with some bowling pins and steel plates.

Look to future, John Wayne said "tomorrow - the time that gives a man just one more chance - is one of the many things that I feel are wonderful in life.". We do get other chances. With the birthing of heifers sometimes there were losses. But I never cursed the poor things as they lay dying, nor threw their bodies into the truck with more force than was needed. The past is past. You can cry and rant and rave, but that won't change what's ceased to breathe. We can only fight for what we have. What we still have.

Tonight, I pull the little barn door closed one last time, heading in to see if there's anything decent on TV. Something other than the news on the Hill of greed and finger pointing and the hollow words of those that wish to change the very core of what made the West at one time great.

Like Mr. Wayne, I'm intensely proud of being an American. The being and cadence of a life of freedom, to work, to arm myself, to defend and expand that which I've worked for. Influenced by a bygone era of good guys and bad guys, it is part of who I am, defining both fury and faith. It influences my passions, and resonates always in the sound of a gunshot across the land that I own, gathering food for my cupboard, gathering strength.

There are so many things that are great about life, about this country. But many of them are already in the past, and we will have to work hard to retain and protect our tomorrows. As The Duke said, tomorrow is the most important thing. It comes in to us at midnight very clean, it's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. The hands may end up stained with blood and sweat but they are the hands of hard work. The hands of hope. I hope those hands are strong enough for the tasks that lie ahead.


34 comments:

Warthog said...

It's been said here a million times but, damn you write beautifully.

Again, my hearty thanks for sharing.

Matt said...

Lady Brigid,

I enjoyed the sunday post, although it is yet to be sunday where I'm at. John Wayne was my hero too, although often I could relate more easily to his side-kicks. I still believe The Shootist was possibly his greatest movie.

May the blessing of light be upon you—
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.

Carteach0 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jimm ny said...

Well said, nowadays kids look to these Metrosexuals and drug-dealer turned rapper turned action star... its sad. Think the Duke wouold enjoy that " Not hardly" or "That'll be the day"...
Two others you might like "Rio Lobo" and "The Searchers"

Anonymous said...

Wow great writing and thoughts as usual. You captured the essence of Wayne and life in the old west. The west of my youth (living in NM and AZ) is so corrupted today I don't even like to go back. As you say, it has been crowded in from the edges.

MauserMedic said...

Rural and small town living seems to reduce the numbers of those who demand to be entertained and seen (and for this, I am truly thankful). The older I become, the more I see our society becoming dependent upon handouts,while at the same time more "rights" that previous generations would have called luxuries are demanded. Of the few possible positives to come from extended recession/depression is the ability to recognize the difference between needs and desires. While I don't hope for a true depression, I do hope a generation who has to grow up in one would break the trend of ever-growing entitlement.

BobG said...

Good essay on an American icon, and a way of life. I grew up watching westerns, and they were my favorites as a kid.

Borepatch said...

The ancients had a saying about life as a fire. Some it consumes, some it purifies, and some - a lucky few - it melts into a stronger alloy.

Quite a post.

Rev. Paul said...

Wow. You've done it again. The spirit and quiet fire behind the words shines through beautifully, highlighting a life lived such as would honor our forebears.

Thank you for this reminder of what independence and self-reliance are all about. Many, many need to see this.

drjim said...

Wonderful writing again, Brigid!
Living close to the land gives one a different viewpoint on life. You just innately tend to learn "right" from "wrong" and "good" from "bad". Having parents who reinforce these ideals helps, but growing up "out in the country" gives you lessons you'll never forget.
In today's world, all too many people like to deny that certain things *are* 'black-and-white', but living close to nature teaches us otherwise.

Texas Ghostrider said...

You are an amazing writer. As I was reading your post I had the music to "Dances with Wolves" playing in my head. I use to watch John Wayne movies on Saturday nights late and I really enjoyed them. He was a leader that I would go into Hell for. It is sad there is no one like that now to look up to.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere, maybe his biography, that Chuck Yeager did a lot of the flying in Jet Pilot. Now there was a man.

Earl said...

I liked many of John Wayne's films, but The Cowboys really has what America is missing. Thanks for the time with the cow and reluctant calf.

Old NFO said...

Well said as always Brigid. Thank you for uplifting us once again!

RC said...

Yes... the tasks that lie ahead.

Samuel Adams said...

What passes for "men" in today's pop culture is indeed pathethic. Thank you for reminding us that we aren't relics for knowing the difference from right and wrong and for always seeking justice.

skipelec said...

Doc,
You put a vision of a woman in an old mans eyes as someone as complex as I have ever encountered.
Strong yet soft, very intelligent yet full of common sense, wonderful poetry in your heart yet pragmatic, loner yet a very good friend, brave but not hard.
If your work or liesure cause a trip to the left coast, may I stand in the line to meet you and shake your hand.

Brigid said...

Skipelec - well, thank you. I'm sometimes just a simple geek that wants to sit home and have a cold beer and watch Mystery Science Theater. But, thank you.

I haven't been to California since I moved from there following college. I have a colleague in LA I talk to regularly, and an email gal friend in Sacramento, but no one else I know is there any more. But the world is a very small place.

One never knows.

MP said...

Hey Beautiful. Sorry you missed out on the gun show. Hope your friend is out of the hospital and home with family soon.

Midlife Mom said...

Hey Brigid thanks for stopping by! My addy is different, whinnyhollownews.blogspot.com but now I see where a lot of the hits come from. Good to know. I enjoyed your post about John Wayne as he has always been one of my favorites, hubby too. I agree with one of your commenters that the heros of today leave a lot to be desired. :o( Hubby has a great gun collection even though he doesn't hunt any more. I bought him a Harpers Ferry musket one year for Christmas that is really cool. Heavy, I can't imagine carrying that thing around!

Going to check out some of your recipes now. Again, thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Well said ma'am.

George said...

I can't pretend to have seen all of John Wayne's movies. I do know he portrayed a number of different, many times iconic, characters. I also know that an actor's performance is not solely his or her own. The script, the lighting, the interplay with other actors, the director, the editing and other post-performance miracles ... all contribute to the final product we see on the screen.

Still ... John Wayne's impact was measurable ... and it continues to resonate with many Americans today. I don't think True Grit was his finest performance as those had been 20 and 30 years earlier. Still ... his immense power showed through and to see those two ... well past their prime ... that was a gift to us.

I lost my copy of The Shootist ... but I need to find a replacement.

Thank you for your gift to us this Sunday. If your writing doesn't grab up by the throat, Brigid, it wraps our hearts up in your warm and talented hands.

Thank you, as always, for the treat that your essays are.

Doom said...

I can't help but think we chewed some of the same demographic dirt. The way you think, the things you remember, the way you speak... You are like a sister or a cousin who shared some of the same experiences, and has come to a similar adult land of notions.

John Wayne, right or wrong, was a hope of the West, the Big Sky, and doing the right thing as imperfect as one finds oneself, often alone in the walk, and just as often outnumber, outgunned, if usually not outdone. I still do not have a .45 six shooter or a lever action rifle, but they are on the (long) list. I do have the crustiness down though. And, for a girl, I think you do too. :p

I truly enjoy reading here. You write better what we seem to remember together. You often obtain poetic notes, glossy memorial prose, mixed in with thoughts as light yet sure and right as a child, in the best way. Nostalgic? Yes, I think so.

*this comment tossed like a rose thrown to the bullfighter*

Anonymous said...

You bring a tear to my eyes, My Lady. You writing is so beautiful..

Carl In Wisconsin

Big Cat said...

Well said my dear. Very well said.

Huey148 said...

um...wow..wonderful..I'm speechless

Brigid said...

Thanks Geroge. .

Midlife Mom - My other "home on the range buddy". I loved what you did with the artwork and the horse on your website. You enjoy that family, hold them close tonight. I wish my Brigid Jr, was a little closer geographically.
I'll drop back to say hello!

Doom - I was adopted from foster care, Lord knows who I'm actually related to. But I know who my family is. You're so sweet. Thanks.

BigCat - hope that plains weather is keeping quiet tonight for you.

Folks, will be sporadic on here the next few days, but I have posts saved that will come up automatically.

Love, Brigid

Somerled said...

"You'll do!" I can hear John Wayne saying it now. As far as missing WWII, war caught up with him when he married Chata, the second wife.

Michael W. said...

Hey Lady!

I am surprised that someone hasn't written a book with the title "All I really need to know I learned from Westerns." -grin- I know "I" would buy a copy or two.

I agree that as George said that all of Mr. Wayne's movie performances are the sum of multiple contributions, but nothing says to the rest of the world "America" quite like the western, and in particular a John Wayne western. It is truly the great passion play of America, unlike anything else in the world.

Mr. Wayne's movies were teaching tools if you wanted to use them as such. His cavalry trilogy, Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande and Fort Apache not only was a homage to the U. S. Army but also to the Indians that they fought against since there is truly no honor in fighting against a unworthy enemy.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, True Grit, The Shootist and The Quiet Man were all character studies of men who had flaws, faults and human weaknesses. But rather than dwell on and relish these faults as most modern movies do, these older movies focused on how they they were overcome by the hero. Again, perhaps not "true to life" or "realistic" but maybe, just maybe we have way too much "realism" in our lives these days.

Perhaps we should take the words of the Editor of the Shinbone Star to heart.

"This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend"

Michael W. said...

Hey Somerled,

You owe me a new keyboard. After reading your post, I snorted coffee all over mine............-grin-

Farm.Dad said...

good post . You captured ranching at its most basic . On a side note i was privileged as a kid to meet the
Duke in an informal setting . He was as i remember it a true gentleman who never saw a stranger .

Stretch said...

John Wayne soundtrack at: http://www.varesesarabande.com/details.asp?pid=302-066-726-2

And anyone who watches this without crying has no soul: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56Wd5R3lZsI

TV Westerns? First rifle I bought was a Winchester 1895. My wife gave me a 1894. And yes, I've a brace of .45s to go with it.

When the time comes to Cowboy Up I'll follow The Duke's advise and "Break out the Winchesters."

Travis said...

I've never seen you, but have feasted on the fruits of your thoughts. You're beautiful to me. One day, I hope to meet a woman who stimulates me the way you do.

....and that's high praise from a man that's hell on women and mules!

DMP said...

I spent Memorial Day weekend with my boys out and around Wallowa, OR. Our friends there are salt of the earth types. Generally life is black and white for them.

It is the kind of place where you can ride a four wheeler to town and shoot ground squirrels driving down the county road.

Coming back to suburbia can be a very depressing return. We have a small farm with a few critters to keep things real. Great writing. Your depth and beauty keep me coming back.