Tag Archives: culture

For Those Who Suffer for the Trust…

Check out that look of concentration as I asked questions and scribbled down the answers into my narrow reporter's notebook. Photo, I believe, by Scott Martin, one of Montana's delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

I’m sure you’ve had this experience—you catch a lyric in a song, and it suddenly embodies your struggle. This was my line: “They don’t pay me enough to suffer for the trust, I’ve got to take what’s mine before the cause gets just.”

The song was “Suffer for the Trust,” by a Chicago band called the Ike Reilly Assassination. It was the summer and fall of 2006. Early the next year, I quit my job as a reporter at the Missoulian, a job I dearly loved.

I don’t know what the musicians meant with those lyrics, but I sure as hell know what those words meant to me. “They” was Lee Enterprises, and “the trust” and the “cause” were daily journalism. That summer, I had learned that my annual raise would be something like half a percent, all and more of which would be eaten by the rising cost of our middling health insurance, even though the Missoulian had taken more than $5 million in profits that year.

The painful truth—that Lee Enterprises bled me every day because of my love of journalism—became like a bit of grit in my heart, an irritating piece of something that never gave me peace. I had a vision that my future was slowly being taken away from me. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. Instead of getting closer, my dream that I could raise my family and someday help my kids through college was slipping away.

You need to understand just how much I loved being a reporter. It’s deep within my blood. Before I could write or spell, I drew pictures and dictated stories to my mother, who then bound the pages into books with her sewing machine. And, believe me, I could bore you all afternoon with polemics about the importance of narrative, of accurate language, of the stories of a community.

I loved reporting and writing in Missoula, a town where I had spent much of my childhood and where two of my grandparents were buried. In those days, I taught a class each fall at the University of Montana’s journalism school. At that newspaper, I was able to do my life’s work….

The Missoulian is one of five Montana newspapers owned by a publicly traded company called Lee Enterprises. The company is based in Iowa, which gives an inkling of its small market roots. In 1998, with a fresh master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s journalism school, I got my first reporting job at the Billings Gazette (which I had delivered every morning during junior high school). Back then Lee owned a couple dozen daily and weekly newspapers mostly in the Midwest and the Great Plains. Rumor had it the Gazette‘s annual profit margin was an ungodly 40 percent, or at least the high 30s.

You’ve got to remember that by the late 1990s, pundits had been declaring newspapers “dead” for years, but nobody told Lee. If you retain one truth about this company, make it this: It’s leaders know how to squeeze dollars out of its papers. A lot of dollars.

For decades in smaller markets across the country, newspapers practically printed money. Prudent stockholders saw them as wise investments, with steadily rising stock values and generous dividends in good times and bad.

Yet almost every newspaper also held a special trust—a balance against its function as a business—as a community’s public record, the Fourth Estate. And publishers often felt that trust personally, its obligation. During the 1980s, that dynamic began to change.

Interestingly enough, Lee Enterprises—this chain of smallish backwater newspapers—helped lead the trend on the national media landscape toward a profits-at-all-cost approach. For instance, Wayne Schile, the publisher of the Billings Gazette in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, dramatically cut staff, raised subscription and ad rates and produced ballooning profits. The stories I heard about him… how he sacked the newspaper’s long-serving and dedicated librarian and then sent her life’s work of file cabinets and carefully cataloged clippings to the landfill… how he’d call one group of reporters into one meeting and fire the remaining, were moves that seemed designed to trash morale and heighten reporters’ innate paranoia.

This model of the no-frills newspaper spread throughout the Lee holdings, and across the industry.

Media was diversifying fast. The Internet was becoming a part of our everyday lives. News delivery seemed to shift overnight. And yet Lee continued its incredible profits, even as other newspapers in the early 2000s went dark in markets like Seattle, Denver and San Francisco, despite a real estate bubble that buoyed overall media incomes.

In June of 2005, Lee was the minnow that swallowed the whale when it purchased the venerable and ailing Pulitzer chain of newspapers. The purchase transformed Lee from an unknown, insignificant chain into one of the nation’s largest. It now owned the St. Louis Post Dispatch, one of the nation’s premier newspapers, and dozens of others, including some which had probably not been profitable for a decade.

The purchase was amazing because it was entirely financed, all $1 billion.

What was going to repay that debt? The incredibly profitable newspapers in Missoula, Billings, Helena and other places, like Sioux City, Iowa.

The logic was, if Lee could make such major cash in these small towns, just imagine what could be done on a larger scale!

And yet the opposite was true. Lee Enterprises thrived in isolated markets against little or no competition. In a market like Missoula, the newspaper has a handful of competitors for ads. In major urban areas, a newspaper has hundreds of quality competitors.

The summer of the Pulitzer purchase, I had been working as the business reporter at the Missoulian for a year and as a journalist for six or seven. My Lee stock, which was my retirement plan, was almost $50 a share. I remember checking the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission that June or July, and seeing a filing that said the Missoulian publisher had sold something like 100,000 of his own shares. That didn’t seem to bode well…. I wondered about that….

The details of the Pulitzer repayment plan required huge balloon payments to Deutsche Bank. Each of those payments seemed really big, as I recall, like a hundred million dollars or more. To amass money for those payments, our already austere paper got even tighter. Nobody could clock overtime. Reporters drove their own vehicles, and got reimbursed at less than half the government rate even as gas prices went through the roof.

Companies can only pull this kind of crap with an insecure workforce, and we were. I knew back then that the only way we’d have a fair shot at a decent life was by joining together. Without some leverage, none of us could negotiate for jack. Yet after only a few evening conversations with my fellow reporters about the nuts-and-bolts of forming a union, I got a wave from my editor Mike McInally (a man for whom I somehow still have tremendous respect and affection) calling me into his office. After asking me to close the door, he said, “I’ve heard you’ve been talking to people about unions. If I ever hear that again, you’re fired.”

His words (a textbook example of illegal workplace coercion) stunned me, my shit-eating grin frozen on my face. To save my job, I shamelessly disavowed my intentions, while my editor insisted that he loved my news stories and positive attitude and didn’t want to get rid of me. A few minutes later, humiliated and furious at myself, my heart pounding and my hands shaking, I returned to my desk and stared at my computer screen. I promised myself that I was done trying to help anyone else. From then on, I would do for me.

So maybe it’s no wonder that “Suffer for the Trust” became my anthem, that I left my job a few short years later, that wonderful job that didn’t feel like work at all, for a high-paying gig at a hateful little boutique communications firm where I didn’t last a year.

Later, as I bounced around in search of a new way to follow my calling, Lee Enterprises hit snag after snag. Each time it punished its workers—several of them my closest friends, and many for whom I have tremendous admiration and professional respect—with layoffs and benefit cuts. Still, Lee’s stock value kept dropping until it reached its nadir, a few cents over a quarter. My retirement portfolio—and more importantly, the portfolios of my friends and former co-workers—had become basically worthless. In late 2011, the corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

So it came as no surprise early this year when rumors foretold of more job losses. The news hurt, last week, when 10 of the company’s Montana employees confronted the sudden prospect of unemployment in this bleak economy, especially as word of the latest bonus of $500,000 for Lee’s CEO Mary Junck came out at almost exactly the same time.

It’s easy and appropriate to blame Junck and her thuggish clutch of publishers, including my old editor Mike McInally who served as publisher for a pair of papers in Oregon, last I heard. That class will never do right by journalism.

And yet the reporters and copy editors, the support staff and press operators continue to do as much as possible. In fact, I think the Billings Gazette, which has a fantastic editor and incredible writers, has been producing better journalism, including thoughtful and provocative editorials, than it ever has.

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Filed under News and Commentary, Raw Material for a Memoir

The Re-Introduction of Bill Foley

Back in 2007 and 2008, rumors swirled around western Montana of a billionaire from the financial industry who had purchased a massive, storied cattle ranch near the town of Deer Lodge.

The billionaire’s name was Bill Foley, then the Chairman and CEO of Fidelity National Financial.

Some of the rumors were typical, the kind you hear about rich people with more money than sense. For instance, Foley had supposedly hired a golf pro and former manager of a hot dog cart to oversee the construction of a new complex of buildings on the ranch. (Had he been the manager of outside vendors at some California golf course? That’s what someone told me.)

Other rumors had a sharper edge. I wondered what reality might lie beneath them. One story had the construction manager first hiring and then blithely firing a bunch of Deer Lodge locals for the construction crews.

That’s not all. Later, at the Deer Lodge rodeo, some of those hired-and-fired construction workers supposedly spotted the construction manager where he sat in the stands with his wife, and then tossed pebbles at him to get him to come down to get his ass kicked!

There were other tales that skewered Foley and his pals as out-of-touch outsiders or truly sharks with hearts of stone, but curiously I sometimes heard a competing storyline, one that surfaces from time to time about characters like this. This is it… that Foley was “down-to-earth” and a “regular” guy.

I enjoy a thorough, well-reported profile as much as the next guy, and Foley seemed to present an interesting case study, so I geared up to write about him. I wanted to find out as much as I could. I studied Foley’s businesses. I talked to business analysts. I called his old friends and acquaintances. I interviewed Foley by phone and in person, and I called a number of people who he directed me to. I did my best to be fair, and to sort through the bullshit to find the truth.

In the end, my research revealed a portrait of a man who managed to consolidate an industry and make a massive fortune for himself on the strength of his trend-spotting abilities and his unscrupulous heart. The thing that really struck me about him was the way he talked about firing thousands of hard-working employees. It was necessary, he said, to strengthen the company, which paid him hundreds of millions for his cut-throat business sense.

Still, I don’t believe Foley gave a damn for wrecking the livelihoods of the people who actually did the work at Fidelity National Financial!

Is that wrong? Who am I do say? But I can tell you that I would never be able to behave like he did. Or if I did, I’d probably struggle, as he appears to, to present myself as a “down-to-earth” “regular” guy.

Also, I thought it odd that he apparently missed the deep irony behind his business actions: His company made fortunes on housing transactions but in the process wrecked the ability of tens of thousands of employees to be home-owners. How will companies like Fidelity prosper if fewer and fewer people can buy homes?

Plus, Foley’s a tool. He actually tried to buy me off by offering me the carrot of a fat contract writing his authorized biography.

With that introduction, I think you’ll probably enjoy the heck out of this piece.

The excellent photography was by Anne Medley.

P.S. Is Bill Foley really a billionaire? Actually… probably not. At least, not according to Forbes and others who track the net worth of rich individuals.

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Filed under 2008, News and Commentary, Old News Stories and Columns

Good Fun With a Simple Smoker

I idealize cool stuff like smoking my own meat, but the truth is that I owned a red Brinkmann smoker for years before I even understood how the parts fit together.

And then, last fall, after promising to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving, I watched some wonderfully simple and informative youtube posts that taught me how the thing fit together and how to use it. After that bit of online education, a successful gobbler experience, and several subsequent and decent attempts to smoke fish and beef, I began to think of myself as “one of those guys who smokes meat.”

I believe pretty much anything is a good thing that gets me into the backyard for the better part of a day (except for doing actual yard work like raking or mowing or cleaning up all the toys and detritus back there), so I was in a great mood last week when a guy at work made me a present of a Styrofoam cooler imprinted with a simple red, white and blue map of Texas. Within the cooler sat two bags of wild goose breasts, dark red and frozen rock hard.

At home, the goose meat thawed in the refrigerator, then soaked in a brine. (One cup salt, some soy sauce, the juice of an orange, a couple garlic cloves, and a generous dose of Worcestershire sauce and enough water to make it work. )

I’ve learned that birds soaked in brine prefer to sit uncovered in the fridge overnight. It helps them develop a skin, tacky to the touch, that keeps them moist, even after hours in the smoker.

On Sunday morning, I started a charcoal fire in the base of my no-frills smoker. I filled the water pan, and made sure there was plenty of apple chips for the smoke.

These geese didn’t have an ounce of fat, and I worried about them getting over-dry, so I piled them together and draped bacon strips on top.

Goose breasts, brined and baconed and prepped for the smoker.

And… after about five hours during which time the simplistic thermometer on my smoker read “ideal,” the breasts were done, tender and smoky.

It’s the best meat there is. No preservatives. No hormones. No antibiotics. Just wild game, the ultimate free-range organic meat. Absolutely delicious.

Oh, but this story has an addendum. I brought about half the smoked meat to work, chilled and sliced thin. I sent out an email alerting people to the meat, and the email found its way into the hands of a local politics-and-media blogger, who posted an item about it.

Under other circumstances, I might have been irritated with the blogger’s behavior. (He emailed as if he were interested in a bite, without disclosing his intent, and so I told him how to get a few slices.) But his post seemed so harmless. Plus, what are you gonna do?

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The Decemberists light a child’s imagination: A boy and his parents awash in tales of the sea

This column is about the unlikely love of a landlocked Montana family with sea shanties, and how that love grew to embrace an indie band fascinated with the same genre. This first ran in the Missoulian in 2006, a short year before our daughter was born. With the exception of a few edits, the essay below remains faithful to the original.

One of my 8-year-old son’s favorite songs is a gruesome sea shanty about the British Admiral John Benbow, who got his legs torn off by a cannonball in 1702.

We love that sweet and lilting air.

At bedtime at our house, imagine me lying in the dark of my son Josiah’s room, singing about brave Benbow or the sailor who sunk the Turkish Revelee or the wonderful tune about the sailors in the waters off Greenland.

In the dark it’s easy to imagine, encapsulated in the magic of those old lyrics about heartbreak and loss and sailors buried at sea, that we’re rocking in the cozy belly of a wooden ship on the high seas. The feeling between us is one of the things the bland word “love” is supposed to mean. But that word can hardly convey the power of that nighttime ritual.

Yet it helps to explain why the trio of our family will be at the Wilma Theater on Thursday at 8 p.m. to hear the Decemberists sing “bloody and gruesome” numbers about, well, “crazy, weird, exotic imaginative themes,” to use the words of the group’s lead singer Colin Meloy.

We’ll be in the balcony, according to our tickets, and we may be the only couple bringing a second-grade child who ought to be tucked into bed about the same time the show will begin.

Our relationship with the Decemberists began last spring, long after the group– which I know almost nothing about–had begun performing modern songs that echo those classic melodies.

Do you know the term “shantey?” I’m not talking about a ramshackle hut built of cardboard and scraps of tin. Sometimes written “chantey,” it’s a song that sailors once sang while doing work or, I imagine, to while away the awfully long and endlessly boring hours at sea.

As a kid in the 1970s, I listened to “Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick” by Paul Clayton. At bedtime, I’d sneak into the living room in our apartment in family housing at the University of Montana beneath the looming hulk of Mountain Sentinel, crouch next to our enormous wooden stereo and lean against the barely audible speakers to hear Clayton’s versions of those lively and, I later learned, often ribald tunes.

I’ve never been on a big wooden ship myself, except once for about three minutes in 1997 when one docked in Oakland, Calif., when I lived there. The tall ship that day seemed rather banal, the volunteer crew too obsessed with trivia about the old whaling and sailing days. I felt like an outsider in a club too lame to join.

Truth be told, I’m an amateur compared to dedicated shantey-ists. I’ve never dressed in flowing shirts to perform at festivals.  If I went to sea, I’d probably lay in bed seasick the whole time, groaning. I don’t know how to tie any fancy sea knots. I’ve never read much about maritime history, except for the liner notes on the Clayton’s yellow and faded album cover.

Really, though, Clayton lays out all you need to know.

“Boney the Warrior” tells the story of Napoleon. “Blood Red Roses” is a prosaic reference to the red outerwear favored by British soldiers going around Cape Horn. (You remember the Redcoats from your school lessons about the American Revolution, right?) I’ve just never understood why soldiers would have been hunting for whales, but never mind.

Most of the remaining shanties are self-explanatory, if you can make out the lyrics, but why bother; the melodic range of Clayton’s renditions are absolutely some of the most beautiful I’ve heard.

Not that I would talk about all this publicly. That’s why it was a revelation when the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” came out in 2003. Turns out there’s tons of us closet, old-timey sea story lovers.

I enjoy “Pirates” as much for its goofiness as for its sailing ships and story line.

That, too, is why the Decemberists’ “Mariner’s Revenge” made me grin.

The ballad is fantastical, ridiculous, really, and it has logical gaps, which is why it’s so fun.

It begins in the belly of a whale: “Its ribs our ceiling beams./ Its guts our carpeting,” I believe the lyrics go.

The narrator then tells his companion, also stuck inside the whale’s belly, why he’s going to kill him. He explains that long ago connection, the companion seduced and defrauded his mother, which led to her death and his life as a desperate urchin in the streets.

And now, trapped with the object of his lifelong hatred, the narrator is poised to wreak his revenge.

This is the perfect sea music for me and my family. It draws from and looks back with a smirk to those wonderful songs of the sea. It’s funny. It’s not too serious. It doesn’t require us to join a nerdy club.

Well, I should qualify that last statement. I don’t think we’ll join any nerdy clubs. The balcony may be crammed with moms and dads and 8-year-olds. If that happens, who knows? Maybe I’ll form the club.

 

Here’s an incredible, unofficial video of ” The Mariner’s Revenge Song.

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Filed under 2006, Family, Old News Stories and Columns

What’s Up With ‘Brokeback?’ My Relatives Got Pissed

You can gather from my earlier posts that I have a lot of family in Montana. I can name all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, even a few second cousins, but after that it gets fuzzy.

Those relations jumped into focus when I drew comparisons in a newspaper column a few years ago between my grandfather George Meakins and a gay cowboy.

My grandfather, George Meakins. Taken at my Aunt Della’s home in Hall, Montana, by my father in the early 1970s.

One of my mom’s cousins–a woman I don’t know but who clearly lived in the Missoulian’s circulation area–mailed an outraged letter with the clipping to my grandmother.

My mom told me about what sounded like a furor among her cousins. One of her sisters joined the detractors. My uncle and another of my aunts rushed to my defense. It was actually kind of intimidating to learn that distant relatives were lining up against me, some of whom I wouldn’t even recognize on the street!

On the other hand, I do understand that family members can get worked up over representations of our shared history. Yet the letter, with its obvious homophobia, bothered me.

For some people in my family, a column about gayness obviously crossed the line… even though the column itself wasn’t about sexuality at all, but about the hard life of a ranch hand and his family. Yet to an ignorant reader, I had apparently insinuated that my grandfather was gay. Or maybe it’s just that my family’s bigotry couldn’t accept any association with “Brokeback Mountain.”

Additionally, I know some family members expressed outrage at my forthright descriptions of their poverty.

And yet it pained me to think the column might have bothered my grandmother, Lillian Meakins, who came up in a time and place so different from our own that it’s difficult to fathom. She was born in 1914. She grew up on a homestead on the Missouri River in eastern Montana–forty miles by horse or wagon south of Malta. She killed chickens with her hands. She could bake a cake on an open fire. My grandmother was a tough lady, but also soft and somehow uncertain of herself.

Some months after the column had appeared, I sat on the couch in her trailer home near Billings. For years, she and I had had a careful relationship, by which I mean that we avoided anything like a sensitive subject. We talked about regular things, like the weather. Or else I asked her about her life, questions she answered gruffly, as if the answers should have been obvious. “What dances did we do? Well, the two-step!”

It was time, I thought, to be straight-forward. I asked my grandmother if the column had bothered her. I reminded her what it said. I described the movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” including that it was a love story about two men.

She surprised me with the strength of her response. No, she said. It didn’t bother her. She thought I should write whatever the newspaper would print.

I believed her. It was one of her sweetest, most grandmotherly moments.

Here are some things I know about my grandmother. She rejected racism against black and Indian people. About a neighboring Indian family, she said they “had the cleanest laundry in town.” For my grandmother, it was not only a high compliment, because it meant they worked hard.  But it was, in her mind, a direct counterpoint to the common slur of the “dirty Indian.”  She didn’t only tell me that anecdote, or my mom, I imagine, but her coworkers at the cafe and nursing home, or the elderly neighbors for whom she drove errands.

I understand, now, that her acceptance extended to gays.

What a lady.

With my grandmother behind me, I didn’t care about the fuss.

My grandmother, Lillian Meakins, was  more irritated than amused when I used the “Photo Booth” feature on my new computer to capture her image. She was 92.

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‘Brokeback’ Brings Back a Grandpa’s Tough Roots

I wrote this column while working the city government beat at the Missoulian.  It’s about my family and about the film, Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by the same name. I don’t particularly enjoy the writing of Annie Proulx, except for The Shipping News, but the movie had a big impact on me.   She meant to explain, I suspect, and somehow understand the seemingly contradictory  lives of some westerners, lives that are at once beautiful and self-destructive, limited and limitless.

Here’s the column, not quite as it ran in March, 2006.

Forget the din about the gay cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the Ang Lee movie nominated for eight Oscars.

For me, the film was less about unrequited romantic love and more about the beauty, poverty and isolation of some lives in the rural Rocky Mountain West.

That’s the part of the story that got me thinking about my own family. I caught a glimpse of my own grandfather, George Meakins, reflected in the life of ranch hand Ennis del Mar, the main character hauntingly portrayed by Heath Ledger.

For Ennis, as for every ranch hand, life was hard. The pay was marginal. The future held no promise but a shabby, rented trailer on a desolate, windswept piece of land.

But what a beautiful life!

My grandfather was born in 1899 in Mobridge, S.D. As a boy, he worked and lived in a livery stable in Great Falls. As a teenager, he searched the train tracks for coal and delivered milk and eggs to a brothel.

My grandfather spent almost his entire adult life, between stints on the railroad and in the mines, as a ranch hand. He never owned much more than what could fit on a horse or in the back of an old Ford.

Married and divorced once apiece, George and my grandmother Lillian met in the late 1930s. In 1949, when my mom was born, George worked for a cattle rancher in the Flint Creek area.

The life of a ranch hand is transitory and tough. Even the smallest cattle or sheep ranchers seem fabulously rich by comparison.

And yet die-hard ranch hands like Ennis and my grandfather hang on to their odd place in the menial labor pool with a stubborn, tough-as-nails love.

It’s a love maybe something like the one portrayed in the movie, a love that bound together Ennis and Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

After one short summer herding sheep together in 1963, the two characters drift apart but always hold onto that clinching love.

The Ennis character displays the  same level of ambition that my grandfather had — basically none. Ennis marries a local girl and starts a family and finds work helping a rancher.

At one point in the film, Ennis crouches in the bed of a slow-rolling pickup as it crosses a snowy field, throwing hay to eager cattle. The scene is lovingly shot, the stark landscape clean and pure.

But the idea that Ennis can support his family with such a job is a cruel joke. His family lives in desperate poverty. It’s the mid-1960s. Other families watch TV in carpeted split-level ranch homes, but Ennis’ wife scrubs their babies’ diapers by hand on a washboard.

This story sounds familiar.

My grandmother used a wringer-washer, not that she complained. (She never thought washing machines got the whites white.) But the constant labor of that life wears hard on a person. For the most part, the homes my mother grew up in had no plumbing. In the worst times, mice ran over them at night. Some of those shacks were fit only to be burned.

In “Brokeback,” Ennis’ wife reaches a point where she’s had enough. She takes her kids and leaves him, ostensibly because she saw Ennis embrace Jack.

But think about it. After the divorce, Alma marries a salesman who can afford to buy her a house. The fact of Ennis’ gayness is just one more reason why his future sucks. Ennis might have been tireless during calving season, but Alma worried about being able to buy groceries at the end of the month, never mind who would pay for health care and college for the kids?

Similar stresses must have torn at my mom’s parents, who divorced in the summer of 1963. My grandmother was 45 and, I imagine, tired of chopping kindling every day. There was no change in sight.

Like Ennis, my grandfather was a kind and charming man. He had an old-fashioned manner. He never swore in the house. He had a terrific work ethic and told funny stories.

But the idea that he might change to make life easier on his family? It wasn’t in the cards.

When I was a kid, my mom would tell stories about her horses and various adventures on the ranches where her father worked. I liked hearing how she and her sister Dolly would go to the bone pile sometimes, to have a good cry over the remains of a favorite dog. The sisters performed tricks on their ponies before imaginary audiences.

Some of the stories have faded, leaving behind mere impressions. One is the summery feeling of newly cut hay on bare feet, the individual stalks soft as hair, stalks that dry and stiffen into sharp and stabbing stubble.

At the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” a scene between Ennis and his daughter, who had beautiful long hair like my mother, touched a nerve.

In Ennis’ remote trailer, father and daughter talked with an unstated affection. Also unspoken was a share of hopelessness and loneliness.

I don’t imagine it’s easy to be the daughter of a ranch hand, when his love for his hardscrabble life doesn’t leave much room for you.

But still, what a sweet dad.

My grandfather lived his hand-to-mouth existence until his death from cancer in 1975 in a hospital in Missoula.

On his deathbed, he talked in his delirium about my grandmother and his saddle horse. He’s buried in Valley Cemetery on a hill between Hall and Drummond.

Note: My grandmother died in 2010. I miss her.

My grandmother Lillian Meakins (then Johnston) on a motorcycle, probably near Sidney, Montana.

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Filed under 2006, Old News Stories and Columns

Misfits and Why We Love Them

2-11-08

Robert Struckman

Back in 1981, some weeks before the start of grade school, a tinker of a man walked out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness with a backpack and dirty clothes and asked me how my luck was.

That summer, like most others of my childhood, my father worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Five of us lived in a one-room, bathroom-free shack on the outskirts of the town of Seeley Lake, Montana.

My luck, as it happened, was great. I was fishing on a bit of a stream no wider than a ditch, yanking brook trout from the water with grasshoppers as bait.

The mountain man sat down beside me. Soon he set up a tent a few hundred yards from our shack, caught a few trout of his own and cooked them in a quick, flavorful stew with reconstituted carrots and powdered vegetables. We wiled away the day, eating and philosophizing. I fished with him for days until he packed up and hiked off.

I had that bearded and thoughtful mountain man in mind in 1999 when I telephoned libraries around the region for an informal survey of hermits and other self-styled castaways for a daily newspaper feature about the culture of the West.

It made my heart swell with regional pride when the doughty librarians in towns like Red Lodge and Casper responded defensively to a call from a reporter about their quirky customers. (I had called public libraries because Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, maintained an epistolary relationship from jail with a librarian in Lincoln, the small town near which he holed up in the years before his 1996 arrest.) All of them knew of soloists who, although presumably not murderous, shared superficial traits with the Unabomber.

The hermits of the West don’t all live in the wilderness on old mining claims. My uncle, who suffered from schizophrenia and died of a heart attack in 1997, lived more than 20 years in a small rental house near the railroad tracks on Missoula’s north side. A sardonic woodworker and a phenomenally patient gardener, he existed in an insular world, guarded by his family and neighbors.

One of the great strengths of the Mountain West is our propensity to attract and shelter loners. The sparsely populated crags, windswept plains and river bottoms of this region have given refuge over the years to a special brand of misfit. Those oddballs, mostly harmless, have exerted an anti-homogenizing influence on the region’s culture, which is one reason this area has retained its ethic of individualism so attractive to the rest of the nation.

This attractiveness, manifesting itself as lifestyle, has joined metals and agriculture products as one of our most valuable commodities, and fed a massive growth industry, growth itself. A commodity, though, is a uniform product – all sheets of plywood are basically identical – and that’s exactly what our cities and towns and mountains and forests are not.

For long decades, while the rest of America ordered food from coast-to-coast restaurant chains, local drive-ins in the economic eddies and backwaters of Wyoming and Idaho and Montana and Oregon continued frying fries and serving burgers, blithely unaware of their own obsolescence. Once common, they’ve become jewels you stumble onto sometimes, when driving long hours to visit relatives.

The Mountain West, in this respect at least, is now catching up with the country, and there is plenty to be said for that. Roads get upgraded. Big box stores sprout along newly broadened commercial corridors. Upscale retailers reveal themselves in formerly dilapidated downtown storefronts. Incomes are rising.

Yet the ethic of idiosyncrasy is one that’s worth preserving, even as we grow. That means maintaining privacy for those who seek it, as well as keeping open the access to our vast tracts of public land and funding our public libraries, those migration corridors and refuges of the loners.

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