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fall 2009

Howdy Folks,

Shirl has been doing what she is most expert at doing—badgering me. Seems I haven’t done a newsletter since spring, not that I have heard any other complaints from anyone.

You know, every once in awhile one of you guys out there could drop a me a line of encouragement, discouragement, disapproval, hatred, whatever. At least, I would know that I’m not just talking to myself, although I do that too—but I don’t have to type it.

This summer we made our usual pilgrimage to the Voit homestead in Colorado. The best part of the vacation was being introduced to a colorful local custom, the Monday night potluck and oddfellows club. Down a gravel switchback from Voit’s house, everyone gathers at the crossroad with a twisty little blacktop ribbon cutting through the canyon. At this intersection there are about seven or eight cabins and trailers clustered together on the steep cliff sides. Smack in the center of the “community,” right on the road is a joint called The Spruce Wood Inn, a sort of gathering spot for the locals.

A more varied and colorful group of folks I have not encountered since Shirl and I lived in Seattle, where I was a doctoral candidate, earning money on the side as a judo instructor. Shirl was a social worker and our house parties drew a strange assortment of martial arts people, university professors, our friend who ran the city zoo, our mailman buddy, an assortment of social workers and their guests, who were often “clients.” Some of those “clients” were ex-cons, recovering (or not) acid heads, and assorted refugees from the asylum.

The crowd as The Spruce Wood was at least safer…I think. Every Monday night at the community supper, drinks go for reduced prices. From I was able to gather, who ever is soberest acts as bartender and sometime waiter. The night we were there the joint was packed with bikers and their “mamas.” Guys wearing stained Stetsons and mud-caked boots pulled up in battered pickups. A couple of them were probably honest-to-god cowboys. There were folks in yuppie cargo shorts, and a two fascinated spectators from Missouri.

Most people brought a covered dish of some sort or else tons of snacks, but nobody was keeping score. One nice looking young guy named Bobby came through the door with his hand on another guy’s shoulder. It was soon apparent that Bobby was blind—or at least mostly so. Seems as though he set his bike down rather abruptly on the twisted Sedalia road in the canyon. In spite of his helmet, he received a hard enough whack that he went blind, although some of his vision was returning and doctors hold out hope that more will come back. But Bobby is cheerful and everybody looks out for him, although he surely seems pretty independent.

I was sitting at a table with friends Greg and Judy, who have a sailboat moored in Baltimore. Their passion is sailing the South Atlantic and the Caribbean. They do so every year. Don’t ask me what two sailboat nuts are doing living in the Rockies, but they do fill the yuppie quotient. Judy got up to tend bar or to work on pizzas in the kitchen while Greg and I were chatting as we looked out across the road.

There are about half a dozen dwelling up on the steep slope. A guy was sitting outside one, on an up-ended five-gallon bucket. A cat basked in the late afternoon sun alongside him. The man drained what looked like a half-pint booze bottle and then toppled sideways on top of the cat. Cat and man thrashed around for a bit and then the cat made its escape. The guy got up and stumbled through the slats of a nearby fence. Pretty soon he stumbled back through the hole he had created, straightened up, walked over to the top of a rickety staircase that ended at the road, some fifty or sixty feet below. He stood weaving back and forth, apparently estimating his chances of getting down those steps without breaking his neck.

I said to Greg, “Who in the hell is that?”

Greg said, “Oh, that’s just Oldman. He’s the mayor of Spruce Wood.”

“Mayor?” I said. “I didn’t even know this wide spot in the road was a village.”

Greg shrugged. “Well, it’s not—officially. But Oldman is still the mayor.”

While we were watching, “His Honor” started his descent. It was a performance worthy of the Great Wallendas. He had a rail to hold on to for the first half of the way down, but it didn’t seem to help much. He lurched back and forth, with a death grip on the rail. At one point, he over corrected for a lurch away from the rail and pitched himself head first over it. Undaunted, he crawled back and finally got down to the landing half way to the road. From this point on, the guy had no safety net. There was no handrail!

He stretched his arms out to the side like a man on a high wire and started down. By now, I was a nervous wreck! I really don’t enjoy death-defying-feats of daring-do. I really don’t. So, I said to nobody in particular: “Ya know, maybe a couple of us ought to go over and help that guy before he kills himself.”

One of the possible cowboys was passing behind me and gave his advice. “Wouldn’t do that, friend, was I you. Hurt ‘ol Oldman’s feeling somethin’ fierce. Surely would.”

One of the bikers chimed in. “Don’t worry none, fella. Oldman, he bounces like a tire. Hell, if he falls, he just rolls over here to the beer quicker.”

Well, if that was the local custom, who was I to disturb the order of things? I got very interested in the foam on my mug of beer cause I couldn’t stand watching the impending splat. But finally Oldman came careening through the front door to be greeted by a chorus of “Howdy, Oldman,” “Good seein’ ya, fella,” “How’s it goin’, ‘ol man?” The “’ol man,” so I found out, was twenty years younger than I, but looked twenty years older. In a beauty contest between Oldman and Tut’s mummy, the mummy would win! And the mummy sure as heck has more meat on his bones.

Like a character out of Bret Harte’s short stories, Oldman is sort of an independent dependent of Spruce Wood. Some guy has let Oldman live in that trailer for years. As if by fairy magic, a bag of groceries appears once or twice a week in the big wooden box outside his front door. And he obviously drinks for free. However, Oldman apparently asks for nothing, nor expects it. He just is.

And what he is remains a mystery. Every now and then, someone from the extended Spruce Wood community will happen on Oldman sitting at the intersection of the Sedalia road up the mountain and the main highway to Denver. Of course, they give him a ride back home. And Oldman is always sober, dressed in a shirt and tie, and carrying a bulging brief case. Nobody knows where he goes or what he does while he’s been away.

But that night, “his Honor” was attending to his civic duties. As we left the Spruce Wood, we bumped into Oldman who was slumped against a hitching rail in front. He straightened up and extended his hand for a shake. “Now, you folks come back and visit us again, real soon.” Western hospitality with genuine gusto. A little unusual, maybe, but genuine. And you can hardly get that from any politician, elected or not. Maybe mayors, governors, congressmen, and senators ought to drink more. And the country might be better off if a certain few of them tried to duplicate Oldman’s performance on those rickety stairs.

Take care,

Jim

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Jim in front of a classroom, teaching during his tenure on our local school board.


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Jim posed for the River Nymph book cover, chose the lady with the cards model and created the basic design from which Kim Killion worked.


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TWO FREE NOVELLAS


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