Category Archives: Montana Life

Social commentary on life in the late 20th and early 21st century in Montana

Fun

(This is the second in “The Grand” series.  The first one was “Old Blisters” that introduces the cast of characters.)

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It is another cold and windy night in Little Twig, Montana. The temperature had been below zero for almost a week, but with the rise in temperature to above zero, the wind had picked up again.  You could hear it howl and it made the sign outside the saloon bash against the bricks.  It was the usual cast of characters at The Grand sitting at booths and at the bar.  Daphne is sipping a Sauvignon Blanc.  She is dressed all in black with a jaunty grey cloche on her head.  Cowboy Clay with a Chardonnay in hand is next to her talking to Carl who is nursing a micro brew when Sonny breezes in and sees a spot next to Clay.  Claudia pours him a glass of Merlot.

Clay: How’s it goin’?

Sonny: Not bad.  Just came in from Idaho and it’s really dry.

Clay: Is it like California?  I hear that’s bad.

Sonny: Well, those Californians are just going to have to decide whether they want to take a shower and flush the toilet or eat.

Daphne chimes in:  Is that really the choice?  Flush or starve? Can’t the Ag business use less water?  I mean it’s not like they are a bunch of small family farms growing enough for themselves and the people in their towns.  Don’t they export most of the lettuce, tomatoes, pomegranates, almonds?

Sonny: Well, they are family farms, just really big ones.  And they have the long water rights.

Well, the discussion went on for a few minutes about who owns what and how water rights came to be through mining rights and taxpayers rights versus corporations rights and Beverly Hills farmers and manifest destiny and survival of the fittest before a truce was called and they went back to talking about the weather.

Clay:  Some trucker said his temperature reading went from 20 below to 60 below for a few miles past Reed Point.

Daphne: What shall I play on the Juke?  Lorde or Alan Jackson?

Clay: Whatever you want, Darlin’?

Daphne: Oh and I brought some pears if anybody wants some.

Sonny: I’ll take two.  I like to drizzle a little balsamic on them and sprinkle with a little  blue cheese.  Thanks!

I had fun last night.  Different people have different ways of having fun.  And most people have various ways of having fun.  But one of my favorite ways of having fun is a lively discussion of something or other.  In that respect, I should have been born French where I could go out to a cafe after work and philosophize with friends over a nice bottle of wine and some oysters and good bread.  We could talk about anything but the weather unless it was about how the weather might influence our moods or our art.  We could talk about who could call themselves writers and who couldn’t.  Or who was an artist?  Or was all life and thus all art futile? Continue reading

Cabins

A cabin is not the same as a house.  “It is not a shelter” but often a place of “delicious peril” and “a jumping off place” for a child.  A cabin on a lake is a place to be alone with oneself and from that will come strength to deal with “the more serious winter perils later on.”   Diane Johnson makes these observations in her new book “Flyover Lives: A Memoir”.  Diane Johnson has numerous books published as well as having written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  She grew up near Moline, Illinois; part of the vast in between of the United States called flyover country.  It’s not far from where I grew up and I share some of her memories of going to a cabin for the summer time.  For as she reminded me, the Illinois summers are mercilessly hot and humid and escaping north was an old tradition.  But there are as many dissimilarities too.

Her family has been in America for more than two hundred years and her stories of them are not of timber barons or inventors.  They are quite ordinary lives of farmers, teachers, country doctors and a lot of housewives, but she writes with such detail and feeling that their lives are as intriguing as any biographies of presidents or generals. And they bring back memories. And sometimes that is a good thing.

One of her relatives, a great uncle, built a cabin on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near the Mackinaw Straits    She spent summers there in  the 1930s and 1940s.  And she writes of the difference between a cabin and a house.

I felt for this house the special love that almost everyone, I’ve since discovered, feels for a summer house—a love quite different from the feelings you have for the house you grow up in.  Perhaps a summer house is where,  forced into your own company, you discover that you are yourself, and maybe that’s something that can’t happen in an ordinary life, when you belong to your parents and school. The organized city child is deprived of these hours of messing around alone, though they must be the crucial ones in which we discover things, develop a point of view, learn to rely on ourselves as reliable observers, establish in our own minds that we are we. Continue reading

Old Blisters: Cracking More Bar Codes

MEMO0006It was a cold, dark, and icy night as Daphne made her way toward Little Twig, Montana.   The sun had set at 4:30 PM and there was hardly a sliver of moon to light the way into town. As she pulled up Main Street the sign on the bank read -2 degrees. The outfits in front of The Grand Saloon were all running with nobody in them as she pulled up beside them.  Daphne decided to turn her outfit off since she was just coming in for a quick one.  Making her way through the exhaust fumes, she entered the bar.  As usual for this type of weather she was wearing her sister Deb’s long mink coat, a trapper’s hat and knee high boots.  (There was no reason to forsake fashion in sub zero weather; none whatsoever.)

On nights like this, Daphne liked to  imagine herself in an old 1930s Klondike movie like “Call of the Wild” with Clark Gable and Loretta Young.  Her real life saloon was very much like those movie saloons that sat at the edge of the frontier.   It was also very much like that bar at the edge of the galactic frontier in “Star Wars”.  And like that outer space bar, all kinds of aliens from all kinds of different planets  would meet, rub elbows , and occasionally get into a scuffle.

She stopped and cased the joint.  As usual Ed who sticks to himself  was sitting in the corner eating an oyster poor boy special.  Jingo John sat in the rocking chair by the fire singing a old-timey tune to himself.  That’s mostly because nobody wants to talk to him as he is not endowed with much for imaginative talk and usually has his underwear showing underneath his overalls.   At the bar sat the regular happy hour duo of Cal and Carl who are just about to leave as it is a little after six and the drinks go up a buck.  Behind the bar Claudia, the sultry Mexican bartenderess, scribbled down what they owed.  Daphne sidled up next to Carl.  Just then a blast of cold air ushered in Sonny Stevens who sat down at the end of the bar. Continue reading

Coops to Co-Ops and what it has to do with The Hunger Games

A Note:  I am going to try like heck to take a break from this kind of writing and am going to post stories of my life that some people think are worth jotting down, like the time the boys in 6th grade locked me in a pit.  So look for that short story called “The Pit and the Playground.”  Or the time Roger O hit me with a baseball bat (although it wasn’t his fault.  I was chasing after Johnny M. and ran across home plate.)  Or when Qwenny R pushed me over the bridge into Tinley Creek and why I deserved it.  Or when Barbara Van hit me over the head with a rock and why I deserved it.  Or why Miss Bloemendal kicked me out of my 3rd grade classroom every week for things like marching in the opposite direction to “Onward Christian Soldiers and why I didn’t deserve it.” Or why 30 years later I got kicked out of a Hollywood talent agency for having the Puck Syndrome and why I didn’t deserve it or maybe I did.  Or why after a meteoric rise in politics  I left the Democratic Party because I saw it was a coop and not a co-op and more like a Roach Motel.  Why like a Cicada I lay low for awhile and then go all buzzy ape sh*t crazy every 17 years.  Find out how this Hollywood agent ended up on a cattle ranch in Montana.  Join me on the “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” that has been my life. ©

Most of us at one time or another experience a cooperative organization as opposed to one of hierarchy.  In smaller cities especially in rural America there are food cooperatives and banking cooperatives.  There are also insurance cooperatives.  That’s how “insurance” started hundreds of years ago amongst merchants who sailed the seas and had to worry about shipwrecks.  Farmers would lend each other seed if one’s own crop was destroyed. They pooled their machines. Continue reading

“Look to Your Betters”

This morning I was discussing rich people with my husband; specifically the rich who own and race horses.  My husband likes to bet on the ponies.  A few times a year I join him in the action.  Yesterday was “The Breeders’ Cup” where rich people bring their best horses from all over the world to try and win gobs of money and get lots of prestige in a win or two.  One rich guy rented a whole 737 to transport just one horse.  This in the same week the satraps in Congress refused to extend the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program of 2009 aka food stamps for hungry people.

In yesterday’s comments there was a link to a video called “The Four Horseman”.  In it a scholar mentions that one of the marks of the end of empire is the raising up of the chef to celebrity status.  That happened in the Roman empire.  And yesterday, as I watched chef Bobby Flay interviewed about his race horse, I commented that the end might really be nigh.  I like Bobby Flay, by the way, and use a lot of his recipes.   He’s really good at what he does and came from the working class, so I’d rather see him with a fancy schmancy horse than some rich fracking heiress.  But the whole bread and circus aspect of it coupled with poor folks betting in the hopes of sitting in the box seats is just too much for me to enjoy the day. Continue reading

Revolution Starts with the Fence

Is there revolution in the air?  Russell Brand is talking about it. Yves Smith at “Naked Capitalism” asks if it’s time to look at alternatives to capitalism.  She cites Brand’s writings and recent essays by Ian Welsh as examples of whiffs of revolutionary expressions.

Where to start?  I am reminded of one of Gary Larson’s great cow cartoon entitled “Cow Poetry” in which the beatnik cow laments the confines of the electric fence.

DISTANT HILLS
by A Far Side Cow

 The distant hills call to me.
Their rolling waves seduce my heart.
Oh, how I want to graze in their lush valleys.
Oh, how I want to run down their green slopes.
Alas, I cannot.
Damn the electric fence!
Damn the electric fence!

Don’t be afraid of the electric fence.  Roam free on the free range.

Notes:  Russell Brand doesn’t vote.  He never has.  It took me awhile to get to that place, but I wrote about it last year in “Power to the Apathetic”.  And as Brand points out, it’s not apathy but more like righteous indignation and not wanting to be complicit in the wrong doing of the corrupt system.

Looking for Trolls and Finding Common Ground

IMG_0751Saturday  I went down about 3 and 1/2 miles into the center of a mountain.  My husband has a friend who works at the local palladium (used to make catalytic converters) and platinum mine (one of only three in the world) and we got an invite to the annual Employee Appreciation Day  tour.  How could I pass up a chance to go into the kingdom of the trolls, workplace of the 7 Dwarves, and inspiration for the dark kingdoms in Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy?

The bus ride from downtown up the Boulder River to the mine took about an hour and we got lucky.  We were hit three days ago with a very early winter snow storm with 8 inches in town and 3 1/2 feet up in the mountains and at the mine.  Saturday was bright and sunny and the roads were clear.  The ride is always gorgeous but it was a winter wonderment yesterday although it was hard on the cows, horses, elk, deer and turkeys that we passed as they pawed and scratched to find some grass or grain to eat.  With the temperatures already rising, tomorrow would be much easier for the critters.  And most ranchers were spinning out some hay to tide them over.

On the hour ride a safety film was played and a safety instructor went over the basics of how to conduct ourselves in a hard rock mine.  “”Oh boy what have I got myself into?” I thought,  as my mind started plotting a Bruce Willis movie where he has to save a bunch of tourists who were trapped in the Escape Chamber at the bottom of the mine.  It didn’t help that I’m working out a deal for a client of mine to do “The 33”, a movie about the trapped Chilean miners who in 2010 had to spend 69 days a half mile down in the earth.  They were a half mile down and  we were going a lot further down. Yikes! I looked around at who to cast as the a**hole who drives people nuts and steals the last Coke and energy bar when nobody is looking.

IMG_0749 - Version 2Once we arrived at the mine, we entered the administration building and got our protective gear; hard hats; impenetrable gloves, flashlights, eye protectors, and metal toe shields.  Oh, and ear plugs.  Each person also has access to an individual device like a airplane oxygen mask that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, if, for example a fire breaks out.  It gives a person about an hour of air.  Time to find one of those escape chambers.  If there is an emergency, there is a  “Stench Warning” in which  a gas is emitted that sends a rotten stench through the air since miners may be working in the dark with ear plugs on.  Not sure I got all those instructions right, but then I’m still not sure about how to inflate those life vests under the airplane seats.

IMG_0743The journey down was in a long train made up of individual small square cars with room for about 4 to 6 people in each.    It was pitch dark and chilly  as we rumbled along with nothing to see but light bulbs, wires, and tubes.  Not quite a Disney World ride; no pirate ghosts but at least no annoying speaker system playing “It’s a Small World” although I started humming to myself, for some reason,  “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash followed by “16 Tons”.

Once we arrived about 17 minutes later, we were shown around the shop area and also shown different types of machinery.  There was one massive machine that bored the holes into the rock for the sticks of dynamite.  I asked where it was manufactured and turns out Sweden makes a lot of these hole making machines that can cost a million dollars.  IMG_0733 Tasmania makes some of the underground bulldozers they use to scoop up the muck from which the precious metals are extracted.  They run around a half million dollars.

After an hour or so tramping in and out of different tunnels and watching guys operating heavy machinery, we loaded back into the train to take us back up to the top.  The journey home was much slower as we were going up.  They also admitted they were going slower on account of not wanting to possibly get derailed with a bunch of tourists on board.  It was at least 30 minutes and it was pretty darn chilly.  I was glad I brought warm gloves and a sweater and jacket, but many of the people had just worn sweatshirts.  The girl next to me looked kind of miserable, but the miner across from me was catching some shut eye. I passed the time reading “Econned” by Yves Smith on my I Phone.

We arrived at the top and got a great lunch of spaghetti and salads.  Then we piled back on to the buses and headed down the mountain and back to town.

Some of these miners come from over two hours away every day on the buses, work their shifts, and ride back home which leaves as little as 6 hours sleep.  But the pay is good and the work is “honest” as they say.

So no trolls.  No pick axes.  Just some lean looking regular  guys in yellow hats and plastic glasses.

As a footnote, back in 2000 the Stillwater Mine and the citizens of Sweet Grass and Stillwater Counties brokered a conservation deal.  It is called “The Good Neighbor Agreement”. Called ground breaking, it has become “a model” by the NY Times and “a testament to how people can find common ground,” by the Billings Gazette as it seeks to create jobs while at the same time protect the rivers, streams and agricultural land.

I was here when the discussions began about how to  protect the river where they shot “The River Runs Thru It” and it was highly contentious. (There was a doofer element that yelled loudly that any kind of interference with the company would cause the mine to go out  business, but that’s another whole chapter.)  But thanks to the hard work and common sense of some thoughtful rancher conservationists, they hammered out an agreement and to this day regular monitoring of the operations at the mine continue.  There is also  no man camp and so no “company store” that Cash lamented about.   It is also considered one of the safest mines in the world and the supervisors are continually looking for ways to improve safety.

For the local miners, this is for many, if not most, their first exposure to unions and the idea of government mandated safety rules.  It has been a long time since the Anaconda copper mine made Butte, Montana, “the richest hill on earth” while at the same time creating the nation’s largest super fund site with the toxic Berkeley Pit as a lasting reminder of corporation bad practices gone amuck.   Montana mines were also the most dangerous in the country. But many of these young miners are the grandsons and granddaughters of dairy and wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and not the kin of the rugged Fins and Irish men that wrestled minerals out of the earth a hundred years ago.  They are new to the idea of solidarity but you can hear it in their voices as they describe with pride how they look out for one another each and every day.   So no whistling while they work or “Hi Ho, Hi Ho’s”, but as we tourists settled in for the night in our warm homes  in town, somewhere deep below the mountains the  sounds of 1950s rock and roll are keeping a weary miner going.