[lit-ideas] Re: My Friend Stephen Straker

  • From: David Ritchie <ritchierd@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 27 Jul 2004 12:44:07 -0700

Thank you for your thoughts.  I don't know exactly what Stephen died of.  A
heart attack?  A stroke?  Something of that sort probably.  Stephen smoked,
and he had an auto-immune disease, ankylosing spondalitis, which brought hi=
the trials of Job.  He died sitting in a chair, reading stuff on his
computer. =20

He wasn't a Canadian citizen.  He was a Yankees fan, from Yonkers, from
early Ohio stock, who took a teaching job in Canada and loved it.

I knew him as a scholar and a friend.  We went on a few larks together.  In
memorium, I offer an excerpt from one of our adventures.

David Ritchie
Portland, Oregon

    When his mother died, instead of settling up the estate completely,
Stephen elected to rent out the house and land in Amherst and to store his
mother=B9s effects, jammed floor to ceiling, in a little shack and an
adjoining shed.  At the history of science conference where we met, Stephen
mentioned that he was going to drive across America to pick up some of this
stuff and to arrange the disposal of the rest.  It=B9s not clear how the
subject of me joining him first came up, and no doubt it hovered, a
possibility only, until Stephen mentioned that among the stored effects was
a sword that a relative on his mother=B9s side, Stephen Mory of Kinderhook,
NY, sent back from the civil war.  Curiosity got the better of me and by
e-mail we planned the =B3retro-geezers=B9 swordly warpath.=B2  To fund the trip 
both had cash and, more importantly, credits in the Great Marital Double
Entry Accounts Book in the Sky.  The key to the quest was sloughing off all
normal responsibilities: no papers to grade, no children to get ready for
school, no dishes to do, no daily timetable or list of tasks.  All we had t=
do was be at the Hartford, Connecticut airport in time for the plane that
would return me to real life.
    In Vancouver, Stephen packed the =B3Shady Boy=B2 with essential items like
the complete set of Walt Kelly=B9s POGO cartoons, his best dress-for-dinner
wellies, his half liter capacity truck stop giveaway coffee cup full of old=
cold coffee, a few maps and, leaving just enough room for his Players Senio=
Service cartons and whatever luggage and beer I might bring, he inserted th=
ignition key into the ignition and waited for both the glow plugs and the
cigarette lighter to warm up.  The Shady Boy -- full name, =B3Shady Boy Loung=
and Grill=B2--is a diesel-powered, phthalocyanine green VW Eurovan, with an
awning added by the Shady Boy Company of Vancouver, Canada.  The SB has a
ninety horsepower engine and is capable of speeds approaching those of
continental drift. Altogether suitable accommodation for a couple of
liberals on the warpath, the Shady Boy overtook five things in all of
America: a tractor, an Isuzu with a blown cylinder, two mopeds and a dog
with a limp. =20
    The first stage of the journey should have been code named Operation
=B3Rolling Shutter=B2;  everywhere we tried to visit closed just as we arrived.
It was partly that we were traveling against time, which is to say we were
tracing Lewis and Clarke=B9s return route, heading east and losing time all
the way.  But it was also a consequence of deliberate freedom from planning=
    On day two, we came down with a bad case of historic site-itis, an
ailment that causes people to turn off the highway every time a sign says,
=B3Historic Site Ahead,=B2 and then to read every word of the posted
explanation.  Fathers often get this when young children are in the back of
the vehicle, but we had no such excuse; we were merely interested.
   Stephen bought a picture of =B3the most photographed bison in the world,=B2
the remains of which are now (it says on the back) =B3a stellar attraction at
the Montana Historical Society.=B2  Over breakfast one morning we discussed
whether it was worth detouring to see a stuffed buffalo.   We decided
against, but later, on the road, we did stop to admire a sign that promised
=B3Performance cattle from the American Simmenthal Association.=B2
    =B3I bet they pack houses.=B2
    =B3No, I b=B9lieve it=B9s the cows themselves that are packed.=B2
    Stephen pulled into the Holiday gas station, where they sold real
Holiday diesel and real Holiday Charcoal and real Holiday Gas and real
postcards of Yellowstone, printed in Ireland.  We expected to get to Little
Big Horn in plenty of time to do the rounds before the park closed, but
after lunch near a place called =B3Big Timber=B2--there was not a tree in
sight--we were delayed by a Ford Explorer rollover accident, so we got ther=
in time to see dusk draw to a close over long yellow grass, which would hav=
made a great final shot for a documentary, striking exactly the right note
about the sadness of it all and obliquely referring to Custer=B9s long yellow
hair spread in death and untouched by scalp hunters but for the fact that b=
the time of Little Big Horn, Custer had cut his hair short.
    On the following morning, the fifth of the trip, it was time to assess.
There were reasons to question what connection there was between this
journey and a book on swords and whether indeed this could count as any kin=
of a quest at all.  To this point all we had done was what much of America
does in the summer, drive a good few miles, sleep in strange beds, eat
breakfasts in restaurants.  We had taken back roads to try to see
out-of-the-way things and not seen much of anything that might be called
swordly.  We had not even come close to buying a sword or to making some
sort of discovery about sword history.  Napoleon may have been happy with,
=B3On s=B9engage et puis on voit,=B2 you get into the battle and then you see, 
I was beginning to have doubts.
    After an Indian Taco for breakfast--doughnut-like base, ham, onion and
pepper omelette with cheese and salsa on top--I felt an urgent need to walk=
to try do something that might move the giant pythonic bulge just a little
way through my digestive tract.  We headed into ninety plus degree heat and
a landscape that looks like someone knocked out a dam a while back and the
mud dried, aged, cracked and generally got grumpy.  As we drove, I quoted
the guidebook,  =B3Rattlesnakes, are shy and will hurry away unless cornered.=
Recalling how Custer=B9s men found uses for their swords--killing snakes to
eat them-- I wished I had brought a decent-sized saber along, just in case.
You=B9ll have guessed what happened next.  I went for a walk, sticking
absolutely to the marked path.  All was fine and dandy, really a worthwhile
first class morning walk, the setting very beautiful, the motion quite
effective on the breakfast taco front, when suddenly, just as I was about t=
put my sandal down. there came a big ol=B9 rattle, with a rattlesnake
attached. =20
    Goodness it got my attention.  In deep shadow, nearly invisible, right
in the middle of the main trail, was a snake who was having absolutely no
problem with shyness.  =B3This,=B2 it said, =B3is my spot, and I am not about to
move.=B2  I backed away slowly, circled around, gave him plenty of opportunit=
to make an exit in any direction he chose.
    Stephen ambled up with video camera in hand.  I called out a warning.
He stopped quickly.  We both stood and watched.  Now and then the snake
would rattle very gently, and then it would settle into its chosen rut.  It
all seemed terribly symbolic, omen-like, totemic even.
    Next morning we decided to cross the interstate and go see Fort Kearney=
but it was closed: this time we were too early.
    So we were humming along a few miles to the east of the town and the
fort when, for want of anything better to do, (also to get a sense of place
by listening to the local news) we turned on the radio.  The announcer was
saying something about baseball-size hail.  I said, =B3That would take the
bugs off the windshield.=B2  And then we began to discuss, just
hypothetically, where a person would take shelter should there be some sort
of severe thunderstorm close by.  Since the ground was very flat and open,
there was no obvious place to hide except maybe a culvert or a ditch or
underneath a highway bridge.  Suddenly one of those warning noises came on
the radio and a voice said that people in the vicinity of Fort Kearney,
Nebraska should, =B3Take shelter immediately.  This is a real event.  I
repeat, this is not a test...=B2  And then there was stuff about three funnel
clouds registering on the Doppler, just to the west of town.  We looked at
one another in amazement.  The sky turned blue-black.  We realized we had
absolutely no idea what kind of building survives a twister, only knowledge
of the kinds that don=B9t.  For want of another solution, we turned around an=
ran the SB at full gallop towards the fort. And the twister.

    Reaching the parking lot, we cast our lot with scurrying strangers.
Inside the building we asked lots of questions.  Employees were very calm
and reassuring in their manner, but they were saying in that flat Nebraskan
tone of voice was, =B3It=B9s thirty, forty years since we=B9ve had one come so
close.  Yup, it=B9s heading right for us.  They can see it on the Doppler and
it=B9s heading right towards us. Yup, this is the real thing all right.=B2
    One guy, in T-shirt and shorts poped outside every so often and peered
straight up at the clouds, =B3Don=B9t see no rotation.=B2
    Teachers were instructing first graders how to put their heads between
their knees.  Then they all started singing, =B3The Eensy Weensy Spider...=B2
    The radio in someone=B9s hand cut to a commercial, =B3Use Spirit pesticide.
Recommended for use south of I 80.=B2
    I wandered into the museum to see if they had any swords on display.
There were one or two, but who knows what they were?  Pattern 1850 Field an=
Staff officers perhaps?  Cavalry swords too?  I couldn=B9t concentrate, and s=
stepped back out into the central hallway, where I found  Stephen checking
out the merchandise in the museum=B9s store.  Usually Stephen hated to shop,
but in the face of danger, shopping seemed like an insouciant thing to do.
We each bought a shirt, patterned after nineteenth century designs.  I'm
sure I never wore mine.
    The hail arrived.   It was indeed big, bouncing four feet off the
ground.  Two guys started a discussion about whether it might be big enough
to wreck their roof.  One said, =B3I sure hope so.=B2  He wanted the in-surance
    The teachers did a fabulous job, keeping the kids happy.  =B3Oh the wheel=
on the bus go...=B2 =20
    An official on storm watch arrived in what may have been a sheriff=B9s
jeep--the rain and hail were too heavy by this time for us to be able to se=
as far as the parking lot.  He strolled in, calm as calm can be, and said
something about =B3We=B9ll know in a minute or two whether it=B9s going to hit.
The radar says it=B9s about on us, but there=B9s a chance the funnels may be
rising.=B2  The hail stopped.  No one was diving for the corridors, so Stepeh=
and I stayed right there in the hall, chatting with the best of them,
wondering what kinds of behavior would be wise.  Everyone seemed to think
there would be time to run when the rotation came into view.  Everyone
seemed to think that stoicism was the stuff to have.  Then, suddenly, all
conversation ceased.  In another moment it became clear that the twister wa=
taking a hop right over the top of the building.  We knew it had passed whe=
the hail resumed. =20
    The storm watch guy got back in his jeep.  We walked out to the SB and
turned on the radio.
    It was on the news,  =B3A party of first graders are reported safe at For=
Kearney...=B2  There was no mention at all of middle-aged historians on a
strange sword quest. =20

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