& It’s March 4: New Year’s Eve. So I thought I’d send along some holiday greetings.
I suppose you’re looking at those first few words a second time and thinking that senility is creeping ’round my backstairs. I think you’d be thinking wrong — I just took one of those online memory tests. Came through with flying colors. (I think I did anyway. I’ve forgotten.)
That opening paragraph, to me, makes quite a bit of sense. I’ll explain why in a while. (I’m probably going to rattle on at length here, so don’t get into this if you’re busy. Come back later, it’ll still be here.)
First I wanted to tell you that I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately in the hills that hover above my backyard — hills and arroyos and mesas and ridges that hold and grudgingly divulge a 3,000-year-old history of humanity in forms like fire rings and arrowheads and pottery shards and petroglyphs. Of course I think about a lot of things when I take my hikes and rock along on the back of my horse — often just the sheer beauty of this wild explosion of unpredictable geology, from the smallest sliver of shiny quartz in a bed of black lava to the steep sandstone walls of narrow arroyos to the spectacular vision of a hundred miles of the Sangre de Cristo range, its white peaks brilliant against a pure blue sky. This really is an amazing place, New Mexico. I’m sorry I discovered it so late in life. Then again, I’m glad I did discover it.
There are times, though, that I don’t think about such grandeur. Sometimes I think about, oh, for instance, Paul Freeman. Paul and I have been mostly internet buddies for about ten years. Both of us once worked for a wire service — United Press International — mucho muy antes, way back when. but we didn’t know each other then. We met in a discussion group of old UPI guys and gals that popped up as one of those groups called a “Listserv” back in the 1990s. Paul’s about as conservative as I am liberal, which means we’re so far away from each other on the political merry-go-round that we’re about to bump asses, but that’s another story. It has to do with being civil, even if you often wanna shoot the s.o.b.
Paul lives in Tow, Texis, where they pronounce things funny. I know because I visited him and Carole and the cat named Puma a couple of times. Tow’s on the shores of Lake Buchanan, which down there in the hill country of Texis is pronounced Buck-an-an. Tow, which you might think rhymes with “toe”, really rhymes with “cow”. At least it does down there. Why they named it Tow and pronounce it like Cow I don’t know. It’s my best guess that somebody once put up a sign that said Town, and the “n” fell off, and things proceeded from there. Paul’s never disputed that, so I’m going to just keep on believing it.
But it’s getting so I really don’t like to get these end-of-the-year FHLs*, or whatever you want to call them. The older we get the more these things bring us bad news.
Oh sure, there’s stuff about the kids and the grandkids and the trips abroad and reunions at home and pictures of dogs and babies and so on. And it’s nice to know that everybody’s having such a swell time. But lately they too often contain the not-so-niceties. Paul, for instance, after rattling off several jokes in his FHL* about Dumbocrats, as he calls them, and then tells us that he and Carole visited the Llano County hospital’s emergency room so often in 2010 that “the staff created a ‘Welcome Carole and Paul’ banner.”
Carole had a broken kneecap (Paul, being of an age that affords him an “I Was There” memory of the tv western called Gunsmoke, started calling her “Chester”.) Paul’s got something more serious: kidney problems. Advanced to the point, apparently, that he needs a transplant. They tell him that in order to get one, he’s got to wait five years, which is a long time for a 76-year-old. So Carole’s going to give him one of hers. I wish them all the luck.
Another FHL* came during the holidays from my ancient friend, my laughing, pleasant, smart, honorable, kind, and always good friend Jerry Davies, who told us how he and Sarah had visited their kids and their grandkids and had a swell time going to baseball games, movies, restaurants and even gambling halls in Central City, where Sarah did battle with a one-armed bandit and walked off with $700. Then came what Jerry said was “the bleak news.” The pulmonary fibrosis that he’d battled for years, he wrote, “has gone steadily downhill and this year is the worst…”
Except for emails, I hadn’t communicated with Jerry in years. But I picked up the phone when I read that. He and I had a nice long chat — revisited a few stories from our college roomie days, and even though he was coughing quite a bit, I remembered how much I enjoyed his mischievous, infectious and sincere laughter. I always like it when people laugh and really mean it. I asked him during our conversation if he’d ever told me that he would like to be a farmer; for some reason, I said, every time I climb on my tractor I think of Jerry Davies. “Nope,” he said. Never thought about being a farmer. “But, Bob, tell me: Do you like your tractor?” I told him I really like my tractor. “Then I’m glad to hear that it reminds you of me. That’s good enough.”
And I told him I’d get up to Denver soon, and we’d go have lunch at the Press Club. They’d probably still let us in, even though I’m no longer a member.Then we hung up. A few days later Jerry went in the hospital with pneumonia. And he died.
And come to think of it, I lost another friend named Gerry last year — his laugh was deep and rumbling and raspy from cigarettes. It was the kind of laugh that made everybody pay attention. But one day in September, Girard Costello, who once added a story to the annals of UPI that probably always will be told, but not here, was driving along I-25 in his old Mercedes when his heart quit. He pulled over to the side of the road and checked out. He loved driving that car, so he was doing what he liked to do. I’ll miss that laugh, too.
And I’m also going to miss the kisses from my four-legged friend Annie, who died a few weeks ago on the highway by our house. She’s also missed by her brother Amos, who is finding that I’m a damn poor replacement for Annie’s running, spinning, leaping and otherwise constant loving harassment. But I’m trying. I’m also trying to understand how it is that I have driven an automobile for more than half a century and I have never once — not once — hit a dog, any other type of domesticated animal, or any wild creature bigger than a small breadbox. How is it that I have lost two wonderful dogs to cars that smash into them, throw their bodies into the air to land lifeless on the side of the road like a lump of litter and drive on? Are the people behind the wheel aiming for them? I hope not.
And there were others who we’ll never see, or laugh with, again. I could tell you a whole lot about Louise Dice — Jeopardy near-champion, Taos mainstay, WWII Marine, and all-around whiz kid and great woman — and others whose time among us ended in the last year.
But I don’t want this to turn into some kind of necrology report; I just wanted to get the bad stuff out of the way first. I want it to be a holiday greeting, that says I’m happy, and I hope you’re happy.
Among other things I’m happy about is a trip I took to Arizona for a Thanksgiving reunion of a few days with my always-smiling sis, her kids, their kids and my son — a handsome, intelligent, sensitive fella who’s on his way to greatness in the film industry, without a doubt. I’m happy to know so many interesting people coming from so many different directions. I’m happy I got to attend the singing debut of one John Harris, who treated us on the 4th of July to a recital of wonderful old show tunes, delivered from his almost-80-year-old set of pipes; that I was lucky enough to sit 12 rows back from the stage and soak in another 90 minutes of entertainment from the great Willie Nelson — still going strong at 77. I’m happy I occasionally come away from the Friday night poker game with a few bucks more than I started with. I’m happy I live where I do — in the midst of artists and artisans; caregivers and cowboys; musicians and tractor drivers; retired teachers and paycheck-to-paycheck handymen; Hispanics and gringos; grifters, grafters and do-gooders; worshipers of Buddha, Brahman, Jehovah, Jesus, Mohammed, Nature and a hundred other gods, including the Almighty Dollar; non-believers, new-agers, and old hippies — all of them generally willing to let everybody else go off and do what they what want to do, when they want to do it, and how they want to do it.
And I’m happy I’ve got a horse named Grayson, a black-and-white painted fellow of advanced years, who’s generally of good will and good intentions when I throw my Aussie saddle on his back and climb aboard for a ride — up into the sandy arroyos flowing out of the hills to the south — as I did just yesterday — or down into my pastures and along the banks of the Rio Chama. My friend Mickey Simmons reminds me that somebody — I forget who, now — said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse, or something like that. Whoever said it spoke the truth.
Now don’t get me wrong — the last year hasn’t been all sweetness and light. It was a year ago today, as a matter of fact, that I was stretched out, slightly sedated, on a table in room filled with high-tech jimbobs and doolywidgets, feeling like I was a subject in a Michael Crichton novel, with something snaked up from my groin through the inside of my body into my heart, and manipulated by a doctor named Mark Zolnick. I was sort of enjoying the whole thing until I heard him say something like “Whoops! Ninety-nine percent blockage.”
And, without much ado, he implanted what’s known as a cobalt stent to open up an artery in the lower left portion of my heart, and they wheeled me off into the recovery room, where I laid in bed for a night, being awakened every hour or so by pretty young nurses who came by to check out my groin. Which is not the most unpleasant way to spend an evening in the hospital, I must say. The next day a very nice doctor stopped by my bed. She told me that I had been right there on the edge of major train wreck, but there had been no damage done to my heart, and everything ought to be just fine. Then came a very nice cardiac nurse, who told me some of the things I’d have to do — like exercise, like watch my diet, like, oh you know, pretty much completely change my lifestyle.
And so I started that day — one year from tomorrow, living a new way. It took a little while to get into gear (let me introduce you to an elliptical machine someday — I think they manufacture them at Guantanamo, and they got a lot of use at Abu Ghraib), but I had a lot of help and encouragement. Tomorrow, I’m one year old. And in the last year, I’ve met a number of wonderful people, a few of whom I want to mention because they got me off the wrong track and on to the right one.
There’s Michael Wagner, who is a musician, and a photographer, and also just happens to be my doctor in Espanola — he’s not quite sure why he decided to give me a stress test early last year, but he did, and that ultimately led to the morning I spent getting my heart replumbed. I owe him one. And there are Brad Stamm and Mark Zolnik, my two Santa Fe heart docs — lemme tell you, I hope you don’t need anybody tinkering with your ticker, but if you do, go to these guys. And then there are those who counseled me, coaxed me, instructed me and occasionally glared at me when I tried to talk my way out of doing some kind of exercise that was good for me, or tried to talk my way into eating some kind of food that was bad for me. Before that six weeks of toil in the St. Vincent’s Hospital cardiac rehab facility in Santa Fe was completed, my gymkeepers actually had me enjoying that elliptical. And I want to introduce those people to you, in alphabetical order: Diana Almond, Marcia Dunn, Bill Mickschl, Ed Rael, Lloyd Takeshita, Jesse Whitla and Carol Zorn. If you ever run into any of them, tell them thanks, not only from me — and the 40 pounds I left with them — but for lots of other lucky people who get to restart their lives with the help of this good gang of nurses and exercise experts.
And that brings me to my buddy Grayson. Over the years, I’ve had some familiarity with horses — particularly riding along in a string behind Trailboss Wilbur Flachman — old Clapsaddle himself — snaking our way over a narrow wilderness ridge in the Colorado high country — but I really didn’t know much about living with them day to day. I’d never been in a place that I could spend much time with them — they’re big, you know, and they eat hay, much of which gets manufactured and redeposited into great quantities of little round things called road apples, which means that horses usually aren’t very welcome at the Saturday Morning Walk at the suburban shopping mall. They just aren’t really what you’d include in your average urban menagerie, which, as you know, is big on fish, and hamsters and dogs and cats and maybe a parakeet or two.
But then one morning I woke up and said to myself, ‘I’ve got plenty of room for a horse.’ Or two, or three, or twenty-three. And I’ve got plenty of places to ride. Like the whole Santa Fe National Forest, which starts just across the street. And I’ve got a bunch of friends who know about horses.
So I mentioned to a few people that I was thinking about getting a horse. I talked to my old friend Dick Dice up in Taos, and the aforementioned trio of Flachman, Simmons and Zorn, all of whom would qualify as immediate inductees into the Horse Association’s Human Hall of Fame, should horses ever get together and decide where in the hell to build such a Hall of Fame. Long story short, with the advice and aid of my horsey friends, I got a new shelter and corral built — I call it the ZYX Stables at Cholla Ridge — got some pasture fenced and with the generosity of a very nice lady named Catherine Messier, I got a damn fine horse. And yesterday, when Grayson was carrying me nicely and quickly along the top of a mesa, and then picking his way slowly and surely through a rock-strewn section of a skinny arroyo, I realized, once again, what fine horse he is, and how lucky I am to have him.
And, speaking of carrying me over rock-strewn stretches, I’d be remiss to end this Form Holiday Letter (*you’d been wondering what FHL meant, I can tell) without mentioning my already-referred to wonderful sister, Lynn Murphy, my son Kennedy, and my good and great friends, little Jimmie Sample and David and Laura Skaggs, for helping carry me over some other bumpy patches, which the constraints of time and good sense cause me to refrain from mentioning.
Talking about Grayson reminds me that it’s time for me to go feed him. I should have shut up a long time ago. But, when you’ve had a year filled with a lot of fine adventures and unforgettable memories and good friends, it takes some time to tell you about them. Of course there are always things that, should they happen in the New Year that begins tomorrow, would make me even happier. But as a guy named Frederick G. Bonfils once said, “there is no hope for the satisfied man.” But there is hope for the person who keeps trying, which is what I intend to do.
I very much hope that your New Year, beginning tomorrow, March 5, is every bit as good as the last year I had.
& I’m coming, Grayson, I’m coming! Quit yer whinnyin’.