Mountain Man

Baden-Powell on patriotic postcard in 1900
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Mountain Man

Jeremiah Johnson: You’ll do well, Del; providing you don’t get into trouble with all that hair.

Del Gue: Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. “Make your life and go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.” “Mother Gue”, I says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,” and by God, I was right. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.

My self reliance avalanche started with a snowflake – a light, fictionalized account of a ten-year-old boy who runs away from home to literally carve out a new life deep in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains.  In My Side of The Mountain, Sam Gribley possessed only a small knife, string, axe and a flint and steel set.  In time, he had carved a warm home deep in the broken trunk of an ancient hemlock and trained a peregrine falcon as his pet and companion. To my amazement, in a time before child endangerment laws, Sam was allowed to live rough after his father physically finds him and recognizes his son’s maturity and independence. At night, I would lie in bed and crane my neck to trace the purple contours of the serpentine San Gabriel Mountains and Mt Wilson. I became fascinated with hunters, explorers and mountain men – those rugged societal contrarians who, chafing at the yoke of a controlling and material world, preferred the reverent counsel of a quaking aspen and the garrulous conversation of a high alpine blue jay.  Deep in the wilderness, these sons of Thoreau thrived in their own self-sufficiency.

I mingled with these free spirits in the pages of books and in Outdoor magazine’s monthly adventure feature entitled, ” This Happened To Me – Amazing True Life Experiences”.  In between pages of dead elk and rocky mountain big horn sheep, there were illustrated tales of hunters stranded in caves with killer cougars and mountain men left for dead by grizzlies. The men in these magazines were predominantly hunters, military veterans or societal anachronisms who advocated pioneering and self-reliance.  They sported buck knives as big as machetes, could field dress a five point buck faster than your Mom could make hot chocolate. They could survive sub arctic temperatures by crawling inside the freshly gutted carcass of a musk ox they had just felled with a bow and arrow.

I graduated to tales of the old West by Zane Gray and Louis L’ Amour, understudying the techniques of desperados and cowboys.  Yet, it was the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher that struck me like a thunderbolt.  It was the story of Sam Minard, a settler drawn into the romanticized life of a mountain man only to have it ripped away when Crow Indians murder his Indian wife.  Vengeance drives Minard to declare war on the Crow nation and in doing so, this Rambo of the Rockies becomes an immortal force as wild and the mythic as the western landscape that sustained him.

In 1972, George Roy Hill adapted the novel into the film, Jeremiah Johnson.   I crouched in the flickering darkness of the Rialto theatre watching Robert Redford battle Indian assassins, skin “grizz” and blunt a succession of fierce Rocky Mountain winters.  The Old West held huge appeal for this young romantic eager to head west.  The fact that I lived less than an half hour from the Pacific Ocean posed a great logistical problem because if I wanted to “ go west” to live in the wilds, I must head east.  I resigned myself to the fact that I had been born a century too late.

After a demeaning afternoon of weeding and sweeping the trash area of a suburban backyard, the allure of a four by four, flat roof log cabin shanty softened with beaver pelts and bear skins, and provisioned by a squaw who excelled in turning elk into great strips of jerked beef held enormous appeal.  If pushed too far by life’s authority figures, I would simply vanish into the mountains with backpack filled with cans of Hormel chili and live out my days like Sam Gribley or Jeremiah Johnson – with a squaw and an insane pioneer lady’s son as my foster child and maybe a wolf as my dog.   The fact that I always slept with my radio on, bathroom door cracked for light and a tattered “blankee” did not interfere with my fantasy of fleeing suburban serfdom to become a wilderness alpha male with tangled matted hair and beard.

I joined the Boy Scouts Troop 354 eager to explore the deer trails and less traveled paths of our American wilderness.  It was my first exposure to a world of merit badges, bowline hitch knots and organized camping.  Initially, I was delighted by the freedom, hiking, emphasis on orienteering and self-contained survival.  We were a renegade militia meeting irregularly, choosing to avoid other troops and Jamborees.  Our scoutmaster, a henpecked oil and gas archeologist, faithfully dropped us off miles from our destination, giving us maps and instructions, and would drive ahead to our campsite to drink himself silly while waiting for us by a campfire.  It was around this swirling, roaring blaze that he would regale us with stories of his world travels divining oil and gas in the Middle East, Mongolia, the Sahara and Alaska.  It was The Lord of the Flies meets Lord Baden Powell and we loved it.  Eventually, one of the scouts gave a little too much information to his parents after a campout and we suddenly had a new scoutmaster whose obsession with khakis and cleanliness drove me to retire well short of the coveted Eagle Scout.

While, I continued to backpack well into my 30’s, I could feel my sense of reckless adventure ebbing from my bones after each night spent sleeping out on a cold ledge.  Upon reading Jon Krakauer’s non fiction account of Chris McCandless in Into The Wild , I further demythologized my dreams of log cabin living.  The life of a mountain man did not seem quite so glamorous.  I could have ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wild.  For a man who believes gluttony should be an Olympic sport, starvation seemed the worst possible way to go.  I also noticed that many of these mountain ronin exercised their right to civil disobedience, and often ended up in shoot-outs with federal marshals and ATF agents.  Perhaps all the peace and quiet starts to weigh on you.  You hear voices and think that the government is spying on you.  With no mailbox or H&R Block, you forget to pay your taxes and then wound a park ranger when she comes too close to your” homestead”.  I realized most mountain men never made it past their 35th birthday. In the end, like most free spirits, I domesticated. I lost the path of the mountain man and chose to apply my orienteering, tracking and survival skills in the primordial boardrooms of corporate America.

Yet, these days, the catastrophic climate change in American business leaves me restless and feeling bloated by the obligations of a material world. I hear the whispers of the pine trees to “simplify” and can almost make out that hollow hemlock where I would set out my essentials – candle, compass, mirror, rope and miscellaneous survival gear.   A great horned owl hoots off in the distance..  My retirement portfolio is in my pocket in the form of matches and a Victorinox Trailmaster Knife.  My newspaper is the peeling bark of an ancient shag hickory, my stereo – a steady, meandering brook and my big screen television a horizon line of a thousand dawns and sunsets. As crickets serenade my slow descent into a deep, satisfied sleep I close my eyes and suddenly realize that I forgot my flashlight.

I wonder if my wife left the backdoor open.

The Return of Francois Egalite

The Return of Francois Egalite

As a kid, I had an overactive imagination and a short attention span. I was chastised as a ” daisy gazer” by baseball coaches and as “lacking social responsibility ” by my spinster teacher Miss Austin whose last boyfriend was in the Polk administration which in my opinion, was about as socially irresponsible as a person could get. With regularity, I was marched off to see the principal, Miss Pratt, for infractions ranging from insubordination and inattentiveness to telling whopping half-truths such as my father was an operative for the CIA. He was, after all, in advertising which involved propaganda and the subliminal manipulation of the masses. I was certain he was writing pro bono vignettes for Radio Free America on the side.

I was a junior version of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty. fantasizing and daydreaming my day away. I was the short man dreaming of slam-dunking a basketball – the flat footed Clydesdale gazing into the mud puddle wishing he were Man O War. I invented alter egos and super heroes.  I lived their lives vicariously until my mind and body stretched to afford me my own adventures.  However, I never stopped filling in the empty cracks and dimly lit spaces of my prosaic routine with dashing figures and adventurers.  Over time, life slowly carved its hard lines on my face. My idealistic penchant for undisputed resolution and redemption slowly rusted under the constant corrosive exposure to society’s moral ambiguity and materialism.  My imagination faltered and my adolescent propensity to dream was lost like an old blanket or stuffed toy.

Years later, I find myself once again seeking to escape from a slate gray world where people play by different sets of rules, bad deeds go unpunished and the guy with the most expensive attorney gets off. I long for a black and white corner of the universe where there are distinguishable good and bad guys who wear different color uniforms and work for agencies with names like “Control” and “Chaos”.  We need a hero riding a white horse who is just a second faster on the draw and a system where bad guys always get nailed just before they are boarding their United flight to Buenos Aires with the employee pension funds.

I find myself once again conjuring up an imaginary protagonist – Francois Egalite, a master businessman and international man of intrigue. He is Louis Jourdain, Hercules Poirot and James Bond rolled into one. The French have flair and Egalite is no exception. He races cars in Monaco, seduces starlets like Audrey Tautou and Sophie Marceau, and wears a signature silk cravat.

Egalitie is the perfect cover name for a hero who saves governments, captures evil industrialists and is able to actually spell “vichyssoise.” Egalite has contempt for inequity as it is at its core – the antithesis of his surname. He is a champion of the exploited, the under-represented and the sartorially challenged. He is the ultimate good guy.  After saving yet another magnificent buxom heiress from the harem of a petro-authoritarian sheik or protecting a French farmer with twelve children from losing his land to a corrupt agricultural monopoly, Egalite always melts into the cool shadows simply leaving a calling card with his trademark fleur d’ lis insignia and the rearranged French national motto of – “Liberté, Fraternité and…Egalité!” We need Francois Egalite to come out of retirement from his hillside chateau in Biarritz, where he paints plein air ocean scenes and lives with his Serbian scientist girlfriend Chloe and his Samoyed husky, Ca Va.

In the world of Egalite, guys who bilk investors of $ 50B don’t sit at home under house arrest watching Rachel Ray make Mexican flan, they are kidnapped under the nose of the Feds, fitted with cement tennis shoes and asked where all the loot is stashed.  Once the information is extracted, the evil Ponzi schemer is asked by Egalite to recover a euro that he has just tossed into the East River. (Splash!)  Egalite is last seen leaning over the bridge, yelling at a dissolving swirl of bubbles with his hand to his ear,  “Pardon, Bernard? What is it you say? You cannot swing? Swine?”

I conjure up Egalite as I read another depressing headline. The Metro North jolts noisily across the Harlem River into a restless city of insomniacs and shattered financiers.  New York seems a giant restless leg – twitching and tapping its anxious limb while furtively looking for signs and signals as to what clouds might be next on the horizon line.  I walk up Park Avenue, another cardboard cut out in a London Fog overcoat lugging an ancient, scuffed Tumi handbag.  Steam rises out of grates as workmen wrapped in odd mummy-like mufflers, bark at one another with great plumes of frozen air.

My mind drifts. And I am Francois Egalite, corporate whistle blower and a member of the Free Market League of. Consumer Advocates.  Like Kwai Chang Caine, from the old TV show “Kung Fu”, I am a restless wanderer, moving from company to company, trying to escape my past but inevitably drawn into a web of corruption and malfeasance. With each new position, I think this time it will be different, only to have the dog dirt hit the fan. One week, I discover the nice HR manager with whom I share a lunch bench each day is secretly skimming cash by using child laborers in Romania. Next month, it is a megalomaniacal CEO who is timing his stock options.  Next month, it could be a CFO whose cooked books rival The Barefoot Contessa.

The revelations usually come to me from a frightened middle manager as we graze on left-over C Suite sandwiches abandoned like soup kitchen handouts in our microscopic lunchroom.    My new friend is from accounting and confides her concern over the strike price of the CEOs options.  I get that old sinking feeling that a Pandora’s box is about to be opened. It is my curse and my raison d’être – to root out corruption. I smile as I think about the time Egalite tied the hands of a corrupt inside trading Controller with his own Hermes tie.  How ironic!

In the end, Egalite protects the little guy but always has to move on – a tragic corporate drifter – like Richard Kimball in “The Fugitive” or Dr. David Banner in “The Incredible Hulk”.  In his case, he is not so much running from anything but instead just trying to clean up American business so he might return home to Chloe and Ca Va.  It is now time for Egalite to return.  For now there are white-collar criminals to catch, forensic accounting to find hidden Swiss bank accounts and jobs to save.

A taxi honks at me and I jolt to reality as I loiter in the street.  I look up to realize I have walked past my office by 12 blocks.  I am standing in front of a Hermes store.

Mon Dieu, this must be a sign.

The Politics of Father and Son

The Politics of Father and Son

 

I am the son of a diehard Republican.  We often speak late in the evening across 3000 miles of America to discuss the economy, politics and trends in business.  I fancy myself as a middle ground moderate that advocates fiscal conservatism, social activism and open arms internationalism.   I never leave the fairway on issues.  My political ball can be found in the center left or right.  Rarely, will I find the rough reserved for those with hooks and hard right slices.  I am the voter every politician seeks to woo.  The fact that my views on public policy seem to lack the hard calluses of conservative conviction bothers my Dad but we like talking politics.  Discourse raises our collective IQ around issues – blending black and white opinions into a slate gray amalgam where clear answers are not easily found.

 

“Dad, I am voting for Obama.”

 

(Silence)…

 

“As far as I’m concerned, McCain comes across like the angry old conservative that loves to chase liberals off his lawn.  I have no doubt that McCain is a good man, but he is well past his buy/sell date and has been part of the party that brought us record deficits, two wars, laissez faire regulatory oversight and back breaking energy dependence.”

 

(Sound of crickets)…

 

“Obama knows he will not get the vote of those he is planning on taxing.  He is actually being transparent about the fact that we will be negatively impacted by his tax policies.  Yet, his tax cuts for the middle class are three times those of McCain.  His tax plan will cost $ 3.5B vs. McCain’s $5.1B.  The national debt has doubled under the Republicans.  When you voted against Democrats, you always did so telling me that you did not endorse politicians who would increase the deficit, intervene into the free market – (like nationalizing banks), and hijack the country on an idealistic joyride. Isn’t that where we are today after eight years of Bush? ”

 

There was a heavy sigh on the phone.  Finally he spoke. “ Well if it was just about tax policies, I suppose I could tolerate higher taxes but it won’t stop there.  You just watch.  Jimmy Carter showed us what incompetent fiscal and foreign policymaking can do to the country.  He focused on unemployment with jobs programs that bloated the federal deficit while establishing a program of wage and price controls. Neither worked. By the end of the 1980, we still had high unemployment and 18% interest rates resulting in stagflation.  We know nothing about Obama – we don’t.  America is hungry for hope and grazing on his cotton candy rhetoric because Bush has ruined the Republican party.  If that damn McCain would just be himself and stop listening to his handlers  ‘attack tactics’, people might see through the great orator Obama and realize he is just a tissue paper, give away artist.”

 

I felt the need to defend my decision to endorse the dynamic Illinois senator with the razor thin resume. “Dad, you’re right that we don’t know a whole lot about him.  However, I do not believe he consorts with terrorists and people disloyal to America.  That’s just a hangover political tactic from the Republicans who have spent eight years seasoning our opinions with fear.  I want to believe in something and someone. I am sure he believes that trickle down economics disproportionately favors those at the top and falls well short of helping those at the bottom.  His life experiences probably include a point of view that justice and prosperity is uneven in America. He probably believes that the underbelly of free market capitalism is marked by inequity and a more polarized society.   However, I do not believe you can vilify anyone for having that political view.  For many, that was their experience, particularly under Reagan and Bush. “

 

He snorted a cynical chuckle.  “Here’s the problem.  The next President inherits an economy in deep trouble.  The Treasury Secretary and the White House will have unprecedented power.  I am very concerned Obama’s policies will probably deepen the recession and expand government at a time when we need to learn to live within our means by reducing government, decreasing entitlement programs and putting money back into the hands of all consumers by making the Bush tax cuts permanent.  I am telling you, you have no idea how much damage a guy like this can do – to our legal system by liberalizing the Supreme Court, to our economy by deepening the multi trillion dollar deficit and to our national security by screwing up the next critical steps we make in foreign policy.  I may not like McCain but I am not going to vote for a guy that represents more risk to the nation.”

 

He was getting into a lather and I knew that I could probably make him spontaneously combust if I mentioned those who must not be named – – Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.  He had worked hard to save for retirement.  He was feeling more at risk than ever.  He was also tired.  He had lost confidence in those who he had supported for so long.   The race still had a few weeks to go. Yet, deep down, he knew that this time the majority of swing voters were too fed up, too betrayed and too angry at the Bush administration to reverse their desire for a new direction when real fear was scratching at their door.

 

(More silence.) He was giving me the last word.

 

“You know Dad, I guess it get’s down to hope and faith.  I wager that Obama is a good man.  I am certain his life experiences will shape his policies. However, he is a smart guy and if he brings into his administration strong business leaders – the Buffets, Diamonds or Grosses, I think pragmatism will triumph over idealism.  Like Thomas Friedman, call me a sober optimist. “

 

A pause.  “ Well, let’s just hope you’re right. But, I’m still not going to vote for him.”

 

“Love you, Dad”. 

 

(Click.)

 

There are three things in life I can always count on – death, taxes and the fact my father will never, ever vote for a Democrat.  I’m ok with that. It’s his country too.

 

The Harvest List

The Harvest List

 

THESE are the times that try men’s souls…. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  Thomas Paine, The Crisis

 

My good friend was recently thrown into the abyss of unemployment, a casualty of the catastrophic climate changes that have engulfed the financial services community.  He was sharing with me his journey to find employment and how he found himself interviewing at a surviving bank for a position that he had held years earlier in his career.  “I was interviewing with a kid ten years younger than me. When it was over, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to shake his hand or slap him”.  We talked for a long time.  It seemed our summer fields were infinitely more vulnerable to the vagaries of life’s winter storms. I knew that in the next few years, we would see more turbulence, uncertainty and financial insecurity sweep across our land.  The barometer was dropping, twilight had arrived and all we could do was watch as the storm rolled towards us.

 

For many, the current financial crisis is a catastrophic storm wreaking havoc after years of Indian summer – – a placid stretch of warm days and cool nights propped up by a high pressure system of easy credit and leverage.  During periods of fair weather, even the most veteran of farmers can gain a false sense of security and begin to believe in their own power to prevail over the forces of nature. Affluence is a warm wind that lulls us with a sense of independence and a belief that we have gained immunity from misfortune. In periods of abundance we attach enormous value to our “things” and at some level, to ourselves.  When the unexpected occurs, our self-esteem, now lashed to the limbs and stalks of our personal possessions, sometimes breaks at the very time we need courage and fortitude. Fear becomes a tornado touching down indiscriminately, conjured in the depths of our imagination, blocking out all light.  We can give up, or we can carefully replant, giving thanks for the real wealth we have harvested in our lives. 

 

Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” Kahil Gibran

 

In the days of agrarian America, Fall was a time of harvest – – reaping the benefits of good weather and their own hard work of ploughing, planting, gathering, mending and managing.  The harvest was a time to take an inventory of what one had accumulated for his/her efforts and to give thanks. In a period before science and technology had conspired to de-mythologize life and the cosmos, uncertainty was a silent stalker, following each person just out of the corner of their eye. Disease, famine, wars, and economic downturn could sweep unannounced into lives leaving wreckage and devastation in their wake.  People had to cope with tragic events as a condition of human existence.  It was rare to find the man who did not understand his fragile contract with the fates.

 

Society was more religious.  People understood out of necessity that a community bonded by common interest was significantly less vulnerable than a fragile archipelago of self absorbed islands.  Churches and societies became critical affinity groups for people who sought the companionship and support of a larger foundation of shared values.  These groups were defined by principles that advocated service as a framework for survival – – serving each other and in doing so, ensuring that the most at risk did not suffer. In the Great Depression, families were keenly aware of one another circumstances, not out of the human frailty of being preoccupied with another’s misfortune but out of the understanding that “no man is an island” and any family’s failure diminished another.  A mother might gently suggest to her child to invite a particular friend over for dinner, knowing that that child’s family was struggling and that one less mouth to feed might provide some modicum of relief to a family navigating the white water of misfortune.  At dinner, grace was shared to remind everyone of the essential blessings of life, health and community.

 

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Cicero

 

Each of us possesses a harvest list.  It’s assets might include the laughter of a child who sees the world as a magical place of endless possibilities.  It’s the warm fire of humanity kindled by a thousand tiny sparks of those who serve others.  It’s a house jammed with friends and family. It’s having somewhere to go and someone to see.  It’s not being alone.  It is knowing someone will always be there for you.  It’s the smell of autumn smoke hanging in the early morning air.  It is seeing someone we love achieve something important.  It is watching a close friend beat an illness.  It is holding hands and waiting for the darkest hours to pass to witness yet another glorious dawn.  It’s having the courage to ask for help and having the magnanimity to offer it.  It is the bounty of a community that cares about one another.  It is generosity.  It is people who serve as the mortar that connects the bricks of our daily lives.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that each person has a choice of either lighting a candle or cursing the dark.  The sand foundations that we all periodically build our lives on eventually destabilize.  The rocks that form the strongest foundations in our lives rest near us.  They elevate us so that we might rise above the clouds of fear and see our possibilities and breathe the deep fresh air of hope.  Those rocks are our family, our church, friends, neighbors and even those whom we have never met but through the act of helping them, they actually enrich us.

 

Life will carry on.  The autumn leaves still play chase across muddy ground, restless after falling from treetops colored from a miraculous divine palette.  The low rock walls predictably curl and duck along narrow roads as dark ponds slowly prepare to for winter.  It’s the perfect time of year to remember that everything happens for a reason and that there is a plan for each of us.  The darkest moments precede the most magnificent personal awakenings.  Fear has no role in the passion play of life.  It disables us and distracts us from realizing our potential.  It causes us to ignore the bounty we have been given.  In this time of loss, change and challenge, our harvest list remains rich. We just need to be sure to take the time to recognize everything that we possess – – physically, intellectually and spiritually.  It’s all there, right underneath our noses, between the lines – – our priceless intangibles that rest on the other side of our temporal ledger.