Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Cowboy Rides Away

by David Cranmer

Photo taken by Ron Scheer, March 2011.

On April 11, 2015, Ron Scheer passed away after a long battle with cancer. Lynda—who Ron referred to as his life mate—said, "A blessing to know that he has flown high--like the hawk Anne recently watched in the desert, wheeling and turning on the wind--away from pain and struggle." I know I can speak for our online community in saying that we send our deepest condolences to his wife Lynda and children Anne and Jeremy.

Ron and I never met face to face. Our friendship was one born in the blogosphere. A comment left on his post here and a response left on mine elsewhere. That quid pro quo that often goes nowhere but sometimes crosses the transom into something quite special. Our bond began over five years ago when I immediately recognized characteristics in Ron that I respected, and my admiration for him only grew as the years went along.

What first stands out to any visitor to Buddies in the Saddle (BITS) is this blogger is a very gifted writer. I know we call them posts, articles, etc., but in Ron's hands these often became mini-masterpieces—layered essays deepening one's knowledge of a particular subject and leaving the reader eager to learn more about these passionate interests. And Ron wasn't just enthusiastic about Westerns, he also had an overflowing fountain of knowledge in art, photography, jazz, noir, foreign films, poetry, and literature from all corners, Old West lingo, current events, social justice, science fiction, and the list goes on. You know a top wordsmith when they can instill a thirst in you for a topic you hadn't previously thought you cared about—he had that natural, enviable ability.

Ron and I collaborated on several projects, starting when I asked if he'd be interested in writing a few words for a hardboiled anthology I was editing, and he penned the masterful introduction with the same zeal and perception he brought to his other work. But his first love in writing, clearly, was for the American Old West, so when Ron approached me about publishing his own essays dedicated to the early frontier authors and their novels, I was thrilled to do so. How the West Was Written was published in two volumes, with Spur Award-winning author Richard S. Wheeler saying, "I believe this will be the standard work on early western fiction." Without a doubt, it's Ron's knowledgeable, comprehensive voice we want to hear recalling those early days on the range. These are not dry academic missives, but, instead, a storyteller sitting around a campfire, thumbing his Stetson high up on his forehead, and connecting us to a fascinating history.

Continuing on this writing path leads us to the depth of a remarkable human being. In his blogging when he confronts death's first unwelcomed appearance, not only does Ron's courageous grit shine through but so does his ability to compose poetic prose while reflecting on his own mortality. In just one of many profound BITS entries, this from April 13, 2014, after he has lamented the state of endless wars, he takes solace in a treasured pastime, reading, "where killing and death are transformed into words on the page and real blood is not shed." He then adds:

In literature, the dead do not fall into an Eternal Silence, as do those who have actually lived and breathed. Gravestones do not mark the resting place of a lifetime of memories, locked away forever. Lives lived in literature remain at least partly open to us, unforgotten. I think of Joyce as getting at something like this in "The Dead." Spending a holiday evening with a gathering of people, all of them now dead and gone, we are touched by them, their loneliness and sorrows, their heart-breaking memories, their isolation, weaknesses, and failures, their bravery. Yet somehow the words on the page keep them from being forever snuffed out. At least some part of them is still remembered.

A man who writes with such vision is drawing from a deep reserve. Perhaps, an indicator—a signpost on the trail, if you will—to the origin of this wellspring can be traced, in part, to a lifetime of dedication and service to others.

Lynda and Ron in Palm Springs.

Ron's M.A. and Ph.D. were from UCLA (and Lynda notes it's ironic he ended up at its arch rival USC to teach writing from 2000 until he retired around 2012). His first job was at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania where he taught composition and was excited about working a Head Start program for disadvantaged first-year students. As Lynda told me, there is a noticeable pattern of committed service running through Ron's career-from spending a college summer volunteering at the Behrhorst Clinic in Guatemala to coaching writing students in Watts, an area that had been, at the time, devastated by the 1965 "riots." It was also at Mansfield (1969-1983) where he discovered a life-long passion for film and developed an insight that we would eventually enjoy here at BITS. In 1983, he went on to post-graduate work at Carnegie Mellon, then left teaching to work at the advertising agency Siegel & Gale in NYC where he directed the language simplification projects for the agency's New York, London, and Los Angeles offices. Ten years later, he returned to teaching at USC until he retired.

This is a soul who left us far too soon, and we feel cheated and robbed by his absence. However, I'm reminded of the Greek poet Pindar who advised us not to aspire to immortal life "but exhaust the limits of the possible." I take stock knowing Ron's life was lived to the fullest. And in what became his twilight, he turned to blogging at BITS and writing and found a new outlet for his enthusiasm and creativity. Once again, Lynda opens a window for us:

"His world expanded as he dug into frontier fiction and met you all. After he retired from teaching, your community became a huge part of his life, a part that inspired him and engaged his most incredible mind. I believe that, by the time he got too sick to write, he felt fulfilled and validated."

Ron, you were a wonderful, compassionate friend to us. A rapport started in cyberspace, true, but one that manifested itself into genuine, affectionate friendships. We will always picture you sporting that cowboy hat under which beamed that wide, inviting smile saying hello.

In many of the Western stories we admire, the cowboy rides away as the sun sets over the mountains with the child running after and left wondering why the hero has gone so soon. We, too, feel that way, but we're grateful that you left so much of your heart with us. We will stoke the fire you set, savor the words you left, and take comfort in your undying spirit.

You once handed me a beautiful sentiment that I will never forget. Now, I'm returning these cherished words to you, where they belong, dear friend:

"When they ask me if I knew any truly honorable men, I will tell them about you."

Rest in peace, buddy.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fathers and sons

New haircut
Oliver Sacks revealed in a New York Times essay recently that he is dying of liver cancer and that he plans to devote the time he has left only to those things that enrich his life: reading, writing, and the companionship of friends; no more nightly news; but disconnecting from the world. Such as it is. And trusting the intelligence and resolve of the next generation to address its problems. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Luke Allan, Blue Peter: “Half-Breed” (1921)

Métis fur trader, 1870
Blue Pete, a Métis cattle rustler who leaves a gang of horse and cattle thieves to work as an informant for the North-West Mounted Police, first appeared in 1921 in a short story in Western Story Magazine by Canadian-born writer William Lacey Amy (later to be known as Luke Allan). That same year, the character appeared in Blue Peter: “Half-Breed,” the first of a long series of Blue Pete novels, published in both London and New York, the last of which saw print in 1954.

Blue Peter is a love/crime fiction story set on the Canadian frontier, where the North-West Mounted Police are stationed at Medicine Hat  to maintain law and order. Their main problem is a gang of horse and cattle thieves fearlessly operating along the international border with the U.S. and using the Cypress Hills, a rough patch of wooded terrain in southern Saskatchewan , to hide out (cf. Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Plot. As the story begins, Blue Peter parts company with the gang in an exchange of gunfire, meets up with a young
North-West Mounted Police Fort Walsh, 1878
Mountie, Constable Mahon, and is persuaded to work as an informant, sharing what he knows of the Hills and how they are used by the thieves to hide stolen stock; infiltrating the cowboys who work for ranchers on the open prairie, he reports any questionable behavior to the chief inspector at NWMP headquarters.

As it turns out, one family, the Stantons, are actively in cahoots with the gang. Caught in the act, two brothers, Jim and Joe Stanton, kill each other rather than allow themselves to be taken by the Mounties. Their sister, Mira, has been an accomplice in their thieving activities. She is an all-western girl, skilled as a rider and roper, pretty and independent-minded, embarrassed only by her lack of education and refinement.

Mahon, who has a girlfriend of his own, befriends Mira and helps her with the book-learning she desires. Meanwhile, grief-stricken at the loss of her brothers, Mira warms to him but holds him culpable for their deaths. In a fit of melodrama, she shoots and kills three of her four wolfhounds.

Romance. Blue Peter then comes to her rescue, offering her his cave in the Hills for shelter and his own companionship for solace. Standing trial for cattle theft, Mira is found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. As she is being transported there by train and under guard, Blue Peter comes again to her rescue, and they are pursued on horseback by Mounties across the prairie. After the two are run aground, Mira surrenders herself to save Blue Peter, now a wanted man, from arrest.

Back at the cave, he waits mournfully through the winter for her release from prison. At last, with the coming of spring they are reunited.

Adventure. The latter part of the story is devoted to the capture of the gang, as exchanges of gunfire result in Mahon’s (now Sgt. Mahon) being wounded and the arrest and/or death of the rustlers. Blue Peter is also a casualty, shot as he saves Mahon’s life. At the end of the novel, there is reason to believe that Blue Peter’s wounds are mortal and once his body is found, Mira vows to bury him there in the Hills he loved.

For his part, Mahon has a granite monument carved as a memorial to the “half-breed” who was his friend. So the novel has this melancholy and sentimental ending. But like a modern-day TV series with a season finale lacking finality, Blue Peter and Mira live on to reappear for another adventure in a sequel, the Return of Blue Pete published in 1922.

The accuracy in the portrayal of Blue Pete is debatable especially in comparison with Frederic Remington’s mixed-blood title character in Sundown Leflare (1899), who speaks in broken, French-inflected English, and possesses no particular moral character. Physically strong and a creature well adapted to the natural world, Blue Pete has no faults. He is decent to the core, loyal, tenderhearted and willing to take a risk to help a friend. Outside of James Fenimore Cooper we do not find his likes in American frontier fiction.

Blue Peter: “Half-Breed,” is currently available online at Internet Archive and in ebook format at Barnes&Noble.For more of Friday's Forgotten Books click on over to Patti Abbott's blog

Further reading/viewing:

Blowing my own horn: For an in-depth, two-volume survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain a copy, click here). 

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: new short stories

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Meds again

I feel like Hunter Thompson in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas –waiting for the drugs to kick in. I look at the pill bottles collecting on the dining room table and wonder at the mix of pharmaceuticals circling in my bloodstream. Thursday of this week I was at the UCLA Medical Center getting another infusion of Avastin and an adjustment to my intake of drugs and supplements – this time, more steroids and more antidepressants. All to deal with an undertow of counter-productive moods, lethargy, and general grumpiness. 

Lately, I’ve also been made aware of a lot of anger that comes out as I struggle with losses of strength, coordination, and equilibrium, (I am covered in scratches and Band-Aids from the last spill I took while out on a morning stroll in the desert a few days ago. Because I bruise easily now I also bear a striking display of purple blotches from wrist to elbow.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nik Morton, Spanish Eye

I know Nik Morton more as a writer of westerns. His Bullets For a Ballot was reviewed here a while ago. Spanish Eye is something else.

Nik is one of those Brits who left the dark, rainy North for the sunny south coast of Spain, which is where this collection of 22 stories, featuring private investigator Leon Cazador, takes place.

Like Henning Mankell and other writers of euro crime fiction, Morton shares what he’s come to know about crime and the criminal element in Spain, though never painting it as dark as writers of the Scandi-noir school. Against a background of social conditions in modern-day Spain, it’s petty crime mostly, systemic graft, and fraud that find their way to Cazador’s attention. Meanwhile, the menace of organized crime and mafia elements lurks in the shadows.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Knickers and twists

Today’s post may be short. We have guests coming to celebrate a friend’s becoming recently a U.S. citizen. Fortunately, my wife has the energy required of entertaining. I have been in a fog all week; at one point I was standing in a parking lot staring blankly ahead with not a thought anywhere between my ears, which, ironically, is the nearest I get to meditation in the crowded thoroughfare of neural activity that is my usual level of awareness. I assume it is the meds I’m getting as a participant in the drug trial at UCLA.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. For its length (464 pages), it promises somewhat more than it delivers. I had the same reaction to the author’s The Last Crossing (reviewed here a while ago). There are a lot of ideas and food for thought in this novel about character, friendship, responsibility, Native Americans, the frontier, and U.S.-Canadian relations. But in the end it’s hard to say what it all adds up to. You can puzzle if you like over the title. Who among the novel’s male characters is the “good man”? Is there one at all?

Set in the late 1870s, partly in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan where Fort Walsh was headquarters for the North-West Mounted Police; but mostly in the frontier settlement of Fort Benton, Montana, on the upper Missouri River, the action takes place in the aftermath of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and settlers of the sparsely populated prairie live in terror of the Sioux and other tribes who seem to be organizing under the leadership of Sitting Bull to rid the West of whites altogether.