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Authors: Chris Crutcher

King of the Mild Frontier

BOOK: King of the Mild Frontier
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King of the Mild Frontier

An Ill-Advised Autobiography

Chris Crutcher

To my brother for going first,

to my sister for bringing up the rear, and to

Paula Whitson for enduring my advances

with uncommon grace. And to the Hirais and

Bilbaos and Nakatanis for giving us their best,

when they didn't always receive the best

Contents

1
Fireworks

2
Bawlbaby

3
Something Neat This Way Comes

4
Foul Bawl

5
Of Oysters and Olives and Things That Go Bump in My Shoe

6
E Equals MC Squared

7
The Roots of Angus

8
Conversations with Gawd

9
A Different Kind of Love Story

10
Dead Boy Sledding, or Why Things Happen

11
King of the Wild Frontier

12
A Requiem for Rosa Campbell

13
Becoming a Storyteller

14
From Chip Hilton to Michael Jordan and Beyond

 

Fireworks
1

I GREW UP RIDING A ROCKET
. If legendary rocket man Wernher von Braun could have harnessed the power of my meteoric temper, we'd have beaten the Russians into space by a good six months. The bits of evidence lay in the wake of my explosive impulsivity like trailer-house pieces behind Hurricane Andrew: broken toys, holes in walls, a crack from top to bottom in a full-length mirror on the bathroom door of “the little house” where I lived until just after my seventh birthday. My dad purposely didn't replace that mirror as a reminder, a monument to me. Subsequently, when he'd see me heating up, he'd point to it
and ask one of those questions to which adults never really want an answer: “Are you proud of that?”

“No,” I lied, my bottom lip stuck out so far he could have pulled it over my forehead. Of course I was proud of it; I'd had to slam it three times to get it to break.

There was a famous family story about how my temper had been “cured” right around the age of two. It was told by my mother at bridge club, Christmas get-togethers, and you-think-
your
-kids-are-a-pain-in-the-butt afternoon coffee sessions at the Chief Café. It went something like this: “Chris was very difficult to deal with, even at an early age. When things didn't go his way, he would throw himself into the air, kick his legs out from under him, and land hard on the floor. I was afraid he'd hurt himself, so I called Dr. Patterson for advice. Dr. Patterson said, ‘Just roll one of those wooden alphabet blocks under him when he goes up. That should take care of it.' So the next time he launched himself, I rolled the block under him, and sure enough he never did it again.”

I knew how to keep this story going; I'd done it for years. “But…,” I'd say, pointing toward the sky.

“But,” my mother went on, “then he began storming into the bathroom and hitting his head against the bathtub when he got mad.”

“So you called the ever-compassionate Dr. Patterson.…” I said.

“And he told me to ‘help' him. Just push his head a little harder than he intended.”

“And lo and behold…”

“He stopped hitting his head against the bathtub.”

I'd heard that story all my life, and had been convinced it was a good one, probably because it was about me. On the thousandth telling, however, I sat in a circle in my parents' living room with a group of their friends on Christmas Eve. I was in my mid-thirties, and a thought that should have crossed my mind eons ago pried its way into my consciousness. I said, “Jewell”—the Crutcher kids always called our parents by their first names, which probably deserves closer scrutiny somewhere in this confessional—“do you remember the long crack in the full-length mirror in the bathroom at the little house?”

She frowned. “Of course. Your father wouldn't get it fixed. He left it as a reminder to you.”

“Of my temper,” I said. “I did that when I was five. Do you remember the hole I kicked in the plasterboard in my bedroom when Paula Whitson asked Frankie Bilbao instead of me to the Sadie Hawkins dance?”

Jewell released a long sigh. “Your father didn't have that fixed, either.”

“As a reminder of my temper,” I said. “I did that when I was a junior in high school. Do you remember the Volkswagen Bug I had up until about six months ago? With the top that looked as if it had been stung by bees from my punching it from the inside when the electrical system died on a busy street?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Crutch wouldn't have had that fixed, either,” I said, smiling at my dad. “I did that when I was thirty-three, a little over a year ago. Your story isn't about curing a kid's temper. It's about pissing him off for the rest of his life by rolling blocks under him and whacking his head against the bathtub instead of letting him have his two-year-old rage. Stop telling it.”

What my mother didn't say then—and something she and I often talked about years later in the long-term care wing of Valley County Hospital where she had gone to die slowly of emphysema resulting from forty years of a two-and-a-half-pack-a-day habit—was that her fear for me in those days wasn't really that I'd hurt myself bouncing off the floor or banging my head, but that I would grow up with the same temper that stalked and embarrassed and humbled her throughout her own life. Though I couldn't have known it in those early years, it was one of my
first experiences with a phenomenon I discovered years later as a child abuse and neglect therapist at the Spokane (Washington) Mental Health Center: Shit rolls downhill.

I'm sure I could audit my early life and find times when my temper was my friend, when it got me through situations where my fear stopped me cold. It certainly helped me survive my early years on the Cascade High School football team where I started out as a 123-pound offensive lineman, when in practice I'd get so angry at the grass stains on my back and the cleat marks on my chest that I'd finally hit someone hard enough to satisfy the coach sufficiently to let me out of the drill. And it got me through my one and only full-tilt fight in junior high school when my embarrassment turned to rage the moment I saw the aforementioned Paula Whitson witness Mike Alkyre cracking my jaw. It took three guys to pull me off, and though I was still the odds-on kid most likely to have my butt kicked by someone from a lower grade, some of them would think twice after watching me cross over into the land of I Don't Care. But far more often than not, my temper brought out behavior that made me embarrassed to show my face around our lumber town of fewer than a thousand citizens for a couple of weeks.

Case in point. The biggest, best holiday (with the possible
exception of Christmas) in Cascade, Idaho, during my childhood years had to be the Fourth of July. A parade led by the town's most prominent horsemen, followed by floats sponsored by virtually every town business, followed by preschoolers on crepe-paper-laden tricycles dodging piles of horseshit that rose to their knees, brought out nearly every ambulatory citizen. The Junior Chamber of Commerce sold hamburgers and pronto pups and cotton candy and ice cream and minor fireworks from plywood stands built on every other street corner. We'd watch or participate in the parade, eat ourselves sick through the lunch hour, then gather at the high-school track, a potholed, quarter-mile dirt road circling the football field, and surrounded by a larger, five-eighths-mile horse-racing track even more potholed, where we would participate in foot and bicycle races before settling into the stands to watch the kids and adults from farms and ranches around town, and up from the flat-lands outside Boise and Caldwell, race their horses.

I should back up here and say that pretty girls were my downfall from way before I had hormones enough to govern my embarrassing behavior, and the pretty girl in question here was Carol MacGregor. The MacGregors owned a huge cattle ranch south of town and a medium-sized logging company. Compared to Bill Gates, they would
have been Crutchers, but compared to Crutchers, they were Bill Gates. The MacGregor kids got their education in the larger, more cosmopolitan schools of Boise and came north for a couple of weeks each summer to work on the family ranch, ride horses, and dazzle the
Deliverance
kids with their sophistication. We were duly dazzled. Carol's younger brother, Jock, was handsome and cool and funny, and Carol herself was simply otherworldly: pretty and smart, with a flashy smile, in the state of Idaho's tightest jeans, and she rode her horse like it was growing out of her tailbone. At the Fourth of July races she won the barrel race and the stake race and the potato race and the stampede, and brought the townsfolk to their feet in wild applause doing it. The four words that could send the entire preadolescent and adolescent male population of Cascade running for their Brylcreem and combs were “Carol MacGregor's in town.”

Well, Carol MacGregor was probably a good five years older than I was and would likely have mistaken me for the sissy little brother of the Pillsbury Doughboy, had Mr. Doughboy been invented yet, but youth is irrepressible and I was convinced that if she saw that my prowess on a bicycle equaled hers on a horse, the rest of the guys in town could pretty much head for the barn alone. So I entered the ten-and-under quarter-mile race on my brand-new purple-
and-white, three-bar Schwinn one-speed, determined to burst onto the Cascade, Idaho, Fourth of July bike-racing scene like Lance Armstrong, who also wasn't invented yet.

It had rained for a full week leading up to that Fourth, and continued to rain, hard enough to send most of the faithful home to begin constructing an ark and turn the dirt track into muddy ooze. A dozen of us took off at the sound of the starter's pistol, and by the time the leader was a hundred yards into the race, he had a fifty-yard lead on me, and my clothes and face were pocked with mud acne. Three-quarters of the way to the finish the
next-to-last guy
had a fifty-yard lead on me, so like an experienced stock-car racer, I cut to the inside to make up ground, inside the little orange flags marking the spots where the track had turned to grainy pudding. As that same second-to-last kid crossed the finish line, I slowed to a crawl at the far turn, standing on the pedals to maintain any forward motion at all. I glanced up to see the other participants pointing back and laughing, at the same time Bob Gardner's voice boomed from the loudspeaker system mounted in the back of my father's pickup near the starting line. “Chris. Get off the bike and push it in. You biked a good race.”

In your dreams, Bob Gardner. I'll finish this race
on
the bike or die trying. I may have been dead last, but Carol
MacGregor
had
to be impressed with this degree of what my mother called stick-to-itiveness.

“Chris Crutcher. Get off the bike. Push it on in. You're going slow enough to lose the
next
race.”

Ha ha. Pretty funny, Bob Gardner. Now all my weight is on the front pedal as I hear a giant sucking sound reminiscent of a bad guy going down in the quicksand of a Tarzan movie, the bike at a standstill, supported by mud up to midwheel.

“Chris Crutcher, raise your hand if you can hear me.”

I'm standing on the pedals now, pulling back on the handlebars with all my might. The townspeople in the bleachers are yelling and clapping, calling me in.

“Chris Crutcher, raise your hand if—”

We have ignition.
I did raise my hand, middle finger jutting into the air, as I screamed, “Leave me alone, you big fat shitburger!”

I'm pretty sure I've silenced the people of Cascade on subsequent occasions, but never as creatively nor as completely. The rhythmic beat of raindrops splashing into puddles and the crackling of the loudspeaker system filled the vacuum of sound for a monstrous moment that hung in the air like some breathless angel of death, and my dad fired out of the bleachers like he was nuclear powered, crossed the field in near world-record time, scooped me up under one
arm and the bike under the other, and no part of my body touched the good earth until a split second after he slammed on his car brakes in front of the house and pointed toward my upstairs room.

I was allowed out of that room many hours later that night, when I was able to hand him a piece of notebook paper with all the words I could find in “big fat shitburger.” Leave it to my dad to turn any incident into an educational opportunity.

 

In later years I was able to make a few bucks off that temper, as a writer and as a therapist. I gave it to Dillon Hemingway in
Chinese Handcuffs,
Bo Brewster in
Ironman,
and The Tao Jones in
Whale Talk,
and I know I used it more times than I can count to make a psychological connection with any number of my angry students and, later on, clients. In my early days as a therapist, I often made connections with the more rugged of my adult male clients by looking for similarities between their lives and mine, and the thing I landed on most frequently was that temper. I had shamed myself with it enough times in my life to have considerable empathy for those who had done so at the expense of their mates or kids, which made me a natural to work with the “bad guys.”

It was clear that most of the time the temper was a product
of self-contempt, aimed outward. The self-contempt came from fear, most often fear of incompetence (which is why my mother should have let me storm around in search of competence when I was still too small to do much damage)—a very difficult condition for a lot of men to admit to. Because the state of fear is such a difficult thing to identify and embrace, it usually gets expressed in anger. The bigger the fear, the greater the self-contempt, therefore the bigger the anger.

I was working in a men's group with a man named Ray, who could have been the poster boy for the paragraph above. He was about six feet, five inches tall and weighed more than 300 pounds, almost always dressed in a cowboy outfit. It was not a Roy Rogers outfit, with which I may have been better equipped to identify from my youth, but a real cowboy outfit: boots and leather pants and a huge belt buckle with long cow horns above the caption
YOU CAN HAVE MY COLT FORTY-FIVE WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD FINGERS
. Over that he wore a leather long-riders' coat under a broad-brimmed leather hat. Each time he stood in the door surveying the group room, deciding where to sit, I half expected him to throw back the front of the coat, draw his six-guns, and blast the rest of us all over the Painted Desert.

Along with being abusive to his girlfriend and his kids, he had also been a drug dealer. He came to us through Child
Protective Services after leaving her six- and eight-year-old boys locked alone in a trailer house early one morning while he went out and took care of some business. The kids' mother was in the hospital delivering
his
firstborn. He had loosened up enough in the group to talk freely and had been bragging about replacing all physical punishment of the kids with “time out.”

BOOK: King of the Mild Frontier
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