A Tricky Question

I've been an avid reader of gun magazines since I was about nine years old. Reading about guns was one of my favorite methods of putting off homework. I can't remember when I first saw Dick Metcalf's byline, but it seems as if he's been writing for one gun magazine or another more or less forever. I didn't read much of Metcalf's writing because he tended to write about gun law, a subject in which I had little interest at a young age. When putting off sixth grade history homework assignments, one does not want to see the word "Constitution" in a gun magazine. But the byline was always there somewhere in Shooting Times or Guns and Ammo, along with those of many others, Colonel Jeff Cooper, Skeeter Skelton, Jon Sundra, familiar names that inhabited one of my favorite refuges from the world of what had to be done. My favorites, Cooper and Skelton, have passed on. Mr. Metcalf is still among the living, but his byline has vanished.

"A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." —2nd Amendment, Constitution of the United States of America

In the column for which he was fired, titled, "Let's Talk Limits", published on the back page of the October 2013 issue of Guns and Ammo, Mr. Metcalf brought up a rather fine point of constitutional language, one that hadn't occurred to me, anyway.

"Those last four words say 'shall not be infringed', they do not say, 'shall not be regulated.'" Metcalf goes on to state that all Constitutional rights are regulated and need to be.

"Freedom of speech is regulated. You cannot falsely and deliberately yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre. Freedom of religion is regulated. A church cannot practice human sacrifice. Freedom of assembly is regulated. People who don't like you can't gather an 'anti you' demonstration on your front lawn without your permission. And it is illegal for convicted felons or the clinically insane to keep and bear arms… The question is, when does regulation become infringement?"

Mr. Metcalf brings up a tricky question, and one which a lot of Guns and Ammo readers and advertisers would rather no one ever even considered. The backlash was swift and vitriolic. Two major gun manufacturers threatened to stop doing business with G&A's parent company. Nasty emails flooded in from readers, many of whom seemed to think that Metcalf had no understanding of the second amendment, when in fact Metcalf is a constitutional scholar who has taught at both Yale and Cornell. He has testified before Congress and helped draft the 1986 Volkmer-McLure Firearms Owners Protection Act. I'd be willing to bet Metcalf does have a pretty good understanding of the second amendment as well as several of the others.

I found it difficult to find Metcalf's actual article online. I eventually found it through a link from Business Insider, and it is a well written piece. [Ed. note: you can click here to download a pdf of the original piece.] But when I first googled Metcalf's name, all that seemed to come up were the reactions to the piece which would have been hilarious, were they not real reactions from real people. Someone called Metcalf a "Gun Control Collaborator." Wow. We sure love to bring up Nazi analogies these days.

Way back in the seventies, I remember meeting people on the left who might have been as dogmatic as those I now meet on the right. They had ideas that they recited as mantras, but they hadn't done much shooting. Some of did seem to think guns should be done away with. Maybe the modern NRA is a reaction to that. But the left seems to have moved on, preferring to worry about health care. And I quit the NRA when Charlton Heston was president. I just got sick of the rhetoric.

After forty years of the NRA's shrill warnings that the government is coming to take our guns away, forty years during which the government hasn't come to take our guns away, forty years during which gun laws in some states have become more lax, people are still dead certain that they're about to lose their gun rights and they had better, therefore, buy all the guns they can right, by God, now.

"We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment," said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. "The time for ceding some rational points is gone." (New York Times, January 4, 2014)

I don't think so, Mr. Venola, could you please name one of these "powerful forces" we keep hearing about? More likely we're locked in a struggle to keep a profitable industry from slipping into marginal status. It's happened before. There were some major bankruptcies and re-organizations among gun manufacturers in the nineties. I might have mentioned, in an earlier blog, that my favorite of my pistols is a ninety-year old Colt New Service in 44-40. It still works fine. It's not likely to need to be replaced. Modern guns also tend to be well built, because if they're not, lawsuits will happen. So very few guns ever need to be replaced, the only way to sell more guns is to make people want more guns. The scare tactic works well, especially when paired with a Democratic Administration. I was in a gun store that has an indoor range, waiting to sight in a rifle shortly after Obama was first elected President. The place was a zoo, and the staff was grinning ear to ear, bragging that they couldn't keep black rifles on the shelves thanks to Obama. Ammo shelves look like something out of Castro's Cuba these days. But Obama hasn't taken our guns away as he was predicted to do, even in the wake of Newtown. Oh, and, Mr. Venola, you say, "The time for ceding some rational points is gone." Surely you realize, Mr. Venola, that you just more or less admitted that there are some rational points that could be ceded.

If rational points don't need to be ceded, they at least need to be discussed. We can't have a nation without discussion and compromise. This culture war is stupid and completely unnecessary to anyone or anything, except possibly to the profits of a few. I haven't studied the business models of gun manufacturers, but when I see a moronic conflict I usually smell money all over it and this one's no different. People like myself who like guns will buy a gun and a box of shells now and then. Hysterical people who think they need guns and ammunition to fight off Wayne La Pierre's mythical "jack booted government thugs" will buy a whole bunch of guns, and they'll buy a case of 7.62 Soviet or 5.56 NATO whenever they can find one. So there is a bit of an incentive for the gun companies to want to keep people hysterical. I don't think gun manufacturers are evil and I want them to stay in business so I can sample their products. They're making cool stuff these days. They learned from the trials of the nineties, came up with innovative new production techniques (by which I mean, investment casting and the like, not Chinese slave labor) and are turning out highly functional, wonderfully accurate, yet affordable guns. That's exactly what companies should do when they hit rough times. They seem to have made it through the rough spell. Must they still fan the flames of hysteria? I hate to think of all the rounds that will never be fired because Papaw got old and died and forgot to tell Junior where he buried his bullets. But our world turns on its next quarter's profits and the quarterly report won't care if the rounds were fired or buried as long as they were paid for first.

Of course, the gun industry is not the only industry contributing to our cultural divisions. Entertainment is all over it. And we seem to be mimicking the entertainment industry, devolving into a nation of stereotypes, one big reality show with a country/hip hop soundtrack, scripted and sculpted to resemble some Hollywood dream of every white man's America, where rednecks are proud of the moniker, though their cotton farming great grandparents are spinning in their graves at the very notion, because they worked like hell to elevate their descendants from the mere suggestion of the term "redneck." (I know, it's not derogatory now, but I'm just barely old enough to remember when it was.) There' seems to be no role in the script for people like Dick Metcalf, who refuse to mold to the stereotype.

Right, I was writing about the necessity of discussion in a free society. So was Mr. Metcalf.

". . . our intention was to provoke a debate, not to incite a riot (which is illegal under laws regulating the 1st Amendment)." —Metcalf's response to his firing, Outdoor Wire

We must have a discussion. We must grapple with Mr. Metcalf's question, ". . .when does regulation become infringement?" Not many of us are likely to agree. Conclusions, if there are any, are likely to vary state to state. Good thing we have fifty states.

Oh, and could we please not ostracize our fellow Americans for pointing out simple linguistic distinctions such as the difference in meaning between the words "regulate" and "infringe?" And could we please not ostracize our fellow Americans for posing valid questions? We still call our country a democracy, therefore we have the right, and possibly the duty, to question.


More Than Just A Tall Order: McMurtry on Guns

I used to think I had a clear opinion on gun control. I didn’t much care for the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the bill we now refer to as the “Clinton Crime Bill”, which included a ban on “assault weapons,” or was it “assault type weapons,” each a silly term in my view, one that seemed to be defined more by the cosmetics of the offending weapon rather than by the function. A semiauto variant of an AR-15, with its tall battle sights and grim black plastic stock, looks scarier than a Browning BAR hunting rifle, sleek, and stocked in fine hand checkered walnut. But they both function the same way: with each squeeze of the trigger one round is fired, one empty casing is ejected and one fresh round is chambered. The old argument that the AR is of no use to a hunter is now moot due to the advent of accurized versions with match grade barrels and good scopes. The coyote hunters and the feral hog hunters seem to love those things. So the criteria for rifles that can be termed “assault weapons” grows ever more murky. To me, an assault weapon is a weapon that happens to get used in an assault.

On August 1, 1966 Charles Joseph Whitman killed fourteen people and wounded thirty-two others in and around the Tower of the University of Texas during a ninety-six minute sniping rampage. Whitman did most of his shooting with a scoped bolt action 6mm Remington, a rifle that looks and functions pretty much exactly like my deer rifle. Whitman also had an M-1 Carbine (not to be confused with the M-1 Garand, which chambers a much more powerful round), a fast-handling and reliable semiauto rifle that had been popular with soldiers in World War Two. Most accounts of the Tower shooting that I’ve read suggest that Whitman didn’t get much use out of the M-1, probably because the .30 Carbine round, for which it was chambered, did not have nearly the effective range of the 6mm Remington. The aforementioned AR-15, now considered an assault rifle, had been available for civilian purchase since 1963, but if Whitman knew this, he apparently didn’t feel the need to purchase one.

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb, made mostly from fertilizer, in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed one hundred and sixty-eight people, nineteen of whom were children in the second floor day care center. Four hundred and fifty more people were wounded in the blast. McVeigh didn’t even use a gun.

I don’t know why the news of the Newtown shooting shook me up more than most similar events in my memory. Perhaps it was just one too many for me. It took a while to sink in. My local gunsmith told me the news as he was inspecting a revolver I had brought to him for repair. My first thought was “Here we go again.” I didn’t think about the children, or the parents, or anything to do with the actual tragedy. I only thought about the culture war that was about to heat back up. I didn’t worry that the government would come take away my guns, because that won’t happen. But I knew the NRA would fan the flames of such hysteria until the gun shops were swamped and the ammo shelves empty - which is what is happening. 

I tried not to watch TV that day; I didn’t want to see that show again, the police tape,
grief-stricken people hoping to see their children, their hopes fading with the light of day….  too much. I didn’t want to hear the same old arguments, more guns, less guns, as if any course of action could really make us safe. 

I couldn’t quite avoid the TV; it was on in every bar. And I did see something different this time, something cold and practical that might make a tiny difference, might…. 

I could barely hear the sound, but I watched a brief interview with law enforcement personnel who were explaining the changes in police tactics that had been implemented in the last decade or so. In the old days, first response police officers, when faced with a school shooting in progress, were told to wait for the SWAT team. Apparently, enough people died while the first responders waited for SWAT, as per their orders, that the orders were eventually changed. Now, the first responders are told to go right in, walk past the wounded and kill the shooter if he won’t be arrested. The sooner the shooting stops, the lower the body count. Sound philosophy I think, but a tall order for a cop who might not be as well armed as his or her adversary. And here, I find a crack in my old opinion on gun control.


Another aspect of the Clinton Crime Bill that I used to think was silly was its restriction of a firearm’s magazine capacity to ten rounds. I didn’t see what good such a restriction would do. If we assume, however dubiously, that the shooter abides by the law and only carries legal magazines of the proper capacity, what’s to stop him from carrying a satchel full of extra mags with which he can shoot all day? Nothing’s to stop him, of course, but he will have to re-load more often, and here is where that silly old gun bill might finally have a practical application due to the evolution of police tactics. I was reading a gun magazine in a supermarket the other day. There was an ad for a company that makes extended high capacity rifle magazines. The ad said, “If you’re reloading, you’re not in the fight.” If a school shooter is not extremely well trained and has to change magazines under duress, he’s out of the fight for a second or two, and the highway patrolman, or the deputy sheriff, or the city constable who just happened to be there will have a second or two to fire at the shooter without risking return fire. If I were any kind of a cop in that situation, I would sure appreciate those seconds. The tragedy would still have happened, but the body count might be lower. 

Might…. might be the best we can do. 

Of course, the Clinton bill did not get rid of extended magazines. It left a loophole whereby the mag would be legal if it were manufactured before the ban went into effect. Gun companies rushed production on high cap mags and used them to sell piles of guns. Ads that stated, “Comes with two pre-ban magazines!” were common and effective. I don’t mean to suggest that these manufacturers were evil for doing this. The nineties weren’t good to gunmakers. Bankruptcy and reorganization were rife in the industry then. One of the economic problems with the gun business is that for the product to be safe to the user, it has to be too well built to ever have to be replaced. If one is to sell more of such a product, one must find a way to make customers want more. One of the best tactics when faced with such a situation is to scare the customers into thinking they’ll never be able to get any more unless they buy now - the tactic that seems to be the sole raison d’être for the modern NRA. It works. A shop I frequent had its best sales day of its history two days after Newtown, thirty-eight thousand dollars in sales, mostly in rifles of the sort now commonly referred to as assault rifles. 

One might justifiably ask if any restrictions on new weapons could possibly do any good when there is so much hardware already out there. Sometimes the attempt just seems futile and pointless, one more bill to make politicians look like they’re doing something. But what is a society to do? 

Now it’s gonna get real dicey. 

If we are to call ourselves a society, we will have to behave as a society. We will have to pass laws and make deals, and none of us are likely to be satisfied at the end of the day. This is a symptom of a condition known as Democracy. 

Some of my shooting buddies will howl at me for even considering the notion of gun restrictions and I don’t blame them. The vast majority of gun owners, even those with a penchant for high capacity semi-autos, even those with full auto permits, the vast majority never do anyone any harm. And I’ve always hated the “need” argument so often brought up by some who have never fired a gun. It’s true, no one needs an Uzi; but nor does anyone need a Porsche, and no one will ever deny a person the right to own a Porsche, even though Porsches are designed to run at speeds far exceeding most US speed limits, and if driven at such speeds on public roads may endanger innocent citizenry. 

It’s not an exact analogy, but perhaps worth noting. People I’ve known who have owned Uzis and various full auto weapons just used them to shoot up farm trash dumps and junk cars, an expensive but thoroughly fun past time which wouldn’t be the same if one had to change mags every ten rounds. I can’t blame a shooter who has always acted responsibly for being annoyed at gun restrictions, even if said restrictions could actually be proven to be good for society as a whole. Often it seems that the one bad kid on the playground spoils the game for the rest of us and our hard ball gets taken away, but that’s life, and we have to start somewhere. We have to try something, or at least talk about trying something without immediately descending into factionalized shouting matches, each person shouting the slogan from his favorite bumper sticker to which he has chained his identity.

I don’t want to take away anyone’s Uzi. I don’t want to restrict anyone’s right to dig up a hillside with an AK-47, but I want that constable or deputy to have an extra second to make the shooting stop; that way, someone gets to see their child, someone who wouldn’t without that extra second. I don’t know of a fair way to make that happen. And no, I don’t know if the unfair way would work either, but it seems like it might, at least in a case or two. Might…. once again. One must try.


Of course, it would be better if the shooting in the schoolhouse never started, a much taller order. We must remember that guns are just a part of the mix that far too often results in horrific tragedy. Guns are merely enabling tools for some killers. The desire to kill does not start with the gun. Timothy McVeigh killed more people with a truckload of fertilizer than any single American shooter has killed with a gun. The thread that runs through Tim McVeigh, Adam Lanza and Charles Whitman is not just mental instability, but rage, pure unfathomable rage. And we are an angry people these days. I don’t know why. I suspect that our world is changing faster than we are capable of changing. Some of us feel left out; some of us feel outnumbered; so we’re fearful and angry. Our societal anger needs to be acknowledged and addressed, perhaps diagnosed and treated, as do our individual angers. Our whole approach to mental health needs to be re-thought, and not re-thought in accordance with Wayne La Pierre’s moronic mental health data base insanity. We take our kids to the doctor for physical checkups on a regular basis, but rarely do any of us see a psychiatrist before contemplating suicide. We’re still scared of the stigma, the red brand of craziness, for which our relatives once would have simply locked us away and pretended we had never existed rather than attempt to grapple with the psychological complexities of the human mind and the chemical complexities of the human brain. 

We need to look at mental health as simply a part of health, toss away the stigmas and treat it, monitor it, and fund the treatment, a tall order indeed.

[Pictured at top of page: a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle - the same type used in the Sandy Hook shootings - currently on sale (listed Jan. 14) for $1,600 at an online “firearms marketplace.” The listing indicates it is in “like new” condition with only 20 rounds previously fired, and with one magazine included. It is being offered by a “private party” and as such, due to the so-called “private parties loophole,” which is related to the “gun show loophole,” is not subject to the sort of background check that is required when you purchase a firearm from a licensed gun dealer. Universal background checks in order to close such loopholes are key to new - and long overdue - regulations being proposed by the White House.]


It's Different Down There

A friend of mine got married in Yucatan yesterday. I had a weekend off and my girlfriend, Kellie, and I needed to get out of our regular lives for a minute or two, so we caught the nonstop Airtran from Austin to Cancun, Quintana Roo, and drove to Merida, Yucatan. The young men who manned the Avis office at the Cancun airport seemed truly friendly, spoke excellent English, and handed us bottles of cold water to drink while we waited for our car to be brought up. There was a strange woman in the office. She gave me a map and drew directions on it, directions which eventually proved very helpful for getting out of the airport. But she kept asking questions which I had already answered. She wanted to know where we were staying and for how long, and kept suggesting that we were going to Playa del Carmen rather than Merida. I couldn't tell if she worked for the casinos in Playa del Carmen and was trying to hypnotize me into going there, or if she were some kind of cop trying to trip me up.

We got out of the airport without incident, but I turned the wrong way on the 307 and we wound up going into Cancun. I somehow found the 180 and got us turned back towards Merida. The traffic didn't seem much meaner than that of New York City, less mean than that of Boston, but the sight of a pickup with three  body armored policemen standing in the bed, each hanging onto a high rail with one hand and carrying some modern form of AR-15 in the other, gave me the sense that we were definitely not in Kansas anymore. They may also have had a swivel mounted gun of some sort, but the traffic on my bumper worried me more than the armament, so I didn't get more than a glance or two.  Our fellow motorists were not the least bit alarmed, fully content and resigned to the notion that things could go real bad real fast, any time, anywhere. A  helmetless couple motored along beside us on some kind of old enduro motorbike, a five or six year old boy sandwiched between them, sound asleep. We fought our way out through the construction, past the tire shops and junkyards to the place where one must make a choice, Merida Libre, o Merida Cuota, the free road or the toll road. I chose the Libre at first, but it was two lane and heavily trafficked, would've taken all day. I turned back and got on the Cuota. 

The toll road to Merida was eerie. I couldn't see the east bound lanes for the short, but thick foliage in the median. I couldn't see anything but the strip of pavement on which we traveled, the short trees that flanked it, and the tall sky. The sky at sea level always seems tall to me, the clouds have more strata than those of inland skies, they seem to go up forever. There were very few cars going west with us, often none were visible in front or in back. Once and a while, a pedestrian or two would emerge from some jungle foot path, cross the road and disappear down the path on the other side, going where they needed to go, toll road or no toll road. Kellie said she expected to see dinosaurs, but we never saw any.  Pedal carts and bicycles were prohibited according to the road signs, but they both seemed almost as common a sight as cars on that road. One man pedaled a loaded cart down the shoulder and carried a giant old bolt action shotgun slung over his shoulder, barrel down. It was the sort of gun once referred to in the U.S. as a "goose gun", back before the ballisticians taught the goose hunters that a shotgun barrel of over thirty inches in length provided no real advantage for killing geese at forty yards. Where did he get that thing and what does he hunt with it? 

We pulled off at Valladolid to look for food. My father once told me to always keep one's female traveling companion well fed lest all hell break loose. All hell broke loose on him and his longtime lady sometime in the early seventies while they were traveling in Scotland. They both realized they were famished after a long drive, but they didn't come to this realization until it was too late. They were caught between tea time and supper, a time of day during which one simply could not eat in the U.K. in the early nineteen seventies. The restaurants and shops were locked up tight. They never recovered from the fight that ensued, though neither can now remember what they fought about.  We cruised through Valladolid past a slew of closed restaurants.  It was about three thirty in the afternoon. The word "siesta" bubbled up through my memory. There was a sandwich place that might have been open, but there were no parking places close and the traffic on our tail was making me gringo nervous. Drivers tapped their horns at us, I edged to the right to let them by, but never stopped, growing irrationally panicked from a combination of fatigue, hunger, and the foreignness of the place. I circled back the way we had come. Two men pedaled bicycles into the roundabout in front of us, each with a bundle of firewood bungied across the rack behind the seat. I pulled back onto the Cuota, wondering if our relationship would survive the hundred and thirty kilometers of jungle between us and a meal.  We were saved by the service area near Chichen Itza, where there was ample parking, good tacos and killer hot sauce. New Jersey Turnpike travelers should be so lucky. 

Pedal cart traffic increased as we approached Merida. A large shirtless man pedaled down the shoulder, a stout woman sitting in front, in the bed of the cart. The Cuota is as flat a road as I've ever driven, but the shirtless man was getting a workout, standing on the pedals. It occurred to me that the road probably had some rise and fall to it, imperceptible to the driver of a late model Camry. 

Merida seemed to just appear around us, Friday afternoon traffic jamming the roundabouts. Kellie did her best to read the directions I had copied from Google maps before I had disabled the data functions to avoid international data roaming charges. We found Avenida Quetzalcoatl which became Calle 65. We were then supposed to turn right on Calle 52. Numbered "calles" ran in all directions it seemed, who but a paranoid American would need the luxury of streets, "calles," running east west and avenues, "avenidas," running north south to provide more exact coordinates? The street numbers kept repeating themselves, ascending from one to twenty-six or so, then starting over. We pressed on growing hopeful when the numbers finally progressed past thirty. Finally we found a street called "Calle 52" and made the right. It turned out to be the correct Calle 52 and, after some circling, we found the hotel where my friend Dwight, the groom, had reserved for us a room. There was even a white curbed parking space in front. The desk clerk assured me I could park there. "Cuando es yellow, no," she said.  Things were looking up. 

After a nap, and a good sidewalk cafe meal, we found a bar where the elderly waiter brought a hat rack to our table, that I might remove my Panama and hang it properly. Back home, I usually have to place my hat upside down under my chair or leave it on. I remember a time when hat racks were bolted to the backs of cafe booths, but those seem to have faded away now that only we Luddites still wear hats.  

The next morning, the day clerk asked me to move the rent car because, though it was parked legally, it was in the way of the construction of a stage. Apparently there was live music in the plaza in front of the hotel every Saturday. One must know these things. By the time I was alerted to the situation, the workers had all but built the stage around the car. I didn't think I would need the car until the next day and considered just letting them box it in. Such a sight would have made good YouTube, but the clerk and a rather gruff policeman seemed to want things done right. I had to hop the front end of the car up onto the sidewalk to get the angle to back out between stage sections and a box truck. No one seemed to mind this action. The policeman motioned rapidly until I backed the car clear of the construction. The clerk told me I could park in the hotel lot a block or so away and he gave me directions in good English. Though I thought I understood the directions perfectly, I never found anything resembling a hotel parking lot. I found another white curb at the other end of the plaza from the stage, parked the car and went about my business. There was supposed to be a gathering in the hotel restaurant, with toasts to the couple and such. Kellie and I sat down for breakfast and another hat rack appeared at my side. Old friends materialized, but Dwight, my friend the groom, never did. He owns a restaurant in San Antonio, where I once worked, briefly and with minimal competence. Several high ranking members of the restaurant staff had mutinied and walked off a couple of weeks before, leaving the remaining staff to descend into dysfunctional chaos. The crisis had escalated that day, so. Dwight's morning was eaten up with frantic international phone calls. Kellie and I ate and then took a walk. We stuck to the big streets which led us down past the University of Yucatan to the Cathedral. The further we went into the tourist district, the harder we were sold at. It grew tiring pretty quickly. No one was mean to us. Nothing felt even vaguely sinister, just hungry.  The people could not afford to let us alone. We and our ilk were their livelihood, but I just didn't feel like playing the game. I didn't want anything but the guitar cable I had forgotten to bring, but despite our proximity to a major University, we saw no music stores. In front of the Cathedral, a friendly Mayan managed to engage us in conversation, but before he could drag us to his shop, I reflexively shut down, and we turned back toward our hotel, further from the action, where no one would try to sell to us unless we were already in their shop. We stopped for a beer in the open air lobby of a dilapidated hotel which may have been under renovation. The waitress left us alone for the most part. Perfect. On our way back to our hotel, a young man walked briskly past us holding a cell phone to his ear with his right hand, his left hand swinging at his side, and a plexiglass covered tray of pastries balanced on his head. We got back to the plaza to find that workers were building another stage around our car. I went to the desk, got very specific directions which included actual street names. I walked two blocks to get an actual visual of the lot. Then I returned to the plaza and extracted the car in the nick of time. 

After siesta, the wedding party assembled in front of the hotel and filed onto a huge tour bus which idled for quite some time before leaving. The bus went out Avenida Aleman, scraping under low tree limbs as it went. The world looks different from way up there in the bus window. When we finally reached the edge of town and plunged off into the jungle, I discovered that I could now see over those low trees. I could see patches of corn, some that looked cultivated, others just looked as if they had sprouted from leftover seed, volunteer corn as the agrarians say. We turned off the highway and rolled through the village of Conkal. People watched us, some with a hint of disdain, some smiling and waving. 

The wedding took place on an old hacienda, mostly in ruin, that Dwight and his business partner had purchased a few years ago after finding it for sale on the internet.  The hacienda once grew valuable crops of henequen, a spiky yucca type plant similar to sisal, from which fibers are extracted for the manufacture of rope. Henequen cultivation made the region around Merida quite prosperous in the days before Dupont's introduction of nylon. A row of henequen plants that Dwight had planted for decoration and nostalgia flanked the building that housed the kitchen, one of the only buildings on the place that had both electricity and a roof. A band was setting up on the porch when we arrived, waiters swarmed about serving drinks, women fanned themselves with paper fans in the oh so humid air. Cooks were grilling chicken on a huge outdoor grill fired with wood. Twilight faded to darkness quickly and we walked down a road lit with candles in paper bags to the old one room chapel. The ceremony was short and mostly improvised neither the bride nor the groom being particularly religious. There was a ceiling fan in the chapel, but the electricity was out, so the chapel emptied quickly after the customary I do's, pronouncements, and the kiss. We fled back to the kitchen porch for excellent food, wine, toasts, awkward conversations in broken Spanish. Someone said Merida was one of the safest places in Mexico, because many of the drug lords sent their children to school there. Dwight insisted that I sing a couple of songs. I obliged, but my performance caused us to miss the early bus back to the hotel. I didn't want to wait for the late bus, we had an early morning ahead of us, as we were going to have to drive back to Cancun to catch an early afternoon flight. Monique, a woman with whom I had long ago worked, at Dwight's restaurant, and who now lives in Merida, offered us a ride. Problem solved, so we thought. We hopped in and rolled off through the dark. 

On the outskirts of Merida, we came to a police checkpoint. Monique rolled down the window to find a breathalyzer in her face, no hello's, or polite official formalities, just a breathalyzer in the face. I heard the words, "Hay una problema." The policeman questioned her about the breathalyzer reading. She said she'd had a beer or two, a confession she later deemed to have been a mistake. He asked her to get out of the car, commented that she spoke good Spanish, and asked if Kellie and I spoke Spanish too, to which Monique answered no. She told us she would be right back and walked back to the police car with the policeman. Monique wasn't gone long, not long enough even for me to begin to get my head around the situation.  Kellie and I decided that, if questioned, we would transform ourselves into the most confused and completely monolingual Americans these cops had ever met. It seemed like some kind of surreal dream. How was it that we mild mannered tourists were sitting beside a road, at the mercy of Mexican police, with only Monique's poise and wits to save us? Fortunately, Monique was not short on poise or wits, she played the game perfectly, paid the requisite bribe, and was back behind the wheel in a matter of minutes. The cop wasn't quite done. He came back to the window and said once more, "Hay una problema." Monique fished in her purse for another hundred pesos which she handed to him. He asked again if Kellie and I spoke Spanish. Monique answered again that Kellie and I had no Spanish. Well enough satisfied, he bid us goodnight. Monique drove us to a taxi stand and brokered a cheap taxi ride for us. 

None of the Airtran flight attendants on the flight home seemed to have any Spanish either. They did attempt to help confused Mexican nationals with their customs and immigration forms, but they seemed to think that if they yelled loud enough in English, people who had no English would understand them. They reminded me of the guy on the old Saturday Night Live episodes who did the closed captioning for the deaf by yelling at the top of his lungs. In my sleepy, hungover state, I leafed through mental images from the previous days. For some reason, the image of the paramilitary policemen in the pickup in Cancun kept coming up. Why they loomed so large in my subconscious, I don't know. They never even noticed me. The policeman with the breathalyzer in Merida noticed me, but he didn't seem so threatening, he just wanted a few more pesos. For some reason, the image that said "Mexico" to me was that of the guys in the truck with the assault rifles. Maybe I fixated on that image because I'd seen it in the movies, or because it looked just plain scary, but in retrospect, it was as American a sight as it was Mexican. 

We, in the States, also have plenty of well armed body armored policemen moving about among us, but ours tend to ride out of sight in unmarked, air conditioned Chevy Suburbans. I know this, because my band members and I were once pulled over by a white Suburban on I-270 just shy of the Mississippi River, and we got to talk to some members of an Illinois Drug Interdiction Task Force(FYO in Tennessee, the Suburbans are black). We see seriously armed cops in our country. We don't have to bribe them at the scene, but they're all getting federal funding for the continuing war on drugs, so they already have a piece of all of us. What we don't see in our country, is people walking out of the jungle, pedaling carts down major highways, hauling firewood on bicycles, strolling along the street balancing trays of pastries on their heads, going where they need to go with whatever cargo they must carry, by whatever means they have at their disposal. 

On first glance, I entirely missed what was different down there.


From A Windshield, Through A Scream...

There are probably more gas wells and oil wells in the western part of Rio Blanco County, Colorado, than there are year round human residents. In a barren little valley just north of the town of Rangely, utility wires stretch in all directions, carrying electricity to run the oil pumping units and the "quads", tan cubicle things about the size of small walk in coolers, that separate the natural gas from whatever else comes up with it. Multiple pipe lines and flow lines hang suspended above a creek just west of the highway. In the evening, the motel parking lots, empty during the day, fill completely up with welding rigs and white company pickups bearing the logos of various oil field service companies. Halliburton trucks are plentiful here, as are those of a company called Total Safety.

On a western tour, last summer, I chose to stop in Rangely just to be someplace else, having grown tired of the usual route from Salt Lake to Grand Junction, US 6 from Provo to Price to Green River, I-70 on in. We had a day off near the end of a month long tour of the Rocky Mountain States and I wanted to see some new road, a rare impulse, as I approached fifty. And, of course, the Rangely route takes one through Dinosaur Colorado. How often does one hit a town called Dinosaur? In Rangely we ate at a restaurant that had run out of calf's liver, squelching my sudden inexplicable desire for liver and onions. I did find a decent bottle of Spanish red wine in a liquor store which balanced out the lack of calf's liver quite nicely. My bandmates have yet to forgive me for stopping in a place so ugly. I didn't notice that the place was ugly, I'm used to oil field towns, many of my relatives work in the oil field around Wichita Falls, Texas. I've known the sight, sound, and smell of pumping units and tank batteries for as long as I can remember. I did notice that there were an awful lot of pumping units around Rangely, and that those units were freshly painted and unusually well maintained, but other than that, the place looked normal to me, for an oil town anyway.

Wind farms look decidedly abnormal to me, especially at night. Sometime between the last two deer seasons, a wind farm went in south of my family's old north Texas ranch house that I use for a hunting camp. Last winter, in the middle of a night, I drove in for a hunt and was astounded to see red lights flashing in unison all along the southern horizon. I didn't know what I was looking at until daylight, when I could see the turbines. I was angry at those red lights; they weren't supposed to be there, messing with my memory, flashing through my night. The creak of the sucker rod on an early oil well might have upset my grandfather in a similar way, but probably not. That creak meant money, just as the all night red flashes mean money to the ranchers south of my camp who might get to leave their land to their children, thanks to the wind leases. I shouldn't complain, but I sometimes do.

Wind is touted as green energy, and it may be, as long as one is not a prairie chicken. I recently met a college student who attends South Plains College in Levelland Texas. He chose the school because he wanted to hunt lesser prairie chickens which still exist in somewhat huntable numbers near Levelland (Not an unheard of criteria for choosing a college in the west. I attended the University of Arizona mostly because I wanted to hunt Gambel's Quail.) The prairie chickens are having a hard time, hemmed in by agriculture for years, they are now under an even greater threat, because they refuse to nest under wind turbines. I suppose that if one is an animal that evolved in a place where nothing grows taller than sage brush, a shadow from a turbine blade flicking over one's head might cause one considerable anxiety. Might be a buzzard, might be a hawk, why take a chance?

I remember hearing, on an earlier tour of the northeast, that the Kennedys were fighting the construction of an offshore wind farm near Hyannis Port Massachusetts and that the residents of Martha's Vineyard were similarly upset about a proposed offshore wind farm that might obscure their view of the blue Atlantic. I can certainly sympathize, even though an offshore wind farm is, at least, no threat to the prairie chickens. A wind farm that wasn't there in your youth will mess with your mind. But are affluent coastal New Englanders so special that they shouldn't have to see the source of their energy as we who live further inland often must?

One doesn't have to visit the west slope of the Rockies to get a sense of how much effort we put into energy production. One only has to look East, when crossing the Susquehanna at Harrisburg Pennsylvania, and see the stacks of Three Mile Island, or drive through southeastern Kentucky, where many of the mountain tops are blasted away, and every third bumper sticker reads, "Coal Keeps the Lights On." We are finding lots of innovative ways of keeping the lights on. I don't know that we need to keep the lights on twenty-four seven, but I don't have much say in the matter. We have grown used to keeping the lights and computers on, and so we shall continue. But, for the moment, we must forget about the myth of green energy because it does not yet exist. At this time, every kilowatt still comes with a cost to the earth. Even solar power destroys habitat. Land has to be scraped off to make room for all those mirrors.

The coal industry's touting of "Clean Coal" should be filed under "Yeah right." It's probably true that coal can now be burned much cleaner than it was in years past and I do applaud the achievements of the coal and power industries in this regard. But the Clean Coal ads don't seem to address the fact that the coal still has to be dug out of the ground, and that can not be done cleanly. Yesterday, I drove past a strip mine outside of Gillette Wyoming, and that big black hole in the ground did not look clean to me. I know that once that coal seam is dug out, the mining company will fill in the hole, mostly because they have to have someplace to put the overburden. Then they'll seed the depression with grass so it looks pretty, a process they call "reclamation". I know they can get the grass to grow again, but whether or not they can actually restart the ecosystem they destroyed is a question for teams of biologists. I should say "the ecosystem we destroyed", because the computer I'm writing on may be drawing power from the burning of coal from the same strip mine I passed yesterday.

Today, I drove down Wyoming Highway fifty-nine from Gillette to Douglas, a stretch of a hundred and ten miles or so, during which I was never out of sight of strip mines and gas wells. The mines tended to be off on the horizon, away from the road, but the conveyors were visible. The gas wells were close, but not terribly noticeable, just loops of pipe protruding from the ground. It's interesting how exploitative industries tend to try to keep their activities out of sight. A logger in Michigan's upper peninsula once told me that pretty much all the hills around Ishpeming were clear cut on the sides facing away from the road. He said that if you looked close, you could see daylight through the trees at the tops of the ridges. It occurs to me that I've seen very few strip mines from well traveled interstate highways. Near Douglas, I saw the most modern, state of the art, rail system I've ever seen in the United States. There were two main lines flanked by two sidings and a good signal system spanning all four sets of tracks at short, regular intervals. Trains were moving north and south for the whole stretch, north bound trains pulling empty coal cars, south bound trains loaded heavy with coal. Other trains sat on the sidings. I was never out of sight of trains for a good thirty miles. None of the trains carried passengers. AmTrak trains can be scary to ride, due to the uneven road beds under the rails. I'll bet that coal rides nice and smooth. A ranch foreman in Texas, who used to manage a ranch in Montana, told me that he once moved a couple thousand head of cattle across a rail line without first calling Burlington Northern to let them know. A coal train came up as the cowboys were crossing the last few cows and the engineer reported them. The foreman later received a phone call informing him that, had the train derailed, the ranch would have been liable for the loss of a half billion dollar payload.

I'm not writing this blog simply to blast the coal industry or the wind industry. I'm writing to report what I see through the windshield. My job lets me drive around and see things that most of us don't get to see. Most of us don't have the time or money to care where our energy comes from. Some of us do, though. The Kennedy clan does. Many residents of places like Martha's Vineyard probably do. Perhaps, rather than fighting individual wind farms in their own front yards, they could use their money, power, and influence to lobby for a national energy policy based on efficiency and conservation, so that we wouldn't need so many wind farms and strip mines. More likely I should file that notion under "yeah right". Probably, the super rich are pragmatic enough to know what a herculean effort it would be to try to get us all interested in conserving energy, better to pick fights they can win. But if they're not willing to conserve, they shouldn't bitch about wind farms. My only suggestion, if you have a few bucks and a day off, take a drive. Stop here and there and scan the horizon. Make note of what you see. If you don't know what it is you're seeing, ask a local, then decide whether or not you think it's worth it.


We Can't Make it Here Naivete

Sometimes my song,"We Can't Make it Here", seems a bit naive. It's still a pretty good song, and songs don't have time to be fair and balanced. Songs are mostly about emotion. So I still sing it. But I read the New York Times a couple of Sundays ago, and I now understand why we can't competitively produce iphones here. It seems that Steve Jobs was not happy with the easy to scratch plastic screen on his prototype iphone and demanded that the screen be made of scratch resistant glass. Making good glass is not a problem in the U.S., Corning has been doing it forever. Cutting glass to specs at a competitive pace is a different matter. After the meeting at which Jobs expressed his dissatisfaction, one of his execs booked a flight to China, where he knew there was a factory that could mobilize three thousand workers on a moments notice, by which I mean, waking them up in their dorm beds, putting them on the production line, and training them to cut the glass for the iphone screen. Corning did get the contract to produce the glass and a Corning plant in Kentucky was revived. But now, Corning is building plants in Asia to save on time and shipping costs.It takes thirty five days to ship glass from Kentucky to China, not competitive.

The Times article did a good job of detailing the intricacies of modern production. Cell phones employ materials from around the globe. The article mentioned, but did not dwell on, "rare metals from Africa". A memory rose from my mind like a pre-historic fish, long thought to be extinct. I was in a bar in Austin. The guy to my right was some kind of computer person, a nice enough fellow, but most of what he talked about was incomprehensible to me. Yet, he told a story that I at least partially comprehended. He told me that there is a rare metal in the Congo. This metal is necessary for the miniaturization of circuitry, without which, there would be no cell phones of any kind. People dig large chunks of this metal out of creek banks and carry it out on their heads, at gun point. The people who harvest this metal are slaves. So are the Chinese workers who can be forced to wake up at any time of night, paid though they are.

We can't make iphones in this country because we don't want to tolerate slavery within our own borders. We tolerate it within the borders of other nations because, without slavery, there would be no cell phones and cell phones have come to be seen as necessary by every culture in the world. So we outsource our slavery.

People love to talk about fixing our country. The Tea Party wants to " take our country back", from whom, or to what, I'm not sure. Such talk is as naive as my song. The manufacturing jobs aren't coming back here as long as, elsewhere, there are people willing to enslave and masses of people desperate enough to be willing to be enslaved. Fixing the country would not be enough anymore. We'll have to fix the world.

It could take a while


The Occupy Movement

About a week ago, at the end of a short solo tour of Southwest Alaska, I wandered down to Occupy Anchorage. The camp was only a block from my hotel. The temperature was in the single digits with a light snow. There were three tents, the first of which was wide open. Inside were four young men, two white and two native, a dog, and a propane heater. I offered them some smoked salmon and some CDs. They took great interest in the salmon and it was quickly consumed. The white guys introduced themselves. The natives did not.

I guess I should have introduced myself to all of them, but I felt sheepish and shy, like an interloper or a tourist. They all seemed to handle the cold pretty well. I asked them if they had any tips to help Occupiers in the lower forty eight get through the winter. They shrugged. John, the dog's owner, said,"It's pretty simple. You need shelter, heat, and food." About then, a nice woman named Wendy, who lived in the neighborhood, came in with a crock of hot soup. Morale improved instantly. Wendy struck up a lively conversation with a young man named Matt, who seemed like he could become a spokesman, if the movement wanted a spokesman. He had something of a thousand yard stare from, I guessed, fatigue and constant cold.

Matt considered himself lucky to be protesting in Anchorage rather than Portland or Oakland, because the Anchorage Police were not bothering the protesters, and some officers were openly supportive of the movement, stopping by to chat and to gripe about departmental budget cuts. Matt said he thought he preferred sub zero temperatures to pepper spray, horses, and batons. He offered me some of the soup. I'd had plenty to eat and had to
catch an early flight, so I declined, wished them luck, and left. I was struck by their generosity. I liked the salmon, but they needed that soup.

Historically, it's always been pretty easy for the powerful to get poor people to swing sticks at other poor people. The powerful simply have to pay the stick swingers just a little bit more than they used to pay the strikers or the protesters or whatever group is causing them annoyance, divide and suppress. Police officers may not live in abject poverty, but they're
certainly not rich. They need their jobs and they're trained to follow orders. They are not paid to care whether or not they belong to the one percent that gives the orders, though I don't doubt that some of them do care anyway. I'm curious about the origin of the orders.

With regard to Occupy and Law enforcement, mayors and college presidents seemed to be charged with giving the orders, at least officially, and they are subsequently charged with taking the heat when the execution of any of their orders goes terribly wrong and produces violence, physical injury, and embarrassing Utube. Politicians and Administrators don't
generally like controversy, it's bad for careers. I don't think such people would give orders that would likely result in some really messy controversy, unless enough pressure were brought to bear on them that they would fear for their careers anyway. I think there are bigger forces at work here.

In October, the New York City Police Department arrested over seven hundred Occupy protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. Some were held for hours without charge. Earlier this year, J.P. Morgan/Chase, one of the recipients of the government bailout, derided by both Occupy and the Tea Party, donated 4.6 million dollars, partly in technology, patrol car laptops and such, to the New York City Police Department. This was the largest single donation ever received by NYPD. You can't tell me there were no strings attached. City Budgets are strapped. Departments are underfunded. A direct donation from a major corporation must be like manna from heaven to a police department. But of course, the department will need more in the future, and it won't get more if it turns on its new benefactor.

No one gives away 4.6 million expecting nothing in return. J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon is quoted as saying, "These officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe, we're incredibly proud to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard work." I wouldn't argue that NYPD, or any police department, is not worthy of such a donation, but I must question the motive and the timing. I wonder if Mr. Dimon actually lives in the City. The few New York CEOs I've had the pleasure of dealing with all lived in Connecticut and rode limos down the Meritt Parkway to work and back. Wherever Mr. Dimon lives, I doubt he fears for his safety.

I hear complaints that the protest is unfocused, that the protesters rejection of traditional hierarchy renders the movement ineffective as a political force, that it has no clear message. But I don't see a problem yet. Occupy has been effective simply by coming into existence. No one organized Occupy ahead of time. A call went out and people showed up. They're still showing up and their numbers and tenacity do have an effect. They get noticed. As for the message, one can google Keith Olbermann and hear the message, well written by Occupy and well read by Olbermann. Basically, occupiers want to take their country back from the banks and lobbyists. Their demands aren't that different from those of the Tea Party. The two groups should join forces. They're mad about the same conditions, though they disagree on where to put the blame.

The Tea party blames the government, Occupy blames the corporations that now own the government. Is there that much difference? Ultimately, we will all have to join forces if we are to call ourselves a nation. Right now, we are too polarized to be effective. We no longer recognize each other as Americans. The mayors and college presidents who call out the riot squads apparently don't know that those are their fellow Americans getting beaten and pepper sprayed. Those are American sons and daughters. Those are American students, American librarians, American grandmothers, and American veterans, and when they get hurt, we all get hurt. The stick swinging has to stop. It serves no useful human purpose.

I've taken part in very few protests. I attended one No Nukes march in Washington D.C. in the late seventies. It seemed to be conducted mostly by old hippies who wanted to do it again, and younger people like myself who thought we were sorry to have missed the sixties. My son and I attended several anti war protests in Austin at the start of the Iraq war. Our fellow
Americans screamed expletives at us as we stood on the street, but we didn't get arrested. There were some "protest for fun" types there too. I think Occupy is different. I'll have to go to New York and check it out. I'm pretty sure the guys in Anchorage weren't out there for the fun of it. They seemed to feel that they needed to be there, that they had no choice. It's
common feeling and common conviction that makes a movement. And it seems that more and more of us feel that we have no choice.


What Happened to The Border?

Late in the summer of 1992, my tour manager and I crossed into the United States from Emerson, Manitoba, after a tour of Western Canada. We were tired and disheveled. The U.S. Border Patrol agent at the gate was a big man with a handle bar mustache and a big nickel plated revolver, with nice custom stag horn grips, hanging from his hip. He wore the green uniform of the era, and had a sense of humor, though a rather twisted one. He told me to pull into the bay on the left and park on the orange tarp. I did as I was told, he had a gun after all. Another officer, I think from U.S. Customs, met us at the open bay, took the customs form on which I had listed descriptions of our instruments complete with serial numbers prior to entering Canada, and told us to go into the building while he performed the inspection. The building was full of students yelling about their rights as American Citizens and silent, leather clad bikers. The bikers were not the insurance man, brand new Harley riders of today, their leathers looked live in, and they wore no helmets. My tour manager, Danny Thorpe, now deceased, was led off into another room because he had the money. He came back only a few minutes later because there wasn't much money for Customs to count. He informed me that there was a biker by the door who wanted to kill me for parking on his tarp.

I crossed from Emerson with my band two days ago. The place looked a little different than it had nineteen years before. There seemed to be cameras mounted everywhere, one of which flashed brightly as we approached the booth. The woman at the window and the big man behind her both wore the blue uniform of the Department of Homeland Security. I handed her our four passports, as is now required. The woman asked the usual questions, twice asking me how long we'd been in Canada. Twice I answered that we had entered on the twenty-sixth of September. We hadn't counted our cash, so we didn't have an exact figure for the woman's queries regarding the state of our finances, but we were pretty sure we had less than ten thousand dollars. If you cross with over ten thousand dollars, you must declare it or Homeland security can seize it all. Since 1995, our only border crossings had been at busy crossings, Buffalo, Niagara, and Detroit, where we were never inspected, so we hadn't anticipated much scrutiny. The woman told us to pull up to garage door number one, and that we could have our passports back after the inspection. Where the open air parking bays had been in 1992, there was now an enclosed garage. I pulled the van up to garage door one and killed the motor. Garage door two opened and we were ordered to pull around. A stern looking woman waved us forward. There were several fast looking Japanese motorcycles parked to our left. I handed the woman the customs form and she ordered us to stand over by a stainless steel table and empty our pockets. A male officer told us to turn our pockets out so he could see that they were empty. They both wore the blue uniform, with light body armor, carried night sticks and modern, polymer framed, semi-auto pistols and neither seemed to have a sense of humor. The male officer asked me what we were bringing in from Canada. Usually they ask if we bought anything in Canada. The usual question was so ingrained in my mind that I replied, "We didn't buy anything in Canada." The male officer repeated, in a more intimidating tone,

"What are you bringing in from Canada?"

"Our gear", I replied.

The woman kept grilling Tim, our current tour manager, about the money, tapping the declaration form with her index finger and telling him to answer the question of whether or not we were carrying more than ten thousand dollars cash. Her tone was that of a middle school teacher who had had enough of a disruptive student. There were two bags of cash. Daren, our drummer handles the merch money, Tim handles the gig money. We don't sell merch in Canada because the Canadians tax it too heavily for us to profit, so all the merch money had been earned in the states and carried through Canada, but there was no way to prove that. Tim counted his cash and Daren got out his paperwork and checked his figures. Now, it looked as though we had somewhat over ten grand. The officers took Tim off to another room to fill out forms and recount the money, refusing to give back his pocket knife, saying they would leave it in the van. I realized then, that I had a multi-tool in a belt pouch on my hip. They hadn't seen it under my shirt tail. I thought about offering it up but didn't. They hadn't asked if we had anything on our belts. After Tim left, the rest of us were told to wait in the waiting room, really more like a closet with a one way window through which they could see us. From the inside we could see our own reflections in the bright glare of the fluorescent lighting. The walls were cinder block and painted yellow. I didn't try the door to see if we were actually prisoners. A woman in two tone leathers sat quietly in the corner. There were two helmets on the chair next to her. In a while, a man in two tone leathers, her husband I guess, was led back into the room. She asked him if he had been treated nicely. "Oh, you know, third degree", he replied in a British accent. They were summoned shortly. As they left, I thought I heard someone say "English people are not allowed to enter this way . . . now, you're not under arrest . . . we'll have to move the bike . . ." After thirty minutes or so, The male officer came and told us he had completed his inspection of the van and told us to pull it outside and wait for Tim. As soon as I pulled the van out, the formerly ever so stern female officer came up and asked to see Daren. There wasn't as much cash in the merch money bag as he had reported. He had forgotten to subtract credit card sales from his total, so it turned out that we had well under ten thousand dollars. We were proven innocent after only having been assumed guilty for forty minutes or so, not bad as border hassles go, but it left a bad taste. I haven't traveled the world extensively, but I've been in and out of the country a few times. I've never been treated like a suspect by officials of any nation other than my own. Sure, they have a tough job and we didn't have our shit together. But they were nasty from the get go. I don't know how such an attitude helps them do their job.

Entering Canada was different this time, too. The U.S. officer who gave me the customs form in Sweetgrass Montana, actually insisted on looking in the van before stamping and signing the form, a first. Then, Canadian immigration charged us four hundred and fifty dollars for work permits, another first. The immigration officer folded the permits, stapled them into our passports, told us we were good until the fifth and to have a nice trip. I just took my work permit out and read it, here in Iowa. Apparently we were supposed to have stopped at the port of exit to tell the Canadians we were leaving and give the permits back. The immigration officer didn't say a word about exiting, and we'd never run into this requirement before. The last time we'd been in Canada, a couple of years before, one could simply leave Canada without a word. We'll have to get on this situation right away if we want to work up there in the future, mole hills just seem to want to turn into mountains these days. We mused on the changing world as we rolled toward Lethbridge, Alberta. Wasn't NAFTA supposed to make it easier to do cross border business?

I spent a week in Canada and watched the news a time or two. Their news is different than our news. The Canadians are alarmed, to say the least. Apparently, we now have gun boats on the Great Lakes, drones and Blackhawk helicopters patrolling the land border. There's talk of building a fence or perhaps even a wall. What terrible threat is coming at us from Canada, I must ask? And how will we get enough Mexican Nationals to the Canadian border to build a wall? Canadians don't sneak into our country. They're doing pretty well up there, by the look of the place. Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg all looked prosperous. In none of those sprawling cities did I see the signs of poverty so often evident from crosstown freeways in the U.S., and I suspect their health care system works better than the elder George Bush would have had us believe. No doubt many of us can be fooled into thinking a wall would make us safer, keeping out drugs and terrorists, but I file such arguments under "Yeah Right". Where there are walls, there are tunnels and bribes, and most walls are built to keep people in rather than out, food for paranoid thought, given that Canada's economy is holding up relatively well, and they have the majority of the world's fresh water which will soon be the world's most precious commodity (If you doubt this, note that T Boone Pickens, former oil and gas tycoon, is now in the water rights business). Big Brother paranoia aside, any real threat is most likely to arrive in one of the countless shipping containers I see piled up on our docks and piggy backed on train cars all over our nation. I don't know the current figure, but I remember that during the rough tough Bush administration, Home Land Security was allocated enough funds to inspect four percent of inbound shipping containers. There's no way to inspect them all. There are simply too many. So, the politicians clamor for walls, to make us think they're doing something to protect us, pad the pockets of a few construction firm and high tech CEOs, and keep the DEA funded to the gills. Meanwhile, a once friendly border grows more and more militarized and unfriendly. This can't be good for business.


Still A Good Place to Leave My Stuff

I played my first Austin area gig in 1987 at a now long gone joint called Breezy's, out on 620 near Lake Travis. I lived and played in San Antonio then, and Austin seemed exotic and out of reach, though I'm not sure why. San Antonio has given the world some great musicians, Doug Sahm and Flaco Jimemez, to name two. But in the mid eighties, Austin seemed more like a step towards the big time. Stevie Ray Vaughn had broken out. South by Southwest was in its infancy, but already had a bit of a buzz. I had no idea how to get into the Austin scene, but it so happened I was among the winners at the 1987 New Folk contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival, a lucky break which gave me just enough visibility for my friends and champions, Kathleen Hudson and Tim Henderson, to finagle me the Breezy's gig. I remember rolling up to Breezy's and being thrilled at seeing my name spelled correctly on the yellow roll away sign with the black blow away letters. I've since seen my name in giant lights on the side of a Nevada casino, and on many theatre marquees, but no such sight ever quenched my narcissism the way the sight of that yellow sign did. I don't remember if anyone actually came to that show, but I remember thinking, "I've played Austin". I didn't know that I had actually only played Lakeway or Oak Hill. It was close enough for me.

I had a record deal when I moved to Austin in 1989. I didn't move for the music, Elena, my fiancée, was in graduate school at UT at the time, but I liked the scene. I played a few gigs at clubs whose names I can no longer remember and some that I can, Headliners East, Ravens. When my first tour looped back through Austin, I got to play Liberty Lunch as the middle act, wedged in between the Del Fuegos, from Boston, and The Beat Farmers, from California. I was nervous and played badly. The Beat Farmers scared me and it's likely that one of them left a scratch on my old Guild guitar. Funny, now that the Beat Farmers are no more, since their legendary front man, Country Dick, collapsed and died onstage, I treasure that scratch.

Ronnie Johnson, my bass player, used to say, "Austin is a good place to leave your stuff." The town is perfectly located for touring the U.S. as it is almost equidistant from either coast. One can work either coast economically in three and a half to five weeks and get home in time to still have a life. Had I chosen to live on one coast or the other, I would have had to tour for much longer stretches and might have missed a lot more of my son's growing up. I can't imagine a better place for a musician to grow up than Austin. There are so many live music venues. A kid with ample talent and drive can find a gig here. Curtis has both, and when he's home, he tends to have more gigs around town than I do.

I had lived here more than ten years before I really became part of the local scene. Except for a brief stint at La Zona Rosa, I never had a regular gig here until I started playing with my band on Wednesday nights at the Continental Club sometime in 2002. It was and still is a good night of music, with Jon Dee Graham on at ten thirty, us at midnight. Our audience has expanded due to the regular gig. A lot of people show up just to hear who's playing at the Continental Club. Recently, I've started playing a solo acoustic show upstairs at the Continental Gallery early on Tuesday nights. I like that little room, wooden floor, great sound.

After my Tuesday night show, I usually hang around to hear the Ephraim Owens Trio, three incredible jazz players. I don't know what they're doing, but I like it. Through the plate glass window, I can see our rapidly changing skyline, new glass highrises climbing skyward. The remains of Liberty Lunch and countless other clubs are buried somewhere under that glass, metal, and stone. Ronnie Johnson leaves his stuff in Marfa now, Austin having grown expensive for a side man. It's not the same town, but the music carries on. I'll stay a while yet.

Keeping Tulsa Safe

Why is it that small Midwestern airports have all the most up to date passenger screening equipment, while some of the busier airports do not? Do they think Al Qaeda is planning to hit us from the heartland, or is the fear index just higher out there, prompting the local politicos to bring home more homeland security dollars? Of the three times I've been ordered into the full body scanner, a cylindrical device resembling a see through version of the orgasmatron from Woody Allen's "Sleeper", one was in Tulsa, one in Green Bay(I think it was Green Bay, pretty far north and more or less up the middle), the third was somewhere east. Tulsa was a trip.

I flew to Tulsa from my home town of Austin, Texas. The Austin airport is small but often very busy. Sometimes, if one of the three checkpoints is mysteriously closed, it can take one nearly two hours to complete baggage check and security screening. I've grown used to it. I haven't noticed if the Austin airport even has one of those clear orgasmatron like machines. If so, I've never been in it.

My tour manager and I made it to Tulsa, played the gig, got paid, well, most of it, spent the night, and were back at the airport two hours before our return flight was scheduled to depart. It was Saturday, and the Tulsa airport was practically deserted. There was no line for baggage check.

There was no line for security. In the screening area, there were about fifteen TSA employees and maybe five passengers. Seemed like a bit of overkill. After I 'd done the ex-ray conveyer dance, shedding belt, necklace, cell phone, change, shoes, pulling the lap top out of the bag and setting it in its very own bin, I noticed that I was being barked at. It was ten in the morning, the voice might have been human, it sounded like a higher pitched version of the teacher's voice from the Charlie Brown holiday specials from my childhood. I held up my boarding pass to signal that I was familiar with the procedure. The voice became more shrill, I had to focus.

"You have something in your cargo pocket!" yelled the woman behind the voice.

"Yes ma'am, that's my wallet", I yelled back.

"Take it out or they will search you."

I noticed then, that the only lane that was not taped off lead right through the orgasmascanner. Hmm. . . I wasn't familiar with the procedure after all.

The woman with the voice approached. "You have to take everything out of your pockets". I clutched my wallet, boarding pass and baggage claim checks.

She motioned me through the machine and I obeyed, but neither of us had noticed that the woman on the other side of the machine had her back turned, I realized too late that I had walked up behind a large woman with a Glock pistol on her hip. She didn't startle, her hand didn't reflexively go to her gun. She just seemed tired and slightly annoyed that I wasn't familiar with the procedure. I should have remembered from Green Bay, but Green Bay was so long ago. I was beginning to get irked. Snappy comments were bubbling their way to the forefront of my half consciousness. It was still two hours until flight time and I was wondering if I could get in some serious trouble and still get out of it in time to make my flight. What would've happened if I yelled out something on the order of "No I don't know this procedure because real airports don't bother with it and if any of you ever flew you'd know that."?

Not nice. And the woman with the Glock actually did seem professional and pretty much lacking in delusions of self importance. She ordered me to step back into the machine, put my feet on the yellow footprints and raise my arms over my head while keeping my hands together. I did as I was told, while the ghost of Evelyn Waugh whispered, "The pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous . . ."

The machine made a rather loud noise as the scanning device circled me. I was aware that some poor soul staring at a TV monitor was seeing a good deal more of me than any of us got to see of Diane Keaton in "Sleeper". I was told to step out. The woman with the Glock (come to think of it, I guess they all had Glocks, or some such modern polymer framed hi-cap semi auto) went through my wallet and told me I was cleared. I walked to the conveyer and reassembled myself. I felt jarred somehow, more so than after the usual screening ordeal, and more jarred than I remember feeling after any of the few times that I've been bodily searched. Why is it assumed, in our culture, that an individual would rather be visually spied on than physically touched? I'm not sure which act is more invasive.

The lady with the Charlie Brown's teacher voice sure seemed to think that the threat of search would snap me into line, but I'm not sure it will next time. I don't relish being frisked but I don't like that jarred feeling the machine left me with. I doubt that the machine increases one's risk of cancer more than does life in the twenty-first century, with its constant bath of electromagnetism from cell phones and all our other necessities, but I don't like the machine. Still, I might be hesitant to request a bodily search for fear that to do so might place me under extra suspicion and increase the hassle potential in an already hassle filled day of travel.

Tim, my tour manager, was waiting in the hall when I finally got myself back in order. "Glad they're keeping Tulsa safe," he said.

Clownie's What's Left To Do

Daren Hess, drummer for James McMurtry, Ronnie Lane, Green On Red, Poi Dog Pondering, The Silos, Jon Dee Graham, Dave Alvin, Ian McLagan and releases his first collection of self penned, Brit invasion, Americana influenced songs. CLICK HERE to purchase Clownie's What's Left To Do.



While bow fishing for gar on the San Gabriel River just upstream from Granger Lake, I floated through a school of carp surface feeding on some kind of scum washed in by the recent rain. The French know how to cook carp, but I don’t, so I leave them be. There were grey fish, which I took to be buffalo fish, mixed in with the carp. Then I noticed that the grey ones had whiskers. They appeared to be blue catfish.

I’d never seen blue cat skimming the surface like that, whiskers out of the water feeling this way and that, searching for whatever it was they were feeding on, some kind of insect larvae perhaps. I spent the rest of the evening trying to get a bow shot. It’s tricky shooting out of a canoe. The target has to appear in exactly the right place. If you have to twist your body, you’ll miss, but if you shift your feet to get in proper position, you’ll go for a swim. I was twisted to the left on my first shot, missing a five pounder by three feet or more, cursing my impatience as the heavy fishing arrow plunged toward the bottom fifteen feet down, line spooling off the cheap plastic reel.

The light began to fade and I knew I had to start the twenty minute row back to the launch(yeah row, my square tail canoe has oar locks, good for flat water), but I just couldn’t go yet. I stood with an arrow nocked, watching carp feeding along a fallen tree. A catfish cruised out from under the boat about a foot and a half below the surface. I didn’t have time to think, I drew and released just as the fish went out of sight. the arrow went out of sight too, but it stopped this time, the line didn’t spool off. I pulled on the line and felt something pull back. I pulled in the line, grabbed the arrow shaft and hoisted in what I thought to be a blue cat of about two and a half to three pounds. It was long and thin, nineteen inches, seems like a blue cat should have more girth.

Later when I skinned the fish, I found that the meat had a yellow line along the spine, like the meat of a channel cat, but the skin was slate grey, like a blue, devoid of channel cat like spots. I’ve read that hatcheries are for some reason experimenting with channel/blue hybrids, but I haven’t heard of any stockings of said hybrids in Granger Lake. Puzzling


Fear of Flying

Yesterday, I flew on Southwest Airlines flight 420 from Tampa Florida to Austin Texas. I sat in a window seat on the left side of the plane. I watched the blue waters of the gulf go by thirty five thousand feet below. I saw ships kicking up a white froth at their sterns. I saw a few oil platforms.

An hour or so into the flight, the platforms increased in numbers and so did the ships. Then the water turned, in a knife’s edge, from blue to brown and boats and ships were visible everywhere. In normal times I would have thought the water was brown from silt pouring out from the Mississippi into the Gulf, but this brown stain went on further than I could see. Now the ships and boats left strange dark wakes with no white froth at their sterns. Even a Mississippi River tow boat kicks up a white wake. Some of these boats’ wakes showed them to have been turning circles and triangles in the brown stuff. The brown went on for minutes, hundreds of miles, and, a ways to the west, I began to see black streaks in the brown stuff.

The captain didn’t point out whatever it was, and none of my fellow passengers seemed to notice, most consumed with whatever was on their laptops and telling their life stories to all of us. Ho Hum.


Junk Shot or Money Shot? BP Fiddles While Rome Burns

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - BP conceded Thursday that more oil than it estimated is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico as heavy crude washed into Louisiana’s wetlands for the first time, feeding worries and uncertainty about the massive monthlong spill.

Let’s get something clear. BP knew, from the beginning, exactly how much oil that blowout was capable of spilling. BP is a modern oil company. Modern oil companies conduct extensive seismographic tests before committing the resources to actually drill. They can’t afford a dry hole under a mile of water. They knew what was down there before they drilled the well. They had already successfully drilled several wells in that field and they know what each well produces.

Equally troubling, is that all of BP’s efforts since the accident have been geared not towards plugging the leak, but rather towards recovering as much oil as possible. They talk of maybe trying a “junk shot”, filling the non-functional blowout preventer with golf balls or old tires, but they haven’t tried it. Perhaps they’re afraid the junk shot could make matters worse, a valid fear. But it is interesting that the only procedures BP has actually tried have involved tankers. The recovery boxes froze up and failed before the oil reached the tanker. Now they’ve managed to insert a skinny pipe into the fat pipe that’s leaking and siphon off a fraction of the oil. I guess they figure that’s better than nothing. Meanwhile, the livelihoods of people who’ve worked the Gulf for generations are being ruined as BP officials stall and evade in a vain quest to save face and profit.

Republicans are trying to lay blame on Obama. The “drill baby drill” crowd says Obama should have imposed tighter regulations on offshore drilling. Imagine the shit storm they’d have kicked up if he had tried such a thing before the spill.