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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.

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.