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30 years with Snow Bird

New Nike sneakers

August 16, 2019

In my almost 30 years with Mr. Eddie (Snowbird) Alden, I sometimes said to myself, Wow.  Someone needs to write a book.  He was unique.  Several people remarked on his singularity at his memorial service, that lasted two hours and forty minutes.  Eddie was unique.  I have never seen anyone even remotely similar to him.  His life made sense to him.  He was his own boss, a crime fighter. Like the Green Lantern.

Several times I asked him if I could call him Snowbird.  “Call me Eddie,” he said each time.

Eddie was an iconic figure in Billings.  He weighed more than 300 lbs, always wore a bright yellow fleece, unless the weather was hot, then he wore a clean white tee shirt.  He pedaled slowly across parking lots, across streets.  His hair was always cut short, less than a quarter inch.  He had vertical black stripes on his scalp where his hair was a bit longer.  He wore white Nike sneakers, white cotton socks, black sweat pants, the bright yellow fleece.  He owned perhaps a dozen of those fleeces, which he stored at a unit on the West end of Billings. I helped him take a lot of his belongings from an apartment near 6th Avenue. As we drove away an old guy, perhaps a property manager for the basement apartment, called out to Eddie, “Don’t come back!”

Aside from angry landlords, he was well known, even loved; but sometimes hated.  One Crow man told me as a child he remembered seeing Eddie and was afraid of him because he sometimes lurked at the corner of buildings.

How well known was he?  This blog you are reading typically attracts one or two readers a day, sometimes as many as ten, when I write about picking up my small dog Gunther’s poop in the neighborhood.  

The day I wrote about Eddie’s funeral service I got more than 500 readers!  I think the most I had ever gotten was around 30, when I wrote about being depressed.  I always took for granted that my blog posts are dull.

The day after that, the blog post about Eddie attracted nearly 8,000 readers!  That number was back to about 500 today.

Eddie always liked publicity.  I think he would be thrilled to know how his story attracts people.

Three days ago, Eddie’s memorial service was held at the Spirit of Life Four Square Church, in Crow Agency.  Right around the corner from the old Crow Mercantile, which was across the street from the Post Office.  I’d say 30 people attended, including four or five of us from Billings.  

Eddie’s service was gorgeous, elaborate, beautiful—all those things.  Two of his bikes were on display with his trademark 64-ounce Big Gulp soda holder.  A two-liter Pepsi bottle, some cologne, a couple of radios, tape recorders, yellow fleeces.  Lots of little touches.  Grocery bags hanging from his handlebars.  He didn’t always use plastic bags.  He started out with paper bags, each reinforced with a half-roll of duct tape. Probably that was before he was settled in Billings, complete with lots of bicycles.

Over the years, I often asked Eddie questions and he would answer cryptically, “Yeah?”  Example:  “Eddie, are you coming over for Thanksgiving?”  He would answer, “Yeah?”  Me:  “Is your apartment clean?”  Eddie:  “Yeah?”

The people at Eddie’s funeral extolled his virtues, which are approximately the same as those of any officer in law enforcement, except Eddie invented his own, volunteer, role.  They said Eddie had some sort of disability, but he valued his family’s tradition of police work.  Generations of policemen (and women, perhaps).  Therefore, according to Eddie’s uncle Art Alden, “Snowbird had a siren on his bicycle.” 

I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself again.

Eddie did not say much about himself, unless asked specifically.  Even then, he was often vague.  Example:  “Eddie, what are you doing tonight?”  Answer:  “Oh, you know, routines.”  I learned later that “routines” referred to the route he pedaled his bicycle.  

I was shocked to learn that he had enemies.  Oh yes.  They were often his victims—people he turned in to the police, usually when intoxicated, often when driving.

One year at Crow Fair, which is a huge annual encampment each August of literally hundreds and hundreds of tepees—possibly more than even one or two thousand—I found Eddie pedaling his bike on one of the many curved roads.  Typically, Eddie wouldn’t recognize me right away.  The reason:  non-Indians, like me, all look alike.  But I called out Eddie’s name and he pedaled slowly to me.  I never saw Eddie pedal quickly. I had driven over to Crow Fair early that morning for the annual “Teepee Creeper’s Classic” three mile run.  I was expecting breakfast at a relative’s camp, so I asked one of the women there if I could invite “Snowbird.”  She said, “sure.”  I didn’t know it, but she was just being ultra kind and polite to me!  

She fried up a rasher of bacon, which Eddie ate from a paper plate.  Soon, my son pulled me aside.  He told me that more than a few people in that camp had spent actual time in jail because of Snowbird’s ratting them out.  I was never never NEVER to invite him to breakfast there again!  

That’s when I learned of Eddie’s “zero tolerance” for the crime of possessing alcohol on a dry reservation.  Both the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations are “dry.”  Eddie also had zero tolerance for any natives that crawl out of a bar and get into a motor vehicle in the small hours of the morning when the places closed down.  Eddie would certainly call the cops on them and that might result in going to jail.

But Eddie didn’t mind at all if I drank.  He even provided me with wine the last few years at Christmas.  Always great generous bottles of pink, or this last Christmas, merlot.  He had gone to some trouble to find out what kind I liked.  Last Christmas I sat with Eddie and drank a few glasses of the merlot.  Our conversations went something like this:

Eddie:  Dan?

Me:  Yeah, Eddie?

Eddie: Dan?

Me: What is it, Eddie?  

Eddie: Does Jon want to buy me a gift card for the Holiday station for Christmas?

Me: How would I know?  Why don’t you ask Jon?

Eddie: Yeah?

Sometimes I bought Eddie black sweat pants for Christmas, sometimes shoes and socks.  One time, I bought him a 12 pack of Mountain Dew, which I wrapped in shiny paper with little trees on it.  After he unwrapped it, he put it on the floor.  He looked at it, then at me.  “This is it?”  He didn’t bother to take it with him.

That’s why I often said that I didn’t really know Eddie that well, despite being acquainted with him for almost 30 years.  Part of the problem was that I frequently was critical of him.  I scolded him for teasing the Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers by carrying around pop in a Budweiser beer box at Crow Fair.  

I got perturbed when he got into trouble, usually having to do with his relationship with a landlord, and he asked four or five different people for help, but didn’t tell any of them about the others.  “Eddie, you need someone’s help,” I said.  “But you don’t need four people who each think they are the only ones helping.”

Eddie kept his business to himself.  He frequently lined up several unrelated groups to help him celebrate his birthday.  On the big day he stopped in at one after another:  the police department, legal services, the Billings Gazette, my house, his sister’s house.  When things went well, he couldn’t help exulting.

I didn’t know Eddie 30 years.  I knew Eddie 1 year, 30 times.  I miss him because his independence delighted me. A legend in his own time.

I criticized Eddie for hoarding stuff in his apartment.  That’s one of the reasons he got eviction notices.  His places were frightful.

I didn’t visit the last three places he lived because I felt depressed when I could barely fit through an aisle of plastic trash bags filled with filthy blankets, gray sheets, phones, sweat clothes, socks, batteries, tape recorders, hair clippers, bicycle parts, radios, cameras, new bike helmets (never worn—I don’t know how often I urged him to wear his helmet.  His answer was always, “Yeah?”) 

Pill box organizers, prescription bottles, envelopes, newspapers, hunters orange gloves, empty soda containers (large) cologne bottles, more envelopes, posters, tools, telephones, more telephones, more bike parts, underwear, camping gear, televisions, fake flowers, food wrappers, bottles of cleaners, vacuum cleaners, neck ties, suits, mattresses, more radios, toy police cars, flashlights, flashlight batteries, a bull horn, a siren, blue and red flashing lights, more toys, hats, hats, more hats, coats, old shoes.  Garbage. Newspapers.  Like 40 copies of the same date.

Fire crackers, bottle rockets, matches, other toys, an empty whisky bottle, pepper.  More pepper.  Thirty cans of black pepper.  And telephones, police scanners, police scanner parts, bicycle seats, bicycle wheels, tires, tubes.  More receipts, paper, a huge pile of bike wheels, bike frames.  A couch, under there somewhere.  ID cards for random people.  Panty hose.  Telephones.  Cooking pan on the stove, with grease.  

I’d ask Eddie the last few years:  “Are you keeping your place pretty clean?”  He answered:  “Yeah?”  

“Really?” I continued.

“Yeah.” He said.  Well, I couldn’t vouch for his honesty in that regard, but I never checked.


PW Volume II number 1


Click the link below to read the entire issue.


History of English Language

Gunther, thinking. What about?

Last night at about one, or so, I was awake, so I listened again to History of the English Language podcast by Kevin Stroud.  He has 137 episodes and he tracks the development of English from its Indo-European roots on the steppes of Asia perhaps 5000 years ago.  Our language has some ancient words in amongst the modern.  Sure, many of our words were borrowed from other languages, but a number have been passed along from the earliest tribal days on the steppes after the last ice age.  Old words tend to pertain, of course, to matters we have in common with our ancestors, such as “oxen,” “yoke,” and “mother” and “father.”  The newest words often pertain to technology, such as “fax” and “google.”  Mr. Stroud helps us stop and examine words, and for that I recommend his podcast.

He has a great speaking voice for his carefully researched podcast. I often fall asleep after the opening music or after the first few sentences. Takes me many tries to get through a 30- or 40-minute episode.

English is a Germanic language that owes a lot to Latin.  One cannot understand the history of the language without knowledge of the social and political climate from which it sprung.  Think of all the anomalies in spelling.  Many of these were contrivances of ancient scribes who were adept at using the alphabet to approximate the sounds of words in olden times.  Mr. Stroud notes that Old English, such as in Beowulf, would be unintelligible to a modern English speaker, but Middle English, such in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while strange-sounding, can pretty much be understood, though perhaps not completely.  He poses the question, what kind of English did William Shakespeare write in?  Answer:  Modern.  Granted, Mr. Shakespeare used words we might find quaint, but his work can be easily understood today.

I found it interesting the notion that not all written languages have alphabets.  Chinese, for example, employs hundreds, if not thousands, of characters that are, in effect, pictures, while English gets by with a few more than two dozen letters.  He notes that languages that employ phonetic alphabets, like English, are much easier to learn to read and write.  The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics had scores of characters that only specially educated scribes could read and write.  Those who study linguistics may not learn anything new here, but the rest of us might.

My favorite episode is no. 120, describing the plague of 1348 that killed about a third of everyone in Western Europe. Turns out the wealthier and better-educated clerics and nobility were prone to becoming infected with a disease that killed its victims in less than a week. The aftermath of the “black death” led to a rise in economic status among the peasants who could feed and care for the survivors.

I wonder how the current plague will affect our citizens economic status?

I hope I’ve piqued your interest.  Just google the above podcast and give it a try.

The Portable Wall

May 17, 2020

I keep trying to encourage my friend Ezra to document, to write.  Life can be tedious for him, locked in a solitary apartment during a pandemic, so I have sympathy.  The other day we talked about a magazine I used to publish, called The Portable Wall.

This was the second issue. Cover by Dirk Lee. I put them out for grabs at the university and they quickly disappeared.

Who hasn’t thought about starting a magazine?  Probably lots of people.  

I think of E. E. Cummings’ poem, “let’s start a magazine.”

let’s start a magazine 

to hell with literature 

we want something redblooded

lousy with pure 

reeking with stark 

and fearlessly obscene

but really clean 

get what I mean 

let’s not spoil it 

let’s make it serious

something authentic and delirious 

you know something genuine like a mark 

in a toilet

graced with guts and gutted 

with grace

squeeze your nuts and open your face.

I visited several websites to find this poem.  The first two sites left off the last line, possibly to make the poem more palatable to children?

In 1976 I discharged from the Marine Corps to return to the University of Montana to  return to journalism.  I had abandoned my studies in 1968 after breaking up with my girlfriend.  I wrote a screed in my world literature class complaining the professor was boring, rather than trying to address the final exam question.  He gave me a passing grade anyway.  Soon I was on a passenger train to Seattle.

Also, I decided not to stay in school to avoid the army.  I figured I’d go to Seattle to visit my brother, then possibly head to Canada.  Vietnam was terrifying.  Bodies were being shipped back daily.  My classmate, Kim Archer, had been killed.  Danny Sanders had been wounded.

Ultimately I left Seattle, then stayed a couple days in Eugene with people about to defect to Canada.  Only, I disliked the defectors.  They seemed self-righteous, or selfish, or something.  I slipped away, grabbed a freight train back to Seattle.  I was in the ID bookstore and saw a drawing of a soldier bayonetting a baby.  Hippie newspaper.  I tried selling hippie newspapers, earned less than a dollar after hours of work.

I kicked around the country and worked as a telemarketer in Seattle, as a carnival worker in Alaska, then as a gandy dancer on the railroad out of Missoula before I enlisted in the Marines.  Seems counter-intuitive, but I enlisted out of cowardice, not bravery.  If I had been brave, I’d have waited to be drafted.  I was too scared for that.

The Marines about drove me crazy, but I eventually came to love the unique people there.  I hated the boot-lickers and sycophants, but plenty of others, such as Bill Moody, Crazy Ed Bonk, Gunner Robertson, turned into friends I could relate to.  My nickname was Stork.

Took a long time before our family of five could afford to leave the Marines.  

When off the base, I had to deliver newspapers, fix up and sell old Volkswagens to fatten up our bank account.  We had a duck.  Tried to fry her eggs, but they tasted fishy.  I tried to cook some small squid in a pan.  They were from Huntington Beach.   Rubbery and I felt sorry for the kids who gamely sawed at the flesh with a butter knife.  We tossed the squid, made a rare trip to fast-food.

But we got out of the Marines.  Drove a U-Haul from California to Bozeman, then on to Missoula.  We were assigned an apartment in family housing, an X-shaped building a few blocks from campus, on the edge of Mount Sentinel and the marvelous green hill.  The green hill was a child’s paradise, with sledding in the winter.  Only someone sled into a parked car and split open their head.  Like that.  Turns out inner tubes can be dangerous.  They are fast and impossible to steer.  They send you headfirst into parked cars with your tender head and its numerous veins and arteries.

We arrived at Sisson apartments in September in time for Fall classes.  In 1976, military service was nothing to be proud of.  In fact, I felt ashamed, cheap.  None of my hippie friends went into the armed forces, except Bob Verduin who famously said, “Fuck the draft.”  I never found out what happened to Bob.

However, in 1976, I enjoyed visiting with a woman in the old Student Union Building who was responsible for dispensing veteran’s education benefits.  They were dispensed by the month.  I was entitled to 48 months.  School came by the academic quarter in those days, encompassing just shy of nine months each year.  The woman made the 48 months fit the academic quarters by trimming here, cutting there.  She was a genius and I ended up getting all of journalism and most of a pharmacy degree, courtesy of my dear Uncle Sam.  Hell, I earned it.

I went to UM summer session of 1977.  I studied Spanish.  My old friend Dana Graham helped me with vocabulary and I got an A.  I worked on the Kaimin.  I took a course in journalism from Wilbur Wood, titled, “Poetry and Journalism.”  We read Vonnegut and Le Guin and kept a journal.  We wrote papers.  A young woman told about a lounge downtown that she regarded as her home.  I wrote some kind of bullshit about some damn thing.  Wilbur was encouraging, though.  He required each of us to have a project.  Mine was to start a magazine.

I’d wanted to make a magazine since high school when my friends and I drew panels for a super hero comic book.  We didn’t get the project off the ground. Now, in 1977, I had another chance.

Again Dana came to the rescue with a $10 bill to help pay for the first issue of the magazine.  Since she was putting up the majority of the money, she got to name it.  Hence, The Portable Wall.  The original, non-portable wall was a wall in a hippie hangout on Main Street in downtown Missoula.  The wall had graffiti.  “Life is what we do while waiting to die,” comes to mind.

The magazine had a life of its own.  Turns out many people contributed money, stories, poems, drawings.  Dirk Lee contributed wood engravings.  We published many issues with as many as 60 pages, until 1996, when I returned to college as a non-traditional student at Idaho State to work on an advanced pharmacy degree.

The most recent contributor to the Wall was Frank Dugan with $10, a couple years ago.  

Covid-19 social distancing in Central Montana

Mysterious dancing birds. Ibises? Mostly brown with some white on their heads.

May 16, 2020

Today in Billings sunshine, barking dogs, workers shingling Mrs. Johnson’s house across the alley.  I walked Gunther.

I was sitting in my chair, staring, when Gunther barked loudly. Three neighbors approached our porch. They appeared friendly.

The couple across the street were with their next door neighbor, a pleasant woman, who came home from the hospital yesterday. She recently spent five horrendous days in the ICU on a ventilator.  We exchanged the usual pleasantries, then arranged ourselves at safe distances. Of course, we talked about being sick. Like that.

She said she’d rather die than have the respirator experience again.  We other three looked at one another.  I said, “and we may end up having that experience.”  Of course, I was talking about Covid-19.  Our neighbor said she tested negative for Covid exposure.  We were glad to see her up and walking about, albeit weakly.

We had been out of town.

P. and I wandered about Central Montana in our conversion van, spent two nights at Ackley Lake.  You go from Lewistown to Hobson, then toward Utica. Ackley Lake is on a series of dirt roads, easy to find.

My late aunt, Corinne Ackley, was Lewistown Librarian back in the old days–early 1940s–before my cousin was born.  I doubt if they named Ackley lake after her, but I think of my irascible aunt Corinne often. She dealt plainly with life, much to our delight. She asked me to buy her some whiskey. I refused and she bellowed, “GO TO HELL!” My sweet sister bought Corinne some whiskey, as she is mature and kindly.

We liked Ackley Lake. We saw two others camped on its perimeter. It’s a reservoir and probably didn’t exist in my aunt’s day.

The second day of our foray into Central Montana we drove to Kingsbury Pond, on miles of dirt road, close to Square Butte, close to Geraldine, Montana.  We saw no rattlesnakes, but we did see some avocets wading around in the shallows, beautiful rust-colored heads and chests, up-turned long bills dipping into the mud. 

Square Butte laccolith is visible for miles.

Phone photos didn’t do them justice, but we got good looks with the binocular.  Killdeer made their distinctive vocalizations.  We also saw gulls and smaller birds.  We ended up walking about a mile through a grassy seasonal marshland from the car to the muddy edge of the water.  Gunther bounded through the grass like a dolphin.  A couple times he stood on his hind legs to look around.  I wanted a pic, but I was too slow.

We drove to the middle fork of the Judith River, saw numerous deer and two elk.  No bears.  Cold and rainy.  Tried to go to Checkerboard, but the road was closed from snow.  Driving in we saw nobody.  Driving out we saw numerous campers at Hay Canyon.  So we returned to Ackley Lake via Utica.  On the road we saw a pair of immense long-legged birds dancing or fighting.  We stopped, made a U-turn, watched the birds.  They looked like herons, only distinctly brown.  We think they were ibises (?).  Light was fading.  Soon they finished their flapping and jumping and walked away together.  

People were friendly throughout, although Lewistown had some right wing-nut billboards advertising the “Tea Party.”  I had broken a drain pipe to the RV water tank and a nice man in Belt helped me repair it.  I didn’t see any people wearing face masks in Belt, but I did in Lewistown and at Ackley Lake the second day we were there.

Next day we went to Sluice Boxes State Park.   We drove to the upper part of Belt Creek and hiked a couple miles. Then we returned to Billings.

Sluice Boxes State Park.

Well, some of these days are like that.

Retired guy, thinking.

May 2, 2020

A shitty day.  P. and I are not getting along.  Last night I drank a bottle of wine after she went to bed, then I took a 30-minute hot bath.  Then got light-headed.  Result was I crawled around our room in the dark and she was upset that I was drunk.  Not like a pirate, but like bozo.  In short, I fucked up.  I scared her and disrupted her sleep.  I fear Covid-19 pandemic will kindle some alcoholic relapses in others, too. Thanks for not judging me. I’ll do you the same favor.

Earlier today I said to P. that part of recovery from alcoholism is relapse.  She practically spit out her coffee.  I don’t think she had heard that one before.  Okay, I am an alcoholic.  My trouble is not a rare and I am in good company.  My dear aunt drank too much Jack Daniels nightly.  Sometimes, after everyone else turned in, her jolly self turned to tears and anger and she paced around the house cursing. 

My drinking ended up with me taking hot baths, then getting light-headed, in danger of falling.  Anyhow, I wouldn’t be of much help to anyone if there were a late-night emergency when I’m drunk.  And such emergencies do happen, but I won’t talk about those because it’s nobody’s business.

Remorse is part of relapse is part of recovery.  Remorse.  In copious amounts.  I’ve joined the club of sad old guys.  Wait.  I’ve been a member of the club for years.  Now I get to wear the hat, recite the creed, give the secret handshake.  Not the handshake, no.  Covid-19.  

I’m retired.  I do occasional work, mostly manual labor, semi-skilled.  This can make staying sober challenging these days.  Superman is a mythical guy.  Sometimes my best strategy is going to bed early.

My pharmacy co-worker, Phil Minnick, once told me that he was always amazed how things look better after a night’s sleep. 

Today as I write I get to sit in on grandson Josiah’s creative writing class.  This class at Sarah Lawrence College is being held on line via computer video conference.  They are critiquing each others’ short stories.  They are collected together from many parts of the country. One of the students is speaking to the group while driving to Minnesota. I am impressed with the generosity of spirit expressed by the group toward each other.  They encourage each other.  They find themes and literary devices in each other’s work that I didn’t know existed.  

In my head, I am thinking some of the stories are boring, and that’s a literary device I am familiar with because I used to employ it.  I quit when I told stories to sixth graders in Lame Deer. I couldn’t afford to bore them. But that’s the topic of another post.

I noticed the instructor did not criticize any stories for being wordy, although some of the students tactfully suggested compressing parts [of the boring] stories.

Cojiah printed out all of the stories for me before class.  Actually, I read some of them only part way.  Some were long, long, LONG so I gave up on them.  

However, the longest piece of the lot was not boring.  It was a first hand tale of a young person with bipolar disorder confined to a mental hospital.  It had a frank, honest tone, a great voice.  Well, I wanted to keep reading because I had questions.  The story didn’t disappoint because it had answers.  Honest answers.  Like about doors that didn’t open, windows that didn’t look outdoors.  Time that seemed to not move because there was no place to go.  People in a mental hospital know about such things.

Unfortunately that one didn’t get a critique because the instructor spent the class time demonstrating his knowledge of literary devices.  And I was impressed, like I said.  Highly impressed that his job is teaching writing at Sarah Lawrence College.  E.L. Doctorow and other distinguished sorts also taught at Sarah Lawrence, encouraging youngsters like my grandson.  Cojiah’s work did not come up for critique this session, but he encouraged the others.

Covid-19 Lifestyle

You’ve got to pick up every stitch. (Remember?)

May 1, 2020

I doubt if my grandparents experienced what I’m experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic.  Or did they?  

Carl and Ellen lost their toddler, a girl, in 1918 to scarlet fever.  She died in my grandma’s arms, I was told.  Like that.

Soon after, they adopted a kid from North Dakota, Sigurd Christianson, whose mother died during the flu pandemic.  The mother was married to one of my grandma’s brothers.  I don’t know what became of Sigurd, but I think he returned to live with his father after a few years in Kalispell.  Perhaps his father remarried.  ?

My aunt Corinne said everyone liked Sig.  He was approximately as old as Corinne’s brother Bud, lost in WW II when a U-boat torpedoed his troopship in the English Channel Christmas Eve, 1944. Wars never end.

But. Back to the present.  In Billings, these days we live in a strange, compressed way, with face masks and computer zoom church services.  Our neighbors howl each evening at 8 o’clock.  We were walking and P. and I saw a kindergarten-age kid leafing through a coloring book on his front porch.  He howled at the kids across the street as he leafed through the book. The adults across the street looked like they got a kick out of the scene.

Earlier today, at two o’clock, I walked Gunther around the block and at the end of our alley I saw my friend Nick.  He said he was glad to see me.  He approached me and I shrank back.  He presented an elbow to bump.  “Elbows,” he said.  He is young, muscular, black.  Lovable, wholesome. Always friendly to me.

He is working.  Distributes potato chips and other snacks for Frito-Lay.  That makes him essential so he can keep working.  He is essential to his family.  His wife is applying to become a physician assistant student at Rocky.  They have two high-spirited daughters who write messages of love on the sidewalk in pink chalk.  Nick and his wife recently remodeled their house.

He is interesting.  Formerly a college and professional basketball player, he played for the Harlem Globe Trotters in addition to more conventional teams.  I’m not a great fan of pro ball, but Nick cares about the same kinds of things I care about.  People, pets, pandemic.  Sometimes he parks his big Frito-Lay rig at the end of our block.  We talked about getting together for supper, his family and mine.  Well, we still talk about it, but now the getting together seems remote, in the social isolation time of Covid-19.  Nick said we will get through all of this.  In my imagination I’m grilling him a steak. Maybe a baked potato. Here’s a beverage.

Gunther needed more time for his physical needs, so I walked him down the alley.  My neighbors are socially isolating in their back yards.

I’ve been napping a couple times a day, these days.  Then I get up and do chores.  Sometimes I sit in the back and look for birds.

My friend Ezra Stewart called me this afternoon.  Ezra reads science fiction, but other things too.  Good stories.  Some by Kilgore Trout.

He and I like to volunteer at NOVA theater when we can get adequate instruction and supervision.  Carpentry in a theater is different from standard household carpentry.  (duh!)  A nice thing these days is the lack of any work deadlines.  Tuesday, I plan to meet with the theater manager along with Ezra to see if we can spruce up the theater.  Probably make some repairs. Do some deep cleaning.

But back to Ezra’s phone call.  He mentioned giving his mother a book of Emily Dickenson’s poetry.  This inspired me to read through a book we have at our house.  And that’s what I’m doing tonight.  

Famous Pharmacist in Broadus

Broadus, Mont., pharmacist John Lane stopped dispensing birth control pills to his customers in Powder River County, Mont. (File photo)

April 13, 2020

I thought I was hot on the trail of Montana’s most famous pharmacist.  Pharmacists can be bright, clever, endearing people.  Think of some pharmacists you know.  I think of the young man—an actor—who has been pleasing audiences at Billings Studio Theater.  He’s bright, talented, yes!  Famous?  Well, yes!  Well, not, perhaps.  Fame doesn’t come to pharmacists (or radiologists, or lab technicians, etc. etc.), as a rule.  However, many people are fond of their pharmacist.  I like my pharmacist, a helpful person at Osco Drug.  She gives me my flu shot every year.

Fame?  One vice president—Hubert Humphrey—was a pharmacist.  His name may not be well known in every household, but he helped create the legislation in the late 1940s for instituting Medicare.  A good guy.  Like a pharmacist.

I digress.

My tale starts in 2002 or 2003 when I attended a pharmacist’s meeting in Billings at one of the big hotels on the West End of town.  We were promised continuing education credit if we would take drug therapy management training.  The program was hosted by UM School of Pharmacy educators, like UM professor Vince Colucci.  

I thought I was hot stuff.  At that time, I had recently published a scholarly paper with professor Mike Rivey entitled, “Combined Therapy with an ACE Inhibitor and Angiotensin Receptor Blocker in Chronic Heart Failure.”  The ink was still fresh on my doctor of pharmacy degree and on my certificate of board certification in pharmacotherapy.  How could I resist attending such a meeting?  It was my passion. Also, I needed the CE credits!

At the meeting, seated to my right, one row behind me, was a winsome and charming young pharmacist.  Turns out he was from the Eastern Montana town of Broadus.  I had a distinctly good impression of him.  He was spontaneous and friendly. We chatted about rural pharmacy practice.

Jump ahead a half-dozen years.  By then I had retired from the Public Health Service and I was working at a home infusion pharmacy.

I happened to read in the Billings Gazette that a Broadus pharmacist had gained national attention by refusing to fill birth control pills on religious grounds.  He had been reported to the state Board of Pharmacy who declined to punish him because Montana has no laws or rules against refusing to fill a prescription.  He didn’t just decline to fill oral contraceptives, but he refused to hand over the prescription to another pharmacist who would. Women’s rights organizations were outraged.

I marveled.  Although I have refused to fill prescriptions a few times during my 23-year career, it was not because of religious convictions.  No.  I refused faked or altered prescriptions a couple of times, and once I refused because the patient and I both knew it was the wrong thing to do.  “I won’t do it,” I said.  In no case did anyone report me to the Board of Pharmacy or anyone else.  One knows when one is right to refuse.  Doesn’t happen often.  In my case I didn’t get any attention, nationally or locally either.  That’s why I marveled that the pharmacist from Broadus was famous in a profession that doesn’t get much fame.  Or any notice at all.

These days, during the Covid-19 pandemic, P. and I are living in our van in Eastern Montana.  Because we must stay away from our house for at least two weeks, we rattle around from small town to small town, returning to Miles City at night to live in our van DOWN BY THE RIVER.

Today, we drove to Broadus.  Our quest for a great piece of pie didn’t work out.  We couldn’t find the restaurant, although we drove up one street of Broadus and down. 

Finally, I spotted the IGA with pharmacy.  “I’ll ask about the good pie,” I said, jumping from the driver’s seat.

Within, I quickly found the pharmacy.  Two very attractive women stood behind the counter.  The whole pharmacy was perhaps 15 feet wide, 4 feet deep.  One woman, who turned out to be the pharmacist, was talking on the phone.  She hung up and asked me how she could help me.  I told her I was a retired pharmacist, interested in meeting a pharmacist I met from Broadus.  A man who had refused to fill a prescription for birth control pills.  She gave me the pharmacist’s name.  She said the he moved to Hot Springs.  I said I hoped to meet him.  I said I liked met him years ago, and I wanted to meet him again to see if I still really liked him.

The two women quickly convulsed with laughter.  Always great to connect with other pharmacists. I couldn’t tell how they regarded him.

P. and I departed Broadus in silence.  I suggested we drive to Hot Springs, a town near Kalispell.  To look up the pharmacist.  To see if I still really liked him.  P. was enthusiastic because we needed to wait four days before returning home.  Because Covid-19 quarantine.  Hot Springs seemed like a great destination.

Then I checked the internet to check for identity of the pharmacist from Broadus who had refused to fill birth control pill prescriptions.  This was John Lane, a name different from that of the pharmacist and technician in the IGA.  An article with accompanying photo confirmed his identity for me.  I have a weakness for people with gaps between front teeth, and I recognized him.  Trouble was, Mr. Lane was no longer in Montana.  He now works in Hot Springs, South Dakota, according to the Montana Board of Pharmacy website.

I guess I won’t find out if I still like Mr. Lane as much as before.  Still, he is arguably famous at all, for that. 

Pandemic Refugees Explore Eastern Montana Oddities

April 10, 2020

We love the sparsely populated parts of Eastern Montana.  Oops, redundant.  

Have you read journalist and musician Ed Kemmick’s book, Montana the Lay of the Land, recently published?  He described unusual places in Eastern Montana. 

I liked “Montana’s Niagara Falls,” about Shonkin Sag with its now-dry waterfall in what used to be the course of the Missouri River after the last ice age, 10,000 years ago.  Well, the river channel moved and the waterfall is now about 50 or 60 miles west, near Great Falls.  The sag is another name for the valley eroded by the defunct part of the river.

The sag’s dry falls is on private land, and you face about 10 miles of dirt road, so I didn’t think I’d ever find—much less see—the sag.  

A few years ago at the Lilac restaurant in Billings I found Mr. Kemmick at the bar nursing a. . . lemonade, I think.  He assured me that with a bit of perseverance we too could visit the Shonkin Sag, the dry waterfall, and Lost Lake, a body of water at the foot of the 250-foot falls. 

I had read about the sag in Ed’s Last Best News.  Hard to find a catchier name for a geologic feature, I thought.

With coronavirus distancing, we needed to leave home in our camper van so our grandson could quarantine in our house.  “Good,” we said.

To get used to camping, we stayed at the KOA by the Yellowstone River, in Billings.  Spent three nights there, then north to adventure.

We got to Fort Benton to an RV camp.  Melting snow leaked through the porch roof as I knocked on the office door of a mobile home.  An attractive, older woman, took my $40, and we plugged in our van.  We walked around the fairgrounds.  Then we walked downtown.  Quiet for Saturday evening.  The bars and restaurants were closed for coronavirus.  A gas station/convenience store was open.

Next morning we headed east toward Geraldine from Fort Benton, but after crossing the Missouri we saw sign for a road to Highwood.  We pulled off the highway to think.  And let Gunther relieve his bladder.  Our map showed Highwood to be near Shonkin, so we changed our plans.

In ten miles we got to a sign that said “Shonkin,” and took gravel roads over hill and dale until I thought we were lost.  A pickup headed our way, so I rolled down the window and stuck out my hand.  I asked the young man dressed in camo if he could tell me where the Shonkin Sag was.  

“You just went through it,” he answered.  After prompting, he told us how to find Lost Lake, three miles farther on a muddy road, to a sign telling us to park.  A Subaru was there, so we pulled our camper van behind, then followed some footprints through snow.  

You can’t see the magnificence from the road, but in a short space we viewed the 250-foot deep, perhaps half-mile wide gorge that had birds wheeling on the fluted granite columns of the cliff.  We didn’t get too close to the edge.  Gunther gave me a scare.  We soaked in the magnificence.

Big dry 250-foot waterfall.

Then we drove to Great Falls to a KOA where we stayed two nights.

Because I recently read Margaret Bell’s tale of her childhood at Sand Coulee, near Great Falls, we visited. We saw a bar, a jail, some dugout houses, and a town park with horse shoe pits with horse shoes hanging on the backstops.

Jail in Sand Coulee.

Our computers worked fine pretty much everywhere we camped, so we could look up our questions.  I re-read Mr. Kemmick’s chapter about Shonkin Sag and soon I was aching to visit the Square Butte Granite Quarry.  Turns out the iconic Square Butte is a laccolith, formed by an intrusion of magma between layers of overburden.  Square Butte and the Shonkin dry waterfall are each composed of the same brown granite, called Shonkinite.  During the days of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 until the 1930s, several companies invested in mining Shonkinite at a quarry near Square Butte town, about seven miles east of Geraldine, Montana.

We drove to the town of Square Butte, onto the main street.  I approached a man as he stepped out of his pickup onto the dirt street to check his mail. When I told him I was interested in visiting the quarry, he told me I wouldn’t be seeing it that day because the road was wet.  He said last week a truck from Tire Rama made the mistake of turning south off the highway instead of north and got stuck.  The man said he had to pull the Tire Rama truck out with a back hoe and four-wheel drive tractor.  Obviously we’ll have to wait to see the quarry next go around.

By then we felt like driving to Lewistown for groceries.  Then back on the road again. P.’s mother used to live in Benzien, Montana.

Between Sand Springs and Benzien.

We got to Sand Springs via Grass Range, took a road toward Benzien.  Just a dirt road with no signs.  Arbitrarily took a left fork and drove 10 miles until we encountered a pickup with a couple, perhaps our age.  I learned we took the wrong fork.  P. learned she and the man in the truck were probably distant relatives, through her mother’s side.  His name was Don Rich.  His grandmother was a teacher.  Mr. Rich knew P.’s mother.

Benzien post office.

I felt overwhelmed by the feeling that P.’s mother, who had been postmaster of Benzien during WW II, was acquainted with most all of the folks in the Sand Springs area of Garfield County.  

Lillian’s root cellar near the Benzien post office

Only we didn’t stop at the Rogge ranch because a sign warned us not to approach the house.  Years ago, P. and I went with her mother to visit Edwin and Darlene Rogge at their modest mobile home at the ranch.  Edwin and Darlene took us three on a great tour of a bison ranch in the Missouri breaks down near where the Musselshell joins the Missouri.  

Rogge Ranch.

Looked like rain as we headed back on the dirt road toward Sand Springs and we didn’t want to get stuck in gumbo.

We stopped at the Wolf Cemetery and found Edwin and Darlene’s graves.

 We headed east on the highway to Jordan. We counted 13 dead deer and one live one.  Pronghorns were too numerous to count.

My view of Jordan was tainted by the so-called “Freemen,” a group of criminals who gained notoriety in the late 1990s for claiming freedom from the laws of the United States.  Their “freedom” allowed them to escape debt, print money, and declare sovereignty until they were convicted of fraud and punished.  Jordan is arguably in a remote part of central Montana.  

Only I was surprised at the generosity and friendliness of its citizenry.  The high school used to have a dormitory, but that was razed in favor of an RV park where we were the sole occupants.  Also, gasoline was only $1.51, forty cents cheaper than anywhere else in Montana.

Jordan, Montana.

My impression was that people throughout Eastern Montana were taking seriously the advice to socially isolate themselves to prevent spread of the pandemic.  We saw plexiglas shields in Fort Benton, Great Falls, Billings, Lewistown, and Miles City.  I didn’t see a shield in Jordan, but we visited just one business, a gas station.  Just about everywhere had tape on the floor marking off six-foot distances for people to stay apart.

Lewistown and Billings get the nod for many people wearing face masks.  Certainly all the places we visited had closed their bars and restaurants.

The Great Falls KOA had the good shower facility.  Neither Jordan nor Miles City had a water hookup (too early in the spring).

Next?  After a day in Miles City, we explored Sidney.  I particularly hoped to find my friend Gordon Simard’s grave.  He died in the late 80s, early 90s, of malignant melanoma.  Gordon and I were musicians together with John Herman and our bass player and manager, whose name escapes me, in a band we called “Water.”  Our repertoire consisted of:  Keep on Chooglin,’ Slow Blues, and I Ain’t Superstitious.  Just those three songs, but we’d play each one twenty minutes each.  We didn’t have enough material for a show of our own, so we usually did gigs with another group.  We didn’t play many gigs, either.  One in the UM University Center ballroom, one in Helena at the Civic Center, and a half-dozen at the roller skating rink on Higgins Avenue where we practiced in an upstairs apartment.  I want to think we played in the Monk’s Cave in Missoula, but that might be a false memory.

I did not find Gordon’s grave, but I found a Simard family plot at the Sidney cemetery.  Gordon was too much a counter-culture type for burial in a family plot, I’m thinking.