Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel.
Pancho met his match you know
On the desert down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
Ah, but that’s the way it goes.
“Pancho and Lefty”
Townes Van Zandt
Mysteries everywhere — in your face and faraway. They pop into your path and vanish like scent in a windstorm. Time to ponder.
Knut Hamsun’s “Mysteries” comes to mind. Three or four times I have read it. Not recently. A fierce foe of anything average and conventional, Hamsun often explores love, loss and human frailties: joys, pains, idle thoughts, some poignant, others haunting. More than anything else, Hamsun seemed to struggle with women, no relief. He likely never solved the dilemma, a recurring caress-and-dagger theme in his work. His dissection of soul digs deep, exposing subliminal artifice in relationships, bare as raw lust and jealousy, the hatred, inner torment it can unleash. He always relates it all back to nature, the big picture, larger than man, bigger than life, no younger.
So what is it, you may ask, that tangles me into this bizarre labyrinth of morning reflection? Nothing special. Just a basic walk coupled with recent observations, occurrences. Stuff like the dwarf deer that captured my fancy and that of a friend who called, was equally perplexed by the same peculiar animal; also does and fawns; a happenstance meeting with an old friend of my late son’s down in fragrant Sunken Meadow, the sweetness overwhelming, a hidden place where I didn’t expect to find him; lastly, reading, putting it together. Mysteries, all intriguing, all connected, all meaning something; what, I cannot say for sure, except that trying to figure it out makes life interesting for those of us who like to wander and ponder. But, no, I’m not here to hang any Hamsunesque female issues out on the clothesline. I have none. But enough of that, onto the task at hand.
Let’s begin with the young man, friend of my son, fishing for trout with his two 30ish Pennsylvania pals, a handsome trio, the devil in their eyes. Fishing the Green River, one of them caught a fat 18-inch rainbow pictured on his cell phone. He released it back into the stream, free to live another day, give a different angler splashy, acrobatic thrills. I didn’t immediately recognize the first fella I spoke to, hard-pack of Viceroys cupped in his right hand. He knew me. I didn’t hear him say, “Hi, Gary.” My wife did. He identified himself to her. I remembered him well, got talking about the river, fishing, the status of Green River brown trout, then parted. His eyes told me he wanted to say something about Gary. He didn’t. My wife didn’t spare me a couple of weeks ago, out of the clear blue, no warning, Doc Watson pickin’ and grinnin’, pointed Mount Ascutney on the Vermont horizon.
“Why did they take him from us?” she gasped.
“Why did who take him?”
A perfect answer for me; soothing, too, for her grieving soul. Why dwell on sadness? That’s my philosophy. But, yes, I do often think of him, then let it go like powder in the breeze by capturing a new thought that sets me free as that liberated rainbow. The Buddhists or Taoists or one of those Far Eastern religions compare life to a stream, ebbing and flowing, swirling and foaming, always progressing. I understand, have felt it often, learned to ride ebullient currents, gather strength in eddies, even once survived a disorienting death spiral in turbulent spring waters under the falls at a now-forbidden gorge. Lucky, I guess. Tell me I’m crazy. Wouldn’t be the first time. Only words. Crazy like a fox, a cunning cougar.
The deer, that little Memorial-Day-Weekend deer in the tall neighborhood hayfield. I first heard about it from a colleague who had chased it from his tender young lettuce patch. The man, working, threw dirtballs to chase it, too tame, off. The next day, his uncle encountered it near the greenhouses and shooed it away. A day later, at the start of a noontime trip to Bardwells Ferry and Conway, I saw it, too large for this year’s fawn, too small for last year’s. My buddy called later in the day, ice cubes clinking. He was confused, wanted to chat. He had seen it in the same field I had, closer to the road. He stopped to scare it back from the road, said it acted tame, no fear. A half-hour earlier, atop the hill, he had seen a similar deer, same size, no spots, never before had seen anything like it in May. An orphaned early birth? Maybe. Did I have any theories? Yeah, nature’s mysteries. What else can I say?
I have since seen two does with spring lambs, not to mention many tiny fawn tracks following the paths I’ve cut through chest-high orchard grass, timothy seed-heads finally formed. The deer must be enjoying the thick, sumptuous layer of clover underneath. These fawns look like they should, tiny and spotted, staying close to the mother. My brother-in-law in Freedom, Maine, called to say he’s already observed twin fawns nursing out the bay window of his gentleman’s farm. Does it get any better?
As for reading, well, I’m still mired in the final French & Indian War, focused on that wedge-shaped theater between the Hudson and Mohawk valleys. I blew through a four-volume study on Rogers’ Rangers, then a Jeffery, Lord Amherst, biography, now a biography of Sir William Johnson, a white man with uncanny sway over the fierce Five Nations tribesmen and their seductive women. What I find most interesting about buckskinned frontiersmen like Rogers and Johnson is their rugged independence and total disrespect for authority, particularly incompetent British regulars giving orders, men driven by ego and petty jealousies instead of sound judgment and strategy. Then you read something like Michael Hastings’ “The Last Prisoner of War” in the new Rolling Stone and realize how history keeps repeating itself. Cantankerous scribe Ambrose Bierce, himself a decorated Civil War veteran, said 100 years ago that some of our bravest, wisest warriors die by firing squad, their own. Now this: Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, a pathetic 23-year-old Idahoan prisoner of the Taliban; he may yet meet a gruesome death for obeying his conscience. I read his tale, felt sad, admired his courage. Others are screaming “Traitor!” Bierce knew the game, hated it.
It’s funny. You don’t have to wonder how petty, incompetent officers gain rank. The mystery is how they maintain it. If seeking the truth, turn to artists, study their books, their paintings, their songs. Ridiculed as weak and soft by reactionary politicians and haughty newspaper editors, their work exhales wisdom under clear, cold skies.
I suppose some folks are born to answer Yes, sir!, wear robes at the altar, earn Eagle badges, and punch clocks all the way to the customer-service-booth crown, where their large color photo hangs in a faux-walnut frame over shiny, polished floors. Others resist authority, cut their own trail and may or may not find success. These days, the odds are against them. They’re more apt to find suffering, may even perish in stinking, shallow shame kicked upon them by wing-tipped guardians of freedom, liberty, justice and a thing called status quo.
No mystery there, ma’am, threadbare fact.