IN THE BEGINNING
I started this investigation in deep winter of January 2009, when I was in retreat, beaten and broke. My business had failed, as did many in our nation that year. I drank too much. My house was on the market, a forced sale, since sold. Journalism, the good work I had done my whole life, was necrotic. The last of these weighed most on me, my life’s work rendered worthless. Nonetheless, journalism was all I had then, so I used it to dig my way out of a hole. This is the process recorded in this book.
Asking questions and reporting answers is how I have always worked, so there is nothing at all unusual in my spending three years so engaged. What was unusual, though, was that the questions, of necessity, probed private matters, because of my own state of disrepair in the beginning and the simple fact that my father had died a few weeks before. He was an extraordinary man, and mostly not in any good sense of the word. Part of my burden that winter was a sense of shame for who he was. The truth is, I had spent most of my life to that point trying to get away from him, trying to ignore him and the rest of my family and trying just as desperately to deny any influence he might have had on the course of my own life. Yet oddly it occurred to me that the time had come to account, not just for my own sake, but more relevantly because of the public’s stake in my private questions. I had until then lived most of a life never publicly acknowledging my parents, and now, paradoxically, public events demand I do so, as I will in what follows.
Anyone who had seen my dad in his last days—and I had, finding him literally in a jungle, a homeless, babbling bum lost a hemisphere away from home—would have thought him mad, and he was. He suffered a peculiar and specific madness. He and my mother—she had died a few years before—had lived their lives as fundamentalist right-wing Christians of the exact same stripe that plays an appallingly significant role in American public life. Indeed, in that January of 2009, the very month that fundamentalist-in-chief George W. Bush left office, it was easy enough to see how my father’s madness had become a general plague on the nation. It is this parallel that dictated my assignment for the next three years, that I would need to abandon my studied ignorance of my father’s life and admit to our common story, our common genes, even admit to the possibility of our common madness.
Now three years on, it is my job to report, but you already know I cannot bring news of great improvement in the nation’s well-being. The troubles imposed by Bush did not end with his presidency; John Birchers, Koch brothers, Tea Party, Fox News, know-nothing fundamentalism, Newt Gingrich—my father’s fellow travelers, every one—remain. We remain at war. We are governed by plutocrats, many of us impoverished, and a nation shaken to our financial foundations. The country is not much better off three years on, but I am, and I am as a result of asking questions, of learning and facing the consequences of my story and my kinship with a madman.
Then, though, I could only retreat to watch it snow and wonder what was to be done about me and about the rest of us. So I rented a small cabin for a week on the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front a few hours drive east of where I live in Montana. The cabin backed up against mountains of the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness at the western edge of the howling Great Plains. It snowed, and snowed hard nearly every day of the week I was there. Just up the trail, there was a wintering herd of mule deer, and from time to time I went out to walk among them, grand ghostly creatures circling me in halting steps I took for grace, but know to be their obedience to the demands of winter, a sort of ambulatory hibernation. Step easy and conserve every bit of energy if you are to survive. If there were a third party there to record that scene, it would look like a truce of deep winter’s peace between man and animal. Honoring and understanding the terms of that truce have much to do with why I am better off today.
In the cabin, there was a bottle of good Irish whiskey with barely the neck knocked out. I had six bottles of decent red wine, a venison roast, some garlic and parsnips. I have a good wife, beautiful and decent enough to spend this week in the cabin with me out of iPhone range, cell range, a rare electronic silence. Willing even to tolerate my own silence as I retreated to wilderness to think of these things. I had a Filson wool jacket, red-and-black buffalo plaid, competent boots and thick wool socks. I had a stack of books piled before the rimed mullioned panes of the cabin.
There was a wood stove, a Jotul, a clever little Norwegian model and the best I ever used. There were parallel piles of thinly split yellow pine, limber pine, quaking aspen, and a bit of fir to each side of the cabin door. For me and for the long line of northern latitude people I come from, a woodpile is well-being. So my days passed mostly in endless fascination of feeding the fire. Hundreds of generations of my northern European bloodline, facing long, cold winters, bred this little stove, and I am proud of our work, proud of our people, immediate and otherwise, and I connect to them through my father. This, then, is my first realization and admission of kinship to him and the privilege it brings.
The stove has secondary combustion, which means if I get it running just right, it will burn its own smoke in a whooshing roar and with a blue flame one associates with natural gas, not wood, and I do indeed get it running just right. I can build a fire. I can jump-start a pickup truck. Grease boots. Wax skis. Split wood. Dress a deer. Break rock. Right a raft. Incise a clean dovetail in rock maple and fit the joint. Can and did build a house every nail, solder joint, and wire nut. My dad has something to do with this. He and everyone in his line could make things work, a simple fact every bit as relevant as his religion. This facility with real work is the counterbalance to religious fanaticism in the story that will develop here, in my story and in the American story. Owning up to this is part of what made be better.
My dad’s death put a trigger in my hand, with a command to sit at this computer’s keyboard and fire. The death of both of my parents frees me to tell our collective story, that last adjective a painful admission, but I make it. It is a family story, collective. I am from them. They are finally both dead, and now there must be an account, not because they were unusual, but because in the American context they were not.
Copyright © 2013 by Richard Manning