The front door of the house opens into a gallery, a high, white-walled room that was once the center bay of the barn. Antonio Marra’s abstract sculptures people the space. There are bronzes and plaster studies that have yet to be cast. Some were inspired by the movement, and womanly forms, of ballet dancers Marra observed in his past life in New York City. Others recall great angular slabs of sandstone sheared from the cliffs in canyon country west of Ridgway, the sculptor’s new home. (more…)
World War II veteran Cleo Elliot got his Purple Hearts, three of them, and his Bronze Star for valor, 68 years after he earned them on Iwo Jima. (more…)
I still get a patriotic tingle when I look at the Olympic medal count. The emotion runs deep, like rock-and-roll, like “The Silent Service.”
As I write on Monday, Day 3 of the London Games, China and the U.S. each have 17 medals, but the Reds (sorry, old habit) have more golds than we do: 9 to 5.
It used to be the Russians we were up against, or rather the Soviet Union. You see, the roots of the obsession go back to the Cold War. They should have been expurgated – I thought they would have been erased completely by the injustices of Vietnam and the shame of Bush II – but apparently it’s still there, this identification with a national sporting “we.”
As a kid in the 1960s, it was war. The chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had the term American exceptionalism come to roost with conservatives as a way to justify war: We do it because of America’s special mission (sacred even) to lead the world to liberty and democracy.
Back then, it was purely us versus them, bombast and bomb shelters, Ralph Boston versus Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, John Thomas versus Valeriy Brumel. The 1960 Games, in Rome, were the first ones we watched on TV. That summer the Soviets crushed us 103-71 and 43-34 in gold medals. Long jumper Boston soared past his pale Soviet rival, as did Thomas in the high jump. But Soviet giantess Tamara Press put the shot way farther than our girl Earlene Brown.
We lost the medal race in boxing 4-5, but made up for it when Cassius Clay took the heavyweight gold. In gymnastics, we got skunked: the Soviets won every available medal but three; we took exactly none to their 26. We turned the tables in swimming (bourgeois capitalists have way more swimming pools?), winning the medal war 15-0. Wrestling produced a funny result. (I wasn’t aware of this at the time; only Wikipedia reveals it now.) The Soviets took all three Greco-Roman golds; the freedom-loving Americans took all three in Freestyle.
The Games on either side of 1960 were a disappointment for red-white-and-blue boys like me. In 1956, we got handled, 98-74 by the state-sponsored, plucked-from-the-cradle iron men and women with CCCP on their shirts. In Tokyo in 1964 the final tally was closer, but we still lost 96-90.
1968 brought big changes, in me and in the Olympics. I was 19, just two years away from the end of all college deferments and the waiting draft. Civil rights and Vietnam were turning my assumptions about the country inside out. In Mexico City a transcendent event was overshadowed by a courageous political one.
I competed in the long jump in high school, so when Bob Beamon, on his first attempt, uncorked a leap that was almost two feet longer than anything in history, extending the world record to 29’ 21/2” (a mark that stood for 23 years), I cheered in near disbelief. Then came the men’s 200 meters and the gold and bronze performances of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It wasn’t the race itself that upended the Olympics’ (supposed) apolitical innocence, it was their raised-fist black power salute during the national anthem that rocked the world. They were, of course, banned immediately from the village, the team, and the Olympic movement.
That’s when things began to fall apart. Munich in 1972: The massacre of 11 Israelis by a Palestinian terrorist group dominated the news. That was also the Games when, out of nowhere, suspiciously masculine East German women crushed everybody in swimming.
In 1980, we boycotted the Moscow summer Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So those medal numbers don’t count. Neither, then, should the numbers from Los Angeles in 1984, when the Soviets returned the favor. L.A. was the first tasteless, over-the-top capitalist Games, during which McDonalds’ “When the U.S. Wins, You Win” campaign could net you a free Big Mac.
No one with blood in his veins could have resisted the “Miracle On Ice.” When a bunch of scrappy U.S. college boys beat the Soviet Red Army pros in ice hockey in 1980, that was indeed a miracle. But not long afterward Ronald Reagan usurped the symbolism to declare an end to the national nightmare of Vietnam and the return of American pride, American exceptionalism. The trouble was, as a Californian who had suffered through his governorship, I knew him to be a bully, a genial-sounding liar. We purposely didn’t own a television then. I couldn’t look. Blind patriotism, Olympic or otherwise, had become anathema.
The nadir came in 2004. The summer Games were in Athens. George Bush was about to be reelected. The U.S. had decided on a path of preemptive war, torture, and domestic wiretapping. On a trip to Chile that summer I was, like the Dixie Chicks, embarrassed to be an American. A sympathetic stranger put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I am so sorry.”
But the Olympics that year somehow transfigured both the world and my mood. Michael Phelps won his first eight medals, six of them gold. The U.S. women’s 4×200 swim team eclipsed, finally, the world record set by those East Germans. In a measure of justice the U.S. men’s basketball team lost for the first time since NBA players had been allowed to participate.
And finally, in 2004 China won its first-ever gold medal in track and field, when the automatic gazelle Liu Xiang took the 110m hurdles, foreshadowing a dominance to come.
But, crucially, we won the medal count, 102 to 63, over the Red Chinese.
Peter Shelton (Team Boulder-Rock) won the ninth stage of the Tour d’Ouray bicycle race Sunday with a bold solo assault on the Beyond Category Col de Piñon. (more…)
In 1964 Harry James decided he was too old and retired the Trailfinders Camp for Boys. He didn’t retire from Trailfinders, he ended the franchise. He had no heir apparent. (He and his wife Grace had no kids of their own.) It was a one-man show from start to finish. (more…)
How do we end up where we are, who we are?
Harry James read to us occasionally, even though the youngest Trailfinders were probably 11 and the oldest 14 and 15. Once in the shade of a yellow pine (I know it was a yellow pine because he had us put our noses to the vanilla-scented bark) he read us Chapter 10 of John Muir’s The Mountains of California: “A Wind-storm in the forests.” The archaic language of 1874 only added to the drama:
“Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.”
Muir, of course, did more than climb trees in windstorms. He founded the Sierra Club and helped create Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. He’s the one who said: “Climb mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”
We climbed mountains, and trees, that summer in Yosemite’s high country. We took over the group camping area in Tuolumne Meadows. Harry set up his kitchen. We all picked our sleeping spots on the pine-needled forest floor.
We were close by the Tuolumne River, which flowed around granite boulders between meadow-grass banks. The water was astonishingly cold. We were not far from its headwaters in the Lyell Glacier. But because we were boys, and because we hiked many miles most days and didn’t have the pond on Indian Creek to rinse off, we edged out into the current and took the plunge.
I decided for some reason to see how far downstream I could swim underwater. The sunlight beaming into that golden world drew me on. There on my right was a rainbow trout holding in the lee of boulder. Another one on the left, in the dappled shade, gills waving. Breast-stroking with my belly inches from the golden sand, I kept going, riding the invisible current.
When finally I popped up I had the biggest ice-cream headache of all time. It alarmed me. I thought my brain might freeze, or explode. But I worked my way back up the bank to do it again.
We did riskier things than that. Near the end of the fortnight, when we had become trail-hardened and nearly immune to thirst – sucking on a pebble was a suggested sublimation – we hiked in to Cathedral Peak and climbed its dragon-back ridge. We carried no ropes. This was not Outward Bound. Harry was not a technical climber. It is remarkable to me in retrospect that he let us do what we did. The climbing was not especially difficult, no more than a class 4 on the Yosemite scale, but the exposure was horrendous. Slip off and it would have been certain death. Harry just assumed that none of his 40 boys would be so foolish as to slip. It was part of his worldview, his insistence (we might call it naiveté in today’s litigious world) that the correct path, the only conceivable path to success, be cleaved to.
Because Harry didn’t worry, or show it, I didn’t worry either. All I felt on that knife-edge was the elation of movement through space, pure movement through rarefied air, focused, consequential movement.
On one of our nights in Tuolumne, I woke to a sound I couldn’t figure out – wet and scratchy, nearby. When my eyes adjusted at last to the darkness, I saw, not 15 feet away, a full-sized black bear sitting up with his legs outstretched holding a tin can between his paws slowly licking the flavor from its inside.
I tried to think through a logical best strategy. It wouldn’t do, surely, to bolt up out of my bag, or even to try to slither out and steal away. So, I decided to lie as still as I could, keep my breathing slow and calm. It worked like a charm. I fell back to sleep and didn’t stir until the sun was on me.
At the end of his wind-storm essay, John Muir wrote: “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings – many of them not so much.”
Why do our journeys take us where they do? Some stay close to home. I grew up at the beach, a bustling place of cars and surfboards and the sounds of volleyballs smacking the sand. I could have stayed. Or come back. Much of my family stayed on the California coast.
On that Trailfinders trip to Tuolumne I took dozens of snapshots with my Brownie box camera. I didn’t have an eye. They all came out looking the same: dull, black-and-white landscapes of trees and rock and sky. But I loved what I was looking at through the viewfinder. I was pretty sure I wanted my “tree-wavings” to happen in the mountains, with all that the mountains could offer up.
To be continued.