Tuesday, July 20, 2010

JACK WOOD: 1931 to 2010

Because I was raised a teetotaler and have remained a non-drinker all my life -- not out of principle but simply because I don’t like to feel woozy and hate spending money on anything but books -- I’ve missed out on a lot of life. Not the big crowded Cut Bank-type bar scenes that end in a brawl, but the small pub where the best patrons are story-tellers who also play the guitar and recite poetry, staying up nearly until dawn to follow their narrative paths together. Ramsey Rink, who owns the Firebrand, showed what I was missing by accompanying with his guitar his best customer and good friend’s funeral yesterday in East Glacier. That would be Jack Wood, a man who had Robert Service’s works by heart. The poet was aptly quoted.

Jack was famous as the top-notch cowboy who didn’t quite make it into the PRCA finals because at Madison Square Garden his arm broke and never quite healed and who, they say, began to drink over grief for his dead wife and never found a good enough reason to quit. In spite of it all, he didn’t lose his ranch while others did. His two children, Crystal and Will, grew up happy and healthy.

In the Thirties when Bob Scriver went off to the Vandercook School of Music on the South Side of Chicago, he was thrown into an alien world where he knew no one. In the first days there, walking along the sidewalk, he saw coming towards him a very tall man in a cowboy hat. He knew the man. It was Bob Wood, Jack’s father, who had just brought a load of cows to market at the nearby stockyards. (They don’t seem to put cows on the train anymore -- just wheat. The cows go by truck.)

In the Sixties when Bob Scriver was competing for a chance to create an heroic-sized portrait of Bill Linderman, that much-beloved champion cowboy, he turned to Jack Wood for help and advice. Bob submitted two maquettes of poses, one carrying the saddle and the other leaning over to buckle his chaps. The PRCA chose the one with the saddle, which was a pain in the butt to make, over the one we liked better, the graceful one with the the chaps. Bob gave a hydrocal casting of the small version of that statue to Jack Wood, who was a model, and it was standing by his coffin at the funeral.

The Women’s Club in East Glacier is a log hall, not very big, that has a little library and kitchen in the back. It is the scene of many events. In the summer this resort town is packed with tourists, many young and many foreign, but in winter the population is small and tightly bound together except that by February one side of the railroad tracks doesn’t talk to the other. The tracks are elevated with access only through an arch that seems always to flood in winter, then freeze solid. Ramsey’s bar is tactfully outside of town on the way across the mountains, a good place for dinner or a good place for some kind of fortification on your way somewhere.

Or to spend time with friends, which has always been the custom among men who do hard physical labor and therefore are always a little achey-breaky. Those who know how to survive it are full of jokes and humorous banter at their own expense. Nowadays they give you pills and physical therapy -- maybe joint replacement and unwelcome advice. The bonding among these men is crucial when they need a neighbor’s help either seasonally or in an emergency. The drive to get ‘er done is so strong that it becomes self-destructive. When Jack’s heart began to go bonkers and had to have an new bovine valve implanted (lots of joke material there), right after the surgery his son-in-law asked him how his pain was on a scale of one-to-ten. “About six, but I told the doc two, ‘cuz I want outta this place!”

Lots of stories began with good intentions and ended in crackups, like the time he set out with a load of hogs that needed selling in Great Falls. He got the pigs sold, not for much, stopped at the Cowboy Inn for a social moment and made it home days later and hundreds of dollars short. Another time a friend had successfully sold a load of Christmas trees in Winslow, so Jack thought he’d try that gig and loaded up a truck with trees. Shooting for the big time, he went to Denver. But Denver is a bigger and more formal town and required a lot of permits: selling, fire prevention, insurance, and so on. The system was complicated and required a lot of advice from old rodeo friends, but he finally got the last permit -- the day after Christmas. Then he had to buy another permit to haul the trees to the dump and burn ‘em. Now driving an empty truck, he had the idea that he’d swing over through California and pick up a load of oranges to sell back home. The only trouble was that he stopped at the Cowboy Inn in Great Falls to celebrate his resourcefulness and, while the evening progressed, one of those sudden drops below zero came down the prairie. His friends claimed that at that point he invented frozen orange juice. He was always inventing some darn thing out of ranch junk. People said he should get patents.

This new breed of molecular scientists who study everything are claiming on the radio that the fermentation of beer, wine and mead more or less coincided with the invention of agriculture ten thousand years ago, but I’m not sure I believe them. I’ve heard too many stories about Vikings and jungle tribes. But on the other hand, a band of hunters who got drunk around their campfire was likely to be in trouble without a designated campfire stoker. The Plains Indians were never drinkers until the whites came and discovered that it undermined the skill of the warriors. Maybe booze somehow releases the compressed springs in a man’s heart when he needs to travel and dream and story, like a guy on the rodeo circuit.

It’s hard to resist men like that. John Weathered, who sang the last song, remarked, as e.e. cummings said about Buffalo Bill, “Geezus, he was a handsome man!” It was true in the Sixties.

But Jack confided to a friend, “They’re bringing me up on charges for child abuse.”

“How do they figure THAT?”

“I’m leavin’ the ranch to my kids.” And he never left it for long either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I knew Jack back in 73-74, he was a hell of a guy. Tons of fun and I never forgot him and never will, as they say "its the end of an era" and he raised two good kids also.