Pondera County Courthouse
This is what it means to live in a small town in a sparsely populated county. First of all, you’ve got to have wheels, as surely as if you lived in LA. People who can afford them drive big heavy vehicles that are road-worthy in winter. On a subzero morning one hears the diesel engines warming up all over town. A lot of people drive old beat-up mini-pickups like my Ranger S. But the roads are straight and there’s not much traffic, so we get along -- going around each other as needed.
My driver’s license was about to expire. The more I explored how to renew, the more confused I got. The people who make and publish the rules always have a context previous to what they tell us, so I couldn’t reconcile the idea of making an appointment with the idea of just walking in, until someone explained that the appointment deal was just for big cities. Then when I called to try to sort things out, I confounded them by asking about emission tests and safety checks on the vehicle, which are required in some places where I’ve lived. I know people who couldn’t pass a driver’s test because their vehicle was substandard. Mysterious requirements come and go according to some legislative wild hare.
I wore earrings to show I was a serious person. But I couldn’t wear my “Chinese intellectual” glasses because they’re set for the computer and I wouldn’t have passed the eye test. (There was an eye test. They said there was a hearing test, but there wasn’t.) The little waiting room was full. A big handsome responsible-looking man explained I should take a number and fill out a form.
Bill O'Leary, interim CEO of the Pondera County Hospital
Making conversation idly, I asked what was happening in Conrad. He made a strong pitch for the health fair. I resist them. In the first place, I don’t want to know. In the second place, I don’t think they tell you much anyhow. In the third place I just flat don’t have enough money to pay for even cut rate tests.
The man was so personable and friendly I thought I might know him, so I introduced myself with the tag that I was married to Bob Scriver in the Sixties. That’s was connects me to locals. He said, “Was that the Bob Scriver who had the bronze foundry in Browning?” Revolving red light goes on in my head. Not the art -- not the Museum of Montana Wildlife -- the foundry. His name was O’Leary. (See above.) I joked about whether he had a cow, which meant I remembered his name. I tried to talk about ebola, but that went nowhere. Then his number was called and he went on into the office to do business.
Pondera County Medical Center
Five minutes on Google when I got home and I knew O’Leary was the interim CEO of the struggling Pondera County hospital and had lived in Kalispell, where the pirate foundries have always lurked. A few minutes more and I was reading about eMax and Image Movement of Montana, an organization of 30 medical institutions in Montana that formed to seek more efficient ways of sharing medical imaging data by using “the Cloud”. O’Leary is a high level administrator with them. The pitch is that it’s a "grassroots" system. Metaphors.
In the coming election Pondera Hospital is asking for a county levy. They are struggling to hire staff, keep up with equipment needs and so on. The chair of the board is Brent Gaylord, who hired me in 1999 when I moved here. In fact, if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have moved so soon. But the catch was that he knew he was going to sell his newspaper and that it would leave town. Six months and I was on the street. Another member of the Pondera hospital board is a man who has no reason to be fond of me, since I was on a jury that decided against an insurance payout for his daughter. I have no business being on juries around here. The only reason I was on this one was that the opposing lawyer saw that I had been clergy and as a good Catholic, he had quite a different idea about what that might mean. These guys are all big-time “diesel”operators.
Luckily, the license examiner and I hit it off pretty well. We compared job histories and he told me he’d been an elementary school principal, then a Children’s Services worker, and now did this job with a certain amount of relish and enthusiasm. We discussed whether it would be better to smile for the photo on the license, which studies are supposed to show will make a better impression on a highway patrolman. I said it would probably be more help to be pretty and he said he wouldn’t know since he wasn’t pretty. I assured him that short men with nice beards are “cute” which was just as good. That pleased him. There’s a helluva lot of subtext in this paragraph.
And here’s more: he was one of 9 sibs, 6 of them female, and all the brothers were taller. But his wife was one of fourteen children. Mormon? No, Catholic. Metis? No, his ancestors were from Poland but had Americanized their name. But his wife was a MacKay. (A Scots Catholic? Some history there.) I told him about Strachan (“Strath au Cairn” -- river of rocks) and about Scriver, which is not from the root of “scribbling” but rather from “shriving,” an antique word that means to cover and protect, as to cover with mercy and forgiveness in a metaphorical use of the original meaning which was about mantles, like capes. Scrivers were mantle makers. This is why things go slowly in the licensing office. (Should we be shriven?)
Metaphor or sub-text?
The waiting room had several Valierians besides me, and when I went on to the grocery store, more passed by, joking, “This must be Valier day in Conrad!” I don’t know whether they came for the Health Clinic. Most of us go to the little Valier clinic that’s run by the hospital in Shelby, which is under examination for their practices because of a high handed physician. (I was ward clerk there for five months.) Those who have the money and big cars go to Kalispell. Great Falls tries to dominate the whole region, but the rumors about them are not good. Money hunger. We liked it better when the nuns ran things. The Blackfeet way of describing them would be that they were “too proud of themselves.”
At the drugstore I bought a clever little “berry drainer” (a plastic colander); a kit for fixing eyeglasses that have detached bows due to lost screws; and a red 3-ring binder because my papers are color-coded. Red binders for Indian material and the ones I have are full. In the grocery store there was bacon cream cheese (nononono) and deep chocolate cream cheese (YESYESYES) -- but 9 grams of sugar?? Ordinary whipped cream cheese is more like 2! Still, it’s only to spread on toast because butter on hot toast melts and runs up your wrist. How many grams of cream cheese does one spread on toast?
The shelter woodlots around the ranch houses are only partly turned to gold. Twice, racing cats darted across the road in front of me -- were they just coming home after observing the eclipse in the night or were they gripped by mating? Normally I’m more likely to see pheasant or even a deer. The grain fields that were snowed flat in an early storm just lie there in rumples and mats. It’s not cold but there are clouds. Clouds. Hmm. Mixed messages about them. If the Internet uses up all the metaphors, what will we use in novels? But why worry about writing a novel when you can just live one?
Pondera County with cloud