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Vol. 1, No. 3

Custer on Mondays
by Jon Billman

SUNDAY WAS A BATTLE
      Sunday, June 25th, was a battle. The last of the smoke cleared in the afternoon, the dust settled in the barley field, and the Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, and Seventh Cavalry called the horses, picked up the arrows, dusted themselves off, and headed downtown together for cold beers at The Mint. Most of the chiefs and officers had planes to catch in Billings, but the group got on without them. They'd pick up the Indian wars again at next year's Reenactment of Custer's Last Stand.
      On Monday morning, June 26th, the day after the big battle, Owen Doggett came home from The Mint to find he was now trespassing on the dirt half acre he used to almost own. Everything the actor now owned formed a crude breastwork ten yards from the chipped cinder-block front step that led to the single-wide he also used to almost own. A buckskin shirt. A few T-shirts. Some socks. A faded union suit. A broken a.m. radio with a coat-hanger antenna. His Sage fly rod. An empty duffel bag. A brick of pistol rounds, and the title to the '76 Ford Maverick.
      Charlie Reynolds, the basset hound, was off chasing rabbits in the cheatgrass; he belonged solely to Owen Doggett now. Owen Doggett banged on the window of the locked trailer house with his gloved fists and yelled, "Sweetheart, I'll make you eggs!"
      His wife had already begun her day's work, tying flies for an outfitter in Sheridan. Her fly patterns are intricate, exacting, and hold the subtle variances of nature usually reserved for spider webs, mud dauber nests, and snowflakes. Through the cloudy window of her workroom, Sue Doggett looked up from her vise and out at her husband in his riding boots and dirty wool tunic. She mouthed, "Read my lips: I am not acting."

 

THE SIOUX
      Mr. and Mrs. Owen Doggett were married three years ago on a moonlit Monday midnight in Reno, Nevada, after meeting at a Halloween party and dating for exactly sixteen days. The engagement lasted an afternoon and a dinner. They took the redeye out of Billings and stayed drunk for the entire two-day trip. They married in the same clothes they met in-his custom-made Custer buckskin, her star-spangled Wonder Woman bustier. The wedding cost exactly twenty-seven dollars, bourbon and snapshots included.
      Sue is a full-blooded Crow. Owen Doggett calls her "The Sioux." And sue is what she is doing; she's suing the trooper for all he's worth. No negotiations. Owen Doggett isn't worth much. Sue gave him an old government Colt revolver as a wedding present. She wanted the valuable relic back. "Indian giver!" he called her. He cannot afford a lawyer.

 

THE COLONEL
      Owen Doggett is a local, an extra, a private. But Owen will tell you he's a trouter by heart, an actor by trade, and he has faith he will one day soon be the hero, the star, the colonel in the Hardin, Montana, Reenactment of Custer's Last Stand. "Call me Colonel," he'll tell you. He is rehearsing. "I'm an actor from Hollywood. Bred-in-the-bone." Right now he, his trouting buddy, and Charlie Reynolds are on their way east so Owen Doggett the actor can audition to be the Black Hills Passion Play's substitute Pontius Pilate. Colonel will not tell you he is only a private. He will tell you he may soon be cast as Pontius Pilate in a large-scale production of the second-greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus' last seven days in South Dakota. He will not tell you he is from Hollywood, Pennsylvania, and that he has to rent a nineteen-year-old grade horse when he wants to ride.
      Hardin's current Custer is a Shakespearian-trained actor from Monroe, Michigan. He looks like Colonel George Armstrong Custer, owns a white stallion like Custer's, pulls a custom four-horse trailer, does beer commercials for a brewery out of Detroit, and calls his wife "Libbie." It will not be easy. Colonel is torn between what he wants to do, what his heart tells him-goddamnit, you're an actor!-and what is to be done. "History is the now of yesterday," he says. In his own recent history, Colonel has caught some nice fish, drunk a few beers, cheated on his wife, and watched some movies. He sees himself on the big screen-not in a factory, not in an office. He hasn't paid many bills, but "Hell," he says, "we don't have a satellite dish and we don't get cable. That's a big savings right there."
      Libbie Bacon Custer wanted her husband to be President of the United States of America. Sue Doggett wanted Colonel to get a not-have-to-always-tenderize-a-cheap-cut-of-beef job. Not full-time necessarily, just something where the trooper worked more than one day every two weeks. But that would mean giving up a few Mondays-and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and the like-of sore-lipping fish.
      "Do I not bless you with much fish and bread?" Colonel asks his wife.
      "Whitefish and Wonder Bread every day isn't my idea of heaven," says Sue.

 

THE PRIVATE
      Colonel calls his trouting buddy, Ben Fish, "Private." They might be knocking back a few Rainiers at The Mint. They might be boning up on the Black Hills Expedition of '74 over morning coffee at the B-I. It might be Monday, when they're casting the Little Bighorn River for browns and rainbows. They might be, like right now, rumbling down U.S. 212, on their way only a few hours after dawn, with Charlie Reynolds in the middle and Private riding shotgun. Just the three of them in the old oil-burning baby-blue Maverick, their forage caps cocked back on their heads, spitting the hulls of sunflower seeds out the windows. For Private this trip is a chance to scout some new country, cast some new water.
      Private is a teacher. He has stitches in the back of the head where the heel of his pregnant ex-wife's cowboy boot caught him from point-blank range. He, too, has come home from work to find his earthly belongings on the front yard, in the kind of rain that is almost snow. He has lived in a U-Store-It shed for an entire January. Private has slept in libraries and eaten ketchup soup and melba toast for breakfast. He has talked with lawyers he couldn't afford. He has lived in Wyoming.
      Private is learning not who he is but where he needs to be. It's a process of elimination. Sue gives him flies for simply appreciating them and showing her the little spiral-bound steno pad in which he logs which fly caught which fish under which conditions. Private is growing older, which means to him that it's harder to have fun.
      "One week," he tells Colonel. "One week and you'll have to find another couch to sleep on."

 

HARDIN, MONTANA
      Every now and then responsibility picks up an ax handle and knocks Colonel into government service. He delivers mail in Hardin on a substitute basis. "It's a job," he would tell Sue. It's a job. He works about once every two weeks. Right now it is good to be getting out of town to see about some acting, to see about some fishing.
      Hardin is a tough town because it is one thing but also another. Most of it is not part of the reservation. But some of the town, across the Burlington Northern tracks, rests on the reservation. You can see cattle over there graze through the front and back yards of the trailer homes and government prefabs that are a little more in need of things-a window that isn't cardboard, siding that doesn't slap in the wind. The roads are mostly gravel and dust. There is the beef-packing plant where many townspeople, mostly Crow, work. The Crow kids go to school where Private, Mr. Fish, teaches history: Hardin Intermediate. The Bulldogs.
      Every May the Bulldogs take a field trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The Little Bighorn draws people from all over the country, from all over the world. Some of the students live less than ten miles from the national monument, and they've never been to it. Mr. Fish wears his wool Seventh Cavalry uniform, riding boots and all, and acts as if he were there on June 25, 1876, taking fire from all sides.
      "Company dismount!" he calls, and the students file off the bus. "Form a skirmish line on the west flank of the bus and hold your ground. Any horseplay and you'll be back in second-period study hall so fast your head will spin."
      Mr. Fish and the campaign-hatted guides lead the students around the grounds amid the signs that read WATCH FOR RATTLESNAKES and METAL DETECTORS PROHIBITED. The spring wind whips their hair and makes it difficult to hear, though they understand. There are many questions. Sharp notes fill the afternoon like gun smoke as Mr. Fish bugles the students back on the bus. They talk motives and strategy, treaties and tactics on the short bus ride back to Hardin.
      Colonel doesn't get called to work much. Private has summers off and many sick days during the year. On Mondays they go fishing. Sometimes to the Tongue River down in Wyoming. Sometimes the Powder River over in Broadus. Sometimes the Bighorn. But most often the Little Bighorn. They take sandwiches and keep a sharp eye out for rattlesnakes, Indians, and landowners. And it's often hot. Very hot. They fish other days, too, but always Mondays.

 

A SUNDAY DRIVE THROUGH CUSTER'S MONTANA
      By driving east-going backwards-down U.S. 212, over the Wolf Mountains, through Busby and Lame Deer, Colonel, Charlie Reynolds, and Private study through the yellow-bug-splattered windshield where Custer and his men camped on their way to the last campaign from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. It's probably how the outfit would have retreated.
      "If you were captured by the Sioux, the idea was to shoot yourself before they had a chance to torture you." The actor steers with his knees, making finger pistols in the air over the steering wheel. "Troopers kept one round, their last round, for just that purpose. Shoot yourself in the head before they could cut your heart out while you watched."
      The road is rough here and cuts through the charcoal remains of a forest fire that burned most of the salable Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, but it gets better when they get to Ashland and back into everyone's Montana.
      "Private," says Colonel, not shouting over the rattle and thunk of the car so that his words are lost in the noise and it appears that he is just moving his lips, "now what the slowest thing in the world is?" The warm July wind rushes through the open windows and the gaps in the brittle rubber gasket surrounding the windshield. Private is used to this Maverick lip-reading.
      "Besides us right now?" says Private. The muffler and tailpipe have a few holes in them, like tin whistles, and the sunflower seeds taste like exhaust. "It's either us right now or a reservation funeral procession with only one set of jumper cables," says Private. The speedometer needle is shaking at around fifty-one miles an hour.
      Private isn't laughing. Charlie Reynolds isn't laughing. Colonel's eyes glass over at the humble recognition of having told a joke everyone heard many campaigns ago. But as you get older-he is forty-one, nearly past his Custer prime-you forget. Everything turns to history with daguerreotype eyes and brittle, yellowed edges.

 

"BUGS"
      Charlie Reynolds stands on Private's lap and sticks his nose into the fifty-one-mile- an-hour prairie wind. Private lets his palm ride on the stream of air and dreams of becoming a scout. The Colonel talks numbers. Bag limits. Length, girth, weight. Hook size. Tippet strength. Rod action. He talks of the beefiest brown in Montana, the heftiest rainbow in Dakota Territory. "Pleistocene man used shards of bone for hooks," he says. "Indians used rock-hard spirals of rawhide until we traded steel hooks with them. Custer used steel hooks."
      What is different about Sue's flies, different from the flies tied by hundreds of nimble-fingered Western women for pennies apiece, is that they are tied for fish, not for fishermen, aesthetics. Unless, that is, they are true fishermen and know the difference deep inside them, like right and wrong.
      There is something of the ancient in them, from her ancestors on the frontier, as well as from evolution: her Darwinian ancestors, the fish. Sue tests her flies in an old aquarium in her workroom. The aquarium is stained, filled with the murky water of the Little Bighorn. With a pair of fencing pliers, she cuts the hook off at the bend and ties it onto a length of leader attached to a two-foot-long willow branch and flings it into the tank from across the small room. Weight. Aerodynamics. Flight. She is looking for balance. In the aquarium are several small rainbow and brown trout. Sue gets on her back, crawls underneath the aquarium stand, and studies the trout's reactions to the new insects through the tank's glass bottom.
      After only a week she throws the burlap water bag over her shoulder and walks to the river to turn the trout back into the Little Bighorn. "Thank you," she tells them, "thank you. Goodbye." She then unfolds the little pack rod from her day pack and ties on one of her new and experimental flies. She casts and catches new fish to help her with her work. Though it rarely happens, if she does not catch new helper fish, she walks back to the trailer with the empty burlap bag, thinking about how she is going to adjust the new patterns. She enjoys being outsmarted now and then.
      What matters is what an imitation looks like on the water, in the water, not warm and dry in a tackle shop that smells like chicken livers and epoxy. Sue's workroom smells like old wool, spruce, and duck feathers. Damp dog, river water, coffee. She rendezvouses with Ben Fish at the river and bails the aquarium out once a week, trout or no trout.
      If it is late and he is drunk, Colonel may tell you Sue ties the most beautiful, most perfect trout flies in the Louisiana Purchase. The Colonel calls them "bugs."

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