Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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David James Duncan
I didn’t read David James Duncan’s “Six Henry Stories” [March 2002], except to positively identify Henry Bugbee. I want to keep my memories as they are.
The professor and the dropout: Henry and me. I was thirty and he was sixty when we met. Upon learning that I was an upland game hunter, he immediately gave to me the fine English shotgun that had been his father’s. I used it for nearly twenty years, then returned it.
Henry and I exchanged letters over that twenty-year period. We lived on opposite ends of the beautiful Clearwater River: Henry near the source; I at the terminus. I often asked if I could visit him, and he often accommodated me. His interpretation of the classics was beyond description. He could transform himself into King Lear fronting the storm, Starbuck beseeching Ahab to let go his demon, or King Priam pleading for the return of the body of his son.
I have never successfully read Henry’s Inward Morning. He once tried to help me with it as I sat on the only good chair in his Orange Street apartment, a battered proof copy on the table before me, but to no avail. Henry rendered life, moment by moment, into philosophy. Henry’s life was a gift to me, though I did little to deserve his favor, and had nothing to offer him in return. I often wondered why he continued our friendship. Perhaps he believed that I would someday deliver on his expectations.
When I went to the nursing home to visit him for the last time — it had been nearly two years — I knew his mind was nearly gone, but I was sure that he would recognize and acknowledge me. So sure . . .
I departed wondering if he had felt the tears I spilled on his beautiful forehead.
How great to hear from the guy on the radio show! And how interesting to see that nothing’s changed: even when we’re on the same page, we’re not quite on the same page. I hope we can at least agree that my essay called two people crackpots, and that one of them was me.
Our disagreement is understandable; A River Runs Through It is beautiful to me in part because I too lost a beloved but flawed brother, early, and felt the time, place, and people surrounding his death burned into my heart. On the day of his brother’s murder, Norman Maclean suffered such a burning. As a result, the Blackfoot River, in the sunlight and prose of his story, often looks “electric” or “on fire,” and the lost brother is often seen backlit by this fire. To me, this does not make Paul “the God of All Fly Fisherman.” Norman portrays Paul’s weaknesses, blindnesses, and arrogance in painful detail. It only means that, in Norman’s heart, the mystery of his brother’s short life and violent death still burns like fire.
I am the “crackpot” named in David James Duncan’s “Six Henry Stories.” In Montana, as in other places, a reverent posture toward a local icon is a prudent move if you’re ambitious and desire applause. A less prudent person, like myself, will play the gadfly and be called a crackpot for espousing an unpopular view. That’s life.
Our funky little radio call-in show, “Living in the Last Best Place: Exploring the Myths and Realities of Life in Montana,” succeeded because we let people talk, no matter how unpopular their view. We had faith in open dialogue. We called no one a crackpot. The most stimulating callers were often ranchers, millworkers, and homemakers who weren’t well-versed in the accepted perspectives. They helped us see things in new ways.
In discussing A River Runs Through It, I asked Montana listeners to consider how and why Norman Maclean mythologizes his dead brother Paul as the God of All Fly Fishermen. There are lessons to be learned in asking these hard questions. Or you can fail to learn and sling easy epithets at the questioner. Philosopher Henry Bugbee knew the value of divergent perspectives.