Volume 2
An Online Literary Magazine
March 28, 2009


The Incident


Norman Maclean


Cover courtesy of University of Chicago Press (www.press.uchicago.edu).


"An Incident," published here serially for the first time and included in The Norman Maclean Reader, is a “hometown talk,” as Maclean called it, that he gave in Missoula in May 1979 to conclude a four-day conference on the topic “Who Owns the West?” In it he addresses the craft of writing fiction, using "A River Runs Through It" as his example. He organically defines plot and character, quoting a long passage from River—his “Incident”—to illustrate his definition and the artistic and self-destructive sides of his long-lost brother, Paul.


here are three special reasons why I wanted to be in Missoula now, besides the ever-present one of wanting to see old friends and the mountains again, which are also friends—not only the remotely beautiful Squaw Peak or Mt. Lo Lo but always Reservoir Hill and Mt. Jumbo. These two are plain and bare admittedly, but they are close and warm and good practice-mountains for a boy to grow up on. Eventually a boy works his way up to Mt. Sentinel, and starts fires in the grass there and spends the rest of his life looking uphill over his shoulder afraid that somebody will catch him. But my favorite mountain has to be Mt. Jumbo, at least at this time of year. Then the sun covers its exposed sides with early flowers, especially near the moisture of its gulches. My father always took me for a walk to freshen up between his morning and evening sermons, and my mother took me whenever she could get me at this time of the year for a slow walk a little way up Mt. Jumbo to see the flowers on the edges of moisture. I was up there this morning. It is yellow and purple and white with balsam roots, larkspurs, and service berry bushes overpoweringly in bloom.


There was a difference in my family about how I should be brought up. My father wanted to bring me up as a tough guy, and my mother wanted to bring me up as a flower girl. Since both of them had a profound effect on my character, I seem to have ended up as a tough flower girl.


The mountains, too, I shall always remember from long ago when, in more vigorous times, Squaw Peak was called Squaw Teat and Mt. Lo Lo was thought to be named after the famous international whore, Lo Lo Montez, not as Bud Moore, the old Trapper, would have us believe, after some old Trapper who died somewhere back there and whose name was LouLou. Such is the leveling effect of time and trapping upon great mountains.


I had another special reason for wanting to get to Missoula now. I wanted to start finishing something I started here two springs ago when I talked for John Badgley and the Institute of the Rockies at the old Florence Hotel.


Since I had the impression the talk went well, I began to have an idea. My talk had been about how my father had kept me home from the early grades of school and taught me to read and write, and how some of the things he taught me about writing were visibly present in my stories even though I did not start writing them until I was 70. I talked mostly about style, including rhythm, because that is mostly what he taught me. Then I read from one of my stories to prove that stylistically my father was present in it. The idea I began to develop undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that after my father got through with me I went on to spend my total professional life in teaching literature and writing. So I thought to myself, “Why don’t you start pulling yourself together by writing a book on the job of writing stories, drawing illustrations from your own stories?” Then, last spring, I was invited to speak before the faculty and students of Montana State University, so I took advantage of another intelligent captive audience to talk about another aspect of the narrative art and again illustrate it from my own stories. Only at Bozeman I jumped to the other end of the ladder of the narrative art from style, which deals with such bricks and straw and mortar as words, sentences and paragraphs. In Bozeman, I talked, not about the building material, but about the blueprint, the architecture of the whole, referring to it loosely sometimes as the structure of the whole or the plot. It’s whatever holds the other elements together and presides over them and tells them what to be.


Tonight, I would like to talk about an element of the story that is between the blueprint of the whole and the style. Tonight, it will be about the art of constructing incidents, of embodying the plot in interesting and particular events and characters.


It is not particularly a verbal art—despite outside opinion, a great deal of the art of narrative writing is non-verbal, and I divide my writing days accordingly. In the mornings I write, then I work around the house, take a walk or go fishing, or both, freshen up, so to speak, but before I go to bed I take a bath, not a shower, and I sit in the tub until the water gets cold. I am not sitting there looking for pretty sentences; I am trying to think and feel through what I am going to write next morning. It’s hard enough to write without having at the same time to start to think about what you are going to write—I do most of that in the bathtub, and call it “the bathtub part of stories.”


The art of making incidents belongs largely to the bathtub, but I think I can save time in telling you what I mean by an incident and its relation to the story as a whole if I start turning from generalities to a particular incident. The one I have selected is understandably from the story you probably know best if you know any of my stories, the title story of A River Runs Through It.


I can’t talk about an incident, though, without being able to relate it to the story as a whole, and, since at Bozeman I talked about the art of constructing the whole, I will quote here a short summary I made there of the overall form of this story.


“The major obligation of a story is always to be a story. This is true even if it is the most personal story one will ever tell, as this one is mine. This is the story of my brother who was murdered. It was my brother who was a master of the art of fly-fishing, perhaps the finest in the Northwest. It is a story of his father and brother who were expert fishermen—not as good as he was but perhaps necessarily more thoughtful because they did not have his genius. Our chief claim to be in the story is that we loved him and loved to watch him fish. It is a story of my brother who had another side to him—at least we heard he had, and maybe most of the time we believed he had but we were never sure, and were never to be sure. We knew, though, he was a gambler and had a packstring of women and we heard he was behind in the big stud poker game at Hot Springs and beyond a doubt in Montana it is not good to be behind in a stud game at a hot springs. In our Scottish family, the family and religion were the center of the universe, and, like Scots, we did not believe we should praise each other but should always love and be ready to help each other, only we never seemed able to help my brother, being hesitant because we were not often sure he needed help—in fact, were not sure we understood him, and we were also hesitant because we looked clumsy when we tried to be of help, and he looked like what he was, an artist whose Scottish pride was offended by a clumsy offer of help. So, in the end when he was murdered, we did not know whether it had been just a case of his being stuck up in an alley and beaten to death or whether he was paying some debt he owed in his other life.


“In the end all we knew—really knew—about him was that he was beautiful and dead and we had not helped. And, through him all we came to know about mankind my father summed up when he said, ‘It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.’”


Something like this, crudely stated, is a summary of the story. “Anything that goes into the story from reality or the imagination must be with it and for it.”


From what has just been said about the whole, a large organic part of it would be an incident consisting of a movement of characters and events giving a sense of completeness in itself and at the same time moving the plot on to its ultimate destination, something like a station of the cross, where there is a pause in the movement of the soul on its long journey. Although it didn’t always seem so to me, it now seems almost “a must” that a major incident in this story should consist of a movement of events that reveals both sides of my brother’s character—the beauty of his person and of his art and of his mastery of it and of the earth where he performed it—and then goes on to reveal the other side of his character, its ambiguities and darkness and our helplessness in trying to lighten them. Such a movement has some kind of completeness in itself, as the movement from daylight to darkness has, just as in life the movement leading to the discovery that “a person has another side to him” seems to be a little story in itself, sometimes a shocking one. But an incident has to be more than a movement of events from one of its opposite sides to the other. In this story, at least, it is three-dimensional, for between beauty and darkness comes the ordinary, the real of every day. For any number of reasons, every day reality must be there, ultimately, I suppose, because it is there in life. It is the transition between beauty and darkness, making both believable, and assuring the reader he is not reading just poetical fantasy or a ghost story. In this story it must be there for an added and perhaps non-artistic reason—it must be there because I wrote it, I who believe that hilarity and tragedy and ordinary daylight are all necessary for salvation. It may also be there not just because of my philosophy but for my pleasure—for the pleasure I find in seeing the world so full of a number of things.


It should be clear now how these somewhat complete incidents can also be parts of this whole. As the incidents succeed each other the beauty enlarges, takes on different forms, and appears in different places, and at the same time the ambiguities clear up and the darkness deepens until at the end of the story all three—beauty, everyday reality, and darkness—merge into one and a river runs through them, “the them” now spoken of as “it.” Tragically, the only ambiguity left at the end is the forever unanswered question of whether my brother needed help and whether we might have helped him.


A fact I have only once alluded to tonight is that I have been a schoolteacher most of my life, although it must be a fact reflected in most of what I do and think. For instance, when I am fishing and I look upstream and see a fisherman on the other side coming downstream I wait until he gets nearly opposite to me—then I take one look and say to myself, “C minus.” I want people to learn something when I talk, and that also goes for when I tell stories. In this first collection of my stories, I wanted to show what men and women could do with their hands and heads in the world of the woods before bulldozers, “cats,” and power saws started doing it for them. I wanted to preserve glimpses of people at work when I was young, partly because they might be worth preserving as small pieces of both the history of the West and the history of art. To me, what men and women can do with their hands and heads is often as beautiful as mountains and can be more so. Thus, just watching a sawyer at work in the woods is to me an art experience, and it should not therefore be surprising to you that even in the shortest of my stories there is a good deal about the art of being a sawyer before power saws and before axes became just heavy-headed wedges to open a cut in a log that has pinched. In the story “USFS 1919,” you should get a good idea of what a man had to know and do to be a member of a crew in the early Forest Service when the world was still a world of hands and horses and White logging boots made in Spokane. When I was young I saw Bill Bell pack mules. No one has ever seen anyone better.


One of the compliments I appreciated most about “A River Runs through It” came from a doctoral candidate in biology here at the University who sent word to me that he considered the story “A River Runs through It” one of the finest manuals yet written on the art of fly-fishing in the Northwest. I hope it is. The art of fly-fishing furnishes material for nearly every incident of the story, and the order and arrangement of the main incidents is partly determined by the order of teaching fly-fishing. Thus the earliest fishing incident is largely a lesson from my father on how to cast with a flyrod on a four-count rhythm, and the last time my brother is seen he is using his great skill in landing a big trout. That spans the art of fly-fishing, from getting your fly out on the water to getting the fish in the basket. The in-between aspects of the art are depicted in in-between incidents showing how to read water to tell where the fish are, how to pick the right fly, how to set a hook, and so on.


The glimpses of the history of western Montana and of art in these stories are not released from the obligation of being parts of the story. They are essential parts. My brother manifests his power and grace in his mastery of all elements of the art of fly-fishing. T. S. Eliot might have called fly-fishing his “objective correlative”—it externalized his beauty and it also was one of the centers of our family love, objectifying our feelings. The need of the story to portray my brother as a complete master of his art also gives the storyteller a rich opportunity to vary the narrative and its scenic effects—from the roar of fast water west of the Divide, where rainbow and cutthroat look for antagonists, to the quieter water east of the Divide, preferred by the more meditative brown and eastern brook trout. Always there is a change of scene and for some good fishing and artistic reason.


The incident I will read from is the one in which my brother is first seen fishing. It is important that he so impress us with his power and grace that later we can never doubt his beauty no matter what else we come to see about him. But this first fishing incident concludes with our first direct view of his dark side, which earlier had only been hinted at—we see him now arrested and in jail. In between these two views of him, an ordinary, everyday husband and wife in overalls sit down in astonishment to watch him cast. They are the transition between the beautiful and the dark and assure us both are real. So the incident is three-dimensional and has its kind of completeness in the story.


What we learn about the art of fly-fishing in this incident are two advanced ways of flycasting, advanced because we have already learned about the basic four-count cast from my father accompanied by my mother’s metronome. The first advanced cast is “the roll cast,” the cast needed when casting in front of a big rock or tree and we can’t lift our line behind us. I have always found it a difficult cast, so my brother is standing beside me and gently instructing me on how to get more distance out of it. When he finally starts fishing himself, he is casting a special cast pretty much of his own invention. He called it “a shadow cast” and it was a scenic and spectacular thing to watch, and not many besides him could make it work. When we first see him fishing, then, he “is doing his thing,” and catching fish.


Just prior to his shadow casting, he has tried to help me with my roll cast. We have gone from Helena to the Big Blackfoot and to the beautiful canyon above the red wooden bridge at the mouth of the Clearwater. I am fishing a big blue hole and am just in front of a big rock so I can’t let the line go behind me. My brother has gently told me that I am not casting far enough out to reach the big ones. He adds, if I brought the line into me on a diagonal on the water instead of straight toward me, the line would be a more resistant base to my cast and would add several yards to it. Then he gently disappears and I add several yards to my cast and catch a hell of a big one. This one was my big one for the day, so let’s watch him from here on.



"Immensity would return as the Big Blackfoot and the air above it became iridescent with the arched sides of a great Rainbow."


ven when I bent him he was way too long for my basket, so his tail stuck out.


There were black spots on him that looked like crustaceans. He seemed oceanic, including barnacles. When I passed my brother at the next hole, I saw him study the tail and slowly remove his hat, and not out of respect for my prowess as a fisherman. I had a fish, so I sat down to watch a fisherman.


He took his cigarettes and matches from his shirt pocket and put them in his hat and pulled his hat down tight so it wouldn’t leak. Then he unstrapped his fish basket and hung it on the edge of his shoulder where he could get rid of it quick should the water get too big for him. If he studied the situation he didn’t take any separate time to do it. He jumped off a rock into the swirl and swam for a chunk of cliff that had dropped into the river and parted it. He swam in his clothes with only his left arm—in his right hand, he held his rod high and sometimes all I could see was the basket and rod, and when the basket filled with water sometimes all I could see was the rod.


The current smashed him into the chunk of cliff and it must have hurt, but he had enough strength remaining in his left fingers to hang to a crevice or he would have been swept into the blue below. Then he still had to climb to the top of the rock with his left fingers and his right elbow which he used like a prospector’s pick. When he finally stood on top, his clothes looked hydraulic, as if they were running off him.


Once he quit wobbling, he shook himself duck-dog fashion, with his feet spread apart, his body lowered and his head flopping. Then he steadied himself and began to cast and the whole world turned to water. Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing, as if he were candlelight flickering about three inches from himself. The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.


The river above and below his rock was all big Rainbow water, and he would cast hard and low upstream, skimming the water with his fly but never letting it touch. Then he would pivot, reverse his line in a great oval above his head, and drive his line low and hard downstream, again skimming the water with his fly. He would complete this grand circle four or five times, creating an immensity of motion which culminated in nothing if you did not know, even if you could not see, that now somewhere out there a small fly was washing itself on a wave. Shockingly, immensity would return as the Big Blackfoot and the air above it became iridescent with the arched sides of a great Rainbow.


He called this “shadow casting,” and frankly I don’t know whether to believe the theory behind it—that the fish are alerted by the shadows of flies passing over the water by the first casts, so hit the fly the moment it touches the water. It is more or less the “working up an appetite” theory, almost too fancy to be true, but then every fine fisherman has a few fancy stunts that work for him and for almost no one else. Shadow casting never worked for me, but maybe I never had the strength of arm and wrist to keep line circling over the water until fish imagined a hatch of flies was out.


My brother’s wet clothes made it easy to see his strength. Most great casters I have known were big men over six feet, the added height certainly making it easier to get more line in the air in a bigger arc. My brother was only five feet ten, but he had fished so many years his body had become partly shaped by his casting. He was thirty-two now, at the height of his power, and he could put all his body and soul into a four-and-a-half-ounce magic totem pole. Long ago, he had gone far beyond my father’s wrist casting, although his right wrist was always so important that it had become larger than his left. His right arm, which our father had kept tied to the side to emphasize the wrist, shot out of his shirt as if it were engineered, and it, too, was larger than his left arm. His wet shirt bulged and came unbuttoned with his pivoting shoulders and hips. It was also not hard to see why he was a street fighter, especially since he was committed to getting in the first punch with his right hand. Rhythm was just as important as color and just as complicated. It was one rhythm superimposed upon another, our father’s four-count rhythm of the line and wrist being still the base rhythm. But superimposed upon it was the piston two count of his arm and the long overriding four count of the completed figure eight of his reversed loop.


The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors.


I heard voices behind me, and a man and his wife came down the trail, each carrying a rod, but probably they weren’t going to do much fishing. Probably they intended nothing much more than to enjoy being out of doors with each other and, on the side, to pick enough huckleberries for a pie. In those days there was little in the way of rugged sports clothes for women, and she was a big, rugged woman and wore regular men’s bib overalls, and her motherly breasts bulged out of the bib. She was the first to see my brother pivoting on the top of his cliff. To her, he must have looked something like a trick rope artist at a rodeo, doing everything except jumping in and out of his loops.


She kept watching while groping behind her to smooth out some pine needles to sit on. “My, my!” she said.


Her husband stopped and stood and said, “Jesus.” Every now and then he said, “Jesus.” Each time his wife nodded. She was one of America’s mothers who never dream of using profanity themselves but enjoy their husbands’, and later come to need it, like cigar smoke.


I started to make for the next hole. “Oh, no,” she said, “you’re going to wait, aren’t you, until he comes to shore so you can see his big fish.” “No,” I answered, “I’d rather remember the molecules.”


She obviously thought I was crazy, so I added, “I’ll see his fish later.” And to make any sense for her I had to add, “He’s my brother.”


As I kept going, the middle of my back told me that I was being viewed from the rear both as quite a guy, because I was his brother, and also as a little bit nutty, because I was molecular.


Since our fish were big enough to deserve a few drinks and quite a bit of talk afterwards, we were late in getting back to Helena. On the way, Paul asked, “Why not stay overnight with me and go down to Wolf Creek in the morning.” He added that he himself had “to be out for the evening,” but would be back soon after midnight. I learned later it must have been around two o’clock in the morning when I heard the thing that was ringing, and I ascended through river mists and molecules until I awoke catching the telephone. The telephone had a voice in it, which asked, “Are you Paul’s brother?” I asked, “What’s wrong?” The voice said, “I want you to see him.” Thinking we had poor connections, I banged the phone. “Who are you?” I asked. He said, “I am the desk sergeant who wants you to see your brother.”


The checkbook was still in my hand when I reached the jail. The desk sergeant frowned and said, “No, you don’t have to post bond for him. He covers the police beat and has friends here. All you have to do is look at him and take him home.”


Then he added, “But he’ll have to come back. A guy is going to sue him. Maybe two guys are.”


Not wanting to see him without a notion of what I might see, I kept repeating, “What’s wrong?” When the desk sergeant thought it was time, he told me, “He hit a guy and the guy is missing a couple of teeth and is all cut up.” I asked, “What’s the second guy suing him for?” “For breaking dishes. Also a table,” the sergeant said. “The second guy owns the restaurant. The guy who got hit lit on one of the tables.”


By now I was ready to see my brother, but it was becoming clear that the sergeant had called me to the station to have a talk. He said, “We’re picking him up too much lately. He’s drinking too much.” I had already heard more than I wanted. Maybe one of our ultimate troubles was that I never wanted to hear too much about my brother.


The sergeant finished what he had to say by finally telling me what he really wanted to say. “Besides he’s behind in the big stud poker game at Hot Springs. It’s not healthy to be behind in the big game at Hot Springs. “You and your brother think you’re tough because you’re street fighters. At Hot Springs they don’t play any child games like fist fighting. At Hot Springs it’s the big stud poker game and all that goes with it.”


I was confused from trying to rise suddenly from molecules of sleep to an understanding of what I did not want to understand. I said, “Let’s begin again. Why is he here and is he hurt?”


The sergeant said. “He’s not hurt, just sick. He drinks too much. At Hot Springs, they don’t drink too much.” I said to the sergeant, “Let’s go on. Why is he here?”


According to the sergeant’s report to me, Paul and his girl had gone into Weiss’s restaurant for a midnight sandwich—a popular place at midnight since it had booths in the rear where you and your girl could sit and draw the curtains. “The girl,” the sergeant said, “was that halfbreed Indian girl he goes with. You know the one,” he added, as if to implicate me.


Paul and his girl were evidently looking for an empty booth when a guy in a booth they had passed stuck his head out of the curtain and yelled, “Wahoo.” Paul hit the head, separating the head from two teeth and knocking the body back on the table, which overturned, cutting the guy and his girl with broken dishes. The sergeant said, “The guy said to me, ‘Jesus, all I meant is that it’s funny to go out with an Indian. It was just a joke.’”


I said to the sergeant. “It’s not very funny,” and the sergeant said, “No, not very funny, but it’s going to cost your brother a lot of money and time to get out of it. What really isn’t funny is that he’s behind in the game at Hot Springs. Can’t you help him straighten out?”


“I don’t know what to do,” I confessed to the sergeant. “I know what you mean,” the sergeant confessed to me. Desk sergeants at this time were still Irish. “I have a young brother,” he said, “who is a wonderful kid, but he’s always in trouble. He’s what we call ‘Black Irish.’”


“What do you do to help him?” I asked. After a long pause, he said, “I take him fishing.” “And when that doesn’t work?” I asked.


“You better go and see your own brother,” he answered.


Wanting to see him in perspective when I saw him, I stood still until I could again see the woman in bib overalls marveling at his shadow casting. Then I opened the door to the room where they toss the drunks until they can walk a crack in the floor. “His girl is with him,” the sergeant said. He was standing in front of a window, but he could not have been looking out of it, because there was a heavy screen between the bars, and he could not have seen me because his enlarged casting hand was over his face. Were it not for the lasting compassion I felt for his hand, I might have doubted afterwards that I had seen him.


The girl was sitting on the floor at his feet. When her black hair glistened, she was one of my favorite women. Her mother was a Northern Cheyenne, so when her black hair glistened she was handsome, more Algonkian and Romanlike than Mongolian in profile, and very warlike, especially after a few drinks. At least one of her great grandmothers had been with the Northern Cheyennes when they and the Sioux destroyed General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, and, since it was the Cheyennes who were camped on the Little Bighorn just opposite to the hill they were about to immortalize, the Cheyenne squaws were among the first to work the field over after the battle. At least one of her ancestors, then, had spent a late afternoon happily cutting off the testicles of the Seventh Cavalry, the cutting often occurring before death.


This paleface who had stuck his head out of the booth in Weiss’s cafe and yelled “Wahoo” was lucky to be missing only two teeth.


Even I couldn’t walk down the street beside her without her getting me into trouble. She liked to hold Paul with one arm and me with the other and walk down Last Chance Gulch on Saturday night, forcing people into the gutter to get around us, and when they wouldn’t give up the sidewalk she would shove Paul or me into them. You didn’t have to go very far down Last Chance Gulch on Saturday night shoving people into the gutter before you were into a hell of a big fight, but she always felt that she had a disappointing evening and had not been appreciated if the guy who took her out didn’t get into a big fight over her.


When her hair glistened, though, she was worth it. She was one of the most beautiful dancers I have ever seen. She made her partner feel as if he were about to be left behind, or already had been.


It is a strange and wonderful and somewhat embarrassing feeling to hold someone in your arms who is trying to detach you from the earth and you aren’t good enough to follow her. I called her Mo-nah-se-tah, the name of the beautiful daughter of the Cheyenne chief, Little Rock. At first, she didn’t particularly care for the name, which means, “the young grass that shoots in the spring,” but after I explained to her that Mo-nah-se-tah was supposed to have had an illegitimate son by General George Armstrong Custer she took to the name like a duck to water.


Looking down on her now I could see only the spread of her hair on her shoulders and the spread of her legs on the floor. Her hair did not glisten and I had never seen her legs when they were just things lying on a floor. Knowing that I was looking down on her, she struggled to get to her feet, but her long legs buckled and her stockings slipped down on her legs and she spread out on the floor again until the tops of her stockings and her garters showed.


The two of them smelled worse than the jail. They smelled just like what they were—a couple of drunks whose stomachs had been injected with whatever it is the body makes when it feels cold and full of booze and knows something bad has happened and doesn’t want tomorrow to come.


Neither one ever looked at me, and he never spoke. She said, “Take me home.” I said, “That’s why I’m here.” She said, “Take him, too.” She was as beautiful a dancer as he was a fly caster. I carried her with her toes dragging behind her. Paul turned and, without seeing or speaking, followed. His overdeveloped right wrist held his right hand over his eyes so that in some drunken way he thought I could not see him and he may also have thought that he could not see himself.


As we went by the desk, the sergeant said, “Why don’t you all go fishing?”


I did not take Paul’s girl to her home. In those days, Indians who did not live on reservations had to live out by the city limits and generally they pitched camp near either the slaughterhouse or the city dump. I took them back to Paul’s apartment. I put him in his bed, and I put her in the bed where I had been sleeping, but not until I had changed it so that the fresh sheets would feel smooth to her legs.


As I covered her, she said, “He should have killed the bastard.” I said, “Maybe he did,” whereupon she rolled over and went to sleep, believing, as she always did, anything I told her, especially if it involved heavy casualties.


By then, dawn was coming out of a mountain across the Missouri, so I drove to Wolf Creek. In those days it took about an hour to drive the forty miles of rough road from Helena to Wolf Creek. While the sun came out of the Big Belt Mountains and the Missouri and left them behind in light, I tried to find something I already knew about life that might help me reach out and touch my brother and get him to look at me and himself. For a while, I even thought what the desk sergeant first told me was useful. As a desk sergeant, he had to know a lot about life and he had told me Paul was the Scottish equivalent of “Black Irish.” Without doubt, in my father’s family there were “Black Scots” occupying various outposts all the way from the original family home on the Isle of Mull in the southern Hebrides to Fairbanks, Alaska, 110 or 115 miles south of the Arctic Circle, which was about as far as a Scot could go then to get out of range of sheriffs with warrants and husbands with shotguns. I had learned about them from my aunts, not my uncles, who were all Masons and believed in secret societies for males. My aunts, though, talked gaily about them and told me they were all big men and funny and had been wonderful to them when they were little girls. From my uncles’ letters, it was clear that they still thought of my aunts as little girls. Every Christmas until they died in distant lands these hastily departed brothers sent their once-little sisters loving Christmas cards scrawled with assurances that they would soon “return to the States and help them hang stockings on Christmas eve.”


Seeing that I was relying on women to explain to myself what I didn’t understand about men, I remembered a couple of girls I had dated who had uncles with some resemblances to my brother. The uncles were fairly expert at some art that was really a hobby—one uncle was a watercolorist and the other the club champion golfer—and each had selected a profession that would allow him to spend most of his time at his hobby. Both were charming, but you didn’t quite know what if anything you knew when you had finished talking to them. Since they did not earn enough money from business to make life a hobby, their families had to meet from time to time with the county attorney to keep things quiet.


Sunrise is the time to feel that you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn’t think so. At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear.


Then about twelve miles before Wolf Creek the road drops into the Little Prickly Pear Canyon, where dawn is long in coming. In the suddenly returning semidarkness, I watched the road carefully, saying to myself, hell, my brother is not like anybody else. He’s not my gal’s uncle or a brother of my aunts. He is my brother and an artist and when a four-and-a- half-ounce rod is in his hand he is a major artist. He doesn’t piddle around with a paint brush or take lessons to improve his short game and he won’t take money even when he must need it and he won’t run anywhere from anyone, least of all to the Arctic Circle. It is a shame I do not understand him.


Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brothers’ keepers,” possessed of one of the oldest and possibly one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting of instincts. It will not let us go.


When I drove out of the canyon, it was ordinary daylight.


cannot end without mentioning another special reason that brought me to Missoula at this time of year. It was in early May when my brother was buried here.


So we conclude our conference on the West by recalling, I hope not inappropriately, memories of it full of pain and joy, and everyday reality.






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