My three published novels:Plus new short fiction available now on amazon kindle!

My three published novels:Plus new short fiction available now on amazon kindle!
My three hardcover novels are available now for your Amazon Kindle device. Also find additional ebooks of fiction, and a two-volume photo book of Cuba's Classic Cars. Click on the book covers above.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Stephen Harrigan’s new novel

By Stephen Harrigan
352 pages. Knopf. $26.95.

            In his previous two novels, Stephen Harrigan has staged the fall of The Alamo, and gone aboard the space shuttle via The Johnson Space Center. And yet THE GATES OF THE ALAMO and CHALLENGER PARK are both Texas stories. In REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON, his fifth novel, the action of Harrigan’s newest Texas characters opens amid a battlefield of the first world war. Machine gun fire and artillery and intense fear has seized and immobilized the squad of young Americans. Not so long ago, they were farm boys, students, store clerks. Now, they are pinned down in the hellish French countryside, almost frozen like statues.
            “The concussive turbulence sucked away the air. The men gasped for breath in the vacuum. Shrapnel pierced the tree trunks and ploughed into the earth with a hissing force as the ground heaved like a malevolent carnival ride.”
            Fittingly, the novel’s publication date nearly coincides with Memorial Day. This is hardly the stuff of a patriotic song and march. Something else compels Ben Clayton, the young man of the book’s title, to rise to his feet and make a charge. Young Ben is filled with the anger and rage that forges heroes. More often, such disregard for his own safety leads to a flag-draped coffin.
            Shortly after the war, Ben’s father Lamar Clayton doesn’t want to know the details of his son’s death. His focus is a memorial to the boy’s life, in the form of a statue of Ben. He will place the sculpture on a small plateau overlooking the hardscrabble countryside of the family ranch outside of Abilene, Texas. Francis “Gil” Gilheaney takes on the job. An ambitious New York sculptor in self-exile in San Antonio, Gilheaney recognizes that the project could well be his masterpiece and redemption, even though hardly a soul will ever glimpse it. These two men, Lamar and Gil, are a clash of wills. Immersing himself in his work, Gil rides the dead boy’s horse, sleeps in his bed, handles the texture of his clothing, his saddle and boots. Lamar is baffled by all this. He’s paid his money. Where’s the damn statute?
            Structurally, the novel is built around the completion of the statue. This works well as a ticking clock, building momentum and tension and conflict. Also, the rancher and sculptor are filled with secrets. When the reader is aware of something that one character doesn’t yet know, the pages build with an anticipation and a dread and surprise that an inevitable revelation will bring. And Harrigan, in gradually revealing the backgrounds of these two old coots, suggests they may be more alike than either would admit.
            The period details are some of the novel’s finest touches. Harrigan doesn’t hit the reader over the head with them. But such scenes as a windy walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, looking down on the ships below, or even a 1920 stroll through a downtown San Antonio department store, bring home what a more elegant, if not more brutal, world it was, not so long ago. And whether the setting is today, or a generation ago, the characters and story of REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON reinforce the notion that great writing is timeless.
Stephen Harrigan talks about his novel REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON:

(photo by MZ)

I’ve met a few World War 1 veterans in my life. In college I took a course for liberal arts majors called physical science, where we could take our science requirements without breaking a sweat. The guy who taught that class was a veteran of the first world war. He reminisced in that class a lot - about getting gassed in the trenches. If only I’d paid attention, I could have learned so much from that experience. But like most of us when we’re young, we blow those great opportunities to connect with older generations and go deep into history. So my own direct experience with World War I is pretty scant, unfortunately.

battle scenes:
It’s a point of honor for me, or a point of conscience, to write war scenes as real as I possibly can. I’ve never been in combat, fortunately, so these scenes are always just an attempt to get it right.  You run into an interesting balancing act with war scenes. You’ve got to make them dynamic. You’ve got to make them cinematic. You’ve also got to make them true to the real experience, which is horrible. People don’t just get hit by a bullet and lie down on the ground. It’s brutal, and visceral, in the literal sense. So there’s a fine line. You don’t want to write violence pornography. But you want to be accurate and give the reader a sense that this is  what it’s like. This is what these guys had to go through. The scenes I’m describing in the book are at the tail end of the war, when the momentum was starting to shift toward a victory for England and France and The United States. It wasn’t during the horrible, stalemated part of the war where people were being ground up in the trenches. So, there’s actually a little more momentum, a little more hope, during this period that I’m writing about. But it was still just terribly brutal and scary. And the kids that I write about in the book, they’re from rural Texas, and they’ve never been beyond the borders of their home county. And here they are in France, taking a train to New York, crossing the ocean, landing in Le Havre and all these strange foreign ports, and being in this alien landscape where they don’t know the language - often being taught by French instructors on how to survive. It was really a scary experience on so many different levels. There’s lots of violence in the book, unfortunately. Battles - World War 1 battles, race riots. Then there are all these personal battles among the characters, which I tried to make as intense, and with stakes as high, as the actual combat scenes.

Secrets are at the heart of this book. They are at the heart of families, in a way. There are several big secrets in this book, and it’s a process, when writing a book like this, to nurse those secrets along in the narrative to make sure they pay off in a dramatic way. I didn’t know these secrets would be elements in the book when I first started writing it. I just thought, this is about a kid who was killed in the first world war, and his father, a brokenhearted father, who is trying, in sort of a deluded way, to create a memorial to him so he can remember him, or somehow bring him back. So I just started writing it, trying to figure out a story around that. But immediately, the first secret that popped into my head that I couldn’t avoid was, who was Ben Clayton? Who was this kid who was killed? Why did he die? How did he de? Why did his father feel the need to have a statue commissioned, of all things? This old rancher out in Shackleford County - why would he need a statue of his son? And so, as I started writing the book, I realized that there were layers and layers, not necessarily of conscious deception, but a natural accretion of withheld information that happens between people, and particularly within families.

At the heart of the book, it’s a story of people finding out who they are - who they’re comfortable being. The main character is a sculptor who has a particular vision of himself as this great sculptor, this magnificent artist. And that keeps getting challenged. He has to re-order who he is, who he can be. His daughter aspires to be a sculptor, but is not sure she can pull it off. She’s not sure she can pull off being happy. And the other major character, Lamar Clayton, the brokenhearted father who has commissioned the statue, has lived through four or five identities by the time we meet him. He was captured by Comanches when he was young. He’s been a trail driver. He’s been an alcoholic, a blackout drunk. He’s been a happily married man. And he’s been a father. And all those identities, as I think is true in real life, they either mesh within you, or they are at war within you. And it’s always more interesting if they are at war, in terms of telling a story.

I’ve always been haunted by statues. It’s odd. I’m not sure that I’m as interested in sculpture as I am in statues. Those aren’t two distinct things, but in some people’s minds they are. I’m a kind of Philistine when it comes to modern art. I appreciate it, I understand it. But what really gets my heart beating is representational stuff, which has been out of fashion for quite some time. To me, there’s a tremendous amount of artistry and mystery in the ability to create a replica of somebody or something. What’s haunting to me about it is the idea that this person is captured, is somehow contained within that bronze or marble form. So, I remember, even being a kid, just being really struck and moved by statues--that frozen moment that statues represent.  This kind of sculpture has been a lifelong--I wouldn’t say obsession--but a lifelong interest of mine. I know a lot now about how you make a statue - how hard it is, not just in an artistic sense, but in a physical, brutal way. All the processes that you go through, all the dangers you go through, literally. There was a famous sculptor named Luis JimĂ©nez, who died in his studio a few years ago when one of his works fell on him. So it’s an immensely physical, challenging thing, incredibly technical in terms of the actual casting of the piece, or even the conception of the piece. And it was a bracing thing to write about. How do you pull it off? I don’t have any artistic ability, in terms of visual representation. I don’t have any sense of that whatsoever, natively. I don’t understand it. That’s why I’m so drawn to try to understand it in prose. But I do understand the process of creation, because that’s what I do every day. So I was really interested in seeing if what I knew intuitively about creating something out of thin air would transfer to me writing about somebody who does that in a completely different form. I don’t know whether I succeeded or not, but I had a great time trying to do that.


In a sense, maybe in a minor sense, this is a novel about the struggle that any artist has with feeling sidelined, or being away from the action. The main character of this book has been a big deal in New York. For various reasons, he has ended up in San Antonio, Texas, which at this time, 1919, 1920, was not exactly the home of the avant garde. And a lot of this book is about his struggle to be relevant, his struggle to be noticed again by the powers that be in New York or Europe. And I think that anybody who delves into  any sort of art form has the feeling from time to time that they’ve missed the train, or are about to miss the train, that things are happening elsewhere. It’s real important, I think, for any kind of artist not to be too distracted by that sense of being in a backwater, or being in a province. But at the same time, to be sort of spurred on by it, because ambition counts for a lot.  You want to be a world class figure if you do this kind of stuff. Why would you not? And so in this book there’s a guy who’s trying to reconcile his own ambitions with the reality he finds himself in. I think ambition as a theme,  or as a preoccupation, is something this book is very much about. It’s ironic, because Gil is trying to get back on the map in New York – to have a big statue in Central Park, or one in Columbus Circle, somewhere like that. And, in fact, what really gets him excited is that he has this opportunity to put up a statue in the middle of nowhere in west Texas. The artistic challenge of that is something he can’t turn off. It bewitches him, the idea that even though nobody will ever see it, this statute will command the landscape. It will start the conversation. It will be a thing that really matters in this particular place. And he can’t walk away from that. He sees in this opportunity, ironically, a chance to get back in favor with the critics in distant culture capitols. Because he knows that this statue, if he does it right, will be truly great.

screenwriting influence, story sense:
Screenwriting is something I’ve done for twenty-five years. It’s very different thing from writing a novel, no question about it. A screenplay is all about action. It’s about forward momentum. It’s about character, too, but only character that can be revealed by action. Screenwriting teaches you that you can’t stay in the business if you can’t keep people in their seats, waiting to see what happens next in a movie. And I don’t think that’s bad for a book either. I find that the books I like to read are the ones that keep me curious, keep me turning the pages, make me want to know what happens next. The word “plot” has kind of an ambiguous resonance with fiction writers. Some of them feel like it’s a crutch, that it feels artificial and false. But I’ve never felt that way. The plot is the engine of the story, and the story is the first purpose of the writer. No matter what I write, I want the reader to feel that he or she is on a journey with me. So I’m very upfront about having a plot. That’s not entirely the result of screenwriting, by any means, because my novels had plots before I started to write screenplays. But writing screenplays has given me the opportunity to think so much more clearly about plot and momentum and narrative, in a very bare bones way. It almost makes sense to me to have the story in hand before I start writing the book. I like to leave surprises for myself, and I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in this book at any point. But I knew more or less exactly where I wanted to head. I would make outlines, like the way I do with a screenplay. I would fill those out with more detail as I progressed. At times  I would throw the outline out, and wing it for awhile. But I kept after it in the same way as with a screenplay, trying to nail down the events so that the events not only created the action of the story, but created the meaning of the story. And kept the readers involved. I wanted this book to have an element of velocity to it, and curiosity and suspense. Because those are the kind of books I like to read.

time setting:
I haven’t thought of the book as being a sweeping survey of Texas or American history, but in a way it’s a core sample of our history. I started writing the book thinking it would take place in the present moment of when the story takes place. But as it turns out, it makes this deep detour into the past, and it sort of catches up with all sorts of historical backstory - the Indian wars in Texas, even the Civil War. Part of the book takes place in the Civil War, although I don’t make a big point of it. So the characters have pretty deep roots in history. As people do. It would be odd to leave that out, in a way. Because all of us have parents, grandparents, great grandparents who reach way far back.

© Michael Zagst

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


We're back on schedule after having to vacate the Fiction Guy Building for a couple of days for asbestos removal. But the loading dock is cleared to ship out new ideas, and the staff, still recovering from the company picnic, is primed for the new fiscal quarter. Note to staff: grass skirts and tiki torches were a disaster waiting to happen. What were you thinking?

Thursday, May 19, 2011


On a trip to Dallas a couple of weeks ago, I went to the Sixth Floor Museum, and was relieved at how respectfully the presidency and death of JFK were treated. A plexiglass enclosure cordons off the actual window from which the sociopathic little creep killed Kennedy. But you can stand at the next window, five feet away, and look out on the street and plaza. From the ground, the image of the Texas Schoolbook Depository looms huge and foreboding in the American nightmare. But until you are actually there inside of it, imagining a car right below you, barely moving, a telescopic sight on the rifle, it becomes clear that Kennedy didn’t have a chance. Stupid, preventable, and ridiculous, this particular nightmare.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

50 cliches in movie Westerns

They began as visuals. Whether there was anything of practical or of historical value to the images, they looked good on the screen. But when a circle of wagons fending off an Indian attack makes its twentieth screen appearance, it might dawn on the viewer that this particular image can be safely retired.

Following are just a few of the frequent Western ideas begging to be put out of their misery.

1.    Target practice - Invariably, bottles or cans are shot from a rail fence or a rock. Nothing else was ever used.

2.    Lantern in a haystack - Throw the lantern, filled with coal oil. It starts a fire.

3.    The sidekick - Not quite as talented, and certainly less intelligent, than the good guy. The sidekick rarely originated any ideas of his own. Also had fewer teeth than the hero.

4.    The town drunk - a disgraceful, if not disgraced character. He enabled the bad guy to show his bad side, the good guy to display his empathy for the downtrodden.

5.    Hanging - Presumably, the gallows were demolished following the town's last hanging, because a new one always had to be constructed. This allowed the condemned man to contemplate his fate with all those hammers and saws working right outside his jail cell.

6.    The lynch mob - The lawman faced down an entire bloodthirsty crowd, to emphasize what a man of integrity and toughness he was.

7.    The land baron - Was there ever a feel-good, or even friendly land baron? If you owned half the territory, you had to be ruthless. The land baron generally fathered trigger-happy or shiftless sons.

8.    The water trough - Obviously horses needed a drink. But it was a handy prop for dunking a guy's head underwater to sober him up or humiliate him during a fight. Or just a great way to cool off when you've come in out of the desert.

9.    Shooting a gun from your opponent's hand - Is this even possible, except by sheer luck? It was a daily occurrence in Westerns. And man, did that give you a sore hand. Get a gun shot from your hand, you had to grab the wrist and give it a good rubbing.

10. The saloon brawl - It's pandemonium. Tables crash, chairs and bottles break over heads, upstairs railings give way.

11. Throwing a guy through the saloon's swing doors or window - Sometimes part of a brawl. Sometimes just a couple of guys having a difference of opinion.

12. Cowboys riding into town to raise hell - They've been on the trail for weeks. So they go a little wild on payday. Let's cut them some slack.

13. The town coward - A variation of the town drunk. You can't count on him for anything. Frequently, the entire town was made up of cowards. The lawman was on his own here.

14. The Indian burial ground - The tribe will send out every available warrior if you happen to stray through. So before setting out, get a good map, and stay the heck out.

15. The poker game - The best and worst of the characters were brought out in this popular pastime. More fist fights and gun play erupted over cards than debates over water rights, certainly. Frequently a tinhorn gambler occupied one chair at the table.

16. Shooting a guy in the back - This was the single most dastardly act anyone could pull, even if the victim was a scoundrel.

17. The cattle drive - More cliches than you could throw a horseshoe at. The stampede, for one. Anything could set the herd off. Head those cattle off, for crying out loud. Get them under control, even in the middle of a lightning storm.

18. The chuck wagon cook - Always a charming, if cantankerous character. He had an endearing name as well: Cookie, Wishbone, you get the idea. And get your finger out of the sugar barrel, dad burn it. That's for cooking.

19. Burial on the plains – The grave was marked by a pile of rocks. Didn’t anyone think to bring along a shovel?

20. Bringing in a dead man – That figure slung sideways on the saddle is either dead, or a rider with extremely low self-esteem.

21. Breaking a horse - The horse bucks a few times around the corral, maybe even throws you in the dirt. But when the bronc stops bucking, he is perfectly trained and forever tame. Congratulations. You've broken a horse in less than a minute.

22. The wanted poster - If you didn't have a hammer, you nailed the paper with the butt of a pistol. And, having recognized the wanted man, you can rip it right down to hold in your hands.

23. Shot from a horse - The guy's foot gets caught in the stirrup, and he's dragged across the plains or down the street. Strictly a visual detail, and like the saloon brawl, payday for a stunt man.

24. The posse - Strength in numbers, though it's doubtful a posse was ever composed exclusively of cowards.

25. The army scout - A variation of the chuck wagon cook and stagecoach driver. He could be loveable, or the most knowledgeable and best damn source of information on a cavalry patrol. As a plot device, the scout is loaded with backstory. Knows the territory and everything that's happened there.

26. Vultures circling overhead - These birds always suggest imminent death or danger. You never spotted a vulture that merely enjoyed circling in a favorable gust of wind.

27. The gunfighter's lament - Every green kid in the territory comes gunning for you, trying to make a name for himself.

28. The bartender - Insult him at your peril, even if he deserves it, because he keeps a scattergun under the bar.

29. The school marm - Pure-hearted teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. What exactly is a marm? Doubtful that you would find a banker marm.

30. The ethnic minority - Like the town drunk, the bad guys picked on him unmercifully ("Hey Chinaman, how'd you like me to cut off that there pigtail of yours?"). And the good guys defended him ("Let him alone.").

31. Extracting a bullet - When the doctor, or whoever is handy, removes the slug, the projectile is dropped into a porcelain pan. Plink, and the operation is over, though it may be touch and go for the next day or two. Just don't know. He's lost a lot of blood.

32. The train robbery - An elaborate procedure. A gang on horseback rides at breakneck speed along the tracks, swings onto the railroad car, then advances along the rooftops to have the engineer put on the brakes. The train employee is easy to subdue, as he's never armed. Question: why not have a robber merely buy a ticket to sit quietly aboard until the proper moment? Not as exciting, but fewer gang members will be filling out those workmen's comp claims.

33. The tracker - Like shooting a gun from a guy's hand, the abilities of these guys a Jedi knight couldn't get the hang of. A tracker could ascertain, on flat rock, a particular horse, as well as its rider.

34. The showdown - The good guy would allow the bad guy to clear leather before him, and he was still fast enough to gun him down.

35. The historical character as stereotype. Doc Holliday, for example - Regardless of the actor cast, this fellow certainly had a pesky cough. Invariably, Doc's respiratory problems reduced his effectiveness just when he was needed. Let's not even bring up Billy the Kid.

36. Cattlemen versus Sheepmen - Get those woolly critters off the open range, or we'll shoot every dang one of them.

37. Barbed wire - Again, don't mess with the open range. Fence it off, you're asking for trouble.

38. The horse thief - Is there a lower form of life in the west? Stealing a horse was a hanging offense.

39. The dance hall girl - In older movies, with censorship, all she did was dance, sing,  and encourage cowboys to drink. Later, about the time cowboys appeared with long hair, she , well, you know…

40. The bounty hunter - Very despised by stand-up citizens. The dead or alive thing bothered most folks. But if you wanted a guy brought in, don't count on the school marm to do the job.

41. The homesteaders - Commonly derided as "sodbusters," the bane of the land baron, they move in once the land has been tamed, not to pull their weight in Indian fights. To grow vegetables.

42. Firing a gun from inside a house. You break a window with the barrel of your pistol. Did these guys think glass grew on trees? It has to be brought in on wagon, in padded crates. Slide the window open, for crying out loud.

43. Drinking etiquette - In a saloon, slug down your shot and slap a coin on the bar. Or just leave the bottle. I'll pour my own.

44. The ghost town - The mine has played out, the railroad passed it by. Now it's deserted streets, boarded up windows, and tumbleweeds piled against doorways. The bleak landscape makes an excellent setting for a gunfight.

45. The piano player - He's in the saloon, of course. His repertoire consists solely of Camptown Races, Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight, and Jimmy Crack Corn. In a tense bar standoff, the piano stops on a dime, resuming just as quickly when tempers are again in check.

46. The newspaper editor - Frequently as cantankerous as a chuck wagon cook, his editorials championed either law and order, or The James Gang, if Frank and Jesse were portrayed as misunderstood, but deep down, basically good. Bad guys enjoyed shooting or beating the daylights out of the newspaper editor.

47. Breaking out of jail - If the keys weren't within reach of your cell, a 50-50 proposition, then your buddies roped the bars and pulled out the window for you.

48. The wagon train – The granddaddy of cliches, a soap opera on rolling wheels.

49. The runaway wagon – When a numbskull has lost control of the reins,        it’s up to someone to leap aboard, one pair of horses at a time, to bring the lead pair to a halt.

50. The stagecoach – Could horses really run all out from one horizon to the other? Sure, for perhaps five minutes before dropping from exhaustion.

© Michael Zagst

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

cheap celebrity potshot

Since filing for divorce, Aguilera has been out in Los Angeles and New York City with a new man, Matthew Rutler, a set assistant on Burlesque.

"He's the kind of person you could spend hours with on the phone talking to and all of a sudden it's daylight," she says.

"I'm on a constant journey and I'd not be the best I can if I wasn't always taking the good with the bad and learning from things and experiences," she tells CNN.

Two weeks later...
Christina Aguilera was arrested early this morning along with her boyfriend  in West Hollywood, TMZ has learned.  Christina was popped for public intoxication and her boyfriend was arrested for driving under the influence.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Editor At Large, part 2

Three guys have been painting 
this building all weekend. It will 
be in place for years. I did not 
point out the needless apostrophe. 
Why make a grown man cry? 
Why get a bucket of paint dropped 
on my head?

Editor At Large

Austin is having its Pecan Street Festival today. This poster will be down by the end of the day. Let’s see…how many A’s in “pecan?”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Custer's Last Band


a short story

     Years before any of the Seventh Army’s soldiers had heard of the Little Bighorn, immediately following the Civil War, to be precise, Custer and his men spent some time in the capitol of Texas. This was 1866, 1867. As far as their official duties were concerned, the army had little to do in Austin. It passed the time by waiting around for an assignment that would take them elsewhere, a place more worthy of the skills for which it was trained. As it was, all that was required of the cavalry was to keep an eye on the conditions of the city to make certain that the Confederacy, or anything like it, wasn’t taking shape again right under its nose. This allowed Custer the run of the town, with only his imagination as his guide. Custer did the same as many people with an excess of leisure time did. He attended classes. The general enrolled in The Texas School For The Deaf. Under the tutelage of an instructor who had never heard a spoken word, he pursued the study of sign language. Later, much later, well before approximately four thousand antagonists at the Little Bighorn would render Custer’s existence moot, he would apply his sign language ability in communicating with the tribes of the western plains. The natives appreciated and respected the fact that the visitor in their territory had taken the trouble of learning, if not their actual dialect, at least a rudimentary method of putting across his point. The Indians, like Europeans, hated it when guys showed up, shouting in English, expecting to be understood by sheer volume. Custer, instead of merely shooting the Indians, was able to lay down his terms beforehand.
     “Surrender, and come with me to the outpost, and I mean right now,” the general would tell them. “Otherwise, I’ll kill you where you stand.”
     Sometimes, the Indians would accompany Custer, not to Austin, but back to the fort out west somewhere, to be shipped out from that place to their eventual fate in the foreign lands of reservations. And at other times, Custer would have a fight on his hands, the outcome of which was never predetermined.
     But back to Austin, around 1866, 1867, when the general was learning sign language: it was Custer’s army, and by definition, Custer’s band. The musicians within the Seventh Cavalry were a solid, accomplished unit, as proficient in its particular skills as any of the muleskinners and scouts and sharpshooters were in theirs. As a perk of being in charge, Custer had the band perform whenever the mood struck him. Specific tunes were rendered for the general’s different functions. Lullabyes sent him drifting off to sleep after he had tucked himself in for the night. Minuets accompanied his noon meal, waltzes the background for his reading pleasure. It was rumored that the general’s bowels would seize up without the inducement of a sprightly march, and conversely, that such music unannounced would send Custer running for the latrine.
     The commanding officer displayed his orchestra around town, and the citizens of Austin couldn’t get enough of this working band. At least, none of the Texans suggested to the general that the musicians were anything other than first rate. In reality, not everyone seated in front of the bandstand was absolutely thrilled by the recitals. The Seventh Cavalry was an occupational army imposing martial law. Custer in Texas was like MacArthur in Japan. The people who lived there were perfectly willing to wait out the commander with as much patience as required until the day he would move on and leave them alone. Custer wasn’t blind to this, but he did tend to interpret complacency in the populace with affection and the highest of esteem. And he loved the power, knowing that with the snap of his fingers, he could impose a curfew, have a man hanged, or send the strains of Kerry Owen gently through the city’s open windows, across meadows, through the military tent city he had erected on the banks of Shoal Creek.
     Custer loved his band to such an extent that it became his talisman, his four-leaf clover. He took the musicians into battle with him, setting them up out of harm’s way in support of his deadly effort. Think of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, careening in over the breakers by helicopter, Wagner blaring from loudspeakers at a deafening pitch. Custer was without helicopters, but the band served a similar purpose, providing inspiration for the unleashed lightning. And those soldiers who played instruments had it easy, in comparison to those who didn’t. Sure, the band had to pack up a cello or French horn on horseback and wagon every day. Setting up for gigs has been a chore always. It comes with the territory.
     The band became well known at society dances. It gave concerts in local institutions, at The Texas School For The Blind, for the poor souls confined to the State Asylum For The Insane. Fiddles and flutes and kettle drums were hauled across town at the slightest excuse. It was good PR.
     Custer held the reins of his power loosely, proof to himself of his benevolence. He could have lay down the law. And if Edison had been a decade earlier in developing the phonograph, Custer could have lay down some tracks for a recording. It bothered the general that that the sheer physical bulk of his orchestra was so unwieldy. It would have suited him just fine to do away with them, to transport only their musical product into the field. But that actual concept couldn’t form in Custer’s mind, for Edison’s invention was absolutely without precedent. No one, not one person, considered that such a thing was possible. As it was, the band accompanied Custer out west, a fiddle tucked beneath the chin in place of a rifle butt. The musicians played in the clear open skies, the compounds and forts and campsites as full of spirit as any city park’s bandstand, coyotes tuning up in the night for harmony.
     The band did accompany Custer on his last campaign. But the musicians lagged behind, slowed down by the tools of its trade. The wilderness was tough going for a man on horseback, and considerably tougher on a small orchestra negotiating footpaths and unmapped trails. Some of the musicians began to despair their lot in life. They climbed mountains and crossed rivers, virtually undefended in their efforts to catch up with the main body of the army. The cavalry was on a forced march, and the orchestra would reunite with its comrades only long enough to collapse into their bedrolls before turning out before dawn once again. Their salvation would have been a helicopter. And Edison did piddle around with the concept of that aircraft in 1885. The inventor described the escapade as “playing with dynamite,” resulting in badly burning one of his assistants, and losing most of the hair from his own head to flames as well. Two decades before the Wright brothers, Edison set aside his own designs on conquering gravity.
     The orchestra encountered a river in the summer of 1876. It became obvious that only a raft could traverse it. The musicians bemoaned their circumstances. Not only would their trained fingers be reduced to chopping down trees and lashing together logs, but they would miss out on supper for a couple of days. They would subsist on hardtack and prairie dog, knowing that Custer’s mood upon their arrival would be foul from the absence of music in the camp.
     And the orchestra survived because they were shooting rapids instead of Indians. As it turned out, Custer and the remainder of the Seventh weren’t shooting many Indians either, A great many of the soldiers, surrounded, preposterously outnumbered, shot their own comrades in the head at point blank range, many of them turning their weapons on themselves as well. The soldiers knew, should they be taken captive, that the Indians would torture them in unspeakable ways. The Seventh preferred to die on its own terms, by its own hand. The Indians had never seen such a thing. They were so astonished at the sight of their trapped quarry committing mass suicide that they stopped the fight momentarily to watch. Their astonishment turned to rage. They had never conceived of such cowardice. They were so angry that they rounded up the wounded and the survivors like fish in a finely meshed net, chopped off their arms and legs, bashed in their skulls, and cut off their heads. Which had been the exact fate that the cavalry was trying to avoid by turning their guns on themselves.
     Meanwhile, the orchestra was miffed. Dissension riddle its ranks. The very idea of moving through hostile territory, armed primarily with piccolos, flutes, fiddles, and mandolins was especially disheartening. By sheer chance, the musicians stumbled into the arms of Captain Benteen, under whose cautious leadership an entire contingent of the Seventh Cavalry had bypassed Custer’s final battle. The musicians learned that their army buddies were out there, cut to pieces and rotting on the battlefield. More regiments were brought in. The orchestra accompanied their new cohorts to the Little Bighorn, stunned into silence by the sight. They played a respectful rendition of Taps before helping to remove the remains of the officers for burial, leaving the corpses of the enlisted men to rot for years to come.
     Within weeks, Edison invented the phonograph. The device, which an assistant mistook for a sausage grinder at first glance, catapulted its maker into prominence. Coincidentally, Edison traveled west the following summer. The twenty-four hour days of phonograph work and light bulb work had taken its toll on the man, and he was indulging in the first vacation of his life. He took a train to Wyoming in order to study a total eclipse of the sun. Scientists from all over the world gathered for the same purpose. While they had a grand old time of it, some were clearly apprehensive about the possibility of an Indian attack. But the only native encounter had been the arrival of a family of Utes, whom a visiting chemist describes as “friendlier than a litter of pups.”
Edison ingratiated himself with his counterparts in a demonstration of the phonograph, explaining that, just as a camera captures an image, he had captured sound. Even with backgrounds in hard science, many on hand considered the invention to be some sort of trick. They threw tongue-twisters, and obscure pronunciations into the megaphone intake, intrigued as the machine duplicated every syllable of MethodistEspicopalmeanderinghopscotch. The scientists knew that Edison was deaf, for all practical purposes, and only guessed that deafness was a requirement to have dredged up such a concept. Equally fascinating to them was their observing of the inventor’s method of listening to his device as he would remove the megaphone speaker, and clamp his teeth onto the instrument, his jaws and sinuses making a circuitous route to his inner ear. It was said he could tune a piano in the same way. The rather absurd spectacle led to the now archaic expression, “Are you hanging on my every word, or are you glad to see me?”
When Edison was very old, a tooth infection became a major setback to his health. He was weak and poisoned as a result. His solution was to have his remaining teeth pulled, and revert to a diet of milk, on the assumption that, if was good enough for babies, he would benefit as well. But it wasn’t good enough. He lost ground and died, unable to hear, unable to distinguish much sound at all with his sore gums. This was 1930, more than half a century after the battle that had rendered Custer moot. By 1930, Edison had made a great many recordings. A dream of his had been to capture the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a studio of seventy-five musicians. This was while the inventor still was in possession of his own teeth, when he was not nearly so deaf as the composer he so greatly admired.
The second violinist on the cylinder recording was Bill McGrew, an army veteran who had pursued his interest in music after playing in support of Custer’s somewhat unpredictable moods. Recruited from a store in West Orange, New Jersey that sold sheet music and lessons and instruments, Bill put in his day at the session just a few streets from the shop where he was employed, in the complex of laboratories dreamed up by Edison. As he studied and rehearsed his part in the proceedings, it occurred to him how many odd turns his life had taken, how many paths he had crossed. As a young man, he would never have thought that playing in Custer’s Seventh would lead to Beethoven’s Ninth.
Bill, who had lied about his age in order to join the army at fifteen, lived until November of 1948. He was walking home from the polls, having cast his ballot for Harry Truman, when he just collapsed in mid-step. Reasonably healthy until that moment, he was ninety-nine years old.

© Michael Zagst

baby changing

I used a bathroom in a restaurant today that had a baby changing table. This is remarkable. You wouldn’t see this years ago in a men’s room.

I don’t have a baby. But if I did, I would place the baby on the table, and change it into, I don’t know, a puppy?

Friday, May 6, 2011


I had the procedure a couple of years ago. Reclining on the table, gown open in the back, I was a little apprehensive. I asked the doctor what kind of anesthesia or sedative he would be using. He said, “You’ll be fully aware of everything, but you won’t care.” I said, ”But I already feel that way.”