Helmville Summer

In early June my dad drove me up the dust-choking unpaved roads of rural Montana to meet the Mannix family and kick off my summer job as a ranch hand. When we arrived, introductions and small talk were made in the yard outside the house, and, though some big lightning scarred cottonwoods provided shade for the old two-story clapboard house with its screened-in porch, we were gathered near the car in the blazing hot sun.

I was 14 and my dad thought working on a ranch would be “good for me.” It was the life he knew growing up, and he wanted me to experience it too. I was never sure if his intention was to motivate me, punish me, or just find out if I had what it takes to survive, but I knew he thought we would both learn something if I spent a summer on a ranch.

As a kid, I was always uncomfortable with strangers, especially adults busy talking to each other while I stood awkwardly around. That day, as the adults talked in the hot Montana sun I shifted from foot to foot and wished the trickle of sweat would stop running down my side. I wanted them to stop and get on with it when the world started to spin, my vision narrowed, and everything went black.

When I came to, I was on the ground, covered with dirt, looking up at the adults. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, me, my father whose wimpy son had just passed out in front of strangers, my aunt who had gone to lengths to find me the job, or the Mannix family who were wondering what they were going to do with the city kid who had just fainted in their yard. Not exactly the kind of start any of us wanted.

The adults helped me up and everyone offered their explanations – too hot, needed water, no breakfast, etc. I sat on the bumper of the car, put my head between my knees, and sheepishly recovered. After a time, when they were satisfied that it wasn’t anything serious, my dad and Aunt Winnie left.  In later years I wondered how my dad felt when he left me that morning? Was he mad? Sad? Relieved? Worried? I’ll never know, because he’s gone now and we never talked about it.

When he and Winnie were gone, Mrs. Mannix, with her white hair and flour covered apron, marched me to the room in the cookhouse I would share with Glen, their 17-year-old ranch hand.

I was a soft city kid, but Glen was the tough, self-reliant person I wanted to be. He’d grown up in the San Joaquin Valley of California and migrated to Montana with a set of practical skills acquired on his family’s small plot of land. He dropped out of high school but was a street-smart hard worker and a good teacher. He could have made my life miserable that summer but he didn’t. I suppose he was glad to have the company.

He was about my height but solidly built with a deeply tanned face and ropey veined forearms. He always wore the same thing – Levi’s, a pale blue work shirt with mother of pearl snap buttons, a Levi jacket if it was cold in the morning, scuffed high top shoes and the same straw “cowboy style” hat all of us wore to shade our faces from the blistering summer sun.

In those first days he taught me how to mount the family’s old stallion bareback then roundup and lead their three cows back to the barn. I learned how to milk them without having them step on my foot or kicking over the bucket before delivering the steamy warm milk to Mrs. Mannix and her kitchen crew. It wasn’t complicated, but he also taught me how to slop the pigs and feed the chickens and still get to the cookhouse by 6:30 in time for breakfast. My arrival was a good deal for him. These had been his chores before my arrival, and he got to sleep an extra half hour as long as I was there.

The real work of summer began in July with the start of haying season. I arrived in mid-June, so was able to learn a little about farm routine in the month before haying season began. I learned how to build fences and stretch barbed wire without ripping my skin to shreds and how to work on farm equipment without losing a finger. By the end of the first week my soft hands and heels were covered with big watery blisters and my face was crisp with sunburn.

In early summer Montana ranchers take their cattle up to pastures near the tree line where it’s cooler. One day in June, Glen and I rode up the treacherously steep hillside in the Mannix pick up to check and make sure they were OK. The pastures are high above the valley floor and coming back down we were bushwhacking through tall grass in the truck. I was clutching the door handle with one hand and the dashboard with the other because it felt like we were about to pitch forward over the hood. I saw then how competent and confident Bert was but also how vulnerable and close to the bone things were in that world.

When haying season arrived just after the 4th of July my education kicked up another notch. Not only were the days long and hard but so were the new faces that showed up. They were all white in those days. Mexican labor was a couple of decades away and much more reliable. These white transients were a new breed to me – indigent, nameless, and unpredictable – following the sun north as the crops ripened. There was an air of jaw-clenching danger about them. Mrs. Mannix confided that I was bunking with Glen in the cookhouse because it wasn’t safe for me to stay in the bunkhouse. For the next six weeks Glen and I lived across the corral from them but shared meals in the cookhouse with an ever-changing group of derelicts -unsavory, Muscatel drinking, Sterno-sipping, knife packing itinerants who performed backbreaking labor in the fields for $8 -10 a day. They ignored me, but I was fascinated by them.

Modern equipment and haying practices came late to the Helmville Valley. That was one of the last years that hay was still cut and raked with horse drawn equipment and stacked by hand. Now it’s baled or spun into giant rolls by mechanical balers. Back then, the family’s one concession to mechanized farming was a Rube Goldberg home-built contraption called a bull-rake adapted from a 1936 Buick and equipped with long wooden prongs protruding parallel to the ground in front. It chugged and sputtered through the fields lowering the prongs and picking up and rows of freshly cut hay to be delivered to the stacking area. I loved the smell of the fresh cut hay, especially in the morning. It still reminds me of summer when I smell it.  

Once delivered to the stacking area the hay was loaded on a slanted panel called a “beaver-slide,” winched to the top, and dropped into a box made of moveable panels. If you were a “stacker” you stood inside the paneled area with a pitchfork and distributed the newly dumped hay evenly within the panels. Stacking paid more than the other jobs but it was also the dirtiest and hardest job. If you were in the stack you were covered with dust and seeds and barely breathable air.

In the beginning I operated the beaver-slide winch attached to the wheels of a pickup truck but I was greedy and wanted to be a stacker when I realized I could take home $2 more a day. The finished stacks were 12-15 feet high and there was no solid footing as they were going up. You stood inside the wooden frame and stomped around in the soft hay with a pitchfork trying to even it out. My second day as a stacker I drove one of the pitchfork’s tines through my boot and into my foot. Luckily, it came out as cleanly as it went in and didn’t cause any serious damage. I limped around for a few days but I was able to continue as a stacker.

When a stack was finished the stackers were winched down the beaver slide, the panels moved to another location, and a new stack started. I worked as a stacker for the last three weeks of haying season and when it was over I threw away all of my socks because no amount of washing could rid them of the burrs and seeds that worked their way into the knitted spaces and drove me to near madness.

Saturday night in ranch country is a true and abiding social ritual. It’s been extolled, lamented, sung about, and satirized in every conceivable way. In 1952 it was at the heart of my summer experience. On a ranch there is no such thing as a 40-hour workweek. Work is finished when it’s finished but, weather permitting, Sunday is a day of rest. When Saturday’s work is done it’s time to take a bath in a big, galvanized tub with hot water from the cookhouse stove and get ready for a night out. I had a clean pair of dark blue Levi 501’s and one soft cotton plaid shirt. That was my dress outfit. Saturday night was a breakaway event for ranch families and the college and high school kids who worked for them.

Glen, had a 10-year-old Chevy Coupe and Bert had a sleek new Mercury sedan with a vinyl roof – a classic of the day. Bert was only 10 years older, but that was a lifetime in those days. He also had a pretty, Helmville-raised, girlfriend named Darlene whom he married a couple of years later. He was a ruggedly handsome young rancher whose only concession to fashion was pair of Tony Lama ostrich boots and a light colored felt Stetson for the weekend. On Saturday night he would load Glen and me in the back of the Merc with Darlene in front and take us to town. We were on our own for getting home, but Saturday night in rural Montana is a group activity. There was always someone willing to round up the stragglers and take them home even though the houses were sometimes 10 or 15 miles apart.

The night always started with a movie, and it didn’t matter much what it was. There was no real theater in Helmville.  The movie was shown in the church or Grange Hall, and when it came to “The End,” about 9, it was straight to the bar – the one and only bar in Helmville. It was long, narrow, and jammed with people. Some of the old timers had been drinking since late afternoon. The rest of us filed in after the movie and bellied up. That’s right; at 14 Glen and I were ordering drinks in a Montana bar. Jack and Glen’s Excellent Adventure. I was scared at first and sure something embarrassing would happen. I wasn’t sure what that might be but I knew I was tempting fate, and there might be a scene of some sort. It only happened once, when I asked the woman behind the bar for a Seven and Seven. She stopped what she was doing, put both hands on the bar, and looked at me with a smirky little smile. I backed away and she went back to work. I didn’t try it with her again, but I had a beer in my hand within a minute or two.

About 10 P.M. all fueled up, the ranch hands and college kids started looking for action. There was usually a dance somewhere in the area – Seeley Lake or Ovando were the closest towns big enough to draw a band and a crowd. Glen or one of the other young ranch hands would organize it, and we would pile into the cars and head off to the dance. Seeley Lake is 60 miles north of Helmville, a resort of sorts – primitive in those days – with a couple of bars, a few cabins, and rowboat rentals on the lake. But the bars were big enough to host a band and provide a small dance floor where we would stand around eyeing the local girls and nursing beers and until it was 1 or 2 A.M. and time to leave for home.

One night after an excursion to Seeley Lake, Glen was driving us back to the ranch in his old Chevy Coupe, a friend riding shotgun, and me zonked out on the narrow back seat, when suddenly I was tumbling around, bouncing off the front seat, then the roof, then back on the seat and around again with the air full of dust, empty beer bottles, a Copenhagen tin, and a loose screwdriver as we rolled over and over down a grassy hill. Then silence.

I was terrified I might be the only one not dead and wondering what I would do if that was true. It seemed like minutes but it was probably only 15 or 20 seconds, before someone asked, “Is everyone OK?” There was another pause and then two tentative “I think so” replies. When it sank in that everyone was OK and that no one was seriously hurt the three of us climbed out through the passenger side door, which was now sky side up. We all had bruises and small cuts, but there were no broken bones or worse.

Glen had been going too fast, started to drift on a gravelly corner, and caught a tire in a Montana pothole. The car flipped to the outside of the turn and down the grassy embankment. When we were all out of the car and had surveyed the wreckage, the three of us climbed back up the bank and when we were on the road looked down at the car whose headlights were two yellow spots pointed at the sky.  We left the car. No police were called. A passing car picked us up and took us home. I don’t remember if Glen ever went back to claim the car. I sincerely believe the heavy steel and rigid frame of that old Chevy Coupe saved our lives. We had no seat belts or other protection, but cars were built of stronger materials in those days.  Was it the steel, good luck or fate? That may have been the first of my nine lives.

The following morning, I got up and everything seemed like it was back to normal, I rounded up the milk cows and did the chores. At breakfast I didn’t look Mrs. Mannix in the eye for fear she would ask a question I didn’t want to answer about the bruises and the night before. In the afternoon Glen and I tossed a football around the yard, and on Monday morning we were back in the field putting up stacks. 

At the end of August, it was over. My ranch adventure at an end. It was bittersweet. I hated to say goodbye, especially to Glen, but I was looking forward to seeing my friends at home. Aunt Winnie came up from Deer Lodge to retrieve me. We stopped at the Drummond Rodeo on the way home. It was her gift and a fitting way to close out my Montana summer.


Fast forward to today…

I’ve always been proud of my Montana roots and maintained a connection there. My mom was born in Missoula and so was I. She attended school with Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, and his brother Paul, the tragic sibling in the novel. Both of my parents graduated from the University of Montana and so did my daughter, Diana, and son-in-law Nick. My oldest son, Brent, graduated from Montana State in Bozeman and grandson, Will, started as a freshman at U of M last year. Four generations of Bernards rooted in western Montana soil.

A few years ago, I took Marilynn back to see Helmville, the Mannix ranch, Seeley Lake, and old Missoula. I went to the one-person Helmville Post Office and asked about the Mannix family. Yes, they were still there, she told me, and the ranch was bigger than ever. What was 8000 acres when I worked there is now 18,000 deeded and 30,000 leased acres. This is a big cattle and timber operation.

On our return to Seattle, I wrote the Mannix family asking about the members I knew back in the day. In return, I received a handwritten letter from Darlene. Bert, unfortunately, died a couple of years ago but Glen, my roommate, is still alive and lives nearby. Bert and Darlene’s three sons and their wives run the ranch now while Darlene enjoys her role as great-grandmother-in-chief.

Recently, I’ve been in touch with Logan Mannix, one of the fifth-generation, the next in line to take over. His curiosity and our back and forth has made me feel I’m part of their extended family. My summer in Helmville was a rite of passage, and it feels important to stay connected to the Mannix family.

The circle of life continues… because this winter my 18 year-old grandson, Will Price, is working on a ranch in Patagonia. I’m hoping his ranch experience is as memorable and satisfying as mine was 68 years ago in Helmville.

Tony B and Lady G: Music Masters Squared

The human brain may be the most astonishing byproduct of the great miracle of creation. It has enabled the specie to unpack secrets of the galaxy, travel to the moon and back, write War and Peace, paint the Mona Lisa and compose the Ninth Symphony. But, human life is finite, and the brain often fades before the rest of the organism lets go.

In 2001, at age 74, Tony Bennett released the first of a series of duet albums. It was called Playin’ with my Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues. The following year he teamed up with k.d. lang for A Wonderful World, the first of six duet albums with fellow artists collaborating on songs from the American songbook. Duets: An American Classic (2006), Duets II (2011), Cheek to Cheek with Lady Gaga (2014), Tony Bennett Celebrates 90 (2016), and Love for Sale, the second album with Lady Gaga (2021). Cheek to Cheek debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Love for Sale, released on September 30, 2021 came in at #8. Here’s the astonishing part.

In 2016, Tony’s wife Susan announced his Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses. Scientists have long known that music is an effective therapy for Alzheimer’s patients. It can increase pleasure and slow the deterioration of memory loss, but that generally applies to those on the receiving end rather than the performing one. Nevertheless, Tony continued to perform…flawlessly, including two sold out Radio City Music Hall concerts with Lady Gaga in August of this year.

His neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi, explains that although he doesn’t remember facts or even performances (a week after the Radio City concerts, he had no memory of them) the music brain engages multiple other parts of the brain that include musical memory and performance.

I own all the duet albums but am especially fond of the Lady Gaga collaborations. Their first collaboration was a hip upbeat version of The Lady is a Tramp on the Duets II album in 2011, and it’s still my favorite. For years I regarded her as a pop music curiosity. I thought she was more interested in making outrageous entrances than making music. I continued to see Gaga, whose real name is Stephani Germanotta, as a fringe figure until her film debut opposite Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born. In the film she revealed herself both as a sensational singer (La Vie en Rose and I’ll Always Remember Us This Way) and songwriter (9 songwriting credits, including Oscar winner Shallow).

After A Star is Born, I began paying closer attention to her musical talent—and her remarkable affection for Mr. Bennett. These Bennett/Gaga partnership albums are not sentimental, end of life curiosities. We always knew he had exceptional phrasing, but the albums show Gaga’s great jazz and swing chops as well as the way she energizes and brings out the best in him.

With the Cheek to Cheek and Love for Sale albums, we see (videos) and hear masterful, original arrangements of these American songbook standards by two musical giants. The songs are old, but the arrangements and chemistry are fresh and exciting. Nothing sad or melancholy here.

You might remember that, following a similar diagnosis, Glen Campbell made a farewell tour with his children, reprising his old hits, including a documentary and farewell album. It was touching, but the whole thing had a sadly sentimental feel. Tony Bennett’s final act is as classy as his first #1 hit Because of You (1951) and his most iconic chart topper, I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962).

Japan designates its best artists as “national treasures. The closest we come is a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Tony received that award in 2005. I can’t do justice to the what he and Lady Gaga achieved in their duets, but the whole of their collaboration is greater than the sum of its parts. And, the skill, love, friendship, and empathy Lady Gaga shows is astonishing. 

The CBS show 60 Minutes dedicated a segment to Tony’s “Final Act” just three weeks ago (October 3, 2021). If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the 13 minutes it takes – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tony-bennett-lady-gaga-alzheimers-disease-60-minutes-2021-10-03/

As if the music weren’t enough, we also remember Tony was a well-respected painter. This is a sketch he did of Lady Gaga during one of their recording sessions, and the picture above the title of this blog is a view of Central Park from Tony and Susan’s apartment on Central Park South. He’s still with us but we need to honor his national treasure status while he is.

Photographs courtesy of CBS News. Painting from the online collection at BenedettoArts.com

Denmark, Dinesen, and Serendipity…

Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the Word of the Lord is to the soul.

Isak Dinesen aka Karen Blixen

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the mystery of personal connections. Six degrees of separation is just the tip of the iceberg. I never met Karen Blixen, but I knew a friend of hers, and the way we met and its consequences remain one of those enduring mysteries.  

In the winter of 1965, I was four months into a solo tour of Europe. I had traveled around southern Europe and the Middle East but wanted to see Germany and Scandinavia as well. It wasn’t the best time of year to visit, but I thought it might be my only opportunity. I flew from Istanbul to Frankfurt, took the train to Berlin, and after a few days there, opted to take the train to Copenhagen. That meant riding an East German train to the Danish ferry at Warnemunde. I thought it would be an adventure for an ex-US Marine to ride through the “evil empire.” But first I had to get from West Berlin to the station in East Berlin and transfer to the East German train.

I was alone and unsure of how to transfer when my West German train arrived at the Bahnhof in East Berlin. I climbed on the wrong train but the platform conductor noticed my mistake and helped me find the right one and get settled in a compartment. The only other passenger in the compartment was an older woman, and just before departure the conductor came back to whisper something to her. Later, she told me his words were, “Look after him. He’s an American.”

I’m not good at judging ages. I was 27 at the time and guessed her age as somewhere over 70. Maggie Andersen was returning to Copenhagen after visiting a dying friend in Berlin. I think the conductor’s concern gave her a reprieve from the sadness she was feeling. At first, I was just grateful for her company and conversation, but later it became became a genuine friendship. When the train arrived at Warnemunde to be loaded on the ferry, she invited me to join her in the ship’s dining room for a Danish smorgasbord buffet. Later, on the way to Copenhagen, she invited me to stay at her apartment.

I never really knew my grandmothers, but from that moment on I thought of her as my Danish grandmother. We stayed in touch and remained friends for more than 20 years. I visited her several times, had a brief affair with her “granddaughter” Jane, spent time at her seaside cottage, introduced her to my wife and kids when they came along, and on my last visit, shortly before she died, played the guitar, drank shots of Akvavit, and talked with her late into the night.

Today I found Jane’s Facebook page. I might not have recognized her, except that her profile picture, in an SAS ground hostess uniform, was taken around the time I knew her – 55 years ago – one of Facebook’s positive attributes in bringing friends back together. 

I’ve always related better to women than men. This is just one instance, but I know the story has legs. Time blurs memory. I know Maggie had an unhappy marriage to a Danish admiral who committed suicide. She had no children of her own, but raised Helle, Jane’s mother. When Helle left town she left Jane too, and Maggie adopted her. These relationships are a mystery, but without this weird setup I would never have met Jane.

As my friendship with Maggie grew, she introduced me to Karen Blixen’s writing, told me of their friendship, and showed me her house at Rungstedlund. I began to read her work, especially Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa and was mesmerized by her personal style. Lately, while reading about Beryl Markham, the first person to fly east to west across the Atlantic, I discovered that she and Karen were friends in Africa, and that they were involved in a love triangle with Denys Finch-Hatton, the safari guide/pilot who gave Markham her first flying lessons. 

When Maggie learned of my interest in literature, she gave me her soft leather-bound copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a book she had given her father in 1922 but got back when he died. Today, I learned that Finch-Hatton gave the same book to Karen Blixen. Another mysterious coincidence. Sadly, I’ve let the soft leather deteriorate but I’ve found a talented book binder who has done some minor repairs and is building a beautiful box to keep it in. 

Jane and I are catching up on the long break in our friendship thanks to Facebook. Six degrees of separation doesn’t begin to unravel these mysterious, complicated, serendipitous, encounters.

Karen Blixen had it right, but it isn’t only the women of Denmark who think coffee is “what the Word of the Lord is to the soul.” My friend,Todd Rippo, owner of Java on Fourth in Ketchum, Idaho serves a special coffee called a “bowl of soul.” I think of him often as I’m brewing my morning latte. 

Maggie’s Thatch-roofed Cottage on Zealand

Chasing Dottie’s Dust…

Dorothy Parker. Does anyone born after 1970 even know the name? Maybe not, but at 4’11” she was larger than life. Writer, screenwriter, wit, poet, founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, and gin lover extraordinaire. She continues to haunt us. If Molly Ivins’ quick wit makes you smile or you cringe at Maureen Dowd’s acid putdowns, Dorothy Parker is in your wheelhouse. The Portable Dorothy Parker, originally published in 1944, is one of three in the Portable Series, along with volumes devoted to the Bible and Shakespeare that has remained in continuous print since first published.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is The-Portable-DP.jpg

Dorothy’s precocious wit was in evidence early in her childhood. The daughter of a Jewish father and Scottish Protestant mother, she attended the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side until asked to leave for characterizing the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”

Her quick witted take on people and events continued up until her death. When asked about an epitaph, she suggested “Excuse my dust,” and in the end (no pun intended) her dust had an interesting “life” of its own.

Four years after the overdose death of Alan Campbell, the husband she married twice, she died of a heart attack thought to have been brought on by her devotion to gin. When the Parker estate was probated, the surprise beneficiary was Dr. Martin Luther King. Ms Parker, who had no children, was an admirer of Dr. King’s and when he was murdered less than a year after her death the estate passed to the NAACP.

Her ashes were a different matter. They remained unclaimed at the crematorium for three years then were given to her New York lawyer who kept them in a filing cabinet for 17 more. Eventually, they were sent to NAACP headquarters in Baltimore and a small garden memorial erected in her memory.

But… as with so many things in her life (and death) that was not the end of the story. In 2020, the NAACP moved its headquarters to Washington, and the question of her ashes was raised again. Eventually, relatives asked that they be returned to the family. On her birthday last year (August 22, 2020) she was buried in the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

And yet… she continues to hold our attention. My friend, Delia Cabe wrote a short history of the Algonquin Round Table in her fabulous book Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink (Countrymen Press, 2017), complete with the recipe for the Algonquin’s Blue Bar tribute drink,

The Dorothy Parker.
2-3 ounces of gin
½ ounce St. Germain
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Honey to taste
Fresh basil leaves

Allen Katz, general manager of the New York Distilling Company and creator of The Dorothy Parker recipe, added an interesting postscript to Ms. Parker’s burial at Woodlawn. In 2011, Mr. Katz, a longtime fan of Ms. Parker’s, named the distillery’s gin after her, and when Parker relatives were raising money for the headstone, he added a limited-edition Dorothy Parker Gin with all sales donated to the project. It sold out in less than a day.

The burial at Woodlawn was completed on her birthday in 2020, but the unveiling of her headstone, intended for her birthday this year, was postponed one day because of Hurricane Henri. Not surprisingly, she was born during a hurricane too.

The final event was attended by a cadre of Parker aficionados who sipped gin and recited verses of her poetry. The headstone, in addition to her dates, included the last verse of her poem “Epitaph for a Darling Lady.”

Leave for her a red young rose,
Go your way and save your pity;
She is happy, for she knows
That her dust is very pretty

Rusting Infrastructure…

The new Showtime series, American Rust, has two-fold resonance for me. The episodes are released on a weekly basis, so at this point it’s hard to predict its arc, but the empty storefronts, crumbling steel mill, and desperate characters touch me and set up parallels I see and feel.


Back in October of 1990, I was in Berlin. It was exactly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. October 3rd was designated German Reunification Day, the day East Germany (DDR) reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany. My wife and I lived in West Berlin during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, so it’s not surprising that we had tears in our eyes as we walked through the Brandenburg Gate where armed guards and barbed wire had, for all those years, kept us from crossing over to the East. That day, the crowd was immense. Total strangers were smiling, hugging, and giving high fives. It was euphoric but the beginning of a tough transition.

The next day we loaded our bikes on the U-Bahn, the WWII era subway that passes under both sides of the city. During the Cold War it still ran, but East Berlin stations were blocked. On October 4th we rode to the end of the line, not far from the Polish border, where we disembarked to begin our ride back.

It was late afternoon when we started. The October light was fading, and the euphoria of the day before had abated. It felt surreal. The landscape was from another time. As we rode, we passed through residential neighborhoods, saw abandoned factories, and as we approached the center of the city, row upon row of featureless Russian-style apartment blocs.

East German Factory

We hadn’t prepared for a night ride, but as dusk approached single yellow streetlights hanging from sagging wires were beginning to come on. I was reminded of The Third Man (1949) Orson Welles’ famous film noir. The dark cobblestone streets were bumpy, uneven, and empty. It was eerie after the excitement of Reunification Day. Eventually, the bright lights of West Berlin appeared on the horizon and we were back in our decade. I will always remember the excitement of Reunification Day, but the picture seared in my mind is how it looked and felt riding through the East the following afternoon.

All of this is coming back as we watch Showtime’s American Rust. The America pictured in the series is not much different from what we saw in East Berlin. Abandoned factories, empty storefronts, dilapidated trailer parks…and people left behind as their jobs and futures disappear. The Pennsylvania steel mill that provided good jobs is a rusting metaphor for their present day poverty and drug problems.

Abandoned Pennsylvania Steel Mill

There is a scene in the first episode where Jeff Daniels, playing sheriff Del Harris, reminds an auctioneer from Pittsburgh, who’s come to town to foreclosure on a property, that “We’re a lot closer to West Virginia than we are to Pittsburgh.” In the background, a group of townies with guns standby, waiting for the auction. Sheriff Harris offers to escort the agent to the city limits and when the agent asks if he’s being run out of town the sheriff says, “No. Just making sure you have safe passage.”

In 2007 Marilynn and I rode our bikes from Copenhagen to Berlin. Entering the city, we rode directly to the same Brandenburg Gate I had walked through on Reunification Day. Directly in front of us was a sign of the change. Starbucks now has pride of place in the heart of what was once the capital of East Germany.

Our ride from the ferry in Rostock to Berlin took us through the Mecklenburg region of what had been East Germany. It’s primarily agricultural land, but prior to reunification included manufacturing sites, now abandoned.

Today, the Baltic coast has a flourishing tourist trade, but the interior of Mecklenburg-Pomerania is depressed. The West German “miracle” it was promised never materialized. In recent years the region has become a center for Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), the right wing, neo-Nazi party. Our 2007 ride happened to coincide with an election cycle, and we were stunned at the presence of its posters. The AfD was unsuccessful in that election, but elected 88 of the Bundestag’s 709 delegates last year. It’s not unlike disenfranchised voters rising up in the depressed areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

American Rust is dark. It’s characters, including Sheriff Harris, are conflicted. Some are good. Some bad. Some caught in between. But their backstories are the abandoned steel mill, loss of jobs, family stresses, and opioid addiction that lead to an absence of hope. They are much the same as the citizens of Mecklenburg-Pomerania the end of the Cold War. Promises of prosperity never materialized after the tattered East German safety net was pulled out from under them. The right-wing AfD filled the void with new promises.

What happened in Washington on January 6, 2021 was not fiction. The election of 88 AfD Bundestag delegates was not fiction. The Big Lie is not fiction. I will be hanging on the unfolding fiction of American Rust until its conclusion (Episode 8) on October 31. Congress can mitigate the non-fiction problems of Appalachia and abandoned factories of the South and Midwest by passing the two infrastructure bills now before it. They are not silver bullets, but they will create jobs, repair failing roads and bridges, assist families, and plug holes in the American safety net. I’ve driven over America’s broken roads and bridges. I’ve seen its abandoned factories. I’ve watched Oregon vigilantes take the law in their own hands. I won’t be around when The Decline and Fall of the American Empire is written – but my grandchildren might be. If it is, I hope it’s fiction. My fingers are crossed.

Berlin photo courtesy of Jasche Hoste