MacFarland

by John Cutler


I arrived in Van Horn, in West Texas, in December of 1990. My job was to find a place to put our company's cellular transmitter that would cover Interstate 10, for which Van Hom is a watering hole. After driving around town confused for a day and a half, not really knowing where to start, I noticed that the mountain just north of town had a telephone pole on top of it. It was distinguished by the giant white letter V painted on the side of it. This generally meant that electrical power might be available without special construction costs, in the days when we only dreamed of building a site with solar power. So I decided to research the ownership of the mountain. "Excuse me, do you know who owns that mountain with the giant white V painted on it?" I asked a telephone company lineman on a pole near the county courthouse. "That's old man MacFarland," he answered, offering directions to his ranch five miles out of town. "Good luck," he added with a smile. From the lineman's demeanor, I gathered that MacFarland was a difficult man.

A woman answered the door, which was protected from the hot January sun by the ranch house's overhanging roof. "Hello, Ma'm, my name is John Cutler and I would like to speak to the owner of that mountain, and a phone company guy in town told me that that would be Mr. MacFarland, who I believe lives here. Is Mr. MacFarland here?" She smiled and went back inside to get him. I stood on the stone walkway with that feeling of excited vacancy I would get when approaching a new land owner. I was only 8 months into this job and hadn't perfected the art of the introduction. Each land deal simply happened. No amount of preparation seemed to help, although, thinking back, no amount of preparation was ever employed. Deals hatched out of long and uncontrolled conversations.

"I'm Bill MacFarland, please come in," said the short, wiry man with a direct gaze, his gold wire-rimmed glasses and medium frame making him appear birdlike. He appeared sharp, which is always preferable over a back-slapping, lying idiot whose word isn't worth sand. He asked me to sit down. I found a wooden chair in the comer as he settled into a large Lazy-Boy, which was much larger than he was. "First thing you need to know about me is that I am an atheist and a tea-totaller." He looked at me. I looked back, smiling, searching within myself for a response. I looked at him, eyes remaining level, not smiling. "Really?", I offered, wanting to know more. The electronic buzz of a television in an adjacent room was ended by his wife, who could be heard wandering through the adjoining rooms. I looked at him. He was twenty feet away, as we were sitting at opposite sides of the living room. A clock ticked, the only sound available. I forgot about V Mountain.

"Now, a lot of people take issue with this fact of mine, however, I believe it is both important and necessary to let you know right off. I just hope you are not of a certain denomination that will prevent us from talking about whatever it is we need to talk about because of some abstract difference that just isn't worth much of our time together." His wife brought out some iced-tea while I explained that I was a nominal Protestant, not going to church but having a Mother who was a Christian Scientist who lived it more than talked about it. I hadn't answered his question directly, but I had satisfied his curiosity by conveying an honest depiction of my background for his benefit. All the while he sat there, 20 feet away. As with any stranger, especially when you are in their territory, I began to wonder if he was unsafe. I quickly remembered his wife's careful and intelligent demeanor and instantly realized that at worst he was going to be eccentric.

The initial shock of our meeting wore off for me, and Mr. MacFarland assumed a smiling aspect. My perception of him improved to where I realized, consciously, that we were having a conversation about any and all subjects beyond the immediate concems of my leasmg V Mountain, the subject of which I thought of bringing up again. I became interested in the nature of the land he owned, asking about the number of cows he ran on it, a question I brought to him as if asking someone in my homeland of New England how many dogs or cats they owned. "Don't take offense, but I should treat you here like I would one of my boys," he replied. "In this part of the world you don't ask a man how many cows he has because it's like asking him how many CD's he has in the bank." I was instructed, and appreciated his honesty. He went on to describe different aspects of his life on his ranch: his computer modem via which he talked real time to his nephew in Lubbock; the time as a World War Two marine pilot he flew his P-38 Mustang under the Golden Gate bridge, escaping prosecution; the gypsum mine up the road, just beyond his the original ranch house; his property, which extended for nine miles north and west of his home; his family's life, and the history of the railroad, from the time his father first settled in Van Hom in 1919; the book he was writing entitded "Burn Down West Point", a diatribe against infantry ground operations in the coming Gulf War, which happened to begin only days after our meeting.

Later we got back to talking about V Mountain. I leamed that the sheriff's department had once put a transmitter on the hill in the late fifties, but that the site was taken out of service and the power line was now largely on the ground. I told him that without power there was probably nothing we could do with him in the short term but that I would like to see the site sometime in the near future when I had more time, although when I think back to that time, I realize I had more free time than I knew what to do with. I lacked the ability to identify what was possible in a days time and was filled with a frenzy to find it. V Mountain would not work, and despite our conversations, this interesting old man could not help me any further in my search.

I walked out to my rental car with him and we proceeded to talk in the driveway for over two hours where he told me many more stories and I received a severe and unexpected sunburn. Mostly we swapped stories about politics and Van Horn of the pre-War years, a conversation comprised mostly of his answers to my questions. At some point he began speaking of the Van Horn of today: "These damn kids here, all they do is go to school and then go home and watch cable T.V., nothing like in my day. Air conditioning. You'll notice that my house is not air conditioned. You do not need air conditioning. Lazy little bastards. The best thing that has ever happened to the kids in this town is the McDonald's that opened up. Did you see it out by the highway? Now at least the kids can work at a regular job where they've got to be there on time, work eight hours and then their money is their own. Why, did you see the signs on the road on your way up here? "Litter Removal by the Youth of Van Horn". Bullshit. They're never out there, the Youth of Van Horn. They're in town, drinking and fornicating, watching cable T.V. in their air conditioned houses. Do you know who cleans up that trash? I do! I clean up that trash! I am the < < Youth of Van Hom> > !" I laughed and agreed, not from having seen any youthful citizens of Van Horn, but because I have always been disappointed with my peers. Extrapolating from my experience in the post-collegiate ghetto found in parts of San Francisco, full of fast-aging, permanently retarded hipsters. I found a common thread with Mr. MacFarland. I imagined him picking up garbage along a low traffic count road, perhaps one of Van Horn's most prominent men, leaning over picking up beer cans, discarded T-shirts and fast-food wrappers thrown away by puffy teens from Van Horn and pot-smoking, desert- questing collegiate derelicts. With Mr. MacFarland at my side, I dwelled upon the massive disappointment that is America's youth, asleep in the cynicism that naturally follows laziness. We both agreed and kicked gravel and sand beneath our feet. I was 26 at the time.

"You want to know what the problem is with Americans?", Mr. MacFarland asked. "Guess. Guess what the problem is with Americans". He was smiling in a way that went far beyond simple mischief.

"They hate their fathers", I replied, not thinking overly long, having just read some Robert Bly drivel. At the tume I had some use for it. But Mr MacFarland corrected me, answering his own question.

"I'll tell you what the problem is. They're..." and he motinned magnanimously into the sky with his oustretched arms, his mouth and eyes opening in mock wonder, "...and they're...", and he moved his hands to the seat of his pants. I went back to thinking he was some sort of gifted deviant, but he repeated this gesture several more times, not looking at my reaction, simply acting out the repeated gesture. Then, looking at me and acting out, he put his hands behind his tail one last time saying "ooh" as if he was being goosed by reality in between his advances upon heaven. "The problem with America is that everyone is talking to God, talking to God, and then they're covering their asses, covering their asses! We're a nation of hypocrites, talking to God and covering our asses", explained Mr. MacFarland. He was devoid of anger, simply delighting in explaining the truth of the matter. I was not sure of what to do with this new information. He continued with an explanation of the emotional lives of the global human population, also known as soul-bearing apes. After a while he recognized that I did need to get going, as the sun was past noon and we had spent all morning talking. "If you are out in the world somewhere," he told me, "send me a postcard. Address it to the MacFarland Ranch, Van Hom, Texas. It'll find me." And he gave me directions to his other ranch house, which was on the road to the gypsum mine, where I would find his pet llamas and burros. "A guy named Herman lives out there, John. He's a hermit. He's a real hermit, kind of funny in his ways, but when you get there just mention my name, he'll show you around." I left Mr. MacFarland standing in his driveway as I motored towards the home in which he grew up.

I looked in my rear-view mirror as V mountain disappeared behind the rising walls of the canyon I was entering. It was red rock country. It was my first time working in this region, generally identified with the southwest. But this wasn't New Mexico or Arizona, or even Utah - this wasn't the land of minivans and servile National Parks. Just rock canyon walls. After two miles of winding, well-worn dirt road I found the old ranch house hidden in a grove of trees and surrounded by an acre of grasses and scrub brush; a stream, nearly emptied, twisted through the place while a small herd of goats, maybe twenty in number, were eating the bark off the sparse bushes. As I got out of the car, their heads turned and looked at me in unison. I yelled out over their complaints for Herman. Despite Mr. MacFarland's introduction, I found myself quietly terrified of the unseen hermit. I yelled out his name a third time, but could see no sign of a living man.

I turned to survey the ranch. The distant goat pen fence was made of barbed wire, ancient mesquite posts, and what were presumably mining truck tires. The house, painted long ago in green paint with faded yellow trim, resembled a hopeful intention at a ginger bread house. It was inviting in the sense that the ghost-like invites: it invites just more than it terrifies. It had been lived in, but was now only a memory of familial love long passed away.

I called out Herman's name again, and it was then that I first saw him. He was sitting near the goat pen fence beneath a desert oak. "Excuse me, hello there! Mr. MacFarland sent me down here. He said you'd show me around the place, the house, the animals." Herman rose slowly and suspiciously from his crouched position and began coming towards me.

"Mr. MacFarland sent you?", he quietly challenged in a low, cracking voice. I quickly ran through the V Mountain story, explaining how I'd met Mr. MacFarland and who I was. This seemed to give him respite. I anticipated Herman's approach as he slowly walked towards me. I stood by my car, the "keys in the ignition" warning bell making for an unwanted display of my emotional alarm. Herman wore a tractor cap and several wool shirts, while his filthy khaki pants were missing buttons or were just undone. He was old and missing teeth, but his eyes began to appear safe as he drew closer. He was clutching a transistor radio, tuned into a distant argument amongst unknown participants. We shook hands. Herman was hardly five feet tall and hadn't shaved recently.

"Hey get out of there!", he suddenly exploded to the side at the goats in the bushes. "Damn goats. Always into something."

"I used to have goats back where I'm from in Massachusetts", I said following his motion. "Goats are great. Great animals." Goats are great, I thought. Herman studied me.

"Massachusetts," he muttered.

"Yes. I'm from Massachusetts. Spent a lot of time in Maine. Where are you from?"

He turned off his radio. "Been here ten years. All around. Michigan. Used to be Idaho." He had worked in an auto plant at one time, and described his life on various production lines - a long, uneven season of autos and meatpacking. As we discussed various cities, which consisted of me chattering on in order to fill the empty space opened between us, the goats remained Herman's constant concern, wandering in the brush, violating Herman's ideas. The goats trotted off in every direction, not paying much attention to Herman's cries for order and compliance.

The goats continued to scatter until Herman called the project off; it was not clear to me, and surely not to the goats, where the herd was supposed to go according to Herman's criterion; apparently Herman, like some modern artist, was not happy with their placement. As he returned from the bushes I asked him if I could see the llamas and he agreed to give me a tour of the barn and pens. The place was a chaotic scene of free roaming animals: peacocks perched on fenceposts, donkeys roaming in and out of random holes in the fencing, chickens wandering underfoot everywhere. The llamas were in a secure pen, made of eight-foot high tractor tires. They were too proud to be petted and went off to the other side of the pen, the back wall of which was comprised of a thirty-foot high rock shaped distinctly and stunningly like a mushroom cloud, an inverted piece of desert. "I go into town with my milk about once a week and sometimes the Mexicans come out and buy my goats for the meat. The goats are a good herd, a good life." He had apparently forgotten the tempers I'd seen flaring in his goats afield. In a secluded pen behind the llamas he showed me his special baby goat enclave, where three tiny goats lived safely in an reinforced, coyote-proof pen. He picked up one of them up and held it in his arms.

There, holding his goats, Herman became suddenly charismatic. "I don't like what's going in the world. My goats are barely safe even here. Communists are taking over the country. Why that damn Bush is a communist, he is, with the bankers and the companies, all trying, they're taking everything over, everything in the world." His face was pained, and I thought of him crumbling even as he accelerated his verbal pace. "Pretty soon we're going to have those grocery store bar codes on our foreheads. Read St. John's Revelations - the mark of the devil, this is about in the world, and we cannot stop its execution, the die has been cast, and eternal hellfire and damnation are the just rewards, for all the people, and with it," and he began speaking too quickly for me to understand. He picked up another goat and continued speaking, aggravated by his knowledge and losing his ability to vary or end his repetitions.

The hermit's prophecy got me thinking about my present job in a new light: providing transmitter stations to cover the rural United States with cellular service, the long term goal of which was to provide each person who wanted one with a personal phone number. Indeed, I was in the business and the business had brought me out here to Herman. "Have you read the book of St. John?" he demanded of me. I said that I had read parts, and I exhibited an unwanted smile. Herman needed a phone, to call home, although it seemed that he spent most of his time dialing God with his transistor radio. "If you read it you'll see what I mean." I agreed with his views, seeking to end his painful monologue, which confused me although any fear of Herman had collapsed as I saw more clearly how troubled was this goat-holding man.

He exhausted himself, and retumed to the long tired moment I had interrupted when I arrived. He remembered my former wish to see the main house, and he showed the way without speaking. As we entered I breathed the hot air of the closed house and feared him once more, not knowing who or what else resided there. The house had not been lived in by anyone for years. A bedroom with a collapsed ceiling appeared. A ten-pound rock lay on the bed, ceiling boards extending from ceiling to bed. He told me it was a meteorite. I lifted it from the bed and examined it, filled with wonder, hoping it actually was a meteorite. Herman exploded in laughter. "Works every time!" He told me that the rock had been laying on the bed for the past two years, the result of the gypsum mine using too much dynamite one day during its blasting operations. I placed the rock back on the bed and there it was sure to remain. Herman was not about to move it. It was a monument to the potential of meteorites and blasting operations, causing one to survey one's chances in the world.

I left him there, on the porch of the house he did not live in. "I bet you can get a lease with Mr. MacFarland," Herman said. "He's a good man. The best. Even though he says he's an atheist, well, I'll tell you what, he acts more Christian than most of the phonies out there. He's a good man, Mr. MacFarland. He's a good, kind man, Mr. MacFarland. You can do a deal with him, I bet." He offered me the three eggs from the goat pen, which he had been walking around with the whole time, but I politely declined. I said good-bye, thanking him for his time. I said I would drop by to visit him again next time, whenever that might be. I reentered my car and was again a lone working guy, driving in my rental in the open desert air, back down the dirt road, through the darkening canyon, back to Interstate 10.


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