Monday, October 20, 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

North Platte to Ogallala (part 2)

Day Thirty – Tuesday, August 5, 1919
mile 1,595 to 1,648
North Platte, Nebraska to Ogallala, Nebraska

Aug 5— Departed North Platte, 6:30 a.m. 9 miles west Class B Machine Shop #414319 sank in sandy road and was pulled out by 3 class B’s. One mile beyond Class B #48043 sank in soft sand, both right wheels and differential being buried. After five unsuccessful attempts, this truck was finally rescued by the combined efforts of the Militor and the Tractor, the cargo having first been removed. All trucks, except the F.W.D’s and some of the Class A trucks had to be pulled through this 200 yd. stretch of quicksand. The Militor handled 16 trucks, the Tractor 10, and in 8 instances the combined efforts of both Militor and Tractor were required. Delay 7 hours 20 minutes. 5 small bridges were damaged during day. Between Paxton and Roscoe 2 smaller sand holes were encountered, one on an up-grade, the F.W.D.’s and Militor only going through unassisted. Civilian automobile ran into Mack #51482, 8 miles east of Ogallala. Fair and warm. Roads soft sandy gumbo. Made 53 miles in 16 1/2 hours. Arrived Ogallala, Nebraska, 11:00 p.m.

In the daily log, that is the entire entry for the thirtieth day of the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was an almost perfectly average day.

An army maneuver conceived in the months after World War I, the convoy – thirty-seven officers, 258 enlisted men, eighty-one vehicles – traveled from Washington to San Francisco over the summer of 1919. It averaged barely sixty miles travel in a day, and on some days, it covered less than five, all in the best weather. The soldiers and their machines traveled the mid-west in dry season, and missed the adhesive mud. They crossed the mountains through passes that, ninety years later, are still snow-closed for months every winter. They missed the crippling blizzards of the high plains in places where winter temperatures can be the coldest in forty-eight states. Traveling any time but late summer, the convoy never would have arrived in San Francisco.

With War barely over, and the 1905 Japanese defeat of Russia less than a distant memory, army strategists anticipated conflict with Japan over influence in the Pacific. Projecting a Japanese siege of San Francisco, they predicted that the city would fall in three weeks. Traveling across America to find out how long it would take to reinforce the defenses, the convoy took sixty-two days. This was two days longer than the army planned for.

The First Transcontinental Convoy was traveling to test America's highways. In 1919, America had none to speak of.


Engineers have paved the sand road of west Nebraska. It is a two-lane blacktop now – highway 30. Except for local traffic, even paved, 30 isn’t much traveled now. In the 1970’s Transcontinental traffic moved to I-80, the four-lane highway that – in this part of America – parallels 30 through the Platte River Valley, along with the rail lines that cross Nebraska, and the routes of the Butterfield Stage, and the Pony Express, and the Mormon Trail, and the Oregon Trail, and the Sante Fe Trail.

I-80 is one room, three thousand miles long, with a few doors out of it in each state, and a d├ęcor that shifts subtly every two or three hundred miles, as topography and climate and the patterns of agriculture change around it. In Nebraska there are rest stops every sixty miles or so. The architects of the rest stops have designed these oases to orient travelers to the countryside, with small signs and arrows pointing out distant landmarks. West of Ogallala, Nebraska there are no quicksand pitfalls now, but the perimeter of each rest stop is marked with signs warning travelers of rattlesnakes.


The log entry – North Platte to Ogallala – was written in the memoranda pages of the Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, third edition. When the memoranda pages ran out, at page 285, the author continued to add pages, written in flawless, close-spaced schoolboy script, to page 312. The log is preserved now at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abeline, Kansas. In my files, Samantha Scroggie, who found the log for me, also left a record of the author’s name: Lt. E.R. Jackson, Ordnance Dept., U.S.A. Ordnance Observer.

My copy of the third edition is date-stamped May 11, 1918. The front pages of the Road Guide give the 1918 traveler an idea of what to expect that year, and how to prepare for a trip by motor across America. Among the Don’ts for Tourists are several warnings that map a rude geography of hardship.

Don’t allow your water can (west of Cheyenne, Wyo.) to be other than full of fresh water, and fill it whenever you get a chance. You might spring a leak in your radiator, or burst a water hose.
Don’t fail to have warm clothing in the outfit. The high altitudes are cold, and the dry air is penetrating.
Don’t carry loaded firearms in the car. Nothing of this kind is necessary except for sport, anyhow.
Don’t forget the yellow goggles. In driving west you face the sun all afternoon, and the glare of the western desert is hard on the eyes.
Don’t forget the camphor ice. The dry air of the west will crack your lips and fingers without it.
Don’t drink alkali water. Serious cramps result.
Don’t wear new shoes.

This all remains good advice.

North Platte to Ogallala (part 1)

"Dead people are all on the same level."
Attributed to Charlie Starkweather

Driving I-30 in western Nebraska, in that part of the state where the map is notched by Eastern Colorado, you ride the idiosyncratic boundary between two landscapes. One of these is the Platte River Valley, a flat green quilt of irrigation circles where the geometry of industrialized agriculture suppresses the natural features of the place. The other is an empty, buff-colored corrugation of sandy gullies and dry grass, the tail end of the Nebraska Sandhills. On I-30, if you look away from the highway, you see on one side of the car a managed Eden, and on the other, abruptly, a high plains desert.

As I write this, my daughter is fourteen. I mention this to put the next remarks in context. Her favorite films, just now, are probably Groundhog Day, Seven Samurai, and Jim Jarmusche’s Coffee and Cigarettes. Last summer, in a film program for high school students, she made a short homage to Coffee and Cigarettes, using for her key prop a rigged deck of cards instead of the coffee pot and ash tray. I like her taste in these things, and she mine, but I cannot interest her in a film that has always fascinated me: Terence Malick’s Badlands. As she says, Who wants to know about people like that?


The other reason I mention her age is that, this year, she is the same age as Caril Ann Fugate was when Fugate and her nineteen year old boyfriend, Charles Starkweather, murdered eleven people, for the most part in and around Lincoln, Nebraska, in the winter of 1958, and became, sixteen years later, the subject of Malick’s film. I would like to consider, for a moment, Fugate and Starkweather’s victims: Robert Colvert, age twenty-one, a gas station attendant with a wife and child, robbed and kidnapped and executed the first day of December, in 1957; Marion Bartlett, Caril Ann's stepfather and Velda Bartlett, her mother, both killed by Starkweather, perhaps in an argument that got out of hand, in their home, January twenty-first, 1958; Betty Jean Bartlett, Caril Ann’s two year old half-sister, Marion and Velda's daughter, stabbed and smothered, for crying; August Meyer, age 72, a family friend of Starkweather, killed on his farm six days later; Robert Jensen, age seventeen, and Robert's sixteen year old girlfriend Carol King, who picked up Charlie and Caril Ann hitch-hiking on the same day –January 27, 1958 – and died for their generosity; C. Lauer Ward, who is usually described, in the curious language of class, as a Lincoln industrialist, murdered the next day after returning from work, in the Lincoln home where his wife, Clara Ward, had already been killed after serving Starkweather and Fugate coffee and breakfast; Lillian Fencl, the Ward’s fifty-one year-old maid, tied up and stabbed to death after the Ward murders; and Merle Collison, a traveling shoe salesman from Montana, murdered by the side of the road in Wyoming, January 29, 1958, for not being quick enough to trade cars – Ward’s stolen Packard for his own Buick – with Starkweather and Fugate.

Malick takes the facts of Starkweather and Fugate and bends them to his own narrative ends. He changes names and places, moving the action from Nebraska and Wyoming to South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana; Charlie becomes Kit, Caril Ann becomes Holly. He shifts seasons, from winter to an endless summer. He draws out the story, so that it grows from an episode that, at its centre, lasts barely a week, until it has become an Odyssey of sorts, a journey across the high plains that goes on for weeks, perhaps almost forever. And, while he does not absolve Starkweather of guilt, he mitigates it, making his murders more a matter of survival, and less simply the impulsive acts of a borderline personality.

Malick doesn’t back away from Starkweather’s murderousness but, in the interest of his narrative, he establishes a poetic of sorts for it. Among Starkweather and Fugate’s killings, five were women or children; In the course of his story, Malick’s protagonists – Kit and Holly - may murder one; we are left, in passing, with a slim hope that she might live, but we never know. Malick edits out the female victims: Holly‘s father becomes a widower, she has no sister; although Kit and Holly invade a home like Lauer Ward’s, Clara Ward is edited out, and when Kit and Holly leave, we no more than a suspicion that they have murdered Ward and his maid. Instead of the women and children, Malick substitutes men who may be bounty hunters of sorts, three, killed by Kit in a virtuoso display of ambush and gunplay. He also substitutes a younger man for Meyer, and reworks the murders of Jensen and King, leaving their fate in question. This general re-shaping has the effect of eliminating the grimmest killings – a child stabbed and smothered, women mutilated – and leaving Holly less complicit in the mayhem.

At trial, when he learned that Caril Ann’s testimony would leave him responsible for all the killings, Starkweather recanted earlier statements absolving her, and worked instead to implicate her in the grisliest killings, especially the stabbing and sexual mutilation of Carol King.