Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Louis L'Amour - The Wisdom of a Pulp Fiction Writer

"If you write a book set in the past about something that happened east of the Mississippi, it's a 'historical novel.'  If you write about something that took place west of the Mississippi, it's a 'Western'-and somehow regarded as a lesser work.  I write historical novels about the frontier."  
     - Louis L'Amour
Many is the time I found myself lost in the desert fighting the elements and other men for survival.  In fur and self-made clothing I have traveled the length and breadth of Siberia on foot.  I have descended into the kiva on a haunted mesa and entered the Third World.  I have stepped onto new shores, crossed mountain passes, and rivers.  Ancient cities have housed me.  I have built new towns and communities.  Treasure, love, and challenge have called out to me.

The power of Louis L'Amour's books are palpable.  His stories capture important aspects of the human experience.  They are simple stories about struggle, striving, failure, and triumph.  His plots are simple, yet direct.  To me they transmit important historical and cultural mores and values that define part of America and part of who I want to be.  A couple of his novels took place where I grew up.  It was easy for me to place myself in his novels of the west, of the frontier.  There, where I was a boy, the frontier was in the not too distant past.  Old roads and trails, dilapidated buildings gave evidence of the closeness of the wilder days.

L'Amour captured the American drive to become somebody, to create something of lasting value.  His characters were men and women who willingly suffered hardship, risk, and misfortune in the pursuit of something better.  They exemplified personal responsibility, ambition, and, in the midst of the wild, the value of civilization.  These ideas of civilization and the opportunity offered by the frontier today seem a paradox.  Many have given in to the pull of collective responsibility where risk is avoided, responsibility belongs to "them", and ambition is a sin to be covered and hidden.

While his plot lines may not have some of the complexity that we enjoy in our literature, he shared a vision and a sense of wisdom that is classic and, if applied, still valuable today.  For an entertaining and inspiring read, pick up a L'Amour.  Follow the story of the Sacketts, come to know Bendigo Shafter, learn of the difference between healthy ambition and unbridled greed.  There is something to be said for men and women who do, and those are the type of people that L'Amour created.

To whet your appetite here are few of my favorite quotes from Louis L'Amour.  (I have to admit that a number of years ago I started reading some of his books with a pencil in hand to underline a few things.)

"A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own.  The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time."

"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.  Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for."

"Up to a point a person's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and changes in the world about them.  Then there comes a time when it lies within their grasp to shape the clay of their life into the sort of thing they wish it to be.  Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune or the quirks of fate.  Everyone has the power to say, 'This I am today.  That I shall be tomorrow.'"

"The way I see it, every time a man gets up in the morning he starts his life over.  Sure, the bills are there to pay, and the job is there to do, but you don't have to stay in a pattern.  You can always start over, saddle a fresh horse and take another trail."

"Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble."

"Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen."

"We are, finally, all wanderers in search of knowledge.  Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are, something larger, richer, in some way more important to the world and ourselves.  Too often, the way taken is the wrong way, with too much emphasis on what we want to have, rather than what we wish to become."

"Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization.  They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost."

Finally, for all those stories that he took with him to the grave:

"I have told many, yet when I go down that last trail, I know there will be a thousand stories hammering at my skull, demanding to be told."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reed Van Wagoner: A Life of Service - More to Come

I’m having a difficult time with my father’s retirement as a police officer.  For thirty-three years he has been involved in law enforcement.  That covers the bulk of my life.  

Here’s a quick timeline of his service:

-       1981: Police Officer, Duchesne City Police Department (Who remembers when Duchesne City had their own police department?)
-       1983: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1988: Master-at-Arms, United States Navy active duty
-       1991: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1995: Police Officer, Provo City Police Department

He still continues to serve in the US Navy Reserve.  During all of his time in law enforcement he has been a trainer, an investigator, chief deputy, sergeant, and lieutenant.  For twelve years in Provo he worked as detective investigating sex crimes.  His conviction rate and service set a new standard for the City of Provo.  During those years he was activated and deployed by the US Navy Reserve three times, two of those to active war zones where Islamic militants rained mortars down on his installation.  He had one brief period where he worked in the private sector for a friend, but continued to serve as a reserve deputy.  Often during his career he did extra construction jobs and things on the side to bring in enough income to provide for his growing family.

When I returned from serving my LDS mission in Russia, another officer in Provo asked me if I was ready to apply to the police academy.  There was no way, I told him, that I could do what police officers do: shift work, working holidays, missing family events, dealing with blood and gore at accident and crime scenes, dealing with belligerent and foolish people on a regular basis, insufficient pay.  I think I made the young police officer question his decision to join the long blue line.  In short, I wasn’t willing to make the same sacrifices my father had to serve others.

I won’t attempt to speak for him regarding his career or for those he served and helped along the way.  I will share some of what I observed, experienced, and felt.

Being the child of a law enforcement officer is exciting, frightening, annoying, humorous and sometimes painful. 

It’s exciting because your father is out there protecting you and everyone else from the bad guys.  Growing up in the home of a law enforcement officer you learn that the bad guys are real.  You also learn about the fragility of life and the sadness that comes from accidents and sickness.  On a regular basis I was able to ride in his police vehicle with a souped up engine, flashing lights, and siren.  When he was a deputy sheriff in Duchesne County, he would prepare me for what could happen during the course of a shift.  He would make sure I knew where we were located in case something happened and I needed to call dispatch to get help.  I had specific instructions to hide if anything dangerous happened.  During those early years I mostly saw him pull over a few speeders, saw a few self-inflicted gun shot wounds caused by hunters who had decided that extensive drinking and firearms were a fun mix, and went on a few search and rescue missions. 

Another deputy was killed while he worked for Duchesne County, shot on accident by another deputy.  It brought home the reality of the risks associated with his work.  More than once I saw worry on my mother’s face when my dad was late coming home from a shift.  At the beginning of my dad’s career we had a police radio scanner in the house.  It was fun to listen to it and know what was happening.  After awhile my parents got rid of it with the excuse that it was nice to take a break from work.  It was also nice to relax and not worry about what you were hearing when dad was on duty.  My poor mother was a dispatcher for a short period while my dad was working for Duchesne City or the County.  She listened on the phone while my dad was at a domestic dispute.  The caller kept telling her to call out backup because the officer was getting the crap beat out of him.  I think she moved on to something different shortly after that.  While all of us face risk going out the door every day, law enforcement officers face it even more, knowing that they might have to put their life on the line for someone else all while dealing with thoughts of their own loved ones at home.

Having a parent or relative in law enforcement in small town enhances the experience in some aspects.  You tend to find out a lot more about people than you really want to know.  Also, friends, neighbors, and others like to blame you for their troubles with law enforcement, especially when it was your relative who was involved.  I don’t know how many times I was told that my dad, and by association me, was a terrible person because he arrested so and so for doing such and such and it was none of his business anyway.  Usually I would just shrug it off, realizing that people don’t like to be caught doing something they shouldn’t.  Several of these types of complainers would assume that I knew what had happened…usually I didn’t until they informed me of all the wonderful details, some of which was occasionally incriminating.  In rare instances, I did feel that perhaps my dad had been too harsh with the offender and would ask him about it and he would patiently explain why he had take that course of action. 

Here is one of my favorite complaints from friends and others in the small town environment.  Duchesne is a small, mostly agricultural community with the occasional oil boom.  It is common for teens to start driving on the farm at a very young age.  Many of these teens and others, usually with their parents’ permission, will decide it’s okay for them to drive on the roads with regular traffic.  Invariably, my dad would pull these youth over and usually send them home with a warning and occasionally a written citation.  Once caught these people would whine and complain to me about how stupid and unfair it was that he would dare to stop them.  So, finally I asked him about it.  His response?  If they caused an accident driving before they were licensed, there would be serious consequences.  First, they might be delayed in getting their drivers licenses.  Second, their parents may have to pay for the accident out of their pocket with no help from the insurance company.  Third, unprepared and unqualified drivers are more likely to cause serious accidents that result in harm.  It wouldn’t fair to allow them to drive putting themselves and others at greater risk.  Anyway, I’ll get off of that soapbox now except to say that I never got to drive on the roads by myself before I had my license, so who had it fair?

Law enforcement officers interact with some of the most bizarre people and situations on a fairly regular basis.  Some of them are disturbing and some are extremely funny.  Listening to my dad’s stories is one of my favorite past times, especially when there are other officers there to share their stories.  Here are just a couple of stories that I remember.  (Of course, my memory may not be completely accurate.) 

I’m reasonably certain the first one happened to my dad.  If not, that’s okay because it’s still entertaining.  Back in the early 80s it was common to hear my dad tell stories of the latest arrests for DUI and public intoxication.  For one of these they had arrested a woman who was very drunk and larger than my father, who is not a small person.  In the booking room at the Sheriff’s Office, this lady backed into my dad and sat on him.  Before he could get up and before the other deputies could rescue him she proceeded to urinate all over him.  Good times. 

Another story I love occurred when he was in Provo.  He and another officer were called to a lady who was complaining about aliens performing experiments on her while she slept.  When they arrived she related how they were sending microwaves up through her floor into her bed.  Because of these microwaves she couldn’t sleep.  She wanted to be left alone.  My dad said,  “Now, I’m not saying I believe you and I’m saying I don’t, but I do know how to stop microwaves.” 

Thrilled that someone had finally listened to her, she asked, “How?”

“Do you have any aluminum foil?”


“Go get some.  We’ll lay it shiny side down under the bed and it will block the microwaves and reflect them back down.”

He spent the next few minutes helping her lay the aluminum under the bed while the other officer watched in disbelief.  As far as I know they were never called back to help with the alien experiments again.

Okay, we have time for two more stories that involve me directly.

As I mentioned I loved to ride along with my dad when he was on duty.  Sometimes he would have me wait in the vehicle while he ran into different places.  Often the wait would be extensive.  On one occasion he went into the Duchesne County Courthouse.  I waited forever and became bored.  Looking around I found a partial roll of breath mints.  My dad wasn’t a big breath mint person so I was sure he wouldn’t mind if I took one.  One wasn’t enough so I took another.  Finally, as I was unwrapping the packaging for a third one he got back in his vehicle.  He looked at what I was doing and smiled.

“Did you eat one of those already?”

“Yes, two already.  Why?”

“They’re not mine.”

“Who’s are they?”

“They fell out of the purse of the extremely drunk and dirty lady that I arrested last night.”

“No, it didn’t.”

Laughing, he responded, “Oh, yes it did.”

They tasted clean, kind of minty.

Fast-forward several years to when my father was in Provo.  I had been home from my mission to Russia for just a short time.  I was riding with my dad on the swing shift, which is when all the fun, crazy stuff happens in Provo.  Dispatch contacted my dad.  The night clerk at a local motel suspected that some teenagers were about to have a drinking party in one of the rooms.  We drove over to the motel to take a look.  The clerk pointed out the room.  Some of the teens saw us when they opened the door, and went back inside quickly.  As we were standing there, a case of beer was suddenly thrown on top of a solid brick fence on one side of the motel.  Putting his finger to his lips, my dad motioned me to follow him quietly to the wall.  Reaching up he took the case of beer.

A voice whispered, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” my dad whispered back.

“Good.  Hurry, take it.”

Quickly they set several more cases on top of the wall.  We took them, setting them quietly on the ground.   Finally, one of the two young guys handing us the beer jumped up on the wall to help carry the beer to the party.  As he looked down at my dad, his eyes got huge.  He looked at us and at the room where his friends were staring through the window at what was happening.

Still whispering, my dad asked, “Is that all of the beer?”

The kid on the other side, who hadn’t seen us, whispered, “Yes, that’s all of it.”

Coming to his senses the kid on the wall slid back over before my dad could grab him and yelled, “Run, it’s the cops.”

We didn’t even try to chase them.  Calmly, amidst our laughing, we put the confiscated beer into my dad’s vehicle while the kids watched from the hotel room.  Before we left he went to the room of crestfallen, would-be partiers.

“It looks like you won’t be having the fun you had expected.  Hopefully you didn’t lose too much of your money.  I suggest everyone go home now or I’ll start calling parents.”

My dad loved to serve and help other people.  That was why he loved being in law enforcement.  His goal was to keep people safe and help them wherever he could.  He was never quick to write a ticket or arrest someone if it wasn’t necessary.  He would rather give out friendly advice than a ticket.  Friends and neighbors knew they could ask him for help at any time.  It was a life that impacted me deeply.  Because of his service, I joined the Air Force and served for a short time.  His example causes me to question my motives on a daily basis.  It makes me want to make a difference in the lives of my family and in the lives of others. 

A quick word about my mother.  I don’t speak or write about her publicly very often.  She is a private person and I get emotional when I speak of her.  For almost forty years of marriage my parents have supported and loved each other.  I think of all the nights and days when my mother was on her own with her children or by herself.  I think of those times when my father was called out in the middle of the night to go provide aid to someone else even as they dealt with their own struggles.  While she wasn’t always quiet and cheerful in her support, because that’s not who my mother is, she made him a better person and allowed him to bless the lives of so many other people.  They will be off to new and exciting adventures that will involve more service.

One of the last times I rode with my dad was just after he had been promoted to lieutenant.  It was a couple of years ago.  An elderly neighbor from his ward called to ask him if he could help find his daughter, a middle aged women with a disability.  She was due to return from a trip on a bus but didn’t arrive on the bus.  They had no idea where she was and had no way of getting in touch with her.  My dad promised to find her.  For the next couple of hours my dad went to the various bus stops where she may have gotten off early.  We asked people if they had seen her.  Finally, we pulled into the McDonald’s just off of University in Orem and saw here sitting in at a booth.  She was frightened and scared.

As we walked in my dad called her name.  She looked up and her face brightened.

“Reed, you found me!  How did you know to look here?”

“We just kept looking until we found you.”