“Les Dean” by Sean Boyd
Eastport is a sleepy little border town in the northern panhandle of Idaho that connects to Canada. The border station is manned by a few guards from either country and the most significant landmark is an industrious tourist shop on the Canadian side whose main mercantile activity is giving Americans their first or last opportunity to purchase Canadian beer which has twice the alcohol content of beer produced for American sales. There I sat with my friend ‘Mercedes’ James trying to forge a plan of action as we looked upon our rental car that had become dysfunctional. The nearest town was Bonner’s Ferry thirty miles south, and the nearest car rental place was in Coeur D’Alene, over one hundred, long miles away. As we pondered our predicament we alerted the rental company in Salt Lake City where they could find their car and used the opportunity to vent some of our frustration. Down-hearted, we were approached by an off-duty immigration officer who offered us a ride as far south as Bonner’s Ferry where we could catch a bus in a couple of days. We gratefully accepted and filled his car with our gear and ourselves and headed downstate. We were remiss to lose the opportunity to camp in this isolated area as we watched the beautiful scenery flying by.
Route 95 follows the course of the Kootenai River as it winds through the northern reaches of The Gem State. The view from the speeding car was a western landscape artist’s dream, with hundred foot pines cuddling the mountainous contours in a group embrace to resist the mighty winds that blow unabated from the glacier fields of Canada. The rich hues of green formed random pallets from which one could drink the very essence of nature, outlined by menhir of gray granite. Besides the foaming, boisterous river as it bouldered down its obstacle course, the only movement was the volant economy of hawks and eagles that delighted in the alpine drafts. Hypnotized by the bolts of sunlight that sifted through the treetops and the animated stillness of this forested paradise, conversation was limited to feeble attempts to stretch language to include that which nature so readily speaks.
Arriving in Bonner’s Ferry we discovered the town had no lodging and we would probably have to hike out of town, which was surrounded by National Forest, and camp until the bus came through. This was not an unwelcome proposition except that our abundance of gear was packed for the convenience of car camping, and not shoulder-able in the least. Our benevolent livery dropped us off on the two block length of Main Street, which ran perpendicular to the state highway, and was the only paved street in town. With no suggestions and a warm goodbye we were left on the sidewalk outside the bus stop. As anyone in a frontier town who needs information might, we went into the saloon. Having resisted the shifting sands of time, this town still supported an establishment that had remained largely unchanged since the first tin lizzie rolled into town to frighten and displace the horses. Looking around at the terrain one could imagine this transition awaiting the arrival of the SUV to occur.
The saloon atmosphere had mellowed with age, and the decor was a conglomeration of old and new that refused to blend into homogeny. The flashing lights of the pinball machine and the digitized sounds coming from video games were strangely juxtaposed by the hand-carved bar, sawdust on the floor and the moose head on the wall. Even the patrons exhibited the tension. Half wore modern styles that outlined manicured hands and pampered faces; the other half sported denim and leather and bore weighty expressions of untethered vigor and rustic wisdom. The bartender was, well a bartender, as the trade, if practiced more than twenty years, seems to produce mannerisms and expressions that are universal and unchanged through the ages. He shot me a perturbed look when I ordered a European beer, but seemed satisfied with my attempt to recover by ordering a shot of Jack Daniels. James ordered tequila, and we let the spirits revive our sense of adventure and numb our feelings of misfortune. We consoled ourselves with the thought that this mishap would slow us down and we would have the opportunity to get a better sense of the people of this remote region.
It was approaching 9 pm and since it was a weeknight the bar was slowly emptying, leaving only a few professional drinkers whose pace seemed to insinuate that mornings were made for hangovers. At the end of the bar sat a wiry old timer, who looked like James Dean if he had lived to a hundred and had no skin left to wrinkle. His hands, worn and aged like the bark of an oak tree, cradled a tumbler of syrupy brown liquid that he sipped slowly. The smell of whiskey, cigarettes, the woods, old man, bad breath, sweat, cowboy movies, gunfights, and hard living drifted from him on a wind of nostalgia. He watched us in the mirror of the back bar and I could tell, out of boredom or curiosity, he had been listening to us tell the expressionless barman the circumstances that had left us stranded. The bartender hadn’t asked, but we hoped we might glean some helpful information from the sealed vault that took deposits but never released its dusty treasures. It was no great surprise that he made only guttural sounds and narrow gesticulations with his eyes and brow. When we responded in the negative to another round he busied himself elsewhere. Apparently satisfied with his clandestine character assessment from the end of the bar, the old-timer came over to fill the gap left by the reticent bartender. He introduced himself as Les Dean, and offered to drive us out to where he had a trailer in the National Forest where we could camp.
“I hate to pay for camping, and the noise of campgrounds drives me crazy, so I move my trailer every two weeks, which is the limit in the federal lands. I like to park near a river or a lake…beautiful spots all over the place out here. Why these people travel away from the cities just to camp next to screaming kids and noise all through both night and day I will never know.”
I kept him talking by ordering another round in the hopes of getting a better look at the character wrapped in this leathery, hard-drinking hide. My having another drink was clear indication to James that my mind was made up. He being more cautious didn’t give his nod until the bartender came over and commented that we were in good hands and lucky to have a solution at hand. Knowing he would protect his establishment and not condone us partnering up with someone dangerous, James relaxed and had another as well. Then we had some more.
Les fairly out drank us five to one, and having already been drinking heavily before we met I thought his frame must be held upright by the volume of liquor in his body. When James and I were pretty soused, we got up to go. We tossed our pile of gear into the back of a pick-up truck with Arizona plates, climbed in the cab and headed for the mountains. I was happy to see that we never topped fifteen miles per hour, and though it took a while we arrived unscathed at a large trailer parked in a beautiful hard-rock canyon with a mountain stream cascading by.
During our drive the radio played country and western, mostly shiny compositions that pour out of Nashville with all the polish of Tin Pan Alley. Les admitted he liked country and liked western but was largely dissatisfied with the popular blend, saying it had too little heart and too much brain. I told him I played some old-timey songs and he got so excited he almost missed a turn in the road. As soon as we had arrived at his site he brought out two guitars. One was a big old Hank Williams acoustic and the other was a steel guitar whose metal body looked like it was formed in the earliest stage of the industrial revolution. He also brought out some grease, his term for whiskey, and started singing and drinking with equal vigor.
He knew songs from many eras, that expressed the feelings and conditions of the time period in which they were written. He played minstrel numbers from England, love songs from Spain, zydeco and blues from the bayou, work songs by Woodie Guthrie, miner’s songs, farmer songs, funny, bawdy, sad, joyous, fast, slow, sexy, sublime, angry, love lost, love found, hole in the roof, hole in the levy, hole in the heart, he seemed to know a million songs. I mostly accompanied this songster as he time traveled, but occasionally he asked me to sing one so he could catch up on his drinking. I knew many songs of the same eras, so I would try to follow his lead and stay in the same genre. When the sun came up James was already asleep and I was about sober. Les took sunrise as his cue and put his guitar down and climbed into his trailer, gone. I pulled out my sleeping bag and went down to the river and went to sleep listening to the melodious crashing of the river replay all the songs Les had shared.
When I awoke afternoon had arrived and I found James tending a fire with a hungry look on his face. I made us breakfast, and when it was ready I knocked on the trailer to ask if Les wanted some. He declined, but asked if I would hand him a beer from the fridge. After his third beer he made it outside, and when he saw his guitars started playing all over again. He was happy to have someone to play for and I was thrilled to play along to all these songs, many of which I had never heard. He played mostly Hank Williams all afternoon and I filled in with slide on the steel guitar, and I must say we made some fine music. In the early evening he switched to bawdy drinking songs from the eighteen hundreds, and when night fell he played some gritty blues that sounded like sizzling bacon, alligator spit, and peach moonshine joined by a funeral procession. Les produced another bottle of whiskey and we drank and sang until dawn.
During a rare lull in the convoy of songs, I asked Les how he knew so many songs from so many places. He looked me over pretty good and then looked at James. He seemed to be deciding whether or not to let us in on a big secret, not simply answering what I thought to be an easy question. After he checked us out, picked his fingernails, looked at the sky, and spat he said, “Naw, you probably won’t believe me.” This was an intriguing response and I felt there must be some great mystery and pain behind it. Though it seemed a little odd I was prepared to let it go. Throughout the night he seemed troubled, almost bothered by my inquiry, and sang in a somber tone, still dwelling on my question. In the morning he said, “You know, I always wanted to tell somebody, and since I probably won’t be around much longer and have no friends or kin, I might as well tell you boys.” And this is the strange tale he told:
“I have lived ages as a soldier. I have worn many uniforms, appearing as a multitude of races, and have fought in most of the wars, all over the globe, since I fought my first battle during the Crusades against the Spanish Moors. Never desiring to be anything but the lowliest soldier, I was called upon by War again and again. My courage has been thrown against the mightiest of foes in the most terrible battles. Always in my prime, never aging, I moved from one battlefront to the next, never knowing any passion besides courage, and never feeling fear. When it became obvious I wasn’t aging and wounds healed quickly, I became even more bold and used my strength ever more cruelly to pitch battle to furious heights and satisfy the demon of war.
“The valor of battle was my life blood and to fill the bodies of carrion my mission. I saw the beginning of the use of gunpowder and watched as walls and towers crumbled under its destructive force. The eighty-year war with the Hapsburgs; the three days battle of England, shattering the French army along side Marlborough; the French army at Rossback during the seven year war, always I have fought. A defending Swede at Poltava; an attacking Russian at Balaclava; Surla Bay with the Turks, I have fought on all continents, both old world and new. Never concerned with right or wrong or worried which side would be victorious, I clashed with cavalry and infantry for the sheer glory of battle.
“Then came WWII and the mechanization of war that reduced the valiance of individual soldiers to something read about in history books. Bombs from the sky and long-range guns eliminated the thrill of looking your enemy in the eye, and overshadowed the importance of a warrior. There was no place in battle for the frenzied acts of an individual and all movements were relegated to the workings of the war machine.
“It was then I realized my time was over. Soon after the war I knew I would never fight again, and I started to age. Since then, I have not drawn a weapon or brought harm to any creature.”
James, who was a history buff, asked many questions about the various battles, and Les filled in many details. My telling is paraphrased and in no way does justice to the hours it took Les to share this bizarre course of events. I had trouble understanding his non-committal stance to any nationality, morality or cause. When I asked him he explained that it hadn’t mattered in his battle addicted state, and in his present view all war is morally reprehensible.
Our conversation wound down and Les offered to drive us south to Coeur D’Alene, as much to help us out as to get rid of us. He didn’t talk any more about his story, as he had shared his tale and that done he would carry it to his grave. It was so fantastical, yet the demeanor with which he told the tale and the details were hard to refute. Was he just some history buff who spun a good yarn, or…