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Saturday, April 18, 2015

In the Shadows of Headframes

Some 45 years have come and gone and I am still here. I never wanted to leave this place. Children in my day and age- didn't have much say in matters like that. My mother and father did not run a democracy.
In the summer of 1969, while descending down the western slope of the Continental Divide, I got my first glimpse of Butte, Montana. I was 8 years old. It was love at first sight.

That's why I am here and that's why I keep coming back.

I can't really describe the immense feeling of hope we had as a family that summer. The excitement was tangible- like great things were about to happen. This feeling I think, is reserved for the young and adventurous. It is something that has only made brief appearances in my life and now at age 54, most of my adventures and opportunities are behind me. I don't think I'll ever feel the same excitement that I felt in the summer of '69.

We moved into a place near the top of Caledonia Street, just west of Excelsior St. I could hear the sounds of one or two headframes in the distance. These were giant, black iron monoliths that used cables to hoist ore laden rock and miners in and out of underground shafts. The headframes made  a strange "whirring" noise- caused mostly I think- by spooling cable. At first the sounds of the head frames and their occasional creakiness seemed scary and foreboding. Eventually I got used to the noise. Those noises weren't going to last much longer anyway. The days of underground mining were coming to a close- new operations were moving above ground and into the Berkeley Pit which had already swallowed up a large portion of Butte. 

Today, many of the headframes have been taken down. At one point, there were nearly 100 of them dotting the landscape. Now they have dwindled down to 11 or 12. I pray they don't remove any more. I still wince every time there is a fire or some old and historic building collapses. 

As a child, I viewed our residence as nothing more than a base camp. Everyday, I walked all over Butte. I remember every lot we played ball on, the tree I jumped out of which sent a nail through my foot, the path we took over the railroad tracks and across Western Av. on sleds in the winter time. I remember my friends' houses. I remember the fence I was straddling when some older girl gave me a hickey and my parents nearly had a heart attack when they saw it. I remember hitting my first (of only two) home runs on a field now named after my coach. (Scown field) I remember another field nearby where two of my friends got beaten up and pretty badly- by a neighborhood gang. It seemed like something was always happening in Butte. The bars were busy around the clock. Drunken miners everywhere. 

I come back to Butte much like a pilgrimmage, 2 or 3 times a year. I've been doing this for decades. Very often I come by myself. I eat pork chop sandwiches, pasties, donuts from the Town Talk bakery. I can spell and pronounce povitica and I love it. I stay at the Finlen Hotel. I can't even imagine staying in one of those boxlike, chain hotels down on the flats. The same employees have worked here at the Finlen for decades. I like them. The coffee is the same. The hotel is the same. The only thing that has changed over the years is some remodeling, mostly plumbing, in the rooms- and the elevators have been updated. They used to have push knobs on them which were very old and unique.

After a couple of years living uptown, we moved down to the flats. So the whole extended city of Butte became my playground. 

I learned to camp, to hunt, and to fish in Butte. I learned to play baseball, basketball, football, and golf. I rode motorcycles. I landed my first job here. I chewed tobacco, I drank a little, and I swore a lot. I learned that while all of those things can be bad- they weren't the end of the world. It was part of the living process wherein you discovered- who you are and who you might one day become. Most of us start making those choices when we are young. I think that happened to me in Butte. 

In the summer of 1975, we moved away. The mine was shutting down and with it- the entire economy of Butte. You were forced to become one of two types of people. You either left looking for opportunities- or you stayed knowing that the economy and your livelihood weren't likely to get better any time soon. I admire the people who stayed. Our family left for Missoula and then on to Idaho. 

So what is it about this place that keeps me coming back? What is it about Butte that cements the people that once lived here with the people who stayed behind? What common experience do we all share that has us fondly remembering Butte while so many others, outsiders mostly, seek to detract and diminish all things Butte? 

For one hundred years, Butte was the American dream. Butte was a place of opportunity. This was a place where people from all over the world could come, scratch out a hard living, and live the American dream. It was also a place of great struggle. A place where the rich and elite took full advantage of laborers as a disposable class of people. This was the site of the gibralter of unionism. This is where workers came together and fought side by side for a decent wage with decent hours and a few safety enhancements while the Anaconda Company tried to sabotage those efforts for the sake of greed. There were clashes, strikes, murders, great tragedies, oppression. People and workers rallied. They could distinguish who was good and who was not- even across ethnic boundaries. People took care of each other and they supported each other. Despite all of the adversity, people here were grateful for what they had. Thousands of people died in these mines. The people of Butte have this common thread, this mutual history of shared sacrifice, these memories, and they haven't forgotten. It's like spending time in a foxhole and surviving the ordeal. Those are the ties that bind and you don't forget who was in the foxhole with you.

Historically speaking, Butte played a huge role in shaping America. Stock manipulations, claim jumping and bribing judges, the formation of unions, even a crooked copper king helped shape the fundamental way we elect U.S. Senators. In many respects, the history of Butte is the history of immigration and America. 

I didn't even mention Evel Kneivel.  

That's why I love it here. I stare at copper king mansions and decaying architecture. I wander about the remaining headframes- the Original, the Steward, Mountain Con, Anselmo, Orphan Girl. I go to the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine memorial where 168 miners died in 1917 just 6 weeks before the arrival of union organizer, Frank Little. Frank was abducted out of a rooming house, dragged behind a car on Anaconda Road and hanged on a train trestle west of town by Anaconda company hit men. Sometimes I go to the two old cemeteries in Butte or up to the mining museum past the statue of the good copper king, the Irish entrepreneur and miner himself, Marcus Daly.

Statue of Marcus Daly, pioneer miner, Butte, Montana
This picture was taken before the statue was moved to Montana Tech

History happened here. There is no other place like this anywhere and you can damn sure bet there will never be another place like it-ever again.

Here's a goofy video taken by two guys traveling thru Butte. It's fairly recent and it will give you a decent look at a small slice of Butte. At the 4:57 mark, they are passing the Finlen Hotel (and the Cavalier Lounge) on Broadway at Wyoming.



Sunday, April 12, 2015

This Ain't Andy's Mayberry, or....Is This Really the Best We Can Do?

The police have never been popular and from the looks of things, it is certainly not getting any better.

As a young man, I had a couple of run ins with the police. Those incidents went about the way I expected. What I never expected nor experienced was a sense of hatred for the police who were simply doing their jobs. I never received a ticket that I didn't deserve. I was once detained and fingerprinted but I never held the police responsible for that grand theft or the humiliation of leaving high school in handcuffs. There is a great deal of inherent power in knowing that not only are you innocent of a crime- but that you actually know who was responsible for the act. I chose not to tell the police who did it- I might have been a little more cooperative had they acted a little more decently. Oddly, I think those cops thought I was guilty up until they found out that I had an iron clad alibi. I threw freight all night long on a grocery store freight crew the night of that theft. My whereabouts were completely accounted for- something they didn't know when they dragged me out of school. So who fingered me for this crime? A city employee that I had been at odds with for a long time. I think that was my first taste of how self centered, devious, and conniving people can be. Suing the police never even entered my mind. As a teenager, I associated with more than my share of sick and twisted folks. I was certainly no saint but I didn't run around fingering people for crimes, making shit up, nor did I blame the cops for my poor decisions. As stupid as I was- I still had a sense of responsibility which I thank gawd- came about because my parents did not run around like victims blaming other people.

I shifted gears out of liberal arts and into law enforcement during my third year in college. I still had some personal issues of my own to deal with. I was far from perfect but I believed in the law enforcement mission and I graduated thinking that I'd have an opportunity to help people.

Looking back, I simply underestimated how completely incapable our culture is when it comes to taking responsibility for their actions. They just can't do it. It is an epidemic. That was the last thing I said to the local reporters when I retired in 2007. People just cannot accept the consequences for their poor decisions and they will go to great lengths to blame anyone or anything, desperately trying to rationalize their actions while criticizing the actions of others.

That includes bad cops and sometimes- bad prosecutors. If you think bad cops go unpunished- you should see the shit prosecutors get away with. You don't hear much about those crooked bastards because shit always runs downhill and prosecutors sit at the top of those hills. How else does Hillary Clinton get away with committing perjury and obstruction over Benghazi? How about shaking down foreign leaders while using her position as Secretary of State to pick up a few million here or there. The implication being that if Hillary were to win the Presidency- those donors will want something in return for all of that money deposited in the Clinton Foundation- which is just a fancy name for their own personal slush fund.

Hillary gets away with all of that because prosecutors practice something worse than cops. They practice cowardice, indifference, and criminal complicity as they fail to uphold the laws that they swore to uphold. Cops may screw up but they often pay dearly when they do and if not-it's not for a lack of scrutiny. Prosecutors don't. They are some of the most cowardly pussies on the planet and they behave like courtroom bullies. Rarely are they held accountable- one glance at Eric Holder's history tells that story.

But the helicopters don't hover over prosecutors and court rooms. Cameras, installed on every cellphone in America, are capturing cops in action. And it's not good. Last week I stared in awe as California cops literally kicked the shit out of an unarmed pursuit suspect- an incident captured from a helicopter.

What is wrong?

Potential cops are subjected to polygraphs, monstrously long psychological tests and department shrinks, drug tests, oral boards, physical tests, background examinations, and every other inquiry that anyone can think of. If background investigators could remove the brains of potential cops- they'd try it- all in some misguided effort to avoid hiring cops who get the police brass and politicians in trouble. Like that cop in South Carolina who executed a motorist. The criminal intent was clear. That officer is a murderer who might have gotten away with it if not for a piece of video captured by a witness. Absent that video- you can bet money that the uncorroborated testimony of that witness would have been ignored, discredited, and marginalized out of existence.

Which takes me back to those evil little bastards of my youth. The ones who stole a golf cart one night, destroyed it, blamed it on me, and laughed as I left the school that morning in handcuffs. Some people are just evil and malignant, criminal. Others are a product of their environment- I know this because it happened to me over the course of 25 years.

You can't subject people (cops) to a never ending diet of vitriol, assholes, and hatred and expect them to behave like Andy Griffith in Mayberry. You can't lie to people, obstruct them, call them pigs, spit at them, attack everything theydo without consequence. Serve cops, or anybody for that matter, a steady diet of vitriol and pretty soon, you have cops that are assholes. They lash out, become depressed, develop health problems, get divorced, become alcoholic, and then one day- they snap. I don't say this with any intent other than to explain what happens. I give no excuse or quarter to criminals who cross the line- badge or no badge.

You don't want the mentally ill in charge of policing the mentally ill.

I snapped one night, years ago in the late '90's. I was in a bar taking a theft report and a drunken asshole with a pool cue decided to start a hog calling session. It might have been cute a couple of times- but by about the 15th time he yelled "SOOOey" at the tops of his lungs, I snapped. I walked over to him and asked if he'd like to step outside the bar. He refused. And that's when I whispered to him, "One more SOOOey asshole and you'll leave this place on your head." I didn't want to start a bar riot and my ploy worked. I can't tell you how the hog calling champion would have fared- as I exited a hostile environment with him in tow.

The boss took me off nights. But 17 years worth of swing shifts had taken their toll on me. I never really recovered. I became Chief a year later- but you just can't just shower the stench of 17 years worth of assholes off and get happy again- try as hard as I could. It's some sort of process that I never fully grasped. I do know people in the business who retire with good attitudes and who exit the business relatively sane. Those folks still mystify me. I think had I had access to a good psychologist I might have been salvageable. As it stood, I got my divorce, quit my job, and had the courage to get sober. It took me the better part of five years to get my life back.

There will always be a few homicidal maniacs who slip through the cracks. I busted one once- a cop who had executed a drug dealer by shooting him in the back of the head. As I write this, I remember waiting on a homicide arrest warrant which had not arrived and explaining to this guy that we were arresting him for failure to display a front license plate after we detained him on a traffic stop. I remember him looking at us with this incredulous look- and asking us why we were arresting him for such a chicken shit offense. At the jail- when we handed him a copy of the First Degree Murder warrant- it suddenly became crystal clear to him. This guy, a California cop, had actually been hired by one of our local police agencies but hadn't started yet.

I think we are on the verge of some sort of police renaissance. Body cameras are coming for everyone. That's a given. I'd like to go one step further.

I'd like to see all cops given access to mental health professionals. I'd like to see police brass, councils, and citizens support the idea that just like war veterans- our police officers are combat weary. They simply cannot be subjected to years of ritualized abuse and then be expected to behave like Mother Theresa or Ghandi. If police officers had the ability to diagnose what's wrong with them- they would have done it long ago. That's not to say that they aren't responsible for their actions- they most certainly are- but that's not gonna help some guy avoid a future beating nor is it going to save millions of taxpayer dollars lost in defense or judgments on just one of these claims.

I have never met a cop anywhere who told me that he wanted the opportunity to become jaded, cynical, and depressed and then take it out on some bad guy. I don't think that's anybody's plan. But it keeps turning out that way. I don't see it getting any better either. We need to do a better job of identifying depressed, alcoholic, and angry personnel and giving them a fighting chance before they start kicking the shit out of some poor guy in the desert. We do it for military personnel, are cops really that different? No...except that unlike a two or three year military tour of duty for military personnel complete with PTSD counseling- cops do what they do for 25 or 30 years without any kind of counseling or support. Or...

We can just keep denying that there is a problem. We can continue blaming police agencies for limiting their hiring practices to mean, jaded, and cynical people prone to depression and beating up people. That's the way the public sees it- and that's the way it is starting to look. I don't see this getting any better any time soon.

Cops beating people.