Joe believed in UFOs. In a weird way, it suited him.
The sad truth is that it was almost too easy to see him as a character, more of a two-dimensional being. It might not have been altogether fair, but when you’d think of him, you’d think of all the peculiar things that he did and thought; if there weren’t so darned many of them, you might have seen him differently. He was even more of an emotional cypher than the other old ranchers; he never gave any hints of what went on his heart, or if he’d ever dreamt of marriage or travel or anything. He lived in the present: this is what there is. Period.
One of things that put him in a separate category was this: he was a hermit. Or at least he was for at least forty years (except for one outing) that I know about, which is long enough to qualify as one in my book. When you live alone so much, you can get some odd notions about things, and if no one’s around to say, “Whoa, Nellie,” and you can just let your mind trip out in some queer directions. You know, there’s no socialization process to sand the rough edges off your quirkier stuff.
Joe and his brother Albert’s folks came to this valley from Austria. This canyon was Mormon-settled, and they were Catholics. Joe and Albert told a lot of stories of being pretty much sidelined by them, and they were pretty bitter about that. But over the decades things improved for them in the Webber Community, as it was called back then. Maybe more non-Mormons moved in, or maybe they all just got more used to each other; I don’t really know. But they didn’t trust each other much; that was clear.
The two brothers ranched cattle, and Albert did blacksmithing for extra cash, while Joe did all the irrigating. One year the ranchers had to take their steers all the way to Denver to sell them. It’s about four hundred miles away, and they went by train. Six or seven ranchers pooled together to make the trip; safety in numbers, maybe.
Now Joe had some heavy doubts about making the trip, but Albert couldn’t go, so Joe reluctantly agreed to go. He’d always been single, and pretty shy of women and the world at large. I think he only went to school through the eighth grade, not uncommon back then for ranch kids.
A number of the ranchers used to tell this story, though they never would say who hatched the plan, though they must have all agreed in the end.
Apparently the cattle-loading in Durango and the long train trip to Denver went fine, and they got good value for the steers at the sales. They were all feeling pretty salty, and made a plan to celebrate at a local hostelry.
But they didn’t tell Joe that the place was a whorehouse. It took him some time to figure out what was up, but once he’d been approached by the loose women often enough, he finally got it, and lit out of there like he was being chased by harpies or hookers; he would have figured that he’d be going to hell just for being in one of those places. No one knew where he spent the night, but he showed up on time to catch the train back home. He wouldn’t leave home again for forty-some years. They say he never was the same, and I can imagine that was true.
By the time we met him, he was a bean-pole of an old man, slightly bent from being on the wrong end of an irrigation shovel for so many decades. He wore one uniform all the time, except for the days his sister-in-law Elsie could shame him into going to church: baggy duck pants with suspenders, and a twill shirt that he’d button all the way to the top; it always looked as though it were choking him. His neck was long and thin, and so was his face. His nose was the shape of one of those curved hatchet-blades you see people toss at trees to show how great they are at…well, something, I guess. He had large, stick-out ears, and thin grey hair he parted and pomaded into place, and dark grey eyes that looked around a lot. When he spoke, he leaned his face toward you with some earnestness, like he really wanted you to believe what he was saying.
His nails were long and permanently yellowed from the cigarettes he rolled for himself. Cowboys tend to like the tobacco that come in those little muslin draw-string bags, and once the tobacco is rolled and lick-sealed and safe in its little wheat-straw tube, they do not let go of that cigarette, no sir! They’ll do this little final one-handed flourish to close the bag with the string in their teeth, pulling the bag away, zip, while the drawstring closed the bag. Then they’ll wrap the string around the bag, pocket it, fish out a Strike Anywhere match, lift one thigh, and Vvvttt! quick-scrape the match against their Levi’s, and light the cigarette. Ahhhhh…. (Eat your heart out, Marlboro Man; no tailor-mades for real cowboys!)
The only people he saw with any regularity were his brother Albert and his wife, Elsie, who bought his groceries for him, or his Durango sister, Althea. When you visited, you sat at his Formica kitchen table on one of his three chairs.
The kitchen was pretty bare: there was a sink, a free-standing shelf for food and dishes, a little brown table instead of cupboards and counters, and a cast-iron wood stove for heating and cooking.
We’d always visit him at Christmas, and take him some cookies and yak for awhile, though the conversation was interrupted often by his habits.
“Did you hear they finally caught Bigfoot? Just a second—“, and he’d get out of chair, move the rolled up rug placed to keep out the air coming through the one-inch gap at the bottom, open the door to the porch, bring in one stick of wood, close the door, replace the rug, open the firebox of the stove, toss the faggot of wood in, and sit down again. And maybe silently roll another fag.
“Did you hear that Henry Kissinger is really a Communist? And that he’s been having an affair with Elizabeth Taylor? It’s true. I read it in the newspaper.” And he’d lean his face toward one of us or both of us, raise his eyebrows like it mattered that we believed him. He made it hard to do respond with much other than “Hmmm”, and “Really?” “Didn’t know that…”
Then he’d go through the opening the door routine, pour some cat food in four or five cruddy-looking bowls, rattle them, and a swarm of kittens and cats would appear and attack them; he’d reverse the door business, and sit at the table again.
“Damn cats. Can’t seem to get rid of them.” (Not feeding them might be a start…)
“So, did you hear that aliens visited the President at the White House last month? They have pictures and everything!”
Ah…newspapers…aliens…Bigfoot…whirr, click, click…
“Joe, which newspaper do you get?”
“Elsie brings it to me from the grocery store”; he went and got one. Yep; The National Enquirer. Small wonder that his world-view was a bit skewed, eh? He really believed The NE was a newspaper.
Time to fetch a stick for the fire; same full routine with the rug and the door…
Out of the corner of my mouth I wondered, “Why the hell doesn’t he put a freaking woodbox by the stove?” Ah, hell; he’s always done it this way; no sense in even asking, my husband’s shrug said. Riiiiight. Joe, God love him.
Every summer for a few weeks, you could hear shotgun blasts from his place. It turned out the reason was cherries. He loved them silly; the problem was, so did the magpies. Now a magpie is like other birds: it will swoop in, peck a bit off a cherry, and swoop off again. The cherry is ruined, but how does a magpie know that it’s pissing off the humans? Joe did what his family had always done: he shot the birds. Now it didn’t matter one whit to him that it didn’t work; no matter how many he killed, there were always plenty more of them, and he had zero compunction about killing them; yuck. But you almost had to admire his clear conviction that it might just be that next one he shot that prevented the next fifty from flying in and devouring his cherries. Albert seemed to share the same catechism; maybe it was a Catholic thing? Beats me.
‘That next one might do the trick’, said The Snake.
One day we were visiting, and he talked about his newspaper saying something or other about aliens; maybe a recovered spacecraft or something.
“You believe, don’t you?” he hoped.
“Come on; I got somethin’ to show you.”
We trooped out of the house, followed him through three or four different gates out onto one of the big hay meadows; the grass was about a foot high, and smelled wonderful in the sun. It was a big blue sky Colorado day.
“There,” he pointed down at the ground. We looked down. There was a circle, maybe three feet in diameter, of grassless dirt. We nodded. He walked us over to another one; then a third. They did seem to form a triangle, but what was he getting at?
“About seven years ago now, I came out with my shovel to change the water. Here were these circles; the grass was parched black. It had to be aliens. I swear I think I remember bright lights, too, but I never came outside. It must have landed here; maybe it was after cattle. You hear those stories about mutilated cattle, and I’ll be that’s what they were doing.”
“Any cattle missing?” I wondered.
“Nope. But that doesn’t prove anything. Something might have scared them off.” (Probably those raggedy-ass cats.)
He figured the circles were marks left by the legs of the craft, and that they must have been hot enough to scorch the grass. It did give you pause to see that the grass never came back in those spots…Joe. And UFOs. UFO Joe. Well, I never…
I confess I forget why Joe finally moved to the nursing home. He must have gone at least semi-willingly, but it makes no sense to me that he went, given the sort of man he was. But to picture him and that prissy place with no stove and no cats and no outhouse was hard. And God, did he hate it. His only reprieve was watching Lawrence Welk on television, and he’d say, “So ya better not come by at seven of Sunday evening to visit.”
Now and again we went to see him; it was hard. I really hate nursing homes. Sometimes my singing partner would talk me into going and playing music at one in Durango, and I’d go, but ack, it was hard to witness the warehousing of the feeble and ill and demented. Not me, never, ever. Shoot me first, please.
Well, that was Joe in the end. Another rancher stopped by our house one day, stricken by a visit with him earlier in the day. Joe had asked Lou to please please please bring him a handgun so he could shoot himself; he couldn’t take it any more. Lou explained he just couldn’t do it; Joe was pissed. They had a hard time patching things up between them; Joe was sulkingly resentful that Lou would deny him the peace of death. Lou was pained over it for a long time.
In the end, he starved himself to death. He just quit eating one day, and the staff was powerless around it. It took awhile, believe it or not; maybe a couple weeks. But in the end, he secured his release.
Not many folks came to his funeral; the ranks of former friends had been thinned out by death. God bless ya, Joe, old man. Hope they let ya have a ride on one of those spacecraft ya loved so well. Maybe with Lawrence Welk?