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HAUNT

sculpture by Jeffrey Grauel
essay by Paul Hopkin
May 21 - July 25, 2009
Robert V. Fullerton Museum, California State University, San Bernardino

A haunt is a kind of place set apart from other places because it is where you go when you have no better place to go. That isn’t a bad thing. But it isn’t special in the way that we think of special places.

My dad grew up a cowboy. The family ranch is on the Utah Wyoming border. When family ranches began failing and American beef production moved to enormous corporate mechanized outfits, and the feedlot became standard, we developed a romance for this character who never was. Cowboys were the strong silent type because they were socialized to refrain from dinner conversation. Their stories are the stuff fit only for others of their kind—ribald, guttural, and left for outside.  Most important is that cowboys rehearse their stories away from women. Gentlemen were trained to look past a cowboy’s gaze, to expect little but yes sir and no sir, and the completion of daunting physical tasks. I never thought of the cowboys I met as connected to the land. They were relegated to migrancy; feeding the men was simply another of the ranch’s chores. Young men sometimes worked as cowboys to learn the details of the operation, but it was understood that those who stayed in the life were unmarriageable, Mexican, or unbelievably poor.

My cousins, heirs to this way of life, became fat while physical chores were eased by automated tractors and other new machines. They bullied me because I was squeamish about calving, ear tagging, and castration. They went through rituals of earning manhood—learned to shoot guns and to drive by age 10. Practically, they use shotguns to shoo away bird pests and only rarely to hunt. None rides a horse well. Chris, the one who earns his living off the ranch, still makes more money selling gravel to local construction operations than from selling beef. He thinks I’m telling tales when I speak of grass fed beef as a designer luxury commodity. He raises his herd to about a year and sells them off to feedlots. 

The bottom line is that cowboys never had dignity from what I saw as a boy. Freedom to roam is a euphemism for a kind of restlessness that comes with social disability. But I can’t help myself. I get caught up in the right western shirt. I know that all-important hat, and the swagger. I have been around the campfire and heard his stories. Laughed ‘til my gut hurt and looked over my shoulder to see whether my dad was upset that I understood the punch lines.

Other people think they know these stories, because of Hollywood, because of cigarettes. It’s that separation that creates mystery and romance. There is a sort of tension between place and people. There is another tension that we’re less comfortable talking about between people we really know and the cast of support characters we encounter. We think we can move to another town and still know the same things about the same characters, because we remind ourselves to believe that what we know is who they are. 

But places and people can be restless like cowboys. 

On TV ghosts hang around because survivors got their story wrong. Ghosts don’t tell their stories around a campfire. They irritate and agitate, leave things in the wrong place. Their stories are socialized like the men and women who left them half told. We’re trained to focus our gaze past the people in life and past the stories when the life has gone out. We invent ways to attach their stories to dignity and grand gestures of love. We want to make their stories like all the stories we know.