Sunday, 31 May 2009

Saturday 30th May 2009 – Blues, Brews and Bogs

The local electric company is a co-operative. This seems to be pretty much the norm outside the big cities. They are sometimes referred to as "RECC"s, Rural Electric Cooperative Companies. They are owned by their consumers, and cover 75% of the US land mass. Americans are very comfortable with common ownership, provided nobody spoils the party by mentioning the dreaded 'S' word.


They are having a big debate here at the moment about health service provision, with the 'S' word much bandied about. There are TV adverts decrying "death by socialism" in Britain and Germany. I tell them to look at France, which has a different way of doing it (I don't spoil my argument by mentioning that, at bottom, it's just as socialist).


I was talking to a man from the local electric company at the big party they put on for me. I knew he was from the electric company because it said so on his hat. Everyone here has something written on his hat. Except me, of course: I've got a proper hat.

The party was called "Brews and Blues". They had assembled twenty local beers for me to taste and pass judgement on. I tried them all, and declared a winner, but I can't remember what it was. The transit bus brought me home and I can't remember that either.

The blues were provided by some local groups ('local' is quite a loose concept in Montana). They were very good, except for the modern fashion of being too loud. All the local young ladies had come along hopeful of getting on my dance card, but I distributed my favours very sparingly. I hope they weren't too disappointed.


Earlier in the day, we had 'Mud Bog' racing. It seemed a very farming sort of thing to do. Everyone taking part got very dirty. With the temperatures in the 90's (about 33) they had quite a job keeping it muddy. Apparently it helps to make the water soapy. It was too hot to stay for the whole afternoon, so I don't know who won, but I don't suppose it mattered very much; everone seemed to be having a really good time.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Friday 29th May 2009 – Betty Boop and the Giant Scottie

It is a brave man who takes on the womenfolk and beats them. It is a foolish man who boasts about it. The Grown Ladies Shuffleboard Team has asked me to clarify a few things. And I am only too happy to oblige.

First of all, the shuffleboard contest did not take place in Rock Creek: not to put too fine a point on it, there is no such place as 'Rock Creek' (well, actually, there must be, lots of them; but not hereabouts). The contest was held in Park Grove. It's a mistake anyone could make, especially on a pub crawl with a team of lovely ladies. Just took my eye off the puck, there, for a minute.

And they definitely won the Butt Darts: no question at all; nolle contendere. It wasn't because I lost that I didn't mention the Butt Darts contest. It was out of consideration for the sensitivities of my audience: there might be children reading this. I'm not going to elaborate on the rules and techniques of Butt Darting: except maybe to hint that it's a bit like tiddlywinks, with rather more tiddling, and a lot more winking. Oh, and it's not 'butt' as in archery, it's 'butt' as in American.

I had been roused from a serious beer-tasting session by the grown ladies on their motorbikes, come to set the record straight. I had thought I was with a group of serious gentlemen, with a serious purpose, but suddenly I found myself alone. This may have been to do with their mascot. These Glaswegians (should I give in and use the modern 'weegie'?) use a Scottie dog as the mascot of their sports teams. The ladies had in tow the biggest Scottie dog the world has ever seen. So I am happy to set the record straight.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Thursday 28th May 2009 – Grown Ladies, Shuffleboard, and Control of Alcohol

Glasgow, Montana owes much of its success to being a long way from anywhere.  One side effect of this is the brilliance of the stars.  I used to think I knew my stars.  Living in a big city, all you can see are the constellations.  Here, away from the street lights, it was hard to see the constellations for the stars.  I was lost, reminded of my childhood wonder at what could possibly be going on up there.  I could hardly identify anything.  I thought I saw Mars, but I shall have to try and look again later to see if it has moved: and then I will have to find it again.

The dam, which is pretty well camouflaged in the daytime, is much more of a presence at night, when the roads along the ramparts are well-lit.  I shall have to try and do some night-time photography, about the one thing I was told my fancy video camera would not do well.

 

My night excursion was as a result of a pub-crawl challenge from the Grown Ladies Shuffleboard Team.  Pub crawls hereabouts can involve quite long distances.  We started at the Fort Peck Hotel, built in the 1930s for the nobs visiting the dam construction  (and, I'm told, for the senior officers of the ArmyCorps of Engineers, who built the dam).  I was shown round, even to the less salubrious (and presently unused) top floor.  I say top floor to avoid getting into the confusion of me thinking it's the second floor, when they think it's the third.  There is alleged to be a haunted room up there.  The young actors from the summer theatre stay here.  They should put on historic murder weekends: just the right sort of setting.  The hotel fabric is still quite faithful to the original.  There are no telephones or televisions: "it would be too noisy", I was told.  So not a place for a honeymoon, then; or possibly for young actors.  Perhaps my guide hasn't told the young actors.

We then moved on to Rock Creek, where the shuffleboard was to be consummated.  Of course, I thrashed them mercilessly.  They said I was too fast for them.  Well, actually they said the table was to fast for them, but I knew what they meant.  I told them of the occasion when I played golf with a lefthander and a righthander, playing half the holes left-handed, and half the holes right-handed, and, of course, winning.  They were full of awe, and believed me.  I was full of (wait for it!) beer, and believed it myself. 

We visited some other establishments after that, but I was able to take very few notes, and those I did take I can't read.

 

Earlier in the day, I had been out to the liquor store to buy the ladies a commemorative bottle of Scotch.  The liquor laws in Montana are, I think, still rather quaint, and involve the concept of state control of distribution.  They wouldn't take credit cards, but had an ATM machine on the premises. It must have been a government machine, because it failed part way through, reluctantly gave me just enough, but still insisted on its fat fee. 

I asked the store clerk where the scotch was.  He said he thought scotch was like rubbing alcohol.  I told him he had the advantage of me there.  When I finally got to the counter to make my purchase, he said he was surprised I was still buying it after he had said how awful it was.  I told him I was proposing to rub it on someone.  He clearly hadn't thought of that, but I could see he was starting to.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Wednesday 27th May 2009 – Bulls Bollocks and Mr Belvedere

I went to the Post Office to get some stamps.  A postcard to Europe now costs 98 cents.  The price has just gone up, and despite being the main post office, it has no 98 cent stamps.  I have to have a combination of 80, 17 and 1 cent stamps.  The 1 cent stamp is a work of art: it portrays a Tiffany Lamp.  I know this because I get an itemised receipt which tells me so: "1c Tiffany Lamp PSA   $0.01" it says.  With the address of the Post Office, all the stamps, the clerk's id, and some adverts, the receipt is about 10 inches long.  I don't see how they can be making money doing this.

The final irony is that I have to take special care writing the postcard (well, the second one, anyway) to leave room to stick on the stamps.

Could it all be a clever marketing ploy?  Forget all that internet efficiency; forget instant responses; forget adding any attachments you want: I like to use those loveable scamps at the Post Office, they're just so … so human.

 

I was invited to the Kiwanis lunch.  I got to tell them about my trip, and I got to meet the Mayor and the Sheriff.  I got to present the Mayor with the compliments of the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Scotland, and a small banner with that Glasgow's coat-of-arms.  The Mayor invited me to a council meeting. 

What I didn't get were any pictures, video or still.  I had a sudden clear memory of the final scene from "Mr Belvedere Goes to College", a 1950 film starting Clifton Webb, where, having been presented with his degree by the Dean, Mr Belvedere then presents the Dean with a magazine whose cover picture shows the Dean presenting him with his degree.  I think photographing what I'm doing while I'm doing it may be the stuff of fiction: back to yet another drawing-board.

 

Later that night, in the Montana Bar, contemplating the happenings of the day, I was perusing The Glasgow Courier's report on the stockyard bull sales.  Bulls, it appears, are described by their birth, weaning, and yearling weight, and by their "scrotal measurement".

I appreciate that that's a vital component of a bull, but even at my great age, I'm too shy to ask the lovely lady editor just exactly what is being measured there.  Whatever it is, I suspect the measuring of it must be a task both skilled and hazardous.  And it is (the first time I think I've seen it in the US) given in centimetres.  Could that just be to stop it sounding rude?

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Tuesday 26th May 2009 – A Bit of History

In 1962, the great and good of Glasgow decided that they ought to celebrate the 75th year of its existence.  They decided to call this their 'Diamond Jubilee'.  And why not?  What would you call a 75th anniversary? 

One of the things they did was commission a souvenir book of the history of Glasgow.  The Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture has managed to find its copy for me, which is pretty impressive.

The very first paragraph of this booklet reads:

"It was late in July, 1887, that the railroad (called the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba when it was organised in 1879) reached a point about two miles from where the Glasgow depot now stands.  The point was called Siding No. 45, the sidings having been consecutively numbered westward from Minot, N. Dak.  It was in October, 1887, that a clerk working in the railroad's St. Paul office, seeking to honour the famed Scottish city, named the siding Glasgow."

This is the first evidence I have seen to suggest the name was deliberately chosen.  Up till now, everyone has subscribed to the view that the sidings were named by sticking fingers/darts/ pins in maps/globes/atlases.  I had felt suspicious about that theory, since the towns along the hi-line didn't seem to have any of the characteristics of a randomly-chosen set, even allowing for some which may already have had a name.

So I'm feeling a bit pleased with myself.  And I have plenty of fascinating history to read.  I also have a quite specific time and place to look for more detailed evidence of how the name came about.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Monday 25th May 2009 – Flowers, Flags, and Tourism

This Glasgow is on the Milk River.  It looks a bit like milky tea, which is, indeed, how it got its name.  When you see it from Tower Hill, emptying into the Missouri, you can see why Lewis and Clark, on the great expedition of 1803 to 1806, gave it that name.  I walked up Tower Hill.  There is a road, but it looked like four-wheel-drive territory.  Anyway, I've been neglecting my exercise program for a while.  Very bracing it was too.  I passed a woman coming down, taking her dog for a run.  She was, indeed, in a for-wheel-drive.  The dog, poor thing, wasn't.

I got to walking up Tower Hill because I had gone to see the Spillway of the Fort Peck Lake.  If you were on your own, with nobody to guide you, looking for the Fort Peck Dam, you would probably think the Spillway was the dam.  It is, in fact, the overflow vent.  The dam itself now looks rather like part of the countryside.  It is hard to conceive of circumstances where the lake will ever have that much water in it again.  They are hoping to raise it by twelve feet this year, but I think it would take another forty or fifty before the spillway operated.  The spillway has a vestigial railway system running across it which looks like it is dual-gauge.  I must try and take the official tour, see if I can find out about that.

I got to the Spillway because I had come for another look at this enormous dam, see if I could be more impressed than I was last time.  But I think the truth is that if you want to be impressed by it you have to read the statistics of the building of it.

But it all got me 3000 feet up (I think, but then I started at about 2000 plus) on a beautiful day, looking down at the confluence of the Milk and Missouri rivers.  And at last finding a place with good GSM cell phone reception: all the masts are up here.

 

Being Memorial Day, I had started with a look at the cemetery.  It really was simultaneously impressive and touching, simply a field of flowers: such a contrast to the cemetery I overlook at home, which, except for about two graves, is subject to nothing but neglect.  Perhaps if we had a similar day set aside, we might use it the same way.

There is a large military section (they call it 'veterans').  It is, of course, much more ordered; and full of flags.  There are veterans of many wars.  I think all former soldiers are entitled to a military funeral.  There were certainly stones indicting service as far back as World War I (with dates showing they had survived).

Monday, 25 May 2009

Sunday 24th May 2009 – Stroppy Barmaids

It is a holiday weekend, and, as is the custom across the world, the police are out in force to stop people killing themselves and each other.  In this case it is the Montana Highway Patrol and the Glasgow Police.  The Highway Patrol are out looking for 'DUI's (Driving Under the Influence). The city police are running a sting operation to check on under-age drinking (that's 21 here).

The barmaid is in a highly nervous state.  Almost everyone who asks for a drink is 'carded' (asked for proof of age, usually a driver's licence).  Montana Licences have a curious matt finish to them.  The barmaid is not young, and has difficulty reading them.  Out-of-state licences are more readable, but she doesn't know where to look for the date-of-birth.  All this takes time, and everyone is getting fractious.

It's not just that it's a holiday weekend: it's high school graduation as well.  So lots of older siblings are back from college for the ceremony.  The barmaid has not seen them for a year or two.  She can usually check they are who the licence says they are by asking after their cousins or their sisters or their aunts.

Apparently, young people can be used as in a sting operation, to catch bars who don't check.  And it's not just the liquor licence, or a fine for the establishment that's at stake:  the barmaid will get fined as well.  They take their under-age drinking seriously here.  I guess the young people get round it just as easily here as they do elsewhere.

I asked about the drink-driving limit.  I expected the '5' or '8' answer.  I  think '5' is strict, and '8' is moderate.  The actual numbers can vary quite a lot, from 50 to 0.05 (or 80 to 0.08) depending on what units the law is couched in.  The answer was not what I expected.  First they didn't know the number, but second, they thought it was "about two beers an hour", which not anything like the answer I expected, but is a strangely sensible way to look at it.  I expect they know that that applies to a standard sized person with a standard-functioning liver.

 

The day had started disastrously, with an attempt to video the Graduation Ceremony.  The black forces of the universe were in post-graduate mode: they got the band to play for a full fifteen minutes, knowing I liked to keep a piece of music complete, to make the editing easier; they hid my spare tape, so I missed the climax of the ceremony; and they throttled the editing software, knowing full-well I hadn't brought the wherewithal to reinstall it.  Back to another drawing board.  

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Saturday 23rd May 2009 – Housework

It's Memorial Day Weekend.  Everybody has family things to do.  This gives me a welcome chance to do some housework.  Still without the faithful Sancho, I have to clean down Rocinante myself.  He is covered in flies.  Not as bad as the huge pickup in the next space, which has a bird wedged in its grill.

I don't have much luck with the cleaning.  I think I will have to put him through the washer.  Must look after next year's resale value. 

Then there are all the files to upload and backup.  There is no rest for the blogging traveller.  Sometimes I have to look in about four places to find something I want.  I had this all organised before I left.  It should have stayed organised.

 

Later that same night, in my favourite watering hole, I find no sympathy from the old boys: "just remember it in your head", they say.  They have, indeed remembered things in their heads.  Perhaps it's just as well I can't: other wise I'd be repeating myself as much as they do.  Maybe I do.

The situation is saved by a posse of young ladies who fall deeply in love with me, or at least with my story; or as much of it as I can remember.  They all swear they are off to Glasgow this very minute.  They're from North Dakota, up for some branding party.  They may not know they're already in Glasgow.

 

One of the old boys was a mailman who remembered that he'd walked round the world three times.  He wasn't terribly impressed by a short trip round the USA; especially in a car.  I think his walk had taken him the best part of forty years.  Somehow all this took till 2am.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Friday May 22nd 2009 – and a Nice Lady Stamped on My Hand

I thought I would make an effort to see the Amtrak's famous 'Empire Builder' going through.  Although lots of freight trains trundle through, people seem to refer to the Amtrak as 'The Train".  "The train" chose today to be three hours late.  A nearby bar seemed a suitably inappropriate place to wait.  The owner had a car entered for tonight's Demolition Derby, and was keen to show it off, all newly painted.  He is driving it himself.

A lady comes in: "You want a beer?"

"Might as well, got a lot of time to wait.  They say train left Williston 2:04."

"Their time?" (Williston is in North Dakota, about 120 miles away, and on Central Time.  We're on Mountain Time.)

I got distracted by a farmer who had come in to kick the Government, in this case the state water management.  The farmers, I think by some kind of property tax, pay for irrigation water.  Water is a big issue here.  This farmer wanted to work Memorial weekend.  He runs about 2,000 acres with, it seemed, just him and his grandson.  But the Government wouldn't let him have any water yet.  Nobody has much good to say about the government here.

 

I was tempted to go to the Demolition Derby, but I had promised myself a bit of culture.  The Fort Peck Summer Theatre was showing 'Greater Tuna' for one night only, with a couple of past artistic directors playing the two/twenty parts.  The play is very famous in America, and is an affectionate satire on small-town life.  The two players play all twenty parts, so there is lot of quick-change, and a lot of quick-change mishaps.  The audience found a lot of things very funny, things which I totally failed to understand (sometimes not even managing to get the words).

The Fort Peck Summer Theatre is held in the cinema built for the dam workers back in the thirties.  It is a thousand-seater, and well looked-after, still in its original condition.  They even have the old projector as a talking point in the lobby.  The seats are moulded plywood.  Some regulars bring their own cushions, but you can rent one. 

As I parted with my ticket on the way in, a nice lady looked into my eyes, took my hand tenderly in hers, and, to my surprise, stamped 'FPST' in indelible red ink on the back of it: it's still there.

 

Back in Glasgow, the bars were humming with the aftermath of the Demolition Derby.  A young lady wanted to do a bit of business with me.  I'm tempted: she's from Wells Fargo.  A man with a Stetson ought to bank with Wells Fargo, oughtn't he?

Friday, 22 May 2009

Thursday 21st May 2009 – If You Want to Get Ahead

I got to spend the evening at a cabin down by the lake.  We had a barbeque, but when the sun went down, it got just a bit to cold to stay out.  Everyone is very please that the lake is filling up again: it has been gradually emptying over the last few years, but the Corps of Engineers (the army runs the big rivers here) has promised it will be 12 feet higher by the fall.  This has been greatly aided by all the flooding over the past month on North Dakota.  The dam is used to keep the Missouri navigable for barges.  The local joke is that the Corps of Engineers keep it dredged, but the only barges which use it are those taking away the dredging spoil.

Having read about the building of the dam, I was rather surprised to discover that it's actually twenty miles from Glasgow.  The dam was one of the major projects of Roosevelt's 'New Deal', and was built between 1933 and 1940.  The workers lived in 'tar-paper' boom towns, now largely gone.  If you didn't know what you were looking for, you wouldn't know it was there.  I took a wrong turning on my way to the cabin and had driven along most of it before I realised it.  It is an earth dam, the biggest in the world, and is largely invisible until you realise that the scenery is just a bit too regular.  I will take the tour next week.

 

The barbeque gave me an opportunity to show off my new hat.  Although it's windy here, and still a bit cold, the sun is very strong.  So I needed a hat.  Ostensibly, I went out to buy a shirt, since I finally had to admit that old faithful was not up to a barbeque.  The shop was basically selling cowboy outfits.  I kept my back firmly towards the boots, but I couldn't resist trying on some of the hats.  Either I got a cowboy hat or a baseball cap.  What finally swung it was noticing the label inside the hat said 'Stetson' on it.  Well, I just had to, didn't I?

Everyone was very kind and said it suited me.  I wonder if it actually does.  But it does keep the sun off me: all of me.  Since I notice most of the men keep their hats on indoors, I asked if that was really polite.  A lady teacher told me in no uncertain terms that it was not.  She used that tone of voice which told me she was not really talking to me, but to all the other guys.  I took it off very quickly.

 

Some of the youngsters went off for a plane trip, and came back and 'buzzed' us: very exciting.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Wednesday 20th May 2009 – Everyone is so Friendly

I expect you know that Americans call a train driver the engineer.  Glasgow is a staging post for the Railroad.  Both the BNSF (freight) and Amtrak (passengers) change crews here.  Some of the local hotels have computer terminals where they can check their rosters.  I had a fascinating chat with a BNSF engineer: he tells me that a grain train can be sixteen-and-a-half thousand tons, and that they can be up to eight thousand feet long (I make that just over a mile and a half).  He reckoned that some of the trains in the south (like at Glasgow California) could be two miles long. 

He was busy telling me how the 'dead man's handle' worked these days (apparently, if he's not doing anything with the controls, the system requires him to press a button a some interval determined by how fast the train is going) when we were soundly interrupted by a group in cowboy hats who clearly had a large amount of alcohol concealed about their persons.  They turned out to have come from a joint meeting of the Masons and the Knights of Columba, a coming together I find almost unimaginable, even in their cups.  They seemed to be the local gentry, ranchers, bank managers and the like.

One of them claimed ancestry from Aberdeenshire, saying his mother and father were "Full-blood Scots".  He wanted me to come and stay with him.  "That's very generous", I said, "but you don't know who I am.  I could be a lunatic."

"Oh, I'm not worried about that", he said, "this is Montana – we've got guns!"  And I believed him.  I had spent the previous day at an inquest discovering that, not only did they have guns, they used them.  It hadn't occurred to me that this might make them more friendly.

Anyway, I made a note to check with him in the cold light of day.  And since he told me he had three young children, one a baby, I thought I had better check with his wife as well.

 

The day had started with me visiting the Chamber of Commerce, who immediately adopted me and dragged me off to lunch.  Then they introduced me round the hospital (biggest employer after the railroads), and the High School, and took me to see the cemetery being prepared for Memorial Day, which is Sunday.  They seemed to know everybody.  It wasn't just a formal round of offices: everybody they passed in the corridors exchanged pleasantries.

At the hospital, I was introduced to the lady who had survived the shooting (although that was never raised) and could recognise the scene from the court photographs.

At the school the Principal gave me a school flag, with their Tam O'Shantered Scots Terrier mascot on it.  Their teams are known as the 'Scotties'.  The gym is really a basketball arena, and as she went through it to get the flag she was 'dodge-balled' by the students playing there.  The music teacher showed me the band's uniforms, which are proper kilts, in Dress Stuart tartan.  They are quite old, but he was not sure of their exact age.  The band will be playing at the Graduation Ceremony on Sunday.

The Cemetery, which includes a Veterans' (military) section, was, indeed a hive of activity.  I was promised that on Sunday it would be a field of flowers.  I was surprised at how big it was, and how much space there was between the graves.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Tuesday 19th May 2009 – An Elephant in the Courthouse

Today was the day of the inquest, and I had been told that the courthouse was not all that big, so I was up for an early breakfast and got there a good 40 minutes early.  In fact, it wasn't filled up, which surprised me.  There were plenty of spare seats.  There was even room for a large elephant, as we shall see.

Just to remind you: last January there was a terrible shooting here in Glasgow.  A sniper, later described as a recluse, shot and killed an ambulance volunteer, a woman in her thirties with four children, and wounded two people who went to her aid.  He was subsequently hunted down and killed by the local constabulary.  Well, I say the local constabulary, but, in fact, it emerged that, at the end, when he was shot, he had been tracked by a Federal Border Patrol Agent, a Fort Peck Tribes Police Officer with a dog, a Federal Fish and Wildlife Ranger, and A Wolf Point Police Lieutenant.  He had already been wounded, badly, as it turned out, probably by a Valley County Deputy Sheriff, but possibly by a Glasgow Police Officer.  As you can see, they take mutual assistance quite seriously out here.

The Coroner was from Fergus County, a hundred or more miles away.  The coroner here is also the local sheriff, an arrangement which is probably very convenient, most of the time.  But not in this case: Montana law requires there to be an inquest whenever a 'peace officer' kills someone.

Which was the strange unreality of the day's proceedings: this was not an enquiry into the frightening unexplained death of a well-known and well-liked local mother, whose job had been the Clerk in this very court room; it was an enquiry in to the death of the person who had killed her.  The inquest took the whole day, and every time the proceedings looked as though they might be heading in the direction of the killer's motives, you could feel that tension when an already-quiet room goes significantly quieter.   In these situations, people often use the expression 'an elephant in the room': I've never seen a better example.

The matter was not actually addressed at all until the very last words of the very last witness.  The Agent from the Montana Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation, who had been in charge of the case, and was in charge of all the tests and all the evidence, declared that, in his considered opinion, this was a case of  "suicide by Cop".

But it will never come to trial.  We will never really know.  We are all much happier when there is a motive, a connection between perpetrator and victim.  It allows us to judge whether it could ever happen to us, and what we might do to avoid it.  Someone just popping up and killing is quite frightenening.

 

Aside from the case itself, it was quite an enlightening day.  The various law enforcement agencies seemed only averagely competent.  I had to keep reminding myself that that's what averages are about.  And the jury seemed quite knowledgeable about guns, and quite comfortable asking police witnesses directly about them.  But the most enlightening discovery of all was from one of the victims.  He had been on his way to a basketball match, but when he had been shot, and his wife had been shot, he went back to his car and got his gun and used it.  And when he failed to hit the sniper, he decided it was an inappropriate weapon, and went back to the car again to get his rifle.  He had obviously been in the boy scouts.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Monday 18th May 2009 – “Just a Wee Doch and Dorris”

I went out for breakfast, just before finding a shop where I could buy a cowboy hat and boots.  The restaurant was quite busy, and most of the old timers were in cowboy hats (and a funny kind of waistcoat), some in boots.  Men here seem to take their coats of to sit at table, but not their hats.  I wonder why that is?  Some need to prevent confusion and the loss of same?  The need to be ready to leave in a hurry?  Nowhere else to put it ( if you think about it, it's a lot harder to store a lot of big hats than it is coats)?  Anyway, I was clearly in cowboy country.  I couldn't wait to get my outfit.

Then I thought about it: and the first thing that came into my head was Harry Lauder: what would I think if one of these nice old gents came to my Glasgow and decided to dress up as a 'Scotsman'?  They would be bound to get it wrong in some way.  It would look, at best, silly, at worst, insulting.

So I decided to save the hat for the pantomime when I get back.

 

The waitress, who was, I think, a senior herself, decided not to offer me the 'seniors' price.  Should I be flattered?  Or just out-of-pocket?

Sunday 17th May 2009 – Sunday Brunch in Glasgow

As I turn into Glasgow Center, under the railroad tracks, virtually the first thing I see is the Montana Bar. In the shooting tragedy back in January, the inquest on which is on Tuesday, an early source of information for reporters was a barmaid there. I have a note of her name. Since it is Sunday lunchtime, and very hot, that will have to be an early visit.

Almost the next thing I see is a sign with a large piper on it, declaring 'Campbell's Lodge', the very place I had decided, from internet searches, was the place to stay, at least for the first night. Almost without any further thinking, I find myself washed and dressed and sitting in the shade of the Montana Bar, with a beer and the Twins playing the Yankees. The Twins are doing very well. (The Yankees are the ManU of Baseball: they have just built a new stadium next door to the old one, attempting to make it, in a baseball sense, an exact copy of the old one.) It's 2-2 at the top of the eighth, the bases are loaded: could this be the big upset? Well, no; but it went to the tenth, and was settled by a single homer from the Yankees.

But why, I hear you cry, am I talking about Baseball on TV when I'm actually in a bar in Glasgow? Well, apart from there being a Twins emblem behind the bar, that's one way to strike up conversation in a bar. Soon the baseball fans are exchanging pleasantries, and soon they are asking after my accent, and soon the story is out: "gee, Glasgow Scotland?" The barmaid is more interested in me than the baseball (She may well be more interested in anything than the baseball). We exchange pleasantries. I ask if she is the barmaid from the shooting stories, but she is not.

I admire her beautiful cash register, a definite antique. She said it had to be replaced in the 1960's, because someone shot its predecessor to pieces. She rushes off and comes back with a piece of the old register, to show me the bullet hole. "Why were they shooting at the cash register?" I asked.

"Oh", she said, "they weren't shooting at the cash register, they were shooting at my mother".

It is not often I am lost for words, but I was, I was lost for words. How do you ask someone why their mother was being shot at in a bar?

Of which, I hope, more next week.

Sunday 17th May 2009 – Missing the Train as Usual

Somewhere between Minot and Williston ND, I saw a sign pointing to a place which claimed to be the 'Geographical Center of North America'. I guess what that means is that if you took a perfectly accurate map, on perfectly stiff card, and cut it out perfectly accurately, you could balance it on a pin stuck through that place. Only I can't for the life of me remember the name of the place. And it wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't, later, kept spotting the odd seagull or two. Do small numbers of very adventurous seagulls transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific? What were they doing there, right in the middle of North America?

US 2 is a good, divided-carriageway road all the way across North Dakota. 'Nodding Donkey' oil wells are dotted all along it in Western North Dakota: now there's oil in tham thar hills. As you come out of the hills, with US 2 stretching straight to the horizon, you realise why this part of the world calls itself 'Big Sky' country. You can readily imagine you're seeing the earth's curvature. This is part of the Great Plains, which stretch a thousand miles down to Texas.

As we cross the border into Montana, the road changes abruptly to single-carriageway, and we move to Mountain Time, seven hours behind Greenwich. The first thing I see is a signpost telling me how far it is to Glasgow. I can hardly believe it. In fact it takes me quite a few seconds to realise I ought to go back and take a photo. For those of you interested in these things, here is clear proof that there is a speed limit in Montana.


Finding somewhere safe to park brings me beside one of those enormously long freight trains, and, since the camera is out, I cross the tracks to get a picture of it too. What I don't know is that crossing the tracks is going to cause me to miss something quite significant. The engineers are down on the track. The train is waiting for something. As I pack up the camera, the crossing lights start to flash, and the barriers come down. I hear a train whistle, but I can't see anything because of a row of old railway buildings. Suddenly, from behind the buildings, whistle blowing louder and louder, thunders Amtrak's Empire Builder, the train that brought me from Chicago to Minneapolis, and whose next stop is now Glasgow Montana. I knew from the timetable when it arrived in Glasgow. I should have known it was due. As I rush to get the camera out again, it vanishes behind the freight train. And the barriers stay down. I missed it. Bugger!

Almost all of the rest of the journey is through the Fort Peck Indian Reservation (Assiniboine and Sioux), along the Missouri valley, following the tracks of the Burlington, Northern, and Santa Fe. I am beginning to see names that have existed only on maps for the last year or so. Just beyond Wolfe Point, a sign tells me I'm entering Valley County, whose county seat is Glasgow. If Rocinante had not been on cruise control, I think I would have had to stop to gather breath. I'm almost there: will it be anything like what I was imagining as I confidently studied those maps.

Saturday 16th May 2009 – In a Hotbed of Young Ladies

 

I was chatting to a man called 'OJ' in a bar in Minot, ND, when his wife came in and dragged him out.  He was wearing a cap with a stylised union jack on it, a bit Like Jensen Button used to wear in his Honda days.  I had just been speaking to his daughter on the phone (I can't think why).  Her name was something like 'Olivia', and I had thoroughly confused her by (I thought) clever references to Hamlet.  I don't think the Ophelia-confusing of the daughter was connected to the out-dragging by the wife, but I can't be sure, because she (the wife) wouldn't speak to me.

He said it was a Buffalo Bills cap.  The Bills was the OJ's team.  He was a Bills fan, he said, and that's why everyone called him 'OJ'.  Maybe the wife ought to tread a bit more warily.

It is possible the wife knew what she was doing, because they had no sooner gone than several bus-loads of young ladies, out on several 'hen' nights, arrived, in, I have to say, a very frisky mood.  One group, trying to raise money for a present, were selling lollipops under the banner 'a dollar for a suck'.  I proffered two dollars, and the bride-to-be was astonishingly grateful.  At which point I thought it wise to leave: I didn't want the young men to get too jealous.

I had been left at this bar by a taxi driver with a sense of humour beyond his years.  I had asked him if he knew any bars with draught beer and old men drinking it.  He clearly thought I would enjoy a rather different sociological experience.  And I did.

 

I was going to spend the night in the van at a truck stop, having found a book which lists all the places where you can do that.  So I had settled into a nearby bar for a quiet nightcap.  It was called the 'Flaming Fireplace', but was anything but.  The barmaid, amazingly, didn't want to talk to me.  She was gossiping with an off-duty colleague at the other end of the bar.  And the only other people in the place were teenage boys crowded round a card table playing cards.

When I asked if there was anywhere in walking distance which had draught beer, she said "No, but I'll call you a cab".  I took the hint.

 

Oh, and every bar I've been in in North Dakota has a row of ashtrays on the bar.  Just to celebrate being back in civilisation I cadged a cigarette from the barmaid of the Flaming Fireplace.  Maybe that's why she took agin' me.

Saturday 16th May 2009 – HoDo and the Black Urinal

There used to be a serial on childrens' TV in the UK called 'Catweasel'.  It was about an incompetent medieval wizard transported to modern times.  When he tried to wizard his way out of some situation, and, inevitably, failed, he would look, with some anguish, at whoever else was in the scene, and say, no doubt intending to sound Anglo-Saxon, "Nithing werks".   I now realise this was because of his astonishing age: I find myself continually in the same position.  This time it was the old eyes.

I had never seen a black urinal before Saturday.  And, not to put too fine a point on it, I failed to see one on Saturday too.  It was in a restaurant in Fargo, ND called the Hotel Donaldson, the 'HoDo'.  It is a bright, airy place, and the sun was blazing in.  I had finished my lunch and gone to the Mens' restroom.  Normally, nowadays, I have to pause for a moment in those circumstances until my eyes get used to the darkness.  But this restroom was decorated, undoubtedly by a lady interior decorator consumed by penis-envy, entirely in black.  Including, as the title implies, the urinal.  I thought I'd walked into a cupboard: after allowing for the usual adjustment time, I still couldn't see a thing.  I went back out to check the door, which, being back in the sunlight, compounded the problem.  With some difficulty, I managed to finish my business, hopefully in the right receptacle, and wash my hands, even more hopefully in the right receptacle.  I emerged back into the bright sunlight, which, of course blinded me again.  I lifted my arms to find some solid surface to cling to, and pinned a lady to the wall.  Gave her quite a fright.  I only hope it was the interior decorator, and my profuse apologies undeserved.
 
Thinking on it later, it occurred to me that 'HoDo and the Black Urinal' might be the first title in a new J K Rowlings series, about a failed sorcerer and his drinking adventures in the less salubrious parts of Edinburgh.  Or better still, 'The Black Urinal' might be another Dan Brown mystery, explaining why Howard Hughes kept all his urine stored in a cupboard, spending huge sums of money to find the lost original of the al-Hajar-ul-Aswad, the black stone revered by Muslims to this day, the original having been spirited away during the crusades, having been profaned, in a way you can now readily guess, by a fundamentalist society of Christian knights, a society to which Hughes, and all the powerful men in the western world have sworn alliegance.  Only to find it has been hidden, by a man-hating interior decorator, in a restaurant in North Dakota.

 

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Saturday 16th May 2009 – Lunch in Fargo, North Dakota




Leaving a trail of mayhem behind, but, fortunately, no murders, I have zinged up the interstate from Minneapolis to Fargo, in North Dakota; where I am having lunch, a local delicacy of corned beef, sauerkraut, and Wisconsin gruyere (and funny chips that seemed to be made from sweet potato).




Here’s what Fargo looked like from here.


Friday, 15 May 2009

Friday 15th May, 2009 – Castles in Ireland, Castles in Spain, and Windmills in my Head

Mention of Cervantes has highlighted the connection between my Glasgows and Don Quixote's windmills, etc.  I always thought, from the very beginning, that this was a 'quixotic' adventure: it was just finding windmills to tilt at, for want of anything else to do. 

But there's rather more to it than that: I've always wanted to visit 'small town' America.  The Glasgows are, in some sense, just a convenient set of points to join up which allows me to do that.  It will, I hope, let me meet Americans who are not on-the-make in the big city, who know who they are, and where they belong.

I met a man in Boston who was there to watch his daughter run the marathon.  They came from rural Illinois.  He owned a construction business.  Well, actually, he drove an earth-mover, and loved every minute of it, and his brother did the business.  But he asserted, quite forcefully, that there was no recession in rural America.  "We only got real jobs", he said (or something like that), "we don't do the kind of jobs that come and go".  I find this very hard to believe (the bit about the recession, not the bit about the jobs).  My experience tells me the city slickers will defend themselves with every trick they can muster, and dumping on the rural poor is an early candidate.

But, of course, the point is, I'm going to go and have a look.  The America I'm about to see is not the America we get to read about, but it is where most Americans live.  It's bound to be quite different.  Will I notice the difference?

 

Rocinante is saddled, her makeshift tackle is ready.  The rusty armour has been polished.  The fair Dulcinea constantly reminds me of the next step on the way.  It is time to mount up and go.  I wonder what happened to Sancho?

Thursday 14th May 2009 – So Much to Do, So Little Time

I am keen to be in Montana by Monday.  There is a special reason, but I haven't got time to go into that now.  In fact, I haven't got time to go into anything.  The jury-rigging of the van for overnight stops was so simple that it produced a whole day of dithering, looking for more complicated solutions.  I now think we've done enough to get by.

We interrupted the dithering for a bit of special scientific research: we went to see the new 'Star Wars' film.  If you want my opinion, and why should you, it's very good, and very faithful, in a curiously modern way, to the spirit of the original.  It inspired me: the shuttle may not be quite ready, but I do have to get in it, and I do have to go.

It will take me two days, I think, to get to Montana.  I am planning to go up I94 to Fargo, which will probably take the first day, then I29 to Grand Forks, where I will join US2, which runs all the way to Seattle, through Glasgow.

 

There was a terrible shooting in Glasgow MT back in January.  A sniper, for no reason yet aired, killed an ambulance woman outside the local hospital, and wounded another couple who went to try to help her.  He was then killed in a shoot-out with local law enforcement (I have to use that term, because 'police' would mean just the twelve officers of Glasgow Police Department, but the response included the county sheriff and the native police from the nearby reservation).  The sniper had lived reclusively in Glasgow for two years beforehand.  Nobody appeared to know much about him, so the newspapers were unable to make much of a story.  The inquest is on Tuesday.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Wednesday 13th May 2009 – Nine Miles Up-the-Creek in an Irish Castle

I was shopping for curtains (as one does), when my peripheral vision saw something it thought I needed to look at: and I found myself focussing on my first Glasgow. Not a real Glasgow, you understand, just a little cul-de-sac, or 'Dead End', as the Americans say, in English. And here it is:

It's in Edina, which rhymes with Carolina, as in "Nothing could be fine-ah than to be in". Edina is a southern suburb of Minneapolis, but, as is the way here, is a 'city' in its own right. You could actually tell it's south of Minneapolis by the other street sign: 78 means its way south (I think, but I'm not certain, 78 blocks south, or south-west, of the Mississippi). So go south 78 blocks and if you stay west of Nicollet Avenue, you will eventually find yourself on W 78th Street. Glasgow Drive is on the North side near Nine Mile Creek. Protest posters in the gardens want to save Nine Mile Creek, from industrialised environmentalism. You can read the details at http://9milecreek.org/ .

My favorite Irish Pub has a huge mural filling one whole wall. It depicts a ruined castle. We were debating where it might be while the young waiter got our drinks.

"Ask the waiter", I said.

"Oh, he'll never know", she said, " he's just a youngster doing waiting".

So I asked him: "Do you know where that castle is?"

"It's Kerry (I'm not really sure whether he said this or some other word closer to 'Curry' or 'curroo', but I know 'Kerry' so, for now, 'Kerry' it is), in County Kerry. Brian Boru lived there".

"Oh, yeah, right", we thought, but we said "how do you know that?"

And he said "Because I painted it."
Turned out he was a part-owner of the place. Just goes to show. You never can tell, can you. I couldn't resist thinking "if he's the owner, he won't want a tip, will he?"
From Glasgow Edina MN

From Glasgow Edina MN
From Glasgow Edina MN

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Tuesday 12th May 2009 – Shopping and Telling Jokes Badly

Whenever I take a wrong turning, or, more likely, fail to take a right one, Dulcinea, who is destined to be called 'Dulcie' before long, pauses, then says "recalculating".  Then she picks up directions for the new route.  It's so reassuring to have someone calm and concentrating when I get lost.  I have decided I will do this myself: from now on, instead of  "you've missed the turning, you stupid cow!", I will confine myself to "recalculating".  Of course, they'll know what I mean.

The fair Dulcinea has wafted me from address to address with never a flutter.  I only have to find an address on the web, and I'm as good as there.  Except for Lyndale Avenue, of course, which Hennepin County has turned into a large pile of soil without bothering to tell her.  I know they haven't told her because I spent a whole night last weekend getting her up-to-date on all the changes in North America.  So I have now joined that growing band of hapless motorists who have driven into a roadworks site because some disembodied voice from the dashboard told me to.

Anyway, the result of all this to-ing and fro-ing has Rossey nearly fully (ha ha) equipped for our adventure.  The fair D is poised and ready: a couple more days.

 

I was parked outside the auto parts shop (or so Dulcinea assured me).  I went in, only to find a single reception counter, as in the service part of a garage.  "Have you got a shop here?", I ask.  "Yes, of course we have.  What do you want?"  "I just wanted to look round it, see what there was", I said.  He looked pretty non-plussed.  "No, you can't do that", he said, "it's too dangerous.  There are people working in there".  It dawned on me.  Another language difficulty: 'shop' means 'workshop' in this context.  "No, no", I say, "parts, retail".  "Oh, that's next door: that way".  He looked relieved to be getting rid of me.

 

Later that night, in the local Irish bar (I have discovered a whole locality constructed entirely of Irish bars) I was regaling them with my mishaps.  'They' were a young man, who had been there some time, and the barmaid, who hadn't.  We got onto the subject of jokes, and our language and accent differences.  I had heard a (I thought) terrific joke on 'Saturday Night Live', concerning Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal (the youngsters reminded me of their names).  So I thought I would give it an airing.

I expect you've all, by now, heard 'The Arisocrats' joke: there's a film about it which has been on one of the dirtier TV channels, BBC2 or Channel Four.  It's a kind of test for comedians.  Well, I've got a new test.  My telling of this joke, which I shall refer to as the 'vowel' joke, was excruciating.  The difficulty in telling it across these divides of language and accent (I think I can just about recognise a Northern Minnesotan accent now) became the joke itself, as we staggered from one misunderstanding to another.  I'll give you the bones of the joke: your test, should you choose to accept it, is to tell it slow enough, and drop enough language and accent hints to get an immediate laugh at the punch line, rather than that puzzled look which people have when they want to be friendly and a joke ends before they expect it to.  If you are telling it to old people, there will be the added difficulty of them perhaps not understanding the basic concept in the first place.  Anyway, SNL (as it likes to call itself these days) was going on about Reese W: a whole series of jokes, about her and JG getting married/together.  And it ended with the one about them even making up their own vowels.  Geddit?  No?  OK, Let try this another way: you see, they were getting married, so there would be vows, you see, and young people these days … NO, NO,STOP, STOP!  … and you have noticed how they spell their names … NO, NO, STOP, STOP!  … Oh, alright.  But, he can't stop himself adding, defiantly, I thought it was funny.

Monday 11th May 2009 – Rocinante is Mine

Everywhere here seems to be a vast distance from everywhere else.  And because it always involves some level of freeway, I can never tell whether I'm going north, south, east or west.  So today seemed especially frenetic.

I had to get the money, then get the agent to tax ('get plates for') the car, then get the insurance, then actually drive the thing home.  All of which, with a wrong turning or two, left me feeling I'd driven half way across America.  This is an unnerving thought, since I'm actually just about to drive all the way across America.  There is a different scale of distance over here.  I think petrol costs round about a third of European prices, but journeys will cost just about the same.

Anyway, everything actually went fairly smoothly, so it's now a matter of fitting her out.  Which will be tomorrow's frenetic activity.

I have decided it's a she, and she is to be called Rocinante, to remind me of the quixotic nature of this adventure.  I know Steinbeck ('Travels with Charley') did the same thing, but I'm not copying from him, I'm copying from Cervantes, which is what he did.  If I'm a plagiarist, I'm in good company.  Anyway, Rocinante will inevitably be shortened to 'Rossey', which will have some Glasgow associations, reminding me of holidays 'doon the watter' at Rothesay, which is normally pronounced much like that.

 

The officious lady American voice is clearly the most suitable for the GPS.  If only I could get the divine voice which tells me which side of the tram to get off, that would be perfect: she could easily replace HAL.  I've tried the English (and I do mean ENGLISH), Australian, and American in both sexes, and somehow officious American female fits best.  Perhaps she will be my Lady Dulcinea.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Sunday 10th May 2009 – Can You Hear Me, Mother?

It's Mothers' Day here, and my adoptive parents took me out to lunch.  A woman at the next table was having a quiet lunch with her daughter.  The daughter went off to the rest room, or somewhere, and it turned out the woman was just bursting to share a story with us.

She woke up thinking it was Mothers' Day, so she would just stay in bed, and wait for breakfast to turn up.  Her son comes in and asks to borrow the car, so he can go and get a bagel.  This sounds good, she thought.  He comes back some time later, having feasted on his bagel, pops into his mother's room, briefly, to tell her that he had met a friend down the mall, and, did she know, today is Mothers' Day.  Then he gives her the keys back and vanishes.  I think she was awe-struck at the self-centredness of it.  I think she felt better having got that off her chest.  Actually, I could just sense that she would have felt better still if she could have showed us a photo and we had agreed to mete out some awful punishment.

 

People are the same the world over, aren't they?