Tuesday, April 27, 2010
14) When was the last time you were in Mexico?
I live on a cow ranch near Patagonia, Arizona 17 miles from the border. I go across to Nogales, Sonora periodically for my haircut, mine and my wife Patsy’s dental care, our prescription drugs, our saddle maker, and once in a while to have brunch in a nice restaurant with the music of the mariachis. For the past ten years I haven’t had occasion to do any business, or go any farther south than the ranch that I used to lease at Agua Zarca, Sonora. That ranch is only 12 miles south of Nogales, Sonora and I still visit my vaqueros and their families there from time to time.
15)You're a man whose done it all, ( writer, cattle man, bronco buster, gold prospector, cowboy, rodeo cowboy, ranch hand, pilot, smuggled guns and whiskey into Mexico, wrangled horses for Hollywood Westerns, and worked on a alpine search and rescue team.) Is there anything you haven't done that you wished you could have?
I’ve been plenty happy doing what I’ve done, but I’ve always wanted to do one job more. That has been to visit the home country of every great husbandman of the world and write a novel based in its folklore. Those husbandmen would include: the Argentine gaucho, The brave bull rancher in Spain, the Scottish sheep man, the Basque sheep man, the Mongolian horseman, the Arab horseman, the Australian stock man, the Finnish reindeersman, the Russian Cossack. If I could have done one novel about each of only these few, I would have been happy.
16) When you wrote your first novel "Jim Kane", did you have any idea that it would be a success and then go on to be made into a film?
No, I only wanted to write a novel about the work that cowboys do. The movies weren’t doing it and only two real cowboys have become writers to win recognition for their work. They were Will James and Max Evans. All other books, even the good ones, were about the shoot-em-up cowboys that had been heralded by the old pulps and later done over and over and over again in modern movies.
Sure, I hoped Jim Kane would become a movie and the actor that I dreamed would portray the protagonist turned out to be the one who played Jim Kane, Paul Newman. If the movie had told of the real work of cowboy Jim Kane, Paul would have been credited with revolutionizing the cowboy genre.
17) You were once the heavyweight champion at Notre Dame and you sparred with Rocky Marciano, and fought professionally in Northern Mexico. Can you share some of your memories of those days boxing & what was it like to be in the ring with a legend like Rocky Marciano?
I won Middle weight and Light heavyweight championships of Notre Dame in ’51 and ’53.
I started boxing in state tournaments when I was 12 and continued boxing as an amateur through my four years of active duty in the Marine Corps. I had 106 amateur fights and lost six. I won two state championships of New Mexico, the two Notre Dame championships, the Third Marine Division championship and the All Marine Pacific Ocean area championship in 1956. Because ’56 was an Olympic Games year, I was able to compete, although I was an officer. I also coached the Third Marine Division team.
When I was a senior at Notre Dame, before he became heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Marciano visited our campus as our guest celebrity for the boxing finals of 1952. The finals bouts decided the boxing championships in eight weight divisions. He came a few days before the finals so that all of us boxers got to meet him and work out with him.
One day, after all the rest of the boxers had gone to shower and then to the dining room for supper, Dominick Napolitano, our coach and mentor, put me in the ring with Rocky. I had a lot of reach on him and always had a great left hand. We both had enough confidence in ourselves and in the other’s respect for us that we weren’t pouring it on, but I kept that jab in his face. I knew my range very well and he knew his, so we could make contact without injuring each other. In other words, we threw our punches right, but pulled them before they caused injury.
About the middle of the third round as I stuck out another jab, he dropped a nice, sharp right hand on my bicep and shocked my whole arm numb. After that I had to work inside and that’s when I found out how strong he was. His legs were like concrete pillars, except that he moved like a cat. His arms were strong as a blacksmith’s but he had great hand speed and snap in his hooks, both the wide ones and the short ones. He sparred with a quickness and ease that never seemed to tire him. We went six rounds and he never drew a long breath.
In the light heavyweight finals two evenings later, I stopped my opponent Larry Ash in the second round. When asked to comment on my fight, Rocky said, “He’s very good. He’s very, very good. He ought to be a professional.
I had a shabby career as a professional. I often fought under assumed names and only to make a quick payday. I didn’t use my own name and try to make a professional go at it until I was 33. In the Fall of 1963, under my own name, I stopped light heavyweight Indio Lopez in the second round. In January, 1964, I stopped his brother, heavyweight Yaqui Lopez, in the second. My old manager Mike McNulty flew down to Mexico to be in my corner for those fights.
In March of 1964, against a good middleweight named Ramon Hernandez I found out in the second round why he was called “Buffalo.” I will only say this as an excuse for losing that fight as ignominiously as I did. I had to lose twenty pounds below my fighting weight of 185 pounds for that fight. That weakened me, and besides that the Buffalo’s head was harder than any human head has a right to be.
I broke my right hand on the top of his head near the end of the second round. He went down on his back and I prayed that he wouldn’t get up, but he dammit did. I fought the next 8 rounds with only my left jab. I won the 1st two rounds and the 9th and 10th, but lost the decision, because he beat me hands down in all the middle rounds.
After my hand mended Mike called to tell me that he had arranged for me to go to Las Vegas to spar with Sonny Liston in preparation of another of his championship fights. A card was being made up for two world championship bouts on the same night and I might get to fight a preliminary bout.
On my way to Las Vegas from my home in Navojoa, Sonora, I came down with hepatitis. I got as far as Gila Bend, Arizona and had to turn back. I holed up with my grandmother in Nogales. She gave me a dose of Epsom Salts as soon as I showed up, then another dose the next day.
I couldn’t work cattle, could barely hold up my head, but I had to do something to make some money to feed my family. So I started writing the stories that became my first novel, Jim Kane. Of course, I didn’t sell a thing until 1970.
The Las Vegas card never happened.
Several other border cattlemen got hepatitis at the same time I did, but I was never as sick as the others. Some of them spent time in the hospital. I was up and able to go back to work with my cattle after a month of convalescence at my Granny’s house, even though I was still plenty weak. I always credited Granny’s salts cure with being able to go back to work so quick. Nevertheless, I needed another year before I thought about fighting again and decided that I didn’t have the liver for it.
My Mexican fans all knew about the hand that I broke, but after that when anybody else asked me if I regretted having to quit I always answered, “No, because I kept breaking my hands.” That was true, after I grew to be a middleweight I always had to go have one or the other hand put in a cast after the finals of a tournament. However, when I told someone who had not seen me fight that I had to quit because of my brittle hands, without fail, they always answered, “I never boxed, because I knew that I hit so hard my hands wouldn’t stand it.”
I always answered that kind of phony with, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but I didn’t quit because I hit too hard, my hands got broken up from the referees walking on them.”
The truth is, I never knew a fighter who quit the sport because of glass hands. A good taping always fixed them for another go in the ring.
One year after I contacted hepatitis I was in Calexico, California crossing cattle through Mexicali. My partner had been in the Yuma, Arizona country club the night before where he had been introduced to Rocky Marciano. My partner knew about my friendship with Rocky from having read my scrapbook and he told Rocky that I was nearby. Rocky told him to call me and arrange for me to meet him at the Hotel De Anza in Calexico the next day. Rocky was on his way to referee a fight in Mexicali.
We had a long visit in his room before he went across the line to referee the fight, and a long visit at breakfast the next morning. He had retired from fighting, but he said that if I decided to take it up again, to call him.
I said, “Rocky, I would, but my hands won’t stand it.”
He smiled. I said, “Even the step of light foot referee breaks them up.”
We both laughed at that, because the referees breaking hands by walking on them is an old joke among fighters.
Then I said, “Besides that, I just got over a whole year of the shits and it’s left me with a chicken liver.”
And that was finally the end of my 22 year boxing career.
18) When you wrote "Forest of the Night" in the 1970's, you lost it (the transcript) after a 4 day drinking binge, I believe. You finally found it in a garbage can. That sounds like something out of a Bukowski novel. Life is truly stranger than fiction is it not?
I was crazy wild in those days, and especially after a month of working on Forests day and night without letup except to eat. I never slept over two hours at a time during that month, either. It isn’t strange that I lost the manuscript during the week long Parranda, or celebration, that I gave myself when I finished it. My mistake was in carrying it around with me so that I could from time to time satisfy myself by rereading passages of my O-so-deathless prose. It’s not strange, either that a bunch of cowboys, some that I had never even met, ganged together to search every corner of every bar on both sides of the Mexico-Arizona border in Agua Prieta and Douglas. It is strange that there were two garbage cans in that pool hall where the manuscript was found. One had been emptied completely and the other only contained my manuscript.
19) Have you ever met or read Edward Abbey or Cormac McCarthy?
20) Craig McDonald has a series out about a fictional writer named Hector Lassiter whose tag line is "The man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives". Could that tag line fit you as well?
All through my childhood and adolescence writing was easy for me, because a lot happened to the people in my family for me to write stories about. I never liked to write, so I only wrote when I had to turn in a composition or a book report.
However, because it was easy for me, when I wanted to go to Notre Dame, I thought I could make it by majoring in journalism. I never would have graduated if I had majored in anything else.
I had a very hard time passing all the required courses during my first two years at ND, but an easy and happy time learning to write and finding an appreciation of good literature during the two years of my study of journalism. I also, for the first time in my life, found out how much professors who know about stories appreciated mine about cowboys, horses, cattle, and boxing.
After I graduated, I forgot about writing, because I didn’t have to do it anymore. Besides that, I figured I had exhausted the experiences of my life that were interesting and didn’t want to get into the kind of fiction that would require me to make up stories.
Then, I left the ranch after graduation and struck out on my own. I was half an invalid and couldn’t do hard work as a cowboy. On the way home from graduation a blood clot in my labyrinth, my inner ear, had laid me low for about a year and I lost 40 pounds. The only work I could do was write, so I found work first on two Arizona weekly newspapers and later on the Herald-Post.
I wrote on that newspaper for two years while I recovered from the blood clot, then joined the Marine Corps and forgot about writing again. After two years of writing five or six stories a day for the newspaper, I didn’t ever want to write another one.
The only writing I did in the Marine Corps was a manual for animal packing for the Mountain Leadership School at Pickle Meadows, California where I served as an instructor-guide. I was one of the first five officers who helped found that program.
I went to work in the cattle business when I was released from active duty in ’58 and the only times I wrote after that was when I was laid up injured, sick, or by myself in some camp way out where the sun set between me and town, until the hepatitis hit me.
I had plenty to write about then, a good warehouse full of stories that were unlike any that any other cowpuncher had written, or any other writer had written, for that matter. I was able to see the value of those stories as material for a book. Once I decided to write a book of those stories, I got hooked on writing. The more I wrote, the more I had to keep at it. The more that I could remember of the experiences, the more value I saw in the stories and in the way they had to be written, So, I had to see that they were written. The only trouble, that kind of writing got harder and harder. It still does. It ain’t easy anymore at all.
I have never liked to write and I have not enjoyed it any more than I have enjoyed going on drunken binges for months at a time. What’s to enjoy about being so totally absorbed in a task that you can’t eat, or sleep, or stop doing it? That’s what I’ve done as a drunkard and is exactly what I’ve done as a writer. The trouble is, I’ve never felt duty bound to go on a drunk, and I do feel duty bound to go on writing.
21) You come from I believe 5 generation of ranchers, do you have any children following in your footsteps?
I have two sons that I can count on to help me run another ranch, if I ever make another stake to buy and stock one. One son is a movie stuntman and the other is an artist. One of my three grandsons is a cowboy who works on a ranch near Austin, Texas. One studies to be an actor. The other has been studying classic guitar for four years in Seville, Spain and plans to remain there for two more years. Three out of five cowboys who can succeed me ain’t bad, but who knows if it will ever happen again. I hope to write 30 more books. If I get that done, it will happen.
22) You've said that some of the worst people in the world and also some of the best live in the Sierra Madres. Have all the best fled from there in recent days?
Decent people find it very, very hard to stay in the Sierra Madre these days. That’s not to say that the people who stay are all villains. The best of people everywhere in the world, find it to difficult to remain hardcore good all their lives. I know people in the Sierra Madre who live by earnings from illegal crops. I respect them, trust them, and am not bothered by what they do to make a living. They have survived because their goodness is universally respected. They are part of the hard core of good people of Mexico that no villainy will ever contaminate. They have kept their ranches and raised their children to respect justice and decency while their neighbors turned to banditry, lawlessness, and dissipation. What more could anyone expect of them?
Posted by Rod Norman at 3:29 PM