~~This essay first appeared in Baobab: Columbia College Journal of the Arts (1995)
Calamity Jane’s Grave
What speaks when we stand silent before such a memorial?
Is it a “monumental past”? A greatness, as lived, whose
heroism…remains a living thing…? No, for it is not “the past”
that we are being asked to recall, but rather something closer
to the “historic”, with its need for reverence and obedience,
for belief and remorse…--and thus, the ports of call for field
trips, postcards, troubled reminiscence.
--Scott L. Montgomery, “Monumental Kitsch: Borglum’s Mt. Rushmore”
(Georgia Review, Summer 1988)
I. Field Trips
Karen and I were both twenty, bookish middle-class townies, on our second still surreal day driving west from Ohio Berkeley bound. It was the summer of 1979 and our kerfuffled parents warned of Reverend Jim Jones and Commissioner Dan White (or that the Arab Oil Embargo would push gas past sixteen bits a gallon) but fairy tale plans to seek a life together far from family or friends had burned crisp and even around the campfire of the college where our parents taught. And too. We probably just wanted to reinvent ourselves. Dance on some gravestones.
The road beckoned with manufactured awe. Indian caves. Gimcracks and phosphorous dreams. Even the gas stations were museums of that, memorials to this. The wampum of the wide-open South Dakota plains. Should we stop at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota? “No,” we agreed, with the same hauteur we’d felt while smirking at parental offers of television sets. Going through the Badlands, we told ourselves that classes at Berkeley could wait; what we needed was to stray from I-90’s picket fence of tacky billboards. We figured Deadwood for an authentic frontier town--and authentic was our mantra--but what we found was closer to a Stuckey’s Restaurant definition of wild and wooly. Deadwood looked like a theme park from Disneyland.
Then, round a chance corner, we saw an inconspicuous marker for the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. The bullet holes in the corrugated tin looked authentic! “It’s what Tom Robbins would do,” Karen pointed out, a copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues on her lap. So we turned up a hill with a grade well beyond Wallace Stegner’s angle of repose. The cotton-speckled blue sky looked so much like something out of Larry McMurtry’s Thalia that it hurt our eyes. Then my foot fell to the floor with a thud that could be heard all the way back in Ohio. Like the gently sinking end of a bumper car ride, we found ourselves going ever so slowly backwards. My fey girlfriend said, “Arp, we are like Garp down his driveway in the dark!” Gravity roiled us trunk first to a gas station. Where a fella crusty enough to have been one of Calamity Jane’s 1903 pallbearers tested the fuel pump by trying to suck gas from it. “She’s gurn,” he said, dribbling out a mixture of spittle and petro. Turned out the closest Toyota parts were fifty miles away in Rapid City and it was 5 p.m. on a Friday. So we walked a silent mile down to the Greyhound Station and ordered a fuel pump with traveler’s checks earmarked for our security deposit in California.
Of that weekend I retain only two ironies: we never did make it to Calamity Jane’s grave; and don’t let anybody tell you that the saloons in Deadwood cut their sarsaparilla with saltpeter. Sunday night, bouncing on a four-poster in the historic Franklin Hotel, we giggle-pledged “to come back to Deadwood when we’re forty.” An impulsive pact. I don’t know, but maybe, sub rosa, we shared some relief. Neither of us had taken a kaput fuel pump as omen to take the next stage back east.
I only know the original headstone’s inscription from some grainy, black-and-white photographs reproduced in Roberta Beed Stolid’s Calamity Jane (1948): CALAMITY JANE/MRS. M.E. BURKE/ DIED AUG. 1, 1903/AGED 53 YEARS.
It’s a remarkably responsible work of scholarship in a genre which otherwise reads like 19th century dime novels. Take this potshot I found in Watson Parker’s Deadwood: The Golden Years (1981): Her name, Calamity, perhaps came from the various venereal calamities which may have afflicted those who patronized her charms.” In all my reading, this was a singular theory, so I checked Parker’s footnote and found this retraction: “The nature of her ‘calamities’ is entirely of my own invention, the surmise of an old army medial NCO.” If not potshots, folks with ideological agendas take a piece of Calamity Jane. In Calamity Jane’s Letters To Her Daughter, reissued in 1976 by shameless hussy press, a questionably literate Martha Jane Canary becomes a feminist exemplar who dressed as a man to open the doors they closed on her as a woman. Though for sure: there was frequent poignant need for passing in our frontier past (see Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star); but an equestrian of our heroine’s talents would just have surely recognized a one-trick pony when she was being mounted on one.
Closer to the bone is a macabre photograph in Stolid’s Calamity Jane. It catches Calamity posing in front of Wild Bill’s grave only ten days before she would die of what the undertaker called “inflammation of the bowels” (Stolid attributes her early death to a life of hard drinking). Cutting up in petticoats and doffing her bonnet like a gallant D’Artagnan, Calamity leans back on the iron gate that cordons Wild Bill’s plot, as though she too wants to cheat the locals of their future admission fees. Maybe she was drunk and of a mind to mock death, though a feminist reading makes just as much sense. Stolid’s research shows that the occasion was definitely orchestrated by Calamity for some purpose, though that purpose is lost to posterity. What I noticed about the photograph once I stopped trying to decipher its staged intent is that Wild Bill’s burial plot was already overrun, by 1903, with unruly weeds. They poke through its iron gate like those hairs in our noses we pretend we don’t have.
Thousands of tourists poke their own noses around “Deadwood Gulch” each year, but I hope their memories aren’t as sandblasted as their mementos. The postcard Calamity Janes they mail home are wayward cousins of those sanitized mugs on Mt. Rushmore. It’s the weeds poking through the sepulchered sentiments that should define history. Otherwise, we buy into a vision where history, in Frances Fitzgerald’s phrase, is nothing but a “consensus document.” Postcards become our civics texts. Vacations acquire the Protestant ethos of a grade school field trip.
Walking back from the Greyhound Station, I bought my own memento in a drugstore where Karen and I tried our first sarsaparillas: a twenty-four-year-old Calamity Jane in mangy buckskins looks blankly into the camera. Pure theatre. A model frontier scout. Calamity uses the barrel of a Stevens buggy gun the way a starched collar from back East might rest his weight on a jade walking stick. Our culture needs its ciphers. Calamity Jane lampoons atop breezy Mt. Moriah’s hilltop, offering her life up as a site for a crosswind of interested interpretations. But therein lays the rub: most of the decipherers, never encouraged to see otherwise, sail to the same tack.
III. Troubled Reminiscence
If not now when? There is a precedent for sculpting a bust of Calamity Jane alongside those of Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt. When sculptor Gutzon Borglum was first approached in 1924 by the South Dakota state historian, the scheme was to attract tourists with a monumental pantheon of western figures like Buffalo Bill, Lewis and Clark, and Red Cloud. Arch-patriot Borglum (whose previous gig was at Stone Mountain for the Daughters of the Confederacy) won out, though, with his patrician aesthetic, and Calamity Jane remained at Mt. Moriah, interred next to her long-haired lover.
Granted historians tend to doubt both the veracity and the lucidity of Calamity’s claimed love pact with James Butler Hickok. Addled with drink and notoriety, how easy to let a mind dissolve into the sweet fermentation of star-crossed myth. And yet. Fanciful or not, the side-by-side graves of these two flawed human myths might speak less balderdash about our messy historical lives than the four Ideals sandblasted into Mt. Rushmore.
The white man’s legacy in the Black Hills certainly breeds no trust in pacts, promises, or pledges. “Which God is our pious brother praying to now?” asked Red Cloud after the signing of the Ft. Laramie treaty in 1868, which deeded the entirety of Paha Supa to the Sioux, in what Peter Matthiessen calls “the only unconditional defeat ever signed by the U.S. Government.” “Is it the same God whom they twice deceived when they made treaties with us which they afterward broke?”
The same God was, of course, soon to be thrice deceived.
1991 marked the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore’s work stoppage (Congressional funds dried up). President George Bush flew to Mt. Rushmore that July 3rd, in the words of the New York Times, “to highlight the American victory in the Gulf with a telegenic event.” Buried amongst the vainglorious rhetoric was an anecdote that slipped through the cracks. The President quoted a worker at the memorial from 1935-41 in response to a question about the difficulty of wielding a 35 lb. jackhammer all day. “Oh well, my belly was so hard in those days, my wife could dance on my stomach with high-heeled shoes,” said one Norman (Hap) Anderson.
I can imagine another attempted field trip to Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Standing in silent awe before the memorial grave of Calamity Jane, I’d hope to commune with more malleable contracts than death’s coda. Try to trace the tumbleweeds. The lovesick heroine was, after all, buried next to her mythic lover, Wild Bill Hickok, because she told the good denizens of Deadwood that was what we planned. I’d like to think that somewhere deep in the community soul of those turn-of-the-century Westerners there was more than just lust for a solvent sideshow, but also some small respect for that gamble. A gentle cusp of curiosity. What if, oh my, the gambol was true?
As our Toyota chugged to California the next morning, naysaying nearby Mt. Rushmore, I think we knew two things about a pact that doth did protest too much: first, we would always be intimates, first loves, our psyches connected; two, we probably wouldn’t be returning as a conventional couple. And we’ve proven ourselves prescient. Many of the conventional responsibilities of family apply after fifteen years of building other pacts, and maybe I’m making too much of this one. I don’t know whether Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were actually soul-mates. But who can know. And that’s right fine with me. Maybe the lagniappe in history, wee or monumental, is what we make of it. Then and when and in the ever present five years from now.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
I couldn’t remember squat. Figured to punt, explore how strange it was to reread my take on Calamity Jane years before the screen of David Milch’s incomparable Deadwood (2002-06). But then I found a file. The first draft of this essay was handed in on September 13, 1991, for a workshop at Iowa with visiting writer Carol Bly.
So how’d that go? Don’t rewrite this. And she didn’t mean it was some well-wrought urn.
Carol’s moral compass did not suffer fools. More directive than we were accustomed to, she’d sometimes brand our work with (real) rubber-stamped responses. And though “we” included future award-winners like Hope Edelman, Ned-Stuckey French, JoAnn Beard, John Price, and Julene Bair, I bet even they can still recapture a raw (if always complicated) rankle or two from that semester.
Her typed comments on letterhead are taped to my first page. Even Orwell once thought that’s what you do--you get smart and write deliberately tongue-in-cheek smarted up essays. Well, I think it would be a waste of your time here for you to do it any more at all…and don’t write any witty phrases--they’re the very devil, because they draw you away from your deep center. They are like drink to an alcoholic.
I bet I got drunk that night at a bar in Iowa City. The Deadwood. Probably so drunk I couldn’t read the words she’d penned at the top of the page: Dale--As I look this over, it seems harsh to me—yet I believe it’s a good idea. It’s not meant harshly.
No it wasn’t I know now. And I know she was right then and is right now. Don’t rewrite this but I would love to hear what you mean by the “pastness of the past.” I would rewrite it, but not for four years, when Karen and I were now both married to our soul-mates and the literal honoring of our lover’s pact no longer flickered.
Carol Bly passed away in 2007. But the past isn’t even past. She’s somewhere saying, Dale, put some saltpeter in that sarsaparilla—it’s too damn frothy. I’m trying, Carol, I’m trying.
ABOUT DALE RIGBY
Dale Rigby is an Associate Professor of English at Western Kentucky University where he teaching classes in Creative Nonfiction, Documentary Film, Memoir, and Rhetoric. He has published essays in Fourth Genre, Iowa Review, Under The Sun, Writing On The Edge, and SportLiterate, among others. His 2011 essay, “My Playing Weight,” won that year’s Chess Journalists of America Award for Excellence in Chess Writing, Mainstream Media.