When I sat down to write “The Ben-Hur Murders,” one of the things I most wanted to do was dramatize Hollywood’s historically American roots. Early silent movies may have been pitched to immigrants but it was their vision of America’s great promise that accounts for their phenomenal appeal.
The American movie industry, in other words, was as vital an outgrowth of the American character as jazz. So when it came time for my novel’s hero to revisit his own childhood, I turned to this 1892 photo of my own great-grandfather’s family on their Colorado ranch for inspiration.
At the point in the novel where this occurs, Grover Link has gotten drunk and had a major run-in with a tyrannical assistant director during the filming of the chariot race. Beaten bloody and physically thrown off the Culver City coliseum set, Grover comes to in the dirt outside the closed gates and tries to understand what set him off and what his next step should be. (-JWH)
No one alive now is likely to know me, so I never set out to make this too much about myself. But I see that I have to account for certain things that shaped me in order to explain how it all turned out the way it did. So please bear with me as I go deeper into private matters than I ever intended to.
Somehow at the center of everything is that cruel smirk on Delmer Burr’s face. I think it was that unmasking that led to the violence that got me thrown off the set.
Certainly I was not thinking about it then, lying in the warm dirt outside the coliseum. My mind and senses were still numbed with liquor. Setting aside whatever pain I felt, I gathered myself together and tested my legs, then stumbled off toward the paddocks.
There was a bucket set aside for watering the horses, and it was half filled, so I splashed a little in my face and ended up dumping it all on my head, hoping to wash away the blood and clear my brain.
I took a seat on a stool near a rough-hewn hitching post, and tried to think. For the second time that afternoon I thought of my mother and what she would have said if she were there.
“Grover, look at yourself,” I could hear her voice scolding. “When was the last time you had your hair cut, boy? Remember what I told you about your grooming? You see where it’s gotten Mr. Thalberg? And look at your clothes, son. Don’t you have a clean shirt to put on? Land o’ Goshen. You take those dirty things off while I get a wash kettle going.”
That was Mother. You would think that with four kids and a house full of men she wouldn’t have had time for one more little worry. But she always found time to care for each one of us. She and my father and my uncles and grandparents — they all wore glasses, and their lenses were always getting smudged and soiled working on the farm. So after the dinner dishes were done, Mother would go around and collect everyone’s eyeglasses and dip them one lens at a time into her suds and carefully wipe them with her apron.
Everyone’s spirits seemed to improve with their vision, and it just seemed like one of the most loving things she could do for them after they were fed. When I got older, I was always looking for things I could do for her that would make her happy.
Dad was a hard worker, too, though he never had a thing to show for it until he married and started a family. First came Daps, then a girl named Icy Dora, who was bitten by a copperhead rattlesnake and died, and then me and my little sister Margaret. Then Dad pulled up the family and moved us from Cape Girardeau out to the territory around Everton.
We slept in the open at first, then curled up under our wagons when the air got chilly. One time — I don’t know whether it was while we were still on the move or later — Mother had to sit with the dead body of a woman whose family we met on the trail. She promised to keep watch over the body in a tent while her husband went to notify authorities. The wolves came sniffing around in the thick of night, and they started howling and she peeked out and all she could see was their eyes catching little flashes of moonlight. That was life on the prairie not so many years ago.
Dad was offered work by a certain cattle rancher named Roby. Mr. Roby offered us a shelter on his property that was being used for horses, if we cared to fix it up. Mom and Dad and Daps set about doing just that, and even though I was hardly more than a toddler wearing hand-me-down dresses, I can remember how happy Margaret and I were to have a roof over our heads again.
After a while Mr. Roby made Dad his foreman and we all got to move into a real log house. It had a huge dining room, so Dad built an extra long table right in the middle of it, with plenty of chairs for guests. The ranch included a nice orchard of fruit trees and several different kinds of nut trees. Pretty soon I had another young sister, Rose, and Dad’s brothers Dewar and Chester came to live with us. Then my Grandfather John and Grandmother Jane moved in there, too, and right away Grandma started a garden. Grandpa took charge of the orchard and tended the bees and set up a honey farm to help with the table.
Mother often went down to the valley to take food and home remedies to folks who needed them there. She also boarded the hired help if they needed a place to stay, and did their washing on the washboard and tub. I’d try to help when I could. I remember carrying the water in from one of the rain barrels in the yard so she could heat it up in the boiler on the stove. She also used to fix lunches for crews of railroad workmen and telegraph wiremen and such. In spite of all that, Mother always took time to clean up and put on a fresh dress every afternoon and sit on the porch doing hand work of some kind.
The road was just a little way from our house, and many campers would stop there under the big trees near it. By this time Dad had bought the whole ranch from Mr. Roby, who went off to Colorado Springs to live. Daps was working in the fields with the men, so I passed my time out of school with a friend from across the river named Zach.
Zach was a year older than I was, but most people couldn’t tell it because he was sort of short and frail — “a runt,” is how my Dad always referred to him. And he was always trying to prove something, maybe because his house was hardly more than a shed — “so small,” joked Daps, “that you couldn’t cuss out the cat without getting fur in your teeth.” But that didn’t bother me, and we were pretty tight in those years.
Always after the campers cleared out, Zach and I would scout around to see if we could find anything they left behind. One day I did find a gold band ring there, and Zach fought me for it but I won, and I ran with it in a hurry and gave it to Mother. She wore that ring all the rest of her life, and it was the only one she ever had and it made me real happy for her. But things were never the same between Zach and me again.
Once some men came to see Father on business from St. Louis, and as Margaret and I had always sat at first table for our meals, this time we had to wait and we didn’t like it. So we kept opening and rattling the latch on the door. Father would shake his head at us, but we kept it up. He came and told us to behave and leave the door closed, and that if we didn’t obey him he would whip us when his business was through.
We didn’t believe him, as he never had punished us before, but he kept his promise. He came after us and we ran but he caught us and whipped us. It nearly broke our hearts, and it hurt the rest of the family, too. So my Uncle Dewar came out where Margaret and I were hiding behind the house, and he petted us and got us to stop crying. That was the only time Father ever touched us in anger. He was always so good and patient with us.
It was at the same time that war broke out in Europe, and nothing could have seemed less real or important out on our little ranch. But Daps started talking about it at dinner as something that might make a difference in the world and might even make a difference in time to how we lived our lives. Grandpa had watched his own father ride off to join with General Jo Shelby in the War Between the States, and I remember how he quoted President Wilson that “there is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.”
Many a night after dinner, Grandpa and Dad and Daps all sat around arguing about the uselessness of wars and whether or not it was possible to stay neutral when allies were being killed. Daps always seemed to head off to bed after concluding that it was every good citizen’s duty to listen to the President.
And so my brother was all but packed to go when Mr. Wilson changed his tune and declared this war a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy.” Daps didn’t wait to be called to duty; he signed up, and the day he went off to start his training Zach was so green with envy you could hardly see him coming through the trees. All his brothers were younger than he was, and he sure wasn’t old enough to go to war, so that meant my family had a soldier in it and his did not.
Things were quieter at home after Daps left. He was the natural musician in the family, for one thing. He played the fiddle and on Saturday nights all the neighbors used to come over to dance and party. A neighbor lady played our piano, and a couple of the men played guitar, and everyone pitched in and helped keep the beat by stomping and clapping or beating on tubs. But with the fiddle missing it wasn’t the same. It was hard to find the beat and things got more raucous than musical. Grandpa and Dad no longer had after-dinner arguments about world politics, and their discussions of grains and seed cycles and such must have bored even them.
I kept up with the war news as much as anyone could in those days. You just knew that a lot of the odd names of those French war towns and rivers even puzzled the local newspaper writers. Months went by and we never got a letter from Daps, and it appeared like the fighting was never going to end, which seems funny to me now because our part in it only stretched from April 1917 to November of the next year.
We heard reports of Missouri sons being killed, but they were mostly from the big cities and no one seemed to know any of them. But when we heard that peace was declared, Mom and Dad started to get jumpy, because we still hadn’t had a letter from Daps saying he was coming home. I remember praying that nothing had happened to his fiddling fingers and that that wasn’t the reason he had not been writing.
So I was relieved when Daps showed up one day, just walking down the road. As I shook his hand I counted his fingers to make sure they were all there. Mother was so happy to see him, and even Dad smiled and never scolded him for not writing and scaring him half to death.
Zach’s father was a kind of peddler. He would find things in one part of the state and peddle them to folks in another part of the state. Somehow he had made a lot of cash during the war years and was using the money to buy up local farms. He made my dad an offer for our place, more because of its fruit orchards and nut trees than for its crop fields, but it was a handsome offer just the same.
Little Zach started making cracks about allowing us to stay on in our house even after his father bought us out, and he said his father might give us a salary to keep doing what we were already doing. I didn’t like the idea of it at all, so I was glad when Dad turned him down.
About the first thing Daps did that first winter after coming home was marry a city girl named Martha Caylor. She was slim and pretty but kind of frail, and no sooner did she become pregnant than she started having female troubles. Right in the middle of harvest season, Daps had to rent a house for her in Everton so she would be close to her doctor.
They came back to the ranch after the baby was born, but Martha started having chills and fever, and she passed them on to another, and then another came down with them — so every few days there was somebody in the house having chills and fever. That’s when a doctor came out and told us there were lots of folks in town getting a nasty flu, and it had been brought there from St. Louis and other places where the soldiers had come back from Europe. People were dying in those cities because there was nothing the hospitals could do for them but make them comfortable as the influenza ran its course.
Martha and the baby died within the week, and Daps was so weak he couldn’t even go to their funeral. My mother sat there in his room night after night, putting towels on his head, and I could see her getting weak and just worn out. I think I even started to hope Daps would just go on and die so that Mother could return to us. Daps did die within the week, but Mother kept getting weaker and took to her bed.
Uncle Dewar decided he better get Grandma and Grandpa Link out of there before they caught it, and so they all moved in with my crazy Uncle Ches in his log cabin out past the walnut grove. But I guess they didn’t move in time because it wasn’t long before all three of them were shivering and quaking with the sweats, and Dad and me were out digging more prairie graves.
One night my father went in to say goodbye to Mother. He told her, “Don’t worry. You’re going to a better world.” And she replied, “I can’t imagine a better world.” That was my mom.
When Mother was gone, Dad took Margaret and Rose and me back to Cape Girardeau. He told Zach’s dad he could buy our ranch if he put into the contract that they would always honor the patch of prairie graves just beyond the trees. And then we packed up what we could get into our wagon and went to live near what was left of my father’s family.
It was when we were pulling away from our front porch that little Zach hopped up to wave good-bye. He said he was sorry to see me go, but in that moment when he was waving to me I saw on his face that cocky little victory grin for the first time. It was a smile of sorts, for he had got what he wanted, but it did not suggest inner happiness or contentment; it seemed mainly aimed to hurt — to hurt me. And I couldn’t dismiss it as some sad little orphaned emotion that pops through in an unguarded moment.
It seemed to me more like a throwback to our animal past, a leftover echo of some chilling wilderness howl announcing to the pack, “I survived,” usually at the cost of some other creature’s life. In lower animals, it was just part of the natural order. But when it’s on the face of a human being, mingled with the self-awareness of intelligent eyes, it’s enough to make anyone stop and feel bad. It told me there was a secret brutal part in man, a survival instinct that was selfish and ugly. To the defeated and the defenseless, it can appear as pure evil.
That was the same smile I had seen on Delmer Burr’s face.
How long I sat outside the coliseum by the hitching post I can’t say — less than half an hour, I suspect. But the more my mind cleared, the more restless I got, and itched to be on the move.
Burr had bet his own money on the final round of the race. So two prospects gnawed at me, and I don’t know which was worse: Either Buddy would finish up the race half-drunk and maybe lose because I wasn’t there to help him, or he would win it and I wouldn’t be there to see him wipe that damn smirk off of Delmer Burr’s face. Somehow I had to get back inside the coliseum. …
© 2015 John W. Harding