Considering the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and Whitey’s Full Stop.
Sunday we sat on the bench next to the Rio Grande Gorge, staring north at the Bridge. The bench is engraved with the names of two Taos children and commemorates their short lives, snuffed out by an automobile accident. Perhaps there is nothing more tragic for a parent or grandparent than outliving their progeny, who embody their hopes and desire. As I looked at the oval steel spans beneath the steel-asphalt roadway, I thought of the anonymous jumpers and their relatives. I’ve never seen anyone jump but I have seen their cars, abandoned in the middle of the bridge shortly after the subjects decided to depart this life.
Yesterday was a clear fall day. In my mind’s eye, I could see the mythic Icarus falling; he who made wings out of feathers and used molten wax as glue. With typical human hubris Icarus imitated the birds and used the craft he learned from his father Daedalus to make the wings. He imitated the birds but not their instincts for self-preservation. When Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted. He fell to earth.
W. H. Auden celebrates the myth in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts, which is based on a painting attributed to Breughel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1560s). Auden’s description encourages the reader to review the moment and the crowd’s indifference to suffering as Icarus sinks in the sea: “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster … the white legs disappearing into the green.”
Since Deb is working on a “Day of the Dead” altar for the Taos Artist Collective, the departed spirits of Taos were very much with us, and most recently, Steve White. Full Stop.
On Thursday my friend whom I met about this time some fifty years ago and who introduced me to Taos, Steve White, departed this life. We used to joke about the challenges of living and making a living in Taos. “If things get bad enough there’s always the Bridge,” we’d say. While viewing NFL football in the fall, we often discussed our entrepreneurial adventures, the opportunities and the potential of which was more often dissipated than achieved. But if the intimacy and intensity of a way of life is your goal, we, especially Whitey lived well.
About a year and a half ago, at his and Cindie’s request, I drove Stevie out to a place in Oregon where he had access to oxygen, the breath of life. Ultimately he died of diminished lung capacity due to smoking. He was 75. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday he talked to friends and relatives in Taos, alluding to the end, mumbling words like “hospice.” Despite his public persona as an entertainer, he was a private person. One didn’t push too far. Bob Krongaard asked Whitey about a “lung transplant” but Stevie said, “I deserve this.” Cindie told his brother Jim that Steve passed on quietly on Thursday about 4 pm Pacific Time.
As I see it, “deserve” had nothing to do with it: he merely took responsibility for his life, good existentialist that he was (though he didn’t know it). This one-time handy and self-sufficient man felt awful about being a burden. The physical limitations imposed by the body meant he lived the last months of his life outside Taos, a community he loved and in which he thrived. For many of us, Friends of Whitey, as Larry Crowley called us, he was a firefly and a spirit that touched and integrated us with each other.
Whitey’s cross-cultural life can be viewed as a prism through which to see the sensual parts of Taos, the hospitality and pleasures of living well. When he built the six-room Hacienda de Valdez back in the sixties, he did so with local help and labor. He was part of the community. Once a friend from Nevada broke down at the Texaco next to the Blinking Light during my sabbatical from Taos. He called me back in Carson Valley. I called Whitey. A Taoseno native showed up, fixed his car, and refused payment. A friend of Whitey’s is a friend of mine, he seemed to say.
Whitey was a born sybarite with a refined taste for the sensual pleasures in the best sense: musician, Chef de Cuisine, sculptor of driftwood furniture, balladeer, and cantina singer, guitar player, a National Guardsman, who prepared beef bourguignon and stroganoff for the troops. (Not only did he talk me into joining the Guard to avoid sure death in Vietnam but also I frequently served as KP because he protected me from the officers who disagreed with my views on the war. Indeed I am writing this premature report so that all his Guard buddies and everybody else will know.) Whitey also hauled logs out of the forest and built a hand-hewn cabin practically by himself. He was a natural athlete, good skier, helluva tennis player, especially at the beginning of the season, until everybody else got in shape.
Most of us would be satisfied if we had just one of Whitey’s talents. In effect he was an old-fashioned generalist and maximalist the kind of person who thrived in Taos when he arrived back in, I think 1962, more or less. He first visited as one of the kids who spent summers at Craig and Jenny Vincent’s progressive summer camp at the San Cristobal ranch in the fifties. A mutual friend from that time gave me a letter of introduction.
At the St. Bernard Whitey worked off and on for more than fifty years as ski bum, singer and guitar player, head bartender, breakfast and lunch chef. In recent years he fiddled at Mayer’s famed Hotel during the off season, applied string and sealing wax to leaks and weathered doors to keep the legendary Big Dog alive. Finally, at 9400 feet, he could no longer haul his oxygen tank up and down the canyon and the steps to the St. B. He was forced into retirement.
We got up from the commemorative bench at the Gorge. Fred, the brother of Cindie and Steve’s Golden Retriever, Susie, a gift from them and a perfect dog, Deb calls him, limped along, due to a torn ACL. Luna, a medium sized blue Navaho Cattle Dog, Fred’s feisty companion, circled round us. The Bridge so symbolic of the full stop that ends life seemed somehow majestic in the fabled light of Taos.
“Eighteen months, Whaley,” Cindie said in her raspy voice, alluding to the time in Oregon that extended his life. “It is what it is.” We knew but we didn’t know it would be like this.
Friends of Whitey, represented by Linda Fair, Bob Krongaard, Chris, his son, Tony Bryan, Larry Crowley, we didn’t know that the the hole in our hearts, at least in mine, would keep getting bigger. We have yet to speak with Jean, the heart and soul of the St Bernard, but I hope that the Friends of Whitey will meet at the St. B prior to the ski season and honor Whitey the Firefly, an exemplary spirit of the times.