Unfolding the Map
We pull up with LHM into the town of Shelby, Montana. Looks like there's trouble brewing in the Oil City Bar. Bear with me for a moment while I write a little about fights and fighting and the near scrapes that I've been in (though nothing very serious). Oh, and fight your way over to the map to place Shelby.
"I was out looking around to see how the old Wild West was doing when I came across the Oil City Bar....
"A woman of sharp face, pretty ten years ago, kept watching me. She had managed to pack her hips into what she hoped was a pair of mean jeans; a cigarette was never out of her mouth, and, after every deep draw, her exhalations were smokeless. She was trying for trouble but I minded my own business. More or less. The man with her, Lonnie, walked up to me. He looked as if he were made out of whipcord. 'Like that lady?' he said....
"'Without my glasses, I can't distinguish a man from a woman.' That was a lie.
"'The lady said you were distinguishing her pretty good.'
"Well boys, there you have it. Some fading face trying to make herself the center of men's anger, proving she could still push men to their limits....
"He pressed up close. Trouble coming."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 5
How might LHM get to the brink of a bar fight? Well, in this chapter he sets up Shelby as being a bit of a rough town. He describes a written account of the town from the 1930s, where a writer from the Montana Federal Writers' Project says Shelby is:
the sort of town that producers of western movies have ever since been trying to reproduce in papier-mache....The town playboys were featured in the Police Gazette after holding up an opera troupe passing through on a railroad train....The men shot out the engine headlight, the car windows, and the red signal lights, and forced the conductor to execute a clog dance.
I have never been in a bar fight. I've haven't actually been in a real fight either, unless you count my sixth grade playground scuffle with a kid named Eric where I think I got one good punch at the eye. Or maybe when the principal in 5th grade pulled me and Calvin out of class because Calvin had been picking on me and gave us boxing gloves and had us go at it.
I've come close. In ninth grade, I almost got in a fight with Mike Crutcher, which is really kind of strange because Mike is a really nice guy. But somehow we got into it and one of us, I can't remember who, challenged the other one to a fight behind the junior high. Of course, word went around the school and there was a big crowd to watch us fight. But we didn't. We kind of looked at each other and then we didn't, and we both walked away sort of sheepish as the disappointed masses of pre-teens milled about in confusion.
As an adult, I think that I've only come close to fisticuffs once. That happened during a really strange series of events that started out with a softball practice in inner-city Milwaukee, degenerated into a frantic scene where me and my friends faced an enraged mob of inner-city African-American residents, some with baseball bats, and ended with us being shot at by some people in a car. It happened like this. We were having a softball practice when some guy barreled around a corner and hit the car of Dan. The guy left his car and ran, and Dan went to run after him. David ran after Dan, and I ran after David. I came around a corner to see Dan on the ground, David getting hit, and then the guy, a tall African-American, looked at me and said "So you want some too?" He then put up his fists, feinted, and went another way. By this time Dan was up and walking with him, pleading with him to come back to his car and talk to the police. However, we didn't know that a rumor was spreading like wildfire through the neighborhood that five white guys with baseball bats were chasing a black guy through the streets. A mob formed. Dan had by this time persuaded the guy to come back to his car. We turned a corner and ran into the mob. There was a moment of silence, and then a woman broke from the pack and said "I know them! They are my neighbors. My son likes them. They are good people!" The mob milled for a minute and then started splitting up. We went back to the cars, the police arrived, and as we were talking with them, we heard a shot and then pellets started raining around us as a car screeched around the corner. The cops all got in their cars and drove after the fleeing vehicle, leaving us alone on a darkening street.
All turned out okay, and I avoided a fight. In reality, I have a hard time seeing when I might ever be called to fight.
Oh, I imagine it. In the new Sherlock Holmes movies, Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes imagines his fights in advance, playing out all the moves and blows until he comes to a conclusion how the fight will ultimately turn out. I have done the same thing. I have sat at a bar and imagined what I'd do if someone started messing with me. Of course, I always end up walking out. I grab the guy's head when he least expects it and smash his nose into the bar and, before he even realizes his nose is broken I've put the heel of my fist into his solar plexus as he comes up. I then give him a kick in the side if he's trying to get up, and walk unconcernedly outside.
Fights never look as good as they do in the movies or in my imagination. Those fights are choreographed so that each move is a perfect complement to the other. The actual bar or street fights that I have seen look nothing like that. It's usually just two guys rush at one another, their fist may or may not connect, and they end up in a grapple of some sort. It's pretty undignified.
In case you're wondering, the trouble LHM feared never materialized. The guy in the quote, Lonnie, is with the woman all right, but he realizes that she's just playing a game, and he plays along. He comes over to LHM, and tells him that he will convey LHM's "apology" back to the woman but he tells LHM that he knows he wasn't looking at her and asks him to simply go with the story. Later, two men do fight outside the bar, but they simply grapple until a cop tells them to go home and they slink away.
I suppose it could happen that someday I am called upon to defend my honor or the honor of someone close to me, but I think the possibility is remote. After all, what is a fight but a complete breakdown of every other option. I'd like to think that I can resolve disputes that way, or by simply walking away. But if I do have to defend myself, I will. I know nothing about fighting, and may get beat up, but if fighting's anything like I've seen, I think I'd be able to hold my own even while looking ridiculous.
In this humorous song about a guy who gets challenged by a gun wielding tough in a bar over a woman, Lynyrd Skynyrd sings a plea to Gimme Three Steps. It's based on an actual experience by the lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant, and is probably closer to the truth than the well-choreographed fights we've come to expect from our overindulgence in films.
If you want to know more about Shelby
Next up: Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana