BACK HOME THIS IS HISTORICAL INFORMATION ONLY
By Ric Carter
Grizzled desert-rat prospectors leading (or searching for) their trusty burros across burning desert wastes of rolling sand dunes or rocky crags and defiles. Wild cowmen and ruthless gunmen dressed in blackened denim and leather, shooting up mining-camps and cow-towns filled with wood-stick buildings bearing false fronts. Monosyllabic Native Americans surveying the white man's foolishness and uttering foolishness (or wisdom) of their own. Every now and then, some heroes intrude.
Or the Mexican villages: Lazy pueblos of white-washed adobes with sombrero-topped guitarists lolling in cantina doorways as serape-clad boys lead donkeys, and black-wrapped women glide past. Zorro is busily plotting freedom from tyranny. Et cetera, et cetera.
Posses chasing the bad guys. Head 'em off at the pass.
You've seen the western films or television shows, read the pulp paperbacks or comics or the glossy magazines, heard the cowboy ballads (sometimes driven by a modern beat). You know exactly what the Wild West was about, right? The cattle drives and range wars, the frantic searches for gold, the clash of cultures between cowboys and Indians, miners and Mexicans, prospectors and playboys, a morality play writ large across the landscape.
Attacking Indians circled wagon trains because that's the only way Buffalo Bill's Wild West show could perform in bleacher-lined sports fields. Mining camps didn't feature weekly, daily, hourly shootouts because most miners only had knives, and settled matters accordingly, if at all. 'Soiled doves' didn't waft romantically through dance-halls because most prostitutes (generally non-white) were confined to their 'cribs' and had a life-span of about two to three years in the trade, killed early by drink or drugs or disease. High Noon-type duels didn't happen; gunmen shot from cover. Et cetera, et cetera.
Your story of the Wild West comes from a screenplay. Your image of the Wild West comes from a studio lot. That image was created by guys like Harry Oliver.
Those guys built theme parks, like Walter Knott's Ghost Town and Calico, and Harry Oliver's Gold Gulch, up to the modern versions in Virginia City and Ponderosa Ranch and Tombstone and Old Tucson. Regularly-scheduled shoot-outs and train robberies; grizzled prospectors who'll let you set your young'un atop their burro for a snapshot, after a modest payment; gift shops pumping the tourists full of Chinese-made cowboy-Indian-miner souvenirs. It's a good business.
Sepia-tinted nostalgia of pioneer days masks the realities of the West: overpopulation, pollution, the smuggling of drugs and weapons and people, environmental devastation, corporate socialism, a vast military presence; all the good things of modern life, eh?
You don't need me to spell out the details; they appear daily in every newspaper in the West.
So then: Why collect Desert Rat Scrap Books? Why obsess on Harry Oliver, a mirage salesman?
Maybe because this distortion of history is itself an important part of our history. The Western pulp writers, the Hollywood crews, the politicians waxing nostalgic for Rugged Individualism while feeding vast subsidies to their corporate sponsors, all have stamped their patterns into the landscape, for better and (usually) for worse. They have shaped our reality.
And just what IS reality? I have a simple definition: Reality is whatever bites you. If it affects you, it's real, no matter how based it is on fantasy and delusion.
So, back to Harry Oliver. From a Minnesota farm he came to California and made a career of visualizing fantasies. Then he moved out to the desert, first Borrego Springs, then 1000 Palms, both of which were at the edge of desolation when he got there. And he built ancient adobe structures, and churned out more nostalgia, and then the modern world caught up with him.
I remember Old Fort Oliver, back before the I-10 freeway was built next door, and his good old dog Whiskers was shot in the head on Christmas Eve by party or parties unknown. I remember that Harry gave up on the desert and moved to a Los Angeles rest home, and the abandoned fort was looted and vandalized and condemned and replaced by a mini-mart. The fantasy couldn't stave off the reality. The mirage disappeared in the smog.
But I also remember when I was a little kid growing up at the east edge of Los Angeles County, in the Pomona of orange groves and cactus gardens and farmhouses painfully built from the alluvial stones that filled the fields before all that was scythed to make way for freeways and housing developments and shopping centers. My father grew up in an earlier Pomona, of walnut groves and pepper trees, and dairies. I remember being taken to Knott's Ghost Town and to Calico, and running around the Wild West sets, and heading for the Print Shops for the latest issues of Desert Rat Scrap Books and Tombstone Epitaths and Calico Prints. Like playing wildboy in Injun Joe's Cave on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland all wonderful, satisfying escapes.
Fun! Excitement! Tall tales and history! Lost treasures! Vast horizons! No suburbs!
And I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, and hiding under school desks in duck-and-cover drills, and wondering when the mushroom clouds would rise over industrial Los Angeles, over the airbases in San Bernadino and Riverside and Orange, over the missile plant right there in Pomona. And I surely wished for more escapes.
And now I see a political situation that is so grievous, so WRONG, that I long desperately for escape. Don't you?
So I stroll the streets of Virginia City and Old Sacramento and my local Mother-Lode Gold-Rush towns, I admire the pioneer architecture, stomp the dusty floorboards, finger the turquoise jewelry and clay pots and tin stars and hot-sauce bottles. I leaf through the old prints and papers, watch the kids being photographed atop the calm burros, listen to the dance-hall music wafting over the outdoor speakers, stop for a mug of sasparilla or maybe something stronger. Stop, and inhale the fresh air.
I go home, pull out the laptop and the latest Desert Rat Scrap Book I've found, and start entering the text. Harry pushed a lot of Western lore in his paper, and rather than it all being lost and forgotten, I'm putting it online. I'm doing what I can to preserve these bits of Americana, fragments from a storied past, flickering images in the ripples of the fun-house mirror that reflects The Wild West.
I try not to bite my lip as I key-in the speech of those monosyllabic Native Americans, those funny drunken Mexicans, those few dance-hall floozies, those quaint Desert Rats and Chinese and mule-skinners. I try not to notice the near-absence of women and African-American and Asian-Pacific and East European folks, I remind myself that this is just a 1930's screenplay.
I've escaped. I'm not stuck in a traffic jam or queued-up at a checkout line or security checkpoint. Disenfranchised voters in Florida (100,000 of them), and GOP-owned vote-counting machines, they just don't matter. The upcoming Oil Wars and Water Wars and Migration Wars, they just don't matter. High Noon on the Gulf? Don't worry. It's 1859 and everything's fine.
"—6 February 2003"
"It was there on the marge of Lake Labarge (sic) that we cremated Sam McGee" goes the Robert Service verse, and I write this while camped on the marge (margin, shore) of Lake Laberge, just north of Whitehorse, Yukon, on the Klondike Highway. The Klondike goldfields around Dawson City below the Arctic Circle saw the last, greatest and nearly the briefest gold rush in history in 1898 to 1899, or so the guidebooks say. Not a few visitors now arrive here looking for traces of that rush. Such traces, real or manufactured, can readily be seen, usually for a price. Similar traces are offered near many old rush sites I can cite California's Mother Lode and Julian and Whiskeytown, Nevada's Comstock Lode, various locales in Colorado, etc. The lore of Western mining wealth is alluring.
I've been asked, by a writer honorably trolling for quotes, what I think Harry Oliver's legacy is. Much of his work, professional and otherwise, was related to manufacturing such Western lore. Harry was one of the myth-makers, a fabricator and embellisher of legends that informed America's and the world's vision a couple generations ago, a purveyor of the Hollywood version of the Old West.
When most of us whose imaginations have been captured by Oliveriana visualize his work, we see his old adobe forts, his woodcuts and profiles of western characters, those precious Desert Rat Scrap Book issues we handle more-or-less reverently; and maybe we see his set designs and decorations for films like Viva Villa and the Gold Gulch village. (Did that funny mining camp built for the 1936 World's Fair in San Diego influence the look of Ghost Town theme parks like Knotts and Calico, Virginia City, etc? I don't know.) We think of Harry's promotions of ghosts and ghost towns, deserts and desert rats, a humorous glorification of a Gabby Hayes caricature of the desert southwest. This here Desert Rat Show is Paint Your Wagon moved south, to be deconstructed later into Blazing Saddles.
But this pseudo-Western legacy, which at least bears Harry Oliver's name, may be overshadowed by other, more anonymous work that's writ large upon the world. Regular visits to Knotts Ghost Town (and its Print Shop which always featured Desert Rat Scrap Books) were rarer in my Los Angeles suburban childhood, circa 1950s and 1960s, than the daily bakery wagon. Weekday mornings, down our tract-house street, came the Van De Kamps bakery van making home deliveries. Van De Kamps bakery stores dotted the landscape, at least in greater Los Angeles, and beyond, sporting a distinctive Dutch windmill. Harry Oliver designed that windmill. Those bakeries are mostly gone now but the windmill motif still remains.
Maybe a greater legacy lies in his cinematic work. Harry Oliver was nominated for the very first Academy Awards in set design, 1928 and 1929. But he started in Hollywood in the early 'teens; his work in that decade is cited as being a great influence on the German Expressionists. So maybe Harry's greatest, most widespread legacy lies in the look derived from Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, seen in his own design of Mark of the Vampire. Yeah, Harry Oliver, master of darkness and mood.
I'm not the person to evaluate Harry's cinema work. I haven't seen enough of it yet and I'm certainly no film critic. But if we can judge a legacy by numbers, it's obvious that Harry's fine Old West work has been seen by hundreds of thousands while his commercial and cinema work has informed the visions of untold millions (who never saw his name). And which legacy is more exciting, more lasting? Decide for yourself.
And what's left now of Harry Oliver? A street bearing his name in his adopted hometown of 1000 Palms, California hey, most set designers and self-published authors don't get their own street! A few old films with his name buried deep in the credits. Clippings in some news archives and library files. Some thousands of extant copies of his papers and books, with a possibility of some limited republication. A thin but devoted following. A pile of rocks at the PegLeg Smith monument in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California. Maybe a certain ambience that permeates Ghost Town theme parks around the West. Maybe a few carved wooden peglegs scattered around the desert wastes of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sink.
And then there are the memories of those us who felt our hearts pound and our imaginations soar whenever we chanced upon another issue of the Desert Rat Scrap Book, "America's only five-page newspaper and the only one you can open in the wind price just one lousy dime this offer expires when I do."
"—31 August 2005"
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE . . .
While camping on Lake Laberge's infamous shores, I've been reading critical essays on semantics and on deconstructing Western history. Make that "histories and media portrayals of the Conquest of the Americas and the West," the many viewpoints and motives and accounts that follow from Columbus to this day. These tales are often lies, deceits, misrepresentations, rewritten and reinterpreted many times. Each lie is a barrier between what was then, and what is now, and what may be.
Some deceits are unavoidable, partly because we see what we expect and want to see; and we have trouble seeing that which we haven't labeled; and once we label something, we have trouble seeing what else it may be, and what's beyond it. Other deceits are deliberate, for gain or to mask or assuage guilt or loss: the ommission or twisting of bothersome details; the fabrication of actions and motives and words; rationalizations, excuses, prejudices.
Is there an objective chronicle, a fixed base from which we can honestly look at the past and present and perform a truthful rewrite? If so, who selects that base? Or do we just accept that all histories are false and unfixable and urforgiveable, and pay more attention to the ways we tell our lies, the ways we see and depict ourselves and others? If so, who tells us which lies we can and will tell and how to tell them? And what matters? And who forgives?
I don't see Harry Oliver as playing a negative role in misrepresenting the Old West, any more than Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) or Tex Avery (Coyote and Roadrunner) or any other satirist or cartoonist. Light popular entertainments rarely dwell on the details and negatives of history pre-Conquest peoples of the Americas wiped out most large animals in this hemisphere, enslaved and devoured each other, occasionally built oppressive empires etc, all without outside help; but that reality usually doesn't seem funny, doesn't make for a good show.
Light popular entertainments DO all too often employ racial-social stereotypes, probably serving mostly as a shorthand. Cartoon Blacks and Native Americans and Orientals, etc. are much easier and faster to draw and recognize than 'real' people, and serve primarily as backdrops and foils to the action.
Harry Oliver depicted a cartoon West, pointedly without the demeaning stereotypes of Native Americans and Mexicans that were prevalent in his era. Harry was not an historian, nor a propagandist, nor a public relations/marketing hack. He was an entertainer, an author, and illustrator of light entertainments light-hearted, easy to consume shows that often poked careful fun at the prospectors and pioneers and pilgrims who made their way onto the Western scene circa 1850 to 1950. That these protagonists were displacing the aboriginal inhabitants was a detail he didn't dwell on but which didn't go unnoticed. Harry's most-cited quote is:
"I don't blame our Indians for being discouraged. They are the only ones to be conquered by the United States and not come out ahead."
So, what legacy falls to Harry Oliver? He knew he was a deceiver, a jokester, a "mirage salesman." He collected and created lies, lore, and legends of the SouthWest, and he spread them around so as to keep an audience smiling and engrossed. He illuminated a frame of the American experience. He was a storyteller. We won't forget him.
"—1 September 2005"