Tuesday, January 27, 2009


‘Ragtime Reverend’ Lynn Wright is a retired Espicopal minister from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who is now a professional musician, touring the country as the piano-playing half of the duo Pianafiddle. I met Lynn when he stopped in the Wallowas on his way to perform in Idaho. It was a month before the presidential election and we got to talking about Obama.

He told me stories about growing up in the south and being one of the few white folks in the crowd when he went to hear Martin Luther King speak. Young Mr. Wright was so impressed that he wrote a letter in support of Doctor King, which was published in the paper. The next day his father asked him to stop. This was a surprise, as Wright’s father was a Baptist minister and his son pointed out that his letter in the paper supported the same message his father urged in his sermons. His father agreed. Then why the request to stop?

His dad told Lynn of the phone call he had received from the local Ku Klux Klan. He was ordered to shut his kid up, and if he did not, the list of consequences threatened against the family was detailed, extensive and I will not repeat them here.

For the safety of the family, Lynn’s father asked him to stop. Lynn agreed.

It would be hard for someone who wasn’t there at the time to understand the extreme tension, Lynn explained. I don’t doubt it.

Lynn later became the minister of an Episcopal congregation in Wyoming. He traveled to a church conference in Alabama, where the discussion shifted to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ Lynn admitted he had never read King’s letter and was told he should get to the library at the first chance and do so.

Once Lynn got to the library and requested a copy of King’s letter, it came with another document attached. ‘A Call for Unity,’ was a statement signed by Alabama clergymen, which recognized that social injustices did exist, but suggested the court system was the proper avenue for them to be handled and that public protest by outsiders (Martin Luther King, Jr.) should be avoided.

Lynn wasn’t ready to read the statement by Alabama clergymen. His father had been an Alabama clergyman at the time and it would stand to reason his name would be one of the signatures.

He read first King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which advocated direct action, a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, and the conviction that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Wyoming is a long way from Alabama, and this was a long time since the KKK had threatened Lynn’s family should they contribute to King’s activities. Still, Lynn did not want to see his father’s signature on the statement by Alabama clergymen.

He read the statement. Then he read the signatures.

I had a strong grip on my coffee cup by this point in his story. He explained that his father was a good man. He repeated that the social climate at that time, in that place, could only be understood if you were there. So he sat at the library table, preparing himself to see his father’s name on the statement by Alabama clergymen calling for Martin Luther King to stop. And when he got to the bottom of the list, he saw what he was looking for. His dad’s name was not one of the signatures.

I thought I was going to shatter my coffee cup from squeezing so hard while listening to Lynn’s illustration of how Martin Luther King effected people who must choose between what they know they’re supposed to do and what they know they’re supposed to do. That’s not a typo.

I realize the official day of recognition for Martin Luther King, Jr. was last week. I wasn’t scheduled to have a column run last week, and considered waiting to write this until next year. Calendars are useful devices, sure. But I suspect we sometimes follow them more closely than we should. Why not do something nice in the Christmas spirit when it’s August? Send somebody a gift when it’s not their birthday. See what happens. I’ll wager they don’t appreciate it less.

I’ve seen, heard and read portions of what Martin Luther King, Jr. had to say. I know he made an impact. I learned that back in school. I didn’t quite understand, though, until a piano player and former preacher sat at my kitchen table and told me how. Since then, I’ve thought of Martin Luther King on a lot of days, not just his official one.

I’m looking forward to Ragtime Reverend Lynn Wright coming back this way next year on his Pianafiddle tour. I hope he has time for coffee.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Vader With an Eyepatch

(Latest Chieftain column)

I recently saw extremely rare footage of a scene from a movie I wish all of you could see. I really, really, wish you could. It was gold. Pure movie magic. And you’re going to have to trust me on this because I was running the camera at the time and it turns out the ‘record’ and ‘pause’ buttons are close enough together that things can get confusing.

A little red light came on, I think. Shouldn’t ‘pause’ be a yellow light? I don’t know. It was a heartbreaker, sitting down to edit the tape, wondering what I was going to say when I won my Emmy, or Grammy, or Oscar, or whatever. There I am waiting for cinematic history to unfold and, instead, there’s a blurry shot of a coffee table, couch, and somebody’s knee while I was moving the camera around, thinking I’d just turned it off instead of on. What? Who’s knee is that? Run it back . . . where’s the pirate Darth Vader scene? What is a knee and a coffee table doing on here?

Apparently there’s a reason movie people do more than one take. But if you’d seen this one through the viewfinder like I did, you would have agreed there was no point in doing it over. Assuming the camera was on.

The little movie we were filming, ‘Path of a Gearboatman,’ is set in the picturesque mountain town of Joseph. You may have heard of it. ‘Gearboatman’ is the story of young Patrick Baird, who triumphs over incredible odds to realize his destiny of rowing the cargo raft for Winding Waters River Expeditions. Along the way he performs an angry interpretive dance in the snow, exercises with propane tanks and gains wisdom from a stuffed animal. All this in under five minutes. We weren’t messing around.

The movie guest stars Paul and Penny Arentsen as themselves and Morgan Jenkins in a complicated role that combines Yoda the Jedi master with Micky, the trainer from the Rocky movies, and also Mister Miyagi from The Karate Kid. I make a brief appearance as a guy wearing a life jacket and it was supposed to co-star Mike Baird, Patrick’s dad. But . . . ahem . . . that’s the part I was supposed to be filming.

The special effects in this thing are amazing, though. I will say that. Except for the scene where the garage door is supposed to be opening by magic. Don’t look in the lefthand corner or you’ll see Mike Baird hauling on the chain. That kind of takes away from the illusion of magic a little bit. And in the scene where Patrick appears to be lifting a huge pile of life jackets all by himself, I think you can see my hand on the rope. Whoops. But considering our budget was zero and we knocked this thing out in a couple hours, I think it’s right up there with any other masterpiece on YouTube.

Check it out at windingwatersrafting.com. Click on ‘Gearboat Chronicles’ in the upper left-hand corner and the movie will be at the bottom of the page. The Chronicles are short essays, with a new one every week, offering a glimpse of what it’s like to work for a whitewater rafting company in Hells Canyon. I don’t quite understand the sense of humor of the guy who writes them, but he seems to know what he’s talking about.

The lost footage can never be recreated. Unless we did it again, but that seems like a hassle. So for the sake of history, here is the script from the missing scene:

(note: Mike Baird had an operation on his eyeball recently and is wearing a black eye patch while it heals. He claims to be growing weary of pirate jokes, but I can’t believe that’s true. My favorite one is to pretend to brush something off his shoulder on the side where his eye patch is and say, “What have you been feeding that parrot?”)
The scene opens with Mike and Patrick Baird hunched over a pile of maps. Mike is playing the part of Grey Baird, the grizzled buccaneer.

Grey Baird (pointing at map and talking in a pirate voice): “Patrick, This be Hells Canyon.”

Patrick: “I know, Dad.”

Grey Baird: “This be Wild Sheep Rapids, and here be Granite Rapids . . . a good captain is wise to use caution when passing these waters.”

Patrick: “Dad, I know.”

Grey Baird (shifting to Darth Vader voice): “Patrick, I am your father.”

Patrick: “I know, Dad.”

Yeah, well, it would probably make more sense if you saw it in context. But there’s only one person to blame for that, and that’s whoever designed the buttons on that video camera.