The Lonesomest Dove
Lonesome Dove is the greatest mini-series in television history. Thus I have declared it. Thus it is. It is replete with exquisite actors and rife with elegant storytelling. No less historically great is its basis, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name.
McMurtry recounted the day he learned he had won the most coveted of all literature prizes:
Life imitated McMurtry’s art so perfectly. One minute, everyone is celebrating you. The next, they want the catfish special.
Lonesome Dove is the story of two retired Texas Rangers, famous lawmen-turned-ranchers destined to make one final epic journey to make their mark in unsettled Montana. An early scene in a San Antonio bar show how quickly one is forgotten and how soon the light fades on a life’s accomplishment. While ordering drinks, former Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are disrespected by a dismissive bartender. “Gus” breaks the punk’s nose and points to a picture of the two ex-rangers hanging on the wall – a picture taken when they were legendary lawmen.
In discussing the matter, Gus says to his partner, “Well, Call, I guess they forgot us like they forgot the Alamo.”
“Why wouldn’t they?” Call asked. “We ain’t been around.”
“That ain’t the reason—the reason is we didn’t die.”
Gus McCrae was MsMurtry’s wisdom in character.
Gus was a patron of – and a benefactor of – an unfortunate but beautiful young woman who found herself abandoned in the fictional border town where the story begins. She was lured there by the broken promises of a man who led her to dream of a faraway enchanted place where life is easy and beautiful – San Francisco.
Gus, in his playful and poetic way, tried to calibrate her expectations and mitigate her disappointments.
“Lorie darlin’, says Gus, “life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
In one of their many spats, Woodrow chided Gus for always talking about dying. Gus retorted, “It ain’t dying I’m talking about, Woodrow. It’s living.”
Hat Creek Cattle Company: the company of men
McCrae and Call were hardly the only sublime characters assembled on the Texas border.
Pea Eye Parker was a simple man happily free of deep thought. He was not much to look at but in McMurtry’s skilled hands, an absolute beauty as the portrait of the uncluttered mind of a man committed to doing his job and filling his place in the vast world without too much fuss or questioning. Newt Dobbs was the bastard son of Woodrow Call, though Call never acknowledged as much. He was energetic and inquisitive and just a kid. The other ranch hands loved him and looked out for him. Jake Spoon was a former Ranger, a man who rode with Call and McCrae, a playboy who ultimately found himself attached to thieving murderers and then at the end of a rope, hanged by his terribly saddened friends, Call and McCrae, who were meting out justice for a dirt-farming Arkansas family murdered by the gang Spoon ran with. Po Campo was the Mexican cook who always took flak from Gus and gave as much as he took. He loved to ring the bell for dinner, an exercise Gus deemed unnecessary.
Joshua Deets was the only black cowboy in the group, an accomplished scout and rifleman, loyal and committed to Hat Creek. He had a special affinity for the boy Newt.
Hat Creek was a company of men and which man among us doesn’t long to be in the company of real men, men of character, men who are characters, men with weathered faces, scarred knuckles, and set jaws, men who put their boots on one at a time, just like the rest of us, but whose boots will be hard to fill?
These are men. Of all the crises they faced, gender certainty was never one. But I digress…and as long as I do, here’s a poem…
Gus McCrae’s Pig Latin: a theory of life
When they are packed up and leaving Hat Creek and Lonesome Dove for the last time, over Gus’s protest, Captain Woodrow Call points out what he considers another sign of Gus’s foolish hankerings for nonsense. Gus has attached the Hat Creek Cattle Company sign to one of the wagons. He had also assigned a motto underneath the company name. The motto was the Latin phrase, Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.
Woodrow Call: …and if that ain’t bad enough you got all them Greek words on there, too.
Gus McCrae: I told you, Woodrow, a long time ago it ain’t Greek, it’s Latin.
Call: Well what does it say in Latin? For all you know it invites people to rob us.
McCrae: Well the first man comes along that can read Latin is welcome to rob us, far as I’m concerned. I’d like a chance t’ shoot at a educated man once in my life.
Himwich disagrees with the scholars who claim the phrase is a corrupted Latin convolution, that is nonsense. He sees it as a phrase that indicates a grape mottles because that is what grapes do and they do this because they are grapes. Being near other grapes only ensures and sometimes speeds up the inevitable.
Grape Mottles and Role Models
Another interpretation, equally compelling and instructive, comes to us from Charley Snell, a real-live, sure-as-shootin’ cowboy. Charley writes:
One phrase, two truths…
Himwich reminds us that people and pigs are the same. They become what they become, they do what they do, because they are what they are.
Solomon concurs when he writes, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). Fools behave foolishly because they are fools.
Snell takes the phrase in a more constructive direction. One grape by itself will not become wine. It takes community, it takes the presence and influence of other grapes. Our lives are changed for the better by the positive influence of others, and vice versa.
God set forth the idea of the importance of community in the creation of Eve…
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.” Genesis 1:18
So, what have we learned from Gus’s Latin motto?
It is impossible (or it seems so) to overcome one’s own nature.
One important element of finding the best in ourselves is to engage in a positive way with the right people, the ones who bring out the best in us.
All alone, a mottled grape just sours, but when they cluster together, they can make wine.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.
For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?
And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
One more thing…
The more I see of the Woke, the less I want to be awake. Let me dream with Gus and raise my glass to his timeless toast…
“Here’s to the sunny slopes of long ago.”