Prairie Lights: Clawson’s big heart, brilliant pen live on

Clawson

Photo courtesy of Sharie Pyke

Roger Clawson outside the Billings Gazette, probably in the early to mid-1970s.

When the Billings Gazette hired me as a night editor in 1989, I was thrilled at the prospect of working alongside Roger Clawson.

I had known of him since the mid-1970s, when I first started visiting Billings in the company of the Missoula Flying Mules, a gang of bar hounds masquerading as a hockey team.

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Ed Kemmick

I had no interest in journalism during those early trips, but I remember being powerfully impressed with Clawson. The rest of the Gazette was fairly stodgy, enlivened only by one editor’s seeming infatuation with national stories involving brutal murders, decapitation being a favorite.

Clawson’s columns were everything most newspapers were not in those days. The columns were irreverent, informal and damned funny. Later, as I drifted into journalism myself, my appreciation for his talent only increased.

Fortunately for Clawson but unfortunately for me, he won a big award for his reporting and began a yearlong journalism fellowship just before I joined the Gazette.

He didn’t last long after returning to the newsroom. I think the year on his own made it unbearable to go back into the bowels of an office. And in his absence, the powers that be had decided reporters ought to wear ties, every day.

Clawson hated ties worse than the devil hates kindness, so he wore a tie, all right—poorly knotted, open to the second or third button on his shirt and spotted with gravy and coffee stains. But you could see it still rankled him, exemplifying everything he detested.

Smart people would have let Clawson dress any way he pleased, but Gazette management utterly failed to appreciate his brilliance and resented his distracted ambivalence about niceties like clocks, deference and appearances.

And since he worked days and I worked 3 to midnight—and since he wasn’t the kind of person to spend much time in the office anyway—I don’t think we exchanged more than a few words before he quit and was gone.

He continued writing a weekly column for the Gazette—down from three a week in his prime—but then he was dropped altogether. After a break of a year or two, he was given new life as a columnist when David Crisp quit the Gazette, started the Billings Outpost and offered Clawson a weekly slot.

As Crisp said in his own remembrance, Clawson kept writing for 15 years, then stopped about a year ago, when his health began to deteriorate. A week ago today he died of multiple organ failure.

I was a little jealous reading what Crisp wrote, and then reading more recollections from people Clawson knew well during his years at the Gazette, people who got sucked into all sorts of surreal adventures with him.

But that’s all right, because most of the many thousands of people who so admired Clawson knew him only through his writing.

They will remember that he always referred to his second wife as She Who Must Be Obeyed, and to his father as the Old Poacher, as in this piece from 1990: “I don’t wear fur but still eat cheeseburgers. Vegetarianism may be the morality of the future, but I was reared by the God-fearing, red-meat-craving Old Poacher who killed 17,000 deer over several decades to feed seven kids.”

Like Mike Royko and his imaginary Everyman, Slats Grobnik, Clawson invented Bump Halsey (I’m guessing at the spelling; it’s been awhile) to deliver blue-collar opinions on the latest buffooneries of the rich and venal.

And like Royko, Clawson was an old-school friend of working stiffs, single moms and neglected souls. Bidding President Reagan a fond farewell in 1989, Clawson said the past Reagan was always invoking didn’t really exist:

“The America he tried to steer us back to was a real one in which working men and women were abused, the poor and elderly were forgotten, and this was a land pledged to liberty and justice for the rich.”

But he was no limousine liberal, not by a long shot. In that same column on vegetarianism he wrote: “Vegetarianism evokes mixed emotions. The notion is so progressive, but its advocates are such dweebs.” He went on to wonder if turnips had souls, and he said that perhaps, “if we were less calloused, we could hear the heart-rending cries of 10,000 stalks of wheat falling before the scythe.”

Touches of Twain

And though he had much in common with Royko, Royko rarely slipped out of the clipped style of the tough-guy reporter. Clawson could be lyrical, especially when writing of the Yellowstone River, and his humor could sometimes be as extravagant as Twain’s. Here’s Clawson writing of an old crone he knew as a boy in Custer:

“Hers was a weathered, high-mileage face, a face filled with runnels and gunnels, cracks and coulees, a face to serve as a topographical map of Garfield County. A mole that had once been a beauty spot had grown over decades to the size of a plum pit and was surrounded by a hedge of whiskers.

“Bertha would open a jar of ‘Foundation Cream’ and pave the whole lot. Known in the undertaking trade as ‘Base No. 5,’ the cream dried to the consistency of plaster of Paris and the color of peach calcimine.”

Clawson never pulled his punches. Responding to a display of anti-Indian racism on the part of Ron Marlenee, who represented the eastern half of Montana when this state sent two people to the U.S. House, Clawson opened a column with this:

“Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace was once beaten by an even bigger bigot and swore he would ‘never be out-niggered again.’”

I will never forgot the thrill of looking up the word “retromingent,” which Clawson employed to describe Marlenee in another column. The copy desk’s dictionary didn’t even have it, so we had to turn to the big unabridged Webster’s that sat so ponderously on a newsroom countertop. We learned that “retromingent” describes an animal, such as the cat, that urinates backward.

Clawson was also a birder, and wrote on another occasion that cats “are programmed to kill. … This is merely the dictate of evolution. Cats that killed only when hungry were eliminated from the gene pool millions of years ago. They could not compete with cats that killed for amusement.

“The thrill killers not only had more fun, but, because they never missed a chance to make meat, they had more food more of the time.”

You had to keep reading

He was a natural storyteller. He started one column, set in Jordan, Mont., like this: “Meeting a knee-walking cowboy with a handful of empty was a curious event, but it was the chickadee at Rose’s that won my heart.”

He was also a notoriously bad speller, but only because he ranked spelling with neckties in terms of importance. He liked to quote someone (Andrew Jackson?) to the effect that he could not admire a man so lacking in imagination that he could spell a word only one way.

Clawson could make you laugh out loud, but he could be serious when he wrote of injustice or cruelty, and he was very serious when he wrote of finally seeking treatment after years of being an alcoholic. At the Rimrock Foundation, he wrote, “Men who once terrorized barrooms discover they have been cowards. Teens who are old before their time learn that they have been babies. … We dug into our pasts, into areas scarred over, we bled a bit and cried a lot.”

His struggles with booze were part of a life that sometimes seemed overwhelmingly tragic, but he had a way of treating the idea of self-pity as an impossibility.

He didn’t seem to care about money or fame or knowing the right people, about trying to look sharp or wasting time on trivial matters like combing his hair. In person and in print he was a man obsessed with ideas, and with finding the best way to express them. He never tired of finding new ways to write about his favorite subjects: canoeing the Yellowstone, watching birds and deepening his long association with the Crow Tribe.

He had the kind of native, offhand wisdom that doesn’t come from books. There was no doubt that he had read and digested a great many books, but at bottom his style, his intelligence and his wit all sprang from his native ground, as surely as Twain’s gifts had inexplicably sprung from Hannibal, Mo.

I’m so sorry that he is gone, but he left a large and amazing body of work, and we were lucky to have had him as long as we did.

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