Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink: Offbeat Travels Through America's Southwestby Tom Miller, Pete Hamill
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Embracing Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of California,Colorado, Texas, and
northern Mexico, the Southwest remains something of an undiscovered country -- a land imprinted with the hardy spirit of recent pioneers, a Hispanic tradition
stretching back more than 400 years, and a Native American culture that spans
many hundreds more. Tom Miller, who moved to this unique region in the late
1960s, vividly evokes his Southwestern home with the keen eye and sharp wit
that won him acclaim for The Panama Hat Trail and Trading with the Enemy:
A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba.
Leaving the tourist trail of mock-adobe condos and souvenir Kachina dolls far behind, this wide- ranging chronicle reveals an extraordinary -- and authentic -- corner of the world. Miller's Southwest is a far cry from the studio of Georgia O'Keeffe. It's a place where black-velvet paintings are "handcrafted" on Tijuana assembly lines, the residents of dusty desert towns stage cockfights to pass the time, and northbound migrants and drug smugglers play games of cat-and-mouse, and life and death -- with the border patrol in parched arroyos.
Miller takes us to a mountaintop fire tower to meet eco-militant Edward Abbey, whose incandescent writing sparked a new generation of environmental activists. He also witnesses ecotage in a midnight raid on a desert housing development, explores the turbulent history of mining-town labor struggles, and flirts with Sonia Braga during the filming of "Milagro Beanfield War." Hewing to his creed that there is no substitute for original research, Miller hunts down the origins and variants of the delicious chimichanga.
As Miller wanders from a Texas auction where he nearly buys Jack Ruby's kitchen sink to the desert site where a saguaro cactus killed its gun-toting tormentor, it becomes clear that no other guide to the Southwest combines his moral vision and ability to have fun.
About The Author
Tom Miller is the author of six previous books, among them Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba,The Panama Hat Trail, and On the Border. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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Chapter Six: Death by Misadventure
Cruelty often comes without warning and takes many guises. I've told the story of David Grundman's untimely death to hundreds of people over the years, and not one of them has expressed sorrow. His killer gets all the sympathy.
To fully appreciate the showdown that early February afternoon in 1982, let's go back 125 years earlier. James Buchanan succeeds Franklin Pierce as president, Louis Pasteur proves that living organisms cause fermentation, and the U.S. Supreme Court hands down the Dred Scott decision. In the western part of the New Mexico Territory, gold is discovered along the Gila River. Anglo trappers from back East have already made an appearance along some rivers. Mexicans, whose patria had lost two-thirds of its territory to the United States the previous decade, are manipulated out of their land and their labor. And just south of what's now called the Hieroglyphic Mountains, in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert, a saguaro cactus seedling, one of some 40 million from the same plant, takes root.
Saguaros have been on earth an estimated 10,000 years, and although they have come to symbolize the rugged and boundless West, they live only within the Sonoran Desert. In the United States this means in Arizona, with precious few interlopers east of the Peloncillo Mountains in New Mexico or across the Colorado River in California. We have a national park out here devoted to the saguaro, and caricatures from Playboy bunnies to Snoopy's brother, Spike, have leaned against them for national exposure.
To say that our seedling that fell in 1857 took root is too hopeful. First, saguaro flowers have to fertilize each other, a process that occurs when a bat or a white-wing dove or other bird carries the nectar from one plant to another. This can happen only during a five-week period in late spring and early summer when the flower opens its white petals at night, exposing its pollen, only to close up the next afternoon in time for Oprah. Several weeks later the flower gives way to a lusty, juicy fruit with red pulp that some birds find irresistibly delicious. Its sweet taste has been likened to a cross between a watermelon and a fig. The saguaro fruit that falls to the ground gets eaten by any number of creatures, from insects to small critters on up the chain. No matter who eats the fruit, though, bird or land-walker, its seeds are defecated throughout the desert.
Let's name our seedling Ha:san (pronounced hah-shi�ñ), the word for saguaro within the Tohono O'odham Nation, which exalts the cactus in its traditions, ceremonies, and lore. For Ha:san to actually germinate requires a wide range of natural conditions to fall into place in a given sequence during a finite period of time. These include, over the precious first couple of years, good rainfall, the absence of freezing temperatures, a larger plant nearby to protect the seedling from too much direct sun, and the good fortune to stay out of the way of a jackrabbit or rodent or any animal that, merely by bumping into Ha:san, would kill it. I asked George Montgomery, chief horticulturist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, how big the saguaro would be if all these conditions held for two years. He took my pen and paper and made a speck no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.
We're up to 1859 now. A Tale of Two Cities comes out, Oregon becomes a state, and John Brown is hanged for leading the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. More germane to our drama, however, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection is published. After its second birthday, little Ha:san can relax slightly. True, its life would be over if a cow stepped on it, but now the night temperature can dip below freezing and Ha:san will still be alive the next morning. For a number of years it manages to avoid cow hooves, hungry rabbits, excessive sun, and prolonged frost.
The year Ha:san celebrates its tenth birthday, Walt Whitman publishes Leaves of Grass. In Europe, Karl Marx brings out Das Kapital. Although the Civil War has come and gone, misguided troops loyal to the Confederacy skirmish with a U.S. Cavalry scouting party at Picacho Pass, 80 miles south of Ha:san's desert land. Of zero significance to Ha:san, the U.S. Congress has now divided the New Mexico Territory in two; Ha:san's half is called Arizona. At age ten, Ha:san stands one-and-a-half inches tall. Four years later the first known photograph of a saguaro is taken, not too far west of Ha:san's dwelling place.
By age 30, in 1887, Ha:san has grown to a sturdy two feet tall. Prescott is the territory's capital, an honor soon shifted to Phoenix. Arizona's five-year Pleasant Valley War begins, a violent conflict over sheep and cattle and turf and family dominance. Ha:san has no enemies; though still a young cactus, it has survived its most vulnerable years. In March of Ha:san's 44th year, Ha:san and its species get friendly news: The saguaro blossom is named Arizona's territorial flower. Finally, at age 55 in 1912, the year that Arizona gains statehood, Ha:san claims another level of maturity for itself: A crown of Arizona's flower grows on its top for the first time, providing nectar for its airborne visitors. Soon seedlings from Ha:san's own fruit will reach the desert floor. Ha:san stands eight feet tall now, closer to the popular image of a saguaro. None of its 39,999,999 sibling seedlings made it this far.
Ha:san has an easy life. Statehood schmatehood, no one bothers the growing saguaro cactus and it bothers no one. A narrow east-west road a few miles south connects Wickenberg to the west to some small towns much farther east, but Ha:san remains secure in the desert with bald eagles and great blue herons flying about and rattlers and Western diamondbacks slithering below. Other cactus such as ocotillo and prickly pear and trees such as ironwood and paloverde live nearby. Mule deer and wild burros trot by on occasion, and coyotes and rabbits are regular passersby. Ha:san weighs 800 pounds by now, 90 percent of which is water sucked up from the ground. It is landlord to the Gila woodpecker, which bores out a hole in its skin big enough for a nest; when the woodpecker moves on, elf owls, curve-billed thrashers, and cactus wrens move in.
Ha:san's biggest breakthrough takes place about the same time. It starts to grow arms. The arms take on some of the same characteristics as the trunk -- slow growing, with flowers eventually blossoming at the ends and with woodpeckers and other birds as permanent guests.
In 1933 at age 76, Ha:san is at the peak of its form. Mature, one arm growing nicely and another on the way, plenty of water to drink in the rainy season and retain through the dry season, its outer pleats evenly spaced, birds at home among its needles. It is the first year of the New Deal and the last year the Washington Senators win the American League pennant. Almost a quarter of a century later -- in Ha:san's centennial year -- Jack Kerouac's On the Road is published, the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles, and David Michael Grundman is born in New York State.
We know far more about Ha:san's formative years than we do about Grundman's. Let's give him the benefit of a doubt and assume he graduated from high school. At age 21 Grundman lived in Johnson City, a New York town near the Pennsylvania border three-and-a-half hours northwest of Manhattan. In the middle of the winter he lured a 16-year-old boy to a friend's apartment, intent on stealing the lad's $1,200 -- money with which the kid hoped to buy three pounds of marijuana. Grundman pulled a gun on the boy but botched the job, and he was arrested for armed robbery. A day before he was to go on trial, he agreed to a plea bargain: He would plead guilty to second-degree robbery, which carried a maximum sentence of four years, rather than stand trial and risk a more severe sentence. On January 29, 1981, after 18 months in Attica, David Michael Grundman was released on parole.
He stood six-one, with brown hair and blue eyes, and weighed 200 pounds. By the end of the year, he and a buddy named Jim Suchocki -- who had been arrested for possessing a nice quantity of marijuana a few years earlier -- had moved to the Southwest. Grundman's mother lived in a quiet working-class neighborhood in northwest Phoenix, and the two moved in with her. They were 53 miles southwest of Ha:san.
About this time I lived in a small adobe adjoining the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It was a tranquil and captivating place, surrounded by thick desert growth that absorbed noisy traffic and blocked nosy neighbors. Late one midsummer afternoon I discovered a Papago woman a few yards from my house brandishing a long saguaro rib. (This was before the tribe changed its name from Papago to Tohono O'odham.) I recall her name as Henrietta. Saguaro ribs -- sturdy, lightweight, woody poles that grow within the cactus's trunk -- are used to lift, or sometimes knock, the fruit off the top of tall saguaros. The ribs, which litter the desert floor as part of decaying saguaro carcasses, are also used in home and fence construction. To simplify gathering the fruit, the far end of one rib is often fashioned into a two-pronged fork; to extend their length, two ribs are frequently strapped together. I stood and watched admiringly as the woman delicately lifted one fruit after another off the tops of saguaros and handed them to her young daughter, who carefully placed each in a plastic bucket. Finally Henrietta noticed me and smiled as I complimented her on her ability to lift the fruit from the plant.
Proprietorship was no concern; I was a mere Anglo renter, and this harvesting of the saguaro fruit was an ancient tradition in her tribe. The saguaro even played a role in their creation stories. A teacher I know grew up on the Tohono O'odham reservation with Papago as his first language. "I used to take my bow and arrow as a kid," he told me, "and shoot at the saguaro. My grandfather said, 'Don't do that. All things are alive. That plant is very special to the O'odham. It bears fruit that we use for food. When mother Earth decides not to give any more life to the saguaro, we use its ribs for many things.'"
In a manner both gallant and sociable, Henrietta asked if I would like a jar of saguaro jelly once she boiled the pulp down into syrup. (Most syrup is fermented for wine, to be used in ceremonial gatherings on the reservation.) That was our bond; we parted all smiles. For weeks I told anyone who would listen this little episode about the friendly encounter with the saguaro-gatherer in my yard. When Henrietta had not returned by late fall, however, I realized I would never taste saguaro jelly from the cactus beside my house.
On February 4, 1982, David Grundman didn't go to work at the Sun Kountry Kitchen. Instead, he and Jim Suchocki headed out into the desert an hour northeast of Phoenix with lots of beer, a 16-gauge shotgun, a box of rifle slugs, and their dog. It was a weekday with temperatures in the comfortable mid-60s. They drove toward Wickenberg through swap-meet country, over the railroad tracks leading to Los Angeles, and past Del Webb's Sun City. The only town they passed was Surprise. At Route 74, the Carefree Road, they turned east 12.7 miles and then north on a dirt road into Bureau of Land Management desert land. After bouncing along the road a couple of miles, they parked the car and walked east a bit, settling in near an arroyo full of wolfberry shrubs and squat mesquite trees. Instead of the usual incessant weekend noise of all-terrain vehicles tearing up the land, all the two could hear was desert. They had the Sonoran Desert to themselves, or at least that swatch of it. On north-facing slopes grew jojoba; on south, saguaro. Some were younger, shorter, and lighter than Ha:san; others were older, taller, and heavier.
After a few beers, David Grundman started shooting. At saguaros. They made easy, immobile targets, almost humanlike with their arms in the air. He began with smaller saguaros and worked up to bigger ones, each time shooting the cactus enough so that the Carnegiea gigantea fell over dead.
"The first one was easy," he told Jim after killing two saguaros, "and the larger one was partly dead already." In the silent desert, the final fall of each cactus must have resounded thunderous. Javelina, common there at that time of the year, stayed away from the drunken marksman. Grundman must have killed a half-dozen saguaros, leaving each one lying on the ground as he moved to the next.
Finally David Grundman encountered Ha:san. A couple of rounds didn't do it. Ha:san, 125 years old, remained erect. Grundman moved slightly to another angle and pumped a few more slugs into the splendid 3,000-pound saguaro, but it refused to fall. He tried again from farther over. In all, he moved about a third of the way around Ha:san. Frustrated at this particular cactus's resistance to his gunshots and determined to best it, Grundman picked up a saguaro rib from the ground and started poking at Ha:san's lowest arm, which had grown almost five feet in its 70 years. Grundman's poking finally dislodged the arm, which rested about four feet above him and weighed close to 500 pounds.
Well, the joke was on David Grundman, and so was Ha:san. The arm crashed down on him, and the 25-foot trunk of the mighty cactus, suddenly unstable, started wobbling. It could have fallen anywhere in a 360-degree radius, but it too fell square on David Grundman. His last word was, "Jim!"
I've never given much thought to retribution or karma, yet surely both of those were at work in the Sonoran Desert on February 4, 1982. David Michael Grundman lay face-up, dead beneath a ton and a half and 125 years of cactus, saguaro needles piercing his face and torso. Natural selection had played its hand.
Jim Suchocki, full of beer and bravado, went into momentary shock, then ran over and rolled the cactus off his dead buddy just as a car passed by on the lonely road nearby. Suchocki flagged it down and asked the driver to get someone quick from Lake Pleasant, the Maricopa County Park slightly to the east. Grundman was an accidental-gunshot victim, he said. By the time park manager Doug Collup arrived, Jim had gathered up all the beer bottles and rifle slugs and put them in the car with the dog. Collup had called for a helicopter, but when he saw Grundman, he changed that to a hearse. Ha:san's arm had hit David between the neck and shoulder, and the trunk had landed directly on top of him. The side of his face was mashed in and yellow. You could still smell beer around his mouth.
"The cactus probably broke his neck on impact," Collup said when we spoke at his home years after the fact. Collup had returned to the site to photograph it the day after the accident, and he found Grundman's teeth prints still visible in the big cactus.
"See that?" Collup held up one of his photos. "The cactus is reddish from the blood. Some of the needles are bruised and some are missing. The cactus popped his gums like they were little water balloons." The county medical examiner's description for Grundman's cause of death: "external compression of chest."
The falling-cactus story makes for great telling and retelling. Within a few years it had graduated to urban-myth status; people weren't sure if it was true or not, but it had all the elements of a noir morality tale. It has surfaced a few times in print, but only Michael Stevens of the Austin Lounge Lizards and a friend have artfully immortalized Ha:san and his calamitous end by composing a ballad. "Saguaro" appears on the Lounge Lizards' album "Creatures from the Black Saloon." It turns the affair into a Western in which Grundman ("a noxious little twerp") sees himself as Wyatt Earp to the saguaro's Clanton gang. At the end, though, the roles are reversed: "One mighty arm of justice came hurtling toward the ground."
Guided by the initial sheriff's reports and Collup's memory, I set out one day to locate the scene of the crime. I started at the house where Grundman had lived in northwest Phoenix, trying to emulate his last journey, but nothing along the way encouraged a warped and wasted mind. A billboard said, "Keep driving if you love avocados." As I neared my goal, I ran into construction for a new golf course and had to park the car and go by foot. After hiking north up and down small hills for a mile or two, I found a bone-dry arroyo with a lightly sloping, south-facing stretch on the other side. It was the sort of desolate spot where "Bloodbath at Massacre Creek" might have been filmed had anyone ever filmed a movie called "Bloodbath at Massacre Creek." During late-summer monsoons, arroyos like this one can fill up quicker than your Maytag. Some Bud Light cans lay nearby; tangled in the scrub was the bullet-riddled side of a Remington game load box.
Dead saguaros disintegrate within a few years, and I wasn't exactly expecting to find Ha:san's corpse or even its ribs. But I did look at the surrounding saguaros in a new light. There was no logic behind it, but I stepped lightly when I got near them, and I never ventured close enough that one of them could fall on me if it wanted to. They were part of Ha:san's extended family, and I simply wanted to pay my respects.
<%=fontsmall%>(c)2000 Tom Miller, used by permission of National Geographic Society.
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