Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On the Trail of a Legend

We often hear or say things like, “the movie just wasn’t like the book”, or, “the book wasn’t as good as the movie”. When commenting on a work based on a real person or happening there are also conflicts between realty and journalism. For some of us it is not enough to just speculate about what really happened People like me feel compelled to delve into the history of the story. We seek out those who have first hand knowledge of the incidents and people depicted in literature or cinema. There are some who lean the other way and view movies as documentaries rather than entertainment.

When Bill Key and I read Fire on the Mountain, by Edward Abbey, we vaguely recalled the movie. We then began to recall stories of the real life circumstances that inspired the novel. It is the story of a rancher who is told that he must leave his land behind and move on because the US Army needs his ranch for the expansion of White Sands Missile Range. The rancher was named John Prather and he raised mules for the Army on the Otero Mesa. He told the officials that he wasn’t going to leave and would spend the rest of his life on his ranch.

Bill and I knew that the book was based on real people and events so we set out to meet anyone who had direct contact with the characters mentioned in the book. Our research led us to the remote home of Irving Porter in the southern New Mexico mountains. In Abbey’s book the character Billy, was based on Irving. We also met Arleen Gaba and her son Mike Gaba. Arleen’s husband was Prather’s grandson and the Gabas lived on the ranch with “Grandpa” Prather. Arleen wrote an article called Five Years with the Mule King for Range Magazine. Her story is about the conflict between Prather and the US Government.

During our visit with Mike and Arleen they gave Bill a stack of photographs. The images are of family members and some even show Army personnel at the ranch. Mike, who continues to research his family history, gave Bill permission to use the photos in a magazine article.

The most interesting part of the whole trip was listening to Mr. Porter tell his about what really happened out there on the ranch. There is a lot more to the stories than a conflict with the US Army. For example; at one time, in the early 1930’s, Prather had agreed to sell mules to the Mexican Army. This meant that he had to drive the mules eighty miles to the Santa Fe Street Bridge in El Paso. After the three day trip Prather met the Mexicans half way across the bridge to complete the transaction. Prather did not speak Spanish and for some reason suspected that the Mexican officer was trying to get the best of him. One of Prather’s men finally stepped forward to do some translating. The Mexican leader then got down off of his horse and emptied a bag of money out on the bridge. After Prather was satisfied that all of the money was there the deal was done and the groups parted ways without further dialogue.

Another interesting fact was brought to light when talking to the Porters and the Gabas. Edward Abbey never interviewed Prather or any of the people that and first hand knowledge of what really went on. He just followed the news and let the his imagination run with the story. So there is reality, the book, and the movie. Unfortunately too many  folks just accept what they see on a movie screen, or television, as history. Then they go on making real life decisions based false history.

The trip was fun and we met some great folks. I took a few pictures while we were visiting the Porters; the first photo shows Bill flirting with Lessie Porter. The second is me making friends with a corgi named Moose. Moose is in charge of ranch security these days.

 In order to preserve Mr. Porter's dignity, I chose not to photograph him in a state of bad health.

By the way, Kirk Douglas was the star of the movie Lonely are the Brave, which was based on Abbey’s novel called The Brave Cowboy. Douglas says this was his favorite motion picture. If you are interested, here is a link to a multi part interview of Douglas discussing the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onzqlL3rey8

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