After One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest came out as a movie, Jim was madder than a wet poultry dentist. Worse because Michael Douglas et al. had the gall to cast Jack Nicholson as Randel Patrick McMurphy in the movie,
the powers that be weak and stupid
to grace the cover of the paperback’s next reprint,
and Jim went through the proverbial roof.
He pointed out, with volcanic vehemence, that no way in hades did Nicholson resemble a wild, brawling, red-haired Irishman.
And he was also too damn short.
Jim harbored a grudge against both the movie and that paperback edition that never left him, I don’t believe.
This travesty grated on him even more because Ken Kesey was one of his favorite writers. He told me one time he’d the honor of standing next to Kesey
when they were both relieving themselves in urinals
somewhere in Washington state,
Jim’s birthplace and other home –
Washington state, not that restroom.
And while Jim loved Cuckoo’s Nest, he admired Kesey’s lesser-known novel, Sometimes a Great Notion even more. When I was a student in high school and Jim was my English teacher, he had us read both novels, and I can tell you,
from the way he spoke about them,
that if he himself could have written one or the other, Sometimes a Great Notion won out hands down.
Or maybe middle-finger up.
The one image burned into my brain once I read Great Notion
is that of an amputated arm
affixed to a raft headed downstream,
its middle finger stuck defiantly in the air,
with a hand-scrawled sign that carries this family’s battle cry:
Never Give a Inch.
(I can hear Jim somewhere saying, “That’s right, Lanning, remember it’s A inch, not AN inch.”)
Jim and I were both raised Lutheran – there’s even a hall bearing his family name on the Pacific Lutheran campus – and I always believed Martin Luther, the man who stood up to the Catholic Church and spoke the words, give or take in translation from the German,
“Here I stand, I can do no other,”
– I knew sure as shootin’ Martin Luther
was a card-carrying Never-Give-A-Incher,
someone who, if you looked it up in a dictionary,
defined digging in your heels, all right.
Well, turns out our guy probably didn’t say that, certainly not in English, but regardless, Jim and I grew up assured that Martin Luther was one stubborn Pope poopooing MF.
Life tacking the way it will, however, no miracle about it, we both drifted from the church as we grew up, two transubstantiated fallen Lutherans. But it’s like Bruce Springsteen told Elvis Costello, two men blood and boned Catholic: “My Catholic roots are in every song I write.”
And Costello agreed it was the same with him.
You can take the man out of the church,
but you can’t take the church out of the man.
At core, I’m convinced, Jim was always Lutheran. We talked – mostly joked – about this many times. Catechism classes were especially harkened back to with very little aloha, but having that doctrine seared into our sorry souls actually did us a lot of good down the line, especially when it came to majoring in English, as we both did. I swear I never ran out of great notions regarding Christian references in literature, and I’ll bet it was the same with Jim.
Among his many vocational pursuits,
Jim had jacked his share of lumber.
He wore innumerable flannel shirts,
of every color combination imaginable,
and he was built Buyanesque,
like someone who’d wrangled a lot of trees and won.
The Stamper family, the heroes of Sometimes a Great Notion, are a logging family – hence the raft and the river.
Their defiant gesture, that amputated arm
with the proud middle finger flying
and the profound Never Give a Inch barbaric yawp:
I can’t think of a time
where he ever gave a inch over anything,
at least not in those parts of his life I witnessed.
Like Chief Broom in Cuckoo’s Nest, in the end
I’m wondering if Jim thought
he’d been away from somewhere for a long time,
and although I could never guarantee it with any certainty,
as much a Lutheran as Jim was, and as I am,
sometimes I have a gut notion
that place might have been heaven.