The Old Man, he can be one scary dude. Scars on scars, man. Steel balls. And the man really has done it all, come up through the ranks all the way from E1. Went career, and then got a commission the hard way. Fighting ribbons from Nam, Haiti, the Storm, Somalia. That weird thing between Texas and Israel. He's done some bad times.
But there's this one thing I just couldn't gouge, and nobody else was able to clue me on it either. It was that tattoo. There's some things you don't ask a man about, especially your CO, but not knowing about that tattoo was drivin' me up the fuckin' wall.
So one day I pull duty as his driver, his regular guy is sick in quarters, and, you know, I figure this is my chance. Sometimes you just got to do it.
"General Waldrop, sir? I don't mean no disrespect, sir, but I have a question, sir? I just gotta know. Sir."
He looks at me over his glasses, you know how you do, so the guy you're talking to can see your eyes. Not angry, not threatening, just making the connection. "What is it, Specialist Duncan?"
"The tattoo, sir. It's a great tattoo. Awesome, sir. But, begging your pardon, sir, I can't help it, sir, why a dodo?"
After making a name for himself with his Emmy-winning, nostalgia-filled commercials for Lone Star Beer and Ralston-Purina (My faves: "A Longneck for Old Blue" and "Bass-Fishing with Cerberus"), Howie Waldrop almost single-handedly invented the music video in the 1980s. Who doesn't remember the stunning Tod Browning homage from Madonna's "Pappa Don't Freak" video?
After two stormy marriages, to Angelica Huston and Carrie Fisher, Howie has now developed something of a privacy fetish, and spends most of his time hanging with buds Randy Newman and Joel Coen, avoiding any contact with the press.
So it was with some trepidation I approached him at Sundance, and asked for a 10-second sound bite about the rigors of filming the indie classic I, John Mandeville in Central Asia with a cast of amateurs. He stood there in his vintage biking leathers, head down, arms akimbo, glowering and giving off the rich animal smell of celebrity. "I got two words for you," he said in a surly tone. "For you and your whole class of web-surfing dot-com dilettantes." He paused. "Uleg Beg," he said, stretching the vowels out long and mean.
We had come a long way, me and Pete, with our flyrods and tackle. Up the Amazon first, to the blackwater Rio Negro, where peacock trout lure anglers into the green jungle, then to Tierra del Fuego, for a run of ocean-going non-native browns, and finally to Arroyo Pescado in Argentina, Butch Cassidy territory, home to broken-down gauchos and struggling llama ranches, to find the Hostería los Tres Stooges, and the elusive Jouardo Waldrop, the legendary angler/hermit of the Andes.
We were greeted with a hearty wave of the hand and a cheery "Buenos días!" and invited inside to dine on crusty bread and hard cheese and the dry red wine of the Argentine. Jauardo built the Hostería himself out of scrap lumber and local stone, and there is not a line out of true or a carelessly driven nail in the entire building. Inside, the small, brightly painted space is arranged for a life devoted to trout and doo-wop: there is just enough room in the tiny kitchen for a fly-tying table, a collection of 45s, and a half-dozen plastic action figures of masked Mexican wrestlers.
There was no time to sit about. Jauardo had already sent for the llamas to be packed up, and barely were we finished with our simple meal than we were out the door again and off into the mountains for the fishing experience of our lives.
A few hours later, knee-deep in a fast, frigid stream, engaged in battle with a brutish 20-inch South American rainbow, Jauardo gave me one of his huge saurian smiles, and silently mouthed to me a phrase of joy. I picked up on it immediately, and Peter was not far behind. Silently, against the noise of the river, we sang together a song of triumph that neither we for the fish could hear. "Doook doook doook doookuv," Jauardo sang, and I joined in with "dook dook dook dookov" and Pete, who never missed a cue, came in right on time, "dook of earl."
It was Christmas, when, 1997? Howard had moved up from Austin and was living in the dark, wet foothills west of Darrington, with tumbledown barns and Doug firs and fishing shacks with ferns on the roofs, and the dumbfounding snowcovered mountains looming over him to the east. And, of course, with two year-round trout streams a few hundred yards away. In our cozy Seattle social whirl, we thought he might need company, so five of us, Greg and Astrid and Leslie and John and me, decided we would go up to see him.
We brought a tiny Christmas tree, maybe two feet high, some lunch, some beer, and a big tub of peanut butter. We drove an hour or so up I-5, then headed east on winding two-lane blacktop along the valley of the Stillaguamish River, which flows out of a glacier in the Cascades. When we came to Howard's snug little three-in-line fishing shack, behind the general store, we barrelled out of the car and descended on him en masse.
He was gracious, and, I think, a little tickled, even though he didn't really need the peanut butter just then. We decorated the tree. We drank the beer and ate lunch. Howard made coffee. Then he took us for a walk up to the river, past huge scrawls of past-season blackberry canes growing over cabins, cars, and anything else that got in the way. We stood on the modest bridge, and I tried to think like Howard thinking like a trout. Walking back to Howard's place, just about sunset, we saw the elusive blue light, das blaue licht, flash from west to east among the mountains. A lovely afternoon, I thought, bucolic, and surprisingly normal.
We stopped at a little antique shop, next to the llama ranch, just before Howard's tidy shack. Among a stack of old photographs, I found a photocard from the 1880s, taken in Brooklyn, of a small family group. The father was a human skeleton, tall and impossibly thin, wearing tiny velvet shorts and a matching vest, his limbs encased in tight white silk. He gave off an air of confidence and happiness. His wife and son were wearing their Sunday best. I wondered how their picture ever came to be in rural Washington, then put down a dollar and a quarter, and took them home with me. They looked urbane, and surprisingly normal.
Eileen Gunn's stories and articles have appeared in Asimov's, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other magazines and anthologies. She is the editor of the newly launched online science-fiction magazine The Infinite Matrix, and is at work on a biography of Avram Davidson. Since 1988, she has served on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her fiction has been nominated twice for the Hugo Award.
Leslie What is a Nebula Award-winning author whose work has appeared in many journals, anthologies, and magazines, and been translated into Greek, Russian, and German. With Nina Kiriki Hoffman, she developed the "Writers On Rugs Photography Studio." She likes to dress people up and then take pictures of them. For more about her, see her Web site.
Photo of Eileen Gunn copyright © 1998 Victor Gonzales.
Jed Hartman's Three Ways of Looking at Howard Waldrop (and Then Some).
George R. R. Martin's introduction to Waldrop's 1986 collection Howard Who?.
Gardner Dozois's introduction to Waldrop's 1987 collection All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past.