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Wondrous Times on the Frontier.

Wondrous Times On the Frontier

by Dee Brown

324 pages, Harper Perennial, $10

You have read books you couldn't put down, right? Well, this isn't one of them. You'll be putting this one down every few pages to wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes so you can continue reading Dee Brown's 20th work of fact and fiction, bringing to life the wild and wondrous way it was in the Old West.

The 85-year-old author of the best-selling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has spared no research in exhuming the hardships, challenges, and above all the humor of young America, in his latest book, Wondrous Times On the Frontier. This time his cast of characters runs the gamut from the famous and infamous to the obscure, performing on a stage of the joyous frontier, against the backdrop of a harsh and rugged life, making merriment a necessity for survival.

Consider the story of a paddle wheeler struggling to get up the Missouri during a season of low water. At a particularly bad spot, with the paddle wheel churning wildly, a woodchopper living in a cabin on the riverbank chose that moment to come down for a pail of water. As he turned away with the brimming pail, his action caught the captain's eye. "Hey! You!" the captain shouted. "Put that water back!"

Why would travelers stopping at a tavern on their way west often prefer to sit by the fire rather than "endure the establishment's beds?"

As one pilgrim explained: "I have slept in beds active with snakes, lizards, scorpions, centipedes, bugs, and fleas... beds in which men stricken with plague have died horrible deaths--beds that might reasonably be suspected of smallpox, measles, and cholera. Standing, lying down, doubled up and hanging over, twisted, punched, jammed, and elbowed by drunken men, snored at, sat upon, and smothered by nightmare; burnt by fires, rained upon, snowed upon, and bitten by frost." He then suggests that these problems are normal by adding, "In all these positions and subjected to all these discomforts, I have slept with comparative satisfaction."

Food kept harmonious company with these deplorable sleeping conditions. You'll read of sand in the sugar, grasshopper fruitcake, coffee "like a pool of yellow soapsuds," "a conglomerate substance by courtesy called butter," "ham strong enough to perform the labors of Hercules," and corn bread for which the English language "affords no vituperative epithet which can do justice."

Amid the miseries of the traveler made palatable by merriment, was a satiric poster put up by a hotel owner in an effort to "fend off all manners of complaints before they could be uttered"--addressed to adults as well as children:

"This hotel has been built and arranged for the special comfort and convenience of boarders. On arrival each guest will be asked how he likes the situation, and if he says the hotel ought to have been placed upon the knoll or further down toward the village, the location of the house will immediately be changed. Corner front rooms, up only one flight, for every guest...

"Any guest not getting his breakfast red-hot, or experiencing a delay of 16 seconds after giving his order for dinner, will please mention the fact at the office, and the cooks and waiters will be blown from the mouth of the cannon in front of the hotel.

"Children will be welcomed with delight and are requested to bring hoopsticks and hawkeyes to bang the carved rosewood furniture especially provided for the purpose, and peg tops to spin on the velvet carpets; they will be allowed to bang on the piano at all hours, yell in the halls, slide down the banisters, fail down stairs, carry away dessert enough for a small family in their pockets at dinner, and make themselves as disagreeable as the fondest mother can desire."

Dee Brown's harmonious transitions from quotes to anecdotes on gambling, barroom drinking, and the flourishing of dance hails--said to be "more plentiful than catfish in the Mississippi"--present a picture of the frontier never captured on film or in fiction. You'll have the time of your easy-chair life reading all about it in the chapters headed "There's a One-Eyed Man in the Game" and "Making the Calico Crack."

Tall tales reflecting the capricious climate traveled faster than the amazing "Iron Horse" that whisked passengers along at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.

How hot was it in Yuma, Ariz.? It was so hot that after living in its constant 120-degree heat, a very wicked soldier died and went straight to the hottest part of hell. The next day he telegraphed back for his blankets.

How cold did it get? It got so cold that the shouts of a pair of cowboys caught in a blizzard were immediately frozen--and when the thaw came, travelers were frightened by sudden outbursts of profanity coming from the empty air.

It was no tall tale that anyone wearing black clothes walking through the eight inches of white dust on the streets looked like nothing as much as "a cockroach struggling through a flour barrel." Or that a settler in west Texas during the great drought of the 1880s finally abandoned his claim and left this notice scrawled on the door of his shack:

"One hundred miles to Water

Twenty miles to wood

Six inches to hell

God bless our home

Gone to live with the wife'S folks."

Under his microscopic probing of the Old West and its miseries made palatable by merriment, Dee Brown had turned up the merriest accounts of self-taught doctors, lawyers, merchants, and thieves, of feuding editors, semiliterate schoolteachers, servants of the Lord with Bibles held open by Bowie knife and pistol. Of theatrical groups forced to contend with audience participation. (During a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a cowboy, "becoming quite wrought up over the plight of Eliza being pursued across the ice by a bloodhound... drew his pistol and shot the dog dead.")

But you get the picture--albeit here in black and white. To see in full color this joyous romp through America's early west, you must read Wondrous Times on the Frontier from page one through 324.

If you skip a single page, you'll be the loser. Trust me.
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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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