There was to be a retreat for a diverse group of 20 intellectuals. And me. A gathering reflective of the times; after all, intellectualism itself is in full retreat. Personally, I find critical thinking a hindrance to progress and a bit unpatriotic.
My thought as I drove the desolate red scoria roads of the Badlands was that there sure are a lot of good places to hide a body out there.
The first person to welcome me at the cabin was Clay Jenkinson, a prolific author, historian, Oxford alum, and star of every Ken Burns film known to exist, including the 1987 family vacation at Nantucket.
Clay was so nice.
It was awful.
You see, I'd recently pilloried the man for kiddingly referring to North Dakota as a “loser state” during a "CBS Sunday Morning" feature. My column was predictably hilarious, but the problem with publicly flogging someone in North Dakota is that eventually you have to look them in the eye. Or fist, depending on how hilarious the column was.
Clay welcomed me warmly, leading me to believe he hadn't read it. Or maybe I'd crushed his spirit. Or maybe it was a ruse to get me to lower my guard, and the next thing you know there'd be bloodhounds scouring the buttes for a much-beloved columnist while Clay Jenkinson's back in his tent eating fava beans.
As I unloaded supplies at the main cabin, I discovered I had a flat tire. Dagnabbit! Then, to make matters worse, Clay volunteered to help me change it. Sure. I'll just hand the Marmarth Strangler a tire iron.
I don't know if you've ever changed a tire on an F-150, but if so, you know the engineers who designed the system are, in technical terms, sadistic bastards. I discovered the jack in a secret compartment under the rear seat along with Carmen Sandiego, Waldo, and Jimmy Hoffa.
The manual was as helpful as any from IKEA. I swear I heard Clay mutter under his breath, “loser pickup.” In time he was jacking up the truck while I stood by like a damsel in distress. “How many Rhodes Scholars does it take to change a tire?” someone quipped. That's when it struck me. There was a column in this. Or published evidence, at least, that would lead authorities to Clay Jenkinson as a person of interest.
I began writing on the deck after the first session while Clay, oblivious and still dusty from wallowing in the dust on my behalf, sat facing the other way at another table.
So there I was, typing him in the back.
It'd been an ordeal. After we removed the lug nuts, the tire refused to budge — it seemed welded to the hub. I kicked it. Clay kicked it. Other intellectuals kicked it. Nothing. There's a metaphor here, I thought to myself: “Violence is never the answer.”
Finally, Clay drove to a nearby ranch to fetch a hand-held sledge. In a test of trust, we took turns holding a 2-by-4 against the rim as the other guy whacked away. When the tire finally popped off, I think I heard Clay mutter under his breath, “Violence is sometimes the answer.”
I'm home safe. (Blinks three times.) I'm fine. (Three more times.) Never been better. Splendid, really. (Blink ... blink ... blink ...)
Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of this publication, nor Forum Communications ownership.