Up From the Ashes
One hot August morning, a day even drier and dustier than it had been that June more than 123 years before, I said goodbye to Alan Dumas and added some more dust to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where George Armstrong Custer had made his last stand.
I'd been to this spot before with Dumas, almost a decade earlier, when the swathe of land along the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana was still known as the Custer Battlefield -- but historians were already pushing for a name that more accurately reflected that battle of June 25, 1876. We were on our way to some more revisionist history: Former Westword writer Frank Hogan had written a play based loosely -- very loosely -- on his days at the paper, and his Harpooners was to have its debut at a prestigious (and now defunct) playwright's festival in Big Fork, Montana. Dumas, another former Westworder then writing for the Rocky Mountain News, and Bryann Lynch, an alum who is now a cop, and I were using the play's premiere as a splendid excuse for a road trip. A thousand miles stretched between Denver and our destination, miles studded with landmarks both natural and manmade; each of us got to pick a tangent. I took Wyoming's Register Rock, where pioneers making the trek across the Oregon Trail left their names -- their bylines -- in the soft stone. Lynch yearned to see the bison range north of Missoula. And Dumas?
He wanted to stand where Custer had made his last stand.
Unlike so many who visit this killing field, Dumas was not obsessed with the minutiae of the battle itself, or even its role in the final, sorry subjugation of the Indians. But he was fascinated by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, surely as much a showman as a military tactician--perhaps a genius, more likely just plain nuts. Dumas loved the theatrical and made us play a tape of "Garry Owen," the 7th Cavalry's favorite bagpipe song, as we toured the battlefield and then again at odd times throughout the rest of the trip. (It sounded once more at his funeral.) Alan Dumas understood living large.
And he would have appreciated the bit of stagework that now allowed two friends to say a private goodbye in what is a very public setting. A truck had flipped across the road that runs through the park, and just a few cars -- including ours -- had been let through before the road was closed altogether. That left us alone to listen to the wind whip through the greasy grass, to watch the tourists far away at the Custer Monument and to leave Dumas behind at Calhoun Hill, where so many good soldiers had perished.
Dumas would have liked that, we thought, then thought again -- about the mysterious one-vehicle accident that had led us straight to that spot. Hell, Dumas had probably arranged it. He'd do anything for a good story.
There was another good story -- and another coincidence -- just a few hours up the road in Butte. Perched on a gutted mountainside, this old mining town looks like San Francisco after the bomb -- and in fact, around the time of World War I, Butte's red-light district was rivaled only by San Francisco's. The country's longest-running brothel, which opened in Butte in 1890, had operated right up until 1982, the year the town's big mine closed. The brothel's name? The Dumas.
"That's doom-ass," said the chipper preteen guide who led our tour of the building, now a museum and the home of the International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Education that was founded by former Los Angeles cop-turned-prostitute Norma Jean Almodovar, who bought the Dumas last year. Almodovar was too busy to chat; she was preparing for an upcoming Harley rally that would help fund further renovations and, no doubt, shock the good citizens of Butte down to their shorts. So the perky adolescent took us past the alley-side windows, where girls once advertised their unique charms, and through the basement that had been sealed off in 1942, creating a time capsule of the dank space where the "old and ugly ones" did their work, surrounded by WWII posters and Hollywood pinups.
We wished we had a little of Alan left to sprinkle in this structure built by the two Dumas brothers, whose flair for showmanship clearly marked them as some kind of relation (and whose French origin meant the new proprietors could use a pronunciation lesson).
Dumas would have loved that, we thought, then thought again -- about the odd roadside-attraction Web site that had led us there. Hell, Dumas had probably arranged that, too.
And Dumas's travels are just beginning. Over the next few months, friends stunned by his unexpected death at age 44 this past April will be taking him along on journeys to many of the places Dumas loved: to the canyon country of Utah, to the mountains of New Mexico, to Monument Valley and to a few more sneaky public spots that shall remain private here.
Of course, you do not need a package of cremains to remember those who've gone beyond. Your memory keeps bringing them back. There's always another story ready to surface.
Like this one: Alan Dumas was a great storyteller, both in print and in person, and his greatest stories always involved himself. There were his supposed dates with John Wayne's daughter, his ghostly encounters that make The Blair Witch Project seem like a walk in the park. Bears figured in many of his more gruesome sagas; at Dumas's funeral, it was a surprise to see so many surviving family members, because he'd told us that bears had eaten most of them. Wyoming and Montana have been full of bear sightings this summer; Dumas would have loved it.
Dumas himself was full of bear stories on that long-ago road trip. Before we'd watched Hogan's Harpooners (sort of a cross between Moby Dick and The Front Page, it featured a female editor who yelled "Thar she blows" quite often, as well as a performance by Law and Order's Dann Florek, who Dumas insisted was playing him), we'd driven up into bear country. The signs alone were enough to make Dumas scare himself quite silly. I also learned that he had a deathly fear of running out of gas: He broke out into a sweat when I headed into still-snowbound Glacier National Park on just a quarter of a tank.
Alan Dumas never wanted to run out of gas.
A few days before he died, he'd taken another road trip up to Wyoming, to interview author Annie Proulx for the News (a Dumas piece that wound up published posthumously). The paper's photographer was driving, Dumas told us -- and the pair had run out of gas. Days later, it seemed an ominous portent.
Four months later, it's a Dumas story.
Even after he died, the stories kept coming.
A plumber working on some mysterious pipes in my century-old house this summer noticed something strange. "Do you know you have spirits?" he asked, quite calmly. Liquor? "No, spirits. They've been talking to me."
They had never talked to me, but I am not known for my exquisite sensitivity. What were they saying? I asked. "They're mainly mumbling," he responded. "About some guy."
Interesting, I thought, and then immediately concerned myself with more important matters: the woeful state of my pipes. It was only later that I realized the long-dormant ghosts had probably been stirred up by a new, and temporary, tenant in my house: Alan Dumas.
As his travels with his friends continue, Dumas's physical presence in my house lessens. But I'm sure the spirits are grateful that they got to share space with such a wonderful, entertaining fellow.
We all are.
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.By Patricia Calhoun
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