Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Bruce McEwen, Court Reporter
by Steve Sparks, April 15, 2010
As the torrential rain bombarded downtown Boonville, I met up with Bruce at the property he shares with the AVA’s Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella on Highway 128 on the south side of town. He provided me with some hot chocolate with a hint of schnapps and we sat down to chat in front of the roaring fire.
Bruce McEwen was born on January 9, 1952 (“the same birthday as Richard Nixon”) in a town called Panguitch, in the canyon lands of southern Utah. His parents were Eugene McEwen and Betty Dickinson and he was the middle one of three boys. “My father’s side had come over from Ireland via Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. They had been converted to Mormonism and the church paid for the trip. They joined the Mormon trek across country and settled in Utah. My mother’s family were from northern England and they too settled in Utah but this was later, around 1900 or so.”
Bruce’s father had been a Sherman tank commander in World War II and had fought in the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded, severely damaging his left foot. In 1954, when Bruce was just two years old, he was sitting in his truck at some railway racks waiting for a freight train to pass when, it is thought, this crippled left foot slipped off the clutch and the truck lurched forward and was hit by the train. He was killed instantly. From that time forward Bruce’s mother slipped into a depression and his memory of her is of a woman with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders sitting in front of the fire for hours on end, occasionally “swearing like a sailor.”
Apart from occasional visits, Bruce lost touch with the McEwen side of the family at that time and was mostly raised among the Dickensons by his Grandmother who had ten children. “We lived in a place called ‘Fairview.’ The Mormons called every place ‘Fairview’ it seemed to me. It’s just seven miles from the famed Bryce Canyon National Park, where my younger brother, Steven, currently works. My Grandfather Dickinson had been an extra in a movies about a sheepdog called ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ and the star of the film, the dog, had some offspring, one of which my grandfather got for me. That was Boots, my first dog and I’ll never forget him. We went through toilet training together. However, I just got scolded when I messed up; I never had my nose rubbed in it like poor Boots, thankfully!”
Everyone in the town was Mormon and the religion was taught at his elementary and high school every day, playing a big part in Bruce’s upbringing. “Everyone in our family would congregate at my Grandmother’s house. I just loved being outside romping in the canyons and would frequently miss school and spend all day out there with just a biscuit and an onion to eat. At one point I was tied to the clothesline in the yard to stop me from running away. My mother wasn’t really able to raise me at all. Then she married a mean, horrendous drunk when I was about ten. We did not like each other. As I mentioned, I missed a lot of school although I did quite like it when I was there. It was just that I preferred being outside. I was a quiet kid, an average student with Bs and Cs but I was a good reader and liked English, where my aunt was the teacher and greatly encouraged me. I remember hearing several teachers say to my parents that ‘Bruce can do it, he just won’t.’ I skipped church often too so I was in trouble with the teachers and the bishop but never with the law, I can say. My stepfather and I had a few fistfights on the front lawn and at 14 I left home to live with my Aunt and Uncle in San Diego.”
The Mormon religion continued to play a part in Bruce’s life as he attended a Mormon Seminary every day before regular school. However, his lifestyle had changed as he hung out with a friend from a very wealthy family who had horses and the two of them would ride out on hunting trips (mainly shooting rabbits) and playing at being cowboys. “For the first time in my life I was exposed to sailing, abalone diving, surfers, and hippies. I was in the Boy Scouts which had a link to the Mormon Church. My Uncle was the scoutmaster’s assistant. We lived in a trailer park near to the beach and my uncle was a civil servant at nearby Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Two of my uncles and one of my aunts had been in the Marines in the War and I started to think about that as a career.”
After two years however, Bruce’s mother wanted to try to be a family again and so he returned to Utah in 1968. “After San Diego that was hard and life at home in the house with the ‘old man,’ as we called him, was very tough. I loved southern Utah in many ways but I knew I’d leave as soon as I could. I did my final year at high school and with my cousin Joe already in Vietnam I decided to follow his lead and went to Camp Pendleton to join the Marines. Like many other 17-year olds at the time I was gung ho about the war. I was going to go to war and come back with medals and decorations. I had also seen a film about a soldier in World War II who had written a book about his experiences in war and thought maybe I would do that. That was my contingency plan. It would make for a great story I thought.”
While in camp Bruce met and married Nancy Steinberg from upstate New York and in 1970 he was flown to Okinawa on the way to Vietnam. Upon landing he and another soldier were taken off the plane. “It was at a time when a lot of noise was being made about the young age of some soldiers and we were both just 17. Most of the rest of them were probably older, and they were nearly all black. We never were told the reasoning and I imagine quite a few of them are now on the Wall.” (The Vietnam Memorial).
Bruce spent the next 13 months on Okinawa shipping wreckage out to sea, “We would get all the damaged trucks and equipment delivered to the port, put it on barges, and it would be dumped in the South China Sea. Most of the trucks had the Army’s white star insignia on the side — a great target it seemed. The marines had unmarked trucks — a very smart move. I also pulled duty as a ‘chaser’ in that time, wearing an armband and carrying a nightstick and escorting soldiers to court-martials. One kid, the smallest Marine in the company, was accused of killing a sergeant major with a knife. I was in court with him every day — my first experience at a court — and I envied the journalists who were there, in their khaki trousers and white shirts and talking about which bar they would drink in that evening. ‘That’s the life for me,’ I thought. Anyway, nobody could possibly think this little kid could have killed this huge baboon of a sergeant major and he was acquitted. His name is not on the Wall so I guess he made it.”
Bruce returned to Camp Pendleton in October 1971 and for the first time saw his daughter, Sherry McEwen, who had been born in May 1971 when he was stationed in Okinawa. They found an apartment and for a very short time all was well. “I had relatives all around me there, apart from my immediate family. I had bought a VW Super Beetle before leaving for the war and had driven it once. On my return I discovered that my wife and some guy had driven all over the country in it and had had an affair. I was no prince either and had visited whorehouses overseas but following my return at some point she had traded my car for a Chevy Vega, the worst car ever made, and this bugged me so much that I couldn’t get over it and I divorced her, not because of the affair but because she got rid of my car!” However, this was not before she got pregnant again and they had another daughter, Johanna McEwen, born in 1972. “I have stayed in touch by phone and through letters but I was always behind in child support due to my iffy attitude to work. I do have a good relationship with my daughters but I’ve never been any kind of a model father.” (Bruce is a grandfather now — daughter Sherry is in Montana with three boys, while Johanna is in South Dakota with a boy and a girl).
Bruce was now out of the Marines and he returned to Utah to find that the hippies had moved in to the region. “My cousin Joe was also back from Vietnam and he had been made Sheriff deputy and we went to check out the hippy encampment together. We walked up to some of them all stern and asked if they had any dope on them. They said no and my cousin replied, ‘Well I do’ and we sat down with them and not long after we had moved in on the camp. For a time we lived like Indians out there in the desert, shooting rabbits and deer, doing lots of fishing, and poaching, but the rednecks took exception to our activities and we were forced to move on. Our ‘tribe’ of about 30 people moved on to Colorado, then settled in the Flathead Valley of Montana.”
Bruce found work as a maintenance man at a Youth Camp while his girlfriend at the time was a waitress. “It was a stunningly beautiful place, just overrun with wildlife. We were close to the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness area — two of the biggest wilderness regions in the country. I explored all over that area on horseback. I guess one of the only decent things the ‘Old Man’ did was to get me a horse. I should thank him for that. It was the happiest day of my life when I got on that horse and I have loved them ever since. I held various wrangling jobs on ranches and generally had a wonderful time for a few years, living in a cabin and having a boat on the lake.”
By the late seventies, the Flathead Valley had been ‘discovered.’ “The rich found it and soon fantastic houses and palaces appeared. Once again, and not for the last time either, the rich had followed the hippies and changed everything for the worse. It became very expensive with the likes of Tom Selleck moving in; Jim Nabors too. I bought his fridge for $50 in fact. Yes, I owned Gomer Pyle’s fridge and being an ex-Marine it meant a lot to me!”
In 1978 Bruce decided he wanted to go to college and took some classes at Flathead Valley Community College before going to the University of Montana in Missoula in 1980. “My major was anthropology with a minor in journalism, which I grew to prefer. However, I didn’t study well and was only a part-time student by my second year. I preferred to pursue my own interests and not those required by the course and ultimately failed to graduate.”
In 1982, Bruce moved to southern California and found a job working for ‘Ranch and Coast’ magazine — “a slick regional for the affluent, about horses, sailing, and the things rich people do. I covered various related events such as the America’s Cup, etc. I lived in Encinitas in north San Diego County, and both of my daughters were nearby so that worked out well. For one issue they needed a young girl for some story so I put forward Sherry and she appeared on the front cover. Johanna never forgave me for that. Then the publisher had a nervous breakdown and was bought out with the result that the new ownership fired everyone and the very next issue came out with a different focus and with sexy sitcom actress Loni Anderson on the cover! I wrote to the new people about my displeasure about what had taken place and they gave me my job back but it only lasted one more year before we were all laid off again.”
In 1983, the original editor of ‘Ranch and Coast’ called and offered Bruce a job with ‘Guns’ magazine, which he gratefully accepted. “I like guns well enough but my co-workers and the readership were very redneck. Besides I didn’t really get to write much, spending my time editing and reviewing this semi-technical stuff. It was a fairly boring and dull magazine to me so I quit after a few months and returned to Montana. I worked briefly for the ‘Missoula Muse’ newspaper and then in 1984 I started my own magazine with a business partner, Lynette WallerL ‘The Flathead Valley Leisure Review.’ This was a weekly arts and leisure tabloid covering the region’s skiing, hiking, fishing, and hunting activities. I employed a stable of writers from the community college and we’d also cover openings at galleries, playhouses, restaurant reviews, movie reviews, and I did the book reviews myself.”
“I had been dating a girl for some time, Becky, and we almost got married but we had a big falling out and it never happened. Then I met up with Lynette, a sweetheart from college, and after we got the paper going we started to date. However the paper struggled and I worked on a horse ranch for a rich guy to supplement our earnings. In 1986, after two years, Lynette and I split up and the paper failed when we couldn’t sell enough ads and then we lost a court battle over a copyright issue regarding some photographs.”
Bruce found a series of jobs in construction which he did not enjoy and then returned to San Diego and spent some time with his kids. There was little work so he headed north, passing through Anderson Valley at some point, although it did not really register with him on his way back to Montana once again. “I was kinda lost and did lots of shitty jobs before making my way back to southern Utah and getting a job for a couple of years as City Editor at ‘The Color County Spectrum’, the daily newspaper in St. George. They tolerated me there. They didn’t like my politics and the final straw came when I bumped the Tiananmen Square story off the front page and replaced it with the news of Edward Abbey’s death — the environmentalist and a hero of mine. I was told they would fire me but I didn’t care. I wrote the piece, put it on the front page of this right-wing nutball newspaper — and they canned my ass.”
For a time Bruce worked on and off in a pasta restaurant for a friend as a waiter and prep cook and then in 1990 he opened his own Montana Pasta House in Hot Springs. “Once again it was something that lasted about two years. I was sleeping with one of the waitresses and she was sleeping with other people too. We fell out and she sued for half of the restaurant. She had already driven most of the customers away so I just told her she could have it all and in 1992 I returned to Utah to live in a place called Torrey, near to the Capitol Reef National Park. There I started to work both at a restaurant and in construction for a few years and at one point began to date a woman called Erica Larsen. Eventually we married in 1999 but it only lasted a year. In the years between 1992 and 2000 I continued to spend time in Utah, Montana and California doing a variety of odd jobs; my writing had been on hold for many years. At one point in the nineties I was involved in a car accident and broke my back. I couldn’t work and spent the year in a veterans home.”
In 2000, Bruce and Erica were divorced and he moved to Saratoga, Wyoming where are more hot springs and a tourist scene. He found work on a ranch and lived in a trailer on the North Platte River where he did a lot of fishing. “I spent most of my time with a special friend, Bobba Louis, the best dog I ever had, who I had got as a pup in 1995. She was always with me; a very, very intelligent cattle dog and people in that business offered me lots of money for her but I’d never sell her. A beautiful dog and we were very close. I spent seven years there until, in 2007, with Bobba Louis crippled up to some degree by that time, we came in from the ranch work to live in Cheyenne where I found work as a paint stripper removing lead paint of the buildings at an Air Force base. I had an apartment in town but with Bobba Louis getting worse and worse I did the right thing and put her down. I was very sad indeed. She had been my best friend for twelve years. I had nothing; my life was empty.”
About 20 years earlier, Bruce had become aware of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, having seen it in places as far away as Albuquerque, Denver, and Salt Lake City. “I had often thought I’d like to work with those guys. It’s a unique newspaper and thought that the people working there must be really sharp and it became a bit of a daydream to write for it. Following Bobba Louis’ passing, I was not only sad but in a very foul mood and strange state of mind. I grabbed my guitar and a suitcase of my things and started to walk out of town, with a plan to go to Anderson Valley and get a job at the paper. I knew I was never going to fit the mold in Utah. I had not got far when a cop arrested me for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. I was put in jail overnight and then let out on bail, so I left town. I stopped to see my niece and nephews in western Utah and ended up staying for a year. It was a good time in my life, training horses and hanging out with family.”
In the summer of 2008, Bruce headed off once again. He made his way by “hitchhiking with the homeless” to Redway, California where he found a job as a dishwasher and prep cook at a restaurant in nearby Garberville. “I lived in a tent — there are lots of homeless in Redway. I got beat up one day and so I picked up my notebook and satchel and hitchhiked out of town on Christmas Day 2008. I ended up first in Ukiah then in the Hospitality House in Fort Bragg. I called Bruce Anderson from there and he suggested I went to the courthouse and report what was going on. I did and sent in a column to him which he printed it and it was a success. I did this for several months before I met him. I finally moved to Anderson Valley in the summer of 2009 and moved into the garage on the land which Bruce and Mark Scaramella lease in Boonville. I now go to the Ukiah courthouse five days a week on the MTA bus — the most wonderful of commutes, I must say. I love my work and living in this beautiful place. The scenery and low-key nature of this place is very appealing to me. In those ways it is like many of the places I have lived but with a different and far more laid back and liberal attitude. However, I have always liked to go to a bar to meet people and I do miss The Lodge since it closed. Now my social life is lunch at the Forest Club bar in Ukiah near the courthouse.”
With Bruce only being here for eight months or so, we did not go into any details about the Valley issues I usually bring up with my guests. However, we did touch very briefly on a couple of them.
The wineries? “I like wine.”
The AVA? “The greatest newspaper in the world.”
KZYX radio? “It’s the only station I can get but I do like the programs on Saturday mornings.”
Law and Order in the Valley? “I know Deputy Craig Walker and we are fast friends.”
Marijuana? “If it wasn’t around here for me to report on, along with the incidents that are connected to it, then I wouldn’t have a job.”
I posed a few questions from a questionnaire from TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” plus some I came up with myself.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Playing my guitar and writing songs.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Being trapped in a conversation with a bore on a bus, or anywhere for that matter.”
Sound or noise you love? “A good cracking thunderstorm.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Lawn mowers and weed-eaters. Let the stuff grow. It’s beautiful if you leave it alone; only cute if you mow it.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Brown rice with a bottle of Mosel (German wine).”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? “Alexander Cockburn, political journalist and AVA contributor. I’ve always admired his work. He is the epitome of good journalism.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My guitar, some reading material, and a case of wine.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “I have to say ‘Brownsville Girl’ by Bob Dylan; the book ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry; and the movie ‘High Noon’ starring Gary Cooper.”
Favorite word or phrase? “I like to say ‘Keep the Faith’.”
Least favorite word or phrase? “Oh, all the usual ones — ‘Have a nice day,’ etc. And of course ‘last call’ is never nice to hear.”
Favorite hobby? Hiking. It used to be horseback riding but since my accident I rarely do it.”
Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “When the rich are finally brought to justice and are to be punished, I would like to be the guy who releases the blade on the guillotine and to add some smart-ass remark as I let it fall.”
Profession you’d not like to do or are glad never to have done? “Burning the shit in the toilets when I was in the Marines.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “As I mentioned — the day I rode that first wild horse.”
Saddest? “The day I put Bobba Louis down.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I have a good sense of humor and that I believe that I can write quite well. I am very proud of that.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, as Bobba Louis lasted longer than any of my wives or jobs, it would be good if he said, ‘Dude, is this your dog?’ Of course it will be Bobba Louis sitting there, wagging her tail, and heaven to me will be if we walk off together on a trail through the celestial ash.”
To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the Valley guest interviewee will be James ‘Jim’ Gowan of Gowan Orchards. Also next week, I’ll have the second in a series of interviews with the Candidates for Fifth District Supervisor: Dan Hamburg.