Monday, August 17, 2015

Magnanimous and Wild: Meeting Bob Gates and Jack Loeffler

For a man who spent significant portions of his life deciding who lived and who died, Bob Gates was startlingly placid. For a retired saboteur, Jack Loeffler was almost suspiciously congenial. And David Gessner – well, I'd read enough of his work to have a bit of a notion, and the man alive bore quite a resemblance to the man on the page. In the Gospel of Nonfiction Writing according to Gessner, that's high praise.

I'd probably never met three people of such personal and widespread import in the same year, let alone the same week. But the stars aligned in northern New Mexico in early June and there I was, two days after having lunch with the former Secretary of Defense and current president of Scouting, shaking the hand of one of Edward Abbey's best friends and meeting the contemporary author whose voice has come as close as anyone's to gripping my imagination like Cactus Ed's always does.

Robert Gates
Robert Gates is regarded by many as the best Secretary of Defense in the post-WWII era. He somehow preserved his sanity while serving consecutively under Presidents Bush and Obama, this after a long tenure as director of the CIA. He saw the light after Iraq and began a transitioning of America's image from pugnacious to peace-loving. Recently, he has assumed the Boy Scouts of America's highest unpaid position and has led the stodgy old white guys on the national board to see the light of tolerance, his speech to the body this spring the catalyst to Scouting’s overdue decision to remove its membership ban on homosexual adult leaders.

In conversation, Gates presented as a man profoundly at peace with reality, hardly what one might expect from one whose life has strung out from crisis to crisis, warzone to warzone. Rather than discuss the things he'd seen in Kabul and Kandahar, he was eager to share stories of his formative experiences in the West, of youth leadership training at Philmont and fishing at summer camp in Colorado. Now, in retirement, he resides in the northwest corner of the U.S., with a house in Washington's San Juan Islands and another in remote country east of Bellingham.

“I imagine you've been a fisherman ever since?” I asked after hearing his Colorado camp story, imagining this laid back man in jeans and a ballcap living the retired angler's dream in the Pacific Northwest.

But instead of a catalog of stories, I got a brief sigh in response. “You know, I've just never really had the time.”

Here was a man unafraid to admit regret, but far from sunk by it. A man deeply in touch with himself and the world, enough to tip the scales of an inertia-clogged organization toward the future, and to do so not in rejection of its past, but rather to preserve its true heart for all, its natal ideal of teaching youth to better the world through undiscriminating service.

When I met Gates, the resolution had not yet passed. After lunch, I gave him a final handshake and said the thing I’d been saving. I thanked him personally for his work toward equality in Scouting. “It means so much to many of us here,” I told him. He held my hand in his firm grip a moment longer – a man of small stature and large vision – and looked me in the eye, sighing again. “I know,” he said. “I think we’ll get it done.”


The Gessner reading two days later was typical Santa Fe. A bookstore-coffeehouse full of baby boomers in flipflops, artisan bolo ties, and everything in between. Besides a few student types shuffling on the outskirts, our row of five twenty-somethings was the only semblance of youth at the event. After an outstanding talk by Gessner, with help from Loeffler, I pointed the age disparity out during Q & A – much to the indignation of the barnacled masses – and asked the authors what Abbey and Stegner might have said to the apathetic youth of the social media age.

Loeffler's response rang out, refreshing as a clear mountain morning.

“You have to get out there in it. Ed and I always believed, once you've really been out there in it – for an extended time – you have no choice but to defend it.”

Jack Loeffler
As the crowd trickled out, I caught Loeffler for a quick handshake and thank you. I wanted to tell him a story or two about “getting out there in it,” about how we were doing our best, under the auspices of Scouting, to give 20,000 teenagers each summer that inimitable extended immersion in wildness. But Abbey's old mate, now fully grayed in hair and beard, sporting a turquoise bolo and the requisite neckerchief-style blue bandana, seemed tired. Though his eyes still possessed great energy, the creases around them spoke a different story. The man was not here to be a celebrity. While Gessner signed and drew cartoons in books and chatted with fans, Loeffler showed no desire for the spotlight. I could tell he was ready to collect his things and slip out of the cramped bookstore, back into the adobe-lined streets and the glow of the Southwestern evening.

So I abandoned prior visions of the conversation, abandoned my muddled mystical longing to somehow imbibe a bit of Abbey's lingering soul through his longtime friend. I thanked Loeffler once more, returned his smile for a moment longer, hoping somewhere within that brief connection I had brought a shred of optimism to the old monkeywrencher, a bit of relief that there were still good, grounded young folks out there fighting for the land he loved.

And perhaps that tiny piece of Ed really was passed on to me. Perhaps the real Abbey may have resembled the shy Loeffler more than the gregarious Gessner had he been at the same event. For all of the brazen iconoclasm his persona portrayed on the page, the Ed known by people like Loeffler was pensive and withdrawn more often than not, a gentle man of open spaces.

“Abbey is, more than any writer I know, this side of Montaigne, alive on the page,” writes Gessner in All the Wild that Remains, the newly-published literary ramble on Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the current West which prompted his visit to Santa Fe. For this reader, Gessner has followed in that line, and is a more vital voice than anyone I know this side of Cactus Ed. Meeting him was several years in the making, and was just as pleasant as hoped, but it was the surprise of Loeffler which has lasted, and which has become inseparable with the surprise of Gates.

The two would seem opposing figures. Gates directed the very agency which could have investigated Loeffler. He may never have actually set eyes on Abbey's sizable FBI file, but Gates was certainly aware of the movement men like Cactus Ed and Jack had spurred. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the former agent and the former outlaw were similarly cored.

Relaxed, engaged, cordial and unassuming – they are, unsurprisingly, two men who “got out there in it.” Whatever divergent paths their lives took, there was wildness stamped on each of them. A boy from Kansas fishing and camping in Colorado, a free-thinking Northeast defector falling in love with the western expanse: they had carried “the peace of wild things,” to borrow from Wendell Berry, with them through the world. And they had channeled it to great – if disparate – ends, to achievements which drew a spotlight they neither desired nor denied.

Now, at the end of a summer which has restored some of my damaged faith in the idea of Scouting, the Sangre de Cristos lie sprawled behind me, creamy thunderheads swirling over the deep green slopes. There are stands of Doug fir, Engelmann spruce and Ponderosa pine out there where I’ve lost myself in peace. A few thousand young people are in it right now, gaining greater intimacy with a wild world which will teach them to look beyond themselves. That I have had a hand in that growth is ample fulfillment for closure. New roads await and I will meet them beginning to grasp – still striving for – Gates and Loeffler’s contentment, the contentment of magnanimity.