Friday, June 30, 2000

tombstone's obsession

Vacations are a special event for a family. Done properly, they can create memories for the entire family to share with one another for years to come. Done poorly, they can create memories the family will be sharing with a therapist.

Planning a vacation therefore is an important process. Among the considerations are where to go, how to get there, and whether there is anyone you can stay with to avoid the cost of a hotel. Natasha, Evangeline and I just a week ago returned from our first major vacation as a family. Our answers to those questions, in order, were Arizona, flying and Natasha's mother.

Now many people think of Arizona as a desert state with a lot of sand and a lot of cacti. While that has some truth to it, Arizona also is home to the only pothole in the Union -- The Grand Canyon -- bigger than the one at the corner of Sandford Street and Commercial Avenue in New Brunswick, N.J.

The Grand Canyon is a truly inspiring site, carved through solid rock so we are told over millennia by the Colorado River, which in turn has the most dangerous and exciting rapids to go rafting on.

The colors at the Grand Canyon at sunset defy description. It is as though God creates a new master painting each evening, and when he calls the stars forth one by one, you are humbled to see how amazingly small and finite you really are.

I would go on, but I've never been to the Grand Canyon. Instead, we visited another site Arizona is famous for, the OK Corral. (Not to be confused with that famous church hymn, "The OK Chorale.")

The gunfight at the OK Corral probably is history's best-known and best-loved shoot-out. It's got all the elements of a crowd-pleaser. It's got guns. It's got bullets. It's got dead bodies piled up sky-high. It's got the law fighting the bad guys, and winning. Best of all, it's (relatively) true.

So it's no surprise that the gunfight has appeared in movies like the 1993 film "Tombstone" and the imaginatively named 1957 film "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," and in episodes of "Star Trek," "Dr. Who" and "Mr. Peabody."

If you believe Hollywood's rendition of Wyatt Earp, the late federal marshal was a hero who fought the cowboy gang and ended the reign of the lawless wealth-makes-right in the Old West.

This is a lie. That was not accomplished until 1985 in Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider."

Wyatt Earp actually was little different from the Clantons and McLaurys, whom he, his brothers and Doc Holliday, fought at the OK Corral. The chief difference was that the Earps and Doc Holliday had badges. Otherwise, they pretty much were the same kind of thugs as the Clantons, except that Doc Holliday may have been even meaner.

Of course, it's hardly surprising that Hollywood would treat Wyatt Earp less than accurately. After all, "Tombstone" showed Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday firing a 12-gauge shotgun no fewer than three times without reloading, a task only slightly more believable than Gene Kelly getting 30 shots from a six-shooter, Roy Rogers shooting the guns from the desperadoes' hands, or a certain other cowboy actor being elected president.

Ironically, nearly every movie about the OK Corral was filmed, not at Tombstone, but more than an hour away in Old Tucson Studios. Still, Tombstone draws enough tourists that the city government has made it illegal to ask, "What would you like on your Tombstone?" when you are standing in the frozen pizza aisle.

Tombstone has other history outside the Earps, including a haunted mine and two fires that nearly destroyed the town, but everything seems to run back to Wyatt Earp in the end. The ghost story is tied to the basement of Big Nose Kate's Saloon, where "The Legend of the Swamper" is the subject of a free pamphlet. A 17-page booklet about Wyatt Earp (there he is again) and Doc Holliday costs $5.

One clothing store boasts it used to be the saloon where Wyatt Earp (there he is again) ran a gambling table for playing faro. Other places are identified as the office Doc Holliday used while he still practiced medicine, the room where Big Nose Kate lived (the prostitute who also was Doc Holliday's girlfriend), where the Clanton brothers were buried, where Morgan Earp (there's his brother) was killed, and on and on.

Over by the OK Corral is the a photo gallery of work by C.S. Fly, the photographer of the Old West who took the famous pictures we have of Geronimo, the Apache Indians, Tombstone after the fires, other parts of the Old West and Wyatt Earp. (There he is again.)

It got to the point that when I used the bathroom at Big Nose Kate's Saloon (built on the site of the Grand Hotel, where the Clantons and McLaurys stayed the night before the gunfight), I half-expected to see a sign identifying the urinal that Wyatt Earp used when he'd had too much to drink.

It gets overwhelming after a while.

Natasha, her mother, Evangeline and I were in Tombstone for less than a day, but I can't help it. I've developed an obsession with Wyatt Earp. I've told everyone I could about my trip to Tombstone and what I learned about him.

It's not enough. I have an overwhelming compulsion to run out and buy copies of "Tombstone," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "My Darling Clementine" on video and watch all three of them sequentially and concurrently. I want to buy the movie posters and decorate my living room with them.

This never would have happened if we had gone to Moose Lake, Minn., like I had suggested. The only thing Moose Lake has going for it that I know of is a gratuitous reference in a VeggieTales video.

Our Arizona vacation was supposed to help me unwind from work and keep my sanity. Instead, my mind is slipping faster and faster into an Earpocentric dementia. Instead of beginning to assemble timeless memories, I've begun to assemble psychoses to unload to a licensed therapist.

Next time we go on vacation, we're going someplace without a history, even if it means I have to carry Natasha all the way to Moose Lake myself.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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