Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Breaking the speed laws

‘Taking full advantage of the downward slope and a lack of traffic, I push Mule along at a good clip. I figure I’ve now broken the speed laws in every state we’ve touched so far.’ This is Michael Joseph Farrell Jr. - 80 years old today - writing in a journal he kept while on a five week tour of the United States. He is best known for his role as Captain B. J. Hunnicutt in the long running American TV satire M*A*S*H. I doubt he would describe himself as a diarist, but he does keep journals when travelling, either for himself or for any organisation he’s representing at the time. Some of these are available online at the official Mike Farrell website (now archived).

Farrell, one of four children, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on 6 February 1939, but after a couple of years the family moved to Hollywood where his father worked as a film studio carpenter. He was schooled locally, and then joined the United States Marine Corps serving at Camp Hansen, Okinawa. In 1963, he married the actress Judy Hayden, and they had two children. By the late 1960s, he was regularly working as an actor, for movies and television series, gaining ever more significant parts, such as a role in the soap Days of Our Lives. His big break came in 1975, when he was recruited for the fourth season of M*A*S*H to play the new role of B. J. Hunnicutt. He remained with the programme for the rest of its eight-year run, writing a handful of episodes, and directing another four.

Farrell went on to host several National Geographic Presents programmes, and to star in TV movies, including Memorial Day (which he co-produced). Having divorced Judy, he married another actress Shirley Fabares in 1984. In 1985, he joined up with television producer Marvin Mintoff to make, mostly, TV films, but also a few feature films. Their partnership lasted 25 years, until Mintoff’s death in 2009. He was elected first vice-president of the Screen Actor’s Guild in 2002 and served for three years. He has always been an active campaigner for various causes, not least for advancing human rights and opposing the death penalty. In 2004 he received the Donald Wright Award from California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Further information is available form Wikipedia or from the official Mike Farrell website (though this is now archived and no longer being maintained).

When travelling, Farrell tends to keep a journal. His website explains: ‘Throughout the years Mike has been to many countries for organizations such as Concern America, the Committee on U.S./Central American Relations, Projects for Planetary Peace, Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, Human Rights Watch, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Christian Children’s Fund, Death Penalty Focus, and, the Center for International Policy. For each trip he has written a journal, either for personal purposes or to inform the organizations he’s travelled for, of the situation in the areas.’ Seven or eight of these journals (some are more notes or reflections than diaries) are available on the same website.

In 2007, Farrell published a first book, an autobiography Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist. In May 2008, he undertook a long (five weeks, 9,000 miles) tour across the country to publicise the autobiography, but networking with political groups and friends as he went. He travelled alone in a rental car - a Prius nicknamed Mule - and kept a detailed diary of the whole trip. This led to his second book, published the following the year by Akashic Books as Of Mule and Man. Some pages can be previewed at Amazon and Googlebooks.

Here is one extract (reduced from the six pages of printed text).

16 May 2008
‘Up early again. Have to cover a lot of distance today and there’s a telephone interview to do first, this with a woman at the Iowa Press-Citizen, in anticipation of my arrival there (weeks from now, I assume).

The next gig is in Austin, Texas, almost 800 miles away, so I won’t plan to get there tonight, but want to take a good bite out of it in order to get into the city relatively early tomorrow. I’ve not been to Austin and am looking forward to it. I keep hearing that it’s the “Berkeley of Texas,” a bastion of liberalism in an otherwise conservative state.

With thanks to Bobby and Eugenie for their gracious hospitality I head back into Santa Fe, through the narrow lanes of that lovely town, and finally to U.S. Highway 285, which runs a pretty straight shot southeast to West Texas.

It’s beautiful heading down out of the highlands under a bright blue sky pebbled with cottony white clouds. Driving up from El Paso on Tuesday, the climb from Las Cruces to Santa Fe was so gradual as to not be obvious, but a climb it was. Like El Paso, Las Cruces is less than 4,000 feet above sea level (actually higher than I had thought), while Santa Fe is nearly 7,500, so Mule had work to do - and did it without complaint. It was a “beepless” day, thank heaven, without great panicky moments.

I filled up the tank in Taos last night despite the fact that I still had two squares showing on the gas gauge and could probably have easily made the sixty-five miles back down to Santa Fe, but since it was very dark and there wasn’t a lot of civilization until we got close to Bobby and Eugenie’s, I decided not to test Mule. And again this morning the gauge says it’s still full.

As we race southward the mesas become less prominent and the land flattens out. It’s interesting to watch the outside temperature rise (the one thing I can understand on the dash screen so full of complex diagrams and information) as our altitude falls. From the time we left Los Angeles and hit the desert, the outside temperature has been in the high nineties, only dropping into the high eighties in El Paso. Once we pushed up to Santa Fe it got into the sixties and fifties, dropping one morning into the forties, so having the connection between altitude and temperature spelled out before me is interesting. Taking full advantage of the downward slope and a lack of traffic, I push Mule along at a good clip. I figure I’ve now broken the speed laws in every state we’ve touched so far. [. . . several paragraphs follow about ‘President Stupid’ - George W. Bush]

Here we are in southeastern New Mexico, zipping along under the now-less-cloudy blue sky. The flat, scrub-covered land stretches as far as one can see on each side, and when I look to the left I note the entrance to a vast, fenced piece of property with a sign over the gate that reads, Victor Perez Ranch. When I say vast, I mean that the road under the gate runs straight away from the highway and disappears over the horizon without a single structure in sight. Somewhere off in the far distance beyond the edge of the earth I envision a huge, elaborate ranch house and attendant structures looking like something out of the movie Giant.

Considering this as we roll along gets me thinking about the whole idea of owning property. As a city boy from a working-class background, I know the satisfaction that comes from owning a home and a piece of property, but thinking of Victor Perez and his rancho, or people like the characters in Giant, or so many others with huge landholdings - the kind of acreage that makes one understand the use of the word “spread” - gives me pause. It brings to mind the Native American concept of living in harmony with the land, perhaps as a visitor, or as one who is granted a kind of stewardship over it because it cannot be owned, as such; one lives in partnership with it.

Closing in on the Texas border we pass through the New Mexican town of Encino. Unlike the wealthy San Fernando Valley community of the same name, this Encino (meaning evergreen or a kind of oak tree) is a shambles. A virtual ghost town, to say it has fallen on hard times is to understate it by miles. Shuttered stores, overgrown yards, huge weeds covering the front of what was once a filling station mark some kind of tragedy in the lives of the people who once resided here - and the few who perhaps still do. Very sad to see this; shocking, in a way. And, not to make Victor Perez out to be a villain, because he’s probably a nice man who worked hard for what he has, the disparity between some lives and others in this country is writ large for me in these two sets of circumstances.

Crossing into Texas the clouds have come together and turned gray. Soon there is a steady sprinkle on us that continues down to and through the town of Pecos, Home of the World’s First Rodeo, per the signs. And as we cross the Pecos River I note that Mule and I are no longer “west of the Pecos.” [There follows a lengthy anecdote - inc. a conversation with the Mule - about nearly running out of petrol.]’

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