Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue: Part 21

Part 21

There is a frontiersman of sorts by the name of Wayne Baker who actually lives not far from where we are now, speeding towards Laramie. He’s one of the “Greatest Generation,” we’re told. In fact he’s happy to tell you that in so many words in a 275-page, self-published paperback book with so many color photos (160) that it probably cost him forty bucks to print each one. Above the Clouds: The Story of an American Entrepreneur is a first-person account of a guy who flew bombing missions over Germany during World War II, got wealthy scrapping metal out of abandoned mines and bush piloted for decades, ferrying his customers and large family back and forth over the prairies and mountains of the expansive West. In his current home in Star Valley, Wyoming he has built eleven bridges alone across the Salt River, usually, he explains, with just himself and an unnamed assistant.

But of late, Baker is most famous for founding Freedom Arms and the 454 Casull revolver, considered for many years the most powerful handgun in the world. The gun is indeed a work of art with an optional ivory micarta grip and specialty, limited editions with medallions and engraved octagonal barrels. The guns come in a walnut case along with a Freedom Arms gold-and-silver plated belt buckle. Baker’s jingoistic concept of freedom which permeates his self-talk, stems from a unique blend of American individualism, Western defiance and fringe Mormon ideology that animates much of the tea party movement in the intermountain West. Reading through his book, or watching him at age eighty-four hold court which I had to endure one afternoon in 2008 as a co-guest in the house of my just-older sister, one is struck with Baker’s self-serving notion of freedom. The word seems defined by him as doing whatever the hell he wants. “Freedom” is little more than a buzz word to justify his calcified way of life…and to sell guns in the process.

Despite this self-promotion, it is hard not to take pleasure in following the adventures of Wayne Baker set out in his autobiographical narrative with about as much self-reflection as a hero in a Louis L’Amour novel. There is the hardscrabble “Great American Childhood” (title of Chapter 2) growing up in wind-swept Wyoming with a father who lost everything in the Depression. There is his time in the military during World War II over Munich when he and his team accidently dropped a bomb prematurely and ended up, by chance, destroying a hidden Nazi munitions center. This propelled them into hero-dom. His time in the military is obviously the apex of his admittedly raucous adventures because it is the opening salvo in his book which sports his baby-faced, uniformed portrait on the cover backed by an American flag. Yes, freedom all around.

This is a man who at about 5” 6” is sent back from the war on the GI Bill, marries a softball-playing beauty of Swiss descent and swaggers about the West facing down Union “thugs” in his coal mining business, mavericking around the dry, nascent airfields of the Mountain West, routinely landing on highways, heroically fixing stuck landing gear mid-flight in his Cessna 210 and generally making friends with other Freedom-loving Americans like Slim Pickins, Roy Rogers and Art Linkletter, the latter of whom has a cameo in the book, and blurbs it on the back cover as the story of “one of the most exciting adventures in my personal life.”

And so it came to pass that shortly after the 2008 presidential election which ended the nightmare of the conjoined Cowboy Bush/Cheney, that C. and I were invited down to my sister Karolla’s place two days after Christmas. We didn’t know that Thom, her husband, had a cousin, Wayne, who with his wife Mariam would be trailing in after us, to join us for a post-holiday lunch. But there they were, blowing in sideways from Tin Cup, Wyoming, Wayne rather pumped up with the “publication” of his autobiography, the latest catalogue of guns from Freedom Arms, and a huge chip on his shoulder that had to do with our nation’s first black president.

There we were, sitting in Spanish Fork, Utah, knee-to-knee with Wayne and the second sentence out of his mouth to two people he’d never before met (us) was something about the collapse of all things decent in our Country what with that “nigger President in the White House.” This was shocking, unprovoked, or so I thought at the time, and I had a visceral reaction to the “N” word.

“Hey there! Whoa! You can’t use that word!” I declaimed. But Wayne—one must hand it to the little squirt—was a worthy opponent that day to my objections. He said “Nigger President” again while his wife, in desperate need of a little make up, nodded in firm-lipped agreement. C. grabbed my knee. “You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “You can’t say that to me.” Then I rose and walked to the kitchen where my sister’s mouth remained open in equal surprise.

My heart was pounding. Where did this hostility come from? On election night I had watched on television in abject wonder and relief when Barack and Michelle walked out on the platform in Lincoln Park, Chicago for his acceptance speech, Oprah herself on the front row of the masses, looking up, beaming, and I thought to myself, “Oh my God. Someone’s going to shoot him.” That was the real America—black or bi-racial men with sudden power—perceived or real—get lynched—shot through the heart. How soon I’d forgotten, believing that now that Obama was ensconced in the White House, my fellow Americans from sea-to-shining-sea, would, if not breathe a sigh of relief, would perhaps grumble, yes, but they would accept it, and the great ship that is America would go steaming forward through the night, righted. Secured. Onward! I was very, very wrong.

Wayne finally quieted down, his Freedom Arms belt buckle tucked under his belly like a pie tin. For the sake of my sister and her husband and everyone else in the room—not to mention the memory of C.’s firm grip to my knee—I conversationally moved on. The only way out of this was through it, I realized. That was when Wayne handed me a copy of his book which I pretended to look at, and he continued promoting himself with his secret weapon—Mariam, the smiling softball player-turned-Wyoming-wife to a megalomaniac—nodding obliquely and in agreement with everything her husband said. I learned in that painful moment waiting for lunch to be served that he was a self-taught mining and bridge engineer. That he was a pilot, flying by the seat of his pants. That he was still pissed off with the home of the brave “sticking its nose into another country’s business” (e.g., Apartheid South Africa) and that he purposefully moved his business out of Idaho where he lived for much of his adult life and across the border into Freedom, Wyoming because of “the socialist, if not communistic” climate of the potato state, represented in the U.S. Senate by Frank Church. Egad. Was this guy for real?

Baker was real, in the flesh, sitting across from me all aglow in the backwash of the Greatest Generation, and C. and I were stuck, Derek fortunately lost downstairs with my nephew Chris and playing the guitar. Later, I remembered that Baker’s relocation hissy fit from Idaho to Wyoming was the way many of our mutual ancestors handled things when they felt that their “freedom” was being impinged on. Brother Baker’s and my own polygamous grandparents commonly “Lied for the Lord” by disavowing the practice of celestial marriage–a.k.a. polygamy–especially to the Feds. One way to keep ahead of the enemy was to run across state lines. Freedom, Wyoming was one of those polygamous settlements established in the 18th Century to keep law enforcement scrambling. When agents showed up in Freedom, Idaho our persecuted ancestors walked across the street to Freedom, Wyoming—and vice versa. This little maneuver lived on, apparently, for Baker and his Freedom Arms. The fact that Wyoming is considered by the State Business Tax Climate Index as “the most business-friendly tax system of any state,” with plenty of corporate welfare, was probably also a lure for our entrepreneurial Wayne Baker.

After the blessing on the food we lunched together. Baker now seemed a bit chastened by his earlier bombastic behavior. I actually found myself listening to him, with a kind of perverse curiosity if not sympathy. But ego of this kind seems to know no bounds, and as soon as the table was cleared he was presenting me with the latest catalogue of his…guns. Everyone knows that after Obama’s election to the Presidency, firearm sales and concealed weapons permits exploded throughout the country (no pun intended). It seems that Obama is the anti-2nd Amendment President, even though more restrictive gun laws were never high on his platform.

Let’s see. We have a newly-elected African-American president. Gun sales are booming. And Wayne Baker, founder of a company that created and markets a finely-turned handgun more powerful than the 44 Magnum, has just referred to Obama as a “Nigger President.” Oh, and now this pipsqueak is hawking his guns to anyone who will listen.

Oh my.

C., Derek and I leave. We kiss my sister goodbye. We civilly nod at Wayne and his Secret Weapon. I am carrying his glossy catalogue of guns along with a few late-delivered Christmas gifts from the family. Out we go and into the driveway. It’s bad enough, I suppose, that the car we are driving, and which now sits side-by-side with Baker’s gas guzzler is a hybrid, but it also sports, I’m reminded…an Obama/Biden bumper sticker.

I had forgotten about that. It seems that Mr. Baker in his shit-kickers and with his wife had rolled up, turned off their eight cylinders, only to be stared down by evidence of Dave and C.’s political proclivities.

On the way home, I am pissing and moaning which may surprise you, dear reader. Finally, C., her Yankee practicality finally emerging, says impatiently, “You want to get even with a jerk like that? You hit him in his wallet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Make sure his gun sales suffer.”

“Yeah, but he’s retired. He’s not the CEO or president anymore. That doesn’t seem fair.” Yet again, piss-and-vinegar Dave, stung by his powerlessness has gone to his wife to get her to fix it. No. Not just fix it, but make a decision about what to do so that I don’t have to take responsibility for it if it goes south.

“Fair?” she says with some mockery. Already my feelings are starting to get hurt. This is a game with which we are infinitely familiar. Her late father’s sensibility roars forth. Frank Daley, the man who always said, follow the money trail if you want to make things happen.

“Write his son,” she says. “Tell him what happened today with his father. Tell him you’re a writer. Tell him you’ll go to the press.”

Hmmm. This gets me thinking all the way back to Salt Lake, limping along in our Obama-imprinted Hybrid, the liberal media of NPR playing as background. The glory days of Obama’s win of the White House ends here. The enemy of our hope is the face of Wayne Baker, the cowboy constitutionalist of Star Valley, Wyoming.

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