PO Box 1032
Badger Clark - A Personal Reminiscence
by Shebby Lee
Presented at the
Badger Clark was South Dakota's first poet laureate, an honorary position he held for some twenty years. But aside from his honest Western poetry, he is probably best remembered as a lecturer. He spoke at every imaginable occasion from Kiwanis Club luncheons to campfire talks to high school graduations, mostly in his home state of South Dakota. It was on the lecture circuit that he gained lasting recognition, and the name of Badger Clark is today revered by countless South Dakotans (and former South Dakotans) who will never forget the cowboy poet or his message.
I am not one of these. I never heard him speak formally or otherwise, and I can only guess as to the impact he actually had on his time and place. My memories are on a strictly personal plane and my grasp of his position in society, if indeed he had one, is that of the child he left behind. To me, therefore, he is (and always will be) "Uncle Charlie" and his home is not the Badger Hole, so fondly remembered by numerous guests, but "Charlie's cabin".
Although children can be wonderfully astute observers of the world around them, I do not consider that I was particularly cognizant of the greatness which I now believe Charlie possessed. My memories are almost entirely impressions, and it is these that I would like to share with you today.
When I look back on it I seem to remember Charlie's death more than his life -a morbid state of affairs Charlie would have deplored. He certainly didn't dwell on the thought, though several of his poems reflect a faith that death is not an ending. Anyone who can calmly sit down and plan his impending funeral cannot have a layman's fear of death!
I expect my own morbidity stems from the fact that Charlie's death was his last appearance in my life. I had just reached an impressionable age before which many memories would now fade, so the funeral and his death took on a disproportionate place in my memory.
I was ten when my uncle Charlie died. I had known that he was famous. His books occupied a place of honor in our home library and whenever a poem was published in a magazine that we subscribed to, our copy was prominently displayed on the living room coffee table.
When we visited Charlie's cabin he didn't seem to act important "or famous. True, he was unique. In my ten-year- old world I didn't know anyone else who wore whipcord riding breeches tucked into tall leather boots every day, and not just when he went riding. He lived in a cabin in the woods which was full of books and the tangy aroma 0f tobacco smoke. He cooked only two meals a day, ostensibly to conserve his meager resources but, truth to tell, Charlie hated to cook, and besides, washing anything -dishes, clothing or parts of the body -was a major operation involving the hauling I of water no little distance, then heating it on his wood-burning cook stove.
The kids in the family adored Charlie and were just slightly in awe of him, but being kids we rarely lasted very long in the exclusive world of adult conversation.
We always ended up down by the creek, or crawling under the cabin to check out the latest additions to the feline population.
We always took a walk up to Charlie's grave on the mountainside behind the cabin. It never occurred to us that the concept of visiting a yet-to-be-occupied gravesite might be construed as macabre. This was merely the site where Charlie wanted to be buried in that far-off distant future, and it was beautiful, so we went there.
He was a very personable man, one who, if he had lived longer, I would have felt comfortable confiding in. He had a knack for putting people at ease and I enjoyed being around him, yet I don't ever recall crawling up into his lap to cuddle.
I was a very demonstrative child but, being surrounded by Victorian restraint in our family relationships, I suppose it never occurred to me to express my affection so physically. A peck on the cheek was considered proper, even when the cheek was covered with bristly whiskers and the aroma of tobacco smoke not nearly so sweet when close to the source.
This traditional greeting and farewell was more easily borne because, despite the lack of affectionate display, I was secure in the knowledge that I was well-loved. Charlie's letters to the family display ample proof of his warmth and love, and it is easy to understand a confirmed bachelor, unfamiliar with petticoats and babies, finding it easier to express his feelings in words than in deeds.
I believe I hold the honor of shooting the last picture ever taken of Charlie in the summer of 1957. Given the simplicity of the camera and the immaturity of the photographer it is an understandably poor snapshot but nevertheless somewhat historic. I was standing in the sunshine and the subjects (my family) were on the porch of the cabin in the shadows.
It is therefore impossible to tell that Charlie was suffering through the last stages of lung cancer. He just stood there, very characteristically with his hands on his hips, quite relaxed and in his own milieu.
The funeral was probably my first inkling of just how special Charlie was. I learned later - much later, after I had grown up - that many dignitaries had attended. But my unworldly eyes saw only the numbers -masses of people whose lives had been deeply touched by a reclusive poet! There were relatives, of course, that I hadn't seen before (or since) and my mother was absolutely incensed that the undertaker had embarrassed my grandparents into purchasing a wholly inappropriate but "worthy" casket for such an important person. It was made of ornately decorated brass and lined with puckered and ruffled satin, framing the weather-beaten, lined face. No wonder Mother was mad. She said Charlie would have wanted a pine box with a leather-covered pillow for his head and she was probably right.
At that tender age the meaning of the service was lost on me and it wasn't until much later that I learned Charlie had planned the funeral himself just three weeks before his death. My brother remembers the funeral vividly. Being three years older than I he recognized the difference between mourning the loss of a friend and celebrating a life which had contributed so much to so many.
I do remember that there weren't many tears. Lunch that day in a Hot Springs cafe stands out in my memory because my Grandma and Grandpa were actually eating out, and not because of the solemn occasion.
Charlie had suffered though he hid it from everyone but my Grandpa. As his nearest relative and closest friend, Grandpa saw through the charade and tried to make his last days as comfortable as possible. We were all just glad that it was over and he wouldn't hurt anymore.
In the ensuing years it seemed natural that Charlie's cabin was still there and anybody could go visit who wanted to, just as they had when he was alive. But, of course, it wasn't the same. Exploring the walls of books and family photographs had been fun when Charlie was there to tell us about them, but held no fascination without him. The cabin looked sterile with bars on the windows, restraining ropes and plastic runners on the floor. The air was stale from the cabin being shut up so much, and the familiar aromas of wood- and tobacco smoke were gone. Worst of all was the big leather rocking chair, which had originally belonged to Charlie's father, sitting empty by the fireplace. It wasn't just empty; the enormity of its owner's absence dominated the entire room. After awhile I didn't like Charlie's cabin anymore and I stopped going.
As I grew up far from his beloved Black Hills I cherished my memories of Uncle Charlie. Eventually I returned to stay, married, had a family of my own and as my children grew I found myself needing to tell them about their Uncle Charlie and what he had meant to me.
Finally my desire to preserve the memory of this man I revered but didn't really know, led me to produce a film biography of his life for all South Dakotans, especially young ones, to enjoy. I have never in all my personal or professional life been connected with a project which brought such lasting satisfaction. From the moment the first announcement was made that the production was forthcoming people started calling me up, writing me, offering to help with money or information or personal recollections. Every screening, every broadcast on public television has been followed by still more testimonials about how Charlie had touched viewers' lives. I must have met hundreds of people across the state since the film was released who recalled that Charlie had spoken at their high school commencement.
Researching the film was an enlightening as well as rewarding experience. I learned that in the twenty years since his death Charlie had become a legend, overshadowing the reality. It was difficult to keep people from deifying him in our taped interviews and one romantic spinster insisted on attributing to him characteristics which he most assuredly lacked. For example, despite the fact that Charlie had died of lung cancer derived from a life-long habit of "rolling his own" she insisted that he never smoked! Her assertion that he was a tea-totaler came closer to the mark, though there were rumors at the time of his expulsion from Dakota Wesleyan for smoking that secret drinking may also have been involved. Added to these there was something about a goat in a dormitory room... (Methodists were not especially noted for their sense of humor at the turn of the century.)
This tendency to view Charlie's memory through rose-colored glasses could be overlooked were it not for the fact that our revisionist happened to be the author of Charlie's one and only published biography!
I like to think our film shows Charlie as a fallible human being as well as a well-loved one. Young people, at whom the film is largely aimed, have a hard time identifying with a saint. Hopefully, Charlie's youthful escapades have helped make him seem less remote to today's audiences.
Charlie was the first to point out his sinful ways and in this letter written in 1913 he displays a deep-seated humility which only increased with age. My Grandpa and his two sisters had recently returned home to Mitchell after spending one of many summers in Hot Springs with Charlie.
The letter was addressed to their mother, Charlie's sister-in-law:
Since the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries regarded him in the highest esteem, morally, intellectually and personally, it could be ventured that Charlie went too far in his protestations -may even have had an inferiority complex. Perhaps he lived the Spartan life of a hermit because he felt he deserved no better.
Ghandi himself, I have recently learned, considered himself one of God's worst sinners, denying himself all earthly pleasures, while his followers were busy elevating him to earthly sainthood.
Charlie was no saint, but he was sufficiently acquainted with the Lord's ways to be leery of any such saintly comparisons - even to the point of bending over backwards to avoid them. And human nature being what it is, the more he denied them, the more the public took them to be true.
It is my belief that the reason Badger Clark was so beloved during his lifetime and so fondly remembered now is not because of what he did but because of who he was. The origins of his personality traits can be largely traced to his early years. Humor was a staple in the Clark family and certainly didn't originate with Charlie. Intelligent conversation and clever repartee were also familiar pastimes and one family story illustrates both: young Charlie, being younger than his two brothers by ten and fifteen years, nevertheless had a thing or two to contribute to any family discussion. But by doing so he opened himself up, for a generous portion of teasing. His attempts to join in were inevitably preceded by the warning: "Listen to the voice of the wind, for the man with the big ears speaks." Fortunately Charlie's sense of humor had developed early and he was able not only to take whatever verbal abuse his brothers dished out, but pay them back in kind.
During World War I Charlie went on record as being strongly opposed to the conflict, a sincere but highly unpopular position at that time. It is tempting to attribute this pacifism to his mother who was a Quaker, but Charlie's father, loyal veteran that he was, must also be given credit. Whether he knew it or not, C.B.'s horror stories of the Civil War convinced Charlie of the futility of armed conflict and his father's own personal courage in standing up for what he believed in led Charlie to follow suit..
The most famous example of this, of course, is the funeral of Calamity Jane, which no righteous man of the cloth would undertake until Charlie's dad agreed to do it. The city fathers asked C.B. to say a few words at city hall, but the reverend held the services in his own church over the protestations of his parishioners, and followed the crowd of "good ole boys" to the Deadwood cemetery to have his likeness recorded for posterity. No, there was no lack of courage in the Clark family.
I have studied early pictures of Charlie in an effort to gain a better understanding of the older man I knew. And I have conducted countless interviews and discussions with people who "knew him when".
One can pick up threads of the younger man in the actions of the older one. For example, Charlie's love of nature and wildlife originated in childhood but grew stronger as he aged. A hand-colored photograph over the mantle in the Badger Hole shows a clean-shaven Charlie crouching near the ground and holding a pistol. Cropped out of the picture is the coyote lying at this feet that he had just shot. He was not proud of the fact that he had once hunted the creatures of the dessert and forest.
More prominently displayed in the cabin is the picture of his pet deer, a likeness he once sent out on a Christmas card inscribed, "Seasons Greetings from Mrs. Bigears, Miss Bigears, the old Badger and the other animals on Galena Creek."3
There are at least two early photographs showing Charlie strumming a guitar and I have heard countless contemporaries site his beautiful singing voice and love of music. Yet one of my most vivid memories -vivid because it was So painful - was Charlie's rebuff when I once asked him to play his guitar for me.
Then, as now, his guitar sat on a chair in the Corner of the cabin just to the left as you entered the sitting room. I had seen it, of course, every time I visited but Charlie had never offered to play for us.
This time when I shyly requested a tune, he said, "Why darlin', I only pick up that old guitar in the dead of winter, when there is a foot of snow on the ground and all the doors and windows are shut up tight." He chuckled to soften the refusal, but I was crushed and soon found an excuse to escape. I t was the only time he ever said "no" to me, and this fact , perhaps more than his refusal to sing, made the event stand out in my memory.
As a well-read and well-traveled individual, Charlie was perfectly aware of what was going on "out there" and yet somehow retained his perspective. There is no doubt that this man had both feet planted firmly on Mother Earth. Not even a "stage mother" of sorts, in the form of his ambitious stepmother, was able to turn his head. He knew what was right and good instinctively, and we are all the richer because he said so, repeatedly.
His work was never universally known or loved. I find that aficionados were either personal friends of the poet, or a very special breed of person who recognized a life or style in his words that rang true. Charlie never promoted himself or his work so we will never know just how popular he might have become. He preferred living life to writing about it, and this is probably why in the 51 years of his writing career he actually produced so little.
I'm told that the first heady winds of success, when he was being published nearly every month in nationally distributed magazines, tempted him to set his course for fame and riches. But after meeting some so-called successful writers, most notably Harold Bell Wright, he concluded that the peace and quiet he would necessarily forfeit for such a lifestyle were far too important to him to give up.4 He never regretted his youthful decision and thereafter conducted his life precisely as he wished. In those rare years when his lecture bookings threatened to put him over the minimum income tax level, he simply stopped working. More often though, the occasional dinner invitation was gratefully accepted out of bodily necessity as well as the welcome social intercourse. We rarely visited Charlie without bringing along a home-cooked meal which was far too generous to consume at one sitting. Grandma fretted about Charlie's diet and he did make an occasional remark about skipping a meal or two, but I don't think he was ever in any real danger of starving to death. As a typical bachelor he neglected some aspects of daily living, but had numerous friends and neighbors who lovingly checked up on him.
Charlie's prose, I think, is often overlooked by both critics and readers, which is a shame. Some of his letters-to-the-editor were absolute masterpieces and sometimes drew astounding response from other readers. I have, however, resisted the temptation to include some of these in favor of sharing more personal ones.
You have not heard these letters before, nor seen them in print because their content is neither of great moment nor of general interest. In 1943 he wrote to my grandparents on the occasion of the birth of their youngest son - a child who put in his appearance sixteen years to the day after his nearest sibling, thus making him more a member of the next generation than his own. The similarities to Charlie's own position in his sibling group may explain the obviously warm affinity he expresses:
My parents received the following letter in response to a
Christmas gift sent to Charlie in 1953. At that time my father was a Methodist
minister and Charlie's wry comments reflect an intimate knowledge of that
The final letter was written August 24, 1957, just a month before his death and is therefore probably his last. It is immediately apparent that the miracles of modern - science were somehow ineffectual here. Charlie's lung cancer was not only incorrectly diagnosed, but dismissed as a minor ailment. His humor, although evident, is somewhat muted in this letter and lacks its usual devilment.
His last letters reflect the habits of an orderly man. Charlie knew he didn't have much time left -no matter what the doctor said -and he very methodically set about putting his house in order. A letter written earlier that year expressed his doubts as to the acceptance of a chapter he had written for a new western anthology, but added that the check was nonetheless welcome. In the same letter he suggested changing his bank account to a joint account with my grandfather, "time and life being what they are".
After the funeral his fireplace yielded the remains of countless poems and works which he evidently felt would not have made a proper legacy.
It has been speculated that perhaps his mind, too, was affected by the cancer and some great masterpiece was undoubtedly lying ashes in the grate. I don't hold to this theory myself. Charlie was his own best critic, and by his own admission didn't feel his writing was up to par those last few months. If he destroyed his most recent work before leaving for the hospital it was because he wanted to be remembered for his best work, not his last. We must defer to his judgment on this matter.
In recent years, when I have become more active in preserving the memory and works of Badger Clark, I have been asked repeatedly what I remember best about my late uncle and I have yet to come up with a respectable answer.
I tell an interviewer, "He was tall. He was handsome. He had a rich speaking voice." But I haven't been able to pin down my own feelings about the man in a succinct sentence or two. I have heard others sing his praises quite lyrically. Why can't I express what Badger Clark meant to me?
I fear it has more to do with my conflicting emotions I about my own childhood than with Charlie himself. Shuttled between my parents' frequently changing home and my grandparents' more stable environment I began to look upon Charlie as a rock, dependable, always there and most important, always warmly welcoming. He lived life considerably distant from "the fast lane" and was completely at peace with himself - no regrets nor unfulfilled yearnings. For example, faced with the considerable frustration of having the authorship of his most famous poem denied him, he absolutely refused to let it upset him.
This is today what I still admire about him and in truth, wish that I myself could achieve. There is much more in Badger Clark to admire and respect than his literary gifts.
Charlie was so popular personally that admirers made what amounted to pilgrimages to the Badger Hole for a few hours of stimulating conversation not available anywhere else. He was one of the few among us who practiced what he preached: living alone in a cabin in the woods as his ancestors had with no electricity or running water or telephone. He was what we wanted to be but couldn't - or dared not - achieve.
I am proud that he was my uncle, though the blood relationship is desperately thin by the time it reaches me. I am even more proud that he was a South Dakotan, and that this maligned and misunderstood land had such an articulate spokesman. His pride in the state was legion and is eloquently expressed in this letter to Governor Leslie Jensen, written in January of 1938. He thanks the governor for naming him the state's first poet laureate, then continues:
Except where noted, all material is of the author's personal knowledge or included in family oral history.
I. Interview with Helen Morganti, November 14, 1978, in Lead, SD. Transcript and tape in possession of the author.
2. Letter dated September 14, 1913, from Charles Badger Clark to his sister-in-law, Mrs. Hal Clark. Original in the possession of the author.
3. Christmas card, undated, in possession of the author.
4. Friggens, Paul. Gold and Grass: The Black Hills Story. p. 187.
5. Letter dated 21 January, 1957, from Charles Badger Clark to his nephew, Edwin E. Clark. Original in the possession of the author.
6. Letter dated 13 January, 1938, from Badger Clark to Governor Leslie Jensen. Whereabouts of original copy unknown. Reprinted in Boots and Bylines by Badger Clark with comments by Camille E. YuiIle; Chronicle Publishing Co. , Custer, SD, 1978. p. 54.