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from The Reeducation of a Turd Peddler
by John Henry Peabody

“He Fought the Fury of the Apache Warpath
While His Back was the Target of a 100 Guns.”
— from the film Tumbleweed
starring Audie Murphy

I SETTLED INTO MY Sunday evening with the television on. I suppose people who run the world don’t settle into Sunday evenings. Well I do—not that I run the world. But I'm a family man. I like to settle in.
  Tonight my family was cheese and crackers, smoked oysters, olives, pickles, The New York Times, and coprolite grant possibilities.
  Was I missing something?
  It was perfectly early Sunday evening. Channel 13 was running an episode of “The Outer Limits” called “The Cry of Silence.” Eddie Albert, pre-“Green Acres,” starred with June Havoc and Arthur Hunnicut. I remember the episode. I googled the date: October 24, 1964. I'm sure if you went to Wikipedia you'd find there was more to it, but my internet is slow.

“There is nothing wrong with your television set.
Do not attempt to adjust the picture.
We are controlling transmission . . .”

  Determined tumbleweeds were terrorizing the local populace—not exactly the local populace but the people who were in this small, windy town, who didn’t seem capable of getting into cars and getting out of it, they were being terrorized—by tumbleweeds.
  As they called out to one another, across the street, one or the other of these folk would step off the sidewalk and a tumbleweed would blow down the way and catch on to their face. This town had no comedy.
  But you do have to give The Outer Limits the high five for eeriness (not that I give high-fives). An episode of "The Limits" was always unsettling. While “The Twlight Zone” was hip and “Night Gallery” was in color, “Outer Limits” was certifiable . . . I cracked an oyster, hit the Two Buck Chuckannay and proclaimed another Sunday evening underway.
  Once when I was eating popcorn and watching “The Outer Limits," I surmised the kernels were extraterrestrial soldiers come to take Gulliver to their planet, all tied up with sewing thread. No reaching for wine there.
  I spied another oyster: a cracker split with a cloud . . . Plonk
  Let’s be clear, I wasn’t here to forget my science. I knew that tumbleweeds don’t have a consciousness—even if it made sense on “The Outer Limits.”
  Tumbleweeds are a dried form of thistle, Russian thistle, Salsola iberica, of the many sub-species, of Eurasian extract to be sure (related to spinach; the juvenile sprigs are as edible as the young shoots called fiddleheads from forest ferns).
  They aren’t even native to the country.

Thistley Russian thistle making everything
more or less tumbleweedy.

 Tumbleweeds, which are so much a part of American Western lore and iconography, didn’t show up on the mis-en-messy-scene until 1877, and that was Wisconsin where they made their debut, on the backs of sheep from the Caucuses, native to the arid steppes of the Ural Mountains in Russia. Or they came in shipments of flax seed from the Ukraine—either way—you make it up on your own . . . the Ural Mountains might be in Ukraine, for all I know. It's Sunday, I'm tired.
  The show I was watching was made in 1964, so it was autêntico, but any Western set before 1877 with tumbleweeds was a fake.
  I quaffed. then quaffed again.
  Tumbleweeds, Russian thistle, thrived when Yankee farmers pulled out native prairie grasses in the effort to farm the Indian land of America. The Latin part of the name, Salsola, is a reference to the Latin sallere, "to salt," a nod to the plant’s salt tolerance. As tumbleweeds grow best where there are no plants, they easily followed the path of each railroad cutting West.
  Am I showing off?
  No, I’m drinking wine.
  As your average tumbleweed rolls down a desert road, or in the middle of a windy town in “The Outer Limits," the plant does what it does best: it disperses seeds, which number around 250,000 a tumbler.
  By 1900, the tumbleweed had reached the Pacific Coast to take up residency along the disappearing Camino Royal. It filled the drainage ditches of Highway 101. Yellow mustard had been tossed along by the padres as they built the mission system. Now it had a colonial pal growing along side it.

"We bulit this City
On flora and fauna . . ."

  I suppose what I am getting at is that all these tumbleweeds romantically blowing around the cinematic landscape are a bit of a fiction if a movie is set before 1877.
  I got particularly hip to this trick three Sundays before tonight. Laden with my crackers, vino, sofa and the Times, an Audie Murphy pict called “Tumbleweed” was on the tube. I watched the beginning and began to remember an enthno-botany seminar I took in grad school. I thought: bullhooky.
  The movie was about the Apache wars. The tag line: “He Fought the Fury of the Apache Warpath, While His Back Was the Target of a 100 Guns.”
  Which, like Custer, he probably deserved.

Ole Wus'er Name, the Professor from Gilligan's Island,
Audie Murphy and Chill Wills in “Tumbleweed.”
"I think I see sumpin' rolling down the road, Audie."

  In the film, it’s Murphy’s horse that is named Tumblweed, but the notion of the tumbleweed as a symbol of the “desolate” West is all over the title of the film.
  The story of the Apache wars in Arizona is fascinating and complex. I’ve drank too much wine to go into it all right here. But Geronimo, the Indian hero, who I believe never ate a smoked oyster in his life, was first captured in 1877. So if that was the year of the arrival of Russian Thistle—the tumbleweed—in Wisconsin or North Dakota, how would anyone even know about tumbleweeds at the height of the Apache wars? And who even knew when the thistley thing tumbled out to Arizona anyway?
  Oh, right—I poured the last of the $2.99 chard o' nay—some people in Hollywood in 1953 made a movie with Audie Murphy set during the Apache wars. That’s how they knew!
  I laid back, sipped the last of my yellowy goblet and stared at the stuffed Jackalope on my book shelf. . . Outside the mission bells rang and a tumbleweed blew through my living room.

More On Tumbleweeds
A Great Tumbleweed Page

Smoked Oyters

Coprolite Grant Possibilities

The Outer Limits

"The Cry of Silence"

Twilight Zone

Night Gallery

Audie Murphy

The Apache Wars & Geronimo

Two Buck Chuck at $2.99

Falling Asleep on the Couch


Copyright © 2010, The El Fornio Historical Society
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