The Bionic Man

I spent part of Thursday afternoon with Don Malone, a 64-year-old retiree who lost the bottom portion of his right leg in a oil field accident more than 30 years ago. Malone recently received a new prosthetic foot, featuring an ankle joint controlled by a small computer mounted to the back of the leg’s calf. That computer, fed by sensors throughout the foot, tell the motor in the ankle to adjust the angle of the joint as the terrain warrants.

The foot is high-tech to say the least. The company that makes the foot, Ossur, released the model only this year after years of studies and prototypes. A technician I spoke to who consults for the company said that only about 100 have been fitted in the United States, many of them at Walter Reed for returning Iraq war veterans.

But the foot was only the starting point to get into the story of Malone’s life since 1975, when the accident occurred. Continue reading

Call for Suggestions

My editors have asked me to write a feature about online avatars that people adopt in addition to their real-world identities. I am interested in getting both psychological and Web/Internet theory perspectives, as well as talking to Montanans who have either consciously or serendipitously adopted online personae. This can be through sites like Second Life, MySpace and Facebook or through games like World of Warcraft, online Halo, Battlefield 2, Everquest, etc., or even through IRC, other chatrooms or Web forums. I’m interested in talking with hackers, pirates, gamers, security specialists, and anyone else in the state of Montana who wants to talk about online identities. If you are such a person or know of such a person, leave a comment on this post or reach me by e-mail at mbeckerATdailychronicleDOTcom.

Observation

Gardeners get up early. I was to cover a garden tool and plant sale that ran from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday morning. Being a realist, I decided to show up at 9 because these sort of things usually take a while to pick up, and believe me, if there’s no one there to talk to, it makes a reporter’s job pretty dull.

Lo and behold, I showed up at my chosen time to find 3/4 of the plants sold. The organizers told me that gardeners were lining up and snooping through the plants a half hour before the sale officially opened. They had so many early birds that they started selling early!

So out of the roughly 2,000 plants they started with, I only got to spy the paltry leftovers at 9. Crazy.

The other thing: the sale raised just about $550. Not a lot, but it’s still a big number for a group that only holds two major fundraisers a year. Sure, we’re not talking about millions of dollars here, but the $6,000 that the group gives to local charities nationally is no doubt appreciated by the beneficiaries.

That’s the heart of a small city or town, I think: the low-profile groups that mean a lot to the members and give what they can, no matter how much it is.

Memory Theaters

Downtown Bozeman boasts two movie theaters. The Ellen Theater, on the north side of Main Street, was designed by legendary architect Fred Willson. It has but one screen, edged by the kind of golden craftsmanship common to early movie houses and playhouses. It may not have a digital projection system or perfect surround sound, but seeing a movie there is an experience.

Across the street is the Rialto Theater, the lesser of the two. Like its nicer cousin, the Rialto is a downtown landmark, but one that has seen better days. No movies have been shown there since 2005, and the theater is falling apart. The ceiling drips with something that isn’t quite water. It smells of rot and faintly of sewage. What amenities haven’t been ripped out already feel unsteady, like a stiff wind or cross look might collapse them.

Yet there is another theater linked to this story, another Rialto located 120 miles west of Bozeman in Deer Lodge. That Rialto, also nearly a century old, burned down in November 2006, at the end of $300,000 in renovations. More than the theaters in Bozeman, which are owned by investors awaiting the opportunity to renovate and rezone, the loss of the Deer Lodge Rialto was a tragedy.

Speaking with the members of that theater’s nonprofit board of directors and former residents of the town, it’s clear that the Rialto was the heart of Deer Lodge. The school put on plays there, local theater groups rehearsed there, politicians debated on stage, and on the weekends, they showed cheap movies. It was a safe place for kids, board president Steve Owens told me, and losing that theater hurt a lot of people.

But when a community is that attached to something, reconstruction is inevitable, and in the six months since the fire, the board has raised $900,000. Not anywhere close to the estimated $3 million cost of rebuilding the Rialto, but a start.

That brings us back to the Rialto in Bozeman, where a dozen volunteers gathered on a cool Sunday morning to venture into the rotting Rialto. They took with them hand tools and trouble lights; they left with almost 170 theater seats that will furnish the balcony of their newly rebuilt theater, whenever it’s finished.

Will the new Rialto–in Bozeman where it will be retail and residential space or in Deer Lodge where many think it will reunite the town–be as good as the original? Or is a bit of early 1900s area history fading away forever? Will the memories created in the new places match the old memories in scope? Will a first kiss in the darkened balcony of a modern theater be the same as one in an centenarian theater?

Lost Arts

Blacksmiths don’t keep trade secrets. They can’t afford to. The craft all but died out after the Industrial Revolution. Those who survived into the twentieth century found that after World War II, Americans developed a taste for cheap, mass-produced items. There was no room for the hammer wielding masters of hot metal in post-war America.

Marcus Engler, 49, makes his living today as a blacksmith in Bozeman, operating a small forge on the east end of town. He started playing with metal as a farrier in 1981, making horseshoes and shoeing tools, but the work never interested him much, he said. It was too much of the same thing every day–not enough chances to work the creative side of his brain.

In 1997, he quit what he called a “good job” at the Forest Service and started blacksmithing full-time. He took over a shop from a friend who had recently passed away and started crafting wrought-iron railings, gates, fittings and fireplace screens. It was work that engaged him, he said, and rewarded him for his ideas, something he said all craftsmen aspire to.

A tall, skinny man, Engler looks as little like a blacksmith as possible, apart from his black hands. He runs marathons in his spare time–Boston twice, but there is less and less of that free time these days. The Gallatin Valley’s construction market is hot, and people want original, hand-crafted items in their homes, Engler said, not the kind of thing you can buy at Home Depot.

Unfortunately, he still gets people “shopping” him. They come to his shop, glance through his portfolio, and wonder if the welding shop up the street can do it cheaper. Others, he said, look through his portfolio like it was the Sears catalog, thinking they can pick and choose exactly what they want and take it home in a box. Engler, who even strives to make the rivets in his designs somehow unique, chuckles to himself.

Few people understand the process, Engler said. They don’t understand that when it comes to metal, they can have whatever they want. It’s a function of imagination, not catalog searching ability. Oh, and it certainly is not an “instant gratification” sort of trade.

How can it be, when a piece of iron or steel has to be heated to around 1,800 degrees before it can be worked with? Watching Engler work at a demonstration for the Northern Rockies Blacksmiths Association, you can see why some projects take hundreds of hours to complete.

The metal comes from the forge glowing red, dripping sparks. Steel loses 50 degrees a minute, Engler said, so after only a few hammer taps, the metal goes back into the fire. Slowly but surely, the form takes shape.

The national association of blacksmiths, ABANA, lists 5,000 members from several nations. About 20 turned up for the conference in Bozeman on Friday morning. At the two shops I visited in Bozeman, the maximum number of employees was two. Competition is not a problem. In fact, Engler said, the Bozeman smiths are constantly referring customers to the best guy for the job.

If this seems altruistic, that’s probably because it is. These are guys who practice a lost art, who have to rediscover centuries-old techniques on their own because no one is left to teach them. If they carry a little honor and pride in their work, it’s understandable.

Footprints of History

The Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed the Gallatin Valley on both their outbound and return trips in 1805-06. Concordantly, their presence has generated an almost inescapable historical aura in and around the Missouri Headwaters area.

The pressing result of this is that the paper publishes an annual insert called “The Yellowstone Country Explorer,” and that periodical contains an article on Lewis and Clark each year. Though our newsroom archives of past Explorers is incomplete, the issues I managed to get my hands on all contained essentially the same article. From what I can tell, it was written sometime around 1999 by a certain reporter. His name stuck with the article when it was reprinted in 2001. His name was dropped in 2002, but 90 percent of the article stayed unchanged.

Then came 2007, and a new editor asks for a new approach, hence a new article–assigned to me.

We just ended the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, a 45-month celebration of the expedition spread across 11 states. According to Roscoe Montgomery of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, the story of the expedition has changed a lot because of that celebration.

For the first time, American Indian tribes were invited to tell their side of the story. Sacagawea’s role has expanded. Supporting names like George Drouillard and Manuel Lisa have become more important. The Shoshone contribution has been emphasized.

So what’s left to be said?

Montgomery provided part of the answer himself. For years, he was a high school biology teacher. After retiring about 12 years ago, he finally got the time to read all the history books his brother had been sending. As he described it, he became a “history nut.”

So he became something of an expert. He read the books; he learned to manufacture leather clothing from period tools; he spoke to thousands of people about the Corps of Discovery. But he was a member of a transitional generation–the one that had to learn the difference between Sacajawea and Sacagawea, the one who had to see its heroes taken down a few notches, replaced by a fairer and perhaps less convenient history.

In 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed to the top of a limestone cliff overlooking the newly-named Gallatin River, the captain surveyed the party’s path to the mountains. From there, he could take in the entire valley and plan for the future.

A little more than 200 years later, as Montgomery stood in the shadow of that same cliff on a warm May morning, I got a sense that some of that grandeur had slipped away. The man was cheerful enough, knowledgeable enough, but something of the spirit was gone.