Death in Oregon: Robert Finicum and the Ballad of Pancho and Lefty
I watched the FBI taping of the Oregon shooting. It was both sad and sordid. The man killed, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was neither a hero nor a martyr. He was a Mormon with 11 children. His most lucrative enterprise seems to have been receiving a check from the government (from Youth Services for caring for foster children).
Like all these pseudo-patriots, he saw himself as a modern version of a steadfast soldier in our Revolutionary War. The only problem is, of course, that revolution ended centuries ago, and even the smaller details of our political contract were long ago banged firmly into place.
That left our heroes-in-waiting with little more heroic to do than worry about the bills piling up on the kitchen table and watch beef prices fall. Such strangling minutiae are especially galling to those raised or living in the southwest. They (we) all grew up idolizing those larger than life characters as they moved heroically across the silver screen or rode their faithful pony into the sunset. The ideal was the quiet man “who God made and who Sam Colt made equal.”
Now, a man can wear the hat, hear his spurs jingle as he crosses board floors, strap on a .44, and put a Winchester in the scabbard attached to his saddle. But, like that almost forgotten Dallas rocker, Meatloaf, these men are “all dressed up and no place to go.”
Then some reckless looney-tunes tell these frustrated wannabes that the New American Revolution is here, and they can be the new heroes. Heady stuff, that is! So, Mr. Finicum saddles up and joins the revolution.
He stays warm under a blue tarp in Oregon and tells the media in his own low-key version of cowboy bravado that — “they’ll never take me alive.” As he puts it, he won’t point a gun at anybody who isn’t pointing one at him. But, he doesn’t really expect any lawmen who come calling on a fellow with a rifle across his lap to come empty-handed, guns will be pointed. As all good cowboys know, he tells the media, you don’t point a gun unless you intend to use it. So, after tracking that tortured logic, one understands that he is announcing he is ready to kill law enforcement officers, and he and all his friends know how that type of confrontation always ends.
The game was going well for a good while. The Feds were holding back, and the place was swamped with media who thought all these hayseeds with their hats, guns, and crackpot philosophy were good copy. People came; people went. It was pretty much “a good time was being had by all.”
Then, things got real. Driving a truck on a public highway, after a brief stop, Finicum plowed into a snow bank trying to avoid a roadblock. He emerged from the truck with his hands raised. He then stumbled awkwardly in the deep snow as he reached, turning, with his right hand into the interior of the left-side of his jacket. It is alleged that he was reaching for a pistol.
At least one officer with a long gun fired, and Finicum fell into the snow and, it seems to me that he never moved again. The helicopter circled the scene. The officers stood ready under cover. Explosives devices were tossed near the stalled truck, and a few shots fired.
All the while Finicum was lying, like a broken toy, unmoving in the snow as the other passengers in the truck surrendered one-by-one with their hands held high. The drone or copter with its camera circled; the police took in their prisoners; all was movement, except for the lone dark figure lying crumpled to one side.
Mr. Finicum is not, as so many wing nuts will claim, a victim of illegal action by the federal government. I can only believe that he is a victim of his own delusions and the political entrepreneurs who played on those delusions to lead him into a deadly confrontation with law enforcement.
It is something like those old westerns where a treacherous scout leads the cavalry into a box canyon, where they are trapped in a life or death struggle. Except in this case, the “scout” was a covey of pseudo-patriots whose reckless rhetoric and macho posturing led a man to a pitiful death in the Oregon snow.
This was no movie where the hero vanquished tyranny or died heroically in a battle with the shadowy forces of evil. This was a man of 55, who had a family and a ranch, and who was voluntarily led into a box canyon that became a coffin.
The whole affair, for me, brought to mind the haunting lyrics of a great Texas poet and song-writer, Townes Van Zandt’s in his song, Pancho and Lefty.
You weren’t your momma’s only boy,
But her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye
and sank into your dreams.
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was not, as his brothers in crime have now defined him, a fallen American hero. Instead, I believe he was a man who dreamed; a man who dreamed of another time, another place, and another life. Unfortunately, no one “who rode the river with him” warned him that if he sank too deeply into those dreams, they could become deadly quicksand.
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico.
Nobody heard his dying words
Ah, but that’s the way it goes
Townes Van Zandt, Pancho and Lefty
(Willie Nelson version)