Bruce Haak emailed me last night that my old friend Charles Schwartz had died, from a fast-acting brain tumor. I hadn’t even known he was sick.
Charlie was a great falconer, and a perfectionist. He ended up flying passage Gyrfalcons and Sage grouse, in the high deserts of Idaho; this high-end grouse hawking is still one of the most amazing and demanding forms of falconry.
I first met Charlie with Betsy, on our long tour of the West that ended up with our moving to Magdalena; but not before we had swung up through Idaho and Nevada. Later, he worked for the Gulf Sheiks breeding falcons for seven years. They paid very well, and they gave him a grubstake for life, but he came back screaming “No more Insh’Allah!!” *
He visited Magdalena soon after his return and brought the first two Barbary falcons I had ever seen with him, tiny compared to their Peregrine near- relatives but elegant and wedge- shaped, almost triangular, with the colors of iron and rust (I believe they were haggards trapped on migration). We took one out in the grassy valley between the San Mateos and the Magdalenas where she mounted up to an astonishing height.
Later we visited Floyd Mansell, my natural history and hunting mentor in Magdalena. Charlie vehemently denounced Floyd’s cockfighting. Finally, Floyd took us out to his backyard, and armed two roosters with “sparring muffs”; basically, little boxing gloves that fit over their spurs. We put the roosters down as if for a fight, drawing a line in the dirt with our bootheels, and let the cocks see each other over our arms. Finally we put them on the ground, and they began to display at each other standing broadside to make themselves look bigger and fluffing up their necks. When they started to grapple, we picked them up. Charlie was apparently astonished because the behavior was so obviously hard-wired. “That’s ANIMAL BEHAVIOR!”
Charlie attended the first Wildbranch Writing Workshop, when Annie Proulx, the founder, was still there. We “old folks” (two of us in our 40s and two in our 50s) retreated into our own little group in the summer evenings — Annie, Charlie, me and the late J. B. Stearns (a Vermont writer who resembled a huge Santa Claus and was directly descended from one of the Green Mountain Boys, who never achieved the status he deserved), would ride around in JB’s ’62 Cadillac convertible, drinking beer and singing doo-wop songs. We had a lot of fun, but in the workshop Charlie brought his obsessive perfectionism toward everything to the fore. He wrote for a week on a story about a falconer trying to train Merlins who was so obsessive in his pursuit of perfection that he would barely let his bird fly. An advisor in the story tried to get the guy to lighten up, and eventually succeeded. Charlie seemed blind to the fact that the metaphor in the story extended into his life. He polished the story all week long and absolutely refused to send it out for appraisal, ever, saying it was crap compared the work of other writers he admired.
I think the last time I actually saw Charlie was at the Sun Valley Library writer’s event, which Libby catered for. We never did see each other that often but we kept in touch, and we were always happy to share strong opinions. He will be missed by all of us, and especially by his long-time wife, Marty Brown.
If I hear any more anecdotes of Charlie, I’ll put them in here.
* For a glimpse of the cultural baggage that drove Charlie crazy, see veterinarian David Remple’s Footprints on the Toilet Seat. Been there…