Notes on making an audiobook

Audible_Notes_Cover.png

Let’s say you write a book and decide to turn it into an audiobook. Basically, all you have to do is read it onto a recording device, edit the tape and upload the chapters to the audiobook seller’s web site. A stunningly simple process. What, I began to think about two years ago, could possibly be easier?

The book in question was the original Roo book, Notes from a Dog Rescue in Progress, now five years old. The first consideration was who to get to read it. Anyone who listens to audiobooks has experienced bad readings, or, all least, some readings that shine so brightly that you wish others were as good.

I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. When I was forced to narrate a documentary when Tom Waits backed out at the last minute, leaving our broke production on the hook for the studio rental, it was torture having to listen to my voice spool through the rest of the editing process and the mix. Every line grated on me, sounding stiff, stupid, mispronounced, off-tone. When the film was broadcast in Australia, they seemed to agree. They had me dubbed in Australian. They said it was because no one down there would understand my heavy American accent.

What with the huge quantity of audiobooks being produced these days, there’s an efficient system in place for finding a narrator. It’s right at the Amazon subsidiary where you will eventually publish the audiobook. You upload a page or two of the book, and list it as open for auditions. The next thing you know, your inbox is filled with recordings. Some of them are pros, some of them read as if they were delivering the Gettysburg Address to a high school public speaking class. None of them sounded right. I began to accept what I already knew, but had been resisting: that the only person who should read the book was me. It’s a personal story written in the first person, after all, and all those voices reading it as if the story was happening to them rang untrue. At least to me.

After reviewing 127 auditions, I knew it wouldn’t work. I gave up on it, and, because I couldn’t stand the idea of doing it myself, gave up on turning the book into an audiobook.

Then, when Roo and I were in Utah a couple of years ago, I decided to give it a go. What did I have to lose by plugging a mic into the computer and giving it a go?

Nothing, I figured. I had nothing to lose, other than a little time.

Now, I understand basic sound production. I’ve been the sound man on a couple of films and the sound was always good. I figured this would be a lot easier. There would be no adjusting to constantly changing levels and tones in new sound environments. There would be none of the crosstalk when two or more people talk over each other and ruin the take. 

I did some research into the hardware and software I’d need. I ordered an inexpensive USB microphone from Amazon. For recording software, I could have used Garage Band, which is already on the Mac, but from everything I read, as a music program, it wasn’t really suited for the type of editing you have to do on narration. The program everyone seemed to love was called Hindenburg.

I looked at their web site, and two things struck me. The price was outrageous, $375, and their web site had so many typos — hundreds of them — that it was hard to believe. I made a list of the typos, wrote the company to tell them that I had found hundreds of them and would trade the editing for the software. They turned me down. I told them, fine, if they wanted to be a bunch of cheapskates, that was their problem, but the work was already done so they could have it with my compliments. They gave me a two-year license.

Folks, I'm an experienced computer user. I can use all sorts of complicated software. I have never seen anything as complicated as Hindenburg. The learning curve goes right off the top of the chart. All it edits is sound — no pictures, no film — and yet, it's incomprehensibly difficult and unintuitive. But, once you start generating files in it, they've got you, because you can't transfer those files to any other program. You can export the finished product, but you're stuck editing it in their format. It does a good job, but the smallest tasks can put you through the most complicated procedures.

When I got everything set up, I read the first paragraph of the book into the microphone and played it back. I had steeled myself to having to hear my own voice, and so, though it made me cringe, it didn’t even make it into the Top Ten list of the things that were wrong. The problem was the sound.

When you say any word that starts with a P or B, you put your lips together and separate them as you blow some air out. It’s called a “plosive” when that wave of air hits a microphone with an annoying thud. Controlling them is a matter of positioning the mic and using a pop filter, which is just a screen placed in front of the mic that breaks up the air. The mic I had bought came with one, but it didn’t work. I made a better one out of some drug store nylons stretched over a hose clamp and attached it to the mic stand with a clothes hanger. Figuring this out took a long time.

Another irritant when recording the human voice is sibilance, the hissing produced when you say any word that has an S in it. You don’t hear this when you’re talking to someone, unless it’s one of those people who can’t help whistling through their teeth, but that hissing is magnified by the microphone. If it gets into the final recording, it’s profoundly annoying to the listener. So, it took a lengthy process of experimentation to try to position the microphone far enough away from the mouth not to pick it up too much while still producing a clear voice. 

The thing is, if you change the distance between the microphone and the mouth by just a few millimeters, the levels change, the whole sound changes. That means that you have to freeze in position to maintain the proper distance. What made this worse was tongue and lip clicking. When you talk or listen to someone else talk, you don’t hear the constant barrage of clicks and pops made by the tongue and lips. On the recordings, these sounded like a gorilla with loose dentures eating with his mouth open. It was revolting. I couldn’t control all of it. A better mic in a less noisy environment would have taken care of it, because it could be positioned far enough away not to pick them up, but with the ambient noise always present in the camper, I had to trade a closer mic position, with lower recording levels to keep out the external noises, for the clicks and pops.

None of this would have been necessary in a studio where there is no extraneous noise. People who do this at home often do it in a closet, where they can tape some foam or blankets to the walls and achieve a silent room. In the camper, nothing like that was possible.

The next problem was flubbed words or bad reading. Try reading one of these paragraphs out loud and see whether you can maintain perfect diction. Easier said than done.

Then, there were the external noises. There was always something. First, the camper’s tiny vent fan hummed in the background, and I didn’t realize it. Everything had to be re-recorded. Roo would move or snore or come over to say hi. The vinyl on the seat would squeak — translating into a piercing shriek on the recording. If I forgot myself and failed to hold perfectly still my shirt my rustle the tiniest it, enough to ruin the take. Or, outside, an airplane would fly over, or the wind would blow or another camper would crush a Bud Light can or drive by in their diesel pickups.

Working day and night, taking time off only to take Roo for her hikes, it took me five weeks to record the raw tracks. It would have take a professional reader — any one of the 127 people who had auditioned — three or four hours.

Once I had the tracks on hand, I edited out the flubbed words and assembled it into a completed audiobook. It took several more weeks, and I was out of patience. I fooled myself into thinking it might not be too rough, and sent it to my friend Jon Winokur to see what he thought. 

“Well,” he said, always the gentle — but honest — critic, “it’s a little breathy.”

I listened to it. It was breathy as hell. It sounded like I had recorded it while being ventilated in an iron lung. I’d have to find a way to edit all of that out.

  This is what two minutes of finished audio looks like. Every one of those lines is an edited section, some of which took hours when a word or phrase had to be re-recorded, matched, filtered. Any sound professionals looking at this will show it to their friends at a bar and they'll all have a good laugh at the idiot who produced this, but there we are.

This is what two minutes of finished audio looks like. Every one of those lines is an edited section, some of which took hours when a word or phrase had to be re-recorded, matched, filtered. Any sound professionals looking at this will show it to their friends at a bar and they'll all have a good laugh at the idiot who produced this, but there we are.

To make all of these edits, several things had to be done. The track had to be cut where there was a breath or a click and the bad stuff deleted. But the problem with that is that those breaths or clicks are part of the words. If you cut them out, you cut the words out. So, you have to re-record tons of stuff. And then they are at different levels, and each one of those has to be individually adjusted. The levels, the tone. That Hindenburg software? The smallest edits retire as many as 20 mouse clicks and careful, frame-by-frame repositioning. A single word could take a couple of minutes to fix.

This went on and on. Eventually I thought it would never end, and I put it on the back burner. Then I turned the burner off. I had met the enemy face-to-face and the way he beat me was with the old fact of garbage in, garbage out.

So much work had gone into it, though, that from time to time I revived it. Another minute of editing would take a few hours, and no matter how many times I checked the result, there were always more problems. After a while I thought of just deleting it. The book was so old now that it had already missed it’s shot at selling as an audiobook anyway. What was I doing it for? Still, it’s hard to trash something after that much effort had gone into it. 

I kept plugging away at it. Eventually, it grew into thousands of edits. It was ridiculous. Every time I thought it might be finished, I’d hear another click or something. Or I’d find out that the technical specs required by the audiobook company were in a different standard than the one in the software and have to read scientific articles about how to translate them, and once I did, re-engineer the whole thing. 

But finally it was done. I’ve never been in a place quiet enough, and with headphones good enough to tell for sure, but it seemed to sound okay.

And, so, here it comes. The audiobook company takes a couple of weeks to review the audio quality before listing it for sale on Amazon, iTunes and Audible, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll get an email apprising me of some other mistake I’m not even aware of. If that happens, I’ll fix it if I can, but if it’s something beyond my capacity in this camper-based recording and mixing studio, I’ll probably have to let it go. Fingers crossed.

With deep thanks, I'll be sending a download link to all of you who have supported Roo’s and my travels on Patreon and beyond. I hope it's okay. And I’m glad it’s done.

If it is.

Still moving north

180605-0001.jpg

Lately it's been occurring to me that the planet might be getting hotter. Sure seems that way, though if it were true, I think I’d remember hearing something about it. Of course I limit my news intake to pure, fact-based sources, meaning I judiciously refrain from all #FakeNews and rely exclusively on Fox, and thank God, over there we're devoting all our attention to the humanity-ending threat presented by President Hillary Clinton, so it could be that there just hasn't been time to cover some liberal-imagined End of the World liberal scenario until we get her and Vice President George Soros out of office. So, I don't know. Just seems hotter than it's ever been. It’s probably just me. Maybe it’s just the feeling of all the molecules bubbling from making America so great again.

We left south Iowa on Sunday, continuing our northbound trek in search of cooler weather. The farther north we fled, the hotter it got. By the time we stopped in Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota — as good a place as any on the basis of the name alone — it was 94 degrees one hour before sunset, 84 at 11 PM. It looks like another 150 miles north of here is some sort of meteorological barrier where the temps trend 10 degrees cooler, probably because of proximity to Lake Superior. We'll press on in that direction.

It's not much of a problem for Roo, because she has convinced herself that there are always tadmouses in every pond, so she gets to splash around while I stand on the bank giving the ticks plenty of time to crawl up my legs. When you get far enough north in the United States, the waters begin to run clear, which only encourages her, because she knows that the second the world's first actual tadmouse swims into view, she will be the first dog in America poised to pounce on one. And she's feeling great.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten how difficult it is to move around from camp to camp all the time. Being continually parbroiled while having to set up and break down is a good way to run out of steam. When I saw an Amish couple pulling this little cart in the sun with their six kids on board, I felt a deep kinship with them. The only difference was that their Amish-built cart was built to last longer than ours.

180605-0002.jpg

That time I bumped into Claude Monet

  Claude Monet in Lamoni, which is pronounced Le-MON-i.

Claude Monet in Lamoni, which is pronounced Le-MON-i.

Last night was the first night cool enough to survive without the air conditioner in over a month. The air conditioner is essential, but it’s also unpleasant, because it’s a regular room-type air conditioner mounted right over the bed and it doesn’t have any way to direct the airflow, so there’s always a breeze from it to remind you that the racket it makes isn’t the worst thing about it. Tonight, the weather is even better here in south Iowa, one of the few days in any year when the weather couldn’t be improved on. It’s in the low 60s and clear and dry. 

We’re parked on the small campus of Graceland University in Lamoni. I decided to put the bike together and go for a quick ride around the campus. Roo didn’t like it, but I left her in the camper. She won’t go out at night anyway.

Graceland is in the middle of beautiful farm country, about half Amish. This southernmost part of Iowa has low, rolling hills and woods filled with oaks and elms. It's a beautiful place where the good old-fashioned tradition of saluting oncoming drivers is respected. People do that in a lot of places, but it’s always spotty at best. Not here. Here, if you forget to salute someone — an index finger raised from the steering wheel is all it takes — you regret it right away, because they’ve saluted you and forgetting to salute them back makes you something of a heel and in a town this size, it's the kind of thing you might never live down.

180604-0001.jpg

You can tell Graceland University stands up for itself, because in the first sentence of their description of themselves on their web site they manage to include the words liberal, in “liberal arts,” and progressive, just to make sure you didn’t misunderstand them the first time. The campus is trim and lovely, with an administration building dating from its founding in the halcyon days of 1858, two years before anyone had any idea how bad the carnage of the approaching civil war was going to be.

I hadn’t seen a single other soul here, unless you count two little kids who starting laughing when Roo jumped in a pond earlier, and they don't count because they were just a couple of little smartasses who could have warned me that Roo was about to jump in pure goose poop soup instead of standing there shrieking with joy like a couple of gargoyles.

So I rode around the campus a little, alone, on the paths connecting the buildings in the quad, thinking what a cool little school it looked like, when who did I happen on but Claude Monet. I haven’t seen him in ages, but I recognized him from 100 feet away. 

Now look, I love Monet’s paintings. Always have. I even have a couple of books of them if my storage space hasn’t already been featured on Storage Wars. But, let's face it, the guy has always been a grouch.

“Monet! C'est vraiment vous? Quel bonheur! Qu’est ce que vous faites lá?!” I said to him when I pulled up on my Moulton. I figured the Moulton might appeal to him because it is built a little like the Eiffel Tower. But not a word. He was too deep in contemplation of the small canvas he was working on. Not a look, nothing. Maybe not nothing — it would have been okay with him if I got back on the bike and kept going.

“Ah, oui,” I said. “Je comprends, mon vieux.” He hadn’t come all this way to be bothered someplace where he was counting on solitude so he could concentrate on the parking lot he was trying to capture. When the painting was done, that parking lot would look like a lily pond, which was the key to Impressionism.

Even if there's nothing you can do that will annoy an artist more, I worked my way behind him to take a look over his shoulder at his canvas. Not one of his better pieces, but if you found it in your grandmother’s attic you would be able to purchase most of the county you live in and have enough dough left over to grease every cop and county commissioner within 50 miles, every judge who might object, and still keep the local congressman on retainer to write your personal tax legislation on an as-needed basis.

I mentioned none of this to Claude. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did all right, but he didn’t paint for the money. He did it because he was born to. A guy like that can get away with being a little standoffish. 

I left him to it. It was the decent thing to do. Of course I wanted to sneak a shot of him first. He was so engrossed that he didn’t even notice me setting my daguerreotype camera up on the wooden tripod, leveling it with a plumb line and spirit level, throwing the black hood over my head so I wouldn’t expose the glass negative through the ground glass and set a match to the magnesium flare I held high above my head on a wooden pan on a broomstick to illuminate the night scene. He didn’t so much as flinch, though I could feel his eyes boring into my back as I left.

He was the last guy I thought I'd run into in Iowa. 

 

I promised.

180531-0007.jpg

Because we were heading due north yesterday, we started with the sun blasting Roo from the east on the passenger side and then me as it transited over the top and descended on mine. When the road is radiating as much heat as it was, no amount of air conditioning can keep a cold-blooded hothead like Roo cool, and between her misery and my own, by the end of the day I was making wild promises to give her something to look forward to.

“Look at poor, poor little Chiggi — the most miserable bear in the world,” I said. And she was, panting and unable to find a comfortable position. Every time I urged her to get in the shade in the back seat, it made her harrumph with annoyance. Didn’t I know the first thing about road dogs? Did she look like the kind of unprincipled dog who would abandon the traditional shotgun position just like that? All she was willing to try to improve things was to crawl around into different positions, but that only added frustration to getting broiled. 

“Tell you what, Bearface,” I said. “Pretty soon we’re going to find a tadmouse pond, and when we do you can hunt them for as long as you like. I won’t drag you out of there. I won’t say a word.”

Roo gave me a look I had seen before. It said, “Blah-blah-blah. Sure.” 

”I don’t blame you, Chig. But you’ll see.” 

Winding up in a south Iowa cracker camp didn’t do much to dispel her mistrust in me. By the time we went for a walk, it was almost dark and the hot air was dense with humidity. Mosquitos and deer flies were buzzing around like chainsaws with wings. And when Roo finally spotted a small tongue of a lake I wouldn’t even let her go in. The water was soup-green with algae that for all I knew could have poisoned her and in that humidity she would never have dried out and then the pitiable air conditioner in the camper would have been no match for how clammy it would have become as the fungal water slowly leached from her. Plus, it would be too dark outside for her to stand still to be hosed off and dried — she would be too frightened by then and we would both be chewed to the consistency of wet toilet paper by the bugs. Even in a quiet place Roo doesn’t trust the night and keeps lobbying to be let into the camper. With a pack of drunk crackers crushing their Bud Light cans and throwing them against the steel fire ring, with their screaming kids and barking dogs all making a racket, she would be especially anxious to get inside.

When you only plan on overnighting someplace in a camper, you don’t unhook it from the truck or unpack anything but the essentials. We were positioned to get moving quickly in the morning. Still, worrying about a few things kept me up until 3:30, and when I got up at 8, every muscle in my body was so sore that I began to wonder if it was possible that one of the dozen ticks I had pulled off myself could have been to blame. The idea of another long drive was murder. Still, we were going to have to do it, mostly because this is a cash or check-only campground and I wrote my last check to it last night because I didn’t have $15 in cash. It was slow going, though, and I wasn’t ready until 9, when a couple of Aleve and Tylenols washed down with strong coffee began to take the edge off.

I took Roo for a walk in the direction of a boat ramp we passed on the way in last night. It was a long walk, most of it downhill, which meant the longer it went on the worse the uphill return would be. I was never so glad for a $10 purchase as I was for the hardware store straw hat I bought in Oklahoma.

When we made it to the boat ramp around 10, lo and behold if there weren’t some damn tadmouses in the water, which in this part of the lake was clear and clean.

“Well, well, well, Rooklo,” I said. “What did I tell you? Tadmouses!”

That perked her up. I sicced her on ‘em. 

The best thing about this boat ramp is that there’s a bench right here under a shade tree. It’s a good thing, because as I type this on the phone, it’s 1:43 PM and without that bench to sit on I don’t know that I would have been up to keeping the tadmouse promise to Roo.

If I have enough laundry quarters left over to pay another night’s rent, Roo will get another shot or two at the tadmouses. She’s too hard a dog to credit me with those as additional promises, but I’m still willing. If I don’t have them we’ll have to move on or risk some kind of trouble with the authorities.

At least I kept the promise of the day before. And with at least another 500 miles to go to try to get out of the worst of this heat, and probably more like 1200 (because it may turn out that the only hope for getting out of the heat will be another trek into the higher Rockies of Montana or Idaho  — and I won’t pretend I don’t dread that idea more than being hung outright — where we can camp for free at altitudes high enough to cool down without the air conditioning that needs the electricity you have to pay for at any campground), which will mean heading west across the Dakotas and then the desert of east Montana, tomorrow she won’t be allowed to hunt the in-any-event uncatchable tadmouse for more than a few minutes.

But at least today she’s got three solid hours of tadmouse hunting under her belt. Maybe she’ll think a little more highly of me for that, if nothing else.

Just a screed after driving 500 miles

180531-0001.jpg

One day, when the descendants of our generations are sunning themselves and buying floppy straw hats from street vendors and drinking piña coladas and having oil massages on the tropical white sand beach at a Sandals on the North Pole, someone will text them a video of the days when it was all ice and snow, and none of them will believe it. Certainly not if by then they have all come to believe that all facts are, by default, #FakeNews.

Hell, lots of the people enduring the current heat wave don’t believe it’s hotter now than it ever has been in their own memories, so why should anyone believe any such thing about a time when they weren’t even alive?

Every day of the last three weeks in Oklahoma was in the 90s, with several topping 100. When the humidity is at 100 percent, and the air is plump enough with moisture not to need any of yours and won’t do you the favor of carrying off so much as a drop of the sweat soaking your pants, your socks, your shirt, it just accumulates and slicks you down. A wet dog can walk two miles in that kind of heat in full sunlight and not dry. And once you hang the towels you’ve tried to mop the dog up with out to dry, they just hang there on the line like dead fish and are just as wet the next morning, only a worse kind of wet.

It got to be too much. I was planning to move on from Poteau, anyway — mostly because of the cottonmouths down in the lake where Roo likes to pretend she’s one of them stalking tadmouses — but the heat finally drove us out. Because of all the repairs I had been doing to the camper and the packing of loose items, Roo knew we were going, and she didn’t even argue about getting out of bed around 9 AM, which is, as far as she’s concerned, way too long before dawn to do anything.

I used a weather map instead of a road map to choose a destination, but it was no help. The conventional method of escaping the heat by heading north wasn’t much help, because it was three degrees hotter 1000 miles north in Minnesota, had been for a few days and was forecast to be for another few. Still, reasoning that sooner or later it might cool off up there — for crying out loud, it’s not even June yet — I loaded Roo up and pointed the crate due north.

We made it as far as Iowa and onto a gravel road as dusty as any track in the western deserts and finally to a campground at a place called Skip Bluff. It’s a pretty place — sorry for the lousy photograph, but it’s all I had in me to take after the 500 miles of driving in the relentless sunlight. This place is already acting like it’s the end of the summer. Everything is green, but there’s a little lake here that’s already covered with a stagnant algae and the grasses on the banks tipping into the water as the level recedes beneath their roots.

Having spent a few months in the civilized campground at Poteau, I had almost forgotten about getting back into the thick of Cracker America, but I was reminded as soon as we got here. Here’s the thing about the American Cracker that journalists based out of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles will never, ever understand. You can’t find a real Cracker by flying into Atlanta, spending a day driving around in a rented SUV and sticking a microphone in a few random faces outside a Piggly-Wiggly just because some town somehow looks Southern, as they so often do to try to gain insight into the mind of the Trump voter. To experience the American Cracker, you have to face them on their own territory.

By American Cracker I mean a specific portion of our countrymen. What defines the American Cracker is the one thing they live for: the hope of getting to use their gun on someone. You can be from as deep in the hollows as it gets, but if you don’t look forward to the day you get the return you want on the investment you made in your guns by shooting someone, you don’t qualify. Lots of people don’t believe that, but that’s how it is. It has nothing to do with the Second Amendment or abortion or Jesus or any of that. Those things only come into it as needed. You might pray to Jesus to preserve your Second Amendment, which He after all personally penned into the Constitution when it was written in Bethlehem or wherever in the hell it might have been, by presenting you with a Planned Parenthood doctor to shoot, but the shooting is all you really hope for. That’s what defines the American Cracker. Sorry, but if you’re just one of the millions of Americans who own a rifle or a handgun and enjoy shooting at a piece of paper or a water jug, you won’t qualify. You have to be prepossessed of the idea that real prestige can only be achieved by shooting someone.

Part of it must come from the conception of The Rebel, which has somehow become distended over the years from a group of citizens tired of being beleaguered by a distant king who drained you of your money, controlled your trade, sent his representatives to rule you on his behalf, who in turn sent his agents to tell you how much you were going to get for a bale of cotton or tobacco, to insisting on slavery as a fundamental human right of the white man, to riding a motorcycle with your cigarette blowing ashes back in your face because it was cool, even if it was a hell of a bad way not only to enjoy either cigarettes or motorcycles, even though there would be no point in telling that to half the angry-looking graybeard Harley drivers riding around in Saturday packs without either helmets or Obamacare and not finding any irony in the rest of the country having to foot the bill for that instance of Liberty™ when they show up with a cracked skull and a missing leg in the ER, to whatever it is right-wing rebels are rebelling against now, some generalized combination of brown, gay, educated,  born in a city, or who originates from the vast land that stretches from Texas clear to the Antarctic, known only as Mexico. The American Cracker is just someone in the mood for violence.

The Cracker is here, where we are. You can always spot a cracker encampment by the six or eight trucks parked near one trailer. Next you’ll spot the dirty dogs sniffing around the various folding tables, coolers, stacked cases of Bud Lights and piles of garbage which, in the name of Freedom™ they will never manage to pick up. If the Cracker has a dog, that dog will always be dirty and usually chained. The chain is optional, but the dirt is a rule of some kind. Then there are the children running around with the replica Colt .45s you can purchase at any Walmart. The children, the Cracker hopes and prays, someone will look at in a way that they can construe as threatening a rape or molestation, because of all the justifications for shooting someone, none is more bulletproof. 

If you happen to find yourself standing next to an American Cracker, you can try the usual pleasantries on him, but they won’t do any good. If you say, “Hey, how are ya?” the Cracker will not respond. They consider rudeness a useful tool. Sometimes it makes other people angry, which might give you the chance to shoot them. Rudeness also helps to alert others to your possession of firearms, even though you have to be an idiot not to assume there are guns in every waistband and another few rifles of various types and calibers tucked strategically among the beer coolers.

Anyway, we’re going to keep heading north tomorrow. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that I take much better care of Roo than I do of myself and I hope for her sake to find a pond for her to hunt tadmouses in.

Apologies for typos, errors, ranting, etc., but I'm writing in a hurry here....

In which The Puppy reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde

In 1934, when Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in an ambush on a Bienville Parish road near the north Louisiana town of Gibsland (where Roo and I happened to have overnighted once), their joint murder and robbery spree wasn’t even two years old. Forced by their notoriety to camp in swamps, bathe in streams and live on cans of Vienna sausage and saltines, they had been living like animals. Bonnie was by then addicted to the morphine she took to fend off the pain of a leg burned and deformed months before in a crash of one of the Ford V-8s Clyde insisted on stealing exclusively, so gangrenous that Clyde, who never cared how much her rotting flesh stank, had to carry her. The public’s misguided love affair with them had lately shifted, though it would never be entirely displaced by the things about them that had elevated them to folk heroes: a good-looking anti-authoritarian couple who took no shit from anyone and had a seemingly bottomless supply of the good luck that had run out for everyone else in the Great Depression — and who were so obviously shacking up together. People understood that they would have to die, whether in the chair or in one of the vicious gunfights they routinely provoked. Yet, though everyone came to agree that no God could possibly be so benevolent as to not condemn them to rot in Hell, many Depression-era Americans were as hard pressed then as many of us are now to dislodge from their hearts even the worst villains. Maybe once that much love is bestowed it can’t all be taken back. In our collective memory, the names of their victims are forgotten while the romance of their legend looms large. 

When a witness claimed to have seen Bonnie shoot a wounded and soon to be married policeman in the head, general opinion turned against them, even though the story turned out to be untrue. Someone else shot the officer. But it had gotten late in a hellish game. There was no more arguing with the nine lawmen and the numerous civilians — a reliable tally of how many has never been arrived at — who lay dead in their wake. Sure, once or twice they gave someone they stole a car from cab fare instead of killing them, but that was about as good as they got.

The Barrow Gang, as it was called before Bonnie’s poem The Story of Bonnie and Clyde was discovered among their belongings and published after they escaped from a shootout in Joplin, Missouri, consisted of Bonnie, Clyde, his brother Buck, Buck’s wife Blanche and W.D. Jones, a 16-year-old tough guy from Dallas who looked up to Clyde and emulated his murderous ways enough to participate unblinkingly in two murders in his first two weeks in the gang. None of them lasted to the end. When Bonnie and Clyde were shot by a waiting posse, they were alone in the car. Buck was already dead. He had survived for several days after a large part of his forehead and brain were blown away in Joplin before being shot again in the back in the next gunfight, in Dexter, Iowa a few days later. There haven’t been many people as hard to kill as Buck was. He lingered for another five days after he took that second bullet in the back.

In the course of the Dexter gunfight, fueled by withering machine-gun fire from 30.06 caliber, 500 round-per-minute Browning Automatic Rifles that Clyde stole from armories, and which far outmatched the numerous Tommy guns arrayed against them, Blanche’s little dog Snow Ball tried to bolt from the hellfire. Blanche forgot herself and took off after him in her famous jodhpur riding breeches. She ran right into the hands of the police, screaming hysterically a few feet from where Buck writhed on the ground.

It is Blanche who makes me think of all this because of a memoir she wrote in prison. She, Buck and Bonnie and Clyde had, not long before the end, all holed up together in a motel in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And, as a Fort Smith motel is where the hand-off of The Puppy to Harlana and Ken Steppe was conducted a few days ago, perhaps you can appreciate why this old history now comes back to me now.

It comes back because I look back on certain aspects of The Puppy’s story with the same kind of deep regret Blanche felt. Blanche never killed anyone. She never even handled a gun. All she really did was go along out of love for Buck on a ride that kept going more wrong and not know when to call it quits.

That’s the spirit in which I have come to regret my earlier, harsh appraisal of The Puppy. I know I called him a con artist. I regret that. I jumped to conclusions about The Puppy. It wasn’t his fault that I failed to peer deeply enough into his bean-sized heart — a heart that will, after all, grow up to be the heart of a wolf. Here I was, recklessly accusing The Puppy of terrible things, while a part of me was able, if not to excuse, then to understand Clyde, who had been tortured in prison and lived for, and got, revenge on the law that had, in the words of one of the friends he sprang from that prison, changed him “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake.”

I take everything I said about The Puppy back. Please excuse the accusations I made about him. Forgive me for impugning his little character when it was the dark side of my own that came unhinged and said all those things. Don’t let his reputation suffer in your eyes just because of the things I said. The power of the press can be a dark force when it is brought to bear unfairly.

The Puppy was all right. I understand that now. Let the record be corrected so he can live his new, happy life free of the scorn I brought down on him. Instead, remember him as you might Blanche, as he is in the video, just trying to tag along with the big dog, who, in this case, is the real killer.

 In the end, The Puppy wasn’t half as bad as I made him out to be.