copyright © 1990 Todd Ristau


(The stage is set with a rough podium and an immense American flag stretched out behind, preferably one with 48 stars. Someone from the audience stands and says, "Let’s give a big sixth grade welcome to our own Lewis Kesseberg!" There should be an 1800’s style piano intro and in walks KESSEBERG, old and in a long western coat, carrying several pistols and maybe a shotgun and saddlebag.)

The name is Lewis Kesseberg. Pioneer. First I want to thank the fine ladies of the Geneseo Lady’s Auxiliary for asking me to speak before you all today as a part of your fabulous "Frontier Days" Celebration. I myself once sat in this very school room, when this was the only school house in all of Sagamon County, way back in the years of the 1830’s. There wasn’t any schoolin’ higher than the sixth grade and damn--pardon me ladies--durn few of us woulda stuck on fer any more’n that anyway, but I don’t mean to talk down book learnin’, as I can see by the changes taking place all around me now that book learnin’ is the way of the future, the time has come when a book or a pencil is more at home in a man’s hand than his pistol or his knife and a man no longer tests his mettle against the weather and the earth, but rather in his own private hell in an office somewheres. Not with a saddle and horse under him but a soft leather chair. Anyway, kids, what the Ladies have asked me to talk about is the West, and so I reckon that’s what I’m gonna get on with.

I see that there’s a lot of you men sitting there and you are probably here against your will. How many boys here know that they’d be more use at home but your mothers still make you come on in here every day? The "Late Unpleasantness", as it is called, has caused a very apearant decrease in the number of men heading up a household, and if you got a daddy sitting at home with a leg so shot up or twisted off he can’t do anything but drink and--What’s that?

I’m powerful sorry, Ma’am. You’re right, no need to go bringing all that up.

Well, children, the West ain’t what it was. I know the likes of the stories ya’ll hear and I suppose the West sounds like a magic place full of wild adventures and desperados, pistoleros, and red monster men coming to carry off little girls and it must all sound pretty exciting, but I think the main reason the Ladies wanted to bring a raggedy piece of saddle tramp like myself in here isn’t--ya’ll don’t mind if I speak plain, do ya Ma’am? I mean, ya’ll are paying me for this--They mean to show you about the worst possible example of what the West can do to a man so ya’ll will be a little more apt to stay on in Illiinois and be good little dutch farmers and pick up where the slaughtered generation left off. No packing up and lighting out for the Promised Land, ya’ll got your own private reconstruction to get on with. There ain’t nobody famouser than me to ever come from this county, and the reason I’m so well known is because I didn’t want to stay in this frozen piece of dried out riverbed country. Me and the others I fell in with had damn near memorized our copy of the "Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon adn California" before we lit out for the golden land of dreams.

(Closes his eyes and recites) "Here in perpetual summer life goes on under perenial rains with spring and autumn standing side by side, the towering snow clad mountains forever looking down on eternal verdure." Me and two hundred others packed us up our wives, and dogs, and whatever we had--even fine mirrors and china in one wagon, most if all broken and scattered over the two or three thousand miles between us and them mountains.

You don’t have any idea just how raggedy assed the West was, and no matter how much you hate this place in your enviable youth now, I’m telling you plain you better believe that when you’re two weeks of walking through country you don’t know, behind cattle who don’t want to be anywhere but where they just come from, wagons breaking down, sleeping on cold we ground, eating real poorly, and soaked through by rain, blistered by the sun, you start to reconsider....but your eyes are still looking West. Four wekss and you’re doubting. Long about the time you decide you’ve had enough you’re too far along to consider going back and that’s when it really gets tough.

You start hoping for an ox to drop dead from the heat so you got more than beans and stagnant water to fill your belly with and while you’re eating him you realize that the wagon it was pulling is gonna go one ox slower and the next ox will be one ox sooner getting to your belly.

And still there’s nothing to do but go on. And timing is important. You fall behind schedule and you miss the rains or you hit the snows and there’s the Salt Desert to cross and people going crazy and there ain’t nothing but each other and you start to distrust them other people more than the devil and there’s hoarding and stealing and raping and lynching. You become the smallest town you can imagine with the smallest town justice, and your town just keeps rolling forward an inch at a time toward what might as well be the edge of the world and all you want to do is drop off it so it can all be over. Halfway to California you dont’ want to even hear the word, and I tell you I seen a man get shot just for saying "California" out loud on that trip. You started to hate California for leading you on like a fuckin’ whore in a mining camp--beggin’ yer pardon ladies.

Well, like it or not, you know what come of George Donner’s Party. You ever hear of Donner Creek or Donner’s Pass? No?

I guess they don’t talk too much about that, although if you was to be seen with me in San Francisco you’d be pulling hunks of your flesh off trying to get shy of the tar and feathers. How do you think a person survives after all the hell I just told you about and then gets themselves stuck up in a mountain pass that ain’t a pass and there’s so much snow coming down you can’t see your hand if you held it up in front of your face? You got not food and yer pissin’ on each other’s hands to keep them from freezin’ and pickin’ bits of corn out of each other’s shit just so you can eat it again? I’ll tell you how you survive, you lose your mind, that’s how you fucking survive!

NO! Now let me finish! I can see I’m scaring the children! You wanted me to come here and talk about Geronimo? Fuck Geronimo! He ends up a fat circus freak in a wild west show! Shooting at a plate and watching Indians dance around ain’t the West. If they want to know about the West this is what they want to know about, what I wish to hell somebody would have told me about before I was sitting in the fucking mountains frying up a dead friend’s heart to eat while his wife is still crying over the body! Sure, its a sin. Sure its against the law. But I’m telling you soft farm boys, the rules change when death is cuddlin’ up to you and stroking yer dick. You do what you have to not to kiss that fucker on his moldy teeth. You do whatever you have to.

That! That is the only thing the West was ever about. You went west if, and only if, you had no other choice and I’ll kill the man that says any different. When they found me I was eating the liver of old George Donner and around me was the bodies of four frozen oxen. You know what I said when they asked me why I ate Donner instead of chewing on that ox leg? I told them the truth. That ox meat was too tough. I got from Mrs Donner four quarts of fat, and she was the finest meat I ever et.

I’m telling you, the rules change, you change, everything changes and unless you were there you got no right whatsoever to say I done the wrong folks just stay at home here and save your money, you fat fuckers can take a train out there in another two years, and I’d like each and every one of you to think about me when you sit down to your fine fancy steaks in that fine fancy dining car...put a hunk of that steak in your mouth, look out the window at those beautiful snow capped mountains, and think of me. And I hope to God you choke to death on it.

Thank you Ladies, good day. I believe you owe me four dollars and I’d like to be paid before the bar closes.

(lights out)


This was done in B [Friday, October 5, 1990], I still have the grey hairspray stains on my cowboy hat. I think I had an flag draped over the rolling black board, but not sure. When I did it at Charlottesville this year, we already had a kind of 1800's set with a piano on it because the production of Mrs. Kemble Reads the Tempest was in there that night before us. I didn't have the car that night so I was walking from my house (about 12 blocks away) with this long rider coat, three western six shooters strapped to me, a shotgun under my coat, cowboy hat...and trying to learn my lines for the Lisa poem as I walked..."Yeah, I was son of a bitch" sort of over and over. I didn't see it, but we had several patrons come to no shame and wonder what all the police cars going up and down market street were doing...oh, and I nearly gave the stage manager for Mrs. Kemble a heart attack when I came in. She was the only one at the theatre who saw the shot gun sticking out of my coat.

[Todd Ristau's website] [Ristau Entertainment Ltd.]

[Back to Library] Home