March 27, 1998 in Nation/World

Poet And His Partner Salty Scribe Runs Across Feisty Pal After 60 Years

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:profile

In the dry, lonely reaches of Eastern Montana, two young ranch hands stepped into a corral, put on gloves and sparred until only the strongest and quickest stood.

Stanley Larum drubbed Stillman Webb that day more than 60 years ago. After the boxing match, life blew them to different corners of the West. They never saw each other again.

Webb fought the Japanese in World War II, cut timber near Republic, Wash., tended bar in Ione, married, raised a family and worked 29 years at Kaiser Aluminum. And never forgot Stanley Larum.

A lifelong cowboy poet, Webb recorded the fight in the meter and rhyme of “Pride Goes Before the Fall, During and Afterwards Too.” Though he recited the poem often, some of Webb’s own family wondered if Larum really existed, if his name hadn’t been conjured for the convenience of rhyme.

But Larum does exist.

A friend of Webb’s found his phone number on the Internet and passed it on. Earlier this year, the one-time rivals visited on the phone, but they won’t get the chance to shake hands or slap each other on the back. Webb, 81, is dying of bone cancer. The end could come any day.

“I had forgotten all about it. We hadn’t seen each other for many years and I had no idea where he lived,” said Larum, 82, from his home south of Flathead Lake in Montana.

“We talked enough to find out he was into poetry, and I was sorry to hear he was having trouble with cancer,” Larum said. “That struck me kind of hard.”

When they last spoke in the late 1930s, they were young, strong and bending their backs to ranch work around Zortman and Malta, Mont. It was dry, spare country, where neither trees, nor men, nor prosperity crowded the land.

“It was a tough life, and the Depression and drought made it doubly tough,” Larum said. “If you had a job, it usually paid about $30 or $40 per month at the most. You didn’t ask what the pay was, you just asked if there was work.”

Boxing was entertainment and ranches tried to best each other. Winners got paid 50 cents or a dollar. Ranch owners sometimes wagered on the fight.

“I carried a pair of boxing gloves and if anyone wanted to spar I was glad to accommodate them,” said Larum, a retired rancher.

In Webb’s poem about his match with Larum, he describes his adversary as a “fighting machine.”

But, said Larum, “I think Stillman got in his licks, too.”

These days, Webb can’t muster the energy to contradict his old foe. He’s been fighting cancer for 10 years. It was in his prostate first, then his bones. The disease never tired, but Webb has.

In a small, white house along Lake Spokane near Nine Mile Falls, Webb is resting, waiting.

He lays in a hospital bed in his living room. He has the constant company of his wife, daughters, son and brother.

With its final lashes, cancer has left Webb listless, drifting in and out of clarity, making it impossible for him to hold fast to a thought or recite the dozens of poems he performed from memory. As long as anyone can remember, Webb has written poetry.

He wrote about the West before fence lines crossed its broad back, about a good horse, about his son and daughters. He wrote many poems to his wife, filling them with love. He wrote about war, the cry of a coyote and the beauty of Irish girls.

His poems are collected in a self-published book, “Older Than Dirt … and Still Digging It.”

He performed at cowboy poet gatherings around the state, in churches, at community centers and at veterans hospitals.

Relatives grabbed one of these performances in late February. They taped the old poet reciting his lines about Stanley Larum. His voice is like the sound of gravel sifting through a riverbed. It is soothing, strong.

And now it is gone.

“You see why it is so lonesome when he is this way,” said Erma, Webb’s wife of 47 years. Every day she sits at the kitchen table. It is in his direct line of sight from the bed. He wants to see his wife, the passion behind so many of his poems.

They met in Ione in 1949, when Webb tended bar at the Blue Room. They married the next year, on his birthday. They moved to the shores of the Spokane River in 1979, when he retired as a crane operator and pot-line worker from Kaiser Aluminum.

They fished, played cards every morning, traveled to Arizona a couple of winters, went through a bunch of dachshunds. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1987.

“He told me that it might get him, but he wasn’t going without a fight,” Erma Webb said. “He kept his word.”

And always, in the summers, there was his big garden next to the house and another across the road.

“Dad always said the garden was his church,” Erma Webb said about her husband. “That’s where he did his praying.”

Nearly everything they grew, they gave away.

Past the steel rail of his bed, beyond the bouquets of flowers in the windowsill, Stillman Webb can see his front yard. As the days grow longer and warmer, the family talks to him about planting another garden this year.

But the seeds are already sown. In Webb’s poems, a garden is in perpetual bloom.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. COWBOY POETRY

People interested in “Older Than Dirt … And Still Digging It,” a collection of Stillman Webb’s poems, can write to 6618 Sunshine Shores, Nine Mile Falls 99026.

2. POEM BY WEBB

“Pride Goes Before the Fall During and Afterwards Too”

He stumbled out of the bunkhouse door

Tripped and almost fell

I thought this will be easy

As falling down a well

I’ll dazzle him with foot work

And smother him with speed

When he opens up to throw a punch

I’ll lay him in the weed

But when we got the gloves laced on

I got my first surprise

He became a fighting machine

Right before my eyes

He turned into a big black cloud

That rained all over me

My face so full of leather

I couldn’t even see

He was graceful as a ballet star

As he danced round on his toes

His punches flashed like lightning

Right on my throbbing nose

In dark despair I flailed the air

Just too dumb to learn

That every time I threw a punch

He’d land three in return

He floated like a butterfly

But his sting was like a wasp

And I was getting weaker

From all the blood I’d lost

He threw a crashing right hand lead

And a savage upper cut

I blocked both punches with my chin

And landed on my butt

I slowly shook my aching head

To clear away the fog

This guy was beating me as easily

As a sheep herder beats his dog

I gamely gave it all I had

But it was nowhere near enough

And I left the scene crestfallen

Feeling anything but tough

To all you guys that like to fight

And barge in Harem Scarem

It might be wise to check him out

It could be Stanley Larum

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. COWBOY POETRY People interested in “Older Than Dirt … And Still Digging It,” a collection of Stillman Webb’s poems, can write to 6618 Sunshine Shores, Nine Mile Falls 99026.

2. POEM BY WEBB “Pride Goes Before the Fall During and Afterwards Too” He stumbled out of the bunkhouse door Tripped and almost fell I thought this will be easy As falling down a well I’ll dazzle him with foot work And smother him with speed When he opens up to throw a punch I’ll lay him in the weed But when we got the gloves laced on I got my first surprise He became a fighting machine Right before my eyes He turned into a big black cloud That rained all over me My face so full of leather I couldn’t even see He was graceful as a ballet star As he danced round on his toes His punches flashed like lightning Right on my throbbing nose In dark despair I flailed the air Just too dumb to learn That every time I threw a punch He’d land three in return He floated like a butterfly But his sting was like a wasp And I was getting weaker From all the blood I’d lost He threw a crashing right hand lead And a savage upper cut I blocked both punches with my chin And landed on my butt I slowly shook my aching head To clear away the fog This guy was beating me as easily As a sheep herder beats his dog I gamely gave it all I had But it was nowhere near enough And I left the scene crestfallen Feeling anything but tough To all you guys that like to fight And barge in Harem Scarem It might be wise to check him out It could be Stanley Larum


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