Boscamp

When we are kids we make friends quickly and easily. A new family moves into a house just up the block and within hours you’ve invited young Eddie over to check out your baseball card collection. Meanwhile his sister and your sister are sitting among the cardboard boxes at their new place talking about Barbies. This innocent confidence that kids you don’t even know will like you and want to have fun with you lasts until you’re twelve or thirteen.

Then puberty sets in.

Suddenly you’re awkward and geeky. You’re too fat or too skinny.  You have the complexion of a ripe pineapple, hair starts sprouting out of your body in weird places, and other things start happening to you that you can’t even think about, let alone discuss with someone. The only friends you have, or even want to have, are people you’ve known for years and even they are probably making fun of you behind your back.  This hormone-drenched and nightmarish world only lasts for five or six years. Then along with your high school diploma come your first steps into adulthood.

The friends you make when you’re very young are for practice. Someone to throw a ball to or to wrestle with, someone to tell secrets to and giggle. But the friends you make after you’ve grown into an adult become a major part of all that defines you.

About the time you hit your thirtieth birthday, you gradually stop making new friends. Your social group is nearly complete. You are probably married or have been. You may even have children. You are now part of, for better or worse, a small tribe.

But during those twelve or thirteen years between, you make the friends that you will hold dear for the rest of your life.

For the lion’s share of 1965, I was stationed on the University of Indiana campus with an Air Force detachment of about 300 guys. We were there to learn to speak and understand the Russian Language. When you toss a large group of 18 to 19 year-old men together, similarities attract, like falls in with like, and circles of friends emerge. The guys I hung out with were not the Jocks, or the obsessed-with-women crowd, we were more down toward the geeky end of the spectrum. Among this odd consort there was one fellow that I would call my “Best Friend.” His name was Bill Boscamp.

Boscamp was not a handsome man. He was thin, with bad posture and a gallumphing gait. There were picket fence-like gaps between his teeth. His nose was thin at the top and grew bulbous at the end and looked like a blob of hot wax running down the middle of his face. His already-high forehead was getting higher all the time – complete baldness was only a matter of time.  But he and I made each other laugh.

He liked my little stories about my zany family and I liked his dry, satirical wit. He was a highly emotional man, but used that as comic fodder. There was, for example, the time I was clowning around and accidently set his hair on fire, then had to smack him on the head to put it out. He was wildly offended, but somehow turned the whole thing into a funeral oration for the last of his hair, burned at the stake in a cruel auto de fe.

We tried to keep up the friendship after I left the Air Force*. We even pulled a little phone scam where I sent him the phone number of a nearby telephone booth along with a time I’d be available. He called that number collect from another pay phone, I accepted the charges, and we talked for the next hour at Ma Bell’s expense. But shortly afterward he got orders to report to a base in Southeast Asia and we lost touch.

Ten years later, my then-roommate Jim and I were living in Jackson, Wyoming in a two-bedroom space with no running water that we had dubbed Fort Squalor**.

One day in the early summer, the phone rang.

“Is this Tim Pelton?”

“Yes.”

“The Tim Pelton who did Russian Training in the Air Force in Indiana?”

My mind was racing. I couldn’t recall any criminal acts I had done back then. Why does this awful stuff always happen to me? In a tremulous voice I said, “uhh… yes.”

“This is Bill Boscamp!”

“Boscamp! I’ll be damned! Where are you? What are you doing?”

It seemed that Bill was living in New Orleans and owned a Mexican Restaurant there called “Tortilla Flats.” He had remembered I was from Laramie, through  Directory Assistance had found my Mother there, and she had given him my Jackson phone number. As to what he was doing, he was going to fly to San Francisco the next week and was considering a stop in Jackson on the way.

Well, I was quite excited by the news. One might even say “stoked.” I told him that our casa was his casa, but the accommodations were pretty spartan.  We did have a fairly comfortable couch and we could supply him with a sleeping bag.

“It’ll be,” I said encouragingly, “like camping out only without having to worry about being stepped on by a moose.”

Four days later, I drove my old Volkswagen bus to the Jackson Hole Airport and watched Bill’s plane taxi to its stopping place and shut down its engines.  Airport workers wheeled a rolling stairway up to the exit door which, after a few minutes delay, opened.

Businesswomen, ranchers, tourists, and grandmothers followed one another down the stairway to the concrete apron. Then a vision of queenliness came floating down the steps. It had to be Boscamp, the wraparound shades and the natty little white straw hat couldn’t disguise that nose. But this person didn’t move like my old pal at all. gone was the stoop-shouldered trudge. In its place were long, hipswinging, graceful strides with one hand cocked out to the side as if he were touching an imaginary handrail.

We shook hands, hugged, beat each other on the back, and exchanged “howthehellareyous.” But there was an awkwardness there that made us both feel distant. This feeling lasted while we waited for his bags, loaded them into the bus, and started the drive back to Fort Squalor.

Trying to think of some way to get the obvious out in the open, I finally said, “New Orleans, eh? I hear they’ve got a really flashy gay scene there.”

“Boy! Do they!” Bill exclaimed. “And I’m gay and I love it!”

He was thrilled and relieved that I was cool with that and proceeded to tell me his “coming out” story, how a girl he knew he should be attracted to, but wasn’t, offered one night to take him out dancing. She took him to his very first Gay Bar and he said he wasn’t five minutes in the door and he knew he was home. All those years of not knowing who he was, and trying to be someone he wasn’t had just crumbled and fell away.

The next few days were eye-openers for me. I had known and been good friends with several gay men, but none of them were as exultantly “out” as Bill Boscamp. We were driving through the town of Jackson, probably looking for a place to have lunch, when I noticed two big, bearded guys with back packs and heavy hiking boots walking along the street.

Boscamp slid the window back, stuck his head out and yelled, “Hey Sweetheart! Aren’t you the fine-lookin’ one?”

“Hey, man,” I grabbed him and pulled him back inside. “I gotta live in this town!”

“I can’t help it,” he smirked. “I just adore the big, hairy ones.”

Another time I asked him about his teeth. Ten years before there were noticeable gaps between most of his teeth, giving him a kind of “snaggletooth” look. Now they were all lined up nicely. He told me how he had had to wear braces for two years to get that smile.

Thinking I was going to get a chance to embarrass him, I said, “I’ll bet your friends didn’t like that.”

He just laughed and agreed. Then he said, “The day after I finally got them off my teeth, I invited all my friends to a ‘Coming Out’ Party. I told them all to not wear any underwear. Then I…”

“Okay, Okay! That’s enough,” I interrupted. “That’s all I can stand.” It made him laugh to watch me squirm.

But my favorite story was the one he told about himself and his sometime-boyfriend, Michael. This was the guy in San Francisco he was going to spend time with after he left Jackson.  He and Michael were both tied to businesses in their respective cities and could only see each other every few months when one would go to visit the other.

The previous Autumn it had been Michael’s turn to fly to New Orleans, and Bill’s turn to play Host. One of those days, the boys had jumped into Bill’s Cadillac and headed out into the woods for a picnic. They found, just across the State Line into Mississippi, an off-the-beaten-track beautiful woodland. After each swallowed a tablet of LSD, they grabbed a picnic basket and two bottles of wine and headed into the woods. After a short hike they found a lovely big patch of violets blooming in the dappled forest sunlight. They quickly removed their clothes, then began to (here, once again, I had to ask that Bill spare me the details). Afterward they drank one of the bottles of wine as they threaded the little violet blossoms into each other’s hair, beards, and anywhere else they could get them to stick.

Suddenly, with a happy shout, Michael took off running, stark naked, through the woods. Bill snatched up the second bottle of wine and ran after him. When Bill caught up he jumped on Michael’s back. The bigger man hooked his arms around Bill’s knees and plunged on. Twenty more strides and they ran out of the trees and into a small clearing.

Imagine, if you will, standing on the far side of a clearing in the woods when two naked men, one carrying the other in a bouncing piggy-back, come running full-tilt out of the trees on the other side. They are shouting and laughing, they are covered in little purple flowers, and the small one is waving a wine bottle over his head. Now imagine you are one of three Mississippi hunters, complete with shotguns and dogs.

“Michael kept running,” Bill said, “he just turned in a fast semi-circle and went right back into the woods. The only reason we are not now moldering in some backwoods, shallow grave is that we must have shocked those hunters to the soles of their boots. Their mouths were still sagging open as my skinny little butt disappeared into the trees.”

I was to see Bill only one more time. In 1991 I was writing the Book and the Lyrics for a stage musical called Fat Tuesday***.  Since the show took place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the Composer and I felt we had to be in that city for the Celebration, so we flew down and managed to rent a couple of rooms. While we were there, I arranged a side-trip to Bill’s Tortilla Flats cantina. Bill was there, but the place was jammed and he barely had time to say hello.

In the late Nineties I finally bought a computer that could connect to the Internet. One of the first things I did was to look up Bill Boscamp. I found his Obituary. He had died six years before at his parents’ home in Phoenix of an AIDS-related illness.

********************

*See The Prisoner Has a Phone Call in the list of stories.

**See Fort Squalor in the list of stories.

*** Look for Fat Tuesday – as yet unwritten, but will be soon.

Freeing Sluggo

In the Early Spring of 1994, Michelle and I were living in a little house in Fairfield, Iowa. My cat Sluggo* was living there too – at least as far as eating and sleeping. The rest of the time he spent doing his job which was being the self-appointed neighborhood patrol officer.

Every evening he would come back home and report what he had seen despite the fact that we, his humans, never seemed to understand. And every time he’d go hunting he would bring back his prize, still alive and wiggling, and lay it at our feet  for us to appreciate and share. Instead of showing our gratitude, we’d toss him down the basement steps and close the door. When we’d let him out he’d look around, but the game would be gone. If he thought we were selfishly killing it and eating it ourselves, he didn’t show it.

One day our next-door neighbors, who owned several cats themselves, warned us about Mr. Skivens, the neighborhood cat-hater. They said he had been in trouble with the Law recently for making cats “disappear” and they were afraid of him enough to not let their cats go outside at all.

I decided that I just couldn’t deprive Sluggo of his job based on a rumor, so he continued to patrol the neighborhood and bring home various birds and rodents to help feed the family. Then one evening he didn’t come home. All that night we listened for the flap of his little cat door to open, but it remained unused. Early the next morning, I went out to look for him.

I had started, when he was a kitten, to hoot a little kitty call every time I’d put his food down. It was a bit like a hog-call only with a lot less volume and “kitty, kitty” instead of “Soo-ie, pigpig.” This call became very useful when he’d tried to climb a little fruit tree and couldn’t get down. When I went out to find him and hooted out the kitty-call, he immediately answered with a scared “meow”, and I went over to pull him out of the tree and take him home.

So here I was, a couple of years later, walking around the neighborhood calling “kittykittykit-teeeee.” Then I tried going down the alley and calling. About two-thirds of the way down I heard a familiar, albeit muffled, “meow.” It was coming from the inside of a detached garage. The garage door was only open a few inches and locked in that position, but I found I could pull up one corner enough to get a look inside. There was Sluggo, alive but terrified, caught in a wire trap.

I quickly found a chunk of wood that seemed the right length, pulled up the corner of the door, and propped it open. Then, wriggling on my belly, I crawled underneath the door and got to the trap. As well as my cat, pitifully yawping, there was an empty Starkist tuna can inside. When I sprung the trap gate open Sluggo raced out under the garage door, shot down the alley, and was quickly back home and being comforted by Michelle. I crawled back out under the door and let it down to its previous position. Now that my cat was safe I began to seethe with indignation.

I called the local Police and they were polite but entirely non-sympathetic. They told me they would give Mr. Skivens a call, but that I should either keep my cat indoors or only let him go outside on a leash. This was about as satisfying as a pond-scum sandwich. After  thinking through several “Don’t get mad, get even” scenarios I went to see my friend Dr. Harold.

Dr. Harold was a practicing Veterinarian there in Fairfield and had given Sluggo his various shots and flea baths, and  had also sold me the salve to cure an infestation of mites in the little guy’s ears. I told him what had happened and then asked him a question.

“Other than driving around the local roads and looking, is there someplace where the Highway Department  puts the bodies of dead animals they scrape up. I think I want to find a dead skunk.”

“Whatever for?”

“I want to crawl back under that garage door and stuff the dead skunk into Skivens’ trap. I’m thinking I’ll need some heavy rubber gloves, plastic bags, and maybe a disposable coverall to protect myself.”

He laughed a lot, but then said, “I’d strongly recommend against it. You might be able to wash the smell off yourself eventually, but you’d never get it out of your car.”

I was a little disappointed but also relieved that I had a good reason not to go that route. “The only other thing I can think of,” I said, “is to get some kind of cat-repellant and splash it around his garage inside and out. It would have to have enough odor to overpower the smell of tunafish.”

Telling me to wait, Dr. Harold went into a back room, rummaged around for a bit, then plunked a half- gallon bottle of “Cat-B-Gon” liquid on the counter. I had opened my checkbook and begun to fill it out when he stopped me.

“Because we’re friends I’m gonna save you the twenty-five bucks,” he said as he put the jug under the counter, “Products like this work okay, but there’s something that works a lot better. And it’s free.”

“What’s that?”

“Human urine. Male human urine to be specific. One sniff of your pee and a cat will turn around and head the other way.”

I thanked him and headed home as I hatched a plan. That afternoon I drank a couple of tall glasses of water and a cup of coffee, then ate a can of Jolly Green Giant Asparagus spears for that extra bouquet. By dusk I was shimmying my full-to-the-brim bladder back under Skivens’ garage door. My heart was thundering with both fear of being caught and determination to go through with it. I went to the little side door and peeked out its window at the small brick house on the other end of a narrow walk. There were no signs of life.

I jumped up and down on the wire trap a few times, making sure it would never trap another cat, then I unzipped my fly and let the waters flow. After soaking down the bent-up trap and the area around it, I managed to stop with half a bladder-full left and crawl back outside. Once the garage door was let down to its original position, I wet it down as well as I could with what I had left and scurried back up the alley to my house.

Afterward, I kept an ear out for any news of Mr. Skivens, but heard nothing, Only that when we moved to Chicago more than a year later, no cats in the neighborhood had been threatened or harmed. I like to think that the fellow had assumed that no human could have gotten into his garage under that door and therefore some large and angry animal had come in, crushed the trap, eaten the tuna, peed all over and left. I hope it was a mystery that haunted him to the end of his days.

 

* If you’d like to know the story of how I acquired Sluggo, or how he acquired me, go to the Archives on this blog, click February, and scroll down to “Sluggo! Is that You?”

Hunting Stories

I grew up in the little town of Laramie, Wyoming. The Old Man had a wood-paneled study and on one wall was a gun rack. There was a hunting rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a four-ten shotgun, an antique lever-action rifle that had belonged to my Grandfather, and a  twenty-two target shooting rifle. All of them were securely locked down. All four of his sons learned gun safety and protocol at a local range and when we went out hunting with him we were closely supervised. After firing any of the guns we were required  to break them down and thoroughly clean them before they were locked up again. The smell of Hoppe’s gun-cleaning oil is one of those distinctive odors that you’ll never forget.

All of my friends’ fathers had similar gun racks on their walls and the fact was little mentioned or discussed. Or you might hear a conversation like this.

“We had Sage Chicken for dinner last night. The Old Man and a couple of his friends went hunting and got a few. ”

“What did it taste like?”

“Sorta like Chicken dark meat, I guess. But you had to eat carefully to keep from biting down on the buckshot. You know, like little black bb’s. We’d spit ’em out and line ’em up on our plate. Lewis got the most. Five, I think.”

“Dang. My Dad never goes Sage Chicken hunting.”

As for me, I’ve never liked hunting. I’d try to duck out on the periodic family hunting trips but if pressed, I’d trudge along. I shot and killed a rabbit once and then felt bad about it for a week afterward. But I am not against other people hunting, by any means. I have and have had friends who were avid hunters mostly because they liked venison and felt that killing and field-dressing a deer was no more of a barbaric act than buying a rump roast of beef at the supermarket. But they never had their pictures taken grinning in triumph next to the corpse of an animal, holding up its lifeless head.

Like I said, I don’t own a gun and I don’t hunt. But I am the exception rather than the rule in my home State and if there’s anything the natives enjoy more than going out and stalking the big animals that live in the Wyoming mountains, it’s telling stories about the non-natives who come there, armed to the teeth, ready and eager to kill something.

*****

When I was a teen-ager, the story went around about a man from Texas who had won an Elk Hunting permit and showed up keen to bag a trophy. He had brought his own horse trailer, complete with horse and equipment.  His hunting gear was so new the pieces of clothing practically had the L.L. Bean tags still hanging from them. He turned away all suggestions that he hire a guide service – “Those guides are for people who don’t know what they’re doing.”

So the fellow drove up into the Wind Rivers above Dubois, parked his pickup and trailer at a trailhead, saddled up, packed up, and rode off up into the mountains. On the second day he came upon a large stand of trees and was pretty certain he saw something moving up in there. He tied his horse up and slowly and silently began to circle the stand. Once he was near the top, he moved down in among the trees . Then some movement caught his eye. Downhill and between the branches he saw his elk. Taking careful aim, he squeezed the trigger, and shot his horse.

*****

My old friend Kelly, when he was a teenager, pumped gas at a filling station on the edge of Evanston, Wyoming. During hunting season, hunters would periodically stop at the station to refuel on their way into or out of the Uinta Mountains.

One day a car with Pennsylvania plates pulled up to the pumps. Strapped to the front fender of the car was a large, dead animal. In those days, there was no “Self-Service.” Gas station attendants filled your car for you as well as washed the windows and even checked your oil. As Kelly approached, the driver, wearing a big, proud grin, got out of the vehicle.

Once the nozzle was in the tank and the gas was pumping, Kelly said, “Looks like you’ve been out hunting.”

“Yep,” the man said, preening. “I got a good one!”

Kelly looked once again at the animal on the fender. It was a mule. An old, gray mule complete with horseshoes on its hooves and a brand on its hip. The hunter had attached a Deer Tag to one of its legs.

As he washed the windshield, Kelly toyed with the thought of breaking the bad news to the guy, but decided that some law enforcement officer down the road between there and Pennsylvania should have the honor.

Instead, as he took the cash and handed over a receipt,  Kelly casually asked, “So it’s a… mule deer, eh?”

“That’s right,” the hunter grinned. “A mule deer,” and with a jaunty wave, he drove away.

*****

My Old Man grew up in Casper, Wyoming and about the time he was finishing High School, he went to a local MD that he liked and told him he wanted to become a Doctor. The older man became a kind of mentor for my Father and after College helped him to get into Medical School at the University of Chicago. Many years later, when my father was attending a medical convention  near Jackson, he decided to take a day and go visit his old friend who had retired to a little village called Alta on the Western side of the Teton Range.

When he arrived, the older man greeted him warmly and asked him if he’d like to take a drive up into the high country.

“There’s an old hermit who lives  way up there by himself,” he said. “The only time anybody ever sees him is on the tenth of the month when he comes down here to buy supplies. If he’s not snowed in, he’s pretty reliable. But now he’s several weeks overdue and the local sheriff figures he keeled over dead. He’s asked me to go up there and if he has indeed expired, to sign a Death Certificate and haul the old guy’s carcass out.”

My father agreed to go. It was a beautiful Fall day, the scenery was amazing, and he figured they’d have plenty of time to chat on the way. After about an hour’s drive, the last mile of which they’d had to put the pickup in four-wheel drive to navigate a little-used, rutted track, they came upon a small, handmade cabin. Inside, sprawled across the floor, was the dead body of the old hermit.

Judging by the odor, the body must have been there for quite some time. But the smell was not the most striking thing about the man, what amazed my father was that despite his advanced age, the hermit’s long hair and thick beard were a bright, flaming red.

My father and his friend quickly went back outside for some fresh air and a canvas tarp to wrap the body up in. Once it was loaded into the pickup, they turned around and headed back down the hill. Soon they were back on the highway talking about old times back in Casper. Then up ahead they saw a wide place in the road with a portable little shack and a “Hunter’s Checkpoint” sign. A young Forest Service Ranger was signaling for them to pull over.

The Ranger took a long look into the back of the truck as he walked to the driver’s window.

“I see you’ve been out hunting,” he said, “do you have a deer tag I can look at.”

“Nope, no tag. We haven’t been hunting. We were up there on County business.”

The Ranger looked at them, then at the two rifles hanging on a rack in the truck window, and pursed his lips. Clearly, he did not believe them.

“Mind if I look in the back?”

“No, no,” said my father’s friend. “Be my guest.”

The young Ranger leaned over the side of the truck bed, grabbed two folds of canvas, and snapped the tarp open. He was staring down into the gray, mottled face of a human corpse framed in bright red fur. He squealed, jumped back, and then just stood there, pale, dumbstruck, and gaping as the pickup rolled away and back out onto the highway.