Buffalo Stories

This is going to be about the American Buffalo. Now there will be pompous nitpickers who will say, “There is no such thing as the American Buffalo. It is the American Bison.”  To these folks I have but one carefully thought-out rejoinder. I intend to put my thumbs in my ears, wiggle my fingers, and make rude, spittle-flying, raspberry noises. These critics, struck speechless by my irrefutable logic, should allow me to go on about my day. Besides, who would pay good money to see “Bison Bill’s Wild West Show?” Seriously.

At one time, Buffalo ranged by the millions from Northern Canada down to Mexico. Then, in about 1860, People began to shoot them in huge numbers. A few were killed to feed workers on the transatlantic train project, a few more for their hides, but most of them were shot for two bigger reasons. The first and main reason was to deprive the native populations of their livelihood. It was a premeditated effort to starve a whole population whose only crime was “being in the way.” The other reason the buffalo died was that men in general and American pioneers in particular, when faced with a large animal, tend to go mad with blood lust.

“Wow. Look at that big, beautiful creature. I think I’ll kill it.”

The Buffalo slaughter continued through the late 1800’s. By the turn of the Century, an estimated fifty million Buffalo had been killed and left on the prairies to rot. There were only 300 Buffalo left in the Western Hemisphere. That number slowly grew to a few thousand over the next 70 years, but the North American Buffalo still teetered on the edge of extinction.

What saved the Buffalo, oddly enough, was a health fallacy foisted on the American people starting in the19 60’s. Doctors and Researchers wrote papers and articles proclaiming something that seemed so obvious on the surface that they decided it must be true – “Eating fat is what makes you fat!”  Unsaturated fats – those occurring naturally in meat and dairy products – were pointed to as the culprits. Ever since then people trying to lose weight have been told to go on “low fat” diets and force themselves to drink skim milk and spread margarine on their Wonder Bread. And the diets don’t work. Science now says, “Oops! We were wrong. It isn’t the unsaturated fat, that’s okay; it’s the carbohydrates that are actually making you obese.” But the Food Industry, having made a bundle on Lo-Fat Chipparoos and the like, isn’t having any of that. As long as there are “low-fat” products on the market and advertising media to tell you that they’re good for you, people will keep shuffling down to the WalMart Super Store to buy them.

This is where the Buffalo come in. Buffalo meat is much leaner meat than beef, pork, or chicken. It is also higher in protein. Demand for Buffalo meat started growing in the 60’s and Buffalo ranches began to spring up around the West. It’s pretty ironic that uncontrolled slaughter almost wiped the species out, while controlled slaughter is now insuring its longevity.

*******

One day my older brother Chuck, back from spending a few years in Australia, happened to run into George, the Rancher. George was an old friend of our family, the same guy who’d suffered me to work for a summer on his ranch out by Centennial.* George told Chuck that he’d sold that ranch and bought himself a place not too far away where he was raising Buffalo. Chuck found that fascinating and George invited him to come out sometime and have a look.

Not long afterward, Chuck was being shown around George’s Buffalo ranch.

“Those are some of the sturdiest corrals I’ve ever seen,” Chuck said.

“They have to be,” was George’s reply. “A full-grown bull can weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds and can run up to forty miles an hour. “ Then he looked up at the extra height of the top rail and said, “The damned things can jump a six-foot fence when they have a mind to.”

“But most of the pastures are fenced with standard barbed wire,” Chuck pointed out. “Does that keep them in?”

“All that keeps them in is that they don’t have any other place they’d rather be. If they want to leave they can just walk right through the barbed-wire fence. But the grass and the water are good here, plenty of hay in the winter, why leave?”

Chuck had a good time that evening and spent the night. In the morning, just as George’s wife Roberta was slipping a second stack of pancakes onto Chuck’s plate, George got a phone call. Afterward he came back in the kitchen with a disgruntled look on his face.

“That was Joe. He’s got a place up by Nellis Creek,” he said to Roberta. “Our buffalo just came through his East pasture. Edna’s got ‘em heading north.  I’ve gotta go turn ‘em.  Care to come along, Chuck?”

George pulled a leather rifle scabbard off a shelf in the hall closet, put a box of shells into his jacket pocket, whistled up his dog Jigger, and headed out to his Jeep. Chuck jumped into the passenger seat just before George popped the clutch and with a neck-snapping lurch, the old vehicle took off down a dirt path.

As they bounced along, George explained. “Buffalo are migratory animals by instinct. Also matriarchal. The leader of my bunch is an old cow we call Edna. Every spring she decides it’s time to head North and she just takes off and all the rest follow. Like I said, when they’ve got a mind to move, barbed wire doesn’t even slow ‘em down.”

As George said this they came upon a break in the fence. All four wires were broken and there was an obvious, trampled-down track through the prairie grass heading north. Following it, they soon came in sight of the herd in their slow and steady march. George saw a dirt track running parallel to the Buffalo’s direction, took it, and within a few minutes they had overtaken the leader. George pulled up the Jeep, removed a hunting rifle with a scope on it, and laid the weapon down on the hood. He took a few shells out of the ammunition box he’d brought and showed one to Chuck.

“Rubber bullets,” he explained. “I don’t want to hurt her, just give her something to think about.”

He loaded the shells into the rifle’s magazine and cradled the gun with his left hand on the hood of the Jeep. He pressed his cheek to the stock, looked through the scope and waited. Chuck watched Edna with her huge, wooly head swinging slowly back and forth plod steadily toward them. When she was about 50 feet away, George pulled the trigger. As the gun barked, Edna jumped backward about a foot, and then just stood there.

“Did you miss?” Chuck asked.

“Nope. I hit her right between the eyes. With that thick skull of hers, it couldn’t have done her much harm.”

Edna shook her head violently a couple of times as if to clear out the cobwebs, then started toward them again. George levered another shell into the chamber, took careful aim, and shot her again. This time, after a long pause, she turned around and headed back the way she’d come. All the other Buffalo, one-by-one, turned and followed her.

“She’ll take them back to the ranch,” George explained as he unloaded the rifle, checked to make sure it was empty, and then slid it back into the scabbard. “And there they’ll stay for at least another six months.”

“What happens in six months?”

“Fall migration. She’ll bust ‘em out again, this time heading South. And I’ll have to go after her and plunk her again two or three times to get her to turn around and lead ‘em back home. Like I said, the grass and the water are good there, plenty of hay in the winter, why leave?”

*******

*Look in the right-hand column for Tim versus the Tractor.

Onzas

What do you want to be when you grow up?”

When I was small, adults loved to ask kids this question because the answer would probably be pretty amusing. I’m sure adults still ask it. The boys would say, “a jet pilot” or “a cowboy” or “a fireman.” The girls would say (this was back in the 50’s) “I want to be a Mommy!”

But about the time a person is getting ready to graduate from High School, that question takes on a lot more serious tone. The human community requires a vast array of skills and talents, every member contributing their own expertise to help the commonality move forward. In Middle School and High School  every student takes aptitude tests (Would you prefer sitting in an office adding up columns of numbers or working in a forest cutting down trees with a chain saw?). But eventually, every person making the leap from school to real life must choose a pigeonhole to fit themselves into.

I decided, when I was sixteen, that I wanted to be involved in Entertainment either as a Writer or a Performer. This was not a popular decision, especially with the Old Man. He felt that I would come to my senses when I got to college. A few years later I enrolled. My Adviser’s advice was that if I wanted to write, I should major in Journalism. Not long after I had declared the major, it quickly became apparent that the rules of Journalism and I would forever be at odds. A reporter is expected to write only the Truth. He can’t “make a few things up” just to make it a good story. Being a lifelong story-embroiderer, I dropped out of the Journalism school. And since I didn’t see anything else there that I wanted to learn, I dropped out of the University of Wyoming as well.

After that I spent some time trying to be a professional Cartoonist. There were only two relatively minor problems with this plan. I couldn’t draw very well and I couldn’t come up with any decent jokes. Then, for a short time, I owned and operated a health food store in Laramie called “The Good Grits Granary.” Although I didn’t make any money at this, at least I didn’t starve. I had all the brown rice and buckwheat groats I could eat. And in the end I was able to sell it for enough money to buy a pair of conga drums.

By then I had been practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique for a couple of years and I decided that what I really wanted to do was to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and learn to be a TM teacher. I can remember taking my cleaned-up self and newly-cut hair out to the Old Man’s house for dinner. I told him that I had finally found my purpose in life and that I was going to bring enlightenment to the State of Wyoming.

He listened to my happy babble, then said, “Tell me something, have you given any thought to becoming a useful member of society?”

I did spend the next two years traveling around the State teaching meditation courses, then passed the torch to younger and more eager TM teachers and eventually found myself in Denver. That was when I decided that while I kept up the search for What I Really Wanted to do When I Grew Up, I really ought to come up with a fairly reliable way to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. I decided that I would learn to be a Carpenter.

There are several ways to learn the Woodbutcher trade. If your Uncle Charlie has a construction company, you can get him to hire you as a helper and then work your way up. Or if you know somebody in the Carpenters Union who can pull a few strings and get you an apprenticeship, you can start there. Or you might want to go into debt and attend a Trade School. Or you can take the knucklehead route, like I did, and lie. I read a couple of books on home construction, bought a used tool belt and filled it full of hand tools, then went to a local job site (Housing was a boom industry in Denver in those days) and gave them a short list of concocted places where I’d accumulated “experience.” After I was hired I tried to learn all I could before they fired me. When they did, I went out and applied elsewhere. By the second or third project, a foreman reluctantly decided to let me stay and for the next forty years I made a living cutting wood and pounding nails.

While I was in Denver (framing tract homes) I took some Improvisational Comedy courses and once again started jonesing for a Show Business career. Soon I was in Los Angeles trying to be a standup comedian (that nightmarish journey needs a blog post all its own*). My day job during that time was constructing redwood decks. A few years later I was living in Chicago, writing book and lyrics for Musical Theater productions while I built fireplace surrounds and wooden staircases for a gay-owned construction company. Not long after that I was back in LA, now married, installing whole kitchens full of factory-made cabinets and writing screenplays that nobody wanted to take the time to read. Looking back, my life story seems to be one of me chasing one rainbow after another, always leaving a trail of sawdust behind me.

*****

Whenever a Contractor gets a remodeling  job, it almost invariably requires some demolition. Whether you are removing a wall to make one big room out of two small ones, insulating and re-siding a house, or adding an addition to an existing structure, you will have to do some, or a lot of, demolition.

Demo is hard, grubby work that no skilled Carpenter likes to do. But, to make sure it’s done right, he usually ends up doing it himself. The only way to make it fun is to pretend that you might find some kind of hidden treasure within the walls or under the floor. For more than thirty years I pulled chunks of plaster down on my head, pried old cabinets off the wall, and cleaned wooden lath from old, hairy studs with a sledgehammer, always looking carefully at the formerly hidden spaces to see if they held any secrets.  Over the years I found various coins, several empty whiskey bottles, a pair of long, black women’s stockings, lots of old newspapers, and even an 80 year-old bill of construction materials. In short, a lot of semi-interesting stuff, but never anything that would qualify as “buried treasure.”

Then in the Spring of 2007 I began a full kitchen remodel job. It was in a condo in Playa Del Rey, one of LA’s string of beach communities. The client was a single man, the classic introverted software engineer, who had bought the place almost 20 years before and had done very little to it. He had recently replaced the refrigerator when it broke down, but the stove and dishwasher were the Avocado Green originals. My contract was to remove and dispose of everything except the new refrigerator, including the floor tile, then install all the new things he had picked out and ordered – cabinets, countertops, tile, sink, appliances, and backsplash.

The first job was to haul out the old appliances, but the stove would not move. Sometime in the past, someone had put a new layer of ceramic tile on the floor and instead of removing the stove, they had run the tile an inch or so under the appliance and called it good. By doing so, they had covered the feet of the stove with adhesive, tile, and grout. Over the years it had hardened up and firmly attached the stove to the floor. So I removed all the cabinets, then started tearing up the tile. When I had finally freed the feet of the stove, I used a crowbar to pop it up off the floor, then I picked it up and set it back down a few feet away. There on the floor were three heavy muslin cloth bags. They had been sitting underneath that stove for a long time.

I made a little table out of a scrap of plywood and two sawhorses, hefted the weighty bags up onto it, and unloaded them. They contained sixteen rolls of Mexican Silver Onzas, twenty coins in a roll. Each of these solid silver coins, i found out later, was worth about $13.00. I had just pulled more than four thousand dollars out from under that old stove.

Now the proverbial angel on one shoulder and the proverbial devil on the other began a full-on donnybrook that left my conscience bruised and my stomach queasy. On the one hand, I could just carry the whole lot out to my truck and never mention it to my client. That he had not himself removed them before I began the demo made it clear that he had no idea that they were there. But could I live with myself if I did that? But on the other hand, could I just say, “Look what I found. They’re in your house, so they must be yours. Congratulations!” Could I do that and not sneer at myself in the mirror, “You milktoast weenie. What the Hell is wrong with you?”

That evening, when my client got home from work, I was waiting for him. The piles of Onzas were still on the little makeshift table. I described to him where they had been and how I had found them. Then I said, “If you want all of them, I won’t argue. But I’m proposing that we split them down the middle, half for you and half for me.” He agreed and we shook hands on it.

As we were counting out the split, he told me that he had bought the condo from the family of an old man who had died there. All the silver coins were dated 1987 and he’d bought the place in 1988. We decided that the old man must have purchased the coins and squirreled them away against some emergency. Either out of forgetfulness or spite he then neglected to tell his family.

Even now I haven’t yet figured out what I really ought to be when I grow up, but I also haven’t given up trying to find out. Now and then I toy with the thought that what Nature intended for me all along was to be a “Treasure Hunter.” And in that one afternoon in 2007, I shot my bolt.

 

Washington Park: Kites and Bandshells

When I was about two – so I am told, I remember nothing – my parents bought a house way out on the East edge of Laramie, just across 18th Street from a City park.

The land for the Park was reserved in the early half of the 20th Century. At first it was just sagebrush and occasional tufts of wild grass, indistinguishable from the prairie land that surrounded it. But over the years the brush was pulled out, the land was graded, water pipes installed, and trees and grass were planted. By the time we Peltons had moved into the house at 1717 Kearney, the big, empty space had become Washington Park.

As I grew, the City Parks Department made just the improvements that I needed. When I got old enough to hang by my knees from a horizontal steel pipe, a playground was added with monkey bars, teeter-totters, a merry-go-round, and swings. When I got to be ten, Little League came to Laramie and the Eastern end of Washington Park was turned into two back-to-back baseball fields. I was to spend the better parts of the next three Summers sitting on benches next to batting cages and chanting, “Hey batta batta! Swing batta batta!”* When the baseball season ended we scrounged up a football and choose sides for games after school and on weekends. Obligingly, the Parks Department flattened out the hump that had run down the middle of the park where the old water lines had been laid.

I started to wonder if they had an employee keeping track of my friends and me just to see what the next thing we might need would be. The air went quickly out of that pompous theory when they put in a six inch-deep wading pool.

*******

In the Spring, “a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love” but a young boy’s fancy turns to kites. For 15 cents you could buy a kite kit – two balsawood sticks and an elongated diamond-shaped piece of paper printed with a loud, colorful design. Fifty cents more for a couple of balls of string and some strips of cloth from the rag-bag and you were ready to become the Master of the Skies.  It took 10 or 15 minutes to assemble a kite – there were always instructions printed on the kite itself – and this included the time to tie together those 4 or 5 strips of cloth for a tail. Once it was together you were off to Washington Park to get that puppy airborne.

The picture or cartoon of a kid holding onto a string, running like a madman, and dragging a kite behind him on the ground is pretty much a cliché in most parts of the country. If you have little or no wind, you try to make do with muscle power. In Laramie, lack of wind was never a problem. All you had to do was pay out about fifty feet of string and then have a friend pull the kite back until the string was taut and let it go. The ever-present wind would immediately lift the kite into the air. The main concern was that a sudden, strong gust could snap the string or wreck the kite. Then you would find yourself running and shouting, “No, no!” as your kite fluttered toward the trees and power lines at the far end of the park.

Getting the kite into the air was exciting, but once it was up there, well, things got pretty monotonous. You could pull the string this way and that, hoping to get the kite to dive, or pump the string trying to make it climb higher, but all that had little effect. The kite just floated up there waving at you stupidly. Now when one is standing there, bored and holding onto a stick to which one end of a kite string is attached, one of the best things you can hope for is too see a Young Father walk into the park with a little kid or two in tow and a kite in his hand.

Young Fathers always seem to have a problem reading directions. Perhaps they don’t want to let their offspring know that The Old Man is, in truth, not some variety of omniscient god. To make a kite fly properly, you must tie a piece of string to one end of the horizontal cross stick, then pull it tightly enough that this stick bends into a bow before you tie the string to the other end. This is explained in detail in the instructions that the Young Father disdains to read.

Once the Young Father’s kite, minus the necessary bow-string, is in the air, it spins around in a couple of big circles before crashing into the ground. We ten-year-old kite-flying veterans, stony-faced, sidle together and give each other elbows. After several of these whirling crashes, the Young Father comes up with a solution – add more tail! I have seen kites whirling helplessly in circles with twenty feet of torn rags tied into a long tail, one end of which is attached to the kite and the other end is dragging on the grass. And the Young Father is looking speculatively at his son’s T-shirt.

*******

When kids get together, some type of game will almost invariably start up. In our end of town, if it was a game that didn’t require a lot of real estate, like “Swing the Statue” or “Freeze Tag,” someone’s front or side yard would usually suffice. But if you needed space, you went across the street to the Park. If you didn’t have enough kids for a pickup baseball game, you could play “500.” One guy would hit balls fungo-style to two to five kids standing about 100 feet away. Catching a ball on the fly was worth 50 points, a one-hopper was 30, a two-hopper was 20, and a grounder was 10. Whoever got to 500 first took over the bat.

If there were enough kids to put together two teams (a minimum of five on each side) then we’d use the concrete-and-stucco structure known as the Bandshell as a backstop.

In 1940 the Works Progress Administration, the largest and most ambitious of FDR’s New Deal programs, built an Art Deco-style bandshell on the Southwest Corner of Washington  Park. The structure consists of a 3 foot high semicircular concrete platform with a curved back wall like a section from an egg shell (hence the name). A high elliptical arch fronts the shell and acts as a proscenium. The whole thing is sturdily-built and faced with a thick, white stucco. That this structure was built nearly 80 years ago by mostly unskilled men using only hand tools is something of a marvel.

When I was 11 and 12, I played baseball in two different areas of Washington Park. On the Eastern, Little League, end of the Park I learned not only the rudiments of the game, but also some of its nuances. I learned things like hitting the cut-off man, bluffing the runner back to the base, and the Infield Fly Rule. On the Western, sandlot-style end of the Park I learned how to cuss. I learned what adjectives went with what nouns, what words would get you a laugh, and what words would get you a fight. Now as an adult I can watch a game on television and thoroughly enjoy the subtleties of a game that others might find tedious. And if an umpire makes an obviously terrible call against my favorite team, I can scream at the TV set in Technicolor.

*******

Every Summer, from June through August, Tuesday night was Band Concert night. The Band consisted of male volunteers who had played instruments in marching bands in High School and College and though they were engaged in a variety of other occupations, still had that itch to play. I should say that I don’t remember ever seeing a woman up on the bandshell stage tootling out her part of “Lady of Spain.” More than likely, when it came to brass bands and social norms of the time, the only instrument a female participant was allowed to hold was a baton.

As the sun was setting on a typical Tuesday afternoon, people carrying blankets and picnic baskets began staking out areas of grass in front of the bandshell. At the same time, musicians appeared on the bandshell stage setting up chairs and music stands. As the last warm light of the sunset faded and the blue of the skies turned to purple, the musicians, in black suits and white shirts, were in their chairs and ready. The Conductor raised his hands and the music began. Out on the lawn, about 200 people sat quietly and listened. Behind them, 30 or 40 kids did neither.

When you’re an adult, it requires a certain amount of self-discipline and responsibility to stop sitting quietly and to get up and run around. When you’re a kid it’s just the opposite. We had just spent an entire Winter trying to sit quietly in school and it was finally summer. We ran everywhere. While the adults sat on their blankets and listened to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Blue Danube,” behind them the kids were running the four-minute mile with Roger Bannister and being American jets dive-bombing the Commies. Being ever agreeable to us kids, the Laramie Parks Department had scheduled Monday as the day the grass on the West end of Washington Park was to be mowed. A small tractor pulling a gang of reel-type mowers reduced the quickly -growing grass to a level surface. And all that recently-cut grass was left lying on top of it. By Tuesday night, these clippings were perfect for scooping up and throwing.

That a handful of grass would not pack together like a snowball meant only that a kid had to be much closer to his target. Two or three feet away and running at full speed was optimal. During all this, a cheerful attitude was important. Anyone who got angry or vengeful could find himself being held down while his T-shirt and pants were stuffed with itchy clippings.

Finally, and always too soon, the band would strike up “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the concert would come to an end. While the adults folded blankets and picked up sleeping toddlers, we kids would be shaking the grass clippings out of our clothes as we headed for home. As we walked, we talked about the next day- what we could do for fun and how we could avoid the chores that our parents were undoubtedly scheduling for us.

*******

*Watch for an upcoming post called “Little League”