Mom takes the Plane Back Home

My mother had always suffered from hay fever. When her eyes started watering and her nose itched and ran, you knew that some weed, tree, or flower had just loosed its pollen into the world. Her raucous sneezes were legendary and always came in groups of three. We lived in Laramie, Wyoming and she didn’t seem to mind the fierce winter cold and wind as much as others did, probably because those were the times that nothing was blooming.

While I was in High School, Mom made a decision. At the time, she was a very good painter of pretty pictures – landscapes, flowers, and portraits – but she wanted to give her artwork more depth and meaning. Unsure of how to find the way on her own, she enrolled in the Fine Arts program at the University of Wyoming.  When I joined the Air Force a few years later, she had her MFA, she had built a studio on the back of our house, and she was creating paintings that had strength and passion.

When I came home on leave a year and a half later she was a different person. She could only sit for a few hours in the Living Room, barely able to find the strength to hold a book, let alone paint. Her hay fever had turned into full-blown Asthma.  Her allergies had multiplied. Not only pollen, but house dust, pet dander, many different foods, even the linseed oil in her paints could trigger an attack.

“The worst part of being slowly strangled,” she said in between ragged wheezing breaths, “is the panic. Any sharp emotion only makes it worse. It becomes an awful spiral.”

That evening I woke up to noise upstairs and a flashing red light outside my window. I came out to see her on a gurney being wheeled to the front door by a couple of EMT’s. She took a puff on an inhaler, then weakly waved to me as if to say, “don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”  At the Hospital it was touch and go until one of her Doctors realized that she had developed an allergy to the CFC’s that powered the inhalers she was puffing on. They started her on a course of prednisone injections and by the time I left, she was back in her studio making sketches for her next painting.

Her letters during the following months described the roller-coaster ride she was on from health to near-suffocation and back again without warning or schedule. She was a person who, concerned that I might worry, always found ways to make her situation interesting and amusing. From a hospital in Albuquerque she wrote, “I have decided to write something other than ‘Christian ‘ on the admitting forms. I’ve just had the second dreary older couple come to my room to ask me if I was ready to meet the Lord. Next time I’ll put down ‘Zen-Buddhist’ just to see who shows up.”

A couple of months later she was in Denver General Hospital and wrote, “Well, some young sleep-deprived Resident just tried to kill me, but I’m still kickin’. He glanced at my chart, did not see the ‘Strong Allergy to Aspirin’ note, and told the nurse to give me something that happened to have aspirin in it. A few minutes later I went into anaphylaxsis, my bronchial tubes completely squeezed shut,  and after a few wild moments I was dead. All I remember is a comfortable darkness, then coming awake to find an oxygen mask pressed over my face and people shouting weird questions at me. ‘What is your name?’ they yelled. ‘Where do you live?’ Deciding to forego any smartass answers, I told them. They must have been satisfied because they packed up their crash cart, said ‘Welcome Back,’ and went away. They left a nurse to pick up the joint. Evidently I flopped around a lot before I croaked, knocking over every IV pole, blood pressure machine, and bed table I could reach.”

It wasn’t until the next time I got back home that she told me the rest of the story. After another week in Denver General, she had recovered somewhat, but was not happy.  In her case, “not happy” was generally accompanied by “not healthy.” She felt overwhelmed by the size and coldness of a big institution and felt that if she could just go back to the little hospital in Laramie, she would recover faster.

Arrangements were made to put her on a flight from Denver to Laramie. In 1966, Frontier Airlines was flying the Convair 580 on its short-distance flights. Thirty-four seats and faster than a DC-3, but not much. Mom went by ambulance to Stapleton International, by wheelchair to the airplane, and up the stairs and into her seat under her own power. She was wearing a hospital gown, covered by a bath robe, and had a blanket wrapped around her. The Stewardess (that was what they were called in 1966) helped her get seat belt fastened and get settled.  Mom prepared herself for what she knew was going to be an ordeal.

My Mother had always been subject to motion sickness. From experience in boats and other airplanes, she knew that if she were to open up and use one of the little bags conveniently tucked into a pocket on the back of the seat in front of her, she would keep puking all the way to Laramie. For the first half of the flight the air was smooth, her stomach was fine, and she began to relax. But then the plane began to cross the Southern end of the Laramie mountains. Updrafts and down drafts began to shake and bounce the little airliner. Although her insides also began to bounce and shake, Mom grimly held on. Her jaws were clenched and beads of cold sweat were standing out on her forehead, but her breakfast was staying in place.

Then  they were out over the Great Basin in the Laramie Valley, only a few minutes from landing at Brees Field. She had made it.

The airplane suddenly dropped like a stone, stopped with a bang, and shot back up again. Mom grabbed the little bag and shoved her hand in to snap it open. What neither she, nor the airline, knew was that someone on a previous flight had used it, then carefully flattened it out and returned it to its pocket. Mom shoved her hand into a bag of cold vomit. Then she threw up in her lap.

The poor stewardess apologized profusely as she tried to clean Mom up with all she had for the job – a little box of Kleenex tissues. My mother just sat there and wept.

Asthma, with all its complications and triggers, is a little bit different for every person who suffers from it. For this reason, it is difficult to treat. It took more than a few years of working with different doctors and different treatments before she was able to find some stability and get back to her life and her art.

She lived for another forty years.

 

 

 

Standup

It was sometime near the beginning of 1967 that I first fell in love with the idea of becoming a standup comedian.  For some people, just the thought of standing all alone on a stage in front of a big group of people and saying things that you hope will make them laugh would be the worst nightmare imaginable. To me, it seemed like my dream job.

How did this love affair begin? It was a conversation I fell into with a couple of guys in the University of Wyoming Student Union.  They’d sat down to talk to a mutual friend and happened to mention an audition they were preparing for.

“What sort of audition?” I asked.

“Every year the University sends a sort of variety talent show called “Wyo Days” out on tour around the state. They stop at High Schools and do shows,” one of them said. “The purpose is to get kids excited about enrolling at dear old Yewdub.”

“Bill and I play guitars and sing folk songs, like The Brothers Four minus Two, or the Kingston Duo.” the other added.

I laughed appreciatively, then asked, “What kind of acts are they looking for?”

“Just about everything but Contortionists and Clog Dancers. There’s a poster out in the lobby. Check it out.”

I quickly found the poster in question and looked it over carefully. There on the list of acceptable acts, in between “Singers” and “Musicians of every kind” was the word “Comedians.”  Fifteen minutes later I had booked an audition time for myself.

Now you’re probably wondering what a person who’d never done standup comedy before was going to use for material. First, I should say I had done it before – at parties and in front of small groups of friends – and what I had used for material then was what I planned to use again. And that was Brother Dave Gardner.

When my older brother Chuck was in the Air Force and stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi he went once to a club to see a comedian called Brother Dave Gardner. The guy made him laugh, so he bought his album and eventually brought it back home to Laramie. Brother Dave was a Southern comedian. Very Southern. He had a thick Southern accent and told jokes and stories about the South. Consequently, nobody in the North had ever heard of him. So I shamelessly stole from him everything I could. I rewrote some of his Southern vernacular into “Northernese.”  “Stewed Tomato Okra sammiches” became “Deviled Egg and Mashed Potato Sammitches.” And his statement, “The other day I was in Hot Springs Arkansas where I saw them stupid, ignorant Southerners sellin’ water… to them brilliant Yankees” became “The other day I was in Thermopolis where I saw those stupid, ignorant Thermopolians sellin’ water… to those brilliant tourists.”

I did ten minutes of Brother Dave’s material at the audition and was invited to join the tour.

The auditions were held a couple of weeks before Winter Finals and rehearsals began a few days after the beginning of the new term. One of the requirements for being included on the tour was that everyone had to have at least a 2.0 Grade Point Average. When grades for the previous semester were released, two people had lost their places. The Tour Managers asked me to stay behind after the next rehearsal. It seemed that one of the losses was the Master of Ceremonies and the other was the bass player. They asked me if I would be interested in taking over the MC’s job as well as keeping my own standup slot.

“Sure,” I said. I have always felt that the best way of determining whether or not the water was over my head was to jump in first.

“By the way,” I added. “I was the bass player in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands in High School. I have a bass. If you can find me an amplifier, I can probably fill in for you there as well.”

Full disclosure: I wasn’t very good at playing the bass and I had no idea how to be an MC. I just thought, “I’ve been watching Ed Sullivan every Sunday night for years, how hard could it be?” What I found out was that it isn’t hard to be adequate, but it’s very difficult to be good. And as for my bass playing, they really only needed a bass player for the Herb Alpert song “Tijuana Taxi.” They had me wear a big, bouncy sombrero and dance around. When it came time for my solo – the five notes at the end of every verse that are followed by an ooga horn – if I flubbed it up I could just pull a funny face and let it become part of the act.

At the end of our little two-week tour I came back with stars not just in my eyes but running out over the tops of my socks. Of course, I was not taking into account that I had been working in front of some of the easiest audiences on the planet – once I’d poked a few insults at the school that was their biggest rival, they loved me.  No, I only heard the raucous laughter as it had washed back at me from those crowds. I was ready to go out, grab the world by the lapels and say, “I got some jokes you’re gonna love!” I only lacked one thing: the courage to try.

Perhaps in the quiet caverns in the back of my brain I was waiting for a little group of sycophants to come along who would help me, buck me up, write material for me, and be my biggest fans. What I didn’t realize was that when you have done all those things for yourself and no longer need anyone to do them for you, that’s the time when all those people will show up.

It was in the Spring of 1989, more than twenty years later, that I packed up the Blue Goose – my old Dodge Van – and headed for Southern California. I had been regularly appearing at a small club in Denver that was trying out Comedy Night one night a week and I felt I was ready. I had vowed to stop cribbing from Brother Dave and had written about 10 minutes of original material. These jokes had not gone over particularly well in Denver but I convinced myself that they were just too “cutting-edge” for the Denver bumpkins and would “kill” in Los Angeles.

So I began a two-year journey through the grim and terrifying Pits of Hell that were the Los Angeles comedy clubs’ open-mic nights. Most LA comedy clubs give the slowest night of the week over to amateur comedians looking for a break. Whether it was The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, The Hollywood Improv , or the Icehouse in Pasadena, the routine was the same. The amateurs line up and take a number, then wait. First come professional comics who want to try out new material, and then newly-minted professionals hoping to impress the management of the club enough to consider taking them on as a regular. Finally, around 10:30, the beginning comedians are introduced and take the stage one-by-one. By that time the audience has mostly gone home leaving seven or eight people who are either too drunk to leave or who enjoy heckling nervous amateurs.

I was told it was helpful to record all your performances, even the ones that bombed, for there might be a few good nuggets that worked and that you could use again. I found one of those old tapes years later and it was painful just to listen to it. First would be my voice telling a joke, then a period of absolute silence broken only by the sound of a chair being scooted out. Then a nervous giggle from me, then another joke told with a quavery voice. And on from there.

I absorbed nearly three years of this punishment, all the while telling myself that I just had to stick it out a little bit longer and learn a little bit more. Eventually I had to admit that this was another one of those things – like learning to play the piano – that I would never be able to do. What finally began the process of pushing me out the door was a comedian named Danny Mora, trying to be helpful, who told me the secret to stand up comedy.

“The secret,” he said, “is your Comic Attitude. You have to find out what is the Point of View that makes you funny. What is the attitude toward the world that makes people laugh with you. Once you find that, strip everything else away and build your material around it. Look at Rodney Dangerfield. For years he banged around the LA clubs doing his one-liners and getting nowhere. Then one day he came up with “I don’t get no respect!” and suddenly his voice, his gestures, his jokes all fell together and he took off like a Roman Candle. To put it another way, you have to have such an obvious Comic Attitude that a skilled mimic can see your act 2 or 3 times and be able to do a spot-on impression of you.”

And I couldn’t do it. I could tell jokes, pull silly faces, and do crazy characters in funny stories. But as far as my own special point-of-view I was clueless. I lurched about town for a few months, trying different things out, until I finally realized that all these efforts were little more than Cheez-Whiz – something inauthentic concocted from mostly non-organic ingredients.

So with a heart much lighter than you would expect, I finally bid goodbye to the dream of spending my nights in bars telling smutty jokes to drunks and moved to Iowa.

Scuba Diving in Wyoming

Sixty feet isn’t a long distance. It’s only about two-thirds of the way from home plate to first base. But when you’re sitting on the bottom of a lake that’s sixty feet deep, it can sure seem like a long, long way to the surface.

*******

My older brother Chuck joined the Air Force in the early 60’s and was assigned to Electronics School at Kessler Air Force Base near Biloxi Mississippi. While he was there he became friends with several other guys who were all crazy about scuba diving. In short order, Chuck had purchased a full scuba diving rig with tank, regulator, mask, weight belt, fins, and a wet suit. He enjoyed his time underwater with his friends and hoped that wherever the Air Force posted him, it would be somewhere with a lot of interesting scuba diving possibilities. The dear old Air Force, with its twisted sense of humor, posted Chuck to Diyarbakir Air Station in the middle of the Turkish desert.

Chuck, home on Leave before traveling to the Middle East, showed me where he had stowed his scuba gear in the garage and said that if I ever wanted to use it, that would be okay as long as I got Certified first.  I told him I was grateful for the thought but didn’t think I’d have the opportunity.

Then the family wished him Good Luck and Godspeed and he was gone. After returning, he told me a bunch of stories about his Turkish adventures, enough to fill at least a couple of these blogs, but those are his stories and you’ll have to get him to tell them to you.

Several months after Chuck left, it was early Spring and my friend Tom-from-across-the-alley suddenly developed an interest in scuba diving. Since I have always been easily recruited – the madder the scheme the better – in very little time I was eager and ready to go. After all, I already had the equipment. Luckily for us, there were some divers already living in Laramie who had formed a club. Their leader, his official title was Divemaster, was a young man named Tom Atwell.

Under the auspices of the club, we neophytes learned about our equipment, passed our tests, and were given Certifications from some national organization. Thereafter there were club meetings and excursions to dive at nearby Lake Hattie. About half the time of the meetings was spent planning the big club outing in early June to Guernsey Reservoir. The other half was listening to Tom Atwell’s diving stories.

One story was about the first time he came face-to-face with a sea bass. The creature was so ugly Tom nearly spit out his mouthpiece and drowned. Or there was the one about the time he and another man were paid the almost-unheard-of sum of a dollar a minute to dive into a local reservoir in the Winter to fix a clogged outlet. Or there was the story about the time he was diving in Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody. The Buffalo Bill Dam, at 360 feet high, is the tallest dam in the United States. So the water on the other side of it is about 300 feet deep. Up near the dam, so deep they had to use powerful underwater lights, he and another diver saw Rainbow Trout that were easily 6 or 7 feet long. Had spear fishing been legal, they could have fed a dozen people on one of these monster-size trout.

Now, there are two problems with scuba diving in Wyoming. One is that the water is cold. The top few feet may have been warmed by the sun enough to swim in without protection. But as you go deeper you enter layers where the temperature suddenly drops substantially. These are called “thermoclines.” A lake of any depth usually has three. In Wyoming, the top layer is “cold,” the middle layer is “really, really cold,” and the bottom layer is “Yikes!” To combat this, a diver wears a “wet suit.” This is a close-fitting neck-to-ankle neoprene suit about three-eighths of an inch thick. It soaks up the cold water like a sponge, and then holds a very thin layer of it against your skin. Your body heats that film of water up and suddenly, miraculously, you are warm.

The second problem is that most of the smaller, shallower lakes in the State are murky. The inflow and outflow of water creates currents and the silt never has a chance to completely settle. And that was the reason for the expedition to Guernsey Reservoir. All that Spring, as the snow in the mountains melted, the reservoir had been slowly filling up. But the farmers downstream traditionally don’t need irrigation water until the middle of June or later.

“If we can get there no later than the second weekend in June,” Tom the Divemaster told us, “we’ll have crystal-clear water to dive in.”

And so it turned out to be. There I was sitting on the bottom of the lake next to the boat anchor and looking up the anchor line. I could clearly see the bottom of the boat floating on the surface sixty feet away and divers entering the water by rolling backward off the boat.

Being deep under water with a scuba tank on your back is an amazing thing. If you’ve balanced the flotation of the wet suit with your weight belt, you are neutrally buoyant. You neither float up nor sink down. A push of your hand or a kick of your flippers and you are headed in any direction. Fish swim by with minor curiosity, then go on about their business. Plants and rocks on the bottom of the lake become mysteries that must be explored.

After what seemed like only a few minutes of this, my breath became harder and harder to draw and I realized I was running out of air. A single scuba tank being used at 60 feet will provide enough air for about half an hour of diving time. Rather than leaving me in deep water unable to breathe, the equipment designers provided a safety measure called a “J Valve.” Along the side of my tank there was a wire with a loop on the end that, when pulled, would give me the five more minutes of air that I would need to get easily to the surface.

I pulled the valve, took a couple of deep breaths, and decided that rather than go back up to the boat it would be more fun to paddle back to the shore along the bottom of the lake. I must have lost track of time again because it was surprising to be once more running out of air. There was no second J Valve to pull. With a thrill of fear, I kicked toward the surface. But what had seemed like very little air in my lungs steadily expanded to become plenty of air as the water pressure decreased. My head broke the surface only about twenty yards off shore.

Although I went on a couple more diving trips to some of the nearby murky lakes, due to a newly-acquired Summer Job it was not possible for me to go on the rest of the club’s major diving expeditions that season. And then, just as luck had brought me to Scuba Diving, the currents of my life shifted once more and I was to never again find myself bubbling my way through deep water. But I will never forget the joy of it.

It would not do to end this ramble without telling you my favorite of Tom Atwell’s stories.

Tom and several of the club’s more experienced divers would, during the long Wyoming Winter, get the urge to go underwater. Since they couldn’t afford to fly to Cozumel, they would drive out to Lake Hattie, chop a hole in the ice and dive in. Actually, when proper preparations were made, doing this was feasible. A little crazy, yes, but definitely feasible.

The main danger involved in diving under the ice is not, as you would expect, the risk of heart failure when you first jump into the icy cold water. It is that once you are in the water more than a few feet down, if you look back up toward the hole you can’t see it. All you see is your lifeline going up into a general glare. This rope that is firmly tied to you becomes literally what its name implies. If it is broken or lost you can only feel your way around under the ice sheet hoping to find the hole before your air runs out.

To dive under the ice, one first has to have an extra thick wetsuit that includes a hood, gloves, and booties. Tom and a couple of his friends were so equipped. Just as he was preparing to jump in, Tom recognized an ice fisherman, a friend of his Father’s named Frank, who had set up his stool next to a hole in the ice about 50 feet away. Frank had had his back to the divers the whole time and didn’t know what was going on, so Tom decided to play a little prank on him. Tom took a careful compass reading of the ice fisherman’s position, and then entered the water.

With an eye on the compass, and after his body temperature had normalized, Tom swam down to the bottom of the lake and picked up a handful of waterweeds that were growing there. Tom’s diving glove was black neoprene with a bright yellow line that ran around the tips of each of its three fingers. Wrapping the weeds around his left hand, he checked the compass again, and kicked upwards.

Tom proceeded slowly under the ice sheet, feeling his way until he found Frank’s ice fishing hole. Chuckling to himself, he put his left arm up through the hole and patted it around on the ice. Then he put his head up through the hole, pulled his mask off, and prepared to say, “I gave you a start there, didn’t I?”

The stool was knocked over, the pole and tackle box were left on the ice, Frank was about 70 feet away and running as hard as he could go.

 

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”

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.

 

 

The Prisoner Has a Phone Call

I was in the United States Air Force from August of 1964 to January of 1966. Anyone who can count on their fingers (and even some who can’t) will tell you that that only amounts to about 18 months.

“The standard hitch for a volunteer in the Air Force is four years. So, what gives?”

The simple truth is that the Air Force, unable to stand it any longer, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, marched me to the door, and threw me out into the street. This happened under the auspices of section 39-16 of the United Code of Military Justice, to wit: “sloth, defective attitudes, and inability to expend effort constructively.”

Basically, I couldn’t get up in the morning. At least not at 5:30 or whatever ungodly hour they were expecting me to be upright. Never could. Still can’t. Oh, I can do it under special circumstances – like if there’s a fire, or the dog is throwing up on the bed – but as a daily habit? Um… no.

After I had completed Language Training in Indiana and spent two weeks at home on leave, I was ordered to report to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas for Voice Intercept Training. The trip down there was not one of my stellar moments. I missed two planes out of four – one I was asleep as the plane took off, the other I missed because I was engrossed in a comic book – and I arrived, instead of the six hours early as I’d planned, three hours late.

The lateness resulted in me losing the small promotion I’d gotten two weeks earlier. It also meant that there was no more room in the barracks with my friends from the Indiana school and  I was assigned to a bunk in another barracks among strangers. With no one to pull me out of bed at the crack of dawn, it wasn’t long before I’d slept through some mandatory early morning formation and I was once again in hot water.

Voice Intercept was, at the time, some pretty secret stuff and all of us had been preliminarily vetted for a Top Secret security clearance. We were all on “casual status” – doing KP and mopping floors – while we waited for the final okay before we could start school. Seeing this propensity for tardiness on my record, I was ordered to undergo a Psychiatric Evaluation.

I was half an hour late for the appointment.

The psychiatrist decided that I wasn’t dangerously deranged, I was just a “doofus” (I think that’s the clinical expression).  The Squadron Commander decided the best way to deal  with doofusness was to get tough. And so I was Court Martialed.

Right now you are probably imagining a military courthouse full of uniforms covered in gold braid and an angry Prosecutor yelling, “Why were you late? Tell the truth!” and me yelling back, “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” That is called a General Court Martial and they are somewhat rare. What I underwent was a Summary Court Martial consisting of me and a lieutenant who acted as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense. There were “extenuating circumstances” (I had had Baker’s KP the night before one of these heinous offenses against common decency and had only been allowed three hours sleep) so instead of the usual sentence of four weeks at hard labor, I only was required to serve two.

I was taken to the base Law Enforcement Center and escorted into the Stockade. This took up about half of the building’s available floor space, the other half being devoted to the Front Desk, offices, and meeting rooms of the Air Police. The Stockade consisted of a bunk room with eight or ten bunks, a recreation room with five jigsaw puzzles, all with multiple missing pieces, and two solitary confinement cells which were never locked. Why were they never locked? Because I was the only one in there. Both the recreation room and the bunk room had barred doors into the Air Police’s front desk area so Goodfellow AFB’s Finest could keep an eye on me. I guess they wanted to make sure I didn’t start any one-man prison riots or beat myself up in the shower.

I was actually looking forward to the “Hard Labor” part of the sentence, figuring at least the time would pass quickly. I did spend a day or two on the floor of some building scraping up years of accumulated dirt and floor wax with a razor blade, but for the most part it was two weeks of Hard Boredom.

I did have company for three of those days. A Sailor was picked up on his parents’ nearby farm for being AWOL from the Navy for the previous two months and he was dropped for safe keeping at the nearest military prison – mine. His name was Andy and he was jaw-droppingly stupid. He and a friend had sailed into the Port of  San Diego, climbed off their ship, cashed their paychecks, and with the proceeds obtained a motel room and a full, twenty-four bottle case of cheap whisky. He said they drank until they passed out and upon waking, drank until they passed out again. When the whisky was gone, so was their ship.

“As long as I was already AWOL, I figured what the hell I might as well go see the family.”  So he used the last of his money to buy a bus ticket to Texas.

Andy had two hobbies. Most of the time he spent with a Big Chief Tablet and a pencil designing bad tattoos. After he had finished one of his creations and proudly showed it to me, he was a little disappointed that I couldn’t make out what it was. “It’s a damned skull that’s on fire and has a dagger stickin’ through it. Anybody could see that!” His other past time was crawling on his belly as quietly as he could under bunks and around furniture so he could grab me by the ankle and shout, “Gotcha!”

I moved into one of the Solitary Confinement cells until  a couple of Shore Patrolmen arrived to take him back to San Diego.

One evening, about ten days into my sentence, I heard a telephone ring.  It barely registered with me because the telephone out on the Duty Desk rang frequently. Had I known it was my Mother on the other end of the line, I would have given it more attention.

Since she had not heard from me since I left home the last time, Mom had decided to get on the phone and track me down. In my defense, I had vowed to myself to call her as soon as I was out of the jug and tell her everything was hunky-dory. If I mentioned my little contretemps with military law at all it would be to dismiss it as an amusing misunderstanding.

Not having much information except the name and city of the Air Force Base, she called Base HQ which referred her to Wing HQ which referred her to Squadron HQ which, not being able to find me on the list of Active Personnel referred her back to Wing. She was getting pretty rattled by then and the fellow who said, “Oh. I think they’ve got him over at Base Security. Let me connect you,” didn’t help.

The phone rang. The man who answered it said, “Air Police. Desk Sergeant Jones,” then held the receiver up over his head and yelled, “Hey! The Prisoner has a phone call!”

By the time someone had opened the gate and walked me out to the telephone, Mom was a hopeless, sobbing wreck. All she could say was, “p-p-p-prisoner?” It took about eight minutes of the ten minutes I was allotted to calm her down, reassure her that I was being treated well, and my only crime was not being able to get out of bed in the morning. I promised her I’d call as soon as I was out and, as Sgt. Jones was tapping on the crystal of his watch, told her I loved her.

She hung up with, “Well, just remember, we love you…” leaving unspoken the rest of the sentence, “…even if they don’t.”

As soon as I was released, my Squadron Commander informed me that since I had, during my year-and-a-half in uniform, accumulated two non-judicial punishments and a Court Martial, I was eligible under the above-mentioned Article 39-16, to be booted out of the Service. And that he was starting said proceedings forthwith.

For about an hour I was devastated. Then several of my friends became so jealous they were angry with me and I began to think that maybe things would be okay. By the time we got to the bottom of the second pitcher of beer at the bowling alley, my future had been lit by a rosy glow.

They teach you in Basic Training that getting out of the Air Force in any other manner than completing a full four-year hitch meant that your life was ruined. No college would ever accept you, no employer would ever hire you. I am happy to say that this is a complete bag of lies. My particular Discharge was classed “Honorable,” meaning, I suppose, that I did my best but I was just not cut out for military life. I have never had any employer or institution so much as ask how long I served or what class of Discharge I was given.

It took a month of being bounced around among a myriad of different departments and offices before I was finally escorted to the front gate.  There were no drums, nobody ripping insignia from my shoulders, no lines of troops turning their faces away. Just the click of the gate closing behind me as I walked to the bus station.