Today, I am starting Section 2 of my book, “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.” This section is titled, “Growing Up in a Graveyard,” which reflects that my first wilderness came with tombstones and ghosts. In Section 1, I took you along on the first backpacking trek I ever led. I quickly learned that leading 61 people aged 11-70 on a 100-mile trip across the Sierra Nevada Range came with challenges, to say the least. I spent a lot of time asking myself what in the world led me to do it. I begin to answer those questions in this section by taking you back further in time to the events in my childhood that led me to my love of the outdoors. Admittedly, the 1940s and 50s were a while ago. I’ve picked out the stories that are clearest in my mind and most relevant. Some, I’ve thrown in just for fun.
I can still hear the clanking treads and feel the bite of the blade as my D-8 dug into the side of the steep hill. Dirt and rocks tumbled into the canyon below. I was working alone, cutting a logging road across mountainous terrain. The hot September summer sun was beating down; my body was drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. And then it happened. A portion of the cliff gave away— and the bulldozer went tumbling off the edge.
“Oh, fuck!” I had yelled.
It was a wonderful word, one that I had learned from my seven-year old brother. I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it was deliciously bad. At five years of age, I was too young to be operating a bulldozer by myself in our backyard, even if it was only four-inches long, and the road I was cutting was along the edge of our compost pit. But my mother wasn’t the hovering type; she drank a lot. Empty wine bottles had a way of mysteriously appearing under her bed and in the clothes’ hamper that hid out in the closet. Being outside was better than being inside. My mother’s alcoholism was my introduction to being alone with nature.
I wasn’t totally alone. Coaly, our black Cocker Spaniel, was assigned babysitting duty. At “fuck!” she wagged her tail and barked into our compost pit where the toy had fallen.
“Go get the bulldozer, girl,” I urged. She gave me a ‘go get it yourself’ look. She wasn’t the ideal faithful-dog. The gray hair around her nose and aching joints spoke to her advanced years. She had little tolerance for my youthful pranks. Healing scars on my foot reflected how little. My first-ever job was to feed the pets. I’d open a can of Bonnie dog food on both ends, push it out with one of the lids, and then use the lid to divide it up. The earthy horse-meat smell still lingers in my brain. Coaly got half, and each of our cats— the black Demon and the white MC— got a quarter. She’d wolf down her food down and then go after the cats’ portion.
That summer I had discovered that Coaly growled ferociously if I messed with her share. I fed the animals outside on paper towel plates, the finest of china. I always went barefoot in the summer and it was easy to reach over with my big toe and slide their food away. I quickly learned to leave the cats with their lightning fast claws alone. But Coaly was all growls and no bite. At least she was until she sunk her teeth into my foot. I ended up in the ER with a tetanus shot, stitches and zero sympathy. Coaly ended up gobbling her dinners and hassling the cats in peace.
At the time of the bulldozer incident, I had been granted a reprieve from school, or, to put it bluntly, I had been kicked out of the first grade— for a year. My mother was not happy. She had good reason to drink.
As her last child to enter school, she had been eager to get me out of the house. Make that desperate. The evidence is irrefutable. California had a rule then that five-year olds could go to the first grade if they turned six on or before March 1 of the following year. There was no such thing as kindergarten, at least in Diamond Springs in 1948. Since my birthday was on March 3, I missed the deadline by two days. Darn. Mother’s reaction was more colorful. She made a command decision. Forty-eight hours were not going to stand in the way of her little boy’s education, or her freedom. So, she changed my birth certificate. March 3 was carefully erased and March 1 entered. I was bathed, dressed and shipped out, not the least bit aware that I had matured by two days. I think I recall hearing music and dancing as my sister took me off to school, a block away.
Things weren’t so rosy at school. The other kids were all older, bigger, and more coordinated. For example, Alan Green could draw a great horse. It came with four legs, a tail, a head and a flowing mane. Mine came with unrecognizable squiggles. It was hard to tell whether my objective was to draw a tarantula or a snake with legs, but the world’s wildest imagination on the world’s most potent drug wouldn’t have classified the picture as a horse. It was not refrigerator art. The whole exercise created big-time trauma.
This negative experience was compounded by the exercise of learning to print within lines. Forget that. If my letter came anywhere close to resembling a letter, any letter, I was happy. The teacher was more critical.
“Curtis, I asked you to make Bs, and here you are printing Zs.”
“So what’s your point?” was not an acceptable response. Mrs. Young was suspicious and that suspicion increased each day I was in school. She was a tough old gal who had been teaching first grade for decades. She knew first graders and I wasn’t one. As for the birth certificate, Mother’s forgery was in no danger of winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. I still have the original for proof. After a few weeks, Mrs. Young sent off to Oregon for a copy. I remember her calling me up to her desk on the day it arrived.
“Curtis” she explained, “you have a choice. You can either go home now or you can go home after school. But either way, you are going home and can’t come back until next year.”
Just like that, I was a reject, a first grade flunkee.
Mrs. Young couldn’t have made it any clearer; Mother was going to get her little boomerang back. This was okay by me, if not by her. Playing out in the backyard was infinitely more fun than competing in ‘Scribble the Horse.’ I did decide to stay for the day. Mrs. Young was reading about Goldilocks to us after lunch and I wanted to learn if the bears ate her.
It would have been interesting to listen in on the conversation that took place between Mother and Mrs. Young, or even more so between my mother and father, or Pop, as he was known to us. I’ve often wondered if he participated in the forgery or even knew about the March 1 rule. I doubt it. He was not the parent frantic to get me out of the house during the day. (Had it been in the evening, the jury might still be out, as my father reported to me later.) But I wasn’t privy to those high-level discussions. My job, which I took quite seriously, was to enjoy the reprieve. I was about to begin my wandering ways. The Graveyard was waiting.
Blog-A-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: I move from being hit by a baseball bat and put in the hospital because of my Republican leanings as a fourth grader to developing a more liberal perspective in community college that would lay the groundwork for my joining the Peace Corps.
Travel Blog Friday… It’s off to the coast again with a Covid-19 escape to Harris Beach State Park just outside of Brookings, Oregon.