This is one my occasional blogs I am posting as I have taken a break from blogging over the summer. Next up, I will do a post on the impressive Alsea Bridge across Alsea Bay in Waldport. Let me just say here, Oregon takes its bridges seriously. After that I’ll touch on what Peggy and I have decided over the summer. It will include our being on the road much more exploring North America. Change is in the wind.
Who Shot Pavy’s Pig… And— A Summer Break From Blogging
Like the gunslingers of the Old West, our reputations far exceeded the reality of our actions. Take Tony Pavy’s pig for example. Tony had a large pond with bullfrogs, a hundred or so acres of scrubland, and a wooded hillside that housed a number of gray squirrels. He also had an attitude similar to Jimmy Pagonni’s: Children were not to be heard or seen, especially on his property. As with Pagonni, we didn’t allow Pavy to keep us from our appointed rounds. We would slip in at night to harvest his bullfrogs and during the day to bring down a squirrel. Tony had a very effective way of getting rid of us. In a very loud voice he would yell, “Mama, get my gun!” and we would streak out of there.
A couple of friends and I were hunting for the squirrels on his hillside when the unfortunate incident with the pig took place. But before I tell the story, I need to digress and provide some background information.
Growing up in Diamond in the 50s meant having a gun and shooting things. At least it did if you were a boy. We graduated from BB guns and 22s to deer rifles and shotguns. Obtaining your first rifle was an experience similar in importance to obtaining your driver’s license, except you could get one a lot earlier. Before we were allowed to hunt, however, certain rules were pounded into our heads. We had to take a course sponsored by the National Rifle Association. These were the years when the NRA’s primary concern was about hunting and hunter safety. They also sponsored marksmanship competitions for improving skills. Ten years after I got my license Peggy won the NRA’s National Pistol competition for youth.
I didn’t become one of America’s premier marksmen, but I did learn it is important to know what you were shooting. This might seem obvious, but flatlanders out of Sacramento often had trouble making the distinction between a cow and a deer. Of a much more serious nature, every year or so one would mistake another hunter for a deer. Wear red hats and bright clothes, we were taught. There were other things we weren’t supposed to shoot as well. People’s houses for example. Robins were also high on the list. They ate their weight daily in bugs. It was okay to shoot ‘vermin’ such as ground squirrels, jackrabbits, coyotes and the scrub jays that pecked away at pears. In fact there was a bounty on jays, $.25 per head.
My usual preference was for watching wildlife, not killing it. I made an exception for gray squirrels. The thrill of the hunt combined with my appetite for a delicious squirrel and dumpling stew my mother whipped up overcame any reservations I had. All of which brings me back to the pig.
Gray squirrels have about the same appreciation for being shot that you or I might. To avoid this unhappy circumstance, they take off leaping through the trees. The one we had marked for dinner was jumping from limb to limb in a live oak tree on the hill above Pavy’s with all three of us shooting at it when we heard a bellow from the barnyard.
“Mama, get my gun! They shot my pig! They shot my pig! Hurry, Mama!”
I don’t know how fast Mama moved but we flew. By the time Ernie Carlson, the County Sheriff, caught up with us we were far away from Pavy’s and about as innocent as newborn piglets.
“Excuse me, boys,” the Sheriff remarked when he pulled over in his car and rolled down his window, “I don’t suppose you know anything about Tony Pavy’s pig being shot.”
“No, sir,” we replied respectfully in unison. We had rehearsed. Besides, we were technically correct. We hadn’t shot Pavy’s pig; we hadn’t even shot the squirrel. It was a ricocheting bullet that did in the pig.
Ernie looked at us dubiously.
“Pavy described three kids that fit your description,” the Sheriff said as he continued to build pressure, hoping that one of us would break. Boy, had we heard that one before.
“We’ve been out in back of Ot Jones pond,” I argued indignantly. And we had been. So what if we had arrived there out of breath.
“Well, you kids behave yourselves,” the Sheriff said with an ominous I know you’re lying tone. We breathed a joint sigh of relief as he rolled up his window and drove off. Once more we had avoided a fate we probably deserved. I suspect now that Ernie was not one hundred percent dedicated to finding the alleged pig murderers. Tony was not universally loved in the community for several reasons, of which regularly threatening to shoot kids was only one.
For example, my father did some electrical work for him once for free. As he was leaving, Tony asked, “Would you like one of my geese for dinner?”
“Sure,” Pop had replied, assuming Pavy was offering it as thanks for his four hours of work.
“Good,” Tony had replied, “that will be five dollars.” Pop was more than a little irritated. He had a hearty laugh years later when I told him about our adventure with the pig. I wisely avoided telling him at the time, however. His perspective on our miscreant behavior softened substantially with distance and age.
Those Lazy Hazy Days of Summer
“Roll out those lazy, hazy days of summer,” Nat King Cole sang in 1963. It was the adult version of what the kids of earlier years uttered when they escaped from school for the summer, “No more pencils, no more books, No more teachers, dirty looks.” Actually I liked school and my teachers, and I loved books, but the appeal of having a whole summer ahead with minimal responsibility and maximum play was close to magical. Since I have been writing about my childhood, it’s hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for those days. As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again,” however, and he’s right. The idyllic view of our childhood that many of us have doesn’t quite match the reality. It’s human nature to forget the bad and remember the happy, which is a good thing.
But none of this means that we can’t on occasion escape from whatever keeps our feet tethered to the ground and our nose to the grindstone, allowing ourselves to play more and pursue other things we find of interest. I am something of a master at this, having engineered escapes all of my adult life every few years from three months to three years. These escapes have enabled me the wander through the South Pacific, go on a six-month bicycle trip, take two, three month breaks for backpacking, spend three years wandering North America in a small RV, etc. Fortunately, my good buddy of the last 30 years has been more than willing to join me in these escapes.
Anyway, it’s time for another 3–4 month break. This one won’t be major. I only plan to cut back on some of my regular activities to free up time for other activities.
One of these is blogging, which I have now been doing for 11 years. I don’t plan on quitting the blogosphere, only cutting back and writing when I am inspired to do so, like when Big Foot or baby deer show up on our door step, for example. I’ll also be touching base with my blogging friends from time to time over the summer. I should be back to a regular schedule this fall. I realize that it is disconcerting when blogging friends up and disappear, so I wanted to let you know what’s up. Have a great summer, and here’s to being able to travel again. –Curt
Nature Boy… Counting Skunks Is More Fun than Being Conked by a Baseball
It isn’t surprising that I became known as Nature Boy by my classmates, given all the time I spent in the woods. I considered it a compliment. I did, however, realize that there was more to life. For example, I took an early interest in girls. And then there were sports.
I am not a jock when it comes to traditional sports. It isn’t so much physical as mental. You have to care to be good at sports and I find other things more interesting. Part of this evolved from a lack of enthusiasm on the home front. There was little vicarious parental pressure to see us excel on the playing field. Being as blind as a bat didn’t help, either. Like many young people, I was not excited about wearing glasses. When Mrs. Wells, the school nurse, came to class with her eye charts, I would memorize the lines and then breeze through the test. As for class work, I would sit close to the black board and squint a lot. While I got away with this in the classroom, it became a serious hazard on the Little League field.
I remember going out for the team. All of my friends played and social pressure suggested it was the thing to do. I showed up on opening day and faced the usual chaos of parents signing up their stars, balls flying everywhere, coaches yelling, and kids running in a dozen different directions.
“Okay, Curtis,” the Coach instructed, “let’s see how you handle this fly.”
Crack! I heard him hit the ball. Fine— but where was it? The ball had disappeared. Conk. It magically reappeared out of nowhere, bounced off my glove, and hit me on the head.
“What’s the matter? Can’t you see?” the Coach yelled helpfully. “Let’s try it again.” My Little League career was short lived. I went back to carrying out my inventory of the skunks that lived in the Woods. This came with its own hazards, however. Have you ever had a skunk stand up on its front legs, wave its tail at you, and prepare to let you have it with both barrels. If you are lucky, don’t move, and are very quiet, the skunk will return to all fours and waddle off. I’ve been in the situation twice and lucked out both times.
In the seventh grade, I finally obtained glasses and discovered the miracle of vision: trees had leaves, billboards were pushing drugs, and the kid waving at me across the street was flipping me off. I could even see baseballs. It was time to become a sports hero. That’s a story for another time but I’ll leave it with saying my sports career peaked in the eighth grade where I pitched for the softball team, was quarterback of the football team, and center for the basketball team. It was all downhill after that.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I spent a substantial amount of time getting into mischief as a kid. Admittedly, I had a lot of help from my brother, but I was hardly innocent. The primary difference between Marshal and me was that l lacked his creativity. For example, it never would have crossed my mind to put a bullet down on a rock and then smash it with another rock to see what would happen. In my post next Monday, I’ll explore a Diamond Springs mantra of the time— The Mekemson kids did it.
WEDNESDAY’S BLOG-A-BOOK POST from my Peace Corps Memoir: UC Berkeley came to a grinding halt in the wake of the arrests at Sproul Hall and I joined a picket line. Thousands of students gathered in Sproul Plaza while an army of police hovered nearby…
The Skull with the Vacant Stare… The Woods
In my last blog-a-book post from my outdoor adventure book, It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me, I wrote about the Pond, which was a major influence in my childhood leading me to a lifelong love of the outdoors and wilderness. Today, I will introduce another one, the Woods.
The Woods also earned a capital letter. To get there you walked out the back door, down the alley past the Graveyard and through a pasture Jimmy Pagonni rented for his cattle. Tackling the pasture involved crawling through a rusty barbed wire fence, avoiding fresh cow pies, climbing a hill and jumping an irrigation ditch. The journey was fraught with danger. Hungry barbed wire consumed several of my shirts and occasionally went for my back.
Torn clothing and bleeding scratches were a minor irritation in comparison to stepping in fresh cow poop though. A thousand-pound, grass-eating machine produces acres of the stuff. Deep piles sneak up your foot and slosh over into your shoes. Toes hate this. Even more treacherous are the little piles that hide out in the grass. A well-placed patty can send you sliding faster than black ice. The real danger here is ending up with your butt in the pile. I did that, once. Happily, no one was around to witness my misfortune, or hear my language, except Tickle the dog. I swore him to secrecy.
For all of its hazards, the total hike to the Woods took about 15 minutes. Digger pines with drunken windmill limbs guarded the borders while gnarly manzanita and spiked chaparral dared the casual visitor to venture off the trail. Poison oak proved more subtle but effective in discouraging exploration.
I could count on raucous California jays to announce my presence, especially if I was stalking a band of notorious outlaws. Ground squirrels were also quick to whistle their displeasure. Less talkative jackrabbits merely ambled off upon spotting me, put on a little speed for a hyper Cocker, and became bounding blurs in the presence of a hungry greyhound. Flickers, California quail and acorn woodpeckers held discussions in distinctive voices I soon learned to recognize.
From the beginning, I felt at home in the Woods, like I belonged. I quickly learned that its hidden recesses contained a multitude of secrets. I was eager to learn what they had to teach me, but the process seemed glacial. It required patience and I hardly knew how to spell the word. I did know how to sit quietly, however. This was a skill I had picked up from the hours I spent with my nose buried in books. The woodland creatures prefer their people noisy. A Curt stomping down the trail, snapping dead twigs, and talking to himself was easy to avoid while a Curt being quiet might surprise them.
One gray squirrel was particularly loud in his objections. He lived in the top branches of a digger pine beside the trail and maintained an observation post on an overhanging limb. When he heard me coming, he would adopt his ‘you can’t see me gray squirrel playing statue pose.’ But I knew where to look. I would find a comfortable seat and stare at him. It drove him crazy. Soon he would start to thump the limb madly with his foot and chirr loudly. He had pine nuts to gather, a stick home to remodel, and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lady to woo. I was blocking progress. Eventually, if I didn’t move, his irritation would bring him scrambling down the trunk for a much more up-close and personal scolding.
After about 15 minutes of continuous haranguing, he’d decide I was a harmless, if obnoxious aberration and go about his business. That’s when I begin to learn valuable secrets, like where he hid his pine nuts. It was also a sign for the rest of the wildlife to come out of hiding. A western fence lizard might work its way to the top of the dead log next to me and start doing push-ups. Why, I couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps a thrush would begin to scratch up the leaves under the manzanita in search of creepy tidbits. The first time I heard one, it sounded like a very large animal interested in little boy flesh. Occasionally there were special treats: A band of teenage gray squirrels playing tag and demonstrating their incredible acrobatics; a doe leading its shy, speckled fawn out to drink in the small stream that graced the Wood’s meadow; and a coyote sneaking up on a ground squirrel hole with an intensity I could almost feel.
I also began to play at stalking animals. Sometime during the time period between childhood and becoming a teenager, I read James Fennimore Cooper and began to think I was a reincarnation of Natty Bumppo. Looking back, I can’t say I was particularly skilled, but no one could have told me so at the time. At least I learned to avoid dry twigs, walk slowly, and stop frequently. Occasionally, I even managed to sneak up on some unsuspecting woodland creature.
If the birds and the animals weren’t present, they left signs for me. There was always the helter-skelter pack rat nest to explore. Tickle liked to tear them apart, quickly sending twigs flying in all directions. There were also numerous tracks to figure out. Was it a dog or coyote that had stopped for a drink out of the stream the night before? Tickle knew instantly, but I had to piece it together. A sinuous trail left by a slithery serpent was guaranteed to catch my attention. This was rattlesnake country. Who’d been eating whom or what was another question? The dismantled pinecone was easy to figure out but who considered the bark on a young white fir a delicacy? And what about the quail feathers scattered haphazardly beside the trail?
Scat, I learned, was the tracker’s word for shit. It offered a multitude of clues for what animals had been ambling down the trail and what they had been eating. There were deer droppings and rabbit droppings and mouse droppings descending in size. Coyotes and foxes left their distinctive dog-like scat but the presence of fur and berries suggested that something other than dog food had been on the menu. Some scat was particularly fascinating, at least to me. Burped up owl pellets provided a treasure chest of bones— little feet, little legs and little skulls that grinned back with the vacant stare of slow mice.
While Tarzan hung out in the Graveyard and pirates infested the Pond, mountain men, cowboys, Indians, Robin Hood and various bad guys roamed the Woods. Each bush hid a potential enemy that I would indubitably vanquish. I had the fastest two fingers in the West and I could split a pine nut with an imaginary arrow at 50 yards. I never lost. How could I? It was my fantasy. But daydreams were only a part of the picture. I fell in love with wandering in the Woods and playing on the Pond. There was an encyclopedia of knowledge available and a multitude of lessons about life. Learning wasn’t a conscious effort, though; it was more like absorption. The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. A spider with an egg sack was worth ten minutes, a gopher pushing dirt out of its hole an hour, and a deer with a fawn a lifetime.
NEXT MONDAY’S POST: Not surprisingly, my classmates start calling me Nature Boy. It was a title I wore proudly.
The Pond: Where I Learned How to Amputate Legs…
There came a time when the Graveyard no longer met my wandering needs. I started traveling farther and farther afield, 15 minutes at a time. That’s how far the Pond and the Woods were away. They were where I played and where I begin to learn about nature. As such, they earned a capital P and capital W— and are the subject of my next two Monday posts. First up is the Pond.
There were a number of ponds in the area. Oscar ‘Ot’ Jones had one on his ranch for cattle; Caldor had one where logs waited for their appointment with the buzz saw; Forni had one over the hill from his slaughterhouse, and Tony Pavy had one that was supposedly off-limits. But there was only one capital P Pond, the one next to the Community Hall. If I told Marshall, my parents or my friends I was going to the Pond, they knew immediately where I would be.
It was a magical place filled with catfish, mud turtles, bullfrogs and pirates. Although the Pond was small, it had a peninsula, island, deep channel, cattails and shallows. In spring, redwing blackbirds nested in the cattails and filled the air with melodic sound. Mallards took advantage of the island’s safety to set up housekeeping. Catfish used holes in the bank of the peninsula to deposit hundreds of eggs that eventually turned into large schools of small black torpedoes dashing about in frenetic unison. Momma bullfrogs laid eggs in strings that grew into chubby pollywogs. When they reached walnut size, tiny legs sprouted in one of nature’s miracles of transformation. Water snakes slithered though the water with the sole purpose of thinning out the burgeoning frog population and I quickly learned to recognize the piteous cry of a frog being consumed whole. Turtles liked to hang out in the shallows where any log or board provided a convenient sunning spot. They always slid off at our appearance but a few quiet minutes would find them surfacing to reclaim lost territory.
By mid-summer the Pond would start to evaporate. The shallow areas surrendered first, sopped up by the burning sun. Life became concentrated in a few square yards of thick, tepid water, only inches deep and supported by a foot of squishy mud. All too soon the Pond was bone-dry with mud cracked and curled. Turtles, snakes and frogs crawled, slithered and hopped away to other nearby water. Catfish dug their way into the mud and entered a deep sleep, waiting for the princely kiss of winter rains. Ducks flew away quacking loudly, leaving only silence behind. Fall and winter rains found the pond refilling and then brimming. Cloudy, gray, wind-swept days rippled the water and created a sense of melancholy that even an eight-year-old could feel.
But melancholy was a rare emotion for the Pond. To us, it was a playground with more options than an amusement park. A few railroad ties borrowed from Caldor and nailed together with varying sized boards made great rafts for exploring the furthest, most secret corners of the Pond. Imagination turned the rafts into ferocious pirate ships that ravaged and pillaged the far shores or primitive bumper cars guaranteed to dunk someone, usually me. In late spring, the Pond became a swimming hole, inviting us to test still cold waters. One spring, thin ice required a double and then triple-dare before we plunged in. It was a short swim. Swimsuits were always optional and rarely worn. I took my first swimming lessons there and mastered dog paddling with my Cocker Spaniel, Tickle, providing instructions. More sophisticated strokes would wait for more sophisticated lakes.
Frogs and catfish were for catching and adding to the family larder. During the day, a long pole with fishing line attached to a three-pronged hook and decorated with red cloth became irresistible bait for bullfrogs. At night, a flashlight and a spear-like gig provided an even more primitive means of earning dinner. The deep chug-a-rums so prominent from a distance became silent as we approached. Both patience and stealth were required. A splash signified failure as our quarry decided that sitting on the bottom of the Pond was preferable to joining us for dinner. Victory meant a gourmet treat, frog legs. Preparation involved amputating the frog’s hind legs at the hips and then pealing the skin off like tights. It was a lesson I learned early: if you catch it, you clean it. We were required to chop off the big feet as well. Mother didn’t like being reminded that a happy frog had been attached hours earlier. She also insisted on delayed gratification. Cooking the frog legs on the same day they were caught encouraged them to jump around in the frying pan. “Too creepy!” she declared.
Catching catfish required nerves of steel. We caught them by hand as they lurked with heads protruding from their holes in the banks. Nerves were required because the catfish had serious weapons, needle sharp fins tipped with stingers that packed a wallop. They had to be caught exactly right and held firmly, which was not easy when dealing with a slimy fish trying to avoid the frying pan. But their taste was out of this world and had the slightly exotic quality of something that ate anything that couldn’t eat them.
The Woods were an equally magical place to go, and they are the subject of of next Monday’s post.
Wednesday’s Blog-A-Book Post from The Bush Devil Ate Sam: I join the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and cross the border between concern over what was happening on campus to actively promoting change through civil disobedience.
An Elk Loses Its Coat, a Coyote Digs Sushi, and a Ranch Is History… The Pt. Reyes Series
Any trip to Pt. Reyes National Seashore should include a drive out to the historic Pierce Pt. Ranch and Tule Elk Reserve. The ranch will introduce you to an important piece of Pt. Reyes history. A hike out the Tomales Pt. Trail from the ranch will take you through some impressive scenery and likely give you a view of tule elk and other wildlife. Ever since the elk were reintroduced to the area in 1978, the herd has thrived. Our photos today start with our hike and end back at the ranch.
Monday’s Blog-A-Book from It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me: I leave the Graveyard behind and journey off to the Pond where bullfrogs and catfish rule and pirates lurk.
Wednesday’s Blog-A-Book from my lead-up to joining the Peace Corps: I help corral a police car at Berkeley and the rallying cry of ‘Never trust anyone over the age of 30‘ is born.
The Death-Defying Great Tree Race… Graveyard Tales
Two incense cedars dominated the Graveyard that was out our backdoor in Diamond Springs. From an under five-foot perspective, they were gigantic, stretching some 75 feet skyward. The limbs of the largest tree started 20 feet up and provided scant hope for climbing. As usual, Marshall found a risky way around the problem.
Several of the huge limbs came tantalizingly close to the ground at their tips and one could be reached by standing on a convenient tombstone. But only Marshall could reach it; I was frustratingly short by several inches. Marsh would make a leap, grab the limb, and shimmy up it hanging butt down until the limb became large enough for him to work his way around to the top. Then he would crawl up to the tree trunk, four to five Curtis lengths off the ground. After that, he would climb to wonderfully mysterious heights I could only dream about.
Eventually I grew tall enough to make my first triumphant journey up the limb. Then, very carefully, I climbed to the heart-stopping top, limb by limb. All of Diamond spread out before me. I could see our school, and the mill where my father worked, and the woods, and the hill with a Cross where I had shivered my way through an Easter Sunrise Service. I could see the whole world. Except for a slight wind that made the tree top sway and stirred my imagination about the far away ground, I figured I was as close to Heaven as I would ever get.
By the time I finally made it to the top, Marshall had more grandiose plans for the tree. We would build a tree house on the upper branches. Off we went to Caldor, the lumber mill where my dad worked as an electrician, to liberate some two by fours. Then we raided Pop’s tool shed for a hammer, nails, and rope. My job was to be the ground man while Marshall climbed up close to the top. He would then lower the rope and I would tie on a board that he would hoist up and nail in. It was a good plan, or so we thought.
Along about the third board, Pop showed up. It wasn’t so much that we wanted to build a tree fort in the Graveyard that bothered him, or even that we had borrowed his tools and nails without asking. He even seemed to ignore the liberated lumber. His concern was that we were building our fort 60-feet up in the air on thin limbs that would easily break with nails that barely reached through the boards. After he graphically described the potential results, even Marshall had second thoughts. Pop had a solution though. He would build us a proper tree house on the massive limbs that were only 20 feet off the ground. He would also add a ladder so we could avoid our tombstone-shimmy-up-the-limb route.
And he did. It was a magnificent open tree house of Swiss Family Robinson proportions that easily accommodated our buddies and us with room to spare. It was more like a pirate hideout than a Robinson family home, however. Hidden in the tree and hidden in the middle of the Graveyard, it became our special retreat where we could escape everything except the call to dinner. It also became my center for daydreaming and Marshall’s center for planning mischief. He, along with our friends Allen and Lee, would scope out our forays into Diamond and the surrounding country-side.
And finally, the treehouse became the starting point for the Great Tree Race. We would scramble to the top and back down in one-on-one competition as quickly as we could. Death-defying is an appropriate description. Slips were a common hazard. Unfortunately, the other boys always beat me; they were two to three years older and I was the one most susceptible to losing my grip. My steady diet of Tarzan comic books sustained me though, and I refused to give up. Eventually, several years later, I would triumph.
Marshall was taking a teenage time-out with Mother’s parents who had moved to Watsonville, down on the Central Coast of California. Each day I went to the Graveyard and took several practice-runs up the tree. I became half monkey. Each limb was memorized and an optimum route chosen. Tree climbing muscles bulged; my grip became iron and my nerves steel. Finally, the big day arrived and Marshall came home. He was every bit the big brother who had been away at high school while little brother stayed at home and finished the eighth grade. He talked of cars and girls and wild parties and of his friend Dwight who could knock people out with one punch. I casually mentioned the possibility of a race to the top of the tree. What a set up. As a two pack-a-day, sixteen-year-old, cigarette smoker he wasn’t into tree climbing, but how could he resist a challenge from his little brother.
Off we went. Marsh didn’t stand a chance. It was payback time for years of big brother hassles. I flew up and down the tree. I hardly touched the limbs. Slip? So what, I would catch the next limb. Marsh was about half way up the tree when I passed him on my way down. I showed no mercy and greeted him with a grin when he arrived, huffing and puffing, at the tree house. His sense of humor was minimal. Back on the ground, his bruised ego demanded that he challenge me to a wrestling match and I quickly pinned him to the ground. It was the end of the Great Tree Race, the end of big brother dominance, and a fitting end to my years of associating with dead people.
Next Monday, I leave the Graveyard and head out to explore the Pond and the Woods. Both were magical places that deserved their capital letters and added to my love of nature.
Wednesday’s Blog-A-Book from my Peace Corp Memoir: In the fall of 1964, I return to UC Berkeley and find the campus on the edge of revolution.
Going on a Cow Walk… The Pt. Reyes Series
I’m returning to Pt. Reyes National Seashore and the surrounding area today. As you may recall, Peggy and I drove down to this beautiful park north of San Francisco in early March to celebrate my birthday. At the time, I did a post on the big nosed elephant seals that have adopted the park as a great place to breed and have babies as their population increases.
Like whales, they had been hunted close to extinction for the oil their body produces. Fortunately, enough people had become concerned in the early 20th Century to stop the slaughter and save the species. My elephant seal post would have been perfect for yesterday: Earth Day. The message about these unique animals is that If we care enough, we can make a difference. Working together, we can help save the earth and its bio-diversity. Nature has wonderfully recuperative powers— given a chance. The planet will work with us, if we stop working against it. But enough on the that for now. Today’s post is about cows and a short walk in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
There is no danger of cows going extinct. They have the advantage/disadvantage of being useful to us. As of 2021 there are over a billion on earth. The Pt. Reyes area has its share. It was recognized as ideal for raising dairy cattle in the 1850s as the burgeoning population of San Francisco provided a ready market for dairy products. When the National Seashore was created in the 1970s and 80s, the ranches were grandfathered into the land that was set aside and are an integral part of today’s Pt. Reyes’ experience.
I didn’t set out to do a post on cows when Peggy and I decided to incorporate a short walk along the Bolinas Ridge Trail. It’s actually a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area but is administered by Pt. Reyes NS. As you can see by the maps below, it is just east of the small town of Olema which includes the campground I have been staying at forever, or at least back to the 1970s. The trail is part of a system being developed that will eventually allow hikers to do a 500 mile hike around the complete Bay Area. We did four. Two out and two back.
Let it be known, there was much more to the walk than cattle. The beautiful green of the Coastal Range was offset by dark forests. Spring flowers were beginning to pop up. Individual rocks with definite personalities stood proudly along the way and demanded to be photographed.
Monday’s Blog-A-Book Post from It’s 4 AM and a Bear is Standing on Top of Me: Have you ever raced to the top of a 70-foot tree? In the middle of a graveyard? It was an important part of our entertainment when we were growing up. Join me on Monday as I race to the top and my brother tries to build a treehouse 60 feet up…
Nancy Jo and the Graveyard Ghost
My sister was seven years older than I and lived on a different planet, the mysterious world of teenage girls. Her concern about ghosts makes this story a powerful testimony to teenage hormones. If Marshall and I had a healthy respect for the Graveyard at night, Nancy’s fear was monumental.
This story begins with Nancy falling in ‘love’ with the ‘boy’ next door, Johnny. His parents were good folks from a kids’ perspective. Marshall and I raided their apple trees with impunity, and Mama, a big Italian lady, made great spaghetti that included wild manzanita mushrooms. I was fascinated with the way she yelled “Bullll Sheeeet” in a community-wide voice when she was whipping Papa into line. He was a skinny, Old Country type of guy who thought he should be in charge. Papa was the one who suggested the gunny sack method of castration for MC.
I use the terms love and boy somewhat loosely since Nancy at 16 was a little young for love and Johnny, a 22-year-old Korean War Veteran, was a little old for the boy designation, not to mention Nancy. Our parents were not happy, a fact that only seemed to encourage my sister.
Her teenage hormones aided by a healthy dose of rebellion overcame her good sense and she pursued the budding relationship. Johnny didn’t make it easy. His idea of a special date was to drive down the alley and honk. Otherwise, he avoided our place. If Nancy wanted to see him, she had to visit his home. It should have been easy; his house was right behind ours.
But there was a major obstacle, the dreaded Graveyard. To avoid it, Nancy had to climb over the fence that separated our houses. Her other option was walk up the alley that almost touched the tombstones. Given her feelings about dead people, the solution seemed easy— climb the fence. Marsh and I had been over it many times in search of apples. Something about teenage girl dignity I didn’t understand eliminated fence climbing, however. Nancy was left up the alley without an escort.
While she wasn’t above sneaking out her window, Nancy asked permission to see Johnny the night of the Graveyard Ghost attack. She approached Mother around seven. It was one of those warm summer evenings where the sun is reluctant to go down and boys are granted special permission to stay up. Marshall and I listened intently.
“Mother, I think I’ll go visit Johnny,” Nancy stated and asked in the same sentence. Careful maneuvering was required. An outright statement would have triggered a parental prerogative no and an outright question may have solicited a parental concern no.
Silence. This communicated disapproval, a possible no, and a tad of punishment for raising the issue.
“Mother?” We were on the edge of an impending teenage tantrum. Nancy could throw a good one.
“Okay” with weary resignation followed by, “but you have to be home by ten.”
What we heard was TEN. Translate after dark. Nancy would be coming down the alley past the Graveyard in the dark and she would be scared. Knowing Johnny’s desire to avoid my parents, we figured she would also be alone. A fiendish plot was hatched.
At 9:45, Marsh and I slipped outside and made our way up the alley to a point half way between our house and Johnny’s. Next, we took a few steps into Graveyard where weed-like Heavenly Trees and deep Myrtle provided perfect cover. Hiding there at night was scary, but Marshall and I were operating under inspiration.
Marsh stripped the limbs off of one of the young trees, bent it over like a catapult, and draped his white T-shirt on the trunk. We then scrunched down and waited.
At exactly 10:00, Nancy opened the back door and stepped outside with Johnny. Our hearts skipped a beat. Would he walk her home? No. After a perfunctory goodnight, Johnny dutifully went back inside and one very alone sister began her hesitant but fateful walk down the alley.
She approached slowly, desperately looking the other direction to avoid seeing tombstones and keeping as far from the Graveyard as the alley and fence allowed. At exactly the right moment, we struck. Marshall let go of the T-shirt and the supple Heavenly Tree whipped it into the air. It arched up over the alley and floated down in front of our already frightened sister. We started woooooing wildly like the eight and ten-year-old ghosts we were supposed to be.
Did Nancy streak down the alley to the safety of the House? No. Did she figure out her two little brothers were playing a trick and commit murder? No. Absolute hysteria ensued. She stood still and screamed. She was feet stuck to the ground petrified except for her lungs and mouth. They worked fine.
As her voice hit opera pitch, we realized that our prank was not going as planned. Nancy was not having fun. We leapt out to remedy the problem.
Two bodies hurtling at you out of a graveyard in the dark of night is not a recommended solution for frayed nerves and an intense fear of dead people. The three of us, Nancy bawling and Marshall and I worrying about consequences, proceeded to the house. After a thorough scolding, we were sent to bed. I suspect our parents laughed afterwards. Many years later, even Nancy could see humor in our prank.
Wednesday’s Blog-A-Book from The Bush Devil Ate Sam: I am still at Berkeley rapidly approaching my decision to join the Peace Corps. President Kennedy is assassinated, I become engaged, turn 21, and help consume a small barrel of tequila. The Berkeley Administration begins its suppression of student political activity, thus kicking off Free Speech Movement.
Friday’s Travel Blog: I return to my Pt. Reyes series and Peggy and I go on a cow walk in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
When MC the Cat Refused to Have His Danglies Cut Off
Today’s blog-a-book tale is about our ‘other’ cat, MC. No story about the Graveyard is complete without him. He was the exact opposite of Demon. She was as dark as the Graveyard on a moonless night; he was as white as the ghosts that lived there. She was loving and tame while he was as wild as a domestic cat can be— a throwback to his ancient ancestors. His one passion in life was spreading his seeds as far and wide as he could travel and still make it home for dinner. He was a tomcat’s Tomcat, a legend in his own mind.
His one challenge was his small size, which meant that he often came out on the losing end in his battles with larger toms. He would arrive home beat up and battered. One time a chunk of his ear was missing. Another time it was the tip of his tail. I encouraged my Cocker Spaniel, Tickle, to break up the fights to minimize the damage. He loved his job. He would dash to the door at the first yowling and fly off our porch in full bark when I turned his loose. Other than giving Tickle a purpose in life, his efforts had little impact, however.
Pop decided that drastic measures were called for. MC would have to have to lose his offending appendages. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of money in our household for veterinary bills. But there was a solution. We were a do-it-yourself kind of family. For example, cocker puppies are supposed to have their tails cut off fairly soon after birth. My dad would take the litter, tie thread tightly around their tails, and then break out the tool he used for cutting tin. Snip, YIP! And it was over.
Obviously, neutering a full-grown tom cat was a bit more difficult. Our Italian neighbor, Papa Passerini, offered an Old Country solution.
“All you need is a pair of tin snips, a burlap bag, gloves, a pocket knife and a rope,” he suggested. Alarm bells should have gone off— massive alarm bells heard all the way to Italy. But they didn’t. We moved ahead with the medical procedure.
While MC had never been a paragon of feline domesticity, he’d at least let me pat him on the head if food was involved— as long as I was quick and limited myself to one pat. He even managed a brief purr when I picked him up the morning of his ‘operation’ and carried him up to Passerini’s. Any previous pretensions of tolerating people ceased instantly, though, when his legs were tied up and he was dumped into the dark gunny sack.
When Pop cut a slit in the burlap with his pocket knife and reached a gloved hand through, he was met by claws of fury. MC had shed his ropes faster than Houdini. No one, but no one, was going to grab him by the testicles and cut them off with a pair of tin snips. He clawed his way out of the bag and became a white blur as he disappeared into the Graveyard. And there he would stay. After that, I would only see him at dinner time and then only after I had put his food down and walked several feet away.
The good news, from MC’s perspective, was that he was able to continue his tomcatting ways with all parts of his anatomy intact right up until he reached old age and quietly wandered off to tomcat heaven, where, rumor has it, he was twice as big, had eternal youth, and a long line of lovely female cats stretched off to infinity eagerly awaiting him. It’s probably fake news.
Next Monday’s blog-a-book post from It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Me features my sister Nancy Jo and the attack of the graveyard ghost. Did you hear her scream? It’s very scary and you won’t want to miss it.
Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book Post… from The Bush Devil Ate Sam: I challenge the Berkeley establishment to no avail. John Kennedy’s death has a deep impact on my fellow students and me.
Friday’s Travel BogI It’s a wrap on my Harris Beach series with gorgeous sunsets and the ever-interesting Key Hole Rock.