Innocent Until Proven Guilty… North to Alaska

First Grade class at Diamond Springs Grade School in 1949.

Our first grade class at Diamond Springs Elementary School in California. Bob is second from the left in the bottom row. I am fourth from left in the upper row. Our tough looking teacher, Mrs. Young was charged with civilizing us.

Our friends Bob and Linda Bray, along with their ever-present dog, Sister, arrived around three bearing wine. They had parked their RV on our lower property and trudged up the steep hill to our home in 100 degree plus weather. I was still waxing Quivera the Van in preparation for the trip to Alaska.

I wiped the stinging sweat from my eyes and greeted them. The Brays were joining us on our adventure.

Bob and I have been hanging around together since first grade, which was a while ago. In the beginning, our friendship faced a serious obstacle. Bob’s mother had a rule: he was not to play with the Mekemson boys. We were Trouble spelled with a capital T.

Rightfully, or wrongfully, Marshall and I were blamed for most of  the bad things that went on around Diamond Springs. Who shot Tony Pavy’s pig, broke into Jimmy Pagoni’s wine cellar, went joyriding on Caldor’s rail car? It was the Mekemson boys, of course.

Most of the mischief I got into involved tagging along with my older brother. When he graduated to girls, my reputation made a miraculous recovery. I was, however, able to pull off one last coup and live up to Bertha Bray’s expectations. For some unfathomable reason, Bob’s parents bought him a Wham-o Slingshot.

I mean, how do you expect your son to resist temptation when you buy him a slingshot? The fact that I owned a Wham-o as well almost guaranteed trouble.

Bob and I agreed to meet for a clandestine hunting expedition. It had to be clandestine because I was still on Mrs. Bray’s ‘don’t invite’ list. Our only rule for the adventure was that anything that moved or didn’t move was a valid target.

Things were going great until we came upon the old abandoned bum’s shack that was just off the Southern Pacific railroad track about a quarter of a mile away from Bob’s home. Typical of such structures, it had been created out of anything that was available for free: old aluminum roofing, miscellaneous boards, an occasional nail, a thrown away mattress, etc. It had one crowning glory, a window.

Bob and I looked at each other and had a simultaneous thought. Out came our ammunition, a shiny new marble for Bob and several bee bees for me. We took careful aim, counted down, and let fly.

To this day, Bob claims he saw his marble harmlessly strike the windowsill while my bee bees were smashing the glass to smithereens. I of course saw Bob’s marble hit the window dead on while my bee bees formed a neat pattern around the edges. There was no doubt about it; we were both innocent.

The current occupant of the not abandoned home, who was washing dishes behind a willow bush in a small stream, saw something entirely different– two little boys smashing his pride and joy.

He let out a bellow of rage and came charging up the trail. Once again the Mekemson Gang, along with its newest recruit, was on the run. The good news is that we escaped. The bad news was that the bum/hobo/homeless person with a home recognized Bob and went straight to his house. Mrs. Bray’s worst fears had been realized.

The story didn’t end there. On the 50th anniversary of our starting the first grade together, Bob sent me a present for Christmas, a slingshot. Somewhere, I suspect Bertha Bray rolled over in her grave, or maybe she chuckled.

Bob and I today on the road north in Salem, Oregon.

Bob and I today on the road to Alaska.

Linda with the family dog, Sister.

Linda with the family dog, Sister.

Sister provides a head shot.

Heads or…

Sister provides a tail shot.


Next Blog: The wonderful totem poles of the First Nation People.

Chapter 4: The Dead Chicken Dance… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains about 20 miles south of where we did our training and at a slightly higher elevation.

Graduation from Berkeley, marriage in Auburn, a three-day honeymoon in Monterey, and reporting for Liberia VI Peace Corps training at San Francisco State College transpired in one whirlwind week.

My best man, Frank Martin, played his role superbly… from hosting the bachelor party at the Diamond Springs Hotel to making sure our escape car was appropriately decorated.

Frank grew up with me in Diamond Springs, California. We also attended Sierra College together. Somewhere along the line he discovered he was gay. Later on, he and his partner Hank would host several elegant but offbeat anniversary parties for us at their home on Clay Street in San Francisco.

Given our three-day honeymoon, Jo and I figured we would hold the record for newlyweds arriving at Peace Corps training. But we didn’t. One couple spent their honeymoon night flying out to the San Francisco State.

“Gee, Hon, let’s check out the airplane’s toilet again.”

Upon arrival, the married couples were crammed into one wing of Merced Hall, a student dormitory. Tiny rooms, paper-thin walls and a communal bathroom became our new home. We soon knew a lot about each other.

Peace Corps staff wanted to know even more; Beebo the psychologist was assigned to follow us around and take notes. First, however, they pumped us full of gamma globulin and explained deselection. Our job was to decide whether Peace Corps was something we really wanted to do. Their job was to provide stress to help make the decision. Initially this came in the form of a SF State football coach hired to shape us up.

“Okay you guys, let’s see how fast you can run up and down the stadium steps five times!” I hadn’t liked that particular sport during my brief football career in high school and still didn’t.

Beyond mini-boot camp, our time was filled with attending classes designed to teach us about Liberia and elementary school education. We were even given a stint at practice teaching in South San Francisco. There wasn’t much for Beebo to write about.

In case Peace Corps missed anything, we were given a battery of psychological tests to probe our miscellaneous neuroses. These were followed by in-depth interviews. “Answer honestly. Say the first thing that pops into your mind.” Yeah, sure I will.

A few people did wash out and were whisked away. Naturally it was a topic of conversation. What had they done wrong? Were we next?

The true stress test was supposed to be a camping trip up in the Sierras. This may have been true for the kids straight out of the Bronx who had rarely seen stars much less slept out in the woods but Jo and I considered it a vacation. We had been raised in the foothills of the Sierras and were going home.

The ante was upped when the camp leader arrived the first night.

“Here’s dinner,” he announced casually as he unloaded a crate of live chickens from the back of his pickup. They clucked a greeting.

Fortunately, I had chopped off a few chicken heads in my youth and knew about such things as chicken plucking and gutting. I couldn’t appear too eager in the chopping department, though. Beebo might write something like “displays obvious psychopathic tendencies.”

“Close the door, lock and latch it, here comes Curt with a brand new hatchet!”

My chicken spurted blood from its neck and performed a jerky little death dance, turning the city boys and girls a chalky white. Their appetites made a quick exit in pursuit of their color when I reached inside a still warm Henny Penny to yank out her slippery innards. It seemed that my fellow trainees were lacking in intestinal fortitude. If so, it was fine with me; I got more chicken.

Beebo’s biggest day came when we faced the wilderness obstacle course. Our first challenge was to cross a bouncy rope bridge over a deep gorge. Beebo stood nearby scratching away on his pad. We then rappelled down a cliff… scratch, scratch, scratch. Our every move was to be scrutinized and subjected to psychological analysis. We rebelled.

“Beebo, you’ve been following us around and taking notes for two months. Now it’s your turn. See that cliff. Climb down it.”

“Uh, no.”

“Beebo, you don’t understand,” we were laughing, “you have to take your turn.”

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Beebo agreed. About half way down he froze and became glued to rock with all of the tenacity of a tick on a hound. We tried to talk him down and we tried to talk him up. We even tried talking him sideways. Nothing worked. Finally we climbed up and hauled him down. Note taking was finished. We wrapped up our wilderness week and our training was complete. Jo Ann and I took the oath and became official Peace Corps Volunteers.

We were allowed one week at home to complete any unfinished business before flying to New York City and reporting to the Pan Am desk at JFK. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun ever so long ago with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard in Auburn. Surrounded by friends and family, we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a warm breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.

The Ancient World of Indian Rock Art… On the Road

My wife Peggy and I have travelled throughout the western United States visiting and photographing Native American rock-art. We found this petroglyph of a cougar in the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site of southern new Mexico.

I grew up in the town of Diamond Springs, California located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Once upon a time Diamond had been known as Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring. It was a very holy place to the Maidu Indians. They came from miles around bearing their dead on litters for cremation.

Apparently the Maidu had been living in the area for a thousand years. It is a sad commentary on both our education system and how we treated the Indians that I grew up never hearing the name Morning Star’s Spring much less Mo-lok’epakan.

Our only connection with the Maidu’s lost heritage was finding an occasional arrowhead or Indian bead.

The thrill of finding arrowheads, however, led to a lifelong fascination with the culture of Native Americans. Over the past ten years that fascination has led me to an interest in Indian rock-art or petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are pecked or scraped from dark, rock varnish exposing a lighter color underneath. Pictographs are painted on rocks.

Indian rock-art is found at thousands of locations throughout the Western United States often near water or unique landmarks. Searching for rock-art is often like a treasure hunt. Here you can spot a group of petroglyphs on the left about a third of the way up the rock.

Peggy and I have explored and photographed major rock-art sites throughout the western US. Today I will introduce Sego Canyon located in eastern Utah off of I-70 near the small town of Thompson. Later I will blog about other sites such as the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site of New Mexico.

What captured me about Sego Canyon is the unique, almost ethereal rock-art of the archaic peoples, and the fact that the rock-art represents three distinctive Native American cultures ranging over 8000 years.

The pictographs featured below were made by archaic hunter-gatherer nomads who wandered across western North America between 6000 and 100 BC. Rock art is classified according to various styles and this particular style is known as Barrier Canyon. Its attributes include life-size, man-like creatures with hollow eyes, missing arms, antennae, and lots of snakes. The theory is that the figures may have represented shamanistic journeys to the underworld. I am voting for encounters with aliens… just kidding.

This rock-art, which is found in Sego Canyon, Utah, was created sometime between 6000 and 100 AD. It is classified as the Barrier Canon style. Note the hollow eye sockets, antennae, horns and snakes.

This is a close up showing images from the above photo. There is some thought that these figures reflect shamanistic visits to the underworld but one can understand why UFO fans might think they represent encounters with aliens.

These figures from the Barrier Canyon style seem wraith-like… red ghosts arising from the rock.

The Fremont Culture existed between 600 and 1200 AD and represented a more settled lifestyle. The rock-art of the Fremont Indians featured rectangular bodies with small heads. Both deer and mountain sheep are also found in the rock art below. Note the Indian shooting the mountain sheep with a large bow and arrow.

This rock-art found in Sego Canyon is done in the so-called Fremont style where rectangular figures with elaborate jewelry were common.

Mountain sheep are the most common animals found in Native America rock-art.

The final culture represented in Sego Canyon is that of the Ute Indians who lived in the area from 1300 AD up to 1880 when they were forced off the land to live on reservations. One indicator of more ‘modern’ rock-art is the presence of horses that didn’t exist in North America until the Spanish introduced them in the 1500s. Note the red leggings on the central figure. I also like the little red guy riding the horse. Yahoo! The round figure on the right is thought to represent a shield.

Identifying the age of petroglyphs is a difficult process. The appearance of horses shows that the petroglyphs were created after the 16th Century when the Spanish introduced horses to North America.

In my next post I will travel to Dinosaur National Monument, which also has some very unique Indian rock-art such as this one featuring what I assume is a woman with big hands and some very fat dogs.

Bleeding Like a Speared Mammoth… The Joys of High School Chemistry Lab

I would have made a good Greek Philosopher, working out problems in my head. I quickly learned in high school that I am not particularly fond of long dead frogs pickled in formaldehyde or chemicals that smell worse than an old dog’s fart.

But there is more to it than that; I am convinced that good lab technicians are mechanically inclined. They like to tinker.

I have lots of friends like that. They love to take things apart and put them back together. They can fix anything and go out of their way to find things that need fixing. My brother Marshall is a good example. He had an old Citroen in high school that he’d spend hours working on out in the back yard with grease up to his elbows.

Ask him anything about carburetors, water pumps, generators, horsepower or timing and he had a ready answer. I admired him for it, but my interest in carburetors was zilch and my primary interest in automobiles was (and is) that they get me from point A to point B without breaking down.

I feel pretty much the same way about other fix-it items. I am just not excited about getting into the bowels of a toilet and replacing its thing-a-ma-bob. Nor am I interested in replacing light switches to see how much voltage I can send coursing through my body. Yeah, yeah, I know… you turn off the electricity first.

I am not sure where this lack of enthusiasm for things mechanical came from but it was probably a combination of aptitude and attitude. Me father wasn’t particularly fond of working on automobiles and some of that may have rubbed off. But he was very handy. In addition to being a skilled electrician he loved puttering around outside making things.

I classify all such activities as chores to be avoided if at all possible. In fact, over the years I have developed a number of strategies for not having to fix things. Here’s my guide on how to avoid fixing things:

  • Don’t own any tools. You might be tempted to use them, or even worse, someone such as a wife might suggest that you use them.
  • Don’t buy a house. Every scientific study ever done confirms that the single most important reason for having to fix things is owning a home. I was 53 years old before I made that mistake.
  • If something doesn’t work, go buy a new one.
  • Plead ignorance. “What do you mean there is more than one kind of screw driver?” As a corollary, hide your repair manuals. My wife Peggy has the irritating habit of looking up things that need fixing and then saying sweetly, “Oh, this looks easy to do, Curt.”  My manliness has been challenged. It doesn’t matter that this ‘easy’ chore requires that I make four trips to the hardware store, purchase $500 worth of new tools, work ten hours straight and injure myself at least once.  I have to do it.
  • Or you can praise your wife’s ability to fix things and then hide. Peggy is a natural with hammer, saw, paint brush and screwdriver.
  • Curse a lot. Your partner may figure that leaving something broken is easier than listening to you.
  • Stall. “I’ll do it right after I cook dinner, honey.” Stalling is easier if you are doing something the other person finds desirable.
  • If all else fails, compromise. I have an agreement with Peggy that I will do one manly chore per month. That’s my quota. Some activities such as fixing toilets even earn two months of credit.

Even my hobbies as a kid reflected my non-mechanical tendencies. Building model ships, airplanes, cars, trains, etc. had no interest. My concept of a great hobby was rock collecting. I would hike along the Southern Pacific railroad tracks in Diamond Springs and pick up interesting rocks until all four pockets were bulging and my pants were about to fall off. I would then go home and smash them apart with a hammer to figure out what I had found. Geology became a life-long interest.

I do understand the arguments for being able to fix things: saving money, being self-sufficient, and obtaining satisfaction from a job well done.

These same arguments, however, apply to going out in the pasture, shooting Elsie the Cow, gutting her, bringing home the meat, grinding it up, and throwing it on the grill. Just think of the satisfaction involved and dollars saved! Or, you can go to the local fast food joint and help employ a kid who might otherwise turn to a life of crime.

Now, back to chemistry. One day we had to shove little glass tubes through rubber stoppers. Apparently this is an important skill for budding chemists. It’s not a difficult task if you ignore the fact that the holes in the stoppers are approximately half the diameter of the glass tubes and, more importantly, you have a gallon of Vaseline.

I was half way through my first masterpiece when the damn tube broke and ended up jabbed into my hand. Bleeding like a speared mammoth, I was carted off to the emergency room of the local hospital and sewn up.

There was plenty of time while sitting in ER to contemplate my future as a scientist. My conclusion: there wasn’t one. I decided that the best way to avoid long-dead animals, smelly chemicals and miscellaneous dangerous objects (not to mention higher level math skills) would be to choose a career that depended on verbal agility. In other words, my future would be based solely on my ability to BS.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: A Choice: Graduate or Go to Jail.

A Terminal Case of Puberty Blues… The 50th Reunion of EUHS’s 1961 Class

The 50th Reunion of El Dorado Union High School’s 1961 Class was approaching like a runaway freight train. Emails from Placerville California were filling my inbox. Ancient memories kept bubbling to the surface. Fortunately time and a sense of humor had smoothed off the sharper edges.

Something happened between my eighth grade in Diamond Springs and high school in Placerville. It hit me right between the eyes with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Here I was a happy, well-adjusted and relatively successful young man one day and a serious candidate for a strait jacket the next.

Pimples popped out on my face overnight and my voice became dedicated to practicing random octave jumps. Teenage-hood, which had promised to be a mild adventure, arrived with a vengeance. I was being hormonally challenged; I had a terminal case of puberty blues.

Things I had taken for granted became illusive, almost impossible to obtain. Take girlfriends, for instance.

I expected to lose a little ground in the field of romance when I became a freshman in high school. Sophomore, junior and even senior boys cruised the hallways in a mad scramble to harvest the new crop of freshmen girls while the older girls weren’t about to date a freshman boy, that lowest of low creatures.

But I didn’t expect to bomb the way I did.

I became intensely, almost painfully shy. I would walk down the hallways staring at my feet in fear that some young woman would look me in the eye. If a girl tried to talk to me, I would mutter inanities and make a run for it. The strangest statements came out of my mouth. As for asking a girl out, the odds were a little less than being struck by lightning and the latter seemed like a less painful alternative.

It wasn’t that I didn’t notice girls. My body was one huge hormone. I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. I pined for a young woman who sat in front of me in Mr. Crump’s Geography class. She was gorgeous and came with a full complement of accoutrements: smile, brains, hips and breasts. I was in deep lust.

My knee and her fanny were mere inches apart and her fanny was like a magnet. I had the most intense fantasies of moving my knee forward until it made contact. In my fantasy she would of course turn around, smile at me and suggest we get together after school.

In reality, she would have turned around and bashed me with her geography book, or worse, told Mr. Crump. I would have died. I kept my knee where it belonged. It is a strong testament to my love for geography that I didn’t flunk the class under the circumstances.

Next blog: Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sign up for dance classes in PE.

Diamond Springs, California: From Gold Rush to Sleepy… The 50th EUHS Reunion

The message arrived by mail. My 50th High School Reunion was coming up. Once again the mighty Cougars of Placerville, California’s El Dorado Union High School would roar.

Or at least meow.

Teenage angst, hormonal overload and dreams of glory had long since been dimmed by the realities of life and aging bones. My classmates and I have reached the point where looking back is easier than looking forward.

A Memory Book was being created. What had happened to us since that warm June day in 1961? It was time to sum up our lives in 400 words or less. Should I lie?

Naah. I dutifully begin to put the words down on paper. I found, however, that my mind kept wandering back to what had happened prior to our graduation, during the formative years of our lives. Always on the lookout for blog material, I decided to post a few stories from those years. First up:

Many things influence whom we become. DNA, parents, friends, teachers… it’s a long list. Where we are raised also has to be included. It doesn’t matter where we go in life; our hometown remains our hometown. And this takes me back to Diamond Springs, a small town outside of Placerville.

Sleepy is too lively a word for describing where I lived from 1945 to 1961.

In Old West terminology, Diamond was a two-horse town. There were two grocery stores, two gas stations, two restaurants, two bars, two graveyards and two major places of employment: the Diamond Lime Company and the Caldor Lumber Company.

On the one horse side of the equation there was one church, a barbershop, a hardware store and a grammar school. High school was in far off Placerville, three miles away.

It hadn’t always been quiet. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, Diamond was once a major gathering spot for the Maidu Indians and later became a bustling Gold Rush town.

To the Maidu it was Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring and a very holy place.  Indians came from miles around bearing their dead on litters for cremation. Souls were sent wafting on their way to where ever deceased Maidu went.

Apparently they had been living in the area for a thousand years. It is a sad commentary on both our education system and how we treated the Indians that I grew up in Diamond never hearing the name Morning Star’s Spring much less Mo-lok’epakan. Our only connection with the Maidu’s lost heritage was finding an occasional arrowhead or Indian bead.

Then, in 1848, John Marshall found some shiny yellow baubles in the American River at Sutter’s Mill, 13 miles away. The worlds of the Maidu, California, and Morning Star’s Spring were about to be shattered. “Gold!” went out the cry to Sacramento, across the nation and around the world. Instant wealth was to be had in California and the 49ers were on their way.

They came by boat, wagon, horse and foot… whatever it took. And they came in the thousands from Maine to Georgia, Yankee and Southerner alike. They came from England and Germany and France and China, pouring in from all points of the compass. They left behind their wives, children, mothers, fathers, and half-plowed fields. The chance of ‘striking it rich’ was not to be denied.

Soon the once quiet foothills were alive with the sound of the miners’ picks and shovels punctuated by an occasional gunshot. Towns grew up overnight: Hangtown (Placerville), Sonora, Volcano, Fiddletown, Angels Camp, Grass Valley, Rough and Ready and other legendary communities of the Motherlode.

In 1850 a party of 200 Missourians stopped off at Morning Star’s Spring and decided to stay. Timber was plentiful, the grazing good and a 25-pound nugget of gold was found nearby. Soon there were 18 hotels, stables, a school, churches, doctors, a newspaper, lawyers, vineyards, a blacksmith, some 8000 miners and undoubtedly several unrecorded whorehouses.

Morning’s Star Spring took on a new name, Diamond Springs. The Wells Fargo Stage Company opened an office and the Pony Express made it a stop on its two-year ride to glory.

The town burned down in 1856, 1859 and again in the 1870s. By this time most of the gold had been found and the residents were forced to find other means of gainful employment.

The timber industry came to the rescue in the early 1900s when the California Door Company out of Oakland set up shop in Diamond to handle the timber it was pulling out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Starting with oxen and then moving to steam tractors, the company finally settled on a narrow gauge railway for retrieving rough-cut lumber and logs from its forest operations. By the 50s, it had moved on to logging trucks.

A couple of decades after Caldor was established, Diamond Lime set up business by opening a quarry two miles east of Diamond and a processing plant on the edge of town. The lime was so pure that a block of it was used in the Washington Monument.

This was pretty much how things were when the Mekemsons arrived at the end of World War II. Next blog… the Mekemson/Bray gang terrorizes Diamond Springs.

Earth Day 2011… a Home in the Woods

A view from our patio. Tomorrow is Earth Day 2011, a time to stop and appreciate the diversity and beauty found in nature, a time to remind ourselves of the critical role we have in protecting this beauty and diversity for future generations.

My earliest memories of childhood are of exploring the rural countryside around my home in Diamond Springs, California. As a result, I have always loved wandering in the woods. When other boys my age took up baseball bats, I disappeared into the forest and tracked Jack Rabbits.

This splendid fellow considers our property part of his range... Here he reminds me.

Later my enjoyment of nature turned into a passion for protecting the environment.

I was recruiting for Peace Corps Volunteers at the UC Davis when Earth Day I took place. It started me on the road to becoming an environmentalist. I quit my job with Peace Corps and became Executive Director of Sacramento’s Ecology Information Center.

The beauty of nature is found in many forms, from the small flower to the grand vista. The hills behind our home are now filled with spring wildflowers, such as this Shooting Star I photographed last week.

Forty years later the message of Earth Day remains the same.

Diversity in nature helps assure our continued survival. Within that diversity there is also unity. All of life is tied together in a complex whole. When we destroy one part of life it has a rippling effect, reaching out and disrupting other aspects of our existence.

Predators, such as this small fox who has a den on the back of our property, have historically been considered an enemy to be wiped out. Ecology has taught us of the vital role these predators have in maintaining the balance of nature.

It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

Protecting the diversity of life through maintaining natural areas does more than help assure our survival, however; it provides a sanctuary where we can escape the busyness and worries of our everyday urban life and return to roots that reach back to the very beginnings of human consciousness.

The beautiful Applegate River flows by our home and provides a rich riparian habitat for birds, mammals, plants and fish. My wife Peggy has already claimed a rock where she can sit quietly and meditate on the beauty.

I am convinced we lose something of our humanity when we isolate ourselves from nature.

When I hike down a woodland trail, a sense of peace settles over my mind even as my fat cells scream for mercy. Both body and soul gain. The benefits are so persuasive I have been drawn to the wilderness again and again during my life.

At an elevation of 2000 feet we have a mixed woodland forest of Ponderosa Pines, Douglas Fir, White Oaks and Red Cedar. A March snowstorm decorated this Douglas Fir.

Our recent move to the Upper Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon is but one more example. The Applegate River flows past out front door and 1.8 million acres of national forest and wilderness form the boundary of our back property.

A herd of deer and a flock of wild turkeys consider our five acres as part of their range. Fat Gray Squirrels chase each other through the mixed oak, pine, fir and madrone forest. A small fox has chosen to make its den in our blackberries.

A herd of seven black tail deer often bed down on our property. They drop by our house frequently to see if Peggy has her garden in yet.

As I look out our window, Mountain Jays, Gold Finch, Grosbeaks and tiny hooded Oregon Juncos are gathered around our bird feeder, more or less taking turns.

Larkspur, shooting stars, buttercups and numerous other wildflowers provide spring decorations on the slope below.

I realize how very, very lucky Peggy and I are to have this home in the woods. With the approach of Earth Day 2011, it is my hope that future generations will still have such wilderness areas to enjoy and cherish.

Sunset from our patio... and a final reminder of the beauty and peace to be found in the natural world. May our children and grandchildren continue to enjoy it. Earth Day 2001.

(Next Blog: How the Pond and the Woods introduced a seven-year-old child to the wonders of nature.)

The Peace Corps Leaves us Behind in New York City…

There's an old saying: "When treed by a lion, you might as well enjoy the scenery." My trip to the 1965 World's Fair in New York City resembled that. In this photo, Jo Ann poses with Rex.

Having successfully completed Peace Corps Training, our next task was to fly to Liberia, Africa. The thought was both exciting and scary. We didn’t need was another major adventure on the way…

Our reward for completing Peace Corps training was one week at home.

We were supposed to complete whatever business we had before disappearing into the jungles of West Africa for two years. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard.

Surrounded by friends and family we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a cool breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.

Jo Ann’s parents drove us down to the San Francisco Airport the next morning for our flight to JFK where we would meet up with our group. Her mom slipped us a hundred-dollar bill just before we climbed on the plane. “Just in case.”


Now we were disembarking at JFK, two country kids who had traveled a long way from Diamond Springs and Auburn, California. All we had to do was check in at the Pan Am desk, grab a bite to eat, and catch our trans-Atlantic flight to Africa.

Ah that life should be so simple. Oh we managed to find the Pan Am desk all right, but no one was there.

“Excuse me, could you tell me where the Peace Corps group is?” I asked a harried attendant.

“I don’t have any idea,” was the brusque reply.

Have you ever had the sinking feeling that you have blown something critically important in a very big way? It starts with the hair follicles on your head and works its way downward to your toes. Every part of your body jumps in to let you know you aren’t nearly as smart as you imagined you were.

It’s the stomach that serves as the real messenger, however, and mine was rolling like the Atlantic in a hurricane.

“Check the instructions again, Curt,” the voice of reason standing beside me directed. Good idea.

“Well, it says right here we are supposed to be at the Pan Am desk no later than 5 PM.” It was only 4. My stomach calmed down to a respectable jet engine rumble. “Let’s have a bite and check back.” I suggested, working hard to be the man

Five PM came and no one, nothing, nada. It was serious panic time. “Wait here Jo in case anyone comes. I’ll go check the instructions one more time.”

We had stuffed our bags in one of those drop-a-quarter-in-the-slot storage lockers while we ate. I freed my shoulder bag from captivity and reread the instructions. Yes, we were in the right place at the right time. Then there it was, the answer, staring at me in black and white. “You will fly to JFK on August 7th.”

It was the 8th.

Uttering swear words on each step, I slowly climbed back up the stairs.

“I’ve found them Jo Ann.” A look of relief and the beginning of a smile crossed her face.

“Where are they?”

“They’re in Liberia.” Waaaaaaaaaa!

Let me say this about the two of us; we were both stubborn as mules when we thought we were right. This could create problems when we disagreed but the potential for disaster was miniscule in comparison to when we both agreed we were right and we weren’t. Reality didn’t matter and certainly a little date on a piece of paper we had each read a dozen times wasn’t going to deter us.

The 7th was our going away party and that was that, period. While we were kicking up our heels in Auburn, our compatriots were crossing the Atlantic. Now we were stuck in New York City.

“What are we going to do?” Jo asked in a shaky voice. The only thing that came to my mind was a double vodka gimlet

It was probably a good thing United Airlines let us on the airplane in San Francisco without noticing our tickets were one day out of date. Had we called Washington from home, the Peace Corps may have been tempted to say, “Why don’t you just stay there.”

As it turned out, the Peace Corps representative sounded amused when we called the emergency number after our visit to the bar. “Did we have enough money to get through until tomorrow?” Yes, thanks to Jo Ann’s mom.

“OK, call this number in the morning.” We decided to sleep in the airport to save our scant resources. It was a resolution with a short lifespan. I had one extremely unhappy young wife on my hands and my sleeping habits were unwilling to accommodate a deserted airport lounge.

Somewhere around midnight I said, “Look, Jo, I am going to see if a cab driver will help us find a hotel we can afford.”

The first guy in line was a grizzled old character in a taxi of similar vintage. I told him our story. He studied me for a moment and then said, “Go get your wife and I’ll find somewhere for you.

A more cynical observer might note we were lambs waiting to be fleeced but what followed was one of those minor events that speak so loudly for the positive side of human nature. The taxi driver took care of us. He reached across the cab, turned off his meter and then drove to three different hotels. At each one he would get out, go inside and talk to the manager. At the third one he came out and announced he had found our lodging.

“This place isn’t fancy,” he reported, “but it is clean, safe and affordable.” Affordable turned out to be dirt-cheap. To this day I am sure the cab driver finessed a deal for us. Two very exhausted puppies fell into bed and deep sleep.

The Peace Corps representative we talked to the next morning wasn’t nearly as friendly as the one the night before but at least he didn’t tell us we had to go home. A commercial flight to Liberia would be leaving in three days. “Could we hang out in New York? Did they need to send us some money? Could we follow directions?”

A very skinny Curt and the US Pavilion at the World's Fair

Yes we could hang out; no, they didn’t need to send money, and yes we could probably find our way to the proper airline at the correct time on the right day.

Jo and I visited the World’s Fair, checked out the City and considered the three days as an extension of our all too short honeymoon. As the old saying goes, all’s well that ends well.

Next up: Warm coke and cookies for breakfast in Dakar, Senegal

A Dead Skunk Reeks Revenge

Dead skunks reek revenge; it’s a fact of life for roadkill aficionados, otherwise known as bicyclists.

In 1989 I did a 10,000 mile solo tour of the US and Canada on my bicycle and became a specialist in what North America offers in the way of dead animals. I quickly learned that different regions produce different roadkill. For example, if you are interested in smashed armadillos, go to Louisiana.

Dead skunks, on the other hand, can be found decorating pavement everywhere. Lately, Peggy and I have had to dodge several on our 13-mile drive home from the small town of Ruch, Oregon to our new home in upper Applegate Valley.

I use dodge somewhat loosely since there is no way to avoid the aroma. Dodging a dead skunk is infinitely better than hitting a live one, however. I did that once. It was on my first ‘driving’ date, ever. I was 15.

Paula called me. The date involved Mom, Boyfriend, Paula and I going out to dinner in the small town of Sutter Creek, about twenty miles away from Diamond Springs over California’s curvy Highway 49.

After we filled up on Italian food, Mom and Boyfriend promptly climbed in the back and suggested I drive home.

“Um,” I noted nervously, “I only have a learner’s permit.”

“That’s okay, it will be good practice,” Mom stated before I could add that I had just obtained the permit the week before.

Paula, meanwhile, was waiting for me to open the door for her on the passenger side of the car. She gave me an encouraging smile and my options dropped to zero. Any further hesitation would appear wimpy, which is a definite no-no on a first date.

After doing the gentlemanly thing for Paula, I dutifully climbed into the driver’s seat and miraculously found the keyhole and lights. Minimal gear grinding got us out of town and I breathed an audible sigh of relief.

We had made it just past Plymouth when I ran over the skunk. Its response was to become a virtuoso of glandular activity.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Boyfriend said as the first powerful whiffs of eau de skunk came blasting through the air vents, “it happens all of the time.”

“Yeah, sure,” I mumbled to myself through tongue-biting teeth, “young men always run down skunks on first dates, especially first dates with Mom and Boyfriend along.”

Fortunately I made it home without further incident.

There is another roadkill story here, though. This one involves a cat and took place in the same area 25 years later.

While working for the American Lung Association of Sacramento, I had created what is known as the Trek Program, a series of multi-day outdoor adventures that people go on as fundraisers.

At the time this particular event took place, I was living in Alaska. ALA Sacramento had hired George and Nancy Redpath to run its Treks. They had a popular three-day bicycling event that incorporated a portion of the same route that I had traveled the night of the fateful skunk incident.

The Redpaths had added a roadside scavenger hunt to the Trek for fun. A sail-cat was on the list of items to be collected.

For the uninitiated, a sail-cat is a cat that has had an encounter with a logging truck’s wheels, after which it resembles a furry pancake with legs. Given several days of curing in the Sierra foothill sun, the cat can be picked and sailed in much the same way you would a Frisbee, hence the name.

Although tossing sail-cats has provided dogs with a new way to chase cats and play Frisbee at the same time, it is a sport without many adherents. Even dogs have serious reservations.

Not surprisingly, one Trekker managed to find a sail cat, load it on his bike and dutifully turn it in at the end of the day. The person won the scavenger hunt, which he should have considering his extended association with the umpteen-day dead cat.

But wait… there’s more. Two other couples became involved in the dead cat saga. I’ll call them Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice to protect the innocent.

Bob and Carol finished the Trek, hopped in their car and naively drove home that evening unaware that they were carrying a fellow traveler. When they arrived back in Sacramento and opened their trunk, lo and behold, there was the dead cat.

Bob and Carol had a good idea it was Ted and Alice who had stowed the unwanted passenger in their car. They vowed to get even.

As it turned out, both couples had spouses who worked for the State of California. A devious plot was hatched. The next day Ted received one of those large inner-office envelopes in his in-basket. It was rather bulky so he opened it with interest. Out slid the sail-cat, your tax dollars at work.

Unlike Aunt Tilley’s fruitcake, the cat apparently ended his strange after-life journey at that point.

Picking Your Kitty African Style or How Brunhilde the Cat Became Rasputin

(This is my third travel blog writing about the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa and celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps.)

Second year Volunteers in Liberia ran off and played during the January break. Being new kids on the block, my ex-wife and I were expected to stay home and work. One of the escaping couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, left four female kittens in our care.

Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.

I built our temporary cat family a three-story cardboard mansion. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. The kittens would disappear inside and play for hours. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.

In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitty we would keep. First we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry and then brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe. Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.

Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet feast and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground-floor door. Now we were ready for the test.

Each kitten would be placed inside the third-story door and given a nudge. I would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach her dinner. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze was the brightest.

Grey Kitten #1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching on fish heads might inspire the other kittens to greater glory, however.

Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)

Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.

Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo nicknamed her Brunhilde. By the time her turn arrived, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way.

I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the hall was punctuated by a crash on the other end. Brake problems. Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had the crash disoriented her?

Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.

And that is how Brunhilde became our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildehood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of his demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed him Rasputin, after the nefarious Russian monk.

This brings up a related story, think of it as a blog bonus.

James Gibbs, an anthropologist from Stanford, was living in Gbarnga and studying the Kpelle people when we first arrived. One evening he and his wife invited Jo Ann and me over for dinner. We appreciated the invitation. I should also note we were recent college graduates and over awed by academicians. We dressed up in our best clothes and walked the mile to their home.

The Gibbs had an impressive house for upcountry Liberia. They were sophisticated, nice folks who quickly put us at ease. Among the hors d’oeuvres they served was a delightful concoction of mashed avocado, tomatoes and peppers that Jo and I found quite tasteful. We made the mistake of asking what it was.

“Why it’s guacamole of course,” Dr. Gibbs declared. We must have looked blank because he went on, “Surely anyone from California knows what guacamole is.”

Surely we didn’t. I felt like Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl when she learned that pate was mashed chicken liver. After all, what do a couple of country kids from Diamond Springs and Auburn know? (It was 1965 and Mexican food had yet to storm the area.) Yes, we’d graduated from UC Berkeley but dining out to us meant beer and pizza at La Val’s.

To change the subject I called attention to their cat.

“Nice cat,” I noted.

“Oh that’s Suzy,”[1] Mrs. Gibbs gushed. “She’s in love.”

Dr. Gibbs jumped in, obviously glad to leave the subject of guacamole. “The boys are coming by every night to visit. We hear them yowl their affection up on the roof.”

Suzy looked proud of her accomplishments. She strolled over and rubbed up against my legs. I reached down and scratched her head, which served as an invitation to climb into my lap. While arranging herself, she provided me with a tails-eye view. Staring back at me was the anatomy of the most impressive tomcat I’ve ever seen. In comparison to Rasputin, Suzy had the balls of a goat!

I could hardly contain myself. “Um, Suzy isn’t Suzy,” I managed to get out while struggling to maintain a straight face.

“What do you mean Suzy isn’t Suzy?” Dr. Gibbs asked in his best professorial voice. Rather than respond verbally, I turned Suzy around and aimed her tail at Dr. Gibbs. Understanding flitted across his face.

“We never thought to look,” he mumbled lamely. We were even. While the kids from the hills might not know their guacamole from mashed avocados, they did know basic anatomy.

[1] Since we are talking academics here, I will insert a footnote. My memory of the event may be faulty and the cat was named something other than Suzy. It was definitely a female name, however.