Capital P is for Pond— Or Is that Pirates… The MisAdventure Series

 

Resting on top of tombstone in Diamond Springs, CA

There came a time when the Graveyard was too small to accommodate my wandering ways, about 65 years before this photo was taken. Both the Graveyard and I have changed a bit.

 

There came a time when the Graveyard wasn’t large enough to satisfy my wandering urges. I had crawled under the lilac bushes, climbed all of trees, found most of the downed tombstones— and even visited the new graves on the opposite side of the Graveyard. It was time to expand my horizons.

All of Diamond and its environs were fair game. I started close to home and gradually worked outward. At first I tagged along behind Marshall and our friends; later I spent a great deal of time alone with only the dogs for company. It was a Capital World. For example, 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.

Mill pond

This was one of our ponds, the mill-pond where logs waited for their appointment with the buzzsaw. Sadly, I don’t have a picture of the Capital P Pond. But it was fed by water from here. Neither of the ponds exist today. Marshall liked to walk out on the logs.

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 dog Tickle providing instructions. More sophisticated strokes would wait for more sophisticated lakes.

Tickle as a pup with my sister Nancy Jo.

Frogs and catfish were for catching and adding to the family larder. During the day, a long pole with a 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 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.

Next Friday in MisAdventures, we will visit the other great ‘wilderness’ of my childhood: The Woods.

TOMORROW (Saturday): It snowed here. Join Peggy and me on a walk through our winter-wonderland.

MONDAY’S Travel Blog POST: Dropping into the depths of the Grand Canyon we find a huge sandstone cavern and an ancient Native American granary.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: We leave Dawson Creek and begin our journey up the Alaska Highway.

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Lust, Love and Like…

Figuring out our relationship with the opposite sex is a lifelong challenge. I was in my late forties when I met my wife Peggy and finally got it right… from my perspective. Twenty years later I suspect Peggy still considers me a work in progress. I know her sister Jane does.

As a friend, co-worker and sometimes boss, Jane had been training me for 15 years when Peggy appeared on the scene to take over. Jane also assured me that their mother, Helen, was prepared to step in if necessary. I am probably lucky that Grandmother Honey had already passed on. Today, my daughter Tasha has joined the fray.

I’ve never met a more formidable group of women and I am not sure how I ended up as a community project. (“Okay, whose turn is it today to civilize Curt?) But my guess is I got lucky. My family and friends agree.

I am convinced that Lust, Love and Like are the key ingredients to a happy relationship. I’d throw in respect if it started with an L. Lust is around to light the fire and keep it lit. It lurks deep down in our brain as a primitive urge to assure that little people are born, which is a messy, painful process that needs all of the encouragement it can get.

Love is the deep bonding that comes along to guarantee the little ones are raised and survive their early teenage years. It’s also helpful in encouraging Daddy to hang around and help with the process. It may even last a lifetime so you have someone to talk to when you get old and grouchy.

But for me, like is the crème de la crème, the frosting on the cake. The partner you lust after and love can also be your friend, even your best friend as is the case with Peggy.

So, where was she 60 years ago? My interest in girls started early.

The long-legged blond Carol Butts caught my attention in the third grade; she could outrun me. Red headed Judy Hart became my passion in the fifth grade, as she did all of the other boys in our combined fourth and fifth grade class. Judy obligingly cut off lockets of her hair and gave one to each boy. I’m surprised she had any hair left. It was the Kludt twins that occupied my seventh grade year and the raven haired, dark-eyed Ann Pierce who I fell for in the eighth grade.

It’s in high school when relationships take on a more serious, urgent tone however.

I blogged about my disastrous freshman year last week. Things started improving my sophomore year. I ditched my thick glasses for contact lenses and came back to school buff and tan from a summer of working in the pear orchards. A few girls even provided a wiggle or two to see if anyone was home. There was.

More importantly, I had my first date.

Paula Griggs called me. Her mother was obviously encouraging the process. 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 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.

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. As for the date, I can definitely say that is was memorable.

I previously posted the story on Paula several months ago. 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: I Discover True Love… or Not.

A Penguin’s Guide to Long Distance Running

I am not a jock. It isn’t so much physical as mental. You have to care to be good at sports and I find other things more challenging.

Part of this evolved from a lack of enthusiasm for sports on the home front. There was little vicarious parental drive to see me excel on the playing field.

Being as blind as a bat didn’t help much either. Like most 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 sat close to the black board and squinted 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 in Diamond Springs. All of my friends played. Social pressure suggested it was the thing to do. Nervously, 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, except 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 number of skunks that lived in the Woods.

This didn’t mean I was hopeless at sports. 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.

It says something about your future in sports when your career peaks in the eighth grade. Thanks to Mrs. Young kicking me out of the first grade I was slightly older than my classmate and, thanks to genetics, slightly bigger.

More importantly, I had mastered the art of leadership: make noise, appear confident and charge the enemy.

As a result I became quarterback and captain of the football team, center and captain of the basketball team and pitcher and captain of the softball team.

Unfortunately, such glory was not transferred to El Dorado Union High School in Placerville. I blew it. Any red-blooded American male knows that you have to go out for football to become a high school sports hero.

There’s some glory in basketball and a little in baseball, but other sports are pretty much on the level of “Oh I didn’t know you did that.” What did I do? I went out for the cross-country team. Now if you are really, really good at cross-country, like best in the state, you might get an occasional story in the school paper.

But say you are the quarterback of the football team and you throw the winning pass in the annual game against your major out-of-town rivals. You are immortalized. You get the front page of the school paper and major coverage on the sports page of the community paper. As for the babes, they come out of the woodwork.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the best runner in the state, or in the community, or in the school, or the freshman class for that matter. In fact, I am not really built for running. My friends sometimes describe me as penguin-like. I have the upper body of a six-foot-six basketball player and the lower body of a five-foot-five VW bug racer.

It was only excessive stubbornness that usually found me somewhere near the middle of the pack in my cross-country races. It certainly wasn’t a love of running. There was to be no glory in the sport for me, and certainly no babes. But a lot of character building took place. Great.

By my sophomore year I decided I would have more fun playing football, but it was too late. I didn’t eat, dream and sleep football. I lacked the necessary motivation to smash my way to the top. I would come to practice after a long day of work in the fruit orchards where I had put in nine hours of hard, physical labor.

The first thing I did was don miscellaneous body pads that were still slimy with yesterday’s sweat and smelled like week-old dead fish. By then the coach would be yelling at us to hurry up and get out of the locker room and on to the field.

I decided there must be a high correlation between football practice and boot camp including push ups, wind sprints, humiliation and more push-ups, everything it takes to turn a wild bunch of undisciplined young men into an organized group of would-be heroes eager to go out and win one for the Gipper.

The hard work was okay, even fun, but I was highly allergic to being yelled at. I still am. My rapidly waning enthusiasm took a sky dive leap when the coach decided my position would be second-string left guard.

Now don’t get me wrong, guards and tackles are critically important to the success of a team and I confess that smashing into opponents and sacking the quarterback resembled fun. Where else could I practice physically aggressive behavior and be applauded? Even second-string made sense. The other kids had played freshman football and earned their places.

But I lacked the psychological orientation for being second string and had something else in mind in terms of position. I envisioned myself charging down the sidelines with the people in the stands on their feet cheering wildly.

I dutifully put in my time, finished out the year and decided to forgo a career in sports. I am glad I played. I gained new friends and new experiences, both valuable. But I can’t say I learned anything of great significance. What I recall from the season was there was little ‘thrill of victory’ and lots of ‘agony of defeat.’ We were not a team destined for glory.

The Skull with a Vacant Stare

In my last blog I explored how the Pond of Diamond Springs, California in the 1950s earned its Capital P. The Woods also earned a capital letter.

To get there I walked out the back door, down the alley, and through a pasture Jimmy Pagonni rented for his cattle. Tackling the pasture involved crawling through a rusty barbed wire fence, avoiding 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 fresh cow manure, however. A thousand pound grass-eating machine produces acres of the stuff. A well-placed hidden patty can send you sliding faster than black ice.

For all of its hazards, the total hike to the Woods took about 10 minutes. Gray Pines with drunken windmill limbs guarded the borders while gnarly Manzanita and spiked Chaparral encouraged the casual visitor to stay on 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 the hyper Cocker Spaniel, Tickle and became bounding blurs at the urging of the hungry Greyhound, Pat.

Flickers, California Quail and Redheaded 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 begging discovery. I was eager to learn these secrets 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 Curtis stomping down the trail, snapping dead twigs and talking to himself was easy to avoid while a Curtis being quiet might surprise them.

One gray squirrel was particularly loud in his objections. He lived in the top branches of a 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’ 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 more personal scolding.

After about 10 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 booty.

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 do push-ups. Why, I couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps a Thrush would 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 for lunch.

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; a coyote sneaking up on a ground squirrel hole with an intensity I could almost feel.

I also started stalking animals.

Sometime during the time period between childhood and teenage-hood, 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 at stalking but at least I learned to avoid dry twigs, walk slowly and stop frequently. Occasionally I even managed to sneak up on some unsuspecting animal.

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 made it a specialty, 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? My greyhound 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 pine cone 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 poop. It offered a multitude of clues for who 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 left their distinctive dog-sized scat but the presence of fur 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, Robinhood 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 arrow at 500 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 blog: Back to Burning Man… A Cast of Characters

Capital P is for Pond; A Place of Magic and Adventure

In my last blog I discussed how a long line of Mekemson and Marshall wanderers contributed to my DNA. I am not sure where this would have taken me had I been raised in an urban area. But in Diamond Springs, it turned me into a lover of wild places.

It was a Capital World.

For example, there were a number of ponds in the area. Ot Jones had one on his ranch for cattle; Caldor had one where logs waited for their appointment with the buzz saw; Forny had one over the hill from his slaughterhouse, and Tony Pavy had one that was supposedly off-limits. He grabbed his shotgun whenever we came near. Wise man.

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 with a moat mentality 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 growing 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 even an eight-year old could feel.

But melancholy was a rare emotion for the Pond.  To us, it was an amusement center with more options than a modern-day video arcade. A few railroad ties borrowed from Caldor and nailed together with varying size 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; real men jumped in naked. I took my first swimming lessons there and mastered dog paddling. Tickle, the Family Cocker Spaniel, provided 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 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. Ker plunk 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 legs at the hips and then pealing the skin off like tights. It was a skill I learned early; 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. It wasn’t easy. We were dealing with slimy fish trying to avoid the frying pan.

But their taste was out of this world . It had the slightly exotic quality of something that ate anything that couldn’t eat them.

Next blog: Capital W is for Woods.