When MC the Cat Refused to Have His Danglies Cut Off

MC the cat always refused to have his photo taken. I think that he was afraid of a paternity suit. So, I went to Creative Commons and found this picture that looks very much like MC as a kitten. The don’t-mess-with-me look fits perfectly.

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.

NEXT POSTS:

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.

The Banning of the Ghost Guard…The Shameless Shenanigans of Pat and Demon

Poor Pat. Living with me did have its drawbacks, especially when I had a camera in hand. Being a rescue dog, however, she was eternally grateful and willing to pose for me. Reluctantly. Behind her is the wood stove we used for heat and, above Pat’s tail, our first TV. It was a while ago. Grin.

Pat the Greyhound set the stage for the banning of the Ghost Guard from my bed.

The night of the skunk was an exception to Pat’s normal stay-at-home routine. As usual, I had crawled into bed with an assortment of animals. That evening, it was minus Pat. Good, she took up a lot of room. Somewhere around midnight, I half way awoke as she hopped up on the bed, completed three dog turns, and snuggled down. Consciousness made a quantum leap as my nose was assailed by an unmistakable perfume.

“Seems we have a skunk visiting,” I told Pat and reached down to scratch her head. The fur was moist. As I pulled my hand back, the skunk suddenly got much closer. Now, I was totally awake. Ms. Greyhound had been bullying the wrong pussycat. It was a night to sleep inside. In fact, Marshall had a roommate for several days. I don’t know how many times I washed that hand but I do know that the bedding was tossed and Pat learned what a tomato juice bath was. When I finally made it back outside, the animals were put on notice: One more problem and off they went. 

Then Demon the Black Cat made her contribution.

She was well into middle age by this time and there had been no pause in kitten production. This was a time before spaying became common. Every few months, Demon shelled out another litter. She had long since finished overpopulating Diamond and was working on surrounding communities. We were teetering on becoming known as the Cat Family of Diamond Springs. My father reverted to drastic measures. Demon was not pleased. She started hiding her kittens and became a master at subterfuge. If someone tried to follow her, she would stop and nonchalantly give herself a bath, her whole body, one lick at a time. Then she would wander off in the opposite direction.

Mother paid me in cookies to track Demon down. When the Graveyard was her destination, I had a flat tombstone I would stand on as a lookout. There was an added advantage; Demon didn’t check for people perched on tombstones. Who would? Eventually, the missing litter would be discovered. I felt like Daniel Boone.

Demon’s special home delivery took place the same summer Pat had her close encounter with the skunk. As noted earlier, my attitude about bed companions had become testy. I wasn’t above rolling over quickly to see how many I could dislodge. A really good roll would net three or four. Sleeping with me was like living on the San Andreas Fault.

I did feel guilt over routing Demon. Once again, she was pregnant. I watched her balloon out. By this time, I was a veteran of the birthing process and found it interesting rather than troublesome. One night I had awakened to Pat howling, found that she was delivering puppies, and sat up with her through the process. Another time I had gone out with Tom Murphy, our grocer, and assisted in the delivery of a calf that wanted to come out the wrong way. It was messy, up to the elbow work. Remember the coke I stole from his store on my 5 AM walk home from Rudy and Robert’s? Tom was repaid many tines over.

I really didn’t expect to be around for the arrival of Demon’s kittens. That would take place in some hidden nook. One should never make assumptions. 

It started as a normal night. Roll over, kick the animals off, and go to sleep. Wake up and repeat the process. It was not a normal morning. I woke up with wet feet.  

“What the heck!” I exclaimed as I sat up quickly, dislodging Pat in the process. Demon looked innocently back at me from the foot of the bed. Okay, nothing suggested why my feet were wet. Then I noticed movement. Demon was not alone. Several little black clones were lined up for breakfast. Demon had delivered her litter on the bed and my feet were awash in afterbirth.

That did it.  My bed was not a home for wayward dogs who encountered the business end of skunks and it certainly wasn’t designed as a maternity ward for unwed cats. I bought a water pistol and initiated a campaign of terror. Any four-legged critter on the bed became fair game. The cats learned quickly; getting shot with a water pistol was not their idea of a proper bath. The dogs were more resistant. Usually it took several squirts and then I would get the look: big brown eyes accusing me of dark deeds. But I was tough and my canine companions eventually vacated the premises as well.

As soon as I fell asleep, however, the whole menagerie, fleas and all, would quietly slip back up on the bed.

NEXT POST:

Blog a Book Wednesday… From “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” : A student revolution with world-wide implications was about to begin at Berkeley. As a student on campus it would have a dramatic impact on my world view and be an important factor in my joining the Peace Corps. I discuss how I gradually became involved and provide background information.

The Go-To Ghost Guard: Demon and Pat

Pat the Greyhound looking quite elegant. You can see why she would take up a lot of space on a one person army cot. I named her after the driver of the local Greyhound Bus.

In my last blog-a-book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I related how I moved outside during the summer and hired the family pets to protect me from the ghosts that lived across the alley from us in the jungle-like graveyard. While several animals participated in this critically important duty, two stood out for their steadfast commitment: Demon the Black Cat and Pat the Stray Greyhound.

Demon, the alpha family cat, was as black as the darkest night. As such, she was appropriately named and attired for graveyard duty. In fact, she spent a good deal of her life there, stalking mice, lizards, birds and anything else she could get her claws into with impunity. Captured prey would then be brought home for approval. My job was to dispose of the half-eaten carcasses. I would sometimes tie a string around the dead animals and drag them around the yard, giving Demon more play time. (Okay, I was a bit weird, but I received high marks from the cat.) Depopulating the Graveyard was not Demon’s claim to fame, however; motherhood was. She had kittens often and everywhere. I suspect that half of the cats living in El Dorado County today can trace their lineage back to her.

Demon was well colored and named for graveyard duty. I think her claws were about to reach out and scratch the photographer, me.

Two instances of kitten production bring back vivid memories. The first took place on the living room floor. Demon was a young cat at that time and a neophyte at motherhood. Her impending delivery was quite apparent from her large belly and ceaseless exploration of clothes hampers, cupboards and other dark places. 

With high hopes of avoiding a misplaced litter, Mother arranged her bedroom closet as a maternity ward. Several times each day it was my duty to show Demon her new home. I would carefully pick up the very pregnant cat, carry her to the closet, and deposit her in a box filled with well-used clothes. Demon didn’t buy the program.  It seems my bedside manner was faulty. She would climb out of the box, glare at me, and stalk out of the bedroom.

When the joyous day finally arrived, I was home alone.  Demon was practicing her would-be-mother waddle-walk across the living room when she suddenly stopped, squawked and squatted. Neither she nor I was ready for what followed. After all, how prepared can a young kid and a first-time mother be for birth? In a massive surprise to both of us, a tiny black bundle of fur emerged from Demon’s undercarriage. Surging emotions paralyzed my seven-year-old mind. One thought stood out, the closet! If Demon hadn’t memorized her delivery lessons, I had.

I jumped across the room, grabbed Demon by the nape of the neck, and raced for Mother’s bedroom. As fast as I ran, it wasn’t fast enough. In the middle of the kitchen, the new arrival completed its journey and was heading for a crash landing. Somewhere, somehow between Demon and the floor, I caught a warm, wet ball of fur in my free hand. After that, the memory fades. I know the three of us made it to the closet. 

Demon accepted her new home and four more kittens followed the first, although in a less dramatic way. The population explosion was underway. I’ll cover Demon’s other memorable kitten delivery in my post next Monday. It, too, was forever etched in to my mind.

Pat the Greyhound joined our family as a stray. For weeks, Mother had watched this large, starving dog wander the countryside catching jack rabbits and ground squirrels for food. One day she stopped the car, opened the door and invited Pat home for a meal.

“Oh, it is just until she gains a little weight,” Mother explained to one very disgruntled Pop. He already believed the size of our pet menagerie was far too large. People were known to drop off unwanted cats in front of our house knowing that they would find a home. As Pat put on the pounds, Mother modified her strategy. “Oh, but it would break Curt’s heart if we had to give her away.” She was a master at manipulation. Pat, who I named after the local Greyhound bus driver, had become my dog. 

Like all of our pets, she lived outside. It was Pop’s rule; pets were limited to daytime visitation rights only. Demon had been an exception imposed by Mother. Since there were no leash laws, Pat was free to come and go as she pleased. Mainly she chose to hang around with her food dish in sight. 

In next Monday’s post, I tell the story of how the shenanigans of Pat and Demon led to the Ghost Guard being kicked off my bed. 

NEXT POSTS

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book Post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Life at Berkeley gets complicated…

Friday’s Travel Blog: The dramatic sea stacks at Harris Beach State Park including the largest island off the Oregon coast and an intriguing hole in a rock. 

How to Keep Ghosts at Bay… Blogging a Book

We tend to think of ‘wilderness’ as wild, remote lands. In truth, you can find a bit of wilderness in your back yard or a community park if you are willing to sit quietly and let nature come to life. This is another tale from the book I am blogging: “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of me.”

I started sleeping outside in elementary school and would continue to for years. Here I am on a summer afternoon reading a Western. If you look closely, you can see US Army stamped on the back of the cot. It was of World War II vintage. My mother thought it was humorous to emphasize my big feet in her photo.

Between the third and fourth grade, I discovered a new way to enjoy nature. I moved my bedroom outdoors. It was partially to avoid sharing a room with Marshall and partially to escape my father’s house-shaking snores. But the real reason was that I loved being outdoors. I would move out as soon as school was over and stay until school started, or longer, if weather permitted.

At first, I slept on the ground in a cheap cotton sleeping bag. The ground was hard, the nights cool and the mosquitoes persistent, but these were minor drawbacks. I was free. If I had to pee, I’d climb out of the sleeping bag and find the nearest bush. If I woke up thirsty, a convenient garden hose was nearby. I would go to sleep watching the stars and listening to a giant bullfrog that lived in the ditch in front of our house. I would wake to cool morning air and chirping robins. Life was good. And then it got better. My grandparents bought me a real bed— a wood framed, steel spring army cot complete with mattress. I think that they may have been disturbed that their grandson lived outside and slept on the ground.

My paradise was marred by one thing, the Graveyard. It was always there on the edge of my sight.  White tombstones glared at me. As hard as I would pretend, the cemetery and its frightful inhabitants would not go away. So, I developed an elaborate set of defenses. The simplest was to sleep facing the opposite direction or to hide under the covers, ostrich like. A more sophisticated approach was to locate the bed where I couldn’t see the Graveyard.  Our well-seasoned cars worked in a pinch, but they weren’t quite large enough. Bits and pieces of the Graveyard would creep around their sides, peek over their tops and slink under their bottoms. A trellis built by my father, Pop, was much better. Its luxurious growth of honeysuckle created the perfect Graveyard screen. I set up a permanent residence behind it.

But even the trellis wasn’t enough to calm my imagination. I decided to hire protection. It came in the form of various family pets. Their job was to chase the ghosts away. Payment was made by allowing them to sleep on my bed. Apparently, the scheme worked. At least no ghosts attacked me during the years I slept outside. 

One of the family pets I hired for protection from ghosts. It’s hard to imagine that a ghost would find a fat cocker spaniel named Happy that liked to roll over on her back and get her tummy rubbed much of a threat.

The downside was I didn’t have much room. Two dogs, three cats, and me on a one-person army cot constituted a menagerie, or a zoo, if you counted the fleas. It was difficult to move. At first, I was very careful not to disturb my sleeping companions. I became a circus contortionist, frozen in place with body parts pointed in every direction. If this meant a restless night, so be it. It was a small price to pay for keeping the ghosts at bay.

Gradually, my attitude changed. I grew larger, the bed space shrank, and animals started sleeping on top of me. Meanwhile, the ghosts, who tend to hassle little people more than they do big people, became less of a threat. Therefore, I needed less protection. Neither of these factors led to the final banning of the animal kingdom, however. It was the shameless shenanigans of Demon the Cat and Pat the Greyhound that I will write about next Monday.

NEXT POSTS:

Blog-a-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: I’m off to UC Berkeley where a world-wide student revolution is about to take place. I find myself a lone voice in student government advocating for the right of students to participate in Civil Right’s demonstrations.

Travel Blog Friday… I’ve introduced you to the star fish and sea anemones that reside in the tide pools at Harris Beach State Park. Next I will feature the other denizens that Peggy and I found.

On a Pitch-Black Night, Something Stalked Us in the Graveyard…

A bit older than five, I find that the Graveyard next to where I was raised no longer holds the terror it did for me as a child. Plus they have cut down all of the heavenly trees and ripped out the myrtle. It is no longer a jungle playground for local kids. What’s the fun in that?

My first ‘wilderness’ was the Graveyard. It was out the backdoor and across the alley. We lived with its ghostly white reminders of our mortality day and night. Ancient tombstones with fading epitaphs whispered of those who had come to seek their fortune in California’s Gold Rush and stayed for eternity. Time had given their resting place a sense of permanence and even peace. But not all of the graves were old. Occasionally a fresh body was planted on the opposite side of the cemetery. I stayed far away; the newly dead are restless.

At some time in the past, heavenly trees, an import from China, had been planted to shade aging bones. They behaved like weeds. Chop them down and they sprang back up, twice as thick. Since clearing the trees provided Diamond Springs Boy Scout Troop 95 with a community project every few years, the trees retaliated by forming a visually impenetrable mass of green in summer and an army of sticks in winter. Trailing Myrtle, a cover plant with Jurassic aspirations, hid the ground in deep, leafy foliage. 

The thick growing heavenly trees and trailing myrtle gave the Graveyard the appearance of a jungle when I was growing up. Compare this with the photo above!

During the day, it took little imagination to change this lush growth into a jungle playground populated with ferocious tigers, bone crushing boas, and half-starved cannibals. My brother Marshall and I considered the Graveyard an extension of our backyard. Since it was within easy calling distance of the house, our parents had a similar perspective. Either that or they were glad to get rid of us. The skinny heavenly trees made great spears for fending off the beasts, or throwing at each other. At least they did until we put one through a playmate’s hand. Neither he nor his parents were happy. Spear throwing was crossed off our play schedule. We turned to hurling black walnuts at each other instead. They grew in abundance on the trees in our front yard. Plus, we could toss them at passing cars on Highway 49. Screeching brakes and one really pissed-off guy brought that activity to a halt.

Night was different in the Graveyard— it became a place of mystery and danger. Dead people abandoned their underground chambers and slithered up through the ground. A local test of boyhood bravery was to go into the Graveyard after dark and walk over myrtle-hidden graves, taunting the inhabitants. Slight depressions announced where they lived. Marshall persuaded me to accompany him there on a moonless night. I entered with foreboding: fearing the dark, fearing the tombstones and fearing the ghosts. Halfway through I heard a muzzled sound. Someone, or thing, was stalking us.

“Hey Marsh, what was that?” I whispered urgently.

“Your imagination, Curt,” was the disdainful reply.

Crunch!  Something was behind a tombstone and it was not my imagination. Marshall heard it too. We went crashing out of the Graveyard with the creature of the night in swift pursuit, wagging her tail.

“I knew it was the dog all of the time,” Marsh claimed. Yeah, sure you did.

By the time I was five, I had made my first tentative trips into the Graveyard. One of my early memories was spying on Mr. Fitzgerald, a neighbor who lived across the alley. He’s dead now— and has been for decades— but at the time he was a bent old man who liked to putter around outside. A black locust tree perched on the edge of the Graveyard provided an excellent lookout to watch him while he worked. One particular incident stands out in my mind. I had climbed into the tree and was staring down into his yard. It was a fall day. Dark clouds heavy with rain were marching in from the Pacific while distant thunder announced their approach. A stiff, cool breeze had sent yellow leaves dancing across the ground.  

Mr. Fitzgerald wore a heavy coat to fight off the chill. I watched him shuffle around in his backyard as he sharpened his axe on a foot operated grinding wheel and then chopped kindling on an oak stump.  When he had painfully bent down to pick up the pieces and carry them into his woodshed, I had scrambled down from the tree so I could continue to spy on him though a knothole. I must have made some noise, or maybe I blocked the sunlight from streaming into the shed. He stopped stacking wood and stared intently at where I was, as though he could see through the weathered boards. It frightened me.

I took off like a spooked rabbit and disappeared into the safety of our house. Mr. Fitzgerald was intriguing, but his age and frailty spoke of death— and the dead people who lived in the Graveyard. 

I will continue my tales of the Graveyard next Monday and relate how I moved outside to sleep under the stars in the summer. Unfortunately, the ghost continued to hassle me and I was forced to hire the family pets for protection.

NEXT POSTS

Blog-a-Book Wednesday…”The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: I complete my story on the laundry takeover at South Lake Tahoe where I was held at gunpoint. I drive my 54 Chevy toward the man holding a rifle who is standing in front of the car. Will he shoot me or get out of the way? That’s the question.

Travel Blog Friday... I return to my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach State Park where Peggy and I continue our exploration of tide pools.

Riding Pine Trees, Habanero, a Crowded Bed, and a 1st Grader’s Solo Hike— at 5 AM

In my last blog-a-book post from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me,” I returned to the first grade, got spanked, and went on a play date/sleep over with my young Hispanic friends Rudy and Robert. A train locomotive engineer tossed us candy from his cab. The adventure continues today and includes tree riding and my first ever solo hike…

The perfect size pine tree for a first-grader to climb and ride. Peggy suggested I might be a little big— and, at 78, possibly a tad old… Nah.

If one is fortunate enough to live next to the woods as a child, it’s easy to find ways to amuse yourself. After we had collected our candy from the train, dinner was a long hour off. I suggested to Robert and Rudy that we head out to the woods behind their house and ride trees. Who needs horses? My brother and I had learned that we could climb up to the top of young, skinny pines and make them sway back and forth by leaning out. The farther we leaned, the more they swayed. It offered a free carnival-like experience 10-15 feet up in the air. Even more could be accomplished by throwing our feet out in the direction the tree was swaying and hanging on for dear life. If the tree was skinny enough, we could make it bend all of the way down to the ground, where we would drop off and allow it to snap back up. It took a while for me to persuade Rudy and Robert that the sport wasn’t going to kill them.

The same tree seen above as a first grader might see it.

I suspect the trees didn’t enjoy the experience nearly as much as we did. When I later read Robert Frost’s poem about children bending birches, I fondly recalled our pine tree horses— or bucking broncs if you prefer.

“It’s dinner time!” came the call so we rushed back to the house and made use of an outside water faucet to wash the pine pitch off our hands. Sort of. Pitch has a way of sticking like super glue. It’s the pine tree’s revenge. Mother had a box of Boraxo at home for the the task. Hand inspections were held afterward.

“You have to try this,” Rudy enthused, dashing into the house and coming out with a red pepper. I should have been suspicious when the rest of the family followed him outside. But what does a first grader know? I gamely bit into the pepper and was introduced to habanero-hot. The whole family roared as I made a mad sprint for the faucet and drank a gallon of water, becoming a major part of the evening’s entertainment. It would had served them right later had I peed in their bed. I forgave them when I had my first Mexican dinner, however. I still love Mexican food. And I’ve come to enjoy habanero-hot on foods ranging from burritos to spaghetti.

One of many choices I have on hand for habanero-hot food.

As the night progressed, it soon became time for bed. I was about to flunk sleep-over etiquette.

The boys slept on the same bed. Admittedly it was bigger than my small single at home, but I had never slept in a bed with another person, much less 2 or 3, or maybe it was 10. That’s what it felt like. They put me in the middle. I was mortified, but I tried. I really did. Ten o’clock came and there I was, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, body frozen in place— and midnight, and two, and four. At five, I gently nudged Robert.

“I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept all night,” I confessed. “I have to go home.”

“Ummm,” the half-awake Robert had moaned.

I got up, dressed, and slipped out of the house, careful not to wake anyone else. It was close to dark, with only a dim light announcing the morning. Home wasn’t that far away, maybe a mile. But I still remember the journey from a first-grader’s perspective: long and spooky. It was my first great adventure. I followed the dirt road over the railroad tracks out to the Pleasant Valley highway. Not one car zipped by. Fortunately. They probably would have stopped and driven me home. Everyone knew everybody else in Diamond. “Sorry to wake you up Marge, but I found Curt out wandering in East Diamond.” By noon, everyone in town would have heard the story.

I walked past the hill with the cross on it and picked up Highway 49. Halfway home, I came to Tom Murphy’s grocery store. Sodas were stacked in wood boxes in front, waiting to be moved inside. I looked around furtively; I was totally alone. So, I helped myself to a coke; I deserved it. I continued on my journey, walking by the post office, Dub Walker’s store, the barber shop, hardware store, the historic Pony Express stop, firehouse and Gust Brother’s Garage, eventually reaching the dreaded Graveyard. I clutched my coke and crossed the road, preferring Pagoni’s mean dogs to the ghosts. Arriving home, I carefully hid the soda outside. It wouldn’t do to have overly inquisitive parents discover the purloined drink and ask questions. I happily enjoyed it later in the day, feeling much less guilty about stealing than I did about abandoning my friends. I suspect there was a bit of consternation when Rudy and Robert’s parents woke to find me missing. Imagine what would happen today.

Next Monday, it’s back to the Graveyard as I move outside for the summer to commune with nature. And, escape from my brother. It was the best decision of my young life except for one thing: The ghosts. I had to hire protection.

NEXT POSTS:

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Driving a laundry truck pays for my college education, but it was being held at gunpoint that prepared me for Berkeley and the Peace Corps.

Friday’s Travel Blog: Once again, it’s back to the ocean. Before moving on with my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach, however, I am going to take a brief detour to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, from which Peggy and I just returned. There are some elephant seals we want to introduce you to…

A Close-Encounter with a Train… Plus

In my last post from”It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Me,” I received a one year reprieve from attending the first grade under Mrs. Young’s ever watchful eye. In this post, my unending vacation ends. I trudge off to school, get spanked, make new friends and have a close encounter with a train.

Caldor Lumber Company was one of two major places of employment in Diamond Springs. My dad worked as an electrician for the company. Logs were brought into Caldor by train on a narrow gauge railway up into the early 50s.

I turned six on March 3, 1949. My endless vacation came to an end that fall. It was time for the first grade. Mother was delighted. Mrs. Young— not so much.  A number of the little boxes on my report card that reflected good behavior were marked ‘needs improvement.’ Mrs. Young had decided I needed a lot. Is neat— needs improvement; Shares— needs improvement; Is Polite— needs improvement. The list went on…

I even got spanked. “Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick” the old song School Days proclaimed. My classmate Joe and I had disagreed over who was top dog. We fought it out on the playground. I thought I was doing Mrs. Young a favor by clarifying the issue. Joe was even more uncivilized than I. She thought otherwise. The only justice I could see was that Joe got it in the end as well, so to speak.

First Grade was not the highlight of my school years, to say the least. Things had to get better and did. My second-grade teacher turned out to be my God-mother. There was a commandment issued on a mountain and written in stone: She had to like me. But back to first grade.

The high point of my year was that I made my first two friends who weren’t family or buddies of my older brother. Rudy and Robert were a pair of Hispanic brothers who lived in a small house out in east Diamond. We had hit it off immediately and on a Saturday toward the end of school, the boys and their parents invited me up to their house to spend the night. It was my first official play date and my first ever sleep-over. I was nervous. My mother took me up and dropped me off to a royal greeting by the boys, their parents and their siblings. 

“Quick,” the boys urged, “we have to go stand by the railroad tracks.” We could hear the train’s whistle as it approached Diamond. 

The tracks were part of a narrow-gauge railway Caldor Lumber Company used to bring logs from its tree-cutting operation 20 miles up in the El Dorado National Forest to its lumber mill in Diamond Springs. The company had been established in the early 1900s and, at first, used mules for hauling the logs. It had then switched to oxen followed by a giant steam tractor. The tractor made so much noise that the company was required to use outriders a quarter of a mile in front to warn people so their horses wouldn’t be spooked. 

Understandably, the company switched to the narrow-gauge railway. It, in turn, would lose out to logging trucks in the 50s. But for the time being, little kids still had the joy of watching the massive engines and their long line of rail cars carrying large logs out of the forest.

My father had a close connection with the railway. The train engines had recently been converted to diesel from steam and he had overseen the project as one of Caldor’s two electricians. He was also responsible for maintaining phone service between the lumber camp and the mill. When there was a problem, off he went to check out the 20 miles of line. A hand cranked generator was necessary for creating the electricity to make calls. We inherited one when the line was updated. Marsh and I would invite our little friends over, crank up the machine, and have them touch the outlet. It was shocking. 

Pop’s favorite railway task was clearing snow off the tracks each summer when the logging camp opened up for the season. “We had a diesel-powered rail car with a snow plow on it,” he explained to me later. “We’d back up and take a run at snow banks, crashing into them, and hopefully breaking through. Often our car would jump the tracks. We’d all pile out and lift it back on.” Some fun; he loved it. 

While watching the train was high entertainment, the primary attraction for us was that the engineers carried an ample supply of hard candy that they would throw out to the boys and girls standing along the track. It was almost a tradition.

The train was near; we could hear it chugging along. Rudy, Robert, their brother, sisters and I sprinted the hundred or so yards over to the tracks. I laid down and put my ear one of the rails. It was a trick I had learned from the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. You can actually hear the vibrations and supposedly judge how far away the train is. I needn’t have bothered since the train came into view when my head was still on the track. I’m sure the engineers saw me. “Get off the track!” Rudy and Robert screamed. We started waving vigorously. One of the engineers dutifully leaned out of the cab and tossed us candy, lots of it. We scrambled around picking it up and shoving it in our pockets, at least the ones that weren’t shoved into out mouths…

Next Monday I’ll continue this adventure as I teach the boys how to ‘ride’ pine trees and they teach me how to eat Habanero peppers. I find myself sharing the bed, a first for me. I don’t move. I don’t sleep. At 5 AM I hit the road on my first solo hike ever.

NEXT POSTS:

Blog-A-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” : I get a job driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. And then end up working for a laundry at the Lake. The upside is I pay for my college education, enjoy beautiful scenery, and get to meet stars. The down side is that I end up on the wrong end of rifle.

Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s all about star fish. Did you know they can send their stomach out of their mouths to eat?

First Grade Flunkee… Growing Up in a Graveyard

Today, I am starting Section 2 of my book, “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.” This section is titled, “Growing Up in a Graveyard,” which reflects that my first wilderness came with tombstones and ghosts. In Section 1, I took you along on the first backpacking trek I ever led. I quickly learned that leading 61 people aged 11-70 on a 100-mile trip across the Sierra Nevada Range came with challenges, to say the least. I spent a lot of time asking myself what in the world led me to do it. I begin to answer those questions in this section by taking you back further in time to the events in my childhood that led me to my love of the outdoors. Admittedly, the 1940s and 50s were a while ago. I’ve picked out the stories that are clearest in my mind and most relevant. Some, I’ve thrown in just for fun.

The question here is why should such an innocent looking child be kicked out of the first grade for a year…

I can still hear the clanking treads and feel the bite of the blade as my D-8 dug into the side of the steep hill. Dirt and rocks tumbled into the canyon below. I was working alone, cutting a logging road across mountainous terrain. The hot September summer sun was beating down; my body was drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. And then it happened. A portion of the cliff gave away— and the bulldozer went tumbling off the edge. 

“Oh, fuck!” I had yelled. 

It was a wonderful word, one that I had learned from my seven-year old brother. I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it was deliciously bad. At five years of age, I was too young to be operating a bulldozer by myself in our backyard, even if it was only four-inches long, and the road I was cutting was along the edge of our compost pit. But my mother wasn’t the hovering type; she drank a lot. Empty wine bottles had a way of mysteriously appearing under her bed and in the clothes’ hamper that hid out in the closet. Being outside was better than being inside. My mother’s alcoholism was my introduction to being alone with nature.

I wasn’t totally alone. Coaly, our black Cocker Spaniel, was assigned babysitting duty.  At “fuck!” she wagged her tail and barked into our compost pit where the toy had fallen. 

“Go get the bulldozer, girl,” I urged. She gave me a ‘go get it yourself’ look. She wasn’t the ideal faithful-dog. The gray hair around her nose and aching joints spoke to her advanced years.  She had little tolerance for my youthful pranks. Healing scars on my foot reflected how little. My first-ever job was to feed the pets. I’d open a can of Bonnie dog food on both ends, push it out with one of the lids, and then use the lid to divide it up. The earthy horse-meat smell still lingers in my brain. Coaly got half, and each of our cats— the black Demon and the white MC— got a quarter. She’d wolf down her food down and then go after the cats’ portion. 

That summer I had discovered that Coaly growled ferociously if I messed with her share. I fed the animals outside on paper towel plates, the finest of china.  I always went barefoot in the summer and it was easy to reach over with my big toe and slide their food away. I quickly learned to leave the cats with their lightning fast claws alone. But Coaly was all growls and no bite. At least she was until she sunk her teeth into my foot. I ended up in the ER with a tetanus shot, stitches and zero sympathy. Coaly ended up gobbling her dinners and hassling the cats in peace.

At the time of the bulldozer incident, I had been granted a reprieve from school, or, to put it bluntly, I had been kicked out of the first grade— for a year. My mother was not happy. She had good reason to drink.

As her last child to enter school, she had been eager to get me out of the house. Make that desperate. The evidence is irrefutable. California had a rule then that five-year olds could go to the first grade if they turned six on or before March 1 of the following year. There was no such thing as kindergarten, at least in Diamond Springs in 1948. Since my birthday was on March 3, I missed the deadline by two days. Darn. Mother’s reaction was more colorful. She made a command decision. Forty-eight hours were not going to stand in the way of her little boy’s education, or her freedom. So, she changed my birth certificate.  March 3 was carefully erased and March 1 entered. I was bathed, dressed and shipped out, not the least bit aware that I had matured by two days. I think I recall hearing music and dancing as my sister took me off to school, a block away.

Things weren’t so rosy at school. The other kids were all older, bigger, and more coordinated. For example, Alan Green could draw a great horse. It came with four legs, a tail, a head and a flowing mane. Mine came with unrecognizable squiggles. It was hard to tell whether my objective was to draw a tarantula or a snake with legs, but the world’s wildest imagination on the world’s most potent drug wouldn’t have classified the picture as a horse. It was not refrigerator art. The whole exercise created big-time trauma. 

This negative experience was compounded by the exercise of learning to print within lines. Forget that. If my letter came anywhere close to resembling a letter, any letter, I was happy. The teacher was more critical. 

“Curtis, I asked you to make Bs, and here you are printing Zs.”

“So what’s your point?” was not an acceptable response. Mrs. Young was suspicious and that suspicion increased each day I was in school. She was a tough old gal who had been teaching first grade for decades. She knew first graders and I wasn’t one. As for the birth certificate, Mother’s forgery was in no danger of winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. I still have the original for proof. After a few weeks, Mrs. Young sent off to Oregon for a copy. I remember her calling me up to her desk on the day it arrived.

“Curtis” she explained, “you have a choice. You can either go home now or you can go home after school. But either way, you are going home and can’t come back until next year.” 

Mrs. Young was a tough old gal who had been teaching the first grade for decades. The kids, BTW, are Clifford Drake and Bob Bray. Bob is still a close friend today. You will hear more about him in these tales.

Just like that, I was a reject, a first grade flunkee. 

Mrs. Young couldn’t have made it any clearer; Mother was going to get her little boomerang back. This was okay by me, if not by her. Playing out in the backyard was infinitely more fun than competing in ‘Scribble the Horse.’ I did decide to stay for the day. Mrs. Young was reading about Goldilocks to us after lunch and I wanted to learn if the bears ate her.

It would have been interesting to listen in on the conversation that took place between Mother and Mrs. Young, or even more so between my mother and father, or Pop, as he was known to us. I’ve often wondered if he participated in the forgery or even knew about the March 1 rule. I doubt it. He was not the parent frantic to get me out of the house during the day.  (Had it been in the evening, the jury might still be out, as my father reported to me later.) But I wasn’t privy to those high-level discussions. My job, which I took quite seriously, was to enjoy the reprieve. I was about to begin my wandering ways. The Graveyard was waiting.

NEXT POSTS:

Blog-A-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: I move from being hit by a baseball bat and put in the hospital because of my Republican leanings as a fourth grader to developing a more liberal perspective in community college that would lay the groundwork for my joining the Peace Corps.

Travel Blog Friday… It’s off to the coast again with a Covid-19 escape to Harris Beach State Park just outside of Brookings, Oregon.

The Sierra Trek Ends with Its Biggest Surprise Yet!

In my last post on the Sierra Trek, our trip had come to a sudden halt because the Army Corps of Engineers was dynamiting in the American River Canyon in preparation for building a new dam. Not being able to move on, we had done the next best thing— had a party. We were lucky that the Corps was knocking off for the weekend. Our adventure continued…

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program. For several years, it would become one of the top special event fundraisers for the national organization and provide an opportunity for thousands of people to experience the outdoors while backpacking and bicycling. I was leading a Trek into Yosemite when the above photo was taken.

Early the next morning I had an important decision to make: whether to wade across the American River in water up to our belly buttons and then follow the river or climb up the steep canyon following alternative trails. I let the Trekkers vote and they voted to cross the river. No surprise; beyond getting wet, it was easier.

One woman was deathly afraid, however— and broke down in hysterics. It was the same person who had initially refused to ride the Squaw Valley tram. We offered to carry all of her gear. We even offered to carry her. All to no avail. Finally, I decided we would all hike the canyon route. I was not about to split our group again. (It was the only time in my years of leading Treks that I ever allowed participants to vote while on the trail. Treks, I decided, were not a democracy.)

Our last night was fifty-fifty on the plus and minus scale. On the plus side, I knew that we had succeeded. Our Trekkers, except for the two or three who were now riding in the jeep, had made it— survived if you will. We had managed to solve each of the crises we had faced along the trail. I could say goodbye to the Trekkers the next day knowing that I had put everything I had into getting them through the nine days. On the minus side, Steve had taken a few of the ‘cool’ Trekkers to camp away from the main group. I hated seeing this, it was a really bad decision, but it was already a done deal by the time I came into camp as rear guard. I could have hiked up the canyon and insisted the group rejoin us, but I just didn’t have the energy to do it.

Sunday, we hiked into Auburn Fairgrounds as a group. The Trekkers were in high spirits and sang the Ham Cheddarton song. In cadence. They had a bar-b-que chicken feast to look forward to and then they were going home— home to hot showers, clean clothes and loved ones. They had enough tales to fill the next week and possibly their lifetime. As we approached the fairgrounds, our Auburn volunteers, several Board members and Jo Ann were there to cheer our arrival.

I didn’t know how things would end. At best, I hoped our Trekkers would recognize that even though we had made enough mistakes to fill a book (or at least a long chapter), we had tried as hard as we humanly could to rectify them. And I had learned, boy had I learned. Mainly, I felt relief. I was going back to focus on our mail fundraising campaigns with a vengeance. What took me by surprise, however, were the responses as Trekkers started to leave.

“Thanks, Curt, for the most incredible experience in my life. Where are we going next year?”

“You and Steve were great, Curt. I would like to help with next year’s planning.”

And on and on. People were excited about their experience. It was one of the most difficult things that they had ever done, and they had succeeded. They left feeling better about themselves, and that feeling translated over to us and the Lung Association. Instead of the negative comments I expected, and in some ways deserved, we were getting rave reviews. While not everyone was eager for next year’s adventure, most were asking, even demanding that we repeat it.

I left that day not quite convinced but leaning toward doing another Trek. One thing was for sure. My experience had matched that of the Trekkers. The event had been one of the most difficult things I had done in my life from both a physical and mental perspective. I came out of the Trek with a new confidence in myself and a new understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing— and an increased love of the wilderness.

That night as I took my first shower in nine days. It was everything that I had dreamed it would be, but when I reached around behind me to wash my fanny, something was wrong. It wasn’t there. It had disappeared. I felt like I had lost a limb. Between the trail review work, my trauma with Jo, and the Trek, I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks! It was a fitting end to the experience.

EPILOGUE

We would go on to hold our Trek the next year and many, many years afterwards. In 1977, I added a 500-mile bike trek to complement the Sierra Trek, and later a three-day bike trek. By 1980, I had gone national with the program and Lung Associations were holding treks across the nation. Millions of dollars would be raised for our organizations and thousands of people would experience backpacking and bicycling adventures. Of equal importance, the Trek program recruited a whole new set of dedicated volunteers to the organization. And— from a purely personal perspective— it provided me with a 30-year excuse to play in the woods!

Now that I’ve told the story of the first Trek, it’s time to head back farther in time and relate how I first fell in love with wandering the woods. It all started when I was kicked out of the first grade for a year and started escaping to the jungle-like graveyard that was just across the alley from our house with only a grumpy dog for company. It was a long, long time ago in another world. Please join me next Monday as I kick off Section 2 of “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.”

NEXT POSTS:

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Ever stop to think about what role your DNA would play in determining who you would grow up to be? I came from a long line of wanderers. Heading off to Africa seemed like a natural thing to do. I’ll introduce some of my ‘wilder’ ancestors including Great Great Grandfather George who struck it rich in the California gold rush and was then thrown off a ship into the Pacific Ocean and Uncle William who had his head chopped off by tomahawks.

Friday’s travel blog: Peggy and I are over on the Oregon Coast, this time in Brookings. So… there may be more ocean photos. Or… I may break out some more desert photos.

A Sheriff and Dynamite… The Sierra Trek

A photo of Leland Stanford and his store in Michigan Bluff from the Stanford Museum. This photo was likely taken in the summer. Can you feel the heat sizzling off the ground? 120-years later our Trekkers hiked by here on a similarly hot day.

On day seven of the Sierra Trek, we hiked into Foresthill, a small community 20 miles above Auburn. It was a long, hot, dusty 15-mile hike in and out of steep river canyons with temperatures soaring over 100°F. Along the way we passed through Michigan Bluff, which had once been an important gold rush community. Leland Stanford got his start here in the 1850s, running a grocery store for miners. It was a much surer way of striking it rich than gold panning. For example, eggs cost $3 each. Expensive huh? Taking inflation into consideration, the price would shoot up to $100 today.

Stanford continued to prove his smarts. His future included becoming one of the Big Four in building the Transcontinental Railroad, serving as the Governor of California, becoming a US Senator, and giving Stanford University its name.

In Foresthill, we had arranged to stay in the little city park that came with a swimming pool. Given the excessive heat of the day, I looked forward to diving into the cool, refreshing water. But my plunge was not to be.

First, I had to make sure we could find our way out of town and back onto the trail the next morning. We were now into the territory that Steve and I hadn’t reviewed— me because I was off on Vancouver Island deciding on my future, and Steve because who knows why. I hiked out of town for a mile or so down the road until I found the trail and then followed it for another half mile. It seemed well-marked, so I said headed back toward camp. It would be Steve’s job to lead the next day. He would have to deal with any surprises.

Back in camp, the situation quickly made me wish I had just kept hiking. Charlie came charging over. My always dependable backup, ex- ice hockey player, ex-bomb de-fuser and IRS dodger looked like he was about to break down and cry.

“Someone stole my grandfather’s watch at the swimming pool,” he blurted out.

It was a valuable family heirloom, precious to him. I did what I could to console Charlie and headed over to the pool to ask around. None of my Trekkers had seen anything suspicious, or Charlie’s watch. I had a hard time imagining any of them stealing it. He had done everything possible to help them down the trail. There were other folks at the pool, however. Fortunately, Charlie found the watch at his campsite, where he had left it.

My next challenge was Lose-Yourself-Dick, the forty something school teacher who had wandered off on his own. He had tackled his ample supply of snake bite medicine and was feeling no pain. In fact, he was challenging the teenage boys to wrestle him or at least jump on his stomach. I was sorely tempted to join the latter activity. He had also discovered a flagpole he insisted on climbing. I reasoned with him as best I could, but even when he was sober, persuading Dick not to do something was close to impossible. I had just completed my highly ineffective effort when a Sheriff’s car came cruising in to camp. I walked over. One of our Trekkers was sitting in the back seat.

“Can I help you?” I asked politely.

“Yes,” the Deputy Sheriff had responded, “I need to talk with the person in charge.”

I had another of those gut-wrenching feelings. Just three more days, I thought. Just get me through three more days. I desperately wanted to tell the deputy that the man in charge had checked out and gone home or was still on the trail.

“You’ve found him,” I said, putting on a brave smile.

“We just caught this young woman shoplifting,” the deputy reported in his official lawman voice.

“Damn!” I thought. But I said, “Okay, what do I need to do about it?” My unhappiness and resignation must have shown.

“Nothing this time,” he replied. “Because she is raising money for the American Lung Association, we are going to let her off with a warning.” And me as well, I read into his statement. “I am sorry, Curt,” she apologized and I just sighed.

Could anything else go wrong? Of course it could and likely would. I escaped by leaving camp when Steve came in and wandered off to a restaurant in town where I wasn’t likely to find any Trekkers. I drowned my sorrows in a large steak and a couple of well-earned beers. I seriously considered drinking more but I let my adult over-rule the temporarily insane me. He was demanding a six-pack.

We rolled our Trekkers out of Foresthill early the next morning. I breathed a sigh of relief as I followed the last one past the city limits. Once again, Steve was leading and I was playing rear guard. Fortunately, we had a short day. I was quickly reminded that being trail leader was a lot more fun than being rear guard. For one thing, you tended to get into camp a couple of hours earlier. For another, you weren’t constantly being bombarded by the question, “How much farther?” I had begun to respond with a stock answer, “Oh, it’s about twenty miles,” and had found that Trekkers stopped asking. If they persisted, my next response was, “It’s all up hill.”

Steve told me he had been moving some of the slowest Trekkers down the trail by telling them rattlesnake and bear stories and then walking on ahead. He said people made a real effort to keep up. Years later I would use the same technique in Alaska with grizzlies. I suspect that neither of us would have qualified for the Boy Scout Leader’s Seal of Approval. Or even the Sierra Club’s.

Around three, I came on Steve and our Trekkers milling about a closed gate. A vehicle was parked behind the gate and two official looking people were leaning against the vehicle. I was about to learn what price we were paying for not reviewing the final section of the trail.

“What’s up Steve?” I asked, wondering if we had managed to do something else to bring officialdom down on our heads.

“No problem,” Steve said, “they are just blasting with dynamite in the canyon.” Steve’s idea of what constituted a problem and mine were lightyears apart.

His words were punctuated by a rumbling sound. The guards were blocking the road so big rocks wouldn’t come rolling down on people using the canyon trails. It sounded like a good idea. In 1974, plans were underway for building the Auburn Dam and flooding another section of the beautiful American River canyon. Land speculators were greedily selling ‘lake front’ property along the future edge of the lake. Later, building the dam— or not building it— became one of the most contentious environmental issues in Northern California. The dam still isn’t built, and will likely never be. It had been planned on an earthquake fault.

“Um, how long do they plan on continuing to blast?” I asked as I pictured our Trek coming to an abrupt end. It wasn’t a totally unpleasant thought.

“We are in luck,” Steve reported. “They are just closing down their operations and won’t resume until Monday.”

Since it was Friday afternoon and we would be out of the canyon by Sunday, I had to agree. Luck was leaning our way for a change. It made me nervous. That night we celebrated the winding down of our adventure by feeding our Trekkers steak and fresh salad. The feast went off without a hitch, except it was amusing to see people gnawing the meat off the bones. Even vegetarian Bob! I was surprised that they weren’t growling. It wasn’t pretty, but no one seemed to mind. Civilization had definitely taken several steps backward. Everyone went to bed happy, including me.

NEXT POSTs:

Blog-a-Book Wednesday: The Bush Devil Ate Sam… I speculate how my DNA and my family’s wandering ways led me to join the Peace Corps

Travel Blog Friday: America’s backroads… Peggy and I discover interesting Native American rock art at Lyman State Park in Arizona along Highway 191.