A Cold Night In Boulder
That's Tom Waits.
He's a helluva guy. Insightful. Cool. Quite the gentleman when you get to know him, a hard won sense of honor. Forget about the look he affects, it's just who he is. It's not an act.
Put another way, the cat is genuine.
And I damn near killed him.
I doubt he remembers. It happened on a cold cold night in Boulder, Colorado. A live music club in the 70s where I was part of the crew what booked talent, managed the stage, etc etc. Tom was touring relentlessly during that period. When I picked him up at Stapleton airport in Denver he got off the plane wearing a rumpled black suit, a white shirt, thin black tie, black brogan, a fedora jammed on his unruly hair.
Outside he lit a cigarette and we rode towards Boulder in snowy cold conditions, not really talking. It was clear he was beat. I got him into the hotel and went my way.
The next day I picked him up for soundcheck and he looked grim. Like the drinking and cigarettes, endless touring dates, bad food and too little sleep were eating him, but he was still a gentleman. When he spoke to me there was no mistaking Wait's voice. Like a 4 pack a day habit soaked with whiskey and left outside in the rain.
The stage was set with a 5 and half foot grand piano, maybe six footer. A single old metal street lamp post and overhead spots, especially the blue one. Sound check was no problem.
The problem was the club. A converted historic address on the Hill, the only place we had behind the stage (and I use the term with some irony) was a narrow storage area right behind with the outer wall cinder block exposed, no insulation. Poured concrete floor.
We'd hung some fabrics on the walls to soften the penitentiary feel, some carpet remnants on the floor, a motley collection of old overstuffed armchairs. The requisite sagging sofa. Scattered folding chairs. Strings of Christmas tree lights around the walls to maybe - ha - lighten the mood of this being a cheap ass club operation.
And portable electric base board heaters. A number of them. It was the only heat for that room. Did I mention the club had an issue with poor electrical distribution?
After the first set, which went over beautifully with the Boulder crowd, Waits came into the 'dressing room' and slid down a wall to sit on the floor, lighting a cigarette along the way. And sat his bony ass down on an extension cord feeding one of the heaters. On the very spot where there was a bit of exposed wire in the oft-kinked cord.
That's when it shorted out.
Under his backside.
Waits sat there doing a startled Saint Vitus for too many moments, smoke curling up from around his clothes when I realized what was happening and knocked him over while reaching to yank the cord out of the wall socket. Which had about four times too many extension sticking out of it. The wall socket was faintly smoking, as was Tom.
Waits stood and whapped his pants on the backside, while the cigarette dangled from his lips, looked at me and said "Okay. We'll call that the low point of my career." Finished his smoke and performed the second set with burnt trousers and a perfect aplomb. He didn't even mention it on the way back to the hotel.
When I picked him the next morning for Stapleton, still wearing the same outfit, we talked about all sorts of things but he never spoke of his brush with being an unintentional headline.
When he got out of my car at Passenger Drop Off he said, "Meeting you was shocking." An evil grin and in a cloud of cigarette smoke disappeared into the terminal.
I always felt bad about that happening.
I guess we made an impression. When we got in touch with his agency to book him the next year, hoping to pick him for a second date off an appearance at the University his agent didn't return our calls.
I suspect roasting his private areas might have left a lasting memory.
Licked By A Bear
1971. I was licked by a bear.
And I mean tongue.
That right there in the photograph is the old Ice Water Springs shelter on the Appalachian Trail. About, what? Four miles up from Newfound Gap? Three? I don't remember exactly. You can Google it if you need to.
The new shelter is a freaking Holiday Inn compared to the original shelter. Adirondack styled shelters were three sided affairs. Back and two side walls. As you can see, local stone with a tin roof. Inside were two wall to wall peeled logs making up the front support to bunks, one about a foot off the ground. The second log about four feet higher up. Smaller peeled logs at 90 degrees came off the main log and ran into the shelter's back wall and then heavy duty wire mesh was run across between these smaller logs and that ... was your bunk. If memory serves (that's hilarious) this was originally an 18 man shelter.
The night I got my face washed by a bear a friend and I backpacked up the AT to Ice Water Springs from Newfound Gap late in the day and got to the shelter about sundown. And it t'was full. As in about 30 people already there.
As a Boy Scout I was resourceful if nothing else, so I whips out a 12x12 sheet of light plastic tarp I had with me and friend and I tie it off behind the shelter roof, right there on the photograph's (R) hand side. Placed our packs and ground covers under it and pronounced it good.
Made dinner and had conversation with the others and retired for the evening. Hikers tend to retire earlier than city folk. It gets dark, you sleep.
In the night, in the deep sleep of youth and clear conscience (had not yet married or worked for a corporation, you know what I mean) I awoke to the strangest sensation. I was not a light sleeper in those days and did not easily rouse. Snug in a mummy style bag there was no easy way to get my arms out and something was disturbing my Wa. Something wet and smelly. IN MY FACE.
I was wriggling around when I realized it was a black bear licking my face. In hindsight I suppose because I'd gone to sleep sweaty. Maybe the salt in the dried sweat.
And to my credit, half dazed with sleep, I can clearly remember going "huh" and rolling back over and went to sleep.
The next morning, sure enough, bear tracks around our makeshift shelter and I had a case of the Heebie Geebies. I don't remember hollering or dancing around waving my hands over my head, but it sure remembers like maybe I did.
But nothing came of it, so ... alls well that ends well.
Two things I want to tell you about bears. First, their breath is godawful. Second, a bear's tongue is like a rasp used to file down wood. Maybe three things. Third, holy shit, I had my face licked by a bear.
Must have been a yearling. No adult would have done that.
As It Turned The Corner ...
You've seen these. This one, like mine at the time, is a 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser. An effing brute 4x4.
There ain't no plastic in the thing. Even the dash is metal.
Mine had railroad rail where the front bumper is, and an 8,000 lb. WARN winch. A 14 gallon saddle tank and a 302 Chevy V8. Which like so many things in life sounded like a good idea ... at the time.
And here begineth the lesson.
The straight six in the orignal wasn't enough for a boy like me. No. I had to have power. Big gobs of power. Why, surely that would be better than a 125 horse inline six with a piddly 189 foot pounds of torque.
It wasn't until 1981 I saw The Gods Must Be Crazy and I understood folly.
We switched out motors, the inline 3.8 liter six for the 302 c.i Chevrolet V8. Ah, youth. But it was a clean swap, as the V8 and the Six came from the same design team and in consequence the bolts for mating the 8 to the bell housing for the original tranny lined right up. We had to move engine mounts because the 8 is shorter than the inline six, but other than that, it was a sweet swap.
Across country and around town even with 38" tires it ran like a top and the exhaust note was testosterone ladened. It gave notice this wasn't a run of the mill Toy. No, this had the authority of power. It also had a time bomb built into it.
Short 4x4 runs, like under a mile and at chillier altitudes, no problem. But up on the backside of Berthoud Pass crawling along in low and low, the temperature gauge buried itself as far to the right as it could. Waiting for it to cool down enough to pop the radiator cap and add water a WWII era Willys went by at maybe 1/4 mile and hour, crawling along so slow you could hear the individual pistons pop in that antiquated flat head four. It was idling up a 30% scree slope. I said things like shit, hell, dammit and a F word or two.
This behavior followed me into the mountains whenever I got out of town and up into the Rockies. It would bury the needle in the red.
This became my mechanical folly. A thing pf beauty with no discernable purpose. Because it relentlessly overheated. Here's how it went ...
1. Replaced the thermostat. No joy
2. Bought the lowest temperature thermostat I could find, tried that. No joy.
3. Put a 'spacer' on the fan shaft to get the fan blades as close to the radiator as possible. No joy.
4. Got a flexible 8 blade aluminum fan to move more air. No joy.
5. Built a custom aluminum shroud enclosing the fan so all air would have to pull directly through the radiator, like a wind tunnel, if you will. No joy.
6. Replaced the water pump. No joy.
7. Blew out the engine block; all new fluids. No joy.
8. Ditched the radiator for a big version out of a Lincoln Continental with the two quart overflow. No joy. (damn thing had to be jammed down in between the headlight nacelles inside the engine compartment it was so large. almost doubled the volume of cooling fluid) No joy.
There's nothing else to a cooling system. That's it. Radiator, pump, thermostat and fan. Done. No joy.
Kicked it around with buddies. Pro mechanics. No joy. Nobody had any idea. One mechanic wanted to tell me tales of engines and whole cars possessed by evil mojo so that wasn't helpful. What helped was ...
... selling it. And that's when the lightning bolt of revelation smacked me upside my head.
My hand to God, as it turned the last corner of the neighborhood me losing sight of it forever one word came to mind.
I'd never checked the gauge. Which would for the original inline six would run a little less hot than the running temperature of the V8. Not necessarily enough to make that much difference. But what if the temp gauge itself was bad?
The one part of the cooling system I never checked. The gauge. The freaking gauge.
Somewhere, there's a guy running around in winter with a splendid V8 equipped 1969 Toyota FJ that looks like this ... so he can get heat in the Winter.
That Union Pacific's Big Boy 4017. One of the last of the 4000 series of which there were only twenty five built. No. 4017 last I heard is resting his bones in an indoor museum in Green Bay, protected from the weather.
But this tale is about Cheyenne Frontier Days, drunk cops, fights, big horses, chuck wagon races and summer heat. So why the Big Boy reference?
For some years now there's been the coolest way to get to Cheyenne. From Denver. Big Boy No. 844 is still on the job pulling the Denver Post's Frontier Days Express from Union Station in downtown Denver to Cheyenne, loaded with tourists, rodeo and train fans. Watch it here. God almighty, those are real Vista Cruisers in line behind him and how beautifully restored.
Cheyenne Frontier Days. The Granddaddy Of Them All. What an event, like riding a tornado with a belly full of crazy and mezcal. Or, crazy mezcal turning you into a tornado of fearless bronc or bull riding testosterone saturated tight slim jeans and man sweat. All man. Got the weathered Stetson shaped just so. Stained sweat band a testimony to your work. Your boots hand made by J.B. Hill or Leddy's. None of that cheap knockoff famous brand name crap glued together.
Your lariat and chaps close friends. Your latigo worn to a fine patina and supple. Your resin'd gloves stiff as a fiberglass coated mold, but incredibly tough and what anchors you to 2,000 pounds of pissed off horse or a ton of raging bull with blood in is eye. Most men go their whole lives thinking they've seen mean. They've tangled with tough or they've walked occasionally into 'tough' and walked through it. This kind of mean, this kind of tough doesn't come at you head-on unless you've been thrown. If that happens you'll pray the rodeo clowns are up to the job or your head'll be split open by a hoof or you'll get your guts stomped. God help you if you don't get away clean and your foot gets tangled and your beast runs from the strange fear gripping it. It's not the same thing as being thrown off a motorcycle or playing professional football which pro running backs say is like being in a 30 mph car crash 22 times a game. Rodeoing is a whole different ball game and real men shy away from its dangers. Strong men tell you you're nuts. Insurance men laugh and show you their tattoos which say Pay Me Sucka.
A popular poster puts it like this "Say I won't. Tell me I can't do it. Tell me I shouldn't even try. Tell me the risk is too high, the challenge too much or the feat too tough. Tell me that I won't do it, and I will."
Them's fighting words. Man against animal and especially men against men, for the purse, for the belt buckle, for the girl and especially for bragging rights. And to keep cash flow moving along because professional rodeoing is an expensive line of work with seventy eleven times the risk to any potential reward. You will get hurt. You will be abused, even ravaged. You will have monster medical bills and you will drive all night with a dislocated shoulder to get to the next appearance where maybe $500 dollars is waiting to be picked off. You will be on the edge of broke much of your life as you chase the dream and you will disappoint every woman who thinks you might be the one.
Rodeo girls and rodeo women have an even tougher time on the circuit. Shh. No one wants to talk about that. They're dainty flowers in hand stitched cowgirl clothes and look good up there on their barrel racers. Uh-huh.
I strapped up and made the run for Cheyenne in 1975. Got the Ford F250 running just right. The twelve foot overhead camper lashed in and the turnbuckles cranked down until they begged for mercy but screw them. That's what they're for. To hold twelve feet and 1,000 pounds of wind sail tight against the bed of that pickup so it doesn't wander around or even blow right off in a 70 mph wind.
The ex and I got a late start on Friday afternoon and rolled into Cheyenne about 10 at night. I had no idea where we might camp the pickup and after scouting for a while gave up for the night. Being bone tired from work we decided to park the beast under sodium vapor street lights in the downtown parking square next to City Hall, a place I don't know if it still exists.
I parked the Ford off to one side, sorta off to the back and we clambered into the camper, munched something to tide us over till morning then hoisted ourselves into the overhead bunk and crashed.
Till about 3am. When the cops arrived. Six cruisers. Gum balls lit up and sirens full bore. Scared me witless. I levitated out of bed. Wife was hanging onto me crying "What's going on? What's going on?" Hells bells, I did not know what was going on. Except we were in the same parking lot as six police cars driving in a great circle around and around in that parking lot. Then the mystery of what's going on began to become clear. One cop started doing doughnuts and in no time the other five patrol cars werte trying to outdo one another and the ex and I were parked in a smothering cloud of tire smoke. Last time I smelled that much burnt rubber was in a whore house in Tijuana.
When they started shooting at the street lamps is when we got down on the floor of the camper hoping they'd be using light loads and the metal truck bed and the camper shell might be enough to deflect stray rounds.
I can't say how long this astonishing behavior went on but when they hauled out of there to wherever drunk cops on last watch go after getting their teenager freak on, we did the same. I pulled on jeans and boots and drove that rig way the hell out of town, north.
Never heard a word about it. No news stories, nothing in the papers. I could only conclude that everyone in Cheyenne goes nuts for the rodeo and if certain citizens weren't the kind of folk who shoot up the town and kick in bar room doors, they'd do something sensible.
Go to Malibu and surf Mavericks on a boogie board during a storm. Or, something.
We had a great time seeing the draft horses, cheering the chuck wagon races, taking side bets in the stands on the mutton bustin' races. Eating fry bread and drinking cold Coors in plastic cups on a hot afternoon.
We missed Frontier Days in 1977, which turned out to be the year to miss when an Air Force Thunderbird augured in, on fire, just feet from the cowboy's camp, trying for Warren Air Force Base. That, I am led to believe, made a man feel his scrotum tighten up involuntarily as that flaming jet went by the stands at several hundred miles an hour aimed for a bad bad impact. And at those speeds and just off the deck not a damn thing you could do about it if your top speed running flat out is a disappointing ten miles an hour. Probably not even enough time to say oh shit.
The Denver Post Frontier Days Express though ... my Lord what a wonderful thing. I haven't looked into it, but I'll bet you need to buy your tickets about a half century in advance to experience one of the last real by-God steam locomotives and what an engine to experience. A UP Big Boy hissownself.
I am allergic to crowds these days but that ... might just be worth it. I will, though, go and stand near as I can get to a crossing in Dacona, Colorado or Fort Morgan and feel the thunder, soak in the steam whistle and feel it's brute force pushing the wind past me.
Damn right I will.
Crooks and Uranium
Following the Pecos deeper and deeper into Texas. Damn near to Nuevo Laredo, hooking up with the Nueces. Where Texas runs out of civilization west of Corpus Christie and south of just about damn nowhere, but not as far as the Rio Grande.
Ten days of hard work and little to show for it. Now he was in Texas. Somewhere high up the food chain the order went forth out of LBJ’s senate office to get a government man down to Duval County, Texas.The Parr clan sure enough wanted in on the uranium boom sweeping the backwaters of America. A single claim could make multi-millionaires overnight. The mineral corporations fighting each other like drunken mercenaries to lay hands on all the extraction, mineral and surface rights they could. Land Men actually killing each other and dirt poor ranchers barely surviving off dried up cattle and perpetual drought were suddenly buying Cadillacs and taking off for Acapulco to get some culture.
Hints of the most precious mineral on earth had been found in Duval County and Duval County was Parr Country. As in Archer and George Parr, otherwise known as Duke. The Duke of Duval. This father son team were so crooked they would swallow nails and spit out corkscrews. So corrupt, they gave lessons to Huey Long. So mean they'd bite each other as a way of saying howdy. George, in particular was no more popular in his own County than a wet dog in a parlor full of ladies taking tea.
They were miserable men. And miserable men are usually after something and in this case it had been oil, political power and laying waste to those who stood in the way of whatever they set their rheumy eyes on. Uranium changed all that.
The Parrs were Democrats. Bone deep. Everyone in Texas politics knew about the Parr Machine. A Machine running on a powerful combination of graft, bribery, corruption and other people's money. They were especially gifted in using Mexicans as a power-bloc vote to such an extent that the Parrs eventually ran off all but one or two white ranching families. Packed Duval County with Mexicans. For a reason. Through the corruption of non-citizen Mexicans going where instructed and voting as they were told, the Parrs controlled elections. The Mexicans graced Archer as they did George with the title 'El Patron'. It was pretty much mandatory.
Political Machines are a fixture in America's two party system. There was Edward Flynn of the Bronx. The patronage and corruption machine of New York's Richard Croker. The vast machine system of James Farley of the Democrat Party in the 1930s. Parma, Ohio had local prosecutor Bill Mason's 'Good Old Boys' and in Athens, Tennessee one machine was so entrenched that armed citizens took the streets during an election and shot it out with the local machine government and it's goon deputies, an action later named the Battle of Athens. A stunning example of why the Second Amendment to the Constitution is critical to defending Constitutional law.
The government man made his way down from Utah to satisfy the Democrat Party's fund raisers in Texas. They laid on the pressure he attend the Parr family in their search for uranium and he was just flat worn out. As tired as the elastic in his maiden aunt's stockings. The Parrs and their lusts kept them running day and night and there just wasn't any damn uranium to be found. The government man was here to change all that.
The government man left the next day. Shook the dust of Duval County off his boots. Was damned glad when that lonesome highway got him to Fort Stockton. And a tourist-court just off the two lane. Next morning after settling his bill he pulled across the highway. A diner. Looked alright. He went inside, found a booth. Ordered.
That's when the sheriff of Pecos County took a seat across from him at the Railroad Avenue Diner. Hooked his hat at the edge of the booth and shifted his Sam Brown so it wasn't digging him in his hip. "Morning," he said. Sheriff Bob Cannon nodded to Alice, the only waitress on duty. The fry cook already at work on Cannon's standard breakfast.
"You ought to try Hal’s home fries with that. Best in town." Bob Cannon gestured toward the government man's eggs.
"Looks to me like the only home fries in town," he said looking out at the empty highway.
"Well, you got me there." Sheriff Cannon said over his coffee. "One horse town. One horse diner."
"Least you got a diner."
"There is that."
"What can I do for you, Sheriff?"
"You're the new guy in town. I don't get to meet many new guys. Hear what's going on in the world, catch up on things."
"I doubt that."
"True. We do get radio out here."
"This sure is flat country."
"It's so flat Edwin Abbott got nervous."
The government's man tilted his head, gave the Sheriff a hard look. "Really? E.A. Abbott?"
"That remark would have gone right over 99 out of 100 heads."
Sheriff Cannon gave a self-deprecating smile over his coffee cup.
"So, you're not the county sheriff who never cracked a book and is just a good old boy?"
The government man finished his eggs. Crumpled his napkin, pushed the plate to one side, "What can I do for you, Sheriff?"
Bob Cannon scratched at his hair for a moment then asked, "You really didn't find any uranium over there in Duval County?"
Carl MacKenzie kept a steady eye on the sheriff. "How is it you know that?"
Cannon kept a steady eye right back. Eventually said, "Eh. It's a small world after all. Not much to do around here but sweep the dust out of your house and gossip."
"And what does this gossip say to you?"
Cannon was passing his coffee cup between his hard, work worn hands as he said, "That Duval actually don’t have any uranium over there."
"Now why would you say a thing like that?"
"Because some government man out of Washington said it might. Couple years ago.”
"I think some smart fellow who's been out where only the coyotes can hear him has been bagging around in the sticks working for government pay long enough that watching claim jumpers and rich mining corporations get all the money has him fried right to a crisp. After all, it's government men who open up parts of America to get at that uranium and after the government man scouts it and says okay, all the vultures out there pounce and he gets kicked to the side."
"Quite a theory."
Cannon pushed back from the table as Alice set his plate down and refilled his coffee. Conversation stopped while Cannon cut up his bean burrito, mixed in scrambled egg. Poured a modest amount of watery looking salsa over the whole thing.
Forked up a bite.
"You were saying?" Mackenzie nodded at Cannon.
"That a smart but poorly paid government man would eventually figure him a way to get in on the action."
"How would he do that?"
Another forkful. "Oh, hell. I don't know. I may know the literature of Flatland but I sure ain't clever enough when it comes to the ways of the crooked. That's why I'm a sheriff. I come along afterwards. To think it through after the fact. I doubt I could ever think it up before the fact, if you get my drift."
"Okay, so you don't have the swindle in you."
"No, I surely don't. But after so many years arresting men who thought they were clever I may have learned a thing or two, cutting sign out on the rustler's trail."
"You're not going to say yee-haw or git along little doggie, are you?
Sheriff Cannon laughed. "No."
"So, unless we have actual business, friend, I've got to hit the road. Utah is .."
"Well, hang on there a second, amigo. I do want to ask you a thing or two. Based on your professional opinion."
Carl eased back into the booth. "Make it quick."
Cannon nodded. Steadily got fork to mouth and was finished. Pushed back with his cup of coffee.
"See, it's like this. We had an unexplained death a while back over here in Pecos County. A minor in-law of the Parr clan from over there in Duval County. The ones you were advising about uranium."
Carl MacKenzie steadily eyed the sheriff.
"That unexplained death is still on the books, see, and it's always bugged me about him being related to the Parrs."
Sheriff Cannon hunched forward, elbows on the table top. "See, them Parrs are crazy. Vicious thugs who'd give Al Capone a run for it. Into every kind of dirty dealing and politically protected kind of swindle you can think of. Hell, they's the ones got LBJ elected, and did it fraudulently. He wouldn't be no damn Senator if it wasn't for the Parrs."
Mackenzie shrugged as if to say, "So?"
"Our Parr was sub-par. The Parrs didn't have much use for him except when they needed to park something in his name off-book-like.”
Sheriff Cannon thought he detected a slight glimmer in Carl’s eyes. He went on.
"When I looked into Jacob Sapp's death, I knew it was murder. But I never could prove it. He was a Parr through marriage, not blood. But he did have his uses. Besides doing a little melon farming he owned an eight lane bowling alley down the street. He was always yammering on about his family connection to the all powerful Parrs. Word was they didn't like that one bit but he was just a fly, a nuisance so ultimately they didn't do anything about this noisy relative."
The government man looked at his watch.
Cannon made shushing hand gestures. "We're getting there."
Mackenzie signaled for more coffee.
"Jacob Sapp, see, was always angling to get in the good graces of the powerful Parr political dynasty. And I think he went too far this one time."
"How so?" Carl nodded thanks to Alice as she refilled his coffee cup.
"It's not simple, but it highlights like this. The Parrs parked some property in Sapp's name. When talk started that uranium might be found in Duval County, the Parrs got wind of it and had a government man come down and do a little exploration. He told 'em hell yes. There's uranium all under this area. Well, that made them wet their britches because uranium is more valuable than gold."
"It is that."
"And the Parrs never let an opportunity pass to corner a market. So they got their people busy and ran all over Duval County on the sly with Geiger Counters and such like and before you know it, it's all they can do to keep a secret that big."
"That Duval County was lousy with Uranium!"
"No, it's not."
"You're right. It's not."
Carl looked at the sheriff with a funny look, "So, where is this story going, Sheriff?"
"Oh, it's a goody. See, the thing is that first government man told another government man about Duval County and the Parrs. And that second government man thought about it. A lot. Out there in godforsaken country all over the wild West and finally he hatched a plan. How to profit from uranium without having to actually prospect or mine it."
"That would be clever. What do you think he did? Broker mineral leases?'
"Sort of. Funny you should say that. See, what I think happened .."
"Wait. You started out talking to me about an unsolved murder case here in your County."
"I'm getting there. Hear me out. See, I think that second government man couldn't afford anything to do with the uranium boom so he did the next best thing."
Cannon sat back and grinned broadly.
"And what's that, Sheriff?" impatience coloring every word.
"He dealt in rumors."
"Do you know what salting is, Mr. Mackenzie?”
Mackenzie felt a brief, suppressed shudder. He had not yet said a thing abut his name.
"How do you know my name?"
"Oh, that's easy. Ran your plates. We don't get many new people out this way. As I was saying, what could be simpler than the following, and mind you I cannot find any criminal activity in what I'm about to tell you."
"Okay," Carl said hesitantly.
"Here's the nut of it. When that first government man told the second government man about Duval County and the Parr political machine and their lust for control, they got set up."
"Let them swindle themselves. It's a thing of beauty, really. Except for Jacob being dead."
Cannon took a long pull on his coffee. "That second government man began buying up vacant land in Duval County that cost next to nothing and clearly could not be converted into any kind of profit making potential. And the Parrs were happy to pocket the money until the day they saw a man out on one of these worthless parcels walking around, hunched over a Geiger counter. The Parrs about shit themselves, I'll tell you. Just about shit themselves. So, that's what the quiet buying up of land was all about."
Carl shook his head slightly.
“Archer and George themselves went around to every parcel which had been quietly sold to intermediaries through intermediaries. That really grabbed 'em. Blind alleys finding out who was doing the buying. Now the Parrs were hooked. It could only mean that the Good Lord had blessed Duval County with the most precious commodity on Earth. And damned if they didn't own and run Duval County. They were gonna be rich!"
"What they didn't know was the second government man who nobody knew yet was out there on that land from time to time salting the earth with radioactive samples, figuring the Parrs would play it so close to the vest they wouldn't dare bring in outsiders to make the confirmation. Hell, the government's own man had been there and said probably. And that word probably was good enough for the Parrs to gig themselves hook, line and sinker.
"I can see that. No one's easier to swindle than a swindler."
"See? See? That right there is what I'm talking about. You get it. Anyway, the second government man was salting the land and that made them crazy. And here's where it gets nuts. When they went to make offers on the land, they discovered every Title on every parcel they'd sold was in Jacob Sapp's name through the little old Sub S he ran that bowling alley under. They did actually shit themselves when they found out their sometime kin who was having one over on them."
"I'll bet. They sound like snakes."
"Yeah, buddy. Since Jacob is mine I got to hear all about the shouting matches, the threats, the denials. All of it and to say it was heated is not enough. I had to step in once't or twice to keep them from actually crossing the line. The Parrs of Duval County, Texas were not happy. I mean pissed."
"Why are you telling me all this, Sheriff?"
"Because when Jacob died under mysterious circumstances, all his property, his worldly estate somehow ended up in their hands and not Jacob's widow."
"Sounds interesting, but I really have to get on the road, Sheriff."
"Almost finished. Hang on. Now, one thing the Parrs are is politically connected. I mean really connected. Like a U.S. Senator in their back pocket kind of connected. Now that they had poor Jacob's estate it meant all that land with uranium under it was theirs. They must've whooped and hollered. Uranium! The dollar signs in their eyes must have been something to see."
"They dug and dug and dug and never found a damn thing. Not a damn thing. There were angry enquiries up the line to the Department of Interior. The Geological boys out of Washington got sent down by LBJ. I mean they threw fortune and connections at this land and it just did not have any uranium."
Carl Mackenzie sighed. Bored.
"And then I got it."
"I looked through Jacob's finances again and eventually discovered a clever side corporation set up to buy that land the first time around. Out of state money coming in, buying what looked like worthless land through Jacob. The Parrs demanded Jacob sell it back and that set up a land sale frenzy which constantly pushed the prices higher. Jacob would buy with outside money. Sell it to the Parrs, who'd sell it back to Jacob all through fake corporations in order to drive up the price. The Parrs, I'm sure, had it in their minds to profit from this back and forth sale, and thought they were just skimming a buyer from out of state. But when they found out the land had uranium on it, they had to have it. Absolutely had to have it. At any cost. But Jacob wouldn't sell this time. Refused. Saw his chance had arrived. He would not sell the land back to them because it had uranium on it!"
"Sounds like a pack of thieves."
"You bet, sir. You bet. Then Jacob dies. Under questionable circumstances."
"Shot himself in the head down by the river."
Carl’s eyebrows scrunched up. "Suicides happen all the time. How is that questionable?"
"Because he shot himself in the back of the head. Twice. Then fell way out in the river."
“Yeah. Uranium is behind all this. And I wonder if you could shed any light on what men will do for uranium?"
Carl Mackenzie took off his sweat stained straw rancher, wiped his face with a handkerchief than said, "Damn near anything. And yes, that includes murder. More than one prospector never came back from up some axle breaking not really trail out there in Utah."
"So I've heard."
"Now I've really got to go, Sheriff. Been nice chatting .."
"Your middle name is Allen."
MacKenzie paused. Sat back down, heavily. Scratched an ear. "Yeah. So?"
"Your mother was Sally Ann Allen, right?"
MacKenzie just looked at him.
"The half sister of Lizzie Allen, wife of George Parr?"
"This is not territory I'm willing to talk about, Sheriff."
"There's always been a rumor around here about a Parr raping another man's wife, then killing her. Orphaned a boy whose father tried to get revenge and died for it."
MacKenzie said nothing.
"I gotta admit, Mr. MacKenzie. That is some trap you laid for them."
"Getting the Parrs to get into a uranium fever, yank the rug out from under them, causing them to murder Jacob to get back what they believed was theirs. If it wasn't for threats and intimidation out of Washington I could have hung it on them a long time ago, but they pretty much own this corner of Texas."
"So, to tie up the loose ends in my unsolved murder, what were you doing around here the last two days, Mr. Mackenzie?”
"Consulting with the Parrs on their land."
"They still think there’s uranium is all over those parcels?"
"Your middle name would get you in the door. Your Washington connections would catch their attention but why I think they finally know uranium is not in the future is you told them the facts. You explained what happened."
"Well, it explains the Duval County Sheriff's telex to stop and search you if you should come this way."
MacKenzie sat very still.
Cannon pulled a crumpled sheet of yellow paper out of his uniform shirt. "See?" and passed it to MacKenzie. Who read it and passed it back. "What's your next move, Sheriff?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, I thoroughly despise the Parrs and try not to have any truck with Duval County. But, I'm going to ask if the items they want back are on your person?"
"Both of them?"
"Do you have the real pistol?"
Carl MacKenzie pulled a photograph of a blued .32 revolver out of his coat pocket. "Nope. But it is its spitting image."
"You let them think it's the pistol."
"And the other?"
MacKenzie pulled a folded bank deposit receipt out of the other pocket, "More or less."
The Sheriff examined it. A deposit slip for one hundred thousand dollars. Deposited that day in the Giddings Saving and Loan. "Well."
Mackenzie extended a hand for it back.
Sheriff Cannon looked at the number of zeroes for a long time before handing it back.
"I guess that concludes our business, Mr. MacKenzie."
"I'm free to go?" MacKenzie’s voice had the slightest tension in it.
"Yes. Yes. You've done nothing wrong in my jurisdiction that I know of. I've fulfilled my responsibility in inter-agency cooperation and far as I can tell, that's that."
MacKenzie barked a hard laugh. "I'll be damned."
"Best you skedaddle on up the road, friend. Get across a state line before the natives get restless."
MacKenzie got out of the booth, extending a hand. "Thank you, Sheriff."
"Tell me one thing," Sheriff Cannon said as he got out of his seat, "Did they squawk handing over that money? I mean, it is extortion, right?"
"No, not really. George was all for tearing my head off and burying me out in the Estacado, but Archie put him down with a curt word and I could hear him mutter cost of doing business. I got out of there soon I could."
"Good for you, son. And don't ever come back. They've got long memories in that family."
"So long, Sheriff." MacKenzie left the diner, went to his car.
The drive back to Utah was not nearly as long this time.
With a hundred thousand in the bank.
Always Wear Clean Underwear
Seriously. I thought Mom was being a nuisance. I always wear clean underwear. Geez. But like most Moms she was right about a lot of things and one dear to her heart was always wear clean underwear. You never know what's going to happen.
Sometime around Easter 1980, the love of my life and I were called to Nashville along with some other traveling companions to attend a fellow and his family whose house had been hit by a tornado. Out on the lake where stars live. John Hartford lived across the lake from - I'll call him Bill - and somewhere down the shoreline I remember being told Charlie Daniels had a place. But right in the area was Waylon Jennings. Underwear is a critical feature in this simple story.
It goes something like this -
In the middle of a stormy night outside Asheville the Mrs. and I are staying with friends. Like the worst opening line ever written in a novel it was indeed a dark and stormy night, right down to being able to sense evil spirits flying around. Then the phone out in the hall rang.
There are no happy, good calls after midnight.
Sure enough, it was a call about terror, night sweats, retribution, karma and splinters. This guy Bill's house had been hit by a tornado. After it came through and went out into the lake, the damn thing turned around and came back for a second run at Bills' place. Bill was freaked. Once is weather. Turn around and come back for his house and nobody's else's? Sounds like a karma deal to me. He was in the house at the time, as were his wife and their 13 year old son.
The North Carolina contingent rolled out of bed, got some coffee on, packed a few things and lit out into the dark. Into what was a lot stormier night than we realized. I mean stormy. Normally something like four hours of hard driving to Nashville I remember that trip took like six. Wind lashing us. Rain coming down like somebody busted a hydrant. Sideways hail that made me nervous about the driver's side glass. It was a trip, believe me.
We rolled up on Bill's house as dawn broke. Didn't seem too bad. The house was still there. Shingles missing, some windows blown out. A tree or two uprooted but ... no other signs of damage in the area. As I got out to stretch is when I realized the house wasn't properly on its foundations and sitting sort of kitty-wampus on what should have been the foundation. Like a giant had picked it up and set it back down four degrees off each corner.
I walked around the side so I could see the back and the lake. The back deck off the second story was gone, as if it had never been there but no kindling strewn about the grassy slope to the water.
And the trees, old boys, big and deep rooted, were stripped of their leaves. That's when I noticed the boat house, dock and floating walk were gone.
Later I would find out that the tornado stooped down, picked up the boat house, dock and floating walk along with Bill's classic 1960 Chris Craft 32 foot Constellation. All that disappeared. Gone. Like into a wormhole because neither we nor the authorities ever found even the first splinter from any of that. None.
First thing after the hellos, damn glad you're here, everybody alright stuff I asked if that spare room in the basement was alright. As in it won't fall in on me if I commandeer the double bed I remember down there. Shrugs all around and I said something that end with 'it' and got down in the finished basement. Stripped off my clothes except for the boxers and without sheets or pillows immediately zonked out on a bare mattress. It was hot and humid I recall.
Later that morning or it might have been early afternoon, and I'm not a good napper. It leaves me groggy to sleep during the day and for some reason hot. Like a little sweaty on the neck and underarms, I woke badly to hear a voice saying " ... busted foundation, look at that corner ..." and I rolled off my stomach onto a hip, my hair sweaty and plastered to my head in unnatural shapes and there were two men standing at the foot of my mattress.
"That's my friend from North Carolina," I hear Bill say. And the other man said "Hey." and they left. All the while Bill bitching about his house.
"Hey" was Waylon Jennings. Ol' Watasha hissowself. Gravel voice, the guy who gave up his seat on 'that' plane. Remember that plane? February 3, 1959? Before departure, Buddy Holly teased his friend from Texas because he wasn't joining him in the plane. Buddy said, "You're not going on that plane with me tonight?" Jennings replied, "No." Buddy's reply was, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up again." Jennings snapped back, "Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes."
That'll scar a man for life. And it did. Waylon carried a heavy load in his heart from that moment forward. And there I was in my boxers, sweaty and disheveled and looking, I'm sure, like I was coming back from a two-day bender. Which I'm also sure Waylon was all too familiar with, but still, dammit.
Mom was right. Always wear clean underwear.
You just never know.
Squares and Artists
I had a friend in high school, name of Lenny. He was an artist. A damn fine artist. So good in fact he got a full ride at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Pratt is to art what Julliard is to music.
Which means art-boy was a bit more (R) brain than the rest of us. In fact I kinda doubt his (L) brain developed at all. I really doubted it after he drove ‘the guys’ one time to the Chattahoochee River to go rafting.
Left brain dominant people primarily have excellent reasoning skills. Right brain people are deemed to be creative. Most folks go through life somewhere in between. Lenny was so right brain he was lopsided.
The four of us made a terrible mistake letting Lenny drive. As we piled into his Rambler American ... wait a sec, do you know what a Rambler American is? Rambler American. A scary POS when it was built. Ten years later with Lenny at the control (not controls, it had no plural) it was a death trap.
Anyway, we piled in, hit the Interstate loop around Atlanta headed for the river.
I had no idea what a dangerous driver he was. Oh my God. The kid had no idea what was happening around him. He was the worst drunk driver I ever, and he wasn’t drunk. Wove in and out of lanes. Crossed lines. No awareness how he was affecting traffic. Changed speeds for no discernible reason. It took all of five minutes to start praying.
It’s when he got into the far left lane the trouble started. Doing maybe 60 he was holding up the faster traffic. A guy in a Dodge Chargerof the day (think Bullitt, the movie) would make a run at us but Lenny sailed along like a half blind happy moron two hands on the wheel playing at driving, grinning and thinking Lenny thoughts. Charger would flash headlights and make another run at us to no avail. Lenny just sailed along.
Charger guy finally lost his cool and in a stretch where the grass median was mostly flat and straight, my hand to God he came at us like freight train and passed to the left of the far left lane. Two tires barely on the asphalt, the other two down in the grass. Hammer down and pushing it.
At that exact moment Lenny wove to the far left so he had two tires way over the yellow line. The Charger got off the gas and pulled back. I turned around in my seat and saw him angrily waving his hands around and no doubt calling Lenny bad bad names. Then he jumped on the Charger’s throttle. I know because I saw the front end lift as he wound up the big Hemi, and he charged us again. This time fully down in the grass. Fishtailing, horn blaring. Lenny looks over to his left which caused the Rambler to drift heavily to the left scaring Charger guy who got off the gas and fell back. Lenny drifted back into his lane. Just as Charger guy apparently lost all sanity and got on it, I’m guessing, as hard as that 426 Hemi would wind up and he came at us like he was JATO assisted. Passed us in the median spewing grass and dirt, honking the horn and mouthing all manner of invective at Lenny. When the Charger successfully got up onto pavement and took off like a drag racer at the quarter mile, Lenny says to the rest of “What’s that guy’s problem?”
In those minutes I drew closer to God than I thought possible.
But it was the drive back that was the scary part. After we got out of the river, a full day in the sun and in murky waters we get back into the Rambler, the whole gang pleading with Lenny to let one of us drive.
On a major side road leading back to the Interstate I heard a pop and then the car when soft in its suspension. I could feel the Rambler was lower on the right side. “Lenny, I think you’ve got a flat.”
“A flat what?”
“A flat tire, Lenny.”
“Oh, nonsense,” he says and we drive on. I can now feel the Rambler start to wallow a little. Then a lot.
“Lenny, pull over. The right rear tire is flat.”
Here’s when you know you’re in the presence of genius. “Tires can’t be flat. Tires are round.”
No kidding. He said that. And drove on.
Several miles later I can feel the rubber is going and the wheel is now going thump thump thump thump as the the wheel begins to deform. “Lenny, goddammit, stop the car. You’ve lost a wheel!”
“You’re funny. If I’d lost a wheel the car wouldn’t go. Quit worrying so much.”
We’re all now one voice, a loud voice crying out to stop the car. Lenny won’t hear of it. When we get near the intersection where he has to stop for a traffic light before turning on to the Interstate I jumped lout. “Hey hey. get back in the car.”
I run around to the right side and about gag. The metal wheel is now square. He’s driven so far on a flat it’s eaten off the tire and down on the rim, the metal has given way and has become squared. That whump whump whump I was feeling was a squared wheel.
A square ... wheel.
Lenny threw up his hands and took the turn and up the ramp he went to the Interstate, leaving me behind. Thank the lord. I could hear the other guys yelling at him to stop. Boy, I’ll bet they wished they’d bailed when I did.
I got to a gas station, used a pay phone, called for my brother to come get me. When I got to my own car (1964 VW camper, all of 39 horsepower) I went to Lenny’s to see what had happened.
He and his father were standing out in the drive staring at the Rambler. And the squared off wheel.
I parked, approached and his father turned to me and asked, “How come this wheel is square? Wheels are round!”
That’s when I remembered he was a commercial artist. Lenny came by it honestly. The art skill and this ... an eye popping inability to see the world as it really is.
Made for a great artist. And a terrible driver. Last I heard Lenny had gone crazy from fear living in NYC, making himself over into a street bum so he wouldn’t get mugged and carried his money in his shoe.
Thank God a car is a liability in Manhattan. The citizens of NYC were much safer with Lenny simply crazy and not behind the wheel.
Welcome to Colorado
We rolled into Colorado from a southern approach. Up and over New Mexico's Raton Pass to Trinidad. Picked up State Highway 12 west and north towards La Veta. Camped by Monument Lake. Next morning chilly, sunny and perfect.
Up past Spanish Peaks, over Cuchara Pass, down alongside the Devil's Stairsteps formation to (what was then) the tiny town of La Veta.
It was my darling’s introduction to Colorado and what a beautiful way to do it. She instantly fell in love.
That’s all. Nothing more to the story. (big grin)
Navy Colts and Red Cream Soda
Behind Boulder Colorado lies the massive Indian Peaks range where the Continental Divide runs right along the highest peaks.
Below that are old mining camp ruins, mine shafts and gorgeous front range scenery.
And Caribou Ranch. Used to be Caribou Ranch. It's now open space managed by Boulder County. And it's got damn all to do with pistols and that gate you see in the picture.
The first man made commercial enterprise in those 4,000 acres was the Blue Bird silver mine. Modestly successful it was even a minor stop on the Denver, Boulder and Western Railroad. Don't see how, but men in those days were hard men. They built and operated railroads in the damnedest places and at incredible altitudes. Steam doesn't care about altitude. But the grades to get to altitude were, well, not like today's modern highways. Gentle slopes, which means a railroad operating at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level had to go through a lot of twists, turns and miles to get up from Denver's 5,280 to 6,280. They might build 10 miles of hard won, knuckle busting track to get up another 1,000 feet. So, a railroad passing by the Blue Bird at 10,000 feet above sea level is just flat out impressive. I won't even mention the Rollins Tunnel bored straight through that mountain range so men and their railroads could get to Winter Park.
Got nothing to do with pistols, but we'll get there.
In the 1930s the Van Vleet family raised and bred Arabian show and race horses on the property.
In 1972 William 'Jimmy' Guercio, a record industry top gun producer assembled the 4,000 acres that became known world wide in the business as the fabled Caribou Ranch recording studio. When I say world famous it was just that. The list of the music industry Gold and Platinum selling artists who recorded there is impressive as hell. Even Michael Jackson, which I still find hard to believe. Caribou ain't exactly ... urban. But then again, this was well before the smart gifted black boy set about surgically turning himself into a white woman.
The ranch was done up proper in western era styled ranch outbuildings, from the enormous 'barn' complex housing the studios (which were floated on a film of oil to reduce incipient vibrations) to the 'guest cabins' which were better than any house I've ever owned. To the bunkhouse.
Ah, the bunkhouse.
Converted into the dining hall. Antler chandeliers. Long hand carved family style tables. Cane backed chairs. White linen and crystal. Real silverware. Huge rock fireplaces. And damn fine cooks. But two things set the bunkhouse apart from the few similar destination-recording-studio facilities throughout the known world.
The deck. And the hippie goddesses.
The deck out front was the size of a stage. And indeed, bands would often practice out there in the Rocky Mountain sunshine of a perfect summer afternoon. Overlooking a spectacular meadow of grasses and wildflowers. Which in turn, reversing the view, looks directly into the Indian Peaks jammed into the sky far above tree line. Often snow-pocked.
That's where I was privileged to eat a sack lunch and listen to and watch Crosby Stills and Nash kicking it around, working on some things. Like Suite Judy Blue Eyes. Or, Bill Walsh and his band make rock 'n roll like men.
Good times. But then there's the hippie goddesses.
Caribou Ranch was surrounded by Nederland, Hidden Valley, Ward, Rollinsville and especially Boulder which is to say thousands of hippie chicks come to the Rockies to quit with the whole business of shaving, wear flowers in their hair and bang tambourines. And other things not tambourinish. Free love, the siren call of going 'natural, Alan Ginsburg, anti-war and make beaded moccasins. You remember. These were the times when Mo Siegel, John Hay and Peggy Clute were hand mixing teas in an old school bus down by Boulder Creek and no one thought that was odd.
The collection of hippie goddesses working the Caribou bunkhouse as cooks, sous chefs, dishwashers, general help, servers, and the like were, well, the cream of the crop of hippie goddesses. Let me say that again. Cream of the crop. From Smith, Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Berkley, UNC, UCLA, even Texas. They could intelligently discuss Central American metaphysical fiction while rolling a joint and folding origami napkins. They'd dropped out, tuned in, turned on and settled for the duration of Flower Power with scraggly bearded lanky men running from the threat of cubicles, law degrees, client dinners and The Man. In the hills of the Front Range. Eating tabouli, brown rice, this godawful thing called tofu, making their own yoghurt. Strange times. They carried babies in hand knit pouches slung in front and none of them knew from underwire bras. As often as not they were the sons and daughters of extreme privilege, inheritors of family fortunes seen getting around in a VW bus gaily painted in psychedelic paint schemes or a rusted out Volvo wagon (the safest car you could buy. They said.) These kids looked like the starving artist version of white Rastafarians. Which is why we called them Trustafarians.
The hippie goddesses floated around Caribou like fairy queens. Leaving a scent behind of patchouli, weed and human sweat.
We're getting closer to the pistols.
This was during my college years. I worked that summer for Coca Cola, driving a big Ford 9000 delivering the goods up and down Peak to Peak Highway. One of the accounts I served was Caribou Ranch. I earned a modest fame for being the guy who made Chicago happy. The ranch manager, Michael, pulled me aside one day and asked if I could get my hands on some Red Cream Soda. Only made by the Coca Cola Company of Atlanta, Georgia. Why? I asks.
For the band. Chicago likers to tour with some Red Cream Soda and they're out.
Being a clever lad on the make to move up I said sure. I can get it, having no idea if I could. Michael slapped me on the back and said I'd be flavor of the month with the Ranch and Chicago if I could do that very thing.
I rolled down the long slope back to Boulder and pushed hard on my District guy and son of a bitch if he didn't come through. A pallet of the stuff came in on a rail car and made it to me and me and my Ford 9000 chugged up the hill to the Ranch and there was much joy in the bunkhouse and even Jimmy Guercio thanked me.
Here's we get to the pistols.
Me and the 9000 gear it down low and make for the front gate. A giant peeled pine log pole thing. See above. No one works the gate. You park, get out, swing the gate open, drive through, get out shut the gate and drive off. No big thing.
But on this day Jimmy's herd of hornless Limousine cattle (there's another story right there, about why the cattle had no horns) were pressed up in a knot right around the gate. I shoo'd hollered and slapped a few on the rump and after ten minutes got them to move far enough I figured the coast was clear and opened the gate. Which was, mind, walking my half of the gate in a wide semi circle about 30 feet to one side.
Which is when something like 15 of these walking steaks came up out of the brush and aspen trees on the other side of the truck and ambled on through. Onto the pavement of Highway 72. On a more or less limited sight distance tight curve.
Son of a bitch. (if you knew the saga of Jimmy's cows this would be a lot funnier and more dire at the same time)
I'm out on the highway with nothing but hands waving at the cows trying to herd them back to where they fled like prisoners on the run from a Florida chain gang prison wardened by Strother Martin. And having no effect. They stumbled around on the two lane blacktop in a suicidal funk, dumb as hamburger.
When I heard a vehicle coming. I run that way to wave off whoever is coming when a yellow, muraled 50 foot former school bus full of flower children comes loping around the corner at must have been top speed for the bus; maybe 20 miles an hour. I can see the drivers eyes through all the hair and they're big as saucers. He may have been tripping or never seen cows on a road before. Whichever, he yanked the wheel on the bus. It heeled over enough that the rear high side tires actually lost contact with the pavement for a moment. And then he drove that thing into a grassy ditch next to the ranch gate.
Hippies came pouring out. Laughing. They thought this was great fun, which is not a bad way to look at life. They surrounded the herd in nothing flat while several ran to the blind spots in the road either direction presumably to flag traffic. They coaxed, threatened and laughed those stupid beeves back behind the gate lickety split and got the gate shut. Still laughing, they piled back on the bus, having a high old time.
One guy, especially tall and lanky, I think their leader, folded back the bus doors and yelled at me, "Hey, man. Come see what I have!" And began walking towards me.
Stop. What I didn't mention is that in those days we delivered Coca Cola for cash. I'd often have three grand, maybe four in the 9000, and maybe another $300+ in my pockets to make change for summer merchants up in the hills for the summer tourist season.
Back to the story. This guy, smiling at me as he walks my way pulls a Navy Colt out of the waist of his baggy, patched baby shit brown pants. And points it at me.
It's true. If you have the presence of mind and the time to look down the barrel of a fair sized pistol pointed at you the hole in the end looks about the size of the Holland Tunnel. It was such a surprising thing to happen it took my body more than a few seconds to slam the hammer on my adrenals.
Just about the moment I started having bodily reactions to having a gun pulled on me, he flips it around and hands it to me, butt first. "Found this up in an old mine." he says. "I found some caps and shot in a gun store in Boulder. Cleaned it up and it shoots just fine. C'mere." And he ushers me to the ditch at the side of the road, takes the pistol and carefully squeezes off a round at a tree trunk about 20 yards out. The bullet found its mark and lordy, what a dent it made in the damp fibrous bark and body of that poor Aspen. Loud, too.
"Here. You try it." Hands me the pistol. I was raised a kind soul with good manners and since he hadn't shot me with it then robbed me, I took the Colt in hand, sighted down the barrel, cocked the hammer, squeezed the trigger.
Ka-wham. Lots of smoke and I'd also hit my mark. More splintered tree. That poor tree probably wondered what the hell it had done to piss us off. "Is that not the coolest thing?" he asked. "They don't make stuff that good anymore. Been lying up there probably a hunnert years in that old line shack and still works!" he was all grins, beard and weed breath.
I asked him back to the truck, threw up the door to a bay and collected three cases of Coke. Gave it to him as a thank you for saving my bacon with the cows. He laughed wildly and ran back to the bus calling out "Hey Hey! He gave me fifteen pounds of coke!" Heads popped out windows and one girl said something about getting her all excited and then all he had was soda pop. He laughed like a little possessed and disappeared inside the bus. I figured that was my cue to get gone.
The blankety-blank 9000 is still on the other side of the gate.
But that's another story.
It Started With a Full Nelson
And a pair of Tig ol Bitties.
We'll call her Toni for the sake of non-disclosure.
Actually a salt of the earth, smart gal raised in the lower economic parts of the city, but hey. That doesn't mean she wasn't fun and a damned hard worker. What it did mean she was raised to fight back, give as good as she got and frankly she had more than a touch of the troublemaker in her. You know, the kid who likes to poke bears with a stick and run away faster than you?
Toni worked for me in our corner of this vertically integrated publishing company. We were all on the production side with the printing presses, binderies, mailing lines, etc. Magazines don't just appear out of thin air. A lot, and I mean a lot of dirty hard and sometimes dangerous work goes into getting Vogue into your mailbox reliably.
Anyway, down in our little corner Toni one day was cutting up on a production line and when her target took a pretend swing at her Toni did not dodge quick enough and the fake roundhouse caught on the end of her nose. Which hurt. Toni threw her stuff down and went for the other gal. I was right there and stepped behind her and got her in a full nelson. The grappling hold up under the arms and then lace hands behind the neck? Picture it?
Toni was about a 50EE. Although she wasn't fat and had an otherwise sensible weight to height. But the upper deck was way overbuilt.
And the production lines in that part of the building stopped what they were doing, machinery ground to a halt and everyone was laughing their ass off. Because ... I had unknowingly hooked my thumbs under the bottom edge of Toni's pink tube top and in one swift move it was up and off had her face covered and I was waving her back and forth like a rag doll laughing in her ear about the misconnection on that fake punch (different times than today).
Meaning, I was waving those tig ol bitties at everyone who was on that end of the plant. No more than 8, maybe 9 seconds but I'm sure an eternity for her. When I saw her tube top wrapped around her face I let go. Stepped back, started to apologize but damn I'm glad I wore sensible shoes that day.
She quickly had a crescent wrench in hand and I was the object of her attention. Through the plant, out the door, into the employee parking lot, round and round we ran. She was hollering things at me that would account for why some goats faint. She wouldn't stop. Now, she had a pack a day smoking thing going on but you couldn't tell that day. I'm a large man but in great shape and she was gaining on me. I finally stopped, put out both hands, made pleading gestures and she barreled into me like a charging rhino. Crashed onto the pavement and she had that Craftsman chrome plated 10 inch crescent wrench over my head like she was a butcher about to halve a chicken when she reached down with the other hand and tweaked my nose, making a horn honking sound.
"Tag, you're it." Got off me and ran back to the plant. Turned about half way to the Employees Only door and laughed. People were hollering and applauding.
It was a good day.
Aldo, the Addlepated Monk
For decades he'd taken care of the rose gardens. Small in stature, a bit off but with a big heart Aldo had never met anyone he didn't like. He was just built that way. Maybe it's true; ignorance is bliss.
Down amongst the thorns and rich topsoil, because everything Vatican City did was rich, Aldo communed with blossoms and bees and little crawling insects. Almost like a priest with a Parish.
Other priests, full of pride and purpose, elevated stations and with a stride that meant business, or the slow thoughtful walk of elder statesmen hardly any of these noticed the little monk down on his hands and knees washing the feet of roses and mums and gladiolas. He gave communion to these and God's smallest creatures in a humble, direct manner. Maybe even a little consecrated wine once in a while went into the soil. He carried a crust of bread in a hidden pocket so when field mice came around he'd have something to offer them. No one knew of course. Feeding mice. The very thought. But Jesus did say "except as ye do unto the least of these ..."
In those walled 109 acres a multi-billion dollar global religious furnace burned night and day because, like the British Empire, the Sun never set on the Roman empire. The Roman Christian empire. Lights could be seen coming on and turning off throughout any night. Somewhere there was always trouble. And somewhere in Vatican City someone was always awake and tending the wireless. Sometimes the shredder.
In these desperate hours of religious war, devastating Inquests and troubled faithful the men in black robes labored to keep their world out of the ditch and on the rails.
Aldo was walking in what he thought of as The Forest, off to the side of the Palace of the Government of Vatican City State building. He was, at this soft hour of morning, suddenly transfixed. Staring into a middle distance at diffused light filtering down between the leave and limbs, his head tilted his eyes fixed on a beam of brighter light bathing his face.
For uncountable moments Aldo stood, rooted to the spot as if he were a statute. A Father walking nearby, a Father struggling with the political implications of demands for ordained female clergy, noticed Aldo. Couldn't immediately place him then memory performed and he nodded to himself. Aldo, the addlepated monk. Seen in the gardens talking to things. He continued his walk, when ...
...Aldo appeared before him, his face radiant as a Sun, beaming from ear to ear. Aldo blurted out as would a child "He's coming!" and ran away.
Across the walkways and garden paths the Father continued to hear this little monk shouting "He's coming!" What to make of it? He strolled on. Somebody else's problem now.
Later the Swiss Guard and the very professional and very efficient private security officers would be called on the carpet for what happened next. Aldo had run past everyone, through buildings filled with offices, past chapels and hallways filled with art beyond price. He dodged and wove and got past them all still happily crying out as in the throes of ecstasy "He's coming!"
He arrived at the Papal apartments and burst in with a Camerlengo in tow, a Papal Secretary and 10 armed anonymous guards in business suits. The Pope looked up from his morning desk as Aldo bulled in. The Holy Father gave an eyebrow at his Camerlengo as Aldo made the simple desk and fell to his knees before the Pope, hands clasped in front of himself and radiating something ... something like ... light.
The Pope steadied himself, started to rebuke the monk but another force stayed his voice and instead what came out was "What is it my son?"
The next day neither Security nor Jesuits nor lawyers got any further with Aldo but the one repeating phrase "He's coming!"
Later that week the Holy Father in collegial conference with his inner circle discussed the matter at great length both as serious men of the world and as highest prelates guarding the treasure of the Catholic Faith. And when all had been argued, discussed, argued and winnowed one comment summed up the Vatican's action plan. From the lips of the Vatican Secretary of State came the ultimate question for the Holy Father. "What do we do?"
"I don't know about you," he replied after many moments, "I'm going to look busy."
And that is the state of religion today.
Make sure you look busy.
Riding High has Unexpected Moments
I collected bumper sticker humor for a long time. Until the internets came along and well, there wasn't much value in remembering the things because anyone could go out on the intertubes and find all the funny stuff they need.
What you can't get from the 'Net is context and the moment. Heh. You surely can not. Like this ...
Some of my favorite bumper humor is Jeez If You Love Honkus. The infamous, and I had it happen to me at Blake and 23rd in Denver, Honk if You Love Jesus and getting the finger in return. The Relax God Is In Control sticker directly under a bashed in right rear bumper and bent trunk lid. My Other Ride Is Your Mom. One I never understood was Dance Like Your Vagina Is On Fire. We Invaded Iraq And All I Got Was Expensive Gas. If It Has Tits Or Wheels It Will Give You Problems. A really peculiar one was Wanted on the top line. Second line was a picture of an insect and the words LongHorn Beetle with an 800 number. No clue. Driver Carries No Cash; He's Married. One time I saw a guy in an apartment parking lot furiously scraping off what had to be a sticker that read I Love Gay Porn. He was pissed. I suspect the ex. Wife, GF? Don't Like My Driving? Call 1-800 Eat A Bag Of Dicks seemed a little harsh. Children Are Our Future Unless We Stop Them seemed spot on. I Miss My Ex; But My Aim Is Improving probably has a lot of fans. D.A.D.D.S. is still a favorite - Dads Against Daughters Dating. Overlaid on a picture of a pump shotgun.
Classic Texas bumper art - HOWDY, DAMMIT! is pretty good. I Wasn't Born In Texas But I Got Here As Fast As I Could is a contender. If You Try To Take My Guns, Bring Your Own Bullets. Two lever action rifles in the rear window gun rack of a pickup. My kinda statement. On Earth As It Is In Texas. I'm From Texas, What Country Are You From? I've seen a lot which is the Lone Star flag with SECEDE written over it.
In New York I saw a lot of COEXIST bumper exhortations and the folks who stick that on their cars need to remind Islam that they're not holding up their end. Also saw I Got Laid In Hawaii, and Screwed By Cuomo. Seems right. And one I'll never undertand because I'm not going to stop and inquire - Ask Me If I'm One Of Those New York Russians Creeped Out By Democrats.
Say what? Probably meant something to him, but then again maybe it was on the car when he bought it.
I Support The Guy In China Making These Stupid Bumper Stickers With Toxic Ink got my attention. Honk If You Understand Punctuated Equilibrium confused me. But I was near Rutgers at the time.
The only interesting one I saw near the M.I.T. campus in Cambridge was My Son Is Inmate Of The Month. Wow, is that dreary. Must live where it sleets all the time. Sleet for breakfast, sleet for lunch and extra sleet with dinner. And one that simply said Circumcised. Pays to advertise!
Around Chicago I couldn't collect any good ones except the old Ford Fairlane beater that had on the back left bumper a sticker that read I Support Local Police and it had two bullet holes right through the bumper.
But my 2nd all time hands down favorite is the Kenworth.
I'm a'rollin' along Interstate 80 in Nebraska. I'd already seen the tree, so there wasn't much to look at 50 miles out from the cut-off to I-76. (the tree? drive it. you'll see what I mean) I spy ahead a Coors semi in the right lane, obeying the speed limit, which I am not and as I got close busted out laughing. See, there are a number of bumper stickers in Colorado referencing Natives. Because the state has been overrun with folks not from Colorado. Heck, you can even get license plates that say you're native if you provide proof.
The bumper stickers range from Native in white letters against a green background on mountain peaks. To semi-Native. To Alien. (no Google Image Search for this one. Political Correctness may have scrubbed it)
Well, this Coors truck driver had cut a sem-Native sticker in half and put it back together so it read Native semi. These are the jokes, people.
But #1 on the hit parade is that Corvette up top.
On I-25 in my 1980 Ford Bronco XLT which sits up kinda high, in the right lane minding my own business halfway between Denver and Fort Collins and I spot in my drivers side mirror a Corvette making steady knots coming up behind me in the left lane.
When it gets closer I can see two things at a distance. Blonde hair flying around in the wind because the convertible top is down.
The Corvette pulls closer and closer and I'm eyeballing the mirror to see what's what when it pulls up next to me and Lo. A gorgeous leggy blonde in halter top and short shorts. Sunglasses and looking just fine. She did not look up at me or I would have tipped my cowboy hat and mouthed Thank You.
When she drove past I noted a bumper sticker and stepped on the gas to close the distance to see what it say.
There's No Such Thing As A Dumb Blonde.
I was Laughing, Then It Went Downhill
A king size futon is a lovely bit of engineered sleep surface. If you like that sort of thing.
But it can be a bitch to move.
Friends were moving. The saying 'friends will help you move, but real friends will help you move the body' ain't necessarily true. Friends will drop that line on you out of the blue, "Hey, we're moving next Saturday and you have a pickup truck. What say we make it a party?"
Those are not friends. Friends do not call you to help them move. Friends call a Mover.
So, there I was in the basement stairwell. Friends were moving and I had yet to learn to have a fake trip to Ecuador scheduled at any moment. Fake tickets, fake itinerary, fake reservations. It can all be done with Photoshop and I had not yet connected the dots and formed a 'Friends Are Moving' Plan. I was called and believe me, few were chosen. Like maybe three of us showed up for a house full of crap that should have been thrown out a decade ago. And a stand up Grand Piano. And a wardrobe the size of two refrigerators, and two real refrigerators. And a chest freezer. And classic steel desks. And that blankety blank futon.
All day up and down stairs carrying clothes, boxes, book boxes ... wait, stop there.
Now, I love books. We have something like 3,000 volumes cluttering our house. But we know not to call friends if we ever move because boxes of books are like free weight sets without handles. And one box never has all that many books in it. So, if you have a lot of books your friends will be carrying a lot of heavy boxes. Which is how you lose friends. Probably beer boxes from a liquor store. Marvelous construction and just right for handling odds, ends and books. But filled with books will weight twice what the box was designed to handle weight-wise.
And so are futons.
Up and down. Up and down. Of course these friends lived in an older downtown two story. A narrow two story I might add, with almost impossible landing-turns on the stairs at 90 degrees. Hey, that's what you get when you don't first screen who your friends are going to be. Or, screen your Caller ID. Up and down, bumping into each other. Up and down, hands full. Up and down over and over. The 'friends' of course had not packed anything waiting until Moving Day to get going. Last time I'm having college graduate Left-leaning friends, let me tell you. You know what I mean.
Then into the basement. More like a tall crawl space a man my height almost could stand up in. And dusty. Dust all in the air. Smelled funny. It was year later I learned their sewer connection had backed up and overflowed into the basement to a depth of three feet and what I was likely breathing was the dust left over from the the disaster-people cleaning out the filth. Might also explain some of the involuntary twitches that came on afterwards.
And down in that chilly, poorly lit dusty basement was a spare room some loser had been sleeping in. Don't know who the guy was, he was long gone. But his futon remained. And it was a big mother. King size. Heavy cotton and wool batting. About this thick (I holding my hands about a foot apart). No handles sewn into it. Of course.
My sweetheart, a tough hard working woman, got one end and I got the other and we tried to wrestle that thing up the basement stairs which were too shallow, too short tread to tread and at an odd angle. Like a freaking afterthought on how to get down there. And made by a rank amateur. Possibly blind.
She's backing up the stairs, trying to find her footing, holding on to her end as we had to sort of fold this monstrosity not quite in half to get it to fit into the narrow stairwell. I'm on the bottom end, being the man, trying to hold up my end of the log while pushing 800 pounds uphill and trying to find where my foot goes next, by feel.
I get aggravated. I say stop for a moment. And I get under the futon, centering the thing my upon back and shoulders and do a dead lift sort of move and hollered "Now!". And she gave it a mighty tug and I went to my knees and then flat on the stairs.
This (bad word) futon flattened me like a Panini press. I couldn't get my feet up to push. I couldn't get anything to grab onto and I was being crushed by this GD thing.
That's when I started laughing, thinking about the local paper headline, Man Killed Helping Friends Move and down in the second paragraph "crushed by a futon".
And that got my darling laughing because she laughs at just about everything rather than get mad. That's when it started.
See, the back-story is we'd had burritos the night before. Do I have to draw you picture? We love Mexican food but refried beans ... don't like us. People don't like us after we've had burritos. And so it started. The wind. Like Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs, CO. I had an excuse. It was being pushed out of me but my beloved was nearly doubled over laughing and the winds took her, too. That made me all the harder with predictable results. We guffawed at our absurd predicament because all the 'friends' had left to unload at the next place and we were alone.
I finally got a knee up on the next step, which allowed a push with a foot and my darling laughing hard because, as she said, "It looks like it's possessed." All she could see from up top was this thing slowly inching up the stairs towards her without any obvious motive power behind the movement. It seemed like it was sliding up the stairs on its own.
Of course, I was under the damned thing bruising my knees but desperate enough to do it because ... this wasn't going to end well if I didn't - as they say - get 'r done.
Inch by inch up the stairs until I pushed the edges of the futon into the top of the stairs doorframe. The spousal unit grabbed the edges and maneuvered those so the mattress fit inside the frame. And I involuntarily let go. She started laughing, I started laughing and that's when the man of the house showed up.
"What on earth are you doing?" he asked her and she sputtered and inhaled some spit which caused her to gag and then cough like a dying phlegmatic. "Help" I called weakly from under the Beast.
"Is he under the futon?"
"Yes," a small voice voice wafted up from under. My baby was now slapping the wall flat handed trying not to pee. Laughing and clearing her throat. The man of the house, she said later, was waving at the air by his nose.
"Why?" He asked.
That stopped the music. From underneath I shouted, "Whaddya mean Why? I'm getting the futon out."
"The futon stays here. The new owners asked if they could have it and we damn sure didn't want to try and move thing. It weighs a ton."
And that, people, is why you never say yes to friends who need to move.
It Was Hot That Day ...
Sweetheart and I headed out from our home down in the nearly-desert Valley to deliver some goodies to a client up in Aspen.
Aspen’s weather was reported by the Weather Service as being high 70s and mid 40s that day. It would be a delightful respite from just skimming 100 down in the Valley with its single digit humidity and gusty Southwesterly winds.
Darling had the day off. For this trip we took a company van. A plain uninsulated, bare bones van full of nothing. Metal floor, metal walls, metal ceiling except for the passenger and driver area. A nice enough van, only a year old. Drove just fine, got decent gas mileage.
Off we went. In the Valley it was 99 at 11am, and the winds were gusting. Single digit humidity which is our cup of tea (we like it extra warm with low low humidity) is a very bad recipe for fire. Forest fires, wild fires, range fires. Especially what I call idiot fires. You know, the guy who fires up his charcoal grill on a wooden deck attached to the house. A wooden deck 22 years baking in the sun and so dried out a man with a magnifying glass can set it on fire, so of course some yokel decides to charcoal grill on the hottest day of the year with strong winds. Then wonders what happened when he burns down his house and 6 others in his neighborhood.
“I was just grilling some burgers!”
Seeya in Court, schmuck.
Anyway, we take off east on the interstate, traffic light, no problems. We get through the first of the canyons without the walls giving way and the highway creeping into the riv ...
er... wait. You probably don’t know about that. Out here the rock formations where highways cut through a grade are almost always crumbly. Yeah, that’s a good word for it. Crumbly. If we’ve had a wet Spring or Winter, the soil ... wait ...
... that’s another part of this puzzle. The soil around here ain’t soil at all. It’s not earth and it‘s not even dirt. Hell if I know what it is. We’ll that’s not true. I do know what it is. It’s caliche dust compacted into what looks like earth-dirt. Loam or topsoil is virtually unknown until you get up in elevation where there are deciduous trees and more water. Down here it’s almost all compacted dust. It only looks like dirt.
Back to the rocks. The rocky parts of the canyon are held together - and I say that with a certain irony - by this kind of dirt. So, when this mixture of crumbly slippage prone rock gets good and soaked during a wet Winter or Spring bentonite clay in that dirt expands and slippage prone rocks + compacted dust ‘dirt’ start to part company Landslides and rock slides are a way of life out here. Hardly anyone in a vehicle ever take the full brunt of a highway cut giving way, but there have been several spectacular incidents that should be remembered.
That’s why I said we made it through the first canyons without incident. You gotta stay on your toes for rocks, loose stuff and occasionally a boulder or cliff face the size of your house obeying gravity. Then again, once or twice, the entire highway has just started sliding to one side towards the river. Creeping along at a foot an hour warping the asphalt, pushing guardrails along merry as you please. But this trip it had been bone dry for a while so I wasn’t even really paying attention except to traffic, which was light.
Out of the canyons, the road straightens out and off in the distance I see a large plume of smoke. That’s when I noticed traffic coming at us was light. No big rigs in a while.
We passed a small town, then crossed several bridges over the river as it curled back and forth, topped a rise ... and lo.
The dip in the road ahead was on fire.
Very cloudy with smoke. We could see the orange yellow flames jumping up and moving around down in the midst of the smoke. We were still about 2 miles from it but I slowed down to about 45mph, the 35, then 20 coming up on it. No emergency vehicles yet. No highway patrol. No fire response teams from the Bureau of Land Management. Just cars pulled to the side and stopped and a large cloud of smoke obscuring the rest.
As we crept up on it one of those wind gusts, for a moment, cleared the Interstate in front of us of smoke and golly Moses, the way was clear, unobstructed by dead cars and or the asphalt on fire.
“Go, go go!” spousal unit shouted. I looked at her. I guess my eyes were asking questions. “Go now, fast as we can. Get out here! Before we get blocked in!”
She rarely, and I mean once a decade, lets urgency creep into her voice but this was that day. A whole string of calculations and ‘think-throughs’ rolled over in my brain pan and my analysis took all of 1.5 seconds. I floored it.
The van jumped forward and pretty quick we were doing 70mph, then 80 ...
And we entered the cloud. We had the windows all the way up. No air conditioning. We were temporarily in a tight cocoon with nothing coming in from outside.
Bull(cough). It got in anyway. I couldn’t see much ahead, but that one brief glimpse showed no cars or trucks dead on the road, no one parked to the side. Nothing in our way, so I kept the pedal down and aimed for getting through as fast as we could. The smell of smoke instantly was in the van. Burned in my nose and stung my eyes. She Who Should Be Obeyed had her ever present kerchief pressed to her face. (warm in the winter, cool in the summer)
The van was till accelerating, up the slope of the grade leading out of this half mile dip in the Interstate. 100mph seemed plenty and as we passed through the heart of the smoke, the winds again blew a clear spot so we could see to our left.
A passenger bus. A chartered passenger bus. Known in the bus trade as a Pusher because the engine in is the very rear of the structure and drives the rear wheels, thus ... pushing the bus. That rear engine compartment was on fire. Really on fire. But that wasn’t the fire obscuring the Interstate.
The big fire was on the west bound (left hand side to us) side of the Interstate. Pinon covered slopes of shallow hills. Sage, juniper and stunted oak. All on fire like roman torches. Their sparks and flaming bits flying around igniting the area upwind. The wind was fierce in this area. The bus, we found out later was not the cause, which I incorrectly surmised. The bus had broken down right there and the passengers had gotten off the charter for fresh air and to stretch their legs, while assistance was summoned. The range fire came over the hill exactly where they were milling about, swept down to the edge of the asphalt and the fluids which had leaked out of the injured engine caught fire. The passengers ran across the highway and many of them were taking shelter under the highway bridge 40 yards back where it crossed over the river.
We flew through that scene the visions like flipping pages in a book to make a short movie. Glimpse, glimpse, glimpse.
What really impressed us as soon as we were through the carnage and smoke was the heat that soaked into the inside of the van. This was, in reality a relatively small range fire. We were no more than 20 seconds in the immediate presence of the fire and the heat that radiated through and into the van was astounding. I know that sounds reactionary, but it was amazing. We couldn’t touch the walls or any part of the thin metal of the van for probably 50 miles. In 20 seconds it had baked. And I mean like an oven line in a paint shop baking the paint on.
Wow. Alls well that ends well, though. News reports afterward no one injured, fire contained to less than one hundred acres. Bus burnt down to the frame but what’s that next to injuries or death? Nothing.
We drove on, talking about it the whole way to Aspen. We had a late lunch up in the Frying Pan valley at the base of Ruedi Reservoir. And yes, it was 74 degrees.
A spectacular day. Clear blue skies. No fires. Coolish temps. And no tourists on fire. Which is always a blessing. It so cobbles up your day and schedule.
We took a different route back. Like they say, once burned forever shy.