Childhood Lost 18
Chestnut lands rolled away into unguessable distances. Bronzed by summer's heat, tanned by autumn frosts, the high plains of Montana were a windswept patchwork of whispering grass and far stubble fields, scented with the dampness of rain.
Adair shook out a Lucky Strike, offered me one, and asked, "You been around cows much, Deke?"
"Some," I replied truthfully. "My grandfather always kept a couple of milk cows. He taught me how to milk when I was five or six."
"Yore not afraid of 'em then?"
"No, they don't generally mean any harm," I answered.
"You say you know how to milk?"
"It's been awhile," I admitted, "but I still know how."
Adair nodded as if satisfied. "I'm right glad to hear that because I've got two Brown Swiss cows that I've had to milk first thing every morning and last thing in every evening for the better part of five years. It's all my wife's doin'," he grinned impishly. "You see she loves fresh milk, whipped cream, cottage cheese, and butter, and that's all well and good. But, dang! I need a break once in a while. How would you like to take over that chore for me? I'd sure appreciate it."
"Be glad to, Adair," I said, and I meant it. "What's an average day like anyway?"
"Well," he drawled, crushing his smoke out in the ashtray. "We generally get up around six thirty, have breakfast at seven, and begin work at seven thirty. This time of the year, all we're really doin' is feeding the cattle. One herd is up in the far east pasture about ten miles off, another is eight miles to the north. The third bunch is seven miles south. It takes up half a day for four hands to feed them after which we break for lunch. We usually spend our afternoons doin' odd jobs, fixin' fence and if we don't run into any 'what nexts,' we're mostly home eatin' dinner by five. Sound like somethin' you'd want to do?" he inquired.
"After everything I've been through, it sounds almost like a vacation," I laughed. "But you'll have to fill me in...what exactly are 'what next's?"
"What next's," he began seriously enough, "are the bane of every cowhand's existence. They tend to occur in groups, five minutes apart, just before quitting time at the end of any day when you're more cold, hungry and tired than usual. They always require your immediate attention and are absolutely guaranteed to make you a minimum of one hour or more late for dinner." He paused for a few moments communing with himself before continuing.
"You'll know it was them the first time you find yourself crawling out of the muck ten miles from home after changing a tire which, for no good reason, went flat when you got stuck in the middle of the only invisible mud hole in the state of Montana. You suddenly realize, as you scrape the gunk off your brand new boots and jeans, that you lost your wallet crawlin' around down there in the sludge. As you reach for a match to light up the dark you find they're all wet, so you reach for the flashlight you keep in the truck and discover the batteries are dead. You'll then look around at the shadowy cows and a truck that won't budge and the flash that won't light and yell, 'What next!?'"
"This sort of thing happen very often?" I asked with a perfectly straight face.
"Often enough," he replied with a grin.
We arrived at the ranch house about one o'clock. Situated on a low hill overlooking a broad, nearly barren valley, it was almost completely encircled by a bleak march of seething trees. Their unclad limbs and barren twigs jostled restlessly as they whistled in the cold November wind. The main house was antique white, trimmed in fading blue. Adair pulled up near a huge Quonset style sheet metal garage above the house, killed the engine and got out. I slid out the other side and looked warily around.
An intricate maze of empty corrals some two hundred yards below the main house fed into an enormous red barn. A hundred cattle could easily have taken up residence inside it. A small white bunkhouse, fifty feet long by fifteen wide occupied the middle ground between the main house and the corrals. The sheer remoteness of the setting, the emptiness of life, the futility of its exercise suddenly struck me and the blow was overwhelming. "What am I doing with my life?" I asked myself. "What am I doing here? I should be in school, not out in the middle of nowhere. My days should be filled with books and play, a mother, father, brothers, not Montana, where nothing I know is at home."
Adair interrupted my cheerless reflections, "Come on in and meet the family, Deke," he said and led the way into the house.
His home was unpretentious, western comfortable. A cozy lair of thick rugs, antique wooden tables, brass lamps and in a small ante room, an old oak desk. A large overstuffed sofa and several reclining chairs, tucked away in homey living room corners, were the only visible concessions to the modern world of the sixties. The home was, quite simply, two steps backward in time. He introduced me to his wife Bernice, a plump, pleasant featured woman of fifty or so and, to Johnny, his lean, thirty year old son.
Bernice regarded me with profound and detached indifference. I immediately had the feeling that no matter what I did it would never be satisfactory to her. Johnny, on the other hand, had a an immediately identifiable devil-may-care streak in him several oceans wide. Adair, I surmised, fell somewhere in between.
We had a late lunch of meatloaf, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy followed by a thick wedge of apple pie. Adair, Johnny, and Bernice carried on most of the conversation. Towards the end of the meal, she addressed me directly, one of the few times she ever would.
"What size clothes do you wear, sir?" she asked perfunctorily.
Taken aback by the unexpected query, all I could say is, "I really don't know."
"Come here then."
I approached her cautiously, wondering. She reached into a drawer and pulled out a tape measure, fastened it around various portions of my anatomy, wrote the revelations down and said brusquely, "That's all then." Sensing I had been dismissed, but not yet knowing where to, I headed toward the door. If nothing else after an excellent meal, hell any kind of a meal, I needed a good smoke. Johnny followed me out, lighting up before he'd even cleared the porch.
"Where you from, Deke?" he inquired.
"State of Washington," I replied.
"How old are you anyway?"
"When I was fourteen," he observed, "I was still in school. How come you're not?"
"I matured early," I suggested, deadpan.
He chuckled to himself. "Out here," he gestured with an all encompassing wave of his hand, "it's considered bad manners to pry into a guy's personal life, or his past. What a man does in the here and now is what counts, but you're a curiosity. You," he concluded, "are definitely not regulation issue."
"You got that right," I conceded somewhat ruefully.
"Want to see what the rest of the place looks like?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject.
"Sure thing," I replied enthusiastically.
We hopped in Adair's four wheel drive and set off down a winding, bumpy, rut filled road heading south. Other than an infrequent cottonwood or clump of aspen, the land about was devoid of trees. Most of which were adorned, no doubt due to the lack of suitable building sites, with dozens of nests of varying shapes and sizes built by birds who had long since fled south. One notable exception grew five miles out by a hillside spring, a huge old giant of a cottonwood, topped by wind and age, towered fifty feet above the nearby road. Crowned with a single massive nest of limbs and twigs it bore no other sign of habitation. This, Johnny informed me was a Golden Eagle's nest, which I assumed accounted for the lack of interest by other residents.
Coming, as I had, from a world of forests on the Washington coast, eastern Montana resembled nothing more than an undulating desert of windblown grass. An occasional coyote loped into view, then swiftly disappeared each time Johnny hurriedly stopped the truck and reached for the 30-06 hanging on the gun rack. It was as if they knew a moving vehicle presented no real threat.
After nearly an hour's travel, we dropped down into a broad river valley where several huge stacks of alfalfa and hay had been deposited. Although enclosed in a five strand barbed wire fence five feet high, this had proved no impediment whatever to several dozen deer busily munching on the succulent bales. We drove to within one hundred yards, Johnny killed the engine and we sat for awhile and watched. While the majority of the herd seemed to be does, there were several bucks in attendance sporting massive antlers. All of them looked exceedingly fat and well fed. We got out of the truck and slowly approached. Other than intermittent glances in our general direction, the browsing animals paid little heed to our presence. Johnny walked right up to the wire a scant thirty feet from the herd and yelled, "Hey get up, get out of there!" The deer gazed at him curiously for all of a couple of seconds before returning to their feast. All but one of the deer, the largest buck, ignored him.
"This is a real wild herd you got here, John," I commented wryly.
"You think that's something, watch this," he replied with a laugh. "Here Bucky, here Bucky, here Bucky," he called in a sing song voice. The deer which had been eyeing him took a few cautious steps in our direction, hesitated for a few moments, then ambled over. John tapped a Lucky out of his pack and held it out across the wire. The graceful animal sniffed the fragrant tobacco appreciatively, snorted several times then nibbled it bit by bit from between his fingers.
After we'd returned to the truck and left the herd to their meal, I just had to ask, "How'd you ever manage to teach a deer that trick, Johnny?"
"He was an orphan. I don't know what happened to his mother, but when I came across him, I don't know, must be five years ago now, he was starving. I took him home, called the vet to find out what to do and bottle fed him 'til he was old enough to eat on his own. The first couple of years he stayed pretty close but he's been rangin' further afield with every passing season."
"How'd you know it was him?"
"His face! Once you get to know an animal, none of them looks the same and the more you get to know them the more differences you'll see."
We arrived back at headquarters shortly after dark. Johnny gave me a guided tour of the bunkhouse. Due to the size of the thing, it was a short trip. There were three beds, one each against the various walls and a gas furnace in the middle of the floor. Each bed was accompanied by a small wooden writing table. A couple of well worn rocking chairs and a black and white TV completed the appointments. I would, Johnny informed me, have the place to myself for a spell as the other ranch hand had taken several days off to visit his mother in Great Falls. Visiting one's mother, I soon discovered, was an artful Montana euphemism designed to cover a wide variety of indiscretions. Anything from a three day drunk to an overnight stay in Malta's casual (but highly efficient) bordello.
My first night there reached back for miles, down every road I'd taken. My first Christmas, when the house on 8844 South D Street in Tacoma had been filled with laughter and the pungent scent of evergreen lightly steeped on spiraled strings of brightly colored bulbs...and of Christmas last, when the magic of childhood had been harshly exposed for the lie that it was, and promptly replaced by an even bigger one.
Grandpa's death when I was six, from inoperable cancer. And his corpse at a funeral I was expected to cry over, but couldn't. Withdrawing instead somewhere deep down inside, where I hoped that, perhaps, if I could flee from today, I could escape to the past where life still made sense. And how after the service I could still hear my parents remarking to friends how chilling it was to have a child like me who felt nothing at all, and how much pride I took in that inadvertent deception. Besides, none of the heroes I'd seen at the movies cried when someone died.
That first day of school at Fernhill in Tacoma rolled down off my memory and parked in the lane. School was a nightmare of strangers and rules and of someone called teacher whom I'd never met and yet who acted like she had some God given right to order my comings and goings. My solution to the problem had been elegant and simple. The instant she turned her back on the class I was out of her door, onto the sidewalk and heading home at a merry clip. Well, almost.
Home was a mile or so away, by road that is, but there was a shortcut which wound its malingering way through the dry autumn woods and blackberry brambles; and it skirted a magical swamp where, as I had reason to know from illicit experience, huge gray and green frogs grew. Reasoning that I had plenty of time to explore, I traversed the entire area. I discovered a grove of yellow plum trees and gorged myself on their succulent fruit. Apple trees grew in scattered abundance as well and I felt it my duty to sample each one. By the time I arrived home, it was precisely three o'clock.
Time ordinarily meant little to me, but I remember that particular hour with grinding precision. As I walked through our old front door, I was instantly confronted by an enraged mother who had obviously been counting seconds, to say nothing of hours.
"Do you have any idea what time it is!?" she yelled; and before I could profess innocence by ignorance she informed me, "It's three p.m., and just where have you been young man!?" she demanded in an infuriated voice, which conveyed to me the utter futility of even attempting to explain.
"At school," I replied, with all the conviction of the undeniably guilty.
"Don't you dare lie to me, you little heathen," she shouted angrily.
"I'm not lying," I stubbornly insisted. "I was at school."
"For how long?" she seethed.
"Ah, er, um... five minutes?" I proffered, hopefully.
"And where did you spend the rest of your day?" she demanded furiously.
"Well, I guess I took the shortcut home, through the woods and past the swamp."
"You guess!? You guess!?" she yelled, her voice rising several decibels in sound and fury. " Arrgg!!" She calmed herself ever so slightly before passing sentence in a clipped and thoroughly authoritarian manner from which I knew there was no appeal. "You will spend the rest of the day in your room," she began. "You will not eat until breakfast, you will attend school tomorrow, and you will apologize to your teacher and your class for running away. You will never, ever pull such a harebrained stunt again! Do you hear me!?" she shouted.
Although I was positive that not only I but everybody in the county probably had, I wisely refrained from saying so. I merely acknowledged her request with a polite (and carefully neutered), "Yes."
If she had stopped right there, chances are I would have survived with my butt intact, but we always seemed to arrive at some point in her discourses where stupidity demolished common sense and I found myself perversely compelled to utter witty rejoinders which did nothing but make an already incendiary situation explosive.
"Don't you ever pull a stunt like this again. I'll beat you within an inch of your life," she reiterated wrathfully. "Do you hear me, you little hellion!?"
"Do you understand!?" she persisted through clenched teeth.
"Ah yes, I know, senora," I responded in the languid Spanish accent I'd learned from watching Zorro on TV. "I've heard eet all so many times before."
She lunged at me, grabbed a handful of hair and dragged me across the living room, propelling me into my bed room with far greater force than seemed absolutely necessary for someone of my modest height and weight. "You smart mouthed brat, you had me worried sick and you think you can just waltz in here and backtalk me!" she shrieked. "Bend over!" After an obligatory (and extended) licking, she left the room in a steaming silence.
Her professions of incipient infirmity rang hollow, however, for I had detected no lassitude whatever in the arm that wielded the belt...
My father's name invariably surfaced in these instances, usually toward the end of the conversation when, to add a sense of grim foreboding to my already dubious future, Mother would wrap things up with a threat, over her shoulder...as she left the room. "And don't think I'm not going to tell your Father about this the minute he gets home!"
She was routinely better than her word in these matters. A more accurate interpretation would have read, "The instant he gets home." I could hear her narration quite clearly when Father arrived. Not only because her voice rose several octaves in the process, but because I had my ear anchored securely to the partially opened bedroom door...
"Do you know what your son did today?" she asked.
"Let me guess; we're talking about Dale. Right?"
"He played hooky all day long, ALL DAY LONG!" she shouted.
"On his first day at school?" my father asked incredulously. "You want me to have a talk with him?" he queried hopefully.
"I don't care what you do with him just as long as you make sure he never, ever, does this to me again." she retorted.
"Yeah," I thought, as the night wore on. "He tried."
The tides of time, ebbed and flowed as I stared out the window at the deepening night and at a halo of snow flakes drifting lazily down past the mercury lamp by the lodgepole corrals.
Morning bled out across the heavens staining clouds a crimson hue and in the all pervasive silence I felt totally alone, cut off even from the now nearly comfortable antagonism of my enemies.
If you have anything you would like to
submit to this site, or any comments,
email me at:
CLICK HERE FOR EMAIL ADDRESS.