Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Walter Swan’s Simple Plan

The one time I actually interviewed for a job in the journalism field, was as a sports reporter for the Douglas Dispatch in Douglas Arizona. Douglas sits on the Arizona border across from their sister city, the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. Sounds beautiful, but roughly translates as “dirty water”. The town of Douglas was established as a smelter site for the copper mines of Bisbee and was named after mining pioneeer James Douglas.

It’s in Cochise County, Arizona, and that might sound familiar as the County is named after an infamous Chiracahua Apache, named Cochise. No photographs exist or were ever taken of Cochise, and he was buried in a secret location in the Dragoon Mountains. I’m telling you this, if for no other reason, because I find it interesting, and very similar to another infamous Oglala Sioux, named Crazy Horse. It seems they didn’t want their pictures taken because they thought some gadget like the camera could capture their soul and would be harmful to them, so it was taboo. I think it is interesting that two separate tribes had the same feeling about it. Well, anyway, I digress as usual.

I saw the job listing in the Tucson Citizen classifieds, and since I was currently self-“un”employed, I sent them a resume and some writing samples from my days as a reporter for the University of New Mexico newspaper, the “LoBo”, my only actual newspaper “experience.” I actually got a response, which surprised me, until I thought about it. That’s when I realized there probably weren’t too many people applying for a job in a dusty desert town on the border of Mexico with a population of 18,000 on a newspaper with a circulation of considerably less than that. I even got an interview. I was to be in Douglas in the newspaper office at 1:30 on the following Wednesday, and I was told to be prepared to do a short writing exercise. Piece of cake, I thought so I didn’t see any need to prepare.

I had never been to Douglas, had never ventured that far south in Arizona, and was actually looking forward to the trip. We figured it would take us a little over two hours to travel the 120 miles, so as not to be late for my interview, we left at around 8:00 in the morning. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the drive was uneventful until we came to the Mule Mountains and went through a tunnel. I love tunnels for some reason. This one is called the MulePass Tunnel. When we emerged on the other side, there in front of us, in the canyon, was a quaint little town that resembled, at first view, a turn of the century San Francisco. So much so, that they used it as a movie set for San Francisco in “Young Guns II”, we later learned. We had seen the resemblance immediately, except there was no ocean or San Francisco Bay. It is also known as Arizona’s mile high city at an elevation of 5,300 ft.

We pulled off the road at the first exit and just marveled at the place. It was like the tunnel had been a time machine and we had driven back to the 1900s. There was a tall brick building that caught my eye right away, it had a cupola over a Mickey Mouse clock tower, and it was for sale. A two-story building, renovated with four apartments and two retail spaces on the lower level for a mere $120,000. Might as well have been $1.2 million as far as me being able to afford it, but it seemed cheap at the time.

One of the more interesting buildings was “The Stock Exchange, which was originally a Brewery that was closed during Prohibition, then became the only NYSE between Missouri and San Francisco, and operated as such until 1964. The Stock Exchange, now a Bar and Restaurant is currently for sale for the paltry sum of $600,000. See how prices have gone up?

There were many other fine old brick buildings on Brewery Gulch and Main Street: Central School, the YMCA, the YWCA, two bank buildings, the post office, all looked as if we had gone through that time machine. They were little changed from when Bisbee was a mining town, a company town owned by the Phelps Dodge Company. For a time, during the early 1900s, the population exceeded that of Tucson.

We walked over to the Copper Queen Hotel and had an early lunch in the period restaurant. It was there, from talking with the waitress, that we learned about John Wayne being a frequent guest. They even had a suite named for him in the hotel, she told us, the room where he actually stayed. He believed that the copper in the area would be beneficial to his cancer treatment. The hotel has documented ghosts also. You really should check this place out at

We hated to leave, there was so much we wanted to see, but I did have that interview at the Douglas Dispatch. We arrived about an hour early and drove around Douglas for a while just to check things out. We weren’t impressed. We found the offices of the Dispatch on 11th street, where I’m sure they had been for some time and are still located there today. My wife sat out in the car while I adjusted my suit jacket and entered the building.

The newspaper office is in a two-story building, in a groundfloor area of maybe 14’ by 30’ with glass block windows facing the street. In other words you got light through the windows but couldn’t see out. The limited light had been blocked further with newsprint from past issues taped to the glass. I was wondering if the sun got a little too much in the late afternoon and they just couldn’t afford blinds. There were three desks in a row on the left side of the space and a bunch of file cabinets on the opposite wall. Newspapers, legal pads, files, were strewn about everywhere. I could see a door in the back and a window, maybe an office. Three ancient CRT screens were on the corner of each desk with the blinking cursors, two yellow boxes and one green. I had one of those all-of-a-sudden wishes that I hadn’t sent the resume.

Reception, Circulation, Advertising, and Classifieds was the first desk I came to. A very nice Hispanic woman asked my business and I told her I was here to interview for the sports writer’s job. She told me to take a seat on the small vinyl and chrome, 60s, settee she pointed to on the wall by the door, which I did. She turned around and yelled, “Bruce, your one-thirty is here.” She turned back and smiled at me, then went on with what she was doing.

I was starting to get that nervous feeling you get just before you go “on.” I was flashing back to Prof. Lawrence’s class. “The “lead” is the most important element of the story.” “ You have to grab the reader in the first sentence.” “Write for an eighth-grade level reader.” I was trying to think of all the reasons I was not working in newspaper, and had not done so after college. And I waited. No Bruce.

I wasn’t sure if she had gotten confirmation from Bruce that he had heard her on the manual intercom, that he knew I was here and ready to get this over with, so I started to get up when Bruce appeared from behind a file cabinet. He reached out his plump hand, which I shook, as he identified himself as the editor and publisher of the Douglas Dispatch.

After a few cursory questions about my background and why I wanted to work in Douglas, he handed me a sheet of paper with some relevant facts about a wrestling match, real or imagined, that happened last night at the local high school. I was to write a short four or five paragraph piece for tomorrow’s edition. He sat me at a small desk with an IBM Selectric, I rolled in a piece of paper and got underway. Within a few minutes I felt I had captured the essence of the event, with a captivating lead and an accurate regurgitation of the facts. Bruce seemed impressed that I had completed the task so quickly. Not so sure he was impressed with the copy, but he said, “Okay, that’ll do fine.”

He dismissed me, thanked me for taking the drive down from Tucson and said he would be in touch with me next week. I figured I had about as much chance of getting this job, as I did winning the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism if I did happen to get it. I told my wife as much when I got back to the car and we headed back the way we had come. Since we still had plenty of time in the day, we stopped again in Bisbee and walked the downtown streets. They were lined with art galleries, gift shops, used book stores, and antique stores.

Then I saw it. In this window was an old man in coveralls with a black Stetson on his head, rocking in a chair behind a stack of books arranged in sort of a round tower. Painted on the glass was a sign, “One Book Bookstore.” I just stood there on the sidewalk transfixed, watching the man sign books and talk to people as they came in, thinking what a great fricking idea. At some point business dropped off and the man, alone, looked up, saw me staring at him, and gave me the “come here” motion. The one book was called “me ‘n Henry” (lowercase on the “me”) and was proudly displayed all along the window. The author, sitting in the rocking chair, was Walter Swan and this was the only book available in this bookstore.

Now, it turns out Walter was a bit of a local, if not national, celebrity. There were framed clippings hanging in the store of him in “People” magazine, the “Tucson Citizen” and “Albuquerque Journal” and the “Arizona Republic.” He had even been on “Late Night with
David Letterman.” He was also featured in Robert G. Allen’s “Multiple Streams of Income” Second Edition. (The “No Money Down” Real Estate guru.)

So what made Walter Swan so unique? He was a plasterer by trade, an eighth-grade drop-out that couldn’t spell, had poor grammer, and wrote an autobiography that no New York publishing houses would touch. To be fair, his wife Deloris had edited his stories. She had been the one to urge him to write them all down for his grandchildren, in the first place.

He taught himself how to type with two fingers and he would punch out the short stories, two, sometimes three pages, give them to Deloris who would fix them up and save them in a file. When the file got full, they put the stories in cronological order and sent it off to the publishers. Walter said he would get excited every time a letter would come, but they were always letters saying they weren’t interested.

Rejection after rejection came from New York, so they borrowed some money, and paid $650 to a vanity publisher in Tucson to print 100 books. Mr. Swan, loaded them in the trunk of his car and went to all the giftshops and bookstores in Southern Arizona, but they wanted too much of the profits so he figured there had to be a better way.

In 1989 he moved back to his boyhood home of Bisbee and that’s when the simple sales plan came to him. He rented out space in the old J.C. Penney building for $100 a month and opened the “One Book Bookstore”, right next to a used bookstore on Main Street. He wasn’t worried about the competition because, as he said, they had lots of books to sell, he only had one. He was worried that he wouldn’t sell enough books to make the rent in that first month, but he did. By November 1990, when the “People” article appeared, he was in his fourth printing of the book and had sold 7,000 copies. Some say, that with his idea, he sold over 35,000 of the books at $19.95, and if he was in the store, he would autograph your copy for you and tell you more stories. The book includes 103 stories about Walter and Henry, his big brother of two years, “….growing up on the old family homestead in Cochise County when Arizona was an infant state.”

We went back to Bisbee many times over the years, and would always stop at the “One Book Bookstore” which grew into the “Other Book Bookstore” after he wrote “me ‘n Mamma” about Deloris and him raising eight children, and “An Old-Timers Cookbook.” There was also a book of children’s stories in there somewhere. Walter is no longer with us and the store has closed, but you can still find the book at online booksellers.

We didn’t lose a Mark Twain, but I will always remember how impressed I was that this man, sitting in his rocker, had came up with this simplest of sales ideas and made the book a success beyond anything he probably could have imagined. Between you and me, the book is really not very well written, but it’s heartwarming and I’m sure Walter Swan thought it was pretty darn good. And if you walked into 38 Main Street in Bisbee, Arizona, you couldn’t help yourself, you had to buy a copy.

I did hear back from Bruce at the Douglas Dispatch the following week. I was right, he wasn’t all that impressed with my writing job. He said they were going to hire someone from within “who already possessed the skills necessary to do the job.” I thought that was a little harsh, because, just like Walter, I thought the stuff I wrote was pretty good, and somebody ought to buy it. Got to find me a small tourist town where I can open up a “One Book Bookstore.”

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Can Tell A Tree Branch From A Deer For Chrissakes!

The fog was thick and heavy in the valley. We could see maybe 50 yards at best and it showed no signs of lifting. It seemed to be getting thicker as we walked. It was 5:30 in the morning, late October, and cold, to me, really cold. I was standing there worrying about how long I would still be able to feel my feet, wishing with all my fifteen-year-old heart that I was still in bed.
Still I was forcing myself to listen for any movement, any sound. A twig snapping or leaves crunching under an animal’s hooves that would spring me into action. I was ready. All I could hear was the soft rustling of the Aspen trees.

“Not going to see much in this soup,” my Dad said, breaking the icy silence.

He had been planning this father-son excursion for many weeks and the weather was not making him happy. He usually walked in front of me, so I rarely heard what he said. He would occasionally turn back towards me when he said something so I wouldn’t have to answer the standard, “yeah, I guess.” This particular time he turned around and looked at me, maybe just to make sure he could still see me in the fog.

Valley fog, as this is called, is a result of heavier cold air settling into a valley, with warmer air passing over the mountains above. Fog like this can stay for several days depending on the conditions, so it wasn’t like the sun was going to automatically “burn” this off, but my Dad said it anyway.

“It’ll burn off when the sun gets up and we warm up some,” he said.

It wasn’t my first hunt, although this was the first time out that I could remember where it was just me and my Dad. I was gingerly carrying a thirty aught six pointed correctly toward the ground in front of me, the way my father had taught me. I always thought you walked with the gun slung over your shoulder, I mean it does have a “shoulder” strap, but my Dad insisted the safest way to carry a loaded rifle was by holding it under the stock and point it toward the ground. Personally, I thought it might improve the chances of shooting one of our feet off, but I didn’t argue. My Dad obviously knew. He had made many “safe” trips into the mountains foraging for food.

I had no desire to be a hunter, never have. I still don’t like the taste of wild game. I understand the logic of hunting seasons. Without this human intrusion into the wild to cut down the populations of deer and elk, the limited food supplies in the winter would not be enough to sustain the growing herds. Killing actually guarantees survival of the majority. It’s simple management of a natural resource—and commonly referred to as “sport” in northern Wyoming.

Every Fall, thousands of gun-totting, Jim Beam-swilling, Coors (pronounced Curs)-drinking marksmen, true macho men, head for the foothills in search of deer, elk, bear, rabbit, pheasant, duck and other assorted “natural” food sources. They get drunk, lost, cold and sometimes shot at. They walk for miles chasing and circling an animal that’s often been through this before and somehow knows the game. I figured the deer could spot us pretty good too since we were all wearing bright orange vests or hats, the purpose of which was to reduce the possibility of other hunters shooting us, since, of course, deer don’t wear vests or hats. I didn’t learn until later that deer only see in black and white, so bright colors don’t matter much if you’re trying to hide from a deer, only if you’re trying to be seen by other hunters.

If you manage to “bag” one of these animals, it must, of course, be gutted. This is a totally disgusting exercise for most of us I would think. I know it was for me. I could barely stand to gut fish. This “gutting” is done out in the wild which, two-fold, serves as a food source for scavengers, and lowers the weight of the carcass making it easier to haul out of the forest. If you haven’t had the pleasure of gutting an animal, particularly a deer, consider yourself lucky unless your future dream is to be, maybe a surgeon, and warm, steamy, sticky blood and entrails doesn’t faze you much. I found that it generally made me throw up in my mouth.

Then you have to haul, mostly drag, the corpse through miles of freezing forest. Up hills that didn’t look so steep going down, and thrown in the back of a pick up truck, or slung over the fender of the car in transit to its final destination: the garage.

Here the hunter’s prize is hung to “age” the meat, but it’s real purpose, I think, is to show it off to the neighbors who haven’t or didn’t get a deer this season, and to drive the neighborhood dogs into a frenzy. I hear it a lot, but “aging” doesn’t sound like a good thing for something generally refrigerated to keep it fresh. None of these deer carcasses, hanging around in the neighborhood garages, were in refrigerators, but I guess it was cold out most of the time.

In order to get home to the garage, you have to first pass a Forest Service check-point where a government employee, getting double-time for working on a Sunday, confirms that you have indeed killed and gutted an animal that you have a permit to kill and gut. Not a mule, horse or cow, for example. Trust me, it happens.

There was a song out there back in the 60s, written by singer song writer, Doug McGuire, titled “Bernard the Mule”. I doubt that it was ever on the top 100, but it always made me remember those hunting trips with my father.

“Way up in Wyoming where the weather was cool, Up on the mountain stood, Bernard, the mule.”

Then in the chorus, “Oh Bernard, I’da never turned you loose. If I’da thought, Bernard, they’d mistake you for a moose.”

The song nears its end where the government employee at the check point sees that the California hunter, who has probably never seen a moose before, has done shot hisself a mule. He looks at the shoes, the brand, and the government number stamped on him, and “he smiles and says ‘Got some mighty fine meat!”

I mean the mule is already dead and slung over the fender of the truck so there isn’t much the game warden can do. Anyway, it’s rumored to be based on a true story, and Davie Coulter whose name appears in the song as saving “Bernie’s rear from a dog-food can”, actually is/was alive and well in Wyoming somewhere. (I’m doing this all from memory. I know the song by heart. I used to sing it every time I had a few drinks and wanted to humor myself more than those in attendance. A few years ago I found a copy of the original 45 rpm record, online, and had to have it. Yes, I have something to play it on.)

Anyway, like I said, I had no desire to be a hunter, but I was 15 and this was Wyoming. It was necessary for the attainment of manhood. My eyes scanned the lower tree line. My feet were turning into solid blocks of ice and I was silently cursing myself for not putting on that fourth pair of socks. Then I heard it, a couple of heavy thumps and the snap of a twig. Off to the left, just back of where we had come.

I touched my Dad on the shoulder and he swung around. “You hear that?” I whispered. You always have to whisper. Deer can’t hear humans whispering.

“Hear what?” He said. His response wasn’t a whisper.

“Those twigs snapping and that clumping sound, it was definitely a deer. Something back by those trees over there. Yeah, look I see it?” I was still whispering.

He followed my extended arm. “I don’t see anything. Where?”

“Right there. See?” I pointed again, starting to get a little agitated.

The shape of a magnificent buck, the one from “Bambi”, was standing just out of the tree line. He was standing proudly, just visible through the fog, his nostrils flaring, sniffing for the telltale signs of humans with guns.

“Do you see ‘em, Dad? He’s gotta be an eight-pointer! Six-pointer at least.” I whispered again, but a little louder due to my excitement at spotting the animal in the distance. It’s hard to whisper when you’re excited. A six-point buck, for those uninitiated, is a good-sized male deer with three brow tines on each antler. One who has made it through a few hunting seasons in order to grow antlers that size. An eight-pointer, even bigger, and older.

“I don’t see a damn thing. Are you sure?” He still wasn’t whispering.
Well, I didn’t think I was hallucinating this buck, but I might have been. In preparation for my shot, I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and looked through the scope. The buck was there, lined up in the cross hairs.

“Whoa,” my Dad finally whispered, stating toward me. “Are you sure it’s a deer?”

I shook my head in affirmation and sighted the buck again. He had turned his head to the right and I brought the sight lines just below the base of his skull. I was certain he was looking right at me. You know how when you look at someone through binoculars and you swear they looked right at you but they couldn’t possibly have seen you with the naked eye? The buck didn’t budge. He probably figured out what he had walked into by that time and didn’t figure there was much he could do about it but hope I missed.

My Dad was watching me carefully. “Go ahead,” he said, “if you’re sure. Don’t jerk it.”

I slowly squeezed the trigger. You have to squeeze the trigger or the rife will jerk up and you’ll miss. The still, morning air, was shredded by the sound of an explosion. The rifle slammed into my shoulder so hard I had to choke back a cry. You don’t cry on hunting trips.

When the last echo of the rifle shot subsided I looked to where the buck had been standing. I didn’t see anything. No deer body writhing in pain on the ground by the tree. No deer blood. No deer brains splattered on the tree trunk, nothing. I was secretly glad. Almost within the same instant of squeezing the trigger, I wondered how I would have felt had I killed the animal.

“Well, let’s go have a look,” my Dad said.

He found the bullet lodged in the tree about three feet higher than the head of an average buck. At least I had hit the tree. Not bad, I figured from that distance.

“Missed him, I think,” he said.

“Scope must be off,” I said. It was the only possible explanation you see.

He checked the area around the tree explaining that he was looking for any signs that I might have wounded the animal. You didn’t let any animal go off and die if you were the one responsible for shooting it. You had to track it until you finished the deed. That was humane.

My Dad reached up and broke off a “six-point” branch off the tree. It looked remarkably like a deer antler.

“Think this is your buck?” he asked.

“No.” I said it with some manner of indignation. “I can tell a tree branch from a deer for chrissakes.”

“Watch it son,” he warned. “Okay, let’s work this area a little, but if you missed him we probably won’t see anything around here for hours now with all the racket”.

He was a little upset with me for ruining his chances of getting a deer on that particular morning. If you shoot, you don’t miss, I guess. And if you don’t miss there’s no need to carry all that extra ammunition either. After all, he never saw the buck. If he had, I would never have been allowed to take that shot. He would have been all over it for a trophy with them kind of braggin’ rights.

“My feet are freezing,” I whined, wishing he would call the whole thing off and we could just go home.

He reached into an inside vest pocket and pulled out a fifth of whiskey and screwed off the cap.

“Try this,” he said, and handed me the bottle.

“I grabbed it and gulped down a big swig of the golden brown liquid, just like I’d seen him do many times. My stomach instantly burst into flames.

“Take another,” he said with a small smile curling his lips.

“No thanks, I’m good,” I choked out. “I feel better now.” I added that last part so that he wouldn’t think that I wasn’t tough enough to take it. My feet were still cold and my stomach was smoldering. I felt a little like throwing up.

My Dad took an ample swallow from the bottle then slid it back into his pocket. He took a cigarette from the pack in his vest, and tapped the filter end on the side of the box a couple times, and put it in the corner of his mouth. He cupped a lighted match in his hands and the cigarette glowed red. He crushed the match out on the ground by twisting the toe of his boot so the match was safely out and buried under the soil. He dragged heavily on the cigarette and exhaled smoke mixed with his breath into the cold air. Standing there in his gray felt cowboy hat with the cigarette hanging from his lips, I couldn’t help but think that he looked like he belonged there, a true Wyoming hunter, even though he had been born and raised in Long Island, New York.

I, on the other hand, knew with some degree of certainty that I belonged back home in bed.

“Better get on after that buck,” he said.

We never saw another thing all day. The fog lifted, after the sun got higher in the sky, and I still have my feet.

I let my Dad read this story once, years later, and he returned it to me saying “I’m sorry you had such a bad childhood.”

I asked him how the hell he got that from this story.

“I’m just sorry,” he said.

I think he was just sorry I hadn’t gotten that buck.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Massacre at the Zooseum

A hideous scream pierced the morning air. It sounded like Connie, and it came from the direction of the shed on the back of the Davidson’s property. Dan and I took off at the same instant, racing each other to the sound of the scream. Connie was his sister. I liked her, but she was a girl for one, and we were only nine and a half at the time. We were also first best friends, and it wasn’t cool to have a crush on your first best friend’s little sister.

When we got there, the door to the shed was open, and Connie was standing outside with her hand over mouth pointing. Not saying a word, just pointing at the door. A look of total shock and disgust registered on her pasty-white face. I looked inside first, taking a cautious step forward.

In the dim slivers of light passing through the cracks in the wall boards, what I saw was horrific. Oh my god, the butchery. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Heads, arms, and legs, strewn about everywhere. Blood covered the wood plank floor.

The frogs had clearly suffered a horrible death. The snakes didn’t fare much better. Dead frog bodies were everywhere littered with sections of garter snake. The bull snake was no where to be found.

“Danny, you have got to see this,” I screamed back through the open door. “I don’t see the bull snake.”

When we were kids, there never seemed to be a lack of interesting things to do. We didn’t have video games, computers, or cell phones and we only had three channels of television, THREE, (Yeah, I know, you’ve heard that all before), but somehow we were always busy doing something, inventing things, having adventures. I guess if you think about it, our adventures as kids ended up being the video games of the future. We’re to blame for it. Kids don’t have imaginations anymore because they don’t need one, we supplied it for them.

In the summertime, we were up and out at sunrise and tried to stay out even after the sun had been down for hours. Sometimes our moms would forget what time it was because they were involved in watching the Barbara Stanwyck Show or Bonanza. The rule was you could stay out until you were called in without penalty.

Baseball at the school yard was an every day affair, early in the summer. We had rafting adventures down the Big Horn River. We rode our bikes everywhere. Building soap-box racers and risking our lives rolling them down Thurmond Hill …in traffic, kept our attentions for a time. We flew kites and played hide-and-go-seek in the dark. We nailed our sister’s skates to the bottom of planks and invented skate boarding. (All right, we didn’t invent skateboarding, but we we’re on the cusp.)

We made submarines, and space ships out of refrigerator and washing machine boxes. We’d steal them from behind the Sears Outlet and Montgomery Ward, and the appliance dealer on Main Street. They were probably glad to get rid of them. Our parents, on the other hand, wanted to kill us because the garage would fill up with boxes connected together on the floor. In time they would be abandoned as we moved on to something else.

We turned the back stoop into a PT boat and played “PT109”. How do you turn a back stoop into a PT boat? With a refrigerator box and some imagination. “Combat” was a big show on television in 1962 and our prized possessions were tommy guns that you pulled back a lever on the side and locked it. When you pulled the trigger it would sputter like a tommy gun. If you owned a tommy gun you could play Vic Morrow’s character, Sgt. Chip Saunders. Or you could be the Lieutenant. They sold entire Combat “kits” at Woolworth’s, which included the tommy gun, a German luger, a grenade, a holster, and some other things. We couldn’t afford those although we wanted one. If you had a BB Gun you were just one of the squad or a sniper. We would kick open garage doors in the alley looking for Krauts and hang out in the trees as snipers. When you shot someone that didn’t know you were up in the tree, they had to be told they were dead. Then they were either out of the game or had to become someone else. Being a sniper wasn’t all that exciting, mainly because no one would agree that they were hit.

In the winter, we flooded our backyards and had our own ice-skating rinks, we built snowball forts and raged snowball fights for hours until our fingers felt like they were going to break off in our gloves and mittens. We would climb the snow mountain in the street left by the snow plows and the front loader at the intersection of Brooks and Works Streets. They hauled all the snow off of Main Street and piled it in the intersections a block behind. It was a great climb and you could see for blocks up there. But we weren’t allowed to be up there in the street with cars going by, and we always seemed to get caught. That’s the route my Dad would walk home from work, and he would inevitably get off early on the days we were climbing “Mt. Everest.” We never wandered far from home, but there was enough to do in a few block radius, that we didn’t have to. I hardly see anyone playing outside in the Winter anymore.

Earlier that summer of the massacre, we had used the shed at the back of the Davidson’s property to form a repretory company. First we had had to clean it out. I’m not sure we ever got permission to use it, but Danny’s mother wasn’t one to stop creative urges in their tracks. We turned a huge, old dresser on it’s side to make a stage, and hung curtains made from old blankets and rope. The theater was complete with a ticket booth and folding chairs for the audience. All things we had found in the shed in the first place. It had a door and two windows in the front for light.

We put together a musical, the five of us, using the lyrics from “Que Sera, Sera” a song from the 1960 film “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” starring Doris Day and David Niven. I’m not making this up. We probably had just seen the movie recently at the drive-in, and my mother had all the Patty Page and Doris Day records, so I knew the song by heart. Besides, all us little boys were in love with Doris Day.

We took the lyrics, “When I was just a little girl (changed that to boy since I was the lead) / I asked my mother, what will I be / Will I be pretty (changed that to handsome), will I be rich / Here's what she said to me. / Que Sera, Sera,/ Whatever will be, will be....which is the literal translation I guess. For the uninitiated it sort of sounds like “kay sa raw, sa raw.” We had a bi-lingual production. Trendsetters.

If you’ve ever heard the song, it has three distinct verses that match three distinct points in someone’s life; when they’re little, when they’re in love, and when they have children of their own. Perfect three scene musical, chorus in the middle for scene change. So we wrote the “book,” using the song, and voila, we had our own musical, “Que Sera.” I still have no idea how we came up with this, but I swear we did. We had a rope swing hung from the ceiling, we had “trees”, we had costumes for each scene,”casting” found us a couple of little brothers and sisters in the neighborhood for the final scene.

Remembering it now, it seemed like we were in pre-production for weeks, but in reality the show opened and closed the same day. We generally didn’t stay focused on any one thing too long. We started preparations, set construction, and rehearsal at around nine in the morning. We rounded up all the mothers in the neighborhood for the one o:clock show, and fifteen minutes later took the final bow to standing ovations, and closed the theater company. The next day we had a new idea.

My first best friend and I had been down in the Gully. Just in case you don’t understand what a “first best friend” is, I’ll throw in here that I had a “second best friend” and a “third best friend” for that matter, and so on. It was really hard to define, when you’re nine and a half, who your “best” friend really is. But it was somewhat of an honor to be a “first best friend”, although that designation could change quickly depending on which best friend you were with. If you slipped up and called your first best friend, your third best friend by mistake, you can see how that might be a problem.

I wasn’t allowed in the Gully, but Danny seemed like he could pretty much go where he wanted, or so it seemed to me then, so I always had to go. I couldn’t stand there and say something like, “I’m not allowed in the Gully.” That wouldn’t fly. They’d say something like, “I’m not allowed to go there either, but I’m going. Come on.” What can you say to that anyway?

Danny would ask to see your hands, and if they were smooth and soft he would call you a sissy. He’d show you his rough and calused palms and tell you that’s how a boy’s hands ought to look. He said it showed you worked with your hands. I used to rub my hands in dirt to get that rough and calused look. Now I kind of wish they were less rough, cracked and calused. Anyway, when you’re not allowed to go somewhere, and you’re a kid, you’re pretty much going to go there anyway. It’s an automatic. You don’t want to appear to be a sissy. When you’re a kid, you can’t see the dangers that lurk behind cool places like the Gully.

The Gully ran behind our houses and separated us from the cemetary on the far side. If you walked off our back yards down the hill, you would come to some thick vegetation created by the stream that ran through the middle of it. Once you got inside those trees and brush it was a like the Hundred Acre Wood. A totally different, wild, world, with a brook that ran through the center, gurgling and splashing over rocks. There were little ponds full of frogs, and garter snakes slithering along the paths. There were other more dangerous things too, like the stash of nudie magazines we had found and the packs of cigarettes, and once we even found cans of beer cooling in the stream. And sometimes, you ran into the owners of those things, and you had to hide or even run for your life. In short, The Gully, was a perfect place for adventure.

It was the morning following the Opening Day and Final Run of “Que Sera” that we decided to turn the shed into a combination zoo and rock museum. We could charge admission and make some extra money. I had a rock collection that I had gotten for my birthday, that consisted of a one inch thick black box that was segmented with little cardboard walls making an equal number of two-inch squares. Glued inside each of the squares was a small sample of a type of rock and a label. There was a small chunk of bituminous coal, for example, some red shale, a piece of rose quartz, an agate, a piece of iron ore, and others. Twenty in all.

The best sample was the fool’s gold, or the mineral, pyrite. That’s what the label said. It looked just like a gold nugget and we could easily see how a miner could mistake it for the real thing. We had each tried to bite on it like we’d seen in the movies. We didn’t have any idea what that was supposed to accomplish, but it had required me to break it loose from the box of course. Let’s just say the only thing left of the fool’s gold in the rock sample box was the label and some dried glue, having long ago disappeared into the alley gravel on my way home from school. We walked that entire distance, back and forth to the school, three times and never saw the fool’s gold again. We wouldn’t have been very good gold miners I guess. Or maybe not very good fool’s gold miners, which was okay.

So we had originally headed for the Gully to find more rock samples for the rock museum. Maybe a big chunk of granite, or……then Dan spotted the frogs.

“I got an idea,” he says, “we could make us a zoo and a museum. We’ll call it a Zooseum.” I could have been the one who came up with the idea to name it a Zooseum, but I’ll give Danny the credit. He caught most of the frogs.

So that is how the Zooseum came about. We headed back up the hill to his house to get us a couple of buckets and headed back down to the Gulley to catch us some frogs. Within an hour we had over twenty of the critters of different sizes in the bucket with a piece of wire screen and a rock over the top of one. And Danny was agile enough to catch two garter snakes, one of which wiggled so much to get away that a portion of his tail broke off. We re-captured him a little while later and he was immediately named “Tail-less Ted”. Then we spotted the bull snake, which had just moments before scared the shit out of me.

Most bullsnakes have a bad attitude. When encountering something as large as a human, they will go into attack mode, raising up and back tracking in a menancing way. In fact they look a lot like a Diamondback rattlesnake. And while all of that is happening and you’re waiting to be bit and die, you’re not listening for the telltale rattles. Danny came in from the back and snatched the snake up off the ground holding it up and and away from him. Now a bull snake can, and often does, exceed 8 feet in length, but this one was a youngster, maybe three feet long.

“Man, how cool. Now we have a bull snake for the zooseum,” he said.

“Yeah, I said, “what are ya going to put him in?” One bucket had the frogs and the other bucket had the two garter snakes.

“You carry the buckets and I’ll carry the snake. Or you can carry the snake,” and he thrust it out towards me. I withdrew, trying not to act to fearful (that would be sissy) and picked up the buckets.

Bull snakes eat by constriction. In layman’s terms, they choke the shit out of their prey, then swallow it whole. They have this lump the size of whatever they’ve eaten, a short distance down from their heads, that stays there until the snake digests the food. Pretty cool process for a zooseum. You could throw a frog into the cage with the bull snake and watch him murder and eat the thing……for a small admission fee, of course. Bull frogs like small mammals too, like mice, and rats. One of the reasons it’s probably a good idea to keep one around your yard.

We had the materials from the shed cleaning earlier, to build a cage with wire mesh and some scrap lumber. We even found some hinges to hinge the lid, and soon we had our live snake display. “Sammy” was in a bucket with a screened lid waiting for his new home to be finished. I’m not going to take credit for naming him Sammy, but I’m sure I did. Tail-less Ted and Gertie (Get it? Gertie the garter snake.) were in the other bucket waiting for a cage completion, and the dinner (the frogs), were in yet another bucket. We hadn’t figured out what type of display we were going to build for them yet. It was going to take more than some wire mesh and two by fours.

Now with the igneous rock display (those are fire-formed rocks like obsidian, rhyolite, basalt), some minerals, a few arrowheads, and the “zoo” animals, or more accurately reptiles, we were ready to open for business. Same ticket window as the one-run musical.

But by the time we had finished the snake cages, we heard the shrill of the whistle. The whistle was the neighbor kids’ father. They were too young to play with Danny and I, (although they did have that supporting role in the musical production) and we didn’t want to get too friendly with them anyway because they were just going to be there for the summer. The neighbor and his family were from Champaign, Illinois. We found that weird because he was only renting the house from the real neighbor, some grumpy old guy, just for the summer. We weren’t versed on time-shares, or house-swapping, or whatever they were doing, we just knew the summer family wasn’t related in any way to the grumpy old guy and we had no idea where he had gone for the summer. We didn’t think Sheridan was all that wonderful of a place to spend a summer anyway, if one had a choice.

Anyway, blowing the whistle was how he signaled for them that it is was time to come home. He would blow three times on the silver whistle and they would come running within seconds. For the rest of us it became kind of a warning signal that our moms would be calling us soon. So when we heard the whistle we started packing up and securing the zooseum for the night. And by securing it, I mean we pulled the door shut, put the clasp on it and put a padlock on the door. Danny had the key around his neck on a shoestring. Minutes later my mom called us in for supper.

What suddenly became the biggest mystery, while we were standing there trying to calm Connie down and figuring out how we were going to dispose of the bodies, was how did the door get open. We had both seen to the locking of the door and there was no way to get in otherwise, even for a cat or whatever else might want to tear apart a frog for fun.

“Who unlocked the door?” I asked nobody in particular. “Didn’t we put the padlock on it last night?”

“What’s going on out here? What’s all the screaming about?” It was the older sister. Two years older than me and almost a teenager at 11 and a half.

“Mom sent me to find out what’s going on.” She added that as though it gave her some authority to be there, even though, most of the time, we didn’t want her to be there and Mom never sent her.

“Somebody killed the frogs,” Danny said.

Her surprise response, “What frogs?” So we showed her, and she screamed. It was a sissy scream. Which was fun. And then she ran off to report to Mom what we were doing, which would surely be embellished.

Danny and I examined the clasp where the padlock was still hanging and locked. The other part of the clasp was on the open door.

Later, much later, after thorough discussion, we surmised that, although we had closed the clasp, we inadvertantly had slid the padlock behind the hinged part of the clasp and locked it without really securing the door. So any bump against the door, or even the wind, could have forced it open easily. Maybe. It wasn’t concrete evidence, it was clearly circumstantial. (By “much later,” I mean, High School.)

The murder, though, was never solved. We suspected Connie’s cat, Muffin, but there was no blood evidence. Cat’s clean themselves pretty good so the lack of evidence wasn’t all that surprising. It would have taken her a while to commit the slaughter so we figured the time of death to be somewhere around 1:00 a.m and 8:00 a.m. when the carnage was discovered. Sammy, the bull snake, was never found. He probably took the opportunity to escape his captivity and headed back to the Gully where he lived to be eight feet long.

We shoveled and swept the bodies into the trash and closed the Zooseum for good. The summer went on and we moved on to other adventures.

Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” Back on those summer days, I think we should have saved up some of that talent to use later on.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Do Squirrels Fart?

I saw a headline a while back that just amazed me. In fact I laughed so damn hard the first time I read it, I almost couldn’t stop. Actually it was a guffaw, I guess, as laughing goes.

“President Obama Defends American Wars While Accepting Nobel Peace Prize.”

I almost guffawed as much when I heard that he was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They reworked it a little, later in the day, to this:

“Nobel-Winning Obama Defends War In Call for Peace.”

In the first place, I didn’t know I could win the Heisman Trophy if I was just a spectator in the stands, but apparently I can win the Nobel Prize in Literature without writing much more than this blog, or, more literally, just thinking about writing it. Which would equally correspond to the amount of effort President Obama has made in the direction of world peace. But I digress. How in the hell can you defend war while accepting a PEACE PRIZE?

The world amazes me sometimes. The recent hullabaloo over the Arizonans protecting their borders by checking for proof of residency amazes me, for example. Oh my gawd the noise that created. Even before the bill was signed, President Obama was speaking out against it. But it was clear from the beginning that very few of the loudest pundits even understood what was in the bill. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 became law at 1:30 pm on the 24th of April, 2010 when Governor Jan Brewer signed it and suits were filed against the bill and it’s constitutionality at 1:31 pm. I don’t think any of the protestors in front of the Arizona Capital Building that afternoon had even read it at all. In the crowd’s defense, I don’t think it was widely available in Spanish yet. So word of mouth and the New York Times had distorted it to the point of ugly.

“The law, which proponents and critics alike said was the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police the broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status.”

Thank you, New York Times, April 23rd, 2010. (Who writes this stuff? Have you ever noticed that almost every paragraph in the Times ends with an editorial opinion in some form?)

Opponents were even comparing this to the internment of the Japanese during World War II. Like that had any basis for comparison to this, whatsoever. Most of the Japanese were not only legal immigrants, but most were born here.

What the bill did, simply, so you’all can understand it, was make it a state crime to be in the country illegally, just the same as it is a federal crime. Nothing new, same policy we’ve had forever, just allowing local law enforcement to be able to enforce it. See, police officers in a state with an estimated 460,000 undocumented immigrants (according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, my favorite oxymoron next to “military intelligence”) couldn’t enforce federal immigration laws. They were actually under policy to let them go even if they were sure they were illegally in the country. Seriously.

Now, under the new law, they have to ask for your DRIVER’S LICENSE if you’re stopped for any violation. Excuse me, but doesn’t this sound familiar? If you don’t have a driver’s license, you’re probably not here legally especially if you appear to be of Mexican (okay, we’ll use Hispanic if that’s more PC) descent, can barely speak English and do so with a heavy accent, and are in the state of Arizona. The only other reason you wouldn’t have your license is because it’s been revoked for some reason, or maybe you left your wallet at home. So now the Police and Sheriff’s Deputies are going to ask you for an alien registration document, or a passport. Again, it is illegal to be in this country without the proper documentation. Why the hell is that a problem? By the way, you’ll also be cited for driving without a license, you better have proof of insurance, don’t smoke in the Police Station, and why the hell do people in this country think driving is a right and not a privilege? .

It was already against the law in Arizona to knowingly hire illegal aliens (okay we’ll use “immigrants”) anyway. Now, you’re going to love this….

Ms. Jennifer Allen, Director of Border Action Network, (Wow, those initials are BAN, I wonder if they know that?) said on an NPR radio broadcast on May 13th, 2010:

“This bill is a fundamental – it’s an enormous affront on the basic rights and dignity that every person has in the state of Arizona, in the United States, and around the world.”

Holy shit. That’s big.

She goes on to say that the law is mean-spirited, unnecessary, and unconstitutional. Aw, I’m sorry it’s mean-spirited, but unconstitutional, are you mad? And, just to clarify, it was clearly and obviously necessary.

Of course the idea of passing this legislation is to save the state money from illegal immigrants tapping into the system for benefits like healthcare, and social security that they aren’t entitled, or, more accurately, have not paid any payroll taxes to support.

But Ms. Allen of “BAN” said, “It will, in fact, result in tens of millions of dollars of additional costs every single year for local law enforcement for training, for the court system, for the jails. It will require bringing on new public defenders, new prosecutors.”

Or, Ms. Allen, it might actually lower the number of ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS from Mexico that are in the state of Arizona, ILLEGALLY because it’s against the law. They won’t be saying, “No hara’ nada. Nada va a suceder. Vamos.” Loosely translated, “They won’t do nuthin’ to us. Let’s go.”

So that brings me to today’s question: “Do Squirrels Fart?”

This question was brought about by a widely distributed video of a squirrel saving the world. If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube and search “squirrel fart.” It’s a gum commercial from Europe, I think, and involves a farting squirrel putting out a very large fire because of the minty-cool flavor of the gum. Immediately, controversy arose over whether squirrels actually farted and, like, for gawd sakes if this was actually plausible. Really? How about the idea that gum would cause a squirrel to fart?

The consensus was that if it eats and poops, it farts, but it didn’t seem to be that easy. People on the answer sites were questioning the validity of the answers.

All mammals have the ability to produce flatus because of the micro-flora bacteria and yeasts living in the gastrointestinal tract. However, the main constituent of air, Nitrogen, makes up the primary gas that is released during flatulence. Carbon dioxide is also present, as is lesser component gases methane and hydrogen. These latter are extremely flammable which is why we can “ignite” our flatulence with a BIC. This can be very dangerous as seen in other videos you can find on YouTube.

Now, if you have even a limited amount of exposure to Chemistry, you should know that these gases are odorless. So why the hell does a fart smell so bad? Well a 1984 study revealed that sulfur-containing compounds like hydrogen sulfide (that rotten egg smell familiar in Yellowstone Park) is responsible for the smell. And humans fall somewhere in the top end of the smell meter, starting with animals like cows that don’t eat meat and working down to meat-eating species like cats and dogs. The smell meter is based primarily on what we eat. So vegetarians, although they fart, would likely think their sh.. didn’t stink. Do you know any vegetarians you could test this theory on?

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is working on a program to collect cow farts (methane) and convert it into a bio-fuel similar to natural gas. Just think…..transit buses running on cow farts. I’ll bet it will end up costing more than natural gas, but it has the added flare of reducing the methane emissions in the atmosphere. In other words, it’s a GREEN concept.

Well, again I digress. The bottom line, squirrels fart. It doesn’t smell up the forest, and the likelihood of minty-cool farts putting out a forest fire, well come on, did you really believe it was possible?

Actually, I guess, no more possible than Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while defending war, or Arizona passing a stricter immigration law without public dissent.