Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Neighbor's Dog

(I heard this story over the whine of a group of hundred-fifty horsepower electric motors driving the pumps that suck the water from the Snake River at the Dead Ox pumping station then sling it up through six-foot diameter piping and out onto the Oregon Slope onion fields north and west of Ontario, Oregon. The maintenance guy and I had just discussed the fact that neighbors don't seem to help each other as much as they did when we were kids.....)
"Neighbors. Takes all kinds of folks to be neighbors, and you never really know who is living down the lane there. I've moved around some, so I've had different types of people for neighbors, but the one I have now used to be about as different as they come.
"Let's call him Joe. Joe lives in a shotgun shack about a half a mile down a gravel road from our place, and to get to our house, you gotta drive past Joe's place. He moved in there three years ago last April. Lived all alone. Don't know exactly where he came from, but when he showed up he was packing Pennsylvania plates on a Pinto station wagon. He used to spend most of the day drinking on his porch.
"Two Julys ago I was coming home from town and spotted Joe sitting on the porch with his little white .poodle dog, so I slowed down and gave him a big wave, just being friendly, you know, never hurts. Well, I no more than got home than the phone rang, and it was Joe, telling me I had run over his dog. Now, I'm pretty sure I saw that dog up on the porch when I drove by, and I didn't feel any thumps or hear any yelps, but it is hard to be absolutely sure of anything nowadays, so I apologized for running over his dog and asked him if there was anything I could do for him.
"He said he wanted a new dog. Well, I just happened to have a friend across the valley whose bitch had dropped a big litter of poodle-type pups, and I told Joe that I'd do my best to get a white one for him. He said, nah, he didn't want another poodle, that he had his heart set on a registered German shepherd.
"If I had run over a dog at all, I'd run over a mongrel poodle, and substituting a pureblood shepherd seemed to me to be a little like him asking me for a new Cadillac after I'd dented up his Pinto, and I told him so. That didn't help a thing. Just gave him the idea to hit up my automobile insurance company for three hundred dollars for the poodle.
"It took the better part of a month for the insurance company to convince Joe that me and the dead dog, if there was one, had both been in a public road right-of-way when the dog was hit, that I hadn't actually driven up onto Joe's porch and run over the dog, and therefore the dog was in the wrong place at the wrong time to have anything to do with my liability insurance, and that, as a matter of fact, Joe, being owner of the dead dog, would be held liable for any damage to my vehicle.
"Joe took this as writing on the wall, and phoned me one night to say that he had decided that a little white poodle pup wouldn't be so bad afterall. By this time, of course, my buddy had given away all the pups. I told Joe that I figured that the dog question was a done deal and that I'd done all I could for him and apologized once again for hitting his dog, if I had hit his dog.
"Like I said, Joe was a drinking man, the kind that shifts gears on his personalities and gets awful uncorked at a certain point in his boozing. Fifteen minutes after the phone call, Joe was out on our front porch yelling to the high heavens about what a rotten, no-account bastard I was, about how he missed his dog, and about how he was going to take three hundred dollars out of my hide.
"I don't much cotton to anybody calling me names on my own property, so I popped on the porch light to make sure Joe wasn't packing a gun, then went out to meet him.
"Just about the time I was winding up to feed him some teeth, my wife came busting through the screen door, put both hands on Joe's chest, and rolled him off the porch, down five stairs, and into her little carp pond.
That puddle isn't but two feet deep, but Joe was too sloshed to know which direction was up and he went to flailing around like he had been thrown off a bridge into the Snake River. Mostly to keep him from beaching all the carp I went down off the porch, dragged him out of the drink, and set him on the sidewalk.
"Maybe Joe hit his head on the stairs on the way down, or maybe he saw his maker there in the fish pond, or maybe that was the last straw of some kind. Whatever it was, worked like shock therapy on him, cause Joe quit using booze that very night, and he has been the best of neighbors since then. Got a job, bought a horse, went to riding the high country with the search and rescue folks, and does real good at keeping up the fences between him and us. Even found himself a live-in girl friend. I gave them a pedigreed German shepherd pup last Christmas."

Lady and the Tramps

(I heard this story from a one-eyed horseshoer in the Salmon River country of central Idaho. He and I were leaning into the campfire about midnight after three days of drinking beer and swapping lies. I don't remember the subject of conversation.)

"I've been riding, breeding, feeding, doctoring, buying, selling, and trading horses for forty years, and I've done pretty well by it. At least I've always had a few more horses than I could afford. Worst I ever got took in a deal, though, was when I got to messing around with improving the bloodlines of a dog.
"My wife brought home a little cocker pup looking like it came straight from Disney, all flop-eared and misty-eyed, so Carolyn called her Lady. When Lady wasn't more than about six months old, she came into heat. I just couldn't see putting a dog that young into motherhood, so we made a bed for her in our six-horse trailer, and fed her in there. Every cowdog in the county fought for the privilege of pissing on those trailer tires. Lady made it through that first heat a virgin.
"Six months later, the cowdogs started sniffing her butt again, so back in the trailer went Lady. I had been doing my homework, though. The neighbor up the hill had a male cocker, full in the chest, standing proud, a good prospective mate for Lady, but the damn thing was a housedog, and never left the yard.
"The third day Lady was in lockup, I took a ring of baloney and wandered along the property line between us and the neighbor, pretending I was doing some fencing. When the male cocker took notice of me and started yapping, I pitched a chunk of baloney his way. Pretty soon I had him down by our house, eating out of my hand. It was easy enough to pick him up and toss him into the trailer with Lady.
"A couple of hours later I spotted the neighbor man driving real slow down the county lane, whistling out of the car window, honking the horn now and then. When he came to our driveway, I wandered out and played dumb. No, sure enough hadn't seen his dog, what was it a cocker or something, must gone jackrabbit hunting, probably will come home before dark, that sort of thing.
"About that time, the fool dog caught wind of his master, or heard his voice, or recognized the sound of the car engine, and went to whining inside that horse trailer. All that metal just amplified that dog's voice, and the neighbor recognized the yelp, went gawking around, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from.
"I ran over to the trailer before he could figure things out, cracked the door, and out come Ace, I think his name was, went to licking the baloney smell off my hand, while Lady scooted by and ran around the corner of the house, two steps in front of a bob-tailed dingodog.
"I said, by golly, I sure didn't know how that dog had jumped up six feet through that trailer window, but that I did have a bitch in heat, and the power of sex was a wondrous thing, wasn't it? Being an animal breeder myself, I'd be more than happy to pay a small stud fee for the services of his animal, and I peeled off a ten and handed it to him. He was a little hesitant to take the money, but I insisted, so he tucked the bill in his shirt pocket.
"He gathered up his dog, crawled back into the car, fired up the motor, and, as he was backing out of the drive, he leaned out the window, kinda smiled, and told me that old Ace had been neutered for five years. Lady was spayed that September, ten weeks after she whelped a litter of dingo-cocker cross pups."

The Cow Palace

Five miles south of downtown San Francisco, within easy howitzer range of the Transamerica Pyramid, sits a monument to free-span roof systems called the Cow Palace..... a rectilinear barn, built before the rediscovery of the dome, with a main floor plenty big enough for a rodeo, circus, or monster truck crushorama. There is enough off-floor seating for, say, eight thousand folks. During my first full winter in California, I was inside the Cow Palace three times.
The Grand National Horse Show and Livestock Exposition is held yearly there. A few memories linger from my attendance of this event..........The Sons of the Pioneers, looking more like the Grandpas of the Pioneers, lowered from the catwalks on a swaying stage, singing "Cool, Clear, Water" while twenty roving bartenders, with icechests on their chests, worked the crowd, yelling "Beer, Cold Beer."........Monty Montana, straddling a bored paint gelding, twirling two ropes at once, and smiling too widely for the teeth to have been his own........Bobby DelVecchio, from the Bronx, New York winning the most cowpoke event of them all, bullriding......and Bud's Pride, touted as the first fertile Beefalo bull, (cross between a shorthorn and a buffalo) bringing a cool 1.3 million bucks at auction.
The second visit to the Cow Palace was for a performance by the Rolling Stones. Mick Jaegger made his entrance to the Cow Palace in the bucket of a black self-propelled cherry picker, dressed in a navy pinstriped, London-tailored, three-piece serge suit, no shirt or shoes, driving himself down the center isle of the floor, swooping way out over the fans as he sang "Lady Jane."
The third time came after I saw a sign-up sheet in the City Lights Bookstore for volunteers to set up folding chairs for a speech by E. F. Shumacher, author of Small is Beautiful. In the book, Shumacher sets out guidelines for minimalist lifestyles and voluntary simplicity, which is a reasonable enough idea unless you are already living too simply to be able to afford food. I did wonder why the Shumacher folks had chosen the Cow Palace. Maybe small didn't seem all that pretty when it came to book sales. I signed up. I wanted to look a bit deeper into the guts of the big old building.
I carried chairs until both hands were blood-blistered. Fifteen minutes before kickoff, when it was becoming evident that the one hundred voluntary simpletons in attendance were going to be rolling around in the big old building like BBs in a boxcar, I wandered out to the lobby to have a smoke. There I met Abraham, a beefy professional janitor, wearing a faded Cow Palace Staff vest, and nipping on a pint of mid-'70s Mogen David 20-20..
He poured a gulp of the syrup into a styrofoam cup for me We stood in the very same industrial-strength doorway through which Mick had driven his rock and roll contraption a month earlier. Five young devotees were arranging the stage. When it came time for the sound check, a short, eager woman took a microphone and began.... "To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler....."
Abraham took another slug of the Mad Dog, looked over at me, and said, "Ya know, ya learn something new every day on this job. I kinda figured this Small is Beautiful thing was going to be some kind of Midget Pride gathering, but, by God I always thought Willie Shoemaker was a man."

Somebody No Water Bamboo

(I heard this story on a bridge over La Honda Creek, in front of Ken Kesey's cabin.)

"Like, the sun was in late Leo/early Virgo the first time I saw San Francisco Bay. I came out of Denver in a drive-away four-door Buick, with my motorcycle took-to-pieces and wrapped in a tarp in the back seat. Everything else I owned was stuffed in the trunk and all around me in the front seat.
"The car was supposed to end up in The City, but I got a little too twisted out by Livermore somewhere and took the hundred mile longcut up and over Mount Hamilton. Anyway, I start coming up the east side of the Bay, and I know that this is where my home is going to be because I hit Fremont on a Sunday afternoon and right there by the freeway is, like, a full-tilt drag strip with, like, hundreds of far out cars and, I swear, right overhead are real gullwing gliders, man, cruising out over the Bay and landing beside the drag strip.
"So, before I turn in the car, I score a little house to rent in Menlo Park, by the cemetery. They'll rent right away to a Buick. I unload my stuff into the house, take the car into The City, put the motorcycle together, deliver the car to some Arab rental company, and putt back down the Bayshore to my happy little home.
"In just a couple of days, I score a job as veterinarian's assistant for a crusty old dude on El Camino in Mountain View. It turns out I don't mind shoveling dog manure, really, but I totally can not handle holding the dogs down while the Doc shoots them up to put them away. Something about their eyes.
"So I pull this trip where I tell the vet that California is just too much for me, that I miss my family and I'm headed back to Colorado, and can I please have my week's pay? This guy is so used to losing help that he, like, just writes the check. No deductions, no goodbyes, no nothing.
"There used to be jobs around every corner. On the way back to Menlo Park I see a Help Wanted sign. I park the bike and go over and read the fine print that says "Janitor needed, easy work, low pay", and gives this phone number, which I call and set up an appointment for an interview the next day at Lee Manor.
"Lee Manor is this hundred-unit, three-story, singles' cinderblock studio apartment thing, down by Bayshore in Palo Alto, shaped like a horseshoe, with a swimming pool in the middle and a rec room wedged into the open end. I stash the bike a couple of blocks away. You never know.
"The job interview was, like, the strangest of trips. This liver-spotted Chinese dude, Mr. Lee himself, is dressed like some kind of Sicilian gangster with a diamond stick pin and big gold pinky ring, sitting in the rec room. When I come in, he offers me a little plastic cup of chocolate pudding and we sit there eating pudding at this, like, church table, and he doesn't ask or say a thing, man, just stares at me, watches me eating pudding. I felt like a deer caught in headlights, man, until finally he says, like, 'Let us walk.'
"I walk, but he's like, ninety years old, and has those metal taps on the heels and toes of his wingtips, so he shuffles, and it is fingernails on the blackboard stuff. Sounds like somebody is dragging a refrigerator down the hall.
"So we are standing out by the pool, and he is waving his arms around his empire and telling me to watch the garbage, and skim the pool, and water the bamboo, (which are these little teenage bushes all around the pool) and paint the rooms every time somebody moves, and buff the hallways, and get three hundred dollars a month. Then he scrapes over to a Lincoln Town Car and peels out toward downtown Palo Alto. I'm hired.
"I never really figured out who it was that lived in Lee Manor. Nobody cares to meet a custodian. But, like, the first floor was mostly big brown guys from junior colleges, being fattened by Stanford as their football team of the future. Big guys produce big garbage.
"And the second floor was a crash pad for stewardesses working out of SFO. They were slobs, man. I mean flight attendants may be the super-tidiest of human beings when they are at work, but you put a couple of them in lounge chairs by the pool and they trash all of East Palo Alto with their damn hair spray cans and wads of Kleenex, then they barefoot it back to the apartment, man, and leave the mess for the servants. Litterers, man. Get out of the airplane and think the outside world is so big they don't need to deal with their trash.
"And then there was the Artichoke Woman on the third floor. I never saw her wearing anything but a pink chenille housecoat. I think she worked nights at Stanford Hospital or something. Anyway, she was goofy, man, like lived on some weird schedule where every Tuesday night she came home, ate artichokes, then tried to run the leaves through the garbage disposal. You can't do that.
"I didn't even know what an artichoke was, man. The first time I took apart her disposal and found all that fiber wrapped around the works, man, I seriously thought that this chick had, like, decided against hanging herself and had shoved the rope down the sink. The second time I ask her what she is putting down there, and she shows me, so we make a deal, man, and every Wednesday morning after that I pick up a little plastic sack of artichoke leaves from in front of door 329.
"First of October I come to work and there is Mr. Lee standing out by the pool and staring at the pool plants, which are nice and gold, like everything should be by the first of October, right? I'm from Colorado. The aspens turn in September.
"Mr. Lee looks me up and down, looks at the plants, looks back at me, back at the plants, then reaches into the breast pocket of his Taiwan suit coat, peels off three one-hundred-dollar bills, hands them to me, and dismisses me from his employ, right there. Says 'You are fired, Sir. Somebody no water bamboo.'"

The Singing Cowboy

Darius and I were in a motel room in Grand Lake, Colorado, waiting for the weather to come to its senses so we could pack into the high country. We were watching a Roy Rogers movie.
The battle to save the ranch was won. The greedy banker was in the hoosegow. Roy hooked his boot heel in the corral fence, the ranch hands took up their instruments, and they began to croon a eulogy to the western skies.
Darius wore a 36-inch inseam on his Wranglers and was a working rancher. He ambled over to the television and slapped the power button, then looked over at me and said, "You know, J. D., I don't know what I would do if anyone ever actually came up to me and sang right in my face."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fred the Dog

(I heard this story on the cemetery road above Cove, Oregon. We were on our way to visit the plot where Dewie Lovelace intended to spend eternity, and where I promised to retrieve a pint of whiskey from his funereal boots and pass it among the mourners.
There were four of us in the son Clifford, me, Dewie, and Earl Marshall, Dewie's lifelong cohort in seventy years of cowpoke pranks. Halfway up the hill, before we passed through the whitewashed bridge trusses that serve as portals for both burial grounds in that part of the Grande Ronde Valley, Dewie pulled his van to a whoa beside a grave that seemed to have spilled from the proper cemetery.
There, poking out of the cheatgrass and fescue, was a wreath of plastic petunias, a white cross fashioned from plaster lath, and a real marble headstone, bearing the inscription "FRED". Earl launched the tale.......)

"Yonder lies Fred, the best friend this town ever had. Come to town with a boy named Dixon who was jumping smoke over in La Grande but was living here, down behind the drive-in, a block off the school.
"Dixon, he was gone alot. Guess a smoke jumper's gotta show up for work even when there's two foot of snow on the Fourth of July. Anyway, Fred took to wandering while Dixon was away, took to walking the kids home from school. First he'd walk a pack of kindygardners home, then hustle back to school and pick up another bunch of kids, right on up through the high schoolers that didn't have cars.
"Fred was a big ol' red dog, kinda like a cross between a setter and a long-haired lab, with a wad of teddy bear throwed in. Slobbered some, but he was plumb gentle and kind. The kids loved him, and the town took him on as Cove's unofficial mascot.
"Like most of the townsfolks, Fred hung the saloon at night. He'd come over to your table and just stand there, until you put a dollar bill in his mouth. He could tell the difference between a real George Washington and a waitress' ticket. He'd carry the buck over to the bartender, put his paws up on the rail, and trade the money for one of those big ol' long pepperoni sticks. I watched Fred spend thirty-five dollars one Saturday night.
"It was a dark day for Cove, Oregon when Dixon got transferred down to northern California and took Fred along. There were ten people in town who wanted to run right to LaGrande to find a new town dog. They didn't have to bother. Turns out Fred didn't do anything down in California but get into trouble. They had a leash law down there and Fred cost Dixon six hundred dollars in runaway dog fines before he found a long-haul trucker who was heading this way and asked him if he'd take Fred home.
"We were all in the bar that afternoon when this great big shiny eighteen-wheel Peterbuilt hauling a reefer pulled into town, something that doesn't happen too often around here. Driver opened his door, and out poured Ol' Fred, knowing he was home. Boy, there was some celebrating that night.
"Max, down at the grocery, put a Mason jar by his cash register, unmarked, but everybody in Cove knew it was Fred's food fund. That jar always had at least twenty bucks in it. Fred was eating the best dog food they make. He had fifteen, twenty places in town where he'd curl up on a porch and sleep when he wasn't playing school crossing guard.
"Then one morning Fred came up dead. Folks took him to the vet's to see what had happened and Doc Bilger said that Fred had been poisoned. This town's had a dog poisoner in it for four generations. Nobody's ever figured out who it is. But I'll tell you, if you'da got caught with coyote bait in your garage about then, you'da got hung. As it was, the town kids toiletpapered the trees in the yards of the two prime suspects, but it is still a mystery as to who did it.
"So we took up a collection. Damn near half the residents of this town were for laying Fred to rest right up there in the real cemetery with the humans. Most of the dead folks up there weren't near as lovable as Fred. But the rest of the town figured we'd be starting a dangerous pattern and pretty soon we'd have cats and horses buried up there, and there just plumb ain't that much room left, so we found this little spot alongside the road. This way whoever killed Fred has to look at the marker every time one of their family passes away. Had the headstone shipped clear from Portland. Fred, he sure was a good ol' dog. Me, soon as we got Fred buried proper, I kinda stopped eating pepperoni sticks, just in case."

Einstein for Duck Hunters

Albert and I labored together on a project near Walden Pond, chopping Abraham Lincoln's wife's family farm into a subdivision. Al was seventeen, already a graduate student at MIT, working on mentally mutating a basketball into a donut without piercing the skin, and on a set of formulas that would predict the motion of an ice cube when dropped into a hot skillet. I was twenty-two, healing from a hasty marriage.
Al piled the slash in clearings, to be burned in the fall. I was the chainsaw operator, hacking a road right-of-way through old-growth hardwoods that Mary Todd had climbed as a little girl. During our first lunch together, I asked Albert what he had been thinking about while he was dragging brush. He said that he spent the morning determining that all humans on the planet would fit in a cubic mile box, which when dropped into a Pacific trench would have less than a millimeter's impact on sea level. Cheery stuff. In an effort to change the subject, I asked about his family background.
Al's father was an Italian immigrant, a student of Tesla's electromagnetic theories, who worked through the 1940's as a technician in the Princeton University laboratories during Albert Einstein's tenure there. He named his first son after Einstein.
I confessed my ignorance of the theory of relativity, figuring Al must have a handle on some of it. A duck flew by, headed for Walden Pond. Albert launched into a synthesis between hunting ducks and applying Einstein's theories.............
Einstein believed that the measurements of length, time, motion, and mass are not absolute, but depend on the relative velocity of the observer. If a hunter is standing in a duck blind and trying to kill a duck that is flying past, the hunter must lead the duck, shoot in front of it, so the shotgun pellets and the duck arrive at the same place at the same time. If the hunter is moving faster than the duck, from the back of a jeep for instance, the hunter must shoot behind the duck.
A single shotgun pellet, sitting on a duck's head, will probably not kill the duck, but if we grant the pellet a little velocity relative to the duck's head, the pellet picks up energy, and, in some sense, mass, so that at enough velocity the pellet-duck collision is fatal, usually to the duck.
Not everything is relative in Einstein's duck blind. We need an absolute for the purpose measuring degrees of relativity. The speed of light remains constant independent of the motion of the observer. If a duck is flying toward us at half the speed of light, with a flashlight taped to its beak, the light from the flashlight is going l86,282 miles per second. If the duck is flying away from us and shines the beam back, the light is still traveling l86,282 miles per second. All this somehow meant that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.
Late that fall, after I had taught Al about motorcycles and drugs and the smell of women, when the first snows fell, we torched the brush piles. We had stacked three of the largest on an ancient peat bog. The fires burned down into underground seams that smoldered for years, leaving much of the Todd estate useless for human housing.