I used to read a lot when I was a kid. Some of my favorite stories were about horses. Ironically, Ernest Hemingway was one of my favorite authors. I always resented the fact that Hemingway hadn’t written more about horses, and less about more boring subjects like bullfighting and boxing and wars and fishing. I bet if he had set his mind to it, he could have written a classic horse story.
Since he hadn’t written anything like that, though, I had to create my own equestrian adventures. I fantasized about finding a gorgeous unwanted horse that I could tame for myself after the mean rancher guy had failed. It would stare at me, ears perked, neck arched, nostrils flaring, expecting to be chased or beaten. But I would be patient. After a few days it would be eating out of my hand. A few days after that we would be galloping bare-backed across the countryside, boy and beast melded together in a heady camaraderie of mutual respect and eternal friendship. Every night when I knelt by my bed, I begged heaven to send a wild horse to my back yard. Any old Lippizaner or Sorraia or Posan would do. The truth was, though, that I would have settled for a 30 year old, toothless, worn-out draft horse.
I don’t know exactly when the dream began to fade, but once I got a job and a wife with the accompanying responsibilities, the keen yearning for a horse adventure attended me more and more infrequently. In fact, for the past several years, I hadn’t even thought about those delicious flights of fancy. I owe part of that to the three horses tromping around in my field. They have acquainted me with a less romanticized perspective of equine ownership–a perspective integrally tied to my dwindling bank account.
So I must say that the last thing I expected was to ever again experience the intensity of emotion invested in my prepubescent equine fantasies. Yet just the other day, out of the blue, my childhood dream unexpectedly popped out of the brush beside the four-wheeler trail just a stone’s throw from my house. There she was, wild and white, with ears perked and nostrils flaring, just like I had seen her in my daydreams. I went to my knees, gasping with the vivid shock of longing that belted me hard in the solar plexus.
I cannot describe what the next few minutes were like. Papa Hemingway would have been able to describe it for you if he were still alive. Too bad I can’t tell my story to him and let him seize your imagination in that inimitable way of his…
He was an old man who walked alone on the trail. He had gone forty-three years now without glimpsing a wild horse. For the first thirteen years, a boy had lived inside of him. But after thirteen years without catching a horse, his parents had told him that he was the worst form of daydreamer, and he had better get on with his life.
It made the boy in him sad to see the old man return from his walk each day with his dream empty. The old man would shuffle to the barn and take the soft rope halter down from its rusty nail. He had braided it when the boy’s hands were still smooth and pink, but it had never been worn. These days the old man would inspect the halter with deep-creased hands and then hang it back on its nail like a flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt in the shoulders with deep wrinkles in the front of his shirt where his pecs should have been. The sodden bulge of a developing paunch strained against the shirt buttons above his belt buckle. Everything about him seemed old and weary. The old man knew he was living on borrowed time but his eyes were not ready to give up yet.
There were a few leaves still hanging from the trees and the urgent wind of Alaska’s autumn made them shiver. He thrust his fists deep into his pockets and leaned forward into that wind as it came down from the mountains. He inhaled deeply, taking in the clean early morning smell of frost on dead fireweed stalks. A rose hip caught his eye. He felt embarrassed by its shriveled and misshapen tenacity, clinging to its naked branch so long after the first freeze. He picked up a stick and tried to knock it to the ground, but its stem was anchored deeply among the thorns and refused to surrender its grip.
The stubborn rose hip reminded the old man of himself. Why should he force it to give up? He tossed the stick away. From the patch of low bush cranberries where it landed four spruce chickens whirred up one after another into his face almost. Then they veered sharply away to land in a cluster of black spruce. From their perch they peered at the old man, heads bobbing at him in silent laughter.
The old man didn’t blame them. When you have lived as long as the old man had, you have a lot of fine things you can remember. When you think back over a cup of hot coffee on the things you have loved in life, your memories should bring you pleasure. Old men should be content with that. But all the memories that came dancing out of the crackling flames of his wood stove at the end of the day were not enough. He could not expect the mocking spruce grouse to understand why he could not contentedly fade away like everybody seemed to expect. He didn’t understand it himself. But the boy inside him knew. He was made to catch and befriend a wild horse. He needed that memory. That need kept him alive.
He pushed his fists back into his pockets and began to work his way down the trail, humming the theme from “Hidalgo”. The sun, rising thinly from behind the low mountains to the east, cast tree shadows like groping fingers against the frosted ground. In the fall the frost was always there and he did not give it any notice. Between the shadows the sun was warming the frost into fading tendrils of mist. Small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. Fifty yards ahead something moved in the brush. Then it stepped out onto the path. The old man stopped in mid-stride. There were two of them. A big brown one and a small white one. The old man went to his knees, gasping as the vivid shock of longing struck his stomach like a hard-fisted right hook.
When he could breathe again, the old man eased to his feet delicately and softly, and his left hand slowly began to unclasp the buckle from beneath the bulge of his paunch. He wished he had the bridle that hung in the barn on the rusty nail, but it was too far. There was no time. A belt would have to do.
The mare swung her head around to stare at him. The wind had backed into a little breeze that was blowing his scent away from her so that she was trying to identify him by sight. He stood still to let her look and he took a good look at her. He could see her long face tapering the wrong direction to a nose like a boxing glove. Gaping nostrils drooped over her front lip. She seemed to be made up of random parts of other animals. She had the beard of a goat, the legs of an arthritic giraffe and the shoulder hump of a grizzly bear. The old man couldn’t tell if she had any tail at all. The ears that were perked in his direction belonged to a mule. She was an exceptionally ugly horse and clearly her filly had inherited the same mismatched features. Any decent horse breeder would have shot them both on sight to prevent them from infecting his stock.
Yet it was just that outcast quality that stoked the fires of the old man’s boyhood fantasies. He would befriend this ugly little white filly who had been so misunderstood and rejected. Their souls would be joined in a mystic union of mutual respect and eternal friendship. The white filly’s mule ears were perked and her nostrils flared just like the boy inside him had seen in his daydreams. He had almost forgotten how much the dream could hurt. A chill still hung in the air but the old man felt the sweat trickle down the back of his neck.
“Little white filly,” he said aloud. “I am going to catch you. I am going to catch you or die trying.”
He shouldn’t have spoken. The mare flicked her ears twice and moved away across the road in a rollicking canter that was deceptively fast for such a comical gait. The filly went along, pressed against her left flank. The old man froze and held his breath. In the ditch on the other side of the road the horses stopped again. The old man exhaled softly with relief and scolded himself. Think of what you are doing. You must do nothing stupid. I wish I was a boy again, he thought. But you aren’t a boy. You are just an old man with a belt and it is up to you.
The mare was looking in his direction again. The old man’s thighs were cramping and his poised hand had begun to quiver with fatigue. He looked at his hand in disgust. What kind of a hand is that? He willed it to stop quivering. Cramp if you must. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good. You will remain motionless until I am dead if I ask you to. A raven came from somewhere behind him, tacking sideways in the wind. The old man could see that the bird was very tired. The raven settled in the ditch between the old man and the horses and began to strut back and forth, plumping his feathers. That seemed to comfort the mare. She abruptly flicked her ears again and began stripping the bark from a willow sapling. The white filly dropped her head and nibbled at something on the ground.
“That’s it”, the old man smiled to himself. “Keep eating. Don’t be shy, horses. Doesn’t that taste lovely? Eat it up now. ” He dropped to his hands and knees. The high shoulder of the road rose up to hide him from the suspicious mare. Steadily, the old man began to crawl, ignoring the rocks that tore his hands and bruised his knees. When he had reached the spot where the horses had crossed the road he raised himself up slowly and steadily.
The horses were just across the pavement from him now. Their rumps were toward him and now he could clearly see that they had no tails worth mentioning. Someone had trimmed them back until they resembled a Rottweiler’s tail. In fact their manes were gone too. Such human cruelty nauseated the old man. Once he caught the filly he could fix that. With enough love and oats and time the hair would certainly grow back.
He felt a surge of delight to be so close to his dream. For a moment he saw himself sitting on the filly’s back smacking that white rump with a cowboy hat, but he knew she would not let him do that. Not yet. I must convince her, he thought. I must never let her learn her strength nor what she could do if she took a dislike to me. He knew that it would be hard to sneak up on her. He would only have one chance. The old man fed the end of the belt through the buckle to form a noose. He let it slide, controlling the buckle with his forefinger and thumb until he had enough of a loop to throw over her head when the right instant arose.
The old man crouched to make himself as small as possible. He started to work his way across the road. It was easy to tiptoe quietly on the pavement, but when his feet crunched into the gravel shoulder the mare’s head swung around. Her ears probed and her nostrils quivered as she searched for him. The old man was off-balance and felt himself tottering. He had no choice but to shift his footing. In that moment, the mare licked her lips and the hair rose along the ridge of her grizzly hump. Then the mule ears flattened against her skull and she came at him with a rush. The filly bawled and scooted into the brush.
The old man saw the mare rearing above him, hooves flailing. In moments like that it is curious how a man’s mind works. The thing that he noticed was that her unshod hooves were in bad shape. The bottoms were deeply split all the way up to the fetlock. He didn’t have time to notice any more details. The hooves were coming down toward him then. He rolled beneath her belly, aiming for the gap between her hind legs. That was a mistake. The hind legs danced upon him with numbing blows to his ribcage and neck. The old man kept rolling. He had never before seen a horse that could kick all four directions at once. It was impossible to escape her fury.
The old man grew desperate. At this rate he would never be able to catch the white filly. Just then both of the mare’s rear hooves connected with his paunch. The impact lifted him clear of the ground and he closed his eyes against the pain as he tacked in the wind like the raven had done. He seemed to spin slowly through the air. Now she has beaten me, he thought. I am too old to catch wild fillies. But I will not give up as long as I have legs to run and arms to cast a belt noose. He had let go of the belt, though. As it turned out, he did not need it. He opened his eyes very wide as he felt a tremendous impact between his legs. It was the white filly. The old man had landed on her back.
The filly seemed to be as startled as he was. With a braying sort of bleat she started to run. The old man wrapped his arms around her neck and wove his fingers tightly into her dense white coat. She moved like a runaway rollercoaster, scraping the old man against birch trunks and shredding him through willow thickets. Still he hung on with teeth gritted, flopping against her hump. His face cracked into the back of her skull. He felt the cartilage sever in the bridge of his nose. The white of the filly’s neck was suddenly covered with a rush of crimson. A pink cloud seemed to pass before his eyes. The cloud was full of blinking spots. He felt something pluck at his collar. Then the daylight contracted into a bright white dot and went out.
He dreamed of vast herds of wild Lipizzaners thundering across the tundra. It was the time of their mating and they leaped high into the air and twirled in an awesome spectacle of synchronized dressage. Then he dreamed that he danced with them under the northern lights and the herd was nuzzling him and nickering soft greetings.
He woke with a jerk. The jerk was his neighbor who prodded him and asked if he was all right and why was he dangling all bloodied from a birch branch by his shirt collar. The old man felt faint and sick and could not see well. But he kicked out at his neighbor and the motion caused him to spin in a little circle. The spin twisted his collar onto the birch branch until he began to strangle and the pink cloud came back. The neighbor cut him down just before the bright white dot went out.
“Don’t sit up,” the neighbor said. He handed the old man a canteen.
The old man took it and drank from it.
“She beat me,” he said. “She truly beat me.”
“That was a big moose. I saw her. The albino calf too.”
The old man knew that the neighbor would not understand. He spat something strange and it felt like something in his chest was broken. He also realized that the boy inside him was dead. The boy’s dream was dead too.
“Can you help me back to my house?” he asked the neighbor. “I need a clean shirt and something to eat.”
Ten minutes later, in his house the old man was sleeping again. He was sleeping on his face and the neighbor was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming of butchering horses.
When I was a kid, I read a lot. My Dad was a pastor, and often during the week he would take me along as he went calling on members of his flock. I guess most kids would go crazy waiting for their father to be finished holding the hand of a bedfast octogenarian who was reciting her list of medications, as well as the names and life histories of her fifty-two great grandchildren. Not me! As long as the octogenarian owned a reasonably well-stocked bookshelf, I was content. When it came time to go I would have to be coaxed out of the corner where I had retreated into the imaginary world I had discovered within the pages of my book.
In a pinch, I could read just about anything: vintage issues of the Ladies Home Journal, Shakespeare, poetry, comic books, history, crock pot manuals, biographies, The Wall Street Journal, ghost stories, Chilton’s, the TV Guide… Once, while my Father was preoccupied with a marital counseling session, I rummaged around for reading material until I was lucky enough to discover a fascinating heart-shaped box tied with faded ribbon and full of yellowed letters.
Boy, did that box ever shed light on the dating habits of the counselees! It was nearly more than I could take. It did puzzle me, however; why two people who had called each other all those embarrassingly mushy names during their courtship would now require my Father’s intervention to save their marriage. I finally concluded that their change of heart had occurred simultaneously with the purchase of corrective lenses. Clearly, the physical attributes by which they had described each other in the letters in no way matched the balding plump couple my father was counseling. Once they had discovered their error, the shock must have been devastating.
At any rate, although I could read anything to kill time, my favorite genre was romantic swashbuckling adventure fiction. Show me a shelf full of The Hardy Boys, Sir Walter Scott, or Mark Twain and I was like an alcoholic in a brewery. When he finally found me, Dad would have to detox me by forcing me outside to ride my bike for an hour.
Of course, as strung out as my imagination was from all that reading, I never even realized I was on a bicycle. It was a Sopwith Camel, and I was Major William “Snoopy” Barker, hammering away with my Vickers machine gun at the Red Baron as we dogfought to the death, high above Britain. Or else the bike was a galloping destrier that I, the gallant Ivanhoe, rode with fixed lance down the list toward Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert as I strove to win the favor of fair Lady Rowena.
I experienced a phase during which I was obsessed with medieval adventures. Pirates were cool, and cowboys were neat, but there was just something about the middle ages that sent shivers up and down my spine. I guess it was the chivalry of it all—King Arthur and the Round Table, Sir George and the dragon, damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, looming stone castles with ivy-choked turrets where beautiful princesses were held captive…
Whenever I got an afternoon free to play with other kids, somehow we eventually wound up playing knights. The variety of ordinary household items that can serve as an improvised sword or shield is amazing. As the last beleaguered combatants would call a truce at the end of a backyard battle, the field of honor was frequently strewn with trash can lids, pointy sticks, hubcaps fitted with drawer-pull handles, yardsticks, pool cues, pipes, roaster lids, tire irons, sofa cushions, fireplace pokers, and an eyeball or two.
Unfortunately, mothers never appreciate the glory of such things. They always feel compelled to meddle in a boy’s good clean fun. One day the mother of Sir Rory of Boogerhead happened upon our battlefield before we had a chance to clean it up, sort out the eyeballs and return them to their owners. She took one look and fled shrieking back across the drawbridge into the castle where she re-emerged shortly with reinforcements. We rallied our troops and bravely defended our position that day, but, alas, we faced a superior force. The bleak terms of our surrender dictated that for the rest of our lives we were forbidden to participate in any form of play that involved sword fighting, on pain of flogging and banishment to the dungeon without any supper.
As you can imagine, our ability to slay dragons, rescue fair damsels, and fend off the barbarian hordes that threatened our kingdom became significantly curtailed for a while. For a week or so, we desultorily attempted to find something to do, but all efforts proved hollow and meaningless. Our mothers mocked us with sneering suggestions that we play softball, or fly a kite, or play with Legos, or build a model or throw a Frisbee or something, but we steadfastly resisted their efforts to enslave us with such mundane and loathsome tasks.
At length, noble Duke Josh DeDork struck upon a solution to our problem. “Did we not,” quoth he, “but swear to curtail our feats of armes with edged weapons?” That was true. “How now do we then sulk about like whipped curs, sith we be skilled, one and all, in sundry types of weaponrie?” The guy was a genius! Why hadn’t we thought of it before?
Immediately there was a mad rush as knight and footman, squire and knave dove for anything that would not technically qualify as a sword. Moments later, the delicious sound of battle rose once again above the towers of Camelot. The pipe that had been a falchion became a mace. The pool cue that had previously served as a claymore, now smote mightily as a quarterstaff. The poker broadsword was a war hammer. The tire-iron which in days of yore had cloven helm and shield as a barbarian scramasax, now struck fear into the hearts of its enemies when wielded as a spiked cudgel.
Some poet should write an epic about that battle. More blood was spilled, “time-out-no-faired”, and spilled again, than soaked the fields of Agincourt, Crecy, Tours, Towton, Hastings, and Bannockburn combined. Then disaster struck. Above the shouts of battle lust and the pitiful moans of the wounded, came a horrible roar from our flank. Both armies turned as one man to see the massed Mother infantry nearly upon us at full charge. Overcome with terror at the spectacle, I am ashamed to admit that we cast down our weapons and fled the onslaught.
Ruthlessly, the Mother horde hunted us down and drug us from our hiding places, callously ignoring our plaintive wails. Our calls for quarter fell on deaf ears. The retribution they meted upon us was an awful thing to see, but more awful yet to experience. For what seemed like years afterwards, I remained a forgotten, nameless prisoner, wasting away in the Bastille of my room.
When finally liberated, I crept out of my cell, a broken and emaciated husk of a kid. I eventually tracked down a few other survivors of the massacre. They, like I, were but shades of their former selves. The spirit had gone out of them, and I could not persuade them to reconstruct our former exploits.
There was a short-lived period, however, when I thought we might be getting back on track. You see, although we could no longer participate in any sort of melee combat, I was able to create a mild interest among my former comrades in the development of siege weaponry. I was even able to negotiate a truce from the Mother Alliance allowing us to explore the concept purely for “research purposes” for an alleged science project, after swearing that we would not even think of using them on each other.
The catapult proved interesting. When we used it to hurl the neighbor’s cat into the pond, for a moment, I thought I saw the old spark return to my comrades’ eyes. However, we could never catch the cat again, and we only had so many rotten pumpkins in our garden. Once they were used up the novelty faded.
Then there was the trebuchet. It turned out to be a lot more work then we had anticipated, and the first time we tried to use it, we forgot to move Sir Jimmy the Freckles’ Dad’s new toolbox out of the way before the counterweight slammed down and crunched it. That was the end of Sir Jimmy’s participation, and nobody else’s dad would let them use their tools.
In a last desperate gambit, I attempted to build a replica of Archimedes’ Claw. It took a great deal of persuading to convince my friends to help me. Enthusiastically, I regaled them with a riveting historical description of the giant crane swiveling over the walls of Syracuse to let down a grappling hook which snagged the ships of the attacking Roman fleet, capsizing them, legions and all. Their imagination stirred at last, they assisted me. It might have been the beginning of the long trip back to glory and honor if Sir Rory hadn’t blown it.
As I became distracted with some calculations, he let down the grappling hook behind the Marquis de Jerry’s little brother Petey. Then it was that Sir Rory of Boogerhead had the wisdom and foresight to raise it suddenly. The grappling hook caught on the back of Petey’s britches, and hoisted him in the air. It was at just that moment that the Marquis’ mother emerged from the castle to see her baby squalling like a butchered hog as he dangled eight feet in the air by a massive wedgie.
I’m fortunate that I enjoyed reading. It was the only thing that kept me sane in the Bastille for the next twenty-odd years or so. I tried to build a battering ram to break out, but I couldn’t find anything with which to disassemble my bed frame. By the time I emerged, my quests of knight errantry had receded to become vague memories shrouded in the merciful mist of history. I didn’t mind, though. I had developed a new interest in improvised explosives and Viet Cong man traps.
It gnaws at me the way a mouth full of canker sores feels when you’re eating a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. With each breath, I inhale the poisonous memories of treachery and betrayal. The one I have taken in and cared for as my own has absorbed my love and given nothing but pain in return. I dream of leaving her, but I cannot. I am trapped. Moonbeam is the only vehicle I have.
My suburban, Panzer, died suddenly in his sleep a couple of months ago. I suspect that Moonbeam killed him in some way. Why she would do that I can only guess. I don’t see how it could have been jealousy, as much as she seems to resent belonging to me. I suppose it was simply another way to hurt me, like she delights to do any chance she gets. She wanted to bring me under her power—to reduce me to a position where I was dependent on her so that she could gloat in my desperation when she refused to work at the moment of my greatest need.
I hope you don’t think I’m crazy for naming my car, but once I discovered that cars are people too, we have named every car that joins our family. It all started with Herbie, a 1970 Dodge Omni who was, of course, named after the movie star. Even though our Herbie wasn’t a VW bug with a cool racing stripe, he had a distinct personality.
Herbie had a sense of humor. He would wait until my wife got in and had made it down the road a piece, and then the noise would begin. It might be a whine, a clank, a whistle, a rattle, or the “1812 Overture”. Whatever it was, it would scare my wife to death. She would make a U-turn, and to hear her tell it, barely make it home. Apparently, Herbie would impersonate one of those little clown cars with the square tires and the comical sound effects all the way to the driveway.
Herbie knew when I was listening, though. As soon as he hit the end of the driveway, he would drop the act and start purring like a kitten. This nearly drove my dear wife to tears. She would climb out, all hot and bothered and beg me to do something before the little fella blew himself up. Of course, I had no clue what she was talking about, so I would, according to my wife, look at her funny.
“I’m serious!” she would nearly sob. “I could hardly keep the thing on the road. It was all I could do to keep a hold of the steering wheel, the vibration was so bad. And the sound was deafening—like somebody knocking over a steel cabinet full of dinner plates and accordions onto a concrete floor. And the lights! Every light on the dash started to flash “Mayday” in Morse code. Please, George, I’m not driving it another inch until you fix it.”
I’d walk out to find Herbie purring as natural and nonchalant as if he were in the dealer showroom. My wife wouldn’t be satisfied until I had changed the oil, tightened the belts, changed the spark plugs, cleaned the battery terminals, vacuumed the carpet, and washed and waxed it. In retrospect I now see that Herbie just wanted the attention.
For the longest time I thought my wife was hallucinating. It didn’t help her credibility when she came home one day with a triumphant look on her face.
“Herbie was really acting up today.”
“I’ve got proof.”
“Yep, I was driving down the street, and I heard this huge clattering bang. It was so loud that I knew something had broken. I stopped and got out, and sure enough, there lying in the road was a big part that had fallen off of Herbie. It was really heavy, but I picked it up and opened the hatchback and put it in.”
“A big, heavy part fell off? Was it a muffler?”
“I don’t know, come look at it.”
Look at it I did, but I wish I hadn’t. I made her take the part back and put it in the street exactly where she found it. I think they arrest people for stealing manhole covers.
From that point on I wouldn’t believe her stories until the day she convinced me to try something. I felt really stupid at first, putting on an act for a car, but women can be really persuasive sometimes. We both walked out on the front porch where Herbie could see us. My wife had her purse in one hand and Herbie’s keys in the other.
“Say, George,” She sang out loudly, making sure to enunciate and project for the benefit of our audience, “I need some things at the store. I think I’ll make a quick run to town. Do you want to come along?”
“Oh, no thank you!” I called, feeling the hot embarrassment creep up my neck, “I am feeling quite tired now. I believe I will take a nap while you’re gone.”
We kissed, then she climbed in Herbie and started the engine. I waved goodbye, and made a vast show of stretching and yawning. Then as my wife shifted into reverse, I turned and sauntered back inside. As soon as I was out of view of Herbie, I grabbed my toolbox which I had pre-positioned, and raced out the back door. I ducked through the back yard and sprinted to the concealed vantage point of a thick tangle of brush beside the road.
No sooner had I gotten into position when I saw Herbie pull out of our driveway. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as his tires hit the pavement, he began to lurch and hop and squeal like a stuck pig! I could hardly believe my eyes. When he drew abreast of me I leaped from the bushes brandishing a wrench.
You never saw a more surprised look on a car’s face. His headlights opened as wide as basketballs, and he braked so hard, I thought he was going to bury his front bumper in the road. From that time on I advised Gaylene to carry a wrench with her and show it to him whenever he tried anything.
Not a sparkplug wrench, or an oil-pan wrench, mind you, but a great big honkin’ wrench like you would use to dismantle the transaxle, or jerk out the head gasket or something. It seemed to work. Herbie must have gotten the hint, because after that he settled down and became a sensible, dependable mode of transportation until the arthritis in his suspension system got so bad that we had to put him down.
We’ve had a few colorful characters since then. There was Oscar the K-car who liked to spit his CV joint bearings into the snow at 40 below at least 4 or 5 times a winter. There was Clifford the Nissan King Cab who hated wearing windows. He would take any opportunity he could to find something to knock them against. I think they made him hot and itchy. Oh, yeah. I mustn’t forget to mention Sylvester. We eventually modified his name to Slyvester Stallin’. Perhaps you can guess why he got that name.
There have been others, but I don’t think any have been as deviously malicious as Moonbeam, my current rig. You would think a blue Mercury Villager mini-van would have a sweet disposition, wouldn’t you? Nothing doing! Moonbeam thinks it’s funny to lock her doors when the keys are inside, but when I’m in Fairbanks and I have a load of expensive stuff, do you think she’ll lock for me? Noooooo, of course not.
I push the electronic lock button, and she clicks it off again. I lock again, she unlocks. Lock. Unlock. Lock! Unlock! Click, click, click, click! I wind up walking around and manually locking each door, and even then, half the time as soon as I get finished locking the last door—Click! You guessed it. She pops them all unlocked.
By sheer determination, I usually stick it out until I win. The doors finally stay locked. I peer at them suspiciously for several moments until I’m sure the battle is over, then turn to walk away. “Honk!” She just has to get in the last word.
Where the battle really rages, though is in the arena of winter starting. Moonbeam refuses to run in the cold. I’ve tried to winterize her, but as soon as she saw that block heater coming, she squinched up so tight there wasn’t enough clearance to install it. So I bought a circulating heater, but I swear that she reconfigured her hoses to make it impossible to install that either.
The other day it was a bit nippy. 40 below or so. My wife took Moonbeam to town, squawking and protesting the whole way. Moonbeam did some protesting too. By the time she returned, Moonbeam seemed to have become resigned to the fact that we wanted to ride her that day. My wife parked her. Three hours later I decided I had better go start her and let her run a spell so that I could get to work the next day. Wouldn’t you know it! Moonbeam had gone on strike. She simply refused to start.
I drained her oil, brought it in, heated it on the woodstove, and poured it back down her throat. You would have thought she would have appreciated that. Nope! I covered her with a blanket and tucked an electric heater under her chin. Nada. I even went so far as to lay on the ground and caress her belly with a heat gun until my fingers froze solid and shattered into little shards inside my mittens. She couldn’t have cared less.
My love was spurned, and my generosity was crushed under her tires like so much road kill. If I didn’t need her so badly, I would just drive her into a gravel pit somewhere, drop a grenade into her gas tank and walk away. But she has me where she wants me. I need her, and she knows it. As much as it pained me to do it, I drug out the kerosene space heater and blasted her down with hot air until she relented.
Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. I remember the days in Moose Hole when I had to coax Herbie to start. Every night I would disconnect the battery and carry it in by the wood stove, along with the generator. In the morning, I’d get up two hours early, haul the generator outside, plug in Herbie, and let his circulating heater work.
Then I’d slide a piece of stove pipe up under his oil pan and burn a weedburner in the other end until the oil on the bottom of the oil pan caught fire. That would be my signal to douse the flames with snow, then race inside, grab the battery, hook it up before the oil reverted back to jello, and start him up.
That was a serious pain in the neck, but at least Herbie had a sense of humor about it. You can’t really stay mad at a car when he’s grinning at you and cracking jokes the whole time. Moonbeam, on the other hand, is pure evil. She thinks she’s getting away with it now, but her day of reckoning will come.
Someday I’m going to come home with a friendly vehicle. A big vehicle. Something with monster tires. I’ll name him Abrams and I’ll tell him about Panzer. He’ll make Moonbeam his personal parking lot. Just wait and see.
The winter Olympics are commandeering a lot of news time lately. It’s a great thing, competition and all. Training hard, facing formidable odds, bringing home the gold for your country, abusing steroids—these are epic deeds and certainly newsworthy. I don’t begrudge those spandex-wearing, ridiculously beautiful people their well-earned publicity. I just feel a slight twinge of jealousy that the Moose Hole Olympics never got equal recognition back when I was a kid.
In retrospect, I suppose we wouldn’t have liked it if we had gotten it. We wanted to maintain a low profile, we were simply innovating ways to entertain ourselves on those long winters in bush Alaska. We may not have had teams of crack international reporters, poking several million dollars worth of electronic equipment in our faces at every move, but that didn’t stop us from pouring our very souls into astounding demonstrations of athletic prowess.
Just about anyone can strap a pair of glorified Popsicle sticks on his feet and jump off a mountain. As long as a slippery inclined surface, gravity, and a human being converge at the same point in the space-time continuum, the person is going to wind up at the bottom of the slippery inclined surface. It’s a law of nature. However if you rename it “skiing” and invite other Popsicle stick owners from around the world to fall down a mountain with you, suddenly we find footage of the event being beamed around the world on prime-time television. The participant who happens to arrive at the bottom soonest and with the most panache, gets a big gold nickel on a strap and never has to work again. It’s a complete racket!
A much more challenging winter downhill sport is “hooding”. If sports reporters were actually interested in recording a contest that showcases the heart-pounding adrenaline rush of fierce competition, they would have been all over Ptarmigan Knob when I was a kid. There they would have seen it all—the indomitablility of the human spirit, dreams and aspirations transformed into triumph or tragedy by a few moments of ruthless fate and breathless skill.
Yet, in spite of those glorious exploits on Ptarmigan Knob, the term “hooding” is a micro colloquialism limited to but a handful of living humans. Specifically, it is reserved to the vocabularies of the following: Me; my brother, Justin; Larry Fred; the twins, Jack and Jill Smorkstini; Donna Sam; Anika Van der Veen; and “Walrus” Fahnestock.
Only we eight who smirked at death on Ptarmigan Knob 25 years ago can understand the camaraderie forged there. For the rest of you, a little background would be helpful. Ptarmigan Knob was the name of the tailbone of a granite spine that snaked for 15 miles from Moose Hole to the caribou birthing fields atop the windswept tundra of McCollum Plateau. Alascom had built a microwave tower atop Ptarmigan Knob, affording Moose Holians the immense recreational advantage of an access road.
The road turned off of the highway on the floor of the Tanana River Valley at Moose Hole Lake. From there it snaked its way through alder thickets, black spruce stands and poplar groves until it had gained a thousand feet of elevation in three miles of hairpin switchbacks. There at the summit the road ended at a chain link fence that enclosed “The Tower”.
You weren’t supposed to go inside the fence and mess around with The Tower. There were imposing looking signs to that effect–at least they had been imposing prior to a decade of target practice. Besides, The Tower was taller than it looked. About half way up, you’d get a sudden rush of vertigo when you looked down, that nearly washed you off of the narrow steel ladder. It was a really weird feeling…er…so I’ve been told. But the access road provided plenty of leisure activity on its own. ATVing, snow machining, hunting, sledding—there were lots of things to do on the Ptarmigan Knob tower access road.
However, the most memorable times of my brash youth involved activities that could only be reached by little-known trails branching off of the access road. For instance, if you parked at The Tower fence and skirted it to the right, you would drop down off of the gravel pad into a nice little birch wood. There was barely a trail there, but if you knew where you were going, you could walk southwest for about five minutes to a place where the trees suddenly stopped growing.
A few feet from the tree line, a massive fist of gnarled rock marked the border between a wooded ridge and the end of the Earth. It wasn’t the end of the Earth actually, just the Southeast Face of Ptarmigan Knob. Although it wasn’t technically a vertical drop, for the first hundred yards it might as well have been.
We called that first hundred yards “The Bare Spot”. Nothing grew on it except a couple of scraggly willows. Snow didn’t even accumulate there. It either slid to the bottom or blew away, but enough snow and ice would remain to disguise the razor-sharp warts of rock that punctuated The Bare Spot, like magnets on a wall of frozen grease.
At the bottom of The Bare Spot, where the slope abruptly flattened out to a more respectable angle, a dense wall of trees sprang up. They were big trees, stout and unyielding, with their feet planted solidly in a tangled concertina of alder and rose bushes. It was here that the sport of hooding was practiced.
Donna Sam would be the one to give the annual signal that it was time for the opening of the Moose Hole Winter Hooding Olympics. She lived in a cabin at the base of Ptarmigan Knob, so she was able to monitor the condition of the slope. As soon as enough of a glaze had developed on The Bare Spot she passed the word.
We didn’t waste much time on opening ceremonies, but it was traditional to light a bonfire on top of the gnarled rock fist before we got started. When there was enough light to see between the bonfire and the blurred gray glow that serves as an Alaskan winter morning daybreak, the Smorkstini twins and Walrus would fade back into the brush to retrieve the hoods from where they were stashed under a pile of spruce boughs.
There were two hoods. One came off of a ‘53 Chevy, while the genealogy of the other one was less certain. Any logos, emblems or distinctive contours had long ago been bounced, scraped or dented away, so that it was impossible to make a positive identification. Justin and Larry almost came to blows once arguing about it. My brother swore that the second hood was from a ’62 Ford stepside pickup, while Larry claimed he knew the exact ’57 Cadillac Coup de Ville that it used to belong to.
Just as Justin was about to bash Larry in the head with a burning spruce stick from the bonfire, Anika stepped between them and suggested that if they were real hooders, they would settle this the honorable way. With a malevolent grunt, Larry grabbed the hood in question and drug it to the nearest knuckle of the rock fist, while Justin poised himself on another with the Chevy hood. They teetered there for a moment, hoods held back by Jack and Walrus while Jill counted down.
Upon Jill’s shout of “go”, Jack and Walrus released their grip. The competitors leaned forward and shot out of sight. The rest of us rushed to the edge and peered over to witness the results. Larry was still airborne, his scream of terrified delight drifting back to us on the crisp breeze. Justin, however had caught one of the hidden rock warts with the edge of his hood, and was now spinning madly down the slope like a drunken top.
It turned out to be a draw, because although Larry reached at the bottom first, the hood arrived on top of him rather than the other way around. Justin was only a split second behind, his Chevy hood impacting a granddaddy cottonwood tree with a “clang” that pitched him face first into an enormous thicket of rose bushes. He was so dizzy from spinning that he wallowed around in them for several minutes before his equilibrium returned sufficiently for him to extricate himself.
That was one of the more unremarkable one-on-one hood races. Sometimes kids got hurt. Not all hooding events pitted single riders against each other, however. More frequently, hooding challenges pitted team against team. I wasn’t terribly fond of the team races because I inevitably got paired up with Walrus Fahnestock. It would be me and Walrus on one hood, and everybody else on the other one.
You see, when Walrus was on a hood, there was only room for one other person, and the girls and I were the only ones small enough to qualify. The girls absolutely refused to ride with him because he didn’t have running water at his house, and by the smell of things, no soap either. After I got used to his smell, I found out that teaming up with him was a really good experience half of the time, and a really bad experience the other half. It all depended on whether I landed on him, or he landed on me at the termination of our descent.
We never did tell our parents about our hooding forays. We sort of had an instinctive premonition that they wouldn’t understand. Even when one of us got hurt, we never divulged the actual cause of our injuries. The time Donna broke her leg hooding, we all said that Larry had run over her with a snow machine. When Jack and Jill both fractured their skulls in a collision with a rock, we claimed that they had been helping Walrus haul water up a hill, and that Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.
I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go hooding again at my age, but last summer I hiked to The Bald Spot just for old time’s sake. The Chevy hood is still there, rusted and battered, and home to a family of weasels. I stood on the fist and gazed downward. A lot of brush has grown up to shrink The Bald Spot, but not much else has changed in 25 years. I can still see the rock where Anika lost her finger, and the big scar is still visible on the bark of the tree where “The Great Pileup” occurred that destroyed the controversial hood and the bridge of Larry’s nose.
Yep, for all the glamor and glitter, I haven’t seen anything at the Winter Olympics that can come close to the adventure and competition that the Magnificent Eight experienced on Ptarmigan Knob. I’ve thought about suggesting that they add hooding to the roster of events at the official games, but I don’t think it would be the same. By the time they got finished establishing safety protocols for the sport, there would be helmets and seat belts and spandex leotards. I don’t even want to think about seeing Walrus in spandex leotards.
The Alaska State Birds seem to be extra friendly around my house this year. Cute little fellows, aren’t they—and so musical too? At least once a day I can’t resist being a captive audience to one of their concerts. It fascinates me how tame they are. You’d think that as wild creatures, they’d be shy of people, but they seem to crave human companionship.
As soon as I step outside, a whole choir of them gathers to greet me with a falsetto serenade like a million little flying Vienna Choir Boys with wedgies. Some of them hover around my head, while others perch on my upper body. I haven’t quite figured out which sections of my anatomy are the soprano, tenor, alto and bass sections, but they evidently have it well choreographed. It’s enough to give a guy goose pimples.
The mosquito band considers me to be one of their favorite gigs. Most likely it’s because I always clap vigorously, frequently and loudly during their performance and provide the performers with unlimited drinks on me. We have a cozy symbiotic relationship.
Not everyone recognizes the valuable niche mosquitoes fill in our delicate ecosystem. To be frank, I’ve heard some pretty derogatory comments about them–right to their face, too. These much maligned insects, however, are crucial to preserving the Alaska we all know and love. They weed out the riff raff. I’ve witnessed their amazing work with my own eyes.
A few years back when I was a petroleum transfer engineer for my Dad at Moose Hole Lodge, a Lincoln Continental with Illinois plates purred up to the gas pumps. The tinted driver’s side window slid down with an electronic whir, and a manicured hand emerged to snap its 24 karat gold ringed fingers.
“Fill it up with unleaded supreme, check the fluids, clean my windows and scrub my whitewalls, boy. Hurry, I don’t have all day!”
My brow crinkled in confusion. I scratched myself thoughtfully and spat at a bug crawling on his fender. “We only got one kind of gas, we’re fresh out of motor oil, and what’s a whitewall?”
The driver vocalized something that sounded like a hog choking on a corncob, and little smoke rings shot out of his ears. After a period of time, his noises grew intelligible: “That’s what’s wrong with this godforsaken place. You people are just a bunch of hicks who haven’t figured out that it’s the twentieth century! You ought to be thankful that there are entrepreneurs like me who are willing to invest some capital in this giant wasteland you call a state.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but it certainly did seem important to him. “That’s great, mister, so you’re investing in our state, are you? I sure do wanna thank you for that. What line are you in? Gold mines, tourism, fishing fleet, or logging?”
He darted a glance at me like I had just dropped his best hunting rifle in the Tanana River. “No,” he sneered, “Real estate. Night clubs and shopping malls, specifically. Not that you would know what those are. I haven’t seen either one for the last 2000 ghastly miles! Now do you think you could manage to get some of that gas in my tank? I have an appointment with a contractor in Fairbanks who recognizes the beauty of the word ‘smog’.”
I know the customer is supposed to be always right, but this guy was starting to rub me the wrong way. I briefly considered pouring a cup of sugar in his gas tank or accidentally dropping a roofing nail under each of his tires, but I restrained myself. I pumped his gas for him and even managed to smile politely as he handed me his credit card.
Well, I guess Heaven was paying attention to my self control and decided to reward me for it. The next words out of the annoying customer’s mouth were one of the most blessed gifts I have ever received.
“Do you have a public restroom around here?”
As a matter of fact we did. We were pretty proud of it too. Dad had installed it about five years previously, and the locals were still marveling about it each morning over their traditional cup of 35 cent coffee and one of Mom’s cinnamon rolls. Prior to that, our customers had been obliged to answer nature’s call in the honey shack out back.
It was way out back, actually—about a hundred and fifty yards across the muskeg. To get there, customers used to have to follow a narrow moose trail chiseled out of the sphagnum moss. Along the way, black spruce branches reached out to snag their hair and wild rose bushes clutched at their sleeves. The most memorable part of the experience, though, was the mosquitoes.
There must have been millions of the little darlings living and breeding in the tangled black spruce thickets on each side of the outhouse path. At each step, a squadron of them would squirt out of the moss, rise up and call our customers blessed. Our customers called them something in return, but it wasn’t blessed. By the time they dove through the narrow door with the crescent moon-shaped cutout in it, the customers usually had looked and sounded like a churning, low lying fast-moving thundercloud.
But for five years now, the old outhouse had sagged lonely and abandoned in the mosquito thicket. Nobody had ventured down the trail since we had put in the real restrooms. By my calculations, the mosquito population should be pushing the multiple quadzillion mark. They probably had the entire works of Mozart, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson mastered and were pining for an appreciative audience.
Coincidentally, the annoying customer who wanted to turn Alaska into a concrete jungle obviously needed to learn to appreciate the more rustic charms of our state. I pointed him down the outhouse trail. As I watched him go, I pulled a bottle of Muskol out of my pocket and crossed myself with it. Old habits die hard.
Shortly after the ancient alders at the mouth of the trail swallowed him up I began to hear his voice. He was using some colorful terminology and seemed to be addressing the local fauna in that characteristically earnest way of his. I expected him to re-emerge immediately with great alacrity, but he evidently wasn’t joking when he said he needed to go.
After a good fifteen minutes I saw a tiny creature covered with dense fur stumble into the open from the direction of the honey shack. It was making faint squeaking noises and feebly waving some sort of upper appendage. Then it fell forward and lay still. I thought maybe it was a muskrat. As I watched, it shrunk to about the size of a shrew and then stopped twitching.
Curiously, I walked over and poked it with a stick. As I did so, its fur began to buzz, separated from its body and rose drunkenly into the air. Only then did I realize that the fur was, in fact, a dense layer of blood-gorged mosquitoes, and the little creature was what used to be the city slicker from Illinois. He didn’t look so good. He kind of reminded me of a prune.
I scooped him up on a spatula and called the Medical Life Flight chopper people. I hear they were able to revive him with a massive blood transfusion, but the experience had psychologically shattered him. He never returned to Alaska. He never even sent anybody for his Lincoln. We parked it behind the Lodge for a while and eventually wound up trading it to a guy for a pair of four-wheelers, a river boat, and a dozen quarts of rose hip jam.
Yes, indeed; those misunderstood bugs are invaluable defenders of our way of life here in the last frontier. They test the mettle of a man like nothing else can. I’ve seen brawny, hard-fisted, steely-eyed construction workers reduced to a blubbering lunatic by a medium sized swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes. You can hardly pry them out of the fetal position to get their straitjacket on them.
You can always tell how long somebody has lived here by the way they react when the choir arrives. Cheechakos are the sprinting people in shorts and tank tops with heads jerking in wild-eyed panic and arms flailing like a windmill. They have the skin complexion of a raspberry, and frequently knock themselves out cold, bashing at a second soprano that happens to land on their forehead.
Those who survive the first wave, stagger out to buy a 55 gallon drum of Off. They keep a can in each hand and continuously hose themselves down with it while maintaining a running monologue of sailor talk. They buy a mosquito magnet for their yard and operate it nonstop until a snowdrift buries it. That is the “inexperienced” stage and can last for up to two years.
Somewhere around that time frame, a sourdough takes pity on them and whispers the term “DEET” in their ear. At first the inexperienced Alaskan will cite reams of environmental toxicology studies, but their resolve eventually crumbles and they try a few drops of 100% DEET. Suddenly, a whole new world opens up to them! For the first time they have discovered a repellant that the mosquitoes don’t regard as a condiment. For the next couple of dozen years they don’t go anywhere without a little bottle of Muskol or Ben’s tucked into their pocket or purse. They have officially graduated to “sourdough” status.
Eventually, however, they wind up spilling a bottle of DEET in their purse or tackle box. Upon discovering that the stuff has eaten their fishing line or turned their lipstick into lumpy pudding, they stop using repellants altogether. This is the final stage and the one which distinguishes a sourdough from a true Alaskan “institution”.
An institution chooses to ignore the bites and enjoy the music. He finds that if he doesn’t wave his arms, he doesn’t attract as much insectoid attention. When bitten, he lets them suck, because to kill them before they are done dining will leave their anticoagulant remaining in the bite and lead to intense itching episodes. The only concession an institution makes to thwart the little singers is to tuck a leafy branch in his hatband. Since the critters tend to hover around the highest point, they circle the branch instead of his face.
Institutions take great glee in watching a cheechako’s expressions of incredulity upon seeing them serenely sit amid a swirling maelstrom of flying pests. Institutions enjoy slightly embellishing a few anecdotes to enhance the amazement.
“What, these puny little fellers? Why, they ain’t so big. You shoulda seen the ones we had back when I was a kid. We had to carry a chainsaw in a belt scabbard as self-defense against mosquito maulings. Matter of fact, if you chopped their legs and suckers up into firewood lengths, one mosquito can heat your cabin for a week. And their wings? Why a couple of tanned mosquito wings stitched together will make you the warmest sleeping bag you ever seen!”
I admire those institutions. Someday I aspire to be one. In the meantime I secretly pack a bottle of Muskol, and when no one’s looking I have been known to sprint around, bouncing off of trees, jerking my head in wild-eyed panic and flailing my arms like a windmill. I guess I’ve never been able to expunge the memory of that real estate developer from Illinois. I have a secret phobia of waking up in a hospital bed, reduced to a human prune.
It is with a solemn heart that I must report some troubling news. I have been abandoned! My wife left me! She took our son, walked out the door, got on an airplane and went home to Mommy.
She warned me that this was coming, but I didn’t think she’d have the gall to go through with it, because it’s been years since she was away from me longer than a day and a half. It wasn’t until she actually started packing, that it became evident that she wasn’t joking. As that realization sunk in, a surge of emotions overwhelmed me.
Dropping my veneer of machismo I plunged into the most persuasive speech of my life. I begged. I cajoled. I flirted. I blustered. I blubbered. I vowed everything from a foot massage, to a candlelit champagne dinner for two at A Belle Époque near the Champs-Elysées. I even took off my shirt and did my Arnold Schwarzenegger pose for her. Alas, cruel womanhood! She spurned me like a stale Dorito. Callously she turned away, her chin set—her eyes cold—her arms crossed.
“Absolutely not!” she snapped, “You can’t get rid of me that easy. I’m staying for exactly two weeks, and then I’m coming home. Nothing you can say is going to persuade me to extend my visit, and that’s final. You won’t know what to do with yourself as it is, and I know the house will be a pigsty when I get back.”
I could see that she would be really disappointed if I spoiled her plans, so I graciously accepted her request. “Fine! If two stupid weeks is all the chill time you’re going to let me have, then I guess this conversation is over.” I stomped to the door and let it slam eloquently behind me. Instantly, I spun around to re-enter. Boy was it cold outside! I had forgotten that I was impersonating Arnold Swarzenegger.
The doorknob resisted my efforts to turn it. It seemed locked. Then my wife’s face appeared in the window, red and bobbing with laughter. I hammered on the window, kicked the door and wept, bellowing for her to let me in, until a fine white fur of hoarfrost began to creep over my chiseled concave pecs and the sculpted mound of my abs. Then the door gave way, and I fell inside. Through the pulsating red fog that blurred my vision I sensed wife leaning over me. Adopting a gravelly Austrian accent, she intoned, “I’ll be bahk!”
End of discussion. I just wish she had been a little more reasonable. I could have used the extra chill time. It isn’t that I don’t love my wife. It’s just that…well, you know how women can be sometimes. “George, you stink. Go take a shower.” “George, can you explain to me why you would throw your dirty socks on the floor three feet from the clothes hamper?” “George, If you’re going to dump the dregs of your cereal bowl in the kitchen sink, could you at least rinse it down the drain before it turns into stucco?” “George, this.” “George, that.” “George, blah blah blah!”
I just get a little tired of it, that’s all. When I was single, it didn’t bother me the tiniest bit to open my dresser draw and not find my underwear folded up into a row of compact little cubes the size of a pack of cards. As a matter of fact, I don’t ever recall opening a dresser drawer at all when I was single. They were already open. What’s the point of shutting something that you’ll just have to open again when you need some clean underwear next month? I didn’t feel the obsession to wipe my whisker trimmings off of the bathroom mirror, as long as I could see into it. I never felt obligated to rupture my larynx trying to hold in a belch that needed to come out. Life was simple and carefree. Now, I am clean and neat and smell pretty, but I’ve got ulcers and a tic in my eyelid, and white hairs in my beard.
When I realized my wife was absconding to Kentucky with my son, leaving me alone, I began to fantasize about the ramifications. It was going to be like my bachelor days! It seemed that I could almost smell the nostalgic tang of an organic restroom where the pristine air hung thick with a primal musk, or see the patina of a tabletop burnished to a glossy sheen by the patient application of pepperoni oil from a hundred pizzas. I anticipated the carefree giddiness of all night video games and corny vintage sci fi flicks. I craved the pure sensual satisfaction of feeling potato chips being kneaded into the carpet beneath my bare toes.
I could feel the blanket of oppression lift as soon as my wife walked out the door! I immediately put on a muscle shirt and grungy pair of sweat pants and retired to the couch, just for the principle of the thing. I had barely gotten propped up in a nice comfy nest of pillows when Vazhneya, my big guard dog cavorted to the door, jabbed her nose against it significantly, then swung her head around to make unmistakable eye contact.
“Vazh wants to go outside.” I sang out instinctively, before I realized that I had neither son nor wife to respond to the call. Grumbling, I climbed out of my nest, slipped my feet into a pair of slippers and threw on a coat. “Come on, you stupid mutt!” I snarled as I reached for the leash. Vazh snarled back, so in a more subdued tone I inquired after her health and expressed my honor and delight at being selected to accompany her on an outing.
You see, Vazneya isn’t a mutt actually. She is Russian royalty. Her registered name is “Thunderhawk’s Lupine Empress”, and her common name means, roughly, “Boss”. When we acquired her as an adorable little fuzz ball, it seemed exotic to be the owner of a descendent of the mighty bloodline who once guarded the Kremlin. The Caucasian Owcharka is a rare breed highly prized for their fierce family loyalty and intuitive guard instincts.
We had eagerly signed the contract to take possession of her, even though we couldn’t actually read it ourselves, since it was in Cyrillic. However, the owner of the kennel was a Bulgarian who insisted on reciting it to us in the original tongue. According to his translation, if we ever allowed the animal to be unconfined or off leash, a biochip implanted between her shoulder blades would activate a homing beacon. Within 25 seconds a black helicopter would appear above her location, and a crack Spetznaz team, armed with Krinkovs would fast rope down. While half of them would secure the animal for transport, the other half would neutralize the delinquent owners.
Now, at 30 below, with nothing but a pair of sweatpants on my legs and a lunging behemoth attempting to dislocate shoulder of the arm in which I gripped the leash, the exotic glamour was but a faded memory. As soon as I stepped out onto the porch, Vazhneya ecstatically did a triple pass around my legs and then radar locked onto an intruder at the end of the driveway. Like a MiG 29 she roared on a vector toward it. The three loops of leash cinched like a noose at my ankles and my feet lifted off, enabling my posterior to collect an assortment of splinters from the rough cut lumber of the porch floor. Helplessly, I whipped in her jet stream until she throttled back and touched down at her destination.
The alarmed destination bobbed its head, spread its white wings and fluttered to safety in the lower branches of a black spruce. As I spat the snow out of my mouth, I was disconcerted to find that as soon as my momentum slowed, I automatically popped upright as if I were spring loaded. It turned out that my sweat pants were packed with snow to the point of bursting, making me resemble one of those inflatable punching bags with the sand in the base that pops back up every time you smack it.
Vazhneya was diligently attempting to join her object of her interest on the spruce bough, probably to demonstrate her culinary peccadilloes. That complicated my efforts to extract the snow from my pants and disentangle my legs from the leash.
“Easy, Vazh! It’s just a ptarmigan. How many ptimes have I ptold you pto ptake it easy when you ptrack or ptree a ptarmigan?”
By the time I was able to make it back to the couch, Sheila, the puppy, had become jealous of the attention I was lavishing on Vazhneya. As I sat down, I found her statement of protest seeping defiantly into my sweat pants from the sofa cushion. That was only the beginning. Now it appears that the puppy has embarked on a Star Trek mission. She seeks out uncharted corners to boldly go where none have gone before! I finally filled a bucket with concrete and held her hindquarters in it until it solidified. That solved that problem. However, for every problem I solve, three more pop up. It’s amazing how cocky 14 animals can become when the Alpha female is away.
The ferret burrows madly and deafeningly through her litter box every night from 10:00pm to 6:30am. The cat patrols the windowsills and counters, sending nick knacks, swags and glasses cascading to the floor. The outside dogs split their time between howling an interminable canine ballad in three-part harmony, and worrying at their kennel fencing until they create a hole through which they wriggle. Then they bound off to chew gleefully on the goats. Insulted, the goats respond by leaping over their fence and playing king of the mountain on my new truck. Evidently, the rules of the game stipulate that players on the ground must butt the door and fenders until the king on the roof falls off. Then they take his place and the cycle repeats. This greatly saddens me.
The other day, the horses, inspired by the goats’ great escape, chewed their way through the paddock fence and ingested 500 dollars worth of my neighbor’s hay before I found them. I spend so much time fixing my critters’ messes that I am getting 750% less leisure time now than when my wife and kid were home. Thus my solemn heart as reported at the beginning of this article. I am starting to long for my wife to return so that I can get some chill time.
Of course, you can bet that the animals will flip into instant angel mode as soon as they see her. They’ll purr and wag and nicker all cute and wide-eyed and junk, while she talks in baby talk, kissing and petting and hugging on them. I’ll never be able to convince her that the state of chaos that stretches from one end of the property to the other is purely the result of a diabolical conspiracy by our domesticated fauna. I can see her now, hands on hips surveying the squalid debris-choked landscape. “I knew it, George. Didn’t I tell you that the house would be a pig-sty when I got back?” If she only knew!
Persistent rivulets of icy rainwater had breached the narrow gap between my shivering neck and my poncho collar. Having slid inside, they were now gleefully chasing each other down the spinal causeway indented into the goose-bumped surface of my back. Soon they would join the thousands of rivulets that had preceded them into the very soggy pit stop formed by the seat of my pants. I reflected miserably on the inscrutable irony of how the sun can be blazing so cheerily in the sky above Copper Center, while a few miles past Kenny Lake, as the Edgarton Highway begins its descent toward Chitina, thick, sticky, gray clouds can pounce out of ambush to suffocate the sun. Then, as if they were made of wet tissue paper, the bottom falls out of the clouds, dumping torrents of rain all over a hapless dip netter’s windshield and saturating the gear on his trailer. I guess that’s just the price a guy has to be willing pay for attempting to capture the best salmon in the world…the legendary Copper River Reds.
I love fresh salmon. I love it baked, grilled, or smoked. I love it in chowders, in sandwich spreads and in salads. I love salmon cakes and salmon steaks. I like it plain, with barbecue sauce, with Old Bay, with lemon and butter, with dill, or with tartar sauce. I even love it on my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that not everybody seems to share my gastronomical love affair with the delicacy. One time, in my naïve exuberance, I carefully nursed a frozen salmon through airport security so that I could proudly prepare it for some relatives I was visiting in the Lower 48. I was shocked and hurt when some of them refused to even try it, explaining condescendingly that they didn’t care for fish. Fish! FISH? What sacrilege! Calling a Copper River Red Salmon a mere “fish” is like calling Italian white truffles “mushrooms”! Other relatives at least gave it a try, tentatively plopping a tiny flake onto their plate, only to turn green and gag when they bit into it! Incomprehensible! Prior to that traumatic moment, it had never crossed my mind that any healthy, mentally stable human being could fail to be enraptured by the heavenly succulence of Alaskan Salmon.
It was precisely that heavenly taste of which I kept reminding myself as I sat impaled on that spine of slimy rock, blinking the raindrops off of my eyelashes and blowing them out of my moustache. For a while I had feared that my numb fingers might conspire to make me drop my dip net into the raging Copper River current. But that fear had abated several hours previously when I noticed that, fortunately, my hands seemed to have become welded solid onto the dip net handle–net and hands merging into a single indistinguishable blob of ice. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to tear my hands free in order to remove a salmon from the net if I should wind up catching one. However, if I could only stave off hypothermia and remain conscious long enough to recognize the telltale bump of a salmon hitting my net, I would deal with that pleasant crisis when the moment arrived.
I had to catch at least one salmon. I simply had to. The alternative was unthinkable. You see, my honor was at stake. This whole trip had resulted from a bet I had made with my friend Zebedee Clanston, who was visiting from Minnesota. Zeb is one of those disgusting anglers that that refuse to listen to my fishing stories, but instead, insist on bragging incessantly about their own fishing exploits to everyone within earshot. Most guys like that you can dismiss with a few well-timed smirks, a raised eyebrow and a knowing, “Whatever you say, there, Sport.” But Zeb couldn’t be so easily ignored. At the first flicker of incredulity, he would whip out his iPhone, jab at it with a tanned finger, and, before you could flee, thrust the phototgraphic evidence of his fishing prowess in your face. It was ghastly. You would be compelled to view a gratuitous shot of his leering mug, somewhere in Chilean Patagonia, triumphantly brandishing aloft an obviously photoshopped stringer of fat brown trout, each one as long as my leg. As you would grimace and attempt to back away from the sickening sight, Zeb would poke the screen again and up would flash another picture of him gloatingly straining to prop up a 150lb. Atlantic Sailfish at Onjango Resort in Luanda, Angola, Africa. Like some sort of nightmare, in rapid succession the visual assaults would just keep coming: the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; the St. Lawrence River, Ontario; Pinas Bay, Panama; Munster Blackwater, Ireland. There were muskies and bass, flounder and barramundi, tigerfish and zander, albacore and grouper, all in ridiculous numbers and of grotesque sizes. I had finally grown nauseated by the pompous pretentiousness of it all and decided to shut Zeb up once and for all.
I coaxed my lip into a pitying, yet tolerant smile. “Not bad for a beginner, Zeb. Some of those fish were almost worth keeping.” I attempted to make the compliment sound credible enough to seem genuine, yet a bit detached in a bored sort of way. I even allowed him to observe an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a yawn. I patted him on the head, reassuringly in my best fatherly fashion. Boy, that worked even better than I had anticipated! His face turned brilliant crimson and he slapped my hand away from his head as if it were a poisonous spider.
“Not bad?” he hollered. “Almost worth keeping? I’d like to see you do any better!”
That was the opening for which I had been maneuvering. “Oh, don’t sell yourself, short, Sport,” I murmured magnanimously. “You could have done worse. A lot worse. After all, not everyone can be blessed with access to the best fishing in the world. Just because I might be able to bring home more fish than you, pound for pound, on any given day, is no reason to kick yourself.”
The corner of Zeb’s left eye began to twitch and engorged veins commenced pulsating purple in his neck. “Stop talking down to me like I’m some kind of cheechako! I won’t stand for it. I have dropped a line in every fishing hole in this state, from the Togiak River to Lake Illiamna, I’ll have you know.”
I patted him on the head again. “I know you have, Sport, I know you have. Don’t feel bad. You did the best that could be expected with a rod and reel. You’re just not a resident, and so there are some privileges you just don’t have access to. I understand that, and I certainly won’t hold it against you.”
“Is that a fact, Sir Blabsalot?” blustered Zeb. “Well pick the day and the species, Buster, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish in my cooler than you, I’ll eat the brand new $500.00 G. Loomis GLX spinning rod I just ordered from Cabela’s.”
I literally purred with satisfaction. He had taken my bait like a 24 inch grayling sucking in a Red Tail Mosquito dry fly. I had played him like a pro and was now poised to scoop him up with my landing net. “OK! You’re on, Sport. How about this Friday? The species is Copper River Red Salmon, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish than you, I’ll eat the $4.95 can of fluorescent PowerBait I just picked up at Wal-Mart.” Grinning victoriously, at my own cleverness, I leaned forward, waiting for him to start flopping around, gasping for air like a trophy King in the bottom of my boat. I was going to enjoy watching him hem and haw and try to backpeddle out of the bet.
However, my triumphant smile wilted a bit as, instead of admitting defeat, Zeb grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically. Was he actually accepting my deal? After all, avid fisherman that he is, I thought he’d know that dipnetting in the Copper River is classified as a Personal Use Fishery and is restricted to Alaska residents only. But the sly look that had crept into his eyes was beginning to unsettle me. What could he possibly know that I didn’t? He didn’t stand a chance, did he? Why, I could harvest my household limit of 30 fish, while his daily non-resident sportfishing bag limit had to be, what? Surely not more than six, maybe ten measly fish? But he had foolishly thrown down the gauntlet, and now I would crush him. I had to crush him. I wasn’t going to let a Minnesotan out-fish me in my own stomping grounds.
But now as my aching arms swept the churning back eddy with a dip net whose aluminum handle had become permanently melded to my frozen hands, I was growing desperate. The only bump I had felt in my net for 12 hours had come from a floating tree branch which had ripped a huge gash in my netting. I had tried to repair it with the drawstring from my poncho hood and now the hood wouldn’t stay up. I was getting real tired of all those icy rivulets using my back as their own personal racetrack. I honestly didn’t know how much more of this I could take, and yet at this rate, Zeb would only need to catch one salmon to win the bet.
Maybe a huge lunker was hovering just below my net, laughing at me. Viciously, I stabbed the net deeper into the current. As I did so, the rock on which my left foot rested broke off and toppled into the river with a splash. If I hadn’t previously displayed the foresight of letting my wife nag me into roping myself to the bank, I might have followed the rock’s example. As it was, I almost did anyway. The only part of the bank I had been able to find which seemed secure enough to support me had been a flimsy willow shrub. As I began to fall, I jerked heavily against the rope, snapping it taut against the willow shrub. The plant shuddered and promptly ripped out of the cliff face to which it clung.
With instincts honed by many years of backcountry experience, I screeched hysterically. I’ve developed that technique for just such an emergency situation as this. You see, hundreds of hours of research have taught me that screeching stimulates a savvy outdoorsman’s adrenal gland and tones his diaphragm muscles. I find that it also alerts any passersby to avoid the dangerous area until I have been able to assess the situation and render the environment safe. I plummeted about three feet toward the torrent of instant death, until one of the willow shrub’s roots held, abruptly arresting my freefall. Since my hands were still frozen to the dip net handle, I deftly caught myself on the jagged corner of a rock by my cheekbone. Sadly, one of my boots, not noticing that I had stopped, continued its plunge. Undaunted, I quickly whipped up an improvised dye, consisting of a mixture of 75% blood from my gashed face, and 25% raindrops. Using the tip of my nose, I carefully dripped them into the river at the precise spot where the river had swallowed my boot. Perhaps later I could return to the location and recover it. Right now, though, I had fish to catch.
Using the handle of my dip net as a lever, I was just wallowing back into a position of relative safety when my wife’s voice floated down to me from above. “Are you alright, Honey?”
“Of course!” I snapped. She’s always interrupting the serenity of my fishing trips with banal chit chat. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you just screamed like a woman? Is that blood on your face? Where’s your boot? I think you better come up here and take a break and drink some coffee.”
“I’m fine! I didn’t scream. I was just yawning loudly.”
“And about the boot? I…uh…I took it off because my foot was getting hot and sweaty.
“Just one foot was getting hot and sweaty?”
“In this weather?”
“That’s what I said, and I’m sticking to it. What is this? The Spanish Inquisition?”
“I’ll ignore that. Where’s the boot? I just bought those for you.”
“I…uh… and accidentally knocked it in the river, when I…I was fighting with that big King I caught. That’s where this blood on my cheek came from. Yeah, that’s it. It’s salmon blood.”
“So where’s the salmon?”
“It got away.”
“Whatever. But if you fall in that river and drown, I’m gonna kill you.”
From there, the day took a turn for the worse. By midnight I had only caught one and a half Reds. The half of one hadn’t been dead long. It’s other half was probably still flopping in some Grizzly Bear’s stomach. Glumly, I trundled my single solitary fish, my gear and my wife back to where my truck patiently waited at O’Brien Creek. I wasn’t looking forward to facing Zeb at our pre-arranged rendezvous at the Hub in Glennallen. My only hope was that some tourist in a Winnebago had backed over his fishing pole in the Klutina River campground or wherever it was he had decided to fish.
When I arrived, I steeled myself and peeked into the bed of Zeb’s rental truck. I expelled a huge sigh of relief when not a single salmon met my inquisitive gaze. About then, I felt Zeb’s big hand slapping me on the back. “How’d you do?” he boomed cheerily. Uh-oh. That wasn’t a good sign. It was never a good sign when Zeb boomed cheerily after a day of fishing.
I summoned my most nonchalant tone. “Oh, not bad. Not bad. You?”
Zeb grinned like a Cheshire Cat and out came his iPhone. “Let me show you. A picture is worth a thousand words. And in this case it’s worth a thousand fish. Actually, thirty-five hundred and twenty seven Copper River Red Salmon to be precise! I caught them in about 45 minutes.”
I was staring in stunned disbelief at the picture of a boat’s hold overflowing with massive fish. Beside the huge catch was Zeb’s leering mug, and he was holding a newspaper with today’s date clearly readable. I found myself compelled to sit down suddenly. Zeb eased me onto his tailgate and began to fan my face. “How…where…what…?” I managed to squeak out.
“Sorry for the shock,” he snickered. “I guess I must have forgotten to tell you that I own a 30 foot gillnetter. I call her the ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and I keep her docked in Cordova. For the last three years I’ve owned a limited entry commercial permit to harvest salmon near the barrier islands along the Copper River Delta. Can I get you some Pepto-Bismol or anything? You look like you’re about to throw up.”
I shrugged off his proffered hand and staggered toward my truck. “No thanks,” I called over my shoulder. “Right now, I have some fluorescent PowerBait to swallow.”
DATE / TIME MARK: 8-899^120*096 (estimated)
FROM: sQreev-Y, Prime Sentient Component of Transgalactic Probe tYx^951*332.
TO: sWomglu-K, Coordinating Overseer of pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau.
RE: Long-range data compilation mission to rWezik Galaxy / Sector DdF^893.
PREFACATORY NOTE: Please accept my regrets for the inefficiency of the primitive digital transcription and data storage method I am compelled to utilize in compilation of this report. In explanation, it must be noted that Exploration Probe tYx^951*332 experienced a de-orbiting incident resulting in an uncontrolled atmospheric entry. This caused the probe to impact a planetary surface as detailed later in this report. At that time, all of my telepanscription technology was rendered non-functional by a major system disintegration.
After fully regenerating from my organic malfuncions, I was eventually able to locate a quaint and time intensive device called a Dell Optiplex GX745 Core 2 Duo, which seemed to possess rudimentary information compiling capacity. Although my non-organic database had been erased, my organic databanks retained sufficient memory of ancient pRuglugrion technological history for me to extrapolate and reconstruct the crude techniques necessary to preserve this report.
I appeal to your Primeness’ logarithmic prowess to calculate the statistical probability of my capacity to compile this report by any more adequate means, within the limitations of the circumstances herein described. I am confident that in the event that this record comes into the possession of fellow pRuglugrions, it will be capably decoded into a more readable format. I trust its contents will reassure all sentient components of the pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau that I, sQreev-Y remained true to my mission until the final logoff of my organic systems.
After a routine transport, we disengaged the Probe’s baryon propulsion engines in order to drop out of hyperdrive. We remained in transwarp until our quark confinement status had achieved chromodynamic equilibrium. Then using our thrusters, we maneuvered to our target coordinates and assumed orbit around the planet that was to become our next subject of study. We were precisely on schedule.
The planet proved to be a relatively small one, positioned third from a class ^5 star in Sector DdF^893, which was itself located in an obscure section of the galaxy designated “rWezik”. As our preliminary long-range scans had suggested, the planet was indeed inhabited. Short-range scans confirmed that it was cluttered with life forms of an unexpectedly wide range of complexity and variety.
Accurate and complete data, however, was impossible to collect, because our scans were severely compromised by a number of factors.
First, the stratosphere of the planet churned with debris. It resembled an asteroid belt, except that the majority of the debris appeared to be metallic and bore unmistakable evidence of having been assembled by intelligent design. Of the thousands of items orbiting the planet, 85% were fragmentary or non-functional. To our great frustration, these tended to drift across our scanning grid, just at the moment when a critical computation was being formulated, thus skewing our results, and requiring us to re-initialize the entire scanning process.
However, some of the debris appeared to consist of functional devices. Of these, the majority seemed designed to capture sonic, photonic, or electro-magnetic radiation and reflect it back to a non-standardized variety of towers and parabolic discs on the planet’s surface. The devices emanated just enough energy to create feedback on our sensors. We could determine no practical purpose for such an array of devices, and finally determined that they had been planted in position to serve as a planetary defense shield to prevent effective scanning by a non-indigenous culture such as ours.
It should be noted that the Probe’s Technical Intern, sTwox-P proposed a hypothesis that the orbiting devices were some form of primitive communication network. I was able to convince him of the logical fallacy of his hypothesis by pointing out that as underdeveloped as this culture obviously was, yet the fact that they had mastered the rudimentary science of successfully placing reflective devices into orbit, presupposed that they had a working comprehension of basic electromagnetic theory. Therefore, the reason they would expose themselves to the danger that microwave radiation poses to the cellular structure of carbon-based organic life forms must be a compelling one, and beyond the scope of mere convenience. I am pleased to add that sTwox-P accepted my argument and retracted his flawed hypotheses.
Another factor that corrupted our data scan was the presence of massive chemical, particulate, biological and gas cocktails that hung suspended over much of the planet. These appeared to consist primarily of methane, byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, and a small percentage of highly hazardous chemicals. The pockets appeared most concentrated over areas of high population density. Once again, their function appeared unclear, but it is possible that these were artificial atmospheres precisely mixed according to the inhabitants’ unique physiology in order to maximize the beneficial effects upon their respiratory systems.
A third factor was the constant occurrence of abrupt thermal activity that appeared at unpredictable intervals across the planet’s surface. In certain subcompact regions it seemed that thousands of thermal explosions were occurring simultaneously. These explosions varied widely in frequency, size and duration, however we also noticed that they seemed to be accompanied by a concentration of biological life-sign, many of which would vanish or fade after each thermal burst. The only conclusion we could draw is that these represented weapon discharges.
We had nearly determined that the planet did not fit the parameters requisite for a scientifically viable survey when I spotted a large land mass in the northern quadrant of the western hemisphere not far from the northern polar icecap, which appeared remarkably free of interference. There was no artificial atmosphere, we detected few weapon discharges and I could discern a visible break in the orbiting debris.
Hoping to justify the resources already expended on this mission, I determined to descend to a low altitude above that point. I calculated that I should be able to obtain a relatively clean, if limited scan, and then we would move to the next destination in our itinerary.
Just as I was maneuvering to initiate descent, Probe tYx^951*332 was struck on her starboard stern by a piece of debris that had been orbiting at a higher altitude than I had guessed possible. As we were knocked into an uncontrolled atmospheric entry I was able to briefly observe the debris. It appeared to be some type of small pod containing two hatches. I believe it was nearly white in color, with the designation “Frigidaire” inscribed on its fuselage.
The collision had damaged our starboard thruster array. Caught in the planet’s gravitational pull, it was impossible to engage our baryon engines. I did not regain control of the Probe until we were just above a dense cluster of green, obelisk shaped vegetation growing beside a geometrically asymmetric conduit, through which flowed a solution of hydrogen dioxide and silicon dioxide.
Beside the conduit I observed a single life form. It was a biped, ^03 nOrkins tall, with a small cranial capacity and a profusion of filaments protruding from the bottom of its elliptical head. It was grasping a narrow flexible shaft in one of its upper appendages. From the flexible shaft was suspended a small-diameter filament which the life form seemed to be dipping in the dioxide solution.
Upon observing the Probe’s arrival, the life form emitted a piercing sonic tone, released the dipping shaft and followed it into the solution. The life form was borne some distance in the current, primarily submerged, but periodically displaying an appendage or head, until it emerged in a quadruped state 4^60 nOrkins from the location where it had entered the solution.
It then emitted a series of harsh staccato sonic tones accompanied by the expulsion of a jet of dioxide solution from an orifice concealed within its head filaments. Slowly, it reverted to a biped state. Upon completion of this change, it removed a tubular metallic device from a compartment positioned low on its torso and pointed it at our Probe. The tubular device abruptly discharged a thermal burst precisely like the ones we had previously observed. As a result, a tiny cylindrical fragment of lead and copper was projected at our Probe.
In retrospect, I can only conclude that against the exponentially unlikely probability, that tiny metal fragment entered the Probe’s antiquark venting port, traveling up the asymptotic tube until it reached the baryon manifold. Of course, the lead and copper reacted with the bWabnium isotope bank, effectively destabilizing the chromodynamic equilibrium of Probe tYx^951*332.
As the only sentient component of the Probe that proved to be salvageable, I have not been able to locate either resources or technology adequate to construct another Probe, and thus expect to prematurely experience organic logoff. Now that I have located this Dell information storage device and entered this final log, I must regretfully request that I be relieved of duty. I can no longer fulfill my obligations to the pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau. I expect to occupy my remaining time avoiding the biped life form who seems intent on capturing me. My thoracic carapace is becoming quite discolored from the quantity of lead and copper fragments that the biped has discharged against it.
Proud to have served pRuglugria, I remain her loyal component,
Back in the days when Black Rapids ski slope was open to civilians, my wife wheedled me into renting some downhill skis, and buying a pass and a lift ticket. She bribed me by describing panoramic vistas, exhilarating outdoor air, fun, excitement, and exercise. I didn’t realize that the “romantic bonding time for our relationship” she was extolling was going to involve me bonding with every tree, bush and rock on the slope.
Oblivious that my sweet and devoted spouse had made a Faustian pact with the abominable snowman, I told myself that downhill skiing couldn’t be that bad. You just stand on those little planks with the pointy curves on the end and ride them down the hill. Right? After all, didn’t they give you those sticks to jab in the snow and stop yourself with if things get hairy?
As I rode the lift to the top, I mentally perfected my style. I had seen some really cool moves in a James Bond ski chase scene that I wanted to try out. I licked my lips in anticipation and then spent the rest of my lift ride trying to unstick my tongue from the steel tubing of the T-lift. When the thing reached the top and I tried to get off, I found that I couldn’t. Not only did I have the tongue issue, but somehow, the strap of my snow pants had gotten snagged on the stupid lift as well.
With all our modern technology, you would have thought that they could make a ski lift stop at the top to let a skier dismount and retrieve his taste buds with dignity. But, no, it just kept moving. Frantically, I gave a mighty wrench and felt a pair of tearing sensations–one in my tongue and one in my pants. I didn’t much care about the pants. They were an old duct-taped pair of camo snow pants, blackened by the patina of a dozen hunts. It was my tongue that disappointed me the most. I was going to have difficulty managing those snappy James Bond one-liners now.
As I reeled backwards, my skis and poles simulated a Viet Cong man trap, forcing me onto the snow with my leg canted under me in a painful and unnatural position, and my ski poles impaling me in the calf and ribs. To add insult to injury, I looked up to see some skier in a three hundred dollar pair of goggles and color coordinated pastel ski suit peering down at me with an expression of revulsion.
“Good grief, man!” He sneered. “There should be some sort of screening protocol for purchasers of lift tickets. Are you OK?”
I lifted one eyebrow in an expression of disdain. “Thaken, not thtirred,” I replied in my most debonair British accent. It was difficult to maintain a British accent with two thirds of my tongue surface missing. The skier shook his head and shot away in a hiss of skis and a flurry of snickers. Carefully I began the process of untangling myself. It proved to be a procedure that I became very adept at as the day wore on.
About then, my wife showed up. She wondered why I why I wanted to lay around making snow angels when there was a mountain to be skied. I just smiled enigmatically and using my poles, managed to gingerly ratchet myself into a standing position atop my skis.
Then she began to give me pointers. It was something about bending at the tongue, leaning into the knees of your snowplow shift to turn, and weighing your boots to stop. The only thing I clearly remember was her admonition: “Just remember, if you start to feel out of control, all you have to do is fall down!” From my vantage point, teetering on the brink of the expert slope, I didn’t see how her advice was particularly useful, since it appeared like skiing was basically going to consist of a prolonged fall down a mountain anyway.
All of my 007 fantasies forsook me and I became obsessed with but one thought—how do I get back to the chalet alive? It seemed decades later that, crawling on hands and knees, I found the beginner’s trail. It was slightly more sloped than the top of a pool table, and slightly wider than a football field. It was the most frightening thing I have ever encountered.
Some four-year-old kid shot nonchalantly by me, leaning into the tongue of his boots with his poles tucked, forgotten, under his armpits. He didn’t have to rub it in. I briefly wondered if ski poles would work as little kid shish-kabob skewers, but by then he was at the bottom of the slope, and riding the lift back up.
I vaguely remembered my wife saying that if the slope was too steep, I could zigzag back and forth across it to control my speed and angle. I fastened my bindings, took a deep breath, and pointed obliquely down hill. At first I tried my skating freeform style, thinking that the wind milling action of my arms might provide some gyroscopic stability. It seemed ineffective, so I sat on the back of my skis in the fetal position and covered my head. I became one with nature—or at least that small part of nature that consisted of an alder thicket on the far side of the slope.
It took some time for me to distinguish between ski poles, alder trunks, arms, skis, and legs. When I had gotten them all sorted out, I aimed at an even shallower angle for a very soft looking snowdrift on the opposite side of the trail and pushed off. I was able to practice steering this time. Lean. Pivot at the hips. Dig in with the edge of the skis. Let the snowdrift gobble you up.
It took me an hour and a half to make it down the beginner’s slope to the chalet. I would simply shoot across the slope until I encountered an accommodating bush, snowdrift, or rock. It would stop me. I would then chase down my escaping skis, pick a new drop zone, and repeat the process. I was still picking impacted snow pellets out of my ears and nostrils the next morning.
When I reached the chalet, I knelt and reverently kissed the level ground before it. I kissed the chalet. I kissed the little four-year-old kid. I even tried to kiss the bull moose that stepped out of the brush. When he chased me inside, I kissed a tall mug of hot chocolate until my wife arrived with frost in her hair, a glow in her cheeks, and a sparkle in her eye. I didn’t talk to her, let alone kiss her for about a month.