Her Name Is Gretchen

April 24, 2011 by  

Her Name Is Gretchen


Thom Cantrall

Her name was Gretchen and she was destined to become one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known.
I first met Gretchen in the summer of 1959 just after

r I turned sixteen.  I was caring for a horse that belonged toa friend of mine and she had approached this friend about riding his horse, not knowing it was at my place at the time.  He said it’d be okay with him, but she had to clear it with me.

On a rare Sunday off from work that summer, she came to me about her request.  She and my younger brother were in the same class at school, so she knew my name and knew of me, though she didn’t know me at all.
When next I saw her, after she returned the horse that day,

we were both in High School, I was a Junior, while she was a mere Freshman.  It was September and football was in the air.  I was out with an injury, so was not eligible to play.  Even though I had my license, I rode the bus to and from school, as we lived some fifteen or so miles from Sonoma, the town the school was located.  On the bus ride home this fateful Friday afternoon, I happened to be sitting in the same seat as her.  To this day, I’m not sure how that happened, but the bus was full, as it always was, and when I realized someone was sitting beside me, I realized it was Gretchen.  I attempted some small talk with her, being the urbane, suave, older man that I was.  I think it was she who really kept the conversation going.  Somewhere along the line, I asked her if she were going to the game tonight and she answered “No, I don’t have a way to get there and back.”
It must be mentioned there that there was NOTHING in this conversation that should be construed as boy/girl interest.  I was fiercely interested in a girl my own age... a foxy French Canadian who had transferred in the previous winter.  I was in this situation now, simply because I knew her and we were sentenced to the same bus ride together.  With this in mind, and the fact that it was common for country folk to share rides to town, I said,

“Hey, I’m going tonight, if you’d like, you can ride with me.”  I never once dreamed of it as anything but a ride to town and back.  (Guess I wasn’t quite as urbane and sophisticated as I thought at the time).
“I don’t know if my mother would let me,” she answered with a smile. “Could you call me later and I’ll ask if it’s ok.”
I picked her up at her home at 7 pm, still just planning on giving her a ride... I figured I would spend the evening with Donna.... at least watching her.

I hadn’t reckoned with Gretchen.  She never once left my side the whole evening.  We watched the game, of course, and had some snacks and we talked a good bit about many things that I’m sure were important at the time, but of which I have no recall today.  It was a pleasant evening even if it was nothing I had planned.  After the game, I delivered her back to her home and went on to mine and forgot the whole thing.

Now, I had an even bigger problem.  Donna had been there and I was never able to even say hello to her.

The following Monday, back on the bus, returning home from school... I’m not sure what happened that morning, whether

one or the other of us got a ride to school, or if I was already involved with some of my buddies when we reached her stop, but it was in the evening, on the ride home that it happened.  I, again, was on the bus and seated when she got on.  She came directly to my seat and asked if it was taken.  I smiled and said, no, it’s not, and made a motion to her to please have a seat.  We chatted idly for a few minutes as the bus passed through the miles of countryside and wine vineyards our route traversed on the way home.  All at once she shifted in the seat some, moving her books so her hand adjacent to me was free and saying “we may as well be comfortable,” and she took my hand in hers, holding it very tightly as she snuggled close to me.

You could have blown me away with a feather.  I had no idea she felt that way.  And she was a very pretty girl.  As her name might suggest, she was of German descent, very blonde and a bit gangly at that age.  She had a nice shape with real boobs... and she was nice. But what was I?  I was just a big ol’ gawky country boy.  I was 6'4" tall and weighed like one-hundred-eighty lbs… So skinny I had to run around in the shower to get wet.  I was not affluent and did not have a fancy car like most in my class at school.  You must remember this was the day of the “custom car” and in Northern California, customs were de’ rigeur... I used my mom’s 1950 Ford with the hood that was denying its black existence and showing red!
There was nothing to recommend me to a lady of obvious breeding… if questionable taste. She lived in a fine home, her father was an electrical contractor and her mother was a beautiful and sophisticated lady.  Now, if you ask me how much of this was in my mind sitting there on that school

bus that warm September day oh so many years ago, I’d have to say that none of it was.  The only thing in my conscious mind was the fire that was scorching my soul.  It was a fire being generated somewhere in her being and transmitted to me through that hand.  I looked down at it.  It was so pale and dainty there entwined with my big ol’ work toughened mitt.  It had bruises and scrapes on it from having been trod on by football cleats, from being on the business end of a claw hammer too many times and from the attacks by turkeys on the ranch I worked on weekends and some evenings..  It was not a pretty hand, but the tiny one in it was beautiful.
She taught me much, this blonde beauty.  She taught me that Thom could succeed on his own.  She taught me that it was possible for someone to like me for me... not for what I had or didn’t have.  She didn’t care that we were often relegated to just a drive on Saturday after work, or, perhaps, occasionally, a movie at the discount theater... If it was important to her, I never knew.  We fell in love, as young love goes.  We were totally dedicated to one another, we went everywhere together. We learned about life together.  And we experimented some with one another.  And we learned what being happy meant.  I truly believe this was the happiest period of my life.  My grades were extremely high.  If fact, they’d never be as high again until many years later when I entered college after nine years in the military.
I never touched her sexually, though there were times I

felt she wanted me to do so.  The first time I heard a woman breathe the breath of passion it was with her.  We were at the drive in and, as is most usual, we were watching the movie enough to describe it if asked, and were doing a LOT of kissing.  She was a wonderful kisser, I thought, though I learned more later, but I just loved to hold her and kiss her, to feel her body so close to mine.  I never even touched her breasts, though I wanted to so badly, but I didn’t ever want to do anything that would lessen me in her eyes, but this one night…  I’m not sure what happened… maybe it was just the ambiance… or the moon was especially bright, but all at once it was like she had lost some kind of control of her breathing… she laid down on the seat, her head in my lap and pulled me down to her to kiss her more and more… it was sooooo special.  I think if that happened today, more would ensue, but then, not sure what was happening, we did nothing more.  We just held one another and kissed one another.  Tongues not having yet

been invented, the kisses were not tongue laden, but were, nonetheless, quite soul driven.
At Christmas, we exchanged gifts, I don’t know, today, what they were, but I do
remember agonizing for some weeks over the “perfect” gift for her.  I do know they were perfect, especially in light of the fact that this was the first gift I ever received from someone other than family.  My birthday fell on July first and she gave me the most beautiful light grey Stetson you have ever seen in your life.  That hat cost more than my car.
On that day, my seventeenth birthday, my Mom handed me twenty dollars and Dad handed me the keys to the car and they told me to go get Gretchen and take her someplace nice.  (You could do that on twenty dollars then... for me, that was a half week’s pay) To that end, we went for a long drive.  To Mt. St. Helena and the trout hatchery there, where I paid for her to catch two really nice trout.  Then we were off to the ocean, where we walked in the sand and kissed in the open.  Right out there on the beach in front of everyone, we kissed.

We broke up that summer.  Why?  I’ve asked myself that question so many times over the years, and the only thing I can say is it was one of two things, or maybe a combination of the two things.  One: she was too compliant.  I really believe that if I had insisted, she would have had sex with me, if it was what I wanted.  She never voiced an opinion contrary to mine.  If I asked, it was always “we’ll do what you want, I’m happy with that.”  That is not my style.  I ask questions because I want answers.  I want input.  To this day, I cannot abide a yes man.  It does no good to agree when the facts are contrary.  Two: I was too young to be committed to one person. I needed to see what other people were like.  And I just loved her too much to hurt her... though I knew it would.
After I was in the US Navy, some years later, she wrote

me.  She thanked me for our time together, and, like me, regretted our break up… but, she realized, the timing was all wrong.  And she sent me her latest picture.  Oh my gawd, but she was the most beautiful lady I have ever seen, I believe!  She had grown into that gangly body and filled out and matured.  She was tall, almost six feet and looked like a goddess.  I could not believe the beauty of the girl.  That was in 1963, I believe and I have seen or heard nothing from her since.  But I think of her often.  And I remember that taking of the hand on the bus that September Day in another era… in another time.
Gretchen, I love you still... and I always will...

Traveling North

January 15, 2011 by  

Traveling North


Thom Cantrall

In the spring of 2004 I was invited to use a friend’s cabin on Neck Lake Outlet, Whale Pass, Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.  I knew the reputation this area had for serving up wonderful portions of large

Dan's Cabin and our Home for 9 days in July 2004

fish and was anxious to partake.  I undertook to research the resources of area and finally determined that late July would be the best possible time for the trek.  Plans were made, purchases made, reservations set and in the deep dark of the night that late July day, a van with five, tired, hungry and increasing short tempered fishermen finally found the right driveway to the right gate to the right cabin and it was with great relief that we watched the lights brighten the night as the master switch was thrown to provide power to our new temporary home.

Canadian Indians dip net fishing for huge salmon on a river in the Cassiars

All of us were entirely exhausted following our forty-five hour ordeal from my southeast Washington home. We had driven twenty-one hours to Prince Rupert, BC, Canada on leg one, arriving there about

The Boat Basin at Prince Rupert, BC, Canada

Eleven Thirty pm.  We had cut several hours off the estimated time and that, coupled with the safety margin we’d left ourselves in meeting out Six-Thirty am appointment with the Alaska Ferry, Matanuska in this most northern British Columbia Pacific seaport meant that we had some seven hours wait.  We decided to do it right and rented a motel room and got a decent nap before arising at Five am and queuing up for our anticipated loading.

The six hour ride from Prince Rupert, BC to Ketchikan, AK was,

Pete and Jennifer... she was traveling alone to POW and kind of threw in with us for friendship and protection

without a doubt one of the most pleasant interludes I have ever had while traveling.  Breakfast was served in the galley and the food was hot, delicious, copious and quite inexpensive considering just where we were when eating it.  I paid no more for my generous breakfast than I would have paid in a decent restaurant in my hometown.

The time after breakfast was spent walking the outside decks enjoying the absolute splendor of Southeast Alaska or sitting in the most comfortable lounges inside glassed walls using binoculars to watch the whales cavort as they fed

On Deck on the Matanuska... notice the proximity of the shoreline here

in the icy waters.  Seals and sea lions were ubiquitous.  But my greatest pleasure came from scanning the often very close shorelines watching closely for bears on the beach and deer and other wildlife.  Eagles were everywhere.  Virtually every old snag would have from one to twenty Bald Eagles perched and watching, waiting for a falling tide in a shoreline inlet to expose the salmon returning to spawn there.

Soon, we were debarking at the port of Ketchikan.  It was a trip of but  six hours

Debarking from the Ferry Matanuska in Ketchikan

from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan and this put us into town with a bit of time on our hands before our reserved loading on board the Inter Island Ferry bound for Hollis on Prince of Wales Island.  We used this time to purchase our fishing licenses then to shop for our groceries.  We had opted for the seven day permit as the cost was very affordable and we added such other small pieces of tackle as caught our eye and we deemed ESSENTIAL at this juncture!

The 7 Seas Mariner Cruise Ship in Ketchikan Harbor

The trip through the Ketchikan Safeway store was interesting, to say the least… canned goods, prepared foods and the like were comparably priced with similar items in the lower forty-eight but commodities were not!  Fresh vegetables were so high I thought we were buying those that had been plated in gold!  Milk was very expensive, approximately two and a half times what I had paid for it

The harbor at Ketchikan

two days before in Washington.  Still, we knew this was going to be the case and had planned for it.  We got that which we thought we’d need for the week and went through checkout.  We did not skimp on ourselves.  We bought plenty and well.  As we wheeled our three carts to the checkout

Ketchikan Air Taxi close overhead

line, I was very afraid we’d melt down the cash register before we were done, but, in actuality, the total was around three hundred and fifty dollars or about seventy dollars per man for a week.  That, I did not feel, was all that bad for the time and place.  Finding room for it in our already overstuffed van was, however, not quite such an easy task.

Three Thirty pm found us safely aboard the Alaska InterIsland Ferry,

Some Olde Farte I found Eyeballing the Beach

“Prince of Wales” and on out way west to Hollis.  It was a three hour trip so we settled back and took our time.  We visited the galley again and had some hearty, rib-sticking chili and beans.  Again we toured and visited around.  The islands through which we passed were even closer aboard than they had been on our first ferry leg to Ketchikan.  Often we were able to see wildlife on the beaches and the time passed quickly.  It seems but minutes before we were departing up the ramp on the Island, our noses now pointing the ninety miles or so north to Whale Passage and our waiting cabin.

To say that last leg was easy would have been completely untrue.  We were five tired, cranky men who had been cooped up too close together for much too long who were no trying to navigate our way through unknown territories on gravel roads that were little more than passable, often on a trek that would see us pass five hours in covering a mere ninety miles plus two slight additions for wrong turns in the black of night.

It was with great good feelings that we greeted the light cast by the bulbs around this Edenesque Cabin in the remote corners of an Island at the back end of beyond.  Little did we know what the week would hold when we again switched those lights off to sleep… perchance to dream… of, no doubt, large salmon jumping on the ends of long lines… and such it was to be…

The Odyssey

January 13, 2011 by  

The Odyssey


Thom Cantrall

The sun had made its appearance, but was not high in the sky.  The warm air of early morning was promising another hot July day in Northern California as my family dropped me off at the north end of Santa Rosa on an on-ramp to Highway 101.  It was one of those sad/sweet moments as I kissed my young sweetheart goodbye and set out on yet another adventure in a young life of many such adventures.

It was 1962 and I had yet to have seen my first anniversary of service in the U.S. Navy, but had just completed the Missile Technician Class A School in Dam Neck, VA, adjacent to Virginia Beach, VA… between there and the Great Dismal Swamp, actually.  This was a point brought home every time a Water Moccasin would slither its way into the hallways of the class buildings adjoining the this great body of brackish water and weeds.

I was just finishing a short leave period at home and it was time to return to duty.  In my seabag, I had orders to the U.S. Naval

USS Gato Class Fleet Submarine

Submarine Warfare Training Center, Sub-School for short, in Groton, CT.  I was expected to be on board by the third of August, so had plenty of time to make this trip.

Before we left A School, four of us had made a plan for returning to Connecticut.  I would make my way from my family’s home in California to Ephrata, WA, about eighty miles east, southeast of Wenatchee, WA which is about two hundred miles east of Seattle.  At Ephrata I was to meet Denny “Foghorn Leghorn” Deycous.  Foghorn and I would be driven from his home there to Spokane, WA where, at a particular gas station at the junction of U.S. Highway 395 and what would soon become Interstate 90, we would meet Mike Dodge who owned the car we would drive to Monona, IA.  At Monona we would add Jim “Jake” Jacobson to our troupe and then on to New London, CT.

My plan for getting from Santa Rosa to Ephrata called for me to hitchhike in uniform up Highway 101 to just north of Crescent City, CA, where I would turn inland on U.S.

Giant Redwoods on Hwy 101

Highway 199 to Grants Pass, OR.  At Grants Pass I would turn north on U.S. Highway 99.  At some point, probably at the Columbia River, I planned to go east to U.S. Highway 97, a route I had once traveled north to Ellensburg, WA.  From there I would go on east to Moses Lake, WA and then north on State Highway 17 to Ephrata.

Avenue of the Giants, Hwy 101

I had no idea how long this trip would take, but I calculated it to be something over eleven hundred miles, almost all on two-lane highways, so I figured a minimum of twenty-nine hours and a maximum of thirty-five hours.  Since we had to meet the Truck (Mike Dodge) at seven pm, I planned for the worst and left Santa Rosa at eight thirty am after a leisurely breakfast and a sad, slow ride to the freeway.  It must be remembered that this was 1962 and the Interstate Highway system as we know it today did not exist.

The trip had a rather inauspicious beginning as it took me several minutes of standing with my thumb out before someone stopped to offer me a lift.  As it turned out, that was the longest wait I had in any one place in the whole trip.  Many rides were short, just a few miles up the highway to where my hosts had to turn off to their own destinations, happy in their minds that they had done their bit to help a serviceman on his way.  The drive up the coast highway was, as always, beautiful with the roadway winding through the great stands of the coastal Redwoods, Sequoia Sempervirons.

Hwy 101 in Humboldt Co., CA

This area is now known as “The Avenue of the Giants”, but then was just “the highway”.

Many of my hosts were interesting and they varied greatly.  One of my favorites in this stretch was a Canadian family who were returning to their home in British Columbia after a trip, a “holiday” they said, to Southern California.  The father was generous in his offering of a Canadian brand of cigarette.  The whole family was very pleasant and fun to be with and I rode with them for more than a hundred miles until the highway

The Beach at Orick, CA on the North Coast

came west to meet the ocean north of Arcata, CA.  Here, my family took leave as they wanted to spend time playing on the beach there.  As happened often on this trip, as I was unloading my seabag and thanking my hosts, another vehicle pulled in behind us to help me load my bag into the rear of their truck.

I was only a few miles out of Orick, CA here and while it was not the longest ride I would enjoy on this trip, it was, doubtless, the quickest I would encounter!  As it turned out,

Orick, CA

two young men who had picked me up had been working on the truck and this short trip was the test run.  We fairly flew those few miles into town at speeds exceeding eighty miles per hour.  I will admit that I was not sad to say goodbye to this pair and move on.

An older couple picked me up coming out of Orick.  It was so sweet how they told me about their nephew, or such who was in the Navy too, did I happen to know him?  He was on a ship in San Diego, she thought, but it could be Texas, too, she wasn’t sure.  I just smiled and told her that with over two-million men in the Navy at that time, the chances were small that

Leaving the 101 and Starting the 199… the longest walk of my trip occurred here

I’d know him, especially since I had been doing time at a small school command in the backside of nowhere.  She had a picnic basket full of very delicious sandwiches and there was iced Pepsi-Cola in the cooler, so the ride north to Crescent City was pleasant and beautiful.  We parted at the junction of Highway 199 as they were continuing on north along the Oregon Coast.

Unfortunately, with the junction being as it was, I had to walk almost a half mile to get into a position where I could safely await a ride where my potential host could get safely off the highway to load me.  This was the longest walk I had for the entire trip.

After the short wait in the late afternoon sun, an ancient pick-up loaded down with firewood rumbled in to load me up.  The occupants were a couple less than thirty years old.  The driver was one of those coarse-haired, burley, broad-shouldered, tobacco-chewing types wearing a red and black checked logger’s shirt.  This was one no one w

The tiny town of Gasquet, CA

ould ever want to challenge in any endeavor if encountered in the local tavern.  Her boyfriend didn’t appear to be any kind of soft touch himself!  While my ride with this couple was short, only the fifteen or twenty miles to Gasquet, (pronounced Gas-key) CA, it was most interesting with most animated hosts.  They, like most of my hosts who were leaving me at a town, drove me through the town to a convenient spot on the outside edge, so that I would have the advantage of any traffic leaving town.

This couple was barely back on the pavement when a late-model sedan pulled over and a middle-aged man eyed me suspiciously.  “I guess you’re ok,” he stated.  “One can’t be too careful today, you know?”

“Would you like to see my Military ID, Sir?” I asked.

“No, I’m sure you’re ok,” he replied.  “Climb in.”

As we made our way north and east, we chatted a bit and he then asked if I could drive.  It seems he had taken advantage of a sales trip to the coastal

Hiway 199 near the CA/OR border

area to enjoy a day of Salmon fishing.  Rising early for that highly successful outing would not have been the problem it turned out to be had not a bottomless bottle of Scotch Whisky assailed his person the night before.  The resultant short night and busy day had left him in a quandary as to how he was going to get back to his Medford, OR home without spending a second night on the road.  As it turned out, I was his answer to a prayer of sorts and I was able to let him sleep the few hours drive into Grants Pass.  On arrival, he directed me to drive to the north end of town to the junction of Highway 99N even though it was a b

Grants Pass 1960

it out of his way to do so.  While I was unloading and he was returning to his place under the steering wheel, a very nice, very clean 1956 Chevy pulled in under the lights of the well-lit junction, evening having over taken us on this last leg of the journey.

Although I had not noticed on the drive, it was now late enough for the lights to be a necessity.  As we set off again to the north, the young man driving introduced himself to me as a fellow sailor… on leave from his San Diego, CA duty station and was en route to Seattle for a couple weeks of recreation at the home of his girl friend’s family.

At this late date, I do not recall his name, although James seems to creep into my mind.  What I do recall is a feeling of relief that I now had a ride through most of the night until I reached that far point where I’d have to make my eastward jog to pick up Highway 97.

We stopped soon for dinner at one of the many roadside diners that offered either the best or the worst food to be had.  In those days before Denny’s, Shari’s or even Burger King, Mc Donald’s or KFC, the roadside restaurant was an adventure in eating all on its own!  Our

North Fork of the Umpqua River near Myrtle Creek, OR on Hwy 99N

luck was good, however, and we enjoyed a pleasant meal in a relaxed atmosphere with an attractive and attentive waitress tending our every need.  It was during this interlude that I received two startling revelations.  First, my host mentioned casually that it was not exactly Seattle he was heading for, but some place called Wenatchee.  He stated that he wasn’t sure where it was, but knew he had to go through Seattle to get there.  I didn’t know exactly where it was either, at that time, but our totally prepared waitress handed me a Washington state road map.  It was the work of but a moment to find the elusive town and to discover it was but eighty miles from my destination in Ephrata.

“Wow,” I exclaimed, “I’m with you all the way, if that’s ok with you!”

“It’s more than ok, it’s great,” h

The Hwy 99N Columbia River Bridge crossing from Oregon into Washington as it was in July, 1962

e replied.  “If you can spell me a bit driving, we can drive right through the night and be there in the early morning!”

It was like an anvil had been lifted off my shoulders to not have to worry about how I was going to transit up the Columbia River Gorge in the middle of the night.  I knew I could do it, but didn’t know precisely how at that time.  God really does look out for small children and sailors on land.

My second surprise came moments later when I went to pay my bill and was told that the older couple who had just left had paid my bill.  I could have been blown away with a feather, I was so astonished.  When I asked, she admitted that, no, they had not left her a tip on my dinner, but that was alright, because she was happy to do all she had done.  That she was so willing enabled me to be more than generous in that capacity, making sure that this princess among thieves was well rewarded for her diligent and friendly service she’d provided us.

1962 Seattle World’s Fair

On through the night we drove, first me, then him until about four am when we found were in downtown Seattle, driving around the site of the current World’s Fair, marveling at the beauty of the spacious grace and the majesty of the Space Needle, the identifying signature of Seattle to this day.

Daylight had not yet made its appearance as we were wending our way up the mountain highway that would become Interstate 90, but at this time was merely a trail through the trees trying to reach the heights of Snoqualmie Pass.  About half way between the town of North B

The restaurant and gas station at Snoqualmie Summit as it appears today…

end and the Cascade Mountains summit at Snoqualmie, our car suddenly coughed once and died.  We drifted to the side of road, both of us at a loss as to what to do next.  We suspected a fuel problem, but the late hours of a dark, moonless night was not the time to be trying to troubleshoot any problem.  As we were contemplating what to do next, a late model pick-up pulled in.

“Obviously,” the driver stated, “nothing much can be done here, so why don’t I just tow you on up to the pass? There is gas station there and a restaurant.  I know the fellow who runs it and he is a good mechanic and an overall good guy… though, if you say I said that about him, I’d have to deny it!”

The world was just turning from black to gray as we watched through the windows of the café at the peak of Snoqualmie Pass while enjoying a generously proportioned breakfast.  We were waiting out the hour until the adjoining garage/gas station opened for business.  The entire staff assured us that the gentleman who operated the place was diligent in opening on time, so he would be in at precisely six thirty am.

“You’re right,” the mechanic said.  “The fuel pump died on you.  I can get you one out of North Bend when he opens at eight… will that do?”

“I suppose it’ll have to do,” my host said.  “What are you going to do, Thom?” he asked of me.  “You can wait it out with me, or go on ahead, whatever works better for you.”

“Just a minute,” the mechanic interjected, “are you two traveling together?”  When we indicated we were, he continued, “Well, for the good of the Navy, he can open early.”  A phone call later and the arrangements had been made for him to pick up the new fuel pump in North Bend at seven fifteen am.

The final out

Welcome to Wenatchee

come was that we left Snoqualmie Summit at eight thirty am with the new pump installed and purring along nicely.   Remarkably, the mechanic charged us only for the pump.  He charged no labor and nothing for having driven the twenty-five or so miles each way to pick up the part.  We were beside ourselves with joy for the treatment we received at this remarkable establishment.  I have driven by that restaurant and station many times over the past forty-five years and even today, a warm feeling fills my heart as I remember this very special moment in my life so many years ago.

By ten am, I was in East Wenatchee, unloading my seabag and contemplating my chances of getting a ride before getting a ticket for hitchhiking as it was not permitted at that time in the state of Washington, as my cousin found out the hard way a couple of years before when he was returning to California from Seattle.   As it turned out one more time, I need not to have worried as there was a car waiting for me even as I completed my exit and good-byes.  An Air Force sergeant en route to work gave me a ride for the full eighty miles to the park in the center of downtown Ephrata.  It was approximately eleven thirty am when I called

Bell Hotel, Ephrata, WA

Foghorn to let him know I was in town.  I had hitch-hiked one thousand forty miles in just under twenty-seven hours.

I spent the next few hours visiting with Denny’s family and taking a nap until his brother suggested it was time and we drove the two hours on into Spokane.  By seven pm we had met the Truck and the three of us were heading east into the fading lig

Hwy 395 Junction in Spokane, WA

ht with our next scheduled stop being in Monona, IA to meet our last pilgrim.

Chapter II

The night passed slowly as we meandered across Montana.  At this time, there was no speed limit in the daylight, but at night, police patrols were not really necessary to enforce the law as it would take a very brave or very stupid soul to attempt to speed in the midst of so much life on the highway.  We saw deer very regularly, often, seemingly grazing along the white line, elk occasionally, to say nothing of the lesser creatures of the night.  About the time we thought that th

Elk on Hiway… not a fun scenario in the middle of a dark night

ese traffic obstacles might be abating their assault, we rounded a long, sweeping curve to see a huge Hereford bull grazing placidly along the shoulder of the road.  He seemed to be totally oblivious to his surroundings, existing entirely in his own world while totally ignoring the meager traffic passing him in the night.

Daylight welcomed us into the city of Bozeman, MT, the original Cowboy Town, USA.  Even though the clock had not yet reached six am, every café was busy and old pick-ups were everywhere.  As we walked into a likely looking eatery, we were greeted by a full house of mostly men ranging in age from too young to shave to a couple that looked as if they

Cowboy Town, USA

might have been here to see the carving of the mountains that surrounded the town.  All looked to have attended the same school of fashion, being clad in worn Levi’s, western shirts with snaps rather than buttons, a bandanna around the neck and pointed toed boots were the footwear of choice.  Each was topped out with a wide-brimmed sombrero, mostly of straw here in mid summer, which marked these men as to their occupation.  There were more than a few who carried sidearms as

Typical Montana Men

the dangers encountered working with half wild cattle in half wild country was the same this day as it had been a hundred years earlier.  There seemed to be a trend that required that being seated at a table meant you took your hat off, but if you were seated at the counter, no such amenity was necessary.  There were some at the tables even to whom it seemed that tipping one’s hat to the back of one’s head constituted “removal”… especially when the hat racks in the immediate vicinity became full.

I must say, that was, without doubt, one of the most memorable breakfasts of my life!  I ordered steak and eggs, rare on the steak and over easy on the eggs with fried potatoes and a big glass of milk… still my ideal breakfast.  I expected to be overfed in this café, but I didn’t, as it turned out, know the half of it!  My steak, first of all, was not the four to six ounce piece of low-grade whang leather you get in the national chains today.  It was a twenty ounce T-bone about an inch and a half thick.  Beside the steak were four eggs cooked perfectly and the other end of the platter, for no mere plate could start to hold this feast, were enough fried potatoes to make Idaho blush.  On a separate plate was a stack of toasted home-made bread surrounded by a cube of butter and about six different jams and jellies.  I looked at what sat before me and wondered if, perhaps, she had misunderstood me and thought I was ordering for the whole table.  That I was in error in this supposition became apparent with the arrival of about a bushel of pancakes that was steered to one side of the table while an omelet approximately the size of Delaware was delivered to Foghorn on the far side of the table.  Along with his omelet came a side of bacon that, had they left the legs on it, could have walked in on its own.  All of this was flanked by a stack of fried spuds to rival that now holding down my platter.  What a breakfast!  I must admit that, while I gave it my all, I simply could not finish it.  I had always considered myself a healthy eater, being an active sort, but when it came to breakfasts, these Montana boys were in a class of their own.  The steak was delicious and cooked precisely to perfection

“I’ve seen critters wounded worse than that that were still walking” was Denny’s observation, if I remember right.  The eggs pretty much disappeared but there were enough potatoes left for two “grand-slam” breakfasts down the street now.  The left-over steak and the toast I carried with me on leaving in case I should, somehow, find myself getting hungry again before reaching Connecticut… a slim likelihood, I felt just then… or, perhaps, we might encounter a band of starving Cossacks and we could supply them for the next week or so.

Denny made fairly good inroads on his omelet but everything else just kind of stayed there.  As for the Truck, poor Mikey never finished one of his giant pancakes and I was sure we would have to render aid to him before we got him out of there and into the car.

During the time of this marathon, the conversation in the restaurant was general with no lines drawn as to who was talking to whom.  Within minutes, it was known that there were three sailors in the place and we were welcomed most warmly and sincerely as men among men, though we were all just nineteen years old and a mere year out of high school.

It was a later start out of Bozeman than we had planned for, but hunger was not likely to be a problem for some time.  The trek on across eastern Montana was interesting as I had never before seen the plains.  “Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles” was the thought that came to mind.  I thought this to be the most desolate landscape to be found in the country, an opinion that was to undergo great revisions over the next few years as I drove across the nation another four or five times using the southern route across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the California desert.

Afternoon found us with parched throats somewhere near Miles City, MT when, like an oasis in the Sahara, an A&W Root Beer stand appeared out of the shimmering sky to land on the horizon.  Mike was driving this leg and he pulled us into a slot where a very attractive daughter of one of the ranches surrounding us came to the car for our order. (Yes, car hops were real… even in MT)  Of course, we had the tallest, frostiest root beer imaginable and somewhere in the middle of enjoying them, our driver decided he wanted to keep his mug.  He opened the car door, placed the tray on the pavement with a generous tip and we left the place behind with two people in the car protesting vehemently.  It was at this point that Foghorn and I decided we might have chosen our traveling companion with a bit more care.  The fact that he owned the car was about all that kept us from throwing him out on his butt.  We thought it might be somewhat difficult to explain to our next commanding officer how we, with his car, arrived safely and in good time while he was still in Montana, probably fighting Indians.

Our route took us across just a corner of North Dakota then into South Dakota.  It was our arrival in South Dakota that was most highly anticipated as, at that time, a person of our years could legally buy beer.  As I was not then, nor ever, actually, a great fan of beer, I was elected driver long before the term “designated driver” ever came into common use.

Evening found us in a small café in a tiny town on the banks of the Missouri River.  The waitress was again young, friendly and quite attractive… our favorite kind, it seems.  As it turned our, she was neither naïve nor gullible.  About mid-way through a pleasant dinner, there began a tremendous electric storm.  The lightening flashed brilliantly and the thunder crashed so loudly it seemed the earth was going to be rent in tw

The Lightening Flashed, the Thunder Crashed and the World Went Dark Around Us

ain.  In the midst of this show of God’s splendor, I was innocently flirting with our waitress, trying to convince her that being as frightened as I was, it was imperative that she sit with me and hold my hand lest I flee screaming into the night.  While my efforts were not being rewarded with any great success, we were both enjoying the sport, although it did seem that she was not really buying fear as my motivation for her holding my hand.  This reverie was shattered in an instant when an unbelievably bright flash was punctuated by a bolt of lightening hitting the light pole across the street turning the darkness of a misty night into the brilliance of a noonday.  The flash was followed instantly by a deafening crash of thunder and the darkness of midnight as all the lights in that part of town went out.  By this time, the light sprinkle that had ushered us into town had managed to work itself into the frenzy of a full-blown storm and water was falling so heavily that one could not see across the street even before the lights went out.

Another flash briefly illuminated our environs only to be extinguished by a crash of thunder that rattled the windows in the café.  I heard a squeal of fright and our waitress fairly flew across the intervening space and landed in the booth next to me.  Astonished as I was, I was just as pleased when she buried her head in my chest, all the while sobbing in seeming terror.  I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and held her close, whispering soothing mantras into her tiny ear.  All too soon, for my part, the storm pa

Sunset on the Missouri River in Central South Dakota…

ssed on and she was able to regain her composure enough to sit up straight and be embarrassed at what she had done.  I took great care to make her realize that she had done nothing improper and, in fact, the pleasure had, indeed, been mine!

Although the storm moved on across the prairie, our lights remained out so the now shy young lady remained seated by my side, although she was no longer clinging to me in need.  Another staff person brought a candle to our table which provided the light, if not exactly the ambiance, to finish our dinner.  It must be admitted, however, that the level of company in our booth was so much higher at the end of our meal than it had ever been in the beginning.

Naturally we were reluctant to leave this small café, me more than most, and not merely because of the torrential rain still falling.  Unfortunately, this too had to pass and with it a warm hug of friendship and a wish for good fortune, we made a dash to our car parked immediately in front of the café.  As quickly as we made our exit, we were not effective in keeping our tail feathers dry and by the time we were safely inside the car, we were soaked to the skin.

Our trip continued through the night on across the prairies of Dakota.  I’m not sure, it was dark and the rain persisted, though not with the same fervor as it had in town, but I think I we saw a tree once!  We passed through Minneapolis, MN sometime in the middle of the night and morning found us fighting dense fog while making our way south from Eau Claire, WI.

Chapter III

By mid day we rolled into Monona and had reached Jake on the phone, much to his great dismay.  It seems we were a day earlier in our arrival than he had expected us to be.  Evidently, in our planning, we had allowed a full extra day in case of emergency and he had construed this to mean that we would pick him up a day later that we had planned.

As we sat over a spare lunch provided by Jake’s family, we decided to spend our Saturday night in Iowa at a dance hall in the nearby town of Postville.  Jake had a date planned for his last night home and he was loathe to leave without seeing that date through.  Seeing the lady he was taking out that evening, I can’t say that I blamed him for his reluctance to leave early.

“You see,” Jake began, “in Iowa, they can only sell beer in the bars.  You normally cannot buy liquor over the bar, but this place in Postville sells drinks too.  Of course, you have to be over twenty-one, but they don’t check all that closely there either.”

Our first stop was a laundromat to wash a set of uniform whites, since it was

Downtown Postville, Iowa

much too warm in mid-summer Iowa to wear the woolen blue uniform.  We had no sooner gotten started than one of the women in the place said, “I’m sure you guys have more important things to do that sit around here all day.  You just leave those and we’ll take care of them for you,” indicating the rest of the ladies there.  Several nods from around the room assured us that our clothes were in good hands.

I was about to explain how to iron them inside out when this dear little, old gray haired lady piped up, “Just never you mind about that, my husband was on three ships during the WAR and I learned to iron whites before you were born!  Just give us about two hours and we’ll be done.”

Our next event in our schedule was to somehow get a shower, or, at worst, a bath.  The Jacobsons were not that happy to see us and did not offer any more hospitality than that pitiful lunch we’d had earlier, so we took it on our own to get this done in our own way.  It took us but a few minutes of discussion and a ten minute ride and we were at a secluded spot on the banks of the Mississippi River.  Into the river we went, soap and shampoo in hand.  Over the next half hour we were able to complete all our ablutions, including a respectably close shave.

By the time we had eaten a good dinner and returned to reclaim our fresh laundry, it was time to dress.  We accomplished this in the men’s room of a local truck stop of sorts and emerged clean and pressed, fresh shaven and with an air that spoke of the pursuit of fair game in the night ahead.

Although we had felt a bit of trepidation in our ability to locate this barn in a town none us of had ever been in before tonight, it turned out just as we were told… “Drive straight through

Iowa Barn… What a special night that turned out to be!

Postville and, as you leave town, you’ll see it… you can’t miss it.”  It was true and while the time we spent driving through town was remarkably of brief duration, we did, indeed, spot it right off and wheeled in, parked and walked to the door.

It was amazing, as we walked in, to realize just how huge the barn was and how well arranged it was for its new purpose.  That it had been a working barn on a busy farm was evident, but tonight it would be hard to tell that.  My only real concern was just how many people would actually show up at such a place on the edge of a very small town in the middle of “farm country, USA.”  I needn’t have worried, as it turned out.

As we entered, there were, perhaps, twenty people in the cavernous facility and the doorman, an older gentleman with a huge smile and warm hand shake ushered the three of us to a table just a bit back from the dance floor… as I prefer.  I like to be able to talk sometimes and when too close to the front, even in those older, quieter days, the band made just too much noise for meaningful conversation.

“I’m Charlie,” he stated without that warm smile ebbing a bit.  “I’ve been doorman here for over thirty years.  You boys have what you want and I’ll be back to see you in a bit.”  With that, he was gone in a flash.  And a rather attractive, if business-like waitress showed up to take our order.

I must say, this was probably the first person I’d seen since arriving that did not appear to be happy to see us.  When I ordered a “ditch”, a western term for whiskey and water, she looked at me like I was some kind of insect that had crawled out from under a rock with no other purpose in life than to irritate her.

“This is Iowa,” she hissed, “We only serve beer here!”

I just looked at her and asked softly, “You don’t swerve drinks?  We heard that we could get a drink here…”

“No!” She stated flatly, “it’s beer of nothing…”

To be truthful, I was ready to leave at that point, but my two companions were either more mellow than I was or they were much thirstier.  To this day, I’m not sure which it was, but suffice to say, we decided to give it some more time.

In a matter of a very few minutes, Griselda the Grim returned with our beers took her due and left… never to return to our table again the rest of the night.  I really don’t think she wanted to be there that particular night.

The dust had but settled in her wake when Charlie came bouncing back to check on us.  “How’s everything with you boys?” he asked brightly.  “Are you getting everything you need?”

“We’re doing great,” I responded, only slightly mendaciously.  “Except I understood we could get a drink here, but the girl would only sell us beer.”

“Just a moment,” he responded as he took off for the bar at a pace that totally belied his years.  I could see him in deep conversation with the two or three people behind the bar and, some kind of consensus arrived at, he sped back to our table and said: “Anything you want is fine now.  You have to understand we must be careful of strangers, but as long as you’re in those uniforms, you’re ok with me!”

Thus began the most convivial of evenings.  That first beer was the only beverage we were allowed to purchase for ourselves the entire night.  As might be understood, we did not order again through Griselda the Grim, but went directly to the bar and there was always someone wanting to buy a drink for us.  Also, we were never short of willing partners on the dance floor as there seemed to me to be an abundance of young, attractive ladies in the near vicinity of our table.  The mystery was solved when I as dancing with a young woman I particularly favored and, with whom, the feeling seemed to be mutual.  While we were dancing, she remarked to me, “You know, Thom, a strange thing happened when my sisters and I came in tonight.  We asked for a table up front like we always do and Charlie told us ‘no, you don’t want to be up front tonight, there are three sailors in the back!’”  Charlie was funneling all the best women back to where we were seated!

Throughout the evening, one person or another would drift in, look us up and tell us Jim was on his way and would be along shortly.  This probably happened six or seven times through the night, but he never materialized. In fact the dance was done and the last kiss stolen on a magical stroll in the moonlight was but just a beautiful memory when his brother arrived to tell us to meet Jim at his home in Monona.  I didn’t really want to do that just now, as I had been invited to coffee with my favorite young lady as had my two compadres with their ladies, but we decided we’d better remember our purpose and move on.  I cannot begin to tell how difficult it was to kiss that lady goodbye and climb back into a car that now seemed more a prison cell than a conveyance and resume our trek east.

I’m not sure how we made the drive to his home but soon we had his gear loaded, goodbyes were said and, with Jake, the only one sober of the four of us, at the wheel, we were back on the trail again.

Chapter IV

About that night’s drive, I have no recollection as I was asleep in my little corner of the car.  I probably was dreaming of the little girl I’d left behind in that tiny Iowa town.  I awoke to a bright sun peeking into my eyes as we were nearing Chicago.  From the windy city it was due east across Indiana and on into Ohio.

Evening was rapidly approaching as we approached Cleveland, the City on the Lake, and we knew we had to change freeways here.  We were all alert and watching but never did we ever see a sign announcing our impending freeway ch

I can’t Imagine why we had trouble finding our way…

ange.  Yes, there were signs announcing “Interbelt East” and “Interbelt West”, etc., but a car full of Western Boys had no idea what an Interbelt was!  The end result was we got to see the Lake Erie waterfront up close and personal.  It was about this time we decided some local knowledge might be useful and we wheeled into a familiar looking gas station.  This was in the era when they were still service stations and, as such,

… There were signs everywhere… even behind the trees…

dispensed information as well as gasoline.  It was here that we learned that the term Interbelt could roughly be interpreted as a freeway or, at least, a highway, because not all of them, to be sure, were free.  After gaining this little nugget of knowledge, we were soon on our way out of town, happily sailing eastward toward Pennsylvania.


… And it was all perfectly CLEAR…

was just a short trip across that portion of Pennsylvania created such that the Keystone State could have its own port on the Great Lakes.

It was very late when we rolled into Niagara Falls, NY and the town was pretty much asleep.  We were sure we would not be able to see much of the Falls since it was nearly midnight, but we were anxious to try, at least.  Since parking was not a problem in the acres and acres of empty lot, we drove as close as we could, then, to the Falls and got out, hoping to at least be able to say we’d seen such a famous icon.  We walked along the sidewalk at the visitor’s center.  It wasn’t long before a uniformed watc

The Gorgeous Falls

hman approached us to inquire as to our intentions in the vicinity of these closed facilities.  A few moments of conversation served to relay our hopes and that we were simply four sailors en route to our new duty station and had hoped to catch a glimpse of the sight we’d heard of our whole life.

The Falls at Night… simply spectacular

“Follow me,” he uttered.  “We’ll see what we can do for you.”  With that, he led us through several doors and a couple of gates then said, “Wait here.”

We could see the white froth of the Falls in the bright moonlight and it was beautiful.  We were marveling in our good fortune that we were able to actually be allowed to see this sight in the night when, to our utter surprise, the entire scene was bathed in lights bright enough to be daylight!  I cannot begin to describe the thrill of seeing that magnificent site bathed in the myriad of lights now playing on the cataract.  The most amazing fact was… there were only four young sailors and an older watchman to see it…

It was late when we, at last bid a fond farewell to this helpful man and found ourselves driving through a quiet, residential neighborhood populated by now dark homes and the occasional small business even.  It was in one of these areas that we noticed the bright neon lights that indicated a neighborhood bar.  A quick discussion among a mostly subdued group yielded the opinion that since we had a half hour until closing time, a night cap might well be in order.

There were but four others in the bas as we entered.  The juke box, like every other juke box in every other similar establishment was playing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, the great Willie Nelson tune.  First one couple then the other moved to the tiny area that served as a dance floor in the little bar.  We made our way to the polished wooden bar and each, mounting a stool, we ordered a drink apiece, safe in the knowledge that, this being New York, we could legally do so.  New York at that time had a legal drinking age of eighteen, a fact not lost on four wandering sailors.  Time was short, we knew, so we had no designs on a long stay, but when the bartender, who, it turned out, owned the place as well, learned who we were, he served us another… on the house… and brought forth a photo of a submarine, telling us that he’d had a couple of guys stop in last week who were s

USS Thresher SS(N) 693 Lost at sea in 1963

ubmariners and they’d left him a picture of their boat.  Although it meant little at the time, the picture of SS(N) 593… the fleet Fast Attack Submarine U.S.S. Thresher would become a name remembered in solemnity when, a few months later, she was lost at sea with all hands.

Closing time came and went, marked only by the proprietors locking of the front door, turning off the outside lights and closing of the shutters on the single window.  The two couples continued to dance and the four sailors continued to talk and to drink slowly, though one, the next driver switched his drinks to straight Pepsi-Cola.

Daylight found us somewhere in the middle of New York state, in amazement at the discovery we had made over the night of a phenomenon not found in our native west… the Turnpike… we were astounded at the rate at which this rapacious beast devoured the few funds we had remaining.  A hurried War Council concluded that even the cost of another night on the road would be preferred to feeding these quarter-mongers, so we got off the Turnpike and plotted a course across what remained of New York and Connecticut.  Our bypass cost us a few hours, perhaps, but by mid afternoon, a full day ahead of our deadline, we rolled up to the main gate of the Fleet Submarine Warfare Training Center in Groton, CT and ended an odyssey of epic proportions.


This story is 100% true and occurred exactly as described.  There were other trips in subsequent years, including one in which I travelled from Charleston, SC to Santa Rosa, CA in 56 hours.  But there were none so memorable as few days in late July and very early August of 1962.  I have no idea of the fate of my mates on this trek… as alluded to, we were a bit more than miffed at Dodge and his antics on this

My Boat… USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 Gold

trip, so didn’t  try to remain in contact.  Foghorn and I remained friends all through our school tenure.. from Sub School, we returned to Dam Neck and Polaris Missile Class C School.. and from there we went to out boats.  I to USS James Madison, SSB(N) 627 Gold then under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock in Newport News, VA… I think Denny went to a boat at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA… probably the USS Daniel Boone SSB(N) 629 as they were crewing up at that time… Jake… I have no idea about him at all… but we all shared a few days that will live forever in our minds…

Thom Cantrall

Mean Animals I Have Known

May 25, 2010 by  


Mean Animals I Have Known


Thom Cantrall

Once again I find life and Hollywood to be at odds.  In all the movies I’ve ever seen wherein animals are actually allowed to appear as themselves, in their real personae and not some Disneyesque scenario where wild animals are portrayed as living in family groups with Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear living in harmony with their bunny and squirrel neighbors, the mean ones, if depicted at all are conspicuously obvious.  Who could but realize immediately upon seeing him that Shere Kahn is absolutely up to no good and wishes nothing but evil to the “man cub” in “The Jungle Book”?

Even when actual animals are playing the part of animals, often with the help of plastic stand-ins, we are not allowed the honor of determining for

Shere Khan

ourselves the level of innate goodness embodied therein.  “Jaws”, for example could not make an appearance without being introduced with a blood chilling rendition of some soul-tingling mood music.  I know that one Great White Shark bears a strikingly close resemblance to any other Great White Shark much the same as one crow bears an exact resemblance to any other crow in the world.  But, that not withstanding, did we need to be told that this creature was dangerous?  Wouldn’t the simple appearance of a tall fin jutting out of the water tell us his intentions?

As a person who has spent a great percentage of his life among God’s Creatures, I can attest to anyone so inclined that no such warnings as those described above have ever preceded any close encounter of the malevolent kind among Mother Nature’s children.  Not once have I ever heard the tum-tum-tum-tum… tum-tum-tum-tum that Jaws engendered when approaching any critter that might wish me ill!

In my single digit and very early double digit years I spent well over seventy-five percent of the daylight and a substantial portion of the not-so-daylight hours when not serving time in that venerable institution that was the bane of my ilk… School… anywhere but under a roof.

Great White Shark

Much of this time was invested in exploring every square foot of my uncle’s ranch and the surrounding environs.  Fences held no meaning for me at this juncture and location other than a necessary inconvenience meant to keep livestock restricted to a predetermined area… more or less, considering the shape in which most of these backwoods fences were kept.

Many of them had been erected by the Spanish when General Mariano Vallejo had owned this vast Northern California domain and had seen little in the way of maintenance since that time.  To say that most were decrepit would have been liberal in description… actually, most were worse than that.  As a consequence, this was pretty much open range to both the cattle and sheep that grazed these timber and brushlands as well as to small boys who were, truly, pint sized disciples of Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith.  But, I digress…

This ranch was home to about four or five million Western Timber Rattlesnakes.  Indeed, it seemed that these rattlesnakes were the only thing that did grow in profusion on this back-woods ranch.  Now, perhaps I’ve exaggerated a bit, but suffice it to say that they were common and they grew large.  I know that the official records say that this snake does not exceed five feet (1.52 m) in length, but I could have shown those experts several specimens that exceeded

Western Timber Rattler

that conservative length considerably.  Probably the largest I ever saw personally was one my cousin Shirley killed under the clothesline just out the back door of the house.  This snake measured over six feet (2 m) in length without its head.  This snake had a girth of over eight inches (19.3 cm) and looked particularly menacing.  For the most part, the only time we ever killed a rattlesnake is when it was in proximity to the house or could pose a danger to some of us.  While I know that television tends to portray the rattlesnake in a coiled position, head poised to strike and rattles singing, I actually saw that in the wild so rarely that I thought for many years that we had demented or, at least, unnatural snakes.  Yes, when provoked, our snakes would coil and assume that classic pose, but it was an extremely rare circumstance, for sure, when a snake let forth with his singing buzz.  Generally speaking, he had to be provoked heartily to induce that buzz.  Normally, as soon as he was no longer being prodded or poked, he just uncoiled and slithered on about his rattlesnake business without so much as a “by your leave” or even a glance back.  Though, he would probably have shaken his head and shrugged his shoulders, had he had them, at the ignominy of this treatment he had received.

The one notable exception to this general rule occurred one warm spring day when Tony, our trusty and tired saddle horse, and I were returning from a morning’s excursion to the edge of the wilderness, an area of immature Madrone trees (Arbutus Menziesii) about two inches (5 cm) in diameter and twenty feet (7 m) tall that had been killed in a fairly recent wildfire that had passed through the area.  This created a nightmarish land of soot-covered stems reminiscent of a black bamboo jungle.  Only the foolish ever entered the Wilderness… a second time.  On the morning in question we had just made the trek for much the same reason people climb mountains… because they are there.  It had been a pleasant foray and had served to clear my mind of the cobwebs engendered during the previous week by Mr. Wilson, my fifth grade teacher in his never-ending quest for dangling participles or split infinitives or

Pacific Madrone

something of the sort.  The ride had worked wonders on my over-taxed nervous system, serving to remind me that if a noun wanted to dangle its gerund, it was by no means my fault!

I was smiling inwardly and drowsing outwardly in the late morning sun.  Tony, for his part,

Curled Madrone Bark... very smokable

was taking it all pretty much in stride and was nearly as asleep as I was.  The road we were on was no proper road, but a cat trail cut out by the massive blade of my uncle’s venerable TD-24 bulldozer in the quest for the huge Coastal Redwood trees (Sequoia Sempervirons) that grew there.  These cat roads laced the mountainside, providing the foot-weary a fairly comfortable place to walk.  They were, at least, brush free and coated in about six or so inches (9 cm) of loose, flowing dust.  The dusty trail was the morning newspaper of the mountainside.  In it you could read the travels of the local denizens… deer, lizards, snakes, mice, skunks raccoons and weasels… they all left note of their passing for the alert reader.

On this particular day, however, “alert” was not a word I would use to describe either Tony of myself.  I was slumped in the saddle, nearly asleep in the sun, the reins wrapped loosely around the pommel… My feet were dangling on either side of the horse, free of the stirrups.  All in all, it was about as pleasant a morning as a lad of my few years could have imagined until we rounded a curve and, directly under Tony’s belly a rather large rattler let out with a very loud and penetrating buzz that immediately served to transform an idyll into a nightmare.

I immediately recognized the sound for what it was and, unfortunately, so did Tony.  His immediate reaction, born of an innate, if heretofore unknown, dread of large rattlesnakes, was to launch himself straight vertical for a considerable distance.  I’ll have to leave the exact altitude attained to one’s imagination as, at that moment, I was much too busy for quantitative research.

Words my father had uttered only a week or so prior, on the occasion of my arriving back at the barn on Tony and being in the saddle but sound asleep, came to mind…  “Thomas (actually, he called me Tommy… a habit I could not break him of his entire life!) one of these days something is going to spook him and he’s going to throw you so high the crows will have time to build a nest in your behind (actually, my dad’s language being as colorful as it was, “behind” was not the exact word he used here) before you hit the ground!”  That, along with certain other predictions regarding the effects on my anatomy of some of my antics served to suggest to me that he would have had a fair future as a prophet had he chosen to pursue that end.  With maturity, something you could have gotten pretty long odds, in this era, against my ever surviving long enough to reach, has come the realization that, perhaps, “Natural Consequence” may have had more to do with his prognostications than did any sense of the supernatural or ethereal.

It amazes me even today, more than a half century later, how clearly those thoughts came to mind while I was still in the ascent stage and was diligently applying what I knew of , added to what I was learning of the physics of flight, even while contemplating the inevitable… Somewhere below me was a crazed horse and, below him, an angry, vociferous rattlesnake.  Even though I was still gaining altitude at the moment of this thought, I knew that, eventually, gravity being what it was, I was going to going to have to effect a landing.  Although I was, at present, navigating quite well, I was not at all sure that such benevolent circumstances would long continue, let alone persevere.

Coastal Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirons)

While time seemed to hang suspended, I could feel myself losing velocity as I neared the apogee of my short flight.  Soon, I felt the rush of air as my direction of flight reversed and my velocity once more began to increase at the rate of, I was to learn many years later, thirty-two feet (11 m) per second for every second of my descent.  At this point, my thoughts began to change from the esoteric investigation of non-powered flight to the entirely mundane… Where the HELL (this being about the strongest language at my command at this time) is that snake?

I must say, as earth became larger and larger in my window of vision, much the same image the Apollo Astronauts would have seen about a decade and a half later, that snake began to occupy more and more of my working mind.  As the conjectural thoughts were pushed aside in favor of the essential, I began to detect, on the very periphery of my awareness, a loud, eerie screeching that seemed to fill the air with its essence.  A small portion of my conscious thought was being hijacked by the weird sound.  About this time it dawned on me that, of the three players in this incongruous drama, there was only one capable of generating that kind of output.  As in the science of criminology, when the impossible is eliminated, what is left is probably the truth.  So it was that in this case, neither horse nor snake was capable of  that tone, therefore, that left only me as the author of that sound… a fact that, while it did little to attenuate the volume, it did serve to remove one source of stress from my already tortured psyche.

Now, there was only one prime thought remaining… where the hell is that snake?  Very soon, like the pilot said at his Board of Inquiry following the crash of his fighter plane… “I ran out of air speed, altitude and ideas simultaneously”… I found myself measuring my length in the deep dust of the road.  As I lay prostrate, still wondering where that snake was, I could hear Tony making tracks as fast as he could down the mountain.  He seemed nothing more than intent on putting as much distance as he could between himself and that snake… wherever he was… as possible in the shortest possible time.  As I lay there in the dirt sucking the needles and leaves off nearby trees and shrubs in the effort to get air flowing into my lungs once more, I began to take stock of my anatomy.  Without the benefit of mirrors or other paraphernalia, I made the assessment that everything seemed to be pretty much as it was prior to the ordeal, all of three seconds before.

The snake was not in evidence, having departed during the debacle just described.  Tony was gone, but I had no concern for him.  He knew the way back to the barn better than I did and I had no doubt but that I’d next see him when I got to the bottom of the mountain, standing at the gate, probably grumbling because he hadn’t been fed yet.

I spent a few minutes assessing my condition, testing my extremities and, in general, wondering where in hell that snake was.  Finally, having decided that little further could be gained from my present position, I tentatively began to rise.  It was not the easiest task I’ve ever performed but almost everything seemed to work fairly well so, timidly at first but soon with more strength and purpose, down the road I moved.  I was sure that Tony was gone and that I was resigned to the long walk home on shaky and achy legs.

About three curves down the hill, standing to one side of the skid road was Tony, his reins were dangling, effectively ground-hitching him and allowing me to catch up the reins, mount the saddle and ride into the ranch yard in triumph, head held high rather than having to sore-foot it the last two miles in from the site of my encounter.

My even more unkempt than usual condition and my rather labored movements finally clued my parents that all was not pure peaches and cream in my world.  The severe interrogation to which I was subjected finally served to get the story of the meanest rattlesnake in all of Northern California out of me… only to incite paroxysms of mirth from the entire family, parents, siblings, aunt and uncle and cousins, at my expense… probably the meanest thing that snake did.  And, I never did figure out where he had gotten to… I was just eternally grateful that he was not still there when I arrived, returning from my aborted free-flight.

As is usual with mean animals, there was absolutely no warning before he sang out in that especially loud voice…er… tail in his case.  In fact, it is precisely this proclivity in some individuals to remain silent until I am entirely within their snare and am at peace with the world before launching their attack that marks them as particularly mean animals!

One of the past masters of this subterfuge resides in the forested areas of the Pacific Northwest.  He is a rather small bird, too small to account for the amount of terror he can author.  He seldom is as large as a bantam hen, but his ability to raise his victim’s blood pressure to near explosive levels is unparalleled in nature.  The usual scenario generally involves…

Ruffed Grouse

The morning had been eventful.  Elk were around in good numbers and had provided shot opportunities on a couple of occasions on smaller bulls.  It was early in the season though and I was holding out for something better, ignoring my long-standing tenet of “never turn down on the first day what you would take on the last day.”  The vagaries of archery hunting for elk being what it was, one was never safe in the assumption that further chances would eventuate that would offer good shots.  But, I was adamant.  I wanted a nice bull if I could get one, and if one always takes a small one first, he will never have the opportunity to take a large one.

The sun was making brief appearances from time to time and it had not rained in over two hours when I caught wind of elk nearby.  It must be noted that elk, though beautiful are not fastidious and they do not bathe.  Hence, they smell like a barnyard.  And, a large group of them smells like a large barnyard.  That is what I was catching now… the aroma of a group, properly called a gang, of elk somewhere very close.  The terrain was flat and somewhat swampy.  The timber was sparse, but regular in its growth.  The main growth was the ubiquitous Salal Brush (Galtheria Shallon).  Salal grows everywhere in this country, and is, indeed a major economic commodity in this area as it is harvested and used in floral arrangements in the cities of the west.  Entwined in this lush growth of Salal is the scourge of northwest loggers, Pacific Blackberry (Rubus Ursinus).  There is just enough of it here to serve as a major tripping hazard, tying the hiker’s legs securely to the ground as his body continues onward on its trek.  The result is, often, a loud crash and a burst of p

Ready to Rev

rofanity.  The fact that this simple shrub is the major food source for the Columbian Blacktail deer that live here does little at this moment to redeem it in the eyes of the tripee.

On this morning, I was especially careful of it.  I was moving across this area of sparse timber most quietly, easing my way to where I might see the elk I was smelling.  On and on I moved, step after silent step.  From one tree to the next until, at last, I was seeing elk moving through the timber.  There were several animals present and I had seen at least one set of antlers through the trees.  I was inching ever so much closer.  Already I had passed up a small bull and some cows, the larger bull now in full sight just ahead.  I was slowly closing the range on him… Fifty yards… forty yards… nearer and nearer to the twenty-five yards (22.5 m) to which my wooden recurve bow limited me.  Just as I was to the point that I felt that I might consider a shot, I took that one more step that is so often fateful.  From out of the brush at my feet burst a small ball of feathers in the form of a ruffed grouse.  He was mean enough to beat me mercilessly with his wings as he made his ascent and his escape!  If I could have maintained my composure, I could have caught him in my hat as he passed by, but, alas, such was not to be.  One cannot imagine the amount of noise such a tiny creature can make with just his wings in the morning air.  Add to that the fact that he was actually multiplying that by the factor of his wings actually beating me physically.

Of course, the elk were long gone, having no more desire to deal with the small tyrant than I had, but they had a clearer field in which to maneuver than did I with my feet tied to the ground by blackberry vines, my heart was now in the proximity of my Adams apple and still on the rise… the air around me still blue from the expletive that managed to slip out while my mind was otherwise engaged with the problems of dealing with killer grouse!

Olympic Peninsula Rain Forest

On a scale of one to ten in meanness, that grouse had to rate at least a twelve or thirteen.  I did manage to survive that unmitigated attack and even to take more elk in the future, but that didn’t stay me from my newest sport… skewering grouse with my bow and arrow whenever the opportunity presented itself!

Lest one begins to think that it is only the alive and aware animal that is capable of inflicting pain and torture on the unwary or under prepared, please note that there are several species that bear enough malice to continue their retribution even past the curtain that signals the end of mortality.  One of the meanest of these was an elk that went beyond the call if duty in creating torment.

It was a rainy morning that opening day of elk season so many years ago.  It was the first such season and my first foray into the jungle of huge stumps, ancient timber and young re-growth timber that is the west side of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The Navy, just a few months prior, had seen fit to honor my first choice of duty station on my transfer from the submarine I’d served aboard for the previous five years. POMFPAC, Polaris Missile Facility, Pacific, was to be my home for the next, and last, two years

Washington's Olympic Peninsula This Story is S. of Forks and W. of Hwy 101

of my service.  This facility was located on what is now the Submarine Base at Bangor, WA, home to the Pacific Trident Missile Fleet.  Housing shortage in the area at the time of my arrival… “most critical since WW II” the newspaper headlines announced on the day of my arrival… forced me to make an alteration to my original plan and to take a military house on the Naval Ammunition Depot Annex on Indian Island, near Port Townsend, about thirty miles (50 km) north of the base.  This proved a most fortuitous circumstance as it landed me among the worst of bad company… a band of hard core elk hunters.

From the time I met Greg and Adam in June until season opened in November, we talked elk.  Being the new boy on the block, I listened and listened… and listened some more.  Many were the tales of the elk trails followed, the elk seen and of the ruggedness of the country traversed.  It was this last that I, in retrospect, didn’t listen to quite closely enough.

Opening morning of elk season 1968 found me on a ridge covered in reprod timber… that is, young growth approximately six to eight years old.  It was about fifteen feet (5 m) high and just an inch or two in girth.  They can grow quite thickly, blanketing the terrain with a rather tall carpet of green.  I was sitting in a position where I could see across the canyon below to the ridge opposite.  Adam was to my right, up the ridge about a quarter mile (400 m) away and near where the two ridges united.  Greg had taken up his position by going to my left, down the ridge, crossing a drainage and up onto the side of the next ridge, giving him an excellent view of the lower end of the ridge opposite.  What had caused us to assume this alignment was our having spotted a gang of elk on the ridge beyond, coming up out of the Mosquito Creek drainage.  And, this gang was moving slowly and unconcernedly in our direction.  A quick war council produced this deployment with the agreement on the point that when they reached the top of that ridge opposite, chances were that they would either turn to my right, up the ridge or turn to my left, down the ridge.  If the former case came about, they would run directly in Adam.  If the latter, they would bottom out and be directly in Greg’s sights.  I, being the rookie, was in the rocking chair and hoping just to get an opportunity.

The plan worked exactly as designed.  The elk hit the crest of the ridge and turned to my right, uphill.  I could see them as they fed and moved through the young timber.  Never long enough for a shot, but I could see them.  Occasionally I could see antlers, usually poking ab

Gang of Roosevelt Elk

ove the trees.  Never could I see both antler and animal simultaneously until, finally, at the head of that spur ridge in a small clear spot, there he was.  A young bull he was, to be sure, but a nice one for a rookie.  Slowly I raised my brand new Remington .30-’06 and took careful aim.  I judged the range at a bit under three hundred yards (270 m) and was snuggling into the sling of my rifle… the cross hairs of my scope were just settling in place when a very loud shot rang out and all I could see of the bull in the scope were four elk feet flailing in the air!  Adam, obviously, had been in absolutely perfect position.

With the report of the rifle, the gang immediately turned back down the ridge, obviously planning their escape back down the ridge to the bottom and thence slipping into the standing, old-growth timber unseen.  Again, I could see them slipping through the brushy timber without giving me opportunity for a shot.  Again, I could see antlers above the brush, but then…. Directly across the canyon on the side of the ridge about a hundred feet (30 m) below the crest, the herd was on a trail that brought them into the open for a short distance.  By this time, they were in single file and moving at a slow trot.  At the particular point in question, each animal in turn had to jump a downed log and was then in full view for about three to four body lengths at which time the animal disappeared back into the jungle of growth.  It was like a shooting gallery.  The range was good, about two-hundred-twenty-five yards (200 m) and about level.  The shot, while it had to be done without wasted time, was doable.

I watched eagerly, my scope locked on each head as it appeared in queue, awaiting a turn at the gallery jump.  When a set of small antlers appeared in the lineup, I slipped the safety off and waited as the cows and calves ahead of him cleared the way.  Soon, he was there… his head held high as he jumped the fallen obstacle without seeming effort and landed in the open area.  He took one more shuffling step to catch his balance and I heard the report of my rifle.  I do not recall ever feeling the recoil.  The shot was true as I watched the hair jump just behind his left front shoulder and he stopped still in his tracks.  Since he was still on his feet, I worked the bolt and jacked a second round into the chamber.  Again, the hair jumped right next to the first hit as the one-hundred-sixty-five grain Speer

On the Peninsula

bullet found its mark.  But, again, he did not fall.  Neither did he move.  It was as if time was standing still and all else in the world had disappeared except that bull elk and me.  There were no other elk in existence… I had no companions, no family, and no purpose except as concerned that bull.  Once more, I worked the bolt.

I knew I had two lethal shots in him and was amazed at his ability to remain upright.  That he was shaken and wounded mortally, I knew, but I was determined he not suffer.  Always, I had prided myself on the fact that no animal I had ever taken had required more than one shot to dispatch.  That a Roosevelt Bull Elk could carry a lot more lead than a deer was a fact that I understood intuitively and was just now learning in real time.  For my third shot, I took a bit more time and located where the bone ran through his neck.  I was sure he was not moving with two rounds in his boiler room… now I was going to put one into his wheelhouse.  I felt that the range was a bit excessive to effect one into his brain, so chose the second-best location.  Once more, I could see the hair on his neck jump as the heavy bullet created its effect.

Slowly, after this shot, the bull’s knees began to buckle.  Like a punch-drunk fighter viewed in slow-motion, he folded slowly, one leg at a time and he eased to the ground, taking care, I was sure, not to bruise any of his delicious meat.  I watched as he crumpled like an empty potato chip bag until he was prostrate on the steep sidehill.  Then, like that bag unfolding on its own, a leg jerked spasmodically…  A second kick caused him to roll down the hill a bit.  Soon, another kick and he tumbled even further down the ridge.

“Aha,” I said to myself, “how wonderful!  He’ll be so much easier to dress out at the bottom of the ravine than he would be on that steep sidehill.  I’d probably have to drag him down to the bottom anyway…”

Oh, how naïve can a rookie be?  I had totally failed to reckon with the fact I had just harvested one of the really mean elk in all of creation.  All elk hunters know intuitively that trophy elk do not live above the road as this would make the pack out to be much too easy.  Even if

Roosevelt Elk in an Alder Bottom

one should be caught traversing that “no-elks-land” they will do everything they possibly can to rectify their faux pas and immediately light out for the very bottom of darkest, brushiest hole imaginable, there to die.  Thus, in their passing, they can inflict the greatest possible distress on the hapless hunter who was inexperienced enough to have taken his life!  I once had a Pastor of a local church swear to me that he had taken a nice bull above the road in such a position that he had but to back his truck up to the bank at the side of the road and slide the animal in whole, thereby retrieving him almost without effort.  I was skeptical but not wanting to disbelieve the clergy when I found out he was also a fisherman!  Now I was torn terribly trying to believe his most wild story.  As he continued, it cleared itself up for me.  It seems he was forced to stop for some construction work on the road he was using when the timber cutting crew lost control of a tree they were falling and it dropped right across the bed of his truck… I tell you, those elk will do ANYTHING to get even!  I’m now quite sure that animal’s being above the road was just a ploy to lure the unwary into a position where his truck could be squashed like a june bug.

This is a trait common to all elk and subsequent harvests have led me from the depths of “Ohmygawd Canyon” to swamps so mean and foreboding that the fauna has regressed several stages on the evolutionary scale (I mean, have you ever seen a flying lizard?).

Roosevelt Bull

These outings have served to teach me this fact.  However, what this young bull did was way beyond the scale of ordinary meanness.  Upon reflection, I cannot recall a single time when an elk just went peaceably and stayed where he fell.

In this land of excessive moisture, the rain creates many strange phenomena.  The more than two hundred inches (500 cm) of annual precipitation causes the land to be conformed to the water’s needs.  In this case, these pressure ridges, as we were now on, created by a long ago, long gone glacier several thousand years ago were not made of solid rock, but of alluvial materials like sand and gravel.  At the bottom of the gully, between the ridges, the excessive water flow had created a trench very much like that created by a backhoe when installing underground utilities.  This trench was approximately eight feet (2.5 m) in depth and three feet (1 m) in width.  The sides were perfectly vertical and water ran in the bottom.  The ditch looked so unstable to me that, if it had been a construction project, no man would have ever been allowed in it without shoring the walls.

As I hiked down the hill from my ambush point, I was being soaked by the gallons and gallons of water that had been suspended on the needles of the young spruce and hemlock trees I was bulling my way through to reach the place where I expected to find my elk.  Looking back on that today, my worrying about that water was very much like worrying about spilling a cup of water on oneself just before falling out of the boat.  It took me nearly an hour to fight my way through brush as thick as the hair on a shaggy dog’s back to reach the bottom of that gully.  I could readily see the path in the more open sidehill the bull had made in his “kick it loose and let it roll” routine he used to expand his meanness to stellar proportions.

The thick brush I had been negotiating ended a few feet from the very bottom of the gully, providing a clear area approximately eight feet in width extending up and down the gully.  I could not believe my good fortune in seeing this… Imagine, an area of clear ground on which to work!  A five hundred pound (225 kg) plus animal is hard enough to move around for dressing in any place or position.  Doing so in brush or on steep ground can be terrible.  I was nearly ecstatic, then, at finding this boon.  And, that ecstasy lasted the full two minutes or so it took me to break through the last of the heavy cover

Cow with Calves

and see the horrible truth of what this animal had done as his last act of defiance.  All that was to be seen where I would have supposed this beast to be was the marks of his last struggle as he managed to heave himself bodily into that trench in the bottom of the gully.  With no small amount of trepidation, I inched forward slowly, peering expectantly into that hole even while dreading the confirmation of what I new was true.

What greeted me was a sight indescribable.  Lying in the bottom of that hole I could see a foreleg, or maybe two hind legs and one eye.  He lay in such a juxtaposed position I am convinced there were forces other than random chance at work here.  I doubt sincerely that he could have become so sincerely misaligned by mere chance.  In addition, he was now acting as a really nice dam in the stream running at the bottom of the trench and was rapidly creating a rather nice lake on his upstream side.

It was at least six feet (2 m) from the lip of the trench to the animal and he filled another short distance with his body.  The walls were perfectly vertical for as far as I could see in either direction, affording me no easy access or egress anywhere within sight.  I found a convenient stump left over from the logging of this area and sat down to contemplate my situation.

As I pondered the improbability of this, a shot rang out from Greg’s direction.  Vaguely, I recalled another from that area a bit earlier.  More than likely, this last shot finished what the prior one had started… which meant, Adam being busy with his own bull from earlier and, now, Greg with his, I was entirely on my own.  I was sure that I could expect no help so what was to be was up to me.

The rain was falling, not in drops any longer, but in vast sheets of water.  Looking down the draw, I could see wave after wave of water being driven before the wind.  In places, where the wind swept up the

The Impossible Greens of the Rainforest

ridge, the water was hurled up the ridge, a vanguard to the wind.  It was actually raining uphill!  I have never, before or since, witnessed this exact phenomenon, but there it was this cold, windy and wet November day.

I finally, after much soul-searching, removed my outer garments, coat, vest, raingear, etc. and piled them on the stump that had served as my throne and, keeping only my venerable Buck Knife, my small hand axe and bone saw from my belt sheath, I jumped from the lip of the trench into its bowels.

I have never seen such a sight.  I didn’t have an elk lying in a ditch; I had a pile, a lump even, of elk lying in the bottom of that ditch.  Looking up, it appeared that I was being buried in the groin of Mother Earth herself.  With a sigh, I pushed all thoughts aside and bent to the task at hand.

My first several attempts at moving the animal merely resulted in falling debris and waves of water as I unblocked, momentarily, the river that was being detained by the body lodged in the bottom.  I stopped a moment and reassessed my situation.  I looked over the situation in minute detail and, believe me, there was no little part of it that was comforting.  At last, I thought I had a handle on what needed to be done to untangle this mass of elk and arrange it in line with the flow of the trench.  This, at least, would afford me the opportunity of dressing out the animal and, possibly, rendering it into pieces of a manageable size that it might, eventually, be removed from the hole.  My years of untangling backlashes from my fishing reels stood me in good stead in getting this job accomplished.

By pulling on one foreleg until I got it free then scrambling across the lump of elk and into the growing lake of ice water on the uphill side, there to extricate a hind leg from its trap, I was able to effect some progress.  Back across the carcass again to find the other foreleg only to find the antlers buried in to the bank, holding the head firmly in place… directly on top of the misfolded appendage I was trying to liberate.  On and on, back and forth for the better part of an hour I worked to get this mean critter into an orientation that would allow me to begin the arduous task of butchering.  By the time I managed to get five hundred pounds of dead elk arranged as I wanted him, I was drenched to the skin, covered in mud and muck and ruing the day I had ever heard of elk.  It should be noted at this point that, although I may have described this in words that would make one think it was a pleasant, joyous occasion… it was not!  However, in terms of what was yet to come, this interlude might well be taken as high, easy living.

At last I had wrestled him into a position in which I could begin the dressing.  As soon as I had vented the animal, I began to encounter problems caused by the proximity of the vertical walls.  I could not roll the animal to allow easy extraction of the offal, so I had to remove it by hand, over the aft end, piece by piece.  By now, Icy Lake, formed by Elk Dam, had drained sufficiently that I could move the offal out of the water.

When, at last, I determined him to be as clean as I could make him in my present place and circumstance, I began the task of reducing him to carriable proportions.  I thought that six would be appropriate.  To this end, I removed his head and antlers and placed them in a safe spot.  I then removed both front shoulders.  This, while not near as easy as it would have been on open ground, was not overly difficult.  The hind quarters, however, were a totally different matter.  Normally, with the animal on its back, it is a relatively simple matter to make a cut at the joint, allowing the weight of the hind quarter itself to pull it way from the carcass.  By simply extending the cut as

Young Author With First Big Bull

the quarter falls away, it is soon completely severed, the hip joint being a ball and socket joint that is easily popped loose.

Such is life in a perfect world.  My world, at the moment, was far from adequate, let alone perfect.  I could not effect the cuts as I normally would because the walls held the legs nearly vertical, not allowing gravity to aid in the process.  Add to this the fact that Rigor was, by this time, setting in and one can see the situation was deteriorating rapidly.  It was pure gut-busting, mule-hauling work to get those hind quarters separated from the carcass and by the time it was completed, I was nearly in as bad shape as was that elk.

The last step in my butchering process was to split the carcass transversely, across the carcass just above the sixth rib yielding a fairly flat chunk of meat that was the prime of primes in elk.  On this was contained the tenderloin and the choicest steaks.  The other half contained some fine steaks as well… the T-bones and the rib steaks as well as the chuck steaks were here with a lot of fine elk.  It also included the ribs and brisket as well as the neck.

By the time I had completed the butchering, I was exhausted.  While deciding my next move, I sank down to rest, using a hind quarter of elk as my seat… a load of round steak supporting a round butt… and began to think how I was going to get out of this predicament.  Obviously, I could not get out the way I had come in, gravity being what it was, so that left only two options… up the trench or down the trench.  As soon as my heart rate returned to a near normal rate, I arose and, shouldering one forequarter, began my trek down the bottom of the trench, praying for a spot where the sides were low enough to let me get out of the hole.

It seemed like hours had passed and miles walked before the lip of the trench began to do dip to greet me.  Slowly and cautiously I crept along, my load gaining weight with each step all the while issuing prayers for the lessening of the depth to continue.  Finally, at last, my head was above the ground level and I waited no longer, but lifted that front quarter from my shoulder and onto the ground outside the trench.  It really felt like I’d covered at least a mile, but it was, as I learned by pacing the distance on my return trip, only about five hundred feet (350 m).  Four more trips I made with the meat from that bull and I had only the chest cavity remaining.  I was out of gas and out of ideas on how to move that large, bulky bull down my rapidly deteriorating route when I heard my name being called.

While grinning so widely that I threatened to break my face, I hollered back.  When a second call asked if I needed help, I screamed for rope and my packboard, a couple of items I had neglected to

Young Roosevelt Bull

bring with me when I dove into this hell-hole.  I guess I was more interested in keeping them safe and dry in my truck than I was in actually using either.  That was a mistake I never repeated in all the years I hunted elk.  From that day onward, I never left my truck without a length of rope wrapped around me.

I put the question of what to do about that last piece of meat on hold until I had help here with me.  In the meantime, I recuperated.  I knew the job was far from complete as, even if both Adam and Greg came in, it would still mean two trips apiece back up that mountain through that brushy jungle with more than a hundred pounds (45 kg) of elk strapped to the packframes.

In a few minutes, I heard the chatter of men as the brush snapped and an occasional curse rang out, signaling a foot caught up in a root or a vine or such.  It dawned on me suddenly that this was the noise of more than just two men.  In fact, when the brush finally parted, not only Greg and Adam popped out, so did three good friends from town.  I could not believe that they were actually there, having told us not to expect them until late as work commitments would cost them opening day of the season.  There were now six of us.  Bob, Leon and Larry had found our trucks parked and had heard the shooting so had figured we had animals down and could use some help.  This being before the present era when the world was not overrun with thieves, we did not remove the keys from a vehicle when we parked as it may need to be moved to allow access to another.  Thus, the three got out packboards and such gear as they felt we would need and started in to find us.  I was deep in my long rut when they called out at first, so I did not hear them.  Greg and Adam, however, did.  In fact, they were within a stone’s throw of Adam and he guided them on to Greg.

I cannot express the joy I felt on seeing their homely mugs, and told them as much!  It was the work of but a few moments to tie a rope to that last hunk of carcass and to pull it out of the hole.  They had even determined a better route out.  Basically, it followed the trail the elk had used in coming down that ridge so long ago and led us directly to the junction of the ridges and to our trucks.  I broached the possibility that I might get a ride out on one back or another, but the fact that I soon realized that the only way this was going to happen is if I were willing to go the same way that elk was going… in six pieces did much to cool my ardor at what I had really thought to be a viable idea just moments before… An hour later, after much discussion of the sanity of anyone who’d venture into that hole, we were all at the truck enjoying a cold drink and a warm meal of Chef Boyardee that was whipped up on a Coleman stove.  Although it was just simple fare, heated quickly and served directly from the pan, it was possibly one of the finer, most welcome repasts I have ever known.

Adam’s elk was already in his truck and Greg’s was waiting at the edge of a small logging trace, ready to load.  I had fired my first shot at 8:05 that morning and the sun, behind thinning clouds, was sliding from the western sky as I sat on the tailgate of my truck, recounting the tale of the meanest elk that ever lived…

A Small Piece of Heaven

May 5, 2010 by  

It was an unusual day for the far west end of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula… the sun was shining.  The air was warm and inviting.  Imagine my surprise as I pulled off US Highway 101 in the town of Forks to top off my gas tank to be in need of neither a jacket nor raingear.  It was early in June and I had no expectation for anything but rain and foul weather in this land where annual rainfall is measured feet rather than in inches.  I was pleasantly surprised by this fortuitous turn of events.  In a place were the sun can be obscured more than two hundred and twenty five days per year, any day without cloud is to be celebrated.
My goal was clear in my mind.  I had been looking forward to this period since last November when I discovered my own little corner of Eden while elk hunting in this land of Roosevelt Elk and wet brush.  I had sneaked in on a herd of some thirty-five animals but, not finding the animal I wanted, I sneaked back out and left them to their own devices, none the wiser as to my presence.  One of the real

Roosevelt Elk in Timber

bonuses of hunting with bow and arrow was the opportunity to hunt in full stealth mode.  This affords the delight of days like this had been.  I had been within several feet of wild critters while they were totally unaware of me.  To be allowed the privilege of observing these largest of the elk species of North America from arm’s length was worth much more than the cost of license and tags.

In my exit from the valley of Goodman Creek, I happened on a spot that drew me back on this prime June day in 1973. I was right on the creek, walking upstream when I encountered an area that looked like a park.  The timber was a mix of Western Hemlock (Tsuga Heterophylla) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga Menzesii) with few Sitka Spruce (Picea Sichensis) also there.  The stature of these trees was amazing to behold.  Here were trees exceeding ten feet in diameter with a canopy so high that it seemed to tickle the very belly of heaven.  Because the trees were so large and the canopy so tight, there was no understory at all.  There were not even brushes growing in this park.  Again, due to size, the trees were widely separated, leaving more room on the floor than would normally be expected in such an area.
On the north side of the creek there was a wide gravel/sand bar where the stream made a sweeping turn away from the park.  At the edge of the sloping beach was a step of about a foot up onto the forest floor.  Here, among these northern giants, the floor was even and smooth.  Not so much as an old stump marred the pleasing esthetics of the area. The gravel bar beach was in direct sunlight for a few hours in the middle of the long, late-spring day and salmon berries and huckleberries grew in profusion on the south side of the stream adjacent to the sun-speckled clearing.  Here and there, huge old trees lay in the creek creating natural hiding areas for the myriad fish living there.

Goodman Creek

The demise of these huge trees was proof that nothing resisted the inexorable pressure of water forever.  As surely as the Colorado River had reamed out the Grand Canyon, the flowing waters of a creek never more than ten feet in width at this time of year persisted in its efforts and eventually, undercut and fell these behemoths who dared challenge the creek’s right to flow where it wished.
For days my companion and I communed with our Maker on this piece of ground He had taken a bit of extra time to prepare for we two of his children.  We fished daily, taking a few of the fat, hungry and very tasty cutthroat trout He had placed here for our use.  We picked the bright berries that grew in profusion and even found enough oyster mushrooms to satisfy our hunger for these especial fungi.
On one evening we were afforded a

Oyster Mushrooms... eat as is.. very tasty

special airing of His first-run show when a band of Roosevelt Elk moved through the park in their never ending quest for food.  I believe this was the first time I’d actually watched the elk feed off the bane of foresters and loggers all over the Pacific Northwest, Devil’s Club (Oplopanax Horriblus).  As the Latin name would suggest, this is, indeed a horrible plant.

Devil’s Club is a low shrub that grows up from the ground in a bowed, sweeping arc.  The stems from the ground to the leaf whorl are from six to ten feet in length and are totally covered over their entire circumference and length in tiny, loosely attached thorns.  At t

Devil's Club... OUCH

he very upper end of the upswept stalk, a single whorl of large, deciduous leaves surround the stalk and the flower and meristem, the area of new growth emerges from the center of this whorl.  A red berry, the fruit of the plant emerges in early summer and ripens later.  It is this delicate center portion the elk cannot ignore.  I have watched them for hours as they gingerly reach out and up toward the plague of thorns, thorns

Devil's Club Thorns

that are designed with minute barbs such that should one stick in skin, or even in clothing, it will patiently work its way into one’s body creating a festering, suppurating wound, and carefully pluck that tender new growth with the delicacy of a surgeon opening a living heart.

By sitting totally still and watching closely, we saw the beauty of the wild at work here.  We watched new-born calves, only minutes old, on rickety legs suckle life-giving milk from patient mothers who did all they could to sustain their offspring.  Young bulls, antlers just beginning to grow, bounced and gamboled in play in the manner of all youth.  And, watching it all with a careful eye was the herd’s lead cow.  We watched as the cows barked and mewed at erring calves.  We watched as the cows communicated one with another as they shifted slowly along their route… a route so old in time that none here

Very Young Calf

even knew why they did it so… it just was.. and is.  Occasionally, the lead cow, one so much larger and heavier than the rest that she appeared to be of another species entirely, would bark out a warning and all eyes would be on her as she assessed that which had alarmed her.  Soon, no predator having been detected, she calmed and returned to feeding whereby all with her did likewise.

Once, in this idyllic week, a bachelor herd of five mature bulls moved up the creek and through the park.  Two of these five had to have weighed over fourteen hundred pounds.  Their antlers, just beginning to grow were heavy at the bases and, I was sure, would be at least six points on a side when full growth was accomplished in the next couple of months.
That the elk used this area repeatedly came to me very early in my enjoyment of this park.  The first night there, I cleared the ground where my tent would be set up, spread the ground cloth and erected my US Army surplus pup tent.  Inside, I spread my US Army surplus

Bull in Spring... Antlers just beginning to grow

down filled mummy bag next to my companion’s US Army surplus down filled mummy bag.  From all outward appearances, all things were equal and thus did this misapprehension last until darkness had fallen and we retired to our respective bags.  Immediately upon crawling into mine and zipping it up, I discovered the subtle, but distinct difference between mine and my companion’s bag… Hers had no lump under it, mine did!  Immediately on discovering this anomaly, I quizzed her about the possibility of trading bags for the night as one US Army surplus mummy bag was pretty much like every other US Army surplus mummy bag and surely she’d find this one more to her liking.  Her rejection of this premise was instant and unremitting and, I felt, a bit harsh as well.  I really saw no reason for her to cast aspersions on my analysis that, in making this particular bag, that, perhaps, the maker had forgotten to remove the chicken from the feathers…

Since it was obvious that I was stuck with the bag with the chicken still attached, I went about making the best of it.  I wriggled and

US Army Surplus Pup Tent

squirmed about until the blessed bird was no longer pressing between my shoulder blades and curled up around the offending lump.  Please believe me when I say that wriggling and squirming sound much easier when one is not encased in a US Army surplus mummy bag.  The mere act of moving is difficult at best and sometimes borders on impossible.  Suffice to say that in this semi-U position, coiled fetally around the offending lump, I spent a not so comfortable, but passingly torturous night that lasted at least one hundred hours.  Whenever I tried to move to alleviate the pressure on over stressed muscles or joints, that knob was back again!  By the time the sun rose, that lump had increased my vocabulary by at least five new words!  That was not a bad thing, I suppose, though it might have been better had the five new words combined for more than twenty letters.  Being an ex-sailor and a logger, I really didn’t need to learn any new words of that sort.  Their proclivity for jumping out at socially inappropriate times rendered them a major liability!

First light brought with it my emergence from my exile and, while I usually handle the breakfast chores in camp, this morning I delegated those duties and set about delving into the mystery of the immovable lump.  By daylight, I had determined that the offending lump was not in or part of my bag.  I had found that even with me and my bag removed, the lump was still there in the ground cloth that served as a floor to the tent.  I started by removing the bags, then the ground cloth and what I found surprised me.  It appeared that a small root or shoot was sticking up from the ground.  Now, since it had not shown above the ground level when I laid the ground cloth, it must have been there, just at or below the surface, waiting for my weight to bring the surface level down below its level.  Thinking this would be the work of but a moment, I took my sheathe knife that I always

Shed Elk Antler

carried at times like these and began the task of digging down far enough that I could cut it off and I could fill in over it and that would be the end of that.  Wrong!  The deeper I dug, the deeper the shaft went… and the larger it became.  By the time I had dug down about eight inches, I finally realized what I was dealing with.  I was excavating the tine from an elk antler.  By the time I had moved the tent, the ground cloth, both US Army surplus mummy bags and about twenty cubic yards of soil, I was amazed.  What I had allowed to disturb my night’s sleep was the very tip of one tine on a single six point elk antler, much like the one pictured above!  Believe me when I say that the second night was much more comfortable in my US Army surplus pup tent and I kept that antler for several years.  In fact, I collected them until I had quite the pile of them.  I gave them away to the Buckskinners I knew who used them in making 18th century period clothing and accoutrements to their black powder rifles and lifestyle.


I continued to return to this place for a number of years, the last time in about 1986 and I hope it is today as it was then.  One day I’m going back there just to see, if I should be allowed to live so long, but in the interim, it lives well in my memory… just a bit west of US Highway 101 on a tiny creek between the Bogachiel and Hoh Rivers… my own little corner of Eden.

Life in Blue Hole

October 10, 2008 by  

Blue Hole

JB Sander's Haypress

JB Sanders Haypress


Thom Cantrall

Boonville is small town with a history... and my family is a major part of that history. It lies in a valley along Anderson Creek about a hundred miles north of San Francisco in the coastal range.

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The Bear Facts

October 5, 2008 by  

The Bear Facts

P.O.W. Blackie

P.O.W. Blackie


Thom Cantrall

The sun had passed its zenith and the tide was busily filling the inlet slowing the fishing to the point that it was time to find other things to do for a time. Besides, after four days of fishing, the freezer was full and there was no more room to store the salmon we caught. Those fish caught in the morning had been filleted, wrapped and stuffed into the overcrowded freezer awaiting our trip home in two more days.
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Halloween at Sea

October 4, 2008 by  

USS James Madison SSB(N) 627

Ship's Patch

“Halloween at Sea”


Thom Cantrall


“But Sir,” objected the Petty Officer to our Officer of the Deck, the one person in charge of the ship in the Captain’s absence, “it’s Halloween and the whole crew in wanting all-night movies to celebrate, since we cannot go trick-or-treating.”

For his part, Lieutenant Ranes was not averse to this, but the Executive Officer’s standing order was for one movie at 1900 (7 pm) and one at 0100 (1 am) and the latter for qualified men only. After listening closely, albeit with a slight smile, to the man in front of him, he responded, “I can see that you’re serious about this and it does bear further investigation. I’ll call the Exec and see if he’s agreeable.” [Read more]