Varmints

I spotted the sleek coyote trotting across a piece of fallow ground on the Gila River Indian Reservation where we ran several bands of sheep. I slowed down and the coyote stopped and sat on its haunches and looked at me.

Besides building fence, moving and watering sheep, my bosses expected me to kill coyotes and dogs, too, if I found them harassing the ewes and lambs. But more than that, I was supposed to kill coyotes anywhere I saw them because…well, because at some place and time they would kill sheep.

I remember when I first got to Nam, on a patrol along a river we spotted some kids on the opposite side of the lazy-moving flow washing water buffalo and our squad leader ordered us to shoot to kill. The kids.

I complained and he explained that those kids would grow up to kill Marines like me, so…I don’t remember if I pulled the trigger or maybe I don’t want to remember.

As the coyote sat there, his tongue out the side of his mouth, I reached down on the floorboard and fingered the stock of my Mauser Karabiner 98k.

The coyote stood and loped off, his bushy tail straight out like a flag caught in a gale. Behind him, San Tan Mountain reared up and he only showed me his ass end. I stepped on the gas and he swerved back toward the road, stopped and sat on his haunches.

Coyote

I slowed, hit the brakes and he leapt and bolted and I drove and he halted and I stopped and then he left again and it went on and on and I never killed him. I don’t remember how long that coyote and I performed the strange go and stop regimen but I do know the memory is in my head like a badger digging at a gopher hole.

I suspect now that I never intended to kill him.

This was in 1971 and I still had the stink and stain of combat and fear painted on my soul. Not that it’s gone now, but then it was heavy and dominant and as such, maybe I thought myself done with killing.

I didn’t tell anyone I never shot that coyote, or any of the others I encountered while working the sheep, and I feared that if I told my boss and co-workers I didn’t shoot those “varmints” as we called them, they’d have laughed at me or chewed my ass.

I don’t like ass chewings, even when I’ve got them coming and when people laugh at me, my insides fester like bloody puss in a boil.

Some of the people I worked for knew where I’d been in Nam and they had an inkling about what I’d endured, so they had expectations—maybe true, maybe not. That I was bad. If you messed with me too much, I might kill you. I never tried to belay that impression. So I imagine now that they thought I’d have little trouble blowing coyotes away. But that coyote, that day seemed to be minding its own business although I also know its business is to kill.

And yet I wasn’t done with killing. For years after I hunted quail and chukar and pheasant and turkey and larger game.

Once, when hunting a black-tailed buck on a bright November morning when the snow crunched beneath my boots and the wind swooshed the tops of the Doug firs, I spied a critter slinking along a five strand barbwire fence. Tan with a long, thick, bushy tail. A coyote.

I didn’t even lift the 7MM Magnum to my shoulder. I allowed the coyote to escape and I didn’t say a word about that to my hunting mates who would have scolded me about letting the “varmint” go.

And I imagine that would have led to me having to divulge things about what I really thought about killing and death, and I suspect I didn’t want to do that. And I’m not sure I really want to investigate too much how I feel about killing even now.

Standing here typing into the computer, I’m trying to remember what I really thought back then but most of the particulars have escaped, like the varmint. But one thing I know for sure, I’ve never regretted not blowing a hole the size of a silver dollar in its side.

Once I went out south of my old home town in Arizona in search of a pickup load of mesquite wood with a couple of my Valley of the Sun banker buddies who fancied themselves woodsmen. One of them had a line on a bunch of mesquite that would be good for burning.

I tagged along to go along while they cut limbs off the bottoms of trees that carpeted a section of ground next to some fallow cotton fields.

Not far away I heard the calls of a coyote pack and while the bankers worked, I grabbed my Browning 12 gauge and walked into the mesquite forest to kill one or more of the yapping coyotes.

I’d rather not remember too much of my mindset. Back then, my moods simmered like sour mash and I had lots of reasons to feel like that, some of them legitimate, some not. Inside I seethed.

The morning was chill and the sky the color of lead, drab and dank. The coyotes yapped and yipped and occasionally howled and they cavorted just beyond the limbs of the next trees that stood in front of me, yet when I barged through the thorns that tore at my trousers and shirt, they seemed suddenly behind me, and then to my left, to my right, their calls and comments blaring in my ears. I remember that for sure.


The yapping and the yammer and the nips and low growls felt like they were laughing at me.

I cussed out loud and the coyotes yammered in their coyote palaver and the skin on my forearms seeped red from where mesquite thorns had plowed furrows and anger choked my throat and I swore I’d shoot every goddamned one of them when I caught them out in a clearing.

But there was no clearing and as quickly as they had begun their torment the morning grew silent except for the distant whine of my buddies’ chain saw.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I’ve killed mule deer and pronghorn and when in Nam I tried like hell to kill the enemy. So, it’s not like I haven’t been a killer. All my life.

Later in life, Betty and I visited a friend in the vineyards of Western Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. As we readied for bed one evening, right outside the window a pack of coyotes began to palaver just like that morning when in my own personal funk, I had set out to murder some.

They yakked back and forth. Our friend appeared in the door to our room and smiled and we smiled and for just a moment, I imagine now, I thought it was that bunch of coyotes who’d joshed me that morning years before, come a thousand miles to tell me something that I had failed to understand.

What it was they wanted to say was beyond me and the notion of them carrying a message—maybe something about death and life and how fragile our existence can be—probably stuck with me for a moment or two, and then it was just our friend and Betty and me, standing in the light shining from the hall, listening to the music, the talk, the community of coyotes carrying on.

Railroad Depots and Wool Bags

This winter, Betty and I expect to travel to southwest Texas to attend the 28th annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the town of Alpine. While there with our friends Mary and Roger Engle, we intend to explore the area: Big Bend National Park, the ghost town in Terlingua, the Marfa lights, the old train depot in Sanderson and a lot of other spots. We’ve wanted to check the area out for nigh onto three decades and hopefully 2014 is going to be the year.

When I was a kid in southern Arizona, I spent some time herding sheep with a local Basque family. A lot of the sheep we herded came from the Big Bend country, so the names of the places Betty and I want to visit are lodged in my memory along with bleating ewes, coyotes skulking around a herd of mixed-breed Suffolk and Columbian lambs, traps, strychnine, fence, sheep trucks. And there’s the Southern Pacific Depot at Sanderson, Texas, constructed in the early 1880s which is now deserted. I want to see it before it gets torn down.

Southern Pacific Station in Sanderson, TX, circa 1903. Photo by Robert Prosser

Thinking about the depot at Sanderson makes me think about the depot in my hometown, Casa Grande, Arizona. The last time I visited there, the depot was no more, having burned down in 2009. Even though it’s named on some of the rolls of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, it is no more.

That depot was the center of attention in my small town when I was a kid. We used to walk down Main Street and watch the cattle and sheep come down the ramps onto the asphalt paralleling the tracks, cowboys and drovers running around, or riding cayuses around, trying to keep the herds from straying off among the bail bondsman, the shoe stores and the pharmacy and the bars. That was before the railroad went way south, to employ an often overused metaphor. But railroads did head south, they dried up, and left the passenger/freight business to trucks and things like that. And I hate that because I loved the sounds of the trains, that metal-on-metal percussion of the wheels on the tracks, how it boogied over the tops of the gum trees that lined the streets of our old town.

But before the railroad died—oh, I know, it didn’t die, it just contracted into a long distance hauler, leaving all the old time short haul and passenger jobs for someone else, like bus lines, airlines, SUVs, hybrids, truckers, etc. But before it died, I got to go down to the old Southern Pacific Depot a few times with the Basque sheepherders and load wool bags onto boxcars. When I say Basque sheepherders, I’m not just talking about the ones I grew up with and went to school with, but also with men who came from Spain. Big-shouldered, thick-wristed men with biceps so muscled they looked like blocks, men who spoke no English. Men so strong…well, I have to show you…

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Men with names like GRAN, meaning big, insinuating strength, and how strong he was and so were Benjamin (the way we said it, his name sounded something like Ben-hah-meen) and Marcelino and Augustine. The wool bags weighed four or five-hundred pounds and had girth enough for three men or more to get their arms around, and they were tall, ten feet or so, and unwieldy. The wool buyers wanted the wool bags at the mill, wherever that was, but we didn’t care about that. We cared about loading.

Loading and cramming the sacks into the boxcars. Sweat in our eyes and our tired muscles shouting at us…give us more, we want more work and as crazy as that sounds, we did. We wanted to be part of all these strong men, doing this ancient thing, loading wool bags, something not done with a forklift or a squeeze, but something done by the arms and backs of man.

And somehow we did it, and often it became a test of strength. The competitive nature of these Basque herders was amazing; they competed at everything. Building fence, tearing down fence, loading bobtail trucks with bulky loads of page wire, loading posts, jumping flat-footed onto a honky-tonk’s bar, shooting snooker. To them, work, and maybe life, had a bit of the game to it. They parlayed often difficult and necessary tasks into something to be anticipated, something to be enjoyed, and the joy wasn’t about winning, it was about the doing of it.

Who was the strongest and who might actually pick up a wool bag by himself…Gran could do it, and so could Augustine. And sometimes it wasn’t about one single mountain of a man bending down and shoving the bag up against the side of the box car then leveraging the bulk onto his shoulder and then dropping into a crouch and then up, somehow balancing all that weight as he thrust the wool bag into the open door of the boxcar. Sometimes it was about all of us, and the last man, the smaller man, the weaker man, getting his outstretched arms into just the right place to help get the bag inside, to make it all a little easier. And that collective sense that together we did something worthwhile, even though we didn’t speak the same language and came from different societies and most probably didn’t agree on politics, religion, marriage…that collective sense really mattered to me, and to them too, I believe.

Yes, in March, maybe we’ll go over to Sanderson and check out the old depot before it burns down or they knock it down in favor of something more…modern.

On Sheep, Blogging and Hog Leg .44s

The beginning of this October, I am to participate in a writers’ retreat about blogging with some fine fellow bloggers, and I suspect there will be a bevy of useful tips and advice for writers of all levels.

My experience as a blogger is: I know how to get my blog up on my site and add pictures and videos and other graphics. I know how to write, or it seems I should, since I have been blogging fairly steadily since 2010. I manage two blogs and have written as a guest at a number of other folks’ sites. I read other people’s work, too, so I have a notion of how my creations stack up.

As of late, I have not been blogging. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing why I am not blogging with any regularity, but let it suffice that if I am going to present at the retreat, I best get my rear end in gear and compose.

When I am on a roll, I generally blog on a weekly schedule, and the subject matter veers from book reviews to memoir to philosophizing to film reviews to travel blogs. The array cuts a fairly wide swath through types of blogs and thought processes and I suspect that occurs because after four years I’ve begun to frantically ask myself, “What am I going to blog about?” I think about this, I think about that, I grab a book off the shelf that I recently read, I think about a film I watched. Lately the only emotion that has been evoked by any of those actions is a big “HO HUM.” So, what’s the solution?

I am a thrill freak in some regards. I suppose it comes about as a result of my time in Vietnam when adrenaline rushes were what helped keep me alive. Nothing boring about getting shot at. After forty-five years, I still crave that thrill.

I have learned that you can capture, or re-capture, that thrill in writing. Danger is not the only stimulus that can give the writer a thrill. Any kind of thrill might be the impetus to get you banging away at the keyboard. For our purposes today, danger will be the fuse that lights the dynamite. The excitement comes at you as you begin to remember something that was dangerous, or had the capability of becoming dangerous. Once you let your imagination meet your memory, events can be relived, so to speak, and you are there, running from the snap-whine of a sniper’s rifle fire or digging your fingers and toes into the bottom of a trench even as incoming artillery rattles everything around you. You can be vicariously thrilled writing about memories. You can turn memory into action-charged prose (or poetry if you choose).

My mind is searching over my history to find some moments when I was scared and thrilled at the same moment. Sitting here writing this, I’m back at Thanksgiving of 1971. I was employed as a sheep herder/fence builder/truck driver in southern Arizona. The day before, we had moved a band of sheep into an alfalfa field lying leeward of the Sierra Estrella. We pounded metal posts into hard white calíche and fenced-off eighty acres, then moved the sheep in. I dropped two big water troughs inside the wire enclosure and filled them up out of the water truck I was driving. The foreman who supervised me leaned against his pickup and smoked a Marlboro.

Across the field was the farmer’s headquarters: a house, a shop, several Quonset huts, a set of corrals, an old chute that hadn’t been used in a long time. Looking over there I noticed what looked like a bunch of dogs. Now, most town folk, animal lovers and non-sheepherding folk don’t understand how a sheep man feels about dogs. As my old friend Bob Moser used to say, “One dog’s a pretty good dog, two dogs is half a dog, and three dogs is no dog at all.” Packed up, dogs can and often do kill sheep, or worse, they maim them. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and most dogs seem to like me. But there is something about ancient predator/predatee relationships that often make a bad mix with sheep and dogs, especially sheep that are not protected by a herder or paradoxically, guard dogs. And of course, the dangerous dogs are the ones that are not managed by their owners and that gang up in packs. So, seeing four or five dogs darting around between those Quonset huts made both the foreman and me more than a little nervous.

As if on cue, the farmer got in a flatbed truck and drove out of his headquarters, down the dirt road that ran along our new fence, and pulled up. Dust boiled all around. Immediately upon stopping, the sound of barking and yapping dogs filled the air. As the dust calmed down, I could see five Blue Queensland Heelers prancing around the back of that flatbed. Their ears were up and so were their snouts. It was a primal moment, watching those dogs strut their business—the business of herding animals. Heelers are herders by trade. The sheep all balled up and ran into one of the opposite corners of that large field. They obviously had notions of their own about what those dogs’ intentions might be. I heard bleating complaints out of the ewes as they scampered around and moved their lambs as far from those Queensland Heelers as possible.

The farmer got out of his truck and walked over. He wore a smile on his red face and sported a scraggly mustache. He stuck out his big wrinkled hand and introduced himself real friendly like. He and the foreman talked for a while about alfalfa and sheep and the weather and water and then he said, “Do not put any poison out.” I did not blame him for saying this since he had five fancy dogs in the primes of their lives and also because sheepherders, us included, had a reputation for trapping, shooting and poisoning dogs and other predators. And our reputation was well earned because we did all those things. Remember what I told you. Dogs kill sheep.

I left after that and returned the next morning to check on the sheep. The sky wore a flat gray mantle and a cold wind whipped off the Sierra Estrella as I pulled off the highway onto the dirt road that ran along our page wire fence. I stopped and climbed over the fence. I heard a vehicle start up. I checked the water troughs and they had plenty of water. I pulled my old Levi jacket closed to keep out the chill. I heard a vehicle coming. I looked up and saw that flatbed truck turn onto the dirt road. I watched the truck for a moment, noticed the rooster’s tail of dust that reared up behind. I thought, seems like he’s coming a little too fast. It was kind of like radar going off inside my mind. I shook my head and told myself I was not at Khe Sanh and looked around to see if there was any sign of dead sheep since we did not put out any poison. I heard the truck behind me as the driver laid on the brakes. The tires bit into the gravel on the road. I heard the door slam and the farmer (whose voice I recognized) yell something at me.

I turned and immediately noticed he was toting a hog leg; looked like a .44. It had a chrome barrel and a black grip. I had an old World War I Mauser bolt action rifle in the truck that I had never shot, and besides I didn’t think I had time to get to it so we could have a standoff. I looked around for some place to disappear as his boots scuffed the ground and he mumbled stuff I couldn’t understand. The only place to hide was behind one of the water troughs but that would be ridiculous since he’d seen me and would just come shoot me if that’s what he wanted.

I felt as if I was lost out there with those troughs and those sheep and that farmer climbing over the fence. He did so awkwardly because he had that damned pistol and because he wanted to make sure, I’m sure, that he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I noticed there were no dogs on the back of the truck. The sheep bleated and moved around as if there was nothing wrong. But something was wrong. No dogs strutted on the back of the flatbed.

He stomped up to me and his face was three times redder than yesterday and his eyes were worn out. I’d of said he’d been crying but he was carrying that hog leg. He yelled, “Out, out.” I said, “What do you mean?” He blurted, “Get them sheep out of here, now.” I know I looked incredulous. He yelled, “Now!” I shrugged and turned the palms of my hands up. “Where? It’s Thanksgiving and I don’t…” He stuck the end of that hog leg in my face. It was close enough that it reminded me of the round eye of a dead ewe. I threw my arms up. “Whoa,” I shouted, “whoa. You need to settle down.” All this while figuring out how I would disarm him, or escape him or…or…or… He got his face close to mine and stuck that hog leg in my gut. I could smell coffee and garlic and the faint whiff of whiskey. He hissed, “I told you no poison.” I replied, “I didn’t put any poison out.” The gun jabbed further into my too-soft stomach flesh. “Get ’em out.” He didn’t seem to be in any mood to discuss the matter, so I lifted up the fence and after much chasing, haranguing, running and sweating as I cussed my foreman for putting out strychnine, I got that band of sheep out on the road pointed in a totally different direction than the business end of that hog leg .44. Getting them somewhere safe, somewhere they were wanted, and with water and feed was a totally separate adventure. Subject matter for another blog.

My wife pointed out how the voice and energy in this piece changed as soon as my memory dropped back to Thanksgiving, 1971. That anecdotal evidence jives with my notion of how memory and thrill might be a way to drive writing one’s blogs.

On Charlie Yazzie and Chee Begay

Betty and I had dinner last night with friends and we talked travel and places to visit, and the red rock country of the four corners area of the American southwest came into the foreground of our discussions and stuck in my mind all night and into this morning.

It was 1963 and I had turned 16 and my father sent me up to St. Michaels, Arizona, a patch of private ground in the middle of the Navajo nation. I rode up with a bull hauler in a semi-truck loaded with dry ewes for slaughter at the kill plant owned by old family friends. The bull hauler and I drove north through desert, mountains, canyons and plains all night, thunder and lightning and hail, boulders crashing into the highway from the ragged red cliffs up above. It is hard for me to imagine the drought Arizona is having now after living through the summers of 1963 through 1966 when hard rain was plenty.

We arrived at dawn as a damp hint of mist hung on the chilly country dotted with piñon and juniper trees. Scruffy pups ran alongside the road, woofing at the semi tires as the bleats of frightened ewes bounced off the rust-red rocks perched alongside the muddy bar ditch. I recall sitting in the cab, looking out over the harsh land that at that moment was covered with summer grasses. I recall wondering what the Navajos thought of us driving into that valley with a load of ewes, the three bullhorns on top of the cab, each one clarion-blaring, waking everyone up.

After breakfast, the truck driver headed back south to his and my home in the Sonoran desert but he didn’t make it five miles before he went to sleep and rolled that semi. We hurried out there and looked at the crushed cab, the mangled trailer.

The man who ran the kill plant at St. Michaels also owned that truck. He growled and gruffed and huffed and swore he’d mated with a female diamondback and then he disappeared on a seven day drunk, and left his two teenage sons and me to run the plant.

Early the next morning we rose before the early orb peeked over the red ridge to the east. We got in the cab of an Army green Ford pickup. Our frosty breaths created momentary ghosts as we chugged down a tire-worn track and picked up the butchers. They lived in hoogans, the octagonal type, not the newer square hoogans one now sees out on the red, sandy land the Navajos call home. The butchers stood in the dark at each dwelling as we arrived. They wore Levi jackets and old cowboy boots, and wore scarves tied around their graying heads.

We got out and spoke, “Yá át ééh,” and shook hands. Back then, Navajo men did not squeeze hard in a hand shake. I had been forewarned that they did not grip like I had been taught, “like a man,” so though I didn’t like it, I kept my mouth shut. I remember two names particularly, Chee Begay and Charlie Yazzie. My friends referred to these men as “chiefs.” They were probably born before the 20th Century rolled into its own so I recall wondering what they thought of riding in the back of a pickup as the dawn chill slapped their brown, wrinkled faces.

At the kill plant we tied the legs of the dry ewes and then the butchers came in and slit their throats, capturing the blood in shallow pans for making blood pudding. I looked away and thought of the mountains off to the west. Later we watched as Chee Begay, Charlie Yazzie and the others skinned and severed and cut and pulled and cleaned the carcasses that then went into a big walk-in cooler where we hung them on hooks that moved back and forth on wheels that fit into tracks on the ceilings. Each of us got to don a white meat cutters jacket that hung down to our calves and we thought we were pretty hot stuff. I did anyway.

Later in the day, we loaded 55 gallon barrels full of the remnants of the offal, not the offal itself, the guts and stomach were all things that could be stewed and fried and sauteed. What was in the barrels was the contents of rumens and reticulums and guts and intestines, half-digested browse and the makings of manure. It had a particularly foreign smell and I held my nose. The butchers, including Chee Begay and Charlie Yazzie, got in the back with the muck drums and we went to the dump north of Window Rock.

My two friends decided I should get the hang of disposal, so they ordered me to dump the barrels. The scent clambered up my nose and my stomach began to retch. By then the heat was up and the big green blow flies were already circling around, buzzing and diving, as were the meat bees, whose black and yellow bands emanated a ghostly glow in the afternoon light.

The younger of my friends giggled and pulled out a Winston and lit it up with a fancy metal lighter he pulled out of the front of his Levis. He took a long drag and told me to smoke it as I dumped the barrels. I took a drag off the cigarette. The smoke burned my mouth and nose and lungs as I held my breath and turned the barrels over and watched the miasma of leavings slither down the red dirt bank. I choked and almost vomited. Chee and Charlie laughed right then. My other friend came over and handed me a pint of VO and even though I didn’t like the taste of whisky, I took a pull. When I swallowed it, the flavor, or should I say the gnash, of the whiskey caused my torso to shiver and my spine to clack. Chee and Charlie laughed again, almost as if we were friends. I shot them the finger and called them Navajo names I had learned that day. Words I will not repeat in this piece, even if I knew how to spell them. They stopped laughing and grinned at me, or was it sneering, and then they turned away as if to look back over the red ridge to our west and the valley that they called home.

We took them back to their hoogans and yelled,”See you next week,” but they didn’t really answer, just waved their hands back at us without turning around. As we bumped back to the kill plant I thought about those two chiefs, Chee and Charlie, and wondered what they were chiefs of, and wondered if they’d led raiding parties that raped and murdered white women and then I counted in my head and decided they hadn’t been alive long enough. I also suspected I had deeply offended them by calling them names, but when I voiced my concerns, my two friends said, in unison, “Don’t worry, they are only just a couple of old Indians.”

Later that week the three of us were called on to deliver mutton carcasses, some of which had been split in half, to trading posts in Lukachukai, Window Rock, Fort Defiance, Ganado and Chinle…all Navajo towns, and on into the Hopi mesas at Mishongnovi, Shongopovi, Old Oraibi, where the 800-year-old pueblos crammed up against each other. I imagined there were like 19th century New York City high rises. The sharp smell of mutton got beneath our fingernails and on our skin and made me wish for my mother’s hamburger and TV dinner kitchen.

The whole time I was there, the rains boiled up every afternoon and punished the land. We got stuck in the reefer truck, broke an axle on the Army green Ford trying to pull the reefer truck out of the muck. We got in fights, every day, two ganging up on one, the arrangements forever changing. We went back and picked up the pre-dawn butchers again when another bull hauler in another semi delivered a load of dry ewes who bleated as if they knew the end was nigh.

Once, coming out of Window Rock after we went into town and chowed down on burgers and fries and chocolate malts, we slowed. A harsh thunder storm had just forged on into New Mexico as we passed a wagon drawn by two blue roan mares. A thin Navajo dressed in Levi pants and a blood-red velveteen shirt with a huge silver and turquoise squash blossom sat on the wooden seat. He wore a red head band that kept his gray hair in check. I yelled, “Stop, stop, that looks like Chee Begay.” My two friends just laughed, “Naw, that ain’t Chee, it’s just some old Indian.”