November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Mark Montgomery

 

The Wrong Season for Survival

 

home movies

Greg Roberts stands behind me with the barrel of his Winchester prodding me forward. He leads me into a hollow before a lava-tube cave[1] where I join my cousins, who are being held there. Standing before the mouth of the cave, we look like prisoners of some giant sea conch, captive adolescent boys armed with high-caliber rifles, assembled here to carry out its evil plan. Dave Borup appears in the entrance, at the edge of the camera’s lens. He stands taller than the rest of us. He has a thick chest for his age and a quarterback’s jaw, so he’s in charge. I am being led here for questioning. Things will get ugly. Borup takes me by the collar and jerks me toward him, where he mouths angry questions down at me. I play tough. He’ll never get a word out of me. I’ve been through this before. Do what you will. I won’t crack. Besides, I know my gang lies in waiting. What follows is a bloodbath.

 “captain I don’t want to kill another man. he ain’t done nothing to me…”[2]

Such scenes, common in my childhood, appeal to what some adolescent psychologists — at least the one who my 14-year old son visited — claim is an “intrinsic fascination for violence and conflict” present in adolescent males. Prior to having children, I would have – quite often did — dispute such gender distinctions. One boy and two girls later, I’m more in agreement. However, more than my predictable acceptance that boys will be boys, I’m struck by our paradoxical relationship to violence. What I know of violence, really know, I learned the day I had to slaughter a steer named Moonshine. I say “had to,” but that’s not really true. The whole thing left me sick, but the part that’s really hard to stomach is that I think I really wanted to do it, wanted the act to validate me, serve as a kind of rite of passage, i.e., killing will make me a man.  So, if that’s true, who taught me this? I could say television or my father or the movies etcetera, but that would only partly be true. So what, then? Why did I kill if I really didn’t want to?

 Growing up with hunting dogs, I‘ve often wondered about the relationship between hunters and their dogs. Some of the most passionate dog-lovers I know are hunters. So, how is it they come to make killing other animals a similar passion? Conversely, how is it that my own son, who backs away the moment a dog bounds toward him—pockets his hands rather than reach to stroke its muzzle — finds the thought of hunting/killing another animal totally repulsive?[3] How is it that when I was 12 I begged my mom to let me sleep in the garage with our Brittany Spaniel, Mando, who had her litter out there, yet in the same year wanted nothing more than to kill a deer, skin and tan its hide, then have my grandmother fashion a hunting vest out of it ?

To expand, how is it that in the 6th grade I’m moved to tears at the sight of the new kid sitting alone in the cafeteria eating his sad hamburger, but won’t think twice about killing a fellow creature for meat?[4] What kind of species is this — capable of such grotesque contradictions? Naturally, great thinkers have explored these questions for centuries, so my asking it probably seems tired. Then again, second-rate minds don’t have as many answers, so I’ll keep asking.  

suburban arms race

In 1973, my father — already well equipped to hunt anything from small birds to hoofed game — begins collecting a serious cache of weapons. His goal, he claims, is to arm his family — or at least his three boys and maybe a handful of neighborhood kids — and train them to survive in the wild. He brings home handguns and shotguns and high-powered rifles; He buys gun-cases and displays his revolvers and carbines, bolt and lever-action rifles, automatics, pumps, over-and-under barrel shotguns, even a muzzle-loader. He brings home a thirty-ought-six for Robert since, at 15, he is the oldest and can handle its kick.[5]

He brings home twin 30-30 Winchesters for my brother Boz and me. They may not be as powerful as my brother Robert’s gun, but Pop says they’re still big enough to drop a running mule deer at 250 yards. I pick mine up and try to shoulder it. It’s too heavy. I can only hold the barrel up for a few seconds before it dips toward the ground. Pop tells me not to worry, that I’ll grow into it, so I try again. I press the buttstock to my shoulder, hold it steady this time, but I still can’t reach the trigger.

Boxes of ammunition follow. Then scopes and straps and rifle bags. He sets up reloading equipment in the garage — boxes of empty cartridges and primers, bench-top presses, heaps of buckshot and gunpowder stocked in tubes of canvas like sandbags. We look like a regiment of the National Guard, preparing to shore up the flooded levees and hold off looters in the bargain. When asked where it all comes from, Pop tells us he has a “private dealer,” which we’ve learned  means “out of some guy’s trunk in West Oakland.” [6]

Next comes the fishing gear and the endless supplies of canned and dried foods, and gallon jugs of water, bags of oats and flashlight batteries. When my mother asks him what on earth he’s planning, he sums it up in a word: “Survival.” 

survival

Inspired by the naturalist author Euell Gibbons and that famous Grape Nuts commercial, in which he asks, “Ever eat a pine tree?”, my father buys the author’s best-selling Stalking the Wild Asparagus, from which he memorizes the recipes for dozens of edible species. His final inspiration from all this is to take his three sons, my Uncle Rich and his two boys, plus a handful of neighborhood kids into the wilderness for two weeks—without food or their mothers—and teach them to live off the land. He believes it’s his mission in life to expose kids to the wilderness. He says, “Most kids these days don’t get out of their living rooms, away from the boob-tube long enough to even know where their food comes from. Kids today think their food comes out of a can or a box. Now, that’s just nuts.” He begins making this speech regularly at house parties and little-league games. Whenever possible, the talk turns to survival and his planned adventure.

target practice

My brothers and I stand next to the outdoor grill on our backyard patio holding shotguns. Pop has us stand in a straight row, like a firing squad, and take turns shooting at anything that flies. Earlier, he loaded “dummy” rounds for us to shoot, so they won’t travel too far, make much noise, or actually hit anything. Robert shoots first. His gun goes pop when he jerks the trigger, and a fuzzy wad flies and then falls well short of a fluttering bluejay.  We take turns shooting and reloading for a half hour. When there isn’t anything flying, we just raise our barrels and fire into the open sky. Pop says we need to get the feel of our guns. He walks around us adjusting our stances and hand positions. He doesn’t say a lot. He watches us the way someone assessing thoroughbreds might. But if such a drill being performed next to a backyard basketball hoop makes my father out to be a kind of Great-Santini hardass, I’ve mislead you. Pop is most often described by my 5th-grade friends as “totally mellow,” which is true. He’s not at all the strict, ex-marine type. He had been in the service, the Canadian Air Force allegedly, [7] but he rarely spoke of it. The only evidence of his service was a framed photo of him in a sort of air-force cap that my mom kept on her nightstand. That said, Pop’s calm direction is more like that of a yoga instructor adjusting postures than that of a drill sergeant.

transpeninsular

This isn’t the first wilderness trip we’ve taken. There have been several others, the grandest being our off-road trip across the Baja Peninsula. On that trip, there were 14 of us (4 adults, 10 kids) stuffed into a VW bus, a Willys jeep trailing 3 motorcycles, and a Ford Bronco towing a dune buggy. “Baja,” my father explained at the time, “is the last frontier. It’s like the Wild West was 100 years ago. And we’re going to travel the full 1000 miles without once touching blacktop!”[8]

Today, I would never allow my son to go on any of my father’s adventures. Back then I lived for them. 1974 was a more relaxed time, to be sure. That was before child carseats and bike helmets, when our pregnant mothers drank martinis and chain-smoked Virginia Slims, but I’m still amazed that people who were little more than neighborhood or little-league acquaintances let their kids go with us.   Pop’s ability to make people quickly trust him was his gift.  I’m still not sure what his motive was. Maybe he really did fear that our friends suffered from some form of what today would be diagnosed as Nature-Deficit Disorder. But, the cynic in me doesn’t completely quite buy this.  Pop was too busy running a business and planning trips or taking up hang-gliding or racing hydroplane boats to seriously concern himself with parenting.

Near the beginning of our Baja trip, we spent three days broken down in the border town of Mexicali after the clutch went out in our souped-up VW Microbus. My Uncle Rich and Pop both ran transmission shops, so they could fix anything, anywhere — provided they had the parts, or something out of which to fashion them.[9] Being pre-NAFTA Mexicali, and with no Napa Auto Parts chain in sight, these parts would be a few days. During the three-day waiting period before they arrived, the men, who were busy “fixing” the bus, were rarely seen. The rest of us spent our time either watching Spanish-dubbed episodes of “Kung-Fu” or “Happy Days” in our motel’s lobby, in the bathrooms of our rooms dealing with “Montezuma’s Revenge,” or simply wandering the streets of Mexicali. For some, this was the most memorable part of the trip. And why wouldn’t it be? A Mexican border town in the 70s ranks pretty high on the scale of exotica. To begin with, you could buy anything—fireworks, switchblades, Chinese fighting stars, all sorts of handmade toys and puppets. And food — sweets galore, and chicle, and tamales, roasted fish on a stick. Mike Higgins, who was 15, walked right into a bar and bought a six-pack of Dos Equis, which he drank with Robert. After sharing the beer, they got mugged while trying to buy something (they wouldn’t tell). They lost all their money and the new pair of platform shoes my brother had just bought. Two kids ended up in the emergency room getting stitched up after falling into a construction ditch — or so they claimed. My cousin, Joe (13), spent a night in a holding-cell for stealing a golfcart.

So while the men took their food, drink, and entertainment down at the Mexicali Rose Cantina, where they caught whopping hangovers and god knows what else, we ate all our meals from street-vendors — which left most of us sick for the rest of the trip — and nearly lost fingers playing with our freshly-purchased switchblades and blowing off cherry-bombs. I don’t know if it was a conscious parental strategy or neglect. I suspect the latter, though it taught me a thing or two. I learned how to swing nunchucks like Bruce Lee, and why it’s sometimes important to boil water.

After three days, the men emerged from the cantinas and fixed the clutch. Then they paid the doctors’ bills, bailed out my cousin, and bought us all half-gallon jugs of Milk of Magnesia.

survival preparations

I pull open the top drawer of the tool box and fish out the ratchet. Then I find the socket, snap it on the end of the tool and hand it to Pop. “I don’t understand,” I ask. “Why don’t they join the Boy Scouts then? They do wilderness stuff.”

 I’m helping Pop put air shocks on the van and complaining about his inviting half the neighborhood to come with us on our survival trip.

“It’s not the same.”

“Why not?”

“The Scouts are okay, but they don’t really fend for themselves,” he says. “Everything’s done for them, you know, and everything’s prepared—food, campsite, firewood. Nothing’s at stake.” He removes the bolt from the upper shock mount and sets it in a red cloth rag.

“Pop?”

“Yeah?”

“Could we really starve to death out there?”

“Naw, we’ll be alright?

“But we could?”

“I suppose. Look, sometimes you need to test your limits, that’s all. This is one of those times. We’re going into the wilderness to test our limits, find out if we can survive.”

I stare up at the van’s undercarriage and think of all the ways I’d rather not be tested, how it might be nice to camp out like the Boy scouts, build fires with twigs and flint, roast marshmallows, sing songs.

“What would that be like?” I say.

“What would what be like?”

“You know, to not have food — to go a long time without it?”

“You mean to starve to death? How should I know?”

“Have you ever been hungry before — I mean starving hungry?”

He takes a slow drag of his Marlboro and looks at me. He doesn’t usually stop in the middle of doing something. He doesn’t usually stop to look at me. It’s awkward, but I like it.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ve been real hungry before.”

“But you didn’t starve?”

“I’m here aren’t I? Now quit being morbid. Give me that.” I roll that floor-jack over to him, and he pushes it under the bumper. “We’re going to pump this thing up.”

I watch him. He places the jack’s lift plate under the van’s frame and steadies it with one hand. His other hand reaches for the handle of the jack. He begins to pump. All the while he whistles through his teeth. The vehicle rises effortlessly, I think, with such ease.

departure. reno

On the night of our departure, Pop gathers us together to explain our plan. It’s pretty straightforward. We trek into the Modoc wilderness without store-bought food.[10] We’ll be equipped only with camp-gear, guns and ammunition, fishing rigs and the basic cooking utensils. We’ll also each be allowed one canteen of fresh water and a bag of sunflower seeds. We’d load everything into and on top of our modified 1971 VW Campervan; then, we drive to the edge of the wilderness, as far as the dirt roads would take us; from there, we hike deep into this remote area and camp for 10 days; once our vehicle crosses from asphalt to dirt, we will not be allowed to eat or drink anything that we don’t personally gather, pick, trap or kill.  

Our California/Nevada wilderness trips always began with a stop in Reno. This trip is no different. In Reno, the men would stuff us with all-you-can-eat buffet food; then leave us parked in the van to sleep it off while they hit the casinos. As soon as the men were out of sight, we’d emerge from the van, head for the streets of Reno and, basically, relive Mexicali. Of course, Reno has casinos, so we run in and out of them sneaking coins in slot machines and finishing half-drunk cocktails. After harassing waitresses and getting chased by casino security guards for a few hours, we’d return to the van and crash as though nothing happened.

I’m awake and sitting in the driver’s seat when the men return from the casino. We are in the parking garage of Harrah’s. My Uncle’s watch, which is always slow, reads 4:00 am. He and my father support the large frame of our neighbor, Mr. Roberts, who is stumbling drunk. He is drunk and he isn’t wearing his glasses. I’ve never before seen him without his glasses. They swing open the van’s double doors and push him in. Sleeping boys groan and wiggle as he clambers over their ankles and slumps his enormous body down, closes his eyes and groans.

My father sits in the driver’s seat and eyes me in the rear view mirror. “You awake, Kid?” I nod.  “Get up here, then.” He pats the top of the cooler that rides between the van’s bucket seats. I tiptoe over the sleeping bodies and position myself in front, between my father and uncle.

“Tell us one of your stories, Nephew,” my uncle says. He reaches under his seat for the thermos. “We could use some entertainment to keep us awake.” He twists open the lid of the thermos and fills its handled cup. “Make some noise for us. C’mon.” He takes a sip and grimaces. Then he gives it to me to pass to my father. “Alright, start talking.”

For the next several hours, I stare at the lights cutting through the darkness and, in between fetching fresh beers from the cooler, I talk. I tell them about a dream in which I fall asleep near a river and am swallowed by a snake. At the end of the dream I’m transformed into “my spirit animal,” the snake.

My uncle turns toward me and laughs. “Spirit animal? Is that what you said? How much of that beer you been drinking, Nephew? Give that to me.” He jerks the can from my hand and shakes it to check its weight. “A snake, huh? Is that what they call a wet dream these days?” He laughs again, but I don’t get it. He takes a long drink and empties his can. “So is that like your Indian name, Nephew? What do we call you, Slippery Snake? How about just Snake, Snake-in-the-Grass.”

Pop always drives on these trips cause he doesn’t sleep much. He says that the late-late night hours are special. “It’s when you get to experience what no one else is willing to wait for. That’s when the best discoveries are made,” he says. So I stay up too. I don’t know if I’ve made any discoveries yet, not like a pot of gold or anything, but I like how the road looks in the darkness, how it grows narrow and the terrain more flat and desert-like. Occasionally a pygmy rabbit darts across the blacktop. I count them. It feels like time is standing still, and I don’t want it to start up again. I worry about time passing, the world moving along without me. I feel that I belong here with the men, and want to stay up late with them every night, so I won’t miss out on this. The road seems to form itself before us as we drive, as if our headlights are the source of the land’s formation. Everything beyond our vision is just dead space, frozen time, waiting for our illumination to give it its shape.

setting out

Near dawn, we pull onto a dirt road and rattle over a cattle guard. My father pulls the van onto a turnout and shuts down the engine. My uncle snores with his head against his folded hands on the passenger window. Pop tells me to climb in the back and get some shuteye. “We set out in two hours,” he says. “We’ll need a little rest. And take down one of those blankets. It’s getting cold. Look.” He points to the windshield on which fall the first flakes of pre-dawn snow.

A few hours later, Pop’s voice cries out to wake us. I’m shivering. I tried to find a blanket, but with everyone stuffed together and sleeping, I couldn’t get to them. Several of the boys are huddled tight against the carpeted floor trying to get warm. Mr. Roberts lies on his back with his arms spread wide. His large body has forced most of us to seek out the corners of the van. He snores on, while the gangly boys unfold their limbs and stretch themselves awake. When Pop swings the van doors open, they are bolted to life by the image of the land before them—a white open valley blanketed with fresh-fallen snow.

When it comes to smuggled food Pop means business. He makes us unload all the gear, and he gathers the boys in a line with our backpacks and sleeping bags. “Okay,” he says, rubbing his hands together, “Before we set out, we need to check the weight on those packs. No extra crap, got it?” The boys look at each other and smile. Pop starts with my brother Robert’s pack and finds a trove of Lipton’s Instant Soup and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which Pop dumps in a brown paper bag. My brother eyes me like the snitch I am.

“Now, the sleeping bag and tents,” he says. “Unroll and unpack. Real light and tight. Nothing dangling. We’ll be crossing creeks, and the last thing you’ll want is a wet bag, trust me.”  The search of my brother’s sleeping bag elicits dozens of candy bars, a bag of licorice ropes and two canisters of Pringles. By the time he finishes his inspection of our gear, he fills four bags with enough canned and snack food to supply the small, shiftless army we are. None of the other boys will talk to me for the rest of the day.  Free of such contraband myself, I stand in a smug posture during Pop’s search of my gear—a search he made only to show that out in the wild there is no such thing as a favorite.

After several failed attempts to wake the sleeping Tom Roberts, he finally succumbs to our badgering and the cold air. He exits the van and wobbles. “Whoa,” he says. “I think I’m still loaded. Are we here or what?” We laugh at him. He then hurries to the other side of the van where he spends several minutes on his knees throwing up on a bush. His sons search for a camera, also laughing. When he finishes, he looks much better, a little cheerful even. “I’m ready,” he says. “If I can survive Reno, I can survive anything. Let’s go!” He puts on his pack, but refuses to carry a gun. Everyone else carries either a rifle or a shotgun. Pop shoulders his deer rifle, a Weatherby 270 Magnum with a power scope. He also wears a belt with a holster that carries a Smith and Wesson 38 Special. After weeks of pestering, Pop has agreed to let me carry the 30-30, even though I can still hardly raise the barrel to shoot. My gun, like those of our entire band of boys, is fully loaded.

jeremiah johnson made his way into the mountains

As a boy I idolize two people: my father and Jeremiah Johnson. In a way, both are characters loosely based on real people — Robert Redford’s Jeremiah is inspired by the legendary mountain man/Crow killer, Liver-Eating Johnson[11]; Pop is a sort of composite character built from an assortment of Hemingway heroes crossed with Steve McQueen. I see them as one in the same, and I even have a poster of Redford’s character in my bedroom. When Jeremiah builds a log cabin with his bare hands, I asked my mother if I can cut down her pine tree in the backyard to build a fort. When he hunts down and kills the Crows who murdered his family, I scan the picket fences of our neighbors’ yards in pursuit of their buck-skin faces. When he makes love to the beautiful Indian squaw after they present one another with fresh kills, I spend a week bent over in the deep grass of the surrounding fields stalking quail with a slingshot.

Ironically, when I stare at my own face in the mirror I ignore its Indian features—the dark skin and eyes, those high-set cheekbones—and search instead for signs of my father’s, Jeremiah’s. 15 years later I will hike the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico and stare in fascination at all of the faces that resemble mine, faces that will stare back, or so it seems, in a kind of distant recognition. As a boy, I don’t acknowledge the similarities between my face and the faces of those phantom Indian warriors who I dream, like the movie Jeremiah, of retributively slaughtering.

modoc county national forest

Modoc County is a high-desert wilderness tucked in the northeast corner of California and bordered by Nevada to the east and Oregon to the north. The lowlands are strewn with the aforementioned lava beds, rough grasses and sage meadows. Encircling the rolling sagebrush are pine-covered mountain bluffs with thick groves of aspen and juniper. The high-bluff mesas reach 10,000 feet in elevation, while lowland meadows rest at roughly 4,500. It is vast country, a place whose county motto reads, “Where the West Still Lives.” A place where the Indian wars raged, and where the kind of blood I dream of spilling did just that. The famous Modoc chief, Captain Jack,[12] held up there. Of course, we don’t know any of this as we hike over those same lava plains in the early morning. We are too busy trying to keep up with Pop, who leads the way, searching for an enclave of our own, a place to bed down his grumbling band of men and boys.

I follow close behind Pop all through the hike.  I always hike near the front, next to my father who always leads. My uncle walks at the rear of the pack and takes movies with the Super 8. He keeps the boys’ spirits up telling jokes and making fun of my father. He has a paradoxical relationship with Pop. He both follows and criticizes everything he does. My uncle is the only one in our family from the east coast — New Jersey. He has an accent that I imagine to be the same as those Bowery Boys in the movies ’cause he has that same smart-ass way of talking to people. The other kids follow his lead, but they make fun of me instead — make fun of how I follow Pop, try to be the little man. “Look, he’s a little Lee,” they say, pointing and laughing, “only dark brown.” 

Hibernation

No one expected winter. The snow, beautiful at first, quickly loses its luster after slogging through it all morning. We follow Pop who is deaf to our complaints. He shoulders his rifle and trudges ahead purposefully. I follow him as close as I can but it’s a struggle. The snow turns to freezing rain, then to heavy rain by mid day, which turns everything to muck. It’s like walking through pancake batter in snow shoes. We slip and fall, covering our clothes with thick streaks of lava-red mud till we look like we’ve been war-painted. By the time we find a suitable camp, a well-sheltered place next to a running stream, we’re exhausted, shivering and in a foul mood. Aside from some deer droppings and the crows, there are few signs of life. Nothing moves beyond the shimmering Aspen. Modoc County may be “Where the West still lives,” but apparently little else does.

“We’ve picked a bad time to survive, boys,” my Uncle Rich says, and as much as I hate to agree with him, he’s right. It’s still winter here. It may be warm and Spring-like in the Bay Area, but in Modoc it’s freezing cold and snowing and NOTHING IS GROWING! Pop’s diligent plan — namely stockpiling — overlooked the obvious: it’s the wrong season for survival. We are apparently the only life forms inhabiting Modoc County. “It’s like the place is hibernating,” Robert says. “What are we going to eat?”

hunger pains

            “I’m hungry,” Everyone seems to say at once.  Day three of our survival trip begins the same as the previous two — with empty stomachs. Before the rest of us got up, Pop ventured out and found a patch of mustard greens and shot two grey squirrels. So our breakfast this morning is a kind of squirrel stew with greens and instant rice that Pop cooks over the fire in a pressure-cooker. I’m the only kid who will eat it. After yesterday’s lunch of fried catfish and wild mushrooms — a lunch my brother Boz threw up after eating — the others settle for their sunflower seeds, or rip open the linings of their jackets for the last of the candy bars their mothers have sewn into them.

            Pop gathers us around the fire and tells us to pair up and search the surrounding area for edible food. He shows us photos from the Gibbon’s book of some plants and berries and mushrooms to look for. “The mushrooms are real good at hiding, so you have to look close for them,” he tells us. “If you see any fallen trees or stumps, look on the backsides of them. Don’t eat anything until you bring it back here and let me see it, alright?”

“Right. like stuff can actually grow out here,” Robert says.

            “There’s food out here.” Pop tells him. “You just have to look. Brush away the snow and look beyond the surface.” He pointed to both his temples. “Think like a plant.”

At this statement, my uncle hands me a folded G.I. shovel and tells me to go dig for something to eat. Then he turns to Pop, “Go easy on the Flower-Power, Grover.[13] Save it for Snake, here. He’ll tune in to that plant energy, won’t you, Snake in the Grass?” I grab the shovel from him and promise myself never to tell my uncle another story. “Okay, everyone,” my uncle continues, “our wilderness leader wants us to gather some flowers. Better get moving before we starve.”

Robert

Thinking back on it — it wasn’t really planned well. People who do that stuff —stay out in the wilderness — don’t go out there with no food at all. They’d bring corn or something, some sort of staple, right? He brought a bag of sunflower seeds and a box of mashed potatoes for like 11 people! Maybe if you’re in the military, the Special Forces, you’d train for it, go see if you can survive in the wilderness, but we were like the Lost Boys. I wasn’t even driving yet. I couldn’t have been more than 13, maybe 14. You were what, nine years old? But he was always doing stuff like that. He had so much confidence in our ability to  survive anything. Remember Baja? Think about it. He took a bunch of neighborhood kids on this like 2500 mile journey across Baja in what, 1975? That was like the wild west back then. I mean, you’ll never see Baja like that again. We had that dune buggy and the jeep and those dirt bikes, and it was all fair game. Whoever felt like driving just got behind the wheel.  You weren’t even tall enough to reach the foot pegs on the Kawasaki. We used to hold you upright and just have you gas it. I would never let my kids go on a trip like that.  And that survival trip when he handed everyone a loaded gun? We talk about that all the time. We can’t believe we’re still alive. It wasn’t the wilderness; it’s a miracle we survived each other.

great-white hunter

“Well, I guess we were wrong about him. That Snake, he sure does know his way around the mountains. Why, just look at the size of the rack on that buck! We have him to thank for our bounty tonight, boys! Let’s hear it for The Kid, shall we?” They repeat their praises as they pass thick slices of the roasted venison I’ve provided.

In my mind, this is how I replay the scene. It is our sixth night surviving. Everyone is cold and hungry and wants to leave. I do too, but I won’t admit it.  I lie awake, the bottom of my sleeping bag resting in a pool of water, and I imagine this scene. In my fantasy, I have saved everyone from starvation by killing a big buck.

The next morning, I wake before dawn, get my rifle and set out. Pop says that the bucks like to bed down in the aspen groves, so I hike in their direction. It’s light by the time I reach them. Their long, beech-white trunks are spotted with black flecks. They remind me of the gangly legs of a foal I once saw being born — the trunks disproportionately long compared to their leafy tops, which sit umbrella-like on their bases. The leaves, mustard yellow, flicker like fishing lures. I stand looking at them when something flashes in the corner of my eye. It is white, whatever it is, and has moved into a copse of scrub oaks. I’m pretty sure it’s a white-tail deer. Approaching the trees I spot him, a buck? Maybe, though he blends into the trees, so I’m not sure if I’m seeing horns or tree limbs. My heart pounds. Then I see it move again, deeper into the forest. The closer I get, the faster he moves, until he just stops, freezes like a backyard target-deer. I plant my feet and slowly raise my rifle.

buck fever

I try to set the buck’s shoulder in the front sight of my gun, but I’m shaking. He keeps bobbing in and out of my line of fire. Pop says to go for the shoulder. The neck is better, he told me, but it’s a riskier shot. “Whatever you do,” I hear him saying to me, “Don’t gut-shoot him. A gut-shot and he’s gone. You’ll never see him again. Wastes everything.”

I take a deep breath and hold it, but my head swims till I have to sit down. I feel like everything is closing in around me, like the time Robert locked me in a closet and I panicked, nearly breaking the door down before he let me out. I place my head between my legs, breath slowly, curse myself for wasting a good kill. When I stand up, I see that the buck is still there, just browsing as though nothing’s happened. I shoulder my rifle, steady my hands till the buck comes into my sights and stays put. I reach out as far as I can until my finger finds the trigger.

Ten minutes later, I’m still watching the buck. I raise and lower my rifle. Raise it. Lower it. The third time I do this, I hear a shot. I look around but don’t see anyone. I turn back toward the buck. He’s still there, browsing. If he fears a predator in the wild, it is someone other than me. Just then, I hear three successive shots fired a ways off. I know it is Pop, signaling for me to get my ass back to camp. I know he’ll be mad as hell, give me a lecture, tell me how I screwed up big time, and put our survival at risk. He’ll be right. When I turn back the buck is gone, off into the thicket of trees and out of sight.

Absorbed in thoughts of self-loathing for not being able to pull the trigger, I don’t pay attention to my path and get lost while hiking back to camp. Somehow I’ve walked in circles for like two hours. Nothing looks familiar. Pop says that if we get lost, stay put. I don’t want to stay put. I feel like I should keep moving or I’ll never get back. I don’t want to be out here anymore.  Not lost in the wilderness, not out here trying to survive, not eating squirrel meat and weeds. I want to be home and warm.

 When I am afraid, I sleep. So that’s what I do. I walk to the base of an oak tree, curl up, go to sleep gripping my rifle. My hope is that I can sleep away the time while the others look for me, and when I wake up, everything will be okay. Sure, Pop will be mad, but then he’ll tell me how relieved he is, how frightened he was when he discovered I was lost and alone out here.

Pop wakes me without a word. Robert is with him. He looks at me with disgust. Pop doesn’t say a word beyond “get up, let’s go.” We hike back to camp in a whimper.

home movies 2

The shooting begins. Bodies succumb to their wounds, fall and then quietly lift themselves back to life. We are like Terminator Boys, whose wounds heal themselves. Our deaths, transient — we grasp chests, necks, stomachs, we die —then we get back up and start shooting again. My brother, Boz, takes a bullet in the gut and crumbles like a sack. He mouths, “You got me!” Incredulous. How has it come to this?  He lies still, no sound.  We watch him. It is eerily quiet — not even a projector’ s whir. Our expelled breaths the only soundtrack.[14]

mudhens[15]

We hike across meadows and through lava-crested hills until we reach Blue Lake. We stand on the marshy shores and unpack the fishing gear. Another problem with surviving here has been all the rain. Rains have left the streams muddied, and the water rushes thick, like rivers of creamed blood. Bad for fishing, worse for drinking. From the shore, some of the boys cast lines out anyway. Greg Roberts and I collect cattails, apparently edible.

My uncle takes a few shots at some geese flying overhead, but they are well out of range and he knows it. Desperate, he and my father start shooting mud hens. These birds mostly just sit out in the water, like black decoys. Occasionally they will dive below the surface. When one is shot, the flock-mates (if that’s what they are called), rather than flying off, dive to the bottom only to resurface half a minute later to be shot themselves. They are like those ducks in an arcade shooting-gallery. In the end, Uncle Rich and Pop kill seven, but without a dog we have no way to retrieve them. Not wanting to get soaked, Pop has us throw rocks out beyond the floating birds until they bob to shore.

robert

I remember the preparations for the trip. That guy, Euell Gibbons, was a big thing and Pop had that book — How to Eat Wild Dandelions or something like that. He was always into that stuff anyway, trying to survive off the land and all that. When I was packing, well, I knew I was going to starve to death. He actually went through our backpacks to make sure we didn’t sneak in any food, but I snuck a bunch of Cup-of-Soups in my mess-kit. That one night—I think it was like the sixth night there — he came to me and asked me for my mess-kit. He knew that I had snuck it in. I figured you had told him cause you were so gung-ho and all, his little big man.  But then he took it and put it into the stew with those ducks he shot and the food Uncle Rich snuck. I mean, at that point, he knew he needed to feed us something. The kids were really starting to complain a lot. Some were pretty sick.  Tom Roberts had passed out some candy to the kids that afternoon that his wife had sewed into the lining of his jacket. Thank God for that food we snuck. That’s all I can say.

We all had our fishing poles, but the river was a mess if you remember. We couldn’t fish, so we had nothing. It looked like the Muddy Mississippi. That’s what everyone kept saying.  We had no food. The first night we ate those squirrels. Well some of us did. A few of the kids wouldn’t touch ‘em. After that, we had those fucking dandelions and that sour duck he shot, but that was a total disaster.

So, that last night, he put the ducks and potatoes and my Cup-of-Soups in that big pressure cooker (you remember that one he always used?) right on the open fire, to make a stew out of it. We were all just starving at that point. We joked about how we were going to cut up our boots and cook the leather to eat. So that duck and soup was smelling real good. And then the pressure cooker started whistling, like a teapot, so we knew it had to be close.  We all had our bowls held out just waiting.

Then it blew up! Everything. Sky high. Blew the lid clean off the pot. The relief valve was bad or something, so there went our precious stew flying into the trees. I don’t think it was going to go far enough around to begin with, but when that happened, I remember everyone holding there bowls out trying to catch whatever dripped down from the limbs. It was pretty pathetic. Some of the kids just laughed, but it wasn’t really the funny kind of laugh. I sure didn’t think it was funny. There was still some left in the pot, some scraps of meat and broth, but I was fed up. I just threw my bowl down and went to bed.

It was a miserable night. It rained so hard. The men went to the big tent to drink and sleep, but we had those one-man pup tents that you couldn’t quite fit into. We pretty much slept in standing water. I actually slept pretty good because I think Steve and I had gotten new sleeping bags, so we were dry and warm compared to some of you guys. You must have been pretty miserable.

father, hunger

From inside their tent, the men laugh about it, but they have their wine to warm their bellies. I have nothing, just an empty bowl and a wet bed to turn to. I stand next to the dying embers of the fire, looking up into the trees, where scraps of meat and broth still hang from wet limbs. A pathetic survivor, I hold my bowl upward imagining some scrap of meat or bone will fall down to fill me up. The voices of the men lift into the darkness in a drone, like one long laugh-track. I think of those Boy Scouts Pop scoffs about, and wonder what they’re eating on this night, if they’re roasting hotdogs or marshmallows, if they’re all together—scouts and leaders, boys and their fathers—singing camp-songs around the fire. Wherever they are, I imagine their bellies are warm, their bowls filled to the brim.

leaving the wilderness

The following morning Pop tells us we are breaking camp and heading out. I act like I’m really upset about it, but no one buys it. They know I’m as miserable as everyone else. Even though I feel guilty, like my getting lost is the reason we have to quit, I want it to be over like everyone else. Well, everyone but Pop.

We hike out and reach the bus at about noon. It’s still raining hard. Everything is caked with red lava mud — our shoes weigh a ton, and our pant legs and jackets are soaked and covered with streaks of mud where we’ve slid face down under strands of barbed wire or fallen during the hike back. Our packs, tents and sleeping bags are like everything else about us — heavy.

We climb in the van and over each other and fall in a messy heap wherever we can.  Our biggest worry now is that our confiscated food will be ruined. “If it is soaked,” Greg Roberts said, “I’m going break into the first store we get to and steal every bag of chips in the place. I’ll stuff my pockets and run.” Everyone adds their own story of desperation, the lengths to which they’ll go to steal and gorge on food. My uncle yells, “Take it easy boys. Tonight we’re going to eat steak dinner. We’ll eat like kings.” Pop starts the van and jambs it into gear. At last we are leaving the wilderness.

            Within a half a mile, however, the trouble starts. The road, caked with the same thick red mud that clings to us, is like a sheet of ice. We lose traction on the first hill we attempt. Less than halfway up, we stall.

Every groaned.

Pop attempts to rock it back and forth, and to regain momentum, but it’s no use. We are stuck.  “Bail out everyone. We need to push!” he yells.

“I can’t believe this,” my brother said. “It’s like survival takes forever.”

It takes nearly an hour, but eventually we get unstuck. When we reach the paved road it’s nearly dark. From there, we drive until we come to a little gas station where we all jump out and buy loads of candy and chips and soda. We stuff our faces, so by the time we get to a restaurant, most of the kids are nauseous. Our stomachs are shocked by the food, the rush of salt and sugar.  After that, we drive up to this reservoir near Truckee and camp a few miles from the highway. By now, we have stores of food. We have big Styrofoam coolers iced down and filled with eggs and bacon and beer and soda. We eat greasy fried breakfasts, fat cheeseburgers and baked potatoes for dinner.

Home

When we get home a few days later, the moms have this grand feast waiting for us. They expect us to be these walking skeletons. We are far from starving by that point. We sit at the table and stare at the kind of spread we’d all fantasized about just a few days before: pot roast, broiled pork chops, chicken and dumplings, real mashed potatoes and gravy, artichoke casseroles. There are a lot of leftovers that night — more than enough to survive two weeks in the wilderness.


[1] Lava-formed rock tunnels and out-croppings common to Modoc-County National Forest.

[2] Dave Simonett, Trampled by Turtles, “When I Come Back Again,” Songs from a Ghost Town.

[3] It is.

[4] Not sure if it was the boy or the burger that saddened me.

[5] The first time my brother fires the weapon, the recoil leaves a dark bruise on his shoulder and a half-moon scar on the bridge of his nose where the scope whacked him. Truth is, most of his memories of shooting/hunting with my father are troubling. At ten, he witnessed a friend of Pop’s accidently shoot and kill his (the friend’s) Brittany Spaniel while hunting pheasant. The following year, also while pheasant hunting, a shotgun blast fired too close to my brother’s head left him with a deafening ring. The incessant noise lasted for months.  Years later, he claims to at times still hear it and to suffer from a 70% hearing loss.

[6]Don’t really want to engage in the whole Truth-in-Memoir debate here, but I’m pretty sure that my brothers and I knew nothing then of black-market arms dealers. We’d learn about that soon enough. At the time, Robert probably responded with a roll of his eyes, which I likely interpreted to mean, “holy smokes!” I was the youngest and Pop’s staunchest follower, not yet capable of my brother’s cynicism.  

[7] I only recently found out that Pop served in the Canadian Air Force, rather than the U.S. Air Force as we had believed for like 40 years.

[8] Our planned route was the same as the one blazed by racers in the Baja 1000, the famous 1000-mile off-road race.  Due to difficulties (car repairs, illnesses/injuries, loss of direction, etc.) we were often forced back on to paved roads.  Although, nothing in 1974, mid-peninsular Baja could really be called paved.

[9] While on a four-wheel drive expedition through the Rubicon in Desolation Valley, my father used the belt from his pants to secure a broken leaf spring. Later, on the same trip, he removed the engine hood, so my uncle could sit on the front fender and manually work the carburetor’s linkage (essentially, work the gas) after breaking the throttle cable. We traveled over 60 miles off road in this fashion. There are more—too many—similar episodes I could relate.

[10] We later find out Pop brings powdered milk instant rice, “Just for flavor.” The men also had liquor, wine and at least two cartons of  Marlboros.

[11] A year earlier, Pop killed a big buck while hunting in Modoc. While field-dressing it, he removed the liver and held it in his cupped hands as though it were a rare stone, then handed it to me as an offering. “That’s what we’ll be eating tonight,” he told me. I gulped.

 [12] Captain Jack, along with 55 Modoc warriors, held off 500 U.S. army soldiers, fortressing themselves in the famous lava tubes that blanket the plains. It took a siege of over 1000 soldiers to force the Modocs, weakened by starvation, to surrender. Captain Jack was later tried and sentenced to death by the US Government for the murder of General Canby. He was hanged on October 3 rd 1873. His head was later shipped off to the Smithsonian Institution where it remained until 1984 when decedents of Captain Jack removed it from the desk of an unnamed scientist who was using the skull as a paperweight.

[13] Pop’s legal first name.  My Uncle rich is the only one who ever calls him this. To everyone else he’s “Lee,” his middle name.

[14] Robert has all the old Super 8 movies of our trips transferred to videotape in 1999.

[15] Also known as coots, mud hens are mostly black (thus their name) birds that inhabit swamps and marshes. They have short wings, long legs, and big feet which make them poor flyers and easy targets. They are not generally eaten — on a culinary par with the squirrel.

___________________________________

 

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Mark Montgomery now lives in Central New York , where he teaches in the English Department at Cayuga Community College.  He has a Ph.D. in English from SUNY-Binghamton.  This work is part of his forthcoming memoir, which explores the complex relationships between fathers and sons, particularly the challenges faced when dealing with his son, who has Tourette’s syndrome.

1 comment

1 pam { 03.18.10 at 4:58 pm }

The picture is of hunger for much more than food: a nine-year-old boy holding a bowl up to a tree where fragments of cooked, flightless birds roost beyond reach, while a father’s gift of a 30-30 Winchester rifle lies unavailing and forgotten, and far away, men drink and laugh into the night.
Thanks, Mark.