Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Porcelain Islands

Balance: $18.32

Panic climbed from my stomach up into my throat. I turned and looked over my shoulder at my little sister, sitting behind the wheel of her new used car, her only concern at that moment being the keeping of rhythm as she nodded her head to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s song about good intentions. I could hear the muffled lyrics mocking (or was it comforting?) me.

…When my head’s full of things that I can’t mention…

It was Christmas Eve, and a light snow was falling in quiet downtown Exeter, New Hampshire. Businesses were shuttered for the holiday and the sidewalks were empty, giving the snow a chance to hide the grey under a brilliant layer of white. Bright and happy holiday lights twinkled in windows, on lamp posts, and from the gazebo at the center of town.

…it feels like this has gone on forever…

I looked back at the ATM. White text against a black background predicted my immediate financial future, while at the same time demanding my input. Where is the refill button? A new father and floundering husband, I had less than twenty dollars in the bank and none in my wallet.

…There’s little relief…

And we needed diapers.

…I clench my fists, close my eyes…

We had been living in Seattle for a couple of years and had nothing but a 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser and a new baby boy to show for it. Our marriage was still uncertain, our apartment laden with mildew, and our financial prospects frightening to the point of uncontrollable laughter-the kind that echoed down the hallways of asylums.

I was not only broke, I was broken.

Our parents had wanted to meet their new grandson, and so they had sent us tickets to fly back to New Hampshire for Christmas, just two weeks after his entry into our manic world. We were putting on a good show, smiling our way through the visit in spite of the dreadful cloud of doubt that had followed us east. Caleb was a happy distraction from our woes, and an easy topic of conversation behind which to hide our terror, but dark times loomed ahead.

To this day, I remain thankful for the loving support system of parents that rescued us in spite of our pride, and the lame attempts we made at masking our plight. But not everyone has that same safety net. The raw and frightening reality that I felt in that moment standing at an ATM on Christmas Eve nineteen years ago is a constant, everyday reality for many, and for them there is no end in sight. To feel the weight of failure is heavy enough on a single soul, but when the uncertainty of how to provide for your spouse and children is added, that soul can crack and break under the strain.

Those of you who know me will know of my fascination with the smallest room in the house. It is the great equalizer. Everyone has the same basic needs, and everyone is subject to the natural laws of ingestion, digestion, and evacuation. It is one of the few things you can’t pay someone else to do for you, no matter how wealthy you may be.

Everybody has crap to deal with in this life. While some of it we have to handle on our own, there’s still a lot of it that we can help each other out with.

Who doesn’t know the sinking feeling that comes when reaching for toilet paper but finding only cardboard? A frantic, immediate search ensues, and you look behind you, around you, and even above you, as if by chance someone has hung a roll of the precious white stuff from the ceiling in case of a predicament such as the very one in which you find yourself. It takes only moments to realize that you are a castaway on a porcelain island in the middle of the sea, and all you can do is hope for the sound of footsteps in the hall, the lapping of water against a ship’s hull as it passes, so that you can shout and wave your arms, somehow capturing their attention and beg them come to your rescue.

“TOILET PAPER PLEASE!”

Throughout the month of December, our family is accepting donations of unopened packages of toilet paper to give to the Kamas Valley Food Bank. Every roll counts; please give.

Because no man, woman, or child should ever know what it feels like to be an island.

Email me at matthew.deane@frogsdontweartights.com for drop off location and information.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Paradise Found and Lost

If Heaven is full of Mormons, I think I’d like to go to Hell.

One of the last things my little brother asked me before he killed himself was why I was still active in the church that he had grown to hate so much. I told him that I believed that no one was perfect, but that the gospel they were trying to live was. Mormons had a lot to learn, but they were generally good people making an effort to be better people. At the time, it seemed to be the most sincere and thoughtful answer I could offer up to someone who had been scarred by judgment and maltreatment at the hands of Mormons, myself included. Having at last learned that to love one another is the greater law, I hoped that my words carried some weight, conveying the message that the self-righteous could change.

That was almost six years ago, and my brother is long dead by his own hand. In the years that followed his suicide, I watched my own faith wash away in the rain of despair, until I felt as though I was standing on a single block of stone, a belief in God the only remnant of a once firm foundation. Family discord, grief, anxiety, and frustration with a Mormon congregation that had seemed to move on without me and my unanswered questions drove me further and further away from happy Sundays at church. I found myself sobbing at the first notes of hopeful hymns, avoiding those who had once been good friends, and seeking escape from my parents and siblings.

So we moved to Utah, a drastic measure that will have demonstrated to anyone who truly knew me just how far down into the depths of despair I had sunk, and just how desperate I was to surface.

We chose a valley town at high altitude, a happy oasis surrounded by mountains, blessed by sunshine, and jam packed with Mormons. In our valley, horses run in open fields, every sunset lights the sky with fire, and a slight breeze from the canyon above stirs up sweet smells year round. Snow falls as ski-perfect powder, thunderstorms spark their way across the valley, and mosquitoes appear to have been outlawed. There are no stop lights in our town, you won’t get into trouble for riding in the back of a pickup, and the occasional traffic backup is due only to the yearly rodeo or loose cattle in the road. It is, when measured by all standards of beauty, a true paradise.

Our first two years here were blissful. For the first time in my life, I felt at home, and believed that I would never again feel the need to move. Our kids, although missing their friends back east, adapted by making new friends, getting involved, and benefiting from parents that were happy once again. Their social calendars were as full as they wished them to be, while Elizabeth and I were content to remain casual in our new friendships. It was enough for us to be happy, spending time together that didn’t revolve around grief and misery.

Not knowing any of our neighbor’s personal histories afforded us the freedom to love them without conditions. We didn’t need to know any more than whatever people were willing to tell us, and since many of them lived on the same street as their parents, siblings, cousins, and childhood friends, they didn’t feel the need to tell us much at all. We were fine with that; it freed us from pre-conceived notions and meant that we could be engaged without the baggage of the past weighing down our relationships.

Church became new and interesting again, and I felt a faith in the good influence that religion can wield in a person’s life begin to once again take foothold in my own. These were good people, with happy children and strong ties to common beliefs and family. They were small town, but they were by no means backwards and ignorant.  To me they seemed to be cut from the fringes of Utah Mormon cloth rather than the center, and I didn’t feel pressure to conform to a standard. I knew that we were something of a novelty, being from the East Coast as we were, and I rather enjoyed my life as a New Hampshire Yankee in Brigham Young’s court.

We threw ourselves into valley life. We enjoyed the yearly Independence Day rodeo, made sure we got tickets to the demolition derby, and I even pulled out my grandfather’s shotgun and fired it for the first time. We spent time in the local burger joint, took part in service projects, and for the first time in my life, I cheered for a high school football team. I stopped short of donning Wranglers and a cowboy hat, and none of my radio presets were changed to country music stations, but I did go horseback riding when invited, and even considered learning to hunt. The ultimate small town honor came when I was asked to serve as an emcee along the 4th of July parade route. It took a few minutes for the street-lining crowd to warm up to my East Coast act, but I must have done something right, because I was asked back the following summer.

Along the way, l wrote a book about Jared losing his life just as I had found mine. Many valley residents took the time to reach out and let me know just how powerful the book had been for them. It had changed their way of thinking, loving, and living, and it had given them hope for their own families. It was important for me to hear that they loved my writing, but much more valuable to me was the sharing of their secret struggles, crushing fears, and troubling doubts. I hadn’t written the book to make money, but to change and perhaps even save lives, even just one. To hear their stories helped me to make something good and beautiful spring out of Jared’s life and death.

Life wasn’t without its speed bumps and disappointments, but it was good.

And then Caleb left for university. The day your first child leaves home to live their own life is bittersweet; you are excited and even envious to know that so many adventures and character-building challenges await them, but at the same time you are sad to know that your life has forever changed, and that you will spend the rest of your days missing them and trying to convince them to visit you. On that night, you shouldn’t be stirred from restless slumber by your youngest child, who has been frightened by shadowy figures lurking in your front yard at two o’clock in the morning.

But I was. I chased the culprits across our freshly toilet-papered yard to their car, managing to get a grip on one of them for just a moment before he slammed the door and they sped away. They came back the next night, and the night after that. It was funny (sort of) the first time; it was summer, and so I figured that mindless teenagers were just out doing what mindless teenagers do when they don’t have to get up in the morning to work for a living, go to school, or report to a probation officer. I thought they would move on to another neighborhood, another house, another town. But they didn’t. They came back the next week, or at least someone did. They doorbell ditched us, papered our trees, and drove past our house, honking their horns and shouting at us. They began calling our daughter’s cell phone over and over again, blocking their numbers and threatening to return and make our world white.

It wasn’t funny anymore.

I called the sheriff and reported the license plate that I had memorized from that first encounter. A deputy was sent to the owner’s house, but the parents told him that their son was away at college and they had been out of town that past week, so there was no way he or their Dodge Durango had been involved. I later confirmed that to be a lie, and while I understood their need to keep their mischievous child from having a permanent record, I wondered about their need to teach their son about accountability.

These unwanted visits went on for weeks, although once school started they took to giving us a break on weeknights. But our weekends were no longer restful; we felt like captives in our own home, dreading nightfall and the mayhem that would ensue along with it. We would sit and watch movies with the windows open, hoping to hear them out in the yard so that we could yell at them before they had a chance to fill the trees with paper or hammer on our windows and doors with their fists. Elizabeth would sometimes even wait for them by the front door, and she managed to more than once throw it open and startle a masked and hooded teenager as he approached our door. On a few occasions they were brazen enough to coat our trees in paper and make their honking drive-byes during the early evening hours before the sun had set. They must have felt invincible, knowing that there was little we could do to stop them.

As parents of a feisty teenage daughter, it did occur to us that Hannah might have offended someone, perhaps a former girlfriend that now held some sort of vendetta against her for a teenage disagreement or betrayal. We wondered what she could have done, however, that would warrant such a sustained barrage of abuse. We questioned her at length, which flooded out home with teenage tension. At fifteen, she already thought we were restrictive and untrusting, and our interrogations only seemed to confirm our lack of faith in her. She remained adamant that she had done nothing to merit such treatment, and we did our best to believe her.

One night I spied yet another shadowy hoard of small-town thugs in our backyard, except this time they were lurking near Hannah’s window. The thought that her blinds were more than likely open and that they had been watching her sent me into an adrenaline rage. I sprinted from the front door, and they made their escape. I gave chase, and nearly caught the fattest of the despicable herd as we rounded a corner north of our house. I followed them through the neighborhood and out to the state road that runs through town. I ran after them until they cut into a field and disappeared.

“I just want to know why,” I tried to shout through the wheezing of my lungs. Their laughter mocked me as they escaped.

After calling the sheriff’s dispatch line and huffing my way through a demand for action, I called Elizabeth, and between gasps for air asked for her to come and pick me up in the car. She was sure that I was having a heart attack, and worried over me until I calmed down enough to rant without gasping for breath.

The deputy that finally showed up that night told me the same thing law enforcement had told me every other time I had called and asked that they assist me in putting an end to out torment. I had to catch the culprits in the act, but I could do nothing to hurt them, or the liability would rest on my head, in spite of the fact that they were trespassing on my property. Just what they meant by “catch them” wasn’t made clear, and I wondered if I would have to actually tackle one of them and sit on his chest until help arrived.

By this point I had a good idea that some of the boys in our church congregation, boys that I had spent the past two years teaching on Sunday mornings, were involved. I made my suspicions known during an ongoing group text sent out to the young men about a youth activity at the church. My accusations were met with anger and denial, followed by an admission of guilt, conflicting stories, and a suggestion that my family needed to “relax.” I was also admonished by church leadership to hold such discussions in private, away from group texts pertaining to church youth activities. One of the accused (guilty) boys did at last call me personally, and although his story changed a few times throughout our conversation, he did say that he would stop, and that he would tell others to stay away from our home as well. I showed good faith and took him at his word, having little other recourse short of getting myself into trouble with the law for thumping him as soundly as I wanted to.

We decided to ignore any future property invasions, in the hopes that they would get bored with us and stop for good. In an attempt at humor, I bought a pile of dollar store toilet paper, set it up on a folding table out front, and posted a sign that read, “YOU WIN!” The paper disappeared that night, but it wasn’t used on our house. We hoped this was a sign that things would be calm moving forward.

In the meantime, Hannah declared her independence from both school and church. The family conversations that followed are private, but it is enough to say I wished for enough superhuman strength to lift the proverbial car off of her troubled body and save her life. We enrolled her in an online school, something that I had never before seen as an option for my kids, or as something my socially active daughter would ever consider.

It was soon after Hannah started her online classes that Caleb revealed to me that while at a Mormon missionary’s farewell party, he had heard a young man refer to his little sister as a slut. Caleb, a calm and well composed young man, trembled with rage as he told me the story. He expressed deep regret at his inaction at that moment. He had wanted to leap on the young man like an angry spider monkey, tearing the flesh from his face, but hadn’t, and it gnawed on his conscience.

Since that moment, I have found myself asking the same question Jared asked of me.

Why do I stay?

The next time the hooded figures came calling, I was ready. As they made to escape in two cars parked up the street, I gave chase in my wife’s car, following the last one to leave our street. We played cat and mouse for an hour; they would stop and try to wait me out, or fake right but turn left, thinking that they could trick me and get away. I laughed as they made every attempt to lose me. They didn’t know that I was well into the third season of “The Rockford Files” on Netflix, and after watching James Garner drive that copper-mist Firebird like Steve McQueen’s protégé, there was no way they were going to lose me. I didn’t have my phone with me, and as I followed our tormenters I could only imagine what Elizabeth must have been thinking back home.

Kids are generally stupid, and this bunch was no different. They eventually returned to our neighborhood and pulled into a dead end. I parked with my high beams aimed at their windshield, and when they tried to pass me I blocked their every attempt to flee past me. After several minutes, a young man summoned his courage and exited their car, walking over to my window. He trembled as he asked what I wanted.

“What do I want? I want you to stop harassing my family! I want you to stay off my property! I want you to tell me why!” I raged.

I then read him the riot act at high volume for twenty minutes, extracted from him a list of the kids involved, and threatened any legal action possible under the law. Another boy had found his stones and joined the one-sided conversation halfway through it. He too trembled as he learned that an angry father is a force to be reckoned with. They both confessed to following the lead of other kids, specifically two girls who allegedly hated Hannah, and to being dumb teenagers who had nothing else to do and no sense. (Their words, not mine.) I asked them if they thought they were good Mormon kids, and if they even listened to a damn thing on Sunday mornings about loving one another.

That seemed to cut them pretty deep.

I let them go and went home, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Worried that I had chased the kids off the road and was feasting on their mangled corpses, Elizabeth had called the sheriffs, and they had sent a patrol car to find me before I took drastic measures. The deputy sheriff turned up at our house a few minutes after I returned, and he informed us that he had pulled over a car with expired tags leaving our neighborhood, and found it to be filled with terrified teenagers. He had taken their names, and to that list he added the names that I had collected. I was given a case number and told to call should I wish to pursue matters any further.

Elizabeth knows far more people in the valley than I do, and some of the names I had collected shocked her. Knowing their parents as she did, she couldn’t believe that they would be involved in something so malicious. Some of them had been in our home, invited over by Hannah for movie nights and birthday parties. It cast a dark light on our view of this happy valley, to find out that so many kids from so many good Mormon families were the cause of our miserable and sleepless weekends. We decided against calling their parents, believing that word of my threats and the warnings of the deputy sheriff would spread throughout the school, bringing an end to the madness. We just wanted it to end.

I had mentioned the situation to a limited number of locals, and the looks and responses I got were anything but empathetic. A distinct sense that they believed me to be over-reacting forced me to shut down any further discussion on the matter. I took my frustration to bed with me each night, and passed many nights in restless sleep. Unhappiness is tiring to the extreme, especially when your dreams of happiness become a waking nightmare. I was exhausted, and so was my family.

Fathers embarrass their teenage children; this is a fact of life that you can’t understand and accept until you grow up and become a father of teenagers. By this time Hannah had passed from embarrassed to mortified, to hear of my running and chasing and threatening, but I felt that there was nothing else I could do. I hoped that she could somehow understand that as her father I would do whatever I could to protect our family, not only from physical threats, but emotional and spiritual menaces as well. Since our family was often exhausted from lack of sleep over the weekends, our Mondays and Tuesdays were tense, and we found ourselves at odds with each other, bickering and slamming doors, pushing each other well past our limits of tolerance.

If the harassment continued, something would had to be done, but I was frustrated and felt mired in failure; if I couldn’t provide a happy life for my family, just how successful could I count myself as a husband and father? Feeling powerless, I began looking at job boards in Arizona, New Mexico, and even California. I had been bullied as a child, and I didn’t want a bunch of teenagers to chase me away from my home as an adult, but to hell with them, I would do what it took to find happiness. Once we left, they could say whatever they damn well pleased, and I wouldn’t care about them one jot or tittle, nor would I give them a further thought.

There were of course, examples, people, and reasons to stay. We had made some dear friends in the valley, and although I thought that they might support us in our efforts to put an end to the late night raids, I didn’t want to drag them into it, nor did I want to risk finding out that they too felt I was overreacting. Elizabeth’s family was another reason to remain, due to the positive experience it had been to live near a warm and loving family. Time spent with cousins, nieces, nephews, siblings, and newborn babies had resulted in good relationships and lasting memories. I even enjoyed our limited time spent with my in-laws, which was a milestone very much worthy of being on the list of reasons to stay.

I wanted to fight, but had very little fight left in me.

We had one weekend of peace after the car chase. We did our best to ignore the onslaught, but it was hard to ignore. I began to wonder when they would begin throwing eggs, tagging our house with paint, and leaving lasting damage to our property. They had already trampled some of Elizabeth’s plants and flowers, and the summer rain had pulped the toilet paper into clumps that hung from high branches and littered our lawn. I stopped bothering to clean it up, because any that I picked up was always replaced with more. At the beginning of summer I had loved pulling into the driveway and looking at the beautiful gardening and grooming that Elizabeth had put so much time and effort into. By the end of the season, I had long tired of pulling up to see the scattered white mess and trampled plants.

Every car that passed in the night was full of assailants, and every noise in the wind a warning sign that we were about to get hit. The kids would stand in the dark living room and watch through the windows, while Elizabeth and I would stop and listen at every sound. I took to spending my Friday and Saturday nights in the upstairs den with the windows open and the sound muted as I played video games for hours past midnight, knowing that I couldn’t have slept had I tried, and hoping to deter the roving gangs from approaching through the dark. We got used to hearing the doorbell at two in the morning, waking to a mess in the yard, and hearing the honking of horns and the slow rumble of vehicles passing our house at a crawl. We worried about leaving the kids alone, for fear that the one night that we did would be the night the attackers would decide to escalate their assaults.

I stopped attending church youth activities in spite of being assigned to do just that. I couldn’t bear the sight of boys that I knew had been involved. Our family found began to find reasons for staying away from church on Sundays as well, and spent time together instead. I knew that the kids might grow accustomed to skipping church, but I had no desire to be there either, so what did it matter? Every week we skipped became easier, and I became more adept at pushing the guilt away with thoughts of teenagers running through the dark at night, then smiling their way through their Sunday morning classes and duties while adults who believed me to be overreacting sat nearby, full of The Spirit.

November came; months since Caleb left home and the start of our sleepless nights had passed. Elizabeth and I were sitting on our bed one Saturday night, the back door to our bedroom open to let in the crisp air of a moonlit night. Before dark I had stretched fishing line at chest and waist height between the trees in our yard in the hope that it would send a kid or two sprawling as they ran through our yard. I didn’t want to slice off any heads, but I did want to send a message.

“Did you hear something?” Elizabeth asked.

As part of what had become our routine, I paused what we were watching and stood to look outside. Sure enough, a pack of shadows ran from the backyard, hooting and hollering at me as they did. I ran to the garage in my boxers and tee shirt, jumped in the car and sped off into the night to give chase. After a loop around the neighborhood, I sped out to the state road and headed north. I saw them up ahead, and as I neared them they jumped a fence and ran off into a grove of trees. I continued north and saw what had to be their vehicles parked across from the local cemetery. I called the sheriff’s dispatch number and informed them that I was about to go mental on a herd of youth that were guilty of repeatedly harassing my home and family, and read off their license plates one by one.

They sent a deputy sheriff right away. As the night (and mayhem) progressed, he managed to pull over a car and speak to its single occupant, a teenage girl. She claimed to have been looking for her brother, whom she admitted had been out with the hooded crowd, but she stated that he had called her for a ride home after feeling uncomfortable with the herd’s activities. The deputy sheriff read her the riot act for her expired plates (What is up with expired plates on teenager’s cars in this valley?) and then waited for her brother to return on foot so that together they could have a chat with their parents. He then came and spoke to us, telling us what he had learned about our troubles and the kids involved. He advised us that we should talk to the parents and try to resolve the matter peacefully.

In the morning I looked out into the backyard and saw our trampoline in pieces on the lawn, and didn’t wonder twice about who had dismantled it. I dressed in a flash and sped over to the church, eager to spend a few minutes with the father of those two kids. By the time I entered the building I was calm, but my hands were damp with the sweat of anxiety. I approached the man and put my hand on his shoulder.

“We need to talk,” I said, a polite but serious tone accompanying the quivers that rippled through my body.

“Yes, yes we do,” he answered.

We chose an empty classroom, and after closing the door, we began to discuss the situation. He related what he knew, and then listened as I explained what our family had been going through, and my understanding that his kids had played a part in it. I was calm, but couldn’t help from trembling as I recounted the past few months and the lasting effects of the experience on my family. Not knowing him well but having no reason to doubt his integrity, I hoped for the best possible reaction. I hoped that he was a good man, a man who would hold his kids accountable, loved his neighbors, and went to church because he wanted to improve who he was, not just out of habit. By the end of our encounter, my hope had moved into cautious faith. We scheduled a meeting in his home that afternoon.

Elizabeth and I spent not quite an hour with that man, his wife, and their two older children. We were able to convey to the kids just how damaging the past few months have been for us, and relate to them the consequences of those late night raids. They were humbled, and tears made their way around the room, followed closely by a box of tissues. I sat with my arms folded and my eyes dry, trying to look as calm and in control as I wanted to be. As I watched the kids and listened to their heartfelt, tear-soaked apologies, I realized that I hadn’t shed a tear in months. This struck me as odd, because since my brother’s death, I had been somewhat of a big baby, crying at the very smallest of emotional moments and memories, happy or sad. I realized that in fact, the last time I had cried was on the very day the torment had started; I had cried as my son had left for university.

This knowledge steeled my resolve, and so I made it clear to them that while we were grateful for their apologies and believed that they had limited involvement in the late night raids, we were determined to end it all for good. If they were willing to help us do that we would be most grateful, and would not pursue matters with the sheriff any further. They promised to do everything in their power, and that with their parent’s help they would spread the word not so much that it had to stop, but more importantly, why.

We left feeling better and more hopeful than we had since summer. We had felt a spirit in that family’s home, a spirit of accountability, trust, and love. Elizabeth and I returned home and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon, with much of it spent napping away our exhaustion.

The following night, after the house was dark and quiet and we were all in bed, the doorbell rang. I looked at Elizabeth and felt the dashing of hope on the rocks of reality. I made my way to the dark front entry and flipped on the outside light as I opened the door.

There stood three teenage boys, each of them looking more humble and forlorn than his fellows.

“We are sorry it is so late, but we didn’t want to wait to come and tell you that we heard what has been happening to your family and we want to tell your family that we are sorry to have been a part of it,” the elected spokesman said.

I didn’t know what to say. I stood in the doorway with my arms folded across my chest, and for a moment I imagined smashing their heads together and slamming the door in their faces. I waited for the punch line, for the eggs to come flying at me, for a bucket of water to come around the corner and soak me.

The joke wasn’t on me, however, and so I called out to Elizabeth. She came and joined me in the doorway. Our kids refused to come out of their rooms, and I remarked that I didn’t blame them. I told the boys that they had helped turn our home into a living hell, and that if they had wanted an adrenaline rush, I would have gladly let them into my garage to box with me. We thanked them for their apologies, and asked them to please do their part and spread the word, then bid them goodnight properly, without chasing them out into the street and into the dark.

This story is far from over. As I write this, we have yet to see the weekend. We are hopeful, but cautiously so; the aftermath of these past few months is apparent in our home. We are struggling to rebuild our children’s love for this valley and its Mormon people, while we try to rebuild our own. Elizabeth and I have made a point of being positive, however, knowing that our attitude has been and will continue to be reflected in our children.

So, Jared…why do I stay…or will I?

The “will I” remains to be seen, but in that man and his wife, I have been blessed with two new examples to support the “why” that I offered to Jared, just days before he took his life.

In fact, if there are but a handful of such examples in Heaven, I’m beginning to think I’d like to go there.

So long as there isn’t any toilet paper.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Frog and Toad are Friends


This is not a eulogy. (Thank God.)

One of my favorite series of books as a child was the “Frog and Toad” series by Arnold Lobel. The tales of the two amphibious friends that couldn’t have been more different from each other hold a special place in my memories of childhood. The one tall and calm and capable, the other short and intense and unsure, the two balanced each other out, making for good times and a lasting friendship.



In one of their adventures, Frog and Toad read a book about knights in shining armor fighting dragons. The pair begins to wonder if they are as brave as the knights in the book. They look in a mirror and decide that they do indeed look brave, but they decide to climb a nearby mountain together as proof. Along the trail to bravery, they escape a deadly avalanche, avoid being eaten by a snake, and are forced to flee from a hungry hawk. In the end they run home and hide, deciding that they are both brave enough just as they are.

I am not skilled with a hammer. When using a screwdriver, my tongue sticks out in concentration, and in my head I hear the chanting rhyme righty-tighty, lefty-loosey repeated over and over until the task is complete. I’ve never cut a straight line through a piece of wood, I can’t unclog a toilet without soaking myself in poo-water, and the only finish work I am good at is not an appropriate topic for open discussion. The closest I can get to being a handy type of man is bending over and showing some butt-crack.

In addition to being little better than useless when it comes to fixing things, I am not at all brave, sure, or tough. Yes, I shoot guns, I can start a fire with one match, and at the age of forty-one I ran a marathon with very little training (okay, no training, because I was lazy), but I lost a lot of fights as a kid, snakes still bring out the little girl in me, and the only car chase I’ve ever been involved in was when some local teenagers wouldn’t stop harassing us with toilet paper and window peeping.

I won’t ever win any type of manly award. My beard refuses to grow past a patchy stubble, I don’t like wearing clothes for more than an eight hour stretch, and I shower three to four times a day. Just walking into a Banana Republic makes me horny, I know all the words (and some sweet dance moves) to “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus, and I wear my emotions like a day-glow-yellow turtleneck. I’m not gay, but there is a lot of drama queen in me.

Also worthy of note is the fact that I’ve never been given a cool nickname. My nieces and nephews used to call me “Bruiser,” but that was probably because they saw me trip over a shadow and cry at the resulting black and blue marks. The name didn’t stick long enough to count anyway.

I am not sure if all of the above makes me Frog or Toad, but it does make me in need of a good friend, a friend that will balance my shortcomings and find strength in my weakness.

Enter Captain Rob.

To start, he has a great nickname (no one will ever call me Captain).

Captain Rob can swing a hammer with precision and purpose, he cuts a straight line every time, and his tongue stays hidden inside his mouth whenever he’s doing any of the many great and powerful things that great and powerful men can do. He plays a convincing pirate, can pilot anything on wheels or water, and grows a real beard faster than I can turn a corner running.

Rob is everything that I am not and more. He is also a lot of what I aspire to be but will never become.

When Rob is around, I am at my bravest, coolest, and most capable. In his company I’ve steered a big boat (well, it was big for me), climbed a couple of mountains, and been chased by a hurricane. I’ve been twenty fathoms under the sea, played with seals in the whitecaps around the Isles of Shoals, and squealed with delight through my scuba mask as I’ve witnessed the rippling colors of a squid in the dark and frigid water on a winter night. I’ve driven a convertible down to Key West, sped across a frozen lake on a snowmobile, and been to more than one Guster concert. Together we’ve camped on a lighthouse island, crossed over to the wrong side of the tracks in the middle of the night, and spent the night with the Swedish Ladies Hiking Team atop Mount Chocurua in the White Mountains.



But…While in The Captain’s company, I’ve hammered dimples into a lot of wood, thrown up a gut full of banana milk and chocolate donuts into the sea, unwittingly walked through the middle of a transvestite gathering in a hotel bar, and proven myself useless on more than one manly project. I’ve wounded myself with power tools, grimaced and whined at the burden of hard labor, tripped over extension cords, and handed over the wrong wrench on more than one occasion.

Although I have felt inadequate in the presence of many men, around Rob I don’t feel any sort of need to measure up. Instead, I feel a distinct and pleasant need to be myself. Our relationship grew strong not because we share interests, talents, and experience, but rather because of our differences in what we bring to the table of friendship. Rob makes it comfortable for me to be me, a favor that I try to return. Even when he calls me “Sally,” I hear an amused affection in Rob’s voice.



For all his muscles and grit, Rob is, on the inside, stuffed with cotton candy. I once watched him sit patiently for well over an hour as my young daughter carefully painted each of his nails in bright shades of pink and purple, coated his face with cheeky blush, and filled his hair with clips and ribbons. He has carried each of my sleeping children in his arms, and shouldered them while trick or treating on more than one Halloween night (dressed each time as a pirate, of course). He has played their games, traded jokes and tickles with them, and spoiled them with unexpected presents and sweets. He will forever be their favorite captain.

Rob’s heart is bigger than his chest. At the lowest point of my life, when I felt that I couldn’t go on in the wake of my brother’s death, Rob spent hours at my side. Much of that time was spent installing the wood flooring that Elizabeth and I had ambitiously purchased without much thought to its installation. His craftsmanship was indeed an appreciated service, but the humble hours spent together on our back deck one day after lunch was a godsend for Elizabeth and me. Rob listened quietly as we poured our grief, confusion, and despair at his feet. After taking it all in, he shared his own heartbreaking experience, the sudden loss of his brother Ricky years earlier. With a wounded voice, he shared all that he had felt and learned from a moment in time that will never leave him. Covered in sawdust and tears, Rob bore our burden with us, and mourned with us as we mourned. I loved him even more for that.

Knowing Rob like I do, he would shake off my sincere expression of love, appreciation, and praise as nothing more than the sensitive fabrication of his dear friend “Sally.”

And that is Rob to anyone that knows him. He is a man without guile that carries within him a bare-chested spirit, because he has a habit of giving the shirt off his back to someone in need.




Earlier this week, my good friend Captain Rob posted a photo of the tugboat on which he serves as first mate. The caption read “Outbound from Cape May northbound. Hope this thing makes it!” I have seen Rob post photos from his floating office many times over the past few years, but this one gave me a few moments of pause. I know that Rob is a capable, brave, and experienced seaman, one that doesn’t throw such comments about without cause. The business of my day eventually pushed the foreboding feeling to a dark corner of my mind, and in time it was forgotten.

Two days later, at an ungodly hour, an incoming text vibrated me out of a deep sleep. Pulled from the darkness of dreams into the bright light of technology (and without my glasses), I could barely make out the sender’s name. It had come from Neil, a good friend to both Rob and myself.

Why would Neil text me at this hour? My birthday has come and gone. It isn’t Christmas, and there is nothing special about today.

Rob.

I dropped the phone and rolled back into the warm cocoon of blankets, unwilling to don my glasses and read the message that was sure to be bad news about Captain Rob. I stared into the darkness, listening to Elizabeth breathing softly beside me. My phone rested a million miles away on the nightstand as I tried not to envision a world without my dear friend living in it.

How would I ever be brave again?

Many minutes and a very hot shower later, I summoned the dregs of my courage and picked up my phone to read Neil’s text.

Rob’s tug sank in a storm off the coast of Rhode Island. Rob and the crew had no time to pull on their emergency suits, only life vests.

My knees buckled; I fell back and sat on the edge of the tub, bile rising within my throat.

They were rescued by a fishing boat. (Hey Neil, next time start with the good news.)

My head felt light with relief, and a smile spread its way across my face. Rob’s phone was most likely at the bottom of the ocean, but I called and left him a voicemail anyway, wanting him to eventually share in the joy I was feeling to know that he was alive.




Thanks to a wise and wonderful wife, I was soon on a plane heading east to surprise my friend with an unannounced crashing of his “Man Overboard” party. It was an absolute adrenaline rush, to throw my arms around my dear friend and tell him that I love him. To see him standing before me, dressed in the lifejacket that had kept him afloat, laughing, smiling, and living, struck me as a blessing from heaven, one that filled me with happiness to bursting.

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Rob told me the harrowing tale of the sinking, and how within a span of just a few minutes he and the crew went from marveling at the pounding waves to swimming for their lives in them, wondering if rescue would arrive.

Later, during a quiet moment together, I asked the bravest man I know, “Were you scared?”

“You know Matt, I’ve never been more scared in my life,” Rob answered in a serious, my-life-course-has-been-forever-altered tone.

And in that moment, I decided that Rob and I are brave enough just as we are.

Love you Toad. (Or am I Toad?)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Luck Had Nothing To Do With It

Author's note: 

Last winter I sat in a booth at the local drug store and listened over burgers and fries as two friends told me the following true story of what they found on an elk hunt, and how it led to closure for a family whose father had been missing for seven years. With their permission, I recorded the conversation, and that recording inspired this short story, which may or may not be published in a collection of hunting stories in the near future.

Chapter 1: The Tag

“Todd, why is two-hundred and seventy-five dollars missing from our checking account?” The blinking amber lights in Annie’s tone hinted at the potential for danger ahead, depending upon my answer.

“What?” Panic had my mind rummaging through recent purchases. “I don’t know, did you call the bank?”

“Yes, and the only thing they could tell me was that the direct debit charge came from something called DNR,” my wife explained.

“Two- seventy -five?” I asked, stalling for time as I dug deeper into my memory.

“Yes.”

“DNR?” I wondered aloud, as my mental shovel hit bedrock.

“Two hundred and seventy-five dollars, paid to something called DNR,” Annie confirmed, trading the blinking ambers for rapidly-flashing reds.

“I’ll figure it out and make it right,” I promised.

“Please do,” my petite but dangerous wife encouraged.

“I will.”

“And please pick up some milk on the way home,” she added sweetly.

“Will do,” I agreed.

“Love you,” she said, turning the sweetness up a notch.

“Love you too,” I replied before signing off.

I sat at my desk and stared through the heavy silence that followed our brief but stressful exchange. Such a large debit to something I had never heard of made no sense. I had long ago made it a habit to consult with Annie before buying anything more expensive than a candy bar, so there was just no way that I had spent close to three hundred dollars without her approval.

And then it hit me: Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, also known as the DNR.

I picked up the phone and called my brother-in-law.

“Hello?”

“Peter, how much was that limited-entry elk tag we each put in for?” The words rushed out of my mouth in a tangled string.

“Well, it was ten dollars to put in for the draw…”

“Yeah, I know, but how much was it if your name was chosen?” I interrupted.

“I think it’s just about three-hundred bucks, maybe a little less,” my brother-in-law answered.
“Would they pull it from your bank account without notification, and would the charge show as coming from the DNR?”

 “You sucker, are you telling me you drew a Boulder Mountain limited-entry elk tag on your first try?”



Chapter 2: The Pressure

My father-in-law never does anything halfway; when he sets his mind to something, Howard follows through in style. Camping and hunting are no exception, and after dozens of elk hunts at his favorite hunting spot on Boulder Mountain in southern Utah, Howard’s trips have become legendary, and an invitation to participate is considered a prize among his peers. The food, which includes the best Thai curry this side of Bangkok, is enough to incite jealousy in the good hearts of those not invited, and the wall tent heated by wood stove offers top notch accommodations worthy of raving online reviews. As his son-in-law, I understood that my bunk in Howard’s tent that year was afforded to me by both my marriage to his daughter and my luck in the tag drawing; a return trip the following year was still mine to earn.

I spent the last few weekends before the hunt at the range with my .270, trying to fine tune my scope and minimize my spread. One night after venting my shooting frustrations to my father, he suggested that I try out his .306, which would give me a little more power, and that would be a good thing when hunting for a trophy elk. In spite of the thirty year old scope, I discovered that I was much more comfortable and my aim more precise with the .306, and so it became my gun for the hunt.

The day came, and Peter and I climbed into his truck to make the drive south. Howard and his other son Rob had already set up camp earlier in the week. We would meet them there, and our hope was that they would have dinner warm and waiting when we arrived.

“Gonna go get us some of that Boulder Mountain tag soup!” Peter said in a sing-song voice. He turned and grinned at me.

“You just keep on thinking that way if it gets you through the day,” I replied.

Much like his father, Peter sees things through to the end, and his dedication to needling me wasn’t unexpected. In the weeks since drawing that tag, I couldn’t recall an email, text, or conversation that had failed to end with Peter’s advice on seasoning the “tag soup” that I was sure to be cooking come the end of the hunt. I chalked it up to jealousy and tried to laugh it off, but in truth, the joy of a first-time-lucky trophy tag was overshadowed by the pressure that came along with it. I had to walk off Boulder Mountain with a trophy elk, not only to earn Peter’s respect and a bunk in that wall tent the following year, but because in Annie’s eyes, a freezer full of meat was the only way to justify the cost of the non-refundable tag.

Dinner was indeed waiting for us, and it hit the spot after a long drive with Peter and his quips behind the wheel. I dropped into my bunk that night with a head heavy from the weight of what lay ahead and a silent prayer that I be granted what it would take to measure up to my own expectations.



Chapter 3: The Hunt

After a comfortable night of curry-fueled dreams, we rose well before first light to a frosty mountain morning. A quick breakfast and a thorough gear check later, we climbed onto the four-wheelers and followed a cattle trail deep into the wilderness. After five or six miles of steady riding the trail ended, and we parked the vehicles. At that point we decided that Peter and I would head southeast down the slope, while Howard and Rob hiked west along the high ridgeline. From their vantage point they would set up a scope and spot for us, using the radio to guide us towards any elk they might find.

Once the hunt started, the teasing stopped. Peter was all business as we made our way into the valley below. After a mile or more, we stopped to eat some granola bars and check in with Howard and Rob, hoping to hear that they had spotted some elk on their way to bedding down as the sun began to burn on the horizon. They hadn’t, and so we watched and waited.

“Hey,” I whispered thirty minutes later, “I’m freezing my giblets off, how ‘bout you?”

“Yeah, I’m cold,” Peter replied, his own voice barely audible. “Why don’t we head further east and try to warm up a bit as we go?”

I didn’t need additional prompting. Peter followed as I turned and headed due east. Not a minute later, Howard hailed us on the radio.

“We’ve spotted a small group of bulls about a mile to the south of us, heading towards the desert,” Howard said.

“We’re probably a mile and a half east of them,” Peter replied.

“Have you seen anything over that way?” Howard asked.

“Nothing.”

“We’ve spotted a couple of spikes, but there are at least a few raghorns in this group, a couple of which I think might have an extra point or two,” Howard said.

“Well that settles it; we’ll make a run to the west, and once below you, we’ll slow down and resume the hunt nice and slow,” Peter decided aloud.

We took off running, the crystalized snow crunching beneath our boots in spite of our best efforts to float silently above it. As I followed Peter over fallen trees, around clumps of oak brush, and across open spaces, I imagined myself to be Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans, running after evil British redcoats.

After a mile of running we slowed to a walk. Peter pulled out his radio.

“Dad, do you see us?” He asked between gasping breaths.

“Yes, I’ve got you. You’re about a quarter mile north of that group of bulls, and they’re still looking to bed down,” Howard answered.

“Okay, good. We’re gonna try glassing for them and see if we can get a good look, or maybe even a shot.” Peter stuffed the radio back into his pocket and put his binoculars to his face.

I followed suit with my rifle, but the old scope wasn’t much for spotting, especially when my chest was still heaving from our run. I lowered the gun and began to scan the hillside below with my naked eyes, but couldn’t see the elk. I looked further south, but still found nothing, until I noticed some movement across the valley, up the hill on the other side.

“That is the fattest elk I’ve ever seen!” I whispered.

“What? Where are you looking?” Peter asked.

I pointed to the hill directly across from where we stood. A fat elk on hairy legs nosed its way up the slope. Peter raised his binoculars.

“That’s a cinnamon brown bear,” he said, a smile in his voice.

I took his binoculars and got a better look. “Okay, so it’s a bear. But with that blonde back and those dark legs it looks like a fat elk,” I explained.

“Tag and bear soup…” I heard Peter whisper with a chuckle.

I punched him in the arm and handed back his binoculars. “Hey, don’t forget that I’m the one carrying the gun,” I warned my brother-in-law.

“Let’s move a bit and try to get a clear line of sight to these bulls,” Peter suggested, ignoring my hollow threat and patting the pistol holstered on his belt.

We made our way to the southeast, hoping to get an angle on the elk, now bedded down for the day. After a long and quiet trek down the hillside, we realized it just wasn’t going to happen; too much brush and too many smaller ridges lay before us, blocking the view.

“Hey Peter, do you think we’d be able to spot them from across the ravine and up that hill where the bear was?” I wondered aloud, indicating with a nod of my head. The bear was long gone.

“That’s not a bad idea, let’s backtrack north and then west before we drop down into the ravine and cross over. Those elk are bedded down, but we don’t want to spook them, and this brush is too thick to cross through quietly.”

“Or at all,” I added.

Peter radioed Howard and let him know our plan, and we headed back up the slope. We then turned and hiked west until we felt we could move across the ravine without disturbing the elk, and made our way down the hill once again. The incline on the southern side of the ravine was steep, so much so that we spent some time climbing on hand and foot to reach a point that we could hike standing up again. We moved in silence, taking cautious steps and keeping the noise we made to a minimum. Soon we were just about where the bear had been, more than a mile south of Howard and Rob, with the elk bedded down three hundred yards north of us.

Peter and I settled back into the hillside and got comfortable. We could see the elk from our position, and we took the next hour or so to glass each one, looking for a rack worthy of the tag, and the shot that would make it happen. This being my first elk hunt, I would have gladly taken anyone of them and been thrilled with the result.



Chapter 4: The Shot

“Well, whaddya think, Todd?” Peter asked.

“I think any one of them will fill my freezer,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

“Yeah, but which one will fill your wall?”

“That one to the left looks like an eight by nine to me; he’s definitely a taker,” I replied.

“He is a nice one,” Peter agreed.

“But the shot might be just a little too far for me,” I confessed.

Peter scanned the hillside below us and thought a moment before speaking. “We could try moving down the hill a bit, but that ridge near the bottom looks like it might get in the way,” Peter thought out loud.

I looked down the hill and saw that he was right; we might scamper all the way down the hill only to lose the shot in exchange for shorter distance.

“We could also come back this evening and hope they feed their way closer to us. Don’t forget that this is the first day of the hunt; you don’t have to take one today,” Peter advised.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to regret not taking the shot when I have it either,” I noted.

“Tag soup,” Peter nodded in agreement.

We sat in silence, pondering and weighing our options. The sun was high in the sky, and with a rumble in my stomach I realized that in all the excitement and exercise of the hunt I had lost track of time.

“Let’s set up a shot on that big boy, and see what you think,” Peter suggested.

“Sounds good,” I said.

I pulled out the bipod, and Peter built a stable platform for it out of rocks. I took my time getting into a comfortable position with my back settled into the hillside. At three hundred yards I figured on a four inch spread and two inches of drop, especially with my inexperience. I would have to spend some time looking through that old scope, lining up my shot and dry firing the gun a few times to make sure it felt right.

The sight of that big elk filling my scope was exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. He was bedded down and turned slightly away from us, and a little clump of scrub oak blurred my view of his chest cavity. I struggled to slow my breathing and lower my heart rate as I contemplated taking an angled shot at three hundred yards.

“Well?” Peter asked.

“It’s definitely not a straight on, broad side shot, but I think if I can hit him just behind that front shoulder blade he’ll stay down,” I answered.

“Let me take a look through the scope,” Peter said.

I handed him the rifle. He raised it to his shoulder and looked through the glass. I watched as he tried to find the elk through the thirty year old optics.

“Where is he?” I heard him mutter under his breath, and a moment later he whispered, “Okay, got him.”

“And?”

“And this scope is seriously old, you are going to have to make the first shot count,” Peter replied.

“But you think it’s doable?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s doable, but let me put it this way: if you make it I’ll have to hear about your miracle trick shot on your first ever elk hunt for the rest of my life,” Peter joked, handing me the rifle.

Once back in my comfortable shooting position, I practiced relaxing my body and exhaling slowly to keep those crosshairs fixed in place just a few inches below his back and trained in on his vitals as I dry-fired several times, envisioning the moment when the resulting noise would be more than a click.

“I think I can do this, I think it feels right,” I finally declared.

Peter radioed Howard and told him to keep an eye on that elk, should he jump up and run when I hit him.

 A few minutes later, I took the shot. The bull jumped to his feet and turned to face us in an instant, and as he did I worked my bolt, chambered another round, and took a second shot.

“Whoa, whoa, slow down Todd,” Peter admonished.

“Well that one missed; I might as well have taken a hip shot,” I muttered, angered by my own impatience.

At that moment, the bull turned, giving me a broadside view of his body. The other elk were on their feet and beginning to move. I chambered a third round and took another shot, this one calm and careful, centered on his chest cavity.

Without taking another step, the bull dropped.



Chapter 5: The Bones

There would be no tag soup. I would leave Boulder Mountain with my head held high and a freezer load of meat. Annie would be pleased and Howard would be impressed. Peter would still rib me, but his jokes would now be delivered with a hint of respect, and maybe even a dose of jealousy on the side. I heaved a sigh of absolute relief, and followed it up with a joy-filled chuckle. I looked up at Peter, whose face was lit up with a smile.

“Nothing like it, is there?” he said, nodding at his own memories.

“Oh, man that was something!” I almost shouted. I jumped to my feet and improvised a victory dance.

“Thank goodness you shoot better than you dance,” Peter remarked.

And there it was; a little hint of respect wrapped inside a ribbing. It felt good.

We stood and packed up our gear, then hiked down the hill in a straight line, hoping we could navigate our way through the brush and come up the other side to where the bull lay. The terrain was rough and rocky, and we took our time, making sure to watch our steps in order to keep from spraining an ankle. Peter led the way, and as we reached the bottom of the ravine I followed him around a great big boulder that had long been wrestling with a juniper’s roots. Had I not been paying attention I would have run right into Peter when he stopped without warning.

“Todd, is that a human skull?”

I heard the words, but my brain took a moment to process their meaning. After it had, I stepped up next to Peter and followed his gaze towards the ground. The unmistakable shape of a human skull stuck up out of the dry leaves. I scanned the surrounding area and took in more bones, each of them bleached white from time in the sun.

Peter had the radio out and was talking to Howard.

“Dad, we just found bones,” Peter told him.

“And...?”

"No, I mean we found human bones; I almost stepped on the skull, and there are ribs, femurs, and a whole bunch of other bones half buried in leaves and mixed in with some shredded clothing and a pair of boots.” Peter shook his head as he said the words, as if he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Well, it might snow tonight; you’d better mark the spot somehow, so that when we get the sheriff in here we can lead him back to it,” Howard instructed without missing a beat.

The bones weren’t scattered much at all, although it was obvious that they had been there for a couple of seasons, maybe more. We spent the next several minutes examining the scene in subdued silence. The thrill of the hunt had faded at the sight of the skull, a shadowy reverence taking its place. Someone had died right there were we stood, and their body left alone on the hillside. It was a humbling, beautiful place to be. Upon closer inspection we found the remnants of a leather motorcycle jacket, dark jeans, and a pair of Harley Davidson motorcycle boots. Peter reached down and carefully picked up the skull. Most of the teeth were missing, and it was obvious that mice had been gnawing on those that remained.

“Todd, look at this,” Peter said, his voice soft and reverent. He turned the skull around and held it towards me so that I could get a good look.

There was a hole in the center of the left temple, just behind the eye socket.



Chapter 6: The Cleaning

We didn’t have any tape with which to tag the spot, so Peter placed the skull on top of the big boulder as a marker. We took some mental notes and snapped a few photos with our phones for good measure, so that we could lead law enforcement back to the spot when the time came. Once we felt confident that we knew the area well enough, we continued up the slope to find my elk.

As we approached the animal, the thrill of the hunt returned. I had seen elk before, as they migrated each year through the mountains where we lived, but I had never seen one so close, so still, and so massive. The excitement almost overshadowed the anticipation of what came next.

When I was sixteen I had tried cleaning a deer with my dad looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do, but within minutes I felt sick and ready to puke, at which point he had told me to go and fetch the horses. I had never fully cleaned an animal before, let alone something as massive as a bull elk. This time, I looked to my brother-in-law for guidance as I began the process, determined to complete it. I didn’t do too bad a job, and only made a minor mess of the guts. By the time my hands were bloody, Howard and Rob had joined us, and while I finished up, Peter took them down the hill to see the bones.

Since we didn’t have our frame packs with us to carry the meat back to the four-wheelers, we decided it best to cape the elk and haul the head out that afternoon, leaving the rest for the following day. We planned on driving into town that night to notify the local sheriff that we had found human remains, and if he needed to he could send someone in with us to investigate when we returned for the meat in the morning.

The first hill drained my strength. I was sweating and breathless, and every muscle in my legs was quaking as I reached the top. That head weighed at least seventy-five pounds, and in the three mile hike back to the trail head we would have to climb at least fifteen hundred vertical feet. Peter spelled me for the next stretch and then he too was spent. At that point we lashed the head to a fallen tree branch and carried it on our shoulders together. It was awkward, but it allowed the weight to be shared between the two of us. When we finally reached the four-wheelers it had been dark for some time.

Howard and Rob were waiting with dinner and the news that they had lucked out with a cell signal, and had used it to call the sheriff’s department. Two deputies would meet us in the morning, and we would show them the bones. Exhausted after a long, tough, rewarding, and emotional day, I brushed my teeth and dropped into my bunk without so much as a thought to sitting around the fire to brag about my elk and wonder aloud about the taste of tag soup. 



Chapter 7: The Deputies

I hadn’t seen a lot of The Andy Griffith Show in my time, but I knew an Andy and Barney duo when I saw one, and the two deputies that met us the next morning were heavy contenders for best tribute act. The first, (we’ll call him Andy) was tall, quiet, and commanding. Andy exuded confidence, experience, and direction. He also carried all their gear. The second, (yes, we’ll call him Barney) was excitable and chatty, eager to keep pace with Andy but physically unable, due to the only characteristics setting TV’s Deputy Fife apart from ours: about twelve inches in height and fifty pounds in weight.

We rode the four-wheelers to the end of the cattle trail, and then started the hike back to the bones. Barney was dressed in heavy coveralls, and in spite of the November cold he was soon sweating like a U.S Senator strapped to a lie detector. We did our best to keep the pace slow and manageable, but still found ourselves stopping to watch Barney catch up or catch his breath, or both. It didn’t help, the fact that in between gasps for air, Barney felt the need to tell stories about his dangerous life as a deputy.

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but…” Barney would begin, and with every outlandish story I caught a slight shake of Andy’s head. He must have long ago grown accustomed to the constant chatter and over share of his annoying yet amiable companion, because he never once interrupted or rebuked him.

I half-expected Barney to reach into his pocket and ask Andy, “Can I put my bullet in?”

At long last we arrived at the elk.

“Peter, why don’t Todd and I stay to cut and pack up the meat, while you and Rob take the deputies down to see the bones,” Howard suggested.

“Sounds like a plan; we may be down there some time,” Andy agreed.

Peter and Rob led the deputies down the hill, and I began to cut up the elk, with Howard guiding the process.

They spent a good hour and a half down at the site, and when they came back up the hill they carried several bags filled with the bones and personal effects they had found.

“I already asked these two fellas, but I’ve got to ask you two as well; did any of you find a gun, a knife, or any other item that might be used as a weapon?” Andy asked with authority.

“No sir, we didn’t. We looked around a bit, but we didn’t want to disturb any evidence, unlikely as there was to be any after such a long time,” I answered.

“He’s right,” Howard confirmed.

Andy stood quiet and looked us over for a long moment, as if trying to discern our propensity for dishonesty. Eventually he nodded his thanks, signaling the end of the matter.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you find?” Howard asked the deputies.

Barney was quick to step up to an imagined podium topped with microphones and provide a statement in reply. His hands rested on his hips and his voice deepened as he answered Howard’s question. “We found a wallet, a truck key, an undersized wrench, and a small screwdriver,” he said.

You’d have thought he had just revealed the identity of the fabled shooter on the grassy knoll.

“Was there any identification in the wallet? Do you know who he is?” I asked.

“We have a pretty good idea about who the deceased may be, but we can’t comment on that,” Andy said, before Barney could open his mouth and say something that he shouldn’t have.

The hike back to the cattle trail was once again a long and steep one, made more difficult by not only the heavy packs filled with meat, but by Barney’s company as well.

“Guys, we’re in no hurry, we’ve got all day,” he reminded us over and over again, as we did our best to make the trip a quick one.

Andy was having difficulty carrying the heavy bag of bones along with their gear, which included a rake. There wasn’t room in his pack for the bag, and so he had to carry it (and the rake) in his hands, making a tough hike that much harder.

Barney carried his gun on his hip, and presumably, a single bullet in his pocket.

After a half hour of watching Andy struggle, Peter stopped and suggested that they put the bones and evidence in his pack.

“You sure? That pack’s got to be pretty heavy with all that meat in there,” Barney asked. He was sweating buckets again, and had unzipped his coveralls and rolled them down to his waist.

“Thanks, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Andy said thankfully.

It may have been a lot of trouble, but Peter didn’t complain once. We hiked our way out to the trail and rode the four-wheelers back to camp, where we parted ways with Andy and Barney after accepting their handshakes and thanks.

I slept well that night.



Chapter 8: The Closure

Ten years to the week before I shot that elk, an older gentleman from Colorado had driven west into Utah, making it as far as Boulder Mountain before parking his car and disappearing into the wilderness. The initial search to find him had lasted for weeks, during which time they hadn’t found a single clue as to what had happened to him. After six months his missing report was filed away as an unsolved disappearance.

Two weeks before I shot that elk, the missing man’s daughter had made her first call to the sheriff’s department in several years. She had been thinking of her father, and hoped there might be some news. The sheriff was very sorry, but no, there wasn’t anything new to report on her father’s case.

Two months after I shot that elk, I called the sheriff and asked him if they had identified the remains, and if the mystery of the man’s death had been solved. They had, and it had been. The man was indeed the man Andy and Barney thought he might be, the missing man from Colorado. The hole in his left temple was nothing more than the wear of time on a part of the skull that is naturally thinner than the rest, and while they couldn’t say for sure how the man had died, it did not appear that he had taken his own life. He had most likely gotten lost and wandered several miles away from his car, and unable to find his way out, had died of exposure.

That following Spring, a few members of the man’s family came to Boulder Mountain so that Andy could guide them to the site where their loved one had died. They spent a couple of hours under that juniper, reflecting on the man they had missed for so many years, and taking comfort in the fact that he had been found at last.

I still marvel at everything that led us to finding that man’s remains. The long hike in, the old scope on my father’s rifle, the cinnamon brown bear foraging for grubs on the hillside, the elk bedding down in that specific spot; they all played a part in leading Peter and me to make our way down into that ravine and around that boulder. And my first time tag drawing wasn’t even the beginning; the string of events had started long ago when my father-in-law went hunting as a boy on Boulder Mountain with his father, and that tradition of hunting on Boulder Mountain long held by his family had brought bittersweet closure to another.

You might say that luck had nothing to do with it.

The End