Old Mack’s Tales

January 13, 2012

Memoir of Old Jack, an Army Mule

Filed under: Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 8:34 am

Call Me Old Jack,

This is how an Army Mule retires: working with cowboys and tourists in the Grand Canyon; this is the watering and rest stop at Indian Gardens, where a young Mack was staying while he worked on the Trans-Canyon Pipeline which supplies the water.

My daddy was a jackass stallion; Momma was a big roan mare.

I was born on Roan Mountain on Black Tuesday in 1929

I’m an old Jack Mule now, who has been most everywhere.

I was born in North Car’lina.  Had it not been for hard times, some called it the Great Depression, I might have spent a lifetime draggin’ stone boats up them hills.  A sawed off mountain lad the local yokels called Mack thought I was his pet, like that yeller hound dog and the old Dominicker chicken that follered him around those mountains.  I follered him too, because he was needy.  And, to tell the truth, I liked to munch on the parched corn the kid always carried in the pockets of his overalls.

Mack was a lightweight, a scrawny kid.  Even when I was just a colt I’d let him ride on my back; I hardly knew he was there.

Mack’s daddy got hard up for cash and had me trucked to Jonesboro, Tennessee.  I thought that was the last I’d see of Mack, but danged if I wasn’t mistaken.  I was sold at auction to a feller from Memphis who bought mules to resell to the U.S. Army.

I was most full grown when the Quartermaster from Fort Reno won the bidding.  From Memphis a bunch of us sturdy young studs (that’s just a figure of speech, you know we mules are sterile, which means we can’t reproduce—it don’t mean we’re queer) and a few Jennies were loaded on a train and hauled out to Oklahoma.  I fell for the cutest blue-nose Jenny you’ve never saw during that long, smoky train ride.  Prettiest eyes and ass you’ve ever seen, love at first sight so to speak.  But they kept us apart, chained to the stanchions of that cattle car.  Maybelline was my Jenny’s name.  Our romance was brief and unrequited as they say, but I’ll never forget those eyes.

At the Remount Depot, in Fort Reno we had our Army physical exams, got our shots for tetanus and anthrax, and were tattooed in our ears.  Poor Maybelline caught a cold during the train ride and it developed into pneumonia; she dropped dead while we were having our hooves examined, poor thing.  I reckon the Army veterinarian though I was in good shape—better’n most due to the workouts with the stone boats in those mountains of North Carolina; some of those Missouri mules was half starved when they were recruited, or acquired—so they gave me my service number, 08K0 and shipped me down to an artillery regiment at Fort Sill.

I’m sure stranger things have happened, but imagine my surprise when they put on the chow wagon team and assigned a Buck Private by the name of Mack to ride me.

I reckon if you’ve seen those movies about the 20-Mule Teams that lug those wagons filled with Borax out of Death Valley, you probably got the wrong impression.  We weren’t driven like that, with a man sitting in the wagon, steering us with reins and crackin’ a bull whip over our heads like we were dumb oxen.  No it wasn’t that way at all.  Of course we were harnessed, collars and all, but experienced mule such as myself were put at the head of the team, saddled and ridden by our soldier.  In my case it was my old partner, Mack.

Now I don’t know for sure that Mack recognized me right off, the way I knew him by his smell.  But the first time the Private came close with a bag of corn nuts, I snatched ‘em out of his hand.

The dumb kid might have slugged me, but an old Sergeant had his eye on him.  I nudged Mack with my nose in that spot where he was ticklish, and got him laughing.  And then I gave him back his bag of corn nuts and he shared ‘em with me.  He knew from that moment on just who I was.

“Jack!” He hollered like he’d met a long lost friend, “You sonofabitch, I thought it was you.”

Well, to make a long story short, Mack got married to a girl over in Marlow, had some kids and got out of the Army.  And me, well they hauled me to California on the train, put me on a ship and sent me to Honolulu in Hawaii.  I wound up working for those dog face soldiers at Schofield Barracks, packing loads of K-Rations to feed them, when they went on maneuvers in the Kuhuku Forest on the Pali.

Next thing you know those Japanese airplanes came over and bombed our biggest ships in Pearl Harbor and clobbered all of our airplanes at Hickham Field.  That, friends, was a day to remember.  I have to tell you how dumb the Army Officers were; they had men walking guard duty and manning the anti-aircraft guns, but wouldn’t give them any ammo—dumber than horses they were.  And they didn’t get much smarter as time went on ( I heard they’re using horses in Afghanistan’s mountains, which is clearly a job for mules) but I digress.

I got another boat ride to Australia on my way to the China-Burma-India Theater of War.  For you young folks reading this I should explain that a Theater of War ain’t what you may be thinking—we didn’t put on plays.

When we got off the boat in India, we were assigned to the Engineers who were building a road across the Himalaya Mountains into northern Burma and on into southwestern China.  Now that was some damned hard work.  The loads we carried and the muck we had to hike in was hard to believe.  Then there were those jungles and the Japs.  Need I mention the altitude, or the attitude of those draftees marching through that muck?  Just think of the Ledo Road as hell on earth.  Back and forth over those mountains we went, humping loads that would kill a work horse, swimming rivers filled with leeches. It was not only hard work, but deadly boring until someone started shooting.  We reached Myitkyina finally.  That’s where the Ledo  Road joined the old Burma Road. And from there we went on to Kunming, China followed by the trucks. In 1944, I was in a column of experienced mules loaned by the U.S. Army to the Chinese Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang was an arrogant sonofabitch who was pulling a fast one on Uncle Sam, hoarding the loot the U.S. shipped to him over the Ledo-Burma Road and not doing much fighting with the Japanese to speak of, so it should surprise no one that Mao and Chou En-Lai’s Red Army whipped his butt.  That’s when I became a Prisoner of War.

Like all POWs everywhere, I was harnessed to a plow one day and draggin’ a Red Army wagon the next.  Little by little I made my sway from south China to Manchuria.  I even spent a while at Port Arthur working for the Russians, until the war ended—the civil war that is.

As you may recall, the peninsula of Korea was split in two along the 38th Parallel of Latitude and the Sovs occupied the northern half and the U.S. Army ran the southern half.  That situation began to change even while Mao and Chou were still fighting the old Generalissimo Chiang’s army.  In 1949, Chiang and his Nationalist Army bugged out of China and settled on Formosa, an island once owned by the Japs that’s called Taiwan.  The Red Army won the war and Mao was set up as the leader of The People’s Republic of China.

Meanwhile, one of them Koreans by the name of Kim Il-Sung, who’d been to Moscow and learned Communism, and then fought in the Red Army went home to Pyongyang and took over as head of the government in North Korea, which he called The Peoples’ Republic of North Korea.   So Kim Il-Sung got Chairman Mao to send all of the Koreans who’d fought in China against Generalissimo Chiang back home.  Then Kim got his buddy, Uncle Joe to send him a bunch of tanks and burp guns, fuel and ammo and he built himself one mighty army.

Kim’s troops were mostly experienced soldiers.  Singman Rhee’s army in The Republic of Korea, down south of the 38th Parallel, on the other hand were mainly peasants in uniforms with little or no training and though they were reinforced with a regiment of U.S. Army troops and Officers, they were nowhere near as good as Kim’s armies.

So, with permission from Uncle Joe Stalin, the acquiescence of Chairman Mao, and the promise of air support from the Soviet Air Forces in Siberia, Kim Il-Sung invaded South Korea on the 25th of June, 1950.  Let me tell you true, Kim’s troops and tanks went through the South Koreans like shit through a tin horn.  But like most invaders, Kim made a great mistake; he went too far too fast.  By the time his army was down near Pusan, at the Naktong River, he ran out of gas for his tanks, ran out of ammo too.  Well, almost out of ammo, but not quite.  And he went farther than the Soviet Aircraft could fly and fight and still get back to their bases in Siberia and Manchuria.  So Kim’s army was in about the same shape our U.S. Army was that Sunday morning in 1941, when those Jap airplanes hit us on Oahu.

Next thing you know, General MacArthur landed two thirds of a Marine Division and a bunch of soldiers at Inchon and cut off the North Koreans stuck down south.  With the remnants of the R.O.K. Army and the First Marine Brigade and some U.S. Army reinforcements whipping them down on the Naktong, in Mason and so many places, there wasn’t too much left of Kim’s army left to fight.

Well, Kim Il-Sung wasn’t the only one to make mistakes.  Danged if Macarthur didn’t do the same foolish thing of extending himself too far by pushing the fight clean up to the Yalu River—the boundary between Korea and China—with winter coming on.  Some of those old generals were dumb as stones, in spite of all the glory heaped on ‘em.

It was late in November, when the Chinese loaded me up with ammunition and sent me across the river with all those Chinese Volunteers.  It must have been the coldest damned winter on record.  Damned ice was thick enough to hold a tank, but slick!  By then my shoes were worn down so thin they looked like tin foil, no cleats on them at all.  I slid on the ice at every bend in the trail, skint my knees, near broke a leg.  And Christ knows I wasn’t a young Jack by then.  I was Old Jack, and Cold Jack.  By the time the Chinese Volunteers chased the Marines out of the Frozen Chosen Reservoir area down to their ships at Hamhung and the U.S. Army well south of Seoul, I was one Hungry Jack.  What I would have given for a bag of corn nuts that winter.  I must have lost thirty or forty pounds or more.

Then President Truman fired General MacArthur, so I heard, and put another in charge and he counter-attacked and there I was, caught right in the midst of another melee.

Tell you what, by then I’d had ten years of war, damn near continuous war, and I was tired of it.  You can call me a coward if you like.  But I’d had enough, thank you.  I clomped down through the rubble of the Railroad Station in Seoul and hid.  That’s what I did.

After the battle was over, a little Korean boy found me hiding in the dark.  I reckon he must have thought I was a pony—God knows I’d lost a lot of weight.  So the kid, name of Tack Su-Tu, rode me out of the rubble of the Railroad Station and was heading for his daddy’s farm in the Taebak Mountains, when an M.P. stopped us.

The M.P. ran little Tack Su-Tu off and took me prisoner.  Before you know it, I was humping ammo up some mountains higher and steeper than any in North Carolina in a place called The Punch Bowl and a hill called Heartbreak Ridge.  It was nowhere as rough as the Himalayas, but then I wasn’t the youngster I was back then neither.  It was rough, I’ll tell you, and no corn nuts for a reward either.

I was just about worn down to a nubbin when the veterinarian ordered them to give me some R&R and new shoes.  I won’t go into all the trouble I got into during those 10 days of freedom down south.  Well, there was this little roan Mongolian filly, cute as a button, bangs and tail the color of Tennessee clay—ah me.  She couldn’t speak a word of Mule and I hadn’t learned Mongolian, but well, let’s just say we got along and leave it at that.

In 1953, three years and a couple of days from when it started, the Truce was signed in P’anmunjom and I was shipped home on a troop ship, just like one of the boys.

Old Jack was 26 years old by the time the ship docked in Oakland.  Had I been a human being, I would have had a bale of back pay coming to me.  Being an old mule, however, all I got as a reward for all my service was a small bag of corn nuts  when they mustered me out.

When it’s all said and done, I can tell you this: war’s are a bunch of horse shit, and any mule with half a brain would steer clear of armies and wars.  Personally, I’d rather pull a stone boat, or skid logs for a living than go to another war.  Well, they put me out to pasture in a place called Bright Angel to spend the remains of my days toting people down into the Grand Canyon.

If you don’t believe it, you can kiss Old Jack’s tail.

 

July 6, 2011

I built a higher gate, but Walt cleard it with ease!

Filed under: Opinion and Memoir,Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 12:53 pm
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My new Five Feet High Gate!

By OldMack July 7, 2011

 Walter is taking the PTSD Insanity defense to get off my shit list.  The fireworks affect that dog the same way they do me; I want to bark, chase down the culprit setting them off and bite his leg off.  On the 4th Walt cleared the 4’ high gate with ease.  Our patriotic neighbor who has never served on jury duty, much less in a war, beat it inside his house and slammed his door, leaving Walt on his lawn baying as if he’d treed a coon.

 Buddy, our runt pit bull followed Walter by slithering under the fence and between the two of them kept our neighbor penned in his house for an hour or so.  Buddy came home of his own accord, barked at our front door ‘til I let him/her in.  But Walter was by then rattled by the public, professional pyrotechnical display lofted by the City.  So I had to take a choker leash and go fetch him.

Walt has had some good training by his previous owner, and I’m not speaking of his penchant to sleep in his master’s bed (I’ve already broken Walt of that by kneeing him in the chest and screaming: “Get off my bed, Walter!”  Walter knows how to “heel,” to “Sit,” to “Stay” and to “Lie down.”  Now, if I can break him from leaving our yard by vaulting the elevated fence, he and I may become pals.

 Our house is sited on its lot with nine feet of clearance on its west end to the neighbor’s line fence.  Heretofore I’ve made do with a four-foot picket fence and gate on that side.  Sunday I planted new posts, set them in concrete, and built a six-foot fence.  Monday I hung a new gate, 42 inches wide and six feet tall on that end of the house—devising a latch that would open from both sides was the tricky part of that job.

Yesterday I came back from Home Depot with a ten foot long 1” x 10″ plank.  I removed the eight-foot long gate and grafted the 1 x 10 to the bottom of its pickets.  That gate is wide enough to drive my truck into and out of the back yard towing a boat trailer, so I support its weight with a cable and turnbuckle from heavy, stainless eye bolts (one screwed into the concrete block wall of our bedroom and the other end attacked just east of the middle of the fence’s top rail.  It was one helluva chore for this old man to maneuver that monstrosity onto a pair of saw horses (I blame the heat, not my deteriorating muscle mass).  I re-hinged the gate to the posts so the Walter-chewed tops of the pickets now stand half a foot higher than our neighbor’s chain-link party fence (behind which “Leo” the blue-grey pit bull lives—Leo was fascinated by both the process and my half naked body oozing sweat—it may be the only fat white male body the dog has seen).  Walter came to see what I was doing and he and Leo trotted along the party fence.  I was a bit stunned when Walt raised his leg and let loose a stream of steaming piss, which Leo lapped up as if it were beer.  Dogs never cease to amaze me with their curious antics, their one-upmanship tricks; I’m sure it’s a machismo thing.

January 28, 2011

OldMack’s No Longer a Smoker!

Filed under: Opinion and Memoir,Short Stories,Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 9:22 pm

I May Be a Non Smoker Already!

There’s no need to tell you who know me that I’ve been smoking tobacco products ever since I was a pupil in George Dewey School at the San Diego Naval Housing Unit in 1944 at age ten.  I recall only one period of a few days during which cigarettes and tobacco were unavailable to me; I smoked crushed oak leaves rolled in Zig-Zag papers and it got me through that crisis.  People have always been able to smell me coming by the tobacco odor clinging to my clothing, hair etc.  In Korea that was a real problem; the local cigarettes didn’t leave the same odor on us, so I started swapping cigarettes with our Yobos (Korean Service Corps Laborers—for whom monuments ought to have been built to honor their selfless service).  Prior to going out into enemy territory on patrols I’d eat Kimchee with our KSC troops; I can’t swear that it did any good, but I passed through Chinese lines and territory unobserved and unmolested a few times on scout/sniper missions.

My favorite smoking moment was this: Dave Priest, Randall Crawford and I climbed a lengthy chimney in Smith Rocks at the top of which was a chock stone.  They were slim of hip and able to pass between the chock stone and the face; I had to climb out and over it quite exposed; that’s when my pack of Winstons fell out of my pocket and drifted down to the Crooked River Gorge.  We three stood on a wide ledge congratulating ourselves on our rousing good climb, but we all craved cigarettes.  We patted ourselves down.  I found a manifold real estate form; Dave found a few grains of tobacco in the bottom of his pipe tobacco pouch.  We rolled smokes, lit up and enjoyed the view, our camaraderie, our smoke and our ongoing speculative philosophical discussions—which on this occasion centered on their recent receipt of “Greetings” and invitations to participate in that war in South East Asia; in short, our last venture together for the next few years.  All of this seemingly disparate blather may tend to show that smoking is less an addiction than merely a habit of rewarding ourselves after doing something foolish, fattening or fun.

I have no craving for a cigarette this morning.  But I have been busy.  Assembling the DeVilbiss compressor and nebulizer equipment, caring for our two dogs, Zooey and Buddy, and cat plus cleaning up the dishes from my last night’s snack, and making contact with Christine at the hospital El Club Med to report kept me going since dawn–she’s doing fine, meeting lots of interesting people, hearing new stories, keeping up her journaling, in short, having a grand time.

I pause to suck in some nebulized Albuterol—holding the expanded plastic like a cigar and pretending—stayed both that tickle in my throat, the coughing impulse, and my craving for tobacco smoke.  While nebulizing I sorted out my morning ration of prescription pills which control elevated blood pressure, prevent clotting of blood in the arteries, and control the tendency of my pump to cavitate when excited.  I’m sure none of these chemicals would be needed if only I could get out for a romp on steep rocks with old friends.

The mere sight of a fir-clad mountain—up close and personal—would make my day!

August 24, 2009

The Missing Man

Filed under: Opinion and Memoir,Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 2:23 am
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Everything reminds me of something.

I was delivering a newly minted Beechcraft Debonair, a lovely 4-seat, single-engine retractable like its sister the Bonanza, but with a vertical rudder instead of a V tail. The Deb is a sturdy bird with the same landing gear they hang on their twin-engine, much heavier Baron; so it can be flown into and out of the roughest damned fields in Texas.

I was coming from the Beech factory in Wichita, Kansas, heading back to Oregon. But one of those northwestern hurricanes or Williwaws covered everything west of Wyoming with ice, hail and freezing rain. So I opted for the southern route.

After landing in Waco to top off the tanks and visit a pal, I sat in the rough pilot’s lounge drinking coffee and shooting the breeze with him.

Lying there on the coffee table among the flying magazines was a “Wanted” flyer. It had a photo on it of a man in his mid-fifties wearing golfing togs, maybe a businessman on his day off. He had been on a flight from St. Louis to L.A. in a powder blue, two-year-old Beechcraft; he’d been missing for almost a year.

It was pure coincidence that both the Missing Man and I were flying the same type of aircraft (except that mine was new). I scratched my head and recalled how often I’d wanted to ditch my responsibilities and simply disappear; god knows I was in debt up to here and in spite of working my ass off, I’d been tapping my nest egg every damned month that year (I”d had a drawer filled with E-Series savings bonds when I left the service, but they wouldn’t last long at the rate my wife was spending money). I longed to get off of that treadmill. So I was thinking about the missing man when I landed at Gila Bend, Arizona and parked my plane beside a powder blue Debonair.

I had to wait my turn to use the phone to call the FSS to check the weather. The guy using the phone was the Missing Man.

The Missing Man looked younger than the guy in the flyer, so I assumed he’d been enjoying his life on the run. The reward offered for information by his wife, who probably was more concerned about collecting his life insurance than getting him back wasn’t enough to blow his cover.

July 28, 2009

Moving On

Filed under: Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 10:04 pm
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Young Mack Moving On

Moving On

By OldMack © August 7, 2006

The last time I saw mother she was wearing a starched pink uniform with an embroidered handkerchief pinned above her left breast like an orchid. It was the breakfast shift at Tiny Naylor’s waffle shop on Turk Street. The stools at the counter were all occupied by working men.

I stood near the counter until she noticed me and came over. She asked what I needed. I told her I needed three bucks. She reached into her tip apron and handed me a bunch of quarters. Without counting it I pocketed the change. She wet her fingers with her mouth and reached across the counter to press down the cowlick on the back of my head. She was obviously busy, so I said good bye, picked up my gym bag and walked out the door.

After crossing Market Street I walked to the electric train terminal and caught the A-train. I rode it across the Bay Bridge, where I began hitch hiking on the Lincoln Highway towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A sailor heading for Mare Island got me across the Carquinez Straits Bridge. An Air Force Sergeant carried me across the hills of Vallejo which were dry and golden. He stopped in Vacaville for coffee and bought me breakfast. That was as far as he was going. I thanked him for the lift and walked out to the highway.

It was still early in the day, but it was already hot in the Valley. I took off my heavy duffle coat and slung it over my shoulder. A grey Studebaker, one of the new models that look the same from both ends pulled off the road. I trotted up to the passenger door. The driver wore a dress shirt with French cuffs and a tie. His suit coat hung on a hanger from a hook behind his seat.

“Where you heading, kid?”

“Reno,” I said. I waited for him to lean across the seat and open the door. He picked up his blocked fedora and laid it on the rear seat. I got in and sat down, holding the door open as I sized him up.

“I’m going as far as Winnemucca, Shut the door if you want a ride.”

I pulled the door to until it latched, arranged my gym bag and coat at my feet. “I’m all set,” I said.

“Roll down your window,” he said. I rolled it down. The wind coming in was hot and dry. It was blowing my hair around and that irritated me. I mentioned it to the driver. He leaned across and opened the glove box and pulled out a plain khaki cap with a long bill. I put it on and it solved the problem. “Keep it, You’ll need it.”

After telling me that he had business in Winnemucca, the driver asked me to fill his coffee cup from the thermos behind the seat. I poured the coffee while he lit a cigarette.

“You smoke?” he asked. I nodded and took a pack of Camels out of my plaid wool shirt pocket. I lit up using the dashboard lighter, and then rolled up the sleeves of my shirt a couple of turns.

The shirt was fresh from the cleaners when I swiped it from my step dad’s closet; although the collar size was an inch too big, it fit in the shoulders and sleeves and looked good with my gray trousers. Mother had been too busy to notice that I was wearing Roy’s shirt that morning. He’d be pissed when he discovered it missing. Screw him, I thought, he had forged a check to buy it and mom had worked a double shift in order to pick up the check to keep the bastard from going back to prison.

Far up the road ahead stood a tall slim man in a denim shirt and Levis who looked like a farm hand. When he stuck out his thumb the driver pulled over for him.

“Where you heading?” the driver asked. “Michigan,” said the hitch hiker, opening the rear door.

“Watch out for my hat,” the driver said as he pulled the Studebaker back onto the pavement.

The man in denims wore laced up work boots. He carried no luggage, not even a duffle bag. When he pulled a sack of Bull Durham out of his shirt pocket, I offered him a Camel.

“Thanks, kid, but I prefer this.” He rolled his cigarette, wet the end and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. “You got a light, son?”

I passed him the Ronson I’d swiped off of Roy’s dresser. “You work on these farms?” I asked.

After lighting his smoke and handing back my lighter, he laughed. “Naw. I’m a powder monkey. Highways, tunnels and hard rock mines.”

“That’s pretty dangerous work, isn’t it?” The driver said.

“Only when you fuck up,” he said. “I been working powder since I was this kid’s age. How old are you, boy?”

I was turned in my seat so I could look at the guy. He was brown as a Mexican with plenty of lines in his weathered face. I stuck out my hand and said: “I’m Mack. I don’t know the driver’s name yet.” I had just turned fifteen, but I didn’t tell them or anyone else that.

“Bob,” said the man, “But friends call me ‘Cap’.” He was grinning. Thin lips gripped his cigarette that was burning close to the skin before he removed it and pitched the butt out the window.

“Nate,” said the driver, “short for Nathaniel.” The driver handed me his empty thermos cup and stuck his hand over the seat back and shook Cap’s hand. “Cap . . . were you a Captain during the war?”

“Naw. I was in the Sea Bees, built the runways for the B-29s on Saipan and Tinian . . . the planes that dropped the Atom Bomb on the Japs.”

“What’s the Cap stand for?” Nate asked.

“Well. . . .That’s a funny story. I always kept my blasting caps in my shirt pocket.? He pointed to the buttoned pocket on the right side of his faded denim shirt with his thumb. I was married to a dumb little Okie girl. I told her right off to be sure to check my pockets when she was doing laundry, but she forgot. She run the shirt through the wringer and blowed up a couple of blasting caps. It didn’t hurt her none, but sure scared the hell out of her. So she run me off. Told the Sheriff I had tried to kill her, showed him her busted clothes wringer, and got one of them whatcha call it, a legal paper said I couldn’t go home no more. So the guys started calling me Cap.” He was laughing as if it was a joke, but his laugh was hollow.

Nate down shifted to second gear. We were climbing the steep grade between Auburn and Cisco. The big pines shaded the highway now and it was cooler. Through the trees the Yuba River was visible now and then, way down in the gulch. In places the highway was close to the railroad tracks and a long train with two locomotives at the front and back ends slowly chuffed up the east bound tracks.

“I done some blasting up yonder, close to the summit at Soda Springs,” Cap said, staring at the train above us.

“No kidding? I went to school up there. I was the eighth grade at the little school off to the side of the snow sheds at the summit.” I felt foolish for telling the men that.

“How far did you get in school?” Nate asked.

“I finished the tenth and part of the eleventh.” I said, and then changed the subject. “Last summer I came up here and camped all summer, fished a lot. But then I got a job taking apart an old log cabin, bucked up the logs and split them for firewood.”

Cap reached over the back of the seat and grabbed my upper arm. “Make a muscle,” he said.
I flexed my biceps as hard as I could. Bob whistled. “Yep, you been working alright. You got a trade yet?” he asked. I had to think about that one.

“You see those power lines up there?” I said, pointing up to the right above the tracks. “Well, I worked for a crew topping trees near the right of way that were sold as Christmas trees. But that only lasted a month before we got snowed out. That was a lot of fun, so I don’t count it as a real job. But I could climb as well as anybody in the crew, and cut as many tops as the best of them.” I flushed with embarrassment for bragging like that.

“One of the guys I worked with had a hole the size of a quarter in the roof of his mouth and he was deaf as a stone. He taught me to make the signs for the alphabet with my hands. He’d be in a tree a ways off from mine and he’d point to himself and make the sign for “P” with his hand,? I said, showing them how to make the P sign. I thought it was a funny joke, but I was the only one laughing. To make matters worse, I went through the whole damned alphabet before I had sense enough to shut up.

It was the middle of October, and it was cold in the mountains, with the remnants of the first snow still lying in the shade of the trees and up in the gullies. Cap said he was cold, that he’d been a damned fool for leaving without a coat. I pulled a new cable knit sweater out of my gym bag that my aunt Mary had knitted for me and handed it to him. He was surprised to find that it fit him.

“My aunt always makes my sweaters too big. She says I’ll grow into them before I wear ‘em out.”

When Nate dropped us on the outskirts of Winnemucca, Cap suggested that we stick together. I agreed. Nate had stopped in Reno to let me out, but I admitted that I was going “back east.” Cap had commented that it was smart. “When you’re traveling alone, you want to leave yourself the option of getting out if the driver starts any funny stuff.”

“I learned that when I was ten,” I said. “I got ditched in San Diego with some bad people and had to hitch hike up to San Pedro to try to find my mom. I always carry a knife just in case. When I couldn’t find her, I was hitching back to San Diego. A queer picked me up and tried to grab my crotch. I cut his hand and he pulled over and let me out. He scared the shit out of me, and was lucky I didn’t stab him in the neck. I would have, but I was afraid he’d wreck the car and kill us both, so I just stabbed his hand.” It was the truth. I told Cap the story as sort of a warning that I didn’t put up with any funny stuff.

I didn’t know it was against the law to hitch hike in Denver. I started to thumb a car, but Cap told me not to, so we hiked a long ways out of town where a Mayflower van picked us up. The driver pretended to be checking his tires, pounding on them with a hammer. Then he opened the back door of the van and Cap got in and lay down on a sofa. I had to ride in the cab and keep the driver from falling asleep. I kept his coffee cup filled and told him my whole life story and the plot of all the Jack London books I’d read.

We rolled into Junction City, Kansas and went to the house of a soldier stationed at Fort Reilly. The driver hired me and Cap to unload the furniture and put it where the lady wanted it. It was on a Saturday, so the driver paid us helper’s wages at time and a half. He let us out at a truck stop east of town that had a diner. Cap and I were really hungry by then. We each ate two orders of chicken-fried steak and eggs with biscuits and honey..

Cap and I traveled together all the way to Michigan City, Indiana. He was heading north from there to Grand Rapids. He offered to give my sweater back, but I told him to keep it. I had a good warm Macintosh duffle coat, so I didn’t need it. After we parted company, it was damned lonely traveling alone.

February 18, 2009

Setting the Anchor

Filed under: Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 8:04 pm
Tags: ,

Setting the Anchor

One of his more embarrassing moments: He drops the hook and watches the chain and line pay out, while his mind is on the naked nymph poised on the lazaretto preparing to dive into the crystalline water of the lagoon and noting those firm buttocks and a deep dimple above each, and then turning back to his business just in time to see that the bitter end of the anchor rope isn’t tied to the cleat. Down goes the line and anchor into the deep lagoon and the boat is beginning to drift astern due to the rapidly ebbing tide towards the girl frolicking in the water.

If the 40-foot ketch, drifting at only one knot, should strike her head, it could brain her. If it doesn’t kill her instantly she’ll probably drown before the idiot who forgot to tie the anchor line to the cleat can run that far, dodging the stays, the booms and the clutter in the cockpit to throw her a life preserver or even shout a warning. Now a gust of offshore wind riffles the surface as it moves toward the boat. At the top of his lungs he screams: HELP!

The girl turns, expecting to see her companion is some sort of trouble, sees the hull bearing down on her. She surface dives and swims deep. She sees the barnacle-encrusted keel pass over her with a meter of clearance. She swims up to grasp the chain stays of the bowsprit and climbs back aboard. She watches her lover as he leans over the lifeline at the stern, but says nothing.

She opens the hatch to the chain locker, removes the spare anchor, checks its shackle is secured, ties the bitter end of the line to the deck cleat and heaves the anchor overboard.

The flukes of the spare anchor hook a coral head and when the line has paid out, the boat comes to an instant halt. The idiot leaning over the stern is thrown into the water. She ambles aft like an apparition to laugh at the fool.

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