Being the Random Yarns of Emily Cotton, Merry Scrivener of Fact & Fiction Historical, Animal, & Minimal to Amuse, Inform, & Enlighten.


Wilderness Tales: the Stone

Lundy Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierras near Mono Lake, is set in a long narrow cleft eponymously named Lundy Canyon. (‘Eponymous’ is so rarely used, I figured I’d better air it out before it becomes one of those words my aging brain forgets. An adjective meaning ‘of a thing named after a person or thing’. Word for the day.)

Lundy Lake

It was a short trip, by backpacking standards—only 3 miles in to the abandoned May Lundy Mine. Just right for a family with young kids. Except that the trailhead started at 7830 feet and ended at 9860 feet! That’s 2000 feet of elevation gain in thin high-altitude air, and our family came from L.A. just a few feet above sea level.  But the mountains were gorgeous, and we were primed for adventure. Gamely shouldering our old-fashioned packs, we trooped down the trail.

“Down the trail’ is a figure of speech. Up fit better, although the going was not too bad for the first half-mile. But then the trail angled upward. It got harder as it went until we were puffing and huffing.  Pop called for a rest stop at a lovely little waterfall surrounded by lush early-season Sierra flowers.

We sat down gratefully, while Mom handed out generous chunks of chocolate, which, for some reason, was the Alaskan ideal for wilderness energy food. And that is when I saw it.

The most remarkable rock. Or so it seemed to my juvenile eyes. It was basalt, about an inch and a half thick, three hand-spans wide and four long, with an irregular shape that bore a startling resemblance (or so I thought) to South America. It even had a ridge down the left-hand side where the Andes Mountains would have been, and a dip for the Amazon Basin.

It doesn’t take much to astonish a kid, and that rock purely amazed me. I showed it to the family. Everybody duly admired my find and nodded as I pointed out the salient features which made this chunk of basalt the most incredible discovery of my young life.

I intended to keep it, of course. I picked up the uneven 34-pound slab and clutched it to my chest, ready to resume the trek with my treasure.

Mom and Pop agreed that it was a most incredible find, and surely I must bring it home. But why carry it all the way up hill and back again? We would be returning this way day after tomorrow, and I could simply collect it then.

I knew perfectly well what my parents were thinking: that I, their notoriously absent-minded child, would forget entirely about it until we were back at the car. And even if I DID remember, it was just one rock among many flat slabs of basalt that littered the slope. I’d never locate the darn thing once I set it back among its less dramatically shaped fellows.

I stowed the rock carefully to one side. While the rest went ahead, I piled a heap of smaller, less-notable rocks across the trail so I wouldn’t forget. And then I caught up.

Because I didn’t forget. But more on that later.


Wilderness Tales–part the first

I was 12 years old when my Pop (he hated the term ‘Dad’, which in his day and place was a term of disrespect) took the family on our first backpacking trip. Now, taking 4 kids into the wilderness was a venture that needed much preparation. But my father was wilderness-bred, a native of Colorado, raised in Seward, Alaska, and he wanted to pass his legacy on to his multiple offspring.
First, he tackled the matter of packs. You didn’t buy those things in his childhood, you made them. Pop assembled oak frames in his shop, while Mom sewed canvas covers to wrap around the wood, hammering in rows of grommets along the folded edges with lots of space between so the laces could be tightened to take up slack as the fabric stretched through use. The solid side of the canvas would rest against our backs, while the vertical and horizontal bars of the frame stayed well to the sides, top, and bottom. Needless to say, each frame had to be specially-sized to the wearer.

But what about the bag? Where did you PUT stuff?
Back when my Pop was learning his skills, (for those who wonder, he was born in 1918) when you wanted to tote a load, you tossed your things onto a piece of canvas or oilcloth fabric called a tarp (or a ‘manty’ in horse-packer parlance). And you folded the thing into a bundle and using rope, attached it to the lash points (usually metal rings) on the frame, and ran the rope in a complicated pattern known as a ‘diamond hitch’ – so-called because the crisscrossing lines made the shape of a diamond on the outside of the load. Of course that was the way it was done—easy! (Well, it was once you’d done it a hundred times, which I haven’t. I graduated to pack-bags the following year.) And the rest of our equipment? The same stuff we camped with, of course! Cotton sleeping bags weighing 8 pounds each—twice today’s inexpensive backpacking bag. Sturdy Spaulding leather-soled shoes, my oldest sister with new ones, my brother’s, mine, and my 5-year-old sister wearing successively more well-worn hand-me-downs. (Don’t be shocked, this was normal in the 50’s and 60’s, most middle-class kids wore hand-me-downs, since a family of 5 was about average.) They made ‘em to LAST, back then. And there were cobbler shops to put little metal bits on to extend wear, and to re-sole them when even those wore through. A tent, you ask? Good grief, the only one we had was made of canvas and took both my parents to carry it! You didn’t take tents into the wilderness, didn’t we all have a piece of tarp on our packs? Anyway, the chosen destination, fully described to Pop by a co-worker and fellow wilderness enthusiast, had an abandoned mining camp with a couple old buildings we could use. So THAT was solved.
Food was no problem. It was the early 1960’s, so of course there were plenty of cheap army surplus rations available. Left over from WWII, packaged and preserved to last for ages, what more could any wilderness traveler need? A luxury, compared to what my Pop had in his youth.
Suitably equipped, the six of us (plus our dog) drove up to Lundy Lake.
To be continued.


Batty and the Beast

When Jay and I bought our first house, we agreed to take a dog that his ex and her husband had raised from a puppy. They were giving up an aborted attempt to homestead and had no place to keep him. As the dog had saved my stepson from drowning in a creek, and was depicted as a highly responsible animal, we accepted him without reservation.


‘Beast’ was aptly named. His ancestry was uncertain: he had the size and shagginess of a St. Bernard, and the head and markings of a husky. But his sense of pack responsibility was all timber wolf. In the forested land where he spent his early years, he had been trained to patrol the boundaries of his owner’s territory.

I remember when he was dropped off, his former master showed him the front property line, walking him up and down it. “Beast, guard!” was the command.

And Beast took the order seriously. How seriously, we were about to find out. His stay with us lasted for about six hair-tearing months, and then, in complete exasperation and with the neighbors threatening lawsuits, we found him a home in a rural area with people who had an apple orchard that needed guarding.

On the Saturday morning when this transition was in process, I was waiting for the new owners to pick him up when the phone rings. But it isn’t the new owners, it’s my Mom.

We started with the usual catch-up on family. And then Mom asks, “How’s Beast?”

At least, that’s what I THOUGHT I heard her say. Given the circumstances, it seemed perfectly in context, as I had spoken to her briefly a couple days earlier about the grief this dog was causing us.

As I later found, to my great mortification, what she had actually said was, ‘How’s Jay?”

Out the window, I can see my husband rounding up the mutt from our front yard. Beast had once again jumped over our 6-foot board fence in his desire to patrol our entire property line.

So you can understand the exasperation in my reply. “Oh, I am getting RID of him!”

My mom seemed unduly surprised. “Why? What has he done?”

“What HASN’T he done?” I exploded. “Like right now the place stinks, because yesterday, AGAIN, he prevented the garbage men from picking up the trash!”

Mom was baffled. “Why would he do that?”

“Oh, he thinks it’s valuable, because it’s ours. He thinks anything we’ve ever owned has to be guarded. Ever since we got this house, he has paced up and down the property line, looking menacing. The mailman gave us a notice the other day saying we’d have to get our mail at the post office, because he’s afraid to deliver it.”

My mother is used to dealing with nutty people; she was custodian of her two schizophrenic nephews. Which might explain why her mind immediately jumped to conclusions about Jay’s sanity. “I had no idea he was so disturbed. Can you get him help?”

“I’ve already tried everything I know!” Says I. “I can keep him under control in the daytime. But at night, he just works the window latch and slips out again. And if you tie him up, he just chews through the rope!”

At this point, you would have expected my mother to realize that we were on totally different topics, but the shock apparently prevented her from putting two and two together. As for me, I am oblivious—as I can be, when I’m on a roll and there is a sympathetic ear.

“The final straw happened the other day! A girl came by riding a bicycle, and he cleared the six-foot fence in one bound and took off after her, barking and nipping at her heels!” I exclaimed. “And she was only twelve!”

There was a silence on the line. Then Mom said, “Are you going to file for divorce?”

“Divorce?!” It was my turn to be shocked. “Why would we get a divorce over Beast? Jay is as weary of his antics as I am!”

Leap Day

On this day in 1976, I met the love of my life.

I had, just the previous week, graduated from 12 stressful, grueling weeks of Coast Guard Boot Camp, and was now beginning my training as an electronics tech at the USCG Training Center on Governor’s Island, just off the end of Manhattan.

My personal items from home had arrived at the Greyhound package station in downtown Manhattan, and I was supposed to come get them.

Problem #1: I didn’t have a car, and the items included my beloved, battered 10-speed bike.

Problem #2: I didn’t want to go into downtown New York alone. Coming up from Boot Camp, they had given me tickets for the bus and a subway pass—forgetting to tell me that I shouldn’t ride it alone after 10 pm.

I thought I would be fine. After all, I was no naïve country hick–born and raised in the country’s second-largest city, Los Angeles. But I had never encountered the kind of ‘flasher-grinder’ sitting in the corner of the subway car, and spent the entire ride down to South Ferry determinedly looking in the other direction. I was NOT going to do that again.

The ‘Coast Guard Women’ (As the sign on our quarters announced) were housed on the bottom wing of ‘O’ section, right below the BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters). So with some trepidation I ventured upstairs to the lounge of said quarters to offer a tank of gas to anyone with a car who would go with me to fetch my stuff.

The trepidation came from recent experience. Most of the guys rooming upstairs were only noncoms, Petty Officer First Class and up—which isn’t all that high a rank. But in boot camp, that rank had screamed at us, made us do ‘cranks’ (pushups) crawl through icy beach mud on our stomachs, jump off 40-foot high dives, and port arms and run quarter-mile laps until your muscles burned like fire.

But that was boot camp. Once finished, the Coast Guard is a much more civilian service than the other branches, because Coasties are always among and working with civilians.

Anyway, there were only two guys in the lounge, and I could only see the back of their heads, watching TV. I made my offer, and Jay Cotton took me up on it.

Of course he already knew about me. There were only 30 of us ‘Coast Guard Women’ in the barracks below—the ‘Guard had only recently begun accepting female recruits—and as each new group of students arrived, gossip (mostly speculation about very un-romantic possibilities) ran rife. Me? I was ‘the blonde from California’. Where Hollywood is located, and Haight-Ashbury, and many another stereotypical loose lady.

Fortunately, strait-laced virginal me didn’t know this at the time. When Jay stood up and turned around, it was my turn to be shocked: his Greek good looks were reminiscent of a previous crush. But he was much more fun to be with.

Only half my stuff had arrived, so he volunteered to go back for the rest when it came in. We sat at the ferry terminal and talked and talked. I remember asking him where he wanted to be four years from now. Four years is a standard enlistment period, and I had just begun mine, so in the service, it’s a common ‘make conversation’ question.

Jay looked me in the eye and said, “Wherever you are.”

At the time I remember thinking, “Well, he’s pretty sure of himself.” I’m rather a skeptic when it comes to first acquaintances.

It’s gone beyond four years to forty years. And there he still is.

Still love you, Jay Cotton.

P.S. The clincher was that skilled guitar playing—when he sang ‘Nights in White Satin’ for me at the Whitehats Club. And ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’.

Okay, I’m bragging, just a bit. Old ladies do, sometimes.

A Tribute to Alice-Ann Cantelow

Today I found out that one of my lifetime mentors had died.
It wasn’t new news—Alice Ann had gone home in August. But we had lost touch when she moved, and it had been a couple of years since I had seen her.

Alice-Ann Cantelow was a trailblazer. She never accepted things as they were, and she paid no attention to the naysayers who said there was nothing she could do aalice annbout it. And she changed her part of the world.

I first met Alice Ann when she lived in a little mobile home back in the woods of a tiny Bay Area community. She was a naturalist for the East Bay Regional Parks, president of the local Audubon Society, and, as our mutual friend warned me, ‘A bit of a nut on environmental issues.’

As I soon found out, once Alice-Ann became convinced of something, she plowed forward on the solution. In her fifties, recently divorced, she read the Gospels for the first time as a believer. And right then, she declared: “We are supposed to be taking care of the poor.”

Everybody said, ‘What poor? They’re in San Francisco, or Oakland, or third-world countries. We’ll send them money.’

But Alice Ann looked around and discovered that ‘the poor’ in our affluent area are women and children. So she started taking them into her little mobile home in the woods.
It was too small. So she sold that and her other assets to buy a house big enough for a shelter. I remember going house-hunting with her (at the time I was attempting an architecture degree) and thinking, ‘not this old farmhouse—it hasn’t been updated since the 1920s!’

But that’s what she bought. It became Shepherd’s Gate. And she actually got the local churches to work together—you couldn’t say ‘no’ to that level of personal commitment. There was a steering Committee, and board meetings (at one point, much later, Jay was vice-president) and no salaries or staff except the cook. If you were even remotely acquainted, Alice-Ann persuaded you to get involved.

Then before the thing even opened, our own house burned down. So the first residents of Shepherd’s Gate were—you guessed it—US! Within a week or so our insurance company had us in a rental –and of course, they would have covered a motel until then. But I was in shock, and it was good to have a friend.

I think of the mentoring by example Alice-Ann gave me over the years: the building of Shepherd’s Gate into what it is today, all the miracles we watched, hands-on, while that ministry grew, and backed us into a corner to start Disciples’ House, and the donkey she wished on us, and all the pack trips in the Sierra, and getting that book of hers written and published—so much to be grateful for.

Alice-Ann could be pig-headed and stubborn, and so am I. We were known to lock horns on occasion. But when the chips were down, she was the woman you wanted to have with you. And most important, she passionately and without reservation loved her Lord Jesus Christ.

She’s with Him now, as she always has been. And I have more than memories—I’m a changed person because I knew her. Not a little—a lot. Alice-Ann Cantelow was one of the major forces in shaping my adult life.

Thanks, Alice-Ann. See you soon.

Coast Guard Woman 314

Here in the US, it’s Veteran’s day.

I’m a veteran, and so is my husband. We served in the U.S. Coast Guard. Jay served during the Viet Nam War, and I did too, technically. Although it was, for all practical purposes, well over by 1975, when I joined.

As any veteran can tell you, being in the military is an experience like no other. (Wow, that is really circular reasoning. No experience is like any other. Ah well, forward to what’s entertaining.) It’s actually pretty strange that I joined ANY service, because I’m not the military type. Structure and discipline gave me hives – I was terrible as a student, and as for conformity, if the group was marching one way, I’d turn and march the other direction just to be contrary. I was a real pain in the trasera.

What drove me to the desperate step of enlisting was pain. Dental pain, to be exact. As a broke college student who could not afford dental bills, added to poor dental hygiene practices, my misery and my budget were on a collision course. And all the military services will fix your teeth, first thing.

I figured the Coast Guard was non-violent, saving lives and all that. And the following year the REALLY GOOD education benefits were going to be cut in half. So I joined in blithe ignorance, with no understanding of the significance of one crucial fact: the Coast Guard was the last service to allow women to join their ranks. I was the 314th female Coastie.

And then I got to boot camp and found out that all the ‘lifers’ (enlisted career men) who couldn’t stomach serving with women had been transferring from the other armed services to the Coast Guard for the last two decades. And now the fate they had switched to avoid was upon them, in the person (among others) of independent, pain-in-the-trasera me.

And they all outranked me. By a lot.

There’s a few more blog posts in that. Starting with getting all four wisdom teeth yanked in one fell swoop at Johns Hopkins. And being forgotten by the bus back to boot camp.

Auditioning for a new neighbor

I have decided that I must post more often than once a year. So I’m just going to put up whatever else I’m writing that might be amusing to whoever stumbles onto this blog. Today, for instance, I wrote the following advertisement. It’s intended to be laughed at, of course, but also to convey information that will help people self-screen.

We are holding auditions for the part of ‘new neighbor’. The part calls for a non-smoker, but may be portrayed by actors of any race, color, creed, age, nationality, gender, or species. Excellent actors only; we will want a record of your past performances and roles.

This is a role for one person, no extras or stunt doubles. No new animals are allowed on the set, as they might interfere with other animal performers already cast for the role of ‘pet dogs’ and ‘neighborhood stray cats’.

The set props include sofa, chair, queen-sized bed, desk, shelf, full sink and ‘fridge, microwave, hot plate and various electric pots and pans. The bed is in a loft for better camera angles. (Please consult stage photos, attached.) additional props may be stored in a 5’ x 6’ outdoor storage area.

The screenplay involves a middle-aged couple who purchase the derelict foreclosure next door and fix it up. In act one, they rent to a family that needs a ‘second chance’ and we enjoy the drama of harried owners, their mortgage coming due, unsuccessfully chasing down rent. Observe the hilarity of tenant/neighbors who duck in and out only after they are sure the coast is clear. Includes a nail-biting scene where the hapless landlords learn all the complexities of California rental law and vow, sadder but wiser, never again to rent to anybody with bad credit or a history of being thrown of the set of other productions.

In act two, they convert the former garage into a darling little studio and pour more of their retirement savings into making the house look fantastic. They find a great tenant for the main house, and the studio also gets rented on the spot. They discover that LLNL and Sandia engineer-types with security clearances are wonderful tenants.

Other cast members include the friendly neighbors to the east, a fourth-grade teacher and his stay-at-home wife, complete with preschooler, first-grader and middle-school offspring; the quiet lady in the main house; and the eccentric but otherwise harmless neighbor-owner couple to the west, who have been known to keep llamas in the back yard and dress in renaissance-era garb and march around spouting thees and thous like they were right out of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. They frequently share their overbuilt house with a selection of LLNL interns who, when they speak at all, use a peculiar international lingo which we will call ‘Geekinese’.

Now comes act three, where the beloved tenant of the studio moves out of town. The owners post on Craigslist and pore through emails, searching for the applicant who will provide so little drama that, were this actually a performance, it would put the audience to sleep.

4 front garden 2 5-14

O Christmissed tree

I just put up our tree. It was a nice little commercially farmed grand fir (whatever kind of tree that is) and it put me in mind of an old Christmas tradition from when our kids were small.
It started because we had spent the first few days of Christmas visiting relatives. We came home on Christmas eve, and I for some reason assumed that I could pick up some leftover tree from the tree lots, really cheap.
But alas, when we got home, it turned out that all the lots were closed. All the remaining trees locked up behind yards of temporary chain-link fence. Our three kid’s faces looked so woe-begone, my husband and I decided to get creative.
In our front yard towered a forty-foot Deodar cedar. The kids and I had often imagined how fun it would be to decorate the thing from top to bottom as an outside decoration, using beach-ball-sized ornaments. Well, in a crisis, that deodar was going to have to serve the purpose. But not on that scale!
Jay went out to the back yard and found a waterlogged, broken –off fence-post in the woodpile. He got out his trusty drill, plugged it in (this was back in the last century when all drills had cords) and proceeded to make that old post into Swiss cheese with three or four sizes of drill bits, while the kids and I and two sets of tree-clippers went at the lower branches of the deodar.
By the time Jay had his holey post mounted on a homemade stand, we were ready. The kids and I chose branches of about the right diameter and stuffed them into the holes. An especially large frond was jammed into the big hole on the top of the post, and viola! Our tree.
It was a beautiful tree, absolutely fresh and piney-smelling, without a gap or bare spot, and best of all, every branch was solid enough to support the assortment of gaudy toys that passed for ornaments – even the rather heavy one of Captain Kirk sitting on his bridge seat, kirk ornament
–which our youngest thought was a toilet.
From that point on, that was our tree tradition. There was no tree for sale that ever could compare to our ‘artificial’ tree. Whenever visitors admires our lovely fresh tree, my kids used to slyly ask, “What kind of tree do you think it is?”
“Scotch pine?”
“Guess again.”
“Noble fir?”
After several repetitions, they would burst out, “We MADE it!”
And then the whole process would be explained.
At some point, termites finished consuming the post, and I succumbed to the ease of just buying a tree. But the memories linger.

On the Importance of Telling the Truth to Your Spouse

Howard and Doris went on a senior cruise. Of the many activities, the one they enjoyed most was a toastmaster’s club that met in the evenings. Everybody would put a topic on a slip of paper, fold it, and drop it into a hat. Then people would be chosen at random to speak. Each would have to take one of the topics from the hat, and speak on that topic for five minutes.

Four days into the cruise, the ocean got choppy, and Doris felt seasick and retired to their cabin, Howard was going to stay with her, but she urged him to go to the toastmaster’s club without her. So, since watching somebody throw up is not the pleasantest thing, he gave her a Dramamine and went.

Wouldn’t you know it, that evening he was chosen to be a speaker. And the topic he pulled from the hat was ‘sex’. Howie held forth in fine form, perhaps the better because his mate was not present.

When he got back to their cabin, the sea had settled down and so had Doris’ stomach.

“Did you enjoy yourself, dear?” she asked.

“It was okay,” said Howie. “Um—I got picked to speak.”

“Really? What topic did you get stuck with?”

Howie thought of the uproarious laughs he got on some of his cruder points, and was struck with belated embarrassment. “Boating,” he said. “I had to speak on boating.”

The next day, some members of the toastmasters approach Doris and Howie at breakfast. They told Doris that Howie had been the best speaker of the night. This pattern repeated itself throughout the day—everybody complimenting him again on how funny and witty Howie’s presentation was.

Doris became more and more puzzled. “I just don’t understand how Howie could have filled five minutes on that subject,” she said to the admiring group. “After all, he’s only done it twice. The first time, he got sick; and the second time, his hat blew off!”

Boys’ Versus Girls’ Trick-or-Treat Habits (continued)

The first experimental subject (unbeknownst to him) to arrive at my door was Darth Vader. On being offered the choice of a package or a big candy bar, he hesitated long enough for two other groups to pack up behind him. Then he picked the package. So did Tinkerbelle, a Space Man, and a small tiger with a painted face. The latter gave me my first statistical problem of the evening: was it a boy or a girl?

I guessed ‘boy’. But so far, EVERYONE had picked the package. What was I to make of this? The alternative was a big bar, a sure thing.

Lesson one: they had a bag full of candy. Regardless of the size, the bar was just more of the same. The package, however, represented a novelty, and was therefore more desirable – at least on this candy-crammed night.

Which is why my toothbrushes were received with great joy this Halloween, as I knew they would be.

But back to my study, which was beginning to show serious flaws besides the fact that gender is not always discernible when a child is in costume.

The next group was not so surprised to see the two baskets. Almost all the girls went for the packages. But half of the boys (I think they were boys) chose the candy bars. This trend intensified throughout the evening. by the time the last few items were gone, my chart was showing boys always choosing the sure thing, and girls always taking the risky package.

What was going on here?

So I threw scientific protocol to the wind and asked the next group. It seemed that the word was out all up and down the street that the big blue house was giving out something unusual. You see, the kids didn’t wait until they got home to open their packages—they tore them open as they walked, and everybody got to see. And then, if they didn’t like what they had, they tried to swap with somebody else.

What was skewing my results were all those girly items—particularly the makeup samples. The boy’s items were perfectly acceptable to a girl, but not so the reverse! And they couldn’t always be traded. So the boys quickly perceived it as a very risky choice – literally choosing between a sure – if overabundant – thing in the candy bar, or the 50-50 likelihood of getting the equivalent of a lump of coal in the stocking: the dreaded mascara sample! While the girls would get something unusual and fun, either way.

I can’t even remember what grade I got on my project, although I do remember it being the case-in-point for the Professor to discuss using controls and double-blind setups. But I did learn to think very hard about the context of a thing before coming to a conclusion on cause and effect.