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


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.


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.

Tricks versus Treats

Last Tuesday’s sugar orgy is often decried as the triumph of the evil candy industry over parental common sense. But consider the other side of the coin: all-saint’s day, the first of November, and the days that follow. I think we should celebrate ‘all-satiation day’ – the beginning of a week’s worth of learning opportunity which is a blessed part of childhood in our culture.

 I speak of the perils of too much of a good thing.

 When the dear little trick-or-treaters came to my door this past Tuesday, I gave out toothbrushes. Now some people, on hearing this plan, thought that the children would feel tricked. I knew better, thanks to a class I took back in the stone ages of Experimental Psychology.

 We were studying statistical ranges in groups of people (doesn’t that sound boring? It was.) and every student was supposed to design some study or survey involving 30+ individuals and then crunch the numbers to wring some sort of meaning — and hopefully a good grade– out of them.

 Most students opted to design a questionnaire to be given to some other class. This was too dull for my taste, but where would I find a statistically sufficient number of individuals for my term project?

 Then the Great Pumpkin lit a candle in my gourd. Was it not the Fall quarter? I bethought myself of all the little experimental subjects who would be knocking at my door on the 31st of October. All I had to do was think of some experiment that would involve no parental ire.

 I decided to measure risk-taking between males and females. To prepare for my experiment, the month before I haunted dime stores and thrift stores, snapping up all kinds of small trinkets and toys like pencil sharpeners, bubble-blowers, rubber snakes, plastic pearls, jacks, koosh balls, and the like. Plus my friend, who sold Avon, gave me a large supply of makeup, lipstick and mascara samples. I figured I had the items evenly split between male and female interests. Once I had a hundred, I wrapped each one in enough newspaper to disguise its shape and tied the package with twine.

 Then I got a hundred candy bars – not the mini-bars that are usually given out on Halloween, but the full-size ones. The candy bars went in one basket, and the paper-wrapped objects in another. The kids would have to choose between the sure thing—a full-sized candy bar—and the risky anonymous newspaper package.

 I readied my chart, listing boys on one column and girls on the other, and waited for the fateful night.

From Pallor to Post

I confess: I have been a neglectful blogger. This is not news to anybody who reads my blog regularly. So my apologies to all four of you.

As everyone who knows me is well aware, I am always good for a story if anyone has a minute. Get me started, and I have a mental file of anecdotes hours long. As long as you keep laughing, I’ll keep going. But my preference is oral storytelling: I like to have my victim(s) pinned down where I can see their eyes, the better to gauge whether I am amusing them. With practice I have even become sensitive to that glazed-over look people get when I have gone on too long, or the shifting side-to-side glances of a trapped animal desperate to escape. Moreover, in person I am able to gesture to illustrate points (I have nearly put out an eye or two doing this at the dinner table with a utensil in hand), lower my voice to a whisper as needed by the moment, and then blast unsuspecting listeners with a rise in volume. This is fun.

Writing is fun too, but prose is so much more permanent. Posting on the web is akin to getting a tattoo on the abdomen: It’s going to be there forever. If you chose the subject carefully and it was executed well, it looks pretty and for a while you are proud of the result. But eventually you are going to get tired of the thing, the ink will fade and—oh horrors—you might change sizes and the memory of where you were remains indelibly imprinted across your belly in sagging or stretched ugliness.

And you can’t hide a blog post with a T-shirt.

Which is why I go pale with terror at the idea of how permanently I can wedge my foot in my mouth online. Nevertheless, I fully intend to gird up my loins (has anybody ever done that? Well, now that I have worn renaissance-era kirtles, I have) and commit myself to posterity. I resolve to put something up every Friday, come Hell or high water.

There. Now it’s all over the internet. The four of you can hold me to it.


of flexible saddles and filthy socks

Today I was at Tap Plastics, a local company that retails all kinds of plastic materials. And as usual, I found myself telling stories to the young clerk. You see, she didn’t remember Bob Whitehead, the deceased owner of Tap Plastics, and there were some memories about Bob that were worth sharing.

I spent over a week getting to know Bob very well, in the way that you get to know others in your party in the wilderness. Bob was one of a group that approached me to provide pack llamas for their four-stage expedition down the John Muir Trail.

Up until then, we had never really taken people out in a commercial sense. We’d just packed a lot so we could sell pack-trained llamas. Of course, we usually took some of the kid’s friends, or our friends, or people to whom we had sold a pack llama. But we’d toyed with the idea of outfitting. Then this group asked if we could field enough llamas to take twelve people on an eight-day trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Devil’s Postpile. And due to the season, Yosemite National Park (where we would be for the first three days) required us to pack feed for the animals as well as the people.

I added it up and came to needing 12 animals. Which we had, if we added in all the two-year-olds (with lighter loads due to their age). The problem was, we didn’t have 12 packsaddles. We had exactly 4.

I had always wanted to try a flexible, weatherproof saddle made of polycarbonate plastic. So I came up with a design featuring a pair of curved strips bolted together in a kind of wishbone shape, two sets connected by lightweight aluminum bars, front and back like the traditional mule sawbuck. Every point where anything connected to anything else, we added a D-ring to the bolt. I was weary of packsaddles with no decent lash-points.

The saddle worked. The top of the wishbone kept the load off the llamas’ prominent vertebrae, and it fitted all size animals snugly because it flexed, but was still stiff enough to stay in place without sliding around under their bellies. But oh my, what we didn’t know about working with plastics. Our saddle corners were sharp enough to cut yourself on; the polycarbonate had heat bubbles where we bent it, the places where we drilled holes for the bolts were all developing ‘star fractures’, and we needed to work with a lighter gauge. Kind providence sent Bob Whitehead, the man who knew more about the stuff than anyone else, to watch our prototype in use for eight solid days and tell us how to better construct the design. What are the odds of that?

Thanks to Bob, our next version of those saddles lasted us 12 years.

But that wasn’t what I was telling this young lady about. My story of Bob Whitehead is one of kindness and consideration.

You see, in Yosemite and other popular backcountry trails much plagued with bears, hikers are supposed to pack their food in these bear-proof plastic canisters. And one of our company had the brilliant idea that he could make his own using 4” diameter PVC pipe and screw-on caps. At the trailhead he proudly produced a bunch of these things to be packed onto the llamas.

The problem was, they wouldn’t pack. For three days, the slippery things worked their way out from under every possible strapping arrangement to go bounding down the hill for somebody to retrieve. Then a pair of panniers became empty (the group ate 40 pounds of supplies every day), so we used them to carry the miserable ‘cylinders of doom’ (as we took to calling them when the inventor could not hear).

The failure of his clever plan began to wear on the pipe-bearer. Bob was an encourager by nature, and he set out to find some use for those sections so that bringing them would not be a complete waste of time. On a layover day at Thousand Island Lake (where we saw a bear-proof canister lying in ten feet of crystal-clear water, but that’s another story) Bob finally found something they were good for: washing socks.

To discover this for yourself, all you need is an 18” section of 4” pipe, a pipe cap for the bottom, some detergent, and some really dirty heavy socks. fill the pipe half-way with water, add the soap, and plunge each sock up and down several times, and wring out the water. Repeat once for each day the socks have been worn. Rinse in the same fashion. Lay out on rocks to dry in the sun.

Bob washed all the socks for all twelve of us. At the time, it was something we joked about, because Bob made it so funny we couldn’t help it.

I have my useful, functional saddles to remember Bob Whitehead by. But when I think of him, the first picture that springs to mind is Bob—who was probably the wealthiest person on that trip—on his knees above Thousand-Island Lake, following his master’s example and caring for his friends’ filthy feet.

Worst flight ever, part 2.

So there I was on an old military jet, my civilian maternity garb in bright contrast to the row of dress uniforms perched on the uncomfortable canvas seats along the walls. Across from me, the cadets whose companion I had bumped from the flight kept glaring at me and shouting comments into each other’s ears, which fortunately I could not hear over the roar of the engines and the plugs in my own.  My son was doing gymnastic flips, alternating right and left, top and bottom. (Before I was pregnant, I only knew of that area as ‘guts’. But childbearing acquainted me with my interior spaces: Liver above the uterus on the right side, spleen on the left. Bladder below, but that I already knew about.)

I had brought a book—Watership Down, as I recall—and determinedly set myself to read by the light from the window. The desperate peril of rabbit-Hazel and his literary companions distracted me from the discomfort from Washington to Kansas, more or less, interrupted by frequent trips to the head (that’s ship-talk for bathroom).

The head nearest me was to the front of the plane, up three steps, with the door opening outward. Bad design, I thought, every time I opened the thing and had to go down one step to keep my belly free of the swing. The throne occupied pretty much the whole space, set broadside to the door. However, it was considerably more comfortable than the saggy sling-seat, so every time I went (which was often, given the advanced state of my pregnancy) I stayed as long as I could, reading.

Three hours into the flight, it became too dark to read in the seats. It seemed that the regular lights didn’t work, and the emergency strips were not bright enough. Fortunately, the light in the head did work, and my book and I made ever more frequent trips down the echoing center of the plane. Now the plane was entirely dark, except for the flash of me opening and closing the door on the head.

I was ensconced on the throne, absorbed in the literary troubles of Hazel and his friends, as we crossed the Mississippi. And hit turbulence. It wasn’t the worst turbulence I’ve been in. It wasn’t even all that bad. But it was not only the seats on that plane that had seen better days—the latches were tired, too. And at that moment, the door-latch to the loo broke, and the door flew open. And shut. And open. Exposing me, seated broadside on the can, frantically grabbing for the handle that flapped just out of reach.

Imagine the scene: forty soldiers sitting, bored, in the dark, with no conversation due to the roar of the engines, and nothing to look at except green emergency lights—until now: there, elevated at the front, the only lit spot on the plane, is the lone woman, her maternity smock barely covering such as can be seen of her butt, with the turbulence turning the scene into a strobe of stop-motion glimpses of female mortification.

After several minutes, I decided to bare all, popped off the can and grabbed the door. Held it shut with one hand while pulling up my –elastic-waist maternity pants with the other. Then sat down again and stayed there, holding the door, until the second-in-command pounded on the door and bellowed that it was time to land. I marched back to my seat, face burning, eyes front as though on parade, determinedly refusing to meet any glances from the lines of uniformed passengers hunched against the walls.

But I knew they were grinning one and all.

My most mortifying plane flight ever

Long long ago, when the first Star Wars movie was released, Jay and I went to see it in New York City. What made this memorable is that back then I was stationed far, far away in Astoria, Oregon. US Coast Guard Air station Warrenton, to be exact. But on the 4th of July weekend we were given five days off, and I wanted to spend them with my honey, not moping alone in my quarters running up a phone bill to NYC. (That’s another relic of days past – any time you talked to somebody who was more than 10 miles away, you had to shell out money to the company euphemistically called ‘Ma’ Bell.)

I had just found out about a military benefit that even we under-resourced Coasties could enjoy: Military Air Command. The way it worked was that when the military was shuffling planes and cargo around, any qualifying person could catch a ride on one, free of charge, first-come, first served – in order of precedence: active military first, then cadets at any military academy, and then military dependents, if there was room.

That Friday a transport plane was scheduled to be moved from McCord AFB, Washington, easy driving distance from Astoria, to Dover AFB, Delaware, easy driving distance from New York. So I drove up to McCord to get in line. I was the last one accepted, which earned me the ire of a group of cadets traveling together, as my coming meant that the last one of their group got bumped. They were pretty angry about it and complained loudly about rules being broken. I couldn’t blame them; they thought I was a military dependent because I was wearing civilian clothing.

When you flew MAC, active military were supposed to be in dress uniform. The Coast Guard had only begun letting women in two years before, and they were late getting a uniform designed for them. So we were issued WAVE uniforms left over from WWII. (These seem very classy now, but in the ‘70’s they looked bizarre.) But I wasn’t wearing mine, because I was seven months pregnant.

I would have explained the situation to the young men, but they quickly ushered us up the ramp and into the plane. It was a huge empty cargo space, no seats, nothing. Along both walls was a bar, which made it look like a ballet studio, except for the loop of olive-drab canvas that hung  down from it. While I was still wondering where we would sit, two crew members started unclipping the bar from the bulkhead (That’s ship-talk for a wall) and fastening it to seat-height stanchions spaced every ten feet of so along the deck (that’s ship-talk for a floor).

I eyed the resulting seat-row, consisting of a canvas sling hung between the knee-height bar and the wall, with dismay. It might have been acceptable when it was new, but the canvas had seen many years of service and it sagged like a basset-hound’s jowls. When four of us put our weight on the one sling, it stretched even further. My butt was less than a foot off the floor, and my knees were far too close to my chin. It was bad enough for the men on either side, but I was curled around a watermelon-sized belly. One seat belt was supposed to cover the four of us, run through loops between each person I took up more than my share of the belt.

The crew then came down the row, handing everybody a cardboard box. I opened mine and saw it contained food—the flight was five hours long. Everybody else was examining their rations, too. They had given us a sandwich, two bottled drinks, a bag of chips, an apple, and tucked in the bottom were two little pink squares of Bazooka bubble gum.

Across from me, where the grumpy group of cadets were seated, I saw everyone pulling the gum out of the boxes and unwrapping them. I looked baffled. The guy next to me leaned over. “For your ears,” he volunteered.

Of course—chewing gum helps with air pressure changes when flying. I opened one of mine a popped it in my mouth. It was horrible tasting gum, but at least they supplied it.

They guy next to me was giving me a strange look. “I just soften mine up in my hand, but I guess that would work,” he said.

I was going to ask him to clarify, when they started the engines, first a moderate ‘chuck-chuck-chuck’. Everybody hastily crammed the pink stuff in their ears while the jets crescendoed up to an ear-shattering roar.  With dawning comprehension, I removed the square from my mouth and followed suit.

There would be no conversation for five hours. I sat there, ears filled with waxy spit, and my son (who had no earplugs) started to kick my liver in violent protest.

It was going to be a long flight.

But it was going to get worse.

Conversations with a Camel

Conversations with a Camel.

This week I accompanied my grandchildren Hailey and Demetri to the Oakland Zoo. I hadn’t been in years, not since their parents were children, and I was tremendously impressed by the facilities, which were carefully designed around the needs of each species or compatible group.

But off in one corner, rather an afterthought, was a nothing-special exhibit for the camels. Because, in zoo terms, dromedaries (that’s the one-hump camel) are nothing special. I suppose they are only there because to a wide-eyed child, a camel is just as unusual as a panda.

As a long-time breeder and trainer of llamas (camelids, or ‘little camels’) I made a point to go see them at the dead-end of an uphill climb. They had three, but my eye immediately went to a dark bay who was harassing another one. Years of watching herd interactions gave me the context: Darkbay was an adolescent female, and she wanted to play. The elder was putting up with her with a patience which only a mother would muster.

So I went over to the fence and initiated a conversation. I did this by keeping my hands down, sticking my neck out like another camel, and moaning softly. (Chewbacca from Star Wars is a recording of camel noises, specifically a camel at Marine world trained by my friend, the late Paul Barkman.)

There were several other people at the fence, but Darkbay’s interest was immediately piqued. She came over at once, and we had the following conversation, here translated into English for the benefit of those who cannot read Camel.


Me: Hi honey. If your Mom hasn’t any time for you, I’m a listening ear.

Darkbay: That’s weird. Usually the two-legs holler and point. But you seem very polite. You aren’t going to grab at me, are you?


Me: No, I’ll keep my hands to myself, until you invite me. And here’s a whiff of my breath.

Darkbay: (inhaling) Hey, cherries! You’ve been eating cherries! They smell delicious. Though the alfalfa hay we got for lunch isn’t bad, see? (blows gently.)


Me: If you come a little nearer, I’ll tell you a secret.

Darkbay: Ooo, I love secrets. And you have the most aromatic ear-wax! What’s the secret?

Me: I’m VERY fond of camels. I have bunches of little ones called llamas. You can smell them on my cap, I wore it on my last packtrip.


Darkbay: I like you too! Lots and lots! Let’s have a kiss.

Me: (twitching lips, llama style). Kissy Kissy Kissy.


Darkbay: Why don’t you come live with us? I’m bored. None of the grown-ups will play.

Me: sorry, the fence is in the way.


Momcamel: (Coming over). Now dear, stop pestering the two-legs. You know some of them spit.

Me: Ma’am, I understand your concerns completely. I have llamas, and whenever we go out in public there is always some brat who spits at them, trying to get them to spit back.


Darkbay: Mom, that was fun!

Momcamel: Yes, dear, there are a few polite humans in the world.

Many thanks to my daughter-in-law Heather, who never misses a good impromptu photo shoot.


Continued: Me and a chicken in a very small bathroom

(To my grammar-Nazi Mom, who is probably the first one to read this: Yes, I know it should be ‘The chicken and I in a very small bathroom.’ But I’m not going to phrase it that way, because – well, it sounds kind of perverted. That’s probably just me.)

When I chased Henrietta into the tiny shower bath, I was sure her roaming was over. How could something that weighed less than three pounds escape a person with a five-foot reach (measure fingertip to fingertip) in a space where no dimension exceeded that length?

The bathroom was roughly T-shaped, with a toilet at the bottom of the T and a vanity washbasin facing a  minimum shower on either side of the door. Henrietta perched on the hand-towel ring. I made a grab for her. She took off, leaving me with only a few feathers and a liquid deposit to signify her emotional state.

By now I was regretting my impulse to do a show-and-tell, especially as I remembered where the kid’s Mom was: that morning Frigga had a hearing scheduled with Child Protective Services to do the necessary red tape required by the difficult and complicated circumstances which brought her to our home. Another day would probably be better for all concerned, so I decided that as soon as I had her caught, Henrietta was going straight out to Randy.

Poor Henrietta, mistrustful of my intentions, decided that her best bet was to hunker in the tiny space under the toilet. I knelt down in front of the loo, and, assuming pretty much the same position as if I were going to use it to throw up in (but the lid was closed, you understand, so it wasn’t a gross as you’re thinking) I reached around with a hand on either side, thinking to trap her gently.

Wow. Bantams can PECK! The nasty rotten little dust-mop ATTACKED me! I withdrew to lick my wounds while Henrietta sharpened her beak.

This would not do. I had to get her out from under there so I could throw the towel around her – I’d have to wash it anyway – and safely transport her back to the carton, and the egg be damned. It seemed that an even smaller space would be a good idea, so I opened the door of the 3-foot-square shower in readiness for my next gambit.

But how to get her there? I bethought myself of the toilet plunger we kept in the vanity cabinet against the insertion of Legos and similar foreign objects into the plumbing. In a trice I had the thing out and was bearing down on my adversary from the vanity side. Sure enough, she squirted out from under the toilet.

I brandished my rubbery weapon, thrusting and parrying with dexterity and skill until the chicken retreated to the shower stall. Then I shoved the plunger handle into my back waistband, in case I needed it again, snatched the towel and jumped after her, closing the glass door behind me.

Now it was just me and the chicken, and she had nowhere to go. So I dropped the towel on her and  leaned over to gather her up.

She shot out from under the cloth and bounded into the air. I straightened up and, towel in both outstretched hands, tried to clap it over her, spinning to follow the feathered rocket that was zooming around the stall, sometimes at knee-height, sometimes rising to my shoulders, and once zipping between my feet.

I am not given to profanity, preferring accurate descriptive language. But I confess that in this case adjectives failed me and I resorted to a few choice terms from the gutter.

And then, when I almost had her between my knees, Henrietta gave one last leap into the air. I raised my towel-covered hands with her, and my elbow knocked into the handle of the shower, turning it on full-bore.

It took me a couple of shocked seconds to get the thing off—enough to be completely soaked down the left side of my body, although the right was still nicely dry. Henrietta got the full force of the stream, which ruined the aerodynamic quality of her feathers. (For the record, the term ‘madder than a wet hen’ is a misconception. If you substitute ‘sadder’ for madder, it would be nearer the mark.)

I quickly wrapped her in the sodden towel with her head sticking out. The handle of the toilet plunger had slipped down my pants leg by now, leaving the business end sticking out above the waistband. I left it for the moment, as both hands were occupied keeping the critter trapped. Time enough to deal with the toilet plunger and my half-wet hair and clothing when I had Henrietta safe in her carton. My left shoe squelched with every step as I hurried back to the entry.

And there in the doorway stood Frigga, accompanied by her social worker who had come to inspect her new abode and meet me.

concerning a chicken, a CPS worker, and a toilet plunger, continued…


So here I am, with a loose chicken in the house. But all in all, it’s not so bad, because Henrietta is heading for the open door of the den. This is far better than if she had gone the other way, into the living room, which has a high open ceiling. My daughter’s cockatiels used to zip in there and they were pretty hard to get down. We had to wait until they perched on the fan, and then turn it on low. (The high speed would have made them flutter to a more solid perch.) As the blades gently rotated, they would try to stay on by hunkering down, wings pressed against the surface while they slowly slid backwards with the centrifugal force. Eventually they would drop off the end. Usually that was enough for the moment, and they would come down to your hand, somewhat bewildered. Repeated several times, all the tops of the fan blades would get dusted.

Where Henrietta is heading, on the other hand, has a nice ordinary ceiling and more to the point, nowhere to perch that is too high for me to reach. In fact what we were using as the den used to be the master suite, but when we were running D-house we made it a public room (Jay and I built a separate apartment out back, it kept us sane when the house was full) so that the small bathroom could be used when the others were occupied.

As soon as the chicken was inside, I shut the door. So now it was just the two of us in a 10 x 16 space full of couches, chairs and shelves. I chased her around the place at speed, but she was faster than I was. Unlike the farmer who sold her to me, I did not have a pool net. We were at an impasse.

I sat down to contemplate the situation. Henrietta stared balefully at me from across the room. As I returned her stare, I saw behind her the door to the former master bathroom, a tiny affair consisting of a shower, a lavatory, and a toilet, and not an extra inch of space. The light bulb went off. In that limited place, there was no way she could avoid me!

So I slid ever so quietly to that side of the room and opener the bathroom door wide and turned on the light invitingly. Then I slid back to the opposite side of the room and resumed my pursuit. It took a few abortive attempts, but soon Henrietta flapped into the bathroom.

Triumph! I bounded inside and slammed the door. Now is was just me and the chicken in a five-by six room. I was sure I had her!

To be continued…

a true tale of a chicken, a CPS worker, and a toilet plunger.

So I mentioned in my last post that I had bagged a hen as a mail-order bride for Randy the Rooster. But before I dropped her off to her connubial duties, I thought I’d give the 11-year old who was staying with us (along with her homeless mom) a view of a real live chicken.

(The kid’s Mom, whom I’ll call Frigga, was too gullible for my husband to resist. She was good for any hoary old joke, including the one where he points at her and exclaims, “Oh look, you have a henway!” To which poor unsuspecting Frigga responds, “What’s a henway?”

“About three pounds.” And Jay goes off laughing. Yes, I have put up with this kind of humor for over thirty years. Now you know why I seem a little nuts. But back to the matter at hand, and the Bantam hen, who, for the record, weighed a good deal less than three pounds.)

It’s only two in the afternoon when I come in with my lively sack, and nobody’s home. Our kids are grown, Frigga is out dealing with whatever, and her kid is still at school. So I find a cardboard box for show-and-tell, since a feed sack is no fit display for the glories of chickendom, and contemplate the various methods for transferring animated hen with already demonstrated flying skills into inanimate carton.

I un-knot the sack, then invert it over the box. Henrietta is in no mood to take a drop; she has her claws in the weave and clings like a burr. So I grasp the top of the sack in one hand and encircle the fabric with the other, moving steadily downward. Sure enough, she loses her grip and falls into the carton. “Clunk!”

Transfer accomplished, I toss the bag and slap the top shut. And then I think, “Wait a minute. What went ‘clunk? Chickens don’t go ‘clunk’. Unless—”

I open the top flap a bit, and sure enough, there in the gloom at the bottom of the box is a teeny little pearly white Bantam egg.

I cracked the carton a little wider to get a better look, and fall back, startled by a fusillade of feathers as Henrietta explodes out of the opening. She bounces off the ceiling and rockets down the hall, with me in hot pursuit.

To be continued…

More misadventures with chickens


The last post on Randy has reminded me of our longest-lasting chicken, Henrietta. As I mentioned before, we frequently had abandoned critters dumped at the packstation, as we called the acreage we rented from BART. It was bounded by the freeway on one side and the frontage road on the other, and had a creek running through it with a flood plain covered with oaks and the remnants of a walnut orchard. If the poor dumped animal was a dog, something that would suffer and starve, we called the pound. But for the usual run of chickens, ducks, rabbits, hamsters, and even cats, we let nature take its course. There were plenty of hungry fox kits and owlets whose diligent parents would put this easy food supply to good use.

Every time some hens got tossed over the fence, Randy would get so excited. He’d strut and crow for a day, and then the next day, there’d be nothing but feathers. (That’s just a matter of speaking. In fact, there were many other unappetizing parts left behind, most of them quite gruesome to anyone but my biologist friend, you know who you are.) Poor Randy would droop around, all alone again.

I was on a feed run when I saw a farm sign that said ‘Bantam Hens $10’. Now Bantams are legendary for being survivors – being neither bred for eggs nor meat, they have a lot of the ‘wild sense’ left in them—and I figured that $10 was a cheap price not to see a drooping rooster. So on the way back, I stopped.

The farmer led me to a large enclosed chicken run and told me to pick one. I pointed to the one who was roosting highest, on the theory that she would be most likely to outlast the predators. My guess was confirmed by how hard that chicken was to catch. But eventually, he snagged her with a pool net. I thought he’d put her in a cardboard box for the trip home (about two hours) but to my consternation, he merely stuffed her in a feed sack, knotted the top, and handed it to me.

“Quiets ‘em down,” he said. “It’s the dark inside the sack. Chickens go to sleep in the dark.”

I gingerly accepted the agitated package and set it next to me on the truck seat, hoping she would be asleep by the time we reached I-5. Perhaps the bag wasn’t dark enough, because Henrietta showed no signs of drowsiness. As I pulled the loaded trailer up the on ramp, she figured out how to get up in the sack, and it started to jerk around.

And then the sack started to move in my direction. I was concentrating on driving a fully-loaded stock trailer in a stiff breeze and didn’t pay it much attention until she got over next to my thigh. It was a hot day, and I was wearing shorts.

A chicken can peck through a feed sack with remarkable ferocity.

I knocked that bag onto the floor of the passenger side, possibly with more force than intended. At which point Henrietta subsided, and the rest of the journey home was broken only by the occasional resentful cackle.

At the time, our house doubled as a transition home for women and children. We had one school-age child and her mom staying with us, and I got to thinking how much 11-year-old Gertrude (not her real name) would enjoy seeing a real, live chicken.  She would be getting out of school soon, so I swung by the house before going over to drop off the feed.

And therein hangs a tale of a chicken, a CPS worker, and a toilet plunger.

Next post.

Randy the Rooster

Randy the Rooster
I have dragged my feet on blogging for years now, because I am only too aware that once a thing is posted on the internet, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and those words are PERMANENT. Being the sort of person who thinks out loud, I suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, and frequently have to dislodge my toes from my tonsils. But as I am, after all, a writer, and it is only fair that prospective buyers should have the opportunity to sample my wares, I am resolved to publish my warts and foibles for the world to see.
What gives me courage, however, is that ‘the world’ is not likely to see much of them at all. With millions, maybe billions of people out there blogging about everything from sand sifting to bodily functions, I doubt anyone will see my first posts except those who already know me and therefore, my flaws. That being the case, I am going to start by telling a few stories which are already favorites in the hope that they will at the least, read it through.
So I’m going to start with a joke told me by my dear friend Ann, who’s probably laughing in heaven right now. Ann liked to laugh.
Ann was helping me put up fences on the six acres of urban farmland we leased from BART for our llamas when we were startled by vigorous crowing from the top of the shed. We looked up and there was a tall, red-gold rooster. It wasn’t the first time; being close to the highway meant that people were always dumping unwanted animals, and roosters were illegal in town. What was different about this one was that he was still around a week later, meaning that he had enough smarts not to become dinner for a hungry fox, hawk, or raccoon.
“He needs a name,” Ann said. I’ll call him Randy.”
“Why Randy?” says I.
“After the rooster in the joke,” says she. And she proceeded to tell it.
It seems there was a farmer whose hens didn’t produce very many chicks. So he shopped around for better rooster and found one that was advertised as extremely virile. He drove many miles to fetch this prepotent poultry paragon and put down a good price.
When the farmer got him home, he set him down at the door to the chicken shed and gave him a bit of advice. “Now Randy, there’s a hundred hens in there, and I don’t want you to wear yourself out. You have weeks to get the job done, so take a few at a time.”
He opened the door and shoved Randy in, and that rooster got right to work. The squawking, cackling and crowing were like nothing he had ever seen. The farmer watched in consternation. Randy apparently had no concept of ‘pacing himself’.
When the farmer finished his chores, feathers were still flying in the henhouse, and he became afraid that his valuable rooster would die from overwork in the first day. So he rounded up Randy and put him in the barnyard, away from the hens.
When the farmer brought the cows home, he saw a quacking huddle of geese in the barnyard. Randy was in the midst of them, doing what he did best.
The farmer broke it up and shooed the geese back to the pond. But when next he went by the barnyard, Randy was at the guinea fowl.
By that time it was getting dark, and he knew the guinea fowl would go to roost in the trees, where Randy could not get them. So he went in to his supper, thinking that the next day he would build a pen just for Randy.
But in the morning he saw vultures circling the barnyard, and when he ran to see, there was his new prize rooster, flopped out dead.
The farmer knelt down by the feathered form, shaking his head sadly. “Randy, I told you to pace yourself. But you just couldn’t, and now look at where it’s got you.”
The rooster opened one eye a crack. “Shhh!” he said. He pointed a wing-tip upwards. “Buzzards.”