Raw Sex and the Nuclear Holocaust… A MisAdventures’ Tale

 

Judy gave a small lock of hair to each of her many admirers.

When was the first time you recognized a member of the opposite sex as something other than a playmate, or, possibly, a pain in the butt?

Almost as far back as I can recall, I had a girlfriend, or at least believed I did. The girls didn’t necessarily have to agree. The first girl who caught my attention was an ‘older woman,’ the fourth-grade sister of one of my classmates in the third grade. She had quite a mouth on her and called her little brother names like s**t-head and f**k-face. As mentioned earlier, I had an extensive vocabulary of swear words. My brother, friends and I used such words extensively but I had never heard a girl talk like that. I was fascinated. I fell under her spell.

And thus it was, one fine Saturday, I found myself on my first great solo adventure, walking 2 ½ miles following the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to her home with the sole objective of hearing her speak those magical words. I was not disappointed! Be still my beating heart.

My first real heart-throb, though, was in the fourth grade. This time, she was a younger woman in the third grade: cute, blond and smart. While I may have appreciated those qualities, what fascinated me about Carol was that she could run like the wind. I was in love with her legs. We both lived within a couple of blocks of school and would walk home for lunch. The advantage of going home was that we would arrive back at school before the other kids were let out for noon recess. This meant we could grab the best positions for whatever game was being played. My problem was that Carol could outrun me and this meant I was usually second in line. It seemed like a small price to pay for seeing those legs kicking up the dirt in front of me.

In the fifth grade, the woman of the year was Judy, a fourth grader with flaming red hair who had every boy in the fourth and fifth grade passionately pursuing her. The competition was fierce. Judy loved it while the other girls must have been extremely jealous or, maybe just disgusted. To encourage us, Judy cut off small locks of her hair and gave one to each of her admirers. I was surprised she had any hair left but I cherished my lock and took it to bed with me at night. My main competitor for Judy was Eric, who was an up and coming fourth grader, small, but extremely athletic and an all-around nice kid. Judy let it be known that we were the chosen two.

Eric.

We had our showdown at a school movie that provided instructions on what to do when the Russians bombed our school. We spent a lot of time in the 50s worrying about that. People began building bomb shelters in their backyards. The teachers would make us crawl under our desks to prepare for the explosion. We were supposed to cover our faces with our arms so glass shattering in from the windows wouldn’t blind us. It is not surprising that the traumatized children of the 50’s grew up to be the anti-war radicals of the 60s and 70s. I stayed up one night to watch an atomic bomb testing in the Nevada desert over 200 miles away. It lit up the whole Eastern sky and added a touch of reality to our hide-under-the-desk practice.

In the lineup for the movie, Eric aced me out and managed to get next to Judy. A half-dozen other fourth graders played honor guard and I couldn’t even get close, but my luck didn’t abandon me altogether. I grabbed the seat immediately in back of her where I could at least monitor Eric’s behavior while admiring Judy’s behind. The lights went down and the movie started. I strained to keep an eye on Eric. He reached over and grabbed Judy’s hand and she let him hold it. I could have killed him. My whole world was crashing down. But then, unbelievably, Judy’s other hand slipped between the chairs and grabbed my knee. My knee! It was raw sex. Who cared if Eric was holding hands with Judy! Who cared if the Russians had somehow determined that Diamond Springs Grade School stood between them and world domination!

MONDAY’S POST: I finish up our 18-day journey down the Colorado River.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: More photos from Kodiak Island, Alaska.

FRIDAY’S POST: More girl problems when I make the mistake of taking PE Dance Class.

The Mekemson Kids Did It… It’s a Wrap, Or Is that a Rap-Sheet?

By the time I was in the fourth grade, new friends, a love of wandering in the woods, and a knack for learning had changed my perspective on life.

 

The comments on my series, “The Mekemson Kids Did It,” have been fun. Obviously, I struck a chord. Many of you reached back into the far recesses of your own memory banks to recall incidents from your own childhood. Thanks so much for sharing.

 

Amazingly, like most kids, we survived growing up. Part of it was sheer luck. I never broke a bone or suffered from a bad fall.  Nor did I come close to being drowned, shot, electrocuted, or run over. And all of these were possible. Most of my more ‘serious’ mishaps related to my big feet. Summertime meant bare feet and I specialized in stubbed toes; they hurt. Skin doesn’t appreciate being flayed from the body in big chunks, which is why the activity was highly recommended in Inquisition torture manuals. One toe and I would have confessed to anything.

As it was, I took it like the little man I happened to be and bawled. A dose of parental sympathy, a dash of iodine and a Band-Aid normally made things better. A rusty nail through the foot required more drastic action like a trip to the doctor and a mega-dose of sympathy. As did my encounter with Coaly the Cocker, who sunk her teeth into my foot. As I mentioned earlier, however, the sympathy was lacking that time.

Marshall’s injuries tended to be more serious. That’s because he asked interesting questions like what happens when you put a bullet on a rock and smash another rock down on top of it. He got away with that one, unlike the time he lit a dynamite cap with a match. We were vacationing at Caldor’s lumber camp in the Sierra’s at that time. Earlier in the day, Marshall and I had gone out for a hike and discovered the caps at an old mine. That evening, while Mother was wrapping up dinner, he had slipped outside to experiment. A loud bang was followed by a louder scream. Marshall was lucky. His glasses had protected his sight. The rest of the front side of his body was a bloody mess.  And then there was the time he fell out of a Heavenly tree and shoved a stick into his stomach.

Pop always started running when he heard Marshall scream. With me, he walked. But these were exceptions. Normally we brought home nothing more than the usual bumps, bruises and scratches of youth.

There came a time in his life when Marshall found other things more important than amusing or torturing his little brother. Girls were high on his list, along with cars, cigarettes and being a James Dean type rebel. (He wore his cigarette pack wrapped up in the sleeve of his T-shirt.) I spent a great deal of time by myself except for the ever-present dog and wandered farther and farther afield. The wilder the terrain, the happier I was.

While other kids were busy learning the drama of organized sports, I was figuring what to do with the rear end of a skunk pointed at me. It’s a sure sign the skunk is irritated when she does a handstand and waves her tail in your direction. It’s her way of saying, “My gun is cocked and my finger is on the trigger. It’s your move, stranger.” The secret is not to move. If you are very, very lucky, the skunk will slowly return to all fours and amble off.

But I also begin to develop my own set of friends and an enjoyment of learning, which still exists today. And then— drum roll please— there were girls! Be sure to check out next Friday’s post where the subject is Raw Sex and the Nuclear Holocaust.

The Mekemson Kids Did It— Railroaded: Part 3… The MisAdventure Series

A logging truck dumps logs into Caldor’s pond. Marshall considered hiking out on these logs as high adventure. My opinion was that they were an accident waiting to happen

We weren’t really bad kids, just adventuresome with our adventures occasionally bordering on juvenile delinquency. Caldor Lumber Company was a favorite target of ours since it provided a myriad of opportunities for weekend and after-school exploration. Twenty-foot high stacks of drying lumber were made for climbing and the truly bold might leap from one to another. The appropriately named Big Shed was filled with these stacks but I was much more fascinated by the number of owls that lived there and provided scat for my natural history collection. The millpond featured floating logs which Marshall ventured out on lumberjack like but I avoided. Not even a triple dare, or worse, older brother scorn, could temp me into a possible dunking in the pond’s dark, murky waters.

I am petting a friendly donkey here. My real reason for including this fading photo, however, is it shows the stacks of lumber at Caldor that we would climb up onto and leap between if they were close enough.

All of these activities paled in comparison to joy riding on rail pushcarts. Caldor had narrow gauge rail lines snaking through its drying yards and used pushcarts for transporting heavy items. We quickly discovered that three or four of us could get a cart rolling. We would then jump on for a free ride. Small down hills added a thrill factor. Fortunately, hand brakes on the carts enabled us to stop the carts before running into the stacked railroad ties that marked the end of the line. Except once.

Our nemesis at Caldor was an old fellow who had been in some type of mill related accident and left with a limp. Caldor made him the night and weekend watchman so he could continue to make a living. We provided him with something to do in an otherwise uneventful job. Sneaking up on us seemed to be a true passion of his so we kept a wary eye out. It was inevitable that he would catch us on a pushcart ride and he caught us at the most exciting point, just as it was gaining speed going downhill.

“Hey you kids, get off of that pushcart!” he yelled as he hurried after us at a slow limp.

What were we to do? We jumped off of the pushcart and high tailed it for the Woods, which were right next door. The pushcart, meanwhile, continued to gather speed, slammed into the ties and did a spectacular flip before sliding off down a small hill. We were duly impressed and so, apparently, was the watchman who let out a string of obscenities peppered with the F-word as we disappeared into the pines. Pop mentioned the next day that the watchman had reported to him that he thought we were  involved. We carefully explained that some kids from Placerville had been in town and were undoubtedly responsible.

A more serious threat of railroad justice arrived on our doorstep in the form of a Southern Pacific Railroad detective who claimed Marshall had been pulling spikes out of the railroad trestle over Webber Creek and throwing them into the stream. Marshall put on his ‘I’m outraged act.’  Yes, he had been throwing rocks off of the trestle into the creek below. What kid wouldn’t?  But he would never dream of doing anything that would cause physical harm to anyone. Had the detective bothered to check to see if any spikes were missing from the trestle? No. Had he contemplated the possibility of a skinny 90-pound 12-year-old kid being able to physically pull out the spikes? No. The case was closed.

While Marshall’s innocence was sustained for once, the experience had the unfortunate consequence of eliminating the trestle as a place to play. Walking across and staring down between the railroad ties at the 100-foot drop to Weber Creek was a sure cure for summer boredom, as was contemplating the arrival of a train when we were in the middle of the trestle. If that wasn’t exciting enough, we could always walk across on the narrow plank that ran under the tracks. There were no railings or safety net.

MONDAY’S POST: Our journey down the Colorado River takes us to the magical Havasu Creek and then on to the dangerous Lava Falls.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: It’s off to the Alaska island of Kodiak where our son works as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot. We cross the island for a day of hanging out with large brown bears as they fish and feed their cubs.

The Mekemson Kids Did It: Part 1… The MisAdventure Series

There were two Gold Rush era buildings from the 1800s near our house. One was the old jail across the road where Jimmy Pagonni stored his wine. Unfortunately, it was knocked down for a fast-food joint. The other was one house away from ours and is the one shown above.

Sweet Cherries

Up until around eight or nine I spent most of my wandering time with Marshall and our friends Allen and Lee. What I remember about these adventures in Diamond Springs  was that we were skating on the thin edge of trouble. Gradually, we developed a reputation. I am convinced that a whole generation of little kids in Diamond blamed their misbehavior on us. “I didn’t do it Mama, the Mekemson kids did.” And Mama probably believed them. My friend Bob Bray’s mother refused to let him play with me. I was a bad influence, guaranteed to lead her son straight into the arms of the law.

Most of our mischief was relatively innocent. For example, Jimmy Pagonni lived across the street and had a zero-tolerance policy for us.  We lusted after his cherries. He transformed them into wine and every drop was precious. He turned his dogs loose on us if we came anywhere near his orchard. Naturally his insistence on keeping us out only guaranteed our presence.  Raids were carefully planned. Few adventures come with such sweet rewards.

We would invite two or three little friends over and make a party out of it. The cover was sleeping out in the back yard, but sleep was secondary. Somewhere around one o’clock in the morning we would slip out of our yard, cross a very lonely Highway 49, climb over Jimmy’s rickety gate, and disappear up into the trees. It was all very hush-hush and cherries have never tasted more delicious. We would stuff our stomachs and then fill up bags for take-out. It was pure greed.

Jimmy’s dogs never caught us before we were able to scramble over the fence but they did catch my cocker spaniel once and almost killed him. Tickle had been out on the town visiting a lady friend and was returning home. We were infuriated. Marshall retaliated by shooting Jimmy’s bull in the balls with a BB gun. (If not fair to the bull, it was at least alliteration.) Jimmy never knew Marshall committed the heinous act but I am sure he had his suspicions.

Red, Red Wine, Makes You Feel Fine— or Not

Another Marshall story is appropriate to tell here because it reflects the theme. In this incident, Marshall’s skinniness got him into hot water, or at least wine. Jimmy Pagonni stored his fermented cherry juice in an old Gold Rush era building that may have served as a jail in its youth. It was located right in the middle of his well-guarded cherry orchard and featured a very stout locked door and one barred window. I am sure Jimmy considered it impregnable but he failed to consider just how skinny my brother was. With help from an accomplice, Marshall managed to slip through the bars and pinch a gallon of Italian Red.

He and his friend Art then headed for our treehouse in the Graveyard to do some serious imbibing. Considering that a gallon of Jimmy’s Italian Red would have knocked out two grown men, it almost killed Marshall. He told me how he and Art were lying in the dirt and peddling their bikes upside down above them when one of our teachers walked by. I remember him slipping in the back door and trying to get to our bedroom before Mother and Pop noticed. It didn’t work. In addition to stumbling and mumbling and heaving, he smelled like a three-week gutter drunk. He was one sick kid. Both parents hurried to the bedroom out of concern and I moved back outside to sleep in the cool, but fresh fall air. It was one of those crimes that incorporates its own punishment.

MONDAY’S POST: In the next section of our trip down the Colorado River, I jump off a cliff and Tom wears Bone.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: We finish our journey through the Yukon Territory.

FRIDAY’S POST: The next chapter in the Mekemson Kids Did It. Who shot Tony Pavy’s pig?

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The Skull with the Vacant Stare— The Woods… The MisAdventure Series

Woods in Diamond Springs, CA

While I don’t have any pictures from the Woods growing up, this and the other photos here are of more recent vintage from Diamond Springs.

 

Even more than the Pond, the Woods introduced me to the beauty and magic of nature. It, too, earned a capital letter.

To get there, I walked out the back door, down the alley and through a pasture Jimmy Pagonni rented for his cattle. Tackling the pasture involved crawling through a rusty barbed wire fence, avoiding fresh cow pies, climbing a hill and jumping an irrigation ditch. The journey was fraught with danger.

Black oak and woods

This black oak stood over the ditch I had to jump, and it still stands today.

Hungry barbed wire consumed several of my shirts and occasionally went for my back. Torn clothing and bleeding scratches were a minor irritation in comparison to stepping in fresh cow poop though. A thousand-pound, grass-eating machine produces acres of the stuff. Deep piles sneak up your foot and slosh over into your shoes. Toes hate this. Even more treacherous are the little piles that hide out in the grass. A well-placed patty can send you sliding faster than black ice. The real danger here is ending up with your butt in the pile. I did that, once. “Oh, shit,” I had exclaimed. Happily, no one was around to witness my misfortune, or hear my language— except Tickle the dog. And he was sworn to secrecy.

For all of its hazards, the total hike to the Woods took about 10 minutes. Digger pines with drunken windmill limbs guarded the borders while gnarly manzanita and spiked chaparral dared the casual visitor to venture off the trail. Poison oak proved more subtle but effective in discouraging exploration. I could count on raucous California jays to announce my presence, especially if I was stalking a band of notorious outlaws. Ground squirrels were also quick to whistle their displeasure. Less talkative jackrabbits merely ambled off upon spotting me, put on a little speed for a hyper Cocker, and became bounding blurs in the presence of a hungry greyhound. Flickers, California quail and acorn woodpeckers held discussions in distinctive voices I soon learned to recognize.

Woods in Diamond Springs

A trailer park now occupies the woods where I once played. It’s pleasant but no substitute. Even then, power lines cut through the woods. The tree reaching for the sky is a digger pine. Its large pine cones were filled with nuts that the squirrels harvested.

From the beginning, I felt at home in the Woods, like I belonged. I quickly learned that its hidden recesses contained a multitude of secrets. I was eager to learn what they had to teach me, but the process seemed glacial. It required patience and I hardly knew how to spell the word. I did know how to sit quietly, however. This was a skill I had picked up from the hours I spent with my nose buried in books. The woodland creatures prefer their people noisy. A Curt stomping down the trail, snapping dead twigs, and talking to himself about nefarious evil-doers was easy to avoid while a Curt being quiet might surprise them.

One gray squirrel was particularly loud in his objections. He lived in the top branches of a digger pine beside the trail and maintained an observation post on an overhanging limb. When he heard me coming, he would adopt his ‘you can’t see me gray squirrel playing statue pose.’ But I knew where to look. I would find a comfortable seat and stare at him. It drove him crazy. Soon he would start to thump the limb madly with his foot and chirr loudly. He had pine nuts to gather, a stick home to remodel, and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lady to woo. I was blocking progress. Eventually, if I didn’t move, his irritation would bring him scrambling down the trunk for a much more personal scolding.

After about 15 minutes of continuous haranguing, he’d decide I was a harmless, if obnoxious aberration and go about his business. That’s when I begin to learn valuable secrets, like where he hid his nuts. It was also a sign for the rest of the wildlife to come out of hiding. A western fence lizard might work its way to the top of the dead log next to me and start doing push-ups. Why, I couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps a thrush would begin to scratch up the leaves under the manzanita in search of creepy tidbits. The first time I heard one, it sounded like a very large animal interested in little boy flesh.

Occasionally there were special treats: a band of teenage gray squirrels playing tag and demonstrating their incredible acrobatics; a doe leading its shy, speckled fawn out to drink in the small stream that graced the Wood’s meadow; a coyote sneaking up on a ground squirrel hole with an intensity I could almost feel.

I also began to play at stalking animals. Sometime during the time period between childhood and becoming a teenager, I read James Fennimore Cooper and began to think I was a reincarnation of Natty Bumppo. Looking back, I can’t say I was particularly skilled, but no one could have told me so at the time. At least I learned to avoid dry twigs, walk slowly, and stop frequently. Occasionally, I even managed to sneak up on some unsuspecting animal.

If the birds and the animals weren’t present, they left signs for me. There was always the helter-skelter pack rat nest to explore. Tickle made it a specialty, quickly sending twigs flying in all directions. There were also numerous tracks to figure out. Was it a dog or coyote that had stopped for a drink out of the stream the night before? My greyhound knew instantly, but I had to piece it together. A sinuous trail left by a slithery serpent was guaranteed to catch my attention. This was rattlesnake country. Who’d been eating whom or what was another question? The dismantled pine cone was easy to figure out but who considered the bark on a young white fir a delicacy? And what about the quail feathers scattered haphazardly beside the trail?

Scat, I learned, was the tracker’s word for poop. It offered a multitude of clues for what animals had been ambling down the trail and what they had been eating. There were deer droppings and rabbit droppings and mouse droppings descending in size. Coyotes and foxes left their distinctive dog-like scat but the presence of fur and berries suggested that something other than dog food had been on the menu. Some scat was particularly fascinating, at least to me. Burped up owl pellets provided a treasure chest of bones— little feet, little legs and little skulls that grinned back with the vacant stare of slow mice.

While Tarzan hung out in the Graveyard and pirates infested the Pond, mountain men, cowboys, Indians, Robin Hood and various bad guys roamed the Woods. Each bush hid a potential enemy that I would indubitably vanquish. I had the fastest two fingers in the West and I could split a pine nut with an arrow at 50 yards.  I never lost. How could I— it was my fantasy. But daydreams were only a part of the picture.

I fell in love with wandering in the Woods and playing on the Pond. There was an encyclopedia of knowledge available and a multitude of lessons about life. Learning wasn’t a conscious effort, though; it was more like absorption. The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. A spider with an egg sack was worth ten minutes, a gopher pushing dirt out of its hole an hour, and a deer with a fawn a lifetime.

Next Friday I will offer a slight diversion from MisAdventures tales for a week and include a chapter from my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

 

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Learning About Cross-Cultural Relations as a Second Grader… The MisAdventure Series

Caldor train

Caldor Lumber Company was one of two major places of employment in Diamond Springs. My dad worked as an electrician for the company. Logs were brought into Caldor by train on a narrow gauge railway up until the early 50s. Note the size of the logs! (Photo from newspaper archives.)

 

I was fortunate early in life to have close Mexican-American friends and experience some of the richness of cross-cultural experiences. The strength of America has always been in the diversity of the people who have come here from all over the world with dreams of improving their lives. That they retain a bit of their ‘home-country’ is a strength, whether that home country is Ireland, or Mexico, or China, or Nigeria. The mixing of cultures has almost always been the dynamism that drives humanity’s great leaps leap forward, that leads us to question old ways, and helps us find new solutions to seemingly intractable problems. 

 

My entry into the world of education also introduced me to a whole new set of friends. Up until that point in time, the kids I had hung out with had consisted of my brother and his buddies. We had roamed the country doing little boy things with me as a tag along. Mainly we got into mischief. I could look forward to a life of crime, or at least to becoming a world-class juvenile delinquent. I’m not sure that much changed during my first grade, but I started to make new friends. In the second grade, I became particularly close to Rudy (Raul) and Robert Rangel, a pair of Mexican-American brothers who lived in a small house in East Diamond Springs.

Raul Rangel

Rudy.

Robert Rangel

Robert.

We hit it off immediately and on a Saturday toward the end of the school year, the boys and their parents had invited me up to their house to spend the night. It was my first official play date and my first ever sleep-over. I was nervous. My mother took me up and dropped me off to a royal greeting by the boys, their parents and their siblings.

“Quick, “the boys had urged,” We have to go stand by the railroad tracks.” We could hear the train’s whistle a mile or so out of town.

The tracks were part of a narrow-gauge railway used by Caldor Lumber Company to bring logs from its forest operation 30 miles up in the mountains to its lumber mill in Diamond Springs. The company had been established in the early 1900s and at first used mules for hauling the logs. It had then switched to oxen followed by a giant steam tractor. The tractor made so much noise that the company was required to use outriders a quarter of a mile in front and behind to warn people so their horses wouldn’t be spooked.

Understandably, the company soon switched to a narrow-gauge railway. The trains had recently been converted to diesel engines, a task my father had helped with as one of Caldor’s two electricians. Soon the railroad would lose out to logging trucks but, for the time being, little kids still had the joy of watching these massive engines and their long line of rail cars carrying large logs out of the forest. More to the point, the engineers on the train carried an ample supply of candies that they would distribute to the boys and girls standing along the track.

The train was near; we could now hear it chugging along. Rudy and Robert, their siblings and I sprinted the hundred or so yards over the tracks. I leaned over and put my ear to the track, a trick I had learned from the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. You can actually hear the vibrations and supposedly judge how far away the train is. It was an important skill for early train robbers. I needn’t have bothered since the train came into view when my head was on the track. I’m sure the engineers saw me. I jumped back at the urging of my buddies and we started waving madly. One of the engineers dutifully leaned out of the cab and tossed us candy, lots of it. We scrambled around picking it up.

Since dinner was an hour or so off, I suggested that we head out to the woods behind Rudy and Robert’s house and ride trees. Who needed horses? My brother, Alan, Lee and I had learned that we could climb up to the top of young, skinny pines and make them sway back and forth by leaning way out. It offered a free carnival-like ride 10-15 feet up in the air. If the tree was skinny enough, we could actually make it bend all of the way down to the ground, where we would drop off and allow it to snap back up. I suspect the trees didn’t enjoy the experience nearly as much as we did.

“It’s dinner time!” came the call so we rushed back to the house and made use of an outside water faucet to semi-wash the pitch off our hands. It can be quite stubborn.

“You have to try this,” Rudy enthused, dashing into the house and coming out with a red pepper. I should have been suspicious when the rest of the family followed him outside. But what does a second grader know? I gamely bit into the pepper and was introduced to habanero-hot. The whole family roared as I made a mad sprint for the faucet and glued my mouth to it, becoming a major part of the evening’s entertainment. The Mexican food that followed more than made up for the joke, however. I’ve been a fan ever since. The hot pepper became a dim memory when it became time to go to bed.

All of the boys slept on the same one. The family didn’t have a lot of money and space was limited. Admittedly it was much bigger than my small single at home. And, as you may recall, I had a number of animal companions that slept with me outside to scare the ghosts away. But I had never slept in a bed with another person, much less 3 or 4, or maybe it was 10. That’s what it felt like. I was mortified, but I tried. I really did. Ten came and there I was, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, body frozen in place— and midnight, and two, and four. At 5:30, I gently nudged Robert.

“I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept all night,” I confessed. “I have to go home.”

“Ummm,” the half-awake Robert had moaned. I got up, dressed, and slipped out of the house, careful not to wake anyone else. It was close to dark, with only a dim light announcing the morning. Home wasn’t that far away, maybe a mile, but I still remember the journey as long and spooky. Halfway there, I passed Murphy’s grocery store. Sodas were stacked in wood boxes in front. I looked around furtively— nobody was around. I was totally alone. So, I helped myself to a Coke. I carefully hid it outside when I arrived home. It wouldn’t do to have overly inquisitive parents discover it and ask questions. I happily enjoyed it later in the day, feeling much less guilty about stealing  the soda than I did about abandoning my friends.

Curt

My second grade photo.

 

MONDAY’S POST: The Grand Canyon trip begins. I help paddle the raft to keep it floating downriver.  The headwinds were insisting that we go in the opposite direction.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: Part 1 of a new photo essay on driving the Alaska Highway.

FRIDAY’S POST: My cocker spaniel, Tickle, teaches me how to swim and other tales of the magical Pond.

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The Great Tree Race… Blogging My Book on “MisAdventures”

Incense cedar tree in Diamond Springs graveyard

A view of the tall incense cedar in the Graveyard today.

 

Two incense cedars dominated the Graveyard. From an under five-foot perspective, they were gigantic, stretching some 75-feet skyward. The limbs of the largest tree started 20 feet up and provided scant hope for climbing. As usual, my brother Marshall found a risky way around the problem.

Several of the lower limbs came tantalizingly close to the ground at their tips. One could be reached by standing on a convenient flat tombstone. But only Marshall could reach it; I was frustratingly short by several inches. Marsh would make a leap, grasp the limb and shimmy up it hanging butt down until it became large enough for him to work his way around to the top. Then he would crawl up to the tree trunk, five Curtis lengths off the ground. After that, he would climb to wonderfully mysterious heights I could only dream about.

Eventually I grew tall enough to make my first triumphant journey up the limb. Then, very carefully, I climbed to the heart-stopping top, limb by limb. All of Diamond Springs spread out before me. I could see our school, and Caldor (the lumber mill where my father worked), and the woods, and the hill with a Cross where I had shivered my way through an Easter Sunrise Service. I could see my whole world. Except for a slight wind that made the tree top sway and stirred my imagination about the far away ground, I figured I was as close to Heaven as I would ever get.

View of Caldor Lumber company circa 1958

The view from the top of the incense cedar tree in the Graveyard looking toward Caldor Lumber Company circa 1958. The mill had already closed down by this time.

By the time I finally made it to the top, Marshall had more grandiose plans for the tree. We would build a tree house in the upper branches. Off we went to Caldor to liberate some two by fours. Then we raided Pop’s tool shed for a hammer, nails, and rope. My job was to be the ground man while Marshall climbed up to the top. He would then lower the rope and I would tie on a board that he would hoist up and nail in. It was a good plan, or so we thought.

Along about the third board, Pop showed up. It wasn’t so much that we wanted to build a tree fort in the Graveyard that bothered him, or that we had borrowed his tools without asking. He even seemed to ignore the liberated lumber. His concern was that we were building our fort too close to the top of the tree on thin limbs that would easily break with nails that barely reached through the boards. After he graphically described the potential results, even Marshall had second thoughts. Pop had a solution though. He would build us a proper tree house on the large limbs that were only 20 feet off the ground. He would also add a ladder so we could avoid our tombstone-shimmy-up-the-limb route.

And he did. It was a magnificent open tree house of Swiss Family Robinson proportions that easily accommodated our buddies and us with room to spare. Hidden in the tree and hidden in the middle of the Graveyard, it became our special hangout where we could escape everything except the call to dinner. It became my center for daydreaming and Marshall’s center for mischief planning. He, along with our friends Allen and Lee, would plan our forays into Diamond designed to terrorize the local populace.

Cedar tree in Great Tree Race, Diamond Springs, CA

Looking up from the base of the tree today. The aging fellow is 65 years older from the days when I mastered climbing it. Pop’s tree house was built on the lower left limbs.

It also became the starting point for the Great Tree Race. We would scramble to the top and back down in one on one competition as quickly as we could. Slips were a common hazard. Unfortunately, the other boys always beat me; they were two to three years older and I was the one most susceptible to slipping. My steady diet of Tarzan comic books sustained me though and I refused to give up.  Eventually, several years later, I would triumph.

Marshall was taking a teenage time-out with Mother’s parents who had moved to Watsonville, down on the Central Coast of California. Each day I went to the Graveyard and took several practice-runs up the tree. I became half monkey. Each limb was memorized and an optimum route chosen. Tree climbing muscles bulged; my grip became iron and my nerves steel. Finally, the big day arrived and Marshall came home. He was every bit the big brother who had had been away at high school while little brother stayed at home and finished grade school. He talked of cars and girls and wild parties and of his friend Dwight who could knock people out with one punch. I casually mentioned the possibility of a race to the top of the Tree. What a set up. Two pack-a-day, sixteen-year old, cigarette smokers aren’t into tree climbing, but how can you resist a challenge from your little brother.

Off we went. Marsh didn’t stand a chance. It was payback time for years of big brother hassles. I flew up and down the tree. I hardly touched the limbs. Slip? So what, I would catch the next limb. Marsh was about half way up the tree when I passed him on my way down. I showed no mercy and greeted him with a grin when he arrived, huffing and puffing, back at the tree house. His sense of humor was minimal. He challenged me to a wrestling match and I pinned him to the ground. It was the end of the Great Tree Race, the end of big brother domination, and a fitting end to my years of associating with dead people.

Cedar tree spike in Diamond Springs Ca

This spike is all that remains of our treehouse dreams. As I recall, Marshall drove it into the tree with thoughts of several more to provide a way up the tree.

Cut down incense cedar tree in Diamond Springs graveyard

The jungle of Heavenly Trees that once covered the Graveyard has long since been tamed. Imagine my dismay during my last visit to Diamond Springs when I found that the cedar tree’s twin in the Graveyard had been cut down.  Could our tree be far behind?

 

MONDAY’S Travel Blog POST: A continuation of the trip through the Grand Canyon. How did we end up there? It’s an interesting tale.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: We’ll visit the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy that was buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

FRIDAY’S Blog-a-Book POST: There’s some catching up on the education front. I’m allowed back in school and try to take over the first grade.

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Hiring the Family Pets to Scare Away the Ghosts…

Curt Mekemson and pets

The Graveyard was just across the alley from our house. As usual, I am occupied with some of the our family pets.

 

Each summer I slept in our back yard. I would move out as soon as school was over and stay until school started, or longer if parents and weather permitted. At first I slept on the ground in a cheap cotton sleeping bag. The ground was hard, the nights cool, and the mosquitoes persistent, but these were minor drawbacks. I was free. If I had to pee, I’d climb out of bed and find the nearest bush. If I woke up thirsty, a convenient garden hose provided water. I would go to sleep watching the stars and listening to a giant bullfrog croak away in the ditch in front of our house. I would wake to cool morning air and chirping robins.

Life was good. And then it got better. The grandparents bought me a real bed— a wood framed, steel spring army cot complete with mattress.

Graveyard ghost

The thing about graveyards is that dead people are buried there. This seemingly innocent tombstone was once hidden among the heavenly trees that turned the Graveyard into a jungle. Except it wasn’t totally hidden. I could see it from our backyard at night. It was, um, ghostly.

My paradise was marred by one thing, the Graveyard. It was always there on the edge of my sight.  White tombstones glared at me. As hard as I would pretend, the cemetery and its frightful inhabitants would not go away. So, I developed an elaborate set of defenses. The simplest was to sleep facing the opposite direction or to hide under the covers, ostrich like. A more sophisticated approach was to locate the bed where I couldn’t see the Graveyard.  Our seasoned cars worked in a pinch, but they weren’t large enough. Bits and pieces of the Graveyard would creep around their sides, peek over their tops and slink under their bottoms. A trellis built by my father was much better. Its luxurious growth of honeysuckle created the perfect Graveyard screen. I set up a permanent residence behind it.

House next to graveyard

These were more tombstones I could see from our house, whose roof can be seen in the back of the photo.

But even the trellis wasn’t enough to calm my imagination. I decided to hire protection. It came in the form of various family pets. Their job was to chase the ghosts away. Payment was made by allowing them to sleep on my bed. Apparently, the scheme worked. At least no ghosts attacked me during the years I slept outside.

The downside was I didn’t have much room. Two dogs, three cats, and me on a one-person army cot constituted a menagerie, or a zoo, if you counted the fleas. It was difficult to move. At first, I was very careful not to disturb my sleeping companions. I became a circus contortionist frozen in place with body parts pointed in every direction. If this meant a restless night, so be it. It was a small price to pay for keeping the ghosts at bay.

Gradually, my attitude changed. I grew larger, the bed space shrank, and animals started sleeping on top of me. Meanwhile, the ghosts, who tend to hassle little people more than they do big people, became less a threat. Therefore, I needed less protection. Neither of these factors led to the final banning of the animal kingdom, however. It was the shameless shenanigans of Demon and Pat.

Demon, the alpha family cat, was as black as the darkest night. As such, she was appropriately named and attired for graveyard duty. In fact, she spent a good deal of her life there stalking mice, lizards, birds and anything else she could get her claws into with impunity. Captured prey would then be brought home for approval. My job was to dispose of the half-eaten carcasses. Depopulating the Graveyard was not Demon’s claim to fame, however; motherhood was. She had kittens often and everywhere. I suspect that half of the cats living in El Dorado County today can trace their lineage back to her.

Two instances of kitten production bring back vivid memories. The first took place on the living room floor. Demon was a young cat at that time and a neophyte at motherhood. Her impending delivery was quite apparent from her large belly and ceaseless exploration of clothes hampers, cupboards and other dark places.

With high hopes of avoiding a misplaced litter of kittens, Mother arranged her bedroom closet as a maternity ward. Several times each day it was my duty to show Demon her new home. I would carefully pick up the very pregnant cat, carry her to the closet, and deposit her in a box filled with well-used clothes. Demon didn’t buy the program.  It seems my bedside manner was faulty. She would climb out of the box, give me a glare, and stalk out of the bedroom.

When the joyous day finally arrived, I was home alone.  Demon was practicing her would-be mother waddle walk across the living room when she suddenly stopped, squawked and squatted. Neither she nor I was ready for what followed. After all, how prepared can a young kid and a first-time mother be for birth? In a massive surprise to both of us, a tiny black bundle of fur emerged from Demon’s undercarriage. Surging emotions paralyzed my seven-year old mind. One thought stood out, the closet! If Demon hadn’t memorized her delivery lessons, I had.

I jumped across the room, grabbed Demon by the nape of the neck, and raced for Mother’s bedroom. As fast as I ran, it wasn’t fast enough. In the middle of the kitchen the new arrival completed its journey and was heading for a crash landing. Somewhere, somehow between Demon and the floor, I caught a warm, wet ball of fur in my free hand. After that, the memory fades. I know the three of us made it to the closet. Demon accepted her new home and four more kittens followed the first, although in a less dramatic way. The population explosion was underway.

We have to fast-forward several years to Demon’s next memorable delivery. This one was outside and led to the bed-pet-ban. But first I need to relay how Pat the Greyhound set the stage. She joined our family as a stray. For weeks, Mother had watched this large, starving dog wander the countryside and survive by catching rabbits and squirrels. One day she stopped the car, opened the door and invited Pat home for a meal.

Pat the Greyhound

Pat looking regal.

“Oh, it is just until she gains a little weight,” Mother explained to one very disgruntled Pop. Later it became, “Oh, but it would break Curt’s heart if we had to give her away.” Mother was a master at manipulation. Pat, who I named after the local Greyhound bus driver, had found a home. Like all of our pets, she lived outside. It was Pop’s rule; pets were limited to daytime visitation rights only. The pregnant Demon had been an exception imposed by Mother. Since there were no leash laws, Pat was free to come and go as she pleased. Mainly she chose to hang around with her food dish in sight. For a dog that had lived out in the wild, she had impeccable manners. Thus I was surprised when she joined Demon in abusing her bed rights, but that’s a tale for next Friday’s post…

MONDAY’S POST: It’s back to the central coast of Washington where global warming makes a point

WEDNESDAY’S POST: A photographic essay on Scotland

FRIDAY’S POST: The animal kingdom is banned from my bed

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First Grade Flunkee… Blogging the MisAdventures Book

 

After being kicked out of the first grade for a year, I was given a second chance. This is my class photo. I am fourth from the left in the top row with my hands in my pocket. Don’t I look sweet and innocent?

 

This begins a series of tales that may or may not make it into my book on MisAdventures. My goal is to post one tale on each Friday until the book is concluded. For the most part, these stories stand alone. They are in the early stages of editing. Several of these tales will have been included in earlier posts. I apologize in advance for the language, but I had an extensive vocabulary of swear words as a youth.

 

I can still hear the clanking treads and feel the bite of the blade as my D-8 dug into the side of the steep hill. Dirt and rocks tumbled over the edge, crashing into the canyon below. I was working alone, cutting a logging road across mountainous terrain. The hot September summer sun was beating down; my body was drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. And then it happened. A portion of the cliff gave away— and the bulldozer went tumbling off the edge.

“Oh, fuck!” I had yelled.

It was a wonderful word, one that I had learned from my seven-year old brother. I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it was deliciously bad and had an amazing effect on adults. At five years of age, I was too young to be operating a bulldozer by myself out in our backyard, even if it was only five-inches long and the road I was cutting was along the edge of our compost pit. But my mother wasn’t the hovering type; she drank a lot. Empty wine bottles had a way of mysteriously appearing under her bed and in the clothes’ hamper that hid out in the closet.

I wasn’t totally alone. Coaly, our black Cocker Spaniel, was assigned babysitting duty.  At “fuck!” she wagged her tail and barked into our compost pit where the toy had fallen.

“Go get the bulldozer, girl” I urged. She gave me a ‘go get it yourself’ look. She wasn’t the ideal little-boy companion. The gray hair around her nose and aching joints spoke to her advanced years.  She had little tolerance for my youthful pranks. Healing scars on my foot reflected how little. It was my job to feed the pets. I’d open a can of Bonnie dog food on both ends, push it out with one of the lids, and then use the lid to divide it up. The smell still lingers in my brain. Coaly got half, and each of our cats— the black Demon and the white MC— got a quarter.

That summer I had discovered that Coaly growled ferociously if I messed with her share. I fed the animals outside on paper towel plates.  I always went barefoot in the summer and it was easy to reach over with my big toe and slide their food away. I quickly learned to leave the cats with their lightning fast claws alone. But Coaly was all growls and no bite. At least she was until she sank her teeth into my foot. I ended up in the ER with a tetanus shot, stitches and zero sympathy. Coaly ended up gobbling her dinners in peace.

At the time of the bulldozer incident, I had been granted a reprieve from school, or, to put it bluntly, I had been kicked out of the first grade— for a year. My mother was not happy. She had been eager to get me out of the house. Make that desperate. The evidence is irrefutable. California had a rule then that five-year-olds could go to the first grade if they turned six on or before March 1 of the following year. There was no such thing as kindergarten, at least in Diamond Springs. Since my birthday was on March 3, I missed the deadline by two days. Darn. Mother’s reaction was more colorful. She made a command decision. Forty-eight hours were not going to stand in the way of her little boy’s education, or her freedom. So, she changed my birth certificate.  March 3 was erased and March 1 entered. I was bathed, dressed and shipped out, not the least bit aware that I had matured by two days. I think I recall hearing music and dancing as I left for school.

Things weren’t so rosy at school. The other kids were all older, bigger, and more coordinated. For example, one of the boys could draw a great horse. It came with four legs, a tail, a head and a flowing mane. Mine came with unrecognizable squiggles. It was hard to tell whether my objective was to draw a tarantula or a snake with legs, but the world’s wildest imagination on the world’s most potent drug wouldn’t have classified the picture as a horse. It was not refrigerator art. The whole exercise created big-time trauma.

This negative experience was compounded by the exercise of learning to print within lines. Forget that. If my letter came anywhere close to resembling a letter, any letter, I was happy. The teacher was more critical.

“Curtis, I asked you to make Bs, and here you are printing Zs.”

“So what’s your point?” was not an acceptable response. Mrs. Young was suspicious and that suspicion increased each day I was in school. She was a tough old coot who had been teaching first grade for decades. She knew first graders and I wasn’t one. As for the birth certificate, Mother’s forgery was in no danger of winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. I still have the original for proof. After a few weeks, Mrs. Young sent off to Oregon for a copy. I remember her calling me up to her desk on the day it arrived. (You don’t forget things like this, or at least I don’t.)

“Curtis” she explained, “you have a choice. You can either go home now or you can go home after lunch. But either way, you are going home and can’t come back until next year.”

Just like that I was a reject, a first grade flunkee.

Mrs. Young couldn’t have made it any clearer; Mother was going to get her little boomerang back. This was okay by me, if not by her. Playing out in the backyard was infinitely more fun than competing in ‘Scribble the Horse.’ I did decide to stay the day. Mrs. Young was reading about Goldilocks to us after lunch and I wanted to learn if the bears ate her.

It would have been interesting to listen in on the conversation that took place between Mother and Mrs. Young, or even more so between my mother and father, or Pop, as he was known to us. I’ve often wondered if he participated in the forgery or even knew about the March 1 rule. I doubt it. He was not the parent frantic to get me out of the house during the day.  (Had it been in the evening, the jury might still be out.) But I wasn’t privy to those high-level discussions. My job, which I took quite seriously, was to enjoy the reprieve. I was about to begin my wandering ways. Mother’s alcoholism was my freedom. The Graveyard was waiting.

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