Barking Backward

A Blog by Jameson Parker

The Span of Life

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

- Robert Frost

At the Movies, On a Desert Island

April 27th, 2015 39 Comments

Old TV set

 

Darleen and I stumbled backward, who knows how or why, into one of those “what-if?” games. If memory serves, we were talking about how certain movies bear up under repeated viewing, just as there are certain books one thinks of as old friends, that one can go back to again and again, always certain of the same good company, the same warm welcome, the same comfortable patterns of emotion and delight: The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Irish RM, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, all of W.W. Jacobs, much of P.G. Wodehouse, most of Dylan Thomas and much of Tennyson, practically anything by Dickens, everything by Shakespeare, all those books and poems and plays that act as comfort food for us when all other diversions pale and fail.

So one of us posited the question: if you were stranded on a desert island conveniently provided with a television and a DVD player and the electricity to run them, which ten movies would you take with you to help you through your isolation?

After radical culling, the kind of culling that shows off my iron will power, my cold and ruthless capacity for abnegation, my towering strength of character, my ability to endure any kind of hardship, I have compiled my short list. It is, in no particular order:

Dr. Zhivago

The English Patient

Bridge on the River Kwai

The Third Man

A Christmas Story

It’s a Wonderful Life

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The More the Merrier

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Unforgiven

To Kill a Mockingbird

Singing in the Rain

The Godfather, Parts I & II

Tom Jones

The Lion in Winter

Lawrence of Arabia

The Lady Eve

The Lavender Hill Mob

Mr. Roberts

Libeled Lady

I’m sorry. What did you say? That’s more than ten? Oh, for God’s sake. This isn’t a damned math class. People put far too much store in numbers and precision and all that nonsense. Life should be much more flexible than that.

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He’s Back…

April 20th, 2015 11 Comments

wildlife 001 (Small)

 

…and his disposition has not improved.

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An Easter Message

April 6th, 2015 15 Comments

Scott's oriole

 

I don’t think God spends a lot of time agonizing over me and my struggles with faith and doubt. I certainly hope He doesn’t, because He knows He has a lot more important things on His plate at the moment.

On the other hand, every now then one of those magic moments occurs that make you sit back in wonder. I’m not talking about the big, dramatic things: the dead who rise up like leavened bread or speak coherently even as the undertaker arrives to take the body; the beloved child rescued whole and sound after hours under icy water; the mysterious stranger who saves a life and vanishes; the signs, the visions, the inexplicable, all the glorious and incomprehensible magic of life that reaffirms life and faith and wonder.

I’m talking now about little things, those brief and delicious moments that make you catch your breath for an instant before breaking into joyous and delighted laughter, laughter because you’re alive in a world of breathtaking beauty where people and animals do marvelous and unexpected things that preclude any other reaction but delight.

I had been debating not going to the Easter service. If my fingers aren’t moving on the keyboard, I’m not earning a living, and we’ve been accumulating medical bills and veterinary bills at a staggering rate—literally staggering, as Sisyphus staggered with his load—and we just paid the income taxes and the real estate taxes, and the automobile registration is due on both cars and that’s not insignificant in California, and the state has added another “fire” tax for people in rural areas, even though there is no state fire agency in this county, and we’re among the people whose critical information at Blue Cross was hacked, and we had to hire an electrician to make some repairs at a cost I normally associate with brain surgery, and I had two deadlines to meet, and could I really afford two hours away from my desk, and… All the “ands” we all face.

But in the end, I decided to celebrate the holiest day in the Christian year, if only for a few hours in the morning.

The liturgical colors of the Roman Catholic Church do not include yellow. (I’m being specific here because the liturgical colors of both the Byzantine and Russian Orthodox Churches do include yellow or gold.) But one of the colors most popularly associated with Easter is yellow; think of all those nauseating candies and plastic eggs and cardboard silhouettes of bunnies. Yellow symbolizes both the presence of God and the sun’s renewal of life and growth and fecundity, the ongoing processes of our world, spiritual and temporal. In our little church up here in the mountains Father Michael’s vestments at the Easter service were trimmed in yellow, and the transept—our modest and abbreviated transept, barely deserving of the name—and the chancel and the sanctuary were all decorated with daffodils and jonquils. Among the worshippers yellow and pink were the most evident festive colors visible, a testament to the faith of our little congregation, because the thermometer plummeted on Easter day, and most of us opted for heavy winter clothing; Darleen and I both wore pink, but it was buried under layers of green and black wool.

But rightly or wrongly, like much of the wide world in general, I associate yellow with Easter, and as I was just about to get into the car to drive to town for our Easter morning service, I saw a flash of the most brilliant yellow, a lemon flashing through the oak trees behind the house.

It was an oriole, a Scott’s oriole, to be precise, and what makes it so especially delightful is that we don’t often get them up here. The Bullock’s oriole—a Western variation of the northern oriole that used to be called, and still is by me, a Baltimore oriole—is a common resident in the spring and summer months, but the Scott’s oriole is more of a desert bird, more often found in Joshua trees and yuccas and piñons at lower elevations than in oak trees at four thousand feet. They’re not complete strangers up here—I have seen them before—but usually not quite this early, and certainly not with the temperature in the uncomfortably cold bracket, the barometer plunging, and the threat of snow in the forecast.

Yet there he was, boldly brilliant and beautiful and commanding my attention completely as he rested on a branch above my head. And after that first intake of breath at his beauty, I began to smile and then to laugh.

It may have been nothing more than a bird in a tree, but then, perhaps God communicates with us all in the ways we can best understand. I took the whole day off.

 

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Honor and Distinction

March 31st, 2015 13 Comments

Dorsey, Leo H.

 

The New York Times and I are not on good terms. For their part, they have no idea I exist. For my part, ever since I canceled my subscription after I caught them, about twenty-five years ago, either deliberately lying or engaging in willful ignorance about a second amendment issue, I have paid little attention to anything they write.

So I only recently twigged to the fact that their editorial board has called for Bowe Bergdahl not to be charged and tried for desertion and misconduct. Here is the salient paragraph from their editorial:

“But trying him for desertion and misbehaving before the enemy — for allegedly engaging in misconduct that endangered his unit — stands to accomplish little at this point. A conviction would most likely deprive a traumatized veteran of benefits, including medical care, which he will probably need for years. A dishonorable discharge would make it harder to rebuild his life as a civilian.”

As it happens, I learned about this editorial just as I was starting to write an article about Chris Dorsey.

Chris is the co-founder, president, and CEO of Orion Entertainment, an independent, Denver, Colorado-based entertainment company that produces a wide variety of programming for various cable television channels. They produce everything from hunting to home improvement to reality shows, and they have enjoyed unprecedented success.

I’ve known Chris for about a quarter of a century, and I remembered him once telling me that his father had been a survivor of the Bataan Death March, and that he, Chris, used to be woken in the night by his father’s screams. In the course of doing my research for the article, I came across the following information from a variety of sources (the words that follow are mine, but the facts are accurate):

Leo H. Dorsey (above) grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin. In 1939 he enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Divisional Tank Company, and in 1940 he was called up to regular duty when his tank company was made part of the regular army under the name of Company A, 192 Tank Battalion, subsequently known as the Janesville 99. The 192nd Tank Battalion was sent to the Philippines, arriving at Clark Field on Thanksgiving Day, 1941.

On December 8th 1941 Clark Field was attacked by the Japanese. The Army Air Corps was completely destroyed, and the assault was followed up by an amphibious attack. Corporal Leo H. Dorsey and the 192nd Tank Battalion retreated onto the Bataan peninsula and spent the next three months, without food or supplies, trying desperately to slow the invasion of the Philippines by a vastly superior and better equipped Japanese Army.

They fought the Japanese, they fought disease, they fought starvation, and when they were finally compelled to surrender, they were treated to a little overland excursion to Camp O’Donnell that has gone down in history as “The Bataan Death March.” To this day, no one knows precisely how many men died on that march.

Bataan Death March

 

At Camp O’Donnell, Corporal Leo Dorsey became so ill through disease and malnutrition that his weight dropped to ninety pounds. His life was saved by Lieutenant Leroy Scoville and an unidentified member of A Company who would surreptitiously hold Cpl. Dorsey up and help him to walk so that the Japanese would be fooled into thinking he was healthy enough to work. Like so many others, Lt. Leroy Scoville did not survive the war.

From Camp O’Donnell, Cpl. Leo Dorsey was sent to first one prison camp and then another before being shipped to Japan on one of the aptly named “Hell Ships,” where men were packed in so tightly they could not even sit down. Suffering from a wide range of diseases, including dysentery, the men were compelled to defecate on themselves and their fellow soldiers. Many did not survive the trip.

In Japan, the soldiers were forced into slave labor for various Japanese industries, loading and unloading ships, and building a dry-dock. Things came to a head when the POWs refused to handle munitions and other military supplies; they simply refused to touch any of the war materials for the Japanese. They were beaten severely and repeatedly, but they endured and eventually the Japanese gave up and assigned them to other tasks.

Then the American POWs began a lengthy program of sabotage, slowing their work down to the barest possible minimum. They were beaten, but they endured and they persevered.

They deliberately mixed the concrete too thin, so that the walls of the dry-dock collapsed. They were beaten. They endured.

After four years of captivity, slave labor, torture, abuse, starvation, degradation, Cpl. Leo Dorsey and the other American POWs were finally liberated. Only one third of the Janesville 99 lived to return home, and they returned bearing the scars, physical and psychological, they would take to their graves, but they went to work, they raised families, they lived their lives as they had served their country, with honor and dignity and courage.

Cpl. Leo Dorsey may have woken his children in the night with his screams, but he raised nine fine young men and women; I was at Chris’s wedding, so I can attest that they are fine young men and women.

And now the New York Times feels it would be unnecessarily hard on Bowe Bergdahl to face charges, and that it would “make it harder on him to rebuild his life as a civilian.”

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Comprehending the Incomprehensible

March 28th, 2015 6 Comments

Dante's Inferno Charon

 

Every newspaper and television news station is trying to make sense of the deliberate crashing of the Germanwings flight in the French Alps. Over and over I hear people ask why and how, interview pundits about depression, about mental illness, the legal responsibility of mental health providers, the possibility of predicting the actions of those being treated for this or that. Other pundits are interviewed about what Lufthansa (owner of Germanwings) could have, should have done to anticipate this, to prevent that: doors that can be broken down if you have the secret decoder ring; smart locks that don’t exist that could be opened only by special devices that also don’t exist. Lawyers are interviewed about what new laws and rules and regulations can be passed to prevent such a horror from ever happening again.

As if such a thing could be anticipated or legislated out of the realm of possibility.

I see the same reactions over and over again every time some narcissistic lunatic shoots a bunch of people, only then blame is always assigned to the firearm, which makes about as much sense as assigning blame to the airplane in this tragedy.

No one can do anything to prevent such horrors, nor can we understand them. The closest we can come to comprehending evil like that can be found in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In the eighth canto of the first canticle (Inferno) Dante and Virgil are in the fifth circle of hell, which is devoted to anger. They approach the capital of hell where the rebellious angels refuse to open the gates to them. The poet John Ciardi, in his introduction to the eighth canto, describes the rebellious angels as “creatures of ultimate evil,” and goes on to say, “Even Virgil is powerless against them, for human reason by itself cannot cope with the essence of evil. Only Divine aid can bring hope.”

I believe that’s as close as we will ever come to understanding such tragedies.

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An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

March 27th, 2015 11 Comments

 

Hillary Clinton

 

March 27, 2015

Dear Ms. Clinton,

I was intrigued to read about the list of words your volunteers consider to be “coded sexism.” The words, as I’m sure you know, are “calculating,” “polarizing,” “disingenuous,” “insincere,” “ambitious,” “inevitable,” “entitled,” “over confident,” “secretive,” “will do anything to win,” “represents the past,” and “out of touch.”

Leaving aside that some of these are actually phrases, not words (though perhaps such nit-picking represents the past, something from our long-ago college days, back when proper English usage was still considered important; today, of course, what difference, at this point, does it make?) I find it both calculating and insincere of you and your volunteers to assume such words or phrases should inevitably apply exclusively to you. It is perhaps out of touch with reality to assume such common words and phrases cannot equally be used to describe other ambitious and polarizing candidates. After all, is it not inevitable that all over-confident politicians who feel entitled to the presidency and who will do anything to win, will be described the same way, with the same words? Even if you secretly believe you are the inevitable next choice for president, it is disingenuous of you to presume these words are not part of the lingua franca applicable to everyone on Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue. Surely you are not so desperately willing to do anything to win as to pretend you have forgotten the calculated and polarizing effect of insincerely playing the “woman-as-victim” card. On the other hand, perhaps you have forgotten, because—not to indulge in too much coded sexism—in women, according to doctors, memory loss and foggy thinking are associated with post-menopausal hormonal imbalance and that can manifest itself in a variety of ways: forgetting where you parked the car; difficulty remembering to do routine tasks such as turning over all your emails as required by law; forgetting to sign the required documents upon leaving office; or forgetting that your foundation is not allowed to solicit money from foreign governments while you hold public office; all those silly little details.

On a lighter and more personal note, I do hope you are not feeling too enervated by your campaign. I’m actually slightly younger than you, even though we are both sexagenarians (closing in on becoming septuagenarians!) and I know I too would be a decrepit, geriatric wreck if I were unscrupulous enough to run for public office. After all, Hillary, we’re both senior citizens, hoary and wrinkled with our many years, and who can say whether or not we might both become incapacitated? And while we’re not quite in wheelchairs, yet, we are both grandparents, fighting off stroke and Alzheimer’s and the grave as best we can. Almost like dodging bullets at the airport in Bosnia back in the old days! I don’t know about you, but sometimes I look back at the long ago time when I was in my prime and I feel like such a doddery, enfeebled relic of an irrelevant era. It must be hard for you, in the dilapidated condition of our advancing years, to try and appear relevant once more. I admire your feisty spunk, little lady.

Sincerely,

Jameson Parker

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Politics Is Applesauce

March 18th, 2015 15 Comments

Hillary Clinton

 

“It’s a good thing we don’t get all the government we pay for.”

Will Rogers (1879-1935)

 

Have you been following the Hillary Clinton email (pick one) debacle, scandal, disgrace, tempest-in-a-tea-pot, much-ado-about-nothing?

How you choose to describe it has much to do with your political leanings and how you feel about the Clintons personally, but there is another aspect to the whole affair that makes it a paradigm of government in general, or perhaps makes the Clintons a sort of synecdoche for all elected officials.

In case you’ve been watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, or just not following the news at all in any form, the issue has to do with the legality of conducting government business on personal electronic devices (that phrase is intended to include cell phones, smart phones, any and all kinds of computers, servers, anything and everything that might be used to convey information from—in this case—the Secretary of State and her office to any other entity, public or private, domestic or foreign) and also with the legality of turning over—or not turning over—all such communications to the federal government as required by law.

The story was originally broken by the New York Times, and since then far better and better trained minds than mine have debated this daily. Was it legal or illegal? Did she or did she not turn over the emails? Did she or did she not sign the document she was required to sign that certifies under penalty of perjury that she had turned over the documents? Is it more illegal if she did turn over the emails but did not sign the document, or is it worse not to have turned the emails over and to have signed the document? Is it more illegal to have conducted the people’s business on a private computer than to have conducted personal business on the people’s server (well, it may have been her server, but who paid for it)? What if she did neither? Or both? Or something else entirely? Knit one, purl two. The permutations are endless and—knowing the Clintons’ history—will probably never be fully disclosed.

It is distressing to think we will never learn the full truth about the Benghazi debacle and various other issues that occurred under Hillary Clinton’s watch at the Department of State (notably, as reported by Sharyl Attkisson, the six billion dollars that were unaccountably “lost” at the Department of State during her tenure, a loss that begs the question of how well we might expect a President Clinton to take care of the American people’s money), but none of it is as distressing as Hillary Clinton’s attitude about all this.

Let’s be very clear: in this case I am indeed using Hillary Clinton as a sort of synecdoche to represent every single one of our elected officials, so when I say her name, think of any congressman or senator you wish. Or all of them.

I watched the news conference where Mrs. Clinton answered questions about the missing emails, the private server, the documents signed or unsigned, as the case may be, and what struck me most—as a former actor used to picking up on the unspoken message behind the words, the facial expressions, the body language, the tone of voice, the whole package by which the body conveys what the mind is really thinking, regardless of what the mouth is saying—was her clear annoyance at being questioned.

Let’s make sure we understand this: here is a lady who is running (yes, she is running) for the highest office in the land, for the most powerful position in the world, for the responsibility of guiding America and the rest of the world through a period of unprecedented dangers, and she’s annoyed because the press sees fit to question her actions?

The truth is that all elected officials, by definition, have enormous egos: you don’t run for public office unless you are convinced your ideas and opinions are better than anyone else’s, that you can do a better job than anyone else, that you are better suited for the task at hand, more intelligent, more competent, than anyone else. And if you get elected (or appointed, as in the case of Secretary of State) that success confirms you in your own high opinion of yourself.

Once you are elected you are surrounded either by people who also believe in you and hence reinforce your positions and actions at every turn, or by people who are simply unscrupulously venal and will turn themselves into yes-men for their own enrichment, but in either case, you are not likely to encounter a lot of people who disagree with you or even question you. Except (when it suits their own purposes and political leanings) the fourth estate, the press, the putative conscience of our society. Some politicians are smart enough to be able to deal with uncomfortable questions without losing their temper or their cool, but Hillary does not appear to be one of those, and that is a direct result of her own sense of entitlement. She believes she deserves to be the leader of the free world, that she is better than, smarter than, more competent than, more—damn it all—deserving than you or I or any of the insignificant little people out there on whose lives she will have such an impact.

Do you doubt it? Here is a true story:

Back when my bride and I first moved up into the southern Sierras, I was filming a hunting show and had to travel constantly. Bad weather had delayed my various flights, and I made it back into Los Angeles airport for my final plane change at the last possible moment to catch the last flight of the night, a flight that would take me to Bakersfield, about an hour and a half drive from my home.

When I boarded the plane, I was the sole passenger, but instead of taking off, there was a delay, followed by the stewardess coming back and telling me they were holding the flight for The Honorable—————, then US Representative for California’s twenty-third district, the district that back in those days, before redistricting, encompassed a weird strip of this part of the state, but that included Bakersfield.

Okay. I sat and waited and in due course twelve men, clearly much stimulated by artificial means of the liquid variety, boarded the little plane with a lot of loud and boisterous jocundity.

That’s fine; I’ve been known to over train for the main event myself. But what shocked me into full alertness was the nature of their comments. The mercy of oblivion has set in over the years, and I have deleted most of it from the memory bank, but the general tone was one of contempt and disdain for the constituents they were on their way to visit, for the stupidity and ignorance of the people who had elected this man to office. The one comment I have not been able to delete was spoken by the Great Man himself, and it brought howls of laughter from his staff. He said: “I had to spend three weeks in Bakersfield one night.”

Don’t ever forget, America, that’s a pretty accurate reflection of what your elected officials think of you.

 

“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”

Will Rogers (1879-1935)

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Backyard Visitors

March 17th, 2015 10 Comments

Bobcat 003 (Small)

Bobcats are fairly regular visitors to our backyard, but we recently had two different individuals, about a week apart, very close, who were gracious enough to allow me to take some photographs of them. The fence is an old sheepherder’s fence, but you can see the top of a white T-post in the foreground that marks my property.

Bobcat 008 (Small)

This pretty grey is a female.

 

Bobcat 012 (Small)

This sandy-colored boy (yes, most definitely a male) was so close to the house that in my delight at getting a photograph, I forgot to zoom in. You can see the top of my chain-link dog fence in the foreground.

Bobcat 018 (Small)

I was tempted to ask for an autograph, but he didn’t seem to be in the mood.

Bobcat 023 (Small)

Since I have rabbits and ground squirrels galore on the hill behind the house, I don’t like to discourage the bobcats. They are capable, very capable, of killing a corgi (I was once called in by the local police department to identify the killer of cattle dog-cross about fifty percent bigger than a corgi, and the killer was most definitively a bobcat), but we never leave our dogs outside unattended, so I prefer to give the cats a chance to hunt. It does both of us a lot of good, though I suspect the rabbits and the ground squirrels may feel somewhat differently about the arrangement.

Bobcat 026 (Small)

I invited him to stay and try his luck, but he didn’t seem to have a terribly high opinion of me, Darleen, or the human race in general. I’m not sure I blame him.

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Accidental Bear Hunting

March 11th, 2015 5 Comments

black bear

A reader asked me to tell about being attacked by a bear. I’m in the throes of a fairly intricate magazine article at the moment, so I really haven’t time to do the story justice, but in meantime, what follows is an article about my bear-hunting misadventures, originally published in Texas Sporting Journal.

 

When I was sixteen I was attacked by a bear during a camping trip in the George Washington National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was, as you might imagine, a memorable event, and it left me with a low opinion of park rangers, a high opinion of professional hunters, and a very high opinion of the dogs who twice saved me from serious damage. It also left me with a desire to hunt bear – not for revenge, but because it was, for a sixteen year-old boy, the pinnacle of adventure, and what is hunting if not a longing for adventure?

Unfortunately, circumstances intervened, and it was many years before I was able to hunt bear. When I did, it became an exercise in low comedy, a kind of vaudevillian slapstick routine where I was the butt of the joke.

My first bear hunt was in central New Hampshire. Days of following hounds over every damned mountain in that part of the state resulted finally in the successful treeing of a pine martin. But only a week or so after I returned home to California, the dogs awakened my wife and me in the middle of the night, roaring defiance at something in the back yard of our home in the southern Sierras. I went out onto the deck and could just barely make out two small forms scampering around among my apple trees. It was very dark, I was groggy with sleep, and I didn’t have my glasses on, so for some reason I got it into my head that they were elk calves, and I started down the steps to open the gate and drive them out. As I neared the bottom of the steps I heard a very distinctive “woof” from just outside the fence, and realized the two small shapes were bear cubs, cubs protected by a mother who might resent her offspring being chased around by a middle-aged man in striped pajamas. Bed seemed like a really good place to be just then, and I returned there promptly.

My next bear hunt was over bait in Canada. I spent days motionless in a tree – motionless largely because I was frozen solid – and never saw anything larger than a Labrador. But just a few weeks later, on a job in British Columbia, I found myself with some free time out in the country only a few miles north of Vancouver. I went for a walk down an abandoned railroad track, and had only gone about a mile when I came across a massive growth of wild blackberries. I was eating my way happily through the tangles when a bear stood up suddenly about twenty feet away. I know all the good advice about standing your ground and speaking authoritatively in a deep voice, but it slipped my mind just then, and I can tell you for a fact there is no truth to the old wives tale that a middle-aged man with bad knees can’t outrun a bear. In retrospect, I think I scared the bear almost as much as he did me, but I didn’t linger to find out.

Then I tried hunting bear in California. My hunting partner and I had gotten permission to deer hunt on a 60,000 acre ranch in our neck of the woods, and we saw so many bear, and so much sign, that we decided to take advantage of the situation. We bought bear tags, and chortled with glee over how easy this was going to be. We almost felt sorry for those bears. But apparently the California Department of Fish and Game notified the bear population because they promptly vanished. We never saw a single one from the moment we bought our tags until the season closed.

Two days after it closed my wife and I were having lunch in our home in the mountains. We had decided to sell our house and move to flatter land down in the valley to accommodate our growing horse population. Horses are like potato chips. You tell yourself you have the will-power and strength of character to stop at just one or two. The next thing you know, the bag is empty and you’re wondering what happened to the bottle of Tums and to your savings account.

I headed out to do some fixing and tidying around the house. I was in the mudroom, with my hand on the door to the garage, when one of our dogs insisted on being petted. As I straightened up I looked out the window in time to see a bear amble out of our garage. If I had walked in on him, it might have been embarrassing for both of us. He went up the front path, past the ‘For Sale’ sign, and up on to the deck. He walked slowly along the deck examining the house closely. I almost expected to see a real estate agent with him. At the far end of the deck he paused and then proceeded to prove that what a bear does in the woods he can also – and may – do elsewhere.

It just took the heart right out of me. I gave up bear hunting after that. Oh, I still bought a tag every year along with my deer tag, but it was more out of force of habit than out of any real sense of hope or expectation. I didn’t scout or make plans or contact an outfitter.

Then fate intervened, proving that Mother Nature has a very sick sense of humor.

My hunting partner’s son, who had tagged along with his father and me on many a deer hunt, finally reached legal hunting age, and in an effort to ensure his first hunt was a success, my partner asked me and another friend to help out.

We went to the 60,000 acre ranch and drove slowly up one of the many dirt roads that wind through it. The mountains in the southern Sierras are very steep and tend to grassland dotted with oak and pine on the south slopes, and impenetrable brush on the north slopes, and glassing across the canyons is the most effective way of finding deer.

There are six subspecies of mule deer in California, but with the exception of the blacktail and the Rocky Mountain mule deer the other four species are pretty hard to differentiate except by location. In the southern Sierras and Tehachapi mountains the subspecies is the California mule deer. It is not a species noted for the size of its rack, the most common configuration being two branches on either side which usually terminate in crab claws.

That was exactly what we spotted, with about an 18 to 20 inch spread, browsing slowly uphill on the far side of the canyon. Because of the prevailing westerly winds we had to backtrack as we worked our way down the canyon wall, dropping some eight hundred feet in elevation to a seasonal stream bed.

Predictably, the buck had vanished by the time we got to where we thought he should or might have been, but because he was down there somewhere the other gentleman and the boy decided to hunt their way along the canyon while my partner and I hiked back up the mountain to get our truck. Because of the elevation and the grade we were walking in silence, and when we rounded the last curve in the road, there was the truck, about twenty yards away, and near it, on the passenger side, stood two bears.

On average, East Coast black bears are larger than West Coast bears, with specimens in the east sometimes reaching 800 pounds or even more. Neither of these was in that range. The small one was probably only an honest 250 pounds, but the other…. The other looked like something out of Jurassic Park. The little one took off instantly. The big one just turned his head and stared at us. It was a stare in which warmth, human kindness, and Christian charity were noticeably absent. In their stead were contempt, annoyance, and an inclination to mayhem.

In the Secret Life of Jameson Parker, I deal with this sort of emergency all the time. I disarm gangs of sadistic Hell’s Angels. I coolly face down bloodthirsty Mexican drug cartels. And when faced with large carnivores saying unpleasant things about my mother, I quickly and calmly slip my rifle off my shoulder, jack a round into the chamber, dispatch the ferocious beast, and comfort the terrified girl at my side.

In real life, there was no girl at my side and I stood there with my mouth open and my rifle on my shoulder.

My hunting partner, who had no rifle, reacted first.

“Hey! Go on! Get out of here!”

The bear growled softly, like an enormous Rottweiler.

My partner, with tremendous courage, stepped quickly to the driver’s side of the truck, reached in the window, and honked the horn.

“Go on! Beat it!”

The bear growled again, and then he did something I didn’t know bears would do. He curled his lip, like an enormous rabid Rottweiler, and it was clear something was about to happen. Something I would prefer did not happen. Something unpleasant.

My partner glanced at me. “Did you get a bear tag this year?”

I finally snapped out of my trance.

I was carrying a 7mm Rem. Mag on a Mauser action, and the first coherent thought I had as I quickly, if not calmly, slipped the rifle off my shoulder and jacked a round into the chamber, was to wish I were carrying something a little bigger. I am a big fan of the 7mm magnum cartridge. It has good sectional density (which translates into bullet weight relative to diameter, and affects the bullet’s penetration) as well as a high ballistic coefficient and good aerodynamics, and with the right bullet you can take practically anything in North America. In my opinion it performs better at long distance relative to recoil than any other caliber. But at 20 yards, all those advantages were completely meaningless, and I would have preferred to have a .375 or .458, or possibly a bazooka. That bear was about to do something and there was no margin for error.

I held just behind the shoulder. The bear exploded forward at the shot, vanishing into a ravine, and I jacked another round into the chamber. My partner and I looked at each other. Then we went to the edge of the ravine and peered cautiously over. The bear was lying at the bottom, next to a dead cow he had been eating. For safety’s sake I put another round into him, but it wasn’t necessary.

It took all four of us over an hour to haul him up roughly 50 feet to the truck, and it took all four of us to get him in the bed of the truck. The local taxidermist had a scale that went up to 400 pounds and the bear maxed it out, so he was somewhere over that. For record-keeping purposes, however, it is the skull measurement (length and width) that counts, and after the drying out period he came in just a fraction under the Boone & Crockett minimum, but my taxidermist told me later it was the second largest bear taken in California that year.

Now I want to get a really giant mule deer, so I’m going to give up deer hunting.

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Conserving Water in California

March 7th, 2015 18 Comments

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Of all the unpleasant sensations a man may experience in this vale of tears, one at the top of the list is doing something, all by yourself somewhere, and suddenly knowing with absolute certainty that you are not alone. And at no time, in no place, is this sensation more unpleasant than when you’re using the bathroom.

If you live in America, you are well aware that California is the throes of a severe drought. In the interests of doing my bit to conserve water, I usually step outside to pee. Darleen and I live in a relatively isolated rural area. My closest neighbors, one to the north, one to the south, are each about a quarter of a mile away, and in each case their homes are hidden by the folds of the hill behind my house. When I step outside near my propane tank, I know I have absolute privacy.

So it was a singularly unpleasant experience to be standing outside, doing my little bit for water conservation, to suddenly have that instinctive primal sensation that I was not alone. My immediate reaction was to look down the driveway. It’s at least a third of a mile, perhaps more, in a straight line to my front gate, and nowhere, along any part of that winding drive, was there any sign of life. From my front gate to the hardtop is another half mile or more, and there was no one there either. There was no one in the pasture to the south, and no one in the pasture to the north.

Then I looked up the hill.

It’s a remarkably steep hill, a sort of open savannah stood on end, grassland dotted with oaks and studded with random boulders, with good visibility in most places for over a hundred yards. And there, about fifty yards away, gazing impassively down at me, was a bear. A very large black bear.

For those of you who live in cities and have only seen bears in zoos, ambling lazily along behind protective fencing and entrapping moats, fifty yards may seem like a nice, safe, comfortable distance; you might even think that is too great distance at which to observe a bear.

For those of us who have experienced a bear’s tender mercies, up close and personal, in the wild, unconfined by fence or moat or fear of man or dog, fifty yards is a clear violation of what psychiatrists call “my personal space.” And for those of us who have painful firsthand knowledge of just how fast a bear can move (faster than a Quarter horse for over a quarter of mile), fifty yards is much too goddamned close.

And there I was, anchored, as it were, by the business at hand, and with the wrong gun in said hand, and too small a caliber at that. Or, as Dan Bronson unkindly said later when I told him what had happened, “That’s not when you want to be holding a squirt gun.”

I think I’ll find other ways to conserve water.

 

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