Stock, stocks, and stalks

Glen McBride (Some names in this post have been changed to protect the insolent.) was a stockman in my home town. Normally stockman was a respectable trade but not the way Glen did it. He drove to Salt Lake City every day to trade on the stock market. To us that was just short of gambling, and made him more of a city slicker than a cow puncher. Maybe to show his small town roots he also dealt in the kind of stock we were used to. That is to say, cattle. But his efforts were not very convincing. I never saw him in cowboy boots and/or hat. He didn’t hang out at Sterl Taylors barber shop and join in the debates (arguments) that Herfords were just as good a beef steak as Black Angus and a whole lot cheaper. His herd consisted of one cow, and his grazing ranch was anywhere he could drive a stake in the ground to anchor the chain his cow was hooked to, and pick up a day’s free grazing off grass that grew by the roadside. Theoretically he would move his stock every day when he got home from chasing his other stocks in the Salt Lake market, but often it was too late or he didn’t remember to do it.

The code of the west as we had it preached to us growing up was, “The animals eat first, then the humans.” A corollary was, “First you feed the beef cow, then he feeds you.”

The most authenticity Glen achieved as a stockman was that his cow enacted the words of The Sons of the Pioneers cowboy song group’s mega hit “Cool Water.” It begins, “All day I faced the barren waste without the taste of water, cool water.”

I don’t know if Glen ever watered his one-cow herd. On hot summer days Mom would sometimes make my brother Gordon and me carry a bucket of water to the poor parched beast. She would down it in one long slurp.

But burning sun and stock and stocks were the last things on my brother Gordon’s and my mind that night as we stood staring at the black depths of the tree lined street and sidewalk in front of us. The lonely pale yellow eyeball hanging under a corrugated metal hat on a power pole; that was our last island of vision. Beyond its feeble circle of light the black tunnel of trees rustled and whispered threats if we entered into them. But enter we must. It was the only way home. Gordon and I were shivering from fright not cold as we were sucked into the black tunnel. Above us a breeze stirred the whispering leaves. Branches scraped against each other like a saw blade searching for something to cut.

Most fearsome of all, the enemy hovering over us was plant based vegetable matter. By this time in our lives we had long lost our naïve love and admiration of the green world. The sweet poems and pretty songs about the beauties of Mother Nature’s children had been drowned out by the harsh realities of face to face encounters: weeds that stick in your socks, thorns that flatten your bike tires, poison ivy and stinging nettle. Hours pulling, and hacking weeds on our uncles’ farms had showed us the dark side of the vegetation world. Plants could be maddeningly malicious. They could tangle your feet or your hoe, spring back to life right behind you as you weeded the long endless sugar beet row. The wild wicked weeds always beat up on the puny vegetables that were planted on purpose. I didn’t know then that the plant world was under the curse of Adam’s transgression, but I well knew they were under a lot of other curses because I put them on them.

But Gordon and I didn’t realize the depths of depravity plants could sink to until that night. We had just come from a movie our mother counseled us to stay away from.

“It will scare you to death,” she warned us. We didn’t listen.

The movie showed the crash of a flying saucer in the frozen north. It came from a planet far away where the plants had become the masters, and animals were first on their food chain.

The monster who survived the crash and set out to feed itself on human blood was named, as was the movie, “The Thing.” It sucked the blood dry from the Alaskan huskies in a camp of scientists, then from two of the scientists themselves. It propagated at an alarming rate until the scientists found a way to kill the monster and its offspring. Or did they? The trees around us, the bushes tame and wild, even the grass seemed to claw toward us to launch payback time. The eaters and the eaten would now change roles. Plants would hunt animals, eat flesh and drink blood.

We survived the black tunnel of trees, but not intact. Our hearts beat faster. Our breath came in gulps. Our warning systems were pumping adrenalin. We were keyed up for fight or more likely flight. Fortunately so because as we passed a low concrete wall in front of Erlandson’s big house rustling bushes in the garden and landscaping lunged at us. We heard them coming and quickened our pace for home.

Suddenly with a bellow “The Thing” itself attacked us. In the blackness we could only hear its steps and smell its rank breath. It snapped closed a chain trap throwing us down on the road. We fought our way free and ran for our lives.

We burst in through the front door to the safety and light of our home. Spilled out the story of our escape and showed the chain and road burns that proved we were not making the story up.

Any moment the blood sucking “Thing” could burst through the door as it did in the movie and suck the life’s blood from our veins and arteries.

Mom was ignorantly calm about the whole crisis.

“Ït was running?” she asked.

“Yes and fast.”

“Toward you or away from you?”

“Mom it doesn’t matter. It yanked a chain across the street that knocked us to the ground tried to tangle us up to suck our blood. It was ferocious, murderous!”

“And thirsty?” she asked.

“Yes, thirsty.”

“For blood, or for water?”

In the distance we could hear the howl or moo of some “Thing” or other.

Ok, it did sound a little like a cow. But I’m warning you. Beware. Since that night I often look at a tree in the darkness or even a Brussel sprout on my plate and wonder, “Did the scientists in the frozen north really kill them all?”

Our Towns

Thornton Wilder became famous for writing, among other things, a play about common folks in a small town. He named his play, “Our Town.” If we all had his talent we could find the same charm, drama, and oddities in our own towns large or small. In my town of Payson Utah and surrounding cities and villages the oddball history tidbits would include; drunken cows, vegetable headed people, the voice of God, and monsters from space chasing screaming boys in the night.

Sugar beets were a big cash crop in the old days, but not profitable enough to build a sugar factory for every little town. So the sugar company built a big processing plant on the outskirts of Spanish Fork about five miles northeast of my town. They then buried pipes leading to juicing centers in the surrounding towns. They pumped the sugar water to the plant to be made into sweet white granules. This worked well until one of the lines sprung a leak. It happened to be under a cow corral. The sugar water leaked to the surface, and fermented in the warm sun.

The cows loved it. But one day the farmer came out and found his dairy herd smiling and staggering. Some stories say they were leaning against the pole fence singing “Sweet Adeline” in barbershop harmony, but that may be an exaggeration. The Carnation Company used to have printed on their labels, “Milk from contented cows.” I’m thinking that’s not what they had in mind.

The first settlers to the town five miles south of us were grateful to a Native American who warned them about an impending attack from others on the warpath. The settlers prepared themselves in time for the battle. The hostile elements seeing the armed farmers decided against fighting, and peace was restored. The settlers wanted to honor their benefactor by naming the town after him, but they couldn’t quite bring themselves to it. The friendly Indian’s name was Squash Head. They did the next best thing and named the town after his brother Santaquin.

It was an outlying village in my day, one where people might have paraphrased the Bible and asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth (Santaquin)? How about a voice commanding enough to represent the Almighty himself?

The great Cecil B. DeMille was directing the crown jewel of his career. To use Hollywood vernacular, a spectacular, colossal, astounding, epic motion picture extravaganza The Ten Commandments. The pinnacle point is Moses on Mount Sinai. Next time you see the movie, listen to the rumbling, thundering voice emanating from heaven as the commandments are etched by fire into the stone tablets in front of Moses. You are hearing the voice of Delos Jewkes from Santaquin Utah. Delos made his way to Hollywood, and made a comfortable career there with his fine bass voice. Among other things, he would hire out to notable singers giving recitals. Delos would wait in the wings, and when the singer came to a note lower than his register, he would lip sinc, and Delos would hit the note from backstage. He didn’t get to share the applause, but he got part of the payout.

Every little town likes to be known as “Home of the World’s Greatest…” something or other. I’m suggesting early Payson settlers missed an opportunity to be known as “Home of the World’s Driest Reservoir.” It wasn’t planned that way. It just worked out, or rather leaked out that way. They dug a hole high enough in the foothills above the city that they could water the fields and town. They may have even planned on a future pressure system. Citizens cheered as they filled the reservoir. Next morning not so much cheering. The bottom of the project was a sand and gravel sieve that sucked the little lake dry. No water, but I’m guessing some pressure on the city fathers who forgot to check out that little detail.

And the monsters chasing children? Stay tuned for the next exciting drama.

Live Long* in the funeral business

One third of the title of my book of memoirs is “Live Long*.” It’s not “Live Long.” It’s “Live Long*.” The asterisk is important. As I mention in the book, for you of the younger digitized generation, the asterisk is the ancestor of the hyperlink. It takes you somewhere else. The “else” in this case is this explanation:

*Not long in years necessarily, but long in perspective.

My experience has been that the longer I look ahead to where my present actions will take me, the better my decisions and follow through tend to be. Also, I’m always looking for examples of where this process has been successful. If you have some from your own life or others you know about, I would appreciate your sharing them with me.

One of the better examples I’ve seen, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was from my high school sports days. If I had a good game on the basketball court The Provo Herald newspaper would sometimes run a report of the game on their sports page. This was a big deal to us in the little town of Payson. A few days later I would get a laminated copy of the news story in the mail from the Berg Mortuary in Provo.

As a healthy young athlete choosing my favorite mortuary, casket, and burial plot was not exactly on the top of my agenda; especially when I had just had a successful game. I admit there were nights when I played lousily enough to attract undertakers and even circling buzzards, but mercifully the newspaper didn’t usually cover those games.

I thought then, “This is the most far sighted ad campaign I’ve ever seen.”

It still is. The people who started it have long since chosen their own casket and plot. But hey, Berg Mortuary is still in business, and here I am writing about them decades later. Not many ad campaigns live longer than some of the folks they were designed to sell to.

Mighty dry out west

Out in the west the old timers still like to sit around on the top rail of the corral fence “one uppin” each other, spittin’ and arguing.

“I wish it’d rain. Not for me, for my boy. Me I’ve seen rain.”

“You tellin’ me? “Been so dry I had to irrigate my spread just to get it back to dust.”

“That ain’t nothin’. It was so hot the other day I seen a coyote chasin’ a chicken, and they was both walkin’.”

“You think that’s hot and dry?   A friend of mine was hiking in the desert. He stirred up a rattle snake. The critter sprung up ignored his leg, and took a bite out of his canteen.

“The Cocklebur Riding Club is talking about tradin’ their horses in for camels.”

“Shorty Rogers threw away his ten gallon hat. Got a two quart model.”

“I hear the Forest Service is putting up new signs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado River. They say Puddle Powell and Puddle Mead.”

“My brother-in-law took his family to see the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River in Idaho. They had to bring their own water.”

“Used to be water was liquid gold out here. No more. Now every raindrop’s a diamond.”

“Ol Caleb is workin’ his still up in the hills. Only now he’s mixin’ hydrogen and oxygen. Tryin’ to make rain.”

“Good luck on that one. Here’s the deal. The Bible says people got wicked in Noah’s day and the Almighty sent a flood. Me and the boys figure we’ll get a little wicked, just enough to get some rain.”

“You’re bad enough already, and it ain’t workin’.”

“I heard the Baptists have given up immersion and gone to sprinklin’. The Methodists are usin’ a wet rag. The Mormons ain’t prayin’ for rain anymore; just a heavy dew”

It is so dry that those old boys on the top rail of the corral fence are just arguing. They gave up spittin’.