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?”