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various essays on, well, art and culture
lessons learned from this profession
ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
'Jim Downey' Stories
more "it's all about me"
Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The
Political Compass. Where
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take a trip with me
|4 February 2005|
Jim Downey and the Amazing HoopiePart One: The Arrival
I think it was the first deer season I lived with my Uncle Rich, after the deaths of my parents. So that puts it back in '71 or '72, when I was in my early teens (though I looked older). As screwed up as I was, and him wanting to do the right thing and try to bond with me a little, Rich asked whether I wanted to go deer hunting with him that fall.
I had been a hunter of small game most of my short life. My dad was a big into hunting, and with him being a cop, we always had guns around the house. So he made sure I could safely handle a gun before I could ride a bike, and taught me to be a good shot with handgun, rifle, and shotgun about the time I was learning my multiplication tables. We went hunting a fair amount, me with a single-shot 4-10 shotgun, him with the double-barreled 12 ga. I still have. Occasionally, Rich joined us, which was saying something, because my dad was real particular about who he went hunting with. But I had never been deer hunting.
So Rich got me used to the big .308 rifle with scope he had, until I could consistently nail a bull's-eye at a hundred yards. He got me an orange safety vest and hat, the necessary licenses, and made sure my other gear was ready for a weekend of camping and hunting in the Ozarks. Then he made arrangements to go with a work buddy who had extended family down outside Potosi, about ninety minutes southwest of St. Louis, into the Mark Twain National Forest, for the final weekend of the season. I was looking forward to it.
His buddy (let's call him Jerry) picked us up after work on Friday. We tossed our gear in the back of the topper-covered Ford pickup, and hit the road. Two hours later we pulled off the blacktop, onto the fire road that would take us well back into the woods to the communal campsite. It was washed out and rough in places, but even without four-wheel drive in the Ford, Jerry was able to take his time and avoid getting stuck.
We saw the camp fire through the trees, a warm yellow light filling a medium-sized clearing. Jerry pulled up, was met at his window by a short man wearing a baseball cap and army camo. He was in his mid-twenties (a few years younger than Jerry and my uncle), had a bushy brown mustache that hung down lower than his lips.
"Joe. Where ya want us?"
Joe looked in the cab at me and Rich. "Need tent space?"
Jerry nodded. "Yeah, just one. I'll sleep in the back."
Joe pointed past the fire. "There's a flat spot over there that'd be big enough."
Jerry pulled the truck over to the far side of the clearing, down a slight rise into a small space defined by an arc of scrub oak. We got out. Rich looked at the spot, turned to Jerry. "Um, seems kinda far from the fire."
Jerry nodded. "Yeah. But this place'll fill up. Better this way."
Rich glanced at me, said nothing. This told me a lot. Rich wasn't one of these people who can't shut up, but he usually had something to say.
Joe was standing on our side of the fire when we came around the truck, can of beer in hand. We went up to him. "Joe, this is Rich, and his nephew James. Guys, this here's my cousin Joe."
Joe nodded, smiled. "Wanna beer?"
"Thanks. Uh, maybe after we get the tent up," said Rich.
"'k. You, Jerry?"
"Sure. Let me help these guys get their stuff outta the truck. Be right back."
Joe nodded again, went around the fire and made himself comfortable on a battered silver Coleman cooler. We went back to the truck.
Opening the topper and dropping the tailgate, Jerry looked at Rich. "Don't worry, they're good people. A little rough 'round the edges, maybe, but good country folk."
"Sure, no problem."
We got our stuff out of the truck. Jerry went to have a beer with his cousin. While we put up the small cabin tent, got our stuff stowed in it, Rich didn't say much. I could tell he was thinkin.' Finally, as we finished up, he looked at me. "You OK?"
"Yeah, sure." I figured I was used to 'country people.' Some of my dad's family lived out in the country, south of Cuba. I had spent summer weekends there, playing in the woods with my cousins. They weren't that different than my city cousins, really, but I figured that they qualified as 'country people.'
"Well," he hesitated. "OK."
"Shall I grab the cooler?" I asked. The cooler had sodas, stuff for sandwiches, some eggs, hotdogs, and a couple of six-packs of beer. Having a beer around the fire after a hunt was no big deal. Deer season ended at sunset on Saturday, so a couple of six-packs was just being sociable.
"Um, why don't you leave it here for now. Come and get a soda if you want."
We went up to the fire. I saw then that the pit had been ringed with rocks and a couple of concrete blocks. Clearly, it had been used in recent weeks. There were a couple of large logs that'd been drug over beside the fire.
Gesturing to one of these, Joe said: "Have a seat. Wanna beer?"
"Yeah, sure," said Rich, sitting down.
Joe stood up enough that he could get into the battered Coleman, grabbed a can, tossed it to Rich. "There ya go. So, you work with Jerry?"
"Yeah." Rich nodded to Jerry. "Cable repair, for Ma Bell."
"Yup. Jerry fixed the line goin' into Uncle Clem's place for 'im. Right Jerry?"
Jerry gave Rich a look. "Uh, yeah."
"Uncle Clem?" I asked.
"Yeah. Well, he's my great uncle, really. He'll be here, though he don' do much huntin' anymore. But he still likes gettin' out in the woods with everyone." Joe stood up, looked back down the road. "Mebbe this is him comin' now. It's somebody, that's for sure."
I tried looking down the road, but the light of the fire was too bright. Then a moment later I heard what sounded like a jeep or truck coming up the rough road, a high-pitched whine of four-wheel drive, followed by the bang and thump of the suspension bottoming out, as the driver took the narrow road too fast and was unable to avoid the ruts and washed out places. When I saw the headlights, they matched this sound, jumping about through the trees.
Joe looked at us. "Nope, that's not Uncle Clem. Sounds like Billy's jeep."
It wasn't long before the jeep swung clear of the woods, stopped at the edge of the clearing. There wasn't much to it, just the basic frame of an old surplus jeep, body mostly gone, mis-matched wheels of different colors, rust everywhere. There was no door, so the man driving just sorta tumbled out, catching himself on the windshield frame unsteadily, swaying a bit. "Hey y'all."
"Hey Billy. Wanna beer?"
Billy smiled. Even at this distance I could tell that dental care hadn't been a priority of his. "Don' mind if I do. Been a long time. Ran out b'fore I got off the blacktop."
He came over to the fire, Joe handed him a beer out of the cooler. "Where's everyone?" asked Joe.
"Had a problem wit' the bus. Needed to do some weldin' to keep the generator from fallin' off," said Billy, taking his beer, popping the tab, tossing it into the fire. He sat down on one of the logs nearby. "Should be here in a bit. Thought I'd come over, see who's here."
Jerry nodded. "This hereís Rich, a buddy of mine from work. And this is his nephew, James."
Rich raised his beer in greeting, I nodded and kept my mouth shut.
"Yeah, youíre from the city." Billy squinted at us over the fire, but smiled. "Been deer huntin' before?"
"Yeah, lots," said Rich. "Usually go over by Bay, off the Gasconade."
Billy nodded approvingly. He looked at me. "How 'bout you?"
"Um, no, this is my first time."
"Well, don' you worry 'bout it. These woods here are full of deer. Jus' full of deer. You'll get yours." He took a long swig from his beer. "Yup. Hell, I got two last weekend, didn't I Joe?"
I figured he was lying. Limit was one doe or buck for the season.
"Yup," said Joe, nodding, looking into the fire. "Though they was kinda small."
Billy looked over at him, shook his head. "Don' matter, better eatin' that way. Meat's more tender, see?"
"Yeah, that's true."
"B'sides, I done already got me a big ol' buck this year. 12 pointer."
Rich raised an eyebrow. "Bow season?"
"Hell no. Spotlightin'." Billy laughed. "Coulda had more, but flash from my gun damn near made me blind."
"Ain't what I heard," said Joe. "Mike said you was so drunk that the recoil knocked you on your ass, and you couldn't get up from the bed of the truck."
Billy laughed, took a long swallow of beer. "Well, yeah, that too. An' that bastard an' his brother just tossed that big ol' buck in on top of me. Damn near killed me."
Everybody laughed. Joe got up to grab another log from the nearby woodpile, stopped and looked down the road. "Here they come."
A moment later I heard a roar of engines and crashing of metal & wood. I thought it sounded like a demolition derby held in the forest. And I wasn't far off the mark: a huge old school bus came bursting through the trees, barely bothering to even try and stay on the overgrown firetrail. Instead, it just blew straight through small trees, bouncing off of larger ones it sideswiped, ripping overhanging limbs as it came. It rolled into the clearing, dangling bits of flora from the elaborate welded framework in front of the grill and on the sides of the windshield. Some ten years later, when I saw the first "Mad Max" movie, I figured that the producers of that movie owed these guys some royalties.
The bus pulled into the clearing, and didn't so much park as just stopped. Behind it were a couple of aging and abused pickups. For a moment I just stood there (I had gotten to my feet in response to the clamor coming at us) and took in the whole scene. The bus was mostly a light blue, though with patterns of primer and rust that almost looked like someone did a half-assed attempt to camouflage the thing. Strange bits of metal were welded to the body here and there in seemingly random places. About half the windows were missing, covered over with pieces of plywood, some of which were painted.
From inside the bus, a great roaring could be heard. Seconds later, the door on the far side slammed open, and the roaring came out and around the side of the bus. A big man, with a huge beer gut barely concealed under a ragged and stained t-shirt, was throwing on a camo hunting jacket and hollering at people still on the bus. "Gawd dammit!," he said, pulling his feed cap down and heading towards us. "I ain' gonna be able t' take a decent shit fur a week!"
A couple of people crawled out of each of the pickups, and maybe 7 or 8 others got off the bus, and they all started to head our way. From this crowd I heard another voice answer Beer-gut. "Well, you dum' bastard, if'n you hadn't been leanin' your fat ass agains' th' bus, you wouldn' a been shocked!"
Joe tossed the fat man a beer, without even asking. "Wha' happened, Kenny?"
Before Kenny could answer, the other man had gotten to the fire. He already had a beer in hand. "Dum' SOB was leanin' agains' th' bus when we was weldin' on th' generator, got zapped when I unhooked th' ground."
There was a general muttering consensus to this from the others who were now crowding around the fire.
"You did it on purpose!" hollered Kenny.
"Hell yeah!," said the other man. "Shit, I dialed down th' juice on th' welder. Yer ass'd be dead now if I hadn'." He smiled, slapped Kenny on the shoulder. "Damn, you shoulda seen yerself, hoppin' around like yer butt was on fire."
There was much laughter. Kenny flushed for a second, his red face glowing in the firelight. But then he nodded, smiled, took a long drink from his can of beer.
"'At's enough now, Matthew," said a rough old voice, coming down from the bus. "You boys get th' tables out, get ever'thing set up proper."
"Sure thing, unc," said Matthew, turning to look around at the assembled crowd. "C'mon, let's get 'er done."
Most of 'the boys' went back up to the bus, some went back and started hauling coolers and whatnot out of the battered pickup trucks. The old man, slightly stooped and shuffling a little on the uncertain ground, came over and stood before the fire, staring at us. He looked to Jerry. "These here yer city friends?"
Jerry nodded. "Yessir. This is Rich, and his nephew James."
Slowly, the old man nodded. "Well, have a sit, boys, have a sit."
He turned around, looking back up the slight hill to the bus, as though he were about to call for something. But already, a slight young man, seemingly only a few years older than myself, was coming down the hill, a beat-up folding chair in his hands. The young man had a wisp of beard but no moustache, was wearing what looked like fairly new fatigues and combat boots. He opened the chair, placed it on a level spot near the fire for the old man.
"Thank you, Charlie. Yer a good boy."
Charlie said nothing, just sort of nodded and went back up to the bus. The old man sat down, and as he did I noticed the .38 revolver at his hip under his worn coat. "Like I said, you boys have a sit."
We took our places. "You been well, there, Jerry?"
"Yeah Uncle Clem, been fine."
"You should come by and visit some, son. Yer aunt would sure love t' see ya."
"Maybe Sunday, seein's where the season ends tomorrow night."
"That'd be fine."
I turned my attention away from this little family scene to watch what was happening up at the bus. Several guys had hauled out what looked like large wooden doors, brought them around to the side facing the fire. There, they hooked them over some of the random welded bits on the side, and then propped them up with legs that also attached back to the bus, down by the frame, creating a couple of impromptu banquet tables. Others were busy attaching a large canvas tarp that had seen better days to the roof, pulling it out and setting poles to make an awning over the tables. Then they brought out boxes and coolers, started piling stuff up on the tables. Somebody lit an oil lamp, hung it on the side of the bus.
Charlie came back down the hill, carrying a large blue-enamel metal coffeepot and a cup. Silently, he handed the cup to Uncle Clem, then shoved the coffeepot into one edge of the fire, banked coals around the base. Then he left again, saying nothing. As I watched the men at the bus continue to load the tables, the coffee pot started to steam, and the aroma of coffee filled the air.
"Want some coffee?"
I realized that Jerry had disappeared someplace, and the old man was talking to me. Looking away from the activity by the bus, I stammered, "Um, no sir. Thanks."
He smiled, kindly. Taking a cotton glove out of his pocket, he reached down and grabbed the handle of the steaming pot, set it aside for a minute. "Gotta give it a chance t' settle, let all th' grounds sink. Bes' way t' make coffee."
He poured himself a cup. Matthew came down the hill, stood and announced, "Food's ready, go up 'n help yerself t' some." He bent over to the old man, "Can I bring ya some?"
"Nah, I'm fine. Coffee's all I need." He pointed at me with his cup. "But get this young feller up there an' get some food inta him."
Matthew nodded at me and Rich. "You boys musta come down wit' cousin Jerry."
Rich stood, I followed his lead. We shook hands with Matthew. "Yup. I'm Rich. This's James."
"Call me Matt. Nobody but him," he nodded to Uncle Clem, "calls me Matthew. So, c'mon up and get some vittles."
We went up to the bus, where there was now a crowd around the two tables. The crowd opened up enough to let us in, and I saw that one table was covered with all manner of food in bowls and baskets, mostly consisting of things like ribs and fried chicken, scratch-made biscuits, pies and cakes, corn fritters and the like. There was a stack of old metal plates, dimpled and dinged from many years of hard use, and a mis-matched pile of tableware which seemed to be mostly ignored. I grabbed a plate, helped myself.
Moving to the next table over, I saw that it was nothing but bottles of booze. Booze of almost every variety, so long as it was cheap and potent. No wines or beers, no fancy mixers. Just hard liquor. On the ground on the far side of the table was a large metal tub, the kind with handles we used to wash the family dog outdoors in the summertime. It was filled with cans of beer, mostly Busch and Pabst, and a scattering of ice cubes.
"Help yerself," came a voice somewhere off to the side.
"Um, maybe you better not," Rich said low and in my ear.
I turned and looked at him, nodded. "Yeah, that's kinda what I thought."
We edged away from the table. I saw that he had some food on his plate, his beer still in his hand, but didn't seem to be too focused on either. He asked, "Want to go sit by the fire?"
As we walked away from the crowd, Rich said slowly, "I, uh, don't know exactly what these fellas are all about. But maybe you ought to kinda lay low, try and stay out of the way, OK?"
I just nodded.
We got back to the fire, where some of the others had also congregated after loading up with food and drink. Picking a couple of empty spaces on a big log off to the side a bit, we sat and watched. There was much cussin' and braggin' about feats of hunting, sex, and drinking - the sort of braggadocio among young men which has gone on probably forever, and wasn't particularly noteworthy to me even at that young age. It was a genial, friendly crowd, with some horseplay and teasing which meant only a rough type of affection.
I got up to go get a soda from the cooler, saw the young man named Charlie back aways from the fire, quietly leaning against a tree, just watching. Cradled in his arms was a worn Winchester lever-action 30-30. He nodded curtly to me as I passed, kind of slid around the tree he was leaning on to keep me in sight as I went to the cooler beside our tent and then came back to the fire. He said nothing.
I sat down again, picked up my metal plate and gnawed on a rib which still had some meat left on it. After a couple of moments I said to Rich, "You, uh, see that guy back behind us?"
"The one with the rifle in his arms? Yup."
About then Jerry reappeared, making his way around the fire over our way. I could tell he was a little drunk, like about everyone else there 'cept me and Rich, and maybe the old man. "How're you guys doin'?"
"Were OK," said Rich.
"Good food," said I, holding up a bone.
"Well, good, good." He gestured back at the fire, behind him. "See, they're alright, ain't they? Jus' good ol' boys . . ."
At this point I saw Matt toss something into the fire.
"Uh, yeah," said Rich.
Something popped in the fire. At first I thought it was just a firecracker. Then I heard another sharp 'pop,' followed by a 'zing!,' and realized that the damned fool must've tossed a handful of .22's into the fire.
Now, a .22 bullet isn't very big nor powerful. And not being fired in a gun, where the bullet is accelerated for the entire time it is in the barrel, the bullet has even less power. But you still wouldn't want to get hit by one. I turned and ducked behind the log I was sitting on. I heard a mad scramble and a whole lotta cursing as everyone else realized just what the hell was going on and did the same thing. Peeking over the log, I saw that even Uncle Clem had hit the dirt, was huddled behind a log with someone else.
There were a couple more pops, then Matt just started laughin'. He stopped for a second and hollered, "Yer alright boys, they's all gone off!"
"You crazy Sonuvabitch!" screamed someone.
"Tryin' t' kill somebody?!" asked a voice.
"Do tha' agin, I'm gonna shoot yer ass!" said another.
"Ain't nobody hurt." Matt just laughed, took a big swig from a bottle of whiskey, finishing it and tossing it into the fire. "Jus' havin' some fun."
"Jesus!" said Rich to me, standing up and brushing himself off. He looked at Jerry, who had waited a moment before getting up to make sure all the bullets had indeed gone off. "You were sayin'?"
"Uh," stammered Jerry. "Uh, no, really, they's jus' good ol' boys."
Me and Rich sat down again, and Jerry found a reason to be someplace else. I looked over, saw someone helping Clem into his chair. The old man brushed himself off, took the cup which had been picked up off the ground, and held it out for fresh coffee. He looked over at Matt, and I heard him say, "Get yer ass over here, boy."
Matt obeyed, went and sat next to the old man. They were too far away for me to hear, but I could tell that Clem chewed him out, quiet like, and Matt took it. I looked at Rich, saw that he had been watching the two men as well. Rich just shook his head. "Damn, James," he said, "let's wait a bit and then slip off to bed, get away from these idiots. This is fuckin' crazy."
A few minutes passed, then I saw Matt get up and stagger towards the bus. At first I thought that he was going to go get another drink, or some more food, because he made for the tables. But then he went past them, towards the front of the bus, stopping just a couple of paces past the tub full of beer. He fumbled for a minute, leaning against the bus, and started to take a piss. Why he decided to go there, rather than off into the woods surrounding us, I have no idea. Maybe he started out to get another drink, decided he needed to pee first.
But something else interesting happened. As he was standing there, doing his business, old Clem had followed him up to the bus, and then snuck up right behind him. Matt, preoccupied with the matter at hand, didn't notice. The old man slowly removed the snub-nosed revolver from the holster at his hip, and holding it pointed straight up into the sky just behind the man, fired a round.
To say that Matt was startled doesn't convey the wonderful reality of the situation. There was an arc of urine right up the side of the bus and over the top. "Oh, shit!" was all Matt could say, over and over again, as he stood there a good ten minutes, leaning against the side of the bus, piss dribbling down in front of him.
Clem shuffled back to his chair, picked up his cup of coffee, and smiled into the fire. Everyone in the clan came by and gave him a slap on the back and had a hearty laugh.
Rich poked me and we slipped off to our sleeping bags in the tent, now mercifully far away.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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