Visalia sits pretty well right between Fresno and Bakersfield, around ten miles east of "Old 99" on the side of California's Central Valley that's snug up against the foothills of the Sierra Nevada's. It's calls itself the "Gateway to the Sequoias" 'cause if you keep on going another fifty miles or so pretty well straight up, you end up in the very famous giant red wood forests with really-really big, really-really old red wood trees. Some bigger than a car at their base and others older than Jesus in their roots. Glorious sights to see first hand.
Being a gateway to such glory, Visalia has a whole set of other issues to deal with much more important that a bunch of old famous trees looking at the ancient stars.
Gatekeepers always make promises about big trees, stars, and heaven somewhere else. How else do you survive? But there is a very big difference between bogus promises, and promises that just don't work out. Visalia never lied about its promise. And there is pride in growing up within an honest gatekeeper's home.
It is my final summer at home in Visalia and my best friend David is back from his first year of college and I'm thinking about going myself in the fall.
We both have these jobs working on a six-man survey crew way up in the mountains a little north of Yosemite Valley. The basic task is to lay down a ten mile line so that the Forest Service can build a new fire road. Neither David or I are really surveyors so all we have to do is clear enough of a path through the ten miles so that the rest of the crew can connect the dots with their transit and measuring chains. We are called "short-timbermen" not because we are short, clearing timber, or technically speaking for that matter, able to freely roam the earth as real men quite yet.
Our job titles had more to do with the nature of what we had to clear. It was called mariposa manzanita.
The mariposa manzanita has a real long history up in these mountains. Some say that Indian tribes used it for all kinds of things from smoking it to using its leaves to relieve hemorrhoids, canker sores, and postpartum swelling. Maybe true but all we knew was that there were more manzanita directly in the path of this particular survey line than probably anywhere else in the world. And so it seemed.
Manzanita stands anywhere between three to eight feet tall with branches shooting straight up in a forty-year slow wind hurricane. Its purplish, reddish arms end up so twisted, gnarled and knitted together in different directions that there was a standing reward of one-thousand dollars for anyone that could bring back a straight three-foot piece.
Covered with oval leaves, shiny green on one side and dull green on the other, they have these sticky berries on them that don't quite have enough goo on 'em to stop a fly but more than enough to hold broken spider webs upside down against any night time breeze.
But looks aside for a moment, perhaps the most interesting thing about manzanita is that it can be a tree or a plant depending on how you try and cut it down. On the tree side, you will burn out a chain-saw in about six or seven minutes if you try to cut it directly perpendicular to its angle of growth. However, change the angle of the cut to 45 degrees or more, depending on its size and configuration, and you can slice off a stout branch with one swing of a machete.
Turns out that underneath its smooth bark are thousands of plant stems all bound together like those sticking out under a tightly wrapped bouquet of flowers. So maybe whether its a tree or plant has something to do with how one approached it. Whack at it, and it is the sixth hardest wood in the world. Slice it just right, and it falls like a handful of garden zinnias. Maybe that's what made the Indians smoke it, smear it around their asses, and rub it in after the baby was born. Certainly not unreasonable to assume that there may be some kind of magic going on here.
Such assumptions get pushed aside real fast, however, when your standing waist deep in an endless sea of this stuff and your saw, gas tank, machete, and shovel are getting stuck in a ticket of branches while your balancing sideways on a twenty-percent grade of decayed granite soil. And those are only the problems when you try and move while standing up.
A lot of the work is done while crawling on hands and knees to get under the flared upgrowth at the truck, and then flipping over on your back or side to take a swing or fire up the chain saw depending upon the size of the trunk. It’s so hot under here that my sweat starts to mix into the dirt crawling down into my eyes, those old sticky berries are falling into my hair, ears, getting under my collar, and everything is rubbing underneath my Levi's®. Then my foot slips off the rock down the hill that I'm using for leverage and the difference between plant and tree disappears into a personal rage to kill what's trying to kill me and nail the fucker. So I am whacking away with no concern at all about anything except me.
The job goes all summer, with an odd time beat of ten days up in the mountains and four day's back down in the valley. For the ten days were up there, were killing manzanita during the day and at night were eating, drinking, and sleeping in some old road side motel about fifteen miles down from the job site. After the second or so ten- day stretch was over, David and me figure that we are probably pretty special people. Who else, we ask each other, could do what we're doing to that manzanita shit and still be so cool to know that the total experience was probably leading up to more than one deeply philosophic insight into the nature of life and the universe. It was like moving Nam into the pacific ways of California without having to go to a real war.
We simply were the future synthesis. The possibility of combining the gritty reality of genuine work shirts and boots with self-conscious expansion through Kant, assorted existentialists, and San Francisco beats and rock-and-roll bands justified us as being way-seriously-too-hip for almost anyone else we'd ever met. While we were the logic unfolding in front of our own perceptions of ourselves as we went through the day, there were other considerations.
So, we're down now from our second stint up in the mountains, sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at Mearles on Mooney Blvd. around eight-o'clock pm. We're talking about the relationships between categorical imperatives, the Grateful Dead, and other such hip things, when it becomes really clear that much of the underlying issue had to do with being really horny.
Stated bluntly, it was time that we got laid -- or if not laid then at least be naked with a woman for enough time to have something to brag about to the other guys when we went back up into the mountains. After all, pretty well all of the conversation up there had something to do, one way or another, with banging bitches, fucking cows, so-and-so getting an unexpected blow job, how blue balls cause cancer, and in general, the overwhelming value and importance of tits, ass, and pussy.
With some more coffee, we started saying that being laid is very different than making love -- (even though neither had actually happened to either of us, we felt very strongly about the difference). Being laid involves an ascent to descend to something very basic about one's own sexuality. It is a singular expression towards another, regardless of that other. It is whoa-doggies in one's own pornographic fulfillment. In contrast, making love involves, by definition, the mutual connection of two equals that actually make love through the consummation of fleshly sharing of the yin and yang. So we said.
So after awhile of such talk, we got into my truck, drove the 12 miles to Hanford, and ended up both knocking on Janice's door around nine-thirty on a Thursday evening pretty well convinced that whether we got laid or made love, it would be important.
Knock, knock, knock.
Knock, knock, knock.
Pause, again, and then the door opens.
"Hi you guys," says Janice.
We're just standing there, till David says, "uh, hi," and then I add, "uh we just thought we would come by to see how you're doing."
"Good" she says while still standing with her head half way out but the rest behind the door.
"Ok." I nod my head in several jerky chin to chest motions.
"So, my dad's coming home soon."
"Right," David says and I just look at her and think stuff.
"O.K. Maybe see you tomorrow?"
"Sure. See you then."
Janice closes the door, we get into the truck and drive off back to Visalia with both of us saying all the way: Damned near got some pussy! in about a million ways while each of us quietly thought about getting naked with Janice and if, somehow, our bodies would really make love when they touched.
Next day, I call Janice and invite her over. She say's O.K., and shows up a little after dinner at my parents house. It's really cool 'cause my parents are up in San Francisco for a couple of days and I am all alone in my bedroom.
Ever since I had started working, my parents had decided it would be best if they just let me have my way with that particular room of the house. So, I had it really nice. Black light posters making a clear mocking comment over my parents' choice of the "Danish modern" desk, chair, and dresser set angled into the corner with a bunch of books spread out in different directions. The old hide-away from the guest room eliminated the need for most of the room space being taken up by a bed. Gerrard record player and a sun-burst Gibson Guitar sitting next to an Ampex® tape player, four speakers, and about a hundred albums. There is a plaster-of-paris floor-standing ashtray with a hand stretched up for the ashes by the couch and a green wine bottle dope pipe on the top shelf of the closet. There is light brown shag carpet, sparkly silver flecks in the ceiling, and a window facing the street that you could open, pop the screens, and get in or out without bothering anyone. When I closed the door, it was almost like having my own place.
Now Janice was the kind of girl that changes a guy's life without risk of pregnancy. Starting with that first visit, we must of have made love a hundred times over that summer without either one of us really losing our virginity.
What did I know? We'd get naked in my bedroom, feel each other all over with our fingers and mouths and then we'd rub our bodies up and down for a while -- whether standing, laying down, standing on our head, or sitting. Didn't make any difference. Just touching and rubbing up and down until it started to hurt. So we'd change the record and talk for awhile then pretty soon we'd start rubbing against each other all over again.
All the while, both of us thinking we were doing something brand new in a land that was unknown to anyone but us.
While we're resting during one of these touching/friction/pubic hair sessions, I'm like so cool. I'm laying on my back on the open hide-away, head on the pillow, Janice under my arm with her head against my chest, and my left hand touching her somewhere between her arm and her breast just like the French guy touched Anouk Aimee in a Man and A Woman. So I need a cigarette to complete the image. I take the cig with my one free hand, put it in my mouth, and then pick up the book of matches from the same place.
Rather than leave the wonderfully new place my left hand had just found, I use my right finger and thumb to bend over one of the matches in half so that its red tip is right over the board, and fwizz, with a light sulfur smell, ignite the match with two fingers in one swift motion. Too cool.
Something or another then happened to jar the normal link between match and lit cigarette. Maybe my hand was shaking. Maybe she moved. Maybe there was an earthquake somewhere. Who knows but first, right after I get the cigarette going, the whole match book lights up in a burning eye flash. I immediately drop it into my crotch and spit the cigarette from my mouth into the general vicinity of one of her feet.
I'm flapping around like a wild greasy goose and grab the fire between the sheets and my balls and throw it into the plaster Paris hand stretched up for the ashes. My elbow catches her hard in the ear while she's pulling back from my chest but we're then both scrambling to find the lit cigarette at the end of the bed, we find it, put it out, she goes into the bathroom, the entire cast from the movie takes the first train out headed back to for France, and there is this faint hint of burnt hair smell in a small bedroom in Visalia.
Pretty soon she comes out and she's still naked and I'm still naked but we're both naked in a different way than before. For sure me 'cause of my crotch fire. Her, because it's the first time she has let me know that she goes to the bathroom too. We kissed standing up, put on some record about a some white bird that's wants to be free, turned out the lights, laid down on the floor and listened together for a while without touching.
Later on, it was the first time we ever made love and slept the whole night long together as two little spoons floating on the ocean under the gatekeeper's watchful eye on the trees above.
A couple of days later, I'm back up into the mountains. I keep my secret and am much calmer about all that talk about bitches, pussies, and such among the other guys.
Next trip back home, first night back, we all get phone calls that tell us we have to spend the next few days helping out another crew finish up some big job in the Valley. So next day, we're all out fifteen miles south of Hanford sitting around with morning coffee with absolutely no idea where we're going to at just that exact moment. But there is something about the angled shine of the sun through the diner's windows that makes it clear that all men that need to get to work need to go now.
We all get up and off we go to somewhere into the west side of California's Central Valley. Six of us into a three-mile-per-gallon, four door, dual tank, full bed, maps and cigarette and lunch boxed full, naked lady picture stuck in the ceiling button, radio on, and all the stuff you need in the back of a blue Ford two-fifty truck.
The west side of the Valley is actually considered to be in capital letters, as in West Side. It is one of those places on earth only a few people talk about and only some know. There are the roving bands of Basques and no-talk, one-room, adobe hut owners with Pepsi® in side-banked coolers that hum and look like banditos from some war still waging. No one really goes there unless they have to. They put Charlie Manson there. The guy that shot Bobby Kennedy is there, too. Key is, like a reverse Alcatraz. California places its worst out on the West Side because even if they get out of the jail, they will die trying to find water while the Basques and Zappa's old troops circle around unseen waiting for the gold.
For most everybody else, The West Side is a territory that the cowboy movies show when the hero's horse dies from underneath and there is only dirt and dust and distant mountains on all sides.
But, as it turns out, a handful of people were buying up all that useless wasteland and moving ahead with all kinds of plans way before anyone else could get out of the movie house.
Now that California has brought water down from the north, they're raising all kinds of crops out there. Not farmers like we think of them. These are big, multi-national, take-no-prisoner business enterprises capable of creating such job titles as "Senior Land Manager," and doing a national job search to find the right guy for the job.
Well, anyway, right now we're going to somewhere out on the West Side and Ken is driving 'cause he's the chief, Jesus is in the middle with the stick-shift up his crotch 'cause he's like a combination of the smart ass and the idiot, and Alfredo is riding shotgun 'cause he's next in charge. David, and me are in the back-seat with John in between. Normally, John would have had one of the seats by the doors but he quit about a year past for a better job. Didn't work out so he had to come back just a couple of weeks ago and now everyone is ragging on him for thinking he was better than us and so he ends up in the middle as the lowest of us all.
Not only is it cool sitting by the door but two things are immediately apparent. First. It really is a lot more comfortable. Second. The front-door guys give the back-door guys preference in speaking in any discussion that is tossed back over the seat. Makes John fell like shit 'cause he used to be a back door guy. But now, nobody cares what he has to say. Too bad. I got the door now.
We get about fifty feet from the Diner's parking lot and pull into a gas station that has a white ice box by the side of the parking lot next to the pay phone. We need to fill our water cooler with a block 'cause by the time anyone wants a drink, there will be enough melted it will still be real cold.
Good old galvanized water coolers sitting on the back of trucks are generally O.K. Only problem is that the mouth on top is not large enough for desert work.
So everyday we have to go through the same routine of hacking the corners off the square ice block just enough so that the main block slips through the top without destroying its integrity by break time at ten-thirty. No small feat. I have already distinguished myself before at this task, and am doing it again.
I am chipping away at my block sculpture and somehow a problem with Ken and some girl from Pixley comes up with a car that drives right by in front of us all screaming and carrying on.
Everyone takes a pause and looks at Ken.
Some issue about a bottle of 7-up®, contraception and conception, the whole embarrassment about going alone to the doctor's office, promises about marriage, and who knows what else.
Doesn't make any real difference 'cause we all have to get back into the truck and leave real quick. I break the sculpture in the middle with a hard whack, slam the top on the water cooler, throw my tools in the back, and jump into my door seat. And off we went.
It's pretty quiet in the truck for a good while.
Then David farts and every one comments and opens the windows for dramatic purposes.
The conversation picks back up from there.
One of the unspoken art forms is guys talking with guys about stuff that matters when we're talking to each other about stuff that isn't supposed to. Sometimes it's as complicated, full of nuance, feelings, truth, and rich of metaphor as anything else I know.
In this case, however, it was pretty straightforward.
Men do not want woman to simply do what men want. A man wants a woman to understand what they feel and, if they do, understand that each should be who they are, as individual people, come together as a spiritual union of common purpose, and from then on out, either make love or have sex all the time.
Problems come in and around when she starts not respecting the first-off decision to totally accept each other. After all, nobody should get in trouble for being who they are. Then starts the drinking, spending the night at her sister's, leaving the apartment in a mess, sending me out with hot water in my thermos, not getting any for over two weeks now, and making me crazy with all her talk about money, money, money, money, and wanting kids.
We all had our turn in discussing such issues and what should be done about them. But mostly, we just drive on into the West Side just hoping to get back Ok enough to find some kind of softness time in that night's night.
About forty-five minutes later we're there. Being anywhere on the West Side during the summer months is only somewhere between county highways and pure flat land that runs far enough out to see wavy shaking pools of empty water hugging every line between land and sky. So before we get there, we're just sort of driving by the highway signs trying to figure out where we are and then see another blue truck mixed up with that distant gauzy stuff, and all agree that it must be them. So we head on over and stop about thirty feet from the other truck.
Hot as the blazes is what someone says like someone always says colder than a witch's tit when it's freezing.
The heat is an is and can drop you if you are not careful. We all had seen it happen before so first thing we do before we get out of the truck is pass around the salt tablets. We all put a few extra ones in our pockets for later.
So, we all get out of the truck and start messing around with stuff in the back of our truck except for Ken, the chief. He walks over to the other crew’s truck to figure out what's going on.
Every good crew creates its own world full of the individuals and the stories of those that are part of it. Even though we all have the same blue trucks and get paid from the same place, we are our crew, and they are theirs. Since we came on site after them, it's right that our chief goes over to them by himself to start the negotiations about how we going to work together. So we hang back just talking to ourselves.
After a while, the chief waves his arm over to us to come over. Alfredo takes the wheel and we drive the over the few yards between us to meet them as equals.
A crew's ability to get out of the truck correctly during negotiations is very important and equally subtle. On the one hand you can't be too goofy, too quiet, too lame, fall, trip, or say what's on your mind. On the other hand, the whole issue rides on demonstrating your crew's superiority as a crew through its causal ability to just get out of the truck and make it immediately clear that's its stories deserve command.
As we got out, and they got out, it seemed like a tie. But, we ended up losing on a technically. After our chief tells that morning's story about the soft drink bottle and the girl from Pixley, their chief starts talking about how he just got back from a weekend at a motel in the foot hills with a couple of gals and some Jim Beam®. Somehow, he ended up Saturday evening standing at some local Buick dealership with a red ribbon tied around his dick demanding service 'cause he had been having problems with his Riviera and they didn't fix it right the first time. Kicked in the fucking headlight and said fix it! They found the problem and fixed it, replaced the headlight, changed the oil, vacuumed the car, and then called him on Sunday afternoon to say that his vehicle was ready, sir, at no charge. Detail to detail, it was clear that their chief had a better story than ours did, but only 'cause his old lady already moved out a year ago and our guy was still dealing with his at home. We figured that this difference created a clear, unfair advantage, and if the circumstances were different, our guy would have had at least three women and made the Buick guy deliver the damn car to his garage.
In the meantime, both crews were relived to be left untested in any further story telling, and already understood that, outside of a little pride, both stories really didn't make any difference in what we all had to do for the rest of the day.
There are twelve of us all together. The newly anointed "Chief Red Ribbon" runs the level and our guy "Chief Bottle Washer" is the note taker. They take one truck out about five hundred feet away from the rest of us. We spread out exactly one hundred feet apart from each other in a one-thousand-foot line of guys staring at them in the middle. Each of us has a survey rod, a plumb bob, fifty bundled lathe down at our feet, a bunch of one-times-one-times-four-inch stakes (called ginnis) in a pouch around our waist, and a hatchet, wedged sharp edge down in the back pocket. Whole point is to first let Chief Red Ribbon move you around so that the plumb-bob string he sees through the level's scope is exactly in line with the particular point needed to connect where you are right now with all other points where others are in every known location on earth, the planets, and the stars.
After your specific point in the universe has been determined, you then hammer a small stake down even with the ground at that spot, set the rod on it so they can get an elevation, listen as the grade is screamed out, then mark it on a lathe left standing straight up as you move to the next one-hundred-foot stopping point. Entire six-hundred- and-forty-by-six-hundred-and-forty acre sections of land are surveyed with a total three- inch drop from corner to corner.
Bunch of land covered over the two days we're out there. At least three square miles are left with perfectly crosswalked rows and columns of lathe every one-hundred feet. One new guy from the other crew does, indeed, fall 'cause of lack of salt pills or maybe drinking too much the night before. It happened when we came across this field with last year's crop burned off. Left it black soot, and stubble. Even walking across that shit was tough. It was the load of lathe and rod at two-thirty in afternoon of the sun glazed afternoon that got him. Otherwise, he would have at least been able to get back to the truck by himself for some water. But he didn't so we have to carry his sorry ass back to the cab and make him wait until we got back from the job -- probably made 'em feel like a weak old lady or something. Or maybe he just enjoyed resting in the shade. Whatever the case, he could consider himself definitely unemployed from this particular job.
After we got that guy squared away and we're walking back to where we left off in this senseless ash field, someone got the idea to start throwing dirt clods at each other. I am nailed right above the brim of my hat with a four-incher and dirt splinters into my ear, hair, and eyes. Hurts like hell and pisses me off big time. So I start throwing for blood. Hit a guy deep center in the middle of his spine as he turns away in defense. Knocks him back a little and I know it hurts more than a snowball. Good thing we were a hundred feet away and didn't have guns 'cause now he's pissed too and starts picking up and tossing whatever he can find at me as fast as he can load and fire. I'm throwing at him and dodging what he's throwing at me while he's dodging what I'm throwing back.
Pretty soon I hear both chiefs screaming at us to quit fuckin' around. I look over to them, and they're like flippin' out and waving their arms to get everyone over to their truck right now.
We all start to trot over to the truck except Jesus who still hasn't got the message and is like just standing there holding his rod sideways, just staring at everybody.
"Jesus!" Chief Red Ribbon yelled. "You stupid cocksucker, get the fuck over here now!!!!"
Nobody knows what's going on, but it's something really serious for sure.
As we get to the truck we see, way off in the far corner is another truck kicking up a cloud of dust as it moves towards us. Chief spotted it way before us when he was messing around with the level and happened to look through the scope at another field.
"Ok, everybody listen closely," says Chief Red Ribbon, "I don't want anyway fucking around at all while this guy's here. I want you all to grab your hatchets, get a wet stone, and wait around the truck sharpening em and looking busy until this guy leaves. This guy's name is Waldo and he's the bossman that owns all this land. We screw up when he's out here, and just kiss it all goodbye."
By the time we had all found enough wet stones to go around and started looking busy, Waldo pulls up in a brand shiny new, silver Dodge pickup. He just sits in the cab for awhile messing around with papers, finally opens his door, and then steps out to where both chiefs are standing without looking at the rest of us.
First thing about half of us do is make that grunting sound up through the nose like when your trying to get a booger or phlegm to come up followed by one or two shortened little laughs. Everyone knows were supposed to be seriously busy, but this guy Waldo is a laughing, walking 'toon. Not only is he wearing creased brown slacks, a short-sleeved white shirt with a tie, and some kind of fancy, butt-kicking pointed three color cowboy boots, he's got a shiny reflecting hard hat on. A hard hat! We're out in the middle of one of God's most forlorn, forsaken desert in the world. There's absolutely nothing taller than us here. What in the hell is going to fall on this guy's head? Does he know something we don't know? Is a piece of the sky ready to come down? Maybe a bunch of errant asteroids are ready to pummel us (John, quickly restates that idea replacing asteroids with hemorrhoids, making everyone really work hard not to laugh to loud). Jesus adds that maybe he's afraid of falling down and hitting his head on some dirt which everyone thinks is a pretty stupid comment but then also point out that nobody can really walk in boots like he's wearing so maybe he is worried about losing his step or something. Fact is, there is absolutely nothing out here that could possibly make wearing a hard hat a sensible thing to do. A pith helmet, yes. Cowboy hat for sure. Sombrero, OK. Ball cap from a team in the East even makes sense. But a hard hat, definitely, positively, stick on the wall no. Yet, there he is, Waldo the Boss Man, talking with the chiefs, clip board in hand, and a checking our work as if he knows anything remotely related to what it is we're doing out here.
We're struggling hard to not laugh to loudly at this guy and start the process that ultimately lead to major screwing around. It's real close. Right behind the truck where we're theoretically looking busy, we've got some cover so Alfredo pretends to trip and then jiggles his hat on his head back and forth like it's just about ready to fall off. I tie some survey tape around my neck like a tie, pull down its end, and let it snap back up at me, and pretend to be dazed. John puts a lathe into the ground, pretends to sit down on it, and then looks likes nothing wrong even though he's got a stick up his ass. Meanwhile, our chief, Chief Bottle Washer, looks away from the discussion with Waldo and gives us all a mean frown. So we calm down a little but just then someone starts humming the Loony Tunes theme song and everyone starts laughing again.
The big discussion ends, Waldo walks back to his truck and, once again, never even looks at us, gets in his truck, takes off his hard hat, and drives off back to where he came from.
We're all looking at the chiefs now as they come walking over to us, thinking, are we in deep shit now. But, they're both laughing.
Turns out that we're actually ahead of schedule now and this is the last day for us,
the extra crew, out here helping out with a three-inch-per-mile grade in the middle of
Egypt. But, equally important, somewhere during the discussion, Waldo is talking about
surveying and how to turn angles and says something about pi R square. Then our chief
"Excuse me sir, but I believe that pi are not square, pi are round, cornbread are square."
And Waldo just stared back for a moment and continued on as if nothing was said.
Not only does everybody start belly laughing and cursing in happy abandonment, but our crew's early morning loss to Chief Red Ribbon story is completely revenged through our guy's brave and successful skirmish with the absurd, pointless, and self-absorbed.
The pride in our crew soars through the cloudless sky back into our own value of being pretty damn good at what we do for a living.
We all are still kinda high by the time the day ends and Ken, no longer Chief Bottle Washer anymore -- just Chief, drives up out of the West Side and back to the office. We're all ready to just go home. Some new country song that everyone likes is on the radio as we turn into the parking lot and we're all looking out the windows and not saying too much. We stop and get out of the truck tired and someone puts on a hard hat from storage. We still laugh a little but say, "see ya," and leave to go back home to our own stories.
We still have a couple of days before we are scheduled to go back up into the mountains to finish our work and get home safely once again. I call Janice but she's not home so I just rest for awhile in my air-conditioned room at my parents house.
Two days later we're on our way back up to the mountains for the last ten-day trip. Things are going just fine until, night before the last, somehow I bust the toilet. Didn't really break it, as such, it just backed-up and overflowed all over the bathroom. Normally this would not be such a big deal but there was no plunger to work with and there were some other factors that came into play.
First, we're staying at this place called the "Hillside Inn." It's a place a little bit off the main road to Yosemite with a ten-table restaurant, fifteen-seat bar in the back, and ten guest rooms on the side all made out of split logs and faded pine boards. Whole place sits back and waits for locals and Yosemite tourists that took some wrong turn somewhere. All of us are sleeping, eating, and drinking there now for forty days at ten days a clip. By that time, we pretty well had distinguished ourselves in a number of ways like the cooks knowing to have some Coke and apple pie ready in the morning after the bartender ran a tab on boiler makers the previous night, that everybody hated the meatloaf on Wednesday but the burgers on Tuesday were good, and stuff like that.
The guy that owned the place was named Papa Bear and he was a big old, fat- gut-bellied, mean son-of-a-bitch. We'd hear and see him rant and rave at the people that worked for him about every other day. Everyone was scared of this guy 'cause the story was that he onetime had this big ranch down in Texas but then killed this guy with his hands out on some fence line over something to do with cattle and sheep grazing rights. He ended up here 'cause it was better than a few years in jail back there. Still wore his big olé Texas hat, for-real ranching boots, and a three inch silver belt buckle with the shape of his state made out in gold right in the middle. We all hated this guy 'cause he seemed like just a basic asshole regardless of his story.
So, toilet overflowing, no plunger, we'd been there too long, and there was this guy named Papa Bear that owned the place.
We show up for dinner as usual at six-thirty and mid-way through saying, once again, we'd take the house special for the night, Papa Bear shows up at the end of the table.
"Who in the hell screwed up my toilet?" he said, "I really don't give a shit one way or another. You know why? Easy. You fag boys are going to pay for it anyway. Right!?"
I'll never know whether old Papa Bear was drunk, crazy, or occasionally just a little off, but that pretty well did it.
Chief jumps up and pushes Papa Bear against the chest and calls him an asshole. Then all of us jump up into half circle back of the chief and watch what's going to happen next.
Papa Bear looks around and mutters something. Chief steps in and pushes him back against his chest again. We all move a step forward to see Papa Bear looking strange with little darting eyes set into a big fleshy red-veined face sitting on top of an overblown, over old bully's body.
Then he just turns around and walks off back to the kitchen and Chief turns to all of us and says to tear up the place.
And we did and no one stopped us. Not staff, police, Papa Bear, or anyone else. Amazing the damage six guys can do to a place in thirty minutes when they put their minds to it. We did, however, fix that busted toilet. Simply took a crowbar to the porcelain and pulled out the sink with the water running so that nobody needed to worry about finding a plunger anymore.
We moved on to another place down the road for the night, finished the last hundred feet on the job the next day and then went home without stopping to get cleaned-up, drink a cup of coffee, or anything else.
Couple of weeks later we're all called to the Mariposa County Court for malicious and willful damage to private property. Turns out, however, the engineers in the company we worked for were able to find about a dozen fire code violations to what remained of the Hillside Inn that would have cost old Papa Bear more than rebuilding what we took down that night. So all was settled by the respective legal parties by just letting the whole thing go.
This was a good decision 'cause by that time Janice had left for L.A., David had
gone back to school, the work in the mountains was finished, and I was ready to leave
the gatekeeper's house through the front door.
© 1998 D.L. Zimmerman, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
"Mountain Work" also appears at the web site A Writer's Choice Literary Journal
Going up to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and coming down into California’s Central Valley creates a wonderful geographical contrast when you do the trip. But the intent of this story is to level it all into the same field through a bunch of guys working together at staying human, getting the job done, and caring about all the possible differences such things make -- regardless of personal philosophy or travel map.