Category Archives: More about Earl

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part Fin

img086I come by my issues legitimately.

The first Christmas DC and I enjoyed together was nothing but sweetness… except for the Christmas tree  (this yuletide thorn has festered just under the skin from the first Christmas to the last).  God had just brought us through a very difficult health issue and we had our new son, Wesley, to enjoy.  I was overwhelmed by the Lord’s kindness and was feeling well enough to get our tree.  I bought a very respectable fir of some kind, brought it home and dragged it through the doorway.  That’s when our tree issues began.

“Which corner do you want to put it in?” I innocently asked.

“I don’t want it in the corner, I want it in front of the window,” she responded. I laughed a superior little snort of a laugh.

“We can’t put it in front of the window.  It HAS to go in a corner.”  I pointed to the corner that I thought would work well.   “That corner is perfect.”  I started dragging it to the spot.

“It has to go in the corner,”  I grunted as I leaned it against the wall.  I turned to her.  It was a teachable moment.  “If you don’t put it in the corner you won’t have anywhere to tie the strings.”

“Umm.  What strings?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes.  “The strings that you have to tie around the trunk to keep it upright.  Without strings it will fall over.”

She picked up the newly purchased tree stand and pointed at it with just a hint of annoyance.  “Let me introduce you to the tree stand…  John, this is the tree stand.   Tree stand, this is my stupid husband.  They call it a STAND for a reason!”  She ran her hand underneath the words “tree stand” like Carol Merill on Let’s Make a Deal.

I was so completely exasperated with “this woman that Thou hast given me”  (a woman who obviously knew nothing of trees or stands) that I wrenched the stand from her hands, tore it open, slammed it on to the bottom of the tree and set the entire thing upright.

“Make yourself useful and hold the tree for a second.”  It was not the kindest way to speak to the mother of my child.  I crawled underneath the tree while she held it.  I tightened the screws with a smug superiority like I was just about to prove to her and to the entire world that tree stands are a farce.

“Okay, now let go and watch what happens,” I said with as much practiced patience as I could muster.  I braced myself to be crushed by the weight of the tree, but nothing happened.

“I said to let go.”  She knelt down from across the room so she could see me under the tree and waved at me.

I reached up surreptitiously and pushed on the trunk.  It swayed a little, then firmly twanged back into place.   I shook it like I was killing a chicken.   I was dumfounded.  It didn’t fall over.  The world as I had known it my entire life shifted on its axis.  Everyone knows that you have to secure your Christmas tree to the wall.

In case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Why I was decorating the tree in my underwear is still a mystery to me.  Also, in case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Growing up our trees were never plastic, but they were always fake.  Dad loved big, bulky, bulbous trees that looked like they were frozen in time, mid-explosion by high speed photography and that kind of tree wasn’t to be had in our forest – or anywhere on the planet – so Earl improvised.

Using an electric drill and a generous pocketful of screws and twine, Dad would combine the best parts of two or three trees into one.  He would chainsaw one side of the donor tree, press it against the trunk of the regular tree and then bind them together with the twine and a few carefully placed screws.  If there were any bare spots left, holes would be drilled and extra branches would be “grafted” in and then tied to the upper branch with green yarn to keep it from sagging like old skin.

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After everything was in place and the trunk had been braced with 2x4s, Dad would pound two 16 penny nails into the wall, bend them over a bit and then lash the tree to them.  It always felt a bit dangerous to me, like the tree would somehow break its bonds and hunt me while I was sleeping, chanting, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!”

To say that Earl was not a perfectionist is a bit of an understatement.  He was the original Mr. 90 percent and “good enough” was his go-to phrase.  He used to tell the story of cutting stringers for the stairs he was building in our new house.  Every night he would try and fail and then bring the scraps out into the yard and burn them so no one could see his mistakes.  He was not a perfectionist, but he was way too proud to let people see his imperfection.  I think that’s the reason we covered every inch of our tree with garland and tinsel so no one could tell what he had done.

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But the tinsel and garland was no ordinary Mylar affair.  When I was young, tinsel and garland were made from glorious strands of pure molten lead.  Feathery strands of glittery lead that had the heft of a fishing weight and the aerodynamics of a jelly fish.  I was always encouraged to lay them on a few strands at a time, but could never manage it.  The real fun was to wad it up in a ball, throw it as high as you could to bounce it off the ceiling and watch it separate like a bottle rocket and fall in heavy clumps all over the branches.  They were supposed to look like icicles, but they looked more like moldy birds’ nests.  The gray lead marks were still on the ceiling when we moved.

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The lights on our tree were huge and bright and had reflectors behind them that cast a beam of light that would blind you if you stared at them too long.  You had to look at our tree out of the corner of your eye, like you would a solar eclipse, so you wouldn’t burn your retina.  Dad had to use the gas generator to power it because the rest of the lights in the house would dim every time the tree was plugged in and he was afraid it would start a fire.

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And, it was glorious.  It was like Las Vegas had come to visit for a few weeks.  Sure, the lead caused profound hearing loss and I had to compensate for the blindness in my left eye, but our tree was big and hideous and unlike any tree in the neighborhood.  It fit our family perfectly.

I Was Six Years Old Until I Was 47

This is not me, but my dad wearing the safest flotation device on the planet.

This is not me, but my dad wearing the safest flotation device on the planet.

I finally turned 47 when my dad died.

I’m still not sure how I found myself, a 40 year old man, sitting in my dad’s boat with an orange “Mae West” floatation device strapped to my body as we looked for his crab pots in a lee inlet within 100 feet from shore.  Then again, I was fishing with my dad and something would have been amiss had I not been wearing it.

It was just the two of us and there were other perfectly good life vests in his 16 foot Lund, but for some reason he wouldn’t let me in the boat until I strapped the bright orange life preserver to my body.  Dutifully hanging it over my head, I snapped the rusty clasps shut with as much anger as I could muster.  There was no arguing – I had to wear the vest, but there was no way I was going to attach the strap that goes under the legs to keep it from flying off in in case you do fall in, so I let it dangle behind me like dirty white tail hook.

“Snap the leg strap, John!”

I turned without a word and walked with as much dignity as I could muster through the sunbathers, fellow fishermen, and families enjoying a pleasant day at the beach.  Ignoring the snickering and pointing children and tugging at the tail strap every few feet to free it from the cracks and crevices it kept getting stuck in, I made my way to the boat.  I climbed in and sat there in the bow, knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed to push the boat off from shore for fear that I might fall in or get wet.

Putting on a “Mae West” life preserver may keep you safe in the event that you get knocked out and thrown overboard, but there is a reason that no one has ever called it a “dignity preserver.”  There is nothing life-affirming about wearing one.   It’s like wearing a “cone of shame”  to keep you from biting or scratching yourself or like being forced wear adult diapers on the outside of your pants  and then having to walk down main street.

I was wearing this particular flotation device because, in my dad’s eyes, I was in a perpetual state of being six years old.  Because I labored in this perpetual state of sixness I was never allowed, in his presence, to start the gas grill, lean against a deck rail, use spray paint or solvent, and, I always had to stand at the top of the boat ramp while he launched the boat by himself.  If anything he owned could potentially kill me he would not allow me near it.  It was like his house had been child-proofed for his 40 year old son and all potentially harmful items were removed from his garage, shop or house and stored in an undisclosed location when I came over.

It’s not like I’m totally helpless.  I change my own oil, remodel houses, use chop saws regularly, drive boats, mix gas, use a snow blower, and carve a really mean turkey and never once have I had to make a quick trip the ER with a piece of my body on ice so it wouldn’t die before it could be reattached.  But in Earl’s eyes I was the kid that had to wear a “special” helmet when I walked down the street in case I fell down or accidentally walked into a street sign.

His entire life he worried that something would kill me unexpectedly and his relationship to me always reflected that.  He didn’t go as far as smoothing all the sharp corners in the house, but he did give away his boat, his classic car and his golf cart so I wouldn’t get them after he died.  His single greatest fear was that something he once owned, that I now owned, would kill me or one of my kids.  It was so frustrating and made me want to scream and run circles around him with a pair of scissors in each hand and a butcher knife clutched between my teeth point first.

Because of Earl’s morbid fear of my death, there were certain rules that I always had to obey in his presence and one of them was to never, ever stand up in a boat. This had been so thickly ingrained in me for so long that when I took a ferry ride from Seattle to Port Townsend I never stood up once.

If you have labored under this particular penal institution then you will know that there are certain things that are made extremely difficult if you aren’t allowed to stand in a boat, like pulling up crab pots or peeing over the edge.  I never got good at pulling up crab pots while seated, but I became a master at the other.

NB: Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit.  I WAS able to stand up in a boat on occasion, but only if my dad or mom had a hold of the back of my pants, which made it difficult and more embarrassing to do the aforementioned.

As I got older I almost always patently refused to get in the boat with my dad, but he had promised that people were hauling crab by the bucketful and that he had dropped his pots the day before and would need help hauling them.  I love crab so much that I was willing to endure almost anything and that is how I found myself sitting in the bow of the boat wearing a bright orange life vest on a sunny, flat calm day as people frolicked and played all around us.

The trip to the pots took all of about sixty seconds and as my dad cut the motor I began preparing to pull the pots.  I stood up slowly (so I wouldn’t swamp us) and leaned over the railing to get the buoy, but before I knew what was going on his hand shot out and had me by the back of the pants.  He was a very strong man and had dug deep and had such a large handful of pants and underwear that I could barely move.

I squeaked, “Dad!  You’ve got to let go.”

“Grab the pot.”

“Dad!  Let go!”

“You’re going to miss it.  Grab the pot.”

I stood there for a second facing away from him with my arms crossed and his hand firmly clasped to my posterior, giving me an unintended atomic wedgie.  Defeated, I leaned over to grab the pot and found myself stuck in a sort of limbo between the water and my struggling father.  I grabbed the rail of the skiff and pulled myself closer and stretched my arm out to grab the buoy, but the more I stretched towards the buoy, the more he tried to keep me in the boat.

“Dad!  You’ve gotta give me some slack.”

“You’ll be fine.  Get the buoy.”

“Dad, lighten up.  Let go!”

“Get the buoy.”

He was like the counter-balance to my 200 pounds and my pants were the fulcrum.  I leaned as far as I could and felt my pants reposition.  Cold air greeted areas of my body that were not used to the elements and I knew that I was exposing my white shininess for all the world to see.  I was giving Earl a harvest moon in the middle of the summer and it made the indignation somewhat easier to bare (sic).

As I struggled, the “Mae West” ran up around my ears (effectively shutting out all sound) until all that could be seen of me was my hat and eyes. The muffled world that I was now lost in gave me a renewed focus and all that mattered was grabbing the buoy.  I was vaguely aware of Earl’s voice, and assuming that he was telling me not to kill myself, ignored him and pushed off hard with my legs, stretching my entire length and catching the buoy like a rider catching the ring on a carousel.

I held it up in triumph and grabbed for the side of the boat to pull myself in, but the extra weight of the buoy and wet line tipped the scale in my direction and I felt my pants slip down quite a bit more.  I was floundering, literally, as I flailed to catch my balance.  I made a last ditch effort to fling my arm over the rail and as I twisted, the belt on my pants gave way and I hove into the water with a near perfect entry (except for a large splash that would have resulted in a 5/10 deduction from the Russian judge).

The “Mae West” is designed to flip an unconsciousness victim over in the water to keep them from drowning.  It worked as designed and I bobbed once face down and then, against my struggling will, was on my back looking into a clear blue sky.  I was also looking at a ski boat filled with people, none of them wearing life vests, mind you (in fact there were one or two women wearing less than life vests).

I bobbed there between the boats trying desperately to keep my pants from falling down and trailing beneath me like a Portuguese Man-of-War.  It was impossible to re-embark into my own boat with one arm holding my pants up and if I used both arms I was sure to burn up on re-entry.  My dad (all thoughts of me gone from his mind) was having a pleasant conversation, telling these nice people where the best fishing and crabbing was.

Ever the gentleman, he pointed to me.

“Any of you ever been to Pullman?” he asked. They all nodded. “My son runs WSU.  Go Cougs! Right John?”

I feebly waved and tried to tell them that I worked at the bookstore.

Dad interrupted me to tell them where he had once caught a huge salmon.  He pointed and gesticulated with my belt and even gave them his number to call him if they needed further information.  For the life of me though I didn’t see any fishing gear on that boat.  They waved, turned off their cameras and sped away.

After they left I pulled myself over the side of the boat like a walrus beaching itself (Dad was still waving and yelling, “Go Cougs!, Go Cougs! Go Cougs!”). I struggled to reattach my belt to my wet pants and thought of pushing him in as he watched them speed off.

“You know,” he said without turning towards me, “nice people.  I’ve never met anyone from WSU that I didn’t like.”

I hadn’t let go of the buoy when I fell in and it sat at my feet.   I stood to pull the pot and dad’s hand instantly reached for me.  I spun towards him and held up my finger (my index one in case you were wondering).

“Uh uh! Don’t even think about it.”  He turned away slowly and then quickly back again.  That trick hadn’t worked in 34 years and I hadn’t moved.  Defeated he sat down, rummaged through his bag and poured himself a cup of coffee.  I flinched instinctively and began pulling up the pot.

It was heavy and when I finally got it to the boat I could see that it was stuffed with crab.  I hefted it over the rail and the crabs ran all over the boat.  I deftly picked up the little ones and the girls and tossed them over the edge.  The legal ones I plopped into a 5 gallon bucket.

My dad sat on the back seat and pulled the bucket between his legs and began cleaning the crab by ripping off the shell, breaking them in half and washing them in the water.

I was still chasing the small crabs around the boat and trying to clean the star fish and sea weed from underneath the seats when my dad let out a blood curdling scream and strung together the finest pearl necklace of profanities that I have ever heard anyone utter.

I turned to see him making a valiant effort to shed a crab that had reached up, in a last act of defiance, and grabbed a beautiful clawful of the tender skin right smack in the middle of Dad’s inner thigh.  If the Dungeness had reached for the low hanging fruit I would have felt terrible, but as it was it seemed to me to be about the right amount of retribution and I smiled inwardly, a warm glow filling my heart.

With a spring that only joy can produce I leapt  over the seat and with a hard tug pulled the crab from his leg (like ripping a band-aid off of a hairy leg, quick, but not pain free).  Dad howled in agony as the crab came free and he leaned back, gripping the bleeding spot with both hands.  When his back was turned I slipped the offending crab over the edge of boat and plopped it into the water.

Dad turned, looking with death in his eyes for the crab.

“It slipped out of my hands, Dad, and fell into the water.”

“Well, shoot.” Only he didn’t say shoot.

He looked in disbelief over the edge of the boat and watched as the crab sank slowly to the mirky bottom.   My cheerfulness left me as I saw the pain in his eyes and I reached up and grabbed firmly onto the back of his pants – just to be safe.

Teaching Molly the finer points of crabbing

Teaching Molly the finer points of crabbing

Grandpa Earl wasn't the only one with a crab pinch.

Grandpa Earl wasn’t the only one with a crab pinch.

Hot Coffee, Stained Pants and Skin Grafts

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My dad’s coffee gave me the jitters.

Earl was 70 years old when had his first latte.

“Betty, you ever had one of them double Lah..Tays!?”  Betty is my sister (and from Seattle – the latte capital of the world) and it was more of a statement to her than a question.  “It’s the best thing I’ve ever had.  One of the guys bought me one on the way to the golf course today.  I like them!  You ever had one?”   He was off and running before she could answer.  “You ever watched Meerkat Manor?  It’s about these animals that stand up on their back legs and look at stuff.  It’s my favorite show.  Speaking of animals the democrats are ruining our country.  Did you watch the Mariners last night?  They lost again.  Can’t hit to right field.  I played  terrible golf today.  Couldn’t see the ball.  Couldn’t care less.  It was a great round.  Hey, have you ever had a  double Lah..Tay before?”

Earl had never mainlined coffee and I can only imagine that the heavens must have opened for him and he saw salvation on every street corner with a drive-through.   Folgers was the gateway drug into a pure, undefiled, caffeinated woop-woop, heck, I’m going to live forever,  look out, Earl is on the loose feeling!  If his ADHD was bad on Folgers, it was on afterburners when he was on the good stuff.  His crash that evening must have been epic – like taking Nyquil with a whiskey chaser.

As a child I never really understood my dad’s love affair with coffee, but from my earliest years I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t working through at least one cup and hollering at my mom for a refill when it was empty.  Heck, there were times he didn’t even holler, just raised the cup above the daily paper and shook it back and forth like a beggar shaking his tin cup at passersby and my mom, in her beaten down exasperation, always got up and refilled his cup.  At the time it seemed normal, but now I wonder why she didn’t pour it over his head.  I guess it was always so much easier to do what he demanded than to fight with him about it.

NB: When I was a teenager I turned agreeing with Earl into an art form.  I could agree with him in such a way that it would give him apoplectic fits.  When he berated me for my lack of motivation and told me I would amount to nothing better than a ditch digger (the epitome of the lowest of the low), I would tell him in my best Disney voice that if that happened I would be the best darn ditch digger I could be.  Combine that insolence with my innocent expression and hand motions and I could bring him to the brink of violence in a heartbeat. 

In reality I was petrified of Earl’s coffee.  I know it may seem odd to be afraid of coffee, but I had seen what it could do and wouldn’t come near it after mom set it next to him.  In her hands it was safe.  In his hands it was a liquid hand grenade in a cup.  It was a hot blue mug of steaming nitroglycerin ready to explode at the smallest provocation and my dad was always that provocation.

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Earl had ADHD before anyone even knew what ADHD was and I lived in constant fear that his searing hot coffee would engulf me in a tsunami of brownness and scald me over 90 percent of my body.  He wasn’t one of those burn-your-kids-on-purpose kind of dads, but his distraction drove me to be very attentive whenever there was coffee around and especially when we were in the car.

Drinking while driving was one of the monkeys that my dad was never able to get off his back.  But that monkey had nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with coffee.  The family’s AMC Jeep Wagoneer was a marvel of American ingenuity in every way but one – it had no cup holders.  It could climb a waterfall of ice in winter, carry enough gear to outfit an entire baseball league, and haul the carcasses of six dead deer and one Christmas tree all at the same time, but it lacked that one very important feature. And, if anyone on this planet could have used a cup holder, it was Earl.

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Driving anywhere with my dad was an adventure, but heading to a baseball game always brought his frenzy to a different level.  He would open the driver’s door and throw in his Thermos, shattering the insides like a Christmas ornament (he purchased the glass inserts by the gross), jump in beside it and set his cup of molten lava onto the expansive dashboard.  I usually offered to hold the cup for him (against my better judgement), but he would always bluster about me worrying too much and slap my hands back as I reached for it.

To say that my dad liked his coffee hot would be a gross misunderstanding of the word hot.  If the coffee in his cup wasn’t the temperature just below the point where water turns from a liquid into a gas, he would dump it out and have mom get him a new one.  And it was this boiling hot cup of pumice that he would set on the dash.

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As soon as his butt hit the seat he would go into the Wagoneer starting routine.  His arms and legs were a blur of motion as he mashed the gas pedal repeatedly, yanked the choke and turned the key back and forth countless times until the engine roared to life. He would instantly jam the Jeep into gear with his foot still on the throttle so it wouldn’t stall, all thoughts of the cup gone from his mind.

The mug would hiss as it slid across the dash.  Earl would slam on the brakes and stab at it like he was wearing boxing gloves and the coffee would spray over everything and everyone like Vesuvius burying Pompeii.  I had mastered the art of making myself really small, hugging my legs to my chest, but I was rarely spared and still have the scars on my arms and legs to prove it.

I was convinced that my dad had no feeling on the tops of his legs.  He would cuss and swear at us for spilling his coffee, but he did nothing about cleaning himself up and seemed to enjoy the feeling of having hot coffee running down his leg into his boots. I’ve had an aversion to wearing wet clothes ever since and looking at his pants clinging to his chicken legs made my skin crawl, but he would just turn on the heater and go his merry way.

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This always led to another problem. So much coffee had been spilled into the defroster that the green dash had a brown sheen and whenever we turned the blower on (which was every time we went anywhere), brown cumulonimbus thunderheads spewed forth turning the car into a full-bodied Nescafe rainforest.  Driving in that car felt like sitting in a sauna where someone had poured old coffee over the hot rocks and then forced you to sit in it your entire childhood.

Old people at my dad’s baseball games used to love me, not because I was particularly lovable, but because after riding in the Wagoneer I smelled so much like a cup of hot Sanka.  They would hug me and linger just a bit too long for my comfort, sniffing all the time like an old dog at a carpet stain.

Earl coached baseball for over 25 years, mostly, I think, because of the free coffee he got at the ball park.  It was hot, like it had been plumbed from the depths of Hades and it was to be had in abundance.  (I tried their hot chocolate once and I was saddled with a speech impediment until the scab finally peeled off my tongue.)  He had fourteen kids on his team, nine of them for the field, four as back-ups, and one as the coffee runner.  I know that on at least one occasion the coffee runner peed in his Thermos.  I’m not sure at what point my dad realized it was tainted and I was never brave enough to ask.

Twenty years after leaving Alaska he had that first latte.  A continuous diet of antacids helped him stomach the reconstituted freeze dried crystals he drank for so many years and that first taste of liquid heaven in a paper cup must have been an epiphany because the next day he bought himself his very own espresso machine.

Let’s just say his level of awareness stayed the same, but his level of awakeness went through the roof.   I’m just glad that his friend hadn’t bought him a Red Bull on the way to golf.  I don’t think his family could have taken it.

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My Dad Often Pretended to be a Duck

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A duck call should not be a weapon or a flotation device.

Earl was a modern day Dr. Doolittle.  He was also my dad and I swear he could actually talk to ducks – calling to them like the Pied Piper called to rats.  He apparently knew the right thing to say because they always seemed very comfortable and relaxed right up until the moment they were blasted out of the sky with 2 3/4″ magnum sixes.  Boy, did my dad know how to call ducks!

NB: A magnum 6 is a shotgun shell that makes a huge roar and sprays little pellets at cute feathered animals with the force of a tiny Hiroshima.  In hunting parlance it would be considered the humane and sporting way to kill defenseless animals for fun.

There is something visceral and primordial about sitting in a duck blind trying to kill as many birds as possible, but even when I was young something seemed not quite right about letting good meat go to waste.  I guess I liked what it felt like to have my picture taken with dead animals hanging around my neck and knowing that I was a pretty darn good shot and I felt a weird sense of pride at being able to kill so well.  I even fooled myself into thinking that I was a good at putting meat on the table.   Technically, it would be more accurate to say that I was good at putting meat in our freezer because the meat never actually got to our table.  The frozen duck carcasses lay in our freezer for years until we moved.  At that point they were thrown away without a second thought.  But, at least having them in the freezer tucked away for years, nestled under the pizza rolls and boxes of ice cream, made me feel better about hunting.

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I was never thrilled with hunting the night before a hunting trip.  Sleep rarely came easy because of the one thought that ran through my head on an endless loop: “there are living things out there right at this moment that didn’t know they would be dead in the morning.”  I was all bravado in the evening as we sat around talking about past exploits and how much we had killed, but then when I went to bed I would be racked with guilt.  The guilt would pass in the morning with the sunlight, but would crop up at times during the day whenever I had to wring the neck of a duck or goose that I hadn’t cleanly killed.  It has always been hard for me to grasp a creature by the neck and kill it because I decided it shouldn’t live any more.  But hey, I hunted on because you know the old maxim, “If there is no lead a flyin’ there’s no meat a dyin’.”

I hope you’re not getting the wrong idea about me.  Just because I’m not a huge fan of ME hunting, doesn’t mean that I don’t think others should hunt, even if it’s just for sport.  You will not find a single redwood splinter on me from hugging a tree or boat marks on my back from getting run over trying to protect the whales (whalers have to eat too).  I know where meat comes from and I have a 1/4 beef sitting in my freezer right now waiting to be charred over a hot bed of coals.  However, it does give me an added feeling of justification if the meat from my, or anybody else’s, road kill actually goes to some good use.

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Earl on the right

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My dad and his friends used to come home from deer hunting with so many deer slung over the stern of the boat that it looked like the boat had a hairy brown fungus growing over it.  I have heard that Orca migration patterns were changed permanently because of chum trail left in the boat wake on their return.

Once the pictures were taken at the dock and the posturing was done, and the talk of how there was going to be a huge a wild game feed was over, we would go home and the meat would never be seen or heard from again.   There must have been over 4000 pounds of meat on that boat and I never saw a single 8 oz. petite sirloin cross my plate.  I never, once, and I mean ever, had venison for dinner.   Where it went was a mystery.  It was like a giant sheet was placed over the deer pile and when it was pulled back a fanfare was played and the meat was gone.

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Earl cleaning wildfowl that would never see our table

We never ate any wild game, not even salmon we caught, and we caught a ton of them.  I can remember catching salmon, cleaning salmon, fileting salmon and storing the eggs to catch more salmon, but I can’t ever remember eating any of it.  We gave a lot of it away though (mostly to Judge Keene). I guess I’m now wondering if Earl was greasing the skids in some way.  I’m not sure if he was trying to get rid of the meat because we wouldn’t eat it, paying the judge for the many times he didn’t get thrown in jail for fighting, or just showing off because he always sent me down with the biggest fish.

The only salmon I ever remember eating was when my mom made salmon cakes, and I know for a fact that the salmon for those cakes came from a can because I loved to open cans when I was a kid (more weirdness).   Can you imagine living in Alaska, being a salmon fisherman and eating only canned salmon?  I’m sure it was canned locally, but still, the idea of it is bizarre.

I hated salmon cakes because none of the bones in canned salmon were ever removed.  Most of them were soft enough to eat, but once in a while you would bite down on a vertebrae and it would make a soft, crunching sound like you were breaking the back of a slug (I know they are invertebrates, but that’s what it was like).   To this day I can’t stare a salmon cake in the eye without flinching.

Earl was an excellent caller of game.  Given his personality it makes a lot of sense.  He was always good at getting people to buy what he was selling,  luring them in with wacky advertising or promises of grandeur and then making the kill.  Whether it was furniture, fishing gear, golf clubs, totem poles or getting Governor Egan elected state governor, he always found a way to get people (or animals) to buy what he was selling.

He loved the hunt and the kill, but he was terrible at the follow through and he left the dead meat of countless “friendships” in his wake.  No one really got close to Earl unless you let Earl be Earl and did what he said and what he wanted.  If you didn’t, there would be hell to pay.  People either enjoyed the ride with my dad or they wanted to get out of the car really quickly.   Being young, I was in and out of his car so often that I wasn’t sure if I was driving, riding in the trunk or watching it peel away from the curb.

Earl loved almost nothing better than duck hunting though.   Some of my best memories of my dad come from sitting in the blind with him.  He wasn’t demanding or hollering or telling me or my mom what to do or reading his paper while you were trying to talk to him.   He was attentive, kind and encouraging and the only thing he wanted from me was to pour him about a half of a cup of coffee (a full cup got cold too quickly and he loved his coffee hot) into the red plastic cap of the thermos and kill as many ducks as possible.  I never drank coffee, but when I poured that half cup and the steam from it curled to my face  I wanted more than anything to WANT to drink coffee.  He would hold up his hand and say “give me some skin” and when I slapped his hand he would hold on to it for just a second and then take a sip of his coffee.

img057 Earl never wore gloves no matter how cold it was. He always said he liked to only wear them on the way home because it felt so good to put them on (I thought it felt good to have them warm both to and from the boat ride to the blind, but this was his logic, not mine).  His pale, thin-skinned hands, mottled with age spots would be red and looking like they had the beginnings of frost bite as he gripped the call like he was holding onto a roll of pennies during a fist fight.  He would cup his other hand over the end of the call to vary the sound, like a trumpet player using a mute.  He would press the call to his lips – a small bead of clear liquid always precariously clinging to the end of his nose – and blast away on his duck trumpet until my ears would split and then we would watch.

You could almost see the interest on the faces of the ducks as they  turned towards our decoys.  It was like a siren’s call that they had to answer.  He would blow a few more times even louder letting the ducks know that our decoys had seen them and were excited to have company.  As they got closer he would chortle into his Pied Piper’s flute and the feeding call would make the ducks think they were coming to a feast.  Closer they would come and then they would set their wings and my dad would say “now!” and we would jump up and blaze away into the overcast sky, ducks falling from the clouds like cats and dogs.

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Lots of dead animals

Earl was constantly buying duck calls because he was always looking for the perfect sound.  He was like the Ace Frehley of duck calling.  The closest he ever came to finding the perfect call was when he brought home “Magnum.”  It was huge and about the best thing I had ever seen.  I have learned recently that the call was never designed to be used in the field.  It was a store display used to advertise a much smaller version, but it was his go-to call and had a mellow deep sound like the Barry White of duck calls (it’s probably why we shot more hens on those trips).   It was a pain to pack around since it was so large and looked like something a German soldier would throw in WWII movies, but Earl was never without it when we were in the blind.  He hunted for years with it and I think he even used it to club baby Harp seals once or twice.    I found it in his garage when he passed away.

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Difficult harmony

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Another use for Magnum

I never hunt anymore, but I have duck calls.  The closest I’ve come to using any of them is when the kids and I sat in my room the other day and tried to play the Vandal fight song.  These calls are not me.