1956. I was ready for sleep. The rabbit, cooked over the open fire, was eaten. So were the potatoes—baked in the coals with a mud coating to keep the skin soft. The bunny had been fetched with my trusty single shot .410 shotgun. I always used #6 shot size, good for both rabbits and squirrels as well as birds—pigeons, doves, quail. Mr. Stoval, owner of Stoval’s Hardware in our little community, kept a box on the shelf just for me. And allowed me to purchase a few shells at a time, helpful to my finances as the local Handy Kid. (Earnings were only about fifty cents an hour, but I thrived anyway by being frugal, and careful.) Sometimes I would buy only two shells. Sufficient fodder for a day/night/day on-foot campout. Mr. Stoval also allowed me to purchase a few slug shells. My Special Place was located in scrub land between Dallas and Mesquite. Mostly mesquite trees and some rough meadows, clearings. Whoever owned that land ran some cattle. The bulls and I had many face-offs over the years I practiced being a Mountain Man on that land. The slugs were for the bulls. Or coyotes. Or, in my robust 13 year-old’s imagination, wolves and grizzlies.
I was a functional reader at the age of five. I read the usual boy’s books—The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, et al. But my favorite fare was Mountain Man stuff. Daniel Boone. Lewis and Clark. John Colter. Sam Bass. Jedediah Smith. I was absorbed fully in such lore, and emulated, practiced, at wilderness craft form a very early age. At six, I saved enough money from my 25 cents a week allowance to send off to Boulder Colorado for a mail-order sheath knife from the Western Cutlery Company. Mom and Dad didn’t think I could save that much. My siblings and the other kids roundabout spent what money they had at the fold-open freezer in the ubiquitous Ice Cream Truck that cruised our lane regularly. Not me. Mountain Man Discipline had taken hold. I still have that Western knife. I have given it a most satisfactory life.
I suppose I was a trespasser on the land I roamed. I reached it by mounting the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks behind our house and heading east toward Mesquite, leaving the tracks after about a mile and crossing a ramshackle fence to enter the scrub. No Man’s Land. Completely mine. No roads. No man-made structures. In the years I learned wilderness craft there I never saw another soul. Even if I had encountered someone it would have hardly been a Big Deal. In 1956 nobody cared if a kid was seen toting a shotgun. A .22. The Fifties were a mellower era. It was a time when doors were not locked. Routinely, our family would return from even an overnight trip and just open the screen door and walk in—home. This, in summer (there being no air conditioning to keep in); in winter the door was closed, but the house was still frigid, as the heat source was a single gas space heater, which was NEVER left lit except during the daytime, and when we were there to monitor the thing. (Hitting the oak floor barefoot in a stone-cold house of a winter morning to light the heater was my job as the oldest kid, and I shall never forget the sensation.)
My shelter this night was an Army Surplus Poncho-rigged affair—two ponchos affixed together to create an A-frame “tent”, in effect. Surplus wool blankets comprised the bedding. (There was no such thing as foam or air sleeping pads in those days; I consider such things one of the BIG advances in wilderness roaming technology advances by the way. Make that HUGE, in fact.) My pack was an Austrian Ski Troops pack, also from the Army Surplus emporium. The Army Surplus Store, and the local library, were my favorite haunts. A kid making fifty cents an hour performing scut work for stingy neighbors needed really cheap sources for equipping himself to spend lots of 24 hour time outdoors. The Surplus Store is a Landmark in my early development—worthy of reverent celebration to this day. America of the Fifties could have done no better by its young men-to-be who hankered for the outdoor life.
But let’s get back to the story at hand. This was a winter camp. I was going to try a Mountain Man trick for sleeping on cold ground I’d read about in one of those books. I had dug a trench where my bed was to be. (Using Mom’s gardening trowel—an official Surplus Entrenching Tool was not only extravagantly expensive but also extravagantly heavy for backpacking. I was learning the ropes at an early age.) The removed dirt was carefully piled alongside the trench. I judged the fire’s coal bed to be just right for my purpose, and troweled those coals into the trench–spreading evenly. Then the dirt went back on top of the coals. My blankets went atop the dirt. And I bedded down, smug in the expectation of a warm night’s sleep.
I was awakened by the stench of singed wool and a distinct sensation of heat—too much heat—along my backside! Yikes! I had obviously buried the coals too shallow. I never made that mistake again. (I’ve learned many lessons the hard way. We’ll likely talk about more as we move along on our Journey.)
Many years later I saw the movie Jeremiah Johnson. Readers know the story well—the very same thing happened to our movie hero. And so you’ll understand why I laughed harder, and longer, than anyone else in the theater.