Monthly Archives: September 2012

Squeamish Scouts

How many boy scouts does it take to kill a chicken?

Just one if he has anything but sand in his scrotum. Trouble was, my buddy Gale and I both showed a squeamish side at our first Caveman Cookout as members of Troop 50 in the woods of Camp Sevenitch.

We were town boys, 12 or 13 at the time, and we came fully prepared with the limited gear allowed to each two-man team: our sleeping bags and rain ponchos, one shovel, a compass, three matches, our pocket knives and the clothes we wore. Oh, and they gave us each a raw potato to go with our live poultry.

We had no trouble hunting down our hen by following the compass directions given to us. The bird was right where it was supposed to be, tethered to a tree, where there was no escape unless cut free by an imbecilic scout who failed to hold on.

We left our hen tied as we built a fire and fashioned a lean-to from our joined ponchos. Some scouts would wrap their chicken in leaves and cook it by burying it under coals, along with the potatoes. We weren’t into that. We thought roasting on a spit was the way to go, once the chicken was dead.

“You do it,” I said.

“Naw, go ahead,” Gale replied.

Older scouts had told us the best way to kill a chicken was to simply hold the head, spin the bird a couple times and then snap the head off with a quick jerk. But that didn’t fly with us, as jerking  the head off seemed about as civil as biting it off.

“Tell you what,” Gale said after protracted deliberations. “I”ll cut the damn head off if you’ll just hold him.”

“Fine,” I said. “You kill it and I’ll clean it.”

The act should’ve been routine. But when the chicken began flapping and squawking as Gale started to saw through the neck, I lost my nerve, and grip, and the bound bird flopped to the ground, still very much alive.

“Geez, couldn’t you just hold on for a few more seconds,” Gale said.

“No,” I said. “I have this thing about live chickens. It’s all I can do to even touch one.”

The second assault involved the shovel, swinging it ax-like. But the chicken refused to lie still and play Marie Antoinette. The result was a badly beaten, but still breathing bird.

Cutting to the chase, we then used the tethering cord to hang the hen like a horse thief, before Gale finally did what was necessary, using gravity to maintain stretch while sawing though the neck.

Plans to roast her on a spit fell through when we had trouble pulling all the feathers. An attempt to burn off the feathers begat both a bad smell and a blackened bird, which was only partially consumed – with raw potatoes – before all leftovers were cremated.

(Note: This was written as a WritersKickstart prompt on the topic of Roles.)

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Unsupported Amusement

It took her years to get the joke, but that only made it more amusing.

My wife saw a recent Facebook posting from a childhood friend, who was a buddy of her younger brother, and it reminded her of a long-ago summer at the New Jersey seashore where she picked up on a verbal chiding that the boys often would holler when a cyclist rode past: “Hey, why ride a bike, when you can wear one?”

She didn’t get it, but it sounded good at the time, and she whole-heartedly joined in the fun. All summer. And from time to time from then on.  Never really gave it much thought.

Wasn’t until 12-13 years later, while working in newspaper advertising and retrieving an ad proof from a sporting goods store in Fairbanks, Alaska, that she noticed BIKE athletic supporters in the display case. Suddenly, she was 13 again, and seeing bikes on the boardwalk.

Red-faced,  she phoned her brother in Philadelphia to share the revelation and got the horse laugh along with the admonition, “I thought you knew!”

Silly girl. Product of Catholic grade-schooling. Probably never heard a limerick with “Nantucket” in it, either.

Her brother is now gone, but the memories remain sweet and precious. No word yet on the friend’s recollection.

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Fishing with Boo Radley

“Drop the knife, Boo, and grab the net!”

It was our first strike of the day, and it felt like a big one as I reeled away, having cut the troller motor to set us adrift while tending to business.

Boo nearly fell as he barreled from the seat where he’d been cutting bait to the side of our 24-foot Boston whaler, leaning over the cloudy river water with our net.

“Comin’ up now, buddy. Get the net ready. Get it in the water and come up from behind and lift up. There, you’ve got him. Nice job. Now hold the handle up and close it before . . . ”

Robert Duvall made his 1962 screen debut as Arthur “Boo” Radley in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Too late. A wave came up and lifted my salmon right out of the net before Boo could react, allowing the fish to throw the hook and flop free.

“Son of a bitch, Boo. We had him right up to the boat. Right in the net. Son of a bitch.”

Arthur “Boo” Radley looked incredulous. It happened so fast he had no idea what he’d done right or wrong. But his eyes showed hurt, misting up just like the morning air around us at Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia River. He said nothing, which wasn’t a surprise as he’d said very little all morning except an occasional, “OK then!”

A glum and rather oafish man, Boo never said much at home either, since moving from Georgia all the way across the county after his close kin died and relatives in Portland set him up in group care. But I got him to sorta smile once when he overheard me telling the caregiver she had all of the charm of a drill sergeant but only half the looks. That cost me my working privileges at the home, but not my visiting privileges.

“It’s all right, Boo. We’ll get another fish. A bigger one,” I added hastily, trying to take back the guilt that was cast, as I fired up the motor to get the boat back under control in the crowded waterway teaming with fishing boats criss-crossing from every direction.

The second strike hit Boo’s pole, and he leaped up to grab it and set the hook, just as another boat clipped ours while maneuvering to land a fish of its own.

“Look out, idiot,” said an angler from the other boat, reaching over to grasp Boo’s line and cut it with a knife. “Get the fuck out of the way. We got a fish on here!”

Luckily, the fellow was wearing a life jacket, as Boo suddenly threw himself headlong over our railing and theirs, catching the line cutter chest-high and taking both men over the far side and into the water.

The other guy got fished out, but Boo never did surface to answer the charge of being a crazy, wild-eyed bastard.

“Just a quite guy from one of the group homes nearby,” I told the sheriff. “Seemed kinda shy, in fact.”

(Note: This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt on the topic: Take a favorite literary character and write about them in a new chapter, scene or circumstance. Check this for a character study of Harper Lee’s memorable boogeyman from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)

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The Prodigal Shithead

(Note: This is a loose street rendition of a Bible parable for those who might be challenged by the King James version.)

OK, so there’s this Rich Dude that everybody knows and respects. Owns car washes in like five states where folks come in like once a once week and listen to good music while getting all shined up and feelin’ good about themselves.

And this Rich Dude, he’s got two sons workin’ in the family business, and he loves ‘em like crazy and says, “Boys, this is all gonna be yours one day.” But one of the boys  says, “I love you, too,  Daddy, but I ain’t into waitin’ around for you to get old or die. So how’s about you settle up with me right now and I’ll hug ya and say, ‘Thank you, Sir,’ and just take it on down my own road whilst I’m still young enough to enjoy it.”

So the Rich Dude says, “Son, you’re startin’ to sound like a shithead, but if that’s what you want, OK. ” And he hugs the Shithead’s neck and sends him off in a big ol’ car with a truck full of money.

Now the Shithead, he figures he don’t need to work no more, and he starts drinkin’ and smokin’ dope and partyin’ and buyin’ more cars and bettin’ on football and snortin’ lines off whore bellies, and before long, he finds himself all fucked up, out of money and basically circlin’ the drain. He’s desperate for work, but too proud to go back home to Daddy, who he ain’t even called since leavin’ with the money. So he takes a shit  job with an asphalt company, and they work his ass off, pavin’ roads in hot weather and kickin’ up dirt and dust and oily shit that raises hell with the paint on every man’s car that happens along whenever and where ever pavin’ is going down.

After awhile, the Shithead gets all the shine worked off and he’s low as he can go when he finally  comes to terms with the fact that he’s a shithead who’d be better off washin’ cars for Daddy than makin’ ’em dirty. So he decides to go back to the Rich Dude and beg him for a job holdin’ hose or wipin’ down cars or tyin’ to get puke and jizz stains off upholstery.

Well, the Rich Dude sees the Shithead coming when he’s still draggin’ ass up the street, but instead of being pissed, it’s like he’s just won the Super Bowl. He sends car wash folks to hose the Shithead down and get him a fine suit and some new shoes and some bling. Then he sends folks to the  best barbeque place in town to pick up  ribs, chicken, pulled pork, beans, potato salad,  corn, cold slaw and cornbread for a big ol’ party. And he buys kegs of microbrew to wash it all down, and hires a great dance band backed by a full orchestra to rock everyone’s socks clean off.

But now, the Shithead’s brother sees all this and wonders, “What the fuck?” and refuses to join the party cuz the Shithead ain’t been put in his proper place.

And the Rich Dude  sees this and comes outside the party and says, “What the fuck’s with you. Get your ass into the party.”

But the brother says, “Fuck, no, I ain’t  goin’ cuz the Shithead fucked all of us by just thinkin’ of himself and walkin’ out on the family business. And it’s all been in the papers, and now we all look like dummies for takin’ him back, no questions asked, just like he never left.”

And the Rich Man says, “Whoa there, boy, this ain’t about the Shithead. This is about you and me, and you feelin’ sorry for yourself for takin’ care of business and doin’ just what you shudda been doin’ all this time.

“Don’t be tellin’ me how a daddy should feel when one of his boys comes home after walkin’ off. I love all my family just the same. I love you and your brother and your mama and your sisters and every one of the folks that works for me and tends to business, and there’s plenty for everybody. I’m just glad the Shithead came back before he died snortin’ lines off some whore’s belly. And you should be glad, too, cuz he’s your brother, and me taking him back don’t mean I love you any less.

“Look at it like this: Any shithead or sorry motherfucker pissin’ and moanin’ about workin’ in our car wash or the service we give, he can be a pain in the ass, and sometimes it’s best for business if he just leaves for awhile. But we don’t bust his balls for comin’ back. We say, ‘Motherfucker, welcome back!’ And we wash his fuckin’ car and try to help him get his shine back.

“Now get your ass inside and have some ribs and cornbread, before Mama gets pissed and starts throwin’ shit.”

 

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Wad was that?

Woke up in church the other day when I heard the phrase “shot my wad” uttered from the pulpit.

Got to hand it to the pastor for grabbing my attention with that one.   I believe he used it in the context of simply feeling finished or spent, rather than losing at the casino or forgetting to put a ball in his musket load. But he opened the door to male ejaculation.  Slipped it right into the sermon and moved on without even pausing for a cigarette.

Offended? Not me, but I couldn’t help looking for reaction from other parishioners.  Nothing but blanks.  No one wiping their forehead. Perhaps they were sleeping, too, with eyes open.  Good trick to master for the early service following a late-night Saturday adventure.

Then again, I was sitting near the back.  Maybe it was “taught by rod” or “fought my god” or something like that.

No, the man does not mumble. It was clearly “shot my wad.”  Could’ve sought clarification afterward, but didn’t want to come off like Pee Wee Herman or some sophomore in phys-ed.  Might have suggested objection to the pastor’s  earthiness.

I like a bit of earthiness with my godliness. Talk to me in language that I understand. On my own level.  Even if I’m only half-listening.

Had been sensing wax buildup in one ear. Pulpit squirt cleared that right up.

Closing hymn in my head as a I drove home: “Wad a friend we have in . . . “

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Poop Patrol

Greyhounds are a competitive breed. And when you have more than one, as I do, the poop in your yard goes up exponentially. I swear, two greys will subconsciously try to outshit each other. And when there are four or five, you’d swear by the evidence in your yard that a camel or two has also passed through.

I’ve had seven greys of my own over the years – each adopted through Greyhound Pets, Inc. — and with more than two dozen greyhound fosters and vacationing dogs added to the

Yin and Yang

mix, I’ve had as many as five greys staying in my house at once. That makes for lots of crap in the yard and plenty of practice with the scooper. I’m a terrible golfer, but my 6-inch putting stroke is deadly.

Another thing about greyhound potty habits, they like to spread it around. My fenced backyard is about 2,700 square feet, which makes poop patrol a veritable Easter egg hunt. The fence line is always well-mined, especially the north fence, as if a Viking horde lurked just  on the other side, awaiting only a non-slip surface to invade.

Frosty mornings are the best time to scoop, because the turds are hard and easy to manipulate. I collect the specimen in empty dog food bags, wrap those in garbage sacks and dispose of them with other household refuse. Still, I’ve fantasized about many potential uses. If you could catch a buzz smoking dog dung, I’d be a rich man. Imagine that greyhound droppings were the missing catalyst in the formula for rapid weight loss. Dealing with high schoolers who park near my home and empty their ashtrays and McDonald’s breakfast bags under their cars, I’m sometimes tempted to litter back by tossing a turd or two on their windshields. I’ve never done that, but if war were declared, I’d be a dog shit superpower.

Speaking of frosty dog piles, they sparked a euphemism where I used to work as a copy editor in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports department.  One day, when desk banter touched on the topic of dog shit, someone used the term “steamer” to describe a turd so fresh you can still see the vapors wafting off. Thereafter, “steamer” became a staple of copy desk jargon, generally describing the ragged work of stringers reporting on high school games,  as in, “Oh my god, he threw a steamer on my plate right at deadline!”

I once proofed a posting by P-I art critic Regina Hackett on her Art to Go blog on the work of Andres Serrano, who had a show at Yvon Lambert in New York featuring 66 large Cibachrome prints of human and animal dung. Now, my dogs are no Serrano, but I swear that over the years I’ve scooped up likenesses of Popeye, Elmer Fudd and Rush Limbaugh.

(Note: This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt on the topic Something Ugly with a Silver Lining.)

 

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Hand-Me-Downs

An old doll holding a crucifix in hazy green light forms a ghost-like image that calls me back to a time before my birth, but strangely familiar in a déjà vu sense. The doll in her long dress and bonnet sits at a desk, perhaps like the ones that filled the old North Dakota school house where my dear Aunt Esther taught in the 1920s and early ‘30s in the village of Fort Ransom, which sprang up when the old army post closed its gates in the 1870s. Esther was my mom’s eldest sister, and her salary paid the grocery bill to help the Highness family meet ends every

This image served as the prompt for Hand-Me-Downs in a Writers Kickstart exercise.

six months or so. Esther never had any children of her own, but she had nine siblings, seven of which during her time as a teacher still lived at home, where my Grandma Emma kept house and my Grandpa Butch did whatever he could to clothe the bunch and put food on the table. Butch never finished school but the old Norwegian was a prolific hunter and fisherman who could read well enough to educate himself in the ways of animal husbandry and serve local farmers as an uncertified country veterinarian, for which he generally received bartered goods in lieu of money because most of the local farmers in those days were as cash-poor as he was. Emma, the eldest daughter from a big Swedish family as large as her own, was an avid worshiper at Stiklestad Lutheran Church and kept her own brood bonded together with unconditional love and a soap-and-water attitude that cleansed hearts as well as bodies, and inspired the work ethic that made Esther a godsend for those lean and dry years on the prairie that made up the Dirty Thirties.  Mom said her family never had a Christmas tree until Esther was finally able to bring one home from the schoolhouse after classes were let out for the holidays. If my mom ever had a doll, it was probably a hand-me-down from Esther or from second big sister Helen, another woman who would never have a child of her own but would later take in nieces and nephews for whole summers at a time and would also care for her bedridden father in the last years of his life. Yes, the crucifix in the doll’s hand says much to me in another sense of hand-me-downs. A handful of love and right-minded spirit held out for all to see and grasp, even in the hardest of times. I cherish the homespun love and faith that my mother inherited and in turn passed down from the black-and-white world that she kept alive in her photo albums – where only good memories survived.

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Ransom Roots

I chose Ransom Man as the name of my blog because my family is rooted in the prairie lands of Ransom County, N.D., where I was born and where both of my parents grew up and where their families of Norwegian and Swedish stock were among the early pioneers.

Home base was Fort Ransom, a village that sprang up on the Sheyenne River near the site of a former army post (18671-72) named for Civil War Union Major Gen. Thomas Edward Greenfield Ransom, who died of dysentery (that’s the shits) in 1864 while chasing Gen. John Bell Hood’s rebel forces near Rome, Ga.

My dad moved us to the Puget Sound area of  Washington state when I was a twerp, but I feel tied to Fort Ransom through visits and extensive genealogy research.

Ten Things to Know About Fort Ransom

  • Scorching summers.
  • Sub-zero winters.
  • Mosquitoes the size of humming birds.  (When the University of North Dakota gets around to changing its Fighting Sioux nickname,  it might well consider Herc’n Bloodsuckers in recognition of the  insect.)
  • My uncle told me you could put a canoe in the Sheyenne and paddle all the way to Hudson’s Bay.
  • Great place to shoot gophers.  (Buffalo are gone, but deer and antelope still play there.)
  • My cousin Virgil’s place on Bear’s Den Hill near the ruins of the old fort  includes a spring-fed natural amphitheater steeped in antiquity as a probable vision quest site for Native American people, and a nearby “Writing Rock” features cup marks in an astrological arrangement similar to the oldest cup marks found anywhere in North America.
  • Mooring stones like those used by the Vikings were found in the vicinity, proving absolutely that Norse might’ve made it there (no doubt fighting the current all the from Hudson’s Bay).
  • Lefse, lutefisk and my mother’s ring cakes were all perfected there; also home of the Internet venture Youbetchatube.
  • There’s still a tavern in town, but the venerable Fort Ransom Cafe is no more. (So, if you go, you might want to pack your own lunch. But don’t worry about coffee; there’ll be a pot anywhere you go, and the Writing Rock contains the oldest cup marks . . . )
  • If you’re from there, too, we’re almost certainly related.

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Group Therapy

I joined a local writers’ group a few months ago, and this blog is the result.

I was seeking support and inspiration to refocus on my novel, which I hadn’t looked at for more than a year. Blogging, I was told, is essential for all writers in this multi-platform world of e-books and social media.  Also heard that I need to brand. Just hope I don’t hurt myself, as I did with the wood-burning tool that my older brother told me not to mess with. Wood burning looked easy enough. Hard, though, for a kid who liked to hold pencils near his mouth while thinking.

Like I need another distraction to take typing time away from my story of teen pals, preachers, prostitutes and river pirates in the 1880s Pacific Northwest.

Well, turns out I do! At least I’m typing and sharing regularly. And as I’ve always told myself, all that I lack as a writer is a body of work.  If you write, you are by definition a writer.  Never mind whether you’re a good, decent or poor writer.  That’s for the critics to decide.  Just be the writer.

I have no answer for writer’s block, except to say that real writers by nature are compelled to write. Now, thanks to blogging, anyone can easily share their work or thoughts  and get feedback. That’s also why I enjoy my  circle of friends in Writers Kickstart. We write to amuse ourselves and to share tips about being (gasp!) published. It’s all very supportive and constructive. My colleagues  are extremely talented and passionate about their work.  We’ve got sci-fi fanciers,  world builders, humanists, poets,  darksiders and spiritualists.  Some of it’s raw. Often it’s humorous.  Always it’s entertaining. If you filmed us, the soundtrack could include bagpipes playing “It’s Long Way to the Top . . . ”

I spent 33 years as a newspaper journalist and figured I could easily make up better stories than the ones bound by truth.  Turns out, that’s not the case.  I enjoy history and read much more nonfiction that fiction. Among the journalists I’ve most admired are news commentator  Eric Sevareid and sports columnist Art Thiel.  Two fiction writers that I particularly enjoy are Garrison Keillor and Chuck Palahniuk.

When I’m dry of fresh ransom notes, I intend to post an occasional prompt that I’ve written and shared as an exercise for one of our bi-weekly Writers Kickstart meetings. Each meeting, someone suggests a topic and we write about it in 500 words or less. You can write strictly on topic, or vaguely on topic, or ignore the prompt and write something entirely unrelated.  Rules are like prison bars for anyone seeking escape; the bendable the better. I lean toward memoirs as I try to embrace the adage to “write about something you know.”

The current prompt from Writers Kickstart is to take a favorite fictional character and write about them, putting them in a new scene, new story or any sort of new light. I’m thinking “Fishing with Boo Radley.”  That will have nothing to do with my novel, although fishing provides a good backdrop for character study. Got a guy named Melville branded.

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I’ve got you where you’re vulnerable

OK, now that I have your attention, here’s how it’s going to work.

I know shit — you can read that either way — and I’m going to write about what I know and wonder about. We’ll have regular communication, and you’ll be safe as long as you keep reading and responding. Ignore me at your own risk.

You may discuss my ransom notes with family and friends, but do not call the authorities. I won’t have anyone policing me or telling me what I should or shouldn’t think, what I should or shouldn’t write about.

Do not be offended by occasional profanity, or we’ll have problems.

If you have no spiritual side, you’d best buckle up, because I’m likely to hit you upside the head.

If you have no compassion or sentimentality, I feel sorry for you.

If you have no sense of humor or humility, you’d best find some. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no business laughing at anyone else.

Now then, I’ve got you by the balls, unless, of course, you’re a eunuch or have only one testicle, in which case I’ve got you by the shorts, unless you go commando, in which case I know your hole cards in Texas Hold ‘Em. If you’re a woman, you might read that I’ve got you by the short hairs, unless you shave down there, in which case I’ve hidden one of your shoes.

More of what I know and wonder about will be revealed in future communications.

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