Fishing Above the Clouds

Note: This essay was born when I wrote the penultimate paragraph after some recent salt-water fly-fishing with my buddy Capt. Matt. On the way home an old science fiction film passed through my head, with its “event horizon” concept from physics, and the paragraph wrote itself. Some time later, on deadline to deliver my regular column to Aviation Group Ltd., which publishes the Cessna and Piper Flyer (sic), some older flying and fishing fun from Montana connected itself. So the paragraph became the column.

Fishing Above Clouds—Wherein the great mountain flying expedition is saved

We pilots fly airplanes for as many reasons as there are pilots and we use them for manifold purposes, as many I suppose as our imaginations can create.

We sit in single-seat highly modified behemoths behind horsepower ratings better suited to tug boats and fly in tight ovals around pylons venting thousand dollar bills out our exhaust stacks at Reno and other such races. On weekends we are up at dawn to fly short distances in order to partake of pancakes, eggs (or reconstituted powder masquerading as poultry product) and sausages washed down with coffee—the food and the flying to reach it only an excuse for the camaraderie of friends, old and new. We throw sacks of flour out of our craft, often at the edge of stall, simulating the military concept of pinpoint bombing. Our derring-do attacking toilet paper rolls falling from altitude in twirling paper cascades harks back to the era of biplane dogfights. The ribbons we use to mark the threshold for accuracy landing competitions simulates an aircraft carrier flight deck pitching and rolling in the high seas.

We fly our own children and grandchildren, as well their friends and Young Eagles for fun, and to introduce them to the technical and romantic blessing that we all share as aviators. As we age, admit it, some of us rarely leave the pattern with our beloved old airplanes. Instead I’ve seen us near sunset on calm evenings enjoying the same thrill as of our first solo’s three landing patterns, decades after that first exciting weightlessness changed our lives. Sometimes we even use our airplanes for the mundane and utilitarian purpose of traveling.

These are all good things, and as they should be.

But I was determined, once upon a time and a long time ago, that I was going to use my airplane in order to go fishing.

Back then when I was young I ran around with some questionable companions. The airplane story that comes to mind is about fishing, but it also involved learning the necessity of wrenches, rudimentary mechanical skills and a basic understanding of magneto ignition systems. The events here depicted occurred out west but not all of the neer-do-wells who helped lead me astray back then were westerners—there was one Montanan, a Nebraskan and a fellow from Wisconsin are also guilty.

They introduced me to many of the bad habits I still struggle with. Those peccadillos to this day include a deep passion for fishing, a fascination with double-barreled shotguns for bird-hunting, and the fact that I believe a post-flight inspection is as important as a pre-flight inspection. Oh, and as far as I am concerned long final approaches at sleepy rural airports are fine because it helps with lining up with the runway center-line, which is more difficult when it has been worn to invisibility by cattle who think the macadam is a good place to lie down and warm up on fall days in mountain country. Country flying is different from city such.

I need to get back to telling you about fishing via airplane before I wander off about the rattlesnakes. The sun, even at autumnal angles, warmed up the ancient, cracked and weed-infested blacktop where I hangared the plane in those days, a meteorological effect which the cattle seemed to have discovered with as much joy as bovines exhibit. Even after a low pass dispersed the sleepy cows, however, it never seemed to dissuade the venomous reptiles, which being cold-blooded, liked to bask on the runway as well, but that’s another tale.

I can’t tell you where this happened because there are fish involved and disclosing the location would therefore violate the most ancient laws men have made, but suffice it to say it was in northwest Montana within a day’s drive on bad roads from the southern gate to Glacier National Park. I had discovered thereabouts, via a horseback expedition in the service of elk hunting the winter before, the most beautiful little mountain lake that I surmised might portend good fishing. Everything was covered with snow like it is during hunting season. The lake was a black hole surrounded by white. Every so often what looked like a fin would break the surface. But there were elk to be found, and that’s hard enough without thinking about fish. So I vowed that come the thaw, I’d return to see if the fishing was as good as the lake was pretty.

This particular lake is so beautiful it may be the pattern that God used when She thought about making lakes in other places. It is so perfect and peaceful that when I leave for good I’d like my ashes spread at its shore.

The next spring, with one of the aforementioned bad influences for company because they were his horses, we loaded up his horse trailer and drove to the trailhead. It took longer than it should have because several ball-hitch changes were involved. If you don’t know what a ball-hitch change is, well, I guess you’ve never pulled a trailer with your truck. Finally there, we unloaded, saddled-up, tied various pieces of fly-fishing gear to the horses with specialty knots otherwise known only to mountain men and fighter pilots and rode off on the 90 minute or-so trip to the lake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do airplanes. If you stop interrupting me I can get on with telling you. It was now long after lunch and as the lake came into sight, I realized that we’d barely have time to scout the fishing prospects let alone wet a line before we’d have to turn around in order to get back to the horse trailer before dark.

That’s when I noticed the long rust and yellow meadow gently sloping for a few hundred yards away from the lake. The meadow grasses and wildflowers looked almost as if they had been poured from the lake, or overflowed out of it. The more I looked at it, the more I thought that after some careful close-up inspection it would be possible to land my airplane on the meadow. Even with the half-hour drive to my hangar at the little worn blacktop cow and rattlesnake frequented runway outside town, the trip by plane to the meadow was only about 15 minutes, instead of the all-day horseback, ball-hitch-changing affair. I never much liked riding horses anyway. Careful or I’ll tell you all about that sometime.

I won’t get technical about the geology of the area because it might provide clues to its location. But the lake itself appeared to be an old caldera, a crater lake formed by volcanic activity. We dismounted to walk the meadow to ascertain its suitability as a landing strip and discovered that the eruption gazillions of years ago had spewed silica, which provided a dense, dark base under the meadow grass and flowers. The volcanism had created, in addition to the perfect lake, a perfect natural landing strip. And it was at an altitude that my airplane and then-more-rudimentary flying skills could handle without esoteric recourse to complicated density altitude calculations or even having to reveal its location to my friendly neighborhood flight instructor, who not being a fisher might reveal its coordinates to all and sundry.

Convinced that the meadow would serve as a runway and with afternoon fast leaning into evening, we assessed the waters. We joyfully discovered that it was seething with Artic grayling (Thymallus arcticus). Their colorful dorsal fins foretold the thrill of a bite and the thrumming of tight line, as they rose to take our flies.

As this was actually only a scouting, not a fishing expedition (there are rules), we released the few we hooked after determining their identity and suitability for the frying pan and rode off, planning to return again via plane for serious fishing.

I remember now from the vantage of years passing the ride out, and subsequent days of fly-tying (Royal Wulff, Elk Hair Caddis, and various ant and grasshopper patterns), aviation planning, weather watching and short-and soft-field landing practice. I can almost feel my 32-year-old fly rod, a graphite 7-weight long gathering dust in the closet, in my hand as those grayling taught me about fishing.

The day of the great mountain flying expedition dawned clear and cold. It was too early for snakes and even the cows didn’t get up as early as I did that day. I hooked my homemade tow bar welded-up contraption to my pickup-up truck and pulled the airplane out into the bright morning. Inasmuch as the aerial expedition, although in retrospect relatively tame, was my first-ever real “off-road” flying experience, I fully prepared by loading emergency camping gear, some food, my .30-30 rifle (hey, it was Montana) into the back seat alongside my fly-fishing gear and a cooler of ice ready to fill with lots of grayling. I had by then convinced my horse-trailer friend to ride up with his sweetheart and camp at the lake just to have someone around when I flew in for the first time. I promised him right of first refusal on any future aerial fishing expeditions in exchange.

The pre-flight checklist was uneventful, as was the run-up and mag check at the end of the runway. I took off, and headed northwest by following the highway out of town looking for the dirt road that led to the trailhead. Finding it with no problem, I looked down and saw my friend’s truck and horse-trailer down there like toys, and figured he was on his way up the mountain. I turned east for about three minutes, saw the lake below me, descended and set up as if for a normal landing pattern as I reviewed my much practiced short-soft-field landing technique in my head. I turned a short final; the meadow in front of me aglow with red and yellow flowers, and with a thump and full braking was down and stopped before I knew it. Yoke pulled into my lap I throttled up, spun the plane around and taxied back as far as I could to prepare for my later departure and shut things down, and stepped out into the sudden silence.

I fished all day, ecstatic with my newfound sense of aviation enhancing my life. I filled the cooler with the limit allowed, and (don’t tell) gave a bunch of fish to my friend and his sweetheart who were setting up camp as I promised them I’d be back the next day or the day after that.

I walked across the meadow to check over where I would be taking off, did an extra-special pre-flight and walk-around, got in and started the engine. As I reviewed the takeoff in my head, I couldn’t help but smile, until I did the mag check and one side ran rough. Hmmm.

I locked down the brakes and ran the rpms all the way up, the world vibrating around me, and leaned the mixture as I had been taught to burn out what I figured was some carbon fouling the lower spark plugs. It had happened once or twice before, so no big deal, although once I had to have the mechanic pull and clean the plugs to fix it.

I tried it three times. No luck. No way I was going to takeoff out of that meadow at that altitude, toward that jagged hill on just one mag. So I shut the engine off. I got out and walked over to my friend and his sweetheart who had been watching the whole thing. The horses had been watching too, but they didn’t say anything.

“Fouled plug, I think,” I said. “I have wrenches and such in my truck,” my friend said. I looked at my watch. “You can ride down and get them in the morning. We’re having fish for dinner, want to join us?” he said.

The evening hatch proved productive. More fish were caught. Some were released. Some were cooked over the fire. Many were eaten. There was cornbread made in the frying pan. Some red wine appeared. The stars were very bright that night.

Next morning I went and got the tools. Came back. Pulled and cleaned the plugs. The run-up was fine thereafter and the takeoff and short flight home was beautiful if uneventful.

That was the trip on which I learned to always carry a tool kit in the plane. Spare spark plugs too. Simple things, just in case the FBO is closed, or there is no FBO.

Have done such ever since.

I still am addicted to fishing, but haven’t fished above the clouds in too long a time. Need to be thinking about that.

Better writers than I have explored describing what it feels like for a fish to take what you have offered it in a mountain lake; I turn to physics. In general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary associated with a black hole, sort of a point of no return balancing the gravitational pull where it becomes so strong as to make escape impossible. I imagine it as an area of transition possibilities. Maybe teetering is a word for it. The fish will catch itself or it won’t, it has little to do with you. There is an event horizon in its rise and bite. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a bulge or wave in the water in front of the fly before the eruption of fish passing from water into the air. At that moment I like to think fish are thinking about flying. We humans think the present is steady state, in some lineal fashion, with discrete and knowable partitions between the past and the future. But physicists, Zen masters and anyone who has ever caught fish in the mountains on a fly line will tell you that there is only the now, and that now is forever.

(A conservation aside: At the time of these expeditions in the early 1990s Montana’s lake-dwelling populations of Artic grayling were numerous and common, unlike the upper Missouri River Basin population that in 2010 was a candidate for listing as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.)

David Hipschman’s wife and children will tell you that the stories he tells, at least parts of them, are sometimes true. He is a pilot, a licensed sea captain and a lapsed newspaper editor. He taught journalism at the University of Florida, once served as the Director of Publications at EAA, and is the editor of the National Association of Flight Instructors’ publications. He lives in Fort Myers, Florida where he doesn’t fish as much as he should.

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More Trying Montana — Burying Beauregard

Here is another piece of Trying Montana, the book I never wrote about the time we spent living 18 miles north of Whitefish. It is a phantom book still, about the house we built, the time we nearly started a forest fire, the flood we survived, the deep friendships we experienced and the happiness we lived. But those are other stories. This particular essay might actually be a sort of prequel to the other linked tales you will find here with “More Trying Montana” in their headlines.

Burying Beauregard

The rituals that we create to mark death are among the few behaviors that define us as human. I know I have seen animals express emotion, but we seem to be the only creatures who bury our dead with ceremony.

Beauregard, or Beau, as I began to call her when I realized I’d be calling her often, and often to no avail, was a flat-coated retriever. With long black hair and bright eyes that seemed always joyful, she was a perfect specimen of her breed, including the footnote about “headstrong, sometimes difficult to train.”

I loved her with a fantasy love that imagined blind retrieves with hand signals and the fine expensive shotguns I would one day be able to afford. When she chewed shoes I would smell wood smoke, and the watery musk of duck blinds and cigars.

Beau loved me. I could tell by how repentant she seemed after she would ignore my training attempts. Beau learned exactly half of retrieving. She was brilliant at locating whatever I would throw in the water, but instead of collecting it and returning, she would delight in swimming with it until exhaustion would overcome us both. I hoarse from calling, she muddy and spent, finally, upon shore.

She once swam halfway to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay when a seal distracted her from the yellow tennis ball I had been throwing. I sat on a rock, smoking cigarette after cigarette, wondering until after dark whether she’d return.

Years later, we were staying in the cheapest of motels in Kalispell, Montana waiting through the final real-estate paperwork on the land that was to become home in just a few days.

It was drizzling off and on, mixed with snow flurries. November had begun and winter with it.

The motel room had a smoky stove and half-sized refrigerator. There was a sleeping alcove that had a doorway but no door. The bathroom wall was so close to the toilet that my knees became intimate with wallpaper. The several paintings of blues and reds in gilded frames used velvet for canvas. The children didn’t like what was for dinner and Beau needed to go out. I picked up her leash and called her to my side. As I opened the door expecting her to sit as she had always done before she took off running, and was gone into the rainy night.

It had been years since I’d smoked a cigarette, but that night waiting for Beau to come back I remembered sitting on that rock on the Marin County shore of The Bay while she tried to retrieve a seal. The same taste of tobacco and salt spray was in my mouth as I called the county sheriff to inquire after lost dogs.

Hours later the call came that a black dog had been reported lying in the gutter three-quarters of a mile from our motel and would I please go and see if it was my dog that had been struck by a passing truck.

It couldn’t be Beau. She had survived her puppy years in the urban environs of San Francisco and lived through the coming of our two sons and the depredations small boys impose on dogs.

She had swum with marine mammals. She had always come back to the hundreds of campsites that were our home on the road all the way to Montana.

The neon glare from the all-night gas station liquor store I have come to refer to generically as a “quick-rip” made her open eyes dance alive as I knelt in the wet street. Her coat was glossy and wet.

Things always weigh more when they are dead.

I lifted her into the back of my pick-up truck.

I closed her eyes. I walked across to the store and bought some plastic garbage bags from the pretty girl behind the counter. They were called Hefty, and were an attractive steel-grey color. Back at the truck I wrapped Beau in a towel to keep the plastic away from her body and put her in one of the bags. I remember marveling at the built-in plastic ties that closed the bag. They were tennis-ball yellow.

I called the sheriff’s office to express my gratitude for the help. It was when the dispatcher suggested I could take “your dead dog” to the dump in the morning that I realized Beau had to be buried on our almost purchased land.

I could carve a wooden grave marker, a totem. I could attach her licenses and identity disks to the marker.

The next day our realtor, name of Ross, in a gesture that in retrospect made up for his other failings, offered the use of his freezer as Beau’s temporary resting place until we actually owned the land where we could bury her. Ross had been in Montana for about a dozen years and prided himself on educating newcomers. He’d once lived in Portland or Seattle and felt he understood the larger world. He marketed his real-estate business around that concept. He was a pale, polite man with thinning brown hair, and given to wearing corduroy and flannel.

My breath coalesced into fine motes of snow as I panted after struggling to put Beau, now stiff and awkward in her body bag, into Ross’s deep freeze. I stood in his shed shivering. He made me promise not to tell his wife about my dog in their freezer, growing colder alongside pale yellow paper packages red-crayon-marked as venison, elk and rabbit.

Outside, Ross told me to buy a chest-style freezer when we settled in. “The cold air sinks, so they’re more efficient. They’re better than those upright models.” I assured him I’d follow his advice.  I fled into the evening, and stopped down the road because I could not see the road through my tears.

We finalized our property purchase by early December, in time for one of the state’s legendary blizzards. It dropped to 37 degrees below zero for a few days and soon thereafter I learned about shoveling the roof. If the snow gets too deep its weight will collapse the very rafters.

The cold snap iced everything solid and with the ground now too frozen for digging graves Beau spent our first Montana winter in Ross’s deep freeze.

Spring eventually came and with it snow melt and localized flooding. My friend Howard Bauer brought his bulldozer and backhoe out to our place to cut a new road after the one into our acreage was washed away. When I asked him to backhoe a hole out back near some birch trees for Beau, he laughed. “A grave’s just a hole in the dirt,” he said. “Where it is doesn’t matter. It’s only the remembering that makes it special.”

Howard was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness who befriended me after I hired him to install our septic system. He thought I was one of the Old Testament’s Chosen People. He had an excavation business, drove log truck, plowed some snow and was supremely successful at the inventive and necessary skills of Montana’s economic landscape. He was very strong, and although a medium-sized man seemed larger. He wore thick, black-framed glasses, could fix anything and make it better than before it was broken. I have never met a more generous or honest man.

I went and got Beau out of the freezer that afternoon. It was getting dark when I returned. Howard had waited. We put Beau in the hole and he used the backhoe’s front bucket to push half-frozen chunks of earth and dirt bright with blood-colored clay over her.

I drank some whiskey and poured a bit out onto the mound that had become her grave.  Then we told each other stories about people we had loved that no longer lived.

It’s now been five dogs since we buried Beau.

She looked so much like a seal when she was swimming.

An earlier version of Burying Beauregard once appeared in the literary magazine Kinesis.

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We will all miss you Mr. Pete

Petey died peacefully in my lap this morning in the company of his loving veterinarian. He was almost 18 years old. Even in the past few days, as he seemed to age a lifetime all at once and his medications began to fail him, he was always his happy self and never really had a bad day.

Petey loved eggs. Katie made him her special brand of cheese-scrambled eggs for his last meal, which he ate with Dorrie. His buddy Casey-Dog had some too.

Mr. Pete received the title “Ruler of the Universe” from Robbie when we noticed that there seemed to be “Petey-Dogs” — small, white, mixed-breeds that resemble Lhasa Apsos, miniature Poodles and Tibetan Temple Dogs — everywhere. The idea that they were Petey’s doppelganger servants, sent by him around the world to keep watch over all of us, was born. And maybe they have kept watch and will continue to do so, directed by Petey from wherever love and the dogs that help create it go when they leave us.

In addition to eggs, Petey loved everyone he met and especially loved to travel. So much so that he taught himself to hitch-hike and formed the habit of sitting at the end of our driveway, looking perky, until someone would drive by and pick him up. They would take him home, coddle him, feed him treats and eventually call our phone number on his tag to say they had found our cute, friendly white dog. When we would ask where they “found” him, they were always astonished to hear that he had been just sitting at the end of our driveway waiting for a new friend.

Petey had an inexhaustible supply of love. When the children were younger I would notice him asleep in Robbie’s bed, then he’d move to William’s bed or Katie’s before eventually finding his way to ours, where he would spend the night cuddled with Dorrie, his truly best friend of all. Sometimes, if no one was home, he’d let me nap with him on the couch, but it was our secret.

He did not like loud noises, and was frightened by fireworks and thunder until his deafness took that fear away a few years ago. But he could somehow still hear that you needed him, and jump into your lap to lick your nose.

His antics were of colossal stature. Once, our backs turned with some human distraction, an entire lasagna disappeared from the table. Without proof, we all blamed Sara, our Irish wolfhound who could reach the tabletop without effort.

Later, Dorrie discovered a tomato-sauce-covered Petey, and the mystery was solved — although how the little guy managed to get on to the table remains unresolved.

Petey came to us from a shelter almost 16 years ago when Katie wanted a puppy for her birthday. Although he loved us all and we all loved him, from that day forward he was Dorrie’s best friend.

He was the smallest of all the dogs that have graced us with their affection. But I think he actually had the biggest heart of them all. We will miss you Mr. Pete.

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Katie’s Face

Ever since the birth of my first child I have relentlessly questioned whether I have the strength of character, patience, unselfishness and depth of love needed to be a dad. That questioning has been my personal demon, and forced me to become acquainted with working hard to overcome the shortcomings I see in the mirror.

It was romantic mystery that led me to Dorrie, who became my wife. Love grew, and several biology lessons later children were born. Katie was the last engendered, and is our only daughter. Her brother Robbie sometimes refers to her as “Robbie version 2.0,” while brother Wills lobbied early and unsuccessfully to name her “Poopie Doopie,” but that is another story.

Our first-born arrived with the brilliant blue eyes he still has today. I remember a moment holding him, brand-new, looking into his face — when a warm blue light erupted from deep within his skull and poured from his eyes, as a far-off voice said: “We got him this far, now it’s up to you.” The light receded, leaving just my son’s blue eyes. Maybe my questioning began at that moment, even as I handed him to my exhausted smiling crying wife, as I wondered just how tired and full of a joy a person had to be to hear voices and see light pour from infant eyes.

For the record, in the hours just before Dorrie woke me to drive us to the hospital, there had been a night of debauchery involving single-malt Scotch assisted by my dear friend Stuart. It has been more than 23 years since then and there have been no more voices, no more blue light, in case you were wondering

In the 17 years since Katie has set records in the several states in which we have lived for being the easiest child to raise, I know – beset by that demon of dad-doubt — that I have sometimes fallen short, most often in the patience department.

In addition to lack of patience, I have been known to go on and on (and on) over some didactic point that any of my children, especially Katie, understood long before – probably even before I started talking. When Katie was younger, and I was consumed with managing various newsrooms that at the time seemed more important than being with my children, I especially remember being short-tempered with her awe-inspiring curiosity and imagination. Thinking back, I realize she was smarter than me even then.

But at least once, on the day Katie broke her face, I was the perfect dad.

I was in the middle of a meeting at the Wyoming newspaper where I was the editor when I was told my wife was on the way to the emergency room because Katie had fallen out of the van. When I got to the hospital a few minutes later, there was Katie sitting on a gurney with her mother. She was crying, her hands covering her face. She was about 5 years old.

X-rays were indicated, but Katie refused to remove her hands from her face. The medical staff wanted to use force, or sedation, so the films wouldn’t be marred by skeletal images of her tiny hands. Her mother was guarding her from the ER doctor and various technicians who had failed to convince her to shift even a finger.

Dorrie told me she had parked in front of our house, Katie had scooted across the back seat, a car seat had tipped, and Katie fell — landing squarely on the curb with her face. One of her brothers, or both, began saying, “Katie broke her face! Katie broke her face!”

For whatever reason, I immediately understood. She had heard, “Katie broke her face,” and literal-minded, believed if she removed her hands pieces of her face would fall to the floor.

I convinced the medical staff to leave me alone with her, took Katie in my arms and sat on the white-sheet-covered table in the X-ray room.

She was quietly sobbing, with her hands pressed to her face like twin limpets. I don’t remember the words that came from my mouth – something about Humpty-Dumpty – but she stopped crying.

I held her for a while and then carried her to the mirror that hung on the wall in the darkened room. We agreed that we would look together – very slowly. The image in that mirror of my little raven-haired girl, hands tightly pressed to her face, has never left me.

It took a long time, as finger by finger her fear left her, but eventually there was Katie’s face, with no cracks and no missing pieces. Her reflection looked at me in the mirror, now with the beginnings of a smile.

There was big bump on her forehead, and some scratches but her face was unscathed. I think we stopped for ice cream on the way home.

In my mind today, I can still see Katie’s image in that mirror, but I don’t remember seeing myself reflected.

That’s what I have tried to remember Katie teaching me on that day when I was the perfect dad — there was no “me” there.

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More Trying Montana – The Last Caboose

Here is another piece of Trying Montana, the book I never wrote about the time we spent living in the mountains. This particular essay was the first of the things I wrote after we moved north, and I suppose would somehow be chapter one, if this book was more than a phantom.

The Last Caboose

Cabooses were the Holy Grail of my childhood. In those days there were more trains, and red-lighted crossings with their zebra-striped bars and bells, than today.

But the cabooses, in all their colors, were the pinnacle of anticipation. The sea-green and chrome Buick stopped at the tracks. I stand on the bench seat, hand on my grandfather’s suited shoulder. His hand around my ankle, steadying.  Excited, I’d vibrate in sympathy with their approaching clack-clack, rumble and roar. Wait, car after car roaring past, to see what was at the end! Each eventual caboose on those long-ago outings was as good as the shiny new dimes that my grandfather carried to bestow on special occasions. He died when I was 12. The bright red ones were best.

I had not given thought to cabooses since my own childhood, until my first-born son began noticing the trains. It is strange that my children, while doorways to futures beyond me, so often take me to my own past.

The Burlington Northern tracks ran along the bluff opposite our place some miles north of Whitefish, Montana. The trains pass several times a day, their calls at the desolate crossing of a Forest Service road echoing across our pasture. The son who sparked these thoughts as I wrote was almost five; trains one of his special delights. Their passage brings him running to the front window to climb up the back of the couch to watch.

The trains pass, but he has recently begun to notice they are rarely followed by a caboose. It bothers me more than it does him. I suppose my feelings are linked to his generation’s obsession with dinosaurs, and the heart-wrenching difficulty parents face explaining death to the innocent.

I have begun to wonder, with some concern, about a future without cabooses and what that means for the generations to come. I toy with the caboose as a symbol of innocence, like the unicorn.

Unless you work for the railroads the creeping extinction of the caboose may come as a surprise. The railroad companies say that deregulation, new computer technology and rising costs are doing away with her.

The caboose’s original purpose has been eliminated, a railroad company spokesman told me. “Before air brakes, trains were stopped with hand brakes applied on whistle signal from locomotive engineers. The more places on a train that brakemen could ride, the faster a sufficient number of brakes could be applied, minimizing stopping distance,” read the material he sent. Now that engineers have automatic air brakes they can apply brakes on all cars of a train almost simultaneously, it said.

The first cabooses were boxcars carrying a conductor’s equipment and appeared in the 1840s. The cupola on top, which made observing the train for safety defects easier, was apparently invented during the Civil War, according to railroad legend, and became standard about 1885. Cabooses once housed the pot-bellied stove used to cook the crew meals, and to provide crew lodging.

The Railroad Lodging Agreement of 1964, which required a railroad to provide bunk rooms or motel rooms for crew to sleep undisturbed by noise, helped doom the caboose. Automatic block signals, invented in 1972, allowed a disabled train to actuate its own protective signals and eliminated the flagman, who rode in the caboose, along with his flags and flares. The use of power switches and radio eliminated switchmen, who rode at the rear of trains. The function of the caboose as observation platform to monitor the train for various defects, the railroads say, has been eliminated by remote detectors. The railroads say the technology is safer — and cheaper — than cabooses and their crews.

Many, if not most, “rails,” as workers on the nation’s freight trains are called, disagree. They say the technology breaks down and that nothing can safely replace the eyes and ears of the men who ride the cabooses.

History is not reality, but the record of the way the dominant society wants the stories told. Imagination spreads the cracks in history and gives us folklore.
Think of the world those new-fangled cabooses, rolling at the end of the trains of the 1800s, witnessed:

The unspoiled land of a nation whose geographic boundaries had not yet been fixed. Oceans of buffalo and Native Americans free of white civilization. Think of childhood train stories, the little engine that could, Casey Jones and hobos.

My son nurtures his fascination with dinosaurs on books now, his mind like a glowing ember, and has advanced to questions of Talmudic intensity about how a meteor can create the ice age he says doomed them. He has begun asking questions about God, questions that make me uncomfortable with the realization that I can’t honestly answer them because I have not answered them for myself.

Soon after we bought the land we lived on there and began building a home, our retriever, Beau, was killed by a car. She’s buried out back next to the trees along the fence line. Her grave sharpened the boy’s questions about death.

Summer in northwest Montana, when darkness doesn’t fall until after 10 p.m., is difficult for children and wrecks parental rules about bedtime. After negotiation over how many stories were required, and several drinks of water, he was settled for the night.

But a train’s long whistle called him to his couch-top window perch.
We sat together. I watched the liquid light of evening reflected in his blue eyes, shining in his blond hair. It was a long freight.

He watched it rumble by, counting the engines, naming the colors of cars, tense in anticipation of the caboose, saddened when it did not appear.

His eyes glistened as the questions began. I fumbled with explanations. I tried to explain how things change, how machinery evolves, and stabbed at business necessity. I raised unions and collective bargaining and ended with: “They don’t use cabooses much anymore, son.”

“Are they extinct like the dinosaurs?” he asked with a yawn.

“Yup,” I said, carrying him to his room. He was mostly asleep as I gathered the blankets around him. Heading for the door, I heard him say into his pillow: “But why do cabooses have to die, Daddy?”

Author’s Note: Grateful thanks are made to the Christian Science Monitor, and to  This World, The Sunday Magazine of  the San Francisco Chronicle, which  published a version of this essay.

Posted in Authors, Cabooses, Dinosaurs, Family History, Memories, Montana, Railroads, Stories, Trains, Transportation, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Trying Montana — The Day of The Chickens

Here is another part of Trying Montana, the phantom book I never wrote about the time we spent living in the mountains.

The Day of the Chickens

I was on the telephone, trying to explain about the chickens and about life here in northwest Montana to my oldest friend, who lives in New Jersey. It was so highly philosophical and rarified a conversation that I called upon the words of other people in order to try to communicate the nature of what was happening around me every day as I learned more about animals, the land and the inside of my own head.

I told him to go read T.H. White. Not The Once and Future King, but his lesser-known autobiographical writings, England Have My Bones, and The Goshawk. White, who reinvented the most accessible Merlin I have ever come across, writes in Have My Bones about the fearsome danger of sameness, consistency and schedules: “Even sitting in the same chair can rot one’s soul. Decent men ought to break all their furniture every six months.”

The wonder of life here, I explained on the telephone to Charlie, who was listening in his inner-city Trenton apartment, is that there seems to be something absolutely new to learn everyday. That learning, whether it entails the erecting of a building or the stretching of a fence, is not without a price — either in sweat or humility.

If you live with eyes, heart and mind open you will constantly learn new things, but what I was speaking of here is elemental. And it has to do with land. Deeds and titles notwithstanding, we don’t own land, but are instead held in thrall by it.

In Goshawk, his journal of the training of a hawk, White discourses on the domestication of animals. An elephant, he observed, is tamed by catching it, tying its leg to a tree and starving it for a few days. After the enforced fast it is brought “the sprouts and tender stalks of its favorite plants …” When, at last, the elephant breaks down and eats, it is tamed, and training can begin.

Yet when it comes to a parcel of land, the task is more akin to the taming, or “manning” of a hawk, a process accomplished by enforced wakefulness by a human. It is done, White wrote, “with at least as much travail on the part of the human as on the part of the animal.”

I liked the word “travail,” I said, and although the hawk, hooded and jessed, I argued, is less free than before, so is the man.

Despite my best efforts in the highly literary conversation Charlie said he still had no interest in spending his vacation coming to Montana to help with the chickens.

The Day of the Chickens, as it was thereafter called, began early on a Sunday as I took my wife Dorrie, and Robbie, then 4, and William, then almost 2, to a small livestock flea market held at the North Valley Ag Center.

I own two cowboy hats, a summer, straw variety, and my felt Drifter, a hat of Australian extraction. I wore the Drifter, it being Sunday and livestock looking, even for the sole purpose of entertaining the boys, seemed as formal an affair as Montana had yet to offer. I put the checkbook in my pocket, prompting Dorrie’s raised eyebrow.

“I’m not going to buy any animals,” I said. “I know less about animals than anything else.” Her eyebrow rose higher.

We looked at rabbits in cages. We looked at clean, neat pigs, small ponies and excited goats of several varieties. The boys wanted one of each. I began to become fixated on the chickens, which were housed neatly behind the wire mesh of their wooden crates in the beds of several tired pick-up trucks.

I explained, with careful logic that came to me as I spoke, that chickens eat insects and other crawly things, can range about by themselves and give back eggs for the trouble.

“So why are they all for sale?” Dorrie asked.

We three men folk ignored her and headed inside to feast our eyes on sacks of feed, leather halters, salt blocks, veterinary supplies and gerbils. It was then that Robbie discovered the chicks, shelved by variety in a tall mesh cage that exuded yellow, and chirping.

Buff Orphington, Silver-Laced Wyandott and Barred Plymouth Rock babies vied for seed and the attention of my children. After the boys held baby chickens for the first time, I suddenly realized that chicks were less expensive than the grown-up variety. Chicks carried the added value of giving me time — as they grew to chickenhood — to learn all about chicken husbandry.

We decided to purchase a dozen babies, six to grow to eating size, and six as layers. The checkbook came out, and we were chicken farmers.

There ensued several days of frenetic coop building. There followed weeks of travail over whose job it was, exactly, to water and feed the poultry, which drank and ate in amounts entirely disproportionate to their ever-increasing size.

It wasn’t long before the owl that lives in a tree along our western fence line and the coyotes that frequent the area began their depredations. Several chicken funerals were solemnly enacted. Few parts were ever left for burial.

At one point, now down to seven chickens, I erred in earshot of the elder boy and said that it wouldn’t be long before we could eat one of our chickens. Faced with his tearful reaction — “But won’t their families miss them, Daddy?” — I was forced to hold a seminar on chicken biology.

I explained, as Dorrie hid laughter behind her hand, that there are three kinds of chickens. There are Father Chickens, called roosters. There are Mother Chickens, the hens that provide eggs — scrambled and fried for breakfast and hard-boiled for picnics. And there are Broilers, which may be killed and eaten because they have no brothers, sisters, or friends to be saddened by their passing. That chicken biology story has held so far, but I know that it will need an eventual sequel for when the boy is older.

The coyotes and owl continued their night-to-night work, and down to five chickens I began defending chicken ranching to my ever-practical wife.

She offered cost-benefit discussion about “those damn chickens, which I always end up feeding,” against the drive to the supermarket, including the cost of gas, to buy already-dead chickens, de-feathered, neatly portioned, and/or eggs, clean, white and packed in cardboard containers.

I slowly began to agree, fearful that she’d start in on fishing, and prove by financial analysis of hand-laid graphite fly rods, neoprene waders and husbands absent “all weekend,” that the trout and bass I was catching cost more per pound than caviar and champagne.

With never an egg laid, nor breast eaten, we were down to one hen, which although now wary of owl and coyote, seemed to enjoy teasing our dog. I did not protest when Dorrie gave the surviving chicken to Jim and Ima, friends more experienced in these matters.  And now, on a fairly regular basis, they drop off fresh eggs.

Posted in Authors, Chickens, Cowboys, Elephants, Family History, Fishing, Food, Hawks, Memories, Montana, Stories, T.H. White, tall tales, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trying Montana—A House With A Name, A Phantom Book

My blog post yesterday entitled The Code of the West, and its reference to the book I never wrote about our time living in Montana, generated some contact from folks who liked what they read. Thanks to all y’all for that.

Now I need to say something here about my friend Kay Lyn Paine. She (and her sweetie Lauran) are both good writers with the special ability to connect their words directly to your heart. Kay Lyn told me she thought she’d enjoy the rest of whatever Montana tales I could scrape up. She actually said: “So get to it!” It’s a good thing she lives so far away, otherwise I’d be way more productive.

So, because Kay Lyn said so, here is newly revised version of chapter one from “Trying Montana,” the phantom book I never did write. And I’ll keep looking for more.

Trying Montana

I always wanted a house with a name. Over the years, whenever I saw a house that had a name it somehow represented stability and responsibility, tempered with a poetic nature on the part of its owners.

When we moved here to northwest Montana, to those acres miles from town, all that stood was the shell of a house. The wood stove was in, there was some basic electrical wiring and an outhouse.

I promptly named the place Harrow’s Rest — representing, in my mind, an end to work as I had previously known it.

The outhouse is long gone. A year later, copper-plumbed, the house has running water, hot and cold, and one of the two bathrooms is finished. The house itself is almost sheet-rocked and I have built a barn. The fabric of the structures, cursory fencing and a garden plot are begun, suggesting a reality behind months of dreaming.

The name of the house, however, has become a personal joke. The harrow has not stopped and the work has been harder than any I have ever attempted. Learning to carpenter, to pull wire, to plow snow, keep the tractor running and even to run a shovel — on the finances I have saddled myself with — has been humbling, and has uncovered one of the themes that makes Montana the place that it is:

If it needs doing, do it yourself. If you don’t know how, and I rarely have, enter the arcane series of relationships involved in asking advice.

If advice is not enough, and it rarely has been, enter the even more arcane world of seeking actual physical assistance in the task. That usually involves trading someone some thing, or your time, for their expertise, real or imagined. That has often brought the realization that little of what I have done outside of Montana is worth much in trade. I have often joked about running an ad in the weekly shopper newspaper offering to swap my suits and ties, once so necessary and now useless, for a cord of firewood, a chainsaw or a rifle. But no one would call.

If the task still needs doing, and advice or seeking help has failed, you can hire someone to do it for you, but that is a last resort indeed. First, because you’re supposed to be self-sufficient, and second, because you probably, now being a Montanan, can’t afford it.

Our front acreage is pasture; hay and some patches of clover. It is bounded by sagging, still-to-be-attended-to barbed wire along the highway out front. There is a 1,000-foot long rutted and pit-run patched driveway that separates us from our neighbors, the Shinings, to the south,  more sagging wire to the west and a shaplier run of barbed wire that keeps someone’s cows to the north from grazing in our front yard. Here in the mountain west, you fence things out, not in.

We have not yet imagined our own cows or horses, although those are on the dreaming board.

It was the end of August. The front pasture had the look of an old man needing to see a barber. Chest high, the hay had become home to tens of thousands of grasshoppers, hundreds of various bird whose names I didn’t know and countless small, whistling mammals that the local, long-time residents of the area refer to interchangeably as marmots, field mice or gophers.

I decided that the pasture had to be cut down. It began with the idea of having someone come and cut, rake and bale the hay. I saw neat green bales checkering the field. Then I realized I could make money: I’d trade half the bales to the person I would find to do the job. Hay sells for $50 or more a ton. I’d get half the bales, which I could sell, money being of more use to me than hay.

Most of the area’s farmers had by this time already cut and baled their fields twice and some planned to harvest a third time before winter. I began asking around, even lured two separate, taciturn and weather-beaten farmers out to our place to examine my pasture.

No luck. It seemed that half my field’s yield, even all of it, was not worth their while. I had to face it. My pasture, unfertilized and not watered all summer, didn’t contain enough hay.

The pasture grew more unkempt. Cutting it down became a matter of freedom: freedom of movement. Why own all this land if the chest-high hay, and hidden under it the giant dirt mounds thrown up by the marmots (or whatever they were) made walking in the fields impossible?

I wanted to be able to walk across the field, lean on the fence and watch the sunset. I wanted to be able to walk out at night and listen to the coyotes sing. I wanted to be able to get to the center of the field and lie on a blanket to watch the Aurora Borealis paint the star-studded and black sky with its eerie, diaphanous green.

I wanted to take 10 steps without falling down.

I had (left over from an abortive attempt to build fences to earn money earlier in the summer) something called a Shaver HD-8 Hydraulic Post Pounder. The device, attached to the three-point hitch and hydraulic system of my 1955 Ford tractor, is designed to pound posts (up to 8-inches in diameter, hence the HD-8) into the ground. Since the fence-building business failed as a result of my inability to pound posts that stood straight using such antiques, the post-pounder was surplus. I traded it for a seven-foot back blade and a four-foot bush hog.

The very successful trade, as it came to be recognized hereabouts, redeemed me for the fence-business failure and has made me come out about even in the local world of opinion for the field fence I installed several weeks ago, upside down, around the garden and what was to become the chicken pen.

How was I supposed to know that the little holes in field fence go at the bottom to keep critters out?

The rolled fence has one wire painted red, which I thought should be installed against the ground. It seemed reasonable that the red paint was to keep the wire from corroding, not, as it turned out, nothing but a color-coding for the length of a roll. Live, and learn, and learn about laughter — your own and others.

With the new back-blade, bush-hog and the trusty tractor I wrested victory from the pasture. The back-blade neatly destroyed the marmot mounds, which were a hazard to the navigation of the bush hog, whose rotary blades are expensive to sharpen and costlier to replace.

Wearing my straw, summer cowboy hat I drove up and down the field cutting swathes four-feet wide at a pass. Several passers-by (tourists, no doubt) stopped on the highway, and to my delight, took my photograph.

Riding the tractor, knees-flexed and standing to better keep lookout for stray chunks of blade-destroying rocks or chunks of wood, I was surrounded by clouds of grasshoppers. I startled, and was startled, by the ground-nesting birds fleeing my machine. I breathed the smell of fresh-cut grasses.

The task took the entire day. That evening, sunlight beginning to leach from the sky in faded pinks and violets as a full moon loomed, I shut the tractor down.

The pasture seemed to breathe silence. I walked the field, vibrating still from riding on the tractor, and all I heard was the ticking of the cooling engine behind me. The grasshoppers had left for some other place, temporarily. No marmots, gophers or ground squirrels dared show themselves.

Hungry, I headed across the pasture for the house and dinner, finally able see my feet as I walked, as the coyotes started up in the distance.

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Author’s Note: Grateful thanks are made to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Toronto Globe and to Kinesis Magazine, which have published various forms of this essay.

Posted in Authors, Family History, Memories, Montana, Stories, tall tales, Tractors, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment