The moment Dell Witts stepped inside the door he was apprehensive. The reason might have been the surprise of being offered a beer, or possibly the fact he was even invited over.
“You’re awful good-natured today,” he said, his eyes darting and cautious. “You ain’t got another pile of wood to split do ya?”
“Of course not,” I replied with a wave of the hand. “Besides, I promised you the next time we split and stack wood you could hold the plum to make sure the stack stays straight, and I’ll do the splitting and stacking…or maybe the time after next. But anyway, I just thought you might like to see another article I sold to an outdoor magazine. I think I’m on a real role now.”
“Yeah,” he said with a snicker, ” that makes two in the last three years, don’t it.”
“That’s why I seldom offer you a beer, Dell. You begin to perceive yourself as a comedian.”
“I always thought it was because you’re just naturally tight. Besides, I’ve only had a couple sips.”
“And that’s another reason,” I replied with a pointed finger, “You never could hold your liquor. Now just read the article while you can still see the words.”
Grumbling, he began reading while I leaned back behind my desk, kicked up my feet, and lit up a pipe while scanning my library of research books; a twenty year old set of encyclopedias, a few tattered National Geographics, and a set of Children’s Earth Science Books.
“I figured you must be showing off your story,” my wife wryly remarked as she stepped in the room. “I could smell the pipe. Makes him look like an author, you understand.”
“I know,” Dell replied. “He lit it last time I was reading one of his stories.”
“Maxine, you’re interrupting Dell’s train of thought, which isn’t too long to begin with.”
When finished, he shook his head in amazement. “I got to admit it’s good. Chuck full of outdoor information.”
“Why thank you, Dell,” I said with a gracious nod. “Maxine, would you get my ole’ buddy another beer.”
“What I can’t figure out,” he continued, ” is how you can have so much outdoor type knowledge and still be such a lousy outdoorsman.”
“Maxine, forget the beer.”
They say that an author’s worse critics are those closest. And though strained more times than I care to recollect, Dell has been my friend the longest. It was in our early adolescence that together we entered the dangerously exciting world of being mountain men. It wasn’t a decision we easily came to. It first required three television episodes of Davy Crockett. Through careful study it was not hard to see he lived the type of life we wanted. He and the men he traveled with were an adventurous bunch who spent their days hunting and fishing, with very little time actually holding a job. They even had wives who didn’t seem to care if they were unemployed, not to mention left alone for weeks and sometimes months on end. These wives and their children even smiled and waved while their husbands rode off to only God knows where, and for how long. Though my wife, Maxine, doesn’t even remotely resemble the qualities of these frontier wives, I always hoped I would marry such a woman. Anyway, to us boys it all added up to a pleasant way to live life.
After taking careful mental notes of the programs, we soon learned becoming mountain men would be no easy task. We needed buckskin clothes, moccasins, coonskin caps, Bowie knives, flintlock rifles, traps, horses, mules and the supplies they would be carrying. After discussing these basic need with our parents, a somewhat one-sided conclusion quickly simplified our problem. We would make do with the not-for-school clothes and shoes we wore, baseball caps, pocket knives, BB guns, no traps in any shape or form, bicycles, and whatever we could scrounge from the refrigerator.
Because we knew that each man plays an influential function in the survival of all, we put together our band of mountain men. First we needed someone who could sharpen our nerves and courage. For that we chose Darold Twingly because he could tell the best ghost stories of anyone around. But we soon learned that there are several problems that accompany ghost stories, the most prominent of which are their unique ability to remain etched in one’s mind long after the story ends and everyone has turned in for the night. Eyes not only refuse to shut but their size widens, and as the night drags on, take on the blood-shot characteristics of a large city road map. It is then that imaginations shift into high gear. This is when all shadows and stationary objects begin moving. This can leave the toughest of mountain men with enough apprehension to do a reverse metamorphosis into the cocoon of his sleeping bag. During such a night it only took one unexplained sound to send us all crawling to the road while still enveloped in our sleeping bags. And it was a good thing we did too. The following day we heard that a motorist reported seeing three creatures of various colors that looked like giant caterpillars moving at surprising speeds across the same field we were camped at.
After a couple of these outings that left us in desperate need of sleep, not to mention psychological trauma counseling, we chose Darold’s younger brother, Harley. The two fought continually over everything and anything. He had also heard all of Darold’s stories, and made a habit of making snide remarks during their tellings, which almost always ended with the two in an eye-gouging, blood-flying brawl. There were times, however, when one of Darold’s nightmarish tales would be given too much time to unfold. It was then that I would have to help the fight get under way.
“…..Just as a goolish hand reached out of the darkness–”
“Talking about darkness,” I interrupted, “Harley was telling us that at night you like to wear your sister’s clothes.” I would always put enough humor into the innuendo to get Harley laughing too hard to contradict it. That’s when Darold would say one of his famous half sentences. “Why you…..” followed closely by a fist to the mouth of his brother. That was when the ghost story ended and the fight began.
The last to join our band was Clem Whitley. He never was much of a mountain man, doing inexcusable things such as washing his hands before eating, and, even worse, never spitting. Any mountain man worth his salt spit a least once every five seconds or so. Darold even came up with the brilliant idea of chewing black licorice which gave his spit a pleasing color and texture, and made the sight of spitting even more entertaining to witness. But in the case of Clem, we overlooked his flagrant violations, seeing how his parents owned the town’s grocery store which supplied us with enough candy bars and other products high in sugar content and low in nutritional value to keep us on the ragged edge of nausea the entire trip.
Our favorite base camp for excursions into the wilderness was deep within the wilds of McCallister’s cow pasture. We chose the site because it was remote and filled with adventure. Besides that, we only had to pack our bikes and gear a couple hundred feet from the road that passed by it. But that didn’t make it any less dangerous. Animals moved about the field in the dead of night. Sure most of the animals were McCallister’s milk cows, but there was always the chance of being stepped on while sleeping. And nothing can get a mountain man’s blood pumping faster than being awakened from a dead sleep and staring up into the utter of a cow grazing overhead.
As the years passed our outdoor experiences toughened us, finally reaching the point in our early teens when any one of us could fill the gap of a missing mountain man, which turned into a regular necessity, as one of our band was always falling in love and dropping out. We die-hard mountain men knew there was no place in our lives for girls. We had heard that mountain men sometimes ravished them. But we also heard that some mountain men were not well-educated. So to keep from strengthening that rumor, we never asked anyone what “ravished” meant. But it made little difference. Sooner or later our missing man would come wandering back, swearing off girls and civilization in general.
Just for the amusement of it, we did sometimes move our campsite down into the civilized world known as state parks. We would spend hours snickering while watching green horn campers setting up camp and fixing meals. “Would ya look at that fella,” Dell disgustedly remarked, “cooking those steaks on a propane stove. And he calls himself an outdoorsman.. Ha!”
“How’s our meat doing, Clem?” Darold asked.
Pushing his head through the thick curtain of smoke, Clem forced a reply between coughs and gags. “Didn’t look too bad last time I saw it.”
“Well, hurry it up. I want those city slickers to see what a mountain man’s meal looks like.”
“Dang!” Clem coughed. “I just caught a glimpse and I don’t see no meat. I think our wooden spit burnt in two.”
“You mean the meat fell in the fire?” I gasped.
After digging our dinner out of the embers we scraped off as much ash as was possible and began eating.
“Ya gotta be tough to be mountain men,” Clem said after taking a bite of his blackened meat.
“Oh what do you know,” Darold snarled while wiping a grey ring of ash from his mouth. “You ain’t even learned how to spit yet.”
“I have now. Sppppptttttew!”
Attempting to bring harmony back to our band, I took a healthy bite. “Aah, it ain’t that bad. It may taste a little like charcoaled wood, but it’s better than what we had last night.” I had almost finished my meal when I realized what I was eating was charcoaled wood.
“Jealousy does strange things to a man,” Dell commented. “Look how that one kid eating over there is pointing and laughing at us.”
Darold squinted through the smoke. “He looks like my brother.”
I bolted to my feet. “That is your brother!”
After Harley returned and he and Darold had finished their dirt flying brawl there was talk of black-balling Harley from our group. Partially because he had humiliated the image of us mountain men, but mostly because he didn’t bring back any left-overs.
Harley never changed as an adult. He was the first to marry, which was a despicable way of getting good meals. But our complaints diminished as each of us fell to the same fate. Wives have a way of softening mountain men, forcing them into camping trailers equipped with electricity, propane stoves and hot water. For my wife’s sake I pretend that I enjoy the comforts, relinquishing the fact that my mountain man days are gone for good.
Every now and then our balding and pot-bellied band get together for a reunion. It’s usually in the form of a fishing trip. But it is just not the same. Dell drags along his thirty foot fifth wheel camper, our meals cooked on a propane stove and his microwave. I can’t get Darold and Harley even angry at one another, much less in a fight. And Clem even went so low as to bring along an electric pump to blow up his air mattress. That’s where I draw the line. I still insist on inflating my mattress with my own air; something that, according to my wife, is hot and in unending reserves.