A cowboy named Jack Fine was running the ranch. He was an old friend of my father's. When Jack was a child, my father was a teacher at a boarding school in a town called Crane, just when I was born. Jack had been a kid; Dad was the coach and the teacher and all that.
Children from four states – Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and California (from Modoc County) attended the middle-of-nowhere school. (I saw an old postcard of the "town" of Crane once. It was just the school and a train station. It was called a "whistle stop."
So, my parents sent me off, and off I went. There was a classic cowboy scene: bunkhouse, migrant workers, and guys on horses. It was the hay-mowing season for all the cattle, and there I was, a young boy with all these really crazy cowboys in the middle of this magnificent body of water known as Malheur.
There was an unbelievable amount of wildlife…just unbelievable. The rivers were filled with giant rainbow trout. The land was covered with antelope and deer and everything I was interested in.
They put me on a tractor, which I'd never driven before, as a mower. I had a sickle bar that stuck out of the side of an old Ford tractor. I just chugged along and the sickle bar mowed the high. I chugged back and forth and back and forth and back and forth over these long rows of really beautiful waist-high green grass.
In this grass there were a lot of sandhill cranes – a really and truly magnificent creature. There were hundreds of them and they would call early, early in the morning, a wild, scrawking noise. I was fascinated by them. I had never been around cranes before....herons, yes, but not cranes...so I'd mow along and I'd look at all of these cranes and they would fly and fly.
So, I kicked my tractor out of gear and put on the brakes. I hopped off and started chasing it. That little guy, he could go. He would run and then he would dive under the hay. I would dive under after him and we went up and down and up and down and up and down.
Finally, after about 20 minutes, I bagged him. So, there I was with this little cutie. He was just starting to get feathers with his skinny legs and his long skinny neck. I was so proud of myself.
I carried him and put him in my bag and I kept him until it was time for food in the evening. We all went back to the bunkhouse for the big chow hall, talk-story in the evening time. Evening in the high desert is always beautiful and this place was quite spectacular, so I was all happy.
I got to the ranch and went up to Jack Fine. I said, "Jack, I've gotta show you something. I caught this baby Sand Hill crane today!" And I pulled out my prize.
Jack looked at it and he said, "Let me see that a second."
I handed it to him and he looked at it, and then he ripped off its head and threw it in the dirt. He snarled, "Those damned things fly into the wheat! They knock it all down with their wings! They're a goddamned pest!"
I was heartbroken, and that was the end of my crane.
* * * * * *
A couple of summers later I was up in the same country hanging around with a bunch of really crusty cowboys, the Blalocks, in a place called Riverside. They were three boys – Floyd, Kenny and Clifford – hanging around with Ma, who kept them fed, and their sister Rose. They worked on the railroad and grew spuds and oats for the critters.
It was a classic John Wayne ranch scene, only with old Chevys and tractors and stuff, but, boy, it wasn't far off.
I was in love with the magpies. I don't know if you've ever seen a magpie but they are a truly beautiful bird. They're black and white and in the sun the black glistens and has all the colors of crows, all those luminous corvid colors.
One day I was out and about and I saw a nest in a tree. I wandered over to this big ole juniper tree, climbed up there, and, sure enough, them little magpies were primed out – fat and greasy – and they had little pinfeathers all over 'em. They were perfect for taking as pets and I got the pick of the litter.
I took my favorite baby magpie, squawking and squeaking, with Mom and Pops harassing me. I put him in my pocket and headed back to the ranch.
I heard Floyd rooting around out in the barn and I decided I was going to show him this fine magpie I'd just bagged to take back to the city and be my friend. I was going to teach it how to talk. I was going to have a great time with this critter.
So I marched over and there's Floyd working on an old tractor, beating away on it with something. I walked up and said, "Hey, Floyd! You've gotta see this! I got me a new pet!"
Floyd asked, "Yeah? What you got?"
I answered, "Here, take a look at it." I whipped out my baby magpie and I handed it to Floyd.
Floyd ripped off its head, threw the body one way and threw the head the other way, and said, "Goddamned things land on the critters, pick holes in 'em, make sores…. I hate them damned things!"
And that was the end of my baby magpie.
* * * * * * * * *
Years later, in my early 20s', I was hitchhiking to the Amazon with some buddies. There were lots of adventures, but a vignette that fits in with this trilogy is when my buddy Gus and I were living on the beach with an Indian guy named Paisa and his wife and child, a couple of dogs and lots of chickens. (At that time there were almost no tourists in Costa Rica. We saw two other tourists in our time there and we were so astounded to see them that we made friends.)
Paisa was an Indian from Nicaragua and probably an illegal alien. He was not Costa Rican. He was nice. His wife was nice. His kid was cute.
We had been staying with Paisa and his family and it was pretty much subsistence living. They had rice and beans. We would fish in the evening time with homemade lures and things and sit around. We were having a great old time. Living was easy and it was casual. We were young and having fun.
Gus and I decided we were going to swim across the Barranca River and explore the beach on the far side. We did just that – moseying up the beach. (Gus was a sort of scientific character. He is an Estonian, an old friend still to this day. He lives up the road here and we still chat.)
We were walking along in our swimming suits, picking through the detritus on the beach and gathering shells, looking at the driftwood and having a good old time. Out of the sand, we see a giant tail – about three feet of lizard tail – sticking up out of the sand.
"Yo, wow! Look at that. That tail's bigger than any lizard I ever saw!" I exclaimed.
Gus agreed, "Yeah! Must be an iguana. Let's dig it up!"
I said, "All right! Let's dig it up."
So we started digging. We diggety-diggety-dug into the sand and after a while we came across two great big feet (ugly)…big old toenails. I mean, these are BIG.
We had only seen little skinks and stuff scooting around on the rocks. We never saw no Tyrannosaurus before. We were mightily impressed by the size of our find…this giant lizard. (We had seen iguanas too, but this was an extra-big iguana.)
I said, "Well, let's tie it up!" So I took the string off my swimming trunks and we put those two hind legs behind the lizards back and we tied them together. Then we kept on digging.
And we dug and we dug and we dug. Eventually we came up with the biggest damned lizard that either one of us had ever seen. When I held it right behind the front legs at my armpit level, the lizard's tail touched the ground. I'm six feet tall. This was a four-and-a-half or five-foot lizard. It was beefy. It was heavy. It was ugly. We were mightily impressed.
We got the lizard's front legs tied behind its back as well. We got this whole thing trussed up. It was a pig in a poke and we were happy campers. We were dying to show this thing to our hose who was living in a little one-room clapboard shack at the Boca de Barranca, the mouth of the Barranca river, on the beach.
We started walking back. We walked down the beach and swam across the river with our fine lizard. We went up to Paisa's house. He was standing in front of his little house.
I said, "Paisa! Look at this lizard we found!"
Paisa looked at it and he said, "Wow! That is a big iguana. Let me see that iguana!"
And, stupid me, I did it again: I handed that damned iguana over to Paisa. He cracked that iguana across the head and killed it deader 'n hell. There was a nail sticking out of the wall of the house. Paisa hung the lizard from its hind legs on the nail and he skinned it."
"We're going to eat this lizard for dinner!" he said.
I was…I went, "Aw, shit! Not again!"
Then Paisa got really excited because the iguana was full of eggs. "You see these eggs," he said, "They're like turtle eggs!" The eggs were soft-shelled and about the size of the end of your thumb. Paisa added, "These will be great for dinner."
You know what? Those eggs were damned good. He fried up that iguana with a little bit of paprika and we sat down to sup. We ate and we ate and we ate that iguana up!