Monday, February 10, 2014

Bull calf rescued from coyote

Yesterday, as I sat eating breakfast with Nancy I heard an odd bleating sound coming from the back side of my cabin. 

"What’s that?" I asked.

"Just a cow, it sounds like," she said.

We continued eating and having a good morning conversation when the bleating started again. Only this time it was closer and more insistent.

We looked through the window and a little bull calf, hardly a week old, kept bumping itself against the barbed wire fence that separates the cow run from my back yard.

The little bull, about the size of a small dog, was clearly distressed.

Then not 10 yards up the hill, a coyote stood licking its chops, ready to pounce. In a panic, we set our plates down and got up to rescue the calf.

I realized there probably wasn't enough time to run outside and chase the coyote away. I opened the kitchen window and clapped my hands loudly several times, mimicking the best I could the sound of a rifle’s report.

The coyote bolted away and we ran out to fetch the calf. It seemed happy to see us and came to us quickly, bleating and bleating.

It was weak, dehydrated and happy to be in our company. It’s mother, we found out later, had gotten stuck in a ravine further up the way and apparently was weakened from fending off the coyotes all night.

She had been left there by the other cows. It had rained recently and the creek sides were slick and wet and slippery and the poor cow couldn’t get out.

Local herds are weakened by the drought. They’re not grazing because there isn’t any grass. Ranchers are feeding them the best they can with feed but it’s costly and there hardly ever seems to be enough.

The cows are more susceptible to cold and disease.

We put the bull calf into a pen and eventually were able to feed him with a bottle. The mother still hasn’t claimed him. 

He calls out whenever he sees me or Nancy and we talk to him. My neighbor across the creek is thinking about taking him on and says that one day the coyotes may be sorry they tried to eat him.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Staying vigilant in cougar country: Where there’s more than one predator in the field

As a farmhand, I spend a lot of time in the coastal orchards that border cougar country in California.

A recent posting of a photo on Facebook from a neighboring farm showed the clear M-shaped padding of a California mountain lion’s paw.

“Holy shit!” I commented.

That’s so close, I thought, in cougar time, just minutes away. That beast could pounce and I’d never know it.

It happened not long ago in Orange County, I remember. A competitive and sponsored cyclist hunched over a broken bicycle chain in the Whiting Ranch wilderness area took a crushing bite to the back of his neck, as is the habit of cougars on the prowl for easy prey, and was dragged off the path and into the brush. He got eaten. 

Not long after that the same lion apparently dragged a woman cyclist by her head into the brush, but an alert friend grabbed the woman’s leg, fending off the lion, saving her friend from certain death. 

Authorities found the previous cyclist’s body partially buried in the vicinity after tending the traumatized woman, and discovered a healthy 2-year old male lion weighing 115 pounds lurking nearby, standing guard over his earlier quarry. Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed the lion.

The proximity of the cougar’s print to my work place made me reflect on the many days I’ve spent alone in the middle of the avocado and orange groves, out of shouting range, hunched over, concentrating, as the cyclist, on the task at hand, oblivious to predators. And believe me, they’re out there.

I’m an easy target for a hungry lion.

Lately, I’ve spent most of my work hours in and between the rows, in the deep dark middle of a forest of avocado trees, pruning, trimming suckers and deadwood, tending irrigation lines that provide water and nutrients, enjoying the fresh air and serenity of the outdoors.
It’s quiet steady work and I like it. It keeps me fit and no one bothers me, I go at my own pace. I’m alone. No office politics or subterfuge, no irritating phone calls and needless interruptions. I just go, and occasionally pause to observe the leavings and scat and rustlings of previous visitors from the surrounding wild.

I have the run of the orchard, which plays host to a myriad of beasts small and large. Wild boars, piglets, skunks, turkeys, deer, quail, coyotes, bobcats, squirrels, rats and quite possibly mountain lions.

I’ve seen all the creatures in both orchards, with the exception of mountain lions and wild boars, which is fine with me.

“Yeah, well, they’re out there,” says the ranch boss, stating the obvious, when I mention the image of tracks posted on Facebook, “but they’re mostly looking for deer or…” he hesitates, “…sheep.”

Sheep means domestic, which means close to home, next to the orchards. And there are plenty of deer in the orange grove, which means plenty of food for mountain lions. I see deer lounging in the shade between rows of large leafy green trees, resting, keeping watch, bolting into the brush when they see me.

The boss’s remark only slightly assures me.

“They’re mostly nocturnal,” he adds of the big cat. Small comfort, I think.

Now, throughout the day I keep close watch over my shoulders, frequently peering up and down and between the trees, searching for signs of life other than my own.

I’m somewhat clueless about the otherworldly stealth and elusiveness of these incredible creatures that cover huge swaths of ground in a day. Generally, they tend to shy away from encounters with humans. As development creeps into their range, however, encounters become more likely.

I imagine that I could fend one off with my long-handled cultivator, which has sharp heavy metal tines at one end and give the effect of a claw. I carry it with me during my treks through the orchards, twirling and spinning it like the wood staff I learned to wield as a weapon through years of aikido training.

I’d throw myself into the combat with that or with a much longer, extended pruning saw that I also carry and which cuts sharp.

Experts advise those who may find themselves face-to-face with a mountain lion to make themselves big, throw up their arms and yell and make lots of noise, the opposite of what we might want to do instinctively, which is to run.

My landlord, no chicken-hearted individual, a person known for his daring, who pioneered big wave surfing with his friend Jerry Lopez on the North Shore of Oahu, told me of an encounter with a cougar during the night that had him crawling under his vehicle for protection.

He had pulled up to a watering station on his ranch, just a few canyons down the highway from the orchards where I work. It was dark out and he did not see the animal. As he was about to adjust the valves, he heard a blood-curdling scream from the beast not 10 yards away.

“I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” he said, explaining why he crawled under the four-wheeler instead of bolting. “I was shaking in my boots.” After slipping away, he returned the next day to find the lion’s kill on the other side of the tree where he’d been standing.

I stretch with my long-handled cultivator and breathe and feel the earth beneath my boots and know that I’d last about two seconds in such an encounter.

Still, I strive to be vigilant and know that sooner or later, if it’s not the mountain lion, something else is going to get me. Being alone, mindful of the risks, ever watchful, I’m constantly reminded of my mortality and the shortness of life.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way of death.”

I read that the other day as I was thinking about the mountain lion prowling the fields nearby, wondering about its range and whether it might ever come into the orchard.

I read it on the marque of the community church downtown. It’s a quote from the book of Proverbs in the bible, calling into question our ability to choose, calling out our need for guidance and protection.

The sign irritated me at first but I had to think about it: Am I doing the right thing? Do I belong here in the orchards? What guides me through these uncertain days? What is the end of “my” way?

It doesn’t look too hopeful, at least not from here, not yet. I’ve been working the fields since 2008, when the economy drew near collapse, altering countless lives, including mine, putting millions on notice that nothing is secure, not your job, not your life. I found farm work one of the few viable options.

I gave up publishing and took to the local farm, exposing myself to an entirely different way of life. It’s wild and wonderful out here but it doesn’t pay well, and there are plenty of risks. I live from one paycheck to the next. I chose this path because it was the only one available at the time. So far, I like it.

Now, five years later, I wonder where this will lead me. How will it all end?

Do I want to get eaten by a mountain lion? No, but it might be better than some of the other alternatives, like cancer, or a head-on collision on Highway 1, or worse, encounters with some local ranchers, or bullies in the office.

I prefer the path of spirit. Every day I think about the shortness of life, about possibilities and how I might live more wakefully. The cougar has helped me with that.

I seek the companionship of those who have been touched in an honest way, who’ve been broken and know their limits and yet keep aiming beyond what they know.

Life is short, as we’ve heard so often, and so, between the mountain lion and choosing a path, I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly time passes. At 55, I’m not so young any more. The years have passed quickly, more than I care to admit.

“I’m an old man!” I’d yell. “You don’t want to eat me! I’d taste like shit!” I’d say to the mountain lion. 

Turkey vultures and red tailed hawks, a golden eagle, circle above, lifted by updrafts from the surrounding hills, which are barren and rocky. The trees, thank god, are merely green with leaves and nothing lurks in them.

I scan the ridge lines and arroyos, searching for movement in the dry weeds and grasses common to the coastal sage region after years of drought.

About a year ago, the ranch lost a sheep to a mountain lion.

I was drinking coffee with the boss, going over the day’s work plan for my solo duties in the orchard, when he blurted, “Oh yeah, and watch out for the big cat!”

It took me a moment to register the “big cat” part of his comment. I was heading out the door when I realized what he meant. I turned to face the boss, “You mean, mountain lion?”

“Yeah, got one of our sheep last night.”

“Should I be carrying a gun?” I offered.

“You can if it’ll make you feel better but you’ll be all right.”

I spent that entire day creeped out by the possibility of crossing paths with that nocturnal sheep rustler.

I encountered a mountain lion once in the wild of coastal northern California while camping on a sandbar on a creek between towering redwoods.

I had just tucked into my sleeping bag next to my wife, who was already sleeping. We rested beneath a tarp I had rigged into a lean-to so we could look up at the stars and stay protected from the moisture of nightfall.

The coals were still burning hot on the campfire I’d built in the sand at the opening to our shelter, keeping us warm. A full stack of deadwood I’d gathered in the forest stood ready to stir the fire again in the morning chill.

I had dozed off when I was awakened by the quick flip-flapping sound—splish, splash, splish—of a duck’s webbed feet, scooting along the creek just below the sand bar.

I thought nothing of it until, seconds later, I heard the slow deliberate steps of a man walking up river. My watch showed just past 1 a.m.

Who would be walking upstream at this hour?

I grabbed my flashlight and shined it on the creek below where I’d heard the steps, and saw the unmistakable sleek shape and brown coloring of a mountain lion not 30 yards away. It stood frozen in the unnatural light, its legs stuck like posts in middle of the dark creek.

The duck had long ago disappeared. Dinner escaped into the forest night.
For whatever reason, call it a fool’s curiosity, a death wish, the need to hail the beast, I whistled at it like a bird.

The animal turned to face me and began to walk across the creek. 

“Oh fuck!” I yelled.

[For every “Oh fuck!” I’ve blurted, I wonder how different my life would be if I had shouted, “Oh yeah!”]

Fortunately, perhaps it was instinct, I had already jumped out of my bag before turning on the flashlight. I was on my feet, standing next to the pile of dead wood I’d stacked for the morning fire.

I tossed several large pieces of the dry wood onto the hot coals and they burst into flame with a suddenness that startled even me. I shouted loudly through the fire, “Yeah!”

The cougar turned quickly away and ran back into the forest across the creek.

“What’s going on?” my wife asked sleepily.

I told her what had happened.

“Sometimes you’re not so bright,” she said, turning to go back to sleep. I sat by the fire for as long as possible, restless and unsettled, feeling stupid.

Now, as the shadows grow long and the days turn shorter I’m keenly alert to any signs of intruders in the orchard. I watch for tracks, scat, and anything that would warn of the presence of a mountain lion.

The boss’s “Well, yeah, they’re out there” keeps playing through my mind. I spend less time crouched beneath the trees and more time looking over my shoulders, listening for crackling leaves and twigs, basically any sign of life in the darkening grove.

I’ve attuned my ears to the presence of raptors winging overhead in search of prey, the whoosh of air from their wings swooping swiftly like a phantom past the tops of avocado trees. I’ve developed an eye for signs of coyotes chewing on irrigation lines and pigs pushing up leaves in search of food. 

I’ve spotted deer and bobcats, wild turkeys and the remains of skunks shredded by predators, perhaps a great horned owl or coyote.

The orchards teem with wildlife.

Experts advise against solo ventures into the wild. A good way to protect oneself from harm is to travel with a companion. I don’t have that option and rather like working alone in the orchards.

It feels right most days. Still, I often wonder what I’m doing here, thinking that I might do better for myself, and long for the editor’s chair and wish for another chance to publish a magazine (where lions of another sort can be confronted, even tamed).

In the five long years since the so-called Great Recession, I’ve worked in the fields, picking up side jobs in landscaping and window cleaning, pushing wheelbarrows and climbing ladders. I’ve been mostly a laborer and work hard for my money. At my age, that’s no easy feat.

The lion doesn’t frighten me half as much, however, as the vultures on Wall Street, who were mostly responsible for the crash of 2008, and some of the people I’ve met here, who have their own predatory habits, which are more insidious and deadly than the much-maligned cougar.

I’ve witnessed beauty here that few ever get to see, and I’m grateful for that. There’s blight out here too, but mostly it’s fresh and clean, the air swept cool from coastal breezes, the land tended and watched, scrubbed by sun and drought.

Water is a precious resource in this dry, semi-arid climate but there seems to be plenty of it in this part of the country. It can vary from one canyon to the next, though, and not far from here farmers are hauling truckloads of water and paying lots for it to keep their trees alive.

We haven’t had that problem in this canyon yet and hope that we never will. But if the drought continues, the worst on record, as it has for these many years, it could get ugly.

I’ve seen ugly when a farmer gets stingy with water. I suffered the loss of a full season’s harvest of blueberries because we were refused water from our supplier, a long-time farmer.

Green berries about to turn color, promising a well-deserved bounty, fell off the plants by the buckets full. The plants went dry and we lost our harvest, and possibly thousands of dollars.

I pleaded for water long before it got so bad. “You of all people, a farmer, must know how important it is for me to harvest those berries and get them to market,” I argued. 

“Well, get yourself a water tank,” he said after a moment. 

“Just let us have some water to get through the harvest,” I said, “and then we’ll get out of here.” He did not want us there. 

I don’t know to this day what we did to turn him on us. I thought he was a good guy, a good Christian who attends the church whose marque warns of the perils of the paths we choose. 

“Oh yeah, he’s a straight up guy,” a person I admire, a local businessman, once said of him. I thought so too until he put me out of business.

There are worse predators in this town than mountain lions, people who call themselves Christians, people who love to hate, people who refuse to give you water when you need it.

The way of death really belongs to them. Frankly, I’d rather be eaten by a mountain lion than make friends with someone who is more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing and goes to church. That’s the choice I want to make, the path that seems right to me: Steer clear of predators, hypocrites and trouble.

I heard a story once about a hunter who was tracking a mountain lion in the hills not far from here. He found himself going in a circle after a while and then got a creepy feeling. He turned on instinct and not 15 yards behind him was the very lion he had been tracking.

Maybe it’s a true story, maybe it’s not. But it shows that we are never far from trouble if we go looking for it.

For now, as I say, I like working alone and keeping vigilant watch in cougar country. §

Friday, October 4, 2013

We need rain

a super hot wind blows through the trees tonight, the stars more clear than ever, dust swirls up and fills the nose. it’s not a good wind.

it parches the mouth. it’s the kind of wind that stirs up pollens and dust, spores, chemical residues from farms and valley fever.

it’s the sort of dry easterly that turns a california drought into a firestorm. 

i don’t like these winds that blow hard and hot. they may make for beautiful clear skies along this sunny coastal range but will make your nose bleed for lack of moisture.

we need rain more than beautiful days. without it, our beautiful days will turn into desert.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cayucos Dharma Bums

I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Adam and Matt mostly through their music but also through food and beer and conversation.

I met Adam first. He works at Jim Ruddell's Smokehouse in Cayucos. 

Earlier this year he asked me to come see his band play at the Old Creek Ale House. That's when I met Matt.

I’ve been going to the ale house nearly every night since even though they no longer play there.

The three-piece band of twenty-something musicians sounded amazing, a unique blend of funk, originals, jam sounds, jazz, and Beatles’ covers. I was smitten with their sound—full, rich and original—and their passion for music.

They’re young, energetic, creative and eager to hit the road. You may know them as the Earthtones, a trio that includes their friend Robby.

Matt and Adam have decided to hit the road in pursuit of a dream to make something happen with their music. They want to travel and meet other musicians around the country, make connections and simply have the chance to share music with others and see what the world brings them.

They are today’s Dharma Bums.

They plan to head out in about two weeks and seek a local venue in which to play one more time before they leave. This will give them a chance to see friends before they go and others a chance to lend their support.

If you know of a place where the Earthtones can play one more gig before they hit the road, let us know.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ale House Tails (or love and sex in a small town)

I rolled into town after a hot day on the farm, temperatures soaring close to 100, hot for a coastal farm just two miles inland from scenic Highway 1 that brings thousands of tourists to the area this time of year. 

They come for our "unsung" Fourth of July fireworks, a spectacular display of our love for freedom and the glittery sparkle of a thousand different lights bursting over the pier and into the ocean each year. And also, our parade. They come for our parade.

In some ways, it's already a parade here long before the Fourth, days before the big weekend. Cars filled with tourists go round and round every street looking for a place to park. The sidewalks fill up and long lines of empty chairs mark territory up and down the parade route. 

I got out of my truck to grab a beer at the local ale house, hoping to cool off, and noticed how caked in grub my pants were. I’d parked in the lot next to the tavern. 

I was lucky to find a spot to park. I was filthy and it was still hot, even parked close to the ocean where’s it’s usually mercifully and thankfully much cooler.

The town was hopping and packed with strangers, some looked like circus clowns in baggy shorts and rainbow colored hair. We don’t have many people here who stand out like that. They’re easy to pick out, the tourists, even the ones who try to look like they live here.

The locals wave furiously at one another as they pass by on the now busy streets, as if they haven’t seen each other in a long, long time. It’s more of an acknowledgement of “Oh god, I’m so glad there’s still someone I know here.”

It gets crazy here on the Fourth of July, where so many people who don’t live here like to remind us that we “live in paradise.”

Oh yeah, that’s right, some will say, paradise. I know some people who absolutely despise this town. It's sad but true.

I went inside ordered a beer and realized that sitting there in those disgusting clothes wasn’t going to cut it for me. And probably not for anyone visiting who might come in looking for a place to socialize and relax, away from the stink of Fresno or LA and San Francisco. They didn't need me to remind them of it.

Sorry, I said to the beautiful and glowing pregnant barkeep, I’ve got to run out to my truck and make a change of clothes. Good thing I brought some shorts. She smiled, no problem, she said, I’ll be here when you get back.

I got into my truck and felt funny as I pulled off my pants in the midst of so much activity. “What if someone sees me,” I thought, “they might think I’m a pervert.”

And at that very moment of anxiety a fat dude with bald head walked up to the passenger side of my truck, turned his fat belly to the door, and I thought he might try to open the door.

I freaked. What the fuck? 

“Hey dad,” his kid behind him said, “there’s someone in there.”

The fat fucker looked in the window as I sat there in my “Kissing Instructor” boxers, shrugged, zipped up his pants and walked a few steps down the row of cars to piss on some other sap’s truck.

I thought about saying something to the guy but he was much bigger and I was tired and just wanted to have a beer and this is Fourth of July week when our town turns into a whirling tasmanian devil of activity and idiots, blowing up from a tiny little village of 3,500 residents into a circus of nearly 30,000 revelers.

Some love it, others hate it. I kind of like it.

Too bad I’m going out of town for the weekend. 

Seriously, once one of the local paraders and drunk matrons of the body board drill team tried to french kiss me after bolting out of her parade formation to give me her love. She pressed her bosom hard against me and thrust her tongue into my mouth. It seemed like love and it might have been all right had it not been for the reek of alcohol on her breath at 11 in the morning.

I was feeling pretty high myself as many residents are when they struggle to cope with 30,000 bodies descending on our quiet little village here.

Anyhow, I finally got myself together, forgave and forgot about the truck pisser and made my way to the ale house, a place where more often than not, someone has offered to buy me a beer. I’ve even turned down a few offers. It’s that good.

While there I ran into a gal who informed me with no question that she knew the reason why the Rogue Voice, a magazine that I’d published several years with my friend Dell Franklin, failed. 

Well, I said, it had something to do with 2008, didn’t it? The year print went out of fashion and advertising dollars dried up? When the economy crashed and everything went digital?

No, she declared, the reason the Rogue Voice failed is because Dell Franklin is a pervert.

OK, so it’s not just the tourists who can be kooks. I didn’t know what to say. I’m more of a pervert than Dell is and we’d argued vehemently on numerous occasions about the propriety of certain questionable images I wanted to publish but he didn’t.

Like the cock guns illustrated by artist David Settino Scott, who was furious at the war machine. This was during the Bush years. He sketched a horrible beast, a monster with a machine gun for a cock that spewed bullets and mayhem and murder everywhere. I loved it. It was a powerful image.

I wanted to publish it as David’s next monthly illustration, Stacking. I felt as David did that war is a racket and the beasts who run the show have guns for cocks, and cocks for brains.

Dell refused. We fought, and fought and fought. Dell won the fight.

Pervert? Yeah, right.

Well, there was that one cover image he wanted to run that I tried to dissuade him from running.

“Dell, she looks like a transvestite. People are going to get the wrong idea.”

“No they’re not, goddammit!” he said. “We’re gonna run this. She’s hot!”

Dell had come home from a visit with our friend Jack Joyce, founder of Rogue Ales in Portland, Oregon, where they cavorted and Dell had opportunity to visit another friend who ran a nightclub on the seedy side of town with the hottest little bar chick he’d ever met.

He was in love, brought home a picture of her and demanded that we run her image as a cover for our Christmas edition. I had to admit, she looked pretty good in the picture.

We shipped her image off to our favorite fabulous cover artist, Martin Shields, who gave us color and brilliance in all ways. 

His rendering of Dell’s new love, however, gave her arms of steel with hair and muscles and she looked a tad odd, if not transexual. I tried to explain this to Dell. He wouldn’t have it. Run the damn image, he said. So we did.

Barely a day after we hit the racks, I got a call from a reader who wanted to know about our “girl” on the cover.

He said he liked to “switch things up a little bit” and was curious about the hairy arms and a few other things.

Well, I assured him, she’s a she. You got the wrong idea about our cover gal. She’s a bartender in Portland.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Look dude, it’s a painting. It’s not real. I hung up, feeling justified and a little miffed at Dell.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about people in this town, which was recently given high marks by Sunset Magazine for being one of the best unsung coastal towns. Best unsung? You bet.

There's a lot I could sing about living here. For instance, there’s this young gal who works at the local coffee shop. Recently, as I waited for my early morning wakeup order of coffee, she stood on the other side of the counter, facing me, talking with her back turned to her friend who was preparing my drink at the espresso machine.

Her friend was scolding her for something, I was in a daze without my coffee. The gal facing me put both her hands on the countertop, put out her butt like she wanted to be spanked and said to her scolding friend, “Give it to me!”

That woke me up more than the coffee.

I couldn’t get it out of my mind, couldn’t shake it off. Later that day, on the way home from the farm, I stopped at the ale house for a beer.

A good friend I hadn’t seen in a while was there with his girlfriend, a high school health educator from “Bako,” they say, Bakersfield.

They’re easy to spot too. The people from the Valley.

Loretta wanted to know right away when was the last time I’d had sex.

“It’s been a while,” I said. 

“How long?” she persisted.

“Well, I gotta blowjob about a year ago but I wouldn’t really call it sex. I dunno, I don’t know when was the last time….”

“You masturbate don’t you?”

Well, duh.

“You have to understand,” Loretta offered, “I’m a health teacher. I talk about these things all the time.”

As I get older, I’m grateful the urge, strong as it still is sometimes, isn’t the driving force in my life.

“Fuck, dude,” a fella my age said to me recently, who had come to the ale house for a beer, “where did the time go?”

“Dontcha know it?” I said, turning to one of the 30-something locals, an electrician who works hard like me for his money. “It wasn’t that long ago when I was your age, thinking I was Picasso, reinventing the sex act.”

He listened, but was dismissive, didn’t really want to hear it just as I didn’t want to hear it when I was his age. Now, when an 80-year-old wrangler says, “Enjoy it while you still got it fellas,” I listen. 

Still, it’s hard to find love in a small town where often people know more about you than you do. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of love here. People just have a funny way of showing it sometimes. §

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A ruckus of wings

I heard a ruckus outside my bedroom window in the last bit of twilight. It sounded like someone clumsily flapping the pages of an oversized newspaper. But who does that any more?

I went to the window and peered into the shadows of sycamore trees silhouetted against the final silver light. 

In the shadows below I saw little.

In the weighty limbs 30 feet up, the wide pages of a wild turkey’s wings spread themselves black against the colorless sky as the big bird wobbled to its roosting place for the night.

The flapping pages of another wild turkey’s wings warned of its arrival as it crash-landed through a thicket of leaves onto the same limb. 

Others arrived, until there were nearly 10 big birds awkwardly flapping their wings like pages of newspapers, giving clumsy applause to another safe arrival, out of reach from those yapping coyotes, and settling in briefly for the short night that beckons another summer.

Man, what a ruckus! 

Soon, they were quiet and the frogs and crickets started their evening chorus, beeping and croaking under the same trees along the creek, bass and soprano voices lulling the birds to sleep. 

In a short while, it will be the dogs of the night hurling insults and cries of longing at the swelling moon….

Friday, April 12, 2013

Crazy comes to Cayucos, pretending to have a gun

We get our share of crazies passing through town. I met one yesterday at Kelley’s Coffee and Espresso Shop in Cayucos, and right away he took a dislike to me—and to just about everyone who crossed his path.

The sheriff’s deputies had informed window washers on the job across the street that they were looking for a scruffy fellow wearing a plaid jacket. Not an easy task in this town. There are a lot of scruffy guys wearing plaid jackets around here.

Apparently he had been spotted waving a stick in a threatening manner at the middle-school up the road, pretending he had a gun.

As the window washer described the character, a man, a stranger fitting the description, passed by the window of the coffee shop. “That’s him!” the window washer exclaimed. “That’s him! Should I call the cops?”

“You bet,” I responded just as a squad car drove by the intersection. I rushed out the door and flagged down the squad car.

The deputy turned the car and came back. He rolled down his window. “That’s your guy right there isn’t it?” I nodded.

“Yeah,” the deputy said, offering a look of irritation. He rolled up his window and drove away.

And suddenly there I was left standing alone, the deputy off to who knows where, and the crazy guy raging pissed off at me.

In this climate of gun crazies blowing children to smithereens I figured that I was doing the right thing. “Here’s your man, the one who was waving his hand like he had a gun at the school yard.”

“You got something to say about me, you say it to my face,” the stranger said.

“OK,” I answered, “apparently the cops are looking for a guy whose description you fit to a T, a guy who was seen menacing the children, like he had a gun up at the school.”

“Say gun again and you’ll be sorry,” he threatened.

“The police said ‘gun,’ not me.”

He stared at me menacingly. “Stare into my eyes!”

I snorted a smirk, trying not to laugh.

“I thought so,” he said, as if he’d judged me an easy target, a weakling. Then he followed me to Kelley’s. We sat out front at one of the tables.

I didn’t want him to feel threatened or challenged or bothering the other customers. I kept watching for the deputies to pull up any moment. 

“Where are you from?” I asked.

He stared me down again, said he was from Oklahoma, asked me if I’d ever seen the bloody Arkansas River. 

“No,” I answered. “How did it get bloody?”

“From people I took care of.”

“Are you telling me you’re a killer?”

“Just keep pushing me,” he threatened.

Where are the damned deputies? I kept wondering.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

No answer.

“What’s your name?”

He got up and walked away, rattled. Clearly he was insane and what I deemed a threat to the community. Apparently, the deputies thought otherwise, despite what they had told the window washers.

I went inside and moments later he came back and sat outside the window facing me, staring at me, giving me the Jedi mind control treatment, disturbing other customers.

I can take care of myself but I didn’t feel like getting into a scrape with him. I just wanted to finish drinking my coffee, reading the newspaper, unmolested by someone who belongs in an institution.

I felt annoyed and threatened. He caused concern among customers and staff. He reportedly made threatening gestures at the school. “He gives me the creeps,” an employee said.

Meanwhile, despite word from the deputies that he had threatened students at the school, he continued to roam free.

Finally, after nearly 30 minutes of staring me down through the window, he came in to borrow the shop phone, saying he had been robbed.

“Sorry, the phone is out of order,” a staffer said.

He went outside and got hold of a cellphone from one of the cyclists who stop in for coffee treats on their road trips up and down Highway 1, the same road that brings the crazies through town.

He called the sheriff’s office on the borrowed phone to report that someone had swiped a Rabobank pen, a freebie the bank gives its customers, from his jacket pocket. The deputies investigated, determined it was a false report and hauled him off to jail.

An arresting deputy said, “Mental health is the problem in this country, not guns. We’ll take him in, have him evaluated.”

The next day, the stranger was back, mad as ever and still raging and threatening.

He pretended again as if he had a gun, this time holding his hand behind his back, while confronting Kelley, owner of the coffee shop. She called the deputies and made a citizen’s arrest.

As the deputy pulled away, the nutter in the back seat threw his head in a jerking motion, lips pursed, as if he was spitting on me and Kelley through the shop window.

He’ll likely be back. Then what? And what about the deputy who left me standing there to confront someone who had been reported seen menacing the children?

I felt exposed and vulnerable, not protected by the deputy's response to my willingness to help. Later when I mentioned it to another deputy, he seemed perturbed, didn’t want to discuss it.

“We’re too busy," he said. "I wasn’t here yesterday. I’m here getting the story.”

“I’m part of the story,” I said. He gave me a look, irritated.

“Why is that guy back here?” I asked. “I thought he was going to be evaluated.” The deputy was clearly more irritated than interested in my questions or my side of the story.

As I say, when children are daily threatened in this country with violence, I feel a personal responsibility to do my part to protect them. But law enforcement's response to my willingness to help did little to assure me. I felt exposed, unsafe and unprotected by lending my hand to the deputy. 

Next time, I’ll think twice about it, wondering if the deputy’s action will leave me exposed to threats and danger from those they seek.

Clearly, if I want protection, I must be prepared to protect myself, with or without the deputy's help. §