howling dog


There is a dog howling somewhere.  He is unhappy. They have left him alone and he is calling out to anyone, here I am, the house is empty, they have abandoned me, they will never return.  Of course, that’s nonsense, they will return, but the dog doesn’t know that. Tell the dog, I’m going out to dinner. I will be gone for a while, l’ll be back soon, but the dog knows only that you are leaving. And when the dog hears you’re back, with the unlocking of the front door, and you come in, the dog jumps with joy, expressing the feeling that what it thought was a permanent abandonment is not that, and the person who feeds the dog will be there at supper time.

The dog’s howl is not the howl of the coyotes on the ridge. Their howl is an eerie high-pitched cry, followed by the yipping of the pack, a song that tells us that there is some sort of celebration going on in the darkness above us. They’re not shut up in the kitchen, waiting for someone. They’ve been prowling the ridge, looking for a rat or a rabbit or perhaps someone’s cat that was carelessly left out to roam in their territory. A sheet of paper will be tacked  to the telephone pole, Lost Cat, last seen on Toyon Road. And there’s a picture of the cat, answers to the name of Sweetums, and there’s a phone number. Sometimes there’s an offer of a reward.

Ask the Coyotes, I think.  The lonely dog continues to howl.  Someone, perhaps the crazy man who lives on the corner, will call the police and they will drive up Oak Road, stop the car, turn off the engine, and listen.  When they find the howling dog, there’s nothing they can do.  A note will be left on the gate.

It is a full-throated howl.  The dog is putting everything into it, not leaving out a note, the howl rising to a crescendo, falling off, a short silence and then a repeat. I know the feeling. Nobody is listening.  Or, yes, somebody is listening, me and a host others, but we do not respond to the howl. We are dispassionate listeners, and I know that feeling:  of reaching out and finding someone there who does not extend a hand, hears the howl, but will not insert the key and unlock the door.


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Fred’s truck

Under the bupmpy grou, to b

When Fred Lakosky went off to Saudi Arabia he asked me to keep his
Ford truck,  It was a 1970 pickup, gray, ramshackle, poor brakes, windscreen wipers that did not work.  I drove it to school.  Once, I parked it at Food Villa, came out of the store to find it in the middle of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. The hand brake had failed and it rolled there, not hitting any of the cars that detoured around it

Another time I came out of the store, turned on the engine and stepped on the clutch, ready to put it in gear. But the clutch was loose and did not respond. I crawled under the dash to examine it, then crawled under the truck. It was a mechanical clutch and the rod that connected the pedal to the clutch lever had broken in half.

I crawled out and went down the street to Jerry’s hardware where I bought a pipe clamp and borrowed a wrench from Jerry. A Fairfax cop directed traffic around me as I crawled back under the truck, clamped the two halves of the rod together and I was back in business. When Fred came back from Saudi, I showed him the repair.

Looks OK to me, he said.

Once, I drove the truck to San Rafael to get a load of gravel. I pulled under the tower at Shamrock and the operator yanked a lever.  A shower of gravel filled the bed and the front of the truck lifted.

Too much! I shouted.  We looked at the truck, the back end sunk on the old springs, the front tires barely touching the ground.

You OK with that? he asked.

What choice do I have?

We could shovel some of it out.

I’ll take a chance, I said.  On the way back to Fairfax the steering wheel was loose, I could feel the front end lifting off the road every time I hit a bump.  But I made it back to Oak Road, the springs did not break and I managed to steer it.

Fred’s truck.  Fred is gone.  So is the truck.

Sometimes on the way to school I picked up kids and stowed them in the bed in back.  I told Henning, our German exchange student, to think of it as an American adventure. For a boy used to a hundred miles an hour on the Autobahn, it was a unique experience..

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The Feather River south of Oroville wanders through the gravel beds leftover from hydraulic mining for gold in the 1850’s, jets of water from giant water cannons washing away the dirt, leaving miles of rocks piled randomly, steep levees containing the river.  I wade into the river, water chuckling over the gravel; on the far side a channel has been scoured, the current faster.  It is deceptive, and when I am knee deep it pulls at my legs, a force that threatens to dislodge my feet.  Move the upper foot first, lean on the wading staff, feel the current shift my lower foot, pushing the boot against the rock where I have lodged it, a steady force, as if the river is trying to pull me with it, make me become part of the inexorable slide toward the valley to the west.  I stand, right foot planted, left foot above and slightly ahead, quartering myself to the current.  Below, the race runs out into a bend, wider, where steelhead might gather, and I drift my fly downstream, let it swing in an arc, across the head of the pool, let more line slip through the guides, wait, wait, let it drift, let it drift. Retrieve and cast across the race again.  The current throbs at my legs, pulses, and I am immersed in the vibration and the hiss of the water over the rocks and below me, at the bend in the river, a half dozen white pelicans are poised, waiting, just as I am waiting.

In the pool below me there may be steelhead, slowly finning, lying near the bottom, waiting for rain to come, raise the water, muddy it, send them thrashing upstream through the race where I am standing, muscular bodies throbbing with the current. They have traveled a hundred and sixty miles from the Pacific, and will go farther upstream to spawn.

I shift my right foot, slide it next to the rock just ahead, feel the current try to lift me, and I know it will be difficult to turn when I want to retreat, that I will be poised on one leg and the wading staff, too many things to do, not enough muscles to do them, the river pulling at me, and I can hear it chuckling, as if it is laughing, sure of itself.

This morning, as Geoffrey drove his truck on the narrow road that was atop the levee, an owl flashed just above the hood, swooping up over the windshield, wings as wide as the cab. Coyotes wander among the rock piles and clumps of ragged willows. Great blue herons stand immobile at the edge of the water, waiting for crawdads or small fish. The river widens below the rock piles, weaves among the rice fields, and striped bass come upstream in mid-April. The steelhead will find a gravel bed in a creek far upstream, perhaps Deer Creek or the North Fork of the Feather; they will dig a redd, deposit their eggs, the males will fertilize them and they will return to the ocean, only to come back into the Feather in another year. Their bodies are like bright chrome. I let the fly drift once again.



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mill ponds


Every mill had a pond. Logs floated like half-submerged alligators, and there was a concrete wall opposite the mill house where the logging trucks and trains pulled in. The tie-downs were removed, the near side steel racks were lowered and the logs tumbled into the pond with a rush, sending a wave toward the mill.  A mill worker wearing corked (caulked) boots danced on those logs.  He literally danced, the logs turning and sinking as he went across, nimbly guiding a log with his peavey, a lance with a sharp point and a hanging hook, toward the chain.  It was a dance that allowed no mistakes.  A slip meant dropping between logs that weighed as much as a locomotive,  and those logs shifted against each other constantly, The chain dipped into the pond, a continuously moving loop with hooks that pulled logs, dripping, out of the water, up the incline and into the mill.  There, other hooks, fueled by hydraulic power, slammed into the log, lifting it onto the carrier. Controlled by the sawyer who sat in a tiny booth next to the giant band saw; he positioned the log, it moved toward the saw and the scream of the teeth sliced off a bark side, the discarded piece dropping onto a conveyor belt, bound for the burner.  The log retreated, the hooks lifted and bit again and it turned, exposing another side and once again the big saw sliced off another long side of bark, as easily as if it were a chunk of cheese cut with a sharp knife. It was a ballet of machinery, big enough to manhandle the trunk of a huge sugar pine or fir,  something  bigger than a truck, lifted as easily as if it were no more than a napkin.  Boards peeled off, the sawyer touching his controls lightly, the smell of wood filled the air, sawdust spurted, fell onto a conveyor to end up in the smoking burner.  The smoke drifted across the town, and the smell of burning wood was a continuous part of breathing in those mountain towns.

Men walked the moving boards, guiding them to other saws that trimmed them, or sent them off to where other men pulled them onto stacks.   At the Essex Cedar mill, the clear heart pieces went into the kiln to be dried, and eventually ended up as yellow pencils in classrooms across the nation.

Other pieces of lumber became the framework of houses or bridges. Discarded chunks of cedar became fences in parks. Once, Dennis Curran and I brought a City of Oakland truck to the Essex mill to get a load of pecky cedar that would go back to Oakland and become fences in city parks. The fork lift operator put one unit onto the truck, and them came with another.

No, we called out. We only ordered one.

I got too many, he said. This one is on the house. It settled onto the truck, lowering the bed, flattening the springs. The front end lifted, the wheels barely touching the ground.

I was eighteen, Dennis was fifteen. We didn’t know any better. We thought we were getting a bargain, and we eased the truck out of the mill yard.  Charlie would be proud of us. The truck wallowed all the way back to Oakland Camp, the heavy load of lumber dictating our movements.

When we arrived, Charlie Way, the caretaker took one look and said, “What the hell were you two thinking?

The second one is free, we crowed.

The second one has nearly brought this truck to its knees. Unload that wood as quick as you can, you two numbskulls.

Charlie was from Alabama, and numbskulls sounded much like toadstools.

Fortunately for us, there was no permanent damage, and that second unit of pecky cedar lay there among the trees for the next month, mute testimony to our teenage idiocy.

But the smell of the mills, wood and smoke, hung over towns throughout the Sierras: McCloud, Dunsmuir, Quincy, Loyalton, Greenville, Crescent Mills, Portola, Graeagle, in the Feather River Canyon, in Sierraville,, Downieville,  Truckee,  countless little portable mills in narrow canyons, on Red Clover Creek, Indian Creek, Spanish Creek. They are nearly all gone, the constant blue air from the burners is gone. The smell of freshly cut sawdust has disappeared. Houses now have aluminum studs, and those yellow pencils have been replaced by computer keyboards. No longer is a pencil case part of a child’s school kit.

Uncle Howard took Paul and me to the mill in McCloud. You could hear the saw miles away, and it was reputed to be the biggest band saw in the world. Its high pitched scream spirited through the forest, and monopolized the world surrounding it.. Some of the logs were the trunks of Sugar Pines so big that a single one occupied a railroad flatcar. When we got to the mill, the noise of the saw was ear shattering;  it vibrated our bodies, and the floor of the cook shack where the men ate was scarred by the caulked boots they wore.   Some of those trees were a thousand years old. They were cut into slats that became the boxes for strawberries in Southern California. Sugar Pine did not fuse its scent into the fruit, and was much valued by those growers.

So those trees, saplings when Sir Francis Drake hauled his ship onto the California coast when only natives and grizzly bears roamed those woods, became boxes stacked at the end of strawberry rows in the Southern California sunshine.


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Three Corvettes


I have been re-reading Nicholas Mansarrat’s Three Corvettes.I read it forty years ago and was astonished by it. It is the precursor to his novel, The Cruel Sea,but it is also a detailed non-fictional account of the tiny warships that shepherded convoys in the North Atlantic in World War Two. He chronicles the horror of war at sea, the spine-tingling drama of seas that threatened to sink their ship and his attention to the heroism of the sailors he served with.  It is a story that makes one envious of his experience.  No one would want to suffer the enormous risks that he undertook, but it is a story of a man who set out to do a job and did it, simply doing his best under conditions that sometimes bordered on the horrendous.

It is a book that holds up today as well as it did for me forty years ago.The pages have turned yellow, the binding has broken and the book is falling apart, but Mansarrat’s story remains whole, fascinating and touching and filled with the details that give it the vigor it deserves.

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Chubby Humbles


Tonight I will do a filet mignon on the grill. Chubby Humbles was east of the towns of Concord and Walnut Creek, a roadhouse where celebrities like John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe visited. There was a glass-fronted case as you entered, a standard butcher’s display, and you pointed to the steak that you wanted.  It arrived at your table after your drink, seared just the way you wanted it. Chubby Humbles was named after the owner who was indeed, a chubby man. It was in the nowhere of Contra Costa county, and the chance that you would see someone who knew you was minimal, which accounted, I suppose for the celebrity guests who stopped there.

So tonight I will grill a filet mignon, do a baked potato and some asparagus and pretend that we are, once again, at Chubby Humbles. No one will recognize who we are.  I can have an extra glass of wine since I won’t have to drive home from Contra Costa County. I could even have another scotch, but I’m the one at the grill, not the chef at Chubby Humbles, so it probably isn’t a good idea.

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Greenhorn Creek


A single cottonwood tree in the Greenhorn Creek meadow, just off highway 70. Cottonwood seeds drift across the meadow and across the creek. The creek moves slowly, the far bank  stabilized by old car bodies, Detroit rip rap, cars from the 1930’s laid side by side  by a rancher to stop the bank from eroding.  Stout willows grow up through empty windshields and rusted bodies, trout lurking where someone once sat watching the trees flash by. The cottonwood seeds drift like snowflakes.

The crack! of lightning is like the snap of a trap as a rat tastes the strip of bacon laced over the trigger. Count. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four. The rumble comes rolling, thumping.  Less than a half mile away.  The rain comes; sitting under the trees the rain dimpling the creek. I do not want to leave, do not want to return to the stream; I listen to the rain on the leaves, feel the passing of time until I am no longer able to stand in the stream, no longer able to scale the rocks.

Now the rain slackens, and there is the smell and taste of dust put down, ozone hanging in the air. A stellar jay in the woods, its cry raucous, loud, arrogant, more of a shout than a bird call. It is an American bird, like the Sandhill crane that is found only here and in Siberia; Sandhill cranes with their red cap and big bodies on stilts in the harvested rice fields. Red-winged blackbirds in the bushes, the red and yellow epaulets on the shoulders.

What are the other natives? The black bear, groundhog, possum, beaver, coyote, the fat American robin. Early European naturalists called the coyote a jackal.

Greenhorn creek crosses under the highway into a pond where a rancher has built a wooden dam. Cattle trample the edge, and water still trickles over the dam in late July. It is an American stream. English trout streams have carefully mowed meadows, trees are pruned, a post with a number marks the end of a beat.  There are no old submerged car bodies. The rabbits in this meadow are long limbed, rangy, and their name is jack.

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