“Well pistols, Paul.”
Swearing was uncommon for my friend, even after being around my foul mouth for most of our lives. When I looked over, he was holding his necktie like it was a long, droopy snake.
“I pulled it apart.”
“Well, then you have to retie it.”
He looked at it like it was some unsolvable Rubik's Cube. “I don’t know how.”
“You wear a tie every night you work. What do you mean you don’t know how?”
“I had someone tie it for me, and I’ve just been slipping it off and on over my head.”
“How long have you been doing that?”
“About a year-and-a-half now.”
I took the swath of silk, draped it over my neck, lined up the ends (allowing that he was a few inches shorter than me), and then produced a full Windsor. I popped it off the top of my head and handed it to him.
He looked at it like it was some sort of minor miracle. “You never even wear a shirt with a collar. Where did you learn that?”
I think of this every time I tie a necktie—which isn’t too often, but I still remember this exchange like it happened over this morning’s coffee. Today, 25 years later, I’m dressing for a funeral, and I’m tying a full Windsor. I don’t really care for ties, but for some reason the muscle memory of how to make a perfect knot stuck the first time I did it—like typing without looking at the keyboard or lighting a cigarette in the wind.
The funeral was in remembrance of Gene, my step-kids’ grandfather. He was someone I knew and liked, but hadn’t seen in a long time. It seemed appropriate to bid him a formal adieu; so I scraped off a few days of whiskers, brushed my one good tooth, and dug up a shirt with a collar. His wife would appreciate the tie. Their daughter, my ex-wife and good friend, even complimented me on it. I’m pretty sure she meant the nice knot, not the tie.
Back when we were all one happy family, we used to go camping together every summer. My three stepdaughters didn’t seem too impressed with outdoorsy stuff but still went willingly every year, occasionally even bringing a friend. Still, it was some of our best times together. Gene was a good ol’ boy and didn’t care who knew it. With the family comfortably ensconced at the camp, we would load his boat with more beer than food and fishing bait and head out for what would be most of the day on the water. Though an outstanding boats-man, as mechanic he lacked luster. I believe this was one of the reasons he liked having me along. Often my mechanical skills saved him from having to hail his brother for a tow back to shore. Even if the tow became necessary, Gene never lost his sense of humor about it and seemed to revel in our annoyance. Spark plugs are not that expensive. His son told the story at the funeral about being out fishing with his dad and uncle when a swarm of moths flew over them. The son asked what was going on. His uncle, Gene’s brother, observed dryly “Gene must have opened his wallet.”
When one takes the family camping, the trials of rearing children do not stay back in civilization. One year, when the youngest was about ten-years-old, she and her mom had been at each other the whole trip. Sensing the need for these two to be out of each other’s orbit, I told the kid to put on her swim suit and we’d go to the hot springs, just her and me. Being 10-years-old, she had to brag to her sisters that she was going to the hot springs and they weren’t. Anyone who has ever experienced kids knows what that led to. There was no way I was going to try to keep track of three kids in the woods, so I told the other two that their sister was being such a pain that I was actually taking her out in the woods to feed her to a bear. They were all remarkably comfortable with the idea and elected to stay behind.
The hot springs nestle right up to the edge of the lake. You could actually open a small, crude dam and allow cool lake water to flow into the spring to modulate the temp of the pool. The sun was not so far from the horizon when we set out, so we brought a flashlight. Once we slipped into the water, the sun slid down. The kid started shining the flashlight around. I suggested that wasn’t such a good idea. She was just about to ask why when she lit up several pairs of eyes looking at us from the surrounding brush. “Yep, that’s why,” I muttered as she shrieked. But I explained that many of the animals wait for the sun to go down before heading out to the water to drink and that they wanted nothing to do with us, so she should just stay still. I took the flashlight from her.
The warm water was softening the hardness of her mood and washing some of the familial tension away. She soon forgot about our voyeurs and held up rock after rock, wanting me to identify them in the waning twilight. I wonder if she ever figured out I was making up names based on Star Trek characters, being that I was as good a geologist as Gene was a mechanic. I still have a chunk of Kirkite on my dresser from that day.
When the sun had completely set, a herd of elk emerged from the brush with a strange, timid regality. The kid was a little spooked. Elk are big--even bigger when you are at ground level in a pool. I got her calmed down and told her to be very still. The elk undertook a staccato promenade right past us and came to the lake shore to drink. As much as I hate it when people say something is magical, there is very little else to describe what it looks like when a kid moves from fear to fascination with something so huge and wild.
After the herd moved down the shoreline away from us, we hiked the mile
back to camp amidst the yipping coyotes and the chilling mountain air.
Upon our return the kid regaled everyone with her elk tale. (Especially her
sisters, who seemed annoyed that the same number of people who had set out,
returned.) When Grandpa Gene cleared his throat, I had a moment of
apprehension. Gene was an avid hunter and having such close proximity to game
might make him go on about elk being good eatin’. He did not. What I saw
instead was Gene’s true affection for the wildlife as he told his granddaughter
a thing or two about elk we hadn’t known. He had made his living in the woods,
and the forest was where he was most at home. That didn’t mean every animal was
game all the time. (I was once out at a shooting range, and a deer wandered
onto the shooting area. Immediately all shooting ceased until the unmolested
deer wandered off. Even though most of the people out there were sighting in
their rifles for hunting, shooting a deer there was as inappropriate as drag
racing down Main Street just because you have a fast car. It’s disrespectful to
the sport, Gene explained when I told him about it.)
When the funeral came to an end, I gathered with the kids at a local dive and had a drink in memory of Gene. The girls are just bigger versions of the children they were; proof people don’t really change much. Drinking a toast with your parent: As much a rite of passage as burying a grandparent. I watched them eat out of each other’s plates, talk, laugh, and drink. We remembered how much we loved each other and promised to hang out more often, with or without a dead body in the area.
When I got back to Corvallis, I was in no mood for people. I untied my tie and kicked off the dress shoes. In five minutes I was on a motorcycle. When I stopped, it was on a rise in a wildlife viewing area I know to be scarcely used—by humans. I walked down the hillside a bit, tossed down my helmet, and lay my head against it to watch the sun set. The air was graced with that type of summer warmth, the memory of which gives one hope when the rains are in full swing. The orange sunbeams rippled through the dusty air and across the grassy-sloped hills into the wetlands below me. The grass hissed and the bugs jumped. In this natural chaos, my mind finally settled.
The sign said no one allowed there after dark. Not prone to minding signs I had no intention of going until work texted, and I was called in. I grudgingly made my way to my feet and brushed the grass from my legs. When I reached down for my helmet, I noticed some trash a ways down the hill. As I walked down to retrieve it, I heard what I thought was a wounded dog in the distance. I listened, trying to get a fix on where the sound was coming from. I realized it wasn’t a dog when the first elk emerged from the brush. I slowly sank back down into the pool of grass. In the next few minutes I counted about 70 elk as they materialized from the brush to wander into the balmy, buzzing, grassy plain. Work would wait. Being very still seemed like the thing to do, and they made their way toward me. Stupidly, I assumed they knew I was there.
I found out they did not when my phone rang. This might cost me more than $31.50.
They froze and looked at me. Granted, they were half a football field away, but there was no way I’d make it to my bike and get it started before they stampeded me, if that’s the way they wanted to play this out. And they were the ones who would choose how this would play out. After all, there were calves. Instead, they slowly meandered into a closer cluster and watched me watching them. I sat there for half an hour as the light went from warm to cool and the stars came out. Eventually, their hulking forms slowly moved away to cross the grass plain, calves bleating and adults snorting.
The perfection of the scene washed over my hard cynicism and found that part of me that already missed Gene.
I plucked myself from the grass; turned my back on the herd, now a good mile away; and made my way to the motorcycle.
‘See ya on the other side, Gene. Tonight you’re running with the elk.’