BACK IN THE SADDLE


This is a rewrite of “Saddle Up” I was asked for.

BACK IN THE SADDLE

By

Robert Robinson

WORD COUNT: 1,336

I turned onto the dirt road, trying to remember the directions I had been given. A right fork, a left fork, a bridge, a sheep camp, and something else had been mentioned.

The sheep camp didn’t surprise me, this being sheep country, but using one as a landmark seemed dodgy. I was pretty sure sheep camps moved with the herd. I was wishing I had written the directions down when I spotted the sheep camp coming up on the right. The sheepherders had a horse down on its back with its legs sticking straight up in the air. One herder was holding the horse down, while the other was attempting to shoe the horse. All participants seemed to be in distress, and all were sweating. I mentally checked off sheep camp.

The road looked good, but I knew that could change and it could become nothing more than a glorified game trail just around the next bend. Adding to the pucker factor, I was dragging a horse trailer with my horse, Red, who was bouncing back and forth and threatening to throw us off the road.

I was to meet up with my friend Cody for some camping and fishing. Cody was a cowboy; not the boot scootin’ feather in the hat Nashville kind, but the bull strong, hog ugly, snuff dippin’, bulldog a wild horse and never spit kind. Cody belongs to a subculture of fly-fishing that considers the horse a requisite accoutrement to the sport. Cody and his brothers sold horses and took great pride in matching horse to rider. They had experienced horses for inexperienced riders, inexperienced horses for experienced riders, and for people who don’t like to ride, they had horses that didn’t like to be rode. Cody had spent most of the winter convincing me that in order to get into the really good fishing I needed a horse, and that I needed to buy that horse from him.

I found his camp: An old truck, horse trailer, and tent situated in front of a huge fire pit. Although it was noon on a hot day in July, Cody was standing by the fire drinking a beer. I have noticed that no matter how hot it is, if you build a fire, people will stand around it, an oddity that probably dates back to the dawn of time deserving further study. I hobbled Red, setup my tent, and moseyed over to stand by the fire. After some small talk, we decided to saddle up and ride over to the creek and do some fishing.

I followed Cody up a trail that soon lead onto a narrow ledge overlooking a 100-foot drop. I was glad when the trail took a hard right and headed up a steep grade, but just as I was making the turn Cody’s horse shied at something, spooking Red, who took off going backwards as hard as he could for the edge of the cliff. I jumped off and got Red stopped just before he stepped off into the abyss. I walked Red up the slope until we were at what I considered a safe distance from the drop-off before remounting.

When I caught up to Cody, he was sitting in front of a pile of deadfall beyond which was a little meadow that sloped down to a thick stand of willows. I could hear the creek gurgling below.

Cody eased his horse through the deadfall with me right behind. I had almost made it through when Red made four long jumps out into the meadow and started to buck. He bucked a couple of times, then setup into a spin—tossing me out of the saddle. I landed hard but managed to keep ahold of the reins. Cody was sitting there looking rather relaxed considering what had just happened. He was leaning forward on his saddle horn and looking bored. I knew the “cowboy way” demanded that I get right back on and as I put my foot in the stirrup I asked Cody, “How did I look?” To which he replied, “Good for the first couple of jumps.” . . . I climbed back aboard and as quick as my butt hit the saddle Red went into another spin, flinging me off again. As I was about to mount up again, I noticed a dead tree limb stuck under Red’s back cinch. I pulled the limb out and was tightening the cinch when Cody said, “We ain’t going to get much fishin’ in if you and Red don’t quit messin’ around.”

“We’re good now.” I told him, and we headed on into the creek bottom.

We crossed the creek over to an island where we hobbled the horses, strung up our rods, and took off up the creek, taking turns casting to pocket water. We caught five or six trout apiece until we hit an open flat where two creeks came together. After agreeing on a time to meet back at the horses we split up; Cody took the right fork and I took the left.

Fishing alone has its drawbacks. The main one being that should you get into trouble, you’re on your own. Fishing alone in bear country can be a little spooky, something that you have to get your head around. I had decide long ago that I would rather get eaten by a bear than lay around dying of some terrible disease; besides, on this trip if anything got eaten it would be the horses, and after the crap that Red had been pulling, I was down with that.

I had managed to cover a lot of ground when I realized I would have to hustle to get back to the horses by the appointed time. When I got back to the horses, Cody wasn’t there yet, and it was only after I had my gear packed that he showed up. Cody said we needed to reach the main trail before it got dark.

We were mounted and had begun to move off when Red took three giant leaps forward, landing us in the middle of the stream. I looked over at Cody, who was resting on his saddle horn, looking bored, and said, “I think this bastard wants to buck again.” “Just take the hobbles off,” he told me. I dismounted into two-foot of water, which filled my boots, and felt around until I had the hobbles unbuckled. It was now pitch black. We crisscrossed up the slope searching for, but not finding, the trail. At the top of the hill Cody took off with such an air of confidence that I asked him if he had found the trail. He said, “Yeah . . . but not yet.” We reached what looked like a meadow and as we started across Cody told me to watch out for old down fencing and piles of barbed wire that could be laying around.

Cody had just hollered back that he had found the trail when I heard the ping of wire. I pulled Red up, dismounted, and began running my hands over his legs trying to see if we were tangled up in barbed wire. In the darkness, feeling down his back legs, I found that both of Red’s hind legs were standing in a coil of wire. Working blindly in the dark I was able to get us free.

As we made our way back to camp we passed campfires here and there, but Cody said we should give them a wide birth, as the firelight would ruin the horses’ night vision. I didn’t know that horses had night vision, but I was glad to hear it and assumed Red had stepped into the coil of wire for the hell of it.

When we got back to camp, we cared for the horses and Cody sat me down by the fire, handed me a beer, and began giving me some much needed instruction on horsemanship.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SPRING CROSSING


SPRING CROSSING

BY

ROBERT ROBINSON

Word Count: 1,243

I stood looking at the snowfields above me with a bad feeling in my guts. Where the swollen creek cut its way through, the snow was four-foot deep; I’d never get through. I’d just get wet if I tried, and staying dry was a priority now. Technically it was spring, but a guy could still get toe tagged winter kill up here. The slope leading up to the snow-banked ridge above me was gushing from every rat hole. The whole mountain was a sieve. I looked back at the tree line from which I had emerged and started thinking about gathering wood for a fire and spending the night. I could split a power bar with my dog Touch, bank up a fire, and wait until the wee hours when the runoff froze again. We could cross the creek then, when it  would be at its lowest, but we’d still have a five mile hike to get back to the truck—and we’d be wet. . . .  I’d screwed up. Ignoring the deep snow I could see on the ridges above me, I’d entered an area bordered by water on all sides during the spring melt.

The thermometer had read twenty-nine degrees that morning as I drove up the canyon. It was the time of the year when one side of the road was showing the green-up of spring while the other side was a scene from a Christmas card, with snow still hanging in the trees and covering the ground. I had stepped across the little creek that morning.

We had hiked around to the back side of the reservoir, me casting out to the edge of the ice, Touch swimming out to the splashes of my Wooly Bugger. The day turned gorgeous and warm and I started to think that I’d overdressed.

At noon, I hiked up a slope and found a log in a little meadow where I sat and ate my peanut butter sandwich. I gave Touch a dog biscuit and we stretched out in the sun and took a nap.

Long before we got back to the little creek we’d crossed that morning, I heard it. The latte colored creek was now out of its banks and raging. Where I’d stepped across it that morning, it was now twenty-yards wide and chest deep. A rush of adrenalin hit me, and I was ashamed I knew the color of latte. My only chance to get out of there before nightfall was to head up stream and hope I could find a place to cross. It would be a steep climb, and if I couldn’t find a place to cross I’d wind up spending the night. I started to think I’d underdressed.

I had a survival kit on me; a first-aid kit with a couple of power bars; some bullion and instant coffee; and a bag of dryer lint with a couple of ways to get a fire started. I had one of those old army canteens with the metal cup that I could boil water in. As long as I stayed dry I’d be ok. I took my jacket off and tied it around my waist to keep from sweating and started the climb. We headed up the creek looking for a spot to cross until we were above the timberline and found our way blocked by the deep snow.

On the way up I’d spotted a pine tree that had been washed into the creek and had wedged between two high cut-banks. That down pine would be my best chance to get across. I still had two hours of daylight to make something happen. As I headed back to the down tree, I began working out a plan.

I figured I could cross on the upstream side of the tree by bracing against it and inching my way along. I’d use my jacket to make a bundle for the stuff I didn’t want to get wet, and if I got to the middle of the creek, I’d throw the bundle on across so I’d have both hands free to finish the crossing and get up the steep bank. Once I got wet and had thrown my bundle over, I would be committed to the crossing; I wouldn’t survive the night wet without a fire. I had one problem: The banks were too steep there for Touch to climb up. Touch is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and she’d rather swim than walk, so I wasn’t worried about her getting across, I just needed to find a place where she could climb out. It would have to be close to the tree so I could start across quickly or she would try to get back to me. Getting her to cross without me wasn’t a problem. I could throw anything over and she’d go after it.

I took down my rod and tied it into my bundle, praying that if I perished in the crossing, whoever found my high-dollar bamboo fly-rod wouldn’t be a bait fisherman. Leaving the bundle at the down pine, I walked up stream until I found a place to send Touch over. I took my shoulder bag and slung it across and Touch jumped in and started after it. I hot footed it back to the tree, grabbed my bundle, and slid down the bank next to the tree into waist deep water. The force of the water slammed me against the tree and I could feel the gravel washing away under my feet. I started thinking that this wasn’t a good idea. If I lost my footing, I’d be swept under and held down by the tree and drowned. I had to go with it now though. If Touch seen me retreat, she would jump in to get back to me and she would be swept under the tree. We would both drown then, as I would go in after her. That would be an automatic reaction. I mean, it’s not like rescuing a spouse, significant other, or fishing buddy, where you have time to assess the risk and go find a rope—she’s my dog.

The water was chest deep in the middle of the creek and I only stopped for a second to sling my bundle on over. After my hands were free, I made it the rest of the way across and clawed my way up the bank. I was covered in mud and soaked from the chest down.

The temperature would drop as soon as the sun went behind the mountain and I figured that we had about an hour of daylight left. We were still four miles from the truck, but we could make it in good time by jogging and power walking. I poured the water out of my boots, gathered up my gear, and headed down the mountain. About half way back to the truck my feet started to hurt; wet socks and slip on ditch boots suck for hiking. I managed to make it back just after the sun went down. The temperature had already dropped thirty degrees, and when I pulled my boots off, I had several blisters the size of silver dollars on both feet. I started the truck and sat there with my head on the steering wheel waiting for the heater to warm the cab. I looked over at Touch and said, “We got lucky this time girl.”

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE DREAM


THE DREAM

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 821

“You’re glad I’m dead.” It was a statement with no feeling. There was no look of hurt or accusation in my father’s eyes. He had just stated a fact, and although it wasn’t a question, I felt compelled to answer. . . “yes”.

I shot to a setting position and swung my feet to the floor. I was soaked in sweat. The security light streamed through my bedroom window and I could see the pole from which it hung, but the light was too high and out of my vision. I ran my fingers through my wet hair and stared at the open door of my closet. I looked at the doorway into my room half expecting to see my dad standing there. Then I remembered, he couldn’t be standing there, two weeks ago he had lay dying in my arms. I’d been dreaming. I started to relax until I remembered what he had said. What the hell was all this about? Sure the old man had been hard on a few things, like where I went and my choice of friends. I couldn’t wear my hair long like the guys who were popular with the girls or wear the popular clothes, but I wasn’t glad he was dead.

The night before he died we had fought over how I was going to spend the money I was going to make that summer. I had just turned sixteen and he had gotten me a job working where he worked. I wanted wheels, they would be my ticket to freedom, dating, hanging out with friends. He knew and understood all of that, but he knew I couldn’t afford a car, with insurance, maintenance, and gas. He had gotten so angry that his face had turned purple, and it scared me. I wasn’t scared that he would whip my ass—I knew he could do that—it was the color of his face that scared me. I knew he had a bad heart and when I told him to take it easy, it just made him even madder.

What had made him angry was he wanted all those things for me too, but he couldn’t afford them either. He had other things on his mind: He was expecting to hear from my mother’s doctor about a biopsy from a lump in her breast that I didn’t know anything about. He died of a heart attack the next day just minutes after getting a phone call from her doctor telling him that my mother was terminal. It would be another eighteen months before I learned she was dying, and before I knew it was the phone call from the doctor that brought on the heart attack and not the fight we had had the night before.

I lay back down, and the wet sheets felt cool on my back. The night before, I had thought I saw my father searching for something on my dresser, and when I asked him what he was looking for, he turned and gave me a look that went right through me, as if he were looking at something beyond—my soul?—then he vanished. When I became conscious of what had just happened, I was sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the dresser. To this day I don’t know if it was a dream, or if I had in fact seen the specter of my father. It had only been two weeks since he had died, and the next day my mother was going in for a double mastectomy. It was a lot to process.

When we had gotten to work on the morning he died, my father had given me a quarter for the Coke machine and told me to get myself a Coke and come have my break with him. As he handed me the quarter we stood there looking at each other for what—even at the time—I thought an unusual amount of time, as if he had something to say. Whatever it was he never got the chance. Just before break, the foreman came and got me and told me something had happened to my dad. When I got to him, he was laying on the floor of the shop. He handed me his keys and told me to lock up his tool boxes and when I went to give him the keys back he told me to put them in my pocket. He grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s pray.” We prayed. I haven’t prayed that hard since.

The death rattle isn’t really a rattle; it’s more of a strangling sound. It’s very loud, and it seems to go on forever—it’s a relief when it stops. I can still hear those sounds, in the cool hours of morning, when sleep doesn’t come, when I hear my answer to his question—in that dream.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE FALL OF MAN


Word count: 1016                                       THE FALL OF MAN

By

ROBERT ROBINSON

There is only one certainty in fly-fishing: you will fall down. I’m not talking about the slips, stumbles, and trips that do little harm except to your ego. I’m talking about the nosedives, headers, sprawls, and plummets, the kinds of falls that break bones, fly rods, reels, and noses.

When explaining ripped waders, torn hands, shattered equipment, and noticeable limps to friends and significant others, proper nomenclature is helpful.

A sprawl is performed by pitching forward, leaving your feet behind, throwing your arms out to the side, and landing on your chest or face before your knees touch the ground.

A nosedive is any fall where the impact of the fall is taken above the upper lip.

A header, similar to the nosedive, involves a head-over-heels roll with the initial impact taken anywhere above the shoulders. When preformed on a steep slope, the header can be done repeatedly, gaining momentum with each roll until forward motion is arrested or deflected by a rock or a tree.

A plummet, my personal favorite because of the opportunity it affords for spectacle, must be initiated from a height of at least four feet—point of impact is optional.

Gravity is of course the root cause of all falls and is best illustrated in a fall I call the topple. You are busting through a stand of willows, get off balance, and just tip over, embracing gravity without a struggle—normally landing in a thorn bush. I recently did that and it had me preforming pocketknife surgery on my hands for a week as the thorns became infected and started to itch.

Gravity, mud, and felt-bottom waders can combine to produce some spectacular falls. I first became aware of this while contemplating my mud caked boots outlined against a clear blue sky as I went over a fifteen-foot embankment. I was able to break my fall by landing on a sixteen-inch diameter post that was sticking two-feet out of the mud. When I was able to breathe again and inspect the damage, I had a two-inch wide gash that ran from just under my left breast to the center of my back. Muddy waders are excellent for doing the moonwalk as well.

Unlike the popular dance move, which propels you backward, this moonwalk propels you forward, while you peddle backward as rapidly as you can. I once watched a friend of mine do the moonwalk for twenty-feet until he was waist deep in the Chattahoochee River. I did a version of the moonwalk on scree once. (Scree: an accumulation of loose stones or rocky debris lying on a slope or at the base of a hill or cliff, which enables stupidity to comes full circle.) My feet eventually shot out from under me and I went sledding and turtling on my back for thirty-feet, over a cut-bank, and into the river on my butt. The moonwalk can also be done standing in place, gradually picking up tempo until you tire and just sit down. (This is very entertaining . . . speaking as a spectator.)

Unless the good fishing is on the other side, or you are in a hurry to get to the bottom of the hill, slopes strewn with scree should be avoided; however, muddy or scree strewn slopes can be tested for stability by graciously allowing your fishing buddy to go first.

While form is important, proper falling etiquette should be observed as well.

All falls should be performed in silence. Unmanly shrieks, screams, and little girl noises only diminish the respect that can be gained from your fishing buddies through the degree of difficulty of the fall; however, an audible “oomph” upon impact lets any onlookers know that you’ve survived the fall, and from the reactions of my friends at least, adds comedic punctuation.

No fall is complete without proper follow through. Always assume that there are spectators and remember that it’s how you fall that matters. Do it with style. Staunch the bleeding—this is real he-man stuff—by packing the wounds with mud, then move off in a composed manner. When you are confident that there are no witnesses, curl up into the fetal position and wait for the pain to subside.

A couple of years ago, I took a fall that had me limping for most of the summer. I had spotted some rising Trout that were holding behind a large rock on the other side of the river. I was almost across and thinking that I had made it when I began watching the Trout and planning my cast. My feet shot out from under me and I came down hard on a sharp rock with my knee. (Knee: the part of the body most useful in locating sharp objects.) White pain shot through my brain; the kind of pain that shoots blinding flashes of light behind your eyes and makes you sick to your stomach; the kind of pain that causes you to wonder if you can make it back to the truck. I stayed on my hands and knees sucking air in short breaths through clinched teeth and waited for the pain to subside. I thought about the climb out of the canyon and wondered how long it would be before my body would be discovered. I thought about my friend who had just underwent a knee replacement and wondered if I would be getting fitted for a new skid. I pulled my good leg under me and stood up, testing the injured leg by slowly putting weight on it until I was satisfied that I could walk. I found my rod laying half in and half out of the water were I had somehow managed to toss it clear of the fall. The fish were still rising in spite of the commotion, so I gave the rod a quick inspection and caught three nice Browns before I decided to make the climb out while my knee was still numb. It was several months before I could walk pain free.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

BEAVER SLAPPED


Word count: 697                                       BEAVER SLAPPED

According to Michigan state law, beaver dams cannot be built or maintained except by beavers. I find this fascinating. I have often wondered if by consuming grubs, berries, roots, rodents, and backpackers I could produce bear scat, but there’s probably a law against that, too.

In the past, the Department of Natural Resources would blow up problem beaver dams with Dynamite. I have often found pieces of detonation cord at these old dam sites; however, Lately they have taken to placing large rocks along the tops of the dams in an effort to adjust the flow of water going over them without removing or otherwise damaging the dam. I wonder if this policy of placing rocks on the tops of the dams extends the natural life of the dam and interferes with spawning fish. Beaver dams often get washed out during the spring runoff; for the fish moving into these drainages from lakes and reservoirs to spawn, the damage done to the dams during the runoff is essential.

In places overpopulated with beaver, the ponds can be very small. I often catch deformed fish (fish with large heads and long, snaky bodies) in these places. When Left alone, the beaver will periodically relocate their dams as they exhaust the supply of tender willows that they love, forming ponds throughout the whole drainage, changing the course of the stream, and creating new habitat for their riparian neighbors.

Beaver ponds are tough to fish. The commotion caused by the fly-line hitting the static water of the pond spooks the fish. This can be avoided by using a longer leader and a delicate cast, but I have found fishing a pond from above more productive. I let the fly drift down until the fly-line straightens out and then give it a few twitches. This method works extremely well with nymphs. When the nymph settles on the bottom, I begin to give the fly movement by stripping the line in slowly. I have stood in one spot and picked off five or six trout using this technique.

I often come across beaver slides (places where the beaver inter and exit the stream) that are big enough to resemble the mouth of a small feeder creek. I don’t know if these large slides are made by large beaver, or if they are the result of repeated use by small beaver, but they are big enough to give me the willies, and they get me to thinking about the stories I’ve heard of people being attacked by rabid beavers. I always stop and peer into the shadowy willows, expecting to see a giant beaver sitting there giggling and quivering with disease, waiting to pounce.

I have gotten close to beaver in the twilight of the evening with neither me nor the beaver being aware of the others presence—until the last minute.

Late one afternoon I headed downstream from my camp to fish a long stretch of creek that was located between two large beaver ponds. I found a shallow riffle marked by several rocks about the size of a man’s head sticking halfway out of the water where I was able to cross the creek and approach this particularly productive bend pool from below. The fishing was good and I had caught eight or ten fish when I realized that I had stayed too late and I would have to hustle in order to get back to camp before dark. In the twilight, I could barely make out the rocks that marked my crossing spot. I had made it to the middle of the stream when one of the rocks I had just stepped over slapped the water with its tail and shot upstream between my legs. When I came down, I came down on dry land on the other side of the creek, somehow managing a standing broad jump that would have easily qualified me for Olympic competition. (It’s wise to bring along fresh pants on camping trips . . . for emerge-ncies.) When I got my breath back, I finished marking my trail and headed on back to camp, glad that I wasn’t wearing chest-waders.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SHEBA


SHEBA

Getting Sheba came as a complete surprise to me. I had given up on the idea. My parents had always came up with a hundred reasons why I couldn’t have a dog. Then one Saturday morning I was told that we were going to visit my dad’s friend who lived on a farm not far away.

When we pulled into the driveway, we were greeted by a pair of Alaskan Malamutes with a pack of rolling, tumbling puppies in tow. My mom and dad were invited into the house for coffee and I was told that I could stay outside and play with the puppies.

One female seemed interested in getting and holding my attention. When the other puppies grew tired and lost interest, going off to find their mother, she stayed to play, and when she finally tired, she lay down on top of my shoe. When my mom and dad came out of the house and it was clear we were about to leave I was told that I could pick one of the pups. I didn’t hesitate. I scooped the little female up into my arms and headed for the car, afraid that they would change their mind. And that’s how I met Sheba.

I don’t know why my parents changed their attitude about my having a dog. They must have realized that I needed a friend—I didn’t have any. We moved around too much for me to have friends. By the time I was in the seventh grade I had been to eight different schools and had quit trying to make friends. I didn’t see the point—I would be leaving soon.

The old man was a tool and die maker and traveled from one job shop to the next in search of that big rock candy mountain. But he did the best he could with a sixth grade education. I once watched him teach himself trigonometry from a library book. He told me that all knowledge was written down somewhere and that if I could read, I could find out whatever I needed to know.

By the time I dropped out of school to go in the service I had attended fifteen different schools in five states. Being the new kid sucks, but always being the new kid sucks in the extreme. New kids are tested, and if they come up short, or their shyness is perceived as timidity, they get bullied. I was a bully magnet.

I had developed a survival strategy of not doing anything that would draw attention to myself, like participating in class, which caused my grades to suffer. By the time Jr. High rolled around I was just getting by. Advancing to the next grade level was always iffy. Thanks to my less than stellar academic performance the new school system had placed me in a class designated 7-D, with the flunkies. I was the youngest boy in 7-D, the rest having failed a grade at least once, some of them three and four times. These older boys, on top of not being very bright, were mean. Two of them once held me down in the locker room while a third held a knife to my privates and threatened to nut me. I somehow knew that if I showed fear the tormenting would escalate, so I did my best to contain the fear. But the fear was there, a gut-wrenching, settle to the bottom of the stomach fear that stayed with me through weekends and holiday vacations.

I would get to school hours early before the doors opened, going blocks out of my way to avoid the corner where they all hung out, smoking cigarettes and waiting for victims. I didn’t tell my parents how bad things were at school. This was 1966 blue collar Indiana and bullies were just a fact of life. My dad had grown up a tough kid on the streets of Chicago, he would have just told me to fight back, but there were too many of them and I knew I didn’t stand a chance. Anyway, I now had Sheba to think about, care for, and look forward to getting home to. The fear that I had carried around in the pit of my stomach, with its metallic taste, left me when I was with her; Sheba needed me.

I went to the library and read everything I could find on Alaskan Malamutes. I learned that they had a thick undercoat that had to be pulled off in the spring, a process that resembled carding wool. I learned that they would curl up with their tail over their noses in a snow storm and let the snow cover them up, forming a snow cave that kept them quite warm. I also learned that they were notoriously sneaky, but Sheba was always honest with me. The books were right about the snow caves though. It always made me laugh when she would poke her head out of the snow when I called her the morning after a snow storm. We both enjoyed the combing and plucking in the spring. She would lay quietly at my feet until I had her stripped clean of undercoat and always seemed thankful to be rid of it.

I learned that when school let out for the summer we would be moving again and I wasn’t sorry to be putting this school behind me. Just before school let out for the summer, I was sitting at my desk, which happened to be next to this girl I had a crush on, when one of the worst of the bullies walked passed me and slapped me across the face hard. No reason. He just wanted to slap somebody. I exploded. I jumped up and planted a series of punches to his face that staggered him back and had him covering his head. I bloodied his nose and split his lip and he never even tried to fight back. Instead, he cowered and tried to cover up. That day I learned that most bullies are cowards and the best way to stop a bully is to meet him head on. I know that isn’t the accepted response nowadays, but it works. Bullies, like electricity, follow the path of least resistance. The bullying suddenly stopped, and for the rest of the year I went unmolested.

After school let out we moved to a small farming community in the northeast part of the state. Sheba and I had the whole summer to explore our new surroundings. We roamed through the surrounding fields and explored abandoned houses. We knew every foot path that lead to the creek just south of town. We went camping. We lay in the grass, me with my head on her flank, and watched the clouds roll by. We enjoyed each other’s company and loved each other without reservation. The excitement she would display at seeing me each morning was wonderful to me because I was just as glad to see her. She would leap, over and over, straight into the air until I fell to my knees and threw my arms around her. I didn’t want summer to end and school to start, but I wasn’t scared to go to school now. That summer I had a growth spurt that had people asking me if I was going out for football, and my parents wondering how they were going to keep me in shoes—and I had learned something about bullies.

The one good thing about changing schools is that you get to reinvent yourself. You can leave all the pain and embarrassment behind. There would be bullies I knew, they had been at every other school I’d been to, but now I knew how to get them off of my ass. The other thing that had changed was that my grades had improved. I had hit the books that last year, determined to get away from the flunkies and get moved into a class with kids my own age. At the new school the bully wasn’t big, or tough, he just had a big mouth and a following of wannabes.

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. My parents could hardly keep shoes on my feet, my toes are deformed now from wearing shoes that were too small, and my clothes, while always clean, sometimes had patches. When this new bully and his groupies started in on me about my clothes in the gym locker one day, I ignored them, but when he jerked one of my mother’s patches off of my shirt and called me a nigger, I grabbed him by the front of his shirt, slapped him back and forth across the face, and tossed him into the lockers. His friends vanished, but the gym teacher appeared. We were taken to the principal’s office, interrogated, told to bring one of our parents to school with us the next day, and sent home. That night I told my dad what had happened and he told me that he would take me to school the next day.

When we were seated in front of Mr. Dormire—the principal—he asked my father if I had told him what had happened. My father said, “Yes, he told me the other kid called him a name.” Mr. Dormire said, “Well, Mr. Robinson, what kind of world would this be if every time somebody called somebody a name they got punched in the mouth?” My dad said, “I recon there’d be a lot less name calling.” I was dismissed to go to class and I thought that was the end of it, but I was wrong. The bully had an older brother in high school.

The high school was several miles away, but the brother had a car, and like his younger brother, a cadre of followers. Even though they were much older they couldn’t come up with the intestinal fortitude to confront me personally, so they took to vandalizing our house and even put sugar in the gas tank of my dad’s car. Then they decided to get even with me through my dog.

I went out to feed her one morning and she was gone. I looked and called for her all over the neighborhood but couldn’t find her. My dad and I drove around looking everywhere we could think of that she might be but didn’t find her. She was missing for three days. Then late one night my dad heard something and found her laying on the front porch. She was in bad shape. She had a gash in her head and several teeth knocked out, and she had barbed wire wrapped around her neck. We took her to the vet the next day and he said she was dehydrated and starving and it looked as if she had been beaten and tortured for the three days she had been missing. She stayed with the vet for a couple of days and I don’t know where my dad found the money to pay him. What had awoken my dad that night was the sound of a car door, and he had seen a car in the driveway, a green Dodge Dart. It was a small town and we soon matched the car with a name.

A guy named Slim owned a green Dodge Dart and went to high school with the guys who I thought were responsible for what had happened to Sheba. I found out later that Slim had witnessed Sheba being beaten and had rescued her and brought her home. But that was after somebody unloaded both barrels of a twelve gage shotgun into the engine compartment of Slim’s Dart—sorry about that.

Around this time my father had become friendly with a young man named Billy who was home on leave from the service. My dad was a WWII veteran and they would sit on the front porch and talk about service life. It turned out that Billy was having trouble with the same bunch of guys over a girl; the girl had apparently been free with her favors until Billy came along, and the shit-birds—as Billy called them—weren’t too pleased with the dry spell (Billy got the girl, and they raised a family on a farm west of Zanesville Indiana). They had slashed his tires and he had taken to sleeping in his car hoping to catch them in the act. Billy started parking his car in front of our house so he and my dad could watch out for each other.

One night my dad, hearing a commotion, grabbed his shotgun and went outside to find a group of guys surrounding his friend. The windshield of Billie’s car was busted out and Billy was standing in the road with blood running down his face. When they saw my dad with the shotgun they took off running for their car. My dad blew a hole in the side of their car as they pealed out. By that time Billy had pulled a semiautomatic .22 rifle from his car and was emptying his clip into the back of the car as it headed over a hill. I had reached the front porch with my own .22, too late to get a shot off. It was like an old west shootout, and it was the last straw for the old man. We moved shortly after that—this time to Texas.

I was told that I would have to leave Sheba with my uncle and that we would send for her when we got settled. I was devastated and I remember holding her tight and sobbing into her neck when I said goodbye.

We rented a one bedroom studio apartment in Grand Prairie, Texas. My bed was a folding lawn chair and my bedroom doubled as the living room. The school was huge and there were so many kids that I was able to get lost in the crowd. I hated Texas. I hated everything about Texas. I hated sleeping on a lawn chair. I hated the new school, but most of all I hated not having Sheba, and with our living situation, it looked like it would be a long time before I would see her again. I began withdrawing into myself.

I did make one friend at this new school, a black kid they called Lightning, because when we played flag football nobody could catch him. Lightning was much older and had this tricked out ‘57’ Chevy. We would talk about his car and he’d show me what he’d done to it and talk about what he wanted to do to it. He took me for rides after school, and when he pealed out at a stop sign, we giggled. The only time he wasn’t quiet and reserved was when we were talking about cars. He told me that he had dropped out of school for a couple of years to work and help his mother, but now he was back to get his diploma.

One day we were standing behind the school by his car when a guy came up behind me and grabbed me in a full nelson. I knew how to get out of that. I kicked the guy in the shin until he let go. He started toward me with his fists up and just before he got within range of my fists Lightning stepped between us and told the guy to leave me alone. “He kicked me!” the guy protested. “You started it,” Lightning told him.  Lightning had spoken, and the kid backed off.

One day I was pulled out of class and told to report to the office and when I got there my mother was waiting for me. She told me that there was somebody at home who wanted to see me. I couldn’t think of who it could be. She signed me out and when we pulled into the apartments she told me they were waiting for me in the back. When I came around the corner, there was Sheba. When she seen me her whole body wiggled and she began her leaping for joy greeting. I ran to her and grabbed her in a hug so tight she yelped, but she made no effort to get away. We spent the rest of the day playing and hanging out. My parents had had her flown in from Indiana, and until I went into the service years later, she was the only member of our family that had flown on an airplane.

Our stay in Texas didn’t last long. One Saturday my dad bought an old truck and we began building a wooden box in the bed of it to put our stuff in. We were moving again; this time to Florida, and Sheba was going with us. My grandfather had a cottage in a little town in Florida and we were going to stay there until my dad found a job and we got on our feet. I was glad to be getting out of Texas, and as long as I had my best friend with me, I didn’t care where we went.

I made a smooth transition into the school in Florida. The kids were friendly, my grades were up, and I made the football team. About six months after we were there, my dad had his first heart attack.

We wound up on welfare for a time. I was given a card to show the lunchroom attendant, another student, usually a pretty girl, that allowed me to get free lunches. But I was too embarrassed to use it so I didn’t eat lunch. One of the men of the touchdown club let us live in a cottage on his orange grove rent free in exchange for me working in his groves and clearing some property that he was developing. I would hoe under the orange trees and irrigate them in the summer, and in the winter I would sometimes stay up all night burning piles of old tires to keep the trees from freezing. Sheba was with me the whole time. The only difference that I could tell from being on welfare and not being on welfare was we didn’t eat meat, and the only shoes that my parents could afford to get me were these slip on tennis shoes from K-mart. At school they called me the tennis shoe kid.

Christmas day arrived and some people came by with a box of food and a few gifts. This was more than my dad could take and he took off the next day headed north looking for work. He found a job at a mop factory in a little town in Georgia, and when he got on his feet he came back and got my mom, me, and Sheba.

We moved into a trailer home that was surrounded by woods and pecan groves. Sheba was in heaven with all the new country to explore and we both liked the cooler weather. Football was king in this little town and on my first day of school a bunch of guys surrounded me and one of them said, “I only have one question, do you play football?” When I told him I did I was accepted.

My sixteenth birthday was coming up and my father spent a lot of time with me teaching me how to drive. We talked a lot about the future, exploring the options I had available. Unless I got a football scholarship, college was out. He talked a lot about going into the service. Every male member of our family was a veteran, so it seemed natural for me to follow suit. One day during one of our drives he told me that my mom needed an operation. He didn’t explain the details but he seemed optimistic.

I turned sixteen and my father arranged a summer job for me at the mop factory. The morning of my first day of work, my father gave me a quarter and told me to get myself a drink from the coke machine at break time and come have break with him. Just before break time the foreman came and got me and told me something had happened to my dad.

When I got to his work area I found him lying on the floor. He handed me his keys and told me to lock up his tool box. When I knelt beside him to give him his keys back, he grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s pray.” I prayed harder than I ever prayed before, or since, but the old man died that day, on that filthy shop floor, in that one-horse town in Georgia. Two weeks later my mother went into the hospital for a radical mastectomy. I didn’t find out until two years later that just before my father had his fatal heart attack he had received a phone call from my mother’s doctor informing him that my mother was terminal.

My mother came home from the hospital and seemed to be on the mend; she even went to work at the phone company, picking up her old carrier as an operator. Our financial situation went from bad to worse. I worked at the mop factory that summer and when school started I got an after school job at the ice-house. Sheba and I still took long walks in the woods from time to time, but with football, work, and friends, I neglected my best friend.

One day when I got home from working at the ice-house I found my mother laying on the floor unable to move. I picked her up in my arms and carried her to the car and drove her to the hospital. After she was admitted and I was on the way home I realized that she was dying. I called my uncle and told him what I knew and we made arrangements to take mom back to Indiana where my grandmother could care for her—I went to see the recruiter.

The day came for me to leave for boot camp and I had to say my goodbyes. I knew I would never see my mother alive again—she died two weeks later while I was in boot camp. When I said goodbye to Sheba, she was tied up in my uncle’s backyard. She was going to live with my cousin who lived on a farm. There would be fields to roam and children to play with there. I held her tight for some time and then I patted her on the head and walked away. I stopped and looked back just before I went around the corner of the house, she was watching me and wagging her tail, probably thinking that I was coming back to pet her some more. I never saw her again.

Sheba lived out her life on my cousin’s farm doing what she did best, being a friend and companion. I called from time to time to see how she was doing and my cousin always said Sheba was the best thing that ever happened to her family. She got old and crippled and was finally hit by a car out in front of my cousin’s house.

It’s been almost fifty years since we parted and tears run down my face as I write Sheba’s story, causing me to stop frequently when I can’t see the page, when I see Sheba jumping high and happy to see me. Most of the family and friends in this story are now long gone, but it’s Sheba that I long to see again most of all; she was the ligament that ran through the places and events of my youth, and bound them. What started out as a story about a dog ended up being a story about the death of a family unit, and how one by one we disappeared out of Sheba’s life. It is a story that I had to write as a way of seeking her forgiveness, for in the end, I patted her on the head and walked away from the best friend I ever had.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SOLITUDE


          

                                                                      SOLITUDE

Henri Nouwin wrote; “Solitude is the furnace in which transformation takes place.” It is only during extended periods of solitude that your demons reveal themselves, become known to you, and you name them–as you would a child. In the furnace the soul is hammered, tempered, and forged. But it is the loneliness of solitude that people fear most, making many tragic mistakes in its avoidance; however, it is through solitude that you learn to enjoy your own company and become comfortable with yourself, in spite of yourself.

For me, solitude is the natural order of things. I live alone except for my dog Touch, and although we have our conversations, they tend to be one-sided. Before I got Touch, I would go for months never speaking a word. I once startled myself with the sound of my own voice. I had been doing dishes and had decided to make myself a sandwich. I was spreading mayo onto a slice of bread when it flipped out of my hand and landed in the dishwater. I said, “Damn”, with great conviction, and it startled me as if somebody else had shouted in my ear. Now I talk to Touch daily, which keeps my vocal-cords from becoming petrified.

 Fishing, especially fly-fishing, is a solitary pursuit. The mechanics of fly-fishing and the distance required between the fishermen preclude conversation. When one of my friends goes fishing with me I thoroughly enjoy the company and good conversation, but most of my fishing buddies are family men, and they go fishing in search of solitude and a break from the hassles of family life. Even when we make                              

 

efforts to fish together, the conversations erode into shouting back and forth across the stream until we tire of trying to communicate and wander off to fish alone.

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          Antoni Gaudi, the architect of the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Catalonia Spain, wanted the interior of the church to have the feel of a forest. He thought that man can feel closest to God in a forest and I think that is true. The facade of the Basilica reminds me of the small groves of pines that form where the pine forest gives way to the Aspens just below the timberline. When I see them, it’s easy to understand how the Druids came to worship trees, or why we think of Heaven as being above.

                Living in the intermountain west, wilderness and the solitude it offers is only a thirty-minute drive in any direction, yet, I have met people who have lived here all their lives having never been to the mountains. My trips into the mountains are not initiated by any desire to be spiritual, but by a desire to go fishing; however, once I’m there, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, I feel insignificant. I think of the thousands of years it took to form the mountains, the thousands of years they have stood, and the thousands of years they will stand after I am long gone. I begin to think of my mortality and the door of spiritual awareness swings open. I no longer fear going through. I have shook hands with the demons, stared into their ugly faces, and took responsibility for them. I learned that I’m not such a bad guy in spite of them and consider myself a friend. The question is not whether to go through the door, but whether the Trout will take a dry-fly.

               

 

I have fishing buddies who seem to have an investment in my solitary life style—they tell me I’m their hero. They think that my solitary existence is some heroic statement against the establishment and not the end result of some piss-poor choices coupled with a desire to insulate myself from what had become a vicious cycle of pain and rejection. They don’t realize that after twenty years, the benefits of a solitary lifestyle were long ago reaped. So when I told them that an old girlfriend from high school was coming for a visit, they shouted in unison, “You’re screwed!” They walked off slowly shaking their heads—presumably to don sackcloth and sprinkle ashes on freshly shaven heads—and went home to their wives.

                I don’t have the gift of prophesy that my friends apparently have, so I don’t know if my solitary existence is coming to an end. Perhaps my solitude will be snatched in bits and pieces now, but I know where to go to find it.

                There’s a small creek that runs through a narrow valley surrounded by green mountains. Nobody fishes it because the fish are small, but they are the most brilliantly colored Trout I have ever seen, which tells me it’s a special place, a place of healing. It’s a place I would take a friend, a friend who had a broken heart.