–What goes around comes around. __Common Knowledge
June, 1958. School had been out for a month at Drummond, Montana. Mulkey Gulch was about to form the backdrop for a spiritual boo-boo of Olympic proportions, but for the moment, ignorance was bliss. Nearly sixty days of laborious summer stretched ahead, a desert of hard work separating my final Freshman week from the lofty heights of the superior Sophomore. This morning, Dad had left several fence posts on my list of Things To Do on the ranch: Bulky, creosote-soaked railroad ties packed firmly in three-foot holes via the careful tamping methods learned to the steady Thump! Thump! of the spud bar’s rounded end and the Sschunk! of the shovel biting into the loose dirt pile for a fresh load of Mother Earth’s packing material. A dreary task for a teenager, the kind one wants not to do but to have done.
Escape beckoned, crooking a lovely finger. Tommy and I were invited along on a neighbor’s post cutting expedition to the mountains, and we wouldn’t even have to cut posts! I hadn’t known Tommy long, but we were about the same age–fourteen–and got along well enough. By nine a.m., we were happily ensconced in the back of Bob’s post cutting truck as he and Tony headed up Mulkey Gulch. The gulch is one of many draining the local mountain range–Wet Mulkey, Dry Mulkey, Tie Gulch, Garden Gulch, Sheep Gulch, and even Rattler Gulch, a network of ridges and steep tree-lined slopes designed to give pleasure to the experienced outdoorsman and set traps for the unwary.
Wet Mulkey, or just plain Mulkey, harbored tall evergreens and tales of oversized bucks with record antler spreads. Our shooting goals this day were modest, however. Summer is not deer season, and we carried only .22 caliber weapons, his a semiautomatic, mine a tube loading pump. Songbirds being sacred, only a scavenging magpie or wily crow or careless squirrel stood at risk this fine morning.
And not much risk at that. In late morning, we emerged from the cool shade of the forest, short several cartridges with nothing to show for our efforts but a rising level of frustration.
“Looks like ya missed again, Fred.”
“I’ll have to do better next time–hey! What’s that in the clearing up ahead?”
“Some old camp trailer? Yeah. Let’s check it out.”
The dilapidated trailer sat on its two wheels alone, obviously abandoned, a derelict left to the elements. True, some air remained in the tires, so it had probably been there no more than a year or two at most, but the little gray-tinned hull announced its left-behind nature with every ounce of its battered being. The door was unlocked, an inch or two of syrup left in a bottle in a cupboard. Otherwise, nothing.
“Who d’ya s’pose dumped it?”
It didn’t really matter. People dumped various vehicles around the county, it being nothing on the ranch grounds to discover the riverbank along U.S. 10 had sprouted an upside-down 1937 Cadillac or a burned out 1950 Buick overnight.
“Well, at least we can hit this!”
The syrup bottle stood on a stump near the trailer to meet its doom, shattered glass and dark sugary liquid trickling in a glitter-sticky mass that warmed the cockles of our target shooting hearts. Unwilling to stop there, our rifles relieved the sagging tires of any remaining air. Then, content at last, we strolled back downslope to rejoin Bob and Tony at their post cutting site.
No sooner had we arrived than Bob straightened from his chainsaw, wiped a sweaty brow, glanced at the sun, and announced, “Close to noon. Let’s go up to the trailer for lunch.”
Uh-oh! Panic stricken, Tommy and I stared at each other, shock and guilt silently screaming across the few feet between us. His trailer! Not abandoned! His! His!
Visions of the shattered syrup bottle and bullet ridden tires danced menacingly in our minds. To confess was unthinkable, our terror at the idea of being caught too great. Oh, the punishment for such a crime would be too terrible, a horror beyond the French guillotine and a den of angry rattlesnakes combined. What to do?
We endured, sort of. Sweated it out, blatantly denied ever having been far enough upslope to know about the trailer, swore innocence in the face of the hurt on Bob’s face when he saw the damage done to his precious mountain refuge. We hoped desperately, hoped he believed our lies, but he knew. Surely he knew from our faces, though I tried hard to believe otherwise….
July 19, 1986. Western’s Flight 368 crossed the mountains and followed the Big Horn River into eastern Montana, scattered clouds below defining clearly the divisions between levels of reality as described in Paul Twitchell’s book, The Far Country. For the first time in twelve years of studying Eckankar, a meaningful synthesis of what Paul had written began to sink in. From 30,000 feet, ground level looked deceptively inviting, a single phrase running through my mind: The dangerous green illusion that is Earth.
Where had I heard that? A line in a science fiction movie? Some other writer? No matter; the description fit. I yearned to go higher, felt within me that longing to move to outer space and beyond for a look from levels unreachable by mere mortal aircraft, understood at last what drives a man or woman to become an astronaut. Smiling at this new insight, I put away my notebook as we began the descent into Billings.
Sunday, July 20. Rested from our flight, we roamed a few country miles, sightseeing in the Rent-A-Wreck that turned out to be a late model Chevy Cavalier with all the amenities. Back home in San Diego, a used rental vehicle would more likely be a fifteen year old Ford with a bad front end and a thirst for large quantities of fuel. My lady enjoyed the fifty miles from Billings to Roundup that took us into rural Montana, this being her first time in the state and her first time to meet any of my family. Once we settled into Mom’s kitchen to gab, the two ladies sounded like twin stereo speakers as stories from Fred’s childhood surfaced.
Such as the time I explored a mountaintop alone at the age of two. Left on my own in the Jeep while Dad performed some necessary work, I’d apparently spooked when our dog went into convulsions–and headed up the mountainside. That I don’t recall, but memory is clear on the mountain slope itself: Sagebrush over my head, blue sky over the ridgetop, cattle grazing nearby, the tremendous sense of freedom and joy of exploration. As Mom tells it,
“When they found him and brought him back, he was clutching a handful of wildflowers.”
My lady laughed, thinking of the bouquets brought to her each payday. “You learned young, didn’t you?”
“Who? Me?” I queried, putting on my best round-eyed mock innocence look.
The talk turned to our former neighbor, Bob. The folks hadn’t owned the old place for the past thirteen years, but Bob, it seemed, was still living in the house at the mouth of Garden Gulch where he’d always lived.
“He’s still alive, then? I thought someone said he died years ago.”
“No.” Mom seemed certain. “He’s still alive.”
“Well, then, guess I’ll have to stop in when we go over to see Donna and Harriet. I’ve got something that needs settling up.”
“Oh? What could that be?”
“Something that happened twenty-eight years ago. A major spiritual boo-boo on my part. Another boy and I shot up a trailer of his, up Mulkey Gulch, when I was fourteen. Didn’t have the courage to confess then. Reckon it’s time I talked to him about it and see if he’ll put a price on the damages.”
“That .22 always did get you in trouble, didn’t it?”
“What do you mean? That’s the only time I can think of, and I sure didn’t shoot up anybody’s usable property deliberately.”
Her comment really puzzled me. Further conversation uncovered the fact that I’d been suspected of more than one shooting vandalism incident of which I remained entirely innocent. Mom, however, seemed glad to hear my disclaimer. It made me wonder…there had been the grilling in the school Superintendent’s office once, a burly Burlington Northern Railroad detective seemingly certain he had a hot suspect in the destruction of a railway signal light. Perhaps every rambunctious teenager serves as a target for similar suspicions, much as Jesse James received credit in his day for holdups in states he’d never even seen, let alone robbed.
I placed a call to Donna, three hundred miles to the west, to let her know we’d be there by supper time on Monday. Another call updated Harriet on our schedule, letting her know we’d do the half hour drive from Donna’s on Tuesday and be there by lunch. Both sisters alerted, I hung up the phone and turned again to Mom and my lady.
“Harriet says she saw Bob within the past month, and he told her he never could understand why we shot up his trailer, that there was just no reason for it. Do you realize that’s been eating him for the past twenty-eight years?!? Harriet didn’t remember it when he told her, which surprised her because I told her everything, but I believe that’s one item I held back from even her. I’m just glad Bob’s still around to settle up with. How old would you say he is, anyway? He’s got to be getting up there, doesn’t he?”
“Oh, I don’t think he’s that old. He’s younger than I am.”
Younger than Mom? That didn’t sound right, but who knew? The main thing was untying the karmic knot so that I didn’t leave something out of balance. How grateful I am, I thought, for the spiritual growth Eckankar has brought me that makes what was impossible even a few years ago such a simple and obvious task today.
Monday. White Arrow, our rental car, hummed happily westward. As we drew closer to Bozeman, true mountains finally replaced the lesser peaks and rolling plains of eastern Montana. Then beyond Bozeman, my college alma mater with its memories of hard studies, strange jobs, and freeway fence strung by a crew of which I had been a part in the summer of 1966. Past the open country of Three Forks and Whitehall, over the Continental Divide near Pipestone, plunging down into Butte, the gaping maw of the Berkely Pit an open wound in the distance to our right. “The richest hill on Earth,” the copper mining community had called itself. For me, its memories centered in a fourth grade spelling contest aired live on KOPR Radio, a second place in a bull riding contest, and the draft induction center for Uncle Sam’s Army.
Then Anaconda and the climb through the soaring Pintlers, dropping down at last past Georgetown Lake where according to local literature eight percent of Montana’s fish are caught. Down into the Flint Creek Valley and the town of Philipsburg.
“What do you think of it?” I gestured to the surrounding mountains–Montana, after all, literally translating as the word for “mountain.”
“It’s beautiful.” My lady’s eyes sparkled.
“Sure is. You realize how well that worked, taking you into the eastern part of the state first? You said the rimrocks and country around Roundup and Billings were pretty, but over here you see it as beautiful.”
“Well, it is.”
Tuesday, 2:30 p.m. Our route took us west of Drummond on a strip of asphalt no longer known as busy U.S. 10, thoroughfare to Missoula and on to the states of Idaho and Washington. It had been demoted by the freeway until its postal designation had become merely Frontage Road West. I kept up a running explanation of the area’s significance to me.
“This is Rattler Hill. From the crest on down, everything you see was our property except south of the railroad tracks, over there. Dad used to irrigate this field on our left, used to get nearly two hundred tons of alfalfa off that one forty acre field in two cuttings each summer. That rim to the right and ahead, all around behind the buildings, those are the ridges I told you about, where I wrote about riding Star when the young gelding was still early in his training. That’s Chokecherry Gully there; you can see the green trees and bushes running all the way up the slope.”
Driving past the ranch buildings, I slowed the car to a crawl. “That’s the house I grew up in. Down ahead here, just half a mile from the house, used to be a cabin. Dad rented it out until one day the renters accidentally blew up the woodstove. Poured some gasoline in it to start it and there was still a spark or two down in the ashes. Made a smoke cloud shaped like a mushroom, an atom bomb shape. Totaled the building in five minutes flat. Nobody hurt, even though stove parts flew all over the place and there was a baby lying on the couch at the time.”
Around the next hill, Bob’s house nestled in a grove of trees, well back away from the road. The sky had begun to cloud over as we turned off the asphalt and onto the graveled driveway. A late model pickup sat near the house, along with two dogs. Easing up to the door, reasonably but not totally certain the larger canine on the front step would allow me to knock without interference, I found a hasp closed on the door and a stray twig thrust through the hasp.
He had closed it from the outside, then. No one home.
Still, a fellow determined to atone doesn’t like to leave things to chance. Depending on when Bob arrived home, not to mention wind and weather and unexpected human visits, the note might or might not be there to greet him. A neighbor labored in a nearby field, rototilling potatoes. I walked over and introduced myself. His name was Bill, and he had bought the little field from Bob some time earlier. We liked each other on sight. When he understood the mission involved, he freely volunteered to take another sheet of paper with name and address, see to it that Bob heard about Fred Baker’s visit even if the note in the door somehow disappeared. The twenty dollar bill wasn’t mentioned, on the theory that loose lips sink ships.
Bill understood the mission, however, at a depth beyond the expected.
“You know, Bob mentioned something about two boys who shot up his trailer in the mountains. Said he never understood how or why they could do that to him. I think it might have been the trailer his mother once lived in up there. He said he was thinking about building a cabin up in those mountains, but if that’s what they were going to do to him, then no way.”
“I’ll be…you know, my sister said Bob mentioned it to her within the past month, too. I never knew it could have been his mother’s trailer, and I sure didn’t know it had been eating on him all these years, but I did know it wasn’t balanced out. What’s he doing these days, anyway?”
“Oh, he’ll go into Drummond to have coffee. He goes into Missoula to bowl, too.”
“Ah. How old is Bob now, anyway? Seemed to me he must be getting up there.”
“He is. He’s eighty-five, going on eighty-six.”
Definitely older than Mom, then, and still as lively as ever.
We stopped at the Post Office in Drummond to check his mailing address so I could follow up if necessary, then turned back south to be with Donna and her family for the evening. A definite weight had lifted from me, nothing dramatic but something necessary. Not that I could undo all of the damage that easily, but I’d made a start, and that did make a difference.
It seemed an alien concept that a mistake made by a neighboring teenaged boy could be held so tightly to heart by a man for twenty-eight years, but then I hadn’t known the trailer had possibly once belonged to his mother. Plus, the cover up–our lies at the time of discovery–had probably done a heap more harm than the original vandalism…food for thought.
We hummed back up the Flint Creek Valley, admiring the Soul who at eighty-five (going on eighty-six) still needs to understand the meaning of events–and who still thinks nothing of driving a hundred miles round trip when he feels the need to go bowling.
For our readers who may not recognize a term like Eckankar, the definition can be found in A Glossary of Eck Terms at Eckankar.org.