Night is a remarkable place.
Those things that go bump in the night–not the overtired night shift workers who don’t watch where they’re going, but the other, scarier things–have always held exalted postions in the hierarchy of Stuff That Scares The Poo Out Of People, and with good reason. Once darkness falls, death and danger stir, move forth, begin their predatory prowling throughout the land.
Surviving till the dawn becomes a priority.
Many a snake hunts at night, be it of moderate size and utterly venomous or a huge constrictor, willing and able to swallow a deer or a hog or a man whole. The reptile’s cold blood is drawn to the yummy warm blooded mammals just waiting to be taken down, the slitherer’s infrared heat sensing faculties showing the way.
Vampires and werewolves and bloodsucking bats
Cougars and grizzlies and some giant rats
Potholes and sinkholes and traps all around
Out there it’s unsafe once the sun has gone down
Monsters and aliens with lights in the sky
‘Tis enough to make damsels and heroes both cry
Huggers and muggers and hookers galore
Who advert their wares at the grocery store
In its natural feral state, the ordinary house cat (if any cat can be called ordinary) prowls primarily at night. This makes sense; such a small predator has to feel dangerously exposed during the day, easy meat for the high flying raptors.
The hawks are on high with an eye on the ground
For any quick lunch that can be easily found
No cat with gray fur and a flicker of white
Is safer by day than the dead of the night
For whatever reason the darker feline
Tends to get by in the daylight just fine
Though barn owls are nasty, respect not the hour
Happily, swfitly, they’ll quickly devour
Aha! But the story of Gato is great
That gray and white kitty with much on his plate
Who wandered the desert for three weeks and more
Yet made it on home to meow at the door
Untouched by coyotes, not missing a hair
Not packing a tick or a flea anywhere
Sometimes it’s survival, not terror attack
That proves the night friendly when sky has turned black
Dusk, even more than dawn, is my favorite time of day. It always has been. Why, I’m not sure, though there are numerous possible factors that could have nudged me in that direction.
Early on, as an eldest son of an eldest son, growing up fast and hard on a Montana ranch where daylight hours meant working hours, the fading of light meant it was time to chill out, relax, forget about sweat running in rivulets through the hayfield dust coating me from head to toe.
Release, then, from servitude, until the sun once again topped the eastern ridge with its insatiable demands.
But there had to be, I suspect, even deeper roots to my night hawk preference than that.
Stories of the owlhoot trail, old western outlaws who traveled by night when stealing a herd of horses the same way a Blackfoot war party might have done…those spoke to me. I definitely did not want to step on a diamondback rattlesnake in the dark, but that was the only drawback to being out and about, and there were skills one could acquire which would keep that from happening.
Some of those tales of night traveling outlaws came from the typewriter of Louis L’Amour and other western fiction writers…and some came from within Dad’s side of the family.
Close within. My old man once told me of a memory he had, being a very small child, riding bareback, lying down over the horse’s mane so as not to be skylined by any chance observer as older cowboys moved a herd through a tiny Montana community on the way to an unknown destination. A herd he knew had belonged to someone else until that night.
Years later, after Dad had passed on, other family members swore that no such night hawk horse raid had ever happened. Remember, they said, your Dad could tell some whoppers.
That he could. What the family never understood, however, was the fact that I’d learned to tell when my father was telling tall tales versus when he was letting out a bit of God’s own truth.
I felt then, and still feel, that this particular night hawk story was one of the latter sort.
As an adult and a World War II vet, ranching for a living and raising me and my sisters the best he knew how, he demonstrated his comfort with the night more than once.
When he first acquired the ranch, there was no electrical power available. The only after-dark light source he and Mom had for the entire place was a single kerosene lantern. One night, hours after the sun had set, he rode in from checking cattle in the mountains, hallooed to let Mom know he’d arrived, headed to the water corral by the barn to offsaddle, and…
…and Mom heard him shooting.
He never rode those mountains unarmed, but he didn’t get carried away, either. The six shots in the revolver’s cylinder were all he had with him.
“Lucy!” She heard him bellow. “Snake! Bring the light and some more ammunition!”
She did, threading her way through the blackness that could all too easily have held a dozen more of the vipers, then holding the lantern high while her husband reloaded and dispatched the buzzing varmint.
Mom was tough enough. She did what she had to do. But it was Dad who was comfortable with the night–except when he couldn’t see a ticked-off diamondback well enough to hit it with a bullet.
It could be in the genes, or maybe the role modeling, or both.
Certainly, he demonstrated that comfort on other occasions. At age eleven, I rode those same mountains with him on an all day ride, following him down and out of the high country in blackness so complete I had no idea where we were at any given time until we topped that final ridge and the yard light–we’d had electric lights for years by then–hove into view. Slipping through face-slapping stands of near-invisible trees a few miles back, he’d never hesitated, never doubted where he was going or that I’d be right behind him all the way.
A year later, it was my turn to duplicate the feat, riding high-spirited Ginger, leading Roberts and Nugget, over ridges I’d never traveled before, through a narrow cougar friendly rock cut, down the canyon, reaching the valley as efficiently as any young outlaw ever pursued by a posse.
The decades passed, as did Mom and Dad and also uncle Claude, who’d been found face down among the pine trees on his own ranch near Ekalaka, Montana, shot in the back. Claude had been 60 years of age, no outlaw, but somebody didn’t like him much.
In early 2007, as one of five volunteers who became the charter full time night shift crew for our employer, I finally came into my own as a full blown night hawk.
There were so many advantages to working the night shift.
Everybody talked about the two bucks more in pay
Night shift differential paying better than the day
Few among the crew would want to hammer after dark
While those of us who volunteered considered it a lark
We loved the bragging rights and the chance to strut a bit
Those day shift lily livered types should simply up and quit
Most of all for most of us the privacy was great
We seldom ever saw a boss and yet we still got richly paid
We could gun the Internationals and spin those chained-up wheels
Nobody’d ever say a word as long as all the tanks got filled
When you’re working without witnesses except a driver friend
You can goof around a bit; just get the load there at the end
Napping on the day shift will get your as*es canned
But you can grab a few at night and even bosses understand
I’ve thought a thousand times about which shift I liked the best
If I could pick just one and had to give up all the rest
After years of careful study there’s no doubt this one is it
The night I worked alone just filling up a giant pit
Way up on the Roan Plateau they’d dug an awesome hole
It needed to be filled as quickly as we could make that water flow
From Little Creek, out of the pond, I’d suck a load and drive
Alone up on the Roan I felt incredibly alive
Blowing loads into the pit, there was not much to do
So I worked on one more song to write and put up on YouTube
I’d dance around the hose and pump my fists into the air
Singing of the NIght Hawk and the glory that is shared
By those of us who love the night because the others cannot see
Oh sure; give it a listen; here’s the Night Hawk offering
Loving the Friendly Night
Night Hawk was written on a balmy summer night, well away from any another living being of the human persuasion.
Some months later, Loving the Friendly Night was penned under slightly different conditions.
I’d been picked by the boss to become a production water hauler, specializing in pulling loads from 400 barrel well site production tanks. On one particular Spring Creek location, there was a producing well and a rig drilling a new hole at the same time. This meant the place was brightly lit on and near the rig, though not so much over by the production tanks.
The ground underfoot was sloppy, with several inches of new snow but warm enough weather that dropping the tanker trailer axle deep in mud was an ever present and worrisome possiblity. On the day shift, in fact, one of our female drivers had done just that. It didn’t happen because of her gender; she’d simply been the first driver in line that morning and the smooshy footing had ambushed her.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen to me. Close a couple of times, but no harm, no foul.
Just beyond location, the timbered slope rose sharply, home to all sorts of woodland creatures. There’d been reports of a mountain lion in the area, and although they should have been hibernating by then, bears were always a possibility. Working mostly by flashlight, I need to stay sharp. An attack wasn’t likely, but you never knew.
In other words, the setting was perfect.
As spontaneously as any song I’ve ever witten, Loving the Friendly Night came spilling forth.
Creatures of the night make the dark hours a place of rich texture and variety…for the survivors, those of us who can hack it.
Like, for example, musicians. There’s some night critters for ya.