Category Archives: Adventures

Saving the snakes with Uncle Mike

Some years back, I was out on Peyton Creek (Flint Hills, Chase County, KS) getting ready to help my Uncle Mike work the vineyard.  It is long tradition for nephews visiting close relatives to be included in all activities, particularly labor.  (Our nephew JD, currently living with us, may harbor misgivings about this hallowed tradition.)  Anyway, you read correctly:  a vineyard in Kansas.  Uncle Mike and Aunt Jaque worked several acres of them for years, along with a friend who came up from Wichita, and got pretty good results considering the myriad dangers and caprices of Kansas agriculture.

The ranch is very traditional.  Nothing’s name ever changes.  The carriage-room, which is now a second TV room, is still called the carriage-room, and the saddles and tack still hang there.  The granary has not stored grain for, gods, it must be over half a century.  Maybe more.  Never mind; the granary it is and remains.  The feel of tradition is as delicious as range-fed Kansas beef, or the apple pies my great-grandmother used to make, nearly blind, in the same kitchen she had used for some 75 years.  And one of our traditions is that we don’t kill something unless we need to.  There is a reason the ranch has diverse wildlife, its own spirit:  if we can, we let it live.

So, the nephew was underneath the tractor attempting some mechanical task as requested by Uncle Mike, futzing with tractor doodads he did not understand, out in front of the granary (now used mainly to store stuff, such as nylon netting once used to try and shield grape vines from avian predation).  I heard Uncle Mike call out to me from the granary:  “John?”

“Yeah, Mike?” Only when I had nephews of my own did it occur to me that my uncle would always enjoy being called by the title of honor, ‘Uncle.’  Wish I’d figured that out a lot sooner.

He asked the magic question.  “How are you with snakes?”

“Pretty good, Mike.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, in that case, come on in here.”

So I rolled out from under the futile futz-fest, got up, and headed in.  Whatever it was, it was going to be interesting.  “Take a look over there,” said my uncle.  There were two very large kingsnakes, both in a bad way.  You know how fish get caught in nets, hooked by their gills and fins? Thus with snakes’ scales.  Both were snarled up in the nylon netting, beyond extricating themselves.  They’d lost a few scales struggling, though not much blood, and we could see that both were constricted where the netting hung them up worst.  Most likely they were dehydrated.  It was a warm spring afternoon, and one doubts they’d have made it through another day, weakened by a desperate struggle for liberty.

The thought of harming them, of course, didn’t cross our minds.  Not only are kingsnakes non-poisonous, they consume great quantities of varmints.  You’d no more kill an owl than a kingsnake.  They’re our friends.  Of course, they can bite if threatened, but like nearly all snakes, they just hope you’ll leave them alone so they can go consume some more varmints.  We hope they’ll do it early and often.

Uncle Mike and I stood there for a few minutes figuring out the best way to save the snakes.  One must respect wildlife’s potential dangers, especially suffering, starved, dehydrated wildlife.  My uncle pulled out his Swiss knife and began to cut the netting.  “John, let’s take them outside.  You hold the snakes, and I’ll cut ’em loose.”  Sounded like a plan, and soon Uncle Mike had the netting apart enough for us to bring them out one by one.

Now came the tricky part.  When I said I was good with snakes, I didn’t mean I was a talented snake wrangler, simply that I didn’t run screaming when I saw one.  I took the first snake gently behind the head, and held up its mid-body so my uncle could begin the really tricky part.  You never saw such delicacy in your life.  Strand by strand, patiently, kindly, he worked the tip of the knife under each strangling wire of nylon.  I watched very closely as he managed it without costing the snake even a bit of blood.  Remember how deeply the nylon was dug into the snake’s scales and flesh; impressive dexterity and gentleness.  I’m still impressed.

It took about five or ten minutes, if I remember correctly; he worked from tail to head.  With about half the snake loose, it began to make sinuous movements in my hands.  Somehow I knew this wasn’t a fight to be free of my grasp, just getting circulation back.  That snake had to be suffering something awful.  When it calmed down, Uncle Mike went back to his work.   Before long the final strand snapped free, the snake wormed around again, and I took it over and released it in the grass.  It wasn’t far to water and food.  That kingsnake was going to make it.

Snake #2 went more quickly, both of us having now had some practice.  It behaved the same, and I let it loose over in the same deep grass.  I can’t know, but it’s fairly safe to guess they lived long, happy serpentine Flint Hills lives.

I wish I remember what, if anything, Uncle Mike and I said afterward.  I’m so gabby I must have said something, but it can’t have been too profound because I forget.  I suspect that Mike and I just smiled, watched the snakes disappear into the grass, and got on with his plans for the grape vines.  What I do know for sure is that it was one of our best moments together.

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SCA

For those of you who don’t know, that stands for Society for Creative Anachronism.  Put simply, they play medieval, but without the cholera epidemics.  It is on my mind today because I am shortly taking some friends to lunch after they finish up a local SCA event.  I was invited, very kindly, but declined partly due to feeling so out of place.  I am not sure how often I can say ‘forsooth’, and I’m always nervous if I don’t know the social etiquette of any situation.  Nonetheless, they seem like a group of the sort of people I nearly always like.  My friends are good examples, using many of the skills in real life agriculture and householding.  I find them hardworking, energetic, cheery and intelligent.

Is it silliness? I play Dungeons & Dragons, so if roleplay is silliness, then I guess I’m silly myself.  Sure, anyone can go overboard on pretending to be a brave knight.  One can go overboard on golf, too, or crocheting or cat ownership.  SCA seems like a very crafts(wo)manly way to have a good time roleplaying and understanding how people lived back when, thus teaching history.

You’ll get real bored and real old standing around waiting for me to utter the sentence “Teaching history isn’t worth while.”

Spocon

This is in August, in Spokane.  For the first time, I’m putting myself forward as a possible panelist.  I’m probably now going to find out why panelists go nuts when scheduled for stuff they know nothing about, or get put in rooms that swelter, etc.

While I can’t say I’m not nervous about it, a part of me is sort of looking forward to it.  I’ll try it, and if it sucks, I won’t do it again.  Maybe my biggest worry is that putting myself forward for this amounts to putting on airs, making myself seem more important than I really am from a literary standpoint.  However, one very good aspect to it is that it gives strong support to writing off the entire trip as a necessary business expense.  Put another way, that means I get a 43% discount on the whole visit.  And since I’ll enjoy the con (Spocon really tries hard), and it’s not that far a trip, much good comes of this.  Jane should have my Rasputin costume by then.  Oh, I should probably dress professionally, but at a SF con, going steampunk is professional dress.

Maryhill

We have something unique and rather cool out near my part of the world:  a serious art museum, about two hours away.  Maryhill is the former residence of transportation magnate Sam Hill, a post-Gilded Age chap with good connections but odd ideas.  He left his mansion (overlooking the Columbia, a bit east of Wishram) as a museum.   It’s nice as well as scenic.  It displays:

  • A significant and diverse collection of Native American artifacts.
  • A sizable collection of Rodins.  No, I’m not joking.  Yes, I mean what I just said.
  • Lots of Queen Marie of Romania and other eastern European stuff, including some very impressive ikons.
  • Of course, some stuff about Sam himself, though the museum doesn’t overdo his worship.
  • An exhibit on Loïe Fuller, a dancer who used gossamer drapery as a prop.
  • Some fairly dull stuff upstairs.
  • A gorgeous chess set collection.
  • Temporary exhibits that may vary.
  • Nearby, another oddity:  a full-size war memorial in the shape of Stonehenge, overlooking the river.

What makes Maryhill interesting and unique is the combination of middle-of-nowhereness (as I leave the freeway to go there, I see a sign: NO SERVICES 88 MILES), marvelous Columbia Gorge scenery, and truly historic artifacts.  That’s a lot of Rodins, essentially an education in his methods and life.  You can see his fingerprints on some of his sculptures.  Roman coins.  Dresses fit for royalty.  Cyrillic on ikons that I can barely read.  And above all, a very compelling portrait of Tsar Nikolai II (it is not ‘czar’) made more unique by vandalism.  Some angry intruder slashed the canvas where it hung in Belgrade, and while it has been repaired quite well, the evidence hasn’t gone away.  I’m not even much of an art buff and its significance leaps out and grabs even me:  the elegant portrait of the last Tsar in his military finery, crudely marred in an overflow of pent-up resentment.  What better metaphor for the chaotic, iconoclastic times of later World War I?

Off to Walla Walla

Nephew’s first away game is at WWCC, so we’re going to go take in some of it after a swing past the antique show.  Hopefully my navigation isn’t as inept as last time I went there.  For those of you not familiar with Washington, our main state penitentiary (the one with the gallows and the gurney; in Washington, criminals can still hang) is at Wally, and it’s fairly out of the way.  Undeterred, I got sufficiently lost and confused by atrocious road construction that I pulled up right outside the slammer.  Fortunately, I didn’t get invited in.

With luck, JD will get to play.  He hasn’t seen the field yet this year, and it’s a new experience for him, pining it.  (For me in baseball, it was the commonplace norm, with my many athletic deficiencies.)  It’s that way for all of us in college, or at least most of us:  “Wow.  All my life I was the best player/(or smartest kid).  Good lord…so were all these people.  I’m going to have to pack my lunch.”

Wally’s a pretty nice town, though, so I don’t mind going over there.  Its primary industries, besides growing sweet onions, are educating the young (one university, one college and one CC) and incarcerating those who declined to be educated.  It has a religious background, based somewhat on the Whitman College heritage of Methodist education (their mascot is still the Missionaries).  The university, WWU, is an Adventist school.  The Whitties get a real good education, though one pays handsomely for it–it is a very highly regarded liberal arts college.  Less known is that Wally was at one point the primary city in Washington Territory, a contender for the state capital.  Not happening now.

Otis the Terrible

Today’s story is about a cat.  Some of it is interpolated and presumed, but of the start and finish no doubts exist.

My family come from the Flint Hills of Kansas, which I still call my homeland.  I miss home.  We drove back there once, and as we crossed the line from Nebraska into Kansas, I wept.  Something about that limestone and black gumbo must be in my body chemistry.  Now, to outsiders, the Flint Hills look mostly like dull, quiet rolling pasture with rock outcroppings and not a whole lot going on.

If that’s what they see, they’re hoodwinked.  The Flint Hills seethe with life, a constant food chain battling for survival in what can be a hard land.  All sorts of varmints:  mice, rats, voles and whatever else crawls under the ground.  Kingsnakes.  Prairie rattlers.  Raccoons.  Rabbits.  Coyotes.  Deer.  Bobcats.  Hawks, owls, eagles, prairie chickens, birds of prey and prey birds.  Badgers.  Impound reservoirs full of fish.  Turtles.  It is no place for an unguarded baby animal unless you want it eaten by morning.  When you walk in the Flint Hills, you keep an eye out.  Something might happen.

One day some years back, a terrible thing occurred.  The neighbors’ cat over east had eight kittens, and all was well until one afternoon when the neighbor was driving his SUV down US 5o, heading west toward Strong City.  The family ranch is about a mile and a half north of the highway.  The neighbor saw some sort of movement in a mirror, things evidently fallen from the vehicle, and pulled over.  The whole clutch of kittens, turned out, had crawled up into the engine compartment before he left home.  They were falling out all over the highway.

He accounted for seven, mostly dead.  He never found #8.  No idea what the hell happened to that cat.  Word got around, of course, and it was unfortunate, but that was that.  The Flint Hills are hard on cats.  It’s cattle country, and a dead kitten is less of a big deal than a dead calf.

About one week later, my Uncle Mike was pulling up out front of the carriage-room (it is still called that) around dusk.  There was a cedar tree out front of the old stone ranch house in those days.  Mike, who along with my Aunt Jaque has loved and adopted animals as long as I’ve known him, heard a high, faint, thin mewing nearby.  By long reflex, he froze.  (One time we were coming home and there was a huge kingsnake climbing that tree.  If you hear something that ought not to be there, you stop and figure it out.)

Pretty soon Mike identified an emaciated grey kitten up in the tree, needle claws dug into the bark. It could only be #8.  The little cat was starved, dehydrated and unlikely to survive the night.  Over the course of the week, he had traversed a mile and a half of pasture and woods, somehow finding ways night and day to evade the dozens of creatures to which a kitten looks like the Pizza Hut truck–and the nocturnal hunters are the deadliest.  What did he find to eat? How did he survive showing his whiskers at the creek or pond, which draws prey and predator? How’d the cat know to come to the one surest place in Chase County to care for him?

We can’t know.  What was obvious:  he had proven his survival skills and instincts to any standard of satisfaction you might concoct.  Mike called the neighbors, who said he was welcome to keep the kitten.  Otis, as my relatives dubbed him, quickly became a feisty little feline, bothering and pestering the stately elderly lady cats of the house.  He would lie in wait to pounce on them, and when they’d had enough, they’d just give him the facepaw and let him flail at the air.  I could tell from his agility (amazing even by the elevated species standards) that Otis was going to be a barn cat.  We have three large stone barns, and they are patrolled by half-wild cats who mostly catch their own food.  You need barn cats.  Varmints like barns.

The next time I saw Otis, he was a grey spectre up near the barns, a huge wily tom with the self-assured air of survivorhood and prairie-smarts.  He must be getting older by now, but I suspect he’s still up there hunting varmints, scoffing at raccoons and confounding coyotes.  Otis is a survivor, and has been since the day he fell or jumped out of an engine compartment to make his own way in the world.

===

Two years later… Otis has passed on. I’m glad I got to see the old boy a few more times before that happened. Farewell, Otis, as you take charge of barns in a different world.

© 2013, J.K. Kelley

Radcon 5C

This past weekend I spent at RadCon, the Tri-Cities’ (WA) science fiction convention.

Registration was more abominable than last year, if that’s even possible. (You cannot imagine. Should it take three hours of waiting in line? I think the line began around Bonner’s Ferry.) Dealers either not given enough room or charged too much–there were as many hotel room dealers as there were in the dealer room. If you didn’t wend your way down Wing 2, you missed the Bizarro Fiction folks (google Shatnerquake and just laugh your head off) and a bunch more stuff, such as the Cocaine energy drink people. I was tempted to buy one just to support a beverage that has a disclaimer that says “if you really imagine this contains actual cocaine, you are a moron.” I never tire of packaging that ridicules idiots–we have so many in my country, many of whom escape their just desserts.

Sharon was her usual lovely, charming self, brought a con newbie with her (friend Lovell, from HS) and did for him what she once did for me (general askari/native guide function). I think this was probably the con at which I transitioned from intermediate to veteran, becoming essentially self-sufficient and no longer an albatross around Sharon’s neck, all thanks be unto her for many companionships and kindnesses. Much socialization with C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher, each a marvel in her own way. Received emphatic and safe advice from C.J. on matters literary.  If I don’t follow said advice, coming from such a source, I’m too stupid to succeed (this blog is a direct step in that direction, since I’d hate to be too stupid to succeed).

You know, you really experience these cons differently with repetition. It develops a certain intimacy and warmth that grows over the years. I begin to think that if you’re going to do a given con, you need to become a regular–do it annually or don’t do it. You see people you talked to briefly last year, and this year they invite you to join them for dinner, and pretty soon you are invited to a cider pressing in Idaho in summer/fall. You shoot the breeze with some Rasta-type kids out front, or sort of commiserate with the security dude who is out for a smoke. Flirt with the obviously gay-as-the-1890s waiters; better service (as Sharon can attest, I have almost zero shame, not that shame is in heavy supply at SF cons).

One message comes through to me about the literary industry:  the New York dead tree model is hosed. It is less relevant each year. Simple math:  even a prominent author might keep one dollar in ten of the paperback revenues. Through e-publishing, she will keep 100%. Put another way: not only does one e-book sale equal ten paperback sales, one makes the e-book sale with complete creative control and no Manhattan corporate crap. I posed the question to more than one author: “at what point will we fully transition from the dream being ‘picked up by New York’ to, New York calls us and we say, ‘sorry, but you really have nothing to offer me but lousy margins, so no, thanks, I do not want to sign with Random House'”? In the estimation of many, we are nearly there. When one of your sales equals ten of theirs…that is big. That’s an exponent.

In short, Radcon was a great time for many reasons, despite its Tri-Cityness (perennial inefficiency being as much a part of the local culture as basic courtesy and goodwill). I pre-registered again, so that tells you something. Biggest drag: learning that the local newsies caught me on camera. It tells you how relaxed I was: I wasn’t even on the alert for one of my most hated situations, as I learned in a text from my wife advising me I was on TV whether I wanted it or not. When someone with a startle reflex and loathing for the news media as profound as mine managed to get filmed by the media on the sly, that someone really had his guard down.