After graduating in 1964 I headed to Hollywood to be a movie star, only to drop into the '60s. Lucky me!
After hitch hiking around the country from '69 to '72, I graduated from Boise State University and settled into waiting tables for a living and pursuing other interests—teaching stained glass at BSU, writing for Boise Weekly and Idaho Magazine, publishing some Idaho and Biblical history, acting in a few local shows, and traveling at the drop of a map.
For two years I produced a half-hour public access TV show available at www.greatwahoo.com. In 2011 I was featured in Scott Pasfield's book Gay In America.
Through it all I've come up with some stories and am using this blog as an excuse to get them written down.
Cleaning out the hay wagons was one of the earliest chores I remember helping my older sister with. This happened after the large, four-wheeled trailers had had their wooden sides attached and had been rented out for something called a “hayride.”
Later I’d come to understand the allure of these evening rides to a country picnic and bonfire and an even later and much more quiet ride snuggled in the hay on the ride home. At the time I only knew to be careful with the pitch fork, which was longer than I was tall, while climbing over what to me were the towering sides of the trailers.
My sister made sure I would give the forkful of dry straw a good shake before tossing it over the side of the wagon. The goal was to toss the straw with enough gumption so it landed in the property’s barrow pit instead of right next to the trailer.
Dad, and later we kids, would always push the wagon next to a borrow pit before cleaning it out. Later, when conditions were right, Dad would burn the straw, cleaned the pit while ridding ourselves of the leftovers of satisfied customers.
And just why had my sister made sure I gave the pitchfork full of straw a good shake before tossing it over the side of the trailer? Now that you’ve asked, I’ll tell you the anticipated joy we kids felt when someone had rented the trailer for a “hayride.”
It seems there were folks on those hayrides who did not pay attention to what was in their pockets. As I said, I would eventually learn about those distractions. But when we were armed with pitchforks we kids discovered there was always some change falling out of that straw—sometimes even a whole dollar’s worth!
Our folks never had to coax us into cleaning up after someone else’s hayride.
I lit out hitch hiking from Twentynine Palms, California, in the late autumn of 1968.
Earlier that year Dionne Warwick had released her first Grammy Award winning hit, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” It was a peppy little ditty opening with a beating drum and a satisfying cascade of “Woe Woe Woe”s. It made me want to check the place out.
That was the reason three years later I found myself in San Jose while thumbing my way back to Southern California.
Yes, I remember why I decided to go to San Jose, but I have no idea how I got from Boise to San Jose. It could have been my sister, who was raising a family in Freemont, giving me a ride after her family spent Christmas in Boise. But it seems I would remember some snippet of being crammed in a sedan with those five fine folks for a twelve hour drive.
Having completed what was obviously a completely forgettable journey to the southern edge of San Jose, I continued my quest to avoid freeways and found myself on US 101 headed south. Today I’m sure this, too, is a freeway but in 1971 it was a busy surface street.
I figured any town with a cool song named after it would be good for getting a ride. And, yes, there were vehicles pulling over rather regularly to pick folks up. What I hadn’t counted on was being just another in a hoard of guys and gals and dogs all with the same idea.
Well, folks, I’ve always been a rather meek soul, holding back and figuring it will all work out. But once I had seen three or four rides pull over and get swamped with desperate seekers I knew I had to jump into the fray. That or stand there for a week watching an endless line of other people getting rides.
About then a regular full-sized utility van pulled over close to where several of us were standing. The side door slid open and I was positioned to jump into the middle of this lucky batch. I lunged into a space toward the back of the empty cargo hold, figuring that might keep me from being tossed out if the driver and his buddy decided they didn’t want to transport a fully loaded van full of eager riders.
Yea. I had found the way to San Jose. And I was feeling real good about finding a way out.
My folk’s rental business included two large hay wagons. Because they were four-wheeled trailers the front tires were articulated, so they turned as the tongue of the trailers were pulled into a turn. First by hand-pushing the trailers with my sisters and later by backing them with a tractor or car I got quite proficient at the reverse- of a reverse- steering it takes to maneuver eight wheels, with four of them able to turn, into a parking space.
To my boyhood mind another fascination with these trailers was the wire that came from each wheel. Each wire attached to a cable that ran along the center post of the trailers’ undercarriage to the tongue of the trailer. On the tongue of the trailer this cable was anchored to a second part of the tongue that slid an inch or so back and forth over the section of tongue that was attached to the trailer’s undercarriage. This second part of the tongue attached to the vehicle pulling the trailer.
Dad told me these wires and the sliding tongue controlled brakes for the hay wagons. Even after helping dad replace the break shoes I never really believed those flimsy wires and little bit of a sliding tongue would make any difference in controlling a trailer.
My dad died in 1977, when I was 32, and that summer we were getting the property ready for an estate auction. Among other collections were five large stacks of wood. My dad always liked big roaring fires in our home’s brick fireplace and our cabin’s cast iron Franklin stove, so he had plenty of justification for an ever expanding accumulation of wood. Previous woodpiles had made great forts when we were kids.
In 1977 I had no fantasy of cutting all that wood and moving it to the mountain cabin but there were two randomly piled mounds that had already been cut down to the sizes that were useful at the cabin. It seemed practical and an honer to Dad to load up one of our big hay wagons and get a last load of wood to the cabin, so I recruited my friend Andy Venn to help out.
We attached one trailer’s high sides around the flat bed of the wagon and began pitching in chunks of wood. I don’t remember it taking long at all on a pleasant spring day. Getting in the trailer, tossing them down and stacking them beside the cabin’s porch was just as rewarding.
The thing I remember being completely surprised by was the trailer’s breaks. I expected the big V-8 engine of my 1962 Mercury Monterey to pull the grade from Lucky Peak Dam to Highland Valley Summit, a climb of 922 feet in 4.4 miles. No problem there. It was the even steeper grade down to the Mores Creek Bridge, 527 feet in 2.6 miles, that I had been dreading. All that weight pushing against the car, and all that weight pushing the trailer to the side and around the brakes of the car if the tongue were ever so slightly out of true was a disaster in the making. It worried my mind.
It turned out I would never have known that trailer was following me down that hill if I had not attached the tongue to the car myself — and, of course, if I had been able to see anything but a wall of trailer in my rear view mirror. There was never the least bit of the trailer pushing on the car. Nor were there any lunges back and forth because the brakes were setting too strong, holding the trailer back until the car pulled the brakes off and the trailer ran forward pushing the tongue of the trailer into the car. Rather, that steep descent was as smooth as pulling a trailer on a level road.
Hay wagons get heavy, dear reader. Whether loaded with alfalfa, furniture, kids on a hay ride or stacks of wood. I had never thought about the need to break heavy trailers. Nor had I appreciated the clever and perfectly adept way those old timers had mechanically solved a serious problem.
As the engine of the semi truck rumbled from western Nebraska into Wyoming that November day of 1970, the sky turned from haze to grey to dark. Soon a few flakes of snow turned to a storm and began to border on a blizzard. The driver began to fret over getting through before they closed Interstate 80.
There was yet a half a day left as we approached a long upgrade, the steepest pull we had encountered since leaving the Chicago area the day before. It turned out to be the longest and steepest grade we would encounter on the surprisingly flat land this particular road uses to cross the Continental Divide. The wind was whipping on the trailer of the truck but the driver kept it straight and true as he started to talk about the six semi trucks we saw on the side of the road before us.
The hill began to rise under our wheels and it got more steep as we advanced. We passed one stranded truck and its driver struggling in the snow and wind to attach chains. Still our tires held to the road and I was sure glad of that.
About this time the driver said he’d be glad to stop and help these guys but both he and those drivers stumbling in the snow knew if he did we’d be just as stuck as they were. “They are not blaming us at all for keeping up our momentum in hopes of cresting the hill.”
Slowly we passed a second stranded truck and then a third. Each one made me think of how cold my wool coat and thin leather boots would be if we were to be out of the warm cab of that truck.
Fortunately I had been picked up by a driver who knew what he was doing. One by one we kept our slow pace past those trucks. And so did the truck some five lengths ahead, so we didn’t have to stop to avoid his sliding in front of us. The hill got less steep. And we were on our way.
It was dark when we got to the junction of I-80, heading west to California and I-84, heading north to Idaho. The driver was continuing on to the Bay Area and I was headed to Boise but he turned up I-84 to a nearby rest area. He said I should be able to get a ride pretty easy but at least I’d have a warm building to be in while I asked around. He had that right.
The idea of spending a night in an odiferous roadside men’s room was not high on my list of ways to pass the time. But it sure beat the wind and snow outside.
Within ten minutes a couple of college guys said sure, they’d drop me off in Boise.
I felt kind of bad, laying down in their back seat and sleeping all the way. But I was exhausted and they seemed happy with their own company. As I remember they even took me to my parent’s place once we got to town.
After a night sleeping in the shotgun seat of a rumbling long-haul truck parked in the fumes of an Iowa truck stop I found myself on the road early in the morning. Thankful to still be riding with the driver who picked me up outside of Chicago I watched November’s fallow soy fields stretch into equally vast fields stubbled with stalks of the summer’s corn. Between Interstate 80 and the horizon the land was not flat, as I had been lead to believe, and not hilly either. More of an undulation into the distance. The great grassy prairie lands turned to square fields.
A speck in the distance grew to be a sign. Then a large billboard —
”How arrogant is that??!!!” I screamed in my head. “Where the West begins, indeed.” Everyone knows the West begins west of the Rocky Mountains, I harrumphed. I might have even said so to the truck driver.
A hundred miles west of the city of Lincoln the freeway followed the Platte River, echoing the route of the Oregon Trail. A continuous, gentle climb free from any radical landmarks, the valley provided reliable water and forage for wagons headed into the unknown. I thought the trees and shrubs along the river to our right would stretch to Wyoming. Actually they do but, unknown to me, west of North Platte the river heads north while I-80 heads straight toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. I didn’t notice the brush along the river was no longer in sight.
I also missed how the cultivated prairie land slowly, imperceptibly gave way. Farms grew farther and farther apart. Some half way through Nebraska I realized the land featured stacks of bailed hay and open rangeland and feedlots full of cattle. And then not even that, but scrublands with a few grazing cattle.
Perhaps eighty percent of the way thought Nebraska the truck was pulling harder. Not struggling up a steep mountain grade, but I-80 was rising on a sweeping curve into a gentle pass.
The engine’s guttural pull eased into a purr as we passed over the rounded summit. We looked out over a vast, open, sandy valley sweeping into the far distance between high bare hills. Other than the road there was not a bit of civilization in sight.
I found myself breathless.
Oh my god —
It was THE WEST ! ! !
During my two years living in the lush forests and fields east of the rocky mountains I had forgotten about the deserts. The deserts I had been raised exploring. Deserts that run from south of Boise through Nevada and Arizona and into Mexico.
For the first time I realized the American West is not defined by the towering rocky peaks of Idaho’s mountains, but by the vast room of the Great Basin.
When working on a tractor there is always a need to use a tool. Usually a simple plier or screwdriver or piece of baling wire can patch a problem enough to keep from having to run to the shop.
As I got older it came time for Dad to keep me entertained, even when he was working with one of the two tractors we rented out. And it was evident that, with the clutching and braking and wrestling the unpowered steering wheel of a Ford N series tractor, there was no holding me on his lap.
And that is why one of my first memories is perching my scrawny butt on a narrow tool box on a big fender that kept my little ass from scraping on the big left rear tire of dad’s tractor.
There was an ever-present odor of grease and oil and gasoline and hot engine up there. To this day I think of those aromas as the smell of my dad.
The tool box was the highest I had ever ridden, atop that big tire looking out at the moving world with just air around me. It was nothing like being shut up in a car. The road or ground was right there moving beneath us. And when Dad was plowing or mowing or leveling or disking, the action was churning just under my feet. It was endlessly fascinating to see what Dad was doing to the dirt or the grass. And more than once I terrorized myself thinking how that plow or mower or leveler or those disks would maul my bones into the scenery should I fall off that bit of a tool box as the tractor bounced and tugged and struggled at its tasks.
Which I suppose is why I absolutely always had to have my arm as far as I could reach around my dad’s sweaty chest. No being cool and hanging on to the top edge of the fender, my body arched back and my hair blowing in the summer wind like a carefree movie star sitting atop the back seat of a convertible.
Not that I minded hanging on, even as I got older. It was never a solid ride up there and I was glad for the hand hold. And I’m sure my arm around him made my dad confident he’d know to stop the tractor before any mauling in case my hinny suddenly slip off that bit of a fender perch.
The trucker who invited me into the warm cab of his long-haul truck on a cold November night of 1970 was looking for conversation. So was I. He was an interesting man and he seemed interested enough in my endless prattle. At least he didn’t pull over and tell me to get out.
The conversation did touch on the trucking life and he assured me that, yea, there have been times he got tired of it and tried something else. But punching a clock and getting into a daily routine soon sent him back to the road.
And then there was the time he and his wife decided it would be good for him to be home. The kids were getting through grade school and he didn’t want to miss all of their growing up. Besides, it would do them good to have their dad around the house and his wife could use some help getting them through their teen years. So he talked with the company he was driving for and took on the dispatching job.
Things went well for five months or so before he and his wife started driving each other crazy. Neither of them wanted to get to hating each other so they both agreed it would be best for him to get back on the road. He added, “Now I sure am glad to get home to my beautiful wife every two to six weeks. And she sure seems to be glad to see me, that’s for sure! Heck, even the kids seem to enjoy my being around for several days.” After those several days, he assured me, the whole family knew it was time for him to go haul something around the USA.
Around midnight the driver pulled us off the freeway and into a truck stop. Was this my cue to say thanks and get myself out of the truck? I sure didn’t want to jump out of that warm truck but this was my first ride with a long-haul driver and I didn’t know what was expected. Before I could ask, he described an adjustable metal stick that he could use to hold the accelerator peddle in one position while he got in his berth for the night. He then gave me a couple of dollars and asked if I’d go in the shop and get him one. When I got back with it he did not ask me to leave as he got in the back of the cab for a good night’s sleep.
Folks, if you are looking for a comfortable night’s snooze I do not necessarily recommend the passenger’s side seat in the cab of an idling semi truck in the middle of a brightly lit parking lot cocooned in the fumes of fifty other idling diesel engines. But should you find yourself cashless on a windy November midnight in Iowa it is a comforting thing to do.
When Dad got his first Ford tractor he spent one afternoon driving it out to my mother’s grandparent’s farm south of Ustic, Idaho. My mother’s aunt Ellen had been raising her three children on that land since her husband died some thirteen years earlier at the age of forty.
Ellen led a hard life, scraping together enough egg and milk money to feed her growing kids. Her daughter Dona tells me Ellen made their clothes out of feed sacks, the unworn edges of sheets, and what good scraps could be salvaged from ragged adult clothes. Her mother was so good at combining the different patterns that Dona considered her dresses to be the prettiest in the school.
The farm had a large garden to grow the food the family would eat through the coming year. Every spring the garden needed to be turned over, raked level and prepared for planting. Dona’s older brother and sister pushed a wheeled hand plow through the dirt to break it up and the whole family got busy raking and leveling the ground for planting. It was days of back-breaking work.
And that was why my dad drove his new tractor mounted with a plow way way out in the country. The rest of us arrived in our Frazier Manhattan automobile pulling a trailer with a disking implement on it.
Dad sat on his tractor pulling the plow through the garden. It dug deep, breaking up the soil and turning it over so the remains of last year’s crop were turned under to compost into the land. Then he sat on the tractor dragging the disc, a series of circular blades that broke up the clumps of dirt left by the plow and leveled the deep ruts the plow had left behind. The job was easily done in an hour.
Years later Dona told me she and her sister and brother had watched that man they did not know sitting on his tractor. “We knew he was showing off. BUT WE WERE SURE GLAD TO HAVE ALL THAT DIRT TURNED OVER!!!!!!”
(A note: My mother’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Eric and Johanna Dahlberg. Their daughter Ellen married Earle Officer in 1925. Their daughter Dona married James Saad in 1956.)
It was getting late in the afternoon when I walked away from the amorous plant salesman at a roadside tavern somewhere in the Illinois countryside. By the time I got rides back to Interstate 80 it was getting dark.
Always aware of flying under the radar, I knew to keep my thumb on the ramp of a freeway rather than hitchhike on the highway itself. But alas, just as I approached an entrance to I-80 a brown car had a blue flashing light put on its dashboard. Although the police were not in uniform there were the uniform questions: what was I doing? where was I going? have any ID? I had a sense these Chicago-suburb police were looking for something to fill up a quota. Perhaps drugs? No problem there. If I made a point of only hitchhiking on the ramp of a freeway can you image me being stupid or ballsy enough to be carrying any sort of drug? Ha! That’s a good one!
Still, it was getting dark and having police rummaging through my pack and perhaps taking me in for a more personal search would leave me abandoned on a suburban street in the dead of a cold November night.
Just as I was overthinking these things there was a crackling from their police radio. It sounded like static to me but they seemed to understand the language, handed me back my driver’s license, and left without a word.
That was not the only time I have been rescued from an awkward situation by the Gods of Good Timing – and I thank them profusely.
As soon as that brown unmarked car had driven off I walked a few yards down the onramp to Interstate 80 heading west. My intention was to get a third of the way down the ramp so folks would have a chance to check me out and pull over before the freeway. I didn’t make it. Instead, a long semi truck pulled in front of me. I scurried to the cab, climbed up to the handle, opened the door, and was invited in.
My folks started renting trailers during World War II. They added two Ford N series tractors to their home rental business after the war.
Once I got old enough to be trusted with such transactions I was on the phone letting men know that, yes, “They are full-sized tractors and we have the implements you need to get your job done.” If they needed more than one implement (perhaps a plow to turn soil, a disk to break it up, and a blade to level it off) we had a heavy-duty flat bed trailer that tilted and had a winch for loading the tools. They could pull the loaded trailer to their job site with the tractor.
We rented the tractors, including implements, by the gallons of gas they burnt. “That way if you get called away from the job you are not paying for the use of the tractor.” We always gave the example that perhaps they’d have to take a phone call. And yes, kids, we had to go in the house to use the land-line phones in those Barbaric times.
The rate for our tractors was $5 for the first gallon of gas, $4 for the second gallon and $3 for every gallon thereafter. Gas was going for 20¢ a gallon at the time so this was when questions really started to fly!
I had heard the answers from my dad many times and repeated them: “How much gas the tractor burns depends on what you are doing. Plowing is a lot harder work than leveling. The tractor will burn more than a gallon an hour when plowing, depending on how hard the dirt is. You get over an hour per gallon when disking. And yes, you drive the tractor to your work site. The tractors have an overdrive for highway use and they get around 16 miles per gallon.” Our customers considered that good gas milage back in the 1950s, when cars were built like tanks and had big, inefficient V8 engines.
Usually the customer would show up as soon as he could get to us. But sometimes the man on the other end of phone let us know he could rent a garden tractor for $1.25 an hour. We’d mention we were renting full-sized Ford tractors and, of course, we certainly respected his knowing what was right for his project.
Sometimes a man would show up the next day saying he had tried a garden tractor and had barely begun his project when it got dark. Two to four hours later he’d swing our Ford tractor back into our driveway, pay somewhere between five and ten dollars, and let us know he’d be telling his friends about using a “real tractor.”