Friday, May 25, 2012

Fishin', Drinkin', and Cussin'

Fishin', drinkin', and cussin'. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? Well, it did to the bunch I hang around with. Plans were made. The concept being for three of us old  mature guys to invite our sons for a striper fishing trip on Lake Texoma, one of the best Striped Bass lakes in Oklahoma. While the dads had enjoyed this adventure on several occasions in the past, the boys had not. It was to be a family thing, a good time had by all. Wholesome Christian entertainment…sort of.

My surgeon, the one who operated on my torn rotator cuff, was not at all enthused about my upcoming trip.
“You’re telling me that you’re willing to risk tearing up that shoulder again for a fish?”

I tried to explain that the great majority of the fish we catch at Texoma range from 3 to maybe six pounds or so, no big deal. Besides, I’ll just have the guide net mine when I get it to the boat. No strain, no pain. The good doctor gave me one those looks that said, not too smart a fella are ya?

The day started off with a new record being broken. No, it wasn’t a monster fish, but it was the earliest for the first cold beer to be popped; 5: 51 a.m. shattering the previous record of 6:05. (Note that the time was A.M. and not P.M.) The holder of the new record shall remain anonymous, after all, what happens on the lake stays on the lake.

Five in the morning is like late afternoon to our guide who had risen from his warm bed at three that morning to go out on the lake, stand on the bouncing bow of the boat, alone, in the dark, and cast a throw net, time after time, to catch shad, the preferred bait for stipers. He baits all the hooks, takes the hooked fish off the line, and then, back at the dock, cleans the fish, and last but certainly not unimportant, cleans up the empty beer cans from the bottom of the boat. Still think you want to be a fishing guide for a living?

My first fish of the day was typical, about 4 or 5 lbs, maybe 12 inches long. Within seconds, the guide had me re-baited and back in the water. I’d no sooner reached for a beer, when the pole bent over double. YES! Then, UH OH, as I thought about my shoulder and all the little stringy tendon fibers inside hanging on for dear life. The fish took off, seemingly headed for Texas. The drag on the reel couldn’t hold him and I could hear it complaining, the tension on the line making it sing in protest. 

Eventually, the fish tired and I began to slowly work him back to the boat hoping the shoulder would hold together just this once. Soon, he was in the net and I finally laid eyes on him. Oh wow. It was the biggest fish I’d ever caught in my life. I’d like to say that we carefully weighed him with certified scales, but the guide said he’s a twenty pounder easy. And since that particular guide has seen hundreds of thousands of stipers in his day, I’m taking his word for it.

“You want to get it mounted?” he asks.

I had no good place at home to hang the thing and considering the cost, I declined, whereupon the guide unceremoniously threw my trophy back in the lake! “We got other fish for eating. He said. “We’ll let him go back, grow bigger, and give someone else a thrill.” But I did get a snapshot or two.

The rest of the morning was hit and miss. Small schools of fish would pass beneath us and we’d catch a dozen or so before it moved on. Then it’s back to using the fish finding sonar and hunt for them again. A lot of the guides work together to find the fish. If one boat is having a field day, jerking them in right and left, he will let his buddies know. They will then slowly motor up to him and tie on. This works to everyone’s advantage; the more bait in the water, the more likely it is to start a feeding frenzy.

There are, however, a couple of drawbacks to this strategy, especially if one of the boats is full of guys drinking beer since 5:51 a.m. and the other boat is loaded with a party of Amish folks, complete with traditional straw hats and beards. While both vessels had a common interest, catchin’ fish… drinkin’ and cussin’, ...not so much. To complicate matters, half the party in the boat next door were women.  Now as everyone that has ever sipped a brewski knows, you don’t really buy beer, you only rent it. What goes down, must come out. And when you have three or four women smiling at you, all wearing that Jesus Loves Me look, and you got to pee…well, you can see the problem.

But our guide, bless his little thoughtful heart, had brought a 5 gallon bucket along for just such occasions. If the ladies with the hankies on their heads noticed a steady stream of men going to the rear of our boat without a fishing pole, they didn’t acknowledge it. However, there was no such easy fix for the other problem of mixed company, a little cussin’ now and then. Hey, you get a big ol' Striped Bass on the end of your line and just try not to say, “Holy shit, look at the size of that sum bitch.” Can’t be done.

By noon, we had our limit and were back at the dock where we switched from beer to  Bloody Mary’s and watched the guide clean our fish. A fine time was had by all.

Drinkin’, fishin’, and cussin’; it just don’t git no better than that. It’s a family thing.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Bad Day on the Prairie. Conclusion

Hoping the cell has enough battery juice for another call, I grab a flashlight and trudge even farther up the rise in the road seeking a better connection. Bubba answers on the first ring and once again, we go over the directions as to my location. We finally realize that our respective GPS's are not showing the same road numbers. I tell him that I can see the stop sign at the nearest intersection with my flashlight.

"Tell you what," Bubba says." I'll turn on my overhead blue lights and you tell me if you can see them."

He did. I couldn't. Crap.

But Bubba feels like he's close and decides to reverse course. Ten minutes later, I see his flashing blues. I wildly wave the flashlight in his direction. There was a certain irony to it.  In a world of smart phones, navigation satellites, and Twitter, it came down to using a simple battery and  light bulbs to make contact, your basic signal fires, only one technological step up from smoke signals.

Bubba hooks me up, I slide in the tow truck seat beside him, and we're on our way to town. When I explain that I was on the prairie to take photos of birds and bison, Bubba begins telling me about all the wildlife that calls the TGP  home. "We got coyotes, foxes, bear, and lion up here too. Some folks will try to tell you that mountain lions don't live around here but they're dead wrong. In fact, were about to pass a corner where two black panthers have been seen. More than once."

Despite my skepticism of such a sighting, I say nothing; reasoning that the last thing I want to do at this stage is piss off the tow truck driver.

Safely back in the town of Pawhuska, Bubba unloads my pickup in front of the tire shop. It is now 12:15 a.m. I lock it up, grab my two camera bags, and we head to the nearest motel.  A sign at the entrance reads Rooms: $30 and up. Uh oh. Not your five star establishment. One star would have been an exaggeration.

I ding the bell on the counter and a woman looking to be of East Indian heritage emerges wearing pajamas and rubbing her eyes. She does not look happy to see me.

"The room is $35 dollars," she states.

"I'll take it."  At least I'll be one step up from the $30 rooms. I hand her my Visa card.

"I no take credit card."

I point to several stickers on her window: Visa, Master Card, Discover, etc.

"Credit card machine no work."

I check my wallet and find two twenties, a five, and a couple of ones. Bubba, still standing behind me, speaks up.

"You're gonna owe me $48, pardner. Part of this isn't covered by AAA you know. But I can take your credit card."

I pay everyone, get a key, say goodbye to Bubba, and finally, finally, plop my tired old body on the bed and groan. Oh My God! It's nothing more than a thin stained sheet covering  a palette of bricks.  That's what it felt like. I must have gotten the $30 room after all. Oh well, it would only be for a few hours. I check my messages and have a call from the son requesting to call him back when all is well. Despite the hour, I dial him up. I express my concern about the security of the pickup and its contents, parked almost on the street as it was. The cameras were now safe, well, relatively safe, but  the GPS unit and the Glock remained back at the tire shop.

"I think I'd walk back and get the Glock," the son advises. I concur. I would sleep better with it beside me anyway, the front door of the room being made of something not unlike cardboard.

The streets of Pawhuska are deserted. No one on the sidewalks, not even an occasional passing car. I hike about one block to the tire shop, retrieve the Glock, stick it in my waistband, and pull my long sleeve denim shirttail over it. Feeling a little like a drug dealer on the way to make a buy, I head back to the room. I'm halfway home when, for the second time that night, I detect the presence of flashing lights. This time it wasn't a tow truck. A  Pawhuska police car is right behind me. The officer steps from his vehicle, keeping the door between us, and asks, "Everything okay?"  Oh shit!

Consider: My jeans are filthy from wrestling with tires. I have gravel dust in my hair. I'm wearing a camo tee shirt under a faded and frayed denim shirt. I'm the only pedestrian in town. There was little chance that I would be mistaken for the mayor of Pawhuska. And there was that little matter of a loaded gun stuck in my belt. I can see the officer eyeing the bulge at my waist.

I point to my pickup in front of the tire shop and explain that I had to get a tow and am on my way to the no-star motel just down the block. Now came the critical part of the discussion. If the officer has any other questions,  asks for an ID, or says anything, I will immediately tell him that I am armed and keep my hands in plain sight. At which point I fully expect his response to be, GET ON THE GROUND, GET ON THE GROUND. I would of course reply with DON'T TASE ME BRO or PLEASE DON'T KICK ME ON MY BAD SHOULDER.

Didn't happen. The officer took one more look at the odd protrusion at my waist, wished me a cheery good evening, and drove away. I wondered if this was nothing more than a delaying tactic to call for backup, but that didn't happen either. Must be my honest face.

By 7:30 the next morning, Shawn at the tire shop was selling me some very expensive new tires .

"We get a lot of customers from the Tallgrass Prairie," he says, grinning like a possum.

It was all I could do not to show him the Glock.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bad Day on the Prairie. Part 2

 There was no need to panic, not yet. After all, I had the basic necessities for survival on hand; food, water, shelter, and whiskey. The options were few. I needed a new mounted tire and someone able-bodied enough to put it on, or a tow truck. The chances of getting either one in the next 12 hours looked slim. Taking the cell phone, I started walking toward a rise in the road, watching for bars. About 40 yards from the pickup, I had signal. Whew! (Please note that walking through a herd of a couple thousand bison to get to a phone was NOT one of the options.)

I called the Missus and my son first, telling them of my approximate location so they could look for the body if I failed to show up in the next few days.  Putting a finger on that location seemed simple enough. After all, I did have a portable GPS with me, a Garmin, one that I knew would come in handy some day. According to Mr. Garmin, I was .2 miles from the intersection of CR 4650 and CR4070. I would soon come to learn that no one but Mr. Garmin had the slightest freakin’ idea that Oklahoma had roads by that name.

If there was ever a time for AAA assistance, this was it. In all my travels, I had yet to use them. Finally, those monthly payments were about to pay off. Unsurprisingly, I got the voice menu.  

“If this is an emergency, call 911.”

I thought about that but listened to the rest of the choices.. I pushed 1 for Holy Mother of God, please help me.

“Thank  you for calling AAA. First let me ask, are you in a safe location?”

I paused. “If being stranded, on foot, and in the middle of a herd of buffalo is safe, then yeah, I guess I am.”

“I’m sorry. Did you say buffalo?”

“Never mind. Yes, I’m safe enough at the moment.”

“All right then. Can you give me your location?”

I try. I give her the road numbers, explaining that I’m actually on some land called the Tallgrass Prairie, and the nearest town is Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

“Did you get all that?" I ask. I could hear the call cutting in and out. “Hello? Hello?”

She’s gone. And now the phone is flashing “low battery.” Ah Geez.

Back at the truck, I plug the phone in the charger and wait. By now, it is quite dark, not a single shining light bulb as far as the eye can see. I have heard that airline pilots, on their approach into Tulsa, refer to this area as the great black hole for that very reason. There is no moon as yet, and the feeling of standing alone in the middle of all that darkness is a little unsettling.

I remember the whiskey in the back of the truck and take a single pull off it, just to be sure it hasn’t gone bad. Additional shots were tempting, but thinking I needed all my survival wits about me, I opted for a sandwich instead. Suddenly, headlights appear. It’s too soon for a tow truck. More likely, a crazed man with a machete looking for people with flat tires. I did have a weapon in the pickup, a .40 caliber Glock, but OMG, I’m sure hoping it doesn’t come to that.

The car stops, a window comes down, and a young man with what appeared to be shaved head leans out and asks if I need help. He didn’t look like an axe murderer but there was that matter of the chrome dome. I tried to remember if Jeffery Dahmer had been bald. I thanked the lad, told him that help should be here any minute, and unless he has a mounted Chevy pickup tire and wheel in his trunk, there was nothing he could do.The car moved on.  I could have asked for a ride to town I suppose, but I was not about to abandon a truck full of photography equipment here in this godforsaken outback.

By now, I have enough charge on the cell for another call attempt and decide to let the Missus do the talking to AAA and not risk another drop in communications. She relays the information and calls me back a few minutes later to say that a tow truck will be at my location in approximately 45 minutes. Ah, light at the end of the tunnel…or prairie.

I wait in the pickup. The forty-five minutes pass. I study the night sky. Miles from manmade light pollution, the heavens above the prairie are a dazzling mass of twinkling orbs. Quite beautiful really, but wait…isn’t this exactly the scenario of alien encounters? Some poor soul in the middle of nowhere, when a saucer-like shape with revolving red and green lights comes swooping down to land in the pasture? A ramp unfolds and slowly lowers to the ground.  An odd shaped silhouette appears backlit in the doorway and...  I shake the thought from my head and again hike the necessary distance  to achieve a signal.

You have three missed calls.

Calls one and two are from the Missus and the son, asking for updates on my situation. But the third call is from Bubba, the tow truck driver (not his real name). “I can’t find you. Call me back.”

To be continued: Part 3 and conclusion tomorrow. The cops get involved.

(The same evening after writing this, I had an e-mail from a woman named Torre, a graduate research assistant from OSU, that is currently working out of the Tallgrass Prairie headquarters. I replied and made some comments about the roads only to find that it was not an axe murderer at all that had stopped and offered assistance, but Torre and one of her technicians.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bad Day on the Prairie

The title sounds like the name of a Zane Grey novel, but it is an apt description of my recent  experience on the Tallgrass Prairie. The TGP, only a two hour drive from home,  has always been one of my favorite places to photograph. It’s mostly deserted, except on weekends, with photo ops galore; landscapes, bison, birds, and butterflies to name a few. In this spring of 2012, I was itching to go again, but something always came up; a commitment here, a doctor’s appointment there, and the physical therapy sessions twice a week for my poor old shoulder, still aching from the rotator cuff surgery. Or it would be too windy, too hot, or no one was seeing any birds. But on Tuesday it all came together. Highs in the 70’s and lows in the 50’s, sunshine, only moderate wind, and all sorts of neat bird sightings; Scissortail Flycatchers, Dickcissels, Eastern Kingbirds, and Nighthawks, all posing on old fence posts, begging  me take their portraits.

My usual MOP (method of photography) on the TGP works like this: I arrive in late afternoon just as the sun gets low in the sky and the light takes on that magic golden hue. From experience, I’ve learned that any bison photos taken between ten and three are by default,  doomed for the Delete button. I take photos until dark, drive to a nearby state park, spend the night (sleeping in the back of the pickup), have a spooker, eat a sandwich, and hit it again bright and early the next morning. That again was the plan. It didn’t happen.

First stop was a bridge over a small creek that meandered through the woods, one of the few water sources on the prairie, but I couldn’t get excited about it. Some yellow flowers growing among sandstone boulders warranted a stop, but after a grab shot or two, I moved on. I began to get the feeling that the TGP roads seemed especially rough on that sunny afternoon (the prairie roads are miles and miles of dusty, very dusty, white gravel) with large hunks of rock banging off the under carriage of the pickup. Then, a new sound, coming from the right rear. I knew what it was. Flat tire. Not only flat, but shredded. What with all the noise from the gravel road and my poor hearing, I had not detected the problem as early as I should have. Sum Bitch.

Well, at least I had a spare even though getting it out from beneath the truck was not without its problems. The particular part of the changing operation I was most concerned about was the lifting of the old tire off and getting the new tire back on the lug bolts The tire is heavy and weighs much more than the still recuperating shoulder had dealt with to date. Furthermore, the action of lifting up and out was the one movement that the medics had cautioned me about. “The connection of tendon to bone is tenuous at best. One wrong move, and we undo all the work,” the doc had warned.

But in a bad news, good news, kind of thing,  and just as I had reached the scary stage, a big truck with dual wheels on the back comes along  with the name of a ranch on the door. The driver is wearing a western style shirt, blue jeans, boots, and a deeply tanned face. I jumped on his offer to help.

“We see lots of damaged tires around here,” he says. I ruined  four of ‘em in less than a year. It’s this damned big gravel Osage County has put on the roads.”

He refuses money for his help, as is the custom around these parts, and I go on my way. I was uneasy about continuing down these treacherous roads without a spare, but what the hell? It’s a beautiful afternoon, I just got here, and what are the odds on having two flats in the same day? As it turned out, the odds were  good, or from my point of view, very bad.

The sun was barely touching the horizon. I had just made a killer shot of a Common Nighthawk on a rusted fencepost as well as a singing Dickcissel in the top of an evergreen tree. Not that I could hear it singing of course, but its beak was moving. I was at the far northwest corner of the TGP with at least 35 miles to go before finding a campsite and relaxing with a shot of bourbon and branch water, when I felt the pickup swerve to the left.

Oh no! Oh Sweet Baby Jesus. Not another flat! But it was.  And very flat. And I was out of spares. And the cell phone read… “no service.”

To be continued: