Cowboy Copas and the Ear Trumpet


Cowboy Copas

Yesterday I was fitted for hearing aids.  I’ve known for some time that my hearing is in decline, and the tinnitus in both ears has been driving me crazy, so a couple of weeks ago I drove into town and took advantage of the free hearing test in Sisters.  I flunked.  I knew that I would flunk, but what astonished me was the extent of my hearing loss.  I’ve lost most of the high frequency range in both ears, though the left ear is slightly worse than the right.  After the speech portion of the test, I learned that I have difficulty distinguishing consonants, which makes it impossible to hear the difference between words such as death, and desk.  I can see many situations where it might be important to hear the difference in those two words in particular, and after consulting with the bespectacled experts, agreed to try a pair of hearing aids.

These were not my grandfather’s hearing aids, which amounted to two cardboard boxes he wore attached to the side of his head.  These were funky, high tech, nearly invisible computerized gizmos.  When I put them in my ears, I was astonished by the world I have been missing.  Truly astonished.  For the first time in many years, I was hearing the world with clarity.  The definition and sharpness in words and sounds was actually moving on a metaphysical level.  I hesitate to say it was like a blind man given sight, because that clearly overstates the case, but I must have been experiencing some degree of that satisfaction because my face was frozen into a kind of perma-grin of wonder and amazement.  The tinnitus virtually vanished, which the kind doctor explained to me at some length, explanations that have already escaped my decidedly unscientific mind.  My perma-grin was converted into a perma-frown when I learned what they actually cost.  The price for admission into the world of good hearing is five thousand bucks.  This, my friends, is another First World Problem.

My hearing loss is a direct result of noise exposure.  My fault.  In the Marine Corps I resisted wearing ear protection–which is to say I didn’t wear it at all, except on the static range.  I had what I thought were legitimate reasons, but in retrospect it was a dumb decision.  I also never wore ear protection on helicopters, which was an even dumber decision, given that the ass end of a CH-46 is one of the noisiest places on earth.  When I discharged from the Marine Corps I refused a disability rating because I thought it would likely haunt me later in life.  I wanted to be a pristine human, which is one of the dumber things I have ever come up with.  I can distinctly remember the separation counselors advising us all to claim every disability, even those rated zero, because by government magic two zeros become a ten percent rating.  I was sure I didn’t want to get involved in any of that bureaucratic weirdness, and didn’t.

Man uses an ear trumpet

What’s That You Say?

My grandfather, who gave me the lifelong nickname of Copas, lost his hearing as a gunner and radioman in Grumman Avengers over such resort locales as Bougainville and Iwo Jima.  Fortunately for him, the ear trumpet had been sized down considerably by the time he decided to get his own hearing aids.  Without them, he could hear precisely nothing, which he would often use to his advantage when deciding to tune out the world.  He also thought it was funny to tell people that he had AIDS, which is not as funny now as it was once.  I cut him some slack for this stab at humor, because I can also remember Robin Williams, a funny man by any measure, making a very bad joke about AIDS on stage, in the early years, before the scope of that destruction was widely known.  Something about an Iowa farm boy left home alone with the chickens.  You get my point.

Recently, my lovely bride was fitted for glasses, and after yesterday I am beginning to see where all of this leads.  Minor ailments stacking up like cairns on a desert trail, leading to a place we all know precisely.  We live always hoping the trail goes on unending, and of course we are young and have time.  Don’t we?

This morning it is raining and where the light breaks through the clouds the ponderosas are gilded in bronze.  The bunchgrass on the forest floor, dry at the end of the season, is glowing in greens and yellows.  A little higher on the mountain it is snowing, pushing the deer and the elk off the high line ridges.  The silence in the forest is its own sound, and so I am reminded of Rilke*,

I would like to sing someone to sleep,
to sit beside someone and be there.
I would like to rock you and sing softly
and go with you to and from sleep.
I would like to be the one in the house
who knew: The night was cold.
And I would like to listen in and listen out
into you, into the world, into the woods.
The clocks shout to one another striking,
and one sees to the bottom of time.
And down below one last, strange man walks by
and rouses a strange dog.
And after that comes silence.
I have laid my eyes upon you wide;
and they hold you gently and let you go
when something stirs in the dark.

These are halcyon days on the Figure 8, friends, and there is always much to do.  The turkeys and chickens are waiting for me to feed them.  There is wood to chop and stack.  The shop is a mess because I let it get that way.  The cat wants out.  The dogs want everything all at once.  I still haven’t sealed the fenceposts with linseed oil.  The greenhouse fence needs to come down.  Downstairs, my wife is making something delicious and the entire house smells good enough to eat.  So my ears are bad and, left untreated, will eventually encase me in silence.  Who cares?  We have our friends and we have our family, we have our little ranch in the piney woods.  We have it made, by God, and I won’t hear anyone who says we don’t.

*From The Book of Images, Rainier Maria Rilke, “To Say Before Going To Sleep”


First World Problems


Where Are They Taking Me?

Yesterday, near the end of a daylong cattle-buying adventure in the soggy Willamette Valley, I enjoyed quite possibly the best hamburger I have ever eaten.  I don’t throw out praise like this very often, so you can take it to the bank.  If you ever want a GREAT hamburger–that is, if you aren’t sulking around under the funk-inducing burden of “white privilege,” or terrified by the notion of radioactive hogs on the loose in Europe, or the continued creep of the toxic monster from Fukashima–I recommend stopping at Poppa Al’s, in Mill City, Oregon.  If you enjoy food, American roadside chow,  then step inside and order The Hillbilly, with curly fries–or tater tots, if that’s your thing–and a Root Beer.  Gorge thyself on Hillbilly perfection.  Don’t ask about fishing the river a few feet away.  The cook doesn’t know because he is busy cooking the greatest hamburger in the country.  He only thinks about hamburgers, and perhaps that few years he spent in prison–trust me, he did–somewhere in California.  When you are done, wobble back out to your rig–in our case it was a four-door pickup towing a trailer full of Texas Longhorns, and power up the road in a rainstorm with a food-coma smile that lasts for hours.  I’m not kidding.  It’s that good.  By the way, is there a monument anywhere to that genius who invented the tater tot?  And if not, why not?  I would like to imagine that somewhere in Idaho, perhaps next to a statue of a grinning JR Simplot, there exists a small memorial plaque honoring Mr. Tater Tot–God Rest His Soul.

A few weeks ago I was reminded, over dinner with a friend, that we are living in a strange environment of First World Problems.  Radioactive hogs and tide-driven islands of toxic debris are merely footnotes in the discussion of what ails us.  Each day brings a new bout of whinging about a ludicrous catalogue of non-problems.  And it is becoming very difficult to avoid.  Airports are an excellent laboratory to prove the point.  Between televisions, hanging in every corner and spouting a kind of shrill hysteria, and the disease of mobile phones, one is virtually inundated with “news” and “tweets” and texts and emails and phone calls, or by people enraptured by them.  The people in an airport actually look like enslaved robots–which reminds me of this news, learned incidentally, that Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores will be employing robot greeters in the near future.  The future is a Phil Spector Wall of Sound that actually makes people look like Phil Spector.


Uncle Phil Knows What’s Good For You

There is a great deal of money to be made in the pimping of non-problems through the media, which is a diabolical machine that can never be turned off.  Allen Ginsberg once told me, while playing on his squeezebox and stuffing his face with a gift basket of nutbread, that the problem with television, and by extension all media, is that it is a one-way conversation.  One can never talk-back to the machine.  Good point.

Perhaps that is why I increasingly prefer our local paper, which comes out only on Wednesdays.  Once a week seems an appropriate number of times for the town cryer to come piping through the village.  By Wednesday, of course, it is possible to predict the content of “The Nugget” from page one to the end, but that is the beauty of it.  While the rest of the world is riding downhill on a skateboard with speed wobbles, our little paper comes reliably stocked with old, almost moldy, news, and angry letters to the editor tackling decidedly First World Problems–whether or not the new streetlights in downtown Sisters violate the “dark sky ordinance”, or if the City is responsible for shoveling snow in front of the bookstore.  These are First World Problems, which might properly be defined as Not Problems.  Occasionally–okay, admittedly more than occasionally–I crave stories about radioactive hogs and toxic monsters, or exploding rockets, or how entire midwestern cities are collapsing back into the earth, or how scientists have discovered that drinking milk is now destroying the world, but after a few minutes of that I begin to feel physically ill.  You’ve heard of slow food?  Perhaps we need to focus on slow news, and then, most definitely, slow politics.  One sometimes gets the sense that had Congress not met since 1941, we might be better off.

And so yesterday was a delight.  A news blackout.  A day with friends, sharing our First World Problems while bombing around the Willamette Valley, loading longhorns in the rain, shooting at ducks, standing in the muck of a dairy farm and laughing at the manure ponds that were “built for the kids”.  For me, it was new country, and like all new discoveries it formed in slowly building images, of pastures so green they hurt to look at, of cornfields full of geese, of giant sows in a wallow, of old red barns leaning just a degree too far.  Driving around that beautiful valley, I kept thinking of William Blake, of singing “The Nurse’s Song” along with 300 other people in a packed auditorium.  If you had heard it, that singing, you might have understood the power of poetry to slow the world to a manageable speed.  Sing it to yourself, perhaps, until you find the melody.  You’ll see what I mean.

The Nurse’s Song   (William Blake)

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.

Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.

Well, well go and play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped and shouted and laugh’d
And all the hills ecchoed.



Opening Day


Big Lake, Oregon

This year I applied, through the government lottery system, for seven separate hunting tags.  I applied for, in order of importance for the ranch freezer, the following tags:  bull elk, cow elk, deer, antlerless deer, bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain goat, and antelope.  A hunter is allowed only one bighorn tag in his lifetime, so there was virtually no chance of being drawn for that, but for statistical purposes I still count it.   For each of these tags, one is entitled to apply for three different hunting zones.  That is essentially 21 chances to draw a tag in a large state with less than four million inhabitants–many of whom believe passionately that hunters, and hunting, should be eliminated altogether so that Bambi and Bullwinkle might one day rule the earth.  One would think the odds were in my favor for drawing at least one tag, but that would be pure fantasy.  My hunting partner, a lifelong Oregon resident who has been hunting Oregon for 50 years, and has amassed an impressive number of “preference points”, was similarly denied.  So, provided yet another opportunity to rail against the government, we licked our wounds, swallowed our pride, and bought our lame, embarrassing, Elmer Fudd, over-the-counter tags.  If an expensive guided hunt on a private ranch, where killing a giant bull elk is virtually guaranteed, is the award-winning craft beer of the hunting world, the Elmer Fudd OTC tag is an imported lite beer which may or may not contain formaldehyde.  This is a known formula, and perhaps one humble illustration would be helpful to prove the point.

Two years ago, in California, some friends and I purchased OTC tags and happily set out for a zone with a reasonable expectation for success.  We scouted.  We set up our camp early.  On opening day we followed a nearly impossible trail, grinding over boulders and washouts in a giant 4×4 that struggled righteously to make it.  We hunted early and hard.  On that same day we had agreed to meet back at the truck for a rest and some chow.  As we sat under a big tree, lying about our chances, the very difficult to reach, and respectably remote, hillside we were sitting on virtually erupted in gunfire.  Fifteen minutes later, we could distinctly hear mariachi music drifting up through the trees.  Ten minutes after that, a Honda Civic with perhaps ten mexicans packed inside, and a large black-tail buck strapped to the roof, drove by us at speed, the occupants whooping and holding beer cans out the window, toasting us and their own success as they drove that vehicle down the same impossible trail–the only trail–that had nearly stumped our 4×4 beast.  That, friends, is the essence of the Elmer Fudd OTC tag hunt.


Scouting, Mt. Washington Wilderness

Still, Oregon is not California.  So last week I went scouting.  The zone I am allowed to hunt in is large, running essentially from the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific Crest Trail, and is no doubt full of game.  Lying primarily west of the Cascades, it is also Squatchy, a term I have come to love that describes the dense forests one often associates with grainy footage of a Sasquatch stomping through deadfalls.  Rich and I had decided to hunt near Big Lake, which the encrypted hunter network of rumor and innuendo had declared “Loaded with big bucks.”  To be certain, my object in hunting is not the trophy, it is the meat, but no self-respecting hunter would pretend that the prospect of downing a “thug”, or a “toad”, or a Boone and Crockett record setter, isn’t an appealing idea.  So I packed up early, and arrived on the edge of the zone just before sunrise.

Sometimes we get lucky.  When I arrived I had many thousands of acres, virtually the entire Mt. Washington Wilderness, to myself.  No kidding.  I parked the truck, stepped out into a cold fog, shouldered my pack, slung my binos, and started into the woods.  Stepping into the woods is a more transformative process than that, of course, particularly in a dense forest.  It is much more like passing through a kind of metaphysical portal.  In military parlance, it is a Line of Departure, a point of commitment to the mission.  And particularly when one has an actual mission–in this case, to find evidence of a thug or a toad, or perhaps many thugs and toads.  And when you are alone, with only the sounds of the forest, the birds, the wind, and your own breathing, perhaps you might be forgiven for thinking stupid thoughts such as I am prone to do.  Alone in the woods, I am occasionally given over to notions that the world is not an asylum, that our elected politicians are not criminals, that they are working together for the good of the nation, and the future is a sunshine daydream.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.

I could spend a few paragraphs telling you how great that scouting was–because it was–but you get the idea.  I humped out of the woods feeling quite giddy, positive, and eager, a feeling I managed to maintain until opening morning.

There had been good deer sign on my scout, but there were other signs around me too.  On Friday, our little town began to creak and groan under the weight of trucks, trailers, off-highway vehicles, camouflage, and Cabela’s gear.  I was mildly alarmed, but given the sheer acreage available to hunt, I could not envision the scenario we encountered on Opening Day, which was a vision of a post-apocalyptic desperation.  On opening morning, accompanied by Rich and his son Trent, we arrived at our spot early, before sunrise, and even before landing we had passed dozens upon dozens of trucks.  Every highway turnout.  Every logging spur.  Every rabbit hole large enough to house either a gigantic truck, a truck and trailer, a motorhome, a gigantic truck with a fifth-wheel trailer, or any combination of the aforementioned vehicles, was packed.  Hunters scurried back and forth along the edge of the road.  By the time we reached the magical area of my scout, we were apoplectic.  And also afraid.  The idea of stepping off into that country with what must have been hundreds of hunters, where the geometry of fires were anything but coordinated, seemed beyond ridiculous.  The pressure on the deer would be overwhelming, and it seemed entirely more likely that we would end up shot by a hunter loaded down in expensive, Gucci, scent-free costuming than even see a decent buck.


Not Deer Sign

So we left.  We did not give up.  Instead, we drove to the other side of the Cascades entirely, and spent the rest of the day scouting into some of the most beautiful country I have seen yet in Oregon, and we hunted in towering, moss-covered trees that caused me to think stupid thoughts again about the magnificence of it all.  We didn’t get our opening day buck, but it is a long season, and hard work in hunting is generally rewarded.

A final point:  this isn’t about fun time in the woods.  The point of this hunting business is actually serious–part of a larger program in the effort at self-sufficiency.  Because it is clear to me that our representatives are not, in fact, working together for the good of anything but themselves, I have long-ago decided that a more profitable industry is in self-reliance, and a measure of self-sufficiency that may forestall or even prevent us from succumbing to any of the “list your disaster” possibilities, remote as they may seem from day to day.  Plus, the meat tastes better than what’s in the display case at Ray’s Market, and is likely better for you.  It is a long season, and I will keep hunting, pushing ever-farther into the woods, but I have also determined that it is time to take another hard look at an expensive guided hunt, with its high probability of success.  Food in the freezer is a good thing.  Earning that food is even better.  And to backstop it all, I’m building a corral to house a feeder steer, who I will make fat through the summer and butcher next fall, just in case.