Friday, May 29, 2009

I was coming home from a turkey hunt in Nebraska recently and my route took me through Greensburg, Kansas.
It had been almost two years to the day since I was last there, and while Greensburg is slowly beginning to resemble a typical prairie town again (albeit one where virtually every house is brand new) in the national consciousness it will always be defined by the events of May 4, 2007.

On that evening two years ago I and another chaser were on the Oklahoma-Kansas border trying to decide if we should continue following the storms into Kansas or just call it a day and go home. Up to that point the chase had been a complete bust and it would be dark soon, anyway.

But the storms to the north were really starting to crank up so we took a chance, turned around and headed north toward Greensburg.

What followed was a night of terrifying superlatives: The only chase on which I’ve ever truly been scared. A tornado so large and so wide that when I first glimpsed it backlit against the power flashes and lightning I couldn’t believe it was a tornado at all.

And then there was the destruction. We started hitting the damage path about six miles south of Greensburg. Fragments of lumber where houses used to stand. Combines twisted into giant balls of sheetmetal. Dead cattle strewn everywhere.

We stopped at the first pile of rubble that used to be a home to see if anyone was trapped inside. No answer. After that it became redundant because there were simply too many destroyed homes to check on.

We got into Greensburg a few minutes later not knowing what to expect, but not expecting what we found. If you’ve never witnessed a town simply cease to exist you can’t mentally prepare yourself for the reality of such an event.

But the true enormity of the destruction wouldn’t be evident until the next day. I got home about three a.m. At seven the phone rang. It was the Associated Press. I had occasionally done some freelance work for them and they wanted to know if I could get back up to Greensburg, right now. By this time the entire town had been cordoned off but they were allowing the press to walk around (supervised) and take pictures.

It was, I believe, the most sobering experience I’d ever had up to that point. That is, until the next day when People magazine sent me back to interview survivors. What do you say, what questions to ask of people who have lost not only everything they own but also everything they know?

But driving through earlier this month and seeing all the construction, witnessing the identity of a place come slowly back into focus gave me a little more hope for Greensburg’s future than I had when I took this photograph.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

When Life Gives You Perch, Go Perch Fishing.

I have to admit, sometimes I get jealous of the assignments given to the regular writers over at Field & Stream. Bonefish, stripers, tarpon, tuna, steelhead, exotic destinations.

Who wouldn't be jealous? Especially a fishing junkie like myself. I grew up surrounded by great fishing water but for over a decade now I've lived in a place more suited to birds and bucks than bass.

But over the years I've learned to put things in perspective. Sagebrush, sandhills and an average of around twenty inches of precipitation a year make for a landscape not terribly conducive to piscatorial pursuits, so when you live on the high plains you take your fishing opportunities where and when you can find them.

And if that means fighting you way through a crowd of worm-chunking bucket jockeys and their doublewide wives for a relatively goose shit-free spot from which to cast a fly into the putrid, trash-strewn brown water of an over-fished silted-over state park pond the state euphemistically calls a “lake” in the hopes of hooking one of the pond’s stunted little perch then you just have to hold your nose, gird your loins and sally forth once more into the algae-choked breach.

Because in the end, fishing is fishing regardless of however downscale or lowbrow the surroundings and species may be. I’ve caught fish in golf course water hazards, below the outlet pipe at water treatment plants, in flooded ditches underneath interstate overpasses and pretty much anywhere else with water.

And not once, no matter where I waa fishing or what I was fishing for, have I ever thought, “Man, this sucks.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Never-ending absurdity: Ignorance as Art...

Yes, I know the photo doesn't have anything at all to do with the blog post, but isn't that a damn fine-lookin' pair of chessies?


I started writing for pay back in 1996 when I called an editor at a local newspaper to inquire about the fate of the paper's outdoors columnist.
Obviously possessing a keen talent for judging writing prowess based on a caller's voice (and needing a warm body in the position) the editor replied, "He left. You want the job?"
I was a senior at the University of Oklahoma at the time, majoring in public administration (I'm still not quite sure why) with minors in happy hour draws and skipping class to hunt and fish.
Thrilled at seeing my words in print and realizing that a life in low-level city management probably wasn't going to work out so well for me, I took the obligatory vow of lifelong poverty and started my writing career in earnest.
Over the years I honed the essential skills every small-market daily beat reporter needs, namely a burning desire to quit my job as quickly as possible in order to go somewhere else and write about anything other than crimes involving livestock, the Rotary Club, local quilting-contest winners and the weekly minutes of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In 2000, tired of dodging angry common-law housewives seeking retribution on "that sumbitch" who published their husbands' names in the public records section, I decided to try full-time freelancing.
But I have to admit I sometimes miss the weirdness that goes with daily journalism. The crazy story suggestions ("Yeah, you the reporter? Hey, I know a woman who raised a one-legged rooster in her bathtub and it eats ice cream and pizza. I think it'd make a cool story") or the angry story subjects who regularly stormed into the newspaper office
("Are you that sumbitch who wrote the story about me attacking my brother with a sword? Well, it wasn't no gawddamned sword. It was a knife, and I'm gonna sue yore ass for slander! I'll own this paper! Whaddya think 'a that?"
"Well, sir, I think the correct legal term would be libel. You'll need to know the difference when you take ownership…")
The squalor, desperation and overarching sadness of covering the small-town cops and courts beat could grind on you, but every now and then you came across a true comedic gem, usually while looking through the case files of the stories you were covering.

Here, for your reading pleasure, transcribed verbatim, is one such piece of writing, an indignant letter to the DA's office from a woman involved in a domestic dispute case.

It's utterly brilliant. I always considered the Nigerian 419 scam letters the epitome of unintentionally hilarious writing, but this lady demonstrates that good, old-fashioned 'Murkin semi-literacy combined with a few beers and a legal term or two picked up from "Law and Order" re-runs can create art of the highest order…

State of Oklahoma

Case # CM-XX-XX

First of all, I'm appealing this case which is my right. Which I proclaim my right to decline, to the plead bargain.

On this day of XXX I request that a appeal be made on my behalf. I as an US citizen, has a right to request that the legal procedure was not carried out in a unique matter. I felt I was a victim of a target (as a bullseye).
That's discrimination on my behalf.
The point is, that they took it in their own hands to further apprenhand me. Now which they procedure to do so. This all happened at XXX Street. This where the incident occurred. I had said all there was to be said. But on the behalf of the XXX police Dept. they went on a safari hunt like they didn’t have nothing to do, except for disturbing my piece of mind.
I had at that time and before had realized I had disturbed Bobby's frame of mind, which that man has disturbed my frame of mind beyond recognition!
Back to the vacant trailer at XXX St. where I knocked on the door, no one answered. I then turned the doorknob and entered the premises like many times before. Which happen to be personal friend of mine (there is a lot of personal details) but the XXX police officers had assumed their position in the matter.
First off, one of the officers stuck his head through the hole in the bedroom, which used to be a window but was no more. He yelled through the open hole in the wall "you better open the door right now" which I did respond to his request. Which resulted in me answering the door to the police officers request.
I then proceed to open the door. He then told me I was under arrest. I then asked him on what grounds? He said public intoxication. I then ask him what for? I then told him I had left the premises, that I was not trying to cause any trouble and that I would not be loud any more and that I was very sorry for doing it!!!
He then proceeded to tell me I was under arrest, which I then ask him if he had obtained a search warrant, which he did not have in his procession.
I then got fed up and felt my rights were being validated. I then slammed the door in his faced. And all of a sudden a few moments later the door came crashing down. And they dragged me out of the trailer, by total force!!!
In my opinion you can't come on private property without permission by the owner, the Officers must have thought they were God's creation!
Another point is, if these police officers would have been in a God's frame of mind they wouldn't have knocked down the door in the first place! If they sincerely had attended the police academy they would have been able to apprehended me without kicking down the door. They could have crawled through the window instead.
I've always been told to earn your job, earn your keep. Which in my opinion they did not do. Yes I did break the law, but they should have a little more respect within their selves, which they didn't. The whole ballgame is and was a fluke.

P.S. Call all the people involved to the witness stand and make them swear under oath. This is a correct and true statement. If you want further details, ask me.

P.S. I would like to request this whole matter be dropped, cause there was no intentional harm meant. If you need further statements ask the witness and go from there.

Have a nice day!
Your Frind

Monday, May 18, 2009

History: The Ghosts of Hunting's Past

There are reminders all around us, if we care to look for them, of what the area now known as Oklahoma was like in the not-too-distant past: A small patch of native prairie stubbornly hanging on in an undeveloped lot, an isolated prairie dog town or maybe a few sage-covered sandhills that, when viewed just right, give the brief illusion of a vast geographical continuity free of powerlines, cell towers or pumpjacks.

Although now largely gone in any kind of ecologically viable sense, we still venerate their memory as talismanic symbols of the plains’ rich natural heritage, and in the context of that history there is no figure as potent as the bison.
Everyone, of course, knows the story: the unimaginably vast herds of bison, the equally unimaginable slaughter that followed, the slow climb back from the brink of extinction.

Environmental historians continue to debate just how many bison there actually were immediately prior to white expansion into the plains, but what’s not in dispute is that bison were the linchpin of the entire plains ecosystem as well as the cultural and sustenance base for virtually all the plains tribes.
And when the bison disappeared, the very essence of pre-settlement Oklahoma disappeared with them. It was of course inevitable, given the pressures coming to bear from the inexorable westward march of expansion. Bison and the plains tribes that depended on them, as well as wolves, bears, elk and other historical plains species simply did not, could not fit into the post-settlement nexus, so they were methodically eliminated from it.

So the plains are a place populated by ghosts as much as they are by people. If you are lucky enough to find a remaining sliver of native grassland, walk it and remind yourself that wherever you step you are walking on ground already trodden by countless generations of bison and the people who hunted them.

Which brings us to this spearpoint.

There is a place near my home, a public hunting area perched on the high rolling plains of northwestern Oklahoma that has yielded archeological treasures which are priceless in their importance to our cultural heritage.

This particular Clovis point - which was fashioned from alabates flint quarried some 200 miles west of where it was discovered – was almost certainly thrust through a bison’s ribcage some 10,700 years ago and subsequently lost in the chaos of the hunt. And there it stayed through millenia, buried at the base of a bluff overlooking the river until a few years ago when an archeologist plucked it from its bed of fossilized bones.

But not before I snapped a picture of it.

Not far away from this site, on the same public hunting area, is another ancient hunt site where we know for certain that some 10,000 years ago an artistically inclined Paleoindian hunter of the Folsom culture felt compelled to draw a red lightning bolt on the skull of one of the bison his or her group had been hunting along the bluffs of the North Canadian river. No one knows exactly why. It is the oldest design-painted object yet found in North America.

As a hunter, I like to think it was out of simple respect and admiration for such a noble animal. The last bison disappeared from the bluffs and grasslands along this river well over a century ago and all I am able to hunt is deer. But I will sometimes sit on this same bluff during bow season and marvel at the fact that on this spot I have a direct connection with 10,000 years of hunting history, from those ancient Clovis and Folsom cultures on through the numerous plains tribes who hunted this area until Europeans arrived.

And sometimes when I get depressed and discouraged over what hunting in America seems to be degenerating into I recall that Clovis point nestled among the bones and it lifts me just a bit.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Things That Don't Suck

The problem with most reviews is they're not terribly plain-spoken, either out of deference to potential ad revenue or fear of actually stating an opinion, good or bad. But on a fundamental level a product either sucks, or it doesn't. Right?

With that in mind, here is the inaugural post of an occasional series I call "Things That Don't Suck", which as the subtle and classy nature of the title implies, is stuff I've shelled out my own money for and in which I am generally pleased. Simple enough, eh?

I will also have the occasional corollary series entitled, yes, "Things That Do Suck." And that, my friends, encompasses a lot of territory...

So I'll kick it off with a knife. I like knives. I own a lot of them, many of which you will eventually see here in various poses. I butcher all my own game (I have a philosophical problem with taking an animal's life and handing off the dirty work to someone else. Plus, I'm poor and cheap) so I use a lot of knives.

Here's a pretty good one. The review itself is a bit perfunctory, because it was originally written for the Field Notes blog over at Field & Stream. My editor didn't think it would work for the format and focus of the blog (plus F&S already has a gear editor, and it 'aint me) so I've held on to it waiting for a chance to use it somewhere.

I guess somewhere is here...

The Bark River Full-Tang Kephart.

Most modern knives are designed for weekend mercenary fetishists. The Kephart was designed by a librarian, Horace Kephart, who also happened to be a woodsman of the highest order. Kephart wrote a ton of articles for (among others) Field & Stream. His book The Book of Camping and Woodcraft is a classic. The Kephart was his vision of the perfect woods knife. After having used mine for a month or so, I'm not inclined to disagree.

The first thing that strikes you about the Kephart is how ordinary it looks. Bark River's version is based on the original four-inch commercial pattern, which has a straightforward, non-contoured handle ending in a small self-guard and a straight four-inch blade that tapers into a classic rounded spearpoint. No serrations, no blade coatings, no half-inch-thick spine and nary a "tactical" written anywhere on it. I've seen more threatening knives in a nursing home dining hall. If Charlie Brown packed a blade, it'd look like this one. On opening the package I thought "Congratulations, Chad, you just bought a steak knife from Outback. You could have stolen one for a helluva lot less money."

And then I started using it. I quickly realized that, in addition to the Dewey Decimal System, Horace Kephart knew a thing or two about what makes a woodsbumming knife. It can field dress a deer, it has just enough belly to be an adequate skinner and with enough straight blade length to be a great slicer for butchering, food prep and other camp chores. The knife has a nimble, lively feel and the comfortable handle makes it a good carver for fuzz sticks and other bushcrafty skills. In a pinch it can also be batoned for firewood splitting.

It's versatile, which is the point: the Kephart doesn't do any one thing perfectly, it simply does most everything pretty well. It's a fitting reflection of Kephart's minimalist philosophy that in today's ridiculously over-specialized knife market is a refreshing change. Here's a tool that actually expects you, the user, to possess a modicum of skill to use it properly. Novel idea, I know.

So what's the downside? Well, you probably can't hack your way out a burning helicopter with it. It doesn't look very cool. It lacks a piccatinny rail for attachment of laser sights, grappling hooks and grenade launchers. But the biggest problem is you're not going to find a Kephart-pattern knife at Wal-Mart, because as far as I know there aren't any mass-market knife companies making one. There are, however, many custom and semi-custom knifemakers out there who do. Prices range anywhere from less than $100 to "you'll need a co-signer" but considering how expensive some of the machine-made mystery-metal knives are becoming, a custom Kephart just might be a bargain, and a classy one at that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On your mark...

I have a memory from early childhood, slowly disappearing now, of myself lying on the living room floor on a Saturday morning, watching television. I was born of the generation just prior to the passage of the apparent law that all televisions be equipped with remote control, so I would get up from the floor, turn the knob on the big Zenith, and slowly clunk through the channels.

Scooby Doo? Clunk. Plasti-Man? Clunk. The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show? Clunk. A laborious process by today’s wireless standards, and inefficient to boot. No rapid fire channel surfing, no on-screen programming. Hell, there were only three channels and the local PBS station. If there wasn’t something on, I went outside. Most times, I went outside anyway, even if there was something on. The crudeness of 70's technology allowed me to be a boy, to escape the lobotomizing influences of the pop-culture pitch men.

Looking back now, I suspect mine was the last generation to know the unfettered wonder of simple childhood, and even then it was waning. Who knew that future generations would be far too sophisticated to wallow in the creek catching crawdads, because it was like, you know, not cool any more?

Creeks, ponds, woodlots, dogs, bass and books were my world. For me, the magic of the real and tangible always triumphed over the voodoo of the artificial and contrived. But even then, the social engineers of rampant consumerism were inundating me with commercials and cartoons showcasing the latest in Nerf toys, action figures and skateboards.

But I’ve never been the gregarious joining sort. I long ago hopped my own boxcar and started down tracks of my own making. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Awareness of what you cheerfully reject is, and I long ago rejected any notions of "normal."

This blog is simply a continuation of that journey. No real format or focus, just a rambling walk from subject to subject free from the meddling influence of editors, word-count limits and deadlines.

And while it may not always be the most interesting read in the world, at least the price is right...