Beer, the Indian & the Goose Egg
One of the big advantages of having an older brother with a pickup truck was that every once in a while it gave me the opportunity to worm my way into doing something that I knew very well I had no business doing.
Just in case you haven’t figured it out, that’s how ten-year-old boys think.
At least I did.
If there was some mischievous misdeed to be done, I sure didn’t want to be alone in it. If at all possible I wanted Johnny involved - the idea being that shared guilt is easier to bear.
Anyhow, the biggest, baddest taboo I could think of back then was drinking beer. Mom hated it and Dad called it "slop". They often spoke ill of beer "guzzlers", saying such people were misled by the devil and that their moral turpitude - whatever in heck that was - was highly suspect.
Their exhortations were so vivid and warnings so severe that I was immediately convinced that I simply had to drink some beer if I ever hoped to be a real man. I believe a psychiatrist would recognize this twisted logic as symptomatic of a rebellious juvenile brat.
Be that as it may, when late one afternoon I spied Johnny’s truck parked near the community swimming hole underneath the old river bridge, I knew what he was doing. I knew because that’s where all the area young people went to secretly drink their beer.
I sneaked up close enough to see through the rear windshield and, sure enough, I was right. Johnny was listening to the radio and throwing back a couple of cold longnecks. I knew my moment of opportunity had arrived at long last.
"Whatcha doin’, boy?" I said in my deepest imitation Daddy voice.
He was so startled he missed his mouth and sloshed beer down the neck of his shirt.
"You dang little sneak. I oughta bust your bottom," he growled, trying to wipe the foam off himself.
"I wouldn’t do that if I was you. ‘Cause if you did then you’d have to explain what you were doing down here drinking beer," I quickly retorted.
"So what? I’m free, white and 21. I can drink beer anytime I want," he said.
"Yeah? Well, let’s go see what Mama and Daddy have to say about that."
"Hey, now….where you think you’re going?"
"Home. I gotta ask them if they mind you guzzling beer down here at the river."
"Wait a dang minute…you little…little…jackass! Git back over here!"
"Nope. I gotta hurry. It’s gettin’ dark. I’ll see you back home," I said, turning away.
I went about three paces before he yelled again.
"I know what you’re after, you conniving little shit. Come here and git it!" he said, holding a sweaty brown bottle out the driver’s window.
I ran back to the truck and grabbed my prize as though it were made of gold. It was ice cold and I couldn’t wait to gulp it down and become a man. I was beside myself with glee. Not only did I have my very own completely full bottle of beer, but I had successfully tricked my older brother into participating in this crime of a lifetime!
I was so excited that I barely noticed when the pickup started and Johnny drove away, leaving me in a cloud of oily smoke and caliche dust. It didn’t matter. I still had my beer - my very own, cold beer.
I held it aloft and danced a little jig of delight.
He was completely out of sight by the time I realized the cap was still on the bottle.
Ten more years would pass before they started selling beer in bottles with twist-off tops. This one needed an opener and I didn’t have one.
Score two points for the older brother.
My first completely full bottle of beer got warm pretty quick as I wracked my brain trying to figure out a way to get it open. It was getting dark and I knew I had better get home. I sure wasn’t going to walk into the house with an unopened bottle of beer, so I did the sensible thing - smashed it against a rock on my way home.
I believe a psychiatrist would call such behavior a juvenile display of acute disappointment.
There were other times, however, when having a big brother with a pickup truck proved to be fun.
No, let me rephrase that. Fun is not the correct word.
It proved to be exciting.
Every Spring when fresh waters coursed down the river, bringing new life to everything, Johnny’s thoughts turned to fishing. Not blessed with patience, he always preferred setting trot lines and throw lines to other forms of angling. So, we camped out, to be close enough to check the lines periodically during the night. Close friends usually accompanied us on these forays.
Johnny carried canned goods and other supplies in a miniature wooden chuckbox Dad had made for vacation trips. The tailgate of the truck became the kitchen table and, sometimes, the bar.
A school buddy of mine named Charlie Ray was along on one of the most memorable of these jaunts. Charlie was a nervous kid and extremely prone to mishaps.
First, he fell in the river trying to tie a line to an overhanging limb. Then, he nearly took a finger off with Johnny’s yellow-handled pocketknife, trying to open a can of Ranch Style beans. Whenever darkness finally fell, we wouldn’t let Charlie leave the camp for fear what misfortune might find him.
We had built a roaring mesquite fire and let it burn down to brightly-glowing coals. Johnny was cooking his infamous sardine, chili and Fritos pie in a big gurgling pot whenever someone - I think it was my cousin, Travis - handed each of us an ice-cold Pearl beer. (I was twelve by this time and completely jaded.)
We used them wisely, washing down our smoldering portions of the stuff Johnny had scorched. The beer performed the double task of numbing our tastebuds so we didn’t completely taste the concoction while at the same time it kept us from scalding our gizzards as we forced it down.
As fingers of flame danced on the ends of small branches at the periphery of the fire, casting eerie shadows on the doors of the Chevy, Johnny launched into his best and scariest ghost story - the legend of Indian Joe.
"My ol’ grandpappy told me this tale, so I know it has to be true…" he always began. I had heard it several dozen times before and no two versions were ever exactly the same. Johnny just sort of made it up as he went along, depending on the age and gullibility of his audience.
The version Charlie Ray got that night was gruesome and gory. There was something about a couple of ax murders and buckets of blood being dumped in some settler’s drinking water. I don’t remember how it all fit together, but it was enough to scare the dowaddling beejesus out of Charlie.
By the time I had finished off my third Pearl and was ready to bed down on my cot, Charlie was so completely enthralled by the tale that his eyeballs were out on their stems. I was fading fast but I remember hearing a piece of Johnny’s closing lines just before my lights went out.
He was saying, "…and sometimes deep in the night, if you really believe, you can hear ol’ Injun Joe walking through the dark with that bloody ax in his hands."
I was bone tired and fell into a deep sleep immediately. Maybe it was the beer or maybe it was the chili, but whatever it was it didn’t agree with the sardines and the Fritos. The stars were spinning in the sky above me when I awoke several hours later. My head ached and I didn’t feel too good.
As I lay there silently trying to convince my stomach to be still and calm, I thought I heard something moving in the dark over by Charlie. I couldn’t see it, but judging by the sound, it was big. Whatever it was, it took in a big gulp of air and then forcefully expelled it.
That’s when Charlie screamed.
It was no ordinary scream, you understand. This was a scream for the Guiness Book of World Records. I have never bothered to look, but I am sure it is recorded there under the title: "Most Gawd-Awfulest, Unholy Scream You Ever Heard In Your Whole, Entire Life!"
If I had had hair on my back it would have stood on end like a Chihuahua puppy’s.
Johnny and Travis were in sleeping bags in the bed of the truck. They both bolted upright. Johnny had a flashlight in his hand and Travis had a saddlegun. Both were instantly trained in the direction of the noise. Charlie had levitated off his cot and run barefooted through the coals of the campfire, sending red embers flying in every direction.
Blind with terror, Charlie ran headlong into the driver’s door of the truck. The force of the impact was great enough that it made the old Chevy’s rear springs creak and settle. I was afraid to move a muscle for fear I might be accidentally shot.
Whatever the thing was that had accosted Charlie was running through the brambles and breaking twigs and limbs in the dark.
Travis was yelling at the intruder: "Who is it? Whadda you want?"
Half-conscious and stunned, Charlie screamed, "It’s Injun Joe!"
The beam from Johnny’s Ray-O-Vac was swinging all around like one of those searchlights you see in the movies about convicts escaping from prison. Still afraid to raise my head, I watched as best I could, swiveling only my eyeballs. The probing shaft of light finally settled on the source of our fright.
As it turned out Indian Joe had a tail and mane.
One of our inquisitive Shetland ponies had wandered into the camp, apparently figuring she might find herself a free meal if she sniffed around hard enough. When she exhaled in poor Charlie’s face his reaction had sent her running and pitching through the riverbottoms.
Even though we were all wide awake from that point forward it was an hour or so before anyone calmed down enough to see the humor it what had happened. Dawn found us all huddled around the boiling coffeepot, drinking from tin cups and saying nothing.
Johnny gazed over at the Chevy and then broke the silence.
"Look at that," he said, addressing Charlie and pointing to the driver’s door. The heavy sheet metal was now concaved instead of convexed in shape. "Doggone, it boy, looks like ol’ Injun Joe musta took a swing at you with the blunt end of his ax and hit my truck instead."
We all laughed, as best we could.
Charlie was a sad sight hunkered there in his muddy clothes with a bandaged hand, burned feet and a red goose-egg on his forehead. When we finally returned home my mother greeted us at the front yard gate.
"Did you boys have a good time?" she asked.
"Yes maam, we shore did," Charlie meekly replied.
"I bet you’re hungry. How about some eggs?" she asked cheerfully.
My stomach churned.
One insufferably hot summer day Johnny and I loaded a new roll of barbed wire into the bed of the truck and headed down a fenceline to find where our neighbor’s cattle had been getting through.
There was no road. Dense vegetation choked the right of way and it was slow going with the Chevy in low gear, smashing down bushes and young trees as we forced our way through. We had to roll our glasses up to keep the thorny mesquite and huisache limbs from slapping our heads off through the windows.
It was like a sauna inside the metal cab of the truck. Perspiration sprung from every pore. It was almost too hot to breathe. I am sure if someone had thrown ice on the dashboard it would’ve sizzled and steamed.
After a mile or so of this torture we found the place where the wire was on the ground and started looking for a spot to park where we could get the doors open. A dozen yards farther we came to a natural clearing and stopped. Johnny and I jumped out of the vehicle as soon as it quit moving. Our clothes were already soaked and we hadn’t even begun to work.
"You know what we forgot?" he asked.
I shrugged, indicating that I didn’t.
"The water can. We took it out at the house to fill it," he replied.
"Good move, ExLax." I said.
He ignored the sarcasm and handed me an ax. "Go find a mesquite tree big enough and straight enough to make a couple of line posts," he said, lifting the wire and hole diggers and other tools out of the truck. "I think we can get this fixed before we die of thirst," he added.
Johnny dug holes while I chopped posts.
It was sort of an honor. He was mighty particular about his posts. They had to be straight as possible and long enough so that at least five feet stood up out of the hole. That meant overall length had to be around eight feet because he dug deep holes.
The fact that he finally realized I knew all this highly-technical stuff was gratifying but didn’t make chopping the posts one iota easier. It was still exhausting. When I finally got the posts cut I had to drag them one by one through a hundred yards of brambles and undergrowth.
Johnny and I were both on the verge of dehydration and sun stroke by the time the new posts were set and the new wire was stretched. We were so far gone we had started to laugh at things that weren’t funny.
At one point Johnny swung at a staple and hit his thumb.
Normally this would have provoked a string of violent cursing. Instead, he giggled uncontrollably as he danced around holding the injured digit. The sight of him hopping like a jackrabbit on a bed of hot coals broke me up. We hee-hawed like fools in simultaneous fits of delirium.
Two or three head of curious cattle looked on from a distance. Never before having witnessed such human behavior, they turned tail and darted away into the dense thicket which surrounded us.
"Did you see that? Them ol’ cows think we’re loco." I observed.
"I think they’re right. Let’s get out of here and find a water hole," he answered.
Stilling chuckling and trying to suppress our unreasonable glee, we quickly tossed the tools into the truck, hopped inside and prepared to leave. Johnny turned the key in the switch and stomped the pedal. The starter growled a time or two and quit.
Suddenly nothing was funny.
Upon examination we discovered the battery was bone dry.
"There ain’t a drop of water within ten miles. So, mister mechanic, now what’re we gonna do? " Johnny asked.
"Why you asking me? I’m just a kid. Besides, it ain’t my truck."
"Maybe not, but you think you know so much, always reading Popular Mechanics and all that. So, smarty-britches, let’s see you make that thing spark," he taunted.
"Okay, I will," I impulsively shot back.
I stepped up on the bumper, unzipped my fly and urinated into the battery.
Johnny shielded himself from the splatter as he yelled, "Mygoshomighty…have you lost your mind?"
"Nope," I answered.
We waited a few moments and the Chevy started.
Johnny never questioned my mechanical knowledge again.
At the time I smugly thought it was because of my superior knowledge and intellect. Now I wonder if he wasn’t simply using my ego to his advantage.
The older I got the more it became apparent that Johnny knew a lot about horses and cattle but very little about automobiles. His entire automotive philosophy was: "If it don’t work it must be broke."
In other words, if something went wrong with the old truck, someone else was going to have to fix it. Since "repair" and "maintenance" were not included in Johnny’s vehicular vocabulary, someone was usually me.
I concluded this fact when I was about twelve years old, lying in the dirt on my back underneath the truck, struggling to unbolt the starter so I could attempt to replace it with a rebuilt one.
Every one of my grease-caked knuckles was bleeding and my spindly arms were quivering from exhaustion because of the awkward position I was in. It was a big job for a little boy with nothing but a pair of pliers and a badly-sprung crescent wrench.
Johnny was standing nearby, reading step by step instructions to me from a Chilton’s Auto Repair book. He was calm and collected. His clothes were clean. None of his knuckles were bleeding.
Squirming around under there with grimy crud falling into my eyes and a 20-pound hunk of worn-out starter crushing my hummingbird chest, I began to have evil thoughts.
Once I managed get the rebuilt starter installed, I crawled out from under the truck and told Johnny it was going to take two people to test the new starter.
He looked puzzled.
"It don’t say nothing about that in this book."
"I know, but that’s how it works on this model," I lied.
He frowned a little and then asked what I wanted him to do.
"Lean over here and hold this," I said, handing him a spark plug wire which was attached only to the distributor cap. He reluctantly complied.
"Now hold it tight and don’t let go or we’ll never get this thing going," I said, making sure his other hand was firmly grounded against the truck body.
"Okay. I got it," he said as I crawled in the cab and hit the starter.
"Yeeeeeeoooouuuwwwwww!!!!" he screamed as the spinning rotor sent shock after shock through his body.
Thank God those pointy-toed boots Johnny wore slowed him down in a foot race. If he had been able to catch me at that moment, I am certain I would have come to a sudden and violent end.
Sometime later Johnny had me changing out a radiator hose when the same mischievous demon possessed me. Knowing full well Johnny wouldn’t fall for the spark plug wire trick a second time, I came up with a new one.
With the hose replaced and the radiator refilled, I let the engine idle as I checked for leaks. Leaning over and placing my ear almost against the radiator, I closed my eyes and pretended to be hearing something.
"What in tarnation are you doing now?" Johnny finally asked.
"Can’t you hear that?" I replied with an expression of grave concernExit
Read Chapter 8