stories of growing up in Kern County circa 1970

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The Onyx Boys – “Rain”

Rain. I love the sound of rain. I love the way it makes everything smell clean and new. I even enjoy being out in the rain.

“Perfect hunting weather,” I observed. Usually I rode the bus to school but one rainy November morning I caught a ride with Burt in his Rambler.

“Rain isn’t my favorite, but quail don’t fly as much when it’s wet,” grumbled Burt.

We needed to stop for gas at the little store. The “little store” was what we called the Onyx Emporium. During cold weather, they always had a fire going which made it a great place to hang out. I was pumping the gas while Burt went in to pay. I was absent-mindedly staring across the river, when suddenly a huge covey of quail rose up and took flight. I bet there were at least 80 birds winging away.

“I don’t think I’ll make it to school today,” said a voice over my shoulder. “My throat seems to be sore.” A fake cough ensued. I turned to see Burt, grinning like a farm cat who’d just eaten two chicks, holding new boxes of shotgun shells in each hand. He’d bought more than a tank of gas.

“Well, I can’t leave my best friend home alone, not with him feeling puny and all,” I replied.

We parked over at my house. While I went in to change, he snuck back to his house to grab his own gear. We didn’t want his mom to catch us ditching school…again. The last time she chewed him out pretty good and took away his motorcycle for a week. But what bothered me most was the whole time she was hollering at Burt, she never once looked at him. She just stared straight at me.

After loading up, we headed down to the river, parking the Rambler in a little gully that would keep it out of sight. Just before we left, Burt placed a duffle bag on the front seat and put his keys underneath the driver-side floor mat. I didn’t even need to ask. The duffle bag contained a change  of clothes for each of us, along with a couple towels and a pairs of old hunting boots.  We had learned our lesson about the need for dry clothes as well as the importance of leaving the keys safely behind.

“Let’s see if we can scare up those quail we saw,” said Burt as we took off at a slight jog.

The rain was light but steady. Burt was a few feet in front of me as we rounded a bend in the path. Suddenly, birds exploded from the bushes all around us. I turned and fired three shots as fast as I could. Burt did the same. Then everything went quiet.

“I dropped all three,” I said as I automatically began to reload.

“I only got two. My third shot blew a chunk out of a cottonwood tree. Let’s find our birds and get after them again. I saw ‘em fly and set down across the river,” replied Burt.

We found all of our birds and began to look for a way to get to the other side. There was a spot, not too far upriver, where it narrowed to about a 12-15 foot span. A partially uprooted young cottonwood had fallen to provide a narrow, but seemingly safe bridge.

“I’m gonna use this,” said Burt.

I wasn’t one hundred percent sure of this plan, so I replied, “I’m gonna check around to see if we’re missing anything easier.”

Funny how things happen sometimes. When I turned to look for a better way across, two things happened: the rain began to intensify and small group of birds exploded out of the bushes immediately to the side of us. I reacted as any hunter would. I brought my gun up and fired, twice.

My happiness at dropping both birds was short-lived. Still, to this day, I don’t know if it was the sound of my gun or a misstep on the slippery log, but I turned just in time to watch Burt fall butt first into the river. He disappeared from sight.

The first thing to resurface was Burt’s gun followed shortly by his head and shoulders. He sloshed his way to the bank and crawled out.

Trying my darndest not to laugh, I called out, “You all right, buddy?”

“I hate the rain,” was his only reply.

While Burt made his way up and out, I quickly retrieved my two birds and met him at the top of the embankment.

“We better get you back to the Rambler and those dry clothes,” I said.

As we jogged back to the car in the rain, we jumped two more coveys of quail. Since Burt’s gun had been completely submerged and was out of commission, he didn’t even react. I thought about it, but decided not to add insult to injury and make Burt even more upset.

The twenty minutes it took to reach the Rambler went by in silence. I fired her up and turned the heaters to full blast. While I was stowing the gear in the back under a tarp, Burt climbed in and stripped out of his wet clothes. He reached for the duffel bag to pull out a towel.

In all the years I knew Burt, he very seldom cussed. So when he let loose with a “Dammit!” I was stunned.

“I grabbed the wrong duffel bag! This one’s full of my mom’s dirty sheets and towels!” Burt exclaimed.

When I started to speak, Burt cut me off with, “Shut up and drive me to your house!”

Watching Burt, clad in nothing but his Mom’s bright pink and yellow flowered towel, climb over our fence and sneak into his garage in the pouring rain was a sight I have never forgotten. When he snuck back still wearing the towel, I was confused.

“Why didn’t you change there?” I queried.

“I didn’t wanna get caught. We are supposed to be at school. Remember? And since neither of us have a dryer, we need to head to the laundromat and dry our fishing clothes. I can’t leave a pile of wet fishing gear in the hamper.”

While waiting for his clothes to dry, I asked Burt again if he slipped on that wet tree bridge or if the sound of my gunshot made him jump and fall in.

Burt looked at me again with the same look he had on his face while sitting on the river bank; that look that said we are done talking about this.

Then he said, “I hate the rain.”

True to our friendship, we never talked about it again.

(this story first appeared in the May 2017 issue of The Cub – Bear Valley Springs, California’s newspaper. It was printed again in June 2017 in Caliente, California’s Country Reader, The Fence Post.)

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Nailed It!

stories of growing up in Kern County circa 1970

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The Onyx Boys – “Nailed It”

Along with being hunting, fishing, and motorcycle buddies, Burt and I, well…we just did things together. We were always trying to help each other get our chores done so we would have more time to hunt, fish, and ride. I was out back pulling weeds in the garden one early morning when Burt popped up on his usual fence post.

“Hey buddy, can you come over and help me out when you’re done?” Burt asked.

“You bet. I should be done in less than a half hour,” was my reply. I finished pulling those weeds in record time and headed over to Burt’s.  I found him on the roof of their garage pulling up the shingles.

“What’s up?” I said as I started to climb the ladder up to the roof.

“Remember that thunderstorm last week?”

I nodded I did.

“Well, it seems we have a small leak on this side somewhere. So my dad said to tear off everything on this side and re-roof it” stated Burt.

I looked around at the roof.

“Shoot, we can strip it, paper it and shingle it in a few hours.” I said positively.

Stripping the old shingles and paper only took us about an hour.  But hauling the new rolls of paper and the shingles up took us awhile.

“Man, nailing these new shingles down is gonna take us a long time,” I lamented.

“Not with my dad’s nail gun,” beamed Burt holding it up.  Burt’s dad, who worked in construction, always had the latest tools and gadgets.

We soon fell into a good rhythm.  I would place the shingles in their proper alignment and Burt would nail them in place.

“I’ll let you use the nail gun for a bit,” Burt smiled.

“Wow! Really? Shoot, thanks buddy,” I beamed back.

Burt began placing the shingles and showed me where to nail them.  Just like before we fell into a quick, smooth rhythm.

Soon we placed and nailed the last shingle.  I placed the nail gun down and began to check the roof for any shingles we failed to nail properly. What happened next has to go down as one of the strangest, craziest accidents ever.

Burt hollered over that he found one shingle that we’d missed a couple nails on.  I walked over to the nail gun to pick it up.  The moment I touched it, it went off. A nail shot out, sped across fifteen feet of roof, drove through Burt’s work boot and embedded itself into the outside of his left foot.

Burt let out a sharp, short scream and collapsed.

I left the gun where it was and ran over to my buddy.

“Burt, I…it just went off…I barely touched it,” I mumbled as I knelt down beside him.

“I know you didn’t mean to, I watched it happen,…you’re gonna have to pull it out, so I can get my boot off,” Burt grimaced.

I grabbed a pair of pliers from his tool belt.  I didn’t hesitate, I just wanted that nail out of my buddy’s foot.

Burt was saying something about counting to three when I yanked it out.

“Wow, that didn’t hurt at all,” said Burt.

“Now I need to see how bad it is.” When Burt pulled off his boot, we took one look at his blood soaked sock and realized this was worse than we thought.

Burt slowly peeled off the sock.  The nail had actually gone through the upper side of his foot and out through the bottom.

“That explains all the blood,” said Burt.

“Come on, we need to get down and tell my mom. She’s not gonna be happy,” said Burt.

Not happy was an understatement.  After an angry glare was directed our way, she put Burt into the Rambler, went inside the trailer, came out with her purse, got in and drove off.

Feeling bad, I hauled the nail gun, air-hose, and everything else off the roof.  I put up the air compressor as well.  It was when I was placing the nail gun on the work bench that I noticed it had a safety switch like a regular gun.

I went over to my house and sat down to wait for Burt to return.  I was watering our flower beds when I saw the Rambler pull in over at Burt’s place. I immediately walked over to check on my friend. Burt’s foot was all wrapped up and he was supported by a set of crutches.

“Four stitches and a tetanus shot.  I should be fine in a couple days. Just need to keep weight off of it for twenty-four hours,” Burt stated.

“You know that nail gun sure has a hair trigger,” I said.

“That’s what has me confused. When you put the safety on, that thing won’t fire,” Burt replied.

“Maybe, when I grabbed it, I accidentally hit the safety is all I can think,” I said, not wanting to admit I hadn’t noticed the safety until later.

“Well, it happened.  Let’s shoot some pool.  First one to win five games is the champ. I will break!” smiled Burt.

Burt really put some power into that break and four balls found the pockets.

“Wow! You really nailed that shot,” I said trying not to laugh.

Burt just looked at me.

(this story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Cub – Bear Valley Springs, California’s newspaper. It was printed again in May 2017 in Caliente, California’s Country Reader, The Fence Post.)

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stories of growing up in Kern County circa 1970

The Onyx Boys – “Hooked”

It seemed like Burt and I always had to do things the hard way. After each mishap occurred, we’d look back and realize how we could have avoided trouble all together. One particular fishing faux pas, however, there was just no way we could have seen this one coming.

I don’t know what we liked most, hooking into a big school of blue gill or a mess of small mouth bass. One late August found us on the river with the latter. We were fishing the first bridge just as you are leaving the town of Isabella on the new Highway 178. I say “new” because it WAS new in 1974.

We had parked the Rambler after driving through the old Keyesville campground area. We usually didn’t bother with a tackle box when fishing; carrying our gear in homemade “fanny packs” made from half a pillowcase tied to our waist. But this trip Burt decided to haul his big ol’ tackle box in.

“Why did you bring your box?” I asked as we hiked down to the river.

“I want to be able to hit them with everything I got. Plus, I have a couple new plastic worms and frogs I wanna try,” stated Burt.

We got to our spot and a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors determined that I got the top of the pool and Burt got the bottom.

“Why don’t you leave your tackle box in the middle,” I suggested helpfully. He agreed and placed it on the rock ledge we fished from.

I headed up and cast in. I think it was my third cast that hooked my first bass. From then on it was pretty steady fish after fish for both of us. When we got to 4 fish each, I issued a challenge.

“First one to five fish wins and the loser buys the burgers.”

“Deal,” replied Burt, “but it’s gotta be a keeper, 12 inches or better.”

I guess the fish overheard us because cast after cast after cast netted us nothing. We decided to change lures. We had a rule that if one of us changed bait, so would the other. Burt decided to try one of his new plastic frogs. He handed me a plastic worm.

“Here. Tie this one on.”

We headed back to our respective places at the top and bottom of the pool.  Several minutes went by without a nibble. I was just about to ask Burt if we could switch lures again or maybe switch ends when he let out a big “Yee Haw!” I turned to see his pole almost bent in two.

“This is the winner right here,” he bragged. “Looks like you’re buying the burgers!”

Well, I couldn’t lose without a fight so I began to frantically reel in and cast out as fast as I could. I was mid-cast when Burt let out a roar. My head whipped round just in time to witness Burt, backing up to land his fish, trip and land butt first right in his tackle box. His roar of frustration turned into a sharp intake of breath and then total silence. Not a typical reaction for Burt so I immediately put my pole down and raced to help. Grabbing the hand stretched out towards me, I hauled him to his feet.

“Take my pole. That’s my fish but you’ll have to land him,” Burt said through clenched teeth. I must’ve had a confounded look on my face because Burt just slowly turned around.

Embedded in his backside were a dozen lures.

First things first. I quickly reeled his fish in. It was a beauty. At least 20 inches and a good 2.5 pounds. I put it on his stringer while Burt slowly laid down on his belly.

After assessing the situation I said, “Burt, some of these are only in your shorts. Those will be easy. But some are in you and they’re gonna hurt.”

“Let’s get the easy ones first, so I can build my courage up, okay?” Burt hissed.

I removed eight lures stuck just to his pants. That left two Rooster Tails, a frog and a plastic worm that each still had a piece of my friend.

“Give me something to bite on so I don’t scream my head off,” ordered Burt. I gave him the leather sheath from his fish cleaning knife.

“I’m gonna have to pull each one free.  Whatever you do, don’t move and make me jerk.”

Burt didn’t say anything.  He didn’t have to. The pain in his eyes said it all.  He bit down on the leather and I went to work. The two Rooster tails were not that hard to remove.  Only one of the barbs on each were embedded in his posterior.

“Two down. Only two to go.”

Burt grunted.

I grabbed hold of the plastic worm hook, slowly turned it towards me and lifted it out.  Burt winced and spit out the leather case panting, “One more. One more.” The frog was definitely going to be the worst. He’d dug in in two different spots.

“Burt, trust me. I have to pull both hooks out at the same time or the ones I’m not working on will just dig in deeper.”

“Okay. Just do it.  But count to three so I can be ready,” Burt said as he placed the leather back in his mouth.

I knew if I counted to three, Burt would just tense up making my job that much harder, so I placed my pliers on both hooks, starting counting and pulled them out clean as a whistle on two.  I thought Burt would be mad but he complimented me on outsmarting him.

“Well, one thing’s for sure. Those frog lures really latch on to things,” I said. We started laughing. “You won fair and square, buddy. Looks like I’m buying dinner.”

“Nope. I’m buying. In fact, if you keep this just between us, I’ll throw in a second burger, fries and a shake,” declared Burt holding out his hand. We shook on it. Burt was true to his word and paid for everything.

The waitress did ask why he wasn’t sitting on his stool to eat.

Before he could reply, I said, “He tripped and fell on a frog.”

She gave me a funny look and walked away shaking her head. Burt and I clinked our milkshakes together and smiled.

(this story first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Cub – Bear Valley Springs, California’s newspaper. It was printed again in April 2017 in Caliente, California’s Country Reader, The Fence Post.)

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