stories of growing up in Kern County circa 1970
Photo by: FreeImages.com
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.)