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Posts Tagged ‘winter’

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Jackson Hole has the youngest old-timers of any valley in the West. Anyone over 22 who has been here at least three years considers himself qualified to tell a newcomer, “It’s nice enough now, but you should have been here before people like you came and ruined it.” After the subject of billionaires displacing millionaires and wrecking paradise, an old-timers’ second favorite subject is how much worse the weather used to be. To hear them talk, each winter was colder and the snow deeper all the way back to 1911. Before that, exaggerations set in and memories can’t be trusted.

Roger Ramsey was telling me the coldest winter he ever lived through was 1978-79, when it hit 64 below zero on New Year’s Eve and spit bounced. Tires squared, key holes jammed solid, anti-freeze froze, the electricity went out, and several hundred people piled together in a heap in the lobby of the Wort Hotel.

“I’ve been in sixty below temperature and 60 below wind chill,” Roger said, “and trust me, sixty below temperature is colder. Wind chill doesn’t mean squat unless you’re outside naked.”

What I remember about 1979 was the 155 degree difference between New Year’s and the Fourth of July. People who live in states where weather is not the central element of life can’t relate to a 155 degree jump.

Because of a childish prank up Crystal Creek involving a paint-ball gun, a sow grizzly, and the Vice President, Roger Ramsey was recently given a choice between jail and 100 hours of community service. His service entailed going up to Pioneer Homestead where the real old-timers live, and taping oral histories for the Living West in Memory Program which is an NPR show in which myths and legends of the mountains are set straight. We found Caleb Johnstone, T.R. Whitlock, and Betsy Rae McAlester nodding out at a table in the Homestead courtyard, each facing two one-dollar bills, a Delaware Punch, and one of those bruise-colored peanut and sugar patties that are shaped like a hockey puck and have the shelf life of a belt buckle. Roger says old guys eat them for the preservatives.

Roger set up his Radio Shack voice-activated microphone and, as usual, conversation sprang up on ‘How Cold Was It?’

Caleb Johnstone ran his finger bones over a head so bald you could see the separate skull plates, and told us about November of 1951. Here’s what he said:

“They was a flock of sandhill cranes bedded down the night in Christian Pond there and the temperature dropped from forty above to forty below in two hours flat. Froze ever one of those bird legs solid as rebar in concrete. Next morning they was they pitifulest bunch of birds I ever saw. But then, right while I watched, this big old crane seemed to be the boss bird commenced to flapping his wings and all the other cranes flapped their wings and pretty soon the ice broke free from the banks and that flock rose into the sky, carrying the top 18 inches of Christian Pond with them. Looked like a municipal ice rink floating in the air above Jackson as they crossed town and headed south.

“I heard that ice didn’t melt free till the flock was passing over the Odessa, Texas, stockyards where it crashed down in one huge slab. The Texans never knew where it come from, but they had such a mess of pounded meat under ice that they went out and invented the chicken fried steak.”

T.R. Whitlock stared at Caleb with one eye so cataracted it looked like a glowing Ping Pong ball. He said, “Fall of 1951 wasn’t near as cold as late March 1942.”

Caleb came back with the pithiest retort he could think up. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” T.R. said. “That was the spring Molly Van Dyke brought a little bottle of sorghum molasses to the Moran School to pour over biscuits during big recess. To stop the molasses from firming, she kept it under her armpit all morning, but come recess Budder T. Olaf got to teasing her and he threw the molasses bottle and it broke it on the bicycle rack that used to be a hitching post.”

“Does this story got a point?” Caleb asked.

T.R. blinked his Ping Pong ball eye. “After we went back indoors for elocution exercises a grizzly bear that’d just woke up from winter-sleep came out of the woods and took to licking the molasses off that bicycle rack. First we knew of it, that bear busted through the double front door with the rack and my little sister’s ruby red Flexible Flyer bicycle stuck on its face.

“It ran up and down the room, knocking over desks and chairs and the living terrarium with the hibernating snakes and the live iguana. Some of the girls let loose in their pants and what with the doors open that froze the floor slick and the bear fell and slid into the blackboard. Miss Hankfield grasped her Wonder Bread ruler .”

“I remember that ruler,” Caleb said. “It had Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways on one side and on the other they’d written one way per inch.”

“Who’s telling the story?” T.R. said.

Caleb said, “Don’t tell it if you can’t do it right.”

“Mrs. Hankfield reached across the bicycle rack and cracked that bear on the nose. It ran clear out the back end of the coat closet and into Pacific Creek. Carried a good number of jackets with it, but lucky for us my sister’s bicycle fell off. We got away with a flat tire on the front.”

I couldn’t help myself. “So, what happened to the bear?” I asked.

“Nobody knows,” T.R. said. “There was stories going around of a bear with a wide set of iron teeth terrorizing the DuNoir that spring, and in late June a cabin maid at Lake Hotel found the bicycle rack out by the dude corrals. It had a pink tongue stuck to it.”

Roger Ramsey turned a whiter shade of pale.

“That’s not the end of the story though. A year later Molly Van Dyke marred Budder T. Olaf and for forty-three years she made him pay for that molasses, every night and every day, till the good Lord finally said Enough and called Budder T. home.”

Betsy Rae spit something green on Roger’s Nike. “Cold is one way to judge a winter,” she said, “but I prefer snow as a gauge of harsh.” Betsy Rae claims to be 112 and there are those who believe her. She is considerable older than Caleb or T.R. That much is true. More than eighty years of working outdoors in Wyoming has turned her skin the color and texture of a snapping turtle.

“Nineteen and twenty-two,” she began. “The tallest building in Jackson was the four-story, two-hole outhouse behind the Clubhouse there on Center Street.”

She spit again but this time Roger was ready for her. She said, “The men of our town were too lazy good-for-nothing to shovel snow so they’d just let it drift over the first floor, then open the door to the second and so on until mid-April when the snow started back down and so did the men.”

She poked Roger with a scaly fingernail. “That Christmas, your great-granddaddy Jug Ramsey — who wasn’t no more account than you are — rode his mule Frankie in from the upper Gros Ventre. Jug left Frankie out back in a howling snowstorm and went inside where he got caught up in an all-night domino tournament. Whiskey was involved. And a crib girl from Elk.

“The next morning snow had piled up neck high to a Mormon bishop, as they measured it back then, and Jug couldn’t find his mule. He looked for two days until he became convinced Frankie had died and been buried in a drift. Everyone said Frankie would turn up in the spring, so Jug headed home up the Gros Ventre before the next storm.

“What Jug and no one else knew was Frankie had somehow taken shelter in the first floor of the outhouse. Snow piled up so deep that winter four floors wasn’t enough. They ended up cutting two holes in the roof and stretching a canvas tarp for privacy. When spring finally did come the snow melted down floor by floor until folks noticed an odor worse than usual.

“I’ll never forget the sight if I live to be 115. Frankie was packed in there so tight they had to peel off all four walls. People came in from miles to see that donkey, and the Police Gazette even sent out a photographer. The men never used that outhouse again. The next year they not only built an indoor water closet but they let responsible women join the club.”

Like a fool, I asked, “Did the Gazette run the story?”

Betsy Rae nodded. “You betcha. Right on the front page, they had a picture of Frankie looking for all the world like an eight-foot Fudgesicle with hooves instead of a stick, and the headline there read: Jackson Men Can’t Tell Ass from Hole in Ground.

Silently, Caleb and T.R. pushed their dollar bills across the table to Betsy Rae. Roger turned off the tape recorder and said, “I’d rather go to jail.”

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Four winters ago, toward the end of my Hollywood period, my wife Carol, Leila, and I house-sat for the woman who directed Skipped Parts: the movie. She and her husband had this monster truck of a house that the Welch family of Welches Grape Juice and Jelly built under the Griffith Observatory there in Griffith Park. The Welches planted grapevines all over the mountain that is now an upscale L.A. neighborhood. The house had six marble staircases, a veritable nightmare for a couple with a two-year-old daughter. More than once I called Carol on the cell phone because I couldn’t find her, even though I knew she was somewhere in the house.

Tamra, the director, who is wonderful in every way, is married to a nice guy named Michael Diamond who is in a band called the Beastie Boys. They had some interesting friends, coming in and out of the house. On their son’s birthday, Michael, whose friends call him Mickey D., played disc jockey all afternoon while the kids yelled and ran through the garden and down by the pool. I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs he played. They were all on vinyl record albums.

Normally, it would be bad form for a house-sitter to mention this stuff, but they have since moved, so I think it’s okay now. I enjoyed the winter, in spite of the constant struggle to keep Leila from tumbling down steps. They had a screening room where we watched eight-foot tall Telly Tubbies dance and fall down backwards. Imagine that.

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But this blog is not about house-sitting; it’s about fan mail. You see, street kids in L.A. stand on the corners of major intersections selling these things called Star Maps. Tourists buy them and drive around Hollywood, looking for the houses where their favorite movie stars live. So far as I know, the Star Map addresses are wrong. For instance, they gave the address where we were staying as belonging to Brad Pitt. This was back when he was still with Jennifer Aniston, so far as anyone knew.

Later, I asked Tamra and neither Brad Pitt nor Jennifer Aniston had ever lived there. Neither had ever visited the house or lived nearby, but this didn’t stop a daily dribble of cars from driving by the front gate while tourists craned their necks and sometimes even touched our mailbox. Once or twice a week, an airplane or helicopter swooped over the pool and some pushy type leaned out to take my daughter’s photograph.

Once we got past the fear of a nutcase fame-chaser climbing over the fence, we weren’t bothered by the gawkers. Heck, we probably would have had tourists anyway, if they’d known it was a Beastie Boy house.

But the thing was — the mail. Brad and Jennifer got a lot of mail. Someone must have posted the address on the internet. It tapered off later, but the first few weeks brought ten or twenty letters a day. I guess if I’d known where Brad lived I could have boxed up his mail and taken it to him. It would have made a nice icebreaker with Jennifer. But I didn’t know and I don’t think they wanted the mail anyway, so I did what any other normal American would do with a pile of unsolicited mail addressed to Brad Pitt — I opened it.

Not all of it, of course. I had better things to do, like watching eight-foot tall Telly Tubbies jump out of holes in artificial turf. But I opened enough to get the general drift.

I used to receive fan mail myself. Nothing like Brad and Jennifer, mind you, but enough to establish a pattern. Very few were scary. Most of the writers said they enjoyed my books and I should keep writing. Sometimes, guys who’d recently lost girlfriends would get drunk and write these two a.m. twelve-page rave-ons, putting down all the pain they would never dump on their friends. A surprising number of girls wrote to tell me how their boyfriends were in bed.

“I don’t much like him and I would break up with him but he’s so good at . . . ” and then they would describe a procedure I’m not sure is physically possible.

A number of letters started out, “I always wanted to write Such-and-So but then he died, so I decided I should write you before you die.” My not dying years ago seems to have gratified many readers.

Very rarely, someone would say, “I’ve had such an interesting life, everyone tells me I should be a writer. How about if I tell you my story and you type it up and we’ll split the money.” These letters tended to come from guys in prison. My theory is Sex and Sunsets was one of the few hardbacks with Sex in the title, so it sold well in prison libraries. Whatever the cause, I used to be the swamp where prison mail went to die.

Nowdays, I don’t get much post office reader mail. It comes in over MySpace or the Timsandlin.com guest book. I enjoy hearing from readers, although the occasional angry person can be trying. I got a message the other day from a man who said he would have been a best-selling author if he lowered himself to writing sex scenes, the way I do. Humorous fiction brings out the hate in people.

But enough about me, let’s get back to Brad Pitt: Before I grew bored and quit reading his mail, I probably opened twenty letters and not one followed the drift that I get in my mail. No one said, “I like your work,” or “Congratulations, Brad!” or even “I wanted to write you before you died…” Every letter to Brad wanted something from him.

They wanted him to read their script. They wanted him to get them a job as a producer. They wanted him to introduce them to Jennifer Lopez. A lot of them started out, “You’ve had luck and I’ve never had luck and I deserve to be as famous as you, therefore you owe me . . .” So on. So forth. A bunch came at once demanding that he stop smoking on screen. It must have been a campaign because those all hit in one week, then stopped. Any number of the letter writers simply wanted money. Postal spare-change artists.

So, here are the morals to my story: First, don’t write Brad Pitt, asking him to do something for you- The address is wrong. Second, don’t write the federal government and tell them I opened Brad’s mail. I will deny it. Third, don’t write me, asking me to stop smoking on screen. I don’t smoke and I’m not on anyone’s screen. Fourth, don’t go looking for any Beastie Boys over by Griffith Park. They moved. Fifth, don’t send me a CD and ask me to forward it to Mickey D. I don’t know him that well. I was his house-sitter, for Chrissake.

I can’t think of a sixth.

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