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Update:  The Dog Groaned at Dusk – A German Shepherd’s Tale is a winner!

I was sitting there bemoaning the three-way tie (probably Mitchell’s fault) when a refresh showed that we had a clear winner.  I think the Taternator then Spelunking while drunk in that order come after but we’ll leave that to another poll.

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I was a firefighter for a few summers to pay for college.  It was fun.

The Incident occurred many moons ago.  The tale is told in the oral tradition and is at times used by mothers to frighten their children about the dangers of growing up a redneck.  Or working for one.

My boss who we will call “Squatting Bear” decided that I needed a good solid native indian nickname.  One of the tribes that lived in the area I grew up in was the Calapooia tribe.  Keep the jokes buried deep inside there, palefaced readers… bury them deep, next to your inner child.  If you’re like me you strangled your inner child and buried the corpse years ago.  Put the Calapooia jokes there, why don’t you?  Don’t try to deny it, I know you well, Faithful Reader.

So Squatting Bear decided I needed a new name.  He thought long.  He thought hard.  This long and hard kind of thinking came naturally to Squatting Bear because he is one of those rednecks who is a natural-born redneck.  Nothing about his redeckedness was affected, it was all gin-u-wine, as he would say.

He would tell jokes like this daily:  One prostitute is talking to another one.  First one says “You ever been picked up by the fuzz?”  Second one says “Yes, and it sure does HURT.”

If you have placed a claim with your insurance company about damage to the hood of your truck because of a turkey, you might be a redneck.  You might especially be a redneck if your wife was throwing a frozen turkey down to you from the balcony and missed.

I am not making this up.

He thought long and he thought hard some more and slowly looked over to where I had spit a pile of sunflower seeds in a cairn shape that was about 5 inches high and 8 inches in diameter.  He grunted and then his face lit up and he said “I KNOW WHAT WE WILL CALL YOU!”

“What, boss?”

“SPITTING BEAVER!” he yelled and started hooting and hollering.

Spitting Beaver is almost certainly not a Calapooia name and I’m going to take a stab at it that there’s no literal translation, either.

I was underwhelmed but I’ve been called worse, so I let it slide.  As it turned out, later on that summer I took a spill that damaged my previously compound-fractured forearm (busted a plate – it was a really good spill) and the crew was cool enough to buy me my very own spitting beaver.  Note the leather noose that they supplied with the beaver.  “To hang from your rearview mirror,” they said.  And I did for over a year.

The particular summer I am referring to was a wet one by Oregon standards.  Very wet.  We’re talking “A Steelhead just spawned in my bed” kind of wet.  That might sound like a fun thing to do but it’s really quite gross.

Cold foggy days were spent driving around in the mountains.  Much like a mirage in the desert appearing to be water, water in the foggy forest pretended to be smoke.  We chased phantom plumes over and over only to realize that we weren’t going to have the excitement of a fire, just more ferns and sopping wet slash-piles.

Strange things happen in those mountains when the wind stops and the forest goes silent.  The only sound is the occasional drip of water onto a fiddlehead fern from the Douglas fir tree high above you.   And if you listen carefully you hear… nothing.  Right up until the boss screams in a faux high-pitch squeal “Quick!  Pull my finger!  ***riiiip***  Oh, too late!”

Some days obviously were better than others.

On the day of The Incident it had been even wetter and more miserable than any day we’d seen in over three weeks.  We patrolled for a few hours and then decided that the odds of any fire in the next few weeks were pretty slim even if we had a heat wave, so we headed back to base, which was Squatting Bear‘s home, coincidentally.

Side note… this was the summer I grew to love Rush Limbaugh because AM radio is about all you get up in the mountains.

At Squatting Bear’s home headquarters we sat and drank another pot of coffee in silence and I continued to spit sunflower seeds in my usual cairn-shaped spot on the floor next to the boss’ fridge – I was considerate, and spit them off to the side so his family could open the door without trouble.

His very nice and polite wife gently whispered something in his ear and goosed him in the ribs.  “Leave me alone, foul woman!” he screeched as he leapt off his stool.

“Come with me,” he grumbled and stalked out the back door.

Golden Retriever, the other firefighter assigned to Squatting Bear walked out with a funny look on her face that surely must have mirrored my own.  When we got outside near the back fence he handed me a pulaski and gave her a shovel.

“You’re digging a ditch so we can line it with rocks and make a little streambed for the wife.”

I mentioned how it was odd that the state would fund such a project and was told “If we’re going to sit on our asses anyway and it’s too wet to do any non-fire work then you’re not going to sit and drink all my coffee, you’re going to do this because *I* have to do this.”

“But…”

He growled menacingly, like a badger with shingles, “Not another word, you…”

Good enough for me.

For a good half hour I dug with the hoe end of the pulaski, breaking up dirt for Goldie to move.  We were going between trees and I kept hitting root after root after root.  Big enough that you couldn’t tug through them and so you had to chop-chop-dig constantly.  I hit rocks with every other swing and was really starting to get annoyed.

Then… The Incident.  It shouldn’t have happened, but it did.

I was dragging out some dirt from the trench when I ran into this extremely large and rock-solid root.   I knew I didn’t want to do baby chops because it was muddy and soggy roots twist the axe and aren’t safe in general – you lose toes or ankles if you aren’t paying attention.  So I stepped back a half step, widened my stance and sighted in on that thrice-damned root, and put my best Paul Bunyan swing into it.

Suddenly the world went white.  I was hit by a tsunami.  Water was spraying me and spraying up in the air many feet, then falling back down to earth.  Goldie squealed and jumped clear back to the property line in one hop.  Squatting Bear stood there with his jaw on his chest – frozen in place.  Surprisingly he was silent, and I always thought it would take a ball-peen hammer to the forehead to do that.

I looked at our trench that aspired to be a stream and saw that in reality a river ran through it.  Spitting Beaver River, to be exact.

Yes, I had just hacked through Squatting Bear’s main water line to his house from his well up on the hill.

Shortly it stopped and we took stock of what had transpired.  Squatting Bear’s wife came out and he asked her if she had just turned off the well.  She looked puzzled and said “No.  What?  What are you talking about?”

He jumped up and down and jabbered at her, pointed at me, glared at me, jabbered again with more vicious-stab pointing motions in my direction.

On closer examination we saw that not only had I severed the water line but I had also chopped through half of the power cable feeding the well pump.  That explained why it stopped.  We couldn’t explain why I didn’t get popped – not even a tiny bit.

His wife sighed, looked at me, and said “Ok, I’ll call your dad.”

My dad was an electrician.  Dad said he’d come by and fix the line for Squatting Bear.  By this point it was 5pm and it was our normal quitting time but I had this hunch that leaving was not an option available to me.  Not if I was wise.  I wasn’t actually wise but even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally.

I said “Who the hell buries their line only 12 inches down?”  I quickly regretted speaking and for lack of anything better to do I stuck my cold wet shivering hands into my cold wet pockets and quietly shivered.

So there’s my dad, standing in half a foot of mush and water on a cold day, there was me trying to trench the river out enough to drain off some of the water, and Squatting Bear was being an absolute lunatic.  Dad has the patience of a saint and bore it all in good stoic old-school German style.

It took more time than dad actually billed for but this was my boss so he cut a bit of slack there and then we drove home.

Dad didn’t say anything but went into his office and started typing.  A little while later he came out and said “Give this to your boss.”

It was a bill for “Electrical repair on Spitting Beaver River excavation project“.  What follows is a photo of the original document, which I still have.  Click on it.  It gets bigger.  Note the last six lines.  Dad pointed to those and said “Make sure he sees those.”


I handed it to my boss the next morning.  He turned red and clenched his jaw.  Then after a moment of silence burst out laughing, saying that he knew he liked my family.

The next summer was better.  It had good fires and no rivers in sight most of the time.

With one exception, he was the best damn boss I ever worked with.  The other is my unofficial current boss.

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