I didn't know it at the time (who does?), but those were idyllic days. And not just days, years. I was a boy of eight, nine, ten. I had a horse, a dog and several friends my age who were similarly equipped. It was a different country then. Really. JFK was president and it wasn't yet morning in America. It was more like the evening before --- about cocktail hour. It wasn't quite the Sixties, though it wasn't the Fifties either. Nobody had any idea what was coming, least of all us. We were clueless. It was wonderful.
We lived in the East Bay hills before they were covered with glaciers of pastel suburbs. On the weekends and every day during the summers we'd be gone from early in the morning until dark or after. Half the time we didn't even saddle the horses; it was much easier just to throw a bridle or a hackamore on them and take off. My horse was named Rusty and my dog was called Prince. Over the years I had several horses and several dogs. I always gave them the same names. Why change, I figured, it's easier to remember the old names and, anyway, the animal doesn't care what you call it. It doesn't even know what a name is. Usually there were four or five of us boys and at least that many dogs. Home owners trembled at the jangle of our spurs and the yipping of our ill-mannered canines. No flower bed was safe. No lawn was left intact. All faucets existed for our relief. And when we were done? Leave 'em run. We were a dirty, noisy, amiable plague.
Sometimes, when the August heat insisted, we'd camp out over night on our favorite hillside. The entire mixed flock of us --- boys, dogs, horses --- would take up residence on a knoll near an outcropping of rock where we stowed a grill and kept a cache of pots and utensils. It was there that I first took an interest in cooking. I started with chicken noodle soup done in the can, a pair of pliers as a handle. Later I experimented with adding chopped wieners. This met with such enthusiastic approval from my comrades (not to mention the dogs) that I branched out into barbecuing chicken. I developed a special hot flame, high speed recipe --- it produced crusted drumsticks that were black as briquettes on the outside, pink as a pig snout on the inside. It didn't matter. It was fast and it was dark out and we were so hungry, so driven by our voracious boy appetites, that no one ever complained. Other times we'd bring cornbread biscuits and a jar of redeye gravy. I'd heat the gravy in a pot over the fire, then we'd sit around sopping it up from enameled metal plates with the cornbread, just like we'd seen cowboys do in the movies. Even now, gazing back through the beguiling fog of nostalgia, I recall the food as being just barely edible, but the context made it exquisite. We ate like happy dogs --- and so did the dogs.
While our counterparts in the flatlands watched "Bonanza" on the RCA, we were living it (sometimes, galloping four or five abreast across a field of palomino grass, we'd spontaneously bellow the heroic theme music that brought the Cartwright family charging into living rooms every week). There we were, surrounded by horses and dogs and stars, grilling blackened chicken over the campfire, and always at least one peculiar, unrecognizable noise somewhere nearby in the darkness. But whatever it was never got us, thanks to our air rifles and our practice of shooting in the direction of all mysterious sounds. Sensing our skittishness and our tendency to comfort ourselves by freely discharging firearms, the dogs learned to stay close. Besides, a lot of good food dropped at our feet.
After dinner, after a couple of brief slugging matches over sleeping-bag positions, and after we'd tired of putting the flashlights in our mouths or shining them in each others eyes, we'd have a smoke. We didn't have real cigarettes. We manufactured our own by hollowing out the white foam-like centers of dried thistle stalks and packing them with crumbled eucalyptus leaves. It made for a dreadful smoke that didn't stay lit very well, but it was a part of our camping ritual we weren't about to abandon. One friend said it was like "swallowing a rototiller" and we all cracked up over that one so much that it became our standard euphemism for an after dinner cigarette. "Well, let's swallow the rototiller," somebody would say and out would come the eucalyptus leaves and thistle stalks.
Dessert was often marshmallows. None of us liked eating them that much. It was entertaining, however, to make gooey fireballs out of them and flick them at each other. It was definitely a "somebody's going to get an eye put out" type of sport, but so amusing that the minor burns were worth it. Besides, it was a good way of showing how tough we were --- not reacting to the sting of the hot goop --- and being tough was important to us in those days.
I suppose it was not as Arcadian or light-hearted as I've made it sound. We were much like any group of boys except that we got to play out our fantasies with greater realism and better props than most of our contemporaries. Still, we were probably closer in spirit to that bunch in The Lord of the Flies than any of us would now admit.
I have no idea what became of my friends. I don't know how they turned out. By the time we were teenagers we drifted apart and then finally lost touch altogether. I think a couple of them are still cowboys today in places like Turlock and Manteca. I heard that one got in a terrible auto accident and almost died and another took up trucking and rodeo bull-riding. There were some brave ones and some foolish ones among us so any of those things could be true. Wherever they are I hope they're eating better. Recently, I tried out my old chicken soup and wiener recipe, cooked it in the can over the barbecue, used pliers as a handle. It was just as terrible as I'd remembered it so I gave it to my dog. He gobbled it up then looked at me for more.
--- Douglas Cruickshank