Somewhere back of beyond, lies the Typhoid Pond. My brother Jerry, Kenny Talley and I discovered it in 1955 while on quest of imagination.
One hot July afternoon we headed up a canyon on the Dunavan place. Once part of the old Rancho Santa Manuela it was still a cattle ranch in the 50’s. In July the hills and valleys were sere, the chapparal crackling and dusty, the pasturelands eaten down to stubble and the earth ankle deep in powder as light as talcum.
Preparing for a momentous journey, as always, called for careful preparation. High top tennis shoes were a must and since tennis shoes were the shoe of choice for summer, the only choice because thats all we had. Worn denim pants and white tee shirts rounded out our farm boy sartorial elegance and since farm kids wore the same clothes every day but Sunday it wasn’t really much of a choice.
Most carefully chosen items were the single surplus WWII canteen we took and above all the choice of weapons. At the entrance to the nameless canyon was Oliver’s enormous stack of bean poles. In those days, the Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder beans were trained on redwood or eucalyptus poles, wired and strung with cotton twine. In season, a field with bean poles strung was a wonder to behold. A gigantic tapestry that shimmered with moisture in the early morning fog. A seemingly endless manmade spider web of bleached white string against the brilliant dark green of the vines reaching upward, embracing the twine in its fragile tendrils.
Choosing the proper pole was of the utmost importance for it must serve as a walking stick, rifle, spear, bow and sword. First of all it must be a broken one for we were boys still and incapable of swinging an eight foot bean pole. Usually there was a smaller pile of broken ones, haphazardly stacked with different lengths of both primary types. The redwood poles were the older more expensive ones, and mixed in, eucalyptus poles cut from the old trees on the mesa. The lighter redwood were easier to handle and drive, but you needed to have a pair of gloves to protect your hands for they were filthy with nasty splinters, sure to break-off under your skin, the splinters nearly impossible to remove, even with tweezers. You had to be patient and let them fester until you could squeeze them out. The squeeze was satisfying but the several days of irritation were not. It was a sort of no pain no gain situation. The eucalyptus on the other hand weren’t particularly straight, heavier and liable to break when pulling them out at the end of the growing season. My dad liked the geometry of the redwood. When strung they made a satisfying tableau, a state of completeness more like a finished painting than a simple field. The crooked eucalyptus was wilder looking, not as finished and didn’t fit his view of how his fields should look. If you farmed, he was going to judge you by how straight your furrows were; crooked furrows and his estimation of your skill went down. A small conceit from a man hadn’t a self-serving bone in his body.
We invariably chose the Euc. They were heavier but easy on the skin and they had the heft to do the job.
So armed with the necessities, water, a weapon and most important, limitless imagination we set off up the valley, immediately jumping down into the dry wash that bisected the canyon. Walking along, we were sure to remind ourselves to be quiet and stealthy, occasionally lying against the walls of the wash and lifting our heads, lizard like, in order to see any danger approaching along the canyon floor. Sometimes crouching with our muskets raised, pans primed and locks cocked for the redcoats to march close enough for the first volley. The whites of their eyes clearly visible on the downslope of Breed’s Hill, The Royal Welch Fusiliers, the same regiment of the line that later produced two of the greatest poets of WWI, Sigfreid Sassoon and Robert Graves. We held off them until we ran out of ammunition and then fled around imaginations bend.
The Patriots, Breeds Hill, June 17, 1775
In the distance we could see the Comanche chief Quanah Parker at the crest of a low hill.We were 3, they, 700. There was never a more splendidly barbaric sight. We were about to be in one of the last great fights of the indian wars. Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the southwestern Plains tribes, The greatest light cavalry the world has ever seen, mounted upon their finest ponies, armed with rifles and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming on like the wind. Over all was splashed the rich colors of yellow, black, vermillion and ochre. Painted on the bodies of the men and their running horses they told stories of courage and dreams. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the tails and manes of the horses, and the bronzed, halfnaked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass. Behind this headlong charging host stretched the Plains, over whose horizon the rising sun was lifting. The warriors seemed to emerge from this glowing background, tearing apart the mist in their headlong rush towards the old adobes. I had my friend Bat Masterson on the left and the famous rifle shot William “Billy” Dixon on my right. On the third day of the fight, Billy Dixon, already renowned as a crack shot, took aim with a “Big Fifty” Sharps buffalo rifle and cleanly dropped a warrior from atop his horse nearly a mile away. Discouraged by this amazing event the warriors melted away.
Chief Quanah Parker and Billy Dixon
As we crept away from the walls we looked to the left and saw at a distance the 7th riding towards their fate, equipment jingling, dirty blue shirts and dusty boots, an Irish trooper playing “I’ll take you home again Kathleen” on his mouth harp, perhaps it was Trooper James Patrick Boyle, just 23, a county Tyrone boy born in the green pastures of Ireland and destined to lay his bones by the Greasy Grass. Farther up the draw, just seen at a distance, a wagon train bound for the California gold fields around Roaring Camp, perhaps to meet Bret Harte’s Thomas Luck.
Almost completely hidden in a small hole dug in the side of the gully was Sgt. Franklin “Frank”Rock and some of his men from Easy Company quietly watching for an appearance of any “Natsie scum.” We were glad of their company.
Suddenly from the right a ferocious roar. Ronin! Kenny shouts and we turn just in time to meet the charge of the purple hatted, knife wielding whirlwind. Each warrior seemingly armed with dozens of knives, each one more pointy than the next. Swirling like dervishes we meet them head on, our eucalyptus blades carving, their purple capped heads separated from their stalk-like shoulders bouncing across the prairie. In a few blinding, confusing moments they are vanquished, their mutilated bodies littering the ground around us. In triumph, exhausted by our labors we jump back down into the ditch, gasping, dusty and thirsty.
California thistle, Circium Occidentale Californicum
Slowly cresting the head of the draw we spy a sight for sore eyes. In the near distance a cattle tank, a depression filled with rain water runoff, shallow in the summer, soon to be a mudflat but nevertheless inviting to tired, dirty explorers. Approaching along the mudflats, the surface a mosaic of earthen tiles each slightly cupped, covering the wet mud beneath, we removed our sneakers and socks and approached the edge of the pond the mud already beginning to squish between our toes, an experience, satisfying in the extreme to those with tired feet. Deciding that a swim was the answer we each stripped down to our shorts and began wading out into the water, brushing aside the green surface growth. The long tendrils of Spyrogyra clutching at us as we pushed aside the moss and algae. Clearing enough of the surface growth to submerge we slowly sank. We croaked like frogs and splashed each other in a riot of noise, laughing and throwing slimy mud, we soon looked like mudmen crowned with green hairpieces. Finally, rinsing ourselves and pulling the moss out of our hair we waded back to where we left our clothes. Pulling socks on over muddy feet and slipping on our shirts and pants we began to retrace our steps.
The Route to the Typhoid Pond on the far right
Suddenly, in the distance we could hear the whistle blowing, we must get to the steamboat in a hurry, before she left the dock. She was headed down river from Cairo, bound for New Orleans, Sam the pilot standing on the Texas deck, splendid in his long frock coat and string tie, his arms akimbo, his hat cocked atop his head and a crooked cheroot gripped between his grinning teeth. A real river pilot, a prince of the river.
“Yonder she comes” Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain, 1883
We raced across the pasture pell mell until we spied the steamboat which looked suspiciously like my dads green chevy pickup. “What have you boys been up to, he said, you look like something the cat dragged in. Lets get you home and into the tub and you can tell me all about it.”