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Pulling the Wool Over Your Ice

A couple of our readers sent a news story about the winner of the 72nd Annual World Champion Liar Contest in Burlington, Wisconsin.

Champion liar Sandi Weld of Sorrento, Florida, said, “When I moved to Iron Mountain, Michigan, I brought my pet sheep. He grazed on the mineral-rich grass. When it came time to sheer it in the spring, I ended up with nine pounds of steel wool.”

God bless sincere amateurs. That’s a good lie, but it’s old news. Arizona woolgrowers have been shearing steel wool for more than a century.

The sheep ranchers traditionally drove large flocks of sheep north in the spring, moving slowly along well-established trails from the Salt River Valley to the forests above the Mogollon Rim.

Along the way, the sheep got to graze on the tender spring leaves of the ironwood tree, before the leaves turned hard. And that, my friends, is where steel wool really comes from.

Basque sheepherders used to while away their evenings knitting barbed-wire fences, and weaving window screens for the picturesque wagons in which they lived.

One cold winter when we were teen-agers in Flagstaff, my brother Jake knitted himself a Volkswagen bus and took off for California. The lanolin in the Arizona-grown steel wool kept his bus perpetually lubricated, and protected it against the salt corrosion that ate so many California cars in those days.

Now that we have that straightened out, I want to tell a couple of true stories. They sound like lies, but these are things that really happened to me.

In August of 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and within a few days, World War II ended. Newspapers and magazines carried photos of towering mushroom clouds.

I turned 10 in September, and was very impressionable. We were living in Camp Verde. I recall it as a tiny, remote cow town of about 400 people, but Wayne Barnes, who still lives there, says my population guess is charitable.

We lived two blocks downhill from the grade school, which sat in the middle of town. One day I started walking home from school for lunch. I could see farms across the Verde River to the east. Suddenly, a white mushroom cloud rose out of a field. The sound followed in a few seconds: “WHOOMP!”

I hit the dirt, throwing myself prone onto ground that was more sharp rocks than dirt. I was thinking, “I didn’t see any airplanes,” and, “Why in the world would anyone bomb Camp Verde?”

Then I realized it was farmer Dave Murdock blasting a stump out of his field. The white caliche dirt on the far side of the river made wonderful mushroom clouds–small, but convincing.

I got up and looked around to see if anyone had seen my foolish dive to the prone position. Apparently, no one had. It took me about 40 years to get comfortable telling the story of the day they bombed Camp Verde.

New subject: Ice fishing. I see a lot of e-mail jokes about ice fishing. A few weeks ago, CNN showed ice fishing shanties sinking into lakes in Minnesota because the ice was melting.

Many Minnesotans are spending the winter in Wickenburg, where an official-looking sign on the west end of the Hassayampa River Bridge says, “No Ice Fishing.” If there were ice in the Hassayampa, it would be dry ice.

I finally asked myself, “Jim, why do you get a warm feeling when you think about ice fishing– a feeling that you know what it’s all about? Why, you’ve lived in Arizona all your life.”

It finally came to me that during the winter of 1961-62, I went ice fishing in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. I was a freelance writer, living in Springerville, waiting for a newspaper job to open up somewhere.

Editors at The Arizona Republic asked me to do a feature story about ice fishing at Big Lake in the White Mountains. Trusty Yashicamat camera in hand, I found some hardy souls fishing through the ice there, and it made a cute little story.

I decided to try my hand at ice fishing on Nelson Reservoir, which was much closer to Springerville. I went out one morning, chopped a hole in the ice, and actually caught a couple of rainbow trout. I decided that was fun.

The temperatures would rise, the ice would get soft and dangerous, and we’d have to stay off Nelson until another cold snap. When real cold was forecast, I took a hole out there, greased it up with axle grease and set it in the water so I wouldn’t have to chop another hole.

That winter was challenging. I got busy, and then I got a job at The Republic in Phoenix. I never got back to fish Nelson, but they said during the next hard freeze, trout were popping out of that greased hole, looking for me.

I had worked on snowshoes that winter, researching stories about government watershed research. I hated walking on snowshoes.

But I loved traveling over the top of the snow in a Weasel, a Korean war-vintage snow tractor. The Soil Conservation Service used the Weasel to estimate how much runoff would be available in spring.

One day the crew chief and I stepped off into eight feet of snow without our showshoes. I was five-foot-ten and I went in up to my armpits. The crew chief was five-foot-two, and I had to bob for him.

After that, I had a greater respect for snowshoes. In 1983, I bought a nice pair of snowshoes from the Native American lady who had made them in a village in Quebec.

They were about two inches longer than any place I tried to put them–lockers in bus stations and airports, for instance. And I had to transport those shoes back to Phoenix by bus, rail and airplane.

It was July, and the snowshoes were conspicuous. I convinced one fellow from Toronto that we called them “sand shoes” in Arizona, and that hand-made shoes from Quebec were a status symbol.

They drew attention when we flew from Toronto to Chicago. They fit in the overhead compartment, but first I had to haul them up the aisle and put them there, while everyone was watching and snickering.

When we boarded a plane in Chicago, bound only for Phoenix, passengers and crew were generous with their snickers. I might have been more comfortable trying to board with an inflated, life-size doll.

The unkindest cut, however, came from a French-Canadian bus driver in Quebec City. I had studied a Berlitz “French For Travelers” tape. One question-and-answer sequence didn’t make much sense to me, and I thought I’d never use it: “Is this a round-trip ticket, or two one-way tickets?”

Lo and behold, the Voyageur bus lines ticket was a perforated cash register receipt, each half a one-way ticket to Montreal.

Using exactly the same words as those on the Berlitz tape, the driver asked me in French whether this was a round-trip ticket, or two one-way tickets. I responded in French that it was two one-way tickets.

Then he smiled, looked at the snowshoes, and said in perfect English, “All ready for winter, eh?”

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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