We never did figure out how Hootie Owl could tell us the colors of the cars that approached Snake’s Elbow before the cars came into view.
We were all just kids then, hanging around the store and gas station that Hootie’s folks owned. The place was called Snake’s Elbow because two curving, paved state roads met at a junction that was more like a head-on collision.
Unpaved roads peeled off to other little settlements in the southern end of Coconino County.
Driving down the road, you couldn’t see Snake’s Elbow until you were right on it. We’d hear a car coming, and Hootie Owl would start to listen.
“There’s a red car coming,” he’d say. Or, “Green Ford….white Mack dump truck…blue Pontiac…”
He was right every time. “How do you do that, Hootie Owl?” we’d ask.
We all had nicknames back then, and some of them were cruel. The guys called me “Carpet Tack,” and another kid was called “Booger,” for reasons we don’t need to go into.
When we asked Hootie how he knew a yellow Studebaker was coming, he’d just shrug. He said he really didn’t know how he did it.
Hootie had a squarish head, something like an owl’s head. His face looked flat, pushed in, his nose a thin hook, his eyes wide and round. One day when we were about 12, Hootie said he didn’t want to be called “Hootie” anymore.
From then on, we called him Clarence. We came to understand some of the ways in which Clarence really was like an owl, but to this day, I can’t tell you how he knew the colors of cars he couldn’t see. I don’t think owls can do that.
An owl has ears of different size, and they’re offset on its head–one above the line of sight, the other slightly below. As the owl turns its head to equalize the sound reaching its ears, its eyes are drawn to the source of the sound.
If you looked closely, you could see that Clarence’s ears didn’t match up. We weren’t cruel enough to kid him about that.
I looked it up the other day, and owls can hear high-pitched sounds up to 20,000 cycles per second; humans can only hear up to about 8,500 cycles per second.
Obviously, I don’t know what 20,000 cycles sounds like, and I doubt that Clarence did either, but he’d hear and see things the rest of us didn’t. We’d be talking about sports, or girls, or discussing Dante’s Inferno, and Clarence’s head would jerk slightly. He’d get a really intense look on his face.
He’d whisper, “Got him!” as though a predator had nailed its prey. Or, “Missus Ogden’s cow got out onto the road,” or, “Old Man Marvin can’t get his pump started.”
One day we were walking home from school and Clarence said, “That Amy Strump sure has pretty eyes.”
“Yep,” I said. Amy didn’t hang out with the other kids much because her parents were so strict; they kept her close to home, and church.
A few minutes later, we met Amy walking out of the road that came down from Fetid Creek, holding hands with Sammy Ogden. I could tell Clarence didn’t like that.
We all figured Clarence would be a great hunting partner, and several of us asked him to go deer hunting. Naw, he said, he wouldn’t want to kill anything.
The only time I ever saw a gun in his hand was the day Big Mike Johnson flattened the outhouses at the Snake’s Elbow Bible Church with the county road grader.
This was several years later, when we’d all reached adulthood, if not maturity. Clarence and his wife, the former Norma Strump (Amy’s kid sister) ran the store and gas station. Some of us who’d known Clarence all our lives had started calling him “Hootie” again.
Fortunately, no one was in the privvies at the church, this being a Tuesday afternoon. But en route to the toilets, the road grader had taken out three hundred feet of Sammy Ogden’s pasture fence, and that allowed Sammy’s kid’s 4-H calf to escape onto the road.
Just then, a tourist driving one of those old Buick hardtops with portholes on the front fenders roared through the 25 mph zone at the junction doing more like 50 mph, and scared the calf. The calf either jumped or fell into the abandoned water well at the Snake’s Elbow Elementary School, which also was abandoned.
All hell broke loose in Snake’s Elbow that afternoon, and it took quiet Clarence, steady as a rock, to straighten it all out.
Big Mike was not supposed to be driving the road grader. That job belonged to Walter Slyke, who lived in a frame house right next to Big Mike’s double-wide. Walter brought the grader home at night to keep an eye on it.
Big Mike had been laid off at the planing mill. He drank a lot to while away the time until he got around to looking for another job. That day he had been brooding about suspicions that his wife Mary Ellen was getting too friendly with a customer at the Elbow Grease Bar and Grille, where she was a waitress.
Big Mike convinced himself that Mary Ellen was down there right now flirting with this fellow, and he’d better go check it out. When he tried to start his old pickup, he remembered that the battery had been dead for a week.
He borrowed the road grader. On that day, Walter Slyke was operating a front-end loader at the county gravel pit, so Mike actually borrowed the grader from Walter’s wife, Velma, who said he could take it if she got to go along for the ride. Velma, the youngest of the Strump sisters, complained that she hadn’t been out of the house for weeks.
While Velma and Big Mike were surveying the ruins of the church privvies, it occurred to Velma that she might be in big trouble, and Walter might lose his county job. She claimed she’d been trying to stop Big Mike from stealing the grader, and he forced her to ride along.
Deputy Sheriff Larry Lockjaw had arrived on the scene. He’d always had a crush on Velma, and Lockjaw also was having a problem with reports that his own wife, Sally, was playing around on him.
Not willing to admit that he was really angry at Velma and Walter and Sally, Larry drew his pistol and ordered Big Mike face down in the dirt while he cuffed him.
Big Mike was bellowing that he was just trying to catch his wife cheating, while about 12 feet down in the schoolhouse well, the calf was just bellowing.
Hootie had been inside, tending the store. But he heard things, and he looked disgusted as he walked up to all the commotion. He took the pistol from Larry Lockjaw’s hand. He ordered the deputy go sit in his car.
He directed Sammy Ogden to send his boy Donnie down in the well with a rope to tie around the calf. He told Sammy to drive the grader to pull the calf and the boy to safety.
Then Hootie started talking: “Velma, you weren’t kidnapped. You came along for the ride.
“Big Mike, I heard you pop that first top at 6:30 this morning, and you’ve been drinking all day. Mary Ellen hasn’t been stepping out on you. You forgot that this is her day off. She told you she was going to visit her sister up on Fetid Creek.”
He handed the pistol back to the deputy, saying, “Larry, your wife’s up on Fetid Creek with Mary Ellen. Some of the girls are supposed to be making a quilt to raffle off at the church bazaar, but they’ve started playing this new card game, and it has them addicted. They sneak off to play instead of staying home and keeping house…Sally just won a three-dollar pot, by the way.”
Sammy Ogden asked, “Hootie, is Amy up there playing them damned cards too?”
Hootie looked troubled, cocked his head as though listening, and said, “No, she’s down at the Elbow Grease and…well, Sammy, you might want to talk to Amy. That’s all I want to say.”
He handed back Lockjaw’s gun and told the deputy, “Larry, maybe you could catch that jackass that roared through here in a 1956 Buick Roadmaster and scared the calf into the well. He’s down at the Elbow Grease drinking Budweiser. I’ll testify against him.”
Lockjaw, very subdued, asked, “What color is the Buick?”
“White over red.”