26 ‘Must Do’ items before towing our trailer

U.S. Air Force photo

A riddle: Why is a Scamp camping trailer like a P-38 Lightning World War II twin engine fighter aircraft?

Answer: Because you have to complete a checklist of items before you fly into “combat.” Bear with me; I will explain.

I nicknamed my Scamp “Lightning” this week. One of my bizarre interests is the history of air warfare in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. The story of the rapid ascent from “worst to first” in the combat capabilities of aircraft and air crew of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Air Corps is incredible, almost beyond belief.

In less than three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States evolved from mediocre to preeminent, from an inexperienced and inept air power to the dominating and decisive force in every air, sea, and land battle.

If you have a similar fascination, two books that I recommend are Fire in the Sky – The Air War In The South Pacific by Eric M. Bergerud and Race of Aces – WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky by John R. Bruning. Read Fire in the Sky First; it is more comprehensive, detailed, and factual.

One of the most remarkable achievements of the war was the training of American pilots. How is it possible that the Navy and Army Air Corps could produce some many and such highly skilled airmen in so short a time? These pilots had to be a special breed. For example, the pilot of a twin-engine P-38 fighter had to be capable of performing (if I remember the information in Race of Aces correctly) nine different tasks in less than 30 seconds when an enemy aircraft was sighted.

Turn on the gun sight
Charge the four .50 caliber machine guns and the 20mm canon
Release the auxiliary fuel tanks
Switch fuel feed to internal tanks
Increase manifold pressure
Increase throttle setting of the engines
Adjust air/fuel ratio
Set propeller pitch
Check radio function

All these tasks had to be done manually, with analog controls, under the stress of imminent aerial combat. How could they do this? I would have been a fumbling, bumbling, stammering, fussing mess of incompetence for several minutes – and probably would have been shot down.

This type of attention to detail, this disciplined and orderly drill, has been my downfall during our leisurely vacation in New Mexico. (See – I promised I would explain this enigmatic connection between the Scamp and the P-38.) The desert Southwest is the antithesis of the jungle-covered, hot, and humid environment of the Southwest Pacific Theater during World War II. But irksome checklists lurk in the shadows in both places.

The P-38’s pre-combat checklist was nine items. The Scamp’s pre-towing checklist is 26 items. Twenty-six things that we must do before we can tow the trailer from one campground to the next, and I routinely forget to perform one or two of these tasks every time. There is really no excuse; it’s not as though I am being attacked by a Japanese Zero fighter of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Here is the list:

Before Towing Trailer

1.  Unplug campsite electrical cable
2.  Unfasten city water hose
3.  Crank up trailer stabilizer legs
4.  Drain fresh water tank
5.  Close ceiling vent cover and bathroom ceiling vent
6.  Close and latch all windows
7.  Turn off water heater
8.  Turn off pressure pump
9.  Turn off LP gas furnace
10.  Turn of air-conditioner
11.  Turn off electrical master switch (unless refrigerator should stay on)
12.  Turn off LP gas tanks
13.  Connect trailer coupler to ball hitch – SECURELY
14.  Connect safety chains to the truck’s tow bar
15.  Connect emergency trail brake cable to the truck’s tow bar
16.  Crank up trailer tongue support jack
17.  Remove wheel chocks
18.  Connect trailer electrical cable to pickup truck socket
19.  Check lights on trailer and pickup: brakes, turn signals, running lights
20.  Check tire pressures and lug nuts
21.  Check that all cabinet doors are latched and all items secure
22. Remove microwave oven turntable and store it securely
23.  Lock dead bolt on outside door
24.  Empty black wastewater tank at dump station
25.  Empty gray wastewater tank at dump station
26.  Confirm that all checklist items are completed

To date, I have forgotten to drain the fresh water tank, close and latch all windows, connect the electrical cable to the pickup, check the tire pressure and lug nuts, and securely store the microwave oven turntable. Fortunately, none of these oversights has resulted in the Lightning being shot down.

It’s just a matter of time, I suppose, before I neglect to crank up the stabilizer legs, unfasten the city water hose, unplug the cord to the campsite electrical box, or close the ceiling vent cover, any of which will cause some serious damage if not a complete crash of our Southwest vacation.

I am trying my best to avoid that. To the annoyance of my Beautiful Blonde Wife, as I prepare to drive away from our most recent campsite I chant, “All checklist items completed, all systems are go, and we’re ready for takeoff!”

U.S Air Force photo

Admittedly, my Scamp-Lightning flights have little in common with P-38 combat missions in the Southwest Pacific and more resemble a C-47 cargo airplane towing a Waco CG4A glider full of airborne troops. But that’s not nearly as romantic. And I’m sure the Waco gliders and C-47s had checklists way more complicated than the Scamp.

Maybe I should change the Scamp’s nickname from the P-38’s “Lightning” to the C-47’s “Gooney Bird.” The official nickname of the C-47 was “Skytrain,” but the Gooney Bird is more my style.

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Camper clutter

Shikata ga nai

After 27 days of nomadic life in the Scamp camping trailer, many of our former criteria for a happy household have been revised to conform to the new normal. For example, the definitions of the terms “organized,” “cluttered,” “tidy,” “neat,” “clean,” and “orderly.” We have found through experience that all these concepts are to be regarded as subjective. Highly subjective.

Falling back on my college days studies of Japanese history and culture, I have accepted that these shortfalls in domesticity can all be attributed to the Shinto philosophical belief in shikata ga nai – loosely translated as “It cannot be helped,” or “It is fated.” Clearly, there have been some misfortunes that were fated, that could not be helped: a sand storm, a plague of grass burs, snap freezes in the middle of the night, a faulty valve in the camper’s fresh water tank, a dog that has reacted to the onset of springlike weather by shedding her winter coat.

But there are several that have can have only one cause: our tyro status in the itinerant life. Who besides the most clueless of neophytes would put all the clean underwear and socks in the lowest plastic tub in the stack?

Or –

Put into one large plastic bag all the electronic device cords that have become a tangle that rivals the Gordian Knot?

Fail to familiarize himself with the procedure for replacing a propane tank?

Place unsecured items in overhead cabinets?

Forget to pack dog boots for a trip into the desert Southwest?

Not realize that a broadside wind would blow water heater exhaust back inside the camper, thus triggering the carbon monoxide sensor (which required 15 minutes of reading owners’ manuals until the piercing, maddening beep-beep-beep of the alarm could be shut off)?

Neglect to pack an extra supply of hearing aid batteries?

Think that the wind would not be a daily torment in the mountains?

Expect drivers to hold their speed under 80-90 miles per hour on Interstate Highways.?

Trust Google Maps to show construction zones on secondary roads?

Think that state park campground site reservation policies would be consistent?

Or expect the camper’s small refrigerator would hold a sufficiently large supply of canned beer to deal with these annoyances?

We are learning important lessons. Good decisions are based on experience, it is said, and most experience is based on bad decisions.

Years of drought in the Southwest and irrigation water drawn from 15 impoundment dams along the river’s course have combined to make the Rio Grande a series of pools — muddy puddles, in fact — along the valley below Elephant Butte Reservoir.

I end this blog post with a comment on the fabled Rio Grande, the legendary river that winds its way 1,900 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of Colorado, provides irrigation on its course through New Mexico, and forms the border between Texas and Mexico. Years of drought in the Southwest, which will almost certainly worsen as climate change extends the range of these deserts, has reduced the Rio Grande to water flows lower than a typical creek in the upper Midwest.

The15 water impoundment dams along the river’s course have effectively eliminated the flow in the lower 1,000-plus miles of the Rio Grande Valley. The largest, and penultimate, of these impoundments is the Elephant Butte Reservoir, which has a campground where we will be staying the next several days. We have seen that the reservoir’s water level is significantly lower than on our visit two years ago, probably 5-10 feet lower.

Since the domestic water rights claimed by downstream cities along the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Texas almost certainly hold sway over irrigation agriculture rights, expect a violent political war in the next few years. I can imagine most of these flood-irrigation orchards of pecan trees and row crop fields of peppers, onions, and alfalfa reverting to desert, and thousands of people in small towns that are ag-dependent being displaced.

For now, this section of the river below Elephant Butte Reservoir is a dismal series of mud puddles, but still the wintering range of thousands of sandhill cranes. Our French spaniel Abbey also found two coveys of resident bobwhite quail along the riparian hiking trail. With many dozens of other migratory species that winter here, it is also a popular Birding Trail for birders who tote 10-power binoculars and cameras with long telephoto lenses. Odd folks, but who am I, a Crazy Old Coot, too label someone as odd?

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(South)Westerward Ho! – Part 2

If a picture is worth a thousand words, one of Aaron Lurth’s photographs is worth 10,000-plus. One of my photos, on the other hand, is usually worth about 100 words, maybe 200 on a day I capture a striking visual image by sheer good luck.

But the best of writers could not possibly find the language to express the magnificence of the landscapes of the Southwest. There is no way to describe the semi-arid plains, the sweep of open country, hulking mountains, playas, arroyos, sand dunes, the jagged rock formations, the incongruity of dammed streams in deep canyons now filled with the dark blue water of manmade lakes. How could I find words to depict the solitary wind tortured piñon pine or desert willow tree clinging to life in a mountainside snowmelt watercourse that is bone dry nine months of the year?

Hemingway was not truly able to make the reader “see” the grandeur of East Africa’s hills and plains or Spain’s arid mountains and plateaus, so it would be foolish for me to try to write the kind of prose (or even poetry) that could reveal the stark beauty of the Southwest. Therefore, I offer a dozen or so of my inadequate 100-word-value photographs in this post about our winter journey through New Mexico.

These photos were taken during hikes along trails in the northeast, central, and south-central regions of the state. Photos of panorama landscapes are doomed to fail because they do not provide the viewer with a 360-degree visage, the true splendor of the scene, the “here” and the “now” of this place, this moment. And they certainly do not reveal the 75 million years of geologic history that shaped them, that “posed” them, for a flash-in-time. They are, in a sense, the worst of snapshots.

Nevertheless, I present these photos in the manner that someone who survived the sinking of the Titanic would offer a splinter of polished wood or scrap of bright brass work in the vain hope that you could somehow see, and understand, the whole of the ship, the essence of the experience. I urge you to travel and see these vistas yourself.

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Southwest musings on a day off

How do you define “A Day Off” when you are retired? Isn’t every day a sort of “day off”?

Be that as it may, we are taking a couple days off from our winter travels in the Southwest due to high winds and a snowstorm. I have become more confident towing the Scamp camping trailer on windy days, but when the weather advisory warns of constant 30 mile-per-hour wind with gusts up to 50 miles-per-hour, I decided that discretion is the better part of valor and declined to accept the challenge of driving in dangerous conditions to achieve the dubious reward of a campsite in another southeastern New Mexico state park.

After all, a desert is only a desert, but a good cigar is a smoke. I apologize for that Kiplingesque non sequitur, but I forgot to pack my box of cigars at the start of our odyssey and am now suffering from nicotine deprivation. Which may be responsible for today’s musings and rambling thoughts while we are confined in the Scamp while snow showers and winds eliminate our usual hikes and sightseeing excursions.

Musing 1:

State park campgrounds resemble retirement villages. True, the parks’ scenic vistas are usually more engaging and restful, and there is no community center where elderly residents play pinochle, nor have we witnessed daily deliveries of Meals-On-Wheels. But the clientele is invariably people of a certain age, Baby Boomers traveling (literally) through the last few miles of life’s marathon.

Admittedly there is some diversity. Campground nomads range from aging flower children living in decades-old Volkswagen camper buses decorated with images of unicorns and peace signs, to 50-year treadmill business executives forced into retirement who drive $200,000 motorhomes with stickers boasting they have experienced the marvels of Branson, Missouri, to widows towing pop-up campers who are free to do the traveling they always wanted to do now that their deadbeat anchor of a husband is finally dead.

Our commonality is that we are all white people in our 70s and 80s, a bit weary of all the madness of world and being forced to participate in that madness. Another thing we share: We need walking sticks if we venture off a paved roadway or trail. And almost all of us are traveling with dogs. The sweatshirt of a woman walking a pair of mixed-breed terriers on leash bore a message that summed it up: I prefer my dogs because… People!

Musing 2

We hiked the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site a few days ago, and as always in the presence of ancient ruins I experienced the humbling feeling of my insignificance upon this part of the Earth that has known the touch of humankind’s hand for 20,000 years or more.

Petroglyph means “rock carvings” but these prehistoric objets d’art are more like rock etchings. Near Tularosa, New Mexico, the Three Rivers site is somewhat remote, four miles off a state highway that is itself a route through desolate country. The site is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is open to the public.

Of the site’s two hiking trails, the northern trail has the larger number of petroglyphs. It is also a more rugged walk, up and along a ridgeback that weaves among the hundreds of etchings. There are more than 21,000 of these petroglyphs in this valley between mountain ranges that was once the land of the people that archaeologists now call the Jornada Mogollon (pronounced muggy-own).

They did not call themselves Mogollon, of course; that was the name of a Spanish governor of New Spain that became the designation for this geographic region. The civilization that flourished here from about 200-1450 CE probably called themselves (in their long-lost language) “The People.” They built villages of semi-subterranean structures (pit houses with superstructures), cultivated corn, beans, and squash, hunted game, and made ceramic pottery.

The majority of the petroglyphs were probably made by the Jornada Mogollon, although some are thought to date back as far as 2,000 BCE. The images etched into the patina on the face of the boulders varied. Some clearly represent animals, others are geometric patterns, and many found predominantly in this valley are of a curious dot-and-circle design.

Anthropologists and archaeologists can only guess what these images mean or why they were made. My theory is that they are the paleolithic version of graffiti. Like the spray-painted artwork on train cars, bridges, trestles, tunnels, and other sure-to-be-noticed edifices, prehistoric popular-culture artists whose skills ranged from expert to amateurish etched their pictographs, some scratched shallowly into a rock’s face, others cut more deeply with a stone chisel and hammer. The answer to the “why” question is (for me) even more simple. All forms of art represent some aspect of the human experience. These stone age artists are making a statement set quite literally in stone:

I am human.


I am expressing my wonderment with my presence in this world with all its abundance.


I was here and have left this record of my time upon the Earth.”

Musing 3:

On this escapist journey, song lyrics are continually reverberating in my brain, escapees from some hidden fold of my temporal lobe, released from the neuro cells that hold them in stasis until a key word is spoken or memorable chord of music is played. The words set to music are often locked in a Repeat-Play cycle that can be maddening but frequently evokes bittersweet remembrance of a cherished time in my life.

This photo taken at the petroglyph site is not directly connected to Musing 3, but a 30 mile-per-hour wind gust at the ridge top of the trail keyed the John Denver tune “Windsong,” beginning the repeat/play cycle in my brain for a couple hours.

My deafness no longer allows me to hear music; it is all cacophonous noise. But I can “hear” a song that is imbedded in my memory as clearly as the first time that I truly heard it and was mesmerized by its music and lyrics. Since I have no musical ability of my own – I cannot follow a tune when I sing or play any musical instrument – it is strange that so many emotions and memories, both happy and sad, are evoked by these remembered songs.

It’s mostly music of 1960s and 70s, of course. Maybe because life was so much more intense and consequential then. Eclectic: that is how best to describe the ghost songs. Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beach Boys, Heart, Buffalo Springfield, Eva Cassidy Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Toto, Diana Ross, Judy Collins, The Beatles, John Denver, Alabama, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Rivers, The Byrds, Joan Baez, The Stylistics, Linda Ronstadt, Van Morrison, Gordon Lightfoot, The Kinks, Roy Orbison, Jimmy Webb, Elton John, The Mamas and the Papas, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Jim Croce, Nanci Griffith, Bob Seger, Dire Straits, Leonard Cohen, and Bonnie Tyler to name a few. And of course “One Toke Over the Line,” by one-hit wonder Brewer & Shipley.

The lyrics of an old Jimmy Durante tune titled “It’s One of Those Songs” tell it best:

Later on you recall it in some other year.
You may start to smile. You may shed a tear.
You find that one part of your lifetime belongs
To one of those wonderful songs.

And that’s all I got to say about that.

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(South)Westward Ho! – Part 1

Lava formation at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area on Bureau of Land Management federal property near Carrizozo, New Mexico.

Winter in the North Country can be beautiful, but there is simply too much of it.

Especially for an Old Coot whose arthritic joints ache and creak whenever January temperatures dip below the bright blue line that marks zero degrees Fahrenheit on the thermometer on our deck. That’s 18 degrees below zero on the right side of the thermometer with the Celsius scale, which seems even more brutal before I have imbibed my morning dose of high-caffeine coffee and ibuprofen.

By February 1, we had enjoyed more of this winter than we could bear. We packed six plastic tubs with clothes, hiking boots, hats, groceries, dog food, an assortment of tools, and other vacation gear and stacked them within and atop the shelving unit I had built into the box of the Ranger pickup in preparation for our escape from the Arctic. I shoveled the Scamp camping trailer out of the two-foot snow drift that surrounded its parking pad, hitched it to the towbar of the truck, hooked up the chains, connected the electrical cable, and begged a favor from the winter gods that everything would work properly. It did.

Midmorning we told our French spaniel Abbey to leap into the back seat, and we climbed aboard after stowing the last of the bags and boxes of books, notebooks, binoculars, two dog beds, leads and tie-out ropes, a roadmap travel atlas, cell phones, computer laptops, Kindles, I-Pads, I-Pods, and a dozen charge cords and other accessories. “Did you remember to pack the mole traps?” I asked my Beautiful Blonde Wife. She was not amused. So far, we have not needed the mole traps.

I shifted the transmission into 4-wheel-drive, and we busted through a snow drift that had blown across our driveway. A gale force wind was howling from the west-northwest, and the North Country roads were snow-swept. Because I have not had a lot of experience towing a trailer, especially a trailer with the high profile of the Scamp, I crept along with white-knuckle caution at 50 miles per hour. Consequently, we arrived at the first destination of our winter travel adventure – Omaha – after sunset.

First three days of our trip we stayed at our daughter’s family’s home in Omaha. Sub-zero weather in Nebraska discouraged our plunge into a night of winter camping in the Scamp.

Searching for an unfamiliar campground along a pitch-dark, narrow, two-lane county road with no shoulders is no way to end a seven-hour drive on a wind-tossed February day. Eventually we found it, and surprise!, although the campground’s website reported it was open with several sites available for trailers, it was not.

In retrospect, that may have been a blessing. Setting up during a sub-zero Nebraska night would have put too much strain on our nascent winter vacation. Fortunately, we had a Plan B.

We drove to our daughter’s family’s home in Papillion, backed the trailer and truck into her driveway, and crashed at her house the following three days. Three bitter cold days with high winds and the forecast of a possible snowstorm insisted that we stay snug and warm and well-fed. Also, our son-in-law, a retired U.S. Navy flight officer, has the best military aviation private library in the nation, so I had unlimited reading material to peruse in a comfortable easy chair in front of a fireplace. An added bonus: we had supper one evening with long-time friends who live in Omaha and all of us agreed that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we don’t like it.

The morning of February 4, we were back on the road with the Scamp in tow. The wind was still blowing 20 miles per hour, and we were driving into the teeth of it as we headed west on I-80, a stretch of interstate highway that is the equivalent of a Xanax entrèe with a main course of Prozac. After too many hours on the road we pulled into the Nebraska Game & Parks public campground at Johnson Lake, about 10 miles south of Lexington. This was our first real attempt at winter camping, and it went smoothly, at least as smoothly as possible for people who believe that an electric heater will keep the Scamp as warm as the trailer’s propane heater. It did not.

After a breakfast of bagels and coffee heated in the microwave, we were on the road again, headed southwest to Dodge City, Kansas. First settled in 1872 as a station on the Santa Fe Railroad, Dodge City quickly became a railhead for shipping cattle driven overland in huge herds from sprawling ranches across the shortgrass prairie. Practically lawless and teeming with wild and inebriated cowhands who entertained themselves by patronizing the saloons, gambling halls, whorehouses, and engaging in almost nightly gunfights, Dodge was known as “The Wickedest City in the West.”

Our observation was that it may have slipped to a lower rank on the “Wickedest” list but still rates high in the “Nastiest” category with its slaughter houses, casinos, railroads, disingenuous tourism attractions, and sub-par KOA campground. And that’s all I got to say about that.

Off we went the next morning, bidding farewell to nasty Dodge and headed for the tiny Oklahoma town of Boise City. For those who plan to drive a couple hundred miles through southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle, I offer this advice: DON’T. However, if you insist on making this journey across a Martian landscape, I do recommend staying at Wild Bill’s RV and Trailer Park in the heart of Boise City, population 1,138 and the county seat of Cimarron County.

Wild Bill’s is spartan but clean with much better amenities than the aforementioned KOA, including a putt-putt golf course which we were unable to play since it was buried in six inches of snow. Just four blocks down Main Street there is a good Mexican restaurant, operating in a remodeled 1950s-era Texaco service station, one of the dozens of two-pump, “last chance” fuel stops, built of cinder blocks with white stucco facing, trim paint fading and peeling. These empty husks along state highways in rural states were once thriving places that have been driven out of business by the sprawling supersized service plazas with 20-plus gasoline and diesel pumps, a convenience store, and a fast-food restaurant. One-building ghost towns.

Shortly after sunrise we took our leave of Boise City and Wild Bill’s, vowing to stop there on our return journey – one night only, and only if we retrace our route across Oklahoma. Admittedly, an unlikely scenario.

The Cimarron region of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles may have a certain beauty when its shortgrass prairies burst into bloom in the spring. In February, however, it is a desiccated and drear landscape, a featureless flat plain where starving hawks feed on road-killed jackrabbits. The highway we drove bridged several rivers and creeks; only one had a trace of water, and its stagnant edges were crusted with alkali.

But for all its harsh and desolate appearance, the Cimarron open range was far better than the miles and miles of cattle feeding operations at Dahlhart, Texas, an ecological nightmare that makes you wonder if people would dare to eat this beef if they could witness how it is produced in these manure and urine-soaked feed lots. This is stark evidence that America’s food production system has evolved into something that even Mordor would shun. It is almost as bad as Iowa’s farm country which is covered in hog manure and poisoned by herbicides and nitrate fertilizers that have made the state’s soil lifeless and its surface waters the most polluted in the nation.

After three days of driving across the flat and featureless shortgrass prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, we were suddenly into the rolling hills, mesas, mountains, lakes, playas, and arroyos of New Mexico.

As we slogged along the final miles of Texas highways, the sun was shining but our mood was in the dark cave of a vile necromancer when suddenly – Hey! Presto! – we crossed the border into New Mexico where the bright magic of some benevolent wizard transported us into a realm of rolling hills, mesas, mountains, playas, and arroyos. And cattle grazing on the sparse native grasses of the open range. Now this was more like it.

We rolled into the town of Logan and took a state route that paralleled the Canadian River Valley to the Ute Lake State Park, a place that will forever hold our affection because for the first day and night on this southwest excursion the weather was warm. Sweatshirt and ballcap warm. Sleep under a single blanket warm. Bask in a camp chair in the sunlight warm.

We camped two nights at Ute Lake State Park, two more at Sumner Lake State Park, and then gambled on a stay at a federal Bureau of Land Management Recreation Area known as the Valley of Fires. Formed by lava flows that erupted from a valley floor 2,000-5,000 years ago, this area is one of the most stunning and ruggedly beautiful places we have ever camped at.

We decided to stay here four days, at least, to learn about this area, do some hiking, and of course bake the North Country winter chills out of our bones.

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. Our trailer house has been whirled away on cyclone winds high over the rainbow to the fabled Land of Oz. Although we did not meet any Munchkins, we certainly enjoyed a warm welcome, and we found the first paving stones on the Yellow Brick Road that will lead us further south.

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For Auld Lang Syne

An end-of-year tradition at Dispatches from a Northern Town: Scots poet Robert Burns’ For Old Lang Syne.

Written in 1788 by Burns (1759-1796) in Scots language, the poem was set to the tune of a traditional Scottish folk song in 1799. The song has been a NewYear’s Eve standard, bidding us to remembering not only the past year but the many joys and melancholies of all our lives

For Auld Lang Syne
(Burns’ original poem)

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

For Auld Lang Syne
(The English language version most often sung)

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the hills,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

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Shotgun stock repair

AFTER MOPING AROUND for a day because I had clumsily fallen while bird hunting and damaged the buttstock of my favorite shotgun, I decided not to commit suicide but instead have the gun repaired. This Browning BSS 20 gauge Sporter has accompanied me on hundreds of hunts in its 40 years of service and I decided the gun deserved to be repaired and again taken afield in the few years of bird hunting that remain to me.

I was heartsick when I fell and broke chips out of the buttstock of my favorite birdgun, my BSS 20 gauge Sporter.

Knowing that stock work on old double guns (this BSS was manufactured in 1981) would be expensive, I was prepared to bite the bullet – or technically, the shotshell – and pay what it cost to restore the side-by-side back to working condition. Little did I know that the price of restoration would exceed the price of a new shotgun.

In my state of innocence about repairing double guns, I contacted the gunsmithing firm that had completely reconditioned this gun about 20 years ago. I sent photos of the damaged buttstock and requested an estimate. The company had done excellent work, literally restoring the BSS to new condition. I had great confidence in their work and was expecting they would work similar magic with the damaged BSS, probably for $500. Silly me.

The company quickly responded to my email with a terse message: “We no longer service double barrel shotguns.”

What? The gunsmiths who bill themselves as “Browning Specialists” no longer service double guns? Browning’s specialty is the manufacture of double guns. But there it was: strike one. I would have to search elsewhere for a gunsmith that would and could repair this stock.

I searched the web and sent out several requests. Many went unanswered, and others had a reply similar to the first response: “We do not repair the stocks of side-by-side double guns.”

The chip broken from the oppsite side was worse, and I could not find the missing chip.

On the advice of one of the Over The Hill Gang, I contacted a company that produces virtually any type of stock for any firearm. The shop was quick to respond. They would not repair the BSS buttstock, they said, but they would make a replacement stock. For $1,295. Plus additional charges for checkering it to match the forearm pattern.

Add more cost to refinish the stock, and the forearm if I so desired. standard Plus shipping costs. The wait list for this work would be about four-five months, I was told.

Hmmmm.

The last I checked, this same BSS 20 gauge Sporter, which was manufactured in Japan from 1971-87, could be purchased for $2,500 in mint condition. The BSS in my gun safe is by no stretch of the imagination in mint condition. The stock has been shortened to fit me, and it is much used. Very much used. I’m guessing this gun would sell for $1,800 tops.

Which would be close to the price this stocking firm is charging for a new buttstock. This was not, as they say, financially advantageous for me. But it did fire my indignation and my resolve to fix the BSS myself. I had previously done this sort of repair on a double gun (albeit a comparatively simple and blocky Savage-Stevens-Fox BSE in 12 gauge), and I was willing to again test my tyro gunsmith woodworking skills. Especially in the face of a $1,500-plus repair cost.

Even if my repair efforts were unsuccessful, I would be no worse off than before. If I had to retire the BSS and hunt with it no more, cloister it in a dark corner of my gun safe, and let it molder until my estate sale, so be it.

Of course I am being too harsh with the stocking firms that will no longer work on side-by-side double guns. When a buttstock on this type of gun splits, cracks, or chips, it is likely to re-split, re-crack, or re-chip again after it has been repaired, even though using the best shaping, pegging, gluing, and refitting skills of a gunsmith who is an accomplished woodworker.

“Do Not Repair – Replace!” has become the slogan of most American workover shops. Considering that stock restoration requires several hours of a craftsman’s time – at more than $75 per hour – and the result is sometimes uncertain, the wise decision is to replace the stock.

But $1,500-plus for replacement? On a gun that I purchased brand new for $600? No, I will try to repair it myself.

When I took a face-plant pratfall while afield and landed atop the BSS, the result was two chips of wood broken from the buttstock where it meets the face of the receiver near the trigger plate. The chips were not huge, and the stock was fortunately not split, but the damage was far greater than the typical field dents and scratches that a birdgun acquires over the years. The stock would clearly have to be repaired.

Fortunately, I found one of the walnut chips. Unfortunately, I could not find the other. Needless to say, I was distraught and cursed myself as a clumsy lout.

This slice of walnut used to repair one of the gaps in the buttstock was about two inches in length. Required a few hours of work to cut and file and sand it to fit.

The BSS lay on my workbench for a few days, and when I had worked up courage to attempt it, my repair plan was begun. I removed the barrels and forearm, took off the butt plate, and inserted a long-bladed screwdriver to unscrew the draw bolt that fastens the buttstock to the receiver. No go. The draw bolt was frozen tight.

Clamping the stock and receiver in the vice and applying maximum torque to remove the bolt seemed to me a bad idea. The likely outcome was additional damage to the thin walnut where it met the receiver’s face and where the top and bottom tangs are recessed into the stock. I decided to repair the damage without removing the buttstock.

Mixing a couple generous globs of epoxy glue, I coated the chip that I had found, pressed it into the corresponding gap in the buttstock and clamped it for the 10 minutes the epoxy instructions said it would take to glue to bond. That was the easy part.

Setting the stock on the workbench, I measured the dimensions of the gap for which I had no corresponding chip. Then I went out to find a suitable piece of walnut to shape for the replacement piece. Since I have about three cords of walnut stacked in the wood shed, some of it four years old, it was just a matter of matching the wood color as closely as possible.

From a 12-inch piece of firewood I split off a two-inch sliver using a chisel. The gap in the buttstock was, of course, a with-the-grain split and as such an irregular shape. I used a small file and an exacto knife set to make the gap more regular with flat faces and a square end rather then a tapering splinter. I eyed the small split of walnut that would be used for repair, made my best guess, and went to work with the exacto knife blades, file, sandpaper of several grades, and an emory board nail file.

This shape a bit, try it to fit, shape a bit, try it to fit, shape a bit, try it to fit took three hours. And immeasurable patience. Which I do not ordinarily possess.

Not professional-looking, but professional gunstock repair is impossible to find.

Eventually I had a replacement chip that fit the gap pretty darn close. The front right corner was a 64th of an inch too low, but I was not about to start all over. I repeated the procedure with the epoxy glue, clamped the chip, prayed, and set aside the buttstock for the night.

Next morning I removed the clamp and began work with 150-grade sandpaper to smooth the chip so that it would be contiguous with the line of the buttstock’s “wrist” or grip. That part of the project seemed to go well, except that I scratched the metal of the receiver when the sandpaper wore its way through the protective layer of masking tape. Damn! Well, if that’s the worst thing to go wrong it’s a minor matter.

The “found” chip side of the trigger plate also required some sanding because it had rough edges. When the shaping was completed, I applied a thin coat of epoxy over the top of the chips on both side of the trigger plate. That was probably a mistake; the glue hardened to an uneven surface that I had to sand off.

I opted to treat both chips and the sanding-scarred surfaces of the wrist with linseed oil. I have no idea how that will work, but it has served well for many minor stock repairs, resulting in a nice glow after many applications.

After allowing two hours for everything to harden and dry, I reattached the barrels and forearm to the BSS and with much dread and anxiety opened it, closed it, and dry-fired it with snap caps a few times, each time cocking the gun to see if the press of the cocking levers against the action and wood might dislodge my repairs. Everything seemed to hold.

Finished.

These repairs do not look professional, but then there is no longer any professional repair available. Not sure when I will have the courage to test fire this double gun with live ammunition. Maybe never. But I feel I have done right by the old BSS to restore its looks, however roughly, and its workings. At least I will not have to gaze upon it in shame and disgrace each time I look into the gun safe.

And it might go for a good price at my estate sale.

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Troubles come in threes

An old folk adage cautions us that troubles come in threes. If an annoyance or mishap besets us, we can expect two more of the same type in short order.

I hope this Rule of Three is valid because I have had my trio of misfortunes this December and should be quit for the month as we enter the home stretch of this Christmas season. In quick order, my torments have been a pickup truck topper, three ground blinds, and a birdgun. Strangely (or maybe fittingly), all three have disrupted my hunting seasons and vexed me greatly.

Bent hatch cover and gap in the door frame. The “white spot” is not damage to the topper, it is glare from an overhead light.

First the topper. Having taken delivery of a new Ford Ranger the first week of December, I was eager to have a fiberglass topper installed to make this truck into the complete hunter’s package. Birddogs, bird guns, boots, jackets, vests, hats and other various gear of the trade should not be exposed to the weather in an open box, or piled haphazardly in the cab’s cargo storage space or on the backseat.

 Many years ago I built a compartmented shelf unit that slides into a pickup truck’s box to assure “There is a place for everything, and everything is in its place.” Some rude members of the Over the Hill Gang have remarked on my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I prefer to think of it as strict attention to detail that has often benefited us all. Having a spray can of WD40 and a 25-foot length of electrical extension cord in the truck’s tool box, for example.

Hence the need for a topper.

But the installation by Truckin’ America in Rochester, Minnesota did not go well. For starters, I do not think that attaching a fiberglass shell pre-fabricated to the Ford Ranger’s dimension and specifications should require three hours. But I could live with that; painstaking attention to workmanship can be a virtue. What I could not lived with was the finished product.

The topper’s lift-hatch door was warped and bent and failed to seal against the frame by a good half inch. The front window had a similar but smaller gap all around its frame. Drawing on 40 years of experience with toppers on pickups, I knew that dusty roads and driving rains can penetrate and foul all the gear the shell is intended to protect.

To his credit, the Truckin’ America manager realized his crew’s installation was shoddy and immediately said he would order a new hatch and window and have them both properly fitted. This work is scheduled for the last week in December. In the meantime, I am dealing with the incursion of dirt and rain. Failing to remember that the shell was leaky, I drove it through the automatic carwash last week. Big mistake.

Okay, that’s not the worst of miseries, definitely a First World problem of too much white middle class privilege. An annoyance that can be cured by a 150-mile drive to-and-from the shop and a wasted day. Assuming the repair is correctly done.

Do not be a petty OCD jerk, I told myself. And in a couple days I was my normal cheerful and optimistic self. (For the record, I am not a cheerful and optimistic person. I am a curmudgeon.) Seeking a peaceful state of mind, I repeated my personal mantra a couple hundred times (Stuff Happens – Get Used To It) and accepted my misfortune.

That grudging acceptance of fate was three days before the Winds of Doom swept across the upper Midwest. You probably read about it in the news. Heck, even the New York Times published an article about those wind storms, and the Times seldom gives a hoot about us out here in the Midwest.

All through the night the wind howled in a mad rage, a constant 40 miles-per-hour blast with intermittent 60 miles-per-hour gusts. The windows shook in their casings, the shingles on the roof flapped and clattered, and smoke from the woodstove was forced back down the chimney to cloud the kitchen.

The wind direction shifted through the points of the compass: roaring across our farm from the southeast, the west, swinging around to due north. We were certain these circling swirls of wind were the prelude to a tornado, but in the pitch dark of night we never spotted a funnel cloud. This storm could not properly be called a derechco, those storms with straight line winds that blow with hurricane force, because it seemed to whirl around us from everywhere.

The day’s high temperature, by the way, was 69 degrees, the warmest December day ever recorded in this county’s 129 years of weather data. To those who deny climate change and its potential to cause severe storms that devastate our lives and property, I can only say: FOOLS!

Come sunrise, the winds dropped to a “gentle” 20 to 25-miles-per-hour, and we ventured out to assess the damage. A few dozen trees had been blown down or were snapped off at mid-trunk, and thousands of branches were scattered everywhere, ranging from several as big around as my leg to others the circumference of my wrist. But Aeolus, that Greek god of the winds, must have taken pity on us: there was no major damage to the house or garage or outbuildings.

My ground blinds for deer hunting, however, were not spared.

The most sturdily built ground blind looked like a crashed World War I biplane. The Red Baron of the Wind Storm shot it to pieces.

Walking through my inspection tour across the hayfields on the west side of our place, I found the tarp-covered panels of one blind: lumps and tangles of wreckage strewn across the field, a piece here, a piece there, and none salvageable. A second blind had disappeared altogether, apparently hoisted airborne like Mary Poppins in flight beneath her parasol. I may find it someday in the treetops of my neighbors’ woods, but it is possible that it was blown a half mile into the valley where it plunged into the river and set sail for New Orleans.

The final blind was the furthest to the south, was the most sturdily constructed, and was well anchored between 15-foot-tall cedar trees in our shelter belt. It was beaten to a pulp. The gales had tipped it over, crushed it, smashed it to rubble. Its PVC framework was shattered and its wire braces were a tangle that looked like a crashed World War I biplane. I was unable to imagine the force of the winds that caused this carnage but I was thankful I was not in the blind when the storm hit.

Only one of my four blinds survived, and it suffered very little damage. Go figure. My guess is that it was the smallest and presented the lowest-profiled and least-resistant target for the wind. Note to self: construct all future blinds on the pattern of this one.

Well, the worst of this December’s disasters are over, I consoled myself. We have had our share of bad luck.

I was wrong.

Two days ago I escaped from more productive chores to enjoy an afternoon of pheasant hunting. I took my most beloved double gun, a Browning BSS Sporter in 20 gauge with English stock, the gun that has been my favorite for more than 40 years. Of course, that gun became misfortune number three.

Following my French spaniel Abbey at a pace that was too fast for an old man, I tripped over a gopher mound and made a full face-plant pratfall. Right on top of my shotgun.

My beloved BSS Sporter double gun in 20 gauge. When I discovered the damage, I was inconsolable. You clumsy lout!

I heard it crack, and discovered that two chips of wood had been broken out of the buttstock where it meets the face of the receiver. I was inconsolable. Broken hearted. Miserable. How could I be so clumsy? Such a lout!

Returning home, I sent a message to Midwest Gun Works asking them, pleading with them, to repair the damage. I am awaiting MGW’s reply. The firm completely reconditioned this BSS about 20 years ago, and I can only hope their stock makers can fix this.

Troubles come in threes, and I pray that this adage holds true for our December of catastrophes. Yes, I know that pickup topper can be fixed, new ground blinds built, and the BSS stock repaired. But for the moment I feel as though the fabled luck of the Irish (aye, bad luck at every turn of life) has landed upon me like a hod load of bricks.

And, dammit, I should not be plagued with the luck of the Irish. I’m Welsh. The gods of mayhem ought to know that!

I am not venturing out again until Christmas weekend. Bah! Humbug!

But I do wish my readers a happy holiday season and offer my sincere wishes that this first month of the winter has treated all of you better.

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First bird hunt with Mov’alon Rouge

First bird hunt with the new Ford Ranger pickup, nicknamed Mov’alon Rouge. Abbey expresses her displeasure with taking photos rather than getting to the business of pheasant hunting. The first snowstorm of the winter of 2021-22 is descending on the North Country today, so our first bird hunt was more symbolic than real, but Rouge provided good service for the morning and I am liking this pickup. Abbey, however, was ambivalent about riding in the back seat of the crew cab rather than her usual perch in The Catbird Seat. We will have to see how that works out. Looking forward to many years of hunts with Rouge.

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Final bird hunt with Old Gray

All good things must come to an end.

Old Gray, my faithful 2006 Ford F-150 pickup, is the best truck I have ever owned. Saying good-bye to this rig that has taken me on hundreds of hunts both near and far was a sad day.

But what better way to end our time together than a final pheasant hunt on familiar ground?

Next week, Old Gray’s duties will be assumed by a Ford Ranger pickup I have tentatively nicknamed Move-Along Rouge. Rouge will not have the career that Gray has enjoyed; I simply do not have that many years of hunting left in me. But it is time for a change, and Rouge will be better suited to tow our Scamp trailer to the warmth of the Southwest states each winter.

It is time for a change. But I’m going to miss this old Ford F-150. A lot.

Gray wasn’t always old, of course. He was a youngster when he became my truck in 2008. That was the year my ’93 GMC pickup, Rugged Red, was clearly ailing and failing and had reached the stage of its mechanical life when I could no longer depend on it to make another journey to the high plains shortgrass prairies for a sharptail grouse hunt.

Rugged Red was a damned good truck, but looking back, it did not measure up to Old Gray’s many years of hard work, long drives, and trouble-free service. This reliable charcoal gray F-150 never gave me much mechanical trouble, except for an exhaust recycling valve on one Nebraska Sandhills hunt (which was easily replaced by the local Ford dealership in Valentine), and a worn-out universal joint in the steering column (which was repaired in one day by the local Ford dealership in my hometown of Decorah).

The pickup’s 4.6-liter Triton V8 engine did everything I asked of it: towing boats and trailers, off-roading in 4WD, firewood hauling, farm work, pulling other vehicles out of ditches, stretching barbed wire for fencing, and traveling highways and byways for more than 130,000 miles on hunting and camping trips. On Old Gray’s final day, that engine was running as smoothly as it did 14 years ago when I drove it off the Ford sales lot.

Old Gray hauled more than 20 field-dressed deer carcasses from our woodlands and hayfields over the years, but more important from my point of view were the countless upland gamebirds that came home packed in coolers and crates from our days of hunts with dog and shotgun: pheasants, quail, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, woodcock, doves, and one unfortunate snipe.

Gray took me on hunting trips all across Iowa and to North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He rolled along highways in at least eight other states on holiday and vacation trips, usually carrying a birddog or two. The subtle odor of wet dog was part of Old Gray’s ambience. So were feathers and dog hair. And a trace of cigar smoke.

I wish I could say that my final bird hunt with Gray was a perfect day with a bag limit of three roosters, but December pheasant hunts seldom work out that way. My French spaniel Abbey and I parked Gray on the east side of a 150-acre CRP field that was a thick mass of head-high switch grass and did our best to keep track of one another as we plowed our way through. In the course of two hours of hard hunting, we put up six pheasants, three hens and three roosters. I took shots at two of the roosters and knocked one down.

Abbey could not mark the bird down, but when I led her to the place it had fallen and told her “Hunt dead!” she found the bird’s scent and tracked flawlessly. Unfortunately its trail led to a bulldozed pile of trees and brush, a house-size tangle that had once grown in the field’s waterway. Abbey yipped and barked in frustration as she dug at the six-foot-high jumble of tree trunks and branches, trying to squirm her way down through. I unloaded my gun and tried to help by pulling away snarled limbs, but down in the depths of the pile I could see a much twisted and bent 10-inch corrugated steel culvert.

Abbey stuck her head inside the pipe, and her yips became more frantic as she sought to grab what must have been the just-out-of-reach rooster. I called her off, fearing that she would get her head and shoulders wedged and I would be unable to reach her to pull her out.

“Sometime this kind of stuff happens,” I told her. I may have used a harsher word than “stuff.”

“I could have had him!” Abbey complained. But I’m not risking injury to my wonder dog for a rooster that outsmarted us.

So it was that Gray’s final bird hunt produced no birds, as many of them have over his nearly 14 years of the chasser life. Maybe that was a fitting end, a tacit understanding that “There will be other days ahead.”

And I hope there will be more days of bird hunting ahead for this old truck, even though they will not be with me. Good-bye, Old Gray. I’m going to miss you.

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