Most families have a code these days, to protect the sanctity of shared holiday meals and allow the normally inane conversations at these events to proceed according to expectation.
Don’t rock the boat. Don’t talk politics. Don’t discuss the fact that Uncle Wayne is a closet fascist, that Grandma Sally hates black people, and that your own mother still thinks gay is curable with the right kind of aversion therapy.
As a passionate youth, and despite the warnings, I’d often wade out into the deep undersea canyons of political discourse during these family fetes and raise hackles all around the table.
Flush with youthful bravado, I was fearless in my pursuit of political debate: A defender of liberty, warrior for what was right, a truth-teller.
Yet to my brothers and sister, and most of all to my mother, I was a hothead, know-it-all, sanctimonious jackass. After one memorable night, when I’d ripped into Grandma for assuming all Spanish speakers were Mexican, I realized that maybe it’s better to pick your battles than wage war against well-intentioned octogenarians that barely remember their grandson’s name.
Then one weekend my older brother and I were invited to visit our great-uncle Sam Faulk of Oregon, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S Marine Corps and the last living link to my dead grandfather, James Boyd Faulk, his brother.
Sam was large and in charge. Broad of chest, and still heavily muscled despite having entered his eighth decade, he brooked no disagreement with his rather occluded world view, rife as it was with conspiracies of class and power.
Our weekend, Jerry warned me, would be brief and uncomfortable if I were to challenge the old man on some of his quaint ideas. We’re here to run his bear dogs, Jerry said, and visit, not review 20th-century power politics and call a stubborn old man out on his prejudices.
So, take out your earring, ditch the chip on your shoulder, and show some respect for your elders, Jerry told me.
Already anxious about spending a weekend with a retired Marine, one who rode in the lead chariot behind his slavering team of well-trained hunting hounds, I readily agreed and set about practicing meek facial expressions in the mirror under his truck visor.
We arrived at his compound after dark, a two-story house set back on several wooded acres, a haven almost invisible from the road by design. He greeted us at the door in his cotton briefs and a camouflage shirt, then barked at his lovely wife to make us some coffee and fetch us cookies, though we told him we weren’t hungry and planned on heading to bed.
She smiled at him with Stepfordian serenity, then set about following his orders. I learned over the next couple of days that doing so was something we were all expected to do. Double quick.
The coffee was served just in time for us to pour it down the sink and disappear into the guest bedroom Jerry and I would share for the weekend. We’d barely fallen asleep when we felt Sam’s well-worn combat boots kicking us awake.
“Rise and shine, dipshits,” the old man barked. “Let’s load up the dogs and find us some bear.”
The dogs were an impressive collection of well-bred Bluetick hounds who were meticulously trained, harshly disciplined and entirely professional. I made the mistake of petting one as we started loading them in the truck.
“Don’t touch the goddamn dogs,” Sam shouted. “Don’t talk to them, don’t pet them, don’t even so much as smile in their general direction. Kindness fucks things up. They’ve been training since they left the bitch’s tit, and chasing game is all they know, all they want.
“They ain’t no goddamn cocker spaniels.”
As the animals fought for space in the custom-made camper shell on Sam’s Ford truck, he showed us the automated system by which he kept the dogs quiet at night. Sensors were strategically deployed around the dogs’ pen. When these microphones picked up the sound of errant barking, they tripped a spate of high-energy sprinklers just outside the chicken wire that then soaked the animals for a full 30 seconds.
As the last of the dogs mounted the tailgate and dove into the small round hole that fronted the shell, I realized that the only barking I’d heard since arriving had come from the emaciated chihuahua that never seemed to leave the shadow of Sam’s devout wife.
But once we’d hit the road and wormed our way back into the deep country on old logging roads that had seen little love these past 20 years, the dogs found their voices.
As we drove along, often negotiating precarious terrain, the dogs kept their snouts pressed to the wire windows on either side of the camper shell. When they hit a scent, they erupted in sound.
Sam tilted his head, read their barks, and shook his head.
“Not yet, boys,” he said.
I learned over the next two hours that these dogs were trained to speak a spartan language of predation. Coming upon bear scent elicited one kind of bark, a fresh scent another.
Once we hit upon the recent passage of a black bear, Sam leapt out of the cab and flung the back doors open. Six dogs, moving in a darting line of hunger and anticipation, poured forth and tore off the road and into the trees. They yowled as they ran, a high-pitched tone that could be heard for miles despite the choking forest that seemed to leer over them from all directions.
We drove along the old road, listening to the dogs, creeping through a dense layer of brush and fallen trees, waiting. Once they dogs took chase, their bark shifted to a lower, guttural tone that signaled Sam to lace up his boots and move his ass.
Before I knew what was happening, we were all tripping over each other to clamber out of the truck, grab our gear and plunge deep into the raw heart of a thick forest of pine and fir. We followed the dogs as best we could on a harried and desperate journey up steep hillsides, along ridges thin as backbone, balancing on the loose gravel of a collapsing hillside while always listening for the dog’s final, happy signal that they’d put the bear high up a tree.
Finally, their victory call came. Quickly, we honed in on their signal, and emerged from an impenetrable mass of brambles and vines soon after to stand, gasping and upright, beneath a massive tree where the dogs had their quarry surrounded.
The old man, apparently on his best behavior up until now, unleashed a storm of obscenities in my direction as he told me to pull the dogs off the tree.
“Get in there, goddamn slowpoke,” he snarled. “You got to grab them by their collars and haul them back, or that bear might do something stupid.”
I tried my best to corral the rapturous dogs, but every time I caught hold of one, two others slipped out of my grasp. By this time, sweat soaked all my clothing, my left hand was sliced across the palm, and dog spit stung the wound and kept me one-handed even as Sam continued his tirade.
Then, just as predicted, the bear did a stupid thing. Tired of the cacophony that blared below, the animal suddenly decided to beat feet. Using his hind legs, he pushed off his tree with terrific force and landed no more than four feet behind me on the needle-strewn hillside.
Now on all fours, he looked back at me over his shoulder and raised his upper lip to expose a wicked set of canines that dripped enthusiastically as its mouth watered.
Panic engulfed me. I fell back as fast as I could toward the tree, running over several dogs as I did so. One shoe fell off. Despite the pounding in my ears, I could hear Sam vaguely chewing me a new asshole as he and Jerry dove after the dogs that even now were giving renewed chase to the fleeing bear.
Eventually, the dogs were brought under control and attached to the leashes Sam had worn like a belt around his waist. Once they were restrained, we began the torturous walk back to the truck while Sam greedily critiqued every move I made, his voice booming off the trees like an old Greek chorus hell bent on beating me down.
Hours later, once his wife had again served us all dinner then disappeared back into the bowels of the house to do our dishes, Sam himself decided to wade out into the treacherous seas of talking politics.
I learned, over the several action-packed minutes of his introductory monologue, about the Trilateral Commission’s efforts to rule the world; that President Clinton was smuggling cocaine into an Arkansas airfield with the help of Queen Elizabeth and her elite death squad troops; that the United Nations was the instrument with which the Antichrist would brand us with bar codes bearing the much-belabored number of the beast; and that Hillary Rodham Clinton was really a man, which of course made Bill as gay as Rock Hudson.
Then, like the bear, Sam did a stupid thing. He asked my opinion.
After what had turned out to be one of the worst days in my young life at the time, my fear of offending a harmless old fart over his quaint ideas and old-timey values was suddenly, irrevocably, gone.
I told him. My opinion, that is. I addressed every point he’d made, every last one of his ideas, until finally Sam’s wife interrupted me to tell us that she was headed off to bed.
The spell broken, I looked sheepishly about the room to find both Jerry and Sam drunk and sleeping in their respective chairs. Jerry, ever my brother, snored slightly, while Sam — even in repose strung tighter than Jerry Fallwell’s windsor knot — read the riot act to some clumsy asshole who’d invaded his dreams.
I stood up, dug the gold hoop earring out of my pocket, worked the narrow end through my lobe, then stumbled off to our bedroom down the hall.
(James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)