In the country, gossip was everyone’s business

Contributing WriterJune 30, 2014 

I was sitting in my pickup the other day stuck in traffic, and my thoughts strayed back to where I used to live, Wyoming. They don’t have traffic problems because there aren’t enough cars. Less than a fourth of the population of Tacoma lives in a state the relative size of Washington.

I began to reflect about the people and their customs — how in Wyoming one often knows most of the ranchers and farmers 50 miles in any direction from where he lives, but here in the city he may not get to know a neighbor a few houses up the street. As I looked around me encircled by cars, I thought about the wide open country where one can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle, and I began to think how it was growing up there.

When I was a kid, I had an antelope for a pet for five years or more. His name was Dickie. When Dickie was a fawn, his mother wandered into our chicken yard and drank water from the trough we treated with salt and oyster shells. It killed her. I became Dickie’s mentor.

He was a wonderful pet, except when he got a little older he’d take a fancy to my sisters during rutting season. Dad tied him up and took him to the zoo in Denver.

Everyone knows everyone else’s business; that’s just how it is. I remember how Herb Koepke, an irksome, pedantic farmer, found Maxine, a lonely and ungainly woman, through a mail-order-bride service of some kind. She was from Chicago, I think. After a couple of years of marriage – more of conscription we thought – Maxine was struck by the UP streamliner.

That train didn’t sneak up on her. You could see it coming for miles. That land was so flat my dad said you could sit on the porch on Monday and see all the way to Wednesday.

There were no unemployment offices there. If you needed help you went to the pool hall or one of the local bars. Dewey Sprague was one of those patrons. He was good help but had a drinking problem. This particular time dad got him to help stack hay.

Anyone growing up in that country knows and respects rattlesnakes. Dad had a theory, and no one proved him wrong, that a snake in the loose hay can’t strike since there was no base from which to coil. Dewey wasn’t certain of that, and he jabbed at the snake – running the pitchfork tine clean through his boot. Four or five inches protruded from the underside of the sole.

He tumbled from the haystack squealing like a pig stuck under a gate, unwilling to let dad pull the pitchfork out. This created some serious problems. First of all, Dad couldn’t get Dewey into the back seat of our ’33 Chevy because of the pitchfork, so he had to cut a perfectly good handle in two to make room.

Also, Doc Clannin – the only doctor in the county – was 40 miles away in Wheatland, so the hay operation came to a stop. Rumor had it that Clannin wasn’t even a doctor; he was a chiropractor. No matter.

Doc cut the boot away only to discover that the prong went cleanly between the big toe and second digit without ever piercing the skin. Dewey just thought he was in pain. He found out the real thing on the way back to the farm.

Gossip was everybody’s business. Lloyd Clark, the resident painter, traded away his old Dodge pickup for a new Chevy, which he never liked. The problem, Lloyd said, was he didn’t have anywhere to lay his paintbrush. And speaking of pickups, Bucky Coontz fell out of the back of one, and that was the end of him.

Bucky wasn’t very smart. I remember when I was in high school I gave Bucky some cockleburs in a matchbox. I told him they were porcupine eggs. Poor Bucky never understood why they never hatched.

Bud Bell, master of the hyperbole, describing the horde of mosquitoes in the swale, exclaimed, “There were fifteen hundred of them! — or more! — maybe a thousand! And Zelma Lasley, who ran the telephone office, lost hearing in one ear when lightning struck the Converse County party line. Also, it was said the reason the town never grew was because whenever one of the Scott girls got pregnant, somebody left town.

I would never go back to Wyoming, though. I became accustomed to trees and water, and I don’t miss the wind. Also, the people here are so laid back and genuinely friendly.

Uh, oh. I see the traffic starting to move. Hope I didn’t bore you. I’ll talk to you some other time.

Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at albert.bartlett@comcast.net.

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