We had a neighbor on Wassom Street who lived across from us in an upscale, rambling ranch house with his pretty young wife and two small daughters. He was a car salesman who liked to stay out late, get drunk and chase women. It wasn’t long before Mrs. Upscale Ranch House grew tired of his shenanigans and threw him out. He quickly descended into a self-pitying apologetic morass of drunken chaos.
He finally screwed up the courage to knock meekly on his front door, fall to his knees and beg his pretty young wife’s forgiveness. And, she might have relented except that Mrs. Upscale Ranch House had looked in the mirror and discovered that she was still young, pretty and alive and deserved more than Mr. Upscale, his drinking, his womanizing and his apology, so she threw him out again. She started dating. She started having fun. She had all the local bachelors standing in line. She was the object of small town lust and desire. Mr. Upscale simply crawled further into a Vodka bottle. One night, in a fit of booze soaked jealous confusion, he decided to spy on his wife.
The backfield of our property butted up against a narrow dirt lane called, Walker Road. Mr. Upscale determined that he would park his Cadillac in the dark, steal across our backfield, past the side of our house and then proceed across the street to surreptitiously spy on his wife. He could have just parked in the dark on Wassom Street but in his addled state, this evidently did not occur to him. But, that was all just details and besides, it wasn’t spying if you could just stroll casually in!
It would have been a good plan even still, but for a few important facts. Most prominently among them was that our backfield flooded every winter- and it was winter- with about four inches of water and wasn’t so much a field as it was a giant green quagmire. Also, we had a dog; a small, yapping and nervous poodle mix named Peppy, who could have heard a gnat fart in the next county. He might have gotten away with it, but for the mud, muck and water, if he had just managed to keep his big mouth shut but, he was no more than half way across the sopping pasture before he resembled a child on a slip and slide in the front yard in July. And, with every fall in the mud he would utter a loud string of epithets and curses that would have made a sailor blush. Peppy, the poodle mix was about to lose his mind trying to claw his way through the back door.
Dad was working swing shift in the local mill in those days, so Mom, fearing rape, pillage, Visigoths and worse; let Peppy, the poodle mix out and told my brother Howard to get his gun.
In the late sixties, Military surplus stores were allowed to sell surplus military firearms. Gun control laws weren’t nearly then what they are now. The weapons themselves were rarely anything special; usually old and poorly maintained, scruffy, greasy and beat up, but if you kept a keen eye peeled, sometimes you could find a diamond in the rough. My brother and Father found just such a piece in the Portland Surplus store; a German made 7.62mm Mauser 98, and Howard bought it. I don’t remember exactly what he paid for it, but it wasn’t more than twenty dollars because that’s what a box of ammunition for it cost and we all remarked that the bullets cost more than the gun!
My Dad took it to a local gun smith and had the barrel shortened to a standard hunting length, had the sights remounted and the straight-arm bolt heated and bent over so that it lay neatly against the oiled stock. It became one sweet shooting rifle and could drive tacks at two hundred yards with open sites.
Peppy the yapping poodle mix caught up with Mr. Upscale in the giant green quagmire, latched onto his pant leg and stubbornly refused to let go. It’s not widely known but poodles are bred to be excellent water dogs and relentless retrievers, and Peppy the poodle mix was not about to let his convoluted ancestral lineage languish on a genealogical technicality! What followed, out in the muddy darkness was an operatic caterwauling with our drunken neighbor cursing and roaring like a pirate; Peppy barking and growling and both of them wrestling around in the muck and slime like two cats in a burlap bag in a river!
“Mom,” Howard panted, “I can’t find the bullets!”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mom insisted, “get out on the porch in the light where you can be seen with that thing!”
Holding his rifle at port arms, Howard strode bravely out under the bare bulb on the back porch, cleared his throat, and in his deepest and most manly fifteen-year-old voice squeaked,
“Who’s out there?”
He emphasized the sentence by racking the bolt on the Mauser back and slamming it closed. It made a distinctive and unmistakable series of four-stroke military manual of arms clacks as it worked back and forth.
There followed, in the eerie darkness, a short pause punctuated by the drunken, panic-stricken, semi-coherent phrase,
It was time to retreat. Mr. Upscale was suddenly sober enough to realize that he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He slipped, slid, tripped, fell and stumbled back through the mud toward Walker Road and the relative safety of his car.
Peppy came trotting triumphantly back to the house, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, grinning like a dinosaur! He had won; his questionable poodle’s reputation was vindicated and he had chased the nefarious criminal away into the evil night!
A couple of temperate days later, after he had climbed out from under his hangover, Mr. Upscale paid a visit to my folks. He wanted to apologize. He knew he had frightened my Mother and her children. He wanted to make it right. He wanted to make peace with my Dad, a God-fearing Christian man of soft words and sober nature. That, and he wanted his wristwatch. During the fracas in the mud with Peppy the stubborn poodle mix, it had fallen from his arm.
He stood at our front door looking down at his feet. He was clearly embarrassed and ashamed.
“It would be no big deal,” he mumbled, “but it’s made of gold.”
Mom and Dad had no intention of rubbing his nose in the incident. The entire neighborhood, including his wife and her date across the street had heard the commotion. Everyone knew what had happened. Mr. Upscale had suffered enough. Dad waved him toward the backyard swamp.
“Need a pair of rubber boots?” My Dad offered, trying not to smile.
“No,” he replied dejectedly, “but, would you keep your dog in?”
He turned toward the side of the house, stopped, thought and paused.
“Oh, and,” he nervously added, “where is your son?”