Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fish and Games, Part Three

I walked down the slope toward the cliff’s edge.  The grass was nearly fluorescent green due to recent rain and punctuated by small flowers.  Their business ends hung upside down like purple shooting stars I’d seen in the Sierras.  But the tulip-like petals of these flowers were deep maroon, almost funereal black.  I thought it would be nice pick to one of them on my way out, look it up in a flower book, or maybe take the root as well and grow it in my front yard.

A cold wind reached through my windbreaker, somehow telling me that neither plan was likely. 

The ravine leading to the tie off point was every bit as slick and treacherous as I expected after the rain.
I picked my way down carefully, remembering my wife’s last words:
“Don’t do anything stupid!”
I favored her with a boyish smile, “Not me.  I want to live to be a hundred and three!” and drove off wondering whether she caught my lame Jiminy Cricket allusion.

I tossed a duffle bag off the cliff and heard a satisfying crackle as the glass inside broke on the rocks below.  With rope attached, my backpack zipped, I eased myself down the final twelve feet.

The descent went smoothly, and I planted my feet on the beach without incident.  Still I felt uneasy and the same vague premonition told me I should accomplish my first objective.  I scanned the cliffs, detecting neither movement nor flash of lens.  I quickly “farmed” the contents of my duffle bag into recesses of a jagged reef.

If you've read parts one and two of my “Fish and Games” narrative, you already know exactly what I mean by the word “farmed”.  If you are an officer of the law and reading this, I must inform you that the contents of this blog are but fanciful fiction.  Why would I be so stupid as to incriminate myself on the World Wide Web?

The aforementioned business concluded, I headed south toward happy hunting grounds.  A local merchant with whom I have a working relationship in the matter of moonstones, made a request yesterday.  He wanted a massive chunk of this generally rare beach agate to enhance his in-store display.

So I embarked upon my second mission, soon finding myself in the target area.  I tried my best to ignore the sparkle of smaller stones.  Before long I managed to bag some big rocks, one and two pound beauties. 
Then I heard a drone, persistent, loud and probably a helicopter.  It came at me from the south, its blades beating a staccato base. 

Hugging the cliffs, the helicopter passed so closely that I could make out the pilot’s khaki uniform.  I gave him one of my “Happy, Howdy Waves”.  I mean, doesn’t everybody wave when you see some lucky guy zipping through the air?

I continued collecting.  A minute later, I heard the same drone.  The helicopter had circled around for another look.  It had one of those tear-drop designs, definitely too small for search and rescue.

I waited.  The helicopter circled around a third and yet a fourth time.  By then I had moved on down the beach and no longer felt like waving--except perhaps with my middle finger.  Where did this guy get off squandering hundreds of taxpayer dollars for multiple views of a deranged rock collector ambling along an isolated beach?  A friend of mine once told me that it takes $500 dollars just to get a twin seated chopper off the ground.

Finally, silence.  Had he landed somewhere on the cliff above me?  I was disturbed.   And when I get disturbed, I get hungry.  So I sat down on a rock and pulled out a sandwich.  I considered having a second beer but hesitated.  I wanted a clear head if I had to make conversation with some testosterone laden skyjock.  And somewhere buried under the rocks in my backpack was a caffeinated soda.

But if I was about to be treated to a helicopter ride (or forced to spend 45 minutes in the back of a Sheriff’s cruiser en route to the San Luis Obispo County jail) a mild buzz might soften the edges.  Guess my choice of beverage.

Before long, I managed to forget the whole incident.  I put my pack on and was reaching for the empty duffle bag when I heard another sound.   A high pitched throaty scream, again from the south.

A jet, low and close.  No idea what model, but I knew military when I saw it.
Slipping my pack off in an effort to cover the bright red duffle bag, I sat still on the rock.  In fact, I did my best to look like rock, be a rock--and some people would argue I’m dumb as one for going off alone and putting myself in these crazy situations.

But, my God, was I up to something so heinous that they had to scramble a jet from Vandenberg?  Did the helicopter pilot make me for a reputed drug smuggler or some notorious al-Qaeda sympathizer?

There was an explosion of sound as the jet went by and headed north.  And this time I felt no desire to wave—certainly not with fingers of some flyboy inches from a button that could launch a missile.

I listened to my breath for five minutes, hearing nothing else to suggest the jet was still in the area.

Then I got up and tried to collect a few more specimens, but my heart was no longer in it.  Yes, I was paranoid, maybe big time paranoid.  Still I wondered what might be waiting for me when I scaled the cliff on my way out.

I had nothing in the way of contraband, I reasoned, not even sure that I brought along my pocket knife.  But, damn, these big rocks were heavy, very possibly in excess of the 45 pound limit.  So I split them, half into the duffle bag.  If I saw a  warden/ranger/sheriff  before he saw me, I would simply drop the bag and walk on.  Lots of weird trash washes ashore down here.

And those babies really must have been over forty-five because I was scrambling, clawing, and huffing as I finally pulled myself over the ledge.

“Shit!” I said out loud.  

There was a Fish and Wildlife truck parked right in front of my Honda Element.
But where was the warden?
I looked left and then right. Two hundred yards across the ravine, two of them.
Well trained, too.  When they saw me, they immediately put ten yards between each other.  Much harder to take down two armed men when they're standing apart, no matter how fast you are or your level of marksmanship.

I gave them another big “Happy, Howdy Wave” and pointed to my car.  They followed cautiously as I staggered under the weight of my bags, cursing myself for not leaving one behind.  I should have peaked over the ledge before bringing both of them up.

Nothing to be done about that now.  “Might as well come clean,” I thought, carefully straddling the barbed wire fence that separated me from my car.  And then I was face to face with one of the wardens.  I dropped my bags at the rear of the car.  The other warden, who was lean and serious, remained on the other side of the fence with his hands near his hips.
“Good afternoon!” the closer warden said and I couldn’t help but notice how the flesh inside his uniform strained against the buttons near his mid section.
“Yes it is, officer, and I hope you have a scale.”
“A scale?”
“That’s right—because I just might be over 45 pounds here.”
Warden Pudgy looked confused.
“You mean rocks?”
“Right again, I’m talking about beach agates, the kind that locals call moonstones.  This section of beach is lousy with them and merchants will pay good money for what tourists can no longer find these days, even along Moonstone Beach.”
“So you’re just collecting rocks?”
“Yes, and if you don’t mind my asking, was it the helicopter guy that tipped you off?”
After a pause and shared look, one of them mumbled something about highway patrol and panga boats.  I must have asked the wrong question.

“Turn and face the fence—and don’t move.”  (Maybe my spiel was a little too slick?  Or was it the phrase “tipped you off”?)

I turned as instructed and faced the other warden across the fence.  He was lean, trim, tall with a calm demeanor that probably hid a dangerous tension.
“Of course, you’re welcome to search my gear, and as Fish and Wildlife officials, I understand you have every right to do so.”  
Hell, they said don’t move, not don’t talk.
I waited.  Warden Pudgy was going through my bags, and he was one of those thorough types.
“You know I’ve already been stopped by one of your fellow wardens, Officer Thayer.  You know him, right?”
I saw Warden Lean exchange another look with Warden Pudgy.
“No. We’ve never heard of him.”
“Thayer, T-H-A-Y-E-R.”
Nothing, just the sound of wind whistling around my hat.
“Well, I guess there’s lots of you guys patrolling this stretch.”
“No,” said Warden Lean, “there’s just a few of us.”  
The chilly afternoon just got cooler.
What the hey?  Were they reluctant to admit that I remembered a colleagues' name?  Were they--or was the previous Officer Thayer--working undercover for another agency, maybe Homeland Security?

Then I remembered.  Two days before, I was pulling out of the Bank of America parking lot in Cambria.  A blue Fish and Wildlife truck was to my left, and I nodded to give him the right away.  I thought it odd that there were two occupants in the vehicle since game wardens typically work alone, odder still that they were in Cambria and heading west.  But I supposed they could have been there for lunch after checking the steelhead areas along Santa Rosa Creek.

This off-the-wall memory made me nervous and when I get nervous, I start to ramble.  So I began to tell them about my favorite mystery writer, C.J. Box, whose  main character is always a game warden and how I always learn something new about nature every time I read one of his novels, and on and on until my wife's familiar words came to mind:

                                                    Stop talking now.

“Have either of you read his books?
“No.”  Sheesh!  What were these guys, Republicans?

Warden Lean scissored long legs over the fence.  Unlike me, he didn’t have to press down on the top wire to protect his man parts.  He stood about two yards from me now, looking grim.

I noticed he was holding a Redfield spotting scope, the favorite tool of game wardens according to C.J. Box:  Observe the subject at a distance, take your time and watch everything he does before making contact.  I saw, with some satisfaction, green skid marks between his badge and nameplate.   Grass is so smeary this time of year, especially when you’re lying on your belly.

The scuffling and zipping sounds finally subsided behind me, and I was tired of looking at the barbed wire fence. 
“Would it be okay if I turned around now?”
“Sure,” Warden Pudgy said and I turned to see him standing over my bags.
“And you probably want to search these bulging pockets--so would it also be okay if I slowly started to take stuff out?”  I thought of ending the last sentence with “Boss” but that would be too “Cool Hand Luke” and this strange law enforcement duo probably wouldn’t appreciate my smart-assed remarks.

                                                Don’t do anything stupid!

Anyway, “Boss Man” Lean nodded, and I started pulling out rocks, bottle caps, Kleenex and a nice piece of abalone shell.
“You collect abalone, too?”
“Yes, I mean, NO!  Only the shells. See the red backside there?”
Warden Lean leaned forward slightly.
“If I polish that to a mirror-like finish, someone like my wife can make some pretty cool jewelry out of it.  Of course, you’ve got to wear a surgical mask while sanding it or you’ll end up with a bad disease.  Uhmm, I forget, you know like coal miners get…”
“Black lung?” Warden Lean asked, finally showing some interest in my babbling.
“Well, yeah, right something like it, silicosis I think it’s called.

We all looked at each other for a moment.
“You know, I think there’s something else in my pocket.  I reached down, faking surprise at what came out.
“Oh, my keys!  Say officers, do you suppose we’re done here?”
“Yes, I suppose we are,” said Warden Pudgy, “But we had to make sure you weren’t poaching abalone or violating any fish and wildlife regulations.”
“Well, I appreciate that officers.  I’m a fisherman too, actually, and I hate it when I don’t catch anything because someone else has taken advantage.”
I started my car and drove off, astounded at the idiocy of my last words.  How could I possibly know that any lack of  fishing success was due to poachers?  And what’s with the weird 19th century phrasing, “taking advantage,” which is way more suited to describe the seduction of an innocent?

But I soon got over any concerns about being socially inappropriate.  
I was happy, very happy--to be free, alive, and on my way.

I checked my rear view mirror repeatedly on the way home.
There was something creepy about those guys…