What did you do before you became an author?

This blog’s title question kind of reminds me of the movie, “Little Big Man”, starring Dustin Hoffman, whose character’s name in the 1970 movie is Jack Crabb. Jack claimed to have been the only white man to survive the battle known as The Battle of the Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand. As his life evolved from his upbringing by the Cheyenne Indian Nation, Jack had a number of interesting careers after surviving the famous battle. Jack was known as Little Big Man, and to his dismay during his gunfighter days, he became known as the Soda Pop Kid because of his preference for sodas over the more manly choice: whiskey.

In 1973, I moved from the Northwest logging and mill town of Port Angeles, Washington, to the mellow ‘hippy’ and college culture of Eugene, Oregon. Moving from the rough and tumble logging and mill town to the love and peace hippy town was a little abrupt for me, until I met the toughest old one-legged former logger named Jocko, who almost immediately after our first encounter became my employer, and more importantly, my good friend. In the manuscript for my sequel novel to Errand Runner, entitled Watchdog, I kept Jockos’ real first name because no other name could match his gruff, yet kind, wise and very colorful personality. This period of my life was very much like Jack Crabb’s gunfighter days. Perhaps this excerpt from Watchdog will help to explain how an afternoon drive in a Eugene neighborhood near my rental home—referred to by friends as 2020—reminds me of how my own gunfighter days began:

I had been reading the help wanted ads for weeks, had interviewed for a couple jobs, and finally found employment rather serendipitously one cloudy afternoon while driving through a residential area not far from my home at 2020 West 13th Street. I drove past a house where I saw a couple of guys loading what I thought must have been the largest chainsaws known to mankind. I was so curious about the giant saws that I pulled over, got out of my car and was greeted by the gruffest, toughest looking one-legged old man I’d ever seen. His sun darkened skin looked like the leather of well-worn work boots and the tufts of hair emerging from each ear looked like small furry animals trying to escape. He looked at me and in a voice that was three parts gravel, two parts sawdust and one part tobacco said, “What the hell boy… you look like you ain’t never seen a chainsaw before.”

The crotchety old cuss stood there staring at me while puffing on a cigarette before I finally said, “I’ve seen plenty of chainsaws before but nothing like these… what are they?”

He looked me up and down, threw his cigarette butt on the ground and said, “These here log rip’n sons-a-bitches are Atkins electric saws.” He put out his hand out and said, “I’m Jocko, Jocko Wallace.”

His calloused hand closed on mine like an old rusty vice, as I said, “I’m Step Bronstad … what do you do with these beasts?”

Jocko quickly lit another unfiltered Camel cigarette before replying, “Well, I bought these sons-a-bitches twenty five years ago after the fools who built ‘em for fell’n old growth timber got tired of pick’n up body parts. They was about to sell the damn things for scrap metal when I bought ‘em. I welded handlebars on ‘em, built a couple of trailers with two hundred forty volt generators to run the sons-a-bitches and I’ve been cut’n up swelled butted spruce, big ass fir and any goddamn big logs we can get our hands on ever since. ”

The larger of the two guys loading the saws onto a flat bed truck walked over to us and Jocko barked at him, “Get them drums of fuel in the trailer and get the hell outta here… you got six hours of driven’ to get to Shelton.”

The big guy looked at me, turned to Jocko and asked, “Who the hell’s this?”

“Well Louie, he’s the guy that’s gonna take yur damn job if you don’t get the hell on the road.”

The big guy looked at me with a snarled lip and said, “Shit, he ain’t big enough to handle his own dick let alone one of them saws.” At six one and a hundred and ninety pounds, it wasn’t often that I was referred to as small, but this guy was probably six three and not a pound under two eighty. With no visible sign of a neck, a head that resembled a chopping block, a closely cut flattop crewcut that displayed a massive scar from the right side of his forehead to the top of his left ear, and a big gut that completely enshrouded his belt buckle, he looked like he had just walked out of Frankenstein’s laboratory. He walked over to one of the fuel drums, yelled to his buddy and I watched as the two of them easily lifted the fifty-five-gallon drum into the trailer.

“So Jocko, how much do those drums weigh?” I asked.

“We only put fifty gallons in ‘em so they tip the scales at about three fifty or so. Louie lifted one by himself last year and got himself a goddamn hernia. I pert near fired him for be’n so damn stupid, but it’s hard to find guys big enough and strong enough to run them saws. He pulls one more bonehead thing like that and I’ll fire his ass … you look’n for work?”

“Are you serious?”

Jocko shook his head, spit out what looked like an oil spot on the sidewalk and said, “I don’t waste my damn money, I don’t waste my damn time and I sure’s hell don’t waste my damn words … you want a goddamn job or don’t ya?”

“Sure, when do I start?”

“Tomorrow. Pack whatever you need for a week and be back here at five thirty in the morn’n.” He turned and began his one-legged hobble back to the house without saying another word.

“I’ll be back here at five thirty sharp … and thanks.” As I drove home I wondered what I was really getting into but just seeing those big saws in action would be worth my time to find out.

I had a few more interesting career changes over the next several years and eventually started my own building company in 1978. Building homes was my career for the next thirty-five years but I’ll always have fond memories of my “gunfighter” days with Jocko and Louie.

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