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Friday, July 26, 2013

Robert Earl Keen

I’ve written about a couple of my favorite singer-songwriters here on The Quillayute Cowboy blog; “Tom Russell” and “Growing Old with Jackson Browne” and mentioned a few select others like Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett.  I also mentioned that I don’t buy much new music these days because my hearing has deteriorated so much that it is hard for me to understand the lyrics…, and that’s where it’s at for me, mostly.  So, when this guy named Robert Earl Keen kept popping up on my Pandora station that I have keyed to Tom Russell…, and I began to catch a few well-turned phrases and liked the sound and rhythm…, I started to pay more attention.  Keen has a distinctive sounding voice…, a southern drawl with a nasal twang that is easily identified when you are browsing other web sites and hear one of his tunes.  One night I caught the lines:

        “I lived in Corpus with my brother
        We were always on the run
        We were bad for one another
        But we were good at having fun.
We got stoned along the seawall
We got drunk and rolled the car
We knew all the girls at every dance hall
Had a tab at every bar.”

Well…, my brother Larry was a couple of years younger than me and he tried to steer me along a little saner path that the one I was highly engaged in.  But we managed to drag him along on some pretty wild times in spite of his efforts.  Oh…, that “we” you ask?  That would be my brother in the song…, actually my cousin, James.  Jim, Jimmy, Jimmy California, or Spencey…, as his wife Debbie always addressed him.  Jimmy was the original wild and crazy guy…, and I was never one who liked to be outshined when the moon came up and the sun went down.  Well…, except that night during The Clearwater County Fair and Orofino Lumberjack Days celebration.  Me and Jimmy had been on at least a two day run…, maybe more.  We were hoofing it down the main drag in town about dusk, just a few blocks from the heart of town, bumper to bumper traffic in both directions…, when I hear a horrible squealing of rubber tires on pavement.  I only had to turn my head sideways, expecting to see a scary accident.  What I saw put a chill down my spine and I was wishing I had a deep dark fox hole to hide in.  A tall blond amazon named Debbie had screeched her car to a stop…, and stopped all the traffic in her lane…, and was standing outside the car screaming, “Spencey, you no good, dirty rotten, low down, degenerate.  Those are MY blue jeans you have on.  GET THEM OFF NOW !!!”  I thought for a moment that she was going to strip them off him herself…, in front of a string of cars and onlookers that was mounting by the second.  But Deb is ever so thoughtful and considerate..., and drop dead gorgeous, even to this very day.  That night, she had brought him a pair of his own jeans and she even let him get in the back seat of the car to change out…, “helped” him in might be a bit more apt description…, while the mob that had gathered were beginning to get antsy.

So…, when Robert Earl Keen sings “Corpus Christi Bay”…, it may not literally be the story of “brother” Jimmy and I…, but there are enough illusions to some of the crazy times we shared that I can’t help but think of him every time I hear it.  Most people thought that we were brothers anyway…, and I seldom set them straight.  I think my real brother, Larry was as likely to let people believe that Jimmy was his brother and I was the black sheep cousin...., at least at times.  Especially that one night.

The three of us were working for Carney Pole Company at the time.  I don’t recall just why Jim and I both had one of the Carney rigs.  Jim always drove the yellow Suburban that looked like a giant yellow breadbox on wheels, and we always had it down in Orofino where we lived.  Larry lived in Weippe and always drove the red Chevy three-quarter ton pickup…, but for some reason I was driving it that night and Larry wasn’t with us.  Dave McIntosh was with us…, and since we never had another night quite like this one…, maybe we should blame him for all that fun.  It was summertime and we had been hitting the bars in Pierce a pretty good lick and we decided to head for Weippe.  About halfway between the two towns is Timberline High School.  We made a rest stop there.  THS had a huge gravel parking lot…, and if you have ever bounced a beer can around a gravel parking lot with a Smith and Wesson Model 41 semi-automatic .22 caliber pistol…, you know how hard it is to resist the temptation.  You can’t.  You only have to come close to the can and spray gravel on it to make it look like you hit it.  It is quite a kick and makes you think you are a reincarnation of Wild Bill Hickok.  We weren’t hurting anything or being malicious in the least.  And we would have picked up the beer cans…, I always made sure of that…, after my Mom read me a lot more than the riot act when we left a mess of them after a pick basketball game over at the Weippe Grade School years before.  Some of the boys thought I was very thoughtful and conscientious for insisting that we never left a beer can mess anywhere.  Especially around a school. 

But I didn’t really feel like explaining all that to the State Trooper that swooped by, headed toward Pierce.

I wasn’t really sure he had seen us…, but that bright yellow breadbox on wheels…, looks a lot better on the move.  So we wheeled on out of the parking lot…, and I headed for…, Pierce.  Jimmy and the  breadbox right behind me.  Hunter S. Thompson once said that, “Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop.  A normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side.  This is wrong.  It arouses contempt in the cop heart.  Make the bastard chase you."    There was no doubt in my mind that if that trooper turned around to check us out and saw we were gone, he would figure we were up to no good, and know that we had headed for Weippe.  I was gambling on him not knowing what to make of us following him instead of trying to make a getaway.  The gamble paid off.  It wasn’t far down the road that we meet him coming back toward us.  He had continued on down the road, beyond the S-curves around the school and found a safe place to turn around, and was headed back to check us out.  Not a doubt in my mind that he was hoping that we had made a break for it and he could initiate a high speed chase to Weippe.  He didn’t know what to make of meeting us.  He must have scratched his head a little as he motored back through the S-curves and thinking, "Maybe they weren’t doing anything wrong," and he must have pulled into the THS parking lot to have a look.  I’ll bet he was thinking, “When I find out who those guys are…, I’m going to call their Mothers !”

I know I wanted none of that (a cop actually did that to me once…, the horror, oh the horror)…, so, once the cop was out of my review mirror…, it was pedal to the metal.  There were a couple of nearly one mile straight stretches with just one corner to the top of the Pierce Divide.  I knew if we could top the Divide before the cop caught us we had a chance…, because the rest of the five miles on into Pierce is twisty road that you can’t see far on…, and he would think that he would be catching us just around the next bend.  But we wouldn’t be there.  Just over the top of the Divide was a little picnic area called Fohl’s Park, tucked in under road.  I dove in there with a big yellow breadbox right on my butt…, just in a nick of time…, to see the trooper go bombing by.  He didn’t have his lights flashing yet…, but I am sure he was thinking that he was going to catch us around the next corner.

So off we go again…, flat out back toward Weippe.  It was hard to watch the road and keep a lookout in the review mirror at the same time…, and there as a big bright yellow breadbox with a grinning wild man at the wheel right in that mirror anyhow.  We didn’t stop to pick up the beer cans at THS…, I still feel guilty about that.  But we did slow it down a lot when we hit the gravel of Upper Fords Creek Road turn off just a mile or two past the old school.  I am not sure how I managed to control the raging adrenaline enough to keep from leaving skid marks in the gravel or making enough dust that could alert the trooper if he happened to catch on to our little ploy sooner that I thought…, not too soon I hoped…, as we creeped along the gravel road until we were well out of sight of the highway…, then gassed it for Orofino and home.

I was still pretty keyed up for five or six miles…, and it was starting to get dark.  I felt better and more relaxed all the time.  That extended adrenaline rush was long gone, like a Roman candle burning down.    Yeah…, more and more relaxed…, until that damn bouncing and jostling started.  And there wasn’t any more gravel road in the windshield.  Big Dave McIntosh beside me thought it was a real hoot.  When I got out and looked back up at the road…, I could see and hear that the wild man at the wheel of the big yellow breadbox on wheels thought it was pretty damn funny too.  He wanted to know what the hell I thought I was doing.  I was wishing I had an answer for that question. The red Chevy seemed to be a little high centered on some boulders and wouldn’t move…, but there didn’t appear to be any damage done.  We tried to winch it out with the breadbox…, but it was way too heavy for that.  Especially with all my brother Larry’s tools in it.  He had his portable welder, oxygen and acetylene tanks, and who knows how many thousands of dollar’s worth of Snap-On brand tools.  You couldn’t really see the pickup from the road unless you were really looking for it…, Dave tied some red flagging ribbon around a bush on the side of the road so we could find it again…, and Jimmy drove us on to Orofino…, and the bar…, in the breadbox.

Well…, brother Larry wasn’t too impressed with me leaving his tools like that.  The Carney management wasn’t all that impressed when they found out that there was a little damage to the underside of the truck…, like a hole in the automatic transmission…, among other things.  A few days later the big boss came out to the job at lunch time.  He looked at me, fished a little notebook out of his pocket as he is saying, “I’m going to have to fill out a report for the insurance company.”  Putting pen to notebook like he was ready to take a few notes he said, “What happened?”

I looked at him and said, “Ah…, a car load of drunken Indians ran us off the road.”

He looked at me, folded up his little notebook and put it back in his pocket.  So I said, “Well it was just about sundown with the sun glare on the windshield, I could hardly see anyway.  Then we did meet a car barreling along and I couldn’t see anything in the dust…, so I started trying to slow down and ease her over to the center of the road…, and went too far.”

I knew he wasn’t going to fire me.  But I wasn’t sure that my brother Larry wasn’t going to fire me.

Oh…, by the way.  I have three Robert Earl Keen CD’s now.  He tells some wonderful stories in a song.

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