Friday, December 8, 2017

Tree Walker Coonhound

"Are you shitting me, he's stuck again?", I thought as I ran towards the scrub oak I saw him disappear into.

A week before, Buddy climbed 15 feet up into a tree and found that he couldn't get down without my help.   I thought it was a one-off and had a good laugh about it while relaying the story to friends and family. The second time made me realize this behavior is way down deep in his canine DNA and I'd have to watch him closely moving forward.

We adopted Buddy several months ago and as far as we know he's a 3 year old TreeING Walker Coonhound which are bred specifically to tree raccoons (Purist owners get pissed when you suggest they have a "Tree Walker", but this is exactly what Buddy is).  His behaviors and physique lead me to believe he was, in fact, trained as a hunting dog and wasn't just a pet.  His outward appearance is very typical of a coonhound, but he's pure muscle from his neck to the floor.  In fact, he's so thick we often joke it appears he's wearing a child's hulk costume.  He also has a v notch on his left ear, indicative of being branded. He doesn't like dog play or toys and he's intensely focused on the horizon (often siting and watching for hours). The moment I put a training collar on him, I learned he has perfect recall.  He was bred to hunt.

As I approached the tree I could see he was in the canopy, some 10 feet off the ground, surrounded by smaller, protruding branches that might impale his body if he tried to jump down.  He let off a small whimper, letting me know he was stuck, but his relentless DNA informed him to look upwards and continue the never-ending pursuit of critters.  I spoke to him in my calmest voice, hoping to keep him from panicking and jumping down.  I cleared out most of the small branches to give myself a window and prepared to ascend.

I grabbed a branch as high as I could and started pulling myself up, immediately lamenting all the days that have passed since my last triceps workout (345?) when my arms gave way just slightly.  Climbing trees didn't factor into my fitness matrix in year 47 yet here I was, in a tree, rescuing a goddamn 70 lb. muscle-head with limited planning skills. When I reached his level I grabbed his collar and he immediately welcomed me up and asked me to join in the hunt by breaking into a deep, joyous, hound song, the one his tribe has sung for millennia.

If you've never had the joy of listening to this song from a distance of 6 inches, I'll try to give you an idea of what it's like.  Do you remember the band Metallica? It's like pressing one ear against a 35 foot stack of marshall amplifiers turned to 11 and having James Hatfield scream in your other ear while they play Master of Puppets. Peaceful, really.

After a lot of coaxing (and promising to join him in the trees on the next hunt), he agreed to come down, jumping into my arms like a 70 lb sack of muscle participating in a game of "Trust". As I turned to set him down I saw a neighbor standing in her driveway and I waved sheepishly.  It seems she also heard Buddy's 6:45 a.m. vocal solo and rose to witness the spectacle. When I turned back to to Buddy, he was already way off in the distance, on another scent, a slave to that desperate drive to track, a joyous prisoner to his DNA.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Big Bad Ass (Mexican) Rancher

Rancher Sanchez on his tractor. A retired Lt. Col., Jerry is a fiercely proud Mexican American.
I drove down to Cheyenne, Wyoming last week to check in on the Big Mexican and see how things are going 2 years post-retirement from the Air Force.  I knew he had cut the flowing locks since the last time I saw him, but the pain of that disappointment was replaced by the joy of knowing he owns a tractor, chickens, mature bees, and a badass blue tick hound named Chief. In other words, he's a true Wyoming rancher.

He told me to meet him at T-Joes, a local bar and restaurant near his house.  When I walked inside I found him sitting at a full table, holding court with a group of Minnesotans.  That's Jerry, always with a group, always entertaining, always drinking tomato beer.  I remember the first time he ordered a beer and a side of tomato juice.  We were in Pueblo and I thought he was bullshitting when he said he was going to combine them. It turns out it's not so bad.  Hell, Budweiser sells cans of it now. I looked around the bar and realized this could be somewhere in Pueblo circa 1993. It had the same look, the same vibe, the same banter.  He's always been true to those Pueblo roots and true to himself, it's what made him a great leader and friend.

One of the guys at the table said, "We've got a white stitcher!" in a thick Minnesota accent.  Jerry laughed and pointed to my brand new boots.  "You don't have a mark on those things", he said.  I'd been identified as a true suburbanite, an urban cowboy.

When I visited last year the bees on his property had just arrived and weren't producing honey yet, but it looked like they were thriving now. I asked him how they were doing and he quickly donned the bee suit and extracted a  honey comb to harvest.  He was surprised to learn that I was a bee keeper as well, though in a less formal manner. I looked over at his apparatus and noted the multiple combs in my ceiling didn't look anything like that when they were extracted from the drywall.

"Why the hell did you have a colony in your ceiling?", he asked.

"My bee eradication techniques didn't work", I shot back.

"What did you use?"

"Hockey gear and the hose", I deadpanned.

"Ah, common mistake", he replied.

My extraction equipment was a little different from his.  When I asked where his plastic tent and dremmel tool were, he gave me a confused look.  I explained to him how the guy I hired set up a plastic barrier, saw cut the drywall, and vacuumed out the bees.  After much discussion, it learned that's the "dumbass" way to raise bees. I can definitely certify mine as "organic", I thought.  There's nothing more natural than a biblical swarm of bees taking up residence in your rafters.

When we tasted the jar of honey a few hours later,  I surmised his method of obtaining honey was superior to mine since my jar cost me $800 in extraction fees. After being shamed for my bee raising philosophy, I asked him how the chickens were doing.  He nodded over to the right and told me to go check them out.

He pulled out a comb and made a jar of honey while I was visiting.
Very rigid and precise

My comb was free form, more artistic

When I got up near the chicken coop he built himself, I thought, "Where the hell did this skill come from?  This is not the guy I knew 20 years ago."  Everything was precise, neat, and well done.  This is not what our capstone engineering project looked like.

"How did you learn to do this?" I asked with equal parts awe and dismay. 
"I don't know, YouTube, I guess."

I'm constantly amazed by people who can build things because it's so foreign to me.  My father made it clear that I was cursed when it came to mechanical things.  He broke the news gently when I was 5 and made sure to let me know it wasn't my fault, it was simply genetic. Our broken screen door was propped open by a rock for 15 years, our own family cross to bear for having been born without the mechanical allele in our double helix.

I walked in the pen and took a closer look.  There were at least a dozen chickens and several roosters.  Inside the henhouse there were several eggs ready, which the children grabbed periodically.  I noticed the chickens roamed freely around the house and among the dogs and wondered if he had any concerns for their well being.

"Do you worry about Chief hunting these chickens?", I asked.

"Not really.  I mean, not the hunting part. He just waits for them to walk up to him and takes them down.  He's a really efficient killer.  It's random, though. We don't know when it will happen", he said.

 "Can I have him?" I asked.

"It depends on how many more he kills, but you have dibs."

I had a laugh and then walked over to the porch for a beer.

Evenings on the ranch are magical.  There's lots of food and lots of beers, bourbon, bows, and  reminiscing.  Jerry broke out the bow, handed it to me and told me to launch a few at the deer target downrange.

"I'm pretty sure I could be an Olympic shooter if I practiced for 48 hours", I said as I steadied the bow.

"OK. Just make sure you don't curl your forearm when you release the arrow", he smirked.

I pulled it back, put the sights on target, released the arrow, and realized I may have been too quick to announce my superior bow shooting abilities. I was shocked at how quickly a grotesque welt can swell up on the forearm, a bruise I would carry around for another week after leaving.  I did not, however, leave before driving the tractor.

"Here's the throttle, here's forward and backward", he said as he pointed to the knobs and pedals.  "Oh, and that over there is your Bud Light holder".  

I started the engine and immediately began laughing like an 8 year old child.  It's playground equipment with an engine.  I rolled around the open acreage, first forward, then backward, lifting the bucket up and down willy nilly.  Surprisingly I didn't damage anything like I did on that Zamboni so many years ago.

As the sun dipped down below the horizon I parked the tractor and walked over to the porch to refresh my beer.  I handed Jerry the keys and told him to take a look at my boots.

"What?", he said.

"The stitches are brown and the toe is scuffed", I said.

"Cool. I'll see you in a year Urban Cowboy", he laughed as we settled in for a night of drinking.

Live Snack

Chief , big badass Bluetick Coonhound that occasionally snacks on the live chickens.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Big Bad Ass Mexican

"If you grow your hair out for a year, I'll fly in to Cheyenne to take some photos", I told Jerry when I couldn't make his retirement ceremony last year.

"You're on", he said.

In order to understand Jerry, you have to understand the city that forged him.  He was born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado, the "Pittsburg of the West", founded on railroads and steel mills.  It's a hard core, blue collar city built by fiercely tough men and women.  Jerry, born in 1971, grew up in a time that is described by the website like this:

"The 1960s and 1970s saw good working conditions for the people at the mill but globalization began to stress American steel manufacturers. Latent racial tension also boiled over into a prominent La Raza movement among Hispanic residents in the 1960s and 1970s, creating tensions that have only recently subsided."

For Jerry, Pueblo was (and is) a stratified zone of neighborhoods where it's critically important to know which side everybody is from.  An East sider wandering into the West side, for instance, is likely to take a beating.  Every unknown male in Jerry's territory was scrutinized and challenged like a lone wolf wandering into the wrong area.  No perceived insult, in any circumstance, was left unaddressed. The offender (usually) had the option of submitting, but it had better happen quickly or the fight was on.  I've seen the wolf eyes myself and it's unsettling to watch.

We first met in 1990 when we were randomly assigned as roommates at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.  I had just tried on my standard issue athletic shorts and found to my chagrin they fit like Daisy Duke shorts, barely containing my grapes.  I was just about to take a peek inside the bag labeled "Sanchez" to see if there was a better option when the Big Mexican blustered in and walked over to introduce himself.   He leaned in tight, uncomfortably close, looked me in the eye and said "Hey, I'm Jerry".  Our friendship may have been over before it started if he had walked in a few seconds earlier.

I witnessed Jerry give the wolf eyes several times in that first year, all of which went unchallenged by the offender.  One kid had the temerity to say he could kick Jerry's ass in the pool (water polo player), and he was quickly pinned to the wall by his throat with Jerry's nose an inch from his.  The kid received a stern lecture while in that position about how things work in Jerry's world.

Another time we were in a bar in Denver with Jerry's friend Danny and there was a standoff with some rather large dudes.  At some point in the conversation, Jerry informed them he was from Pueblo and the standoff  immediately ended based solely on Pueblo's tough reputation.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would be directly involved at some point, and it finally happened one night in Colorado Springs with a group of us.   We've had a lot of laughs over the years about Steve's "laceration" and Jerry demanding to speak with a non-existent Chuck Fucking Rodeo. I asked my long-time roommate, Steve Sanders, to describe that evening and here's how he remembered it:

"The scene:  Travis Pacheco, Jerry Sanchez, Chris Mills, Steve Sanders, and I can’t remember his name… some big guy named Mike (I think) went out for a nice evening in the 1982 Red CJ5 (cool ride thank you very much…and I still have it) and ended up at the rootin tootin, line dancing, Brooks n Dunn (over) playin, western jean too tightenin, bar “The Rodeo”. The sequence of events:

-        All is normal: Buckets of beer, shots of whiskey, a little dancing, and a lot of laughing

-        All becomes abnormal: Chris Mill pisses on Alan Jackson in the bathroom and is asked “nicely” to leave the fine establishment.  (Why is there a cardboard cutout of Alan Jackson in the men’s room anyway?  Seriously, why not Shania Twain)

-        Jerry Sanchez begins “negotiations” with the bouncer at the front door to get his friend back in the “fine” establishment.  Bouncer tells Jerry it’s not happening.  Jerry inquires if he can speak with the owner.  The bouncers (notice it’s plural now) tell Jerry the owner is not available.   NOTE: at this point a LARGE crowd is gathering at the entrance…including all 5 of us.  Jerry, who must have read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, insists on speaking with Chuck “fucking” Rodeo because his friend didn’t do shit and deserves to finish his beer in this “fine” establishment. 

-        At this point something happens.  I’m not sure…a little push, a crack at the door, a wink …whatever it was it was the Tipping Point and all hell broke loose for the next few minutes.  I got hit with a bottle, you got hit in the face, Jerry is beating the crap out of some dude, Chris is at it somewhere too, and so is mike.  It broke up in the parking lot…all five of us standing there looking at a bunch of cowboys.  A bottle flies from out of nowhere and hits Jerry in the forehead and breaks.  It’s like he didn’t even feel it…even though I see his head turning blue.  He just stares at the one Mexican cowboy and says “I thought you were Mexican…bro”

-        We leave…Jerry notices his finger is bleeding profusely.  I drive us to the Hospital downtown.  We walk through “Labor and Delivery” on the way to the ER.  Funny…they gave us a little verbal lashing b/c of that.  They bandage it up and send us to the AFA clinic.

The result:  I suffered a “half centimeter laceration to the scalp” and receive one staple.  Your glasses are scratched because they were knocked off your face.  Chris and Mike are free of any scars.  Jerry, the toughest dude we all know (National Champion Boxer, Big Bad Basic, etc) loses part of his index finger."

Jerry Chimed in with his version:

"I go to take a piss and Steve is getting hassled by the bouncer for pissing on a poster. I start arguing with the bouncer, who kicks us out. I continue to argue as we get escorted. Guys in line engage in the argument. I must have told them to F-off and they proceeded to follow us outside. We start to dance and all I recall is rushing one guy getting him in a head lock followed with a flurry of uppercuts while his buddies were teeing off on me. Next thing I remember is bouncers finally separating us and at this point all you guys come outside and through the mob and I recall someone hitting you as you pass. Mf-ers.

I look at my finger and about at the same time I get hit by a thrown beer bottle. We get in vehicles and you all drop me off at the emergency room.

One week before retiring from the Air Force the dentist added some tooth to my incisor that was kicked in that night, after all these years."

It wasn't uncommon for Jerry to return to base on Sunday night with blood on his pants, the result of a last second weekend brawl.  Amazingly, within the same year, he returned with a bandage on his nose and peeled it back to reveal a large, bloody flap of skin that was bitten off during another fight.  This one he kept under wraps until the skin fell off so he wouldn't be punished by his commanding officer.  Officially, Jerry had been "jumped" in the finger biting incident, but a second offense might prove to be too much. Subsequently, Jerry was a great officer in his career because he understood these types of things happen to good people and kicking them out actually hurts the mission.  He told me the story of a young, bright E.O.D. (bomb squad) studentof his who was busted for a D.U.I, a potential career killer.  Jerry went to bat for the guy and he went on to become a talented N.C.O. 

Once a shoulder injury derailed his football and wrestling career, Jerry went on to become a two-time Wing Open Champion and a national champion boxer.  Nobody was surprised, as we had all witnessed him become "Big Bad Basic" in boot camp with the pugil sticks.  I was thrilled when he revealed an anecdotal story to me after we had faced each other in the competitive round.

"I could see you had that look in your eyes and were ready to fight so I just wanted to end it quickly by jabbing rather than brawling", he said.  

My intent was to swing for the fences and see what happened.  I was happy to be acknowledged as a competitor.

Despite his tough background, Jerry also has a big heart and is fiercely loyal to those he considers friends or famliy, whether they are his closest, brutally tough Pueblo allies Ramon and Danny, or the outsiders and cast-offs because he's befriended because he finds them interesting.  He's extremely generous and nurturing, and always makes sure his guests are comfortable and their glass is always full.  He's the same way with his kids, demanding hugs and kisses and making sure their needs are taken care of, but demanding their compliance and respect.  It was always apparent to me that he would make a great officer in the Air Force, both as a Civil Engineering officer and E.O.D. officer.  He always had a natural ability to lead people.

Once we graduated, the Air Force took us our separate ways and we didn't see each other for 20 years, with only intermittent e-mails and updates about our lives along the way. In those 20 years he went to numerous places and did three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with an E.O.D. unit and with RED HORSE, the baddest ass Air Force Civil Engineering unit, where he regularly took mortar fire while acting as Squadron Commander rebuilding the area (see bottom for full deployment history).  Sitting on his porch in Cheyenne, we reminisced and picked up right where we had left off in Colorado Springs 20 years ago.  At some point in the conversation I asked him why that tough Mexican kid from Pueblo befriended a white dude from Northglenn.  

"I think maybe it was because you had this "Fuck You" attitude, some spunk, and you were athletic", he said.  I told him I connected with him because I recognized his personality from my dad.  In a lot of ways, I had grown up with this person.  

We sat there for hours shooting, talking, and drinking.  It was comfortable and comforting to be with an old friend with shared experiences only a few can relate to.  After all the years that had passed, I found he was still the same.  Still tough, still loyal, still Jerry:  A Big Bad Ass Mexican.

Belize, SA / Civil Engineer / JTF (Humanitarian Mission)

Saudi Arabia / Readiness Officer / Operation Southern Watch

Oman / Civil Engineer / Operation Enduring Freedom

Iraq / EOD Officer / Operation Iraqi Freedom
Iraq / EOD Officer / Operation Iraqi Freedom
Iraq / Civil Engineer / Operation Iraqi Freedom (Joint Area Support Group – 1 yr Army tasking)
Afghanistan / Civil Engineer (RED HORSE – 809 ECES SQ CC) / Operation Enduring Freedom
Afghanistan / Civil Engineer ( RED HORSE – 809 ECES SQ CC) / Operation Enduring Freedom