The Uses of Conspiracy – Steve Russell
Not All Game Animals are Warm Blooded
Memoir Excerpt ©2019 Steve Russell
It was 1966, and I was over half-finished with what I still called my first Air Force hitch, still on track for a retirement pension at the ripe age of 37. I had been ordered to report to a listening station maintained by USAF Security Service north of Da Nang, hard by the DMZ. It did not appear on any map I had at hand, but Security Service — the USAF branch of the National Security Agency — was a small enough outfit with few enough assignments that none was a total mystery. Our Big Ears were so well-placed, the saying went, they picked it up if Ho Chi Minh farted in his sleep.
The work promised to be as boring as the location was exotic. I would convert the electronic intercepts to paper tape, and ship out the raw product for the rest of the conversion from Vietnamese to computer to English.
It was customary to take a leave before deploying to Vietnam, and that seemed like a good idea. I made a copy of my orders to prove I would soon be a war hero and headed first to Bristow, where I found my grandmother stoutly opposed to the Vietnam War and dismayed at my participation.
Somewhat deflated, I steered my Volkswagen in the direction of rural Arkansas, where my mother lived while commuting to work in the metropolis of Russellville. I was nonplussed to find that Arkansas existed in an alcohol prohibition time warp.
The state was about evenly divided between wet and dry counties. There were a few the locals called “moist,” because alcohol was legal but surrounded by so many regulations it was hardly worth the trouble.
The nearest place to buy a legal six-pack was Conway, where I learned that the drinking age was 21. I was 19, and after a day of futile attempts to wet my whistle, my mother introduced me to her bootlegger.
Scotty was a young fellow about my age with a haircut that looked more military than mine. We became fast friends, and the next day we went hunting for small game. I had three pistols in my car, and I chose the most accurate, a Ruger .22 semi-automatic that I kept in my car for self-defense when visiting Bristow. I was determined not to be anybody’s victim again. Scotty chose a Hi-Standard .22 revolver, a good choice because the third pistol was an Astra semi-automatic with a barrel just a tad over two inches that only fired .22 shorts in seemingly random patterns.
We shot a few squirrels and Scotty was neither grossed out by eating rodents nor surprised at my insistence that I don’t kill things I don’t intend to eat. We began to think of taking our hunting a little more upscale, and Scotty suggested there might be ducks hanging out in the small ponds formed by deserted strip mines.
Hunting ducks with pistols would be asking too much of marksmanship, but the furnished cabin where my mother lived had an old .12-gauge shotgun on a rack above the fireplace. It was a side-by-side double barrel with two triggers. I cracked the breech and it looked cruddy in there but not rusty. My mother called her landlord and he agreed that we could use it and said it ought to work, although it had not been fired for a couple of years. Scotty volunteered that he had an old partial box of shells somewhere and when he returned with it we were in business.
It was late in the day when we loaded all the guns into the trunk of Scotty’s big blue Edsel and went out to reconnoiter the strip pits. Two things stood out about Scotty’s car in addition to the make. I had never ridden in an Edsel before and the interior seemed to have been pretty ritzy before the car got old, but he had removed the rear seat, making what was already a cavernous trunk a payload area that looked suitable to carry my Volkswagen. The other oddity was when he cranked up the V-8 engine, it idled with a deep rumble that caused the whole front end of what I immediately dubbed the blue whale to vibrate — upscale rides can be powerful, but without such ostentatious noise.
Given Scotty’s profession, I had to ask him why he would drive something like the blue whale. I had never seen anything like it and it had to be easy to spot on the two-lane roads of rural Arkansas. He smiled with pride and allowed that all the cops knew him and knew the blue whale, but they had never been able to catch him driving a load.
The blue whale was an odd beast on the inside as well as the outside. An automatic transmission was no surprise but push-button controls on the steering wheel were. The only radio Scotty had would become a fad in about ten years, a CB radio. He claimed that his radio was the reason he had never been caught
As we rolled in the blue whale, the two-lane blacktop became gravel, and after a turn over a cattle guard it became two dirt trails through high grass. Scotty pulled up to one of the strip pits and stopped at a little clearing where somebody had built a fire in the past. In the fading daylight, I could still see the water was clear and there were plenty of big rocks for sitting and climbing in and out without slogging through the mud in the shallows.
It looked to be an outstanding swimming hole, but there were no ducks. Thinking I’d like to fire the old shotgun anyway as long as we were out in the boonies, I picked up the dirty cardboard box and discovered it was just as well there were no ducks. The shells were not birdshot. They were number two, which is near the small end of buckshot. Scotty was not sympathetic to my complaint:
“Whatta ya expect with luck of the draw? They’re .12 gauge, aren’t they? They fit the gun, don’t they?”
With nothing to fire birdshot at, having an argument seemed like a waste of time, so I shut up and plopped a couple of old shells into the old gun, only to discover the last of the sunlight disappearing over the horizon. Then we heard some familiar sounds.
The first croak sounded like there was a granddad bullfrog right at my feet. It was answered from the other side of the pond.
Scotty asked, “How about some frog legs?” I like frog legs just fine, but I had to point out that we had no gigs and shooting in the dark seemed both futile and dangerous. Scotty motioned for me to wait.
After some rummaging in the whale, he came up with a flashlight, a little one that takes two D batteries and has a magnet on the side of it. He flicked it on and the brightness said the batteries were new. It gave me an idea.
I took the flashlight and fastened it to the barrel of the shotgun with the magnet. Wherever the light went, I thought, that’s where the gun was pointed. I stood right on the dirt edge of the bank and looked down to where I thought that basso croak had come from.
I played the light along the water’s edge, but I saw nothing and I heard nothing. I was about ready to give it up when I thought I heard the same frog taunting me from a distance. I raised the light and there he was on a log 25 or 30 feet away. I had the light right on him when he ripped loose another croak.
About that time, Scotty hollered at me to “aim for the head.” I was annoyed that he thought I could aim a shotgun when I had never seen its pattern but I had not taken my eyes off the frog and I’d seen chickens with smaller drumsticks than that, so I looked down the top of the barrel at the frog’s head and squeezed the trigger.
I think I’ve been trained now for being struck by lightning. A flame from the end of the barrel lit the area to the other side of the pond and the report was louder than any weapon I had ever fired. I heard someone scream, “Ooohhh shit!” and I didn’t realize it was me until I heard the splash and felt the cold water on my crotch.
When I could see and hear again, I was sitting in the mud with my shiny black GI shoes under water. It was dark and I could not see the flashlight. I cracked the breech to unload the gun and discovered I had managed to fire the other barrel as I slid down the mud bank on my butt.
As I wondered how I was going to get out of there in the dark, all of a sudden Scotty was shining the flashlight on me. He claimed it flew up ten or twelve feet and fell to the ground behind me. The light stayed on, so finding it was no great trick.
Certain the gun was unloaded, I was able to hold it by the end of the barrel and hand it up to Scotty. Then he used the light to find me a place to climb out.
“All of that,” I griped, “and I missed the damn frog.”
“No, you didn’t.” Scotty was shining the light on a large spot of froggy bodily fluids and parts on the branch I had shredded with shot. He wanted to switch to pistols and start stalking frogs, but I was ready to go back to my mother’s house. I didn’t care for walking around in wet pants and I was especially interested in removing the mud from my GI shoes.
Scotty picked up the floor mat from the passenger side of the blue whale and put it on the seat so I would not get the upholstery wet, stashed the pistols in the empty ice chest, and we were off. We had no more passed the cattle guard and turned onto the gravel road and there were red lights behind us.
Scotty glanced briefly in the rear-view mirror and stomped on the throttle. The whale bucked and roared and my shoulders were pinned back to the seat as I yelled, “What are you doing? Are you out of your gourd?”
“Did you say something about a policeman?,” Scotty snickered. “What policeman?” Sure enough, the flashing red lights were pinpricks in the distance, and as we rounded a gradual curve, the pinpricks winked out.
The gravel road exited the forest and intersected with the two-lane blacktop. As we neared the intersection, a police car blocked the road and turned on reds. Scotty cocked the steering wheel all the way left as he slid on the gravel but his perfect 180 just brought him hood to hood with his pursuer.
They soon had us both out of the Edsel and handcuffed while they ransacked the car. I overheard some back and forth about traffic offenses that could be nailed on Scotty. Speeding was out because nobody measured his speed and there was no marked speed limit where he was driving fastest. Failure to stop didn’t work unless there was a reason to stop him. There was nothing illegal about the 180.
Then the officer who had opened the ice chest asked over his shoulder, “Where you boys goin’ with all the artillery?”
“Down to the strip pits to spotlight frogs,” I piped up.
“Don’t you boys know it’s illegal to spotlight frogs? Sounds like a conspiracy to me.”
Scotty was glaring at me. My mouth had gotten the blue whale impounded, at least.
When we got to the police station, they dug into the statute books and claimed to have found a law about spotlighting game. It did not mention frogs, but there was no exception for frogs, either.
While they were discussing the merits of a criminal conspiracy charge, the jailer looking through my belongings found a copy of my Vietnam orders folded up in my wallet. He handed the document to one of the arresting officers, who read it over.
“According to this, Airman Teehee, you are supposed to be in California in about two weeks.”
“Yes, sir. If I’m out of jail, that is. I don’t know what happens if I miss my connection.”
He made some remark about not wanting to interfere with my vacation in Vietnam. He read my mother’s phone number off the booking sheet, called her, and told her to come and get me.
I asked if I could have my guns back and they said no.
Before my mother drove away, she asked me where the guns were, probably thinking of the old shotgun she had borrowed from her landlord. I told her the story and she marched back inside.
She returned shortly with the shotgun and all three of my pistols. I asked what was going to happen to Scotty.
“Not much,” she replied, “unless they can find a law he broke. I don’t think conspiracy to spotlight frogs is going to hold up.”
I was on the road the next day, rolling south to my head-on collision with a drunk driver in Austin. It was a couple of months before I had enough of my marbles back to write my mother a note on the pad I carried around the hospital asking what happened to Scotty.
She said he had to pay to get the blue whale back but he was getting over being pissed at me. If I cared to return to Arkansas to visit, he had a six-pack with my name on it. We could go down to the strip pits and spotlight frogs.