Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sargeant Curtis Hale and the Sawzall Blade

I wanna talk about what my wife calls the "porta-potties", not because I hope to convince her that my passion (OK Obsession) for duck hunting is glorious and honorable (I do think it is, but I've long ago given up any hope of convincing her). Nor because I want to defend the dignity of a duck blind (it doesn't care what anyone thinks). No, the duck club that I've been hunting for the past twelve years has a story that needs to be told.

The Tule Belle is inexcusable and unapologetic. It's inhabitants a rogue stew of contractors, retirees and tradesman: back stabbers and backslappers, best friends and enemies depending on the fog or the sunshine and the wind and the migration. It is mud and pickle weed, rusty irrigation tubes and fresh green cattails sprouting from a mucky slough bank of decaying biomass that admittedly does resemble the contents of a porta-potti and smells about as sweet.
It's dwellings are both ramshackle and dilapidated, historical and rejuvenated, floating precariously atop a two acre flat of gravel known as "the compound". It has been around as long as the town of Benicia and yet feels as fragile and delicate as pollen on a dandelion in a windstorm. Most nearby residents don't know it, but the Suisun Marsh is one of the largest freshwater estuaries on the Pacific Coast.
One doesn't get this sense of fragility until they truly understand the inner workings of the marsh. In the summer, when the ponds are drained and it's possible to operate heavy equipment on it's crusty surface, the water table lurks only inches below, waiting for rain or the turn of an irrigation gate to bring it back to life. The buildings sink a few inches every year and are constantly being jacked up and reinforced. Last summer, a parking lot sank into the slough overnight. And yet the shack my buddies rent used to be the ice house for market hunters over a hundred years ago, when the only way to get there was by boat and later by train. An ill advised route that is more difficult to maintain than the arctic tundra. Nowadays, "the shack" is furnished with a 75 inch big screen, LayZBoy and sectional couch.
Here's a story. "Uncle Curtis", a proud Vietnam Veteran and the Tule Belle caretaker, was having an addition built onto his double wide, complete with south facing skylights. His former partner "Scary Larry" (who tragically passed away in his sleep last year in his early forties) was part of the crew. Curtis had just come home from work and mixed himself the first cocktail of the afternoon in preparation for some good old "straw bossing". I remember a pencil fell on the floor and Curtis walked under a ladder to retrieve it for one of his volunteer work crewmen. Time stood still after that. Larry decided to retrieve the sawzall off the roof in true Tule Belle fashion, whipping the extension cord "rodeo style" off the unfinished roof.
I was standing about ten feet away.
I heard the "zzzzt" of the sawzall and Curtis let out a stifled, grunting "Aaargh".
I still can't believe it. CSI could do an episode on it if Curtis wasn't still hauling his happy butt out hunting every morning and cooking his favorite grilled potato dish.
Curtis was standing there holding the Sawzall with both hands in front of his face. I couldn't understand how or why he caught it in mid-air until I saw that the ten inch blade had poked through the cartilage in front of his nose. He's got to be the toughest bastard I've ever met. He never screamed. He kept grunting "AAAAhhh" but it wasn't a scream, he was just grunting and dealing with the problem facing him at the moment.
Everyone circled Curtis all at once, contemplating this sudden turn of events. One moment it's a work party and the next moment, Curtis has a Sawzall blade through his nose. Everyone stopped that is, except Larry. When he was younger, some genius (probably one of his friends) had filled a Budweiser can with gas and Larry (friend of genius?) mistook it for his freshie. Ever since, he will barf at a good joke.
Larry disappeared to puke and then came back with some box cutters. I volunteered that we should keep the blade in. My lifeguard training taught me to leave the foreign-object-removal up to the pros. But in my shaken (I can honestly say I didn't panic but I probably would've been better off) condition and due to the fact that I'm an English teacher and not a carpenter, I couldn't figure out how to remove the blade. Plus, Larry had the box cutters all ready and he was feeling guilty, so he cut a straight, neat score right across the top of Curtis' nose, above the top edge of the sinister Sawzall blade. Larry removed the blade like he was playing Operation only it wouldn't just buzz if he made a wrong move, Curtis would probably punch him in the throat.
We applied some toilet paper and then later packed gauze on top. My Lifeguard training taught me to never remove bandaging once it's applied so as not to interfere with the blood clot. (I admit, my Lifeguard training seemed pathetic in comparison with the problem at hand.) My buddy Ken and I volunteered to drive Curtis to the emergency room. After all, his injury wasn't life threatening at this point and all the volunteer crew men probably thought he would feel better when he got back if they made some good progress on his double-wide.
We sat in the emergency room for awhile, trying to talk Curtis out of going back home. I remember thinking that if we had left the blade in, they probably would have brought him in by now. As it was, it just looked like he had a bloody nose. Ken kept trying to explain what kind of damage a Sawzall blade could do but the secretary didn't seem fazed.
In the end, we gave in to Sargeant Curtis Hale. "Just drive me to Raley's and get me some Neosporin and some butterfly Band-Aids!", he kept saying. So we did.
You have to look closely to see the line on Curtis' nose, but it's there. I swear a plastic surgeon would've charged tens-of-thousands more and wouldn't have gotten the results that Curtis did with his Neosporin and Butterfly Band-Aids. On a cold December morning, well before sun-up, with his waders and shotgun and army-surplus-backpack, he almost looks handsome.

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