Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Old Days and Places: To An Old Friend

Some years ago long before starting Beyond The Campfire and long before moving to Kentucky, I maintained a website called Oklahoma Backcountry. It was hosted on the old, no longer available AOL Hometown site and was listed as one of the top five personal websites on the Hometown location accumulating well over 100,000 hits. Some of the best Old Days and Places stories I ever created were posted on that website. I'd like to share one of my favorites and one of the most popular.


To An Old Friend - (originally written August 2002)

Attempting to pass through the Chouteau Lock and Dam on the Vertegris River leg of McClellan/Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was ordinarily routine, but securing the bow line to the floating bouy embedded into the walls of the lock was essential if the river tug and barge were to safely lock through. Even so, as hard as I tried my lassoing ability failed with each attempt. Our skipper, who was struggling to maintain position in the stiff Oklahoma wind, shouted at me several times from the bridge, "Get that line secured!"

Him shouting at me only served to rattle me even more which did not improved my lassoing ability but did add another chapter of color to my sailor language skills.

I happened to glance upward and noticed from the visitors overlook high above stood an older man watching the event unfold. He was obviously entertained by my feeble attempts to secure that line. Half aloud I grumbled some derogatory remark as I again failed to secure the line. Somewhere around the ninth or tenth try I fianlly connected with the loop and took three quick turns around the cleat on the bow of the barge. Holding the open end of the line taut, I raised my arm and fist shouting so the skipper could hear me, "Hooked up!"

Internet Image - Chouteau Lock and Dam

The powerful diesel engines reversed thrust and the line stretched and popped under the strain but held firm. Near the stern another crewman secured a second line with a single toss and we were ready to "lock" through.

I shot a defiant look toward the stranger standing above us and while holding my hand on my hip and a smirk on my face, not unlike someone who had just tripped and jumped to his feet, muttered to myself, '...I really do know how to do this...' Strangely enough, he seemed less amused and more releaved that nothing was damaged in the process. It was a chance encounter with someone I had never seen or met before. It turned out to be the start of a life event I never knew was coming.

It is odd how random chance meetings have a way of developing into more lasting and meaningful parts of your life. Although I did not know it at the time the strangers name was Ralph Baston, and little did I know at the time, but he and I would become life long hunting and fishing partners and more importantly, life long friends.

USCG Forsythia
The year was 1977.  I was close to 25 years old at the time serving out the last few months of my enlistment service in the United State Coast Guard on the river bouy tender Forsythia out of Sallisaw, Oklahoma. (Don't ask what a Okie was doing in the Coast Guard stationed in the landlocked state of Oklahoma. Just trust me on this one.) Those last few months saw me performing some of the dirtiest, nastiest, hottest, coldest, grubbiest work I've ever had the misfortune of doing, but I would not trade the experience for anything. The previous three years or so I was stationed out in Oregon performing search and rescue operations at the Umpqua River Lifeboat station. Truly a life adventure, but a career in the military was not in my future.

Ralph was probably in his mid-fifties at the time, with a rather stout and somewhat gruff appearance, but tender hearted and filled with character. He turned out to be the father of a young lady I was to start dating shortly after our chance encounter at the lock and dam...that is how we met. Turns out the relationship with the young lady faded after a year or so, but by then Ralph and I had hunted and fished together more than enough times to become quite comfortable with each other. Neither of us saw any reason for that to end so we continued to do so. By then my friend Rocky and Ralphs friend's Curt and Neuman along with my brother had formed a comradship which evolved into our own hunting and fishing fraternity. We formed a unique cross section of personalities which for the most part complimented our personal whims and provided enough contrast to create some truly memorable moments filled with laughter.

Ralph was one of those guys who possessed a subtle but strong sense of humor and whose patience was legendary. He couldn't hear a thing without his hearing aid, yet in spite of his infirmary, he accomplished many things in life. He was a great musician and appreciated all talents he discovered in others. Like many of his generation he rarely spoke of his service during World War II thinking of it simply as his duty and preferred instead to concentrate on other things like hunting and fishing or working in his yard.

Through Ralph I learned more about the ethics of sportsmanship and why being an outdoorsman required a deep commitment and understanding of a greater responsibility than most people realize. He truly was the anchor of our group in more ways than one. He wasn't in a hurry to do anything and time after time we would chomp at the bit waiting  for him to finish tying on a lure or pull his waders on, or light his pipe. Sometimes he seemed like a real anchor holding us back with his lack of hurriedness. But, when the opportunity presented itself, everyone of us would arm wrestle the others for that coveted position to sit in front of Ralph's canoe.

His old Grumman aluminum canoe was a classic and reflected much of his personality. It was beat up, banged up, and long ago lost it's new charm, yet it kept on going and doing things every bit as well as the newer canoes. When the rest of us were talking about the high-tech vessels that were just then becoming available and how nice it would be to own one or even better own one of those fancy new high powered bass boats, he would simply nod favorably, then go about his business catching fish in his old trusted Grumman.

Ralph was wealthy only in character and goodness of heart. He would bend over backwards to help out someone, but was wise enough to know when to back off and step away. I cannot count the number of times he would take his day off to help me repair my broken down vehicle. All you had to do was to ask and he'd be there, and yet, he rarely asked for the favor in return.

Our younger bodies had a difficult time keeping up with him. There was not much he could not do physically. He often joked about his 'wide bottom' but we all knew those strong shoulders and back could out perform all of us when push came to shove. Not until he reached his upper 70's did he start to slow down and we were able to catchup with his capabilities.

His way with words belied his vocabulary skills. "Blast", or "No Kidding", or "Come On", or "Boy, Boy" were repeated so often I find myself using them even today.

I'll never forget the day I caught two 4 to 5 pound bass out at Old Beggs Lake. It was the first year or so I knew Ralph. He was the first person I showed them to..."No kidding!...Boy Boy...." he repeated over and over as we gawked at them. The next Saturday we were all down there frothing the water eagerly anticipating producing a wall hanger with each cast. Fishing reports were an expected thing with Ralph. If he knew you went fishing and he didn't get to go he'd act all  indignant, then want to know how we did and what we caught them on..."No kidding," he would exclaim as he complimented you on fine day afield.

Whether it was wetting a line from a canoe, wading Flint Creek, floating Baron Fork, quail hunting inside some tangled draw, or standing waste deep in freezing water waiting for an elusive flight of ducks, Ralph always had a story to tell. Seems his story telling was the highlight of our outings and we all relished those moments when the sun climbed higher and hunting or fishing slowed down. Heaven forbid if he started a story and you were in a hurry. What would take an ordinary person two or three minutes to tell, he could drag it out for half an hour. Twenty minutes into the story, if you paused to check the time, he would wrinkle his brow and growl, "Waht cha looking at your watch for! You aint got nothing better to do," and he'd be right, often extending the length of the story making up for lost time in telling it. He was also one of the few people I know who could tell the same story a dozen times and it would still be funny.

Many of his stories and many of our outings took on the flavor of the outdoor adventures chronicled by Patrick McManus, a brilliant and hillarious writer of outdoor wit. I suppose it was because we could relate to many of his created adventures is why we enjoyed them so much. Some of our greatest laughs were spawned while discussing Patrick's most current book. We'd run into some real-life character who would remind us of one of the McManus clan. Characteres like Rancid Crabtree, or Retch Sweeney, and even Eddie Muldoon. Sitting around the campfire we would laugh so hard recalling those tales tears would roll across sunburned cheeks. Man., those were good times.

As Ralph grew older we became less adventuresome and more intune with the greater pleasures of simply getting away. A morning of fishing became less an attempt to catch fish and more of an attempt to unwind, shake off the grime and stains of modern society. I didn't realize this so much the first few years I knew Ralph, but he was already a master of applying that concept long before I knew him. Over the years some of his ways were subtly adopted by all of us. They were the kinds of lessons one learns from experience and observation. Ralph was able to demonstrate his laid back appraoch to life and because of his subtle mentoring, we all grew not only in outdoor wisdom, but learned a great deal about life in general.

Ralph eventually began to slow down as he grew older. There was a noticeable shaking of his hand and a tireness in his eyes. When we were informed by his wife Pink that he had been diagnosed with Multiple Myloma, a type of blood cancer, we felt time was finally catching up with him. His hunting and fishing days were limited after that, yet his humor never left him and as far as I could tell he never complained about his condition, just about the orderlies, doctors, and nurses. At times it looked like he would beat it and occasionally he found enough strength to make an outing even finding the ability to sit in front of Curts canoe on one of his last canoe fishing trips to Old Beggs Lake. Now that I think about it, Old Beggs was the first and last place place I ever fished with Ralph. Fitting it seems, for there I learned about the joys of fishing from a canoe and how simple pleasures is what fishing is all about. It was also where I first leaned what being an outdoorsman meant.

Rocky called me at work one day in the middle of the week and said I better get over to Tulsa and see Ralph because he had taken a turn for the worse. I would not be able to go until a day or two later, but by then it was too late. His youngest daughter, my exgirlfriend, called me at work. Through her shakey voice and somber tone I knew before she said anything a friend, a father figure, a mentor, had passed on. I did not get much work done that day.

Many kinds of people are met traveling along the paths of life. Few make an impression and even fewer change the lives they encounter. Ralph was one of those life changers. Oddly enough, he probably never took much notice of it. He was simply being himself. He never expected anything different from anyone else.

There is no way I can explore all of Ralph's life or even the twenty-five or so years I knew him. I'm not sure what my favorite moment was, there are so many memorable ones. For example the time Rocky pulled the canoe out from under him after he stood up in the back and subsequently caused him to perform a backflip off the stern landing with a giant splash. Or maybe the time he and I found an ailing Redtailed Hawk while we were quail hunting. He took it home to see if he could find someone to nurse it back to health, much to his oldest daughter kept staring at her. Or the time he met me up at Canton Lake for some late season goose hunting and we witnessed one of the most awesome displays of nature I've ever seen when thousands of ducks and geese took to flight across the backdrop of a spectacular sunrise. Or, I suppose it could be all those times when on every outing we stopped hunting or fishing and sat for a spell in a shade to listen to one his never ending supply of stories. We would talk about how we ought to go frog gigging, or, or make that dream trip up to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area. We never made those trips.

I think my favorite times were after the sun had gone down and the campfire was casting a warm glow across our camp. It was then time-worn stories were shared again for the hundreth time and images of hilarious misadventures and triumphant moments were enhance by the warmth of the flames.

What ever mansion Ralph has earned up in Heaven, I can rest assured there is a campfire somewhere near by. I actually believe old Ralph has cornered the Good Lord up there offering him a warm cup of coffee along with whatever camp grub he may have simmering. I also see him asking, "Why did you put so many blow downs on the Baron Fork...speaking of blow downs, do you remember that time when..."

...Twenty minutes later into his story, the Good Lord will look at his watch, Ralph will wrinkle his brow and growl, "Waht cha looking at your watch ain't got nothing better to do..."

...then in the end they will laugh so hard they will both wipe a tear from their cheek. Once they laughed themselves out, both will look down here and they will see his family and friends and remember all the good times of our lives. Another tear, one of happiness, will roll down his cheek to join the ones we have already shed, some in saddness knowing he is gone from us, but most in joy knowing he has a good friend up there who will forever share in and will never tire of listening to his stories.

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