Welcome to West Yellowstone
Friday May. 30th, 2014
Being the runt of the family, it was my usual routine to get up early and scope out the possibilities arriving with the dawn. Along for the morning ‘meet and greet’, might be some very loose change, a pocket knife, a half book of matches, a marble or two, a firecracker, and, more often than not, a few small round balloons meant to hold water from a spigot. A pocket full of options, what every kid needs to fulfill a promising career in growing up in the high country. May is for Mayhem, especially when you’re a little fart and full to the gills with ‘spring fever’.
On my hip was always an imaginary holster full of wits, ever ready for a quick draw. I wasn’t all that quick but I could already draw better than most. Routinely, I’d work on my quickness by sharpening it on my brothers’ wits. Occasionally one or two would find their way up my nose, but each time it was making me a little bit faster. Training is always the hardest part of any job. That and getting a raise.
One of my favorite ways to pass the time that didn’t result in blood letting included being sneaky, so long as I took my time doing it. Not in a villainous way or anything like it, but more along the lines of the Native American pastime of ‘counting coup’. Tag for the elitist.
The arrival of tourist season elevated my game substantially, as was its sole purpose in my estimation, not knowing at such a tender age the particulars of how our table was provisioned. I owed a lot to the tourist trade, I just didn’t know it at the time.
Tourists, as opposed to the local color, I realized early on, had a tendency towards mind wandering. Sometimes it even seemed they must be leaving their brains back home with the cats to play with and the parakeets to talk to.
My very first “stick-up” was on a dapper gent strolling his sweetheart past the front of our bar, I was three and got nicely rewarded with a four-bit hunk of solid silver for being “So darn cute!” (according to the sweetheart anyway). I returned the favor by not removing the man’s kneecaps with my pearl handled cap guns. Money soothes the savage runt. Lesson learned.
Shortly after that first hold-up and while I was still admiring that fifty cent piece, a well oiled inebriant squinted into the bright sunlight after negotiating the heavy front door of our dark and rustic log watering hole. Seeing me, he bent over having both hands on his tweed lapels and classically parted my eyebrows with his breath and, “You cain’t stop time, boy, but you can stop pickin’ yer nose! (hic)”
This impressed me a great deal seeing as how none of my fingers were anywhere near my nostrils, so I slipped the heavy coin in my pocket, quickly drew both revolvers, thumbs pulling the hammers back to the second clicks and held him up for six bits! Too easily, I might add.
By then, I’d heard all about this inflation concept from patrons arguing with our barkeep and decided to give it a try myself. Right off, I saw why it was so popular! Another lesson learned and so early in the day too.
By the age of four, I wasn’t so dern cute anymore and had to think up a new endeavor. I could have gone into banking at this point but I’ve always favored funny business over chasing after bad investments and decided it best to come up with new and interesting ways to make myself and others giggle.
With this in mind, I recruited my friend, Kegger, from just up the street where his folks had a fine string of curio stores and a bus depot often decorated with strange dialects from far away places, mainly Japan. He was two years my junior and still “darn cute” in the eyes of grownups, providing some confidence building continuity from my previous line of work but not likely to break any laws as serious as armed robbery or public belching.
Out of the confines of his basement came a hatched plan and assorted props such as a small folding table, a stool, some rags, a clothes brush, an old tooth brush, a pail of sudsy water and a nicely lettered but badly spelt sign reading, “Bird Poop Removed While You Wait ~ Four Bits”. We set him up on the covered sidewalk just out of range of anyone with any common sense, namely his dad, Herman, whom I knew for a fact, had an exceedingly short fuse whenever it was exposed to childlike humor of any variety.
A few minutes later, I had a great bird’s eye view of foot traffic below a sign that proclaimed, “Curios ~ 10 cents to $1.00”, just west of Craig about 100’. At the moment, it should have also included, “Surprises are on the house” for in my steady grip was a large squeeze bottle of chunky blue cheese dressing procured from the smorgasbord at the far end of my folks’ bar. It didn’t taste as bad as bird poop but it sure did look the part!
I dropped a few warning blobs down to the sidewalk to judge the wind, timing and splatter effects then waited for a good target. It was a fine late May afternoon and I was in a great mood leading into a Memorial Day weekend I new would be complete with lots of fine and dandy targets having money to burn on their vacations as well as the removal of bird poop.
I spied a fedora walking my way with its owner underneath it and figured this to be a prime time to check for any flaws in our system. Mentally drawing a target on the crown and brim, I made sure of the timing and let go a squeeze. The effect was dazzling! He jumped sideways, almost colliding with a log post, and disappeared under cover amid grand curses and sputterings. After Craig cleaned the gent’s hat and learned some new and thought provoking phrases, we were four bits in the black.
With entrepreneurial spirits soaring, we awaited a new target.
Two showed up presently in the form of a bulldog walking a bald man with large bushy eyebrows. I got them both with one squirt before I ducked behind the sign to conceal the sweet giggles of a successful venture. At four and a partial, I could see my future and it was as bright as a new penny!
While Craig was cleaning those two off, bumping our ‘take’ to $1.50, a freshly laundered cowboy of uncertain vintage wandered out of the Ham and Eggery, stretched and patted his full stomach and set his sights on the Frontier Saloon’s neon glowing warmly down the street. First, he had to get cleanly past this small but not insignificant gap in the continuous awning ranging almost the length of the block.
I reached out in anticipation, calculating wind drift and the cowboy’s gait when a raven’s shadow went across his path and up the wall, causing an upturned glance just in time to see a toeheaded grin at the far end of a thick stream of salad dressing.
I’ve never been amazed more how time can simply fly on by one minute and suddenly stall to imperceptible the very next.
His startled gaze and mine locked for what seemed eternal until my bottle cleared with a loud liquid fart so typical of condiment squeeze bottles. I giggled as I always do whenever that sound occurs, whether I make it or someone else does. This is not a universally shared trait however as an unbroken string of epithets followed my retreating sorry ass all the way back to where I’d gotten onto the roof and a clean getaway down the alley where I hid in an old outhouse where I did a little soul searching until suppertime.
That night in my sleep, I had not a nightmare but more like a warning. That same wrangler, dressed up in blue cheese, was calling me out for a duel. I had to oblige, what with half the town cheering me on. Before the spurs quit janglin’ on my tennis shoes, I saw him slap leather on both hips. I drew like lightning and squeezed both triggers but all that came out was that same liquid flatulence with moldy cheese bits.
I could feel the impacts on my gut and chest but they wouldn’t stop when I pleaded for mercy, they just kept pummeling my midsection as I lay in the dust, eyes rolling back toward the abyss.
Then my eyes popped open to my mom’s beautiful sweet face, her soft hands shaking my belly. “Are you having a dream about salad dressing?” she asked with a quiet smile so as not to wake my brothers who I could hear snickering in their pillows.
“You know me, ma, always thinkin’ of food!” I smiled back at her.
Such was the stuff of my dreams in the summer of 1956, 6,666’ above sea level at the corner of Yellowstone and Dunraven, West Yellowstone, Montana 59758.
Scott Clawson spent his “formative” years in West Yellowstone, surrounded by the usual suspects: bears, tourists, gamblers, drinkers, musicians, assorted bartenders and great friends. His mind has been reeling ever since.