Casorso's Pioneer Ranch
Dildo-humper. That was the epithet of the summer. Steppo coined that one - I can see him sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table with a mug of instant coffee and a cigarette, his battered straw cowboy hat pushed back on his head, free hand pulling his moustache, discoursing in his bemused yet slightly exasperated way about an idiocy perpetrated by one section of humanity on another, and summing up after a pause, "fucking dildo-humpers". A Steppo original: descriptive and compelling in its incongruity. It entered the Ranch vocabulary immediately and was trotted out with glee the whole summer through.
Casorso's Pioneer Ranch was an entrepreneurial foray by little old Grampa Casorso, bow-legged and squashed down by years of hard work but always on the lookout for a way to turn a few dollars. So he had bought the tiny one and two bedroom bungalows that constituted whatever failed motel it had been in the city, and trucked them up to his orchard on the outskirts, to rent by the month to vacationers or perhaps young working people with jobs in the valley. What he wound up with, mostly, was the likes of us, not exactly a savory segment of society; but took our rent and treated us with an old-world formality and deference that we appreciated, and tried to return.
Grampa's daughter and son-in-law ran the orchards and handled the day to day business of the cabins. I remember them as being friendly people whom we hardly ever saw. And they had a 16 year old daughter - she was beautiful, but I couldn't tell you what she looked like. On one of those warm, clear Okanagan nights in early August, I scrounged a bottle of wine from somewhere (who knows, maybe I even bought it myself) and enticed her into the straw that was piled high on the old flatbed. There were no flies on this girl, she made sure she had a chaperone, her boyfriend no less, a young hand with jet black hair and cowboy boots who helped out around the place.
The flatbed was parked in the compound between the tiny orchard facing the cabins and the main house down the slope a bit, with no yard lights nearby to dilute the steadily darkening sky. At first we lay on our backs passing the bottle back and forth, chattering away in nervous excitement but gradually, as the sky filled up with lights, we talked less and less, awed into silence. My heart was kicking around in my chest, some from the wine and the proximity of this tanned and gorgeous girl, even though I knew I was already close as I was ever going to get, but mostly from the impact of the view. Without ever actually seeing a star appear, you could feel them winking on, a tiny hood coming off here, now over there, now up there, on and on at a breathtaking pace until the whole umbrella of sky was a dazzling, pulsing, vital thing, an organism with all time in its past and future.
The wine didn't last long and by then the only words passing between us were a running count of the shooting stars and satellites. Most of the shooting stars were just flashes, brilliant and momentary, to be seen only by the person looking in that corner of the sky at that moment, so brief that you'd be asking yourself if you just saw what you thought you saw; but a satellite you could pick us as a moving star, track it, and point out its knuckle-balling trajectory to the other two. We ran the count up to 20 odd meteors and about a dozen satellites, and I said good night to them. It was only good manners to get out of their hair but more importantly I was so happy I could barely speak, and I wanted to take that happiness and like a miser with his treasure bask in its glory, alone.
Steppo was living with Linda. She had just given birth to Sam, who amazingly, considering his size, was a very good looking baby. Sam would have been how old then? Three months? Less? Linda was dark, attractive, country-size; and in the state of dishevelment common to new mothers. At first she eyed us - Don, Marnie, Robak, and myself - with some suspicion or more likely shyness. I think we made a lot of noise, long-haired smart-assed kids from the city. Not only that, their cabin like the rest was small, a one bedroom, and even though Robak and I slept in Roebuck's van and Don and Marine in their station wagon, during the daytime we were in and out and hanging around, in the way, underfoot, taking up space. But we must have tried to be as unintrusive as possible, helping her whenever we could, because she warmed to us and relaxed.
Linda loved horses, loved to ride, and later in the summer, after we had returned from California and not Mexico as planned, and Sam's demands on her time had lessened a bit, she would go riding with the man from up the road. I don't know if he was a rancher or a fruit farmer or just a retired landowner, but he looked like a man who had spent all his life working in the sun, and with animals. He reminded me of Randolph Scott, though not quite as handsome. He face was dark and creased like old leather, his eyes narrow from squinting. He sat a horse with the naturalness of a centaur, and he glowered at us with contempt and not a little fear. Steppo, Robak, Don and I, presented a type of danger to him, not a physical danger, but a threat or rather denial or negation of his life, of the world in which he had grown and matured, and of what he had learned. I think he figured we were all sneering at him, or worse, didn't give a shit about him. We were aliens, and the most we ever got from him was a nod, from up there on his horse.
He was in love with Linda, or the idea of rescuing her from Steppo and an awful future. She was his mission. He'd ride down from his place by himself or with some of his buddies, with a horse for Linda. They never got off their mounts, just sat, uneasily, waiting for Linda to appear, never comfortable in the midst of all that hair and iniquity. I didn't much like it either. I figured these were real people who had worked like dogs all their lives, and I knew I'd never be able to do that. Steppo was easygoing about it. He knew old Randolph Scott wanted Linda, young enough to be his daughter, that he was smitten; Steppo was the one who knew it first, and he was right, you could see it in Randolph Scott's face. No romance, but a grim determination, Steppo knew also that Linda needed to ride out of there periodically, frequently, to avail herself of that mechanism for escape. Steppo knew all that stuff before even Linda did; in other circumstances he and Randolph Scott could have had some long and full conversations.
One day, not that summer but not long after, Linda and Sam rode out with Randolph Scott for good. When I heard that I thought, well it's true - these things really are possible, they do happen. And now they are to me like characters in a story, Linda, Sam, and the middle-aged cowboy; for all that I know of them, of what's become of them, they may never have been real in the first place, living as they do in a memory that is less and less to be trusted.
The original idea had been for Robak and I to drive to Mexico in his '59 VW van. Robak put a lot of energy into the planning and I sort of tagged along. I never really cared where I went so long as it was somewhere, and as lazy as I am it was great for me, critical I suppose, that someone with Roebuck's enthusiasm and initiative was around to keep me moving. In that sense it was an ideal partnership - he provided the leadership and I the support. What I didn't foresee happening was my falling in love with the Ranch, and the Okanagan, when we stopped there for those few days before heading south. If I had been more passionate about Mexico or less about Kelowna I probably would have hung in there with Robak longer than I did. As it was I pulled the rug out from under him, ruining a winter's full of organizing and dreaming.
The van was coloured two tones of blue, like the Toronto Argonauts, and had an eight track player, which in those days put us smack dab on the leading edge of technology. Robak had three tapes for it - The Youngbloods' Elephant Mountain, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Blind Faith - and somehow we never got sick of listening to them. Just outside Princeton, on the way to Kelowna from the coast, one of the transmission seals blew and I thought uh oh horrible omen. The guy at the garage didn't like our looks, I guessed, because he made a perfunctory inspection and said he couldn't fix it, didn't have the right tools for VW's. Baker was not easily buffaloed; he barked right back at him that Joe Schmoe at his corner Texaco in Vancouver worked on the van all the time, and that he figured a 5/8 wrench would fix this problem once the vehicle was on the hoist. That stung the guy's pride a bit and in half an hour we were on our way.
Don and Marine were keen for a summer holiday as well, so they decided to pack their Rambler station wagon and go with us as far as southern California. Robak and I looked the hippie part the two-toned '59 VW, but the Watmoughs in their wagon looked more like Okies. They were loaded past the windows with gear, they had their two poodle crosses Ginger and Tish that never seemed quite capable of sitting still in the back seat, and to complete the effect, Don had an old bike he'd chopped strapped to the roof rack. The bike was a dinosaur even for 1970; one gear only, a chain guard, fenders, and wide swept handlebars with a spread of about four feet, obviously a custom job by Don, and it looked impressively peculiar either on the ground or up top, in transport.
Just before we left Kelowna for the U.S., Linda took a picture of us in front of Don and Marnie's car, in the bone dry dust of the roadway in front of Steppo's, with the apple orchard behind. Don blew up a copy for me into poster size sometime later (must have been taken on his camera) and I kept it as treasure for years afterward, then gave it to some girlfriend's brother for what reason I'm not sure. Certainly he had no use for it. Probably I was trying to convince myself that I had not use for it, that it was nostalgic and therefore weak.
It's in black and white, and from right to left showed me, Robak, Marine, and Don standing or rather leaning against the packed-up car, with Steppo squatting on his haunches at our feet, holding his son Sam, and Ginger sitting off to one side, staring up at Don who is cradling Tish. I'm wearing my Garry Sudul English driving cap that is actually an old beaten up red corduroy thing I've stolen, with his proud and tacit permission, from my father, who wore it curling; and a plaid handkerchief tied around my neck in a poor imitation of the drummer from the Steve Miller band, who was imitating, on one album cover at least, a cowboy. Robak, like me, is wearing sunglasses, but is hatless, and grinning that peculiar lopsided grin of his that's a legacy of a childhood bout with polio. Marine is tall, striking, beautiful really. The sunlight on her long straight blonde hair makes it shine as though there were a glow coming from behind her, back lighting her. She is smiling the way people do when they know something private, and privately. Don has sunglasses, big round ones goggling out from above his goofy full-lipped grin, his mushroom-head hair standing out like a flattened down Afro. He is clowning, clutching Tish in a good-natured parody of the father-son combination below us.
Steppo has a cigarette going and the straw cowboy hat is in its usual position at the back of his head. Don, Marine, and I are wearing flared blue jeans that in the picture appear worn and faded, the in-look. Robak is wearing cords, Steppo a pair of threadbare cutoffs, Sam his diapers.
I'd like to say that we look like a group of people posed for a big adventure, or about to storm full-blooded into an unsuspecting world, or about to turn some mystical corner into an undreamed of region of our lives; but I can't. We're just young people, several among a multitude, with nothing special to mark us. What I see now coming out of that photograph is something I never thought about then, nor would have mentioned to anyone if I had - the real and indelible enjoyment, unquestioned, unhurried, unspoken, that we took from each other's company.
In a fresh air starry wilderness I am seeing you Susan and soon.
My love poem of that summer.
I probably broke that sentence up into four lines, agonizing over exactly where for, oh, easily ninety seconds, or perhaps I was inspired that day and it came to me intact, complete and unblemished. I threw it onto the back of a postcard and sent it to Calgary, to Susan, whose reaction was predictable and entirely appropriate - I never heard a word from her.