Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Rocket Scientist

Summer of 1969, I'm guiding bear hunters at my Uncle Finley's Katahdin Lodge & Camps. One week, among our hunting clientele, is a Washington, D.C. rocket scientist. One evening, when picking him up at a bear bait, that dude was all flipped out and damned near blew my head off:

The Rocket Scientist
By David Robert Crews
Sep 3, 2005 - 3:49:00 PM

One of the most powerful examples of my experiences as a bear hunting guide was the time that a Washington, D.C. Rocket Scientist darn near shot my head off. It happened in the summer of 1969, when I was a nineteen-year-old kid from the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, working at my uncle's hunting lodge in northern Maine. Although I had only been working there at the lodge for eight months, I was a Registered Maine Hunting and Fishing Guide, and I was handling my assigned responsibilities well.

The rocket scientist looked like the classic Hollywood version of a rocket scientist. He was a tall, thin gentleman past sixty years of age with white hair and a well-trimmed white mustache. He spoke in a kind, friendly manner with endearing dignity leaving no doubt as to his high education and life achievements.

His hobby was building high performance hotrod cars and boats. He would order an engine block from Detroit and create an awesomely powerful motor from scratch. He said he owned a station wagon that only got six miles to the gallon of gas, which was a point of pride in the world of hotrods. Some of the young hotrodders living around D.C. hung out in his garage with him learning the "tricks of the trade" which the rocket scientist often invented on the spot.

He was a great guy to hang out with.

The hunt was a seven-day package, Sunday to Saturday, with all guide services, room and family style meals included. The bears were hunted over baits: piles of slaughterhouse leftovers, mostly cow’s guts and heads, placed in strategic locations throughout the woods. Then a tree stand was built near the bait, or a good spot was picked out on the ground close to it where a person could gain maximum hunting advantage over the bears.

Bear hunting was done from early afternoon till a half-hour after sunset. Legal hunting time was from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. Possession of a loaded firearm during non-hunting times is a violation of the law and can be extremely dangerous. Also, humans with loaded weapons have an unfair advantage over wild animals during the hours of darkness.

On Wednesday of the rocket scientist's hunt, he was part of the group of hunters whom I was responsible for that day. On Wednesday night, I passed a serious test of my ability to guide bear hunters. It happened that night when I was doing part of my job: picking up hunters from near their baits.

That night, the rocket scientist happened to be the first hunter who I was to pick up. I had been instructed by my Uncle Finley to wait for Mr. Rocket Scientist on a smooth, dirt logging road that ran up through the woods about sixty yards from the bait that Mr. R. S. was on. From that road ran an old washed out, rocky, rough, nearly overgrown unused logging road that the bait was placed beside. That little section of old rough road had a lot of large, exposed rocks sticking up out of it that were a hazard to the undercarriage of the lodge’s pick up trucks, so we only drove up it when we had to haul fresh bear bait into there.

In one of the lodge’s pickup trucks, I drove to the prearranged spot for picking up Mr. R. S. and waited there for him until about fifteen or twenty minutes past legal hunting time. At first, I was thinking that maybe Mr. R. S. had seen a bear circling warily around the bait and he was squeezing out every last chance to kill it, or maybe he was just taking his time walking down that rocky road in the dark. But then thoughts of heart attacks and hunting accidents filled my mind.

I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to walk in and find out what was happening.

To avoid being mistakenly shot for a bear, I walked up the rough, rocky road with a flashlight shining up the road, and I was alternately whistling and making other human sounds with my mouth that sounded like the background vocals of Doo Wop songs.

I couldn’t hardly believe what I saw when I got to Mr. R. S.

He stood there in the dark woods holding his bolt action rifle across his chest like a military man standing at attention and waiting to be inspected by his commanding officer. His tall legs were as stiff as tree trunks, his knees were locked tight in standing position, his entire body was as rigid as a day old corpse and it bowed so far backwards in an arch that his nose was pointing up into the treetops. His wildly wobbling eyes completed the picture of a man deep in trouble.

It was obvious that he had flipped out from the fear of being out in the woods alone.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

He responded, "You don't think I'm walking down this road at night do you? I could fall on the rocks."

My reply, "Yeah, well look, I have a flashlight and you have a flashlight--it's not that bad. Come on, I'll help you walk down to the truck." He would not budge an inch, literally.

I walked back to the truck alone then drove it up that rocky road to where Mr. R. S. was standing. The headlights showed him to be in the exact same position as before.

I stopped the truck with the passenger side door right next to Mr. R. S., which allowed him to open the door and get in without moving very far. He slid onto the seat with his rifle pointing towards me. The truck’s dome light was on, and I got much too good of a look down the rifle’s barrel.

You know the rule--never point a gun at anyone, not even unloaded ones.

But before I could react to this infraction of proper firearm handling and tell him to point that gun away from me, Mr. R. S. started frantically yanking as hard as he could on the bolt handle of his rifle. I instantly realized that the damn fool still had the rifle loaded and a bullet was jammed in the chamber and the way that he was yankin’ on it could cause it to discharge and shoot me dead.

A split-second later, Mr. R. S. was furiously grunting and grumbling and spraying spit all over himself as he tried to dislodge the jammed bullet. The end of that rifle barrel kept pointing directly at my head, and as I ducked and dodged back and forth in the driver's seat trying to avoid being shot, I must have looked like a ruffed grouse doing the winning dance at a jitterbug contest. In the dome light, the opening at the end of that rifle barrel appeared to grow to the size of a Civil War cannon barrel. The barrel’s rifling grooves were very, very distinctly visible to me and each one of them seemed to be very wide and deep.

After what seemed like a lifetime of terror, I got control of the rifle by pushing it against the rear window of the truck. My chest was almost squeezed through the open spaces in the steering wheel; I was leaning as far forward as I could.

"Stop! Stop! What are you doing!" I blasted at him.

"Trying to unload this thing, it's jammed!" he spurted out.

I returned with a hot under the collar, "You should have had it unloaded a half an hour ago! It's past huntin' time."

"You don't think I'm going to stand around here with an unloaded rifle where a bear can get me do you?" He defensively replied.

"Yeah I do; we go in the woods at night without a gun all the time. If the game warden caught us here I'd be fined too because I'm your guide. The lodge could lose its license and you're not supposed to have a loaded gun in a vehicle. That's another charge against us! Gimme the rifle!"

With that I took the gun from him, exited the truck and unjammed and unloaded that dangerous firearm.

Mr. R. S. regained his composure somewhat during the ride back to the lodge. He acted like he hadn’t done anything wrong or that anything out of the ordinary had happened, and I let it go at that.

I never mentioned a word of this incident to anyone at the lodge. It would have devastated Mr. R. S. if I had, especially since his wife was staying there at the lodge that week too.

Copyright © 2005, David Robert Crews. All rights reserved.

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