It was the summer of 1974. Our school district, overcrowded but short on money to build new facilities, had a couple of years earlier come up with an idea to stretch the useful life of our elementary school building: go to a year-round schedule, with students split into four staggered 'tracks' in a 9-week-on, 3-week off pattern.
As a result I spent most of the summer of '74 in a classroom, getting to and from home via the district's buses. Our bus driver was cool, though - he always had on a local radio station, KGW-AM 620 (their bumper sticker: "sixtytwokaygeedoubleyou!") which played the most popular tunes of the day.
It was on that bus I first heard a plaintive folk-rock song from a local group called Blackhawk County. Titled "Oregon (I Can't Go Home)", it was the story of an Oregon girl who had been sentenced to death in a Turkish prison for allegedly smuggling hashish. Oregonians, being pretty liberal even back then, generally felt that whether she was guilty or not was immaterial; death wasn't a commensurate punishment for drug smuggling. Her story was front page across the country, and Blackhawk County wrote a song about her desire to simply go home, back to Oregon.
The song touched a lot of hearts, not because of the story behind it - few people knew who the song was for or why it was written - but because it expressed what all true Oregonians feel about our beautiful state. It became an instant hit in the Pacific Northwest, staying at #1 for over nine weeks and even managing to place #16 on the Billboard charts. Not bad for the first recording from a new band!
It turned out to be the group’s only hit, and soon most people had forgotten about it and gotten on with their lives. The girl for whom the song was written eventually returned to the U.S. in the 1980s, and the tune went into the archives of musical history. It affected many, though, including me; for my entire adult life, whenever I've been out of the state for more than a day or two, the song will run continuously through my mind on the trip home. For me the song was synonymous with the state, synonymous with home. I never had a copy of it; I just remembered it.
Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century, and “Oregon” had become an almost mythical piece. My own memory of it had faded a bit; I remembered the melody, but not all of the lyrics. I couldn’t buy it anywhere, because the master tapes were lost shortly after it was recorded. The only copies left were those albums and singles that had been pressed and sold during the time it was a staple of the airwaves.
Luckily, a few years back one of the composers - Bill Coleman - found an unplayed copy of the album in his grandmother's house and transferred it to MP3. Then he did something only an Oregonian would do: he put it up on his website, free for anyone to download. I did, and for some time now it's been in my iTunes rotation.
A YouTube user named George Washington downloaded it too and shot some video of a river in Oregon's Coast Range to go with the song. Here it is for a new generation of Oregonians (and those not fortunate enough to live here) to appreciate!
Here in the great state of Oregon we're known for our rain. Despite the fact that more than half of the state is desert, everyone thinks of Oregon as a wet place.
West of the Cascade Mountains, where the vast majority of the population lives, that's certainly true. I don't think there's anyplace on the west side of the mountains that gets less than 34 inches of rain a year, and most places get noticeably more. At my house we'll pass 80 inches this year; we got a solid foot of rain in three days just last week. Just a few miles away there's a spot that gets nearly ten feet of the wet stuff every year. Ten. Feet.
In Oregon we know rain. Well, some of us do anyhow, and in an area where rain is almost a constant I'm surprised no one came up with this: art that is visible only when it rains. Artist Adam Niklewicz made the installation in Hartford, CT, a town which certainly gets its share of rain - even if they don't measure up to Oregon standards.
P.S.: Despite our damp climate, Oregonians - the real ones, not transplants - generally eschew umbrellas. The running joke with members of SNOB (Society of Native Oregon Born) is that you can tell the California emigres by the umbrellas they feel necessary to wield in even the slightest mist.
It wasn't really Spring Break, but this last weekend was our annual Sage Rat Hunting Trip to the dry half of Oregon. Sage rats, for those of you who may be new here, are actually ground squirrels, the exact species varying depending on location. Belding's Ground Squirrel is grey with a tan underside, while the Richardson's Ground Squirrel has a brown back with a buff belly. I have seen both varieties in eastern Oregon, but the Richardson's seems more common as one travels south, and the Belding's more common in the central part of the region.
Sage rats are incredibly destructive creatures. They eat seeds and grasses, and in large populations make it extremely difficult for a rancher to raise feed for other animals. Their extensive burrows drain scarce water away from alfalfa roots and stunt growth. As hard as it is to make a living as a rancher, the sage rats make it all the more difficult.
As recently as a couple of decades ago the populations were kept in check by a combination of predation and poison, but in the mid-90s legislative pressure curtailed to use of poisons to protect the raptors that feed on the squirrels. The sage rat turned from a minor annoyance to a full-blown infestation, and it's almost impossible to find a field in eastern Oregon that is free from the prolific pests.
The populations exploded almost immediately, and by the turn of the century shooting the pests had become something of a sport. Today there are sage rat shooting competitions and outfitters who put together tour packages for hunters who like shooting a lot during the day.
The preferred weapon is a rimfire rifle. The .22 LR has long been the dominant caliber, but today the .17 HMR is on the verge of taking over that title. It's not unusual to shoot 500 rounds in a couple of days (sometimes two or three times that in a good field), and the cost advantage of the rimfire - as well as its relative safety due to shorter ranges - keeps centerfire rifles at home in the safe.
We and a group of cousins go over to one of our other cousin’s ranches in an effort to help him keep ahead of the alfalfa-killing pests. Our efforts seem to be paying off, as over the past several years his fields are consistently less populated than those of his neighbors. Pest control is not a glamorous part of hunting, but when you grow up on a farm you learn that it is a necessary part.
One of the best things about being in the sparsely populated high desert of eastern Oregon are the people you meet. Folks are just friendlier out there, largely because a smaller community requires more cooperation and deference. In a large city you can get away with treating people poorly, but when everyone knows you - and you in return depend on them for your livelihood - you're going to be more polite. The occasional visitor is the beneficiary of that ecosystem.
There are exceptions, of course, and unfortunately we ran into one of them this weekend.
For nearly two decades our party has stayed at a little place called Crystal Crane Hot Springs outside of Burns, OR. The hot springs fill a small pond, and over the years it's been developed a bit: there's a bath house with soaking tubs and a series of very rustic (to put it charitably) cabins for rent. Between us we've stayed there every year for two decades, through a succession of owners (my brother actually considered buying the place at one point.)
A few years ago a new owner took over and started making changes. The accommodations didn't get any better (though they did add a wireless internet connection), but prices skyrocketed. It's the only place to stay in the middle of nowhere, and the new owners apparently figure that they've got themselves a captive audience. Between the sage rat hunters and the earthy types who travel the hot springs circuit there is a seemingly endless parade of new people to be bilked.
Pricing to what the market will bear is one thing, and I can accept that. What I can't tolerate is rudeness, and we got a heaping helping of sheer nastiness from the owner this weekend.
Suffice it to say that I have never in my entire life endured verbal abuse like we did this weekend. This wasn't the "I'm having a bad day and you're unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time" sort of rudeness, it was an active and surprisingly vitriolic attack on a lucrative long-time paying customer. At one point the proprietress said that we "must be new here", at which point my brother informed her that we'd been staying there every spring for many years longer than she'd owned the place! Repeat customers don't seem to be a concern of hers, as she blew the comment off with yet another round of harsh language.
We won't be staying there again, which breaks a long tradition for me, my brother, his son, and our cousins. If you're traveling in eastern Oregon and are tempted to spend money at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, don't. There are many other places in this state that would welcome your patronage, especially in economically hard-hit Harney County. Crystal Crane Hot Springs doesn't deserve your (or anyone else's) business.
I spent this weekend assisting at a defensive rifle class with Georges Rahbani, and sometime during the weekend thought of a great article for today.
Then I forgot what it was.
My usual habit is to carry, in the left pocket of my shirt, a small pad and a mechanical pencil. When I have an idea I jot it down, thus preserving it for a time when I can make use of it. That's assuming, of course, that I remember to look at the thing!
The weather was pretty warm this weekend (about 90 degrees) and we were in the sun for most of the two days. I'd shed my normal pocketed button-front shirt for a more comfortable short sleeved Henley. My pad and pencil, of course, was in the regular shirt and when the aforementioned great idea struck, I was without a means to record it. Thus this morning's rambling version of "my dog ate my homework!"
Luckily Chris over at The Anarchangel posted something worthy of commentary. Go read it, then come back for a little discussion.
I tuned in for the first episode of Top Shot, recognized it as yet another overblown social manipulation festival common to reality television, and promptly turned it off. My spare time is quite limited and I have to make hard decisions about what I do with it. Even with guns and shooting Top Shot didn't make my cut, so I didn't know what transpired until Chris filled me in.
Those who live in landlocked states probably have no concept of just what the United States Coast Guard does. Here in Oregon, where Coast Guard helicopters and rescue crews are a common sight, we have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices those men and women make. Despite being ridiculed (or even worse, ignored) they go out and do their job to the best of their ability every day of the week.
Those in the other services are only in danger when they've been activated and deployed, and their tours of deployment are limited in duration (a good thing, do not misunderstand.) The USCG is always on deployment, whether doing rescue work, interdicting smugglers, or protecting our Navy's operations in foreign ports. (That's right - when the U.S. Navy needs help, they call the Coast Guard!) When I was growing up it was widely said that you were more likely to be killed in the Coast Guard in peacetime than in the infantry during wartime. While that may not be literally true, it serves to illustrate the tough job USCG does.
Much of that is because the nature of their missions requires them to always be in harm's way. One of their primary duties is to protect lives in America's waters, and here in Oregon they do so constantly. The USCG's rescue swimmers and helicopter pilots are the best that can be found; until you've witnessed a Dolphin SAR helicopter hovering nearly motionless just feet away from a cliff face, in high winds and torrential rain, you have little appreciation for the skill of those crews. I don't know where one goes to recruit such people, but they must have ice water injected into their veins upon enlistment. They are amazing to watch, and when they appear on scene there is a very strong feeling of relief - even if you're not the subject of their attention.
So, to Caleb and all the other past and present members of the United States Coast Guard, and especially to those stationed here in Oregon, thank you. We appreciate your service, your sacrifice, and above all your professionalism.
Back To Work - Returned last night from a rare (for me) three-day weekend. I spent the time in the eastern half of the state (the desert part) to visit relatives and do some shooting. The last such trip was two years ago, and I'd forgotten what it was like to relax!
Somewhere Steve Wozniak Is Crying - The Firearm Blog brings us news that an Aussie company has developed a sniper moving target system using Segways as drones. I was pretty pumped about that - shooting a Segway would be almost as satisfying as perforating a Prius - but alas the little things are armored. Still, it's a neat concept. (I like the part where the Segways run for their lives at the sound of a gunshot!)
Shooty Goodness - One of the topics of discussion amongst my cousins this weekend was their desire to go to Knob Creek for the annual machine gun shoot. Turns out it was happening literally while we were talking about it, and Tam was there.
Pest Control - The shooting part of my trip involved helping to rid my cousin's ranch of the dreaded sage rat. Sage rat hunting has become a Very Big Thing out here in the West, and despite hundreds of thousands of the things being dispatched every season the population continues to outbreed the hunters. Damage to crops from sage rat infestations is staggering, and it doesn't look like the problem is going to end any time soon.
There are a couple of schools of thought regarding the hunting of sage rats. One school likes to set up a shooting bench and snipe the things from long range with a .22-250. The other prefers to use a .22 rimfire, and just get closer. I belong to the latter group, as using a rimfire is significantly cheaper and still quite challenging. (In a good field it's not unusual to go through 500 rounds a day, and I'm just not wealthy enough to afford to do that with a centerfire rifle!)
Another benefit of using rimfires is that it's easy to get kids involved. It's important that children learn early the necessity of responsible wildlife management. The reason we shoot the sage rat is because a) the population is out of control, and b) poisons aren't an option in areas with large raptor populations. (How many of you have actually seen a bald eagle hunting prey? I saw a half-dozen just this weekend, which is the case every time I go out there. With poison, that wouldn’t be the case.)
Happiness Is A New Gun - My nephew Roman came with us on this trip, and I presented him with his first “grown-up” rifle. Up to this point he'd been using one of the little Chipmunk rifles, and it was time for him to upgrade. I gave him a Glenfield Model 25 with some special touches: I shortened the barrel to a more kid-friendly (yet legal) length, tuned the trigger just a bit to get rid of the horrendous grittiness, floated the barrel, and mounted a 3/4"-tubed scope. It turned out to be a fast handling, accurate little gun which he quickly put to good use, making some excellent shots in very challenging (windy) conditions.
Some Thoughts On Equipment - It's normal to think that a beginner doesn't need top notch gear on which to learn how to shoot. My nephew reinforced my belief in the opposite view: the novice is more in need of quality equipment than the experienced shooter. It's hard to learn all the nuances of good shooting when one is fighting with substandard gear, and good quality guns and ammo don't stand in the way of skill development. Regardless of the age of the student, If one is just starting out it's important to buy the best equipment one can afford. It is only after the basics are mastered is one able to rise above his/her equipment, but poor equipment can keep one from truly mastering even the simplest techniques.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! 2010 is finally here, and I'm still surprised about that. Back in 1979 the twenty-first century looked sooooooo far away that I thought I'd never see it. Here we are in the second decade already; where did the last ten years go? (So, this is what it's like to age....)
I took a four-day weekend for the New Year, though it wasn't really time off: I spent the time doing work around the farm, to the screaming protest of my muscles and joints. This brief respite reminded me that it's been many years since my last vacation (which, as it happens, I spent in a shooting class), and I think it's high time for another. I say so every year, but this time I'm going to do it. Of course, I say that every year too!
S&W GOES PRO: Remember a year or so ago, when I wrote about a limited run of no-lock Model 642? At the time S&W claimed that they'd "found" a stash of pre-lock frames and decided to put them together for sale. Apparently they were popular enough that the company has managed to "find" some more NOS frames, as they've brought out a couple of new editions: the "Pro" series 442 and 642. They're just like the non-Pro models, except they have no locks and have cylinders cut for moonclips. There are a whole lot of questions one could pose about the decision to bring these to market, but I'm glad to see them all the same.
(I do wish they'd get consistent with their naming conventions: they have the 642 PowerPort Pro Series revolver, which has a ported barrel AND a lock, but no moonclip capability. The only thing these models have in common is a matte black finish, which harkens me back to the days of selling high end camera gear: you could get many cameras in either chrome or black finish, the black models inevitably referred to as "professional". At least they're not calling them 'tactical'!)
SPEAKING OF MOON CLIPS: I get several queries per month regarding moonclips for a carry revolver, and I recommend to all that they be limited to range use. Yes, they are faster to reload (the margin depending on the cartridge) - but I don't believe that outweighs the fragility of the clips themselves, as even a small bend will tie up the gun. (There's always someone who writes back "well, I've carried moonclips in my pocket for years and have never had a problem!" I'm sure that's true, just as I'm sure that someone, somewhere has a perfectly reliable Colt All American 2000. I'm not willing to bet my little pink bottom on either one, however.)
MORE SMITH NEWS: The regular Model 642, along with the 637 and 638, will now be available with 2-1/2" fully lugged barrels instead of the 1-7/8" tubes. I always liked the .357 version of the Model 640 for its slightly longer barrel, and am glad to see it come to some other models. That little extra weight up front helps with control on the lightweight frames, as well as providing longer extractor travel. (Sadly, they are still afflicted with the silly lock.)
WELCOME TO OREGON: This holiday season saw three groups of people lost in the Oregon woods - thanks to an over-reliance on GPS navigation. This should serve as a cautionary tale: ceding your health and safety to something (or someone else) is an invitation to disaster. Take responsibility for yourself; make sure your brain is always engaged. You'll notice that these are consistent themes here at The Revolver Liberation Alliance, and they have application well beyond protecting yourself from human predators. (Oh, and buy a decent map when venturing out of the confines of the suburbs.)