Monday, August 8, 2011

The Back Forty

Here's a story from my second book, More Bigfoot Campfire Stories (click on title or see sidebar to order). It's one of my favorites, mostly because I like the characters. It was told to me over a campfire deep in prime Bigfoot country—Colorado’s Flattop Mountains. And though the location is kept under wraps for obvious reasons, I will say that it took place in the state of Arkansas, which has had a number of Bigfoot sightings and even a couple of tales of habituations.  —Rusty

When I was in the sixth grade, I had a friend called Wasp. Why he was called Wasp, I have no idea, but that was his name, Wasp Jensen. Wasp was kind of a tall gangly kid, and he had red hair that stuck out all over. It seemed like he never combed it, or if he did, it had a mind of its own.
Wasp and I weren’t friends initially, as he came into school mid-grade and was kind of quiet and shy at first. But after a few weeks, he kind of got his stride, and he became just the opposite. 
Wasp started telling everyone all about himself, anything you wanted to know was game, and he was the complete opposite of shy. I think he was just assessing the situation at first.
Wasp lived out on a ranch, he told us, a few miles out of town, and he and his mom were what he called “loners.” I found out later that he meant something different by that word than what I thought it meant, he meant he and his mom were all alone out there. Apparently his dad had left them, and thus, they were loners. 
Looking back, I think Wasp was kind of a genius and none of us recognized it for what it was. We just thought he was odd. He definitely didn’t have many social skills, and some of the teachers had a hard time with this. 
Wasp would just blurt out anything in the middle of class, things like what he’d had for breakfast (or more likely, the fact that he hadn’t had any breakfast), how he had to ride the bus from now on because their car wasn’t running too good, that kind of thing, just out of nowhere. 
He actually acted like he’d never been in a school setting before, and I found out later that the sixth grade was his first introduction to education. He was totally home schooled, and by that, I mean he taught himself stuff while his mom worked, leaving him home alone. He had never even had a teacher.
Given all that, he was amazingly knowledgeable. He knew more math than the rest of us put together, could read better, and asked smarter questions. That’s why I think maybe he was a genius.
The kids pretty much steered clear of Wasp because he was different, and because he was poor. His clothes were clean, but worn and out of style. He didn’t have a television, so he had no clue what the latest TV talk was about. He didn’t even have any way to listen to music, so he was out of it there, too. I think the lack of these things made him develop his intellect more, which turned out to be better in the long run, but he definitely didn’t fit in.
I took a liking to him, probably because I was always kind of the class geek, as I liked scientific stuff. Wasp seemed to be knowledgeable about anything I could throw at him. He had built a Van de Graaff generator. He knew how to make a radio from a few wires. He could build stuff from nothing.  And he understood the physics behind it, something I hadn’t grasped yet.
So Wasp and I got to be friends. One day in class, while Mr. Ramsey, our history teacher, was discussing the Anasazi Indians, Wasp blurted out, “I think there might be oil on our ranch. We’ll make a lot of money if there is.”
Mr. Ramsey patiently asked Wasp to save it for after class, when he could tell us more about it. Wasp looked hurt.
I asked him after class about the oil, and he said his mom had some guys coming out that very day to discuss buying the mineral rights from her. I knew they were desperately poor and this was a big deal to Wasp, so I let him talk about it until the bus showed up, then he got on it, and I walked on home.
The next day, I asked him about the oil business and he said that nothing had come of it. He also asked if he could share my lunch, as his mom had forgot to pack him one. 
I knew they didn’t have any food, so I talked to Mr. Ramsey between classes. He got Wasp on the free school lunch program that very day.
Wasp and I had gotten to where we spent our lunch time together, planning or working on science stuff. We were right in the thick of designing a nuclear power plant. Wasp said he thought if we could do that, we could get a lot of power going and sell it and get rich. Wasp was always trying to come up with get-rich schemes, and I knew it was because he was so poor, so I would go along with them.
One day, Wasp didn’t seem to have any interest in the nuclear plant, even though I’d managed to get a book on one and we had now sketched it out on paper and everything. He seemed distracted.
That afternoon, he blurted out in Mr. Ramsey’s class, “We got a new family living on the ranch now.”
Mr. Ramsey said that was nice, and went on talking about the Incan Indians. I think Wasp felt comfortable in Mr. Ramsey’s class, as this was the only class he would blurt stuff out in. Plus, it was history, which I knew he found boring, and I think his mind would wander, and he would forget where he was and just blurt whatever out.
I asked Wasp about the new family after class. 
“Yeah, we have an old school bus out on the ranch down in the willows, and a family has moved into it. There’s a mom, a dad, and a kid. They’re ugly.”
I thought it was odd that someone would move into an old school bus way out on Wasp’s ranch, but times were hard, and I let it go.
The next day, Wasp reported in Mr. Ramsey’s class that his mom was helping the family out and giving them food, and he was worried, because they really didn’t have enough food to just give it away, and these guys ate too much. Mr. Ramsey asked Wasp to come see him after class. Wasp turned red. He knew he was in trouble.
But he wasn’t, not really. He reported back to me that Mr. Ramsey had given him a lecture about talking in class, but had seemed more concerned about the food situation and wondered if he was getting enough to eat. 
Wasp had replied, “Well, Sir, all you have to do is look at how scrawny I am and know the answer to that question.”
Mr. Ramsey talked to the school principal, who took the matter up with Wasp’s mom, who reported back that they were having hard times, but she had just managed to get onto food stamps, so things were looking up. She said that yes, she was helping some others out, but all they were getting was scraps, and she was also getting them road-kill off the highway.
The principal made a secret deal with the school cook to slip some of the leftover food from each day’s school lunch into Wasp’s book pack. I think Wasp had most of it eaten before he got home each day.
Wasp started growing like a weed. He’d been tall and gangly before, and now he was even taller and ganglier. But he was growing, and that was good. It meant he was getting the nutrition he needed. He was actually becoming a very nice looking kid, my mom said, after she saw him and me talking at the bus stop.
One day, in Mr. Ramsey’s class, Wasp once again broke in and informed everyone, “That family I told you about, they’re getting scary. Oops, sorry, Mr. Ramsey, didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Mr. Ramsey smiled and said it was OK, and could Wasp again please see him after class. 
Mr. Ramsey was concerned about what Wasp had reported and wanted more information. Why was the new family scary? Wasp said they were scary because they were big and ugly and were now starting to come up to the house wanting food, and his mom was giving it to them. This concerned Mr. Ramsey, but he wasn’t sure what to do. 
I, of course, heard all about it at the bus stop, where I hung out with Wasp each day while he waited for the bus. Why were they scary? Why was his mom feeding them? I wanted to know more. Wasp said I should come out on Saturday and visit and see for myself.
This was the first time Wasp had invited me to the ranch, and I was pleased by that, yet a bit nervous about this “ugly family” situation. I decided it would be OK, but no way was I going to spend the night.
The next Saturday, my mom took me out to the ranch. We had a bit of trouble finding it, as it turned out to be off a road no longer maintained by the county and the sign was down, but we finally pulled off a bouncy dusty dirt road into his driveway, such that it was. Wasp stood there grinning at us.
The ranch was really more of a junkyard. Wasp and his mom lived in a small two-bedroom trailer that was so faded it was hard to tell it had once been yellow. The little wooden porch was tippy and the hand rail had long broken off.
Wasp’s mom came out to meet us, and she was a pleasant woman who looked like she might’ve once been a beauty contest winner who had since come on hard times. Her face was drawn and tired looking. She had beautiful shoulder-length blonde hair that was naturally thick and curly, but her eyes were tired looking. She said hello and welcomed us to the ranch.
I instantly liked her, and so did my mom. They ended up talking for a long time, while Wasp and I went out to explore the ranch.
“This here’s the Back Forty,” he pointed to a bunch of old abandoned rusted-out cars. “There’s forty of them there. And there’s the Back Twenty.” He pointed towards more old cars by some cottonwoods that appeared to flank a small creek.
“It isn’t much of a ranch, but my Grandpa gave it to us. He died a few months ago. Before this, we were living in that old school bus that the new family now lives in.” 
He pointed down past the cottonwoods, and I could make out the top of something. I walked over to the side of the road to get a better look.
“We had it parked over in Coalville, and we moved it here when we got this place. My mom set it down by the creek for a getaway place, but that was before the family moved in.”
“Can we go down there?” I asked, not really wanting to.
“Nope. Well, yes, I guess you could, but I’m not going with you, and you might never come back.”
I studied his face to see if he was kidding. He wasn’t.
“Let’s get back over to the house,” he added. “That ugly bunch has ruined this place for me.”
Just then, I could see something moving down there. It was big, and it made the school bus look like a VW Bus, it was that big in comparison. A strange feeling came over me, and I wanted to turn and run. 
I suddenly wanted to go home. “Say, Wasp, why don’t we go back to my house? My mom’s still there, talking to your mom, and she can bring you home later.”
“I can’t leave my mom here alone,” he replied. “Now you understand what I was talking about in Mr. Ramsey’s class. It’s dangerous here. He thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. It’s OK when I go to school, as my mom’s at work then, but I can’t leave her here alone. That’s why I never attend anything on the weekends at school or go to anyone’s house. This place is getting creepier and creepier, and I don’t blame you for wanting to go home. My mom’s bleeding heart is to blame. Maybe another time, huh?”
I felt really guilty, but I had to leave. I thought I was going to be physically ill. I told my mom I was going home with her, as I didn’t feel very good all of a sudden. It was the truth. Wasp’s mom looked like she knew what was going on. She looked a bit sad.
We left, and I wondered if I should tell my mom. I was worried for Wasp’s safety, as well as his mom’s. I decided my mom wouldn’t believe me, so I said nothing.
But as soon as I got home, I called Mr. Ramsey. Maybe he would believe me. But when he answered the phone, I chickened out and hung up.
I spent the rest of the weekend worrying about Wasp and his mom, out on their ranch. I knew now that his announcements in class were his way of trying to deal with the pressure he was under. He was begging for help the only way he knew.
The next Monday, I was happy to see Wasp get off the bus. Later, he announced in class, “Mr. Ramsey, I hate to say anything and I know I’m interrupting class, but we have some researchers coming out to our ranch.”
By now, Mr. Ramsey was pretty much used to Wasp’s ways. He just nodded and said, “That’s nice, Wasp,” and continued talking about the Aztecs. After class, I asked Wasp about the researchers.
“My mom’s still feeding that family, and this guy found out, and he’s a researcher and wants out come out and see them.”
I asked Wasp how he felt about that. He answered, “I don’t care, cause they’ll just disappear. They won’t let anyone but me and my mom see them. You got a look only because they didn’t know you were around, but usually they come up only at night, and we don’t even really see them very often, which is OK by me, they’re so ugly. They can research away all they want.”
The next day, I was eager to know how the researcher thing went, and I met Wasp as he got off the bus. He looked tired. 
He reported that two guys had shown up and set up these little remote cameras all over the place, then they had set out some really nice turkey and apples and peanut butter and all kinds of good stuff, then hid in the trailer, where they sat all night watching. 
They hadn’t seen a  thing, but around five a.m., they had woke him and his mom up because they’d recorded some howling and were really excited. They were going to be there again tonight, and he wished they would go away, but it was also comforting to have them there. He felt safe for once with them around.
The researchers ended up staying there for a full week, and Wasp reported that the family had come up close enough to the house one night that they had managed to get some shadowy photos of them, though you really couldn’t make out much.
Wasp even came over and spent the night at my house on Friday while the researchers were still there. He acted like spending the night away from home was a really big deal, and I guess for him it was. We rented a couple of movies, and my folks had a barbecue. 
Wasp acted like these were all things he had never done. I felt bad for him, yet I was kind of intrigued by his life, as it seemed way more interesting than mine. But I didn’t envy him living out in the sticks with that weird family around.
Things seemed quiet on the ranch front for the next week, and then one day, Wasp made another announcement in Mr. Ramsey’s class.
“Mr. Ramsey, please excuse me for being rude, but my mom just sold the ranch.”
Mr. Ramsey stopped his lecture on the Mayans and asked for more details. 
The whole class started interrogating Wasp, and the Mayans were relegated to history for that class session, forgotten.
Wasp was moving into town. The researchers had bought the ranch from his mom, and now Wasp and his mom were rich, he reported. They had been looking at houses and were buying one soon. His mom had quit her job as a motel maid. He was joining the basketball team. He might even be able to get a dog now.
I had never seen Wasp so happy. The entire class was happy for him, and Mr. Ramsey even had them all do a high five for Wasp.
After school that day, Wasp didn’t ride the bus. His mom picked him up in a brand new Toyota car. I figured they truly had made a killing on the ranch, though I had no idea why anyone would want 30 acres of scrub woodlands with a junkyard on it.
Wasp filled me in the next day. The researchers were being funded by a rich guy who was obsessed with proving that Bigfoot existed. He knew a Bigfoot family was living on the ranch. 
Wasp’s mom had done a good job of habituating them, and the new owner would keep feeding them until he eventually trapped one or at least got a video of it. He was setting up everything right now, more trail cameras, feeding stations, everything. 
He had paid Wasp’s mom a true fortune for the place, and the two researchers would now live there full-time. They were all very excited, as they knew they would soon have a breakthrough.
I don’t know what happened, but I think they probably never saw a thing. Wasp had told me the family was shy and wouldn’t come out, and I suspect the Bigfoot all left shortly thereafter, as nobody ever heard a word about any Bigfoot discoveries.
Wasp and his mom bought a house not too far from mine. Wasp and I had a great friendship all through high school, and we would even camp out in my back yard, though it took me awhile to convince Wasp it was safe. 
Sadly, we lost touch when we both went off to college. Wasp was class valedictorian and got a full ride to MIT, which didn’t surprise me a bit. I went off to the state college and eventually became a high-school science teacher. 
And even though I have a scientific bent and like evidence for things, I always try to keep an open mind, because I personally know that there are things out there that we have no idea about and can’t explain. 
I know because I’ve seen them.