Hail Columbia Gulch: Tales from a feral childhood

Badgers

The “Fearless Badger Killers” pose for a Christmas photo, circa 1962.

I enjoyed some time recently with an old friend who shared memories and photographs of her early childhood on a scratch-gravel South Dakota farm before it even had electricity. The photos in particular elicited powerful memories of my own.

I was too young to remember when electricity was installed at my family’s summer place in the mid-1950s. I do recall the day when the much-anticipated telephone service arrived to Hail Columbia Gulch.

As a mother of six with a bun in the oven, Mom had pestered our father to pony up the money to join an initiative to bring party-line telephone service to the people who lived on the roughly 20 square miles of rural gulches collectively known as North Butte, an area of southwest Montana roughly bounded by Elk Park to the East, the Deer Lodge Valley to the west, and the Continental Divide to the north. The southern boundary remains the first place in North Walkerville with a horse out back.

The decision to hook up phone service ultimately met with decidedly mixed results and unintended consequences.

Living for up to five months a year at the upper reaches of Hail Columbia Gulch—the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River—fostered in my siblings and me a certain situational regard, if not respect, for the creatures that laid claim to our 188-acre summer place.

Beavers, by way of example, were despised and killed upon sight, as were porcupines, coyotes and badgers. Smaller pests such as rats, gophers, golden mantled ground squirrels and weasels were killed like flies. I mention all this in the context of the summer of 1962 when we had a helluva a badger problem in Hail Columbia Gulch.

The assortment of rabbit-hutch warrens, chicken coops and most of the duck pond shelters that surrounded the main house had been torn to pieces over the course of several nocturnal forays by one bad-ass badger. Even the cat turned up missing and the dog cowered in fear. Yeah, we had bear problems from time to time, but they always seemed skittish and rarely returned repeatedly. Weasels, foxes and occasionally coyotes collected a toll of barnyard critters, too, but this badger simply wouldn’t move on.

My 14-year-old brother, John, regularly set out leg-hold traps with little success until the morning Mountain Bell Telephone sent out a couple of technicians to install the line. Naturally, as one of the most remote outposts surrounded by Forest Service land, the Driscoll place was the very last to get phone service.

(The term “place” was used almost universally for private inholdings within Forest Service lands and was so noted on official maps—the Choquetti Place, say, or the Penne Place. Most began as 160-acre homesteads—too small to be considered a “ranch.” Much to our delight, a Forest Service map from the 1940s featured a typographical error in Hail Columbia Gulch, mislabeling our property as the “Driscoll Palace.”)

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John and my 6-year-old youngest brother, Ralph, discovered the trapped badger at the edge of the big field a couple hundred yards away from the main house. John had the foresight to lock the six feet of trap chain to the middle of a five-foot anchor log.

Upon discovery, the badger was madly digging in for a heroic stand.

Big brother John rapidly formulated a plan as he and the Ralph beat it for the big house to fetch Dad’s pump-action .22 caliber Winchester. John first grabbed a 38-ounce Louisville Slugger baseball bat and gave it to Ralph and told him to run back to the trapped badger and stand guard while he collected the gun and ammo.

“Crack him over the head if he comes out of that hole!”

“Kill the badger!” came Ralph’s reply.

The scene the Mountain Bell linemen stumbled upon that morning was of a 6-year-old standing over a badger hole as dirt was being furiously kicked out of it by a pissed-off badger that was getting close to reaching the end of its trap chain.

“Whatcha got goin’ on down that hole, young man?” one them asked as they strung telephone cable along the powerline up to the main house.

“Trapped badger,” Ralph replied.

“Think that baseball bat’s gonna do the job?”

Having not been present for this exchange, I don’t know what Ralph said, but knowing him as a brother over all of these decades, I’d wager he didn’t answer the question. Or maybe he said simply, “Kill the badger!”

Presently, the rest of us kids arrived with the loaded gun, which John promptly emptied, pumping nine shots blindly down the badger hole.

“Shit! I’m outta bullets!”

John once again formulated a field plan and five of us kids bolted for the big house in a frenetic search for .22 caliber ammunition in blue-jean pockets, junk drawers, and the glove boxes of the cars and pick-up trucks scattered about the compound. Ralph was elected to remain at the site and stand guard with the Louisville Slugger over the expanding badger hole, which he dutifully did, assuming a stance usually associated with that moment just before your ass touches the toilet seat.

(In point of fact, that baseball bat saw little legitimate use. After the hay was mowed, we had acres of ground to set up a baseball field, which we did, using large dried cow pies for bases and home plate. But we had no neighbors with kids close by and could never field even a minimal team, so most of the competitions featured the “Wiffle ball” variation and the plastic bats and balls quite often turned up in the next season’s baled hay. To this day I have never played an organized game of baseball and exactly one game of nine-hole golf. Golf courses, in my father’s words, were “a goddamn waste of good bottomland.”)

Sometime around this juncture, one of the linemen, with a 15-foot vantage from a power pole, expressed concern to his partner down below. But once again the Driscoll kids—freshly weaponized—assembled at the trapped-badger hole.

By now the badger was fully locked in with the trap chain stretched taut and the anchor log tight up against the hole. Once again, John formulated a field plan. Our 10-year-old sister, Mimi, and I, age 7, were ordered to pull hard on the anchor log. Our 13-year-old sister, Toni, critiqued every decision of the operation as 11-year-old Jay watched with hands in his pockets. Ralph—6, as you may recall—maintained his posture, choked halfway up on the Slugger, with a grim look on his face. The Mountain Bell linemen looked on with growing concern.

John’s tactic was to lie belly-down next to the hole and insert his right arm down the throat of the cavern until he could feel the badger up against the muzzle of the rifle barrel. He was almost up to his shoulder when we heard the muted whoomph of the rifle, which he promptly withdrew, rolled onto his back and jacked in another round. His strategy apparently entailed repeating the procedure until the desired results were achieved.

The plan seemed to be working, inasmuch as dirt continued to get kicked out of the hole, this time accompanied by a great deal of snarling, hissing and spitting. The anchor log didn’t budge an inch, nor did the determined 6-year-old batter.

One of the Mountain Bell linemen decided now might be a good time to head up to the main house to determine whether any adult supervision might be exercised over these renegade children, straight out of “Lord of the Flies.” He found Mom, five months pregnant, fussing about the kitchen boiling down wild currant jelly.

“Uh, Mrs. Driscoll? I’m with Mountain Bell Telephone. My partner and I are just below finishing up the line work. Do you have any idea what those kids of yours are up to in that meadow down there?”

“Oh, isn’t it wonderful? They’ve got a badger trapped down there.”

“O-kaay. Just wondering if you knew.”

“When do you think the phone will be working?”

“Should be just another hour or so, Mrs. Driscoll.”

In this interval we had gotten the badger pretty much dead, inasmuch as the dying carcass gave up its grip and we were able to drag the miserable son-of-a-bitch out of the giant hole. Whether it was actually dead at this point seemed immaterial since Ralph immediately commenced doing business with the Louisville Slugger.

“Kill the badger!”

The badger was big as an adult bulldog and twice as ugly. As with all members of the mustelid family, he smelled heavily of skunk crossed up with an odor reminiscent of my grandmother’s vanity perfume.

It took four of us to drag the carcass up the road to the main house using the anchor log when we met the returning lineman, whom we hailed heartily. Upon stopping, Ralph re-commenced beating the bloody carcass with the Louisville Slugger.

“Kill the badger!”

We didn’t get much company way up Hail Columbia Gulch and one can only imagine the thoughts going through the minds of those linemen, but I’ll take a crack at it: “We better hurry up and get that phone in, cuz if this lady doesn’t need it today, she sure as hell is going to need it someday soon.”

Upon our triumphant arrival at the main house, Mom briefly looked over the remains and expressed great pleasure at the outcome. Brother John was able to cut off one front paw that featured claws each as long as an adult man’s middle finger. The skull was hopelessly crushed by the combination of blows by the battle-crazed 6-year-old and perhaps also by 30 or 40 rifle rounds.

Ralph gave the badger a couple more swats with the Louisville Slugger as we unceremoniously kicked the mutilated carcass into the burn pit.

True to their promise, upon our return to the main house the linemen had energized the rotary-dial wall-mounted phone.

“Your party-line ring is five long and three short,” one of the men told Mom.

The phone began ringing almost immediately. Not our ring, of course—rather, one of the almost 30 neighbors in surrounding gulches who shared the party line and who already had months of practice in this new communication art. In fact, the phone rang almost constantly over the next decade or better and the number of ring codes was dizzying. When the phone wasn’t ringing someone else’s ring-code, the line would be busy. Many of our neighbors were Swiss-Italian—old dairy families making the transition to cattle ranching—and the older women would speak a northern Dago dialect, particularly if they felt someone was listening in on the conversation.

Someone was always listening in on the conversation.

Since Mom’s family was from that tribe, she spoke enough Italian to cut in if she felt a call was important enough. The linemen encouraged her to do so now in order to call our Dad at work in town to let him know the phone was up and that the badger was dead.

Thirty families in seven gulches got the news within a half hour—FaceBook-fast, when you think about it.

Still, the telephone proved more of a nuisance than a convenience, let alone a necessity. Since we were usually outdoors, the ring setting was almost always on high. Access to an open line was almost impossible during daylight hours. The conversations, from what I could tell over my years as an audio voyeur, centered mostly on the vagaries of weather and the little get-togethers the women would hold to make acrylic grape centerpieces, a popular home craft of the era. Looking back on it, the communication activities seem somewhat similar to those of people who have their noses constantly stuck in their “smart phones” these days.

A proper septic system

The next summer, after the baby, Marion, was born, Mom and Dad decided the time had come to do something about the rudimentary sanitary plumbing at the old place. Dating back to the homestead era, the compound featured a true cesspool—a pit dug out of decomposed granite and covered with rotting cedar telephone poles.

In warm weather it could get pretty rank.

Dad was a trained mining geologist and he worked all over the West during the ’30s, mainly at the big Fort Peck Dam diversion tunnel and underground gold mines in Utah and New Mexico. Uncle Sam called in 1942 and he served four years in the Army Corps of Engineers, mostly in the Pacific Theater installing pontoon bridges and taking aerial photographs of Manila and on-land photographs of native girls in grass skirts.

He worked briefly as a seasonal Fish & Game warden after mustering out of the Army during the tough post-war years, but the work never really suited him. Dad just didn’t have the moral sand to issue game violations to striking miners and seasonal loggers out to stock the freezer. Moreover, similar to the Butte Police Department of the day, Fish & Game recruited game wardens largely from the ranks of incorrigible offenders—kind of a simple attempt to legitimize men with outdoor work they were already good at. Had that hiring strategy lasted another couple of decades my brother John may well have become a decorated Fish & Game warden. Rather, he’s been dodging them for more than four decades. Truth is, so have I.

Palace

The “Driscoll Palace” in Hail Columbia Gulch, circa 1920.

Dad instilled in us boys a sense that, outside of property law, rules and regulations are a sort of rough guideline applicable specifically to out-of-staters, the dim-witted and “bureaucrat-o-philes.” We were taught at an early age to identify basic rock forms, but he frowned upon outdoor recreation as a frivolous pursuit, unless of course one came home with something to “cook, can, smoke, burn, sell or show off to the neighbors.” Anything less was considered a waste of gasoline.

(Brother John and I later amended the credo to include “or fuck,” which remains the only form of catch-and-release that made any sense to us. Consequently, our respective households over the years became strewn about with: cordwood; coal and wood stoves; furs; antlers and skulls; arrowheads and Indian artifacts; mineral specimens; wagon wheels and old cars; dead fish, fowl and big game carcasses; and assorted flotsam collected from the mountains and valleys of southwestern Montana, including the occasional hitchhiking hippie chick or wayward stripper. Between us we have accrued something like nine marriages and, hell I dunno, people say even more divorces.

For his part, Ralph, a lifelong bachelor, once dragged home an entire one-room log cabin.)

Dad would be the first to refute Tom Brokaw’s claim that his was “The Greatest Generation.” To him, World War II veterans were simply a bunch of guys who put their shoulders to the wheel when told to and returned home to wreak havoc upon U.S. business, society and the collective moral fiber as some kind of just recompense for having done so. He did not brook complaints and regularly reminded us kids that life is not fair.

The former mining engineer took to the septic problem with enthusiasm and ingenuity. Too wise to hire a back-hoe and operator to excavate a cesspool nestled among Boulder Batholith granite chunks the size of bungalows, Dad simply purchased a case of dynamite. As soon as the snow cleared and the ground thawed in early spring, he set about digging and drilling the charge sets in and around the stinking pit. One early May morning everything seemed set. Ever thrifty, Dad allowed only about four feet of waterproof blasting cord, which he lit along with a cigarette.

Of course he immediately realized that he should have rounded up the six kids he had with him that day. It was one of the few times I ever saw my dad run.

“Get shelter in the salt house!” he yelled at me as he dashed off looking for other wayward kids. “It’s gonna blow!”

“What? What’s gonna blow?”

But he was gone. In the nick of time he accounted for everyone only to realize that he could have found a better place to park the brand-new GMC suburban he and Mom purchased to tote around the clan. Seven-year old Ralph and Dad were climbing into the rig when three-quarter’s case of dynamite detonated.

Fire in the hole, indeed.

Ralph later recounted that it was as if the ground rose up a couple of feet before six decades of human excrement, Boulder Batholith granite, five or six quaking aspens, and a large gooseberry shrub rocketed skyward.

Dad told me years later his plan was for the explosion to expel vertically, mostly to spare the bay window on the main house. It’s exactly how it deployed, depositing three-and-a-half generations of shit over the surrounding forest. The June rains would take care of that. Of greater concern were the shards of granite rock that rained over the roof of the ancient house. After a spring and summer of moving pots and pans under the leaking roof, we had to replace the tarpaper and fix the chimneys that fall. A breadbox-sized granite rock landed smack on the hood of the new GMC, leaving a deep impression that caused the radiator fan to ping against its shroud when we started it up.

The explosion also caused a bit of a mess in the kitchen and bathroom of the big house as water in the drain traps hit the ceiling and dripped down the walls. Dad had to later remount the toilet and probably felt grateful no one was sitting on it at the moment of detonation.

I immediately went to the party line phone to listen in.

L’hai sentito? Era che l’esplosione?

E’ stata un sonic boom.

No, no, un’ esplosione, sono certo. Up Hail Columbia.”

“Explosion? Where? Driscoll’s?”

“Get off the phone!”

Sena dubbio, Driscoll’s.”

“I think they’re talking about us,” I said.

Dad immediately admonished all of us to keep our mouths shut about the whole affair, but, well, word was out over the stupid phone before he even finished the sentence.

But by God, there it was, a smoking, steaming, open cauldron, complete with a ditched-out drainage field. We had to fire up the old McCoullough chain saw that weighed about as much as a street Harley just to clear the trees out of the way to get back to town. Two weeks later we were able to drop in a steel septic tank hooked into a drainage field.

Fuck Facebook. Fuck Twitter. Fuck the Kardashians. For a brief moment in time 50 years ago the Driscolls owned social media in the only part of the world that mattered.

Outside the jurisdiction

These origins as feral children influenced us for many decades. I clearly recall sitting in a pickup truck well after dark on top of some god-forsaken mountain watching through binoculars for the Fish & Game check station down in the valley to be abandoned so I could get home with an illegal cargo of dead elk. I’ve been tagged so many times by game wardens that each fall I still budget for fines alongside gas, groceries, ammunition and permits.

Brother John seems luckier. As an older teenager he was once fined for repeatedly discharging a high-powered firearm one fall Sunday morning within the city limits of Butte, specifically, a neighborhood of the upper West Side. When asked by the judge why, he replied, “That’s where the elk were that day.”

The summer before, the Department of Fish & Game had transplanted a big gang of Yellowstone Park elk into North Butte to supplement the paltry local herd. Apparently, these elk, many of which were still wearing fluorescent orange transplant collars, thought they had found the employee housing section of Yellowstone’s Mammoth Headquarters and took shelter that hunting season morning among the identical rows of Butte’s McGlone Heights district. The firing got underway just as 10 o’clock Mass was being released at nearby Immaculate Conception Church. Witnesses reported elk running around “from hell to breakfast.” Ralph, who was along that morning, also got hauled in for firing a couple rounds out the window of the truck, but the authorities declined to press charges against a 10-year old.

The incident made front-page news all over the state.

Over the course of four and a half decades, John Driscoll reigned as something of a Captain Morgan of the Rockies, plundering southwest Montana like a pirate, with occasional forays as far away as California. John was fined only once since the Butte incident, as far as I know, and that was for “littering” when he gutted out four whitetail deer one early September day on the banks of the Ruby River at the inopportune time that a flotilla of tourist families came bobbing by. Disgusted by the experience of paddling down a Montana Blue Ribbon Trout Stream alongside floating, stinking ungulate entrails, they turned him in using their cell phones. A game warden was on the scene within twenty minutes.

Stupid smart phones.

Still, we’ve moderated our behaviors if not our views a bit over recent years. Today I work for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, a career move that many in my family see as hilariously just, if not ironic, penance for several generations of environmental abuses visited by the Driscolls on Montana’s mining, agricultural, small business and outdoor recreational sectors. Further, I write the occasional natural history article for Montana Outdoors, the official magazine of the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, which seems proof positive the staff there need to conduct better background checks on contributors.

In recent years I leave most of the trigger work in forest and field to younger hunters, many of whom I have mentored in the delicate art of situational ethics in the great outdoors.

My little brother Ralph manages the summer place these days and, yeah, he probably sometimes applies too much nitrogen fertilizer on the hay fields. Just this spring, though, he called the remediation program working the Clark Fork River to demand the managers haul away three years’ worth of cow manure or else he would “bulldoze the entire shit-pile into Hail Columbia Creek.” They were there within two days and actually paid him for the privilege of hauling it away.

Big John remains—however mysteriously—somehow far outside the jurisdiction of the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Enforcement Division.

The stupid smart phone

A couple of years ago I found that old Louisville Slugger baseball bat stashed in the basement of the big house in Hail Columbia Gulch. I brought it out into strong sunlight and was amazed to find a patina of dried blood on the ash wood with a half-dozen hairs still embedded in it. I showed it to 56-year-old Ralph and we both enjoyed a good laugh over our recollections of the episode a half-century ago.

“Actually, that could be from a pack-rat I killed a while back,” he said.

“With a bat? Jesus, Ralph.”

“Old habits die hard,” he said. “Besides, .22 ammo is as hard to find these days as it was then.”

We couldn’t remember the last time either of us had killed a badger, or a porcupine, or a beaver.

We both agreed the bat should be left in a women’s bathroom in some rest stop out on Interstate 90. We’d send in the tip over our cell phones and let the authorities figure it out from there. It would be the kind of prank big brother John just loved.

“Don’t forget to wipe the damn thing for prints first,” I said.

“Call it in on your cell,” Ralph said. “They can triangulate exactly where calls originate these days.”

“Damn, they’re takin’ the fun outta everything. Stupid smart phones.”

It’s been said the truth shall set you free. I don’t know about that. The great Montana writer Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” famously said when truth and legend intersect, “print the legend.” I consider it advice to live by and it has sold a lot of newspapers over the years. Might work equally well in this brave new world of the blogosphere, social media and the stupid smart phone.

When not managing the website for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Paul Driscoll practices scofflaw in Montana City outside of Helena. He is a writer, essayist and former editorial cartoonist. His brother, John, is indeed outside the jurisdiction of Montana’s FW&P. He died in June 2015 after a 12-year battle with cancer. This essay is a tribute to the many stories he used to relate.

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