CHAPTER Twenty-five: INSPECTION

     In the office on Monday morning, Chuck and Greg did a little last minute strategizing for the refuge inspection.

   “Mac should have landed at Boise by now,” said Chuck. “He was supposed to get the breakfast flight out of Portland. Of course, there is no breakfast on those little commuters; not even coffee. Did you ever fly in one? It’s like being inside a giant Oscar Meyer wiener, with just enough room to squeeze in seats for eight or ten passengers. The trips themselves are usually okay, since you aren’t in the plane more than an hour or two. But you don’t want to go if you’re claustrophobic.

   “He’ll get a rental car to drive over here, so we should expect him by maybe 11 o’clock. I thought we’d let him say hello to Alice and the girls, then we could take off and drive through the refuge. We can get lunch at the diner out on the old highway, then come back through the refuge. No need to go all the way into town.

   “Tomorrow, he’ll want to look around the compound a little bit, and talk to Tim. You and Tim did a great job spiffing things up while I was on vacation, so not much to inspect. Then, I suppose Mac will want to talk to me privately for a while about my plans, and his plans for me. He’ll have to leave for Boise before lunch, to catch his flight home.”

   “That sounds okay to me,” said Greg. “You want me along for all of it?”

   “Yeah, except for the hour or so Mac will want to talk to me. He’ll probably want to talk to you, one on one, at some point. This is a pretty low key inspection. There isn’t that much to inspect, really. These are more courtesy calls by the Regional Office, to let us know that they know we’re still out here. Mac doesn’t come every year, but somebody from the R.O. does. It’s usually a nice break for them, and us.”

   Mac arrived just about 11 o’clock. Officially James MacDonald, Greg guessed he was in his 50s. He was tall and lean, with little physical evidence that he had been in a “desk job” for quite a few years. He carried himself upright – almost militarily, Greg thought, but not stiffly – and his short haircut also hinted at some past military influence. He greeted Chuck as a friend and equal, and accompanied his introduction to Greg with a vigorous hand shake. He chatted with Alice as if they had known each other all their lives, remembered the girls’ names, and commented with a sincere casualness that the girls he remembered had become women. All in all, thought Greg, a nice beginning to an “official” visit.

   As they started for the truck, Mac said “Give me ten minutes. I want to say hello to Tim.” When he came back from the shop: “Everything looks clean and fresh and new.” He turned to Greg. “Tim says you and he did all the work while Chuck was on leave. Good job.”

   He picked up the conversation after they started their drive. “I talked to Tim about his brothers. I don’t think I ever met Dave, but I could have. I’ve known Tim and Rusty since they were youngsters. I was a little surprised that Rusty enlisted – but, then again, maybe not much, considering their family background. Tim says Rusty is still in San Diego.”

   “Yeah, he’s only about half-way through his eight weeks of basic training,” offered Chuck. “Then, he has another period of more advanced readiness. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be going anywhere before the end of the year.”

   Mac chuckled “A little different that in the Big War. I think we were barely off the bus when they put us on a ship bound for Europe. I don’t know if we ever did get any real training. As I recall, some of the recruits with me had never fired a gun in their lives.”

   As they drove, Chuck commented on the water situation. “The ponds are at about their maximum level right now; not as high as some years, due to the dryness of last winter, but pretty good. Greg says the duck and goose hatches were pretty good.”

   Mac turned to Greg. “No migrants yet?”

  “None yet. I will start banding locals in the next week or so. Tim and I got the traps all set up, so the birds should be used to them, now.

   Mac turned back to Chuck. “You’ll have to show me the spot your ‘water pirates’ hit, and also the location of the famous backfire.”

   “Yeah, they’re both close together, just as we get to the east fence.”

   Just before reaching the boundary fence, Chuck stopped the truck, and they walked around the edge of the pond. “The boys did such a good job fixing the leak, it’s hard to see what was happening. But, about here,” Chuck stopped. “Someone had dug a small drainage ditch that led off into that gully. There wasn’t a lot of water running, but it would have added up. As Greg said, seven and a half cents.”

   Mac looked inquiringly at Greg. “Oh, I once read a book with that title. It was about clothing factory workers striking for a 7 ½ cent hourly pay raise. It didn’t seem like such a big deal but, as the strikers pointed out, if they got 7 ½ cents every hour, forty hours every week, it did become a big raise for them.”

   “Oh, I got you. They were only stealing a little trickle of water, but over time... “

   “And,” said Chuck, “When we raised the water in the pond, their trickle would have grown considerably. They’d be gaining maybe ten cents worth, while we lost ten cents.”

   “But you didn’t think it was worth turning the case over to our agents to find the crook?”

   “Well, there wasn’t any proof. We dropped hints with the only two logical suspects, to see if they’d do something to reveal themselves. They didn’t, but the problem stopped. As you know, we’re always balancing between government love and hate with our neighbors in this part of the world. Making accusations we can’t back up certainly wouldn’t endear us to the locals. And then there’s the bigger issue that most of our neighbors – no matter how honest and god-fearing they are – probably wouldn’t consider stealing duck water to use for agriculture a crime!”

   “Point taken. You have to live with your neighbors as harmoniously as possible. So, where’s this burn?”

   “Actually,” said Greg, “You’re almost standing in it. You can see the area of newer, greener-looking grass, starting here by the pond edge and running north. They burned about two acres of grass and sagebrush on the refuge, but much of the grass has already grown back. Of course, they didn’t need the backfire, after all, because the rain extinguished both the main fire and the back fire.”

   “I think BLM’s strategy was good,” continued Chuck. “This was a logical backstop for any fire that came this way. Tim didn’t think the fire would burn south, because of terrain and wind direction. I think he probably was right, but it was still a potential risk. Greg made a decision that didn’t cost us anything but a little burned vegetation and a little extra paperwork.”

  “Yes, I agree,” said Mac. “Good job.”

  Chuck reminded Mac that the hunter check station would be located at the gate, run as usual by Idaho Fish and Game. “We’ll have a new manager here this season. Cal is transferring to Boise. We haven’t met the replacement, yet.”

   “So, Cal is leaving. He’s been here a long time. His choice?”

   “I think so. I think he and his wife are both looking forward to the change.

   They passed Jake Bowen’s ranch, and then Ross McHenry’s, and Chuck explained why he thought McHenry was the more likely water diverter. “Jake doesn’t do much farming, and he can move his livestock around if the feed gets poor in some location. McHenry is trying to grow alfalfa - always tough in this area without irrigation – so a little extra water in a dry year would be helpful.” They passed some of his alfalfa as they turned south on the blacktop. Mac opined that it looked pretty good.

   “I suspect those heavy rains we got last week were very welcome,” said Chuck.

   They stopped at the gas station-diner on the old highway. Theirs was the only vehicle.

   “Well, look what the cat dragged in!” exclaimed Jackson, from the kitchen. “Cora, hide all that illegal game. The game warden. Is here.”

   Cora appeared from the back room. “Hey, Chuck. And it’s Greg, right? Nice to see you boys. Who do you have with you?”

   “Hey, Cora. This is my boss, Mac, from Portland. I think he’s been in here with me in years past, but it’s been a while.”

   Cora gave him the once over. “You do look kind of familiar. Welcome anyway, Mac. You getting ready for the hunt, already, Chuck?”

   “No, we’re just doing a little joy riding, and bringing Mac up to date on local business. Hey, Jackson; you got some burgers on the griddle?”

   “Coming right up!”

   “Take a seat anywhere you can find room,” said Cora. “As you can see, we’re awful busy, as usual, but you just missed the big crowds.”

   “Pretty slow, huh?”

   “Well, you know, we serve the locals and the occasional lost tourist. That’s enough. It’ll pick up some during hunting season, as you know.”

   “Speaking of hunting, had you heard that Cal is moving to Boise?”

   Jackson brought hot patties out to the counter, and Cora started to make them into sandwiches. “Yeah,” said Jackson, “He stopped by a week or so, ago. I guess he was coming from your place. He told us the news. Haven’t heard about his replacement yet. Have you?”

   “No, he said he’d bring him by before he left the area. Say, on another subject, it looks like McHenry’s alfalfa has done okay, this year.”

   Cora brought the hamburgers over to their table. “It’s right pretty. We drove up there the other night. There were half a dozen antelope feeding; nice to see them.”

   Jackson and Cora pulled up chairs next to their table as they ate. “Anything else new going on?” asked Jackson.

   “Well, the big news for the Anderson family is that eldest daughter, Victoria, is headed to college next month. We’re going to drive up to Pocatello Thursday, and look around with her.”

   “Well, congratulations. That’s a big family change, all right. What’s up with you, Greg? You going to be around awhile?”

   “Certainly through the winter. I’ll try to stop by during hunting season, and let you know what’s going on.”

    “Much appreciated.”

   They returned through the refuge the way they had come, chatting generally about the operation.

   “I’m surprised that diner keeps going,” said Mac.

   “Yeah, when they completed the Interstate, it cut off most of their business. Still, they like it there, and they do make a mean burger.”

   “I agree,” said Mac. “Say, you know I don’t plan to drive in to town and back, don’t you?”

   “We figured as much. Nobody wants to drive that ‘god awful road’ if they can help it. Yeah, the bunkhouse is free and ready to use, isn’t it, Greg?”

   “Yep, clean sheets and all.”

   “Alice expects you for dinner tonight, anyway. So, you and Greg get gussied up, and come on over whenever you’re ready.”

 

   Dinner was excellent. Alice served a nice Burgundy wine with it. Greg abstained, unable to forget a certain past evening with the family, which earned him a grin and a wink from Vic. Mac was a good conversationist, asking lots of questions of everybody at the table, but not dominating the discussions that followed. Later, as they walked back toward the bunkhouse, Mac asked Greg if he could come in and chat for a while. Greg couldn’t really say no, although ghosts of the past “chat” wouldn’t leave him alone.

   “There are a few things in the frig, but nothing to drink, I’m afraid.”

   “That’s okay,” replied Mac. “I came prepared.” He went to his suitcase, and pulled out an unopened bottle of fine bourbon. “Have some with me?”

   Greg hesitated.

  “I saw you didn’t drink the wine at dinner. Do you not drink alcohol?”

   Greg laughed. “No, I do. Not very much, and mostly a beer or two. I just have an unreasonable aversion to wine right now.”

    “How so? It sounds like there’s a good story there.” Mac poured them both a little bourbon.

    Greg told the whole story without embellishment. “Vic – Victoria – rescued me from my misery the next morning, with some tough talk and a large thermos of hot, black coffee.”

   “You and Vic are close, I take it?”

   Greg couldn’t think of a quick answer.

   “I watched you two at dinner. It was hard to miss the attachment.”

   Now, Greg laughed. “Yes, I guess we are beyond the subtle stage. We’re both thinking seriously about the future, but it’s tough. We both want her to do her four years at college. I don’t know where I’ll be next year and beyond. Part of that may be up to Uncle Sam and the draft board.”

   “I take it you don’t want to be drafted?”

   “No, I don’t. I can’t understand what this war is about. Like in Korea, they say we are ‘fighting Communism.’ What does that mean, and how does killing people in Viet Nam help? How do we know if we ‘won?’ You talked about your time in World War II. I think I understand that war. There was a clear enemy, one that was a serious danger to the people in a large area of Europe. When America joined the war effort, there wasn’t need for conscription. American men gladly volunteered, even though it was clear it was a bloody war that many wouldn’t come back from. Viet Nam clearly isn’t that kind of war.”

   “What will you do if you’re called?”

   “I think I just have to wait and see. I’m sure now that I wouldn’t escape to Canada, or anything like that, but... I just don’t know.”

   “Fair enough.” Mac poured each a little more bourbon. “Switching gears, you know about our arrangement with Chuck; to move him once Amanda is finished with high school?”

   “I’ve talked about it some with both Chuck and Vic.”

   “That will probably happen next summer. It may be a while before we can get a new project leader here. Chuck has suggested that you could handle it fine, in the interim. Would you be interested? It might be all the way through next winter. We’d get you a promotion to go with your ‘acting’ role.”

   “I’m sure I could handle it. Tim would be here, and maybe we could get somebody to replace Rusty. It might not be my first choice.”

   “What did you have in mind?”

   “Well, this has been a pretty good refuge for me to start out on, because I have to be involved with everything that goes on. It’s maybe not so good as a training refuge, because not that much goes on. We don’t have any public use; we don’t have any economic uses; we don’t even have any big controversies – not that I want any! I’m just thinking that I might do better on a little bigger refuge, with a more diversified program. It would probably help me figure out where I want my career to head.”

   “John O’Brien said he’d talked to you about a position that might be opening up with him. Was something like that what you had in mind?”

    “We talked a little about it when he dropped by, last month. I’ve never seen his refuge, but it sounds like it has the variety I was thinking about. I don’t have any real preference because I don’t know any of the areas. I don’t want to go back to California immediately. I’ve lived my whole life there, and visited a number of the refuges on bird watching trips. I don’t know the California refuge operations, but I know a lot about California wildlife and ecology. I think I’d like to see more of Idaho, or maybe Montana, or eastern Oregon or eastern Washington.”

   “That’s good to know. I’ll keep it in mind as spots open up. You mentioned bird watching. Chuck says you’re quite interested.”

   Greg laughed. “I do like my ‘dicky birds,’ as Chuck calls them. But my interest is more than just seeing new ones. From what I’ve noticed so far, Fish and Wildlife Service is pretty preoccupied with ducks and geese. The refuges serve as habitat for a lot more species than those, and I suspect could be very important to the survival of some, if the areas were managed properly. One of the first steps is having a good bird list – well, a good wildlife list – of each area so we know what our potentials are.”

   “And we don’t have good wildlife lists?”

   “Apparently only on some of the more famous refuges that get a lot of public use.”

   They talked a little longer, Greg thanked him for the opportunity, and headed home. The few sips of whiskey didn’t seem to impair his ability to find his way.

***

   Next morning, Alice made breakfast for all of them, then Chuck and Mac retired to the office for a private talk. Greg stole a few minutes with Vic, touched base with Tim, then went out on the refuge to check pond levels. He got back to the office just as Mac and Chuck were finishing up.

   “I better hit the road, if I’m going to make my return flight. Let me say my goodbyes to the womenfolk, and then I’ll be on my way.” Mac did that, made a quick stop at the shop to chat with Tim, and was ready to go. As he got in his car, Chuck offered some weather advice.

   “It looks like you could get some heavy rain and strong wind west of Twin Falls. The weather service is saying some of the cells are stronger than usual. You should be okay once you get past Mountain Home, and I wouldn’t think there would be any problem with your plane ride.”

   “I expect I’ll be okay. Thanks to both of you for the visit; I enjoyed it. We’ll keep in touch on the particulars we discussed.”

   After he departed, Chuck and Greg took a few minutes to compare notes. It seemed they both had the same understanding of what might happen in the next year.

***

      “Looks like the weatherman was right, said Greg, the next morning. “I heard on the news that high winds caused quite a bit of damage in Jerome, and quite a few trees came down around the Valley. Some towns lost power for a little while.”

     “Yeah, I talked to Mac a couple minutes ago. He said he had some strong winds and a little lightning around Twin Falls, but it was clear sailing, after that.

   “Well, I guess it’s business as usual, today. I can’t think of anything particularly pressing. Same for Friday, probably. You know I’m on leave tomorrow, to introduce Victoria to Idaho State University? We’re all going, so we’ll take the day and enjoy ourselves. Next week, we start moving the ladies to town.”

   “I’ll help with that any way you need me,” offered Greg.

  

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