Pioneers were a smelly lot

I admit it. I would have made a lousy pioneer. I am just not a settle-the-new-world kind of guy.

I enjoy camping and living among nature, but my version of roughing it is not showering for a couple of days and flicking a bug off my plate before I eat.

When I camp, it is in a trailer with a cushioned bed, stove, bathroom and most important of all, a furnace to keep me toasty warm at night.

I recently visited a historic ranch and heard tales of pioneers that confirmed I am not the gold-rush type.

Some of these hardy souls would spend weeks, even months walking to the gold fields in the hopes of striking it rich.

My first thought was, “What kind of bathroom facilities were there along the gold trail?”

Even before the question finished forming in my cranium, I knew the answer involved sticks, leaves and probably a rash of some sort.

Sounds like a good time to me.

I pity the uneducated prospector who grabbed a handful of poison ivy after a trip to the bush to take care of some personal business.

I would imagine word about that particular plant and the need to avoid it would have spread like wildfire.

Who would be providing this information? The guy who had been walking funny for the past three days, that’s who.

Having lived on the land for generations already, I would imagine the local aboriginals already knew to avoid the plant.

Maybe it was a local native who suggested to the fat, white guy with the beard the ivy was perfect for personal use and then ran home to tell the rest of his village what he had done.

“You will not believe what I just got some white guy to do. You know that plant that makes you itch really bad, well….”

They of course would break out in roaring laughter every time they saw a cowboy doing the poison ivy shuffle.

“Hey, white guys, you know what else is a good idea — sleeping with food in your tent. Bears hate that and will avoid you like the plague.”

Then, there was the bathing issue. Many of those intrepid pioneers would bathe once a year whether they needed it or not.

That’s why so few of them were actually eaten by bears. The bear would take one taste, hunch up and spew his breakfast before swearing off those smelly white things in favour of berries and grubs. You know it’s bad when bug larvae is the most delectable meal in the woods.

It was not an easy thing to lather up in those days and the last thing someone wanted to do was dive into an ice-cold lake or stream.

It was much easier to just smell bad and besides there were no ladies to impress anyway, so what was the point?

“Frank, you smell absolutely delightful today, what have you done?”

“Well, Bob, I took a quick bath in that crick over thar and then used the aloe vera plant to keep me smelling like a fresh spring rain. It also helps keep my skin soft and supple.”

Somehow I doubt that conversation was every uttered among the tough-as-nails customers of the old days.

Of course, the natives were kicking back and lounging in local hot springs.

“Do you think we should tell the white guys about this?”

“Naw, it’s way more fun to watch them the way they are.”

“Good point.”

Pioneers searching for gold were a smelly lot with poor hygiene — using your finger for a toothbrush does not count as cleaning — so who would spend months on end living with other men?

Is gold really that important? I would much rather have found a job somewhere in the city and slowly squirreled some money away for retirement.

Who needs to settle a new land anyway? Look at all the land we have now; going out and claiming more would just be plain greedy.

But the lure of gold was too strong for many and they left the comfort of the city and plunged head first into the challenges only Mother Nature could provide.

And after a while, I'm sure even Mother Nature plugged her nose when an intrepid gold seeker went by.


The robin couldn't fly

Last spring, my wife came charging into the house telling me I had to come with her. Quickly!

A look of concern was on her face and I thought some tragedy had befallen one of the kids, our vehicles or the house itself.

Instead, sitting near a juniper on the ground, was a small, fluffy robin.

The bird was not quite old enough to fly and still had its baby feathers mixed with its adult feathers.

“Is that it? That’s the big emergency?”

“Yes. You have to do something.”

Looking under our van, I noticed at least six neighbourhood cats waiting intently for the right moment to pounce.

“No problem. This will take care of itself.”

It was kind of creepy actually, kind of like a Hitchcock movie or something. The cats were just sitting, silently staring.

“We can’t let the cats get him. Do something,” was my wife’s plea.

“What do you want me to do? It’s the circle of life. The strong survive and the cats eat the tiny birds that fall out of the nests. Wait, let me get this on video.”

Wrong answer.

After a stare from my wife that could have frozen molten lava, I tried to formulate a plan.

I knew there was a nest in a large birch tree near our front yard. I assumed that’s where the little critter came from.

Problem was, it was about 10 metres in the air and, as much as I would like to risk my life carrying a small bird to safety, I just didn’t feel like riding in an ambulance that day so I went on to plan B.

I didn’t even have a plan A, let alone B, but I stood there examining the situation looking like I was thinking hard to solve the problem when in reality I was thinking, “I wonder if I have a beer left in the fridge.”

After several minutes, I had to admit I did not know what to do and again suggested we grab the video camera and make our own survival-of-the-fittest nature documentary.

I would call it Cats Eat a Baby Robin.

Another icy stare later and it was back to planning the salvation of the beaked beast.

We had an old bird’s nest that came out of a tree I had cut down, so my wife decided I – notice she didn’t say she – should grab the bird, place it in the nest, which will be placed in a bucket, which will be hung from the tree.

OK, we have a plan.

Not wanting to get baby bird cooties all over me, I put on a pair of work gloves, put the nest in the bucket, hung the bucket on a tree branch and Operation Rescue Tweety Or I Will Have to Sleep in The Garage was well under way.

Just as I started to head toward the bird, my son’s cat came calmly strolling from the backyard, saw the little pre-dinner snack and pounced like the natural born killer he is.

He had the bird in his grip when my wife yelled at him to let go.

At least six adult robins took turns dive bombing the cat, but it was my wife running over to him that made him relinquish his version of dinner to go.

He looked at me with a what-is-that-all-about look and all I could do was shrug. He then joined his compadres under the van and waited patiently.

By now there were about 349 cats surrounding my house.

The little bird had managed to hop under the juniper bus and the second I got even close to him, the robin Luftwaffe started their bombing runs again.

Fending off the frantic attack I carried the little bird to the ladder, climbed up to the bucket and placed him the nest – where he stayed for about two seconds.

I had not even started down the ladder and this feathered genius had already hopped out and landed on the ground.

This got the attention of the 1,436 cats that had now completely encircled my yard.

“That’s it, I’m getting the video camera. Could get YouTube going for me?”

The icy stare was gone, as my wife realized there was nothing we could do for the bird. Operation Rescue Tweety had failed.

We watched it sit on the grass for a second and then my wife insisted we grab our son’s cat so she could rest assured he was not the one to "do the deed."

I gathered up the feline and we headed into the house as dusk settled over the land.

I do not know what happened to the bird (but I have a pretty good idea). The next morning it was gone and there were no feathers in the yard, so it may be escaped or something.

It could happen.

But fear not dear reader, the day was not a total bummer.

I did have a beer left in the fridge.

It was a dumb idea

I know, and you are right, it was a dumb idea.

I know I will have to narrow that down a little as I have more dumb ideas than a politician (if that's possible).

The dumb idea in question was from a few years back when I took my kids to a local skateboard park.

No, I did not jump on a skateboard after a 25-year absence and hurt myself — that would be really dumb.

Instead, I threw on my in-line skates and hurt myself.

While the kids were rolling along doing all sorts of neat little tricks, I was calmly skating my way around the outer perimeter of the skateboard park.

I watched as they went up the quarter pipe and down and around and thought, “That doesn't look so hard.”

I have been ice skating since I was about five years old, so I feel quite comfortable on in-line skates, and this is where the dumb idea began to form.

Slowly, I skated closer and closer to the quarter pipe, while my brain lied and told me I could do it.

“C'mon, you played hockey for years. You are a master on skates. What's the difference between ice or concrete?” challenged that little red, horned guy on my shoulder.

“How tough can it be for a super jock like yourself. You can do it. Go for it, stud.”

The white guy with the halo on the other shoulder was trying to offer a cautionary word or two, but the red guy was making such a convincing argument.

“C'mon, big man, you can do it. Go up, go down, it will be great. People will be amazed at your skating ability, especially for such an old guy.”

By now, I was feeling pretty darned good about my skating prowess and I knew I possessed the skills of a life-long, stunt skater.

“I can do it,” I thought.

The plan was to start slowly. I would just go part-way up the ramp, turn and come back down.

No problem. I can do it.

Once I completed the little warm-up stunt, I would graduate to more challenging moves and before you know it, I will be the oldest guy in the X Games.

I can do it.

Apparently, I couldn't do it.

In fact, I could not even come close to doing it.

In fact, I only made it less than two feet up the ramp when I realized I should have listened to the little white dude with the halo, who was now sitting back with a rather smug look on his face.

I quickly learned the difference between skating on a nice flat sheet of ice, and in-line skating up a sloped ramp.

My leading skate hit the bottom of the half-pipe and decided it would be best to go north while the rear in-line skate went east, sending my butt south.

I also learned I do not bounce like I used to. Instead of bouncing off the ground, getting up and going again like I did as a young lad, I landed with a thump that held absolutely no bounce at all.

I didn't even slide or anything, just — Wham! — and down I was.

I got up and tried to look cool, which wasn't too hard because people (much younger people) were falling around the place all the time.

The truly hard part was not showing how much pain I was in. I had a bruise on my hip that covered roughly 48 per cent of my body.

That will happen when you thud rather than bounce.

The pain in my hip could have been a lot worse had I not used my wrist, elbow and shoulder to break the fall. Fortunately, the fall was all that was broken that day.


Full-contact sleeping

You know you're getting old when you hurt yourself sleeping.

How in the hell do you hurt yourself sleeping? All you're doing is lying there.

It is not too challenging a task. You lie down, you count sheep, listen to soothing music, read this column, whatever it takes to get you to Sleepyland.

Once sleep is achieved, the hard part is over. Way to go. You accomplished your goal of not being awake. From that point, all you have to do is lie there like a lump.

You might roll from side to side a little bit, but the activity is hardly enough to cause an injury, or at least it did not used to be.

The other day, I woke up with a sore back. I tried to think of how I had acquired said pain and nothing came to mind. So, near as I could figure, I threw my back out sleeping.

How do you prevent that injury from happening? It's not like I can slow down the pace – I was asleep, the only thing slower than asleep is dead.

Maybe I should work with a personal trainer on how to sleep safely.

It is certainly a far cry from the days of my youth. When I was a young lad, not even getting run over by a dirt bike could slow me down.

I was coming around a corner at a rather excitable speed when I encountered two other dirt bikers doing the same thing in the opposite direction. We spotted each other at the same time and everyone scrambled not to hit each other.

I swerved left and went through the ditch before the front tire introduced itself to a rather large boulder. The rapid deceleration that followed applied only to the bike, as the rider, that would be me, kept moving forward at warp factor five.

I remember going over the handlebars and hitting the ground. I vaguely remember something bumping my shoulder and my helmet. That something was my motorcycle that had made it past the boulder and seemed intent on running me down – which it did.

I lay in the weeds for a second having a good laugh, but to those who saw the mishap, it seemed I was having a seizure after being trounced by my own metal steed.

I got up to witness half a dozen people running toward me thinking I was a goner.

I assured my would-be rescuers I was fine and continued riding for the next couple of hours.

The next day I was a little stiff in one shoulder and had a few bruises, but was otherwise fine.

I also had a set of knobby tire tracks going across the back of helmet that was a source of conversation (and pride) for months to follow.

Now, it is all I can do to get out of bed after a vicious night's slumber.

You know you are getting old when sleeping becomes hazardous to your well being.

There is no safety apparatus available for those who suffer from sleep injury.

Perhaps that's why the prayer starts with 'Now I lay be down to sleep...' It is not just a prayer to God for sleep, it is a plea for physical well being while sleeping.

I think a slight variation is in order for us older folk.

“Now, I lay me down to sleep,
I pray I can rise when the alarm goes beep.
If I should cramp before I wake,
I pray the Lord my pain to take.
If muscles knot and become tight,
I pray that God will make it right,
and should I die before I wake,
well, at least I will not have to worry
about waking up in pain.

More The Shoebox articles

About the Author

Darren Handschuh has been working as a writer and photographer in the media industry for the past 25 years. He is married, has three children, a dog and two cats (although he is not completely sure how that part happened).

He takes a humourous look at life, and has often said, “I might as well laugh at myself, everyone else does.” 

His writings have been compared to a collection of words from the English language assembled in a somewhat coherent manner. High praise indeed.

Life gives Darren plenty of material for his column, and no one is safe from his musings – especially himself. 

He regularly writes to his blog www.therudemonkey.blogspot.ca.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories