March of 1977 saw my brief return to northern California after a few months of playing the construction gypsy in New Mexico and Colorado. My friend Wes and I tried our luck in New Mexico first but the construction standards were very poor there, at least with the contractors we worked for, and that combined with the footloose place in life which Wes and I both occupied at that time led us to throw our tools into the back of our respective vehicles and head north to Colorado. We did this with almost empty pockets, since we had just returned from Mexico where we both had spent our last dimes. Wes had worked in Colorado before and was certain that we could get on with somebody quickly upon reaching that land of promise.
We left Albuquerque after breakfast one morning and arrived in Fort Collins Colorado in the early evening. We purchased a couple of bottles of wine and went to the dormitory residence of two girls whom Wes had known on his first pass through this territory several months earlier. The ladies broke out glasses and opened the wine while Wes looked up contractors’ phone numbers in the Yellow Pages and called them from the dormitory phone, looking for work. Wes’ word was sound and before the wine was gone we had work in Greeley, which is about thirty minutes drive away from Fort Collins. We thanked the ladies for the use of their telephone and drove through the night towards the construction site in Greeley, where we would spend our first night in Colorado sleeping in our vehicles. I unrolled my down sleeping bag that had been state of the art long ago, and stretched out as much as my six-foot frame would allow on the bench seat of my Ford truck.
That night was cold. We had arrived in Colorado at the end of January and the temperatures trended towards the teens at night. I slept fitfully that night, awakening frequently and rising up to peek into the black eastern sky, hoping to see some sort of glow on the horizon announcing the end of the seemingly endless night. Seeing no such glow I would change positions and try to return to sleep, to pass the night more quickly as much as to gain refreshment for the next day’s work.
While I lay there my mind drifted to the realities of my recent past and the hope for my near future. My first marriage had ended in May of the previous year and I lay on the seat reflecting on how my fortunes had changed. My warm bed next to a wife in my own home in northern California where I co-owned a drywall company with one friend had been traded for a cold and lonely bed in the cab of my truck with another friend sleeping in his Mazda parked next to me waiting for daylight so that we could work for somebody else. The funny thing is that apart from the lingering sadness over the demise of my marriage, a sadness mitigated by the woman in Albuquerque who I had met and who within a year would become my second and last wife (a condition which Happily continues to this day), I was not the least bit disconsolate. I tend to take the view that things can always be worse and look for a bright side.
The bright side came at last in the eastern sky and before very long Wes and I were lifting heavy sheets of drywall and nailing them into place, and hit up the boss for a draw against our first day’s labor so that we could secure the comfort of a $10 per night fleabag motel room. It wasn’t much but it contained a shower and two beds, which was all i really needed after a night of shivering in a cramped position in the cab of my truck.
This began our brief climb to prosperity in Fort collins. With our first week’s pay we rented a higher order of motel accommodation, one with two rooms for sleeping and a tiny kitchen, and opened bank accounts to hold the money that we knew would soon be flowing in. When we were not working we were looking for the apartment that we would rent to move us further towards respectability. And then this rosy picture began to fade. I do not know if there was a prejudice against California workers or if our work was just not up to Colorado standards (we did OK everywhere else, but who knows?), but the jobs dropped off and we began to go through the money that we had already made. Whatever the cause, we had no interest in either starving or begging so we threw our tools into our vehicles once again and drove back to northern California where my old partner had promised us work. And that is how I ended up back in my old home town hanging drywall all day and trying to drink all of the beer in Sonoma county; a combination I had tried before and which had contributed to the end of my marriage.
Wes and I were in Santa Rosa for three months and it was in that time that we were sent to do a remodel job at a residence in the semi-rural area north of the city. We pulled into the driveway and got out to knock on the door and introduce ourselves. Both husand and wife were at home and took us to see where the work needed to be done. We walked around the back of the house to where a garage and porch were being enclosed and converted to living space. Wes and I took stock of the scene and quickly noted an adequate supply of drywall and nails, a mix of new wood and old, the latter of which would be rock hard and certain to bend many nails, and in a cage directly behind the project – a fujll grown male African lion!
I have known people who keep exotic pets; rats, snakes, tarantulas, etc. I tended to not spend much time in the houses of those people. Lions, however, are of a different order of magnitude. One reads or sees reports in the news of people who keep pythons and alligators and apes and other such creatures. Many times we learn of these people when a large snake or alligator escapes or is released when it gets too large to feed or safely live with, or when a chimpanzee ripps somebody’s face off. The point is, these exotic creatures oftentimes end up being more problem than pet. What was this homeowner thinking when he acquired a male African lion for a pet? I can only guess, but I can tell you the story of that lion as far as it touches me.
Wes and I thought and spoke about that lion all day, and at lunch we sat out by the lion’s cage. All the time that I sat there eating my deviled ham sandwiches and chips that tawny, straw-colored beast sat silently on his side of the bars looking at me in the same way that I looked at my sandwich. That broad feline nose measuring six or seven inches across, the great shaggy mane that made me think so much of Tina Turner, the long sharp teeth all made me nervous as we sat just a little further than a paw’s reach away.
The most unsettling feature however was the eyes. They did not blink, at least not when I was watching. Measuring probably an inch and a half in visible diameter and amber-colored just like the lion’s coat, those eyes just stared at me impassively, communicating to me the message that I did not have a history, I did not have a personality, I did not have hopes or dreams. I did not work as a drywall hanger or have a mother or father. To that lion the totality of my existence could be summed up in one word: Dinner.
This did not appear to be the case with the lion’s owner. This mad man entered the cage and fed and then roughhoused with the lion the way that I would play with my pet cat. The lion did not make any kind of threatening move towards its owner, and that was a very dangerous thing for Wes and me. Both of us enjoy telling a story, and waving before us the possibility of being able to tell the story of standing in a cage with a lion was like throwing red meat to, well, a lion. Wes and I both declared early on that we intended to do this very thing.
As the day wound down and we finished our part of the construction job the time came to poop or get off of the pot. Wes and I stored our tools in my truck and returned to stand outside of the cage, working up the courage – or stupidity – to take our step inside the cage. The owner went in again to stand next to his lion and told us we could come in one at a atime. I looked into those eyes again and they had not changed; still without passion, without soul, without pity. I then looked up at the eyes of the owner. They were not as malevolent as those of the lion, but they did nook a little bit demented. Hell, little bit? The guy was standing in a cage next to a lion! I had seen “Psycho”. I had read “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. I had no guarantee that the owner was any less dangerous than the lion.
I signaled my decision to decline the offer to make myself a snack for Leo and the torch was passed to Wes. Wes seemed to be even more drawn to the magnet of being able to tell this story than I was and I could see him wavering before the barred door. Wes wanted to go in so bad he could taste it but some vestige of common sense, and perhaps the image of my own crazy self not taking the lunge, worked on him to the point that he declined the offer as well.
But Wes couldn’t quite leave it completely alone. The lion hadn’t actually done anything aggressive; no roars, no growls, no swats with those huge paws. Maybe it would be safe to reach in and touch the lion. Who do you know that can say that they’ve done that? Wes extended his hand slowly, aiming to touch the long hair of the lion’s mane and the lion, in a move that looked like the intersection between a cobra and silk, effortlessly, efficiently, and very quickly flicked his head to the side and took a nip at Wes’ finger.
Wes howled and jumped back, holding a hand which now sported a finger missing a chunk of meat. A string of ungentlemanly swear words issued forth in front of the owner’s wife, but I suspected she had heard them before. The owner emerged from the cage expressing sympathy but there seemed to be a ghost of a smile playing at the corners of his lips. A bandage was offered but I kepty some in our first aid kit and we elected to put an exclamation point at the end of this particular sentence, and gert as far away from that lion as we could just as quickly as we could.