ED: You may remember Dan Baum as a former TTAG contributor and author of the superbly written (if not resolutely pro-gun) opus, Gun Guys. (Click here to read his previous TTAG posts.) Mr. Baum’s currently battling cancer, sending a series of emails about his past, present and yes future for his fans. He calls the series Third Act Trouble. To subscribe to DB’s email blasts, email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, here’s a firearms-related excerpt . . .
The fat guy with the greasy hair — Rob — turned out to be the most sensitive guy in the Anchorage Times newsroom; he realized before anyone else how embarrassing a blunder it was for me to have applied to the wrong newspaper.
“Thing is, we are the bigger paper — the biggest in the state, in fact,” he said with a wink. “Better for that resumé.” Conspicuously absent was any claim that the Times was a better paper than the Daily News. And it was understood that all any of us was doing at the Anchorage Times was filling a slot on our resumés — first daily.
Young journalists planned their careers the way generals planned invasions. Instead of Caen to Cherbourg to Paris to Berlin, the path ahead of us would take us through the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, then the Los Angeles Times or the Denver Post, before wheeling east toward the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and, the ultimate citadel of resistance, the New York Times.
“Just don’t expect to get invited to a lot of parties,” said a thirty-something woman named Eleanor who held her face and eyes as though constantly facing into a gritty wind.
“We’re rather disliked; that’s true” said Rob.
“Not by everybody,” said Eleanor sourly. “If you’re an oil millionaire, you love us.”
“We are, there’s no denying it, a shill for the oil industry,” Rob said into my eyes. “But it’s to be expected that it would have a captive paper. And it doesn’t mean we can’t also do good stuff.”
Eleanor let out a disgusted sigh and stormed off. “Don’t worry about it,” said a guy named David who, with straight dark hair parted in the middle, looked a little like Alfalfa in the Little Rascals.
“Tell you what,” David said. “I’ll take you to the wilderness this weekend.”
“We’ll get on the Alaska Railroad toward Fairbanks. Halfway there, we’ll pull the cord and stop the train. On weekends, they’ll stop anyplace you ask them and let you off. On Sunday, you walk back out to the tracks and flag them down; they’ll stop.”
This seemed remarkable. They must not have lawyers in Alaska, I thought. But I said, “I’m in.”
“Got a gun?”
I did, in fact. I’d brought up from New York a rifle I’d owned for years and kept in my parents’ weekend house in western Massachusetts. It wasn’t the right gun for defending oneself against bears, which called for something short, light, and quick-firing. This was a First World War Eddystone Enfield that was excellent at two to three hundred yards, but its bolt action made it slow, it was about as long as a boat oar, and only slightly less heavy than a grand piano.
Thus equipped, I met Dave at the Anchorage train station early Saturday morning and we boarded a blue and yellow 1950s vintage train car. “We’re not supposed to take guns,” said the old, pasty-faced conductor as the train chugged out of the station, “but let me see that one.” He expertly worked the bolt to make sure it wasn’t loaded and aimed it out the window. “That’s a beauty,” he said admiringly.
“Will it kill a bear?”
“It’ll kill it, field dress it, and cook it medium rare all with the same shot. Don’t worry. This thing’ll stop a Buick Roadmaster.” He seemed to intend that last remark as comforting, though it hadn’t occurred to me to worry about encountering a Buick Roadmaster in the middle of the Alaska wilderness.
Anchorage disappeared quickly from the windows, supplanted by thick lodgepole forest. About an hour into our trip, Dave reached up and pulled the stop cord. The entire train and everybody on it wheezed to a slow stop so Dave and I could step down — the only ones to do so. “See you here at around 5:45 Sunday afternoon,” said the conductor as he regretfully handed down my rifle and the train began sliding northeast. “If you need us before then, well, I don’t know.” The train rounded a bend and was gone.
I’d never felt solitude like that which descended upon me and Dave as the train receded from earshot. Left in the Alaska wilderness at least ten miles from the nearest road, out of cell-tower range by ten miles and fifteen years, we were about as cut off from civilization as it was possible to be in 1981. The stillness was absolute. I could hear myself digesting breakfast.
Suddenly, a sharp scrabbling noise, and a black bear burst from some underbrush and took off. He’d no doubt been waiting for someone to throw a half-eaten Boar’s Head Bologna sandwich from the train window and wasn’t counting on a couple of bipeds climbing off it. “All right!” said Dave approvingly. “You’re in Alaska what, two days? And you’ve already seen your first bear.”
“Not a grizzly, though,” I said shakily.
“Worse. Grizzlies are bigger, but they’re predictable. Up here people consider black bears more erratic, and more people are killed and injured by them than by grizzlies.” I dug from my jeans pocket ten rounds of soft-nose .30-’06 and fully loaded the rifle’s magazine.
We found a flat, soft place to make camp. Amid the twittering of the chickadees, juncos, and crossbills and not a single other sound, Dave pitched a tent and lit a tiny stove to boil water. I jerked my sleeping bag from my backpack, and out of it flew the clock radio I’d buried in it for protection on the flight.
Dave looked at it lying there in a nest of its own cord, and then at me — the guy who’d applied to the wrong newspaper — and then back at the clock radio.
“Uh,” he said. “Where were you planning to plug that in?”