Over the Trail and Down the River

The Mystery of an Old Canoe

By Gary Oberbillig

My stepfather, Austin Case, liked to assure any dogs he encountered that they were “a nuisance, an abomination, and a detriment to mankind.” He would say this in the kindest possible way, while scratching an ear or the root of a tail, and the dogs, who heard the high-pitched loving tone without understanding the words, idolized him.

Austin’s phrase for expressing doubt of an overblown claim was, “A bottle of hooch under which bridge?” As a reproof for boastful pride, he’d say, “My, what a fine tail our cat has.” Another of his sayings was, “Sometimes things have to cook a long time before you get a good scald on them.” This referred to thoughts that had to be well-considered before they became fully formed. Often in answer to some forlorn request from me, Austin’s reply was, “Wish in one hand and spit in the other, and see which hand gets full first.” I admit that once when I was very young, I ran outside to test if the charm would work. (My defense is that kids can be very literal in their interpretations of what they hear.) I still remember Austin’s astonishment when I presented him with my right palm swimming and my left full of unseen but fervent wishes.

Later on, my birthday came at the wrong time of year for me to get into public school but everyone thought I was ready, so I was enrolled in the Catholic school that my cousin, Jimmy McGrath, was attending. Jimmy has always been a tough nut and at the time I thought he was impervious to the discipline of the nuns, but he told me a few years ago that they got to him, too. He said, “I just wouldn’t let them see it!” 

The Sisters’ specialty was rapping our knuckles with a wooden ruler, a punishment common in Catholic schools at the time. When Austin heard about this, he marched to the school and asked to see the Mother Superior. I recall what he said, because I was present: “There is a proper place to apply discipline to a child, and the knuckles are not it. This boy may have to make a living with his hands some day, and he does not need arthritis. The knuckle-beatings will stop, forthwith!” And they did.

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Gary Oberbillig

About Gary Oberbillig

Gary Oberbillig was born and raised in southern Idaho. He has been a college art teacher, photographer and writer. He says, “I’ve lived on Puget Sound for many years, but to re-establish my birthright, I go east of the mountains and take a good long whiff of sagebrush after a rain.”