What They Said

Following the Rules

By Gary Oberbillig

I have never experienced a greater sense of redemption than on a day when I was six years old, lost in fantasy, creeping along a shady trail near McCall.  I carried a BB gun that I had been warned to never touch without supervision, an early instance of advice from elders that I usually obeyed if not always. Sometimes it wasn’t so much advice as simply the imparting of wisdom, and over the years, such moments have had a way of sticking with me.

Such was the case on this day, when I saw myself as an intrepid Indian scout reconnoitering for enemies, or maybe looking for a deer to feed my hungry tribe, and there he was! I cocked the rifle, drew a bead, and fired.

A furry little chipmunk lay inert on the stump where only seconds earlier he had stood bolt upright, chattering a greeting to the morning. Instantly, I was overcome with remorse and ran back to our tent camp, my eyes swimming.

Grandfather Simpson comforted me, as a good grandfather will, and walked me back along the trail. I carried a small box to give the chipmunk a decent burial, because Grandfather must have figured such a ceremony might bring some relief from my guilt. When we reached the stump in the dark woods, the little body lay stretched out, just as I have seen him ever since in memory.

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Analyzing mine tailings near Yellow Pine, 2019. Todd Leeds, USFS photo.
Cinnabar from McCall area. Pacific Museum of Earth photo.
Truck the author drove as a youth near Yellow Pine. Courtesy Gary Oberbillig.
Idaho chipmunk. Brian Kelly photo.
Stibnite. Ryan Somma photo.


But wait—the heavens opened, and I swear shafts of sunlight came streaming down through the pines as the chipmunk twitched a tiny foot, popped open his eyes, and scampered off into the brush. If worldly salvation is possible, I lived it in the flood of relief that washed over me in the glory of that moment.             

Perhaps you want me to say I gave up hunting for life, but that wouldn’t be true. I was a farm kid, and as I teenager I enthusiastically hunted pheasants and ducks, which was different because the quarry I bagged was fare for the family, and I used the feathers to tie trout flies. Grandfather’s creed was to use an animal as completely as possible.

As I grew older, I paid better attention to what my elders told me and often retained such lessons. In my early twenties, I worked in the backcountry out of McCall for my father, Ernest Oberbillig, during the summer just before Molly and I were married in 1962.  My paternal grandfather, J. J. Oberbillig, had long held mining claims around Yellow Pine in the mining camps of Stibnite and Cinnabar, both named for ores that became strategic during WWII. 

Stibnite, the ore containing tungsten and antimony, and cinnabar, which contains mercury, were suddenly in high demand when the war started, and the government took pains to see that there was a passable all-year road into the mines to truck the ore out to the railhead in Cascade.   

Songwriter and war protester Malvina Reynolds had a line, “Tungsten makes the steel so hard it goes through the side of an army tank as though it was a paper card,” which perhaps points an accusing finger at Yellow Pine. I later came to accept that most American armor-piercing shells fired in the war would have had a trace of Yellow Pine tungsten in them, as Yellow Pine was virtually the only domestic supplier of that essential steel hardener.

One day while returning from McCall to Yellow Pine, my father left me off with a prospector friend while he went on another errand. The old man was a trove of information about the early days in McCall.  Raised on a farm near upper Payette Lake, he spoke of the bygone business of packing the little kokanee salmon that still run to spawn in the Payette River just below McCall.

Back in the day, the fish were packed in barrels of rock salt to preserve them for shipping. He cautioned me that this practice required packing them so that each butterfly-filleted fish did not touch any other, otherwise rot could run through the whole barrel. I was never a fish-packer but the symbolism of this advice took root.                          

I stayed for lunch, which was squirrel stew (at least it wasn’t chipmunk), and he assured me with a grin, “These dishes bin washed by Soap and Water.” Only later did I learn that Soap and Water were the names of his two old dogs.

Nolan Deasy, the foreman at our family’s Yellow Pine mining claim, seldom gave me a direct order to do anything, but he had a conversational style that was much more effective than a command. He would say, “A man might be able to do such and such a thing today.”

There was never a question whether it was me he was addressing, as I would be in the crosshairs of his frosty blue eyes. And his deceptively casual phrase “a man might” made this young man more than eager to prove he was equal to the task.

 That’s because Nolan was a man’s man: tough, able, and quietly certain of his place in the scheme of things. Even the crust Nolan preferred on his breakfast eggs was tough. He would stoke the wood-burning kitchen stove until you could swear the stove itself glowed a dull red, and then he would position the cast iron frying pan and plop in the thick-sliced bacon.

By the time the meat was browned to a turn, it had produced a pool of seething bacon grease a quarter-inch deep. Tenderly scooping out the bacon, he then cracked in the eggs, which instantly turned to something resembling the scarred toe of a logging boot. I can testify, these were eggs that would stick to your ribs throughout the day. They’re enshrined in my memory as Nolan Deasy Eggs, a formidable symbol of my Yellow Pine mining camp summer.

I had a summer job before that, my first away from home, with the Forest Service out of Paddy Flat near Donnelly, the first town of any size south of McCall, where I slept in the bunkhouse with the rest of the crew.  Of course we all wanted to be high-status, adventurous smokejumpers and leap out of airplanes, but since that wasn’t possible we defiantly called ourselves smokeaters, since we were expected to man a fire line if the occasion arose.

As it turned out, we were only on one fire, where we dug trenches down through the forest floor duff to keep the fire from spreading, using the combination axe and grub hoe tool called a Pulaski after its inventor. The caution I remember best from that time came in no uncertain terms: “Never run uphill to escape the fire, because that can be deadly.” It was advice I never forgot but didn’t need to obey, since as newbies, we were assigned to an area that posed little danger. 

About halfway through the summer, I was assigned to a trail clearing crew, which was considered a plum job, working the backcountry trails out of McCall that had become overgrown with brush or with trees blown down by the wind. Our tools now were chainsaws, double-bitted axes, and machetes.

To carry all this plus our camping gear, we traveled with a pack string of horses and mules.  We were self-contained and contented, trailing from lake to lake. The only damper on our satisfaction was a Forest Service command: “Be clean-shaven at all times.”

This requirement is depicted in the film The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, starring Sam Elliot and Jerry O’Connell. In the film, the crew’s required morning shave was done with the old folding straight razors, but as latter-day smokeaters, we used safety razors.

I didn’t disobey the regulation but in an evil moment I got the notion to replace my cake of shaving soap with a pressurized can of foam, which promptly exploded in my backpack from the jouncing gait of our mule train. Emollients in the shaving cream melted an unread book of folk songs that I sadly had to pitch into the campfire, its sodden pages victim to my “new and improved” way of staying clean-shaven at all times.

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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.”

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