Friday, June 17, 2011
Missoula, maggots and this ain't rugby
Peggy and Joe Blackburn with samples of their stock/Ralph Bartholdt
PLUMMER—They came to college campuses in those days, men in black suits and white shirts, grinning.
They visited the guys who worked for the US Forest Service in the summer, fighting fires. Not just Pulaski pushers, but the young men who donned the big puffy suits with the pockets up their legs and the fabric bound tightly around the ankles of their White’s smokejumper boots.
They were looking for volunteers to join a fledgling force in a sweltering place the name of which wasn’t yet terminally carved in the nation’s history. Not ours. Not yet.
Some of the boys joined up for the money and adventure. Mostly the job required bundling parcels with parachutes and kicking them off planes to people waiting in the dripping jungles below, or the parched hillsides depending on season.
They were called cargo kickers and the skills they were taught at a few Forest Service bases in the Rocky Mountain West, tying chutes to boxes and bundles to make them float safely earthward after a 1,500 foot drop, were not learned in many places at the time, not even in the Army yet.
Joe Blackburn tells the story. A young man at the University of Montana who fought fires and rode rodeo stock, then, who had earned his paratrooper wings, or would, and who fought fires by attacking them first from the sky. He and his companions jumped out of airplanes to the remote regions, canyons, forested ridges and brushy fingers of rocks. That’s where fire watchers in lookout towers using Osborne Fire Finders – great plates mounted on pedicels like archaic compass wheels – had seen smoke and directed the young men to squelch it.
Blackburn didn’t join the fleet of cargo kickers headed to Vietnam for Air America, or any other outfit, instead he became a game warden working the high plains of Montana for poachers, living in a house with his bride at Rattlesnake Canyon outside Missoula and later moving to the rugged St. Joe Forest to chase elk poachers and fish hogs who loaded their boats, pickups or creels with more than their share.
I first met Joe when he was running for sheriff. He was gray haired and gristle, smelled funky like dead things, and wood smoke, something I had, years earlier as a kid trapping in Alaska, grown accustomed to and now felt a fond reminiscence for.
He wanted to be sheriff and found an accomplice in me. The late night phone calls from challengers, the notes scribbled in a tight hand, denouncing the candidate were anonymous and follow-ups led nowhere and evidence of malfeasance was illusive, so I threw in. He was elected and what followed was a stream of inside information into the workings of small-town law enforcement: Busts, and drug deals gone bad, dead drunks with grass stuffed into their mouths from being thrown from cars and skipping 100 yards through hay fields, or pinned into the crotch of tree trunks, heroin dealers, hackneyed crooks and gun thieves, some of them inside the department. Blackburn, maybe because of something he learned on the back of a horse, bucked traditions and the status quo when it suited him. This was a menagerie of poetry, sidearms and quick wit.
He rode away after his term was up, worked as an investigator and then as a timber cop, something he still does, even at 79.
Through all of this though, there was something else: Blackburn and his wife, Peggy, raised many things in their time together, from kids and grand kids, steers, mules, stock and dander.
Through it all they grew maggots. They were bait ranchers, raising the squirmy little fly larva (“Take a right at the cafe and follow the flies,” Blackburn used to tell visitors) to sell to anglers, a business that grew from the dead animals, road kill and neighbors’ cows or horses where maggots cleaned the dead flesh, to an enterprise that spread from The Rockies west to the coast.
Their company, the St. Joe Bait Company is still around, and the couple still manage to make enough money from it to keep it up, despite the daily inconvenience of dipping maggots into chewing-tobacco size cans, filling orders, invoices and making sure the parcel carriers ship on time to their 60 or more vendors across 4 states.
They have help: Grandkids and family members pitch in when the couple vacation to their Mexico retreat in winter. Mostly, however, it’s Peggy filling orders (“It’s funny, nobody ever seems to show up when we invite them for pot roast and rice.”) and Joe chiming in (“I’m going to retire and raise a lot more maggots. That’s everybody’s dream, isn’t it?”).
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