The story was one that a newscaster relates with a knowing smirk and the slightest wink, as if trying to subtly dislodge a gnat stuck under an eyelid, yet what he said terrified me that night and the next day. The reds and greens of the early ‘70s color TV, slightly off and slightly too intense no matter how often Grandpa fussed with it, gave the anchor an extraterrestrial pallor that, coupled with the helmet hair favored the nation over by newspeople, made it seem like he was beaming a message to us from some orbiting starship.
|Not how the logo looked back then|
Really though, he was just a few miles away in Mason City, Iowa. One might call the TV studio a cornfield starship I suppose, a high tech machine used to transport world and national news to the farmers in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, as well as the daily ag reports by which the locals could chart the future health of their economies, but this story concerned something anomalous, a word I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know back then.
I can’t remember if I was sitting on the floor between Grandma’s and Grandpa’s chairs that night, or if I was flopped on the nearby couch watching the news. I was not all that old, maybe ten or eleven, and so I might even have been snuggled in the chair with my little grandma (as I called the four-foot something Berget Kennedy; my other grandma, Phyllis Meland, was a comparatively towering five-foot two-inch tall woman I called Big Grandma, unaware in my youthful, perhaps male, naiveté that one should never call a woman “big”). Grandpa hired me every summer for a week or two to help him on the mink ranch—strangely, or perhaps not, there was rarely any news concerning the fur market on the ag report—and in the evening, after a hard day’s work, he’d take Little Grandma and I out for milkshakes and then we’d end the evening in front of the TV watching the news. It was a great life there with Little Grandma and Grandpa Milt, even if the TV wasn’t as good as that back home on the crabgrass frontier of the inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis where I grew up. Watching the news, really? How dull, or at least it usually was. That night differed. What the newsman reported sticks with me still; it’s the only news story I ever remember watching down there.
The alien newsman, his redly glowing smirk and greenly winking eye, wrapped up the newscast that night with a story about a Bigfoot sighting along one of the highways or county roads near Mason City. At that point in my life, like many others at that point in the mid-1970s, I was an avid consumer of all manner of literature concerning UFOs, the Abominable Snowman (who I’d not yet learned to call Yeti), the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. The pocket-sized paperbacks that contained these stories were so cheaply produced that the spine cracked before you were even halfway through them and the pages, which had begun to yellow the moment light touched them, drifted loose and it was something of a frustration to keep them in order. I remember having rubber bands holding many books together. That’s the kind of kid I was, orderly. I wanted to read each word on each page in the order they were written, trusting that the truth in the stories concerning these anomalous phenomena would become clearer as each chapter wound to a close.
The newsman’s Bigfoot story, which I now can’t help but think of as having a greenish-reddish tint (there’s no tin-type sepia tones in my treasured memories), was an odd one compared to all the others I knew. Nowadays all manner of theories abound concerning Bigfoot and how he might be a humanoid or a human-primate hybrid, or even a transdimensional extraterrestrial being, but in those days most everyone thought of him as an animal, a big bipedal ape, and what the newsman reported this Bigfoot animal to be doing was something no animal ever does (except the dogs on about half the farms my grandpa took me to visit). He chased the car of those who spotted him and they, rightly frightened as my younger self understood, gunned it, pressing the car faster and faster and still the Bigfoot peered in their window and hammered on the roof of their car. They finally got the car up to sixty and left the creature behind. The newsman ended the story with a warning. “When they last saw him Bigfoot was heading north. Our viewers in the Albert Lea area should be vigilant.” That green wink.
Grandpa’s mink ranch was just ten minutes outside Albert Lea and let me tell you I had trouble getting to sleep that night. I didn’t hear or see anything out of the ordinary, but still I suspected Bigfoot was likely nearby. I was in the Albert Lea area, and so he had to be heading my way.
While the phrase “mink ranch” calls up images of vast herds of mink roaming over open plains, tended by horse-riding “minkboys” who had to be, given the tiny necks of the not-so-large mink, extremely accurate in their lassoing abilities, the reality of Grandpa’s ranch was much more mundane. What we called the mink yard was a few fenced in acres of good southern Minnesota real estate, kind of woodsy with lots of trees under which sat row upon row upon row of mink pens. Grandpa’s herd ran to about ten thousand head of mink and that pretty much meant ten thousand mink pens as mink are not really herd animals, and prefer to live solo rather than in packs.
|The pens looked kind of like this, and yes|
it was cruel, but at the time, it was just
what Grandpa did
The pens were about three feet long with a box at one end for the mink to sleep in and a galvanized tin cup at the other that needed to be filled with water twice a day, three times when it was really hot. That was my job. Watering the mink. I moved down the rows, a hose that seemed a mile long looped over my shoulder to gain a little leverage on the weight of the mile’s worth of water I dragged behind me, and splashed water into the cups. Sometimes a mink would peer at me out of the hole in the box at the other end of the pen and some of the more aggressive ones might occasionally charge out at me, but mostly nothing happened. It was a long job watering mink. Not a lot of stimulation, nothing to really go wrong, plenty of time to think. As a ten-year old boy I’m sure I was thinking about the Minnesota Twins a lot as well as about whether I’d get a milkshake, a malt, or a root beer float when Grandpa drove us to town that evening, but that day, the next day after the reddish-green Bigfoot transmission, I thought about Bigfoot and how he must be coming my way.
He found me in the mink yard, at the far end of it, alone. Grandpa had a whole crew of men to help him feed and tend to the mink; men who gladly forfeited the watering job to me when I came to visit. The last task of the day was to feed and water the mink one more time and given their superior manpower, Grandpa and his hired men always finished long before I did. Meaning I was alone out there, a few hundred yards away from the safety of the farmhouse, meaning I was alone with my thoughts, meaning Bigfoot was there with me. The woods at the back of the mink yard were not dense and the trees were not particularly towering, but it was dark back in there, even in the full light of day. The swampy muck of the forest floor made a green stink in the August heat, the musk of the earth blended with the humid stench from the hog farm on the other side of the woods into a thick cloud of yuck. Not that Bigfoot would notice. My books said he smelled awful and could I be sure, really sure, that what I smelled was swamp muck and humid hog shit and not Bigfoot. At that moment I wasn’t so sure, but rather than test the air I speeded up. Better to finish the job quickly than risk an encounter with that big hairy smelly something that had chased a car in Iowa.
The mink pens stretched in a long row in front of me and the sight line they made, there at the very end of the mink yard, pointed straight into the woods. Late afternoon sun cut through the dark at the top of the trees, spilling some of that golden farmland light into what was otherwise twisted and scrubby and dim. A blue so vague it was kind of gray shone in thin strips between the trunks of the trees, the sky over the field on the other side of the woods. In the space of about ten strides I shifted from a brisk jog into a full bore run. The newscaster’s report swelled inside me. They hadn’t got away till they hit sixty! Splashing water recklessly into the tin cups, I ran so hard that I couldn’t hear the creature I was now certain was there. I couldn’t hit sixty, but I would get as close as humanly possible.
|Ostman told his story|
Risking a glance toward the woods I saw nothing, but the stink was dense and he was paralleling my steps I knew, keeping just inside the treeline, just out of my sight, a clever hunter. The story of Albert Ostman leapt to mind. He’d been kidnapped by a family of Sasquatch back in the ‘20s and held captive for days or weeks, I couldn’t remember, and the length of his captivity didn’t matter when everything you wanted—good TV, orderly books, doting grandparents—was soon going to be lost to you.
I thought about ditching the hose and turning tail for home, but I couldn’t let Grandpa down. He had hired me, was paying me to do a simple job so there could be no quitting. I moved as quick as possible, damned if lugging a thousand-yard hose didn’t slow you down some, making my way toward the last few pens, right at the very back of the mink yard where one of the farmhands had scrawled “THIS IS WHERE THE DINKS HANG OUT” on the fence in grease pen, because it was there that the dinks did hang out when the guys stopped to take a leak. On any other day I would have stopped and taken a quick whiz just to sanctify what the real farmhands had long sanctified, but not today. What if Bigfoot caught you with your dink out?
I was almost done, nearing the end of the row. The stink was still thick in the air around me and I was still moving too fast to do a good or even adequate job, but damned if I was going to stop now—and then, quick as I thought it, I was pulled up short. Jinxed myself. The hose caught on the edge of something, not pinched because the water still ran, and I was left four or five pens short of the end. I was too scared to even curse and no matter how hard I tugged, the hose wouldn’t budge. The woods threw long shadows away from me and rather than running back and freeing the hose, I put my thumb over the end of it and arced a spray of water that managed, I believe to this day, to fill the last few remaining cups better than the previous couple dozen had been filled.
I dropped the hose as soon as I was sure the last mink was watered and booked for the house, slapped the spigot handle at the wellhead closed as I sprinted past, vaulted the gate rather than waste any time opening it, and ran straight into the kitchen where Little Grandma asked me what I was doing.
“Just running,” I lied. She knew I liked to run and it was the easiest way to explain why I was panting and flushed and sweaty.
Evidence was crucial in those Bigfoot and UFO books, a plaster cast of a footprint or a blurry photograph added a layer of authority to an experience, and I had nothing but my own labored breathing to offer in testimony to what had taken place, to Bigfoot’s presence in that swampy woods. Little Grandma might believe me if I told her, but grandparents believe things of their grandchildren that rational people never would, and if I were to call the TV studio my story would become a good night tale for sleepy farmers. A green smirk and a red wink at the end of a long day.
“Just running,” I said again, my breath still coming in quick gasps. The lie, I knew, was easier to believe than the truth.