A Year in a Truck: Big Rapids Community Library Talk

Big Rapids

Sixth Annual Festival of the Arts

February 20, 2013

5,160 Words

Big Rapids Community Library

Joseph Heywood: A Year in a Truck

Much of this winter has given us the sort of weather conditions Yoopers sometimes call Clear-and-Still — clear up to our butts, and still snowing.

It’s great to be among book-lovers.

But not everyone feels so positively about books, and let me share a little story with you to illustrate this other reality – one we book folks need to bear in mind at all times.

My friend, an English professor at Western Michigan University, had a student who excelled in English and was approaching his senior year.  The professor felt that this student ought to seriously consider seeking advanced degrees in English.

  My friend mentioned this to the student, who admitted he was interested, but also certain his father would never go for it. My friend said,, “Why don’t you bring your dad around for coffee and  let me talk to him.” The student agreed… albeit reluctantly.

            The day arrived and my friend greeted the student and his father and proceeded to tell dad what a fine and gifted student  his son was, a fine writer, an exquisitely perceptive reader, and the possessor of a wonderful eye and ear for characters and stories and language.

My friend concluded that he was certain the boy would easily secure a Ph.D in English and have a fine and rewarding academic career teaching college students.

            The father said not a word  until this moment, when he leaned forward,  elbows on  his knees,  fists clenched white, squinted his eyes and declared, “Books…..is…..lies.”

True story: Make no mistake: There are many folks in this country who share the man’s view, and do not share the love and interests of people sitting here.  There is another group of people who think books are fine – as long as the views and opinions in the books agree with what folks already believe, otherwise they too are all lies.

In revolution one of the first things that happens is that one  side burns the books of the opposing  side. Sad but true, and those forces are always among us. Yes, even in America. For all our lip service to free speech, there are a lot of Americans on both extremes of the political spectrum who believe free speech belongs solely to them and those who believe the way they do.

Right here let me stop jawing and issue a public service announcement. Please pay very close attention if you are in the least bit interested in fishing for trout Above the Bridge.

Ready? If you come up to my country, and if you are extremely lucky, and if you are immune to blackflies, and no-see-ums and pine beetles (whose bite approximates a lit cigarette tip pressed to flesh) and mosquitos and hornets and wasps and if you don’t mind rubbing  noses and other body parts with bears and wolves and moose,  and if you are lucky beyond belief,– then the very, very few trout you may find will be very, very small. And you should bear in mind that every good U.P. trout crick has a large extended family of cannibals living nearby and treating that body of water as their own. This keeps the trout population up by keeping the fisherman population down. To summarize UP fishing: very, very few trout, very, very small trout, many, many hungry cannibals.

This has been a public service announcement – solely for my own self interest.

I’ve been an author for almost three decades,  and during that time my reputation has soared from internationally unknown to regionally obscure, and most recently I have been tagged as a  “local author.”

This last one sort of escapes me: what is a local author? Do the Detroit papers call Dutch Leonard a local author because he lives in Birmingham? Is William Kennedy a local author to the Albany media? Are Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer local authors by the New York City press?

My work is now in 17 or 18 languages and I’m local? Who wouldathunk it?

The truth is that fame is vapor — that foggy breath we exhale when the temperature is ten degrees and hair freezes in our nostrils. It has no more value than that.

Privacy, solitude, and invisibility are what most writers seek.

Lonnie and I live in Deer Park from May through October. Deer Park is 35 miles north of Newberry. Our 288-square-foot cabin is 200 yards through the woods from Lake Superior. Local folks up there protect our privacy.

If you stop at the Deer Park Lodge store and see all my books for sale, the owners will tell you they don’t know us and have no idea we summer up there.

We love and appreciate having our own community cocoon.  We can fish and beachcomb and write and think and make art for six months with almost no interruption. By choice we have no TV, no radio, no DVDs, no MP-3, a computer (which is only intermittent at best) , and only the weekly Newberry News — when we remember to buy it so that I can read the horseshoe league standings. Our mail is delivered once a week, on Fridays, unless it’s on Saturday. What difference does a day make?

Our six-month summers pass as if we were on furlough on another planet — which in some ways we probably are.

Occasionally something funny happens.

Two years ago I was out with an officer in the UP during the houndsmens’ bear season and we encountered a crew with 5-6 trucks and more than a dozen individuals and we could hear in the distance some of their dogs singing as they chased a bear.  My young partner jawed with the hunters, and I  stood quietly beside him. On the other side of my partner  there was an old guy with a snow white Santy Claus beard, a Richard III  bent back, and soul-less Dick Cheney eyes and he leaned over, and looked  up at my partner and, out of the blue, said, “Who do you think YOU are, Grady Service?”

I choked. My partner didn’t miss a beat and said, “Nah, he gets more women than I do.” Everyone roared.

We  returned to our truck, got in, drove a mile out to the main gravel, stopped, looked at each other and broke down laughing. If he had told them who I was, we would have been there schmoozing for an hour!  So it goes for the “local author” 500 miles from home.

Not being recognized is wonderful gift.  Back in Portage and Kalamazoo I’m rarely recognized, except by friends. Most of my neighbors don’t even know I am a writer.  But up in the north woods, presumably where it should never happen, I get recognized a lot more than you might think.

One morning I was gassing my truck at the Happy Rock Shell in Gladstone and a woman walked by, stopped, backed up, stared at me,  waggled her finger,  yelped, “Hey, when’s  that next Grady Service story coming out?”
Never saw her before. Or since. No name, no introduction, just where the hell is  your next book?

Once in a while you get the right ship – wrong crew situation. One morning in Portage, an old gent ambled up to the garage where  I was  tumbling agates and said to me with a dopey dog smile, “I love your Great Lakes ship stories.”

I said, “I’ve never written a Great Lakes ship story.”

He frowned, and yelled at me:  “Yes you have! I’ve read them!”  Then he stalked away muttering to himself and shaking his head.

Or the time Lonnie and I were fishing on a river up north and two drift boats floated past and as they get abreast of us somebody yelled, “When’s the next book?”

I look like Methusalah, and officers sometimes use my appearance to their advantage. For example, we go to a house where we have some inside information suggesting we look for certain irregularities. We park the truck and I start wandering around, mouth hanging open, looking lost.

If the property owner objects, my partner yells, “C’mon dad, you you know you can’t  be doing that.” Then he turns to the landowner and says, “Sorry my dad  has the CRS. It does him good to take a ride with me once in a while.”

Okay, this maybe pushes limits, but it’s also funny. And I’m really good in  the role of doddering old mouth-breather.

Another time one of our conservation officers took me along to interview a hunter about an illegal deer and introduced me as Detective Grady Service, whereupon the  man hung his head, and whined, “Oh shit, now I’m really screwed.”  He then confessed to everything without a single question being asked.

He didn’t strike me as a reader.

Over the past baker’s dozen years I have had the privilege of accompanying conservation officers around the state at a rate of about a month a year, mostly in the UP, but all around, including downtown Detroit for silver bass runs on Memorial Day weekend, and salmon runs in downtown Lansing on the Grand River. This amounts to more than a year on patrols in every kind of weather over every possible kind of terrain, facing an unimaginable array of fools and bad guys with so many cockamamie excuses for their off-law excursions that it boggles my mind.

Now if I were seeking kudos for my work – and all artists are – I’d want something like the time a critic once said of Paul Cezanne: “He’s  so good he  can paint bad breath! That’s one hell of a compliment. I have high opinions of Cezanne and painters in general. Cezanne advised that, “A work of art which does not begin in emotion is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftmanship and technique are in the middle.”

Let me say here that in my view the imagination that drives art is the same that drives science. The processes are similar. All creative efforts of homo sapiens share common elements: Be you scientist, engineer, painter, sculptor, photographer, mathematician, dancer, composer, musician or philosopher you are at work making new things, either wholesale new or new takes on something familiar.

Imagination is the driving force for all human intellectual advancement. Without imagination and progress in thinking our species will wither and die, and along the way reduce us to just another beastie in the universe’s bestiary.

Yet in our schools  why is it that we treat creativity like it is the purview solely of the arts?  This is wrongheaded, counterproductive thinking.

Getting to the final product in any human endeavor invariably involves a lot of trial and error, which is why eliminating certain art curricula actually hurts science programs, in the sense that it eliminates a great source of practice in critical thinking.

Let me explain: Art is one the few endeavors where a student can see the immediate consequences of  their choices. I’m not talking here about getting the answers “right” on a long division quiz. That’s an either-or deal. I’m talking about complex problem-solving, like composition in art, which requires a dance through multiple principles and elements: contrast, emphasis, balance, unity, pattern, movement and rhythm, etc. Each of these  principles then involves multiple elements, e.g. contrast  looks at values, colors, textures, etc.

My brother in law once asked Lonnie how she could grade a painting. “It’s either good or not good, you like it or you don’t, right?”

Wrong. She patiently explained and he was flabbergasted. Graduated from a top private college, successful career in business, just turned 60 at the time and he had absolutely no notion of what art meant or was made of. There are lots of people like him, just like people that think “all books is lies.”

What am I trying to say? Einstein’s  breakthrough theoretical concepts derived from what he called mind experiments, not columns of  numbers on a page, but pictures and images in his head  as he tried to visualize to help him better understand what it was he was thinking, something he could not adequately capture  with more traditional scientific methods of proof.  Math was used to confirm the conclusions of what he  created as a picture in his mind.

If you study major science moments, you will find a similar pattern in almost every one of them. Yet our so-called educators and politicians try to divide science from art.  A

Worse: We let them.

I spent 30 years translating science and medicine into lay terms for the media. And I was an instructor navigator in the USAF, flying around the world at 600 mph with no more than a sextant and compass to  find my way. So, I have a lot of technical competencies, but I also paint, and draw, and write.  I know science and such, but I prefer others things.

I insist that art and science both employ the same mental tools and reinforce and multiply each other. I pray educators and voters will someday figure this out and that voters of future school mileages will demand integration of the areas, not segregation and a class system which doesn’t work now and never has.

Now, I also think that imagination and creativity are genetic. You are born with  an innate ability or you are not – like a sense of direction in the woods. Those born with none of this cannot have it installed like software in the human black box. But most of us have some modicum of imagination, and that can be encouraged and developed.
Some of imagination is what I’ll call original, as in entirely new thoughts. Most imagination is adaptive, that is, a way of looking at old things in new ways. I believe original imagination is rare and adaptive imagination widespread in almost everyone.

Those who are born with either or both must exercise it to make it grow and strengthen, or we risk losing it.

You’ll find none of these thoughts in my writing.

Let me say here I’m a lot more comfortable in a truck crawling around the woods and rooting out bad guys than plopped down and drooling in front of an audience.

In my mind a book is a private thing, not a social event. It is made in solitude, not by committee or  social parties.

I accept there are good reasons for authors to show  their mugs in public once in a while to just let people know there’s a person behind the name on a cover. But my relationship with you as the reader is pretty narrow, involving only the book I write and not the kind of person I am, or the kind of person you are.

For example: What do we care if Mark Twain was a jerk? We didn’t don’t know him and won’t ever have  the opportunity to know him personally. When we read Huckleberry Finn or  anything he wrote, that’s all that matters. Mark Twain being a good guy or a social bore doesn’t change the quality of what is in his books, and what he gives to us with the words he wrote. Note that I said gives and not gave, because while Twain may be dead, his work is quite alive and flourishing.

Heck, if you’re L. Ron Hubbard you keep getting new stuff published even though you’ve been certified worm-chow since 1986.

Novelist Anne Roiphe once advised, “You have to be a lover of books without expecting more of them than they give – a little pleasure, a little insight, a moment of escape, a deepening of your own humanity. Not much else.”

I believe that the magic of making fiction is often confusing to some readers.

Lots of people ask me: now which character in your books is you? The answer is that I gave birth to all of them, and therefore all of them possess some fragment of me.  I am none of them and I am all of them..

Characters  are created and built from imagination, not as some straight autobiographical transmutation. Many critics actually wrote that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson WERE  the real Mark Twain.

Fair enough. But why  didn’t those same critics then allow that the august Mark Twain was ALSO Nigger Jim? Or all the scoundrels and bad  characters he created?

He was none of them and he was all of them.

Imagination enables us to  make something larger and different than we are alone. Writers strive to present things to you in such a way  that the words   they employ and order will convince you  that  what you are reading is authentic, and real. That’s the goal.

This of course is the craft of the professional writer, making “stuff” seem real.

Let me remind  us that I am a novelist, which means I lie for a living. That is, I make stuff up,  I invent it.

Oddly enough, by creating such “lies,” I hope to create more truth than  simple accumulation of pure facts might  afford you.  That may seem counter-intuitive, but  while columns of statistics will tell  some people a lot, a story  that illustrate those statistics will tell  a lot more people a lot more, and stay with  them a lot longer than pure facts.

Ed Sobol, the founder of NFL Films makes this point better than I can. Ed said, “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I believe, but tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

That’s a fact.

I wrote a novel, which appeared in 2000. It was called The Snowfly and in it I arbitrarily made a character a conservation officer. After that book was done, I was looking for something new and wondered what exactly COs do.

Knowing virtually nothing, I called the Department of Natural Resources Office in Plainwell (closest one to our home) and talked to Lt. Tom Courchaine, who had just been promoted to lieutenant from  sergeant in the Soo, and was in Plainwell only long enough to wait for the  lieutenant in Crystal Falls to retire so that he could transfer up to that post, which he did less than a year later.

I explained to Tom what my interest was, he invited me up to dinner in Plainwell, and we went from there. He was funny and candid and opened the doors for me. He later retired as Captain and Deputy DNR director and is now the undersheriff in Iron County. First class man, husband, father, son, pal, game warden, cop and leader, and my friend. They don’t come any finer.

I wrote my first woods cop book, Ice  Hunter and sent it to him. He was by then in Crystal and he sent me a note telling me I was “right on” with all the diamond mining  details in the book, especially all the “secrecy and sneaking around.” He even sent me a hat from one of the exploration outfits that had slipped quietly out of town after 10 years of digging exploratory holes.

Then a woman came to a reading I had in Portage and afterwards told me her son was a CO, also in Crystal Falls, and her son wanted me to come up and do some ride-alongs. He had read the book and loved it. Meanwhile, the son, Sergeant Mike Webster, now retired, took his copy of the book to his lieutenant to tell him what a great read it was and Courchaine said, “ Yah, he let me read it.”

“You know him?”

“Well, yah, I do. Why?”

“I’ve invited him up to ride with us.”

Courchaine smiled. “Good.”

And so it began.

Some years later I reported to the office one morning, a day when I didn’t know who I would be paired with. Usually my daily schedule is set for 10-14 days ahead. It was the opening day of deer season and Tom waved me into his office.

“I’ve got a new officer. This is his first deer season. How about you show him around the county? You know it as well as the guys, and I don’t have enough  people to double up with him.”

I said  sure, and showed the officer around and he wrote eight tickets that day, which is one hell of a start and along the way he looked at me and said, “I  can’t believe they pay me to do this job.”

People ought to understand that being a conservation officer isn’t just a job to the men and women who wear that badge. It’s a calling and most of our men and women in green and gray are incredibly dedicated to protecting the resources that belong to all of us.

All of them also pay a huge personal price for their dedication.

According to studies, a conservation officer is eight times more likely to be injured in the line of duty than a cop in any other setting. This just makes sense: marked and unmarked vehicles, snowmobiles, 4-wheelers, canoes, kayaks, PWCs, power-boats, snowshoes, XC skies, even aircraft. They operate in an mind-boggling array of conveyances, each of which carries its own risk-benefit formula. Add to this: all kinds of crappy weather, terrain and the stress of the chase or search, and the injury outcome suggests itself.

Our corps of COs is elite by all measures of that word: Of 3000-4000 candidates in the state civil service pool, 3-4 will ultimately make it to duty. The program is highly selective and the training is demanding and unrelenting, 22 weeks in an academy learning law enforcement techniques, and “regular” laws, plus fish and game laws, and heavy physical training and then a year on probation after the officer arrives in their area.  Every CO is a fully commissioned peace officer. Many of them are also federal marshall and can cross borders in pursuit.

Often they will make stops and hear something like this: “But you ain’t no real cop.”

Uh, excuse me sir, but they are. In fact they probably have a larger reach and wider jurisdiction than any cop you are likely to encounter anywhere else in the state, including feds.

In training, officers learn everything from driving to shooting, to hand to hand combat and trust me if you’re in the woods, don’t make the stupid mistake of physically assaulting an officer, male or female:  The result will not be pretty — for you.

Our COs  are the best listeners and talkers I have ever met, but when if a contact turns sour, they are more than  prepared to deal with whatever it is and however it goes down.

The trick to staying safe as a cop is partly luck and a lot of situational awareness, of reading what’s really going on around you at every moment, not what you hope is happening, but what is really happening. COs  work to develop this skill at all times.

Nearly a year in a truc on patrols led me to the woods cop series with eight entries. The ninth will be out in September under the title Killing A Cold One. How many more in the series? Don’t know yet, but this certainly is not the last one.

In addition, all my CO time has led to a second series with a deputy game warden as the central character and that series began in September 2012 with a book called Red Jacket, which is set in the Keweenaw during the great and violent copper strike of 1913. The second book in this series is called Mountains of the Misbegotten and it will be out in September 2014. That one is set in Ontonagon County, same character, slightly different venue; it is set in the summer of 1914.

On our way north in two vehicles in 2011 it occurred to me that all my experience had given me more material than I could ever use in the novels. So I decided to look at short stories and between May and September wrote 30 of them, which will be published under the title of Hard Ground in April. These are what I read earlier.

Now  some of you – those not yet asleep —  may be sitting there wondering why the heck all of this interest in COs and the U.P.? Fair enough.

The great naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote in 1945: “Uncounted centuries of the primitive have left their mark on us, and civilization has not changed emotional needs that were ours before the dawn of history.”

Keep in mind that for most of man’s recorded history, wilderness was something that housed evil and needed to be tamed or crushed.

Olson adds, “More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our  primal senses beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise, which destroys sanity and equilibrium.”

A British historian also wrote, “We are literally children of the earth, and removed from her our spirits wither or run to various forms of insanity. Unless we can refresh ourselves at least by intermittent contact with nature, we grow awry.”

Reminder, only a hundred years ago, wilderness was still being feared and confronted as a monster. Profound change in a short time.

In Winchester Cathedral in England there is a stained-glass window dedicated to Izaak Walton, the patron saint of anglers. At the bottom of the window are these four words: Study to Be Quiet.

A lot of us, like Walton fish for peace and quiet, look for silences to allow long, uninterrupted though.

This has been a very short description of why I find wilderness and the outdoors so important, and why I choose to write stories in that context.


Next I would tell you that Wallace Stegner once wrote, “Lawlessness, like wilderness, is attractive.” It was also Stegner who told us, “America has always been fecund in the production of roughs.”  By “roughs” he means characters of the ilk of my Limpy Allerdyce.

Ergo, I thought I’d marry lawlessness and wilderness, and though the Upper Peninsula is, what fellow author Jim Harrison once quipped, “wilderness by default,” there’s plenty enough wild space up there to invite and nurture a culture of wrong-doing and law evasion.

I certainly don’t intend to paint all Yoopers this way. Most folks up there are law-abiding, but who the hell wants to read about someone who follows all the laws and never makes a mistake? Boring!

So, I’ve made a commitment to learn as best I can what our COs do and to chronicle that as well as I can. Spending so much time on patrols enables me to make stories seem authentic, which is my goal.

And since the DNR doesn’t have the sort of institutional memory it ought to have, I act as what writer Pete Hamill called, “The rememberer,” which,  Hamill says, is the job “the tribe” gives to writers.

Game warden stories happen outdoors, require energy, individualism, competition, physical-mental-and emotional strength, stoicism, recklessness, self-motivation and a real distaste for close-in over-the-shoulder supervision. CO’s value hard work and  are loathe to give up on a case until it is solved and properly adjudicated.

In my mind there are four different kinds of history:

First is the history we read in books.

Second is the history of local areas, known only to the locals who live there.

Third is the family history known only to extended family groups and their closest friends.

And fourth and finally, there is  our personal history, which  we know and nobody else is ever to likely know or understand.

Woods Cops must learn, know, and deal with histories of  the first three types, and they must know not only places on maps, but many more places way off maps, places reachable largely or solely on foot – after a lot of sweaty effort.

They need to know these things and places, not only with their intelligence, but with their senses and guts and intuition to help them feel menace and trickery, the history of shady families and histories and stories formal historians cannot or are unlikely to ever know.

Most everyone understands that life outdoors requires the ability to read sign: trappers, fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers,  pulpies, we all have to develop and hone these skills.

But COs, like mountain men of the mid-Nineteenth Century, develop them to a much higher and more profound level. A branch floats down the stream – natural, the work of animals, or something caused by man? Looking across a field on the far edge, just inside the tree-line, a blurred movement: wind, animal, man. If a deer is walking one way and looking  back, why, what’s it looking at? There’s several eagles in a tree: Why? A wolf’s howl is slightly off key and cut short. Usually it’s 3-4 seconds, but this was a lot shorter. Why?

Our conservation officers  must learn to read the world around them in detailed ways and this skill set often leads to having a much keener perspective on life and earth than the rest of us have.

How do I get from here to there in a snowstorm? On foot, in my truck, in summer, winter. Which radio am I tuned to: There are a millions details  swirling around, stimulating all the senses and officers must check and reference training and experience every day, must focus and constantly integrate their faculties and skills to master all conditions they face. I find this impressive.

Here’s a small example. Email is coming in over the Automatic Vehicle Locator, which is tied to GPS satellites in low earth orbit, Two cell phones in the truck, both ringing: a  police freak scanner crackling with voices; the 800 mhz is alive with a call from someone, the county radio dispatcher is calling,  a GPS voice is talking to us from the dash board, Lansing is calling on a  second 800 frequency and we have a UHF and HF monitors and Family Radio handheld and every damn one of them is barking, ringing, honking squeaking and squealing, and the officer calmly picks up exactly the right one and calmly says his call sign and all this while he is thinking, “What is that fool with the rifle doing fifty yards ahead of me on the side of the two-track?”

You have to witness and experience the intensity of  such concentration to believe it.

My bottom line message: These are very special professionals under a lot of stress. They work to protect the resources we collectively own. They take their work seriously. As do I.


Leave a Reply