Three Guys

Three guys in different places and points of time. They never knew each other. And didn’t have much in common. Well, one thing. But that’s the punch line, and we’ll save it…


Gene managed a carnival. The guys who worked for him had tattoos, missing teeth and great stories. Military adventures, run-ins with cops, road trips. They were on familiar terms with strippers. And liked whatever beer was on sale.

Serious as war

Serious as war

Gene had been in Viet Nam.  His eyes were squinty. His hair was grayish and neat. He had a faded tattoo on his forearm. It was a large forearm, and the tattoo looked serious as war.

He had a young second wife, purely trailer park. Tight pants, painted nails and a pack of cigarettes in her fist. One afternoon, during a storm, we gathered in the concession stand eating hotdogs, listening to Gene’s wife rant about a guy who bothered her. You never heard a woman talk so profane. She said Gene punched the guy out.

I broke it

I broke it

Gene had two grown sons who worked there. One was a body builder with long hair. He only talked about weight training. The other was lanky and going bald. He said motorcycle helmets caused his hair to fall out. He was always mad about something and talked about going into bars to pick fights.

Both sons would stop talking when Gene came around. One hot night, I broke the Ferris wheel. Forgot to lock one of the baskets and it splattered neon tubes, then jammed. I froze. Gene appeared out of the darkness and took charge. He fixed the wheel quickly, got the riders out and patted my shoulder. He said, “Forget it, kid.”


A cowboy in a rank cowboy hat

A cowboy in a rank cowboy hat

Tex was old. His legs were bent. His nails looked like they came from elephants. He wheezed, and his belly hung over his jeans. He was a cowboy in a rank cowboy hat. He lived in a world of horse manure. It was ground into him. It didn’t make him smell bad; he smelled like a stable. We knew Tex through vague family connections when I was twelve. We’d rent horses from him.

He’d sit on a crate in the stable, and when he got up you could see he was bow-legged like Yosemite Sam. We’d shake hands and his skin felt like animal hide.

Tex had been a rodeo rider and wrangler. He drank redeye and slept outside. Everyone knew that he’d rescued a rider on a runaway years ago by galloping to the horse and jumping on its head, slowing it, saving the day.

She'd stand on a horse

She'd stand on a horse

He married a cowgirl and had a little cowgirl child who grew up to be a bareback rider. In her act she’d stand on a horse like a ballerina. Tex had an old magazine cover with a picture of her on it. He nailed it to the wall in a dusty office. Nearby there was a gunbelt, holster and old Colt .45.

Tex died. We didn’t go to his funeral and never went to the stable again. At the time I thought of his bow legs having trouble fitting into any coffin. A private joke that I wasn’t proud of.


Al had a reputation as a motorcycle racer. He kept a shiny Harley under a tarp in the gas station where I worked at eighteen. I was a grease monkey, changing oil, doing brake jobs, fixing flats. My fingernails wouldn’t wash clean that year.

Sometimes you have to do something that can't be done

Sometimes you have to do something even if it can't be done

One afternoon I was working by myself. The place smelled of gas and rubber. I was eating peanuts, hoping nobody’d come in. Bored, I opened the drawers in Al’s old desk. I found photos of him at motorcycle races holding trophies.

Later that week we worked on a car that needed a wheel pulled, a stubborn chunk of rust. I learned that sometimes you have to do something, even if it can’t be done. All the guys tried to remove this wheel. We poured solvents. We heated it, cooled it. Nothing worked.

After we gave up, Al took charge. He got a mallet and kept hitting the wheel. It wouldn’t move and he kept hitting. No talk. He hit the wheel while some of us watched and others drifted away. He hit it forever. He could still be hitting it.

But the thing is, he hit it until it started to move. Then he hit it until it came free. And he went to the cooler for a beer. We all had beers.


What did these three guys have in common? You might be thinking: they were take-charge types. Gene fixing the carnival ride, Tex stopping a runaway horse, Al hammering a stuck wheel until it moved. Well, that’s one thing. But not what stands out the most.

Here it is: They all had a specific knowledge of wildlife that was surprising for such guys. They weren’t bird watchers in the traditional sense. But they knew what they saw; they knew what was out there in the world, and they knew it by name.

Not a buzzard

Not a buzzard

The tattooed veteran with the profane wife once said there was a Barn Swallow’s nest in the ticket stand. The old cowboy didn’t call a Turkey Vulture a buzzard; he called it a Turkey Vulture. The mechanic liked to walk near a pond in Michigan where he said there were Black Terns, a fairly uncommon bird.

Talk about uncommon birds. Gene, Tex and Al. They weren’t the type to join clubs. But they had life lists in their heads. Tex said he’d seen a California Condor out West when they were still wild. Al talked about a “snake bird” in a Louisiana  bayou, correctly calling it an Anhinga.

A footnote: Why isn’t this piece of writing in our “Stories” category? It reads like three little stories, with characters who seem a bit larger than life. And there’s a story-like point to the whole thing. Well, the reason that it’s in our non-fiction “Viewpoints” category is that it’s all true. Those three guys really existed and were just the way you see them described here.

4 Responses to “Three Guys”

  1. Tim George says:

    Dear Two-Fisted Bird Watcher: This is only the second month that I’ve enjoyed your website and stories. My father, who lives near me, knows how much I enjoy observing and photographing animals, birds and all of nature. He somehow found your site and shared it with me. I’m hooked! I love it. Thanks for this site. I hope I can submit a few of my photos sometime!

  2. Two-Fisted Bird Watcher says:

    In answer to your question, Eileen, the guys in the piece weren’t available for photos so these are approximations, but they’re uncanny; they look just like the guys as I remember them. Thanks for your comment.

    Mike at Two-Fisted Birdwatcher

  3. Eileen says:

    Thanks for this. I too have felt that unexpected flash of kinship when someone without apparent “nature nut” tendencies reveals that quiet awareness. It’s well worth writing about.

    The photo portraits are great… are they in fact your characters?

  4. Mike says:

    This is a truly enjoyable piece of work. I was so interested in the personalities you were describing that I forgot to expect the link back to birding at the end!

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