Dora and Flora: From Short Stories about John Steinbeck By Steve Hauk

Dora and Flora had in common being of the same species and general place of birth, but that was about all. Dora was stuffy and stiff, and her expression was glazed and artificial. Flora was svelte and sensual, quick and dangerous with alive, darting eyes.

Dora would end up on a British warship, much loved of men, often patted on her head for luck in times of stress or danger. Flora would make her home in a London zoo, beloved of men, women and children alike, but not to be patted under any circumstance.

This is the story of how they got to their respective homes and it begins with a friendly meeting between two men in Somerset in 1959–one a British Navy lieutenant named Wellesley, the other a visiting American writer named John.

On a late summer eve following dinner, John and Wellesley sat outside John’s thatched cottage enjoying a potent drink called scrumpy, and maybe that had an influence on what was to transpire.

Scrumpy is particularly popular in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. The name derives from the word scrimp, which means (perhaps) a small withered apple, the kind that, fermented, produces cider with a hefty content of alcohol.

After his third scrumpy the lieutenant mentioned to John a pressing concern: he served aboard the H.M.S. Puma, one of four anti-aircraft vessels named for wild cats. The others were leopard, lynx and jaguar.

Wellesley found it bloody tragic that the Puma was the only frigate of the four without a wardroom mascot–in each case, a preserved head of the animal the ship was named for. John had been a war correspondent in London and North Africa and understood.

“Why, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but I come from Monterey County in California, and there are pumas everywhere, most with bodies attached to their heads. Wouldn’t you rather have a whole body than just a head? And wouldn’t you rather have the puma alive than stuffed?’’

John had an ulterior motive for bringing up the idea of a live puma, though he didn’t tell Wellesley. Naval wardrooms were for officers only, and a puma–stuffed or alive–would require a bigger space, one accessible to the ship’s entire crew. John loved the English, but he disliked clubby class distinctions.

Wellesley said he wasn’t sure a frigate involved in military maneuvers could manage a living puma, even in a cage. But he had to admit that a whole puma, stuffed and stationary, would certainly give his ship bragging rights.

The conversation continued on this elevated plane until the cider was finished. The next day John remembered in a sketchy way what he and Wellesley had discussed. Accordingly, he wrote a sketchy letter to Jimmy, a Monterey newsman and before that the driver of a Coca-Cola delivery truck.

As best Jimmy could make out from John’s morning-after letter, John wanted him to get down to Big Sur in south Monterey County and snag a live puma in the sprawling, precipitous Santa Lucia Mountains. John seemed to think it would be as easy as picking up a quart of milk at the corner grocery store. This threw Jimmy, because he knew John knew that the Santa Lucias were rough, unforgiving country.

Jimmy had recently written a story about the artist rebels of the early Beat Generation who were moving into the Big Sur of Henry Miller and Eric Barker, despite stark warnings about the tough terrain from the two older writers. “Either you live up to it or it rejects you and sends you to a purgatory,’’ said Miller. ”Sun is not all,’’ wrote Barker, a poet. “Here we drink fog like rain.’’ Jimmy recalled scrambling up a hill on one of Big Sur’s foggy days, notebook in hand, to find young men and women watching him–hands on hips, petulant yet lordly in pose. He rubbed his eyes. When he opened them they had disappeared into the mist. If they could evaporate in an instant, what was his chance of finding a puma?

Worried, he showed John’s letter to his wife Nancy, who read it and said, “John’s been drinking something, that’s for sure–but he’s serious. He wants a puma for the British Navy. He doesn’t want you to track it or capture it, Jimmy–just coordinate the effort is what I bet he means. I’m sure he will straighten it all out.’’

As Nancy had predicted a second letter bringing clarity arrived a few days later. John described the surprising power of a scrumpy, then said he would like a stuffed mountain lion if one could be found already stuffed–not one killed for that purpose–and maybe a live puma. Jimmy grew enthusiastic and wrote a story for the newspaper, emphasizing the idea of locating a stuffed puma since capturing a live puma seemed iffy.

The readers, who still held a wartime warm spot for the British, responded swiftly. Money poured in and when a Salinas hotel owner named Jeffery happened to have a puma skin and head–a big one–on the floor of his lobby, the money was used to have the tattered hide groomed and mounted on a redwood slab. Writing about this, Jimmy realized that “stuffed puma” lacked charm. He named it “Dora,” a name similar to character in one of John’s books, and it stuck.

John–if Jimmy could get it to the San Francisco airport–had arranged to have the stuffed and mounted puma flown to London and delivered to the H.M.S. Puma mooring in the port of Plymouth. Dora was loaded into his station wagon, and for a hundred and more miles stared angrily out the back window at following drivers.

At the airport Dora was posed for photos with two stewardesses, then put aboard a Pan-American flight. As Jimmy wrote in the newspaper, Dora was thought to be the first stuffed puma to come across the Polar route by air.

John and the H.M.S. Puma crew met Dora at Plymouth. A wire service photograph showed the goateed author amidst a dozen sailors reaching out to give Dora a pat. It was such a success that John wrote Jimmy again– could a live cougar be found as well? A zoo near London had promised to provide a home for such a puma that could be visited by the crew and the general public.

Starting from scratch, Jimmy let it be known that he needed a puma trapper. Hudson, a maverick rancher and politician with backcountry expertise, told Jimmy a tracker-trapper named Mathis lived deep in the mountains above Big Sur in a cabin inaccessible by car and without a phone. “You’ll have to track him,’’ Hudson warned. ”He’s hard to find.’’

Jimmy drove down the coast. Just north of the village he pulled over and asked a man walking on the shoulder of the road if he knew of a trapper named Mathis. “Trapper? I’m from Cleveland,’’ the man replied, perspiring, mouth quivering. “I’m looking for my son. Tall, brown hair–probably spouting bad poetry, plays a guitar. If you see him, please tell him his mother cries for him every day.’’

In the village everyone knew of Mathis–he hiked out of the mountains every few months to purchase supplies, they said, but no telling when. Jimmy would have to wait around or trek in to find Mathis himself. Discouraged,  Jimmy had a beer at Nepenthe, a gathering place on a hill leaning toward the Pacific with a view to the east of the mountains. He was on his second beer when a waitress yelled to the bartender, “Here comes Mathis!’’

“Where?’’ asked Jimmy.

Peering through the bar’s telescope, she replied, “He’s a few ridges over.’’

Stepping aside, she let Jimmy have a look. He made out a big man with a walking staff making his way down the mountain.

”When will he get here?’’ he asked.

“Not tonight,’’ said the waitress. “He’ll camp tonight and show up some time tomorrow–early afternoon, I’d guess.’’

“I need to talk to him.’’

“Then stay where you are. He comes here first for a few beers.’’

So Jimmy came back the next day and waited until Mathis walked through the door and dropped his backpack and had several beers. He gave the waitresses and bartender the latest backcountry news, which included some kids–bad musicians, from the sound of it, he said–moving into a nearby canyon, disturbing the peace.

After Mathis–a big man with a thick red beard and piercing green eyes–finished his third beer, he became quiet. Jimmy broached the subject of trapping a puma for Britain’s people and navy, explaining the project in full.

“What have the British done for me?’’ Mathis asked, shifting uncomfortably on his bar stool and already looking yearningly toward the hills he had just walked out of.

“We were allies in World War II,’’ explained Jimmy.

“I’d forgotten–I don’t have a television,’’ Mathis replied.

Then he thought a while.

“I’ll tell you what–you say a puma would have a good life in that zoo? Treated and fed well and given good care? Do you know that for sure?’’

“John said it would and I believe John.’’

Mathis thought, had another beer, and thought some more.

“The puma population’s lower than when . . . what’s your name anyway?’’

“Jimmy.’’

“Well, Jimmy, the puma population’s lower than it was when this John friend of yours was here and I don’t want to deplete it more. But . . . I have this female mountain lion less than a year old named Flora.”

“Flora?’’

“Yes, I’ve always liked the name.’’

“I’ll be damned–Flora.’’

“Yes–Flora.’ Mathis was impatient and a bit puzzled, but had always found it prudent not to let his curiosity get the best of him. “Anyway, Flora’s back in the mountains hanging out around my place. I found her as a cub. She’s not much good at hunting anything bigger than a squirrel and thinks bears are playthings, so I worry if something happens to me. I’d like to think she’ll be safe . . . even if it has to be somewhere else.’’

So they talked some more and a deal was struck. Jimmy wrote John who now arranged for a living puma to be flown from San Francisco to London. Mathis wasn’t sure when he’d get back to the village because sometimes Flora took it in her head to roam, requiring Mathis to track Flora or wait for her to make her way back, no telling when.

The following week a waitress at Nepenthe spotted Mathis and Flora in the distance, Flora on a leash. The trapper and puma arrived the next day to meet Jimmy, who had borrowed his wife Nancy’s pickup truck. Mathis said he and Flora had spent their last night together under the stars, the slim puma sleeping with her whiskered chin propped on his massive chest.

Mathis gently guided Flora into a cage, which was lifted onto the bed of the truck with the help of two village men. Mathis reached through the bars and rubbed behind Flora’s ears, saying goodbye, tears running down his cheeks into his rough red beard. He mumbled something and turned to begin the long trek back into the wilderness, then changed his mind and abruptly and swiftly turned up the hill to Nepenthe–and beer.

The distressed Flora yowled after him and all the way to the airport, causing several fender benders on the way to San Francisco.

Jimmy was relieved but saddened to pass a suddenly silent Flora on to Pan-American. To lessen the pangs he assured himself it was all for the best. He tried to imagine Flora in her new home enjoying cream teas, and John, his friend Wellesley and all England toasting her with a scrumpy. It was generally thought, Jimmy concluded in the newspaper the next day, that Flora was the first live puma to fly the Polar route.

This sketch about John Steinbeck and a pair of Monterey County mountain lions named Dora and Flora who flew the North Pole is excerpted from “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life,” a collection of short stories by Steve Hauk currently under development for print publication.

Steve Hauk About Steve Hauk

Steve Hauk is a playwright, short story writer, and art expert in Pacific Grove, California. Co-curator of This Side of Eden—Images of Steinbeck's California, the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center, he has written on John Steinbeck for Steinbeck Review and is the author of two CINE Golden Eagle award-winning PBS-telecast documentaries narrated by Jack Lemmon, Time Captured in Paintings: The Monterey Legacy and The Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy. His plays include Fortune's Way, or Notes on Art for Catholics (and Others)The Floating Hat, Reflections of an American Mossad, A Mild Concussion, and The Cottages, Scenes from Lives Interrupted. Steinbeck . . . the Untold Stories, a book of stories based on real and imagined moments in John Steinbeck’s life, will be published in 2017. A former reporter for the Monterey County Herald, he has written on art for magazines and museum catalogs.

Comments

  1. eva Lothar says:

    Great story, Steve, and nifty suspenseful writing! Don’t think of sopping there: the stories are getting better and better!!! Eva

  2. The short story “Dora and Flora” is yet another example of Steve Hauk’s wonderful imagination and fine writing. This story, along with the others in his John Steinbeck series, makes for good reading. Steve is on his game and it is a pleasure to travel through his words.

    Michael Katakis

  3. Frank Wright says:

    Hi Steve!!

    You write so well. Thanks for your interest in these
    things. Please, give us some more…

    • Steve Hauk says:

      Eva, Mike and Frank,

      Thanks for the kind comments and the great things you’ve created. And Frank, thanks for preserving the character and charm of the Lab through your presence and story telling.

      Steve

  4. Steve : Loved reading your stories. Your creativity comes alive and immediately engages the reader. So.glad to have met you at your gallery earlier this week as I visited my friend Priscilla.

    • Steve Hauk says:

      Berta, this means a lot coming from you, a professor of English and literature. Very much enjoyed seeing you and Priscilla. Please visit the gallery and Steinbeck’s town again.

  5. Mike Green says:

    Hi Steve, I served on board HMS Puma twice from 1966-1967 & 1970-1972. The stuffed Puma stood outside the Radar office & would often end up with newspapers between its teeth or light bulbs in its mouth after drunken sailors had passed through. On my second trip we visited Monterey & were given the freedom of the city in honour of John Steinbeck & everyone had a fantastic time. Thanks for the article, brought back fond memories of times past.

    • Steve Hauk says:

      Mike, thanks for reading. The trip to Monterey must have been something. Hope you got to visit Ed Rocketts’ lab. If I ever rewrite the story, you’ve given me some added, most interesting material!

Trackbacks

  1. […] him find a Big Sur mountain lion as a gift for the people of England—an incident I used in a Read a selection from “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.” that I wrote about Steinbeck’s life in Monterey County and New York […]

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