So here’s an apology I’ve needed to make for a long time. I need to make amends to all of my canis lupis friends out there.
That right: “Dear wolves, I owe you an apology.”
Unfortunately, my grave misbehavior toward you occurred precisely at the moment of my first real literary accomplishment. Of course I’m talking about the publication of my first short story, for which I received $10 and three copies of the magazine. Probably you have your own copy stashed away in the attic and might have even forgotten my story, so allow me to remind you that the publication was Long John Latham’s Western Fiction Magazine and the name of my story was “The Fifth Wolf.” This happened in 1969. I was sixteen-years-old. The magazine published my story and immediately went out of business. Yes, it’s true. Sort of reminds me of Mark Twain’s description of his Civil War service: “I joined the Confederate Army, served for two weeks, deserted, and the South lost the war.” I hope my story didn’t hasten the demise of the magazine.
The story itself, given that it was purely the product of an adolescent mind, was fairly well done: two cowboys camping out had a discussion about running low on ammunition. One of the men told the other the story of how his brother had been out hunting one day only to be surrounded by a ravenous pack of wolves. The brother systematically shot the wolves one-by-one until he ran out of bullets. The “fifth wolf” was the one that got to the brother and killed him. Okay, okay. I was sixteen.
Over the years as I’ve thought back to that story, two impressions invariably come to my mind. The first is amazement (I was too young and dumb to know how lucky I was). The second is regret. The fanciful story I wrote would never have actually happened.
In 1972, while I was working as reporter/photographer for the Courier-Gazette newspaper in McKinney, Texas, I was sent out to a farm to take photos of something. There I was walking through a wooded area, looking for a landmark with nothing but a camera in my hands, when I surprised and was surprised by a gray wolf. We were never closer than twenty yards and he bounded away quickly, stopping once to see what I was doing. I remembered the story I had published and thought, “How ironic, to be eaten by a wolf, just like the brother in the story.”
Really? I had nothing to worry about. Wolves—those that are not rabid—never attack human beings. In fact, there is no record of a healthy wolf on the North American continent attacking a human being. Anthropologists suggest this is because, for thousands of years, canis lupis and homo sapiens were partners. We hunted together. It’s thought that proto humans learned a lot of cooperative group behavior by mimicking wolf packs. Odd, isn’t it, that the wolves seem to have remembered while we have forgotten?
Over the weekend as I stood outside the gray wolf enclosure at the Western Carolina Nature Preserve in Ashville, I thought about the disservice I had done to our historical teammates. Sorry about that, friends. As a whole, we haven’t done right by our old partners. At least “The Fifth Wolf” was never as well known and brazenly perpetuated as the story about that little girl with the red riding hood.