Book Cover

Extended Entries to the ASDM Scrapbook

Dinner Guests

Guess who's coming to dinner! In the spring of 1953 I knew that dinner guests would include Bill Carr, two baby bobcats, three round-tailed ground squirrels, and arriving fashionably late after dark, a ringtail. The guessing had to do with whether a visiting photographer, friend, or naturalist might also be present at the Museum and hungry at the end of the day.

The Museum had been open for only four months when my husband, Merv, thanks to Bill Woodin's recommendation, had been hired to work at the Desert Museum. It was a job opportunity he eagerly accepted. The salary was low, but a house to live in — the small one up by the old Mountain House stables — came with it. There was one condition to Merv's employment. Bill Carr requested that he be allowed to eat dinner with us each evening. There was no food concession at the Museum at that time and Bill, living in small quarters in the main Museum building, was not inclined to cook for himself.

Poor Bill! He hadn't asked for recommendations or directly inquired about my ability to cook. Just previously, while Merv had been in graduate school in Berkeley and I'd been teaching school, my cooking had developed along the lines of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and frozen pot pies. I attempted to improve my culinary skills and Bill, with few choices available to him, bravely hung in there at dinnertime.

Merv had one day a week off, never on a weekend as that was when the Museum was most heavily attended. On that one free weekday we traveled the dirt road over Gates Pass and took care of errands in town, most notably grocery shopping for the week. One did not lightly undertake dashing into town from the Museum in those days, so an item forgotten was an item we usually did without for the next week.

There was no freezer at the Museum for food for humans. In our house there was a small refrigerator with a miniscule ice cube freezing compartment that sufficed for the week's perishable food storage. We ate dinner at a small table in the kitchen next to an old-fashioned gas water heater that stood exposed and rumbling in the corner. The flame in the heater tended to expire rather regularly. One afternoon I attempted to relight it and was tossed across the room by the resulting explosion. That night at dinner I wore singed eyebrows and some crisp bits of hair along my forehead.

Bill Carr was highly intelligent, extremely well read, and devoted to developing the Museum. After dinner the three of us often sat in our living room discussing animals, the desert, plans for the Museum, and good books. Bill introduced us to all kinds of wonderful books, told stories about his earlier experiences, and, I recognize many years later, exerted a major influence on our lives.

I often fed the two tiny bobcat kittens after our dinner as we sat visiting. These were Whiskers and Buttons, orphan brothers who needed a home and had been left at the Museum. Their dinner feeding was only one of several held during the day. They eagerly drank formula from regular baby bottles and spent much of their babyhood sleeping in a padded box under a warm light bulb. As they grew larger their noisy scuffles, chasing, and roaring pell-mell across the old living room couch, chairs, and the people who sat thereon, enlivened our after dinner conversations.

Tweet, Twitter, and Twirp were baby round-tailed ground squirrels. Tweet and Twitter were siblings. Twirp came from a different family line and was younger and smaller. The trio lived in a large, floor-model, glass-fronted snake cage, which had its own warm light bulb and was located in the living room. Fortunately at that time we were without captive reptiles and the cage sides were too high to allow baby bobcat access. The round tails nursed from a doll bottle in the beginning, then advanced to more adult food. After a time we offered them freedom out a living room window, the base of which was almost at ground level. We supplied food there and took pleasure in seeing them occasionally — at least we chose to believe we were truly seeing the original Tweet, Twitter, and Twirp and not look-alikes (round-tailed ground squirrels do tend to closely resemble one another).

The ringtail was a wild visitor who often appeared in the early evening, sitting outside a window and rather daintily partaking of any food we had placed there for her. From our respective sides of the window glass the ringtail and we often surveyed each other for relatively long periods of time. I talked to her and she seemingly listened with her alert-looking ears and gazed back with large expressive eyes.

One of our unexpected dinner guests was Lewis Wayne Walker. He and Bill Carr had been friends in the East many years before. Lew was in California, learned of Bill's establishment of the Desert Museum, and came over to visit him. One spring afternoon a noisy motorcycle roared past our front door and stopped in the barn/shop/stable area raising a cloud of dust. Lew had arrived. Over the next seventeen years he proved to be a major figure in the development of the Desert Museum.

Bill Carr soon let me know that we should invite Lew to dinner that night, warning, "But he only eats steak!" Merv and I made as fast a trip as possible into town and dutifully purchased steaks. When the guests arrived for dinner Lew announced he would barbecue the meat. Lew was an outstanding all-round naturalist, an excellent ornithologist, and a very fine photographer. He had been a Marine during World War II, had written an official survival guide for U. S. servicemen in the South Pacific, and had been exploring remote Baja California and the islands in the Sea of Cortez since the 1930's. Therefore it should not have surprised us when he announced that the very best fuel over which to cook steaks was peccary dung.

Certainly there was no shortage of that item at the Museum, so outside our back door Lew built a small fire, seasoned it well with his preferred fuel, and cooked the steaks. They were delicious. My culinary contributions for the rest of the meal were far less memorable. Of the four people, two bobcats, three round-tailed ground squirrels and one ringtail that came to dinner that night, it was painfully obvious to me that the guest cook far outshone the individual ordinarily assigned that role.