Proud to be Primitive

The first thing I learned about sheep is that despite their appearance, they are not the friendly, gentle animals that you imagine them to be. Buddy Number Nine, or just Buddy as he and his eight predecessors were known, was a powerful animal that had a penchant for head-butting the rear ends of city-bred journalists who were dumb enough to turn their back on him. God help you if he got a run at you. The little bastard could hit.

He was also not that easy to control on the end of a leash. Yeah, that’s right, a leash. I was on a road trip with Buddy’s owner, Bob, and while at a truck stop outside Lodge Grass, Montana, I decided to give Buddy a break from the cramped bed of Bob’s 1974 three-quarter-ton Chevy, a.k.a. The Green Jinx. Lodge Grass, you should know, is not the kind of place you find candy-ass, horse-whispering, Robert Redford types. It’s the real deal, full of Skoal-chewing cowboys whose idea of a good time undoubtedly includes laying ole’-fashioned, boot-stompin’ beatings on people who wear sandals and walk sheep on leashes. To make matters worse, Buddy was yanking at the lead so hard that he was pulling me forward in small, humiliating hops. There was just no stopping him.

Rednecks looking for trouble, however, were of no concern to me; I was with Bob. Bob does not wear a sign around his neck that says “You better not fuck with me,” but he doesn’t have to. He’s got something of a crazy look going, with crazy hair and a crazy beard—a lingering rebellion against his days in the US Marine Corps. More important, he’s a big man. Past his prime, sure, but a huge pot belly and arms the size of legs go a long way. Also, his attire is, well, unconventional. Oftentimes he wears a crude shirt made of brain-tanned buckskin and an island-print sarong. When it’s really hot, he wears the sarong and, he proudly declares, nothing else. Anyone foolhardy enough to challenge him on this would soon regret it because Bob will readily present irrefutable evidence in his favour.

Buddy, I should also mention, was blue. Bob dyed him blue. (Don’t ask him why, he just always has with every Buddy and he can’t remember how it started.) We are not talking just kind of blue, like a Dun rooster, no. Commercial dyes are extraordinarily effective on white wool; Buddy was a wonderfully electric blue, startling, like a prairie sky on a clear winter day.

So you can understand that our appearances at gas stations, beer stores and every McDonald’s from Manhattan, Montana, to Fort Caspar, Wyoming, were something of an event. Just The Green Jinx herself was an attraction. The side-view mirror had been broken some time ago, so Bob had duct-taped a bathroom mirror on top of it. The left wiper blade was being held in place by two pieces of buckskin twine. There was no right wiper blade and, judging by the deep rainbow-shaped scoring in the windshield, there hadn’t been in some time. The tailgate had to be tied shut and the windows of the camper shell had long been broken and replaced with plywood. The floor was invisible beneath a sea of hamburger wrappers, various other articles of refuse and shit-covered hay. When we packed her up for the trip I thought the chances of us making it were only slightly better than zero. Bob hadn’t even turned over the engine in a year. The tires were so cracked that we took two spares, which were themselves completely bald. Neither the speedometer nor the gas gauge worked. Jinxie also had a hole in the radiator, so we had to refill it every time we stopped for gas (which was often). Oddly, the rad didn’t leak bit by bit while we were underway. Instead, every time we cut the engine to fill up, it dropped this great steaming load of water in a dramatic, sizzling kersploosh.

Curious but guarded passersby approached us in something akin to fearful awe.  “Is that a sheep?” they would ask, stupidly.

“Yes,” Bob would deadpan. “I’m a microbiologist and I’ve manipulated the gene that codes for wool coloration in sheep.”

This usually rendered most people speechless, so they’d look in my direction, hoping, I think, that I might break the silence.

Bob, nothing if not a gentleman, always introduced me. “This is my attorney.”

You probably have some questions. I’ll do what I can to provide some answers. William R. Perkins, better known as Atlatl Bob, earns his living by making reproductions of an esoteric primitive weapon called an atlatl and selling them on his website, www.atlatl.com. He makes a model for the casual user, someone who just wants one for the fun of it (he’s shipped them around the world, including to Japan, Kuwait and the South Pole) and he also makes exacting, historically accurate replicas for clients such as Harvard’s Peabody Museum as well as private collectors (everyone from Ted Nugent to Ted Turner). In his spare time, he’s a scientist who uses engineering math and physics to interpret the designs of ancient artifacts in general and atlatls in particular. As to why Bob has a pet sheep, it began years ago when he was doing field research in grizzly bear country—he figured having a pet sheep tied to a nearby tree increased his life expectancy in the case of meeting a hungry bear. At the end of the year, Buddy Number One did end up becoming food, though not for a bear. Since then, eating Buddy—like dying him blue, like calling him Buddy—has just sort of become a tradition.

I first talked to Bob four years ago, when I interviewed him about a prehistoric man who was found with an atlatl near a glacier in the Yukon. Soon afterwards, Bob sent me one of his creations in the mail. I had read a lot about atlatls, even written about them, but I had never until then actually seen one. It looked like just a simple stick of wood, about two feet long, with a spur on the end. A dart, which is essentially a five-foot long arrow, connects to the spur. By swinging the atlatl the same way you serve with a tennis racket, it launches the dart with astonishing force. My first throw with one, at a park in suburban Toronto, sent the dart flying over 40 yards. The second one went 60. When I improved the timing of my release I was throwing darts close to 100 yards away. They stuck into the hard-packed dirt a good five inches.

When I told Bob, he said, “Shit, that’s nothing,” and laughed heartily, as he does a lot of the time. “I once put a dart through the door of an old Buick…on a good throw those darts travel over 100 miles an hour.” As further proof of the atlatl’s power, he offered an historical perspective. “Just after the last ice age, Clovis hunters used them to kill Columbian mammoths. We’re talking about an animal that stood 14 feet at the shoulder and weighed 10 tons.”

Bob’s interest in atlatls started in the early ’80s, while he was taking a course at university. In 1984, he wrote a paper entitled “The weighted atlatl and dart: a deceptively complex mechanical system.” It has since made the rounds in a variety of journals, mainly because it was the first study ever published that accurately described the genius behind atlatl design. “The stone arrowhead at the tip of the dart acts as a mass that resists acceleration, forcing the dart to flex and store energy,” Bob explained to me. “The atlatl, which accelerates the dart from behind the same way a bowstring pushes an arrow, also flexes. It’s like two springs coming together. The reason the technology lasted so long is because it worked so well.” When I told Bob that I was surprised primitive cultures invented such a complex tool, he said that I shouldn’t be. “People tend to think of primitive man as hunched-over, ass-pickin’, know-nuthin’ grunts, but they were Homo Sapiens Sapiens, just like you and me. There’s a statistic that says there is a certain percentage of geniuses in any given population. That’s just as true today as it was back then.”

The early years of Bob’s atlatl business were what you could safely call quite lean. He and his friend Paul lived in the Gallatin Gateway Hotel, outside of Bozeman, Montana. To be precise, they lived in the men’s washroom. “Hotel management had converted one of the shower rooms to a small apartment. It was cheap. And I lived 20 feet from a bar.” For extra money he worked as a bouncer, also at the hotel. “Hunter S. Thompson came to give a talk once. He signed one of my law books,” Bob recalls. “He put, ‘Even Jesus hated lawyers.’ He was drunk before he ever got on stage and people jumped him and took his cigarette holder and someone bit him on the hand. I rushed him away, but not before he hurled a bottle of Beefeater’s gin at some guy’s head.”

From the men’s room of the Gallatin Gateway, Bob continued to write papers and refine his atlatl designs. “The model we sold in the first few years was called the Mammoth Hunter. We applied for a patent just so we could stamp it ‘Patent Pending.’ It was good for long distance but it was a crude design. Since then I’ve adopted a different pattern, based on an atlatl found in cave in Nevada. I call it The Warrior.” Bob figures that he’s made more atlatls than anyone alive and, for that matter, anyone who has ever lived. He’s probably right.

Not long after I received my Warrior, I got a call from Bob. “Why don’t you come with me to the World Atlatl Open?” he asked me. Held every year at Fort Caspar in southwestern Wyoming, the World Atlatl Open was founded in 1980, which makes it the first atlatl competition in recorded history.

“I won in 1986,” said Bob. “We’ll make it a road trip.”

And so it was on a crisp day in early June that I arrived in Bob’s hometown of Manhattan, Montana, population 1,400. From the conversations I’d had with him on the phone, I figured he wouldn’t look like your average white-lab-coat-wearing scientist. I knocked on the door of his small house beside the railway tracks and crazy-haired Bob, shirtless, wearing his sarong and grinning from ear to ear, opened the door.

“Welcome!” he boomed, holding out his hand.

As I went to shake his hand, I noticed his fingernails were painted a bright metallic blue. I stepped in, smiling politely, and seriously wondered whether I would ever be heard from again.

Two days later, Bob and I were in The Green Jinx, humming down the highway outside of Livingston, Montana. A postcard sky of clouds was on the move above us, casting shadows that drifted across endless plains. The great Yellowstone River followed us on the left. To the right, far in the distance past fields dotted with cattle, a mile-long freight train skirted the edges of low mountains. Smoking Camel Filters and butting them out on the dash, Bob filled me in on his family history. “My great grandparents came from Ithaca, New York, and crossed the Bozeman Trail in a covered wagon in 1866. That was before army forts were built along the way. The wagon trains before and after theirs were attacked by Indians.” Bob had shown me their portraits and diaries back at the house. By all accounts, they had found the frontier full of adventure. “My great grandfather once rode with the vigilantes and hung highwaymen from big cottonwoods. And my great grandmother once cooked pies for the local Indian chiefs.” Montana, it seems, has always been a place where people go to lead different lives.

The people we found at the World Atlatl Open were also different. They came from all over the West; Utah, Colorado, Nevada. Some of them were mountain-men reenactors, dressed in buckskin from head to toe. Others actually were mountain men, people who lived in teepees year round, burned animal-fat lamps during the winter, made their own clothes. There were also professional archaeologists here just for fun, local kids, and people who were just driving by and decided to stop to see what all the fuss was about.

My hopes of returning home with the glory of the world title were dashed right from the get go, after I twice missed a hay bale with a mammoth spray-painted on the side from only 25 feet away. Bob did much better, but he wasn’t up to his winning form of 1986 and in the end, a slim, pony-tailed, geeky-looking man from Colorado took the honours. Everyone, however, had lots of fun and if they were anywhere near Bob, they may have even learned something.

“Well,” said Bob after the event was over, “we didn’t win the event, but at least we’re still at the top of the food chain.”

That’s always been Bob’s favourite expression, probably because he’s never lost interest in the remarkable invention that put us there.