The Hills Are Alive

An obscure old folk album reveals a place where stories--both spoken and sung--are priceless heirlooms

"I remember down here I was riding down through here one time and one of those big ol' African lions crossed the road. Evidently, he'd escaped from the circus . . .

"I just don't care for cities, period. I was down in Mesa in 1918 when they had a flood in the Salt River, and we watched that guy swim out there and get them two kids that was on an island, to gain his freedom from prison. They'd let him go free if he did it. That river was about 10 miles wide. He made it . . .

"Out here at the ranch one time I didn't have a rifle with me, I was riding down to the tank, it was about a half mile down there, and there was a native mountain lion right along ahead of me. He circled back, and ol' John Anderson, he had a ranch out here, the lion crossed the road going the other way and he killed him. He had him hanging there in the tree, and I found out something else I didn't know at that time--crows wouldn't eat that lion. Ordinarily, anything that's dead, they'll eat it. He hung there in the tree and just shriveled up . . .

"I think the last wolf that was seen in this part of the country I killed. He'd been seen two or three times about five or 10 miles from here. I heard he was running loose, started carrying a rifle, I saw him and I finished him. And I was reading in the paper a while back where they was trying to put them wolves back, and anybody that wants 'em back is crazy. That's completely crazy. You find a thousand-pound horse that's been hamstrung, about that much eaten out of one hind leg and just left alive and the wolf is gone. They're not like lions, they won't eat it up, they just take what they want and go hunt another one . . .

"I used to chase wild horses. Boy, that was the most fun anybody could ever have, chasing wild horses."

I ask the last cowboy what he liked so much about that.
"Oh, just the breeze," he says, "and to watch 'em run, I guess."

To get from Don's place to Leonard Kizzar's is easy. Down the road a ways, turn a couple corners, look for the house painted pink and brown. Can't miss it. I didn't.

I opened the front gate as the sun was setting, making the brown and pink look like a piece of old candy. Knocked on the door, and there was Leonard. At 65, he has a full head of white hair, and a pencil with a turquoise eraser sticking out of his shirt pocket. We sat down in the living room amid the toys and family photos. He didn't switch on any lights at first, and the room slowly turned from gold to amber to dark brown as he spoke.

"When I was about 6, we lived in a boxcar up by Standard [the local sawmill that burned down in '36]. This one here, it was sitting right on the railroad track on a siding. They'd haul logs by to McNary and there was two of these big black steam engines. When I'd see those locomotives go by, why, I said to myself, 'One of these days, I'd like to drive a locomotive.'"

That eventually came to pass; he's been piloting trains for Santa Fe since '64--"How lucky can you be?"

"When I was growing up, Dad taught us to play guitar," Leonard says. "I was about 10 or 11 when he taught me and my older brother, Jack. And he taught us to chord the banjo. He tried to teach me to play the fiddle, but I'm not much of a fiddle player.

"Dad played quite a bit. He'd get home from work in the evening and he'd say, 'Let's sit down and play a tune.' We'd entertain ourselves for three or four hours."

The Kizzar home is not lacking for musical instruments. Leonard has two guitars that his wife Sammy bought for him (one when they were married in '48, the other 20 years ago), a mandolin, his father's fiddle, and a couple harmonicas.

At this point, Sammy comes out of a back bedroom where she's been hibernating with a migraine, and their daughter Lana--which is pronounced Len-AY--joins us with her baby boy, Nathan. Lana's real name is Ethel, but Sammy says, "There were too many Ethels around here." Where did they get "Lana"? "I don't know," she shoots back. (Through tragic irony, 17 years ago, Lana was one of the children on the school bus that hit and killed Van Holyoak).

We all sit back and listen to Leonard talk some more.
"I really haven't had the time to play," he explains. "Until I got ready to retire, why, I was working 12, 14 hours a day. Eating, sleeping and going to work. I told my wife, 'Forty years ago, I could have got up and wouldn't have minded this. But I'm just getting tired of it.'"

Sammy takes baby Nathan, Lana leaves the room and returns with her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Todd, who is a little cranky as he had some intense dental work done today. He curls up in his mother's lap and looks at me sideways with interest, suspicion, pain and boredom.

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