Crazy Ivan


I wasn't far into the story before a familiar feeling of dread welled up in me.  I knew that this hunting trip in the desert with Crazy Ivan was not going to go according to plan.  I'm glad you survived to tell about it and see why it's so clearly etched into your brain. Thank you Kurt Dunbar for the wonderful read:  

My mother worked as a waitress in the showroom at Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe.  Occasionally, we would meet her co-workers who came over for dinner or to the many BBQs they hosted in our big pine strewn back lot of a yard.  

One memorable character was a Hungarian expat, a refugee from the failed 1956 revolt against the Soviets. Loud and larger than life, Ivan drank too much and never stopped talking.  His thick Magyar accent only got thicker the drunker he got. My folks, both casino workers, were partiers and drinkers themselves and seemed indifferent to their drinker friends’ antics, including and perhaps especially Ivan. My brothers and sisters all got a kick out of the guy and loved his visits. 

One Friday, Ivan showed up at our house. After talking to my mom for a few minutes she said, “Who wants to go hunting with Ivan for the weekend?”  My brothers and I all looked at each other and almost in unison said, “I do!”  

Apparently, they had struck a deal. Ivan could borrow our trusty four-wheel-drive International pick-up IF he took us. I don’t know how happy he was that all of us brothers had thrown in to go but if he objected or was disappointed he didn’t show it. My mom said to grab our sleeping bags and some food from the kitchen. We raided the refrigerator for some apples and the cupboard for a couple of cans of stew and chili and, serendipity, a bag of marshmallows!    

Ivan had fewer provisions: a can of beans and a package of hotdogs. A wool blanket was the extent of his camping gear. No tent.  

What Ivan did have was a beautiful Italian-made automatic 12 gauge shotgun. I had never seen such a fine gun in my life. All of the guns I was familiar with were run of the mill (literally) shotguns and rifles that were scarred, scored and worn from age and frequent use; serviceable but not showy. Ivan’s gun was a work of art by comparison. The blued metal, which looked like oil on water was etched with fancy scroll work and intricate swirls of oak leaves and acorns. The butt had a layer of inlaid ivory between the thin green felt layers of padding. The tip of the barrel had a tiny bright red glass bead for a sight.  

We only had one shotgun, a beat up and weathered side-by-side double barreled Stevens 12 gauge. Loaded with rifle slugs instead of shot, many times I had hauled that thing up mountainsides, along ridges and through the woods hunting deer with my grandfather. I had a love-hate relationship with that gun but it was all we had between the three of us brothers. Kris was too small, probably seven or eight, to handle it anyway. My brother Karl and I would have to switch off and share it.  

We packed everything into the bed of the International and headed off with all four of us stuffed into the cab.  

It was later in the afternoon and Ivan gunned the truck down the road at break neck maximum trying get some distance before it got dark. I don’t know why he was in such a hurry because he never stopped that night. To this day I am not sure where we going or where we ended up. All I remember is that the sun was setting when we passed through Reno and all of its bright neon casino lights. From there I am not sure if we went north or west. I had no frame of reference because I had never been north or west of Reno before.   

I stayed awake most of that night too. At first it was from excitement and a sense of adventure but later it was from dash-gripping terror. Ivan was not only a speeder, he had some sort of grisly vendetta against rabbits. Every time he would spot a jack rabbit in the headlights ahead on the road or even on the gravel shoulder he would swerve to run it over. A couple of times we fishtailed dangerously throwing up dust and pebble in our wake as he tried to plow down some hapless hare on the edge of the road. Crazy Ivan my brothers and I started to call him, quietly and among ourselves of course. 

 It was a frightening and exhausting night and we were all glad when the dawning light stated to illuminate the desert sky. After it was fully light, Ivan, almost certainly at randomly, turned off a narrow dirt road and plunged the truck deeper into the sprawling country-side of tall sage. To our relief he had to slow down quite a bit to negotiate an occasional washout, pothole or a rock in the road. Still, he was pushing our sturdy pick-up to the limit as we bumped and jerked our way down that dusty track. I was certain that something was going to break before too long, though it never did. That International could take a beating. It would be our first vehicle in Alaska many years later after my step-dad used it to haul a large camp trailer up the Alcan Highway to Seward, Alaska during the heyday of the oil boom and pipeline construction.  

We drove for hours until Ivan seemed satisfied with the country and started searching for a suitable place to stop and set up camp. He settled for a nice but small patch of grass next to a little mountain brook. 

It was enough of a haven to park the truck and lay out four sleeping spots for the night. I figured it was probably around noon by the time we had finished unloading the truck and laying out our sleeping bags on sage and grass mats. We even built a lean-to of willow boughs and a tarp we found that had already been in the truck. Combined with a couple of large rocks as primitive tables this set-up served as our improvised camp kitchen.  It was starting to get hot as the morning progressed into the early afternoon. This plus being overheated from setting up camp and lack of sleep us boys were ready for a rest and maybe even a nap. As I prepared to bed down for a while Ivan announced that we were going hunting, now. My experience told me that you don’t hike, hunt or beat around on foot in desert country in the prime heat of the day. Had this guy never been in the desert?  Clearly a rhetorical question. 

My brother Karl and I filled our Boy Scout canteens in the cold steam and handed them to Kris. Too little to hump the gun around, he was going to be the water boy. Ivan of course didn’t have a canteen so he used an old green Coca Cola bottle that he found under the seat of the truck. He filled it in the creek and stuck it in the back pocket of his denim jeans. I grabbed the shotgun and a pocket full of shells as we headed out into the bright day and glaring heat.   

We were looking primarily for chukar.  Sometimes referred to as partridge, this little game bird is actually part of the pheasant family of birds. It is similar in size to a quail. Like the golden pheasant (introduced from China), chukar has been introduced from its range in the Middle East and South Asia to the American west by elite bird hunters. They had flourished. Nevada was teeming with them or so Ivan had been told.  

Not following the dirt road or even a rough game trail, Ivan led us across country, hill and ridge into one thicket of sage and willow after another hoping to flush the birds out of their mid-day repose. Unlike the mad Hungarian ahead of us, chukar knew enough to stay out of heat of the afternoon. He would occasionally lean down and scoop up a rock or stick and throw it ahead of him into the brush shotgun posed at the ready to bag a feathered prize as it took flight. 

After an hour or so of this fruitless routine my brothers and I were hot and sweaty, dog-tired, and hungry. We glowering and brooded with the impatience of young boys. We hadn’t seen so much as feather.  

In Ivan’s mania to shoot some birds, the last thing he wanted was to drag around three sullen red-faced boys. “Go back to camp,” he said.  He didn’t have to say that twice. 

I think more than anything, we were worn down by Ivan’s frenetic pace. He didn’t walk as much he speed-walked, interspersed with a full jog at times. In the heat, I don’t know how he did it. He hadn’t slept or eaten either but it didn’t seem to affect him in the least. I don’t even recall him sweating. 

Once parted from the mad Hungarian we slowed our pace for the first time since we had left camp.  We paused to rest occasionally, sip some water, and take in the desert quiet and solitude. The sky was so blue it hurt your eyes. In several directions giant behemoths of rolling thunderheads towered high into the stratosphere. We could even see far off, gray cloudbursts falling from their flat undersides to the desert floor. Flash flood country I thought to myself. 

Once we cooled off a bit, we decided to not go directly back to camp. Pretty much giving up shooting anything, we explored a few canyons and arroyos while meandering our way back to camp.  

We walked out of a narrow rocky canyon that opened up into a somewhat broader canyon, almost a valley. Out sneakers kicked up dark orange dust as we walked among the endless clumps of sagebrush. It was beautiful country.  Then all of us at once heard it. No clouds were near us but it sounded a lot like thunder, and pretty close at that. But the sound was constant, getting louder and it seemed to be getting closer. Thunder doesn’t do that.  

Then, far down the canyon we spotted a dust cloud. The dust cloud was getting bigger and the thunderous roar louder by the second. It looked like the old photos I had seen in school when we studied the Dust Bowl. I remembered because I thought it cool that the Okies and Dokies called them black blizzards; massive dust storms. But the sight down that canyon was smaller and moving really fast.  And that roar!  It was heading straight for us. We stood transfixed. Then we spotted movement in the swirling tumult of the dust cloud.  


It was a herd of mustangs, and a fairly large one at that. Still heading in a beeline right towards us we began to make out more and more moving shapes in the dust as the living maelstrom approached us. It was too late to run for cover or high ground so we huddled together as tight as possible with little Kris between Karl and I. The noise now was deafening and we could feel the earth tremble beneath our feet.  

It had been my turn to carry the shotgun so as we crowded together I raised the gun into the air almost vertically. Just as it seemed the herd was going to bowl over us and trample us under their hoofs I fired both barrels in quick succession. The din from the herd around us was so loud that I only knew the gun had gone off by the jerk of the recoil. I never heard the report of those blasts and neither I am certain did the mustangs.  

Just as the wild horses were on us and our doom seemed assured, the herd parted and went around us close on each side, but never close enough to harm anything except our nerves. Before the dust even settled, the dozens of horses were around us and gone out of sight taking the thunder with them around the bend at other end of the canyon. We were covering with a thick rusty colored coating from head to toe. We patted the canyon floor off of our clothes and out of our hair as we laughed hysterically at having dodged certain death.  

It seems like a dream as I write of it over fifty years later, one those incredible random moments that will forever remain seared into my memory.    

By the way, we never did bag any chukar, much to Ivan’s disappointment.