Disney in Salt Lake

Written by  Jim Ure
Walt Disney and "Perri" Walt Disney and "Perri"


           Wasatch Enterprises was the cover-name chosen by Walt Disney Studios in 1953 when it commenced filming at the old Murray Smelter four miles from my home.   

           In 1955, age 15, I listen carefully to the man who hires me, Louis Devine, production manager. He has bristly white hair and a snowy mustache. He squats in his khaki shorts. In his right hand he balances a slender brush, its bristles black with lacquer. He's freshening the numbers on the license plate of his Jaguar XK130 roadster. The car is the color of split pea soup. It has not even the tiniest chip or scrape. Its tires are painted raven black and its chrome wire wheels glisten even in the shade. He inspects his work on the license plate. I see his distorted face in the mirror surface of the bumper.

            "It's very important that no one knows this is a Disney operation," he says, his eyes on the tip of the brush.

             Everyone in Salt Lake Valley knows Walt Disney is making a movie here, but I'm not going to break the news to him.


            "You see, if the unions knew, they would make it impossible to operate."

            He wears a faded blue shirt with a button-down collar. For the first time in my life, I see a man wearing sandals. I am amused but keep it to myself.

            He stands up, admiring how the numbers stand out sharp and clear against the white background of the plate.

            "Your job," he explains, "is to assist with the animals." Cleaning and feeding will be the major tasks. But equally important is the fact that I'll be the bridge between the night watchman and the day crew. That means he wants me here at seven in the morning and I won't leave until seven at night.

            "We'll pay you a dollar an hour." He looks up to gauge my reaction.

            A dollar--what a magic number! I'm very grateful. I want to shout about my good fortune and can barely maintain my pose of maturity with a nod of agreement.

            Most of the filming takes place in the Converter Building, a three-story brick structure streaked with soot, with a huge door. Devine sometimes drives his car inside to repaint his license plate. It seems like an odd place for a movie company, this open space with its high, tiny windows sending tight, rectangular beams of pale amber light marching across the rough concrete floor. I guess it once housed furnaces bubbling with thick stews of molten copper, gold, and silver. As Devine talks, I imagine sweating men with goggles and long dippers working in the hot orange light.

            A stairway descends from the Converter Building to the animal compound, its fresh pine looking raw and pale against the rough red bricks. The compound appears to contain at least seventy wire cages. It is enclosed by a palisade of pine slabs with a double gate for deliveries cut into the eastern wall.

            At the other end of the compound is the low, yellow-brick Assay Building, headquarters for the animal operations. Ore samples once were tested here.

            Two huge smokestacks, one of them soaring 360 feet, look down on me, casting a cool blue shadow across the whole place.

            I meet a blonde woman in the Assay Building. Dangling from her lip, a cigarette jumps each time she plunges the knife through the apple she is quartering. Her name is Darlynn. She's one of the locals. There aren't many of us. We do the scut work. The rest of the crew are technicians, lighting people, and cameramen from California.

            "This film is what Walt calls a true-life fantasy," Darlynn tells me. "We take raw animal footage and fashion it into a story. The name of this film is Perri, and it's about a pine squirrel. It was written by Felix Salten, the same man who wrote Bambi." She heaps the apple pieces on pie tins and sprinkles mealworms across them, making a small performance out of it, her hands held high, as if controlling a marionette.

            "You can feed the birds. This one for the jays. This one for the song birds." She smiles, and her blue eyes seem to laugh.

            Action, camera. Feed the birds. God, how I love this job! It is fame and honor. It is heroic. I will be popular. I will be loved. I am filled with the rushing satisfaction of being part of something important, of creating art the world will see. It makes me walk with my chin up and chest out. Hooray for Hollywood! One dollar an hour!

            Mitch Binger, he’s the head animal wrangler. Darlynn calls him Bitch Minger, but not to his face.

            "Lift, punk." Binger is one of my many bosses, for I answer to all. He stares at me from the other end of the crate, a toothpick clamped in his teeth.

            I stagger under my end, the weight tearing at my fingers, my shins banging against its base.

            "Why don't you drop that end and make a run for it?" he taunts.

            "Why would I do that?" I gasp, shuffling backward with little steps, glancing over my shoulder as we make our way down a line of cages.

            "So you can tell Devine you're quitting. I know a runner when I see one."

            "I just started," I say irritably.

            "Devine should have talked to me before he hired you. Kids think motion picture work is easy."

            "I've been keeping up with you," I say, smiling and trying to be deferential. In spite of Binger, in spite of the hot ache in my fingers and wrists, my barked and bleeding shins, the pain I feel is soothed by the delirium of prestige.

            The animal compound is open to the flawless June sky, and I squint against the sun, wishing I'd worn a hat. Sweat trickles into the hair over my ears.

            "Straight and level, and set it down easy," Binger commands. "I don't want a berserk bobcat." The sweat shines on his bronze pectorals. He is shirtless, proud of his tanned, bulging muscles. He's trained animals for films, says Darlynn, mostly dogs. What he really wants is to be discovered and become a star like Victor Mature. The menial tasks assigned him by the big bosses frustrate him.

            Inside the crate yellow eyes blink warily. Binger raises the gate and the cat pours from crate to cage, sniffing at the corners of its new enclosure. It is the last of five tame bobcats we use in the film. One paces restlessly. Another lies curled on its side, as if exhausted by the heat. The fourth cat sits on its haunches and gives me a huge yawn. I am enamored of them, enchanted by the way they purr like house cats, only deeper, like the bass chords on a piano when you hold the pedal down.

            I remove my gloves and flex my fiery fingers as Binger closes the cage.

            "How old are you?" Binger asks me.

            "Sixteen," I lie.

            "Taking work from an adult is what you're doing. Why'd Devine hire you?"

            I'm not about to say my father helped. I try humor: "Must have been my big smile."

            "Big mouth, you mean." We stand at the tailgate of the truck, and Binger hoists himself onto its bed. He lifts a white corrugated paper box and places it in my hands. From inside I feel a flutter of life. These are some new birds the trappers have delivered.

            "Do you have any experience with animals?" Binger takes a second box, climbs down, and gestures me back to the cages.

            "I had pigeons. And a red-tailed hawk."

            "And you fancied yourself a falconer?"

            "I guess."

            "What's the basic rule of wild animal training?"

            "What do you mean?"

            "Are you deaf, or what? How do you train an animal?" Binger halts before an empty cage, grimacing as he nods for me to remove the hasp on the cage.

            I speak cautiously, certain I can say nothing he'll agree with. "With pigeons you rattle grain in a can when you feed them. When they hear it, they come. With a hawk you put a little meat on your fist. Is that what you mean?"

            "How about a dog? Or a horse or an elephant?"

            "I wouldn't know." He makes me feel anxious. Could I lose this job?

            Binger steps inside the cage. He lifts the top off the box. Steller's jays flap wildly around the man's head, an explosion of iridescent blues and shining blacks. One of them clings to the cage side, its tail splayed against the wire, its beak open, pearl eyes darting with fright.

            Binger backs from the cage with the empty box. "You still got the hawk?" He places the box on the sandy floor and opens the door of the next cage for my box of birds.

            "No. My mother made me get rid of it."

            "Boo-hoo. Falcons are for falconry. Red-tail hawks are not."

            "That's not true. Falconers fly red tails and goshawks--"

            "Kid, you want to work here?" He removes the toothpick from the corner of his mouth and points it between my eyes, like a pistol. "Animal handling is something I don't need no lectures on. You're here to clean and feed and do grunt work. And that is all you are here for."

            He orders me to water the cats, then says, "When you're through, come find me." He slouches away, his combat boot buckles tinkling with each step.

            I release my box of birds, rosy finches the color of dawn, but spend little time admiring them. I find a red hose coiled next to the building and turn it on. I move to the first cat pen and direct the water through the wire and into the bucket, watching the eyes of the bobcat as it fixes on the alluring wiggle of the hose.

            There are hazards for the animal actors in this motion picture.

            Darlynn and I accidentally kill a tame red squirrel while anesthetizing it prior to applying make-up for its role as "Scarface." A fawn, fresh-trapped from the wild, imprints on me and follows me everywhere until collapsing from diarrhea. We can't duplicate its wild diet. When I come to work, its cold spotted body is curled under my work bench, head resting on its folded legs.

            With a .45 automatic, Binger shoots two porcupines as they shrink against the wires of their cages. Their roles in the film are over, Binger explains, and if we released them, they'd be killing trees. With gloved hands, he tows their carcasses outside the compound, douses them with kerosene, and burns them till they look like crime victims.

            In Devine's office is a letter from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. It says Walt Disney Company can take anything he wants from the wild, and do anything with them that he wants, since the purpose is public education. So the creatures keep coming. Young creatures especially, captured by three company-hired trappers. Young things can be trained.

            Binger commands me: "Get Otto, then meet me at the holding cage." I feel apprehensive as I go for Otto, the pine marten.

            In the rear of the Converter Building stands the large holding cage, chicken wire crudely stapled to the raw wood posts. It looks cheap and temporary. As I arrive, I see that Binger is wearing thick welder's gloves. A red squirrel struggles against his grip.

            Binger pulls heavy black wire-cutters from his pocket. Gripping the thrashing squirrel by the head, he forces its jaws open and seizes the front teeth in the cutter jaws. There are two sickening sounds like breaking eggs. He releases it. The squirrel lurches frantically up the wire, blood streaming from its mouth, its sides heaving. The marten watches intently, giving chase for a few feet, then halting as the squirrel stops. Binger slaps the wire with the pliers. When the squirrel moves, the marten moves toward it.

            "Instinct's there," says Binger, watching intently. "Otto just needs a little blood."

            Picking up the landing net, Binger captures the squirrel with a quick sweep and offers it to the marten, which licks tentatively at the bloody froth.

            With a twist, Binger breaks the squirrel's neck and then removes his gloves. His bare hands tear away skin and pull hot muscle from bone. He offers shreds of flesh to the pine marten, which eats daintily, crunching the flesh with his back teeth, cocking his head for more. "Now he'll have a taste for it. Next time he'll chase."

            "Jesus . . ." I reel with revulsion and sudden comprehension. The wild squirrels are simply food and training for other animal actors.

            Binger looks at me, amused. "Squirrels have powerful jaws. What if it bit the marten? Otto could have been scarred. He'd be unusable for filming. There isn't enough money in the world to buy a tame marten. You think these animals come from the department store?"

            I reason that something must die for another to eat, and this gives distance to my moral dilemma when I kill a creature. Yet killing for a movie? For entertainment? It sickens me.

            "This is going to be your job," Binger adds after a pause.

            I want to run to Darlynn and pour the whole story out, but that wouldn't be the manly, movie-crew thing to do. I can't let anyone know that I'm appalled by some small aspect of show business. I'm on the team, right? I sniff my fear and disgust back into my head and try to ignore it, like an oyster coating an irritant.

            I chop carrot greens for the snowshoe rabbits, thinking of how that first day Binger warned me that kids think motion picture work is easy. Now I see he was right. I place the greens with the rabbits and watch them lope over with their strange, oversized hind legs.

            I take the sections of fresh cottonwood and aspen branches and place them in the beaver cage. The animals immediately hump over them, their long, yellow teeth gnawing away the bark efficiently, allowing the raw, pithy pulp to be exposed. And suddenly that's how I feel, as if I'm being gnawed upon by something I can't escape.

            I turn to my father for help only when the pain is beyond tolerance. After dinner, I wait as he shuffles to the patio behind the house, sniffing as if smelling the hot July evening sun on the mountainside. The temperature hit a hundred at 5:00 p.m. that day. When he is sitting down, I drop into the chair beside him and tell him about Bing.

            "Oh the poor squirrel, the poor thing," says my father. I'm glad he feels sympathy for the squirrel's lamentable demise, but he's missing the point--the ethical point--for me. I smell the fumes from wine and Mother's spaghetti on his breath. "It grieves me. How it grieves me," he sighs. At these words and the pinched expression of his mouth, I discover that my old man is more loaded than I thought. I shouldn't have asked. He shakes his head and moans, touching his ears with his fingers.

            He lifts his head and closes his eyes. "I lived through the Depression. I had to take a job as a cashier in a speakeasy on Highland Drive to help pay for college. I mowed my neighbor's lawn for twenty-five cents, pushing the mower a few feet, catching up with it, pushing it again a few feet. It took me all day to earn that quarter."

            What has this got to do with it? I am confused.

            "Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do."

            I rise, feeling sick. That's my answer?

            Father eats a hangover breakfast of radishes and cucumbers marinated in red wine vinegar, and a slice of dry wheat toast. Mother reads the newspaper, her new spectacles riding down her nose, her freckled knees showing at the hem of the floral pink housedress. My brother Jon reads the funnies, while my sister Martha helps my littlest brother, Joe, with his shoes.

            "You remember what I told you last night?" I stare at him across the table. I see him flinch and swallow. His mind flails wetly for my meaning.

            "The squirrel problem," I repeat. "They want me to pull the teeth of wild squirrels so the marten can kill them."

            After a wretched, sweating night with little sleep, this thing has become a fish-hook in my gut, and I don't know how to get it out.

            He places a pale cucumber chip on the corner of the toast and bites a crescent from both.

            "You need to talk to Mr. Binger." The words come out between bites.

            "You mean tell him I won't do it?"

            He looks at me, his eyes pleading.

            "Talk to him. You can do it. I know you can." It's his loving voice.

            Do it? Do what? Stand up to Binger? March in to him and say no, this kid is not killing squirrels for anybody? The terror of confrontation causes my stomach to roll, and I set down my fork.

            His eyes encourage me, even through the web of pulsing red veins. Can it possibly mean killing the squirrels? My head swims.

            Mother sits silent as always, her face lowered over a newspaper article about Bao Di in a place called Vietnam. I look at her blond lashes rising and falling with each blink. She senses my stare, and lifts her gaze. My siblings gabble like ducks, unaware of my little drama.

            I meet her eyes. Tell me, Mother. Please tell me what to do?

            She runs her tongue under her upper lip, sucks on her teeth, and swallows. She shakes the newspaper flat and returns to the column.

            I trip over the edge of her silence and freefall into the terror of the unknown.

            "You can do it," says my father.

            No, I can't do it. In my mother's silent void, I feel tiny and hopelessly alone, helpless and trapped.

            She sets aside the newspaper and pours herself another cup of coffee. Her wordlessness confirms my blunders and stupidity and cowardice. Her silence blasts me with my incompetence, with all the sins and inadequacies of my past.

            "You can do it." My father nods his head reassuringly.

            I toy with my scrambled eggs. I don't want his reassurance. I try to stay as impassive and unrevealing as my mother.

            As the day wears on, it is a bigger dilemma than ever. I feel sickened and confused. The ache in my stomach is worse and it feels as if there are spiders biting my insides. I think desperately of ways to avoid using the pliers. Maybe I can conk the squirrels out, then pull them on a string. Maybe I can kill them quick and then pull the teeth. If anybody catches me, I could say the marten killed it.

            Talk to Mitch Binger? Father doesn't know Mitch Binger. He will come unglued, maybe fire me on the spot, and there goes my movie job and my car.

            The sweat soaks my shirt as I mindlessly feed my juncos and rosy finches, then slop half-frozen chunks of black horse meat into the cages of the cats and raccoons. I work very slowly, as if in a dream. I change the water in every cage, rake the sand as immaculately as a Japanese garden.

            The glowing afternoon sun draws the sap from the raw pine of the animal compound and the pungent heat lingers in the shadows. I place a young pine marten, Lily, in a carrying box. Entering the cage of wild squirrels, I pin one against the wire with the net. I've learned to flip it deftly to entwine the animal.

            I release Lily in the chase cage. I pull on the gloves, wriggling each finger into the stiff, protective hide. I pick up the squirrel. The small, muscular body struggles against my fingers, telegraphing its will to live. I grasp its head and forced the mouth open to grip its front teeth.

            Slowly, I place the squirrel back in its carrying box. I'll lose this job, I know it. There goes the dreams of a car, the prospect of fondling the breasts of Barbara Whalen, the prestige of working for Walt Disney. I am filled with remorse. Without this job, who am I? Back to being a fifty-cent-an-hour kid with pimples and glasses, almost a farm kid. I always thought that taking a moral stand would be a heroic gesture, but I am filled with gloom and self-pity. Slowly I peel off the gloves and lay them across the carrying cage. I wipe my eyes on my wrists and sniff a few times.

            Instead of talking to Binger, I go directly to Lou Devine. I sit on the wooden chair in front of his desk, looking down at the Keds on my feet, noticing how the small toe on my right foot seems to be breaking through, and the black canvas is frayed and shabby and turning pale.

            I hear Devine draw a deep breath as I tell him I can't pull the squirrel's teeth. I can clean and feed and water and train and handle; but I can't pull those teeth, and I'm prepared to quit. If he wants the money back he's already paid me, I'll return it.

            I can hear him breathing, the soft, silent kind of breathing like Mother does, the kind the burns like acid. I swallow hard.

            "I don't think I could pull teeth either," he says, closing a loose-leaf binder.

            I lift my eyes to make certain of what I'm hearing. He's shaking his head, no. He waves me away to feed the packrats.

            I'm so elated I waltz Darlynn around the Assay Building, but I haven't heard the last of this. Binger waits.

            A few days later, the animal handlers are gathered in Devine’s office. Devine selects his words carefully: "Walt has other projects. If we lose any more tame squirrels, this film gets shut down. Now I happen to like this project, so we're going to make some changes."

            We are down to two tame squirrels. Eight have died, mostly because of what Darlynn and I believe are diet problems.

            "First, we'll augment their diets. Darlynn's found a source for pine nuts. Morrow's Nut House. Second, I'm sending the trapper to gather nests of baby squirrels. They'll have to be bottle-fed. We can have them ready for the set in a few weeks."

            "How we gonna get squirrel milk?" says Binger.

            "You'll have to create a formula by trial and error," says Devine.

            We groan. We remember the problem with the fawn.

            Devine smooths his mustache: "You'll be getting some new duties." Looking at Darlynn, he says, "I'm adding the responsibility for food purchasing to your job. You'll make out the purchase orders." Binger had been doing it.

            Devine turns to me: "You concentrate on feeding and raising the squirrel litters the trapper brings in. The babies will take precedence over everything."

            He clears his throat. "Bing is most vital working with the animals on camera." His words are rich with implication. "He will be spending more time on the set." He pauses. "Also, Bing will train and feed the martens."

            Devine's silhouette passes out of the doorway; and for a few seconds the office is quiet. I feel my stomach relax as if a soothing balm is poured into it.

            Although Devine had phrased Binger's changes as more important responsibilities, I worry that he will blame me. I'm right: The next day he makes me rake the gravel outside the compound. I do it without a murmur.

            The trappers are paid $50 for a litter of baby squirrels, whether their eyes are open or not. Each morning they make their deliveries, bundles of leaves containing baby pine squirrels. I take them into the nursery where Darlynn and I concentrate on them. Devine gives us a free hand, but the whole company is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the baby experiment.

            Darlynn and I try different formulas. We've been relying on cow's milk with liquid vitamins, but we lose every baby. We switch to goat's milk and add the same vitamins. I liquefy pine nuts in a blender and add it to the formula. I add a couple of drops of orange juice.

            We start by using a doll's baby bottle, but I quickly give that up after learning how to wield an eye dropper, which allows for better metering of the fluid. I learn to work it into each small triangular mouth, placing the dropper on the tip of the tiny tongue. Then I squeeze out a single drop and wait while the infant gums it down. Too much and they sneeze it out their nostrils. It takes eight drops to fill the tiny stomach of a hairless pinkie, a dozen for an older one with fur.

            I dread the morning count. A chart lists each squirrel litter, marking the deaths. At the end of the first week, we have four survivors out of twenty. I hate these death dates and consider each one a personal defeat.

            Darlynn suggests a theory: Can we increase the rate of survival by providing the comfort of body warmth they would get from their mothers? I spend time playing with the little squeakers, cuddling them, breathing on their round-eyed puppy faces. I fold my arms in front of me, making a sort of shelf for them to rest on. The little explorers awaken, and nose between the buttons of my shirt, squirming next to my skin. Inside my shirt I wear a doughnut-like girdle of a dozen squirrel babies. They ride around like this as I go about my cleaning.

            If a baby makes it for five days, I know it will survive.

            Three weeks into the experiment, baby squirrels toddle across the counter, eyes brown and luminous, racing for the feeding dropper when they hear the tinkle of glass on the formula jar. The oldest ones shuttle around the counter in short, sharp movements, twitching their tails. They follow me like a small, fuzzy army. Soon the babies scramble up my jeans to find their way into the nest beneath my shirt. I feel aglow with paternity, protective and interested in each one, able to recognize them as individuals--the shy ones, the aggressive males, the fast eaters, the dropper-hogs. Two who quarrel are Sylvester and Tweety. Another is Leaper, for her long jumps. As they turn to solid food, most of the babies go straight for the pine nuts, although some choose grain. One squirrel seems to hate me, and I wonder why this single animal, unlike all the others, never gets close.

            One of the more aggressive babies pushes open her nursery box and clambers into my cot, awakening me. I've been spending nights at the studio to feed the pinkies. They're escaping from their boxes, and I know it's time to move them to an outside cage. Thirty-three have survived. Now they are nearly ready to be on camera, and the crew comes by to see my miracle. There are compliments from everyone except Binger, who ignores my existence these days. A hearty slap on the back comes from Devine. The director, Kenworthy, shakes my hand and congratulates me, smiling with delight at the healthy young pine squirrels. John Herman, a cameraman who will later die in an avalanche, calls me Mother West Wind. Young Roy Disney, working as a cameraman, nods approvingly and offers me a cigarette, a Pall Mall. Thanks, but no.

            Whenever anyone asks the secret of raising baby squirrels, Darlynn always replies, "Jim pees in the formula." I don't get embarrassed. Instead, it seems to mark me as really one of the crew, a true insider.

            In the hot afternoon, as the sprinklers spit their cooling water on the burlap stretched over the compound, Binger corners me and announces the baby squirrels will be moved into four separate cages.

            "One big cage," I disagree.

            "Too hard to manage, trying to chase them down in a big cage," says Binger.

            "You don't have to chase them--"

            Binger cuts me off with a vigorous shaking of his head. "Do as you're told. I want them in four cages, and I'm starting the carpenter."

            "Wait, you don't understand--"

            "No, you don't understand. Unless you want your teeth on the floor, you'll shut up and do it."

            "Bullshit," I say, shocking myself with my defiance. "I'll go see Devine."

            Binger stares at me malevolently, weighing the risks. "You little piss ant. You're fired."

            "Not until I hear it from Devine, I'm not."

            My temples pound as I take a step toward the Converter Building.

            Binger crouches to block me, arms spread low to the ground. He's going to try to stop me. I feint to the left, then duck around his right side. Quick as a snake Binger catches my shirt, ripping it as I tumble to the sand. Binger grips me with the bone of his wrist against my throat, making me gag. Am I going to throw up? I try to jab him with an elbow, but it connects with nothing. Tears of rage fill my eyes.

            "Stop." It's Darlynn. Her voice is deep and demanding.

            I feel Binger's arm loosen on my neck.

            Binger turns to face the woman.

            "Leave him alone. I'm calling Devine," she says, turning toward the stairs.

            Binger's eyes slash us. He sweeps his hair with his hand, then is gone.

            "Tell me what happened, your version," says Devine, leaning forward. We are alone, the door of his cubicle shut tight. Binger has just left.

            "He wants four small cages. I want one large one."

            "Why do you want one large one?"

            "I can be with all the babies at once. It's important to be available any time they want to come to me. In four pens they would have only one-fourth of the time to be with me. Also, in a big pen they will have more space to play and exercise. I can put trees in there, get them used to the set."

            "Bing said they'd be too hard to capture for the set."

            "You don't have to chase them. They come to the click of my tongue."

            "He said you started the fight. You defied him and then tried to kick him in the balls."

            This agitates me, and I start to protest. I'm expecting exoneration, corroborated by Darlynn's witnessing of the fight. I'm outraged and hurt that Devine doesn't climb all over Binger.

            Devine listens impassively, then says, "I think you're right about using one large pen. Let's go ahead with it."

            I sketch the baby pen, including a double-entry door to prevent accidental escapes. I ask for and get a new kind of plastic-dipped wire, one less likely to rub fur from curious little faces. Devine agrees on its airy dimensions--thirty feet long, twenty feet wide, and ten feet tall.

            At home that night I stroll out to the patio. The robins are running across the lawn, stopping alertly, then angling off toward unseen lures emanating from deep beneath the grass. Father blows smoke rings in the still evening heat, tapping on the side of his cheek.

            I tell my father that Walt Disney Studios listens to me.

            On the forest set, I entice a tame squirrel with a tin of pine nuts as two cameras whir and the brilliant carbon arcs flood artificial sun across the aspen and pines. Gray smoke from the lights gathers above the big mounted floods, obscuring the rafters.

            "Once more," shouts Kenworthy, the director, his eye deep in the camera. "No. He's going the wrong way."

            "Kill the lights. Reset," comes the shout, the crew ever-mindful of the costs of electricity and carbon tips for the lights. I coax the squirrel to my hand and put him back on the stump. We start again. Only after three takes does Kenworthy shout, "Good enough. One more as a backup."

            I am now aware of why I never hear, "Action, camera." Instead, at least two cameras on the set run constantly, and their operators shut them off only when the animal in the lens is not responding to food cues, not doing what the shooting script called for.

            "Animal movies are difficult," Kenworthy tells me. "They don't do as they're told, like human actors."

            An awareness now floods me, a realization that a film of ninety minutes is comprised of snippets like the one we have just shot, woven together until they create a whole ribbon of story. Father has told me about pointillist painters, and how each dot makes part of a greater image. Here each dot is a scene, an artifice of human technology, forming a chain of images fed to the mind through the eyes, jiggling the strings of emotion and logic. If reality can be created--assembled out of such unrelated bits and pieces . . . I can't follow the thought any further.

            "What are you going to do with all your money?" says Lou Devine.

            I pat the check in my shirt pocket. This money goes in the bank. I am determined to save every dime as my birthday draws closer, the magic sixteen, the day I get my driver's license, now just a few short weeks away.

            Each evening I look in the classified pages of the city Tribune, marking possibilities: Deals Deals Deals. Battle Fatigue Anderson's Used Cars. 52 Ford $700, Wait Till You See It! 49 Chev four door, light green, turn indicators, visor, new tires, taxes paid, $450.

            I am dizzy with the options, but tell Lou, as we all call him now, that I am thinking about buying a V8 Ford with dual exhaust pipes. I know a kid who has one for sale.

            He raises a skeptical blond eyebrow.

            One day I venture inside the bigger of the two smokestacks that loom over the compound. Inside it is enormous, as big around as our house. I lift my eyes, following its brick layers to the faint glow of light from high above. Its mouth looks smaller than a dime from down here.

            I say my name and am startled by the luster of its sound. I sing a little, something from our A Capella Choir:

            For it's a long, long time from May to December,

            But the days grow short, when you reach September . . .

            And these few precious days, I'll spend with you . . .

            My voice sounds ethereal, blending harmonies and echoes over and over in a glorious liquid sound, spinning around the interior of the thirty-six-story smokestack, ascending and filling it, weaving the notes together as if through a magical instrument. My throat sends it forth, and the chimney pours it back on me in a shower of musical wonderment. Only after I stop do the echoes seem to drift upward to exit through the tiny patch of sky above.

            "Get your ass out there and clean the cat cages," Binger hisses. He's always furious at me; but if I'm working on something other than what he wants done, it justifies his rage. That's the trouble with show business. You have all these different bosses, and when a bigger boss tells you to do something and you do it, the small boss gets really pissed off because it's taken you away from his job.

            Binger hates my guts. I hate his, too, but try to hide it.

            Darlynn protects me when she's around. I'm a little in love with Darlynn. In the July heat, she wears sleeveless blouses and a loose bra. One day, through the armhole, I catch a glimpse of her breast, including her soft brown nipple, as she bends down to give apple slices to the pack rat. I get an erection when I remember the sight of it later. I dismiss sexual thoughts of her immediately, as we are all aware of how her wiry husband, Wayne, looks over her with a suspicious and possessive eye.

            As long as Binger is absent, we laugh freely and create our own language that includes litter codes and feeding times, and special names for people and animals. Darlynn calls him “Bitch,” then crosses her eyes and looks around with comic apprehension to make certain he is not near.

            One of the bobcats develops a cataract which renders it unfit for close-ups. I suggest putting him in an eye patch.

            Sometimes we laugh so hard we have to separate, only to launch into gales of laughter when we see each other again.

            I refused Roy Disney's Pall Mall; but for Darlynn, lovely, soft, and married, I break the Mormon Word of Wisdom.

            Early one morning I'm feeding a squirrel, eyedropping formula into its pink mouth. Darlynn, yawning, sets two cups on the counter, steam rising from them. "I brought you some coffee."

            Good Mormons don't drink coffee. My grandmother would have a fit. But then, she let me drink Coke on the day I was baptized. My parents smoke and drink alcohol, which good Mormons also don't do. So my family isn't good Mormons. So why have I never drunk coffee? I'm getting confused. I look at the coffee dubiously.

            "With enough cream and sugar, anything's good," Darlynn says reassuringly.

            Vague feelings of guilt rise as I pour cream into the thick pottery cup. I ladle in one, two, three teaspoons of sugar. Darlynn's bemused smile broadens with each spoonful. I stir, tapping the spoon on the side of the cup as I've seen her do.

            It is good. It tastes pretty much like the Postum I had at Boy Scout camp, but it gives me a little zing, a little jump on my chores. The next morning, I have another cup.

            A boy we call Bent Birdshit is plump, with oily walnut-colored hair and blackheads on his nose and cheeks. He owns a '49 Ford two-door coupe he wants to sell me. It's lowered two inches in the rear, and it's got gray primer spots, portending a glorious future once its makeover is complete. From the front, it shows a wide chromy grin with a bullet nose. Its wheels glow with polished silver hubcaps bigger than dinner plates. Dual exhausts thunder out a harmonious basso, then make a burbling sound when Bent backs off the accelerator. He races the engine so I can appreciate the effect.

            He wants $350 for it. Thanks to Walt Disney I've accumulated more than enough. My little tan bank book is wrinkled and lined with sweat from carrying it in my back pocket, where it's assumed the permanent bend of my rump.

            Bent lets me drive his Ford to the studio, even though I don't have a license. I want Darlynn's husband Wayne to look at it, since he has one of the most famous cars in the valley--a Mercillac. It's a '51 Mercury with a Cadillac engine, famous from Bountiful to Lehi, a legend on State Street where the nightly parade of slow, low cars goes by, glittering with chrome.

            Wayne is taciturn. When he speaks, you can hear a slight lisp. Permanent slivers of black grease curve under his fingernails. He nods as he lifts the hood. His matted crew-cut black hair wags in wispy sprigs in back where it needs a trim. His jeans ride low on his hips, and a white t-shirt pulls snugly across his chest. He reaches beneath his pant leg, withdrawing a pack of Luckies from his sock. He taps one out and lights it with a Zippo. He blows the smoke through his mouth and lets it drift up into his nostrils.

            "You can do a lot with a Ford V8." He's thinking of the engine, of course. I'm thinking of the exterior the world will see.

            I tell Wayne I want to paint it candy-apple red and bullnose the hood ornament off the front end. I see myself with my elbow projecting from the driver's window, controlling the steering wheel with two-fingered insouciance, a girl snuggled tight against my right side, adoringly asking me to caress her breasts. (Can't you see I'm busy driving?) Wayne gets in and runs up the engine, letting it backrap with satisfying burbles and pops.

            "My first car was a '36 Ford," he muses. "I bored it and stroked it, chopped it and channeled it. Kee-rist, it was fast! You can do a lot with a V8." He hands me back the keys and gets into his car. "Hard to beat Ford products." He waves, the tires of his evil black Mercillac throwing up a cloud of smelter dust as he leaves.

            Devine has stepped out the door to see what the noise is. He walks around Bent Birdshit's Ford, fanning Wayne's lingering dust away from his face, his leather sandals squeaking with each step. Devine of the perfect license plates, the unmarred glossy Jaguar finish. What will he think of this patchy product in its pre-candy apple state? His head drops to one side as he assesses the car, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his loden-green Bermuda shorts. They have a small buckle over the butt. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt with blue and red pin stripes and a button-down collar.

            "Isn't it a little . . . rural?" he asks.

            I'm not sure if this is another of his jokes that I don't understand. Once, when I asked him what we would do with the animals when the movie was over, he answered, "We'll give them to the Junior League." I didn't understand that either; but Walter Perkins, who went to Harvard and operates one of the cameras, broke into laughter. I felt foolish and left out. Anyway, I need to think about the Ford. This is a big decision.

            A guest comes on Friday when we look at the week's work, called "rushes." When he smiles, his big teeth are yellow from cigarette smoke. He's never without a Pall Mall. Around his high cheekbones the skin is tan, as if it's been cured by experience as much as sun and wind. He lives in the same apartment building near the university as some of the film crew, but the rumor is that he's a local. There is a clear divide between the Hollywoods and the locals, yet this local is allowed inside the Hollywood circle. I ask Roy Disney who the man is.

            His name is H. Devereaux Jennings. He is a ski racer who competed in the Olympics in 1948. Before that, he carried a submachine gun in the Tenth Mountain Division, one of the guys that went up Riva Ridge in Italy. Here's a true star, I think.

            He walks easily and athletically, stepping in line, toe-to-heel, head always up. There is confidence in the way he holds his hands, loose and easy, sometimes gripping his cigarette oddly, between thumb and forefinger. He dresses a lot like Lou Devine, wearing summer-linen beige slacks with a little buckle on the back, and a blue shirt with a box-pleated back and a button-down collar. He's at ease with these people, tipping back in the chair, drinking a Fisher beer as the projector shoots the images of the week's takes against the screen in the darkened Converter Building.

            The images flicker. We ahh when a junco flutters down to the man-made spring, splashing itself clean among the pebbles laid down, not by God, but by a set decorator.

            Afterward, Dev Jennings and Lou Devine step outside to look at Dev's car. Dev also has an English car. It has a long hood and snub nose like the Jaguar, but a square rear-end carrying an upright spare tire. Two leather straps like wide belts keep its hood secured. They call it a Morgan.

            I'm cautious, not wanting to display my ignorance, as I walk around it. Later I ask Darlynn about it. "They're all underpowered, those European cars," she snorts. "Besides, it has a wooden frame." A wooden frame? I'm sure Wayne knows.

            That night my father tells me Morgans are wonderful cars, finely crafted machines of great beauty and refinement. The English go to great lengths to make fine cars. Did I know they soak the Rolls Royce parts in oil for seven years before installing them? I'm car-crazed by now, and some of it sounds right, so I listen. When he’s through I’m more uncertain than ever about buying Bent Birdshit’s Ford.

            A week passes. Rushes again. My baby squirrels perform beautifully. Cupcake runs down an aspen branch, stops on cue, then resumes her run toward the pine nuts in my off-camera hand. "Great shot," says Devine, looking at the shooting script. Walter Perkins applauds and says out loud what a terrific job I've done. I am deeply gratified, and a little embarrassed.

            The Olympic skier is here again, exhaling smoke from his nostrils, his jet hair slicked over his ears.

            The lights come on. I sidle over and wait for a break in the man's conversation. I've got to examine this Morgan. My father has been unrelenting in its praise, and it seems to be more than just boozy reverie.

            "Sorry," Jennings says. He didn't drive the Morgan today. He doesn't talk down to me. His eyes are warm and sensitive. He smiles, and in his grin I find acceptance. He's driving a friend's car while his is in the shop. It's an MG TD. His friend is trying to sell it for $400. Do I wanna drive it?

            The MG is jade green with brown leather seats and a black convertible top. It's got bug-eyed headlamps and a jaunty spare tire riding on its boxy butt. It drives American, from the left side. With its wire wheels, it looks a lot like a Morgan to me. Devine nods approvingly. The sun glints off the radiator chrome as I move around it. I am overcome by the feeling that this little English car can make me more than I dreamed of. It can make me one of them.

            I am at a cultural crossroad. Without hesitating, I say yes. The next day I make a raid on my savings account, and swap cash for the keys to the British roadster.           

Postscript.  Interestingly, as pointed out to me by writer Barbara Kellam-Scott, the Disney organization can make a plausible claim that their wildlife films helped create today's sensibilities and the people who fight for animal rights.  

The Walt Disney organization of 1955 was a product of its time and operated within the laws for treating wildlife as set down by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Perri,” like “Song of the South,” sits in the Disney archives, perhaps never to be seen by the public again.

The Murray Smelter, located at about 5200 South and just west of State Street, was also home to Buehner Block Co., which made cinder blocks.  The site is today occupied by the flagship hospital of Intermountain Health Care.  

 Watch the Disney trailer for Perri here.

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  • Location: 5121 S. Cottonwood Street

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