I was scared. Knot-in-the-stomach scared. I felt like I was heading to the principal’s office for some kind of intellectual corporal punishment.
Publisher Travis Quast, Opinion Editor Jon Alexander and I had been invited as guests on Zeb Bell’s AM talk radio show.
I was excited to go until I listened to his show on Monday morning. He told his listeners we would be on the show. He told them to call in. That everything was fair game. He told them to ask about our service and our liberalism. But that isn’t what scared me. It was the voice of a sweet, old lady who called in next.
She sounded like my grandmother. Well, at first.
She told Zeb she didn’t know how he would stand having us on the show and that he should have a baseball bat behind his desk for the interview.
Did I think Zeb was going to hit me with a baseball bat? No. But there was something in that woman’s voice. She hated us. I was afraid I was going to learn something about how people in the Magic Valley really felt. I was afraid the curtain would be pulled back and I would never be able to forget what I saw.
That Wednesday-morning drive to Murtaugh was the longest it’s ever been.
The fields were dusty and empty, except for the leaking wheel line that had formed an icy pond in the corner of one. The piles of sugar beets cast shadows. The loaded hay trucks seemed to sway too much in the wind.
We pulled up to the ranch of the “Zeb Bell at the Ranch” radio show. The front porch was decorated for fall with lots of homey wreaths and flower arrangements and tole painted messages of welcome. Behind it all was that familiar smell of freshly mucked horse stalls.
Zeb’s wife met us at the door and walked us into the wood-paneled studio. The entire room was covered in some message or piece of nostalgia. There were Green Bay Packer toys, clipped and framed articles about veterans, photos of ranch rodeos and fair rodeos, pictures of men on horseback and one not-so-flattering picture of Bill Clinton — a sign that Zeb has been taking swings at the powers-that-be for a few administrations and a couple of generations.
We sat down across from him, the three of us in a row. A firing line, I thought. Or two sides of a football scrimmage.
Zeb leaned into the mic and made a crack about the entire staff coming in except the janitor. He wondered aloud if we were going to gang up on him.
He turned off his headset while some news played, and within seconds of shaking hands, we were talking about managing the wolf population in Idaho. Zeb is a rancher, and he sees wolves through the eyes of a livestock owner. He mentioned the Siddoway Sheep Co. and the pack that killed almost 200 of its sheep near Victor this summer. But it wasn’t just anger. Bell has been in the middle of the wolf debate since they first announced wolf reintroduction to this part of the West.
I asked him a few questions and saw a flash in the pupil of his eye.
People who like to talk politics — the kind of people who get a little adrenaline rush when they find someone willing to engage in debate — can be spotted by that flash in the eye if you say something that makes them think, even (or especially) if they don’t agree.
That off-air conversation — a quick but nuanced chat about wolves — set the tone for the rest of the hour. We had a blast.
The four of us wandered from topic to topic.
Travis Quast commented that it was surreal to hear Zeb Bell’s voice. After all these years, it brought him back to his childhood listening to Zeb’s voice announcing at the Cassia County Fair.
The hour ended. The baseball bat never came out. My grandmother never called to tell me she was ashamed of how I turned out.