The Last Conqueror
Unless it is a gunshot, there is nothing sweeter to the ears of Cecil M. Hopper than the sound of a bulldozer in the morning. Pistons surging, great trees cracking and falling, the proud earth crumbling and giving way -- "I just love the woods," said Cecil, and in truth, he loves them because he believes he can make them better.
He keeps his machinery in a clearing in southeast Houston, not far from the petrochemical plants, across the road from a gurgling sewer plant. Plants of all kinds thrive in Cecil's neighborhood, except the green kind. You can't see the wildlife unless you ask Cecil.
"I love animals," he said, grinning honestly. "I like all kinds of animals."
Behind the office of his land-clearing business, he opened the door of a metal warehouse, and the smell of wild things rushed out. In the light, there they were, craning their necks forward as though from stalls. Cecil had built them a refuge, it seemed, his own Noah's Ark. But how strange these creatures were -- so docile and unflinching, never roaring nor grunting nor squeaking nor making a sound or movement of any kind. They only stared. They stared down on man, little Cecil Hopper with his hands in his pockets, who gazed up at all of creation -- or at least 140 species of it. This was his world. Cecil was the destroyer and the creator, the founder of the Cecil M. Hopper Wildlife Museum. It was he who improved the animals.
"I'd like to have them all alive up there," he said, "if I didn't have to feed them and clean up their shit. What I like is a dead zoo. That's what this is -- a dead zoo."
He wears over his white hair the old wool safari hat he bought in Alaska. His belly hangs between camouflage suspenders. And Cecil is smiling. He is always smiling. If he were captured and mounted and his head became his tombstone, Cecil would forever wear a grin and a one-eyed leer, as though squinting down the barrel of a rifle.
"It's a thrill to hunt," he said. "Hell, it's a thrill to hunt cockroaches, you get 30 or 40 of them. You were successful! You outsmarted them."
In the Houston Safari Club, of which Cecil is founding member and past president, there are about 450 people like him. They are an old-fashioned bunch who believe in frontiers and conquest and that the one who dies with the most heads, wins. Living in a conquered land, they often find it necessary to pack up their guns and rack up frequent-flier miles going where guns and bulldozers are more rare. Most of those who hunt the world with frequency are the idle rich, but Cecil is different. As one of the idle rich said, "He represents what every man can accomplish through hard work."
He is the hunter of the American Dream: Work and you shall bring home the bacon -- and the hide and warthog tusks, too. Cecil calls himself the "working hunter," because it is only through working that he can afford to hunt. He figures he spends at least half his income going on safari. Over the years, he thinks he's invested more than a million dollars. If not for hunting, Cecil could drive a newer car -- but the old Silverado, with the sticker that reads "Spotted owls taste like chicken," is Cecil's kind of ride. He could probably buy a bigger house -- but he's comfortable with his little ranch house in South Houston. He might get $85,000 for it, he said, "if I cleaned up the grass and found the right drunk Mexican."
Cecil has never had anything to spend his money on, except for hunting and his wife, Mary Lee. If it meant more hunting, he would gladly live in a ditch and survive on muddy water, he said. But he has to keep Mary Lee happy. She prefers to live in a house, which has forced them over the years to a compromise. Mary Lee stays home; Cecil stays out, traveling the world and "collecting."
That hippo came up for air one day in Zimbabwe, said Cecil in the museum, "and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time." And that's "probably the last legal rhino taken in Kenya." And that's the walrus who sat, unlike the others, so peacefully on that Alaskan ice floe. Oh, that was a beautiful place! "No garbage anywhere," said Cecil, and the water so blue and clear. He shot the walrus in the brain so it wouldn't run into the water. He left the skinned carcass on the ice and brought home the souvenir.
Seeing it on the wall, Cecil thought, "I was there."
"Everywhere I been is beautiful," he said. "There's beauty in everything. You just have to see it."
Cecil has a theory about Americans: Our ancestors were hunters at heart, brave enough to take a chance on an unknown land. Several centuries later, their blood still runs in us. We are pioneers and predators, natural-born. Some of us have had our stalking instincts subdued by "all them people who want you to knit on Saturdays and Sundays," said Cecil, but many others remain untamed. Emerging from the womb, Cecil swears he told his mother he had hunting to do, and she had better cut him loose from that "biblical cord."
The town of Austwell, in Refugio County, had a population then of maybe 300, if you counted the cats and dogs. Cecil's family was so poor, he said, "we couldn't even pay attention." His father rented out fishing and duck-hunting boats. Sometimes, they'd take members of the Audubon Society out, but mostly, they took hunters out. Growing up, Cecil remembers seeing brown pelicans. "Then they were all gone."
Even in his family, Cecil's interest in local faunas was exceptional. Cecil began trapping mice when he was six, with the intention of skinning them. His mother told him to leave those "nasty" mice alone. By 12, though, he had taught himself to skin, and he was staying out until the early hours of the morning, getting raccoons and skunk skins to sell for spending money. The first skunk of the evening would nearly always turn his stomach, but by 2 a.m., he would be slinging them over his shoulder with abandon and would forget the smell until later, when he crawled into the bed he shared with his brother.
Cecil was 13 and headed home after an evening's work when he encountered an eight-point buck tangled in a barbed-wire fence. The fence was the border of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and Cecil didn't know what to do: He had no gun! He slipped gently behind the deer and slit its throat with his pocketknife. The people of Austwell began calling him Tarzan after that. Cecil said he felt like he had conquered the world.
All he knew about the world was common sense, or what the animals taught him. He learned that when the birds are still and quiet, and the cows won't graze, and the fish have disappeared from shallow water, a storm is imminent. He learned that animals travel in the misty rain. He learned to find coons along creek banks, and skunks wherever animals lay eggs, and deer at dusk, feeding on the new, moist grass.
He used what he learned to work as a guide in his father's business. Success for Cecil was always marked by dead animals; his tip was always proportional to the kill. Cecil came to admire the hunters. They were friendly people with money, who came from places that seemed far away, and told stories. Traipsing through the woods, Cecil began thinking about the larger world -- not the glamorous cities and the people who live in them but the great mountains and jungles, and the inhabitants there. He dreamed of "graduating from these little animals." There was more to life, he realized, than skunks and opossums in Texas; there were mountain goats in Idaho, mountain lions in New Mexico and elk in Montana.
"Oh God, if I could just go there," Cecil remembers thinking. "Oh God, it seemed as far away as the moon."
News of war eventually arrived in Austwell. Cecil packed a few things, took a berth on an aircraft carrier and went off to see the world. He was here, and he was there, and Cecil was standing on deck during the atomic-bomb tests in the Bikini islands. The orders called for all men to avert their eyes, but Cecil peeked.
"It sure was bright," he said.
But the bomb was detonated by someone else, and if Cecil learned anything in the Navy, it was that sightseeing was not for him. Despite the many places he went and the many things he saw, his hunger for travel was undiminished when his tour was over. Cecil came home to discover that Austwell was just too small for a character like him. Also, he found Mary Lee, lying in wait.
Mary Lee, the neighbor's daughter, had a "good level head." She was sincere and sensible, and maybe best of all, "she didn't fuss a lot." Shortly after her 12th birthday, "I got to realizing, you know, that she was a woman," said Cecil. But he never was sure whether he was the predator or the prey. A man thinks he's stalking a creature, and all of a sudden, he finds he's being stalked. Lions and women will do that, said Cecil, and he chased Mary Lee until she caught him.
He was working on a traveling construction crew, operating heavy machinery, when they married. Cecil told his bride there wasn't time or money for a honeymoon, and without questions, she followed him. Wherever he went, so went she, until in the mid-1950s, Cecil was presented with a business opportunity: A contractor in Houston with more land than he could clear was looking for help. Cecil bought a bulldozer then, registered as Cecil M. Hopper, Contractor, Inc. and went to work.
Mr. and Mrs. Hopper were a team then. Cecil would knock trees down all day long, then go home and eat Mary Lee's supper, and then knock trees down until late at night, as Mary Lee sat on the back of the bulldozer, holding the light.
"Always on hand to improve your land" was Cecil's slogan, until he changed it to "We cover the country like the wind." Cecil worked hard, but he loved the work, for it took him back into the woods. As with hunting, he watched the weather, so the bulldozer wouldn't get stuck. His job put him near snakes and alligators, and sometimes, when he was pushing over a tree, a raccoon would fall and scamper over the bulldozer. "This is pleasure," said Cecil. "You're out there with Mother Nature all the time."
He went fishing whenever he could. It was exciting to see what came out of the dark water, but nothing like the thrill of finding something large in the woods. Hunting was more expensive, though, and Cecil had begun to despair of ever becoming a great hunter. Then in the 1960s, Houston, this "little-bitty place," began to grow and grow, and the people moving here needed somewhere to live, which meant they needed Cecil Hopper.
He bought more equipment and hired help. For a time, his business prospered. It never really "boomed," though, perhaps because it was never really Cecil's goal to become a rich businessman. Money that he might have returned to his company, he began taking instead to south-central Mongolia and fertile Turkey. Sometimes he went on four safaris a year. For days and weeks, no one would see Cecil or hear his gun. And then one day, he would return, and in his wake, there would be dead animals, evidence of his wild heart.
When his few employees grumbled that maybe they should get some of his hunting money, a little raise perhaps, Cecil told them to work harder, save more, and maybe they could go hunting, too.
And when Mary Lee would come to him with "that funny look in her eye" and ask if he was ready for children, Cecil's answer was always no. There was land to clear in America and beasts to stalk in Africa. He was a busy man. Mary Lee got herself a dog and got used to being alone. When the floors beneath her had been carpeted with skins and the walls had become a thicket of horns, she finally stood up to Cecil and told him they couldn't live this way.
Cecil by then couldn't stand up in his office without looking a moose in the nostril. He recognized his wife's good sense and began building the nonprofit museum that wouldn't be advertised or listed in the phone book, that would become his favorite charity and serve as his own trophy room. Cecil's museum was the monument he built to his life.
When making travel plans, the first question Cecil asks about a country is, "What have they got to hunt there?" The world is an exciting place when you look through the scope of a rifle. There's so much to shoot!
If he likes the array of life a country offers, Cecil makes plans to go there and collect some of it. He reads his encyclopedia about the climate and terrain. He discharges hundreds of rounds at the shooting range. And he visits the Houston Zoo. It's important, he feels, that a hunter be able to recognize his prey before hunting it. Instead of saying, "What is that?" you should be able to tell your guide, "That's a good ibex."
"Makes you a better hunter," says Cecil. "Makes you feel better."
He studies the animals, but Cecil has never wanted to live like one. In one of his hunting journals, there's a list called "What to Bring to the North Country." The first item is dental floss. Other usual necessities include Rolaids, Advil, Ben Gay, breath mints and Jack Daniels. In another place, under "Things I Forgot," Cecil has written: "Moleskin, house shoes...."
Cecil usually takes a book for the plane trip. It's the only time he reads, and the only author who has ever held his attention is Peter Capstick. Cecil tried Hemingway once, but then went back to Capstick, who doesn't write about "the green hills and 'we went into the village and talked to Ukabunga.' Naw," said Cecil, "he gets right down to the business of it."
Cecil's favorite is Death in the Long Grass -- not to be confused with Death in a Lonely Land or Death in the Silent Places or Death in the Dark Continent, though there are similarities. The point is, as Capstick writes in Long Grass, "man-eating lions (not to mention leopards, crocodiles and hyenas...) are still very much in evidence in large areas of Africa." Which is to say, it's still a jungle out there, it still needs taming, and won't you come, boys, and risk your lives to make the world safe for women and children?
Good old Peter Capstick, he knows what it's all about. Cecil loves to read him on the jet to Africa.
The wheels touch -- whubump. Cecil forgets his business, his wife, everything but the hunt. By the next morning, typically, he's in the middle of nowhere, with an animal in the sights. A cook has fed him, a guide has led him, a skinner will denude the beast and another lackey will ship the skin home. But the shot is up to Cecil.
He aims for the lungs, just behind the shoulder. A little high, he'll shatter the spine, and the animal will drop instantly. A little low, and the beast will leap forward, startled by an explosion in the heart.
This is the climax of everything Cecil has done for perhaps a year -- all the land-clearing, the saving, the preparing. Cecil has been known to risk losing his trophy by photographing it before shooting, prolonging the moment. He hits the target or misses, but almost never does Cecil shoot with fear. He kills as a sniper kills, from long distance without messy conflict. The stories in his journal are not like Peter Capstick's.
Botswana, Nov. 6, 1977 -- Got up early, still drunk, went to lion bait. No lions.
Botswana, Nov. 21, 1977 -- Set in trees like a baboon ... finally shot a lizard.
South Africa, July 4, 1982 -- Went down a brushy road & jumped a big bush pig boar & give him one in the butt. Followed him & give him two more.
Turkey, Nov. 27, 1984 -- One pig seen & one pig got. Then the bull sh--. No one wanted to touch the pig. They are all muslims."
But every hunter has good days, too. In Botswana, where Cecil said the hunting is really just shooting, he shot another zoo's worth: three zebras, three reedbucks, three duikers, two cape buffalos, two hyenas, two mambas, two warthogs, a couple of baboons, one nyala, an impala, a steenbok, a gemsbock, one wildebeest, a jackal, an elephant and a porcupine.
Only a few of these, in pieces, ever arrived at the museum. Cecil kills and then he sorts. As a trophy hunter, he is looking for the biggest and the best. He removes these from the gene pool and still insists that he is beneficial to the species, because he also shoots the "gimps."
"You got to weed them out," says Cecil. "What Hitler was trying to do -- same thing."
Cecil believes in the beauty of nature, but even more firmly, in the abundance. Coming over a hill, he is exhilarated to find an animal many times his size, eating only grass. The only greater thrill would be in touching that animal. But how do you keep it from running away? Cecil tries a bullet. The body falls and is left where it fell. Soon, it disappears. The skin is chemically treated and stretched over a molded-plastic form. Plastic teeth and eyes are installed. Then the animal is delivered by the mailman. Cecil hangs it on the wall as proof that he has gone somewhere and captured something.
His travels, after the war, were never again complicated by larger events. Cecil crossed the air-traffic controllers' picket line to get to New Zealand. He did his best hunting in South Africa during the apartheid years. He arrived in Zimbabwe after another war to learn that food was scarce for the natives. "But we ate plenty," said Cecil, "and there were no problems."
He was just a tourist, a hunter abroad:
Baku, Azerbaijan, July 7, 1985 -- We resalted the heads & skins. Walked down into the park, ate ice cream.
He didn't understand why the Africans on the sidewalks refused to step aside for him. He didn't know why the Pygmy maiden wouldn't take his money after he snapped a picture of her breasts. And why were the Muscovites cool to him?
"Maybe they don't know us and like us," he wrote, "or maybe they do know us, and that is why they don't like us."
Truthfully, Cecil has found it hard to appreciate the inner beauty of other peoples. His hunting trips have only reinforced in him the belief that "we are the cream of the crop -- numero uno." The U.S. was built by people with skills, said Cecil. The Germans were good mechanics. The French were good cooks. The Czechs "did a lot of crochet work," he said, "and the English, I don't know what they specialized in, but they had to specialize in something."
How lucky the country was not to have been colonized by the Mongolians -- "dumbest damn people on Earth," according to Cecil. Or the Sudanese, "dirty sorry people" that they are. Or the Turks, who cannot even direct a hunter to a good, stiff drink. "Dump bastards," wrote Cecil in his journal. ("Dumb" is what he meant.)
Travel can teach you a hell of a lot about people, he said. Cecil has native art in his museum and relics he has taken from ruins, but one of the few species he does not have is the human being. Cecil never has shot a native. Killing people is against the law, he explained. But he wasn't sure why. "Maybe human flesh don't taste good. You don't eat ostrich. Maybe they stopped eating humans for the same reason."
Mary Lee was sitting on the couch in front of the television beside her Yorkshire terrier, Corky, when Cecil came home with a visitor. The walls were decorated with ducks and such, and above her, there was Cecil's giant portrait with a dead lesser kudu. Mary Lee smiled and went to the kitchen. She tried to talk, but when asked a question, she would stare blankly for several seconds, then utter a single word and scurry off to scoop or stir something.
"You'll have to excuse Mary Lee," Cecil said, grinning. "Too many guns went off in her ears."
Mary Lee seemed not to hear that, either. She loaded the kitchen table with iced tea, salad, green beans, carrots, rolls and roast beef. Then she sat down and said:
"Maybe we were selfish not having children."
Cecil said, "I think we were smart."
She chewed and was quiet again for a moment. Then she said they used to go country-western dancing together. She wasn't sure why they stopped. It was true she was "kind of put out" the year Cecil was gone four months. But she wasn't lonesome, at least not too much.
"I think we have a good relationship," said Mary Lee.
"Hell, I guess so," said Cecil. "We been married 49 years."
The forks clinked against the plates, the ice against the glasses.
In the spare bedroom, Cecil had already laid out the equipment for his next trip. The hunting in Africa is not what it used to be -- too much land-clearing, he said -- but he was going back to Cameroon to collect the Lord Derby eland. Mary Lee, he knew, would miss him; she had already cried "one or two little-old-bitty tears, but not enough to worry about."
Cecil figured he would die hunting. He hoped it would be by a lion or elephant. But if old age caught up to him first, he would have his wheelchair tied into the back of a pickup and hunt from there.
It's been a great life, he said. He had the trophies to prove it. He could have done as other men have done and drunk or gambled away his time, but that would have been a waste.
"Them people ain't got no memories," he said, "and I got memories all around me.