Picking the bones with buzzards

I walked among the buzzards at an estate sale today.

An estate sale is where a house filled with the relics of a life is picked over like road kill by vultures, tugging and pulling remnants of his memory off the skeleton and carting them off to cars.

Under marital duress, I joined the kettle of vultures who gathered well before the scheduled 9:30 a.m. viewing. Senior adults almost exclusively, none of whom needed anything being offered inside. All of us curious about what we’ll see, about how this man lived, what he’d considered important enough to collect, gather and keep through his final days.

Curious to see if anything in the house was a treasure his children didn’t know of, something we could “steal” for a few dollars and store in our own lockers for our children to offer in our future estate sale.

I chatted up other vultures, most of whom were in good humor, happy to spend a morning picking at the carcass of a deceased man none of us knew personally. We weren’t hungry, really. But if we found a morsel we’d happily chew on it.

And besides, in the cycle of nature – birth, life, death – weren’t we doing our part? Just like real vultures keep the highways clear of road kill carcasses?

I learned our guy was 95 and died after living in the house 30 years. His closets, cubbies and cupboards were filled as if he’d just stepped out for lunch, telling the house, “I’ll be right back.” But now, except for how the estate sale team had arranged and tagged everything, it stands as a cavernous crypt.

I wandered with the flock, poking, pecking and prodding. He loved Christmas music and books on history and architecture. His shirts were once expensive – but dammit, too large. The tools in his garage were well worn. His china cabinet held fine crystal too delicate for me even to want to examine.

It was the bathroom that arrested me. The sink counter was covered with personal care items that revealed an individual vanity, as would all of ours – how he cared for his teeth, his hair, his nails and skin.

Inside the tiled shower stood a collapsible walker, tight and forlorn against the wall. Available. Unused. The walker had wheels on the front two legs, so he could lift the back two legs and roll it along, dropping the back to the floor to rest or stand when he’d gotten to his destination in the house.  

The walker – alone among all the mementos of a long life – stood in mute testimony to the infirmities at the end of a long life. And it moved me from carnivore to compassion. I left silently.

Oh yeah, we got an Elizabeth Geisler basket. It was a steal.

And the angels sang

(To read the prologue of this story, click here)

The snow outside church portended a brutal night and I watched the parking lot as much as I watched the costumed kids preparing for their role in the Christmas pageant. I expected the arrival of a new helper who was racing south from Colorado ahead of a blizzard.

She was a helper whose arrival I anticipated with mixed emotions.

I had been a volunteer at Templo Bautista in Espanola, NM for two months. Recently discharged from the Army as one of America’s last draftees, I’d gone there to exercise my faith with the goal of making a difference in an environment foreign to me, a Midwestern Scandinavian who grew up in Truman’s World.

Is it any wonder I wanted no intruders? Teresita Naranjo, left, recognized as the No. 2 potter in all of New Mexico, cut my hair with Mrs. Abbott.

Mrs. John Abbott – never Ethel – carried on the work at Templo that she and her husband started decades earlier. But John had been killed in a farming accident and Mrs. Abbott told God she could only carry on as God would send help.

Enter me.

I was the first long term helper and became bus driver, Sunday School teacher, wood splitter, phone tree operator, youth director, visitation director and encourager. Life was good. Mrs. Abbott treated me like a son, fed me like a king and taught me like Socrates.

Two months later I returned to the church I attended in Colorado Springs to tell my crowd what was happening in Espanola, and to raise a few bucks to buy Christmas gifts for the kids there. In that crowd was the daughter of a man I knew well. She had just left college and was at loose ends, struggling to discern a broader, greater plan for her life.

My heartfelt appeal and enthusiasm for life at Templo Bautista struck a chord in her heart and she wanted to pray with me about the possibility of coming to help. The last thing I wanted was an intruder to dilute my lone role as Golden Child in Mrs. Abbott’s realm.

But, we prayed and this girl and I had the unmitigated gall, the brazen audacity, the cocksure brass to demand the creator of the universe provide a clearly discernible answer within seven days.

I returned to Espanola with some cash for gifts and a secret. I didn’t want my apple cart upset. I wasn’t going to stand in God’s way, but I wasn’t going to feed him an easy assist, either.

So I waited several days before telling Mrs. Abbott about Sue Ellen Carver’s interest in coming to help. I figured Mrs. Abbott would take a couple days to  pray, to cogitate and consider. By then, the seven-day deadline would be passed and I’d be home free. So, at breakfast on the sixth day, I mentioned casually that Bob Carver’s daughter, Sue Ellen, was interested in coming to Templo to help.

“Bob Carver’s daughter?” she asked. Bob had been to Templo many times on weekend work trips and was a member of a very supportive church.

And yet, who could blame me for my resistance fading?

I nodded, smug in my manipulation of the calendar. To my dismay, Mrs. Abbott reached for the phone, asked me for Sue Ellen’s number, called it and said, “Come on.”

“OK,” I thought. “It’s a couple weeks before Christmas, and she’ll have to give notice at her job and make arrangements and well, maybe I’ve got three to four weeks before the invasion.

Instead, within three days she was on the road, racing a winter storm south from Colorado to New Mexico, sliding into the median, using every ounce of knowledge her dad gave her about rocking the car to get out of a drift, crossing Raton Pass just before it was closed and arriving at Templo Bautista just as the shepherds and angels were marching through the hallway to line up for their part in announcing good news to a waiting world.

She arrived covered in frost with a smile that would melt many a heart just as the kids were shuffling down the hallway to the stage. It was a Christmas pageant scene so perfect that it would have embarrassed even Hallmark.

Over the following months, we worked daily together. Eventually, of course, I began to see Sue Ellen far less as a nuisance and far more as someone I wanted to know on a far more personal level. Sure, she was the only green-eyed blonde in Sante Fe County, but just as attractive was her indomitable, loving spirit that pitched in enthusiastically to every task and made every person who crossed her path feel like they’ve been heard, seen and loved.

Whatever it was, we left Espanola heading in different directions and had only occasional, long distance conversation until in October the following year, she came to Oklahoma Baptist University to visit her sister and we reconnected. We talked for hours – much to the dismay of her sister, who felt neglected. We talked of our own perspectives of the future, who we were and who we wanted to be, never really talking about that future together.

Yet, when I returned to my apartment after seeing her off to the airport, I knew. The next morning I called her dad and said “I want to marry your daughter.” To which he replied, “Which one?” He had four and he had no clue Sue Ellen and I had been talking.

One month later we returned to Espanola for the first time – to plan our wedding, which took place one month after that.

I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but none were better than that one 47 years ago.

Creeper Challenge Builds Resilience

More than 150,000 people shuttle up crooked roads each year to White Top, VA, the apex of the Virginia Creeper Trail. From there, they ride rented bikes on a thrilling 17-mile descent beneath a forest canopy, cross a winding mountain stream over 47 trestles and bridges and arrive back to Damascus, VA.

Colton, age 10, discovered a reservoir of resilience when he challenged the uphill climb on the Virginia Creeper with his grandpa.

I took my grandson, Colton, a few months shy of 11 years old, to ride the Creeper in September. But we weren’t going to shuttle to the top. We were going to ride up, then turn around and ride back down.

The Virginia Creeper follows the bed of a former railroad spur that carried a freight train uphill to White Top. Although the average grade is a manageable three percent, the heavy train creeped to the top, earning the nickname, Virginia Creeper. The trail is crushed gravel and cinders, rocky and often rutted from rainfall. The Appalachian Trail crosses it at one point, and riders are seldom out of sight or sound of a rushing stream.

Some adults suggested that surely I wasn’t going to make Colton ride UP the trail. “It’s 17 miles uphill,” they said. “He’s too young,” they said.

But his nickname is Wolf Cub, he climbs trees barefooted, he loves his bike and he loves a challenge. I knew that when he succeeded, the memory of his achievement would stick with him forever and verify in the future that yes, he can do more than people expect of him.

The generation of kids of which Colton is a part is not particularly resilient.  Part of the reason is that when they say, “I can’t,” or even “I don’t want to,” hovering parents who want to spare their kids any stress too willingly say, “OK.” In so doing, they strip their kids of opportunities to prove to themselves just what they can achieve, to see a challenge and overcome it.

Of course, that means we have to be willing to risk failure – a risk from which parents wrongly strive to protect their kids. Consequently, when the kids run into their first real life problem where crying won’t summon a helicopter parent and they don’t get a participation ribbon, they can’t bounce back.

Yes, they might fall out of that tree, but successfully climbing it builds confidence, strength, resilience.

Like any 10-year-old, Colton ignored my admonition to ride slow and steady as we started up the hill. He punched it hard, pulled wheelies, jumped every rock and root, raced ahead, drifted back then raced ahead again. We stopped for pictures and he finished his water bottle and asked how far we’d come. “Three miles,” I said.

“Oh.”

Downhill riders rolled toward us in waves, disembarking from shuttle vans at the top. Some were stopped to enjoy the scenery and they applauded Colton when they saw him riding up. That pumped him up, but even a 10-year-old can’t live on compliments alone.

At 14 miles there’s a little store called Green Cove Station that once was the last depot on the original Creeper line. Now volunteers sell refreshments and souvenirs there to support rangers on Mount Rogers. A candy bar and Gatorade reinvigorated Colton, along with the news that we were just three miles from the end, and he took off again. By now, even I was starting to yearn for the top.

We secured photographic proof that we made it to the top!

When we rounded the last turn and arrived at an anti-climactic flat spot with a shed and shelter, Colton flopped onto his back like he’d never straddle his saddle again. But, we needed to get back down and after securing photographic evidence of our achievement, we took off.

At the top, Colton took a moment to relish his victory, not sure if he’d every straddle his saddle again.

Two miles down, my back tire went BANG. Fifteen miles from the bottom, and of course, no spare in my seat bag – a huge oversight. I’m racking my brain trying to think of how to get off the mountain when Colton suggests Green Cove Station might have an inner tube.

Brillliant!

I gave him some money and he took off down the hill, empowered with a mission. In the meantime, I’m racking my brain to think of what to do if there is no tube. But in due time, Colton, once too weary to go another minute, is riding back up the hill in triumph, wearing a smile and waving a tire pump like it was a Sioux warrior lance.

The store had a tube, I had tire tools, Colton thought to bring the pump and we were back on our way toward ice cream.

I asked Colton later if there was any point on the ride up when he considered quitting, just turning around and coasting back down the hill. “At 11 miles,” he said. His butt was sore because he didn’t wear his biking shorts, his water was gone and six more miles seemed an impossibly hard distance.

But he didn’t quit.  

And when we faced a distinctly precarious position with a flat tire, 15 miles from our destination, it was Colton who suggested the Green Cove Station might have a tube and he could ride down there and find out. Not every person, let alone a 10-year-old, has the intuitive sense to conjure a solution, rather than be paralyzed by the problem.

Lots of people can be directed on how to fix a problem. Far fewer have the intuitive ability to imagine the solution even as they survey the circumstance.

If we hadn’t attempted the ride, and taken the risk, if it hadn’t been tough, if we hadn’t had a problem, Colton might not have learned about his reservoir of resilience for a long time.

Don’t be reckless, but for goodness sake, give your kids a chance to fail to prove to you and to themselves that they can be lions.

Fateful day half-century in the making

Sept. 13.

Fifty years ago today my dad wrapped his arms around me and said out loud for the first time I can recall, “I love you.” Then I turned toward the bus idling there to take me to Milwaukee where I was inducted into the U.S. Army.

With a draft lottery number of one, received a year earlier, this day was inevitable. But it arrived under a dark cloud of dread that wouldn’t lift for months.

I never doubted my dad loved me. I never asked myself if he did. I never wondered, pondered, considered, weighed or suspected his love. He showed me in many, non-verbal ways: working hard to provide for his family, being present, shooting baskets with me, including me with tasks we could do together, assigning me responsibilities like cleaning the barn or splitting the wood for our farmhouse furnace, then bragging about me to his friends when I worked beyond his expectations.

Primarily, my assurance of dad’s love and my subconscious security in my household growing up was how he loved my mother. Our dinner time was consistently 5:30, but no one sat down until dad arrived home from his gas route. He drove a fuel truck that serviced farmers in a four-county area, but he consistently arranged his days and route to be home for dinner on time.

Then mom would meet him at the door and the kids would have to sit at the table, waiting while they hugged and kissed and got all sloppy in the doorway.

Dad never fully grasped the implications of my lottery number. It didn’t penetrate his consciousness that radio announcing my birthday as No. 1 had changed the trajectory of my life. Nor did he comprehend my heart when I petitioned for and received status as a conscientious objector, willing to serve in the military, but not willing to bear arms.

To my surprise and delight, my basic training platoon at Fort Sam Houston consisted entirely of conscientious objectors of my same persuasion. We were all to be trained as medics. Logic was, I guess, if we weren’t going to carry a gun, we should run around with a target on our backs.

Religious belief was the overwhelming rationale for conscientious objection in my platoon. And not all represented religions were Christian. Consequently, our discussions were invigorating and affirming. Our attitudes were positive and our nascent friendships sincere.

Then, we graduated from basic. And our 40 men were divided among 10 other platoons of men who had just finished basic training that included weapons, and an indoctrination of “enemies” versus the right and righteous arm of the United States.

Suddenly, barracks were bellicose. An undercurrent of distrust and tensions ran through the room where long rows of bunks ran down both sides of the room, with lockers in the middle and footlockers at the end of each bunk. You never wanted to leave either open or unlocked.

One day I hung a pair of clean underwear on the hook while I showered. When I got out, mine had been taken and replaced by someone’s dirty underwear.

Discussions were not harmonious, but usually disintegrated into offensive and defensive positions on issues, especially religious and political. The most hard core guys could not wait to get to Viet Nam and “kill some Charlie Cong.”

Such was the atmosphere that debilitated my spirit one night when I walked to the bank of phones to call my dad for a word of encouragement. I know he loved me. But he still didn’t understand.

Depressed, I was walking back to the barracks to face another miserable night when my path took me past a base chapel. It was brightly lit and happy sounds were coming from it. I walked in. Why not?

There was a youth group on the platform getting ready to perform a musical. And I found a couple of my buddies from basic training there. After the musical, the youth offered to come pick up any soldiers who wanted to attend their church on Sunday.

Pretty girls populated the platform. I eventually dated one. My buddy Steve ended up marrying her sister.

Events of that night, and that group from Baptist Temple in San Antonio, opened the portal to the rest of my life which included a career among Baptists in communications, and marrying a girl I met at a Baptist church in my next station.

Fifty years ago. Today. As I’ve said many times since, it’s not something I wanted, nor would ever want to do again. But my life was set on course by having done it once.

The Abbotts defined dedication, and I got to play

John earned the shrapnel lodged in his legs, making them ache when the weather changed, when he labored in the fields. When he remembered.

As a battlefield chaplain during World War II, John Abbot worked among wounded and dying American soldiers in Europe fighting the scourge of Nazism. His was an active faith. He believed he incarnated Jesus as he walked, crawled and bled among soldiers who needed assurance that God loved them and that their destiny was assured.

Author as jack of all trades in Espanola, after the Army, before finishing college.

When he returned from the blood-soaked fields of Europe and as America shifted gears to embrace a new, wide open world of possibility, John applied to Southern Baptists’ missionary support agency responsible for “home” missions – or missions within the continental United States. He wanted to be a missionary in his native southwest, serving people, showing them the way of Jesus and leading them to faith.

He was a committed churchman in that denomination and after his service as a chaplain in the military, he assumed that he would be approved for support so he could turn his attention to the purposes of that agency: winning people to faith in Jesus.

Instead, he was denied support because he was deemed medically unsound, due to the shrapnel in his body, lodged there in battle. Disappointed, but undaunted and illuminated by his own vision, John secured support from some Texas Baptist churches where he was known. He bought farm equipment and set up shop in a converted dance hall in Espanola, New Mexico, a small town 25 miles north of Santé Fe.

The dance hall occupied a strategic corner on the main road between Espanola and Chimayo, a tiny town that houses one of only two places on earth that claim to contain healing elements. It’s the dirt in Chimayo, and the waters in Lourdes, France, to which pilgrims crawl. Discarded crutches, canes and bandages testify to the healing properties of the dirt in the Santuario de Chimayo. People have crawled from Santé Fe to Chimayo to do penance before applying the dirt to their injury or illness.

On the north side of the windy, two-lane road between the two towns perched a wooden church, little larger than a garden shed. It was the focal point of religious Penitentes, who marched in a single line, flagellating themselves, seeking forgiveness.

In that environment, John remodeled the dance hall into a church, office, classrooms and an apartment for him and his wife, Ethel, and he utilized the equipment to open doors among the small farmers in the dusty arroyos between Espanola and Chimayo. They could not afford individually field prep and harvest equipment that would increase their yields, and they welcomed the method and message of John Abbott to work among them, to share the work and to share his faith.

With hard work, ingenuity, faith and commitment, John and Ethel started and built a church which membership was primarily Spanish, descendants of Spanish invaders of the 16th century and Native American tribes.  They called it Templo Bautista – Baptist Temple.

Then one day in one of those freak accidents that make Christians wonder if God is paying attention, a piece of equipment that John was working under fell off its jack and crushed him. I guess he was medically unsound after all.

Ethel was suddenly a widow. Much of her livelihood disappeared because she could not run the equipment. John was the pastor, breadwinner, husband, visionary, guide, energy behind the entire effort. I don’t know how old Ethel was. She always seemed old to me, but I was just 20 when I met her. I’m sure I’m older now than she was then.

She promised God she would stay at Templo, would continue the work, if God would send her help. Because of her winsome spirit and compelling stories, Ethel received a fairly regular trickle of weekend or week-long helpers to lead special events and do repair work around the ancient facility. But she needed an everyday helper.

Her prayer and mine – what to do now that I’m getting out of the Army – clanged together in God’s ear and I became that first long-term helper. I was a pale, nerdy Scandihoovian from Wisconsin, knew zero Spanish and was new in evangelical faith. I’d been drafted into the Army after one year at Luther College and now I was out and at loose ends.

I started in November 1973 as a bus driver, youth minister, preacher, log splitter, painter, floor sander, week-night Bible study leader, and encourager. We called many of our members on Sunday morning to wake them in time to catch the bus I drove.

I brought them to church, preached at them and hauled them home. All this was done with sincere, naive spirit and within a profoundly knit community. The names “Ethel” or “John Abbot” opened any door in the county quicker than an electronic key.

I realize now the way we did church was paternalistic. We expected and required too little of members. There was an easy believe-ism in which membership at Templo eased seamlessly into whatever other influences they were weighing. Part of our motivation with activities was to “keep the kids out of trouble.”

But we slogged on. I went back to my home church in Colorado Springs to tell them of the work in New Mexico, and to raise money for Christmas goody baskets for the kids. One young lady was struck by the need, by the opportunity and by my wistful pleas. A few weeks later she arrived as a second helper, in the midst of a snow storm, as the children were trekking down the hallway in their angel and wise men costumes to present the Christmas story.

Her arrival on that snowy night declared that what I’d thought to be the first chapter of this story was merely prologue.

(First chapter to come)

When ‘Star Wars’ was Young

Writers enjoy the enviable blessing of leaving a trail through our history that we can follow back to the beginnings. Like Hansel and Gretel, our words are the cookie crumbs that prompt memories to lead us home. They bring back the people, smells, sights and energy of the moment when we recorded them.

As a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph in 1977, my “beat” was anything the editor tossed onto my desk. Foraging through boxes of clippings recently, in an ongoing effort to “clean out stuff,” I came across one of my few movie reviews.

We’d heard a big new picture was sweeping the nation; people in California were standing in lines that reached around city blocks to get tickets to the new George Lucas film “Star Wars.”

Earning $140 a week I was always looking for a cheap date night, so when the editor asked who wanted to go see this movie and write a review, I volunteered. No one else really was interested.

I was fortunate the audience that night included a gaggle of legitimate science fiction writers attending a conference in town.

For those of you who are fans of the early Star Wars movies – and I would guess the number to be close to 100 percent – I offer some excerpts of my original review.

“Out among the stars many years ago, the galaxies all lived in peace and were controlled by a ‘force’ that flowed through every creature and held the universe together.

“Then one creature wanted more power than he was allotted and fell in with a band of like-minded rogues.

“With superior weapons, the boys in black took over more and more of the universe until only a die-hard rebel remnant of the original government remained. When the two groups collided, it was ‘Star Wars.’

“So much for the plot…”

As a nascent movie reviewer, I got hung up on plot and dialog, things that make a great play or book.

“The problem with the show,” I wrote, “is that despite a visual feast, the dialogue is so inane it makes the main course much less palatable.”

When a legion of Imperial storm troopers has the hero quartet of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and that extra from Planet of the Apes, Chewbacca, seemingly trapped, Leia sneers at Solo and blasts through a wall and to provide escape into the ship’s garbage dump.

“When the four are up to their knees in scrap metal and muck,” I wrote, “hero Han says, ‘It could be worse.’ Then a low roar sounds and he says, ‘It’s worse.’ Then comes the clincher. With the walls of the giant trash compactor closing together, the lunk pipes up, ‘I have a bad feeling about this…One thing for sure, we’re all going to be a lot thinner.’”

Ugh, right?

Science fiction writers I interviewed afterwards gave me some perspective. They had been writing around similar themes for years, they said. So, while Star Wars offered nothing new in plot, they were delighted to see “the technical realization of ideas developed long ago.”

Lucas, unknown to the general public before Star Wars, added the visual magic to science fiction ideas that were floating through space for decades.

Although I didn’t keep a clipping of the letter to the editor that criticized my review, I remember the comment distinctly. “Your reviewer must have had his head in a vise,” said the writer, who obviously loved the movie.

But, that’s how ideas work. One creative mind builds on ideas floated by another.

After Karl Benz invented his “motor wagen” Henry Ford added assembly line manufacture. While Whitcomb Judson worked with buttons and eventually built something he called a “clasp locker” it was Gideon Sundback who created the zipper.

Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse and his successors created the Magic Kingdom.

A zillion ideas are floating around out there, most of them better off lost to history, even lost in space. But, keep your eyes open. Maybe you’ll be the one to magically bring to life an idea that others will stand in line to witness.

By the way, well and properly educated to the sweeping social impact of the Star Wars trilogy, when “The Empire Strikes Back” showed up three years later, I was first in line.

The Dirtiest Job

One of the fun TV shows of the previous decade was “Dirty Jobs,” in which host Mike Rowe identified some of the most unappealing, but essential, tasks in the country, and then – with the supervision of experts – did them. 

Just a few of those jobs included animal rendering, artificial insemination, diaper cleaning, goose down plucking, mattress recycling and spider venom milking.

Lurking among these innocent looking stalks are the weeds, bugs, pollen and sweat that make picking sweet corn the dirtiest job I’ve ever had. Photo by Katherine Volkovski on Unsplash

Growing up in farm country Wisconsin I was tasked with many dirty jobs: dairy barn gutter scooping, manure spreading, horse stall cleaning, pig feeding, garbage dumping, stone picking, chicken plucking, etc. But my dirtiest job ever was picking sweet corn for the local canning company. 

I’d driven a large combine to harvest peas before, and that was dirty enough. Long tines on my combine scooping tangled vines into the massive drum on wheels behind me. Inside the drum was a slightly smaller drum made of nylon screens, which turned one direction. A wooden beam with paddles rotating quickly in the opposite direction beat the vines senseless.

The brutal action burst the pea pods and the fresh, round peas tossed about in the melee until they fell through the screens and onto a conveyer belt, on which they were carried up to a bucket, while the vine trash fell out the back end.

But nothing was dirtier than picking sweet corn. 

A corn picker works like this: Metal “heads” alongside the tractor work like funnels to guide rows of tall standing corn stalks between two ribbed, solid steel rods that spin rapidly toward each other. The ribs interlock like gears so there is no space between them and they grab the tough stalks and yank them down through a narrow opening, where another band of steel – called a cutting bar – snaps off the cobs. 

The cobs drop into an auger that funnels them up the elevator behind the tractor which drops them into a two-wheeled wagon. That wagon rises on hydraulic hoists so it can dump four tons of corn into a waiting truck. That’s 8,000 pounds of corn.

Because the elevator would swing away from the wagon when we turned around at the end of the field, we’d have to shut it off until the wagon was directly behind us again when we completed the turn. Sometimes, we’d forget to turn the elevator back on, but the augers kept turning and would grind the corn that backed up into mush. We called that “creaming a batch.”

We harvested the corn at its prime, those hours the kernels are tender and sweet, and when fuzzy tassels at the top of the stalks are laden with pollen. These tassels sit atop the stalks, 7-8 feet above the ground, the same height as my head when I’m driving through the rows, jerking the stalks violently down through the rollers, shaking the pollen laden tassels over my head – all day long.  This is July and August in Wisconsin, the weeks of heat and humidity. 

So, the pollen is sticking to my sweaty skin, along with a colony of tiny bugs, no bigger than a speck of dirt, which bite like scorpions. If I was lucky enough to spot them before they bit, I’d just squish them in my shirt or pinch them between my fingers. 

Sometimes, during a dry season, the corn cobs would be low on the stalk and we’d have to lower the picker head to capture them. But that put the rollers low enough to accidently wind tightly around weeds and grind to a halt. 

That’s when I’d have to raise the heads and crawl on my back under them, dirt sliding under my collar, to slash at the weeds with my pocket knife, disentangling them from the rollers, while bugs crawled up my shirt and corn juice dripped in my eyes.

But hey, what wouldn’t you do for a buck eighty an hour?

The last thing we did each night before leaving the fields as darkness descended, was to pick our buckets full so at 6 a.m. the following morning, the trucks would have a ready load to cart to the canning factory. 

So, each morning we’d dump our 8,000 pounds of corn into a truck, steam rising with the pungent scent of boiled corn left too long in the pot so the marketing men could advertise “fresh from the field to your table.”

A word of advice learned at the 6 a.m. classroom: never buy creamed corn.  

This is “field corn” being picked. Sweet corn stalks are not dried out when picked and the heat and pollen is much heavier.

Beautiful killer

This morning I saw the most beautiful fox ever. Larger than typical, with bright red fur, tail long and bushy, not matted by thorns. It looked fresh from a spa: fluffed, puffed, tufted, shampooed and blow dried. Eyes intense, intelligent, confident and controlled. Lithe, nimbly athletic, light of foot like a dancer. 

And I wanted to kill it.

Coming back from her sunrise walk, my wife heard the terrorized shrieking of chickens in the open range pasture just behind the cottage where we stay on my son’s property. She stepped quickly to the pasture where she saw a fox with a chicken in its jaws. When she shouted and clapped, the fox sprinted away. The chicken didn’t.

Granddaughter helped to bury the first two victims of the carnage.

As Sue Ellen told me what happened, she asked what to do with the carcass. “Make nuggets” seemed an inappropriate suggestion. 

Before we could fully get our minds around what had just happened, we heard the terrified squawking again. I rushed to the door and this time I saw the fox…with another chicken in its mouth. I threw open the door and for an instant was shocked silent by the fox’s beauty.   

But my anger at its audacity quickly overcame my admiration and I stepped out the door and shouted. It understood my threat and I was pleased to see it run away, leaping the fence as if the rails were a padded obstacle in tumbling class.

I grabbed my shotgun and followed the fox’s trail, knowing it would never show its head to me while I stumbled and tripped through its habitat. I felt better somehow, though, knowing I was “doing” something, at least dropping some “man scent” around so the fox would know who it was messin’ with.

The second chicken was still breathing, its legs twitching, eyes registering a resigned acceptance of fate. I dispatched it, then tossed it into the garden while I went to get a shovel. 

My seven-year-old granddaughter watched wide eyed the entire proceedings, dressed in the “farmer girl” overalls we’d given her for an early Christmas present the day before. 

Uncowed, she helped me dig a hole, her sudden awareness of the life cycle presenting her a sad, but not devastating new insight. 

The life cycle as presented on a National Geographic special sees the fastest lion chasing down the slowest antelope, and it all seems natural and normal, almost pristine, except for the dust. Eating a hamburger never makes me think of the feed lot on which the donor was raised. 

Yet, somehow, because we fed and cared for these chickens, tucked them in at night and gave them special treats from our vegetable shavings, it became a personal insult. 

Yes, they’re free range and hawks circle constantly overhead. Yes, the fox has to eat and yes, the prey/predator cycle is natural. But, the fox invaded my space with impunity, looking at me as if I was an inconvenient interruption at his meal, like a waiter who informed him he had an urgent phone call and he had to leave the cordon bleu to cool.

It was a sad morning, but only a prelude. 

Worse, we came home after dark that night and I went out to check on the chickens, to make sure they had put themselves up in the coop, where safety lay behind a closed door. I looked inside and there was not a single chicken in the coop. 

With a sickening dread, I cast my light over the field and the beam fell on multiple carcasses, each with the head and neck gone. The goats huddled in their own shed, witness to the horror. I followed my flashlight beam around the pasture, accounting for all the chickens but one. 

I found her in the far corner, shaken and shivering. She didn’t protest a bit when I picked her up and put her in the coop, behind closed doors. I don’t know what killed the chickens and I don’t know how this one survived.

We named her Lucky.

  

Living the John Deere Dream

I wake up each morning plotting my day around any task that will involve the tractor. 

I’m staying for extended periods on my son’s gentleman farm in Pennsylvania, the buildings and 20 acres of what was once a 500-acre dairy farm. All the homes that line Grubbs Mill Road sit on large lots carved out of this farm, which is more than two centuries old.

I try to order my day around tasks that will require me to use the tractor!

While staying in a cottage on the property – a cozy, one bedroom stone building converted some time ago from the dairy’s business office – I wake either to the rooster’s crowing, the goats’ mewling in the pasture just on the other side of my west facing patio doors, or workmen’s trucks pulling in to work on renovating the main house, built in 1811. 

Each day starts with a plethora of small jobs that challenge my brazen hubris that believes man can prevail against nature. 

The property has pastures to mow, fence lines to maintain, yards, flower beds and a garden to tend. House renovations leave rocks, tree limbs and shrubbery around the yard that need to go on the burn pile. Hurricane Ida piled debris along the stream and in the upper pasture; logs lay on the ground to saw and split. There is equipment to maintain and in the midst of it all, four grandkids to ferry to school and various activities. 

I love to drive the John Deere 5210 diesel tractor with front end loader. It takes me back to the farms on and around where I grew. The tractor on our 80 acres was a little Ford Ferguson. It must have been 25 years old when we got it. It didn’t have brakes then, and we never did get them fixed.

My Norwegian bachelor uncle Don milked 19 cows on his dairy farm and was always looking for help from his nephews. By age 11 I was driving his John Deere B that started by hand cranking a fly wheel, and his Allis-Chalmers and Farmall H tractors. I cut hay and pulled a baler, behind which Don loaded the bales. For four summers after I turned 16 I drove pea combines and sweet corn pickers for the local canning company.

Tractors rumble with power and when you sit atop one, with enough horses at your fingertips to pull a loaded wagon, or scoop up a load of rock, that power ripples through your nerves to give you the sense that you, too, are powerful. 

The Ford Ferguson I grew up with made up with a big heart what it lacked in muscle. 

Our fields laid fallow for several years, taking advantage of the government’s soil bank program, through which it “rented” farm land to keep it out of production – to artificially prop up commodity prices. Because our area was at the leading edge of a glacier eons ago, we were the unfortunate beneficiaries when it melted of all the rocks and stones it had scraped off the surface on its way south.

The annual freeze and thaw cycle pushed those stones to the surface and a regular spring job for farm kids in my area was “picking stones.” We had to get them off the fields to keep them from breaking plant and harvest equipment. 

Some of those stones were boulders as big as our little tractor. Their backs broke the ground like a blue whale about to surface. I’d dig around the boulder, wrap it with a chain and hook it to the tractor which would grunt and belch, straining to pull it out of the ground where we could pry it onto a “stone boat” – a sled of planks – and carry it off to a big hole in the woods.

Our little tractor pulled so hard its front wheels would rise off the ground. To keep the front end grounded and give us better traction, dad had me sit on the tractor’s hood, holding onto the radiator cap. My puny 130 pounds didn’t do much to keep the front wheels on the ground, but it was a fun ride. 

The workhorse John Deere on my son’s farm is a much more substantial tractor. But I had a similar “can’t keep the wheels on the ground” issue with it, this time with the rear wheels. I was using the bucket to try to lift a fence post out of the ground. 

When placed years ago, the post was seated in cement. Succeeding years saw tree roots grow around it. When I tied a strap to the post and pulled up on it with the bucket, I was shocked to feel myself sliding left to right in the air, my rear wheels airborne. It was a very insecure feeling, no matter how fleeting. I quickly lowered the bucket and my rear wheels returned to terra firma. From then, until the post finally broke off, my airborne rides were under conscious control.

My son’s family has been on White Horse Farm only a year. Seven-year-old Juliette describes them as the “White Horse Farmily.” Moving there from a big suburban house that bordered their school was intentional to give the kids a broader understanding of the life cycle, to give them meaningful tasks and thus the satisfaction of achievement, and to learn responsibility in a context where neglect may mean death of an animal.

Like John Denver, life on the farm “is kinda laid back” and that could be frustrating if finished product is the goal. The younger children, ages five and seven, come bright eyed, eager to learn and to help. But, their “help” sometimes prolongs the task and I cringe when dueling pitchforks threaten to knock out a tooth while getting new straw for the chickens.

I’ve learned though, that the most important thing is not the finish. As my son reassured me, working with the kids is not about efficiency, it’s about process. And we’re in the process of growing up, growing together, learning and living in an intergenerational context. 

And tomorrow I get to hook up the brush hog and cut the pasture. With the tractor. 

Sometimes you bite even when you know there’s a hook

Pardon me for a moment, while I pull the hook out of my cheek. Ahhh, there. 

The tractor had no good place to store my cold drink cup and I forgot about it sitting on the floorboard while I brush hogged the pasture last week. Suddenly I heard a clunk behind me that rang an octave lower than the screech of hitting a stone hidden in the thick, tangled mass of long grass. And, it was an octave higher than when I ran the mower over a concealed limb deposited in the same tangle by the floods of Hurricane Ida. 

I looked back quickly to see a gray metal mass skittering across the mowed grass, having been kicked out by one or more of the nine blades spinning beneath the mower deck. My cup. Drat. 

My wife has for the past year been making what she calls fauxbucha – a homemade kombucha…which for her is a vinegar, cayenne, honey and ginger drink that does wonders for our digestive systems and cures a host of ailments: among them constipation, fungus, the national debt and likely the heartbreak of psoriasis.

I drink at least one glass of it a day – over ice from my cold drink cup – which is now a mangled tangle of cheap Chinese metal laying in the field. 

I’m prone to make myself suffer the consequences of my stupidity, so I wasn’t going to rush out and replace the cup. But Sue Ellen knew I wouldn’t be as faithful in consuming her magic elixir if I didn’t have a cup to take with me. So, the hunt. 

We drove to the Walmarts, where she had purchased the original doomed chalice. But, we could not find an exact Walmart brand replacement. Instead, there was a similar Coleman cup for twice the price, or, a Walmart brand cup with a different lid.

Cup, with the important lid.

You might not think the lid makes much of a difference. But, the patriarch of our family is prone to spills and the cup I lost had a magnetic, snap closure over the opening where the drink came out. This one just had a hole. It cost less than the original, but…the lid had just a hole. A juggle or jostle would splatter the drink over my jeans, or Sunday-go-to-meetin’ shirt.

I wasn’t about to get it. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

About to give up, Sue Ellen spotted a display of snap close lids…made specifically for the cup I wanted – the very lid the original cup had featured. Now sold separately, for just $2.74. In what world would a product’s favored feature be removed and then offered as an option at additional expense? Oh, yeah, in the American marketing world. 

I knew I was had. I felt like a fish eying a dangling worm, knowing a hook lurked inside, but too hungry to care. I resented my hunger. I resented the marketing ploy to put undesirable lids on the cup and then charge extra for the lid I wanted. 

But, I mentally added the $6.94 for the cup with the unacceptable lid, and the $2.74 for the lid that would make the cup acceptable, and found the $9.68 total still to be six dollars less than any other option and I bit the hook. 

Who knew fauxbucha would sting on an open wound?