Monday, December 17, 2012

Tamale and Enchilada - Our First Hog Adventure

Pigs. They really are wonderful animals. Perhaps that's why God forbid his people from eating them. Get past their odd shape, the odd sounds they make, and put them in an environment where the odd amounts of damage they can do is useful damage and they really are quite charming - almost human. I say, find me another animal, other than perhaps the dog, that exudes unmitigated joy at seeing you, that becomes so excited at your arrival that the twist and hope and squeal with delight.

Our first foray into the world pigs caused us to learn - and learn fast - and easily replaced goats, cows, and chickens as our favorite farm animal. This is the story of those first pigs, Tamale and Enchilada from furrowing pen to freezer...

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One of the first farm related trips I made in Disle (my 88 Dodge Ram Pickup of which much has been written) was to pick up the first little piglet. I drove Disle 45 miles into work that morning. It was an overcast morning and the sun was just peeking up over the Arkansas River as I parked, illegally, I admit, in one of the patient lots at the hospital where I worked. I did not have a parking pass on Disle and had never registered her with the campus police so they had no idea who she belonged to, and the only way they could figure that out would be to run the plates through Little Rock Police Department. But, that cost them money so I felt I was safe.

One of the many things I love about Disle happens to be the lack of communication she throws my way. For instance, modern vehicles talk to you from the moment you unlock the doors. It may be a simple, short beep and flash of the lights to let you know, that yes you did push the unlock key on your pendant and the unlock did occur as it was meant to. Then start the car without fastening your safety belt and it will constantly remind you - "Hey reprobate - fasten seat belt, hey reprobate - fasten your seatbelt" and even though most cars won't verbalize this in your particular language the message is quite clearly stated, incessantly with the "beep beep beep - beep beep beep". Some cars will even turn on your headlights when ambient light grows too dim or if the windshield wipers are turned on and the vehicle will also, again with an annoying machine gun series of beeps, that you've left your lights on as you exit the car - or the car will simply turn them off because it knows you are too stupid to do so yourself. Disle has none of these features. You fasten the seatbelt or not and no fanfare from Disle at all. She respects me and assumes I am an intelligent human being. No need to keep harping on all those things she thinks I should do, she's just happy go lucky. I can almost hear her say, "You know what? It is what it is. I'm good if you're good."

This day of all days, dark, overcast, and just early enough in the morning to need headlights before setting arriving at work, and just light enough to be able to see that they are on, I decide to drive her into Little Rock, park illegally, to pick up some pigs. Needless to say, Disle did not inform me that my headlights were on when I exited the cab, nor did she take matter into her own hands to turn them off because I had failed to do so. She also refused to start when I got back to her at the end of my work day - the temperamental old tart!

I had rolled up a pair of overalls and had laid them on the seat that morning so I would have something to change into, figuring I would be chasing and catching my own piglet that afternoon (more on that later). Remember, I was illegally parked at the hospital and would face a $25.00 fine if security found out about it. Incidentally, multiple parking violations would eventually lead to an employee's termination, especially if that employee insisted on parking in a patien/visitor lot. I knew that the security officers had portable jump starting kits they carried around with them. But to call them dressed in my business clothes would expose me as a patient parking vulture and subject me to the fine I had to find a way to work my way out of the situation. Of course, I did what any one would have done in this position.

I crawled into the cab of Disle and slyly, in front of God and everybody, succeeded in stripping down to my skivvies and sliding into my coveralls without too much commotion and I do not think any one saw what was going on - at least no one ever brought it to my attention if they had. I am sure, if someone I knew had seen me make this attempt at changing clothes in broad daylight in a single cab pickup they would have never let me live it down. Once clothed in my "farmer disguise", I rolled up my business clothes and laid them on the seat disguising them as well as I could. I then called the security department for a jump. In a few moments they had Disle started and I could be on my way. The officer looked at me a little askance and I could see the question forming on his lips - "you work here?" - but my appearance, the run down state (then) of Disle, and my pseudo-southern drawl made the words stop before they came out.

"Thankee officer," I drawled, keeping up the deception, "gotta go pick me up some hawgs!"

A quick sigh of relief and a quick pull of the gear shift into drive and then I was on my way.

Disle and I pulled out onto I630 heading east made the sweeping left exit up and over I30 and entered this interstate right before reaching downtown Little Rock and the Arkansas River. Over the bridges, a bumpy ride, past the Clinton Library, extended out over the bank of the river like some single-wide built by a lottery winning hill-billy, to my right, the RiverMarket and Amphitheater on the left. Once across the river we proceeded straight ahead, which exits I30 as it makes its way towards I40 and Memphis, and made our way up State Highway 107, one of my favorite roads for some reason. Even though it was no longer the winding strip of two lane blacktop snaking its way up north towards the Air Base it still had a lot of memories for me. Once cleared from the stip malls, grocery stores, and small time car dealerships, we passed through Gravel Ridge, Cardinal Valley, and other small towns, past Little Rock Air Force Base, and almost to the Highway 5 cutoff that takes one to Cabot. Just before the highway was the road I was looking for, Apollo Road. I turned left off the highway and then a quick right on to Zeus Road, dirt, gravel, and red Arkansas clay.

I had seen the add in the Arkansas Democrat Gazzette:

"Tamworth-Hampshire cross piglets $35 - Zeus Road, etc".  I called the number and set up the deal.

As I pulled into the drive way I realized that the people I would be visiting were not the well mannered, organized, hobby farmers I thought they were when speaking to them on the phone.

The drive pulled into a barren patch of lawn shaded heavily by large oak trees. The archetypical large hound dog trotted out to the truck braying with every step. At about the same time, Jethro and Cooter, brothers, hairy, thin, shirtless, a cigarette clamped between the fore and middle fingers of their right hands which simultaneuosly held a frosty Coors Silver Bullet cans open, probably half empty. They had slipped on their knee high muck boots so quickly that their trouser legs were all bunched up around the tops. One of them, Cooter, I think, pushed back, with his left hand, the brim of his RiceLand Foods camouflaged ball cap, stained with sweat, slop, and chainsaw grease,

"You here bout them pigs?"

There's one thing you'll need to know about me that is important to this story. I sometimes tend to adopt the accents and mannerisms of the people I am talking to. I am not mocking them, it just comes naturally, and I find that I meet with great success when I do this, because the person I am dealing with assumes I am just like them.

"Yup!" I said in a natural midwest Arkansas drawl.

"Got one left and momma's pissed." he answered.

Of course, I said what any intelligent farmer would say at this point, knowing that an inbred or unhealthy animal makes no meat, has multiple health issues, and will cause more stress on the farm than they are worth, and knowing that I needed to see the hog first, to make sure the animal was healthy and had all its parts - in the right me on this - it has happened before - I said,

"I'll take it."

"Awlraight. It's a little girl." Cooter said. Jethro had failed to speak a word this whole time.

"Awlraight, " Cooter started again. "Here's what we gonna do. Momma's pissed. This izzer last baby.  She gone be mean.", swig of beer," You got a crate right?"

I nodded. "Well then, put down yer tailgate dere and pull the crate out own it and open dat dere door lak this." He did it for me. And now we were set up to receive the hog.

"Now gimme dat thirty fav dollers and you climb on in that truck. Me and Jethro gonna go get the hog. You stay in the truck, cause momma gonna try to come troo dat fence back dere. Jethro and me gonna come running, slam baby pig in de crate, flop up de tailgate and head to de house quick as we can. You stay in de truck. Ok?"

What could I say? I mean, I said, "okay" and hopped in the truck as Jethro and Cooter left the scene along a path that circled up under the trees into the back yard, where, ostensibly, the pigs were kept. I waited just a few minutes and began to think that I had been had. I broke the two cardinal rules of animal purchases. First, I failed to inspect the animal. Second, I handed over cash before I had the animal secure in the truck. The risk of this all too trusting process of buying an unseen animal for the former is you may end up buying a deformed, retarded, or somehow evil creature that will destroy your farm and your dreams, and in the case of the latter, once the money exchanges hands, if the animal escapes, the seller can legally say, "well you bought it, you catch it!". That's if they just don't disappear around the back of the house while you sit in your cab wondering if they are coming back at all.

I sat for what seemed a few more minutes until I decisded to get out of the truck to go find the guys. Just as I reached for the door handle I looked at my rear view mirror and saw Cooter, closely followed by Jethro, holding a little black piglet, which was squealing as loudly as the two men were. They were running full tilt towards the back of the truck, powered on by the little pig in Jethro's arms, the wild screeches from the little pig's momma shaking the trees and the foundation of the single wide trailer, emanating from the pen behind the house. Come to think of it, Jethro and Cooter were screaming just as loudly. The looks of extreme terror on their faces made me think twice about exiting the relative safety of the truck.

Jethro threw the pig, head first, into the crate sitting on the tail gate. Cooter slammed the door shut and locked it. Then with a blinding speed, and a grace that belied their rough exteriors, they lifted the tailgate and slammed it shut, then ran straight to the house, up the steps, and into the house. I started Disle, slammed her into reverse, backed into the drive, slammed the transmission into drive and threw up a cloud of dust as I stepped on the gas. I pulled up to Apollo road just as a large, red and black, momma hog, sprinted in that coiled, ball of undulating muscle, that is the pig, into the front yard, squealing and wailing the whole while.

I turned left onto state highway 107 and then left on state 64 in Vilonia, stopping at a gas station to get  a drink and a snack. It was, after all, now 5:30 PM and I had not had anything much at all to eat all day. I was the main attraction of the middle-of-nowhere gas station just east of Conway. People pumping gas left the nozzles running into their gas tanks to walk over and take a look of the cute little piglet locked in the large dog crate, making pig like noises, and I am sure, without a clue of what her destiny would be.

Another 45 minutes and I pulled into the drive of Shamrock and Thistle Farm.

*** Warning: The following paragraphs contain considerable amounts of onomotapoeia.***

While I was on my adventure at Cooter and Jethro's Single Wide and Hog Farm, Patt and the kids were busy building a pen for the new piglet in a corner of our garden. The idea was to use the pig as it grew as a kind of tractor to till the patch while fertilizing it at the same time. The piglet was a ball of muscle and energy about as wide as a basket ball and about as tall as a large terrier when I picked her up. The plan was to construct a 16' by 16' pen out of cattle panels and they had it all ready when we lunked the dog crate with the 45 pound piglet inside down the hill to the garden. We were so excited, the pig was too. When the crate started shaking as I carried it towards her new home, she started oink-ing, grunt-ing, and squeal-ing, all sounds foreign to the farm. Upon hearing the strange sounds from this oddest of animals, chickens started clucking, goats started braying, cows started mooing and as they lined up along the fence to the garden to get a glimpse of this strange new animal our excitement grew much like the teenage pianist, used to practicing a piece unobserved, suddenly finds herself in front of an audience.

We set the crate down inside the pen and opened the door. Patt was ready with a jug of fresh cows milk which she poured into the trough. The little black piglet burst out into what she thought was the wide world and sucked down the milk with rapid fire slurping and gurgling.

At the time we had an all white Jack Russell Terrier named Lightning because of the lightning bolt that zig-zagged across his black nose. We dropped him in the pen and the dog and the pig became fast friends. The pig rooted here and there into the soil and I envisioned a well weeded, naturally tilled and fertilized patch of the garden. Incidentally, to this day, when the soil is gently turned to lay out the beds every year we can still smell the particular smell of hog on that patch and it is so well developed that it has become our permanent asparagus bed.

We hung around a bit to watch our new animal get used to her surroundings and to make sure there were no holes she could get out of. After several minutes we realized she had no intention of escape, confining herself to the center of the pen and the milk filled feed trough.

Satisfied that the pig was secured we made the walk up the hill to the house to wash up for dinner, ironically, a pork shoulder that Patt had been roasting all afternoon. The dining room table, in our small house, was wedged between the carport and backporch doors and the single bar-countertop that segmented the kitchen from this space. One end of the table was up against the sill of the window that looked out onto the back yard. Patt and the three boys sat two on each side, and I held the position of honor, the head of the table facing this window.Just as we sat down to eat, I looked out the window and saw a small, dog sized black shape scurrying up the hill behind the shop (which eventually would become our home after the fire in 2010). The shape disappeared behind the 400 square foot building. I think it was here I let out one of those bad words basically decent people learn when they move to a farm. We all jumped up to chase the pig which somehow had squeezed through the fence bordering our neighbors cattle farm. The little pig ran into the huge 30 acre pasture, apparently taking great pleasure in her freedom and the tall green grass.

Our new little pig, less than an hour into her stay on our farm, had escaped the pen in the garden, the garden fence, the fence which kept our cows away from the house, and the fence that kept animals on our property and went on the run. We sat back down to eat and decided from henceforth and forever more, this pig would be called Tamale. And giving up hope of ever eating one of her pork chops, we ate the store bought roast. The story does not end here, however, because by the time we had finished dinner, I happened to look out the window again, and I noticed Tamale slowly trotting back down the hill, crossed the two fences and make her way back into the pen we had built for her. Apparently, she felt the fresh milk, and the friend she had made (Lightning) was too much of a draw for her. And she gave up freedom for the security of what promised to be a peaceful life on Shamrock and Thistle Farm.

It was this incident and several others like it over the course of the ensuing years, that taught us, probably, the most important thing to know about raising pigs. They are smart. Don't let the looks, the mannerisms, and the noises fool you. The word 'swine', in the English Language, connotes a disgusting, boorish, dullard. This is inappropriate at best. Pigs will not test a fence while you are watching them. They know, you are watching them, and they will find all sorts of things to keep them occupied, to fool you into thinking they have a lack of interest. It's like a husband in the mall who sneaks a look at another woman in a tight sweater by positioning himself so his wife can not see his lingering stare. It gives the husband plausible deniability if he is caught. The pig, will eat, root around, lay down in the middle of the pen in an effort to communicate to you - "master, you have given me such a nice home, why would I want to escape?". It is only when they have lulled you into this false sense of security, do they escape, or root up the beets in the garden, or lift the gate off its hinges, or get into the chicken feed, or any number of mischeivous possibilities.

With Tamale, as she was eventually named, settled back into her new home and we plugged the holes in the cattle panel fence it became evident that she would require a companion. Pigs are friendly, social creatures, so, excited about getting into the pig business we searched the want ads of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette to find other young piglets for sale. This is how we came to own, Tamale's new friend, the cute, red and black Duroc mix hog, named Enchilada.

Patt and I loaded the large crate with which we brought Tamale home just a week before, in to the back of her station wagon for the trip. It was a "farm" southwest of Benton Arkansas advertising piglets for $35.00 each. Upon arriving we should have known better than to go ahead with our plan of getting a friend for Tamale. The "Farm" was fenced, completely on all four sides of the property, with old washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators. Not a pretty sight, but perhaps, the "farmer" deserves some credit for re-purposing these broken down appliances. The farmer saw us pull up and came out of his home, didn't bother to introduce himself, but led us to the hog pen, also fenced with used appliances. The small lot wherein he kept is flock? of hogs - what do you call a group of swine anyway?- was filled with mamas and a great number of piglets, some scurrying around and squealing, others, less motivated, lay on the hard dry compacted earth.

"Well, get in there and pick you out one!" the farmer drawled.

Hmm. I thought. For $35 I figured this guy would catch one for me. But not to be embarrassed by asking him to get one for me, I jumped in the pen and chased down an active, healthy looking young male. After a few minutes securing him in my arms I crawled back over the "fence" and headed to the station wagon.

"You want'em fixed?" the farmer asked

"Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Can we do that now?"

"Sure! Just hold him up by his hind legs and put his head between your knees to hold'em still."

I did so, arms raised up to chest level, the piglet's legs outstretched. The little fella's head clamped securely between my knees. The farmer whipped out a razor blade from his overall breast pocket and made a quick slice to Enchilada's back end, reached in a grabbed the parts and ripped them out of the hole. Enchilada made not a sound. I put the piglet into the crate, locked it up and paid the farmer.

The farmer put the parts onto a saucer and exclaimed, "There's breakfast tomorrow morning! Nothing better to go with fresh eggs!"

We drove home. I am not sure who was more traumatized, Patt and I, or the little pig. But he made little noise all the way home.

We housed Enchilada in a small crate in our workshop (which is now our home) to give him time to heal up from his "surgery" before putting him in the garden pen with Tamale.

After a couple of days we noticed the little pig wasn't eating and he felt warm to the touch. He was soiling his crate with some of the most foul smelling stuff, and he refused to drink. We did everything we could think of - cleaning his cage, force feeding him water with electrolytes, and cooking up special meals that we hoped would entice him to eat. But he kept getting worse.

We ended up taking Enchilada to a local vet you had an office in a singlewide trailer along the banks of Harris Brake Lake. A quick examination revealed that the farmer had cut deep into Enchilada's stomach cavity in search of his boy parts. Apparently the little piglet was born Cryptorchid, which means his testicles had never developed on the outside of the body like they should. Instead of dropping they remained inside. Over the past few days, Enchilada had been dying a slow death from infection caused by the deep cut into his bowels. The vet cleaned the wound up, flushed out the cavity that had grown rancid, sprayed the area with a yellow aerosolized antibacterial spray (something every farm should have on hand), and dosed him with a strong antibiotic. He gave us several more doses with instructions to give the pig a shot on a regular scheduled for the next 11 days. We did so and the feeling of guilt we experienced every day when sticking him with that needle eventually subsided as we saw him get more active and happier looking. One wouldn't guess it from looking at them, but one can tell if a pig is happy or not by simply looking him in the face. When the course of antibiotics was finished and Enchilada started making happy pig noises and happy pig faces we turned him loose in the garden pen with his new friend.

For the next 7 months Tamale and Enchilada had a very happy, healthy life. The work they did for us in that little patch of garden is still bearing fruit today many years later as our asparagus beds are really established and producing some of the biggest, tastiest spears I've ever eaten.

Then we ate them. It is the proverbial circle of life...

Combustible - Ch9 - The Final Chapter?

When we last left Donny, he was walking arm in arm with his housekeeper Ms. Davis on a cold, snowy Sunday morning, towards their church located in North Boston, just down the street, actually, from the Old North Church of "One if by land and two if by sea" fame. At the same time, a letter Donny had dropped in the mail was making its way across country to Little Rock Arkansas. I had hoped to take you inside the little church to show you the glory of this 200+ year old building and the fixtures and rituals of the Anglican Service, the glorious sounds of the sung service, and the eloquence of the 1928 prayer book still in use. However, imminent, exciting news from Shamrock and Thistle Farm has compelled me to change the focus of this chapter of Combustible, to draw it to a conclusion I hope you will find satisfying...

Chapter 9

Something happened to Donny as he was sitting there just after the Gloria was sung. That most perfect musical bliss that is: "Oh Lord God...Heavenly King!" in the sung service. He felt a wave of heat and wind like a strong sweet smelling breath from on high, push past him, flushing his cheeks and filling his lungs with a coolness and his mind with a clarity hardly to be understood or described. It was as if, the dark clouds that stood between he and his horizon suddenly cleared away for Father Sun to shine upon his goal...and perhaps, more importantly, his path. After years of muddling through life, depending on others, and feeling sorry for himself, he now knew what he was supposed to do. And as the realization that the big mystery was still out there for him to find - the mystery of his wife's death (why did she not tell him? where did she go?) and the mystery of normal people and why they suddenly burst into a flaming nothingness and ash? And the mystery of why, when the soul and the mind want to stop, the body keeps ticking along all shone bright before him. He had already taken the first step, responding to the postcards he received daily. But now came understanding. If there was a God who really cared, perhaps He was simply waiting for him to make the first step before clearing the way.

As he and Ms. Davis exited the church, leaving the warmth if the sanctuary, that had become almost oppressive, and stepping into the cold blast of air that intially brought them comfort before turning bitter again, he stopped walking, looked directly into her eyes and said,

"I am going to Little Rock, Ms. Davis. I do not know why. I just feel like there are answers there."

"I know," Ms. Davis answered, "I'll make arrangements for you tomorrow morning."

Arrangements were made, as she promised, and by Monday night Donny was on a plane heading west. He left Boston, and through a quirk in the airline industry, flew to Chicago O'Hare where he had to switch planes, which required him to walk across a flight line, between aircraft and hangars, to another terminal. From Chicago he flew to Atlanta, where, again, he had to change planes, requiring him to ride a train from one terminal to the next. But, perhaps, in an instance of divine intervention, his connecting flight was on time, he boarded the plane for a direct flight to Little Rock National Airport. If you have ever flown a certain airline into or out of Atlanta, you will appreciate the fact that Donny was able to arrive and depart on his scheduled time. To this day, I avoid Atlanta because I am not fond of long lines and over-night-sleeps-at-the-gate experiences.

By midnight Central Standard Time, Donny touched down in the Queen City of the Mid-South, picked up his rental car and by 1:00AM he had checked into his hotel on Shackleford Road.

"He would sleep in a little and then head downtown to the Post Office to scope out the PO Box" he said to himself, hoping, beyond hope to see who opened it. The excitement at the prospect of identifying the anonymous sender was not strong enough to keep him awake after his long journey. He drifted off to sleep.

On his way out the following afternoon he noticed a Copeland's restaurant just down the road from his hotel and he stopped at this welcome sight for lunch. A long time, New Orleans fixture, Copeland's had expanded its territory to include Little Rock and Donny, who in times past had tried to close down memories from his past, readily took his seat at the table and remembered the anniversary dinners he and Clara had at their Copeland's in the Crescent City. "The cheese grits are to die for," he remembered Clara saying.

Hospital Row, as its called, is Interstate 630 which connects the Chenal Parkway Financial District and the southwest Loop I430 with I30 which runs from Dallas to Little Rock, dead-ending into I40 heading east-west from coast to coast. Fort Smith lies to the West, Memphis to the East. Both two+ hours away. Past Baptist Hospital, St. Vincent's, University Medical Center (University of Arkansas Medical Center, and Children's Hospital, Donny drove, staying in the right hand lane. His map showed that he would need to exit on Broadway, turn left across the bridge spanning the Interstate, then a right on Capitol. Within a few minutes he had arrived at the main post office. He mistakenly pulled into the dock/receiving area and did not realize it until he saw a van from Arkansas Children's Hospital and the good looking, young looking, 50 something year old courier hop out of the cab and signal him back to the front. Donny's second clue was the battery of white post office trucks lined up against the dock being loaded from within. A quick u-turn and Donny was in the front lot at the main entrance. He took a book out of his pack and took up residence in the lobby which housed the banks of Post Office Boxes- and waited.

It was at least an hour before he realized that he had not identified The PO Box he needed to keep an eye on and that he had probably wasted a day. He straightened his legs, stiff from sitting on the tile floor, as he stood and made his way up one bank of boxes and another until he located the box, 1302A, repositioned himself so he could see if anyone accessed it, without it looking like he could see who accessed it. He waited and then he waited some more. When the post office closed, Donny closed his book and headed back to the hotel. With the 5:00PM rush "hour", he made it back to his room in 35 minutes. Rush Hour in Little Rock is a generic term which has no basis in reality as even at its busiest, one can make it across town in less than a half and hour. But Rush Half-and Hour sounds stupid.

Tuesday was much the same. Wednesday like wise. Thursday again. Surprisingly no one stopped to ask him what he was doing there every day, much to Donny's relief. By Friday, Donny had realized that in flying from Boston to Little Rock, that he had passed his return letter making its way by truck down the interstates through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And then it dawned on him, that his mystery pen-pal probably only checks the box once a week. What if they check it once a month? Was he going to sit in the lobby of the post office for a whole month?

His wait continued through Friday and then on Saturday. It was mid morning and a rush of people entered the lobby all at once. Each one checking PO Boxes, standing in line to mail packages, or buying stamps. Donny was lost in the crowd. He drew his knees up to his chest and stared at Box 1302A intently. Suddenly, what he had been waiting for happened. A youngish, 30-something woman, brunette, chunky build, short, wearing a pea-coat and dark framed horn-rimmed glasses pulled a key out of her coat pocket and opened the box. It was, of course, empty because Donny's letter had not yet arrived. Donny, struggled with whether or not to rise to his feet and rush over to her to introduce himself, for just a moment. The delay made the decision moot as the crowd pressed against him, it was all he could do to stand and by the time he did, the young woman had closed and locked the box and had rushed out to the parking lot. By the time Donny made it outside she had gone. He had his chance and he missed it. Donny decided to head back to the hotel to try again Monday. Surely, at any rate, his letter would arrive any day, and he would be there to see her pick it up.

The following week, again, was uneventful. The odd patron would sigh in disgust as they stepped over or around Donny seated there in the lobby reading his book - obviously assuming he was a homeless man. His scruffy look led to this perception even if he had not been eating bologna sandwiches whilst seated on a hard tile floor in the post office. Monday and Tuesday passed. Wednesday, Donny awoke in hope. There was no reason for this. Wednesday would most likely be just like the last week of days and he most likely would have to wait until another Saturday morning came along to see the mystery woman again. But this time he would be ready he told himself. Maybe that was the reason for this hope, that spurred him on.

Alas, it was not Saturday of even Friday that she showed up again. It was 7:00 AM Thursday morning. Donny had just arrived to see the young woman, again bundled in a pea-coat, leaving the lobby of the post office in a hurry. It was incidentally, this same Thursday morning that Donny's letter had caught up to him and had just been placed in PO Box 1302 A. The woman held this letter in her gloved hand as she trotted down the side walk and around the building to the loading dock where she had illegally parked her '91 Saturn coupe. She ran past the large truck that had just been unloaded - the one that carried Donny's letter from Boston, hopped in her car and turned the key. The tempermental old car did not start at first. But a second and third try as Donny rounded the building in pursuit of her, the starter cranked and the engine turned over. Just as the car started, the driver of the Post Office 18 wheeler lurched his truck into gear as he began the next leg of his journey - probably to Dallas. As the woman pulled out ahead of the truck, she looked into her rear view mirror and witnessed Donny clearing the building, sprinting across the lot, and running into its path.

Donny lay in a pool of his own blood littered with the broken glass of the truck's left headlight.

Epilogue- the Language of God

The Hebrew contained in the language of the first book of the Torah, the first sentence,  the first word, indeed, the first letter has some significance. In fact, if one reads the Rabbinical teachings throughout time, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the order in which it is placed in the scriptures has eternal significance. Our word Alpha-Bet is derived from the first two letters of this alphabet - Aleph and Bet.

The Aleph, the first letter of the alpha bet, as you can see, is an intricate design, and drawn open on all sides. Top, Bottom, Left, and Right, there is access, if you will, to the center of the letter. And in Hebrew thought, Aleph being the beginning of the AlphaBet, Aleph is also considered the beginning of all things. When Christ says I am the Alpha and the Omega in the Greek of the New Testament, He is saying "I am the Aleph and the Yom" in the Hebrew.

The Bet, as you can see, is more austere than its predecessor, the Aleph. And closed on three sides. This, in Hebrew thought, demonstrates only one way to the center of Bet, it also signifies the House. Bet Israel, then is the House of Israel. So, one can deduce, the Bet shows only one way into the center or the core of the House, the second letter of the alphabet.

Jewish thought, throughout the centuries, has asked the question. With Aleph being the beginning of all things, why would G-d not start His Holy Scriptures with this letter rather than start it with the second letter as He has done?

The Rabbinical answer? Perhaps G-d, Blessed Be He, did not mean for the beginning of all things to be open on all sides for His creation to see. He started His Holy Scriptures with the Bet because it is only open on one side. Reading the Bet as the first letter in the scriptures, then means, that anything preceding the Bet is to remain closed off. The only access to the House of G-d is the one way in, that is the side open to the rest of His Word.

It is here, we leave Donny, the shell that housed his soul, his mind, his curiosity, his deep love for truth, his wife, for answers. For too long he had probed the depths of what happened before that first letter in the Scriptures. What came before was not open to him. Perhaps, he approached something similar to the truth of what IS and the post cards, the stranger who sent them, and the 18-wheeler, were all God's way to remind Donny, that the beginnings of this universe were not open to him. He had only be content with the Bet and what happens after. To probe too deeply into the Aleph of what IS had always been forbidden.

Perhaps those that disappeared in flame and ash had approached something, a purpose, a desire, or an emotion, that gave them a glimpse into the eternal, the Face of God, and to take another step, or to stare into Glory for too long was forbidden and Poof! they were gone.

Sadly readers, we too, must be content with what comes next and not probe to deeply into what is past, and dare not to tread into what came before....

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Combustible Chapter 8 - Century Lines Part 2

Donny did make it home, eventually. He approached the door and instinctively took the keys out of his pocket, selected the correct one, without thinking, and opened the door. It did not dawn on him that he no longer needed the mantra he had learned. In his brain, it was like, that last muggy summer day, when a sudden cool wind whips through the trees, pushing clouds through like a puffy white broom, deep blue summer sky in front, light, slightly cooler blue behind. The air turns crisp, things seem alive; a long sought for clarity ensues. The muddled thoughts, depressions, and hopelessness clogging his brain were swept away and he stormed into his study with a youthful enthusiasm he had not felt for a long time.

Ms. Davis was startled. She was in the kitchen preparing his meal for the evening when she heard the door slam. It is funny how one can intuit the emotion behind a door slam. For some reason, and in some unexplainable way, an angry door slam sounds much different than a happy door slam. In both, the door is quickly pushed open wide, the inside knob is grasped with vigor, and the door is swung to on its hinges with more force than necessary. I do not know why this should be so. Ms. Davis was startled by the noise, but somehow she knew the noise emanated from one of those happy door slams.

"Ms. Davis! I am home. I will be in the study.", Donny yelled. Ms. Davis found  herself smiling as she stirred the Risotto.

"The boy has been recalled to seems" she quoted her favorite novel. For the first time in three years she heard the happy man, the purposeful man, Clara had married. "Something must be going on for such a change." she thought to herself. "Well, it's about time..."

Ms. Davis continued the dinner preparations - the Risotto takes at least 45 minutes- while Donny sat at his desk, a large leather bound atlas at least 15 years old, open in front of him.

You may be wondering how a man can go from confused, lifeless, and despondent, to wide a wake, cheerful and driven, in just a matter of moments. Perhaps only those stricken with this peculiar type of melancholy can understand, but I will attempt to explain it nonetheless. Even in the most stable of personalities, sometimes, and with some people, something akin to a blurriness enters the mind's eye. Either through continued stresses or for no reason at all, the way they see the world gets out of focus. It can be described, and probably has before, as a darkness - but I do not think darkness captures it. This is not a depression where the man gives up hope and wants to end it all. It is not the deep black of "I just want it to be over" it is more like the hazy evening shade where the absence of direct light causes a blurriness. It is the grey of a resignation - an acceptance of what happens happens; it is an emotion approaching, but not quite reaching, to the "I don't care anymore".

This kind of melancholia manifests itself like a man carrying the weight of the world. He is able to carry it, indeed, he must carry it, but he's reached the stage where he no longer wants to. There is, in this, fuzzy outlook, the persistent question of "Why should I be burdened by this load? No one else seems to be under its weight." To bring this closer to home. Donny, since Clara died, finding himself essentially alone and purposeless, carried this weight around with him. When he failed to detect anyone else in his world appearing to be crushed under a similar weight, he became frustrated, despondent, like standing in the fog on a gloomy morning. This is why the straws at the coffee shop antagonized him so. This is why he could not remember which key opened which door. It is why he stopped his research. It was as if he was just waiting for something that never comes and so the initial anticipation fizzled and he was left with a sarcasm - a negativity - that starts with a kernel of hope, but instead of breaking through the ground and feeding on the sun, it withers, dies, and rots in the soil of "it will probably just get worse."

The real oddity with this mental condition - it is certainly not elation, nor is it depression - is it takes only one thing to cause the melancholy mind to snap out of it. Even the smallest of things can do the trick. A homeowner struggling with the plumbing can find himself in this state but then by some chance or through the aid of a helping hand, things start going right, the leak stops leaking, the mixing valve starts mixing, the toilet starts flushing, and in an instant the fog clears and a destination comes into view. Essentially, snapping out of it is simple. And it comes down to two very different emotionally charged words. Accomplishment and Purpose.

In just an instant, Donny snapped out of it. Something as simple as an article in a newspaper and a cross-stitched bible verse cleared the fog. He suddenly allowed himself to remember his Accomplishments (his research to that point) and his Purpose (finding a unified answer to life's persistent questions). In this he did not forget Clara, his loss of respect in the scientific community, these simply became a part of a larger purpose. Something clicked, something gave him hope, and he walked around this monolithic melancholy, developed by tragedy in his own life, for a new perspective. He had to get back to work - not to save mankind or solve its mysteries, but for his dead wife. A simple change in attitude, I know, but powerful nonetheless.

As I mentioned before, Donny had pulled an old atlas out of one of his many book cases and was studying the large map of the United States as it lay out like a crinkled, stained treasure map upon the desk of an adventurer. Ms. Davis poked her silver haired head into the study, saw him intently engaged, and without asking, decided to bring him his dinner on a tray. It had been some time, she remarked to herself, since she had seen him work with enthusiasm.

The map Donny had laid out before him, in addition to the wrinkles and coffee stains, bore marks, made in red, of the cities where Spontaneous Human Combustion had taken place - Cleveland, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Decatur Georgia, Richmond Kentucky and others were marked with a red dot that had turned purplish over time. He removed a red magic marker from the pen holder neatly aligned on the top right corner of the desk and made two marks - one was a star top dead center of Louisville KY (Summer), the other in Perryville Arkansas, just 45 miles west of Little Rock Arkansas. There. He thought to himself. Now what? Still no pattern. No repeat cities but two within three months of each other. What did these two have in common with each other? What did these two have in common, if anything, with the others that preceded them? He opened up his journal which he had removed from the back pack and in between bites of baked chicken and wild mushroom risotto, he read deep into the night.

The next morning was bitterly cold. It was that kind of cold that begs for snow. Somehow on days like this, Donny thought to himself, snow would make the cold a little more bearable. He had just popped awake where he was still seated in the over sized leather armchair in his study. The raging fire in the fireplace from the night before had burned down to a slightly warm pile of ash covering a few hot coals. The room had a chill but snuggled under the woven string blanket he had pulled over himself when the room got cold, he was comfortable, content, unwilling to move. So to, the raging fire he had experienced the day before when his world once again caught its purposeful flame, had subsided and he now had entered that realm in the mind where just a few ashes and hot coals simmered, but the cold realization that he had no more fuel to pile upon the hearth and the fear of it dying out completely worried him. It took very little time for the feeling that his new found excitement from the day before was just a mind game he had played with himself. He was still a long way from finding the answers he was looking for. Doubt entered in and tried to convince him that an answer within the realm of science and what science could discover was impossible. Could it be, he asked him self, from under that blanket, that this is all just a leap of faith? 

He felt that the unified answer he was looking for was out there to be found but he was not quite ready to place that answer in the hands of a faith he had drifted away from. And because of this, he was still not quite ready to ask Someone for a sign. He remembered the testing of God that Gideon had used in the Old Testament. The stubborn scientist was beginning to replace the despairing, humbled man. It was a feeling that filled him, at the same time, with comfort and dread. Still, he felt someone or something leading him to talk to the One who was not there. And when his mind drifted in this direction, the scientist in him, pulled back, gently, and then more fiercely.

It was then that the mail man, bundled from head to toe trudged past the bay window of the study, clomping in his big fur lined boots up the steps, sweeping the chin straps of his faux fur lined postman's cap with the ear flaps back over his shoulder. He opened the brass mail slot and dropped two items through onto the floor of the foyer. Donny struggled with the decision to stay in the warm ball of blanket and leather he had coiled up in or brave the brisk chill in the house to retrieve the mail. In the end he decided to throw the blanket off. He rose and quickly stirred up the fire place adding some kindling and a couple of small logs. He slipped on his shoes, wedging in his feet according to custom, laces still tied and walked to the foyer to pick up the mail.

Even though he did not ask for it - his scientist mind won that battle of faith - he immediately and without his own doing spoke these words in his mind, "Well, I guess I have my answer." The bare hint of a "Thank you" escaped his lips. This embarrassed him. Who was he talking to anyway?

He held in his hands a newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a postcard. The front page of the former ran this headline - "Hog Fan Disappearance A Mystery" and upon the latter a picture from 1957 of War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The news story, without the benefit of being there, described, in much less detail, the circumstances surrounding Kenny Dumas, after he had left the Miracle on Markham and combusted in his truck while listening to the end of the game in the parking lot. On the flip side of the postcard, in an elegant hand, was written this:

Dr. Mackey,

We have a mutual interest and a mutual history. Silence for so long and now 4.
Respond to the address below if you would like to locate the human soul.

Remember Louisville, Little Rock, Perryville, and Clara.

PO Box 1302A
Little Rock AR 70221

"Four?" he said out loud. "What is this? Who is this?".

A nervous ball formed in his stomach as read and re-read the post card and the article. The article stated that there had been a total of three instances of spontaneous human combustion in the last 4 months with two happening within a 60 mile radius of each other - something of an anomaly according to Donny's research journals. The post card mentioned the number four and mysteriously the name of his wife. What could it mean?

Donny was thrust back into a passion. He was not one for mystery or suspense in real life. In the lab, it was what made his work exciting - would the hypothesis be proven true? But in real life, mystery meant danger to him. Real life was not controlled like his lab experiments were. He tucked the paper into the front of his latest journal, the post card wrapped up inside it and he headed to the kitchen where Ms. Davis was making him hot coffee, buttered toast, and a ham and cheese omelet.

The following days ensued with the general routine - Donny reading, sleeping, pacing like a child bored in a playroom full of toys. The mail man came. The mail man trudged up the steps. The mail man dropped a postcard through the mail slot. Donny picked up the post card - always another scene from Little Rock Arkansas on one side and the gracefully scrawled note on the back. Always the same, or nearly so.

Remember Louisville, Little Rock, Perryville, and Clara, followed by the return address HS, PO Box 1302A, Little Rock AR 70221.

Each day followed the next as the minutes Donny sat reading and re-reading his journals, turned into hours, which, in turn, evolved into days. By the time he awoke from the routine it was Saturday night once again and as Ms. Davis straightened up Donny's study as he sat there at his desk, pouring over maps, hastily written notes, and newspaper articles, she asked him the question she had asked him every Saturday night.

"Mr. Donny? You going to Church with me tomorrow?"

This question had been answered many times before, with a polite but definite, "No, no thank you, Ms. Davis." The answer Donny gave was one born of despair, anger, or perhaps fear. Even at his most stubborn, most scientific of times, he still could not shake the very real possibility that there was a God and that he did take an active part in the world and in his own life. And, indeed, this time around, Donny formed the beginning of these words again, then looked at Mrs. Davis, and in an instant, thought to himself, "What could it hurt? I'm not doing anything here. What are those postcards? I guess I could go. It's just an hour." All of these thoughts rushed upon his mind, seemingly all at once, in a cloud of confusion.

This is not unlike what the author experiences every Sunday morning around 8:30 AM. All the excuses he has for not attending services rush upon him and on those mornings when he and his lovely wife do make it to church, the deciding factor is usually one of two things. First, it's only an hour. Second, I'll probably feel better. Oh, the ambivalence of modern man! Where has the man gone, that desperately seeks the One in which the Universe does consist!? Reader, if you find him. Get to know that man!

Donny began to feel, upon his chest, that pressure he felt the nights of the week before, alone in his study, refusing to ask for help, to ask for a sign, trying to get to the answer of the human life lost in flame, Clara, the post cards, his three year daze, why the straws at the coffee shop don't work, from within the reasoning of his mind. It was, dare I say it, that still small voice, almost inducing him to call out - Oh God! Where am I and where do I need to go to get back to you! He felt that pressure, heavy upon him again, and in a pitched battle between his scientist and his philosopher and his priest, made his decision.

"Yes. Mrs. Davis. I would be happy to. 11 AM?"

"11 AM. Your clothes are ready and hanging in the closet upstairs."

Mrs. Davis, raised her eyes to the heavens as she left the study, raised them in gratitude and relief. Her persistence had paid off. You see, Mrs. Davis, too, had felt that pressing sensation in her chest every Saturday night as she struggle within her mind, against her reason, whether to ask Donny to church, one more time again. Now Donny, as he continued to sit after this brief but tiring conversation, wondered how Mrs. Davis knew he would be going to church with her.

*    *     *

Sunday morning dawned bright. The newly fallen snow, still unmarked by foot or tires lay in a thick blanket upon the ground. The eerie quiet that accompanies a new snow in the early morning brought a sense of peace and relaxation to Donny as he dressed. As he waited for Ms. Davis to call that she was ready, he sat at his desk and sorted back through the strange postcards he had collected over the last few weeks. Always the same message. Always the same handwriting. And always the same reaction, the same questions. But this time, in this stasis of silence, warmth of his study, brightness of the sun reflecting off the snow into his bay window, Donny decided to respond.

He addressed a letter to the PO Box in Little Rock Arkansas, expressing his desire to make contact with the mystery person that reminded him of the last 3 locations of combustion and Clara. Clara? How did this person know Clara? And what did Clara have to do with the whole thing. He asked himself these questions as he wrote. He signed the letter, folded it in the traditional style - a lost art in this current age - bottom folded up 1/3 of the way and the top folded down overlapping, so that the recipient could withdraw the letter from the envelope and naturally open it up ready to read.  He addressed the envelope, affixed the stamp, and placed it in his jacket pocket. He would mail it, he thought, at the mail box he would pass on the way home from church. It was just then that the front door opened and Ms. Davis, who lived just up the street, came in stomping the snow from her overshoes.

Ms. Davis took Donny's arm as they made their way down the street towards the small chapel where services were being held. As they walked, Donny was lost in thought, and secretly planning his trip to meet the mystery lady in Little Rock. He had made the determination that the sender of the post cards was a woman for some reason, though there was little to suggest one way or the other. The handwriting was elegant but benign. No other clues presented themselves and the scrawl could have easily been made by a fifty year old, ham fisted truck driver with a classical education as a woman, full of grace. As they passed the mail box, Donny stopped, excused himself from Ms. Davis' arm and dropped in the letter.

"So you're going to go then?" she asked.

Donny asked himself, "how does she know these things?"

And as if hearing his thoughts aloud, Ms. Davis, "Mr. Donny, Clara asked me to take care of you, that's just what I am doing and I think you should go. It will be an adventure. You have enough money, it would be a shame not to use it, while sitting in your study for the rest of your life."

They looked at each other as if to say a mutual "I know. Thank you." They rejoined arms and slowly, like a four legged bundle of wool, continued their walk.

*   *   *

It is here that we leave Ms. Davis and Donny on their way to church and follow the letter. The mail box flap had been hard to open, it being frozen shut. But once opened it had been dropped to the bottom of the box. The label on the flap showing a 9:00 AM pick up for Monday morning. And as the letter relaxed atop the small pile of letters in the box, Donny relaxed. "Sometimes, you have to do something to find the reason for it" Donny paraphrased one of his favorite authors, John Le Carre, in The Perfect Spy. Action is sometimes the best way to remove doubt and fear, even if it asks more questions than one started out with. And as the letter sat, the scientist/philosopher/priest grew in his confidence. Just as that letter door in the mail box was once stuck and the forced open by an outside hand, Donny's spirit, once frozen shut, was opened with a forceful tug, and now, for the first time in a long, long time, he felt hope, excitement, contentment, and peace. We'll see what happens to Donny and Ms. Davis on this bright chilly Sunday morning in a moment.

The flap in the mail box opened up again on Monday morning. It had, once again, frozen in the night after a day of sunshine had thawed around its lip and hinges. A small sliver of sunlight made its way through the opening and shone upon Donny's letter resting there atop the pile.
A few more letters were deposited and had fallen on top. These letters were dropped by an accountant on his way to his office downtown and are of no consequence to this story. Within just a few minutes after this last deposit, the tumbler in the lock was sprung by the post man, turned, and the main door of the blue mail box was opened. All the letters scraped out of the bin into a large plastic post office bin. The post man, loaded the bin into his truck and made his way to the processing center as this was his last pick up stop before proceeding with the deliveries for the neighborhood for the day - which, in this part of town, is made on foot.

Just a few hours after this clump of mail is deposited at the center, a small, intricate journey along scanners, conveyors, and slots and bags, and trucks Donny's letters, and all those heading to the mid west were loaded on semi-trailers for their journeys to their destinations.

Truck number 4755, marked Boston-Memphis, an older Peterbilt, driven by a large man in a flannel shirt, with low grade narcolepsy, pulled onto the express way. We now follow this journey to Little Rock Arkansas.
*   *   *

According to the Historic Arkansas Museum,, there is a reason why the wild west was wild - a reasonable explanation for how the relatively high class residents of the original 13 colonies, as they moved westward, became more and more rugged, single-minded, stubborn, and, dare I say, uncivilised. While genetics and how they inform our responses to hardship, wealth, or the lack thereof which insulates us from or exposes us to difficulties do play a part, neither plays as significant a role in this phenomenon - The Wild West - as the geography of our great land.

One sees this in what I call Century Lines, where they fall, who congregated along them, and who did not. Follow the geography, the etymology (the names settlers gave to their new towns) and one can see how attitudes, lifestyles, and moral codes were developed with ramifications that travel down the river of time to the delta of our own day.

The Peterbilt, truck 4755, from Boston immediately crossed one of those century lines leaving towns that were established before the American Revolution, the architechture, the cobblestoned or brick paved streets, too narrow for the truck carrying this all too important letter were left behind. The original settlers of this area, not to minimize their courage or the hardships they endured, stopped westward expansion, not because they felt they had discovered enought room for their population, but because they ran into natural obstacles that they either were too tired to overcome or there were few among them willing to leave the group and set out on their own.

These obstacles took the form of ominous mountains, that perhaps, reminded them of their home country, rivers, which, difficult to cross, provided natural boundaries to them - a "we made it this far, and that's good enough philosophy - similar to the amatuer accountant who rounds up or down to a nice "round figure". I you notice the major cities of our times, the population centers that grew full of immigrants who all shared this philosophy of "this is good enough",  they are almost always nestled up along the east slop of a mountain range or along the eastern banks of a, then, uncrossable body of water. This century line, the western border of the original 13 colonies, cuts through Pittsburgh southward along the Appalachians on the western borders of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, through Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a little more than 10 hours on the snowy, sometimes, icy interstates before the letter we are following eeked its way through Pittsburgh, the first century line, and into Ohio, the beginning of the second epoch of westward expansion by the second generation of settlers of America.

This second century line, that of the late 18the and early 19th centuries, terminates along the Ohio River in places like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Paducah. Again, it can be seen in the museums, the architecture, and in the historicity of the locales, this second wave of western expansion ended with the next mass of humanity hitting the Ohio River barrier and saying, "That's Good Enough!". George Roger's Clark must have thought this to himself as he built his cabin on the eastern banks of the river just a few miles north of the Falls of the Ohio. In fact, by the time Mr. Clark grew into an elderly statesman, he had moved to Locust Grove just northeast of what is now downtown Louisville, and died there a financially spoiled, bitter old man - having funded wars and exploration from his own pocket, with no remuneration of our esteemed federal government for him or his descendants.

In another 8 hours our letter will be trucked into Louisville accomplishing what thos early settlers could not. When population centers along the eastern sea board became restless, when the most reclusive, wild, and stubborn among them grew tired of the crowds, the regulations, and the hoity-toity-ness of big city life, they decided to move on - increase their land holdings, start a new more self sufficient life. So they set out west from states like New York, Massachussetts, and others to find space. When they hit that obstacle and thought, well this is as far as I am going to go, they settled there, in states like Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi south of the Ohio River, and in states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois north of the Ohio.

As these river cities grew into population centers and hubs of commerce, the more adventurous Americans, much like our letter which is now crossing the I64 bridge out of Louisville into Indiana, packed up their lives and headed west until they reached the next big obstacle to check their progress, the Ole Grandad, Big Muddy, the Mighty Mississippi.

St. Louis, the gateway to the West, was settled as if the groups of people crossed the Mississippi and were so worn out they could not take another step, decided to pitch a tent for the night, ended up staying the week, and eventually made the west bank of the big river their permanent home. It is here, that our letter takes a slight left hand turn and floats upon 18 wheels and air-shocks down I55 into northern Arkansas towards Memphis. Just 5 hours later, a sharp right onto I40 West ushers our letter towards the great west, the land of prairies and deltas. We've entered into another epoch of settlement.  We've crossed another century line into the Wild West.

Hopefully, this picture of westward expansion, explains the psyche of the frontier states. Only the wildest, most stubborn of early Americans made it this far. A pioneer setting out from the east coast in the mid to late 18th century had to cross no less than 2 mountain ranges and 3 large rivers. Many gave up and settled, the most stubborn pressed on culminating in the settlement of Fort Smith Arkansas, the roughest town in the west; the home of the Hanging Judge Roy Bean. A monniker apropos even to this day.

Our letter did not make the trip to the Oklahoma-Arkansas border town, but if you do, check out the National Park and tour the court house and gallows where dozens were hung. Something mysterious lurks there. Something, outside of this world, whether good or evil, or perhaps those are just labels we give to unexplained things in the universe. And good simply means the mysterious that happens to benefit me or bring me comfort and evil describes the mystery that causes me pain or discomort. Regardless, this brings us full circle. And just as Donny's letter went on a journey through centuries of growth, struggle, failure, acquiescence, triumph, despondency, stubborness, resignation, and struggle, Donny, in microcosm, was about to cross that mountain range, that river, that obstacle that stood in his way to what the settlers of the American west, eventually, called home.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Training Ground for Cursing

Back before I lost my faith in humanity; before I gave up searching for a Biblical reality in the Christian Church in America; back before I morphed into a warped, frustrated old man; I was a fairly peaceful, well spoken, polite, man, completely in control of my thoughts, emotions, and the words that proceeded out of my mouth.

Towards the end of my six year enlistment in the military I experienced a slow grinding conversion, or perhaps an enlightenment, centered on the Christian Faith. I quit smoking, quit cursing, and unbelievably, became quite the zealot.

The turning point came, the turning away from the plow point, ironically enough, when we moved to the ultimate training ground for all things cursing. The farm.

The following is an example of how I went from the reasonably sanguine, never even cursing under my breath, steady, peaceful person I became during my conversion to Christianity, to the masterful parlayer of creatively blue, vituperative idiom...

We bought the farm in June of 2001. The garden, such as it was, planted and producing sweet corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers. But by this time, the winter and summer squash were overrun by those little armored tanks that release a foul odor upon squeezing them between one's fingers, the squash bug. The soil was compacted clay and had been supported by regular doses of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. We were new to the small scale farming scene but somehow figured this wasn't right.

Along with the farm came two BeefMaster cows, one an experienced mother, the other a small and slightly, retarded looking heifer pregnant with her first calf. Oh what a blessing we thought that would be.

Within a month the first calf was born. The experienced mother did it on her own as we watched and worried. It was birthed in the southeast corner of our pasture and was a large healthy bull calf. In another month or so, the heifer gave birth to her calf. Well, we actually had to yank and pull the calf out of her, with assistance from the old farmer we bought the place from. Something didn't look right with it. The farmer congratulated us on a heifer calf. We were to find out that this little one - we named Dot - was mentally retarded and was actually a bull. It never got over 3 ft tall and was only about 4 feet long and 350 pounds by the time he was put in the freezer.

His half brother, Spot, was a much larger calf and grew to a reasonable size, not huge, around 500 pounds by the time he made the trip to the processor in Pottsville. Spot, the first animal I actually took a great deal of satisfaction in putting the freezer, turned out to be the slippery slope that turned me to the dark side - he made me lose my religion, taught me how to curse, and determined my children not to stay anywhere near a farm for the rest of their natural born lives, if ever they live that long...

It was a summer day, a weekend, and the fence that ran along our nothern boundary was in poor shape after at least 30 years of neglect. Three measly strands of sagging barbed wire strung along rebar posts and overgrown with honeysuckle, blackberry, and shrubs. The bordering property was a rental house, small, yellow, and noisy. No less than 38 young people stayed in the house at any given time and as a result, the dogs, cows, and cats all became intently interested in the strange noises emanating from the home late nights and weekends.

Cows get a bum rap. Sure they sometimes are beautiful creatures and even in their beauty they have an air of stupidity. I mean, honestly, they look stupid. But I assure you, cows are intelligent, and sinister. A Scottish Highland ranch owner in Birdtown clued us in on this little known fact about the bovine species when she said, "A horse can do tricks, but you have to keep training them for the rest of their lives. Cow, however, never forget. That's why that cow is going in the freezer..."she pointed to a huge, hairy, white Highland, "she figured out how to tip-toe across the cattle guard, now I can't keep her in the fence." To illustrate, Spot's mother, I have expunged her name from my memory banks due to the trauma I experienced, loved corn. Sweet corn, field corn, any corn. I am sure she would be an alcoholic cow if she had acces to corn liquor. She knew that the gate to the garden, which sits in the middle of the farm and is accessible from the main pasture area, was tied closed at two locations with baling twine. The knots were tied with double bow knots because surely cows can't untie baling twine. Oh, the naivety of the young farmer! Spot's mother, I forget her name now, but for the purposes of this story, I will call her Satan, stood at the gate for hours and days on end, ostensibly staring at a mother lode of corn on the other side. One day, by vigorously licking the twine in both locations over and again with her thick raspy tongue she, indeed, succeeded in untying the knots. The corn was decimated by the time we realized it and got her back out of the garden. Of course, not being the sharpest bowling ball in the shed, I retied the gate closed in the same manner. It was a mere few days before she had, once again, untied the twine and finished off the rest of the garden. This was a behavior, learned, and remembered that eventually led us to selling her off. Once she learned how to untie the knot, she did it over and over again.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree. Spot was in the side pasture, not really our property but the owner allowed us to run our cows on the little 2 acre plot to keep the grass down. He munched away for most of the day, nonchalantly easing his way across the patch of weeds and tall fescue and black berry vines, until he reached the northern fence row which ran about 20 feet from the yellow house full of degenerate youth. Apparently without knowing it, Spot managed to eat his way through the 3 strands of sagging barbed wire. For those of you with cows, or experience with this devilish species of meat, a cow can stick their head through barbed wire and eat, then serendipitously stretch one leg, through whilst eating, stretching out its neck as far as possible, the barbs digging into the thick leathery hide. Eventually they will stretch the other leg through while maintaining their current rate of munch, until the fence row is perpindicular to and pressed snugly up under its now bloated belly. Before you know it, even if you are keeping an eye out for this covert, "innocently" performed suspension of physics, the cow will have its rear legs, one at a time, drawn across the fence while it is continuing its feast. Now on the other side of where you want them to be, they will continue their slow munching trek right on down the road if you are not careful.Spot had learned to do this from his mother, Satan, and we were forever trying to keep him in what we like to call the "right pasture".

This was one of those days, a weekend, a nice relaxing weekend on the farm. I remember it being a seasonably cool day. The kids and I were outside. Patt noticed Spot was not in our pasture but had, once again, walked through the fence and was in the back yard of the yellow house.

                                                                                                                                                                                              (Satan walking down the road-2002)

*** The content of the remainder of this story has been edited to insure a pleasurable reading experience for people of all ages. As a result some epithets have been replaced with descriptive words or phrases that may imply much stronger language***

"The cows out!" she yelled. I can't remember what else she included in the shout but it went something like this I am sure. "That kneecap walked through the fruiting fence again. Gol Blammit!" The stream of profanity that issued forth from my wife did not embarrass me as much as it probably should. In retrospect, it actually seemed to make her feel better.

"Mason, Aaron, Ronny, Get the bell out here! The fruitin' cow got out. Split!", she continued. Now, I must explain. When Patt gets mad, something palpable happens to the universe. The warp and woof of the space-time continuum gets stretched as if some mysterious power grabs opposite corners of our existence and yanks! The resulting waves of dischord ripple through the physical environment causing all men within a twenty mile radius to wake up and realize that something, they do not yet know what, has gone bad wrong. As a result of this particular shaking of the universe the Hutchins men sprung into action. We had enough experience with "Save the Farm" emergencies to have laid out a plan for us all to man our posts. Within minutes we were all in place:

Aaron arose from the arm chair in the living room and slowly changed out of his pajamas into his work close so as to give the illusion he was on his way.

Mason slipped on his work boots and in a full bore linear panic (FBLP)* sprung through the screen door, slamming back against the house and its 30 year old hinges and ran down the hill to the center of the main pasture.

Ronny immediately took his post guarding his bedroom, specifically, the bed area of his bedroom, just in case Satan or any of her offspring should attack his collection of Biomicle action figures.

I grabbed a bucket of sweet feed from the shed, which 10 years later would become our home (a story for another day and the beginning of the S&T Blog). For some reason I had a big smile on my face - still impressed with the stream of profanity being bantered about the farm at the top of our voices.

Patt was already at the GPOC - global position of the cow - waiting, holding the situation status quo until her troops arrived.

I instructed Mason, on my way down the hill, to standby at the little brown trailer that had been left there by the former owner, and in which we stored our bales of hay just in case the feed did not coax Spot back into the "right pasture".

I arrived on the scene and Patt and I crossed the fence into the neighbor's back yard where Spot was busily mowing the lawn.

Spot was a feed hound. Especially sweet feed. He was addicted to it. But in spite of this addiction he refused to come to the outstretched bucket I held in my hands. Apparently he realized that he had stumbled across something better than sweet feed, based, probably solely on our reactions thus far. He had found the sweet tasting forbidden pasture, which, incidentally is the basis of the old saying..."The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side of The Fence". The only thing worse than someone actually using trite phrases such as this, is when they are actually proven to be true.

No matter what we did, no matter how sweetly we talked to him, nor how rancid our cursing became, Spot continued to eat the lawn, inching ever so slightly away from us as we approached. It became clear that Spot knew exactly what he was doing, who was in control, and that he had the power.

Seeing our efforts failing I turned to mobilize the troops. Aaron was still on the back porch "trying" to slide his work boots on. Ronny had his plastic toys safely guarded and Mason stood at-the-ready to assist by the brown trailer about football field away.

I yelled over to Mason. "Mason, gets some gol danged hay!" Mason sprung into action from his Modified Stationary Panic (MSP)* he was performing. He swung open the back of the trailer grabbed a hand full of hay - a small handful - and converted his energy back into the FBLP he had experienced just moments before as he sprinted towards our location. It was really a thing of beauty, really. Except, a small handful of hay carried in the hands of a 12 year old, running full steam towards us and the cow, with a look on his face like his hair had been set on fire would do little to calm the situation or entice the cow back into the pasture.

I yelled again. "Mason, Mason, No! No! Get a Ship Load of Futher Muckin Hay!" I do not think Mason could hear me as he kept running towards us. I repeated my delicate plea for the whole neighborhood, just in case they did not catch it the first time. "Mason - A Ship Load of Hay! Stop!"

The degenerate neighbors in the yellow house heard me though Mason did not. My third entreaty did the trick as Mason stopped dead in his tracks leaving a skid mark in the soil and perhaps one or two in some other places. He turned around and in a dead sprint headed back the 150 yards or so to the hay trailer.

I can only imagine what was going in inside the house. I have reconstructed what could have possibly happened using the facts as I remember them, the benefit of retrospect, and my imagination. The 37 or so inhabitants of the home, all young kids, a mix of 20 year old boys and girls were, I am sure, sitting or lying in various odd positions in the living room, smoking something or other, listening to grunge rock, dressed in the flannel and combat boots, and otherwise in a daze. There were at least two inhabitants coherent as I am sure the conversation went something like this, for clarity I will call these two Dennis Hopper (From Apocolypse Now) and Sean Penn (From Fast Times at Ridgemont High)

Sean: Dude.
Dennis: Wah?
Sean: Dude. Didjew hear dat?
Dennis: Dude.
Sean: Dude, Go chekit out man.
Dennis: Dude. No way man. U checkit out.
Sean: Dude.
Dennis: Dude.

There is something about the word 'dude' when spoken with emphasis and a compatible facial expression. Dennis got the message, picked up his cell phone, after locating it under the pyramid of PBC on the coffee table, and exited the Hive of Dude for the back yard. There is also something about this generation that causes them, in times of emergency, to forsake personal safety and heroicly take action by calling their friends on their cell phones to describe, the building on fire, the river cresting its bank, the bank robbery, or the escaped cow in the back yard.

Dennis, now really picture Dennis Hopper at the end of Apocolypse Now, began his play by play of the situation.

"Dude, there's a cow in my backyard. No, really, dude. I'm tellin ya - there's an FN cow in my back yard. It's lookin right at me. No I ain't shippin you. There's a MFN cow in my FN back yard man. No. Don't come out - it looks dangerous, dude. I told you there's a FN cow in the yard man." This continued as Patt and I  tried to get Spot on the right side of the fence.

Somehow, amid all of our screaming curses in which bad words were strung together in the most creative of ways, Dennis' ramblings about the elusive Back Yard Cow and the dangers one faces when coming across one, we were able to get Spot back onto our property. This was not the first time he escaped, nor would it be the last. Eventually we sold his mother and ate him. But I will always remember what he taught us.

There is no more effective training ground should one desire to learn to curse a blue streak than your local family farm.

* FBLP - Full Bore Linear Panic is a term coined by one of my favorite authors, Pat McManus in one of his hilarious short stories "Modified Stationary Panic" included in his collection "A Fine And Pleasant Misery".

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rain Gardening Or Perfect Beets, Carrots, and Turnips

I came across this painting, Gardening in the Rain by Brian Kershisnik, during one of my frequent work break/Google Search sessions. This particular session was induced by a phone conversation I had with my boss concerning employee evaluations and how I should be rating them on a bell curve. This, after I presented a demonstration of my employee accountability system (which I designed and which received major awards in my industry), at a recent district meeting. I was told basically that there is no way all of my employees can score a 4 out of 5 on their evaluations because that means every one is average. Mathematically, that is correct. However, if all of my employees exceed the standards I set for a 3 but fall short of the standards I set for a 5 then they must, according to the standards, be rated a 4. I was then told that eventhough their performance was good enough for them to all get promotions that went into effect at the beginning of our year (October) that I am not evaluating them on what they did last year, I am now, because of their promotions, rating them on their new positions, eventhough they have only been filling those new job titles, for 26 days. I was then told that I should be rating people on a bell curve. That is, 20% of my staff should get a 4 or above; 80% should get a 3, and 20% should be on a performance improvement plan. This means, no matter how well 80% of my staff do, they will never get a 4 or a 5, even if they meet the standard for those ratings.

Well, I felt like, once I got him off the phone, that I needed to take a walk. After a week of getting yelled at for things which I, ostensibly, have done wrong, I headed to the door to take a walk in the park across the street. Ah, it is raining. Immediately that scene in trading places where Dan Akroyd is at his lowest - he's poor, in  a Santa Claus suit, he drops his liquor because the paper bag he held it in was soaked by the rain; if I am not mistaken, a bus drives by and splashes him with water; this is when he pulls out a revolver, holds it to his head and pulls the trigger - snap! - the gun misfires. He then tosses the gun away and as it hits the pavement (off screen) the gun fires - I could be wrong, but you get the general idea. After clearing my head from these sinister thoughts, I took a drive around the block to cool off before heading back to the office. It was during this brief trip that I remembered a day in late summer 2009 on Shamrock and Thistle Farm:

It had been hot. But on this particular day, I can't remember which day, except to say that it was not Friday or Saturday because we were not at the farmer's market, it had started to cool down a bit. It was probably in the high 80s that day, the humidity broke, and a slight breeze started to evaporate the sweat from my skin. The white linen shirt I was wearing suddenly felt cold as the breeze swept across my shoulders. My big Tula straw hat was soaked around the band and I took it off for some relief.

I was hoe-ing between rows of newly sprouted beets to hold back the weeds for yet another day while the vegetables took hold. As I was hacking away at the Arkansas clay recently baked under a late August sun, lost in my thoughts - I heard the most comforting sound an Arkansas gardener can hear, in my opinion - the sound of distant thunder (I hope I do not owe Jack Pyle any recognition for this turn of phrase as it happens to be the title of his book 'The Sound of Distant Thunder - An Appalachian Story - but just in case, I mentioned him and his book just now).

Our garden is located at the bottom of the hill there on Shamrock and Thistle Farm, a five thousand square foot rectangle that over 10 years of limited tilling, massive amounts of organic matter, and manual weed and insect control was becoming a fertile swath of food growing excellence (FSFGE). It lies upon a north - south axis with the north end pointing towards Harris Brake Lake and the south end pointing towards Thornburg mountain. To the east is ToadSuck Bridge which crosses the Arkansas River into Conway. To the west is Petit Jean Mountain, my daddy's home town of Charleston, then Ft. Smith, and then the map, at least for me, shows the barren waste which is commonly called Oklahoma, Kansas, and beyond. It is to Petit Jean Mountain, the west, to which the thunder calls my attention. I am facing south and turn my head to the left in anticipation of much needed rain and the cooler weather the first large weather front of late August/early September usually brings. I look towards the ridge that lies on the western boundary of our property and see just the tops of dark clouds looming what looks to be just next door. I continued to work, hoping, to "get caught" in a rain shower, just to cool myself down, if for nothing else. This front is a little early in coming, I think. But I'll take it for sure. In west central Arkansas for the first 5 years of our time on the farm we could count on September 14 of each year to be the day, thereabouts, when the first big cool down would happen. Workers would arrive at work in the morning in short sleeve shirts, the front would push through during the day, and then they would freeze to death on their way to their cars at quitting time. This would not be that day. Nor would Sept 14 that year. In fact, that big cool down day seemed to be more and more delayed each year for the past three. This year it would be well into October before the semi-permanent relief of an Arkansas Autumn made its appearance.

The wind picked up as the storm grew closer. I stopped my weeding and looked at the clouds again. The air was noticeably cooler - in a fit of whimsy that I am normally devoid of - according to many that know me - I took off my muck boots and socks and continued barefoot, feeling the clay and soil and mulch squish between my toes as I walked up and down the rows. I could picture the rain coming down over Blue Mountain, Mount Magazine (Arkansas' highest point) and heading this way past Paris, Branch, Booneville, Russelville, picking up speed over Pottsville where he have our livestock butchered. Here it comes up on the west side of Petit Jean Mountain, the long sloping bank to this oddly out of place flat topped mountiain along the banks of the Arkansas, amidst the flat to rolling hills of rich river valley farm land. Oppelo is next then Perry, then Perryville, then Shamrock and Thistle Farm and then on to Wye Mountain, Lake Maumelle, and then the Queen City of the Midsouth - Little Rock.

I remember as the storm passed through, the winde nearly knocked me over at first and then settled to a steady breeze, late summer leaves, dried from the heat and lack of rain, began loosening their holds on mother tree, wiggled, then waggled, and with a rustling crescendo turned loose and rode the wind in swirls up into the dark sky and then back down onto the pasture, the road back to the lake, or the wilderness across from it. It was after this first gust that Ole Blue and Beowulf, and Golly all ran into the barn for cover. So did the chickens and geese, there normally deafening clucking and honking now drowned in the locomotive sounds of the wind. The goats layed down in their stalls - they don't like the rain - and I, well, I just kept on working, waiting for the first rain drop to fall down the neck of my soaking wet shirt.

I have no delusions. I am not Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake of his estate, in a sheer, water-soaked linen blouse. I am the guy in a linen shirt that used to be white but is now covered in mud created by nicotine stained sweat and the dust August in Arkansas produces in normally fertile soil. I had a long beard and long, shoulder length hair, sweaty, greasy, unkempt, the picture of Nordic Manliness, as my son Mason would say.

I had finished the weeding and was about to move on to my next project - thinning. Now that I could see which plants were plants, and which plants were weeds - are not weeds just largely misunderstood plants? (this is the subject for another time) I had only to thin the little sprouts of beets, radishes, turnips, and carrots out a little so there would be more room for the roots to grow down and out.

It was then I had a thought. I knew that root crops did not like to be transplanted and I had read (or had my own theories why) thy did not. The root has such a demand on the plant itself, that once it is established it requires a constant amount of water to produce the end product. This is why carrots, and beets, and other root crops grow down at a higher rate than they grow out. They are thirsty for water. And, this is, by the way, why a carrot looks like a carrot and not a bean. Anyway, back to my thought. If I were to transplant these sprouted beets and carrots, instead of thinning them for salads or to feed the goats, or more likely, to throw in the bed for their eventual nitrogen benefit, and I did this in the middle of a rain storm when they would have as much water as their little beet hearts (pun intended - I actually went a long way round to fit this one in) could want what do I have to lose? I was killing innocent beets anyway, why not liberate them from the confines of their overcrowded planting prison, and give them a chance to thrive? That all anyone wants right? A chance?

The first drops fell and I stood stock still enjoying the coolness, the wetness, the wind chilling me for the first time in months. Thunder all around, which means lightning all around, but I stood there. There is nothing more thrilling to stand in front of an Arkansas thunderstorm as it slams into you from the nothingness of Oklahoma where it picks up speed, and watching the clouds boil, the thunder roll (Garth Brooks - The Thunder Rolls - I am racking up the copyright infringements in this one), to ride the lightning (This one's dangerous, Metallic, Ride the Lightning, Metallica loves copyright lawsuits), to stand before this awesome power as it comes upon you, and not tempting the Creator, but submitting, looking into the sky and saying - "I've always dreamed that this is how I would go. Nothing scares me but the thought of a bullet coming right at me, right in the nose". - 'And its such a lovely nose too, George'. - George C. Scot and Karl Malden, Patton.

I said those words. "Here Lord, if you want me, here I am , hit me with your lightning, right in my nose.

"the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet." - Nahum 1:3. My favorite Bible verse.

He didn't take me - I think He knows me that I wasn't being proud - I was being humble. I was putting myself in correct relationship with Him - something I rarely do for some reason.

It started out an abruptly pelting rain, large drops, the kind you can almost see your reflection is as the fall before your face and splatter into the ground. In fits and starts a sheet of it would come down, like God, instead of striking my nose with a bolt, decided to have His fun and dump a bucket - a very large bucket- of cold water on me. Eventually, I am sure I smiled, a big grin that I am capable of but rarely find opportunity of, using. Here it finally comes. There was no calm before this storm, no gentle rain slowly building in its intensity. This was a good old fashioned, Western Arkansas Hill Billy Gully Washer and with the last fit and the last start it poured and poured, a steady grey sheet of big bullet sized rain drops fell without ceasing. These water-bullets rapping the aluminum roof of our newly built barn, the oaks and hickories, and elms bent over, what I remember being, almost double so that their tops reached to the ground. The animals were hid away for the duration and making no noise.

Within minutes a wall of water rushed down the ridge of our farm and into the garden. Pathways between rows filled up with this water, and since they were still mostly clay, they held the water on the surface and I found myself, shoeless, up to mid calf in muddy water. The raised beds were also initially underwater but the loosely packed dark soil soaked that rain up like a 15 pound Huggies (The Huggies brand is a trademark of the Kimberly Clark Corporation) on a newborn.

I dropped to my knees, now I am thigh deep in mud- because I am on my knees, I sank into the water between the rows. At first I lightly pulled up one of the crowded beet sprouts which retained a healthy coating for wet, muddy soil around its roots. I would then look for an empty space where my hand sowing laid them sparsely just 15 days before. I plunged my thick Hutchins fore-finger deep into the earth up to the back of my fat Hutchins hand. I picked up the seedling with the two or three tiny green, oblong leaves at the top and the long spindly deep red root trailing off below and with that same fat finger I pushed the beet root deep into that hole and with no little amount of pressure I packed the mud and water tightly around the stem.

That was easy enough but I'll be here all day at this rate. I could drown...

The next pass through the bed I decided to gently pull up a small handful of beet seedlings- 20 or so. I laid them, again gently as I could, into a standing pool of water. In the space I had just cleared I poked 20 holes into the mud with my finger and placed an uninjured seedling into each one, packing it firmly into place. Within about 10 minutes I had the first row of beets done; within the hour I had finished all five 20 foot rows of beets and with it still raining heavily I started on the one row of carrots. I only planted one row because I have never been able to grow long thick carrots in our dry compacted soil - didn't want to waste the space, the time, or the seed this year too. The carrots took longer because the seeds were much smaller to begin with. I ended up tossing more of the seedlings than I wanted because I did not have open rows to transplant them into.

I was a mess by the time I finished the job. And the ensuing weeks, with the plants evenly and graciously spaced I was able to mulch around each one with straw, leaves, and weeds that I had pulled. By harvest time I had 5 thick rows of healthy beet plants and 1 row of thick bushy carrot plants. I did not have to water for the rest of the summer or winter. The soil had stored enough water, the roots did the same. The thick mulch kept the ground soft and moist. And the plants grew like I had never seen them grow before.

I could tell they were ready for market because the tops of the roots had widened to the point that they were pushing themselves up above the layer of mulch I had put down. I could barely stand the anticipation as I pulled my first carrot of the year - a 7 inch long white French variety (I am an admitted Francophile). The beets we sold that year and in the suubsequent spring markets were the largest most colorful we had ever grown. Customers were infatuated with the large white fodder beets that looked like rounded off daikon radishes, the deep read heart shaped bull's blood, the cylindrical golden beets that resembled a pontoon, and the striped bull's eye beets on display at the markets we attended. We rarely failed to sell out of them before the market closed. And if they didn't, we didn't mind. We ate them ourselves.

Now there is some risk to gardening in this fashion. If one is not in good standing with the Lord, one risks a lightning bolt to the nose. So unless one is ready to meet one's maker, one should not attempt this at home. This paragraph is for potential lawyers to argue over in any potential lawsuit brought by any potential readers that potentially have the potential to try rains storm gardening.

I was feeling rather proud of myself for this discovery and told everyone I met that I had successfully pulled off transplantation of a root crop but as it happens to me quite often - God looked down and decided to put his friend Boyd back in his place.

Patt attended an earth day celebration in Little Rock that following spring and found a booth displaying beets that had been started in a flat and then when quite young as seedlings, were transplanted into prepared soil by some guy at the Heifer Project Ranch in Perryville named Ryan. I was disappointed. But validation is validation and we ended up catering his wedding a year later. But this is a story for another day...

So the next time a thunderstorm comes around and you lament that you will not have an opportunity to work in your garden; if you are brave; if you will not bring suit; put on your muck boots and use the bounty nature is giving you - see the mud, feel the mud, the mud... (Paraphrasing a line I remember from CaddyShack).