Monday, March 23, 2015

History Lessons

Lee, Ann, and Ben on the Mall, fighting to keep their lunch from the seagulls
This week will mark a grand adventure, for Blake and I are journeying to our nation's capital and Lizzie, Gabe, and Abbie are going with us.
Four years ago, Aaron accompanied us to Washington, D.C., taking his first trip on a jet and allowing his grandma and grandpa to experience the wonders of the city was a great trip for all of us, though not without the kinds of anecdotes that make travel endlessly fascinating and eventually become family lore.

But Washington, D.C. has lots of room for history.

My folks chose the summer of 1964 to take our family pilgrimage to DC. We rode the train east, taking the B&O Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington. Instead of the Pullman sleeper, I believe we slept in a roomette where the seats facing each other folded down into beds. What I remember most about the train trip are the green green valleys of the eastern mountains and the gritty backyards of the steel mills in Pittsburgh, all part of the same state. We were so anxious to get to DC that industrial Baltimore seemed to go on forever....

Washington in the summer was a combination of the white heat of sidewalks and the cool interiors of museums.
We ate in cafeterias with Granny and Grandpa, walked the length of the Mall from the Tidal Basin to the Supreme Court,
went to the top of the Washington Monument,
saw Mt. Vernon from an excursion boat, and watched the sun set over Arlington from the steps of Lincoln Memorial as the Marine Band played for us on the banks of the Potomac.
We ate ice cream to cool off.

Fast forward thirty plus years. Millie and Charlie knew someone who knew someone who got us inside the White House one evening for a tour of the West Wing. (This was before Millie got so close to Vice-President Biden).

From 1801 to 1932, anyone could go to the White House during the New Year's reception. But it 's been a long time since it was easy to visit the White House; back in the sixties,sunrise in Washington would see lines of tourists stretching for blocks awaiting their turn to enter. When we strolled through the halls of the White House after dark and took turns peering around the corner of the Oval office, it was a surreal and unforgettable experience, not at all something some Tarkio farmers should be doing. But Ann provided us a pungent dose of reality when she declared within the hearing of the White House press secretary that the White House bathrooms we walked by "smelled bad!

Blake just got back from a Learning Tour of Cuba, hearing from Cuban officials and touring some Cuban farms. But years ago, our entire Farm Bureau entourage was invited to supper by the Cuban Interest section stationed in another nation's embassy. We filled our plates with shredded pork and beans and rice under the watchful (and hungry) eyes of some of our hosts for the evening. After our group had listened to the speeches and made our goodbyes, everyone, including the kids, received a souvenir of the evening....a long Cuban cigar! As we left the premises and boarded the bus, we saw the guards making short work of the leftover beans and rice from our supper.
Who knows what adventures, what famous people, what glorious sights, will find their way into family history from this week's trip to Washington, D.C.? Lizzie already has a long list compiled; we will do our best to complete her every wish! You can bet there will be pictures aplenty and souvenirs galore.....and I'll let you know all about time....

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Strenuous Life

It is a happy talent to know how to play.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
I'm under fire and my attackers have the strategic advantage of high ground. I'm pinned down behind a damaged wooden crate with little chance of escaping unnoticed. I contemplate making a break for it when one of my armed assailants says, "Grandma, I can see you!" I take advantage of the confusion to lasso a hostage with a long piece of plastic strapping. "Hey!" calls another of those up above, "Gimme that piece of rope!"
"Why should I? You're aiming at me!"

A trade is effected and I make my getaway back to the prosaic world of work and adulthood. Before long, an octet of fleet seven year old feet are disappearing over the front side of the terrace followed by a cloud of dust and a tag along pair of shorter four year old legs. The snow is gone; the building warmth of the equinoctial sun leaves legs free and arms bare. The March wind ruddies cheeks and tangles hair. The toys of summer have resurfaced, but where they fail to satisfy, the winter leaves sticks aplenty and the top of the hill is chockablock with hideouts, mountains, canyons, barriers and anything else necessary for the topography of a kid's imagination.

Gabe is in full bike riding regalia after school on Friday. His mom holds her breath as he coasts full steam ahead down the hill to the big house and makes the sharp turn east. He pulls up smartly, in complete control of his vehicle; a big difference from earlier in the week when the offending bike skidded out on the pea gravel and forced medical attention to the guy wearing helmet, shorts...and nike flipflops. This afternoon he bursts in the back door declaring he rode around the farm at least five times and then ran the same route four times. I think he's earned not just supper but a big dessert too! I don't know if there's a reason for all this output of exercise, or if it's just an overflow of youthful exuberance.

When you play,  play hard; when you work, don’t play at all. Theodore Roosevelt

All this open space lends itself to nothing so much as unorganized play, spontaneous outbursts of energy, creative destruction at its most obvious, the axiom that one man's trash is a bunch of kids' treasure at its acme.  Post election 4x8 signs are wired together with discarded hanging basket wires and chewed off mum leaders to create a hideout.  After winter's storms, one wall of the structure is flotsam out in the cornfield and will have to hauled off before planting.  The top of the enormous glacial erratic in the backyard has been stage, castle, table, and....most often...a launching pad. The linden tree's low canopy shelters another accumulation of toy leftovers and its multitude of branches allows even the shortest kid a chance to climb a tree.  A greenhouse creates enormous amounts of...well, trash.  Combine shrink wrap with constant wind and physics will soon yield giant billows of plastic just perfect for small boys to use as parachutes.  Potholes grow into puddles with spring rains, irresistible as they are ephemeral.  When the adults are clothed in layers of potting soil, the kids figure that mud is a protective coating and they partake generously.

Aaron, Lizzie and I are at the stoplight on Third St. when Lizzie kind of sighs. "I wish they would fix up that park and make a place for people to picnic,"she says, pointing to the partially landscaped vacant lot across the street. But Aaron adds, "I like Tarkio: it's not too big and its not too small. It has just about everything people need!" And I smile. After all, if you're a guy like Aaron, there are streets for riding, a pool for swimming, church and school for meeting and a ball field for practices and games. Just around nearly every corner is a friend to share those experiences with...
No, this little town won't make the map as a vacation spot with history, or interactive museums, or cannons and forts, but it is big enough to have just about all the things an active and curious and energetic young man might need. And small enough to have the familiarity and security to grow up out of doors, climbing trees or building forts or shooting baskets....

Theodore Roosevelt would surely approve.

kites present

kites past

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March Madness

What is it about baseball that makes us wax nostalgic? When March comes around, the sun shines brighter, the breeze is balmy and the grass Florida, in Arizona...and in my mind's eye. As the howling gale stirs the ancient dust and rattles the windows around me, the garden sundial...says, 'I count only the sunny hours...' and draws the blinds against the final gasps of winter. Why is this so? The turnstiles to the ballpark are not the gates to Paradise. In the best of times a batter is safe but a third of his at bats and his team beats all odds with anything more than a 57 percent winning percentage. But we fans acknowledge only the golden hours, the walk off hits, and the chasm of emptiness when September or October ends the season and we face the lonely hours of winter.
It has been that way for me since the 1960s. I was too young to be a fan when the Cards made the miraculous comeback in 1964, but old enough in 1967 to pick the sports section of the Chicago Tribune off the floor after my father had finished reading it and hunt up the box scores. I was old enough to listen to the Cubs' play by play as described by the likes of Jack Brickhouse, Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd.

 But instead of growing up a Cubbie, I followed the family allegiance to the Cardinals, learning to tune my mother's old Philco radio to a Peoria radio feed of the Redbird network in the hours before sunset when clear channel KMOX would overcome the static and lesser locals to beam in the gravelly play by play of then Cardinal announcers Harry Caray and Jack Buck.

It's easy to forget how much of being a baseball fan was experienced through our ears, over the radio: how much of our sports memory is a specific voice with a slang, a vernacular, a catch phrase of its very own. Maybe we watched one game a week on television...a Saturday afternoon game narrated by Kirk Gowdy and Tony Kubek. The game on TV was small, blurred, and black and white; the game on the radio was big and bright, with the immediacy of the crowd, the beer men and peanut vendors, and the ump behind home within virtual spitting distance of the radio speaker.

Sure, I remember watching poor ol' Bill Buckner dribble the ball between his legs; I whooped and hollered when Kirk Gibson limped home on a wing and a prayer for the Dodgers.  Blake and I were speechless with tension watching Chris Carpenter crush the Phillies in October 2011 with the sheer force of his will.

But I don't know if I ever actually saw Bob Gibson flying off the mound with the violence of his pitch; I just heard about it.

  And though Bob Forsch is gone now,  I still remember listening to him pitch his final no hitter late in the disappointing season of 1983 as we drove through a harvest night in Iowa.
 Through the miracles of technology we can watch all the baseball we want anymore; we can even  DVR the coastal games if we have discipline to ignore the urge to check the score.  But when March rolls around, I don't need to watch the games.  Whether I'm on the highway or working some gray afternoon in the greenhouse,  I can see those fields of dreams just fine .....on the radio.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Laugh!

It has been a tough week at Hurst Greenery and I'd be lying if I said any different.  Without dwelling on the gory details, suffice it to say that an unholy alliance of weather and transportation has left us with a higher percentage of damaged plant babies than we would ordinarily expect. The odds of getting a cutting or plug delivery on time this February is about the same as expecting your flight to the East Coast to depart when scheduled. This month we have unpacked mush that used to be coleus..or New Guinea impatiens...or geraniums.... shipped from all over the United States.  We never know whether the flowers froze at the departing airport, the intermediate airport, the warehouse that received them, or the vehicle that delivered them.  Or..perhaps it was the substitute driver that Blake discovered leaving two boxes of cuttings OUTSIDE our office door one day when it was 15 degrees.  The box was clearly marked "Keep from Freezing".  The frosting on this ill begotten cake was an entirely unpredictable equipment failure somewhat akin in likelihood to winning the lottery...except we didn't.  Because its the time of year when we are not lacking for work to do, we don't especially relish the notion of  re-ordering, then replacing and replanting that which we have planted once.  It has been a challenge to "Put on a Happy Face".

Thankfully, we have our personal team of in house comedians! I am not sure what age Ben was when he went through the joke stage, but surely it was between the ages of seven and ten.
  I do remember Brooks telling us jokes without obvious punchlines when he was about ten....or perhaps I just lost concentration before he delivered it.....
At any rate, this family has always appreciated a good..or bad...pun, depending upon your opinion of that brand of humor.  And what better way to cope with misfortune than by having a good laugh?

Blake solved this one before he'd even finished his first cup of coffee the other morning.  From Mark over in St Louis, via text:
 "What do you call a dinosaur with a large vocabulary?''

"A THE-saurus!"

Or..."What does a clock do when its hungry?"

" It goes back for SECONDS!"

You aren't laughing?  Well, Mark isn't pretending to be Jimmy Fallon, but he has an infectious chuckle and you would join in if he were here!

The most prolific jokesters in the family these days are the seven year olds.  Santa Claus is not just a right jolly old elf; he must want others to be jolly too because he brought Gabe and Abbie each a joke book in their stockings.  Friday night Abbie got us all warmed up for the birthday party with a few choice one liners:

Abbie: What do you call a wheelbarrow full of stones? A boulder holder!
(Gabe: yuk yuk yuk , BOULDER HOLDER!)

Abbie: What do you call a tired tent? A sleepy tepee!
(Gabe: rolling on the floor, SLEEPY TEPEE!)

Then there's the ever reliable knock-knock joke, perennial favorite of the younger set.

Gabe: Knock, knock....Who's there?  Jell-o.  Jello who?
Jello, its me again!

He's got a whole book of them.  Really.

Finally, there's my favorite joke anecdote.  This falls into the category of the comic that cannot remember the punchline.  Last year sometime I heard the perfect joke for a girl Lizzie's age.  And, sure enough, after a short explication, her lovely eyes lit up delightedly.  Then she ran out of the room briefly, returning with a pencil and a piece of paper.  "Grandma," she said, "Would you please write this down so I won't forget it when I go to school?"

And I did...but that didn't stop her from calling me up days after that, asking me to tell her the snowman joke again..

Here it is:

"What did one snowman say to the other snowman?" No, I'm not telling!

Next time you see Lizzie, ask her!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


It all seems rather quaint now. Come the second week of February we swept aside the place mats, salt and pepper shakers, and napkins from our table and replaced them with ledger sheets, a calculator, pencils and pink rubber erasers. We girded our loins and pulled the thick booklet labeled Form 1040 from the file cabinet underneath the desk in our all purpose kitchen.  I made another pot of coffee.

It was tax time.

Time to make an accounting of our year past.  Time to add the machinery and equipment purchases to the depreciation schedule....spread across 10 columns for the straight line years for grain bins and greenhouses, tractors and planters, three years if we had purchased a pickup.  The ledger sheet was the measure of the progress of our business:  not just capital but stuff you could touch, use, drive, park, and, of course, repair.  Those first ledgers were the baby steps of our farming career:  fences, corn cribs, share John Deere 4630, share disk, share plow.

Blake dumping a 1974 Ford

Ben, deduction year 1986, in the 1983 GMC white truck
Blake would painstakingly compile the sales and expenses of our rented farm operations, column by column, deposit by deposit....then spew out great long curls of adding machine tape checking and cross checking the columns and rows, erasing....smudging...and cursing, until we were reasonably confident the tax man wouldn't be coming to haul us off for an arithmetical error. The whole process would be repeated when it came time to copy the figures to the actual tax forms: he would fill out one form in pencil, then it would be my turn to be the scrivener and copy all the figures over with the care of a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript.

We ate off plates in the living room while the table was covered with taxes.  The kids thought it was great and offered company and moral support to their dad.

Lee, deduction year 1979 and Ann, 1980, help Blake with taxes
 Outside of one fat file a year, the physical accoutrements of tax time are all passe', gone the way of the passenger pigeon.The ritual has moved from the kitchen table to the office.  There's still plenty of drama, but it all happens online.  The stately accumulation of property has been replaced by section 179: under $500,000 and poof! Your major investment is magically transformed into an expense, here today and gone next year. TurboTax does all the adding and, in theory anyway, prods us when we make a mistake. Our ledger books are ancient history, gathering dust in a file box somewhere, as whimsically archaic as a black and white photo.....or a long ago scrapped Hurst farms John Deere.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Land o' Lincoln....

Mr. Lincoln's hat
 I don't believe in President's Day.  I consider the mongrelization of the former holidays of George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays to be nearly sacrilegious.   Either these men are giants in our country's history, worthy of recognition on the merits of their singular accomplishments in two different centuries, two eras apart.........or history has been sadly subsumed by the expediency of picking one Monday in February for Presidents' Day furniture sales.

Like I said, I'm not a fan.

Blame my upbringing in Illinois.  In the Land of Lincoln, February 12th was almost akin to a religious holiday.  Schools were closed.  The radio stations played  Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, narrated sometimes by native son Carl Sandberg, other times by Gregory Peck, maybe by Henry Fonda.  Its solemn strident chords and the deliberate repetition in the excerpts of Lincoln's speeches brought to mind nothing so much as a Greek chorus declaiming with one voice the distilled wisdom of the ages.
 In memoriam: Lincoln the icon, Lincoln of cold bronze, Lincoln the martyr.

But in our household, Lincoln was a mere road trip away.  His words lived in the books on the shelf, but his footsteps had barely died away in places like the Metamora Courthouse, one of two surviving courthouses on the 8th circuit in Illinois, a four hundred and forty mile ride for the country lawyer.

The village of New Salem, where young Abraham Lincoln's flatboat got stuck on a mill dam in 1831, survived for just twelve years.  But from here Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk war, ran and lost his first election, failed as a small businessman,  and began the study of law.  The CCC rebuilt New Salem in the 1930s, but it looked to me like Mr. Lincoln could walk right out of his general store and commence to hobnobbing and telling his tall tales to any passersby.

Why this affinity for the sixteenth President?

My father had a framed copy of the famous letter allegedly penned by Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby, the widow who lost five sons in the Civil War, on the wall of his den. I stopped to read that letter often, admiring the  gravity and graciousness of the text.  I continue to be touched by the Biblical cadences of the second Inaugural Address graven on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. As a child, I agonized over which Presidential memorial to purchase with my souvenir money....I thought the setting of the Jefferson memorial was the prettiest, the heft of the Washington monument most satisfying, but the man honored by the Lincoln memorial the most courageous.

It wasn't just the words.  Photographs, grainy and gray as they are, of Lincoln throughout his presidency and the war made him as familiar to me when I was young as the current occupant of the White House.  My imagination constructed no barriers between me and that April night in 1865 when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln sat in that honored open box in Ford's Theater. There was nothing between me and weighty history but air.

Nor do I intend that George Washington get short shrift.   I've read his own words in his journals about his farm at Mount Vernon and sat on his porch overlooking the grand vista of the Potomac.You can imagine him just around the corner checking on his fruit trees or inspecting his sheep on an early spring day.

 My complaint is with the notion that our calendars are so encumbered that they cannot bear the burden of remembering and appreciating two of the heroic figures of our history.  My proposal is simple:  a celebration of American history between Lincoln and Washington for the entire 10 days between their birthdays.

Anachronism overload alert!
....Presidents' Fortnight....?