Sunday, August 28, 2011

Because You're Mine, I Walk the LIne

They're out there. More than any other summer, I hear them coming and going, thanks to the Doppler effect and the 30 mile an hour speed limit sign just over the hill crest north of town. Trucks, not just our normal grain trailers, but all manner of loads from many corners of the country. Even with the wait where 136 tees with 59, Tarkio will come and go in the time it takes to shift all those gears.

I'd like to think some of those drivers welcome a change of scenery. Northwest Missouri on highway 59 is a topographical world apart from the I-29 route even with the Missouri in its banks. Sometimes an out of state plate will roar past me on its way north without noticing the one, two, three punch of semi trucks ahead. Not everyone is enthralled with the forced march on the blue roads.

On the other hand, there is more variation in those trucker's daily travels than there is in mine. The drive out to work changes subtly with the seasons. These days I admire the unreproducible hue of the big bluestem seed heads. Oh how I wish I could give it a name and put it on a wall or a rug! Each day the corn stalks lose some green too as fall knocks on August's back door.

But when I get to work, the days take on a Ground Hog Day regularity. Down the gravel I walk, ear phones in one hand and go cup in the other. The rows of mums await. I jerk the handle of the hydrant, plug in the cord on the tank and.....

...walk the lines.

In truth, walking the lines could be rote, but one rarely has that luxury. There are weeds to pull from around the mum pots. There may be pots tipped over from wind or animals that go bump in the night. From a distance the mum lines look uniform, like bunches of broccoli in a produce case. But up close, some are smaller and need the leader pulled aside for a watering or two so the plant will dry out, and grow roots rather than rot. There are wilted plants; perhaps the leader has been knocked out, but more likely it is plugged with algae or a mineral accumulation from years of well water. I'll pull out the leader, get a shower, plug it back in and hope for the rewarding dribble of water that means the plant can stay put. By late August, the bigger varieties are tending to grow together, so I'll spread the plants to the extent I can. A mum should be a globe....not a cylinder!!

By the time I've walked two rows up and down, its time to change the hose to the next line. Walk to the other end of the patch and repeat. In an hour or two, the hoses will meet in the middle of the patch; it will be time to fill the tank and move on to the next patch. Up closer to the house, Lee is performing the same ritual ballet.

What makes this not boring? Well, nothing. It is work, after all, and frequently its sweaty and buggy work that leads to some of the soggiest and stinkiest shoes around. I have to leave them outdoors when I get home, or on the hood of the Jeep after I've finished.

But it is also craft of a fashion, requiring concentration and attention to detail. Is there a yellowish tinge to that foliage? Wait, is that a web? Was it there yesterday? Which variety is budded? How soon will there be color? Should I water that line, or skip it today? Each plant is one of thousands, but each plant is one promised to a customer for a price too. Is that straight out of Poor Richard's? "Take care of the pennies and the pounds....etc." ?

If this part of the routine is successful, we'll begin another soon after Labor Day. The mums lines will empty, four by four, as we pull out the leaders, grab a pair in each hand, and walk them up into the trailers. We'll leave behind the losers, the ones with broken branches from wind or animal damage, the ones that are not quite big enough or lopsided. This is harvest Hurst Greenery style, just as satisfying as dumping trucks in the bin. After months of walking the lines, we drain them, roll 'em up, and fold the ground cloth under concrete bricks against the winter winds.

This is a humble sort of accomplishment. By the time the plants are arrayed in glory, they'll be planted somewhere else, part of someone else's grand design or an integral player in a harvest motif. Stellar Purples in K.C.; Tabithas in Lincoln; Dianas and Megans in St. Joseph; Wilmas and Ericas scattered down south; assorted versions of Cheryl in St. Louis. No grand burst of creative juices; just persistence, consistency, and a willingness to attend to every individual plants' requirements in addition to the bare necessities for all the mums. No room for shirking; the margin of error for a growing green thing in a black pot on black ground cloth in the blazing month of August is a small one.

There won't be a trophy for a job well done either. Like the truckers at the end of a trip, what we hope to accomplish is no more than the opportunity to do it all again the next year. Going forward, growing, beats the alternative.

Day by day, because they're mine, I walk those lines....

Shattered Glass

The storm was still foaming at the mouth when we pulled into the driveway the other night. It had been a white knuckle ride home, wind driving the rain across the road like an insane coachman cursing at his team. Several cars ahead stopped dead in their tracks in the middle of the highway, hazards flashing. We crept north, emerging from the heaviest rain as we pulled into Tarkio, then forced to zig and zag our way on the city streets dodging downed tree limbs. No shock, then, when we drove across the grass to avoid the leafy sycamore beast across our own driveway.

There was wreckage enough obvious as the brief blasts of lightening illumined our way to the back door. The summer flowers would never recover: sawed off at the pot were the big coleus and Persian shield. Several pieces of pottery had crashed on the concrete. We turned a blind eye and resolved to worry about it all in the morning.

Sure enough, it was as bad in daylight as we thought it might be in the dark. The windshield on the red pickup took a direct hit. There was enough debris to fill the flat bed and warrant a trip to town with a chainsaw. The siding on the back of the house was cratered like the moon.

And the window to the dining room was broken too.

That broken window tortures me. Why? Obviously, I don't like the idea of a hail stone shattering my leaded glass window and melting on my dining room table. But there is also a very famous theory about broken windows, a corollary of the slippery slope. The gist of this theory is that one broken window, one tipped over trash can, one abandoned vehicle, can lead inexorably to increased vandalism, crime, and worsening living standards and quality of life for the folks in the broken window neighborhood. While he was mayor, Rudy Guiliani put this theory to the test in his war on crime in New York City, increasing the police presence in neighborhoods and cleaning up vandalism and other symptoms of entropy. There are plenty of detractors to the broken window theory, most of which argue that this method of keeping order attacks the symptoms, not the disease, but appearances count in this vale of tears and cities still use James Q. Wilson's idea as a starting point.

This theory makes a lot of sense to this resident of small town America. I fixate on my shattered glass, fallen tree limbs and flattened flowers as indications that I don't care, rather than the results of a short and nasty act of God. I felt better the minute Ryan pulled out his chainsaw and sawed up the sycamore. From the roar of small gasoline engines in our end of town and the parade of pickups hauling debris to the refuse pile, most of our neighborhood had the same response to damage I did. This week, a visitor would be hard pressed to find evidence in town itself of the severe storm that rolled through here not long ago.

Tarkio will not be mistaken for Main Street in Disney Land. Storm or no storm, we have a fair share of continuing dilapidation. And broken windows are contagious.

Aye, there's the rub. Contrary to mainstream opinion, small towns are not bastions of rigidity, conformity and intolerance. Rather, we tend to have a more libertarian attitude most evidenced by the canard 'one man's trash is another man's treasure.' Using this definition, some property owners are rich indeed, in their own eyes. Their neighbors, on the other hand, may be more "eye-sore".

What to do? The up and down side of our little town is its crazy quilt-i-ness: its ability to take most comers and live and let live. But there can be too much tolerance; any curmudgeonly survivor of the 60s and other decades of excess will tell you that. I hope we can claw our way upwards to the imaginary point where we hold our own, winning some and losing some, tearing down but also building up, chalking up some progress on the growth chart that measures the life of our community.

But right now, all I can do is fix my window.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Another Country Song

"These times are troubled and these times are good
And they're always gonna be, they rise and they fall
We take 'em all the way that we should
Together you and me forsaking them all
Deep in the night and by the light of day
It always looks the same, true love always does
And here by your side, or a million miles away
Nothin's ever gonna change the way that I feel,
The way it is, is the way that it was

When I said I do, I meant that I will 'til the end of all time
Be faithful and true, devoted to you
That's what I had in mind when I said I do."-- Clint Black

Long ago and far, that's not it.....
Once upon a,no,no, not what I mean at all....
Not a fairy tale romance, not a negatory romance: given our current status as grandparents, some might argue we're long past romance by any definition. But we're veterans of this game; there's not much we haven't seen or been through....together. We've had our 'blessed events'; we've spent two decades with our children under various roofs. We've lived our entire married life in the same county surrounded by half our family. We have toiled as partners and endured the vagaries of work and weather. We know how to hurt and know better than to use that knowledge. We're older, sometimes wiser....we've learned.....

'You come from a long line of love'....How could we not succeed with a portrait gallery of wedded ancestors? Every anniversary with a zero at the end is a mile marker. We're rookies compared with the pictorials in my scrapbooks....35, 40, 50. We're not there yet, but we pray we make it and we'll hold the kids up for good parties when we get there.

I got lots of advice before my wedding. I was young, giddy, and probably looked like I needed all the help I could get. But anniversaries are not earned by reading a 'Marriage for Dummies' manual. There is no head start, no magic potion, no yellow brick road. 'Every thing we got, we got the hard way.'

What's an anniversary anyway? Sometimes you eat steak together; sometimes you send a text. Sometimes you celebrate; sometimes you reflect; sometimes you go to work and its just another day. I guess that's a measure of accomplishment in itself: secure in life together while working to make that life better. Love may be a many splendored thing, but marriage is a million little nit picky details day after day and year after year. Remembering the cell phone charger; forgetting the socks in the couch....


Out here on the edge
Love dared us to try
Baby,some people fall,some people fly

Monday, August 15, 2011

Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails....

Any mixed family...and by that I mean one with sons and daughters, knows one of the great mysteries of life: that boys and girls are NOT the same hearts and minds dropped into different bodies. I get to relive this adage on a day by day basis with grandchildren, but twenty five years ago, it made me more than a little apprehensive. With Lee and Ann safely out of babyhood, and being female myself, I could feel as if I had an inkling at least of how to deal with girls. Baby number three was still a mystery, but we had been unable to pick a girl's name, so I guess we were expressing preference by default. John Benton arrived; we had our opportunity to say 'vive la difference!'
What are little boys made of? Band-aids and scar tissue. Ben started young, pulling the microwave down on top of him before he was old enough to walk. Results: scars next to his eye masquerading as laugh lines. An end gate fell out of a farm truck, sending us to the emergency room in St. Joseph. Results: stitches, a wide white bandage and two plastic motorcycles. Two concussion scares, the last following a fall from the top of a park slide somewhere east of Bent's Fork in Colorado. Results: a really colorful black eye recorded for all posterity in a vacation picture. "Jumping" ("falling?") out of the loft of Grandpa's barn on Easter day. Results: two broken bones in a foot and a short term guilt trip by the parents who told him to 'be tough, you're OK.'
What do little boys do? Build: blocks, Brio trains, Lego rockets. Ride: on tractors, combines, pickups, lawn mowers. Sometimes they take a notion to drive as well: under the not so watchful eye of his sister, Ben managed to lurch our antique van over the curb and nearly into the plate glass window of a flower shop in Rock Port. He couldn't reach the clutch; he was two.
Little boys are enthusiastic. Hunting. Astronomy. Ham radio. One computer game or another. A newspaper. A future astronaut. 'A general' at age six. A fancier of Hercule Poirot, Horatio Hornblower, Nero Wolfe from time to time.

Little boys are single minded; this characteristic can make their parents tear their hair, but can also be channeled into the laudable attributes of persistence, perseverance, commitment and endurance. It can take a young man through two a days, ruck marches, and outlines hundreds of pages long.
Little boys are curious. Between the farm and the greenhouse, we've never lacked for an inventory of broke stuff....the mechanical version of a medical be dissected and examined. These items were never the same.........and never reassembled, but some inner urge to know, or destroy, was satisfied before the parts were pitched. To see the big picture, to bring order from chaos, to see beyond superficial to the root of a matter: this can be the productive side of the inquisitive 'why?' of the child.
Little boys can be adventurous. I subdued panic many times before Ben was too old to be my personal responsibility. He wasn't worried if I couldn't find him. He might be down at the pond or the rock. At Elephant Rocks State Park, he told us all he knew a quicker way back to the car. And I guess he did. Ben was there before Blake, Lee, Ann, me and a whole troop of Boy Scouts could find him. He was five.

Little boys grow up. They quit worrying if their sisters are "looking at me". They don't have to duck down in the car so no one can see them. They become heroes to their little nieces and nephews in the same way they idolized older aunts and uncles. They worry about their own broke stuff, set their hobbies aside for work, save adventures for the future.


Whether five or twenty five, they are still true to their team. Happy Birthday, Ben!

And, Go Cards!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Wheels on the Bus Go

Ann, Matt and family are on their way home from vacation. She says, 'Can you believe school starts next week?' I'm watering the pots and the hummingbirds are zipping around my ears. The sun is noticeably lower in the sky at 7 pm. For the first time in weeks, I am reluctant to head indoors for the evening: the temperature is less than eighty and my skin drinks in everything refreshing in the atmosphere. The lyrics that come to mind change the song for the affected sense: 'on a calm day, you can hear forever.' A normal farm day requires sifting the conversation through the filter of a howling wind. The dog walkers are out in full force and the good people of Tarkio, more sensible than some of the city folk I've seen, are choosing tonight to cruise through town with their 'tops rolled down'.

So, yes, given the weather this evening, I guess I can believe school starts next week.

And yet, I understand her question. School means an end to evening trips to the pool, to watching "late" movies any old night of the week with Dad, to running wild with your cousins out at the farm. School means a return to structure, to the morning rush, to getting picked up, to wearing something different every day, not just what's on top of the wash pile. Hair must be combed and fixed. Homework must be done and packed. Dates on the calendar must be filled: picture day, treat day, homecoming, Grandparent's day and a host of others, too many to remember.

The start of school when I was little meant two things: new shoes and a new lunch box. I was less excited about the shoes than most kids would have been. This was before the days of wearing "tennis" shoes (or gym shoes, or sneakers or athletic shoes or whatever the term of choice) to school. My feet resisted all efforts to fit into cute Mary Janes or any kind of loafers or even saddle shoes. Nope, my poor feet spread out like camel pads when I stood upon the metal shoe sizer and needled over at width E. E!!!! Just let me tell you what shoes were available in width E. One kind: Hush Puppies. Tie oxford Hush Puppies. Big, wide, sueded tie oxford Hush Puppies. That's it. I knew without a doubt what my new school shoes would look like. Resigned to a choice that was no choice, I made a pretense of picking out the ......color. Sage green, tan, brown, dark blue, black. Year after year, I'd wear one or another of these hues in E width suede Hush Puppies home from the store. The only compensation was that the Hush Puppy on the box was kind of cute with a melancholy expression that reflected exactly how I felt about my feet.

Lunch boxes, on the other hand, were one size fits all. My dad took his lunch to work every day in a box of the classic style one sees in black and white prints of workers from the '40s on...a dented metal box with a high domed lid to hold a Thermos, a black plastic handle and two fold over latches. My father never got a new lunch box; instead, when the handle broke, he taped over it and finally replaced it completely with a piece of chain. Hinges or latches were rescrewed when they rattled loose. Thankfully, we never had to resort to recycling lunch boxes. Instead, we were allowed to choose whatever design of square metal lunch box we wished. There are two I remember in particular: one was a Scotch plaid in red and green and the other a white box with little pink roses dotted across it and greenery as a border. I don't remember ever bringing home plastic wrap, but I know I was expected to bring home my baggies for re-use. Nothing was thrown away but apple cores, napkins and milk cartons.

Because Westboro had such outstanding cooks and lunches, the kids never picked new lunch boxes. But the annual excursion to purchase school supplies was a pleasure trip for all, Mom included. It was a ritual and demanded a trip out of the time there was no Place's or Pamida here. Shoot, there wasn't even a Wal Mart in Shenandoah until Ann was in high school!! (We drove home from a volleyball game in Sidney to scope it out when it opened). I guess we went to the old WalMart in Maryville for our supplies, or, more likely, the Alco in Shenandoah. As time passed, the first box of eight jumbo Crayolas gradually evolved into fluorescent highlighters and sticky notes. Picking out folders, pencils, erasers, pens, scissors and Crayolas was fairly inexpensive entertainment, a good thing since we probably could have scratched together enough of the previous year's supplies for the first day of school. That would have broken the spell: by August, summer is old, summer clothes are old, sandals are old, the school itself is hot, the classrooms are certainly old and even your teacher might be the same, if you went to Westboro. But the notebook you pull out of your bag is smooth and unfrayed. The pencils are sharp and the eraser is flexible and clean. The crayons still fit in the box. New Year's itself pales in comparison to the first day of school if you are a kid.

For whatever reason, we also bought new jeans and undies at the start of school, even though jeans weather was at least a month off. The socks were a necessity; a summer of playing ball, gardening, biking, choring and other sundry outdoor activities would relegate the old tennis shoes to "farm" work, but required the summer socks to sent to the trash without passing GO or collecting $200.

On the first day of school everyone was ready before the bus came. With no coats and no chores and a bright sun to wake to, no poking or prodding was necessary. Before the bus arrived, the mom had to fulfill her end of the first day of school ritual: taking the obligatory picture of the students before they climbed the bus steps. Year after year, that photo fills its slot in the scrapbooks just after vacation shots and before Halloween. Even if the kids have had a bad hair day or are squinting evilly into the rising sun, the commemorative photo is still in the scrapbook.The big yellow bus would pull into our driveway, the kids would clamber on, and then......quiet. First one little student, then two, then three of wildly varied sizes....then back to two and finally a few years of just one, heading off to college under his own power.

Next week, Aaron, Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie will don their backpacks. I'll look forward to hearing about Aaron's new teacher and what new kids are in the little ones' class. Way out east, Ben will have his final first day of school, finishing off his academic journey. We'll eventually get used to the quiet hours when school is in....... and the chattering that commences when they come back home.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Cruelest Month

'April is the cruelest month': this, the opinion of T.S Eliot, the poet. 'You could look it up', like Annie in Bull Durham, so I did. This kind of cross cultural referencing has its pitfalls. Clearly T.S. Eliot was not a baseball fan or he would not have regarded April so poorly.

In that vein, I propose August as a test of persistence, mettle, perseverance, grit, fortitude and stamina. For the baseball fan, the flurry of promise surrounding the bloom of April and May has settled, leaving the have-nots at the bottom of the standings to trade off today's talent for tomorrow's prospects ("I love ya, tomorrow; you're only a day away.") Even teams in the hunt are battered, worn, and scrambling to find the key combination that will speed them through the doldrums of August into the clearer cooler air of post season October. By August, the fans know what's coming; how many players turn around their seasons halfway through? The Bay in San Francisco looks lovely on television; on the other hand, the Field Boxes in St. Louis can needle up near the century mark. The folks in the stands for a Sunday afternoon game exemplify true grit.
They could be estivating comfortably on their couches under the ceiling fan. Instead, they sweat buckets and keep the Bud guys in business.

August is the forge in which gardeners are heated, hammered, wrought or melted down. The brilliant come hither colors of July have baked away. The late daylilies and hardy hibiscus carry the load of bloom in the border. The faint of heart and fungus susceptible are spotted, blackened or no longer viable. There are visible winners and invisible losers in the pots around the patio. Who needs a trial garden? Some of the coleus are blooming now; the big lantanas have achieved shrub like proportions; the tropicals are mighty, unfazed, and unflagging....unless the gardener skips a day of watering. In August's heat and blazing sun, there are no second chances.

Keeping the garden watered is necessary, but not sufficient. Seemingly overnight, as the calendar turns from July to August, the weeds rear their Hydra heads. Chop one down and a mighty army takes its place. When some fragile flowers flags, opportunity knocks for a dozen different plagues of weeds. Nightshade, purslane, watergrass, barnyard grass, mulberry sprouts, sedge: Saul may slay his thousands, but only a David slaying his ten thousands will keep an August garden recognizable.

The crops this August have defied the weather and look splendid. The God given depth of our soil holds the rains of spring for just this eventuality. The magic of crop breeding bears fruit as our corn remains unrolled during these days when the horizon is grey with heat waves and humidity. We are lucky and fully realize it, even as our vehicles are covered with dust so fine the slightest breeze lifts it away, the sure sign of late summer. I know well how it feels to form tunnel vision on the way to work, avoiding the sight of grayish corn and beans that don't meet across the row. Looks like we will dodge that bullet this year. August has brought us gale force winds the last few years, flattening hundreds of acres of mature crops. We will cross our collective fingers, wishing for rain without violence.

But this month gives as it tests. The trumpet vine is host again this summer to a multitude of humming birds. If butterflies were as noisy as cicadas, I'd need earplugs. The sun has moved far enough south to spare the front porch its parting salute; its a rare evening too still or sultry not to sit outdoors and listen to the fountain. I wish I could say the same of the back patio, but grilling will be cooking in the fullest sense for another month at least. The tomatoes are bearing; every meal will be gourmet from now on with the addition of oil, basil, blue cheese, or vinegar..... with little or no effort from the cook! Before the end of the month, we will have fresh salsa when the peppers have a little more size. August food is simple, but its such a short trip to the plate!

Evenings for us still hold baseball; our team clings to contention and Blake is admirably die hard. We will listen to the Cardinals well past summer's end. But for others less committed, there is light at the end of August's tunnel:

College football is just around the corner. And with it......fall.