Everyone Knows It’s Windy

Ahem.  Yes.  1967.  I was 13.  Remember 1967? 

It’s windy.  Today and yesterday, in NOAZ (that’s what they call Northern Arizona), upon wave of wind up to 50 miles an hour!

The sky is a perfect blue diamond.  I’m surrounded by forest, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, some kind of Spruce.

The waves of wind from the South-Southwest pile up on that majestic escarpment, the Mogollon Rim, and spill over into the Coconino Plateau, which rides above the Rim like a giant plate rising to 8,000 feet before cracking in half to form the Grand Canyon.

And I, in my tiny RV, with my not so tiny canine pal Atina, had a choice to either go crazy in the two days (so far) of relentless waves of wind, or…or not.

At times the wind rocks the RV so hard, I think it’s going to tip over.

Atina thinks so too.  I can tell by the way she clings to me and farts.  As I write she is wrapped around my leg with her ass in my face, farting great clouds of evil fumes.  At the risk of being covered in red volcanic dust, I have had to open the window.

Every three or four minutes, another wave of wind-here it comes now-roars through the tree tops and through my window.  Atina sleeps, heaves a big sigh, farts.

I’ve been nervously checking my NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) high-definition radar app for any approaching precipitation.  This volcanic soil, when rained upon, becomes a treacherous soup of slippery mud.  If the soil becomes saturated, it can turn into quicksand.  So I watch the sky and keep track of the aviation forecasts.

I’ve always loved weather.  When I was 10 or so, a gigantic tornado passed right over our house.  We were listening to a record on the old record player.  Suddenly there was a deafening roar.  The dog dove under the couch.  The lights flickered.  The phonograph slowed eerily to a halt.  The lights went out.  The roar passed overhead…we thought it was a low flying jet, but strange… Then the lights came back on, the record player started up again, the dog came out from under the couch, and everything went back to normal.

The next morning my mother and I went to the laundromat.  It wasn’t there.  Just nothing but the concrete pad it was built on.

The mile-wide tornado sheared the city of Toledo, Ohio, off at second-story level and dumped it into Lake Erie.
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My father and I were big buddies.  We used to pack a lunch, a frying pan, a little bag of corn meal, a couple slices of bacon, and our fishing tackle, and we’d go fishing.

Dad taught me to fly fish.  I was good at catching twigs from overhanging trees.  We never caught anything, but we did forbidden things like chewing tobacco (yecch) and smoking corncob pipes (blecch). 

We did better fishing in ponds, where we caught pan fish: crappie, sunfish, bluegill–cleaned and scaled them on the spot.  Dad taught me how to make a small cooking fire, and we’d fry the bacon, roll the fish in cornmeal, and fry them in the bacon fat.  A delectable feast.  We ate them, fins, tails, and all.  Crunchy.

We went surf casting in the ocean, using long heavy rods baited with 8-10 inch long Styrofoam lures called Atoms, bristling with hooks, in hope of catching a bluefish and not getting bitten.

Once I was in a rowboat in Narragansett Bay with my friend Becky.  The bluefish were running, a huge school of them, so many that it seemed the boat was riding on top of waves of bluefish instead of waves of water.

We happened to have fishing poles, so we threw a line in, without bait, just bare hooks.  Becky hooked one immediately, and it fought so hard it took both of us to get it into the boat.

(Breaking news: Atina just puked.  She’s such a good girl, she urgently asks to go outside when she has to puke.  It was the Malinois Empty Stomach kind of puke, so I just fed her.)

We got the angry bluefish into the boat.  It thrashed and snapped, jumping around in the bottom of the dory.  Bluefish have a mouthful of deadly sharp teeth.  They can take a finger off, and bluefish bites seem to always get infected.

Becky yelled, “Hold into him, there’s a club in this boat somewhere!”

It was her father’s dory.  He was an avid fisherman, so there had to be a club in the boat, for whacking fish over the head.  That’s how you kill a fish.

She had to find the club, because the only other choice was to throw the fish overboard and cut the line.

But this could not be done without getting bitten, because a dory is a deep sort of boat.

No luck with the club, so we pulled one of the oars and whacked the fish to death, but then a wave came along and snatched the oar; and we were forced to paddle back to shore with one oar, which was not an easy task.

In normal conditions, if deprived of an oar, a person would jump into the sea and push or pull the boat ashore; but the sea was filled with snapping bluefish, so we managed, after a long time, to get the boat to land, more worried about what Becky’s father would say about the lost oar than anything.  Becky’s father was a kind man; he didn’t say anything.  He was a man of few words.  Not so, her mother.

One bright blue morning, Dad and I packed up our surf casting gear and headed out for Horseneck Beach to try our luck.  Somebody had told somebody else, who had told Dad that the bluefish might be running.

By the time we got to the beach, it was starting to cloud up.  Nevertheless we hauled our tackle to the shore and threw a line in.

The tide seemed to be coming in strong, although by the tide tables it should have been turning, just at the end of going out and starting to come in (“neap tide,” in fisherman’s terms).  High tide wasn’t for a good few hours yet.

But we cast our lines and tried to smoke, he his cigar and I my Balkan Sobranies, daring black cigarettes with gold leaf where the filter would have been, if there had been a filter, which there wasn’t.  By this time it was impossible to smoke, as the wind kept putting our smokes out.  So we put them away and turned our attention to trying to get our lures in the water.

But the wind, which was now howling like a banshee, kept throwing our lures back in our faces along with sheets of rain and salt spray.  We decided to pack it in and go have lunch.

We threw our fishing gear into the back of Dad’s Ford pickup and wallowed through the driving rain to a nearby fishermen’s bar that served the best conch chowder ever.

The scratchy t.v.was on.

When we came through the door, soaking wet, stamping our dripping boots on the mat, the boys at the bar said,

“What in the world have you two been doin’ out THEYAH?  In the middle of this hurricane?  You-ah lucky you didn’t get taken by a storm wave!”

Hurricane?  HURRICANE!  Nobody said anything about a hurricane.

The lights went out, and the barkeep lit kerosene lanterns.  Dad ordered us beers (yes, I was only fourteen, but the law was that a minor could drink if accompanied by a parent), and we lit fresh smokes.  The fishermen looked on approvingly.  We ordered hot conch chowder, and crumbled Common Crackers, which the barkeep scooped from a barrel, into the rich stew.

It made us forget, temporarily, that we were soaking wet.

(For you who did not grow up in New England in the ’60’s or before, Common Crackers, also known as Ship’s Biscuits, are rounds of flour, water, and baking soda, slowly baked until completely dehydrated, and dangerous to teeth unless broken up into chowder.  They keep indefinitely when stored in an airtight container, and thus were taken on long sea voyages on whaling ships.  As long as they don’t get wet they are good practically forever.)

After the wind died down some, we hydroplaned for a couple of hours till we got home.  My mother was frantic.  No cell phones in those days.  For all she knew (she wailed, through tears), we could have been taken by a storm wave.

Mom seldom approved of our adventures.  That’s one reason we seldom took her along.

The wind-waves seem to be slowing down now.  The NOAA weather discussion said it was going to, but I don’t trust it, as that’s what it said last night and today was worse than yesterday.

So I’ll keep on recollecting pleasant memories of dangerous adventures that turned out good.  Atina and I are warm and dry, and we’ve got plenty of food and water, without bluefish…although they are very tasty.

image

My father, with a giant pot that he made for a demonstration at some art school or other.  Note that the pot is wearing his apron and hat.  He was 5’8″, so that gives you an idea of the size of this pot.

Below on the far left are a salt glazed porcelain teapot and vase that he made.  The rest of the pots were made by his former graduate students.  From a show in 2001 more or less.  I hope he’s playing in mud in Potter’s Heaven now…and enjoying a good conch chowdah, with a good cigar for dessert.

Another “Almost Was”

Used to be a phrase among my particular hippie circle: “That almost was an almost was.”

That is to say, it was a close call.

This line of storms that has caused all sorts of mayhem, from strings of tornados to floods to blizzards, has been washing over western North Carolina, where I am stuck at a campground waiting for a service appointment on Wednesday.

Yesterday I was studying the sky, watching a wall cloud slowly rotating and thinking, why, that could develop into a tornado if there was more wind shear.  I was glad it was going away from where I was, in case things progressed in a bad way.

So imagine my surprise when my mother called, just as I was leaving the vet’s office in Asheville.

As usual, no matter where I am when she calls, she screamed,
“WHERE ARE YOU???”

“I’m in Asheville, why?”

“Can’t you hear the radio???”  She always has the radio on.  Always.

I couldn’t hear the radio, but I could hear the unmistakable National Weather Service robot voice gravely announcing something or other.

“What’s happening, Mom?  Why is there a weather alert?”

“WHERE ARE YOU??”

“I’m in Asheville, why?”

“You stay there.  You just stay there.  Do you have a strong building you can take shelter in?”

Then I knew what the alert was: tornado.

“Is it a watch or a warning?”

“CAN’T YOU HEAR THE RADIO??”

“No, I can’t.  Tell me what it says.”

Finally she calmed down enough to repeat verbatim what the alert message said.  The tornadic radar signal showed significant rotation, moving north at 30 mph (!!!), with the campground where I’ve been staying directly in its path.  I thought of all those people in their campers, motor coaches, and especially a young family in a flimsy pop-up, all out in an open field.

“Is it on the ground?”

No, not yet.

“Well, I’ll just stay here in Asheville tonight.  One or another of the stores will let me stay in their parking lot.”

Mom was relieved.

I had to replenish my supply of canned nutrients, so I went to the nearest grocery store and stocked up.  The manager kindly gave me permission to park my camper overnight.

I got on my NOAA weather app, and sonofabitch, there it was, the characteristic  bright red “hook” signature of a developing tornado.  My weather warnings app gave the usual urgent instructions for taking shelter, getting as low as possible with as many walls between you and the outdoors as possible.

I thought ruefully of the photos of the aftermath of the F4 tornado that hit East Texas the day before yesterday.  No walls left to protect anyone.  Amazing that only…I think 12 or 14…people were killed, although there are still some missing.

This is the same storm front that spawned that string of 11 tornados, in December, for crying out loud.

I don’t care what people say the cause is…when it’s 70 degrees in December, and the weather has gone crazy, it’s global warming.

I’ve been studying tornados ever since I lived in the Mysterious Midwest and had run-ins with several.  One was huge and threw a good deal of Toledo, Ohio into Lake Erie.  One went over our heads after I convinced my then-husband to please stop watching it and jump in this handy ditch with our infant son. 

And one buzzed through my yard at night and snatched the kids’ trampoline.  It ended up in a soybean field several miles away.  I found that out when the farmer showed up with our crumpled trampoline in the back of his truck.

“This yours?”

“Yep.”

“Thought so.”

The kids dragged it out of his truck, took it apart and put it back together again.  It was fine.  They launched each other off of it until one of them broke his arm, then I took it apart and hauled it to the dump.

My son grew phobic about tornados.  In the spring, the sky was full of rotating cells.

His step-brother used to torment him:  Look!  A tornado!  There’s another one!

My son leaned over and threw up in the manure spreader.  For years after that, every time the sky looked threatening, he got sick.

When I heard there was a potential tornado heading for Marion, of course I wanted to jump in my van and go chase it…But it was getting dark, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a tornado in the dark.  Maybe a tsunami. 

So here I sit in the grocery store parking lot.  Atina’s head rests on my knee.  She snores, oblivious to the fierce wind and rain. 

The radar shows a nasty squall line, but nothing to get excited about.

But when it comes to weather, you never really know.

Making Hay

I met him in a cowboy bar in Lima, Ohio.  I needed a dance partner for the two-steps and waltzes.  The hostess got me Dale.  He was newly divorced and still smarting, didn’t want anything to do with women–guaranteed–but he also needed a dance partner.  I was safe.  We were married the next year.

He was a trackman on the railroad.  I was the director of a pediatric emergency department.  That gave us an interesting socioeconomic dichotomy.  I didn’t care; he was my savage gamekeeper, and I his Lady Chatterley.  ‘Nuff said.

One night a colleague at work said to me, “Don’t drive down Slabtown Road.  There’s a horse farm for sale there.  If you go down there, you’ll surely buy it so don’t go down there.

I went down there the next day.  I bought it.

When I was shit-poor, playing the banjo on the streets in Boston to make rent money, throwing rent parties when it didn’t pan out, I promised myself three things if I ever got rich:

I would have nice underwear.

I would learn to fly.

I would have a horse.

It was a 40 acre farm with two barns and a brick ranch house.  There were 32 stalls with 32 horses in them.  13 of the stalls were filled with the outgoing owner’s own horses, which would come with the deal; the other stalls were boarders.  So instead of “a” horse, I suddenly had thirteen!

It was a “turn-key operation.”  That meant the owners wanted out, Right Now, and wanted rid of the place and everything on it.  Suited me fine.

There was a wonderful 4 wheel drive John Deere tractor with a backhoe, front end loader, snow blade, brush cutter, power take off (PTO), PTO powered John Deere hay baler, a powered manure spreader (very important when you have 32 horses!), a 1949 Allis Chalmers tractor, hay mower, a couple of wheel-powered hay rakes, and everything else you’d need to manage and bale five cuttings a year of 25 acres of prime alfalfa.

That was the only time in my life I’ve ever watched TV.  If you’re going to make hay in Ohio, you’d better be adept at gauging the weather patterns from the Pacific Northwest to the Upper Midwest, during haying time.  That’s the way the jet stream flows in summer, and that’s the path the storms take.  It takes about three days for a storm system to travel from Seattle to Lima.  Like it says, you have to make hay when the sun shines!

Timing is critical when making hay.  First off, you have to know when to cut it.  The alfalfa plant is highest in protein–up to 28%–right before it blooms.  If you cut it right then, you will have soft, fragrant green hay that is loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals, and there is little chance for toxic molds to settle in.  If you miss this tiny window of time–only a few days–what you’ll have is coarse, tough, not-very-nutritious hay, good for cows at $1 a bale but not suitable for horse feed at $5 a pop.

Now, the absolute minimum time frame for making a crop of hay is three sunny days: day one to cut, day two to turn it over and dry it on the other side, and day three to bale and put it away in the haymow.

So the art of it all was to pinpoint the exact three-day window between rain storms, coordinated with the ideal growth stage of the alfalfa.  It was exciting.  Heart-pounding.

To make it all more interesting, those three-day windows always seemed to occur when the temperature was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The upshot of the torrid temperatures was that we could never manage to bribe the local high school boys who lolled around during summer break doing nothing but getting into trouble–we could never get them to help us put up hay, even for good money.  So it fell out that Dale and I did all of the cutting and raking ourselves.

He would go out first, as soon as the dew dried off the hay.  That was another obstacle–you can’t just get up with the birds and expect to go cut hay.  If you do anything to hay while it’s wet, it will do something bad to you, like turn directly into mold. And worse, if you put wet hay in your haymow, it creates so much heat in the process of fermentation that many a good barn has burned down due to hay fires, and many a good animal lost!  So you had to pat your foot and drink cup after cup of coffee until the sun had dried the standing hay.

As soon as the sun was full on, beating down like brimstone, Dale would jump on the John Deere with the mower on, and cut hay for dear life.  If we were lucky, it was so damn hot that I could give him an hour’s head start and follow right after him with the old Allis Chalmers, with a wheel-drive rake on the back.  The sun was so hot, the hay dried enough to turn over in just an hour!  So we’d get the whole 25 acres cut and turned over in a day.  But most of the time it was a two-day process before we were set to bale.  Cut the first day, and the second day I’d go out with one rake on the Chalmers and turn over the front field while he did the back field with the Deere.

Driving the Chalmers was an adventure in itself.  It had all kinds of convenient features, like a dead-man’s switch.  That’s a metal button on the floor that you have to keep your foot on at all times, otherwise it cuts the engine off.  Obviously, because it’s called a dead-man’s switch, if you died while driving tractor it would most likely cut off.  If you are five feet tall and have to drive the tractor half-standing, half hanging onto the steering wheel, it’s damned hard to keep your weight on that stupid switch.  Of course, if you fell off the tractor it would be handy to have it stop automatically, saving you from getting run over or having to run like hell to catch up with an escaped tractor.

The Allis had no brakes.

Therefore, I had to devise a strategy for what to do when I came to the corner of the field and had to make a turn.  Luckily the Allis tolerated letting the engine idle down real slow, since it only had two gears: fast, and faster.  But it would throttle down to a creeping crawl before it stalled.  That was good in another way: the starter was on the floor too, and required a good stomp to fire it up.  I must have looked like a monkey on a string hopping up and down trying to get that damn tractor started.

On the third morning, after the horses were fed and watered and the stalls mucked out, and after four or five more cups of coffee, Dale would hitch the baler to the Deere.  If we were lucky, and school was out, we’d have our two boys (his and mine) as slave labor.  When you live on a farm, there are certain realities of life, like barn chores and baling hay.  Let’s face it: none of us woke up in the morning shouting, “Yaaay!  Let’s go fry our ass, get good and sweaty and covered with itchy hay dust, and totally dehydrated because there isn’t time to stop to drink!  Yaaaay!”

Nope.  So it was on Baling Day that I drove the John Deere tractor with a baler on the PTO and a 14 foot flatbed wagon hitched behind, no automatic balers that shoot the bales into a tall stake wagon for us: we had the old-fashioned kind that plops the bales down in the field.  So Dale would horse the 60-to-70 pound bales up to the wagon, one of the boys would grab it from him, and the other boy would stack it on the wagon.  As the wagon filled up, it got harder and harder……but those boys could sometimes load that wagon five bales high.  Then we’d unhitch from the Deere and one of the boys would get the Allis, and haul the load to the barn.

Without the boys to help, it was just me driving tractor and Dale working the wagon like a madman with rabies.  I had to stop a lot to let him catch up on the stacking.  Sometimes I’d hop off the tractor and help stack, then we’d have another go at it till we were ready to put the bales in the barn.

If we hadn’t had a powered hay conveyer, I don’t know what we would have done.  This looked like a playground slide with a conveyer belt going up to the haymow.  We’d generally have the two kids (did I mention that they were ages 8 (mine) and 10 (his) when we started doing this?) up in the haymow stacking, and I’d be on the wagon heaving the bales down to Dale, who heaved them onto the conveyer.

And then we’d go out to the field and do it again, until it was done.  It was a race against the evening dew, or the coming rain, whichever came first.

Sometimes something exciting would happen: I always drove tractor with my head cocked over my left shoulder, one eye on the windrow and one ear on the baler, in case somebody got in some kind of trouble.

So when I heard shrieks coming from the direction of the wagon, I shut the whole works down and leaped out of the tractor seat.  (The dead-man’s switch on the Deere was conveniently located under the spring-loaded seat, so all you had to do was stand up and the tractor shut down.)

Son of a gun, if we hadn’t baled up a smallish rattlesnake; and before anyone noticed, it had been tossed up on the wagon, its head sticking out and snapping for all it was worth!  Dale whacked it with something or other, and threw that bale back into the field.  Reject!  We laughed over that for years.

After the last bale was put away in the mow, there was a mad rush for the Gatorade and the shower.  Then barn chores, which never wait till tomorrow.  And the blessed coolth of the evening.  Let the dew fall where it may; the hay is safe, and so are we, until time to bale again!

Postscript: although at the time my son thought he was being abused by being forced to do what all farm kids do, he now remembers those years as the best in his life. 

My Outhouse Is Frozen

I went outside today for the first time in four days.  In the meantime, it has been spitting icicles, sleet, freezing rain, and something the weather-people refer to cryptically as “ice pellets.”

Yesterday I went out as far as the front porch and threw some ice-melt salt around.  Today when I opened the door, I saw with satisfaction that the stairs were all melted, so I went down them to see if I could go out to my car, and perhaps get out down the dirt road that serves me for a driveway and take these stinking bags of trash that have been building up since the storm to the “recycle center” (that means the dump) ten miles away.  That is what we have for “garbage pickup” here.  You pick up the garbage, put it in your car, drive ten miles, and throw it in the dumpster.

But I digress.  When I stepped out onto the level gravel space that serves me for a parking lot, I very nearly fell on my arse, because the top layer of the ice had melted and refrozen.  Too bad my ice skates are in my storage building somewhere.  So I slid gingerly over to the old wooden shed, reached through the winder (pronounced WIN-der) because the glass is busted outen it, and hauled a fifty pound pag of ice-melt salt out, which had solidified from sitting around in the shed for 20 years more or less.  So I reached through the winder again and got a shovel and bashed on the bag of salt for a while, which had the double salutary effect of giving me an outlet for my frustrations and busting up the salt into more or less usable form: smaller chunks, anyway.  Then I slid around scattering salt like Mary Poppins throws bird seed, or maybe that was somebody else from some other movie.

What I’m getting around to here, is that with all that exercise I had to go to the bathroom.  Everybody does, sometime or other, right?  Well there it was, under the big hemlock tree

2012-10-25 09.13.51 where I asked the outhouse man to put it after its last adventure, when it fell ass over teakettle down the cliff in the last  big wind storm.

potty over the cliff

 I told them last time not to put it so close to the gosh dern cliff.  Lucky I was not in it at the time.

Somehow they managed to rescue it and clean it up, and put it right there under the tree, nice and handy.  I had not had occasion to use it since its adventure, and now seemed a perfect time, the sun shining and all.  So I opened the door and was pleased to see how very clean he had managed to make it.  He had left the lid closed, so I opened it and looked down.

The bright blue disinfectant fluid was frozen solid.  I was surprised.  I though they made that stuff with antifreeze or something, for just this sort of occasion, when it’s been colder than a well-digger’s arse out there, and maybe the well-digger has to use the bathroom.

So I though, nah, impossible, and got the stir-stick out from under the stairs.  That’s right, the stir-stick.  That’s the stick I use to stir the, well, you know, when it gets too full in there, like if I’ve had workmen building something or, well never mind.  Anyway, I stuck the stir-stick in there just to see if maybe it was just the top layer that was frozen, like a skin or something; but no. Frozen solid, looked like all the way down.

Big deal, right?  Makes sense.  Temperatures hovering around the zero Fahrenheit mark for a few days, why not?

Well, it’s a good thing I have the Amazing Electric Toilet, that I have written about in a previous post.  But now I’m nervous, because the whole point of the Pesky Outhouse is that it’s supposed to be a backup form of toilet-ness in case of power outage.  But now I see a couple of problems:  one is the ice, which is the most likely cause for power outages around here, building up as it does on trees, which then fall on power lines (you should see it some time: the transformers go up with a POW and lots of fireworks).  The ice would prevent me from getting to the damn thing in the first place, unless I wanted to get there sliding on my bum.  And then once I got there, there’s this issue of, you know.  The ice inside, as well as outside.

Potty FAIL!