Saturday, November 17, 2012

Giving Thanks

On this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for much, but I’m especially thankful for my shack. It’s finished, as much as any place you live in is totally finished, and I use it nearly every day. I’m thankful for its warmth and comfort, its quiet, its utility. I’m thankful for what it gives me-solace, peace, and a sense of retreat from stress. While I am the one who conceived the idea of creating this space, and building it myself, I certainly did not do it alone. This Thanksgiving I have a lot of people to thank. I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.

Australians Yuri and Steve for helping me build the original shack Overlooking the Pacific outside Sua, Ecuador in 1976.

Lester Walker for devoting a whole book to personal spaces.

David Minch for first building almost the same beautiful shack somewhere else.

My wife Colleen for accepting the concept.

WCMY’s Radio Trader and the guy who sold me the patio door for $100.

John Liebhardt, carpenter, for consultation, bailing me out of framing problems, cutting the first rafter, making the stair stringers.

My daughter Maureen for all her thought, labor, support and encouragement.

Kerem Araci for all that good immigrant labor.

My son Dean who helped me build the porch in a day.

My brother Darwin for the trenching, all the electrical wiring, building the stove table, giving me tools, and convincing me I could do it all.

My brother in law Ron and his sons Brian and Brad Schieber for bracing the floor, installing the glass wall and cedar siding.

John (Jackie Knight’s brother) for donating the steel for the stove table.

Marine Stove Works on Orcas Island, Washington for finally delivering the Sardine stove.

My brother Denny for urging me to build the shack from the beginning and travelling from California to help put sheeting on the frame, defining the space.

McConnoughay Roofing for the obvious.

Maze Lumber for finally getting me to understand what I needed to do to vent my stove through the roof so as not to burn the place down.

Matt Krewer for installing the stovepipe and chimney and getting it right.

Gary Smith, my neighbor, for hooking the shack to the house panel and turning on the lights.

My neighbor Bill Zeller for tool loans and encouragement.

Jim Hinterlong for his truck, tools and helping with the foundation beams.

All the guys at Golden Rule Lumber for teaching me about building materials, talking me through confusion, and free delivery before the gas prices went up.

Bill Aplington for crafting the beautiful stained glass triptych.

Jim Vaughn for putting me on to Jim Scoma.

Jim Scoma from Tonica lumber for persuading me to buy the right windows and for trimming out the shack.

Megan Van Vliebergen for giving me my writing desk.

Davison Sawmill, Sawyer Michigan for building the hickory slab writing desk.

Joe Martin for building the stereo cabinet.

Rich Goetz for donating the speakers and CD changer.

Joe and Will Garcia for helping me cut and split the first batch of oak for the stove.

The Daily Times for the pallets from which I made the wood crib.

Kerry and Pat Bryson for the donation of pine stove wood.

Thank you to all the people for all the gifts, help, and encouragement I found among the people close to me. Thanks for understanding the shack, my need to build it, and most importantly my need to be in it. I wrote this thank you from there.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bad news on the doorstep...

During this summer drought I've been watering my garden early in the morning. Sometimes I'm out there when the paper lady shows up. Her husband cruises slowly down our street and hands her papers from the car window which she throws on our driveways. Used to be all the neighbors got a paper. The stops now are both few and far between. She complains about the cost of the plastic bags, which the Tribune must require because why would you bother putting the paper in a plastic bag these last couple of hot dry weeks? If the carriers have any discretion over the bags they use my carrier has to be buying the absolute thinnest and cheapest. They used to be blue. Now they're flimsy see through. They tear immediately when they hit the concrete on the drive, leaving small holes. I discovered this because I used to use the Trib bags to clean up after my dog. I'm using other bags now after learning the hard way. I feel like the whole newspaper thing is deteriorating. What can you do?

I don't know how much longer the Chicago Tribune, or our local Ottawa paper, will continue to be delivered at my house. The local paper has apparently run out of kids to take the route and the adults that deliver the Trib are delivering it as well. The local paper used to be an afternoon paper but now that it's being printed out of town and trucked in each morning with yesterday’s news they've stopped pretending and deliver it in the morning. You can get both papers online. I'm afraid both driveway delivery deals are going to run out. I’m already starting to mourn the loss of that good feeling I get of holding the paper in my hand, turning the pages, and when I’m done reading the sports section folding it into a tablet size pad and working the crossword with a yellow pencil. The coffee is ready by then. It’s quiet. I love those mornings.

I dread the day that home delivery is discontinued. But given the cost of paper, printing and delivery compared to hitting “send” on a computer how can they afford to do otherwise? As old people like me, who are hooked on real paper, dwindle away it will surely happen. Its economics I guess. When the customers and the money start to run out some things change and some just go away. I can feel it coming, can’t you?

Friday, June 29, 2012

I Miss My son

I miss my son. He’s been living out of the country for nearly two years. I saw him Christmas before last and it’s just been too long. We Skype from time to time, but there’s a time difference and we’re both too busy to work that out, too much alike in being averse to planning ahead. We don’t talk enough. Even when we do, dress it up all you want but Skype is still a telephone call with video. It’s not being with him, sharing a meal, hugging him. I find myself thinking about him more and more. I miss him terribly.

He’s the younger of our two kids at twenty seven. His twenty nine year old sister came home for Father’s Day weekend 2012 and stayed two nights in her old room. I love having her home. After a while we find ourselves talking about things we never think about, and it takes us out of our regular lives. We cooked out, goofed around in the yard, didn’t do anything special but had a wonderful time.

One night we got out my old vinyl albums. They had been locked away in the attic since God knows when and I was afraid they were ruined. They were fine. I’d stored them in a wooden crate standing straight up on edge. Although I don’t have a turntable hooked up, her boyfriend was able, through some kind of technological magic, to plug his cell phone into our living room stereo and play music through Spotify. It’s a service that provides access to, I don’t know, every song ever recorded in every language in the course of human history, for ten dollars a month. I was amazed. Anyway, I leafed through the albums and when I found a song that meant a lot to me, he would find it on the phone and play it. My albums came alive as I held them in my hand.

In addition to indulging in old music, I uncorked my daughter’s Father’s Day present to her Dad. I had two fingers of very smooth small batch Kentucky Bourbon while listening to old stuff I’d nearly forgotten about: Jeff Beck Rough and Ready, Grateful Dead Wake of the Flood, John McLaughlin Belo Horizonte. I had another two fingers while playing Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, John Prine’s Common Sense, and Arlo Guthrie’s version of his Dad’s old songs “1913” and “Ukulele Lady” from Hobo’s Lullaby. My daughter fetched more ice and poured another as we started on a string of Bob Dylan songs, complete with questions about where I was when I first heard them, followed by answers that were as truthful as I could remember. The lyrics were coming back to me really well and I was singing along loudly until the room filled with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The lyrics, like Dylan’s lyrics always have, hit me hard. As much as I tried not to, I stopped singing and closed my eyes as tears ran down my face onto the table. My daughter held my hand. Maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe it was because it was Father’s Day. But as he’s done so many times, Dylan touched my heart, this time as a sixty year old Dad. Who knew?

“Payback is a bitch,” they say. That same idea is expressed in many forms. “Everything that goes around comes around” was popular in the sixties. Westerners’ vague ideas about karma contain that thought as well. Sometime in March 1975 I unbelievably caught a single ride from Frankfurt, Germany to Casablanca, Morocco. Throughout that spring and summer I hitchhiked all around Morocco before striking out across Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. I traveled North Africa with no plan, no timetable, and certainly no itinerary. During that time I may have written some letters to my parents but I can’t recall mailing them. I didn’t call. I didn’t think of it to be honest. I was busy.

Late in September I flew from Cairo, Egypt to Athens, Greece, back to the western world with more reliable post offices and telephone companies. From an old wooden phone booth in Piraeus I called my parents’ farm house. My long silence affected my parents greatly. They lived so predictably on the dairy farm I grew up on. Each day without fail they got their mail from a big box by the blacktop road at 10:00 a.m. The daily absence of a letter from their absent son got to them. Relatives and friends died and they couldn’t reach me. While I was in Africa the anxiety got to my Mom. She and Dad talked to my brother who was in the military. As he later told me they wanted to contact the International Red Cross or maybe the State Department to locate me and make sure I was still alive. He talked them out of it.

In November I walked into their kitchen unannounced after buying the second half of a guy’s ticket from Amsterdam to Montreal, making it to Chicago, and hitchhiking to the farmhouse. I walked up the stairs with my backpack. They were sitting at the table having coffee. They broke into tears. “There was a time we didn’t know if we’d ever see you again.” My Mom said. I didn’t understand.

The next morning at breakfast my Mom got serious, and angry, while describing the pain they went through during the long time I failed to communicate. “If you ever do that again,” she said, “don’t bother coming home.”

“Oh, Mom,” I said. “You don’t mean that.”

My dad, a soft spoken man, reached across the table, put his age-spotted farmer’s hand on mine, looked into my eyes and said, “Yes, David. She does.”

If we live long enough and keep our wits about us, perhaps we’ll understand everything before we die. That’s what I’m hoping. A year and a half later in a shack on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, I wrote a mushy story from my Dad’s point of view about what he might have thought during my absence. But it wasn’t until I had an epiphany on Father’s Day weekend listening to Bob Dylan’s thrumming guitar and strained voice that I experienced what my Dad must have felt.

Not only can you Skype your son in Rome for free, and listen to a giant catalog of songs on a cell phone, you can Google the lyrics of any song you can imagine and be reading them in less than a minute. I used to listen to Dylan lyrics, and Rolling Stone lyrics, and others over and over trying to determine what they were really saying. My friends and I would disagree and argue. Now with an internet connection they all become clear in no time.

In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a father and a son converse. The father asks his blue eyed son, his darling young one, five questions in order to learn about his son’s life away from him: Where have you been? What did you see? What did you hear? Who did you meet? What’ll you do now? When I was young I never really heard the father’s questions. I was much more interested in the son’s answers. His answers define the song. As you listen to his words you imagine his journey. The son’s answers are poetic, fantastic, vivid, obscure, and wonderfully Dylan-esque.

Where had the blue eyed son been? To twelve misty mountains, six crooked highways, seven sad forests, a dozen dead oceans, ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. Can his Dad possibly understand that?

He saw a newborn baby with wolves all around it, a highway of diamonds with nobody on it, a roomful of men with the hammers a bleeding, ten thousand takers whose tongues were all broken, guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children. He heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world, one hundred drummers whose hands were a blazin’, ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’, the song of a poet who died in the gutter, the sound of a clown who cried in the alley. He met a young child beside a dead pony, a white man who walked a black dog, a young woman whose body was burning, a young girl who gave him a rainbow, a man wounded in love.

And when his Dad asked ‘what’ll you do now?’ he answered bravely, ‘I’m a-goin’ back out fore the rain starts a-fallin’. I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest, where the people are many and their hands are all empty. Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters. Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison. Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden. Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten. Where black is the color, where none is the number. I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it. Reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’. But I’ll know my songs well before I start singin’.”

And through it all with a rising voice and driving blues harp is the refrain: “And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” The song ends. A Dad asks five short questions, and the son answers them with exuberance, so full of energy, and so determined. If the Dad could but add a verse at the end it might go like this.

“I know everything that you speak of is out there. I saw it myself and I feel it inside me. Please don’t go back there its cold and it’s risky. I fear that hard rain will fall hard upon on you. Stay in one place and live life more slowly. Stay close to me, I love you and miss you.”

But it’s not a Dad’s song. The Dad is the straight man. It’s a song that captures the essence of youth. Fathers can’t help it. They stay home and cry. Neither can sons. They have to go out and live.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Going to Springfield as a Boy

My Dad had pale blue eyes and tried hard at times to hide his feelings. I think he feared they made him weak. But when you looked in his eyes they told you everything. He was a gentle man whose life was hard, but he managed to stay happy which inspired us all.

He once spanked me with a wooden hairbrush for refusing to wear a cap. I was four. I’d been given a red coat with a matching cap as a present from my Aunt Lou and Uncle Ed. We were going with them on our annual trip to the Secretary of State’s office in Springfield to pick up license plates. They gave you new plates every year back then and they were cheaper if not sent through the mail.Springfield was a little over an hour away but it seemed like a real journey. It was as far away as I had ever been.

We were dairy farmers. Dairy farmers could go anywhere they wanted as long as they left after they had finished the morning milking at 7:30 and returned by 4:30 to milk again in the evening. The Springfield license plate trip was one of the few times we went anywhere. Being gone that long meant we could eat in a restaurant. Dad liked Steak and Shake. Mom loved not having to cook. They looked forward to Springfield as much as me. But I was determined not to wear that cap.

We were all ready to go and I came out wearing the coat but no cap.

“Where’s the cap?” Mom asked.

“Can’t find it,” I said.

Mom hustled to the closet under the stairs and found it right away. I’d hidden it under the gloves and stuff on the top shelf. She put it on my head.

“I hate this cap,” I said.

It had ear flobs and a strap that snapped under my chin. I unsnapped the straps, pulled it off my head, and threw it on the floor. She picked it up and put it back on my head, snapping it firmly under my chin. I unsnapped it and threw it on the floor again without taking my eyes off her.

“You’re going to wear this cap,” she said calmly.

She put it back on my head and snapped the strap with authority. I unsnapped it, ripped it off, and slammed it to the floor hard. She stared at me. I stared back.
We heard the side door open and Dad’s voice came from the doorway.

“Let’s go. I’ve got the car warmed up. We’ve got to pick up Ed and Lou.”

“David doesn’t want to go,” Mom yelled back.

“What?” my Dad replied. I heard his steps coming up to the kitchen and through the dining room towards us. He stood before us with a look of complete surprise.

“What’s this?”

“David won’t wear his cap so I guess he doesn’t want to go to Springfield.”

“Well he’s got to go to Springfield. There’s no one here to watch him. Get him another cap.”

“No. Ed and Lou gave him that cap, it matches his coat, and he’s wearing it.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Dad said. No matter how small a family gets it’s still hard to keep everyone happy.

My Mom remembered everything anyone ever gave us. If my Dad’s brother’s wife Doris gave me a shirt two years ago for Christmas Mom would insist I wear it when they came to visit. If her first husband’s mother gave her a set of salt and pepper shakers twenty years ago for their wedding Mom would make sure they were on the table when she came for pie and coffee. Those things were important to my Mom. My Dad knew that. He looked at Mom with those pale blue eyes and she looked back at him firmly. He looked at me and my Mom joined him in the look. I feared they would both turn against me.

“David,” Dad said, “you’re going to wear that cap.” My fear came true.

“No I’m not,” I said.

Dad picked the cap up off the floor, jammed it on my head firmly, and snapped the snap under my chin. I unsnapped the snap, took it off, and slammed it on the floor. When I saw my Dad’s face change I sensed I had made a big mistake.

He picked me up, tucked me under his arm, and carried me upstairs to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet with me still in his arms, pulled my pants down, reached in a drawer by the toilet and took out a wooden hairbrush. He put me over his knee and hit me on the butt with the back of the brush three times. I tried hard not to cry.
He held me by the shoulders and looked right at me. I looked back through tears and saw how blue his eyes really were.

“I hate doing this,” he said. “But by God you’re going to wear that cap. Now here is what’s going to happen. You’re going to walk downstairs with me, put the cap on your head, and leave it on. Then we’re going to get in the car, drive to Ed and Lou’s place, go to Springfield and have a good time. After you put the cap on we don’t have to talk about it anymore. It will just be over. You’re a good boy. Now let’s go.”

I walked downstairs and put on the cap. That was the only time my Dad ever hit me. It was nearly the only time he got angry at me. We loved each other very much.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Life and Death in the Backyard

A terrible thing is happening at my bird feeder. I’ve been feeding birds for a long time and feeling good about it. My feeder is on a pole, with a plastic dome under it that prevents squirrels from raiding it, twenty feet from the patio door in the back of the house. I feed black oil sunflower seeds to the cardinals and jays and woodpeckers and whatever else makes it way there, and Niger thistle in a tube handing by a side window to the finches. My back yard is big. Where the yard ends a deep ravine starts and when the leaves are on the trees you would think we were on the edge of a wilderness. A green screen shields us from us neighbors across the way. It’s a popular place among our winged friends.

At night we hear the deep hoot of owls but rarely see them. Last winter I noticed a big nest of sticks high in a tree in the ravine and I thought it was the owl’s nest. But then one day I saw a big bird on the ground back by the ravine in the middle of the day. I got out the binoculars and looking closer saw that it was a hawk with something pinned beneath its talons. It looked to be a dove. I love to hear the doves coo. I follow the sound of their soothing mournful call into the branches of our oak trees and see them perched there. Innocent. Passive. They come down below the feeder preferring to eat their sunflower seeds from the ground. The hawk, a Cooper ’s hawk I think, was feeding on one of those good and simple doves. Through the glasses I saw feathers float to the lawn as the hawk dipped his beak and tore into the dove. I thought I saw the dove struggle but then it was still. After a time the hawk flapped his wings and lifted off the ground carrying with it the rest of the dove’s limp and bloody carcass up to the rough nest high in the ravine. A hawk was killing and eating my doves.

Soon after that first killing I was home alone on a Saturday afternoon sitting in the back room reading. I faced the big windows looked out on the back yard. I kept the binoculars on my lap and from time to time I would bring them up to my eyes to get a better look at the bird crowd at the feeder. I thought I had seen a Grosbeak earlier and wanted to see it again. I had just returned the glasses to my lap when directly behind the feeder, out of the treetops by the ravine a large shape swooped quickly into my field of vision. The birds at the feeder scattered wildly in all directions. One of them, a female cardinal, while trying to flee, slammed into the glass patio door not six feet from me. I stood to look. The cardinal dropped like a stone onto the steps leading to the patio. The hawk was on her in an instant. The cardinal fluttered, dazed beneath his talons. The hawk looked directly at me, crouched, and flew off. The hawk was not only hunting the birds at my feeder he was using my house to kill them. The bastard.

I have a thing for female cardinals. They play second fiddle to the flashy males of their species but they have their own grace. They’re quiet and poised. They land on the feeder and look around cautiously before taking the seeds carefully in their beaks, cracking them open, and shaking the husks away. They stay only a short time. They’re considerate and kind, I think, the female cardinals. And by luring them into my yard and up to my feeder I was sacrificing them to this god damn hawk. Why couldn’t he eat the blackbirds? Those stupid uninteresting blackbirds that flock together spring and fall and become a mindless mob of flying thugs.

And what’s wrong with the squirrels? They get fat off the acorns from my oaks. They’re greedy and afraid of nothing, knowing just how long they can wait before taking off in front of my dog, a rescued terrier that has been successful in catching a squirrel only once that we know of in twelve years, though not from lack of trying. Our dog is obsessed and frustrated by the squirrels. We have too many of them. The hawk could surely have a squirrel anytime he wants but no he hunts the dove, the lovely and naïve dove. He ravages the long suffering never as good as their husband female cardinal.

And I felt complicit in the whole thing. Knowing I was practically setting the table for the hawk, as much as announcing ‘dinner is ready’ by putting food between his nest and my house, which represented a cliff those poor songbirds could not surmount when attacked, I swore off filling the feeder. Damned if I’m going to help that son of a bitch hawk I though. I continued to fill the finch feeder. The finches seem to appear out of nowhere, a flash of yellow, green or brown. The hawk probably ignores them, considers them but an appetizer compared to the meaty breasts of the dove and cardinals.

So I settled on feeding the finches while the rest of my friends, the bigger songbirds that once counted on me for hundreds of pounds of sunflower seeds each year, landed from time to time on the empty feeder, pecking aimlessly at the empty seed tray, looking in vain for seed. They must have thought they’d done something wrong. ‘Nothing against you’ I wanted to shout through the glass to the confused blue jay at the feeder, ‘I’m protecting you from an indiscriminate killer.’ But the blue jay turned and flew away.

I went most of the winter not filling my big feeder in the back. When the birds needed food the most the feeder sat forlorn and empty. And then as spring came with open windows and warm breezes I heard the birds more often and realized how much I missed them. Maybe the hawk moved on I thought. I found a half empty bag of black oil sunflower seeds, poured them into a plastic bucket and taking the top off the feeder, held the bucket above my head and filled the feeder to the top. I stood back and felt good. It was like calling on old friend on the phone. I walked to the house hoping the birds would notice and be glad.

They did and they were. Before the day was out the woodpecker looped down and clung to the edge of the feeder in his odd way to scoop up seeds. The blue jay came in, driving the other birds away, but only for a moment. The cardinals, bright males and coy females, came back together, like going out to eat as a couple. And the doves landed under the feeder and joined the squirrels who were once again busy packing the black seeds in their cheeks before sauntering away. Life was good at the feeder once again. That was Saturday.

Thursday I came home from work a little early to catch a bite before an evening meeting. The feeder was crowded with birds of all kinds. Since that Saturday I filled the feeder again on Tuesday. I noticed the feeder was a little less than half full as I came from the refrigerator with a glass of milk. I’d put leftovers in the microwave and the bell dinged indicated my meal was ready. I turned to open the microwave door when I heard a flurry of wings and a loud thud on the patio door. I ran to the glass and there it was, mouth gaping open and shut, wings akimbo, another wide eyed tan dove. I rolled the patio door open and stood over the dove. There on the feeder was the hawk, crouched and menacing, waiting to make the final kill. I stood over the dove and yelled at the hawk.

“Get out of here you murdering son of a bitch.”

The hawk looked at me with the same confused look as the blue jay before flying away. I looked down at the dove. It was a goner. At rest. Dead as a door nail. Might as well let the hawk have it I thought. I shut the door.

And there you have it. What to do? Between hawk attacks the birds love the seeds. They’re oblivious to the danger, or maybe they know the danger and accept it. I’m having trouble accepting it. I’m selfish enough to want beautiful birds in my yard so I continue to fill the feeder. I don’t have a gun but I contemplated getting one, maybe a BB gun, to drive off the hawk. But attacking a bird for what it does naturally? How just is that?

Feeding the birds has changed. In reality I’m now feeding birds to other birds. Gazing at the back yard feeder has become like watching Wild Kingdom on TV knowing at any moment a lion could enter the picture to run down and kill the graceful but vulnerable antelope on the savannah, or a crocodile could rise up out of the water, lock onto the neck of a Wildebeest, drown it and eat it before it migrates to the other side of the river, both animals doing what they have to do without knowing why. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and like it or not that god damn hawk has to eat too. Too bad it doesn’t like black oil sunflower seeds. The drama of life plays itself out in my otherwise quiet back yard. Experience is cruel teacher. Sometimes it ruins things. But then again, that’s what life is like.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Shelling Corn

When we had dinner, which was the noon meal on the farm, the radio was always on. We might be sitting there talking, or listening to Mom tell some story she’d heard on the phone that morning, but when the noon farm report came on, particularly the grain prices from the Chicago Board of Trade, everything stopped. Dad tuned out. He looked to be gazing out the window above the sink, as if by not looking at anything in particular he could hear better. When he got that look we knew to stop talking so he could hear the grain prices; up a half from yesterday’s close, down three quarters, whatever. It meant little to Mom and I but everything, it seemed, to Dad. If we kept talking he would raise his hand, and if we persisted he would give us a sharp hiss. It meant money to my Dad, but it mattered not at all to me as I never thought about money nor did I hear it discussed. It was Dad’s business. But when he made a decision to sell, and called the Danvers Elevator to close the deal, it meant that real soon we would be shelling corn from the crib.

They don’t shell corn anymore. It is picked and shelled all at once in the field by huge expensive combines with corn heads and then stored in metal bins where it is stirred and dried with propane gas burners. My Dad would live to see three different methods of harvest. Picking and shelling ear corn from the crib was the one used when I was growing up.

Attached to the old house was Dad’s machine shop. There were countless items hanging on the wall. If you stood and looked long enough, you could find new and mysterious things every time. By doing that I once spotted a leather contraption hanging on a nail that strapped to your hand and had a metal palm with a hook in the middle. I liked being with Dad when he tinkered in the shop. I was never interested in whatever he was doing mechanically, rather I liked to find old things, and ask Dad about them. He had a story about every one.

“What do you do with this thing?”

“It’s a corn shucker” he told me.

“You shucked corn by hand?”

“Sure did. The fields were smaller then, and we used horses.”

“But the horses didn’t pull a picker?”

“No. One man was the picker and the shucker.”

He strapped the appliance to his hand, fastening the buckles so the hook was in his palm. “The horse followed you pulling a wagon with a buckboard on one side. You grabbed the corn stalk, ripped open the shuck with this hook” he demonstrated a quick jerk with his right hand “snapped the ear off the stalk, and flipped it into the wagon, bouncing it off the buckboard so it dropped in the wagon. You walked down each row, shucking and picking every ear, and the horse knew to follow you slowly, staying beside you, pulling the wagon without a driver. When your wagon was full you pulled it to the crib.”

“That must have taken forever.”

“Well, it took a long time. But the fields were small. You didn’t have to do it all at once. You could go out in the field and shuck as much as you needed for feed and such. Or you could slowly fill your crib. But you didn’t want the stalks to break down in the winter and get down on the ground and wet. And you certainly had to have it gone by spring. It had to be done, at one time or an other, and it had to be done by hand.”

“You must have been so glad to finally get a picker.” I thought they had always had pickers. Ours was a New Idea pull type. We pulled it with the Minneapolis “U” and it picked two rows at a time. There were three big sheet metal snouts that the rows passed between, the stalks pulled in by gathering chains. Then the stalks went between the snapping rollers that separated the ear from the stalk. Two cylinders of steel that could pull your hand in, then your arm, crushing it like Larry Rapp’s dad. His suit coat sleeve hung empty on Sunday morning in church. The ears passed through husking rollers where the shucks were torn off, and clean yellow ears passed up a little conveyor in the back into a wagon trailed behind. It was like a small train going through the field. The tractor, pulling the picker, with a wagon trailing catching the clean ears of corn as they came out the back. Usually there was another tractor waiting somewhere in the field with an empty wagon ready exchange it for a full one which would be hauled to the crib. Dad always drove the picker, and Henry Dunlap hauled the corn to our crib. And when Henry shucked corn they switched jobs. Henry may have been my Dad’s closest friend.

“Pickers changed things” Dad told me that morning as a kid “but they were expensive and dangerous. It meant one man could farm more. But not everyone could afford it.” I guess compared to a wagon, a horse, and a piece of leather with a hook that strapped to your hand anything would be expensive, dangerous and, I figured, an improvement.

“How did you fill the crib back then?” I asked. We pulled the wagon up to a lift that ran off a speed jack. You parked the front wheels of the wagon on the lift, engaged the speed jack, which took power from the power take off and through a system of tumbling rod and knuckles, belts and pulleys, raised the wagon up so the corn slid out the back gate into the dump. The dump also ran off the power take off of our littlest tractor, the Minneapolis “Z”. The dump was an elevated, open metal chute with paddles that traveled on a continuous chain and carried ears of corn up a steep incline where they were “dumped” into the corn crib. At the top was a movable chute at the end of the dump so we could guide the ears to different parts of the crib and fill it evenly. The crib had two parts, with a driveway in the middle. Two buildings really, joined by a roof that tied them together.

“You know that part of the crib that sticks out to the North?” Dad stepped out of the shop and I followed so we could look across the road to the crib. It was a nice fall day and there I was, doing nothing in particular except talking with my Dad. “There was a system of pulleys and a rope, like the hay rope. We hooked two horses up to the rope, ran it through the crib the other end to hook to the wagon. There was a ramp at the South end. The horses went forward, there to the North of the crib, and pulled the wagon up the ramp into the top of the crib from the South where we scooped off the corn down into the two crib sides.”

“I can’t believe you got a wagon up there” I said gazing at the top of the crib that was maybe thirty feet high.

“They were smaller wagons than what we have now.” Dad said. “I mean, you couldn’t very well throw scoop shovels of corn up to the top of the crib to fill it now could you?”

“I guess not.”

“You could raise your whole family on 80 acres. Everything was smaller then, and slower, and cheaper.”

“And harder” I said.

“Yeah, but we didn’t know it.”

“So how did you shell corn back then?” I asked.

“We didn’t much. We fed a lot of corn by hand. In fact, when I first came down here, Grandpa was feeding ear corn to the dairy cows because there were such big cracks in the manger the ground feed fell through. And we had a hand sheller, still have it over in the crib. You’ve seen it.” I could picture a little machine with a big crank stuck in the corner that couldn’t have shelled much. “But if you really needed corn ground you took it to the elevator, like we still do now for the cow feed. But you sold ear corn and used ear corn as much as you could. Less work. But then they came out with shellers people could afford, and there was someone in each town that bought one to start a business, and that changed everything.”

When I was little, Mom wouldn’t let me go by the crib alone when they were shelling. She was afraid I would get caught up in the machines. When she took food to the men, hot rolls usually in the morning, she would stay and let me play on the cob pile for a while. But I couldn’t get close to the sheller. So when I was asked to help shell corn it was a pretty big deal.

The sheller always came early in the morning, and honked as he turned in the crib lot. When it came Dad left the milking to Mom and went to help set up. Earl Maurer owned the sheller, which was a 1927 Pierce Arrow. It was a big complicated machine with its own engine mounted on the Pierce Arrow truck chassis. And it had been rebuilt so many times, they said, that you couldn’t really call it a 1927. Earl made most of his own parts when it broke down. Everyone had a sort of affection for that old sheller. It was a pretty important machine to all the farmers in our area. I’m still amazed that they incorporated the function of Earl’s huge sheller into a combine and marketed the picker sheller to each farmer in the area. But in truth they didn’t, only half of the farmers could afford it when it burst on the scene. Dad never bought one.

Earl came with some helpers, and lined up the trucks and drivers that would carry the shelled corn back into town to be offloaded into the huge concrete silos known as the Danvers Farmers Elevator. We kept sheep in our crib lot and the night before Dad and I would have driven the sheep into the pasture, closed them off from the crib, and opened the crib lot so the trucks could pass in and out. Dad called in the neighbors, just as they called him when they shelled. They traded labor, our neighboring farmers, and no money changed hands. So Bait Correll was there, with Paul Mehl, and Smitty, and Henry Dunlap. It felt so cool to be part of the group, me being young and all. It was a big deal, the day we shelled corn.

To be honest, anything that happened that was out of the ordinary qualified as a big deal to me. Too many days it was just us-my Mom, my Dad, and me. Although I was shy, I was always anxious to be around other people to see what they were like, to hear what they talked about, and to figure out how they felt about each other. Dad didn’t talk about the men he worked with. I knew quite a bit about the women in the area because Mom shared everything she knew and heard it seemed. But Dad stayed pretty quiet about other people.

Earl Maurer, I think, cared quite a bit more for the sheller than he did the guys working. He always smoked a cigar, or at least had one clamped between his teeth whether lit or not. He unloaded the scoops and rakes, got out a worn set of various wooden blocks, and tended to the setup of the sheller. Depending on the wind he staked out a canvas shoot that would blow the shucks into a wispy pile. He aimed the cob chute where Dad wanted to make the cob piles, and then turned over the conveyor set up to Henry Dunlap, who helped him often.

Earl spent his time during the shelling looking and listening to his sheller. Often he had a grease gun in his hand or an oil can, listening and watching for a bind, a squeak, a labored bit of work on the part of the sheller, and then easing its work with lubrication. While we concentrated on the corn, Earl concentrated on his machine, as if it were his child.

Henry’s job was to make sure the narrow conveyor chutes that ran alongside the crib were level and at the right height. We would do this set up twice, once for each side of the crib. I followed Henry around and handed him the wood blocks he asked for. I liked Henry because he had a nice quiet voice and never got mad or in a hurry. If I gave him the wrong block of wood he would tell me nicely to get him another. Henry was quiet, and steady, and dependable. His life and my Dad’s, taking place in farmhouses a half mile apart, were linked together. They had moments like this to share, a moment that Dad told me about only when I was older.

Dad was picking corn in the morning in the twenty acres just South of the barn and the going was tough. It had been a wet fall and the stalks were gumming up the picker. He kept getting stalks jammed up in the snapping rollers and would have to stop to unplug the works. It was cold and grey. Dad was working with yellow cotton farmer gloves like he always did, and this morning he had on an old worn pair he had used that summer baling hay. Hay chaff used to work its way into your gloves down the fingers and fill up the ends. If your own finger didn’t fill up the space the chaff would, especially the little fingers, which were too long for most people’s fingers anyway. You could take your glove off, and roll that plug of chaff around in the glove’s finger, and shake it and empty it out, but most times we didn’t bother. Dad was wearing those kind of gloves that morning.

Henry saw that Dad’s wagon was near full and had pulled near to change it with an empty one. Dad stopped the picker because it was clogged and had walked back to the picker to dig out the stalks. The drill was this. Our Minneapolis tractors had hand clutches, a lever beside the steering wheel. Pull the hand clutch, take the tractor out of gear, engage the clutch to run the power take off (PTO) which powered the operation of the picker while the picker remained still to work the corn through without more entering the rollers. If the corn was still clogged it was pull the clutch, dig out the corn by hand, engage the clutch, see if the rollers could work through the clog. Try not to shear a pin. Dad did that. And seeing that the snapping rollers were again clear, and rolling, he turned to help Henry with the wagon exchange. As Dad turned he saw a little ear of corn, a nubbin, jammed in the housing of the picker near the rollers that could have been causing snags. Without pulling the clutch to stop the rollers, and without thinking, Dad reached with his gloved right hand to pick the nubbin away from the rollers, and the rollers caught the chaff stuffed little finger of his yellow work glove, pulling his hand into the rollers.

Dad yelled “Henry!”

And Henry, judging by the fear in Dad’s voice, instinctively and amazingly, took two leaping steps to the tractor, pulled the clutch, and disengaged the picker, stopping the snapping rollers.

“My God Henry my hand.”

Henry walked to the front of the picker and looked into the rollers. All that could be seen of Dad’s hand was the cuff of the yellow work glove. The rollers covered his hand above his thumb.

“Just try to relax Dean and I’m going to turn those rollers back by hand.” He turned off the engines of both tractors.

Dad said it was real quiet in the field and neither he nor Henry said anything. Henry methodically got a wrench out of the tool box on the tractor and knowing right where to apply it, turned the rollers back and Dad’s hand slowly was freed.

“How does it feel?” Henry asked.

“It hurts so bad I can’t tell. I don’t want to take my glove off” Dad answered.

And so they stood there a while, as Dad told it, and finally Henry said. “Can you move your fingers?”

Dad very slowly made his fingers in the shape of a C. And then he straightened them out again. Each finger moved.

“You have to take that glove off Dean. I don’t see it bleeding through.”

And so Dad took his glove off. His hand, though white and flat, looked OK. They watched the color slowly return to the skin around his knuckles. His fingernails were blue and would all turn black later. Both of them knew, standing in the quiet of our cornfield on a cold November morning, that Henry had saved at least Dad’s arm, if not his life, by knowing him so well and acting quickly.

“I don’t want to tell anyone about this for a long time Henry.”

“Me either.”

“Let’s call it a day.”

And so together they finished picking that field another day and neither of them told a soul about that awful moment they shared for over twenty years. Sometimes good friends share things quietly. Dad told my Mom he had slammed his hand with a wrench. Outside of the fact he could not milk a cow by hand for over two weeks; he managed to withstand the pain and the bruising and suffered no permanent damage. I would guess he never once thought of going to a doctor.


The steel conveyer chutes that ran past the crib and carried the corn to the sheller were pure silver in color, worn shiny and smooth from the millions of bushels of corn that passed through them over the years. They simply ran along the outside, or in some cribs the inside, of the building to catch the ears of corn that first fell out, then were scooped out, of the crib. Cribs weren’t built to be tight, in fact calling your house or someone else’s an old corn crib was a way of saying it was drafty. They had slats to let air in so the corn could dry. Our old crib qualified quite well on the “not built tight” scale. It was amazing it still stood. It was long past paint. It was built when they still used peg joints. The builders used timbers, cut locally, hewn and shaped by hand with a broad axe that also hung on my Dad’s machine shop wall. To make joints they would form a tongue to fit in a notched groove where two timbers met, drill a hole with a brace and bit through both, and drive a stout round wooden peg in the hole to bind the structural timbers together. It was the oldest crib around except for Simon Sharp’s.

Dad used to farm Simon’s place on a crop share basis for extra money. He filled Simon’s crib and then had to shell it out too each season. While shelling there when I was little Dad had to get to the top of the crib for some reason. While up there he stepped on an old board that wouldn’t support him. It broke, sending him on a fall from the top of the crib to the frozen ground twenty feet below where he landed right on his ass. Dad was in bed for a long time after that, and had trouble for years from that fall, though he never talked about it.

Every crib was different. As I got older farmers hired me to shell corn often, so I scooped corn in most of the cribs around Danvers. The best cribs had few braces on the inside, so the corn fell and sloped naturally to the openings. Our crib had “x” braces throughout, which held the corn up. My first job was to “kick corn” or get up on top of the corn and knock it down when it was hung up. I loved doing that. I imagined it as starting avalanches in the mountains. Amid all the noise, and dust, I would be up in the crib helping, getting the corn down to the opening where it could be raked into the conveyor.

At first when the crib was full there was a lot of standing around, talking, and letting the corn slowly feed into the conveyor. This was one of my favorite times. I found ways to hang around close enough to hear, but not so close as to be noticed, so that the men would talk about whatever they wanted and not worry about having a kid around. They talked about going into Bloomington, which my folks rarely did, and about cars and town jobs and if I was lucky, places far away. Though truth be told the farm men that shelled corn around Danvers were too polite to say anything all that racy. But all of their talk seemed to be of a life different from mine, and I was eager to learn any part of it.

The biggest concern when they first opened up the crib was to not overfill the conveyor, spilling corn over the side or making the sheller work too hard. If you gave the sheller too much corn Earl would get mad, so you tried to get a nice even flow of ears streaming to the machinery that mysteriously stripped the kernels from the cob and spat both out. But at the same time everyone wanted to get done just as fast as they could. So it was a back and forth deal. Keep the conveyor full but not too full. After the corn fed out naturally you could stand in the opening and reach in with a rake to get a sufficient number of ears to the conveyor. But after gravity did all it could, and the rakes wouldn’t reach the rest of the ears, the real work started. Scooping.

Since there was only room for so many scoopers in a crib, if you hung back you could avoid that task. I considered it a point of pride to be the first one in. If I was hired by the hour to help, I figured scooping was the job the farmer was paying me. On our own place I tried to be first in, as soon as there was room. Bait Correll seemed to do the same thing. The first time I scooped with Bait, I noticed that before he went into the crib he took twine from his overalls pocket and tied his pant legs tight at the bottom just over his boots.

“Why you doing that Bait?”

“Didn’t your Dad never tell you about shelling at the Schertz place with Frank?”

Frank was my Aunt Carrie Shertz’s retarded son. No one told me about Frank and one day after church, when her husband was ill, Mom sent me into Aunt Carrie’s house with a pie. A fifty year old giant of a man came to the door, looked at me with a strange look, and began making talking sounds, rather than words, in a high voice and pointing excitedly at me. I was back at the car door in seconds, pie in hand, trying to get in. Mom laughed and said it was just Frank. She went with me, Aunt Carrie came to the door, and the pie was delivered. That was one of the few times I had ever seen Frank Schertz, and I was anxious to know more.

“What about Frank Schertz?” I asked Bait. Why we called Bait by that name I never knew, just as I never knew his real name.

“We were shelling at the Schertz place, before you were born, and Frank was a young man. We got into quite a few rats, and Frank was in the crib with us. We were whacking rats once in a while with our shovels but when we got into a corner we uncovered a big mess of them. I always figure rats will find a way out before they let you corner them but these rats stayed till the end. When we scooped into that last pile of corn the rats came jumping and running everywhere. I was after a rat with my shovel when I heard this odd whoop from Frank. I turned to look at Frank just in time to see a rat tail disappear up his pant leg. The poor bastard.”

“So what did you do?”

“I dropped my shovel and clamped that rat in my hand, through Frank’s overalls just as the rat passed above his knee, and squeezed just as hard as I could. Frank’s Dad heard him yell and came to help. He took down his overalls as I held the rat and by the time we got that done I had squeezed him to death.”

“What about Frank?”

“Well, the good thing was Frank didn’t seem to know quite what happened. He ended up laughing to tell you the truth, with his pants down and a dead rat in his bib overalls. The rat never bit him or nothing. I was sweating bullets and Frank was laughing. Damnedest thing I ever seen.”

“And that’s why I tie my pants legs shut when I scoop corn.” Bait added. And with that he stood up, twine around his legs, and started for the crib.

“Got any more twine there Bait?” I asked.

The neatest experience I ever had with rats was at Marion Otto’s place. I would have shelled corn at Marion’s for free because of his wife Rinalda’s pecan rolls. Mid morning she would come from the house out to the crib with a big pot of coffee, and sticky, hot from the oven, homemade pecan rolls. Earl Maurer, who never seemed to pay attention, would stop the sheller immediately when Rinalda came with the food. God they were good. There we were, a bunch of dirty farm hands, standing in a crib lot, surrounding plates of rolls and devouring them.

Marion and Rinalda weren’t known for having the neatest, most orderly farm operation in the community. Most farmers took real pride in putting equipment away, mowing fence rows, and generally keeping their farm in good repair. Not so Marion. I was stacking on a rack wagon while baling hay with Marion once and we followed a wind row that oddly enough had been raked to swerve around a patch of unmown alfalfa. As we got closer I could see from the rack wagon that in the middle of that patch of alfalfa was a dead Guernsey cow. Marion, driving the baler, simply swerved around it and acted as if he didn’t notice. Taking his cue, I said nothing in return. Most farmers would have buried the cow immediately, or failing that at least moved it so they could mow and bale the hay where it died. Marion, on the other hand, seemed content to simply let nature take its course.

However Marion did have, at that time, a rat terrier that was very much alive. I’d seen a few rat terriers before and assumed they were so named because they were small, and smooth haired, and ugly. Shelling corn at Marion’s with that rat terrier at work taught me quickly how rat terriers got their name. As soon as we approached the crib, the terrier was behind us, ever alert. As we got into the crib and began to scoop, the dog followed us in and began to sniff. And when we uncovered the first rat, that dog went into action. Rat terriers, it turns out, live to kill rats. Lightning quick and fearless, that little dog would pounce on each rat, snarl and give it a shake in its teeth, toss it aside, dead with a broken neck, and be immediately ready for the next one. No need to spend time slamming your shovel on those rats. The dog started working right beside us, quivering as he waited for a rat to appear. As we uncovered more rats, he would have them in an instant. And while he was killing one rat, he was looking for the next one. It was one of the most vivid displays of intensity and focus I’d ever seen from person or beast. Seeing a creature living out its purpose is wonderful thing. Maybe Marion was living out his purpose too. With Marion though, it was harder to determine what that purpose was.

The cliché “back breaking work” was made for scooping corn. Because you have to slide your scoop along the crib floor at a flat angle to get under the ears of corn you have to get your chest pretty much parallel to the floor. And if you stand up between each scoop to toss your shovel full of corn into the conveyor you are constantly up and down. So you stoop over, fill your scoop, empty it, and do it again without standing up straight. Over and over and over. Then when you can’t go any longer you straighten up, and your back muscles ache like never before. And then you bend over and do it again, and you work that way until the crib is empty. There are not many things harder on your back than scooping corn.

But boy can you think when you work like that. I would get into a rhythm scooping. Slide the shovel in, shoot the corn to the door, slide the shovel in, shoot the corn to the door. Sometimes I would run a tune through my head, or count off a cadence. And after you got going, you could concentrate on a person, a problem, a question, for the longest time. I got some of my best thinking done when I was working the hardest. As long as you didn’t need your mind to do the work, you could have your thoughts all to yourself. I miss that.

Somehow, corn shelling never seemed to happen on nice days. It was either cold and windy, or hot and still. The corn market determined when the corn was shelled, not the weather. So how was it that the corn market turned just perfectly for Roger Risser on a day in July of 1967 when it was over 100 degrees? Just lucky I guess. Mom answered the phone always then and accepted every job making hay or shelling corn that came my way. We had just baled hay for Smitty in 90 degree weather and when I came in from the hay mow she told me that Roger wanted me early in the morning to shell corn. They were shelling early to “beat the heat.”

“Beat the heat? There’s no beating this heat.” I had been sleeping upstairs with no sheets and a fan blowing straight on me for two nights. A hot spell with no air conditioning was like a siege. The farm work went on, we worked through the heat, and we got more tired as the days went by, with no way to escape our condition. There was nothing to do but pray for cooler weather. I was trying to decide if the mosquitoes would eat me up if I slept in the hammock in the yard, and Roger Risser wanted to shell corn?

Larry Rapp and I were hired as helpers at Roger’s crib the next morning at six o’clock. It was already plenty hot, having never cooled down from the night before. Larry and I were the first ones in the crib scooping and sort of raced each other to see how quick we could get done and get the hell out of there. When we were finished, about noon, Roger came over and said “You boys worked pretty hard today, I’m going to pay you for an extra hour.” He wrote us each a check for fourteen dollars. Not only had he added an hour, which was unheard of, he had paid us two dollars an hour, a rate of pay unknown at the time. I thought it was a pretty damn good deal.

Corn shelling stories can go on forever, given the amount of corn cribs that once held corn across the Midwest, and the number of men who scooped corn. It was the men of course and the things that happened to them that interested me, unlike the machine that interested Earl Maurer. Here’s something true about men back then. It didn’t matter what they did exactly, it was who they were. When I was growing up in Danvers, everybody was involved in farming in one way or another. I knew where everyone lived, in farm houses scattered across the countryside, but I didn’t know if they rented their farm or owned it, if they were hired on to work on jobs or trading labor. We were together working, and we were equals. It mattered how you worked, and what you said, and how you treated each other. But I certainly never felt either judged or valued because of my occupation, my title, or my past accomplishments. I was equal to everyone else on the job.

Your identity in Danvers, in fact, was often blurred. I was much less Dave McClure as I was Dean’s youngest boy, one of a string of people, my siblings, rather than an individual. We knew far too much about each other. We knew each other’s parents and grandparents and more. We knew stories about each other, real and exaggerated, never to be either forgotten or lived down. We knew each other intimately, yet strangely, we often didn’t know each other’s real names.

There were two Kaufman boys, cousins of some kind, with nicknames Squeak and Buzz. How does one get a nickname based on sound? Neither had peculiar voices that I could tell. In order to write this story I had to ask my brother, who has lived his whole life in Danvers, their real names and he in turn had to ask his wife. One of them is Carl and the other is Harvey, but we don’t yet know as of this writing which is which. But if my brother saw either Squeak or Buzz right now he would know them immediately. Here’s a story about Squeak that actually relates to corn shelling.

Squeak came to our farm to shell corn on a hot day in June. He came with Earl Maurer. I’m not sure what Squeak was doing at the time, whether farming, working at the elevator or just waiting, like I was when I was older, to be hired to shell corn or what have you. Squeak was in the crib early, scooping, when he ran into a rare and dangerous problem. Rats and mice are common in corn cribs and usually ignored. To consider rats and mice as a problem in corn cribs you underestimate the sheer volume of the amount of corn farmers deal with. What better place to be if you are a rat or a mouse than in a huge mountain of corn? Heaven for a rodent. Surrounded and kept warm by an unlimited supply of food. I once asked my Dad if he thought we had rats in our corn crib.

“Sure we do” was his reply.

“Shouldn’t we do something to get rid of them?” I asked, thinking the answer was obvious.

“There is plenty of corn in that crib for every living thing within twenty miles and more” he said. “We’re not going to worry about a few rats.”

And so we didn’t, and neither did anyone else. Rats and mice went with corn shelling like bread and butter. You expected them, anticipated them, tried to kill them but didn’t worry if they got away. What Squeak Kaufman found that June day in our corn crib was a different matter altogether.

Squeak was the first in our crib to scoop. I was still too young, Dad thought, to scoop, so I had been kicking corn earlier and now was just standing around. As soon as there was a place to stand, and bare floor to slide his scoop on, Squeak was in there starting to move ears of corn to the conveyor. Much like my Dad’s cry when his hand went into the picker, the whole crew recognized something different when they heard Squeak began to holler inside the crib. Squeak was coming out, screaming, past the moving conveyor, over the ears of corn, heading for the open space of our sheep pasture. Squeak continued to scream, which puzzled those of us watching him, until we saw small insects following him. He had his ball cap in his hand and was swinging mightily at the air. And then he began a type of dance that confounded us all. He was grabbing his shirt, tearing it off, kicking his legs, and screaming all at once. Squeak had run his scoop into a nest of yellow jackets, a small and vicious type of bumblebee, and after stinging him on the face and arms they had found their way under his shirt. Squeak was normally a pretty quiet guy. I had never seen him so animated. It was like a surreal cartoon, Squeak dancing and screaming through our crib lot in that fashion. He found his way to our sheep tank, and, after ripping his shirt off, plopped himself into the water. The bees lost interest. Squeak came out of the tank still fighting mad. I’m not sure who he was mad at, but he was pretty pissed off and beginning to swell, with welts on his face, neck, back, and arms.

Earl Maurer came over, rolled his cigar from one side of this mouth to the other, and said “Squeak, I think its best if you go home” and he did. I can still see him driving away in his Chevy, trying not to touch his back to the upholstery. And so one of the life stories of Squeak Kaufman of Danvers was created, never to be forgotten by any of us corn shellers present on that day.

Those days are all over. Earl Maurer is gone and the 1927 Pierce Arrow sheller, which was bought by the twin Irwin brothers, Lyman and Lyle, and used for a while in the eighties, is god knows where*. Most of the cribs have been torn down. If not now they soon will be. Farming has made another change, affected by the technology of new machines and the global economy, and those days are gone. But the memories of all those men, and those days working together, will last a little longer.

* God no doubt knows where the sheller is, but also as it turns out so did Bob Kaufmann. The Pierce Arrow sheller, which was actually a Cook sheller made in Washington, Illinois and mounted on the back of a Pierce Arrow hearse, was donated to the Midwest Threshermans Society of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. It can be seen working at exhibitions there.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

We Kept Sheep

I thought I'd kick off 2012 with a farm story from a January long ago. Happy New Year.

We kept twenty or thirty sheep across the road on a three cornered patch of low pasture, maybe four acres. A creek ran through it and it was too wet to farm. The triangle was created before I was born when they changed the path of Illinois Route 9 between Bloomington and Pekin. The new road, we called it the hard road because it was concrete, cut through our small farm at an angle different from the old road. Our corn crib stood on that three cornered patch. The sheep kept the pasture clean and were easily tended. We’d throw ears of corn to them from the crib and take hay over to them when snow covered the ground. Dad used to put a bale of alfalfa on his back and walk down the lane with it towards the crib. When I got old enough I took it in a wheelbarrow or on a sled. Taking care of the sheep became my job.

The ewes lambed in the winter, usually January, often on the coldest nights. They would have their lambs in the crib driveway, not that it offered much shelter, but that’s where I would find the new lambs. Lambs need to nurse soon after birth. They are up on their feet almost immediately but they need their Mom’s milk quickly to make it. Sheep often deliver twins. Sometime a ewe will take to one lamb in a set of twins and ignore the other. Or she’ll deliver a single lamb and walk away from it. On a cold January night a lamb without milk or its Mom’s attention dies quickly. Sometimes I would find little orphan newborn lambs cold and dead by the crib. But other times I would find them alive. Weak but alive. Like this time.

I stepped inside the crib and saw the lamb, a little huddle of tight black wool. He looked dead. I picked him up. He moved his head ever so slightly. I looked at the sheep and saw the ewe that had just had him. I knew by the mess on her hindquarters. I ran across the road with the lamb in my arms and yelled for my Dad. As he came up from the dairy barn I handed Dad the lamb. We went into the house and down to the furnace room. “Go get a cardboard box and an old towel,” he told me “and put some milk on the stove.”

While I was doing that Dad sat on the step by the furnace room door and put the lamb between his knees, legs up. He kept a box of stuff in the furnace room just for this. In the box among other things was a bottle of Kessler’s Whiskey and an eye dropper. Dad tipped the bottle and loaded up an eye dropper of whiskey. After getting his finger inside the lamb’s mouth he pried it open and pumped a dropper full of the stuff into the little guy’s mouth. He didn’t respond. Dad looked at him closely and gave him another one. He wanted a reaction from the lamb and finally got one. The little lamb snorted softly, twisted its neck, and gave out the weakest most pitiful little “baaaa” you could imagine. Then Dad rubbed the lamb’s belly, it’s legs, it’s head, and turned it over to rub it’s back.

“We gotta get the blood flowing in this little guy” he said.

“Why do some ewes do this?” I asked.

“People can learn things but with animals it’s all instinct. They don’t learn to lick their lambs and get them to nurse, they just do it. And with instinct, animals either have it or they don’t. Now go get the milk and put it in a pop bottle.”

We always had empty returnable pop bottles on the porch. I liked the way the milk looked in the green bottles so I grabbed an empty 7 Up and filled it with the hot milk from the stove. I did all this really fast, as if the lamb’s life depended on it. It was exciting.

Dad kept black rubber nipples in the furnace room lamb rescue box. He made a nipple bottle by fitting the short black nipple on the bottle where the cap would go. He tried to get the lamb to stand but it couldn’t so he put him on his back on his knees and put the nipple in his mouth. He wouldn’t suck. Dad worked his jaws with his fingers, compressing the nipple then letting go, so the milk ran down into the lamb’s throat.

“Rub his throat will you? Let’s see if we can get him to swallow.” I stroked the lamb’s nubbly little throat with my finger saying to myself ‘please swallow little guy, please.’ If he swallowed I couldn’t tell. Lots of milk ran out of his mouth. We got as much milk in the lamb as we could and then Dad said, like he always did, “Well, we’ve done everything we can. The rest is up to him.” I was afraid he didn’t get enough milk.

I put him in the box, covered him with the towel, and put the box by the big coal furnace. The lamb just laid there, sleeping. Dad went on with his work and I tried to do other things, but all I could think about was the lamb. I checked on him all the time. No change. If we could get them to the house alive, we almost always saved them. That’s what I kept telling myself.

Later when we were almost done with supper we heard the bleat of a stronger lamb. Noise travelled well from the furnace room, up the hot air ducts and around the house. Hearing the lamb was the best sound. My Dad looked at me and smiled. “Looks like he made it.”

I ran down the steps, jumping the last four, and threw open the door to the furnace room. The lamb was standing up, its head just above the top of the box. I ran back upstairs, got the bottle from the icebox, stood it in a pan of water to reheat it, and then flew back to the furnace room to give him the rest of the bottle. He sucked well and his tail wiggled as he ate. For days the lamb would just eat, sleep, eat, and sleep again. It was true. If we could get lambs in the house alive we could save them. Dad was good at that, like he was at everything it seemed. I thought it was miraculous.

When the lamb was big enough we put him in a pen in the dairy barn and raised him there with the calves. I fed him every day. The next time Dad and I were in the sheep lot together, feeding corn and hay, he said “Can you pick out the ewe that left that lamb out in the cold?”

I knew the sheep pretty well and pointed right at her. “Will you remember her in the summer when we ship lambs?” I nodded yes.

“Okay,” he said. I’m counting on that.” I didn‘t know what he meant.

The lamb grew big and became a pet. We named him Shadow because he followed us around all the time. He hung around the house like a dog, combing the lawn for white clovers, plucking them from among the blades of grass and chewing them slowly. We tried putting him back across the road with the other sheep but he just stood at the gate and cried.

“That lamb doesn’t know he’s a lamb. He thinks he’s a cow or a person for gosh sakes. Bring him back.”

Later that summer when the lambs were eighty to a hundred pounds, long after we’d cut their tails off, we looked at them all, kept a few of the biggest and best looking ewe lambs, and brought in the truck to ship the rest to market. They would become leg of lamb and lamb chops for city people in short order. We never ate lamb or knew anyone that did. We were keeping Shadow to be the buck for a little flock of sheep that a friend of ours kept on the other side of Danvers. We weren’t real sure how he’d do as a buck for a flock but Dad promised to bring him back if he didn’t perform. Farmers would trade buck sheep back and forth to keep from inbreeding.

As we were loading the lambs into the truck Dad said “Where is that ewe that left Shadow to die in the cold?”

I looked at the group of sheep that were standing watching the goings on. “She’s right there.”

“Let’s see if we can get her up here.”

Dad went to the crib and threw out a few ears of corn. The sheep came running. He dropped some more ears nearly at our feet.

“When she gets close let’s grab her.’

Sheep are pretty easy to catch. They don’t resist long. If you grab them and hold them for even a short time, they’ll give up completely and lay there like a sack of potatoes. Sometime they’ll lay there all defeated even after you’ve let them go. Anyway, this ewe didn’t put up much of a fight
“What are we going to do with her?” I asked.

“We’re going to ship her with the lambs. No need to put another lamb through what Shadow went through last winter. She’s not a good enough mother to keep around.” And with that he picked her up and put her on the ramp going up into the truck.

“What will happen to her at the stock yard?”

“Well, she may be a sheep today but she’ll be mutton tomorrow.”

That’s the way it was on the farm. We saved lamb’s lives and decided the fates of their parents. It was all part of the work.