Thursday, February 27, 2014

Astronomy

The National Science Foundation polled 2,200 random Americans in 2012 and found that 26% of those polled believed the sun revolved around the earth. It didn’t seem like a trick question. They asked, “Does the Earth go around the Sun or does the Sun go around the Earth.” Our collective failure to do better as Americans alarms me. The American Association for the Advancement of Science was talking about that poll at their annual meeting not long ago in Chicago. Sounds like they have their work cut out for them, advancing science that is, especially when it comes to astronomy.

Not that we’re doing that bad compared to the rest of the world. The European Union asked the same question in 2005 and 33% of their polling sample answered it incorrectly. So we have no corner on the “stupid when it comes to the solar system” market. I can’t believe the Europeans would have gotten a whole lot smarter than us in the past nine years. Really do you find yourself talking about or reading anything to speak of about planets and all these days? I don’t. Most of what I learned about astronomy I learned a long time ago. So I guess even more European grade school kids than Americans missed that movie in Science class where a model of the Sun was sitting, big as life and not moving an inch, in the middle of the screen while Mercury raced around and around it, the Earth sort of jogged, and Neptune seemed to hardly move at all. If you saw that movie and remembered any part of it could you have forgotten the Earth went around the sun? Apparently so.

What we do talk about, almost incessantly, is the weather. You can hardly get away from weather talk. Especially now. Especially this winter. We talk about weather forecasts, wind chill calculations, snowfall records, and last but not least the newly discovered polar vortex. It’s getting a little old actually, all this weather chat. I’m ready to move on.

Actually, astronomy has a lot to do with weather, although we don’t often link the two. In addition to distance from the sun and orbital path there are three basic things that determine weather on a given planet; length of time to orbit the sun (year), how often a planet spins completely around (day), and how much it wobbles (axial tilt). Orbit, spin, and wobble.

Mercury, which goes around the sun once every 88 days (Earth days that is, all these days I’m talking about are Earth days) has an 88 day year, but surprisingly it only spins around completely only every 60 Earth days, which means a day on Mercury lasts damn near two thirds of a year. And there is no axial tilt on Mercury. 0 degrees. No wobble at all. That means you’re always the same distance from the sun no matter what time of the year. There would be no seasons as we know it on Mercury. Everybody agrees, I think, that it would be way hot on Mercury. The only saving grace could be some very long nights, thirty day conceivably, matched with equally killer long days. I imagine it would take quite a while for Earthlings to get used to life on Mercury. That weather there could mess up your biorhythms in a big way, to say nothing of the risk of skin cancer. Imagine the SPF numbers.

Venus would get you closer to normal in terms of its length of year at 224 days, but a day on Venus, believe it or not, lasts longer than its year. A day on Venus, the amount of time it takes for the planet to spin completely around, is equal to 243 Earth days. Talk about your adjustments. Sunsets, I figure, would last weeks. Maybe that’s why Venus is considered so romantic; long sunsets followed by even longer nights. And Saturday, if they wanted it to, could last 35 days or so. I’m guessing if life on Venus resembled ours even at all they would have worked out a completely different schedule by now. Axial tilt on Venus? The thing that decides it’s seasons? Confusing. It is either 177.4 or 2.6 degrees, depending on your definition of the "north pole." I can’t figure that out. Even though I like to dabble in other fields from time to time I am, after all, an English major. Maybe someone else can tell us what that’s all about.

Mars, on the other hand, has the sort of set up your can get your head around. It spins completely around every 24.3 hours, just about like us, and has a 25.2 degree tilt to it, which would give it more or less our schedule of seasons. The Earth’s tilt is 23.5 degrees. The only kicker about Mars is that it’s year is 687 days. So the seasons, as similar as they might be, would last a lot longer than ours, like about five months rather than our three. You could go to Mars and all things being equal get with the celestial program fairly quickly. Plus the Cubs would have a much longer spring in order to train for the season. Maybe the Ricketts family should consider Mars if the city and the fans don’t cozy up to their demands for Wrigley field.

I hesitate to talk about the other four planets; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They’re just out there. Their days have reasonable lengths, the amount of time it takes for the planet to spin completely around, in fact all are shorter than the Earth’s. But the farther out you go, the longer their years get. A year on Jupiter is 4,331 days while a year on Neptune is 60,190 days. You think this winter is long here on Earth, think of getting through winter on Neptune. You could be 41 years old before you saw your first crocus bloom. All of them have seasons, though very slow developing, except for Uranus which has an axial tilt of 98 degrees and spins like a ball rolling down a sidewalk rather than a top. I can’t even start to figure out what that would do to your weather map on the evening news.

Be that as it may, that’s ends my lesson on planets going around our sun. Maybe we’ll do better on the next survey. And I remind you again that all the time the planets are spinning and orbiting and tilting this way and that the sun is just sitting there, shining away, being a star. That’s how it works here in our solar system.

And while I have you here, I want to point out that all of us here on Earth are 59 days into our calendar year, and 69 days past the winter solstice, that day when we in the Northern hemisphere were tilted, because of our axial wobble, farthest from the sun, experienced our shortest day, and received the least amount of sunshine. On that day, December 21st 2013, the sun rose on the shack at 7:16 in the morning and set at 4:20 for only 9 hours and 16 minutes of sunshine. Let me correct that. The sun just appeared to rise. That’s just the way we say it. Actually the earth turned the place where you live toward the sun, which stayed in one place as the Earth spun and moved around it. Today, seventy days since the winter solstice, “sunrise” was at 6:27 and “sunset” at 5:38. That’s 12 hours and 5 minutes of sunshine. We received two minutes more sunshine than the day before. March 1 gets us four more minutes. It’s happening folks.

Each day we get more sunshine and the angle of the sun makes the sunshine stronger and hotter. You can feel it. That snow you see today will be gone soon, I guarantee. The ground will thaw. Grass in your yard will turn green faster than you can imagine. You might see green on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 days from now. Four days later, on March 21st, day will equal night and by June 21st, 113 days from today, you’ll be sitting on your patio, perhaps having a beer, considering what you’re going to do on the 4th of July, and complaining about the heat. On that day we will have 15 hours and 27 minutes of sunshine. It will be summer. You will have forgotten, by and large, what it feels like to be cold. It happens every year. You can count on it, all because the Earth travels around the sun and tilts on its axis.

The sun has winter on the run. Start planning your garden. We’ll be planting potatoes on Good Friday.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Trujillo Honduras

I Care International, a volunteer organization that brings large scale vision clinics to parts of the world where eye care is desperately needed, went back to Trujillo, Honduras for the second year in a row. We just returned from a ten day trip in the early last Sunday, February 16th. I’m just now rested up and reflecting on our experience.

It was our third recent mission to Honduras. In 2011 we operated in a large urban city in the north, San Pedro Sula, and after encountering crushing numbers of citizens seeking care, asked our Honduran hosts to find a more rural community on our return. In 2013 we were asked to serve Trujillo, the last large town on the Honduras’ Caribbean shore before the relatively unpopulated Miskitia coast sets in. Trujillo is seven hours of bad road by bus from San Pedro Sula and a far different community; smaller, poorer, with less access to eye care. There are no eye care professionals in Trujillo. After our experience there last year we added a team of surgeons equipped to perform cataract and other basic vision saving procedures during our clinic.

There’s risk in traveling to Central America, particularly Honduras. If you’re prone to worry, you’ll find plenty to occupy your time. There’s the State Department warnings for one thing, which are in effect virtually all the time and change little, relating the troubles encountered by Americans travelling in the area. Then there’s the murder rate. In 2012 the murder rate in Honduras was 86 murders reported for every 1,000 citizens. That made Honduras the murder capital of the world that year. One disturbing trend is the growing number of murders among journalists reporting criminal activity. Not that we collectively take much notice. You have to go looking for that story in the media. We’re much more alarmed about politics in the Middle East than the woes of our neighbors in Central America. Most in the know, including Jesuits who live and work in Honduras, attribute the violence mainly to drug trafficking and the cartels that control it, along with an underfunded and ill equipped army and police presence. That’s the national back drop.

What we encountered as volunteers in Honduras on a personal level was far different. We were invited to the community by the city, its Rotary Club, and the Catholic Church. We worked in the local hospital and municipal facilities. I Care is a non denominational, non political organization with a single focus, providing eye care to those who need it. And despite a few individual experiences that ranged from sketchy to alarming, the forty six I Care volunteers who made the trip were free to do just that throughout their stay in Honduras.

Not that it was easy. Finding a suitable place to work was our first problem. Large building space is at a premium in Trujillo. After placing our surgical team at last year’s clinic site in the hospital, we rejected their first location, a public building in the town square that was too small, as well as a second, a church facility that was too disjointed. We eventually set up our six station optometry clinic in city hall. On Thursday and Friday, the first two days of our four day clinic, visitors to the mayor’s office walked right through our dispensary, located just outside his office, to keep their appointments. Other staff relocated to give the doctors a room with less light and air conditioning. They mayor gave us that great Spanish line “Mi casa es su casa.” He also gave us most of his bi lingual staff, who helped as interpreters.

The local private bi lingual school, as they did last year, sent their ninth grade students to help translate and they worked tirelessly, even on Saturday and Sunday when school was out. Lois, their principal, an American woman who has been part of the Trujillo community for seventeen years, came with them and was our go to person for community information. Across the board the community provided great support and did all they could to accommodate us.

We saw 1,188 persons in four days in our clinic. Most of those people received glasses which improved their vision greatly. And while we do not have an exact number, upwards of 55 persons were the recipients of vision saving surgical procedures, mostly cataract operations. For a person living in poverty to walk into a free clinic in a third world country, have a serious eye condition diagnosed, and emerge the next day with clear vision following the removal, for example, of a dense cataract, is amazing. Their efforts, and the efforts of the optometrists and third year optometry students working with them to identify those individuals, made this mission nothing short of miraculous.

Speaking of those students, we were fortunate enough to have four third year students and one fourth year student from the University of Missouri at St. Louis accompany us to Trujillo. They worked hard. I Care operates on something of a triage model. When we encounter persons with healthy eyes and relatively normal vision problems our docs quickly write a prescription that allows those dispensing glasses to match them with the best used glasses possible and move on to the next patient. That flies in the face of all the students' training in America which demands they be as thorough as possible with each and every person they see. Students in an I Care clinic struggle to reconcile the conflict inherent to those two approaches. They have to trust their instincts, maybe develop them along the way, ask for help only when it is needed, and spend their limited time on those patients who need further care. This group of students did that extremely well. And they did it with great care. I look for kindness and compassion in persons new to an I Care clinic. These five women topped the charts in that regard. Let me give you an example.

After clinic was over the students stayed in Trujillo while some of us left town on side trips. After paying a visit to their translators at their bi lingual school, the student docs made their way about the city and discovered an orphanage we were not aware of with seventy children in residence. As they visited the facility they asked those in charge if they could bring equipment in and test the children’s vision. The next day they set up a mini clinic, tested every child’s vision, discovered seventeen children who needed glasses, and went back to our stock of glasses and filled their needs. They didn’t have to do that. Clinic was over. That’s the kind of volunteers they were.

That’s the way it works on these trips. You start out wary of the environment, worried about the politics, and perhaps apprehensive for your safety. Then you find yourself face to face, nose to nose, or knees to knees, depending on your function in the clinic, with real people. You get caught up in them, their fears, their questions, their concerns. What starts out as a trip to a third world country with a questionable record on human rights turns into an encounter with a community of individual people. Pretty soon the local volunteers are introducing you to their families, you are seeing familiar faces not only every day in the clinic but on the streets in town in the evening. Some of them are wearing the glasses you gave them. They see you and wave. You wave back and smile. You forget the murder rate.

Am I painting the experience as all goodness and light? That’s not right. To illustrate another side of life in Trujillo let me tell you about two women who came to the clinic, which could have taken place in any town, really, in rural Central America. Americans take so much for granted.

We were crammed for space. Each station had people waiting to be seen. Doorways became logjams. Achieving a smooth flow of patients through the clinic was nearly impossible. One of our veteran eye docs who practices in Illinois set up her exam station in the corner of the dispensary. She carved out a dark corner, spread out her equipment, and began her hectic four day schedule of helping the students and examining patients herself in a space that was at best 6 x 6’. She had an especially bright and hard working translator, a ninth grade student from the bi lingual school, who helped her each of the four days.

I dispense glasses. I know enough Spanish to work on my own and I have done enough missions that I know how to make glasses fit a face. My office, as it were consisted of two folding chairs and a piece of newspaper. Four fitters worked side by side on eight chairs. I balanced glasses on my lap, or the patient did, and together we found the glasses that helped him or her see the best, both up close and far away. I was a knees to knees guy. When I needed to adjust the glasses to fit there was a folding table of tools. Pretty simple deal. While I worked I often listened to the doc in the corner. She explained in English, plainly and compassionately, what was happening with her patients’ eyes and her young translator did the same in Spanish. This doc also knew enough Spanish to understand some of their questions and concerns. Here’s one conversation.

“How long ago did you lose vision in your right eye?” The doctor was addressing her question to an older woman whose daughter led her into the clinic. Our vision tests, the acuity chart and the auto refractor, revealed she was seeing little or nothing, distinguishing only fingers at two feet in her left eye, and no light perception in the right. Her right eye was obviously long gone, most likely due to trauma.

Her daughter answered. “It happened when she was a girl, chopping wood. A machete accident. But the left eye, it has a cataract. And you have doctors here who can remove it correct? My mother is so excited. With the cataract gone she will be able to see again, yes?” The woman’s left eye had the tell tale milky appearance of a dense cataract.

The doctor turned her attention, and her hand held instrument, to the left eye. She leaned in to the woman, nose to nose, and looked for a long time, then turned and took a few steps away, towards me.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“Yeah. This woman does have a cataract. But in addition she has severe glaucoma. Even if the cataract were removed, her optic nerve is shot. Had she had even the simplest eye care during her life they would have diagnosed the glaucoma and with proper medication and treatment, preserved her ability to see. Now it’s too late. She’s gone blind.”

“Optic nerve?” I asked.

“Yeah. Think of a camera. The cornea is the lens cover protecting the lens itself, where cataracts develop. The retina has the pixels that hold the image, and the optic nerve is the computer cord you use to download the pictures to your laptop. In the eye the optic nerve connects the eye to the brain. Without that connection, the optic nerve, nothing happens, no matter how good the rest of the equipment. This woman will never see again. One eye lost to a random accident, the other to a completely treatable condition. Didn’t have to happen.”
She turned back to the woman and her daughter, and with the help of her young translator, gave them the bad news that she had just discovered. Our clinic did not produce the result these Honduran women had anticipated. There was nothing more to be done. Before leaving both mother and daughter thanked the doctor repeatedly. They left the clinic, walking arm and arm, one blind and one leading, through the mean streets of Honduras.

Later that day, another similar conversation took place.

“Ask her what caused this injury to her eye,” the doctor told the young Honduran translator after peering into the patient’s eye with her instrument. The patient hesitated. She looked down. We both heard and understood her response in Spanish.

“Mi Esposito me dio un punetazo.” (I was punched by my husband.)

It was an angry looking eye, red and scarred.

“How long ago?”

“Tres mes.” (Three months.)

The doctor turned away. She is a young woman herself. Sometime pain, reflected in the face of one who suddenly imagines and then understands the experience of another, can be just as great as the victim’s pain. She looked at me.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Yes.” We looked at each other. “Will her eye be all right?”

“No. The retina is completely detached. If not completely, bad enough that it can’t be repaired. Our surgeons can’t do retinas here. The nearest retina guy is in Tegucigalpa. But that retina won’t recover. It’s been too long. Her eye is lost. And I have to tell her.”
She turned to her interpreter and they talked quietly. The interpreter took a deep breath and began to speak to the patient in Spanish. The patient began to cry. Then the interpreter cried, and last the doctor. They put their hands on the young woman’s shoulders to comfort her. I went straight to Lois the school principal.

“Lois, who helps abused women in this community?”

“No one.”

“There’s no agency? No shelter?”

“No.”

“How about the church?”

“The church? What would the church do? What do churches do in the states?”

“They offer support. They connect people to someone who can help them.”

“But there is no one to help them.”

“What about the police? Can’t a battered woman file a report and get a restraining order?”

“People don’t go to the police with those problems here. You can’t predict the result. It matters who her husband is, what kind of standing his family has in the community. And a restraining order? That could take months. You have to appear before a judge and no one appears before a judge without a lawyer, and that costs money. The system is too unpredictable. It’s corrupt.”

“So women are beaten by their husbands, injured, and have no recourse.”

“You’re being a na├»ve American. This woman’s only hope is to leave this situation and hope her family takes her in. If she has children she risks losing them. If her family protects her, she has a chance. If she has no family support, and reports the crime, she could well find herself homeless, or beaten more badly, or killed.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Well there is his help too of course. You have to understand, these problems between families often get worse. They result in retaliation. Vengeance is strong in these communities. You have no idea.”

“I’m sure I don’t.” Sometimes the world hits you right between the eyes.

I went back to the corner where the young woman continued to cry and our volunteers continued to help her. Another woman had joined them. I took the doc aside.

“Urge her to tell her family what has happened if she hasn’t already. Tell her she does not have to stay in that situation and continue to be beaten.”

“I’ve done that already. Her sister is with her now. She left her husband and is living with her family.”

“That’s good. I’m glad it was you that was here to help her.”

I Care International and its volunteers invest their time and their dollars to go where they can help others see more clearly. In the process a world we didn’t or couldn’t imagine often comes into focus. It works both ways. These trips are not for the faint of heart. I can’t wait till next year.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Chopper Mittens

I will be out of the country for much of the next two weeks and will not publish another update from the shack until I return. That’s a first. I’ve given you a long post, or a short story, about the farm to make up for my absence. Hope you like it.

I don’t know why I think of my parents now, or what triggers those thoughts. My Dad would be 105 this December and passed away in 1988. My Mom would have turned 103 this past New Year’s Day, having lived till 1996. It’s been a long time. I think of them often yet. Sometimes every day.

Monday afternoon I was scooping the driveway, again, bundled up in many layers of clothing. I refused to start until I found my mittens, which disappeared over the weekend. Turns out I left them at my local grocery store. I recovered them from their lost and found. These are double mittens my Dad called choppers. You can find them on line marketed as such. Choppers are a thick wool inner mitten which slips into a soft leather mitten, usually deer or elk hide. Mittens alone are so much warmer than gloves, and these double mittens are the absolute warmest. My Dad was wearing choppers on the day when he told me this story.

We were standing in his little shop, crammed with tools from throughout the life of our old farm. One wall, up to the roof peak, was a sort of history of local farming from God knows when; leather pads with a metal hook you strapped to your palm to shuck corn by hand, lanterns, buggy wrenches, sickle bar guards, planter plates, calf weaners, hand scythes, untold contraptions and tools. The longer you looked at the wall the more you saw. It was a terribly cold day. Wind was rattling the windows. We could see our breath.

“Did I tell you about your grandfather falling into the pond when they were chopping ice?” My father’s father, another grandfather I never met, was the son of the Irishman who came over on the boat from Antrim and managed to buy land.

“He was twelve years old when his father let him work at the pond for the first time. It was dangerous work. In weather like this, when it was the coldest in January and the ice was frozen the thickest, the farmers in the neighborhood would work together to cut and store ice for the summer. They had an ice house they shared, stacked blocks of ice there and covered them with sawdust. You’d be amazed how long it lasted.”

“There was a spring fed pond that produced nice clear ice two miles from their farm where they gathered with their horses and hand saws. Hard work. And in taking the ice, they created an open pool of freezing water. It was easy to slip and slide into the hole. If you went in and got under the ice, and couldn’t find your way back up, you could die quickly. Most those people didn’t know how to swim then. To let a kid work the ice cutting meant he was grown up. As he talked I was looking at the wall of tools.

“Is that one of those ice saws Dad?” I pointed to a curbed serrated blade with a stub handle on one side and a handle at the rear.

“No, that’s a hay knife. We used that to parcel out hay when we put it up loose in the mow, before there were hay balers.” He scanned the wall.

“I don’t think we have any of those saws anymore. No one has cut ice for forty years.”
“So what happened?”

“My grandpa the Irishman sent my Dad Willie up to the pond with the hired man. They took off with the team and wagon. All the farmers put their teams and wagons together to get it done as quickly as possible. It was a day like this. Windy and terribly cold. Grandpa, as Dad tells it, was helping a cow deliver a calf that was breach. He came later on his little gelding named Jack.. They used that gelding mostly for a small buggy but the Irishman loved to ride him single with a saddle. The Irishman was amazed he was able to even own horses, what with being so poor back in the old country. To have a good fast horse to ride to saddle, that was for rich men in Ireland. So anyway, my Dad and the hired man got to the pond and had been working about an hour when the Irishman rides up on his gelding. Called him Jack. Tied him to a fence post, put a blanket over him, and pitched in with the rest.”

“When you cut ice you started in the middle of the pond and worked back to shore till it was shallow. Trouble was the ice blocks were slippery. You could shove them to the edge of the pond all right, push them on the ice, but when you carried them up out of the pond they were damned heavy. You used two sets of tongs to balance yourself out, one in each hand, and carried two blocks up and heaved them on a wagon, where they stacked them. So there were cutters at the edge of the hole, those who pulled the blocks out of the water and slid them to the edge of the pond, those that lugged them up the bank to the wagons, and those that stacked them. Plus men drove teams of horses, hauling wagons full of blocks to the ice house, where other men were packing them away with the sawdust. When the roads were snow packed they put the box wagons on runners, making sledges. It took a lot of men. Hard work.” My Dad smoked Camels, short with no filters. He took off his mittens, lit a cigarette with a wooden match he struck by dragging it quickly on the leg of his overalls, and paused, blowing out smoke and the match as he scanned the wall of tools, one eye squinted shut.

“Look there,” he said walking to the wall and standing on the carpenter’s chest to reach up and remove a set of iron tongs. “Here are the ice tongs we used to use.” He spread out the tongs. As the jaws got wider the handles at the top got closer together. “They cut the blocks just the right size so when you got these jaws on either side you could grip the handle and swing that ice block up and tote it. Like I said, you put one in each hand for balance.” He looked around and put the jaws on a metal milk crate filled with scrap iron. As he lifted up the jaws closed around the crate and he lifted it off the ground.

“Try that,” he said, handing it to me. It was heavy. “The ice blocks were every bit that heavy. After a day cutting ice you know you’d worked a full day.”

“So what happened to Grandpa?”

“The Irishman hadn’t been there but an hour. He was sawing blocks. My Dad was working beside him, hauling the blocks out of the water and sliding them to the pond’s edge. It’s where most boys started. He was proud to be there, working beside his Dad and all. The Irishman had a block floating and had moved down to make another cut. Willie reached down to get his tongs around the block and his feet just went out from under him. He pitched forward head first. He tried to break his fall on the block just cut but it just went down under his weight and he went with it. The ice block bobbed back to the surface but my Dad didn’t. He was gone.”

“The Irishman ran to where the block was, pushed it into open water, reached down and swept his arm back and forth feeling for his son but there was nothing but water. He started to yell and the other men came running to his side.”

“Geeminy,” I said.

“How old are you David?”

“I’m twelve.”

“Can you imagine taking a swim in icy pond water on a day like this with all your clothes on? He didn’t know how to swim. Can you imagine how scared he would have been, my Dad? He was your age.”

“No I can’t.” I looked down at the floor, then back up at my Dad. “What happened then?”

“According to my Dad, Willie, he opened his eyes and the water looked brighter than he imagined. He could see sun shining through the ice and it looked beautiful. He continued to go down and thought he would just sink away, and he wasn’t scared. It was quiet and he thought he was going to die. But then he slowly stopped and ever so slow he started back up, floating to the surface. He said it took a long, long time and he wasn’t scared. His head hit the ice. And as it did, he felt a strong hand, the strongest hand he’d ever felt, on his arm. It was his Dad’s hand. The Irishman pulled him out from under the ice and put him on his back, back into the air of the world above, but not before Willie had swallowed a hatful of water.”

“I bet his Dad was so relieved.”

“Nope. As my Dad told it he was mad as hell. Willie looked up at the men around him but he couldn’t breathe and the Irishman pounded hard on his chest and said ‘Breathe god damn you. No son of mine is going to die.’ And Willie coughed up a bunch of water and breathed. And then he started crying. And the Irishman was still mad and said ‘There's no time for crying Willie’ and took him in his arms to where Jack the gelding was tied. He whipped the blanket off the horse, threw his son into the saddle, wrapped the blanket around him and said this to my Dad Willie, who was just a little boy after all.”

“He said, ‘Willie, you’ve got to make the ride of your life. You got to get warm fast or you’ll die, and the very fastest way for you get into warmth is to ride Jack here as fast as he can go, by yourself, to the home place. Jack wants to be back in his stall and he knows the way so all you got to do is hang on and kick him, he’ll do the rest. Don’t let him take you to the barn though. Make sure you pull the reins and bring him to the back door where you can yell for your mother. Your sister can put Jack in his stall and I’ll take care of him when I get home. I’m telling you don’t let him take you to the barn because you could be too cold to get from the barn to the house. Pull Jack up to the back door, yell for your mother, and she’ll take care of you from there. I follow soon enough.’

Willie said “Dad I’m scared.”

" 'You can do it Willie, I know you can,' the Irishman said."

"And with that he slapped Jack on the hind quarters and he and his son Willie went galloping down the road.”

Back in the shop I said “Why didn’t he go with him Dad?”

“Because Jack could ride faster with just a boy on his back than if he was carrying two people. He was a little gelding. With Willie on his back Jack would be faster than ever, like a racehorse with a little jockey. And the Irishman knew he had to get his son warm quick. He trusted both the horse and his son to make that ride.”

“So he really made him go alone?”

“Yes he did. He followed to make sure he didn’t fall off. They unhitched one of his draft horses from the team, the Irishman got on him bareback, and he headed off behind Willie. But he knew his son on that galloping gelding would be way ahead of him, and the faster he got to warmth the better chance he had of not freezing to death, or freezing his feet, losing his toes, whatever. I don’t know how much they knew about hypothermia and such back then, but they knew by god he was in big trouble. Let me finish the story David.”

“So as my Dad Willie tells it he hung on to the reins, kicked Jack in the withers like he was wearing spurs, and they flew down the road. Straight shot to their farm. He had to ride down the east side of the section, past a crossroads and another mile to their farm at the end of the next section. A two mile dash down a frozen dirt road. The Irishman had never let him gallop Jack before and he went like the wind. Only the faster they went the colder he got. He began to cry and his tears froze his eyelashes near shut. As he tells it, and he told this story over and over, he had lost his hat in the pond and was bare headed. His ears and his nose hurt terrible and he thought he would surely be frostbit. The blanket his Dad gave him flew out behind him like a cape and he couldn’t keep it on. Somewhere on the road he lost it. He just crouched up against Jack’s neck and hung on.”

“He’d never rode a galloping horse that long. He said that Jack got low to the ground, stretched out, took long strides, and settled into a rhythm of breathing in time with his stride. As he did plumes of white puffed sideways out his nostrils. My Dad said he felt so close to that horse, like the horse knew how important this ride was and wanted to help him get home fast. My Dad loved that horse ever since that day.”

Willie was scared he wasn’t going to make it. He could barely feel his feet. But he was wearing chopper mittens, the same kind I wear still, and said his hands were the only thing stayed warm. Did you know good wool keeps you warm even when it’s wet? It does.”

“By the time he got to the house, Willie said, he was shivering so bad he could barely yell out. Jack tried to go to the barn but he pulled him up to the back door like his Dad told him. His mother and sister finally heard him and came out, and when they saw him in the saddle, all covered with ice, they screamed and went to pull him off the horse, but his feet were frozen to the stirrups. Story goes that his Mom, my grandma, ran into her kitchen and fetched a kettle and poured boiling water on his boots, freeing them up, and that way got him down and in the house. In ten minutes or so the Irishman rode up on the draft horse, with the horse blanket he’d picked up along the way, and busted into the house. He was plenty wet himself, and still mad at Willie for being careless and falling in the pond. Grandma called her husband foolish, about the worst thing she ever said about him. And as soon as they got Willie warm again he was fine. Anyway, that’s the story.”

I remember the way I felt when my Dad was done with the story and how it made me feel. Emotional I guess. I could imagine how scared my grandpa must have been riding that horse in the freezing cold and it scared me all over again. I felt lucky not to live in those times, but at the same time had a strange yearning to be there with them all. A cold winter day, racing for your life down a snowy road on a fast horse, escaping death. What a story.

Years later I was sitting with my Dad at the kitchen table when he was old and I was in college. His chopper mittens were lying on the table. He had just returned from spreading manure, a daily chore on the dairy farm. It was another bitterly cold day and nothing was much colder than riding one of those Minneapolis Moline tractors with no cab and a steel seat down the road and spreading a load of cow shit on a cornfield. Dad had just come in, poured himself a cup of coffee, and added a small pour of Old Grand Dad whiskey. It was the sixties and our family had graduated from being one of the farmhouses that never kept liquor to one that at least had mixed drinks on Christmas Eve. Dad kept a bottle in the lower cupboard behind the shoe shine kit and Mom allowed it. She didn’t like it, but she allowed it. I guess it was the choppers that reminded me.

“Remember that story you told me about Great Grandpa and Grandpa cutting ice, and Grandpa fell in, and he rode a horse two miles home by himself to keep from freezing to death?”

“Yeah,” my Dad replied, taking a sip of coffee. When he added the whiskey he called it ‘coffee royale.’

“Do you suppose it is true?”

“I suppose it is as true as it can be. That story was told over and over. The Irishman told it for years, and your Grandpa Willie, who got his own farm and bought a threshing machine, he told that story at threshing dinners in the summer from here to damn near Iowa. Those threshing dinners were big to dos. And every day you got a new audience. After dinner it was all the talk to tell stories of things that happened on the farm. And they were Irishmen after all, like you and me, and they loved to spin a yarn. I mean no one’s ever written it down, so as you told it you could exaggerate one part, or downplay another, and no one would know the difference.”

“But is it true you ask? I think so. I know they cut ice, and I know it was dangerous, and from time to time people fell in the pond. Now did your Grandpa Willie go clear under the ice, and look up and see the sunlight, and think he was going to die? Well that’s hard to tell. He might have just fell in and got fished right out. And did the Irishman, your great grandpa, yell out that no son of his was going to die and pound him on the chest? Maybe so and maybe not. But does that really matter? Because they told that story we know what happened one day on a pond near Danvers, nearly a hundred years ago. By their ages I got that day pegged as happening about 1886. How many days do we have in our memory from that far back? Could be its not completely true. I mean it’s a story. But I’m figuring it is. And as an Irishman who likes a story that captures your heart, I’m damn glad we have it.”

“So did you add anything to the story Dad? Something you know is not exactly true?”

Dad paused before answering. He took a deep drag on his Camel, the cigarettes that would later give him emphysema.

“Yeah, to tell the truth I’m not sure my Dad loved that horse Jack. I’m not sure he didn’t feel about his farm animals like we feel about our tractors now, like they’re tools. But I was lucky enough to farm with horses, and I loved it. I loved them. Those draft horses would pull till their heart broke if you’d let them. Pull so hard they could hardly stand. And a galloping horse on a two mile run? There’s no reason a horse would run that hard that far if he didn’t sense you needed him to. So yeah, I guess I added that. I gave my own feelings to my Dad. But it helps the story.”

“You know the great thing about that story? When you’re a kid you identify with Willie, being put in a situation that scares the hell out of you. And when you’re a father you identify with the Irishman, being stern with your child for his own good and wondering if you’re doing right. It’s a story with heart for people of all ages. Try not to forget it.”

With that he drained his coffee royale, stubbed his Camel out in the ashtray on the table, and looked in my eyes as he put on his hat and stuffed his ears under the ear flaps.

“You know, if Willie would have drowned in that pond that day, or the Irishman would have made the wrong decision and let him die from the cold, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. But because Willie lived and had me, and I had you, that’s the way our life has gone.”

He pulled on his chopper mittens and poked me softly in the chest. “So out of respect for your ancestors how about putting on some coveralls and boots and coming out to the barn to help your old man milk the cows?”