Sharing Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to share with neighbors and others. Our family took this admonition very seriously.

To give thanks for blessings you first have to recognize them, of course. Blessings come in many forms.

For my grandfather in his early married life the small drops of blessings were hard to recognize in the Niagara of grief that poured over him. His beloved wife died leaving him with three small boys to care for. Later he finally cobbled together enough coins for a down payment on a farm just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression. He lost his farm and never recovered financially. He married again. that was a mixed bag of blessings and woes. The mixture depends on whom you ask.

The three little brothers were hiding behind the couch one night when grandpa proposed marriage to their future step mother. Understandably, the boys were not excited about an outsider coming to take the place of their mother. In fact, to hear them tell it, Aunt Ethyl, as she would become known, did a sales job on Grandpa. “She said Ves, those boys need a mother. I’ve been a school teacher, and I know how to handle children.”

“Manhandle would be more like it,” the boys later grumbled. “Where was she a teacher, reform school? She always said she did it for our sake. We said she did it for hell sake.”

The family relationships were rocky to say the least according to the stories we grandchildren inherited. Here is where the blessing/problem mixture gets cloudier. The new blended family was immediately dysfunctional. That was a problem. But the new union produced six lovely daughters, so grandpa and Aunt Ethyl must have had something going for them. That was a blessing. The problems included feeding eleven mouths on a farm laborer’s pay. It made for a hard scrabble home life. On the other hand, they were spared the health problems that come with being overweight.

A few years later grandpa lost most of his hearing. That was another mixed bag.

The problem side of Grandpa’s deafness was that it kept him from close interactions with his family. The blessing side of his deafness was that it kept him from close interactions with his family.

In his marriage he couldn’t hear his wife grumble, but on the other hand when she did dump on him her shrill voice could peel the paint off the walls. As a little kid, to me she was scary.

Grandpa’s deafness was caused by bugs we were told. One hot summer day thinning sugar beets by himself he took a little siesta on the ditch bank after lunch. While he was asleep, a bug crawled into his ear and ate his ear drum. I bought that story. My older brother Gordon suspected there were more bugs in the story than they were telling us. “Two bugs one in each ear? What are the chances?” he asked me later.

We usually held thanksgiving at grandpa and Aunt Ethyl’s little house. The grown sons and their families, and the half sisters of varying ages packed the place.

The program was identical each year. Grandpa would call on somebody to bless the food since he himself was not a church going man he told us.

We would eat the chicken butchered from Grandpa and Aunt Ethyl’s little flock that morning. The dinner conversation was held in high decibels so Grandpa could hear what was being said.

After dinner the talk got even louder. It usually focused on the latest statesmanship or shenanigans, depending on your point of view, of Franklin D. Roosevelt. My father worked at Geneva Steel. During the depression he had also kept food on our table working on the government W.P.A. program. The official name was Work Progress Administration. Some other people called it W.P.A, We Piddle Around. Even Dad chuckled over that one but added that digging those ditches was some of the hardest work he had ever done. For all those reasons and maybe just to goad Uncle Dell, Dad hoped there was still enough rock at Mt. Rushmore to add Franklin Roosevelt’s face to Washington’s, Lincoln’s Jefferson’s, and FDR’s cousin Teddy.

Uncle Dell was an intimidatingly hard working and successful farmer, and later real estate entrepreneur. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Uncle Dell’s second choice for president of the United States. His first choice was anyone else in the universe. Others in the family were of various persuasions, but equal intensity. The pace of verbal punch and counter punch took off and gathered speed. Then it was a shouting free for all. No problem about grandpa hearing now. The question was would we damage his ears further.

Watching wide eyed, listening wide eared, and feeling the walls shake I gave thanks that the roof stayed on.

And thus did we share Thanksgiving with the neighborhood, and half the town. And we gave them one more blessing to be thankful for. We wouldn’t be doing this again for another year.

Fight with City Hall Ends Well

This piece works better if you quietly hum, “This Land is Your Land” as you read it. Woody Guthrey and I have different opinions of what his song means, but it does stir up the patriotic juices whatever your interpretation.

“You can’t fight city hall,” so the saying goes. But I did.

I love my town, Provo Utah, but I also strongly believe the government should not roll over the people; especially if what they (the government) want to do is illegal. This was. The state law prescribes that no city can annex land unless a majority of the land owners in the proposed area request it.

Our family and others lived in the county fairly close to the city boundaries. We wanted to keep our open spaces and rural atmosphere. The city saw us as potential property tax income. They tried to persuade/pressure us to request annexation. In the case of our home, the pressure bordered on literal. We could either join the city, or not go to the bathroom. That is they would shut off the culinary water to our house. We paid for water supplied by city pipes.

Draping myself in the American revolutionary flag proclaiming “Don’t Tread on Me,” and whistling “Yankee Doodle,” I headed for the state house in Salt Lake City. The state hydrologist agreed with my position, and issued me a permit to drill a well. A well permit in our arid state where water is more precious than gold is the equivalent of having squatter’s rights on Sutter’s Mill stream in the days of the California gold rush.

However drilling a well is equivalent to building Sutter’s Mill. Every foot down costs a week’s worth of groceries. But I had set my flinty face against tyranny, or maybe I was just pig headed. Whatever, I hired a driller, and down went his bit, cachunk, cachunk, cachunk. Each cachunk was a twenty dollar bill flying out of my wallet. Ninety percent of American land has water within fifty feet down. We are part of the lucky ten percent, 100 feet, cachunk 200 feet cachunk, cachunk, 300 feet, I’m thinking, “Will we have to suck water from the Yalu River in China?” At 305 feet a tiny dribble, 325 feet a modest underground seep. Dr. Keith Hooker, my neighbor who sank (literally) some money into the hole, and I decided we will go with that. “And so we lived happily ever after…”

Not.

Driving a six inch casing pipe into the ground is just the beginning of the fun especially if you are a naive do it yourselfer like me always looking for new thrills. After the well is dug, you have to lower a pump and connecting steel pipe down to the bottom of the well. This is done by the well drilling company for a fairly hefty price. I said, “I can do that. What could go wrong?” Don’t ask. You may find out.

I bought three long pipes from a scrap yard, bolted them into a tripod tepee over the well pipe. I hooked a hand powered pulling tool called a comealong to the top, and hoisted a 20 foot long, 60 pound section of pipe to it. I climbed up the tepee and lifted the handle on the comealong. The pipe descended toward the well about half an inch. So far so good. Another lift of the handle, another half inch. In only 480 lifts and lowerings of the comealong handle I had the first pipe and the well pump dangling down from the top of the well casing. Only 13 more pipe sections to go. Or in another image which I preferred to not think about, it would be like crawling across a football field, including one end zone with your fingers taking half inch steps. hoping not to be whip lashed by speeding snails coming up behind you. But, hey, after only 7,200 pumps on the comealong I had the pump snugly at the bottom of the well (actually 10 feet above so I didn’t pump dirt off the bottom.)

The good part about drilling a well on our property is that we have no rocks for 300 feet down, so we were able to drill the well straight. The bad part is that we met a big rock at that depth, and it bent our well casing slightly. The really bad part was that that bend scraped bare the wires, and shorted out the connection to the pump as it went past the rock. That meant inching back up the football field to fix it. Which I did.

The trip back down was made easier with a block and tackle my friend Don Budge lent me. It was not freeway speed. I still had to climb up the tripod, and screw on the pipe sections, but I was getting better at the process.

Until at about 200 feet down. The pipe slipped off its hook and a thousand pounds of pump and pipe headed for middle earth. Instinctively (euphemism for stupidly) I grabbed the pipe. The brace at the end of the pipe slammed down onto the iron well casing within half a hair of making me a four finger guitar player. It instantly turned my thumbnail black and caused me to exclaim something like, “My my, this is an interesting development.” or words to that effect.

I took off a few days for R and R, then returned to the project, lowered the pump, flipped the switch, and… nothing happened. The fall had killed the pump.

My music/comedy performing partner Dick Davis and I were now appearing as “The D’s, Dick and Duane” since Denis left the group. We had a tour on the east coast, so I reluctantly parted with the joys of well digging for a couple of weeks. My luck traveled with me. At Cornell University in Ithaca New York, we parked our truck and camper on an incline. The road was icy so we blocked one wheel with a big stone. That worked well except we also dropped the rock on my foot breaking two toes. As true troopers we did the show that night and finished the tour. I went back to the well.

It was early winter now, snow flurries sometimes whipped around me as I dragged my cast up and down the tripod, unscrewed pipes on the way up fixed the motor and screwed pipes together on the way down. I flipped the switch not daring to expect anything.

Miracle! Water gushed up the well and into a hose I had attached. Three hundred pounds of water pressure turned the hose into a twenty foot snake weaving and whipping above me. (I hadn’t hooked up the pressure limiter on the well, and frankly wasn’t interested in doing so. I was having too much fun.) Finally I reluctantly turned the pump off, then turned it on a few more times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

The well worked perfectly until once when I was on tour, the children turned it on by mistake, ran the pump dry and burned out the motor. I pulled it out, but it was toast.

Meanwhile, the city changed tactics. They realigned their proposed annexation boundaries to include a big section of land owned by developers who wanted to put their land into the city. This made my neighbors and me a minority of the property holders, so we could be swept in against our will.

So yes, you can fight city hall. You just can’t win. But Provo is a fine city full of great people As Shakespeare wrote, “All’s well that ends well.” This saga ended with a well. Now if I can just figure a way to get the water out of it without another trip down the pipe. I’m open to suggestions.

Lessons from the Land

“No vegetables taste as good as the ones you grow yourself.” So my friend Wayne Steimle told me. Since he was a millionaire in the days when a million would buy you something, I assumed he wasn’t gardening to trim a few bucks off the weekly grocery bill. The early morning hours he spent in his gardens he called his golf game. While the country club set he could have belonged to was out stroking the greens, he was in his backyard growing his greens.

I have found that working in the garden has taken strokes off my golf game. In fact I have gotten my strokes down to zero. I have played golf twice in my life with a thirty year interval. Even with all that practice I haven’t improved much.

Our gardens are carved out of a couple of acres of hillside goat pasture behind our house. We also have a barn, a chicken brooder house, a Quonset shaped solar heated “hoop house” made of arched plastic pipes covered with clear plastic in which we can plant vegetables earlier and harvest them later than outdoors. We are building another similar structure to winter our chicken flocks. In the summer they bunk in portable coops in our pasture out in the country. They share the grass with the grazing beef cattle, and pay their rent with eggs and by spreading the cow pies around fertilizing the field as they scratch for fly larvae and other delicacies.

Also in this little five acre farmette we have raised bed vegetable gardens and a small “fruit cocktail” orchard. We fertilize with organic products and don’t use herbicides or pesticides. That makes life interesting trying to keep up with the weeds and wee beasties, but we think it is worth the extra effort. The operations keep Sharon, me, and several of our children and some their children “off the street and out of trouble” as my mother used to say.

Working the land together brings good bonding experiences for our family. It also provides fertile soil for contemplative thoughts and deep observations such as:

PROFOUND PRONOUNCEMNTS FROM THE BUSINESS END OF A HOE HANDLE:

Forget about overpopulation of the earth, global warming, and looming asteroids on a crash course to earth. The real question is, how long will it be until Morning Glory covers the entire earth’s surface and makes plans for a moon landing?

Open letter to the people who, speaking for the seeds in the packet write, “This vegetable prefers rich loamy soil and a sunny location.”

Dear Mr. /Ms. seed packager. Please tell this plant that we would all prefer to live in rich loamy soil with plenty of sunshine. But this is pioneer country out here sweetheart. The early settlers hacked through the hard pan, grubbed out the sagebrush, and then scraped an existence out of a wilderness. So stick your preferring little roots into that alkali and rocks and suck up enough nourishment to make a crop on. Otherwise you’re sharing the rich loamy soil of the compost pit.

“Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16) No. Nor, I would add pumpkins from squash even though the seeds look identical. The children were very disappointed as they carved their long faced jack o’ lanterns that fall.

QUESTIONS CONCOCTED WHILE HANGING BETWEEN LIMB AND LADDER:

Why is the choicest fruit always just out of reach of your arm and ladder?

If you risk closing your career in this second estate to pick a gorgeous out- of-reach apple why does it shrink and lose so much of its charm on the way to the bucket?

Why is the bird peck and/or worm hole always on the side you can’t see until you risk your life to pick it?

An apple a day may keep the doctor away. But wouldn’t throwing a rock at him accomplish the same thing and cheaper.

If a watermelon instead of an apple had fallen on Isaac Newton’s head, would he have discovered chaos theory instead of gravity?

And finally, to paraphrase the old farmer saying, “If I had Wayne Steimle’s million dollars what would I do with it?” Probably farm until it was all gone.

My Brief Life of Crime

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay,” intoned a solemn voice at the end of every weekly program “Your FBI in Peace and War” on our Philco table top radio. I should have listened

“You are tvelve,” the menacing interrogator barked at me in a guttural heavy accent. The light over my head burned into my brain. Sweat ran in rivulets down my neck into my shoes. My eleven years of life flashed before my mental eyes. I protested, “I’m only eleven.”

“You have relatives in de old country, and ve know vere dey are.” He snarled. “It vould be unfortunate if something should happen to them.

“You wouldn’t,”

“Ve vill get the truth out of you one way or another.” He snapped his baton into his palm a half inch from my face.

“Take him away. Ve vill resume the interrogation later.”

I staggered out of the blinding light, into the darkness knowing that I would soon be going through the same thing or worse next time.

That’s how I remember my weekly shake down.

Such experiences can turn a child to crime. That’s the only excuse I can offer for my shameful behavior on that day of reckoning. Even my brother Gordon who always stood up for me forsook me. “If you do that again, I’m going to tell Dad,” he threatened.

Justice was laid to the line in my youth. Today I might possibly beat the rap by pleading extenuating economic pressures. Jean Valjean in Les Miserables has become a literary and musical stage hero for stealing bread for his starving family.

When one of your birthday presents is that the price of a ticket to the Saturday matinee skyrockets more than 300 percent, it can make you do desperate crazy things like slouch and lie.

Growing up I took satisfaction from my aunts and uncles remarking on how tall I was getting. “Growing like a weed” may not be the ultimate compliment, but in our agrarian society it was universally understood..

Then I learned from Swede that growing is a two edged sword. Swede was the granite faced ticket taker at the Star movie theater in our town. His rumbling pipes could make a young boy confess to crimes he hadn’t even thought of. Being a smart child as alecks go, I deduced from his name that Swede was from Sweden. I deduced other things as well; that he had smuggled himself into America through an underground espionage network; that he took this ticket taker job as a cover until his papers could be processed to become a German Stalag Kommendant or commissar of a Soviet gulag.

Swede’s only qualification for the job, I figured was his ability to measure at a glance how much more sock was showing under your pant leg this Saturday than last. He would then instantly calculate the day, and probably the hour of your twelfth birthday. Then he would pounce like a saber tooth tiger on a door mouse.

But a growth spurt in the early part of my second decade of life had thrown off Swede’s calculations. He began grilling me about two years before my time. Every week, “You are too big for a child’s ticket.”

“I’m only ten.” Then next year, “I’m only Eleven.”

Did the captains of the movie industry ever stop to think how much more whining and wheedling it took to get a 40 cent advance on your allowance than to get 13 cents? As the prophet Isaiah spoke when he was turned away in the movie line after his 12th birthday, “Ye grind the faces of the poor.” (Isaiah 3:15)

I’m picturing twelve year old Scarface Al Capone blocked by the ticket taker and heading home planning his life as a syndicate crime boss.

The difference between Scarface and me was he apparently had talent in his profession. I didn’t.

“The moving finger writes and having writ moves on,” wrote Omar Khayyám as he returned to his tent short of movie money after his twelfth birthday. And thus it was for me. The 12th birthday came. The following Saturday I was about fifty cents short of having a quarter. Actually, I had thirteen cents and a plan. Nervous, sweaty palms clutched the coins in my jeans pocket. I rehearsed my speech over and over. I had it word perfect. “I am only eleven.” I tried it in several different deliveries, finally settling on a childlike upper register teetering on a tantrum.

But it is hard to overcome habits drilled into you by parents. The moment came. “How old are you? Swede growled.”

“Twelve… I mean eleven,” I squeaked.

Every man has his price they say. Mine at that age was twenty seven cents. I had sold my integrity and besmirched my family name for a cheap ticket to see a Hopalong Cassidy cowboy movie, and that week’s installment of the movie serial “Captain Midnight. American Crime Fighter.” I suspected Captain Midnight might be following me home after the movie. Indeed as the FBI in Peace and War reminded me every week, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

I did get into the movie for thirteen cents for the last time. And I got an incredible door prize, almost worth the loss of my youthful integrity. For the first, last, and only time. I saw Swede smile.