Thursday, March 26, 2009

Orange Glow

Nine thirty pm. I'm standing at the north windows on the second floor looking at an orange glow about a mile away. The binoculars we keep for bird watching in a side bedroom are old and the lenses are dirty. I can't make out any detail. With a better pair from the bookshelf in the living room, I can see smoke billowing skyward. The fire is beyond the Kickapoo Center cemetery in the vicinity of a group of cabins rented in the summer to unsuspecting tourists. The owner of the cabins puts out a brochure that speaks glowingly of hiking, canoeing and horseback riding. Most of the Amish built green roofed cabins are on a plateau above a swamp and marsh that parallels the Kickapoo River. "Can't be the cabins", I think out loud. They'd have a telephone to call the volunteer fire department in Viola. Dawn comes upstairs. I point to the fire. "I don't hear any sirens," she says. She dials 911 on her cell phone.

The 911 dispatcher tells her that the local excavator/gravel hauler, Dave LaPointe, is doing a controlled burn. At night? Dawn says he's probably doing something illegal. LaPointe is known for nefarious doings on the shady side of the law. The dispatcher comes back on the line. "It's an old tobacco barn being burned." Dawn hangs up and says, "Well, I did my civic duty for the day." In the morning smoke still billows into the air.

On Tuesday, I accompany Titus and another neighbor to a farm implement auction. The law of opposites is in full effect. The weather is darkly overcast. I wear two layers under my freshly washed denim jacket. The auction is on a ridge top three towns away and about 20 miles. I tug at my feed cap to keep it from blowing off. Tractors and every kind of farm implement you can imagine are parked in four long rows about two city blocks long. After awhile the grass turns to mud when intermittent rain pelts the crowd. For warmth and protection I huddle with a group watching the auctioneer sell small items: old chain saws, saw blades, tractor parts, chains, a retractable clothesline, cement finishing tools and a whole lot of uninteresting junk. I walk the long rows looking for a break in between the hay balers and combines hoping that I'll find a log splitter. No such luck. There is a splitter near the front door of the registration barn, but it's the kind that connects to the PTO shaft of a tractor. Titus points out a contraption made from a motorcycle engine, a riding mower and parts from a go-cart. On the back end are numerous hydraulic connections. "You can buy this rig to run the log splitter," he says. I tell him I'm not sure where the gas tank is. "It's diesel," he quips.

The Jerry-rigged super charged lawn mower gets a lot of attention. The noise and the fumes from diesel tractors idling are constant. The auctioneer in the background keeps up a steady drone: Give me five, do I hear a one bid a two bid gimme two fifty bidda one bidda two all the while the clerk is huddling over a clipboard writing down bidder numbers and sale prices while assistants bark out, hear and hey like square dancers yelping with the beat of the music scanning the crowd for hand signals and nods of assent for the current price or sideways head shakes of "no way am I gonna pay that price" and hold up the next piece of junk to go on the block. When it starts to rain heavily, I head for the van and shelter.

By mid-morning cars are parked a half mile down the side road adjacent to the auction barn. They are also parked a long way down one side of the main highway. I look at the faces of the crowd. One woman complains that they've taped off the bathrooms inside the barn and put up an out-of-order sign. There's a single Porta-Potty outside with a line of ten men in front. One man wearing insulated overalls can't figure out why the door is locked. Nobody volunteers to help out this feeble-minded dummy who can't see the red "occupied"message when the user inside pushes down the lock lever. I walk past another man who laughs and comments," Yeah another farm auction- runny eggs and beer." Inside the barn are tables with malingerers and other idlers slowly sipping coffee. The line for food is as long as the line at the toilet. For $3.50 I get a can of Pepsi and a hot pork sandwich the size of a quarter. By now I'm chilled to the bone. I didn't drive so I'm stuck until Titus and the neighbor decide to leave.

Titus hangs back when a hay baler goes up for sale. It's what he came looking for but the competition from other Amish is stiff. The baler sells for $750. "That's too high, " he says. Looking at me and my blue lips, he tells the neighbor that he doesn't think they'll get to the other balers any time soon. We walk the two blocks to the van and head home.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Evil Maple Tree

In the middle of our two acre field adjacent to the highway were two silver maple trees. The one at right had two forks. One fork falls in a windstorm. It slightly damages three tiny chard seedlings in the gardens next to the tree. I breathe a sigh of relief and remove the damaged tree before the deer are attracted by the forage.

Unknown to me the major portion of the trunk of the split fork maple is rotten. It falls in another storm. Luckily, Dawn was in the house when it fell. She says she heard the swoosh as it hit the ground. This time the killer tree tears a swath across the corn patch, flattens the cabbage patch and digs holes in the soil ten inches deep. Old carpet laid as mulch and a weed barrier is perforated like a piece of plastic. The deer are attracted by the fallen branches and munch happily on silver maple leaves and the organic shirofumi edamame plants. The stumps, some of which measure twenty five inches in diameter, are carefully stacked next to the barbed wire fence on the east fence line. A June flood washes the woodpile away to the flats below my neighbor's farm.

Last week I lit a burn pile over the stumps of the tree. A week later, the stump continues to smolder. I kid Dawn about having a coal seam under our garden that will smolder for 20 years. I hope I'm wrong.

The picture at right shows the silver maple in early fall of 2005. Click on the image for a larger view. One of the two right hand forks had fallen. The other leans precariously. My friend Jorge-the retired cop and city alderman who lives in an Amish house on a ridge top not far away comes to help me with a Three Stooges plan I have dreamed up. We'll cut a limb off the right fork. My reasoning is simple ( simple minded?) . Less weight, hence less chance of it falling over. The other reasonable assumption is that the garden would receive more sunshine.
The assumption was incorrect. As you can see from this picture dated 7/04/2007 the tree fell into the garden. What follows is a description of the tree limbing that gave the maple it's evil reputation. Click on the image if you'd like a larger view.

Chapter Two: The Cutting.

The limb in question extends 15 feet over the garden. It is almost twenty feet off the ground. I rule out leaning a ladder against the limb and slowly cutting segments of the limb. My mind replays a well-known Warner Brothers cartoon. I have five ladders. One is the highest weight rated Werner ladder available. It has two-twenty foot segments and extends 40 feet. On the ladder are all the specs. It lists the highest working range at 38 feet with an OSHA approved weight capacity of 350 lbs. It takes two people to maneuver it. I separate the sections so that I can reach the gutters near the arbor vitae by the kitchen window without waiting for my wife to come home from work.. Jorge tells me while eating scrambled eggs that he has examined the tree. I’m pleased that he has given it some thought because I am stumped for safe alternatives. When he finishes his last sip of coffee, he says, “Let’s do it.”

“Wait a minute,” I tell him as we walk to the garden. “Let’s think this out.” While he’s thinking, I get the twenty foot ladder section. In the garage, I check the chainsaw for gas and bar oil. I grab my ear protectors and gloves. The assumption is to cut the limb near the trunk of the tree. If cut properly, it should drop slowly to the ground. It doesn’t matter that portions of it fall in the garden. The soft soil can be tilled again. I position the ladder to the right side of the branch. When I climb to the top of the ladder and examine the branch, I realize that I’ll be reaching over the ladder and cutting to my left. Jorge is holding the ladder for stability against the uneven surface of the tree trunk. I climb down to tell him that the position is uncomfortable, probably unsafe.

Comic Interlude before the Tragedy

I suggest that we throw a rope over the limb to guide the limb to a safe landing. Behind the seat in my truck is a rope I borrowed from someone in Arkansas. It’s twenty feet long, maybe more. I never gave it back to the owner because his dog was responsible for biting my four-year-old daughter in the face. I figured the cost of the rope a pittance for our pain and suffering. Besides, he never offered a cent for medical expenses. In crude terms, he was a !@#$. His wife was a !@#$, too.

First, I loop the rope in my right hand like a cowboy, hold on to one end and toss it toward the limb. I miss the target. Then, I tie a stick to one end and toss it toward the limb. After six or seven tries, I give the rope and stick to Jorge who watches me with a gleam in his eye. Actually, I’d rather people driving down the highway see Jorge making a fool of himself. Just about the time I’m going to suggest that I take over tossing the rope over the limb, Jorge catches the thin branches near the end of the branch. We spend the next ten minutes snapping the rope in large waving motions to free it from the thousands of tiny branches near the tip. With each snap of the rope it inches toward the ground. When It’s about seven feet off the ground, I jump up and grab the stick. There’s no time limit on our tree trimming, but in the back of my mind is the thought that this is turning into a major production.

I move the ladder to the left side of the branch.There's a small hill directly underneath the branch. I position the ladder on a level area for stability and climb to the crook of the tree limb to assess my position. I’m apprehensive. The top of the ladder extends to about three feet above the area I’m to begin cutting. If I position myself to cut directly over the top portion of the branch, I’ll be standing with little or no ladder to brace myself. Actually, because of my acrophobia, I need a portion of the ladder to hug and cling to.

I climb down a few rungs and lock my knees. With the top part of the chain saw bar, I cut into the lower side of the limb. The theory here is to prevent the limb from splitting and taking a large piece of bark off the tree. I don’t trust using the top of the bar for cutting. I have a running documentary film in my head of the chain snapping like a snake biting me in the face. First, I make one deep cut. Next, I make several shallow cuts. Hindsight says I should have cut a notch from the underside of the branch. Hindsight wasn’t cutting free hand twenty feet off the ground. Jorge offers advice from the ground. The simplest answer to his advice would be, “Let’s see you do it!” I don’t want to be responsible for injury or a possible lawsuit. He was hired as a consultant.

Change the film speed here to silent movie speed from the 1920’s. Robert runs up and down the ladder. Up and down. Up and down. First, I cut one quarter of the way through the limb. I get off the ladder and grab the rope from Jorge. Several tugs on the rope shakes the entire tree causing Jorge to murmur with apprehension. I pull some more, gaining momentum with each pull. Krraaack. Then, nothing. Now, I’m apprehensive. I climb back up and examine the limb. There’s a noticeable fissure neat the bottom part of the limb. On the ground, Jorge offers encouragement for destruction. “Can’t you cut it some more?” I climb down like a monkey, grab the idling chain saw and insert it into the groove. Another scene from the documentary movie twenty years later.

My chain saw is stuck in a tree branch twenty feet off the ground.

Chapter Three: The Climax

I try to get directly over the top of the branch, which I previously mentioned is not an easy task. I’m about halfway through. I climb down, put my chain saw in a safe area behind the tree and ask for the rope. I tug and pull. Nothing. I give up and hand the rope to Jorge. He begins with slow, even pulls on the rope. Gaining momentum with each pull, the limb begins to crack. Finally, it snaps off and crashes to the ground.

I barely made it through high school chemistry. Physics class was reserved for the extremely intelligent. I skipped being intelligent for parking with Bonnie in a secluded area along the Milwaukee River in Estabrook Park. The police car leaves the parking lot after the officer tells me, “You can’t park here after 9 pm.” I ask Bonnie why she didn’t tell me the police were approaching. She skipped physics class also: "For every action

there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Strong pulls on a tree limb to the east will result in motion toward the west. East, west. East, west. Krraaack. When it falls, the momentum Jorge developed causes it to hit the ladder which hindsight never told me to move. Hindsight was busy looking after my hinder. The butt of the branch hits the lower 1/3 of the ladder. It crushes the cast aluminum side rails, severs three rungs and bends the base of the ladder at a right angle. I’m stunned. Jorge is stunned. My first words after looking toward the highway to see if anyone was witness to the farce-“There goes $325.” The voice of reason says, “We can fix it.”

Tomorrow the denouement and ending of the story of the tree limbing. Remember, the evil maple is still smoldering. Will it ever end?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

School For Pies

In the warm afternoon yesterday, there's a clamor from the north, east and south. Because the Kickapoo bends and twists more than an Italian bread stick, geese and ducks fly from one slough to another for a night-time roost. One sandhill crane calls from a marsh along East River Road to another flying overhead. There's a distinct difference between the call of the crane on the ground and the one flying past the house. Blackbirds-purple martins, grackles and starlings chatter in the tops of our tall trees. On the ground two grackles face off by the bird feeder. With their beaks pointing skyward, they puff out, flutter and strut. Over the winter mice gnawed a highway in the grass to seed scattered by messy sparrows. The Pooch makes his own silent statement to the bird population when I see him squat and pee on the mound of sunflower hulls and discards from the feeder.

Yesterday was pie day. I need to pick up my ailing truck in the repair shop, so I accompany Dawn to work. First, I stop at the Amish. "What time is class today?, " I ask. The elder's wife tells me, We''ll wait until you return to begin making the crusts." When I pull in with my truck, I pop into the workshop and hand over a tool catalog. In a corner of the shop is a stack of eggs six feet high. Each layer holds over two dozen eggs separated by colorful plastic egg holders. In the house, the principal pie maker has a large measuring cup full of flour. I slip off my shoes because the designers of the Converse All Stars never thought about waffle soles, mud and dirt in the country. All the daughters are barefoot. Some are outside hanging wash. We all laugh when someone says they thought they'd heard geese honking.

The pie lady opens a tin of cold shortening. Next to the mixing bowl is a glass cup of cold water. Her movements seem like magic, because I do not catch her adding the shortening or water. She's already molding the dough. I must have been distracted for a moment when the youngest son hands me a cup of coffee. Sprinkling a bit of flour on the oil cloth covered table, she patty-cakes a section of the dough. Then, she adds more flour and rolls it out in equal motions, left and right. These pies are for a trucker. He eats at a restaurant 6 miles south of Readstown. When he asks the waitress for desert, the answer is, " Ain't none." From now on he'll bring his own.

Pie woman carefully folds the crust in half and drapes it over an aluminum, 9 inch pie tin. The elder's wife has a pan brimming with what looks like apple sauce. On top are freshly peeled apple slices. The sauce is a special base. When that is poured into the crust, the daughter rolls out the top crust. She moistens the edge of the bottom crust. Next, she drapes the top crust over a plastic form which punches a pattern of holes in the crust to allow the steam to escape. She arranges the perforated crust over the top, pinches the edges and trims excess dough. It all seems so easy. I tell her she's really good at making pies. "I make all the pies in the summer," she says. That amounts to hundreds of pies for the tourists and locals who stop for bakery along the highway.

In the course of under an hour there are four pies in the oven. Titus comes in from the workshop looking for a slice of pie. I decline the pie, but sample the leftover crust. A small segment of crust too small to make into a pie is sugared and slightly sprinkled with Cinnamon for a cookie. It's flaky and tender. I reserve my pie making until I've gone through two tankfuls of gas cutting firewood for next year. After lunch I assemble the ingredients.

I won't describe the trauma and cussing that ensues. Pie lady lady didn't have to contend with Japanese beetles waking from hibernation in Monday's 60 degree weather. One lands directly on my bottom crust. The strawberry-rhubarb filling never thickens after I prepare sure-gel according to the directions. Corn starch doesn't help. When I drape the crust over the 10 inch glass pie plate, it doesn't completely cover the pie pan. In desperation, I patch the top crust with two small pieces of dough. I rationalize that numerous cracks in the crust will allow steam to escape. "Darn these bifocals," I cuss. In the oven, the pie runs over on a tin cookie sheet I placed on the rack below. Sheet! In the end when I remove the pie from the oven, it looks good enough to eat. I had coated the top with melted butter and sprinkled sugar liberally before popping it in the oven. It's nicely browned.

To soothe my wounded pride, I work on a rustic wood shelf that's been lying dormant for a year. The out of square recycled doors discouraged me. I add a new blade to my skil-saw and trim the edges. In the warm afternoon, I open the overhead door to the workshop and sand the shelf without covering every tool in the shop with a layer of dust. When Dawn pulls up in the drive, I brush off my jean jacket and walk with her to the house to describe my pie making adventures.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Feteer is a Bedouin flat bread cooked on a flat rock over an open fire . My feteer is a white, whole wheat flour pancake with craisins, chocolate chips, walnuts and cottage cheese. Dawn's early light isn't what my wife sees this morning. She's still abed. The Pooch decides that the faintest glimmer of light at the eastern horizon at 6:30, fast time as the Amish call it ( 5:30 by my own slow time clock) is enough light to jump on the bed, settle next to my face and lick my nose until I can't tolerate the tickling of his whiskers. It doesn't help that I remember seeing him gnawing on a field mouse early Saturday morning.

Because of the kitchen remodel, there's no light at the foot of the stairs. I grab the handrail and carefully touch each step in the dark. I'm wearing thick wool socks which are slippery on the wood steps to the first floor. In the kitchen, there just enough light to see a wisp of smoke from what's left of the evil maple tree in the front field. I've been burning branches and scrap from the wood shed on a burn pile over the stump. The rotten portion caught fire and burned . The remaining stump is hard as a stone. I may have to take the chain saw to it, level it for a pedestal of outdoor sculpture . Overhead, two honking geese fly across the field. When I open the porch door for Pucci, I can hear the black birds chattering in the cottonwood tree on the south fence line. The cardinals are singing loudly now with the springtime rush of hormones and urge to nest. Sandhill cranes near the river perform their mating dances, all the while calling out with their loud raucous crowing.

Early mornings there's a white crystalline frost cover on everything from porch railing to the grass which is beginning to turn green. Yesterday, the bank thermometer in town reads 52 degrees at noon. The garden is almost free of snow cover. Soon the moist, brown loam will absorb enough heat to prepare the soil for planting. I've been to the small town 18 miles away a half dozen times in the past week. First, I'd stopped to chat with friends at Wal-Mart on a brief shopping trip. My friend Dawg tells me to call the woodman. He's got firewood. I pick up more Tenderquick for bacon curing, pita pockets for falafel and humus for dinner and find some smoke flavor sugar cure at the Village Market.

On Friday I make an appointment to have the clutch of the pick-up truck checked out. At the same time, I'll walk next door and have the CPA check out our taxes. The drive to town with the truck turns out to be a wild ride, culminating with its collapse next to the auto repair when the clutch freezes in third gear. There's another hog scheduled for butchering in the first week of April, therefore I make frequent trips to confer with the Amish. As I pull up to the hilltop farm, I see they've erected a plastic greenhouse. I make a point to save egg cartons, containers and plastic bags for reuse by the Amish family. I hand these to the elder's wife along with a never used cookie gun in it's original package. All the daughters gather round the table to examine the cookie maker. "We've been looking for one of these," Titus' wife says. A hot cup of coffee and a slice of pecan pie appears quickly in front of me. It tells me I'm more than just one of the many visitors picking up eggs or chickens. The hog is for my daughter and her husband. It'll be a three day event. I ask Titus details about the tables he makes. A friend in the city is looking for a new dining room table. The conversation changes frequently. I'm used to side tangents and many bits of important information. Before I'd left the house, I took the ham steak I'm curing in sugar quick and soaked it in warm water. By the time I return, an hour and a half will have elapsed. The woodman says he'll deliver the load of wood today, but he'll call first. From experience, I know that the delivery may range anywhere in the next 8 hours.

I'm told the "girls" are making pie on Monday. If I want to learn pie crusts I should show up early. "I hope that you don't begin at dawn, " I mention with mock horror. They say they'll wait until 9 am, but I neglect to ask if that's slow time or fast time. Titus stands to go to the barn to clean the stalls. He says he's warming the cows. I ask how he warms a cow. I laugh when he repeats that he's worming the cows. With my slight hearing loss and the German inflection of Amish speech, I often have to ask that they repeat a word or phrase. One of the horses has a puncture wound to the leg that he's soaking. I walk with him outside as he slips on his muck boots that stand on the porch. He tells me the greenhouse is for early planting of lettuce and spinach. I put the dozen farmer eggs I'd traded for the cookie gun in the trunk of the Prism and jump in the car. The gravel road is icy and I slide near the turn, braking so that I don't go off the edge of the hill.
The access road in the adjacent corn field is firm from the frequent trips with a manure spreader. The logger backs down the lane toward a space I'd cleared for the cull logs of oak. There are two electric lines overhead. The logger asks me to watch the lines. As he swings his small crane to and fro with surprising facility, I watch as he comes dangerously close to the lines. He drops several logs cross-wise to act as a base for the wood pile to keep the logs off the ground. He tosses the logs as if the jaws of the hoist are his own fingers. When one of the logs falls next to the pile, I ask Dawn to help me lift it onto the pile. We strain to push the log closer to the pile. Later, when the logger jumps down from his perch, he says, "Leave it be. They weigh over 160 pounds. You're better off cutting right there."

Finally, the five cords of oak logs are unloaded. In the country there's no such thing as a short delivery. Only the UPS man makes a quick stop to drop off a package. Dawn watches the whole proceedings with amazement and stops to talk to the logger when he secures the crane. While I walk to the summer kitchen freezer for some Polish sausage, she talks with him about the wood market, the state of the economy and all the other things people in rural America are concerned about. I hand him a package of Polish and Italian sausage. He's grateful. "How many loads have you done today?" Dawn asks him. "Five or six," is his reply. He tells us about a mishap with electric lines in which he broke the electric line. " Luckily," he says, " when it snapped it snaked away from me." I tell him that would be the end of our wood supply. He nods with a grimace thinking about being fried by the current coursing through the electric lines. The poles which mark the south line of our property hold up lines that are frayed and feeble. When he drives off, I snatch the Pooch up who has maintained a safe distance. He doesn't like big machinery except for tractors for which he has no fear. I place him on the highest log so he can overlook his domain. The Pooch jumps down immediately. The logs are too new. They are still an intrusion on his perimeter. In the weeks to come we'll see him watching the corn field like he does from his maple log perch near the edge of the swamp.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sad Irons

This is our iron. It's a happy iron. It is seldom in service. To save on electricity, I hang clothes in the basement in the winter. I have a few tricks in hanging wash which, for the most part, leave my shirts and pants fairly wrinkle free. Besides, neither Dawn or I care if we appear in public with wrinkled clothing. "Oh look Mommy. There goes the wrinkled people." I've never heard any negative comments.

When I worked in the dairy department at Wal-Mart, I'd see customers wearing clothing beyond belief. Torn, dirty, sometimes T-shirts with offensive or at the least, derogatory-you know the I'm with stupid... and the accompanying arrow pointing to husband or wife. There was also the short term worker we called Yah Yah who wore Bugs Bunny underwear that hung out over her jeans. My manager in the dairy department forwards me a picture of a woman in Wal-Mart with sheer trousers and under wear with a big smiley face on the butt. My wrinkled jeans cannot beat that. In my teaching days, my choice of clothing was wash and wear. I looked the part of the teacher.

I give my Amish friends two sad irons I inherited from my grandmother. They sat on a bookshelf for twenty years holding an eclectic selection of reading materials from tumbling on the carpeted second floor. Now, the sad irons are in use daily. When I arrive at the Amish farm early this morning, the daughters are ironing pasta. It's a five person operation if you count the youngest daughter helping to crank the pasta press. I'm on another hog mission. I also need to find out what is wrong with my pie crust recipe.

I won't mention the name of the cookbook I use for fear of a libel suit. The recipe makes me suspicious. I ask the elder's wife if she adds butter to the recipe. "No", she says. What about lard? "We use half lard and half shortening. " The shortening is for customers who are squittish about animal products in their food. I found that the rendered lard from the hog we recently butchered is pure and free of foreign material. I ask for their secret and the elder's wife shows me a strainer. What about ice water, I ask? "Right out of the tap", is the reply. Titus has an ingenious gravity fed water system to the house from a windmill and cistern on the hill. I mention that my crust breaks apart at the edges. "To dry." is the reply. Thus I find that the recipe calls for too much flour, too little water and too much shortening(including the butter). This is the household standard cookbook in thousands of homes?? I chide the elder's wife about opening a cooking school for only one student-me!

Back to the ironing. A daughter holds up a fistful of pasta dough to show me the consistency and texture. It's run through a pasta mill in narrow bands, placed on an ironing board and with my grandmother's sad irons, pressed to remove moisture quickly. I'm told that the weight of these cast irons is such that they hold a great deal of heat. You have to be careful when ironing clothing, one of the daughters comments. After the pasta is ironed, it's placed on the oil cloth on the kitchen table. I see fresh pasta curling in strips after it has been cut on the far side of a table that seats ten people.

As I sip a cup of scalding coffee, I watch the process and catch up on local news. Seems the town chairman got into a scuffle at the town dump. At the regular first Tuesday of the month meeting when nominations for election are made, the town chairman is not nominated. He's running as a write-in candidate. A big sign in the warming house at the dump, asks people to write him in. Call if there are questions. The town clerk points out that this is illegal. The town chairman(TCh) grabs the town clerk (TC) by the shoulders and tosses him to the ground. Mind you, the TCh is over 70 and recently suffered from throat cancer. The TC is elderly also. He suffers from multiple injuries including two cracked ribs. This is big news. The TCh is to appear in court. In my view, the TCh was like someone's grandpa. At times he could be testy, but the folks in this township would try the patience of a saint.

I make a note to come back for noodles. I'm told that the Amish noodles are more expensive than store bought. I find they are more flavorful and cook faster. Titus hands me a green package that looks like a slide rule case. In it are planer blades for his workshop. I get directions to the saw shop in town-"If you end up in the mud, you've gone too far". The shop is open, the lights and the radio are on. No one is around. I knock on the adjacentt vinyl sided home. No answer. He's either in the bar or coffee shop. When I return later, between wash loads, I drop off the blades. The 40ish man running the shop has three machines running simultaneously sharpening band saw blades. I can hardly hear him over the noise. There's metallic smoke in the air which makes me wheeze. The saw shop sharpener gives me a tour and I head back to the Amish over the US highway to tell Titus to pick up his blades in two days. Being the thinkahead person I is (intentional grammar mistake), I'd grabbed two packages of my Hot Polish w/jalapenos before I left. I will have noodles and cabbage for dinner.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ten, Two and Four

We take an impromptu trip to Lacrosse, about 45 minutes away. We need a portable shower hose to attach to the shower head in the first floor bath. The hose will allow us to wash dishes in an old washtub recycled from the basement. The washtub will straddle the bathtub and the water will drain into the tub. When we remove the old kitchen counter, the bathtub will be our temporary dishwasher. I need more pork for hot polish sausage. I don't want to thaw existing ground pork. The grocery store in Lacrosse carries pork loin ends at an inexpensive price.

The real reason for the trip-to get out of the
frickin' house and away from the slate gray skies of winter.

Listening to the radio on the way to and from, we are reminded frequently to spring ahead . In addition to giving an in depth look at the banking crisis, NPR also gives a short history of daylight saving time. I 'm tempted to rant about daylight saving, but I quickly regain my senses. The radio clock in my pick-up truck now reads the correct time , however,the clock in my Prism is one hour slow. All the appliances show the correct time. I have not changed the battery operated kitchen clock in the living room nor the bedside clock, while I decide if I want to join the Amish. The Pooch decided it was time to get up at 2 am (really three am). I ignore him and hide under the quilt. I let him out at 7 am ( really 8 am). A short trip to the village Market to rent a 99 cent DVD and to pick up some ground beef for cabbage rolls was uneventful, but the hardware store is closed. Normally, they close at 4 pm on Sunday. I couldn't tell if we are late or if the store closes early. Darn. Diddely damn, darn. Mother Hubbard darn.

When we left, it was pouring. I do not hear an old man snoring. We call the Pooch in out of slanting sheets of rain from the icy north and hustle out. The sidewalk is slick from rain that froze in marginal freezing temperatures . The picture at left is what it looked like when we got home. I am so confused. I looked at the the battery clock which said it's time for Prairie Home Companion. Then I realized it was actually 6 pm. Then I realized it was Sunday, not Saturday, Darn. Diddely damn, darn. Mother of Jesus darn.

My Amish friends pay slight heed to pronouncements of daylight saving time. Thrifty to a fault, they get up before first light. At night, they fire up a single Coleman lantern. There's a tin pie plate above the lantern at the ceiling which prevents the paint above. I often wondered how Titus got the time to work on cabinets with constant interruptions, field work and chores in the barn. One morning I go to the farm at 8 am to have Titus saw legs for a table of mine. Like a dairy farmer, he had breakfast before dawn's early light and went to the Shady Lane workshop as the sun peeked over the hills. By 8 am, he's put in several hours of work on doors or cabinet framework. After the rain and before the puffy snowflakes, hail pelts the windshield of the car.Dawn keeps a running commentary.The sign for the Culver's Restaurant advertises a walleye basket. "No cooking, no dishes," she says. I remind her of leftovers on all three shelves of the refrigerator. She agrees and decides the safest way home is NOW.

It's happened before.

We stop for lunch before heading home. On the way out of the restaurant, the scene has changed. Like a moody teenager, sun becomes dark, threatening sleet and snow. Driving home will be treacherous and time consuming. Now, as we head east on the US highway,we speculate that the geezer in front of the long line of cars driving 30, 25 then 35 mph, braking frequently in the slush is probably an old man. When he pulls off the highway into the parking lot of Potato Hill restaurant, Dawn exclaims, "He wasn't that old!" The blaze orange hunting hat and gray sideburns says FARMER! The white pines on the south fence line are playing touch with the ground. Several branches have broken and lie in a heap. I'm confused again. It's March isn't it? My first crop of onions won't go in the ground at the third week of March this year.

The hillsides sprout log cabins with green metal roofs. The Amish provide weekend get-aways for city people. On the way to town to get to the closed hardware store, I notice one of the weekenders has given up. Driving up from Madison or Beloit for a pleasant few quiet days and totally dark nights, the weekenders fear being trapped by weather. The old white Cadillac this person drives is gone from the driveway. The red drapes are closed. Back to the womb of city cement.

The bakery on the edge of town as we head home has a sign that tells the winner of the cake-of-the week contest. The other side says FEAR NO DOUGHNUT. It's a family run business with a sense of humor. The Pooch is resting comfortably in his favorite Scandinavian Design chair with the crocheted comforter. Beside him is a note which he hands to me when he meows. I fear no weather. Let me out. I spot him slugging through snow down by the river. On a brief walk, he pokes at the brown slush in a depression at the bottom of the driveway apron. His paw leaves a dark hole. He pokes again to check the depth of this new lake. Satisfied that he isn't in for a quick dip in freezing water, he takes a sip. Mmm. Fresh and cold. Then he wades through the mush.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Duty

The Pooch has a regular routine in his day at the old schoolhouse in Kickapoo Center.

At first light he announces the dawn with a meow. The previous evening, I'd told him before we went upstairs to read and then to sleep, that there'd be no early morning wake-up calls. He obliged. This morning his wake up call is short. One meow. He walks away. When I get downstairs, he walks to the deck door and I let him out after turning up the thermostat on the opposite wall. Sometimes I watch his route. He makes the rounds and checks his posts. Under the deck, at the edge of the hedge, the birds on the ground in the backyard and inside the woodshed. Walking past the kitchen window he looks up. I'm usually preparing breakfast or washing last night's dishes. If he sees me, he'll trot to the deck door and scoot inside. After a short bit of dry cat food, he walks to the deck door. If the weather is rainy or windy he'll crawl up on the deck railing closest to the kitchen window. Again, if he sees me inside, he'll stretch leaving muddy paw prints on the glass.

The quickest way inside is to claw at the nylon screen. He knows that I'll yell, "NO, Bad Cat" and let him inside. Then, more dried food or leftover breakfast. If I'm at the computer he sits on top of the monitor. After a few minutes he jumps to my lap. I have approximately 30 minutes before I'm required to get up and let him out, usually the back door. In and out, in and out continue throughout the day. I wish I could figure out a cat door for him that would not let frigid air inside the house or destroy an existing solid steel door. Some afternoons, he comes in and sneaks upstairs for a nap on a sheepskin covering a bed in the 2nd bedroom. In the evening he snoozes on the couch between Dawn and me, retreating to a favorite chair in the studio if the movie we're watching is too loud or violent.

I often wonder what he does at night. I can feel him curl up to me and hear the thud of his feet when he jumps down. The door snakes(draft dodgers) we have at the threshold in the studio are sometimes lying at the foot of the stairs. They're filled with flax and weigh as much as 5 pounds. I think he thinks they are real snakes. One morning I woke up and Pucci brought one of his mouse toys into our bed. This morning, half asleep, as I usually am at 6:30 am, I walk to the deck door and let him out. Dawn's in the shower while I make coffee. When she comes down, I hear her shriek.

That's a real mouse,

The photograph is not doctored. I have not touched the mouse. It lies exactly as it appears here. I'm not getting mouse drizzle on me. It can wait until I finish my chilaqueles. When the Pooch comes in we lavish Good Boys on him, telling him what a good job he does protecting us from vermin. We've sealed the most obvious entrance points, yet the basement seems to be have a sign, brightly lit in Neon for any rodent to spot late at night. "This way to luxurious overnight accommodations. " The missing sign is the diamond shaped yellow highway sign, Danger Cat Lurking Ahead.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Frozen Squirrel

An occasional car, eighteen wheeler or heavy haul dump truck flies by. Depending upon their size, the air wash slams into the area near the highway sending litter and gravel skittering. The truckers are on a schedule. If they drive tandem with another person, the truck stops only for fuel. The automobiles pass by with purpose. To go from here to there. As a tourist, the choice is 65,70 or 75 mph and a direct route or to take slower blue highways. Named blue highways for their color on a map,they take you places you've never been. In your daily life, you're driven-either at the speed limit or faster, through a schedule of events. After I changed careers as a teacher, I vowed to never wear a watch. My daily life revolved around the sound of a bell, buzzer- dingalingaling-zazonnka-every 45 minutes. I didn't take the time to stop at the rest stop. They smelled, especially if there was merely an outhouse. If you were lucky, a local service group set up tables outside the rest stop providing busy travelers on major holidays with free coffee. They served moderately priced baked goods for the FFA or to send the senior class on a field trip to Washington. If you were unlucky, it was a vending machine or America's other rest stop-Mickey D's. Seven Roads to Home is your a rest stop.

For two hours Monday afternoon I sliced onions. In each onion is a small green bud at center. When the weather gets warmer and the temperature inside the garage storage bin
the urge to sprout begins. The 50+ pounds of yellow onions from last summer have to be dried or frozen. I make fun of our gosh and golly trips to a city. The urge to visit number #1 son in Minneapolis is like the onion's urge to sprout. In the interim, I will visit the Amish. For breakfast I ate Amish eggs and their fresh made scrapple. Only the homemade cranberry-walnut bread and dark roast coffee came from elsewhere.

This is Jorge's house. He is not Amish. The house formerly belonged to Titus' brother. Jorge, I have previously mentioned, is a refugee from the city. After a life of crime fighting and a short stint in local politics as a city councilman, he lives the life of a hermit. He's never touched the subject, but I believe he's hiding out. There are people who would like to do him harm. When I first met Jorge he struck me a the voice of reason. A few pointed questions later, his answer was merely," I was the only honest person..." I won't go into detail until the novel comes out. The title is Rosie and Rainbow.

Titus built a new house and saved the old, white,peeled- paint clapboard house adjacent to the new one as a small store serving the community with a wash house and meat prep area at the rear. The meat prep area has a stainless steel counter and a butcher block. We're cutting up the hog previously skinned and cut into two sides. A man in a baseball cap comes to the back door. " Hey, you want a beaver?" he asks. Titus laughs. "I've never eaten beaver," he replies. I ask the man in the baseball cap if it tastes like raccoon. "NO," he says, " more like muskrat."

Jorge is a reformed hunter. I ask permission to hunt deer on his property on the first day of the season. He accompanies me but doesn't hunt. Unlike my wife who would press for answers, I drop the subject. Our conversation hits upon how to cook a raccoon, the taste of squirrel and descends into a description of other delicacies I would simply label varmint. Then, I remember my Dad who loved squab from the roofless cement silo on Uncle Tony's farm. While Jorge and I laugh about similarities and I call us twin sons of separate mothers, our food tastes diverge. Hoecake and chitlins, raccoon and possum. Not my gourmet fare.

In my meanderings via the web this morning, I learn the Pennsylvania turnpike is currently free running and clear of obstructions. I briefly travel the Queens highway of Northern Ontario and stop for a rest along the motorways of Great Britain. When my sister came to visit we take her to the ridge top and the panoramic view. A fat red tailed hawk is on display, sitting above the Kickapoo River on an overhanging branch. His feathers are rustled from the cold.

In their trip across the state on highway 21 they spot a flock of turkeys. The deer , turkey and usual wildfowl here have been quiet of late. We spot bald eagles more frequently. The pheasants that crowed in the adjacent fields have been silent. Dawn points out a flock of crows she calls a family because it seems to be the same number-five, who fly over the house and land in the trees by the river. Someone recently asked if she'd seen any robins. I'm guessing the locals are tired of winter and want a sign of spring. We have a long white wire hanging from the peak of the rear entrance way, above a window. When the first hummingbird flies by the window and hovers there until it catches our attention, we'll hang the feeders and wait.
March roared in pre-spring 2009. My daughter's birthday on the vernal equinox isn't far off, but outside the swing hanging from the Norway pine branch sways in the wind. Plastic covering cement blocks has been shredded over the winter. It's too cold and windy to burn branches that have fallen from messy silver maples. The ground under the pines is covered with cones. Our supply of firewood is down to un-split, large logs, thus you can hear the propane furnace blower in the background. I think a visit to the Amish and their warm wood fired stove in the kitchen would be appropriate about now. They've asked for Dawn's sauerkraut recipe. I've been saving egg cartons and plastic tubs for butter.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Yikes! March 2nd. Where does the time go. Count your blessings . We had overnight company after a weird weather day a few days ago. Rain, sleet, snow and wind driven hail hitting the windows which sounded like pelting rice. I didn't have time to bemoan and woe-be-tide the weather. I've been in the land of Puerco.

Dawn gave me this furry creature. She says it looks like a pig. The ears are a tad long for a pig. At least, the one Titus and I butchered last Monday. Dawn's pig is an addition to my pig collection. It sits in a ceramic bowl in the bedroom. Most of my piglets are boxed and stored in the barn. The kitchen renovation, required that everything in the kitchen be moved to the living room.The pigs had to go. This morning they are resting comfortably in cold storage. The pre-dawn temperature was 3 degrees. It's a respite from Sunday's 20 mph skin searing winds and 7 degree temperatures. The lids from the recycling bins are tossed about. It you walked in the barn after walking through ice on the road when the sun rose high enough to melt small pools, your feet stuck to the concrete slab. March you say??

The 250 pound hog gave us 165 pounds of usable meat and by-products. The Amish took the fat and rendered it for baking. Several days later Wilma hands me one of my recycled Cole slaw containers filled to the rim with scrapple. It's the meat and some fat mixed with onions and spices. It's an Amish specialty and another variation of what my Dad salvaged out of meat scraps called Sulze. The difference is that Sulze has a gelatin base from the slow cooking of bones which were part of the scrap. I also gave Titus a side of bacon and created a sausage bank in their name. When I asked about paying him for the help with the hog, he quips, "Pay me in sausage." I have included them as tasters for my wurst maching process. I know, I know, the pronunciation is wrong and so may be the spelling. So the Yoders have been eating Italian sausage, three experiments with varieties of polish and chorizo. Each recipe for sausage has Uncle Bob's fingers manipulating herbs and spices. I have a basic recipe handed down from my Dad before he died in 1979. When I read a recipe calling for a crippling amount of fresh garlic, I compare it to the basic recipe. From an original figure of 125 pounds of meat, I reduce the garlic measure to grams. I'm suspicious of recipes calling for 3, 5 or 6 cloves of garlic. In nature cloves of garlic are unequal in size.

The sausage list extends to hot Polish, hot Italian, andouille and boudin bon blanc. I made a major mistake in wurst maching after our company departed on Sunday afternoon. The pork and beef I mixed with marjoram, black pepper, kosher salt and fresh garlic is sticky. It takes three hours for a normal 90 minutes process. The kitchen is a mess. I make a mental note to never add water. Never.

I grew up in a city famous for German beer. My mother's childhood acquaintances still run a family business making sausage. The Usinger name is synonymous for high quality sausage. My step Dad worked in the meat packing industry all his life. Before he migrated to the big city, his parents owned 100 acres of land in Northern Minnesota. Staying alive and raising your own food were priorities. Over the weekend my step sister and I compare memories and share stories. A central focus is our Dad. In a moment of startling clarity, I realise my affinity for my Amish friends is a recreation of my past. The photographs are sentimental memories of summers in the woods of Northern Minnesota. In an album my sister brings out Saturday night, I've got my trusty six shooter aimed directly at the photographer. We made a fire pit, take walks in the woods looking for blueberries, wade in the shallows of the Little Fork River catching crabs and are standing beside the old Model T Ford which a cousin, not yet 16, rolls into the ditch filled with kids in the front and back seats. The neighbors-the Cussons and Roms form a chorus line-arms over shoulders, with the same expressions and postures I remember. Max, slightly hunched because of an accident with a gun. His brother in the adjacent bedroom is careless with a .22 rifle and shoots him in the back through the wall. Joe, the logger, balding with a slight grin stirs my imagination-me sitting on his lap driving his 52 Chevy. Uncle Bob. chubby cheeks and wide grin looks down from the picnic table where we sit. 30 years later at another picnic, I hardly recognize the man. Curious. Eight sisters and brothers. There are ten total, in Titus' family. Wrapping a a batch of fresh sausage for Titus to take home after a final measurement of cabinets for our kitchen, I ask for a family count since I've yet to see the whole family assembled together .

In a parting ritual my sister and I exchange gifts. You never left the family empty handed after a visit. Dad would go to the basement and bring sausage. So, I give her an assortment of a week's sausage making. She makes a pecan pie and fresh strawberries with rhubarb. I hand her one of my rustic American flags made from our old pine plank fence. She makes me a crocheted quilt. To compliment to apple decor in her kitchen, I find a nicely rounded apple gourd which is painted bright red and resembles a large real apple. Dawn gives her bars of homemade soap. I learn there are more than seven roads to home from this visit.