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.

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