Archive for September, 2010

  • Blog
  • September 25th, 2010

The long road home

By Joel M. Vance

We were young, less than a year married, in love and far from home. We were still learning to live together and had not suffered any major crisis—no births, deaths or serious illness. I was stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas, perched on the south edge of the United States in the arid desert around El Paso.

It was peacetime, 1957, and my active duty tour had ended. I was an unemployed second lieutenant with a specialty in antiaircraft artillery, a skill that, in the age of missiles and jet airplanes, was as useful as wet plate photography.

I had a couple hundred dollars in cash. Home in central Missouri was 1,200 miles away. Marty and I left El Paso well before dawn, intending to drive all the way without stopping—there was little money, even for a cheap motel room.

Marty had come down with a miserable cold, one of those ache all over, watery-eyed, nose-dripping miserable colds that feels worse than most terminal illnesses. She huddled on the passenger side of the 1949 Ford we’d bought for $500 and periodically sneezed and whimpered.

I sped through the night, the Ford purring like a contented kitten. We finally were going home, freed from sand burrs and cacti and being treated like cheese mold by superior officers and subordinate non-coms, vectoring on soybeans and corn. There was no traffic. The yellow headlights flashed across the occasional saguaro cactus, its arms raised in a southwest Texas goodbye.

The night flowed past like a dark river. The headlights showed yucca and sage and sand—for the last time, I hoped, at least on an involuntary basis. The Southwest is hospitable only to those with enough money to afford air conditioning and swimming pools…or to rattlesnakes, Gila monsters and scorpions.

We slipped into New Mexico, passed by Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument where we had spent a giddy weekend sliding on the pristine white dunes like the kids we had been back in Missouri, sledding on a snowy hill.

Mountains began to appear to our east as the rising sun, still hidden behind them, lightened the sky. We were in rolling hills that seemed to go on forever, the way they do in Western states. Tularosa, Three Rivers, Oscuro…the little towns came and went, each of them one step closer to home.

Our euphoria at being freed from military servitude lasted 250 miles until the Ford threw a rod. We were 10 miles outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and about 900 miles from Macon, Missouri. What had been a landscape of stark beauty suddenly became alien and hostile.

There was no traffic and I was 10 miles from help with a sick wife and an even sicker car. As miserable as she was, Marty would get well without help, but the Ford needed intensive care. I prayed that Mr. Ford had built a car that would endure the torment I was proposing to inflict on it—to go for help with a busted engine. I coasted down the hills and clenched my teeth so hard my jaws hurt as the Ford labored uphill, the shattered parts clattering around in the guts of the engine.

Finally we drifted into Santa Rosa, a town of about 1,500 and I stopped to ask where we could get a car fixed. “Ain’t much to choose from,” a fellow said. “There’s a Ford garage up the street.” I suspected the Ford mechanics would charge far more than I had available and it would take several days to get the car fixed.

But any small town kid knows there is a one-man garage somewhere in town, operated by a perpetually greasy mechanic who can fix any car ever made. “Is there a fix-it garage anyplace around?” I asked.

The fellow directed us to a quintessential one-man auto repair shop where the one man was shoulder-deep under someone’s hood. With Marty beside me, red-eyed and sniffling, I explained my problem. “I can do it,” the fellow said. “But I’ll have to get the parts from Tucumcari and that’s an hour away, each way. I can get it done by sometime tomorrow.”

I must have looked as if I were going to burst into tears (because I was). “I just got out of the Army,” I said. “We just have a little money and we’re trying to get home to Missouri.” I stopped there because I didn’t know what else to say. Marty snuffled.

The fellow looked at us through a sheen of automotive grease and said, “Well, I’ll do the best I can. Can’t promise anything, though. I’ll try to get her done by tonight sometime. Check back later.” It wasn’t as if he had no other work. Cars were stuck here and there in the small garage and we should have been at the end of the line.

We trudged through steadily increasing heat to a small motel where I repeated my story of woe. The proprietor, less friendly than the mechanic, grudgingly rented us a room for the day, a place where Marty could lie down in misery and I could count the minutes. If every day passed as slowly as that one, we’d all live a thousand years—but not very happily.

It was stifling by mid-day and we stripped to our underwear and sweated in the sweltering heat. There probably were motels with air conditioning, but not in Santa Rosa for $2.50. We tried to sleep, but it was too hot. I got dressed and told Marty I was going to check on the car. She coughed and sniffled.

The mechanic said he’d sent for the parts and they’d be in Santa Rosa in about an hour. “If everything goes well I might get it done by 8 or 9 tonight,” he said. Seven hours to wait in that awful motel room, sweating and anxious. I still didn’t know how much the car would cost, but I was pretty sure it would be more than we had. I didn’t know what we’d do if that were the case.

This was well before credit cards and we had no bank account. I supposed I could phone my parents or Marty’s, collect, to wire some money, but really didn’t want to do that and reinforce their opinion that we should have waited to get married and that I was a son/son-in-law with no money and little prospects.

The day dragged on and finally the sun began to go down and it got a little cooler. I went back to the garage about eight and the mechanic, tired and dirty, said he was almost finished. “Haven’t had any supper,” he said. “I wanted to get you folks on the road.” I didn’t know what to say to him. How can you thank someone who has given up his day, his work and his supper to help his fellow man and a stranger at that?

I didn’t get his name or address. I was young and thoughtless and I should have done that, among many thoughtful things that I didn’t. No doubt Hell is filled with folks who didn’t do something nice when the opportunity was there, but I hope when they throw a rod in a celestial carriage there is a grimy guy in an obscure corner of Heaven who will say, “I’ll have her done before manna.”

“Don’t push it,” the fellow said. “Let those parts wear in before you run her above 50 or so.”

Now came the dreaded part. “How much do I owe you?” I asked.

He wiped his dirty hands with an equally dirty rag, looked at me and at Marty who sniffled and coughed. “Say about $90,” he said. Even as dumb as I was about cars I knew that I was paying only for parts and maybe not all of them and not for his hours of hard work. I felt my eyes water and swallowed hard.

I emptied my scuffed billfold and handed the worn bills to him.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said. “I…don’t know…”

“Forget it,” he said. “Maybe you can help me out some day.”

They say charity begins at home, but I’d argue that, for me, it began long ago with a scruffy mechanic in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

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  • Blog
  • September 14th, 2010

Backyard Biodegradation

By Joel M. Vance

The green section of the local bookstore features titles like: Bring Elk Herds to Your Back Yard or Jurassic Suburbs, the idea being that you can enjoy the tooth and claw of raw nature with a little judicious planting.

The authors tell how they turned a typical suburban back yard, with crabgrass and moles into habitat for Bengal tigers. All it took was a bit of wildlife management (and the $30 book). “Biodiversity” is the catchword. Instead of just crabgrass, you encourage a multitude of noxious weeds some of which are capable of swallowing mature raccoons, and instead of just moles, you bring in bobcats, foxes and the occasional pit viper.

My former urban backyard? It looked like something Tarzan would shun. I don’t know if it was biodiversity or not, but it certainly was biodespicable, at least from the neighbors’ standpoint. When we moved to the real country, the old neighborhood held a block party that lasted for days (part of it was the lighting of bonfires to keep the larger predators at bay).

I began planting trees a quarter of a century ago when we moved to the house on the dead end street, with two hundred acres of woodlands at the end of the road. As an employee of a conservation department, I got free seedlings, manna for a plantaholic. .

By the time I moved, there was a huge cypress tree shading the dog pen–lovely, open shade that cooled the dogs in July. There was a white pine tree in the middle of the yard. My five-year-old son found it after I’d accidentally dropped the seedling. It had dried and looked as dead as Johnny Appleseed, but J.B. wanted to plant it.

I didn’t think it would live, but he did and a small child’s faith is far stronger than that of an adult. The tree grew more than five times taller than the kid.

Four apple trees hosted their own biodiversity–birds, wasps, yellowjackets, and a host of syrup-sucking creatures. We didn’t spray them (either the trees or the insects) because I don’t believe in it and because I’m lazy (take your pick). We enjoyed a few knobby apples every fall and the Brittanies loved to chase thrown apples beginning in August.

They ate the green apples and threw up copiously, but never tired of the game.

A redbud sprouted under the canoe rack and I intended to transplant it, but I didn’t know where. All the holes were filled. The domestic grapes I planted below the dog pen were supplanted by poison ivy which did very nicely. Poison ivy berries make very fine bird food so I left the plants in place. It was, to coin a pun, a rash decision.

My son, the same one who planted the pine tree, also made a wren house as a Cub Scout project about 30 years ago (he since has married and fathered three children). We hung the house on the clothes pole and it had wrens every spring. The wrens melodiously cussed us for trying to dry our wash. Our cat was too arthritic to bother birds anymore. The dogs pointed them once in a while, just to keep in practice.

I wonder what the buyers of the old house will think about what they find on my former biodiverse back yard. Probably rev up the chainsaw and then place an emergency call to the ChemLawn people.

We moved to 40 acres in the country where I could exercise my mania for wildlife cultivation. Everyone hangs hummingbird feeders and I did too. The dwarf buckeye I planted in town was too big to transplant and I missed it because its red blossoms drew hummers like honey draws bees.

But the feeders substituted admirably and it’s difficult to read on the deck if I’m wearing a red cap because the little rubythroats zip past my head with a disconcerting buzz.

For a while I buried the heads and guts from fish I caught in our one-acre pond. I learned in grade school that Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian, taught the Pilgrims to fertilize each hill of corn with a buried fish. That’s all I learned in grade school, except that Judy Miller, who sat one row over and two seats up, thought I was a jerk.

The bird dogs, who sometimes act as if they couldn’t smell a quail if it were stapled to their noses, can sniff out a buried gut pile, have it disinterred and rolled in before I can get through even half of my Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

There are oxeye daisies in the yard. I skirt them with my lawnmower, leaving little living bouquets here and there. I learned that trick from Charlie Schwartz the illustrator of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, the Bible of all conservationists.

Charlie’s back yard always was diverse–full of geese and people and once a road-killed deer, staked down next to the patio so he could photograph feeding buzzards from his living room. It was a marvelous setup except on days when the wind blew across the decomposing carcass into the house.

I was fortunate to hang around with biologists who did things like that. My late prairie biologist friend Don Christisen planted his front yard with native prairie grass and forbs. The city got after him for not mowing his lawn, but he faced them down by claiming it was a natural area. Since none of them knew natural areas from sewer maintenance, they scratched their heads and went away.

I do have brush piles for the rabbits that routinely eat my garden (which is within a few feet of the dog pen—apparently rabbits are super perceptive when it comes to canine incarceration). I try to discourage the rabbits by spreading blood meal, but all that does is make the garden grow better so they can eat more of it.

There’s much I don’t know about planned planting for wildlife. I guess you’re supposed to make a detailed plan and my son could do it since he took a college course in landscaping, but mostly he tells me I should cut down some things which I can’t do because I planted them such a long time ago and we have grown older together.

The more I look at my biodiverse back yard, the more I realize it’s mostly the result of neglect and poor planning.

But we do raise rabbits right in the middle of the garden and there are toads to eat some of the noxious insects and there are fireflies in the summer evenings to illuminate our souls and the ripe smell of a compost heap to illuminate our nasal passages.

I established a mini-prairie with native plants. My favorite was Queen of the Prairie, a lovely name, but the Brittanies ran over it and broke it down to a stub, which died. This is a plant that survived the stampedes of the historic bison herds, but couldn’t hack it with a few bird dogs. The mini-prairie throbs with purple gayfeather in July and glitters with black- eyed Susan in August.

In a wet year, Indiangrass and big bluestem will be eight feet tall. I collected the seeds off a highway right-of-way, all the while worrying that a patrolman would stop and ask what I was harvesting and I would reply “grass seed” and he would handcuff me to the door handle while he called in a drug bust.

Once a patrolman did stop as I collected big rocks from a right-of-way. “What are you doing?” he asked. I thought it was pretty obvious and a dozen smart aleck remarks sprang to mind (i.e. “folding parachutes”), but one doesn’t mouth off to those with guns and badges, so I told him I was building a rock garden and he told me about a nearby right of way that had better rocks.

Couple of years ago, I killed a gobbler up on the ridge across the lake, and I missed a shot at a buck. The place is overrun with gray squirrels, and raccoons regularly visit the deck to snack on my sunflower seeds, the ones the squirrels don’t get.

My cedar sauna, built with logs cut from our woods, has a resident black rat snake that fell on a visitor’s shoulder. It was not a Finnish snake.

The fellow didn’t say much after we pried him off the ceiling, but I think he believes I have just a little bit too much biodiversity in the back yard.

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