December 20, 2011 6 comments

I know, I know: it’s been a long time, but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want with it. So there. (‘Sides, it’s been busy here on the half-ranch of late.)

Anyway, tonight’s conversation with Michelle turned briefly to the subject of German Shepherds and it ignited a long forgotten memory of Baron. He was a late washout from the US Army’s K-9 school in Korea when my uncle, Chuck Licha, was stationed there. So Chuck brought him back at the end of his tour sometime in the mid-50s. At the time, I was just starting to deliver papers in Valley City for the Fargo Forum, just 60 miles away on “the hard road” in North Dakota. Baron was a handsome dude, as German Shepherds are, but didn’t quite have that “killer instinct” the Army demanded of its K-9 Corps. When push-came-to-shove, Baron was apparently something of a push-over. Valley City, however, wasn’t Korea; indeed, it was a place where he could let his little light shine. And shine it did.

If you delivered papers in those days, you were your own business person. You bought the papers you delivered on account, collected from your customers door-to-door at the end of month, then paid for the papers you had delivered and kept the balance. If you got stiffed by a customer, you paid your bill to the newspaper from your own pocket. On the other hand, the more customers you had on your “route” the more money you made.

One November night as I was just starting collections from my customers, I came across Dennis whose route was adjacent to mine. He was lying in the snow, crying. He had just completed his round of collections and was headed home when several toughs from down an alley assaulted him and stole his money. According to the rules, he would have to pay the Fargo Forum over $100 (a fortune in those days) from his own pocket. Of course, he didn’t have it. When you are ten or twelve years old and faced with this kind of despair, your options are limited. I did what I could to comfort him and walked him home.

Then I went home, fetched Baron, and resumed my own collections. Near the end, with over a $100 in my own collections bag, the same three toughs accosted me and demanded my cash. Baron was by my side, and on hearing the threat, began to growl, ears back. I can’t remember now what I may have said or did, if I said or did anything at all. Next thing I knew Baron had thrown the ring leader into the snow, his salivating mouth and teeth neatly over the thief’s throat.

I called the dog back and he meekly returned to my side. The bullies fled.

For several years after that, Baron was my constant companion when I made my newspaper collections. He was also a super babysitter to my toddler brother Paul. When Paul might try to stray from the yard, that big dog would gently nudge him back from whatever danger might have lurked beyond.

Baron failed the Army’s K-9 school, but he passed mine with flying colors.

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Gem and Miss Pity

September 8, 2011 4 comments

Right off, I want to be very clear: I’m not a horseman. I’m the food guy, barn muckier, and master animal fretterer (fretterer, n., one who worries needlessly). So it came to pass a couple weeks ago we decided to rent some pasture to a lady with a couple horses in sore need of a change of scenery. What the hell, we said. We like horses (not the same as knowing anything about them), have more pasture than the sheep and llamas currently use, so why not? A few extra dollars won’t hurt the budget anyhow, we reasoned. Game on.


Well, so here they are. Both are in the autumn of their years (mid-twenties) and suffering from the same kind of ailments as the rest of us at a similar point in our lives. Gem recently suffered a stroke and can’t make her mouth work like it used to. When you’re a mare, weigh in at 1200 pounds, and eat 25-30 pounds of forage a day, this can be a problem. I sympathize. More times than I care to admit, my mouth has not worked the way I’d planned either. As for Miss Pity, she has both a thyroid problem and tends to diarrhea. Ever try giving a horse Pepto-Bismol directly from the bottle? It’s an adventure, I can tell you. If pink isn’t your color, don’t even think about it.

I keep telling myself these creatures don’t belong to me. They’re someone else’s responsibility. I say this every morning when I get up bright and early to feed them their dietary supplements, clean out their stalls (my God! horses are productive!), fork their daily allotment of hay into their troughs, and do what I can to manage the flies that pester them so badly. Truth be told, this is turning into more work than I had planned. My normal style in such instances is to turn sour and resentful over another bad decision taking me further from my dreams. These animals don’t belong to me, I keep saying to myself.

But then I come to them, they trot close, nuzzle up, nicker softly, and I’m helpless. Animals are teachers, I’m thinking. Maybe I should start paying more attention.

Miss Pity

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August 24, 2011 7 comments

He’s sixteen and my hired hand. Near as I can tell, his has not been an easy life. Taken in as foster child when he was ten or twelve years old by the couple next door, he was not told of his adoption by them until after the fact just eighteen months or so ago. I suppose I could tell you more about him if I had asked him more questions, but he was shy and insecure enough when I met him that it didn’t seem right some how back then. Now, I really don’t care. I’m more interested in the kind of man he’s becoming.

When he first started working for us, he did odd, unskilled jobs like haul compost around to the planting beds with the garden tractor, feed the llamas and sheep in the winter when we were gone, and help me load the pickup with rotted lumber or rusted metal bound for the junk yard. He earned decent money from us–for a fourteen or fifteen year-old–and as further reward we let him ride his dirt bike on our property without complaining about the mess it made of the soil. We’d try to get him to talk when he was around, but mostly his answers were terse, monosyllabic even. He struck me as the kind of wounded kid who didn’t want anyone to get too close for fear of being harmed once more.

Then last spring a change came. He wanted to talk about the track meets he excelled at, the new puppy he was planning to buy, the summer job he had lined up. For the first time, he started smiling at our teasing him. By summer the job had fallen through, the new puppy became his pride and joy, and he and a friend had come up with an idea to build customized “long boards” which, near as I can tell, are skate boards on steroids.

Now he is driving the pickup around the pastures, taking down all the barbed wire, and wanting to know about how we want to eliminate the countless ground squirrels digging their dangerous, ankle-breaking squirrel holes. He’s offering opinions about how best to replace the bad fencing on our property, and can’t wait to get started with my tractor and its bucket to build the new garden beds Michelle has in mind. At the same time, he’s starting to pick my brain about how best to start his “long boards” business.

The other night he came by just to visit when Michelle and I were out on the deck watching the sunset. He wanted to see the new horses we’ve just let onto the property at rent and to show us how much his puppy, Lucy, has grown. He wonders how much longer we plan to live here, and I wonder if he is worried that maybe we might disappear somehow, like other adults might have disappeared in his life.

We assure him we aren’t going anywhere. How is it that kids worm their way into your life as they do? Don’t know, but it feels good.

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Buddies and Goodbyes

July 8, 2011 6 comments

SAMS VALLEY, Ore–Here on the half-ranch our cats have tended to go their separate ways. Ozzie, the energetic youngster there on the left, spent his days and most nights patrolling pastures or stalking the creek, doing what hunters do, and returning with his trophies for us to admire. Meanwhile, Ollie was aging gracefully, lounging about the house and waiting patiently for an available lap to climb into. On warm days, he’d venture into the garden for a stroll or stretch out on the deck for quick nap in the sun, but he’d soon be back inside hunting up affection.

Still and all, they were clearly buddies, despite their differences. At least once a day they would share some quality face time grooming each other or dozing cheek-by-jowl, often with forelegs enfolding the neck of the other. Before very long, though, they’d part ways and be off on their different feline errands.

Week ago last Wednesday there was a sudden and peculiar break in this routine. They cuddled with each other all afternoon in the middle of the hallway (an unusual place for them), hardly moving an inch. The next morning, Ollie was nowhere to be found.

We looked everywhere we could think of and eventually found him under the bed, lethargic and clearly out of sorts. We waited. He would neither eat nor drink and was unsuccessful in one attempt at his litter box. Friday afternoon we took him to the vet. A bladder problem, she announced. “He can’t pee.” We left him and came home.

Since then Ozzie has become a different cat. When he isn’t sleeping on the motorcycle in the garage, he’s inside pestering us to scratch his ears and pull his tail. He wants in and then he wants out. He hasn’t been hunting for over a week.

By yesterday Ollie’s condition had significantly worsened and we decided we had to put him down. Neither of us wanted him to suffer anymore than he already had in the week he had been at the vet’s.

I’m trying to avoid anthropomorphizing all this, but I can’t help but think at some mysterious level of animal prescience, the two cats were saying goodbye to each other in the hallway that day. As I write this, Ozzie is pacing frantically at my feet. I reach down and give him a tussle around his ears and a good tail tug. For the first time in the five years I’ve known him, I detect the whisper-soft sound of a purr.

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Closing the Circle

June 28, 2011 Leave a comment

SAMS VALLEY, Ore–I grew up in North Dakota on the eastern edge of the High Plains. From my grandparents back door, you could see the weather in Montana on the far horizon. By morning, it would be on top of you, foul or fair. It was a constant in our lives then: there today, here tomorrow. That kind of future was predictable, but a young person’s vision like that also spawns dreams of a very wide world begging to be discovered.

A number of years later, we moved to upstate New York, to Ithaca, on the shoulders of Appalachia. It was country like no other, in my experience then: hills and hollows and river gorges and sugar maples and waterfalls and forests we loved to get lost in. My only complaint was that you couldn’t see the weather coming. The hills were too high or the valleys too low. You couldn’t predict what was coming next. This was the late 60s, early 70s when the world seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket anyway, so we took refuge and revelry in the academic, self-absorbed joy of university life. When you get to rub elbows with the likes of Hans Bethe, Carl Sagan, or the Berrigan brothers, it was easy to get carried away. The world’s possibilities were limitless.

Now, even more years later, I find myself (surprise!) here in southwestern Oregon, in Sams Valley, still trying to understand the weather. Like New York, I can’t see it a day or two away as I did in North Dakota. Rather, it comes on over the mountains in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Each morning I check the forecast, but it’s not much help. The Weather Service seems as clueless as I am about what’s going to happen, so it offers Las Vegas odds: X chance of this or Y chance of that. More and more, such odds decide my day.

Point is, I used worry about the meteorology of adolescent fantasies, career ambitions, wars of no purpose, the politics of politics, the economics of an interdependent world, the rise and fall of elected celebrities, the spiritual debates of self-appointed experts, ad infinitum.

Two weeks ago my tractor broke down and I had to send it to the dealer for repairs. I still don’t have it back. Meantime, the pasture grass has grown to six feet in places; it will be a “slow” mow. To top it off, today it rained when it was supposed to be sunny and warm. Getting my rig back so I can get back to work is all I can think about the last several days.

Funny how age and place and weather combine to re-order your priorities.

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The Neighbor

June 21, 2011 2 comments

SAMS VALLEY, Ore–Okay, here’s how it is: I’m losing to my neighbor, Pete. His teenage son, Felix, works for us sometimes as we try to bring the half-ranch back to cosmetic respectability. Felix has been useful in cleaning barns, hauling away piles of rotted lumber, moving barn compost to Michelle’s garden, and ripping out useless fence lines. I pay this kid $10/hour, better than minimum wage. In a moment of loose talk, I confess to Felix that my mower is on the fritz and I will be out of mowing commission for more than a week so John Deere can replace its gear box. What does this adolescent ingrate do? He reports back to his dad that our property is looking better than theirs, but now they have the tactical advantage.

My evidence: it’s 7 pm on Tuesday night and Pete is out mowing while I sit here in front of this stupid computer, dead in the water and nothing else to do. He’ll be done with his fields before I will even get started on Friday or even Saturday. Making matters worse, his tractor and mower are old and mine are new. Is that fair, I ask? There is no justice in Oregon, I swear.

But today is the summer solstice, and we all know what that means. The machine of the Universe will come ’round again and there will be another day.

Next year this time, Pete, you are toast. Meantime, it’s “game on” with Christmas lights and I challenge you to creative mailboxes. Give it up, neighbor. You don’t stand a chance.

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Living on the Brink

May 22, 2011 7 comments

Much has been made in recent days of “the Rapture” that was to come yesterday; most of it in the form of jokes from those of us who hold ourselves to a higher, more rational standard. It’s easy to poke fun at those we perceive as the misguided, the misled, the uninformed, the fanatical, and I’ve done my share of it. Tonight, though, I’m having second thoughts. Are those who so fervently believed in Harold Camping’s predictions THAT different from the “edge” we all live on? I’m not so sure.

Truth is, at any moment–on the freeway, in the bathroom, or from an unstable ladder against the house–we could take our final fall. A switch inside our brain defaults to “no” instead of “yes.” An artery malfunctions. Who knows? All the things that could go wrong in our lives are beyond counting. What is more, some of us push the edges of life’s envelope on purpose. We climb Mt. Everest, sail an ocean alone, work fourteen hour days for years on end to be successful, train for and run grueling marathons, or jump out of airplanes for the thrill of it. When I was a teenager I once drove a Corvette that wasn’t mine at 150 miles an hour over a small rise in South Dakota to see if I could clear all four wheels. Fortunately, the cop was sympathetic.

So, we all live on the brink, don’t we? What comes after might be salvation; it might be oblivion. Who’s to know? Meanwhile, we all take our calculated risks, do the best we know how, and trust that our God is a forgiving one. No matter how you slice it, “rapture” is just another word for “dice.”

I can’t blame Harold Camping’s true believers for trying to hedge their bets. If I were one of them, I would too. Only difference is, I’m not. It doesn’t make me right.

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