Truck Love

February 28, 2009
Tess in her domain

Tess in her domain

I love my truck. It’s a 1993 Chevy Silverado with 105,000 miles on it. Someone in town had his license revoked for five years so it was going cheap.

When I first bought it, I was so enchanted by the fulfillment of a lifelong pickup dream that I rarely drove it without feeling dramatic, as if I were performing on stage. “There she goes in her truck, shirtsleeves rolled up, ever prepared to tackle the next tough farm task!” Now I never think twice, but I’m still as happy. I depend on my truck in countless ways, for hauling sheep or lumber, for pulling tree stumps, for moving boulders or livestock shelters, even at one point for setting a ladder in so I could paint the apex of the cabin’s high gable. Most of the year between jobs down at the farm I park it with one door open so Tess can snooze on the seat at her leisure, out of the sun and rain.

The problem is that in snow country, winter miles are hard miles. The roads are salted so thoroughly that not only the roadside trees are killed, but also the vehicles. The under-carriage of my truck is rusted almost to cobwebs. The sides of the 8′ bed have disintegrated so much underneath that they’re wobbly, practically floating in air. The tailgate hinges I replaced three years ago have already rusted away, and I was relieved this winter when snow filled the crevices: for now the gate is frozen on. The transmission is going; it takes two hands to pull the gear shift into park.

For the last couple of years I’ve joked that I would be driving along some day and the truck would collapse — poof! — in a cartoon cloud of dust, as wheels rolled away in all directions.

It hasn’t happened yet, but almost. In December I woke up to a flat tire. I called AAA but, as I had to meet workmen at the farm, I propped the spare against the truck and left. When I returned, the tire had been replaced. No paperwork was to be found, but there is only one AAA garage in town, so I didn’t pursue it. A few weeks later I was driving in the school driveway when the truck suddenly began to shudder, its front end wallowing from side to side. I wondered wildly if the front axle had finally collapsed. When I jumped out, a wheel was canted drunkenly at a 45° angle.

My friend Mike took one look and said mildly, “Good thing you weren’t still on the highway. Only two lug nuts.” The AAA folks had not tightened the nuts properly after changing the tire and four had slipped off. The tire was within minutes of falling off entirely. All the lug bolts were destroyed.

When I called the local garage that had made the change, the owner said, “I’m sure I left you a note about that tire, didn’t I?” When I said, no, there had been no note, and now my truck was inoperable and needed repairs, he became even more sure he had left a note. The downside of small town living is that you have to choose your battles very carefully. I dropped it, and hired Mike to make the repairs after work.

Snowstorms, temperatures of 20° below zero, and darkness at 4:00 PM meant progress was slow. I was without my truck for two weeks. I felt as bereft as any grounded teenager. The crowning indignity was getting the minivan stuck in a snowbank at the barn and having to call for a tow.

The truck’s return in mid-January was a relief.

It was very warm yesterday morning — 40° — but a severe cold front was moving in fast. I was halfway through milking when the wind hit the barn with a roar like a train. The two bales of hay I’d spread in flakes in the paddock took to the air, only snagging briefly on the fence before blowing away. The sheep scattered in fright. Lucy’s horse Birch trotted nervously in a circle, his tail arched and his mane streaming in the wind. Trees thrashed. The noise was incredible.

By the time I finished milking, the wind seemed to have blown itself out. I spread more hay and the animals were grazing peacefully. On carrying the milk to the truck, however, I found the driver’s door hanging askew. As usual I’d left it slightly ajar for Tess. The wind had caught it and bent it almost off its hinges. Now the door would only open about six inches. I had to squirm into the cab sideways to get behind the wheel.

“Gosh,” Mike said later when I showed him. Mike is rarely surprised by my disasters, automotive and otherwise. “Sure is bent up.”

“I was thinking of hitting it with a sledgehammer?”

Mike pinched his lower lip. “Couldn’t hurt.”

Last night after chores I took the sledgehammer from the tack room. Aiming carefully, I slammed the hammer into the hinge side of the door up and down its length. The metal quickly sported a new dimpled pattern. But when I tried the catch, the door now opened perfectly.

I have no money for a new truck. It’s touch and go whether Mike and I can nurse this dear rust-bucket through another year — or even another six months. (Though Mike has ideas of pulling off the bed and decking the frame with wood.) These days I never take the truck any distance longer than the seven miles into town for gas.

But somehow, despite all the uncertainty, there is something almost comforting about having a vehicle that even hitting with a sledgehammer “couldn’t hurt.”


February 27, 2009

I had two sheep sick over Christmas and in an email yesterday a shepherd in Ithaca inquired, “How is your aged ewe?”

Mary and Ermie, 2006

Mary and Ermie, 2006

I was taken aback. Mary will be 7 years old next month. I’ve thought of her as middle-aged, like me. But in fact it’s a rare sheep that lives past 10 — and a rare woman who lives to 98. Are we both plain aged, instead?

The other night, after moving the hay feeder on my own, I was so stiff and sore I could hardly move. I told DH that I had taken ibuprofen and was going to soak in a hot bath. He was changing into shorts and a t-shirt, the singlet type I always refer to as a “muscle shirt.”

“Are you going to work out?” I asked idly. DH has worked out almost every day of the twenty-five years I’ve known him. He’s the type who actually wears out exercise machines. He currently has an ergometer (rowing machine). DH’s discipline is as reliable as the tides. Even if he gets in from work at 9:30 PM he will generally make himself exercise for half an hour.

He sighed. “No. Not tonight.”

“But you put on a muscle shirt.”

“To sleep in. The only aerobic exercise I’m getting tonight is turning the pages of a book.” He explained that he was exhausted, and that his hands were aching with arthritis.

My hands are arthritic too. And recently I’ve figured out that the hot stabbing pain in my right knee when I kneel is not from an elusive sliver stuck in my coveralls but from bursitis.

Yesterday I volunteered to do NCS’s morning barn chores to fill in for the absent barn manager. I was throwing hay bales down from the loft for the horses as two interns in their early 20s walked up the drive and waved. I waved back, thinking, “I threw my first bales here 25 years ago — before either of them was born!” On Sunday I was rummaging through packages in the mail room when a dark bearded man leaned in the door. Just the other day he was a tiny slip of a sixth-grader wearing a woolly winter hat with a raccoon face on top.

I am feeling old.

Last night I watched my ewe, Mary, at the hay feeder. Like me, she’s looking rather scraggy and worn. Her wool does not have the sheen of the younger ewes. Another ewe, Azalea, less than half her age, lowered her head and rammed Mary away from the feeder. Only a few years ago, Mary was the largest, most powerful sheep in the flock.

Part of me wanted to hit Azalea with a rake.

Kenneth Roberts

February 26, 2009

3259079adc5e8ab4f287c17d5d09c7c4I have been rereading Kenneth Roberts’ novel Rabble in Arms, published in 1933. I have probably read it a dozen times or more. I first read it at about thirteen; I can see myself soaking in the extra-long upstairs bathtub and turning damp pages, so engrossed that the water grew cool. That first paperback copy had my big sister’s notes in it: “Dull! Too many descriptions!” but I loved the military history and the impeccable sense of period. I was also smitten with Roberts’ brilliant and adoring portrait of Benedict Arnold. Surely I was the only schoolgirl to ever write on her secondary school application, in answer to the question, “Who is the person you most admire?” the answer, “Benedict Arnold.” (“Can we discuss this?” inquired the admissions director.)

A Serious Fan

A Serious Fan

Rereading Kenneth Roberts today I recognize that his Arnold is a great deal Roberts, but having read most of Roberts’ primary sources for the Revolutionary novels I don’t disagree with his basic premise that Arnold was our most gifted field commander during that war. Roberts was a peerless historical scholar. In all his books I have found only one miniscule error of fact. (In Oliver Wiswell he has Judge Thomas Jones stroll onstage in a bit part during the six months when Jones was actually imprisoned in Fairfield, Connecticut.)

I was googling Roberts yesterday and one of the sidebars promised, FIND KENNETH ROBERTS! I immediately thought, “Wouldn’t that be fun!” Roberts was irascible and opinionated but then, so am I. I’d love to talk to him for hours.

One of the things I’d tell him is that reading Rabble in Arms I’ve been overwhelmed by what Margaret Mitchell called “the humbles.” The conviction that even with the best research in hand I could never, ever write anything close to this. Roberts was a Renaissance man. Not only was he a wonderful writer — and very funny — but all his practical details ring true. His characters hunt, fish, sail, farm, cook. Roberts knew a jib topsail from a mizzenmast, how to lace a birch-bark canoe with spruce roots, with what kind of bullets you shoot ducks, how to make eel stew, the contents of hogsheads in a 1770s pantry. I can’t even tell a rifle from a shotgun.

This is the sort of detail that makes or breaks historical novels for me. When these details are wrong, I put a book down. The thought that I can’t do it myself is discouraging. I long to write the story I plotted thirty years ago, with my heroine moving between New York City (occupied by the British) and Connecticut (where I grew up).

Ah well. For now I have to keep propelling Jessica and Andrew to a successful conclusion of their Inevitable Romance.


February 24, 2009

I can still hear my mother reading, with her very deepest Southern accent, the Uncle Remus story of the Tar-baby — and the twinkle in her eye as she rolled out the recurring line, “An’ Br’er Fox, he lay low.” (It’s sad how in recent years the expression “tar-baby” has come to be seen as a denigration of blacks: it’s the tar-baby’s everlasting stickiness that is the crux of the tale, not his color. Perhaps it would be better if the story were called Jam-baby.)

In any event, those speeding tickets from two years ago have become Jon’s tar-baby. He simply cannot get loose from those past mistakes! Yesterday we got a notice that as of March 21 his driver’s license will be revoked for six months.

You’ll recall that the mills of the New York DMV grind slowly. They have just noticed that Jon had accrued three tickets within an eighteen-month period. We cannot apply for a provisional license because he had one when he got the third ticket. A driver’s education class will do nothing. It looks as if Jon will not be driving from spring break until the end of September.

As he is currently commuting two hours a day to SUNY, and there is no public transportation, this news will force a number of changes for Jon and our family. We’re still exploring what the options may be.

I must say it is particularly frustrating to have the past clutching at him now, when he’s doing so well. He’s scoring strongly in his classes. His first story was published by the city paper just yesterday and he had an email from the editor praising his fine ear and saying that she looked forward to working with him.

Clear the highways!

Clear the highways!

Last night Jon wished aloud that he had a twin who could drive for him. (One of his best friends similarly lost his license but is driven by his brother.) Unfortunately, Jonny’s real-life sib is not yet quite road ready.

Oh dear

February 23, 2009

It’s 11 AM. I am just getting back to my desk. I’ve been wrassling that hay feeder for hours. I have pulled my back, my arms are trembling with exhaustion, and both my wrists are skinned. And though all the animals are fed, I haven’t even mucked out the stalls, which means evening chores will be twice as long. Sigh.

As he was going out the door to school, Jon helped me boost the massive hay feeder on top of the truck. We drove it down to the barn through blowing snow, slid it off the truck, managed to yank it inside the aisle, and then Jon jammed his hand and my creative thinking shut down. The aisle is 6′ wide. The ceiling is 7′ high. The feeder is 8′ long. How to get an extremely heavy, 3′-wide feeder around all the posts? Given the snowstorm Jon couldn’t stay while I figured it out. I wasn’t even sure I could figure it out. I drove him back to the car and he left for classes.

After I had got all the animals turned out I examined the problem again. Even if I were strong enough to tilt the monster on end, I couldn’t, as the ceiling is too low. Eventually, opening all the stall doors, plus using a 2×6 as a lever and all my weight to push and pull, I managed to put the hay feeder though an approximately 367-point turn (a grunt and a half inch at a time), pulling the nose into one stall, backing it into another, until finally I had it lined up properly to get into the sheep stall. Then it was merely a matter of tying lead ropes to it and heaving. Two hours later, the hay feeder is in place.

But, oh, woe. Remember my complaint that I can’t visualize from plans? This monster hay feeder, if anything, looks bigger now that it is in the barn. I had not paused to consider that the appealing little hay feeder I’ve admired for years in photos had been shown in a sheep barn the size of a football field. In my 12’x16′ sheep stall it looks as though I moved an enormous Victorian wardrobe into a studio apartment. Not only the sheep but the horse and cows, too, could jump through this feeder to Narnia.

Ah well. Of course the feeder will have to stay where it is, for now. The next time I move it I will have a crew on hand, preferably with lots of testosterone, preferably while I direct from a comfy chair as I turn the pages of a book and eat grapes.

Heading out

February 23, 2009

I’ve had my coffee, scanned the Times, checked in with my farming board. Now it’s 5:00 AM and I’m pulling on my coveralls to go finish the hay feeder. I got most of it built yesterday after church, between driving Lucy to and from a birthday party. I ran out of time, however, before nailing in all the barbed staples that secure the wire feeder panels. I had to stop and get dinner in the oven. Now I need to have the feeder finished and out of the shop before the workmen come in for the day at 7:15.

It certainly is a sturdy, handsome feeder. And — gulp! — it certainly is very big. I thought I chose the plan properly (“for rams and large sheep”) because my girls, like me, are on the tall side. Now, looking at this monster, I’m wondering if it is actually meant for sheep the size of ponies.

Challenges I’m looking at today before buckling down to writing at 9 AM:

  1. finishing the hay feeder
  2. getting the feeder out of the maintenance shop
  3. getting the feeder onto the truck
  4. getting the feeder off the truck and into the sheep stall (barn aisle is 6′ wide; feeder is 8′ long; how to make the right-angle turn)
  5. considering a booster ramp so the sheep can reach the feed.

This farming sideline definitely keeps you on your toes!

The luxury of having help

February 22, 2009

At 6:30 yesterday morning I got a call from Luke’s mother (everyone who knows me, knows it’s always safe to call after 5 AM) saying that at the last minute Luke could work after all. So I had three hours of teenaged muscles at the barn and by magic so many things are done.

I am accustomed to working alone. I have always done it. I have figured out ways to do many things on my own, even when items are seemingly too heavy or too difficult. My truck is like my hired hand; with the rock chain DH gave me for Mother’s Day last year I can move just about anything. I’m fine with grunt work: last fall I shoveled about thirty tons of gravel for fill inside the barn. As late as December I sunk 6×6 posts three feet in the ground to put up a paddock gate. Each post hole took me a couple of hours, chopping through the frozen ground with a pick-axe. Such tasks are mostly a matter of mental discipline. You just switch off your thoughts and keep swinging.

But when it’s below zero, the wind is blowing, and merely covering the basic nut of morning and evening barn chores eats up 2.5 hours a day, sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to tackle the waiting laundry list. This is when a fresh pair of hands feels like a transfusion of energy and purpose.

Almost everything that Luke and I accomplished yesterday, I could have done on my own — even digging the 4×8′ sheets of 3/4″ treated plywood out of the snow and boosting them onto the truck. But it felt like such a blessing not to be pushing the limits of my strength — and so often to be laughing. Luke is built like a pencil and just when we’d lift something over our heads, his borrowed snowpants from DH would slip from his waist to his knees, causing him to waddle like a duck.

I’ve had all the necessary supplies to build an 8′ hay feeder for the sheep (to prevent hay waste and keep fleeces clean) for a year. More than half the materials are recycled scraps from other projects. Now, with Luke’s help, all old nails and screws have been pulled and the lumber is stacked to dry in the school maintenance garage. Today after church I should be able to use the table saw to rip all the pieces and then put the feeder together. Very satisfying.

Of course, now that I’m pausing to visualize it, getting the completed behemoth (8′ long, 4′ high, 3′ wide) up onto the truck, down to the farm, and into the sheep stall will pose another challenge.

Jon has a newspaper assignment to cover in town this afternoon. DH is prepping for a conference workshop he will be presenting this week in Chicago. Perhaps it would be smartest to build the pieces here and finish the final assembly in place in the barn. Stay tuned.


February 20, 2009

It’s 4:30 AM and coyotes are howling. Sometimes coyotes sound just like the classic mournful calling in every old Western you’ve ever seen. Ah-roooooooooooo! Just as often, however, they sound like a clutch of beagle puppies locked in a cage. Eager, noisy yipping and yelping with no melody at all. That’s the racket I’m hearing now.

I like coyotes. It’s good for an ecosystem to have predators on the prowl, and coyotes are generally benign. They’re not going to bother you unless they’re sick or you’re very, very foolish. Once I was sitting cross-legged in an alder thicket in rural Maine, listening to birds and thinking deep thoughts, when a coyote trotted out of the underbrush only inches in front of my knee. Obviously the wind was behind him and he hadn’t caught my scent. I drew in my breath sharply. The expression on that coyote’s face when he suddenly focused and saw me was a classic cartoon. He jumped about two feet in the air, corkscrewing away, and melted back into the brush.

I’ve had my arguments with coyotes. When I ran the farm at NCS, the sound of baby turkey poults peeping would draw them down out of the woods like a dinner bell — even in daylight. I’d see a coyote trotting across the pasture slope and shake my fist. “Get out of here, you bum!”

But I carry with me memories from a childhood spent curled up with Thornton W. Burgess’s animal stories. These books were written before World War I and were seriously antiquated even in the 1960s. But there were countless battered volumes in my elementary school library and I read them all. Burgess’s gentle, old-fashioned stories gave me a lifelong appreciation for the private lives of wild creatures. At some level they’re all Jimmy Skunk and Reddy Fox to me. I do my best to outwit them to keep my livestock safe, but I don’t hate them. Even when they win a round.

Last August a freak windstorm blew through one night, upending the 16′ summer poultry shelter in the pasture and shorting the electric fence. Grunting and struggling, I managed to right the shelter on my own, but I was so tired I figured I’d deal with the fence the next day. How did the coyotes know? That night they moved in and polished off all my birds in one swoop: three turkeys and four chickens, including that dear old campaigner, my rooster Russell Crow. I was very sad as I picked Russell’s distinctive feathers out of the blood on the grass. But my only anger was with myself. My fault.

My closest coyote encounter was about four or five years ago. I was driving to pick up Lucy at school when cars suddenly started veering off the road. Peering over the hood of my truck, I saw a tiny coyote pup darting and zigzagging down the middle of the highway, frightened and confused. I pulled over, jumped out of the truck, and scooped the pup into my arms. He was six or seven weeks old. His eyes were still slightly blue.

Back behind the wheel, I buttoned the puppy under my barn jacket to keep him confined as I drove. I could feel his little claws scrabbling on my shirt front. His little face poked out under my chin. “Ah-rooooo!” he warbled in a high-pitched, lonely howl. I wondered what had happened to his mother. Hit by a car? I also wondered rather wryly to myself: Now what, Kemosabe?

As I knew from my youth as a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, it is illegal for private citizens to harbor wild animals. My licenses had been lapsed for twenty years.

In the end I drove the pup to the local offices of the Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC handles all wildlife issues in the Park. As I pulled open the big glass doors to the building, I noticed the sign: NO ANIMALS ALLOWED. I went in anyway. “Ah-rooooooo!” quavered the little coyote from inside my jacket. A receptionist hurriedly called someone to the front.

I heard later that the wildlife officer had simply taken the pup deep in the woods and left him. I understood the reasoning, but I didn’t like it. Shortly thereafter I signed up for the annual state wildlife rehabilitator test. Having passed the two-hour written exam, I’m now licensed with mammals in the state of New York. Next time fate hands me a coyote, I’ll be ready.

At least legally.

Mild-Mannered Reporter

February 19, 2009

I am so proud. Yesterday Jon received an email from the city paper saying that they would welcome his freelance submissions. This is great news in this dismal economy and dead job market. Our local paper had wanted Jon’s freelance reporting but all hiring had been frozen and they regretfully had to turn him away. However this week a woman from the city paper visited one of Jon’s journalism classes, and he buttonholed her after her talk. After reading his clips, she offered him a freelance contract!

He is carrying a heavy 16-credit course load and driving two hours a day as a commuting student. Conceiving, researching, and writing news stories in addition will be a real challenge. “I hate ambition!” Jon joked to us. But if he can pull off this grueling semester, he should be in a great place for the most-coveted internships and, later, for a job. Yay!

Our son, the future journalist.

I am so happy for him. I remember sitting side by side with DH in the neuro-psychologist’s office so many years ago as the doctor went over two days’ worth of testing and told us of our bright, happy seven-year-old’s dyslexia. DH understood the numbers better than I did, but I certainly grasped the words: “He’s at risk for not learning to read and write.” I remember the cold, frightened feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wish I could reach back into the past and whisper in that anxious, loving mother’s ear, “It’s all going to be absolutely fine!”

hopeJon’s news was a wonderful cap to a very good day. The meeting with the town Building Code Officer about the garage apartment went smoothly. Back in 2006, when I sought to build the barn, everything was questioned. I was an unknown; I was tentative and unsure; all the jargon was foreign. This time I went in with maps, drawings, and a full vocabulary of property-line setbacks, roof snow-load numbers, and insulation R-values. My plans were okayed within fifteen minutes. By the time I got home a call had come in affirmatively on the loan.

Jon was playing around online over the weekend and found a fun Obama Icon site. He sent me this “Obama-ized” snap of himself. The message certainly seems appropriate today.

Sketch-up Woes

February 18, 2009

I’m being driven mad by floor plans. I know I ought to be able to understand and manipulate them, but I am having a terrible time. I also know I have a real inability to picture things in the abstract; I learned this in geometry in 7th grade and again when living in a Mill Valley apartment that the mad landlord was renovating over our heads. I couldn’t visualize the changed spaces she constantly proposed until I saw the torn-down walls and new ones going up. (She never showed us a floor plan, just dropped off cheaply-hired heroin addicts with crowbars to bash at the plaster. Very unnerving.)

Last Friday a friend gave me a quick tutorial in Sketch-up, Google’s free 3-D drawing tool, but this “intuitive” program is anything but intuitive to me. I’ve got a proofreader’s eye, not an artist’s. Give me grammatical problems! Yesterday I wasted many hours gnashing my teeth over it. It’s particularly annoying because I know quite a few complicated computer programs and Sketch-up is one everyone lauds as “so easy!” Even Lucy was playing around with it successfully last night.

The folks at Shelter-Kit are very reassuring. In my frustration yesterday I sent them a long rant to inform them I was losing my mind. Their soothing response began:

“Easy now. One thing at a time. So you can’t picture things in three dimensions. So what. I have trouble seeing in space/time and my view of the future is foggy and confused. So what.”

This made me laugh. The effect was exactly like a jacket thrown over the eyes of a panicky, plunging horse so she could be led away from a fire. I calmed down. Forget Sketch-up! I’m back at my desk with a pencil, noodling with templates and pushing around cut-out bits of paper on top of printed outlines.

The first big issue is to figure out the layout of the apartment stairs. At the moment they are directly in front of a big south-facing sliding glass door. (Five years down the road there will be a small deck.) I am picturing one of my children coming indoors in the gloom and pitching headlong down the stairs. I know there must be a better way, but I can’t see it yet. I am trusting that Shelter-Kit will have more perspicacity.

This morning I have a meeting with the town Code Officer. I am girding my loins. Our town used to be casual about permits. Over the past few years, however, wealthy homeowners have so egregiously flouted the code and Adirondack Park Agency rulings that permits have become a hot topic and the subject of brutal court battles. One big shark was required to tear off the top story of his too-tall house! I’m hoping that folks will be able to keep in mind that I’m a poor little guppy, with very small plans, and of no concern to anyone.

I also have calls in about the necessary loans. I spoke with Dean and he is looking into concrete costs. My goodness! It’s all happening! Wheeeeeeeee!