Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cairn

Three strangers they were. Walking down the narrow road, eating the grass, and closing in behind them was a county sheriff patrol car. They came to be known as Nicodemus, Gandalf and Henney. We stopped the car in surprise; it isn’t every day the two mules and a donkey come strolling down the drive with a police escort. They were shaggy and rough, the poor condition of their hooves apparent even from a hundred yards away.

“These belong to you?” The sheriff asked. They didn’t of course. He looked a bit perplexed. It seems they had been wandering about, getting into yards and otherwise inconveniencing the locals for a day or so. I spoke with the officer and, after hearing the situation, offered to contain them in a makeshift corral until their origins and disposition could be determined. My wife would tell you that this was my first mistake. I may agree, but I am better for the choice. It was thus that I came to be the legal custodian of three rather unwanted chunks of livestock.
I took some long saplings that I had cut for other purposes and threw together a small corral, attached to the little shed built on the property. I had straw left over from the house still, stored a few miles away in my uncle’s barn, so I spread a thick layer of it on the floor of the shed and brought the mules over. The two big ones had to be herded in, the little gray donkey spent the whole time I was building the fence tagging along on my heels. Once, he tried to steal my hammer but dropped it as he turned to run. It was the beginning of a friendship. A manly kind of friendship that involved biting, kicking and a few smacks upside the head with a feed bucket. The corral complete I herded the beasts in and pondered the options. I knew they needed a vet to look them over but money wasn’t exactly flowing from my ears. They had serious hoof trouble. The two mules had obviously foundered, a serious condition that occurs when a equine animal is given a high carbohydrate diet over a period of time. Aside from liver damage, it screws up their ability to process proteins in the body. A horses hooves are almost all protein so this is one area that it manifests itself. The hoof changes shape and grows very fast as the body tries to rid itself of the excess protein synthesized by the body. This growth is not consistent across the hoof and it grows in a strange shape as well. The big jack mule’s hooves were cracked and misshapen but the little mule was really bad. Her front hooves were curled around
and looked like a funky upside down candy- cane on the end of each leg. The only one who looked fairly spunky was the little donkey who, aside from being incredibly fat, was the picture of ornery donkeyness.
I called a local Ferrier and he came out the next day. We had to give the little mule some kind of sedative and he went to work. Her back hooves were alright, just a little chipped. The front, on the other hand, were a lost cause. The adept gentleman had to trim them with a hacksaw and, though he did his best, he still got into the quick a bit and the mule shuddered with each stroke of the saw. The smell of the blood did little to calm the others. Her hooves never healed and split mercilessly.
I called the local branch of the Humane Society. They had a large animal farm nearby. I figured since I was being so kind as to keep the animals while local law enforcement sorted out their ownership, perhaps they could send out a vet to just look them over for me. Boy was I wrong. The conversation was somewhat enlightening. It seems they had a pretty good idea where the animals came from. There was a gentleman nearby who had been in legal trouble before for abusing livestock. He was under court order to no longer keep any large animals but had violated the order. Missouri law will only allow prosecution, however, if the animals are found to be neglected while in his pasture. The simple fix was, he opened the gate. Lovely.
At this point the conversation took a colder turn. I mentioned the desire to have a vet look at them and the funding issues involved. I was informed that, as they had been in my custody for more than three days I was now legally obligated to give them proper veterinary care. More lovely. In the end, I paid a local vet eighty bucks to come out and verify that they were indeed mules and a donkey. The sheriff’s department was pretty happy to have them out of their hair though, so they let it be.
Now let me tell you. There is no sound quite like that of the chorus of two mules and a donkey braying as you pull in the driveway… and when you walk by a window…and when you leave for work…and at 4:00am every morning. You could set your watch by it and I do not exaggerate. If you have not stood in close proximity to one of these animals vocalizing, it is something like a mix of a phlemy sneeze and a maraca at the volume of a freight train horn. It will change your perspective and scare the holy hell out of you if you aren’t expecting it!
Their coming brought sadness as well. I had two dogs. Kida, the old girl. She is an Akita/Sheppard mix and Roxy, an American Bulldog. Roxy was the sweetest, most gentle creature you have ever met. She had earlier that spring lost a litter of pups when she survived an attack by coyotes. When one of the cats had kittens and Kida killed one, Roxy, easily a hundred pounds of pure muscle, had gently picked the kittens up and carried them to a sheltered place and lay with them.
I had found a source to purchase some square bales of pretty good hay nearby so I had been running by every week or so to pick a few up until I could source some larger round bales. I left out that day with the two kids in the old Ford pickup, off to get a few more bales. Up the little double track to the road, I turned the big vehicle wide onto the gravel and took off. As I accelerated I was thinking on the week and the plans for the summer and such when I felt an impact. It was as if I hit a log or a large rock in the road. I hadn’t seen anything so, in a confused state, I slowed and looked in the mirror. There, slowly struggling off the road, blood already beginning to drip from her sagging and open jaw, was Roxy. I went numb. I pulled down the road a ways and called my wife on my cell. We agreed that I should continue on to town and she would come up and look after Roxy rather than have the children have to see her. We continued on, the children none the wiser, me trying to act normal and fight back tears.
When I got home, we sent the kids inside to play in their room. It seems the dog was nowhere to be found when Crystal when to look for her. After searching and trying to follow the blood trail she came back to the house, where she found her. Nestled in the straw inside the little converted barn, lay Roxy. Her breath was a raspy and whistled, like a bad pipe organ pumped too hard. Her ribs were obviously shattered and blood spilled out of her mouth with each ragged breath. There she lay and there stood Nicodemus, the jack mule. My wife told me he had stood by her, reaching his head down and nuzzling her, the whole time I had been gone. I told Crystal to gather the kids and take them on a drive, I didn’t want them to be there.
Many will look at me and find me barbaric. They will see my actions as horrid and uncivilized and perhaps they are right. I am not terribly impressed with our civilization on most days so I don’t mind. You see, I was raised with certain ideas about things and, though I sometimes don’t like it, they stuck. I believe that if I take on the responsibility for a domesticated animal I take on certain obligations as well. I am responsible for its condition in life and I will not buy in to the modern denial of the reality of life. I will not (and have never) take an animal to a vet to be whisked away in a sanitized container and disappear from my life. Death is a part of life and it is a sacred and profound duty to see the circle out. If you have to ask, you probably won’t understand.
After the kids and wife said their goodbyes, I went and got down the .22. When I got home, Roxy had tried to come to me, she walked over to the sidewalk and simply couldn’t go any further. She lay there, her feeble breaths bubbling up and foaming at the corners of her mouth. I knelt beside her, stroking her ears. Words are not needed, the feeling was enough. I said goodbye and tried to convey how sorry I was. With a squeeze of a finger, her pain ended.
On the hill opposite the house there is a ridge. It is a meandering place, a small path winds down the descent into a shallow valley that borders the land until it abruptly stops for no particular reason at all. Partway down the ridge, beneath a small stand of dogwood trees, I buried Roxy. The grave was shallow and, after placing her head on her paws and scooping a small hand full of sand and clay over her, I covered her and raised a rock mound over her repose. Finished and glistening sweat, I sat down on the earth and, on an overcast and lonely Missouri hill, I wept.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beginnings again.

Ambition is a funny thing. It is easy to have. Plans are made, schemes hatched and bulletproof notions inscribed on paper. They always sound so great. They have all the trappings of wild and inspiring success and on paper they speak to the very soul.
Then you wake up staring at a puddle of smelly, solidifying gastro-intestinal offal with your mouth tasting like an outhouse at a chili cookoff. It brings it all home man, it brings it all home. You see, the toughest part of climbing the mountain really isn’t psyching yourself up, it isn’t preparing your pack with the essentials, it isn’t the first step. The toughest part of climbing the mountain is climbing the damn mountain! You will read a dozen self help books that talk to you about the most important step being mentally preparing yourself and the essential nature of the proper life philosophy and five year plan. I can guarantee you that these folks have never sat in the woods and tried to get a fire going when the wind was whipping around and it rained last night. Mentality be damned, at that point, it getting a fire going that is the key! Now don’t get me wrong, one needs preparation and the right state of mind if one wishes to accomplish great things, but so often folks get bogged down in the silly details so they don’t have to go through the agony of actually doing anything. There comes a time when you just gots to get on with it and do something, even if it’s wrong. Misplaced action almost always trumps intellectual apathy. It was thus that I began to act again. I tried cleaning up the place a bit, I was effectively a bachelor and my definition of keeping a tidy house fell a bit short of my wife’s upon her return but such is the interactions of Mars and Venus.
I sweated stones into place for the walkway. The largest was about four feet square and eight inches thick. I about pulled a few things on that one. A week after my drunk wore off my wife called. It seemed that her cousin’s marriage was in the process of dissolving at warp speed and she had a week to get back to the cabin. I made a flying trip to Tulsa, delivering an old Toyota Camry we gave to the now quite destitute cousin and brought the family back to our humble home.
Life began to take on some degree of rhythm. It was a readjustment for the family, accustomed to such niceties as running water and long, hot showers and elbow room, but we made do. I had managed to get back on at GM (temporary though it proved…again) and at the very least the bills were being paid down and groceries were regularly on the table. This began a short period of relative calm. We were still hauling water but one begins to find that a lack of many of the major conveniences of this modern society isn’t really much of a lack at all. This was a time of lonely (in a good way) strolls up the dark drive, a billion stars peeping out overhead. Looking down the hill the light from inside the house spilled out of the windows and I could see my family inside, wood smoke gently drifting in the night breeze, illuminated by the moon into a low, silver gray cloud. How often I would stand, cigar in one hand, tumbler of something in the other, and marvel at how nice a picture it all made. In the summer, standing on the drive at dusk would would reward one with bats. They would rise from the tiny caves dotting the hills and fly up the gap in the trees made by the easement road. Standing as I would, still as I could stand, they would swoop around me, gunning for the skeeters and bugs that were prolific. Often one would fly so close you could hear the wind as it beat it’s wings past your ear. It was majical.
One fine Sunday morning, the family packed up in the car to go to town for some errand, I forget what it was now, particularly as we never made it to town. Backing out of the drive and onto the narrow double-track that led to the slightly wider county road, we were met by three new friends. Gandalf, Nicodemous and Henney were leisurely strolling down the drive, munching on the grasses as they came. Gandalf was a little, fat, gray donkey, Henney was just that, a henney (donkey horse mix that isn’t a mule, I forget the logistics), and Nicodemous was a fifteen hundred pound Jack mule, gentle and sweet as the day is long, unless you pissed him off, at which point he would kick a freight train into the next county! This was the beginning of a short, unexpected and somewhat tragic friendship and the mechanism for some of the most profound lessons I have ever learned about myself.


Spring continued and work on the place was very slowly getting on. We had a full septic system and the sinks had drains and such but there was no running supply side. Water was brought in in the back of my ’88 F250 in one 300 gallon tank and two 55 gallon barrels. I purchased a small pump that we would use to pump the water out of the tanks and into the smaller blue seven gallon containers to be used inside. These were the kind with a little plastic spigot on the bottom and we would set it on a little wooden footstool on the counter next to the sink.
I was working steady so we had been able to outfit the kitchen with a brand new electric range. It was a nice one and no longer were we relegated to heating water on a little plug in electric burner. Now we could use the stovetop and heat it in a fraction of the time (the wood stove would have just run us all out of there). Showers were a little better too. I picked up a camp solar shower. On the ceiling of the bathroom, I mounted a contraption that hinged down and would hold the water bag of the shower with a little spot to attach the spigot. You filled it with warm water, closed it up and had the immense luxury of a full three gallons to shower with. It was absolutely heavenly.

The other area of concern was the driveway. We had been solidly snowed in quite often because of the slope of it and it simply had to be built up. I borrowed my Dad’s skid-loader and made about a hundred trips up and down the hill to the creek bringing gravel up to fill in. I also carried about thirty boulders to border it. Many trips up the hill were made on the front two tires and pushing the bucket full of a massive chunk of rock. Along with the drive I brought up a bunch of large flat rocks to use as pavers on a sidewalk, a vast improvement over the wood chip mulch sidewalk we had been using.

All this was an improvement but it was still a tough way to go. One thing I discovered was that living in an unfinished and tiny little place without many of the comforts a woman is accustomed to has a way of short circuiting the nesting instinct. My wife was not very happy with the relatively impoverished surroundings.

Her cousin offered to let her come down to Tulsa for a while and learn the ropes as a recruiter for trucking companies. It seemed a pretty good idea and would clear the place out so I could do some of the messier and more kid unfriendly stuff so I encouraged her to go. Soon, she packed the kids away in her car, loaded the luggage and I kissed them all goodbye. It began one of the most incredibly lost couple months I can recall.

As I alluded to earlier, I had fought with depression throughout the entire process. Being laid off, homeless, cold, stinky, etc. all have a cumulative effect that is difficult to shake off. Though I hadn’t really realized it, my wife and two girls were pretty much the tether holding me to the ledge. When they left I began a slow motion free fall.
I still went to work every day, I still tried to get some work done on the place, though not all that much, it seems. Inside I was somehow unraveling. Like a sweater that is snagged on a tree branch while the wearer slowly trudges along unawares, I began to detach. I drank a lot. Not going to the bar and hotting and hollering drinking, it was sit in the cabin, look on the stuff I was working on and needed to work on and drink. Hard stuff. Whiskey, brandy, vodka.
I did manage to get most of the taping done in the lower level, though I ran out of paint and had a few spots left to frame out and finish. I was trying to figure out who kept reflecting on the bottom of the bottle but when I got close I just passed out and couldn’t remember. The bottom of the barrel came a few weeks before my family returned (though I did not know it at the time). I was drinking brandy. I don’t remember a lot but I know I was gone. I killed a full bottle of the stuff and was feeling absolutely no pain. A little queasy is all. I remember thinking that it probably wasn’t a good idea to go up the stairs in my condition so I should sleep downstairs. Then I lay my head over and vomited all over the living room rug and floor.

It was thus that I awakened the next morning. Lying on a cot in the middle of the living room, a pool of congealed puke surrounding me. In my strange and drunken logic the night before I had decided that climbing the stairs was too risky so (this still cracks me up today) apparently I avoided this danger by going upstairs and bringing a cot, two blankets and a pillow down the stairs to sleep on. Safety first.

Cleaning the mess up made me feel a mix of resolve and shame. I am glad my children were not there to see me thus. For anyone who ever tells you that digging out of a total financial meltdown without a government bailout is just a matter of gritting your teeth and charging on through, punch them for me. It is a grueling mind game. But it can be done (I would recommend not spending time blisteringly drunk. It really lessens productivity!).
This was the beginning of the true upswing for me. There were still trials ahead, but to look in the mirror and see that you are now at a place where you must choose to rise above it or wallow in it forces the hand. I decided I would have to get it together if I wanted to look my girls in the eye. I poured out the bottles on hand and didn’t touch them for a long while.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The winter fast upon us, I began the framing of the inside of the structure. It was a faster process than the others as I now had the septic system installed which meant the county approved the electric connection. With a compressor given to me and a borrowed Paslode framing nailer, I began framing the interior walls. It was a fairly simple layout. The upstairs had three tiny rooms, two sleeping rooms and a sort of antechamber at the top of the steep staircase. The main level was one big room with a wall separating the bathroom and a small utility space. I had all the framing done and the drywall hung (mostly) at the beginning of January when a rather interesting development came about. I was laid off of my construction job first off. No more income. Then we were told by the Apartment manager we were renting from that she had a tenant interested in the place and if we vacated before our lease was up she would refund the deposit no questions asked. We, being no fools, took her up on it. We stored the little bit of furniture that wouldn’t fit in the cabin at a relative’s basement and headed for the cabin.
At the time it had no running water, no stove, no toilet and the drywall was untaped and strawbale was not plastered on the inside. It was a hovel, to say the least. The only good thing was the little Jotul woodstove. On one January day I recall it being 12 degrees outside. I had a small thermometer on the inside of the cabin door and, when I entered the house after splitting wood for a few hours, the thermometer was reading 96 degrees. That little stove would run you right out of there!
Thus began an interesting time, to say the least. Most of the meals were cooked on the cooktop of the woodstove. We relieved ourselves in a sawdust composting toilet that I had to hand carry out when full, and we bathed in a large Rubbermaid tote with a pump up garden sprayer. I discovered it is indeed possible to get clean using one gallon of water. It doesn’t have the therapeutic value of a nice, hot, long shower, but you no longer smell like a camel, and that is good enough.
Our water was carried in two fifty-five gallon barrels with a spigot attached. We would carry a seven gallon jug out to it (I had to unload it from the back of the pickup onto a rack built of 4X4 posts for that purpose and there was no way to get it inside the house) and, after filling it up, brought it into the house to use for cooking, dishes, bathing, etc. I had three seven gallon containers and I would fill them every other day. This went on until it got too cold and the fifty five gallon barrels froze solid. Then I would carry the jugs to a neighbors or relatives house and fill them there. It was a tough way to go. At the time we did not have a four wheel drive vehicle and, after a particularly bad snow, were unable to get out of the driveway for three days. Water was pretty scarce by the end.
With work being slow to dead, we were quite the picture of abject poverty at this point. There were barely funds to so much as wiggle. Without the help of some dear family members, we would have gone quite hungry and I am forever grateful for their generosity. Interestingly, this was a time of poignant memory for me. I would often stay up long into the night keeping the fire stoked (the stove was great but it was really too small and would not maintain a fire for long enough to keep a bed of coals overnight). The stillness of the forest, the orange and yellow flicker of the fire in the little glass window in front of the stove, it painted a picture of a simpler time. A time I longed to at least touch, though I knew it was long gone. The simple satisfaction I would feel when, of a day, I would tramp around the woods gathering firewood and carrying it, often from the far side of the property, armload at a time, to stack it up against the coming cold days. I had many downed trees and, being relatively new to burning wood, did not always appreciate the value of firewood that had not sat out in the woods in the rain and snow. I did become quite adept at splitting it small though. The little woodstove couldn’t take much wood at a time and if one wanted a hot fire, it was important to split it into pretty small bits, no more than two inches in diameter. This made for a very labor intensive process and underscored the need for a bigger stove (which we never got!)
As spring came around and the weather began its blessed warming, I progressed on some of the taping and finish work. I finally installed the clawfoot tub, a marked improvement on the plastic tote, and built a small vanity out of scrap cedar I found. We were still without running water but life was a little better.

Next. My wife, my kids and my heart go to Tulsa and I spend a month blisteringly drunk.