Friday, July 3, 2015

July 3, 2015; The Cost of Freedom

This battery is set on a ridge facing across a broad open field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  When you stand there and look across, you cannot believe men would march across that field in the face of these cannons and thousands of soldiers with their guns pointed at you.  But they did.  In fact, 152 years ago today, that very thing happened, here at Gettysburg.

The 4th of July is mostly thought of in terms of the Revolutionary War.  Dates vary from July 2 to July 4th, but somewhere in that window our Declaration of Independence was finalized and announced.  I would say it took time and lives to make that document meaningful, but that is probably wrong.  In reality I should be talking in the present text:  It IS taking time and lives to make that document meaningful.

July 4th is for the politicians.  They were the ones that wrote and debated the Declaration of Independence, lofty words with a grand meaning.  It was the common people that backed it up.

July 3rd is for the common people doing what we do to give meaning and purpose to the actions of those politicians.

For a long time now, I have not thought about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, et. al. on the 4th.  My thoughts have centered more around names like Armistead,  Longstreet, Reynolds, Chamberlain, Pickett and the thousands of the nameless that died 152 years ago today in support of that document signed in Philadelphia years before.

Without us the politicians are nothing.  Without us, the Declaration of Independence is just a bunch of words and run-on sentences.

July 3rd is our day.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

June 20, 2015: Who Will Pick Our Fruit?

As cars rush by on Interstate 5, locals take to a field to pick their own strawberries.  This photo was taken some time back, as now this field is part of a big box home improvement store and mall parking lot.

Last year, due to a lack of Hispanic labor, we left over half of our strawberry crop in the field to rot.  This year, the labor situation was no better.  In fact it was worse.  We needed roughly 30 workers for the 3 week season, we got 4 people for 4 days.  But this year we were ready.  With a major local grower no longer supplying strawberries for the fresh market, we were in a position to help fill that void.  Other fresh market growers needed fruit, we needed workers to pick.  It became a simple formula of you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.  The fresh market guys provided workers and packaging, we sold them fresh berries on the vine for an agreed price per pound. 

Still, the question lingers.  Who is going to pick our fruit?  The migrant labor force has become a political hot potato.  Like anything, once it becomes political, once the unyielding sides are chosen, any workable solutions from government go out the window.  So that leaves it up to us, and maybe that's the best way.

We went the season basically without hiring a crew.  It was a lesson learned.  We plan to do the same next year.  Less acres of berries, sell the fruit on the vine to the fresh market growers to fill in their needs, the rest, bring the public in and let them pick their own fruit.

So what's wrong with that?  Well, nothing really.  In fact, it might actually put a little fun back into a business that in recent years has become a real grind.  But consider this:  6 years ago we had a crew of 60 people and a payroll in excess of $100,000, most of which went back into our local economy.  Those jobs are now gone as is that payroll.

Who will pick our fruit?  Who is going to make-up for those lost jobs?  Who is going to pump that lost $100,000 back into the local stores and businesses? 

Who indeed.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

June 7, 2015: Counting the Years with the 4440

We call the John Deere 4440 the "big tractor."  Of course in the reality of today's world of modern farming, it is more like an old riding lawn mower when compared to the newest hi-tech tractors now in use.  In fact, ours, which is one of the earlier models is a 1980 vintage.  These are actually starting to be accepted into "vintage" tractor shows.

But take a look at these 4 photos.  They each have two things in common.  First, they all center around the same tractor, the 4440.  Second, they all show various generations of the Burwash clan.

Presented in the chronologically order in which they were taken, the first photo is a "selfie" long before such a thing was even invented.  I was chisel plowing at sunset, preparing for a late night.  I represent generation # 2.

The second shot was taken just a few years later, that's generation #3, Seth, disking down pea ground after the it was vined.

The third shot was taken by Janice and is probably my all time favorite photo, ever.  That's generation #2 and generation #4 (Cam the Man) heading out to do some field work with, you guessed it, the 4440.

The final shot was one I was hoping one day would happen. God bless my "little sister" Mary and hubby Randy, they brought Dad up last week-end and took this photo of generation #1 climbing up on the trusty "big tractor" to, in the Old Man's words, "Kick up some dust" mulching cucumber ground.

Four generations, one tractor.  That's what farming is really about.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

May 23, 2015: Not So Neat and Orderly

Take a look at these two photos.  They both have something in common.  On this Memorial Day week-end, we take a moment or two and remember all the soldiers who have served and have died in that service. Often we see photos of those symmetrical battlefield cemeteries with row upon row of graves laid out in precise order.  Amazing in their perfection, poignant in the shear numbers,  but we also know that is not how it was at the moment.

The upper photo, the battlefield along the Greasy Grass, also known as The Little Big Horn is a different kind of military cemetery.  Scattered across hundreds of acres, along a nearly 3 mile ridge are simple white markers, showing where a member of Custer's 7th Calvary fell.  Interspaced with them, added later, are markers also showing where the last free roaming plains tribesmen also fell, although their numbers are few.

The lower photo is every much a battlefield cemetery like those neatly arranged monuments seen so often in photos this week-end.  It is even more-so like the cemetery that is the ridges and ravines of the Little Big Horn.  A lot of soldiers fell in this nondescript patch of woods.  Their bodies were scattered where I was standing to take the photo.  They were bent over the makeshift stone wall that can be seen in the distance.  They were piled one on top of the other on the sloping ground beyond that wall.  This is where Chamberlain and his handful of men from Maine made their stand on the Union left flank,  Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

It's not the neat, tidy, orderly military cemeteries I think about on Memorial Day.  It is places like these I think about. The Little Big Horn and Little Round Top, nearly a continent apart but have one thing in common.  Here is where you can sense and feel the horrible randomness and mayhem that is war.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

May 16, 2015: Wouldn't It Be Nice?

Now wouldn't this be nice?  Go to your boss, request your retirement and it is approved.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, there's no way my boss would give my request a thumbs-up.  It's not so much a case where my skills and knowledge are indispensable to the operation.  In fact, the opposite could very well be true.  I need the company more than the company needs me. 

No, I'm certain my request for retirement would be met with a large degree of skepticism by my superior.  There probably would be very little discussion.  It would be more like a monologue with remarks like, "Are you nuts?" or "What have you been drinking?"  Depending on mood, it could even go so far as, "Are you out of your f*#%ing mind?

So I'll just keep working for the foreseeable future.  No matter how polished my skills of persuasion, there's no way Janice is gonna let this fly.

By the way, this was stenciled on the frame of an old stock car on display at Hardin, Montana. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

May 10, 2015: Mothers and Grandmothers

Two photos, each of a mother and a grandmother.  The top picture is my mother holding our first baby, Seth.  The photo above is, of course, Janice, holding our first grand child, Cam.

Conditions were interesting to say the least when Janice had Seth and Grant.  Both were born at a clinic about 5 miles from where we were farming.  In both cases, Janice and baby went home a few hours after they were born.  Each time I took her and baby to spend a few days at my parent's house located on their farm a mile or so away.  That's how it came about this photo of my mother came to be.  She was holding her grandson, in her house.  He was not even 24 hours old.

Fast forward 34 years and on the opposite side of the country.  The next generation of grandma is holding her first grandson.  A far cry from the little small town clinic where Cam's dad, Grant was born, this little guy came into the world in a modern hospital in Philadelphia.  Where Janice and I raised our sons in a very much "seat of the pants" style, Cam's generation has the advantage of parents tuned into a wealth of parenting information and support.

My mom was not your quintessential grandmother.  She took her house work and farm work seriously to the point it was a full time job. The idea that because she was only a mile away we had an automatic built in baby sitter just didn't hold water.  But she did fulfill the main requirement of all grandparents.  We only have one main responsibility, love our grandkids unconditionally.

When you look at these two photos, is their any doubt each of these mothers, each of these grandmothers are enjoying upholding that requirement? 

There will be all kinds of different tributes to mothers today;  gifts, brunches, cards.  To my discredit, I've never been good at that kind of thing.  So I guess this will be mine.

Two photos.

Two mothers.

Two grandmothers.

Two examples of unconditional love.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

May 2, 2015: The Batch Room

This is my office at Conway Feed although I actually don't spend a lot of time here.  With two pellet mills to keep running, a roller mill to check and a boiler to watch, the batch room is just another stop on my constant rounds.  Still, this is where the final feed formulas are mixed and sent out to the customers, be it bulk delivery in 20 ton lots or single 50 pound bags.

I'll give you a quick tour and in the process a little idea what it takes to mix livestock feed.  On the very left, just in sight is the console that controls the application of veggie oil and molasses on the finished feed.  It is sprayed on in a long mixing chamber located about 30' above the room.  Although I don't exactly remember what I was making at the time of this photo, I can tell you I was spraying oil on it, but not molasses.  You can see the lower needle is giving me a reading (oil) while the top needle is off, (molasses).

Hanging on the cabinet you see sheets of papers.  Those are the current scale ticket numbers for the organic ingredients currently in inventory.  For every batch of organic feed I put out, I have to record the scale ticket number of each ingredient used in that mix.

On top of the main console you see two switches and two lights.  This controls the main distributor on top of the elevator that takes finished feed from the scale surge chamber to the top of the mill, and then either, across the shaker screen for pelleted feed, down the by-pass, (by passing the screen with meals), or down the West Fill auger which goes across the top of the entire mill.  Judging by the setting, I was putting out a meal using the by-pass setting.

Above that is the digital read out for my main scale.  When I took the photo I had a mere 336 pounds of something in the scale.  As typically batches are seldom under 1 ton and can be as large as 2 tons, such a small amount represents a flush that I am holding until the system clears of the feed currently being sent.

And then there is the main console.  This tells me what bins contain what feed ingredients as well as the six truck load-out bins.  It also tells me the routing I have set up for the feed going out.  Right now, (although it is hard to see in the photo) I'm actually sending feed down to the sack-off where it will be put in 50 pound bags.  If you start down at the lower right and follow the lights feed is exiting the scale, going up the texture elevator, by-passing the shaker screen, (note the "Lo/By" written in grease pencil....we write the current position of the distributor in that spot as a reminder), across the truck load-out bins and off to the left of the schematic telling me it's dumping into one of four bagger bins or the flush sack.

Below that are the bins themselves. To the left are the six truck load-out bins, each with a capacity of about 16 tons depending on the density of the finished feed.  When the photo was taken I had been running organic dairy feed in 3 ton lots.  Four different farms each were going to get a delivery of 3 tons of 4 different organic dairy formulas.

In the ingredient bins, 47 has whole cotton, 46 has 10 tons of ground organic barley sent to me by the mixer guy down the west fill, 45 has conventional rolled corn, 44 conventional rolled barley, 43 is my crimped oat bin, 42 is empty but is one of two bins Pellet Mill 1 empties into.  Currently Pellet Mill 1 is running Standard Crumbles, (mink cereal) and it is going into 41(Note the grease pencil "1" over the bin.  That tells me which bin the distributor for Pellet Mill 1 is set on.)  40 is another mash bin used by the mixer guy and has ground organic corn which will be later blended with the barley in 46 and sent to another organic dairy.  39 and 38 are the bins used by Pellet Mill 2, and by the location of the number "2," Baker Organic In is being pelleted into bin 39.

On the desk top you see some paper work and a keyboard.  The top sheet of paper is the mix ticket for the formula I was currently batching.  It's hard to see, but judging by how few lines of type, I'm guessing it is the Baker Organic In.  It is a straight pelleted feed, so I will not blend any additional ingredients into the feed other than the pellets coming out of bin 39.  I'm guessing I'm sending the last of a batch of conventional feed to the bagger, and holding a flush of Baker Organic to be sent to a flush sack before sending the actual organic feed into one of the truck load outs.  (When I am running organic feed, a fair amount of advanced thought and bin management has to happen in my head so as not to get myself bin tied with organic feed to send, but nowhere to put a flush.)

The keyboard controls the entire process showing commands and the batch/scaling process on a monitor not pictured to the right.  To start batch of feed, I first type "5."  The prompt calls for the formula number.  In the case of Baker Organic In, I would type 0196.3.  (Yep, done it so many times I can remember the number.)  0196 is the actual formula number, the .3 indicates on the computer paper work this "C-system" (batch).  Once I type in the number the screen shows me the bin the feed was in last and the 100% batch weight of each ingredient.  I have to then make sure the correct bin is typed in, using our PF keys to make necessary changes.  In this case I would make sure the computer knows to pull from Bin 39 and that the batch weight equals 4000 pounds.  Happy with that, I exit out then type in "2."  Again the prompt calls for the formula number.  Once entered, I again double check to make sure the 100% batch weight equals the weight printed on the paper mix ticket.  Next it calls for the batch percentage.  Baker Organic In is a 5 ton run which equals 3 batches at 83.33%, so I type in 83.33, hit enter, then where it calls for the number of batches, I type in 3.  Once I hit "Enter," the final weight appears, (in this case 5 tons) which I double check against the mix ticket to make sure my math is correct.  I hit "Enter" again to print the parameters, and once more to start the augers pulling feed out of bin 39 and into the scale.  I double check my routing outside, and when the first batch is weighed, a "Verify" light which is located on the large box sitting on the console, comes on.  This forces me to double check my routing before hitting the "Verify" button on the same control box.  This releases the scale gate and sends the feed on its way out the door.  Subsequent batches automatically dump and do not require verification.

There is one other light we live and die by that is not pictured.  On the far upper left of the console controlling the oil and molasses is a green light that indicates feed is passing through the main mixer.  If my elevator light is on, an after about 20 seconds that green light is not on....I've got a plugged elevator, which is always good for a string of swear words.  With the green light on,  down a set of spiral stairs I race with a "sticky note" on it the name of the feed, the weight, and load-out bin is written.  I pass under the truck load-outs and make sure I hear the feed hitting the appropriate empty bin then hang the note on a white board in the office for the truck drivers.  All this is done on the run as I need to hustle back upstairs to make sure the process is continuing.  When the entire formula is complete the computer types out the run summary of weight which I record on our batch/run sheets.  Then it's on to the next formula, but only after I deal with the pellet mills, roller and boiler.

On average, about 20 times a day we go through this process.  This not a job for a person with a sluggish spirit.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

April 26, 2015; Samish Iron Works

This unassuming building surrounded by water was the world headquarters of the Samish Iron Works.  On this date, probably in the winter of 1975 the Samish Slough had flooded thanks to heavy rains, a quick mountain snow melt and an untimely high tide.  Fortunately, the water came up fast, and left fast.

On a normal day, the lot now covered with water, would instead be occupied with farm implements in need of repair, a pick-up truck or two, (farmers watching their equipment getting repaired), and a few neighbors just stopping by to see what's up.

A man named Clifford Wright owned this building.  You would never guess by looking at it, but this was also the workshop of a man who was nothing shy of a mechanical genius.  The complex physics and chemistry of heating and cooling metal alloys to bring their twisted damage back into true line came natural to Cliff.  Torch in hand, he'd heat a wedge here, let it cool, a line there, let it cool, and smaller wedge just right there.  It was amazing to see thick bars of steel slowly move without so much of a swing of a hammer.

How to straighten steel with a torch?  "That's just common knowledge," as Cliff would say.

Two side dump wagons were produced from that little shop along with a hydraulic push gate manure spreader.  Silage choppers were rebuilt here, dump beds on trucks built, and PTO shafts by the hundreds were straightened and repaired.

Sounds like a full time job, does it not?  It was and it wasn't. To be sure Cliff had more business than he needed, and it all was done between about 8AM and 3PM during the week.  You see, Cliff had a full time job, working swing shift as a welder for the Skagit Corporation, building logging towers and components for off shore drilling rigs.

Saturdays work might start a little early, but would usually wind down around 4 for "social hour."  In those days, Cornfield Whiskey was Cliff's drink of choice.  More than once I started milking right after "social hour" and really didn't come around to noticing anything until about half way through the second string of cows.

This past Friday evening a group of us gathered here at Cliff's shop for one last "social hour."  Cliff passed away earlier this month and everyone close it him thought it fitting that we honor his memory with whiskey and bullshit.

And oh how the stories and spirits flowed late into the night, just as Cliff would have wanted.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

April 19, 2015; The Dandy Oliver

This is Don Pierson, sitting on his "dandy Oliver.  I worked for Don and Eva on their dairy farm in Bow, WA for a couple of years right after Janice and I were married.  Don had a couple of "newer" tractors, an IH Hydro with a loader that we used to plow and green chop, Big John, (a JD 3020 gas spot) we used for heavier fieldwork and pulling the corn chopper, and Little John, a 2010 with a loader which was the scrapping tractor.  But the "dandy Oliver" was Don's favorite.

It caught on fire once, long before I worked there, so any evidence of the green paint job was long gone.  The transmission was a little suspect, jamming now and again requiring a 9/16" end wrench and screw driver to pop it back into the right synchros.  As Don used to say, "It uses some water, but very little gas," and then shuffle off chuckling to himself.

I'd use the Oliver to pull the smaller manure spreader and rake hay.  However its real mission, the main reason it stayed on the farm since World War II, the Oliver pulled Don's two row corn planter.  As the fields were prepped for corn, there was always a bit of tension in the air.  The Oliver often wasn't running that great, and although the IH could pull the planter, that, in Don's mind wasn't an option.

"Corn won't grow if you don't plant it with the dandy Oliver," he would tell me.

Was he kidding?  I don't think so. I honestly believe Don's success in raising silage corn hinged directly on the dandy Oliver, with Don driving, pulling that planter.  Hard to start, missing, carburetor leaking gas, no matter, in the first warm weeks of May, one way or the other, the dandy Oliver had to be field ready.

When Don retired from farming and his machinery went on the auction block, I took one last photo of him on the dandy Oliver.  As I recall, a young fellow bought the tractor with the intent to restore it.  Whether he did or not, I don't know. 

I sometimes wonder, if restored, would the corn grow as tall?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

April 11, 2015; Springtime in the Rockies

Cattle grazing on new grass growing in between melting snow, that's springtime in the Rockies.


Having dinner outside in your shirt sleeves, only to wake up to a fresh coating of snow the next morning, that's springtime in the Rockies.

Trickling streams become white water torrents, that's springtime in the Rockies.

When a helper set tops the Great Divide in the morning sun........

....only to return a few hours later in a falling snow, that's springtime in the Rockies.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

April 5, 2015: Ruins

We have never been a people content with the status quo.  Standing pat with what you were dealt just isn't in our make-up.  Expanding, changing, updating, that's what we do best.  And when we do, we are usually in such a hurry, useless it's torn down and replaced with better on the very spot, we have no issue just to leave the old behind.

Up in the North Cascades, above US 2 over Stevens Pass this drive to improve and leave the old behind is illustrated, by the mile.  The Iron Goat Trail now takes hikers along the old Great Northern route up the west slope of the pass.  Interpretive signage tells the story of the GN's drive to build and then rebuild and then rebuild again their troubled right-a-way.  Each time they left behind the unused for Mother Nature to exercise her will.

Before the days of the Iron Goat Trail I felt like I was on an Indiana Jones style quest when exploring the old grade.  There were a few rough trails here and there, but it was mostly a case of tromping through the heavy underbrush that so hampered the early locators with names like Haskell and Stevens.  Eventually the narrow way would widen slightly and large timbers would jut from the rain soaked ferns and scrub alder.  The thick second growth timber would make it hard to get my bearings.  Is this part of the old siding of Alvin, or the sheds to the west?

Maybe one of the oldest artifacts left behind by the Great Northern's struggle to conquer the Cascades isn't even a part of the Iron Goat Trail.  On the eastside of the pass, only 100 yards or so above the hustle of US 2, a small cedar grows over a wood axle still attached to a rotting wagon wheel.  At first glance you might think this is the remains of some poor pioneer's wagon.  Only miles from their destination of the Puget Sound lowlands, their prairie schooner gave up and fell apart.

But no, nothing quite so grand.  This is the remains of one of probably thousands of the two wheeled, mule pulled carts used in grading the railroad from the Twin Cities to Seattle.  The first Great Northern line over the pass required a series to switchbacks sawing up to the summit.  This cart was used to build that route.  Whether it was just left behind after the railroad was completed in 1893, or the axle broke during the process and it was cast aside, I'll never know.

What I do know, this old wheel does share one thing in common with the ruins littering Windy Mountain on the west slope.  In the rush to build, to finish so it could be upgraded and rebuilt, this too was cast aside and left behind.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 28, 2015; Waiting For Willet Palmer

                                                       "Clouds are gathering in the south
                                                        And things aren't getting calmer.
                                                        We're sitting by the hay mow door
                                                        Waiting for Willet Palmer."

I was never a poet.  While in high school, we had an English assignment to write a poem.  Mine was about haying on my grandparent's farm.  I don't remember too many of the lines in that masterpiece except for the phrases above.

Back when I was spending summers on the farm, my grandfather didn't own a hay baler.  Over the years he always depended on custom balers that toured the area during haying season.  Early on it was Clarence Bement.  Clarence had an old Massey Harris tractor pulling a giant Freeman baler powered by a two cylinder Wisconsin stationary engine.  With Clarence Bement, we always said you worried if he ran out of noise and dust.  When Clarence retired, or more specifically, when there was more twine holding his baler together than the bales of hay, a local dairy farmer named Andy Anderson baled for us.  He soon sold out and moved. That's when Willet Palmer showed up.

Willet was a John Deere man.  His source of power was a JD 60, a latter model 2 cylinder Johnny Popper.  The beauty of the 60 was the hand clutch.  It gave Willet the ability to feather the tractor's ground speed when big slugs of hay would go through his John Deere baler without down shifting.  Added to that, the hand clutch also gave Willet the ability to maintain his customary standing position.  For Willet a seat was there as a foot rest, not a butt rest.

Despite its appearance, Willet's tractor and baler were surprisingly durable and reliable.  Unlike poor Clarence Bement where in field mechanical overhauls were a yearly event, with Willet breakdowns were not all that common.  The issue with Willet was his reliability. 

Willet was the eternal optimist.  You have 20 acres ready to bale on Thursday?  No problem.  Move in Wednesday night and be ready to bale once the dew's off in the morning.  It all sounded so good on the phone.  The problem was Willet was already behind getting 40 acres baled for someone else, and this was Tuesday night. 

And that brings us back to my poem.  All too often we had the fields raked into windrows and a crew gathered to start picking up bales as soon as they hit the ground.  All too often the great weather forecast of the morning had soured by afternoon.  All too often we sat by the hay mow door, waiting for Willet Palmer.

It was usually a toss up who heard him first, us or the dog.  Willet's Johnny Popper in road gear announced his arrival long before we got a visual.  Grandpa would glance at his pocket watch and mutter something like "It's about time," then head down to start rolling over the windrows.  Willet would Pop! Pop! Pop! right on past and head straight for the field, tipping his straw cowboy hat as he whisked by, standing tall, his foot on the seat.

Shortly after my folks moved from Tacoma and took up residence out at the farm with my grandparents, the Old Man bought a baler for himself, thus ending the tradition of the custom balers. It was a good move.  Dad kept his baler running like a sewing machine and when the hay was ready, Dad was ready to bale.  No more waiting by the hay loft.  More than once the time gained by having a baler was the difference between getting the hay baled dry or getting it "washed" with a June shower.

But there was also a loss.  Lost was that sense of adventure and uncertainly that came with the rattle trap Rube Goldberg outfit pieced together by Clarence Bement, and the hours wasted waiting for Willet Palmer.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

March 21, 2015: Tulip Time...In Black and White

This time of year, thousands of people come to the Skagit Valley to view acre and after acre of tulips in bloom.  Why?  The magnificent colors, of course!  The bright reds, purples, the deep maroons, the brilliant whites are a feast to the eye and the senses.  You just can't do 40 acres of flowering tulips justice using black and white photography.

That actually is true.  But what about the people whose job it is to work the tulip fields.  Lost in a sea of color, they suddenly appear in a black and white photograph.

In the fields before sunrise and the tourists, these workers have the back breaking job of picking the budding plant.  With a wrist loaded with rubber bands, they bunch them as they pick, then hand them off to the runner.

The runner takes arm loads of the bunches out to the headlands where they are packed into wood crates and transported to an awaiting truck.

By all means, if you are in the area, come on up to Skagit County and oooo and aaaah over acres and acres of color.  But put your monochrome glasses on just long enough to find the people working out in those fields brining our little corner of beauty to the rest of the world.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

March 14, 2015: Small Worlds and Coal Scoops

That friendly face smiling down belongs to Montana Rail Link engineer, Rich Curtis. Now retired, the photo was taken some years back up at Blossburg, Montana while Rich was still in helper service.  He later got off the helpers and ended his career on the day switch in the Helena Yard. 

I first met Rich back when I was given permission to ride the helpers over Mullan Pass for a series of articles I was doing.  I have many regrets, one of them was things never quite worked out where one of the rides was with Rich.

I remember one day, while getting a few facts and figures from Road Foreman of Engines, Kern Kemmerer, Rich signed off duty and joined us in Kern's office.  Kern offered to take us all to breakfast, so the three of us ended up over at the Helena Airport Terminal, a well known breakfast spot for locals.  Rich and I were doing the usual back and forth "getting to know each other" conversation when a surprising common thread began to make itself known. 

Finding out I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, Rich mentioned he'd spent a little time in the area at Fort Lewis when he was about to be discharged from the Army.  Already knowing about my leaving the city life to go farming Rich mentioned that in the last months he was in, there was a program that allowed soldiers about to be discharged to job shadow various people in the private sector.  Just for something different, he choose to ride around with a couple of veterinarians working out of the Olympia area back in about 1974.

The bite of omelet that was about to enter my mouth never made it that far.

Cleveland and Sands, I asked?

In fact yes, that is who it was.

I was still in the dark, but a faint light of recognition came across Rich.

Rich turned his attention to Kern and continued with his story.  He told of a time when he went out  with Dr. Sands to attend a sick cow belonging to a registered breeder just south of Olympia.  In the process of working on this cow, "Sandy" (as we all called Dr. Sands) asked for a thermometer.  Rich grabbed one from the bag, then promptly dropped it in the cow shit.  As Rich recalled,

"The farmer had a herdsman, a young guy, kind of a smart ass.  He gave me a bad time about dropping that thermometer."

He was now looking right at me.  

Yep, that was me, and yes, I did recall that visit.  As it turned out, Rich came out to the farm where I was working a couple more times before he was discharged.  He went his way, I went mine, only to meet again some 35 years later in Helena, Montana.

A small world indeed.

From that time on, whenever I was in Helena, Rich was always on my list of people to visit. On one such visit, we were once again in Kern's office.  It was right after my book on the Wellington Slide had been published.  Rich was telling me how his great grandfather was a fireman on the Great Northern.  He worked the helpers over Marias Pass to the north.  In fact he still had the coal scoop he had used.

There's a funny story about that scoop, Rich went on.  It seems when the engine crew had to "relieve" themselves the coal scoop served as the porto-potty.  One time, his great grandfather found himself in just such a situation.  Going out to the coal deck, he scooped a little coal dust into the shovel.  The idea being, you then did your business in the carbon in the scoop, (carbon neutralizes odor), and when done a little extra coal is shoveled and the whole affair gets tossed into the firebox.  A fool proof system, except, this one time, just as his great grandfather had gotten settled and was in the midst of his business, the engine lurched, great grandpa lost his balance, and sat right in the coal scoop.

Rich figured the hoghead and his great grandfather stayed on their sides of the cab the rest of the run.

Even though Rich is now retired, I still make a point of looking him up whenever I pass through Helena.  And yes, the fact that both these stories share a somewhat "common theme" has not been lost on us.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

March 8, 2015: Optimism or Insanity?

I have often heard it said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a form of insanity.  When I think about that, particularly if taken at face value, it's pretty hard to argue to the contrary.  But then again, that old adage doesn't take into account that wonderfully illogical human trait, optimism.

Every spring we take to the fields.  Every spring we do the same thing over and over, work the ground and get the fields ready for another season.  No matter how disastrous the previous year was, each spring we're right back at it.

Such behavior would indeed fit the definition of insanity.

Enter in optimism.  If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, certainly optimism is doing the same thing over and over believing this is going to be the year.  Optimism grows with the crop.  It starts about this time of year when I breathe in those first whiffs of wet dirt getting opened up to dry.  It really takes root when I drop the plow into the ground and start turning the good earth over.  It reaches full bloom when the rows of strawberries are a deep green heavy with ripe fruit.

Then comes the reality of harvest.  That's when optimism ebbs and the thoughts of insanity begin to creep into my mind.  Harvest is when the harsh realities of endless red tape and rules, lack of help to pick, foreign competition keeping domestic prices below the break even point, all those things that rip optimism from me hit home all at once.  Harvest is when I realize insanity is real, optimism is just something I have to try and conjure up to keep going.

And yet, I do keep going.  Insanity can take the forefront at times, but it never totally eliminates optimism.  It seems each year I can come up with another reason for hope.  This year is no different.  There is hope.  There is opportunity out there.

There is a reason to once again push insanity aside and make room for optimism.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 26, 2015: Is A Picute Worth a Thousand Words?

We've all heard the saying.  Most of us have used the saying more than once.  But is it true?  Can I pen 1000 meaningful words about a single photo?  Let's give it a try.

                                                                   Looking Back

Montana Rail Link engineer Sam Sutton peers through his rain splattered mirror.  His locomotives are cut in the middle of a heavy westbound coal drag.  He looks back as the rear half of the train rounds the horseshoe curve at Austin, Montana.  Within 3 years of the taking of this photo, Sam would not be with us.

Looking back. Like Sam looking back on his train, I find myself looking back on my experiences in Montana.  Like the effect of the water droplets on the mirror, I'm sure my view of what I did and saw has been a little distorted by time.  The photos taken can bring when and where into focus, but the more important emotions felt, the nitty gritty details of the experiences I had, that's where time tends to either enhance, or fade.

Montana would have never happened were it not for a set of events that had nothing directly to do with me.  Our son Seth, transferred from the University of Washington to Montana State.  The 4 year plan became a 12 year stay.  Looking back,  even if I set aside my WSU Coug roots requiring a hate of the U of W Huskies, Seth's move to the Gallatin was a good one.  It revived his pursuit of a Master's of Architecture and my enthusiasm for rail photography.

I remember the trips to Helena and Bozeman.  It seemed once across the Idaho boarder and the closer I came to the top of Homestake Pass, the more relaxed I became.  When the aggression and hustle of the "west side," and the seeming endless monotony of Eastern Washington finally were replaced in my rear view mirror with the Bitterroots and the Clark Fork River, a degree of ease settled in the like of which I have never experience before or anywhere else I've been.  Not just the open spaces of  "The big Sky Country" it was the attitude of the people.  Look again at Sam.  He is helping to move 15.000 tons of coal up a mountain grade.  He is controlling 14,400 hp along with two other engineers operating that many horses, or more, and yet you can see his sense of calm control.  Looking back, I saw the same demeanor in most I met.

Of course, over a period of 12 years things are going to change.  The biggest change for me is one of priorities.  Seth and his wife Jess moved from Billings this past summer and are now living a mere 20 miles from us here in Washington.  With them, (and our soon to be born granddaughter) here, driving to Montana has slid down the "to-do" list to the point it no longer even appears.  Looking back, taking train pictures along the Montana Rail Link was important to me, but these trips were always planned around spending time with Seth.  It's no coincidence that 2014 was the first time in 12 years I did not go Montana.

Changes have come to the people I've met which is to be expected.  Three of my MRL friends have retired, two have taken other positions on the railroad, and as mentioned, sadly, Sam has passed away.  Looking back, it is these connections, these friendships that I value far beyond the images they allowed me to take. 

Looking back, I sometimes think I was able to experience the Montana Rail Link during a time of transition.  I was there when the tried and true old locomotives of the 70's were being replaced with sleek new, high tech engines that were supposed to run more by computers than the seat of the engineer's pants.  Looking back, the mountain grades of Montana more than tested that theory.  But there also seemed to be a shift in attitude.  The pressures of surges in rail traffic forced the MRL to shed its local, hometown, regional point of view and lean more towards the corporate, Class 1 mode of operations. 

Sam was old school.  He was the Montana I look back and choose to remember.  Climbing the east slope of Mullan Pass he was watching his train, watching over his power, and watching for where the local elk herd was grazing.  It was getting close to hunting season.  He was back and forth sparring with the Road Foreman of Engines who was riding with us and one "Did I ever tell you about the time...." after another.  He was a man that treated me, a total stranger, like a best friend within minutes of meeting.  Like Seth, Sam was a good reason to keep going back to visit Montana, and like Seth, when Sam left, a little of the incentive to travel back left with him.

Is this picture worth a thousand words?  I think the question should read, are a thousand words worth this picture?  Right now I'm at 809 words.

I guess the answer is "No."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 19, 2015; What Was I Thinking?

All photographers, professional and amateur have a fair number of shots no one will ever see.  Even the best in the world probably have pictures that had them saying to themselves, "What the hell was I thinking about?"

Of course the digital age has changed all of that.  A photo is taken, not liked and deleted forever, usually within seconds.  Even slide shooters had the ability to look at individual images and throw away the rejects.  Those of use who shoot negatives, weeding out the trash is no so easy.  All too often a real clunker is the middle image of 4 or 5 good negatives that have been cut and carefully stored in sheaths. Each time I pull out a string of negs to scan or print the good images, I also get to revisit that mistake or two that seems to show up in every roll.

Case in point:  look at the above photo.  I give up, what's so great about a couple of tank cars?  The pattern of the ties is kinda cool, were it not for the grass I so cleverly used to further clutter the image.  What was I thinking?

Taking a photo from a train is tough to do, at least for me.  I know what I was trying to do in this shot.  The concept was getting a photo of the switchman on the ground.  But why would I wait for that exact moment when the wiper blade and handrail bisected the guy's body?  What was I thinking?

There is so much I could have done with this opportunity.  That old milepost marker, the back lighting, the helper set, everything was there for a good shot.  Maybe I just couldn't decide how to pull it off and by the time inspiration arrived the helpers were almost out of sight?  Maybe I meant to have a telephoto on and somehow "forgot" I had the wide angle?  And here's the real mystery, there is no negative of the helper set coming at me as one might think.  It appears this IS the shot I wanted.  What was I thinking?

A really good "away" shot of a train can be a little tricky.  A really bad "away" shot like this, all too easy to take.  Look close and you'll see just what a debacle this shot actually is.  Standing in the grass is the Old Man watching the train pass.  Why was I more interested in trying to get a crappy "away" shot than I was getting a good shot of Dad watching the train go by?  What was I thinking?

There is a train in this shot, I swear to God there is.  Using a wide angle lens to photograph a train a half mile away, passing behind a grove of trees.  What else can I say?  What was I thinking?

So there you go, 5 examples that took me probably less than 5 minutes to find.  A really good photographer would learn by these mistakes, but I'll probably revisit this topic a few more times to illustrate just how slow a learner I actually am.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February 14, 2015: Night on the Great Divide

If you want to feel insignificant, spent a night or two alone up at Blossburg, Montana. At the summit of Mullan Pass, draped across the Great Divide, the only man made light comes from the searchlight railroad signals and the headlights of passing trains.

Whether it is the altitude, the lack of the constant droning of urban life, or just the dark solitude, my ears seem ultra sensitive to sound.  Somewhere in the night one of Dave Schatz's cows is bellowing out a call, answered by her calf.  The "conservation" ensues until the two are reunited only to be replaced by the not too distant yipping of coyotes.  The amazing thing about these animals, two scraggily coyotes can sound like 50, especially since their chilling howls are multiplied by their echoes bouncing off the surrounding hills.  I have to convince myself they are a lot farther off then my imagination is trying to tell me.

As if on cue, to the west and to the east a faint rumbles become obvious.  Distant whistles intermingle.  A westbound and helpers are rounding the Austin horseshoes to the east, an eastbound is whistling for the crossing at Elliston.  The noise ebbs and flows as the trains duck into back canyons them emerge out into the more open valleys.  Finally, to the west the bright light of the eastbound emerges illuminating the switches at Blossburg.  To the east, the rumbling of the westbound suddenly ends, the head-end is in the tunnel.  The train's helpers also fall silent, but a glow to the east tells me the head-end is about to emerge just down the track from where I am situated.

And then all hell breaks loose!  The lead locomotives of the westbound climb out of the tunnel cut, their diesel engines straining under the load.  Headlights are momentarily dimmed as the engines of the two trains pass, then are turned back on to light the way.  Cars inch by, and then a set of helper engines, with only a bare minimum of lighting thunder by, shoving part of the train downgrade, while still pulling the remainder of the tonnage uphill.  More of the quiet clickity clack of the cars, the cadence increasing as more and more the train crests the summit and roll downgrade.  In time the last set of helpers drift by, no longer powering, but rather helping hold the train back for the downhill run to Elliston.

Within a few minutes of the westbound's passage, the eastbound gets a green signal to proceed.  The engineer throttles up just enough to get the train rolling over the summit, then backs off into braking, the a long string of empty coal hoppers following in an obedient line.  With that, the little drama ends and once again I'm surround by darkness.  A few distant whistles can be heard as the two trains continue to put distance between them.

The late night rising of the moon adds a luster to the scene.  One of the helper sets off the westbound returns, stopping briefly for a red signal then continues east to Helena and its next assignment.  Silence again returns. 

Be it the unbelievable show of horsepower over gravity, or merely the wide open spaces, I am left feeling as important as a single chunk of the ballast.  Under a canopy of stars not to be seen in but a few places these days, I come to the conclusion,  I represent a pretty small cog in a really big gear.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

February 8, 2015: 44 Years and 20 Bucks Later

Driving rain, blowing wind, Dad and good friend Brian Ambrose attempt to take shelter under an umbrella.  We had splashed our way from Auburn up into the foothills of the Cascades to catch an empty grain train at Palmer Junction. We had spent part of the morning in town watching trains, but when a grain empty left the yard for Stampede Pass, we decided a chase to Kanaskat was in order.

Lucky for us, the train showed up before the rain penetrated through our coats and shirts.

As the train roared past and around the corner, Dad and I remember back to a time almost 44 years to the day when we had come to the same spot.  Our goal was to photograph the Burlington Northern's version of the famed North Coast Limited.  We parked the family wagon on the road, within yards where we parked this day.  We hiked around the corner, just beyond where this shot was taken and climbed up on the hillside above the curve.

Like this day, it was only a short wait before the train came around the bend and headed up the Green River Gorge.  Our goal attained, we called it good and went back to the car.  During our short absence, the soft shoulder of the ground had given way, and the rider's side of the car had settled to the frame. We were stuck.

Lucky for us, just across the tracks and down in a little hollow was a single wide trailer house whose owner had a Jeep.  Not only did he have a Jeep, he loved roaring around the countryside in his Jeep.  Dad told him of our predicament, and in an instant he fired up the straight piped Willis and dispensing of such formalities as a driveway or road, came flying straight up the embankment surrounding his yard, spun a couple of "brodies" on the dirt Tacoma Watershed road, then backed up to our listing station wagon.  A few quick tugs and we were on our way, the owner of the Jeep obviously disappointed it took such a minor pull.

As Dad and I were recounting the tale to Brian, Dad laughed, "that guy got my last 20 bucks."

Monday, February 2, 2015

February 2, 2015; That Damned Norwegian Work Ethic

This is a photo taken of my Mom back in 1970.  If my math is correct and memory clear, I believe she would have been 84 today.  She passed away about 4 years ago.

The Old Man was a hard worker, but Mom was the one with the driven work ethic.  I think I get my work-a-holic ways from her.  This shot of her on her knees, weeding the big garden at the farm was taken on the 4th of July.  I remember Dad was up on the front porch taking a break before we went to the annual Grange picnic.  Not so Mom.  She had finished frying 6 chickens for the feast, and while they browned in the oven, with still an hour or so before we left, she took her weed box and trowel, and went to the garden, with me in tow.  I snuck away long enough to take this shot, before she was able to look up and realize I had skipped out.

Mom was well read, an accomplished musician, a very intelligent woman, and a career housewife.  When I say career, I mean that in a very industrial/corporate sense of the word.  She worked at that job with the same vigor, seriousness and intensity modern women put into their careers outside of the home.  By any standards, our house in Tacoma was a "shack," but under Mom's care the interior was immaculate, not a blade of grass out of place in the large yard.  Later, when she and the Old Man moved back out to the farm, her childhood home, we used to tease her.  The lawn in front of the big old farmhouse under her care was referred to as "the putting green."

So if I work long hours at the mill.  If I spend 7 months out of the year farming nights after work and week-ends.  If during the winter months I spend my week-ends out in the fields weeding, it's not my fault.

It's that damned Norwegian work ethic.

It's one of the many gifts Mom gave me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

February 1, 2015; Curb Appeal

These days I find I watch almost as much "House and Garden TV" as I do ESPN, Root Sports, or even History Channel.  In particular I tend towards the make over shows. In some couples are either shopping specially for a fixer-upper that is magically transformed into their dream home, or the evil real estate agent tries to lure them away from their beloved, but run-down home all the while the hapless but never the less good looking renovation expert is frantically remodeling in a effort to make them want to stay.  In all cases, curb appeal and making a house "warm and inviting" are high on everyone's list.

Curb appeal.....  Does it look "warm and inviting?"  Whenever I hear those phrases my mind goes back to my grandparent's barn in Ohop Valley.  On a cold, cloudy winter evening, as darkness begins to fall, what could be more warm and inviting than a dairy barn?  The barn lights are on, Grandpa, the Old Man, my little sister, all are inside busy with evening chores. Years earlier it was just me and Grandpa in there working.  Even from a distance you can hear the steady drone of the vacuum pump, the rattling of buckets, the static filled music coming from the barn radio.

Warm and inviting?  Even on the coldest nights or frigid mornings, the heat from the cows greeted your face when you walked through the door.  The hay mow above not only served as an all winter playground for us kids, but was a thick layer of insulation trapping the warmth coming from the cows.  Of course it helped that you were working.  Cleaning the gutter before and after milking, and of course milking the cows kept all of us busy enough the outside cold was seldom noticed.

There were the other chores as well.  Feeding hay, bedding down the cows if they were to stay in all night, and feeding the calves.  It could be well below freezing outside, but Grandpa would have his coat off, and the sleeves of his sweater rolled up while he mixed a bucket of powered calf milk.  (A quick aside, any farm kid will tell you, one of the best games was to dip your fingers into a bag of powered calf milk, and let the calf suck it off your fingers.  Then it was your turn.  You dipped your slobbery fingers back into the bag and licked the tasty paste off your own fingers.  You repeated that until Grandpa gave you that sideway glance telling you, "You've wasted enough powdered milk for one day.")

You want to talk curb appeal?  You want to talk about warm and inviting?  I would argue any real estate agent or renovation expert would be hard pressed to match, let alone top a barn full of dairy cows.

Just as I would argue their is nothing colder than the same barn standing forever more empty.