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.