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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Idle Chit Chat About the Valley…

Qualco Energy

Uptown today I bumped into Rich Cabe, an old Valley neighbor before he decided to move to higher ground. Years ago Rich lived in the Steve Werkhoven home on the Lower Loop Road. The first words out his mouth were: “There’s more to the story.” The story? Rich means the Giving Tree tale (see post January 18). When I sat down to compose that post, I realized the years had fuzzed up around my memory about just who the recipients of the Giving Tree’s charity were. I seemed to recall Rich’s wife Judy was a beneficiary, so one evening I called him to corroborate the facts as I thought I knew them. In those days it happens that Rich and Judy used to take regular walks along the Lower Loop, and not only did Judy find the miniature Christmas tree I mentioned in the post, but apparently, as did Sandy Frohning, Judy gathered up a nice bouquet herself, thinking…and I quote Rich…”It’s a shame to leave such nice flowers just sitting here….” And when the story of the Giving Tree spread, Judy was indeed called a “grave robber,” teasingly, of course, by those who knew the tree’s strange history.

Chit chat is a funny thing. You start out talking, say, about runaway government spending, lamenting the National Debt, and end up in tsk tsking about your poor old Aunt Tildy’s goiter surgery. Not that two old Valley residents would discuss national fiscal responsibility…and I’m sure none of us has an Aunt Tildy (who in this day and age of iodized salt probably couldn’t sprout a goiter if she wanted to--even if she did exist).

Unraveling the threads of our morning’s chit chat, I realize that our conversation pretty much focused on Valley history past and present. As a matter of fact our discussion strayed from Valley material only once, but even that minor digression was prompted by some very current history: the Valley mailboxes recently victimized by miscreants. Rich told me that his neighborhood is regularly targeted by those who can’t seem to abide a healthy mailbox. He shared the information that the criminal mind has discovered that an ignited highway flare will reduce a sturdy plastic mailbox to polystyrene magma oozing down the post. When news of this pyrotechnical activity was shared with a County Sheriff, the lawman told Rich that unless the culprits were caught in the act, there wasn’t much the authorities could do about it. “You know what would stop that in a hurry, don’t you? Rich said. “Just slip a small can of gasoline in the box!” “Oh, don’t do that!” flared the sheriff,  echoing the Sheriff Department’s stand on anti-vigilante-ism (unless it is official vigilante-ism, that is). After trading a few more mailbox experiences, we returned to the Valley and its history.

Rich was a Valley resident years before we moved here. The Giving Tree and the Lower Loop Road prompted him to relate the history of that road and adjacent properties. Apparently the County wanted the road built east of where it now crosses Riley Slough, but the owner of the land, now home to Willie Green’s cabbage field, wouldn’t sell any of his land to the County. Instead they had to exercise their west right-of-way, taking fifteen feet or so along  Frohnings’ property. While we’re on the topic of County roads in the Valley, I ask Rich a question that has long been on my mind: “So, why the two sharp corners at Swiss Hall and east? Flat land all the way across the Valley and the County bends Tualco around those two big maples and twists it back left again? What kind of road design is that!” Rich has no idea either. Probably another issue with landownership and property acquisition, we decide.

Valley property? Rich tells me that when Elmer Frohning was clearing the trees from his land, he hired local Indians to cut the trees, pile them and burn them. Their payment? Firearms. (Yes, you read right: “firearms,” not “firewater.”) Elmer would give them a rifle for their labors. Strange wampum, don’t you think, for a paleface to give an Indian, considering the friction between the natives and their new neighbors those days. Tualco Road, Rich said, didn’t always bear that name. An old sea captain lived in the Valley and the road was named after him. “So, Tualco?” I asked. “It’s an Indian name,” Rich thought. More research for the Ripple on that one. Looks like a trip to Gramma Snow’s is in order.

From Indians and firearms to fertilizer…quite a leap there, but that’s how chit chat goes. I lamented the loss of my garden “organic,” which I used to haul from the separator at Werkhovens’ dairy but which now goes to the Qualco Energy digester. And suddenly we’re talking about the methane-powered generator at the site of the old Honor Farm. Dale Reiner gave Rich a tour of the facility a while back and he shares a few facts from the tour for me to digest. It’ll take thirteen years to pay off the facility. Each payment? 200 k annually, but a payment that Qualco makes easily. Not only does the electricity produced create revenue, but also the facility charges a dumping fee for those businesses who have organic materials to dispose of. All “dumpers” but one are charged a fee. Dale told Rich that the sole exemption is a fellow whose business is collecting all the “over the hill” wine (thought wine improves with age…) in the region which he brings to the digester, dumps, and then recycles the bottles. The alcohol, which aids the digestion process, is payment enough, I guess. I learn, too, that the facility can house a second generator, but the million dollar cost of a second unit prohibits expansion in the near future.

Reprising the fertilizer: I told Rich I hauled a load of the “digested” byproduct to my garden last spring but wasn’t sure if the anaerobic process removed all the benefits from the residue “Not the case,” according to Rich. Dale told him the nitrogen was not removed during the digesting and that what I put on my rhubarb and raspberries and tomato patch was rich in N. I also spread some byproduct  around a gooseberry bush that has shown no growth to speak of in four years. Last summer it suddenly sprang to life, doubled in size, rejuvenated apparently by the restorative power of that nitrogen-packed compost.

From fertilizer to gardens: Rich tells me he misses his garden and the rich soil of the Valley. “My ground,” he says, “is a thin veneer of soil and beneath that nothing but pure clay!” I tell him about my brother’s ten acres above Arlington, earth filled with rocks that will grind a tiller down in no time. Rich shakes his head. “You know,” he laughs, “when we moved, Judy asked if we could ‘dig up our garden’ and take the soil with us along with the household goods and furniture.” Now isn’t that just the sort of thing you’d expect a grave robber to say?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Going to Seed in the Valley….

The rain is pelting down outside,A gaggle of Canooks reaffirmation there’s still plenty of winter ahead. Definitely an indoor day; Gladys is warm and dry in the garage; and I’m sitting by the purring woodstove--not about to budge, either. Decks’ obnoxious pack of hounds will have to chase something else for exercise today, their tails, for all I care.

I look out at the desolation of last summer’s garden and the ghosts of vegetables past. Nothing there but dripping decay: what isn’t black and blasted is brown and rotting away. You might just as well be looking at an old black and white photograph and sepia toned, and water-soaked at that.

On a day dismal as this, where do you turn to dispel this monochrome of gloom? Well, I’ve got the answer right here beside me: this pile of colorful seed catalogs. And I do mean a stack of ‘em, fifteen to be exact. But I’ve yet to check today’s mail. Seed catalogs are like zucchini: plant one seed and you’ll yield enough green zeppelins to supply the entire Valley with zucchini bread. (Remember that Biblical miracle of the “loaves and fishes” and the feeding of the five thousand? I’ll swear those loaves were zucchini bread.) Order just one seed catalog the year before, and come the New Year, catalogs from the four corners of the earth will flock to your mailbox. But that’s ok. Let the winter rage away outside; I’ll sit here by the humming wood stove, thumb through this stack, plan this year’s vegetable crop, and do a little garden daydreaming.

A curious thing about these catalogs: many come from back east: Maine, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut…. Four or five out of Wisconsin. One from Indiana--The Vermont (?) Bean Seed Company. Another from Minnesota. Only two from the Pacific Northwest: Territorial Seeds and Abundant Life Seeds originate from Cottage Grove, Oregon. Dare one order seeds from places like Maine and New York that have much longer growing seasons than here? Catalogs list the “date to maturity” for each item in the catalog. I figure, given our cool, wet growing season, you have to factor in twenty additional days before harvest. A variety of corn ripe for roasting in Pennsylvania would just be tasseling here. Perhaps there should be a greenhouse icon for those seeds destined for planting in our gentle maritime climate?

As I leaf through pages and pages of these pictorial gardens, I wonder about those photographs. Don’t those tomatoes look like they could roll right off the page and into your salad? And those green beans? Add some oriental noodles and mushroom soup to that picture and there’s your green bean casserole! That sweet corn—watch out the butter doesn’t drip off your chin and stain your clothes. (Exception Shumway’s catalog out of Wisconsin, black and white line drawings. Their gimmick: nostalgia, a throw back to those pioneer days before printing prpeppers Aesses added color, those old privy days where extra paper was at a premium.) Do these companies hire the Ansel Adams or Annie Leibowitz’s of vegetable photography to capture the best sides of their products?

Good question and the Ripple is right on it. A little investigative journalism is in order. I call the Burpee folks and put the question to them. George takes my call and before I can ask my question, George asks me a half dozen of his own. When I ask mine, he replies, “Now, that’s a good question!” George, though, is top notch as far as customer service: “Let me see if I can find out” and puts me on hold where I listen to some very unvegetable-like Musak for quite some time. George returns and tells me that Burpee will not divulge that information. “Is that a breach of national security?” I ask. George chuckles nervously: “I don’t know,” he says, “I just do what they ax me.”And shouldn’t we all! Good man, that George. Apparently, though, he doesn’t have clearance for that top secret stuff. I thank him for his time and move on to...

“Totally Tomatoes,” (well, not “totally”: every now and then they squeeze a few peppers in between the thousand or so varieties of tomatoes)…. If you’re a tomato lover, TT’s 2011 is a pictorial tomato portfolio. I ordered two packets of a “rare” pepper variety Peppers B from “Totally” last year. One of the packets contained no seeds. I returned the pack and they sent me another, no hassle whatsoever. Seeds this time, but no apologies. Their photographer, I ask? Totally Tomato spokeswoman Sharon has no idea but gives me the voice mail of Dottie who won’t be in until next week. Dottie heads the catalogue department. I leave my name and number and my question, but I have a hunch I won’t be getting a call-back from Ms. Dottie.

I can’t remember who takes my call at the Vermont Bean Seed Company, but I get the same satisfaction there. And it seems like such an innocent question, too. Something contractual, I gather. Don’t those photographers have vegetable portfolios? Wouldn’t they want to shop their talents? I also ask if any photography is done in-house. The bean lady who took my call would neither confirm or deny that possibility. Well, maybe it was a dumb question after all, an unnecessary bother to an employee just trying to push seeds and make it through the day.

These seed catalogs all use the same format to hawk their wares: alphabetical order, from Artichokes to Watermelon. (Don’t be fooled: Zucchini is a Squash.) I’m not afraid to take a chance on seeds from New England. Who knows…some year we may have an actual summer here in the Valley. And I like to try something new every year, whether it be a new variety of tomato or some other crop I haven’t tried. As often as not, your experiment ends in failure. (Those “ripe when they’re green” variety tomatoes—in this country! Shame on me; I should know better.) I’ve tried peanuts, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and those yard-long string beans and all I got for my efforts was more exercise weeding. Mixed results with other crops: okra, which requires warm nights (Ha! In the Valley??)…enough for one batch of Shreveport gumbo. Dent (field corn) corn…destination: hominy. I had maybe a dozen ears mature this season. And the hominy? I’d advise a hazmat suit and work area at the Hanford Nuclear site. That lye is dangerous stuff. Pouring it in boiling water is like tossing gasoline on a fire. My first (and last) attempt yielded four pints of “very tender” hominy, a scored glass surface on the kitchen range, a countertop that has permanent white lines spider-webbed in the surface, and an entire day lost. You know, you can buy hominy at the grocery store for sixty cents a can…. The pole lima beans? If Mother Nature doesn’t leave town like she did this past summer, I think I could get a decent yield for a big batch of lima beans and ham, enough, anyway, for at least one trip to the ER.

What’s new for this year? Burpees has a white pickling cucumber. Just think, jars of albino pickles that look like pickled eggs. And, you know, I’ve always wanted to grow one of those giant pumpkins, one of the big quarter ton jobs just to see if there’s enough room for such a behemoth on one slim acre. This may just be the year. Yeah, it just might….

And the photos for this post? They’re mine. I took them. It’s no secret. I’m not under contract or anything. And I certainly have nothing to hide.Peppers C

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Giving Tree…

Maple honey from right here in the Valley? Unless you’re a local beekeeper, you probably are Swiss Hall Maplenot aware that our local Big Leaf maple trees (Acer macrophyllum) are a mid-spring nectar source. When the maple trees flower the last couple weeks of April and early May, they blossom forth pendulous clusters of small, bell-shaped flowers yellowish-green in color. The clusters ripen into a bundle of winged seeds which spin to earth helicopter-like when they mature. Big Leaf maples are hit and miss nectar sources for honeybees because the spring rains usually prevent the bees from foraging afield. Further complicating the gathering of maple honey is the strange malady afflicting honeybees these days: the colonies that do survive the winter frequently have a field force too weak to collect the nectar. And this is a shame because of all the nectar sources present in the Valley, maple honey is the most unique. At the risk of sounding like a honey snob, Broad Leaf maple honey has a distinct bouquet that greets your nose when you remove the container lid. Not in the least like maple syrup is this honey with its hint of anise (licorice-like)flavor. The color compares to the blossoms themselves, a clear, delicate yellow. If you want a flavorful cup of tea, a brimming spoonful of maple honey will spice up your brew and trip the light fantastic on your taste buds.

There are maple trees in the Valley older than the hills. Perhaps older than the Valley even. Whether these venerable old Acer macrophyllum are remnants of some ancient Valley forest that gave way to pastureland, I’m not sure. However, they are landmarks in the Valley, especially the two on the corner by Swiss Hall. A pair of gnarly giants they stand, forcing spin-outs to opt off the road into the field beyond rather than risk a collision. When raspberries grew in the fields, the shortest rows were always just off that corner: the first hundred feet or so leveled by foolhardy drivers who failed to plan ahead but chose to avoid the vast trunks of the twin maples.

Years ago another monster maple stood guard at the south end of the lower Riley Slough bridge. The old tree was way A tree once grew...past its prime when I first knew it. Full of dry rot and decay, its big limbs dripping moss, the tree was the kind timber men called a widow-maker because of the likelihood huge dead limbs would snap and crash to the ground without warning. One spring a stiff gale toppled the old tree, spreadeagled it into the field it had shaded during Valley evenings since the dawn of evening itself. A root ball big as a wall thrust up alongside the road like the sole of an old boot. I cut two or three truckloads of firewood from its old bones, hauled them home and cremated them in the woodstove—respectfully, of course.

Every time I pass the spot where the old tree stood, I sense its presence yet. Of a summer eve its spirit casts a cooling shadow; on windy days I hear an eerie hum where its branches scraped the sky. Or a crow may caw where there is no perch. I look up. Nothing. Only empty sky. In fall the sound of ghost leaves skittering across the road reminds me the old tree marks the seasons still. I don’t know if you believe in an afterlife of trees, but that maple was so long a part of the Valley I maintain its essence remains, a fixture in memory, at least.

If these giant maples have (or had) histories—and they must—I know nothing of them. But there is another huge maple in the Valley, all other histories aside, known for its charity: the Giving Tree, I call it. The Giving Tree The Giving Tree stands solitary where the Lower Loop Road insects with Frohning Road and the particulars of its gifting are as follow. One day before the New Millennium ticked over, Sandy Frohning drove by the old maple and noticed a neatly bundled floral bouquet nestled next to the massive trunk. Sandy’s first thoughts were not floral but thoughts of romance—romance somehow run amuck.

Now who, at some time or other, hasn’t stood in line at the grocery check-out line in the company of some young man, or perhaps one not so young, and couldn’t help notice in his arms or hands a solitary purchase, a cellophane-swaddled bouquet, roses, perhaps, or some such floral nosegay? Then you think, “Ah, ha—poor fella… said one word too many, didn’t you!” Now Sandy’s thoughts ran along those lines. What she had chanced upon, she imagined, was an apology rejected: that word misspoken (or not spoken at all?) caused a wound too deep for a bundle of flowers to band-aid. A woman scorned—and scornful. And so chuck it, she did, out the window of her car as she passed the old maple. Waste a beautiful bouquet? Sandy scooped up the spurned flowers and brought them home for decoration.

Spring came and one day Tim Frohning drove up on the Giving Tree and noticed a solemn gathering of people clustered beneath its budding branches. One of the congregants wielded a shovel and was removing dirt at the base of the old maple. Tim, quick to assess the crowd was not a County crew or a PUD  squad, stopped to satisfy his curiosity. Also one never  to pass up the opportunity to perpetrate his liberal sense of humor on an unsuspecting victim, Tim inquired, “What are you digging for? Gold?” A discussion ensued and the mystery of the Giving Tree was revealed. The small gathering was a family. Sometime previous they had visited the Valley, were impressed with its beauty, peaceful fields and pastures. That sturdy old maple, they decided, was the perfect site for their beloved relative’s eternal repose. The gathering was funereal: the family had brought their relative’s cremains for deposit in their final resting place. Sandy had unwittingly been a grave robber.

February the following year, some of the Valley folk had a small social gathering to celebrate the annual appearance of that prescient rodent, the ground hog, for a bit of pre-spring reveling (or to lament six more  interminable weeks of winter, can’t remember which it was that year). During the small talk of the evening, the topic of the charitable maple tree and its floral gift came up. The anecdote prompted a gasp from Judy Cabe. The past Christmas season she happened by the Giving Tree and noticed a miniature Christmas tree, fully decorated, discarded at the base of its gnarly trunk. In the spirit of the season, and reasoning that a deciduous tree bereft of leaves and dormant, would be oblivious to its Christmas adornment, Judy decided to include the slumbering maple’s gift in her own Christmas festivities, loaded up the offering and took it home. Gasp! More grave robbing!

There may very well be others who were the beneficiaries of the Giving Tree’s charity and unknowingly made off with a deceased’s memorials. You, perhaps? And Sandy Frohning maintains that each spring, bulbs planted to provide perpetual color bloom beneath the Giving Tree, nourished by the cremains slumbering there.

I’m sure the bereaved family thought our picturesque Valley would be an idyllic site for their relative’s permanent repose; that big maple a living grave marker, some shade for a shade. I wonder if they are aware, though, of the extra attention that spot and the Giving Tree have received because of their decision. Can one really rest in peace with all those comings and goings and snatching up of gifts? The Valley has always seemed a place of peace and quiet to me. And for the most part I guess it is—unless, that is,  you’re dead.Old Valley resident

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Up to No Good in the Valley…

vandals afoot This morning there was a lull in the string of  recent storms that have been stepping on each other’s heels as they rolled through the Valley. A good time for Gladys and me to get some some air and exercise, head outside and blow some of the winter funk off us.

Gladys protests a little this morning: those extra pounds I’ve added over the holidays make her groan a bit more than usual. We turn the corner by Van Hulles’ and head down the straight stretch where I swerve to avoid a piece of plastic in the road. The flap to a mailbox. I ride on by Bert Frohning’s mailbox and notice its door is missing. missing a mailbox On ahead Tony Broer slowly crosses the road to check his mail. Instead of collecting it or picking up the paper and heading back to the house, he stands there fussing over his mailbox. As I ride up on him, I notice the box is crushed on one side and dangles upside down from its moorings. “Not the best way to start the New Year,” I tell him. Tony just flashes that easy-going smile as if to say, “If this is the worst thing that happens today, it’ll be a good day.” Now if Tony’s box were mine, a smile would be the last thing to twitch my lips. I’ve had mailbox issues in the past and found nothing to smile about there. But my lips twitched plenty, let me tell you. Tony heads back to the porch cradling his wounded mailbox. That mailbox has had a hard life. A half dozen years ago I walked by and found it ripped from the post, lying on the ground, both sides bent askew. That time I carried the victim to the porch.

On down the Valley I notice more mailbox vandalism: Matt Hammerstrom’s mailbox down in the weeds; at the corner a large metal mailbox is dented and another doorless, its plastic flap lies in the road; the mailbox stanchion belonging to the first house off Sargent Road is bare: what sat atop the post lies on its side several feet away.Downed mailbox And Steve Werkhoven’s mailbox also has migrated some distance from its post and lies forlorn in the roadside grass.  I also note two uprooted road signs. Casualties of the recent winds and rain perhaps? But given this morning’s mailbox issues, their collapse seems a bit coincidental to me. Besides, I see fresh tire marks near one of the signs, as well as doughnuts spun in the hayfield across from Swiss Hall. And “Barrell’s For Sale” lies flat on the grass beside Martys’ driveway.

 a pushover

joyridin' tracks


Any kind of vandalism angers me; of the many species of mischief, it seems the most senseless. Mailbox vandalism angers me more: I have been there more than once myself.

When I was a kid, the last thing on my mind as I struggled through the school week was looking forward to Friday night so I could head out in the dark and damage the property of others, property that just sits there stationary while you whale away on it with some sort of club. Although it shames me to admit it, my priorities those high school years had less to do with acquiring the three R’s than they did convincing a comely classmate to share my popcorn at the local movie theatre on Friday night. To this end I would begin Monday morning and connive each school day all week long to secure some female companionship when Friday night rolled around.

Wide open

Now I have a theory about these midnight mailbox terrorists: if you COULD get a date Friday night (or any night, for that matter), I doubt you’d be out bashing defenseless mailboxes, now would you? Monroe has a fine Cineplex. Sure, the popcorn’s a little expensive, but it tastes great and smells even better (and so would a date, by the way). Is it because you’re a pimply-faced, unhygienic hobbledehoy with a pea-sized amygdala? What young lady would want to share your popcorn or halitosis anyway, mailbox basher! Isn’t there some sort of video game you could play if you want to wile away some unproductive time? Doesn’t Microsoft’s Kinect offer some sort of “kinesthetic” release for you in the form of mailbox bashing? You could set up your t.v. screen in the garage, hop in that car Daddy bought you, and baseball bat in hand, without leaving home bash virtual mailboxes to your heart’s content. You game programmers out there: if there’s not a “Violate your Neighbor’s Mailbox” video game on the market, why not create one? There could be real money in it—and you’d be doing us rural route folks a valuable community service!

Here’s some advice for you, thugs of the nighttime: take a bath…and for gosh sake, don’t spare the deodorant, slather on some Clearasil, hose down those teeth (use some of them White Strips, why don’t you!) pull up those sagging pants (put on some clean ones, too, and a nice shirt: your mom didn’t intend to raise a slob—or a vandal either), spiff up that used car with a layer of Turtle Wax, polish those piercings, also, and go get yourself a date for Friday night. Take her to a movie. You could even pay for her ticket, too. And afterwards, if you have a hankering to visit the Valley, leave the baseball bat at home and bring your date instead. There’s a nice, little secluded parking lot right behind Swiss Hall.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

From the Archives: Fugitives in the Valley…

Brisk winter Day

Years ago the Valley had a much larger population than it does today. The missing demographic consisted mainly of low-risk ne’er-do-wells, rapscallions, and assorted felonious scalawags and was concentrated at the Washington State (Correctional Facility) Honor Farm, a time-honored institution bent on rehabilitating the aforementioned outlaws by redirecting their anti-social behavior into some productive, civic-minded enterprise. The method used was a more structured application of my dad’s old maxim: “Idle hands make the Devil’s Workshop”--the reason we kids had household chores; the difference, though: we didn’t have Corrections officers always at our elbows, overseeing our labors. But neither did we need ‘em; without fail, Dad, the foreman in absentia of our sweat labor, would show up sooner or later to monitor our efforts and judge whether or not they passed muster.

The rehab model of the Department of Corrections was to turn larcenous and idle hands into farmhands. Their rationale was that a pair of hands hanging onto a couple of cow’s teats, manipulating a milking machine, or wrestling bales of hay into feed bunkers, couldn’t very well jimmy locks, hotwire ignitions, pilfer store merchandise, or lift citizens’ property from their premises at the same time. And working around a herd of benign bovines would give the incarcerated a sense of purpose, engender responsibility, a work ethic, perhaps, and thus take their minds (and keep their hands) off other people’s stuff. Tending a dairy herd meant they’d have to watch their step rather than plan an underhanded one. Nothing like the country life, good hard work, and a little honest manure to turn a bad apple into a productive pippin.

Of course this “born again” approach worked well in theory. But often an inmate would get milkmaid hands or yearn for female companionship, a good home-cooked meal--perhaps get a hankering, so to speak, to keep his “hand in,”whatever business it was sent him to the Farm in the first place. But whatever the stimulus, come bed count he was a no show. Then the hunt would be on for the fugitive until he was apprehended, returned to the barn, and incarcerated again. All these unauthorized comings and goings by the sometime recalcitrant farmhands made the Valley neighbors edgy and concerned about their own property. The evening news would report another fugitive on the loose from the Honor Farm and folks in the Valley would spend a nervous night or two until the escapee was returned to the herd.

Once the Department of Corrections held a public meeting at the Grange to allow folks to share their concerns about the adjacent commune for the felonious. The host officials asked those in attendance if they would like to be notified whenever an inmate flew the coop. Valley folk had the chance to speak their minds about the Farm and respond to the notification issue. Did they want to be warned whenever the bed count came up shy? If memory serves me, people expressed the attitude that “No news is good news,” felt they’d choose the element of surprise over knowing for hours on end that yet another inmate was at large and lurking somewhere in the Valley. There was a sharing of thoughts and opinions, a “working together” between the Valley and “Them.” The blue-ribbon testimonial at that meeting, in my opinion, came from Walt de Jong. Walt shared a personal experience he’d had with one of the AWOL residents of the Farm.

Early one morning Walt strolled by his pick-up, happened to peer in the rear canopy and noticed a pair of legs reclining inside. Walt didn’t recognize the legs. Those legs were trespassing in the back of his rig. Walt considered the nearby loosely structured penal colony and deduced the legs’ origin.The owner was either passed out or sleeping, so Walt thought he would perform his civic duty and return the legs and all other attachments to their proprietor, the Washington State Department of Corrections, Monroe detachment. En route to the Honor Farm, Walt suddenly remembered he had been duck hunting the day before, and his shotgun was still in the back keeping company with the legs. Hmmm…armed legs…, he thought and drove a little faster. Fortunately, Walt arrived at the Farm without incident and informed one of the guards: “I think I have something in the back that belongs to you”and pointed to the rear of the truck where the owner of the legs still lay fast asleep. Apparently hours of wandering in circles in the dark through the fields and pastures of the Valley, tripping over mole mounds, had exhausted the poor fellow. I bet he was the first at bed count that evening.

I suppose the main reason residents turned down the early warning system was they knew from experience that most fugitives fled the Valley as fast as they could, headed for the nearest town or Seattle, determined to put as much distance as possible between them and the dairy herd. These days the Valley breathes easier because years ago the facility closed its loosely monitored doors. But I do know of one instance when a fugitive fled an urban institution and sought refuge right here in our own little Valley.

One pleasant day in late spring I headed for the Valley on my routine walkabout. Just beyond the corner east of Swiss Hall a small station wagon eased by. There was something official looking about the vehicle, and as it passed, I noticed a sign on its side. “Woodland Park Zoo” the sign read. “What does the Zoo want with our Valley?”I wondered. The car eased to a stop a few yards away, and a fellow stepped out from the passenger’s side. He was holding an odd contraption that looked like an elaborate wire sculpture—if the medium were baling wire. In a slow, sweeping motion he moved the device from west to east like some death ray you’d see in a “B” sci-fi film. Then he returned to the station wagon. The car rolled slowly on down the road to the parking lot behind Swiss Hall. Out comes the fellow again, instrument in hand and sweeps the Valley back and forth, south-west to south-east. Back  he goes into the vehicle. The wagon turns around and creeps up the road toward me. I gesture it to a stop, and the driver, a young woman, rolls down the window. I asked her, “Something absent without leave from the zoo?”  “If it’s a big cat or something with a mouthful of sharp teeth, I want to know.”

Something, the young lady informed me, had escaped from the zoo, a gyrfalcon, an uncommon non-indigenous bird of prey. The little fugitive thought it would do a bit of sight seeing, had fled its handler, and had chosen our picturesque Valley for her scenic tour. The strange sculpture—not a fazer at all--but a GPS system homing in on the monitoring tag the rare raptor wore.  “She’s changed perches two or three times, but we know where she is now,” the young man said. And off they went back up Tualco. I watched the little station wagon turn into Gramma Snow’s driveway and continue slowly on past her barn where it stopped.

When I returned from my walk, I gave Gramma a call. “Did they retrieve that bird?” I asked and told her about meeting the two zookeepers during my walk. “Yes, they did!”an excited Gramma said. She had watched the entire retrieval. The “falcon-gentle,” (a female falcon) was perched in a tree near the barn. One of the zookeepers waved a feathered lure and the falcon immediately flew down to it. They loaded up the wayward bird and headed back to Seattle. The scenic tour over. The fugitive returned.

And what of that old institution, the Honor Farm? The only thing that escapes from there these days is an occasional fugitive burst of methane gas from the Qualco Energy anaerobic digester, but before it travels very far, it’s incinerated.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sense of Community…Going, Going,…

New Year's Day

One of the positives about writing this blog is that it has enhanced the sense of community I feel when I’m out in the Valley. With the exception of an occasional encounter with a hostile canine or being bowled over by an inattentive cyclist, I most always enjoy my time there. The pace seems slower in the Valley. Drivers, too, are friendlier when they’re not being urged along at sixty miles an hour by a stream of traffic pushing from behind. They take the time to smile and wave—even honk--as they pass by. Not only do I know my old Valley acquaintances better, I’ve enjoyed meeting new folks, as well. But these days I’m more and more reluctant to leave the Valley.The days I can stay home and putter about the place are among my favorites. I’ve tried to keep the Valley Ripple a blog about the peaceful, pastoral, pleasant place we live and spend most of our time. But the days of self-sufficiency, of self-reliance have sadly gone the way of the Valley pioneers. So go to town we must. And that’s the subject of this post.

My experiences with the town of Monroe go way back to my youth, years before we moved to town in August of 1970, five years before we built our home in the Valley. Monroe was the first real community we’d pass through on our summer trips to the coast to visit my grandparents in Seattle. We’d round the bend and suddenly there it was, Monroe’s landmark erection, the cement smoke stack towering over the east end of town. I’d see that and think, “You’re not in the sagebrush anymore, young man; welcome to the city!” We’d drive through town, past the street dividers blooming with color. Even then Monroe’s green tidiness seemed to beckon a quiet welcome. 

In fact but for a military deferment, I came close to landing my first teaching job in Monroe. This was during the uproar that was Viet Nam. An English teacher at Monroe High (Parkplace Middle School today) had been drafted. The high school principal called me in Ellensburg and asked if I would come in for an interview. I was almost out the door when the phone rang, a return call from the principal informing me his teacher had just been granted an educational deferment. My first teaching job in Monroe: I would have liked that very much. But definitely not under those circumstances.

When we moved to Monroe in 1970, there was a sense of community much like that these days in the Valley. You saw the same people on the street or in the stores. You knew the town’s eccentrics; they were part of the community fabric, too. Through our common interests in beekeeping, I got to know Lester Broughton, an old gentleman who lived across the street. It was a friendship that lasted until his death in 1979. “Mr. Broughton,” I called him (he called me “The Teacher”), was like a second grandfather to me. Another memorable small town experience occurred when we were building our home here in the Valley. One day we ate our dinner sitting in the opening that one day would be our fireplace. We sat there, dangling our legs while we ate our meal: hamburgers, fries and shakes from the Candy Cane Drive-in. In those days Monroe was a comfortable, inviting place to live.

Monroe today? With the exception of the landscaped dividers on Main and Lewis Streets, (the former now blighted by warning signs and security cameras), I hardly recognize it. The Candy Cane and A&W Drive-ins long gone. Now U.S. 2 through Monroe looks like Highway 99 through Lynnwood, a jumble of fast food joints and strip mall small business eyesores. Dan’s Restaurant, where I had breakfast to celebrate my first school day in retirement: I ate eggs and hash browns and sipped coffee while the big yellow buses offloaded the year’s crop of school kids as I watched. I  grinned so much I let my breakfast get cold. Dan’s is gone; only an empty building remains. And Denny’s is a poor substitute at best. Say what you will, there’s no small town feel to a fast food chain eatery.

Then commercial Monroe jumped Highway 2. Stoplights cropped up at intersections to accommodate traffic bound for the commercial sprawl that now occupies the hilly woods where I once dug a dogwood sapling for our yard. Every few months, it seemed, there was a new traffic signal and two or three more cars ahead of you waiting for the light to change.

Fred Meyers crippled Coast-to-Coast, that friendly little hardware store where you could buy one of a kind, if that’s all you wanted—be it only a single nail. And there was always a friendly, knowledgeable staff to assist and advise you with your projects. Coast-to-Coast was where you made that third trip of the day for the plumbing project that invariably became complicated. Then came Lowe’s, that cavernous big box store where most of the staff in the place wandered around as bewildered as you were. Most of the time you strolled up and down the canyons until you got good and lonely, then you followed your trail of bread crumbs to the exit, out to your rig and drove all the way to Snohomish to the Do-It Center where folks were friendly and helpful again. You bought your two nuts and bolts and headed home. Lowe’s dealt C-to-C its death knell, a competitive coup-de-grace from which that small town business was unable to recover. Coast-to-Coast: gone up in smoke like their unfortunate kitty mascot that succumbed to the fire that destroyed the old downtown location. In Coast-to-Coast the community had a genuine gem There’s not a townsperson who doesn’t miss it.

Now it appears we’ll all have more company ahead of us at the traffic signals: big eighteen wheelers hauling trailers with the message SAM’S CLUB emblazoned on their sides, big trucks rolling into town from all corners of the country. Yes, the Monroe City Council, reversing its earlier contingent no-sale clause, has sold the property east of the Galaxy Theatre complex and Lakeside Industries to developers who in turn have sold the property to the Wal-Mart chain. Their reason for this latest assault on our town’s sense of community is a slack treasury; apparently the City has exhausted its petty cash jar and must refill it by choosing to sell our town on down the river—and cheaply, too.  The City has sold the property short: 2 million dollars from what they were offered for the parcel a while back. So what we have here, folks, is a “lose/lose” situation: the citizens get a Wal-Mart in their community--and the City coffers lose two million bucks. Everyone loses all the way around. Ain’t politics grand!

Little Monroe lacks the infrastructure to support another mega-store (3.5 acres/155,000 square feet’s worth of low quality merchandise. Just one more vast roof for the local crows to perch on). If the councilmen and women would once in a while brave commuter traffic through and around town instead of brokering deals where they lose the City money while at the same time hamstringing the community, they might have an epiphany of commonsense. One freight train rumbles through town and it’s instant gridlock on all streets and arterials north, south, east, west. (The other day I enjoyed a nice twelve minute nap in the left turn lane on Highway 2, courtesy of a BNR mega-length freight train crawling across Lewis Street). If you have errands in town, better get ‘em done between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. these days unless you want to sit through two or three light cycles before you creep to the next light. When Wal-Mart squats on its twenty-four acre parcel, better redirect those errands to Duvall—or make sure you have a full tank of gas or a good book to read while you sit through one traffic light cycle after another. And when another freight train plods through, you’d best hop it if you have some place to go.

The City is trying to sugarcoat their rash decision by playing the jobs angle: a Wal-Mart would provide the area with 300 low-wage jobs. And this will ease gridlock? 300 more employees plus the droves of shoppers seeking to belong to Sam’s Club? (Where Wal-Mart is concerned, perhaps the Town Council should heed the words of the comedic philosopher Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t care to belong to a Club that would have me as a member.")

No, altruism and politics make strange bedfellows. The Wal-Mart decision is all about revenue: a reliable stream of taxes, property and sales. Yes, honorable Council folk, it’s all about the money, isn’t it? For the smell of cash you have tightened further your stranglehold on the town’s sense of community. I’ll wrap up this thinly veiled attempt at non-biased journalism with a passage from a Garrison Keillor novel, a quote about money: “A horrible truth in America: Money talks. Not truth, not society, not art, but money, and when money talks, it doesn’t tell the truth, it talks money.” And there’s the truth of the matter—pure and simple.

NOTE: Those concerned about the pervading erosion of our community may want to attend the next City Council meeting 7:00 p.m., January 4, at City Hall—a reprise of “Them vs. Us” only this time it’s the City Council starring as “Them.”(See “Redlining the Valley,” Nov. 19).  January 6 the Monroe Preservation Action Committee’s will hold a rebuttal meeting from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at the Monroe Congregational Church 301 S. Lewis Street.