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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bird Watching…Me in the Valley…

Spring snow

A wary bird is the Great Blue Heron. I see them frequently in the Valley, but they are camera-shy creatures. Usually by the time I remove the camera’s lens cover, the bird has clambered into flight, headed off for less crowded territory. At one sighting in the field south of Frohning Road I saw a dozen or more and wondered what attraction brought them there. Don’t know why, but the thought of a sudden abundance of little tree frogs came to mind, small but tender little morsels for a heron, I would imagine.

I have seen Great Blues wading in Riley Slough below the Lower Loop Bridge; I have seen them perched high in trees adjacent to Crescent Lake; one I saw in the old cottonwood snag east of the Upper Riley Slough Bridge by Aldens’ Victorian. Only the latter stuck around for a photo op. The others all wobbled off for more privacy.Heron perch

When I was a kid living along the Columbia River, we had our own resident Blue Heron. The big bird would park its stilts in the shallow waters offshore of The Island, a boulder strewn landmark below our house. Because of its laborious take-off and flight, we named the bird Old Pokey. We had a more generic name for Pokeys, but because I’m ever vigilant to keep The Ripple free of crudities, I will not share it here. Suffice it to say, the name originated from the bird’s characteristic habit, when startled into flight, of strafing the water with a prodigious amount of whitewash, rippling the calm waters into small tsunamis.

Our neighbors the Cardinals had a resident Blue Heron, too—for a while--until their new water feature no longer was home to any darting goldfish. The disappearing fish were a mystery to them; they would restock the little pond and a few days later not a solitary fish could be found. One summer morning early, I went out to do some exterior paint work on my barn. The morning mist hadn’t yet cleared. I noticed a bulgy hulking thing sitting on Jim and Katie’s t.v. antenna. Just as I set the ladder, the avian specter unfurled its bulky wings and lifted off into the fog.

The next day shortly after noon I went out to resume painting, glanced over at the neighbors’ yard and was amazed to see a huge heron in still life pose suspiciously close to the pond. I rushed to the house, called Jim, and told him if he’d quick look outside, he’d solve the mystery of the disappearing fish. Like my brother Tim once remarked, “They always go for the twenty dollar koi first!”

I admire writers who apply their special powers of observation to the avian world and can put into words the behaviors and flight patterns unique to a particular bird species. Anyone who has ever seen a heron take flight will agree he’s just observed a near aerodynamic impossibility; that such a mound of feathers can launch all those awkward appendages and keep them airborne, is nothing short of a miracle. In his novel Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier described a heron’s takeoff this way:

Then the heron slowly opened its wings. The process was carried out as if it were a matter of hinges and levers, cranks and pulleys.

No doubt about it: Frazier knew his herons.

The other day Gladys and I were tooling along the Loop Road by the Cambodians’ flower fields. There, high-steppin’ it through the daffodil rows, was a Great Blue. I came to a slow stop and slipped the camera out of my pocket. The heron froze in its spindly tracks. We stared at each other across the distance of one hundred feet. I could see the dark blue iridescence of its neck feathers (thus the heron’s common name). I fully expected the Pokey to heave itself aloft, but no--it decided to stride its getaway. I was able to take three photos before Ol’ Blue blended into the scenery. I post the first here—the best of the three. I’m afraid it’s a “Where’s Waldo” snapshot (or a Where’s Pokey?); I did the best I could. The bird’s there pokin’ along somewhere. Trust me.Great Blue Heron

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring from the Valley to You…

Ranier in Spring

Ten thousand saw I at a glance/Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

A beautiful morning in the Valley. Spring. I feel it in the sun. And the birds confirm it. Even Gladys seems to glide along in uncharacteristic bliss. Down Valley all nature seems to be giddy with the day. I see a violet-green swallow perched on a snag at Crescent Lake. Red wing blackbirds are in a “cork-a-twee-dunk” competition from the swamp by the fish and game parking lot. A bald eagle oversees all this nonsense from the old cedar tree. But he can scarcely contain his own delight in the day.

Mt. Ranier is glorious this morning. We extend the route to our mountain vista by the Qualco Energy generator building. On the return, I can’t help but record the flowering daffodils in the Cambodians’ flower fields.Clump of springOne row is nearly in full bloom. I wonder why these blossoms aren’t plucked, bunched, and marketed at flower stands at the Pike Place Market. Share the spring, I say.Spring daffodils 

I’ve just left the golden row and am about to mount up again when I see a splash of red ahead at the edge of the field. “Tulips,” I think, “a little more spring color to brighten up my post!” I’m fishing in my pocket for my camera when the tulip row moves, morphs into Mrs. Schmidt, wearing a flaming red sweater. She and Lucy are taking in the spring air. I wish her a “Good morning,” and warn her of the bulls in the pasture up ahead.

The Valley daffodils remind me of a book I read many years ago: Charles Kuralt’s America. Kuralt was  a CBS journalist and founder of the program “On the Road” and later went on to host the network’s Sunday Morning, a program that continues today. Kuralt had a friend, Granville Hall, who raised daffodils/narcissus. Each year he would send Charles a bag of daffodils, and Kuralt would plant them on his Connecticut farm. Because he was a journalist, Charles would usually be on assignment in foreign lands at daffodil time and was never on site to see his fall planting efforts in blossom.

One year in his annual shipment of bulbs, Kuralt was surprised to find a small packet of two bulbs. Their scientific name was Narcissus charles kuralt. His friend Granville had raised the special bulbs from seed and registered them with the Royal Horticultural Society. Friend Granville said it was the first cultivar he’d ever registered, and he had done so in honor of Kuralt’s impending retirement. Charles planted the special bulbs that fall and was able to see them flower the next spring.

My sister Claudia has a variety of apple named after her, a mutation she found while on assignment in the apple orchards of her youth, a red delicious “sport” now called “Claudia.” There is something awesome about having your own name attached to a living thing, a genetic variation that will carry you on through the seasons, through life: the years, centuries—in perpetuity—and make your name immortal. Your mark on eternity. A writer’s words and thoughts can be engraved on time. That we all know. But a name immortalized in plant life is equally impressive.

Kuralt said of N. charles kuralt: “Plaques tarnish. Scrolls fade. But those daffodil bulbs will divide and multiply. Within a year or two, I’ll be able to give a couple of bulbs to each of my daughters. If they plant them and care for them, those will divide in turn and yield bulbs for my grandchildren. With a little luck, the flower named Charles Kuralt will appear from the earth to bloom in the spring long years after the man of the same name is gone.”

“I guess that’s not exactly immortality, but it’s as close as I will ever get.”

Charles Kuralt: September 10, 1934—July 4, 1997 Snow capped Pilchuck

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Heads Up in the Valley…

On the March in the Valley

The stock market lost 242 points the other day. So what! Who cares! As I stroll along home, what do I find smiling up at me from the roadside mud? The august face of FDR, 32nd president of the United States, he of the “Day of Infamy” fame. Yes, it’s a Roosevelt dime, minted at the Philadelphia mint in 1997. One thin dime..Big money! And heads up, too! “Valley, can you spare a dime?” Apparently so, and Mr. R. is destined for the two quart road kill jar at home.

The dime, “The liveliest coin,” said author Truman Capote, “the one that really jingles.” Capote was right. There is something magical about this little coin. It seems to have a certain numismatic flare. Pennies, nickels, quarters—they have their place in our pockets or purses—but it’s that silvery little disc that shines out at you from your handful of change, and you feel, hey, life’s ok.

The Roosevelt dime has been around since 1946, the year after FDR’s untimely death—a tribute  and memorial to his presidency. Until 1964 the dime was ninety per cent silver—copper making up the balance. The silver glint went out of the coin in 1965 when the U.S. mint sandwiched a thin copper core between cupronickel, an alloy of copper-nickel, basically stripping Roosevelt from any precious metals: 75 % copper, 25 % nickel.

Back in the days of silver, an old feller from Arkansas taught me some primitive silversmithing. He showed me how to fashion a delicate silver ring from a ten cent piece. (He also made rings from silver quarters.) All you needed were a couple of hammers, one whose head you rested on a knee for a metal surface like an anvil; the other—preferably one smaller—you tap, tappity, tapped against the rim of a silver dime--and a dinner spoon. Holding the dime between thumb and forefinger, you rotated the coin slowly as you gently tapped the rim. In this fashion you would eventually flatten the rim until you thought it was wide enough, once the center was removed, to fit the finger of the young lady for whom you were crafting the ring: the smaller the finger, the wider the band. At this point you “finished” the ring by patiently tapping the widened rim with the back of the spoon, removing  any dimples or dents made by the initial hammer taps. Tap, tippety, tap until the surface gleamed smooth and shiny.

Now you were ready to make the ring finger-ready. Using the point of your jackknife, you would drill a hole in the center of the dime (approximately the center of Franklin’s cheekbone). Again rotating the coin, you slivered away the soft metal, ever expanding the “ring” of the ring. This you did until the knife blade was nearly flush with the underside of the band. You finished off the ring by slivering the inner ridge smooth, being sure to leave a slight convex arc of metal for strength. A soft cloth for the final bright finish and you were ready to bestow the gift.

Over the years I’ve made several dime rings, initially, perhaps, for old girlfriends long since forgotten. I made at least two for my wife. The last, a bit too large, slipped from her finger and was gobbled up by the vacuum cleaner. The result: pretzeled metal, a ring no more. I ringed my daughter twice also, I believe. A half dozen or so I made for the granddaughters of one of my wife’s clients. She collected the silver dimes; I did the crafting, for which, I might add, I received nothing more than a thank-you and sore fingertips. Three years ago from a silver dime I’d purchased at a swap meet, I crafted a ring for my niece Naomi. Naomi lives in Omaha and because it would have been a sore inconvenience for her to send me a finger for ring sizing, I made the ring adult size and sent it to her in the company of a thin silver chain so she could wear the ring as a pendant necklace. I’m hoping one day her finger and ring may fit. To her uncle’s great satisfaction, on her last visit to the West Coast, Naomi wore the ring and necklace and posed for a photo.Naomi's dime necklaceOne could, of course, fashion a dime ring from a modern dime, but the young lady wearing it would soon have a green ring finger, exposing you to be the fraud and cheapskate you really are.

The Roosevelt silver dime weighs 2.5 grams ( today’s cupronickel imposter is .25 grams less),which started me wondering how much its silver content would be in today’s market. The precious metals’ market has exploded in the last couple of years with gold reaching all time highs, nearly $1,450 an ounce just recently. Silver has more than doubled since last year: from fifteen dollars an ounce to its thirty-five plus dollars at today’s spot quotes.

So what is the “melt” value of a 1946-64 Roosevelt dime? The website gives the formula—even allowing for the ten per cent copper content—to determine the daily value of the coin at current spot prices. For those of you who would like to melt down that coffee can’s worth of silver dimes you have buried in the backyard, here’s the silver content value of one dime as of the market’s close 3/18/2011: $2.5521. Add in the copper content and that thin dime’s worth a whopping $2.5545! With most of the silver slivered away, what’s the value of a dime ring anyway? Well, any price you want to assign a labor of love.

Back in the days of the Mercury head dime (1916-45) “one thin dime” could buy a loaf of bread. And the Depression years coined the phrase, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” The former, “one thin dime,” gave rise in those days to a bit of lighthearted wordplay, verbal circumlocution, if you will. The stimulus would be the phrase “Well, that’s life,” the universal catchphrase for “That’s just the way it goes” whenever something beyond one’s control happened to anyone. When one unwittingly responded with: “Well, that’s life,” here’s how the dialogue went:

You: What’s life?

He: Life’s a magazine.

You: Where do you buy it?

He: At the news stand.

You: How much does it cost?

He: One thin dime.

You: Well, that’s life.

Now it’s your turn: “What’s life?…”

I  hope this post is worth ten cents of your time. I’ll leave you to decide if it’s the pre—or post 1964 value.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Swoop and Glide…the Swallows Returned to the Valley…

March cloud study

Yesterday. Approximately 1:55 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time. Trending southwest, the bird was, its swooping and dipping flight distinct : no other bird flits about the heavens with such apparent delight. I saw three more in the course of the afternoon, all in the southwest sky doing aerobatics against the March clouds.

March is the Month of the Swallow here in the Valley. Some mystic message tells them the bugs have hatched and are adrift on the Valley air; the sky smorgasbord is set for them. I record each annual sighting on the calendar, and out of curiosity I gathered up calendars back to 2005. Please note I’m not a bona fide member of the Audubon Society, haven’t participated in the Backyard Bird Count, don’t tweet or twit to Tweeters. The following therefore are unofficial sightings:

2005--10: 05 a.m., March 8

2006--10:32 a.m., March 24

2007--12:50 p.m., March 12

2008--12:55 p.m, March 4

2oo9--11:10 a.m., March 21

2010—1:10 p.m, March 9

They will share the Valley with us until September. Then one day without saying a word, they’ll be gone .

This morning I see two swallows on patrol over the Sky Valley turf, both violet-greens, our earliest swept wing arrivers. Both are a’ wearin’ of the GREEN this morning. That’s my clever avian segue into today’s special date, March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day—the day everyone’s Irish. (But some, like me, are more Irish than others.)  And since my last post was a bit on the dark side, I’ll make amends with the following Irish joke:

“An Irishman walks into a Dublin pub, orders three pints of Guinness, and drinks them down, taking a sip from one, then a sip from the next, until they’re gone. He then orders three more. The bartender says, ‘You, know, they’d be less likely to go flat if you bought them one at a time.’

‘Yes,’ the man said, ‘I know, but I have two brothers, one in the States, the other in Australia. When we all went our separate ways, we promised each other that we’d all drink this way in memory of the days when we drank together. Each of these is for one of my brothers. The third is for me.’

The bartender is touched, and says, ‘What a great custom!’

The Irishman becomes a regular in the pub and always orders the same way. One day he comes in and orders two pints. The other regulars notice, and a silence falls over the pub. When he returns to the bar for the second round, the bartender says, ‘I’m very sorry. Please accept my condolences, pal.’

The Irishman says, ‘Oh, no, everyone’s fine. I just joined the Mormon Church, and I had to quit drinking.’”

from Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Now you’re either Dublin over with laughter or scratching your head. Whichever the case, it’s time to turn the corned beef and slice the cabbage. And in case you’re down on your luck in the Valley today, I’ll share some of yesterday’s Valley green with you.Yesterday's luck

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Under the Weather in the Valley…

The Valley in March

Clouds suffocate the Valley this morning, but the rain that’s ruled the month so far holds off for now. As long as the clouds only frown, Gladys and I can get on with our routine. To get a jump on the morning—one hop ahead of the rain—we are out on the Lower Loop at half past eight a.m.

I’m in low spirits this morning for some reason. And having to duck those smothering clouds isn’t likely to perk me up either. Today is March fifteenth, the Ides of March; maybe that’s partly why I’m glum. But since I’m of Irish-Hungarian stock, and not Roman, that should be of little matter. Most likely it’s that hour of sleep I lost Saturday night when we “sprang ahead.” Even Gladys has problems tracking straight this morning—and there’s no wind either. The old girl’s wobble might be explained by the fact the Earth’s axis shifted slightly more than six inches—the result of the devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan last Friday. Or, as my mind wanders, fickle Gladys seizes the opportunity to stray a bit herself.

The Lower Loop is quiet this morning. An adult bald eagle is perched on a power pole next to the dairy barns. We creep into camera range and stop. I fully expect the magnificent bird to lift from his perch and sail off into the Valley after the fashion of my little sparrow hawks, but the eagle remains, cocks his head in our direction and stays put as if to say: “I hope you’re shooting my best side.” I snap a couple of photos and we ride on. Old baldy on top

Sometimes one’s spirits sag for no apparent reason. You try to sift through your mood, cull out the problem, but nothing seems to register. I guess self psycho-analysis is rather the same thing as one’s acting as his own counsel in court: “He who assumes his own defense in a court of law has a fool for a lawyer.” For some strange reason I think of the new well pump we had installed last Monday. Why would having a newly hydrated house, a blessing of no small order, put me off my emotional stride? I think of the old pump, how it stood by us in sickness and in health for thirty-five years. Its replacement, like our cat, will most likely outlive me. I do a little math, some simple addition, and sure enough in all likelihood the new pump will be sucking water quite a few years after I stop sucking air.

I remember watching an interview with the actor Dustin Hoffman a few years back. In the course of the interview the subject of age came up. Hoffman was seventy at the time. It was his habit, the actor said, whenever another birthday rolled around, to keep that milestone in perspective; he would double his age to mark the march of time: at age twenty-five the doubling of his age was fifty. He knew he’d still be around then. At 40…80 years old. A definite possibility…. 45, in questionable territory now. But at 70…well…these are not Biblical times…. To contemplate one’s mortality has to be a sobering moment.

I’m still in my dark reverie as I pass Decks’ dairy. I unwittingly let my guard down as I pedal by Houndville. But there’s hardly a yip these days. It has been nearly a month since I’ve seen any canine activity about the place. Doggone! Looks like it.

On down the road Jim Werkhoven and that big bucket loader whine past. Jim lifts a hand in greeting. The other presses his smart phone against his ear. Tryin’ to outsmart that phone again, eh, Jim? He’s on his way to check the digester for stomach ailments. Trailing Jim is Hank Van Ness, cruising along in that big red tractor. Wonder what’s in that big dumpster bin Hank hauls? Maalox, probably.

I think of the conversation Jim and I had the other day. “You know,” Jim said, “They say sixty is the new fifty. Well, maybe that’s so. But I’ll tell you, eighty is eighty and that’s the truth of the matter, pure and simple.” Jim’s sentiment doesn’t do much to dispel my morning’s funk.

The weather is closing in.The clouds thicken and glower. Gladys and I pick up our pace. The heavens are about to leak, and that’s certain to dampen more than just my spirits.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lending a Helping Hand in the Valley…

March 5

As far as good deeds go, there’s an old saying in our household—maybe in yours, too: “No good deed goes unpunished.” I know for a fact that’s true. October before last Gladys and I had just passed the point of no return and were homeward bound when I noticed a large white van mired up to the axels in good, old Valley mud.

Two Cambodian women, one young, the other of grandmotherly age, had been working their flower fields (digging dahlia tubers, I believe) east of the Sky River driving range. They had parked their vehicle well off the shoulder so as not to impede Loop Road traffic. And there they became stuck, had sat there and spun the wheels until they managed to work their way even deeper in their futile attempt to free the vehicle.They had no digging tools to move aside the dirt and wood chips packed around the rear tires and were using their hands as shovels like they were trying to move one large dahlia tuber.

I eased Gladys to a stop and asked if they needed some roadside assistance. The young woman smiled and nodded. “We try…no move,” she said in halting English. Grandmother only grinned and squinted. Well…I had stopped, hadn’t I? Now I was mired in my own good intentions.

My first thought was to locate something to place in front of the rear wheels to provide traction, let the van free itself, if possible. The other option was pushing. Ahgg!  Grunt work! Good to avoid that kind of exertion if at all possible. I looked across the road at Peter Alden’s jumble of farm equipment. An old flatbed truck, part of its decking gone, seemed a good place to find a loose board, a plank or two. I wandered over to the truck, which was pretty much buried in brush, to check the planking. I parted aside some sort of tall weed, examined the decking, and leaned over the bedrail to check for loose boards. Nothing to pry loose or break away. I turned, lifted my right arm to brush my way back, but my arm was stuck to my sweatshirt. Wouldn’t budge. I was stuck to myself? Those tall weeds were some sort of burr and my right arm was festooned with them; my sleeve was Velcroed to the front of my shirt. “This isn’t going well at all,” I thought, and gave my arm a good tug to free it. My arm was free but both sleeve and shirtfront bulged with burrs.Now for a saddle blanketBy the time I returned to the van, I was able to pluck most of the prickly spheres from the material, but the stubborn ones remained.

I positioned myself behind the van.“Maybe if we rock the rear end while (Grandma) guns the engine, we can budge ‘er on out,”I say to the younger. I motion the elder to the driver’s seat and get ready to shove from the passenger side. My partner, who looks like she’d barely weigh in at eighty pounds (even burr-covered) puts her very small, unshovel-like hands on the rear door. “Ok!” I shout. The engine roars and I lean into the rear panel. At that instant I’m pelted with Valley mud. My face and glasses are peppered. Like an idiot, I’m standing directly behind the spinning wheel; I’m a human mudflap!The heavy van doesn’t budge. The artillery continues;  mud spews from the spinning wheel, then my mouth. The van does not budge. It might as well be set in concrete.

Did I mention the second van? No need to; it wasn’t the one stuck. In a haze of burr and mud I realize a tow is in order. We pile into van II. The little Cambodian drives; Gramma and grandchild in the back seat. I direct them to my driveway where I pick up the pick up and my humongous logging chain essential in crises, especially situations requiring a tow. Back to the van. A couple rounds of logging chain around the front suspension. “Straighten your wheels,” I tell Cambodian the younger, who’s now behind the wheel. A gentle tug and the van is on asphalt again. The Cambodian women nod their thanks. I unhook, throw the chain and Gladys in the back of the truck. Off to home and a load of laundry and one hot shower to wash the day’s “punished good deed” from clothes, body, and memory.

Today I’m afoot in the windswept Valley. As I approach Gramma Snow’s driveway, I notice her mailbox is down in the weeds and it ain’t gettin up either: the victim of a vicious attack on Valley mailboxes a few weeks back. Good deeds in the Valley? Dare I attempt a reprise? Well, it’s Gramma, after all. Need I say more? I ponder scooping up the box, taking it home to make repairs. But what about the day’s mail? Has Steve, our diminutive postal worker, made his rounds yet? I leave the box as is and continue on my way.  And happy accident, here’s Steve now delivering the Valley mails. I flag him down, tell him about Gramma’s fallen mailbox. “Will she get her mail today?” I ask. Emphatically “No. Are you going to fix the box for her?” Steve asks. “I was thinking about it.” “That would be nice. While you’re at it, why don’t you lower the post!”Postal worker Steve, of Asian extraction, is not much taller than my little Cambodians. He has to leave his seat and stretch to deliver Gramma’s junk mail. Here’s a chance to do two good deeds in one fell swoop. Should I risk double jeopardy? Two good deeds bundled in one? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice….” Good Deed One Gramma’s mailbox, like most projects, requires more attention than at first glance. The battered door and side need some hammer work. The door swings freely because one rivet is broken. This is a home repair job.I take the project to the Extensive Care Unit in my garage where I bend, pry, and hammer the box and door to functionality. I replace the broken rivet with a bolt, washer, lock washer, and two snugged down nuts.

But what about Good Deed Two? Steve’s request? I return with the functional box and my chainsaw. I visualize Steve in his Ford Taurus, Steve pulling up to Gramma’s mailbox. He lifts from the seat, stretches, and—I size it up to about a five inch inconvenience—slides Gramma’s mail into the box. I fire up the chainsaw and slice five inches of wood from the post. Five inches added to Steve’s reach. That should keep his posterior firmly in his seat. I replace the mailbox platform, screw it tightly in place with four new screws. The box settles neatly on the platform and rests there in comfort while I screw it firmly to the base. And who should drive by while I’m fussing over her mailbox on the tailgate of the truck? Why Gramma herself in that big black sedan. She gives me a smile as she passes, drives on up the road as if it’s a commonplace thing for someone to pluck her mailbox out of the weeds and reinstall it. Well, that’s Gramma….

Two good deeds in one, as yet unpunished. But we’ll see. Punishment can be retroactive; I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.Good Deed Two


with the morning's mail

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Well Done…

The Beast

In this confusing age of ours the world’s a much smaller place. Gone the old isolationist days of pre-WWII. What happens a half hemisphere away affects our daily lives, Valley folk included. Those big farm tractors and shuttle trucks used in daily farm operations are petroleum powered and a gallon of gasoline or diesel these days comes dear. The political turmoil in the Middle East has us crying “Uncle” at the gas pumps. At today’s prices twenty dollars bought me less than six gallons of  “go juice.” Eight bucks just to fill my gas can so I can fire up the riding lawnmower and tiller. $3.65 a gallon.

But nothing’s cheap these days, especially Valley water as I found out yesterday. Our faithful old Gould submersible pump gave up the ghost over the weekend. For thirty-five and a half years the little half horse pump delivered Valley water to our taps with nary a hiccup. Early Sunday morning  I awoke to a frightful chattering coming from the pump’s electrical box. Then quiet. Then no water.

The average household must use a prodigious amount of water in a twenty-four hour period. A hydrated home is one taken for granted: you turn on a faucet and expect to be served, much like “let there be light” when you flip a light switch.That both utilities are taken for granted becomes obvious when neither is available: a power outage, “Where are those candles?” and force of habit you flip a useless switch to look for them. Who knows how much water rushes through your plumbing system daily? Water to moisten your toothbrush; water to clean your eyeglasses; water to fill the little watering can to water the houseplants; water to fill the cat’s water dish. When your faucets are dry, your household, so to speak, is dead in the water. We used a liter and a half of bottled water just to make the morning’s coffee! And a gallon will hardly make a toilet gurgle: you just better not go there!

Spring of 1975 our retired dairy farmer neighbor, Mr. Herman Zylstra, assisted us in our quest for the water table. Herman was our unofficial foreman when the place was being built. During the construction phase while we were away at work, he would wander over, take note of the progress, and then share a “You might want them to do such and such…”when he next saw us. Old Herman had the gift of water witching; he was a water witcher, could find water using a forked withe, and volunteered his services when it came time to drill our well. Who could refuse such talent? We didn’t and Herman brought his forked stick over to the property. Back and forth, fork foremost, he coursed over the place. I had heard that some witchers would have their forks ripped from their hands when they passed over a substantial aquifer. But Herman’s fork never left his hands, so gentle did the Valley waters speak to him. Where the water spoke the loudest, he would set a flagged stake in the ground. After a half dozen or so flags fluttered about, Herman chose the most promising one. “This is where you want your well,” he advised.

On that very site well man Rob Aurdal drilled our well. At a shallow twenty-seven feet he stopped drilling, said we’d have all the water we could use at that depth. (I must admit learning that our Valley had such a shallow water table did take some of the wonder out of Herman’s “gift.”) Our “Un official” wandered over, and not wanting his new neighbors to have a watered down well, told Rob he should drill four feet deeper. “Nope,” Rob said. “Plenty of water right where she is.” With that, he set and sealed the well casing, packed up his drilling tools, hopped in his rig, and drove away, leaving old Herman standing in the mud, chewing on his pipe stem.

From this point on Herman Zylstra officially became our “go to guy” and took charge of the project. He sauntered over with a rope and an iron weight—some sort of small boat anchor—and lowered the weighted rope into the well casing. When the rope went slack, Herman retrieved the weight, noted the juncture between wet rope and dry, and marked the rope at that point. A measurement from the rope gave him the pump depth. Herman allowed leeway for unit submersion, measured and cut the steel pipe accordingly. The sections were threaded and coupled together. Then came the pump, which Herman threaded to the deep end of the pipe. A safety cable was attached to the pump. The cable and rubber coated wiring he lashed at intervals to the pipe. Three of us: Herman, his son-in-law Ron Whitman and I lowered the pump into the casing. Since that day… out of sight… out of mind. But never out of water…until last Sunday.

Dave Berg and his right hand man Tom of Ralphs Well and Pump came to our water rescue. Years ago Ralphs [sic] had done some repair work on our water system. Jim Repp, a onetime colleague of mine at Snohomish Junior High, replaced a bad pressure switch on our pressure tank. Dave Berg, owner, was a burly, gruff-looking guy with a sense of humor. Dave Berg (In crisis mode I called his number before noon on Sunday, hoping against hope someone might answer on the weekend. I fully expected to leave a message on the machine, but Dave answered. I was so taken aback, I blurted, “Oh, I didn’t think anyone would be there!” Dave: “I’m either here or you’re talking to a very good answering machine!”)

Tom had arrived a couple hours before at 7:45 a.m., fifteen minutes early in fact. While he was assessing the problem, I asked Tom if he knew Jim Repp.Tom Repp “He’s my dad,” Tom smiled.

At first it looked like a quick fix, replace a defunct power box: ninety bucks plus the service call. Whew! But we all know life seldom goes that direction. The pump was alive but instead of decreasing the power load as pressure built, the pump became an electricity glutton. “You’ll be out a new power box in no time,” Tom warned. That would put us right back where we were now: dry. I gritted my teeth, patted my wallet and said, “Let’s do ‘er!” Shovel in hand, Tom headed for the well.

By the time Dave arrived with “The Beast,” his term of endearment for his boom truck, Tom had done the preliminary grubbing. In no time the old pump was “out of the hole” into the light of day, high and dry for the first time in nearly thirty-six years.

Faithful for 35 years 

I look at the rusty old gal and wonder how many times she has sucked for us in thirty-five years. The average number of heartbeats in a seventy-year old’s lifetime is 2.52 billion; I’m sure the old Gould never approached that staggering number of cycles, but let me say, for three and a half decades she pumped her heart out for us.

I meet her replacement, but there’s no sentimentality here, just a practical machine to give us our six glasses of water a day, allow us to wash behind our ears.New pump Dave and Tom know their business and to my amazement go about it smartly. New pipe, non-corrosive plastic this time around, is measured, threaded, and the new pump attached.Tighten 'er down 

Tom does the electrical work (“I’ve never seen wire like this before!” he exclaims). A baffle, which I always wish we’d had, is attached to the pipe at the pump’s head. The baffle holds the pump stationary against the casing; the old pump swam around at will. Gimme pipe Slowly, into the well casing, Dave lowers the new pump. Pipe me aboardThe new wiring, as before, is  taped at intervals to the pvc. “What about the safety cable?” I asked. “Don’t need it,” Dave said. “The plastic pipe won’t corrode; the pump can’t break free.”

Well doneIn less than four hours our faucets spew water. Granted, it is red water—we flush and reflush the lines—but the faucets are splashing again.

Last evening I filled the coffee pot with tap water—ah, but a little extra iron is good for a body, isn’t it? But all this, too, shall wash away.

The work is winding down and Dave says, “Our job is to do the work, make it right. It’s the customer’s job to sign the check.” (I told you the guy had a sense of humor.) Before I head for the pen, I ask him: “So, do you think in my situation I’m ahead of the game than if I’d paid city water and sewer utilities all these years?” Before Dave can answer, Tom interrupts: “In Snohomish I pay two hundred dollars a month for water and sewer!” He doesn’t know if garbage pickup is included in the monthly fee. I think, “That’s a pretty hefty amount to subtract from one’s monthly budget.”

When we took out a mortgage on our home, we increased the total to allow for the drilling of a well and installing a pump. Our records show we allowed an extra $2,500 for that expense. Yesterday I wrote a check for slightly more than that amount. I consider Tom’s $200 a month cost for his water, and our thirty-five and a half years of plentiful, potable Valley water. “Pennies a week,” I think. Besides, dare one put a price on a hot, refreshing morning’s shower? Not to mention fresh laundered underwear?

Afterthought: When Lester Broughton, my old beekeeping friend would leave town for a Valley visit, without fail his immediate request would be: “Could I have a glass of that good well water?”

“Help yourself, old friend.”And welcome!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

“Marching” Along in the Valley…

pussywillows of spring

Today’s black clouds threaten who knows what? Rain? Sleet? Snow? Tornadoes? There are glimpses of blue but the clouds quickly bully these patches away. So I march along to get this walk over before the heavens unleash their fury on me.

In this month of Sousa (in my classroom days I used to do a cultural literacy digression featuring the “March King,”whenever the third month rolled around, in hopes a rousing “Semper Fidelis” would stir the class momentarily out of lethargy) the Valley is beginning to stir.

My little kestrel and I play our daily game. I try to sneak by her perch on the highline wire without her taking flight, but she requires a wide berth and this morning, as always, she glides away on the wind to seek another perch.

Kurt Biderbost passes me. He’s delivering a tractor somewhere out in the Valley. I lift my hand in greeting. Slowly, almost grudgingly, a gloved hand lifts from the steering wheel. The corners of Kurt’s mouth remain horizontal. (Another Valley game…trying to coax a smile out of Kurt.) His gaze is distant, somewhere off in corn futures, I imagine.

Werkhkovens’ big tractor drags an orange tail behind it through the cornfields. The tail supplies the tonged injectors with liquid poo from the big settling pond behind the old Honor Farm. This year’s silage crop will be thankful for the injection, its annual poo shot. Thankful, too, are the flocks of gulls soon to feast at the seep that surfaces as the tractor passes.

The Valley raptors are a’stir this morning. Two or three juvenile bald eagles lift toward the clouds, rising ever higher in the unsettled air. On my homeward trek I take my chances with the thickening clouds, stop to watch a male northern harrier glide a slalom course through the trees by the Cabes’ place, its rump feathers flashing brilliant snow as it leans into each turn.

This morning I find the first four-leaf clover of the New Year, a very small one, but it brings me just enough luck to make it to the driveway without a drenching.March luck