Thursday, July 28, 2011

Garden gazing

        No, it wasn’t a Zen moment.

Had someone been walking down the gravel road where we reside, they might have seen a solitary figure hunched over a small raised bed behind our house. That would have been me, of course, frozen into a focused immobility, peering intently into a tangled patch of indeterminate tomatoes that had been abandoned to their fates. The tomatoes—Lori’s idea, not mine—were supposed to climb twine supports rigged to a T-frame, and would have if not for a windshear that plucked them one by one from their supports. Since that time the tomatoes had done their best to broaden their perpendicular proliferation on a horizontal plane, thereby replicating a particularly virulent pumpkin which seemed destined to overspread much of northeastern Kansas. 

Gardening is one of those activities my wife loves to read about, dream about and initiate. She also likes to harvest the fruit of her labors. She’s less keen on the lengthy middle portion, the central stage where watering, debugging and maintenance, often in hundred-degree temperatures, exact their toll on energy and interest. Maybe she’s witnessed too many gardens wither and die from infestations of various and sundry insect species, drought, hail, hurricane-force winds, fungus, blight, raccoons, possums and other furry critters.

This is where I come in. My job is to do the grunt work, and for the most part I do so without complaint. Besides being less squeamish when it comes to destroying invasive bugs, I’ve learned that a husband with an expensive taste in camera gear needs all the attaboys he can get. I water and weed and inspect for interlopers, in general keep the garden alive until she can reap its bounty. It’s kind of like a good cop-bad cop scenario: She’s the good cop, always sensitive and caring, while I’m the cop who swaggers into the room with his sleeves rolled up, a nasty grin on his face and a grim “Who gets hurt?”

For some reason—whether the timely rains, the unseasonably cool spring, the luck of the draw—local gardens are flourishing this year. Last year weeds were the only crop that stood a chance of success, and even then they struggled. You know it’s bad when dandelions and dock look sickly and splotchy with fungus, though why remained an unanswerable question.

Suffice to say, this year is a bumper crop for everything planted. It seemed as if our green thumbs had returned, that everything we touched flourished and blossomed and hung heavy with fruit. And about the time we patted ourselves on the back with rash and imprudent congratulations, confident that this year our labors would break the spell of defeated gardens past, the bugs showed up.

Almost overnight the tomatoes took on a scraggly look, the outer stems barren and stripped. Squash and cucumber leaves turned yellow and blotchy. The tangled verdant drapery of our Tumbling Tom tomatoes dried to a dull brown lace, each leaf desiccated to a brittle husk. 

The memory of that morning of discovery has been burned into my consciousness. The deep grass was dewy with moisture, the sun just rising above the wooded corridor of Juganine Creek, shadows long and thin—a beautiful morning, not quite cool but cool enough to be refreshing, the kind of morning one finds satisfaction in any endeavor no matter how slight or difficult. And there was the garden, our bountiful, profuse garden, only it didn’t look so well now, it looked like me before my first cup of coffee, baggy-eyed, hungover with exhaustion, listless. The plants didn’t stand tall as they had but drooped and sagged, sad wan ghosts of their former selves.

For a long time I stood there in shock. Lori would be heartbroken, I knew, and bitter and violently angry toward the culprits, and though she would not blame me there was a real and present danger of being tainted with culpability. And because I had just exercised our credit card on a particularly lavish expense, that I couldn’t allow. I turned my back to the garden and went to assemble my arsenal.

First, the nukes. Under normal circumstances I dislike using pesticides but sometimes there are no other options. On inspection I found potato bugs and squash bugs and blister beetles and unnameable others swarming under the leafy vegetation, and I smote them high and I smote them low and their corpses rained down like gray ash. A few tomatoes were ready to pick so instead of Sevin I used diatomaceous earth to coat the remaining leaves and ground beneath. And then I went to work with a rusty pair of pliers.

Hornworms were abundant. One by one I plucked them off and stomped them underfoot. It was work both messy and satisfying but ultimately deceptive, because for every one I found another two remained hidden. Day after day I discovered more even as leaves vanished and the plants took on a deserted, ghost town air, and my hours were filled with poring over stems and branches, of peering deep into the green depths of an untamed jungle, past spiderwebs and mantis lairs and the interior workings of a universe without order, until it seemed there was nothing else but the hunt and the kill and the hope of redemption.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The girl who loved books

       She was here and she was gone and the space between too short for memory to claw a foothold. 

But I think of it often, usually in the truncated, silent spaces between nonessential things that snare my attention, and while there were other moments that resonated to the core of my being—the book moments, the time in the upstairs library when I watched her eyes dance at the sight of thousands of books lining the walls, stacked high on a table and balancing precariously on boxes, chairs and a dresser—what returns is always at the end of the block in a small prairie town with cicadas singing in the trees and the air sultry and achingly hot, and four people walking slowly without hurry or care and a little one ensconced in a carriage. Horses galloped through the field with their manes and tails streaming behind like flames and the late afternoon sun blinding on the whitewashed grain elevator jutting above the green path of Juganine Creek. A little hand reaching out from the shadowed folds of the carriage, bright eyes captivated by the horses and the sunscorched leaves hanging listless in the heat. 

I could barely keep up though not because of my knee. There was something else holding me back, some disconnect I at first attributed to a latent uncertainty about young girls and how they are to be treated, similar to how I approach with not a little fear and trepidation large hoofed mammals. Either can hurt the grown man, and badly, and I did not want that to be my fate. I wanted something more, something better, and I did not know how to go about it, or what to say, or what gestures to make. I sojourned in a strange land whose terrain matched nothing I had known, each step incalculable, perilous with risk.

The horses came to her as if summoned. She was almost eleven, tall and gangly with a slightly upturned nose a plastic surgeon in Florida had told her was the lifeblood of his business, all those rich white women flocking to his clinic for improvements both large and small, and a well-designed button nose most of all. Or so said her mother. I wondered how she knew plastic surgeons and could only guess at that other life, one revealed to us only in passing. 

The horses reached out to her and her to them. She stroked their foreheads and brushed flies from their backs and laughed when their tails swished across her face. Her eyes flashed with silent laughter. Though a city girl, she was utterly fearless as if anywhere she found herself was hers alone and none other. Her auburn eyes took in the world and never completely let it out but kept it inside in a secret place known only to her. She was unlike anyone I had known whether adult or child, self-contained and complete, confident and competent, though at times I feared it was only a facade, that beneath that placid surface cracks spidered and lengthened. 

I studied her and waited and tried capturing a few frozen moments with the camera. She had never liked having her picture taken, always balking and turning away, some of which I attributed to her age and gender. Not that I was an expert or had any real inkling of the reason, relying solely on Lori’s judgment. She should know. Having nothing else, I took her on her word. This time, though, the girl seemed altogether different, facing the camera as if it were merely her due. She did not turn away but boldly stared into the lens until the connection was made and with a subtle smile broke it off and left me there dismissed. At no time did I feel anything other than a bystander or a stranger.

It was different in the house, particularly in the library. She was a voracious reader of fantasy novels, preferably the modern genre with vampires, werewolves and an undercurrent of romance and longing. Her taste in reading was hardly mine though parallels existed. When she told me she liked scary stories I told her about H.P. Lovecraft, arguably the finest horror novelist of all time. She asked if I owned his books and I said yes, and she asked if she could borrow them. I hesitated and replied that I would think about it, a process that felt like betrayal. It was in her eyes, a glimmer but gone in flash, and then she was climbing the stairs behind me and the library exploded in her imagination. So many books in which to utterly lose oneself. So many unexplored universes.

The titles she gravitated to were my classics, the science fiction and fantasy works that were mine from an early age, many of them paperbacks that cost forty cents at the time. Most of them I remembered even if dimly, and more than a few I could recall their endings with some clarity, including a Lord Dunsany short story that had an ending with the hero being consumed by his enemies. Happy endings were for romances, I learned, and if life taught me otherwise there was always a threat of disaster lurking in the wings. Looking at the girl poring over the titles, one finger gently tracing their spines and an expression of rapt excitement, I wondered how this tale would end, if I could keep this relationship and how. How I could build upon this bond based on words and the intermediary of our son to form something that, like literature, would last the ages. How I could do this thing that must be done. 

I pulled several titles from the shelves and gave them to her, some of the best of the best. She wanted more, certainly warranted in her case where books were luxuries rather than privileges. And I thought then that I would funnel books her way, each book a building block or a plank in the bridge that would join us together, that my library that had served me so well deserved a new purpose, a new life, a resurrection of sorts, just as she deserved more than she had received. 

A night passed and then a morning. She walked to her car with a pile of books two feet deep and a smile and a laugh, and when she returned to me it was with open arms and hug that melted a heart in need of melting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A proper Kansas welcome

       The early morning sun glinted off the dozen or so Harleys parked at a roadside cutout. Around the motorcycles stood a group of grizzled riders garbed in black leathers festooned with patches of every size and shape, their eyes hidden behind dark wraparound sunglasses, faces scowling. A woman circulated among them, making small talk as they waited, and waited, and waited some more. Two American flags stirred listlessly in the breeze.

A small pickup pulled up. “They’re late,” the driver said, as if they didn’t already know it.

While they waited, the man in the truck, Duane Durst, laid out his plan: when the bus appeared they would form a line in the road and escort it four miles to Hollenberg Pony Express Station Historic Site. The bus was carrying a half-dozen students from Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas, embarked on a seven-day, six-state exploration of historic sites relating to westward expansion in the late 1800s. One of them, Eric Monk, was a wounded veteran studying archaeological anthropology. 

That he was coming at all was something of a miracle. He’d survived two combat injuries while serving as a sniper and forward observer in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after retiring from the military took up history to follow his grandfather’s stories of Sioux life in the Dakotas following Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. At the last minute he was unable to raise the funds to pay for the excursion and was ready to drop out until Durst contacted several friends who helped raise the money. 

Now Durst had another surprise: he’d arranged a motorcycle escort by local Patriot Guard Riders to lead Monk to the Pony Express station. Only the instructor aboard the bus knew of it, and she was keeping it a secret.

“He’s a wounded warrior,” Durst said. “He deserves it.”

Another 45 minutes passed. Finally, Durst’s cell phone rang. “They’ll be here in ten minutes,” he said.

From their vantage the land dropped away in rolling waves toward the Little Blue River. When they saw the bus approaching they formed a tight phalanx and steered their Harleys onto K-148. 

Aboard the bus, instructor Kathleen Miller rode shotgun. When the bus began its turn all conversation stopped. She turned to Monk and tried to gauge his reaction and couldn’t and so simply said, “They’re here for you. Would you like to change places?”

The morning’s stillness was shattered by the deep roar of the Harleys. They moved off in pairs with the last pair mounted with flags snapping in the wind of their passing. On the bus Monk said nothing but studied the riders hard and the other passengers remained almost reverentially quiet. 

At the station the motorcycles circled the parking lot and halted in a tight knot. The bus stopped  fifty feet behind. As the riders dismounted the bus door swung open and a slender man stepped out. He wore a camouflage fatigue hat pulled low and green shoes. He leaned heavily on a cane. 

For a long moment he stood back hesitantly. Then he hobbled toward the riders while snatching off his cap. “I’m Eric Monk,” he said, holding out a hand.

Though the students had got a late start and were pressed for time—their next stop would be Scottsbluff, Neb.—they stood around talking to the riders. They said they couldn’t believe how green it was, that everything in Texas was dead from the drought, and the people in Kansas had been so friendly, and now this. Monk spoke about being wounded while fighting in Sadr City outside of Baghdad, a wound he recovered from only to have his vertebra cracked a few years later in Afghanistan. 

“That ended my career,” he said. 

Now he wanted to learn about post-1880 western history, he told them. His father and grandfather had been raised on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota and he wanted to tie their experiences to the great migrations along the Santa Fe, Chisum, Overland and Oregon trails. 

Miller hung back and studied Monk like a worried mother.

“I was so worried about how he’d react,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to hurt his self-esteem. But he took it well.”

The moment inside the bus when they saw the Patriot Guard lined up in array was powerful, she said. “It was spiritual. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

As Durst, site administrator for the station, led the students into the visitor center, Miller waved to the departing riders.

“That was quite a reception,” she said, laughing. “We haven’t had anything like that at any of our other stops.”