Tuesday, April 13, 2004

JANUARY 18, 2003

It was a cold January afternoon in Rugby, North Dakota. At the Cornerstone Cafe, I ordered an open-faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing. That's "comfort food" and a fellow needs some comfort when the weather forecasters are promising temperatures of 20 below zero, winds approaching 50 m.p.h., and a little snow mixed in just to make everybody nervous.

As I ate, I could see the wind shaking the traffic signs, I could see snow blowing and drifting across the highways, I could see the light disappearing from the western sky and a grey pall of darkness approaching like sadness.

What do you come to Rugby in January for? For this, a Great Plains blizzard. The wind slapped me hard as I walked out to the car after my meal, it slapped me like it meant business. Yet all that wind turned out to be a lot of empty bluster that wouldn't amount to much.

On my way back to my room at the Oakwood Inn I stopped at the office and was talking with Therese Rocheleau, who runs the place, and Teddy, the maintenance man, when Big Jim's truck rolled into the parking lot. Big Jim Rocheleau was just back from his run to Nebraska and Iowa hauling rocks. "In Nebraska, they've got to get their rocks from Montana," he would tell me. "Nebraska rocks aren't good enough. In Montana, they haul their rocks from Nebraska. That's job security for me."

You might talk to Jim Rocheleau only five minutes before you recognize you'll need a bull-dozer if you're going to keep yourself dug out from under his stories. He hadn't even kissed his wife hello yet and already he'd told three jokes. He did kiss his wife, we did get introduced, I got invited to a surprise party Jim's mother would be throwing on Sunday for Jim's uncle's 81st birthday. "It'll be lunch and supper," Jim predicted, "there'll be plenty of food. On the farm my mom cooked for four big hungry farm boys and all the hired help and she hasn't learned to make small recipes yet."

Characteristics of middle westerners? I didn't ask, but Jim offered this: "My mother is so tight she can squeeze a nickel and end up with a dime."

Jim and Teddy started talking about the work they'd done tearing out a piece of concrete in the Rocheleau's house across the street from the motel, a place where Jim bumped his head when going to the basement. "The fellow who had the house before us started tearing it out," Jim said, "but he stopped when he ran into the concrete re-inforcement." Jim and Teddy wanted me to see that it was a great adventure getting that concrete out of there; Therese wanted me to know how much grey dust settled onto everything on the first and second floors of the house while Jim and Teddy were banging on the concrete. I think she wanted me to know how much dust they stirred up and wanted to make Big Jim feel guilty about it, but I don't think he did.

Jim and I talked about making hay and about hauling hay. In Iowa when I was growing up, we put up high quality alfalfa for our cattle. Here in North Dakota, they harvest grass out of the sloughs and feed that all winter. One slough that Jim and his father and brothers harvested was fifteen miles from the home farm. Another - harvested only once, during a drought - was thirty miles away. "When we were working in the fields," Jim recalled, "my mother would bring meals out to us, otherwise we'd waste half an hour driving back and forth."

Jim told me about the custom-built truck his father bought to haul the loads of hay home. "The fellow who built it spent $200 on telephone calls just to get all the transmission and gear ratios exactly right," Jim said. You could engage the PTO to start the chain that pulled the load of hay onto the tilted flat-bed and at the same time put the truck in reverse: the truck would back under the load of hay at the same speed the hay was being pulled onto the truck. The Rocheleaus could haul a lot more hay with this truck than their neighbors could with their rigs for tractors, so they hauled hay for the neighbors, too. "The driver's seat in that rig was sweet," Jim remembered. "The passenger seat was just a foam pad and the front end suspension was real tight like it was in trucks back in those days. When we hauled hay for the neighbors, they'd want to ride along. There I'd be driving along just as nice as you please and in the passenger seat the fellow would be bouncing up and down, up and down. It got so they'd just ride out and show us where their hay was and when we got the first load home they'd jump out of the truck and let us haul the rest of the hay on our own. They'd had all the bouncing around they could stand."

"I really loved that truck," Jim said. "I really hated it when it caught fire and burned up on us."



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"The Lambert-Conaway potato wars continue," Ivan Burgess reports. "Last Friday morning at Paul's Cafe Gene Conaway said to Joe Lambert, 'Got your potatoes planted yet?' He asked the question knowing full well the answer would be no. Joe said, 'I got a few planted.' Conaway was visibly shook at this revoltin' development. But he recovered quickly. He said, 'I don't like to plant mine too early because they stool out.' Whatever that means."

"We had fog on March 26," Ivan says. "That means somewhere around the Fourth of July we will have a rain. And that rain will come during harvest."

"I was sittin' tween Judy Hall and Mary Jean Heater last Thursday morning when it thundered," Ivan writes. "They both looked at me like it was me. I think they are both too young to know about thunderstorms."

"Every spring I am always reminded of John Bonecutter's old saying," says Ivan. "John used to say that Mother Nature could fool anything but buffalo grass and osage orange trees. John said that when buffalo grass turned green and the osage orange trees started to leaf out, spring was definitely here. John also said that the time to plant corn was when the osage orange leaves were the size of squirrel ears. Of course that was back in the old open-pollinated corn days."


APRIL 13, 1998

Grey clouds this morning, like rolled oats. Yesterday was a holy day. Today is not. Well, perhaps we should ask the birds; they sing as if it is; they call and call. You could not run away from the sound of their calling even if you wanted to.

The daffodils are bright, bold strokes of yellow, opened to contrast with the greyness overhead. The forsythia is set against the redness of our house. Without such color, we'd be overwhelmed with sadness, wouldn't we?

There is a red cast to the silver maples in this light, their swollen buds. The world is full of adolescent urgency. Still the river runs high.

Yesterday at noon in full brightness the land looked more desolate than it does this morning in the diffused light of morning. Farmers have been working the high ground. Low areas are still wet. Water is still standing. Water is still running in the ditches. Has the water been running harder and longer this year than in the past? I do not know. I am tempted to say yes, but I have no facts to base that on.

On Watson Street in Ripon, spring clippings are piled at the curb for city pick-up. Even those of us who are not farmers must do something in this season.



"I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America - at a time and a place, an attack." That's what the New York Times has reported that President W said. I'm not very political but... I think all anyone should need to do to win election is say: "If ever I should obtain information such as the August 6th PDB that Bush received, I pledge to the American people I will not to sit on my hands until after we are attacked - I will act."

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