Monday, June 28, 2004


Tomorrow I will hightail for L'Anse, up at the bottom of Lake Superior's Keweenaw Bay, in the Land of Accent-on-the-First-Syllable-and-Let-the-Rest-Fall-Where-They-May - KEE-wenaw Bay, BEARaga County. There is to be celebration of the area's history over the 4th of July holiday. One of my Vagabond tasks is to partake of the celebrations that help define my "focus communities." You can be sure I will report on L'Anse's when I return.

I'll be camping out while I'm there, but I'll trust that any trees in the campsite will not - I repeat, WILL NOT - throw the butt end of a 250-pound branch down on me, as happened at my camp-out last September in Rugby, North Dakota. There I was, looking up at the raw, torn end of the branch inches from my forehead and thinking "What a stupid way to die." I didn't die, but I got some cuts and scrapes. It was my own fault. I'd been sitting at the table in front of my tent writing in my journal; I was just in the middle of writing a sentence poking a little fun at the cottonwood trees, the way they talk, talk, talk in just a little breeze; and one of the cottonwoods retaliated. A fellow from one of the big motorhomes set up in the area saw what happened, and he came over to help me. It was all the two of us could do to move the branch off my camp-site. You might say that only a fool would camp near cottonwoods when the wind is blowing, but the wind wasn't blowing; this happened in the stillness of sunset; there was no warning, no sound of a branch breaking, only the whoosh of it coming at me.

Be careful what you say around cottonwoods!

After a week in the green and blue of the Upper Peninsula's woods and water, I will bee-line across the upper middle west, from L'Anse to Redfield, and spend a week in the wind of South Dakota. South Dakota has wind, and these most amazing sunsets, distinctive enough in my imagination that when I see such a one elsewhere, you might hear my call it "a South Dakota sunset." As Shirley Sanger of Zell, South Dakota, put it for me when I spoke with her last year, "I like the openness that you can see out here, the sunsets. I like to go out to the Black Hills and visit, but after a couple days I want to come back." That kind of sunset. Perhaps the gulp of emotion I feel seeing them has something to do with the fact that my Gramma Allen's family homesteaded in South Dakota for a while (before they gave up and returned to the lush greenness of Iowa).

After two weeks away, you can be sure I'll be ready to return to the lushness of this big cinnamon-colored house in Fairwater. I hope Mary will be ready to have me back. The last time I was in Redfield, towards the end of another two-week trip, I called her on Thursday night, to hear she didn't think she missed me all that much. Well, Thursday at noon I had wired flowers for delivery to her at work on Friday, and I thought "What a waste of $42." I consoled myself thinking that she was just very busy and didn't really have time to think about how much she missed me. Well, she was very busy. I didn't tell her about the flowers on the phone, and they sorta knocked her socks off the next day, or would have if her friends hadn't kept asking "What's Tom trying to get away with?"

As you'll see tomorrow, while I'm gone you'll have a little assignment to work on. It'll be "open mike," as Peter from slow reads likes to put it.



This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently in the house and on the farm her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

At age 18, Pearl survived the loss of her mother, whom she loved so dearly. Why and how?

"Well, my father had tenacity," she said. "He had hardly any education. My mother was the business mind of the family and was a great organizer, wide awake to things going on in the community and taking care of her family. She would have been a hero if you are including good mothers."

"I taught school for five years in Lewisburg," Pearl said, "for nine years in Eaton, for twenty-six years in Dayton. For forty years, fifth or sixth grade, ten-year-olds, not babies and not smart alecks. You could challenge them to stand on their heads and they'd try it. And I was one who challenged them."

"Now I have grandmothers and grandfathers visit me," she said. "They are in their fifties and sixties, some of my students. Four little grandmothers were here just a few weeks ago. I taught them back in 1941."

"I've had a great life, a great, colorful life," she said, "but it's been a hard one. Blood, sweat, and tears many times, I'll tell you."

Pearl's young siblings grew up and moved away. Pearl and her father still lived on the farm and Pearl continued to teach.

"My father lived to be 84," Pearl said. "He died in 1954."

"Dad, of course, never had a tractor," she said. "He farmed with horses. This farm is a hilly farm. It's not a very highly-producing farm. It's seventy-six acres, it's hilly. We had cows and sheep. Sheep are the best lawn-mowers there are, you know."

"The kind of person my father was, he couldn't be put down - he went ahead," Pearl remembered. "I have that same tenacity. You can't push me down. I'll push through all the trials and tribulations that go along with losing all your family and trying to make ends meet here in the home, and so forth. In those days, our salaries were low. You didn't prosper too much. Enough to dress decently and have your transportation. You loved your work. I loved my work. I still love life."

Her love of life, Pearl admitted, has to be part of the reason for her long life. "My body was not a strong body in a way," she said. "Yet I could do things that were worthwhile in the world. One of them was taking care of my dad's family. And looking after myself. People might think I was a little bit selfish, but I wasn't. I was looking after the family as well as myself. I couldn't just die, I was still alive - I had to look after Pearl a little bit, you know?"

"Time went on with that life," she said. "I'd gone to college just one year. I taught two years, then I went back to school for another year and graduated from the Teachers College at Miami University, the two year program. Afterwards, to get my degree, I finished another two years with night school and summer school. I got my degree in 1940. I'd started back in 1922. It was difficult holding down the farm and taking care of dad and the children, and at the same time getting my own self promoted."

"I was teaching in Eaton during the 1930s," Pearl said, speaking of the Depression. "I had forty-five children in my class at one time. Forty and forty-five. Teachers now can't believe that. In those days, in hard times, families sent their children to school to learn, not to play horse; and I was there to teach them, and not play horse. We had fun. We laughed, and I laughed with them. And there was no more fun for me than to temper and control some little feisty boy who wanted to show off, you know. I could charm them. I had a little way of charming them. I still am charming kids. I mean that. It sounds like I'm bragging but I'm not. You give me a little ten-year-old and the first thing you know, I'm talking his life and my life, and he's wanting to know more about me and I'm wanting to know more about him. Two years ago, I was invited to go to a re-union of a Sunday School that was in a church a block from my school building. This little fellow was there listening to our conversation. I took my class pictures and was showing them to the people who were in their sixties and seventies, who'd been my pupils. And this little fellow stood at my shoulder while I was sitting there talking and people were looking at the pictures I'd taken of class work, and he just stood there and listened and listened and listened. His grandfather had gone to my school but hadn't been a pupil of mine. This little fellow, ten-years-old, he and I got together, talking. I said 'What are you doing?' and so on. He was a collector of coins. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins and showed them to me. And he handed me a gold dollar. I still have it here on my desk. He loved this old teacher. And I loved him. So, I tell you, I can really charm them."

To be continued....


JUNE 27, 1998

Just back from Montana last night, I am driving into work for a half a day on a Saturday, to give myself a jump start on the coming week.

I see the canning factory is spraying waste water in its field. If I couldn't see it, I could smell it - there is a strong stench of silage.

Farther along Highway E, a field of hay has just been taken.

Driving home yesterday just west of here we saw that fields of peas had been harvested. They have also taken a field of them here, near the power pole where the snowy owl used to perch, that place.

The corn has grown amazingly in our absence. It is thigh high, waist high in places. A storm came through last night and there are wet spots in some of the fields this morning.

It looks like soy beans have come up in one of the "untilled" fields I've been pointing out all along just south of Five Corners. The beans are poking right up through the corn stalks. No till farming, obviously.



White House spokesman Dan Bartlett was quoted over the weekend about Farenheit 9/11, saying "This is a film that doesn't require us to actually view it to know it's filled with factual inaccuracies." I'm not very political, but... that sounds like the way the White House responds to intelligence information, too. "We know what we want," they must say to each other. "Why would we need to know anything else?"

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