Category: Memoir Posts 2015 Page 1 of 2

Memories: Snow (Part 2, Magic)

Where do you get your ideas from?

When people ask me that–they tend not to, although there are a few sweethearts who do–I have to wonder: isn’t it obvious? I am a tool for generating ideas.  First I cut things up with my agonizing powers of analysis.  Then I stick them back together with my glittery gluestick of intuition.  Ideas are not the hard part. I wish someone would pay me just for the ideas–“Predict the next fifty years of fashion, given that our major energy source will shift from petroleum to solar.”  “List ten locked-room murder mystery plots for a virtual reality that is not transcendental in any way.”  “Fifty recipes using cricket flour.”

Bliss.  I was made to generate ideas the way some people are made to generate kindness or stability or leadership or problem-solving or sheer bullshittery convincingness.  Ideas are not the problem; you have to do something with them.

I used to get angry about this.  (I’m sorry.)  Just like those people who are like, “You’re depressed?  Well, all you have to do is be more cheerful!” Privately I was like, “You’re out of motivation to write?  Well, all you have to do is go get some magic!

Everyone who creates art has their own reservoir of magic, and their own methods of going out and getting some more.  Most people, I think, do, although what they use it for varies, and I think they mostly take it for granted that it will replenish itself, or that, conversely, it will never (if they are stressed out) replenish itself.  The idea of making more of it is, I think, where the key to art comes from–not the ideas.

Which brings me to the snow.

After you have kitted yourself up and have gone outside and done your chores, it is time to go out.  This may not mean going further than the yard, because the trailer house may be surrounded by untouched snowdrifts.  But once the snowdrifts have been touched (or if it’s one of those annoying days where the snow is thin and crunchy on the ground), then you have to go further out.

There are, because this is a farm, piles of junk:  sheds full of junk, piles of railroad ties, old chicken wire, parked equipment, firewood, busted parts that might be good for something someday, stuff that your parents haven’t hauled to the garbage dump just yet, either because they’re too busy doing something else, or because there has got to be something they can do with it.

These also make for some good snowdrifts, as long as you’re careful enough not to dig straight into a jagged piece of metal or broken glass.

Once the piles near the trailer house have been exhausted, then it’s time to circle the farmyard:  the huge Quonset hut, which is often frosted on the inside with ice crystals that have blown through the cracks in the bay doors; the chicken coop; the hay shed and the shed with the snow chains hanging in the back, for one of the tractors;  the old white garage, filled with junk and never parked in; the garden, with apple trees to climb, the enormous cottonwood that is almost a spirit of the farm, and the stock tank; the corrals.  When that area has been restlessly circled and explored and dug into and slid down, either on one’s snowsuit or with a red plastic sled, then one moves outside the farmyard.

Follow the gravel road up the hill to Uncle Johnny’s old house site and its crumbling basement, and the silver barn where the sheep or the horses or whatever is there this year are huddled.  To the old trailer house, where Bronc and/or Duke are staying, or aren’t, depending on the year.   Across the road into a shelterbelt of trees, where in the summer sometimes you have to search for thistles, where there are haystacks and old tractors.  (After Grandpa died, a lot of the equipment was sold off, an auctioneer and everything; even later, lightning hit one of the haystacks and burned out a lot of those trees.)

Walking past the turnoff to the old highway–or, really, the Knippling sign at the end of our road–was understood to be off-limits.

Or, you could walk out the heavy red wood gate at the bottom of the farmyard, over by the chicken coop, and head out to where most of the cattle stayed in the winter.

The ground is muddy: don’t bring your sled, bring your walking-stick.

The dirt road is packed pretty well, so that’s where you walk, because you’ll lose a boot in the sucking clay mud if you don’t.  The cattle treat you like a dog: they know where you are, and the herd oozes away from you if you get too close.  You don’t do anything to rile them up.  You’ve seen what a herd of panicked cows can do.

The dirt road passes over a crick, which in winter is frozen solid.  The culvert through which the water passes can be climbed into, although it’s annoying (because of the ridges in the metal, which you can’t lean comfortably against) and smells pretty horrible.  It started out as a fairly small culvert, but was expanded later.

You can follow the crick up to a pond where, when your Uncle Howard and his kids were there, you once went ice skating on hockey skates.  It was blissful, but once they left, nobody ever did it again.  People end up going to a lot more effort to distract a large group of town kids than they do two farm kids.

Or you can follow the crick on its winding trek downward, to another shelter belt of trees that hang over the water.  Somewhere out in that direction is the garbage dump, which is a crack in the ground that seems to erupt with old washing machines and trucks and tractors, like an excavation site revealed by an earthquake, but you a) suspect that it’s too far to walk, and b) that you’ll get your ass whupped if you go out there without your dad.  Probably because it’s too dangerous, although because of what you’re not sure.

If you don’t want to walk out by the cows, then there’s always the road north, which heads out to the silage pile and the hay and alfalfa bales.  The silage pile smells like…bread.  People will say that it smells alcoholic, but you’ve smelled beer, and it smells nothing like the Coors Lights and Buds that get tossed around at large gatherings, from a separate cooler than the soda, an icetank where adults shove their arms into the cold and pull out what should be the most delightful thing on earth, by their reactions, but that smells and tastes perfectly rancid and foul.

No:  the silage pile smells like bread that’s been sitting in a ray of sunshine in the tiny kitchen-dining area in the spring or fall, only made out of corn silage. It is enormous, it is a ramp that leads to the stars, it is eaten away every day by tractors with enormous, toothed mouths, until it is a scrape of sludge on the ground in the spring.  There are plastic tarps on top of it, and old tires to hold the tarp down, and even when it’s very cold, if the sun is out, the snow on top of the pile will melt into stale puddles of water in the middle of the tires.

However, the hay is even better than the silage.

If the hay is rolled up in large, round bales, then they are stacked in chained pyramids, two or sometimes even three bales high, and if the hay is tight, you can sometimes ooze backward into the cracks to get warm.  You can climb to the top of the first bale, then run along it until you reach the last one–and slide down, thump thump thump, onto the ground.  Or you can leap off into the snowdrifts, because haystacks collect snow like dogs collect fleas.  Even if the rest of the snow has blown off across the prairie, then the hay bales will have a little bit of snow hiding around them somewhere.

If the hay is in huge, sloppy stacks, then you can climb to the top of one, take a flying leap, and jump onto the next one over.  (If you miss, you just slide down the side.)  Sometimes you miss but you’re able to shove your hands into the straw and cling onto the side, and then you have to climb up, slowly and carefully, because all children, everywhere, will invent the game of do not touch the ground or you will be killed by lava, even in -40F weather.

If the hay is in small square bales, that is often not terribly fun, because you’re always getting yelled at for breaking the twine on the bales or knocking them off the pile, or else they’re so tightly packed that you can’t even climb them without a bale hook, which is rusty and looks like Captain Hook’s spare hand.

You can drag a sled with you, and find what there is to launch it off of.

You can pull your brother, although when you take turns he always says he pulls more but really pulls less than you do.

You can dig holes in snowbanks–the new ones are best–and lie on your back and watch the sun sparkling through the thinnest crust of ice overhead.  You can dig tunnels, some of which may or may not connect to your brother’s, and put carved pieces of snow over the doorway to keep the wind out, and then tell stories.

You can walk, carefully, on top of snowdrifts that have not thawed but have had the sun shine on them during the day, then the temperature drop at night again, freezing the top layer so hard after a few days that you don’t need snowshoes–you have never really needed snowshoes–even though the snow is three feet deep in places.

You can follow the tracks of birds, rabbits, squirrels, the dogs, coyotes, deer–through snow, embedded on the surface of the ice, in mud.

You can feel the wind and the sun burning your cheeks, your lips.  You will always have cracked lips in the winter, and you will always have a bright red ring of chapped skin around your wrists and ankles, from them being frozen and wet all the time because of the gaps between your gloves and boots and your snowsuit.

You will see your breath on the air but you will never be able to make smoke rings with it.

You will often come home with feet frozen from breaking through ice over the crick, then dancing in the water.

All that time, you will not be thinking, this is magic, this is magic, which is about the dullest possible thing you could think, but when you come back into the house, when you step through the door from outside to inside, then you will know that you have been somewhere else, and it was not merely out.

And then you will read or color or play or set the table–or it will be time to do chores again, so you’ll do them again, quickly, and then come back in and eat and eat and eat–

Until the next time it is time to go out.


Memories: The Christmas Present

Sorry, one more before I get back to the snow.  I was trying to explain about winter being magic, and realized it was missing context: not-magic.

Matt is less than two years younger than I am; I think he has the exact number of months and days memorized, which, really demonstrates the whole concept of privilege:  I don’t have to give a crap.  The younger kid sees the power that the older one has; the older one sees the freedom that the younger one has (that brat).  The only people who benefit off the system are the parents, who now have their work cut in half:  a) free babysitting, and b) a chain of command, which means you always know the appropriate person to blame.  Parents perpetuate it on their kids without thinking: Will this make my kids more or less able to tolerate each other at our funerals?  Will this help them support each other through their various childhood hells?  Will this help them when they form their own families, and discover that they have to work out how to have actual, non-regimented, non-required fun with each other?

But it’s the way it’s always been done around the farm, so of course my parents did it.

Ha-ha, it’s so funny when the kids argue with each other.  Someday they’ll learn that they really love each other.  Yuck-yuck.  Never mind that the love always comes in spite of being hounded for decades over your birth order, never because of it.

One of the strange ways that the birth-order conspiracy carries itself out is in pure villainy.

I didn’t understand this later, until I had re-met my cousin Celina, the eldest of my Uncle Howard’s kids, as an adult.  I thought she was the most awful of people as a kid.  A real witch.

Items of evidence:

A) Eyes were rolled.

B) Snorts were given.

C) Sarcastic things were said.

D) Doors were slammed.

E) She would chase us around the house cackling and sticking out her fingernails, which I think were chewed off anyway.  (She has an excellent evil laugh.)

In conclusion, I think she was a teenager.  Later, I found out she was overweight.  This was not a concept that I easily grasped:  nobody called Chris overweight (okay, nobody dared), and Celina wasn’t as big as Chris; therefore, the fights between Celina and her mother Claire (which I would occasionally catch the edges of) seemed ludicrous.  I found out later from my mother that lines were drawn, points of negotiation were shrieked, and quite possibly things were thrown.  Why can’t you just be skinny like me?

I never really got it. A lot of my relatives are overweight, not because they are horrible people, but because there are a limited number of models of Knippling available:  brown-haired/skinny/tall (me), blond- or strawberry-blond-haired/skinny/tall (both of these models have a metabolic collapse around age 50 or upon retiring from cowboydom), mumble-mumble from their non-Knippling parent, and almost black-haired/tall/brick shithouse.  My model has a risk of hyperthyroidism, I found out later.  Fortunately, my mom’s side of the family has a brown model as well, and my bits and pieces sorted themselves out in a relatively cohesive if not terribly imaginative fashion.  I used to think my nose was ugly, but when you’re a teenager and subject to bullying on a more-or-less constant basis, you have to find something about your appearance to explain what’s going on, because otherwise it’s pure madness, which it is, but you’ll kill yourself if you dwell on that too long.

Celina the villain.

Now I get it.

Someone had to be the bad guy, the evil witch. She was, while not actually that big a meanie, perfectly okay having a roomful of kids shriek at her for her unspeakable evillness.  What evillness, I don’t know, unless it was stealing candy.  None of Howard’s kids ever got sugar at home, which meant they were the raving lunatics that picked the dusty, fused lump of hard candies out of Chris’s candy dishes (crystal, laid out on a Christmas towel on a desk/sewing table/buffet at one end of the dining room) whenever they were over.  Some more desirable candy may have been stolen.  Some bossiness due to the constraints of being an eldest child may have occurred.  But no actual evil, no murdering of kittens.*

Rather than being upset at things that were actually upsetting, she let us be mad at her.  I don’t think she was trying to be nice, but it was.  Nice.  Fun, actually.

Which takes me back to Christmas, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of every child’s year.  Because presents.

My parents basically suck at presents.  Now that their kids are grown up, they often give gift cards and/or boxes of food, and I think they find that a relief.  They often send my daughter care packages full of a) clothes and b) daily newspaper comics, and/or c) craft projects done with my nephew Liam and niece Jillian.  Perfect: repeatable, known to be enjoyed, low stress.  Plus, they’re no longer broke-ass farmers, so it’s not actually a kick in the guts to have to come up with this stuff anymore.

As an adult, I can appreciate these factors, but they are not my factors.  I like shopping for presents (although hell will probably freeze over before I get them sent on time).  I like obsessing over the perfect gift.  That moment when you get a gift epiphany:  it is so very sweet.

I really only developed this skill as an adult, though.  As a kid, I think I bought the fifty cheapest of all possible necklaces for my mother, and I can’t even remember what I got my father or Matt.  I think I got Matt action figures or Matchbox cars at least a couple of times.  We were always playing the damn things together.  Star Wars (Ewoks being the toy of choice), He-Man, Ninja Turtles…Transformers.


You could have gotten him sixty of the same Transformer and said, “They didn’t have anything you didn’t have, so I got you extra backups of the one you like best,” and he would have been fine with that, I think.  Because Transformers.

Whatever it was that he was getting that year, it wasn’t Transformers.

I knew one of his presents.  I don’t remember what it was.  But it wasn’t Transformers.

He knew one of mine.

We went into the bathroom at the trailer house (the second one) and closed the doors.  That bathroom was where all secret business occurred if you had to be in the house, as far as we were concerned: even parents would knock before walking in on you. I think we went so far as to stand in the shower.

We agreed that we would tell each other what the presents were.

He went first.

I was getting a puzzle.

This was, I felt, lame.  A puzzle.  Yet another thing that was not on my Christmas list, which we had both, as we did every year, painstakingly assembled from the latest Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogs and submitted to Santa, parents, and the world.  A puzzle.

As always, I was not going to get what I wanted, I was going to get what Mom and Dad and everybody decided I should have.  Christmas, I was discovering, was not in the least about getting what you wanted, it was about behaving.  They told you and told you that you had to be good or you’d get nothing for Christmas, and then they made you fill out this stupid list, and then…a puzzle.  And getting dragged around to seventy bajillion Christmas parties where, if you were lucky, you’d be ignored the entire time, because the cousins your age weren’t coming this year, and if you weren’t lucky, you’d have to babysit.

I think I was seven or eight or nine.  It was before Grandpa died, that whole drama.

All right, sometimes my parents got it right, like the year I got a whole jar of olives or the year Dad made us stilts, or Barbie doll clothes, which was one of those “don’t know what you got until it’s gone” situations.  But mostly it was stuff like a pink electric shaver in your stocking, because Matt was growing facial hair, and logically I should probably stop shaving my legs with Mom’s razors.  Oranges.  Who freaking gets stuff you have to get nagged to eat in your freaking stocking?  Us, that’s who.  Cardboard puzzles.  Candles.  Things that are not books.

By the time I was dating Lee, I had no idea how to give anyone anything anymore.  I gave him a towel.  Or maybe he gave me a towel and I gave him something similarly lame.  We were a pair, let me tell you.

But, as I explained previously, a) South Dakota = a necessary sour grapes mentality in order to survive harsh conditions, and b) my parents suck at this kind of thing.  Which is okay.  And I’ve given up on obligatory presents and Christmas festivities, which, honestly, they couldn’t, and so had to laboriously coordinate, assemble, deliver all kinds of things they couldn’t give a shit about, which has got to wear you down.  And I don’t have seventy bajillion Christmas parties to go to, and most of the ones I do go to are after Christmas anyway, and post after-Christmas sales.  And, even so, I’m still working on getting it right.

Plus, food.  Food’s always perfect.  Even when it’s terrible you can hand it ’round:  “Here!  This is horrible!  Try some!”  It’s hilarious.***

Matt said, “So what am I getting?”

For years I’ve wondered why the hell I did it.

“I’m not going to tell you,” I said.  And I did.  I refused to tell him.  It wasn’t Transformers.  It was never going to be what he wanted.  Christmas was lame, he was two years–sorry, less than two years but I forget the exact number–younger than I was and still believed in Santa Claus, and it wasn’t going to be what he wanted, it was never going to be what he wanted.

Man, he was pissed.

All I knew then was that I could not do it.  I could not tell him what he was getting.  He’d find out soon enough.

I think, ironically, he liked it, whatever it was.




*I saw that once, by the way.  One of the kids at the country school who was always bullying me–I think?  Or possibly the equivalent at the other relatively close country school to the north**–picked up a kitten and slammed it against a barn wall.  It barfed white foam and died.  No punishment, as far as I was ever aware, ever occurred: but we were yelled at for tattling.

**There’s always one little psychopath in every group past like eight or so, isn’t there?

***Jackie and Scott had hard root beer for Zwolfnacht this year.  It was horrible.  And so, so funny.



Memories: The Monsters under the Bed


Don’t worry.  I won’t forget about the snow.  Every night before one of these comes out, though, I toss and turn, trying to think of the next one to write, and if I don’t agree to write the one that needs to get written next (according to my subconscious), I don’t get to sleep.  Eventually I break down and agree to do what I’m supposed to do.

I mentioned the trailer house next to the old teacher’s house; we lived in there for just under a decade, I think.  But in between moving back from the house of golden sunlit dust in Wyoming and that trailer house, we lived in another trailer house, a tiny one up on the hill as you drove the gravel road into the farm.

One of the earliest stories of my childhood is that when they brought my brother Matt home from the hospital, I said, “Take him back.”  Yuck-yuck, laughs all around.  I hated my brother and I’m a spoiled brat.  Aren’t kids cute?

Nobody mentions that everything that I’d ever known had just changed.

When I was seven or eight, anytime I had to deal with my father, I would recite a saying under my breath:  Do this, do that, you did it wrong.  He only ever had four types of interactions with me:  the fourth involved me being the butt of some kind of unpleasant practical joke or bullying.  For example, he would tickle me until I wept, and then would tickle me some more, because it was funny.  To this day I will physically attack anyone who tries to tickle me or poke me in the side.

I don’t remember this happening before we moved, only after.  The person I apparently couldn’t wait to come home from work–Daddy!–had become someone I was shocked to find out was proud of me when I graduated college.  And even then I only found out because Lee, who was sitting next to him up in the bleachers at my graduation, told me.

And suddenly Mom wasn’t a woman who was in charge of her own house anymore:  there was nothing too small and insignificant that it didn’t need to be someone else’s belittling gossip, and if you were a hired hand who felt like picking on someone else’s wife, well, it was all in good fun, at least for the guy doing the picking.

Plus she had a baby to take care of.  And not just a baby, a boy.  You don’t give farms to girls, only boys.  And if you have a boy who doesn’t want to farm, well, you better just raise him up right, that’s all.

Which is just a nice way of saying that Matt’s real personality would have to go.  Just like they did with Dad.  Who, for all his sense of mischief, is not a cowboy, but a mathematician and a lover of order and spreadsheets, and who became much less of a merciless tickler and bullier when we eventually left the farm.

I don’t remember telling my parents to take my brother back, but here’s my guess: we’d just moved from a golden paradise to a place where it was never warm enough in the winter or cool in the summer, my parents never had any free time that wasn’t dominated by adult family members or church, and it was all right for everyone in your community to bully you into being the kind of person that they needed you to be, in order for the community to survive in the harsh climate and shitty economic situation.

All I knew was that suddenly neither of my parents loved me anymore–neither of them protected me from bullies anymore–and neither of them smiled.  (I remember being shocked the first time I saw my parents hold hands.)  And suddenly there was a crying baby, and we were in a place where it was considered sheer idiocy to be nice to crying babies.  Shove food in them, check the diaper, leave them to cry.  Otherwise they’ll be spoiled. And yet a boy.  Clearly the most important thing in the room: he’ll have to take over the farm one day, you know. You’ll just have to understand, even though we will never, ever explain it to you, because that would imply that once it had been different, and nobody must know that we aren’t amazeballs happy out here.

Take him back.

Yes, I can see myself saying that.  And being laughed at for it.

I don’t remember him having a crib, but rather a small, squat bed with a rail on the side.  The wood was yellowish; the rails screwed on.  It had a single, thin mattress on top that sagged when any kind of weight was put on it; underneath was a metal frame with horizontal springs that coiled from small to large to small again, and that you had to be careful not to get your fingers pinched in, if you were hiding underneath the bed.  We were always underneath something as kids.

I had a mattress on the floor.  There wasn’t much room for space between the bed and the mattress, because the little room was so narrow.  I want to say the walls were all pressboard with fake wood and the carpet was thin and colored with brown and brownish-blue stripes, but that might have been the other trailer house.

At night, every night, in the dark, I had to lay next to the space under Matt’s bed, and watch the monsters move.  I had a soft, magnificently soft, small purple crocheted blanket made by my Aunt Julie, who has been known to be nice to people she doesn’t have to and who cries at funerals.  It was my magic blanket–I called it a ginkie for some reason–and while I can’t say that it protected me, at least it was soft, and really sometimes that’s all you need.

What was the monster under the bed?

Now I know:  everything that I sensed but couldn’t put into words (and that would have been denied up one side and down the other, had I been able to) had to go under that bed.  This is not a nice place but Mom and Dad want you to love it anyway.  And, eventually, I did.

But all I knew then was that things were staring at me, and they were going to attack me at some point, and I would never know when or why.

The only thing that kept me from becoming a gibbering idiot (not that I didn’t decay into gibbering idiocy on a regular basis; I cried and threw tantrums a lot as far as I can remember, although probably it was just a lot relative to other farm kids) was knowing that it was better for me to have to sleep on the floor than Matt.  He was just a baby.

The monsters would get him for sure.

There’s one story that sometimes goes that my parents wouldn’t teach me how to read so that they could use it to bribe me into going to school–but sometimes it goes that I taught myself how to read when I was three so I could read books to Matt when Mom and Dad were too busy.  I’ve heard both enough times that I’m not sure which was the case, if either; I can see it going either way.




Memories: Snow (Part 1, Equipment).

I have lost my ability to shrug off the cold.

As a kid, the cold wasn’t just cold, it was part of my identity:  I am better than you because I can endure the cold.  South Dakota has a lot of sour-grapes values:  I can’t have nice things, so I’m better than people who can.

Which, you know, is petty, but you take what you can get.  On the other hand, cold was one of the greatest adventures that I knew, as a kid. The blizzards were epic, the snow piles well-nigh eternal, the sledding suicidal, the frost mythic, clearly caused by a demon so beaten into submission it was safe enough to call it a sprite.  The icicles were as thick and deadly as poniards.  When I first saw Dune, I went, Yes, that’s it exactly.

Only it’s heat, not water, that you have to conserve.

And so let me present to you the equipment of my childhood:

Boots: commercial snow boots were useless.  I remember longing for a dressy pair of boots at one point, only to have Mom flip them over and point accusingly at the smooth, barely-ridged bottoms, and not having to say a word.*  Proper winter boots are the ones from the farm store with the removable wool liners and the laces that can be jerked to seal out the snow and slush over and over again.  To bust a shoelace outside in the snow means taking your gloves off.  No. Just no.

Socks: as many pairs as you can fit on.  As many pairs as you have, because you only get new socks when school starts, and by the time late October rolls around, you have already shredded the heels.  Hopefully not higher than can be concealed by your school tennis shoes, which are already falling apart at the seams as well.  Socks for Christmas?  Yes, please.

Pants:   Denim, no long johns, not really.  Because…

Snowpants:  Nylon full-body snowpants and/or snowsuit.  Nylon because it resists soaking and makes a swishing sound when you run.

Shirt:  Shirt, another shirt, another shirt on top of that, sweater, another sweater…

Coat:  Depends on the snowpants/snowsuit situation.  Coats are easier to get on or off, especially if you have to pee.  But coats let in wind and snow and water around the waist.  It’s a tradeoff.

Ski mask:  Always has a chewed spot on the bottom lip, because it would get cold and sweaty, and then you would chew on it.  I think it was my cousin Laurie or Mary who was trying to explain to me that if you were thirsty you should suck on a small pebble.  No, actually, you should suck on your ski mask.

Hat:  Over the ski mask.

Hood:  Restricts visibility and freedom of movement (turning your already sausagelike head).  Not used unless it was really windy.

Gloves:  The best setup, IMO, was gardening gloves on the inside and nylon shell gloves with long wrists on the outside.  Your hands and feet tended to spend so much time at or near frostbite levels of cold that you really didn’t pay attention to them until they started to ache and/or prickle.  Strips of snot along the wrists marked your unwillingness to go Back In The House, not your essential disgustingness as a kid.

Scarf:  Debatable.  One of the shortfalls of a non-hood setup was having snow, snowmelt, cold air, etc. go down the back of your neck.  But Christ, those things would just get tangled up in stuff, and then you’d lose them or get stuck on a nail half a mile from home somewhere, or tear the damned thing.  Probably better off without, unless you wanted to feel like an explorer.  And then you needed a scarf.  Which you would probably also chew on.

Another benefit of nylon-shell outerwear was that, if the snow was hard enough, you were essentially wearing a full-body sled.


  • Sled:  Long.  Red.  Plastic.  Low weight, for those interminable walks uphill.  Bottom may have been waxed with waxed paper from the kitchen, if you were feeling especially daring.  Not a toboggan.  Teenage cousins and idiot uncles (Howard!) would use the toboggan.  Not a dish.  Oh God.  Those dish sleds were like providing an interplanetary launch pad, the hills we went on.  Better to have something you could brace your boots against.  Stupid breakable cotton cords replaced with scratchy, non-break, non-slip nylon rope.
  • Sticks:  Big walking sticks, for banging on streams to see if they were safe to walk on or punching holes in if not; for knocking frost off the trees and fences; for reaching icicles off the eaves on the big house; for shaking at the sky like sandpeople.  Dagger-sized sticks with the ends sharpened, for digging holes and prying interesting things out of the ground or from a patch of ice; for stabbing snow-monsters; for wedging open stuck doors or prying old bits of rusty junk off larger bits of rusty junk; for tracing patterns in the tops of blank patches of snow.
  • Steak knives:  We had a couple of old steak knives hidden in the hay shed, for sharpening and/or carving the small sticks.  We didn’t carry them around much; we flung ourselves off too many tall objects to make carrying around knives even remotely safe most of the time.
  • Trowels:  I think we had some sort of choppy-stabby garden thing that we used to dig snow tunnels with, but I didn’t learn what the word “trowel” was until later, so it might have been something else.  We may or may not have been allowed to use these.

The normal rule of no hitting was suspended for snowballs, although generally, not being coordinated, I gave up on these pretty quickly, in a rage of incompetence.  I vaguely remember making about a hundred snowballs in preparation for a snowfight once, only to discover that they’d frozen to the ground in the night.  D’oh!  I instead loved to carve out big squares of snow (with the small stick) and drop them off things.  One year we got some sort of rough wooden slat–garden markers or paint stirrers, maybe?–and those were the shit for cutting out snow blocks, like wooden saws.  We never really got into snow molds for making blocks:  with that much snow, it was just a waste of time to patiently pack blocks, when you could be cutting them out of fresh snow much more quickly.

The rituals of reentering the house were almost as important as getting dressed properly:

Did you do your chores?

Just don’t even bother taking off your clothes if you hadn’t.  Your need to pee was immaterial in the face of the question of chores.

Did you knock the snow off your boots?

A boot scraper sat outside the back door of most people’s houses.  If it wasn’t the snow, it was the mud.  Or the manure.

Then, the two most important questions having been answered, you could then begin to throw all of your outerwear on the floor.  But there was one more step…

Did you hang up your wet clothes?

We had a folding wooden rack made mostly of half-inch pine dowels that perpetually sat in front of the heater.  Wet (outdoor) clothes were draped over it while little tushies shivered in the thin, blasted gap between the rack and the furnace-like heater.

And, sometimes, if you had answered the questions correctly or, better yet, without having to be nagged, Mom would bring you hot chocolate.



*My dressy boots now are calf-length Doc Martens with thick laces and side zippers and treads so deep you can see geological strata in them.  Score!


Memories: The Dogs

The early cats in my life are going to be really hard to write about, so I’m going to skip it for now: right now you just get the dogs.

Vague Red Dog

Sorry, vague red dog.  I only vaguely remember you:  you must have been an Irish setter.  You belonged to Chris, maybe.  I remember riding on your back.  I remember you as enormous, yet receding:  you were as high as my shoulder, then my chest, then my waist, then gone.


Half blue heeler, half collie, all cop.

I mean cattle dog, not cop, cattle dog.  A dog with an enormous sense of patience for kids but little humor.  More of a cowboy than some of the cowboys I grew up with.  I don’t remember him having fun, although I remember him always lying on the ground just out of the corner of my eye.  Head down–all is well.  Head up–stop what you’re doing and look around.  Streak of black-and-white lightning–there must be something out in the cows.  Rifles and shotguns were fetched.

He had two white dots on his eyebrows.  They would twitch.  That is not, in fact, funny.

He died after getting into rat poison under our trailer house.  We weren’t allowed to sit with him as he died.


Strangely, we did not name my younger brother Andy and my sisters Katie and Betsy after characters in books or movies, but pretty much everything else that we named was after some character or another; we had a lovely blue-gray calf (the same color as a Russian blue cat) named Smurfette, for example.

Lady was named after Lady and the Tramp. She was a collie, not a cocker spaniel, but she was the same solid, silky brown.  I forget who we got her from, but when they brought her home she was a) tiny, and b) so filthy that nobody could really tell what color she was.

We still lived in the trailer house at the time.  The trailer house was a single-wide and rocked in the wind; it was fastened to the tiny old house that had served as the schoolteacher’s house back in the day when the county ran a country school in the front yard of the main house, complete with separate outhouse.  The old teacher’s house had two rooms and served as storage, laundry, and entryway.  In the winter my parents would let just enough heat into the rooms to keep the pipes from freezing.  In case of tornado, you had to run across to the main house:  no basement.

Mom dumped the puppy into one of the big white enameled double sinks in the laundry room and washed her while she whimpered.

She grew up under the eye of Bill, who never really saw her as a fellow cattle dog.  She was never as good as he was, and she knew it.  She would shove her face into your crotch and shudder.  Hide me.

When Matt and I would go play, she would follow us around, but it never had the same authority.  When her eyes twitched, it was to say, Oh God…I never thought it would be like this… She seemed to be perpetually horrified.

At one point she had puppies, but she was such a horrible mother that they were soon given away (or at least, that’s how I remember the story going).  What I personally remember was looking at the nest of puppies in the hayshed across from the chicken coop and going, They take too long to have their eyes open.  If they were kittens, their eyes would be open by now.  The straw around them turned golden, if you pushed the bottom edge of the shed door away from the wall.

I want to say she disappeared or ran away shortly after that but I can’t actually remember.  There were other things going on at the time.

I always felt sad for her.  From her perspective, she was abducted from her family, thrust at a very young age into a job she wasn’t competent for but must perform; after the death of her cold-hearted, intellectual mentor, she tried to help raise the children of her abductors (who mostly ignored her), found comfort nowhere, found out she was incompetent as a mother and had her children taken from her…and eventually died forgotten.

She would have made a wonderful pet in the suburbs.

Note: I forgot to talk about the doghouse.  The dogs stayed outside, in all weather; in the worst of it, they slept in the barns, with the horses or cows.  The cats, of course, took care of their sleeping arrangements themselves.

Where we had the doghouse when we lived in the trailer by the old teacher’s house, I can’t remember.  I did a mental walk around all of the sides:  there are the California poppies; there is the back of the teacher’s house; there is the back of the trailer next to it, facing north and a gap between shelterbelts; there is the front of the trailer house and the wood steps up front, which may or may not be painted (this walk is a conglomeration of memories before and after we moved out of it), there is the front of the trailer house, pointed south toward the quonset and the chicken coop and the big house; there is the L-shape between the trailer and the teacher’s house.  I can’t see the doghouse anywhere.  When we move to the big house, the doghouse sits next to the shed in the front yard, the one where all the yard equipment and the cut wood goes.  But I can’t remember, on the trailer house.

It had asphalt roofing tiles that I rubbed my hands over all the time, and came up to my chest.  It had clapboard sides, and a raised bottom.  The raised bottom was important: it kept the doghouse warm.

We may have left old blankets in there and stacked hay bales around the sides: it sounds like the kind of thing we would do.


Memories: The Boogeyman


I’m tempted to write this one like a horror story, but that would miss the point.

The boogeyman lived inside an old, disconnected furnace inside my great-grandmother’s house, just across the gravel road from my grandparents’ house.  It wasn’t until just this morning that I realized her house was a mother-in-law house:  probably because I have no memories of her, even though she died after I was born.  I don’t even have any family stories about her.  Only the house.

And even the original contents of the house, my grandmother had overwritten.  Whatever history had filled that house at one point, it had been erased by her innumerable cardboard boxes full of stuff.

My grandmother saved everything she could get away with.  When we cleaned out their retirement house in Rapid City, she’d saved leftovers in the cupboards; boxes were stacked to the ceiling in places; certain aisles were narrow enough that Grandpa couldn’t get through them.  When we cleaned out her room at the VA after she died, she’d saved used napkins in all her sweater pockets; she’d saved candy wrappers in her drawers.  The aides joked that they’d just cleaned out her room a couple of months ago, so we wouldn’t have too much to do.  They’d had to bring in a trash dumpster and leave it out in the hallway.  She would take things out of donation bins and hide them in her room.  We used to blame it on living through the Great Depression (she was born in 1930), but no, there was a broken spot in her head.  The hoarding was just part of it.

“Grandma’s House,” as great-grandma’s house was known, smelled of old books, dust, rotting cardboard, and thickly decaying paint.  If you found a book you liked in one of the boxes, you could borrow it or even take it.  Most of the books were Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions–at least, most of the books that I looked at–and I read a couple of Dick Francis books that way.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was reading not just a condensed book with the boring parts taken out, but a bowdlerized version, all unacceptable sex and violence and philosophizing taken out.  And it wasn’t until still later that I realized that my mother had stood in between her mother, Arlene, and me:  I grew up being able to read whatever I want.  I read Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series as a kid, and she didn’t say boo, even though God died off and had to be replaced, in part, with a half-breed drug-addicted woman.  Grandma would have burned most of my bookshelf, I’m sure, although she wouldn’t have stood over it and cackled.  Or she would have packed it up in a box and just…moved the box to someplace I’d never be able to find it.

To loll around in my great-grandmother’s house on a sunny afternoon and open a box full of mysteries was pure bliss, not lessened by the presence of the boogeyman so much as increased by it:  the boogeyman was locked up in the old furnace, and could not get out unless you picked your way past broken furniture and bicycles and silverware to the corner where the brown enameled prison squatted, and then opened the outer door, which had a glass front and gold-painted borders, as befitted a respectable cage, and then turned the heavy handle of the inner door, which felt as solid as a bank vault door and was also glassed in, with a tiny window.

Then, and only then, could the boogeyman, which was an extinguished pilot light no longer connected to a gas line, get out.

Whoever wasn’t opening the door would pretend to panic and beg for the door not to be opened.  But the door would always be opened, and then the boogeyman would get out.

Sometimes we would run out of the house screaming, or into the shelterbelt of trees, or the row of old dead farm equipment, or into the tall, sharp-edged grass next to the house, or behind some of the sheds, or into the main house to make cookies with Grandma or to listen to the constant chuff of the clock while wrapping ourselves up in knitted afghans and playing with Radar, the squat white dog that probably part bulldog and probably part bacon fat, or into the kitchen to spin the lazy suzan on the table around and around while looking at the built-in glassed shelves full of Grandma’s cut glassware and hoping that maybe, just maybe, she would give us some sugar cereal before supper.  And sometimes she would, but mostly she’d give us cookies instead.  Their farm was a good place.

But always I remember going back into that little house and having the close the doors.

You could let the boogeyman out.

But you always had to put him back.









Memories: Lee’s Corner

Lee’s Corner, population 3, marked on all car-trip-sized South Dakota maps at the corner of Highways 34 and 50.  The farm lies a few miles straight north along the old Star Route road.

In rural areas, a lot of the time the post office used to be a farmer’s wife in a station wagon driving from farm to farm, parking on the wrong side of the road as she went.  Not when you live just off the rez and the snow sometimes buries full-sized tractors and vans: then you get a mail drop.

The mail.  Meh.  It was never for me anyway.

But Lee’s Corner had bait tanks.  Two white-enamelled tanks with silver tubs in them, just big enough to crawl into although you’d never be able to stretch out, filled with gloriously mucky minnows.  I believe you could also buy earthworms, but you could get better earthworms at home, you could stick a spade into the ground in the garden and pull them out by the enormous mulchy handful, a foot or two long if you got lucky.  Minnows, though.  Minnows were cool.  Packed in like sardines, brown and mysterious and intertwined, muddily shimmering in the mossy water.  Minnows with gaping mouths pockmarking the surface.  Minnows that clearly came from Minnow-sota.  When you fished you had to stab them right through the jaw.  For some reason I didn’t mind chicken-butchering, but using fish as bait to go fishing?  Cannibalism!

They might eat you–surely they couldn’t–Lee would promise to give you a quarter if you stuck your hand in the tank, or he’d growl at you for getting too close, you’d never know.  The back room always seemed to be lit by flickering fluorescent lights.  Even now if I see a horror movie with the right kind of lighting (especially if bare cement and dirt are involved), I can still smell the bait tanks.

White-painted plywood shelves filled the store, even though some of the canned goods (the deviled ham, for instance) were sticky with dust.  The plywood mail slots hung next to the counter, open wood boxes big enough for a normal-sized envelope.  Anything bigger ended up behind the counter or on the floor.

And the pop machine.

It was practically the only way my brother Matt and I ever got cold soda.  It came in shiny bottles scratched dull in two rings, around the butt end and just below the neck, from rolling down the chutes in the machine so often.  I usually had orange Crush.  You couldn’t take the bottle with you; you had to drink it in the store and slide it into a crate divided with wooden slats for the pop man to pick up.

If Mom went by herself–and she often did; if things were busy, she cleaned the row of motel rooms off to the side of the store–she would have to stay at the counter for a long time, talking to Lee while Matt and I drank sodas or wandered the shelves, picking things up and putting them down again, or played on the floor with bugs or dust, or found some other way to erase the time.

One of the women in the area would keep track of the news–mostly who visited whom–over the course of the week and call it in to the local paper; various comings and goings would show up every week, two inches’ worth, maybe.

The real news was passed around through backhand channels, of which Lee was one.


I’ve always had a complicated relationship with gossip:  people call it nasty stuff, but compared to what got printed in the paper it was juicy, juicy truth.

I missed most of it.  That was fine by me:  Lee was a large, jovial man with a face like an advertisement for antiacids and a laugh that was glad of other people’s misfortunes.  Jovial.  Another complicated word.  It comes from Jove, the Roman god of being loud and patronizing to little kids.  Every once in a while Mom would send us out to the car to wait for her, so he could tell her a dirty joke.  She’d come out with her face red and bulging and she’d be in a bad mood all the way home.

In the winter, straw bales were stacked along parts of the house and the motel to help keep the wind from stripping all the heat away, and they’d bold a tin-and-plywood frame to the door of the store, to block the wind and keep it from ripping the screen door open.

At the other end of Star Route road was Stephan and the Indian School and Mac’s Corner, which served the same function as Lee’s–mail drop, gas station, odds-and-ends, bait for fishermen headed out to the river.  There were two systems for everything:  one for farmers and tourists, one for Indians.  Mac’s and Lee’s kept people from having to drive onto the rez to get gas, even though it was often cheaper and they had rental VCRs (back in the day when movies were $100 a pop) and hot pizza (for which my father would have overcome far larger hurdles than mere race).

I heard Lee’s Corner turned into a brothel for a while, presumably after Lee passed on, but that it’s back to being a mail drop now.

Update:  His name wasn’t Lee, it was BUD WELLNER!  I found an obit here.








Memories: The Table

I wanted to write about my step-grandmother Chris, but I can’t, not as such — I’ve written about her twice now and have come up with little more than a physical description and a big mess. So instead let me tell you about the table at Grandpa’s house, which I hope will cover what I really want to say about her anyway.

The table at Grandpa’s house ordinarily stretched ten feet long and was covered with a plastic-topped tablecloth, yellow and white checks with some sort of pattern in the squares–chickens or squarish flowers, maybe both. The tablecloth was textured like fabric; when you wiped it with a wet rag, it made a ripping sound as air bubbles were trapped, then released. The table possessed an interminable number of leaves that made it stretch to infinity when they were all added.  Additional chairs could be summoned from throughout the house, even folding chairs from the basement, and they all seemed to fit around the table–although there was often a second table set up in the basement, to contain an overspill of children and awkward teenagers, banished for lack of conversational skills rather than age per se.  For holidays, a cloth tablecloth with eyelet embroidery might be brought out, but it was always covered with a transparent plastic cover.  A thin plastic-covered pad covered the table and each of the leaves.  We sometimes pretended our fingers were astronauts jumping across the low-gravity surface of the moon.

The wood was painted a dull bone color; the cracked chair seats were dark, brick-red naugahyde, and the backs had three interlocking wood squares cut into each. The edges of the squares were somewhat chipped and dull, the paint worn off, grunge packed into the corners.

One chair, the one with arms, sat at the head of the table, and Grandpa Lambert always sat in that chair like a throne, even when it was a painful struggle to get in and out of the chair, and its arms tangled up with the handle of his cane, or later his walker, when he was as frail and angular and smelly as an old cat.

At his right hand sat Chris, with her back to the kitchen. Even when it was just the two of them in the house, they never sat anywhere else. Until I went to college I could not conceive of a house at which mealtimes did not occur at the dining-room table, with everyone in their designated place, which never varied unless there was company. This does not mean in any way that conversation occurred regularly at the table or that it was “family time”; the head of the table (i.e., the father) faced the television, which chattered and flickered throughout the meal, during which few or nor words were said, other than Grace. Whether one, as a child, could see the television was not material. One had to be excused from the table, even during holidays. To leave without pushing in one’s chair was madness–but no man ever held a chair for a woman, or stood for one. I didn’t hear about such things until later.

My grandmother, Grandma Alice, died before I was born, when my father (the youngest of nine) was in college. I know almost nothing about her; I can infer that she must have been made of iron, given Grandpa Lambert. I only knew Chris. Never Grandma Chris or Stepgrandma Chris or even Auntie Chris. To have an adult relation whose name was not erased by or appended to a family title was a singular thing: only Chris was just Chris.

She overspilled the sides of her armless chair and rose over my head like a mountain.  Her voice had a rich timber during conversation but shrieked like an eagle’s when necessary.  We lived more in terror of being shouted at by Chris than by my mother.  Her cooking always smelled terrible and was pervaded with the scent of dried onion flakes and beef overcooked into mush.  My grandfather demanded that sort of thing.  Which mean everyone did, whether they wanted it or not, because Grandpa was exactly that kind of patriarch, that kind of bully.  You could see his opinions stamped onto the facial expressions of everyone around him, as a survival technique.

Except Chris, who was not putting up with that shit.

I never saw her fight my Grandpa.  I only saw him spitting chewing tobacco in places he shouldn’t: trash cans, on the floor next to a spittoon, the sink, the toilet (which he then left unflushed).  Mom says he would always spit into one of Chris’s flowerbeds by the back door.  That awful, repulsive sweet smell of chewing tobacco, Skoal brand only.

Grandpa Lambert, reduced to passive-aggressive attacks with chewing tobacco.  That was how strong Chris was.  And physically strong.  When Grandpa had to move into a green-enameled hospital bed in the solarium and be hauled around in a wheelchair, she thought nothing of it.  She slung him around like an Amazon.

When he died (I was ten), the inheritance was complicated, but my dad inherited the house and the farm, and Chris got some money and some of the stuff.

Mom wanted Chris out of the house; Chris didn’t want to go, at least not right away.  I remember my mother at one point horrifically upset that Chris has locked the door on the house.  Locked the door.  Nobody locks their doors out in the country, not even when you live next to the reservation.

Locked the door.  What madness.

Except that, of course, the fact that my mother knew the door was locked implied that there was a reason to lock it.

The whole situation coalesced around a battle over the table, who would have the table, how soon Chris would move out was significant but it was the table that was important, the table belonged with the farm house, Chris swore she would take it, but it belonged, but then again, wasn’t Chris supposed to be able to take what she wanted out of the house?, but belonged, doesn’t that word mean anything anymore?

In the end my mother got to keep the table and the chairs, which was good because she would take care of them and Chris would only trash them, and because they belonged with the house, and really it was the house that had won, because the table would stay with the house, and that was what mattered.  As soon as the house was in hand, we resanded all the wood floors and painted the rooms and eradicated most of the carpet and moved everything and tore out the archway between the dining and the living rooms (no fear, the head of the table still faced the television) and installed a wood stove and put up a big board with all the family and neighborhood branded onto it.  When I try to remember the way the house used to look before that, I can’t–most of the rooms were overwritten before we moved in.  I suspect they had been set to Alice’s taste rather than Chris’s.  I don’t think Chris gave a damn about the house, and I wouldn’t have put it past her to have gotten into the fight over the table just to get under Mom’s skin.

Chris moved to Chamberlain, and we rarely saw her after that.  She took on dozens of foster kids, kids of drug addicts from the rez a lot of the time, as though caring for ordinarily damaged human beings wasn’t enough and she had to find someone strong enough or desperate enough to survive the amount of stony-faced affection she exuded.  I heard that later she adopted three of them but that they broke her heart often, which she probably survived at a loud volume with a clenched fist as they tentatively tried to live with their broken birth parents, then retreated to the fortress of Chris’s unflinching, unillusioned love, then back again, back and forth until she died, ironically of heart disease.

Mom refinished the table and chairs, and when we moved to Flandreau, she took them with her.  We had to take all the leaves out in order to make it fit.

Note:  I found a good obit for Chris here.


Memories: The Mythology of Places

Sometimes places strike me and they end up getting a kind of fantastic layer painted over them, although it feels more like I’m carving and discovering the true shapes underneath than adding something.

Minneapolis, for example, is a noir fairyland constantly hovering on the edge of freezing.  Fat flakes descend through the orange-and-green haze of every season; a Tim Burtonesque Batman crouches on the buildings above, enforcing laws that only the Sidhe comprehend.

Stephen King nailed Iowa, for the most part–those long, flat stretches between Des Moines and Omaha belong to the children of the corn.  I used to live near Iowa City, though, and the feel there is different, the way a regional accent shifts slightly the further east or south you go; you can almost feel the South, or at least Missouri, in the air.  And it’s a college town.  Iowa City is another dirty, fae place, where humanity comes to feel magical and the fae stand out back behind the shops smoking clove cigarettes and waiting for the summer, when the blackberries and the raspberries grow in all the thickets, and you can sit out on a boat in the middle of a lake doing nothing for hours, because that’s what fairies like best; screw the spells and incantations anyway.  Sometimes a flood comes through town, and that’s the most magical of all, washing human trash from under bridges, tumbling them end over end downstream.

Colorado Springs belongs to a cult of secret ghouls, flesh-eaters who will do anything to stay young and pretty forever, or at least until their desiccated sun-god goes supernova.  Bodies here are temples, and not necessarily nice ones.

But farm’s in South Dakota, in the middle of nowhere.  And mostly the myth of the place is the grass, the concealing grass.

The farm’s isolation is a point of pride:  it’s at least five miles from the nearest neighbor as the crow flies, and much further if you stick to the roads.  Once you get past the shelterbelts of elm trees, you can’t see anything other than grass and fencelines and maybe a dirt road here and there.  There are hills, but the grass smooths them out, turns them into a yellowish hide that wallows under the sky.

One false step on that grass and you’d fall through, never to be seen again.  What was under the grass, nobody knew, because nobody who’d fallen through ever came back.

It’s true that prairie dogs will dig out all kinds of holes in the ground, liable to snap a horse’s ankle, and that the places where the rain’s carved a crack in the ground tend to be narrow and filled up with tumbleweeds so thickly that you’re not likely to notice the sudden dropoff until it’s too late.  And it’s also true that most kids grow up and leave the state, or at least the area:  the land can’t support the humans it breeds, not by half.  And so people you grew up with your whole life suddenly disappear for one reason or another, and nobody comes to replace them.

But mostly it’s just that interminably rippling grass.  After we moved away from the farm (in March of my sophomore year of high school), my new English teacher, Mr. Lindner, who clung to his black toupee even after the rest of his hair had turned stone-gray, played a reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for our class.  It started out with the sound of waves slapping against a boat:  that was one side of the record, with the reading on the other.

We listened to the waves crashing against the boat for what seemed like an eternity but was only a minute, maybe two.  By the time he turned it off, it was hurting my ears, not because the sound actually got louder (although it did), but because I so passionately wanted it to stop.

That’s what visiting the prairie is like.  All that grass just keeps rippling, from here to Canada, from here to the mountains, from here to Chicago.  You are trapped in an infinite sea of grass, grass, more grass.  Shush, shush, shushhhhh.  Your conscious brain informs you that you’re bored as hell and it’s time to go.

But living out on the prairie, having lived on the prairie since you were a toddler, that’s different.  You can’t leave, you can only be sailed away to small towns–Huron, Chamberlain, Highmore, De Smet–and then sailed back again.  You’ve been taught your whole life that the people who disappear–and, in fact, everyone who wasn’t born to the life–is a weakling.  Inferior.  You don’t know the word hick or redneck or conservative until you have, yourself, disappeared.  You only know the grass, the everlasting whisper telling you that you may be small and insignificant, but at least you’re not one of them, the weak ones.

You learn the subtleties of the nothingness.  For example, the sky.

The winter sky is white with just a hint of blue, and reflects the long thick frosting of snow.  The trees and the barbed-wire fences hang with frost.  The snow melts and freezes on the tops of the sparkling snowdrifts, so you can walk on top of it, or carve it out so that only the crust is left, and you can almost see the sky.

The spring sky is moist, in a world where the idea of moist being an obscene-sounding word is itself an obscenity.  The religion of the area isn’t so much Jesus as Moisture.  Moisture is life, and Jesus the giver of it.  It always snows on Easter Sunday, or dumps with rain, and all the kids’ best clothes get covered with mud.

The summer sky is the color of the sun and is too blinding to look at, except after the sun has set or when covered by thunderheads, towering black walls topped with whimsical white crenelations.  Thunderheads change gravity:  as they roll in, they become down.  You can’t look away from them.  They might bring rain, they might bring hail, they might bring nothing.  They might bring tornadoes.  You can hear the dice rolling.

The autumn sky is a kid’s crayon drawing, solid teal from horizon to horizon, both as the leave change color and after they’ve fallen.  The clouds are puffy white scribbles.  I like the autumn sky best, although my favorite season is spring.  Autumn is a good time of year for jet contrails.  They start out as decisive slices in the sky, the disintegrate into a wavering line of puffballs as the wind takes them.  Then a haze, then nothing.

Each season has its subtleties.  Every day is different.  Eventually you might notice the colors you get at sunrise are the opposite order of colors you get at sunset, or that the color of the clouds tells you whether the clouds will rain or just lay on top of you like a comfortable (moist) blanket.  You learn your fogs, although you rarely get a pea-souper.  The frost, whether it’s the kind that clings to the surface or grows like a beard and hangs off tree branches.  Even the color of the air between the branches of the trees:  green for summer, clear for early fall, brown for winter, pink for the worst season of all, waiting for spring.  Yes, oh dwellers of towns, the sky changes colors based on the leaves and buds, not just the other way around.

Every once in a while, you’d hear gossip:  a man who killed himself; a cousin brutally hazed at the high school; a rape on the rez.  But those were isolated incidents.  Mostly life on the prairie was business as usual, revolving around the weather and the rituals of school and farming and church.

The rest was hidden under the grass.

Mostly I spent my time staring at the sky.

Memories: Branding Cattle

We moved back from Cheyenne when I was two — Dad got out of the Air Force and went back to the farm.

The Farm.

The older and further removed from the farm I am, the less saying “I grew up on a farm” means.  Even Lee has no idea what it means to grow up on a farm, and he grew up on an acreage outside Sioux Falls.  He thinks he knows, and then he puts his foot in his mouth.

Yes, we had animals.  No, it’s not the same thing as “having animals.”  Yes, we grew crops.  No, it’s not the same thing as having a garden.  Yes, the wheat rippled in the wind.  No, it’s not the same as when you drive past a field on the Interstate.  The more I try to explain, the finer I have to cut my meaning into bits.  I can’t sum up the Farm into a couple of easy sentences:  it was the best of farms, it was the worst of farms.  That farm.  I live there in dreams.

Last night I read a few more pages of Bird by Bird, the bit where she talks about having a one-inch frame in order to see the world.  Today my one-inch square is branding cattle.

The cattle we raised on the farm went through the corrals at least once, in the spring.  The ones that lived went through it again in late summer, to be sold.  They were two-year calves, and the first year they got branded.

There are two types of branding iron:  electric and the kind that you hold in a heater until they’re red-hot.  You have to burn through the hair and the outer layer of skin, but you don’t want to burn down to the flesh, or it’ll get infected.

The heater was a tubular contraption with a door welded onto the side, and that hooked up to a propane tank.  It sat near the ground on squat legs and turned the ground black underneath it.  The ground was covered with slush and snow; I was still wearing my snow boots. The air reeked of burnt hair, but the propane tank smelled even stronger — and of course we stood near it, soaking up warmth in the nose-biting air.  The propane burned with a steady roar that changed tone if you picked up a brand and turned it around in the flames.  The edges of the brand would crackle and spark as the stuck hair burned off.

The cattle were driven, one by one, into the branding chute, which had a vee of prison bars inside it, and metal panels at the bottom to keep the cattle from breaking their legs as they struggled and kicked.  As soon as you were ready to deal with the animal, you pulled down a lever that tightened the vee across the animal’s legs and chest, wedging them in.  The lever also trapped the animal’s head in a kind of sideways guillotine contraption, two metal panels with a hole in the middle.

The cattle would almost always walk into the chute without too much trouble (although there were cattle prods to help them along), but when you pinched them between the bars, their legs would almost always scrabble for a minute, then stop.  Their eyes would show white around all the edges, and some of them would pant.  Often, they would shit or piss themselves.  The insides of the chute were always caked with finely-splattered shit.

The cattle got an antibiotics shot, half a big pink pill as big as my palm (they had grooves down the middle so you could snap them in half), a numbered tag in one ear, and a fly-tag in the other.  The numbered tags smelled like plastic; the fly-tags smelled acrid and were sticky to the touch.  My childhood was filled with mysterious, stinking chemicals.

(When I went through the DARE anti-drug program in elementary school, I’d have to repress a smile every time the cop said “pill pusher,” because to me it meant something else entirely.)

The method of castration they used is a blank spot.  Later we had sheep, which were castrated with thick rubber bands that closed off their nut-sacks until they dried up and fell off.  With the cattle, I remember the dogs hanging around and looking especially attentive, but that was it.  It could have just been that I was told not to look.  At the time I didn’t wonder about it.

We didn’t count the process by animal, or by dozen animals, but by the hundreds.  A cuppa hunnert head a cows.  No single animal mattered, and neither did any single human being:  we were a machine that produced meat, all of us together.  Some of us happened to do more of the eating.

Animal in, animal out.

They might have tried to get me to brand a cow once, just for laughs, but if so I don’t remember it. I wouldn’t have been strong enough.  The branding irons were heavy.  Hard for a kid to do just the right amount of damage, and no more.

The hair hissed; the skin sizzled; the flesh spluttered as the animal moaned in pain, its lungs too compressed for a good yell.  It was bad if you heard that last set of sounds.  You might step up to whoever was doing the branding to give them a break, you heard that sound, especially if followed by a curse.

The only guy I remember having a problem being gentle was my cousin Alan.  He got too rowdy about it once — the word rowdy covers a lot of territory — and slammed into the bars over and over again, to hear the animal moan.  He whooped while he did it, cackling and looking around to see if anyone else was laughing.  He wore a vest and a thinly-plaid cotton shirt underneath, even though it was cold, and a baseball cap.  He was a tow-headed punk amongst cowboys.

The adults ignored him, and eventually he stopped.  If they’d said boo to him he would have just kept going.  But when he couldn’t get a rise out of anyone, he moved on.  There were just too many cattle to get done.

Off to the left of the branding chute was a dip tank, full of dip.  It was the same color as the “dip” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  And it stank, it stank like fly-tags, but stronger, enough to turn your stomach if you got too close.

The empty tank was made of cement and was shaped like a one-lane swimming pool, a dropoff on the near side and a ramp leading out.  The cattle would run into the tank, fall into the dip, and climb out the other side, spraying chartreuse liquid off their sides and onto the ground.  I can’t remember whether they were dipped at the same time they were branded or later, in the summer, when the flies were bad.  The era of maintaining small swimming pools full of pesticides is over

Branding would go on for days, an elaborate game that moved a hundred head of cattle in and out of a series of pens.  Like everything else on the farm, it tended to strip away a certain sense of individuality that seems common elsewhere.

Here’s an example:  pets.

Like members of the family, people say, then explain elaborate rituals of how their pets needed to be treated, how different pets need to be treated and fed and coddled and spoiled.

It shocks me.

Cats eat mice.  Dogs herd cattle.  Children do chores.  Wives handle the house.  Cowboys handle the cattle and the horses.  The horses do the rounding up.  The cattle do the dying.    

Family was a machine for turning babies into cowboys and wives.  If you were unsuitable they sent you off to do something else, like be a priest or a retail clerk.  If you were a horse or a dog they put you down.

I struggle with this other world, where cats go through surgeries and dogs are cremated.  Parts of it are wonderful: the part where you like your spouse, you like your kids, and that matters.  But parts of it seem insane:  the ease with which people dispose of each other, the constant justification of luxuries (bottled water is madness to me), this desire to always have something new, as though having something without a history were a mark of pride.  Everything cracked, patched, and repainted tells its own story, which you can read just by looking at it: I survived.  Ironically, out here it becomes a kind of mark of individuality:  doing without, patching things up, enduring undramatically, the way a machine endures.

Here’s the story of my adult life:  I live in a weird fairyland, by turns pointlessly whimsical and cruel.  But, in the end, I would not go back.





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