Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Wild Goose Chase

Once we make a decision, that’s it, we want it done yesterday, we “git r done.” No one can accuse us of being all talk, no action. One time Kurt decided that his horse wasn’t working for him and maybe he’d get another one. The next day we had Bullet. We still have that bad boy five years later. That’s what Kurt calls him. “Hey Bad Boy.” He’s not really a bad boy. Kurt knows how to pick horses. He has the knack for it. I have to admit that out of all the ponies we had, the ones who were hell on wheels, were the ones that I picked.

Of course the pony hunt is not quite as easy as horse-hunting but since we don’t fart around, we’ve already seen two of them and inquired about a dozen. Which boils down to we blew the whole weekend. And that made us mad because we’re trying to finish building the hay barn. I’m painting and helping and Kurt’s doing all the building. It’s a lot to get done on Kurt’s few days off. But Friday night we went to West Virginia because this pony was supposed to be it. It’s pretty country, here to there. I don’t think there’s an ugly place in Virginia. But we weren’t going sightseeing.

Since we’re tired of going on wild goose chases and because this one was three-and-a-half hours away, I prescreened over the phone till I was blue in the face. I should have known that the seller was going to be less than truthful because he tricked me into breaking my new rule of never traveling more than two hours to go and see a horse. The guy had an ad in the local newspaper; not his newspaper, but my newspaper. The number was one I didn’t recognize but I figured it might have been his cell phone number. A lot of people have cell phones with numbers from out of the area. I didn’t find out until he got me good and interested in the pony that he was so far away; way past my two hour rule. By that time, I knew this was the perfect pony.

I have driven from New Jersey to Oklahoma to buy a pony and from Virginia to New Jersey to buy a pony and everything in between, so a little trip to West Virginia for the perfect pony wasn’t out of the question. The ad said, “Child-safe pony, brown and white Paint, 7-years-old, $1600 or best offer.” I really didn’t care what the pony looked like but it was an added bonus that he was a Paint because Kelly is on a Paints kick. He was a little on the young side but we were done with plugs and it said he was child-safe. That was the most important thing.

However, I knew from past experience that I could be wasting my time and so I did everything I could to prescreen him. I scrutinized the pictures the man e-mailed me and then we were back and forth on the phone several times. When we finally decided to go out there, I called the man and said, “Before I come, I need to ask you some more questions. I’m not trying to pick apart your pony—I just want to make sure he’s suitable for my daughter. I don’t want to waste your time or mine.”

If I asked one question, I asked fifty of them. “How would you describe him as being? Forward or more on the pluggy side? Has he ever bucked? Has he ever reared? How’s his eyes?” (I ask that one now after buying a blind pony in the dark. I couldn’t see and he couldn’t see. I’ve noticed that every bad thing I’ve gone through with a horse—buckers, kickers, head-tossers, bowed tendons—I never fall for getting one with that particular problem again. If I keep going, pretty soon I will find myself with a flawless horse.)

I asked, “How is he to bridle and saddle? How are his brakes? Can a child lift all four feet? Does he tie? Does he clip? Does he load? Does he spook?” All the answers were good so Kurt came home from work early on Friday and we headed out.

He was a beauty. He was also the perfect size. You can’t always tell the size from a picture or from what they say. Someone’s 13.2 hands may not be my 13.2 hands. The Paint was dead-on. The man saddled him up and mounted. But I could see the pony was green. His head was up in the air, his mouth was opened and he didn’t know how to neck-rein. He also looked younger than seven. He looked more like four to me. Child-safe four-year-olds are rare. There just isn’t enough time in a year or maybe two, of riding, for them to get enough experience. (Most people start horses at two or three-years-old.) But it’s not impossible. He had a kind eye and a mellow disposition. He was so pretty I thought he’d be worth finishing off for Kelly.

I asked the man to lift his feet. He lifted the front ones. I said, “Can you lift the back ones too?” The pony yanked his foot away and tried to kick. The man wrestled him to keep his foot up. I scratched my head. Didn’t I ask this question? Green horses are one thing; kickers are something else entirely. Still, we didn’t rule him out. Maybe it was just his youth and I could fix it.

We also found out he had a needle phobia. The man volunteered this information. He said that when they drew blood to do the pony’s Coggins test (a blood test to check for Equine Infectious Anemia) he resisted so violently they had to throw him up against the trailer and hold him still. I’m still not sure why he admitted that one. Maybe to gain back some of my trust. Throw me off the track. I wasn’t spooked by the needle phobia. I didn’t like it but I wasn’t spooked. We still didn’t rule him out.

I got on him. There was no safe place to ride. We went up and down the gravel driveway. He was wobbly. He was definitely green. I didn’t jog or lope. The man’s saddle was too big for me, too big for the pony, hard and slippery and I felt it slipping. I was not secure. I had visions of a pony I had tried a couple of years ago who was supposed to be a bombproof child’s pony whose saddle slipped and who promptly bucked me off. Virginia dirt is hard and I’m getting older. I didn’t need to run the pony to know he needed finishing. Kurt and I took a walk and consulted with each other. Kelly loved him.

We decided we’d offer $1200 and hope he’d counter with $1300. We thought that was a fair deal. We didn’t think he was worth any more than that even though he was a looker because he was green. He wasn’t even papered. Just a grade pony. But if we could get him for a good price, it would be worth putting the time into him. It might actually take the whole year. Kelly wouldn’t be able to ride him now, but there was mega potential. And if we had problems, if I couldn’t get him right, we’d be able to resell him to a more suitable home if we got him a little cheaper.

The problem with going far distances to see a pony is you pretty much have to take your horse trailer with you just in case you buy. If you don’t, that’s when you find one and it’s no fun having to go back and drive all those hours again the next day. Sellers think they have you hooked before you even step out of the truck when you appear towing the trailer behind and you lose all negotiating power. But it was three-and-a-half hours away.

I also suspect that my honesty made the pony seller think he had it in the bag. I admitted he was beautiful. What was I going to say? It was obvious he was beautiful. If I didn’t say it, it would be like seeing the Empire State Building for the first time and not exclaiming, “Wow, look how tall that is!”

Besides, his ad said, “Best offer.” He was negotiable. Smart move. With the end of summer approaching and the dry weather causing a hay shortage, it’s a buyer’s market. So Kurt asked him if he’d take $1200. He flat out said no, he wouldn’t take anything less than $1600, the asking price. It’s like being at an auction and suddenly you are losing the thing you were bidding on that you didn’t know where you were going to put and weren’t sure if you really wanted and then you have to have it. Kurt jumped right up to $1500. The man said no. He said what all horse sellers say, that he had someone else who was coming to look at the pony.

We took a walk and consulted again. It was one of the hardest things we ever did, not to give that man the full asking price. We were mad. The pony was not what he said he was. In fact, we caught him in a couple of lies. And the feet. I specifically asked on the phone if a child could lift all four feet. He got us to come all that way by lying and wouldn’t budge a penny even though he implied he was negotiable. In a nut shell, he thought it was a done deal. We declined. His mouth dropped open. We told him if he changed his mind to call us. But Kurt said if he does call, he’s going to have to bring the pony to us. We’re not going all the way out there again.

Kelly cried her eyes out. Kurt said, “You should have turned the waterworks on when we were negotiating, that might have helped.” She cried harder. I tried to make her feel better by telling her we had that other one to look at who was closer to home. The other one wasn’t pretty like the Paint but we should at least go and check her out. I told her she couldn’t ride that Paint pony right now anyway.

“I don’t like that other one. I like the Paint,” she sobbed. “I was going to name him Cochise.”

That’s not good, naming the horse before you get him. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket. It’s like counting all your chickens before they’re hatched. It reminds me of my friend who has been planning her wedding since she was sixteen-years-old but who has yet to meet a man to marry. Who could compare to the fantasy man?

But by the time we got home, well after midnight, Kelly moved on. She got over the Paint and wanted to see the other pony. I Mapquested it. It was an hour and a half in the other direction, under the two hour driving limit and so we hit the road, trailer in tow. But this time we didn’t have to worry about negotiating. The pony was cheap, $700, and we wouldn’t insult the seller by trying to get a good riding pony for less than that. However, she was too short, too old and too much to handle. Waterworks again.

We got lost going there and going home. You can’t trust Mapquest and you can’t count on people giving directions remembering to tell you there are two highways with the same number, the old one and the new one. The hour and a half ride and quick let’s- look-just-in-case became an all day procedure. No barn work got done. But we saw some pretty country. I’m convinced that there isn’t an ugly place in Virginia. There may be a shortage of child-safe, reasonably-priced ponies, and honest pony sellers, but there are no ugly places here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Spot the Donkey

Someone tried to sell me a donkey today when I was in Sweet’s Country Store putting up a flyer saying I was looking for a large child-safe pony. He was one of the farmers sitting there at the Formica table in the corner having his morning coffee. “I ain’t got no ponies but I got a big jackass for sale.” When I told Kurt about it, he looked down at Motley, aka The Big Stupid, and said, “Did you tell him we already have one?”

We kind of do have one. His name is Spot and he lives right next door. We have the best of both worlds with Spot, the donkey. We get to enjoy him but we don’t have to do anything. He belongs to Eldon and Pearl and when he’s not in the pasture, they keep him in a lot right next to our driveway. He’s so close I can reach over and touch him. In fact, one time I did reach over the fence and put a little Swat on a small injury he had on his chest that the flies were getting to.

At first I was afraid of him. Well, afraid is not really the word. More like suspicious because he’s a stallion. I don’t know anything about stallions; only what I’ve heard—that they’re unruly and a handful. They can be vicious. I don’t have any illusions that I could ever tame one like the little boy who was shipwrecked on the movie The Black Stallion.

When I worked at a racetrack farm when I was a kid, they had a stallion there. But just like how the black stallion in the movie was cooped up, so was this one. They kept him in a dark stall, a box really, with bars on the top half. I peered between the bars sometimes and tried to talk to him but he’d turn his back to me. Now and then he’d kick a wall or bang his bucket and I’d jump back. It was obvious he was uncontrollable; otherwise they would have kept him in the regular stalls like all the other horses. I felt sorry for him but I was never able to get to know him, to see if it was true what they say about stallions.

So I didn’t trust Spot at first. He was cute alright; all white with a couple of big black spots, hence the name. He had slitty eyes and ears big enough to place bananas inside. But when he wasn’t hee-hawing, he was too quiet. He watched me and flicked an ear in my direction. I cooed at him and he stared with no expression on his face that I could read. I was dying to reach over and pet him but I had visions of him suddenly grabbing a hold of my arm, lifting me off my feet and swinging me in the air.

Then he got the boo-boo and Eldon and Pearl weren’t home. Not one to leave an animal in a fix, I sent Kelly to the barn for the Swat and stood there looking at Spot, trying to figure out how to get it on him. I’m also not one who is generally afraid of any animals so it wasn’t too hard for me to get up my nerve and force myself to do a test. I touched his nose. One ear went forward and one went back like he was thinking about it. I touched it again. Nothing happened. So I petted his face. He seemed to like it. I reached over the wire towards his chest to see if I could reach the injury because I sure as heck wasn’t going to go in there and put it on him. It’s one thing to reach over a fence but another to get into a pen with an animal you’re unsure of. Standing on tip-toes, I stretched and touched his chest. Kelly came back, I put a glob on my finger and I put it on him. He didn’t blink an eye.

Eldon and Pearl are probably happy that we’re the ones who bought this place because I can see that Spot might annoy other people. He makes quite a racket when he starts hee-hawing. About a half dozen times a day, he opens his mouth and just like a cartoon character, he starts hee-hawing. His mouth is wide open, his tongue is sticking out and the words pour out like how words tumble out of one of those bullhorns on Sesame Street. Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Hee-haw! We’ve heard him hundreds of times already and we still stop and laugh. “There goes Spot!”

The best part is when he’s finished. He winds down slowly and ends with an “aaahhh!” like he’s totally pooped from all that work. I enjoy it so much I want to share it with everyone. If he does it while I’m on the phone, I say, “Hold on and listen to this,” and then I hold the phone out. “Hear that? That’s Spot, the donkey.”

So, no, I don’t need a donkey. Or a rabbit. Eldon and Pearl have one of them too. That’s the beauty of living next door to nice people. You get to share in the good things in life.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Pony Hunt

We’re on the pony hunt again. Basically, we’ve been pony hunting since Kelly grew out of her miniature horse, Minnie, when she was about six-years-old. We took a break when I finally let her get on Doc, and she rode the big guy around for a while, but now that he’s ready to retire, we have to look again.

It’s almost impossible to find a bombproof pony if you’re not rich. And even if you are rich, they’re still hard to come by. Some people get them because they’re lucky they’re in a family who has one and he gets passed around from kid to kid. Ponies live a long time and sometimes the pony goes full circle and winds up being both a mother’s and her child’s first horse. They won’t part with him. They keep him for themselves, selfish things that they are. The rest of us have to find one the hard way.

Getting a good pony is like hitting the lottery. Which is the reason most people end up putting their kids on full-size horses like Doc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ponies, per se, that makes them hard to find. Nothing bad is bred into them that’s not the same as what we put into horses. It’s just that ponies, like children, live what they learn. And they learn most everything from the children themselves. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it’s the sticky-fingered, knotty-haired, tantrum-taking riders who are the cause of the ponies’ bad reputation. Ponies are being piloted by little people who haven’t even finished growing and haven’t mastered the basics like patience, responsibility and self-control. Ponies have to tolerate little people who give them a whack one minute and a carrot the next—for the very same behavior. It’s no wonder they pick up some bad habits.

Plus, ponies are too little for most adults to train. A person who has a pony that’s too small for an adult to break, has to be satisfied with some line-driving and the bare minimum of amateur under-saddle work—if they can find a teenager to get on. So whatever ponies know comes from kids who don’t know much either. On top of that, ponies think they’re bigger than they are. They have big egos and a bigger nerve. But I was determined to find one.

You might be wondering why I don’t just buy another full-size horse. And you wouldn’t be alone. Ponies are harder to handle but they’re also easier to handle. You can just grab a pony from the pasture, throw a bridle on, or even a halter, and climb on up. You don’t need a saddle. Climb up, climb over, slip off the back end, slide off the other side. You can even mount a pony from the rear end. Just position him on a nice chunk of lawn, get a good running start and haul yourself up.

Ponies are the type that you can take right up to the back door and ask what’s for supper while you’re still up there. Some people have even taken them into the house but being the clean freak that I am, I require all of our equine to stay out of doors, funny or not. Ponies can be ridden all over the place and nothing fazes them. Down the road, over the hills, to the neighbor’s house, in the creek. I’ve seen them in the back of pick-up trucks like dogs going hunting. I’ve seen pictures of them inside cars. They don’t mind getting their tails braided or bows put into their manes. They put up with costumed kids on Halloween, purple and pink War Paint on their faces and small dogs on their backs. Good ponies are fun.

But most of all, the reason I want one is I think Kelly will become more independent, and without independence, if every task requires me to get out there and help her or do it myself, she will never learn to ride really well. She can’t reach Doc’s head to put the bridle on herself. Standing on a box that tips over is dangerous. She can’t lift the saddle up high enough to get it on him herself. She can’t even reach his back to brush him.

And I always worry about that far fall. She’s a little girl and he’s a big horse. You fall when you’re first learning to ride. It’s a given like having fun is a given on the back of a horse. I fell a hundred times. But it was from a pony. It didn’t hurt that bad. I saw stars, got up, brushed myself off and got back on again. A little girl Kelly’s size falling from a big horse is like someone falling off a roof. It’s not pretty. So once again, I’m out looking for a good pony.

When we moved to our ranch in Oklahoma, I thought the pony hunt was going to be easy. The place is filled with horses. That’s all everyone does out there. They sell horse feed and cowboy hats in Wal-Mart. There were two saddle shops in town but no clothing stores for people. But it turned out all the kids in Oklahoma ride big horses. They’re practically born in the saddle and little kids ride before they can even walk. They strap them in the saddle if they can’t sit up. They use Velcro and Magic Seats. Big horses with smoke coming out of their noses and steam coming out of their ears, pawing to get going, raring to go, are nothing to the mothers out there. They just put their kids on, smack the horse on the rump on the way out and hope they come back by dinnertime. Ponies were a rare commodity out there. Who needed a short, sweet pony named Buttons when you could put your kid on a powerhouse named Buster or Nuclear Demon?

But we did manage to find our share over the years. There was the buckskin pony that looked like Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, who nearly ripped my arm out of its socket when I reached for his halter. There was the one who had one foot in the grave, half an ear and who was blind in one eye (and who we had to retire almost as fast as we got him). There was the bucker, the kicker, the biter, the striker and the one who had a horse show phobia and went berserk, out of her mind, plumb loco and had a psychotic episode when we brought her to a show but was dead quiet at home. A Jekyll Hyde, if you will.

That’s about the time that I gave up and started letting Kelly ride the big guy Doc. And he’s been great. Doesn’t do a thing wrong. A real babysitter horse. But now he’s ready to retire and again, I have visions of something more Kelly’s size, something more like my first pony, Cherokee, a brown and white Paint who lived in the backyard next to the pool and a barbecue grill shaped like a flying saucer. He was very forgiving. My father fed him a ham sandwich one time (horses are vegetarians). I took kittens for a ride on his back and backed him across a rickety bridge with big spaces between the rotten wood slats to prove to my little girlfriends on their stubborn ponies that Cherokee would do it.

I rode him in the ocean where he did the doggie paddle and I laughed my head off; I rode him to Green Light Cemetery, the Keansburg Boardwalk, and to my first job in the next town where I tied him to the chain link fence while I babysat all day. I even rode him to school where I was picking up my friend, who got out an hour after I did—I stopped and got her pony first and led him behind Cherokee along a busy road to the school. Cars honked when they passed. Teenage boys hung out car windows and hollered. I waved. When the bell rang, my girlfriend ran outside and we went riding, galloping across the football field. I rode Cherokee all over the place.

And then he died. I’m 47-years-old but I still cry when I think about him.

I’m not trying to replace Cherokee. There will never be another Cherokee. I just want Kelly to have the fun and the freedom that I had. I know it’s possible. Because we have Minnie. (And as selfish as we are, we’re not parting with her.) She was Kelly’s first pony, sadly outgrown as they say in the ads for ponies-for-sale. I want another one just like her, only a little bigger. Bigger than Minnie and smaller than Doc. Something Kelly can hop on bareback and gallop across the fields. A pony she will love so much she will cry about him 31 years later.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Big Stupid

This story is in loving memory of my beloved dogs, Vixen and Pup-Pup

Every farm needs a dog. Truth be told, every household needs one, not only farms. I’m suspicious of people who don’t have at least one. There’s no excuse even if a person lives in a small place because they make them apartment size. Granted, I think those little ones are kind of sissy Mary, but if you’ve got no yard, you’ve got no choice. One of those lap dogs is better than nothing.

We used to have two dogs when we lived on the 53-acre place but they passed away within one week of each other. It was almost as traumatic as losing a person. But we knew right away that we’d get more. A family is not complete without a dog. Something’s wonky. It’s like having no windows in the house or tires on the car. It’s like having no teeth. Yeah, you can get by without them but you can’t eat corn-on-the-cob anymore.

We went to the dog pound to get ours. It was right next to the landfill. 60,000 dogs get euthanized every year in Virginia alone due to a lack of homes. About a third of those dogs are purebreds and the county pound had its share. There was anything a person could want in there. You like labs? There was a nice black one there. There was a German shepherd, a boxer, a beagle, a bulldog, a Pomeranian and even a collie that looked just like Lassie. There were puppies and older dogs. There were little dogs and big dogs, spotted dogs and my personal favorite, the striped dog—aka brindle. And wouldn’t you know, that’s just what I got.

We had to wait three days before we could take the striped dog home. He was a stray and there was a waiting period to give the owner a chance to retrieve him. We weren’t worried about that. We knew no one was going to come. Of the two dozen or so dogs in there, most of them would be put to sleep in a few days.

Kurt said, “Can we return him if we don’t like him?”

“Kurt! Don’t think like that!” I was mad. He was not being positive. I knew it was because of losing the other two. They were perfect. One perfect mutt adopted from another dog pound many years ago and the other perfect mutt came with the house we bought in Oklahoma. How could we love another? They also happened to be brindle, though different types of dogs, one a shepherd mix and the other a Heinz 57 with half a tail. I secretly worried that I would compare the new dog but I didn’t admit it out loud. I was dog-starved. I just wanted to get one and make everything all right again.

We put our foot down about Kelly picking out the name. The last time, wanting to be good parents, we let her have full reign and what did she do? We found ourselves with a dog named Pup-Pup. It was a little embarrassing calling, “Pup-Pup! Pup-Pup!” especially when we lived out on a ranch in Oklahoma next to whiskered men (and some whiskered ladies) who roped steers and branded horses for a living. We couldn’t let that happen again.

So we bribed her. She needed a new bike anyway. We just didn’t let her know that we had been planning to go get her one and used it to our advantage.

“Well…” I tapped my nose, thinking. “Maybe Daddy ought to get a turn naming the dog. He’s such a good daddy. Hey! And then we can go to Toys R Us and get you a new bike! A purple one!”

The striped dog became Motley. Maybe you don’t think it’s as good a name as Pup-Pup, especially if you’re one of those frou-frou dog people, but we like it. He not only is motley-looking, but it’s a nod to the band Motley Crue. And since Kurt and I are aging faster than we’d like and hanging onto any coolness we have left by the skin of our teeth, we thought Motley would be a good name.

However, my girlfriend nicknamed him The Big Stupid and you might hear us calling him that. We also call him The Big Dope, Crew Cab, Crew Cut, J Crew and Kurt’s favorite, Home Slice. I hear him talking baby-talk to him in the middle of the night when no one’s around. “What’s up Home Slice?” he says. “What you doin’ you Big Stupid? No, no, don’t lay down,”—because Motley promptly falls over so you can have better access to his belly when you talk to him. I can hear the tail thumping. “You sit up and I’ll keep petting you.”—because Kurt will work at his desk one-handed and pet Motley with the other if he can reach him. He’s not returning him.

I wouldn’t say that The Big Stupid is actually stupid. But being a young dog with colossal feet and more enthusiasm than skill, it fits him. For example, you can easily trick him into tumbling down the stairs. All you have to do is go down slowly and quietly. Sneaky. He likes to lay guard at the top of the stairs. He lays there watching.

When you get down to the bottom, you just call him like something great is going to happen and he goes barreling down, often somersaulting head-over-heels and then crash-landing on the bottom. We had to remove the rug I used to keep there because he’d slide on it and plow into the door, which is all glass. Kurt said, “You better take that rug out of there—Motley’s going to go right through the door and end up in the petunias.”

When we first got him, he didn’t even know how to go down the stairs. I had to carry him to get him into the house. He didn’t know how to walk on a leash. He’s still not very proficient about getting into the truck though he’s always up for a ride. It’s not easy lifting a 70 lb. dog into the back seat of a truck. He can get the front part in all right and then Kelly and I have to shove the back part in after him. Sometimes he falls on his face but he’s happy. He likes to be with us. Whatever we are doing, wherever we are going, he likes to come along.

That’s the thing about dogs. Even if you’re a nasty bitch or a cranky bastard, even if you have the personality of a lamp post or the breath of a skunk, they still think you’re the greatest thing going and they want to be with you. When we first got him, he’d follow me from room to room, making sure I wasn’t going anywhere. If I got up, he got up. If I switched chairs, he moved closer. If I coughed and rustled papers, he looked up. Just checking.

Motley comes with me every morning when I do my horse chores. We feed and water and then I get the wheelbarrow and we go out to the pasture to pick up manure. I watch him running ahead. He’s trotting along about 20 feet in front, but if you look, you will see his head tilted to the side. He’s watching me, making sure I’m coming.

That’s one of the last things I remember about Pup-Pup. I remember pointing that out to Kelly one morning as we went to the barn. “See, look at her watching us out of the corner of her eye. If we stop, she’ll stop.” We tested it and she did. She looked back and waited.

I feel bad that I wasn’t able to save her. But now I have The Big Stupid. He keeps guard over the house when we’re not home and he keeps the critters out of the grain in the barn. But most of all he keeps me company. Every family needs one.

Please be a responsible pet owner and spay and neuter your pets.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Smalltown USA

I live in Smalltown USA. This is where we watched fireworks at the high school on Saturday night. I’d never seen fireworks at a high school before. Where I come from we’d usually go out on my father’s boat, the Cookie Too (named after my mother), and watch them from the bay. Dozens of boats would anchor and sit bobbing on the water, kids rushing to one side or the other, nearly tipping the boats with the lopsided weight. “Look!” they’d cry, pointing to dozens of colorful explosions in the sky. We could see them all. We could see the ones in the city. The last time I watched the fireworks on my father’s boat, we could see the Twin Towers. They were lit up red, white and blue.

Before we moved down the shore and my father got a boat, we lived in Jersey City where watched them from the flat tarred roof of the apartment building. All the Italians were up there with food. They gave us cherries and slices of cantaloupe. Joe Centonzi drove the fruit truck. We sat on vinyl kitchen chairs with chrome legs next to a giant TV antenna and a vent pipe and spit pits into the alley below.

One time we went to Shea Stadium to see the fireworks. They were playing Beatles music while the bleachers filled up. I’d never heard that group before. (We called them groups, not bands.) That was something new and different.

At the high school, there were bleachers but that was where the similarities ended. It was like a Lifetime movie. I almost expected a trombone player on a gazebo, but there was a bluegrass band on a flatbed. There were stands with ladies in straw hats selling lemonade, pies and watermelon. There was a man in overalls selling kitchen knives, two for twelve dollars and scissors, sharp enough to cut a penny. Kids bounced and tumbled in a big blow-up jumping thing the fire department rented for the occasion.

I let Kelly run around loose. As soon as we appeared, her girlfriends spotted her, squealed and off they went, arm in arm, barefooted and giggling. There weren’t that many people there, just all the locals, and I felt safe letting her go. If I craned my neck, I could see the whole football field and everyone in it.

I know child molesters are everywhere. They are teachers and priests and coaches. They are aunts, uncles and the girl next door. Some of the nicest people. I trust no one. But if I couldn’t let her go here, I might as well keep her locked up in a cage. Now and then she ran back to us and asked for money—“Can I have a dollar to get my face painted?” Or for something glow-in-the-dark. Or for streamers on a stick. I was happy she was hitting us up. It was a good way to touch base. I leaned back in my chair.

Then Wesley Bell, an old dairyman with an impressive operation on both sides of the highway and his wife, Mrs. Wesley Bell, unfolded their lawn chairs right behind us. I never could understand her name—sometimes the southern accent is like a foreign language to me and I have to either ask for the hundredth time, what was that you said? Or I just smile and nod, pretending like I know. In the case of stories being told, I can usually figure out what I missed. Names are a problem.

Wesley promptly leaned over and asked us where we were from. He said, “Joisey? I had to go up to Joisey once. Back in 1971. I had to pick up some cows in Princeton.”

I didn’t bother telling him that I doubt there’s a single cow left in Princeton. In fact, there might not even be any dogs left except for those little foo-foo dogs who ride in the pocketbooks of ladies who live in McMansions and who hire specialists to walk them and paint their little toenails.

“Yankee cows? Were they all unruly?” I said. He nearly busted a gut laughing and then we were in.

He talked our ear off the entire time we waited for the fireworks to start, telling us about the local history of our road. It appears one simple road can have a lot of history and everybody knows about it even though they live on other roads miles away. We found out who was buried where, why the road curves to the right and what they did with that old farmhouse that used to be down by the creek. Board by board, we found out what they did with that old house.

People are friendly to us. Of course it helps that we’re Eldon and Pearl’s neighbors. That’s always a get-out-of-jail free card. Everyone loves Eldon and Pearl. We learned right quick, that’s how they say it around here, not, we learned really fast, but right quick, to mention we lived right across the street from Eldon and Pearl.

“Oh, you live in that white house across from Eldon and Pearl? You must be good people!” and they’d put their arms around us and tell us where the best fishing spots were and what to do about those carpenter bees in the barn.

“You don’t need to go and buy any special stuff. Just spray Sevin dust in them holes and then plug ‘em up. Just plug ‘em up with some caulking and that should do it. Don’t waste your time about it. Them carpenter bees are worse than termites. Why they ate Johnny Johnson’s barn down to practically nuthin’, they did. I recommend you get some of that Sevin dust and do it right quick.”

By the time the fireworks started, Wesley introduced us to another dairyman, the lady who taught math in the middle school, the boys from Hurt, the mayor and the county supervisor. We were talking to everyone and that’s not even counting Eldon and Pearl’s kin.

I like saying, “kin.” I’m trying to get out of the habit of calling them, “relatives.” Kin is warmer and friendlier. I think I can do it. I already trained myself to say, “Holy cow,” instead of, “OhmyGod,” and the unladylike “Holy shit.”

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a fireworks show, since the place was so small—how much money can the local fire department have to put into it? How much do they make on barbecue fundraisers and spaghetti dinners anyway? But the fireworks were so good, I kept thinking I was seeing the finale. Then they’d keep on going.

When it was over, I thought of grabbing our chairs and running. That’s what everyone would do up north to avoid getting stuck in a traffic jam. But we filed off the field in an orderly way with everyone else. There was plenty of room and more socializing happened on the way out. We stopped and got chocolate chip cookies.

When we got to the truck, my heart dropped. I realized my movie camera was gone! I must have left it where we were sitting! Kurt ran back and Kelly and I put everything into the car and then followed. Not only was it a valuable piece of equipment, but there were movies on it of Jamie’s college graduation. Irreplaceable movies! I felt sick.

We cut through the crowds coming out through the little gate as fast as we could. Excuse me, excuse me. I knew it was gone. As I ran, I looked up ahead to where we’d been. And there was Wesley Bell and Mrs. Wesley Bell, standing next to the camera, their chairs all folded up and ready to go, waiting for us.

“I sure am glad ya’ll didn’t get all the way home before you noticed you was missing somethin’,”Wesley said. “I woulda had to run it down there for you. I know where you live you know, right across the street from Eldon and Pearl. I lost a camera myself once. It was back in, oh, I think it was ’75 or ’76. It was one of them fancy Instamatics. Before they had movie cameras…” and he proceeded to tell us the story until the football field was empty, Mrs. Wesley Bell was yawning and the ladies in their straw hats were packing up their lemonade and pies for another occasion.

I couldn’t believe no one stole the camera. That’s not what would have happened up north. Up north I wouldn’t have walked to the bathroom in a football stadium without putting the strap of my pocketbook over my body and clutching it against me for safekeeping. It’s not like this in the city. This was something new and different.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Confederate Flag

I’m disappointed that I can’t hang the Confederate flag. I didn’t come all the way down south not to be able to hang the Confederate flag. But contrary to what some southerners think, and what I, myself, have been accused of thinking, we northerners are not all mean and rude and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. It’s a disappointment, but if it makes black people feel bad, I’m not doing it.

Obviously, the flag means different things to different people. When I moved down here, I learned about the Civil War. Up in Jersey, I must have been playing hooky when the teacher went over that page in history class. The only thing I knew about it was that the south still thought it was going on. Someone would say, “They’re still fighting the war down there,” and we’d laugh. It was funny. Like how milking cows and biscuits-and-gravy can be funny. But once I got down here, I learned it was no joke. This Civil War stuff was no laughing matter.

Every day there is something in the paper about it. There was a whole series about it in the newspaper that ran for quite a while right behind the Dear Annie column and the daily horoscopes, two important things to read. There are Civil War reenactments, veterans’ groups who gather on the marble steps of court houses to demand their right to fly the flag and clubs composed of daughters who are the descendents of Confederate soldiers. Even my property is something of a tourist attraction due to the war. It appears that a flag carrier during the Battle of Gettysburg is buried in the family cemetery and this makes the Civil War hobbyists want to come up and take a look. They bring digital cameras, picnic lunches and make etchings from the tombstones.

It’s all pretty important, but to me, the flag makes me think of sweet things like strawberry perfume, Boones Farm Apple Wine and incense. I am in cut-off jeans, hairbrush in my back pocket, pack of Marlboros in the other, at a party in someone’s back yard where there is no grass but there are woods people keep going in and out of to do things. I am leaning against the porch rail casually where a Confederate flag hangs on one side and a skull-and-crossbones flag hangs on the other. I am listening to The Outlaws and having a crush on the guy on the Harley who is in overalls and looks like Jesus smoking a joint. Ever since then, I wanted to go south.

It took me a while to get down here—almost thirty years—but I made it and wanted the whole southern experience. I downloaded some Molly Hatchet and Marshall Tucker onto some CDs. Alright, my husband did it for me. Then I planted some tomatoes, learned to cut wood, make biscuits, alright, they’re frozen, and put my truck into 4-wheel drive. Now all I had to do was hang the flag and I’d be all set. But then I read about how it makes the black people feel.

It broke my heart. At first I was mad. The flag has nothing to do with slavery! It’s about southern rock! I considered ignoring what I learned. Just pretending I didn’t know. Other people were hanging it. In fact, the brothers Dewey and Fred in the double wide down the road had one hanging right on their barn. Facing the road. Why couldn’t I?

When I was in Bell’s Country store buying plum jam, a book called Amish Home Remedies, wind chimes and sweet potato pies, I saw the flags. My hand lingered over one, folded up neatly in a cellophane package. It was made out of 2-ply, 100% woven spun polyester and it stated right on the label that it was the most durable flag material ever created. I looked up at the samples on the wall one more time.

But I couldn’t do it. My hand moved over to the American flags and I picked up a bunting folded up accordion style and held together in a cardboard sleeve. I thought of sweet things like funnel cakes, crab cakes and Madam Marie the fortune teller. I am in cut-offs, hairbrush in my back pocket, Marlboros in the other, on the boardwalk where ticking clicking wheels and ringing bells drown out the ocean on the beach where people keep going to and from. I am leaning against the pipe rail fence listening to Born in the USA and having a crush on the guy in the record stand. He looks like Bruce himself.

I grabbed four buntings and brought them up front. I’ve always wanted buntings but I never had a place to hang them. Now I have a rocking chair front porch with a railing just right. Two on one side and two on the other. American flags don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Weeding in the Dark

Now I know I really belong in the country. I’m dedicated to my garden. Right after supper it started pouring. The pool looked like it was boiling and puffs of dust, like smoke, were rising in the barnyard. We needed the rain. It’s been drought-like here. Not conducive conditions for weeding. The dirt was like concrete.

But I saw my chance. The rain stopped almost as fast as it started. I hurried up and finished the supper dishes, started the coffee and went out there. It was dusk. It would get dark soon. But it’s easier to weed after it rains. The clover and crabgrass come out in soft red clumps. Besides, Effie reprimanded me the last time she drove by in her old turquoise pickup truck and caught me weeding in the high noon sun.

“Dang girl, what do you want to kill yourself?” she said, leaning out the truck window.

I had to admit, I was dying out there. I stood up and felt dizzy. I promised her I would go inside in a minute. Just a little bit more. I finished the side behind the yellow roses and went in the house. I looked in the mirror and jumped back. My face was purple. Brownish purple. I got a bad sunburn that was turning tan already. I was cooked. That’ll teach me.

But after I took a shower and cooled down, my face was pure white again. Not a trace of a burn. Not even a rosy glow. That was no sunburn! I was obviously getting ready to have a heart attack weeding in that bright sun. Luckily Effie happened to be driving by!

After the rain stopped, steam was coming up from the driveway. I got the yellow cushion for my knees that Kurt bought me the last time he was in Lowe’s. He called me up on the way home and said he had a surprise for me.

“Ice cream?” I asked.

“Nope. Something better.”

“A horse?”


“I don’t know,” I scratched my head. “I don’t care for diamonds.”

“A cushion! One of those cushions you lean on with your knees when you’re weeding!”

I was so happy because the towel wasn’t working well. Luckily Kurt is a big believer in having the proper equipment for whatever you’re doing, which is the reason we have a tractor farmers whistle at, 7 saddles but only 4 horses, (the extras for various disciplines we’ve tried on horseback,) and 4 sleeping bags, 3 tents, 2 lanterns and a Coleman stove even though we’ve only gone camping once. He says the proper equipment is half the battle.

So I got the knee-pad, my little shovel and went to work. I didn’t bother with the gloves because they’d get soaked right away and defeat the whole purpose. So what if I got dirt under my fingernails? It’s good dirt. I kind of like getting farm dirt on me. I like going down to the Minute Market in my camouflage sweatpants and work boots, t-shirt with the barrel racer on it, hair in a pony tail like a blonde Gretchen Wilson and picking up a salt lick or some diesel. You can tell I’m doing serious farm work. I’ve got hair on my shirt and hay in my hair. And my fingernails are dirty.

It was getting dark fast so I hurried. But then Pearl and Eldon came home and I had to stop and bring them over some of my spaghetti. It’s not regular spaghetti and something I’m sure my neighbors have never tasted before, but it’s one of my specialties and it reminds me of being on a farm. When I was a little girl, my mother’s best friend, Alice, took me out of the city for a week to her sister’s farm in upstate New York. I had such a good time up there—it’s Alice’s fault that I turned out to be a farm girl.

I was mesmerized by Alice’s sister Jeannie’s garden and so she sent me out to go and pick a big zucchini for supper. She fried it up with garlic in olive oil. She added sliced black olives, parmesan cheese and garlic salt. She mixed it all up in a big pot of spaghetti and fed it to all 12 of us kids—hers, Alice’s, the other sister’s and most of the adults. Now every time I see a zucchini, I think of that time and though Kurt won’t eat any green vegetables except green beans and broccoli, and has passed on his bad habits to Kelly due to the fact that he refuses to be a responsible father and pretend he likes these things, I make the same recipe a couple of times every summer. And I eat most of it myself.

But since Pearl had given me some zucchini from her garden, I had to do the country thing and reciprocate. I put a little extra salt on theirs and brought it over. Then Kelly had to come. She ran to get her flip-flops. Then I realized the dog was loose and he’d follow us over and could get hit by a car. So I ran and got his leash. Then, Lovely, the barn cat tried to come and I had to stop and shoo her back.

After chatting for a little while with Pearl and Eldon, I made it back to the tomatoes and got busy. Toads were making a racket and my hand almost fell on a neon blue lizard. He wiggled away and disappeared under the garage. Kelly and the dog went in the house and I tried to speed it up. It was getting hard to see.

When the bats came out, I thought about getting a light. I considered laying a flashlight down on the ground. The weeds were coming out so nice and easy, I didn’t want to stop. But then Effie came by. She leaned out her truck window and squinted.

“Good day! What in the world are you doing out there girl?”

I stood up and blew the hair out of my face. “Uh…weeding?”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Well, it’s not exactly the middle of the night. You said not to do it in the middle of the day.”

“Ya’ll gonna get eaten alive!”

I promised her I would go inside in a minute. Just a little bit more. I kept going until I was up to the strawberries and then it was too dark. I went in the house and reported that I was almost all done. I wouldn’t have to go out and weed in that hot sun tomorrow. I’d paint the barn instead.