The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on Fire


img_20161102_144452712Fires on farms are catastrophic events. When the farm in question is your homestead, it has the potential to be catastrophic, since both work and home are in danger of being reduced to ash and charred bits of metal.

“Yah bahn’s on fiyha,” my neighbor’s New England accent emanated from the cell phone, muffled by wind and road noise on both ends of the call. I needed him to repeat what he said, while the meaning sank in.

There are some pieces of news that catch you flat-footed; a parent’s death, being laid off from a job, a positive pregnancy test, a Cunha graduating high school. The possibility was always understood, but never really expected.

Grandma fondly recalled the eighth grade as, “My senior year.”

Having grown up in California, I’m well acquainted with wildfires. However, contrary to the widespread rumor, none of them had anything to do with turkey frying mishaps.

img_20161102_144138867_hdrThe upshot of having a significant portion of your farm burnt is you get to meet all your neighbors. People I’ve only seen in passing, and several I didn’t know existed, came from all points of the compass to gawk and shake their heads. I briefly considered charging admission.

The embers smoldered for several days, giving off an ethereal show at night that is likely the closest I will ever get to seeing the Northern Lights in person.

Tallying up the damage was sobering. Half of the hay field was burned, along with burning the undergrowth and saplings in virtually all of the white oak stand at the back of the property. A bunch of fence was destroyed, both by the fire and the firefighting efforts. What really hurt was the loss of my hay barn packed with most of this year’s hay crop.

As it turns out, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Hay is both.

img_20161102_143910623_hdrI pride myself on being a gallows humorist, but make no mistake, there is little to find funny in the ashes. The insurance adjuster must have an appreciation for dark humor, as well, since he didn’t make any notes when I mentioned the barn also contained an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Ark of the Covenant, and several lost Picasso paintings.

With a nod to the sense of humor and understanding of my insurance adjuster, here are my best attempts.

  • Wasn’t there a scene in Bambi like this?
  • We won’t have to worry about deer freeloading from the field for a while.
  • I bet this is what Hell will look like.
  • Mrs. Cunha was disappointed the firefighters bore no resemblance to her calendar.
  • My daughter wanted to know why they didn’t bring a Dalmatian with them.
  • It was a barn-burner of an afternoon.
  • Feel the Bern!

If you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a fire (and I’m pretty sure there is not really a “right” end of a fire to be on), here are five things to keep in mind as you sift through the ashes.

Fire is hot

“No kidding, Fire Marshall Carlos,” you might be telling yourself. What I mean is things that get caught in a fire stay hot for a surprisingly long time. The heat was still noticeable through the soles of my boots when I walked around surveying the damage the next day, and there were still pockets of what I suspect were large roots that were still smoldering just below the surface.

Check buildings and equipment because the heat from a fire radiates a surprising distance. Turn on faucets to ensure the water flows and test underground power lines with a voltmeter. Plastic pipes, wire insulation, and even panes of glass will begin to melt and deform well before combustible items around them show evidence of heat and flame.

Gear up

The natural reaction to this type of catastrophe is to assess the damage. Mrs. Cunha and I were inspecting the losses while trees were still on fire and fence posts were still smoldering. It’s a natural reaction, and for most of us who are not part of the volunteer fire department, gives the property owner something to do besides standing around worrying. I won’t begrudge anyone taking what action they are able, just don’t get yourself in trouble. Take a battle-buddy, take some communication, and leave the damn dog at the house.

Wear your heavy boots, long pants, and gloves. If you’re a Safety Sally, I won’t fault you for taking a hardhat, eye protection, and long sleeves. Wear what you think is appropriate. Taking along a tool like a hoe or a metal rake is a good idea, since you will likely want to pick up or dig out something that I guarantee will be too hot to touch.

Inspect often

You’re first tour through the debris will be overwhelming. Not in the sense that it gives you PTSD (or it might, depending on what you’ve done in life), but fire changes the look of the landscape in such a significant way that the woods I was hunting a few days prior were near unrecognizable. The sights and smells and feel of everything will be alien. It takes a second to process what was a fourteen-foot tall barn when I walked by yesterday is now eight inches high.

The first month, I averaged walking the woods or the field every other day. After that, I poked around the trees a couple times a week for the next month. Each time, I found something new that made my heart sink; another break in the fence, another bulldozer gouge in the hillside, a marketable-size tree charred past use as lumber and now firewood, if I’m lucky. You’ll find something new each sortie for quite a while, so take all the pain now.

No touchy, touchy

Whatever you do while poking around the ruins, keep in mind that you are traipsing around in a crime scene. Well, not really, but kind of. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to do something that jams you up later. Let me explain.

Several different people were inspecting the damage in the course of this whole thing. There was a report from the fire department that included input from the forestry service, three visits by insurance adjusters, contractors for building estimates, and a survey by a certified forester. Starting the clean-up process too soon might very well have affected an accurate calculation of the loss sustained. Do yourself and your pocketbook a favor by suppressing the urge get everything back to normal until everyone who needs to take a look has done so.

Not all is lost

At some point in this process, you will have a solid grasp of the losses. We were lucky. There was no loss of life, people or animals. We lost a structure, some agricultural products, and a bit of future profit. Losing livestock would have been terrible, but losing humans would have been devastating. I have nothing to offer that will help fill the void left by loss of a loved one, but short of that, everything is replaceable. We will amend the field and crops will grow again. Burning out the undergrowth will likely help the trees in the long run.

img_20161225_170713399Heck, seven weeks after the fire, the grass had begun to poke through the charred earth enough to lure a couple of does into the open. I filled my freezer with one of them Christmas afternoon, so maybe there is something good to pluck from this entire mess.

In a spurt of optimism in my prowess as an apex predator and putting aside her pique at me for delaying Christmas dinner for butchering a deer, Mrs. Cunha purchase a stand-up freezer for all the wild game she expected to be dragged back to the house. We didn’t see another deer the rest of the season.

That’s about how life goes.

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

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Thank God, I’m a Loser


winloss1Losses in life tend to outnumber the wins. Hopefully, the big defeats are few and widely separated, but the little losses, the tiny humiliations and minor ignominies, come along in a steady patter. They are what Hamlet meant when he talked about suffering the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune.

The huge victories like a Powerball jackpot or a Super Bowl championship are elusive things that only happen to other people. The rest of us rednecks, who make up the unwashed masses, have to dial back our expectations and settle for our most jubilant moments to be landing a new job or the birth of a child.

Life is an eighty year long series of kicks in the nuts. The only variable is how long you live.

That bar may have to be set even lower in the future. It won’t be too long before the rest of my children have left the nest, and as ornery as I’ve grown, there aren’t too many employers willing to keep me around for very long. Animal husbandry-related births and discovering the chicken coop wasn’t blown down by a windstorm will have to suffice as moments of triumph from here on out.

I’m willing to take small victories wherever I can. Maybe it’s a function of growing older.

My youngest son has pestered his mother and I to let him play football for the past several years. Our reluctance had nothing to do with the prospect of physical injury to the lad. If I were to tell the truth for a change, the twerp could use a good knocking around by someone not related to him.

Our sticking point was the cost involved just to indulge a teenager’s fantasy of O.J. Simpson touchdowns and Mark Gastineau sacks. My wife and I know the reality more closely resembles a rendition of The Miracle Worker with Helen Keller as captain and the remainder of the squad made up of her less coordinated clones.

I try not to pick on the mentally handicapped, but if the protective helmet fits, I’m gonna point you toward the short bus.

Now that he attends a school with a football team, complete with issued equipment, a coach, and a field to play on, Mrs. Cunha and I relented to Carlos, Jr.’s pleas to become a gridiron warrior.

They are currently sitting on a two and two record, but I’d prefer to see them closer to zero and four.

The desire to see my son lose has nothing to do with my win record in school sports. I had one season each of basketball, football, rugby, and track, where I threw shot put and discus. We went undefeated in rugby, broke even in basketball, and had exactly one win in football.

In a school so small that we only had a varsity track team, and still had trouble mustering enough runners for relay events, I came in dead last in two events every single meet. Each Friday for four months, I had my ass handed to me by kids who had their throwing technique down far better than I did.

My parents, bless their hearts, would ask how I did after every meet. I don’t think they meant to poke at fresh wounds, but I still felt like a loser having to admit defeat, yet again.

Losing might suck, but winning only makes you suck more.

Me and defeat are old drinking buddies. We’ve spent so much time in each other’s company, I’m surprised we’re not engaged. I’ve failed so often and consistently, I plan on failure and am surprised when things don’t go sideways.

I caught the tread of my boot on a door threshold about a week ago and took a tumble down a four-inch step. Even in my creeping middle age, my body still remembers how to take a fall.

Despite tumbling headlong onto cement, I sustained only a bruised toe and a thumb-size scrape on my elbow. The to-go container I was carrying at the time didn’t even pop open. I kept that sucker up out of harm’s way like an infantryman holding his rifle aloft while fording a river.

The little wins in life are the sweetest.

There’s another point to this story of my clumsiness; expect to fail. Then get up and keep moving.

Some of my more recent failures include:

These are only a few of my screw-ups that come to mind from the past year or so, and don’t even touch on the curve balls life throws just because it can. Luckily for me, I’m such an experienced loser that I hardly notice anymore. My kids, on the other hand, could use a little more practice; especially, my youngest son.

Maybe it was the years of holding back while playing board games, so as to not crush their little spirits. Perhaps, I should have let them fall out of a few more trees. God knows, nearly being trampled to death by a milk cow was a defining moment in my young life.

However, a trip to the Emergency Room is a lot more expensive than it was thirty years ago. I suspect my children would be whisked off by Child Protective Services, if they showed up to the Emergency Room as frequently as my brother and I did.

Most families don’t know the Emergency Room nurses well enough to include them on the mailing list for the family Christmas newsletter.

Winning is a great feeling, but it’s not very instructive, in the grand scheme of things. Thinking about it, winning doesn’t even teach how to be a “good winner.” If it did, winning coaches wouldn’t have to remind their little turds to be magnanimous during the post-game high-fives and “good game” lineup.

I spent this summer working Carlos, Jr. like a rented mule. Not only could he not maintain pace with a fat, old man, but he bitched and moaned the whole time. There’s only so much whining about the uselessness of homestead skills I can stand before giving in to the urge to hit him with a shovel. Apparently, sunrise to sunset does not match up with a teenager’s circadian rhythm.

The fatal flaw of teenagers is their tendency to believe in skills and abilities they don’t possess.

Carlos, Jr. showed up to football practice full of more hubris than most fourteen-year-olds. I’ll admit the kid has speed, but that’s about the only natural talent the boy’s got. As near as I can tell, he’s not even in the top half of the team, on an individual skill basis. He also seems to think it’s everyone else’s job to make him shine.

After months and months of disabusing the boy of his notion that wealth and celebrity are a mere bus ride to Hollywood away, the new route to riches and glory is paved with professional sports.

My son is the best player on the team. Just ask, and he’ll tell you so.

Lacking a survey of the team, I can’t be certain, but something tells me they disagree with the boy’s self-assessment. I know a cheap shot and an intentionally missed block when I see one, and so do the coach and Mrs. Cunha, but some lessons can only be taught by a child’s peers.

Hopefully, each bruise and slam into the turf is another of life’s little losses that teaches him how to win with some grace. The cumulative weight of all these little losses has yet to break the ice of understanding, but I’m hopeful. A losing season would hurry that process along.

After two losses in a row, my son became dejected and considered quitting because his talents weren’t employed effectively.

Jesus Christ. It’s always somebody else’s fault, isn’t it?

Judging by his black eye and a bruise pattern that reminds me of a cheetah, I think his reluctance to continue has more to do with the unofficial peer learning process than it does resource mismanagement by the coach.

Mrs. Cunha and I probably took a little more pleasure than we should have when his face dropped at being told he was going to finish out the season. It drooped even farther when informed we expected him to play through high school, as well.

It’s the little losses in life that are most instructive.

 

 

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Chicken Stampedes


IMG_0418Farms are like prisons; they both thrive on routine. Try being late for morning chores to see just how disruptive your barnyard inmates become. With luck, the worst you’ll suffer is obnoxious, sideways looks from the ingrates. If you have teenagers at home, this should be nothing new.

My friends who keep larger animals tell of property damage from 800 pounds of hooved livestock pushing down corrals or kicking apart stalls when breakfast was late. So, I guess I’m doing pretty well that I don’t, as yet, have any animals I can’t wrestle to the ground.

“I don’t care if you have the flu. I deserve to be fed right now.” #ChickenLivesMatter.

In the animals’ defense, I’m sure they all huddled together and passed hushed whispers among themselves, wondering if their human finally had a fatal heart attack.

Something tells me that has never happened. The animals expressing concern for their caretakers, I mean. An overweight, middle-aged farmer who drinks too much and eats bacon with every meal dropping dead from a coronary embolism probably occurs with some regularity. It just hasn’t been me…yet.

In a just world, I will be shot dead by the jealous husbands of the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team, but more likely, I’ll meet my maker wearing a confused expression because I didn’t know that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing.

Mrs. Cunha prohibits me from any activity that includes the words, “Y’all watch this.”

IMG_0434Until then, I’ll have to suffer the twice daily chicken stampede. Once in the morning, when I throw out scratch grain before opening the coop door, and again in the evening, when they decide to play General Custer’s Last Stand on seeing me carry out their feed bucket.

Pushing through the mob of hens isn’t so much trouble as it is annoying. It can also be dangerous. I’m relatively light on my feet for someone my size, but at six-foot-four and two hundred none-of-your-damn-business pounds, a slip, trip, stumble, or fall can have absolutely devastating consequences on a chicken because they are not terribly sturdy creatures. Ask me how I know the ease with which a chicken can meet an accidental, premature demise.

That particular situation was slightly different because it was my fault for wear flip-flops into the chicken pen, but by the same token, the owl that killed one of my hens last April has made no effort to compensate me. Like the men before me who suffered setbacks, I simply had to absorb the loss and carry on.

My daughter felt just as entitled to a replacement chicken as the animals feel entitled to be fed, teenagers to a new cellphone, or prisoners do to yard time. When it comes to entitlement, only the circumstances change. The cries of “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” are always the same.

Sometimes, it’s not about the expense, but rather the accomplishment.

IMG_0471Little in life exceeds the pride a father feels when finally winning a prize at one of those claw and crane games found in fast-casual type family restaurants, arcades, and carnival midways all over the world. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen one of these machines in a place with a dress code, and since my average reader is more likely to wear Carhartt than Channel, I’ll assume everyone knows exactly the device I’m talking about.

It might take thirty-seven dollars to win a teddy bear the game’s owner bought on clearance from Walmart for $2.99 the day after Valentine’s Day, but dammit, that’s a win in my book.

In an example of both Big Brother looking out for what it thinks are your best interests and parents all too willing to relinquish the raising of their children to the state, New Jersey state Senator Nicholas Scutari has introduced legislation to further regulate claw and crane games.

The honorable Senator Scutari, whom to no one’s surprise is a Democrat, wants to regulate claw and crane games, so they produce a higher frequency of wins for the player. God forbid adults be allowed to chose how to assess their own risks and spend their own money, according to this government lover.

In New Jersey, as in most other jurisdictions, these tempting wallet vacuums are regulated as games of chance, as opposed to games of skill. Both are gambling, when you think about it, so the distinction between the two is really only important to legislators and owners of the machines.

The bigger question is whether you want your kids to participate in gambling. If you’d be OK with Junior sitting in on your poker game, go ahead and try to snatch that knock-off iPod from the top shelf. That’s a decision you should be left to make as a parent.

I have no room to throw stones. My kids learned at a young age how to mix a proper Old Fashioned and that Daddy likes his Scotch four-by-four; four fresh ice cubes and a four-finger pour. My fingers are the guide, not theirs.

I was shocked how fast the kids learned when they figured out I was tipping for each round. There have been arguments over whose turn it was to serve.

0602161917aOne of the hopes I have for my children is they learn life lessons on the farm that can be carried into adulthood. Slapping an angry rooster silly when he comes at you with his spurs forward is an instructive moment for a ten-year-old girl in how to stand up for yourself and deal with bullies.

The rooster wasn’t too thrilled by the experience, but the lesson must not have stuck. A few weeks later, we had to make an example of him in front of the flock. The rest of the chickens have been on perfect behavior since.

20150531_111648_resizedThat’s why I like to keep an understudy rooster around. You never know when you’ll have to remind those dumb clucks of Rule #1: Behave or be eaten.

All the humans on the farm, even if outmatched physically, have access to tools and technology that allow us to prevail when an animal occasionally decides to challenge our authority over them. It’s by no means a fair fight, and it’s not supposed to be.

The lesson I want my children to take away from that reality is not might makes right or even the biblical mandate that humans have dominion over animals. What I want them to understand is that life isn’t always fair. I’m sure Clint the Rooster thought it mighty unfair that he was sent to Freezer Camp for doing what he saw as right by the hens.

Sometimes, you’re just not going to win. Frequently, the odds are stacked against you, and success is a matter of luck and perseverance. Knowing and recognizing those situations is part of being an adult. It also makes the infrequent wins all the sweeter, both for the game player and recipient of the prize.

Win a stuffed animal for your girlfriend at the carnival ring-toss and you’ll be her king for the rest of the day.

I have no idea that “fair” looks like when it comes to a claw and crane game. What I do know is that if nobody ever wins, people will stop playing. The trick, I would imagine, is to make play just challenging enough to keep people playing, but allow enough wins to satisfy the pleasure centers of the brain.

It’s like throwing out scratch grain for the chickens or packing a bone with peanut butter for the dog. Make the work put into the effort just enough to justify the reward without inducing abandonment of the activity.

Wherever that sweet spot lay isn’t the government’s business to determine, but in the continual campaign to placate the Whine Glass Generation, politicians seeking to curry favor with dependent constituencies and retain their power through reelection, want to make everybody feel like a winner.

IMG_0380When everybody gets a ribbon, and each grab at the teddy bear produces a gleeful, squealing child, an expectation of success is inculcated. It breeds a sense of entitlement and reduces risk taking to a monetary exchange. Ultimately, it creates risk aversion and kills the economic libido of children who are no longer learning life lessons about risk and reward.

The livestock on my farm neither understand nor possess the capacity to understand the relationship between risk and reward. All they know is they want what they want and they want it right now.

That explains chicken stampedes.

Do what you like with your brats, but mine will earn their eventual release from the Cunha Juvenile Correctional Facility with an understanding of how the world works that is better than that of livestock.

Assuming they aren’t trampled to death by a flock of hungry chickens first.

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.