Imagine just how tired you could get cutting down trees. That’s the pickle I was in. I cut timber for a living, making compass-straight runs from point-A to point-B for the power company. It was 1957. I’d been mustered out after the Korean War and was lucky to have any job at all. A lot of folks didn’t.
My mom and pop had died while I was overseas. A grocery delivery driver that should have known better than to go that fast on a gravel road hit their car while they were on the way to town--for groceries. The trooper that responded to the accident report smelled alcohol on the delivery man’s breath. It was strong. The trooper’s report mentioned that he recoiled from the smell. Now this being backwoods Wisconsin in 1955 in most cases the booze would have been winked at, but while killing a local farmer and his wife? Hell, no! The judge had come from a farming family and got his shorts in a knot. The delivery company got fined for eighty thousand dollars and the driver--who was uninjured--had to cough up thirty thousand. The court appointed someone to sell off the dairy herd and the chickens, then closed up the farm. By the time I heard about what happened it was all over. All that money was waiting for me when I returned though. For ‘55 those were prime dollars. A good brick two-bedroom house cost 22 thousand. The average income was 4,137.00
I didn’t have any place of my own to stay, so I lived in the farm house. The farm was about twenty miles east of Rhinelander, in northern Wisconsin. The local American Legion got all of mom’s and pop’s clothes and I sold the hay, which was still fresh enough for cattle to eat. I got a job cutting timber, bought a brand new Chevrolet 3100 3/4 ton pickup truck and a McCulloch 47A chain saw with a thirty inch bar. I must have run through a new chain a month until I developed a light touch with the sharpening file. I had my duffel bag of gear, a decent Garand M-1 that hit what I aimed at and twenty clips full of rounds. (some people are fussy about that--a bullet flies, a shell holds the bullet, a round goes in the breech. Garands use stripper clips. M-16s use magazines. Kind of like, “This is my weapon, this is my gun. One is for killing, one is for fun.”)
I wanted to build a place of my own. To do that I’d need to buy some property that hopefully would be wooded, and even better if it backed up on the Nicolet National Forest, where I’d lived close to for most of my life. I spent a lot of evenings thinking about what to build the place out of. Hell, I had timber coming out of my ears and wouldn’t have much trouble getting it to the farm. I bought a pole-hauling trailer with a long tongue that mated to the back of the truck, so I could haul twenty foot logs. It wasn’t too hard to load the logs on the trailer using a peavey, a ramp and a block & tackle. I hit on a way to weld and bolt together a home-made band saw then bolted it to a track to carve logs into dimensional eight inch by eight inch timbers.
I knew that I’d burn out a few circular saws doing it, but I managed to mount a one-inch dado blade in a circular saw, fixed a guide fence to the saw and set the kerf depth to one inch. I planned on carving out one inch wide by one inch deep dadoes in the opposite faces of each beam, top and bottom. Instead of a tongue and groove, it was a tongue and two grooves. I figured that a dimensional 1x2 kiln-dried rectangular hardwood stick hammered into all the slots should hold the walls together and make them wind-proof to boot. Though simple in concept it was devilishly hard to execute. I ended up tapering the leading edges of the 1x2s on a table saw to slip into the slots (That dry wood was too tough to use a block plane on.) then hammered them in as the proportions expanded to the centers of the 1x2s. It took a tediously long time to do but it locked the beams together quite nicely
I found a half square mile of unimproved land for sale at the south edge of Nicolet, just north of 64. The closest town was Antigo at about twenty five miles. The nearest big city was Wausau which was a bit over forty miles past Antigo. The local grocery store was an IGA that had five short rows of mostly canned goods, some vegetables and a minimal meat counter. I put down twenty percent on the land to keep down the loan and leave me some working capital.
Now that I had a place to build on I wanted to do it right. I found a timber framing school in Grand Marais, Minnesota--right on Lake Superior. The only way in or out of town was either by boat or by the coastal highway. When the storm season picked up, early fall to late spring, nobody left town!
I figured that I would soon be forbidden to operate an out-house, but I built one anyway. The solitary pursuit of philosophy while voiding one’s bowels seemed to me to be a God-given mandate. If any man should command me to cease and desist of this practice I’d tie him into a sack of cats and then throw him in a river. When I spoke such to the county prosecuting attorney and then the sitting judge heard about it from said prosecuting attorney he laughed, then ruled in favor of philosophy rather than anarchy. However, to obtain my wavier I had to use a concrete lined pit and agreed to have it pumped every other year, or as needed. It made the county health department happy and that was all the judge needed. I did manage to get them to agree to a ‘dry sump’ filled with gravel for grey water from the dish sink and the bath. At the same time the tank was being poured I had a thick reinforced concrete floor laid down with twice the square footage required for my cabin. Essentially I had a foundation that continued on to make a very strong back patio that extended well below the freeze-line. The freeze line in northern Wisconsin can be as deep as sixteen inches during a bad winter but fourteen is considered to be the local standard when building to code.
I paid for electricity to be run to the cabin. I paid extra to have the line buried. I would have been perfectly happy to live without it, but I had to have some sort of power for the water well. This gave me the motivation to put in a clothes washer and dryer.
My time in Korea taught me that I could live anywhere and on anything. However, certain inventions just screamed out ‘civilization’ to me. One of those was soap and clean hot water on demand. Another was a warm, dry bed to sleep in. I supposed that freedom from drafts, biting insects and dripping water while sleeping was up there in the top three as well. I’d lived without all three of them, but I really didn’t want to do it again.
Come the winter the sap retreated and the standing wood was a bit more dense. I harvested trees and kept the ones that, at the small end, were ten inches in diameter. They were easier to skid out over the snow than they would have moved over soil. I burned through eight circular saws and nearly a case of blades while carving two dadoes in each flattened beam.
I used a star drill to pound half inch holes into the foundation every four feet and sank lead mollys into them. Then I drilled holes in the bottom beam, and using a washer with a 3/8 inch bolt in each hole which fastened the footers to the foundation. Then everything including the concrete got a heavy coat of red lead as a water barrier. A grid of 2x6 sleepers laid on edge gave me room for sub-floor insulation.
The cabin was built in two rooms, each twenty feet deep by twenty feet wide. The wall height was ten feet at the front end, fourteen feet at the rear. It was built with a shed roof which crowned at the rear wall. I used exposed beam construction. The half-ceiling was made of tongue-and-groove sugar pine and covered the bedroom. I had a team come in to finish the roof as it was not a skill that I had mastered, and I didn’t want to live with my mistakes. I also laid down a floating tongue-and-groove sugar pine floor throughout the cabin.
You might have been able to shift the walls by hitting it with a pickup truck some time during that first six months, but after the wood dried and warped a bit I was pretty sure the logs were locked together by those hardwood 1x2s to the point that the whole cabin would have moved as one piece, ignoring those bolts holding it to the foundation.
Towards the end of the project I made shutters to cover the windows and the doors. I padlocked the place closed when I wasn’t around. An open building nobody bothers, but once you seal it up and put in the windows everyone’s a nosy-parker. Go figure. A car port protected each side of the cabin, one for my pickup truck and one for my heating wood. A deep front porch was roofed over with a continuation of the rafters. It ran out until the ends were five feet from the ground. There the porch roof was supported by poles and big horizontal beams, top and bottom. I laid in a four-inch-high porch floor on long sleepers and built up a stone half-wall at the edge of the porch everywhere there wasn’t a door. Eventually I’d screen in the whole thing to keep the skeeters at bay. I hung bags of mothballs up at the inside peak of the porch to keep paper wasps and mud daubers (nasty damned hornets) from building their nests.
I advertised that I wanted to purchase a two-eye pot-bellied stove, as small railroad stations and cabooses used over the last century or so. It was early spring before I received a letter saying that an old farmer had one in his tool shed. I went out to his place to take a look at it. For something cast over sixty years before it was in pretty good shape even though it was covered in a uniform coat of rust. I paid the man a hundred and twenty for it, and he helped me get it on the back of the truck with a piece of plywood under it. We were both happy with the deal.
It took me a dozen planks, a big farm wheelbarrow and five bucks in the swear jar to get that thing on the ground. I wasn’t going to take it inside until it got sand blasted and painted, which took a couple of weeks. I had to rent the sand blaster and figure out how to use it. As for plumbing it up to a chimney I left that for an expert, just as I had the roof. Doing it wrong could definitely get me killed.
I had the place warm and dry before the ground turned from ice to mud that spring. After that I moved some furniture into the cabin from the farm, a piece or two at a time. The only things that I had to buy new were a water heater, a counter top, a sink, and upper & lower cabinets for the kitchen. I could have taken the refrigerator from the farm too, but it was over fifteen years old and pretty shaky.
The farm sold! After all the smoke cleared and the government got its half off the top, my bank balance suddenly grew by two hundred and sixty thousand bucks. I got the dressers, a ‘clothes press’ and a pair of chest of drawers out of the attic, a good bed and the best pots ‘n pans out of there, then I signed over the rest ‘as is’.
I paid off my property loan and put half the rest in high-yield long-term bonds. For another source of income I talked to one of the managers of our local sawmill. He had a credit bank deal going with local wood-workers and lumber men. If I brought in a load of lumber I’d get a signed ticket for the value. He processed the raw wood into dried lumber that he’d market. If I needed someone to help for a day or two, or wanted a piece of furniture made then the credit was taken out of my account and assigned to them. The sawmill manager had a deal going with a local lumberyard that would actually pay the people cash out the other end, unless the carpenter needed some lumber...
I started hauling logs to the sawmill three times a week unless I was staying in a camp some fair distance away and it was too far to make it home every night. I learned to operate and maintain a Cat D8 on that job. Hell, it was always a good skill to have.
Come winter when the sap was drawn down again I started harvesting trees for my own use. My equipment did a nicer job than the lumber mill and it cost me nothing but labor and burned out blades. I duplicated the first cabin on the foundation extension. The back door of the first cabin became the pass-through and the second roof was built with a reversed pitch to let the two halves mate under a copper flashing. I put in a big soaking tub and moved the washer/dryer to the back half. By the end of summer I had my new back porch installed on poured-in-place concrete footers.
I was getting a idea for my place, kind of a building plan. I’d seen big clay community ovens in villages outside of Taejon Korea. I’d bet that I could make one, but I’d need the right clay to work with.
I wanted chickens. Chickens and eggs. I’d need someplace to keep the feed. I’d also need a tight chicken coop to keep out weasels, skunks, coons and foxes.
I knew that I’d need a smokehouse too. I was in the middle of a half square mile of prime deer territory and it was all mine!
This next project was a killer. I wanted a vegetable garden. The growing season wasn’t long so I’d need a greenhouse to get a leg up on the season. I’d need a machine shed to hold the tractor and attachments, and a larder to keep whatever I managed to harvest.
I kept working the line cuts for the electric company. I knew that I’d eventually work myself out of a job unless I wanted to move. In the mean time it meant a ready source of raw lumber for me. I stashed as much as I could, up off the ground on ‘sleepers’ so that the peeled trunsk would have a chance to dry rather than rot. As I had a chance I sawed beams out of it and stacked them for further drying, without the dado cuts because as the wood dried it would twist the cuts, making them unusable. A lot of it I cut, split and stacked as firewood to feed my stove.
I talked a local farmer into helping me build a hen house and a chicken run. I’d not done it before. His driveway was shot to hell. He had access to a Cat D8 but had never run one before. We worked out a deal. One day I buried a diversion culvert under his driveway and cleaned it up. Over the next three days I got a hen house with all the fixin’s short of cluckers. We fenced in a couple of runs for the birds to work over. I figured that I could fence it off into parts and let the birds work over a section at a time. He told me about heating tapes on the watering pans and when to change out the bedding. Most of the rest I remembered from growing up with the little feathered bastards. Mom had a lot more patience with them than I ever did. I felt that I owed it to myself to investigate how much it would cost to cut the voice box out of a rooster. I could dream, couldn’t I?
I cut down the trees that were in the way of building my machine shop and my garden. If the trees were too small around to use they went into the firewood pile. Otherwise they were cut into beams and the slash likewise went for firewood. I even saved the sawdust by digging it into the field for organic bulk. I blew the tap roots that held all those stumps down then I sliced ‘em up for firewood. Stumps make great firewood if they aren’t riddled with stones. They’ve got more knots per cubic foot than any other wood short of osage orange any other thorn wood. Knots make heat, or so I’ve been taught.
I finally beat my chainsaw to death. I blew a hole in the cylinder wall. I liked that old Mac 47 a lot so I bought another. I’d forgotten what good compression was like!
Next I built my machine shed. I poured footers to support the walls but I left the floor made of tamped sand. I knew that diesels had a real problem starting in the cold, so I ran an underground electrical line and a separate LP gas line to the barn. I mounted a propane-fired heater with a big fan over the tool crib and put in an outlet near the tractor bay.
Once I had the machine shed up and insulated, I bought a small John Deere tractor with a hydraulic front bucket and a rotary tiller. It was used but it was in good shape. I also bought a rotary mower that would chew anything into chips this side of a two-inch tree. Before winter I set the tractor up with an oil reservoir heater. Best investment I ever made. I never had a lick of trouble during the winter getting it started to plow snow.
I bought a dump truck load of rotted vegetation from a tree mechanic and worked it into the garden. Next it got a big, nasty fence. I bought a little bitty canvas tent to set up next to the garden. I found a guy that had some new-fangled tritium paint for my sights. When I worried about radiation and all that he said I’d be okay unless I took to licking ‘em or some such. That satisfied me.
I convinced the owner of a big butcher shop in Antigo to teach me how to cut down and portion out a deer carcass. I paid him two hundred and fifty dollars, which was over a month’s wages for a blue collar worker those days. I got my money’s worth, though. I put in a partial concrete floor, bought some stainless steel tables and set up a butcher shop inside the machine shed. I got a good lesson from him on how to make sausage too, so I bought a small commercial-quality grinder, a forcing head and a bunch of food-safe tubs. I had to install a small walk-in refrigerator, but all in all I think I did pretty well.
As soon as the sprouts came up I started shooting game. I had to buy a little rifle that shot .22 Longs because the .30-06 tore the hell out of all the meat. I think I went through a brick of bullets a moth for a while there. I had to double the size of my smoke-house. That wasn’t such a bad thing!
I took in summer squash, cabbage, beans, peas, onions, garlic and potatoes. I bought a big chest freezer to hold the veggies and another small one for fresh, sweet meat. Boy, I bought a lot of Campbell’s soup! I cooked with it like crazy. Gotta love their Beef Consomme and Cream of Mushroom.
I bought twelve fifty-pound bags of potter’s clay for eight bucks a bag. I mixed it all up with some cheap cat box clay litter in a great big wheelbarrow with a hoe. I made a squat core out of sticks and canvas about four feet deep, two and a half feet wide by eighteen inches high, then piled on the clay. I remembered that the ovens that I’d seen had holes at the back for chimneys. I made mine the same way. I waited for dry month that summer--haying weather! to dry out that big-assed lump of clay, then I gradually fired it in steps. I burned out the internal supports, then kept feeding it and feeding it. I kept that thing roaring hotter than hell for three days and two nights before I let it go out. When the flames were roaring out of the chimney it sounded like a big mis-tuned organ pipe. It was showing red-orange through the sides before I let it go out. Once it was cool enough to work around I built a shelter over it. If nature rained on it, it would either explode if hot or melt runnels in the half-fired clay sides. I learned that it just took a gentle firing to bake bread or roast meat all day long because I built that bastard heavy! After a long day of cooking it was still warm to the touch come the morning after, and that was a frosty morning. It had room for a dozen loaves of bread or six big dutch ovens. I figured that could roast a small pig in the thing if I could find a pan to fit.
I was twenty-six and it was nineteen sixty. I got laid off of the cutting crews. It didn’t fret me much as I had around three hundred thousand bucks in the bank. I figured that I could live off the interest until I croaked if I didn’t get foolish.
That winter I took a United 707 to Frankfurt, then another flight on to Amsterdam. I bought several pill bottles full of seeds. Little round purple-brown seeds. I mailed them back home in case my luggage inspector proved to have no sense of humor.
Once back home I had a greenhouse built with a soil warmer, electric lights and good temperature control. I reserved half of each bottle in case of a crop failure. I raised some sixty plants the first batch, fertilized with prime chicken shit. I had some pretty good yields, but nothing prize-winning. I knew that I’d have to work with the humidity levels. The glazing that I expected on the buds didn’t occur.
The next crop was more to my liking. The resin was notably better and it crossed my eyes.
Being the sixties and all, it didn’t take me long to find a college chemistry major that was willing to experiment with some resin extraction. I learned how different red oil was from hashish.
In the spring I forced vegetables. In the late fall to early spring I raised pot. Then I ran off batches of red oil.
I wondered what else I could grow that I liked, and would be easy to manage in the climate. I hit on four things. Apples, pears, cherries and mushrooms.
For mushrooms I’d need a dark, deep, moist root cellar with a rotting tree laying inside it. I’d have to research that project so I wouldn’t end up pouring money down a dry well.
For fruit trees I’d need a well-drained hillside. The trees would, of course, take a few years to mature to the point where they’d set fruit.
======== time passes. ========
I’d had chickens for a few years. I’d bought another square mile (640 acres) of land inside the area delimited by the national forest, route 64 and route 55. I had a bit of the Wolf River inside my property line which I gently tapped for watering my orchards. Yes, plural. over four years I stretched out and planted four orchards altogether.
I also rented a Cat D-8 over a summer and pushed up a berm just inside my property line, then had a team of guys run a three-string barbed wire fence with cross-ties between the wires, and posted the whole place as no trespassing and no hunting. I harvested all the trees that constructing the berm had displaced. I saved it all for firewood. If I didn’t burn it one year, I would the next or the next.
I was thirty years old and had more money in the bank than I knew what to do with. I finally decided to take the traditional approach and invest in land. I bought into shoreline properties around Sawyer lake, maybe five miles north of my homestead. I bought into forty acres at about fourteen hundred an acre. It was pretty pricey for the time.
The berm made it a lot quieter. I no longer noticed the noise every time a big truck boomed up or down the highways.
I was old enough to look to the future. I wanted a partner. I wanted a wife. To do this I was supposed to give up my right to make independent decisions. What would I get in return? A family with all that implied. Busy-body aunts and uncles. In-laws that would ‘borrow’ things or money and figure that, since I was ‘family’ it would be forgotten. A mother-in-law, god help me. Naaaw. I wasn’t going there. I sucked it up and kept on soldiering.
I buried my loneliness and kept living my daily ritual, but I had it bad. Whenever I went to town I read through the lonely hearts section and turned sour grapes over every one of them.
One day I opened the local paper to the free-for-the-taking section. A local family had an Airedale Terrier that had mated with a Rottweiler. They were giving away the puppies. I smiled. A few dogs would sure liven up the place. I took a trip down to Merril and found four weaned puppies ready to be adopted. Since I had a big place I took all four of them.
Now, I’d never had a dog before in my life. I figured that they would keep each other company. For bedding, I sewed together several deerskins into a big sack and filled it with sweet hay for a bed. I bedded them down in the machine shed so they could stay someplace protected. I kept them fed and watered. What more did dogs need? I petted them and whenever I dozed off in a lawn chair I found them tucked up next to me when I woke up. I took them on walks around the property which I figure made all of us happier. It was hard, but I taught them to hold back and be quiet while I took a shot to take a deer. Soon enough one learned why a dog shouldn’t mess with a porcupine. It took most of a morning with wire cutters and a pair of needle nose pliers to pull all those damned quills. I took him to the vet to make sure I got them all. I found out that all four needed their shots so in they went, one at a time.
That fall the pears started to come in. The scent must have been irresistible if you had the nose for it, because I found a black bear doing its best to gorge on fruit while incidentally tearing the hell out of my trees. The dogs alerted me by barking up a storm once they scented him. I figured that anything that would drive them into a frenzy like that needed putting down, so I grabbed my Garand and a pocket full of clips, then headed out to where the barking was coming from at a steady lope. I spotted the bear from the edge of the orchard. I went to one knee beside a tree and used it as a brace. It was about a fifty yard shot. I waited until the timing was right so that I wouldn’t hit one of the dogs, then fired at the bear’s center-line. When the animal dropped I held back from running up to check on the dogs. I’d heard of bears playing possum before. I waited until my heartbeat was back to normal, then crept up and put another 30.06 round through one of its ears. I figured that a bullet in the brain would settle its hash, no matter how good an actor it was.
I tended to the dogs then. I realized that I had some damned smart dogs--none had been whacked by a paw unless it was a back-slap, because I could find no torn flesh and no broken bones--just bruises. Well, that was a relief. Next I took out my piss-poor little jack knife and managed to hack a line down across the bear’s belly. That skin was tough!
Before I continued cleaning out the carcass I went back to get the tractor, cart, a ramp and a come-along to get all that bear up on the cart. It took most of four hours to get that big bastard back to the butchering tables. My little gambrel and come-along that I’d been using on deer just weren’t big enough to hoist the bear up. I threw two cables up and over the shed’s support beam and fastened them to the tractor’s hitch. That got the thing up off the ground so that it could bleed out over all the sawdust I used on the floor. Next I used a good butcher knife and a wheelbarrow to gut the carcass and pull off the hide so that it could cool properly. All I could figure to use to cut it down was a chain saw to remove the paws and head. I used a butcher’s saw to cut the carcass down on either side of the spine, then cut it into quarters. Those were of manageable weight, so they went on a hook cart into the cooler to chill the rest of the way.
That was it for me! I was too pooped to piss, as pop used to say. I took a quick bath and threw my bloody clothes into the washer. Then it was time for bed.
I woke up knowing that I had to clean my weapon. I couldn’t afford to let it get scummed up. Besides, I had to go find the two empty clips that I’d fired out, and I no doubt had to tar patch the trees the bear had clawed up. It was another long day. I got my laundry done and trimmed out a few saplings to stretch the bearskin. Then I had to start salting and scraping it. That was took care of the third day and on through the rest of the week...
I took the head and paws into the local DNR office. They were getting a little ripe, so I kept them out in the bed of the truck and got the officer. “Got a bear that was tearing up my orchard. The head and paws are in the truck.”
He came out and took a look. “Big bear.”
I nodded. “I had to quarter him before my deer come-along could hoist a section.”
He looked surprised. “You gonna butcher the carcass?”
“Yep. It’s hangin’ in the cooler now. I’ll be breakin’ it down to salt and then smoke the cuts. I figure it’s about a hundred and twenty pounds per quarter. Want one?”
He shook his head. “Not me. There’s a few around that could use the meat, though.”
What the hell. It was only a little work. “Sure. Give me some addresses and phone numbers. I don’t have a phone at the cabin, but I’ll manage. It’ll take most of a month to cure the meat but it’ll be good for most of a year after I’m done.”
Cutting up a bear is just like cutting up a deer, only bigger. I’d need more time to salt each cut before smoking. The cold dry aging had already forced about a half gallon to a gallon out of each quarter, my best guess. I supposed that if I’d weighed each quarter before and after I’d have real numbers, but it just wasn’t important.
The salting process really kicked in the desiccation. That’s what meat preservation is, really. Desiccation, versus sausage-making during which the cultures used made the sausage ‘sour’ so that nothing could live in it.
I found a local butcher that would trade me pork or beef for bear or venison. That was fine with me, and it gave him different selections for his customers. He was generous enough to slice my bacon for me when I had a slab or two ready as well.
I sure went through the hardwood, though. The local sawmill kept me in slab-wood cutoffs. They smoked my meat and heated my cabin just fine.
Only the calendar marked my days. I went into town weekly, buying groceries, dog food and chicken feed. I usually had a late breakfast at the diner where I read the newspaper. My God, the news from Vietnam was horrible. Each Saturday afternoon I went back to my homestead, glad that the world was out there rather than in here.
In ‘67 I figured that my old pick-em-up truck had seen its better days. I traded it in on a ‘66 Chevy C10 half-ton. It felt solid and drove well. When I whipped out my check book and wrote out a note for the full bill the salesman about loaded his drawers. I figured that they made their money on the loan, and that just confirmed it. I probably got ripped off, but I signed up for a body undercoat, seeing as how Wisconsin used more salt on the winter roads than you would believe, unless you were from the Chicago area. Then, you’d believe.
Come spring one of the bitch dogs threw a litter of puppies. I cranked up the heater in the machine shed for ‘em and made sure that there was enough bedding and chow to go around.
I wondered what to do with myself, but caring for the pups kept me on track. Whenever I read about reactions and riots against the Vietnam war it made me sick. The goddamned soldiers didn’t have any say in the matter. Why did the idiots penalize them? It made no damned sense to me.
I took several bear and a dozen deer that came to the garden that year. I had much more meat than I could process, so I sold a lot to the butcher in town. I smoked four bear quarters and four deer sides for my own consumption. I bought four ewes and one ram goat for the winter, then bought baled forage for them. I started milking the ewes daily. I traded the milk for cheese and cow’s milk every week-end. I dug up my root vegetables that were ignored by the animals before the frost got too deep and destroyed them. I had plenty of potatoes, onions, garlic, turnips, beets and celery root. I still kept finding deer coming to the table even though it was eaten bare. I took eight more stupid deer after that before the frost came. I supposed that the smell of the buried root vegetables called to them.
I butchered, smoked and kept all of the venison. The people in town could eat something else.
It was so quiet when the wind fell. I sat outside my cabin in the cold and closed my eyes. I occasionally heard the sound of the trucks on the road, and even more rarely the train engines. I supposed that there was a sound from the planes and jets, but they were so faint that I couldn’t hear them. I could hear the sound of my breathing and my own heart beat. It was a marvellous time and a perfectly wonderful experience, not to hear anything but what I wanted to. At first it was so silent that it made me cry as my breath caught in my chest. After a while I didn’t so much be surprised by it as anticipate it.
I bought a Hallicrafter short wave radio receiver and listened to the international news at night. I was disappointed that I was so remote from the local universities that I couldn’t take any night courses. I read a lot and kept my mind occupied to the best of my abilities.
I convinced a local welder to take me on as a student. He had the skills and I had the money so I spent my weekday afternoons for a couple of months learning a trade.
The art was in a turmoil with the changes in MIG welding. I bought one of the new guns. The damned thing worked, and worked well. I brought it in to show Jack. He was as surprised as I was. We had a heavy trailer tongue that needed repair, so we gave it our best shot. After a little work with a rotary grinder it looked brand new. That was the kind of result that we tried for.
I went back to my cabin. I tended to my chickens, goats and dogs. I know that I didn’t smile much. I did what I had to, preparing for the winter. Living on my own was easy. Living with my memories was hard.
I took a correspondence school course in Spanish. When I finished I stepped it up to conversational Spanish. Next I learned German. My grand folks spoke it, but I was always excluded from the conversations Nobody ever taught me. I decided that I owed it to myself to learn. I wasn’t happy until I could read a newspaper in the language. I kept up my skills by listening to the international radio broadcasts in both languages.
The dogs were mute yet affectionate partners. I always knew where I stood with them. They wore their hearts on their sleeves and held faithful with me no matter what happened. I learned to treasure that.
It was early 1968. People were beginning to watch a lot of television. Sitcoms ruled the television. I’d seen some programs while sipping a few beers in a bar. I thought that it was all drivel. I finally got a telephone.
I sat and rocked on the porch, one hand on a hound as I relaxed. I still wanted a wife but I didn’t want the crap associated with a wife’s family. The answer was simple--A woman that was an orphan or whose family was gone.
Midweek I went into town to talk to a Methodist preacher. He was a bit mercenary, but I understood where he came from. He wanted to know what was in it for him. I laid five hundred bucks on him. He nodded and shook my hand. “I’ll set up some mixers for singles without families. See me in a week and I’ll have a schedule set up and a place reserved. I know that it sounds self-serving of me, but if you came to service on Sunday you could meet some of the folks and get an idea of what kind of people are around here.”
Next Sunday the preacher did his best to hold up his end of the deal. The direction came out of left field for me, but it made sense. He introduced me to Angie after the service, saying that we might be a good fit. I took her to a diner for dinner and coffee so we could talk. Angie was the widow of a dairy farmer. Her one son had moved away, down to Milwaukee to work in the post office. She was a big blonde woman with wide shoulders. She wasn’t willowy. She was sturdy. Angie was built like a tree, but that didn’t keep her from being lonely. She’d been living in-town, doing a little accounting for farms and businesses to keep body and soul together. After a couple Sundays at the diner I bought another chair for the porch and another for indoors, then I invited her to see my place in the woods. I made some fresh bread and set a venison roast in the oven to cook in a big dutch oven along with a covered pan of carrots with a little water and sugar before I went to pick her up.
While wandering around the farmyard with Angie beside me I described what went where and how I spent my days. The dogs turned into little pigs for her attention. She got on better with the chickens than I ever did. Before we got around to the goats I handed her a half-gallon bucket full of cut-up apples. “How do you milk such tiny things?”
“Carefully.” I replied. She laughed.
She gave my outhouse the hairy eyeball, but the washer, dryer, bathtub and hot water paid for a lot. She watched me fish out the dutch oven with the roast in it. “I fired the oven at five this morning with one armful of logs. By six I had the coals out of it. I made bread from six thirty to eight, then I put in the roast. I didn’t get the kitchen hot, either.” When she saw my potbelly stove with two eyes she told me, “I don’t know if I can cook on a wood stove like that.”
I teased her. “Want to try?” She cocked her head and looked at me.
“Yes. I think I would.”
We had the roast with pan gravy, baked carrots, fresh bread and butter for dinner. After cleaning up she followed me around as I did the chores. She smiled and nodded at the clean little milking parlor, but she laughed at the little two and five gallon milk cans. I said, “They don’t give a lot of milk, but there’s a good market for it. I trade for cow cheese and butter at a dairy.” I took her into the milking parlor. “What’s that?”
“It’s a milking block. It’s got a ramp at one end for the ewes to walk up and I sit beside to milk them without getting a broken back.”
“They actually climb that for you?”
“For a measure of cracked grain and some water they’ll climb about anything.”
Later, she watched me milk my little herd and set the cans in the cooler. I fed them and got them bedded down for the night. I fed the dogs, then we had some venison sandwiches for supper. “It’s time to get you back home, dear.” She looked sad. “I would really like to stay.”
I took her hands and looked her in the eyes. “I would be glad to have you, but my sleeping situation isn’t very luxurious.”
She smiled again. “That’s all right. It’s been a long time since I slept with a man. I miss it.”
I hugged her and kissed her lightly. “Then we’ll sleep together.” I dug out a big T-shirt for her and a spare towel. “Here. You go clean up first. The hot water tank holds forty gallons because I like to soak.”
The bed was queen-sized. I put fresh sheets on it. I heard her call out, “It’s all yours!” I grabbed another towel, a T-shirt and a pair of shorts to sleep in. It was the work of perhaps ten minutes to clean up. Then we went to bed. She wrapped herself around me and lay her head on my shoulder. She said “I know I’ll sleep like a baby now.” I chuckled and gave her a little squeeze. I was amazed at how fast I fell asleep.
What a remarkable thing. I woke up with someone in bed with me! I had to pee so I gave her a quick kiss and scrambled out of bed and out the door. It was just dawn and farmyard was covered in mist. I took a deep breath. The air smelled of dew and grasses with a little hint of the spicy ferns and rotting litter from the forest floor. It was going to be a good day.