One Friday night in December a friend and I decided to try the local fish fry at the American Legion. It was a local legend. We had to search for a parking place--the place was packed. Instead of standing in line to wait for a table we gave the lady our names and headed for the bar for two reasons--to find a place to sit down and to get a start on our drinking.
Behind the bar was a poster with a few pictures on it and a big sign: "80 acre Idaho farm lottery". Below that, in smaller print it said "One thousand dollars per ticket. Only one hundred tickets will be sold."
I called over the bartender. "Is that sign for real?", pointing at the poster I'd been reading. He nodded. "Yep. An old timer from around here moved to his family farm near Moscow. He didn't have any kids so when he kicked off he willed the place to the Legion post. We had no use for it, so we decided to sell tickets for the place to pad our Christmas fund." He reached under the bar and pulled out a steno pad. "The last six tickets are still open."
I thought fast. I easily had that grand in the bank that I could afford to gamble and lose. Besides, if I did win and things didn't work out I could flip the place for a ready-made retirement fund. It only made sense. I hauled out my check book. "Put me down for a ticket, would ya?" I wrote out a check to the American Legion Post 504 in Batavia, Illinois. I handed him my check and driver's license. He asked, "You a member here?"
"Nope. Never felt the need."
He asked another one. "You a vet?"
I replied, "Yep. Army, back before Desert Storm. I never made it overseas so the VFW won't touch me."
"Gimme a check for fifty bucks and you're a member. It's because the drawing is only open to post members."
Hell, in for a penny, in for a pound. I wrote out another check and handed it over. He grinned and shook my hand. "Welcome to the post. We'd appreciate it if you showed up with your DD-214 to show the secretary that you're not blowin' hot air. The drawin's gonna be on the Saturday before Christmas, a week from tomorrow."
Fred and I clinked glasses and I had a sip of beer. I know that I was grinning like crazy. Pretty soon our names were called. "Charlie Fisher, Fred Allen, you table is ready."
All I can say is that their fish fry lived up to its reputation. It was a serve-yourself setup. I had deep-fried haddock, baked whitefish, vinegar coleslaw and mashed potatoes with garlic butter. It was a damned good feed for ten bucks excluding my bar tab.
All week long I was distracted by thoughts of that farm. I'd never been a lucky winner at anything in my life. I wondered if lady luck might stumble on the carpet and land on me this time. All I could do was to hope and dream. I went back on Tuesday after work to find out just where the farm was. I wrote down the map coordinates and went home to Google it. Google Earth showed a rocky, wooded elevated valley with a stream at one end, butting up against the foot of a small mountain. It was about 13 miles East of Moscow on Felton Creek Road.
I showed up with my military separation papers on Saturday morning to both keep the post secretary happy and to validate my ticket. I had a couple beers while waiting for the 1:00 PM drawing. The place started to fill up around noon. Just before the drawing the place was too packed to move around much. I had to pee so I lost my place at the bar.
It was time for the drawing. Tension was thick in the air. Some guy I didn't know used a short ladder to climb up on top of the bar. The bartender handed him a box and said, "I hereby swear that every member that paid their fee for the farm drawing has one ticket in that box."
The guy standing on the bar gave the box a good shaking, popped off the lid and, while holding the top above his eye level, reached in and stirred the contents around. Finally he pulled out one gray ticket. The place was totally silent. He read off the name. There were groans from every man standing in the room but me. My ears were ringing. I remembered to breathe and gave a 'whoosh'. I quietly said, "I won." Then I realized what I had said. I said it a little louder. "I WON! I never Christly win anything, but I won! Hooooleeee shit! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yip!" Several guys grinned as they watched me jump up and down. One said to the other, "Either he won or somebody dropped a lit cigarette down his shorts." I ordered a beer and slugged it down. I heard, "Nope, he won all right. He didn't pour it down the crack of his ass."
I spent the afternoon signing papers. Part of the transfer contract specified that the property couldn't be sold for ten years. I was okay with that. Then I read the last rider. I had to live on the property. By the time I was done I was the proud owner of a house and the land it sat on, including mineral rights so nobody could force me off of it.
Well, shit. I'd have to tell my boss about it. I asked for the poster that originally got me into this and got it. I rolled it up and secured it with a rubber band. My boss would never believe me without some sort of proof.
I had hopes that the place was livable. I didn't want to pour a lot of money into fixing it up if I didn't have to.
I'd have to get out of my apartment and move to Idaho, then find another damned job. I purely despised job hunting.
Thank God I had over ten thousand in the bank. I also had a good-running Chevy pickup that could handle the weather in Northern Illinois. According to Wikipedia the climate was similar to what I was used to, if not more temperate (higher lows, lower highs) even though the place was over 2000 feet above sea level.
Terry, my boss, didn't want to believe me until I pulled out that poster and showed him the deed. Then he about crapped his pants. I let him know that I'd still be around for a while. I had to give four month's notice to get out of my apartment with my skin intact.
I hit the road on April 28. My apartment was clean as a whistle so I didn't have to pay any cleaning penalties. I handed over the air conditioner fob, my parking sticker and all my keys. I had a 14-foot double axle covered trailer hooked up to the back of my pickup. I'd eaten down my larder of canned goods to save weight. Still, I was glad that the trailer had a double axle. I wouldn't be running any races or doing much over the speed limit while towing that thing. My silverado would eat me alive at the gas pump.
I lived pretty cheap during those four months. The only extravagance I bought into was a big screen GPS and I had the driver's seat changed out for one that reclined. (The pickup had a club cab. It gave me a place to keep my groceries and laundry dry when the weather horked up.)
It took me six days of slow interstate travel to get to Moscow. I showered and ate at truck stops. I slept in the truck. I had vowed to be Mr. Frugal until I saw what I was getting into and I was solidly into a new job.
Once I hit town I picked up two twenty pound sacks of potatoes, forty pounds of rice, twenty pounds of sugar, twenty pounds of salt, four boxes of tea, fifty pounds of flour, four jars of yeast, five big jars of peanut butter, eight jars of grape jam and twenty pounds of butter in jars--Ghee.
My key chain grew to five keys--one for the padlock on the trailer, my truck key, the key for the padlock on the chain at the front gate, the house key and a padlock key for the pole barn. The overhead pic from Google Earth showed a long house, a longer pole barn within a short walking distance and two smaller out-buildings.
My GPS led me right to the gate. I unlocked the chain and left it open next to one pole. It looked like newer work. There wasn't much rust on the pipes and they were made of unpainted steel. I crossed a cattle barrier at the fence line (It's made of several four or six inch pipes buried side by side across the road. Cattle won't cross them as it hurts their feet.) and drove up the lane. There weren't any downed trees or overgrowth blocking the lane which eased some of my initial fears.
An electrical service line followed the lane back over a rise and to the a pole where it split to the various buildings. Two big breaker panels were fastened to the pole, shielded by a dog-house. The bungalow was boarded up with sheets of plywood nailed over the doors and windows. The roof looked okay as I could see no missing or torn shingles.
I wasn't prepared for the board-up. Still, I had a lug wrench and I saw a pile of firewood. A little tossing around got me a two-inch stick to use as a fulcrum. I pried the cover off of the door, then each window as I walked around the house. I took the time to stack up the plywood sheets nail-side to nail-side before confronting what was inside.
The house was dry! I was impressed! Supposedly the previous owner had died over two years before. My luck was batting 1000. I walked from room to room, checking the place out and opening the windows to let out the stuffy air. I was very happy with my initial impressions. I'd not have to pour a bucket of money into the place which gave me some breathing room before I really had to find a job.
The kitchen was empty. It had been professionally cleaned. The fridge and freezer were empty as well, left open and packed with wadded-up newspapers, an old trick to keep refrigerators in storage from smelling like hell. There was an older gas range--a Roper, the same kind we owned when I was a kid. I remembered getting the shit shocked out of myself while bellying up against it while trying to operate the oven timer. I'd want to re-wire the thing before plugging it in. I was handy that way, being an electrician.
The kitchen opened out directly onto a living room with a small fireplace and a wood floor. The place was already sparsely furnished.
Next came a half bath and next to it a utility room with a mop sink, washer, dryer and door out the back. The electrical service panel, main gas valve and the main water valve were there as well. I flipped off all the breakers and closed the valves.
There was an office and a spare bedroom. The bed in the master was a mess. The owner must have died in it and not been found for a while. I hauled the bed and frame outside. Thankfully it had all had enough time to dry out. It didn't stink. All the clothing was missing from the closet and the chest of drawers. I didn't see any husks from dead insects. Someone must have cleaned up after the body was removed.
The garage attached to the kitchen didn't have any surprises. It was big enough for two cars, and deep. There was a big chest freezer in there that had been emptied and left propped open. A big gas forced-air heater sat up in the corner wired to a thermostat next to the kitchen door.
There wasn't any basement. The house rested on solid stone.
The back yard wasn't anything special. Tufts of grass and a few sparse bushes interrupted the bald gravelly soil. I cast an eye over it with a patio, overhead cover and a grill in mind. I'd have to get a slab poured first.
I toured all the out-buildings and made sure that the utilities were turned off. I found a medium-sized tractor sporting a bucket on a hydraulic mount and a scraper blade on the three-point hitch. I also found a small garden plow and a stake bed wagon that would hook up to the tractor's tow bar. The pole barn was floored with packed sand except for a 15x15 concrete-paved corner that hosted a big tool bench and a few power tools. It was a big scrambled mess that someone had carelessly tossed through.
I took a meter to the power pole and checked it for live service. It was dead as yesterday's news. I had no idea how much LP gas was in the big 2000 pound tank.
I was without water, heat or electricity until I got the services turned back on. I did my best to tote my food supplies and kitchen utensils, pots and pans into the kitchen, then hauled my bed into the master bedroom, moved my clothes in, found a place for my tool kits in the utility room and set down my laptop, mouse, monitor and printer in the office. I filled the linen closet with my towels, toilet paper and soap, then found a place for my coats and wet weather gear. That emptied out the trailer. I towed it to the pole barn and parked it.
I still had a couple gallons of water and all the stuff in my backpack sitting in the truck. I hammered together a table for the back yard out of two plywood sheets nailed face-to-face to hide the points then brought out a little gas camping stove to boil up some quartered potatoes for dinner. It wasn't much but it would do. A little butter and a cup of sweet tea made it a generous meal instead of prisoner's fare.
In the morning I had Quaker instant oatmeal with a little orange marmalade. It improved the pedestrian breakfast immensely.
Packed away in my pickup, rolled up in blankets, I had three rifles. A Savage .22 LR bolt action hunter in stainless steel with a dark synthetic stock, A Savage .22 WMR bolt-action camo painted poacher's rifle in stainless steel with a synthetic stock and a Garand M-1 target master in 30.06 along with a hand full of filled En Bloc 8-round clips. I also had a photographer's vest that I kept prepared with a few things like a foraging knife, a weapons cleaning kit, a canteen, a waterproof bivvy, a hank of cordage and room for lots of rounds.
My old S&W revolver was a big ol' hog-leg. It fired .38's and .357's and weighed over three pounds with that six inch barrel. I'd looked around for a .22 WMR revolver and found a Ruger Single-six in .22 mag. I liked the blued four-inch barrel model. After a few months of familiarization it became my go-to carry handgun.
A trip to town got the power turned on, a propane delivery scheduled and the phone line turned on. It took some hefty deposits, but I got it done. The phone company had a low-and-slow but cheap V .32 Internet available that I bought into. They had a sheet listing several dial-up ISPs.
My cell phone was worse than useless out on the farm. It couldn't even keep Christly accurate time!
I stopped by the department of motor vehicles to get a local driver's license and tags for the truck. More money down a rat-hole.
The post office was courteous enough to accept my change of address form, so I'd start getting mail sooner or later. I realized that I needed to install a mailbox.
The library had Internet kiosks available. I got authorized by showing my shiny new driver's license, recieved my library card and sat down at a computer. I wanted a cell phone and didn't have many options.
I found a place online that would sell me an Inmarsat Isatphone along with a docking station that would keep it charged and let me make calls from a normal phone (POTS) wired to it, and a by-the-minute card (385 minutes for 500 bucks a year), all for about three thousand bucks. It had an antenna the size of a short baton, but it had good ratings on the web. I paid the bill by credit card and gave them my new address. I supposedly would get it in two working days. Fair enough.
I took a look around to see what the library resources and collection size was like. It was fairly generous for the population size. I smiled and waved to the librarian at the counter as I left, knowing that I'd be spending a lot of time there. I'm a reader.
Back at the farm, I closed the master breaker and watched the meter. I walked around closing circuit after circuit, making sure nothing overheated or popped. The well motor came on-line without a single complaint. Luckily, whoever had mothballed the farm knew what they were doing because the water lines had been drained. I got everything turned on and plugged in, except for that bejeezly stove that needed rewiring.
I drove into town one day to visit with the Sheriff or a deputy to see what the local regulations were about hunting on your own land. It basically came down to hunting for the table was legal on your own property, but don't make an ass of yourself and don't get the cops involved.
While I was at the government center I stopped by the property tax office to get the official word on my land. It was 84 acres, not 80 and my tax rate came out to be .69% At an appraised value of 1400 per acre of un-farmable unimproved land I would owe 811.44 per year. Add 260.00 for the house and the total bill would be 1071.00 a year. Hell, that was less than my month's rent back in Illinois!
That was Tuesday. By Friday the LP gas tank was filled and I had my sat-phone. I had spent half a day reading the manual. The keyboard had more buttons than a standard phone and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. I mounted the cradle in the kitchen near the table and ran an extension line to a handset in the bedroom. It took a couple hours to get the stove re-wired with high-temp insulated wire.
That weekend was spent tearing apart the contents of the work bench and making sense of the tools. I broke down and visited a lumber yard for a few 2x4s, some perf-board and a quart of epoxy paint. The hardware store had tool hooks for the perf board, a paint brush and boxes of 1" and 2.5" drywall screws. I painted both sides of the perf board, let it dry and did it again. It was painstaking work to get the walls of all those little holes sealed. (Perf-board is just fiber-board with a regular grid of holes punched in it. It quickly delaminates and breaks down under frequent use unless it's sealed.) After nailing up 2x4s as a backer I mounted both now-dry perf-board sheets with drywall screws. Then I added the tool holders and went to town sorting and arranging tools. I ended up with a bucket full of trashed screwdrivers, pliers and sockets but I finally made sense of the bench. I wrote down the sizes of the destroyed sockets so that I could replace 'em.
Fortunately the previous owner had mounted a big 4-gang florescent light bay over the bench. It made for a well-lit work area.
A lot of the tools had a light haze of rust, including the blade in his power saw and the big 95 pound anvil/vise mounted at one end. I sighed. I should have seen it coming. I was spending a lot of money on gasoline to buy one thing at a time. I had to start consolidating my trips to town. I went back to the hardware store for a gallon of Naval Jelly, light oil, steel fur, six tubes of Colgate toothpaste, an 8-pack of rolls of paper towels and a gallon of gray epoxy paint. While I was there I found a couple big rotary brushes for my drill. I was going to get the rust off of those tools and clean off that bench's top from all the gunk that had accumulated before painting both the bench, the concrete floor and the vise. It turned into a long weekend! Still, afterwards I was glad I did it. The place looked a hundred percent better.
I got my laptop working on the Internet with my external modem(!) and located a farm implement dealer near Moscow. I called him up (on the land line--it was much cheaper) and asked if he would tell me about my tractor, then haul it in and give it a good working over. I gave him the make and model-- a Case Farm-all 100C. I whistled when I heard what it was worth. New, they went for 67 thousand! He gave me a price of $1,100.00 to empty and refill the oil and hydraulics, replace the filters, clean out the stale fuel, blow out the fuel lines, check the brakes and the various hydraulic hoses and sleeves then give the engine a good check-over. I agreed to his price. Since I'd understood that a tractor could carry thirty gallons of hydraulic fluid, I felt that it was a good deal.
I found a job. A licensed electrician can always find a job. Granted, I had to do a little dancin' to get my certs accepted in Idaho, but I knew the national codes inside and out. I was making 52k a year within three months. I was thankful to get my health insurance reinstated.
In the back of my mind I wondered what time and my property had hidden.
Summer had arrived, without a doubt. I bought a window air conditioner for the kitchen and one for the master bedroom. It got well into the nineties early that year. Still, I wondered about what was on my property. I bought a little hand-held GPS, a roll of surveyor's tape and a fist full of spare batteries, threw on a day pack with some "Oh, Shit!" items in it and started walking the boundaries that I'd gotten from the Assessor's office.
There were no real surprises--no foundations, no rusted out car hulks and no sign of anyone starting their own dump, thank God. When I came up on Felton Creek where it entered the property I decided to take off my shoes and socks, then follow it down while wading it. I saw some fair sized fish swim by. I'd have to get a license and some tackle. It would be a fun way to pass a few summer afternoons.
I came to a place where a large slab of stone had calved off and lay partially blocking the stream. It made a deep pool that I carefully skirted. I laid one hand on the slab to steady myself while crossing the swift water flowing out of the pool and was startled when I looked at what I had my hand on. There were thick dark green glassy lines running through the rock. I searched the stream bed just downstream of the break and found a few rocks with large inclusions of the same deep green stone. After picking up a rock that appeared to be mostly green. I pulled out my little hatchet and, using the hammer poll, lightly tapped away at the rock on one side of the crystal, for it was a crystal. Luckily the stone fell free from the face it had been clinging to after just a few taps. I held the thing in my hand, admiring it in the sunlight. It covered my palm and part of my fingers. I was amazed that I could see the lines of my palm through it. It was truly beautiful. It would look great if I under-lit on a shelf. I dropped it into my pack and searched around for more like it. I found a few smaller specimens the size of my thumb that were obvious crystals, but nothing the size of the first stone which I estimated to weigh a pound to a pound and a half.
I looked over the big section that had calved off of the rock wall and saw even more large veins and crystals. The wall it had come from showed more as well. I decided to come back with a few star drills and a hammer to see what I could harvest. I didn't know what they were but I was sure that with their beauty rock collectors and jewelry makers would snap them up through Ebay.
I spent the next four weekends tromping through the woods, whacking away at the matrix with star drills and using a cats paw to pry away chunks of the rock. I recovered some fairly large pieces. I was lucky in that the matrix just seemed to fall away from the crystal surfaces with a few taps in the right direction. I filled my pack several times. Eventually I grew tired of the game and stopped collecting samples.