Saturday, December 31, 2011

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Day Unlike Any Other - Part II

Originally posted on February 3, 2006


Upon arriving at my wife's uncle's house in Tarlac City, she went inside to visit and take a nap before the New Year's Eve show really got cooking and I helped out outside by preparing food (enough for an army) for the upcoming feast in their open air kitchen. My job was to skewer about fifteen pounds of marinated pork onto bamboo sticks to later be grilled over the barbeque grill. By the time I had finished this task, my hands were cramped from repeatedly dipping them in the ice-cold marinade to grab strips of pork and tired from shoving them onto the sticks. For once, rather than ask if there was something else I could do, I snuck out into the courtyard to check out the evening.

Fireworks were continually bursting overhead, down the street and some of our relatives were returning fire from the courtyard. I watched them shoot one rocket that was a dud and instead of soaring into the heavens, it barely even cleared the fence out front and disappeared into the alley. I heard a few quick exclamations of surprise, the scurrying of sandaled clad feet over pavement followed by a loud bang. Laughter filled the air almost as much as the smell of burnt sulfur. What a contradiction between the ears and the nose.

The grill was fired up and soon the smell of sizzling meat added to the sulfur. A pot of rice was bubbling in the kitchen along with a few other pots. The older members of the family were now sitting at a table in the courtyard sipping Coca-cola and talking in their native language. The younger children were out in the roadway, which was more like an alley to me, being children. I was somewhere in between listening, observing and taking pictures. Two of the younger ones, Rap and John would come back to check on me and tease me. Rap, whose mother is a cousin of my wife and had been staying in the same house as me most of the time, had formed a special bond to me. He could read and speak English as well as Tagalog but he wasn't yet proficient enough to converse in English. Never the less, he loved my blue eyes and all during my stay in the Philippines he would refer to me as "Blue Eyes" or once even as "Blue Jesus Eyes." Last trip it had been "hey Joe" and this trip "blue Jesus eyes." I could live with that.

About a half hour until midnight, the members of my host family began setting off fireworks at a steady pace using lighters and burning twigs or bamboo shoots that were lit from the barbeque grill. Burnt sulfur now hung so thick in the air that breathing was difficult. Some members of the party put on bandanas to filter it out. Having no such thing, I just breathed through my mouth and tried not to think about my lungs. The roar of the fireworks had grown for a low continuous roar to a more intense roar. In fact, since flash photography no longer worked due to the heavy sulfur fog hanging everywhere, I found that the light from the shelling going on overhead was more than sufficient to take adequate pictures.

I felt like a war correspondent as I ducked this way and that snapping pictures and videos at a furious pace. Stray rockets were shooting this way and that overhead and multitudes of cherry bombs, larger sonic boom bombs, roman candles, flares, and plenty of black cats were exploding everywhere on the ground. Several of the larger fireworks went off near enough to me to slam me with the concussion wave. I was wishing I had brought some earplugs. Right at the start of this new onslaught we suffered our first and only casualty that night. A piece of mortar shell from an exploded firework fell from the night sky and slammed into the hand of young John gashing it shallowly but enough to draw blood. After my wife bandaged him up, I return to covering the event but kept under nearby palm trees hoping that the leaves would slow any more fragments down before plowing into me.

At a quarter until midnight, there was a slight perceptible lull in the fireworks and at first I didn't know what it meant. My hosts took it as a cue to carry out this metal stand of sorts that would hold about two dozen rockets at the same time pointing in all directions and set it up in the middle of the street along with some large flares. I knew the cause of the pause. Everybody was bringing out the big guns for the final showdown..., which started five minutes later. Now Filipinos are late to every thing in their lives. I had determined that early on during my first trip to the country but tonight I learned one exception to the rule. New Year's Eve. For that they were ten minutes early.

The neighbors in every direction fired up every automobile, jeepney, motorcycle and even a police car, anything with a horn or siren, and proceeded to blare them in a continuous chorus. My hosts passed out noise makers to those not working sirens or horns and we all proceeded to blow them until we were literally blue in the face. Have you ever seen someone blowing on a horn while setting off fireworks as fast as the lighter could be worked with the other hand? I have and it can be done quite efficiently. The only thing slowing them down was that the neighbors who had been chased in the street by our stray rocket were now exacting their revenge by throwing one sonic boom firecracker after another from behind their fence into the street where we stood. As I took pictures with one eye, I kept the other eye trained towards their darkened driveway looking for the flash of sparks from a lighter signifying another incoming bomb. At the point, I would dive back behind the safety of the fence and plug my ears until the concussion wave had passed.

Imagine a neighborhood of a hundred thousand families packed into small houses with small yards close together. Imagine that all these families had a large arsenal of fireworks and were all setting them off at the same time. Imagine yourself in the middle of all this. Imagine yourself in the middle of the firework display that is shot off at the largest firework display in the country for the 4th of July. This was about four times more intense. Flashes of hot white light would illuminate the alley making all shadows as sharp as razor blades and as black as ink. Through the heavy smoke I could barely make out figures up the street running this way and that trying to stay out of the line of fire. The machine gun litany of explosions overhead was so quick it was almost impossible to discern even the slightest of pauses of silence. 

I found myself wanting to hide in a bunker somewhere until it was over but couldn't. I was drawn forward into the street by the rush of all the citizens the Philippines who in one mass of unity from the youngest to the eldest, ran and jumped, yelled and screamed, laughed and gyrated around wildly in the street among the explosions lost in their joy. I couldn't help myself. I pocketed my camera and with arms waving above my head and a sulfur induced gravelly scream coming from deep within my chest, I ran out and joined them. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was welcoming in a New Year... Filipino style!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Day Unlike Any Other - Part I

Originally posted February 2, 2006


New Year's Eve day was a bright sunny affair and upon waking up with the broken rooster, I noticed there was a slight intensity to the fireworks that were going off at four in the morning that I hadn't noticed before. There were much larger ones going off more frequently sending thunderous roars echoing up the steep valleys of this mountainside town. A hint of burnt sulfur hung in the air. The favorite day of all Filipinos had begun.

I spent the morning packing my luggage because only parts of it would make the upcoming trip with me and the rest would follow later. I carefully wrapped all my souvenirs in dirty laundry to prevent breakage and eliminate any unnecessary searching. I mean who in their right mind would want to riffle through someone else's dirty laundry? With bags packed and carried downstairs, there was little to do but eat and take a nap so I did both.

When I woke in the early afternoon, I noticed another increase in the firework explosion levels. Barely a minute would pass by before another explosion would fill the vacant air with noise. My mother-in-law, youngest brother-in-law, my wife and I caught a ride to the bus station in the town center and within minutes had grabbed seats on a Victory Liner that would take us to Tarlac City in the lower provinces where we would spend New Year's Eve. In America, getting tickets on a bus at the last minute on a very popular traveling day would be all but impossible but in the Philippines it was very easy. You just got on the bus and if there was an available seat, you were good to go. About fifteen minutes later, the bus backed out of the station and we were on our way down the mountain.

The bus conductor came by asking how far we were going and punching out tickets accordingly with the appropriate price. The four one-way tickets for the entire five-hour journey cost me $16.00 U.S. The bus made several stops along the way dropping off passengers and picking up others. About fifteen minutes into the trip the bus stopped and only the driver got out to spend several minutes picking up some fresh produce at a roadside stand. He would make another solo stop for several minutes just outside of Tarlac City to deliver the produce to his wife who met him at their front gate. Not only did he give her the produce but he walked her inside and lingered for a few minutes longer before coming back out to the bus and taking us the final kilometers. Nobody seemed to mind, which reinforced that I was in a world much different from my own.

It was much warmer when we got out of the air-conditioned bus around 8:30 at the Tarlac City station. Unlike in the mountains of Baguio City where jeepneys are the backbone of mass transportation, in the lower provinces tricycles rule the earth. A tricycle is your basic small motorcycle with a sidecar attached and has a top speed of perhaps twenty miles per hour. Walking out to the street in front of the bus terminal, the view was full of them buzzing this way and that like a mad swarm of mosquitoes. Several of the other passengers were already at the curb trying to hail a tricycle to take them to their final destination but weren't having any luck. But as soon as this white guy stepped up to the curb, immediately a dozen tricycles swooped in and jockeyed for position to be the one to get my business.

Now all during my trips, I have seen tricycles with four or five passengers crammed inside the sidecar or hanging onto the side, often times with several sacks of rice or crates of produce stashed on top. So despite their size, I assumed that they must be quite roomier than they actually looked. As my wife and I stuffed ourselves into one of the tricycles with our suitcase and handbag, I suddenly knew what an unhatched chick felt like. My head was pressed between my knees, which were pressed against the luggage and my wife had wedged herself into the remaining available space, which wasn't much. I was very happy that she was petite or I would have had to strap her on top. In a high pitched mosquito like whine that made me want to wave my hands past my ears to shoo it away, the motorcycle driver revved the engine, released the clutch and we crawled out into the rest of the swarm heading this way and that on the road.

At the first little uneven crack in the road, the bottom of the sidecar bottomed out on the axle beneath in a spine-crunching bang causing me to slam my head against the ceiling. The driver immediately slowed down and looked to make sure nothing was broken before gunning the engine and going full throttle again. Every little bump, all three thousand four hundred and thirty seven between the bus station and our destination, caused the little carriage to smack hard against the axle. If I hadn't been wedged like an embryo in my little egg like sidecar, my spine would have been in pieces but the tightness of the quarters actually worked to protect me. That or my wife absorbed the worst of the blows.

As we navigate the narrow roads and alleys for twenty minutes, I felt as if I were a courier delivering a message to a general on the front lines during World War I. Evidently Filipinos tire of lighting huge fireworks when nobody is around so as soon as a tricycle made it's way down their street, they made a point of setting off the largest explosive available in the road right as we drove by. Firecrackers, flares and small bombs were bursting everywhere causing you to instinctively duck and at least three times during our ride, a blinding white light would flash for a painful split second before one of the sonic boom firecrackers went off within feet of our tricycle. The concussive pressure wave would slam my exposed side like a wide board and the resulting boom would send me into a temporary deafness followed by ringing in my ears. My wife screamed reflexively each time but there was nothing to be done except grin and bear it because I couldn't move my arms to plug my ears or wrap them protectively around her. We were wedged that tight.

We made it to our destination intact (both us and the tricycle axle) and after "hatching" or extricating ourselves from the tricycle, we paid our fare and limped up the driveway. For the privilege of feeling like an unhatched chick rolling down a mountainside, I paid $0.60 U.S. which was $0.20 more than what my mother-in-law paid her tricycle driver who had been right ahead of us the entire time. As an American, you must learn the language and the prices or prepare to pay more. Shell shocked and tired, I greeted the awaiting relatives who were preparing food enough for an army for the impending celebration that evening. By the light of the fireworks now exploding in a steady roar overhead and all around, I looked at my watch and saw that it was now nine o'clock... three hours until midnight.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day Fifteen: Alive Below Lava!

Originally posted on February 13, 2009


Ote Below Lava

Sitting in the front of the dory boat along with Jurgen the elder German, we silently drifted downstream towards the lip of Lava Falls. Beyond the lip all that I could see was leaping white froth that seemed to be waving us towards our doom like sailors to a siren. My hands were locked onto the gunnel railing and for a second, I looked at them fascinated by the how white and insignificant they looked. The boat started picking up speed as we edged over the lip and slip down the tongue towards the first wave that wickedly towered above us. The boat climbed half way up the wave before the weight of the German and myself combined drove it into the interior of the wave.

The icy cold water took my breath away and the loud roar was abruptly dampened as I hung on and waited for the boat to punch out the backside of the wave. The water continued tossing me around like I was inside a washing machine but I continued to hang on for what seemed like an eternity. I was just about to let go and swim for freedom, certain that we had flipped over when we suddenly emerged into daylight. I gasped for breath as the boat with another half ton of water added to its weight, groaned and slid down the backside of the wave into a water trough so deep that the gates of Hades had to be nearby. With all the additional weight, the boat didn't even pretend to go over the second and much bigger wave and just dove into the immense face. Again I hung on and contemplated life inside a washing but once again we punched out into daylight and slid down into the trough heading for yet a third wave. Once more into the wash cycle and once more we lurched into daylight.

The wave train ahead started getting smaller and the boat full of water, passengers and gear was now able to lurch over them like a drunk on a roadside curb. We were through! I wasn't going to die after all! I had survived the mother of all rapids! Wait. Through my euphoria-laced brain, I heard this scream piercing my mind that sounded almost primeval and not of this world. I looked around searching for the source when I realized that it was coming from the German. No wait, it was also coming from the couple in back. Wait, I was yelling too! Then it hit me, we were all yelling in euphoria at having cheated death. We were alive!

Yet another primeval scream of "Bail!" pierced my other scream already in progress and once again I started searching for a source to this new sound and saw Ote straining at the oars trying to eddy us out as the boat lurched full of water over waves still six feet tall. It still took a few seconds for my brain to process that it wasn't over yet and that we still could tip over if we didn't get some more freeboard by lightening the load and once id did register, I grabbed the bailer and started bailing the water like a man on a sinking ship who didn't know how to swim. The other passengers quickly caught on, helped with the bailing and soon our boat was riding much higher and we were pulling into shore.


Boat Running Lava

Ote told us to get out while she oared back ready to help if any of the three other dories or two rafts behind us flipped over. I grabbed my camera and scrambled upstream stumbling over the sharp lava rocks that cut my legs like razors in an attempt to get some pictures of the remaining boats coming through the rapids. After all the boats had safely made it through Lava and were pulling towards shore, I walked back downstream to the beach where everyone was gathering. The euphoric high was starting to wear off and I finally noticed blood dripping down from a half dozen wounds on my legs. I still had enough of that high not to care so I took an offered beer, popped the top and held it up as we toasted our survival in the dory boat tradition. We were ABL, Alive Below Lava.

When the celebrations died down, we floated on down the river to mile 185-1/2 where we made camp for the night on a huge sand bar. After the initial flurry of setting up camp or tossing my gear in a pile, as was my case, we all kept talking about Lava and the nine people who would be leaving us tomorrow. Because of my journal writing, I was designated group address note taker, so I walked around getting everyone's personal information so that I could send it out after everyone went back to their regular lives.

The crew mixed up some cocktails and an avocado dip to munch on while we waited for the preparation of a beef and chicken enchilada dinner complete with rice and a cake to celebrate Jorge's birthday. After supper, the traditional Lava Follies, or skit show put on by crew and clients alike, began around a roaring fire. There were poems, songs, jokes and stories told by all. Ote read a speech given by Chief Seattle that was absolutely beautiful and since everyone was curious about what I wrote in my journals, I read today's excerpt about Lava. The crew then handed out awards (chucks of lava rock), commemorating the identifiable trait of each client. I received the Harvey Butchart award for hiking every mile of every hike and then some.

After the follies, I stayed up late into the night with some of the crew swapping jokes and reveling in the day. Clouds started moving in but we were all full of sunny cheer at having cheated the river one more time and more importantly, surviving to tell about it.


Customary Beer Below Lava Falls

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Coming Down From Hooker In a Toad Strangler

Originally posted on April 16, 2008


Lightening was popping but still several seconds separated from the accompanying volley of thunder but at 10,000 plus feet, I was in no way feeling comforted about that. I had fortunately made it past the friction slab part of the decent where two 1000 plus feet vertical drop-offs were separated by a severely tilting five feet wide slab of granite before the rain drops began to fall. The friction slab was technically not that difficult because your boots would stick right to it allowing you to walk up or down. However, the mental aspect was daunting because one slip and a couple feet later you would be flying. Trying to do that in the rain wouldn't have helped the mental aspect of it. The rain was falling in a real toad strangler as Pablo would say. Soon I passed the friction slab and was hustling down the mountain as fast as possible. At about 10,000 feet, the gentle slope gives way to a nearly vertical slope consisting mostly of rocks and a few clumps of grass gripping tenuously here and there. The clouds were now very dark and ugly, the temperatures were dropping faster than a rock and I was sweating bullets out of fear and exertion.

Earlier that day, I had left from camp at a relatively late four in the morning and after five hours had reached the summit. It was a cloudless warm day and as I ate my breakfast of fruit, nuts and chocolate, the sun seemed to bore holes right through my skin. For an hour or so, I wrote in my journals and lounged like a lizard. Then I did something that I shouldn't have done, I closed my eyelids to check for holes. Well into the afternoon, I woke up still bathed in sunlight but ominous clouds were over the horizon and moving my way fast. As quickly as I could, I had slung my daypack on and was scrambling down the summit and across a mile or two wide flat mesa on top of Mt. Hooker. I knew I was going to be real close to being in serious trouble.

I started down the nearly vertical slope and immediately slipped and fell deeply bruising my hip and leaving me something to remember the trip by for a couple weeks beyond. More carefully, I kept going trying to hang onto what I could while looking over my shoulder for the next step. My legs started shaking with the exertion and I knew I was close to my limit by the time I finally reached the saddle pass and started almost running down the maintained trail along its flank. Several brief periods of hail would hit me every time I thought I should slow down, and give me some new energy with marble sized shots to my upper torso and head. Finally about three hours after I set out, the rain began to pass just as I made it to camp and fell into my tent steaming in moisture and body heat. I learned a valuable lesson that day and one I am not soon to forget

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Back Home, Back Home, Thank God, I'm Back Home At Last!

Originally posted on February 4, 2008


Better later than never has always been a good motto to believe in especially when it comes to airplane travel but it was still hard to keep that in the front of my mine after spending two days in an airport. But before I get ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

My flight out from Iowa started off normally. I checked in using the kiosk, got through security in record time and soon found myself in the commuter jet at the end of the runway with the engine revving up. That was the last normal airplane event for the rest of my trip. Before the brakes were releases, the engines shut down and the captain informed us that the tower had halted us due to some weather event in Chicago. Since I had looked at the weather maps before leaving and had seen that everything was clear and sunny for the entire trip, I was baffled along with many of the other passengers. So we sat on the end of the runway for fifteen minutes until the pilot announced that our departure would be delayed by possibly an hour due to wind shear in Chicago and that he would taxi out of the way and shut down the engines to conserve fuel. I had just settled in for the next hour sitting in a plane that I had only been scheduled to be in for fifty minutes total when the engines started up once again. However, the pilot said that there was now a ground stop for all traffic coming to Chicago and we were heading back to the terminal.

We waited in the terminal for several hours before we finally were reboarded and took off for Chicago. Of course we missed our connecting flight to New York and had to get rebooked on a later flight. That flight left without much hassle and we actually made up an hour of flight time so by the time we landed in New York, we were only three hours later than what we had planned on. Just in time for evening rush hour traffic.

Although there was supposed to be light snow in the Midwest on the day of our return flights, I was hoping our delays of the outbound trip would mean that our inbound trip would be hassle free. I couldn't have been more wrong. We showed up to the airport on Thursday three hours early so that we could get through security and find a place to eat before boarding. Security confiscated my 4.5 oz tube of lotion for dry skin that I have taken through probably 20 or 30 security checkpoints since 9/11. At least I didn't get the rubber glove test I tried to tell myself. 

We ate lunch and went to our gate to see that our flight was on time but that two previous flights to Chicago and one later flight has already been cancelled. It was not looking good and I was hoping that ours would be cancelled soon so that we could just get rebooked for the next day and head out for another evening in New York. Right at our boarding time, it was announced that our 3:40 flight would now be 4:30 and wheels up at 7:30. Needless to say I wasn't too pleased about spending almost three hours sitting in a plane going nowhere for a 1 hour and 50 minute flight. But we waited. Our flight was bumped to boarding at 6:30 with wheels up at 9:30, then 7:30 with wheels up at 10:30 and then 9:30 with wheels up at 11:05. By this time, I had been in the airport almost eight hours and all but our flight to Chicago had been cancelled across the board of airlines. My traveling companions were still hoping that we would get to Chicago but they were inexperienced and didn't know that it would be worse there. There would be thousands of stranded passengers there and everything would be shut down. At least if our flight was cancelled, we could rebook through St. Louis or someplace else other than Chicago and avoid it all together. But fate just wasn't with me. At 10:10, we boarded the flight and about 10 minutes to eleven, we took off for Chicago.

As I expected, Chicago was chaos. Thousands of people were sleeping on thousands of cots set up and all the ticket counters were shut down for the night. Not wanting to spend the night, we decided to go look for a rental car agency to rent us a car to drive one-way back to Iowa. We couldn't find one. After asking, we found out that the only way was to board a bus to the rental car agencies, one-by-one to see if we could find one. So we split up. My companions tried to locate a rental car while I tried to find a phone where I could get rebooked for a flight tomorrow. I found out that we had been booked on a flight at 9:45 the next morning and my traveling companions after an hour and a half of calling, finally found someone who would rent us a compact Kia Rio for the cost of one arm and two legs. Since it was then 2 a.m. and we were looking at arriving with crappy roads probably around 9 a.m., we decided to just stick it out at the airport on a cot and catch our flight.

There was just one problem to that, we had walked through security to look for a rental car agency representative and security was now closed down. All the cots were on the other side and we were essentially locked out of the airport. Great. We found a comfortable place on the floor of the ticket counters and tried to make the best of not much. At 4 a.m., the ticket counters opened and we got out confirmed tickets. We went through security but all three of us had four S's on our ticket, which to the uninformed traveler means we get the special treatment. Our bags were emptied and inspected with fine combs. My traveling companions were busted for a gallon sized plastic bag instead of quart sized for their sprays, gels and liquid carry-on. We all got frisked and wanded. Some forty minutes later, we were released and allowed to repack and redress. We found out gate and tried to sleep on the benches for the five hours we had left. 

Three hours later, I awoke to a woman sitting by my head who kept rattling her cellophane bag that once contained cheetoes. After ten minutes of this I stirred, looked her in the eye and gave her the evil eye. I closed my eyes only to have her start at it again ten minutes later. The boarding area was still almost deserted and of thousands of seats, she had to sit two feet from my head across the aisle nervously making noise with her empty cheetoes bag. I sat up disgusted only to be shocked when she quickly shoved my bag to one side and sat right next to me. I was just about to give her a piece of my mind when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the screen showing that our flight had been cancelled. 

I awoke my traveling companions and we made our way back to rebooking only to see the line stretched about half the length of the concourse, which if you have been to O’Hare, is quite long. We were realistically looking at four hours of waiting time only to be rebooked on another flight out this evening. To make matters worse, ours was the fifth flight to our destination that had been cancelled so even if our flight out went, we would be standby. Getting three seats on a packed flight was probably out of the question and all signs were pointing to another night in the airport. It was not going to happen.

We called up the rental car and they still had a Kia Rio available but the price had gone up $20. We booked it and hotfooted it over to the rental agency. With out disheveled looks and probably smelling pretty ripe, I was surprised that they continued to let us rent a car much less talk them into letting us take a Chevy Malibu instead. Along the way, at least a dozen people told us that what we were attempting was suicide, including a woman who lived twenty minutes away from the airport who said it took her two hours to get there and still arrived oddly enough, four hours early? We hopped in the car and set off into the unknown. For perhaps 20 miles, the roads were mostly slush and snowed covered, another 100 miles were just wet and the last 100 were completely dry. We made it to our destination airport in only four and a half hours. The 90-mile drive home went smoothly and after a hot shower and shave, I dropped into bed at 2 o'clock on Friday, never so happy to be home

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not So Peaceful At the Monastery

Originally posted on March 21, 2007


My stomach nestled firmly high up in my throat near where my tonsils would have been had I not had them taken out as a kid. My testicles crawled up inside my body and had my bladder been full it would have emptied. I was floating in my small yellow kayak about fifty feet upstream of Monastery Falls where a boy had drowned fishing not five days before and I was terrified. The water bunched up from the normally wide expanse of the river and pounded its way through the two large granite rocks at the head of the falls not five feet apart. The river was up and the hole at the base of the upper seven-foot drop was a monster. It was one of those that would swallow me whole and spit me out a couple hours later like a stale burp.

Random blobs of foam flew up from beyond the brink as the roar of the rapids approached. My instructor was standing near the top of the upper drop eyeing my approach and form that right now was desperately feeling like it belonged on a nice couch back in Iowa instead of wedged into a whitewater kayak above the biggest falls on the Red River. The other classmates were scattered all along the right side of the falls all perched at a point where they thought they could see me bite the big one as best as possible. The current sucked harder at my boat pulling me towards the throat of the angry beast and I knew there was no backing out now. There would be no room to paddle until below the first drop because the rocks on either side were too close together. The instructor had informed me that I should paddle like hell to gain enough momentum to make it through the huge sucking hole at the bottom and to be sure and turn the paddle so it wouldn't behead me if it got caught on the rocks. My legs started turning into jelly as I paddled like hell toward what was certain death and drowning number two within a week but damn if I was going without a fight. I gave two final pulls on the paddle, folded it along side the boat and closed my eyes as the water fell away from the boat and it yawed down directly towards the gaping jaws of the monster hole.

The water slammed my chest as I brought my paddle back out and desperately went through the motions trying to find some solid water somewhere in the aerated foam that engulfed me. I couldn't tell if I was going forward or being pulled back but I felt the blade of my paddle sink into some dense water somewhere beneath the foam and I pulled with all my might launching my boat forward and into the bright sunlight on the far side of the standing wave beneath the hole. However, I was slightly askew and my boat surfed right down the backside of the wave and into the shore right at the base of one of my fellow students feet. The nose of the boat slid along the face of the granite boulder with a loud scraping noise before wedging firmly into a crack and stopping me so hard that the momentum of my upper torso kept going slamming my thankfully helmet head against the deck of the kayak. Dazed but still clutching my paddle, I tried for an upper brace as my boat slowly rolled over but it was weak and the boat kept going. Just as my head was about to disappear under the foamy water, the paddle blade hit bottom and pushing up I was able to right the boat.

The boat was upright and I fought to regain my composure as my kayak now hurdled over a couple intermediate drops towards the lower larger drop of ten feet, backwards. This was back when white water kayaking was in its infancy and the short stubby models of today weren't even a thought. The channel was to narrow for me to be able to turn my boat around in time to meet the lower falls head on and so I straightened it up slightly as I went over the lip, backwards. I hit the much shallower and less dangerous hole at the bottom of the lower drop and was immediately flushed downstream. My kayak sickenly tried to roll as the various eddies piled water on the deck but the adrenaline was kicking in and several almost savage braces kept it upright until I finally eddied out in the large eddy along the shore of the manicured lawns of the monastery for which the falls is named after.

My stomach and testicles both assumed their rightful positions within my body and the pounding adrenalin gave way to shaking in my hands and arms as I realized that I had made it through the falls and more importantly, lived to tell about it. I floated there for a couple minutes soaking in the peaceful surrounding below such a violent section of the river and listen to the sounds of my cheering classmates. I regained my composure and with a few strokes, punched out of the eddy right below the lower hole at the base of the falls doing a peel out while surfing the wave to the other side of the river where they were all waiting. The classmate whom legs the bow of my boat almost pinched beneath the upper falls joking told me how large my eyes were as my boat turned backwards and almost upside down. I hid the quivering in my arms, legs and voice and as bravely as I could said, "Oh that's nothing, you should have seen the size of your eyes!"

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Kuya's Philippine Journals: A Christmas Story

Originally posted on January 18, 2006


For several hours that afternoon, my job was slicing up the meat meant for the barbeque grill with the world's dullest set of knives and getting it marinating. Once it had marinated properly, I spent a couple backbreaking hours shoving the slices of meat onto sharpened bamboo sticks. But I wasn’t alone and had good company as everyone was preparing for the big feast that was to happen in less than six hours. Piles of vegetables were chopped, fish prepared, and several other dishes were readied so that upon our arrival home from the midnight mass, the feast could be prepared in the shortest amount of time. Eventually everything was prepared as much as possible and my wife and I snuck up stairs to catch a short nap on “the rack” before the mass.

Dark had taken over the Philippines except for the sparse firework explosion when I awoke three hours later to the rustling downstairs as people prepared for mass. Because Filipino houses don’t have insulation of any kind, sound travels easily. We too started getting ready and then hopped into the family van since at a mere 64 degrees, it was deemed too cold to watch the 100 yards to the church. The van made it about 30 of those yards before stalling out and refusing to return to life so at risk of hypothermia, we emptied out and walked the remaining 70 yards.

The midnight mass starts at ten o’clock and until recently used to last until midnight, hence the name. But Filipinos evidently protested that it didn’t leave them enough time to prepare their feasts when they got home so the local church condensed the service to just an hour and a half. Fifteen minutes into the beautiful service, I found myself looking at my watch to see how much longer I was going to have to sit on the painfully hard pews that had little in the way of ergonomics for tall white guys. My butt felt as if I had just been caned which made it difficult to pay attention to the recreation of the nativity story by the local children. The only good thing about the pain was that it took my mind off the numbing 64 degree chill during the walk home, me in a light jacket and my hosts bundled in heavy coats, stocking caps, scarves and mittens.

The walk home was downhill (in a very steep sense) and the thought of food spurred everyone so that we were soon home and setting about with last minute food preparations. I went to help light the charcoal grill only to find out that no charcoal supplies had been laid in reserve and we were clean out. Now in America at 11:30 on Christmas Eve, you would be SOL or shit out of luck but not in the Philippines. My wife’s younger adopted brother and I first went to the sari-sari store two houses down which is the Filipino version of the convenience store at a gas station. Since there is a sari-sari store about every other house, you never have to go far. They were out so we ended up going to a neighbor two houses up the street in the other direction where we were able to obtain a huge bag of charcoal. Not the uniformly pressed very condensed charcoal that we use here in the states but honest to goodness charred pieces of wood. Normally it would take a cart to haul it back to house but in the spirit of getting some good BBQ into my starving stomach sooner rather than later, I hoisted the 60 lb sack on my shoulder and climbed the 20 feet down to street level and carried it the 20 feet back to our house.

Soon, the grill was sizzling with grilling pork as the men stood around talking about guy things in Tagalog while the women made the final preparations inside and talked women talk in Tagalog. I felt just like I was at an American BBQ except that I only understood about every fifth word. Just enough to get the gist of what was being said and laugh at the appropriate times. Now Filipinos are typically fashionably late in every aspect in their lives but when it comes to celebrations, they are always early. So at five until midnight, it was close enough to Christmas morning for them that we said the prayer and commenced to eating, even though the meat was still grilling. I don't think Jesus would have minded. There are only two rules for celebrations in the Philippines. First you must prepare enough food to feed a small army that has been fasting for a month and two, everyone must eat as it food is going out of style. Both were accomplished.

An hour later, empty bamboo sticks had been denuded of their meaty contents and empty bowls and liters of pop filled the table. Dishes were gathered and washed while non-family members bid their goodbyes and set off into the early morning to some other household where they might snag some leftover food or perhaps receive a present. Perhaps pared down to a dozen family members, we retired to the living room and began to pass out the presents to various people. My wife and I had sent a balikbayan box full of gifts a month and a half earlier plus had brought a huge suitcase full of gifts so it was a very merry Christmas for my wife’s family. Simple gifts of shampoo, Pringles, t-shirts and merchandise from name brand stores here in the U.S. were big hits and much appreciated by everyone. Because finances prevent most of my hosts from buying lots of gifts, my wife and I didn’t receive any which allowed me plenty of time to wander around in the periphery dodging wrapping debris and take plenty of pictures. My gift was just being in their presence and being accepted as one of their own. For that, I was very happy.

Finally at a little after two in the morning and less than an hour before the neighbors chicken would begin his trial wakeup calls, everyone gathered up their gifts and made for the various beds throughout the house. I was able to sleep until about eight when “the rack” forced me to get up or suffer a permanently seized back. The five hours of sleep took just the edge off my senses, which as it ended up was probably for the best since a few hours later I would be fearing for my life.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I've Survived "Pizza and Pepsi On the Brain" Disease

Originally posted on June 17, 2005


The golden brown crust of the Pizza Hut pizza was leaving behind a slight oily sheen to my fingers but oh did it taste so good. The cheese was starting to turn a dark brown at all the high points just the way I like it and the toppings were crammed onto every delicious slice. The meats and vegetables of the Supreme pizza were creating a harmony that was singing in my mouth. I lifted the frosty red class of ice cold Pepsi and took a big drink to wash down my last bite of pizza harmony. The crisp tingling bubbles of carbonation, washed across my tongue like a jacuzzi, and swept down my throat with an invigorating splash. This was just too good to be dreaming but unfortunately it was because in reality, my body was slowly being tortured.

It was day thirteen of our backpacking trip in the mountains and we were hiking out from the last base camp to the car some thirteen or fourteen miles away. The plan was to take an easy two days and do some fishing along the way but like all well-intentioned plans, sometimes things just don't seem to work out the way you had planned. We had made it up and over the pass in good time and were now going down the backside. Our packs had been lightened of just about all the food making them seem extremely light when compared to the leaden weights on the way in thirteen days earlier. But just because our mind was fooled, our body wasn't and it knew it was still carrying more of a load than normal as we hiked down the trail. 

The trail itself was fairly decent for being in the mountains but it was steep and rough. When hiking down such a trail, for every two feet you walk, you also descend a foot and when you are walking fast while carrying a backpack, this can create a lot of stress on your feet and legs. Mine were definitely feeling the strain but I was a young man and our slowest member was leading us out and happened to be female. By putting her in the lead, it insures that the faster and stronger people are behind her and that we all remain as a group in case someone gets in trouble. But it also meant that as a strong young man, I couldn't complain that we were going to fast because it would feminize my masculinity in some way. So I resorted to recalling mental images of hot Pizza Hut Supreme pan pizza and glassfuls of ice cold Pepsi.

Whenever I am in the mountains, these images invade my brain like a worm. Down "there" in everyday life, I can go months without eating a pizza or drinking a Pepsi or even getting an urge to do them. But up "here", maybe due to the lower air pressures of the mountains, or the large amounts brain processing time that I suddenly have available, my brain always seems to dwell on that subject and no matter how I try, I can't rid it out of my mind. I'll be catching a monster cutthroat trout on the edge of a beautiful mountain lake nested in a huge cirque of mountains and I'm thinking of sitting in the air conditioned muted darkness in a Pizza Hut. I'll be eating said trout and I am imagining taking my first bite of that Pizza Hut pizza. On it goes all fourteen days that I am in the wilderness.

Our pace leader was really picking them up and putting them down. She was in high gear and we were way ahead of schedule. In fact, we were so far ahead of schedule that we soon passed our planned evening stopping point and the sun hadn't even reached its apex in the sky. She kept on hiking and the three of us kept on following behind her without a word except for the occasional grunt when one of us stumbled like a faltering horse on a loose rock or tripped on a tree root. We were all suffering from the pizza and Pepsi condition and none of us wanted to seem like the weakling by asking her to slow down.

My brother and I inherited long slender legs from our mother. For my brother, it led to a really good high school cross-country career and for a time, I was unbeatable on a bicycle. All three of us have a natural pace that is a slow trot to those with shorter legs. In our family we refer to it as the famous high leg kicking "Gestapo Stomp" that you see in old films of the Hitler era. Many times I will be walking with someone and notice they are getting out a breath only to realize that I am walking to fast for them. Only after family friend Dick died of cancer, did I learn from his widow that he had given our family the nickname of "Abroids" which is a play on my real last name and robotic like androids. He evidently thought that our sustained high pace was more robotic than human.

Shortly after three in the afternoon, we struggled out of the wilderness and into the parking lot where the vehicle we had left behind was waiting. My feet felt like they had been caned about a hundred times but I didn't care. We were out of the mountains and by nightfall, I would be eating a Supreme pan pizza and sipping on an ice cold Pepsi. Two hours later, we had made it out of the foothills of the mountain and were pulling into a motel parking lot for some hot showers before supper. As I took a step outside the van, I winced and almost cried out in pain coming from the soles of my feet. It hurt so bad, I ended up doing a duck waddle of sorts on the sides of my feet into the hotel room and from there, crawled on my hands and knees into the shower. 

The repeated pounding had gradually tenderized my feet until the point where they were deep bruises and I could barely walk and wouldn't be able to do so at a normal gate for almost two weeks. I wasn't the only one. The rest of our group were also limping and my younger brother would eventually lose all his toenails for a time until they re-grew back. Now, years later, we often remember that as our own "Trail of Tears." The girl leading us out claims that she thought we were silent because she was going too slow and the rest of us all think that we were silent because she was going too fast to waste breath on extraneous talking. After we had all gotten cleaned up, we hobbled out to the van where we drove to the nearest Pizza Hut to find the cure for our "pizza and Pepsi on the brain" disease. It sure must have been a site to see four people waddle like ducks, walking on the sides of their feet, come into the restaurant where they proceeded to inhale hot Pizza Hut Supreme pizza and drink enormous amounts of ice cold Pepsi like it was going out of style. They are probably still talking about us.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Riding RAGBRAI and Carbohydrate Induced Comas

Originally posted July 26, 2005


The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa or RAGBRAI for short began on Sunday accompanied with temperatures over one hundred degrees for the ten thousand registered riders and assorted five thousand who crash the party. The ride is traditionally held during the last full week of July and goes from Missouri River to Mississippi River, which is an average of 500 miles. Iowa gets a bad rap for being a flat state and unless you have ridden across on a bicycle, you would probably agree. Those of us, who have ridden across on a bicycle, know that this isn't even close to the truth.

I have ridden on every mile of two RAGBRAI's in the past and it really isn't as hard as it seems riding anywhere from 60 to 100 miles a day. We usually get up at the crack of dawn to get some miles under our belt before the heat of morning sets in for good. After five or ten miles, we usually stop at a roadside stand for a stack of pancakes and then it is back on the road. All around us, in front of us and behind us are hundreds of riders stretching from horizon to horizon so there is plenty of company and entertainment. It is these people who keep your mind away from the agony located in your butt and legs as you peddle along talking and taking in the sights.

All along the route, food tents liberally dot the roadsides and about every ten miles or so, there is another town where some sort of entertainment is playing and plenty of libations are sold to cool the thirst. Roadside ditches are lined with sheets of plastic and turned into pools for soaking tired bodies. Huge stock tanks full of ice are loaded to the gills with watermelons, sodas and beers. Some towns graciously open up their public pools to the general masses for what always ends up in plenty of nudity and belly flop contests or both. There are always the ever-present beer gardens set up in drifts of plastic cups of those who have been there before you. There is always live music, talent shows, and plenty of water related activities design to keep you wet and cool. Nobody rides through these towns without stopping and nobody rides slowly. The standard procedure is to stop, get off and walk your bike through town so that you don't wreck while gawking at the carnival like atmosphere.

If we had timed things right, we would get into the overnight host town by about one o'clock to beat the worst of the heat. The group I rode with usually wrote the town's chamber of commerce ahead of time looking for host families who would allow us to sleep in their back yards or better yet, spare air conditioned rooms. This would help us avoid the overcrowded general campground and better suited our early morning bicycling farmer lifestyle. We would set up our gear and then set out to find the all you can eat pasta dinner that some church group always seemed to be serving out of a church basement. There, we would eat mountainous plates of spaghetti chased with loaves of French bread until our spandex biking shorts were stretched to the limit. Then it was back to the shaded tent or air condition room floor to take a siesta and to wait out the heat of the day in a carbohydrate induced coma.

In the evenings, we would usually hop on our bikes and ride around town checking out the entertainment and sometimes partake in it. Up to fifteen thousand bikers and a few thousand onlookers would also have the same idea so it was usually a wild time. Sometimes you would find a nude slip and slide set up on some grassy hill, dancing going on in the park or a pie-eating contest going down on main street. For some, usually the people who didn't get started riding that morning until around noon, the party is just getting started. For those who started early, when the sun goes down and the coolness of the evening begins, we disappear to our shelters in preparation for the next day. 

For seven days, these same scenes are repeated over and over. Riding, pancakes, more riding, punctuated by frequent stops for food and water, more riding, bicycling nudist sighting, more riding and finally pulling into the overnight town, spandex busting spaghetti dinners, carbohydrate induced comas, more walking around town, more fun and libations, sleep of the dead, and repeat. Five hundred miles later, you coast down the final hill to the Mississippi River to dip the front tire of the bicycle into the river completing a journey that began with a rear wheel dipped into the Missouri River. Day two was yesterday and as you read this, day three is almost over for some and just starting for others. So if you are driving through and get stopped for several hours while thousands of bicyclists ride by in the hundred-degree heat, it isn't that all of Iowa has gone crazy, it is only RAGBRAI.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Mountain Lake Supper

Originally posted December 20, 2005


The tent was securely staked down, the fly zipped, and my backpack was safely stored inside. The only piece of extraneous equipment was my whisper light stove, a frying pan, and some butter. I picked up my fly rod, a knapsack with some extra tippet and flies, and walked about fifty feet behind my camp on a small peninsula to the edge of a lake nestled high above tree line in a cirque of mountains in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. It was almost suppertime.

As I approached the lake, I crouched down low to the ground to keep as much of an oblique angle as I could between myself and any cutthroat trout lurking along the shoreline. I spotted a large bolder partially in the lake with a nice gravel bar next to it and decided that would be my target. Still crouching down, I drop the knapsack at my feet, unhook the fly and strip out about ten feet of line. Looking behind me to make sure I wouldn’t snag anything, I start the rhythmic count of fly-fishing.

On count one, the fly rod is cast forward and held out in front of you. More line is fed out at this point. You pause holding the fly rod out until you reach count two to allow the line to unroll in front of you. On count three, the fly rod is cast behind you while your free hand gathers up more line. You pause once again, holding the fly rod until you reach count four to allow the line and the fly to catch up and unroll behind you. You have reached count one and once again you cast the fly rod forward. One, two, three, four. One, two three, four. Rhythmic.

With one arm raised high trying to keep the fly and line off the ground, always working the count, I duck walk up behind the bolder and look over the top for potential targets. The water is crystal clear and the shore falls off dramatically so it takes me a few seconds to spot him nearly fifteen feet below the surface and twenty-five feet out. But the large cutthroat trout is cruising from my right to my left paralleling shore, in no hurry but ever vigilant. I reach one in my count, strip out a few extra feet of line, and roll cast my line about fifteen feet in front of my prey, the last few feet composed of translucent line all but invisible in water allowing my dry fly to land on the water’s surface, seemingly unattached to anything on land.

I freeze motionless and continue to watch the large trout continue on a path that will intersect my fly but fifteen feet below it. Ten feet… five feet…. is he going to see it, is he even hungry? With a quick shift of the tail, the large trout suddenly shifts and starts swimming upwards at a sharp angle, my fly now directly in his crosshairs. I watch him swim up from the depths, sharply flipping his tail back and forth as he picks up speed. Three feet, two feet, one… splash. I see the silvery sheen of the trout's belly for an instant before it disappears and all I am left with are ripples hiding the trout now in full dive mode.

I pull back on the fly rod with my right hand as my left hand presses against the reel to apply friction as I set the hook. The rod bends nearly double and I know the fish is on but it is by no means on for good. When fly fishing in the mountains, I always debarb my hooks on the flies. Fly fishing with fragile line means wearing out your opponent and reel him in gently so not to exceed the tippet tensile strength. For the tippet is weak compared to regular fishing line which gives it the invisibility necessary to fish in water almost as clear as air. Because this wears out the fish and I often catch more than I can eat, I want the release to be painless so not to add more stress to a worn out fish. I want the fish to live for another day and for another fisherman to catch. A barbless fly comes out easily with minimal damage to the lip of the trout and it can be held in the water where you gently move water across the gills by moving it back and forth until it recovers and swims off. Fishing with barbless flies also means that you must constantly keep tension on your line so not to allow dinner to slip off. It is all about finding balance of keeping supper on the line while not breaking it. It is all about giving supper a fighting chance to take themselves off the menu.

For the next twenty minutes, the fish and I practiced give and take. He would swim off and I would allow line to strip out while I kept resistance on the reel with my left hand. He would tire and I would gently reel him back in only to have him recover and take off once again. Back and forth, giving and taking, the battle went on until exhausted the cutthroat trout finally gave up and allowed me to pull him to the gravel shallows to the left of the boulder that I had been crouched behind earlier. Careful not to slip in myself, I reach into the very cold water, chilled by a small glacier on the opposite shore in the shadow of a mountain, and gripping the lower jaw, I lifted the trout out of the water.

By fishing standards, the trout was small but by dinner standards he was quite large. About two pounds and a little over twenty inches in length with large vertical blood red gills giving him his name, the silvery body was plump and in very good health. I said a quick prayer of thanks as I removed the fly from the mouth and carefully set my fly rod aside getting ready to exercise the domain over all animals given to us by God. I hit the head of the fish against the bolder stunning him and with a knife that I pulled from my pants pocket, made three quick cuts, one on each side of the gills and one up the belly cutting it from anus to my gill cuts. Holding the trout in my left hand, I stick two fingers into the belly near the anus and start separating the guts of the fish from the belly meat, dragging it up towards the gills. Once my fingers reach the gills, I grab the head and with a quick twist, the head and all the guts come off leaving behind a perfectly cleaned fish.

Not wanting to attract bears, I toss the head and guts out into the water where the birds will eat what floats and the rest will be eaten or decompose naturally beneath the surface. I quickly rinse the fish, my knife and picking up my fly rod, walk quickly back to camp fifty feet inland. I set the fish on a flat rock near my stove which I had previously primed and had ready to go. Within about thirty seconds, it is hissing and my pan is sitting on top with a pat of butter already beginning to melt and slide around. Within five minutes of having pulled the trout out of the lake, it hisses and pops as I lay it in the pan with the tail draping over the edge. I sear the trout quickly on one side and then the other, checking the inside to make sure it was just done, perfect. I turn the stove off, grab my spoon and knife (never bring a fork to save weight) and start eating, now about fifteen minutes from the moment I pulled the fish from the lake.

I quickly ate one half of the trout, flipped it over and consumed the other half leaving behind just an empty skeleton of bones lying in the bottom of the fry pan. Because I had caught the fish almost immediately, I was able to do the dishes, walk back out to the bolder, this time making no attempt to hide this time, and sit on top as the sun sank behind the mountains. The sky quickly fades of light, there aren't many places to see a sunset in the mountains, and with the last of twilight, I walk back to camp, well fed and happy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gone!

This has been a busy year in my life and with family life being as complicated as it is with my wife going through her final months of residency, a long vacation just hasn't happened. Until now. I am headed down south to a sunny gulf ocean shore to relax and perhaps do some fishing, which ever seems easier. In the past I have just boarded up the old blog and let it sit but this year I thought I would try something different. Instead I culled through my eight years of archived posts and pulled out some of the better ones, dusted them off, and added them to the automatic posting thing-a-ma-bob. You should see one a day from now until I return sometime in the early parts of January. I hope you all have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year and I will see you all on the flipside.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Talking With Chickens

BR: John Henry Baker, Frances Ellen Baker, Robert James Baker Chicken, Charles Webster Baker; FR: Lena Heppenstall, Frances Ann Bolton Baker Heppenstall, Thomas Heppenstall, Mary Jane Baker
As my long time readers may recall, I've written about the Baker family numerous times in the past as I beat my head against the genealogical brick wall that is my 3rd great grandfather Joseph Baker who is not pictured above. His wife France Ann Bolton would remarry a few years after Joseph's death at age 35 in 1882 to Thomas Heppenstall and go on to have one more child, daughter Lena, to go along with the five she had with Joseph. You may also recall, that after Joseph died, two of the children, Robert and Charles would go to live with the Robert and Prudence Chicken family. Charles would officially change his name back to Baker but Robert would keep his last name as Chicken even with frequent visits with his mother and siblings until the day he died and is buried under the Chicken surname.

In an effort to someday break down the brick wall of Joseph Baker's past, I thought I might try tracing down some descendants of Robert Baker/Chicken again. I had tried in the past but never could get farther than his deceased children for whom I hadn't been able to  find obituaries. There is a large black hole of records between records considered historical and thus scanned into online databases and modern day records that are immediately part of the digital record that makes searching for information hard to find without trips to distant places.  This time around I found an online obituary for one of their children that was only three years old and it listed the three surviving Chicken children. A quick online search and I had the phone numbers for two of the three.

I called (George) Chicken first because he lived only forty miles away and it was certainly interesting trying to start that conversation. How do you introduce yourself to your 2nd cousin 2x removed and tell them that their last name technically might not be Chicken but Baker. Fortunately George informed me early on in the conversation that his sister and he had always wondered about their ancestry and how the Baker family was related to theirs. He wasn't the keeper of family information but he said his older sister was and as it happened, she was the other phone number I had found.

I called up (Mary) Chicken after a couple days so that I could give George time to call her and prepare her for my call so she wasn't surprised. We had a long talk about our ancestors and how the Bakers and the Chickens were all tied together and in fact, were one and the same. We exchanged email addresses and I spent a few hours writing her half a dozen emails filling her in with what I knew and sending her pictures of her grandfather Robert Chicken/Baker for whom she didn't have a picture. She has some information along with more that her other sister is mailing her that she is going to send to me via email and snail mail, most likely after the holidays, so I'm excited to receive that but now have to practice waiting patiently, something I find very hard to do when waiting for genealogy stuff. She didn't know of either Joseph Baker or Frances Ann Bolton Baker Heppenstall so I'm not expecting anything that will shatter my brick wall but perhaps if I'm lucky, I might get a clue that I can pursue to create a crack in that wall.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Child of the Farm Crisis

I was a child of the farm crisis that struck the Midwest in the early 80's and probably the largest reason why I am now an engineer and my brother a wildlife biologist. We grew up through a terrible time when our parents struggled to survive and most of our neighbors didn't. Our family survived because we were a small farm operation with little debt, survived off the land by raising a lot of our own food and had outside income in the form of my mom working as a computer programmer in the town I currently reside. The ironic thing about being one of the sole survivors because we were small was that the family farm got a lot larger as those who didn't survive sold off and moved away.

Researching into the many families that used to live in and around section 7 (a section being 640 acres) which is now almost wholly owned by my parents has caused me a lot of time to think about the crisis and its effects. I suspect that some of my readers might not be as familiar with it as I am having lived through it first hand, so I am going to spend a little time and summarize those events that shaped my life so much.

In the 1970's, prices of American grain soared due to record purchases by the Soviet Union and generally lowered trade barriers. American farming incomes soared. Increased incomes and low interest rates drove farmland prices to records highs. Farmers bought land, assumed mountains of debt that were no problem for paying off due to the high commodity prices that they garnered from selling the grain from the newly purchased land. Then the 1980's arrived.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter set up a trade embargo to punish them and essentially stopped those record grain purchases. Even when the embargo ended, the Soviet Union had learned its lesson and future grain purchases were diversified through many other countries. Corn piled up, prices plummeted, money tightened, farmland values plunged and suddenly millions of farmers couldn't pay their debts. Those small farmers such as my parents who didn't have mountains of debt and outside income were able to eek by. Those huge farmers which didn't exist in that part of Iowa at the time could also survive just due to their large cash stockpile. But the middle sized farmers, those that had been using their new found wealth to expand, were decimated.

Those that survived, gradually absorbed the remnants of the farms that were vacated. Much of my childhood was spent salvaging lumber from old farmsteads on farms that my parents purchased for use elsewhere. Of the six farmhouses that used to stand on section 7, only my parents farmhouse remains. all the other surrounding sections suffered similar losses. It is something that sticks in a young man's brain and surely subconsciously affected many of my career related decisions as the time came to make them.

Perhaps the scary thing is that history appears to be repeating itself. Increased demand for corn to be turned into ethanol mandated by the government has driven up corn prices to records highs. Low interest rates and farmers flush with cash have caused land prices to soar to record highs. Recently some land here in Iowa sold for a record of $20,000 per acre or nearly $1.5 million for a 74 acre tract. Farmers trying to expand are incurring mountains of debt that probably can be reasonably paid off if prices stay the same. But what will happen if they don't?

I suspect my parents will survive another farm crisis should one occur because even though their farm is nearly 10 times the size it was in the 80's, it is paid for with no debt owed and still it is considered small to farm sizes in the north central part of the state. Land it not as valuable down here though it is still garnering record prices in the $5000 to $6000 per acre range. Although they have given up their source of outside income, they still raise a lot of their own food so combined with no debt, their expenses are minimal. Their survival lessons from the 80's through today remain in me as I refrain from debt, live beneath my means and was able to weather this passing economic storm that we have been through these last few years. Living through the farm crisis both scarred me and prepared me for life. I still am a child of the farm crisis.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

House Genealogy


About a month ago, I was looking to add to my blogroll as quite a few of those which I used to read have disappeared. When adding a blog, I try search blogs of those who have written about things that interest me. I have added blogs that have built their own houses, built boats, visited or live in countries I am familiar with, and share an interest in genealogy, etc. I hadn't searched for blogs on genealogy for awhile and so I did and discovered a blog by someone who describes herself as a house historian. I wasn't familiar with that phrase but essentially discovered it is someone who researches the history of a house and its occupants and surroundings.

It got me interested in researching me homestead roots. The hard part was knowing where to start because the first seven years of my life were anything but constant as my parents divorced, we moved around to several different towns across the state and my mom eventually got remarried to my father who lived on a farm exactly one mile south of where they live today. When my grandfather died in my early teens, we packed up and moved to his house a mile north since most of the associated buildings and storage bins that go along with farming were there along with a house that was a good half century newer. In the end, they say home is where the heart is and so I chose the place where my parents currently live and where my heart is when I think of 'home'.

I started off by researching previous owners of that farm and just doing some cursory research into who they are and where they came from. Because I'm a member of Ancestry.com, I went on there and found other's who had those particular people in their family tree. As a starting point, I copied some of their records to my tree that I had created and was sifting through that a week later when I got an email from the owner of one of those trees who essentially asked who I was and why I had copied information from their tree. I think they were hoping for a long lost cousin but when I explained who I was and why I had copied their information, they dug around their records and sent me the above picture of my family's farm, before it was in my family.

How awesome is that? I had always heard that the house I grew up in a mile south was very similar to the original house that used to be where my parents live now and I must say, that the rumor was true. In fact, they were apparently identical at one time. The only difference between the house where I grew up in and the house pictured was that instead of a porch on the right side of the house, an addition was made for a laundry room, wood storage are and a place for coats, boots, etc. Instead of the little addition on the left side of the house in the photo, there was a larger addition where a more modern kitchen was installed. Otherwise, the central house shape, window locations, roof pitches, etc., were all exactly the same.

The house in the picture was torn down probably sometime in the late 40's because my grandfather purchased the property and built a new house in the same place, perhaps just on the backside of the original house as viewed in this picture, sometime around 1950. The barn or outbuildings are no longer there but the lay of the land is unmistakably the same as it is today. The area where the barn was is simply an empty lot for parking wagons, augers, etc when needed nearby but not in the way. Where the outbuildings were on the left side of the photo is where the current shop complex is where my father works on his equipment and stores some of it.

I'm not sure if the two large trees that bracket the house are still the same ones that are there today. The large tree to the right of the house in the picture above appears to be on the backside of the house and would be the one right in front of the house my grandfather built that is still there today. It is a large chinese elm tree if it is the same. The large tree to the left of the house and behind the barn is probably the one that fell down in a big wind storm when I lived on the farm a mile south. This compares well to the aerial photographs taken by the Iowa DNR in August of 1951 & 1930.