Monday, January 30, 2012

Fleshing Out a Family Tragedy

Mary Mayer Kuck
This post is sort of a continuation of my last post about the almost lost legacy of the Kuck family due to a lost container of family heirlooms. As you know from previous posts, it was almost lost due to an entirely different reason when John Kuck's wife Mary and five of his seven children died in the space of a five months. When I started my research into this family, John's name wasn't even known but thanks to census records soon discovered. Eventually I was able to determine where he was buried and got my my first glimpse of a tragedy that took place within his family. I saw that five of his children had died within a period of two months and his wife a few months later. I was determined to find out.

Mary Mayer Kuck Death Notice

My first clue was the newspaper article above that I found in a scrapbook compiled by my 2nd great grandmother which transcribed reads:
Died in Charles City, May 31, 1879, of paralytic convulsions, Mary, wife of John Kuck, aged 42 years, 4 months 23 days.
It is said, "Afflictions never come singly." On the 14th day of December, 1878, John Kuck lost one child; by the 3d day of January following, four more had been taken, all by the same fatal disease. And now comes the reaper, and takes his companion. The death of the children undoubtedly had much to do with Mrs. Kuck's illness, as it seemed to weigh heavily upon her mind. Mrs. Kuck was a practical Christian, having been a member of the German M.E. Church for 25 years. She has left a devoted husband and two sons, Henry and George. The funeral was held Sunday at 3 P.M. in the M.E. church. It is a singular coincidence that just nineteen years before, on the same day and hour, this couple were married in Galena, Illinois. The funeral was very largely attended, over 75 teams falling into the procession.
It mentioned that the deaths of the children were due to disease but not what the disease was. Over the years I have spent lots of time scouring the internet for what it might have been and finally theorized that it was due to diphtheria which caused quite a few deaths in Charles City during that time frame. However diphtheria of that time was recorded as being on fatal 25% of the time and John Kuck had lost 71% of his children. So my theory remained just that even thought I never gave up hope of someday confirming it.

Emma Kuck Death Notice
The Kuck family lived in the NE corner of Iowa and I live in the SE corner, far enough away that a day trip with research time isn't feasible. So I bided my time until I might get some time to spend up there doing research and I'm still waiting for it to happen. In the meantime, I went to look at a state historical archive while getting some recall work done on one of our vehicles and was unable to find any microfilm of newspapers local to Charles City during that time frame. But I did find out that they do exist. So I turned to a resource I have used in the past, a retired fellow that runs down genealogical requests in the area for a donation to his gas and coffee fund. He was happy to oblige and came back with three newspaper clippings that further fleshed out the family tragedy. The one above reads:
Kuck - Saturday, Dec. 21, of diphtheria, Emma R., daughter of Mr. John Kuck, aged 9 years.Scarce a week had passed since the death of their elder daughter, when Mr. and Mrs. Kuck were called upon to suffer the pangs of parting with another of their household treasures. Up to Friday night she was not considered dangerously ill, but then came more alarming symptoms, which resulted in death on Saturday. Her last hours were not painful ones, and when at last the lamp of life went flickering out, those present scarcely knew the moment when "mortality put on immortality." She was buried, Sunday, beside her sister Anna. The sorrowing family have the heartfelt sympathy of all.
Edward Kuck & Lydia Kuck Death Notice

It confirmed my diphtheria theory. The second clipping reads:
DiedKuck:-Saturday night, Dec. 28th, Eddie, son of John Kuck, aged 2 1/2 years. Kuck:-Wednesday, Jan 1rst, Lydia, daughter of John Kuck, aged 12 years, 10 months.Four times during the past month has the dark angel spread his pinions over this fated household and borne away one of its loved ones. There are three children left, and two of these are sick, but, we are glad to state, are now considered out of danger. Truly, friend Kuck and his wife have borne their heavy cross. We trust that their trials are now over, and that the other homes of the elty may be free from such a sad visitation.
This article made me realize how closely my fate rested in this tragedy. The articled stated that either my 2nd great grandfather George or his brother Henry were also sick with the disease but survived it since two of the three surviving children were sick with diphtheria. The other one was undoubtedly John Kuck Jr. who though the article says was recovering died, two days later on January 3, 1879.

Mary Mayer Kuck Death Notice
The kind volunteer also looked for more information on Mary Mayer Kuck's death in hopes of perhaps discerning more about her ancestry, one of my research brick walls. Although he found a second death notice for her and one that I hadn't seen, it didn't yield any additional clues. It reads:
Died: - In this city, May 31, 1879, of paralytic convulsions, Mary, wife of John Kuck, aged 42 years, 4 months, 28 days.
Since last December the hand of death has been laid heavily on the family of Mr. Kuck. Five beloved children, in quick succession, were followed to the tomb, all taken away by that fatal disease, diphtheria. Two sons Henry and George, are all that are left of that happy band of young hearts. Once more the dark angel has visited the stricken household, and the mother, best beloved of all, is gone forever. Mrs. Kuck had been a member of the German M.E. Church for more than twenty years, and died in full and happy faith of a brighter home beyond the stars. The funeral was held at 3 o'clock, Sunday afternoon, and there was a very large attendance, about eighty teams joining in the procession.
While diphtheria is a respiratory tract illness caused by baterial infection of the mucous membranes that is all but non-existant in today's world with modern vaccines, I didn't know much about what paralytic convulsions were in the late 19th century context. I'm not sure I still know but after doing some googling, it might possibly have been a case of tetanus.

In conclusion, I am pretty confident in the diphtheria theory to say it is no longer theory but fact. It answers my questions begun so long ago as to what tragedy befell this family buried together in a cemetery in Charles City. The one avenue of research that I would like to pursue is Mary Mayer Kuck's affiliation with the German M.E. Church. I would like to track down to see if any records exist and if so, what they may offer of Mary's ancestry to perhaps knock down that brick all once and for all.

Friday, January 27, 2012


After getting robbed (paying $240) by a nationally known tax preparation company to do taxes that I felt should be fairly easy to do since we only had two W-2's and a few 1099's, I decided things had to change. I started doing my taxes myself and the last few years, have bought tax preparation software which speeds up the process considerably. The first year took five or six hours to complete since I had to enter all the information in and then my inexperience to the software made me go through all sections regardless if I thought they applied or not. Flash forward to this year, my third year, and I spent all of about an hour. Painless and the $30 price is right.

Doing my own taxes means that I get to understand them in a way that perhaps most people don't. When you do your own taxes, you tend to pay attention to all the deductions, credits and such to see how you can save yourself paying more taxes than necessary. You also understand the tax system better and how if functions. I think it is impossible to understand it all but it is certainly easy enough to understand the taxes that do affect yourself. This has been a good process for me and one that I'm not likely to give up soon. The biggest reason is that I see many people around me essentially paying more money than they need too because they don't understand how it works and the tax preparation company they go to don't inform them. I thought I would mention perhaps one of the biggest ones I see among my peers that I'm around.

It seems as if the large majority of the people prefer to withhold enough money for taxes to ensure a refund every year, mostly it seems as if a forced piggy bank account that they can then go blow.  Not only do you lose the earning power of being able to invest that money yourself for a year, but if you have children, you are throwing away a lot of money. For instance, a coworker of mine who has one child and another on the way just told me that they like to arrange things so they have a refund every year. They were aware that the government gives a $1000 tax credit per child but because they didn't understand the way it works, they weren't collecting a cent of it because that credit is only good if you owe the government money. Say you owe the government $700 in taxes. The government would give you $700 tax credit and say you owe zero in taxes. They keep the remaining $300 of the credit. If you get a refund as this person likes to do, the government gives you a big goose egg worth of credit. So you want to owe the government if you have children and make less than $110,000 as a couple so you take advantage of that credit. Just don't go too far or if you owe more than $1000, the government will fine you.

Another observation of mine is that most people I talk to don't know how much they pay in taxes, not even as a percentage of their AGI or Adjusted Gross Income. This as come up a lot recently with people gasping at the Romney's and the Buffets of the world who pay less than 15% of the AGI in taxes. They don't realize that 80% of the taxpayers in this country pay less than that. When you go to a tax preparation firm, they just tell you how much MORE you own and very rarely say the whole amount. You have to look among the numbers on your form to find that out. Check it out, you might be surprised at the dollar amount. I know I am every year.

I think a lot of the government's excess spending would be solved by mandating that tax payers had to write the government a check for the full amount of their taxes once a year, not the difference between what the government took out of your paycheck and what the government says you still owe them. If people had to write out a check that large, I'm guessing they would quickly be more concerned about where it is going.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Almost Lost Legacy

I hadn't spent a lot of time pondering why I haven't been able to find a lot of information on my Kuck ancestors. I mean I have found information and compared to other ancestors whom I know little about, I do have a lot but with hindsight, I now realize I should have had more. John Kuck and his son George Kuck pictured above are my third and second great grandfathers respectively. John had only one other child that survived to adulthood. George stayed around his father all his life where brother Henry took off for the wilds of Oregon to make his mark. So one might expect that George inherited a lot of the family information and belongings that typically get passed down from generation to generation. George only had two children of his own, one of whom never had children and the other my great grandfather Victor who had two children. One of those my great Uncle recently moved into a nursing home due to failing health and I've seen his photos which didn't have anything about the John Kuck family. In fact, he thought the Kucks came from the Von Klucks who settled Kluckville, Pennsylvania, a fact that I eventually set straight with my research. His brother, my grandfather, also possessed no other pictures other than the one above and even then, with the incorrect people listed in it. Neither has any relics of this part of the family. How does/did that happen?

One reason which I didn't realize before and it is an important lesson to pay attention to the time frame of the world in which our ancestors lived was that my 3rd great grandfather died when his grandson, my great grandfather Victor was away in France fighting a war. He was gone when his ancestor died and estate divided up which could explain the lack of knowledge of where it went or even where John Kuck was buried. The latter was a mystery until I discovered it through my research. But as I found out on my recent vacation to Florida during a morning chat with my grandfather, there was a much larger reason for the lack of photos and relics.

My great grandfather Victor, a man I remember well and have written about those memories in past posts, started out life as a farmer when he returned from the war. Unfortunately he leveraged one farm with another and when the bottom started falling out of the markets in 1929 as a precursor to the Great Depression, he lost them all. On a side note, he also lost a lot in stock and always blamed it on my grandfather who was in his mother's womb about ready to come out when my great grandfather who on the road, called his wife and told her to sell all the stock before the bottom of the market fell out. Naturally she was preoccupied with child birth, didn't, and my great grandfather Victor ended up with stock not worth the paper it was printed on. They bounced around different states and jobs for another 18 years before deciding after my grandfather left home to move down to Florida. They loaded up a car and trailer and also two more containers of stuff that would be freighted and took off.

As some of you may recall, my great grandfather Victor made it into Florida where he wrecked his car and trailer near some town in northern Florida, the name of which currently eludes me right now. While repairs were being made, the ended up falling in love with the town and living there for many years before retiring further south to Fort Myers. Now to the point of this entire post. Of the two containers that were freighted, only one would ever arrive. The other one was lost, never recovered, and you guessed it, was full of the family's more valuable possessions among which were family heirlooms and pictures.

Due to the loss of one container full of furniture and other assorted stuff, only one photograph of my 3rd great grandfather and one additional one of my 2nd great grandfather survived for me to find. Fortunately a few more surfaced through one of John's siblings which I have blogged quite a bit about but still meager by what it might had been had that second container made it to its intended destination. It has also motivated me a bit more to make contact with the descendants of George's brother Henry who went off to Oregon to make his mark. Perhaps he got some family stuff after all and perhaps it has made it intact through the years. Perhaps.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Closing Notes

Above is a picture of our bungalow taken when they finally opened up our beach. As you can tell, the perfectly flat beach two days ago was already well pocked with holes where people had kicked and dug for shells. Below is a picture of my usual position in the evenings as I watched it unfold. Unseen was the icy cold beer in my left hand. It was taken using a special photo altering app for my phone that my brother introduced me too.

On New Year's day, we loaded up our cars and made the long drive back to Iowa arriving at the farm around 11:30 that evening and at my house and waiting wife around 1 a.m. A soft bed and a wife's embrace never felt so good.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Shore Stuff

My daughter spent hours playing in the ocean and I found it difficult to do much else than watch her. One at, five and a half years of age and barely twice the sizes of the incoming swells, I didn't trust her judgement to allow her out of my sight for more than a second or too. Two, the fine white sand just seems to get into everything I try to use while sitting there be it a camera, book, or other entertainment gadget. It destroyed my camera last year and I didn't want the same thing to happen this year. Thus I spent my time just bulldozing sand with my hands and daughter's sandals and making a pedestal for my water bottle as seen above.

I'm not sure what these sea birds are but there were a flock of them less than ten feet away from me one day pulling those tubular like worms/plants out of the surf and eating them. One would get one part way down to have another bird grab onto the other end. They would take to the air in a fast spinning duet trying to yank the other end from the opposing birds throat and eventually the winner would find a quieter space on the sand to wolf down the food. I tried in vane for a half hour to get a shot of this but my digital camera just isn't fast enough and by the time I remembered the video feature, they were too far down the beach to capture.

Unmarked sand and surf always seem to call my name. I couldn't help but leave my 'mark' if only for awhile.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Every evening, I would grab a cold beer and head for the deck to watch the sun set over the ocean. I only saw it set the very first evening and recorded it in this series of pictures. The other nights were overcast and while I still watched and it was still relaxing, wasn't nearly as beautiful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Deep Sea Fishing

We enjoyed our deep sea fishing expedition for red snapper so much last year that we decided to do another trip this year. Unfortunately, the boat we had chartered last year and was crewed by such an excellent crew was dry docked and being repainted. The captain recommended his brother who also captained a similar boat as a replacement and we scheduled our trip. The day was beautiful again when we arrived at the docks but unfortunately the brother of our previous year's captain hadn't shown up himself and instead hired two other guys to take us out on his boat. These guys weren't nearly as friendly or overly concerned about making our experience one to remember like last year's crew but we still had a lot of fun.

This year we asked to be taken out to try and catch game fish that were in season even if that meant the fishing wasn't quite as good as the year before. As it turned out, the fishing wasn't as good as the year before and we spent a fair amount of the four hours we rented the boat for moving from one spot to another in search of fish and then when we found them, ones big enough to keep it seemed as if the captain would tell us to reel in our lines to try someplace else. All told, we ended up with probably a dozen pounds (filleted out) of white snapper and triggerfish. There was no 'shore lunch' this time nor did the crew fillet out our fish and instead gave it to some dockside workers who charged us for the privilege after they were done. I'm guessing they have some sort of arrangement. Back home, we fried up a batch in breading and sauteed another batch in butter with some Greek seasoning and all agreed the ones seasoned with Greek seasoning were by far the best. What we couldn't eat we froze and I had the privilege of taking them home so that my wife who missed out on the trip due to work could have her share. Of course it meant I got two more helpings of it myself. Fish doesn't taste any better.

Back in the bay heading through the channels towards the docks, we found half a dozen shrimp boats out trolling with their nets. I have never seen one at work so it was a real treat for me. On every shrimp boat there was a man standing out on the bow pointing this way and that. I never could figure out if he was pointing at where the shrimp were or where obstacles were but every boat had one. Perhaps someone in the know can enlighten me on that point.

If you recall, on the previous year's fishing trip, I went from thinking dolphins were adorable sea creatures to thieving bastards in the space of a few hours. So I was hoping I wouldn't see any of them follow us out of the harbor and follow us to the fishing sites this year. Fortunately they didn't and we didn't see any dolphins until our return trip through the bay this year and that is what the above picture is about. What is hard to see were a pair of dolphins. So now perhaps they have moved up a notch on my mental list from thieving bastards to thieving rascals.

I believe I had a picture of this boat hull last year too. I still don't know the story of it.

As soon as we got to the docks, we were inundated with creatures coming to see what we had caught, the above creature the most pleasant of them all. The rest were foul smelling two legged humans who smelled like they spent the last night in a beer soaked ash tray who seemed to be angling for brownie points to earn them a ride as a captain's mate on a fishing charter sometime in the future. Presumably to earn money for more beer and cigarettes. There were plenty of the tourist types too who were probably deciding if they wanted to hire a charter for themselves. Last year we didn't have this problem mostly because it was pretty cold the day we went fishing.

Overall, it was a good fishing trip though I think I enjoyed last year's trip better mainly due to the very friendly crew who went out of their way to make our trip enjoyable. This year the captain was more interested in talking to his buddies via cellphone and planning what he was going to do with them after he was rid of us. The plus side was that we had lots of fresh fish to eat this year.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mining For Shells

As soon as the construction crew opened up the beach, the throngs of people were soon on it. Temperatures in the upper 70's certainly played a part. The main draw to the beach seems to be looking for sea shells. With the new sand mined from the ocean floor ten miles from shore spread on top of the old sand, there were plenty of shells to be had. They littered the surface of the sand and were much larger and better preserved specimens than the ones I normally find along the shore. But with hordes of people, they quickly disappeared.

Then my parents while out walking on the beach made a discovery. If you kicked at any foreign glint that you see in the sand, 9 times out of 10 when you kicked it you turned out to be an entire shell just 99% buried in the sand. They soon had a couple dozen large bivalve shells that the put out on the deck railing to dry. Soon this discovery seemed to pass through the throngs and you saw everyone walking along turning over sand with their toes. The members of our group soon had a fair collection of shells in 'mint' condition, more than I've ever seen in my lifetime.

I decided to join in on the fun and kicked two shells out of the sand before I made my discovery. On the third shell I turned over with my foot, I felt the resistance of another shell beneath the one I had just freed from the sand. I kicked the second shell out of the sand only to feel a third. Two hours later, I finally quit digging in that spot after wearing my finger tips bloody on one hand from digging in the sand and had a huge bag of the nicest shells I have ever seen. The entire time I was digging, I saw people eyeing my progress and growing pile of shells on the sand and by the time I left, people were showing up on the beach with shovels and buckets digging here and there. In fact, even before I had cleared the dune in front of our bungalow, one of these couples with buckets and shovels would be in the middle of my hole digging where I had left off and would continue to dig there for the next five hours.

The next morning, my daughter who had helped me the day before wanted to go out digging for more shelves so after securing larger bags and wooden utensils from the kitchen drawers to save our hands from further damages, we started digging for shells here and there on the beach. Despite looking in several different places, I never found shells in any density like I had in my shell mine from the day before. So we walked over the the now vacated mine that was now a hole eight feet diameter and 18 inches deep, and started poking around the edges. Soon I was onto the shells and with the help of my daughter and grandpa, we mined shells for another couple hours and had several more large bags full of them. It took me several hours to clean them all and lay them out to dry on the deck of our bungalow.

This time, people all over the place were digging here and there and about a half hour after I started digging, the couple I saw in my mine from the day before showed up again with their bucket and shovels. They walked up to it, eyed our progress and large pile of shells, and asked if we were finding lots of shells. It was obvious we were so I couldn't help but respond that we were finding a few when it was obvious we had a lot more than that. The dug nearby, closer than is really probably considered polite, and then went on down the beach after not finding a lode as rich as mine.

A little bit later a Chinese lady and her daughter came up, hopped into the hole with me and started rummaging through my shells and tailings pile. She said something in her language, showed me a small shell that I had discarded in the tailings pile and walked off. A half hour later she brought back her husband, rummaged through my pile of shells again for awhile, gave me a thumbs up and walked off. I knew, from  having been to the far East that the culture 'distance' barriers between people are much smaller than what we here in the United States expect but my grandfather was getting a little ruffled in the feathers by the time she left. If she had tried to abscond with one of our shells, I'm sure my grandfather, newly replaced hip and all, would have been out of our mine in a flash and may or may not have been beating her on the head with a large shell.

When we had our bags loaded to capacity, we carried them back to the bungalow and spent hours cleaning, drying and bagging them. You can some of my share of the take below and a representative picture of the types of shells we were finding above.  As you can see, we were finding Alphabet Cones, Ear Moon, Slipper Shell, Nutmeg, Florida Cone, Spiny Jewel Box, Lettered Olive, Banded Tulip, Fighting Conch, True Tulip, Sozon's Cone, American Auger, Calico Scallops, Pecten Raveneli, Broad-Ribbed Cadita, Van Hyning's Cockle and Whelk shells. According to a lady who stopped to talk and was presumably local, she said after a beach rebuilding project is when the locals come out to shell hunt, especially after a heavy rain that exposes them. She also said that of the shells I found, the Whelk and Tulips were the rarest and the ones worth money.

I'm not sure yet what we are going to do with all our shells yet. I sent my daughter to school with a small representative sample of them and have spent some time searching websites to identify them. I expect we will buy a large glass container to put them in somewhere as a reminder of my shell mine I dug in December of '11 and maybe put a handful on the crapper tank lid. It seems like that is the most common thing to do with them, perhaps to give people pleasant memories while taking care of an unpleasant business.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Beach Closed

After two days of driving and months of anticipation, I opened the curtains of our beach front bungalow onto see rusty pipes and earth moving equipment as far as I could see in either direction. WTF!? We wandered around in a daze for awhile carrying in the rest of our stuff from the van but eventually we decided to test the waters. Most of the sand moving equipment were a mile away down by the distant pier and the area of sand between the property line and the pipe was used as their road but not very frequently so we decided we would walk across it, hop the pipe and go down to the shoreline. We got up to the pipeline before two men dressed in construction orange appeared out of no where on a John Deere Gator and stopped us in our tracks. They broke the news that the beach was closed and would be for our entire stay.

Over the course of the next couple days, we learned the why's and how's of what was happening. Due to the natural erosion of our beaches, that is currently accelerating with higher ocean levels, our government shells out tens of millions of dollars for this stretch of beach every four to five years to have it rebuilt. I'm assuming that means that it does that for many other stretches of beach. In the photo above, you can see a pier in the far left side of the picture way off in the distance. This pipe ran from where I was taking the picture all the way there and they also went the same distance in the other direction. According to the guy I talked with, that distance equaled $10 million in federal funding to rebuild and it was done almost every five years unless a hurricane necessitated a sooner rebuilding. They had been working on this stretch of beach for the past three weeks and had one week to go.

From a mine about ten miles off shore, the ship above would pump sand from a pit that contained the same quality and color of sand as what was currently on the beach. It would be pumped onto the ship above, motored to about two hundred yards from shore where it would connect itself up to the pipes in the picture above and pump it down the length to whatever section of beach they were working on at the time. The ship must have had a massive pump because it got the 3' diameter pipe under quite a bit of pressure. One evening I heard what sounded like a cannon shot and then saw an explosion of water follow that nearly took off a construction workers head who happened to be nearby. He was fortunate that it took his hard hat off his head complete with a mining light attached to the front and flipped it about twenty feet away.

At the end of the pipe, in the section of beach being rebuilt, they would dig a huge pit and push the former sandy contents into huge berms on three sides of it. The sand laden water would come gushing out in a geyser, fill the pit allowing the sand to drop out and then flow back out to the ocean from the fourth side. I'm guessing one shipload of sand could fill a pit about half the size of a football field and 8 to 10 feet deep. It was pretty impressive to see. Once the ship had emptied its load of sand into the pit, now no longer in existence, they would level out that patch of sand, add more pipe and start another section of beach.

All told, they were adding as much as six to eight feet of sand in depth by the time they reached the old shore line and extending the new shoreline another twenty or thirty yards further into the ocean. It was a lot of sand.
They graded it (with automatic GPS controlled levelers attached to their blades) flat the entire way and then left a steep shelf down to the new ocean shoreline. It made it difficult for my grandparents to get down to the water's edge.

At first I was crestfallen because our direct beach access bungalow had no beach access. Instead, we had to walk a mile along a busy four lane road missing portions of sidewalk that meant walking in the road at times, to the next beach access point not closed due to construction. Certainly not as easy and definitely not a spur of the moment jaunt I love to take. However, I do admit, that it was interesting to watch while waiting for the sun to go down and that beer to disappear down my gullet. I also enjoyed watching the guys on the Gator constantly racing here and there on the beach to run off the constant stream of people trying to invade their construction site. For two whole days the beach in front of our bungalow was closed and then they tore down the pipe and rebuilt it in the other direction and after running off more people, gave up and opened up half of their construction zone, including right in front of our bungalow, to the public. So for the last half of my week, I was able to enjoy the beach at leisure while still watching the entertainment of the beach reconstruction in progress.

On a final note, this is one of the few pictures I have a bulldozer actually moving sand. 95% of the time, these huge beasts would clank the mile plus from the end of the pipeline up to where it went into the ocean nearly in front of our bungalow, sit there for a spell, turn around and rumble back. They appeared to do this for hours on end for no apparent reason that I could determine. Occasionally they would dig one of those pits described above in about fifteen minutes, sit there for an hour while the barge unloaded sand into them, and spent the next fifteen minutes grading it. Then they would rumble back up and down the beach (in the same tracks so I know they weren't trying to pack anything) for the next three hours or so until the barge returned with another load. I would be willing to bet that the local terrace builders here in rural Iowa could move twenty times more sand in the same amount of time with much small equipment than these guys could. But since it is paid for by the government with unlimited pockets, (i.e. we taxpayers), it doesn't surprise me that they work this way.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Alabama Observations

With airline tickets being high priced in my neck of the woods mainly because they involve zigzagging through at least three airports to get to my destination and knowing that I would be treated like one cow in a herd by the airlines after paying such a high price, I opted to drive down to Florida again this year. This was a tough decision knowing that it was just myself and my daughter since my wife had to work but it was made slightly easier by the decision to carpool with my parents. It was a double edge sword. One edge is having two people to help entertain my daughter for the 15+ hour drive. The other edge is having to be in a small enclosed space with your parents for 15+ hours. The latter ended up not being bad at all even if we had to stop three times as often as I normally do for various bathroom breaks, purchase of stimulants, gas, etc. I tried to keep a vision of the picture above in my head for extra motivation.

We spent the first night at my brother's place in NE Alabama just down the road aways from some great BBQ. It was raining when we arrived and rained all night long so it was kind of dreary but it was also dark out so I didn't have to see the dreariness. The next morning we headed south to our destination of a beach in Panama City Beach, Florida when I finally decided that I'm not a big fan of Alabama roads anyway. I know and like some of its citizens. My dislike of the roads is especially true near the Gadsden area, it seems like there are tens of miles of nothing but strips of retail areas full of stoplights. In Iowa, you reach the retail area and everything is condensed into perhaps a half mile before you are back out in the residential parts of town if you compared similar sized towns. In Alabama, they just string it out for miles and miles and miles. I bet in that ten mile stretch of retail area, driving the same highway the entire time, I saw at least a dozen waffle houses, twice that many pawnshops and pay by the week loan places, etc. I never thought it would end. Just when it did, we reached Montgomery and it started all over again.

Another observation of Alabama is that it seems like every square inch of two-laned roadside is residential housing. Up north, there are lots of farm fields right to the edge of the road and you can sometimes go a mile without seeing a house but in northern Alabama especially, it was just a continual stream of houses unless you were driving through a retail area. It made me wonder how it developed that way so differently than what I am used too. I had a long time to think about it since all interstates lead to Birmingham and there really isn't much but two lane roads between where I spent the night and the beach where I was heading. About a third of my time driving from Iowa to Florida was spent driving the back roads and vast stretches of retail jungles of Alabama.

One interesting note was that I got to see the utter devastation left behind by the F-4 tornado that missed my brothers house by literally a stone's throw. Trees and vegetation are still pushed into massive piles and there is trash remnants everywhere but many of the houses have been rebuilt. It will still be a decade or two before all signs of that tornado vanish.

So after driving through Alabama and the desolate country of rural Florida, I was more than ready for some beach time when we pulled up to our rented bungalow for the week right on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. We carried our bags up the steps, threw them down in the hall and quickly opened up the drapes. What I saw sent my stomach hurtling south.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Perfection In a Hickory Stick

Originally posted on February 8, 2005. 

I should have returned from vacation a few days ago and probably this weekend I will begin the task of uploading photos and writing about my journey. Stay tuned as my blog autopilot is turned off and original writing resumes on Monday.

The first seemingly random thing occurred many years at a flea market where I was walking to kill some time. At one stand, I was looking through a collection of pocketknives for a unique one to wear to work when I came across a United States Marine Corp K-bar knife. The handle is bound in leather and the black steel blade only about eight inches in length but the weight felt solid in my grasp. I unsheathed the knife and held it in my hand, the balance perfectly center and giving it a sort of life all it's own. It felt perfect for whatever one might use it for. I rarely hunt and if I do it is only for game birds so I didn't need it for hunting. For farming, the sheath was too bulky hanging from your side and would forever be banging into things, so I didn't really need it for that. What then? I couldn't think of the answer but for ten dollars, who was I to question it?

The second seemingly random thing occurred a couple days later when a local golf course was expanding. A friend of mine who was a biology major needed some owl pellets to study in a class and I was craving some fresh morel mushrooms. I volunteered to help him look for owl pellets if he would look for mushrooms and so we had made an agreement. Coming back from our outing, me with no mushrooms and him with a bag of owl shit, we decided to cut across the golf course expansion and came across a pile of trees that had been cleared for one of the new holes. 

When we neared the pile of trees, one in particular seemed to jump out at meet. A young hickory sapling maybe ten feet tall, still green with new spring leaves had been ripped out at the roots and shoved into the pile. The trunk was straight as an arrow and free of any limbs for the first six feet. By chance, I had grabbed my new K-bar knife on my way out the door with my friend and had brought it with me tucked into my pants in the small of my back. I knew what must be done.

I unsheaved the knife and within minutes had freed a five-foot section of that young hickory sapling from the pile, a task that would have taken forever with my pocketknife. Hickory is a hard wood and green hickory even harder and with a dull knife, cutting hickory is impossible. As I stepped out of the pile like a doctor from the operating room, I felt that I had given my patient a new life. I held the stick in my hand and new that like the knife, it was perfectly balanced and just felt right. Back in the dorms, I tucked my new hickory stick into the frame of my loft bed and let it cure. After many months, the result was a perfectly cured and extremely strong walking stick. So strong, I could hook if over two objects and do chin-ups on it. 

Flash forward now over a decade later and I still have that walking stick leaning in a corner of my house. I have only used it a couple times and the only reason I can come up with is because it is just too perfect. When you have something of such perfection and beauty, one just can't mar it with mundane things like hiking. So it remains in the corner for the occasional time when I heft it in my hands to feel the perfection of strength and balance combined into one five foot length of hickory.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Walking Away - Chapter 17: The End

Originally written as part of blog a novel month from November 1, 2004 to this chapter posted on November 16, 2004

Just beyond the edge of Donald’s eyesight, there is a book lying in the leaves with the pages fanned out towards the clearing sky. A few feet beyond that are another book, a third one some ten feet further wedged up in the crotch of a tree and more, strung out like breadcrumbs in a fairy tale. Fifty feet past the RV, the trail of books leads to a figure propped up by a mangled backpack still strapped to their back. Only a mere foot past the soul of a sprawled out leg, the land drops away into the canyon leaving an open expanse of air. As the crow flies, it was probably only a mile down to the Buffalo River, which remained hidden among the barren trees and bone white bluffs.

As you get closer, you can see the caved in chest of the man moving slightly and hear a thin rasping of air as it fights it’s way into the lungs and feebly exhaled. Blood was everywhere as it pooled onto a portion of the rocky shelf that the wind had kept clear of leaves. The moon finally breaks free from the clouds shining a white light down upon the scene making the blood on the rock look like shadows. The bloodied face of the man moves slightly and then lifts off the sunken chest and flops back onto the bent frame of the pack. The moonlight glints off of one eye as it stares vacantly down the valley, the other eye lost in the shadows of blood.

Jack felt no pain as he stared off down the valley, only peace. His body was broken and all control of it had left. He remembered being seeing the outline of his body traced onto the forest floor by a bright light behind him before being sent hurtling through the air by something that hit him from behind. His last memory up until now had been hitting a tree about fifteen feet up in the air and the immense weight of his pack squeezing him like a bug on a windshield. Now here he was all busted up and dying, lying on a shelf of rock amongst the trees.

His one eye that worked stared off over the valley where the moonlight reflected off of so many drops of rain still clinging to the branches of trees like jewels. The sandstone of the rocky bluffs along the river stood out white in stark contrast to the darkened trees and shadows all around. It was so beautiful he thought, so damn beautiful.

Off in the distance, he heard a man talking but he couldn’t speak and even if he could, the beauty of the night captivated his attention. Slowly, like the fadeout option of his computer screensaver in the life he had left behind, details of the scene started disappearing, one by one. His vision narrowed down to one silvery drop of rain hanging onto a branch only a foot and a half in front of his eyes. As he tried to focus on that one glorious sight, it let loose, falling just as his vision went dark for the last time. His breath rattled from between his lips and the head sank forward to rest once again, on the sunken remains of his chest that no longer moved. Silence returned to the world.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jumping T-Run

Originally posted on February 1, 2005

Bill studied the Radio Flyer and the hill sloping in front him leading down to the infamous T-Run. T-Run a.k.a. Toilet Run was rumored by all the kids at Fox Valley High School to contain the overflow from a lot of septic tanks in town. Yes it was a ditch and most of the time it did contain some stagnate, foul smelling liquid but no Bill didn't think it was actually liquefied shit. He actually drove by the city sewer lagoon on the school bus ride home every day after school but he didn't want the townies to know this. So when the bet had come up, he had accepted it but now he wasn't so sure.

One of the townies had brought in their kid sister's Radio Flyer which was covered in rust making the words barely even visible. One of the rear wheels wobbled when pulled and the handle had been bent many times and straightened over the years. A crude ramp of some blocks and a thick piece of scrap plywood had been set up at the bottom of the hill right at the lip of T-Run and of course, it had been set right in front of the largest pool of stagnate water that the townies could find in the 100 feet or so that ran across the southern part of the school property.

Bill was pretty sure he could steer the rusted Radio Flyer and hit the ramp but the ten feet or so across to the other side of T-Run looked a lot bigger now that there was no backing out. If he made it he would have the admiration of every boy in his seventh grade class and perhaps some of the older kids as well, maybe even some girls. If he didn't, he would crash ass over feet into the liquefied primordial soup of T-Run and walk away smelling like...well, shit. But he figured it would be a good laugh for everyone and he would still go into the annals of Fox Valley lore and maybe win the admiration of everyone. It was a no lose situation unless of course he hit hard and broke something or actually killed himself.

He pushed those thoughts from head and sat down in the Radio Flyer with his feet towards the handle and the handle bent back so that he could steer while riding. Bill gave the thumbs up and put a cheesy grin on display even though his stomach was all tied up in knots. He told the fellows to push him for all they were worth because he was going to need the speed. He tensed his back to provide a good pushing surface and nodded his head quickly giving the okay.

The hands pressed on his back sending him accelerating across the short flat up by the tennis court fence and over the crest of the hill. As he picked up speed the hands began disappearing one after another until all were gone. The wagon picked up speed and hit a small mole hill causing it to lurch sideways almost jerking the handle from his hands. Bill over corrected several times almost wiping out but was able to regain control as he entered the steepest part of the hill nearer the bottom and the ramp. Wind whistled by his ears and he was going faster than he had ever gone before. A bad vibration from the wobbly wheel was shaking the wagon but he thought it was going to hold together long enough.

The last few feet came and went as the wagon hit the plywood squarely in the middle with a loud bang and the splintering sound of tearing wood. The former, Bill was pretty sure, was the wobbly wheel letting go. But momentum was his friend and though the back end of the wagon sank and then jumped sideways almost spilling him out, it continued if forward progress off the end of the ramp at alarming speed. The sounds ceased except for a soft escape of air as the ramp fell down into a pile behind him. He soared up into the air with his eyes focused on the grass on the opposite side. The saying was true, it really did look greener.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Harvest Moon

Originally posted on October 16, 2006

The harvest moon, one day past full, hangs heavily in the eastern sky as I left the confines of the soft yellow light spilling from the kitchen windows of the farmhouse and walked down the gravel driveway to the shop. The air, though cooler, was not yet the crisp fall air that would arrive in another week but it was still refreshing. The smell of cornstalks stripped of their bounty, still filled the air with their earthy aroma. The dryer fan cooling down a batch of corn in the grain bins on the northwest corner of the farmstead kicks in as heated gas is added to the mix. The collection of deer antlers lodged in the lower branches of the Chinese elm tree seemingly glow a ghostly white.

When I got to the shop, I quietly stepped into the darkness through the side door and made my way to the center of the large sliding doors. I've been away from the farm fifteen years and I still know exactly how many steps it takes me to reach that spot and slip the catch chain off the rod. I couldn't tell you an actual number but I know when I get there. I grab the handle and push the south door open, again instinctively pushing harder the last three feet where the door opens harder. Moonlight fills half of the shop bay so I don't have to rely on instinct to find the north door and slide it open. Before I head back towards the farmhouse, I walk over to the side door and reluctantly flip on the overhead lights so that my father can see to pull the combine inside for the evening. It's a little tighter fit than myself so he can't rely on instinct alone.

Halfway back to the house I pause, caught in a world of darkness between two lighted ones. The large doors of the shop cast their light out towards me but fell short, the farmhouse kitchen lights also reached out invitingly but were a long way from reaching me. Only the moon with its soft blue light made it to where I stood but unlike the other too lights with siren's song-like properties, the light of the moon seemed to tell a story. It was the story of the ongoing harvest, one that I know all to well.

The weather in this part of Iowa had been favorable for crops and post pollination estimates looked bountiful. But farmers know that you can't count your eggs before they are hatched and you can't count the grain until it is safely stored in bins and cooled down for long term storage. So when a windstorm arrived a month before harvest and blew a half mile wide swath through that part of the county laying down 400 acres of my parents corn on the ground and leaving another 400 acres at a rakish angle, they knew they were going to have to work a little harder before they could count their eggs.

Farmers are a tough breed of folks and don't complain much. Complaining never brought the crops in. Instead, they do what they have too. Harvest is now almost a month old and last week, my parents finally got through the 400 worst acres of corn averaging about 20 acres a day, a day being about sixteen hours long. Normally they could get through 100 acres a day but then normally the corn was standing upright in long orderly rows. It shows on their faces and in their postures and I wish I could shoulder some of the burden but my life has taken me down a different road. Instead, I just do what I can when I can to lighten that burden even if just for an hour once a week.

The gas kicks out on the dryer fan and I take one last look at the worn harvest moon, the same moon shining over a combine five miles away in a blown down field of corn trying to pull the stalks up enough to strip them of their ears of corn. I surrender to the glow of the kitchen lights and go inside the farmhouse to start supper, still probably an hour from being eaten by the time the combine and tractors are fueled and parked for the night and already later than most bedtimes.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Death of Ted

Originally posted on December 15, 2004

I drove down the long driveway and pulled into my customary spot underneath the large elm tree on the west side of the house. Ted was lying in the grass which was unusual. He normally would run out to greet me as I was coming down the driveway but today he just laid there in the sun dappled shade. As I got out of the car and approached, he remained unmoving with no sign of life, causing my heart to skip a step. When I reached him, knelt down and called his name, he feebly wagged his tail and turned his eyes in my direction. I knelt there scratching Ted behind the ears, allowing my eyes to drift down his body and I could see a large shaved area on his abdomen where all his golden reddish fur had been removed down to the skin. A large scar that had been sutured shut now stretched across the area. My parents hadn't said anything about Ted undergoing any kind of surgery so I figured it must have been some sort of accident that had just happened. I continued to stoke his head for a few minutes and then went inside the house.

Mom was at the kitchen sink when I walked in and from the look of inquiry on my face, went directly into an explanation without waiting. The years of arthritis medicine had taken their toll on Ted's internal organs and they were failing. Ted was dying. I asked how long but she didn't know. Ted had undergone exploratory surgery yesterday where he had been diagnosed and as long as he wasn't in too much pain, my parents decided to care for him until he died. They hadn't wanted to put him to sleep at the vets office and had wanted to give me a chance to say goodbye. That spring morning had been such a beautiful one that my mom had moved him outside to lay underneath the large elm tree where Ted could keep an eye on everything. She thought he would be happy there and I agreed.

Ted had shown up about seven years ago near my grandfather's farm thin and starving and after searching for an owner, we had adopted him, brought him home with us, where we nursed him back into health. A couple years later, Ted started getting lame in the rear hip and we decided to take him into the veterinarian to see what was wrong. After some tests and putting two and two together, we were able to piece together some of Ted's history. He probably was meant to be a hunting dog since he was a Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador mix but as we already had found out, was gun shy. The owner had probably beat him in an attempt to train him but it hadn't worked. No longer interested in him, they had tried to scare him into running off but he had kept coming back and so they had shot him, hitting him in the rear hip. By the time Ted arrived in our possession, his physical wounds had healed but he had a lot of emotional ones. He would cower whenever a hand was raised even if it were just to scratch behind his ears. With time and patience, Ted would grow to trust us and this would fade with the years. Ted never liked to be out of site of everyone, something that never did fade away and loud noised would always scare him, but at long as we were close by he would remain, albeit with a "I'm miserable" look in his eyes.

But at the age of three, the old buck shot wounds were started to cause arthritis in his hip leaving Ted in constant pain. The doctor had said there was nothing that he could do with an operation but that he had an experimental drug used to eliminate the symptoms of arthritis in race horses that we could give him in the form of an injection once a month. We did and it worked. After the shot, Ted would be unshackled from his pain and he could be an active dog again until the pain started creeping in again towards the end of the month. He seemed to sense that the shots were taking away the pain because he never objected when the time came to administer the medicine. That same medicine that gave him four more years of a pain free life, had also taken its toll on Ted's body and now he was dying.

As I walked outside to go help my dad out in the fields with the spring tillage, I sat down beside Ted, put his head in my lap and spent awhile talking to him and stroking his head. Planting season was fast approaching and every minute counted but something inside me felt that I needed to tell Ted what was on my mind. I thanked him for all the good memories that we had together over the years and told him I was sorry that things had to end this way. As I talked to him, I could see his eyes looking into mine and that old fire in them was still burning. I told him goodbye and that I would spend the entire evening with him when I got done working in the fields. A half hour after arriving home, I drove off again towards the fields leaving Ted lying in the green grass in the shade of the large elm tree.

Barely another half hour would pass, when I heard my mom's voice over the CB radio saying that Ted had died. I continued working the fields in silence letting the memories flow as freely as the tears. Instead of my life, it was Ted's life flashing before my eyes and I watched his movie being played in my mind. Both my father and I worked until well after dark, neither of us wanting to go back to the farm and face the reality. When I finally came home, I fueled up the tractor and put it away in the shed where I noticed a tarp wrapped object resting in the other tractor with a scoop on the front. It had been raised up off the ground to keep other animals away and I knew that Ted's body was beneath the tarp. I told Ted happy hunting and that I would see him in the morning.

By dawns early light, Ted was buried beneath the outreached limbs an old oak tree fifty yards from the house. It is a peaceful spot unadorned by anything and covered only by the hardy prairie grasses that grow there beneath the shade. I still visit his grave now and then when I visit my parents to talk to him but mostly I just live with his memories inside me. He was a dog huge in heart and taught me that it is possible to love again even after experiencing so much hurt. I will always be glad that he could hang onto life so that I had a chance to tell him goodbye.

Thanks for the memories Ted.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Day Nineteen: In Mourning

Originally posted on March 13, 2009

Monday, April 24, 2000, more or less - There was only about an hour of light left when we shoved off and much of that was spent adjusting ropes and rigging as we floated along. We puttered along as the light faded mostly lost in our thoughts. I tried to feel some regret of having ditched my fellow clients now probably in their tents back at camp but couldn't. I was leaving in my own way to mourn the end of the trip and what had become a life changing experience and for that I couldn't apologize. When darkness enshrouded us and we could no longer safely travel even with the air of a flashlight, we anchored on a sandbar, I crawled into my sleeping bag and dozed off to the gentle rocking of the boat.

A nearly full moon arose and all too soon, a voice said, "it's time." I crawled out of my warm cocoon, untied the rope and pushed us once again into the current. We had made good time so we drifted for a while and sipped some warming whiskey. The canyon walls were getting lower to the surface of the water the nearer we approached the lake proper and as any group when around the dead, in this case a free running Colorado River, we talked in hushed tones. There were long periods of comfortable silence and that was all right because we were all men of the same cloth. Words need not be spoken to be understood. After an hour, we started the motor again, retreated back into our minds for silent meditation and motored through the night watching the canyon walls recede into the murky depths.

The moon shining on the walls of a canyon is perhaps one of the most beautiful sights to behold. The canyon then gathers it, molds it, and shines it down upon me, an insignificant being passing through, blinding me. Twenty days ago, I had set upon a vacation of adventure and for a few days on the river, even believed it. But something inside me changed and I knew it had done so in a fundamental way where there was no going back. I first realized it at Phantom Ranch, then again at the helicopter pad along the river and at Separation Canyon. I didn't want to go back. I wanted nothing more than to be frozen in this place and spend my life running this river over and over. Eternity would never seem so sweet.

As the moon set over the rim and false dawn soon began to take over, I was chilled to the bone partly because the effects of the whiskey were wearing off. I was saddened at the thought of what was now behind me. I wanted to just roll over the side and let what was left of the Colorado river consume me. But dawn's light brightened and chased away my demons and the chills that had entered our bodies like a thief in the night. Soon the world was illuminated and I was feeling more at peace with my fate though I still was visually appalled. The cliffs that had been thousands of feet high were now not more than one hundred feet. Their walls were stained with a bathtub like ring of scum deposited by the lake during one of its higher cycles. The emerald green water we had floated on all week was a stagnate dark blue covered in a slimy scum of motor oil, Styrofoam, and other assorted trash that people had thoughtfully left behind for others to enjoy. I fervently wished I could collect it all, track them down and dump it on their lawn among other things that bordered into the land of the illegal.

We crossed the remainder of the lake in silence, like driving through the scene of a major battle only minutes completed and casualties strewn. When we arrived at the takeout, I carried my gear off to one side out of the way and began helping them unlash the raft flotilla of boats and carry the gear ashore. As the last boat was being stowed onto a waiting trailer, a loud nasally whine from somewhere out on the lake snuck into hearing range and soon into the visual range. A sleek jet boat pulled up and disgorged the rest of the passengers on the shore excitedly babbling about how fast the trip across the lake was. They asked me if anything had happened during the night as we slowly motored across and I told them what they would have perceived, that nothing had. The truth was that yes something had happened during the night. I had said goodbye to the canyon that I had fallen in love with and had left her behind.