Monday, September 10, 2012

The Great Northfield Pumpkin Raid

By Rob Watson

On the last of my pumpkin growing years, Friend allowed me to use about a acre of ground for which he was caretaker. A year or so before, we had dug a well nearby. He used his tractor to break the ground and prepare it for planting. I purchased some 200 hybred pumpkin seeds for $ .33 each. The variety promised 75 to 150 pound (34 to 68 KG) fruit.

I further broke the ground with my tiller, spread fertilizer, installed a drip irrigation system, and planted the seed. As the pumpkins came up, so also came the weeds. Near the plants I weeded by hand, The tiller worked the ground further away. My friend, a farmer of many years experience, oversaw all my efforts with a critical eye.

In time pumpkins began to appear. More time revealed one was much larger than the rest. Every day, when I went out to weed and water, it got special attention. A few others showed potential to be large as well. Most of the other 200 plants seemed destined to produce the smaller fruit.

I got it into my head that I should enter our pumpkins into the state fair. I looked up the application on line, filled it in, and sent it along with the required entry fee. I had chosen the 'Large Field Pumpkin' category. I was sure my big boy would win first place.

Three weeks or so before the fair, on my daily work detail to the pumpkin patch, I strolled out to admire my pride and joy. It was not there. All that remained was a large bare patch of ground where it had been. The vine had been moved and the stem had been broken.
I looked around, hoping I was at the wrong plant. All evidence showed my big boy had been stolen. My dismay flashed into anger.

As I stalked angrily around the patch, I could see where a few other pumpkins had been taken. This observation struck me and I hurried to check out the other larger fruits. They were unharmed. When I reported to my friend and partner, he was as angry as I was. This surprised me as he is usually a kind and forgiving man.

Controlling my anger is one of my few useful skills. I redirect the excess energy into more acceptable actions. In this case, everything pointed to finding the thieves. Less than a block from the pumpkin patch, I found a teenage boy cleaning a busted pumpkin from his driveway. He suggested a name as a possible vandal. Casual observation showed he was picking up the remains of my big boy. I helped him clean up and took the pieces of pumpkin into my truck. Driving around town, I found the remains of three other of my produce. My determination to find the wrong doers grew. Hope at finding them slacked. I called the sheriff.

The plan that formed never had my confidence. I would go out at night and watch my patch from my friend's storage shed which was near by. I would dress in dark clothes, carry a camera (because I have a terrible memory for faces and names). I would lie in wait and photograph them in the act. The thought that dragged down my hopes and confidence was: Only really stupid vandals would do the same thing two nights in a row.

Skip back in time a year or so. I supplemented my income by substitute teaching. A local family had three distinctive looking children. One day, in an english class, one of them was mildly misbehaving. "Mr. FamilyName, you should never be caught making trouble. You are very recognizable."

Skip forward to the night after my pumpkins were stolen. I decided a two hour watch from full dark to midnight would have the most chance for success. As I sat in the dark, hiding between the storage shed and a trash barrel, I felt like a silly fool. Not two nights in a row, nobody is that dumb. I realized I would have to be there every night for a month to stand any chance at all of catching the troublemakers. Then, if I did catch someone, it might not be the same ones who stole the big boy.

Feelings of being very foolish grew with every tick of the clock. Only anger and determination kept me in place. Then, out of the blue, lightning struck. A car with a very distinctive sounding engine (It must have been missing on three of its 8 cylinders) drove up to my patch and stopped. Jackpot! A number of adolescent boy voices chatted excitedly as they walked across the field and into the pumpkins.

Nothing could be seen in the dark. I waited for some of the voices to return to the car, while others remained in the field. I had the camera out and ready as I approached. A streetlight some distance to my rear gave a minimum light on the action before me. The camera gave a beep and a preliminary flash before taking the picture. The boy nearest to me was the very one I had told to never be caught causing trouble. I almost laughed out loud as I said, "Mr. FamilyName, didn't I tell you not to be caught causing trouble?"

The car trunk was slammed and denials of wrong doing came from all around. Fortunately the photo showed four young men with their faces averted, a pumpkin in the trunk, and the license plate. Daylight showed five pumpkins had been picked and dropped in open ground near the car.

Friend was pleased and excited when he saw the picture. I intended to speak to the known parents and find the remaining thieves. Friend wanted to come along. These parents expected us.

Wife, who supervised a number of people doing community service, in a former job, suggested these young men clean up a lot covered with rocks and weeds, that was an eyesore and an irritation to the community fathers. (they planed to clean it up and charge the owners $300) It belonged to a non-profit group. The father of Mr. FamilyName agreed to organize the effort and a time was set.

Men are usually hard to read, but it was clear this father (as opposed to the attitude I frequently encounter) was determined to make right the actions of his child. Movies always have a sympathetic figure, drawn into the action as a victim, but who stands tall in the face of adversity. In this movie that would be the mother. Friend expressed a conviction that she was a good person and a good parent. This was repeated in later discussions as well. Her actions in support of her husband bear this out. When I showed the picture of the boys, faces averted, and began to identify, she interrupted saying, "Don't you think I can recognize my own son."
After all had been settled, the better of the county deputies called and offered to "handle" things for me. I told him that it had already been handled and thanked him for his time. No names were reported.

Later I learned, the rules for entering the fair competition required two pumpkins. The loss of Big Boy, neither harmed or helped... I won second place in the state fair... second out of two.

Friend and I discussed what would allow kids from a good family, with good parents, to do troublesome things. His contention is that everyone has a conscience to tell them right from wrong. After a time I was caused to recall my own youth. I was involved in an incident, that even though I actually used the word "stealing" to describe it, it never occurred to me that I was doing something wrong. I contend the thought that they were doing something wrong never occurred to these boys... until they were caught. And, so it was with me in my youth. This mother reminded me greatly of my own. A mother's love, Tough Love, Half a century before someone made a fortune writing about it.

Under the Right Cloud

By Rob Watson

My best friend, here in State, is an older gentleman, farmer, and mechanic. One of his goals over his 86 years has been to make things better, for his family, his friends, and the world in general. He seems to have a soft spot in his heart for most everyone, even those he regards with caution.

We spend a lot of time "checking things out" around his modest farm. During the last few years, State has endured a severe drought. Friend's 14 acre lake declined, all the fish died, and it finally went completely dry. The death of the fish, which we frequently fed, struck friend to his very soul. Ever the optimist, Friend enlisted my help in anchoring a float in the deepest part of the dry bed. The goal was, should the rains ever return, the lake fill, and the fish be reintroduced, the solar powered lights on the float would attract bugs for the fish.

Friend, in one of his restorative moods, spent a pile of money (well, to me it was a pile) rebuilding a dam, that for many years, retained a duck hunting pond for the former owners. The dam had been washed out many years before by one of those infrequent gully washer, toad strangler, rain storms.

On this day we surveyed the dry lake and the to-be-pond. Friend voiced his often expressed fear that he would not live to see water in either of them again. We also visited the several fields planted by his participating tenant. (more correctly described as partner and friend) Most of what we saw was rather sad looking crops, retarded by the lack of water. The last fields to be examined brought us to a seldom used path between two fields. At the top we could view everything for many miles in every direction. The crops on our right and left were milo and sunflowers, both of which looked healthy, vigorous, and productive. The beautiful, extended view and the appearance of the crops left us both in an elevated mood. We went off to the casino for lunch and a spot of blackjack. (I broke even, Friend won $5, and it was not the end of our good fortune)

That night the weatherman reported that moderate rains were expected, but not for everyone. "To get rain", he said, "you have to be under the right cloud." That evening and night, huge dark clouds formed north of Town. They produced continuous flashes of lightning and rolling thunder. I concluded we were not under the right cloud. But, Friend's farm, dry lake and future pond might be. Daylight showed less than a inch (2.5 cm) of rain had fallen in town.

8 AM sharp brought a phone call from Friend suggesting we go "check things out", as he had heard enough rain had fallen to have "Running" water. (necessary to raise the water in the ponds). Off we went in bright sunshine and cool winds, with high expectations. Travel along the ten miles of dirt roads to the farm, revealed many places where the ditches were full of water and the roads themselves had been flooded... more excellent evidence to promote hope for the dry ponds. The rain gauge at the lake read 3.5 inches (8.7 cm).

Either of us would have been pleased to see so much as a puddle in the lake bottom, from the road we could see the 14 acre lake had recovered half its area and 1/3 of its volume. The float we had anchored the day before floated quietly in the center.

The road to the restored pond was too muddy to travel. Water was still running off the fields and into the drainage that would feed that pond. We decided to wait to see it at it "full" height.

The next day things were dryer and firmer so Friend decided to risk driving to the restored pond. We were required to walk across a field to get to the pond. Friend, minding his heart condition took it slow and easy. I, not being so hampered, walked on ahead. Being a former resident of Big State, I was familiar with ponds and dams and associated possibilities. I could see from a closer look that the new dam had washed away. The gap was 30 feet (10 meters) wide... a good 1/3 of its length. A quarter acre of water was all that remained behind the destroyed dam. As Friend walked up to the dam, disappointment shown on his face. "Friend", I said, "I don't think this is what you came out to see."

I took a series of pictures and surveyed the area. As I walked over the overflow bypass, formed to protect the dam from high water flow, it was clear, the water in the overflow was more than 3 ft (1 meter) deep and several feet wide before water topped the dam and began to wash it out. A local rain gauge showed 4.1 inches (10.3 cm) had fallen near the restored pond.

We walked slowly back toward the truck, not much was said. As we got to the truck, Friend said "Rob, you are right. That is not what I came out to see."

Dead or In Prison

 By Rob Watson
The other day I had cause to recall a number of the bullies I encountered as a child and teenager. If you are sensitive about the use of mildly foul language, the punch line of this story includes one such phrase.

The first bully I encountered was the brother of a friend. At the tender age of six years I had gone to the friends house to play. It was decided to play a game of baseball and we enlisted First Bully, a neighbor friend, and his sister. More than 60 years later, all I recall is that I developed a life long loathing for Big Bully, that he took every occasion to refresh. He seemed to prefer an audience and took great pleasure in embarrassing me if the two of us were part of a group.

The one vivid memory occurred when I was a freshman in high school. I was a tall skinny kid from puberty until about the age of 20 and may have weighed 120 pounds at this time. I was "water boy" for the football team. Big Bully was two years older than me and quite large. The incident took place in the locker room as the team dressed for a game. Big Bully stopped me as I walked past and placed his hands around my thigh. He pointed out to all present that his arm was larger than my leg. The team got a big laugh from that. Me, not so much.

Medium Bully and Last Bully were players in a later incident. Three friends and I, myself being small and the others smaller, dug a "fishing camp" into the side of a creek. It was no more than a dirt dugout for sitting and fishing. The fish were much too small to eat but catching one created significant excitement for a handful of little kids.

One day, as we were fishing, Medium Bully and Last Bully came walking down the creek. They saw our "fishing camp" and decided they liked it. They declared they liked it and told us to go away as it was now their "fishing camp". They, being older and larger, we complied. A couple of days after this, we smaller boys returned, in the absence of the two bullies, with shovels and picks and destroyed the place.

In later years I read of the demise of Medium bully and then First Bully. To quote Mark Twain... "I never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction."

It happens that one of my faults is that when taken by surprise, my mouth, and the heir of my mother's sharp tongue, may show themselves at their quickest and sharpest.

The other day, Wife and I were driving into HomeTown. Beside the road Two men were selling watermelons. We had been looking for such and stopped. After engaging the two in conversation I introduced myself. In surprise one of the men said "Do you remember me? I am Last Bully." (using his real name of course)

Taken by deep and complete surprise, my fault surfaced. From deep within my soul, my honest opinion of the boy-become-man sprang... " Son... of... a... Bitch" I exclaimed. "I thought you would be dead or in prison by now." (by 'dead' I ment murdered. Here again I reference Mark Twain: "The difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.")

Fortunately, though visibly taken aback, he took it as a joke and returned... "I have to say the same about you."

I bought two watermelons and went along my way.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wheat Harvest Report, Southwest Kansas

By Rob Watson

:::: dateline early June :::::
Disclaimer: Most of what I know about judging the wheat harvest, was learned yesterday. My teacher was a friend who has been planting and harvesting dry land wheat for 60 years or so. Taking my opinion as anything of value would be exceedingly hazardous to your financial conditions.

The time for harvesting wheat here in southwest Kansas is drawing near. It should probably start in two or three weeks. My own plot of 1/4 acre is looking pretty good except where the deer and local kids have trampled it down. (I irrigated mine with a water hose)

Friend (and teacher) invited me to lunch in a nearby town. On the way we passed a number of wheat fields. Friend began to shake his head and bemoan the condition of the crops as we passed. After lunch Friend wanted to take the "Scenic" route home to look at more fields. All of the fields we passed were judged to be in poor condition.

"Say, Friend" says I, "in church today we prayed for rain. Won't that help these fields some?"

"No, not much. The flag leaf is dried up" (The flag leaf provides the plant with the starches it stores in the grain.)

"The grain heads are mostly big and golden tan. How can you tell they are in poor condition?"

"See how all the heads stand straight up on the end of the stalk. They are empty. If they had grain in them, they would start to tilt over to the side from the weight."

Mine was the last patch we passed before going home. Lots of the grain heads were tilted over where water had been generously applied. Other parts of the patch did not look so good.

::: Dateline Labor Day :::
My friend imposed upon a friend of his to harvest my 1/4 acre (160ft by 60 ft) or (50 meters by 20 meters). Unfortunately I was out of town at the time and did not get to see how the harvester maneuvered his huge machine about my tiny patch in order to accomplish the harvest. The yield was about 6 bushels (180KG).

My grain cleaner was made from a 2x4, two pieces of peg board, an exhaust fan from an old oven hood, and 9 small cardboard boxes.  I pour the grain in the top. The fan blows the materials out the side. Heavy items, grain, fall in the nearest boxes. Lighter items fall progressively farther away. The first box is almost pure, clean grain. The last box is almost pure chaff. Everything in between is some mixture of both and needs to be rerun. The last step is to pour the cleaned grain, by half-cup fulls into a pan, shake it around and pick out the remaining chaff.

One of the byproducts, in the lighter material, seems to be several pounds of immature grain. Each of these grains appears to be the seed germ with almost no starch. Wild guessing leads me to think this is very high in wheat germ oil, wheat protein, and bran. It was probably formed in the dryer areas of my patch and is the product of the wheat plant's valiant effort to reproduce.

In any case, I now have lots of my own, home-grown, Hard Red Winter wheat to be ground into flour and used in my almost famous "Whole Wheat cinnamon pecan pumpkin waffles.