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Grief and Time

Posted in Adventures With Humans

Bomb Squad Robot

I took a frog to school once when I was five. I captured it from the spring-fed pond on our farm,  put it in a jar with a good amount of pond water and some seaweed, then held the jar in my lap while we rode the school bus to Mono & Amaranth Public School where I was deeply immersed in all things kindergarten. The kids getting on the bus, all country kids, had seen frogs before but I felt compelled to do my part and make sure. I watched the frog as he watched whatever. With their eyes set-in like marbles on separate sides of their frog heads, it’s hard to figure out exactly where they’re looking. My frog was likely unimpressed with his jar, and the sight of me already eating the Oreo cookies from my lunch probably made him think he was on mushrooms; you know how nature works. Little did he know the frustration I was going through, wondering if the dumb tights I was wearing were going to nag at dropped crotch level for the whole day as per usual.
 
 The frog sat in the jar, sometimes checking the sides, it’s great eyes expressing disinterest, almost disgust with the human world. I’m sure it was impressed when at some point in the morning, I dropped the jar on the classroom floor where it cracked and fell apart, the water soaking into the industrial, orange carpeting. “Great. This is just great,” it might have thought. My teacher gave me another jar for my captive, but when she suggested I add some water from the tap, I explained that “No, my frog can only have pond, or stream water in its jar, nothing from the tap as the chlorine would kill it.” I was concerned about the frog. I don’t know how I knew about tap water versus the aquatic life from our pond, but I did. My brother, seven years older than me, would catch frogs, stick a firecracker in their mouths, and hurl them into the air. We were different.
 
I watched my frog dry out over the course of the day. I imagine that my teacher was relieved when the school day was over and my frog had not died, and she did not have to pause our exploration of squares and circles to explain death. When our afternoon home-taking bus stopped at our driveway, I jumped out the door, ran as fast as I could to the pond and dumped my frog back in to the cold, nutrient-rich water. I was glad to see it swim off, and imagined it telling the story of its’ day to its friends, flipping me the webbed ‘finger,’ as it went. Of course I didn’t imagine ‘the finger’ then as I didn’t know what it meant, but now, telling it, I can embellish.
 
Life happened on that farm, and by life, I mean death too, but that death was usually followed by more life. We had Hereford beef cattle, so in winter, we would throw hay out for them into a rack built into the back side of the barn, out of the wind. The steers–‘steers’ being young males who have had their tackle decommissioned, and heifers-females yet to bear a calf, could come inside as long as they were still small enough to fit through the special gate. Here, they got grain that we would spread along what looked like a low buffet table, with a kind of manger above it filled with hay. Early on, when I was little, I didn’t have to go out on the cold evenings to help feed, and on one such night, a brutally cold one, I remember dad coming in from feeding, and sadly announcing that he had found the last of the most recent litter of kittens, the progeny of one of a few dependable barn cats, frozen in the manger. I remember our mother getting her barn gear on, heading out the door, and then returning a short time later with one kitten, barely alive, held close to her. We scrambled and put the tiny creature on a thin blanket on top of the heat register in the kitchen floor. If you were patient and observant, you could see the kitten take a breath, it seemed like twice a minute, which didn’t fill us with hope, but still there it was. The next morning, we came down to find the once inert body up and reborn into a fierce, grateful little fireball, bouncing off the walls, as if to say, “I am ALIVE! Look at me go!” We named him Oscar, and he was bonkers, keen for whatever. We would slip on a work glove, and he would approach and lie on his back, and we would grab him by the belly. He would wrap his paws–claws out, around our gloved hand and let us shoot him across the smooth, pine floor like a curling stone. We knew he liked it because he would come back for more. It was as if he had registered his mortality and was set to experience all of the life that came his way. And shouldn’t we all be like that anyway? Here we all are, enmeshed in the ebb and flow of the world around and through us that we can’t possibly not be a part of.
 
The worst day of the year, shipping day, was a quiet day around the farm. The stock truck would drive into the north driveway, load up with the steers, unfortunate, and then drive out, the cargo soon felled and divided, and wrapped into various fine cuts of meat for us, and for sale to the public. This was the major downside of farming. Never a highlight, never an eager day, but instead, part of the humbling process in the collective.
 
I think the first time I began to understand life and death on the farm was on a summer day, walking with my maternal grandfather, then a retired crop and dairy farmer from the mid-west. We saw a cow alone in the field, and on closer inspection, saw that she was standing beside the lifeless body of her newborn calf. The poor fella had got its hind legs stuck in a groundhog hole and could not work its way out. My brother taught me to shoot, and once he went away to school, I took over the job of controlling the groundhog population through the fields. I got good. And it was fine from a distance, but I always hated digging in and burying the bodies. It was a curious time. I remember one day, summer, blue sky, and I was lying in wait, watching a distant hole for activity, and I fell asleep there in the grass. I remember the feeling of the warm earth under my whole body.
 
I would often walk up into the fields by myself, and then through the forests, following the cattle paths along streams and through the cedar bush where they loved to gather. Mostly, the cattle were calm and quiet. Dad would go to auctions and buy a cow or two now and then. Once he bought a pair of young, Charolais steers; a slightly more cantankerous, energetic breed of beef cattle of French descent. These guys were trouble, like bovine versions of two of the bad kids from the smoking area in high school, but really, it was more like they were on cocaine that they, I don’t know, secured from an Angus bull, a shady dealer they met at the auction. It was August, and the fields were full of good hay, and corn, and these bastards went AWOL– zipped over a fence and bound for wherever. They were two concession roads away from the farm before we found them deep in the fields. This was before ATV’s, so my friend and I saddled up our horses, and spent several days chasing these guys. We had a blast, jumping over rail fences, galloping down gravel roads, hollering for real, “they went that-a-way!” The funniest moment was when we were trying to head them off, keep them out of a large corn field and went thundering in to the nearest driveway, interrupting the mother and her kid who were lying out in the sun like you might on a quiet, perfect day, on your own property, where you lived.  We rode past them toward the back of their property yelling that we were after some cattle, and I remember the mother sitting up as if to say, “What the hell?”
 
We caught the Charolais pair. And shipped them, because that was the deal. That’s how this worked.
 
Farming is dangerous. It’s a wonder we survived with our limbs intact, considering the things we used to do, like ride in a flimsy go-cart tied with rope to the back of our speedy, little ford 8N tractor, the exhaust pipe spewing almost directly into our lungs.  Climbing to the top of a ladder, set in a raised front end loader in order to secure, or replace certain boards high up on the outside of the barn. My dad was treating a cow in a stall, and the thing fell over on his leg and broke it. He also sliced his hand on a plow share, enough to get some serious stitches.  I remember gearing up like a bee-keeper, and climbing a ladder to the very peak of our farmhouse with a can of, what was called, “Bonk,” in order to depopulate, and destroy a remarkable hornets nest full of angry, angry hornets. I remember being able to hear my heartbeat in my ears as I climbed the rungs. Success, though. Yay for us.  I shingled the farmhouse roof one year, in running shoes and a bikini top. No tether, and on my own and did not die. Not even once.
 
Later on, my geologist brother brought some sticks of dynamite to the farm in order to blow up a large rock that lived in the middle of one of our hay fields. He had a fellow geologist with him, the two well-versed in blasting protocol I think, maybe. I walked with them up into the field and watched as they set the dynamite on the rock, adhered it with some putty, then inserted the cap and a long fuse. They lit the fuse and then, while those two seemed to have meandered back out of the field and harm’s way, I ran, considering both of them to be nuts for their saunter. When the blast went off, we were far away and safe, and it was entertaining to watch as the big rock rose up into the air, flipped over, and fell back down sustaining not even a crack. I suppose the two men would have liked to try again, but the blast rattled windows in the neighbouring houses, and dogs–the dogs were beside themselves with “What the fuck was that?” but in dog language. We got some angry phone calls, so there were no more attempts.
 
Fast forward a couple decades, and we were cleaning out the farm in order to sell it. It was the day before a big yard sale we had planned, so we had things gathered, and were still working through rooms. On this day, I was upstairs in the barn going through items stored in what used to be a granary. There were rolls of fencing wire, buckets, animal leads, and then there was an old cardboard boot box on a shelf. I figured that it likely contained horse bandages or grooming brushes, but when I opened the box I found 12 sticks of dynamite and some fuses. There were no caps, but the dynamite was sweating. I was with my father-in-law at the time, and he suggested that I might want to put the box down, carefully. I did just that, keen to step away with the right number of fingers and toes intact. Since this was not something that was worth pretending that we knew how to manage, and that could kill us all, we called the police. A cruiser arrived with two female officers. I was delighted that they didn’t seem all grumpy and policey, no pointing fingers and demanding demanding things. They were supper safe, and professional, but not in a dickish way, is what I’m trying to say. As per their protocol, they called the bomb squad! Oh what a day! Mid-afternoon on that hot, sunny summer day when the bomb squad truck pulled into the driveway. These guys were thrilled because they were bored as hell, with not a lot of things to detonate in southern and central Ontario. They weren’t mad. They weren’t being dickish either, just professional and cool. They checked the situation and made a plan. They called the local fire department to come and hose down the back of the barn and the paddock behind it. Then, what was essentially a giddy child in the body of a grown man, used a remote to drive a robot out of the truck–the robot, the size of a rototiller on tracks, with arms that worked, and a camera, and the man was getting paid for this! A couple of the squad men went out back behind the barn and dug a pit, clearing away grass and anything flammable despite the firemen having soaked it all. Then they arranged the dynamite and a flare in the pit, after which we all retreated to the bomb truck to watch the monitor. We followed along, quiet as the remote man sent the robot out, all alone, to the pit of danger behind the barn. We held our breath as the little guy lit the flare in the pile of dynamite, and we were delighted that nothing exploded. There was nothing except fire, and our problem was peacefully incinerated. Robot back safe.
 
My brother was living in North Vancouver at that time. I called him, explained what we had found–a few things that maybe he had forgotten about. I joked initially, and told him that he was in so much trouble with the law, but then told truth that he had nothing to worry about.
 
My father would have gotten a kick out of all of the excitement. Too bad. He had taken his own life up in that very barn in 2004. Part of me might not have been so sorry if it had caught fire, or been blown apart, nothing left but a crater. Hard enough to navigate the natural life and death of the animals on the farm, but throw in a suicide, and that changes the whole vibration of a place. The pond, glad to have the frog back. The cat, Oscar, worked his magic catching mice, doing his farm cat things like a boss, as if grateful for being rescued and thawed. The calf, and the ground hogs, and shipping day were difficult subjects; Masterclasses on hard, life and death realities.  The Charolais were just a couple of trouble-makers thrown in to remind us about how little control we had in the world. Our farm was a beautiful place, with a texture, and a personality; the house and barn wondering what the hell was up with us, and were we okay, and so-and-so is back from school, and so-and-so is marrying the boy anyway, and toil, and then despair, a despair that seems to reach back in time and tint the history, the family story, as much as it is with us in the present since the very moment. You don’t heal a thing like that; you grow up and around it, learn to live with it as a tender part of your own wounded deeper self, with you every minute as you get up each day, somehow still compelled to do your part.