Category Archives: remembrance

The year Merle Haggard died and we had kittens

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On the home front….

My better and more talented half wrote another beautiful book.


The eldest turned 16, In Every Way. The twins turned twelve.  Lila is becoming quite the equestrian, and both boys continue to be obsessive ballers–Daniel’s the star of the rec team I’m coaching, and Theo plays on the Middle School team. I never have to worry about having something to talk about with them. It’s hoops chatter 24-7. (I should mention Theo ran cross-country and made the all-region team!)

Also, the boys have really excelled  at that bottle-flipping thing.

An undetermined critter got at what was left of our chicken brood, on two successive midsummer nights, and the coop, devoid of avian life, has become the home of a huge woodchuck who tore the floor out and burrowed a home beneath.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on


A stray cat wandered up to the house, and withstood the combined efforts of our two dogs and four established felines to run her off. Then she had four kittens.

The cowherd got bigger, again, and the count is up to 46, far too many for the pasture I have. Got a good price on hay in the fall, though. I bought enough to last through winter, and will lighten my load when (I hope) the market firms a bit in spring.

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The bees looked to be going great guns for the first part of the season, which was awfully wet. I got a fair bit of honey from all of my hives in June, but starting in mid-July it stopped raining. I really don’t know what the bees had to forage from August through October, but they were in just OK shape when I left them to ball up and face the winter. There are five hives going right now. I hope there will be that many in April…

For the third year running, 2016 was the hottest on record in, basically, the world. Locally, and more critical to my needs, it was also dry. Ordinary folks thought that made for pleasant weather (it did), but farmers thought it was weird. I had to pump spendy city water for five months. Thanks to winter rains, the spring  in the cave field only just started to flow again.

I got to go to Nashville, again, solo, to hang with my peripatetic scholar friend John, and Atlanta, with the entire family, to see the other John, his wife Nuria, and boy Pau.

All smiles at the Carter center

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

Had visits: from dear sister Caroline and her dog Emma, and the annual return of my old Great Plainsman comrade Charly. The MacNeal clan, now based in Taiwan, honored us with a very fun visit. A pleasant surprise was the arrival of Anna, my old Australian friend, with whom I traveled to a good few countries, including hers (for half a year!), in the mid-eighties.

From what I could gather, Anna had somewhere in the range of six to twelve international trips in the last year alone. Me? Me, I have a passport I renewed in 2003, which has never once been stamped. She brought a big canvas sack of my old letters to her, which I have yet to dig into. I’m a bit afraid they will seem to have written by another person….

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

I had to be reminded of it, but I had not one but two aces in  2016. I accept I may never have another. I’m fine with that.

Neither ace had a witness (so go ahead and append the asterisk). In any case, I was far more impressed with myself when I pured a 7-iron to inside a foot on a back pin on #13. I was playing through a foursome of well-lubricated Louisvillians on the tee, and we all became good friends for a brief moment.

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Repost: Closed for the season

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[July 23, 2016: Can’t muster the time or energy for new posts, but I have been scanning my old ones. I re-read this the other day, and it’s really good, if I do say so myself….]

Yesterday ended up being a fantastic day.

Saturday I spent the afternoon playing golf and it went long. I walked with a couple of friends and the pace was excellent but then we ran into another group as we made the turn. As is our custom in winter golf, we decided to join up–to form a sevensome.

Returned home later than I said I’d be and well, hey, some amazing college football on, and then got a call from my friend John, back in town after two years in South Sudan. Could I meet him and his wife for a drink? How could I not?

So Sunday dawned and Heather was exuding a serious “you’re not holding up your end” vibe. She made it clear that it was a day to “do something with the boys.” They wanted to fish, and I was totally OK with that, had only the best intentions.

But then my neighbor Dave came over to move some of my hay around and I asked him if he would take a quick look at my rickety old ’88 Chevy Cheyenne. The serpentine was off and there was antifreeze everywhere. I was in a panic about being low on firewood and being without the truck for the three or more days it would take in the shop. I was (typically) focused on the wrong problem and was fretting about the tensioner, but he saw immediately that it was the water pump. “You just take the cowl off with these bolts here, and then the pump unbolts down there, and … aw, hell, you don’t have the tools. You want me to help you?”

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I did what I could to assist. Holding this. Pulling that. Using my longer reach to get at places he couldn’t. Picking up bolts as they fell through to the ground (he hated bending over). I was apprehensive about working with him, having witnessed his volcanic side when he worked his cattle. But I really admired the way he worked on cars. Our ratchet sets had similar sizes missing, so there was more than a little improvisation. He got frustrated but usually chuckled at setbacks. It brought me back to the days of helping my dad with his car repairs, minus my dad’s (rest his soul) bellowing rage.

I was ever aware of Heather’s own simmering anger, as the job went from “just half an hour” to an hour, then more. One o’clock. Two. Three. Daniel, my older boy, kept asking When are we gonna go? Almost done? He looked disappointed every time, but it was a fine day and the three of them has a rambunctious Hunger Games-inspired game involving tobacco sticks and handcrafted bows and arrows. They were fine. No one got hurt. When Daniel came along to the parts store to pick up the pump, Dave grunted a few little things to him about beer and girls, and made a crack about the cologne the clerk was wearing, which made Daniel smile in a way I was unaccustomed to seeing.

Finally, job over. The last hose clamped, a couple of gallons of antifreeze poured through a funnel made with a Mountain Dew bottle, and the truck starts right up and is running fine. “You don’t owe me nothin’, Tim. But I do have a couple more lists of songs….” That’s how I’ve been repaying him for his help with the cattle and the hay and now this. Burning cds for him. Totally inadequate, but he seems to appreciate it. His taste is Skynrd-ish country, but he is (as he says himself) very particular about what he wants. “Rollin’ with the Flow” by Charlie Rich and Reba’s “Fancy” along with Jamey Johnson; Nitty Gritty Dirt Band along with Craig Morgan; Allman Brothers along with Travis Tritt. I burned an extra CD of things I thought he’d like from my collection but he said he couldn’t get into it. I had to admit his playlists were better than mine.

It was time to fish. We loaded the poles and tackle into the Subaru. With the late start we didn’t go to our usual Garrard County spots. Instead we went to the Chimney Rock marina on the Mercer side, just under the Kennedy Bridge. The boys handled their own snags and tangles without asking dad to fix their lines. It was not a good time of the day or the season for catching anything, and they were content with the few nibbles they had. It was a lovely quiet December afternoon. Everything some muted shade of blue, brown, gray–the sky, the cliffs, the water. Chilly, but no wind, and we were alone. Someone who worked in the Marina entered and left the office a couple of times. Maybe to keep an eye on us. Above the Marina an animated sign kept flashing the same message over and over. “Closed for the season. See ya in May….”

It got cold in a hurry when the sun went behind the cliffs. I had promised to let them fish after dark, but when I said, “Five minutes,” there were no objections.

The three of us then indulged in our shared passion for Long John Silver’s. “We’ll pretend we caught this fish,” I suggested as we gobbled down the tongue-burning flounder. Usually the pickiest of eaters, they were insatiable, and I had to go back up to the counter twice for more.

At home the boys and I played Texas Hold ‘Em for about an hour. Lila didn’t want to learn how to play but she did want the boys to do something else, and got into high pestering mode. Theo reached the end of his attention span, and wandered off. I had incredible cards, the kind you never get when playing for real money.

Just before bedtime, Daniel announced that he had uploaded a clip to Youtube about Bongo, our Boston Terrier we had just recently put down. We all gathered around my laptop to watch his touching, loving collection of still photos and video snippets going back to Brooklyn days. When it was over all three kids were bawling. Theo rubbed his face against our new dog Elbee’s back and sobbed, “When are we going to get a new dog?” Elbee picked her head up with an indignant look, and that made up all laugh.

I joined Heather briefly in watching an especially gruesome episode of The Walking Dead, but sneaked upstairs a few times to watch UK-Providence with Daniel. When I went up after halftime he was sound asleep. I turned the sound down. Nine blocks for Willie Cauley-Stein!

I can only blame the fried fish and hushpuppies, but I had crazy dream after crazy dream. In one I looked out the living room window to see a tsunami sweep across the pasture and crash up the walls of the house. Then was back in New York, working again at Harper & Row. I walked around the publicity office but couldn’t find my desk. The phones just would not stop ringing.

“Game, Blouses!” My little piece ☮ Prince

I’m probably unable to process Prince’s passing with the requisite amount of grief, coming as it does hard on the heels of Merle Haggard’s death. Two of the brightest stars in my musical sky, gone. Poof. Within a couple weeks of each other. I am still stunned.

Well, hell. This week! This month! This year!

It’s been quite a cull of beloved musicians. Can’t recall a year like this. Maybe Fall of 1970, Jimi and Janis, which I only dimly remember. I delivered papers then, the now defunct afternoon daily Minneapolis Star. “Bad news on the doorstep” — I lived that! Weekly body counts in the bottom right hand counter.

I have a sense just about everybody will see Lonnie Mack‘s name on the list of Entertainers Who Died In 2016, and say, “Wait! When did THAT happen?” The day everybody was talking about Prince.

I must get this out of the way first: even though I am a massive fan and have had plenty of opportunities to see Prince, I never went to a show. Hockey rink shows are never ideal, and I probably still would not go out of my way to see anyone in a really big venue like that. But seeing Prince in the First Avenue Main Room! Where Purple Rain was shot! I passed on more than a few chances to see him in that fantastic venue.

To my shame I think I have to put it down to my Midwestern, penny-wise, dollar foolish attitude to spending money. Are you kidding me? They want fifteen bucks for those tickets. Figure in three or four Special Exports and I’ll be laying out thirty bucks for the night.

Yes, I am a garbage fan who never bothered to see Prince perform, but (I maintain) there remains some (pathetic) evanescent connection.

Prince and I were born 10 months and a couple miles apart in South Minneapolis. He went to Bryant, the public junior high school on East 38th Street. I went to Incarnation, a Catholic grade school a mile west on 38th St., on the other side of 35W, the freeway that pretty much separated black and white Minneapolis. I remember Bryant came to Incarnation once for a scrimmage, either in late ’72 or early ’73. The racial situation in Minneapolis was edgy at best, owing mainly to the ignorance of white people. Black Panthers! Rumors of black gangs riding around in cars with machine guns. (This predated Sign ☮ the Times (and crack) by more than a decade but looky! another connection — “high on crack totin’ a machine gun”). Of course our basketball team was nearly all white kids, terrified of black people in general, and more than a little intimidated by our opponents.

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Prince with his Bryant teammates.

In addition to their massive afros, and generally being much taller and/or muscular, I remember all the Bryant players wore boxers under their uniform shorts so they stuck out. A bit of sartorial flair that I had never seen before, or since. I wonder who might have started that trend?

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I was the Big Man on this team, 6′ 2″ and 140 lbs. dripping wet.

I told everyone for years, “I played basketball against Prince.” Now I am not sure I was on the court or if I (Blue team) was watching the Gold Team play Bryant. At any rate, I was there, but not necessarily playing. I did reach out to a couple of old Incarnation classmates on Facebook. My my best grade school pal, now a lawyer, wrote back, in very lawyerly terms, “This is consistent with my recollection”–meaning (I like to think) that we, the Blue team, were in fact the team that scrimmaged Bryant.  But, for what it’s worth, his memory was that we played at their gym, not ours. I also must add that he had no memory of the machine gun rumor, so that might have been my own individual racial panic dream.

Bryant mopped the floor with us of course. The core of their team went on to form a fabled Minneapolis Central team that was undefeated but lost in the region finals to North. I was at THAT game, for sure, at the old Met Center. Johnny Hunter, Pastor and Founder of First Community Recovery Church, had the game of his life.

I always thought Prince didn’t play in high school, but today I entered a few obvious search terms and learned that Prince indeed played at Central, at least up until his sophomore year. Al Nuness, a legendary player in his own right for the Golden Gophers, was Prince’s coach for the sophomore squad. Nuness told the StarTribune Prince was “a darn good basketball player. The problem is he just didn’t grow.”

Basketball’s loss was everyone else’s gain. That seems obvious now.

Over the years I’ve come across more than a few doubters of my modest connection to Prince, and even more who could not believe that the diminutive Prince had ever played competitive basketball, so when the fantastic Chapelle Show Charlie Murphy bit came out, I felt vindicated.

Prince really enjoyed that sketch, apparently.

***

UPDATE: I wasn’t going to go there, to mention the other famous music person of my youth (and in fact of my twenties, when we lived across the street from each other), but I just read what Paul Westerberg wrote about Prince and it makes what just about everything everyone else wrote kind of pointless. Heartfelt, observant, poignant and funny as hell. What you would expect.

The first time I met him was at a urinal at a nightclub in St. Paul. There he was, and I said, “Hey, what’s up?” And he answered, “Life.” One word: “life.” And I can’t say that we went on to be pals. But we did record a lot at Paisley Park, and he became comfortable enough to grace us with his presence, not bejeweled and not dressed up. He’d be wearing maybe his jammies and sweat pants or maybe a pear of jeans and sneakers. He could sort of just hang out. He may have been a little more normal than he would’ve liked people to know. That’s the treasure that we got, to be able to sit in the big atrium where you’re taking a break and Prince shuffles by in his slippers and makes some popcorn in the microwave. My sister’s a disc jockey, and he would pass by and say, “Tell your sister hi for me.” People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I’m gonna cry.

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Paul Westerberg in the 1973 yearbook. All the way on the left.

Pre-breakfast rodeo

cowz_expressionist.DSC_2754Both of us had forgotten to get milk, so I went into the pantry for a can of the sweetened condensed, something I am secretly glad to be forced to consume with morning coffee. No sooner had I popped the top, I looked to see Heather standing next to the teakettle, having just opened another can of the sweet sticky goo.

It’s unseasonably warm, and Theo and I had a back and forth about turning on the propane. “I’m cold. I want to sit on the heating vent.”

“We don’t need the heater. It’s already 58 degrees.”

…”and why are those dogs barking?!”

Oh. Ohhhh.

Just outside the kitchen window, a trio of bovines munching contentedly. SOMEBODY (uh, me) had forgotten to latch the gate. There’s a grown cow right near the open gate, and I go for her first. She’s easy enough to coax back through the gate into the pasture, but when I turn my attention to the other two, the cow edges back into the yard, resumes grazing.

The Other Two are:

a. the baby bull–oh, hey, he’s getting some good size on him–, and
b. the biggest (and wildest) of the yearling heifers.

I sigh. First, the cow (again). Then the baby bull, who is frisky, snorting a bit, and starting to buck. I see a chance to open yet another gate, and give him a minute to discover the opening. He does, and saunters through with a body language that says, “I’m going through this gate because I want to, not because you made me….’

Feeling good about this. Can already taste the coffee.

Only the crazy heifer, who… Ah, geez, no. She’s ambled past the beehives and started up the driveway, which becomes a narrow lane for a couple hundred yards, and then opens into the road, likely at this hour to have cars and trucks driven by inattentive drivers going sixty on their way to work.

I have to get around her, but  I need my phone. And the keys to the Subaru.

Upon reentering the house, both boys are tickled: “we saw your amazing running, dad….” No one thinks to volunteer to help. Back out I go, start the Subaru, and creep behind the heifer. She slows down at the bend, so I get out of the car, and clamber over the fence into the pasture. The old wire and rotting posts hold, thank god. I walk briskly, parallel to the heifer’s path, hoping to get in front of her. But she’s having none of it, and now decided she wants to see what’s out there, in the wide world beyond the end of the lane.

Back over the fence I go, and run to the car. By which time that damn heifer is ambling up the road, a quarter mile, maybe two thirds of the way to Johnny’s farm. A car is coming from the north but the woman driving (maybe Johnny’s wife?) knows what she is doing. She’s got the heifer turned around, and is following slowly and 40 yards behind.

I’m blocking the driveway now, so I shoot out across the road, pray that the soil beneath Hurley’s winter wheat is firm, and do a quick fishtail, and wait. The heifer hustles past. By now it’s clear, she’s a little freaked and wants back into the comfort of her herd. She turns into the lane again. The lady passes. I wave. The lady smiles, or grimaces, I’m not sure. And I pull into the lane behind the heifer. I get Heather on the phone.  “Come on! get the gate.” She does, but is standing too close. I get on the phone to tell her to step away, but she has already done so. The heifer zips through the gate, back into the pasture.

The phone beside me on the seat, “What? What do you want?”

The kids are already in the minivan. Heather closes the gate and climbs in. They won’t even be late. That coffee is going to taste amazing.

Many a day: Random memories of a brother

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“As long as you live under this roof you WILL go to Mass every Sunday.” That was the deal. All of us kids complied, reluctantly. The Sunday before Danny died, the weather was fine, so he and I walked the eight blocks to church together. Like we belonged together, like we were brothers. I like to tell myself there was some sort of reconciliation under way.

Daniel Joseph, eldest child of Jerry and Vergie, was born 60 years ago this month. On a sunny summer day 22 years later, his life ended in a accident at his roofing job.

In remembering him, my perspective is specifically that of a younger brother. Parents in the 60s tended to let their boys straighten out disputes among themselves. At least ours did. For me, this meant constant abuse at Danny’s hands. He was shorter, but much stronger, and had a sadistic streak. He loved the “99” — his extended middle knuckle pounding on my breastbone for, yes, 99 reps. The hard punch to the bicep was another favored part of his repertoire, as was the one where he pinned my arms with his knees, and let spit dangle close to my face, and sometimes, accidentally or otherwise, letting it drip onto my nose or into my eye.

Twenty-some years after Danny’s passing, Heather and I named our first son Daniel, and it’s some sort of Gabriel Garcia Marquez trans-generational thing to watch how Daniel the Younger torments his little brother with the ardor of his namesake. The two Dans even look alike, though there’s no blood relation.

My parents adopted Danny in 1956 and my older sister Cheryl in 1958. Not long after Cheryl came home, my mother became pregnant–with me–and then my younger sister Caroline came two years later. Judging from baby books and photo albums, my parents doted on Danny, and I imagine their marriage was even quite happy when he was the only child. But by the time I came on the scene all I remember is constant fighting–between my parents, and between Danny and dad. From the age of 13 or so, Danny managed to avoid most of our family outings, even vacations.

***

Wrestling was a big deal with kids in Minnesota when we were growing up. We would adopt the personalities of our favorites. Most kids chose the Crusher or Vern Gagne, a few opted for Mad Dog Vachon. Being skinny and weak, I saw myself in Edouard Carpentier, the Flying Frenchman (who was Canadian, of Polish descent, actually). Carpentier wore bell bottoms, no shirt, no shoes. Googling turned up no photographic evidence of him in this getup, but that’s how I remember him. Carpentier specialized in drop kicks and flying head scissors, and I did my best to mimic his acrobatics when up against Danny. Sometimes I would get lucky and hurt him with an elaborate, high-risk aerial maneuver, but he always recovered and hurt me more.

***

Danny had a minibike, then a car and a motorcycle, and could fix them on his own. Not one for books, he worked as soon and as often as he could. He had money to spend, and girlfriends (I had neither). When I was 15 or 16, I remember riding down to Lake Calhoun on my ten-speed and catching glimpses of him speeding past or parked in his avocado ’69 Malibu, with what seemed like a different blond head every time in the passenger seat.

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That time when he lowered his voice and asked me what girls I liked at school? I knew better than to answer. I held out. But he was relentless. Finally, a little smile forming on my mouth, I whispered the name of my secret crush. He roared. The very next day I saw the object of my desire flirting pretty brazenly–with him.

***

One Sunday in ’68 or ’69, when I was at a Boulevard Theater kids’ matinee, my father took Danny and Danny’s friend Greg ice-fishing. It was March, and the ice was getting thin in places. Dad, walking where an ice house had been taken down, fell through. In his heavy wool coat, he went down like a stone, but somehow surfaced through the same hole. (Indelible image: Dad liked to remember that he never lost his grip on the cigar he had clamped between his teeth.) Danny and Greg pulled him out. As a display of gratitude, dad gave both of the boys a transistor radio from Walgreen’s, along with an unusually (for him) emotional note thanking them for saving his life.

Danny loved westerns, which I tried to watch, but always found boring. He fancied himself part Native American, and once when he shot a blackbird with his pellet gun, made a mess of hacking the red wing off, as some sort of Sioux talisman of his imagining. He was a great fisherman and was always bringing home turtles from the Lagoon off West Lake Street. He was also adept at climbing over the spiked iron fence surrounding Lakewood Cemetery, which he treated as his own personal squirrel and chipmunk trapping ground. And that’s where he is now, of course, buried next to my mother’s grave (and a stone’s throw from Hubert Humphrey’s), almost up against that iron fence on Dupont, across the street from his (and my) old paper route.

***

We went as a family one evening to a Twins game at the old Met Stadium in Bloomington. Killebew, Oliva, Zoilo, Boswell, Kaat. What a team they had! And yet,I don’t remember the game as much as I do the chain link outfield fence, which seemed cheap and disappointing, and that there were hundreds of bats flying around beneath the bleacher seats.

“It took many a day to build this place,” Danny said to me somberly. I have never forgotten him saying this, and would often borrow the “many a day” for something equally inappropriate.

***

I was not tough, to say the least, and kids would pick fights with me because it was easy. I was tall and skinny and often covered up and whimpered that I didn’t want to fight, which only made others more eager to call me out.

There was one time in seventh grade when I fought back. A tussle on the stairs coming out of gym, and I must have accidentally bumped into the quarterback of our miserable football team. Another diminutive bully, and another Timmy as it happens. He ordered me to meet him after school on the playground. I surprised him by showing up.

I had been reading the Robert Lipsyte young adult novel, The Contender, about Alfred, a dropout black kid from Harlem who stumbles into boxing and finds he is good at it. His manager Mr. Donatelli’s mantra, “Stick and run,” suddenly came to me I circled the other Timmy. I jabbed and jabbed, retreated, jabbed some more, and he, being much shorter, could never get inside. The fight seemed to go on for a very long time. A big crowd had gathered, and finally the priest came puffing along to break it up.

The fact that I’d bloodied and bruised the other Timmy didn’t stop him from saying he was going to kick my ass the next day. I didn’t challenge that, but the next day came and went. Back home I proudly showed Danny the dried blood on the knuckles of my chopper mitts. He seemed to have known about the fight before I told him anything. All he said was, “You fought with your mittens on?!”

***

He was not great at school, and when I looked over some of his homework from the courses he took at Normandale Community College, I got the sense that he might have had an undiagnosed learning disability. He took law enforcement classes, and wanted to get a job with a police force, but the economy was bad and he never got his foot in the door. He often mocked me for my higher education aspirations. “You’re book smart, but not street smart” was something he said frequently. But the year before he died, at the age of 21, he was accepted into the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “I’m gonna do it like you. I’m not gonna work, gonna  take out loans, join a frat.”

I was kind of flattered to see him come around, but it had little to do with me, and more with his seeing no future working the kinds of jobs he worked. He was a week away from proper college life when he slid off that roof.

I don’t know how he would have done, whether he would have fit in. Would he have been able to do the work, would he have stuck it out and graduated, or gotten frustrated and quit? What would have become of him in those forty years since he fell? Would he have a wife? a family? Would he have lost his hair? It’s just impossible to imagine any future for him in my rational brain.

My irrational brain fills in the gaps. Frequently, in dreams, I have conversations with him. “Man, it’s weird that you were gone so long. What are you going to do now?” He’s usually his 1979 age, but sometimes, as in a Buñuel dream sequence, has evidence of the grave about his body–dirt, pallid skin. Death is acknowledged in our chats, but it’s something that we have put past us.

Waking up, mind clearing, realizing it was all a dream–that’s about as empty as I ever feel.

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Last picture of Dan, with his friend Gerard, in front of the ancestral abode.

 

 

Scenes from country life: Drop dead heifer

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

One of my heifers had been panting and frothing and isolating herself for a couple days. My neighbor Albert and I got her in the pen  and dosed her with Nufluor Tuesday, but Wednesday she looked much worse, so we loaded her on the trailer and ran her to the vet right before closing. The assistant immediately saw she was choking on something, probably a hedge apple stuck in the esophagus. The vet ran the equivalent of a plumber’s snake down her and seemed pretty satisfied that he had pushed the hedge apple through.

“Those hedge apples are a bad deal, especially October and November,” the assistant said.

“Maybe I should pick ’em all up and get them out of my pastures?” I asked.

He and Albert laughed. “Let me know how that goes….”

The vet kept at it with the snake for quite a while, then forced some electrolytes down in another tube. A few doses of antibiotics. She should be fine, as long as there were no perforations in the esophagus. Barring that, or a secondary pneumonia, she should be better by tomorrow. She still looked to be in bad shape, but I was feeling pretty optimistic when we ran her off the trailer.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

At dusk I went to check on her and she was panting more heavily than ever. She staggered unsteadily to the woven wire fence, leaned there for a few seconds, then tumbled over sideways, shuddered, and died on the spot! In my past experience with bovines passing from this world, the process has always been a slow, unbearable (for me) struggle, so this was a surprise. The  heifer laid down and stopped panting, and that was it. I peeled back an eyelid: that massive glassy cow eyeball staring back at nothing.

I texted my other neighbor Dave (“well damn that heifer fell over and died right in front of me”). He was out with his tractor so he volunteered to come and drag the heifer in front of the gate so the dead truck could winch her up and cart her off.

I sat on an old bush hog in the dark waiting for Dave, along with two cats: Marshmallow, an older orange tabby male, and a new kitten (as yet unnamed) who had forced herself into our family a few weeks back, with great persistence and overwhelming cuteness. Marshmallow hates the kitten and hisses at her whenever she approaches, but the kitten, being a kitten. doesn’t take it personally and tries to play with him anyway. Both were purring like cicadas. I made a note to sit outside in the dark with the cats more often.

The heifer was in a sort of awkward spot but we got a chain around her neck and Dave dragged her out backwards. The bright amber lights, the roaring engine, and the backup beeping made his John Deere seem like some cheap sci-fi monster. Dave and I chatted for a bit. He was feeling overwhelmed as usual–“I’m movin’ hay and got those stumps ground and drowned that skunk [wait, what skunk?!], and … I’ve just got too much to do. My nerves can’t take it.” As always, though, he made a point of saying, “I don’t care to help you out when I can.” (In Kentucky this means he doesn’t mind. That one took me a while.)

While we spoke, the kitten was circling and sniffing at the great fallen beast.

***

This is not the first time I’ve written about dying bovines and the dead truck. Here is “Waiting for the Dead Truck” from a few years back.

Runaway

lilahorsehhphone2My daughter Lila, who turns 11 next month, has been taking riding lessons for two years. A few weeks back, I was sitting in the car, half reading a back issue of Harper’s, and half watching Lila’s lesson. She seemed to be doing a lot of galloping. I got out of the car, thinking I’d get a picture of her breezing past, but then realized something was wrong.

Not that you’d have noticed listening to Mary, Lila’s teacher. She maintained her authoritative teacher voice–emphatic, carefully enunciated–but her instructions were along the line of “grab the mane and pull” and “tell her whoa.” Around the ring Lila went twice more at full gallop, and I heard her start whimpering about her stirrups. I started feeling sick. Her posture was getting worse and worse. Things were happening very quickly, and yet I remember this in slow motion: she started sliding off center in the saddle, then rotated a little more to the right, then quickly down the horse’s side, and off. A thud, the sand flying. But she landed clear.

Mary and I got to Lila at about the same time. She had banged her head pretty hard. We stood her up and brushed her off and checked her pupils.

lilawallOnce satisfied that Lila wasn’t badly hurt, Mary was immediately back in teacher mode, explaining what had happened. The girls had been doing no-stirrup work, which they often do. Lila had begun to tire and started trying to get her feet back into the stirrups. In a frightening loop, she was pressing tighter and tighter with her legs, which told her horse, Contessa, a young rescued thoroughbred, to go faster. Contessa started to canter, then gallop. Mary estimated horse and rider had raced eight times around the ring. Poor Lila was hanging on for dear life, but her thighs gripping the horse only made it go faster.

Contessa ambled back to Lila and gave her a nuzzle. Mary then gave Lila a leg up, and she finished the lesson.

I spent a lot of time in the following week beating myself up: what the hell kind of parenting is this?!

The other day, Lila had locked herself in her room for an entire afternoon. When she emerged, she proudly invited us in to see her wall of equine wisdom. The deployment of duct tape reassured me that she was indeed my departed dad’s granddaughter, and the sentiment of the epigram at the top spoke for itself.

 

Crepuscular études

Crepuscular. I love that word and always have to look it up.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

I posted this on Instagram yesterday, and it led to comments from friends as far afield as Minnesota, Brazil and Australia. Genevieve in St. Paul declared it “word of the day,” and Dan in Sao Paulo informed me that crepuscular is a common Portuguese word, which I didn’t know, but it makes sense. Saudade has no direct English translation either.

Then Ricky chipped in from Corrimal.

Personally, I’m quite fond of dawn and dusk, they have a bit of a mystic feel. The changing of the light is always interesting.

…I love the outline of the cow…. The filigree quality of the trees against the light is beautifully delicate, and the warm glow on the horizon sets the middle ground of the frame, but it’s the presence of of the animal and its lack of complete definition that brings it all back to earth.

I didn’t know I had done all that, but … yeah. I hadn’t wanted to explain the shot too much, Ricky’s interest in it led me to confess to what I was really after.

I was actually photographing that cow more that the entire scene. She just lost her calf yesterday morning. It’s been my experience that cows don’t quite get it when their calves die, especially when they get taken away (and the Dead Truck came around in record time, a mere 15 minutes after I had called). So typically the mama bellows for the calf for a couple of days. She comes up to me accusingly and bellows with special ferocity, as if to say “where’d you put my calf!??!”

Ricky: With my tendency to anthropomorphise, I couldn’t do what you do, Tim.

Me: Well, you harden over time I guess. Yesterday I took the opportunity to ship off two of my favorite old cows as well (they both had udder problems and couldn’t nurse their calves, and one had chronic hoof issues). They got onto the trailer like humans stepping onto a bus, and when we opened the gate, both trotted gamely into the heart of the cacophonous stockyard labyrinth.

I felt a bit of a pang, but turned and let ’em go.

When I told my daughter we had sold the big red cow with the horns, she was very upset with me.

“I had to sell her,” I told her. “You didn’t HAVE to,” she replied. Correctly.

timandcow

Summer is ready when you are….

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

Ah, yes, son, the winter of ’15. Like everyone else in the eastern United States, we’ve been hammered by winter weather for three weeks. First, the blizzard, then the bitter cold, then a brief respite, and then the exact same thing happened 10 days later. Jesus.

I like to think we’ve seen the last of it. This forecast says mild and messy for the next couple of weeks. The white is melting. Outside the window I can hear the otherworldly murmur of a flock of sandhill cranes. The receding snow shows the mums poking out and ready to go.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

poor-mouthAs my dozen discerning regular readers know, my family’s Snopocalypse ’15 experience differed from the norm in that we’ve been hunkered down with an animal not usually housed in the living spaces of humans. We let the news trickle out via Facebook status updates and Instagram posts, and friends from our old lives in New York whispered with concern and anxiety the question: “do you really have a cow in your house?” A couple of my more literary chums mentioned Flann O’Brien’s great parodic novela An Béal Bocht, in which a wretchedly poor Irish family keeps the pig inside their humble home….

Well, it’s not like that, he says, not at all defensively, except that it is. The situation is–however and thank God–almost at an end. I’ve already written about how this calf came inside, if you need to be brought up to speed. There were many times in the first two weeks we resigned ourselves to the idea our calf was not going to make it. But, irony of ironies, it was Heather’s extraordinary efforts that finally got the calf to begin sucking milk from a bottle. Now she is on the feeding schedule of a normal bottle calf. A half gallon twice a day, the bottle sucked dry in two minutes. You can no longer count the calf’s ribs just by looking at her. She is ready to go outside, if still not quite to the point where she can go back with the herd.

During the dark days since February 16, when the first blizzard blew in, my mind has been pulled in a dozen different directions, aside from the expected noise of kids fighting, and the kids’ Kindles not working with the Wifi, and the thumping of two boys addicted to bouncing basketballs and practicing dunks on mini hoops.

In the kitchen I’ve been experimenting with pork braised in milk, a new thing (to me). A recipe in Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook matched almost exactly one from Simone Ortega’s 1080 Recipes. “Whenever I teach this dish, writes Hazan, “I am greeted by more or less polite skepticism, which usually turns to enthusiasm at first taste.” That was my experience, exactly, dear Marcella. Later I noticed a Mark Bittman variation using coconut milk and, well, I’ve got the theme for suppers until spring.

I watched basketball games, lots of them. Kentucky is exhausting sportswriters’ supplies of superlatives, and both Fighting Irish squads well positioned for the postseason, the ambitions of the men’s team of course more modest that those of the women’s.

For some reason the Breeders’ Last Splash has emerged in my mind as a masterpiece, and “Saints” has become my unofficial anthem. In the video (shown below), the band is playing in the snow and then suddenly wandering through a crowded midway at the height of summer, “sticky everywhere … hot metal in the sun … summer is ready when you are ….”  You can imagine why it appeals. Yes, I’m ready. Yes!!!!

***

It’s warm and sunny today and it appears six of my seven beehives have made it through the worst of it. It’s a few weeks before they can forage in earnest, so I am not counting that as a victory just yet. But it’s close. The cowherd looks fat and robust and I have plenty of hay left.  I lost a chicken but that sometimes happens even in good weather. They are all a little worse for wear, but our house, farm, and marriage have survived the winter o’ ’15.