Monday, July 16, 2007

Death by shoveling

One of the strongest men I've ever met was my wife's Mom's Uncle, Everett Smith.

He was a 4th generation Oklahoma farmer made of the kind of stock that worked his land and livestock, literally til the day he died.

I met him back in '89 while we were scouting locations for a project -- we ended up using his land and an empty house on his property.

Everett was a towering figure, appropriately dressed in dirty denim overalls that barely covered his 6'6" frame. Other than his height, he was unremarkable in terms of shirt popping Schwarzenegger musculature. Nope, Everett's strength was of the sinewy, muscle-to-bone variety, wrought not from flourescent lighted gym memberships, but from the daily workouts of "just doin' chores," as he once put it.

Hay bales that took the entire 200+ lbs. of my bulky-not-quite-done-with-my-baby-fat body weight to move, were whispers in the wind to Everett. While I attempted to help him unload a trailer full of bundled and dried alfalfa stalks -- struggling to pull the sneeze inducing rectangular objects off the back and down the ramp, the Farmer Smith would heft the bales up, out, and over the side of the trailers walls with a single arm, all the while telling me a tale of when his little brother once found himself outside in the cool evening breeze, without clothes and a clue to how he got there -- apparently sleepwalking runs deep in his family's genes.

Once the trailer was unloaded, while rubbing my arms rendered almost inoperable by the 3 or 4 hay bales I managed to offload, Everett unlatched and pulled the trailer off to the side of a building, never flinching or stumbling for a second.

Later I went back to see if I could handle the rusty red painted trailer that the old famer in his 70's had bandied about like a Tonka toy. Mid-way through my first attempt and the third or fourth popping noise I heard/felt way down low, I stopped, thinking that getting surgery for multiple hernias was no way for a man in his mid-20's to spend his wonder years.

Everett died over a decade ago, several months after his beloved one-and-only wife, Jane Anne, lost her battle with Alzheimer's. I hadn't thought of the gentle man with the mighty forearms in quite some time, however a recent foray out into the jungle that is my backyard, fired a neuron or two in my brain, triggering a memory of the gentleman farmer and his casual method of pest control that I witnessed one fine, summer afternoon.

The unusual through-the-summer rain and steady Oklahoma sun have given rise to an almost mutant-like growth pattern to the grassy environs of my yard. Grass and weeds that were normally controllable with a once weekly dosage of whacking and mowing are now hooked on a twice a week fix, testing both my patience and lawn maintenace equipment.

The wetter than wet weather has also given rise to the local toad/frog population, as evidenced by the surprising scattering of the small bounding amphibians whenever approaching an overgrown area of the yard.

Suffice it to say, the casualty rate of the slick adult polywogs has increased numerically with their upswing in population totals. Many have fallen prey to curious yard animals, domestic pets attempting to get in touch with their feral personas, SUV deep tread radials, and the occasional swooping hawk on the lookout for a slippery snack.

Then there are the amphibious casualties resulting from my small town's war of the overgrown lawn and garden. Whose to say how many hoppers have fallen prey to the sharpened swing blades of a self-powered push mower, or a 23 HP John Deere zero-turn radius grass biteN'bagger.

The carnage on my own homefront involved some deep shag bermuda, my bright orange and black electric powered GrassHog, and a covey of thumb sized toads who mistaken followed their instincts to hop away from my footsteps and directly into the whirling death of nylon at the end of my weed whacker.

I'm slightly ashamed to say (only slightly, I am a guy afterall) that it took several seconds of this froggy massacre to realize what was happening, another several seconds to decide my best course of action, and a few seconds after that to pry my finger off the whacking instruments trigger.

Enter Farmer Everett, stage right, directly into my memory.We were walking and talking and heading into a small silo consructed of corrugated metal and rivets. Everett carried a flat nosed shovel which I figured he was going to use to remove some of the feed grain that he informed me was stored inside the inverted funnel shaped structure.

As we entered the building, peeling the doorway open and allowing daylight to rush past us, Everett calmly raised the shovel to hip level and started...slamming it down on the dozen or so mice that were scurrying about the dull yellow grain.


It was a farm version of whack-a-mouse with the prize going to the 3 or 4 cats who had seen us enter the silo and were now gathered outside the door, smacking their lips and awaiting their treats of flattened but still slightly fluttering mouse flapjacks.

As Everett would smack a mouse, in a single elegant motion that even the best fry cook at Jimmy's Egg would envy, he'd scoop it up and toss it out the door. I quickly jumped out of the way, lest I get a freshly shovel squashed rodent on my freshly laundered Polo pullover.

The carnage was chaotic, but Everett was cool, calm and collected. Just another chore, after all.
What was just another "chore around the farm" for Everett became a "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" moment for me -- totally lost to my memory until the the other day when I was doing "chores around my own farm."

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