Sunday, August 30, 2009

Leaving home

This past week Merry, Joli & I were in Hanover, PA getting my mother's house ready for sale. My mother died in May at the age of 95. She was still living on her own in the house at 103 Third St. where she lived since the early 1950s. The house was built by my grandfather, William E. Pitts, around 1909 when he opened Hanover Heel & Innersole Co. Grandfather Pitts wanted his immediate family to live together so he built a nearly identical house right next door at 101 Third St. with separate apartments upstairs and down for his older children. When I was born my parents lived upstairs at 101. My father and his brother Bill managed the factory after my grandfather died. When my grandmother moved to Florida, we moved into 103. Because the house has been continuously occupied by the Pitts family for 100 years it accumulated layers and layers and layers of stuff.

My brother, Rick and his wife, Andy, worked steadily on cleaning out the house ever since mom died. They collected and donated her clothing. They sifted through and removed several layers of once treasured but now useless stuff from the attic. They diligently worked on the task of sorting drawers stuffed with stuff that had not been touched for decades.

I only had a week. When we arrived I sat down with my brother to make a plan. We agreed that Labor Day was a good target date for the end of the clean-out. We didn't know how we would get everything done by then, but it seemed like a good idea to pick a date. Merry ordered a big dumpster so we could more speedily proceed with the clean out. I decided to interview auctioneers and firm up hiring a real estate agent. My brother agreed to come back on Tuesday so we could do more planning. It would be an understatement to say we were daunted. We took a deep breath and began.

Interviewing an auctioneer is a unique experience. I walked through the house, top to bottom with two of them separately as they sized up the assorted stuff. Both are extremely experienced, with well established reputations. Both are named Randy. Randy #1 started working at the age of 5 at his father's auction house. Randy #2 started working at auctions 30 years ago while still in High School. Both had very convincing sales presentations. Randy #1 argued for an on-site auction in the house. Randy #2 wanted to do the auction at a hall rented from a local church. The costs worked out about the same. I decided to make a decision on Tuesday with my brother.

Meeting the auctioneers clarified our task considerably. They told us we were on the right track. They acknowledged we had done a good job so far, but both were a bit worried we would trash something valuable. Nothing more was to be put in boxes that they would just have to unpack later. Things should be left in place. Our job was to focus on finding and removing the personal items and the pure trash. Washing all the glassware would also help. They assured us they would clean out the house. Great. Labor Day was starting to look possible. My mood lightened a little.

At a pleasant dinner Tuesday my brother and I decided to hire Randy #2 to conduct an off-site auction.

For the rest of the week Merry and I hauled trash to the dumpster and searched for personal stuff. I went through about 1000 books and piles of dusty brittle papers in the attic piling the trivial and the terminally water damaged (and old Reader's Digests) into garbage bags that I hauled down to the dumpster. Merry sorted and washed every dish and piece of brick-a-brack in the kitchen and china closet. At one point I was reduced nearly to tears on discovering my mother had kept box after box of treasured stones collected during her trips. Hundreds of stones came to light in the garage, attic, cupboards, in mayonnaise jars in closets. I carefully piled them all in one spot by the driveway. We plodded on and on every day until we collapsed.

By Friday morning I just wanted to flee. I had to push myself to return to the house one last time. Merry seemed to be holding up better as she washed more dishes. I opened drawers to find old ashtrays, newspaper clippings, and tablecloths. I felt out of breath and anxious. I couldn't concentrate or decide what to keep or pitch. I told Merry I couldn't go on. I was on the verge of tears or possibly hysteria. Quite suddenly Mer also wanted to bolt. We just downed tools, locked the door and drove away. We left a lot undone.

I doubt I'll return to my boyhood home. I've been going back ever since I left for college in 1966. Now my ties are broken. I mourn the loss. I'm also happy to be free of the weight. It hard get a handle on this feeling. I hope to understand it better someday. For now I'm just happy to be back to my life in St. Louis.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cotton Module Builder

When I hear cases in Cape Girardeau I often encounter claimants who had jobs unique to the region. I've written before about interviewing a tow boat deckhand. In case you missed that one you can read it here: I've also taken some pretty interesting testimony from a crop duster tender. This week it was a cotton module builder.

In every hearing I follow a general outline of questions. I start by getting a vocational background. The claimant is a fellow in his later 40s from the “bootheel” of Missouri. There are no cities in this section of far southeastern Missouri. Its agriculture has more in common with Texas and Alabama than the rest of Missouri. It's flat Mississippi bottom land. They grow a lot of cotton.

Within the first minutes of the hearing I always ask how far the the claimant went in school, whether they had any special vocational training and whether they served in the military. To this last introductory question this claimant replied he had been in the army for a few weeks.

“A few weeks?”

“Yeah, they threw me out. They said I had an attitude problem; that I wasn't suited.”

“What happened?”

“Well, Judge, you see they made us take a swimming test. When I jumped in I got water in my nose so I crawled out. They said I had to get back in and tread water. I can't do it the way they wanted. I told them, but they threatened to throw me in the brig if I didn't jump back in. The Sargent yelled at me what if you have to abandon ship? Don't you want to know how to tread water? I told him that if I had to abandon ship I'd wear a life vest and if they'd give me a life vest I'd jump right back in the pool. They threw me out after that, you know, for talking back.”

The vocational expert smiled. The claimant's lawyer was grinning under his walrus mustache. I liked this guy. He claimed to be a slow learner, but he was showing a good deal of common sense, not to mention foolish courage.

I moved on to past jobs. He had a hard time keeping one for long. They were all heavy labor, farm and factory work. I asked him about the field work he had done.

“Judge, I worked building modules one season for about seven days, but my condition kept me from doing it.”

“Did you say modules?”

“Yup, you know, cotton modules.”

“No, I don't. I'm new to Missouri. What's a cotton module?”

“Well you sit on this big machine and pull levers.” He put each hand out in front of his chest and pantomimed a slow alternate pumping movement. “It packs the cotton down.”

I was unable to visualize anything. I tried a few more questions, but he just kept pumping his hands out and back. I looked at the vocational expert. She shrugged as if to say she didn't know either. The claimant's lawyer cleared his throat.

“Judge, maybe I can help here. Back in the old days when cotton was harvested they would dump in into wagons then field hands would climb on top and pack it down with their feet. When a wagon was full they would haul it to the gin. This took a lot of wagons and was very time consuming. Nowadays there is a machine that looks a bit like a garbage truck that builds huge modules of cotton right on the ground in the fields. It uses a hydraulic ram to pack the cotton then these huge modules are hauled to the gin for processing. The operator sits like in a tractor cab and pulls two levers to operate the ram.”

“OK, now I sort of get it. Does operating these levers take much force?”
“No Judge, it's pretty easy, but I just couldn't do it. They had to let me go.”

To get a better idea of how the module builder works take a look at this short video:, for those who need to know even more about the advent of this quite significant agricultural innovation see:

As the hearing was drawing to a close I ask whether the claimant has a driver's license. This fellow said he didn't. Why was that? He lost it after a conviction for DWI.

“But Judge, I wasn't even driving! See this buddy of mine was with me and we were both pretty drunk. When the cops pulled us over he was driving. They didn't arrest me, but they took his car, so I rode along to the jail. They locked him up, but let me go, see. I went out, but it was winter and I didn't have a coat. I walked along a row of cop cars until I found one unlocked with the keys in it. I got in and started it up and turned on the heater. Well, after a while I got on the radio and tried to call one of my friends to come get me. That's when the cops came out and arrested me, and I wasn't even driving. I guess I done some pretty dumb things when I get drunk.”

I believed him.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

McKinley Heights neighbors

Maybe if it hadn't happened in one day, I wouldn't have noticed.

6 am, walking to the bus, a neighbor I never particularly noticed called out to me.

“Hey, haven't seen you lately, thought you might've moved.”

I quickly explained that Merry had driven me to work in the mornings for the last couple of weeks.

“OK then. Have a good one.”

As I continued to the bus stop I was amazed. Had I ever seen this guy before? Of course, I must have. I probably passed him every day; a middle aged black guy in work clothes getting into his car the same time I headed for the bus. I must have seen him. Probably nodded to him in passing or said hi.

Later on the way home, I hopped off the bus at the same corner. There's a talkative short black guy with wrap around dark glasses who usually gets off at the same stop every day. I've said hello to him frequently. He's a janitor at a senior housing unit across town. As the bus was just pulling away he turned to me with a surprised look on his face.

“Where's your bag, man? Do I have to help you stop the bus?”

I do carry a brief case most days. Today I decided I didn't need it.

“Thanks, I left my case home today.”
“Oh, alright then. Didn't want you to lose it.”
“Thanks, for keeping me straight, have a good weekend.”

“You, too.”

Two times in one day on the same street corner made me wonder how much casual neighbors notice me. I remembered another example from about a month earlier on the same street corner. I woman often walks her Boston Terrier on the other side of the street in the evening the same time I take Joli for her constitutional. I had said hi to her a couple of times from across the street. On this occasion we had changed the time of our walk for a few days by half an hour because I had worked late.

“Hey, you doing OK?” She called out across the busy street. “Haven't seen you for a while.”

“I'm fine, thanks for asking.”

It finally dawned on me that I live in a neighborhood.

I vaguely recall reading the classic description of what makes a neighborhood in Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte in my first sociology course many years ago. One key factor is that neighbors recognize and acknowledge each other. Making the slightest contact by saying “Hi” makes the stranger into a neighbor. Nice feeling. Neighbors look out for each other.

It was about this time last year we decided to move to Ann Ave. in McKinley Heights. Now without my particularly noticing it's becoming our neighborhood.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Devil's Back

This weekend we finally got to put our canoe in the water in Missouri. The weather was predicted to be hot Saturday, heading toward 100° with no thunderstorms. I left work an hour early on Friday, we loaded our camping gear and the tandem canoe and set out for the banks of the Bourbeuse River. Its name is French for “muddy” but in true Missouri style it's pronounced “burr-bus.” It's an interesting stream on the north-eastern edge of the Ozarks. The Bourbeuse River is one of two major tributaries of the Meramec River. Even though it's only an hour's drive from St. Louis it has a nice remote feel. The section we paddled, or to use the local term “floated,” was from Peter's Ford to just before Noser Mill. These points are less than two miles apart by dirt road, but 7.5 miles apart by river. Throughout its entire length it twists back on itself over and over. The total length of the river is 147 miles but the airline distance between source and mouth is only 53 miles.

We decided to camp near the river to get an early start on Saturday before it got too hot. We also needed to find a way to shuttle our car or canoe. The best way to do both these things turned out to be Devil's Back Floats.

We turned off I-44 at Union where US 50, the old national road, heads west. Outside Beaufort we left 50, crossed the river for the third time then turned down a little side road. Where the side road dead ends at the old bridge, closed but not torn down, we turned down a farm road. A little way back is a sturdy farm house with an old Coleman plastic cooler canoe planted as a flower bed in the yard and about a dozen outbuildings. We were greeted at the roadside by Dolores Swoboda. We paid $20 cash for two nights camping ($5 each per night, dogs free) and $10 for the canoe shuttle the next morning. The dirt road continued down a very steep bank to a soybean field in the bottomland. The Bourbeuse makes a giant hairpin loop here creating a plain that floods every spring. The campground consists of a few picnic tables along the stream bed under a canopy of mature silver maples. The amenities consisted of a concrete boat ramp and a single hole latrine. Only two other parties were camping there. Perfect.

After we set up camp we heard Lester Swoboda coming by on his camo four-wheeler delivering firewood. We waived him down to find out where to get water.

“There's a spigot on that concrete building up at the house. It's straight out our deep well. Won't get better water anywhere.”

We snacked and watched the river flow as the evening came on. A red pick-up backed a boat trailer down the ramp and dropped off a john boat, tricked out for fishing. When they tried to exit the ramp they were stuck. They had backed down too far. Their back wheels had dropped off the end of the concrete into the silty river bottom. After a few minutes futilely spinning their tires only to dig in even deeper, they jumped into their car and left. A little while later they were followed back down the hill by Lester with his big tractor. We wondered if he sat on his porch waiting until he heard fools spinning their wheels off the boat ramp.

When Merry took the attached picture, the woman with this bunch warned her not to post it on the internet. Later that evening another red pick-up did the same thing when trying to pull their boat out of the river. Instead of getting the tractor, this group of geniuses all piled on the tailgate and burned rubber until they finally exited in a thick cloud of blue smoke.

At about 8 am the next morning we were picked up by the daughter of the family in a big white four-wheel drive truck. We loaded the canoe and headed down two miles of gravel road to Peter's Ford. I asked why their farm is called Devil's Back. Well, it seems that in olden days the road through the farm was the main road to a ford of the river that would take you to the town of Leslie where there was a railroad depot. The road runs a mile or so along a ridge with steep drops on both sides before descending to the river. Farmers would drive their teams of horses along the ridge but as they descended there was a place where the road was exposed on both sides. Supposedly horses would spook at this point and sometimes tip the load over the side of the bluffs. Farmers came to call the place the “devil's back.” The name stuck.

We had a great day of canoeing. The first half of our trip consisted of some paddling, but mostly navigating rock gardens around gravel bars. Limestone cliffs run along the left side of the stream and sometimes the stream undercuts the bluffs making for beautiful moss and fern gardens, as well as some tricky paddling. About halfway along the bluffs cross to the right side and the river deepens. Now there are fewer gravel bars. The current slows, and slows, and slows, until we could detect none at all. We were hot and tired. Our backs were getting sore. The campground had to be just around the next bend, then it was. We pulled out, then fell back and let the warm stream soothe our muscles.

Ah! Canoeing.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lewis & Clark Trail #1

The weather last Sunday (July 26) was perfect for exploring. Merry, Joli and I headed out of St. Louis on I-44 with no fixed destination. After driving southwest for about an hour we turned west on Route 100, passed the strip malls of Washington, MO and entered Missouri's “Rhineland.”

This stretch of the Missouri River from Washington to Hermann on the south bank and Augusta on the north bank was settled in the early 19th century by Germans from the Rhine river valley. Here the mighty, muddy Missouri River winds through a wide bottomland. A little further back steep forested hills give the area an enclosed, comfortable feeling.

In the little town of New Haven I spotted a sign for the town's historic river front. We wound through the modest town, then down a very steep street to the lower town. The historic town consists of one long block of brick storefronts and a few houses. The area is protected by a levee. We parked in front of the little town museum.

Across the street the levee has been made into a little park with a paved walk on top with benches and historical signs. The signs informed us that New Haven was founded in 1836 as a riverboat stop called "Miller's Landing." Founder Phillip Miller operated a wood yard on the river to fuel the steamboat trade. The arrival of the Union Pacific railroad in the 1850s brought more commerce and activity to the area. In 1856 the town changed its name to New Haven. As with the other little towns of Missouri's rhineland, New Haven was settled by Germans, many of them from Borgholzhausen.

The levee park also has a small log cabin style pavilion dedicated the the memory of John Colter (c.1774 – May 7, 1812 or November 22, 1813). We learned that Colter served as a private in the Corps of Discovery. On the return trip in 1806 the expedition reached the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota. There they encountered Forest Hancock and Joseph Dickson, two frontiersmen who were headed into the upper Missouri River country in search of furs. On August 13, 1806, Lewis and Clark permitted Colter to be honorably discharged almost two months early so that he could lead the two trappers back to the wilderness. During the winter of 1807–1808 Colter became the first known person of European descent to enter the region now known as Yellowstone National Park. He explored the Jackson Hole area and the Grand Tetons Mountain Range.

In the next few years Colter had many adventures, some of mythic proportions. Around 1810 he returned to St. Louis to recount his further explorations to William Clark who was serving as principal Indian agent of the vast area they had explored. Clark drew a map from Colter's descriptions that remained in use for the next 75 years. Colter married and returned to what is now called the New Haven area to settle at nearby Boeuf Creek only to die a few years later.

We drove the old Water Street looking for a place for lunch. Most of the storefronts are restored but abandoned. No lunch here. We continued to Hermann, the next town. We stopped at the downtown deli and custard stand for cheeseburgers. Hermann has successfully capitalized on its German heritage and on its location at one of the few highway bridges across the Missouri. We ate our lunch on sidewalk benches outside the deli feeding tasty scraps to Joli and watching the bikers who gather here in significant numbers wander the streets before roaring out of town.

We crossed the river and continued west. Here we followed the Katy Trail for a bit. The Katy Trail is a very successful “rails to trails” conversion that runs along the Missouri River. After passing the little town of Rhineland we came to an area where 300 foot bluffs line the road. At Bluffton, no more than a couple of houses, we turned down a dirt road to the parking area of Grand Bluffs Conservation Area. A mile hike up, the steep trail ends at a platform on top of one of the bluffs. The view of the Missouri River valley is spectacular. Check out Merry's post from last Sunday for a look at the view.

At the viewing platform is a historic marker that shows Lewis & Clark standing at a similar spot to survey the same scene in 1804.

By the time we returned to the car it was getting late. We were hot and tired. Using the internet I had located what I thought would be a nice restaurant in St. Albans, a town we would pass on our return. As we left the secondary road, we entered a space warp. A few seconds earlier we were driving past small farms and dense woods. Suddenly we were surrounded by acre on acre of lawn and McMansions. Side streets were labeled “The Meadows,” “The Heathers,” “The Grove,” etc. Real estate signs informed us the houses were priced from “the low 700s” or in another area in “the 900s.” We passed what might have been a downtown at one time and what might have been a train station in another life. A man-made lake had a few swimmers, but the golf course was busy. We wandered around and finally found the restaurant. It was closed.

We fled back to the messy comfort of our neighborhood in St. Louis where we headed for Vin de Set, a good rooftop restaurant. As we ate we saw a guy approach our car, look at our Obama '12 bumper sticker and stop. Then he slipped something under our windshield wiper and drove away.

We were worried. The midwest is not always Obama friendly.

After dinner I pulled a business card from under the wiper blade. The mystery man is the founder of Oklahoma for Obama.