Dozer, the Bulldog

Dozer, the Bulldog
Feeling the "Bern"

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
No time for gates...

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
My cooking assistant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother


38 years on this mountain, come May 31st...



Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby


Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

My first portrait

My first portrait
"Mr. Farmer"

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Good Lord, but it was a shit-show, what with one to two inches of rain having already been dumped on Santa Rosa between ten and four, Sunday at the Emerald Cup. Our booth inside one of the huge white tents had been “taking on water” since noon, and the level had risen four inches from then until seven o’clock that night. The water that BossLady had suggested might fall from the ceiling of the huge tent, had found a different entry point.
Early on. "Houston? Y'all keep an eye on us, hear?"
First, the inch-and-a-half-thick mats already in place started to gradually slip under the surface, leaving all of us in the booth with water starting to slosh over the mats. A crew brought in a second set of mats and scattered them intermittently on top of the first ones. It took no more than five minutes before I accomplished the feat of sidling to the left, just far enough to step right into an inch-and-a-half of water.

As me father used to say, “I zigged when I should have zagged.” 

Was there weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth from booth members at this calamity? Not so's you'd notice. Rumor has it that cannabis was indeed smoked, helping immeasurably, but I would know nothing about that. 

But, I mean, is nothing sacred? We were at a cannabis festival and we weren’t allowed to indulge? 

Our mindset-water or no water-was, “Another day in Paradise.” As I liked to say, “We implored the gods for rain, and they listened. Am I going to complain about the delivery method? What’s a little water here and there, among friends?”

The reality was that by seven, the water had risen high enough to also cover the second layer of mats, one result being that all of our boxes, crates, bags, backpacks and tuppies stored beneath the counter, were sitting in standing water, or was that standing in sitting water? Whichever, we had already stuck what pieces of wood we had beneath the cardboard boxes, and then watched helplessly as the water rose above those chunks.

Clearly within our view. Shout-out to irony!
The booth itself must have been set up in a low spot, because the area beneath our feet had it way worse than any other part of the tent within our view. In the long run, though, the entire tent was not far behind the pace we had set, and patrons of the fair were left making their way along the soggy pathways as best they could. 

These were the adventurous folks who had journeyed out in furious winds and rain to begin with; at least now they were under cover. By itself this speaks volumes to the popularity of the event.

The other Emerald Cups I have worked, HappyDay Farms has closed the booth down when foot traffic came to a halt, and headed out to either dinner or music, or both. We took the essentials with us but left everything else behind in the booth, neatly organized and covered beneath the counter.

My own plan had been to bail out at seven, just as I had done Saturday night, and take a cab back to our spot. I was not going to pause to grab something to eat, I wasn’t going to go check out the other sites and I wasn’t hitting up the music. 

Wait for it: Just like that, my bail-out plan got overturned (I was going to say “trumped” but, you know…) by another bail-out plan, this one taking precedence. As Gluten-Free mama likes to remind me, after having her own memory nudged, “We make plans while God laughs at us.”

Folks I think of as family, dropping by.
BossLady provided the alternate bail-out order. After examining the big picture, she had determined that the fun inside the booth had to end, as all good things must. There was no hint of this being a hint. 

“I’ve got a lift on the way; I’ll be back with the Subi as soon as I can. You guys can have this stuff ready by the time I get back,” were her instructions.

Turning to me, she asked if I wanted a ride back to the house in her lift, for which I was grateful. It felt warm and fuzzy to be given the option to bail out, if that was what was better for me. “Leave?" I asked her. "And let these guys have all the fun? No way, but you’ll never know how much I appreciate the offer.”

May I be candid here? My initial thought at leaving Sunday night was, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” but I restrained myself, not being interested in drawing back a stump. After all, the directive did originate from BossLady and as HeadSodBuster pointed out, one could argue until blue in the face, but one always capitulates. 

When he said it, he had been mumbling almost inaudibly, while shuffling from one foot to the other, and back. Leaning forward I caught his words. “It don’t pay to argue with BossLady. First of all, don’t do no good. Second,” and this was even harder to hear, “She’s always right.” 

Well, that was easy enough! We were now united as one, three men on a mission. I might have said “Two-and-half-men” but that title has been usurped by a certain television show.

Worst case scenario? BossLady heads back to the Air B & B to get the Subi, and while returning, the car sinks up to its hubcaps in clayish mud. It then becomes cemented into place, until such time as a tow-truck becomes available to drag it out.

HeadSodBuster and Katie Jean before the flood
At best, we were going to be schlepping the contents of the booth far out into vast nether regions, inundated by torrents of rain, with me maneuvering along in my barefooted, sandaled feet. Allow me to assure you, I have long since become accustomed to having wet feet, which in my universe does not equate to anything other than, well, having wet feet. It’s not good or bad; it’s just what is. I will go on record as saying, however, that there is nothing worse to me than having wet socks-certainly not wet feet.

Wet feet dry out in moments; wet socks dry out in their own good stead. Besides, similar to wearing a wet suit, the water sloshing around between my sandals and my feet, is pleasantly warm. The only time I ever experience cold feet is when there is snow covering them. At that point, I break out the heavy artillery and don socks. If there is snow, the chances are it is below freezing and hence, no wet socks.

Speaking of perks... A jar of goodness from
Castle Rock Sustainable Heritage Farm!
Prior to commencing, HeadSodBuster, SmallBoy and I briefly assessed the situation, with HSBuster summing matters up quite succinctly. “This seems to me like a bad idea. There isn’t anything that can get any more damaged than it is right now. Why not come back in the morning, as we always do, and avoid this nightmare? Everyone else is doing the same thing. It’s gonna be nuts."

I was inclined to agree with him, but since I knew that all of the heavy lifting was going to be done by the kids, I confined my comments to a generic, “It all sounds pretty fun, but I tend to think that slogging through mud is better if you can also see where you’re going, as opposed to venturing out tonight.”

No matter when the grand event took place, I was not going to be at the wheel of the Subi, one of those perks of being a graybeard. Heck, there’re so many perks, I know you get tired of me prattling on about the aging process. Succinctly put, you either get old, or you die. See? My surgically reconstructed left knee and right shoulder feel better already!

I did come close to revisiting that ACL blowout, unfortunately, as I was heading out of the tent with my first “load.” It was almost weightless but had to be transported and I had glommed onto it the minute the organizing was done, as if SmallBoy would ever take anything but the heaviest unit. 

I was sloshing along on one of the mats as I approached the left turn leading out of the tent, so I had to step onto another of the raised mats. As I did so, foolishly expecting a stable surface, the entire mat simply went straight forward, leaving my weight supported by that same surgically repaired left knee, as I tried to avoid falling. 

My life as I know it flashed before me, and if you think I am exaggerating, you would be dead wrong. What a blown knee would mean to me at this point in my life, what with trying to live in two places at once, leaves me staggering-er, well-that’s not right image-never mind.

Katie Jean, just to our left in the booth.
I thanked two beautiful women in my life at that moment, fervently. The first is BossLady for urging me to get a knee-brace recently, when I had a brief issue with my knee in the kitchen while pot-walloping. The second is Gluten-Free Mama, who just last Thursday, directed me to the knee-brace section of Rite-Aid, for the sole purpose of buying a new one for my knee, to retire the aging ace-bandage currently being employed. Without that new brace, I am not writing this piece and the world is a bleak place indeed.

It took all of fifteen minutes for HSBuster and SmallBoy to have ten units neatly lined up on the top of the counter. Simultaneously, the powers that be decided to shut the whole show down, and we congratulated ourselves on being ahead of the game. How much ahead I had no way of knowing at that second, but in cosmic fashion the following events occurred: 

Miraculously, BossLady finagled her way back into the fairgrounds, defying logic, and scored a parking place-on pavement no less. The cosmic door remained ajar long enough to see our friend, Paul, maneuvering the golf-cart-train right up to the entrance of our tent, just as we emerged lugging out the first load. At best we had been looking for pavement that was not in standing water, and here was our own personal coach and driver.

Our neighbors to the left
Paul had conveyed us out to the exit Friday night, whereupon we had had to march forever through already thick, slimy mud to get to the vehicles. As we parted ways, though, I made sure to extend to Paul the courtesy of offering him an AR (already-rolled). “Sour strawberry,” I explained and Paul was stoked (Damn-caught myself typing, "Paul was stocked.") 

“I will enjoy this immensely!” Paul assured me. “Just give me a shout-out when I can chauffeur you fine folks again!” He was serious as a heart attack.

There were three benches on the train and one seat up front, alongside the driver’s seat. We heaped everything in, with HSBuster draped over a heavily-laden bench, trying to prevent any runners, while reserving the seat up front for BossLady. 

Boom! The Subi was entirely squared away with the contents of the booth, the kids were ready to take in some music, and I was on track for a cab back to our spot. Time-check? Eight-fifteen. That’s precisely one-and-a-quarter hours from the initial call to man the buckets and bail out, both literally and metaphorically, to the present. No muddy feet, no rain during that time span, and music put back onto the table after having been given up for dead. 

We call her BossLady out of love and much respect. 

Big Ups and much love to these folks!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Color My World

“‘All right, men, discipline’s getting pretty lax around here. Why, I remember just last week, when I asked for volunteers to go weed out that marijuana patch, I damn near got stampeded to death. Talkin’ ‘bout them-where in the hell are they? They been gone a week now.’

‘They’re still out on patrol, Sir.’” Cheech and Chong

That’s me, recently, with discipline getting pretty lax in the writing department. No posts in November? Only four in October, following two in September? As I say to my little sister JT, “If I’m not writing, there’s probably hard times going on.”

One of my favorite recent "floats..."
The reality is that life is a parade of hard times, intermingled with the occasional float, inundated with flowers, breathtakingly beautiful, which keeps us all in our seats. The rest of the parade involves the day-to-day existence which can pass with almost no remembrance, if you are so inclined.

For two months I have worked primarily indoors, twelve hours at least, every day I have been on the mountain. The work is tedious but immensely rewarding at the same time, and to be quite honest, a welcome respite from the frantic pace of the last six weeks of summer.

Removing the flowers from
the stalk (bucking)
Building the storage unit and relocating the four, floor-to-ceiling cabinets, proved most challenging, and various components of my 66-year-old self began to complain, as they are wont to do. Praise be for cannabis, the sole form of pain relief to which I have access. I am forever grateful for this gentle giant of herbs.

I will always prefer cannabis over opiates because I have a most irrational contempt for Big Pharma. This is a concept that was not even hatched until 1973, when the ban against making money off of medicine was lifted under Tricky Dick. I turned 21 in 1973, while overseas. Imagine, if you can, a society in which there was a disdain for profiting off of the misery of others.

I hear you. Me neither.

Once a cure-all for everything medicinal, cannabis was swept under the rug in the 1930’s, by a few powerful, rich, white men, hell-bent on destroying the concept of democracy. These men demonized cannabis, which must have confused a large percentage of the general population. They were eager to replace democracy with our current form of government, an oligarchy, or rule by a few.

Bucked but not trimmed
So I grow my own medicine and it serves me well. Nonetheless, the best medicine for a cranky shoulder is to sit for two months and let the hands carry the load. I do walk Ellie Mae up the driveway to Bell Springs Road every morning, and as long as I can do that, I am reasonably good to go. 

Once the harvest work is completed, I have high hopes of attacking the kitchen, in similar fashion to that of my bathroom/laundry room remodel of last winter, so I need this “rest” time, even if I am putting in twelve hours a day. Besides, with my schedule, that still leaves close to eight hours every day, to really get something done.

The life of a manic is certainly productive.

No, the hard times to which I alluded earlier, deal simply with the reality of living most of the time by myself. Gluten-Free Mama resides in Willits, where she can be close to her primary health provider. Like a ping-pong ball, I go back and forth. The irony of my having to drive, after being-for the most part-chauffeured around for thirty years by GF Mama, is rich indeed.

Processing apples...
I strongly suspect that not being able to drive a car, due to health-related matters, “drives” GF Mama right up the proverbial wall. If I let three days pass, and then jet down to Willits for a day, I can be her personal chauffeur and run her around town to take care of the errands that need addressing. 

Sometimes that even means treating ourselves to lunch at Lumberjack’s, where our waitress, Audrey, commented recently, “I am seeing my old teachers here since I came to work. Mr. Bowles was just in here the other day.”

I laughed and responded, “I could say the same about former students; besides you, there is Krissy and I just saw Adam the other day.” 

GF Mama likes that Lumberjack’s will wrap a burger in lettuce, as will Cafe 101, the other spot we will hit when we are of a mind. I have been to Buster’s but it’s too everything for me: too bright, too loud and too much of what I struggle with for comfort.

As for not writing, I have found it difficult to take pen in hand when so much of what is whirling around me, refuses to pause. There is too much outrage in me, threatening to overflow, if I am not careful. I stopped writing about the daily atrocities emanating forth from the White House a long time ago because it’s pointless.

Money drives all in this country, and big money crushes every glimpse of humanity right out of existence. The corruption oozing from every pore of Corp’rate ‘Merica is palpable, all under the guise of democracy. For a hearty chuckle, talk to the Koch brothers about democracy.

Certainly one of my favorite all-time photos. Gluten-Free Mama
and I in Old Paint, our VW bus, heading out from a snowy
Bell Springs Road.
Today, however, one of the most brilliant floats of all is traveling the parade circuit, and that is the one that presents itself every December 1st, the day of our wedding anniversary. Thirty-six years ago, on a remarkably similar day, weatherize, Gluten-Free Mama and I got hitched up in Ukiah, in a five-minute ceremony in the chambers of the Honorable James Luther.

So I am taking word-processor in hand and celebrating that fact. And what’s even sweeter, GF Mama was swooped from Willits by HeadSodBuster and whisked back up here on the mountain last night. I have the house warm and toasty, even as I write.

Color my world dazzling.
I took this snap of a Cooper's hawk preening, the day before

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Redlining It

Looking more like a Polish sausage than my left index finger, l decided to forego photographs in lieu of scalding water, cannabis salve and a poultice of comfrey and plantain. I will confess things got ugly there for a minute or two, and I even went so far as to pop my head into the [crowded] VA clinic in Ukiah, but no worries there:

“Well, we are understaffed, and behind, so…a few hours, hopefully?”

Gosh, such the invitation, but I decided to forego the pleasure and return to the drawing board, which meant soaking my finger in the hottest water possible, supplemented every ten minutes by another cup or two of boiling water from the tea kettle. 

Mama taught me at an early age the benefits of soaking body parts, to alleviate pain. I had much need of as many strategies as possible, to keep me out of the ER room, and this one cost nothing. Ingrown toe nail? You guessed it-soak that baby. 

Sliver under the finger nail? Soak it for twice as long; finger nails are sensitive. Plantar warts? Soak your foot. Cracked heels? Soak those kids. Finger swollen for no apparent reason (Bingo!)? Soak that dude indefinitely, and something is bound to happen.

That's me, the shortest one, with the shortest attention span...
Otherwise, it's Noel on the left, Brian and Eric, to my right.
Disneyland, circa 1957.
I am not unrealistic, If I have an infection that is painful, swollen and an angry red color, I am going to seek medical attention if I can’t make it go away. I’ll never forget Papa inspecting one of my ten-year-old hands, upon his arrival home from work, and pointing out to Mama a thin red line going up my palm and wrist.

“It looks like we’ll have to amputate. Either that, or take him to see Dr. Meisel. This red line means if we don’t do something about this infection, he will get blood poisoning.” Papa was a medical corpsman while in the service during World War II, and Mama frequently sought his opinion concerning my rough passage through adolescence. 

As long as there was no red line heading in the direction of my heart, there was still a little wriggle room. After all, one does not want to go off half-cocked, not when a few country remedies, long since well-established, will do the trick.

So where did this most recent affliction originate? When the question was first posed to me, I was clueless, more so than usual. Then an image slipped into my little pea brain, as easily as that three-quarter-inch-long sliver had breezed into my finger, about-hmmmmmm-two weeks ago? It had passed right through the [dilapidated] work glove I was wearing, running about a quarter-inch parallel to the finger nail.

Auntie Anne in the background; me with my hand in
a box of popcorn. 
For once in my life, about an eighth-inch of that chunk of plywood still stuck out, rather than being buried under my skin. Without overthinking matters, I put a vise-grip on that eighth-inch chunk of timber with my teeth, and slowly-agonizingly so-I withdrew the spear and breathed a sigh of relief. I even took it one step further and drizzled some peroxide over the entrance of the wound.

Apparently, my feeble effort went unrewarded.

Fortunately, BossLady had just replenished my supply of cannabis salve, so after soaking the miscreant for four hours, I slathered salve over it and let the magic just soak in. For one of the only times in memory, the salve did little to relieve the discomfort, and that got my little infection on the radar.

Gluten-Free Mama went foraging in the garden, returning with comfrey and plantain, from which she concocted a paste. This mixture she smeared on a square piece of gauze, which she then gingerly placed on the offending digit, while allowing me to draw the expandable cloth sleeve over the poultice to render it stationary.

Well, there wasn't any bun, of course,
but that looks about right.
I left it in place for eight hours, while I pretended to sleep, removing it early the following morning, ecstatic to find that there was gunk now starting to drain. Nothing comes easily, so I had to repeat these steps three times before the dam broke and proper drainage occurred.

I am now well on the way to complete recovery, which is fortuitous. I was getting tired of typing one-handed. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

"When Do We Eat?"

Pauline, on the trip to La Paz, 1972
“Pauline was a saint; if it weren’t for her and Robert, I would never have made it. Pauline saved my life!”

Widowed at 32, mom to four children under the age of 7, with a fifth baby on the way, it’s a wonder Margie didn’t just pack up and move her and the kids back to Wisconsin, and the shelter of her Mama’s home. That was certainly what her parents wanted her to do, way back around 1960, give or take.

Instead, Margie picked up the pieces, put one foot in front of the other, and moved on, with a little help from her friends. It’s not surprising that our family opened its doors up to our neighbors from four or five houses up the street. At the time Margie’s husband was killed in a car crash, there were already eight of us siblings, with number nine not due to make his appearance until years down the line.

What was another five kids here and there among friends?

When Margie and her oldest, Tommy, decided to embark on a road trip from SoCal up here to our mountain, it was to renew old friendships. Having reconnected via face/book a few months ago, I was flummoxed. Margie, 93 years young, knocked my sandals off by being able to make the road trip up here to North Mendocino County in the first place. 

The south-facing side of the Fellowship Street house. I know
the year was 1967, because that's the year I painted the house,
by myself, and was paid the lofty sum of five dollars.
She wanted to shift the credit to Tommy, from San Diego, who was instrumental in making the whole thing happen. Tommy is the oldest of the siblings, around four years younger than I am. The reason I was shocked, is because a road trip of such proportions would be impossible for me, one that I would never consider taking. 

Nonetheless, Margie and Tommy were slated to stay in Robert and Pauline’s mountain chalet, recently remodeled by my brother Matt, and his business partner, Keith. They were going to be on-farm Sunday afternoon through Tuesday morning, and they were flexible.

Returning from Willits on Monday morning, the first thing I did was stop in at the Big House, and touch base with the travelers. Of course, I wanted them to come visit my spot; we just had to work out the logistics. When I put forth this proposition, and asked what they thought, Tommy said simply that they had made the journey with the intention of spending as much time with O’Neill’s as possible. 

Papa, on vacay...
We agreed they should come over and spend the day, while I prepared a simple meal from whatever I could scrounge up on the mountain. By the time they arrived an hour later, I had scored two frozen chickens from the HappyDay Farms freezers, and was in the process of defrosting them, while putting on a large saucepan with potatoes from Irene’s farm, freshly scrubbed.

I had put painting on hold, and was content to peel and cut up potatoes, dice a few stalks of celery and some pickles, and boil a half-dozen eggs. I diced an onion, (forgot the olives) and all in all made a decent potato salad. The secret to good potato salad is the pickle juice and yellow mustard that gets added at the end, along with the black pepper.

It took me half the day to pull it off, but it didn’t matter: Both Tommy and Margie are easy. There was a comfort level in place, a half-century and more in the making, that allowed us to pick up the conversation as though we had only seen each other last Christmas. I mention Christmas, because I specifically remember one Christmas when our families gathered at the Fellowship Street house and had dinner together.

Front: Laura, little Tim, JT, Mark, Robert, and Pauline;
 rear: Kevin, Brian, Noel, Eric, and Matt, on the back right.
To seat at least sixteen people, and probably more, we had added card tables galore to the big dining room table, and the effect was incredible. When almost all was in place, with everyone expectantly waiting for action, there was a lull during which some last minute preparation was still unfolding.

Needless to say, I was on the point of fainting from starvation, a common enough state of affairs for a kid who could polish off four sandwiches at lunch, in record time. At one point I let it all hang out in the form of an agonized look in Mama’s direction. “WHEN DO WE EAT?” my expression must have screamed.

To my complete horror, at that instant, Margie caught my look out of the corner of her eye, and keeping her face directed at her own plate, commented dryly, “I think the natives are getting restless; maybe we should say grace and get cracking.”

I was mortified that somehow my indiscretion would be communicated to Mama and Papa, but I needn’t have worried. Margie was not going to spill the beans.

Front: Noel, Robert, Matt, Laura
rear: Tom, Mark, JT, Eric, Kevin, and Brian
As we romped from memory to memory, Monday, the subject of the storm drain came up. This was a twenty-four foot deep, by ten foot wide trench, dug for the purpose of burying cement pipe that was eight feet in diameter. In retrospect, it seems like overkill for a region that averages twelve inches of rain a year, but what do I know?

The drain system ran perpendicular to Fellowship Street, and paralleled our one acre parcel, running along the southern edge of the property. So close was this formidable trench, that I could stand on the shed roof in the back yard, and look down into the trench, the bottom now thirty-two feet below, due to the added height of the shed.

For a short time, as work progressed, the end of the trench was right alongside our property, so we kids were able to wait until workers went home, and then scramble down the side of the dirt and into the cement tunnel itself.

I should say some of the kids went into that tunnel-not this kid. I thought you had to be certifiably nuts to venture farther into the tunnel where you could no longer see the entrance, and I was having none of it. 

On the other hand, as Tommy and I compared notes, we found ourselves reminiscing about the house that Margie had bought with insurance money, and how much time I used to spend there. Across the street and back behind the houses, was a gully lined with eucalyptus trees, paradise for kids.

Ironically, a long way down the gully, there was another culvert, this one going beneath a street, and one that was far more manageable than the one 24 feet underground. I felt marginally better for being able to make it through this “tunnel.”

Front: Noel, Pauline, Robert, JT, Laura
Rear: Kevin, Tom, Eric, Brian, Mark, and Matt
Tommy talked about coming to dinner at Papa’s house, and the barbecue rotisserie, gently rotating with [at least] four cut up chickens being cooked. Papa did not mess around and we were allowed to eat chicken until we were stuffed. 

As I got older, my friends were always encouraged to join us at the dinner table, and they loved it. There was something about being included in dinner plans, simply because you were there, that tickled my friends immensely. They liked just being one of the tribe, and I think that’s how Margie’s kids felt.

Well, my guests certainly must have felt at home with my serving barbecued chicken, just like the old days, and we chatted until it was time to say good night. Margie asked great questions about the farm, and I relied on HeadSodBuster to answer them, simply because I couldn’t.

Front: Laura and Izzy, Matt, Robert, Pauline and Mark
Rear: Kevin, Tom, Brian, Eric, JT and Noel
When they departed Bell Springs, Margie and Tommy were heading over to my brother Brian’s house, in the Central Valley, before eventually heading back down south. When they left, I felt good, knowing that Margie had been given the opportunity she desired, the chance to get one more “dose of the O’Neill’s.”

Robert and Pauline weren’t there physically, but spiritually, I’m sure Margie would agree, they were very much there, just as they always were. Especially when the going got tough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Better Homes and Gardens-Somewhere

My life’s book is in its 66th chapter right now, but with modern technology being what it is, I have been given the opportunity to reopen and revisit earlier chapters of my life in living color. Or, in this instance, I had characters from early on in my life’s story, emerge from the distant past, and visit me up on my mountain.

Laura and JT playing in the back yard on
Fellowship Street. The Tranbargers' house
is in the background.
This most recent adventure began innocuously enough with my posting of a piece of writing about Fellowship Street, a bit of fluff, really, with an unexpected result: A woman named Margie made the most amazing comment, “Have many wonderful O’Neill memories.”

I did not have to sweep the cobwebs out of my memory to recall in crystal clear detail Margie’s story. Now ninety-three years young, and still living in SoCal, (and a friend on f/b with my brother Noel), Margie first entered our lives as a neighbor, four or five houses up Fellowship Street, along with her husband Allen and four young children, the oldest Tommy being six. This would have been in the early sixties.

Specific dates are irrelevant so I will just say that I was about ten years old when Allen was killed in a car crash, leaving Margie with the four kids under six years of age, with a fifth one on the way. A native of Wisconsin, the natural thing would have been for Margie to pack up and haul the kids back to her Mama’s house, which is what Margie was being pressured to do.

I did not know any of this as a kid. All I knew for sure was that Margie was at our house after the news of Allen’s death had been revealed, crying in Mama’s bedroom, and the kids spent a lot of time at our house. When we were visiting the other day, Margie said simply, “If it weren’t for Robert and Pauline, I would never have stayed in California.”

As it was, insurance money allowed Margie to purchase a home across town from us, but only fifteen minutes away. As time went along, I used to spend time at this house, hanging out, reading a lot, and frolicking in the built-in swimming pool. I watched TV and explored the gully filled with eucalyptus trees, located across the street behind the band of homes, with whichever kids wanted to come along.

The author of Mark's Work, age ten
Being four years older than Tommy, who accompanied Margie on the road trip up here to Bell Springs Road and HappyDay Farms, I was naturally inclined to keep an eye out for the little kids, having five younger siblings of my own.

No one ever told me it was my responsibility to watch the kids; it was a given that I would do so. On the other hand, no one ever asked me to wash dishes, mop floors or do anything other than pick up after myself. Besides, my favorite pastime at this point in my life was reading, and books don’t make that much of a mess.

When Margie announced she was headed out on a road trip to visit the O’Neill complex up on Bell Springs Road, I was flummoxed. I have a devilishly hard time driving the one hour down to Willits, and am completely incapable of driving Gluten-Free Mama over to Sacramento, to consult with the pros from Dover.

For Margie to come driving up here with Tommy from SoCal as casually as that, makes her a savage in my mind. It made the visit that much more enjoyable for me. I am not a social butterfly, but because they were coming to me, at least I was in the best possible venue. 

Mama and Mark at St. Martha's
My topsy-turvy world found me down in Willits when Margie and Tommy first rolled onto the mountain Sunday afternoon. The accommodations had been arranged in advance, and they were staying at the newly-remodeled Big House, Mama and Papa’s home. The reality is that this was not Margie’s first visit, that having taken place back in the late 70’s, or early 80’s. 

In fact her youngest, Robert, or Boo, spent considerable time up here one summer. He was always Robert or Boo, which meant that me own father was never Robert, but rather, Papa. Even during this most recent visit, he was always referred to as Papa.

I stopped by the barn up above the big house when I came back from Willits Monday morning, because I saw my brother Matt’s truck. He had made a point of going over to the Big House Sunday evening to pay his respects, because he was also running his construction crew from Monday onward, so he was not going to have the luxury of playing host.

I, being retired, did have this luxury so I traipsed down and barged in on Tommy about nine or so. Margie emerged when she heard our voices, and we chatted for a minute or two before Tommy asked me, “Well, do you know why we’re here?” He went on, “We’re here to hang out with you guys; I have some grubby clothes; put me to work!”

The Big House, as seen from
the Pepper Pot
My first thought was I would play Tom Sawyer and coerce Tommy into painting that storage unit with me; we could knock that out in no time at all. Fortunately, I stifled that impulse and went a different route. I decided that if they wanted to sit around and reminisce all day, I had the flexibility to go along with the program. I am retired, after all, and can clock in if I want, or not.

“Give me a few minutes to spruce things up?” I asked, not because I was going to go home and try to actually clean, but just to give me a second to put away groceries and gather my wits. 

[Editor’s note: A second, huh?]

Eric, Mark, Noel and Brian,
with Auntie Anne behind, circa 1957,
at Disneyland.
“MARK! We’re the Gerlach’s! You don’t have to do anything!” And Margie was right. We did go back that far, and had spent enough time in both households, combining upon occasion, nine plus six kids, so yes, Better Homes and Gardens took a back-seat to reality. I do keep my home tidy at almost all times, for the simple reason that it is infinitely easier to maintain a clean living space, than it is to try and shovel out a sty, so I was in good shape for the shape I was in.

On my way home from the Big House, I stopped in at HeadSodBuster’s spot long enough to pilfer two HappyDay Farms chickens from one of the big freezers. Defrosted birds barbecue up much better after they have thawed, so I had to get that process under way.

I knew I still had potatoes from Irene’s farm that HeadSodBuster had given me a few weeks ago. Originally, it had been a good-sized box, filled with potatoes, and I had thought to myself that I would never be able to eat them before they went bad. 

That would have been just me eating them, however, but luckily I have had the pleasure of preparing several meals for the whole farm crew. Needless to say, I polished off that box when I made potato salad on Monday. I don’t know what I was thinking when I was cogitating putting Tommy to work painting. 

I had to get those potatoes on the stove-top most rickety-tick, so that I could get them peeled, cut up and in the refrigerator. No one likes warm potato salad, unless it is German potato salad with the onions, bacon and vinegar, which is served hot. This, however, was old-fashioned tater salad, flavored at the end with dill pickle juice and yellow mustard.

Next: Reminiscing 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Memories For Sale: $3.99

John Prine sang, “Memories-they can’t be boughten; they can’t be won at carnivals for free,” and to a certain extent he is correct. One can’t purchase a specific memory, but one can get caught off-guard, and get gob-smacked with an image or object, that will allow a memory to materialize for a nominal fee.

I'm reasonably certain that the hat I just purchased
is one that is designed to be worn by women.
Ask me if I care...
In my case the fee was $3.99, a price tag more reflective of 1972 values than those of 2018, and the object was a hat. I was striding toward the back of the thrift shop in the Ray’s shopping center in Willits the other day, heading for the section of used books, when this hat on a rack grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go.

The hat was identical to one I had rocked as a nineteen-year-old, having been the recipient of a handmade model, created by none other than my mother, Pauline. 

I was wearing this black, Russian, fur-lined hat, when I staggered off the six-seater plane onto the tarmac at Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri, in early January, 1972, around four in the morning.

Having arrived at the army entrance station in Los Angeles about twenty-two hours earlier that day, with the expectation that I was going to Ft. Ord [California], my ultimate destination came as a frightful shock. Wearing a light SoCal kind of jacket, the only thing that was appropriate for freezing January weather, was this Russian hat.

Ft. Dix, New Jersey, April, 1972
“I got a s’prize for y’all; y’all’er goin’ to my home state-Missouri,” the rotund, grinning sergeant had informed us, sucker-punching us for the first of an endless supply of rude awakenings, this one the worst one. Instead of riding a bus up the Cali coast about six hours’ distance to Ft. Ord, we were traveling halfway across the country to an outdoor icebox. 

Forty of us lads-er, make that thirty-nine-from the greater Los Angeles area, were sent to what was referred to as “Little Korea,” without any more notice than the announcement by the smirking sergeant. Stunned, we stared at him in mute dismay.

A lone voice in the back spoke up. “What if you have Ft. Ord guaranteed in your enlistment packet?” Thirty-nine sets of eyes swiveled jealously toward the lucky SOB who had had the foresight to get some sort of guarantee.

If anything, the sneer grew wider. “Well, ain’t you the lucky sack of shit? You’re goin’ smack into a meningitis outbreak, which is why the rest of these jaybirds are headed to Ft. Leonard Wood. They just got over one there, but you never know. You might catch another one…” His voice tailed off, and he grinned slyly. 

Thirty-nine sets of eyes followed the sacrificial lamb as he gathered up his stuff and trudged off through a door-gone-but not forgotten. For one nano-second there, we didn’t feel quite as miserable as we had been earlier. Hindsight is 20/20, was all I could think. Fuck Ft. Ord was the next thought that popped into my head.

As abjectly cruel as the world was at boot camp, one thing that became available after a short indoctrination period, was the nightlife just off post. For me nightlife meant the opportunity to quaff beer and shoot pool, and I went off post exactly once the whole ten weeks I was in Missouri. 

To drink beer and shoot pool, one did not have to leave the army base.

In the frenzy of being introduced to Missouri nightlife, a smoky, desultory sojourn in a noisy and crowded bar, I left my Russian hat behind as I stumbled out the side door, trying to keep up with my buddies.  

Dejectedly, I wrote to Mama and informed her of the calamity, suggesting that I felt bad enough already, that she should not be angry at me for being so careless. Or drunk-whatever. Beer will accomplish the task most capably, especially if you hate where you are, hate what you are doing, and miss being a college kind of dude with a girl friend.

Instead of berating me, Mama went into her sewing room, and whipped out another hat, out of the same bolt of fur-lined material, from which she had made the first. She then wrapped it up and took it up to the Sunrize (sic) Market Post Office, and sent it on its way the same day.

In addition to a letter responding to my lamentation of losing the precious hat, Mama sent the replacement. She didn’t even tell me to be careful and not lose this one, because she had a sneaking suspicion that would never happen.

Well, somewhere along the line the tattered remains of that replacement model, must have been sent down the line-gone but not forgotten.

I was after a book the other day, having forgotten mine up on the mountain, and I found one in Ed Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny.” I also found a hat, which I was delighted to pay $3.99 for, thus disproving the saying that you can’t buy memories.

I did, and I’m wearing my memory right now.

On a similar note, I reconnected with this dude, John Scott,
a couple of weeks ago, after not having spoken to him for
46 years.  We have exchanged numerous emails since then.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What's One Hour?

I can’t define true love any better than the next guy, but I do know it when I encounter it. True love is putting one foot in front of the other, and carrying onward and upward, even though your partner-in-life, your wife of 36 years, is an hour away.

What's one hour here and there, among friends? I'm not sure about friends, but for lovers, it's an eternity.

If this were January, and someone were willing to look after my flock of chickens and feed my two kitties, I could entrench myself in our little apartment down in Willits, break out a jigsaw puzzle and a good book, and take a long winter’s nap.

Realistically though, it’s the last day of September and the farm is jumping. With the showers arriving yesterday, there was a frenzy of activity to prepare for rain. Tools, a roof still awaiting installation of metal roofing and an assortment of items best covered, required immediate attention.

Sunrise in Willits, Friday morning, as I arrived.
I returned from a 24-hour visit to Willits, Saturday morning, fully expecting to have to put down some 30-weight tar paper on the roof of the little 10-by-12 storage unit I built earlier this month. Instead, I found the chore already done, HeadSodBuster having stepped up and taken care of business Friday evening, just to make sure the rain would not catch us napping.

The chop saw(s), Skil-Saw, tape measure, chalk line, pencil, paint, and electrical cords were all placed in the new storage unit, much to my delight. It was just HSBuster’s way of lending support for Gluten-Free Mama. 

Having determined that life up here on a remote ridge-top, an hour away from her primary caregiver, was not practical, we made the move at the beginning of August. Since then I have commuted, going down every fourth or fifth day, to ferry GF Mama around town, taking care of logistics. Should she need immediate help, we are lucky that Ben-Jam-In lives down in Willits, also.

Friday night GF Mama fixed me up some soft-shelled tacos, heated perfectly in the oven, and we dined in, sumptuously. Saturday morning found me scurrying back up here, not even pausing at April May’s, on the north end of town, to pick up a much-needed latte. 

If I'm not careful, I will kill the job...
When I found out that the pressing business of preparing for rain had already been attended to, I went back to finishing the installation of trim boards and thresholds, in the newly remodeled bathroom and laundry room. 

Around lunchtime, SmallBoy brought in the three packages of frozen cube steaks that were originally scheduled for HSBuster’s birthday, and deposited them on the kitchen counter. “What do you say, Pops?”

To which I responded, “Is this the day, then?” in reference to an earlier conversation, in which I had volunteered to cook up some chicken-fried steak. Mind you, I had never cooked this dish, but I did know how to google recipes. The first two I looked at had in access of 20 ingredients, and since I was not going to town I was easily able to reject them. The third had salt, pepper, eggs, flour and nothing else. I was ready for action-ready for danger. 

Additionally, I had also signed up to prepare the requisite home-made French fries that HeadSodBuster had requested for his special dinner. Never in the history of our universe, have enough of these precious fries been actually prepared for any given meal in this household. The best one can do is arbitrarily select a number of potatoes to be prepared, and go for it. I figured twenty smallish specimens, fresh from Irene’s farm, was the proper number for the six of us, and it was as good a number as any other. 

As for the six of us, there were HeadSodBuster, BossLady, SmallBoy, farmhands Tim and Danielle, and I, munching away. We laughed through “Cool Runnings,” as we informally dined, plates sitting on either TV trays, or perched on laps. Though a fire in the wood stove would be necessary in the morning, Saturday evening was still reasonably pleasant, despite the rain showers.

Gluten-Free Mama picking pears...
It would have been GF Mama who cooked the steaks, while I prepared the French fries, in a perfect world, but this is not a perfect world. That being said, I can envision a world far more bleak than this one, so I hold my tongue and thank my lucky stars that I can still drive back and forth to see my love.

Only one week ago she was up here on the mountain to celebrate HSBuster’s birthday, so there is that. On a good day, I could whisk her up here for a quick visit, and return her to her safety zone in Willits, so there is that, as well. A little of anything goes a long way these days, so when you have a lot of something, like love, you are in good shape for the shape you are in. 

Love is the greatest power, you know.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Make Your Own Catsup

This is the second piece about using Heinz tomatoes, as opposed to whatever happens to be on hand, to make sauces, this one focusing on catsup only.

Before you even consider making catsup/ketchup, examine your motivation: Are you trying to duplicate what you buy in the store, or are you interested in something unique and tomatoey, with which to garnish your French Fries? If it’s the former, then good luck with that; if you are aiming for the latter, then have I got a deal for you.

For me half-pints are the perfect size.
It’s not that home-made catsup can’t taste like what you buy at Raley’s; it’s just that if that is what you want, why bother? Why not just go buy a bottle of Heinz tomato catsup and save yourself the trouble? You know? Not that there is anything wrong, per se, with coming up with a carbon-copy of Del Monte’s version, but that should not be your primary goal.

With that thought prominently in mind, I am going to share three recipes for making your own catsup, all of them tasty, and all of them different. Two of the three I have made and been delighted with; the third I have never tried, but wanted to give an alternative to the two already presented. Which is which is immaterial. 

I wash and quarter them before running them through the
[electric] food strainer.
The recipe I want to start with appears in Ball’s “Complete Book of Home Preserving-400 delicious and creative recipes for today.” One reason I chose this one is because it shares many of the same ingredients as Gluten-Free Mama’s recipe, though there are a couple added, and a couple left out. In case you were wondering, out of a strong sense of self-preservation, I never considered asking GF Mama for her own, self-created, recipe. 

I have no compunctions about recipes; if I created it, I am interested in sharing it. I started making catsup thirty years ago, with varying degrees of success. I will confess that I WAS trying to duplicate the store-bought version, and was secretly disappointed with those early attempts. On the outside I was good to go, but still, I had that need to reproduce, that which had always been available.

A few years ago we went electric...
I see it differently now, one hundred percent, having long since learned to accept and embrace the fruits of my labor, and not look for something that simply reinforces the familiar. As I wrote in my last piece, all efforts at producing sauces and catsups are tasty and unique, with the only judges that matter being you, and those around you.

Tomato catsup:

3 tbsp. celery seeds
4 tsp. whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks (4 inches long) broken up into pieces
1 1/2 tsp. whole allspice
3 cups cider vinegar
24 lbs. Heinz tomatoes, cored and quartered 
3 cups chopped red onions
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup pickling or canning salt

You’re going to tie the celery seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks and allspice in a square of cheesecloth, creating a spice bag. In a stainless steel saucepan, combine vinegar and spice bag and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and let stand at least a half-hour before mixing it with the next step.

We grow our own.
That would include the tomatoes, onions and cayenne, which you bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently, before reducing the heat and boiling gently for 20 minutes. Add infused vinegar and boil gently until onions are soft, about 30 more minutes.

You can transfer the mixture to a sieve placed over a glass or stainless steel bowl, and press with the back of a spoon to extract the liquid, but for this amount, a food mill or strainer would be infinitely better. Discard solids.

Return the liquid to the pan, add the sugar and salt and bring to a boil over a medium fire, stirring occasionally to make sure it does not scorch. I mentioned in the earlier piece about having a diffuser between the pan and the flame, but this is not essential. You just need to know that if you scorch the sauce, your catsup will be a total wash-out. 

Cook this mixture until it is reduced by half, or to your desired consistency. This recipe suggests that around six hours is the length of time needed. Place the ketchup into hot jars leaving 1/2 inch of head space. Wipe the rims, remove air bubbles and center seal on top of the jar. Tighten the ring until resistance is met, and then increase to finger-tip tight. Place them in the water bath and bring to a full boil. To find out how long to boil the jars, you can easily google the information. I usually put catsup into half-pint or pint jars, in which case the processing time is fifteen minutes. 

I still sterilize the jars and lids, though research indicates
it is not necessary.
Recipe # 2:

1/2 bushel of Heinz tomatoes (A bushel is 56 pounds, so half would be 23. This is three pounds more than a lug, which is twenty pounds.)
1 medium onion
1 clove of garlic, peeled and diced
2 tsp. red pepper (cayenne)
3 cups cider vinegar
3 tbsp. salt
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tbsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
4 tbsp dry mustard
2tbsp. Lea & Perrins Sauce
1 tsp. ground black pepper

Again, for this amount of catsup, you pretty much need to have a food mill, one which strains out the seeds, peels and any blemishes. Otherwise, you will need to run the whole mixture through a blender at some point, and that is a challenge.

A difference between this recipe and the first one is that no spice bag is needed because all of the ingredients are ground. Therefore, you are going to combine strained tomatoes, onion, garlic and cayenne pepper, and bring it to a slow boil, before reducing the heat and simmering until the whole batch is reduced by half, depending on your own desired thickness.

Times vary but cooking down your mixture will take between 6 and 12 hours, so keep in mind the ongoing effort to stir frequently and be careful of scorching. A diffuser will help with this. As you get near to your desired consistency, add the remaining ingredients, stirring occasionally, and simmer until you are ready to put it into jars; then follow the steps above.

And now, the stars of the show!
Recipe # 3:

5 lbs. Heinz tomatoes
3 medium red onions
1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
1 tbsp. mustard seeds
1 tbsp. allspice berries
I tsp. whole cloves
2 tsp. celery seeds
1 slice fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp. sweet paprika
1/4 tsp. ground mace
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp. coarse salt
1 pinch cayenne pepper

You are going to bring the tomatoes, onions, pepper and garlic to a boil, and cook on a low heat for thirty minutes, until the veggies are soft, so you can run the whole mixture through a food mill or strainer. Because there are not so many tomatoes, you could also press the mixture through a sieve by hand.

Once this is done, place the peppercorns, mustard seeds, allspice berries, whole cloves, celery seeds, ginger, cinnamon stick and bay leaves in a spice bag or hunk of cheesecloth that is wrapped up, and add them to the mixture. Add to this the brown sugar, paprika, mace, cider vinegar, salt and cayenne. 

Cook down to the desired thickness, around two hours, remove the spice bag/cheesecloth and process as above.

Whether you choose to start small and then expand your horizons, or go for all the marbles right out the gate, is more a matter of experience and confidence than anything else. You might even start with a lot of tomatoes, and try two different approaches, just for the sake of comparing the two. 

The thing I try to keep in mind is that I do not preserve tomatoes or make catsup to save money; I do it to enjoy the taste of organically grown tomato goodness, all year long. And I enjoy the process immensely. By the time you calculate the cost of the tomatoes, jars, ingredients not already on hand and any other incidentals, you realize you are not in it for the savings.

Face it: You just want to dazzle friends and family with some home-grown catsup, and what's wrong with that?