Thursday, April 23, 2009


I worked with Arthur Bassett at Ski Hi farm from the time I was a junior in high school till after I was married; twelve years. Art asked if I was Bayard Gee’s son, and gave me a job.

What I loved was the smell of apples, the old-farm feel of the place; the sense of history as expressed in tools and implements of bygone years. I was fascinated by the little hidden stashes of mysterious surplus goods Art had squirreled away in the many farm buildings which had arisen over the seventy-five year period of time the farm had developed. He had everything from dynamite to surplus Cold War tins of emergency water and food. I doubt he ever threw away a tool in his life. He had an old Model B Ford stored away in a garage, fully restored by his son-in-law Jerome Thiessen. There was a wonderful, mysterious two-story shed uphill from the sales house that held a wealth of tools. He had entire drawers devoted to screwdrivers alone, or old box-end wrenches; stacks of shovels, rakes, scythes, hoes, and poleaxes. At some point in time he’d purchased piles of old telephone poles, complete with glass insulators which were taken off and sold as collector’s items in the store. Below the packing shed was an implement shed containing the farm’s motley collection of tractors and heavy farm equipment. There was an old Ferguson tractor, a Massey, newer Fords and a Case backhoe, and the famous painted-red Army surplus jeep, Art’s major means of transportation around the farm and a favorite of mine.

Ski Hi is situated near the top of one of Baraboo’s range of bluffs, facing north. The farm buildings overlook the orchards, a long valley off to the northwest, and the ribbon of Highway 12 to the west. In the Fall, when the oaks, hickorys, maples, birches, and poplars have turned, people flock from all over the area and from Illinois to gaze at the colorful vista, and to buy apples-- cider, pie, caramel-apples-on-a-stick; bags and boxes of apples. This is the land and the life Arthur was born into. The spectacular view from the top of the bluff had long lost its newness for him, no doubt, if it had ever indeed been new. But I know he loved this place he knew so well. He would say, “a change is a vacation”--that old farmer’s adage--and instead of heading off to explore new lands he would stay home and watch his land change through the seasons.

Art wasn’t only an apple farmer, though that’s how he was known. Deep in his heart, I suspect he wanted to be known just as a farmer, with all of the skills and appurtenances of any other successful farmer. He raised beef and had hay and cornfields, with a fancy modern-day corn grinder that Raymond, the hired hand, would drive up to the upper barn where the cattle were kept. Ray would grind a load of corn and pump it into the feed silo there. Many a hot, summer day was spent making hay. As the youngster I was always given the job of moving the hay high in the barn loft, receiving the bales from the elevator and tossing them to the back of the mow to stack. In this job, I was helped by old Bob Newman, retired butcher, and sometimes ‘community Santa Claus’. He would unload the bales from Raymond’s wagon and send them up the elevator to me. While Ray would drive back out to get more loads of hay, Bob would now and then climb up and help me stack the hay. I remember the heat in the haymow. As the space got smaller the temperature rose. One particular day had to be above one hundred degrees. There would often be a short break, after stacking the hay but before the next load arrived. I can remember old Newman dripping with sweat, and finally saying with a sigh, “I may just have to take off my long underwear!”
I looked at him in amazement. "You have longjohns on, do you Bob?”
“I always have longjohns on! I’m a ‘butcher’!” Bob retorted. After forty years of working in a freezer for a living, Bob had never gotten out of the habit, even on the hottest Summer day, of wearing long underwear. I begged him to get out of them! He rumbled and grumbled about it, but on that beastly hot day he finally did.

In order to understand Art Bassett it is necessary to understand the people around him. Raymond the hired hand had been with Art since shortly after WWII; was single and lived with his mother until her death. To Raymond fell most of the responsibility of handling any heavy equipment on the farm (such as the backhoe). He drove truckloads of apples to various markets. Otherwise he fell into well-accustomed roles that had developed between him and Arthur over the years. On Saturday morning when cider was made in the old two-story cider house down below the sorting house, Art always assumed the upstairs job of sorting and feeding the apples into the grinder. Raymond along with Jerome had the downstairs job of loading up the cider press with grindings, and running the press. When log-sawing day arrived, we would gather to saw the old apple tree logs into firewood. Ray would assume his position on the takeup side of the absurdly large and ummuffled and guardless outdoor circular saw, with Art and the rest of us on the other side of the blade, feeding logs into it, cutting down to size the long piles of accumulated apple wood. When we spent days out in the orchard grinding brush (into yet another loud and un-muffled machine), it was Raymond who climbed on the tractor to move the equipment farther along the long rows of apple trees.

Bob Newman was just a happy handyman, six and a half feet tall, broad and full of jokes. At various times during his tenure on the farm there was serious doubt in Art’s mind whether he was worth the trouble. I think Bob would have worked for free, and in fact vaguely remember some claim of his to that very fact! He got up in the morning and had a place to go with jobs to do and a role to play. He was among friends, and it delighted and pleased him immensely. He was in awe of Art, and would brook no criticism of the great appleman. Everyone on the farm loved Bob too--even Art, in spite of the occasional grumble about some perceived incompetence. By the time I was on the scene, it was too late for either of them to change. Bob was coming out every morning in the fall, like it or not. It didn’t matter that he knew next to nothing about apples, even after fifteen years of working there.

Olga Marie Bassett, Arthur’s wife, was a short, pert, pretty woman who looked more like her mother-who lived to be well past one hundred years of age--every day. She was the sweet side of Arthur, and sweetened him up from his years of working for his father, who was of a very bad-tempered sort. That’s what Olga used to say: “Art’s father was just an old grump! When Art and I got married, we decided we just weren’t going to be like that!” I’m sure Art would have agreed with her, but wanting to change and changing are ever two different things. Olga gave Art the means of changing, in her smile and crackling laugh, her bubbly jokes and good humor. I think he orbited around that sun. When I first started working with Art, he terrified me and I could easily see the crotchety old farmer his father had been come out in him from time to time, as when I got the bushel count wrong or dumped too many green apples into the mix as we whiled away the hours sorting and packing in the low, long, dark old packing shed. He had a growl, and a sharp look, and an even sharper word when he was in the wrong kind of mood. His name for me the first years I worked there was simply “Boy”. “Hey boy! Wake up back there! You think I’m paying you to daydream? !” The old, grumpy, sharp ways of working with the help were alive if somewhat buried in Art. I think Olga taught him to be more content, and to try harder not to be as tetchy as his father had been.

The love of Raymond’s life--though he never would have admitted it-- was Art’s daughter Betty, who worked with her mother selling apples each day in the sales room and now manages the apple operation herself. In little reminiscences out in the orchard, as he and I worked away an afternoon pruning trees in late November, or shoveled manure up in the cow barn, Ray would let slip his feelings about things. Raymond was shorter than Bob Newman, just under six feet, but powerfully built, the prototypical hired hand. Mostly silent and hard working, nursing his private ambitions and grudges, well set in his ways and in the choices he’d made, Raymond would sometimes tell me of his regrets, the chances he’d missed, the things he might have done differently had he a chance. I used to tell friends that Raymond had five stories, and only five. As we worked together out in the orchard, I heard them all annually. I appreciated the coarse intimacy of those times, and was always pretty sure that had Raymond been given the chance, his choices in life would have been the same anyway. One of the regrets he expressed was Betty’s marriage to Jerome Thiessen, whom Raymond considered well below her. Jerome, at the time I worked on the farm, had married into the role of part-time farm mechanic, a role he was most competent in but often complained to me about. I looked around his well-stocked auto shop, and seeing his beautiful tools wondered if he under appreciated his position. He was a great mechanic. Even Raymond would come to him for advice. When they had to work together, as on Saturday mornings when the cider was made, they got along great. But when the topic of “the marriage” came up Raymond could get a bit resentful. He had been here as the little girl Betty had grown up, the apple of Arthur’s eye and probably of his as well. He naturally resented it when the boys started coming around to court the pretty, well-shaped and intelligent teenager. The tenderness and protectiveness would have been entirely the feelings of an adoptive uncle. Betty no doubt was mostly unaware of it.

Betty for her part was part Art and part Olga: pretty and lively like her mother but sharp as a tack, like the old man. As the current manager of the business, the combination has served her well. Back then, she was growing into the various roles that presented themselves. I remember her best as being always full of energy, always in a hurry even while standing still, dancing from foot to foot (like her mother, come to think of it!) and telling tales of this customer or that, observing gaily the many strange people who would walk through the doors. Born and raised on the farm, the farm was as much in her blood as in her parents’, and she’s still there.

I walked into Art’s life when he was fully in his prime. He certainly was over sixty when I started work at the farm, and what he knew was apples. A few years after starting there I overheard Olga say, in the midst of a glorious October bearing a harvest of large and perfect apples, “This is the year Art’s been living for!” I don’t think he liked leaving the farm. Word in town was he had no friends, which spoke of the mean streak of the town as much as of Art. But part of it was that his heart and mind and soul were tied to his vocation as the husband of this land which he had inherited and in which he'd grown up. Part of it was that his friends were his wife and daughter and hired men; those who came year after year to pick his apples; those who came year after year to buy them. He had no time for the artificial friendships born of leisure. The people he cared about had taken part with him in his lifetime endeavor of apple raising. In that sense he was pure Wisconsin farmer.

In June 1971, I graduated from high school. I was able to beg a day off before going to work full-time for Art Bassett. Of course, that was given grudgingly. There was work to be done! Why waste your time? Art never understood leisure very well, I think. That first year he invited me to lunch with him in his home, so every noonday we’d trudge up the hill to the blue house, where we’d eat on the back porch, slurping soup, eating sandwiches, Colby cheese and of course apples, listening to the farm report on the radio. I’d get my courage up every now and then to ask a question about the farm, but mostly we ate in silence, with Olga flitting in and out serving us lunch. Whenever I did get him to talk, she listened eagerly, easily laughing and adding little tidbits of information. We’d talk weather, or the history of the farm, or apples. Any conversation about politics or sports was going to be a short one. Art’s attitude on politics was the typical one for farmers: politicians needed to get real jobs. He’d tell one of his favorite jokes about a politician running for reelection; up on his soapbox, going on and on about all he’d accomplished for the people. A drunk staggered to his feet and asked, “Is it true you’ve done all that?” When the politician answered yes, the drunk replied, “Well then, you’ve done enough! Let somebody else run things for a change!” Art would tell his jokes with a chortle, a sort of crescendo which built almost to a giggle at the punch line. Half of his jokes I never quite understood, but his giggling, delighted way of telling them made me laugh anyway.

The next year, the year I got the name “Bruce” in place of the honorific “Boy”, Art told me to pack a lunch and eat down with Bob and Ray. I had in some sense arrived; I was no longer a guest. I think we both felt a little relieved at the new arrangement; if I was going to stick around longer, I should take my place as a regular hired hand. So I lunched at noon with Bob and Ray, and listened to their talk of the hippies in their hippy vans, and what they’d do to one if they ever caught one. Those were the polarized days of the Vietnam War, when two generations stood apart and deeply distrusted each other. They also talked of goose hunting and deer hunting, and Bob would tell stories from his days as a butcher in Baraboo; of the many people they both knew there. Lots of gossip. ‘Small town Wisconsin talk’. I mostly listened, and wondered what I was going to do with my life.

Work in the summer involved gathering and grinding the prunings from the apple trees--days upon days of this--as well as other back-breaking and steamy labor in preparation for the harvest. The Baraboo hills teem with white tail deer, and tall deer fence needed to be made and maintained. Art had recently planted a new orchard down the road on Highway 12, and it needed the same deer fencing the old orchard had. That meant digging holes for the telephone-pole-sized timber used to hold up the fencing, and the manual part of the job fell, it seemed, mostly to me. Raymond would come along on the tractor with the post-hole digger attachment, and get as far along as he could; the rest was up to me. That meant digging through limestone and quartzite, which with hand tools is very slow going. I remember an afternoon adventure with Art during which he attempted to blast the holes deeper using dynamite. It seemed he was licensed to use the stuff. I had a suspicion he’d gotten it as army surplus as he had so many other things. The dynamite wasn’t always reliable. I'd prepare a hole for the explosive, set the charge, and then walk quickly away as Art, who always walked like an old sailor on shore leave, would slowly amble a distance from the hole. We'd be fifty yards away, waiting for an explosion that didn’t come. Art would begin mumbling under his breath. Ten minutes would go by. Art would murmur some more: “The damned stuff going to work? Surplus junk!” He'd start walking back toward the hole, get halfway there when BLAM! Sure enough, the damned junk worked. Small stones would rain down around us, and Art would look as sheepish as I’d ever seen him. “Well, Boy! Let’s see what kind of a hole we got!”

The sorting shed was a long, low building with a large door at the back, which allowed a tractor and apple trailer to be driven in and parked. Standing parallel to the trailer was the sorting machine, twenty-five feet long. Bushel crates of apples could be off-loaded and dumped by hand onto a conveyor table at one end. From there they would travel up a series of rollers which would turn the apples, exposing any flaws—bird pecks or scabs--and from there into a chute at the end of which Art always stood to pack them into bushel baskets. Art always told me the most important job belonged to the dumper, as he controlled not just the flow of apples but also the variety of color. Before starting to pack, Art would wander back and study the assortment of apples on the trailer, pointing out to the dumper how he wanted them mixed as to color. Naturally, it didn’t do to day dream, yet the job was entirely conducive to just that: a mesmerizing exercise, which invited long journeys of the imagination far from the world of apple packing. Many times I was brought up short by an angry word or gesture from Art, who wondered just what sort of fool he had working back there! This was a job, particularly after the harvest of late October and November; that I did day after day, week after week. It was excellent training in perseverance.

One graduated from dumping apples to sorting apples to packing apples. The sorter stood on a large crate over the sorting rollers, surrounded by partially filled apple crates, grabbing as many as possible of those apples which were undersized, too green, or too scabby or bird-pecked for the apple chute; and depositing them in the appropriate crate. It was to Art the sorter would look for direction when an apple of borderline condition would come rolling along. The sorter would hold the apple up with a questioning glance at Art, and Art would pronounce his judgment upon it. This too was a job that invited long lapses of awareness, even sleepiness. However, one was several steps closer to the eagle eye of Arthur, who ruled over his ‘apple sorting’ machine as a stern king rules a province. And one of the unsung advantages of being sorter was that one was within earshot of Art when he launched into some memorable tale or other.

The “chute” style of apple packing ended my second year of full-time work, when a shiny new, reverse-conveyor-belt packing table arrived—you can see it still to this day at Ski Hi. This received the apples from the rollers, but then moved them back and forth in front of the packers so that they were better mixed. With the old system, the chute was the point where the apples stopped, only to be removed as the speed of the packers allowed. It was a sort of race, getting apples into the baskets before being overwhelmed by the next batch that had been dumped. The new system allowed for a sleepier, stupider dumper, as the conveyor table could hold more than three times as many apples as the old chute.

Art knew he needed to modernize, but nonetheless looked at the apparatus with suspicion. We had some trouble assembling the unit so that it dovetailed with the old sorting table. Art grumbled and cussed; proclaiming the new table had probably been designed “by some horse’s ass with a college degree!” The rest of us chuckled and nodded our heads. Yet this was going to make Art’s work life change for the better. Little did we know how the entire sorting and packing apparatus would evolve.

We soon settled into a new work life with the new table, and soon enough it became obvious that Art was delighted with it. No more sudden and frequent stopping of the whole operation because of a glut of apples at the packing end. Now Art could fuss to his heart’s content over the appearance of each filled bushel of apples. And when the phone rang he could answer it briefly without closing down the whole operation.

Apple packing for Art at that time was a fine art, if you will. Later his son would (behind his back of course) roll his eyes and caricature the time and finesse Art used in getting each bushel to look “just right”. Raymond or I would stand opposite Art and help him fill each bushel, grabbing with both hands four or six apples at a time and placing them gingerly in the bottom of the container. We still used real bushel baskets at that time, the evolution into cardboard boxes an innovation which had not yet gained a foothold in Art’s mind. As the apples reached the top of the container, Art would take over by himself, and the helper would be expected to be busy getting the next basket ready (newspaper shoved into the basket as a liner; a stack of prepared baskets standing at hand). Art would then carefully select the right combination of apples to represent the contents of the bushel: none too big or red, just the right mix. He would then go through a complex ritual of turning and adjusting the apples, sometimes removing one and selecting another of a different size, with the end in his mind of the perfect, eye-pleasing bushel of apples. When, he was satisfied the apples would be conveyed to a cart by his assistant, or a lid would be slipped into place so that the bushels could be stacked. The whole operation was as much craft as it was system. More than once, while Art was distracted with a phone call, I would try my hand at it, confident that I could get it right. But each time, when Art returned to the table, he would redo my work. Now and then he’d point out some subtle aspect of his art, showing me why one apple worked in a certain spot rather than the one I’d chosen. Even Raymond after all those years couldn’t finish to Art’s satisfaction. It took Art’s trained eye to do it properly. Anyway, that's how the boss saw it.

Work would stop for breaks, for lunch, or for certain carefully defined (in Art’s mind) interruptions. These included the arrival of certain old customers who had done business with Art usually on a wholesale basis for many years. Interruptions included phone calls; visits from certain angry women customers--who would only agree to talk to Art and to no one else-- or from suppliers who had accumulated the right amount of grace in Art’s eyes to justify stopping an entire operation of four workers.

The old customers were divided into two groups: those who Art genuinely liked, and those who Art tolerated. When those in the latter group arrived, Art would dispense with his business with them as efficiently and politely as he could, and then would invariably turn back to work with a wisecrack to me at the customer’s expense. “Horse’s Ass” was his all-time favorite pejorative term. I’d been called it dozens of times. A customer like this was one who came regularly, but under terms that usually had been cajoled out of Art years before, and which he couldn’t see his way to change. A man and his wife had been coming for years to pick up windfall apples. They would pick on their hands and knees all day, to Art’s wry amusement, and drive away with the pickup overloaded like a Mexican bus, high and teetery with crates of slightly dented apples. Art couldn’t see selling a windfall. “What if a snake pissed on it, eh?” (That was, as an aside, his definition of an environmentalist: someone who’d eat a snake-pissed apple!).

One year the wife arrived but without the husband. Art dutifully shut down the packing machine, turned to her and asked, “Where’s John?”
“He died!” the poor woman managed to get out before succumbing to a shower of tears. Art quickly scooped her up in his arms, shushing and reassuring her, making those sympathetic noises people make in such situations. After talking with her, getting her all set up and watching her walk away, he turned and ambled back to the packing table. “Jesus H. Christ!” he laughed, “I’m glad that’s over!” He went on to reminisce about what a horse’s ass the couple had been, picking windfalls all those years and selling them at their stand. The picking of windfalls was definitely below Art. He was uncomfortable with the whole arrangement. What struck me that day, however, was how Art was clearly laughing at the man’s death. I was deeply shocked, even as I laughed along with him. It took a long time to understand that it was really death itself Art was laughing at. “Just come and get me. Try it.” This was the closest I ever got to see the theologian in Art. He laughed at death because it was the only way he could see to respond.

Those customers whom he genuinely liked were treated to the incomparable charm of a properly motivated Art Bassett. Their visits usually lasted longer than usual, advancing into an actual work break. They often involved Olga or Betty or Raymond--usually Bob if he was there--and a rich combination of gossip, slander, and embellished tales of years gone by. One of Art’s favorite people was Al Klotz or just “Klotz” as he was referred to (I didn’t know his first name for years). Klotz was the star apple picker in the orchard when he could get away from his job at a local lumberyard, and was as proud and protective of Arthur as a friend could be. Work always stopped when Klotz came around.

The second group of people Art would stop the packing operation for was certain suppliers. I can remember someone from the farm implement store calling him, and because they had done a lot of business in the past, Art spent a lot of time on the phone with him. More than once I heard him say, “No, no.”, “Not this year.”, No we’ve got enough on the swindle sheet for this year.” Art was always polite and businesslike.

The third group, a much smaller group but one which any businessperson should be familiar with, was the “Old Hen”, as Art called any woman of any age who badgered him. Usually it was a rich woman from town, often one who couldn’t make up her mind what sort of apple to buy and had worn to a fray the patience of Olga and Betty and the other women who worked the apple store out front. Eventually, they would be referred back to Art in the packing--house and they always received polite consideration and deference. Once their business was done, however, Art would turn away, shake his head, swagger up to the packing table, and burst out: “Bruce, don’t you marry a woman like that!” More than once, he followed that with the advice, “Marry a woman like your mother. She’s sweet as sugar. If she got caught in the rain, she’d melt!” Somehow he’d had a chance to meet Phyllis Gee, and had come away impressed.

It is hard to describe the richness of those workdays, as Arthur gradually trained me up to anticipate what was needed and to do it. Always the boredom of a routine job must be entered into and endured, and there was plenty of that. The hours could dawdle with astonishing slowness. There were other days when we were all in a fine groove, Arthur feeling unusually optimistic and the rest of us inspired by it. Standing by his side, we’d work through the rhythm of packing dozens of bushels of Macintosh, Macoun, Cortland, or Delicious apples, or any of the dozens of other varieties grown on the farm, and Art would slide into an old tale of his younger years working on the farm. He would tell of hauling apples up out of the orchard with horse and wagon; of the time Chicago gangsters showed up and rented some of the cottages the family had for lease to tourists. He told me that the Model B Ford had been purchased from the local Ford dealer, located on the Baraboo River. This Ford dealer apparently sold not only Fords, but was also one of the local distributors of Prohibition whiskey. Seems the used Ford truck Art’s father had just purchased had unusually heavy-duty springs, and had belonged only recently to one of the booze-running gangs. The oversized springs were to mask the heavy load of legally disallowed liquid refreshment the truck often smuggled. A few days after purchasing the truck, the sheriff-- Art alleged that he belonged to one of the gangs-- thoughtfully made the trip out to the Bassett farm. He wanted to gently warn them that they might not want to drive the truck publicly for a few days till he could get word out that it had been sold. He didn’t want the innocent Bassett farmers to get shot!

Many of Art’s reminiscences were centered in the Great Depression, and he would tell of the farm selling apple seconds, for two bits a bushel. Farmers with their families in old cars would wheeze up the hill to buy a bushel, not willing to get out of their cars until they had been assured that the price was truly as quoted. Art seemed amazed at this even to that day, admitting that even though the Depression years had been hard, his family had been somewhat sheltered from it compared to many others. He’d shake his head, and fall silent.

In later years I became an apple picker, after the farm had switched from individual bushel crates to picking into large eighteen-bushel bins. Art was the one who taught me to pick. He’d say, “Your hands need to work together just like a team of horses. Fella over there near North Freedom used to teach his pickers, ‘Don’t let one hand know what the other is doing’. Horse’s ass! Worst thing you can tell a picker.” I was a bit too shy at the time to mention that “working together like a team of horses” was a phrase outside of my experience. But I soon enough caught on, and learned to love the efficient, physical act of cleaning a heavily laden tree of apples. On a beautiful blue-sky day in late September in the Baraboo Hills, there isn’t much that tops it for pure enjoyment of labor.

Art liked to know his pickers well, and did know well the ones who returned year after year. He knew when Genevieve, whom the boys called the “town whore”, was wearing gloves and pinching the apples. Genevieve was buxom and brazen, an aging woman with a high-pitched voice who had picked apples for Art for years, along with her estranged husband, whom the boys called the “town drunk”. It was said-- at least by Bob Newman--that they still lived--together but separately--in the same house, each unwilling to move out: “Afraid the other’ll sell it on ‘em”. They had to be kept apart in the orchard. Genevieve was another of those who was a questionable asset, a la Bob Newman, but Art always accepted her back for another season. There were days he'd be in the packing house, inspecting the latest load of apples from the orchard,, ready to be sorted. I'd hear him snarl, "Genevieve's wearing gloves again!!" He’d drive out into the orchard early the next morning to give Genevieve one of his careful lectures on not pinching the apples, and to stop wearing gloves. Genevieve--fat, sweet, high-voiced Genevieve-- up on a ladder, in a tree, partly hidden by branches and leaves, would listen to Art’s lecture, and go on wearing gloves.

Once Art hired a young picker, a man a few years younger than me, who clearly fell into that class of people the boys called “hippies”. He wore long hair and a beard and funny clothing. This fellow definitely fit the hippy stereotype: vegetarian; camping up in the woods and even, it was rumored, sneaking a girl into his tent at night. He didn’t own a car, but one day word came up from the orchard that he’d gone out and bought six or seven large watermelons which he had carefully laid out under a Tolman Sweet tree in the middle of the orchard for his daily meals. One of the workers pulled Art’s leg, telling him that he needed to go out and see the enormous green apples laying under the Sweet tree along the gravel road--”biggest Tolman’s you’re ever gonna see!” Sure enough, late in the day Art climbed into the red jeep and drove out to have a look at the watermelons. The packing crew the next day had a great laugh at Art’s expense—his curiosity overcoming his profound suspicion that he was having his leg pulled.

As years went by I’d take time off from my job in Madison to drive up to help with the apple harvest. By this time Art knew me well enough he’d just send me off to do my picking by myself. At the end of each day we would spend a few minutes together, chatting about the harvest and the crop of pickers he had that year, enjoying the view and eating apples. At one time he’d wanted me to learn horticulture, and take a more permanent job with the orchard. I remember one day he made the offer as we were packing apples together. I immediately turned him down. I mumbled something about wanting to be a teacher. He said what was sort of a question “You don’t know what you want to teach...?” I didn’t reply, and that was the end of it. There were many small reasons I had for turning Art down; none of them would have made much sense to an old farmer who was wise in the ways of farming but ignorant of the wanderlust in a young man. There was a long silence between us that day. I don’t think we ever spoke of it again. But as time went on we became friends. I often thought of him as a father.

The last month of his life, I paid him a visit before leaving town after spending Thanksgiving in Baraboo. We sat in the front living room of his blue house overlooking the orchard, staring out together at the long gravel road, which runs the middle of the old orchard. He’d seen a dentist recently; somehow a nerve in his mouth had been hit; he said he kept seeing stars and was dizzy. As was always the case, Art wasn’t able I think to speak of his feelings or his fears with me. We sat there, two guys maybe trying to say something to each other and failing. We knew the fondness we had for each other, just didn’t know what to do with it apart from work. A few months later I learned of his death. Many regrets and sadness came with the news, but I’ve held onto many of the memories of the rich life I had working at Ski Hi apple farm with Arthur.

Bruce Gee
November/December 2001

Monday, April 20, 2009


Mid-afternoon cafe au lait and a scone;
Enough work to pay the bills;
Enough work completed to relax a bit here at the last week of another month.

Each successive, completed month of small-scale self-employment is a miracle
In the best of times.

I remember as a youth dreaming of this:
Independence; a life of work that satisfies and engages.
In the best of times.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Blood Meridian

If you're looking for an entryway into the writings of Cormac McCarthy--and there are many--you could actually do a lot worse than to start with Blood Meridian. This is a writer who inevitably conjures up comparisons with William Faulkner in his convoluted, twisting, but ultimately persuasive and clarifying use of the language. Blood Meridian may be his most coherent book. His tendency at the ends of book (Cities On The Plain and No Country For Old Men come readily to mind.) to wander off into pastiches of mental witch-and-stitchery where no man has ever gone, can be off-putting and take something away from his work, in my blue collar opinion. He seems here to avoid that tendency toward long-winded philosophizing--much of which is incomprehensible--and pulls off a neat, clean story., very much worth the read.

I have failed in resisting the temptation to give you a long drink of McCarthy. Blood Meridian is about a young kid, running away from a hopeless home in Tennessee at age 14, who then drinks deeply of the dusty West, and the reader is given an alternate taste of what a wild, bitter, murderous place it was. Here is a conversation between the kid and Tobin, an ex-priest both of whom have caught on with a band of coup-counters, so to speak. They speak of The Judge, a fallen Renaissance Man who leads them. A taste, then:

You've done this afore, said Tobin.
The kid wiped hisnose with a swipe of his greasy sleeve and turned the piece in his lap. Not me, he said.
Well you've the knack. More so than me. There's little equity in the Lord's gifts.
The kid looked up at him and then bent to his work again.
That's so, said the expriest. Look around you. Study the judge.
I done studied him.
Mayhaps he aint to your liking, fair enough. But the man's a hand at anything. I've never seen him turn to a task but what he didn't prove clever at it.
The kid drove the greased thread through the leather and hauled it taut.
He speaks dutch, said the expriest.
The kid looked at the expriest, he bent to his mending.
He does for I heard him do it. We cut a parcel of crazy pilgrims down off the Llano and the old man in the lead of them he spoke right up in dutch like we were all of us in dutchland and the judge give him right back. Glanton [the other leader of the gang] come near fallin off his horse. We none of us knew him to speak it. Asked where he'd learned it you know what he said?
What did he say.
Said off a dutchman.
The expriest spat. I couldnt of learned it off ten dutchmen. What about you?
The kid shook his head.
No, said Tobin. The gifts of the Almighty are weighed and parceled out in a scale peculiar to himself. It's no fair accountin and I dont doubt what he'd be the first to admit it and you put the query to him boldface.
The Almighty, the Almighty. The expriest shook his head. He glanced across the fire toward the judge. That great hairless thing. You wouldnt think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye? God the man is a dancer, you'll not take that away from him. And fiddle. He's the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that's an end on it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He's been all over the world. Him and the governor they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages, you'd have give something to of heard them...
The expriest shook his head. Oh it may be the Lord's way of showin how little store he sets by the learned. Whatever could it mean to one who knows all? He's an uncommon love for the common man and godly wisdom resides in the least of things so that it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves.
He watched the kid.
For let it go how it will, he said. God speaks in the least of creatures.
The kid thought him to mean birds or things that crawl but the expriest, watching, his head slightly cocked, said, No man is give leave of that voice.
The kid spat in the fire and bent to his work.
I aint heard no voice, he said.
When it stops, said Tobin, you'll know you've heard it all your life.
Is that right?
The kid turned the leather in his lap. The expriest watched him.
At night, said Tobin, when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep, who hears them grazing?
Dont nobody hear them if they're asleep.
Aye. and if they cease their grazing who is it that wakes?
Every man.
Aye, said the expriest. Every man..

McCarthy's prose is not for the faint of heart. In the end, his are not stories of hope but related tales of experience. You have to be willing to accept what he wants to say, and enjoy his saying it. In the end, it is the purity of his prose that is what is remembered and enjoyed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

2009 Madison Tea Party

A disparate band of 5000 patriots, homeschoolers, rubes, gay federalists, anti-tax activists, blue-collar hangers-on, unemployeds, anti-Feds, country club Republicans, Republicans-by-default, black Baptist Democrats, self-employeds, formerly self-employeds and soon-to-be self-employeds, mothers-with-children, fathers-with-children, and conservative politicos gathered on the state capitol grounds to...well. I'm not completely sure. There were at least fifty agendas present (There would be at a liberal gathering as well, of course. We are a varied and interesting people; a still free people). My overwhelming sense was that as a group this was an anti-big-government gathering, but we wouldn't agree on too much more.

We were a very polite and civil gathering. An announcement thanking the Capitol Police for their cooperation was greeted with applause and shouts of thanks. The biggest roar was early on, for Paul Ryan. He should have spoken last. The most appreciative applause was for a 17 year old homeschooled gal who wowed the crowd with her passion and spunk, reminding us of the first Boston Tea Party and connecting us to that. It was a beautiful day. I think most of the folks came from outside of Dane County.

I took the Libertarian Quiz (chart shown above) and scored a 170 out of 200. To the Libertarians administering the quiz, they thought that meant I was one of them. But hey, can a libertarian ever be part of a larger group? And doesn't siding/voting with them amount to a wasted vote? I'm mulling it over. Plus, the quiz was a bit rigged, so I'm not sure what it all means.

As I was walking away, I passed a brand, spanking new van. In the driver's seat was a smarmy, well-fed liberal. He was saying "Deal with it! You lost!" I replied, indicating the dispersing crowd, "This IS dealing with it, isn't it?" It occurred to me to ask him, should our current trend toward almost infinite deficit spending continue, if he thought he could expect his children and grandchildren to be able to drive a nice expensive new minivan, or dress as well as he was dressed, or eat as well as he clearly was eating. But I let it go.

UPDATE: I received this email from a woman friend "of about my generation", a Lutheran in Mississippi (You didn't think there were Lutherans in Mississippi, right?). Quoted with permission:

First demonstration since 'invading' the college president's office in 1969 (and boy was I scared then--of course, he'd invited us in, and listened to us; even posed for photos--what can I say? it was a Methodist church college--not Berkeley, and we were protesting new restrictions on male visitors into female dorms, not Vietnam or Imperial America--as if I ever had a male visitor...ahem...but that's another story--I digress...ahem...)
Maybe 1000 people in little old Tupelo today, at the City Hall square. The most exciting part, really, was turning onto Main Street and joining so many other cars going to the same place!
Satisfying, to an extent, but probably not so effective as we dream. Still, I and many of my Lutheran friends were there, so...
Probably the cleanest, neatest, politest protest ever! (and whitest...)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chat Pack Question, Encore!

It is time once again for another age-old question, just to restart the conversation.

What age when you turned it--
was the most difficult for you to accept?

And on the other hand...

Which of your birthdays do you remember anticipating
with the greatest amount of enthusiasm?

Monday, April 13, 2009

I guess it was only a matter of time

"...subjecting the whole of Scripture to one agenda..."
Alan Jacobs

You can find it here.
That is, if you really want to.

Do you really want to?


This is Joseph Bottom of Higher Things magazine, quoting Lucy Beckett of the Times Literary Supplement, citing Nicholas Lash' Theology For Pilgrims, reviewing Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion:
"Only in the English-speaking world do we speak of 'science' in the singular," Lash notes. Ludwig Wittgenstein was famous for his dictum that we are all bewitched by language, and Dawkins seems the most besotted of all. When the singular form of the word science is used, says Lash, "to support sweeping assertions to the effect that here, and here alone, is truth to be obtained, then one is in the presence neither of science, nor of history, but ideology...There are no 'scientific' facts. There are just facts, what is the case." Dawkins is also, one is not surprised to learn, besotted by his substitute god, that empty demiurge called Progress, which prompts this tart observation from Lash: In the light of the horrors of the twentieth century and the global dangers and injustices of the twenty-first, '[it is]hard to understand how a man as intelligent as Richard Dawkins can sustain such a smug and counterfactual Whiggery."

Keep this in mind while weighing how you will vote in this month's poll. Not that I'm trying to influence anyone one way or t'other. But "the horrors of the twentieth century" were in the context of the rejection of Christianity (not just by Stalin and his ilk but also by post War One Christians who struggled with a God who appeared not to be there), and the embrace of technological weapons of mass destruction and the willingness to use them.

Not that I'm trying to influence anyone.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter, April 12, 2009

Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free. He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, he has made Hell captive. He angered it when it tasted his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was angered, when it encountered You in the lower regions. It was angered for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked. It was angered, for it was slain. It was angered for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

St. John Chrysostom

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Be still before the Lord and wait
patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who
prospers in his way, over the man
who carries out evil devices!
Ps. 37:7

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How Long Can This Go On?

"In a recent poll, invited to state the "ideal" number of children, 16.6 percent of Germans answered 'None'."
Mark Steyn

The medium is the message. The world is shrinking due to technology. But this, this is something different. The world is shrinking due to the technology of abortion and birth control. Steyn demographizes onward:

"Unfortunately, the Western world is running out of young people. Japan, Germany, and Russia are already in net population decline. Fifty percent of Japanese women born in the Seventies are childless. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Spanish women childless at the age of 30 almost doubled, from just over 30 percent to just shy of 60 percent. In Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, 20 percent of 40-year-old women are childless. In Germany, 30 percent of all women are childless."

Here is one way to look at it, although it may not be the best way: It is a numbers game as far as the world producing enough genius and brilliance to solve its problems. For every thousand souls born, perhaps fifty will grow up to think the world forward. Yes, political and economic systems also play a part in generating educated souls who can creatively think and act the world out of its current set of impossibilities. Some are better at this than others. For example, the freedom to think and act and earn gorgeous amounts of money tends to produce more creative solutions to problems than those systems where citizens are prisoners.

I've got to think that killing off half the world's population in vitro can't be helping us to take it to the next level. This inverted triangle of world population is going to get a lot more top heavy in the next two decades. Our children and grandchildren--those fortunate to be born--will be facing an inheritance of debt that won't be able to be dealt with in the usual, civil manner. Here's hoping somebody gets born with the gumption to figure it all out.

Quotes taken from the Mark Steyn column, Happy Warrior, in the April 20 print edition of NR.

Monday, April 6, 2009

APRIL Poll O' The Month

New Feature, a monthly poll! Could this be a pathetic attempt to get readers to flock to my inconsequential little blog?
No. That' s NOT the poll question. Not this month, anyway.

The new poll question is:


Science infected with politics?
Religion infected with politics?

Please cast your vote, at the top to the right.
Feel free to comment on your vote in the comments section.

Let's play ball!

Sunday, April 5, 2009



Moreover, let us not show a lust for controversy, nor an inclination for disputing, an impudence to argue, a desire to win, nor a foolish longing to show off one's wisdom, but rather a mind desirous of the truth, a humble spirit, and a heart which fears God, so that in God's sight and with His Word leading us we may depend on the word of His mouth alone and not pervert the things which He has revealed to us in Scripture according to the norm and measure of our own reason, but humbly and firmly embrace them in the simple obedience of faith.
P. 258

Consider me duly chastened.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Death of the Paper Route

Before there were Frisbees, there was the Baraboo News Republic.

When I was a young teenager, one of the coveted jobs for boys was having a paper delivery route. The job paid all of about $4.31 a week, involved long hours and miles of walking (in Winter) or biking, but was one of the main business-training and memory disciplines available to lads.

I knew about this occupation through Timmy O'Keefe--one of the famous sporting O'Keefe brothers of my hometown, Baraboo. Timmy was my baseball captain the year I broke into the Baraboo Little League; me with my burnt-potato-casserole overstuffed glove and my burning desire to play God's game. Timmy's nickname was Spazz because he had this little nervous twitch, but I found the twitch to be just part of the charm of the guy. He was a few years older, was a southpaw, and gosh, he was one of the famous O'Keefe's. For a period of time, he became my hero.

Timmy had a paper route. It took him up Second Ave to Park, and back down Third and Fourth to the library. He and I could sling that route in no time, riding both sides of the street. I think I remember being paid in chocolate cake donuts. I remember Timmy carefully instructing me as to which houses to deliver to, and my soon memorizing the whole route. I vaguely remember Timmy having a special status among the older paper boys by having a younger boy to do his work for him. Timmy would call me "Bear"; it was his way of saying my middle name--Bayard-- a name too foreign and puzzling to pronounce. I was too young to have a route, or else there weren't any open. But the day came when, having perfected the famous Baraboo News Republic delivery system handed down from boy to boy for perhaps generations, I got my own route. It wasn't a great route, of course. When you broke into the System, you got the leavings that the more senior delivery executives didn't want.

Mine took me to Baraboo's South Side, which like every south side in every city and small town in America is where the poorer of the town's occupants resided. I attended a brand spanking new grade school on Baraboo's south side, learning to cipher with some of the poorest-read youngsters in town. I remember it being a long, very cold route in Winter. I remember not being dressed warmly enough, and always having cold feet. I remember the long slog home after the route was completed, all the way up Lynn Avenue to Moore Street. I also remember the joy of being given a better route in the Spring; of finally being able to deliver the papers on my bike. The Spring I was in seventh grade I tried out for the junior high baseball team, and made second-string catcher. After school, I'd ride over to pick up my newspapers, and then scoot down to the ballpark for baseball practice, and then rush off to deliver the papers before dark. It taught me that I could be efficient with my time; that more things can get accomplished than you'd think.

After school and on Saturday mornings, we paper carriers would gather at the News Republic office, half a block from the junior high school, and, in the other direction, half a block from the town square. The sporting goods store was around the corner, and an electronics store was a few doors down, selling 45's and LPs. At the newspaper office, we'd collect our allotted portion of papers, count them, and then sit down outside or along the wall by the long counter inside to fold them.

Folding a Baraboo News Republic was also a time-honored hand-me-down from years past. The paper was just the right size--you couldn't do this with a Wisconsin State Journal--to fold three times across, and then three times again, tucking the last folds together so it was a neat, 7" square, flying saucer. In a pinch, this folding business could be done on the run, as one walked the mile or so to the start of one's route. Its purpose was to enable the delivery personnel to fling the paper from the sidewalk onto a client's porch, thus saving innumerable steps and adding immensely to both the danger and satisfaction of delivering papers. The satisfaction was seeing a square of the News Republic go sailing through the air to land neatly at the screen door of a Mrs. Carmichael's front porch. The danger was what happened when you missed. Paper boys were assigned only the absolute correct number of papers based upon paid-in-advance subscriptions. If an errant paper ended up on someone's porch roof, it called for a certain panicked creativity if the situation wasn't going to result in an indignant phone call from the client to She Who Must Be Obeyed. Yes, it can now be admitted. We'd climb up there and get it down.

The paper's main counter was commandeered by a tall, scary, taut schoolteacherly older woman whose name I probably have buried too deeply in my subconscious to recover. She knew what was necessary to efficiently run a slew of amateur schoolboy paper deliverers, and the main factor was fear. It took a certain amount of courage to just approach her to ask for a job. Once asked, one was subjected to a scouring evaluation, each question innocent enough--"How old are you?" "Where do you live?" "Are you Bayard Gee's boy?"--but delivered in such dubious and accusing tones as to make a boy think this woman saw into his very soul. Believe me. No schoolboy wants an old woman to be able to do that.

Her approach was a good one, looking back. She knew the delivery jobs were in demand; she knew if she started a boy out with the right understanding that there wouldn't be trouble down the road. She knew that every now and then an example had to be set. Any boy not working up to her expectations would be subjected to a public dressing down that would bring smirks to the faces of the other paper boys. The smirk is a boy's most potent weapon, most often used against those younger and less experienced in life's ways. Smirks, public humiliation, the possible loss of a steady income. It was what made us shimmy up porch corner-posts in search of awkwardly thrown curve-balled papers that landed on roofs.

There are cruel paper routes where the newspaper people require the boys to collect the subscriptions. In later years I had one or two of those, and learned firsthand the valuable lesson that if you spend all of the subscription money up front, sooner or later there will be a day of reckoning. The Baraboo paper wasn't like that. There was one house where every day I had to go into a screened-in porch, drop off the paper, and collect seven cents for it. Every day. It happened to be located half a block from one of those corner grocery and candy stores you no longer find scattered across small-town America. Seven cents could buy me a bottle of cold chocolate milk and a nice candy bar. But this was the exception. Most people mailed in their paper subscriptions, and we paper boys were left to simply deliver the goods. I seem to recall we were paid according to the number of papers we delivered. The coveted better routes weren't just about location; they were about delivering more papers and making--who knows?--ninety cents to even a dollar per week more. As I said: coveted. Saturday morning was glory day, when the stern counter lady would parcel out our hard-earned wages. I remember well the sense of exuberance and freedom of those Saturday mornings. The printing plant was just on the other side of the wall from the cramped business and editorial office. This in turn was corralled by the high, long counter, past which a paper boy never strayed. The smell of printer's ink, the sounds of the huge print machines were all part of the ambience of the place. It bustled with copyworkers, an editor, the Counter Lady, deliveryboys, and the strange, inked men who worked the presses in back. A sense of purpose permeated the air on Saturday mornings. We bellied up to the counter one by one, collected our measly pay, and collected our allotment of the day's paper--still warm from the printing presses. And then we'd scatter outside or along the base of the wall to sit and fold papers, and gossip. Or we'd make a donut run to the bakery, beckoning to us down the block and across the alley.
I am reminded also (by Tim O'keefe himself, roused to life by my writing this little story) that the paper had an interesting but archaic motivational tool at its disposal. It would charge each boy ten cents for every paper he lost or that wasn't delivered, and at the end of the week, those boys who had delivered every paper perfectly got to divvy up the fund. I may have forgotten about this painful detail, as only rarely did I cash in on an extra couple dollar's worth of perfection. There were weeks, however, when I was sooo close!

A paper boy was assigned a paper bag, of course; new stiff canvas with the name of the paper stencilled onto the outside. It had a long sling so that a boy could carry it over his shoulder. If you were lucky enough to have a Schwinn with risers, you could wrap the sling around the handlebars and carry papers, donuts, ball gloves, school books, even a bat in one of those. A Schwinn bike with risers and with a Baraboo News Republic bag hanging from the risers was at one time in my life the highest status symbol to which I could aspire. Having attained it, I basked in the confidence, the status and surety of what it all meant.
For a span of time in my youth, I had, finally, arrived.

UPDATE: I got an email from my old friend Tim O'Keefe. In it he writes: "You must be referring to Mrs. McIntyre behind the counter. Donuts seemed like fair compensation at the time. Those were good years. I think we were the most important people in town in those days…especially on Saturdays when you needed to read Curt’s write up on Friday night’s basketball win. Fun article to read.
Tim O’Keefe"