Putting Up String Beans

Tuesday I went out back into the garden and picked a mess of green beans. Of all the things I harvest back there, the beans are my least favorite, not because I dislike their flavor but because they grow at just the right height for me to have to bend my knees and lean in to pick them. After a while, my knee joints and back hurt. The leaves are verdant and lush and the beans hide in among them, a strategy, I suspect, developed in the long millennia before we domesticated and hybridized them. That ability for the beans to camouflage between the thin stems and the broad leaves means other things are hiding in there too—yellow jackets and arachnids—and I might get stung or bitten on the bare hands that I snake in to find the beans.

But I had no mishaps except a sore back and knees and I picked myself a mess of string beans. That’s what my father used to call them, and I remember when I was a kid we used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the big wood-cased radio that sat in the front room, and there was a character called String Bean on that show who strummed a banjo and cracked corny jokes. My dad used to laugh at him a lot, but he wasn’t always so jovial when he demanded that I eat my string beans at dinnertime. The only ones we ever got in our house were the kind that were canned somewhere in California or came frozen from Safeway. Not like the ones I picked on Tuesday.

I picked them, and washed them and cut off the ends and then sliced them into inch long cuts and then blanched them in boiling water, chilled them in ice water and then froze them, but not until I had eaten a plate full…just plain, no pepper, no salt, no butter. Just plain. They were sharp and sweet. And even though they are frozen now, when we pull them out in November, when the slant of the sun’s rays lay like back porch light refracted off the icy bird bath, they will still be mighty fine chow.
There is something about growing and harvesting beans and broccoli and squash and tomatoes and beets that sets my mind at ease. I don’t know exactly what creates the satisfaction. The work is simple, things I learned long ago that besides the vagaries of the weather and water, seem to work no matter what, and I get a crop and I share it with friends and eat it and put it up. It is ….hmm…is it fun? No, I think it is more than that.

I always wanted to be a farmer since my high school days back in Casa Grande, AZ. The majority of the economic activity there was agriculture related so it was in the blood, so to speak. I even owned part of a farm one time in Lordsburg, NM; a big, twenty-five-hundred acre corn farm with ten wells and houses and a mule out in the trap behind the barns. The farm sat just below the foothills on north side of the Pyramid Mountains and the upper fields were steep with long runs so the irrigation water was like a torrent when it sluiced into the bottom end. We never farmed it. It was in the 0-92 program with the United States government. If we grew zero crops on it, they would pay us ninety-two percent of the historic yield of the crops grown on the place.

We got the farm from a bank in a trade and I doubt they knew about that particular largesse or they probably would have kept it. We spent the money on other things besides seed and fertilizer and tractor parts.

When I told all my farmer friends we were on welfare with the 0-92, they got a little antsy in their pants, because most of them were on some form of income redistribution where the government transferred money from the United States Treasury to their pockets for growing a particular kind of crop, or as in our case, no crop at all. A lot of those farmers used a strategy where they farmed the subsidy program, and not wheat, or cotton, or corn.

I used to get a chuckle when I heard them talking about the state of the nation and all the poor folks in Phoenix and back in Chicago on the take from the government. I pointed out that so was I, and so, in many cases, were they. According to their ways of looking at it, their kind of income redistribution was okay, other kinds not. Occasionally there were sharp words thrown around, some threats and then a wife or two would have to step in to keep the peace.

Once my partner and I palavered about planting a field of beans on that Lordsburg outfit because beans were outside the 0-92 program and we had a patch of land that we could have tilled and sown and watered. According to the professors at the agriculture college the price of beans was high right then and if we hit a lick we could make some money. Above and beyond our welfare payments.

But we didn’t. It might have turned out to be a lot of hot work; sore knees, sore hands, sore back. Instead, I think we went bird hunting.

Skywalker Ranch Redux

Tonight Betty and I and a few other people, mostly the employees of Skywalker Ranch, will view our film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, at Skywalker Ranch in the redwood country of West Marin county, northern California. Last month we mixed the film there and now we return not as a client, but in a different role, the role of presenter. What is particularly gratifying is that Skywalker Sound invited us to do the screening.

It is very warm here in Sonoma County. Too warm for our pleasure, but it is not unusual for a heat wave to bubble up this time of the year in this piece of geography. At night the peepers crowd the air with their warm melodies and the scent of harvest sweetens the air—apples, grapes. The bounty of the normally fine climate.

We showed the film on Sunday afternoon in Santa Rosa to our donors, old friends and acquaintances, new friends and acquaintances. Betty and I were nervous. Would they like it? We think they liked it. People seem to look at us with a different kind of regard now. We are gratified.

One of the unforeseen results of folks viewing the movie is that they borrow the pathos of the film and apply it to their own losses. A mother dies and her surviving children and spouse draw on and gain solace from the wisdom of wounded warriors. Tonight’s Skywalker Ranch crowd should be younger and for the major part, they will not know us and to boot, they will be folks affiliated with the craft and latest technology of filmmaking in this eleventh year of the new millennium. What will they think of these age-old stories and the way we’ve employed them in the movie? Some of the techniques we have used for the wedding of sound and interview are unusual and we wonder if we will hear some “You can’t get away with that,” or even some complaints.

We are a little nervous.

On School

Last weekend Betty and I spent our Saturday and Sunday in a classroom for nine hour days to learn more about making movies. And we are taking a regular college class at Boise State on how to become film producers, this after having produced a film.

Sitting in the classroom, I thought about class and school. More than once in my life I vowed I was through with it. When Mrs. L made me sit in the corner for blacking M’s eye in the fifth grade and when Mr. N popped me on the ass with his special-made paddle with the holes drilled in it when he heard me use an expletive or when I got kicked out of high school for a day-and-a-half when I was a senior because I wouldn’t tuck my shirttail in, I swore I would blow off school as soon as I could.

It took me thirteen years to complete the requirements for my BS in Business Admin and more than once on that journey, I quit Arizona State University in disgust, cussing dumb professors who didn’t have a clue about the real world. Intermittently, I joined the Marine Corps, I got a job, I got married.

And after getting my MFA at 53, I said that was probably it. But it wasn’t, and here I am again, jamming up my life, hanging with kids young enough to be my grandchildren, learning from them about a life I never could have imagined back in 1965 when I escaped good old Casa Grande Union High School.

The essence of education is my ability to sponge up energy…creative and intellectual energy…from those I am around. Faculty, students, you name it, all have something I want, and I try to see if I can absorb it. Often I can’t articulate what it is I am after, like air, it’s just out there, waiting for me to inhale.

If I think back on it, I can see all kinds of things I’ve learned in life from the formal and semi-formal education process:
How to see Dick and Jane run, how to shoot a rifle, a shotgun, how to take the part of a clown in a Shakespeare play, how to use a compass, complete a balance sheet, use a dictionary, compose in Latin, read Italian, understand the relationship between hydrogen and helium, how to drive a tractor, how to throw a grenade, how to scan a line of poetry, how to judge the liberal nature of John Stewart Mill…on and on. Classes about how to bust up anti-war demonstrations and how to properly cuff an AWOL sailor, how to niche Chesty Puller into the mythology of the Marine Corps, how to set up a special interest political party, how to understand what causes the weather, how to write a good short story, how to artificially inseminate a cow. And now, learning about how to run a movie set, break down a script, shoot a scene, put together a proposal seeking half a million dollars so Betty and I can make another documentary film.

It makes me chuckle and then shudder when I compare that with grenade-throwing class. Standing in a hole at Camp Pendelton, the mist still hanging on the oak-crowned hills to the north, a grenade in the right hand, an instructor behind me. My heart pounding like an oil pump gone berserk. His words, not the least bit soothing. My worries; am I going to kill someone? Kill me?

Quite a range of things I’ve learned in school. And it isn’t over yet. I’ll still be swearing off classrooms when I’m ninety.

On a different subject, Betty and I are off to California for private screenings of our feature length documentary film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. I will be blogging about the experience as we move through the next two weeks.

Dreaming of Tularemia

Last night I had a dream about killing rabbits. Trails of coyote scat loaded with desiccated mesquite beans and the small bones of rabbits. Now that I try to recall the dream’s details, maybe we were hunting coyotes. The mood of the dream—you know how dreams have moods even when you don’t know what the dream was about? When dreams like that arrive I often wake up with the mood on my back like a western saddle, all day, maybe into the next night for a repetition of the dream, or some sequel that drifts off to some other surreal moment. Often it’s war dreams that come like that, but this isn’t a blog about war dreams, or maybe it is; all my dreams could be version of war dreams.

Anyway, my dream last night owned the mood of something a la Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing or Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men. Harsh stories about wolf murder and freedom and the angel of death and the angel of retribution. Last night’s dream was populated with companions who I don’t think I even know, all chambering rounds in weapons; rifles, shotguns, pistolas. We dug around in stringy coyote scat with big-bladed knives we pulled out of leather scabbards that hung off cowboy belts with our names etched in the back of them, but right now I don’t recall any names.

And I don’t recall how the dream ended, or maybe it didn’t, maybe it just segued into another dream, something about my mother and her long-gone-ness or about my father spitting verbal rebukes and fireworks at anyone who crossed him. He and I used to hunt a lot when I was a kid but he wouldn’t let me shoot the rabbits. Not that he was averse to killing, we hammered dove—back in those days, the early 60’s, I recall you could kill ten mourning dove and fifteen white winged dove—twice a day over the Labor Day weekend and we shot quail and once or twice we chased desert mule deer through the stab-spined thorns of ocotillo cacti that guarded the slopes that led to the scrub oak groves below the caprock where the big bucks with the nice sets of horns liked to hide.

But we never killed rabbits. He claimed, as a kid, that dove and quail kept all sixteen of them alive in the thirties, the sixteen who lived in the little board and battened, tarpapered shack my grandfather called a home. I wonder if they tried to eat rabbits, too, but couldn’t overcome fears of tularemia, a bacteriological disease one can get from uncooked or undercooked rabbit meat in the months that have no “r” in their name. May. June. July. August. That was the rule of thumb for my friends who did shoot and eat rabbits. No May, June, July, August.

They wouldn’t hunt in the months with no “r” in the name, but come fall winter and spring, they’d stuff their pockets with boxes of .22 longs and holster their .22 rifles in makeshift holsters and ride their bikes, and take me with my BB gun out into the flats north and west of town where big chunks of desert still allowed plenty of jackrabbits (which are really hares) and cottontails (which are really rabbits) for us to shoot at. I say shoot at, not kill, because when they moved it was fast, and when we shot (I don’t believe I could have killed a rabbit with a BB gun, I needed a .22, too, but had none; father didn’t like them), we were bad, standing, firing offhand, as rapid-fire as we could while the jackrabbits bounded and veered and the cottontails darted and veered. We could see the dust fly above and below them as we followed them along, stitching up the desert with our poor aim. Rarely did we kill anything and if we did, one of the others who was not afraid to eat them, would gut them and skin them and oftentimes we could spot the places where the flesh looked sick and malignant and those rabbits and hares got left for the carrion eaters.

Sometimes we went into town lucky enough to have a hare or rabbit or two tied to the handlebars of a Schwinn or a Huffy. Whoever it was who did the killing usually liked to find someone, usually a crowd of girls, and show off the kill. It was never me and I went home while they tried to style the gals about how cool they were because they killed and gutted a rabbit or two. Only a few of the girls showed any interest. Usually they turned up their noses and shooed the hunters off.

Over the years, I hunted and occasionally someone would shoot a cottontail and it would end up in the pot with dove or quail and lots of jalapeños. It was a leap of faith for me to eat it though, I guess because I could hear my father back in the recesses of my memory rebuking me for taking the risk. While I was masticating the meat, everyone would ooh and aah over the sharp flavor of wild cottontail, but to be honest with you, I never thought it that good. It may have been damned good, but the onus of taking the risk with tularemia probably made it taste like it needed to be upchucked out in the pink eye weeds.

My father never was a risk taker, so of course, I tended to take risks. Early on I wanted to get into the sheep business. It was pretty high risk and I hung around with all my sheepherder friends and built fence, and moved sheep on foot, and tore down fence and vaccinated and drenched sheep. One of my friends managed some of his family’s herds down in the desert between Phoenix and Yuma, at a place called Welton. Once he called me to come help him kill rabbits.

I said, “Why?”

He said, “They are eating all my alfalfa and I need it for the sheep.”

I said, “You have hundreds of acres of alfalfa.”

He said, “I got thousands and thousands of rabbits.

Visions of rabbit herds like sheep herds came into mind. Like a dream, I saw myself shooting them as they ran by me, as if I was plinking targets at the carnival. I told him I was in. We loaded two Dodge Chargers full of beer and boys and shotguns and rifles. He made us put the weapons in the trunk as he chuckled and mumbled things about overkill.

We got to the fields at night and parked. Instead of lush green, the pastures were buff colored like rabbits. We piled out of the cars with their head lights left on and our host handed us bats and clubs and laughing said, “These are all you will need.”

There was no sport in it, at least for me. But he had bought us beer and hamburgers and said he’d give us each twenty dollars, so I waded in. The hares and rabbits didn’t even run, just looked at us with alarm as we dispatched them….thunk, bonk, whack, thump, thunk; further into the fields we charged, the rabbit carcasses, tularemia or not, left to spoil in the desert heat. The great horned owls who showed up flapped over our heads as if they were chagrined. And why not? They’d had easy pickings. And so did we.

I am not sure we saved any pasturage for my friend. We did get drunk and we crowned a lot of rabbits and hares. Maybe there is a reason they keep showing up in my dreams. Like war dreams.

On Charlie Yazzie and Chee Begay

Betty and I had dinner last night with friends and we talked travel and places to visit, and the red rock country of the four corners area of the American southwest came into the foreground of our discussions and stuck in my mind all night and into this morning.

It was 1963 and I had turned 16 and my father sent me up to St. Michaels, Arizona, a patch of private ground in the middle of the Navajo nation. I rode up with a bull hauler in a semi-truck loaded with dry ewes for slaughter at the kill plant owned by old family friends. The bull hauler and I drove north through desert, mountains, canyons and plains all night, thunder and lightning and hail, boulders crashing into the highway from the ragged red cliffs up above. It is hard for me to imagine the drought Arizona is having now after living through the summers of 1963 through 1966 when hard rain was plenty.

We arrived at dawn as a damp hint of mist hung on the chilly country dotted with piñon and juniper trees. Scruffy pups ran alongside the road, woofing at the semi tires as the bleats of frightened ewes bounced off the rust-red rocks perched alongside the muddy bar ditch. I recall sitting in the cab, looking out over the harsh land that at that moment was covered with summer grasses. I recall wondering what the Navajos thought of us driving into that valley with a load of ewes, the three bullhorns on top of the cab, each one clarion-blaring, waking everyone up.

After breakfast, the truck driver headed back south to his and my home in the Sonoran desert but he didn’t make it five miles before he went to sleep and rolled that semi. We hurried out there and looked at the crushed cab, the mangled trailer.

The man who ran the kill plant at St. Michaels also owned that truck. He growled and gruffed and huffed and swore he’d mated with a female diamondback and then he disappeared on a seven day drunk, and left his two teenage sons and me to run the plant.

Early the next morning we rose before the early orb peeked over the red ridge to the east. We got in the cab of an Army green Ford pickup. Our frosty breaths created momentary ghosts as we chugged down a tire-worn track and picked up the butchers. They lived in hoogans, the octagonal type, not the newer square hoogans one now sees out on the red, sandy land the Navajos call home. The butchers stood in the dark at each dwelling as we arrived. They wore Levi jackets and old cowboy boots, and wore scarves tied around their graying heads.

We got out and spoke, “Yá át ééh,” and shook hands. Back then, Navajo men did not squeeze hard in a hand shake. I had been forewarned that they did not grip like I had been taught, “like a man,” so though I didn’t like it, I kept my mouth shut. I remember two names particularly, Chee Begay and Charlie Yazzie. My friends referred to these men as “chiefs.” They were probably born before the 20th Century rolled into its own so I recall wondering what they thought of riding in the back of a pickup as the dawn chill slapped their brown, wrinkled faces.

At the kill plant we tied the legs of the dry ewes and then the butchers came in and slit their throats, capturing the blood in shallow pans for making blood pudding. I looked away and thought of the mountains off to the west. Later we watched as Chee Begay, Charlie Yazzie and the others skinned and severed and cut and pulled and cleaned the carcasses that then went into a big walk-in cooler where we hung them on hooks that moved back and forth on wheels that fit into tracks on the ceilings. Each of us got to don a white meat cutters jacket that hung down to our calves and we thought we were pretty hot stuff. I did anyway.

Later in the day, we loaded 55 gallon barrels full of the remnants of the offal, not the offal itself, the guts and stomach were all things that could be stewed and fried and sauteed. What was in the barrels was the contents of rumens and reticulums and guts and intestines, half-digested browse and the makings of manure. It had a particularly foreign smell and I held my nose. The butchers, including Chee Begay and Charlie Yazzie, got in the back with the muck drums and we went to the dump north of Window Rock.

My two friends decided I should get the hang of disposal, so they ordered me to dump the barrels. The scent clambered up my nose and my stomach began to retch. By then the heat was up and the big green blow flies were already circling around, buzzing and diving, as were the meat bees, whose black and yellow bands emanated a ghostly glow in the afternoon light.

The younger of my friends giggled and pulled out a Winston and lit it up with a fancy metal lighter he pulled out of the front of his Levis. He took a long drag and told me to smoke it as I dumped the barrels. I took a drag off the cigarette. The smoke burned my mouth and nose and lungs as I held my breath and turned the barrels over and watched the miasma of leavings slither down the red dirt bank. I choked and almost vomited. Chee and Charlie laughed right then. My other friend came over and handed me a pint of VO and even though I didn’t like the taste of whisky, I took a pull. When I swallowed it, the flavor, or should I say the gnash, of the whiskey caused my torso to shiver and my spine to clack. Chee and Charlie laughed again, almost as if we were friends. I shot them the finger and called them Navajo names I had learned that day. Words I will not repeat in this piece, even if I knew how to spell them. They stopped laughing and grinned at me, or was it sneering, and then they turned away as if to look back over the red ridge to our west and the valley that they called home.

We took them back to their hoogans and yelled,”See you next week,” but they didn’t really answer, just waved their hands back at us without turning around. As we bumped back to the kill plant I thought about those two chiefs, Chee and Charlie, and wondered what they were chiefs of, and wondered if they’d led raiding parties that raped and murdered white women and then I counted in my head and decided they hadn’t been alive long enough. I also suspected I had deeply offended them by calling them names, but when I voiced my concerns, my two friends said, in unison, “Don’t worry, they are only just a couple of old Indians.”

Later that week the three of us were called on to deliver mutton carcasses, some of which had been split in half, to trading posts in Lukachukai, Window Rock, Fort Defiance, Ganado and Chinle…all Navajo towns, and on into the Hopi mesas at Mishongnovi, Shongopovi, Old Oraibi, where the 800-year-old pueblos crammed up against each other. I imagined there were like 19th century New York City high rises. The sharp smell of mutton got beneath our fingernails and on our skin and made me wish for my mother’s hamburger and TV dinner kitchen.

The whole time I was there, the rains boiled up every afternoon and punished the land. We got stuck in the reefer truck, broke an axle on the Army green Ford trying to pull the reefer truck out of the muck. We got in fights, every day, two ganging up on one, the arrangements forever changing. We went back and picked up the pre-dawn butchers again when another bull hauler in another semi delivered a load of dry ewes who bleated as if they knew the end was nigh.

Once, coming out of Window Rock after we went into town and chowed down on burgers and fries and chocolate malts, we slowed. A harsh thunder storm had just forged on into New Mexico as we passed a wagon drawn by two blue roan mares. A thin Navajo dressed in Levi pants and a blood-red velveteen shirt with a huge silver and turquoise squash blossom sat on the wooden seat. He wore a red head band that kept his gray hair in check. I yelled, “Stop, stop, that looks like Chee Begay.” My two friends just laughed, “Naw, that ain’t Chee, it’s just some old Indian.”