Estimated reading time: 16 minutes, 22 seconds.
The chill, frost, and precipitation have not abated. Even the locals are saying this is the worst winter ever. Old Man Winter engaged in a cataclysmic tug-of-war with Mother Nature this month and he will not let go.
In February the NFL hosted the Super Bowl, while here at BeauChamp Farm, we slogged through the Mud Bowl. While most of America enjoyed March Madness, our county was enduring March Mudness. The long dark winter drove us in desperation to the medicinal cures of our generation.
We rocked and rolled to the Eurythmics song “Here Comes The Rain Again”:
Here comes the rain again, Raining in my head like a tragedy
Tearing me apart like a new emotion, I want to breathe in the open wind
I want to kiss like lovers do, I want to dive into your ocean
Is it raining with you?
We danced and sipped whiskey to B.J. Thomas’ song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”:
So I just did me some talking to the sun
And I said I didn’t like the way he got things done
Sleeping on the job
Those raindrops are falling on my head, they keep fallin’.
As I mentioned in the February edition of this soggy saga, the endless torrents of rain had left our ancient barn a mess. We tried everything to keep the ground dry to no avail. The barn sits near the low road in our hollow, and therefore fifteen acres of drainage from our western ridges converge directly into it.
I dug a ditch the old fashioned way with my pick and shovel around the side perimeter and then down the hill to the creek. We waited for the next rain, grabbed our rain gear and rejoiced to see the water streaming in the ditch and away from the barn. We walked in, but alas, the barn was still a quagmire.
A 90-minute round trip to Home Depot resulted in a truckload of guttering, leaf guards, brackets, drains, endpieces, connectors and several tubes of water-resistant silicone. After several harrowing trips up the ladder propped against the barn, a skillful helping hand from my son-in-law Brian, and a few hours of work—the gutter was secure and in place. As is the case so often here it was my first time to install guttering.
Again, Gina and I waited for the next rain (which was only a few minutes during this dank and dripping winter), and once again we reveled in the water progressing along the drain and into a water bucket. However, we quickly realized the bucket was too small. An online order to WalMart produced two 65 gallon rain barrels that we joined together.
But in only a few hours and a hundred-and-thirty gallons later, the water was once again streaming into the barn. A Eureka moment had me attempting to attach a garden hose to the drain end of the rain barrel only to realize they were not compatible. Tell me, who would design a rain barrel whose drain end would not fit a standard garden hose? Agh!
A trip to my tool chest yielded four sizes of carbide holesaws I had purchased when installing the rain catchment system at Kalien’s Keefer-Roberts cottage. The proportions were 1/2”, 3/4”, 2” and 3”. But as I’m sure you know, a standard garden hose is one inch. Of course, you did, but I did not.
We promptly made an Amazon Smile order (which of course benefits Kalien) and two stormy days later the fire engine Diablo Carbide GP 1” holesaw arrived. Thirty seconds later the garden hose was attached running parallel with the drainage ditch, and water was pouring out into the creek. Yes!
We took a well-earned sleep only to awake to a barn that seemed even wetter than before. “How can this be?”, I screamed in utter despair. “We are diverting hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water away from the barn and yet it is still a muck-filled swamp.”
A few showery days later, after observing the barn during rain (which was twenty-four hours a day), Gina pointed out pin-sized holes in the rusty tin roof. As we watched, precipitation oozed through microscopic openings permeating the ceiling. The next day was spent lamenting to Gina’s 94-year-old father Jerry during Sunday dinner; he mentioned a television commercial he had seen on his beloved Fox News advertising a product that had held a boat together that had been previously sawed in half.
We did a Google search and yes folks, FLEX SEAL® is a rubberized coating that sprays out as a liquid, seeps into cracks and holes and dries to a watertight, flexible coating. It’s perfect for Roof Leaks, Gutters, Metal Roofs, Overlapped Seams, Drip Edges, and so much more! And it’s only $12.99.
I tried to put aside my skepticism for television products with a smooth-talking salesperson. After all, I reasoned, they have sponsored NASCAR racing teams for six years, they have an official blog, and coming soon to a town near you, they now have an official 2018 #FlexSealTour. We bought three cans from AmazonSmile and sat and watched the rain for two more days.
The fateful morning arrived. After inspecting the fifty-plus-year-old rafters and very narrow strips of lath that comprised the structure holding the rusty sheets of tin, we reluctantly declared them worthy of suspending my two-hundred-plus pounds and decided to give it a try. Gina was eliminated from the ascent by her fear of heights.
And the barn is high. Over twenty-four feet in height to be exact. We once again propped the extension ladder against the side of the barn, this time carefully trying not to bend the new gutters, and with a can of FLEX SEAL® in each pocket, I ascended the ladder. Gina held it from below as the new guttering proved very slick and the ladder tended to slide erratically from side to side.
Of course, it was raining. We had laughed somewhat psychotically when reading the directions that said one must apply the product on a dry surface. Hell, the rusty metal roof had not been dry since November—four months ago. And according to the weather forecast rain was imminent and abundant for the next fourteen days at least.
I slipped and crawled up the ladder. We had already determined the safest course of action was for me to prostrate myself at a ninety-degree angle to the aging rafters. This balancing act proved much more comfortable in theory than in practice. The wet rusty tin began seeping through my layers of clothing and I cannot overstate the awkwardness of rolling toward the peak of the roof with no handholds.
After finally arriving at the approximate location we agreed had the most holes, it immediately became evident that the pinholes were invisible from up top. The skylight streaming through the openings from inside the barn and making them quickly found had the opposite effect as my face lay inches from the seemingly impervious tin.
At this age in my life, my farsightedness has progressed, and my hearing has diminished. I did not wear my reading glasses nor my hearing aids due to the moist conditions. My poor eyesight made seeing the microscopic holes virtually impossible. After laying there helplessly for what seemed like hours, but in reality was only a few minutes, I heard Gina’s voice yelling.
I yelled back. “What?” After trying to hear a few more inaudible sentences, I screamed to Gina to come out of the barn and instructed her to count the number of laths and rafters and tell me the location of the intersection point of the holes. After a few more futile attempts at communication, our patience was exhausted. She was standing in the rain trying to give me instructions, and I was lying prone on a weak roof thinking I would fall through any moment.
Let’s just say it was not a precious moment. When I can’t hear, I tend to speak or yell louder. Although I couldn’t understand Gina’s pronunciation, I could hear my expletives and screams echoing and cascading across the ridges and down the valley. For a few moments, I worried what our neighbors would think, but desperation and sheer panic got the best of me.
As I rolled down the other side of the roof to hear her directions, I felt myself slip and grabbed one of the short protruding ridges that line a typical tin roof and felt it rip. The rusty metal tore a hole in my elbow through three layers of clothing, and I fell back prone on the roof in sheer exhaustion and agony. After finally locating the approximate square I sprayed the FlexSeal. Unfortunately, one square exhausted a can. The second can emptied in another few seconds of frantic application.
I knew I was probably making more holes than I was repairing, so I carefully rolled back up to the peak, down the other side, and bloody and ashamed for my verbal tirade, I gingerly climbed and slipped down the ladder to the ground. I then kissed it.
But Gina was not in a smooching mood. The entire affair had been a miserable failure, and the romance of farm living was a bitter memory. As we stood there in the rain, I apologized, and she glared at me. But as she looked at me she started laughing hysterically. I was covered in rust and mold and grime soaking wet and shivering in the cold and from exhaustion.
It’s a good time to say Gina is a lovely and loving wife whose numerous attributes include a superhuman capacity to tolerate her artistic and tempestuous husband. She calls me complicated. For that I am thankful. It took her a few hours, but she finally forgave her complicated asshole, and we retreated to cocktails and began to plan our next move. As of this writing, our barn floor is still standing in water.
As we struggled to survive the winter here at our Appalachian farm, we found the skies to be increasingly gray and depressing. In the midst of our angst and between the torrents of rain, we tried to work the land. For the first time, we questioned why we had moved to such an unforgiving place. We wondered out loud, is this where dreams come to die or just to be indefinitely and cruelly deferred?
Does this plot line sound familiar? Hell, yeah, it does. It’s a Netflix series called—you guessed it—Mudbound. We have much in common with the two television families in this sprawling World War II-era drama, the McAllan’s and the Jacksons. Consider these boggy questions we share.
Did we forsake God or did he abandon us? How can this rural county still be mired in Jim Crow racism? Can we be happy amidst a backdrop of poverty while battling the unforgiving forces of nature? Is life here destined to be a punishing, self-perpetuating cycle?
And the rare times we watched the news—Is society becoming a pathetic imitation of Trumpian mutual destruction?
Hopefully, this will turn out to be a drama (like Mudbound) buoyed by a humanism that assuredly is difficult—but also becomes liberating and healing. Proof that love itself (of each other and of the land) is a form of survival against all the elements, natural and human-made. A tale where a dream results in a sense of meaning and a sense of place and is never entirely lost.
I acknowledge that, in the words of Amor Towles, “A man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them.” And I find myself considering how one is most likely to achieve this aim when one had chosen the challenging life of a modern pioneer.
For Thoreau in Walden, it was thoughts of solitude that kept him clear minded. Isolated, he sustained himself by writing a classic that explains the spiritually rich life he enjoyed and, at the same time, teaches his readers something about the shortcomings and possibilities of theirs.
For Emerson in Nature, his essay emphasized the unity of nature, nature’s symbolism, and the continued development of all of nature’s forms toward the highest expression as embodied in man.
While John Muir, in numerous articles and books, celebrates the land, his excursions in the woods, herding animals, and scaling soaring granite cliffs. He energetically possessed a vision “to do something for wildness, and make the mountains glad,” and it ensured his enduring legacy.
But we (especially extroverted Gina) haven’t the temperament of hermits; we haven’t the patience for the eventual convergence of nature, and at our age, we certainly haven’t the inexhaustible energy it takes to wrestle this wild land and climate into submission.
The world’s great pioneers relish building shelter, growing food, and finding sources of fresh water; they teach themselves to make fire from flint; they study their land’s topography, its climate, its flora, and fauna, all the while keeping eyes trained on the horizon. And I suspect they rested when needed and built arks when necessary.
It’s the uneasy relationship between man and nature that grinds “living the dream” into harsh reality. This trailblazing quest can be emotional, and as a writer, I admit to succumbing and sometimes couching it in melodramatic terms.
But it’s also an exceptionally complicated tale of the hidden biases, blind spots, and outright lies that have been passed down to us from our past, creating ghettos of misunderstandings and erasures that vex American culture today.
An evocative narration of the aspiration, violence and tribal hostility that has forged our national identity. Life here is an eloquent, often painful, reminder of William Faulkner’s observation that the past is never really past.
In 1901, people from Italy and Central European countries such as Poland and Hungary immigrated and began to perform hard manual labor in the toxic coal mines like the ones nearby. Not surprisingly, the native-born Americans they supplanted felt rage and ethnic contempt. William Allen White spoke for many in his syndicated diatribes against “Hunkies and Italians, the very scum of European civilization.”
Sound familiar? Trump speaks what he thinks are new words, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” That political rhetoric doesn’t jib with the Hispanic people I know personally who work hard and do the jobs most white people in this area are too lazy to attempt.
Ricardo, an immigrant friend of mine who works at our local Mexican restaurant—the only good and consistent eatery in our tiny town—told me one day about white blue-collar Christians who come in after church on Sunday and give him gospel tracts. But they refuse eye contact and talk to him as if he is a child; conveniently forgetting the gratuity as they haughtily sneer, “Work is your god, isn’t it?! That’s why you’re here.”
I ask you, who are the real Americans?
Politically, religiously, and culturally, Gina and I don’t seem to fit in here in homogenous Smith County which is 97% white. As I type these words, a resolution denouncing neo-Nazis dies in the Tennessee legislature for the second time.
Putting aside the politics, at least for a while, a very positive aspect of Tennessee is her proximity to Kentucky. Both states have a storied reputation for equine activities. Kentucky has her thoroughbreds and Tennessee her walking horses. We renewed our search for horses and soon found ourselves at a farm outside Hendersonville.
We met a petite dark-haired teenager named Katie, and her Dad, a distinguished gentleman with salt and pepper gray hair who was on a cell phone conducting his electrical company business. It seems Katie was an English show jumper until she had a fall in a recent competition. Showjumping, also known as “stadium jumping,” “open jumping,” or simply “jumping,” is a part of a group of English riding equestrian events. Jumping classes are commonly seen at horse shows throughout the world, including the Olympics.
The minute we turned the corner to see her Thoroughbred for sale, it was love at first sight for Gina. I’m learning that few kinds of horses evoke the degree of superlatives used to describe a Thoroughbred horse. Perhaps the most recognized of all equine breeds, thanks in large part to their daring feats on and off the racetrack, the breed’s very name is synonymous with words such as well bred, excellent and first-rate. They are one of the horse world’s noblest ambassadors.
Katie’s Thoroughbred Remy ironically had the same name as our beloved Morkie. We later renamed her Khaleesi. She is dark brown and stands a little over 15 hands high (about 66 inches). She has a broad chest, lean body, and long flat muscles and is medium boned. She has well-angled shoulders and slim but powerful haunches. In a word, she is enormous.
As we watched Katie take her through her workout, I glanced over and saw tears streaming down Gina’s face. We had found her new champion. She later told me how much Khaleesi is reminiscent of her beloved childhood Thoroughbred Beau who died in a freak accident at six-years-old. She lay beside him in the field all night as he died.
With Gina’s background as an English champion show jumper, Remy/Khalessi was the perfect horse. It was a sight to see ninety-pound Katie control and ride that 1200 pound horse. I couldn’t help but think that was how Gina looked over forty years ago. We later marveled at the mares temperament, spirited but gentle, and later, as Gina groomed her, the match was made. We left that little farm having made two new friends, and owning a magnificent horse.
A few days later we arrived at Fort Campbell, a United States Army installation located astride the Kentucky-Tennessee border between Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee. Fort Campbell is home to the 101st Airborne Division. They also have a beautiful equestrian center.
There we met Toby, a tall, striking redhead in military fatigues and a big smile. She had recently gone through a divorce and needed to divest herself of one of three horses. This equine beauty was part registered American Quarter Horse from a champion line and part Arabian. Not as tall as Khalessi at about 15 hands (60 inches), she was sturdy and well-muscled.
Her color was what Gina described as flea-bitten gray. But to me, she looks white with little gray spots. Her mane and tail are a soft yellow, and she has the beautiful and distinctive face of an Arabian. I felt a bond immediately. Toby laughed and said Dany loves men and puts up with females.
She put her through her warm-up paces and before I knew it, with Toby and Gina guiding me I was riding this spirited but steady animal. I was nervous, but it was an exhilarating experience. She responded well to my inexperienced guidance, and we told Toby we would go home and talk and let her know our decision soon.
As we drove the long ride home, Gina was concerned that she was a bit too much horse for my novice level, but since Dany (the name of the horse) and I had taken up so well, perhaps we should give it a try. Gina had faith I would learn fast. And so in a matter of days, we owned two trained horses that had a past of great care and attention.
The title Beauchamp Farm now truly epitomizes our home. I remember someone once said, you cannot be rich and also own a horse. It is best to decide first which you prefer. As we approached April, that saying was eerily prophetic.