Russ Ringsak

Common Labor

July 25, 2007

The time has come for the old man to cowboy up and put out some pixels. It may even be past time. It may be that the old driver doesn't even have a column any more. If someone out there is reading this that would indicate he still does. If not, then not.

How this lapse happened has no excuse to it. It's been an interesting summer but not one so crammed with excitement a guy couldn't find time to sit down at a desk and start rattling on about something. Rattling on, in fact, would be a good excuse to get away from the interesting events of the summer, because they mostly involve common labor with a new chain saw and about fifteen tons of downed boxelder, plus three acres of tall pasture needing a buzz cut so it can be cleansed of an invasion of birdsfoot trefoil. The trefoil is useful as cattle fodder but for a grassy hillscape the traditionalist prefers simple green blades waving out there. The classic flowing windswept look, over the new gnarly nappy look.

The old major broadleaf villains, the milkweed, thistle, burning weed, dandelion, curly dock and goldenrod, they mostly gave up after a few years of mowing; trefoil's not like that. It's not from here and it likes being mowed. It's from Europe. It perks up when it hears the John Deere. When you mow the thick places that late in the year it'll jam up the deck and bring the engine almost to a stall, and then it'll cough out a clout of it solid as a small hay bale. Mowed the back hill, the steepest one, three times in three directions, like the British Union Jack without the centerpost, to chop it up and scatter it enough. The side hill had been mowed in the spring and still took two passes to clean up. Back when horses lived here the
annual mow was easy, but this took five solid sweaty afternoons with a heavy-duty yard tractor.

And the mowing was relief from the logging and piling and burning. It's a fine saw and not meanin' to brag but in the last ten days I've gone through six chain sharpenings, three blades twice each, most of the cutting with the heat up there around 90 degrees, and I can testify truly that sort of foolishness will get an old fart soaking wet of a morning. The jeans will still be damp the next morning, lying in a pile on the floor like a shed reptile skin. At noontime the old guy sits in front of the window air conditioner with a cup of coffee and waits for his bones to cool down so he can shower and have it take.

The once-mighty trunks are now sliced into liftable pail sizes, their weights ranging from car batteries to guitar amplifiers. Boxelders are lousy engineers. They'll push off in any old direction without anchoring back the other way with a counterweight. They are hellbent on getting big as quick as they can, and they will just head for any shard of sunlight. Boxelder bugs probably inject them with steroids. The biggest and oldest one shaded the whole yard on the south side of the barn, and it drooped off to the west and went nearly horizontal for a good reach and in early July a three-foot crack opened up on the north side of the midthigh, letting through a slip of daylight. Went around to the other side and found the whole trunk split wide open, a great twisting tear all the way to the heartwood and cracked through to the opposite bark.

Nobody wanted to walk under it or even near it. Had to hire a pro with a folding bucket truck to come and take it down before it crushed an innocent apple tree beneath it. All three trunks went and a new sky opened back there over a huge pile of leaves and branches seven foot high and fifty feet across. He said it'd be a lot cheaper if I cut it up and hauled it away myself. I was glad for an excuse to ditch the cranky chainsaw I had for a new one. The new one starts better and is far easier to maintain, but it didn't take long to realize it's still just as heavy.

The saw reminded of the old Tom Swifties, jokes about the Tom Swift series of boys adventure books, wherein an adverb followed nearly everything Tom said. "We're going for a ride," Tom said, excitedly. Or, "It feels like tornado weather to me," Tom said, ominously. It was style begging for mockery and it got a lot of it. I only remember this one: "Be careful with that chainsaw," Tom said, offhandedly.

If anyone remembers another Swiftie I'd be happy to hear about it, said R-point-Ringsak-at-visi-point-com, expectantly.

Anyway, the last trip of the season was east again to western Massachusetts, and the only thing different from any other of the many trips out there was a brief little encounter at the main desk of the Tanglewood park. I pulled in there Thursday morning, setting the brakes smack in the middle of center hub of paving leading to the various outlying parking areas. I left it idling and ambled over to the young man tending the outdoor counter there, with the pamphlets neatly stacked. I told him of my purpose, waving at our name on the door, and said I was leaving the trailer in the backstage yard overnight because our technicians needed access to a line-testing device in there and would be arriving soon. Said I'd bring the tractor back in the morning at seven for the load-in. His face clouded and I said We do this every year.

He said he needed to call the production manager. He began to riffle through a medium-sized phone directory. It took some time. He said hmm a few times and then would go to another section of it. Sentences formed in my head, like: Son, I didn't stop here to ask permission. I stopped to let you know who I was and what my job is so you wouldn't get too nervous about it.

Then I thought, Well, it's not exactly my truck and it's not my company so maybe I should just let him act like he's in charge for a while, so he doesn't get strange an hit a foot button. And then the familiar ground crew guys came by in their green cart and they said Hello and we chatted about the weather and how's it goin' this season and so forth. Then they moved the barricades even though I could have made it through the gap as it was.

I climbed into the truck and turned left and eased over to the backstage grounds. As the cab swung around I looked in the rightside mirror and saw the young man back there at the shady wood counter, his nose close to the book, oblivious to the nearby departure of a rig 13 feet tall and 65 feet long. Still looking for the phone number of the production manager.

I dollied the trailer down and on my way out in the tractor I looked over at the desk. There was nobody there.

An insignificant victory over a minor obstruction, but it felt good. It of course said nothing about the considerable highway we had run under our eighteen fine tires since Georgia, of which I offer only a spare account. Twice across the continent and then some, and when the Cat engine finally shut off in the back yard here the details had already begun to blur.

But I recall the late May leg out to the west coast on Interstate 70 in Colorado when I rediscovered a stone truth learned sixteen years ago, which is they just don't want you coming through that state in a truck. I pulled into a scalehouse to a sign that read PARK AND BRING IN PAPERWORK and wondered how that would even be possible. The lot was jammed every foot of it with trucks and with repair trucks. Looked like a salvage yard, or victims of an air strike. A slim lane was open through the chaos and some guy waved me through and I slid slowly by a box trailer with four tires off on the right and a flatbed on the left with a guy underneath welding on the frame, and beyond them a packed crowd of open hoods, more trailers on jacks, trailers with doors open and guys in uniforms inside; a hazmat tanker, a new house trailer in transit, and heavy construction equipment on lowboys with their escort vehicles waiting on the shoulders ahead. The DOT boys were like a flock of turkey buzzards picking over an old-time train wreck out there on the barren foothills. But there weren't seeking flesh. They were after minute shortcomings, or anything vaguely resembling thereto.

I hit it at the right time, when there wasn't a slot open anywhere, and felt like I had escaped a frat hazing. I recalled the last time I swore off taking Colorado I-70, getting summoned inside and having to produce every paper ever signed by anybody having to do with the rig or its load or its operator, and waiting for a fax from the rental company about insurance. To L.A. it's shorter than I-80 through Wyoming but the grades are heavier and it's simply not worth the hassle. Although once you get into Utah you travel through an amazing landscape of new rock. Some jagged and thrust straight up and some fluid and freshly boiled, like great vats of hard candy. Reds, blues, rust and tan and deep browns, with broad tranquil valleys spreading between the craggy ranges. One postcard shot after another. Knock you out.

Turned left at I-15 and went down to Vegas, and what a place it has become. So much energy in the air it crackles. The hotel naturally had poker tables and I played eight dollar limit Texas Hold'em for five hours and won $250. On the homebound leg back through, with no time pressure, I sat there for 14 hours and lost it all back. I figured if I can win at a rate of $50 an hour and lose at only $18 an hour, that's not a bad business plan. Net $32 an hour with a small investment.

There is a beautiful broad plain running vertically north from Las Vegas through Utah to Salt Lake. The freeway seems to run right down the middle of it and although it feels sparsely settled there are a couple of spanking new cities along there that are growing as I sit here. The traffic is heavier than you'd expect and one gets the disquieting feel of the beginnings of an inland west coast corridor. We've already got one, I'm thinking, and we sure don't need another.

Took I-215 around the south of Salt Lake City and climbed the stiff grade onto I-80 through Parley's Canyon to Fort Bridger and slept in the truck at Rock Springs. In the morning sailed over the 200 miles of high plains, a half mile higher than Denver, to Laramie. Eased on down to Cheyenne and into the sandhills of Nebraska, ticking off the familiar names. Ogallala, North Platte, Kearney, York, speed limit 75 all the way, the truck humming like turbine. Past Lincoln and Omaha into Iowa the next day. Take a left at Des Moines and cruise back up to St Paul.

Then a couple weeks of easy rides, Chicago and Kansas City, and after that the toll-heavy push to Massachusetts, on the dense side of the map. After that it's this month of common labor and then the annual trip out to Montana on the motorcycles. It's all good. Some parts better than others. But still good. I'll try to let you know how it goes.

© R.Ringsak 2007

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